Light around me. Soft earth beneath me. Bright light, glimmers, ribbons of magic. I felt the smooth slide of the ribbons on my skin as they drifted through the air.
My eyes focused on the distance.
A tent of shadows and slivers of silvery light sat on the horizon of the open plain before me. The land between it and me was flat and dry, almost sandy but soft. My uniform was nowhere to be seen but I wasn’t naked.
I was clothed in an airy thing. I don’t know what it was, but it hung on me as a shapeless, weightless mass. It didn’t restrict or do anything really.
Shades, maybe reflections of other places, passed through the landscape. Images of buildings that I’d never seen. People milled around. Different to any I had known. They were dressed in hides and leathers. They carried small tools on them. They all had a hardened look to them, as if they could live in the wilds for all time. Their eyes shimmered with colour, not mage eyes but not not mage eyes either. They were as if someone had made eyes out of glass and stained them with glowing colour.
I looked up at the sky, clouds of blues and greens scattered the starry night. The stars were large, far larger and brighter than normal.
A wash of heat filled the air.
I looked around.
The tent was changing. Flames were curling through the shadows, smoke rising into the dark sky.
I could see as if it was day, the night sky and lack of a sun didn’t change the fact that shadows were showing it was noon.
The smoke drifted on the breeze, bringing with it sounds. Voices.
“Vesic, you can’t mean to do this.” A woman’s voice, sobbing could be heard underneath the words.
“Kneel, you will show respect to your king. You may be my sister but I’m still your king.”
“Mage-King Vesic, you can’t unleash them. They are indiscriminate.”
“I must, if we are to grow as a people then we must conquer. We must unite. The clans are ended as of today, and all opposition must be wiped away. Fire will burn away the past and give us a future beyond just living in the moment.”
“Sire, I beg you, choose another weapon. These things are wrong. They leave nothing alive. We can’t thrive in a land of ashes. The chiefs don’t want this.”
“I care not what the new nobles want. They are oathed. They shall do my will.”
“Enough! What would you have of me? The duty falls to me to make a better world for us. A land where we are more than a loose tribe of wanderers. We can be so much more. I’ve seen it. If it need be built on blood and fire, so be it. I don’t sleep, I’m so tired, but this needs doing. That’s the price I pay for this.”
“Choose another way.”
“Don’t start to lecture me sister. We have been through this before. I’ve made my decision.” Regret and pain filled those words. So much so that I felt my chest ache in sympathy.
The voices drifted away beyond hearing, as the tent burnt to the ground. In its place rose a spire of twisted smoke and stone, dark and grim. It stood in stark contrast to the bright land around it. A crawling sweep of shade spread from the spire. The people caught in it changed. Their eyes lost their brightness and their clothes turned to cloth, no longer hide and leather. They were diminished as individuals, their strength drained away, leaving them shadows of their former selves. As I watched they too drifted away on the wind.
“You shouldn’t be here,” a deep voice came from behind me.
Vesic and Brendon stood on a small rise of soft earth. Glowing soil is strange. Not as strange as sun light in the middle of a sunless night, but strange none the less.
“Where is here? This place is strange.”
“Welcome to our dreamscape.” Brendon smiled at me.
Vesic on the other hand looked at the smoke and stone spire, an unreadable expression on his face.
“Dreamscape? I’ve never heard of it.”
“You don’t know everything mage, this land is old and steeped in magic. There are more things than you could ever learn.”
(Beat). The whole place shimmered in time with the beat. A pulse within the otherworldly substance of the dream world.
“You must leave now. Get some real sleep, this place is not meant for you,” Brendon said gently.
“Just close your eyes.”
I took one last look around at the land etched in light, soft and pure. It was heart achingly beautiful here even with the smoke and stone spires’ dark shadow.
There is no light without darkness. The thought echoed in my head. A realisation that was simultaneously terrifying and comforting.
I closed my eyes, took a breath of the magical air deep into my lungs and release.
The land frayed beneath me and I fell.
I awoke to a light dew covering the earth. The early morning sky was brightening, streaks of red raced around the dull grey clouds. I sat up and looked around, I felt stiffness in my back and a kind of chill from sleeping on the ground. The fire had burnt out, leaving a small charred mark within the circle of stones. Not even embers remained, just ashes.
Brendon hadn’t moved. It was clearly Brendon and not Vesic: there was no fire. He looked like stone, grey and unmoving, each line of his face locked in stasis.
“Brendon, is everything okay?”
A flicker of movement went through him and a distinct cracking could be heard as he turned his head.
“Good morning Tristan. Vesic set the warding as you slept, he told me to inform you not to forget again. Do what you need to be ready. We leave shortly. We have much to do.”
I stood and rolled up my blanket and stuffed it in my bag. Then I walked over to set on the mound next to Brendon I looked at the earth beneath my feet, short grass grew in clumps, not really covering the dirt. I sent out small threads of my power seeking.
From a point between my feet a damp spot formed. It slowly grew to a puddle.
I pulled the water skin from my bag and dipped it into the puddle. The cold water lapped at my hand, gently filling the skin. I raised it to my mouth and drank deeply. I stopped the skin and wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. I offered it to Brendon
He waved it away.
“Can we talk about the dream?”
“You look ready. We have to run as much as you are able today.”
“Why the hurry?”
“It’s not a hurry, it’s to prepare you. Your physical fitness is appalling. We need to change that as soon as possible.”
I placed the skin in my bag, then stood and pulled the strap over my head. The bag settled easily across my back, the sword hilt within easy reach.
Brendon nodded and rose to his feet. He walked to the edge of the camp and stepped over the small ridge of earth. He broke into a jog. He looked over his shoulder to me then sped up.
I walked towards him, stepped over the ridge myself. Then I ran after him.
He was fast.
It wasn’t long before I was panting and sweating. My chest ached and my legs burned. We devoured the distance. We must have done ten miles in an hour. The land a blur as we ran.
Brendon made no sign of stopping as the sun finally climbed into the sky.
I pulled magic in and sent it to my muscles and lungs. My breath came long and slow. Each muscle worked harder and easier. I closed the short distance between Brendon and myself. Not with ease though. It still hurt, I was just using magic to make my body work at its peak.
Brendon looked at me, then his pace increased again.
I pushed as hard as I could, I felt the magic forcing my muscles to work better harder.
Then I was on the ground, my nose buried in the dirt.
“What do you think you are doing?” Brendon said from above me. His tone contained equal amounts of amusement and disappointment.
“Running, well I was. I’m now laying here. You tripped me.”
“I did. Vesic told you no magic. This is physical work. No short cuts. No cheats.”
“I wasn’t cheating, I was using an advantage.”
“It’s not an advantage in Nelar. It’s a liability that will get you killed.”
“Why is using magic there such a problem?”
“You will see. Now get up and run. We run until midday, then we will rest and eat. Then we will run till nightfall and make camp.”
“Can’t I just lay here for a little while?” I said hopefully, I was joking but I really did want to lay here and catch my breath.
“You can lay there all you want, no one is stopping you but your duty waits for you in Nelar. Will you leave it waiting? Will you bear that shame?”
I was tempted.
But I rose to my feet shakily, my sweat had made the earth into mud where it touched my skin.
Brendon just smiled and took off at a jog. Again.
I ambled along, forcing my body to go faster. No magic though.
The day dragged by so slowly, each breath felt like knives of ice and blood in my chest. I felt sick, my mouth dry. My lips cracked and bled. Even my fingers hurt, why I had no idea, but it just topped off how I was feeling.
Brendon looked fresh. There was not a drop of sweat. No flush in his cheeks, his breath was light. His movements fluid and smooth.
I hated him.
“We will stop soon. Just push a bit harder.”
I struggled on through the burning pain.
Half a mile down the road Brendon motioned for us to stop. There was a small stream flowing, the calm lapping of its current on the smoothed rocks would have been lovely if I could hear it without hearing my own ragged gasps.
You did well. Id expected you to drop a few miles back, but you dug deep.” Brendon said from above me.
I had bent over at the waist my hands on my knees, dragging air into my body as fast as I could.
Don’t fold up, we are going to walk to the stream and you are going to drink slow and steady, no big gulps.”
I forced myself to stand up, I didn’t whimper. I may have let out a manly cry, I wasn’t paying attention.
The air around the stream was cool, vapour rose gently into the air, giving it such a fresh and lively feel.
“Now take a handful, don’t swallow just swish it around your mouth. Then spit it out. You don’t want to be swallowing dust.”
I let myself be guided, I felt so weak.
“That’s it. Now take a little more. We are going to walk around. Go slowly. Let your body relax a bit.”
Brendon took my arm and guided me around like an invalid. A few wobbling steps. Then we stopped a bit further up the stream.
Our break consisted of this. I didn’t mind. It took the pressure of self-determination away, while I tried to recover.
“A few more moments then we will go again. Fill your skin. Eat if you are able, but light. No meat.”
I followed my instructions. A small piece of bread and another hand full of water to wash it down.
I nodded, I couldn’t waste the breath I would need it for running.
I tried to run. My legs moved but it wasn’t running, it was barely a walk. I tried to clear my mind of the pain. To enjoy the day, the cool breeze, the scent of flowers. The light misting near the stream. But no I failed at enjoying. I was stuck on suffering. My legs hurt. My feet felt as if they were burning and swimming in sweat inside my boots. My hip hurt where my bag kept hitting it. My hair came this close to getting cut off and I loved my hair normally but now it just felt like a weight slowing me down.
Brendon slowed and let me catch up. He looked me over as we walked. Then he slowly increased the speed.
This time it came easier, not easy but easier. My legs knew what to do even if the rest of me cried out in protest.
“Set up camp. Vesic will be here soon. Once the sun sets you will start your sword training. Pay attention.”
The area we were in was mainly forested. We must have covered thirty miles today. I didn’t care. As soon as Brendon had announced our stop I’d collapsed on the ground. I didn’t even have the energy to groan, setting up camp.
“Tristan, this is all for your own good. Please just show some faith.”
I didn’t move, my eyes closed and dived into my other senses. I pulled far more magic than was needed into my body. The wash of power filled my channels, taking my pain away for just a moment.
The ridge twenty paces away from me rose up from the soil. A small circle of stone, that I’d found deep below. The air filled with the grinding sound of moving rock.
I felt a smile stretch my lips as I found something I hadn’t expected underneath the surface. A tunnel ran along an underground stream. Almost parallel but not connected.
I threaded my power into the stone, forming a tube.
I rose from the ground on now steady legs, no mark of the days trials remained apart from the sticky oily feel of sweat on my skin and soaked into my clothes. The setting sun through the trees cast long shadows over the area but they also pointed out a small outcropping of dark stone inside my circle.
My senses told me that it connected to the stream, so I angled the tube to come out in the rock. A tangled concept made a pumping charm pull water up. I’d made a makeshift tap. I laid my hand on it and water welled up from deep below, it was cold and crystal clear. The stone went black as the water flowed over it. Flecks of mica shone like diamonds. It was beautiful.
I spun the warding in just a few more moments, it would keep bugs and small animals out and sound and alarm if it detected large or hostile animals nearby.
I looked over to Brendon
He wasn’t watching me, his face was turned to the sun as it sunk beneath the land. His shoulders were loose and easy, to look at him you would never think he had run thirty miles in a day.
I smoothed out a hollow for the fire that I knew Vesic would make then I set about digging out some food from my bag. I wasn’t hungry. Magic when it’s flowing can really take drives like that away. But I made myself eat a travel sausage and some bread. Less fresh than I’d like but it was solid.
I raised a small mound of earth to sit on, tilted my bag to the side to stop my sword getting caught on it and sat to wait for Vesic’s transformation.
I didn’t have to wait long. The dying light flared briefly, then a fire bloomed in the hollow I’d made.
There was still no movement from behind me, for a moment.
“You may use your magic this evening. I imagine you are in a great deal of pain underneath it,” Vesic said with a chuckle.
I could hear his steps come round the side of me, his ember cloak glimmering on the edge of my vision, before being overwhelmed by the sense of Him.
“Yes, I am in a great deal of pain. I wouldn’t be able to move if I wasn’t channelling,” I said. I didn’t look directly at him, I was focused on getting rid of the excess power. Just little things like the camp-fire’s circle, stones were rising up out of the ground at my command. To each I gave a small charm to hold heat and increase brightness.
I lay my hand on my sword hilt which was sticking up close at hand. I pulled it free and laid it across my knees. The reddish lava mark remained, shifting subtly in the depths of the white stone. The stone itself seemed to glow in both the mundane firelight and the other sight of my senses. A pearlescent sheen to the stone, far different to what it was when I first made it. Its edges had changed, less vicious and more, I don’t know precise maybe. It was a strange indefinable change.
“I see you are noticing the changes. There will be more as time goes by. Few mages carry a weapon these days but times are changing once more. The wilds are growing and those on high seek to expand their reach.” He pointed to the edge of the circle I’d made. “We shall train there. Form another circle, set cardinal mounts on the ring. We will need light. Can you do it or must I?”
“I can make light, it won’t be as vital as yours, but it will illuminate.”
“Do that then. Excuse me for a moment.” Vesic walked off to the shaded woods, not far, but far enough to block my view of whatever he was doing.
I stood and stepped carefully to the edge of the circle. I looked over the earth to find the best place to start. Streamers of magic flowed through the air, through the earth. Even through the plants roots. I could pick out each one the protruded even the slightest in the magical sight that was Vesic’s first gift, unintentional as it was. There was a clearing, a large empty patch around a rotted stump. I’d noticed it earlier but the first spot was closer if not as flat.
I stepped over the ridge I’d made, then walked to the rotted stump, in my wake the earth flowed. Each dip and bump smoothed. A tremble ran through the glade as the knotted old wood of the stump tore apart at my command. I felt strong and powerful, I wasn’t used to using this much power, it hummed through me. My every movement was graceful, no overstepping or misjudgement. It was wonderful. A smile stretched my face as I stood in the early night in the middle of a glade in a circle of my own making, each breath filled me with a rising sense of invincibility. The stump dissolved and I filled the earth into the void it left. I walked round the edge of the circle, at the east, south, west and north points I pulled forth raised pillars, and on each I commanded the structure to change. At the peak of each I made a crystal.
Now, light is hard for an earth and water mage. Not that it’s the elements but that’s how we think, feel. It makes magic easier to grasp, that we can fit it into a framework that we know, somewhere deep inside from the moment we are born. Fire in the warmth of our mothers, in the light when we first open our eyes. Air in the first breath we draw, in the first touch of wind on our skin. Water in the womb that carries us, the fluid that soothes thirst. Earth in the food that we eat, in the matter that we touch, in clothes, in everything. That is our framework, it grows and changes with us, becoming something that we no longer notice, normal. But the wonder of those first moments stays with us, even though the memories fade. That is what we draw on, that is the root of concepts and breaking it to reach outside of our affinities, or first and second blooming is hard, so hard that many mages can’t do it. I was one of the few that could, but it wasn’t easy. Each crystal had to be charmed in a way that felt…unnatural. To make them absorb light then magnify it and send it out. It was fire based but I could twist it and use a water concept, water reflects, there are things living in the water that glow. And using crystal as my material linked it in my mind to both water and earth. Crystals have light properties, doing this on solid stone would fail. Light bloomed from each crystal, sickly but as the camp fire burned they slowly grew brighter. Light cast the shadows away, apart from my own which I had four of.
Vesic glowed on the edge of my sight. A blade in hand that I’d never seen. Tangled threads of power wove through the metal and light caught on its blade as he made his way in to the circle.
“Keep the magic flowing, you will need it. But don’t externalise it, can you do that?” Vesic asked, his arm was moving in fluid motions the sword revealed in all its glory.
Metal, it looked like silver, little worms of light slithered up and down the blade. All in all it was a monster of a sword, maybe six foot long. The hilt had room for both of Vesic’s massive hands, but he could swing it with one. A beautiful red gem as the pommel completed the sword, it was a work of beauty, that I was sure he hadn’t it carried before. I would have seen it. Brendon didn’t even carry a bag, which was strange. He had no water skin or food, he had no extra clothes.
I can try, it’s not always something I can control. If I have my links open then there is the chance of stray magics.”
I understand, do what you can to keep it contained. We can work on your control later.” He turned his head to look at the nearest crystal. “Good work, not the best I’ve seen but very clever. You don’t have any fire skills at all?
No nothing, I just never connected to fire.
We will have to work on that too. As a mage you aren’t so limited, even though you feel like it. A night or two of work should let you grasp some basic fire concepts. Anyway that isn’t what we are here for now. Go get your sword.”
I went to get my sword.
I stepped back into the circle.
“Good, let’s begin.” Vesic swung his sword just as I stepped over the ridge.
My senses told me that this shard of metal was coming straight for my face. I used my enhanced grace to slip out of the path of it, my body moving in ways that that felt natural even though I’d never moved like this in my life.
Vesic’s eyes widened slightly and he grinned. His blade became a blur of silver as if flowed from one movement to another.
I could see they were rehearsed patterns, each melding one into the other. I raised my own blade to catch his sword.
The clash of weapons rung out in echoes through the still night air.
Then Vesic did something, wiggled his wrist in a way that sent shivers through our joined blades.
My sword went flying through the air. I watched it go, taking my eyes of Vesic for a moment. Warm sharp silver pressed against my throat.
“What was your mistake?”
“I don’t know. I know nothing about fighting.”
“You took your eyes off me for one thing. And you held your sword wrong. Too tight a grip, too rigid. You must hold it gently, treat it with respect. It is your ally in this battle, not your tool. Go fetch it.” The metal was withdrawn.
I stepped away from the fire god, towards the centre of the circle where the blade lay. It had landed half stabbed into the earth. I wrapped my hand around the hilt, the smooth stone cool against my fever-hot skin. A tremor ran through my hand on contact, almost like the beat of a heart. I pulled the blade free and looked really looked at the connections, the threads between it and I. Deep but faintly there were tangles and concepts, weak things that barely even registered in my sight. I had no idea what they did or how they got there. I looked over to Vesic and raised an eyebrow.
He ignored my unspoken question and raised his blade.
I focused on my hand as it touched the hilt, the smooth stone fit my hand perfectly. I didn’t tense, I cradled the blade. Each finger settled in place making the weapon feel like an extension of my arm. I stepped up and swung.
“This is not chopping wood. This is fighting,” Vesic shouted as the blades struck. He pulled away and swung.
I caught it on the crosspiece. I gritted my teeth as the power behind the blow travelled up my arms.
“This is not a struggle of strength, it’s a battle of wits and will.” He disengaged and circled me.
I turned to keep my eyes on him.
“Watch the earth and the air. Watch your opponent’s body and eyes. Each movement they make will signal their intentions. This isn’t just for sword play this is for everything. Every battle is a battle of wits, of the mind. Might plays no part unless you are a fool. Finesse is the key. A lesson I learnt the hard way, take this lesson to heart.” He launched a flurry of strikes that hit me in a blaze of motion.
I pulled more magic into me, my muscles flowed under the onslaught, each blow, deflected, but not without cost. A stinging cut across my knuckles. A slice along my bicep, another at my hip. None were deep or really that painful.
“You aren’t paying attention, your sight will help but you need to feel the rhythm. Listen to the beat of our conflict. What motivates it? What drives it?” each sentence was punctuated by another strike.
I did what I could but even enhanced grace could only cover so much inexperience. Each blow knocked my blade further out of centre, making the next strike hit harder.
Vesic’s leg slid round to take me from my feet.
I landed in a sprawl on the ground. A blade pointing at my heart.
“Well done.” Vesic said then offered me a hand up.
I took it and asked, “How was that well done? I lost.”
“Tristan, this isn’t about winning or losing. You can’t win against me yet. This is about opening your eyes and teaching you. You tried. You did all I asked and never complained. You took your hits, you didn’t let pain freeze you into indecision. You fought on, without getting distracted. That is all I can ask for. Brendon even told me of today’s efforts, you took up the challenge and while you did attempt to use magic, you was corrected and you carried on. That is the sort of determination you need for this.” All this was said in a tone I had never heard from Vesic, there was none of his condescension, or disdain. No anger. There was pride and encouragement.
“Thank you.” I didn’t know what else to say.
“Wash and turn in for the night. We have further to travel in the morning.”
I nodded and made my way from the circle of lights into the camp. The fire glowed merrily, the threads tied in such a way that it fed on itself. Clever and efficient. I leant my sword against the mound, and pulled my clothes off. The make shift pump beckoned.
A touch of my hand made water flow. Enough for my purposes. I used my power to pull the water over my body, streamers washing the dirt and sweat away. Once I was done the last of the water drawn away from me, I was dry. I then soaked my clothes and laid them on the mound of hardened earth by the fire, they should dry by morning.
Done I took my sleeping blanket out of my bag and curled up within it.
I took a deep breath and let the magic drain from my body. Exhaustion flooded through me. I was asleep in moments.