Archive for May, 2013
I get ready to cast the misting spell. The detail I need out of the image of what I want to happen makes it a longer cast than the war magic I’m more intimately familiar with. It’s going to be a close call between us. I can see he’s nervous, stumbling over the words of his spell. I briefly wonder what sort of incantation I’m going to use, then decide to just let the spell happen naturally. I see the mist coming out of the ground, surrounding him, invoking fear, causing him to stumble, buying me time, the mist will rise up, a greenish-gray vapor, with a foul smell, sulfur, or brimstone; somewhere in between. It will rise up, encompassing his body with the speed of smoke, clawing its way up his nostrils, into his opening and closing mouth, working deeper into his lungs, preventing him from taking a breath. It would be a killing spell if I release it now, but he’s getting close to finishing his spell. I refocus, adding a phantom element, enough to scare and incapacitate, but not enough to kill. I’m hardening the image of the spell, working every turn of vapor, every blade of grass and tree-leaf. My mouth is moving as I chant an invocation to a chthonic deity, Greek, magic and the underworld. Removing the death element is getting harder, but that’s what I get for not thinking this through. I can feel the energies creeping up, through my feet, up my legs and groin, into my stomach, not fast enough. I rush it, not certain if the spell will kill, shoving the energy out of me. It hovers in the air, a thick, electric pressure, and then his gone. His hand is about to drop the package into the earth, and I see the mist rise up. He fumbles the incantation, having to repeat the last verse. I can see the sweat on his brow from the window. His formulations are mediocre, strong on the verbiage, most likely effect-focused, but his image and visualization are weak. If I’d taken the time to think it through beforehand I would have realized I could brush off the binding, not threatened his life with a possible killing spell.
I’m preparing a countering spell when I feel the pressure of the vapor-spell return. Like a sudden tropical rain, the room is suddenly dense, the rebuffed energy burning. I focus outside and see that someone else is out there, hand over the student’s mouth, reversing his incantations, taking the package from his hand. The energies from my spell are lighting across my skin, a fire so hot it’s cold. I grit my teeth, open my mouth, and gasp, taking the energy back into my body. The acid in my stomach disagrees violently with this plan, but I close my mouth before it can come out. The burning in my esophagus is mind-numbing. I call a prayer to divinity, forcing the magic back into the earth, neutralizing it. I have enough time to get to the trash can before I retch up the bile.
I couldn’t sleep. Tomorrow was the final exam, the free-for-all tournament of the graduating class. None of the other students are on the grounds tonight. Although they are welcome to return to watch the tournament through the looking glasses, the year is over for them. The vent for the air conditioner turns on, finally. The early June weather isn’t terribly hot, but the humidity feels like an extra layer of woolens, even when you’re naked.
I throw the thin blanket off and walk over to my desk. It’s empty of personal effects, just a sheet of paper describing the rules of the tournament sitting on top of the glass-covered dark wood. Reading them over by moonlight, it still sounds like complicated laser tag. The school records the time it takes you to cast every offensive spell you know, then programs each time increment into your gun. You’re allowed to switch between spells, just like you would in real life, but its time consuming and dangerous, so most people stick with one spell. Participants are also allowed to cast any non-offensive spell they choose.
Participants seems like an odd choice of words. No one except the seniors participate in the event, unless you count faculty acting as referees. That would make more sense. I’m too tired to think clearly and too nervous to get good sleep. Allison and Chase will be participating tomorrow; my best friend and my lover, the only two people on campus who know my skills and tricks possibly better than I do. We’re the top three in our class when it comes to spell casting; however, tomorrow is about tactics and warfare as much as it is about raw magical power. I can feel the acid creeping out of my stomach. Deep breaths, trying to relax, de-stress, and go to bed.
I hear something outside my window, someone talking. I creep towards the wall to peek around and decide whether or not I need to put on pants and step into view. On the lawn a floor below me, someone is chanting nonsense words; sounds like Greek. They’ve managed to dig a hole in front of them, and are holding something pale. I lean more to the side to try and see what it is. Square, pale, looks heavy with a small dark spot through the top; parchment covering a lead ring with a nail through the middle is my guess. The air conditioning muffles what the person is saying. Their face is covered by a hood, so I don’t know who would be trying a binding spell the night before the tournament; more importantly where they stashed the materials for it since the school keeps strict inventory of lead rings (‘cause, you know, they’re poisonous).
I step in front of the floor to ceiling window, naked. The ring is drooping lower and I’m guessing I have a very limited time to decide what to do. My fastest spell, a bolt of lightning, will blow out the window. A choking vapor from the ground would solve the problem, but only if I can finish the spell before he does.
Roob enters the Barrow, holding his father’s hand. They have come to survey the most recent mine, to ensure that the Barrow is still safe. Roob is almost 11 cycles, and will soon be conducting surveys on his own; he is thankful to have his Father with him for this. The Barrow is on the far side of their Tribe’s territory, too far for the tunnels. The two of them walk towards the Temple, the Rain Keepers should be expecting them. Roob looks around as they are walking, taking in the huge domed ceiling. The light from the torches along the floor of the cavern does not reach far, up the walls or even out to them in some places. Much of the light is absorbed by the maroon-brown stone that makes up the permanent structures: the shape of the dome, the important living quarters, the Temple. This is what they are here to Survey. Roob’s father stops, and Roob takes a step before realizing it. They’ve arrived outside the Temple where a group of children is taking a lecture from a Rain Keeper.
“Tell me children, why do we live in these Barrows?”
“Because the Rain is angry at us,” the kids respond mostly together.
“And how do we know the Rain is angry?”
“Because it melts our flesh and sears our bones!”
“Why is the Rain angry?”
Roob joins in with the kids, “Because we left the water long ago!”
The Rain Keeper looks up at the new arrivals and smiles. He continues with the end of the lecture, “And what do we ask of the Rain?”
The Rain Keeper smiles at the kids and raises his arms, the kids, Roob and his Father follow suit. They all begin praying. “We thank the Rain for its punishments and acknowledge its anger. We brave the Rain because we must, because we cannot return to the water. We offer thanks to the Rain for the material it gives us and the waters we find. We beg the Rain for its forgiveness, in the name of our children. Blessed is the anger of the Rain.” Everyone’s hands lower as they repeat, “Blessed is the anger of the Rain.” The kids turn to each other, some leaving, others talking and playing with each other before they must return home.
Roob and his father approach the Rain Keeper.
“You must be the Surveyor from the Panther Flame Barrow. Is this your son?”
“Yes. My name is Kin, and this is Roob. He’s almost to his Rite of Passage, so I brought him with me to teach him the last of our family’s task.”
“Well done. I am Gen.”
Roob responds before his father can, “It is an honor to meet you, Gen. Thank you for the prayer.”
Gen chuckles and turns to Roob, “Thank you for participating. Most children your age would be more concerned about the Rite of Passage and learning your families task. Its a shame that so many forget to offer their prayers or attend lectures.” Gen continues talking to Roob’s father, “You’ve done well raising him, and I expect you’ll do well at your job. Come inside and I’ll furnish you with the maps for the Survey.”
Kaori sits and watches these poets at their work. She does not recognize them by their writings. A great many poets are known only to their provinces, though; only the greatest are known throughout the empire, published and read by everyone. Even still, she is amazed by the possibility of this life: the constant writing, in poems or in correspondences, the striving for greater and greater works, the arrangement of events in order to meet and collaborate. Kaori’s fan idly waves, slowly and surely, fanning as much her face as her thoughts. She notices the man in green brocade looking at her far too frequently, as does her brother, who continues to stand between them, tense. Her fan more often comes up to shield her face from his gaze.
The poets laugh as they compose, they offer suggestions, feedback as they are working. It is clear that they are friends as much as they are rivals, all competing for the glory of their family through greatness in art. Kaori looks at her mother and sees that she is in deep conversation with the older lady. Both are sipping tea from their own cups, straight-backed in their chairs, the gentle movements of pouring for each other. Kaori waits for an opening, a break in the flow of the poem. She knows she should not be contributing, but fame was never won by sitting idly.
Stiff orchids sit on a table;
breezes blow pansy blossoms.
Again the scribe looks at the referee, Kaori, expecting his glance subtly points her fan to her mother’s table, and looks demurely down at the table. The referee follows the fan and smiles. He nods at the referee and chuckles, joined by the man in the green brocade. “Well done little flower! Such a quick study too, already you are improving! What name shall we put down for this verse?” His voice is cultured, it does not boom, but does not strain to be heard.
“Inaba Kaori,” she responds as her fan moves too slowly to conceal her blush. The man in the green brocade nods, and the table seems pleased. Another poet jumps in, following her verse with one about fish. The men at the table all laugh at a pun within the verse that Kaori does not understand, something shared between them. Now that Kaori has their attention she is quiet; to have so many men looking at her, even as an artist, is not something she has experienced before. Her throat dries, and seeing that her mother’s conversation is finished she stands.
The man in green brocade stands as well. “Friends, as we know I could only be here for a short time, and it is a pleasure as always to work with you all, though your skills are far beyond mine. I must depart, but thank you for the distraction. Especially with the surprise of a winter flower to grace our table.” Kaori thinks his rich, bass, voice compliments his brown eyes well. He bows to the men, lastly to Kaori’s brother and finally Kaori, who bows deeply in return.
“I am too sheltered for such compliments, but I thank you for reassuring me for the good I do my ancestors.” Kaori responds looking to the ground, then addresses the rest of the table, meeting no one’s eyes, fan leaving only her face, “If you great poets will also excuse this humble apprentice, I must return to my family. She bows to each of them in turn, Kaori and her brother walk back to their mother’s table.
The three walk in silence past a few more shops, merchants hawking their wares on the streets, some performers. Kaori’s mother breaks the silence.
“Why don’t we go to the teahouse? We can sit down and enjoy the afternoon.”
Kaori nods. Her fan flutters around her, erratic, brief motions. Eyes downcast, she replays the scene just past. Her steps are small but quick. Kaori knows it was improper of her to have been so forward with the shopkeep. A proper lady is demure and soft, not confrontational and opinionated. Who would better know their stock than a shopkeep, and for that, who is she to question him? Even still, Kaori can’t help but feel a little proud of her witticism. Her fan continues its butterfly course around her face as her Mother speaks up.
“Here we are; Aioko recommended this place during her visit last Autumn. She said it was lovely and that poets were known to come here.” Kaori’s mind stills as her fan snaps shut and finds it’s way into her belt-sash. She looks at her mother and meets her gaze. Her head is tilted to one side. Kaori smiles and bows her head lightly by way of thanks, and the three turn and walk inside.
Three-panneled rice-paper dividers sit between tables, providing privacy, each of them is painted with a lovely natural scene: an oriole sitting on a branch, framed by peach blossoms; a river coursing over rocks with crickets on them; a cherry tree on a hill in full bloom, clouds whirling behind it. Near the back, several screens have been folded and tables brought together as a group of five men sit, drinking tea and laughing.
Kaori and her family choose a table midway between the door and the group of men. A serving girl approaches shortly with a tray, on it sits the tea pot and three cups. She sets the tea pot down as Kaori’s mother produces a cup for herself. The serving girl bows as she backs away. Her mother inclines her head briefly. Kaori can hear a little bit of the men talking, it seems they are composing a group poem. One of them is writing, his brush quick over the paper, the table in front of him cleared away for his supplies. The gentleman from earlier, who almost ran into her outside the fabric shop enters the teahouse, heads straight for the table with the men, sits.
Kaori’s turns to look back at her mother, as an elderly woman walks in. She smiles at her daughter, “Go on Kaori, take your brother with you. I have business to attend.” Kaori doesn’t wonder. The two of them rise, their cups untouched, and walk over to the table. Kaori hears the last verse spoken:
Trapped by absence of blue
the oriole cannot sing
A brief pause as everyone considers the verse and the scribe writes it down, his hand quick. Everyone looks at one another, and into this Kaori’s voice echoes, perhaps too loud.
White showers the black,
brown splinters caught in a web,
rice grains on pavement.
The men turn to look at her, one by one they smile, the scribe is the first to look at the man at the head of the table. Slowly the referee shakes his head at the scribe. The man dressed in the green brocade is still looking at her as the referee speaks. “Too obvious young one. Your form is good, as is your wit. Your subtlety needs work though, and where is your cutting word, hmm? Though do sit, watch, perhaps you might learn?”
A blush creeps over Kaori’s face as she fans herself delicately, the man in green brocade pulls out a seat for her, and she sits as her brother hovers behind her chair.