Shias awoke refreshed and ready to seize the day. He was the first up, but that didn’t last long. Very quickly, the Share House came to life with their group. Shana and Kathryn played outside with Altair, their excited laughter and shouts coming into the house through the open windows. Rae sat outside watching them. Maribelle started making breakfast. Rae and Shana had both offered to help, but Maribelle insisted on doing it herself.
Meanwhile, Ben was still shut up in his room. Shias’ room was right next to his, and he thought he’d heard a few sounds in the night, but he couldn’t be sure what they meant.
He’d also thought quite a lot about Ben’s behavior the previous day. He’d seemed so surprised when Shias had suggested he learn something new. When offered the textbooks, he’d taken them very quickly and then locked himself away.
Was his speed out of excitement? Was it fear? Shias had never seen him look so… unenthusiastic. Ben was always quick with a smile, and even quicker with a joke or laughter. But aside from his wide eyes, he’d looked…
Shias couldn’t put his finger on it. Whatever it was, it was peculiar.
“Breakfast is ready!” Maribelle called out, her head halfway out the kitchen window so that the girls outside could hear. Once they were all together, they sat around the spacious dining table and marveled at the lavish feast before them. Eggs, bacon, sausage, rolls, pancakes, butter, syrup, fresh fruit… it all looked and smelled positively delicious.
“Ben isn’t coming?” Kathryn asked, leaning sideways in her chair and looking up towards the second floor.
“He didn’t respond when I knocked on his door,” Shias said.
“Do you think he’s…” Rae started, looking tremendously worried, “d-d-d-dead?”
Kathryn burst out laughing. “He’s not dead, Rae!” she replied, shaking her head.
“He’s always ready for a good meal, though,” Shana said, pursing her lips in thought.
A door upstairs suddenly slammed open against the wall. In the time it took Shias to look, Ben had already Blinked his way into the chair next to him.
“What’s gotten into you?” Kathryn asked, glaring at him. “You had us all worried.”
“Sorry about that,” Ben said quickly as he piled his plate with food and started digging in with ravenous abandon. “I was studying.”
Shias, Kathryn, Shana, and Rae all went completely silent for five stunned seconds.
“Studying?” Kathryn asked incredulously. “You?”
“Why did you think I took the textbooks with me to my room?” Ben asked in between bites.
“Did you learn anything useful?” Shana asked.
“Can’t-talk-mouth-full,” Ben said choppily as he scarfed down three pancakes at astonishing speed. “Questions after.”
So the six of them ate. Shias noticed that Maribelle watched Ben, and listened to the bickering between him and Kathryn, with an amused smile on her face.
Once breakfast was finished, everyone helped with the cleaning. The second that the cleaning was done, Kathryn cornered Ben, glaring daggers at him.
“So?” she asked. “What did you learn?”
“Why are you getting up in my face like that?” Ben asked, making futile attempts to try and back away through the wall he was up against.
“Because we were all worried about you, you big idiot!” Kathryn said. “You vanished into your room and wouldn’t even come out for dinner!”
“Why do you think I was so hungry this morning?” Ben asked. “I know I skipped dinner. And look, I just…” he sighed, staring at his feet. “I’m sorry. I just got excited and then I got so in the zone that I forgot about everything else. If I hadn’t made a breakthrough, I probably would have missed breakfast, too.”
“What kind of breakthrough?” Shias asked.
Ben grinned. “I figured out what I can do with my Blinking,” he said, eyes gleaming. “And I’m gonna show all of you. It’s pretty freaking cool.”
One moment, there was just one Ben, standing cornered at the wall by Kathryn.
And then… there were two Bens.
There was still the Ben by the wall, but now there was also a Ben standing next to Shias, analyzing the other Ben’s predicament with feigned concern.
“Hold on, what?” Kathryn asked, looking from one Ben to the other.
“Which one’s the real one?” Shana asked.
“What do you mean, ‘the real one’?” the Ben next to Shias asked. He leaned on Shias’ shoulder, and Shias clearly felt his weight. So this must be the real one.
“Pretty trippy, right?” the Ben by the wall asked. He blinked away from Kathryn, then took two steps to his doppelganger by Shias and raised a hand. The two Bens high-fived with an audible slap sound.
“Hold on… what?” Kathryn asked, staring even closer at the two Bens.
“How’d you do that?” Shias asked. He tapped the Ben that had leaned on him, and then the other Ben. Both felt completely solid.
“Come on, Shias, if anyone can figure it out it should be you,” the leaning Ben said, grinning.
“I know it’s Illusion Magic,” Shias said. “So if I use Divination Magic, I’ll be able to see through it. But I can’t figure out how you can make both yous completely solid.”
“Are we actually completely solid?” the Ben who had been cornered asked. “Or does it just feel that way?”
“This is making my head spin,” Shana said.
“So one of you only seems solid,” Shias said, patting each Ben on the shoulder. He still couldn’t tell the difference. “There’s some trick you figured out to making them both seem identical and real. And you can control them both independently. That’s amazing.”
“Hey, I always did have a divided attention span,” the Ben who’d been cornered said, laughing. “Now I can make the most use of it.”
“This is a lot easier than I thought it’d be,” the leaning Ben said.
“You guys said it.”
A third Ben was suddenly sitting on the dining table cross-legged, tapping out a rhythm on his knees.
“Oh, please stop,” Rae said, looking away. “This is t-too s-strange.”
“It’s just magic,” the Ben on the table said.
“Just like anything else,” leaning Ben said.
“Magic’s always been super strange,” cornered Ben said. “This is nothing, if you think about it.”
“Did you split yourself into three more annoying Bens?” Kathryn asked, punching leaning Ben and cornered Ben in the shoulder at the same time. They both yelped in pain and rubbed the punched spot in sync with each other.
“We’re not split up,” cornered Ben said. “There’s only one of us. One of me. Oh, wow, now I’m getting confused by myself.”
“Probably a sign you should find a different new skill,” Kathryn said dryly.
“Hey, I only just learned it overnight,” table Ben said. “Plus, this is perfect for me.”
“Can all of you Blink?” Shias asked.
Table Ben grinned. “I’m glad you asked,” he said. At once, all three Bens vanished, reappearing at different spots – one on the stairs, another sitting on the kitchen counter, and a third sitting on the floor, petting Altair.
“Okay, you win a medal,” Kathryn said. “Now tell us who’s the real one.”
The Ben cuddling with Altair pointed at Shias. “He can figure it out at any time,” he said. “He just wants to deduce it normally, instead of relying on his Divination Magic.”
“Because it shouldn’t be this hard,” Shias said, staring intently at each Ben in turn. “You only just learned it. And I’ve never heard of someone able to do this.”
“Really?” stairs Ben asked. “You’re the one who recommended me the textbooks.”
“I’m pretty sure creating doppelgangers wasn’t in the Illusion one,” Shias said.
“Nope,” counter Ben said, grinning. “But you know how magic is – you take certain ideas and concepts, and then get creative. That’s how the best skills are developed. Textbooks didn’t teach Kathryn how to use her ribbons and dancing as a fighting style. They didn’t teach Shana and Rae what to Summon, or what abilities to have their Summons focus on.”
“They did teach me how to Blink, though,” floor Ben said. “So I guess I was the least creative one.”
“Until now!” stairs Ben said triumphantly.
“And me,” Shias said. “Divination Magic is almost entirely textbook stuff, unless you get into highly advanced forms of it, which I haven’t. And Guardian Magic can be creative, but… well, I just know the fundamentals, and spent all my time so far mastering those.”
“And you’re amazing with them,” Shana said. “Those fundamentals saved my life.”
“Are you jealous that I suddenly became more creative than you?” counter Ben asked.
“No,” Shias said flatly. Then he smiled. “Just impressed.” He finally relented, pulling out his pen and focusing his energy into Divining the truth.
Ben on the stairs didn’t vanish in Shias’ Divining-Vision, like he thought he would. But he did become transparent, clearly marking him as fake. Counter Ben was the same.
The Ben on the floor with Altair, however, was just as solid as Shias saw him normally.
“So you’re the real one,” Shias said, frowning as he put away his pen. “But I still can’t see it without magic.”
“That’s how it’s supposed to be,” Ben said. The other two Bens vanished, leaving just the one on the floor. “If I can fool you, then I figure I can fool anyone until they use Divination Magic. And if I get really good at it, and can move around lots of mes really fast, even strong Divination Magic will have trouble dealing with me.”
“But how’d you make the other two solid?” Kathryn asked.
Ben tapped his forehead. “I fooled myself,” he said.
Shias suddenly understood. “That’s right,” he said. “Part of making strong illusions is to also trick yourself. I’ve read about it, but I never think about it much, since I haven’t trained in Illusion Magic.”
“So they seem solid, and they can do some cool things,” Ben said. “But they have limits. I’m still figuring out what they are, but all of my doppelgangers are weaker than me by a big margin. It doesn’t matter if I only make one or I make a bunch, so I figure it’s just a natural tradeoff. If it makes my illusions more believable, then that’s fine with me.”
“You’re pretty cool sometimes, you know that?” Kathryn asked, smiling.
Ben shrugged, looking away. “I knew someone would notice eventually.”
“Well, let’s get to training, shall we?” Maribelle asked. While Ben had been showing off, she’d gone outside, setting things up for their training session. There were wooden dummies shaped like people, metal poles stuck into the grass here and there, and numerous other objects.
“You’re going all out,” Shana said, racing out the door first, with Kathryn and Ben close behind.
“Shall we?” Shias asked, smiling at Rae. She looked nervous, but at his smile, she seemed to relax.
“Let’s go,” she said with a nod.
Outside, Maribelle explained their different training sections. She’d divided up the spacious outdoor area into several focused sections. There were the wooden dummies, designed for combat practice against human-sized foes. There were two separate obstacle courses. A section of the yard was completely dedicated to metal posts sticking up out of the ground, varying widely in height and placement.
“Four zones,” Maribelle said. “The first is the combat zone, filled with dummies to practice on. The two obstacle courses test your physical capabilities in different ways – strength, speed, endurance. And finally, we have a special zone. I’ll explain when we get to it, but for now, let’s work with the combat zone and obstacle courses.”
“Won’t training against dummies that can’t even move be a waste of time?” Ben asked, leaning against one of the wooden dummies. They were essentially padded cushions on a T-shaped post, nothing fancy at all. “I mean, it’s not like the Radiance guys are just going to stand around and let us – ow!”
Ben held a hand to his head, leaping away after the “dummy that can’t move” slapped him with its cushioned arm.
“Magic can do a lot of things,” Maribelle said with a smirk. “We’ll keep the dummies stationary at first, just to work on the accuracy and strength of our core fighters, but don’t worry, Ben – we’ll get them moving soon enough.”
“So are we all starting in the same place, or should we split up?” Shana asked, raising her hand like she was in class, though clearly not waiting to be called on.
“We’ll start the fighters in the combat zone,” Maribelle said. “So Kathryn, Rae – you’re with me. Shias, Shana, Ben, head over to the first obstacle course and run through it once, then come back to me.”
“Let’s kick some butt!” Kathryn cheered excitedly.
“Yeah!” Rae said, doing her best impression of Kathryn’s enthusiasm, her voice only barely wavering. Knowing she was paired up with Kathryn must have given her a boost of confidence, and she showed a surprising bit of pep in her step as she charged onto the combat field.
“Let’s go do our thing!” Shana said, racing towards the first obstacle course. Ben beat her there, Blinking ahead.
“No Blinking through the course!” Maribelle called out. “You especially need to bulk up a bit, Ben!”
“Yeah, you’re a walking stick figure!” Kathryn added.
“You didn’t have to go that far,” Ben mumbled, standing at the obstacle course’s starting line, shifting from one foot to the other, tapping out a rhythm on his legs. After the strangeness of last night, Shias was glad to see Ben was back to his usual frantic energy.
“You need this, too, Shias,” Shana said. “You don’t exercise enough.”
Shias knew that. He had frequent training sessions with Caleb, but those were almost entirely focused on magic. The few times they worked out together, the sessions had been brief enough that Shias’ lack of stamina had never affected him. Besides that… Shias hardly ever exercised, and he’d never played any sports. He always found it enough that he walked a lot throughout Grimoire, but now that he faced a rigorous obstacle course, he knew he wasn’t going to make much of a showing.
Still, he didn’t feel nervous or embarrassed. He was excited. This was his chance to improve, to push himself, to discover who he was and who he needed to become.
Bring it on.
“Looks like there’s space enough for us all to go at once,” Ben said, noting the separate lanes, each with the exact same obstacles. He grinned. “Race ya?”
“Ready-set-go!” Shana shouted, charging forward faster than the boys could react.
“Hey!” Ben called out, but Shias was already racing ahead, too, wasting no time on complaints.
Naturally, Shana breezed through the early sections. People who, unlike Shias, didn’t spend every waking minute with Shana, were always surprised when they saw how athletic she was. She didn’t play any sports, though she’d dabbled in middle school, but she was always running around. She broke out into dance routines to even the faintest melody, and she loved to jump all over the place, play-acting dramatic scenes or action scenes from her favorite plays and movies. She was an active girl in a very unconventional sense, which made her perfectly prepared for an unconventional challenge – like an obstacle course.
The first obstacle was a set of rings on the ground, sort of like a hopscotch board, challenging the course runners to go back and forth, one foot at a time, from ring to ring. By the end of just that one very simple obstacle, Shias was already winded.
Yeah, I needed this. Desperately.
After that, they crossed a log that was suspended over a small pool of water. The log itself was fixed in place in such a way that it was in no danger of falling or rolling away, but it constantly rolled in place underneath Shias’ feet. He fell once, though kept his feet under him, splashing into the pool without getting too wet. He sloshed back to the start, feeling that was the only proper and fair way to deal with such a challenge – if this was a real obstacle course race, he’d either be “out” or forced to restart the obstacle, so he acted as if that was actually the case. While he tried the log again, Ben got across it with ease – the boy had always had a good sense of balance, and he took the crossing fast enough that by the time he started to fall, he was able to fall onto the other side.
Second time was the charm for Shias, if just barely, and next he was faced with a series of wooden stumps. Each was slightly taller than the last, and they formed a not-entirely-straight line up to a platform. Shias jumped up to the first one, and took his time jumping from stump to stump as he went. They were just far enough apart that even with Shias’ fairly long stride, he couldn’t step from one stump to the next. By the time he reached the platform at the top, he was over a story high, facing a rather intimidating challenge.
To get back down to ground level, he didn’t have to climb down. Instead, there was a metal ring slotted into a groove of a rail that traveled from Shias’ platform down to the ground.
Like a zipline. And I was never good at ziplines. My upper body strength is my biggest weakness.
Still, Shias couldn’t just stop here. He gripped the metal ring with both hands and kicked off as hard as he could. Wind rushed at his face as he went zooming towards the ground. His fingers went numb and his arms strained as they suddenly had to support the weight of his entire body.
For five agonizing seconds, Shias held on for dear life.
And then, just as his fingers began to slip, his feet mercifully touched solid ground.
He was going so fast, and his grip was so weak, that the landing sent him tumbling into a forward roll, flipping over so he landed on his back. Dazed for a few seconds, Shias pushed himself to his feet and faced the next challenge
Five days really isn’t going to be enough for this, is it?
After the ring rail slide was a cargo net made of thick, knotted rope that Shias would have to climb up to a new platform. His aching fingers protested, but Shias surged onward and upward. He focused on using his legs as he climbed, holding onto the rope as lightly as possible with his hands while he pushed up with his feet to each new height and handhold. From the platform above he crossed a swaying rope bridge that was missing planks, so he had to watch his steps carefully to not have a foot drop through. After that, there was just a slide that finished off the course, bringing Shias to the finish line.
He was the last to arrive, though he and Ben were in a similar state. While Ben was horribly winded, gasping for breath, Shias was able to catch his breath fairly quickly but felt like his fingers were gone, and his arms were soon to follow.
Shana, meanwhile, looked positively ecstatic. She was bouncing on the balls of her feet, pumping her arms in the air, with a big, happy smile on her face.
“That was the coolest thing!” she said, laughing as she scooped Altair up into her arms, holding him up over her head as he wagged his tail with glee.
“I’m gonna die,” Ben groaned, dropping to his knees in the grass. “It’s the end for me.”
“Stay standing,” Shias said, shaking his hands out. “It’s better for equalizing your blood flow. Stay down like that, and your legs will cramp up something fierce.”
“I’m not gonna die!” Ben shouted, hopping to his feet. “Oh, but I feel terrible.”
“You’ll get better,” Shana said, slapping Ben on the back. “Cheer up! We’re gonna get super strong so we can save Annabelle!”
“That’s the spirit!” Kathryn called out from the combat area. She looked like she was having the time of her life, eyes flashing with energy as she lashed out at a dummy with one of her ribbon wands. Rae looked like she was enjoying herself, too. Seated atop Brutus’ red-furred shoulder, she had a small smile on her face as she stroked the back of his neck. Brutus, despite his hulking size, had a rather pleasant face, and he smiled at Rae’s affection.
“Take on the second course now,” Maribelle said. “Then we’ll reconvene and plan the next steps.”
“When do we get to the strategy part?” Shana asked. “That’s Shias’ specialty!”
Maribelle smiled. “When we regroup,” she said. “You need to know what you’re getting into physically first, and realize how far you have to go.”
“Let’s take on course two,” Shias said, leading the way – until Ben Blinked ahead, his energy returning as he bounced up and down on his feet at the starting line.
“You’re doing great,” Shana said, bumping shoulders with Shias.
“I’ll be doing better when I get feeling back in my fingers,” Shias said, still shaking his hands out, flexing his numb fingers. He smiled. “But thanks. You’re the one who’s really doing great.”
“Not just me!” Shana said, as Altair leapt up into her arms, barking once.
“Both of you are doing great,” Shias said, laughing. “It’s fun, isn’t it? Even if it hurts.”
“It would hurt less if you did things like this more often,” Shana said, poking him in the ribs.
Shias flinched away. “I know that. Come on, I want to beat Ben this time.”
“That’s the spirit!” Shana said, taking her spot at the starting line.
Their training had begun in earnest. For the second course, Shias actually did finish, just barely, ahead of Ben, an accomplishment he took a small amount of pride in. After that they strategized, going over some surface level things – what everyone’s role was, and what each should focus on in training – and then continued for a few more hours before breaking for lunch. After that, they continued for another several hours, before breaking for dinner and the day.
Shias was absolutely, positively, horribly, painfully, dreadfully sore. He knew he’d regret his efforts the next day, but at the same time, he reasoned he was young enough that he could risk overdoing it now and then.
Besides, the stakes were high. He couldn’t afford to hold too much back.
The mood at dinner was exhaustion contrasted with high spirits. Shias felt accomplished. Ben was overly dramatic in a way that was clearly meant to make people laugh, moaning and groaning and making all kinds of hilariously pained expressions. Kathryn and Shana were enthusiastic and pumped up, speaking loudly and laughing a lot. Rae was quietly happy, a small smile on her face throughout the meal.
“Well done today, everyone,” Maribelle said, beaming. “It was a marvelous first day. Tomorrow we’ll ramp things up a bit, but this was a very solid start.”
“You didn’t do anything, though,” Ben said.
“Don’t be rude,” Kathryn said, slapping Ben’s arm.
“I suppose I did slide into the overseer role too easily,” Maribelle said with a chuckle. “I’ll be more of a participant tomorrow. But don’t worry about me. I’m quite capable. If you don’t mind me saying so… it’s the five of you that need the training the most.”
“We’re well aware,” Shias said, cutting off Ben’s protest. “We know we’re outclassed and in over our heads. And frankly, I think at least most of us like it.” He smiled. “It’s like Caleb always says: ‘Fighting above your level and winning is the most exhilarating thing.’”
“And we’ll make him proud by kicking butt at our training and then winning in our fight,” Shana said, eyes flashing with determination.
Caleb, we’re going to be all right, Shias thought, looking around the table at his team. I still wish you were here. But we’ll see each other again soon. And when we do… well, it’s just like Shana says.
We’ll make you proud.