De Magia 20: The Curse of Not Being Good Enough

No matter the heights one attains with magic, some spells will forever remain beyond one’s grasp.

On its face, it seems a comforting platitude that the unaccomplished tell themselves to salve their consciences. Of course some level of skill remains beyond the grasp of even the wisest and the most talented. Magosophy requires the creativity of an artist and the diligence of an esotericist, and few can ever hope to master both aspects. The rules of magic are nigh-infinite and highly subjective, and it would be folly for any to ever hope to memorize them all. At best, one may find oneself forever ascending a mountain of wisdom, forever seeking the star of enlightenment. As no mage can ever claim to have reached it, no mage may ever be faulted for not doing so.

Unfortunately for most, this is no simple homily, and the repercussions of its truth are felt throughout the Empire. The greatest mages are neither artists nor sages, neither obsessed with elegance nor blind to it, neither bound by nor ignorant of the rules of magic. Theirs is a skillset that depends flexibility as well as rigor, reason as well as intuition. One who aspires to the title of wizard must be both artisan and genius, capable not only of having the flash of insight that cuts through the darkest difficulties, but also seemingly of producing that brilliance on demand. Rare is the mage who can make that claim.

Rarer still is the one that can take those moments of genius and build upon them, weaving revelation upon revelation into a rich tapestry of understanding. Advancement in magic is no mere matter of raw practice. It is a skill unto itself, belonging neither to art nor to esoterica, to deconstruct the artist’s insight, to glean the rules at play within, and to build upon that discovery time and again. It is this talent which governs the development of a mage. One who possesses true artistry without comprehension will forever be a dilletante, capable only of producing magic when the mood strikes. One who possess encyclopedic knowledge of the rules of magic but who has no insight will forever be condemned to craft soulless and needlessly convoluted rituals, likely involving exchequers or other undead horrors.

Unfortunately for both mages and those who labor alongside them, advancement in the world of the modern charter has less to do with the enlightenment one might one day attain, and more to do with the talent one has already shown. For the blacksmith or the potter, this may work well; given a chance to succeed, most craftsmen will eventually grow into their new positions. As we have just explored, however, actual advancement in magic has more to do with understanding one’s own insights than with any amount of past discovery. One’s potential as a mage is limited by what one can discern, not merely what one already knows.

This bodes poorly for the future path of any mage working as a wage-laborer. It is inevitable that, as one demonstrates competency at one’s craft, one will be given more complex rituals to create, more difficult weavings to enchant. And, just as inevitably, one is eventually bound to hit the limit of what one can learn about one’s own abilities. This means that, unless one is blessed with the gift of knowing one’s own limits ahead of time, one will, at some point, be promoted to a position beyond not only what one can presently accomplish, but beyond what one could possibly hope to achieve.

Watching Theodore step through a simple field-attunement ritual made me wonder if perhaps he hadn’t already hit his limit. Each motion carried the exaggerated sweep of a drunkard hoping to prove himself sober to a local constable. His eyes burned with concentration as he stared into the shard sitting upon my desk, and his words were each precisely pronounced as though he had committed them to memory by rote, learning the sounds and inflections absent any meaning.

At the end of his carefully measured steps, the crystal let out a small chime and vibrated, and I applauded with what I hoped sounded like sincere enthusiasm. “You’ve come a long way since we’ve started,” I said, trying not to sound overly unctuous. It was true, if one considered the fact that when I first agreed to teach him, the simplest cantrips were beyond him.

Theodore beamed. “Thank you. I’m glad you finally noticed.”

The corners of my mouth turned up at that. “Oh, I’ve seen a lot over the last few weeks. Enough, in fact, to suggest you became a full member of the team.”

At that, my erstwhile apprentice’s smile faded. “Well… I’m not sure… is that a good idea?”

I forced a chuckle. “Oh, I’m sure you’ll turn out to be a natural at all of this. I’ve heard you’re at the head of your class at the academy.”

Theo’s eyes widened and he shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Well, yes, but, that is, I… it’s not that big a deal….”

I blinked, clasped my fingers before me, and leaned forward in mock-earnestness. “Oh, don’t be so modest, Theodore! You’ve got the full backing of the councilors! I’m sure, once I’m no longer holding you back, that you’ll receive everything you deserve.”

My carefully-selected words did not reassure my soon-to-be-ex-student. “If you really think I’m ready….”

At that, I allowed myself a genuine laugh. “Well, ready or not, the time has come for you to join the team in full.” I motioned towards the hallway leading to the kitchenette. “Go talk with Faxon and find out what Sophia expects to hear, then start working on a magic ear to listen for what people say and make some best-guesses to tell her.”

Theodore blinked, then swallowed heavily. A stream of half-formed syllables came out, but thankfully he summoned no storms with his babbling. Finally, he managed to ask, “Magic ear?”

I grinned. “I’m sure Faxon will be all to happy to explain.” As I spoke, I noticed my overseer approaching and motioned for him to join us. “Hello, Miles! I was just sending our newest wage-laborer to speak with the illusionist.”

Miles gave a weary smile and shook his head. “Not so fast. I’d like him to take our new mercenary-mage with him to meet the rest of the group.”

My heart skipped a beat. “Oh?”

“You see!” a deep and heavily-accented voice called from Miles’ doorway, intercepting my momentary bout of hope and sending it plummeting. Minos waved as he approached, holding his temporary prism before him in one hand and wiping at his forehead with the other. “I am so eager to begin working, yah? Hello again, Theo!”

“Minos!” Theodore dashed over and clasped arms with the Hotlands mage as though the two had known each other for years. “They hired you!”

“In a manner of speaking,” Miles interjected. “Starting today, Minos is here to split his time between helping you continue your studies and crafting Sophia’s supporting rituals. That magic ear sounds like an excellent first task for the both of you.”

Minos beamed. “Ah, good! You see I am eager to get to work! They have already given me my shard! I am still waiting for all of the base enchantments to be cast upon it, but I can still help, no?”

Theodore nodded enthusiastically and motioned down the hall as I just had. “That’s great! Let’s go meet Faxon.” He then took off down the hall, striking up an atonal drone while the mercenary-mage followed his lead.

Without turning to look at Miles, I said quietly, “So, that was Fransciscus’ and Ariston’s decision, was it?”

Miles chuckled. “Yes, but Amber was mine.”

It actually took several seconds for the name to register, but then my head snapped around to see Ms. Sitakis leaning against the wall, holding a prism to her chest. She beamed as I caught her eyes and waved. “Hello again, Carissa.”

“Amber, you’ll work directly with Carissa on Sophia’s core ritual,” Miles explained unnecessarily. “Carissa, I’ve done what I can do to clear your task list. You’ve got a little under four months until Ajanax expects results. From here out, Sophia is your ritual. Please, don’t make me regret this.”