“So tell me. If it’s true, as Principals of Forces clearly tells us, that magic is an element, one we can learn to manipulate, then why is it still something…well… magical?” Shanaya knew Understanding the Underlying Principals of Forces almost word for word. It was the authority on magic. She had studied that, along with all the other works of magic lore, whilst at Huaki the Librarian Academy of Higher Learning.
“Well, you see, let me explain.” Krauk had been mumbling through this attempted explanation for the last half an hour, and Shanaya was beginning to get bored of it.
“Basically, Magic is just an element. Like, like… water, air and, err, others. And all you got to do see, is just like, learn to use it.” Krauk’s attempt at intelligence was completely ruined by his inability to focus his eyes on her for any length of time.
She’d encountered Krauk and some of his friends when she first came into Dhalind’s Inn two days ago. They were the typical denizens of this sort of place. Large, none too clean, rough working class men of the city. Dhalind’s was a well-known inn in these parts. A relatively quiet inn, which was run by old Dhalind’s sons, who kept things peaceful and well-mannered. Not that that helped with the smell, or general level of intelligence of the clientele, but Shanaya felt safer here than some of the other inns in the city.
“Sure, Krauk. Ok. And that’s the, well, simplified summary of the work. But don’t limit your thinking to what you’ve heard. If magic is simple science, then why are some more powerful than others?” Shanaya asked.
“Well obviously it’s like some folk are smarter than others. Or… some are stronger. Or like animals see? Some can do stuff others can’t.” Krauk’s explanations were the basic rhetoric spouted by everyone who had never done any thinking of their own. Shanaya had spent the last two weeks having these conversations, and had yet to meet someone who could expand on this theory.
“Ok,” Shanaya said. She was beginning to tire of the smell and cheap ale this place had to offer. “But what if there was more to it? What if we limit ourselves by telling ourselves that magic is just an element we can manipulate? Surely that then implies that magic is limited to the laws of nature. But magic can achieve things that are completely outside of nature. It adapts in ways no other element can. It...”
“Hang on here a second. You’re not about to start preachin’ are you? I thought we was having a nice debate while we share a tankard. If you’re one of them religious fanatics you can bloody well leave now,” Krauk said as his face darkened.
Shanya immediately realised her mistake as a few faces turned to look at their table.
I should have read this room better, she thought. These gloites can’t think past their next drink. No one here is going to listen to me, let alone engage in anything resembling debate. This was a relatively safe bar, but it was still a bar for common people, and their common ideology.
“No, no. Of course not,” She said. “I’ve just had too much to drink. I’d best head off home.”
Shanaya got up to leave, and hurried out of the door before things escalated. She had encountered this sort of response before, and had no desire to be covered in someone else’s drink and laughed out of the inn again.
She left the bar and took the side street towards the academy, allowing her thoughts to consume her. She turned at the sound of footsteps. “Where you going preach? We was just about to ask you a few questions” In the dusky, late evening light, Krauk’s shadowed face held barely-veiled threats, and the three friends he had with him looked a whole lot meaner than the faces had in the bar.
Shit shit shit, she thought, as she froze in the middle of the street.
“Just… heading home is all. Back to the academy to...” She gulped. “I’m studying to become a mage you see?” Shanaya hoped that her stuttering reply would count as enough warning to scare off the would-be attackers.
“Hah… Ain’t no chance the academy would let a preachy girl like you in. Why don’t you just show us what you got in your pockets? Preachers is always rich. Spending their time convincing honest folk to give ‘em their hard-earned money.”
As they advanced on her, Shanaya desperately tried to gather the necessary concentration to conjure something… anything to scare them away. But as her instructors had always pointed out to her, she just wasn’t all that gifted. Her power seemed to come in fits and starts with very little control. Krauk laughed out loud
“What are you trying to do there with your hand wringin’ and curlin’ up? Trying to pray your way out of it huh?”
Panic. Stark panic.
Shanaya felt herself losing control. Why couldn’t she do this? She had tried so hard.
As Krauk reached over to grab her, Shanaya felt herself drop to the ground in a sigh and change. As her hands hit the floor, they were no longer hands, but feet… or paws? And she felt herself running. Fast. Faster than she could ever have imagined, on all fours. Shouts sounded dimly behind her but she ignored them; they weren’t her concern anymore.
Part of her knew it was impossible, but part of her felt completely free, like she had finally found the part of herself that she had lost. As she ran, she dreamed.
She dreamed of the natural mysteries of the world. Of Dragons, mermaids and winged horses. Of tiny people smaller than birds. Of a huge bearded man who kept changing his form. One minute a man, next a bear, then a shark. Always changing. But always smiling.
As she dreamed, her life flickered through her dreams, recollections of conversations, of feeling like she never quite fit in.
Shanaya learned from all her tutors that she would never be a high mage.
“You know how to work hard, but you’re missing the stability and consistency of a good mage.” Her magic had always felt alien to her. Like it didn’t fit properly. Since leaving the academy, Shanaya encountered nothing but ridicule and anger at the hands of those she spoke with. She couldn’t shake the feeling that all her aunt Delba’s stories might have been something a bit more than just stories. All her family were academics, with a long history of high achievement at Huaki’s academy.
All apart from Delba.
Her strange, eccentric auntie. With her stories of old magic, and how she would always go on about the freedom of allowing yourself to believe. As she began to stir awake, Shanaya again saw the bearded face, and she thought she heard him say,
“Come home child. Come home.”
Shanaya awoke in a strange room. An elderly, severe face scowled down at her and fastened something to her neck.
“Wh… where am I?” She stammered
“This is Huaki’s temple. I found you at the foot of our steps, naked.” It was clear by the robes Shanaya could now see that this lady, who clearly disapproved of her, was a low ranking priestess in Huaki’s order. Probably failed during your first year at the academy and had to come and work here instead, she thought.
“Normally I would have rolled you over to the other side of the street. But something made me bring you in.” The priestess gave her a slightly suspicious look as she said this, and Shanaya felt almost as if there was recognition in her eyes.
“Maybe you recognise me from the academy?” Shanaya suggested.
“Pah. Academy stock.” The glint of recognition faded from the eyes and changed to something more dismissive as the priestess turned away and began sorting through things on the table top. “Short sighted self-important and too wealthy to know any different,” the priestess said to herself. “Academy folk. Think they have it all figured out. They ignore the gods, passing them off as outdated relics, except in passing.” She snorted softly. “And then they prove themselves the idiots they are. Huaki the god of knowledge? Where is the wisdom? Huaki is more than knowledge girl. All should spend some time out in the woods with the wild ones, not that they understand soap and water of course, but there we go. Ulan-Rei always did put instinct before knowledge.”
Shanaya felt like this barrage of words was lighting a fire somewhere inside her and she turned to interrupt.
“Wait. What are you talking about? Where can I… I… Hello?” The priestess seemed to have vanished.
Although she ached all over, Shanaya got up from the bed and went to find her. As she left the room, Shanaya couldn’t see the priestess anywhere up or down the corridor. She was starting to wonder whether she might actually have dreamed the whole thing when she felt a pull around her neck.
She grabbed at the thong around her neck to find a long, sharp animal tooth at the end of it. Pulling her. She started running. She ran past startled acolytes and left the temple. She couldn’t explain it, but she felt that the pull from the tooth was taking her somewhere.
As she ran through the city towards the wild gate walls, Shanaya remembered the rumours she had heard about a small temple to Ulan-Rei in the woods just outside the gate.
Shanaya slowed down as she went through the gate. The Wild gate was one she had never had reason to leave the city by before. It went directly into the woods to the west of the city and was where the loggers and pelt merchants set up shop.
Looking around, she noticed a young girl, maybe fifteen years old, leaning against the wall of a shop staring at her. Shanaya tried to ignore her, but something about the bright green eyes drew her in.
“Can I help you?” Shanaya asked the girl.
“Nope.” The girl smiled simply. “But I wonder whether I can help you? I know what you’re searching for, and I know how to get there.” Shanaya frowned.
“I’m not looking for anything,” Shanaya told her “I’m just…” The girl interrupted her.
“I know. You’re just looking for something to explain all the things that don’t make sense to you.” As the girl spoke, Shanaya felt her tension melting away. The girl’s eyes seemed to see past her excuses. “I can take you somewhere where you will find some of the answers you’re looking for.”
Shanaya felt completely at ease with this girl, but years of living in a world with certain rules made her hesitate.
“No really,” she said. “It’s ok. I’m just heading back home really.”
“And then you will never find what you’re looking for.” The girl told her, smiling again. “You see. You’re missing something. You humans are half right. What you’ve been dabbling in is a limited, human understanding of magic. You see, the element of magic that I shape is linked with water. I can do all kinds of things with it. But without communion with Ulan-Rei, I could never take on my Trueself and dive to the deepest parts of the ocean.” The girl winked and turned, walking slowly toward the woods.
“Wait!” Shanaya had so many questions that she didn’t know where to start. She hurried after the girl and walked with her into the woods, mulling over how to phrase her questions. This girl seemed to have answers. Answers to questions that most people didn’t even want to listen to.
“It’s simple really,” the girl told her. “Without understanding something of Ulan-Rei, I can only tap into a part of my powers.”
As the girl finished speaking, they walked out of the trees and into a clearing. In front of them was the strangest building Shanaya had ever seen. Part trees and part stone, it stood sprawling in front of them.
“Welcome,” said the girl. “To your new home. The temple of Ulan-Rei.”