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Teachings of the Arcane:  Wisdom

Copyright Ryan Span ©2002

Edited by Suzanne Campbell for The Guild Companion

 

...To turn one's back on the Teachings is utter folly, for to abandon magic is to abandon life...
...Should a mage lose touch with his heritage, Wisdom shall eventually return him to the true path...

- Book of the Arcane, Third Segment, Fourth paragraph


     A slow, pattering haze drowned the crisp night air as millions of tiny multicolored lights refracted in the sheet of raindrops. At its own leisurely pace, a car rumbled over the wet asphalt, splashing water in all directions, leaving only a few rippling pools as evidence of its passing. The city. Dark. Brooding. Just the way I liked it.
     I had changed. Marcus still, yet not my old self. Not the naive, world-estranged boy that had nothing for guidance save a book that gave knowledge only in hindsight. I had my own wits about me, I reckoned; hard-earned in a world of little opportunity-one I'd come to know as Earth.
     Like always, a long time had passed since my last lesson. Perhaps I'd grown up, matured, whatever. It all meant the same, really: having become more cynical, less trusting. More suspicious, less caring. As an adult of twenty-three years old, I'd had five years to adapt to this new world of many contrasts. In some places, peace was abundant, and people lived well-ordered and simple lives reminiscent of my old village or even of my stay in Thanien's tower. In other places, there was chaos, crime, greed, evil. I was in between - a writer, fortunate enough to have attracted interest to his work, and made just enough money to survive in a reasonable fashion. Apartment, clothes, food, the basics...
     My life had changed so much that I'd forgotten the legacy bestowed upon me. The Book gathered dust in some dark, hidden corner, and I hadn't used my powers in all the years since Thanien's death. I was too scared to, as my lesson of Responsibility burned itself onto my closed eyelids every time I thought of magic. So all those memories wound up in the dark recesses of my mind that I dared not tread.
     I was driving, as I often would when there was no story to tell. The city looked so quiet, yet so very menacing from here... There was no way I could resist switching on my beloved laptop computer, the library of ever single piece of work to ever spring from my fingers. There were some half-written novels, dead projects, stories that refused to let themselves be told. With a sigh I moved it away again. After all, I hadn't written anything worth reading in months.
     Empty parking lots made good thinking places. Solitude, the gentle drum of rain on the roof, and a marvelous sight from the front window were all very relaxing and thought-inspiring things for me, but in my current state, nothing helped. 'Writer's block' is a truly hellish thing. I didn't know what was wrong with me, didn't know what part of me wasn't cooperating. Were my fingers refusing their inexplicable motions that flowed on and on without even the need to think? Was my brain upset with me in some way? Or had I just run out of ideas? The latter was the most frightening option. I couldn't live my life without a story to tell.
     It's safe to say I was very depressed in those days. I never cared much for smoking or drugs, but often enough I sought relief in alcohol. My brain felt dead every morning, with or without a splitting hangover. Bar tabs were mounting up, and I had no money to pay them. Suicide was looking more attractive every day. Just to end it all, without having made an impact, without having achieved any of the things I wanted, and without having continued the Teachings. There was something inside, though, something that wouldn't let me do that. I guess a part of me always knew I had a destiny to fulfill, even though my mind had forgotten.
     With a sigh I turned off the rumbling engine to really enjoy the silence. It wasn't much comfort, but I welcomed all I could get. But in the end words would always form in my head, and then flee before allowing me to write them down. That was very disturbing. At times I could feel a wellspring of words in my mind, but it was beyond my grasp, locked far away without a key to be found. In frustration I threw open the door and stormed out into the rain, too angry to care if I was going to catch pneumonia or whatnot. A shower of coolness descended upon me, but in the fierce wind it soon changed into unpleasant cold. I was about to get back in the car when destiny struck, and it would change my life forevermore.

     Lightning struck somewhere nearby; an old, wizened face was reflected in the car's mirror as I fumbled for my keys. Startled, I dropped them and saw them no more. Then the shockwave hit. A blast of air knocked me over, leaving me disoriented and confused. I found myself on my knees, the car keys rattling under my probing fingers, anxiously scanning for trouble as I rose to my feet. As lightning flashed again the old man returned, standing in full view only a few meters away while the whole parking lot was lit up under blue-white flickers of light. He was dressed in long robes, completely dry even though it was pouring, and a gentle, unnerving smile was on his lips. I felt something itching at the back of my head as I stared at the massive white beard curling down his chest. There was something familiar about him...
     "Who are you??" I cried, but as the light subsided he was gone again. My lungs ached with freezing air, and my breath came in jagged rasps of fear and disorientation. The whole scene felt unreal, save the pain of breathing. In despair I jabbed my keys at the lock and at last managed to open up the car, almost jumping inside. I sat there for a moment panting, until I felt well enough to get out of there. I started the engine and wheeled away. This was way too freaky for me.
     I drove on and on for hours, just to clear my mind. Maybe the booze was finally getting to my head? Maybe I was sick, or dying, having weird hallucinations... But why did the guy seem so familiar?? Again and again I tried to banish those questions, but without any luck. Two refuels later, it was dawn. I hadn't had any sleep, but that wasn't really anything new. I'd gone without sleep for three days at a time before. For lack of anything better to do, I stopped by my usual hangout, a small pub only three floors down from my apartment. It was a cozy place, with all sorts of new and ancient pieces of art on the walls, art from all four corners of the world that few had ever seen. This appealed to me, so I patronized the place. Made some friends. Got drunk every other night. Stuff.
     The door flung open and I stepped in, dressed in my usual gray-greenish trench coat, no doubt looking a bit shaggy. Unshaven, at least - my clothes were clean enough. Meaning they didn't stink. I waved hello to a few other patrons and took my spot at the bar, while enduring a nice greeting from the proprietor, Harriette Connor. Her exact words were: "Well well, look who we have here. Saved a seat for you, so sit your lazy ass down before I give it away. Oh, and Storm, just so you know - I'm never serving you tequila again. Besides, we're out." I groaned in reply, and added a nod when she asked if I wanted 'the usual'. But then, I changed my mind for some reason and amended.
     "Hang on, scratch that." I said. "Alcohol isn't what I need right now. Give me something regular, like... tea. Yeah, I'll have some tea."
     Harriette, a short, wrinkly woman in her early forties, threw me a suspicious look. "Okay, who are you and what have you done with my Marcus?" She was surly, and her tongue was sharp as a razor, but her heart was in the right place.
     "Lady! You wound me!" I cried, feigning sincerity. "Can't a guy order something normal without becoming the subject of scorn and scrutiny?"
     She smirked and poured me a cup of Earl Grey, freshly made five minutes ago. First time luck was on my side all week. I loaded the brown liquid with sugar and started sipping on it. Believe it or not, it was actually quite good. "So, what's been going on around these parts, Harry?"
     "The usual," she said, going about running a semi-busy cafe while maintaining no fewer than three conversations at once. "Nothing exceptional has been going on, if that's what you're wondering. But what about you, Storm? Shouldn't you have your fourth novel done by now?"
     I sighed and blew cool air over my cup. "Yeah, I know. I suck." It probably deserves some explanation how I got a last name. I'm not really sure how I wound up with it, but I'm guessing I just stole the first part of old Thanien's name. Kind of a final honorific, if you will. At least, I hope that's what happened...
     "You know, you should really--" She stopped in mid-sentence as she found me staring into my teacup, a million miles away. I was spellbound. Spellbound by the image of a wizened old face with a white, curly beard.

     I was hallucinating. There was no other sane explanation for seeing that face in every mirror, in every glass reflection, in every murky pool by the sidewalk. It was cold outside, courtesy of a stinging breeze that almost left icicles hanging from your eyelashes. How did I get outside? I freaked. The old face in the cup had held my eyes for a few seconds, and for that time I was certain I recognized it from somewhere, but then I realized I shouldn't be seeing other people's faces in teacups. I fell backwards off my stool and landed hard on my back, then proceeded to run out onto the street. I felt hounded, chased by something beyond my power to understand. It felt like I was in one of my stories, a character being chased by something that should not be, yet was frighteningly real.
     My eyes were playing tricks on me, and I was steadily descending into panic. The old face appeared in windows, on billboards, even on other people... Maybe you can imagine how freaked out I was. Maybe not. In any case, it's safe to say I was ready to start screaming and running until the police picked me up. Thank the gods I came full circle to my apartment building before that. I ducked inside, ran up the stairs and locked the door behind me. Standing there panting for a few seconds, I felt safe again, at least for a while. With a sigh of relief I fell down onto my old couch and flicked on the TV. I looked around the apartment to make sure everything was safe. It was a pigsty, sure, but I liked it that way. Why clean up if no one else ever laid eyes on the place? But then, when my eyes fell onto the TV at last, I did scream.
     This old guy was haunting me, no doubt. There he was, in my TV, smiling that annoyingly content and reassuring smile. I stopped myself from screaming and tried to remain calm, even though my heart was pounding in my throat. Was I going insane? Was my block finally driving me over the edge? I looked at him for a few moments, and then, something unbelievable happened.
     "Hello again, old friend," a disembodied voice sounded in a friendly tone. It was the eeriest thing I'd ever heard. And it reminded me of Sean Connery. The face in the TV threw me a curious look. "Don't you recognize your old teacher, Marcus? Have you fallen so far?" I wasn't paying much attention to the TV, though. My head was turning this way and that, looking for where the hell that voice was coming from.
     "Who... Who are you?? What do you want??" I cried. There was no answer for a few seconds, but then the voice came again.
     "Find what you lost, Marcus. Find what you lost, and carry on the torch. The flame of the Arcane must never die." Then, I blacked out, with those words still echoing in my ears. And when I woke up, I wasn't sure if it had happened or not. This was too creepy. But, I thought, there was bound to be a story in all this mess.

     I actually wrote again that night. After months of blockage, I wrote like the wind, and it felt incredible. Words leapt from my fingers, telling the tale of a boy suddenly coming into possession of unimaginable power, learning a lesson about how desire can cloud the mind. The whole thing felt like the recantation of something distant yet familiar to me, rather than a new spring in the middle of a desert. Nonetheless, I was energized. For the first time in ages, I went to bed with a smile on my face. And without being totally smashed. Must not forget that.
     But I woke up in the middle of the night, bathing in cold sweat. Nightmares had been plaguing me all night. Burning bodies, incinerated in a fiery inferno by my hands... It was a scene from the story I wrote. But also something else, something more. Also, a name echoed in my mind, a name that went with the old man's face. Thanien. It felt old, powerful beyond compare, yet dusty and earthy, as if it came from a distant grave. I was flooded by a sense of purpose, something I had to do, but I didn't know what. I'd pace around my apartment and its small attic for ages before returning to bed, with the same result. The first rays of dawn were already piercing through heavy curtains when an answer came to me. It was a book. A special book, something I'd stowed away to forget about. Now where did I put it...?
     I started tearing the place up. Every inch was thoroughly examined in search of a strange, thick book, bound in leather, many of its pages empty. After hours of hunting, I came across a small leather backpack, hidden away in a corner of the little attic. Inside, under a pile of cloth that turned out to be a robe, were the book, a compass and some ancient notes in my handwriting. Tears sprang to my eyes as memories started coming back to me, of the tower, of my old teacher, of flesh being burnt off the bones of children by the power that rested in my bones... I flipped the book open, reliving every word of the dusty, soulless passages that held so much cold knowledge and detached morality it made me sick to my stomach. But then, a third chapter revealed itself. Resolve, it was called, and it spoke of abandonment. Of remembrance. But never once did it speak of life.
     Through my tears I questioned the Arcane and their wisdom. How dared they play with children's minds in this manner? What gave them the right? I threw the book aside and went back downstairs, sitting down on the couch to do some serious thinking. Did I really want this responsibility? Did I want to remain in this reality? Did I want to carry on this flame? But then, things took a stranger turn.
     There was an explosion no more than a block away. I jumped off the couch and wasted not a moment in grabbing my coat and running downstairs to find out what the hell that was. When I was outside, I was stunned. Debris littered the streets. Cars were overturned, and an entire six-story building was swaying back and forth on its foundation. Screams of the wounded and dying filled my ears, and I knew I had to do something. But what could one man do? I wasn't a superhero. Then again... No, I forbade myself to think that way. I couldn't use power given to me in such a manner. Instead, I ran up to the site and tried to look for survivors. A hand stuck out from under a pile of debris. Furniture was raining down from apartments that had had their walls ripped clean off. Children were crying, lost, trying to find their parents. What was I to do?
     I decided to start where I could. With all my strength I dug out the buried person, a woman in her late twenties, and a young boy came running and threw himself into her cold, dead arms. "Mama! Mama!" he cried, over and over again. That hurt even more than the panicked and tortured screams that echoed through the streets. I looked around, finding a few more people trying to make a difference, but a lot more help was needed to get people out of this hazard zone. Again I was tempted to use my power, and it took every last bit of willpower to resist. Instead I teamed up with a few others to gather the frightened children together and reunite them with their parents. The building was swaying more and more, ready to come down at any second.
     We were trying to move everyone out of danger, but it was too late. With an immensely loud moan the building lurched forward, and its last supporting wall snapped in two. It was headed straight for us, ready to crush myself, a bunch of children and other victims, and many who had risked life and limb to help others. This I could not allow. As I raised my hands an incantation sprang to my mind, a chant that would help me focus all the power of my will to bending the forces of reality. This time, the power of the Arcane manifested to save lives rather than destroy them.
     No more than a heartbeat before our impending deaths the falling mass stopped in midair, floating, frozen in time. People stared at me in awe as I willed the thing back to where it had stood, then braced it with debris that lay scattered throughout the street. When the danger of it falling had passed, I turned my attention to the little boy who was still crying over his dead mother. I smiled at him while brushing my fingers against her forehead, studying his delight when he heard a sharp intake of breath, his mother returned to life by my power. She never saw me, as I felt it best to disappear back to my apartment before causing too many myths to form. I figured that, if I didn't overexpose myself, I might be able to do a little salvaging and retain at least some semblance of a life.

     You know, I learned something in those few minutes of disaster. The third lesson wasn't about remembering, or continuing; it was about morality. This power was mine to use as I saw fit, for good or for evil. The purpose of the Teachings was not to lecture me, but to learn from me. After all, wisdom comes from experience, not from books or even age.
     I had to come to terms with the fact that I was a mage, born to a path different from others. It would be difficult, fraught with lessons that I might not like. But it was my path - a path that could not be rejected.

 

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