Half a century ago, when I was a young mage fresh out of apprenticeship, I did what all young kids dreamed of — I became an adventurer. Many mages like myself wanted nothing more than to get from the stuffy towers and their endless books, and do something more productive such as lobbing fireballs at monsters.
Of course, I didn’t go at it alone. It was generally agreed that solo dungeon-delving at my level of experience was reckless at best, and suicidal most of the time, so I did the natural thing and joined a team.
They were an interesting lot. Leon was a lesser noble who’d trained as a knight, and he kept going on about honor and glory. Raina, who always gave me the creeps, was a dual dagger specialist who I suspected earned a living on the side as an assassin. Kyrian had been just recently confirmed as a priest and was already trying to stay as far away from his temple as he could, and he could snap his fingers and your hangover was gone. Finally, there was Jenna, who despite her ogre blood giving her an impressive physique, preferred to rely on her bow and arrows.
All they had in common was that they were young and happened to apply for party status at the same Adventurers’ Guild chapter — but the required number of members for a party at our rank was five, so it had been my arrival that allowed the creation of the team.
I was most definitely the one who helped them out, of course. Of course I wouldn’t have ended up stuck without a team if they didn’t happen to already be waiting for a last member.
In any case, we had clicked, and we had had a good decade of adventuring until we went our separate ways.
Leon had retired to Ravenrock at my suggestion when his body finally started failing him in his fifties and began tutoring kids in swordsmanship after he realized how much he hated sitting on his ass waiting to die.
It was for that reason that I dropped Sarah off at his house, after asking him to put her through the most brutal training regimen he could come up with. The glint in his eye and his shit-eating grin as he accepted the charge only confirmed that my trust was well placed.
We’d make a proper knight out of her, yet.
That left me with at least a whole free week while my minion underwent tortu—- Training. I meant training.
This meant one thing. I was finally able to start learning Dimension magic. The thought left me both giddy and apprehensive. I still remembered all those botched attempts from my youth, and in truth, I had been pretty badly injured the first time I attempted it. At the same time, I was an Archmage, one of the most powerful alive, who had revolutionized an entire area of magic. Even the gods had deemed me powerful enough to be a threat — surely the Dark Lord could handle a measly little Dimension magic, right?
It turned out that no, I couldn’t.
I had left Ravenrock accompanied by a handful of wights and found a nice secluded spot several leagues away, in a forest. It would keep me away from prying eyes, and the trees wouldn’t mind the collateral damage too much.
The first attempt blew up in my face, as did the second and the third.
It was evident, then, that brute-forcing it would not work. I decided a more introspective approach was needed.
The Aspect of Soul was more or less my specialty. It governed over things like life, memory, and most importantly right now, magic itself, since the conduit was part of the soul.
After tasking my undead with keeping watch, I sat down cross-legged on the soft grass and peered inside my own soul.
It was a familiar sight, my soul. I’d studied it many times in the past, when I was working on separating it from my body and anchoring it to something less squishy. I was possibly one of the foremost experts on matters of the soul, and despite that, all that I knew was barely a drop in the ocean that was the core of all living beings.
To an untrained eye, the soul looked much like a crystalline orb, but that was akin to looking at the sun and calling it a circle. With enough proficiency, you could peer past the surface and see the naked soul in all its glory, an entire world in and of itself, an astral tapestry of strange constructs and ciphers. Even after having spent years researching the soul, the beauty of it still overwhelmed me.
With a mental nudge, I moved my focus to the conduit.
In magical academies, the conduit is generally described as a tunnel, with one end inside the soul and the other end anchored in Unreality. Strictly speaking, this is an accurate, if incomplete, simplification. That description falls greatly short when you’re faced with the real thing.
From inside my soul, I could only see the inner end, and looking at it was already starting to give me a headache. You could look at it from any direction and you’d see the same planar rift in the fabric of the universe. Its strange geometry was never meant to be seen by mortal eyes, I believed.
I peered inside the conduit itself, so that I could see the mana as it flowed from Unreality to my soul. I was hoping that, by analyzing the entire path of mana from the source to a completed spellwork, I could see what was going on differently when I used Dimension mana compared with any other Aspect.
At the moment, the only mana coming through were the familiar blue threads of Soul, which split into two separate streams as soon as they exited the conduit. The threads of the first stream were headed outside — they were the mana I supplied to my minions to keep them animated. The threads of the second stream coalesced and wove themselves into a working right beneath my point of view — it was the spell I was currently using to glimpse into the soul world.
The Soul thread, as it exited the conduit, had a smooth texture and was evenly wide across its length. I would use it as a benchmark.
I drew on small amounts of all the five other types of mana, without weaving them into any spell — they would dissipate naturally after a few minutes, but for the time being, I only needed to compare them.
The violet thread of Mind was similar to the one of Soul, which was expected given the two were my specialties. Force, Matter, and Fate had a couple of snags and places where they were thinner or thicker, but were still fairly solid. Fate looked almost frayed in some places. I would need to practice with them more.
Dimension was another story entirely. Based on the others, I was expecting it to be ruinously frayed or something along that line, but the reality was surprising.
The thread of Dimension was jagged.
We called them threads because when we wove them into spells, they behaved like yarn would in the real world. But my Dimension thread was full of zig-zags, as if it were a metal wire that had been folded repeatedly. It still had the same snags and frays as the other threads, but the whole shape was wrong.
With mana like this, it was no wonder I couldn’t weave anything stable.
I followed the thread back into the conduit, in an attempt to see where it was being bent. Now, the Soul magic I was using allowed me to look anywhere inside my soul, but the conduit was partially located in Unreality. I moved more mana into my spell, forcing its boundaries to widen. It was interesting to see the Soul thread widen before my eyes as I did so.
With the spell briefly empowered, I dove inside the conduit and followed the thread of Dimension mana almost all the way to the rift to Unreality. I caught a glimpse through the rift — and then almost wished I hadn’t, as my headache intensified and I was hit with a wave of nausea. Refocusing, I once again concentrated on the thread of mana following its wiry form until I finally saw it.
There was a construct there, so tiny that you’d miss it if you didn’t know what to look for. Like the well, it was made of Origin mana, and its purpose was clear — it was altering my Dimension mana to make it unusable. But why?
That someone had intruded on — and tampered with! — my very soul filled me with rage. I saw red as I drew on all the mana I could, aspects be damned, and blasted the thing with the intent to destroy. After a few seconds of destructive onslaught, I was completely spent, my will feeling as if it had been through a wringer. And the damned thing was barely worse for the wear.
It occurred to me that I had been an idiot. The construct didn’t need to be destroyed. A closer look allowed me to see how it didn’t have any kind of anchor — it just floated there, poised to alter any Dimension mana that passed through its aperture. I couldn’t alter or destroy it, because Origin mana was on an entirely higher level, but nothing was stopping me from just moving the thing.
And so I did. With a careful weave of Soul and Force, I nudged the thing out of the conduit and into my soul proper, where I just deposited it into a corner where it would likely not affect anything.
With the blasted thing out of the way, I channeled Dimension mana again. It was an ugly, lumpy string that seemed a touch away from falling apart, but already I could feel how much more malleable it was.
With trepidation, I returned to my body and gingerly touched the thread with an effort of will. Carefully, I weaved it in the same pattern I was taught at the academy, the same pattern that I always blew up no matter how well I thought I executed it.
I stood there with the finished weave floating around me, just waiting for my will to activate. This would be the point where it either worked or it went up in flames.
An effort of will on my part, and then I was standing about half a meter ahead of where I had been.
It worked! It was the easiest Dimension spell ever created, derisively called the Poor Man’s Blink because of its tiny range, but right now, for me, it was the most beautiful thing in the world. I had long given up hope on ever learning even the basics of Dimension magic, and even with my newfound resolve I had fully expected to fail, but now I’d proven that I could do it.
And my previous inability hadn’t even been my fault. That construct had been placed there deliberately, there was no explanation otherwise. And again, I returned to the same question. Why?
My inability to wield Dimension mana had been with me from the start, so the construct must have been added before I joined the Academy. But why would anyone bother to cripple a random kid’s magic? Was I wrong, and could it have been a natural side effect of my conduit opening?
And this was already my second soul construct discovery in the same week. Between the shackles and the soul well, and the device in my conduit, I was beginning to think that soul tampering was more common than I had believed.
It could have been a coincidence. Strictly speaking, it was the likeliest option. But I wasn’t ready to let the matter of souls rest without a proper investigation. I needed to investigate more souls, but at the same time, “Dark Lord looking for volunteers for Soul experiments” did not look like a course likely to bring anyone forward.
I was afraid I would have to resort to less savory means, and I was worried about the consequences of going down a darker path. I still believed I held the moral high ground over the gods who had so unfairly branded me a sinner, but that would go down the drain if I truly became the thing they claimed I already was.
But I didn’t need to make this choice right now. I still had time, and there still were other options to consider.
A mental query to one of my wight guards informed me that I had spent the better part of four days in my silent meditation. That was always the risk with gazing inside a soul; time behaved very differently there.
I started in the direction of my tower, my poor mood washed away by the glee of Blinking all over the place as I made my way home.