“F D P L T C E O,” Shalise said without hesitation.
“Good,” Professor Baxter said. “Next line down?”
“P E Z D I O E T O.”
“Close. Still, better vision than almost any normal person.” Professor Baxter shut off the projector. “Keep practicing that spell and I might have to pull out the air mage chart.”
Shalise canceled the spell. Her vision went dark and she could barely hear the professor talking. No, it didn’t go dark. Her brain just needed a reboot and adjust to unenhanced senses.
It depressed her somewhat. The red of Professor Baxter’s tie became less red. The black of her suit turned almost gray. The colors around the room changed as well. Outside the window had the most depressing change.
She had almost been able to see the crystals of the snow as flakes poured down on the Infinite Courtyard. Part of it might have been her imagination. Her vision couldn’t become that good. Could it? Either way, without the spell active, outside turned into a large mush of snow instead of the vibrant crystalline wonderland.
“Miss Ward, are you listening?” The professor’s stern voice carried a slight tone of danger.
“Sorry professor.” Shalise snapped her head to face her instructor. She’d been kind enough to give her extra lessons, and now Shalise wasn’t even paying attention. “I just shut off the spell.”
“Of course.” Professor Baxter said with an understanding nod. “You’ll get used to the abrupt change over time, though the change gets more drastic as you improve.
“As I was saying, most students can accurately read the bottom line by the end of year exams. You’re about on the mark, if not ahead by a few letters.”
Shalise sat ramrod straight as she listened to the air mage talk.
Professor Baxter lectured about how other students did and how Shalise was right where she needed to be. If there were any shortcomings, they were minor and completely understandable given the events earlier in the year.
It wasn’t the lesson Shalise had been hoping for. None of the lecture helped her pitiful sparks turn into lightning bolts. Her light breeze of air wasn’t strengthening into a gale.
She hadn’t even tried proper telekinesis yet. That was supposedly extremely advanced as it incorporated order magic.
Shalise sighed again. There was probably a reason elemental magic took up four years of classes with an optional two years of element specific learning.
“How long did it take you to cast a proper lightning bolt?” Shalise asked during a pause in Professor Baxter’s lecture.
“Half way through my second year, though I was by no means an average air mage.” She pointed at a frame hanging off her office wall. “You don’t get to be a class one air mage at age twenty-two by being average.”
“Then when do average students usually start casting lightning bolts?”
“By the end of the third year, for most. Some earlier if they’re dedicated or talented.” She took a seat on the edge of her desk, crossing one leg over the other. “I wouldn’t fret if I were you. The first year is almost entirely familiarizing yourself with magic. How it feels, how it moves, and how to harness it in simple capacity.”
Shalise rolled her wand between her fingers. Two and a half years. “That is such a long time. What am I supposed to do in the mage-knight class until then?”
Professor Baxter pursed her lips into a half-smile. “All elemental magic is difficult to use in combat, at least at early levels. You’ve probably noticed other first years being ineffective against even second years.”
“Miss Rivas is an outlier. Not to make light of her talent–of which she has much–but I suspect she has been training in magic since her fingers could grip a wand. I know her mother personally and it is just the thing she would do.”
“Why aren’t others taught so early?”
“Practicality, for the most part. Would you entrust even an eight year old with the ability to light a fire at any time?”
Shalise blinked. The thought of some of her siblings–Cody especially–having the ability to conjure flames at will sent an involuntary shiver up her spine. Shalise shook her head.
“I thought not. Sometimes I think we shouldn’t teach teenagers to do so.” Professor Baxter chuckled lightly. “And that isn’t even taking into consideration the toll that magic takes on younger bodies. It can be very dangerous to health and development. I’m sure Genoa kept a close eye on her daughter as she taught magic. It helped that earth is a very stable element.”
Shalise drooped down and put her chin onto the desk. “That’s very interesting,” Shalise half-lied, “but it doesn’t help me now.”
“I suppose not.” Professor Baxter pulled out her thin, silver dagger. “Is a bolt the only thing you think you can do with lightning?”
Her dagger crackled with yellow light. Thin arcs of electricity danced around the blade.
“Touch this to someone and they’re sure to feel it. There are no distances involved and no worrying about the lightning arcing off to the ground before your target.”
The thin arcs moved to the tip of her dagger. They collected into a small ball of light.
“This might be more difficult, but still easier to control than a bolt.”
With a flick of her wrist, she sent the ball flying against one wall. The ball shattered. Snakes of electricity crawled over the wall before dissipating.
“Another way to use that one,” she said as another ball formed at the tip of her dagger.
It flew across the room, similar to the first. At the peak of its arc, it exploded.
Not a very impressive explosion.
“Of course it doesn’t look like much,” Professor Baxter said. Apparently Shalise’s opinion was written on her face. “If that was full power, you would be blind, deaf, and falling to the floor in confusion.”
That certainly sounded much better. The little crackle and small flash hadn’t been much worse than having a picture taken.
“I don’t suppose I’d be able to cast any of those spells any time soon?”
“Sooner than a lightning bolt, perhaps. The lightning around your focus should easily be done by the end of the year. What has Profess–What has Yuria got you working on?”
“Air control, mostly.” She rubbed her forehead. She winced back at a slight pain just behind her eyebrow. “Not something useful.”
Professor Baxter shook her head. “A fundamental part of learning any element is manipulating it. Why are you so focused on lightning?”
Shalise stared at her teacher, wondering if she was serious. “It is attack magic.”
“You don’t think you can attack with air?”
A pen flipped off of her desk. As it flew into the corner of the office, Professor Baxter flicked her dagger. There was a brief moment where nothing happened before the pen split into two. Ink splattered across the walls and floor.
Professor Baxter made a slight choking noise before sighing. “Last time I demonstrated that, I used a pencil.”
“That is two examples in one. Air mages are the only ones capable of a proper telekinesis. You can fling objects at enemies. Shaping wind into a tight enough shape will cause harm as well.
“You might be hard pressed to create a blade out of wind right now, but a heavy hammering of air could knock someone over. That and following up with electricity arced around your focus is probably your best bet for now.”
Shalise sighed and shut her eyes. The darkness felt nice. Maybe the flash from the electricity ball had been more than enough to cause a headache.
“I am concerned,” Professor Baxter said, seemingly oblivious to Shalise. “There are many respectable professions in the magical world where combat is a focal point. More perhaps than peaceful jobs. Most students do not think about such things until their third year at the earliest.”
There was a brief sigh. Shalise felt the professor’s presence move in front of her. She opened her eyes to find green eyes staring at her.
“You’re not asking about this because of what happened last semester, are you?”
“No,” Shalise said quickly. Too quickly. She slumped her shoulders down and said, “I mean, I’d be lying if I said I don’t think about that. I don’t think it has anything to do with my questions.”
Her professor’s green eyes studied her intently. “Very well,” she said.
Shalise wasn’t sure her professor believed her. Shalise wasn’t sure she believed herself.
“I’d rather not talk about it, if it is all the same to you. I talked enough while I was on my ‘vacation’ back home.”
Professor Baxter’s eyes glanced over Shalise one more time before they shut. She gave a solemn nod of her head. “I understand. Would you like me to teach you the thought patterns necessary for any of the spells I demonstrated today?”
Shalise shook her head. “Perhaps next time, Professor Baxter. You’ve given me a lot to think about.” Thinking that hurt her head at the moment. A nap might be nice.
“I’ll look forward to our next lesson then.” The professor walked around behind her desk and took a seat in her chair.
Feeling dismissed, Shalise got up and walked out of Professor Baxter’s office.
Outside the classroom, Shalise leaned against a window. The cold glass pressed against her forehead. Her headache slowly melted away as she sat there, eyes shut.
Quiet footsteps approached her. The paused just behind Shalise. She tensed up, her hand going to her wand almost unconsciously.
“Shal? Are you alright?”
Shalise peeked her eyes open. She quickly let go of her wand as she turned. “Just a headache, Sister Cross.”
“Lynn, please.” Sister Cross said. She set a hand on Shalise’s shoulder and lightly squeezed. “Are you sure? I detected some magic–”
“It is fine,” Shalise said. “I asked one of my teachers to demonstrate some magic.”
There was a quiet moment before Sister Cross spoke again. “You don’t have to defend them. If someone hurt you–”
“Are you spying on me too?”
Sister Cross’ hand froze before it slid off of her shoulder. “Shal,” she said. Her voice came out as a whisper.
Shalise sighed. That might have come out too harsh. “I’m sorry. I have a headache and I’m frustrated.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
Shalise didn’t respond. Did she want to talk about it? Would Sister Cross have any input to change three years of feeble magic to something shorter? Probably not.
“Walk with me,” the nun said as she continued down the hallway.
After a moment of hesitation, Shalise followed a few paces behind her. She kept silent as they walked. The ringing in her ears died down, at least.
Not wanting to further upset Sister Cross, Shalise tried to force her face into her usual smile. She could tell it wasn’t working even without a mirror.
Shalise pulled her wand out of its holder. It idly spun in her hands as she walked alongside the nun.
As they walked, she got an idea. It was wasteful to just meander along when she could be training.
Shalise practiced the motions and the mental exercises of creating lightning without channeling magic into her wand. Class hadn’t even started the actual bolt part of lightning bolts, but generating electricity seemed to be a fundamental skill for the other spells Professor Baxter had used.
It wasn’t hard to imagine what would be required for a bolt anyway. Thus far, almost all magic relied on picturing what you wanted to have happen as you channeled magic. For a bolt, she’d need to picture the electricity arcing somewhere.
At least that is what she did the few times she actually tried to make a bolt.
“What’s bothering you?”
Shalise looked up quickly, glad she didn’t bump into the now stopped nun.
Sister Cross had her eyebrows furrowed as she stared at Shalise’s wand. “Are you unable to,” she paused as a small frown grew on her face, “to cast spells?”
In response, Shalise channeled magic into her wand. A bright spark hummed at the tip of her wand for a few seconds before vanishing.
“Good,” Sister Cross nodded with a small smile. She set a hand on Shalise’s shoulder again. “I was an air mage as well, before joining the order.”
“You’re not anymore?”
“Technically, I am. Many sisters still carry wands or other thaumaturgical foci with them, including myself. I was never very good at it though. I could still cast proper air magic if I needed to.”
“But you don’t.” Shalise smiled at the nun. “What do you use instead?” she asked as politely as she could.
Sister Cross looked up and down the empty hallway. “Secret. Can’t tell people who aren’t in the order. Not even you, Shal.”
Her smile slipped off again. “What if I want to join?”
Shalise crossed her arms as Sister Cross looked around the still empty hallway. There had been no changes in the last five seconds. Being a Saturday, there weren’t even students outside the window between the school and the dorms.
“You don’t want to join, Shal.” Her voice dropped to just above a whisper.
“Why not?” Shalise tapped her foot against the tile floor.
Sister Cross shook her head. “It just isn’t the kind of environment I’d want you growing up in. If you feel the same when you’re older, maybe then.”
Older. Everything is when I’m older.
“What are you worried about, Shal?”
“I’m just,” she sighed and slumped against a wall. “I’m feeling useless. All of my friends can apply their magic toward something useful.”
“First of all,” Sister Cross said. She held a finger up. “If you join the order, you won’t have those friends. Even if that might be desirable for one of them.”
Shalise shot her a glare.
Sister Cross ignored it and held up a second finger. “There is still training, time, and effort with the Elysium Order’s magic. Nothing in this world is free.”
“I know,” Shalise half shouted. She pulled off the wall and moved to the center of the hallway. She paced back and forth. “I know. It is just so frustrating.” She flicked her wand and got nothing more than the small spark. “What am I supposed to do if–”
If what? Shalise clenched her fists and looked back to the nun.
Sister Cross reached out and wrapped her arms around Shalise. She pulled Shalise’s head into her chest and lightly patted her back.
“The Elysium Order will be here if something happens. I’ve been given clearance to stay for the time being because one of the necromancers escaped. Nothing will happen to you, I promise.”
They held together for minutes. Shalise enjoyed the comfort of the nun. Sister Cross didn’t say anything.
Eventually, Shalise pulled apart. A wet spot on the nun’s chest was left right where Shalise’s head rested. With the sleeve of her white uniform, Shalise wiped her eyes and face.
“Magic, all magic, takes time to learn. And practice.” Sister Cross gave Shalise’s shoulders a tight squeeze. “The Elysium Order magic might be different, it might be cheating a little, but it still requires time. Practice every day. At least for an hour, more if you can. Even when you don’t want to, even when you’ve got homework. You’ll get better.”
Shalise nodded and finished wiping off her face. “You didn’t–” She stopped, not sure if she wanted to know. Shalise clenched her fists and continued her question. “You didn’t let the necromancer escape so you could stay here, did you?”
“Of course not,” Sister Cross said. Her face twisted into almost a scowl before quickly returning to her light smile. “Of course not, Shal. It means a lot that I can stay with you for a while, but hunting necromancers is the Elysium Order’s duty. Its very meaning. If I let one go on purpose, I’d be stripped of my command and possibly tried as a heretic.”
That didn’t sound good. Shalise decided not to ask about heretics.
“Good,” Shalise said. “About not letting him go on purpose,” she clarified. “I don’t think I would have liked it much if you had.”
Sister Cross chuckled. “I wouldn’t let someone escape after they hurt my cute little Shal.”
Shalise sighed and shook her head with a small smile on her face. In doing so, she noticed a second figure standing behind her. Shalise jumped and half stepped to the side.
“Trying to recruit my students again, Sister Cross?”
Dean Turner stared with a glare that could kill. Buttons were undone halfway down her shirt. A black tube top underneath barely held in her modesty. Not the picture of a dean Shalise had in mind, but her face was deadly serious.
Exactly how she appeared during her speech.
“Trying to discourage it, actually.”
Dean Turner let out a loud, obvious scoff and flicked her sharp gaze at Shalise. It softened somewhat after looking her up and down. “Is that true Miss,” her eyes narrowed. It wasn’t narrowing in anger, rather a narrowing in thought.
“W-Ward. Shalise Ward.” She took a deep breath and tried to reign down her nerves. Her gaze might have softened, but it wasn’t soft enough for Shalise’s tastes. “It is true.”
The gaze left Shalise and resumed its hostility against Sister Cross. “You lucked out this time, Cross. I told you before and I’ll tell you again, I don’t want you or your people talking to my students.”
Sister Cross’ eyes flicked to Shalise for the barest of instants. She sighed and pressed her hands together. With a short bow of her head, Sister Cross turned and all but floated away with light steps.
“Miss Ward,” the dean said. The sharp heels on her boots clicked against the floor as she spun to face Shalise. “If you require career counseling, I am sure your counselor would strongly advise against joining the Elysium Order. Any sane person would.”
Up close, it was a lot more jarring to see the dean appearing so unprofessional. Most of the teachers wore full suits. Only Professor Twillie and Professor Kines wore anything else. Their clothes were suited for their more hands on classes, rather than indicating any rebellion from the two.
Looking closer, Shalise thought the few buttons that were done up weren’t even the right buttons. The left side didn’t match up to the right side.
Shalise shook her head and cleared her throat, trying to disguise her stare. She didn’t think it worked too well. “I-I believe that is my decision to make.”
“If you’re looking for cheap ways to get easy power, know that power always has a price,” Dean Turner said in a strong voice. She tilted her head towards the direction Sister Cross retreated. “The sisterhood has a high price for such low power. If you’re willing to pay, find someone who can offer a good deal.”
Her short ponytail flicked to the side as she spun on her heel. They clicked off down the hall as she strode in the opposite direction Sister Cross took.
Shalise stood there frozen in place. She watched the woman’s back until, half way down the hall, she vanished.
Leaning back against a window, Shalise frowned.
What did she mean by that?
— — —
Nel Stirling grabbed the short strand of brown hair out of the air. She tossed it into the drawer of her desk and slammed it shut.
The long strand of black hair moved above the frankincense burner and hovered in the air.
Nel pulled on her collar, veil, and wimple in record time. Despite her haste, she took care to make sure not a single strand of black hair could be seen. The only skin visible was the small oval from her chin to her forehead.
She sat down in her meditative pose in front of the frankincense burner, barely having time to smooth out her habit before Lynn Cross charged in the door.
The door slammed behind Sister Cross as she stomped towards Nel’s altar.
She looks worse in person, Nel thought with a barely suppressed shudder.
“Sister Cross,” she said, trying to keep the tremor out of her voice, “I was just doing my hourly checkup of–”
“Save it. What is Shalise doing?”
Nel snapped her mouth shut. With a thought, the strand of black hair floated off to one side. A long strand of slightly wavy brown hair replaced it. She took a deep breath of the frankincense and waited.
The world vanished from before her still open eyes. The scene of an office filled in. With a thought, the stage advanced. A trail of light, already fading, indicated her passing into the hallway. The light gathered into a ball near the main entrance to the school building.
Nel followed it outside, up the handful of steps to the dorm, and into the building. It gathered again just inside; a much smaller ball of light this time. Up the steps it went and Nel followed. Through the door to room three-one-three.
Shalise lay in bed, unmoving.
“Taking a nap,” Nel said. “In her bed.”
“She isn’t talking to a poorly dressed woman?”
“The trace indicates she talked to someone in a hallway of the school, then there was a short pause in the lobby of the dorms. That couldn’t have been longer than a simple greeting.” Nel paused as she watched Sister Cross bite the edge of her lip. “I could search deeper, if you need?”
“No,” Sister Cross said. “There wouldn’t have been enough time for any lengthy conversations if she’s already in her room.”
Nel sighed as Sister Cross seemed to relax. She hadn’t realized her heart was beating so hard until she let her guard down.
Nel almost jumped to her feet. Her breath caught at the hard look Sister Cross gave her. No, not her. Sister Cross was looking over her shoulder.
It took a small amount of effort to avoid cursing in front of the other nun as she turned to look. Nel had forgotten one thing.
“What is that?”
“The frankincense gets to be too much,” Nel said. “It must be ventilated.”
The open window flew shut. The glass cracked and shattered, pieces falling over her bed.
Nel started in her seat. She whipped her head back to face Sister Cross.
The woman’s brown eyes had gone full white.
Flinching back, Nel caught her fall on the edge of the altar. The table jolted.
A hot coal bounced out of the burner and landed on the altar. It skidded across the marble surface, burning the tablecloth as it went.
Nel quickly grabbed it with her gloved hands and tossed it back into the burner. The cloth fingertips of her gloves almost burnt through. Luckily I have spares.
She almost knocked the burner over at the tone in Sister Cross’ voice.
“I gave strict orders not to do anything that would draw attention to you. The necromancer knows what an augur is. He was after you. He may know that you use frankincense to induce your visions.”
“The air must be ventilated,” Nel repeated. “I will die otherwise.”
“Find another method then. It is an honor and a privilege to be an augur. Replacing you wouldn’t be hard, but it would be tedious.”
It doesn’t feel like either a privilege or an honor, Nel thought. She couldn’t even remember why she chose to become an augur.
“Pack your bags, Sister Stirling. We’ll be relocating you again tomorrow.”
The fire faded from Sister Cross’ eyes as she stood. Without even a glance at the augur, Sister Cross turned and left the room. The door slammed as she went.
A cold breeze of fresh air blew in from the broken window.
Nel took a deep breath. “At least relocating will mean fresh air. For a few hours.”
With a sigh, she started picking up bits of broken glass from her bed. She wanted a nap too. The abomination was just having textbooks read to her by her pet. Not even worth noting.
Sister Cross left the small house they had appropriated by the front door. It was abandoned, near as anyone could tell. A small house on the outskirts of Brakket.
A thought occurred to Nel as she watched Sister Cross leave through her window. She broke the window. All the fresh air was billowing in and the frankincense was leaving.
But… Keeping the frankincense in was the whole reason the window was supposed to be shut. They were relocating tomorrow? Why not now? Was Sister Cross providing an opportunity for the necromancer to come out?
Nel gasped a lungful of fresh air. “Am I bait?” she whispered to herself. “Or…”
She glanced back at the floating hair and leg. They hovered just above the altar, right where she left them.
“Is she trying to kill me?”
Nel scrambled back to the altar.
She knew a lot that she had been forbidden from telling the other nuns. They weren’t allowed to have contact with her at all anymore.
If the necromancers did show up and killed her, Sister Cross could just say it was because of opening her window. If she bothered to explain at all.
Nel did a quick scan of the three items already floating over the altar. None of them had moved in the last fifteen minutes, it didn’t take more than a second.
The small brown hair floated out of her desk and above the burner. Nel tossed another two beads of frankincense on the coals and took a deep breath.
Her room vanished once again, only to be replaced by her room. This version of her room had a ball of light hovering on the other side of her altar.
She followed it out, past the two guards with blindfolds and earplugs. It went down the stairs and out the door.
The line of light formed into a tiny ball a short distance down the street.
It just ended.
Nel cursed. She quickly peeked into the Order’s appropriated warehouse headquarters, Sister Cross’ room, and several other key places in town.
Sister Cross was nowhere to be found.
There were few ways to hide from an augur. The little abomination had a building in her prison that Nel couldn’t see into. Whatever stopped her vision there must have been set up by someone else, otherwise she would have done the same to her bedroom and possibly the dorms. She rarely went in and never for long. It was barely a note in her reports.
Sister Cross disappeared all of the time. Always wherever she was. Her method of disappearing wasn’t tied to what were likely wards on a building.
Nel bit her knuckles through her gloves. Even if nothing happened tonight, that would be the necromancer’s doing and no thanks to Sister Cross.
There was a sinking feeling in her stomach as Nel swore again.
She kept searching for Sister Cross.