We travelled back to the pond we had stopped at to regroup and assess the situation.
“How are you going to get good enough to beat him?” asked Maurice, a little concerned that his girlfriend was about to get married off to someone with a much better resume than him.
“He didn’t give us a time limit, did he?” I said. “You never know, I might be a quick study. Depends how good a teacher the old geezer is.”
“You want them to wait in there while you spend the next three weeks cultivating your skills in a cave somewhere?” He was starting to get a bit shirty, which was more to do with his concerns for Claire than any genuine animosity towards me. We were in the same boat and we both knew there was no option other than to learn how to sail it.
Three weeks, though, was somewhat optimistic.
“I don’t know how long it’ll take. Or even if it’s possible. But it’s bought us some time.”
Dudley started twitching, which was an indication that he was gearing up to say something he had no confidence in. “I’m not really comfortable with the idea of Flossie being all by herself.”
“She isn’t, she’s got the other two with her. They’ll be fine for a bit.” Neither of them seemed to be comforted by my words. “This was their idea, you know?”
“They didn’t ask you to challenge a god to a wizard’s duel,” said Maurice. There was a definite hint of blame in his voice. And it wasn’t aimed at the girls (where it belonged).
“They didn’t ask at all.” Two could play the blame game. “If they come up with a plan that only involved them, then you’d have a point. But they dragged us into it. You can’t just point the way and expect others to take care of the rest. We don’t work that way. If I have to do this, then I’ll do it my way.”
“Aren’t you just pissed off with them giving the orders?” said Maurice. He had to be really upset to say something that dumb.
“No. I don’t even know what their orders are. If I did, I could decide to follow them on merit. Or not. But throwing us in like this was not their finest moment. So we’ll be going with my version. Yolo 2.0.”
“And what if you can’t upgrade your magic?” asked Maurice.
“We’ll deal with that when it’s an issue.” I turned to the Elder. “How long do you think it would take to get me to a decent level?”
The Elder stared at me with a blank face, which actually said a lot. None of it good.
“Three lifetimes would not be long enough.”
“I picked up what he taught me.” I pointed at Nabbo who was watching with a sloppy grin on his face. He, at least, wasn’t upset. I was tempted to cadge an eighth off him and take an early lunch break. “Only took me a few days.” I was rounding down.
“Yes, I’m sure it was a sterling education,” said the Elder witheringly. Nabbo didn’t seem to mind, the grin remained just as sloppy. A teenth would do, just to take the edge off.
“Can we just try? It’s as much for your people as mine. He isn’t the deity you think he is.”
The Elder closed his large, bulbous eyes and nodded. “I will do as much as I can, but there is no shortcut to mastering the magic only few have access to, and they are trained from a young age.”
“I’m not as old as I look,” I said. “My healing magic tends to dry my skin.”
“You can heal as well as create fire?” He sounded surprised. Maybe this was the sign he’d been looking for, the prodigy who could dual wield.
“Then there’s even less chance. The more disciplines you invest your energy in, the weaker your source.”
“That’s for your people,” I said, sounding quite convincing, I thought. “I’m a Visitor. Normal rules don’t apply.”
“You don’t have a strong enough base. You need to have something you care about. You don’t have that, do you? Something you feel belongs to you and only you? That’s yours and that you’d never give up?”
“So I have to be an egomaniac? Make everything about me and don’t give a shit about anyone else?”
“Yes. All powerful men, magicians or otherwise, are that way. It is how great accomplishments are achieved.”
He wasn’t wrong. Leaders, businessmen, stars of entertainment, they were all fucking awful people. It only helped them reach the top quicker.
“Alright, alright, I get it. But I’m just not the possessive type.”
The Elder shook his head. “No, you are not.” He said it like that was a bad thing.
“I dislike quite a lot of things, though. Doesn’t it work in reverse?”
“Hate is a poor substitute.”
“Hate leads to the dark side of the force,” said Maurice, unable to help himself. Even under the threat of imperilled girlfriends, nerd gotta nerd.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” said the Elder. “What force? This is no time to be spouting gibberish.”
I could see Maurice tensing, ready to abandon Claire for far more important matters.
I stepped in before things got really tense. “But you said you have to create a gap between the way you feel about what you care about and the lack of feeling for everything else. Can’t you just create that gap by having a lack of feeling about your own shit, and even less interest in everyone else’s?”
If it was a matter of differentials, I could just as easily make up the difference in the opposite direction.
“You would have to create a great deal of rage and sustain it. That is no easy thing. Wanting and desiring is effortless. Anger weakens after a good night’s sleep.”
He did have a point, but did it have to be hate?
“I’d still like to try. I’ve found a non-traditional approach sometimes produces unexpected results. We can at least see if there’s any hope.”
“There is no hope,” said the Elder.
“Okay, first that’s very negative. But now you know what he’s like and what he has in store for you, don’t you think it would be best to explore alternatives to dying?”
“We will leave,” said the Elder. “This was our home, but there are other forests, other swamps.”
The frogmen around us murmured and muttered in agreement.
“You think he’ll let you? So you can tell everyone what he’s up to?”
That gave the Elder pause for thought. “We will attempt the impossible,” he finally said. “Perhaps you can surprise us all. But I doubt it.” Wouldn’t have killed him to give it a bit of a more positive spin.
So my training to become a level two mage began. Slowly. The Elder used the shame-based technique of training, where you constantly act horrified at how useless your student was.
“What are those finger movements? Did he teach you that? He has arthritis, that isn’t even close to the correct configuration.”
There were a lot of finger exercises and breathing from the diaphragm. My magic didn’t seem to get any stronger, but my next opera recital was looking promising.
After two days of focusing everything I had on getting some indication of improvement, some sign, I was still only able to produce weak flames, although I did sense a little more heat in them. Admittedly, I was the only one.
The fireballs I had been hoping to create were a long way off at this rate.
Maurice and Dudley paced around, hanging out with the frogmen and generally letting their concerns overwhelm them. I was spending every waking moment trying my hardest, but no one had the slightest faith in me. Which was perfectly understandable. Some traditions are there for a reason.
“Open your palm,” said the Elder. “Now, produce a flame without any finger movements.”
“Imagine the movements, but don’t make them.”
I did as he asked and three hours later, sweat covering my face, a tiny flame appeared at the tip of one finger.
“No,” said the Elder. He slapped my fingers and the flame I had so painstakingly produced, went out.
“Make it appear in the palm of your hand.”
It was getting dark on the fifth day when a light blue wisp appeared in my palm. I pushed down my excitement in case it broke my concentration and watched the flame dance. It was very faint and probably only visible because of the gloom of dusk.
I still didn’t have a strong base, as the Elder called it, but I had used every other technique he had showed me, fighting through the frustration and desire to give up. The flame lasted a few seconds and then faded away, but I could still feel it. Its warmth was more than the soft glow I was used to. I couldn’t help but get my hopes up. Dudley was sitting with his back to a nearby tree, watching me with his sharp eyes.
“Did you see it?” I asked without looking up.
I turned my hand from palm up to palm out, facing him. I pushed the warmth towards him.
His face tilted back a bit. “Oh, that’s quite pleasant.”
His response was irritating. I was going for something more than ‘pleasant’. Not that I wanted to hurt him, and I could have healed him if I had.
“Ow,” said Dudley, flinching to get his head out of the line of fire. “That hurt.”
My hand had suddenly tingled when I got annoyed. It wasn’t anger, nothing that intense, but it had come from deep within me. Perhaps my source of power was something I could produce in large, sustained amounts after all.
I plucked a stalk of grass out of the ground. It was green and moist, the kind of healthy young shoot my flames couldn’t ignite. I placed it on my palm and worked up a flame. The grass didn’t seem to mind the flame flickering around it. The flame went out.
My hand felt warmer, but not by much. I focused my mind on how Jenny and the others had forced me into this position when everything had been going so well. The stalk glowed, turned orange and then dissolved. It didn’t catch fire, there was no burning smell. A line of ash was all that remained.
How useful would that be? Not exactly a fireball. Still, it showed I was capable of growth, even if it was very little, very slowly.
The One True God wouldn’t be too concerned. But then, he wasn’t the one I was planning on challenging. Not yet, anyway.
I practised some more, getting better at killing innocent young grasses. The fresher and juicier, the better. It was strange how the heat disintegrated them so completely.
Once I felt I had it down so I could reproduce it easily, I got up and went over to a small group of trees. I had been at it all night and it would soon be dawn. Everyone else had gone to sleep.
I kicked one of the trees. “Hey. Wake up.” There was no response. “Do I need to get an axe?”
A pair of eyes opened. “Do not threaten us. We are one under the soil. You can always join us.”
“Big talk from the One True God’s pet guardian. You’ve been here the longest, haven’t you? You’ve seen it all before. Knew what he was planning.”
The eyes blinked slowly.
“So, it’s time for you to change sides.”
“Why would we do that?”
The sky was getting lighter and the sun’s first rays would soon be here. I lifted my hand and pointed at a branch. “See that leaf?” I held up my palm and the leaf glowed orange and vanished. The twig attached to it did the same. I could run the heat from one link to the next. It was so pleasing to do, even though I was holding a litany of irritations in my mind as I did it, I almost forgot the reason for the display.
I closed my palm and burnt my fingertips. I swallowed the yell in my throat.
“If you burn me down, you will only burn yourself.”
“I can heal.” I showed the tree my red palm and soothed it away with my other hand.
The tree’s branches swayed and vines shifted around as it prepared to attack me.
“You’ll just be sending more fuel towards me.”
The vine settled down. “What do you want?”
My irritation with myself and Jenny and the whole world faded away. “I want you to help me kill a god.”