7 votes

Scourge (a Codex short story)

I've seen the occasional poetry thread, but I thought I would post some more traditional writing. This short story is background lore for my ongoing web serial, Codex, which takes place a thousand years after these events.


The research team looked like ants in the scry-screen, crawling around the laboratory as they completed the ritual’s final steps. When the spell was powered on, it let out a brief flash of brilliant orange light that made Tarrel wince and shade his eyes. The ants milled about as if their hill had just been kicked over, swarming this way and that, huddling over the piece of enchanted metal.

Tarrel stood up and left the viewing room. Renna looked up as he entered the laboratory and waved him over, a broad smile on her face. She held out her hand, offering him a bracelet made from some shiny metal; it looked like two flat chains had been woven together into a thin, knotted band. “Is that the eternium?” Tarrel asked. “Why a bracelet, and not a sword or spear?”

Renna stepped away from the five other people as an argument developed over one of the experimental readings. “It’s a gift.” She gave him an impish grin. “You’re allowed to enjoy the fruits of your labor, you know.”

The eternium was slick against his skin, as if it had been greased, and it had a mirror-perfect reflective surface that threw the bright overhead lights back into his eyes. He angled it away from him and stared at the gleaming metal, trying to dredge up the appropriate emotion, as if he could summon it into being by sheer willpower.

Logically, it should have been easy -- he had all the pieces: a beautiful girlfriend (if occasionally annoying), a prestigious research position, and a talent for magic that made most other wizards look like fumbling idiots. And of course, he was a Raal, entitled to all the benefits that came with higher civilization: immortality (or a very long life anyway), near-absolute freedom to do as he pleased (as long as that didn’t impinge on others’ freedoms), safety (from physical harm). Any non-Raal would kill to be where he was, and it was a safe bet that most Raal who knew him were at least a little envious of his status. But happiness, like an improperly drawn ritual, refused to manifest… and all Tarrel could feel was a bleak sense of anticlimactic fatigue as he looked into the shiny mirrored surface.

Renna moved closer and touched his arm. “Hey. What is it?”

He forced a smile onto his face and slid the bracelet onto his wrist. “Nothing.” The rest of the team was gathered around an Aether screen. Part of Tarrel wanted to join them, plunge back into the soothing distraction of work, but all at once he couldn’t stand the thought of doing so. He turned back to Renna, forcing the words through numb lips. “Let’s go out together.”

They could have taken a teleportation circle or a flier, but Tarrel wanted to walk so they strolled the floating streets of Ur-Dormoth together. It was nighttime, but the walkways were all lit with bright white mage-bulbs. Aircraft hummed overhead, like gigantic wingless insects, disappearing into the night as they left the city.

“Ever been to a mite city?” Tarrel asked as they walked.

“No.”

“I have,” Tarrel said. He brooded for a moment, staring out at Ur-Dormoth, sprawled across the clouds like a tangled pile of glittering lace. “They’re cramped, and squalid, and they stink of death. It’s like being in a corpse.”

Renna shrugged, seemingly unconcerned by the fate of however many millions of less fortunate people lived on the land below them. “Why do you bring it up?”

“I don’t know,” Tarrel said. “Have you ever wanted something and really worked for it, only to find that once you had it, you didn’t want it anymore?”

“I’m not sure I understand,” Renna said. “Why would you work for something you don’t want?”

Tarrel sighed. “Never mind.”

They went to the Eyrie, where Tarrel tried to look interested in the menu before giving up and ordering at random. The food arrived a few minutes later, looking decadent and delicious: creamy soup, flower-shaped pastries, a platter of fried onions. Tarrel ate mechanically, doing his best to appear as if he was enjoying it, but all he could think about was the emptiness he felt inside.

“How’s the food?” Renna asked.

Tarrel glanced at the pale white soup he was eating and tried to decide what to say. “It’s good.”

Renna leaned back in her chair. “I knew you would like it.”

“How long do you think it’ll be before we can start mass-producing the eternium?”

Renna blinked, caught off guard by the sudden change in topic. “A few more weeks? Once we do, the applications are immense.” Her eyes were practically glowing with excitement. “What would it be like to live in a tower taller than the highest mountain?”

Tarrel stirred his soup, wishing he could share her energetic happiness. “That’s a long way to fall.”

Renna chuckled, a delicate sound like tinkling crystal chimes, and tossed her sleek white hair over her shoulder. “I’m sure they’ll have protective enchantments. It would be quite the scandal, to be the architect responsible for the first death in centuries.”

“They don’t let you Merge,” Tarrel said, only half paying attention to the conversation.

“What?”

“Murder. If it’s deliberate, your thread is cut. No children.” Tarrel made a snipping motion with his free hand. “But if they think you meant to kill, then it’s a life for a life.”

Renna stared at him. “How do you even know that?”

Tarrel shrugged, already losing interest in the topic. “Memory spell.”

“I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

“It’s too difficult to cast for most people,” Tarrel said. Though that would change, if he ever got the framework functioning.

“What’s the framework?” Renna asked.

Tarrel realized he had spoken out loud. “Just a project I’ve been working on. You speak a command, and the framework casts the appropriate spell for you. All the power of a ritual, none of the difficulty.”

“That seems pretty useful. How’s it going?”

Tarrel blinked, not sure if he had heard her correctly. “Useful?” His lips twisted. “Nobody else seems to think it would be.”

“Are you serious? The applications for research alone would be immense. Imagine never having to cast another scrying spell.”

“They said it would be too inconvenient, or that the magic would lack power, or any of a hundred other excuses.”

Renna reached across the table and put her hand on his. “It sounds amazing to me.” Tarrel met her eyes, searching for any hint of insincerity, but all he found was honest admiration. “Can I see it?”

Tarrel shifted in his seat and looked away. “I, uh, sort of abandoned it. Nobody seemed to want it and I ran into some thorny problems, so it seemed like I was just wasting my time.”

“Well take it out of storage! Don’t worry about them, once they see what it can do they’ll all change their mind. Your legacy would be etched in the stone of history, right up there with Elmar the Great and the Risen Kings.”

Renna frowned and held up a hand to forestall his reply. “One moment. Someone’s trying to talk to me on the Way.”

Tarrel watched, but Renna’s expression gave away little. Half a minute passed before she finished. “What was it?” Tarrel asked.

“The research lab.” Renna’s face twisted in disgust. “Apparently they decided to run another batch of eternium, but someone messed up one of the protective spells.”

“Oh,” Tarrel said. He knew he ought to say something more, but somehow he couldn’t bring himself to care about the fate of the researchers. If they couldn’t even cast a simple set of wards, they deserved what they got.

“They’ll be fine,” Renna said, apparently mistaking his silence for concern. “At least as long as nobody screws up their healing magic too.” She hesitated, then stood up. “I’m sorry to cut this short, but I really ought to be there.”

“It’s fine,” Tarrel said. “I’ll head back to my house. Maybe work on the framework some.”

Renna smiled. “I still want to see it.”

She walked over to the teleportation circle in the corner and activated it, vanishing with a soft pop. Tarrel was left in the deserted restaurant -- or not quite deserted. There was a man, washing the tables with a cloth. Tarrel watched him as he worked his way across the room, until he was near enough to talk to.

“Why do you do that?” Tarrel asked.

The man looked up. He had a rough, honest face. “Why not?”

“You could let the golems do it. Or, if you wanted to make sure it was done properly, you could use magic. Why do it by hand?”

“Sure. The golems would probably do it better than me, and a spell could do it faster and better. But that’s not the point. Haven’t you ever found pleasure in work?”

Tarrel was on the point of saying no when he reconsidered, remembering all the times he had thrown himself head-on into inventing a new ritual or improving an old. “I suppose so. But my work isn’t something a golem can do and, when I’m done, I have something at the end.”

The man chuckled. “And when I’m done wiping a table, I have a clean table.”

“Only until someone comes in here and dirties it again,” Tarrel pointed out. He paused, struck by a sudden thought. Was that the problem, the reason for the hollowness all his achievements seemed to have? Even as one of the brightest researchers of the century, his name would inevitably be forgotten, in a hundred years, or a thousand, or ten thousand. But if he was able to create a new paradigm for magic… then he would be remembered.

“If I’m still around, I’ll get to enjoy cleaning it again. If I’m not, well, like you said: the golems can do it better anyways.”

Tarrel blinked, startled by the man’s voice. “Uh, right,” he said. He stood up. “I need to go.”

He took the teleporter back to his house and went down to his private laboratory. White mage-bulbs flared on as he entered the spacious room, illuminating the Aether screen set into one wall and the stone floor, still etched with an old circle. He cleared it, resetting the solid granite slab to its original, perfectly smooth, state.

Tarrel spent the rest of the night hunched over the Aether’s display, tweaking and changing the framework. Every so often, he would stand up and etch it into the granite floor with an eye-searing burst of brilliant orange light. Each time, the spell failed in a new, unexpected way, and Tarrel was sent back to the Aether to try to find the source of the problem.

The days merged into weeks, which flowed into months. Tarrel enchanted himself with restorative spells so he didn’t have to eat or sleep. Such behavior was considered unhealthy by most people, but it wasn’t the first time Tarrel had lost himself to the grip of work, and he no longer cared if his friends whispered behind his back or shook his head when he wasn’t looking. Like Renna had said, they would change their mind soon enough.

Renna knew enough to recognize the signs of Tarrel’s obsession, but she didn’t stop coming over to visit him. The door chimed regularly at noon every third day. They sat on one of Tarrel’s couches for ten or twenty minutes, talking until Tarrel could no longer keep himself away from the laboratory and made his excuses. For him, the time seemed one long hazy blur, interspersed only by slight, inching progress as obstacle after obstacle rose up to meet him and was defeated.

Eight months later, Tarrel stood before the granite slab and powered up the latest spell. “Fire,” he said, envisioning the unlit torch in the corner igniting. He didn’t really expect anything to happen and was thus shocked when it erupted into orange flame. His hands trembled with excitement as he stood up and approached the crackling brand. Magic! By talking! At last, it was working.

“Freeze,” Tarrel said. A chill swept over him as the torch’s flames guttered out. Water condensed on the blackened stump, then froze solid into a glittering sheen. A smile spread across his face and something warm and… happy rose inside him, like winter ice cracking and melting as summer approached. Renna’s words came back to him: Your legacy would be etched in the stone of history and he threw his head back, laughing.

Further experimentation revealed that the framework had exceeded his wildest expectations. He refined the spell, reducing the energy it consumed and increasing its potency until at last, it was fit for use in a globalization ritual. Everyone in the world, if they had the basic training necessary to use magic at all, could now access the framework.

Tarrel reached into the Way, calling for Renna. She responded at once, as if she had been waiting for him. What is it?

Come to my house, Tarrel sent back. I have something to show you.

He severed the telepathic link and stood up, unable to stop grinning. The eternium bracelet gleamed in the corner of the laboratory where he had tossed it and he went over and picked it up, turning it over in his hands. General Yenja had been excited about the eternium project. What would she think of the framework? But that was a matter for another time -- right now, he wanted to see Renna’s face when she saw what he had built. Tarrel slipped the bracelet onto his wrist and hurried up the stairs. Behind him, the mage-bulbs blinked out and the laboratory plunged into darkness.

Renna knocked on the door several minutes later. Tarrel glanced at it. “Open the door,” he said.

It swung aside, revealing a harried-looking Renna. “What is it?” she asked as she came inside.

Tarrel grinned and pointed at a glass of water sitting on the table. “Watch this,” he said. “Freeze the water in that cup.”

The surface of the water turned frosty and opaque, spreading downwards with a deep cracking sound. All at once, the glass shattered, spraying shards and chips everywhere. Tarrel jerked, surprised, then broke out into a laugh. “Sorry,” he said. “I should have been more specific in my wording.”

Renna touched the solid cylinder of ice, setting it off into a lazy spin. It twirled across the table until Tarrel caught it with one hand. “How do you like it?” he said.

“Impressive. Can I try?”

“Sure. I put it in the Way, so you should be able to access it just by thinking about it.”

Renna gestured at the ice in Tarrel’s hand. “Melt.”

Nothing happened and Tarrel chuckled. “It takes some getting used to. Try starting to cast the spell normally, then use the framework.”

“Melt.”

This time, the frozen water turned warm and started to dissolve, gushing all over Tarrel’s hands. He tossed it back onto the table before it could soak his clothes. “Freeze.”

Nothing happened and he gave Renna a rueful smile. “My mana cache is empty. I didn't even notice but I've been using the same one for all my research.”

“Here.” Renna withdrew a fat diamond pendant from beneath her shirt and held it out to him. “Take mine.”

“No,” Tarrel said. “I have a better idea.”

He reached out with his mind, drawing on the inert mana present all around and concentrating a small amount of it, refining it into the potent stuff that was normally used for spells. Only a drop, just enough to kickstart the spell he had in mind. “Refine one nex’s worth of mana. Put it into my cache, then cast two copies of this spell, using mana from the cache.”

It was the longest framework-boosted spell he had cast, but it went off without so much as a tug of mental effort. A thin trickle of mana pulsed through him, then died off as the spell became self-sustaining.

“Did you just -- ”

“That’s right,” Tarrel said. “I just revolutionized the mana collection industry.”

Renna frowned. “Maybe you ought to slow down.”

“Slow down? Why? I feel great.”

“That’s because you’re using those invigoration spells.” Renna looked around. “Do you feel that?”

It was an tingle, like an electric wind brushing over Tarrel’s skin. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the diamond cache, shielding his eyes as it began to glow an intense white. “Behold,” he said. “The future of the Raal.”

Renna stared at the diamond. “That doesn’t look right. Your new spell -- ”

“Not a new spell -- a new paradigm. For centuries, we have cast magic in essentially the same way. Spells have gotten better, thanks in large part to the tireless efforts of researchers like you, but it’s time for something different. Instead of engaging in a mental wrestling match, we shall simply give an order as if the magic is a servant.”

“Your refinement spell has a -- ”

Tarrel slammed his fist on the table. “Shut up!” The framework turned his order from wish into reality and he felt a sudden spike of shame. Using magic on a fellow Raal? What was he doing? But she wouldn’t see. He continued in a calmer voice. “It’s people like you who delayed this project by almost fifteen years. All that time, wasted.”

He felt the pulse of magic as Renna broke through the framework’s silencing spell. “Listen to me,” she said. The urgency in her tone gave Tarrel pause. “That diamond is about to overload. It’s the same mistake you made with the ice.”

Tarrel glanced at the incandescent diamond cube, mentally going over the wording he had used with the super-refinement spell. The same mistake he had made with the ice? The air around him felt… thin and weak, while the space around the cube seemed to shimmer and warp. What was going on? And then he got it.

He stared at Renna, horrified. “Quick. Give me your cache.”

He began the transfer spell, reverting to the more familiar mental casting in the moment of crisis. It was still incomplete when the cube exploded with a chiming sound that reverberated through his bones. Pain stabbed up Tarrel’s hand and he screamed, flailing around and spraying blood from his two missing fingers. Threads of orange refined mana flickered all around him like a hazy fog and the room dissolved into panic as the magic ran wild.

Renna’s hair stood straight up. She had time for a single terrified scream before lightning discharged from her body. Bolts radiated out in every direction, crackling and splitting the air apart, disintegrating her body into hot black flakes. Some of them landed on Tarrel’s face and he stumbled back, staring at the black scorch marks on the floor.

Tarrel’s weight vanished all at once and he floated off the ground, crashing into the ceiling before gravity reasserted itself and threw him back to the floor. The awful ringing of the broken cube continued to echo through the room, growing in strength instead of fading. It tore through his head as he wrapped his ruined hand in his shirt and sprinted for the door -- only to have the space in front of him warp and elongate. The door receded away, until it was like he was looking down a long corridor.

The first rips began to appear, fuelled by the still-continuing refinement spell as it pumped refined mana into the shards of the diamond cube. It was as if reality was a sheet of glass, fracturing and splitting. Black cracks shot through the room as the chiming hammered through Tarrel’s body. They began to glow, dim white at first, then growing in strength. They pulsed. Flickered. And as Tarrel’s hand reached for the door handle, they exploded.

Pure, white light surged out into the city, spilling from the research laboratory where Tarrel had conducted his fatal experiments. People screamed and fled. Some tried to cast spells, only to have their magic go awry in a wash of strange effects. Teleportation spells transported heads without their bodies. Flight enchantments sent their users hurtling into buildings. Wards imploded, crushing that which they were meant to protect.

Ur-Dormoth was just one city out of hundreds, but the Way, a global telepathic link which united all Raal, was irreversibly tainted. Less than a year passed before Tarrel’s name was forgotten, but in the end he got his wish: an eternal, undying legacy -- in the form of a vast, magical wasteland sprawling across a quarter of the continent.

4 comments

  1. [4]
    apoctr
    Link
    I found a few parts a little confusing (what's a nex?), but I assume they're explained in the full serial. Other than that, it was a good read. Is this your site? I'd like to read more of the series.

    I found a few parts a little confusing (what's a nex?), but I assume they're explained in the full serial. Other than that, it was a good read. Is this your site? I'd like to read more of the series.

    2 votes
    1. [3]
      Exalt
      Link Parent
      Yeah, that's my site. A unit of mana, like a liter or a gram. I'm still learning how to walk the fine line between "too subtle" and "too blatant" for that sort of thing. What else did you find...

      Yeah, that's my site.

      what's a nex

      A unit of mana, like a liter or a gram. I'm still learning how to walk the fine line between "too subtle" and "too blatant" for that sort of thing. What else did you find confusing?

      2 votes
      1. [2]
        apoctr
        Link Parent
        I'm slightly uncertain of what constitutes a paradigm - a magic/spell blueprint? That was about it, I think. On a second read the post flowed much nicer, I think my poor reading habits caused most...

        I'm slightly uncertain of what constitutes a paradigm - a magic/spell blueprint? That was about it, I think. On a second read the post flowed much nicer, I think my poor reading habits caused most the initial confusion rather than your actual writing.

        2 votes
        1. Exalt
          Link Parent
          Ah. The paradigm thing is my fault. It was so obvious to me (because it was the whole point) that I completely forgot to actually explain it. Suppose that every time you wanted to drive down to...

          Ah. The paradigm thing is my fault. It was so obvious to me (because it was the whole point) that I completely forgot to actually explain it.

          Suppose that every time you wanted to drive down to the grocery store you had to laboriously assemble a car from individual parts. Upon arriving at the store, the car fell apart, and when you wanted to go back home, you had to put it together. This is the state of pre-Scourge magic: if you want to cast a spell you have to draw out a time-consuming ritual and actually cast it yourself. Even for a skilled magician with the best "technology" and a huge library of pre-invented spells available, this is still pretty annoying. And there's a bunch of other limitations (it's time consuming, it has to be done in advance, affected objects have to be inside the circle, you need a new ritual for each permutation of a complex spell, etc etc).

          The new paradigm is the idea that, instead of building your own car, you just get a car someone else made for you. Or, in this case, you use the framework to cast your spells for you so you can just say "Freeze" instead of drawing a giant ritual circle on the floor. But I really didn't do much to show casting spells the hard way, and of course most books have user-friendly magic so being confused is quite natural.

          1 vote