Bitter 583

It was harder to read from the last word backwards than Britta had expected. She could read each word one after the other, of course, but her brain kept wanting to make sense of what she was reading, which it refused to do in either direction.

The dean was helpfully providing some light for Britta to read by. She had a ring on her right hand that glowed, just enough to illuminate the page. As Britta struggled, the dean pushed her ring-hand closer, as though not being able to see might be the issue. It didn’t help.

Even if she read it out aloud, after a sentence or two her brain would go blank and she would realise she couldn’t recall anything she had just read. If she stopped and went back, it was like she was reading the page for the first time.

Were the words changing each time? It was certainly a possibility. The books were just digital creations that could be altered at will by the devs, or the AI, and a magical tome that refused to be read was the kind of thing someone might consider to be cute. But when she really concentrated and committed each word to memory, she was at least able to confirm she was re-reading the same words each time, immediately after which she would forget what she had just read. It was a very unnerving experience.

“You’ll have to read quicker than that,” said the dean, shaking her hand a little like it was getting tired being held up for so long. Britta was still on the first page, or the last, technically speaking.

“I’m not sure I can. The words don’t seem to be going into my head for some reason.” She smiled apologetically and felt stupid. Was she tired? She felt fine, apart from the weird blanking sensation. “Do I have to understand it, or is reading it enough?”

She was hoping it was a code that would unlock the skill points just by entering her head, but judging by the saddened look of disappointment on the dean’s face, that was not the case.

“The whole point of starting at the end is to grasp the meaning quicker,” said the dean. It felt to Britta she was talking a little slower, so Britta could keep up. “Don’t keep stopping and starting, just let it flow, the meaning will come.”

Britta frowned. At least they were in a secluded alley where no one could see her struggling to read.

“Maybe if I could see more clearly,” said Britta. She made the hand gestures to produce a ball of light. She could see fine, but she wanted to show the dean she was capable of magic.

Nothing happened. Her hands were a bit sweaty and she was nervous. Now she was failing at something she already knew how to do. Or used to know.

Sometimes, one thing messed up and it made you lose confidence in everything. The harder you tried, the worse it got. Britta shook the thought out of her head. She was beyond this sort of petty insecurity.

She made the hand gesture again, firmly and confidently, but no ball of light appeared. Now, Britta felt nervous and embarrassed. Come on, she told herself, you can do this.

Doing well in tests was one of the few things Britta considered herself good at. She took pride in her ability to perform under pressure. She wiped her hand on her top and tried to make the light again. Still nothing. That wasn’t right.

Britta looked up at the expectant but disappointed face of the dean.

“Excuse me, you’re not wearing your pendant, are you?”

The dean’s eyes narrowed and then she frowned. She put her free hand into the top of her robe and pulled out a necklace with a faintly glowing crystal on the end. It was the device that prevented magic.

“Ah,” said the dean. “I forgot about that.” She closed her fist around the crystal and shut her eyes for a moment. When she opened them, the crystal had stopped glowing and looked like a lump of rock on a chain.

Britta didn’t say anything. She took a breath and began reading. Within a couple of lines her mind was going blank again, but this time it was more like a trance. She forced herself to push on, past the next page and the next.

The book, Perfect Positioning for Illusions, was a slim volume, but it should have still taken her a good hour or so to get through it. Ten minutes later, she finished the last page, which technically was the first page.

“Okay, I’m done.” She didn’t remember anything that had passed her eyes, but she felt a weight in her mind.

“Good,” said the dean. “Now close your eyes and take a moment to consider the main thrust of the book and the implications.”

Britta was about to complain that she hadn’t noticed any kind of thrust and a grand total of zero implications, but she resisted the urge. She closed her eyes and tried to visualise the book.

For a moment, she saw it. The cover, leatherbound, the title on the front... then it was gone and she was left standing in an alley with her eyes closed. She took a long slow breath and opened her eyes.

There was a ping and a message screen appeared.

You have one new floating skill point.

Britta wasn’t sure what a floating skill point was, but presumably it would still let her activate one of her quirks like a regular skill point. She opened her skill tree.

Usually, only the quirks linked to active quirks were lit up, showing they were available for selection. This time, the whole tree was alight. She could pick any quirk, even ones she was nowhere near connecting to. The question was, which one did she need to choose to upgrade her Teleport spell?

It was a bit overwhelming. Perhaps she should go home and look at it on her laptop.

Actually, why not ask N-28? He was the one that told her to get special lessons. He would know which to pick.

No, first, she should read the other book and get the second skill point. Yes, that was the next step.

Britta closed her status screen. “It worked.”

The dean put the pendant back inside her robe and smiled awkwardly. “Well done. Good job.”

“I just need to read this other one.” Britta took out the second book, Footwork and Fireballs.

“Hey, you, don’t move,” called out a voice from the end of the alley. Rick was standing there, his finger pointing. “I’ve finally found you. Stay right there.”

Britta didn’t want to have this conversation right now. She cast Teleport.

Nothing happened. The dean had reactivated her pendant and Britta was stuck here. Rick came striding down the alley towards her.

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