1.16: The Price of Magic

Our first lesson at Skolala Refujeyo was Basic Magical Theory. I walked into the classroom two minutes before class to find that most people were already there and seated. Max was next to Clara, the girl he’d called too young for school, and Kylie was sitting with a girl in a hijab I didn’t recognise; I scanned the room for familiar faces who were sitting alone, immediately discounted the empty seat beside Simon, and took a seat alone near the front of the room.

I could feel people staring at me. Some of them were whispering. I couldn’t hear what they were whispering about, but I recognised their glances well enough; that up-and-down body glance, looking for a witch mark. I leaned back in my chair until it rested on the desk of the whispering pair behind me.

“Hi,” I said, loud enough for most of the room to hear. “I’m Kayden.”

“Um, hi,” one of them said uncomfortably. He was still doing it, like if he looked hard enough he’d see the mark through my clothes. Generally I thought Kylie had a worse deal than me, having the mark right on her face, but I supposed it didn’t matter once people knew it existed – at least she didn’t get that look.

“Yes,” I said, “I’m cursed. It’s an evocation curse and yes, it has attacked people.” I gave them a friendly smile. “It’s in my heart, so the mark is here, and no, you can’t see it. Any other questions?”

“Uh… no. Sorry.”

“Have a great day.” I swung my chair upright again. That should cut out the whispers, at least.

Instruktanto Miratova strolled into the room, staff in hand. The invisible thing was still on her shoulder, much harder to notice in the harsh white light of the classroom. She swept her gaze over the class, which fell instantly silent and attentive.

“What is the greatest number of spells that a mage has ever been able to use?” she asked, without preamble.

Several hands shot up. Mage family kids, mostly (it was easy to pick them out; they looked comfortable in mage robes and always seemed to be subtlely competing with each other), although a few other hands were also up. Instruktanto Miratova nodded at a girl, who answered, “Six spells, by Bai Li.”

“Good work, but not quite. Bai Li had six spells when she died, but she was only able to use five of them. She didn’t get a chance to use the sixth one. Next question – how did Bai Li die?”

This question caused some murmuring. Instruktanto Miratova let it continue for a few minutes before picking out one of the murmurers. “Alex. Thoughts?”

“Uh, technically it was overheating of some kind,” he said. “But nobody’s quite sure on the details. Just that one of the spells went wrong and burned her somehow.”

“More than one spell, most likely. I’m sure that some of you have had loved ones who have been lost in this way. Overheating, or some quickly-arising immune disorder, or some other body system being thrown out of balance that just cannot be recovered by modern science.”

I snuck a glance around the room. Several students were looking despondent, or staring at their desks.

“Next question: how old was Bai Li when she died?”

The silence was broken by Max’s quiet but certain voice. “She was twenty two.”

Instruktanto Miratova nodded. “Twenty two. One of the most skilled and accomplished mages in history lived until twenty two before the magic took her. If that sounds reasonably old to you fourteen-year-olds, think how old your parents were when you were born. If you were Bai Li’s child, how old would you have been left motherless? Would you have been born at all?

“Bai Li was a victim of her own magic. She took on far too many spells, and they conflicted inside her body and killed her, as spells do. She did this knowing the risks and choosing to take them to further push back the boundaries of magic, and those risks killed her when she was barely out of childhood. It’s a real testament to her skill, strength and mastery of magic that she was able to live that long.” She paused, glancing over the sea of unnerved faces. Bai Li might be well known, but it looked like most of the students had never thought much about her age.

“I am not telling you this to scare you. I am telling you this because magic is dangerous, and if you decide to become a mage, there is a very real chance that magic will kill you. The purpose of the next six months is not, as many of you seem to think, an annoying interlude before you move into your career as mages; it’s a chance to learn the information you need to know to decide whether you really want to become mages, because once you move forward into the trial and get your first spell, there will be no chance to go back. Being a mage can give you a lot of exciting job opportunities and open up a lot of life paths for you. It can extend your life by helping you make more money to spend on food, shelter and healthcare, and more than one mage has used their spell to save themselves from an accident that would otherwise have killed or crippled them. But this is a dangerous life path, and once you are committed, you are committed for life. This semester, think carefully on whether the risk is worth it. Next question – what is the typical number of spells for a mage to have?”

Once again, hands shot up. Instruktanto Miratova picked Simon.

“Most mages have one spell,” he said. “Two spells are reasonably common at wizard level and higher, although far from the majority. Three or more are extremely rare.”

Miratova nodded. “Most of the most accomplished mages in the world have one spell that they have worked very hard to master,” she said. “Some have two, but with each additional spell, they become much harder to use effectively and much more likely to conflict and harm their mage, so except in very unusual circumstances, one spell is usually stronger. I bring this up because in every initiate class there’s one or two students dreaming of becoming the next Bai Li, presumably without the early death, and achieving legendary fame and renown. If that’s a risk any of you want to take, it’s not my place to stop you, but don’t mistake ‘lots of spells’ or even ‘very powerful spells’ for ‘good mage’. The correllation is most often the other way.”

“But wouldn’t a good mage want to do as many different things as possible?” a student up the back asked.

“I can accomplish all sorts of different tasks with one hand,” Miratova said. “The same goes for one spell. Of course, every spell is individual. Some are more flexible than others; some are indeed so specialised that they can only accomplish one task, extremely well. Others are very adaptable, but very clumsy. It is impossible to predict what you will and will not be able to do with your spell until you actually get it, because you won’t get to pick and choose; if you survive the trial, one of the spells will choose you. But even if your spell is very limited, I would advise spending several years becoming comfortable with it before trying to take on another. Adding another spell without knowing what you are doing is as likely to limit your magical abilities as to expand them.”

“What about enchanters?” someone else asked.

“Enchanters are a very special case. But even they only work with one spell at a time. It’s even more important for them to do so, in fact, given the level of control needed for enchantment. It’s the most difficult line of magical work – but you’ll all learn about enchantment much, much later on, if you choose to become mages. Most of what we cover in general theory will be about spontaneous casting; that is, using your own raw will to direct the energy of your spell. Who wants to see how it’s done?”

A lot of people leaned forward in their chairs. Most of the family mages looked bored; I supposed they’d probably seen a lot of magic before. The last time I’d seen it, the very mage in front of me had frozen an ice bridge like it was nothing; I inched my chair back.

Instruktanto Miratova went to her desk in the corner and retrieved a small statue. It was about the size of a garden gnome and made of some kind of dull grey metal. The statue was of a classic fairytale wizard, swamped in flowing silk and with a ludicrously long beard, raising a gnarled staff in defiance of the heavens. It would have looked cartoonish, were it not sitting in the hands of a mage wearing robes nearly as voluminous, who had rested her own crystal-topped staff against her desk.

She set the statue on the palm of her left hand and, with a lot more strength than I’d thought she had, raised it high over an unoccupied student desk.

“Spontaneous magic is the most common form of magic,” she explained. “Every mage is capable of it, and unless you go into a very specialised field, it could be the only form of magic you ever see in your life. Different spells are utilised differently, but the basic theory is the same.” With her free hand, she pointed at the statue. “Smelt!

Because I was watching carefully for it, I noticed the slight shimmer as the thing moved on her shoulder. At first, nothing else seemed to happen… but then, vey slowly, the statue began to glow red. The wizard’s staff started to droop, looking less defiant and more bowed down by the heavens; the tip of his pointy hat dulled and rolled forward.

The statue began to glow brighter and brighter near the top. The bottom of the statue, resting on Instruktanto Miratova’s hand, barely changed as the top melted faster and faster, the end of the wizard’s staff dropping onto the desk below, which immediately started to smoke.

The statue’s face and arms began to melt. Glowing liquid metal dripped onto the wooden desk and was wreathed in little flames. Alania Miratova’s expression didn’t change, her hand didn’t move, as the statue disintegrated in her hand, bitter smoke spread throughout the room and beads of metal dripped off the side of the desk onto the cold stone floor.

When only a disc of metal about 4cm high was left in her hand, she murmured, “Koue.” A brief chill swept through the room; the liquid metal solidified, the flames were doused. She dropped the remaining piece of metal onto the table, where it hit the new solid puddle with a clang.

Then, she held her left hand up to show the class, front and back. Even with the protection of the unmelted base of the statue, it was badly burned; much of the skin was an angry red, and some spots on the palm and fingers were black and blistering away.

“When you do magic,” she said, “you will get hurt. You will hurt other people. A mage’s period of training is very long because we endeavour to make sure that you make most of your worst mistakes here, where you and your victims will have the best chances to recover, but there are no guarantees in life. Magic is dangerous, and the most careful of mages will still find themselves making sacrifices. Make sure you understand this fully before you decide whether to undertake the trial. And for the sakes of your families, your teachers, and most importantly yourselves, I hope you take this class, and your decision, very seriously.”


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