Chapter 74 - Verve
A small white bunny screeches through the air. The fur covering her figure is blown backwards, showing pink skin where the fine hairs are spread apart. A kick from the small hind legs causes part of a wave to explode into a fine mist. The next kick lands on a small boat. The robe-clad person riding it careens into the distance from the force, broken limbs and blood flying everywhere.
Now, let’s say that the small twitching bundle of instincts could actually think. The bunny’s thoughts would probably go something like this: ‘Mommy said to keep safe. Flashing tree is not safe. Bye tree!’
Another kick makes more fine spray, and a bigger boat gets blown in half. The white streak causing the mayhem is barely visible, mana cannons are swivelled around wildly as the small critter evades their shots with ease.
‘More flashing trees. Smaller mommies need safe. Bye bigger tree!’
The armada of various mage-powered vessels retreats once again, the small ships speeding away swiftly while the bigger boats make ponderous turns. They don't even slow down to haul their still living magically attuned colleagues from the water. The mages on the ships only slow down now and then to throw a rope to swimming mages in similarly coloured robes, ignoring all other like robe based racists.
“LOLAAAAA, YOU CAN COOME BAAAAACK”
‘Blue small mommy voice! Want to get scratches! Not as good as big mommy, but still good.’
Lola hurries back to the boat, landing in Selis’ outstretched arms with a precision jump. Both females narrow their eyes in pleasure as Selis starts scratching the fluffy being’s belly.
“Who’s a good girl? Yes, you aareeeee.”
A dry cough clears the pink atmosphere at once.
“Are you sure this is fine?” Tess asks with a slightly bored and worried tone. “We are sailing straight into mage territory without Teach present. If nothing else, I think he would want to see this.” She waves a hand at the splintered wrecks and dissipating trails of colourful mana as various water threading figures bob up and down in the waves.
Ket grins in response. “He said; do whatever we want. Feel free to do so too. My power gain has slowed down a lot, we all need more energy.”
While the six disciples and single rabbit casually chat or get petted, a single girl is looking around with anxious eyes. “Are you sure this is fine though? This wonderful shield has held up so far, but we will keep meeting more mage boats. We will cross close to Strata and Disintegration like this.” The redhead peers down at a large leather map, splayed out on a small table next to the ship's wheel.
“We are sailing west right now. We can slip away if we turn on the stealth field when we are out of sight of the ships and head north.”
Angeta stares at Ket with a deadpan expression. “Your grin starts to look like Teach’s. I would be worried about that development if I were you. I am not though, so I don't care.”
Ket’s smile falters for a bit, but a single frown later his mouth is grinning wider.
“The smoke plume we have been seeing all day is Disintegration Island, home of the fire faction. And you can just see Strata’s Eternal Tower over the horizon there.”
A redheaded girl is waving her hands around as she lectures for a bit. “Massive arrays attract fire or earth mana to these islands. Never fight a faction on their own turf, they have access to at least twice as much mana and regeneration as outside of their islands. Wave Island is far to the east, on the opposite side of the Elemental Ring. Light mages are only hired to do healing for the rich. Or they get assigned to a journey mage patrol squad as support.”
Her words falter a bit as she thinks of what happened in the last two days. She was another unwilling, unmotivated mage in training. She only kept her cheer because her unpopular master told her to also focus on the positive side of mana. Most mages don't think it is worth the trouble, anything done with dim mana is at least ten times as hard when performed with bright mana.
Then, a sudden emergency dispatch to scout a magical phenomenon later she is reunited with her brother, who she thought died years ago. Also, she is now sailing around in an invisible ship while clashing with her previous colleagues.
“What makes the black clouds?”
Ares looks at the single fat person in the odd group. “Uuhm, it's Disintegration island, so… fire?”
Ket looks up from the map he is studying. “He wanted a volcano, right? A mountain with fire inside? Actually, that would be molten rock. Does that come from the earth? Deep down there must be more, so...”
Bord nods as the rest of the group ignore Ket's rambling as he starts developing theories.
“We should tell him later, he needed one of those, right?” More nods follow Selis’ question. Ares is bewildered again, this talk about that mysterious ‘him’.
Selis waves her hand, causing a stream of water to drench Ket. His head starts steaming as his mouth starts moving faster.
“Who is this ‘him’?” Conspiratorially huddling up next to Tess and Selis, the light mage pries for answers.
Ares looks at Tess and Selis one by one. “Is it ‘don't ask’ or ‘great?’”
Both girls nod their confirmation. Ares throws her hands up into the air and walks back to Vox. “Can you please tell me, brother?”
Vox just smiles and shakes his head. “Nope, I really don't want to risk making him angry by talking too freely. He likes his privacy and anonymity, for some reason.”
Tess is about to open her mouth as a piercing scream comes from belowdecks. They all jump and look around. All but Ket run over to the nearest hatch and fight each other to be the first through the opening. Ares follows behind, fussing with her white robe.
The sudden disappearance of the water stream cooling his overworked brain shakes Ket from his calculations. He starts talking to himself again as he turns the steering wheel a bit. “The entire planet must be a thin shell over a molten core of rock and metal. That is so fucking cool. I need to weigh some rocks and set up some experiments to get the proper numbers.”
His head starts steaming again by the time the group reaches the source of the scream. Selis calls out to the shaky figure in the far doorway. “Angy, why did you scream?”
The furry woman is looking into the doorway at the front of the ship’s floor with bulging eyes. “What did Tea..” She falters as she spots a white-clad figure hurry down the steps. “...did he do here? There are a bunch of mana mutants here! We have enough of those when autumn comes, why is he making more?”
All the students and the single mage crowd into the room where they see rows of deep bowls placed on small tables. Inside the bowls are fish, or at least things that look like fish.
“Yeah, they look like mana monsters that come with the beast hordes.” Tess peers into one of the bowls. She shivers as she spots a teeth covered monstrosity flopping around in the water. Another fish has bones sticking out of its scales while another is on fire. It's on fire under water. She blinks her eyes a bit, but the flames are still gently licking around the smouldering fish when she looks again.
“There are lines on the outside!” The group discusses Selis’ discovery for a bit, but can’t come to a conclusion.
“MORE MAGES!” Everyone speeds back up to the deck again. “From starboard, four vessels.”
Six people keep staring at Ket. “To the right, that way?” Ket just sighs.
They look and see the tops of masts coming over the horizon. “Why are you sailing towards them?” Vox asks.
“Something is coming from that direction, I think it’s the metal triangle Te... he had been working on. I picked it up on my long range scans. There isn't a lot of flying metal in the sky, you know.” Ket points a bit to the left, in the direction the group of ships is going towards. “Also, Sel, can you erase the ship’s wake? I want to speed up a bit. The mana dungeon is still pretty far away.”
Selis rises her blue eyebrows while looking around. “Yeah, that’s actually a really good idea. Not for very long though, recharging our q... I mean power with mana is slow.”
The disciples throw quick glances at Ares. Ket coughs and speaks. “Yeah… Let’s not talk about that. I’m going to speed up now.”
Selis’ face flushes as she avoids Ket’s and Ares’ eye contact. “S-Sure, I’ll go sit on the back railing.”
“You think Teach is going to be pissed?” Tess softly converses with Ket as they stand behind the steering wheel. Stars and a moon illuminate the two figures as the girl operates the wheel while the boy navigates.
“He looked like he was about to make love to the thing when we were building this ship. Ah, it has a name, right? The Ascent.” Tess bites her lip nervously while turning the wheel a bit. She stamps the deck to illustrate her point.
“A bit more to starboard. And shit, he might be pissed.” Ket starts biting his nails as he looks over the deck. A jagged mass of splinters now occupies the place where a proud mast stood half a day earlier. Charred patches of wood make a stark contrast to the long splinters torn from the deck. Sunken footprints are visible here and there, big cracks circling them.
“If only Selis had told me she was out of qi earlier. Those mages would have never seen us if our wake didn’t suddenly become visible again.”
“If only you didn’t steer us right in front of those big mage boats.” Tess calms herself down as she continues whispering in a low volume. “And whose idea was it to turn on the stealth thing? The force field would have kept the ship safe.” She continues in her fake, mocking tone. “And whose idea was it to go towards the mana crystal dungeon in the first place?”
Now sporting a grin as Ket is at a loss of what to reply, she delivers the finishing blow. “I am going to tell Teach. He won’t give you food for a year.”
Panic flits across his face. “I got his flying metal triangle thing in my ring, that'll compensate, right? Also, I got a lot of money. I will bribe you. What do you want, please don’t tell Teach.”
“And who did you scam for that? I got a lot of gold from when we raided that first ship, no need.”
“Why can't Angeta fix the ship?” Depression once again is visible in the boy’s dark eyes. He is now standing slumped while rubbing his forehead. "And why didn't Lola wake up earlier?"
Tess punches him in the shoulder. "Hehe, what kind of man are you, hiding behind a rabbit?"
A spark of life returns to his eyes as he hopefully asks; “How about I make you a weapon?”
“Sshh, you’ll wake Ares and the rest.”
“Heehe, okay, okay… I don’t want a weapon though. I make my own.” Tess smiles with an evil grin as she spins a suddenly formed dagger through her fingers, the other hand casually patting a small rabbit sitting on the map table. She makes the knife disappear in a puff of black smoke and grabs the wheel again. “Tell you what, I think I can take someone with me in the shadows. I tried with Lola and she was fine after.
"We could check out the dungeon before storming the entrance like idiots. You come with me and scan with qi, or something. I get headaches from sensing lots of stuff at once.”
“What is the chance of something going wrong with taking another human along? Jumping through shadows without a shadow affinity sounds dangerous.” Ket splits his time between staring at Tess and the horizon.
“Who knows. Or I might just tell Teach whose idea got his ship ruined. We are lucky his experiments..." Tess shudders a bit as she continues talking. "...those fish mana freaks, didn’t get hit by one of those big mana cannons on the big mage boats.”
Ket obviously deflates as he capitulates. “Alright, we'll be there by next nightfall. Please don't accidentally kill me or leave me stuck in between shadows.” A pleading expression is visible on Ket’s face. Tess pushes his face away while trying to keep her laughter in check.
“I took an entire tree trunk along with me. Your scrawny frame will be fine.”
Ket continues mumbling softly, this time complaining about the unfairness of the world instead of performing calculations.
Valerius Arrhenius is bored as usual. All he ever wanted to be was a farmer. Then some stuck-up mage travelled through his small village out in the wilds. Living far away from any kingdom allowed his family the freedom to do as they please. That also meant that there was no government to supply the village with slaves. Nor where they supplied with dungeon-won food.
His parents lived with the shame of being a farmer every day, a profession so bad it’s even shameful for slaves to do. Valerius himself didn’t want to do anything else other than growing some crops on his own farm since he was young.
So when a mage travelled through the region and tested all the children for mana sensitivity, he didn’t want to go. His parents forced him to go, hopeful that their son might escape a life of rutting in the dirt. His tears when he left with the mage were not because he would miss his parents, it was because he saw his greatest desire become impossible.
He thanks the heavens every day for the fact that the earth seems to love him, that way he doesn’t have to care about stuff. Like the ground itself, his mana control works best when his mind is calm and without a single care. Furiously worrying about something the next moment like a sudden earthquake allows him to recharge his mind and mana. Trusting his own abilities while worrying is also helpful, but the mental strain is more than doubled. Valerius usually doesn't bother with that self-confidence crap.
He is in his late forties while still only a journey mage, so all he has to do nowadays is walk around a bit. ‘Patrol duty,’ his high and mighty superiors called it. No matter what label it has, a permanent station on the Mana Dungeon is a rather prominent sign his career is over. He has started to develop a habit of mumbling to himself lately, and the moment he stands huddled in a doorway, out of the wind, he begins again.
“I could be pulling out beets right now. The grain would be green carpets of waving majesty. Sit on my self-made porch and enjoy a home-brewed beer. Instead, I have to learn the mysteries of the world. I can't even have a small garden on this rocky island. Salt would kill it all anyway.”
More and more complaining spews forth from his mouth. He idly takes a clump of dirt from his pocket and rolls it through his hands. He walks out of the small doorway, onto the quay again. The massive round wall of black stone behind him is no help against the cold sea wind.
He frowns a couple of times, the clod of earth changing shape with each expression. Intricate figures swirl around as the lump gets formed into an intricate picture of an idyllic farm.
“If I had my farm, I wouldn’t have to worry about examinations anymore. Not enough power, fine control is useless, they say. I don't care though, at least not now.”
The piece of earth transforms into a mug as Valerius frowns deeply, his face suddenly an anxious mask.
“Oh boy, the next examination is in a week, oh boy. They will curse at me again.”
His face returns to an apathetic gaze as the earth stops moving. “Who cares though, no headaches, no master mage. Why would I even want to go through such pain if it doesn’t bring me closer to owning a farm.”
Laughter burst out from behind the robe-clad complainer. A boy and a girl pop from the shadows, arms hung over each other. The girl jumps away quickly and begins scolding with whispered shouts. “Stupid! Stop moving. I can’t take you with me when you move.”
“Hahaa, come on, this guy is too funny!”
The black haired girl throws and annoyed glance to the dumbstruck mage and then proceeds to ignore him. “We're scouting, you remember. You braincore guys have great control over your mind, right? Use it!”
“Heeheeee, this guy casually shows a skill level in controlling energy rivalling Teacher, and he just mopes around. It’s hilarious!” The boy looks rather green though, and the retching sound the lad makes in between gails of stifled giggles confirms Valerius's suspicion that not all is well with the boy.
Valerius should be getting angry or something. Instead, he secretly agrees with the boy. His situation is all kinds of absurd. They keep squabbling, but the mage decides to use this situation as training. He has found that earth magic works best if he switches from absolutely not giving a shit, to giving a whole lot of shit in short order.
He proceeds to not give a shit about the two interlopers with a fierce determination. His eyes just wander off, exploring the ocean in boredom. He begins to wander around again, walking across the stone protrusions attached to the massive hunk of stone behind him.
*Cough* “Excuse me!”
His sleeve is grabbed and his attention wanders over the girl. “Could you tell us where the entrance is?”
The smile she beams at him from under her black hair sends his mind spinning for a bit. If only he were twenty years younger… He spends a rather long time gathering his thoughts.
“He must be an earth mage; I don't think he-”
“I can see he is an earth mage, you idiot. He is wearing a brown robe.”
The two glare at each other, so Valerius decides to speak up for once.
“Dungeon entrance is that way, a quarter around. It’s well defended though...”
His traitorous advice brings him back into the spotlight. The girl sports a thankful smile. “Thanks, I hope you get the chance to be a farmer soon.”
She then drags the giggling boy behind her as she walks into the shadow of a rock pillar. Valerius stands there, watching the spot where they vanished for at least half an hour. He then shrugs and moves on with a dull expression on his face.
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