Tag Archives: magic

The Means Condemn the End

A post in which I contemplate something related to tabletop roleplaying games. Roll a Wisdom saving throw with a DC of 16; on a failure, you’re a geek (Level 5).

In my recent return to tabletop RPGs, I’ve joined some Facebook groups, discussed ideas with gamer friends, and watched some Youtube videos–both of live-streamed games and thoughts on how to run the game better.

One topic caught my eye: someone suggested the possibility of a “good” necromancer character, which triggered a lot of discussion. Shortly after reading the back-and-forth, I chatted with a co-worker about an upcoming group. “I’m thinking necromancer,” she said, which led to further discussion of the idea. The next day, I spotted a panel of experienced players covering a variety of topics, including:

Is necromancy inherently evil?

If you’re not familiar with games like Dungeons & Dragons, first off, it’s not the gilded double-door into a witches’ coven or a neon-lit path into Satanism. Players take on the role of a hero or heroine in a fantasy setting: perhaps the beefy fighter or barbarian (think Aragorn, Eowyn or Conan), or a bearded wizard (Gandalf or Dumbledore). Maybe they choose a stealthy rogue or burglar (Bilbo Baggins, maybe Arya Stark) or someone with the power to heal (Elrond or Galadriel). One person plays the rest of the fantasy world… everything from the squire polishing armor to the great personalities like Jamie Lannister, Queen Cersei, and King Joffrey… all the bad guys, from the unnamed scrub Bandit #3 to the White Walkers to Ramsay Bolton and even Danaerys’ dragons.

In a game like this, monsters lurk around every corner, many of them with civilized faces to mask their dark hearts. In a game like this (usually), magic is real and so are the gods and goddesses who grant divine power to their faithful.

In a game like this, a wizard or other magic-user might even learn how to raise the dead and command the skeletons or zombies produced to fight for him or her.


It’s likely that if you’re reading this, you know all that already, so I’ll stop explaining the concepts and get back to the question:

Can there be such a thing as a “good” necromancer?

In other words, like the title suggests, in a game like D&D, are there some methods or powers that you cannot possibly justify using for noble purposes?

I flipped on the YouTube video of the discussion panel and skipped to the part about necromancy, hoping for some unique twists to add to my own ideas. To my surprise, all the participants shot the idea down without hesitation.

The best argument pointed out that in all societies, grave-robbing and defiling burial grounds are strongly forbidden and frowned upon. It’s kind of a universal rule. That being the case, one expects some severe consequences for any necromancer–a person who uses magic to animate the dead bodies of ancestors or loved ones. I think that’s a valid point and a consideration for how other characters in-game would interact with such an oddity. Fair point.

But then it devolved to “That’s just boring, lame character building.”  “A necromancer is evil just like paladins are lawful good.”  “It doesn’t make any sense–why in the would she do this?” One guy’s whole argument was “Necromancers are evil, because I ran a game with a guy who played one as the stereotypical ‘muahaha I shall make a city of undead and rule over it.’ And that dude was a jerk–I mean, apart from being a necromancer, he just was a bad person in game.”

I strongly disagree with all of these points, and not just because the idea of the good necromancer inspired a character and some creative writing. (I posted a scene with Fleuris earlier.)

I also think these points are poor arguments. So let me tackle these in order:

Good Necromancer is boring. Lame character building. 

Sure, if you want to create something that follows cookie-cutter norms. I suppose “the generous thief” or “the intelligent barbarian” or “the conflicted paladin” would also be lame.

Playing a character that doesn’t quite fit a stereotype–or rather, outright challenges it–can lead to fantastic role-playing moments.

In my first campaign, I had a player who rolled random dice for every decision about the character he was making. He ended up a Dwarf Paladin of Nature… something that doesn’t really fit the standard fantasy tropes. It made his backstory come alive–an outcast from his clan because of his strange religious views, a perfect ally to the husband and wife pair of elf rangers in the party, a hero with a cause to champion and built-in conflict a DM can exploit–er… use to craft interesting encounters.

Similarly, I had a player running a rogue in one campaign who, on our downtime, would tell me what his character was doing in the city. While his allies were off pursing personal goals and looking for leads on the next big score, the rogue would donate half his earnings to the orphanage that took him in as a child, and volunteer time with the kids. No one knew this was going on “in game” because it happened in messages and emails. His party members even got to the point of joking about how “you know how the rogues are, always sneaking some money and pick pocketing their way through the market.” But he played the most generous and selfless character I’ve seen in a campaign.

Yeah, playing against type is super lame. Don’t do it.

Of course there may be role-playing consequences. Not everyone will welcome a necromancer with open arms. Not everyone will buy the idea that “I’m using these powers for good.” But that’s all part of the fun and the conflict which makes RPGs great.

A necromancer is automatically evil, like paladins are automatically good.

One flaw in that statement: Depending on the edition of the game, paladins aren’t inherently good. If you’re devoted to an evil or chaotic deity, you probably lean toward Chaotic or Evil alignments. If a “good” deity can grant their champions powers and favor, so can a bad one. Paladins are just a mechanic for describing a warrior who is committed to a cause and blessed with divine power to pursue that cause.

Similarly, necromancy is a tool… one traditionally associated with evil, perhaps, but still a tool. But this logic is lost on some. One of the DMs in the YouTube video actually argued as follows:

“It just doesn’t make sense. Here you are, going after the evil necromancer, and the guy walking along next to you is a necromancer?”

The flaw in that logic is revealed when you substitute any class or archetype for “necromancer.” There are evil wizards, but the party doesn’t kill their resident magic-user before fighting an evil wizard. An evil cleric or assassin might be the villain in an encounter, but that doesn’t make the party cleric or rogue a villain.

Magic, like any class power, is a tool. How one uses it communicates more than the nature of the tool. A paladin who curb-stomps defenseless enemies because “they’re bad guys” isn’t what we’d call good. A necromancer that uses her powers to protect others and serve a noble cause shouldn’t be what we call bad.

It doesn’t make any sense.

For one, you’re in a fantasy setting. Nothing makes sense. Someone is channeling power into their weapon to deliver a blast of radiant power that damages the enemy. Someone else is waving their hands and becoming a human flame-thrower. Another person communes with supernatural entities that grant her otherworldly powers. But the necromancer trying to do something heroic? That, sir, is where I draw the line!

Necromancy used for “good” absolutely makes sense… if we try to consider how that can work. Imagine the noble who tells his subjects, “Our ancestors fought to establish this kingdom against all odds, spilling their very blood on the rocks where our city’s walls now stand. And now they return, ready to stand beside us, once again willing to take up arms against those who threaten all they worked to build!”

Imagine the party member whose personal quest, like Fleuris, is to find and raise the bodies of infamous villains or evildoers as part of their penance for their sins. Is it twisted, misguided, a little off? Yeah–and that’s what makes it great!

Guns don’t kill people, my horde of skeletal minions kill people.

Needless to say, I fall right into the camp that deems necromancy an amoral (okay maybe highly questionable) practice where what matters most is the end result. Use it to establish your undead army and create a necropolis to rule over? Evil. Use it to cleanse the necropolis and eliminate a growing threat to the nearby kingdom of goodly peoples? Good.

As in all things D&D, creativity and fun are what matter most. I’m having fun imagining Fleuris and the sorts of situations she might find herself in. I hope others are inspired to take a trope and turn it on its head… then run with it and see where the story leads.

What do you think?

Am I off course? Am I missing some key point? Let me know in a comment; I’d love to hear your point of view.

My Life’s Work – a #BlogBattle short story

Here’s my Blog Battle entry for this week, in the genre of fantasy, with the theme word of “selfie.”
I especially enjoyed writing something placed in my own fantasy setting from my novel Diffraction. 


Update: My Life’s Work tied for the winning story this week. Thank you for the votes! The other winning story is World Views by Carl Bystrom. Check his piece out, along with all the other BlogBattlers participating each week.

– – – 
I hear their voices long before I see them. Footfalls echo in the halls. Laughter and commentary resounds off the palace’s high ceiling and polished marble floors.

“Look at this piece,” the man says. “Astounding… like what a falcon in flight must see from on high over the City’s towers.” He sounds refined, educated, a man of wealth and relative ease. Probably one of the City’s many so-called Ministers–men and women whose title implies service, something of which they are invariably found only on the receiving end.

“So real,” his companion replies, her soft voice hushed in awe. “I
feel almost faint, as if I might fall through and plummet to my
death.” Too chipper for my taste, too airy. I imagine she’s the upper
class equivalent of dancing girls in the Outskirts–there for show,
not insight. Her voice calls to mind a songbird displayed in a cage,
able to delight for short durations, but insufferable if permitted to
make constant noise.

“Still better to you than the portraits?”

“Much,” she says. “I don’t like the faces. The landscapes at least are
magnificent.”

“Reminiscent of Serathil’s work,” the man says. “I know that’s what
they all say of Marwen’s paintings, but I had no idea the similarities
would be so striking.”

“Perhaps Marwen learned some of the same techniques… or more likely stole them.”

Or perhaps I fought for years to master my craft, you coddled child. What do you have that wasn’t given to you for no other reason than the fortune of your birth or the depth of your bosom?

And then I remember the Visitor years ago–his unhinged personality, inhuman predatory eyes, and alluring offer.

Why did I ever agree?

“Do you believe the stories about Serathil? How she captured such
lifelike scenes on canvas?”

The man shrugs. “The Abbey’s Devoted declare it was a gift of the
Divine, some blessing of Aulis that allowed Light to shine through her brush. But the Arcanists claim she used some form of Refocusing
technique, blending the elements into her portraits and landscapes.”

I’ve heard plenty of similar answers. I wish it were something so
simple, so pure.

This month, the Lord Mayor put my life’s work on display–a welcome opportunity for a better perspective. The Academy and Arcanists’ Hall each presented a few well-known examples, and Lord Peledor graciously brought forth several obscure pieces from his private collection. For the benefit of the commonfolk of Aulivar, they all said. But precious few commoners dare walk these halls. All I’ve seen so far are stiff-necked nobles and haughty elites of the upper class.

All of them say what I already know. Her work is so like Serathil, but not quite. Colorful, but less so. Vivid, almost as if the canvas
moves… but not as much as her masterpieces. Forever a step behind.

They don’t know the decades I spent trying to catch up. Days of
fasting, hours of fervent prayer, begging–pleading with the Divine to
grant me a touch of the same favor. I studied with failed Arcanists
and any Elemental willing to explain the secrets of magic. I spent
vast sums to learn what little they deigned to share–all for naught.

And would they even care? Does anyone recognize the effort that goes into an art form? Do they admire the discipline, the growth, the long transition from unskilled pieces no better than blotches of color to amateurish, misshapen portraits, then finally to lifelike scenery and recognizable faces? Perhaps I never reached Serathil’s perfection, but I’m confident no artist worked harder or did more than me with the raw ability granted her by the Divine.

One woman is born with an effortless gift that leads to inevitable
greatness and recognition. Another comes to the art without noticeable skill, but through constant effort and relentless discipline rises and improves to grasp at the master’s heels. Is that journey worth nothing? Must one surpass all others to be praised, or is it enough to improve beyond one’s present limitations?

I already know the answer to this.

Despite all my effort, my skill proved insufficient to garner public
awareness. But with the Visitor’s gift–the brush, its wood stained
and charred black like a log from the hearth.

For a moment, I feel my fists clench, the old fury building and
burning like bile in my chest. Every so often it strikes me that I can
still feel anything at all.

I try to avoid the eyes of the portraits around the room–the ones
that face me, at least. My best work, indeed, but also my worst. I
dare not dwell on it, but every time I behold one of those faces, the
rush of grief and guilt threatens to consume what’s left of my heart.

“Serathil’s methods are inscrutable,” the Visitor hissed so many years ago, his hand extending his dark gift. “Even to the best of your kind. But there are other ways to capture a… life-like, soul-full
quality.”

In the gallery, I watch the man lead his companion across the hall to
my most famous piece–Dawn Kisses the Snowtips. The ivory walls of Aulivar gleam and the City’s towers cast long shadows that seem to move with the viewer. Sunlight flares off white peaks on the horizon, and clouds shift in hue from crimson to amber to gold based on where one stands.

The woman gives a satisfied sigh. “Marked improvement, wouldn’t you say?”

“Yes,” her noble replies. “Consider the light shown here, the way it
sparkles off the windows of the City. Aulivar at the height of the
Alliance, centuries before this land fell from greatness.”

The woman looks around the gallery and shivers. “I like these faces
much less, though.”

“Why is that?”

“The resemblances are far better, yes. But… there’s a sadness when I look at them. They’re all wrong. See that despair in the eyes? Or
perhaps it’s anger. Most unnerving.”

“Not surprising, given the tragic stories behind some of these. That
one,” he says, pointing, “is the youngest daughter of an Aelwyner High Lord, painted when she received the sigil of Strength on Markday. She took ill not long after, and withered away before the year’s end.”

“Poor thing.”

“And this fine elder gentlemen? Grand Sage of the Academy. He
succumbed to dementia in the months that followed. Probably well on his way when this was commissioned.”

He strides toward the one I hate most. “The wedding of House Hallaben and House Veray, nobles who lived in Alathon during the time of the Magistrate. The city fell soon after, and their entire bloodlines spilled on the streets in the overthrow.”

They all stare out from the celebratory scene, not with the joy and
mirth I remember from that day, but eyes full of hatred. Eyes that
look straight at me, knowing, accusing, condemning.

I took pieces of their souls. I dealt them fatal wounds, my
brushstroke more deadly than the rebel swords that eventually finished what my painting began.

The woman shudders and turns my way. “What about this one?”

“Marwen herself,” he says, examining me. “Her final portrait–an
unclaimed commission at that. Typical arrogance, devoting her finest
work to her own image. They found her dead in her studio, with the
paint still wet.”

“Do you think the tears are for what she never achieved, always
sitting in Serathil’s shadow?”

He strokes his chin. “Or perhaps for all she might have done, given
more time to capture the beauty of the subjects who came before her.”

—-

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– Dave

I Like to Make Drawrings

So I got the first part of Chapter 1 of DIffusion critiqued in my writers’ group. And while I am pleased with the feedback, the magic confused one reader who hasn’t read book 1. (Diffraction, available here, shameless plug!) 

The primary magic is Refocusing, where the four Aristotlean elements (earth, water, air, fire) are transformed from one into another. Some elemental shifts are complementary – air turns into fire pretty smoothly, with minimal loss of energy. Others are contradictory – fire to water and vice versa, for example. These conversions waste significant energy, so the amount of the end result is the amount you start with, cut in half or more.

Additionally there are two secondary elements produced by combining two primaries: magelight (fire and air), and shadow (earth and water). 

The impression my crit group member got was that I had written something like Avatar, where one learns to bend a particular element only. I obviously have some clarification to do in the writing so that the idea of transforming one element into another comes through clearly.

But I thought there might be other ways to convey this information.

I love books that include art or “scholarly perspectives” on aspects of the story. Sanderson has been doing this with his Stormlight Archives, and it’s awesome. To me, that level of detail helps reinforce the idea that this is a coherent world.

One of my favorite hobbies is drawing to pass the time. So I took a couple hours and whipped up an artist’s rendition of sorts for the elemental continuum in my fantasy series.

Starting from the top left, Aqua, Aera, Flagros, Terros, with Tenebrae on the left side and Lux on the right (plus Lyllithe’s strange Void in the center)

I still have some annotations to add… maybe a couple arrows or connections showing which elements are contradictory… and I’ll have to fix the parts where the top sheet of paper sticks up from the bottom layer. (The perils of drawing with pen instead of pencil, I suppose. I finished the outer parts without any deal-breakers, then totally botched the magelight on the right side and had to start those parts over. 

Still, overall I’m happy with this and intend for it to be close to Chapter 1 in the eventual print version of Diffusion. 

Problem As Solution

In my experience, there are some questions a fantasy writer is told to ask themselves right from the start. And one of the most important is: What is different or unique about my setting?

What is it that sets the world I’ve created apart from any or every other fantasy work? 

In other words, “Give me a reason to pick up this book.”

So much has been done before that it’s hard to come up with an idea that feels original. When you say, “elemental magic,” people say, “Like Avatar?” When you talk about rampaging hordes of savages, people say, “Like the Reavers in Serenity?” Bring up corrupted, shadowy creatures, and D&D players ask about displacer beasts or doppelgangers. And that’s without the standard sword-and-sorcery tropes that conjure images of Lord of the Rings, World of Warcraft, and countless other fantasy settings.

How does a writer set their world apart? How do you highlight what’s different?

I knew I had a few differences I really liked: a religious system of Gracemarks that bestow divine power, a system of elemental magic fused with a material or technological component, and a problem of a broken world where rifts of chaotic energy twist creatures into corrupted, destructive versions of themselves.

  
In the process of revising and tightening my first fantasy novel Diffraction, it hit me that what I liked most in fantasy settings wasn’t the sort of book that called all kinds of attention to “Look how strange and fantastic this is.”

Much love to Narnia, but I didn’t want a ‘magic wardrobe’ book or some “fish out of water” contrivance like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

What hooks me in worldbuilding done by authors like Sanderson is how the unique quality of the setting is adapted and utilized as a part of the world.

Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives is a great example. The world is ravaged by frequent powerful storms, and almost every living thing has adapted in some way to this rather negative quality. At the same time, gemstones gather energy from these highstorms, creating sources of magic power as well as a monetary system (the larger and better quality of gem, the more stormlight it holds, thus the more valuable it is). And this stormlight fuels both magic and the limited technology of the world. 

In other words, it’s all connected. The unique “problem” in the setting also serves an important purpose and acts as a solution of sorts to other questions. It’s a testament to human determination, survival instinct, and ingenuity.

As I thought about the various unique qualities I liked for Diffraction, I realized something very similar from a worldbuilding perspective would work in this setting. 

The rifts of energy that cause trouble by corrupting animals into powerful forces of destruction are also the source of magically-enhanced conductive metals necessary for the religious orders and Arcanists’ Hall to function. What’s a problem from one perspective is a solution from another. It feels more natural, since things in our day-to-day lives are rarely entirely good or bad. More often, the critical factor is how we react to the circumstances around us.

This to me feels like a natural way to look at a fantastic setting. It’s less about “what kind of quirk can I put into the world to make it special” and more about making a world that feels real… despite the quirks that set it apart from the worlds of other novels, and from our own.

Diffraction is available in Kindle Edition and as a paperback from Amazon. You can find it (and my other books) on my author page.

Reverse Engineered Magic

Last year, I made it my goal to get my forever-in-progress fantasy novel out the door as a finished book. Diffraction is the result of all that effort (most of it at the beginning of the year, when I set out to finish it, and at the end when I felt under the crunch to make good on the promise).

A while back, I spent just over two hours walking on the treadmill and digging through alpha reader feedback to figure out how to approach what seemed like a daunting task: Revision and Editing.

The good news? It wasn’t as daunting as I expected.

Even more fun, I engaged in further world-building to sort out some of the relationships and conflicts going on in the story.

To my critical eye, it felt like too much jammed into one setting–too many separate and unrelated elements all vying for a reader’s attention. 

Like many fantasy worlds, Diffraction is set in the ruins of a once-great Empire, whose scientists incorporated elemental magic with a form of technology in order to reach its heights. It’s also a world that experiences limited yet direct interaction with the Divine, whose seven Aspects bestow symbols of power upon their most worthy adherents.

As I sat back to imagine a world where gods prove their existence to men and where magic-users apply some level of scientific thought and experimentation into the use of their powers, I realized these can be complimentary elements of the setting rather than competitors. 

My religious orders gain divine power through Gracemarks: a radiant, metallic symbol on an individual’s right hand that represents which ideal or Aspect they identify with. Gracemarks often appear spontaneously, bestowed by the Divine. But the orders can also apply a Gracemark made of a blessed metal, which confers similar powers upon the marked person. 

 

A double Gracemark of Light (the horizontal line and above) and Strength (the horizontal line and below–a rudimentary figure lifting a burden overhead)
 
A world with obvious divine interaction would reflect that in the culture. If many people wear a symbol that implies something significant about their individual values, then displaying the back of the right hand like a wave would reasonably become a common form of greeting. 

If you show me a symbol of Justice and Order, I expect you to treat people fairly and uphold the law. Showing me a blank hand might not give me a stereotypical box to fit you in, but neither does it mean I assume you’re untrustworthy. Showing a hand with a scar in the shape of a Gracemark — that tells me to be on guard, because here’s an individual who once had a specific, public moral allegiance and forsook it.

On the other hand, I always meant for magic to have a technological component. Humans need a special lens to see the arcane energies they use for any magical ability. But that only allows one to see and draw on magic. So (based on some thoughtful alpha reader feedback) I added an output device to match the input of the lens – a metal etching that guides or focuses the energy the magic user sends forth.

Given human propensity to take what exists and use it in new ways, it hit me that these Arcanists would study Gracemarks used by the religious orders, then create a similar method or means to use their own abilities. Using conductive metals, touched and transformed by the magical nature of the world, Arcanists would have etchings that grant them fine control of magic power. 

Like any good reverse-engineered technology, improvements can adapt the tech to the new user’s needs. Picture a golden tattoo, placed anywhere on the body. Unlike a Gracemark that is always on the right hand, always exposed, the Arcanist’s etching can be hidden if desired. This fits their character more as well. If you want to be brazen and show off your etching, you certainly can. But if you’d rather keep your abilities hidden, a simple pair of spectacles and a covered etching prevents anyone from guessing you’re about to tap into elemental energies and unleash devastating magic.

Thus the effort to clarify how divine power and magic work in this setting becomes a means of character development and description. 

I picture a rough-and-tumble tough guy whose Ocular is a monocle secured by a leather band around his shaved head. His riftgold etching is affixed to his face in a sunburst around his eyepiece. He’s an Arcanist thug, and he doesn’t care if you know it.  That’s a very different character from the rich noble who wears the Ocular equivalent of a contact lens, practically invisible, and whose etching is hidden from view on his right shoulderblade. 

The best part is that this system of Gracemarks and Arcanist etchings is something a reader can see themselves in, much like “which house would I join in Hogwarts?” or “which faction would I belong to in Divergent?”  One of my co-workers who is also a fan gave me some feedback, and one of the first things she said was she enjoyed trying to decide which Gracemark she’d choose. 

I’m chalking it up as a successful concept.

Diffraction is available in Kindle Edition and as a paperback on Amazon. You can find it (and all my books) at my author page.

Diffraction Chapter Seven: Playing with Fire

In preparation for publishing, I’ve been posting chapters from my fantasy novel, Diffraction. They’re also available on WattPad here

————

Peace extended unto all, no matter friend or foe.

    A soft breeze plucked the scent from hillside wildflowers and wafted down the gentle slope into the trees. At the edge of a clearing, leaves rustled and long grass waved around Lyllithe’s shins. Today she wore plain brown linen pants and a thin cotton shirt that left her arms exposed under a worn leather vest emblazoned front and back with the Sun emblem of Aulis, the Divine Aspect of Light. 
    You never know when you might be called upon as a Devoted, Marten often taught. Your powers are a gift. It would be shameful and selfish to hide them.
    Lyllithe frowned at the mental lecture. Yes, Father, like how we cower in the Abbey’s safety instead of facing evil in the real world.
    Once again, she surveyed her surroundings, reveling in the beauty. Her father loved to warn against entering the forest and mountains beyond the Woodwall. Plagued by bandits, they say. But there are worse creatures than greedy Scarred men. Lyllithe could hear him scoff in her mind. You might find a pack of Shade-wrought to devour your soul in darkness. Or even some of the Kem, granted power through the curse of the Daemons.
    Lyllithe glanced about the clearing. Butterflies flitted around a cluster of Elith-Eyes in bloom. That speech worked when I was five summers old. 
    No one had seen any Kem around Northridge in her lifetime. And although rumors from other parts of the Bordermarches spoke of increased Shade sightings, even old Stam admitted he’d never heard of one in the area.
    No, Father, it’s the Scarred men I worry about. Men who could have been noble, who bore Gracemarks once, but forsook their Aspects and the teachings of their faith. A Shade was a twisted creature, but that was its nature. A man with a Scar was corrupted by choice.
    She glanced down at the glowing symbol on her right hand. Three months dabbling in the Arcane, and I still fear I might wake up Scarred one day. Surely it would have happened by now, if magic truly meant abandoning the Light.
    The cool wind struck her pale glistening skin and tempered the strength of noon’s sun. She took a deep breath, then sighed. This isn’t why you’re out here, fool girl. 
    The stump of a fallen tree stuck out of the ground a dozen paces away. She stared at it as if expecting it to spring to life. 
    “Do not see by the light,” she recited, picturing the pages of the book Davon gave her three months ago. “See Light itself.”
    The air seemed to shimmer. Lyllithe saw rainbow strands pulsating, stretching down like an intricate web from the sky. She exerted her will on several near the stump, drawing the energy into herself. That side of the clearing dimmed for a moment. Refocus the energy. Take it, twist it, turn it, throw it.
    Power coursed through Lyllithe’s nerves. Her body trembled at first, then shook. Like fingers held too close to a flame, the initial comforting warmth shifted into pain which soon became unbearable.
    She chose flagros—fire—and squinted at the stump. A jet of flame appeared in the air before her. It streaked across the path of her vision and struck the wood with a thunderclap, shattering the stump into splinters. The brightness returned, revealing a jagged crater of wood. Smoking fragments rained down around the clearing.
    Lyllithe grinned and rocked on her heels. I can Bind an element, change it to another, and Loose it. She practiced thinking in proper terms the Arcanists used. 
She watched the strands of fire vanish. Nice to get something good out of my elemental heritage for a change. Pureblood humans like Davon could not Bind without the use of an Ocular, but Lyllithe needed no aid to see the elemental energies available all around her. 

Maybe being a half-blood Ghostskin isn’t entirely bad.

    She analyzed her attempt, and remembered the pain. “What is Bound must be Loosed,” Davon’s book stated. Binding could only be held for short periods before the user had to release it. You can only hold one Binding at a time, and that not for long. Seems rather limiting.
    Lyllithe paced around the smoking stump, assessing the damage. Davon seemed to think Binding light would be easy for me. Now what can I create when I Loose it? 
    The breeze picked up, and Lyllithe blinked to clear her vision from the strands of light. She looked for air next, and faint swirls of aera like unwound yarn appeared around her, shifting gently. She reached out with her mind, imagining plunging her fingers into the jumble. Her mental grasp closed around a handful of the transparent yarn, and she tugged. 
    Take it, twist it. A pleasant sensation filled her for a few seconds before growing more violent. She shuddered from phantom pinpricks all over her skin. Then it seemed her veins pumped acid that would burst out if not released. Turn it. Refocus it into lux. You can do this.
    Every Arcanist had an affinity for one element above all others. Drawing on the energy of that element was considered the easiest task, ideal for beginners. The book stated that converting other elements into one’s affinity is for those with greater skill and experience. 
    I do love a challenge. 
    She gritted her teeth and struggled to create light, pushing with all her will. But it felt like trying to jam mismatched puzzle pieces together.
    The strain overwhelmed her, and she lost control. A brief spray of water burst over the clearing, centered above Lyllithe’s head. She gasped at the sudden chill. The aera shifted into aqua, its natural complementary element. Droplets sizzled when they hit the smoking ruin of the tree stump.
    I can get this to work. 
    She grabbed more of the invisible yarn of air, twisting gently at first, then building up in force. Wind seemed to rush into the space in front of her, ruffling her clothes and hair. She wrung the strands together with one final effort. A ball of light appeared in her hands.
    Lyllithe laughed despite the growing pain of Bound energy. Throw it!
    She thrust her hands up into the sky. An almost invisible sphere flew into the air. Trees and clouds shimmered as it passed. When it reached its peak, the light around the ball rushed into the center, creating a glimmer in the middle of a translucent globe of shade. In a heartbeat, the compressed light exploded. A wave of force rippled out from the blast. 
    Like a star, bursting in the night sky.
    Lyllithe repeated the process three more times, sending starbursts up into the air, each one bigger than the last. On the fourth attempt, she reached out for more aera, and— 
     What is that?
    Somewhere, what she could only describe as in the distance in her mind, there was a sensation of something other. A deep power, vast and unmoving. All elements flow in some way, but this is stationary. Stagnant. 
    She tried to focus her mind on it, but a wave of nausea struck her and the feeling dissipated. When she turned her attention back to the aera, the sensation of unknown power returned. Like seeing something out the corner of my eye. 
    Her first instinct was to call it darkness. But Davon clearly stated that darkness didn’t actually exist; it was merely absence of light.
    This exists. This is a thing. 
    And yet it felt like a void, a great heavy mass of emptiness. So much power there.
    She reached out to take hold, careful to avoid direct focus on the mysterious source. Her mind brushed the surface—
    Lyllithe screamed and thrashed on the ground. Her body ached, like claws scratched within her chest out into every extremity, tearing flesh along the way. She rolled over and vomited into the grass. 
    Oh, Light, what… what was that?
    Her weak, shaking muscles pushed against the dirt. She struggled to an upright position, supported by one knee. There are clearly some things for which I need guidance. 
    A branch snapped near the edge of the treeline, and Lyllithe froze. Distant voices carried on the breeze met her ears. 
    “Over this way, I’m sure of it.” A man’s voice, gruff, yet eager. 
    “You’re wasting time, Jek.” Another male, with an air of authority.
    “I tell you true, ’twas a woman that yelled,” Jek said. 
    More branches rustled. They’re getting closer. Lyllithe looked about for cover. I’m in the middle of a clearing. Where am I supposed to hide?
    The second man laughed. “You been in the woods too long, Jek. Go pay a visit to the hired girls in the Outskirts—maybe you’ll think clearer.” 
    “You saw it, Maz,” Jek said. “Heard it too. Those balls of shadow blowin’ up in the air.”
    Lyllithe scrambled away from the ruined stump. She reached the edge of the clearing opposite from the voices and dove into the thick grass near the trees.
    “If your woman-voice made those,” Maz said, “maybe we don’t want to meet her.”
    Jek laughed. “But killin’ an Arcanist is so much fun.”
    Between swaying blades of grass, Lyllithe watched two men step into the light. Jek, the laughing man, looked short but stocky, with arms and legs thick and hard like the trees he appeared from. His unkempt shock of brown hair extended into a coarse beard that hung halfway down his chest. Jek’s chainmail vest clinked with each step, and his right hand wrapped tight around the haft of a spiked hammer. 
    Maz had a slender frame draped in a cloak of furs. Black hair hung down to his eyebrows, and the stubble on his face was peppered with grey. Chainmail peeked out from beneath a leather jerkin, and two sheathed long knives hung off his belt.
    He put a boot onto the remains of the stump. “Lookit that.”
    Jek glanced at Maz, and his smile faded. His eyes darted around the clearing. “Why’s everything wet?”
    Maz shrugged and grabbed one of his knives. Sunlight revealed a rough scar like an inverted parasol on the back on his hand.
    Lyllithe choked down fear. He was a Soulforged once.
    Maz snapped a finger to get Jek’s attention and pointed at the ground.
    Jek nodded and drew close.
    Lyllithe made out the whisper. Footprints.
    The men took slow, quiet steps, approaching the treeline where Lyllithe hid.
    Panic struck. She watched their movements, desperate. I can’t use Refocusing on them. The Abbey forbids violence. I’ll become impure. Her eyes fixated on Maz’s scar. I could lose my Gracemark, just like him.
    Adrenaline coursed through her. No choice but to run before they get close. She took a slow breath, tensed up, and whispered a prayer. Light save me from my own stupidity.
    A birdcall nearby distracted the men. 
    Lyllithe took her chance. She sprang from the ground and started running, hoping to use the trees for cover.
    Jek shouted and gave chase.
    A whooshing sound made Lyllithe stop short, and one of Maz’s knives pinned her open vest to a tree with a thunk. She strained to get free of the vest, but the angle made it awkward.
    Jek closed the distance within seconds, whooping and waving the hammer at Lyllithe. “Where ya goin’, Ghostskin?” 
    Maz strode through the grass and produced another knife. 
    Lyllithe stopped struggling and glared at the men. “I am the daughter of the Eldest of Northridge, who will not permit—”
    Maz backhanded Lyllithe, a grim sneer on his face. 
    Lights exploded in her head.
    He held his scar before her face. “You see this? Don’t presume to tell me what’s permitted.”
    Light. I need the Light. Lyllithe reached for Divine power through her Gracemark, then stopped. What am I going to do, heal them?
    Jek grinned and grabbed Lyllithe’s throat. “Skin’s so soft, so white.” He set down the hammer and ran his finger across the emblazoned sun on her vest. “Never been with a Devoted.”
    His hot breath stank, and Lyllithe gagged.
    Maz shoved Jek aside. “I’m the Second, Jek. I get first pick of any spoils.”
    Lyllithe gasped for air. Air… aera… maybe I can Refocus. She sought the jumble of invisible yarn she’d seen before, ready to risk impurity to defend herself.
    Her concentration broke when Maz groped her. No… please… 
    Maz laughed and tugged at her shirt. Seams popped. Fabric rent. Tears fell.
    Lyllithe thrashed and clawed at the men, raking at them with her fingernails. Unfazed by her effort, Jek wrenched her arms behind her back and pressed her into the tree with his muscular body. 

    “You’re gonna like this,” Maz whispered as he stroked the point of her left ear.
    Straining against the men’s touch, Lyllithe’s body shook with wasted effort. She closed her eyes. At the edge of her consciousness, she felt the stagnant power from before. I can’t do anything with that. 
    Fingers grasped at her waistline, and fear burned in her chest. 
    Her awareness melted like wax before an inferno.
    A long silence passed.
    Birds started chirping. A gentle breeze blew through the grass. 
    A stench of blood and waste filled the air.
    Lyllithe opened her eyes. She lay on the ground looking up into the sky. The sun had moved almost a full hour.
    Something stirred. A man’s voice spoke, slurring like he’d just woke up. “Mark me,” he whispered in abject fear. “Oh, scarring Mark me. What did you do?” 
Lyllithe sat up and turned toward the sound. Jek, the laughing man.
Blood matted his hair and beard. Pink meaty chunks of flesh splattered and stuck in his chainmail. A severed scarred hand lay nearby. Jek wasn’t laughing anymore. 
    Lyllithe looked down. She remained fully clothed, but soaked with blood. One of Maz’s boots sat at her feet, his calf peeking out from the leather. No sign of his knee or anything above it. She quivered and stared, unblinking.
    “Th-th-the trees,” Jek sputtered. 
    For several paces, every tree bent or fell in a circle toward the bloody center where Maz was scattered in the grass.
    Jek struggled to his feet, pointing his thick shaking finger at Lyllithe. “You killed Maz. You killed Kal’s Second.” He looked around, jaw agape. “What—what kind of Cora-spawn are you, Ghostskin?”
    Teardrops cut lines through the blood on Lyllithe’s face. She looked up at Jek, his visage nearly as white as her own, and managed a whisper. “I don’t know.”
    Jek screamed and bolted, stumbling over broken trees and snapped branches. “Scar me, Kal’s gonna hear about this,” he shouted as he ran.
    Lyllithe remained frozen in place. I’ve killed. Somehow, I’ve murdered a man. The symbol of Aulis on her vest caught her eye. I’ll never be accepted as Devoted.
    Her father’s stern face appeared in her mind. What will he say? There’s no forgiving this. 
    Jek’s voice echoed through the trees. “You’re gonna suffer, Ghostskin.”
    Lyllithe stared down at the blood on her hands. I already am.

Diffraction Chapter Six: An Unexpected Gift

Generosity the seed from which new life may grow.

 Lyllithe stood frozen as the assembly dispersed. The Arcanist is staring at me, coming my way. What does he want with me? What does he know?

 Townsfolk moved in all directions about her like a stream flowing around a stone. Chatter erupted on all sides, but she could not focus on any particular voices. The night swallowed up most of Northridge except for the town square with its blazing bonfire at the center. Even that light seemed to dim while Lyllithe locked eyes with Master Davon Hachi.

 Her initial curiosity about magic turned to panic at the Arcanist’s approach. I need to go. It’s almost time for the Night Watch in the Abbey. I need to light the candles… need to be anywhere but here.

 She strained to move, but her body did not respond. What is going on? Her legs felt sluggish and heavy. She stumbled forward, and felt an unseen weight dragging behind her.

 The Arcanist strode up to Lyllithe, hands clasped behind his back, lips curved in a slight smile. “Good even, Devoted,” he said, reaching up to remove his monocle.

 “And to you, Master,” Lyllithe replied. Tell him you must go, she told herself. Nyalesee is waiting. The bell will toll soon. Go, now.

 Her body still refused her pleas.

 Davon glanced around at the villagers making their way home. “There’s one in every crowd,” he said as if to himself.

 “One what, Master?”

 His gaze turned back to Lyllithe and he smiled. “A dedicated pupil. A true student of the arcane arts. Not like the struggling sort we get at the Hall, the spoiled brats sent by nobles or men of power, only concerned with titles and accolades.”

 His eyes twinkled, and he rocked on his feet. “No, I mean someone who cares, who burns for knowledge.”

 Lyllithe cocked her head. What is he after? He knows I am a Devoted. She dipped her head in respect. “You praise me, thank you. But I am not interested in applying to the Hall, Master.”

 “Really? Don’t lie, dear.” Davon wagged a finger in jest. “I saw your wide eyes with each Refocusing I loosed on the crowd. I daresay you were enthralled.”

 Lyllithe paused, mouth open awaiting a response her mind did not provide.

 Master Hachi raised an eyebrow as if to declare victory.

 “What I mean is that I cannot apply,” Lyllithe said. She lifted her right hand. “I am not merely a Devoted, but also Gracemarked.”

 The Arcanist whistled softly. His eyes fixated on the Mark. Lyllithe noticed the unseen weight was gone.

 “What is this, dear? A double Gracemark?” He extended his fingers and brushed the glowing blue symbol. Lyllithe flinched. “It has been ages since anyone has seen one. I wonder why it wasn’t documented.”

 “Master, you mean this has happened before?” Lyllithe quelled the urgency building in her voice. “Can you tell me what it means?”

 Davon’s attention remained fully on the soft glow. “Some claim this is what happens when Aspects vie for an individual’s devotion. No one can say for certain, for who knows the mind of the Divine? Men study a lifetime to grasp the teachings of just one of the Fourteen.”

 He looked around at the dispersing crowd and raised an eyebrow. “They didn’t tell you? This is of profound interest and import to the Academy, to the Abbey, to the Conclave of Aulivar. Do they not realize the unique treasure they have been granted?”

 “I heard some of the men talk about it,” Lyllithe said. “Just like a Ghostskin, they said. Can’t even get Marked right.”

 Davon patted Lyllithe’s Gracemarked hand. “Don’t let small minds determine your importance, dear.”

 Lyllithe noted an etched silvery brand like an eye on Davon’s hand, the symbol of Knowledge. Is he a scholar of sorts, who works in the Hall instead of the Academy? She took a chance. “Do you have a theory of how one receives a double Gracemark, Master?”

 He smiled and took a deep breath. “Yes, I do, in fact. I believe it is a sign of one who is conflicted between two ideals. Mind you, this is not like some young teen unwilling to live in service to others, filled with selfish desires. No, that child simply fails their Testing.”

 Lyllithe’s head drooped. “I failed five times,” she said. “Is it because I was selfish?”

 Davon brushed a hand on Lyllithe’s shoulder. “No, child, it was not,” he said. “It is because you were torn between thoughts of equal importance: first, to be pure.” He tapped the Light side of her Gracemark, then tapped the Strength side and continued, “yet something tugs at you to be strong enough. Strong enough for what, I wonder?”

 “I wanted to save my mother,” Lyllithe said. “I watched her die.”

 Davon pursed his lips. “Yes, I’d heard some of that from your father. But is that truly where your conflict began?”

 Lyllithe looked about the square. A dozen stragglers carried on quiet conversations or moved about on personal errands. No ears to hear what I’m about to say.

 She turned back to Davon. “No, I suppose it is not. Master Hachi, I have seen the wounded carried swiftly through the woods, their loved ones desperate, hoping for a miracle in the Abbey. And then there are the dead, those brought too late. And I think of the power I feel in the Light. Power I am not permitted to use. And I ask, is there not another way?”

 Davon nodded. “You speak of the Abbey’s strictures of purity, forbidding violence.”

 “Yes,” Lyllithe said. Her voice rose. “If the Light is so scarring powerful, then why not use it to fight?”

 She clamped a hand over her mouth and mumbled an apology. I just swore at an Arcanist. Brilliant.

 Davon patted her shoulder. “I understand more than you know. I once sat in the Abbey of Haven, puzzling over these same thoughts. When the Abbey was destroyed in the sacking of the town, I left my robe to burn in the embers.”

 “And you joined the Hall?”

 He shook his head. “Not at first. They could not accept me, because I could not accept what I had to become.” Davon stretched out his arms, showing the gilt embroidery on the crimson sleeves and the band of gold embedded in his wrist. “A man of violence and war.”

 Lyllithe searched for words to avoid what felt like blasphemy. “Was it—did the teachings of Aulis hold you back?”

 “Precisely. I couldn’t bring myself to wield power against another man.” Davon held up a hand and continued, “But with help, I made a breakthrough. If light has power to give life and protect, then what about the absence of light?”

 He waved at the shadows that engulfed the town. “What if you strip your foe of the light, and turn darkness against him?”

 Lyllithe’s mind raced over possibilities and assumptions. “Is that even possible?”

 “Of course, child. As a Devoted you manipulate the Light of the Divine. As an Arcanist, I handle the flowing energies around us, and what is light if not energy?”

 Davon made dramatic sweeps with his arms as if standing before a crowd. “I twist aqua and terros, aera and flagros… Why not lux?”

 Lyllithe considered it for a moment and shrugged. “I cannot see why not, I suppose.”

 “I admit,” Davon explained, “the magelight we manipulate through Refocusing is more illusory than your source of Divine power. Plants cannot grow by magelight, and it offers no healing properties, no matter how devoted you may be. But it has uses.”

 Davon produced his monocle and held it out toward Lyllithe. “And if I, a mere human, am dependent on these trinkets to see the streams of power available…”

 He thrust a finger at her. “How much more are you capable of, with elemental blood?”

 Lyllithe absently stroked her hair to hide the points of her ears. “I have always viewed my mixed heritage as a curse. I never considered a benefit.” She shook her head. “It would not be right. I cannot—”

 “Why not you?” Davon clasped her right hand. “Your very Gracemark speaks to the strength of the Light. Why not use that strength, use your power over light to prevent harm instead of cure it?”

 Lyllithe stared into Davon’s eyes. “I would like that very much.”

 The Arcanist stepped back with a proud smile. “Yes,” he said. “I saw that hunger. So show me.” He gestured toward the bonfire. “Reach out and take hold of its light.”

 She turned toward the flame and shrugged. “How?”

 “We have a precept among some in the Hall,” Davon said. “‘Knowledge has a limit. Dominating one’s nature is superior.’ Refocusing is more about strength of will and disciplined practice than any sort of arcane secrets one can learn. Yes, I understand how to change aera into flagros. There’s little more to it. But like a swordsman practicing forms, I must learn to do it with ease and precision.”

  “And so must you, if you’d like to understand and take hold of this part of your nature. Stretch out your will. Make the flame do what you desire.”

 Lyllithe watched the fire. Undulating strands of orange waved back and forth, unseen by any of those nearby, she knew. Any save Davon with his Ocular monocle.

 The slow motions enthralled her, and her head rocked gently back and forth. “And what do I desire?”

 “Think about the Light,” Davon said. “You are accustomed to its embrace. This time, push it away. Dim the radiance of the flame.”

 Lyllithe studied the glowing orange strands. She imagined twisting them together into knots. The glow faded to half its original strength.

 “Impressive,” Davon declared.

 Lyllithe gasped. “Is that—am I manipulating darkness?”

 “Tenebrae? No,” Davon said. “Remember this: Magelight and shadowcraft—lux and tenebrae—are not primary elements. They are more complex, the result of other elemental reactions. Light exists to some degree, a Refocused energy over which you can exert control. What you call darkness is a term for the absence of light, the effect of its removal.”

 Lyllithe turned to the Arcanist. “Then what did you mean earlier, about controlling darkness to fight your foes?”

 “No, dear. I said you could control light,” Davon said. “By removing it, dampening it, taking away the strength it gives those who oppose you. Arcanists do not manipulate ‘darkness’ as common folk might understand it. You cannot have shadow without light.”

 His eyes flashed away to the side. “You can’t control what doesn’t exist, of course.”

 Just like when Aramina pretends to compliment me during our lessons. Or when the townsfolk treat me kindly while I stand beside Father. He knows more than he’s letting on.

 Lyllithe nodded and replied, “Of course, Master Hachi.”

 Davon looked up at the stars. “Ah, it’s getting late,” he said. “I’m sure you have duties to attend to. As I recall, you have a place keeping the candles lit in the Abbey.”

 Lyllithe bowed her head. “Yes, thank you.”

 The Arcanist reached into the satchel at his side. “Let me leave you with this gift, child. Something to read by candlelight perhaps when the Light is not yet dawned.” He placed a leatherbound book into her hands.

 Her eyes lit up. “What— what is this?”

 “A tome on the very subject we’ve been speaking about. You’ll find it enlightening, I’m sure. Pardon the jest.”

 Lyllithe flipped the book over and checked the spine. No seal from the Academy? What sort of secret does this contain? The first page bore the message Davon had quoted, each word aligned with the binding.

 She read aloud, “Knowledge has a limit. Dominating one’s nature is superior.”

 “Khaldonis,” Davon whispered, “the name of that particular school of thought.”

 Lyllithe shuddered with a sudden guilt, but shook off the sensation. She pushed the book toward Davon. “I cannot accept. What if my father or some other elder sees a forbidden—”

 Davon chuckled. “Child, the Hall prints what it wishes for those who serve it.”

 “Without Academy review and approval?”

 The Arcanist shrugged. “We have an arrangement. They see enough pages from our scholars to know that our scientific pursuits are safe, proper, and logical. This book is no more forbidden than a hymnal of the Abbey.”

 The peal of a bell rang out. Lyllithe gasped. “Oh! I’m late again. Nyalesee will tan my hide if I don’t hurry.”

 “Run along, then, Devoted.”

 Lyllithe started running toward the Abbey in the distance, then stopped and turned. “You said the Hall prints books for those who serve it. But I am no Arcanist.”

 Davon grinned. “Not yet, child. Not yet.”

Diffraction Chapter Five: Obligations

Compassion toward the one in need, lift up the one brought low.
A spray of blue flame exploded over the heads of the gathered crowd. Six jets of fire flew out across the night, and fat snowflakes fluttered through the air in their wake. Lyllithe watched in wonder, her attention split between analyzing the spell as it happened and watching the Arcanist for the next display.

 He stood on the wooden platform in the town square of Northridge, in front of the gathered officials of the town. His copper monocle glimmered in the light of torches and the bonfire nearby. Flecks of grey streaked the Arcanist’s short black hair at the temples and made a stripe in his pointed goatee. His arms moved in sweeping graceful gestures, draped in crimson robes that signified some rank in the Hall. Light from his magic glinted off something like a bracelet of gold on his left wrist .

 Lyllithe saw Josephine’s father and her own among the leaders of the town. This Arcanist looks no older than my dad. So it cannot take too long to learn Refocusing magic.

 The Arcanist’s voice echoed in the night, smooth but firm. “Our allies in the north are locked in battle, caught in the bitter grasp of the Freostane.” He waved an arm, and a chill wind cut through the crowd, scattering the flurries of snow in the air. People shivered and cringed. Lyllithe stared wide-eyed.

 She looked back at the Arcanist and startled at finding his eyes locked with hers.

 “The men of Glacierift have fought bravely, but they are so few against so many. How long can one stand against the very land itself?” The Arcanist’s hands twisted and turned as he spoke, and snow piled up to his right on the platform in the town square. Features came into focus, massive arms with clawed hands, a face with dim sockets like eyes. The makeshift Freostanni loomed over the gathered townsfolk, threatening fingers outstretched.

 Children wailed. Women and even some men blanched at the sight. The Arcanist’s lip turned up in a hint of a smile. “Do you recall the ashen pillar that rose in the north last autumn? ‘Twas the fall of Stalhanske you saw then, an eruption of lava and smoke from the ground beneath the capital. Devastation caused by the Freostane.”

 “And so Lord Mayor Tenegar is sending aid,” he continued, “to bring order to the chaos, peace in the midst of such destruction. Together we shall crush the frozen foes, and restore Glacierift to its rightful place.”

 He stabbed his hand at the mock ice elemental, and an orb of fire blossomed in its chest. Caught up in the moment, the crowd cheered at the steaming hole and applauded the snow creature’s collapse.

 One voice called out above the din, and all else fell silent. “By ‘together’ you mean our young folk marching into Tenegar’s battle, ’cause there sure aren’t enough of you from Aulivar to do a lick of good.”

 An old man stood at the edge of the crowd, arms crossed. His weathered face and bushy brow locked eyes with the Arcanist. Stam, Lyllithe thought. Dad always comes home frustrated from meetings with the elders, and Stam’s name has come up more than once.

 “Those you brought look younger than my missing boy,” Stam called out, “or older than myself. So you’ll steal our youth away for your pointless war? You may wow my kinfolk here with your magic eyeglass and your tale. But I’m not impressed, unless you’re here to do something about the marauders that plague our lands beyond the Woodwall.”

 The Arcanist glared for a moment, then forced a smile. “Good man, your plight is not forgotten. But how many of these bandits once marched beneath Glacierivan banners? Our work in the north may secure peace around Northridge. The militia is merely—”

 “You sound like the Ministry lackeys,” Stam said, “with all their excuses and empty promises. There are three A’s in Aulivar, or so the saying goes. But none of them are out to help the people they claim to rule. Your Arcanists aren’t here to aid us, just to take whatever the Lord Mayor needs. The Academy won’t do a thing except tell us what we can’t know, burning illegal books while these rebels burn down our farms. And the Abbey can’t do nothing about any of this except perform burials for our kin.” Stam glanced toward Lyllithe’s father and added, “No offense meant of course. I know it’s the rules of your Order, meant to keep you pure from violence.”

 Marten stepped forward and spoke. “Stam, trust that I understand your concern.”

 Several heads turned and voices whispered. Stam took a deep breath and answered in a quiet tone. “You suffered loss, Eldest. Maybe more than most.”

 Marten said nothing, but others nodded agreement.

 Mother, Lyllithe realized. He’s using Mother’s murder to win their sympathy. Her fists clenched and shook. Her cheeks burned as her teeth ground together. A smoldering fire of rage sparked back to life after being stamped out.

  “What say you, Eldest?” Stam asked. “I’ll hear you out.”

 Marten put a hand on the Arcanist’s shoulder. “We must remember Master Hachi comes as a representative not only of the Arcanist’s Hall, but of the Lord Mayor and the militia. We cannot refuse this request.”

 Stam pointed a wagging finger at Master Hachi. “Why should our children go fight a war in the north when we have war enough right outside our gates?”

 Many voices murmured agreement. Some yelled out, “What about us?”

 Next to Lyllithe, a shepherd named Tarran had a hand on his son Dannal’s shoulder. “I need my boy to work the farm.”

 The Arcanist raised his hands and silence fell. His gaze wandered over the crowd. Did he pause when he looked at me? Did I imagine that?

 No one moved. Firewood crackled and a baby cried on the other side of the gathering. Lyllithe fought the urge to hold her breath.

 “This is a matter of honor,” Master Hachi said. “Of selflessness and the sacrifice upon which your homes are founded.”

He beckoned to a soldier of Aulivar, who produced a lute from under his cloak. His smooth face and puffy cheeks made Lyllithe think him too young to be a warrior. He’s probably my age or older, she realized. But still a mere youth.

 The Arcanist asked, “Footman Homfrey—Jae, isn’t it? Do you know Bride’s Elegy? I would sing to that melody, please.” The young man nodded and began to pluck a mournful tune in a minor key. Master Hachi turned to the crowd.

 “I understand your concern for your children,” he said. “But I wonder if after five decades you have forgotten the debt we owe our friends in the north.”

 He opened his mouth to sing, and Lyllithe noticed slight gestures from his hands. More aqua, released in a slow trickle. Snowflakes appeared overhead and fell on a gentle breeze.

  When chill first fell upon the trees and fields of Aulivar,

  The fires of war-camps lit the night and swept away the stars.

  For who among the heavenlies could watch the City’s fall?

  Besieged by foe, buried in snow, death reigned within the walls.

  Skirmishes and arrows took a third of able men,

  Then famine and disease cut down another third again.

  With nothing left to feed upon, the desperate looked within,

  Gnashing, gnawing teeth on bones that once were fallen kin.

 Lyllithe shuddered. Next to her, Dannal gagged. Some in the crowd expressed disgust. If the Arcanist noticed, he gave no reaction as he sang.

When Lady Mara took a chill, the Lord Mayor’s heart did fail,

  Then his eldest son fell ill, and hope could not prevail.

  At news of men who dined on flesh, an anguish cry broke loose

  From maid servants who found the Mayor hanging from a noose.

 A sharp odor filled the air. Lyllithe watched more flakes settling onto the crowd, grey and black instead of soft white. “Flecks of ash,” she muttered as she caught one in her hand.

Through long winter the City lingers,

  Death and plague stretch forth their fingers.

  Mourn aloud, heads hang bowed

  As ashen rain falls like a shroud.

  Did Calmentalendandalnie stretch forth their fabled power?

  Would Aeramentals ride to save us in our darkest hour?

 At mention of Calmen, several faces turned toward Lyllithe. Her pale skin and pointed ears betrayed her heritage as part aeramental, and they ruled the woodland city mentioned in the song. She tugged at her hood, wishing to disappear.

 While Master Hachi sang, the soldiers from Aulivar rose throughout the crowd. When the question rang out, the soldiers shook fists in the air and shouted, “No!” Their voices echoed in the night and startled many in the crowd.

  Did Kalvorkhordûn’s dauntless king remember ties of old?

  Would Dunestanni stand with men to break the stranglehold?

Another “No” rang out from the chorus.

Did Aelwyn, Mirelenai, or Lanaloth give aid

  Fulfilling oaths and promises their ancestors once made? No!

  And so when teeming hordes formed ranks beyond the gleaming wall,

  The weary men of Aulivar foresaw their City’s fall.

  Through long winter the City lingers.

  War and hate stretch forth their fingers.

  Allies run, not a one

  Defends the City of the Sun.

 Master Hachi flicked his wrist, and a warm ball of flame appeared in the air. The snow and ash flakes vanished.

  With Spring’s first thaw the City heard a trumpet blast sound forth,

  As cavalry from Glacierift rode down from frozen north.

  They broke through the besiegers and loosed a bloody tide,

  While stalwart men of Aulivar poured out from gates thrown wide.

 

  Led out by the Light-Shield with blazing pow’r divine

  Aulivar and Glacierift smashed through the enemy line.

  Between hammer and anvil, besieging foes took flight,

  Struck down across the fields, pursued into the night.

 At the mention of his nickname, Josephine’s father flushed. Some nodded his way, and one man Marked in salute. They all appeared old enough to have seen the Siege of Aulivar.

 Master Hachi continued unfazed.

  Through long winter the City lingers,

  Death and war with broken fingers,

  Leave undone the work begun

  Against the City of the Sun.

 The night’s stillness swallowed the last note, and Master Hachi surveyed the quiet audience. “Thank you, Jae,” he said with a nod to the soldier.

 “This,” he said to the crowd, “this is the debt we repay to our neighbors and allies. This tie of loyalty, this bond that bought all our lives fifty years ago,” he gestured to encompass the crowd. “It demands that we aid in time of need. How could we do less?”

 Stam looked down at his feet, as did others. No more challenges rose from the people of Northridge.

 The Arcanist beckoned to Belfour Varonaulis, the current Chief of the town council. He licked his lips and ran his fingers through disheveled white hair before stepping into center stage. From his jacket he produced a crumpled list.

 “K-kinsmen and—and f-fellows of Northridge,” he said, stammering, “I hold here the list of names ch-chosen to accompany the Militia and Master Hachi into the north.”

 Lyllithe looked over at Stam and remembered his son, Stevram, conscripted into the Militia several years earlier. They’re here for more sword-arms to fill their ranks. And fighting men need healers.

 A flood of hope and terror crashed through her. She looked down at the strange double Gracemark on her right hand. I’m ready. I’m certain to be taken. This confirms it.

 “Fennis Alenwick,” Belfour said. Lyllithe looked over to her former classmate, a young Devoted Marked in his second year. He nodded with solemn pride as his mother clung to him.

 Aulistane would be next, Lyllithe guessed.

 “Dabry Aversham.”

Some of the soldiers scoffed. One asked, “Can we trade that one back?”

 “Ebrandin Baliere.” One of the smartest youths in town. He’d excelled in all the academics required of a Devoted in training to become a Friar. Lyllithe guessed his skill with a sword could not measure up to his intellect. If anything, he should be planning tactics, not marching to a front line.

 Yet he’d been chosen, and none could reject that call.

“Helinda Banniman,” the Chief continued. “Jaclan Danforth.” One mother started to weep, and a young man’s voice asked, “Do I have to go?”

 But Lyllithe’s mind raced over the listed names, searching for understanding. Are they going by given names? By family names? Would Josephine be next, then me?

 “Nat Childers.”

 Lyllithe glared at her adopted father. Marten studied the bonfire, avoiding his daughter’s eyes. Still not ready, Father, or so you deem. Gracemarked, and yet to you and to this town I remain useless.

 Beside her, Josephine bristled, and Lyllithe snapped out of her own anger.

 No one called Jo’s name? If anyone is ready for combat, it’s her.

 Several names echoed out in the night, but Lyllithe paid them no heed. “Jo,” she whispered, “we’ll talk to them, we’ll get this sorted out.”

 Josephine’s fists clenched until her arms shook. “Oh, there will be words, don’t doubt it.”

 Belfour put away his list, and Master Hachi stepped forward. “You may go to make preparations, but understand that we depart at dawn two days hence.”

 The crowd erupted in voices, a mixture of urgency, pride, and resignation. Josephine stomped off toward her father. But Lyllithe did not move, her eyes fixed on the Arcanist standing upon the wooden stage.

 For Master Hachi’s gaze locked on Lyllithe, and when their eyes met, he grinned.

Diffraction Chapter Two: The Light of Life

In darkness when the night surrounds, I bear the Light in me. 
“Quick,” Nyalesee shouted. “Lay her on a bench.”

Camden raced across the room and lowered Eledra’s body to the wood.

Nyalesee rushed to his side. Light sprang out of her palms and formed small, radiant spheres. Shadows danced on the edges of the sanctuary as Nyalesee moved..

Harra stood frozen, eyes wide, mouth agape. “Her light’s so dim…”

“Camden, what happened?” Nyalesee asked, her gaze fixed on the injured woman. “What sort of wounds are we dealing with?”

“Bandits on the road from Aulivar, Devoted.”

Lyllithe ran to Camden and grabbed his arm. “Where is my father? Is he—“

“Marten is coming,” Camden replied. He laid his hand over hers. “Wounded, but he will recover. They struck him hard, knocked him out. We drove them off, killed two. I left Josephine with Marten when we were in sight of the Woodwall. She will help him get here.”

At least Father is safe. Jo can handle herself.

The thought gave little comfort while Lyllithe looked down at her mother’s body.

Nyalesee examined Eledra’s wounds. The Devoted grimaced, and she glanced up at Lyllithe. “Harra, go see to Marten,” Nyalesee said over her shoulder.

The order jarred Harra into motion, but she moved instead to Nyalesee’s side. “Perhaps you need my help to heal Eledra’s—”

“I need you to obey,” Nyalesee cut in. “See to the Eldest. This woman is beyond our aid.”

Harra opened her mouth to speak, then snapped it shut at a withering glare from the senior Devoted. Her head dipped slightly. “As you wish.”

Camden hung back, hands folded, eyes cast down. Lyllithe thought she heard him praying. What can a Soulforged do in times like this, she wondered.

Nyalesee grabbed Lyllithe’s arm and pulled her close. “Child, I cannot heal her unassisted.”

Lyllithe choked. Hope and confusion swirled in her chest. “But you just sent Harra to—”

“She and I together could not treat these wounds,” Nyalesee said. “Not with the noonday sun shining down on us.”

“Then why do you need me? I’m not even Marked, I’m hardly—”

“Forget all that.” Nyalesee’s grip tightened on Lyllithe’s sleeve. “Forget the Test, the script—forget the rules. You are able. You’ve healed wounds before.”

Lyllithe shook her head, and Nyalesee continued. “Maybe it’s your elemental heritage, or maybe just the grace of Aulis. But you are stronger than any of the Devoted here, stronger I deem than any two combined.” Nyalesee’s eyes held Lyllithe’s gaze. “When properly moved.”

Lyllithe fumbled for words, but none seemed right.

The Devoted reached out. “Take my hand. Perhaps I can spark your ability to minister.”

Nyalesee guided Lyllithe’s hand toward Eledra. Her palm rested on her mother’s chest. The fabric felt damp and cold like mud in winter. So much blood. She’s not breathing.

“Close your eyes,” Nyalesee said.

Lyllithe obeyed. There’s no heartbeat.

“The Light is life, and your light is pure,” the Devoted whispered. “There is strength in purity. There is brilliance. See it, draw it in and release it. Like breathing.”

Part of Lyllithe’s mind followed the calming instructions. But her fears conjured up an image of the dim sanctuary during the Test, and Harra’s smug sneer. Lyllithe saw her father’s downcast face last year when she failed. She heard the laughter of younger girls who were Marked on their first attempt.

“There’s a faint ember left,” Nyalesee said. Lyllithe opened her eyes.

“Do you feel that, child? I can breathe on it, and keep Eledra alive. But I haven’t the strength to restore her.”

A soft orange light appeared underneath Eledra’s skin. It flickered and waned.

“Now, girl! Heal her.”

Her mind fought doubts and despair. But Lyllithe grasped for the Light and took hold. Her hands glowed white on Eledra’s robes. Breathe. Live. Be healed.

Nyalesee gasped. “That’s it, dear,” she said, then whispered, “so much power.”

 Unreliable potential is useless, the doubting voice insisted.

Lyllithe gritted her teeth with the effort. More of the Light. Mother, you have to live.

The doors of the sanctuary opened. A slender blonde woman in armor slipped in with Marten, his arm draped over her shoulder. She helped him to a bench, then stood beside her father Camden.

 Father is well, Lyllithe thought. Josephine, my friend, I owe you once again.

Harra entered last and stormed toward the healers. Her voice bellowed in the dim chamber. “What is the meaning of this, Nyalesee?”

Lyllithe ignored the stares between the two Devoted. Eledra lay still. No pulse. No movement. No breathing. Nyalesee’s words repeated in Lyllithe’s mind: She is beyond our aid.

The Devoted’s hand squeezed Lyllithe’s arm once more. “Do not doubt. Light shines brightest in darkest night.”

At that, Lyllithe cast down fear and focused her complete attention on healing.

 Mother, you have to breathe. She strained as she pulled on more Light. I’ll help you breathe. Lyllithe pushed air into Eledra’s lungs with the Light’s power. She drew the air out through the mouth, then forced fresh air back in.

Marten cried out, “She’s breathing!”

 The heart has to beat. Lyllithe redirected some of her power and reached with it into Eledra’s chest. The energy wrapped around Eledra’s heart and squeezed every few seconds. Lyllithe sensed blood flow throughout the body. You’re going to have to take over from me here, Mother. Live.

Nyalesee said something, but Lyllithe paid no heed. Open your eyes, get up, be whole once more. Eledra remained still, though her chest rose and fell as Lyllithe pushed in breaths.

 Open your eyes, Mother. Lyllithe directed two wisps of power toward Eledra’s eyelids. They snapped open, but the eyes stared blank at the ceiling.

Muscles strained in Lyllithe’s neck and arms. In her eyes, a web of rainbow strands connected her outstretched hands to Eledra’s body. Lyllithe drew even more on the source of power. Get up. You can’t die. With the Light at her disposal, she tugged at muscles and tendons in Eledra’s arms and legs, commanding motion.

Eledra’s body jerked. Rough movements brought her upright. No light shone in her eyes. The orange glow behind her skin vanished.

Marten stood and collapsed. Lyllithe heard him weeping.

Nyalesee yelled for Lyllithe to stop.

 This is not the end, Aulis grant me grace. Blinding light burst from her hands. Purple spots filled her vision. There’s more power out there. I can almost reach it.

 Child, let me go.

Not Nyalesee’s voice. Not Lyllithe’s own thought.

 Mother?

The faint voice answered. You cannot heal an empty shell. Let me pass.

Lyllithe looked again at the body before her. Eledra’s corpse shook and shuddered. Air hissed in and out of cold lungs, forced by Lyllithe’s efforts. Eledra’s disheveled brown hair hung limp, matted with blood that oozed from wounds whenever Lyllithe squeezed the heart with her power. The body turned so that the faded green eyes faced her.

 Oh Light, I’m going to be sick. What have I done?

The brilliance Lyllithe summoned vanished, and darkness conquered the sanctuary in a snap. Lyllithe fell to the ground and retched beside the body of her mother.

Marten sobbed in the shadows.

Nyalesee knelt and put a hand on Lyllithe’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, child, so very sorry. I hoped, I dared to believe that maybe—”

She snatched the loose sleeve of Lyllithe’s robe and yanked her right arm from the ground. A soft blue light pierced the shadows around the dais.

Lyllithe looked at the back of her hand. A symbol shone like a rune etched in the skin: a sunrise above a vertical line with two branches holding up the horizon. The churning sea of shock and turmoil in her mind threatened to drown her. A Gracemark? Now? With both Light and Strength?

Lyllithe’s hands grasped Nyalesee’s shoulders in desperation.

Nyalesee only stared at the Mark.

Harra watched, brow furrowed.

“What is this,” Lyllithe demanded. “What does this mean?”

Diffraction Chapter One: Markday

Over the next few weeks, I will be posting the first ten chapters of my fantasy novel, Diffraction, here on WordPress and on WattPad. The goal is to have the book available on Amazon and CreateSpace by Christmas.

 

Bright enough light will bend around what it cannot shine through.
 
—————-

From daybreak ‘til the sun goes down, Devoted shall I be.

Celebration filled the central street of Northridge. A bonfire sprang to life, and cheers rang out under clouds streaked orange and red in the setting sun. The sweet aroma of smoked meats and sugary cakes filled the air. Men and women danced barefoot in circles on the packed earth to the trilling of a flute. Many sang. All smiled.

 All but one.

 A slim figure darted between clusters and pockets of revelers. Her gold-trimmed white hood concealed most of her features, though wisps of black hair slipped out with each hurried step. She dodged offers to join a dance and ducked under extended pints of ale.

 Someone recognized her robe and called out with a grin, “Are you new-Marked this day, Devoted?” Two men beside him raised hands ready to praise her.

 She glared at them, revealing a face white as her garment. The men blanched, and she continued on her way. Lyllithe, the Ghostskin. The Eldest’s so-called daughter. She could not make out their whispers, but she knew the words they spoke. Lyllithe had heard them all her life.

 Laughter from the crowd echoed. Only the Markday festival, she reasoned. But a doubtful voice spoke in her mind. They laugh because they saw your face. 

Past conversations replayed in her memory unbidden:

 “Still no Mark on her? What a shame for the Eldest. His own daughter cannot pass the Test. Is this her fourth year trying?”

 “Well she’s not really his daughter. She’s got elemental blood in her. So…”

 “Of course, yes, that probably has something to do with it. Who knows what the Divine thinks about ghostskins and duns and such…”

 “I know what I think of them.”

 Lyllithe reached the end of the street, and she pushed away her fears. The Abbey tower rose high over her head. The tallest building in Northridge looked peach in the setting sun. The smaller moon twinkled and the larger shone full in the twilight sky.

She rushed up the steps and flung open the door. Two Devoted in white stood when Lyllithe entered.

 “Am I too late?” she asked, half hoping the Testing had ended.

 Mistress Nyalesee, the older of the two, smiled wide and beckoned. “No, dear, of course not. Light yet shines, so it is still Markday.” Cheeks brushed by auburn curls, she pulled back her hood, then gestured for Lyllithe to follow into the sanctuary.

 Their footsteps echoed on the hardwood floor as they walked between simple benches to the dais at the center of the circular room. The last touches of sunlight peeked through the windows near the ceiling. A serving girl started lighting rows of candles for the Night Watch. Fragrant incense filled Lyllithe’s nose.

 Lyllithe pulled back her hood and ran fingers through her hair. The collar-length black strands covered the pointed tips of her ears to hide the physical proof of her mixed blood. She caught herself hiding her features and stopped. It doesn’t matter. Everyone here knows what I am already.

 Nyalesee took one of the two stools and turned to her companion, a stately woman with a perpetual scowl. “Harra, do you require Lyllithe to complete the interview, or will her demonstration suffice?”

 Harra pursed her lips. “She does it correctly or she doesn’t Test at all.”

 Nyalesee rolled her eyes. “We have the past four results on record. Exceptional marks, every year.”

 “And yet she struggles to manifest the Light each time,” Harra replied. She cocked her head and smiled. “Complete failure, every year.”

 “Sister, we waste time. Outside of Testing, she has potential we’ve not seen in decades.”

 Harra shrugged. “Unreliable potential is useless in a crisis. Do you think the Eldest would have us show favoritism toward his adopted daughter or treat her any different than the normal supplicants? I think not.”

 Lyllithe bristled and fought to maintain a serene expression. Do I think you phrased that just to comment on my heritage? Yes.

 Nyalesee grimaced. “Marten would have us exercise sound judgment.”

 “Marten’s not here to ask,” Harra countered. “So I say we do things right.”

 Nyalesee gave in, and began reciting questions in a monotone voice.

 “To what are you Devoted, supplicant?”

 Lyllithe replied in the same bored tone. “To purity in the Light, which gives me the grace to heal. To the path of peace with all men, which keeps me pure. To the truth, which guards my steps on the path of peace.”

 Harra fumed at the seeming irreverence, but said nothing.

 I don’t know what you expected, Sister. I’ve had this memorized since the first year, with three extra chances to practice it since.

 “And will you remain faithful to that truth?”

 “Until my light fades or the Final Dawn breaks.”

 “Tell me, supplicant, of Aulis and His light.”

 While questions and answers flowed without error, part of Lyllithe’s mind focused on the demonstration to follow. Her stomach fluttered and she felt queasy. The steps are clear, and I understand the doctrine. But every time I stand to be Tested, I fail to produce the Light of Life.

 Memories of past attempts filled her with dread. What’s the point? This year will be like the rest. If I don’t pass, I can’t be a Devoted, can’t get my Gracemark.

 She pictured her father and mother on the road returning from Aulivar. Couldn’t even stay here to support me, could you, Father? I’m such an embarrassment that you ran to the city on a “sudden errand” rather than see me fail again?

 “The Gracemark is the visible reminder of the presence of a particular Aspect of the Divine,” Lyllithe recited. “It is a sign of power bestowed upon the believer.”

 Nyalesee nodded and said, “By what two methods can one receive their Mark?”

 “Most adherents receive from their order what is properly called a Gracebrand, after passing the Test. But an Aspect may also bless the faithful with a spontaneous Gracemark instead.”

 And now we come to it. Lyllithe’s heart thumped in her chest like a hammer. Four attempts already. Four failures. Why should today be different?

 “Correct,” Nyalesee said. She rose to her feet. “Now are you prepared to demonstrate your faith, and receive the Gracebrand of Aulis, the Aspect of Light?”

 “As ready as ever,” Lyllithe muttered.

Harra raised an eyebrow.

 Nyalesee rose, and her demeanor softened. She took Lyllithe’s hand and squeezed. “Five is the number of Grace, dear. This should give you hope.”

 Harra chuckled and stood. “Show us, supplicant. Invoke the Light of life.”

 Lyllithe closed her eyes and drew a deep breath. Breath is life. Life, fill me. She raised her hands to chest height, palms out. Light reveals truth. Truth guards my steps. My path and past are pure. Light shines on the pure.

 She exhaled and pictured orbs of light cupped in her palms. Life and Light are in me. Let them flow forth. Her hands came together, combining the twin suns in her mind into one bright sphere.

 Harra snickered.

 Lyllithe’s eyes opened. Her empty fingers clasped together before her in the dim sanctuary. There was no Light.

Nyalesee’s hands covered her mouth and her brow furrowed, like a mother whose toddler falls while trying to walk.

 In the silence, Lyllithe could hear the commotion of the Markday festival. Muffled trumpet blasts and soft shouts disturbed the calm of the Abbey. Each one jabbed Lyllithe with pangs of defeat.

 Harra’s lips turned up at the edges. “Would you like to try again, child?” She chuckled. “There’s still time before sundown—if you’re certain it’s worth the attempt.”

 Lyllithe’s shoulders sagged. She raised the hood over her face to conceal the tears forming. “No, Devoted,” she whispered. “I’ll waste no more of your time.” She turned toward the entrance of the sanctuary. Her feet weighed a hundred stone as she took the first steps.

Nyalesee breathed out a sympathetic sigh. The clamor outside grew more obvious, impossible to ignore.

 How many Marks were given this day? Lyllithe’s emotions churned with the increasing noise. Scar the Markday and Gracemarks anyway!

 She felt a wave of guilt at once, and whispered a repentant prayer.

The door to the sanctuary burst open. “Help! Aid, now!” A man in armor filled the doorframe, a bloody cloaked mass cradled in his hands. Camden, the town’s lone Soulforged protector eased his burden into the sanctuary.

 He’s carrying a wounded woman. Lyllithe recognized the pattern and colors of the fabric. She sprinted to the door as Camden carried the body in. It can’t be.

 The man rushed past Lyllithe to the two Devoted at the dais. Metal clinked with each step.

 The emblem of Aulis woven into the cloak—now stained red—and the bloody brown hair could have belonged to several residents of Northridge.

 But the Gracemarked hand that Lyllithe had clung to for years as a child could belong to no one else.

 Lyllithe fell to her knees with a scream. “Mother!”