Borrowed books covered the floor of the room. They lay open around Amy, and her focus darted from volume to volume. Processing the information glut was like trying to isolate melodies from twelve songs playing at once, but she found little trouble in it. She had never been a reader, never a talented student. But this, these books of magic, felt right. More right than anything had before, even the swim team. It was so simple, now that she thought about it. Instinctive. Like she had gone a lifetime without breathing, and was finally tasting air.
A notebook lay on the floor next to her, used to mark down particularly interesting sections of prose. The journal had been empty when she begun; now it was ¾ full. It seemed as soon as she set the pen down, she would read a reason to pick it up again.
She turned the page of a worn volume. Its paper crackled between her fingers.
Honestly, how rituals became the multi-universally practiced form of spellcraft boggles the mind, considering the hundreds of methods available, of which they are, by far, one of the most boring and obtuse. Look at the world of Kell, with its color-bases systems of casting, or Hyliss, home of the God-metal magic, or even O (a world whose true name cannot be pronounced, or even inscribed, by outsiders), where rites are fueled by expending memory. And with all these wonderful, fascinating, glorious paths available to us, we have decided to settle for drawing pictures and thinking really, really hard at them, which is not even the simplest method, when you get down to it, or the most efficient, or even the most practical. When did spellcraft lose its spark, and what can be done to recover it?
types of magic? kell/hyliss/o She wrote, and turned to the next to book.
“You seem to be grasping the basic idea,” said Snake. “This is about balance. Magic is stockbrokery- the predictions of value, the risks of trade, the debts of failure. How to squeeze the most worth from a limited good. The universe does not tolerate inflation.”
“How can we do that, if we don’t decide the payment required?”
“Simple,” said Snake. “We cheat.”
The book was a single discussion between wizened Snake and the nameless, faceless creature it had taken as an apprentice. The lessons started simple, but quickly rose in complexity. The later pages were little more than long equations accompanied by dense charts and drawings.
Few of the books contained specific rites or rituals. Most stressed that individuality was a key component of spellcraft- castings could be replicated, but most effective would always be the ones personally developed.
The room was dark. While reading, almost without thinking, she had attempted several simple rites. An orb of conjured light now wavered above her head. Rumpled clothes sat on the floor, moved by a poor attempt at telekinesis. Black singes marked where a shower of sparks had rained onto the carpet.
In the mountains of a forgotten land I came across a curious village. The people within seemed to be the only sapient life in the world. And despite their primitive nature, they were capable of rites that would turn an archivist pale. The villagers had little knowledge of spellcrafting theory; they viewed these feats as natural gifts from their ancestors. Curious, I decided to study with these people. Over the course of three years, I learned enough to rewrite the laws of spellcraft entirely, the most important lesson being-
Amy. Your hand.
She looked up. Rivulets of blood dripped from her arm, hiding the skin beneath a slick gleam.
“Fuck!” Careful not to damage the books, she leaped up and snatched a towel from the clothing pile, pressing it to the wound. Blood welled back up almost as fast as she could clean it, but eventually the flow lessened and she could see the cuts beneath. Runes carved into her flesh, large, twisting marks that covered her flesh like scales.
“Jesus,” she muttered.
You must be more aware of your casting. The Witness had been mostly silent during her reading, responding only when she needed a question answered or point clarified.
Yeah. Right. Thanks for the warning. She tiptoed around the books and into the hallway. The bright light made her eyes water. She felt her way to the bathroom, twisted the faucet handle. As hot water soaked the gashes, she heard footsteps on the stairs. Rupinder appeared in the mirror, leaning against the doorframe.
He glanced at the wound. “I could heal that for you.”
Without looking back, she shut off the water. “Will you?”
“No. Get packed. We leave tomorrow morning.” He left. The door clicked shut.
She stared down at the wounds. They had already started to scab over, forming a gnarled mark that twisted around her arm. “Jesus,” she said.
You pulled too much, too quickly, too forcefully. Reality pulled back.
Yeah, I think I’m beginning to understand that.
Back in the room, she sorted the books and laid them on the dresser. Probably a bad idea to take them, considering where they were going. The notebook lay open on the floor. She kneeled to flip through it.. Funny. She barely remembered writing half of this. The whole week since arriving at this building had been a blur.
It was difficult to think of it as anything other than “the building” because she had no other reference point to name it. She wasn’t even sure of the route they’d taken. There’d been at least three car rides, a plane, two buses after that, and what felt like a Way. Since then she hadn’t left. The place was massive, luxurious- eight hours of exploring on the first day hadn’t brought her near mapping it all.
Looking out the windows, she could see the distant silhouette of a mountain range. Impossible to tell how far away. Maybe a few miles. Maybe a dozen. When she looked down, she saw the perimeter of illuminated grass that surrounded the building, and the steel fence that marked the boundary. The outer light from the building disappeared as soon as it crossed its bars. It was always dark outside.
Back in her room, she took a seat on the bed. Not for the first time this day (this hour, even) it occurred to her that agreeing to assist Rupinder had been an award-winningly shitty idea. Had there been other options? Likely not. But that knowledge didn’t drive away the feelings. She fell back on the mattress.
You said you’d heard of Rupinder before, she thought.
It took several minutes for the reply to come. Yes. Predominately rumors and speculation, but yes.
What were the rumors?
Contradicting stories of feats which, if true, would rank him among the most talented known spellcrafters. Travel between universes using only his will. Raising entire armies of the dead to fight for him. Besting gods in combat.
Amy sighed and rubbed her temples. That shit he pulled back in the jungle doesn’t make me feel super confident they’re wrong.
Perhaps. Most experienced crafters are skilled at not tipping their hand.
But either way we basically have zero hope of even becoming a minor nuisance to him.
Man, she thought, this gets better by the minute.
The air outside was freezing. Five of them stood in the yard. Amy had buried herself in a puffy green parka, but it hadn’t helped stop the shivering. A bulging backpack hung from her shoulders. The second was Rupinder, who looked completely unbothered by the cold, dressed in jeans and a thin sweater. Next were the Nish-Hyet. Amy had avoided talking to them since her arrival, and they her. At the moment they looked human, and oblivious of the weather.
The final member was an East Asian-looking woman who, in Amy’s week long stay with the group, hadn’t said a single word. Like Amy, she wore several layers of clothes. Dark coats, gloves, a hat. Her face was twisted in discomfort, but she hadn’t uttered a word of complaint.
They stared into a hole in the universe
It was a large circle, about six feet tall, floating a foot off the ground. A bright light shone from it, shielding the other side from curious eyes. Amy had to squint just to glance at it.
Rupinder nodded to the silent woman and stepped to the side of portal. She advanced. Their eyes met, briefly, before she crossed the light, and hers flashed with hatred. Rupinder wore the same bemused expression as always.
After the light swallowed her, the Nish-Hyet crossed through. Amy and Rupinder stood alone in the yard. He extended an arm in a “no, you first, I insist” gesture. She glared at him and stepped into the light.
It was like having ten thousand ants poured over her body at once. The sensation ran across her, pins and needles across every inch of her skin. She felt the crawling in her teeth and gums, and instinctively clamped her mouth shut. The sensation only increased. The light swelled in intensity, so bright that even with her eyes shut it burned red in her vision.
She took another step and felt solid ground. She opened her eyes, saw a wooden deck of a ship around her. The sky above was clear and pale blue, surrounding a red sun. The air was warm. A soft breeze pulled at her hair. She unzipped the parka and let it fall to the ground.
A small handrail guarded the edge of the platform. Amy approached it and looked down. The ship was gliding through water so clear that if it hadn’t been for the wake, it would have been invisible. Hundreds- no, thousands- of fish flicked through the water, a living rainbow that went down until the water turned to dark to see. She watched, eyes wide, as a shark cut through the crowd to clamp its jaws around a large striped fish.
This isn’t really what I thought it would be like.
You should try to grow accustomed to that feeling.
She released the rail and backed up. Whose ship is this?
Ours, for the moment.
“Expecting something different?”
She turned. Rupinder was standing a few feet behind her, hands in his pockets, gazing into the water.
Leaning her arms on the rail in the most casual way she could muster, she said, “Dunno what I was expecting.”
He nodded. “Not a terrible attitude to have. Useful, in some situations.” He turned and beckoned her to follow. Scowling, she did. “This is your first time sailing?”
“First that I remember.” They reached a staircase and followed it up to a smaller deck. The woman and Nish-Hyet waited.
“I suggest you enjoy it, then. There won’t be much need for your help as we travel.”
“My own tropical vacation. Awesome.” She stood at the edge of the stairs, watching the group.
“It should be a unique experience,” said Rupinder. He turned to the others. “We’ll deal with the sailing. Make yourself comfortable, please.”
In response, she turned and walked away. The ship was somewhere between a yacht and cruise liner in size. A metal door opened into a thin staircase, and the dust-filled air within shuddered. A thick gloom masked any view of what lay beyond
She let the door fall closed, backing up quickly. Making her way to the railing, she looked back down. A large eel-like creature had picked up the boat’s trail. It swam behind, trying to hide in the shadows. Plumes of liquid clouded the water behind it, like blue smoke. A gathering of minnows fought to get at the trail
The red eye of the reflected sun stared at her from the water. What would it be like, to jump into the sea? She pictured it enveloping her, tugging her down to the sandy bed. Silent. Still. Alone, where she would never be found.
I wonder what’s at the bottom.
It was an idle thought, a mental muttering, but the response came. No one knows. It has never been reached.
How many have tried?
It is difficult to keep an accurate record. Few return.
I wonder if they wanted to.
A breeze flicked her hair across her face. She tucked it back behind her ear. To her right, one of the Nish-Hyet was fiddling with a lock. It stumbled as the door fell open, and she stopped herself from laughing.
By the time she left the dock, the sun hung half-beneath the horizon, and the sky was the color of blood. She lingered at the stairs for several minutes before descending. The echoed sound of her footsteps sounded like the rhythm of a war drum.
Following the hallway, she entered the belly of the ship, a dining hall that made her think of old cyberpunk films. It was empty, and she was all too aware of the whine of the engine as she crossed it. Down another hallway, the walls streaked with a greasy black substance, and she reached an empty room. There wasn’t much to it but a mattress, sink, and a bed welded to the wall. A window looked out to the water. She grabbed the mattress, dragged it up to the deck.
By the time she fell asleep, the sky had turned pitch-black. The night held no stars.
It was hard to tell which was worse, the walls of the interior that felt like a metal fist crushing her, or the openness of the deck that left her in a state of constant observation. Amy settled for nesting in a corner of the deck that was hidden from any of the crew as they worked. For the most part, they left her alone. The Nish-Hyet would leer at her as she passed. Rupinder occasionally tried to start up a conversation. To the woman, Amy seemed completely invisible.
With the sun to her back, she cast spells in the shadows. Small ones, and she kept a careful eye on her body and surroundings for unintended damage. The Witness tried to coach her through the castings, but it was hard to follow the lessons. It kept forgetting how little time she’d spent studying, and skipped from teaching the basics to getting lost in musings over advanced theory and techniques she could barely comprehend. She was able to sift out useful information from parts of it, but it was slow going, like trying to chip through a stone wall with a spoon.
From what she could gather from the information torrent, the cost of a rite was tied to what the caster valued, but not unavoidably so. It was entirely possible to cast a spell, only for the universe to decide it felt like taking a stone from three mountain ranges away as a cost. But it also seemed to accumulate- the longer you went without being personally affected, the more would be taken when it finally came back around. Most attempts seemed to just drain her energy. After a dozen or so attempts, she was panting as if she’d just swam a mile.
After lunch, out of curiosity, she’d grabbed a plate of food from the kitchen and placed it near her. It didn’t seem affected as she worked. Next, instead of eating dinner, she took it up with her and swapped it out with the lunch plate. This time, chunks of food vanished for most castings.
So, extra food I grab from the supplies is worthless. Skipping a meal gets me farther.
Essentially. The excess food would eventually be used, but not for more than one in twenty castings. Most likely. As I have said before, this is a fickle art.
Right, she said, and closed her eyes. An image took shape, of a thorny stem spreading its roots in the dark and sprouting up. The stem sprouted a bulb, and the scales opened into a flamingo-pink rose. Her eyes still shut, she sucked in a breath and thrust her hand out. Something spilled from her palm; she opened her eyes and saw a pile of petals on the wood.
Fuck, she thought. I thought I had it that time.
You must hold the image clearer. Picture it as if it were truly here.
“Shit, well now it all makes sense,” she muttered.
“I’m impressed you were capable of even that,” said a familiar voice. She looked up and saw Rupinder. “It takes many practitioners over a year of study to learn to work even trivial summonings.” He knelt, taking a petal. He rubbed it between between the pads of his fingers. “Stable too. This is good work.” Glancing over his shoulder he said, “Taking the food was clever. Impractical, but clever.”
“Seems pretty practical to me,” she said.
“Many spells of the unpracticed already take from your physical energy. Skipping meals will only drain you that much quicker.”
Dammit, that actually made sense. Bastard.
He flicked a wrist, tossing a handful of daffodils into the air. They drifted back to the deck and disappeared with another wave of his hand. “Did you see what I paid for that?”
Amy shook her head.
“Look down.” She did. The petals had disappeared.
“That’s not fair. How the hell did you do that?”
Rupinder grinned. “I cheated.” He rose to his feet. “I have shipwork to do. I can show more tomorrow.”
As he walked off, the Witness snorted. I could have showed you that. It was just too simple.
After lunch, Rupinder joined her on the deck. Amy scowled as he approached. “Didn’t say you could help me.”
“That’s fine.” He walked a short distance away and stood, staring at her.
She tried to ignore him, but even looking away she felt his gaze on her, like a centipede on her skin. Each time she looked up he was in the same position, motionless. His dark eyes tracked her smallest movements.
As yesterday, she’d brought up her lunch instead of eating it (though taken a larger breakfast to compensate), and the casting came easily at first. The rites were simple- exercises described in one of her books as a sort of warm up. Holding a small flame in the air. Creating the noise of barking dogs. Shifting the color of a wooden slat. By the time she had run through all of them, the plate of food had become a plate of scraps, and she was breathing hard.
“Another problem,” said Rupinder. He hadn’t moved, but like in the jungle, his voice seemed to come from over her shoulder. “Unless you have massive stores, edibles run through quickly.”
Instead of responding, Amy closed her eyes and sucked in a breath. She let the air trickle from her lungs, then drew in another. The cycle continued, in and out, slow and calm, as the rose’s image took shape within the darkness. She raised her hand, exhaled, and imagined the stem flowing from her palm. When her eyes opened, she held a small sprout with a single thorn.
“Fuck!” She hurled the growth away. It flopped to the wood. “What the hell was wrong that time?”
Remember, it is about focus and clarity. You must-
“Quiet,” she growled. The stem still lay on the deck. She kicked at it, smearing green across the wood.
Rupinder stood statue-still. Amy glanced at him and quickly looked away. She looked at the plate. Calling up the rose had used the last of the meal. Trying the trick again might be risky. The cuts on her arm had faded to scars, but the wounds still ached.
Movement caught her eye. Rupinder had turned to look out at the ocean. He stared, arms still crossed, and a blob of water fifteen feet across rose from the sea. The insides churned with the movement of dozens of fish, unaware or uncaring of their new environment.
Rupinder raised a hand. The sphere separated into four. The quadruplets tumbled around each other, spiralling in and out, over and under, coming within inches of collision but always dipping away. Again the water split, and sixteen droplets danced.
“It may look impressive,” said his voice beside her. “But compared to creating being from nothing, it’s a children’s game.” He raised the other hand. The droplets slammed back together. Amy flinched back as water sprayed her. “You would easily prove capable of it, given a few days. Now, what do you think was the payment?”
She glanced down. The rose-stem still lay on the wood.
Rupinder flicked a wrist, and the water sped towards her. It stopped just in front of her face, and she saw what he meant. Corpses of fish floated in the bubble.
She almost asked how that was possible before remembering she was supposed to be the stubborn one. “I don’t need your help.”
“If you insist.” The sphere drifted back to join the others. Rupinder remained in place, propped up by the rail. Amy tried to ignore him. Drawing in a slow breath, she closed her eyes. Piece by piece, she began sort the thoughts cluttering her mind, tucking fears into the drawers of subconscious, sweeping worries from the corners of her memory, until all that remained was the dark.
Now. Form the image. Thousands of green flecks appeared and turned slowly, growing closer together until they formed a single strand. The stem. Thorns began to curve out. A dot of red poked through the tip, hesitated, then burst into a rose.
A rose with a thin beard and smug eyes. The pupils turned towards her, and she heard giggling. Gritting her teeth, she forced the image away and started over. This time she didn’t even get to the thorns before Rupinder’s face forced the whole thing away.
Her eyes snapped open. “Stop doing that!”
Rupinder raised his eyebrows. “Is it a crime to stand here?”
“Not that, asshole. Stop making me imagine shit.”
“I’m not doing anything. If you’re imagining anything, it’s a product of your own mind.”
Amy snorted. “Whatever.” She shut her eyes, inhaled, and began again. This time the image formed with little trouble. Holding it in her mind, she lifted her hand, and spoke.
Green sparks sprayed from her palm, fizzling as they hit the wood. Amy screamed in frustration and slammed her hand against the deck.
“It would be an excellent party trick. Makes for poor magic, though.” Rupinder had moved closer as her eyes were closed, and now stood only a few feet away. “There are two mistakes here. The first is preparation. The other is payment.” He moved his finger through the air. Red light trailed behind it, and a diagram began to take shape. When he was finished, an elaborate system of lines and circles lazed in the air. “You are talented. Talent has limits. Attempting a summoning rite with so little experience is one of them.”
He flicked his finger. The diagram separated into three symbols. He directed his finger at the rightmost, which looked like an angular peace symbol. “One of the marks for Existence.” The finger moved left, to a series of layered spirals. “A giving of thanks.” The final one was a straight line, from which three squiggles rose up. “Growth, or alternatively, light.”
Amy watched, silent.
“There are, quite literally, thousands of runic combinations for any ritual you would want to enact. Finding the best is a matter of trial, error, personality, and prior knowledge. This will be the best for your purposes.” He wave a hand, dismissing the symbols into embers. “You should be able to figure out how to form the light.”
He was right. Extending a hand, she began to draw. She wasn’t halfway through before Rupinder swiped a hand through, destroying it. “Wrong.” The second attempt provided similar results. The third earned silent approval, and she drew her hand back. The markings were a bit sloppier than Rupinder’s had been, and they trembled slightly, but they held.
“Touch your hand to the runes. Gently, you don’t want to disturb it. Now, try the rite again.”
Amy closed her eyes, formed the image, and forced it into existence. At first she felt nothing. When her eyes opened, the rose floated in front of her, the runes gone.
“Holy shit,” she said, before she could stop herself.
Rupinder smirked. “She can listen. Wonderful.”
Amy looked away.
“Now, the second missing piece is the price. The cost of which for summoning can be daunting, if uncontrolled.”
She plucked the rose from its bed of air, examined it. “It didn’t feel like I paid anything.”
“Your spare clothing downstairs is burning.”
Amy didn’t bother asking how he knew that. “Thanks for the warning.”
“Now do you understand how important it is to manage cost?”
She glanced at her arm. “Pretty sure I already knew that.”
Rupinder ignored the comment. “What do you understand of cost so far?”
“That the universe really likes to fuck with us.”
A grin spread across his face. “A succinct way of putting it. A common metaphor used is a financial system. It’s clumsy, but apt. Reality as a predatory lender. When you try to receive payment, it doesn’t intend to let you break anywhere near even. Thus, like all good servants of capitalism, we negotiate.”
“Okay,” she said. What the hell was he talking about? She’d slept through most of Economics class. She still wasn’t quite sure how you took out an actual loan.
“A method you’ve already discovered is to simply bring appealing payment with you. Easy in theory. Maddeningly impractical in reality.”
“Some spellcasters will simply enact their rites and hope nothing too harmful comes of it. These tend to rest on the lower end of the lifespan bell curve. What rational casters do is pre-negotiate. Set up a system of rules for payment, one that tends to favor themselves. Most start simply, then build up to a complex web of terms and limitations as they gain experience.”
“That sounds uh… complicated.”
“It is, at first. I trust you’ll learn quickly. I’m sure your friend would be willing to lend a hand.”
Nothing he says is uncommon knowledge.
Well, you should have told me earlier.
She refocused on Rupinder. “Why are you telling me all of this stuff?”
His expression grew serious. “Because it’s been a long, long time since anyone deserved it.” He stepped away, motioning for her to follow. “Come. Time to barter with existence.”
For the next three weeks, they practiced. Rupinder used every moment not spent sleeping, eating, or sailing the ship the ship for lessons, running through drills, theory, tests almost faster than Amy could learn. The entire first week was used to determine the prices of spells. A room was set up in the cabin, small, lightless, where she would sit and commune with the world. The first day gave few returns. The second, the same. On the third day, after five hours of meditation, it spoke to her. Four hours of vicious negotiation followed, and by the end of the week a system of three rules had been established to stabilize her casting.
The second week was used for runes. Hundreds of them a day before noon. After lunch, she would invoke the same castings over and over, never allowed to repeat a ritual’s combination. They practiced bending the air, calling flame, manipulating the sea-life, summoning increasingly arbitrary and complicated objects. From there, they moved to transporting objects through space, illusions, reshaping solid materials. Rupinder barely gave her time to grasp one form of casting before bounding to the next. Every day she fell into bed, tired beyond the point of movement, and it seemed she barely blinked before it was time to rise again and begin practice.
In the final week, they practiced impromptu casting. For the first few days, as before, she could barely call forth a flower, barely teleport stones a few meters while retaining their shapes. Rupinder stalked circles around her, yelling advice disguised as beration. Slow down. Speed up. Move your hands. Keep your body still. Don’t speak. Mutter under your breath. Think carefully before you act. Release by instinct. When she collapsed into a pile of spasming muscles, he forced her to her feet and demanded she begin again.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” she said through desperate gasps of air. “You can’t give me one piece of fucking advice that’s simple?”
“The methods for each crafter are different. It is through experimentation that we learn what best suits us.”
She sighed. “So what about those other methods of casting? Not just rites and rituals and stuff. When do we experiment with them?”
Rupinder wrinkled his nose. “Perhaps learn the basics first. They will come, eventually.”
So the voyage passed, and by the time they reached the island, it seemed that no time had gone by at all.
Land was a sliver of sand peeking from the waves, gray and stale and beckoning beneath a slate sky. Thin fog blanketed the strip. The water grew darker the closer the ship drew towards coast, and the sea surrounding shore was the shade of wet tar. The tide lapped eagerly at the ship’s bow as they drifted onto the beach
The travellers gathered at the front of the ship. One of the Nish-hyet (Amy had given up trying to distinguish the two) lowered a rope bridge. The silent woman descended first, followed by the shapeshifters. Rupinder was next, Amy last.
She landed ankle deep in the black water, and it stained her skin even when she made it to shore. The others had gathered at the edge of the water, and watched her with expressions of anticipation. Moving forward felt like approaching the edge of a cliff, bottomless, black.
“Lead on,” said Rupinder when she reached them.
Amy nodded, swallowed. Just straight, right?
She began to walk. Even away from the beach, the sand was saturated with water. Her feet sunk half an inch deep into the sand. Within minutes, her feet were heavy with mud. She didn’t slow. She couldn’t slow. It was far too late for that.
The fog thickened as she walked, until she was moving through a veil of white, the path ahead hidden.
Keep going. There is only one path to follow.
What was that noise, in the distance? Unintelligible muttering that touched her ears like poison. She could hear footsteps behind, too many to just be her fellow travellers. Were they still there? Had they left her? Had they disappeared? Was this a trick, a simple ploy to get rid of her? She took another step and almost stumbled into a pool of frigid water. It grew deeper, past her ankles, her calves, her knees. It reached her hips and she felt movement against her legs, thin shapes snaking across her skin.
And then the fog lifted, and she was looking at the sea. There was sloshing in the water behind her. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Rupinder moving by her side. The other three joined him. The pool they stood in was as clear as the open ocean, the bottom red sand. They were the only movement within it- if there had been any creatures at all, they remained in the safety of the fog.
A jagged, pale stone rose from the beach. A woman hung limp from iron shackles. She was naked, skeleton thin. Her black hair hung to the small of her back, the bangs curtaining her face. As they group approached, her head rose. A single brown eye studied them, and Amy realized that despite the woman’s state, she was still a knife that cut.
Nobody moved until the silent woman stepped forward. She moved to the stone and began to work at the shackles with practiced method. After a minute, one clicked open. The second soon follow. She caught the chained woman before she could fall, lowered her the ground, steadied her. The two stared at each other. Studying the two, Amy realized they were identical.
“I told you we would come, Sister,” said the first.
The freed woman smiled. “I’ve missed you, my Queen.”