As promised, here is a short story from a novel I currently have on the backburner. It is also a fantasy world and here I have begun playing with different systems of magic and new ideas. Hope you enjoy. Note, this piece was updated April 17th with some edits to smooth it out. Thanks to my writer buddies for the additional polish!
I am the Way
A group of ten second-year students and their two mentors gather in the auditorium, close enough to see clearly and far enough away should something go awry. Demonstration days are always difficult. I’m always afraid I’m going to explode myself and scar some poor apprentices for life. They’re warned that this particular spell is dangerous, but you really cannot understand until you’ve seen a man botch his cast. It looks and smells like the floor of a slaughterhouse at the end of the day. I know the faculty wants to deter apprentices from experimenting with magic above their level, but I think this is too young to be exposed to master-level workings.
I remember those white robes fondly. When I was an apprentice, I thought masters were presented with black robes as a mark of their achievement. Now I know better. it’s because you can’t get the stains out. I bought black ones less than a year after graduation.
I stand with my hands tucked into my sleeves, gazing up at the diffused glow from the skylight while Master Yousef gives a short lecture. The room is completely clear of any furniture, papers, and other items. The echoes of the mentor’s voice bounce crisply off the bare stone.
“This is Master Larksmere. He’s going to be ripping himself in half for you today,” Yousef says without preamble. Rickard’s mouth ticks up at the corner and he resists the urge to smile but I catch the expression and give him a smirk.
“This mage has been casting gateways for four years,” Rickard adds when the other man pauses. “You do not get to attempt this until seventh level. I expect you all to abide by this.” He gestures to Yousef who nods, smoothing a hand over his silvered hair.
“Just so,” he agrees. “We’ve gone over the risks of gate-opening in class. Before Master Larksmere gets started, do you have any questions for him?” He glances at me as I give him an impassive smile. He’s been a staunch supporter of keeping void magic demonstrations in second year ever since he lost his nerve for gate-opening and transferred to the dominion of fire instead.
A short blonde girl near the front raises her hand.
“Beth?” he points to her.
“The Book of the Void says that a void mage has to keep perfect concentration from beginning to end. What happens if he gets distracted?”
My smile widens for her and she pushes her glasses up the bridge of her nose with a nervous finger-flick. I know at present are only permitted to see the first chapter of that book so I keep my explanation simple.
“If I lose my focus, I face one of the three critical failures of void magic.” I hold up three fingers and every eye in the room follows that movement. This lot is quite attentive, I realize. Good. “To touch the void and survive, I have to phase partly—but not all the way—out of this plane. If I phase too far into this plane, I will split in two and Master Rickard, despite his skills, will not be able to put me back together.”
I make a gesture like opening a book and Rickard bows his head in acknowledgement, his red hair falling forward to partly obscure his face. As a healer, working with void mages is hard on him; we really put his training to the test.
“If I phase too far into the void,” I continue. “I lose my grip on this plane and fall into the abyss.” I press my fingertips to my chest. “There are a lot of theories as to what happens to mages who get pulled through, but it’s fairly safe to assume they do not survive.”
Beth swallows hard and clasps her hands neatly in front of herself to keep from fidgeting.
“The third failure happens if I can’t maintain the elemental magics properly.” I spread my arms out to either side. “If one gets out of synch with the others, or I simply get more energy flowing through my body than I can handle, I will explode and you’ll all go home wearing red robes.”
The girl wrinkles her nose, recoiling slightly. Rickard clears his throat.
The student’s faces are approaching the pallor of their robes and I try to think of how I might reassure them. “Don’t worry, though. Just stand back and do what Master Yousef tells you to. You won’t see any of those failures today. Probably.” I smile at them. Some of the young faces grimace but I don’t get any smiles back. Oh well.
A freckled boy timidly raises his hand and Yousef nods to him.
“Um, does it hurt to—y’know—do the spell?” His peers slowly turn to look at him, eyebrows raised. Jeremy looks at the floor, realizing his question sounded stupid.
“Yep,” I say. “Lots. When you get into third and fourth year endurance training, thank your instructors. They’re saving your life.” The students bob their heads earnestly. I know they don’t understand yet, but after today they will.
“Alright, that is enough for now,” Yousef says, tucking his attendance scroll under his arm. “You will all watch Master Larksmere carefully and be quiet. If you have any further questions, you may address them to me. If you need to ask our demonstrator something after we pass through the gate, I will contact Master Rickard so that you may receive an answer when Master Larksmere has recovered.” He turns to me and holds out his palm. “You may begin when ready.”
Show time. I spent all morning in meditation but tension still sits heavy on my body. I offer a silent prayer to Shara and lift my right hand toward the skylight to begin the incantation.
“Blessèd Daystar, o thou hallowèd fire-crown of Heaven, bless me now with thy might.” The power of fire flows through my veins, heating my body.
“Sir?” Beth addressed Yousef. “Why does he call fire first? Aren’t we always to call rock before casting?”
“Good question, Beth.” Ah, that glowing tone. Here is teacher’s favourite. “Master Larksmere calls the fire first because he needs more power to drive his spell than normal. This is one of the exceptions I mentioned before.”
I shift my left foot outward, widening my stance.
“Blessèd rock, o thou hallowèd foundation of forest and empire, bless me now with thy might.”
The calm energy of stone grounds me, balancing the voracity of the fire. The two magics chase each other from my hand to my foot on a diagonal across my body, both stable and humming. I reach up with my left hand and called upon air.
“Blessèd wind, o thou hallowèd breath of life, bless me now with thy might.” The heady blast ripples my robes, nearly unbalancing me as the black fabric whips around my legs. I take a moment to steady myself and breathe.
“Observe: he does not rush,” Rickard instructs his charges. “One never rushes this procedure.”
I wonder if those soothing words are more for me or them. I appreciate it. In the back of my mind, I wonder if this will be the day I splatter myself. I push the thought aside before it can distract me, and call the final element.
“Blessèd water, o thou hallowèd blood of the river, bless me now with thy might.”
The rolling waves surging up my leg to meet the wind grant me the balance I seek. Fire with rock. Right hand to left foot. Air with water. Left hand to right foot. A perfect X. I feel the strain on my veins and nerves as the energy circulates faster, leaving an empty space in the centre of my chest.
“Blessèd void, o hallowèd dark between the stars, open thy maw and embrace me.”
The gasps and wide-eyed awe of the students as they see the void vortex open for the first time is always a reward. It somewhat assuages the disconcerting pull from the emptiness beyond. The dark, fathomless hole opens in my sternum like the cold plunge of a dagger sinking into my flesh. I will myself to keep my breath even and slow, mind on my work and not the pain.
At first, there is only perfect blackness swirling in silence. Then, Beth makes a soft squeak and covers her mouth, pointing to a smattering of stars that spin across the opening. My focus narrows until I see only the flows of magic within and around me. There is only so much I can keep track of and the spell takes precedence. Fire, stone, air, water: all in balance. I stand with feet planted, resisting the pull of the vortex.
“In darkness, I am serenity. I shall not be moved. In light, I am the dance. I shall move the world.”
Time for my least favourite part.
All those bleeding-hearts campaigning against pain endurance training have never watched a mage open a portal. I lower my hands, keeping the pathways of air and fire steady with my concentration alone. I take hold of the edges of the vortex, fingers stiffening in the cold, and pull.
Like a lightning strike, the tear splits me in two from chin to groin and straight through my spine. Blood spatters the floor at my feet and runs down my legs, its warmth a stark contrast with the searing chill where torn flesh meets the abyss. All my muscles clench with the shock and I cannot breathe.
Fire, stone, air, water. Keep the balance.
I fight to maintain my phased state as flesh and bone fold back like a curtain on either side of the opening, the tendons of my hands like corded steel. Gusts of wind funnel through the yawning gap and I watch as the blood droplets cease to patter on the floor; instead, they fly away into the silence beyond. Spiralling clusters of stars rotate across the doorway, and dizziness wars with me as I try to stabilize the opening.
Fire, stone, air, water. Please goddess, help me. I need to breathe.
The muscles will not unlock and I phase a little farther into the void to force them to release. The agony ebbs until my limbs feel like clouds, threatening to blow away on the next wind. Under each hand, my lungs fill up, twitching fitfully on either side of the divide. I edge myself back toward the physical plane, toward the pain. I feel like a single string plucked raw and vibrating between life and death. My body howls with more power than it was ever meant to carry and I am reminded of why some mages just give in to the peaceful darkness.
No one approaches until I speak. Ever. If I fall, I fall alone; the risk is mine to take.
“The gates are open,” I manage to grate out, though my mouth does not move. Instead, my voice comes through the void, sounding thin and hollow to my ears. “I am the way.”
The apprentices come nearer, huddled behind Yousef. The unnatural wind ruffles their hair and they keep their arms wrapped around themselves, faces frozen in fear. In my partly phased state, they look like ghosts to me, transparent figures with scintillating networks of veins and glowing nerves.
“Salvir Square, Elentia,” Yousef says, enunciating carefully.
I know the place well, having attuned to it years ago, so the vision comes to me easily.
“Step through,” I tell him.
Yousef ducks his head and passes through the doorway just under my chin. Rickard watches my face carefully, gauging my focus and endurance.
“Alright. Walk through one at a time, eyes forward,” he says, ushering them onward. “Remember to hold your breath and do not stop moving until Master Yousef tells you to.”
The students scamper through, little spatters of red appearing on their white robes as the void pulls at the edges of the door, trying to draw me through as well. It takes less than two minutes but feels like eternity.
Rickard nods at last. “All clear.” The class was safe and sound, halfway around the world.
“The gate is shut.” I uncurl my fingers and release my hold on the doorway. It snaps shut immediately. “No more the way, I am mysel—” Then my knees hit the floor like a distant tap on a frostbitten limb.
I watch Larksmere collapse and feel my stomach drop with him. I’m at his side before he’s even fully down.
“Fuck! Liam, hold on.”
I kneel behind him and support his back against my chest, not daring to move him until I’m absolutely sure he’s phased all the way back. Healing him is far more difficult if the different layers of tissue pass through each other and solidify in the wrong places. His chest rises and falls, his pulse struggling through its rhythm. It’s weak and faltering, but thank Shara it’s there.
With one hand on his throat, keeping up the air flow, and one over his heart to maintain its beat, I nudge the winged brooch on my shoulder. Its red stone flares to life with a thrumming glow.
“Void mage down,” I say. “Auditorium. Gate-opening complications. Requesting manual life support and repair. Respond.”
“Life Tower hears you, mage.” The thin voice responds through the amulet. “How many healers are requested?”
“Two … hold, please.” I look down at the unconscious man in my arms and tilt his head up slightly. Bubbles of scarlet blossom at the corners of his mouth with each breath. I take my hand away from his chest for a moment to find it slick with blood. His heart stutters.
“Shit. Liam don’t do this to me.” I put my hand back immediately, restoring the beat.
“Mage?” the dispatcher says, her voice raising in question.
“Four healers requested.”
“Heard and understood. Four healers en route to auditorium.”
“Thank you Life Tower,” I say and tap the brooch again. Though I know the healers aren’t far away—they’ve been apprised of the demonstration today—the silences between every shuddering breath seem to stretch on interminably. I ignore the sweat streaming down my face and focus on keeping him alive until help comes.
All things considered, fainting during the closing stanza is probably the least damaging time to do so. Still, it’s been a while since Larksmere really hurt himself. I wonder if he didn’t sleep well last night. Maybe he didn’t eat enough. Maybe he went on a bender to alleviate the stress of today’s class. In the back of my mind, I know he’s likely been perfectly responsible and his capricious void goddess has simply abandoned him as she’s wont to do with all her mages. I pray to Yamoya instead as running footsteps clatter down the corridor.
Four life mages in their crimson robes sprint down the steps to the display area and kneel down next to Liam, pulling off their supply bags and pinning up their sleeves. I recognize all of them and silently thank Life Tower for sending their best.
“Report,” Master Tobias says. He checks Larksmere’s pulse.
“Lost consciousness while closing,” I respond.
He nods, hands flicking over the fastenings on the void mage’s robes, quick as sparrows. I hate seeing the raised ridge of scar-tissue running through his centre from the chin downward like some perverse mountain range. Even worse, though, is when it sits partially open, soaking blood into his clothing.
“Timar,” Tobias addresses one of the women, her eyes creased from years of worry. “Help Master Rickard with life support.”
She nods and places her fingertips on Larksmere’s chest. I feel her magic bolster mine and I let her take over the lungs while I devote myself to the heart.
“Cho Hen,” he directs his attention to the other lady. “You will dull his pain.”
She tucks her short hair behind her ears and takes the void mage’s hand.
“Samuel, stand by to heal.” Tobias doesn’t even look up to see if he’s being acknowledged, a sure sign of an efficient team. He continues making his investigation in silence, fingers running along the torn seam down Larksmere’s middle.
The mage shifts against me and gives a rattling cough as his eyelids flicker. Blood coats his lips immediately and he turns his head to the side to retch.
“Put him under,” Tobias orders. “Now.”
Cho Hen wastes no time pressing her palm to Larksmere’s forehead and flooding his skull with her magic. He goes still again.
“The air-ways are misaligned,” he says finally.
I let out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. That explains a lot. If the veins don’t line up properly, blood can pool in the lungs and other organs. If there hadn’t been an experienced healer present, he’d have drowned.
“Some spinal damage as well,” he continues. “Rift in the upper vertebrae.” Tobias cracks his knuckles. “I will start repairs. Samuel, Timar, follow my lead and strengthen my spells.”
I take on the full burden of life support once more, but not for long. As the deep red glow engulfs the unconscious mage, his breathing and heartbeat smooth out. Soon, I am merely holding him steady and lending trickles of energy to the other healers while they work.
Tobias’ work is beautiful. I sit with my eyes closed, just sensing the flesh and bones realigning, nerves frayed by arcane burns soothing and knitting back together. How long he keeps at it, I’m not quite certain, but it’s long enough for my legs to go to sleep under Larksmere’s weight.
At last, I feel a stirring against my chest and look down.
He blinks up at me grey eyes unfocused.
“Can you hear me? Do you know where you are?”
“Yeah,” he rasps as he begins to shiver.
Cho Hen pulls a blanket out of her supply bag and wraps it around him snugly as I switch my focus to a heat spell for him. It would be a shame to pull him back from the brink just to lose him to shock.
“I think you’re in one piece,” I say, looking over the blood soaked robes splayed around him on the floor. “We’re taking you to the infirmary all the same.”
“Alright,” he agrees. “Did Yousef …” He pauses to swallow and makes a face, probably at the coppery taste in his mouth. “Did he send you any questions while I was down?”
Sweet Yarona, he brushes death close enough to kiss and he’s worried about the damned students. I shake my head.
“No, but there is one I’ve never been able to answer.”
He frowns, not understanding.
“What was it?”
“What kind of absolute lunatic do you have to be to do this on a regular basis?”
“The very best.”
I roll my eyes. I think he’ll be fine.