Three weeks later, Cale stood in front of a wooden doll target in a large arena, his breathing steady and trying to ignore the growing panic in his chest. This was the first Offensive Magic exam of the term — first of three in fact— and he had done absolutely everything that he could to prepare. He had even asked Julius for help with studying the incantations.
Cale had no doubt that he wasn't going to to well, but he might just be able to pass, and if he did that, then he wouldn't have to worry so much about Valerio.
Almost the entirety of his grade in this class depended on how well he did during the three exams of each term. If he failed just a single one, he wasn't going to be able to pass the class, and would likely be held back if he failed to pass more then three classes all together.
He couldn't be held back, there was no time for it. Once this year of classes was over, the novel's plot was going to pick up speed exponentially, and he didn't want to be around to get caught in the crossfire.
And that was assuming that he even survived.
It didn't bear thinking of that he wouldn't.
Cale held up his palms straight in front of him, and recited the incantation that he had painfully memorized. It was five sentences long, in a language that he didn't used to know, and had to be said smoothly. If even so much as a single syllable was off, if he stuttered a single sound, if he paused too long between the words or sentences, he risked a potentially fatal backlash.
Calla was weak, but his magic was powerful. If his magic backlashed, it would undoubtedly kill him.
The only relief was knowing — through practice with Julius — that he was still an ice mage.
As the last word of the spell left his lips, the air around him abruptly dropped to below zero, a faint sheen of frost spreading out all around him. In a matter of seconds ice formed on the ground in front of him, spreading quickly to the target and almost climbing up over it.
The ice stopped just short of reaching the head, but he had at least managed to immobilize the entire target's body, so it should still be a pass.
Cale breathed out sharply in relief. At least he wasn't dead yet, that was always something.
Soon, the temperature around him reverted back to normal, the warmth of summer still clinging to the arena.
"Good work." Valerio said and smiled at him.
Cale resisted the urge to run away when that sly smile was aimed at him. Something was going on inside of that man's head, and it wasn't going to go well for him. Or his cousin, probably.
"Thank you, Professor." Cale responded and returned the smile, a fake one that he couldn't make real no matter how hard he tried. Valerio just terrified him too much for him to manage it yet.
Valerio nodded at him and said, "You can go to your next class or take a break now, it's up to you."
Cale didn't say anything, he just nodded and then hurried out of the underground arena.
The arena was large, underground and built of stone, and reminded him far too much of the old gladiator arenas of Rome for his peace of mind. He was thankful that he didn't have to spend another minute of time in it, and hurried as fast as he could without running up the steps to the door out.
As the exam went in alphabetic order based on peoples last names, there were still a lot of people sitting around on the stone benches around the arena, waiting for their turn. As he practically ran by, none of them spared him so much as a glance, more concerned with reciting their own incantations in their heads and ensuring that they didn't forget them.
It was, after all, a matter of life and death.
Crossing the threshold, he was surprised to see Julius standing there waiting for him, his arms crossed over his chest and leaning against the stone wall. The uniform looked like it had been fitted to his body, so well did he wear it.
Cale smiled slightly at him and asked, "What are you doing here? Don't you have class?"
"Waiting for you, obviously." Julius answered flatly. "And so what if I have class, unlike you, my grades aren't in any danger."
Cale rose an eyebrow in amusement, but didn't say anything back.
Instead, he started walking again, and as he had grown to expect, Julius followed after him, walking just half-a-step behind him.
"The library again?" Julius questioned, managing to somehow insert a sneer in the short sentence.
"Hmm. Don't you ever do anything else, Frosthaze?"
Cale smiled, though Julius couldn't see it. "No, not really."
After that, they didn't say anything else. Together, they walked to the library, the doors wide open as it was the middle of the day. Cale walked in a leisurely pace, knowing where the books he wanted to read today were located and that they hadn't been borrowed.
Passed the doors they found themselves in the huge library, several floors tall and with thousands upon thousands of books.
If he managed to survive past the end of the novel's plot, he wanted to become a librarian here. It wouldn't require any great skill in magic, and he would be free to pursue all of the books available in the school. It would essentially be a dream come true.
Except for the fact that he was in the wrong world.
The table was, as expected, empty when they arrived. The vast majority of students had classes right now — those that didn't have their own exams, it depended of what year you were in — and so the library was blissfully quiet. An atmosphere of peace had settled over the entirety of the building, and as they sat down, he could vaguely make out the figure of the head librarian stacking books in another aisle.
Cale opened up his book bag and pulled out a whole pile of notebooks and pens, each of them dedicated to a different subject. With them, he also pulled out two books that he had borrowed from this library and that he planned to return today.
Julius had pulled out his own things, presumably his current homework considering that he didn't enjoy reading nearly as much as Cale did.
For the next thirty or so minutes, they worked in silence.
Eventually, Cale frowned and flipped the pages of his two books — both of them at least five hundred pages thick — and tried to find the information that he was looking for. By the time that he had flipped through both four times each, he sighed and rose from his seat.
"I'll go look for another book." he stated to Julius, who made no indication of hearing him.
To be honest, Cale didn't understand why Julius insisted on hanging around him, especially considering the fact that Julius didn't appear to like him much. No, as he had learned over the last few weeks, Julius was a big fan of Sayer, and spent most of his time trying to figure out a way to get close to him.
And every time that he failed, it just made him grouchier. For a young teenager, he acted very much like the perpetually annoyed Gatekeeper.
Cale sighed a little as he stared at the line of books in front of him. Spotting the one that he held the subject matter that he wanted, he scowled at the height of it. Even the heels on his boots didn't make him tall enough.
He looked around and saw the library stool standing just a few meters away. Without wasting any time, he dragged it over and climbed on top.
With it, he was easily able to grab a hold of the right book.
Getting down from it was easy, and unlike the various protagonists in books and movies, he didn't fall. It was a very sturdy stool, after all.
Cale nodded a little to himself and opened up the book, reading at the same time as he walked back to their table. He settled back down opposite Julius, continuing to read without noticing anything around him. They spent the next hour like that, just working on their homework in a comfortable silence.
By the time that they finally stopped, it was time for lunch.
Well, to be more precise, it was time for Cale's lunch, as Julius had a different schedule. Cale packed up his books, the ones that he planned on leaving with, and shoved them all down in his bag while grabbing another group of them in his arms. These were ones that he had already borrowed and had finished with today, meaning that he was going to return them.
Julius didn't say anything as he left, and so Cale chose not to say anything either.
Besides, he had the feeling that if he did, Julius would just spit venom at him.
Magdalena was a minor character in the book 'Fire & Ice'. She came from a family that was fairly well off, but not at the level of Calla's family. Her elemental affinity was water and she was a childhood friend of Calla's. They had pretty much grown up together and Magdalena was even a candidate for his arranged marriage.
But in the end nothing had come from it. Magdalena's father had gotten a better offer, from a family with a candidate that wasn't constantly ill and stuck in bed.
Nevertheless, Magdalena and Calla had maintained a pleasant, if distant, platonic relationship.
However, Cale hadn't met this young woman since his transmigration. This was shy he was so surprised when he saw her waiting outside his room when he returned for the evening. For a moment, he got a severe case of deja-vu.
Then he shook his mind loose and tried to smile at her.
Unlike Julius, this was a person who had spent a lot of time with Calla. Like his family, she would be one of the first people to notice anything off about him and just the thought of it was nerve-racking. Bluffing wouldn't be of much assistance when dealing with a force of nature like Magdalena Nightgrove.
When she saw him, she smiled. "Calla! I haven't seen you in forever, have you been avoiding me?"
"No, no." Cale walked over to her and gripped the hand that she held out. "I would never. I've just been so busy with my studies. I'm so far behind, you know."
He did his best to seem unconcerned, as if that was really all that it was. And to an extent, it was even true. Cale had spent the last several months virtually drowning in books, desperate to catch up to Calla's level. In a world of magic, there was no room for mistakes.
It would kill him.
"Come on, let's talk. Invite me in." she insisted and Cale didn't know how to deny her.
Honestly, avoiding her hadn't been that difficult. They weren't in the same year, had none of the same classes and their circles of acquaintances never interacted. All that he had had to do was just stay in his lane and there wasn't any problem. He didn't even have to go out of his way for it.
Cale hid his sigh in a smile and unlocked the door. "Are you sure it's alright? Aren't you engaged?"
She giggled at him and said, "Everybody know I can kick your ass. It's perfectly fine."
"If you say so."
Cale opened the door and led the way in. He deposited his bag full of heavy books on the desk and sat down on the accompanying chair while Magdalena sat down and bounced a little on his bed. She leaned back on her hands and stared at him with a look that he couldn't decipher. Cale frowned in response to it.
She hadn't figured it out already, had she?
"You've been spending a lot of time with Julius lately." she finally deigned to speak.
"Oh." Cale nodded and bit his lip. "Yes, I ah... suppose so. Is it a problem?"
"Not... exactly." she appeared to be frustrated. Her brown eyes rove over his entire room, including all of the messy corners. "It's just that – well you know that Julius likes Sayer, right?"
"Mhmm." Cale nodded. He was painfully aware of this.
She leaned forward and continued, "Aren't you worried that it's just a ruse? That it's all a plan of Sayer's to find a way to discredit you and get the lordship?"
Cale didn't know what to say to that.
He scratched at his eyebrow and gazed out the window. Trees were swaying down below, the wind gently drifting the clouds above in the sky. Night was already falling, darkness laying heavily over the castle. Cale sighed and brought both his hands down to his lap, squeezing them together.
"I don't know." he simply stated.
She sighed at him. Magdalena pulled her brown hair behind her ear and stared at him with disturbingly clear eyes. There wasn't a hint of the easily deceived character that was described in the novel, and for a moment, he couldn't help but hope that she was someone who had transmigrated as well. But no, that was a futile hope that would only bring him pain.
Magdalena smiled wearily at him. "If you don't know, why do you keep spending so much time with him?"
He shook his head and smiled ruefully. "I don't know."
She sighed once more and fell back on the bed with a loud thud. Cale watched as she stared with tired eyes at the ceiling. He could almost see the cogs in her head turning, but he had barely an inkling what she was was thinking of. Sure, he had his suspicions of Sayer, but they were only that. Suspicions. He hadn't spent any time with the male protagonist since coming to this world and the man's relationship with Calla was never examined in the book.
As much as Cale would like to wave away the concerns as completely unnecessary, he couldn't. And as much as he would like to be able to say with certainty that Sayer had had nothing to do with Calla's death in the novel, he couldn't. And without those answers, Cale couldn't afford to let down his guard.
If he wanted to have the relaxed life that he was seeking, he first needed to survive. Unfortunately, that wasn't easy.
It was blatantly unfair, really.
He put his elbow on the desk in front of him and leaned his head on his hand. His eyelids lowered in response to his exhaustion. Dinner was already over and he would have been asleep by if it weren't for his unexpected visitor.
Finally, Magdalena sat up again. She looked him over and quirked her thin lips in what he thought was amusement. She rose from the bed and dragged a hand through her short hair, flicking some stray wisps out of her eyes. Walking forwards, she laid a hand on his shoulder and patted it.
"If Sayer or Julius tries anything, know that you can come to me, okay?"
Cale couldn't help smiling. She wasn't threatening to murder him, so he assumed that he had managed to act like Calla. The relief filled his chest with a light feeling and his the knot in his stomach finally unravelled.
"I know." he nodded to her and squeezed her hand in gratitude.
She smiled back at him and left.
"Haah..." Cale breathed out heavily in relief, sank back in his chair and leaned his head back on the back of it. He stared up at the ceiling. It was nerve-racking, being around characters who had known Calla. His studying had revealed what happened to people thought to be possessed and really, he did not want to go through that!
It was terrifying. This world was vicious. Savage. Absolutely merciless and Cale was just an ant waiting to be stepped on.
He closed his eyes.
Magdalena Nightgrove was just a minor character. She didn't have an arc of her own and her development as a character was minimal. Truly, it was as if she was only there for a single purpose, to help Sayer out when he found himself thrown in prison without a trial. Magdalena's husband — now fiancé — would become a well-regarded defense attorney.
And that was years after Calla's death.
Truly, Calla was a pitiful character. Dying so early and uselessly for what amounted to essentially no reason at all.
He opened his eyes again and pushed himself out of the chair. Outside, night had fallen completely. Stars and two moons twinkled through the window. It was no longer a thing that surprised him, when he looked outside and saw the second, smaller moon.
Besides, the beauty of the two moons on the night of the Moon Festival had been heavily described in the novel.
Chucking off her clothes, Cale went through his nighttime routine entirely on reflex. His body knew what it was supposed to do and did it, even with his mind so occupied. He ended up getting some toothpaste on his cheek, but nothing worse. At long last he could go to sleep and rest his mind.
He wondered what he would dream about.
Cale curled up under the covers and exhaled a deep breath. Was Julius really just hanging around him in order to fulfill some order of Sayer's? He hoped not. Despite it all, Cale kind of liked the younger boy.
His people judging skills sucked.
Cale winced as he heard Julius brutally berate a young girl who had bravely confessed her love for him around the corner. He had no idea what Julius was thinking, being so blunt. They were in the middle of the hallway! Cale wasn't even the only one hiding behind this corner.
There were two young women who looked increasingly upset by his side and from their furious whispering, he had concluded that they were there to encourage the girl confessing. They hadn't expected this to be the result and Julius was now becoming their number one enemy for daring to distress the girl.
Well, Cale couldn't say that he blamed them. Julius really was going too far.
He leaned his body back against the wall and stared up into thin air. How long would he have to wait before it would be appropriate to leave? Was there some sort of etiquette in these sort of situations? Some manual that he could follow?
Because he had no idea what to do.
Cale was an otaku. He read manga and books and spent his vast majority of time indoors. He had a few close friends, but it wasn't a large circle by any means. He was good at bluffing and he could fake knowledge in most cases from all that time watching TV and reading, but he had no idea what to do in this situation.
"Should we just interrupt them?" one of the girl's asked.
Yes, Cale thought, discuss this problem out loud so that I can piggyback on your solution.
The other girl shook her head. "Are you kidding? Of course we can't, she'll be humiliated."
They nodded to each other in understanding without helping Cale out at all. He sighed and heard the sound of sobs from around the corner. Julius was in the middle of a rant directed at the girl calling her, amongst others, "foolish", "naïve" and "ignorant to the real world".
There was no way that Cale could come out now. Not when the girl was crying. He sighed again and pulled a book out of his bag, thumbing through it as quietly as he could. If he was stuck here, then he might as well get some use out of the time.
Otherwise it would just be a gigantic waste of time.
The book was about the subject of Offensive Magic. It wasn't required reading, but it was a book he had recently loaned from the school library for cross referencing.
It was kind of dry and had a very monotone tone, but Cale pushed his way through it anyway. It contained a wealth of useful information that helped with the basics that were no longer covered in class. Truly, he wished that he had found it sooner, but his family didn't have it in their library.
Which was a shame, because despite how dull it was, it actually covered a really interesting subject.
It was just too bad that it was the villain teaching the class, keeping Cale from ever really relaxing.
He thumbed through the pages until he reached the point where he left off. Cale stared down at the page with lost eyes for a few seconds as he listened to the sound of the sobbing getting louder and Julius berating the girl at an even higher volume before Cale was finally able to emerge himself in the book.
The letters had finally stopped swimming in front of his eyes which was a certifiably good thing. It meant that he got less dizzy and was less prone to headaches when reading.
Not that they went away completely. Calla's body really was weak.
A loud bang made him jump in fright. Shocked, Cale looked up from his book and peeked around the corner. The girl had thrown her bag at Julius. But because Julius apparently had no decency, he had stepped out of its path and it had hit the wall instead.
Cale felt like sighing but kept it in through sheer force of will. Instead he just watched with bated breath as the girl growled something too low for him to hear at Julius, grabbed her bag and stalked away. The girls he had been hiding with took this opportunity to run after the girl and comfort her.
All three of them threw glares at Julius as they left.
"I know you're there, Calla." Julius stated.
Cale grimaced and went out of hiding. "How?" he asked, genuinely wondering.
Julius rolled his eyes. "The air around you is colder."
An unvoiced duh was clearly conveyed. Cale frowned and stepped around the corner following after Julius when the boy started walking. They were on route to the library as they had been every other day this week. Unfortunately, the the library was fairly isolated from the rest of the castle and there weren't many routes there, hence Cale spending about half-an-hour awkwardly eavesdropping on a confession.
Julius words made his mind start spinning. He had never noticed that the air was colder around himself, so it must be one of those things that was common knowledge in this world, if Calla's mother hadn't hired a healer to deal with it. It must be his magic's doing, he supposed. He didn't think there could be another explanation.
"I've never noticed." he mumbled to himself.
"Of course not." Julius scoffed and waved a hand in the air. "When your elemental affinity is related to extreme temperatures, it tends to affect the area around you. The fact that you're still exuding coldness at your age is a testament to your poor control."
Cale furrowed his eyebrows together. "Have I always done it?"
If he hadn't, wasn't this really bad?
"Yes." thankfully Julius' tone wasn't gentle and the boy had no tact.
Cale rolled his eyes and stepped into beat with Julius, walking beside him as they crossed hallways, turned corners and went both up and down staircases. Occasionally they crossed paths with other students but they all immediately ducked out of their way. Cale saw the way that Julius was stared at.
This wasn't the first time that he had witnessed Julius berating someone and it appeared that the boy now had a reputation.
At the library they settled down at the usual table. Cale curled up in his chair with his shoes off — the librarian was both strict and terrifying — while Julius settled down to do his homework. Unlike Cale, that was all Julius ever used the library for. Cale didn't even know why Julius would insist on coming with him, when the boy would purposefully drag out the time he spent on homework because otherwise he would have nothing to do.
Was Sayer really planning something? Was that why Julius spent so much time hanging out with him while Cale read?
Cale frowned and ignored the pang in his chest at the thought. There was nothing he could do if that was the case. Julius was devoted to Sayer, this was made clear in the book. In the face of that, what card could Cale possibly play?
There was a knot in his stomach and he twisted in his seat. Every day that passed, his homesickness faded just a little more as he adjusted to this new life, but it never really disappeared. And he had a feeling that it never would.
He missed his family. He missed his mother's cooking and his father's complaining over work and his friends fighting over manga.
He missed it all.
And he had found no way to get back.
Cale was starting to doubt that such a thing even existed.
He breathed out and a cloud of white left his lips. Cale furrowed his eyebrows in confusion and stared at the air as the cloud dissipated. So Julius really hadn't been kidding when he said Cale made the air around himself colder, had he? He exhaled again and another white cloud left him, bringing a smile to his lips.
There was something fantastical about it.
He didn't know what. Maybe the fact that he was inside and didn't feel cold at all? Or the fact that it brought to mind cold winters spent in front of the fireplace with his family? Regardless, he found himself smiling in something like joy, a prideful feeling uncurling in his chest.
"What are you laughing about?" Julius' voice was sharp enough to cut.
Cale looked up across the table. "Nothing, I guess."
Julius narrowed his eyes at him and Cale got the absurd urge to laugh. Instead his smile grew, and he went back to his reading with a lighter heart.
"You're weird." Julius muttered and Cale just laughed gently in response.
Yes, he supposed that from another person's perspective, he was weird.
There was nothing that he could do about that though.
Another few hours was spent reading in peace, undisturbed by anything at all. Cale dutifully took notes of anything that was even remotely interesting or implied to be common knowledge while reading. He kept track of all of the info and made sure that he cross-referenced absolutely everything.
He was in a whole other world. One with magic. There was no such thing as over preparedness.
Cale didn't stop studying until Julius announced in a sharp tone, "It's time for dinner, idiot."
With a soft exhale — and another marvel at the resulting white cloud — Cale gathered up all of his books and hurried after Julius. The boy had already started walking away, seemingly uncaring that Cale wasn't with him.
Hurrying after the boy, Cale stepped into beat with him and together they walked to the cafeteria.
After gathering his food on a tray from the buffet, Cale looked around to find a place to sit. A table in the corner was ideal but it wasn't always possible. Although tables could be reserved, this cost money and wasn't something Cale was willing to do. He was saving a penny that he had for when he would move out, ideally to the countryside and far away from any book character. Hopefully, there would be a library or bookshop that he could work at too.
Julius was no longer with him. When Cale looked up, the boy had already moved to sit at Sayer's table.
Cale walked between the tables until he found an empty one fairly secluded against one of the walls. He stalked over quickly before someone else could claim it and sat his tray down on the table first before he followed and sat on one of the two chairs.
Absentmindedly he ate his dinner, his mind preoccupied with other things. His table had a good view of the rest of the room and he could observe both Julius and Sayer easily.
They weren't speaking.
In fact, they didn't even appear to be looking at each other. Sayer was in the middle of a conversation with his girlfriend and Julius was looking down at his food. Cale guessed that Julius was probably upset that Sayer wasn't paying him any attention.
He wondered if Julius was in love with him. That had never been Ade clear in the book. It was always from Sayer's point of view and Sayer, of course, was preoccupied with the female protagonist. The girl who was currently his girlfriend. Still, even if Julius was in love with Sayer, did that change anything?
No, it didn't. Julius was still very clearly on Sayer's side. The only thing that Cale could do was keep going with what he was already doing.
He had no other options.
Cale finished his dinner and rose from his seat. Collecting his tray, he carried it over to a tray rack and left it there. As he left the cafeteria, he passed by Sayer's table. The protagonist didn't even spare him a glance, which was actually pretty revealing of his relationship with Calla.
Well, Cale was happy as long as he was left alone. Being around the protagonist was like begging for death and Cale was neither that stupid nor suicidal.
He left the cafeteria with a lighter heart.