Chapter 22:

Training While the Crows Gather

Mylo and the Summoned Hero

A bit after dawn the next morning, Mylo knocked on Ezre's door. It swung open on the instant, and Ezre greeted him with a look of grim determination.

"I hope you're ready to get your ass kicked into shape!"

Oh, it's gonna be that kind of training. Mylo said, "Yeah," with all the gusto of a sleepy kitten.

Ezre insisted the training would require fresh air, so down the stairs they went and out onto the street. The same street as always, narrow and cobbled, lined with quaint apartment buildings and shops of the same gray stone and the same yellow pine. Of course, not so busy as it had been a few days ago, but otherwise much the same. Terracotta pots with growing herbs dangled out of south-facing windows to catch the summer sun.

But they weren't here to see any of that. Instead, Ezre had picked out a long disused lot in the nook of the town's wall. Other than a pile of broken pots in one corner, a iron lattice table and chair in another corner, and a suspiciously fresh trail of swept ash, the place was empty.

"Here we are. Now, let's start with breathing."

A little basic, but Mylo figured he could handle it.

"No, not like that." Ezre came over and pressed down on his shoulders. "Ribcage doesn't move hardly."

"Then where do I breathe?"

"Inflate your belly, and your back a little."

Mylo tried to get used to it while Ezre lectured. Breath was apparently a big deal. Assume the lungs had nothing to do with the reservoir or the gyre, well you'd barely be fit to call yourself a strobilus.

"Breathing with your ribcage tenses you up. Tensing up is how you barely produce anything and let your party run out of mana and die."

"Yet you trusted me with 3 pipes in a quake."

"Talent only gets you so far! You have to work for the rest. If you had been training, you could have taken six and been fine."

Ezre had Mylo running laps around the lot when Brendan interrupted. "Here you are, boss." He slipped into a sly musical cadence. "And Mylo too. Look at you two, alone together. Not quite the love-nest I would pick—"

In return for his sassing, Brendan got a look full of daggers. "You got something to say?" Ezre asked.

"It's just, the extrusionists are here already. Mayor said we need all strobili on deck to fuel them up."

Ezre pretended to be pensive. "The Mayor wants more capable strobili, hmm? Well, in that case, I'll tell your barista to cut you off. Dropping caffeine works wonders."

"Wait...that's not fair!"

"As for me, tell the Mayor that if I get Mylo fixed up, she'll have two more instead of one."

Brendan recognized an opponent in a superior position, and withdrew.

Ambling the last bit of the last lap, Mylo panted to a halt. His legs ached, but most of him felt okay. His reservoir seemed healed, but the gyre wouldn't turn to fill it. "Is practice over?"

"Mostly." Ezre tossed a smile. "The aerobic part anyway."

She dragged the little table and chair out, dusted them off, and patted for Mylo to sit. He tried his best to keep breathing as Ezre had instructed even as he relaxed.

Mylo was about to ask what was next when Ezre slapped a pair of scrolls on the table. His eyes went big. They didn't use scrolls for any old writing these days. He unrolled one to make sure. An interweaving geometric diagram greeted him. These were spells.

"You shouldn't have."

"Oh, you're gonna pay me back."

Anticipation winced through Mylo. "How much?"

"30 denara, each."

"Oh, cheap! I was expecting a lot more."

"The spellseller decided to liquidate after the quake. I snapped up a few." Ezre grinned, clearly proud of her own initiative.

"But why?" said Mylo, letting the scroll roll shut. "We have the worst magnitude of any casting class. All a strobilus with spells is good for is laying down a suppressing barrage."

"It's for training. Just get started and I'll explain."

While Mylo traced and tried to learn the patterns, Ezre started by confirming what he'd just said. "Yeah, we can be a little useless in a combat scenario. But that's natural. You haven't really been taught any theory, have you?"

Mylo shook his head and paused a moment to look at Ezre. Full teaching mode. The tenderness and embarrassment didn't show. He thought he'd sensed connection, one-sided for now. In the stark light of midday, Mylo began to doubt it.

"We've all got mana channels. Every class is born with them. In warlocks and the rest, the channels dive down to the bone and resurface just under the skin. Just under the skin, and in the lungs, that's where channels draw mana out of the air, and where a spell can be projected. Where they run deep, they weave nets where spells condense."

"So, this crazy pattern on the paper—"

"Represents a condensation pattern in the net, you got it."

Blinking, Mylo asked, "What about us?"

"In a strobilus, all those channels converge and wind up in the chest to form a dense shell-like net, the gyre forms within." Ezre gave a rueful laugh. "It's sad, we have the best net for preparing spells, but to cast them means pushing condensed mana through a lot of bone and organs which don't conduct. If only we had conductive bones...."

"What about a hero?"

The birds chirped silly guesses. Ezre shook her head. "I never studied hero lore, you'll have to ask somebody else."

"Okay, so I'm learning spells to help my net, and my gyre?"

"Yep. Enough talk now. Get to committing!"

Ezre did her daily routine while Mylo traced the lines. Little by little, the ink segments lifted off the scroll and wormed their way down his arm, snaking around an artery here, diving there and resurfacing for a moment on his chest—Mylo unbuttoned his shirt and pulled the collar aside to watch, and both he and Ezre were fascinated, albeit for different reasons.

The first spell took an hour and a half of tracing to commit, and Mylo lacked mana to try it. He wouldn't know what he'd just learned until he cast it, when his gyre turned again. For now, then net and the gyre within sat cold, unturning. No pain came from it, just a dull, numb throb.

But Ezre probably knew what she had bought. Mylo turned to ask just in time to get himself recognized.

"Mr. NPC!"

Kasumi ran into the lot, waving and smiling. "Mr. NPC, come play with me." She latched onto his left arm and pulled Mylo out of the chair. At first he'd thought she had forgotten their argument last night, but a tightness around the eyes told him otherwise.

"No. I'm busy." Mylo shook loose and sat back down.

"But we could go farm for fire weapons. Maybe we'd find a flaming katana for both of us, then we'd match." Uncertainty edged her smile.

I guess I shouldn't have expected an apology.

Mylo turned back to the spell-scroll. "Then you can find someone real to match."

"At least come see the construction with me. It's real fast. Like, 'WOOSH' and it's done in an hour."

Ezre finished her set and came over. "Hey, Pelgram. You and Mylo know each other?"

"Yes! We do the local dungeon together." Turning back to shake Mylo by his shoulder, Kasumi insisted. "Come on, I'll forgive you for stealing the kill on that boss monster."

Ezre went icy stern. "Pelgram, tell me your party composition."

"Oh, it's just the two of us."

A deep, stabilizing breath, then Ezre got behind Kasumi and started pushing her by the shoulders out of the lot. "The ruins, fine, but a boss room? You can't risk him like that."

"But I just want to hang out with my friend!"

"He clearly doesn't want to be with you right now."

With a final shove, Ezre evicted Kasumi from the empty lot. The hero slunk away, kicking at loose pebbles, watched at a distance by Lydia's dragoons.

Mylo finished committing the other spell an hour later. Standing, he said, "Thanks, Ezre, I'll bring the coins to pay you back tomorrow."

"Great, see you tomorrow."

"Hey, Ezre."

She spun around. "Yes?"

"About that dinner you suggested...would tonight work?"

Ezre tensed and locked up. "What? No!"

Why did I say that? She thought, Fix it before he thinks I hate his guts!

"I mean, uh, not tonight."

Nice save.

"I need time to prepare something special."


Ataga Corliss
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