Chapter 34 – The Pressure of Mana

“Stop it, Construct!”

The command halted his every movement. The console prompted him again as to whether he wanted to defy the order, but he acceded to it instead. The opponent he had been about to blast away was Kindon, the captain, he now recognized.

The blur and confusion from returning to Elhané was fading, allowing him to take in his surroundings. He was back in the sparring ring, surrounded by unknown faces of guards. To the side stood his mistress, eyes spinning about and sparks flying everywhere.

“You had very exact instructions not to rely on your weaponry, Construct!” She yelled, stomping up to him and poking him in the chest, “You do as you are commanded, not what you feel like doing.”

Ares reached up to grab the hand poking him, like he had done the last time she did this, but apparently she had learned from that experience. Withdrawing her hand as fast as lightning, she instead whirled the other hand around in a slap. He caught her at the wrist, stopping the minor attack, and looked her straight in spinny eyes as he said, “Ares… Name, Ares.”

Her pretty mouth turned into a sneer, and she forcefully tugged at her hand. “Release me, you brute! I don’t care what you think your name is; I am your mistress, and I will call you whatever I will.”

“Are ya sure ya should be antagonizing it so, Milady?” Asked the dwarf, approaching carefully from the side. Behind him, Ares could just about spot Izzy hiding from sight.

It is antagonizing me, master dwarf,” Seila said, baring white teeth in frustration, “The kind of insubordination I would very much like beaten out of it.”

The hunchback scratched at his raggy beard. “I don’t rightly think that’ll be easy, Milady. It had more than a mind of its own, you see. It has personality; an ego.”

Izzy peered out from behind master Baek, wide eyes staring at Ares as if she was not entirely sure she knew who he was. After a long look, the small gnome approached and tugged at Ares’ pant-leg. “You’re back… What was that scary thing?”

“What ‘thing’, apprentice Izzy?” Seila asked, eyes narrowing.

“Ahaha, she means the blaster, Milady,” said master Baek, slapping Izzy over the head as he smiled apologetically at the Lady Seila, “Silly girl, you saw it when we installed it yesterday.”

“Oh.. Oh yes!” Izzy said, holding her head between her hands, “I remember now.”

“She’s a bit too excited, Milady, that’s all.”

Seila snorted, and returned her attention on Ares. “If you cannot be trusted to fight as you are instructed, you will simply have to stand to the side and be a battery.”

Snapping her fingers, she spoke over her shoulder, “Cassius, we will be skipping construct sparring. What’s next?”

“Yes, Lady Seila,” said the pale man, standing behind her, “Next is basic Mana manipulation. I suggest we retreat to the gardens for this.”

“A splendid idea,” said Seila, clapping her hands, her excitement palpable through the link that connected her and Ares. She thanked Captain Kindon for his help, to which she received an ‘at your service, Milady’ and a salute. Together with Cassius, the dwarf and gnome, all walking behind Lady Seila, Ares followed.

They walked away from the sparring ring, around the large castle-like structure Ares had first come out of, and into a magnificent garden behind.

The central part of the garden was cultivated to precision, not a blade of grass out of place. Well-trimmed hedges and floral beds with exquisite arrangements were pleasing to the eye, and everything was held in perfect symmetry. The edges, on the other hand, were dominated by wilderness.

Trees in wicked shapes grew around colorful bushes in a myriad of shapes. the Grass rose high wherever there was a patch untainted by higher growth, and the only obvious paths through the obscenity looked like animal trails.

The dichotomy was fascinating, and Ares grew a new appreciation of these people. Whatever the elves were, at least they could appreciate an interesting garden. His mother would like these people.

Thinking of his mother in this body was weird. It was like thinking of a very nice neighbour or a good pet, but not someone of the same blood as him. In this form, he could regard the bags of flesh from his ‘real life’ as nothing but lower lifeforms that were far beneath him.

Shaking off the unsettling sensation, Ares focused on what was in front of him. As they walked, Izzy approached him carefully, whispering conspiratorially, “So, Ares, what was that thing inside you? You were gone, and then it came out and it was… so cold…”

Surprised, Ares focused his golden eyes on the little gnome. Of course, he should have expected her able to differentiate between himself and the sentinel. He would have to make a decent explanation. “Is… help. I sleep – it comes.”

“You ‘sleep’?” She asked, hand to her mouth.

“Yes,” he answered, avoiding an attempt at a lengthy explanation.

She looked concerned, but finally nodded. “I see… I told Master Baek, and he said I should be careful. But it is safe, right; it won’t start harming us, will it?”

God, I hope not.

“No. It keeps orders,” was what he responded, rather than what he thought. He would have to ask Orca how it had performed. His assistant was present in the back of his mind, much like Seila was, but was awaiting his summons. He would have a talk with her once he had time.

They came to a small pond in the centermost part of garden, beside a small spring from which water bubbled joyfully. Cassius draped a nearby stone with a blanket, and Seila sat down with utmost elegance. With a dainty hand, she directed Ares to sit next to her – on the ground, of course – and feeling like a stupid good dog, he complied.

The more time he spent with this mistress of his, the sooner he wanted to release the contract and scamper off. However, there was still information to be gained here, and they current task had something to do with ‘mana’; a subject he was very interested in.

Izzy and Baek stepped off to the side, while Cassius sat himself on another stone in front of Seila.

“Now, Milady, I trust you have been doing the exercises that Archeon Palander tasked you with since your last meeting.”

“Of course, Cassius,” Seila said haughtily, raising an open palm and revealing a ball of throbbing lifeforce, spinning around its own axis at a rapid pace. With a superior smile, she raised the other hand and produced a second spinning ball, and then – between the two – a third appeared.

“Very good, My lady, you truly have worked hard.”

Her smile widened another notch, and she stuck her nose up into the air. Ares was pretty sure that complimenting this girl was a mistake. Her ego appeared to be out of proportion.

“Now, while Archeon Palander has not yet arrived, he did leave instructions for your immediate training, once a construct was procured for you,” Cassius said, as he pulled out a folded piece of parchment from inside his surcoat. “I presume he expects you to have mastered these basic principles before he returns, such that your mage training can begin at once.”

She nodded, her face turned serious. Ares was half-way surprised she did not boast about how easy it would be, or dismiss the tasks as unnecessary. Indeed, she almost seemed… sincere.

“I will do my best, Cassius.”

“I know you will,” said the pale man, a soft smile on his red lips.

Then he unfolded the parchment, reading out loud, “The construct is not the reservoir, but the conduit through which we tap into the flow of mana. The lifelink allows us access to this source of energy, by which we trade our vaunted lifeforce for pure magical energies. These are flows of the divine, and are not to be pursued lightly.”

Seila looked as if she was swallowing the words coming from Cassius, nodding at every word.

“The Spinning Moons prepares you to tap into these powers, as you must fashion your lifelink into that of a spinning whirlpool. Once the current is powerful enough, a trickle of mana will flow from the center – ready for the taking.”

Ares could already sense her manipulation of their lifelink. The vague flow of energy between them began twisting and bending around him, like water flowing into a sink.

“Mana is volatile, and dangerous to allow into our world. A true battlemage will know how to tap and store this energy, but you are not ready for this. Once mana manifests, you must take hold of it as you would take hold of your own lifeforce, and push it through Yrgoth; rune of the deep flame.”

As he spoke, Cassius raised his own hand, and drew a circular pattern in the air with his own lifeforce. To Ares, it looked like two half-circles within a larger circle almost touching one another, leaving only a slight gap in between.

Once Cassius finished the pattern, it began to fizzle with weak flame, consuming itself in a slight ‘pop’.

Seila had closed her eyes, and Ares could sense her concentration. The haughty girl was completely transformed into a monolith of willpower, her control of their lifelink getting stronger and stronger.

He could only vaguely see the flow around him, but his senses told him the whirling energies were speeding up. Centered on his chest, where the lifelink latched onto him, a pressure began building. At first it was mild, but rapidly it grew stronger and stronger, until he felt she would crush him.

He wanted to open his mouth and scream, but the sensation of Seila’s concentration held the impulse at bay. Her strength of will was not only apparent, it was transferring onto him, and he found his own excitement rise at the prospect of success.

Sweat soon appeared on her brow, as she kept the energies flowing. She was growing exhausted, and Ares could not blame her. She was so close to success, though, just a little more…

“My lady, you should not be too hasty,” Cassius said, his tone calm.

“I can.. do this,” Seila said, her voice clipped.

“My lady, please. You have performed wonderfully. Please take a rest.”

“Not yet..”

The change was sudden; a single drop that made the glass overflow. One moment she was pushing the pressure against an invisible wall, the next the wall cracked and the slightest trickle came through. Seila immediately focused on this tiny drop, snatching it up with a thought. With trembling fingers, she drew Yrgoth in the air above her and slammed the little drop into the rune. An explosion of color followed.

The tongue of flame was initially deep blue, but as it rose it turned green, then orange, before it finally simmered down in size into a deep red.

Ares, on the other hand, felt the insignificance of the drop, and instead focused his attention on the metaphysical crack that had appeared within him. Beyond it, he sensed a vast sea of devastating amounts of the same stuff that had just appeared. A vast sea of mana.

The crack was only momentary, however. The instant Seila burned off the drop of mana, whatever had been broken mended itself in an instant, and Ares was left feeling more empty than before. If the sensation of lifeforce was a pleasant tingle, the feel of mana was a rush without like. More than anything, he wanted to reopen the crack and and touch the stuff – damn the consequences.

“Impressive, My Lady,” Cassius breathed, his eyes wide.

Seila breathing was ragged, but she quickly composed herself enough to straighten and take on a self-satisfied look. “Of course,” she said, waving away the praise, “I am a genius after all.”

After sharing her enthusiasm and determination, Ares was immediately disappointed by his mistress once more. Through the lifelink he felt her self-satisfaction coating her ego like a thick smear of butter.

Cassius nodded distractedly, as he looked down into the paper once more. Then he began reading again, “At first this will be difficult, and you may only achieve a single drop. To master this skill, you must be able to keep the whirlpool steady, and supply Yrgoth with mana to burn continually.”

Seila immediately paled, her previous superiority faltering a bit. “You mean,” she stopped herself, swallowed, the continued, “I’m supposed to keep that whirlpool going and keep Yrgtoh fuelled?”

Cassius looked through the parchment again, mouthing the words as he skimmed them. Finally he looked op and smiled. “Yes, My Lady. I believe that is what the Archeon expects of you.”

She smiled weakly, trying to regain her former confidence.

Serves you right.

Inside, Ares snickered, although his face was still a completely neutral mask. For the first time he was thankful that he had no expressions, since he would have been unable to suppress a smirk.

After a short rest, Seila repeated the exercise, focusing on keeping the fire burning for longer. She grew increasingly better, but was nowhere near the stage of mastery. However, as her skill grew, the pressure on Ares lessened its physical strain on him, focusing instead more and more on that metaphysical barrier impeding her.

He no longer felt as if she was crushing him, and instead began to enjoy the sensation of being ‘cracked’ open, allowing him to once again look into that vast sea he could not touch.

This continued for at least another hour, until Seila’s forehead was covered in beads of sweat. At that point, what appeared to be a servant – tall like everyone else Ares had seen, but with a face covered in hair. The servant bowed and addressed Seila in a reverent tone, “My Lady, Lord Mingdale asks that you join him in his study. He said there are news from the Capitol.”

“News?” Seila asked, dabbing her forehead with a handkerchief provided by Cassius, “Did my father say what of?”

“No, My Lady,” said the hairy servant, bowing his head further.

“Very well. Tell my father I will be there momentarily.”

The servant bowed in deeper in reply, then hurried off to relay the message.

“I believe we were done here, for now?” She asked, and Cassius nodded.

“You will have to train this every day, My Lady. I believe the Archeon will accept nothing less than perfection when he arrives.”

Seila nodded and straightened, a bit of haughtiness replaced by her remarkable determination.

Ares could almost admire her when she was like this. Almost.

“Would you like to come along, master Baek?” She turned and asked the hunchback, who had been keeping a very close eye on Ares throughout the entire process, scribbling down notes.

“Hmm?” The master craftsman had been focused on his notes too much. Only thanks to Izzy repeating the question did he manage to respond, “Ahh yes, thank ya Milady. It would be nice to hear the news of the world, and I do have some points of order to discuss with the good lord.”

“Good. We should make haste, then. My father is not known to be a patient man.”