Extract from Light Stealer

Light Stealer by James BarclayIt had been simple, really. Most fundamental magic was, when you looked at its roots. The problem, when experimenting with fundamentals, was seeing through the complexities of conditioning to the blindingly obvious. And not dying in the process.

For Septern, nominally of the mage college of Dordover, clear sight had come when he was sprawling blind drunk across his dining room table.

He’d decided to eat alone that night. An unusual decision but one he was later to look back on as prophetic. Usually, he encouraged his students to dine with him. He enjoyed the debate, it inspired thought and gave birth to creation – the life blood of a mage’s trade.

But he’d been in an off mood all that day. He couldn’t close his mind on anything and he’d felt there was something just escaping his consciousness. Whatever, it had made him irritable, the day’s research had not gone well and all four of his charges had disappeared to their rooms. He’d not invited them to the dining room.

Septern had gone for a walk around his grounds with a glass and a bottle of red from the fledging but very promising Blackthorne vineyards. He’d felt sorry for them in a way. In one respect his students were lucky. Hand-picked from the Dordovan intake to learn from his acknowledged genius – and he but thirty years older than them.

But the fast-track to Dordovan Master Mage status had its price. And these four earnest young men were paying that price now.

The honour of studying at the Septern Manse carried them on a cloud of late adolescent ego for a few days. But then reality set in. The Manse was in the middle of nowhere, two days from the nearest settlement worth the name. And young men wanted female company. His cook wasn’t up to it. Not for thirty years by the looks of her. He couldn’t even boast any maids. There had been trouble before so part of the student discipline now was to keep the Manse clean.

Septern had made his choice two decades before. Something about the genesis of new magic fulfilled him like no relationship he’d ever experienced. He’d never seen it in another mage. Certainly not this current crop. Septern supposed that was what sent him apart from other mages. All other mages. Many were clever, some gifted. But they were all distracted, man or woman, by what drove them all at the most basic human level.

Not Septern. What drove him was creation of magic. That was purity and nothing else came close. And the wonders he had seen and the places he had travelled made the sacrifice worthwhile. None of them would ever understand, not fully. That was what made him different. Better.

And so, while his students had sat alone, or together in their rooms, talking their nonsense and dreaming their dreams of anything but magic, Septern had completed his walk, uncorked a second bottle and drunk himself slowly but surely to incoherence. It was a stupor the beautifully tender beef had done nothing to mitigate.

That night, though, the alcohol had freed his subconscious mind and the secrets he craved had been presented to him. Every night since his awakening in the Dordovan Mana Bowl, he’d dreamed of originating the ultimate spell. That night, it happened.

It was the chill puddle of vomit under his cheek, though, that had woken him to the enormity.

* * *

Janeth remembered Septern that morning as resembling a man in the last stages of dementia. A spitting madman, hair matted in beef gravy, vomit caking his cheek, robes stained and filthy where he’d pulled his uneaten supper into his lap.

Words tripped from his mouth in a galloping babble, his arms had minds of their own, gesturing, pointing and beckoning, his legs propelling him in what was at best a controlled fall.

But his eyes gave the lie to every other part of his body and appearance. They shone with that fervour he had already come to recognise in his few months of study. The naked energy that indicated Septern had discovered something. And by the looks of him that morning, it was something extraordinary.

The main laboratory, which let off the back of the entrance hall had been quiet since he and his three colleagues had entered at dawn. Aileen, the rake-thin grey haired cook, had intercepted them at the door to the dining room to tell them breakfast would be served in the kitchen. The master, she’d said rather bizarrely, had not yet finished his supper.

Over the weeks and months, they’d seen a dozen idiosyncrasies in Septern’s manner but this was something else, even for him. But, as they’d learned to do, they had shrugged their shoulders, broken their fast and gone back to their books, manashape plots and stability tests.

It had been shortly before mid-morning, during the test of a the full shape of an enhanced vermin-repellent wide-area ward (something Septern considered painfully simple) that he had crashed in. Moments later, the course of the future turned down a new and ultimately far bloodier path.

Janeth was the acknowledged leader and spokesman of the students. He was nineteen, bespectacled and very tall, with a brain that delivered manashapes with great efficiency. His problem, and one he hoped to solve through his time with Septern, was of concentration in distracting circumstances. He wanted to be a mage capable of casting in a hurricane and the heat of battle, on a storm-tossed ship and in the middle of a market crowd.

And so he stood, implacable, as Septern had taught him while his master delivered his spittle-strewn comments, not one of which made an ounce of sense.

‘Well?’ demanded Septern when he saw none of them move so much as a muscle.

‘Two things,’ said Janeth, holding up two fingers and bearing in mind that Septern called confidence the right hand of concentration. ‘First, slow down, tell us again and we’ll be happy to assist, Master Septern. Second, while we’re assembling what you need, please wash and change.’

‘No time, no time,’ snapped Septern. ‘You don’t understand.’ He stepped forward and gripped Janeth’s arms. The stench of vomit and sweat was overpowering. ‘I have found it. No spell will be greater. No spell. Don’t you see?’

His eyes searched Janeth’s face, their energy almost too bright to bear. ‘Janeth, we are at the summit. All we have to do is claim it for ourselves.’

Janeth nodded. ‘Master Septern, I can see you’ve discovered something. And I can see there is work for us to do. But one of your lessons is to minimise distractions during research; and right now, you look terrible and smell worse. So issue your instructions then go and bathe or you’ll distract us. Really.’

Janeth felt the lab tense. Septern wasn’t used to being challenged or directed on anything. He would take this one of two ways. Janeth prepared for the storm.

Septern glared at him for a few heartbeats. Enough to make him very uneasy and the sweat begin to bead on his forehead. Then he patted Janeth’s neck with a cupped hand.

‘That’s why I like you,’ he said, breathing deep, smiling and dispelling the tension. ‘You don’t fear and that is a critical quality. All right, here’s what I need.

‘The manastream charts we constructed following the testing of the DuskFall spell; the geometric model of HellFire; Arteche’s texts on application of base lore to modulating constructs; my previous work on the potential sentience of magic and anything you can find regarding the nature of air inside a freely expanding mana construct.

‘And you, Janeth,’ he said, placing a grimy hand briefly on the young student’s chest. ‘I need you to construct the modulating tetrahedron at the core of a HellFire and monitor its decay until I return. Got all that?’

A chorus of affirmatives greeted the question. Septern nodded.

‘I’ll be back very soon. No time to waste.’

He strode to the lab door, looking back over his shoulder as he grasped the handle.

‘You do understand, of course that all this is merely by way of smoothing the edges. I already know I’m right.’

Janeth turned to see his friends’ bemused expressions.

‘What the hell was all that about?’ asked Dirrion, short, freckled, nervous and brilliant.

‘I’m not sure but I think things are just on changing.’ Janeth’s heart was already beating faster.

* * *

Septern could barely concentrate on the basics. Even walking upstairs was a trial which bruised his knees. Later, he’d thank Aileen for laying out fresh clothes and having drawn a hot bath but at the time, it was all he could do to strip and splash. He never stopped to consider what he’d have done if nothing had been prepared.

As it was, his mind stole his concentration and his hair remained unbrushed and his shirt was cross-buttoned. His shoe buckles were loose and his collar turned under. He blew back into the lab, a piece of bread forgotten in his hand.

‘Well?’ he demanded, snapping the fingers of his free hand. ‘Is everything ready for review?’

‘Yes, Master Septern,’ they chorused, nervousness on every face. For a moment he craved to be them. To be in his presence waiting for his next utterance. He wondered what it felt like to hear the genius rather than create it. Just for a moment.

He smiled. ‘Don’t worry. In fact, be ready for glory. You are about to participate in the most important day in spell creation history.’

‘Can we know what is it you have discovered, Master Septern?’ asked Sandor, a student with the physique of a warrior and the brain of a master mage. His was a face that would break a thousand hearts.

Septern shook his head. ‘Not just like that.’

He regarded them all while inside his body buzzed and his blood surged with the excitement. He was fighting hard to keep control of the discipline he had to practice now of all times – after all, it had been he who had laid the new rules of check and balance every college now operated.

Do what you demand of others, he instructed himself.

Well, mostly.

‘Let me educate you,’ continued Septern, spreading his arms wide. ‘That is, after all why you are here. We will check and pace, we will discuss and balance. And you will tell me what it is I have discovered. And believe me, your names will forever be connected with greatness.’

‘Connected?’ queried Janeth.

Septern smiled. ‘There are many who’s efforts are crucial but there can only ever be one creator.’

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