This was one of the scenes I imagined first when coming up with the plot for my fantasy novel. Magic (or magick) in the world of Alyssum is pretty straightforward, as far as the etymology is concerned. You’ve got all your classics: thaumaturgy, abjuration, conjuration, and the like. But then you have individuals who are “shattered,” either psychologically or in arcane ways, that defy conventions in neuroatypical manners. Hearing voices is pretty commonplace for them, and the voices of such “Others” are rarely friendly, often blamed for the many misfortunes that have befallen the world since the Shattering (a worldwide cataclysm that left an arcane wound in the surface of the world hundreds of miles long, dozens of miles wide, and filled with darkness and terror from which no one has ever ventured and escaped).
For Aeo, his magick is bipolar, and even slightly schizophrenic. When the anger and obsession of mania comes along, triggered by negative memories, the normally-directionless voices in his head become decidedly murderous. And when sadness and depression appears, the voices become hopeless and despondent and want the world to go away. This changes the way he can influence his magick, often in contradictory ways that are probably not going to help him a whole lot during his adventure. For instance, he’ll soon find himself stuck alone in a terrible blizzard, and his sadness will warp his fire magic into useless ice, threatening his ability to survive.
Of course, he’ll (slowly) reason that making an igloo is a great way to not die during such circumstances. 😀
As an abused ex-slave, Aeo’s got a lot of baggage to unpack. Fortunately, he’ll learn to cope, and his friends will help him do just that. He’ll discover that there’s a reason he can hear the shattered voices, and it has a lot to do with where he came from and who he’s meant to become. That his differences are how the Goddess Tiathys intends for the young boy to save the world.
I want my novel’s Everspring Academy to be more than Hogwarts, and I want the survival aspect of the hero’s journey to be different than The Hunger Games or The Hobbit. Yeah, racial prejudice sucks, but I want to use it in a constructive way in a story, and demonstrate that even obviously-neuroatypical people can solve problems and be heroes. I’m excited to begin the challenge proper once my own mental health solidifies (and yes, even though my draft is ~175 pages now, I realize it’s totally just a start).
Nineteen energetic students and a single timid one entered the spacious open-air amphitheater, each quickly and quietly finding a seat before the center stage. Aeo’s physical senses met the combined sight and scent of a thousand rainbow-colored flowers growing in the meadow beyond. The bright sandstone walls of the semi-circle amphitheater appeared more temple than classroom, adorned as they were with gleaming weapons, thick armors and shields, and shiny arcane artifacts. The afternoon daylight streamed through the shade of green and blue hanging curtains as a delicate breeze made a series of wind chimes dance and sing some feet near the entrance.
Aeo paused, soaking in the view. This was his classroom? Aeo had heard of the concept of “school” before, certainly, though one did not exist in Falas Village. But he had no idea learning could be experienced in a such a luxurious place. It was a paradise, one he did not feel worthy to exist in. And this was the most basic magick course offered at the Academy. An Introduction to Energy, taught by one Elder Naal.
Leon had insisted he start simple, and Aeo had no desire to disappoint him. But besides the splendid classroom, the introductory course felt… off. Perhaps it was the fact that Aeo stood a foot taller than every other student around him, which was saying something for the scrawny four-foot-tall Adian boy. The oldest students gathering before him couldn’t have been older than six years of age, while a few of them were still babbling toddlers.
It was bad enough that the bright-white apprentice robes Leon forced him to wear were so awfully hot, itchy, and ill-fitting for the humid atmosphere of the Everspring. Now he had to endure a rigid schedule where everything was new and foreign and terrifying… and, apparently, appropriate for tiny, tiny children.
He scowled at his predicament, and at himself.
First day here, and you’re already years behind.
One by one, each student took a seat on comfortable pillows in the koilon before the half-circular stage. Aeo didn’t hesitate to sit as far back as he could, choosing a lone pillow in the corner of the amphitheater farthest from both the entrance and the stage. Harthoon (his former master) would probably have had a heart attack had he known the street value of the flamboyantly-embroidered pillow placed upon the amphitheater’s stone steps. But all of the other children had no qualms about leaping and landing upon the plush pillows with delight, so Aeo allowed himself to sit.
Aeo remained silent, watching the others congregate. He could easily differentiate between the Antielli boys and girls (with their short rounded ears, thick brown or ruddy-colored hair, and mostly hazel eyes) and the Ashanti boys and girls (with their signature long and pointed ears, wispy and delicately-hued hair, and their stunningly pale and reflective eyes). No other student had Aeo’s bright red irises and curly crimson hair. There were no Adians in this classroom besides him. And the children had very much noticed. Aeo could feel their obvious whispers floating around between cupped hands. A few blank stares met his own, and he felt his cheeks turn as red as his hair.
Aeo and the other children did not have to wait long for the teacher to appear. From the entrance came a mighty bellowing voice:
“Oy dear children! Welcome!”
Into the amphitheater strode a jolly and rotund fellow dressed in the flowing tan-and-green robes of an Academy instructor. Elder Naal, no doubt, an Antielli man himself. Adorned with a mighty white beard that descended from his lips like a bushy cloud, his hawkish eyes and balding crown of graying hair reminded Aeo of the cranky, ale-sodden scribes that had visited the tavern in Falas from time to time. Fortunately, there was little about this instructor’s demeanor that could compare to those ill-tempered Antielli monks.
“Take a seat, take a seat, get comfortable,” he declared, though everyone had already done so. “Today’s lesson is certainly one you’ve all been waiting for! No more note-taking, no more practice drills… that will come again later, of course. Today, it is time for the real thing!”
“Master Naal?” asked an eager young girl sitting up front. “Does that mean you’ll show us actual magick?”
“Better, my dear,” Master Edin’Rao Naal said, clapping his hands together as he stood before them. “Today, you will be showing me some magick instead!”
Eyes widened in joy and excited whispers rose. Aeo felt a pit form in his stomach.
“Now, now, everyone, contain yourselves,” Master Naal said, lowering hands to hush the children. “I know that some of you are already very skilled at simple focus magicks, while some of you still have yet to demonstrate the knack. This is okay! Today, no matter your level of skill or natural talent, you will all improve together!” He paused, perhaps a bit dramatically. “Now. The tools I’m about to show you can be dangerous. Lethal, in some cases. But powerful in the right hands, and perfect for practicing magick with the right supervision!”
Master Naal turned and moved to the table at the rear of the stage. From within a beautifully-adorned wooden box, he produced a pair of bright-red leather armbands. They were oddly beautiful, sturdy pieces of aged leather adorned with metal rivets, decorative steel ornaments, and silver buckles. In the very center of the wrist was an inlaid gemstone that shone with a delicate green light, not entirely unlike the crystalline lamps that lined the Academy’s hallways.
“These, children,” he said, lifting an armband in each hand. “Are enmap bracers. Does anyone know what enmap means?”
One Ashanti boy with incredibly pointy ears (even for an Ashanti) immediately lifted his hand.
“It means energy manip— uh, man— man-ee-pull-ay-shun.”
Master Naal gave the boy a deep bow.
“Very good, Jhote, very good pronunciation! Yes, enmap stands for ‘energy manipulation,’ the weaving of energy into magick. It is the crystallized aether of the bracer that does the heavy lifting, so to speak, allowing you to practice your forms without getting tired. For little ones such as yourselves, you’ll find that when you put these on, you’ll have no problem casting your very own magicks with very little effort! Would one of you like to come up and help me demonstrate what they can…? Oh, Jhote! Yes, come right up, my boy.”
The same Ashanti boy rose without even raising his hand, standing before Master Naal filled with excitement.
“Have you ever used an enmap bracer before?”
“Ay sir,” he said, his accent thick. “I practice with my brother in his class.”
“Very good! Then you’re probably a natural! Go ahead and hold out your arm for me, my boy.”
Dressed in smiliar robes as Aeo, Jhote rolled up his thick sleeve and held out his arm with a big grin on his face. With a flick of his hand, Master Naal released the bracer into the air, and it flew onto the boys arm in a flash. The three leather straps of the bracer all tightened simultaneously, though perhaps a bit too tightly for the boy’s immediate liking. It was too big, wrapping from the boy’s wrist to beyond his elbow and forcing the boy’s arm to straighten.
“Ha! Apologies, Jhote! You’ll get used to the tightness. It’s a necessity until you get used to the intensity of the magick. Your other arm, my boy, if you please.”
Jhote held out his other arm, and Master Naal performed the same trick as before; with a snap, the other enmap bracer wrapped onto the boy’s forearm, tightening and buckling on its own. The Ashanti boy looked at the oversized bracers on his arms in wonder.
“Comfortable?” Master Naal asked. “Good! Perfect! Now, as to their function. As Jhote said, ‘enmap’ is short for ‘energy manipulation.’ That’s what these bracers allow the user to do: manipulate the aether within the crystals and control the weave in simple focus magick. What is focus magick, everyone?”
Aeo had no idea. Several hands went up, and Master Naal pointed.
“Master?” called an Antielli girl in the middle of the classroom, her hair tied up in a tight bun. “It’s magick you have to concentrate on.”
“Yes, that’s right, Holda,” Naal said. “Yes! Concentration, and what else? What’s the second important part of focus magick?” He waved his finger as if pointing at the answer. “Remember, it’s there in the title itself.”
“Focus!” chimed several staggered voices.
“Yes, marvelous, that’s right! Magick requires concentration and focus, a vision of the effect you desire to create.” Master Naal pointed to the details of the bracers upon Jhote’s arms. “You see the wellspring crystals? Enmap bracers are an aetherically-charged focus that provides the power for the spells you wish to cast. There are few focus magicks that can’t be improved by practicing with enmap bracers. Unfortunately, they are rather… well, they’re rare. And expensive. So expensive, in fact, that this is the only pair the Academy allows the evocation college to use. So, if you please, take great care when using them!”
“Can I try them now, Master?” Jhote asked, already waving his hands about in a practiced stance. “I’m ready!”
“Of course, my boy! Today, I want you all to come up here, one at a time. Tell me what magick specialization is your favorite, and we’ll see if we can’t make the bracers produce what you imagine. Sound good?”
Cheer arose from the students. Master Naal then flicked his hand once more, and the bracer upon Jhote’s right arm suddenly unlatched and flew into the instructor’s hand.
“I’ll be wearing the other one, you see,” he explained, securing it manually to his own arm. “To keep everyone safe. No telling how much trouble you children could get into with both bracers! Regardless, I expect quite the show from just the one!”
The nervous whispers turned into enthusiastic chattering. Aeo did not add to it. He simply hid his hands in his lap and looked down at the floor.
Jhote began the presentation. Abjuration was his favorite field of magick, just like Leon’s. So Elder Naal urged the boy to imagine a bright light, as bright as the sun, and to imagine it appearing before him. The white-haired boy held out his hand, biting his tongue in concentration. The effect emerged in less than a second: a sphere of bright sapphire light slowly emerged within the palm of his hand, not entirely unlike the luspheres that floated above the refectory in the Great Hall. It hovered there for a moment before “sliding” out of his fingers, falling and fading away before the magick could hit the ground.
Jhote stared at Master Naal so thrilled, he was breathless.
“Fantastically done, Jhote! Very good! Can you feel the ease with which the energy flows through the bracer? Isn’t it brilliant? Who’s next?”
The next student was an Antielli girl with curly blonde hair in the front row. She went up while Master Naal removed all three buckles of the bracer from Jhote’s arm with a quick gesture. As the boy sat down, Master Naal magicked the bracer onto the girl’s forearm, and she wasted no time discussing what she had in mind. Her animis was liquid thaumaturgy, so Master Naal produced a small vial of water from the table on the stage. The girl must have practiced this skill many times before, as the water within the vial immediately leaped into the air and formed a small sphere, defying gravity above the palm of her hand. It then snaked around the bracer like a watery serpent, weaving itself in between her fingers before zipping right back into the vial with nary a drop wasted.
The pride beaming from her face was unmistakable.
“Brilliant, Bevelli! What fun! Aren’t these bracers amazing? Their power makes it feel as though all your practice has finally paid off. Next!”
One by one, each student in the class rose and took to the stage. Some created arcs of electricity between their fingers. Some illuminated the already brilliantly-lit classroom in blinding colorful flashes of light. One Ashanti boy (whose mother worked as one of the Academy’s chirurgeons) demonstrated healing magick, restoring the natural color to a small bruise on his own knee. Another transmuted a small glass marble into a cube shape, then into a pyramid, and then into a multi-pointed star. The student sitting right next to Aeo, a white-haired Ashanti girl whose hair draped lower than her waist, then took the stage and created a spectacular fireworks display, showering the entire front row in dazzling but harmless indigo sparks. She described it as an “emergency flare” magick that her parents had taught her in case she ever got lost.
With every demonstration, the other students cheered all the more. Even as Aeo became more and more sullen.
“Excellent, everyone! Excellent work,” Master Naal said at last. “You all have mastered your animi with such ease! With enough practice and focus, performing magick can one day become as simple as these bracers make it now!”
The whispers escalated, the students whispering to each other as they marveled at their experiences. And for the briefest moment, as Master Naal removed the bracer from the Ashanti girl’s arm, Aeo convinced himself that he’d been forgotten by everyone in the room. Master Naal even seemed to confirm it as he turned in place to return the bracers to their ornate container.
“And, at last, we come to our final student,” Master Naal announced without turning around. “Our brand new arrival from Antiell. Have you all introduced yourselves to Aeo yet?”
Every eye in the classroom then turned to look at Aeo. He turned as beetroot red as everything else about him. The boy without a last name. The Adian. The whispers became intense. Some of the other boys laughed. Three of them in particular, a trio of nearly-identical brown-haired Antielli boys, pointed at him and snickered. If Aeo had known the spell for turning invisible, he would have cast such an enchantment immediately. Unfortunately, bracers or not, the only magic he knew how to cast had murdered his slave-owning master; not that anyone knew that but himself. He refused to look at the stage or at anyone else, so he tried to stare at the sandstone wall beside him instead.
“Well, Aeo?” asked Master Naal. With reluctance, Aeo forced himself to look past everyone. Master Naal had returned to face the class, now wearing a peculiar pair of thin black gloves in combination with a single enmap bracer. “Would you care to come practice what you’ve learned?”
Aeo didn’t respond right away, sinking further into his seat. The laughter at his expense increased. What a shame… a ten-year-old redhead, scared of a bunch of six-year-olds. Of course, he couldn’t simply ignore everyone. Aeo felt his body lift from his seated position, and he found himself stepping to the front of the sandstone amphitheater. His knees wobbled as he climbed the stage steps and his bottom lip was already trembling. There was no way he could remember the stance or the incantations Leon had taught him. No way at all.
“Very good, my boy,” Master Naal said cheerfully (or obliviously), clapping a great hand on Aeo’s shoulder. Aeo nearly crumpled from the gesture, and giggling rose from the Antielli girls in the front row at the sight of it. “Now, as Master Sirelu advised me, you have quite the animis for fire thaumaturgy, is that right?”
Aeo nodded in the slightest way possible, his gaze transfixed on the ground.
“Here, Aeo. Your arm, please.”
Master Naal held the bracer to the Adian boy. For the first time, Aeo got a good look at the piece of arcane armor; it really was quite a work of art. The buckles and decorations gleamed in the sunlight, the sienna ayvasilk weaving around the edges spun into perfect embroidered patterns. Crafted of beautiful red-hued leather, the bracer appeared as aged and refined as polished oak, not to mention the silent beauty of the viridian gemstone set into the bracer’s wrist. Aeo rolled up his sleeve, and before he could even watch, he felt the bracer slide up his arm and latch on like a coiled serpent. Master Naal hadn’t been wrong about the lack of comfort, and he felt the blood flow in his arm constrict.
“There we are, excellent. Now, Aeo, stand about three arm lengths away from me and lift your arm. Cup your hand out, just as Master Sirelu taught you.”
So Leon had told Master Naal about his practice. All the more the fool for thinking Aeo even wanted to show off. Aeo closed his eyes for a moment and obeyed the instructor, his hand cupped upwards. Same as before… nothing felt inherently different. His thoughts trailed to the thought exercise Leon had taught him: he imagined all the heat from his toes rising to his legs, then up his waist and stomach, through his chest and down his arm towards his waiting hand.
All was concentration for about fifteen seconds. But nothing happened. Not a single spark, and no heat. Everything fell terribly quiet.
“Need assistance, my boy?” asked Master Naal.
The same three boys that had laughed before began whispering to each other. Aeo couldn’t help but look at them, and they shared three very unfriendly smiles. Whatever heat that should have been descending down Aeo’s arm was instead ascending to his head, turning his cheeks even further crimson.
Aeo’s head shook, tearing his attention back to his hand.
I can do this. I can!
But he couldn’t. He strained again to produce even a candle’s worth of flame on his fingertips, as he had done but days before by himself. He might as well have been holding his hand out to Master Naal for a piece of candy. A hard peal of laughter shot from the corner of the amphitheater. The three boys. They weren’t stopping. At this point, they knew they were distracting him. This made them laugh all the more, and the class had begun to follow along.
To his credit, this was not lost on Master Naal.
“Come now, everyone,” he said, not pointing to anyone in particular. “Let’s not be rude. Give Aeo a moment, the bracers can take a moment to get used to.”
Nothing was working. It couldn’t. Perhaps it best he bow out as graciously as possible. He should have taken the bracer off and returned to his pillow. He should have. But he didn’t.
His attention was no longer on his hand. It was directly at the three boys.
You need to make them stop, thought an Other in his mind. Make them stop.
Somewhere inside the inner workings of his physical brain, a nerve was struck. It was the boys’ eyes, their jeering laughter, their gestures that struck a deeply-rooted instinct. It was an instinct Aeo had never fully explored, not willingly, out of fear of constant punishment. The phrase ‘Adian bastard’ floated through his head plain as day, plain as if one of the boys had said the words aloud.
Then, a horrifying contemplation. Words that did not belong to him, but to the many unseen Others just beyond his natural comprehension. Words that he had never heard spoken with his ears, but many times spoken in his mind, though never nearly as loud. They spoke over each other, hissing, all desiring the same awful things:
Remove their twisted grins. Their maniacal eyes. They deserve to die. Incinerate their bodies as you did the wolves. As you did your master. Offer them as sacrifice to the star, to the heart of the sun. Refuse their existence a single day more!
Oh, how he could hear them, and nothing more! Aeo’s awareness of the opulent classroom faded, and his physical vision blurred. His focus was a wish, one granted by the enmap bracer hugging his arm. Or so he thought. So lost he was to internal voices, he didn’t immediately realize that the mocking faces of the three boys had begun to transform into looks of horror.
Then… everything happened at once. Too much at once. Someone yelled from across the room. Something bright enveloped his left arm. He felt no pain, no discomfort.
Aeo’s concentration on the three boys broke. He looked to his arm. His entire hand as well as the enmap bracer had erupted into magnificent effulgent flame, radiant, burning with ferocious ruby-red flames too bright to see. His eyes began to track the whipping tongues of fire upwards, and he calmly noticed that they had begun to consume the green curtains above the stage.
Then, someone else yelled from across the room. His gaze lazily drew off of the stage towards the entrance of the amphitheater. It was Master Naal; somehow, he was no longer on stage.
“Aeo, stop, my boy! Please! Control yourself!”
Stop. Control. What a pair of words.
Aeo’s gaze returned to the ruby-red flames now engulfing the white sleeve of his Academy robes. This was right. So right. For the first time in his life, he couldn’t imagine anything he wanted more than to pour this power into the world. Little he knew was more satisfying than the primal animis that roared from his hand and the bracer.
With this power, you can do anything. You can stop the staring and the whispers. You can make people stop laughing. Stop them from screaming. You can make them disappear. Where is the other bracer? You need more power. How much more powerful could you become with the other?
Someone was still yelling at him. Then several voices. A strange sensation took control of his left hand, of the bracer. An unseen force trying to take it away from him.
No! Stop! That will make the fire go away!
He resisted it. Nothing would make this end. He would let it consume him first. He would burn down the entire Academy! He would end his life before letting the fire die! He would—
All sound ceased. With a familiar and delightful popping sound, a violet sphere of magickal light engulfed Aeo’s hand and most of his arm like a playful bubble. In a single second, the entire ruby-red conflagration died. All of Aeo’s weight had been held up by the molten string of aether, and it all so suddenly vanished, he could do nothing but collapse to the floor.
As quickly as the bubble appeared, Aeo’s hearing returned. The sounds echoing in the sandstone amphitheater had not simply died. The roar of the flames had only deafened to it all. In fact, once the roar of the fiery magick ceased, the room became filled with the cries of frightened children, as well as the shouts of other masters attempting to calm them. To his slight confusion, some of the voices seemed to belong to the three Antielli boys, all of them crying and shouting from fear. He hadn’t harmed them, despite wanting to.
Thank the Goddess, his own internal voice thought.
Aeo strained to focus. His energy, consumed in the flames, barely gave him the power to turn his head towards the direction of the voices. Someone was coming, deep footfalls upon the stone approaching him. To his surprise, it wasn’t Master Naal that appeared.
No, it was Leon. Where had he come from? Wasn’t his office on the other side of the Academy?
“Aeo!” he cried, crouching and smothering the flames that had not yet died on the hems of Aeo’s charred robes. With a flick of his wrist, the violet bubble about Aeo’s arm vanished, and the enmap bracer unbuckled. It then shot off of Aeo’s arm like a rocket, clattering some distance away. Aeo felt Leon embrace him and pat his face, but he had no energy to ask what had happened. “Aeo, can you hear me? Speak to me, Aeo, say something! Come now, blink if you can hear me!”
Aeo attempted to blink. It was more of an eyelash flutter. Animis sickness, all over again, all of his energy thoroughly drained. If he’d been able to see it, the once-shining green gem set into the bracer had long since stopped shining.
“Master Naal, call the Sanareum please! How could you let this happen? How long was his outburst?”
“About fifteen minutes!” shouted Master Naal’s voice from across the room, who seemed to be directing his fellow thaumaturgists in extinguishing the flames that licked the ceiling. But he didn’t sound angry, or even displeased. He sounded excited, even as he worked to extinguish the flames that had caught the first eight rows of pillows on fire. “I’ve never seen its like before! I could hardly approach him to ward his hands, even with a bracer on! I daresay, Master Sirelu, we have a master flame thamaturgist on our hands! I’d stake my life on it!”
“Not now, Edin, please!” Leon shouted angrily. “Call the Sanareum, now!”
Fifteen whole minutes? No. No, it couldn’t have lasted that long. It was over so quickly, and so suddenly. There’s no way.
Leon placed his hand on the boy’s forehead, confident that the last of the embers clinging to Aeo’s robes had cooled.
“Goddess, Aeo… this is my fault, isn’t it? Had I known your first lesson at the Academy would be about that damnable bracer, I would have had you skip class. Just… just rest now, all right? We’ll, eh… take things a bit slower from now on.”
Had Aeo not expended every drop of physical and magickal effort attempting to immolate his fellow students, he would have audibly agreed.
“And in the meantime,” he growled, staring at the entrance to the classroom. “Elder Naal and I are going to share a few words.”