I ducked and weaved through the barrage of arrows from Gerard.
He drew, nocked and fired thrice in quick succession. The three arrows seemed to fly wide and I stepped to the side to dodge the one headed for me.
The flame haired boy’s lips curved upwards and I felt a strong sense of crisis cover me. Midway the fire mana he had attached to the arrowheads exploded, changing their trajectory and sending them straight towards me.
Clenching my teeth, I focused on the smoky mana in my mind, channelling it through the locket that hung on my chest, under my clothes.
The ethereal mana grew agitated and blazing as its nature transformed and I sent it racing down my arm.
Planting my foot solidly on the ground, I twisted my body to avoid two of the arrows and slammed the back of my hand against the last.
With a shockwave the mana on the arrowhead exploded and was counterbalanced by the explosion of the mana on the back of my hand. The force of the explosion caused me to slide on the ground, leaving deep furrows on the loose earth.
Suppressing the numbness in my wrist, the fingers of both my hands blurred as they drew out the symbols of ‘fire’ and ‘force’ in the air even as I leveraged the mana in my mindscape to activate Tier 1 flame magic: Ember.
Apart from allowing me to use external mana, thereby reducing the casting costs, external casting provided another channel for spell casting. In short, it allowed me to dual cast.
It was a huge advantage. Before Tier 3, when a mage developed his Domain by pouring out his mana into his surroundings to create a space where his will held complete sway, mages were restricted to using one spell at a time.
Spells like Stoneskin were passive spells with a single pre-cast cost. They remained active after casting and the mage could use other spells afterwards giving an impression that they were dual casting. But that was misleading.
In a tight situation when the mage would like to have both offense and defence by casting Stoneskin and Stone spike simultaneously, he would be forced to make a choice.
In my case, I wouldn’t.
My body was wrapped in a fiery glow as Ember activated, giving a boost to any fire spells I would cast later by increasing the concentration of fire mana around me which chained seamlessly into my external cast of Tier 1 flame magic: Flame bullets.
Or, it should have.
The spell failed as the mana text fizzled out with a shower of sparks, leaving me at the mercy of Gerard’s arrows.
The first one hit my shoulder instead of my chest as a result of my hasty attempt to dodge, sending me staggering even as my barrier glowed and absorbed the damage.
The second slammed square into my side, throwing me off my feet and sending me sliding on the ground. The third embedded itself into the earth by my face.
Thankfully, Gerard had realized that my spell had failed and prevented the fire mana on the arrowheads from exploding.
I lay back on the ground and watched the quivering tail of the arrow finally come to a stop.
I sighed. Making external casting battle ready would take some time and effort. A lot of effort.
A shadow covered my face. Looking up, I saw that it was Gerard blocking the sun as he stood beside me.
Taking his outstretched hand, I pulled myself up to my feet. Dusting myself off, I grinned at him. “Your archery has improved after you made Tier 2. The army will be delighted to have you.”
He patted my shoulder. “You aren’t too shabby yourself for someone who recently took up fire magic.” He frowned, “But, there’s something hampering your casting. It’s like… how to put it… a glitch?”
“I know. I’m not too familiar with external casting yet. So, I mess up sometimes.”
“No, no, not that. Although I don’t know much about this new-fangled casting style that all the Tamers in the clan are raving about, it isn’t why you failed. After reaching Tier 2, my sensation to fire mana has increased sharply. I felt the mana surge around you and the spell almost formed too. In the last moment, some external factor disturbed the mana and dampened the reaction.”
He grew pensive. “The only time I felt something similar was when I faced off against the girl from Lutrinae in the Tournament and her water mana was interfering with my fire spells.”
“Thanks.” I said gratefully. He waved me off. “No. Don’t thank me. I needed the practice to familiarize myself with my new Tier anyway. Also, I haven’t thanked you for presiding over my marriage with Fiona yet.”
“Well, you can ask the chef to make my favourite dishes when you host your farewell banquet.” I paused. “And get Deimos some fish.”
The both of us shared a laugh as we parted ways on the training ground. While he went to the bath house to wash up, I decided to return directly to my room.
Fiona, Gerard’s fiancée had suddenly turned Feral last night and they had turned to me for their contract. Her Feralization was extremely unexpected as given her bloodline density, she had six months yet before she was scheduled to awaken. In fact, Fifa was the one who was under monitoring for being the next likely candidate for Feralization.
Thankfully, no one had been injured by her sudden change as she had been in the medical ward, practicing her healing when it happened and there were enough high Tier mages around to suppress her.
It was a much-needed experience for me. Inhabiting both of their minds as their bond took shape allowed me to experience the affection they felt for the other, the trust they harboured.
It brought back some of my faith in the institution of marriage. It reminded me of the beauty it carried.
My gaze went to my shoes. Shoes that covered my mark. My faded mark.
I hadn’t told Gerard, but the state of my mark was probably why my spells were failing. My steps grew purposeful as I walked towards my room.
Skirting around the issue was doing me – us – little good.