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Master Work: Natural Forces ‘verse
Challenges/Toppings/Extras: Chocolate #28 (longing), Kiwi-Strawberry #22 (staccato), FOTW: Mango #11 (seeing is believing) + Cherry (first person)
Rating: PG
Title: A Web to Catch the Wind
Summary: Nimue’s love goes awry.
Notes: Teaser-like entry for a new 'verse I’m trying. Backstory to come. (Epic Hiatus is broken, and while I'm on vacation in Hawaii too... HI COMM! *waves*)

I live on Earth, in the year 2160 CE.

I think I have to note that, as a dabbler in pre-Awakening history — if the world could go from believing in magic and monsters, to a world reliant on everything but magic and monsters, to this, then who is to say it won’t change again? Will our magic disappear, leaving us to start over with nothing? Every bit of history helps for the future.

I visit every library I can in my apprenticeship. Saw the Spinning Library of Wichita a year ago — that was amazing. Not even close to the one here in Aito, though.

Because here I saw Achan.

***

It started with the death of Mage Daimen, an instructor of Image-magic at the Aito school. He had gone mad years ago; everyone knew it, including me even though I had just transferred when it happened. The report we got was that he had accidentally cast a Furor charm at a charging moose instead of the obvious Placate one, but there were whispers of suicide. Either way, it was messy, and I, as an initiate — to the school itself; I was already halfway through my overall apprenticeship stage — was tasked with cleaning out the old man’s belongings. Transferring everything to the right departments was a tedious task even if your dead person wasn’t a packrat, but Daimen was, and I spent the better part of five days running back and forth from his room to the other wings of the building.

I was nearly done on the fifth day when I found it. Double-checking all the drawers of his desk, I peered into the back of one and felt the tingle of an illusion.

Image was my passion, you see, and a large part of why I liked pre-Awakening history. I had read a commentary when I was younger about how before the knowledge actually appeared in our minds and was able to be channeled, “magic” was about slight-of-hand; making things seem real when they were not, making the eyes wander and the brain fill in the blanks the wrong way. Like Image, which I was studying. Long years of being around illusions had attuned my mind to sense all but the strongest charms.

The one on Mage Daimen’s desk was strong, but not strong enough. I broke through with just a mid-level counter-charm. My reasoning, after the fact, was that I had been told to get everything out and if I left something behind the senior instructors would be angry, but the truth was I had little thought at the time. I was curious, and determined. A dangerous combination.

Of course, I checked for Curse-magic with what novice skill I had in that field, but I found nothing. Daimen was a practitioner of Image-magic like me; I doubted he could set anything more than a mild itching trap.

Later I would think it strange that the defenses were so paltry, but then again he was reportedly mad. Perhaps he wanted someone to find it. Perhaps he didn’t care.

“It” was a black stone, heavy and smooth but icy to the touch, about the size and shape of an orange. It was carved with letters, but unlike any script I recognized, set in a thin ring around the middle.

I am ashamed to say I knew the stone immediately. My grandmother had been one of the first mages Awakened 106 years before, and, before anyone knew better about the dangers and evil of the school, she had discovered Death-magic.

In the old world, it would be called Necromancy.

In the new world, it is the worst crime imaginable.

The lettering was a new feature, but other than that the orb was just like one my grandmother had kept locked in her house, as a reminder of her mistake. She had shown it to me once. I never forgot.

As a child, I had greatly admired my grandmother. As I grew, I had realized I would never have been able to transcend her mastery of the forces of life and death – never would I be able to live as long as her, stay as vivacious as long as her. Perhaps, with this, I could catch up to, even beat, my grandmother's legacy.

I hid it in my satchel, unsure if I truly wanted that but unwilling to let it go. Already I was snared.

***

The library of Aito was too small for the city in my opinion, but it sufficed for my studies. Already I had stumbled upon a whole section of Image tomes, and an old book from two centuries ago called Ender’s Game. Its concepts were so strange to me, even after I had listened to some of the stories my grandmother used to tell of great moving buildings powered by fire and lightning that traveled the land and sky and sea, that I had to abandon it. Maybe if I could find something older, or in a different style or something.

That was my mission on the day I saw Achan. I was to return the book and ply the librarian for something else pre-Awakening. Though Aito had been founded after magic appeared in the world and all technology died, surely if there was one old book there was another.

It was two weeks after I had found Mage Daimen’s contraband. I had taken to carrying it everywhere, but had yet to experiment with it. I couldn't shake the fear. Yet, it sat snugly in my satchel, protected by the best images I could think of. It would look and feel like an orange should someone rifle through my bag. I patted the bulge nervously every few minutes as I walked from the school, down the windswept road where the anti-lamps bobbed through the trees. Some of them broke away from the pack to follow me; briefly I wondered what someone from before the Awakening would make of them. Apparently they had been based on a technology that could set poles with little sun-like devices on them along the streets to light the way. Now, after that time, most people could make lights of their own to follow them around wherever they went, but those were orbs of white-washed brilliance that lasted only as long as the mage could keep them up. The anti-lamps were attached to the school grounds, not to the individual, could last for a very long time without a mage checking on them, and were in a myriad of colors. A few even absorbed light, hence the name.

When I reached the edge of the grounds, the anti-lamps dropped back to their regular patrol. I found myself a bit lonely without them, but it was still only late afternoon so I didn't make a light of my own. Perhaps on the way back, depending on how long it took to find what I needed and whether I could tear myself away from the library at all, I would need illumination. In the early part of my apprenticeship, several years and half the planet away, I had once spent so much time in a particularly interesting library in Constantinople that I only stumbled out when I was hungry – and ended up both scaring the librarian half to death and being late for bed checks at the magical institute there. That took a long time to get cleared up so I could continue the apprenticeship.

The rest of the walk was short, as the Aito library stood very close to the edge of town and, by extension, the pathway to the school. It was built in a style I couldn't identify with my base knowledge of architecture, but to me, at least, it was pretty. Probably emulating a much older, now-abandoned, style. It made me wonder what kind of person designed it. Someone else who was as fascinated with the old world as I, perhaps?

I pushed in the door, and let my eyes adjust to the pleasant gloom of the library and my nose to the smell of paper.

“Hello, Miss Nimue,” said the Aito library's curator. He was a tall, dry-humored man built more for a pre-Awakening job like moving furniture than for scholarly pursuit at any point in history. If he knew any magic at all, he was certainly good at hiding it; he preferred to use his natural strength to move the books and art rather than Change-magic to make them weigh less or float by themselves. A strange man, to be sure. I knew him as Feroz, though since he had never actually said that was his name, I entertained the occasional theory that he was actually undercover or something. Maybe he was an alien.

“Hey, Feroz,” I said, pulling Ender's Game out of my satchel – careful not to dislodge the pseudo-orange – and setting it on the man's desk. “If you can dig up anything else, I'd be interested.”

Feroz arched a brow, but waved me off as I went to delve into the depths of the shelves.

***

The Aito library being what it was, it took only a half hour or so to determine that if there was anything else pre-Awakening, it was either hidden on the top shelves or otherwise squirreled away out of my view. I went back to Feroz, running a gentle hand across the book's spines as I navigated the tight and labyrinthine space that made up the bulk of the library.

I turned the corner that would lead me out into the lobby area, and nearly ran into the sharp edge of a frame. Feroz was lugging a massive and probably very heavy painting down the corridor, bent back and walking blind. I started to help – surely even Feroz would be flattened under such a behemoth without a little Change-magic – but Feroz somehow managed to turn around and head back the way he had come. He didn't say a word. I rolled my eyes, an exasperated but undirected “save me from stubborn streaks!” nearly leaving my mouth. I trailed after him, as I still needed his help in finding something else to read.

Feroz frogmarched the painting into the lobby and leaned it up against his desk, with the back out. So massive was this painting and the requisite frame that one hanging wire was apparently not enough: a plain wooden column divided the back into halves, with twin wires crossing each.

“Hmm. If I can't get it to the back wall without knocking the shelves over...” Feroz mumbled, stroking his chin as if he actually possessed any facial hair. He glanced over, caught me staring, and chuckled. “What? If I have to explain the joke it ceases to be a joke.”

“...Yeah. Right,” I said, suddenly wondering how old he was. I knew that trail of thought would lead to strange places in my mind, so I distracted myself with a safer question. “What's this? A donation?”

“Yes and no,” said Feroz. “I've had it for a few years. Got it from an auction in England, selling off old things from a condemned pre-Awakening house. I think of it as a donation since it was the only thing that nobody wanted, and the auctioneers gave it to me for free. Beyond that, no idea where it came from.”

I blinked. “That's a charming story. Is it really ugly, then? Is that why you want it on the back wall?”

Feroz quirked his lips at me and did not answer. He did, however, pick up one end of the frame to pivot the whole thing around so I could see the painting within. He settled it against the desk again and stepped out of the way.

I gasped. The image, captured by paint on canvas, was of a battle scene. A man wrestled with a monstrous foe, hands tangled in the beast's fur as he struggled to keep the snapping jaws from tearing into his face. And what a face it was! Nothing like I saw in my own life, surrounded as I was by academics. Even Feroz could not compare – the hero in the painting, though locked in the battle of his life, was to my eyes the most beautiful man I had ever seen. The sweat on his brow shone in a way that made my heart stutter.

I fell instantly and inescapably in love.

Just as one walking on the ice that has held them up their entire lives is destroyed utterly by that moment in which their ground, their world, cracks beneath them and plunges them into the water from which there is no return to the surface, such was I. I was shattered and rebuilt as a new being in no more than the ten seconds it took to take in that man.

“Who...?” I breathed the question, not looking at Feroz. He was irrelevant now. A child's finger painting compared to the majesty of...

“Achan, most likely,” I heard Feroz say. “There's a title at the bottom; look.”

Reluctantly, I tore my eyes from the warrior and saw that Feroz was right. In the frame itself there was a slot to put a title-card, and “ACHAN” was printed neatly there.

Achan. A perfect name for a perfect being.

***

Although my love was pure, I kept it to myself. No one could understand, I knew that. So I went back to my life as an apprentice: going to class, practicing Image spells, and running errands for the various departments. It was a facade of course. Who could truly go back to such an existence knowing what I knew? A life without Achan was no life for me. No, I was biding my time until I could be with my love.

I kept returning to the library. Over the next few days Feroz moved the other, smaller paintings to the back wall and put Achan in a place of prominence hanging above and behind his desk. While Feroz was off organizing books and dusting shelves or whatever it was he did, I stole precious minutes spending time with my love.

Over time, I developed an idea. I knew the necromantic device I had taken from Mage Daimen's room could be used to find a dead person's soul in the ether and bring them back to the physical world; typically, if the person's original body was unavailable, this was done through finding a suitable host body with no resident soul and encouraging permanent takeover. However, there was another option I learned from my grandmother: by using no physical body whatsoever, the desired soul would be forced to temporarily manifest as a shade, or a projection of the body the soul last remembered having. It wouldn't be the same as if I had Achan's body, of course, but to meet him...

What if Achan didn't exist? What if he had never existed, but was merely a concept put to canvas, a figment of some artist's imagination? I agonized over it. If my love was futile...

My studies suffered. Image was nothing to me now. Trickery, manipulating weak human minds could change nothing, bring me no closer to Achan. No, I would accept nothing less than the tangible. Either that man, perfection given human flesh, would manifest before me and thus I would be proven right, or nothing would happen and I, while disappointed, would know my love had never existed. No harm in trying, right? I had little to lose and everything, everything to gain.

I couldn't concentrate on pathetic deception anymore. My marks slipped. My instructors looked upon me with concern. (My peers — ha! They nudged each other in the hallways as I passed, but what were they to me? Their loves were as beautiful as horseflies and twice as annoying.) Every second I could spare was spent either with Achan, or in one of the unused classrooms, experimenting with the device.

"Achan," I would whisper to it. "Show me Achan. Lay him bare before my eyes, by the might of my magic." The steady pulse of cold beneath my fingertips as I held the orb, and the subtle shifting of the letters carved into its surface as I stared, were enough to convince me that I was doing something right. Every day I cradled it, feeding it my energy, my magic, and concentrating only on my will to see Achan.

My instructors saw an increasingly introverted girl whose passion and patience for Image had gone. I had nothing to replace Image with in the public eye. Death-magic was considered such a crime that the only punishment was execution — there being no reform, no reparation, no atonement for it, the most humane solution for everybody would be a quick end, according to the law — so of course I couldn't reveal what I was doing or show that no, I had not become lazy or undedicated. In fact, my zeal was so potent that, for any other school, it would be laudable.

They couldn't understand.

In a way, then, I was relieved when I was expelled. My apprenticeship was over; I could concentrate on Achan. If, it turned out, he wasn't real, then I could still continue with my life. It had happened before. I made a mistake, pled my case, and managed to keep going. As long as I kept the Death-magic itself under wraps, I could always pick up where I left off.

I gathered my belongings and left the school for possibly the last time. The anti-lamps bobbed and swayed in the gathering twilight, moving through the tree branches like fish swimming through coral or seaweed. None of them deigned to follow me as I left the looming shadow of the Aito school behind.

The library was still open; Feroz was keeping odd hours as usual and I had never been more grateful for that. I slipped inside, my suitcase drifting along behind me. With a flick of my hand, I tucked it in a shadowy corner. My eyes were drawn above the curator's desk, where Achan and his foe had resided for the last three weeks—

Except the painting was no longer there. Some still life had usurped my Achan! I recoiled, stared, felt my face twist itself into the perfect expression to reflect my clenching heart and boiling blood.

"Miss Nimue?" I heard Feroz call from the depths of the library.

My head snapped in the direction of the voice, and I remembered how to breathe again. My face smoothed over, though my blood still ran hot. Tearing my nails away from where they had pierced my palms was a harder task, but I managed to extend my fingers one by one and whisper a spell of Life-magic to heal over the crescent-shaped wounds left behind.

Feroz came out, holding a book. He looked at me for a length of time that would have been uncomfortably long if I had cared one whit about him or his opinion, then finally acknowledged the utter wrongness of the situation by glancing at the blasphemous still life. He looked back at me and said carefully, "I moved the other piece to the back wall. I think the sunlight was beginning to damage it out here."

"Oh, that's all right." My voice from my mouth, but not me.

Feroz turned — oh, reluctant, how afraid he was of me! — and led me down the passages I knew by heart, past books I had caressed like lovers, to the back wall, where my dear, dear Achan had been banished.

I sighed in contentment. There he was. Still perfect.

Feroz shuffled about behind me, pretending to organize the books. I made a game of guessing when he would clear his throat. There! "Ahem. Miss Nimue, it may interest you to know that I managed to dig up some info about this painting."

Oh! "Yes?" I said, trying desperately not to seem too interested; obviously, I was rejoicing inside. Would my instinct that Achan was a real person be confirmed true? Would my efforts not be in vain?

"Yes. It seems my guess was correct — this was painted about fifty years ago, but the scene depicted is from the monster outbreaks forty years before that. I found a description of a battle — a man with no magic wrestled hand-to-hand with a monster that had been terrorizing the countryside. The man won, amazingly, and years later he painted the scene from memory. And the description of the battle matches a description of the painting by a contemporary, matches the work you see before you." Feroz was smiling. I suppose he was quite proud of his discovery.

"So, the artist was Achan?" I asked, though there was little point — I knew! My spirit was flying so high in that moment that no answer could bring me down—

Feroz cocked his head. "No, the man in the painting is the artist, but his name was Div. Achan was the monster."

***

I don't know how long I've been running. I don't know when Feroz's frantic yelling stopped ringing in my ears, but now all there is around me is moonlight and wind-whispers, and all there is within is laughter. My own. My grandmother's.

The shadow's, as it uncoils from the ground where it has been waiting for me so very patiently. Its laugh reminds me of many things – late nights telling scary stories, the smell of rotting earth, and my heart, thumping away in my chest of its own volition.

I stop quickly. Too quickly. My stomach lurches as my knees hit the ground. I know. I know what I have done. The night turns cold around me, or perhaps it is just what was always there. How could I have been so numb as not to feel the bite of the wind, nipping at me through the tears in my clothes? It's there now. My heaving breaths float away on that same wind.

The shadow looms.

"Achan," I whisper. "Ohhh, my love.” I say it only for the sweet irony. I don't love this thing. I can't.

"Ohhh," it groans back.

Comments

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
rustydragonfly
Jan. 7th, 2014 09:39 pm (UTC)


I had an idea this was a dangerous obsession of the narrator's... now I want to see what comes next, this is a fascinating little world.
promisesesimorp
Feb. 24th, 2014 04:09 pm (UTC)
Wow this is great! Super well written.
blackflamingo77
May. 9th, 2014 04:09 am (UTC)
I compliment you on your wonderful(ly annoying, frustrating, amazing) ability to leave me a complete nervous wreck. I think I might hate you for the ending, but in a good way.

I love all the little details you drop here and there about the world. The comparisons to "pre-Awakening" that are but aren't. I'm a worldbuilder at heart, so I adore the glimpses of depth.

And the story. *shivers* The monster is awesome and you really left me in suspense!
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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