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Chapter III - The Lure of Human Magic

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“The humans believed there were eight types of magic, which they referred to as schools.” Zehuti paced around the library, pausing at various piles of tomes as he called out the names of each school: “Alchemy, conjuration, elemental, illusion, necromancy, sorcery, thaumaturgy, and transmutation.”
Jarlen, standing in the center of the library, fidgeted and looked away. Why wasn’t there a chair or a bench in the room? As if the elder had heard his thoughts, Zehuti pointed at Jarlen’s feet and chanted a quick song. Beneath the young Arboreal, slender branches rose from the floor and twisted around one another, forming a tiny stool with a leafy seat, contoured to provide extra comfort.
“They probably would have added Arboreal magic as a ninth school if they were given the chance,” said Zehuti, “but I’d classify our songs as a combination of alchemy, conjuration, illusion, and transmutation. Unfortunately, my knowledge of Arboreal ways didn’t make it easier for me to learn human magic.”
“Which schools have you mastered?” asked Jarlen, taking his seat.
“I’ve studied a bit about them all.” Zehuti weaved around the piles of books. “Some proved easier to learn than I expected, and a few, such as transmutation, were so difficult that I only have a basic understanding of the subject. It’s puzzling how the humans mastered such complex wizardry in their short lives.”
He returned to the center of the room. “Would you like a demonstration?”
“Haven’t I waited long enough?” Jarlen sat up straight and smiled. Despite what his master had said, human magic was unlike anything the Arboreals could do.
Zehuti patted his clothing and spun around in confusion. “Most human mages wore robes with dozens of pockets for spell components,” he said. “I tried to wear similar clothing, but it was too cluttered. Don’t touch anything while I fetch a few items.”
After his master disappeared into the floor, Jarlen hopped off the stool and circled the room. Sturdy branches protruded from the walls at even intervals, forming scores of shelves holding hundreds of books and scrolls. There wasn’t a branch free for one more item.
Jarlen stopped in front of the section containing human books, held in place by special cradles of interwoven branches. The old tomes, preserved through traditional Arboreal methods, were wrapped in brown leaves as hard as leather. Although the protective outer layer hid the cover of each book, the archivist had etched the title along the spine and organized the shelves by school of magic. Jarlen leaned closer, reading one title after another. He didn’t know what he was looking for, but he couldn’t stop.
“I see we share an interest in human books,” said Zehuti, rising through the floor.
Startled, Jarlen fell backward onto the stool, his cheeks turning bright red. With a grin, the older Arboreal placed his hand on the wall and chanted a quick tune. The space below the lowest shelf expanded and a few branches stretched out, forming a new shelf. Zehuti positioned four leaf pouches on the new shelf, scanned the row of books just above his head, and selected a particularly thick volume.
“This is a good subject for you to begin.” He handed the heavy tome to Jarlen. “Thaumaturgy is one of the few schools I’ve mastered.”
“Thaumaturgy?” echoed Jarlen.
“The study of blessings, divinations, and miracles.”
Jarlen looked at his master with a questioning glance. “Do you believe in miracles?”
The old Arboreal laughed. “I was given you as an apprentice. Isn’t that proof?”
Jarlen grudgingly accepted the large book.
“As you’ll notice,” said Zehuti, “most of the writing is an ancient form of Arboreal. With short life spans and an inability to create written materials lasting more than a century, it’s inconceivable that the humans preserved our language for so long. I’d like study the divergence of our two races someday, but I’m afraid it’s too late.”
“There might still be a few humans left.”
Zehuti opened the book. The heavy cover creaked backward, revealing thin pages reinforced with strands of black and tan silk, expertly woven to match the original lettering.
“A book this large would have taken months to prepare,” said Jarlen, running his finger over the stitching. “Did you do all of these yourself?”
“Those days were well-spent. I learnt the subject at the same time,” said Zehuti. “In addition to my knowledge of their magic, I doubt there’s another Arboreal more experienced in the preservation of human artifacts. For some reason, they preferred short-lived materials on which to store their knowledge. They should have come to us for help.”
Jarlen flipped through the pages, but Zehuti put his hand in the way with a subtle shake of his head.
“Do you have any other relics?” asked Jarlen.
“Before I show you anything else, you have much to learn. Don’t you think there’s enough in here to occupy your time for a spring or two?”
Jarlen closed the book. “I suppose—if I were forced to read everything in this room.”
“You shouldn’t consider this a chore. I’ve spent my entire life building this library,” said Zehuti. “Not only did I strengthen each page, letter, and symbol one at a time, but I scoured the countryside searching for these valuable artifacts. I wish I’d had more time to continue my travels.”
“Will I be able to travel across the land as well?” asked Jarlen. He was willing to read every word in the room for the opportunity to see the mountains or the ocean. Anything except trees would be interesting.
Zehuti patted him on the back. “I know how you feel. Otha and I spent several springs living in the mountains with the Teruns. Had I been more interested in metals or minerals, I could have spent a lifetime with them. Instead, the empty human towns drew my curiosity.”
“Did your friends tease you about your obsession with the humans?”
“I don’t regret spending so much time deciphering their writings and working with their fragile materials,” said Zehuti. “Contrary to what most Arboreals think, there’s much for us to learn from them: about our history, about the animals and races with whom we share this world, and even about our own forests.”
Jarlen giggled. “Do you dare imply that the Arboreals, undisputed masters of plants, aren’t all-knowing? That would only serve to spawn more vicious rumors.”
Zehuti smiled back at him. “The humans certainly didn’t have all the answers, but their collective experience could fill gaps in our knowledge. Recently I read about a plant they farmed that doesn’t occur naturally in this world. They bred the seedlings for desired qualities, similar to what we do when growing our houses. If I have the time, I’ll search for wild descendants of those crops.”
The young Arboreal thumbed through the book again. The pages, stiff but not brittle, contained symbols he didn’t recognize.
“Do you approve of the subject?” asked Zehuti.
Jarlen paused on a difficult page. After studying the words for a few minutes, he noticed their similarity to the current Arboreal language.
“Is this the symbol for eyes?” he asked, pointing at the middle of the page.
“That’s a good guess, but it refers to vision,” said Zehuti. “The symbol has a dual meaning, as you can see by the words around it. Often, scanning a page quickly yields nonsense. To understand the writing, you mustn’t rush through the text. Spend extra time looking for relationships between the words and noting their location on each page.”
Zehuti reached upward to grab a branch on the ceiling, but Jarlen stopped him. “I’m still waiting to see human magic. Isn’t that why you brought the four pouches?”
With an enthusiastic nod, Zehuti pulled a handful of brightly colored flower petals out of the first pouch. Scattering them in a circle by his feet, he knelt on the floor and chanted, “Sceawian hererinc hwider nua.”
Slowly, the petals swirled. Reds, yellows, pinks, and purples circled one another, blending into beautiful spirals. Zehuti chanted for another minute and stared at the patterns forming while the motion slowed.
“Otha’s preparing birch root stew for dinner,” he said. “One of my favorites.”
Jarlen stretched his arms and yawned. “I knew what she was preparing from the sweet smell in the air, and even I can cause flowers to dance around. Perhaps human magic is less useful than you think. Watch me animate the petals with a simple song.”
He pointed downward and chanted a lively tune. The petals rose off the floor, fluttered briefly, and disintegrated into dust. With a grunt of disappointment, he kicked the remnants of the petals.
“Don’t underestimate thaumaturgy, Jarlen. Although relatively easy to learn, it can provide valuable insights, but perhaps you’ll find this next spell more interesting.”
Zehuti removed a handful of small stones from another pouch and chanted, “Stan hlifian, fleogan stan.”
At first, nothing happened, but soon the stones sprang from Zehuti’s outstretched hand. While he sang, the stones circled his fingers twice and dropped to the floor. He tried again, singing the words with several different rhythms, but the rocks didn’t budge. Turning his head away from Jarlen, the old Arboreal dropped the stones into the pouch.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “they were supposed to—”
“That was amazing,” said Jarlen.
He snatched the pouch from Zehuti, emptied it into his palm, and examined each of the stones. “They hovered above your hand and danced around your fingers. How did you do it?”
“It was an elemental spell of earth that took three months to learn,” said Zehuti. “You should have seen the damage I caused when I began my training. Would you like another demonstration?”
Jarlen nodded enthusiastically as he returned the stones to his master.
Zehuti opened a third pouch, poured a small pile of black powder onto a large leaf, and removed a smooth gray stone from the last pouch. “Maete brond,” he chanted.
Nothing happened. Jarlen took a step closer, wrinkling his nose at the faint smell of sulfur.
Zehuti repeated the chant, varying his volume and tone each time. “Maete brond. Maete brond. Maete brond.”
The black powder burst into flames. Jarlen leapt backward to avoid burning his face. Zehuti threw the flaming leaf into the air and danced around the chamber, waving his arms in the air.
“I’ve mastered fire,” he shouted. “After five springs, I finally control all four elements. We must celebrate. Otha, my willow, come here.”
The leaf floated to the floor and ignited a thin branch. Jarlen jumped forward and stamped out the fire before it spread to the rest of the chamber.
“Is this what happened in the room with the charred walls?”
His master twirled around the library.
“How can you dance when your tree nearly went up in flames?” Jarlen grabbed his master by the shoulders and held him steady. “You could have lost all the artifacts. None of them can be replaced.”
“Many thanks for attending to the fire,” said Zehuti when he’d calmed down. “Sometimes I’m so excited by a discovery that I forget the danger. I’m lucky you’re my apprentice.”
He opened the thaumaturgy book to the first chapter. “All this excitement has given me an appetite. Begin your studies while I sample some of that delectable stew. Otha will bring your meal down soon.”
He scooped up the burnt leaf and climbed through the ceiling, calling for his wife.
Jarlen glanced at the chapter, titled “Omens and Signs.” At first the writing on the page was unintelligible, but he persevered, examining each symbol until he deciphered the ancient words. He continued through the pages, chanting to himself. When he reached the end of the chapter, he slammed the book shut and strolled around the room until he found a more interesting section: necromancy.
Grabbing a thick catalog of alchemical components, Jarlen skimmed through the pages, but he couldn’t recognize a single word or symbol. He shoved the book onto the shelf and tried another, titled Protection from Spirits. Again, the contents were incomprehensible, but there were many drawings of circles, stars, and triangles. Jarlen traced the shapes with his finger, wondering what they represented. The rustle of leaves from above caused him to jump. He returned the book to its shelf and scampered to his seat.
Otha appeared, carrying a leaf bowl filled with an aromatic stew.
“Were you looking for something in particular?” she asked. “Or were you avoiding your studies?”
“Zehuti only told me to read the first chapter,” said Jarlen. “It was easy enough.”
“I doubt a single chapter would make you an expert on any subject,” said Otha, tilting her head toward the necromancy section. “Are you certain there was nothing else in here that caught your attention?”
Jarlen followed her gaze toward the necromancy books. Was she able to read his mind?
“I miss my parents,” he said. “Maybe the humans knew how to contact the dead.”
Otha set the leaf bowl beside the thaumaturgy tome. “Even if the humans possessed such knowledge, it’s best to leave the dead to their own world. Their bodies might have returned to the soil, but their spirits are never far if we keep them in our minds.”
“You don’t know what it’s like to watch your mother die of old age while you’re still a child.” He wiped a tear from his cheek.
“No, I don’t,” said Otha, “but losing someone you’ve known for hundreds of springs also brings great sorrow. Everyone must eventually experience the death of a parent, a sibling, a friend or, even worse, a child. I find it helpful to overwhelm the sadness with joyful memories of our loved ones. Try to remember your favorite moments with your mother, and you’ll feel as close to her as you ever did.”
“I can’t,” said Jarlen. “Whenever I think of my mother, I only see her withered body lying helpless on a branch. Why did humans have to have such short lives?”
“Clear your mind of those terrible visions.” Otha stroked his hair. “Whether through meditation, study, or play, it’s within your ability to control your thoughts.”
“When I try to clear my mind, the image of her only becomes stronger. It takes over my thoughts and haunts me for days.”
“Perhaps I can help you strengthen your will,” said Otha. “While you learn about human magic from Zehuti, I’ll teach you a few Arboreal secrets.”
Jarlen took a bite of the stew. “This is delicious.”
He returned to the thaumaturgy book while Otha climbed through the ceiling, but as soon as she was gone, his eyes drifted back to the necromancy section. When he spotted a smaller text titled The Fundamentals of Necromancy, he opened the new book on top of the one he was reading. The pages were difficult to decipher, but he spent extra time studying each symbol, determined to succeed. He continued reading past sunset.
Before long, he heard Otha’s voice through the ceiling. “It’s getting dark, young one. Midnight will soon be upon us. Return to your room and meditate. We’ll begin our training tomorrow.”
A few minutes later, Zehuti called out to remind him of the time, but Jarlen was too engrossed in the necromancy book to listen. He finished another chapter, straining to see the pages. As the room grew black, the sounds of the forest changed from the singing of birds and the chattering of monkeys to the croaking of frogs and the buzzing of insects. He didn’t notice when his eyes closed and the walls of the room faded away.
Jarlen stood in an open countryside surrounded by farmland. There wasn’t a single tree in any direction. On the eastern horizon, the tips of majestic castles touched the sky, and to the west, the sun scorched the barren wastelands. Nearby, humans planted their crops, fed their animals, and built small houses of wood and stone. They were unaware of his presence.
“Greetings,” he shouted, but no one responded. “Are you humans? I have some questions for you.”
He walked toward them, but each step brought him no closer. Suddenly, the humans looked up in horror. The desert had begun to move, inching its way eastward. Massive sand dunes rose and fell like waves on the ocean, inundating the cultivated fields. Simultaneously, the great forests of the south, initially too distant to see, grew northward.
Thousands of trees sprang from the ground. Oaks, lindens, and hemlocks crashed through roofs, splitting houses apart; roots rose and wrapped around the farm animals, dragging them into the soil; and the crops of carefully tended vegetables turned into weeds. The humans scattered, disappearing from the landscape.
“Where did you go?” Jarlen called out. “Don’t leave me.”
Terrified, he ran northward to distance himself from the growing threats, but they surrounded him. The badlands and the forests expanded until they collided with each other, trapping Jarlen in the middle. The young Arboreal, alone in the world, closed his eyes and screamed as loudly as he could.
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