28 Mar

Magic’s Price – Pyre – Backup

Cursing as she stumbled again, this time with enough force to splash water from the bucket she carried over her sandals, Shandra decided it was time for a break. Setting the bucket down on the path, she ignored the curse from the student behind her as her sudden stop forced him to change direction, clumsy under the weight of his own burden.

Sighing, Shandra took the opportunity to massage her shoulder muscles, seeking to ease the throbbing ache that had settled into them. Ahead of her, the other students continued up the path behind Master Vrain and Mistress Indra. The group of them had been walking for over an hour, the students walking in pairs, sharing the burden of their alloted water bucket between them. Well, most were in pairs. One of the students had caught some illness or the other, leaving their count uneven. Shandra had been the unlucky one, left to carry her burden up the rock-strewn hill alone.

Master Vrain had stopped, she saw, and was directing the students down a side-path. His gaze caught hers and he glowered, Master Vrain was always quick to punish any signs of laziness or lack of discipline in his students. Shandra quickly took up her bucket and resumed the climb, stifling a moan as her shoulders protested the renewed weight. Last in line now, Shandra kept her eyes downcast as she passed Master Vrain, concentrating on not spilling any more of her water. The Master waited a moment before following her down the path he’d indicated; she could feel his disapproval burning into her back. She’d not dare risk resting again, no matter how badly her arms ached, not with him watching her.

But it turned out that she wouldn’t need to. The path wound its way down between sharp boulders and scrubby plants before emerging into a shallow gorge. On the far side of the gorge a thin stream emptied from the rocks above into a surprisingly deep pool. The other students had deposited their burdens and were chatting softly amongst themselves while Mistress Indra sat quietly on a rock near the pool, her staff resting across her lap. As Master Vrain approached, the students quieted and quickly spread themselves into a rough semi-circle around him, waiting for instruction. Relieved to be out from under his scrutiny, Shandra put her bucket down carefully then moved to join the rest of the group.

“You all know that today’s lesson is on the conjuring of fire, but you’re probably wondering why we’ve brought you up here, away from the comfort of the University grounds. You’re here because there is little in the way of valuable University property for you to burn down.”

Murmurs of laughter followed his comment, but they died down quickly when his dark expression made it clear that he hadn’t meant it as a jest. “This exercise is nothing to laugh about. Fire is a destructive, unpredictable element, difficult to control. Anyone who feels unable to approach this exercise with the appropriate amount of focus should remove themselves, now.”

Vrain glared around him for a moment, waiting for his words to sink in. Satisfied that they were sufficiently chastised, he continued. “Go back to your pairings. You will take turns attempting the conjuring.”

One of the students stuck up a hand. “What are the buckets for, Master?”

“The buckets are to quench the flame should it escape your control. The student who is not conjuring will wait with water ready, should it prove necessary to intervene.”

One of the students to Shandra’s left, a dark-haired boy named Tal, muttered a comment that was loud enough for everyone to hear. “There’s water right here, what was the point of lugging those buckets up that bloody hill?”

Master Vrain turned his glower on Tal. “The point, boy, was to drive home the importance of preparation. Yes, there is water here, now. But there may not be any such convenient ponds nearby in the future, should you find you need it. Preparation and discipline are key when manipulating the primal forces of magic, not reliance on happenstance.”

“Now go. Form into your pairs, study the spell and attempt to conjure a flame. When you feel you have grasped the technique, call Mistress Indra or myself to witness. We will leave here once all of you have mastered the conjuring.”

The students split off into their pairs again, leaving Shandra feeling at a loss. She looked to see if Master Vrain had any directions for her, but he was talking to another student. Mistress Indra hadn’t moved from her contemplation of the pool. Sighing, Shandra walked back over to her bucket.

Settling down onto her knees, she reached behind her and pulled her spellbook out of her satchel. The Masters had given them instruction on the spell technique this morning before they’d left the University grounds, but they’d been forbidden to practice until they’d reached their destination. Shandra turned the pages of the spellbook to the notes she’d made, then rummaged through her satchel again for the candle and cindersticks she’d brought along. Wedging the candle between two rocks, sheltering it from the wind with her body, she lit one of her cindersticks and coaxed a small flame from the candle wick.

To shape a force or object one first needed to understand the pattern of the thing, the unique shaping of the Quanwhich made this a rock and that a candle and this here a frustrated student of Sarenbosch University. One needed to trace the threads of the Quan within the thing, reading them as one would a map, a map of Creation itself. That is what Shandra would attempt to do with the tiny candle flame, seek the pattern that lay at the heart of all flame, large or small.

Cupping her hands around her candle-flame, Shandra shut her eyes and concentrated, trying to extend her sensesinto the fire. It took shape in her mind, a writhing, pulsing matrix of light, threads of brilliant energy coiling around each other in an ever-shifting dance. Concentrating on the pattern in her mind, Shandra held out one of her hands and attempted to visualize that pattern’s twin. Carefully, so as not to break her focus on the pattern, Shandra reached down, down into that place deep inside her where her power resided. She drew upon that well, gathering as much of her strength as she could before she released it into the spell. Her lungs began to ache, Shandra always held her breathe while channelling, a habit she couldn’t seem to break. In a rush, she exhaled both her magic and the air in her lungs, opening her eyes to witness the result…

Nothing. Her candle still flickered before her, and under her palm, nothing. She must have made a mistake in the shaping, somewhere, the spell falling apart before manifesting. Sighing again, she looked around her to see how the other students were doing. Most were doing as she had, studying a source of fire. Some had brought candles, others had made small campfires from twigs and branches.

Master Vrain was off a ways, watching a pair of girls. The larger of the two was standing with her arms extended before her. As Shandra watched, fire sprang to life in front of her, leaping from barren rock, fed solely by the girl’s will. The girl waved her hand, causing the fire to die out, then turned to talk to Master Vrain. As she did so Shandra saw who it was and sighed. Milan. Of course.

A scion of an old, established mage family, Milan was the top of just about every class she was in. Everyone knew that she’d been trained in magic before arriving at Sarenbosch. Whenever she returned from holidaying with her family she bragged about some new technique an uncle had shown her or a spellbook she’d received as a gift. Hardly a surprise then, that she’d been the first one to meet with success today.

Shandra returned to studying her candle. As the day wore on, most of the other students demonstrated their conjuring of fire to one or the other of the Masters. That boy Tal managed to set his sleeve alight, but he quickly dunked his arm in a bucket, dousing the flame before it did much damage. And even he got the spell right on his next try. Shandra just couldn’t seem to grasp it. Everything she knew told her it should have worked, but the spell just wouldn’t take. She created a few sparks, once, but that was the most she’d achieved. Her candle had burned itself down to a stub now. Most of the students were lounging about in the sun, or dipping their feet in the rock pool.

Looking around again, Shandra realised there were only three of them left who hadn’t mastered the fire conjuring. Across from her, under the opposite rock face, Master Vrain was lecturing a miserable-looking boy on the fundamentals of channeling. Nearer her, a girl sat facing Mistress Indra, their hands clasped, eyes closed, forming a circle. The Mistress was clearly guiding the girl’s shaping, Shandra could see flickering embers begin to form between the two. At this rate, she’d be the last one left. The thought was nearly enough to bring tears to Shandra’s eyes. They’d be teasing her for weeks. Desperately, she looked around her. Perhaps one of the other students could help her figure out what she was doing wrong.

Her gaze came to rest on Milan. The girl had gathered a small group of the other students around her, by her strutting Shandra could tell she was about to show off again. Though she hated herself for it, Shandra got up and started to walk towards them. Perhaps she could learn a trick that would help her.

Fire sprang to life before Milan’s outstretched hands as Shandra joined the onlookers. Shandra felt a pang of envy at the sight, Milan’s fire burned steadily, without so much as flicker. But this was clearly only the start of Milan’s act; as Shandra watched she raised her hands dramatically and whispered something Shandra couldn’t make out.

A burning sigil formed in the air between Milan’s hands. The arcane symbol was difficult to look at, the lines of it seemed to twist around each other; Shandra’s eyes watered just looking at it. As she watched, ribbons of flame streamed from the fire Milan had already conjured into the sigil, drawing the flame’s heat and power into it. The sigil pulsed as the fire poured into it, growing brighter and brighter. Milan’s face was tight with concentration, her lips constantly moving in some silent chant. As Shandra watched, the last embers of flame were consumed by the sigil, the symbol’s writhing intensifying with the burning energies it had consumed.

Milan was clearly under a great deal of strain. As they watched, her arms quivered as if the sigil were exerting some sort of pressure, a force which she was struggling to keep contained between her palms. Embers sparked from the sigil and it seemed to shudder, to draw into itself.

Alarmed, Shandra stepped back. She could hear someone shouting something behind her but it was drowned out by a growing humming in the air. The Masters warned of magi losing control of complex spells, of how dangerously awry they could go. If Milan couldn’t hold her concentration… panicked, Shandra turned to call for one of the Masters.

Milan whimpered. Shandra’s head whipped back to the scene, terror twisting her innards. Streams of fire had emerged from the sigil, coiling around Milan’s arms, her torso. The girl screamed as her flesh burned, the sigil shattering with her concentration. With a hungry roar, flame burst forth. Shandra hurled herself away as the other students screamed, a wave of heat searing her back.

Landing painfully against the trunk of a withered tree, Shandra looked back in horror. Students rolled around in the dust, desperate to extinguish the flames in their clothing, their hair. And Milan…a column of fire roared where she’d stood, the barely-seen figure within it thrashing wildly, her agonised shrieks filling the air. The scent of burning flesh and hair reached Shandra’s nostrils and her stomach churned in revulsion.

One of the students had been quicker of wits than the others, she’d run and grabbed a nearby bucket of water, returning to fling it over the burning girl. The water hissed into steam instantly, the fire raging on unchecked. Another student hurled water, to the same effect. Shaking herself, Shandra climbed to her feet, part of her mind registering that the dessicated branches of the tree she’d landed against had caught alight above her. She looked around for a bucket to throw on Milan, wandering as she did so if it was futile, if the girl was even still alive. She must be, the spell would have died with her life force, wouldn’t it?

A deep rumbling filled the air even as a thrum of power washed over Shandra’s senses. Looking around, she saw Master Vrain and Mistress Indra. The pair had linked hands and were pointing at the rock pool. As Shandra watched, the water from the pool surged upwards, a thing alive, leaping from its bed to engulf the burning girl. Clouds of steam filled the air as the Masters ran toward the girl. As the steam dissipated, Shandra saw the blackened, twisted thing that lay on ground before them. Unable to stop herself, she turned and retched, her stomach emptying itself in great heaving sobs.

When she looked up again she saw Master Vrain, his hand on Mistress Indra’s shoulder as the woman knelt next to the burned girl. Indra shook her head, sighing, and Master Vrain turned to the rest of the students, his face purple with rage, his words clipped.