I’d recharged completely since doing my exercises in Alexander’s lab, and magic came to my call immediately and easily. It felt calmer than usual, like the surface of a glassy lake, almost as though it knew what I was doing and didn’t want to interfere. I turned my face to the moon, took a deep breath, and got started.
Magic is an interesting thing, because it is so incredibly simple. At its heart all magic is is a field of energy which, for reasons unknown, responds to people’s desires. That’s it. That’s all. What we refer to as spells and enchantments and such are just ways of getting the magic to do what you want. And, in essence, they are all just expressions of will.
The only thing you really, truly need to do magic is a concentrated desire to change things. That’s all that willpower is; you have to be totally, absolutely concentrated on something, you have to believe it so hard that, in your mind, it’s already real. Without that there’s no way to make the power agree that it’s real. Although very few people have the aptitude or ability for it, theoretically anyone can do it. Kinda like racing; anybody can drive, but only a handful of people can race a Formula One car successfully. If you’re born with the right senses and reflexes, you have a much better shot at winning a race than somebody without. If you train and sharpen those abilities, you can widen that gap even more.
The problem with magic is that people aren’t, as a rule, very good at concentrating. In fact, most people are very not good at concentrating. If you don’t believe me, here’s a little experiment for you. And no, it’s not the “Don’t think of an elephant” thing. That’s easy.
For the next five minutes, only think about one thing. Let’s make it simple. Think about ravens. You can even include crows if you want, just to make it easier. Corvids in general are fair game. Don’t think about anything else, don’t lapse in your concentration. Don’t talk or look at a picture, either; that’s cheating. Don’t worry, I’ll be here when you get back.
Finished? Good. Now, and be honest, how well did you actually do? If you’re anything like most people, the answer is not very. For most people what you actually think is more like:
Ravens and crows. What am I doing this for? Ravens, crows and ravens. Say, I wonder how Baltimore’s doing this year? Shit, focus. Ravens and crows, black things in the sky…and always getting in my garbage too, damn things. Focus! What’s for dinner? I haven’t eaten in, like, forever. And so on.
What you just did (or not, I don’t really care) is a little bit like a spell. There are a few important differences, though. Number one, ravens are vastly easier to think about than even a simple piece of magic. Imagine concentrating on the exact way that air flows over the shape of one vane of one tail feather of a single, specific raven instead, and you might start to get an idea of what kind of thinking magic involves. Number two, thoughts about birds are inert. The thought has no nature aside from what you impart to it. When you do magic you’re forcing an inherently chaotic force to behave in an ordered, consistent way. So essentially, the thought you’re thinking is thinking back at you, and actively trying to escape from your grasp of it. That makes things harder, and the more energy you’re trying to hold the harder it is. That’s why most mages can gather more power than they can actually shape. Number three, you were only at it for five minutes. Complicated spells can take hours or days, and maintaining that degree of focus is harder the longer you have to do it.
Number four, and most important, there aren’t any consequences for a lapse in concentration when all you’re thinking about is a bird. With magic, it means that all the energy you’ve gathered and started to direct isn’t doing what you want any more. Best case scenario, it dissipates and you have to start from scratch. Worst case, well…the power doesn’t just go away, if you get my meaning. It just isn’t under your control. The results can be…messy. I’d heard one story growing up about a mage who was about to finish a ritual of some kind—what the ritual was nobody’s quite sure. Some say that he was trying to cast a death spell on an enemy. Others, who I think are perhaps being a bit too romantic, think he was trying to summon up Lucifer, or Death himself.
In any case, what is certain is that he was interrupted by a visitor at a critical moment. Energy which had been gathered and sculpted into the correct form over days of constant labor broke free inside his circle and went on a rampage.
Most of the time, when they say you could bury somebody in a matchbox, they mean it figuratively. In his case, they didn’t even need a matchbox, because anyone who came close enough to the body to bury it started to weep, scream, or vomit, sometimes all three. Then they ran away, without ever even touching it. Given that this group had included soldiers and numerous people used to burying plague victims, this was saying a bit. What said even more was that one of them had been Bryan Ferguson, an ancient werewolf who had seen lots and lots of death by that point in his life. I’d never, ever known Bryan to react that violently to anything.
When I’d asked him what had been so bad about the body, he’d told me I didn’t want to know. I’d considered pressing him, or asking someone else. Then I thought about what it would take to disturb Bryan enough that he ran away, and decided I probably really didn’t want to know.
Anyway, because this was the Middle Ages and the rules were a bit more lax back then, they decided to just set his house on fire. The story goes that, in the midst of the flames, the mage was heard to scream in agony, moan that someone was after his soul, and eventually to get up, stagger to the door, and collapse again. Personally I consider this to likely be pure fabrication.
What I’m getting at here is that magic is not forgiving of mistakes. Most of the time, if you take the right precautions, it doesn’t actually kill you to slip. But in a high-power ritual, or if you’re playing with intrinsically dangerous forces, there’s always an element of danger. Even if the power does just dissipate, stopping a spell midway can be hazardous. If you’re throwing fire in the middle of a fight, for example, suddenly being surrounded by flames that aren’t under your control is a bad place to be.
So when I say that the first thing I did was to clear my mind of all emotion, all distraction, everything except my focused intent to summon a spiritual entity of the appropriate description, I’m being very serious.
I started with my emotions. Fear over what was happening, both in the immediate sense and in the wider picture. The slow, dull anger I still felt over the attack at the Full Moon. It wasn’t my favorite place, but it was my place and someone had dared to attack it. That aroused my territorial instincts, and even if it was a minor event I was still very upset about it. Concern for Snowflake, Enrico, and Kyra, all of whom had been changing lately, and any of whom might take a turn for the worse at any moment. I took each one, examined it, and set it aside for another time.
In the dispassionate calm that remained I did the same thing with my bodily perceptions. I could smell smoke, freshly-turned earth, Aiko and Snowflake, the off-color scent of the powder I’d used in the circle around me, the lovely aroma of the forest at night. Each one was discarded in turn. The grass tickling the bottoms of my bare feet was a minor background sensation, easily blocked. My eyes were already closed, so I didn’t need to worry about sight. I could hear the crackling of the fire, the gentle sound of wind chimes, the wind in the branches. I could hear my breathing and heartbeat. All of them faded. With them went the feeling of other minds against mine. Aiko and Snowflake weren’t the only things watching me, but none of them mattered.
Perfect calm. Floating in the darkness. All that was left were my magical senses. They were what distinguished mages from normal people. Everybody can feel the power around them on some level, but some people have much more finely-tuned senses than others. Those are the people that can really get to be skilled with magic. Mine were better than most mages, from what Alexander had said.
Those I didn’t get rid of. Instead I focused on them. I could feel magic moving around me, magic that was close to my heart. I could feel the light of the moon against my skin and the way the air flowed through the trees. I spent a while there, in the midst of a slow, gentle storm of intangible energy. Once I’d sunk into the magic totally, so much a part of it that my actual body was all but forgotten, I started working.
Drawn by my will, the power stopped whirling and flowing aimlessly, and started focusing on me. It wasn’t like a magnet pulling all the magic in; even if I was good enough to do that, which I probably wasn’t, I wasn’t trying that hard yet. This was the easy part. It was more like a slow-motion whirlpool, in which only slightly more power traveled towards me than away. There was enough of an attraction, though, that I managed to take up about as much magic as I could hold, maybe thrice the amount I normally had available to me. It wasn’t all that much, in the greater scheme of things; I’d been improving my skill and focus much more than my actual capacity. It would have to be enough.
The state of mind required for high-level magic is odd, at least for me. It produces a strange feeling of dislocation, as though I were only tangentially connected to myself, as weird as that sounds. It messes with my perception, especially of time. I would estimate that it took me at least half an hour to get that energy together, but I could easily be off by an hour or more.
Way too long to use in an actual fight, or any other time-sensitive situation. That’s why most mages—and especially wizards, who excel at complicated and high-energy spells like this—tend to avoid direct confrontation, and do a lot of prep work. Putting in the time to make foci, stored spells, and other toys in advance is what turns a mage from a moderate-level fighter in the supernatural hierarchy to a top-class one. Alexander is a great example. He’s terribly dangerous in an immediate sense, but that doesn’t begin to compare what he can do with a little preparation. There are so many wards on his house that it would take an army to scratch the surface. We’re talking about bolts of lightning, temperatures comparable to molten steel, and blasts of kinetic force on the level of being run over by a tank.
And that’s not even mentioning the creepy stuff, like bits of witchcraft designed to just rip your life away or shred your mind so thoroughly it wouldn’t ever heal, or the shamanic spell that would make all your nightmares come to life and start eating you. Trying to counter all of those different effects is virtually impossible.
The point is that those wards represent the pinnacle of wizard-style fighting. Tons and tons and tons of work beforehand, all so that you can essentially concentrate hundreds of hours of magical labor into a few very active seconds. What I was doing was based on the same principle, although I wasn’t putting nearly as much work into it as Alexander had into his wards.
Once I had as much power as I could reasonably hold, I poured some into each of the circles in turn. Ordinarily I would have preferred to be physically touching them—the further away you are from your target, the more inefficient you are. Some leakage is inevitable, because no spell and no concentration can be entirely perfect, and magic is too wild to be bound perfectly.
In this case I had enough that I wasn’t too concerned; energizing a circle is a pretty low-scale expenditure of power, especially next to what I was holding. Each ring went up with an almost tangible snap, enclosing me in another layer of magical shielding. I could feel the power around me, burning with a steady light that was nothing like the slow and constant movement that was more natural.
The circles wouldn’t stop anything physical. It is possible to make a magic circle that will act like a force field, but it’s more complicated and takes a lot more oomph. These were just meant to block magical energy, and not a whole lot of that. A concerted effort would break through them in no time—but against the gentle natural movement of power, they were plenty sturdy.
Then I settled into the actual spell. There were a lot of ways to enter the world of spirit, but I was taking one of the safer ones. The first step, which might seem like a bad idea given what I said about the importance of absolute focus earlier, was to focus on what I was feeling. Not physically, but magically. The circle—the second circle, specifically—acted a bit like a heat reflector, concentrating the energy inside and directing it toward me. Fire and water, earth and wind all converged on my position.
They balanced, naturally enough. The constant, fickle motion of the air met the low solidity of earth. Dangerous, ever-changing power born of fire was matched with water, peaceful and calm and, although perfectly receptive to change, somehow always the same underneath. I could feel and smell the magic in a way that had nothing to do with my body.
It is perhaps inevitable that they felt, to me, a bit like predators. The way my mind is organized in terms of magic is such that almost everything does. That’s just what I am, on a very basic level.
Earth resembled a sleeping bear. There was the same sense of immense power that hasn’t yet been stirred to life. It felt stolid, immovable, and not especially interested in moving. Earth was solid, and stable, but it still had the feeling of immense power under a thin leash.
Fire was more like a starving mountain lion. There was power there, too, but it was as active as earth was stable. It was moving, hunting, always hungry, always looking for something to devour. Fire was the most dangerous of the elements, magically speaking. Oh, you can do very impressive things with earth or wind in a fight—but fire, like Tyrfing, wants to do impressive things, hungers for the fight and the destruction.
Air, of course, was like a raptor. A hawk, maybe, or a falcon. Constant motion, going one direction and then reversing so fast you never see the moment when it changes. Soaring, floating, then stooping to take a rabbit. Fickle, dancing in the space between two heartbeats. I felt more of an affinity for air and wind than any of the others.
Water probably should have seemed like a fish of some kind, but it didn’t. The truth is that I just hadn’t spent that much time working with fish. They were hard for me to contact, for the same reasons I’d explained to Kyra. Easier than an insect, of course, but harder than birds or reptiles, and much harder than mammals. Their senses and environment are too foreign for me to interpret very well. Water instead reminded me of a werewolf. There was the same light, glittering surface, and underneath it was the same cold, dark depth. Water might seem peaceful, but it’s not calm in the same way as earth. Earth is truly like a bear; it takes a lot to stir it, and once it does there’s a lot of power there. Think earthquakes and volcanoes. Water, on the other hand, can go from peaceful to raging in an instant, with no provocation. It will drown you almost as quickly and easily as fire burns.
I lost myself in those feelings, and over time slipped from considering the energies to the ideas. Change and constancy, creation and destruction, calm and activity—those were what was important, those were what I needed. The embodiment of the idea was tangential.
The whole time I was using the power I’d gathered to push myself ever further, ever deeper into these observations. Eventually, after an even more timeless interval than before, I realized that something was different. It didn’t feel like something changing; it was more like my perception had changed. I couldn’t have said when it happened; it might have taken a minute or a year. But I knew what it meant.
I’d successfully crossed over into the spirit world.
I stopped concentrating and opened my eyes. What greeted me was…very strange.
I could, if I concentrated, see the physical world, because this was only the borderland between the world I lived in and the one I was crossing into. Much more important, though, were the energies overlaying it. They showed up as a constantly moving cascade of light and color, billions of shades that I could somehow differentiate, though I knew that in the real world they would be nothing but a mad cacophony to me. I looked at the four points of the compass, and somehow I could see the ideas I had just spent so much time meditating on. Looking at the stones was enough to evoke the feeling of calm solidity, and bring the scent of it to my nostrils. Likewise, when I glanced at the firepit I felt hunger and danger, and I could smell smoke and heated air.
My circles showed up as glittering lines made of silver-and-black light. I don’t mean ultraviolet, either; it was literal black light. How that was possible I do not know. At the time I understood, instinctively, that it represented my will, my focused desire to exert control on the world.
That’s the really strange thing, see. While I was actually there everything made sense.
I looked past the circle at that point, into the world beyond. The trees glowed with low, slow-moving emerald light. They felt like patience and growth, the slow passing of uncounted seasons, my own presence too ephemeral for them to note. When I focused my attention on them I smelled growing things and pine sap. Here and there sharper, less overwhelming sparks of light flitted about, marking the presence of insects, rodents, the occasional nocturnal bird.
Aiko burned with a gold-green light almost too bright to look at directly, which was at the same time scarlet. It wasn’t marbled, either; it was just a solid glow that was, somehow, gold and green and red at the same time. No, I don’t know what that looks like either. Probably there is no color like that in the real world. I could see a human form, and a fox, and I honestly couldn’t say which was the natural one and which an assumed shape.
She felt…odd, somehow conflicted. Her aura was a little like air, and a little like fire, and mostly not like anything else in sight. There was the same fickleness as in air, and something of fire’s hunger, but I could also feel playfulness in her, and—maybe because I was sure that it was directed at me, knew it in my bones—I also felt a strange sort of caring. Looking at her I could see, too, how much of her laughter was a mask for the sorrow underneath. She smelled of fox and lilacs, cinnamon and bitter tears shed late at night in a cold, uncaring room. Strange, that I’d never seen that before. Always before I’d thought that Aiko was as light and cheerful and uncaring as she seemed, but now I wondered if that was as much an act as my own persona of the normal, reasonably content human.
Next to her Snowflake was at least as unusual. She burned with a cold white-blue light as steady as the Northern Star. I could see, too, the other entity within her, the wolf that had come to share her mind when she was little more than a puppy. He was a thing of blood and shadow, lurking beneath the surface—but in my current state much was revealed that was normally hidden from sight. I could feel them, two totally different feelings. She was playful and light, gentle and friendly and welcoming. He was darker, grimmer, hunger and need, and a view of the world where everybody was divided into us and them, and if you weren’t one of us then he didn’t care what happened to you, not at all. I was reminded of a snow-covered mountain. The surface of the snow was bright and forgiving, begging to be played upon—but underneath was the cold, dark, suffocating depth, feet and feet of snow just waiting for the chance to become an avalanche.
I describe it now as being sequential, but at the time that wasn’t how I perceived it. I still had the same strange sense that my mind was dislocated, not functioning quite normally. Time was strange, stretched and sideways and not pinned down. I saw and thought all of these things in a moment’s time, the space between two blinks. I looked away after that; I was worried I would see too much.
It took me a while to orient myself to the spirit world. It was a dizzying, staggering experience, and adapting to it took time.
I hadn’t ever been to the spirit world before—unless maybe I had, which is a distinct possibility. There’s actually a lot of debate as to whether it’s a different world at all, or just a different way of experiencing the same world I’d lived in my whole life. Some people claim that it’s the same reality, and that level of perception is just one we don’t normally use. Others say that it was a different world, and the reason it seemed so familiar is because that’s where we go when we dream. The rituals and magics were just a way of getting there and retaining your awareness and volition. I don’t know which, if either, is true. Maybe both are.
Once I was reasonably comfortable with my surroundings, I stood up and walked out of the circles. They weren’t an obstacle, here; that wasn’t what they were meant to do. I glanced back briefly, and saw myself sitting there, utterly still. That tracked; this wasn’t the physical world. I was up and moving, but that was the me that consisted of who I was, rather than any physical object. My body was still sitting there; there just wasn’t anyone home at the moment. It was a sobering realization. The automatic systems would keep it alive for a while, but if I didn’t get back within a day or so it would die.
That happens to mages, every now and then. They go into the spirit world and never come back. What happens to them when their bodies die, nobody really knows. No one’s ever managed to make contact with one of them, afterward.
Looking at myself, I could feel a little of my own magic. Not much—the real me, the me that counts, wasn’t there, after all. But I could smell the familiar aroma of my power. It seemed like the blood and wolf were a little stronger now, a little more overpowering of the notes of ice and grass. I could see that the interior of the innermost circle was blanketed with frost, crawling up over my feet and covering the grass in delicate feathers of ice. That had happened, occasionally, when I used my magic. Only since January; I had no idea what had changed, or why the ice formed. I hadn’t taken the time to figure it out yet. I was scared that I didn’t want to know.
From my current vantage, I could see that I was, on some level, the same as the frost. It was an extension of myself, even though it was also something different. In terms of energy and idea, I blended into it so smoothly that I could hardly see the join, although it had a distinct energy and I had another and they really weren’t all that similar. Something else to consider later.
For now, I finally started on the work that all of this had been for. I closed my eyes again, concentrated, and started chanting.