Claude sighed as he stared at the silver moon. He had gone through his considerations repeatedly the last couple of days, but he was still unsure which path to take. Being a battlemagus was good, but he had no spells to learn and no idea how he could get some.
Becoming a rune magus was far more achievable, but it would leave him vulnerable if he was ever discovered, and even before that -- as with combat spells -- he had no magic ingredients and no way to get any. Well, it wasn't quite that bad. He could get at least some of the most rudimentary ingredients at a few sellers and peddlers, with money. He could at least make a few low-grade potions, and do a couple of barrel modifications, for example, and he had the funds for an initial purchase. Fire crystals, however, would be trouble. They were the cornerstone of all alchemical formations, but they were very expensive jewels reserved for the wealthy, such as nobility. Most of the trades were done behind closed doors as well, so just having the funds wasn't enough, he needed the connections to get behind those doors as well. He wanted badly to make a flintlock musket, which he could do with an alchemical formation array, and that was the problem.
Well, there was no point in fatiguing himself over the issues right now. Such matters were still a long ways off.
Regardless of which path he took, he could only continue to train in Hexagram Meditation and gather fire essence. He had a few months before he became a first-rank rune magus.
The weather was getting colder and colder every day now. Claude had to wear the sweater his mother knitted him every time he left home. His leg had recovered and he could run and jump like he had before. The healed torn muscle still acted up from time to time, and tended to get fatigued faster than his other leg, so he trained it daily with a six kilometre run around the south and east edge of town.
The students began becoming restless as the 11th month rolled around. The vacation was getting closer and closer and no one could wait to have two-and-a-half months off of school. Before that, however, they had to write the annual finals. It wasn't a particularly difficult exam, those who studied throughout the year usually passed it easily. Unfortunately that was not the majority of the kids.
The instructors themselves were getting tired, and the discipline sagged. The most affected where the teachers responsible for final year classes. In addition to the normal fatigue from a long year's work, they were also preoccupied with finishing up for the third years' final exam and preparing for the graduation ceremony.
Borkal and Eriksson had fully awakened their interest in the opposite sex, and frequently exploited the lax discipline to slip out of class and peep on the girls' class. A few were even beginning the 'foolish years' as it was known, falling in love for the first time, which often resulted in them smiling like fools the whole day if they got a word or two out of their crush.
"There's no saving those two..." Claude sighed, shaking his head as he watched the two boys literally wobble into class, glassy-eyed and smiling like painted dolls. They'd gotten literally just a couple of words in with their crushes, Betty and Porya. Claude didn't even want to think what they were picturing vividly at that moment.
"Sorry, Claude," Welikro murmured shyly from the side.
"What's up?" Claude asked.
"Well... I asked my dad if I could take you out to Egret with us for the break, but he said it was too dangerous. After what happened to you last time we went out--" Welikro darted a glance at Claude's leg. "--he's not willing to risk anything with you. He said that, while he doesn't doubt you can take on the island in winter, he is not going to bet his reputation and standing on it."
Claude nodded understandingly.
"It's fine, Wero. Your dad wouldn't take me along even if mine said it was okay. Don't feel bad. Why don't you take a nap? We have the physical tests this afternoon and I want you at your best when I beat you!"
Claude had done well in the academic portion of the finals thus far. He'd gotten 17th overall, and his friends did quite well thanks to cheating off him. All the kids knew what they were doing, and it didn't help their reputation at all, but no one had the guts to tell the examiners what was going on.
Claude won over Welikro in the physical tests eventually thanks to outdoing Welikro in his weak spots, and matching him where he was stronger. Had Claude not won the rapier and two-hander competitions and finished fifth with the shortsword, winning the entire event overall, Welikro might have beaten him. Even Claude at his best couldn't beat the boy in unarmed combat.
The fearsome four would be split once school ended, for which the town was infinitely grateful. Eriksson was to leave with his father for the Sea of Storms. It was his first time sailing out of the bay in winter and he couldn't wait to get underway.
Welikro was leaving for Egret with his father as usual. They usually only went for a couple of weeks once, but this time they would go back for a second trip because his father had promised his sister a stonefox pelt, and if they didn't get one in the hunt, he'd have to make enough from the season to buy the girl one.
Borkal's father was dragging him off with him to tour the prefectures and check up on the various establishments he owned. They set off even before school closed on the last day.
Claude had no such luck. He was not going anywhere, and now he didn't even have his cronies to distract him. The only thing he could do was play with his younger siblings and the pup, aside from his meditations, of course.
He had some money to burn, and a lot of dead time ahead, so he scoured the town's bookstores and peddlers for anything he could find, and was left completely empty handed.
His sister and little brother were all too happy to accompany him, which made things only harder for him since he had to keep an eye on them while trying to find something worthwhile, and they were rapidly eating up, in some cases quite literally, his money. He didn't have the heart to tell them they couldn't come along, however, and so he ended up saved by his father's miserliness. The older man forbade the two from tagging along, saying they were taking unfair advantage of their older brother.
The two nearly threw tantrums, but he stood firm and resolute, and they eventually gave up and locked themselves in their room.
Welikro stopped by a couple weeks into the vacation and brought him a muntjac leg. A muntjac was a species of deer common to the three prefectures. They were about the size of a goat but could not jump over a twig if it was in their way. They were very easy to catch for someone who knew what he was doing, and they were rapidly going extinct in the region. By now they were a rare, if easy, catch.
They had yet to catch a stonefox, so they were only back here to drop of their pickings and restock on supplies. They were leaving again in a day or two. Despite everything Claude had done to ease him, Welikro was still very unhappy with himself for failing to convince his father to let the boy come along. Not just because it felt wrong to leave his friend in town while he went out on an adventure, but because it was a waste for a hunter as talented as Claude to waste an entire season languishing in boredom at home. Claude's father would never let him go, however, and neither would Welikro's father for that matter, so there was nothing to do but feel ashamed.
Claude showed him the letter he got from Borkal just two days earlier. It said he wouldn't be back for new year's, since his father had decided they would spend it at his aunt's in Simlock. He hoped to be back by the end of the 1st month, however.
Eriksson was next on the chopping block. They'd not heard about him yet, but if his father did the same as the previous times, he ought to be back just before new year's.
Welikro wanted to make up for his absence, and since Claude had nothing to do, really, the two headed south of town at Welikro's suggestions for a little hunting. He forbade Claude from using traps, however.
"This is to practise your shooting as much as it is to hunt. So no traps!" he'd said, wagging his finger at Claude like an angry teacher.
Claude had to fight to swallow his laughter, but managed somehow to nod almost seriously.
Welikro left again two days later as he'd said, and Claude was alone once more. The snow finally came down and covered everything in a daily-thickening blanket blanched of all colour. Balinga's edges also started to freeze.
Eriksson returned just before the harbour had to close down for the winter, and brought with them two whales.