De Magia 21: The Realm of Theory

No spell, once cast, is actually the equal of its ideal self.

On paper, all spells exist in a state of unparalleled optimism. Having never been cast, one tends to speak only of what they could accomplish, of what they might be capable. One thinks of their possible performance, their theoretical potential. Absent any real use, one sees only the imagined opportunities, and thus one is prone to overlooking all of the very real flaws that actually casting a spell may cause.

Reality has an unfortunate tendency to introduce subtle but unmistakable errors into any ritual. Every spell must, at some level, assume things about the nature of the environment in which it is cast, and most of these assumptions range from the inconvenient to the absurd. And yet, it has become common practice when weaving rituals to simply list off one’s assumptions, as if by so doing one might absolve oneself of any responsibility to actually validate them, or worse, to adjust for their falsehood.

For example, when weaving a spell requiring access to a field or to foreign crystals, few will think to consider such things as tuning problems or aetheric ghosts in their spells. They may note that performance of the ritual across the field relies on performance of the field itself, but almost to a one they will insist that those sorts of problems fall beyond the scope of any spellcrafter. Resolution of such matters, they will say, lies with the artificers and the aetheric specialists. If one’s distant groves should disappear from view with frightening irregularity, well, it can hardly be the responsibility of the theurge. Far better, they say, to simply must assume that the field will be present and that all crystals within it will be properly tuned.

The same may be said of archives, and of crystals, and of the mana within them, and of other rituals cast upon the same crystal, and of a myriad of other possibilities. One may, if one wishes to be pedantic, attempt to identity the nature of one’s casting environment, but then one accepts the responsibility for envisioning all the ways in which one’s spells may be cast and accounting for any changes that may need to be made in each. Contrariwise, one may simply list the assumptions one has made about one’s basic requirements, and leave the satisfaction of said conditions as an exercise to the unfortunate mage who will ultimately be tasked with invoking one’s ritual.

Aggravating this is the fact that, even should every precondition of a given ritual be met, the actual behavior of the spell will still only meet the theoretical to the degree that the real world mirrors the theoretical. A spell which releases the inner fire trapped in wood will burn hotter with dry than with green. The ritual that summons rain will draw more from an overcast sky than a clear one. A spell to store sunlight in a glass bottle will shine brighter if cast at noon than at dusk. In every case, it is not the spell itself which has changed, but the environment in which the spell has been cast. No mage could ever divine every circumstance under which one’s spells may be cast.

Sadly, this means that, when the time comes to actually deal with magic as it is cast, one must be prepared to deal with unexpected shortfalls. One may attempt to mitigate these by overcompensating for the assumptions, but then one risks too much where one would have had too little. While an overabundance of water in the desert may seem a good thing, an overabundance of fire in an overgrown forest is clearly not. As always, let the caster beware.

Amber was, for example, understandably nonplussed by the tinny, warbly reproduction of her voice making her prism vibrate. Originally, it had been a lyrical quatrain; in its current rendition, it was doggerel. “Is that it?” She chewed upon one fingernail, drumming her other hand against my workshop table.”That’s the best it’s going to get? I thought you said we’d get at least a minute of clear speech.”

“Under optimal circumstances, yes,” I amended somewhat hastily. I didn’t want to be on the defensive, but we’d been at this particular problem for two days with almost nothing to show. Beside her prism and mine lay a stack of scrolls, each half-covered in glyphs, many of which had been crossed through or overwritten. “That’s what a minute of speech sounds like when a dozen people are all trying to talk to Sophia at once, under some amount of strain.”

“How many clients did you say Epistemic Esoterica had for Hypatia?” The mercenary-mage’s eyes were starting to show signs of wear beneath them, only after just a few days of effort. “At least a gross, you said?”

I hesitated, then wagged on hand. “About that, yes. Not that we’re likely to have that many at once,” I hurried, hoping to paint a brighter picture of the results. “That’s likely our worst-case scenario.”

Amber remained unconvinced, eying me dubiously around a lock of her hair that had fallen across her face. “So what does the average case sound like? Half that many? Half as long?”

Several seconds passed while I watched her try to blow the strand of hair from her face, quickly shaking myself out of considerating her question when she brushed it aside. “Let’s see how those sound.” I bent over my crystal, quickly stroking my fingers across its surface, calling up the glyphs encapsulating the archive retrieval spell. Floating in its depths, a matrix of ghostly glyphs floated, and I hastily adjusted a few of them. “So, a half-dozen voices, half a minute each.” I gave the symbols a quick glance to check for gross negligence, then blessed the configuration and sent it back into the depths. A few moments later, a fresh jumble of words came through Amber’s prism, less distorted but no less distant.

“That’s the field,” she pronounced after the brief bedlam. “It’s simply not going to get any better than that. We’ve got to tell Faxon.”

“Well, let’s not be hasty,” I chided, taking a seat on the edge of my table. “That’s the aetherics between my crystal and your prism; that’s not the meshwork between, say, the Academy at Birya and our grove. We should get better reception over a physical link.”

Amber switched to a different fingernail and chewed upon it thoughtfully, valiantly struggling to get the one strand of stray hair out of her eyes again. “I don’t think we can simply assert that,” she sighed. “We need to cast this on a crystal in the grove and at least see how well it can hear us from here.”

I grimaced at that. “I doubt it will help us much, though we can ask.” Then a thought occurred which made me chuckle. “At least this gives me reason to ask about strengthening the mesh again.”