“Again,” I ordered after Cameron’s latest batch of fireballs fizzled behind the ship.
The boy was slumped over the railing, his breath labored from exertion — not the physical kind, of course, but the mental. Either he’d forgotten he didn’t need to breathe anymore or he found going through the motions to be comforting. Cameron glanced upwards and winced upon meeting my gaze. Then he pushed against the railing, stumbling back to his feet and then falling into his usual spellcasting stance — arms stretched in front of him, hands cupped as if holding a scrying orb.
With a thought, I summoned the barest thread of Force, not even bothering with a framework, attached a light pushing intent and directed it at Cameron’s hands. He withdrew his hands in an instant, taking a step back, and gave me a sullen look. “Stances like that—” I began to say, but the boy interrupted me midway.
“Are a crutch, yes. I get it,” he said, finishing what had become a mantra by now.
“Clearly you don’t, or else you wouldn’t be falling back to it again and again,” I said, crossing my arms. “You won’t—”
“Sharpen my intent if I don’t learn to cast the proper way,” he said, giving me a sheepish smile when he saw my unamused face.
“If you’re that familiar with the theory, you would do better to putting it into practice than only using it to interrupt me.”
“Sorry,” he said and straightened back up, this time leaving his hands at the sides. “I’ll concentrate this time.”
I nodded, but he was already focused on casting his fireball. We’d been on the deck for several hours already, the land long having passed beyond the horizon, and despite my critical assessment of his performance he was improving by leaps and bounds — certainly more than I’d have expected by any apprentice with as much experience as him, doubly so than anyone who’d learned magic by themselves.
His foundation was shaky, despite the System’s instruction, but it was nothing he couldn’t fix with a few days of hard work. And even though I was giving him a hard time over his mistakes, I was nonetheless deeply impressed by his performance.
He began forming another fireball, much like the hundreds of others he’d done before. The framework wasn’t as solid as it had been during his first attempts, but it was getting close — he’d used his hands as a crutch to cast spells up to this point, and while it had mostly impacted the development of his intent, he must have also anchored the framework around his hands. Perhaps he imagined himself writing the words. In the end, it didn’t matter — he had removed the crutch, and the entire spell was weaker as a result.
The intent, though, was already so much sharper than the pathetic display he’d showed off in the beginning. It had been something soft, unshaped, vague even. But with this current attempt, the intent had acquired some definition. It wasn’t just something that hinted at a moving fire, but something clearer, more specific. Heat and explosions. His intent was still a long way from anything I’d deem acceptable, but given how it had taken mere hours for him to improve to this level, I was almost ready to give him a break and call it a day.
The spell took shape before him then bounded off in a blur of red, black, and orange, leaving a cloud of smoke in its wake. The air on deck went dry despite the ocean surrounding us, and when I licked my lips I was surprised by the taste of ashes on my tongue.
The fireball flew away, this time exploding properly some hundred yards away.
“Much better,” I said, putting my hand on his shoulder and giving it a squeeze. “Though you should think some more on what your intent needs to contain. Heat and direction are good. Smoke and ashes are irrelevant to this purpose.” Though, how he’d managed to add even that smidgen of Matter into the spell was puzzling — perhaps the System’s influence? Something to consider at a later time. “Give it some thought, and we’ll continue your training tomorrow.”
A flurry of emotions warred on his face — dread and relief at the same time, though the relief seemed to win over in the end, and he bounded away, likely worried that I’d change my mind. I chuckled inwardly. Kids always seemed to think their mentors enjoyed torturing them with extended practice sessions, but it was just as tiresome and mindnumbing for me as it had been for him. And he’d been the one to ask it of me in the first place!
I hastily made my way to my cabin, passing by Alexis and David as they chatted quietly on the starboard deck. They both nodded stiltedly in greeting, and I replied in kind — well, almost in kind. I hoped mine was less awkward than theirs, though I was well aware of their conflicted feelings.
My cabin was what had originally been the Captain’s cabin. It hadn’t been my choice — Sarah had been the one to assign the rooms, and I saw no reason to object. Despite its small size, the ship had been meant to house a much bigger crew than our paltry six, so everyone had a room to themselves. Mine was spacious, as far as ship lodgings went, and most importantly it had a desk.
I took my seat at the desk and removed the crumpled remains of my letter from the sleeve-pocket. After removing a fresh sheet of paper from the drawer, I began copying the contents of my first attempt.
I hope this letter finds you well (and other empty platitudes). As if you’d ever be in anything other than good spirits. If you’re not grinning at some poor fool’s misery as you read this, please say so in your reply and I will promptly eat my quill.
Thank you, again, for agreeing to help me deal with that buffoon. I have little doubt you will see us to a glorious win in court, but there is a tiny little bit of problem on my side.
You see, I have left the continent in search of better fortunes. Now, please don’t be angry, I have every intention to appear before the court. Except it will likely have to be through long-range scrying, as making it back in time is not likely, at the very least.
The first draft had ended there, with me somewhat stumped on how to assuage the lovely half-ogre’s inevitable disapproval — and doing so was mandatory, as a mere ocean wasn’t enough to save me from her legendary wrath. Perhaps appealing to her ego would help.
I have no doubt there is some precedent you can use for this case, and that a mere obstacle as distance cannot stop your judiciary might. If anything, you may think of it as an added challenge — the kind of challenge the Jenna I know would never back away from. For anyone else, it would be the height of their career — but for you, it is merely Sairsday.
I look forward to hearing your reply. (And please do not make me eat my quill. I was not serious when I wrote that.)
Yes, I thought as I folded the letter and sealed it closed, mentally beckoning one of my crows to return from its patrol and land on the stern. That would do perfectly.
I had just made my way back to the deck by the time my messenger arrived, and soon I watched as flew off into the setting sun.
My lessons with Cameron quickly became routine, as we met each day on the quarterdeck for several hours of practice. At one point, he approached me with some concern, asking why I would waste so much time teaching him — which had been a surprising thing to hear him say, as I had been under the impression the boy had the same self-absorbed single-minded obsession with magic that I had.
I had waved away his concern — if anything, I was helping myself as much as I was helping him. Teaching and learning were, after all, two sides of the same coin, and although I only provided examples sparingly and mostly served to correct him, there was no doubt that my skill was improving just as much as his.
The System had said so, after all.
The little magic I had worked before we’d set sail had given me a handful of skill points — funnily enough, they had mostly gone to Matter. I was beginning to suspect the System only awarded skill points when one made a concentrated effort to learn, or to utilize something unfamiliar. I had gotten nothing to Soul or Mind when I raised the several dozen wights, although Multi-disciplinarity had gotten a single point in the process, while repairing the ship had given me a whopping 3 in Matter.
The fact that the System now considered Matter my best skill, when in reality my ability with it was average at best, amused me to no end — and made me wonder what even was the point of skills. Their descriptions hadn’t been of much help, either.
Soul Magic — The source of life itself
Skill — Passive
Increases potency of Soul-Aspected spells. Scales with skill level.
Mind Magic — Thought unleashed
Skill — Passive
Increases potency of Mind-Aspected spells. Scales with skill level.
Force Magic — The vibrations that define the universe
Skill — Passive
Increases potency of Force-Aspected spells. Scales with skill level.
Matter Magic — That which is
Skill — Passive
Increases potency of Matter-Aspected spells. Scales with skill level.
Fate Magic — The stories we tell
Skill — Passive
Increases potency of Fate-Aspected spells. Scales with skill level.
Dimension Magic — The fabric unwound
Skill — Passive
Increases potency of Dimension-Aspected spells. Scales with skill level.
Multi-disciplinarity — The all-in-one
Class Skill — Passive — Level 20
Increases potency of spells that use more than one Aspect. Increases potency of Origin spells. Reduces the strain of weaving multiple Aspects together. Scales with skill level.
I had ended up ignoring the skills until after we’d set sail, having assumed that leveling them would be a slow trek moving forward. The lessons with Cameron had proved these assumptions wrong.
When I checked my status on the evening of the first day, I had been surprised to see Force had gone up by a surprising amount, gaining 7 levels and becoming my highest-leveled skill at 37. The trend continued the following day, when I was startled by a notification kindly informing me I had leveled up — and when I went to check, Force had gone up by another 4 points.
I elected to leave the lone stat point unspent for the moment — after I stockpiled more, I would do some tests to see how they affected my abilities. I could almost imagine my increased intelligence berating me for having spent all my points in one go, but there was nothing to be done at this point.
As the days passed, I began to spice up Cameron’s repertoire — especially given the System’s assistance, there was no reason for him not to learn the basic spells of all six Aspects. Even I had done it as an apprentice, despite my inability to actually use Dimension magic. And so my skills kept growing, bit by bit, until finally the sixth day of the expedition arrived, and land rose from under the horizon.
I stood at the bow of the ship, my back to the islands that had appeared in our path. The five Heroes waited before me, in various combinations of excited and confused. I clapped my hands to grab their attention.
“The original itinerary had us heading straight for the Floating City to gather information before tackling the island dungeons,” I said with no preamble, earning me some nods from a few of the Heroes. “But some recent developments have led me to believe it would be useful for all of you — for all of us — to dip our toes in one of the outer islands, both as practice and to ensure our ability to work as a group.”
“Isn’t that kind of overkill?” Shiro asked, tilting his head. “I thought it was just the Cradle that was supposed to be worthwhile.”
“The Cradle of the Gods is our target, yes,” I said, stirring some unease from the assembly, “but frankly, it would be foolish to rush in before everyone was familiar with working as a team. The dungeons of the Cradle have been known to put down dragons, and I want to be assured of our success before we step in.”
Alexis’s eyebrows twitched almost imperceptibly, and I wondered if she had sensed the lie in my words — but whether or not she did, the girl remained quiet. I nodded slightly in her direction, a silent thanks for her cooperation. It would have complicated things if the rest knew how I worried over their willingness and ability to work together.
“In any case, you need not worry. This island may not be part of the Cradle proper, but it has a particularly interesting reputation nonetheless.”
“Oh?” Sarah asked.
“The people of the Archipelago call it the Circle of Stars.”