Disciple of War – Michael G. Manning

Breakfast was disappointing. Will had woken up late and when he finished dressing and came down, he discovered Selene waiting for him at the dining table. She pointed at his plate, which sat opposite hers at the table. He grimaced as he saw the contents—poached eggs, toasted bread, and a sausage that someone had sliced in half with the obvious intent to sear one side. The sausage and toast had both been burned, and the eggs were a disaster. Properly done, a poached egg was a neat, tidy little package, but these were a messy horror of diaphanous whites that made them look like mutilated jellyfish. Will sighed deeply. “Sit down,” said Selene with a smile. “Today—” Will shook his head. “One second. I have to straighten something out.” He headed for the kitchen, looking for Blake Word. Blake was their only servant, since Will had been too stubborn to hire a proper staff as most noble families did. The older man was a veteran and had previously served the king as an assassin and a special operative. After Blake had gotten older the king had reassigned him to serve as Selene’s chief servant and bodyguard.

When Will had married her, Blake had come along as their butler of sorts. Will had fought with him previously over food. Blake had no natural talent for cooking, but he tried. Will had discouraged him strenuously in the beginning and finally had relented to teaching him instead. Blake had improved a good deal, though it was unlikely he would ever meet the standards that Arrogan had instilled in Will. But today, it was as if the manservant had regressed to his former incompetence. He found Blake standing in the kitchen, looking nervous. “Good morning, sir.” Will’s eyes said it all, but his mouth had lots of footnotes to add. “What possessed you this morning? Did you forget how to cook a sausage? Were you distracted? Maybe senile dementia has already set in?” “Actually, sir, about that—” Will held up one finger.

“Don’t start making excuses. We’ve been over this. If you’re too busy to cook, then don’t. It isn’t fair to the food, and it isn’t fair to the people who have to eat what you’ve ruined.” He took a deep breath, then the image of the eggs came to mind. “And what the hell did you do with the eggs? You haven’t screwed up a poached egg that badly in months!” Blake’s face went white and he held up one hand, pointing in Will’s direction. “What? You’re blaming me? Spit out what you want to say.” “Good morning, Your Highness!” said Blake loudly. “William and I were just discussing the shopping I plan to do later.” Will turned and saw that Selene had entered the kitchen behind him.

She bore an odd expression on her face, as though she’d been hurt by something but was doing her best to contain it. It was a stark contrast to the cheerful smile she’d had only a moment ago. He looked back at Blake, then at Selene once more. Gradually, his brain caught up with the situation and he realized his error. Selene was wearing an apron, and Blake was not. Oh, Holy Mother! Will felt the blood drain from his face. She cooked for me. Given her expression, it was all too clear that she had heard what he had said. She turned away and went back to the dining room. Will gave Blake a spiteful look, then hissed, “Next time warn me!” The manservant shrugged helplessly, then mouthed the words, ‘Sorry, I couldn’t stop her.

’ Selene returned and walked past them quietly, two plates in her hands. She went to the kitchen door. It was obvious what she meant to do. “Wait!” called Will. “I haven’t eaten mine yet.” She opened the door and dumped the contents into the scrap bin, then returned put the plates down. Without looking at Will, she told Blake, “I have a meeting at noon. I’ll be heading into the city early. Get the carriage ready for me.” “Selene, I’m sorry.

I didn’t realize—” She interrupted him, “William, we can talk later. My stomach isn’t feeling well right now. I’ll be upstairs changing. I’ll see you this evening.” With that, she left the room. Will knew she was angry. Selene only called him ‘William’ on formal occasions, or when she was mad. As a result of her royal upbringing, she was excellent at hiding her emotions, but that was always a giveaway. And I certainly deserved it, he thought. Thinking back to the optimistic expression she’d had on her face just a few minutes ago only made him feel worse.

Selene had returned several months ago, and now that summer had arrived, Will looked forward to spending more time with her without classes getting in the way, but lately it seemed he kept putting the wrong foot forward. The biggest issue between them lately had been her training. She’d insisted they should move to the next stage, but Will kept delaying. While Aislinn had claimed that Selene was ready, he didn’t believe it. She’d brought Selene back almost the moment the heart-stone enchantment was removed. It was all too convenient. And if I get it wrong, she could die. He couldn’t imagine what that would be like. He didn’t think he could live with himself if she died because of a mistake on his part. Actually, he wasn’t sure he could survive even if it was someone else’s fault.

She was everything to him. Rather than sulk, he went to the Alchemy building to check on his latest batch of potions. Ever since the near-disaster when Tiny and Janice had almost died, he had resolved to never be caught unprepared again. He had long since converted all the troll urine he’d obtained into regeneration potions, and he now had thirty-four of the precious vials stored in the limnthal. He’d also been disciplined in his manufacture of other potions. The phosphorous he had liberated had been turned into more than two hundred vials of alchemist’s fire, and he had produced nearly fifty vials of Dragon’s Heart potions after several rounds of what he called ‘vampire milking.’ As disgusting as the name sounded, it was far nicer than the actual process of hydrating his imprisoned vampire with fresh pig’s blood, then bleeding the monster for its vital fluids. He had long since quit storing the foul creature in the limnthal too. After perfecting his process of harvesting, he had also obtained a large chest with solid iron sides to store the vampire’s nearly dead body within until he needed it again. To further increase the security of the setup he had put a ward in place that would flood the chest with a simpler version of Ethelgren’s light spell if someone opened the chest without using the proper command word.

The spell would destroy the vampire rather than allow it to escape or be used for darker purposes. The ward had been courtesy of Selene’s assistance, as she was a far more accomplished spell caster. It had been a frustrating project for her, though, since she wasn’t allowed to do any magic herself. She had to teach Will and be patient as he stumbled through the process. There had been several cutting remarks regarding which of them was the actual apprentice and who was the teacher. At the Alchemy building, he found that his latest batch of blood-cleanse potions were ready for decanting and activation, so he set about his work. It was a tedious process, so he found his mind wandering frequently, and when he looked around the small lab, he remembered some of the wild events that had happened there. He didn’t miss the events, but he did miss the people. Tiny had returned with Sir Kyle to Barrowden, and the Nerrow family had left the capital and returned to their estate which lay three days’ travel to the south. The family’s ancestral dwelling was on the coast, and the closest village was a small hamlet named Nettlehurst, which was slightly smaller than the village Will had grown up in—or so he was told, since he had never been there.

The departure of the Nerrow family had been painful for him, although he’d done his best not to show them just how deeply it had affected him; the weeks that they had shared his home had been both stressful and wonderful. It had given him a chance to get to know Tabitha, his younger sister, whose playful side hid a warm and sometimes overly serious heart. It had also given him time to adjust to his new relationship with Laina, who continued to pretend to find him irritating while simultaneously serving as his greatest defender whenever she felt their father might be trying to push him away. It had been a delicate balancing act, since neither Agnes—their mother—nor Tabitha was aware of the fact that Mark Nerrow was his father. Now that they were gone, the home he shared with Selene seemed large and empty. After finishing up with the potions, he went to his favorite spot and ran through his daily spell practice. The recent vampire disaster had underscored his need to improve his skills as quickly as possible, for every time it seemed that they were needed he found himself lacking in some way. No matter how quickly he grew it was never enough and after seeing Linus Ethelgren and Androv in action, he knew just how far he had to go before he would be at their level. Arrogan had told him that most wizards needed a full century to mature and come into their power, although they continued to improve even after that. He’d also mentioned that most didn’t train the way Will did.

When you expect to live several hundred years, time loses some of its urgency. He didn’t expect to become as well rounded as a wizard with a century under his belt, but if he could at least expand his repertoire and strengthen his abilities, he might be better prepared the next time the world decided to come crashing down on his head. First, he ran through every spell he’d learned, from the simplest to the most complex, preparing and dismissing them each in turn. That list now included all the spells in Arrogan’s old journal, plus a collection of force spells that he hoped would give him more flexibility in different situations. Force-walls, domes, half-walls, spheres, and even a traveling disk that Arrogan had told him about. To that he had also added a small selection of elemental spells, including the earth-and-air traveldisk that Arrogan had used when he didn’t want to tie up his force spell abilities. The latest spell he had mastered was the iron-body transformation, though it was still difficult and time consuming for him to prepare. For the time being, it was definitely a spell he would keep prepared since it was unlikely he would ever manage to cast the spell in a high-pressure situation if he needed it. Once he had gone through all those spells, he began practicing his other new additions. Although he had returned Battling the Darkness to the school library, Master Courtney had allowed him to retain the book long enough to copy out the spells it contained.

Although the relic, Ethelgren’s Exhortation, had been destroyed, many of the spell effects that it had been able to produce were based on spells that Ethelgren had created. Some of the most useful, at least in Will’s opinion, were the simplest, such as the illusory chime spell. The spell was named so because it produced several different chime tones that only the caster could hear, and they communicated whether someone nearby was using a chameleon spell or similar means of hiding, as well as the direction of the detected person. He also favored the silver-sword spell and the cloak-of-light spells, as well as Ethelgren’s favored attack spell, light-darts. The cloak-of-light spell was only useful against vampires, but the silver-sword spell greatly enhanced the cutting and destructive power of any bladed weapon it was cast upon. The light-darts spell was similar to a force-lance, except that it had several options to increase its flexibility. For one, it was tuned such that it was effective against both demons and daylight-sensitive monsters like vampires; for another, it could be altered on the fly to fire up to five missiles at once. The spell had two main drawbacks, as far as Will could see: One, it wasn’t a force spell, so even if he eventually learned to reflex cast it, it would never be quite as quick to cast as his force-lance, and two, despite being tailored for demons and vampires, the spell could still kill humans. It wasn’t quite as devastating as the fist-sized hole a force-lance ripped through a body, but it still burned a finger-sized hole through flesh, which was lethal enough, depending on where it hit. In the end, Will’s main reason for practicing the light-darts spell was because of its range.

Being an elemental type spell, it didn’t require more turyn to use over long distances, and since the attack was a type of light, it reached its target near instantaneously, even if it wasn’t a force effect. With a force-lance he was limited to forty yards at best, and at that range he could only cast it a few times before being exhausted, due to the exponential increase in turyn cost, but with Ethelgren’s light-darts spell, he could potentially strike a target up to two hundred yards distant, if his aim was good enough. From what Laina had told him, fire-bolts were limited to just under a hundred yards before they began to fizzle. That meant the light-darts might give him a significant advantage in a long-distance battle, if he could hit the target. He had soon discovered that hitting a man-sized object at two hundred yards wasn’t easy. To practice his marksmanship, he went to a special range that had only recently been set up. Will’s early efforts, even with the less destructive light-darts, had been too much for the landscaping, so he had approached several of the instructors about the possibility of setting up a range where students could practice. In years past, the idea would have been unthinkable, but since the vampire incidents, the school’s policies regarding the teaching of battle magics had loosened up. Quite a few students were now interested in practicing their skills using a variety of ranged elemental attacks. The range itself had been set up at the northern edge of the campus, where the school’s wall merged with the larger city wall.

The wall served as the ultimate backstop, but a broad earthen mound had been raised in front of it to prevent missed shots from damaging the stonework. Wooden targets of various shapes and sizes stoon in front of the berm, and replaced often, as repeated shots inevitably destroyed them. There was no shortage of scrap wood in Cerria these days, not since Ethelgren’s interrupted ritual had destroyed a small portion of the city. Today the range was deserted, so Will began putting holes in targets at a variety of ranges. The light-darts spell took him roughly two seconds to prepare each time, but it was simple enough that he figured he could get the time down to a second, at least until he reached the point where he could reflex cast it. There were several spells he would love to be able to reflex cast: the iron-body transformation, the light-darts spell, and the force-dome spell were at the top of his list. Currently, he was practicing so many different spells each day that he really wasn’t sure where his next breakthrough would be. But for now, I need to focus on improving my accuracy, he reminded himself. He practiced for several hours, but he didn’t feel like he had really improved. At a hundred yards he could hit a man-sized target about three times out of four; at two hundred it was about fifty percent of the time, and that just didn’t feel good enough.

Footsteps alerted him to someone’s approach, and he turned to see Elizabeth Sundy walking toward him. “Scholar Sundy,” he said, giving a deferential nod. It was the first time he had seen her since the night she had helped him with the ritual to purge the city of vampires, and he noticed that she now had a water elemental hovering over her shoulder. “Congratulations on your elemental.” She smiled faintly. “I see I’m not the only one who thought it might be a good idea to get some practice in.” “Should a researcher be worried about battle magic?” he asked. “After what we went through I’ll never be able to sleep without knowing I can defend myself.” He nodded. “It helps that you have an elemental now.

You don’t have to shorten your life to practice new skills.” Elizabeth glanced around, making sure they were still alone. “I don’t intend to keep it. When I get older, I’ll release it.” Will raised one brow. “Master Courtney told you?” She nodded. “Even more importantly, if you could help us understand how you became the way you are, it would be easier to get rid of the elementals.” Looking down the range, she sighted on a target and unleashed a fire bolt. “Wouldn’t a water attack be simpler since you have a water elemental?” he asked. Elizabeth shrugged.

“For the elemental, but the turyn that it gives me is converted to my natural turyn mixture by the heart-stone enchantment. I actually lean a little bit more toward fire, so fire spells are easier.” That wasn’t something he had really thought about before, but it made sense, so Will filed it away along with all the other random information he had learned about magic and spellcraft. The sun was starting to get low in the sky, so he decided it would be good to return home. It was time to face the music. “I need to be going,” he told Elizabeth. “Good luck with your practice.”

.

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