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Teachings of the Arcane: Responsibility

Copyright Ryan Span ©2001

Edited by Suzanne Campbell for The Guild Companion

...First, of all things, a mage must learn to take responsibility for his actions...
...For without this responsibility, chaos will reign and the Arcane will founder...

- Book of the Arcane, First Segment, Second paragraph

"Look around you," my old mentor, Thanien Stormbound, said softly. His beard flowed and danced in the breeze. "What do you see?"

"I see grass..." I said, shielding my eyes from the sun. "And hills. And some trees..."

He shook his head and seemed disappointed. "No, my young friend," he whispered. "It is not."

"But... They're right there!" I argued as the bright light of the noon sun beat down on us. "The grass, the hills, the-"

"That is what your narrow mind perceives," he said, his piercing gaze seeing right through me. I closed my eyes in shame...and a little fear. "It is not what you see, young apprentice. Let me reveal some to you. Some of what is beyond you, yet can so easily be in your sight."

He passed a hand over my eyes, and as I opened them again I immediately fell to my knees and closed them again. My head spun with the incredible sensation, and a throbbing headache surfaced. I saw more than my mind could process. That single image-an image of vibrant life, of encroaching death, of incredible, unconquerable verdancy and storms of ultimate destruction-burnt its way into my mind. (Even now, when I close my eyes, I can still see it. If you wish to challenge your imagination, attempt to picture this: seeing millennia - eons - of life, death, nature and chaos, all packed up into a single image of the world. Picture yourself as the focal point of every experience and every scrap of wisdom and knowledge in existence; all in one great explosion. If you were able to do that, then I applaud you...) I saw millennia of flowers grow and bloom, children frolicking in the sun, warm rain splashing on leaves which created the most wondrous of melodies... But the death and the chaos were terrible and dark. The flowers withered and died, the children aged and wasted away, and the rain's song turned to a dirge. I fell to the ground weeping.

"And that's just the beginning, my boy." He reached out to me and helped me up. I looked up at him as he stroked his great white beard. My heart was aflame; this experience was so vast, so incredible, that I wanted more. Yet ever after I feared the dark side of things.

"Master... What does it all mean?" I asked, looking into his eyes that seemed alight with the fire of wisdom.

"You will find out in time," he said as he put a hand on my shoulder. "Magic is something that takes a lifetime to learn, and years beyond count to master."

 "But... But... I want the power now!" I said in my brashness and idiocy. "I don't want to have to wait for ages!"

"You know not what you speak of, foolish one," he whispered, seeming almost amused. "One cannot have power without heeding the lessons of the Arcane."

 I sighed. "Very well, master..." I had no intention of letting this set me back. I was going to get that power with or without his help!

 "Go now, return to your home," he spoke quietly, planting his staff into the moist grass. "Remember the new perception you have gleaned today, apprentice. It will serve you in the future."

"Yes master," I replied, then turned and went to the village. As usual, all the other children were playing in the town square, but I had no stomach for games that day. Going straight into my room, I sat down on my bed and brooded. Some time later, I came to my decision. I was going to sneak out at night and take the power for myself!

After my parents tucked me into bed, and were themselves asleep, I soundlessly snuck out of the house and made my way over the hills to Thanien's tower. The stars and moons were bright above, lighting my way. I used my key to open the massive tower door, then closed it as quietly as possible. I began my stealthy approach to the basement door.

"What are you hiding here then, master...?" I whispered to myself as I inched down the stairway and made my way into a candle-lit room. There were a great many alchemical tools I didn't comprehend, and a bookcase stacked with tomes next to a reading stand. Taking the one that looked the most ancient, I put it on the stand and flipped it open. Reading the passages by the sparse candlelight, I could only make out a few words here and there, my knowledge of the language limited. Then, suddenly, the basement door slammed shut behind me. I wheeled about and found Thanien standing there.

"Master!" I squeaked in surprise. "What are you doing here?"

"That is a question I should ask you, apprentice," he said angrily. "Sneaking into my tower at night and going into the basement, which I told you to stay out of!"

"I'm sorry master, but..." I replied, hanging my head in shame.

"But what??"

"I just didn't want to wait for so long..." I whispered. "All I wanted was to have some real magic."

"Ahhh... So it is power you want?" he whispered, and smiled a smile that was anything but friendly, comforting or understanding. He let out a low chuckle, and suddenly I felt very afraid. "Take this power then!"

He clamped his bony hand onto my forehead, and tiny bolts of lightning swirled and cracked, piercing into my skull, but there was no pain. I felt my mind flooding with incredible knowledge, power, and understanding of the universe. Everything suddenly made sense. I could do anything I wanted! Now, I could stay up late and skip classes without anyone telling me off about it! Yes, the mind of a child works in mysterious ways...

I laughed... Loudly. Exalted. Power beyond imagination was mine!

"Thank you, master!" I shouted, and giggled gleefully as I levitated up the stairs.

"Oh, do not thank me, young one," he said, his voice most grave. "I have not given you anything worthy of thanks."

I shrugged and whizzed off out of the tower, over the fields, faster than the fastest hunting cat, and laughing every second. I shot fire and lightning at nearby trees, and they burned. I felt like the center of the universe, and nothing was beyond my grasp. Flying like a bird, I made my way back to the village when I realized it was already morning. Mother was inside, preparing mutton for dinner, while father was sitting at the stream fishing. I idly wandered into the town square where the village children were playing. Their parents were all either working inside or busy somewhere else, so I wouldn't have to explain anything to them. Yet.

"Hey!" I greeted my best friend, Reyum. "What're you doing?"

"Hi!" he said to me, then jumped and caught a ball someone threw at him. "Come on, join us, we're playing catch!"

"Sorry. I can't," I whispered conspiratorially, shaking my head. "Got other things to do. I've got magic now, you know." I grinned at him. The kids formed a circle around me and murmured.

"Magic, huh?" they said. "Show us then, so we know you're not lying!"

"Fine. Look at this!" I shouted and did a triple somersault backwards, then flew back and launched a lightning bolt right into the middle of the circle of children. They all shrieked in fear and awe, and questioned me all about my new powers the moment I landed. I didn't tell them where I got them or who gave them to me, but I answered all their questions. Until one of them asked that what should never have been uttered.

"Hey, why don't you show us the best you can do?" Reyum asked excitedly. "You know, the deepest, most powerful of what you can do. I wanna see that!"

"Umm..." I hesitated, still unsure of my abilities, and of the consequences. "I don't think I should..."

"Awwww, come on! Show us!" he said, and started chanting. Soon, every one of them was chanting "Show us! Show us!" endlessly until finally I gave in. I sighed deeply, and dove within my mind to the deepest part of the knowledge and wisdom and power, and found it. I held it in my hands, till suddenly it leapt from them. I couldn't control it. My body immolated with fiery power, and suddenly the whole town square boiled into molten rock. I could see charred bodies floating in an updraft of blazing magma. An updraft I, in all my foolishness, had created. A horrid bubbling sound and a dozen endless screams echoed through the square. All of the friends...were dead...

My spell ended and the town square returned to normal, though the stench of charred flesh hung about. The fire around me slowly died out, and the children's parents came storming out of their homes to investigate the noise. I quickly turned myself invisible to avoid their wrath. I was the only one that lived, so they would blame me. And rightly so...

As I slipped away, I could hear their sobbing, their cries of mourning, of pain... I ran all the way to Thanien's tower, stumbling as my eyes were bleary with tears, completely horrified by what I'd done. I finally stumbled into the tower and fell on the floor rug, crying. After what seemed like an eternity, Thanien knelt by my side and put his hand on the back of my head, which was still buried in the rug. Slowly the knowledge, the power, the understanding was drawn from my mind... And I was glad to see it gone.

"Let this be a lesson to you, young apprentice," he lectured softly, but there was compassion in his voice now. "Power must be tempered with wisdom. Your own wisdom, which you must learn over many ages."

I finally understood. I killed my friends. If I returned to town, the people would hang me. I had no place else to go, nor any desire to leave.

"I will learn, master..." I whispered, slowly getting up onto my knees.

"Good," he whispered, stroking my hair in a way that made me drowsy somehow. Just before I drifted off into nightmare-filled sleep, I could barely hear him whisper, "Rest now, my young apprentice. Power, wisdom and knowledge can wait 'till tomorrow..."

      For the next few years, I worked, and studied, and worked even more. I had nightmares for long after what happened in the town square. Thanien hid me, and told me he told the parents I was dead also. Yet one morning, exactly seven years after the tragedy, I felt something nagging at my mind. Something bothered me.

All day long I couldn't stop thinking about what was puzzling me, and then finally it hit me. Why had Thanien granted me such power if he knew what would come of it? I stormed down into the basement, interrupting some unimportant experiment my master was conducting.

"What brings you here, boy?" Thanien asked, not hiding his annoyance. "Can't you see I'm busy?"

"Yes master, but I need to talk to you," I replied. "Why did you let me kill them?"

"What are you talking about?"

"Why did you give me the power when you knew I would do something horrible with it?" I asked in outrage.

Thanien smiled. "So, you've finally realized that, have you? I thought you would've sooner. But no matter."

"Tell me, master!" I cried. "I have to know!"

He waved me to a chair. "Sit down," he said softly. "I will tell you the story."

"We mages are a protective lot. You see, children with potential for magic are quite often abandoned or exiled before they reach their fourth year. I found you in a small basket flowing down the forest stream. You know that stream, don't you?"

"Of course. Reyum and I used to go swimming there all the time," I explained.

"Well, you need to know that your family, your friends, your village... Everything you know except for the land... None of it was real."

"What?" I asked, abashed. "What do you mean?"

"You heard me. It was an illusion. All mages are raised that way, and subjected to a great tragedy. Otherwise their minds are too quick to turn to evil."

"That's outrageous!" I cried. "You lied to me!"

"It was for your own good, boy. The price of turning to evil is nothing compared to a childhood existing in fantasy."

"You're saying this is all compassionate somehow?" I asked, and studied Thanien. He looked so much older now than seven years ago.

"Yes," he said, letting out a deep sigh. " Believe me, it certainly is."

"I will think on this..." I said and looked down in thought. Then I lifted my head to face him, and added in a slightly contemptuous tone, "Master..."

"Do, my young apprentice, but remember, don't be a fool." He breathed deeply and I started to make my way up the winding staircase. Then, just as I was closing the door, I could hear him add, "It is almost time for your next lesson."

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