Before we soared above the surface of Teicna, before the gods began to shape the world itself, before even the Elemental Four were created, there was magic.
What Is Magic?
Theories abound as the to true nature of what magic "is". Some believe it to be nothing less than the fabric of the universe, the primordial element, before it takes on a physical form. Others say that it is the essence of some ancient, all-powerful being leaking out into the world around them. Still others claim that it is a manifestation of the imaginations of sapient beings, allowing those with the knowledge and willpower necessary to make their dreams a reality. Whatever the case, one thing is clear: Magic is everywhere, and it is growing steadily stronger as both the mortal and divine populations grow.
It's important to note that magic seems to have a will of its own, at times. When directed towards a task with unclear instructions, magic frequently seems to fill in the gaps of its own volition. Precisely how these gaps are filled seems to vary with everything from physical location to the style of spell being cast to the people involved in the casting. It's not entirely clear how this pseudo-sentience factors into most theories about magic's original source and true nature, but it most definitely plays into...
The Risks Involved
Most thaumatologists agree that magic appears to be intrinsically linked to the mortal soul. And not just the caster's soul, either, but all souls. Every soul that once was and ever may be. Their energies are everywhere, existing parallel to but separate from the tangible world, but every bit as present as what can be experienced with mortal senses. As you might expect, tapping into this ever-present force is a tricky affair. It's not that magic is out of reach -- quite the opposite, in fact, as literally anyone could practice magic if they so wished -- so much that it always comes with an element of risk attached. A common analogy used by teachers of the arcane arts is that magic is like an endless ocean, separated from the mortal world by a great wall. When someone wishes to draw upon magic to perform some task, they must become a tap in that wall, allowing it to pour through them and into the world. It is a careful balancing act, ensuring that you draw upon only the power that you want, and want only what you can handle. Try to draw too much at once, and the tap will fail, leaking errant energy at best or being utterly destroyed at worst.
The vast majority of mortals in the early years discovered magic by accident, when their wills were so strongly directed towards something that they drew upon the power around them without realizing it. A lucky few got precisely what they wanted in these cases, but far more often, terrible accidents and spontaneous combustion befell these would-be magi. It was largely through the intervention of the gods that mortals began to practice magic more carefully, not to mention intentionally. In modern times, accidental casting still occurs, as it’s difficult for non-magi to truly understand what sort of feelings or desires might set off a spell before they’ve personally experienced it, but centuries of training and research have allowed many of these cases to be rendered slightly less lethal than in the early days.
The Two Schools
The practice of magic can typically be divided into two main camps: There are Mental Magi, who practice their craft through concentration, ideation, and force of will, and Endurance Magi, sometimes jokingly referred to as ‘Muscle Magi’, who accept a certain degree of physical suffering and chaos in the process of tapping into their magic in exchange for the act of casting putting less strain on their minds.
The Power of the Mind
By far the most common and accepted means of accessing magical power, Mental Magic involves little more than a clear head, a vivid imagination, and an iron will.
Mental Magi attempt to perfectly encapsulate the effect they want within their mind, seeing a mental image of both the world as it is, and the world as they want it to be. When these are properly formed, magic is drawn in to forcibly turn the former into the latter. Some minor variance in these images will not immediately doom a mental mage. If their vision of fire does not quite match reality, their candle-lighting spell won’t fly apart at the seams and set their house on fire, but if their concentration is fully broken during the casting, or if the caster attempted to shorthand images and effects in their mind, magic has a habit of seeking out the path of least resistance. And in magic’s case, ‘least resistance’ often means ‘inflating the desired effect to its maximum logical extreme’.
Today we will begin learning how to levitate a small object. You will not actually be levitating it today. That will come in a few weeks' time, when the object you intend to lift can be formed in your mind to such a degree of accuracy that the mental image you form is perhaps more real to you than the physical object itself.
The downside of Mental Magic, aside from the intense focus and concentration it requires of its practitioners, is that all of that power flowing through one’s cranium tends to cause a bit of degradation over time. The mind isn’t meant to suffer the reality-warping effects magic offers in such a concentrated dose, and so over time, coping mechanisms or lasting damage begin to manifest. From hallucinations to inhibited faculties to the damage or loss of certain senses, the strength, frequency, and specific form of the spell effects wielded by the practitioner play an integral role in determining exactly what a mental mage has to be wary of as they continue to cast. If they are supremely careful, avoiding slip-ups and spells gone haywire, the effects can be incredibly minor until the natural ends of their lives, but for people who live lives of danger and excitement, an early retirement is likely to be forced upon them.
On the opposite side of the fence is Endurance Magic. In this practice, a mage accepts that they will likely not have the focus or willpower to shape magic with their minds -- or else they seek to avoid the more debilitating side effects of long-term use -- and so instead they sacrifice their bodies to the cause. The mind still factors in, of course, as it remains important for the mage to imagine their desired spell and will it into existence, but the results flow into the world through their bodies, emanating from their physical form directly. Without the firm control of a focused mind, the magic tends to be a bit wild, flaring out from what was intended and sometimes acting on more subconscious elements in the caster’s mind to create something more than what the caster thought they consciously tried for, but closer to their true desires.
Just because they are safe from brain injury doesn’t mean Muscle Magi have it easy, however. Much like the mind, the mortal body was not built to withstand magic’s power with any frequency, and it has a habit of reacting in strange, glaringly obvious ways over time. Sometimes it manifests as injury; scarring or bruising the body in response to their spell’s effects. Other times, they are subjected to strange mutations, shifting in color or shape or texture or ability. These effects are often unseemly, as you might expect, but for the truly unfortunate they can also seriously affect their day-to-day lives. They might suffer nerve damage, lose a limb entirely, become intensely sensitive to light or temperature changes, and so on. Some might argue that these are nearly as bad, if not worse than, the mental damage, and they might be. In neither case is such a devastating outcome certain, but it’s a possibility one must be willing to accept before taking on either field of magic.
Picture a storm, swirling within yourself. Think of the power it holds. The sheer destruction in it. Now, by this point it should be stinging like the dickens. Perfect! That means you pictured it right! Not point your fingers and let it out, 'less you like the feeling of your own flesh frying!
With such intense drawbacks to casting in either form, one might wonder why anyone bothers with it at all. The answer is fairly simple: Unimaginable, physics-defying power has quite an irresistible allure for most people. That said, the risks have also inspired people to seek alternative paths to power through technology, as well as to institute what has now become a nearly universal means of mitigating the risk: Nearly everyone who practices magic, whether professionally trained of self-taught, has a Specialization.
A mage’s Specialization is their chosen effect or field of effects, which they dedicate themselves to entirely. By limiting themselves to a small a collection of spells as possible, they allow themselves to refine their instincts, thoughts, and mental images to the point that they are nearly second nature. To throw a lightning bolt is a powerful spell that carries with it a fair amount of risk. To throw the same lightning bolt you’ve thrown a thousand times before brings the same amount of power to bear while suddenly minimizing a vast amount of the risk. The mage’s mind - whatever their casting style - can eventually learn to format the spell so cleanly, so quickly, and so efficiently, that it barely even takes any conscious effort on their part. In this way, a mage can grow in power and potentially begin to branch off into new effects while always having their signature spell to fall back on without having to perpetually risk seriously injuring themselves in the process of breaking the laws of the universe.
The flip side of this is, as you might expect, a nearly total lack of magi who have any breadth of magic. Someone might be able to expand within their Specialization to an incredible depth, beginning with lighting a candle and developing to a point where nearly any effect involving fire is safely within their grasp. But you would be hard-pressed to find someone with any more than two entirely disparate magical effects at their fingertips, and even those with two tend to be ancient beings who managed to perfect one craft to such an extent that dipping into another did not risk undermining the first. Dabblers, as someone who deals in an array of effects is called, tend to be young, inexperienced magi who have not yet found something that speaks to them enough to devote all of their time and energy to it. Those who seek to Dabble professionally have a habit of getting their effects mixed up at some point in their careers, cutting them suddenly and tragically short.
Alternative Forms of Magic
Although all mortal magic can be, in some capacity, linked back to one of the two schools above, there are a few exceptions to the rules as they've been spelled out thus far. These exceptions are generally rare and carry with them drawbacks of their own, but their existence must be understood by anyone who wishes to know the upper limits of magic.
Enchantment and Channeling
Magic is an energy. As such, it's only natural that mortals would eventually begin to seek out ways to harness it remotely and store it for later use. Enchantment is the art of doing exactly that. Spells and instructions are written, carved, or embossed onto an object in a flowing, single line of script, and magic can then be funneled into the script in order for it to follow the instructions to the letter. The language of the enchantment doesn't matter -- magic seems to be able to parse meaning from words no matter how it is conveyed, though exactly how is still unknown -- but the wording most certainly does. As with normal casting, the magic stored within the written words, which are generally referred to as Runes, has a mind of its own. As it interprets the instructions it's been given, it will often actively seek out loopholes or gaps in what it's been told to do. Accidents happen when these gaps grow too large or leave too much room for magic's "creativity".
"Make fire"? "MAKE FIRE"?! Are you trying to get us all KILLED boy?! You've no limit to size, amount, form, speed, fuel... Why not save us all some time and carve "End the World" into your own skull while you're at it!"
By most metrics, single-use spells written onto leafs of paper or small, wooden rods still qualify as enchanting, but both they and the more traditional, long-form enchantments require charging and recharging in order to function and remain effective. Anyone who can cast magic at all can charge an enchantment. It's simply a matter of "casting" the written spell into it, so that it has the precise amount of power required to replicate the effect. However, this does mean that the person doing the charging needs to have some experience with the spell they're charging in order to do it efficiently. If their charge-cast is formed properly, then all will go exactly as planned. If it's sloppy, inaccurate, or the caster is simply inexperienced, the written word of the spell still shapes things as they should be, preventing any sort of blow-back or other such chaos, but it requires more of the caster's energy in order to make these fixes. So, for someone attempting to charge an enchanted lighter, a mage used to casting fire spells would be many times more efficient at it than someone whose specialization was reading minds.
There is an alternative to only charging objects of your specialization, however. It is possible, instead, to make charging objects your specialization in the first place! This is the art of Channeling.
Channelers operate under the assumption that they will not and cannot match the specialization of every enchantment they come across. Rather than dabble in various powers in an attempt to Jack of All Trades their way to success, they instead master a form of blank casting. When they cast spells, they essentially unleash power with no direction to it whatsoever. In this way, the enchantments can "fix" the spell to exactly what it needs to be without any inaccurate mental images or subconscious desires needing to be rewritten or replaced. If someone becomes proficient at it, channeling can be many times more efficient at charging any given enchantment than a specialized caster would be at charging something outside of their field of study. Channelers will never quite reach the proficiency of a caster charging something at aligns with their specialization, but the sheer versatility offered far outweighs that fact for most.
A dangerous 'Third School' of magic, soulcasting involves using neither the body nor the mind, but the mortal soul itself as the focus for spells. The risks involved should be obvious from that information alone, but for some, the perks are worthwhile. In addition to having a much higher power ceiling -- as you might expect from focusing magic through a soul which is itself made of magic -- soulcasters avoid the risks of mental degradation and physical injury or mutation. However, this does not mean they are free from magic's warping effects. Souls are fragile things, not meant to come into direct contact with ambient magic. This is what causes the loose souls of the dead to become feral ghosts, after all. In a living being, the effects of magic slowly accumulating on the soul is similar. The mage may not succumb to any madness of the physical mind, but their personality, their sense of self, their very essence may steadily begin to warp in unexpected ways. There are various myths and legends about this warping leading individuals to ascend to demigodhood with their new power, but far more often the influence is more corruption than enhancement. As a result, unlucky soulcasters can essentially look forward to becoming little more than wraiths and spectres locked in fleshy prisons, robbed of empathy or anything that made them who they were.
From time to time, a god sees fit to pick a mortal out from the pack. Sometimes to bestow favor, other times granted as a sort of backhanded curse. The results are known simply as Marks. They function as something of a magic-filtering organ, pulling in ambient magic and processing it towards a certain function, and in the process granting the Marked individual almost unlimited access to magic relating to that function. Someone Marked with fire, for instance, would be able to light candles, heat a room, and summon gouts of flame with little to no effort, even compared to someone who had been doing the same things for years.
This all sounds fantastic, surely, but unfortunately victims of Marks rarely see it that way. To begin with, Marks are not simply brands or tattoos. All Marks bring with them side effects; means by which the excess magic constantly being processed by the Mark leaks into the tangible world.
This can be annoying, like having water perpetually leaking from the Marked area, to utterly life-altering, like having your entire left arm be perpetually engulfed in flames.
Additionally, much of the world views Marked individuals with fear and distrust. One individual walking around with semi-divine power is already cause for concern, but add onto the that the fact that they are also frequently in the gods' spotlight -- either as chosen agents or due to some sort of grudge or punishment -- and you've got a recipe for someone most average mortals want absolutely nothing to do with.
The gods are great and powerful, and we owe our lives to many of them... but their ways are difficult to discern, and their wont to meddle well-known. Trust not those touched by a god's hand, for with them comes naught but chaos.
In more recent years, there are rumors of some individuals becoming Marked by something other than a god -- forces of nature or regions in the world particularly charged with magical energy -- but these have not been substantiated by any reputable institution, leaving them as little more than unfounded claims at the moment.