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18 June 2007 @ 10:59 pm
(15 pairings) out of the blue - chapter 3  
Disclaimer: No part of FFIV belongs to me. All hail Squaresoft.

* * *

Mat and Mishaila continued to exchange greetings with Alan morning and evening, but that was all. Secondary elementals turned out to be every bit as difficult as Mishaila had predicted, and they had no time to spare from school. The senior Black students spent five days studying the theory before they were allowed to try casting; the power flow at the higher level required specific techniques to control, and they learned what those were, as well as the theoretical foundation for actually generating enough power at once to support the working. They learned the warning signs of an elemental about to burst out of control, and some extended damage reduction for such cases (with Master Nob stressing the point that often there were no warning signs), but they would be practising one at a time, under the supervision of their instructor.

“Tomorrow,” announced Master Nob at the end of the fifth day, “we will begin to practise.” He raised his voice so that the entire class could hear him. “You will all observe. This will be a valuable opportunity for the less advanced students. Eventually all of you will reach this point in your studies, and the more you see it now, the better prepared you’ll be. We will be practising outdoors, but please gather here first.” He swept a glance around the classroom. “You are dismissed.”

“I can’t believe we have to try it for the first time in front of everybody,” lamented Mat on the way home.

“He could hardly just let us all try it on our own,” Mishaila pointed out. “This is serious power we’re dealing with.”

“I know, I know. But I’m not good with elementals,” he reminded her. “Remember when we learned first-levels and I set your mother’s tree on fire?”

“How could I forget? She blamed me,” she retorted with a mock glare. “That was her favourite pear tree. I couldn’t sit down for days.”

“Liar. You were fine at school.” She stuck her tongue out at him.

“Anyway, don’t worry about it. We’re all going to be awful at first, and Master Nob won’t let anything get out of hand,” she said reassuringly. Mat was still dubious.

“I guess we’ll see tomorrow,” was all he said.

The next morning, as Master Nob had requested, the Black magic class gathered inside as usual. When they were all assembled, he said,

“This is how today will proceed. We will be practising at the edge of town, clear of any property that could sustain damage, but not so far out that we will be encroaching on the territory claimed by our neighbouring beasts or sentient vegetation.” There was a tiny ripple of uneasy mirth. Master Nob’s sense of humour was eccentric at the best of times, and no one was quite sure whether that had been intended to be humourous. He continued, “We will go through the class alphabetically by surname. Not in reverse alphabetical, Mr. Aarons.” Everyone laughed comfortably at that. Cor Aarons had always been first on the list, and always would be, and everyone knew he was getting sick of it. “As it will only be the senior-level students participating, we should get through everyone today. Each person will perform the spell in which he – or she” – he nodded to Mishaila – “is most adept. I will provide advice or step in if anyone is having difficulties. Everyone else will take notes; bring your tablets with you. You younger ones, pay attention to why things happen or don’t happen. I’ll be explaining as we go. The rest of you, see if you can figure out why your classmate is having a problem. And believe me, you will all” – he glanced around at each of his senior students – “have problems. Statistically speaking, there should be four catastrophic explosions and at least one complete failure to produce the spell at all. This is very difficult magic. I expect only that all of you do your best, and that you understand the danger of carelessness.” He breathed deeply. “I believe that is all I need to tell you before we begin.” He began to walk toward the door. “Follow me.”

The practice area was a wide expanse of tough grass, bearing a few well-spaced trees and a shrub or two. When the Black class arrived, they discovered that it also contained the entirety of the White class.

A shocked murmur spread through the Black students.

“Oh, you’re joking,” Mishaila heard Mat say faintly. He looked as though he were considering the merits of being suddenly and violently ill. Mishaila felt more or less the same; she had just caught sight of Alan waving at her, and waved back stiffly, smiling only with extreme difficulty. She turned to Mat.

“What are they doing here? They don’t even do elementals!” A humiliating thought struck her. “You don’t suppose they’re here to practise their Cures and things on us when our attempts blow up in our faces…” Before Mat could respond, Master Nob spoke up.

“My apologies; it appears I forgot something after all. Mistress Palena suggested that it might be instructive for her students to observe as well. While not directly applicable to their studies, we agreed that since practitioners of White magic must deal with the – ahem – consequences of Black magic on a fairly regular basis, it would be fruitful for them to witness the – er – agencies involved.” It seemed as though Master Nob had taken some convincing to reach that agreement. He paused, then continued, “Also, should any of you, despite precautions, become injured, it will allow some of their more advanced students an opportunity to use their core skills in a practical situation.”

“See?” hissed Mishaila. “How humiliating is that? We blow ourselves up, and they put us back together. This day is going to be fantastic.” Mat poked her sharply and she subsided, looking over at Alan with a growing dread. He gave her an encouraging smile, but she looked away. She was going to embarrass herself, and he was going to be watching. Will this doom never be lifted? she thought despairingly.

Mistress Palena had a few words to say. “I don’t want to waste your practice time, but I just want to say that my students are very excited to watch you today, and I hope that we won’t be a distraction to you. Pretend we’re not here. If you can’t ignore us, try to remember that we’re cheering you on.” She beamed at them, and there was a burst of applause from the White class. Someone whistled loudly. The Black students, surprised and encouraged, began to look a little less reluctant.

“All right, everyone over there, beyond that bush,” commanded Master Nob. “It’s your marker. Don’t come closer.” Everyone complied. “Except you, Cor. You know you’re up first.” The old mage’s tone was brusque as ever, but it was a familiar voice – Cor had studied under the man for eight years, and was the oldest in the class, as well as the foremost alphabetically – and Mishaila thought she saw the boy take courage from it. Master Nob kept his voice raised so those observing could still hear.

“Now, Cor, I know this isn’t precisely fair, being that it’s summer right now, but you’ve always had a feel for Ice, so we’ll have you try another level of the same, if you please.” He stepped back to give his student space to focus. “See what you can do with that tree, there,” he instructed. Cor closed his eyes.

Elemental spells, so the theory ran, ascended in potency in the manner of exponential quanta. The amount of power required to produce a second-order elemental working was more than double the amount required for a first-order. If correctly invoked and efficiently focused, the relative yield was far greater. If too little power was summoned, however, the mage would be lucky to produce even a first-order spell; when the magic fell short of the critical level, it simply dissipated, and anything produced was very likely to be weak and lacking in control. The risks of over-powering were obvious: lack of control, again, but at a higher order of magnitude, causing a corresponding level of danger.

Aside from the basic concern of powering the spell, there was of course the difficulty of controlling the element invoked. Ice tended to cause crystal spread or sheeting, depending on the surroundings and the specifics of the casting. Fire, naturally, would try and spread through anything it could consume, and at the highest level one could run into nasty trouble with plasma. With Lightning, one had to be extremely aware of contacts and grounding, and it could sometimes jump quite a bit further than flame. It was also much faster, so there was less time to react if a Bolt were to go awry. Those were only the essential cautions they had learned with their primary spells. They were foremost in everyone’s minds, however, since today’s efforts would be the riskiest magic any of them had ever done, and most mishaps varied only in degree. By the second level, losing control often resulted in a substantial explosion of one type or another, but there were a hundred permutations of the basic theme: elemental magic running wild.

Cor’s preparations took nearly five minutes. His classmates knew that meant he was still agitated, since usually he needed very little time to prepare a working. Finally he opened his eyes, raised his arms, and cast.

It was immediately apparent that Cor’s nerves had got the better of him and he had under-produced. What had hit the tree was very messy, but clearly a first-level Ice. It began to leak immediately, spreading out from the tree into the grass and even into the air. Branching fractal trails laced through the water in the nearby atmosphere and caused a minor snowfall, which, while very pretty, was not supposed to happen.

Master Nob stopped the ice spread with a gesture and regarded the tree. The smaller outer branches were properly frozen, and the whole thing was sheathed in a thin casing of ice. He turned to Cor, who was grimacing over his failure with a hand over his face, and clapped him on the shoulder.

“Not terrible. Not at all. Do you know what you did wrong?” Cor, removing his hand from his face, nodded. The instructor addressed the rest of the students.

“Who knows what just happened?” Several hands went up. “Balor. Enlighten us.” Balor was a tall, stocky boy, two years younger than Cor. His family ran the apothecary.

“It looked like there wasn’t quite enough power in it, so it kicked back to first level and went a little out of control.” Master Nob nodded, pleased.

“Exactly.” He gave the less advanced of his students a brief but clear explanation of the quantum nature of elemental spells, comparing them to the harmonics of a flute.

“Unless there is enough air speed, the secondary harmonic will never appear. Similarly, unless you put enough power into the spell, you will remain at the first level and the excess will cause problems. Ideally, only the tree itself should have been affected, and the whole thing should have flash-frozen solid to the roots, whereas the sap still flows in this one. Also, we like the ice around it to be a good deal thicker, but that is a relatively minor point.” He turned back to Cor. “I don’t think you were very far short. Your control in general tends to be excellent, so I think your main problem is confidence. Good first attempt. You’re finished for today.” As Cor ambled back to the rest of the students with a small, sheepish grin on his face, Master Nob bellowed, “Next! Shenron Ducal.”

Shenron was a short, redheaded boy, a month or so older than Balor, with a short temper that had grown even shorter since his mother had been killed; she had been a Crystal Guardian on duty the day the airships had come. He slouched forward, his hat tilted and obscuring most of his face.

“Fire, please, Shenron. See what you can do to that ice.”

Shenron cast quickly, more quickly than usual; he was too hasty, Mishaila thought. As soon as the magic was released, it was obvious that too much power had gone into it. There was a spectacular explosion, partly caused by the ice vapourising instantly and the sap in the tree superheating, but also because the Fire itself was unfocused. The grass around the tree, just recently frozen, was devoured by flames, which spread to a nearby bush. As if to prove that that wasn’t all, a gout of flame swirled upward from the crown of the destroyed tree, practically taking on a life of its own, and descended in an astonishing arc upon another tree some twenty yards away, beginning to consume it.

The force of the explosion knocked Shenron off his feet, and his hat went flying. Master Nob, standing further back, had prudently braced himself, and had kept his feet and his headgear. He took a moment to still the flames – they were stubborn, and resisted him, but eventually allowed themselves to be quelled – before approaching his student to offer a hand up. The boy was already getting to his feet, however, so instead he retrieved the hat and returned it to its owner, who took it without thanks.

“Impressive power,” commented Master Nob, “but who can tell me what went wrong?” Again, several hands appeared. “Mat.”

“Too much power, so the spell hit second level but broke loose. Ifrit, Shen, I think I’m even more afraid of you now.” There was general agreement and a spate of impressed commentary.

“That was the biggest explosion I’ve ever seen!”

“…like to see anything stand against that…”

“I’m not making him angry ever again!” Shenron looked somewhat gratified by his classmates’ reaction; then he put his hat back on and his face became unreadable.

“Mat is correct, and should mind the gods he invokes, lest they come at his word,” said Master Nob reprovingly; Mat grinned, irrepressibly, and shrugged. “A little restraint, Shenron, and your focus should improve dramatically. Good work.” The mostly-female White class seemed unable to decide whether to be horrified or admiring. Eventually, they seemed to settle on admiringly horrified, judging by their expressions and the half-whispers Mishaila overheard. This also seemed to please Shenron; as he rejoined his classmates he seemed to walk a little taller, shoulders a bit more square.

Mishaila raised her hand and was acknowledged. “Master Nob, was that leap of flame a normal manifestation of the spell, or was it an effect of the instability?” she asked. He beamed at her.

“Excellent question. It can appear normally, but if correctly focused it should affect only the direct object of the spell. Any other questions?” There were none.

Then it was Balor’s turn, and he overpowered his Ice spell so badly that a giant, irregularly crystalline ovoid formed solidly around the burned-out tree, and shattered violently – because of instability along one or more fracture planes, as Master Nob afterward explained. Shards of ice, sharp as glass, flew in all directions. Instinctively, everybody dropped flat. Only Balor, who was closest to his spell and had less time to react, was injured. A chunk of ice, large enough to impale someone, had grazed his head hard enough to inflict a concussion, destroying his hat and slicing his scalp open above the left temple. His hands, for he had flung them up to protect his face, were cut and bleeding, and one smaller shard was still embedded in the muscle at the base of his right thumb. His robe also bore a few neat tears where bits of ice had sliced through cleanly, but those could be easily mended.

He lay where he had fallen, knocked over by the blow to the head and the backlash. His head wound was bleeding copiously. Mistress Palena, among the first to begin to rise, gestured, and a tall girl with curly golden hair jumped up and hurried over to the fallen boy. Her instructor followed at a less frantic pace, clearly trusting her student.

Mishaila watched with eager interest as the girl examined Balor, then closed her eyes and muttered for a moment. Placing a hand on the wounded head, she raised the other in a gesture of supplication, and a cool greenish light shimmered and grew around them. It swirled slightly around the wounded areas, then faded.

Immediately, Balor sat up. The girl clapped her hands, obviously delighted at the success of her spell. Mistress Palena bent to examine him, and, apparently satisfied, straightened and said something to the girl that made her glow with pleasure. Balor said something that was evidently thanks, and both girl and boy got up and returned to their classes.

That was the only major mishap of the morning. After several more students had had their turns, and two more trees had been sacrificed for the sake of student progress, they broke for lunch, returning to the school to eat. Mishaila found it difficult to take any interest in her food; she was to be first in the afternoon.

“What do you figure he’ll ask for?” asked Mat as they all made their way back to the practice field.

“Probably Lightning,” Mishaila replied. “I think it’s my best. No one’s done it yet, though,” she recollected suddenly. “They were all Ice and Fire this morning.”

“You get to set the bar, then,” said Mat. “Aren’t you excited?”

“If you’re trying to help my nerves, you’re doing a lousy job,” she remarked dryly.

When they had all reassembled on the field, Master Nob announced the next name.

“Mishaila Rivenstone.” She took a deep breath; avoided looking at any white mages who might be wearing encouraging expressions, because she was already quite nervous enough, thank you; and walked forward. She was aware that the girls were watching with intense interest, and tried to ignore everything except Master Nob and her magic.

He regarded her with subdued anticipation. “I would like you to try Lightning, please, Mishaila.” An excited buzz sprang up behind her. She pulled her attention away from it with an effort. “Your target will be that boulder,” he continued, gesturing. The rock he indicated was some distance away, but well within range. It looked as though it would be about waist-high to her if she stood next to it. Small enough and distant enough that a mishap would not turn it into a dangerous weapon, but large enough to be easily targeted. She nodded acknowledgement, and he stepped back.

Despite her efforts, the presence of spectators kept intruding on her concentration. Worse, though she faced away from them, her mind kept visualizing the crowd, with Alan’s face especially prominent. She blinked a few times, hard, trying to clear her mind.

No wonder everyone’s had such trouble so far, she thought. Resolutely she began the preparation. Through her distraction, she reached out for the essence of Lightning that she knew was always present, waiting to be called into active substance. She suspected that her affinity for this particular element had something to do with her volatile temper: quick to erupt, but gone just as quickly.

Suddenly, as she gathered power and focused on strengthening her tenuous contact with the element, the edge of her mind dealing with the distractions made a link between her awareness of Alan in the audience and her own temper, brought up a recollection of their first confrontation, and then slid back to the cause of that outburst. The rapid succession of emotionally-laden memories caused an overload, surging up through the careful magical preparations occupying most of her mind. All her old anger at the murderous thieves from Baron, never banished, but sublimated to the background of the last weeks, rushed up and flowed through the spell structure she was building.

Everything accelerated then, as her emotions hijacked the working, drawing in the Lightning with what she knew was too much power, far too much, but she couldn’t stop it; it was beyond her control now. She could do nothing but channel it as accurately as possible, and hope. With a desperate wrench of will, she slammed it into as tight a focus as she could, raised her arms, and set it loose.

She felt like a human lightning rod. Called by such an excess of power, the Bolt came, blinding and deafening. It was as though the air itself blistered. Instantly, instinctively, she shut her eyes again. In the split second before the aftershock, she saw clearly, burned into her retinas, a forked bolt of lightning, branching and massive as an inverted tree. Then the shock wave, caused by the compressed air the massive Bolt had displaced, struck her like a wall, knocking her out cold.

She did not know how much time passed until she began, with a choking gasp, to breathe again. She wrenched her eyes open. It took a moment for the black mist to clear. When it did, she recognised Master Nob bending over her on one side, and on the other…

“Alan?” Her voice came out sounding disused, and she coughed and tried to sit up. “Alan. What…” He moved as if to stop her, but Master Nob gestured for him to let her alone.

“She can sit up herself. You’ve done well, boy, have confidence in your work.”

“What work?” demanded Mishaila, feeling rather as though her mind had been wrung out like a cloth and then left crumpled. “What happened?” Master Nob’s face took on an expression she had never seen him wear before, and couldn’t identify.

“What happened, my dear and reckless student, is that you somehow managed to overload a second-order spell so high that what you actually produced” – he paused for effect – “was a third-order elemental working.”

Her mind went blank with shock. Was that even possible? Carefully, she peered over to where her target rock had been. In its place was a sizable crater. She looked away quickly. She wouldn’t have thought that the sum total of her capacity would power a tertiary spell, even if she used it all up at once. Actually, judging by how she was feeling, that was probably exactly what had happened.

“Can you account for such a thing?” Master Nob didn’t sound upset, but rather grave. Of course he would have to be taking this very seriously, she thought; what she had just done had been incredibly dangerous, inadvertent or no. She looked up at him somewhat sheepishly.

“I… got mad,” she explained, not certain he would quite understand. “I was distracted, and while I was trying to manage the distraction I ended up thinking of… other things. And I got mad.” Her instructor nodded; to her relief, he seemed to understand perfectly.

“We’ll have to work on your focus,” was all he said, evidently deep in thought.

“But what are you doing here?” Mishaila asked abruptly, turning to Alan.

“I was next in line to help if someone got hurt.” She noticed that his face looked pale and strained. He had not looked so that morning. “No one was expecting what you produced. Mistress Palena was knocked down by the shock wave, but I’d been standing right behind her, and she told me to just go, so I ran over here, and…” He seemed to choke on his words, paused, and swallowed. “Mishaila, your heart stopped. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know if a cure spell would be enough, so I… I cast Life on you.” He couldn’t look at her; he was staring at his hands. “I’m sorry. I’ve never actually tried it before, we only studied the theory, but I guess… I panicked. I shouldn’t have taken the risk.” He raised his eyes, finally, to meet hers. Her breath caught in her throat.

“Don’t apologise, you idiot,” she finally managed. “You just saved my life.” Master Nob interjected.

“You weren’t actually dead, of course, but your physical status was similar enough that the Life spell produced the necessary effect. There are alternative techniques to restart the heart” – this was addressed to Alan – “but you could not have been expected to know them. They are extremely advanced. Under the circumstances, you did excellently. Ah, Mistress Palena.” The two students looked around; the White magic instructor was approaching. Arriving where they still sat, she knelt down between Alan and Mishaila and peered closely at the latter.

“You’re completely depleted, my dear. You’ll have a headache before long, most likely.”

“I have already,” she grimaced. Mistress Palena gave her a sympathetic smile.

“I can’t help you with that, but – here,” she placed a gentle hand on Mishaila’s forehead and sketched a gesture similar to the one made earlier by the curly-haired girl. The same cool green light swirled and sparkled around her. It seemed brighter; perhaps it was just that she was seeing it from the inside, this time. More likely, she thought, the spell was simply stronger – which, considering its source, only made sense.

“Feel better?”

“Yes, thank you, much better,” she replied gratefully. Her head still ached, and her mind still felt raw and rumpled, but at least her body no longer felt as though she had been trampled by energetic boulders and then stretched.

“Good.” Mistress Palena gave a pleased nod. “Now then, what of you, Alan? Whatever am I going to do with you?” There was a touch of teasing reproach in her voice, but mostly affection and pride. He ducked his head in embarrassment.

“I’m sorry, Mistress Palena, I didn’t know what else to do…” She cut him off.

“I would have stopped you if you had been wrong.” Alan stared; her eyes twinkled. “One thing that grows with experience is range, of both perception and effect. I had the wind knocked out of me, but I’m still your teacher, boy.” She smiled again, and, putting a hand on one shoulder of each, said, “I am very impressed with both of you. Judgment and control take time to develop, and with your capacities I think it’s best we start to work on them now so you know what to do with all that power. I’m sure Master Nob agrees with me.”

“Entirely,” said that Master. “Mishaila, can you stay after school for perhaps a quarter of an hour? There are a few things we should discuss, and I would rather we didn’t take any more time here.” She nodded mutely. “Thank you. You may rejoin the class. Sit down if your head bothers you.” She thanked him, and all four stood up. Mishaila, Alan and Mistress Palena made their way back to the other students, who had been standing or sitting in little knots, occasionally whispering, but mostly straining to hear what was being said across the field, with little success. As the three drew near, Mistress Palena addressed the waiting students.

“These two are quite exhausted, so please don’t bother them with questions just now.” She lowered her voice a bit, addressing Mishaila and Alan.

“Neither of you should be in the sun right now. Go sit under that tree,” she directed, pointing to one that stood behind the throng, “and don’t strain yourselves at all. Alan, you wasted a lot of power; we’ve got to work on your efficiency. Mishaila, I’m afraid you’ll be uncomfortable until tomorrow at least. It’s never pleasant to completely use up your power. Now, off you go!” She shooed them toward the tree.

Mat stepped forward as they approached. “Are you all right? What happened?” A few students from Alan’s class had similar questions. He answered them quietly, while Mishaila answered Mat.

“I think Master Nob is going to explain. I really need to sit down. I’ll talk to you later, okay?”

Mat still looked concerned, but nodded. “You look it. Go, sit. We’ll talk later.” She smiled up at him and then made her way through the rest of the little crowd. Upon reaching the other side, she realised that Alan had been right behind her. Apparently his responses to his classmates had been similar to hers in brevity. They sat down in silence together at the foot of the tree, as Master Nob began to explain what had just taken place.

“…unexpected… overpowered second-order… successfully cast Life…” She caught snippets, and the crowd of students all turned to stare at her and Alan, mightily impressed. But she wasn’t really listening, as she already knew what had happened, and she couldn’t quite care about the reactions of the other students. She might be physically recovered, but she was still psychologically shaken up, as well as magically drained and mentally exhausted. She just wanted to sit and exist for a bit. Meanwhile, Master Nob continued to supervise his students’ attempts. No one else was encouraged to try Lightning.

She felt strangely content, sitting next to Alan. She supposed, in a languorous train of thought that seemed to take somewhat longer than it should, that she ought to be feeling uncomfortable or awkward around him, as their acquaintance had begun with a fight and continued with her making a fool of herself nearly every time they saw one another, not to mention the odd undercurrents that neither of them was acknowledging yet. Also, he had just saved her life. But she saw no need, at present, to distress herself, and Alan seemed content to bypass awkwardness. So they sat companionably in the shade of the tree, leaning against its broad trunk, only half-listening to the rest of the day’s practice spells and lecture-explanations.

At one point, Mishaila announced, abruptly and somewhat dreamily, “I think I might be in shock.” Alan laughed softly, and said,

“I wouldn’t doubt it.” Then they relapsed into silence.

Mishaila did manage to pay attention when Mat went up, and listen to the dissection of the catastrophe that was his attempt at a Fire spell (he was too cautious, made timid by his best friend’s display, so that he produced a very diffuse first-order spell; since his range was exceptional, however, that meant that Master Nob had to contain a grass fire nearly half a kilometer across). She grinned when he rejoined the class, and he grinned back, with a shrug, before turning to some of the other boys to exchange condolences.

She fell asleep once, briefly, and was somewhat chagrined upon awakening to find that her head had come to rest on Alan’s shoulder. As soon as she realised, she sat up instantly, muttered an apology, and laid her head deliberately against the tree trunk again. Alan made amused and reassuring noises; it seemed that he had been nearly asleep himself.

That few minutes’ sleep seemed to make a difference in repairing her bruised psyche, even if only a small one. She found herself able to pay a little more attention to the last couple of students. Then, finally, it was time to return. School was over. All the students returned to their classroom to collect their things; there, Master Nob pronounced himself satisfied with the day’s work.

“You all know what you need to work on,” he said. “Keep it in mind, think about what you need to do differently next time, and get a good sleep tonight, all of you. We will try again after the Festival. Class is dismissed.”

Mishaila, as she had promised, remained behind when the class dispersed. Mat stopped next to her, but she shook her head.

“Master Nob needs to speak with me,” she explained. “You don’t have to wait.”

“Will you be all right walking home by yourself?” She could see that he was not convinced that she wasn’t about to keel over again any minute. She smiled; it was really very sweet of him to be so concerned.

“I caught a bit of a nap under the tree, so I should be able to make it home before I fall over,” she teased him.

“Okay, okay, I’m going,” he responded, moving towards the door. “See you tomorrow.” Mishaila waved, and then she and Master Nob were alone in the room. He approached her desk.

“Sit,” he commanded, doing so himself. She obeyed. “So, Mishaila Rivenstone, you have the capacity to call out a third-level Lightning elemental.” He gazed at her piercingly, his blue eyes meeting her grey ones, holding them. “At your age, that is definitely unusual. It would seem to indicate that your eventual mature capacity will also be unusually great. The question is what we are going to do about it.” He released her gaze, and she dropped her eyes to the floor. “I am sure you’ve heard me say a number of times that with great power…”

“…comes great responsibility,” she finished with a grin. “Yes, sir, I believe you’ve mentioned it once or twice in the last seven years.” Then her grin faded as she took in the implications the old adage held for her. “Wait, you mean… I will have great responsibilities? What kind? What do you…” He held up one hand, and began to explain.

“I cannot read your fate, and it is likely that you will largely have control over what you become. However, I can say that this city may face greater threats in the coming years than it has for centuries…” She interrupted.

“But the Elder said we shouldn’t try to… what about the heroes? Didn’t he say that the fate of the world will be in the hands of a few?”

“Yes,” he said patiently, “and what I am trying to say is that there is a small chance that you may turn out to be one of those few.” She opened her mouth, but he quelled her with a glance. “On the other hand, you may remain happily in Mysidia your entire life. But we need to consider the defense of our town if the heroes should fail,” he continued bluntly. “Don’t look so stricken, girl. For the present, we will simply continue your education, and I shall be sure you are as fully schooled in discipline as the magnitude of your gift requires. I should make you aware, though, that some of the monsters are straying closer to town, and if things continue as they are for much longer, it will be necessary for us to send out attack details to drive them off. Once your consistency improves, you may be asked to join such a group. Don’t worry about any of this too much, but I tell you now because you should be prepared for what may come.” He paused. “Do you have any questions about anything I’ve said, or anything that happened today?” Mishaila shook her head slowly, still absorbing what she had just been told.

“No, sir.” Master Nob stood up.

“Then you may go. If you ever find that you do have questions, or wish to speak with me about anything, you know you may approach me.” She nodded. “Good. Off you go, then; straight home, mind you, and straight to bed.” His voice was kind, his face full of solicitude. As Mishaila stood to go, she felt a swell of gratitude. When he had first told her what had happened out on the field, she had been apprehensive, expecting to be disciplined for carelessness. But he did not appear to hold her at fault, and had taken the trouble to give her advance notice of what might now lie ahead for her. And no one cared more for his students’ wellbeing than gruff Master Nob.

“Straight to bed, sir, I promise,” she agreed. She made for the door, but stopped on the threshold and turned back. “Master Nob – thank you very much,” she said. He smiled broadly but briefly and nodded, and she turned and left the classroom.

To her surprise, Alan was waiting for her just outside the school.

“What are you still doing here?” she asked. In reply, he held out something large and soft. “My hat!” She took it and stared at it; she had completely forgotten about it since it had been knocked from her head just after lunch, but she was inordinately happy to see it. “Thank you! How did you get it?” It was actually undamaged, since it had not been subjected to anything sharp or scorching. She put it on as she spoke.

“I went back for it,” said Alan. “I thought you might want it, and I knew you were staying after. Also,” and he gave her an appraising look, “I wanted to make sure you made it home all right. You were pretty out of it this afternoon.”

“I’m okay, I had a nap,” she began dismissively, then realised first of all that he knew all about her nap, and second, that she really did feel as though it would be a good idea to have someone available to catch her in case she actually collapsed on the way home. “On second thought, that’s probably a good idea,” she finished, hoping that her hat hid her blush from him. “Thanks.” They started walking.

Though Mishaila tried her best to remain steady on the walk home, she was weaving so much that she bumped into him twice in as many minutes, apologising each time with chagrin.

“Look, it’s okay,” he said after the third collision. “Do you want to – would it be easier if you had something to hang onto?” He offered his arm, hesitantly. At this point, she felt that losing her balance entirely was a real possibility, so she took the proffered arm gladly.

Neither had the energy for unnecessary conversation, so it was a very quiet walk. When they reached Mishaila’s house, and stopped in front of it, there was another moment of silence. Mishaila had let go of Alan’s arm and they now stood facing one another, somehow reluctant to separate. His eyes were a brilliant jade in the slanting sunlight. She took off her hat again so that she could look at him without craning her neck oddly.

“Thank you, again. For – well – everything.” She gestured with her hat. “And especially for saving my life. And walking me home. You were right, I might not have made it without you,” she said, smiling, her tone deliberately light. Alan, though, gazing down at her, did not return her smile. He said, thoughtfully,

“You’re welcome.” There was a pause, during which his cheeks slowly turned red; then, as though he had come to a decision, he took a deep breath, and said, “I’m glad it was my turn when you got hurt.” Swiftly, leaving her no chance to react, he bent and kissed her cheek. She stood and stared as he straightened without meeting her eyes, said,

“Go get some sleep, okay?” turned, and began to head home. She stood until he rounded a corner out of sight. Her hand came up, brushed the cheek he had kissed; then she shook herself a little, went inside, and made straight for her bed. She would tell her family about the day tomorrow, when she could think straight. She was asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow.

* * *

Chapter 4