I walked home, taking my time, I needed to think. This was way beyond any training exercises at the academy. The lack of task stone hinted at something unexpected, maybe it was a test.
I strode through the door at my apartment to fetch a weapon. Mages as a whole don’t get trained in weapons anymore. No, I don’t know why but we just don’t. One thing we do get trained in is the staff. Many focuses are in the shape of staves and wands, something about the flow of energies through living or once living things. Metal was dead and always had been which is why it resisted most magics, it could be worked but it was harder than almost anything else, even stone being part of the land, which in its own way lived, accepted magic. So all Mages are given a staff when they pass the tests and assigned positions.
Mine was made just for me but it followed the normal pattern. Smooth varnished oak. Traceries of glyphs ran under the varnish, each one carved just for me based on a pattern designed by my supervisor, in this case master mage Jase, my master, to complement my skills. It was new, I could still smell the solvents that made up the varnish, it was that fresh. The smooth unmarked surface much like me. New and untested. Smears of oil from my sweating hands made the surface slick.
Standing in my room looking down at the staff reminded me of so many times when I’d been training that matched this. Going head to head against other aspirants, the matches were never announced beforehand. the same rising fear of failure matched only by the tingling in my muscles as I faced the chance to show my skills. standing here wasn’t getting the job done.
I turned to the door realising that once again I was in a contest where I knew nothing about my opponent. Gnomes were creatures of magic, their purpose had been examined, no one could figure out why they were, what they did, what part of the food chain they occupied. And before today I thought it was all academic, they were gone, move on. but no there were back if the reports were to believe, I had no reason to doubt them apart from the fact they were given by random people. they could easily be mistaken, they weren’t educated in magical creature or much of anything beyond the basics. They could be wrong. They could also be right.
All this didn’t serve me. Thinking is important in a mage, we hold a great deal of power personally, the dangers of that in a thoughtless person were terrifying. Thinking in circles about how little I knew wasn’t helpful though. I left my apartment knowing nothing more than I had before. Something my father said tickled at my mind, but it wouldn’t come.
I looked around at my surroundings, standing on the threshold of my building. This part of the town was very different from when I was a child. I’d not been here since then and everything had changed. the buildings has grown upwards, even the roads had shifted their course. it was unfamiliar.
If knowing things was important to a mage then not showing ignorance was also important. I couldn’t ask for directions. So I plastered a smile on my face and set off towards headquarters. I could get my bearing there, hopefully.
The town was laid out in the shape of a compass, each main street pointed in the four cardinal directions, the smaller ones offshoots from those. Some curled, some straight, but all I had to do was get to the centre and I would be able to find my way easily enough.
Pushing my way through the increasing crowd, carts and people about their business, just doing their jobs. But the traffic increased as I passed the main fountain. I looked about seeking the source of the increase, there, just off the square was a blockage. I forced my way through, ignoring the murmured complaints and moans from those around me. They murmured instead of demanding and shouting purely because I was a mage, my uniform and eyes set me apart always.
In some ways I mourned the loss of connection to the rest of the world, but in others I revelled in that distance, raised high above all others, in servitude yes but still.
The blockage was two carts that had collided, the enchantments that powered them without use of animals were pulling them further and further together, clearly the enchantment had been damaged on one of them. No sign of the drivers at the moment, they must have gone for help. There were no signs that anyone had been hurt, no blood or damage to anything surrounding the carts.
Looking closer with my othersight I could see the twisted ribbons of power, pulling magic in then converting it to motion to move the cart. The more damaged cart surprisingly had the intact enchantment. Its core untouched for now by the stresses being placed on it.
It was the other one that was causing the problem. It had recognised the other cart, wrongly, as itself. Once that happened it started to apply the same rules that it had been made to apply. the magic was clearly visible to me, tearing and pulling at the other cart, drawing it into itself.
I placed a hand on the side of the cart, its rough wood warm on my skin as I quested out through the contact. It wasn’t needed to touch to effect but it did make it a great deal easier, less chance of distraction. Closing my eyes to block out normal sight, I focused on the knot of threads that made up the enchantment, the concepts becoming clearer as hunted for the problem.
There, there was a small shape concept in the centre, that identified the target and moved it but it also diverted the force into certain parts of the cart away from other parts. It was that which was causing the damage. it was pulling the other cart trying to make it conform to the shape it had been given. Shutting it down wasn’t an option, the force bound up would cause an explosion, I doubted I would survive that, and it was only building. I would have to void it.
Reaching for the magic my link provided me with I fashioned a blade in my mind to cut the enchantments own link and at the same time spun out a thread of my own to divert the excess power away. If this went wrong I wouldn’t be in any shape to handle gnomes the backlash alone would put me down for the day at least.
I slide my mental blade into position over the power link to the enchantment and my spun thread held ready. Then as fast and as hard as I could I forced the blade down through the link, it tattered and frayed before vanishing into nothing. Then just as rapidly I wove my thread in its place. I let the mental blade fall apart, it wasn’t needed now. The enchantment had pulled a great deal of power into itself but I was now tied to it. Draining that power was my current task. Leaving it there was just an accident waiting to happen.
So I pulled tiny amounts into me through my thread. It filled my body slowly like feeling the heat from a hot drink through a cup, first nothing then gradually warming until it was too hot to touch. At first it was just a mild warmth then sweat started to drip down my face. I could feel it soaking into cloth around my underarms and groin. then it was if I had a fever, the sweat no longer enough my skin burned and my lips dried, I ran my tongue over them to soothe the dry tightness but my tongue had no moisture to offer. Just as as I felt I would catch flame, the power stopped, I had drained it. The enchantment collapsed rendering the cart inert. The horrible sound of snapping and cracking of wood as it tore apart the other lingered, fading as the wood released the pressure.
I stepped away from the cart, my hand leaving a dark from from my sweat on the porous wood. Opening my eyes to the material induced a headache as light seemed to stab me in the eyes. The joys of a mage’s duty. I grimaced and spat thick metallic tasting saliva onto the paving, just then noticing a pair of boots that a narrowly missed.
Looking up I saw an older man dressed in pale blue, simple but durable looking trousers and jacket. his black boots were heavy and coated in dust. he was thickset, tanned where his skill was visible, his arms and face, and didn’t look overly happy.
He pushed out his hand which was holding a flagon.
I nodded my thanks as I took it and raised it to my lips.
Thick dark beer flowed over my parched tongue the taste of malt and something vaguely nutty washed away the metallic after-taste of dehydration and complex magic.
The man stood for a moment looking between me and the carts one shattered, the other looking perfect but was now no more than a wooden box with wheels.
“You know that one was mine?” the man said, pointing to the perfect looking one.
“I would appreciate payment. not for the beer, I can see you have worked hard, but the cart. I’m out a days work as it is, I can’t be without my cart. It will ruin me.”
“It was dangerous, I’m sorry but it needed to be voided. You can go to the mage headquarters for recompense. But this is your responsibility. When you buy an enchanted item like this, you sign a contract to get it regularly checked and tested to avoid issues like this. As you are not a mage and I didn’t see any signs of tampering, I will let you off on this, just once though, but you are required to do all you can to minimise the damage caused by your negligence.”
“Hang on boy, who are you to tell me what to do?”
Didn’t he realise I was a mage, are the glowing eyes not enough? I thought sharply.
“Did you not notice the uniform? I’m sorry to inform you that I’m Junior Mage Tristan Sodden, so unfortunately this is my job. Telling someone to honour the commitments they have made. Minimise the damage by getting someone to help you clear the way. There are people that need to be on their way, I’m one of them.”
“Boy you can’t force me to do anything,” He said although it seemed more for show, than anything else. He had paled slightly as he met my gaze.
Apparently the eyes were enough
“You are correct, I can’t force you to do anything, but you will be getting paid for your lost work as it was caused by a mislaid enchantment by the looks of it. but all these others,” I gestured with the tip of my staff towards the large crowd that had gathered around us. “They are also losing work and time because of this. Don’t you owe it to them and yourself to do the right thing?”
The man looked at me for a moment, considering, then he nodded slowly.
“You are right sir, sorry if I stepped out of line, I wasn’t thinking.” The words were begrudging but they felt honest.
“Good man. Thank you for making this easier than it would otherwise have been and for that ale.”
The man had already started walking away.
Laying the flagon down on the pavement I stepped around the carts, they were no danger now, but they still blocked the middle of the street. As I walked away I could overhear a group of men muttering
Behind me a voice shouted out. “One…. Two…. Heave.” on the last word were various grunts and groans, then a scraping sound.
I smiled to myself and continued headed to the east. That beer had really helped lift my mood. I felt good about my abilities, the heat now gone although the sun was starting to overheat the air. There was a faint heat-haze shimmering over the pavement. My walk became more of a jaunt as I tapped my staff on the paving with each step, the sound echoing slightly, the sharp tap-tap-tap loud over the movement of people.
The sudden feeling of having forgotten something came over me, so strong that I stopped walking. I patted myself down, rifled through the small pouch on my belt but nothing appeared to be missing. I shrugged and set off on my way again, if it was important I would remember eventually.
Walking along I noticed that around me the building slowly changed. Away from the centre the state of repair on the buildings fell sharply, oh they were still painted and kept tidy in the main but little things like the stones being chipped or the doors and shutters being warped, just a general air of lack. A history that left its mark.
That sobered my mood more than anything. I was a child during the waves and not long after that I’d been in the academy, I hadn’t gotten to see the recovery such as it was. We had come far but every people had a limit in what they could do. Even magic can’t turn back time. I was proud of my people for overcoming what they could.
The gatehouse loomed over me, its large stone portal empty, once it held iron gate to keep the various magical creatures at bay, but no longer. They had melted during the waves and never been replaced. There was no need really, all the magical creatures were gone. although if this report about gnomes was true it could mean a resurgence, maybe the gatehouse wouldn’t stand empty and forlorn for much longer.
It momentarily struck me as funny that I was hoping there were gnomes for the sake of a gate. The laugh escaped me earning strange looks from the very few passersby. I felt the smile stretch my face as I stepped under the shadow of the gatehouse, the cool was a welcome relief. The smell of damp cool stone rushed in to replace the dust and grit of a rapidly heating day in Westhaven.
Looking out over the broken road leading to the dead city of Haven I sought signs of gnomes but tracking wasn’t a skill of mine. I could see the edge of the forest that ran halfway round Westhaven, this part didn’t get much attention apart from the logging crews that supplied wood to the town. Herbs grew further in, often collected by the many women of town. But as a whole it didn’t see much traffic or exploration, the towns needs were modest.
Standing in shade I opened my othersense seeking anything out of the ordinary. The familiar double sight headache started to throb, a reminder of my earlier promise to practice othersense more often. The natural magics of the land the air, everything really, rushed into my sight, faint but visible. I stood for a long moment just gazing out at the blurred lights. there just off the broken road, in the brush on the edge of the forest was a smudge. a distortion where the normal background magics couldn’t quite touch. As I watched it moved from one low-lying shrub to another. There was a glimpse of blue but it was gone before I could identify what it was.
Nothing I knew of was blue. Although it not having a normal signature was the deciding factor. It had to be a gnome. Could I go back to Rysan with a report of a half glimpsed blue thing? It was worse than the eyewitnesses that had sent me out here in the first place. A mage saying I don’t really know, it was a blue…thing. The scene showed in my head. No, I had to find out.
Shifting my grip on my staff, feeling the glass like surface slide under my suddenly slick fingers, I stepped into the light.
The sun beat down on me as I made my way over the shattered stone of the broken road. The waves and the resulting panic had damaged badly, but there were plans to restore it bit by bit. It was a huge undertaking and the council was stretched already, never enough men to do the work. expecting us to restore everything in a decade to pre-wave levels was unrealistic, even magic could only do so much after destruction of that level.
I eased back on my othersense as I moved forward slowly, not enough to distract but enough to give early warning if there was any active magic incoming. My eyes opened wide despite the bright light and my heart rate jumped like a caged thing within my chest as I slowly, so slowly, made my way into the very edge of the forest. Each step carefully placed until I heard a rustle in the bush to my left, I turned putting my foot down harder than I intended, on a dead root. the sharp snap of the root filled the air and then from the bush flew a small furred blue thing. its vaguely human shape as tall as my arm was long but filled with teeth and claw, covered in short, bright blue, fur. its eyes though were filled with hunger, feral.
I took a step back at the sudden rush, my foot catching on the edge of the root that had snapped. I stumbled and lashed out with my staff, I missed, the staff flying from my sweating hand.
The gnome went after the staff instead of me for some reason, its shape teeth latching on, the splintering of wood audible.
Opening my link wide and filled myself with power, raising my hand to help with the visualisation, I sent power out in a torrent, directing the earth to form bars of hardened soil around the staff and gnome. A twist of my hand curved the bars into a dome over the top, sealing it in.
The gnome frantically let go of the staff and turned its teeth on the bars. the hardened stone gave way as if it was wet sand.
Suddenly while staring into the mad eyes of the gnome I remembered what my father had said far more succinctly than the mages in the academy.
“Gnomes eat magic.” He had said that, one night after I asked why the gnomes were so dangerous.
A shiver of fear, not panic, true fear ran down my spine leaving me cold. I can’t beat something that can eat my every defence and weapon. The thought almost paralysed me then I smiled.
“Magic is, but magic does,” I whispered softly to myself.
I pulled all the magic out of the cage, natural and my own, it left me hot and sweating, near overflowing with foreign power swimming through my channels.
The gnomes teeth caught on the hardened earth, nearly as dense as stone. Its progress halted. For now.
The sudden heat of power and victory made me dizzy, I felt the world spin before I took a deep breath and let it go. The world righted itself for now. The odd smudge matched the gnome exactly and now it was trapped in a cage, I felt myself relax.
The gnome chittered loudly, much like a bat, it’s ugly little face snarling and its four fingered, no thumbs, clawing at the dirt around the bars.
Wondering what to do with it, I couldnt just leave it, it would be out of the cage eventually, I took a step closer so I could examine it. Just then I felt a sharp pain in my left leg. Glancing down I saw another gnome, almost identical to the first, had bitten through my trousers, just below the knee. Looking at it made it worse, I felt sick, dizzy. The power in me was being drawn through my veins, all my magic was being sucked out, all my magic and all that I could call on, my link wavered as it opened wide, power inundated me, more than I had ever used at one time, and rushed to my leg, to the gnome, where it vanished. It felt like hot lead was being poured into my head, flowing down my channels, searing, burning. As I fell I caught sight of a third gnome moving in quickly. In that moment all I could think is, This is the end. Killed by a bloody gnome.
I didn’t even feel my body hit the earth, a sudden desperation not to die like this filled me. My magic responded, the earth under me opened. My mind went blank, I flailed as I fell.
The gnome let go in surprise. It’s chittering cries cut off abruptly as a shard of stone burst through its chest from the side of the pit. A rush as my power flowed back from the gnome’s broken corpse, filling me to overflowing, time seemed to slow and my mind cleared. The pain was gone, replacing it was a icy tingle, soothing my abused channels, body and mind.
I was still falling. Sending out my power, roots burst from the walls of the pit catching and lifting me gently up. a sheath of power covered my body hardening my skin like stone.
I rose to the surface carried by roots, at my command they wove beneath my feet covering the pit. The roots let me go and I landed on the springy mat. My leg throbbed with heat and blood dripped from the savage wound as I stepped gingerly over to the trapped gnome, it chittered at me. I sent a savage blast of power at the earth under the cage, it sent the cage rolling free, almost spherical, my staff clattered out between the bars. The gnome’s mad chittering, increased.
I felt an unpleasant smile twist my lips as I stepped closer, bent and retrieved my staff, and formed a handle of earth, attached it to the cage with a tiny sliver of power and picked it up, the excess magic dripping into the soil.
The cage in my right and my staff in my left, I headed back to the road, pleased that I had the staff to bear the weight for my injured leg.
The distance wasn’t far,which was good. the magic was fading and the pain was coming back. The staff helped as I made it out of the brush and onto the edge of the road.
“Junior MageTristan, status report,” came my bosses voice from my pendant. I had no idea it could do that. I was surprised but I had nothing left, I felt oddly hollow and clear like a rung bell.
“Sir I’ve been injured there were three gnomes, one is contained, I’m bringing it in, another is dead, the last vanished in the confusion,” I reported numbly, I felt stupid, admitting a gnome had harmed me. but the feeling was nothing compared to the pain and the memory of fire in my veins, mentally I shied away from that, I already had phantom heat flickering through me.
“Stay where you are. I’ve dispatched a squad to cover the area and assist you. Give the gnome to them. Stay well, and be careful there may be more in the area. The squad should be there in a moment.” Was the strangely concerned response I received. To be honest I didn’t care about how well I had performed anymore. I was stunned at my boss seeming to be concerned about me.
My head wasn’t working all that well, I felt drained yet full of energy, it couldnt last. the pain was throbbing growing by the moment. I attempted to put the loud gnome out of mind and focus on what had happened. my magic had been drained by the magic eating gnome, then I’d fallen and acted out of desperation, just flinging magic wildly. it had worked, which was testament to my training, that was the point, to make magic instinctive that it didn’t need thought. it was always advised to think before acting but if you couldnt use magic when it was needed what was the point? Training us hard and constantly, depriving us to make us reach points of desperation, of hunger, of thirst, of fear, of anger. all had been covered and we emerged tougher or broken. I’d been lucky, using magic came easily to me, I’d passed in half the time normally needed, but I sorely lacked a lot of the knowledge I would have gained in that time. Even now that I had calmed my magic felt different, more responsive, intuitive. And I had no idea why.
In the distance, from the west, the gatehouse spewed a group of men quick-marching. As they got closer I Could see they were wearing leather armour obviously enchanted and dyed black. swords and wand rode in holsters and scabbards hanging from their belts. A six man squad on of which would be a leader, another a healer, and the remaining four would specialise in one or another forms of combat. their glowing eyes showed them to be mages, each glowed differently, not reflecting anything of their power, these men were very well trained, far beyond what most current mages received. grim and hard looking men, all different body types but no less deadly for their differences. there were small badges of tarnished silver shaped into glyphs on their chests above their hearts. inside each, I Knew, there would be tiny crystals containing their records of service, layered for different levels of clearance. as an active mage I Should be cleared to request the leader. I sent a very small thread of power out carrying my message to the crystal.
<Squad LeaderTelsan> sounded in my head, completely silently. there was nothing else which worried me slightly, I should be cleared for more than just a name.
I raised my staff into the air just incase they hadn’t seen me.
I got a nod.
I waited for them to get close enough to talk without shouting, Then I said, “Squad Leader, I’m JuniorMageTristan, there is a situation here.”
Telsan was a tall man, old looking near fifty but with mages it was hard to tell. he didn’t look weak though. his shoulders were easily twice as wide as mine. the military cut of his hair did nothing to soften his harsh features.
Telsan looked me up and down his orange glowed eyes narrowing
“My squad has been sent to deal with the gnomes, I see you have been injured, do you require assistance? We have a healerwith us,” Was his clipped response.
“Yes I do, I have been informed that you need my gnome,” I stated flatly, I Was too worn for much else. I Felt raw, my emotions rising and falling with every moment that past.
“Yes Sir we do, it needs to go to Greenlaw for study, This is our Healer,MageNiven,” at that he turned to the youngest member of the group, still at least fifteen years my senior.
Niven stepped forward.
And with that the rest of the squad moved to scout the area. each one moved in a different direction, sharp and ordered and totally silently.
“Sir, if you would sit, I can set up a scan,” Niven seemed surprisingly nervous talking to me.
I sent a thread of magic into the ground, forming a small mound of earth as a seat.
Niven looked so shocked, that I had to ask,“Niven, you have seen mages before, haven’t you? You work with them for gods sake.”
Niven nodded, an oddly hesitant gesture. “Yes Sir, but not ones that use magic so easily or that I could sense from down the road.”
Huh? thats new. I’m not different.
“What’s involved with this scan? It doesn’t hurt, does it?” I queried. I’d had bad experiences with medicals in the past.
Niven reached into his satchel, pulling out a bluecrystal. it wasn’t large, but it was long and thin like a rod except faceted. The routine seemed to calm him. He became more confident, his motions more precise and his hesitancy, or in this case, as it seems to be, his fear, disappearing.
“This is the scan device, it uses water concept architecture to detect abnormalities within your body. It can also sense the flow of magic through you, so if you could cancel any enhancement you have active Sir, that would help,” He responded professionally.
“Enhancements? I don’t know any. Other than the basic pour power into the body to make it work better. But I’m not doing it now. it would be too dangerous.”
It appears that you do sir, it looks earth based, so probably toughness or strength. no its pain numbing. it will hurt but you need to let it go before I can do anything to aid you.
That made me think, I didn’t know how to craft enhancements yet, but the stone-skin thing had to be one. but that ran out ages ago. pain canceling? I’m still in pain. With that my the pain flared like an ember blown to life, flames of agony licked up my bones from my leg.
RealisingI was doing it had disrupted it.
“Thank you Sir, just a moment.”
Holding the Bluecrystal over me then moving it down my body, flickers of light rapidly shifted within the device giving him some information, I guessed. It was over and done with in a minute, a look crossed his face too quickly for me to catch before turning into a smile.
“Lets patch up that leg Sir, this is a mend charm. Wounds only,” he said as he pulled out a small metal disc with a white quartz crystal in the centre. He held it above my wound.
The pain just vanished, as a humming vibration pervaded my leg. Followed by intense itching.
“Sit still please Sir, the itch will pass shortly,” Niven reminded me
“All done Sir, the wound is sealed. Take it easy for a day or so, as the charm has a short after effect. Now, I saw something odd in your scan, that I am obligated to reveal to you. Your magic levels are extremely high, there are no blockages in your flow at all. Which is unusual to say the least. My medical opinion is, that its not a problem but its worth being aware.” Niven related to me.
Niven seem relieved that his dealings with me were over. He left me mulling that over. No one has ever mentioned to me high magic levels, or blockages, what does it mean?
“Junior Mage Tristan, well done, your pendant has forwarded all relevant information to me.”
I’m pleased with your performance, despite your shortcomings, you show potential, you are to report to the mage academy in the morning for assistance in choosing and designing your first mage item, please pick carefully this is the only time I can do this right now. You know the protocols on mages and equipment?” my boss was in a good mood, it appeared, I wouldn’t question it. I wasn’t back to my usual self yet, but even then questioning a man that has life and death control over your life isnt wise.
“Yes sir, all enchantments a Mage carries on his person must be crafted by him,”I recited. I hated that rule, a simple heal charm could have saved me waiting on medical assistance. I know there was a reason for it but it was a stupid rule, people could die because of it.
“Good to see that you remembered that, the penalty for breaking it without proper authorisation is suspension at the least,” Rysan’s voice held a note of annoyance, maybe he wasn’t as impressed with my performance as he was letting on. I was ordered not to engage.
“Dismissed, rest up, you will have a long day ahead of you.”