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       The Hollow, p.8

           Andrew Day
 
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swooning for you, doesn’t make you a mage. You’re just another useless farm boy with more fat than brains, and if you ever-”

  His glare, previously directed at Edgar was suddenly blocked off by Bull’s immense torso as the other recruit stepped right in front of him. Bull’s posture wasn’t in itself threatening, but he did loom somewhat. Bull was good at looming.

  “You’re loud,” Bull told Justin simply. “And stupid. Go away.”

  Justin opened his mouth to ask “Or what?” but managed to come to the obvious answer by himself. Instead he turned and stormed off.

  “What a git,” said Tim. “If he ‘ad lived on my streets, I reckon someone would’ve shanked him years ago.” He slapped Edgar on the back. “You’re miles better than that prat.”

  Edgar blushed. “Well I wouldn’t-”

  “I would,” agreed Serrel.

  “Better,” said Bull.

  Even Mouse nodded.

  “No,” said Edgar. “I mean I wouldn’t... No, you know what? I am better than him. Leagues better. Not that that’s saying anything, because I’ve had pigs that would’ve been smarter than that... that arse!”

  “Well said.”

  Tim slapped Edgar companionably on the back again. So did Bull, but more forcefully. As they picked Edgar off the floor, a small voice said, “Um...”

  They looked at Mouse, who went on, “Where did Kaitlin go?”

  Kaitlin had been mysteriously quiet during the argument, uncharacteristically so because she never forwent the opportunity to insult Justin. She’d slipped off as they’d left the training hall, and she hadn’t been the only one.

  “Where did Victor go?” Serrel said.

  Greasy Tim grinned. “Don’t know where he is, but I betcha I know who he’s with, the cheeky sod.”

  The two absentees rejoined the group by the main gate after the next bell. No one commented on their disappearance, though Tim did call out to them, “‘Ello, love-birds.”

  Both pretended not to hear, and neither bothered to look even remotely embarrassed.

  Justin joined them last, looking sullen and ready to hit something, followed by Holland who immediately ordered them down to the beach.

  On the beach, they practised defensive weaving. Using the word Balvihs they learnt to weave a near invisible shield of energy from the ether. With enough willpower, Holland told them, the shield would protect them from swords, arrows, even enemy spells. With enough energy, a mage could drop a shield over an entire battalion. This would be an important duty for mages in a support role, and he meant for every member of Pond Scum to master it.

  They were paired off, taking turns to weave a shield while the other recruit attacked them with a wave of force using Soa. Serrel was paired with Kaitlin, and though he never considered himself overly competitive, he did take some perverse pleasure at outdoing her efforts. On his second attempt, he created a shield at full impenetrable strength that Kaitlin could not break through or dispel. She became so annoyed at this, that at one point she gave up using force and tried to burn her way though using her lance of white fire. Serrel thought Holland might have noticed, and at least tried to stop her. The sergeant just watched, and nodded in satisfaction at the quality of their weaving.

  It took up a lot of his energy, and left him sweating like hell, but Serrel’s shield didn’t break. Kaitlin ended the spell and leaned on her staff, close to exhaustion.

  “How did you do that?” she asked. Her eyes narrowed. “Have you been practising on your own?”

  “On and off, when I get the chance.”

  “You cheater. That’s my trick.”

  “You have been a little off lately. Distracted maybe?” Serrel said, as off handed as he could.

  Kaitlin looked away. “I’ve just been... busy.”

  “With what?”

  “None of your business. Just busy.”

  Serrel didn’t push. As the two of them regained their strength, he glanced about the beach at the efforts of the others. The shield spell was a good way of demonstrating the different ways each of them weaved the ether. Serrel’s shield tended to be shaped like a wall, thick and solid just as he visualised it. It took a lot of energy. Victor on the other hand, made only a small shield that projected just beyond his staff. It had less coverage than Serrel’s but was easier to move, complementing Victor’s fighting style. He liked to stay quick on his feet.

  Edgar’s was similar to Victor’s but bigger, taking on the shape of a large kite shield, the sort old fashioned knights had been fond of using. He did like reading, after all. Mouse, meanwhile, tended to weave a shield around her entire body, like a large dome protecting her from all angles. This was probably due to the wariness to which she treated the world and everything in it.

  Not that she didn’t have good reason for that at the moment. Mouse had been paired with Justin, and he was taking out the frustrations of the day on her, throwing spell after spell as hard as he could at her shield. Mouse was using too much energy trying to cover too much area at once. It didn’t take long for the shield to crumble under the attack. With the shield down, Justin should have backed off. But he was too busy venting, and his next attack lifted poor Mouse right off her feet and threw her through the air several metres before crashing her down in the sand.

  “Tremmel!” Kaitlin was outraged. “What do you think you’re doing?”

  “What?” Justin asked. His expression suggested he knew he’d done something very stupid, but his personality wasn’t going to let him admit to that.

  Holland cuffed him across the back of the head as he pushed past. The sergeant went to Mouse and helped the girl shakily to her feet.

  “Still alive, girl?” he asked her with unusual tact. “Just your pride. I’d be embarrassed too if I’d let that fool knock me down. Let that be a lesson-”

  Mouse wasn’t embarrassed. She shrugged off Holland’s grip, hurled her staff to the sand, and stormed away in tears. The others watched her stand at the edge of the surf, stare at the grey ocean and cry.

  Holland sighed, and picked up her staff. “You lot, behave,” he told them, and went after Mouse.

  Kaitlin turned on Justin in fury. “You stupid shit! You could have killed her!”

  “Is it my fault she can’t weave to save her life?” Justin protested. “That spell was nothing. She’s just useless...”

  “You say that about everyone, Tremmel,” Serrel snapped at him. “Edgar’s useless, Mouse is useless. I’m useless. You usually say it just as someone’s out done you. The only time you’ve ever excelled is against someone defenceless. We all surpassed you days ago.”

  “The carpenter who faints every time he has to weave thinks he has surpassed me? The only talent you have is chipping wood and shovelling horse shit, Hawthorne. And that stupid girl can’t even keep her shield up.”

  Serrel lifted his staff. “Let’s see how good your shield is.”

  Justin lifted his own staff. “Just try it.”

  Kaitlin stepped in front of them. “Enough maleness. Calm down, both of you.”

  “Get out of the way, tavern wench.”

  “Will you do something?” Kaitlin snapped at Victor.

  “Why?” Victor replied simply. “Tremmel wants to die, Hawthorne wants to kill him. It’s nothing to do with me.”

  “A copper says Fancy Pants cries,” Greasy Tim said evilly.

  Justin shoved Kaitlin roughly out of the way, and threw a wave of force straight at Serrel. Serrel didn’t even think, he just lifted his staff and weaved a small shield to batter the spell out of the way, then hurled his own at Justin. He didn’t even bother with words of power. He weaved the ether on instinct.

  The spell hit Justin dead centre and threw him backwards. Reeling, feeling like he had been punched hard in the stomach, he tried to lift his staff to strike back. Serrel focused his mind and energy on Justin’s staff. He saw in his mind exactly where it was weakened through years of hard use. He saw the break clearly, before he had even made it, and with
a simply lash of energy he snapped the staff cleanly in two.

  Justin yelped in shock as his staff came apart with a sharp crack. He tripped over his own feet, and fell backwards.

  Serrel just glared at him, feeling the energy flowing through him and into his staff.

  “Look at you now,” he told Justin.

  The others stood and stared at each other in shocked silence. By the water, Holland was whispering quietly to Mouse. He gestured forcefully back at the group, then pushed the staff back into her hands.

  Suddenly Mouse let out an angry shriek, and pointed the staff at the sea. A huge plume of flame shot across the water, sending up a giant cloud of billowing steam that could be seen from the other end of the bay. Holland noted the boiling sea with satisfaction and patted her on the shoulder gently before he made his way back to the group.

  “Well, that’s enough excitement for today. Move back to the fort.”

  “What did you say to her?” Justin asked he stood up.

  “I told her to pretend it was you,” Holland replied coldly. “Let me be clear. You are in the Legion. There are going to be many, many people over the next few years who are going to want to inflict copious, bodily harm on the lot of you. They aren’t going to need your help to do it. So you will never, and I mean never, weave magic on one another. Clear? Hawthorne?”

  “Yes, Sergeant.”

  “Tremmel, go to the master at arms and get yourself a new staff. You appear to have broken yours. The rest of you, push off. Hawthorne, a word.”

  Justin stormed away without a backwards look. The
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