Magic has enticed humans since their first dreams let them peer beyond the boundaries of the world they lived in. It would have been reasonable when things started peering back at them for that interest to have been lost, but anyone who imagined that would happen has clearly never met a human being.– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame
I couldn’t say that the prospect of learning magic was unappealing. Especially since it seemed like there was a lot I needed to catch up on if I was going to survive the Cadet Trials and have a chance to get inside the Academy. There was one problem though; my magic wasn’t really magic at all.
“You came to Middlerun to take part in the Trials, but you’ve had precious little exposure to the Transcendental Arts. I gather your aptitude tests were impressive enough that someone was willing to sponsor you?” Doxle asked.
“They insisted I come,” I said, which had the virtue of being true, while also not being the reason I had wound up where I was.
“Would you mind if I perform an aptitude test of my own?” Doxle asked. “There are fundamentals that you’ll need but I’d like to get a sense of what areas you’re likely to excel at and which ones will be more challenging to start with.”
“They spent most of a day testing me last time,” I said, again the truth, though somewhat misleading since they’d worked out that I had an unusual aptitude on the first test and then spent the rest of the time trying to figure out why I was so weird.
Doxle gave me one of his many patronizing smiles and assured me that, “I work somewhat faster than provincial academics.”
Without another word, or any sort of gesture, the test began. I could tell because one moment I was sitting on the overly padded chair in Doxle’s library and then next I was frozen in bands of green light and floating in a great starry void.
“Here’s your first test, get out of here before you suffocate or go mad.”
From the faint wind that tickled the hairs on my neck and arms, I knew there was air here. Suffocation appeared to be an issue because the green bindings weren’t just wrapped around me. They seemed to run through me from back to front and back again.
Seemed to run through me, but not in a physical sense it turned out. A quick check showed my newly restored internal organs were still in prime shape.
I sniffed. Was this another illusion?
The air carried the scents of rain and dust and chicken feathers and wine spilled over undercooked meat and…and that wasn’t helping. Wherever we were there were too many different places and people close by. A cacophony would have been less disorienting, but I was familiar with shutting out the world. I’d had to do that for as long as I could remember.
“This is one of the basic capture spells a caster would try to use on you if they knew you to be a form shifter and if they felt they had time to complete it,” Doxle said. “Whatever the origin and nature of your magic is though, it is relatively simple to escape this sort of binding. All you need to is…”
I didn’t let him finish his thought. I knew what to do. It was obvious once I took a moment to get a feel for the green bindings.
What passes for magic in me isn’t something I have to twist my mind out of shape to work with. It’s always in me, always a part of me. If anything, it’s the world around me I need to twist my mind around to make sense of.
My magic flows through me not like blood but like the tide. A tide in which I’m no more than a single rain drop. Rebuilding my organs wasn’t hard because it took energy out of me. It was hard because shaping the everflowing stream of ‘me’ into any solid embodiment goes against what the oldest part of me wants to be.
Down in the darkest depths, where hunger and desire and rage rule over everything lives a version of me without form or identity. In those waters, I am nothing and everything and all that lies between. I am something alien to this world. Something that probably shouldn’t exist.
But I do.
And I plan to keep on existing.
That ever-shifting, fluid thing at the heart of what I really am couldn’t have survived here.
So I made something else of myself.
I made who I am now.
Cell by cell, bone by bone, thought and dream by hope and fear. Most of that wasn’t planned and very little of it was by conscious choice. I simply wanted to survive and so I became someone who could.
Doxle’s magic wasn’t like that. When I quieted the panic that rose up and drew it in, I felt an unfamiliar current flowing through me. It was warm and simple, a stream of possibility wrapped in threads of intention.
I took a moment to appreciate the spiraling curls of reason that gave the green stream of power its purpose and definition. Each unspoken, unwritten word was a reflection of Doxle. How he’d managed to weave such a clear and distinct tapestry of rules for what the magic should do in so little time, I had no idea. What I did know was what I could do about.
That was when I interrupted him.
One moment I was bound at the edge of the veil between worlds and then next I was sitting back in the library, free once again.
“Oh, well you seem to have done it,” Doxle said, the surprise on his face genuine from what I could tell. “I think. What is it, exactly, that you did to regain your freedom, and where, if I may ask, is my spell now?”
“I ate it,” I said. Again, arguably the truth, but not the most accurate representation of what I’d done.
Doxle’s magic was a stream given shape and purpose by the words of the spell he bound it with. Flowing alongside it and making it my own? Why would that be hard when my nature was to change and shift as I needed. The words of the spell weren’t mine and would have been more complicate to become one with, but it was a simple spell, there were no words protecting the words of the spell itself, so all I needed to do was drown out one of the threads and the rest broke and unraveled into silence too.
The original aptitude test hadn’t been like this. The proctors for that test had started by trying to see how much magic I could hold. They’d placed cuffs on me similar to the ones the guards had used. Those spells I couldn’t break because there were words wrapped around words and intentions wrapped around intentions, the whole of them so deeply that breaking one only caused the others to multiply making the spell even stronger.
The proctors had tried lightly draining me first, only to find that the light draining wasn’t reaching an end in anything like a safe time frame. They debated trying a heavier drain, but that risked injuring me if they set it too high and couldn’t stop it before I ran out. Thankfully I was more valuable intact than damage, so they ruled out really testing what I could do (which, to be fair, might have actually killed me). Instead, they tried filling me up but that didn’t produce the results they were looking for either.
The one approach that did work for them was binding my magic directly. My nature is to flow, but I’ve spent my life building structure and form around my magic. It was all too easy for magics designed to lock my magic in place to follow the pathways I’d created and freeze me as I was. To fight against that, I would have had to fight against everything I’d built up as myself.
Doxle was looking at me strangely.
Not like I was strange.
I was used to people looking at me like that.
He seemed more pleased than disturbed at the oddity in front of him. Not pleased in a happy sense though. There was something burning in the fire of his eyes, something with knife edges and claw tips.
“An interesting technique,” he said before relaxing back into his seat and into his normal lecturing voice. “Keep that one under wraps for as long as you can tomorrow. Not many, or possibly any, of the Cadets you’ll face can manage a binding spell like the one I just used, but most of them will have similar techniques.”
“Will they be able to cast as fast as you just did?” I asked. Training produced speed, among other traits and, as Idrina had demonstrated, without the time to react to what was happening I tended to fare poorly.
Not “probably not”. Not “it would be unlikely”. Just “no”. He wasn’t bragging that he outclassed all of the casters I would be put up against because he didn’t have to.
“They will have other strategies in place to compensate for that however. Ironbriar for example could hurl a spear at you and then start casting the moment it makes impact. Even if the full incantation takes her several seconds, the distraction of being impaled could prevent you from reacting in time.”
“And how should I deal with that?” I asked.
“Don’t get impaled. It’s solid life advice. Truly.”
My reply was silence and a glare.
“You wish to know the one big secret to winning your battles,” Doxle said. “The secret is that there is no ‘one secret’. Each conflict is different even when the combatants are the same. Ironbriar knows more about you now, and you know more about her. Neither of you will approach the next battle in the manner you approached the last one. Accept that you will be faced with uncertainty, and be ready to act without perfect understanding.”
“So no thinking, just wing it all the time then?”
“Quite the contrary, you want to think and plan as much as possible. Just not in the battle itself. Imagine how you want your battles to go. Imagine what will go wrong. Imagine adapting to those set backs. Try to find the common strategies which present themselves. Identify the signs that suggest when each strategy is needed. Just never make the mistake of thinking that you know what will happen, or that you have responses in place for everything your opponents will do. Expect to be surprised and know what surprises you can spring in return and when you’d want to spend those capabilities.”
“All that tonight?” I asked, wondering if I was ever going to get to sleep at all.
“Oh, of course not,” Doxle said. “That’s what you’ll be doing tomorrow night after you’ve won a place in the Academy and need to prepare for the next set of tests they’ll throw at you.”
“You think I’ll get in?” I asked and then added the more pressing question, “You think I’ll survive?”
“I think you want something inside the Academy very badly. I don’t believe you will allow yourself to die before gaining that.”
He wasn’t wrong, but we’d just established that I did have limits and people were likely to be able to work around them, so I didn’t feel terribly comforted.
“Now that your head is full to the brim, it’s time to give it some rest I believe,” Doxle said, gesturing for me to rise.
That wasn’t how my head worked, and for once I don’t think I was being weird.
Doxle was already leading me out the library though so I followed him into a whole new wing of the house.
This one smelled of pine and, outside the windows, I saw a night darkened forest with a full moon hanging just over the treetops.
Except the moon wasn’t supposed to be full. It had been a waning half moon two days prior when they put me in jail. And the faint pattern on it was wrong too.
“You may use this one if you like,” Doxle said, gesturing towards a bed room the size of Grammy Duella’s entire cottage.
There was no dust and no cobwebs, but I could smell the hint of them lingering in the air, hidden under a layer of fresh soap and water.
I stepped in the room and could smell that someone had been there just a moment or two before the door opened.
“I’ll wake you in the morning,” Doxle said and before I could protest that I would probably still be up, I felt myself topple over into a deep and dreamless sleep.