“Sylar!” Wenchai gasped.
“Get back!” he ordered. In the periphery of his vision, he could see Jin desperately shielding his daughter’s unconscious body, outraged.
“What is the meaning of this?”
“He’s been tricking you from the start! He caused your daughter’s affliction!”
The Lash couldn’t hold firm much longer, and the damned cultivator was struggling against the semi-corporeal bindings. Even though the spell was forceful enough that the impact left a dent in the tree trunk, the cultivator didn’t look injured in the slightest.
“It can’t be!”
The Lightning Lash broke, and Zhu – if he even was called Zhu – began to laugh. “Figured it out, did you?” He reached inside his cloak, drawing a blade, and fell into a practiced stance. “You fool! We would have let you all live, but now you have to die!”
Sylar grit his teeth. Staying here was not an option – not with two non-combatants in the way. Focusing on a target location outside, he let instinct guide him, filling the Essence subshells of his desired spell matrix with the required Essences.
With a Flash Step, his world burst into dazzling light, placing him directly behind the cultivator. Surprised, Zhu whirled around, blade flashing, but Sylar thankfully reacted instinctively, driven by his experiences as an adventurer. The sword met an Earthen Shell, that cracked and caved in from a single blow.
Realms Beyond, these cultivators aren’t mages, they’re bloody warrior-monk-mages!
Oddly enough, the cultivator didn’t use a spell, but Essence was still being arranged into matrices – only to fizzle away, diminishing as Soulburn. What was the point of that? Was he panicking, unable to properly cast his spells? Or –
“What grand Spiritual Arts!” Zhu cackled, as he leapt back to disengage. Compared to how he had been just moments before, he seemed almost like a completely different person. “Which Sect do you belong to? I will send your remains to your Master!”
Talking was pointless. He needed to concentrate here. Through his Diviner’s sight, he could sense his enemy gathering Essence, placing them into subshells.
Order-Form, Order-Death, Death-Water, in that arrangement makes –
“Begone! Taste my Abyssal Jade Needles!” he shouted.
– Decaying Dart. A third level Necromancy spell. Sylar ignored the bizarre name Zhu had given it.
Sylar grinned. Mage combat was all about identifying spells, abusing weaknesses, and seizing advantages.
With a shout, he slammed the Essence for his next spell into place. Lightward, born of Form and Life, intercepted the projectiles.
And with the complementary and opposite natures of Life and Death Essence, the two spells caused mutual annihilation, their Essences spewing forth into the Aether as an Essence Field.
Classic mistake of rookie mages. Master Rynwald’s first lesson in practical combat magic had been all about knowing how to generate Essence Fields through the right selection of spells. He could just have easily blocked the darts with an Earthen Shell, but doing that would simply cause the Essence to fade, rather than forming a Field of Essence. This let him swing his advantage further.
He reached out in front of him, where Lightward had met the darts, and drew in from the Essence Field. His Form and Life Essences returned, and he seized upon the spent Order, Form, and Water Essences of his opponent’s spell, ignoring the Death Essence. With no practice in Necromancy, since it had been banned in Nimbria, he couldn’t possibly hope to make efficient use of those.
“Impossible!” Zhu spoke, his stance guarded. It seemed he had never before seen Essence Annihilation at work, and was taking a cautious approach. Good for Sylar, since Zhu’s speed was nothing to scoff at.
Sylar loved battling against mages whose Core Essence was based on Order. Each mage’s soul only generated either Order or Chaos Essence, but the opposite could still be drawn in through Essence Fields.
When combined together, they gave… interesting results. It wasn’t often that he had the chance to cast spells like this.
It was a Level Four spell based on a modification of Magic Missile, but with the unique nature of Core-fused spells, its effect could rival that of a Sixth Level spell in potency. If Sylar had tried to cast its more normal equivalent, the accumulated Soulburn would have been great enough to stop him from any further spellcasting.
Bolts of arcane force pelted against Zhu. He crashed against the tree, and then through that, into a stone wall that bordered the compound, leaving a deep dent inside the stone. More bolts still emerged from the sigil composed of pure, brilliant white light from Sylar’s extended palm, seeking out his immobilised target.
With a final resounding crash that sent even more spiderweb cracks across the stone, Zhu slumped over, barely able to remain on his knees. His bones – despite how tough they had been, barely sustaining any damage during the initial Lightning Lash – had to have been fractured and broken.
Sylar might have felt pity for the man, but he had wilfully used Necromancy spells against another human, and sought to deceive with them. There was no room for restraint.
“Im…possible…” Zhu coughed out, struggling on the ground, vainly attempting to push himself back onto his feet. “That Spiritual Art… you combined… yin… and yang… but the balance…”
Sylar had no idea what he was talking about. Instead, he conjured a Bind. Tight rope appeared around his wrists, weaving on their own accord against his legs, preventing any escape. He readied another spell, just in case Zhu tried to offer any final resistance.
“Talk.” He willed the ropes to tug tighter. “Why did you cast the Horrid Nightmare?”
“You know it?” Zhu shuddered, then coughed violently. Still, there was a maniacal smile on his face. “To recognise the Abyssal Plague Curse, the hidden secret of our sect… and those Spiritual Arts you used… you are no fool of the Penshan Alliance.”
“It’s true?” Jin and Wenchai had made it out of the room and approached, now that the battle was over. “You – you cursed my daughter?”
He laughed. “Your gold will be well spent, Master Lu. But fret not – the Master no longer has need for you.” He looked back at Sylar. “But you… you are an interesting one. To know how to counter my Unorthodox Spiritual Arts, and yet not wield the cultivation methods of the Righteous Heart, Radiant Star, or Crystal Path… who are you?”
“Sylar Spellsight. And you talk a lot.” With a Cantrip of Dancing Flames, he willed fire to curl at his fingertips, bringing them close to Zhu’s face. “Where is the cure?”
“There is none!” he screamed hysterically, laughing. “The plan was for her to die, fool! I was never from the Vital Sun Sect! I would have left, and your gold would have been with the Master’s Sect! Her life will end by the next dawn! Watch her suffer and die, old man!”
Jin stiffened, then rushed forward. He held Zhu’s head in both hands, leaning in. “Give me the cure!”
He gave a final, raspy laugh. “My life for the Master!”
And then, he did something Sylar would never have thought any sane mage would do.
He gathered Essence – plenty of Order Essence, that seemed to be his unique Core Essence – and fit all the Ferins of Essences he had seemingly at random into a matrix. The Primals, the Transcendentals, and his Order Essences were put into incompatible configurations. There would be no spell that could result from such a casting. The Ferins of Essence would simply be spent.
There would, however, be Soulburn.
And with so complex a matrix, that could rival a Seventh Level spell in pure Essence quantity – his soul could not hold that many resulting Pyrans of Soulburn.
Zhu gave a final shudder, and collapsed, dead.
Sylar had heard of fanatics among ancient Necromancy cults in Nimbria, and some of the active ones elsewhere in Resham, but never before had he heard of one committing suicide by Soulburn. It was taboo – death by Soulburn was said to prevent one’s entry into the Labyrinth of Eyes after their death.
“No,” Jin whispered. He shook Zhu’s body violently, and screamed. “No! Cure my daughter, you bastard!”
Sylar turned away. If Henrietta or Orthra were here, they could have used the divine magic of Clerics to cure the girl. But his former adventuring companions were halfway across the Astral Sea, and he had never much worked with Restoration magic. Even if he did, such a spell would undoubtedly require plenty of Life Essence – and though the world here was rich with the Transcendentals, the rate that he could draw ambient Life Essence would be slowed by his lack of experience.
Give him a few days, and he might he able to do something. With it already being near evening, trying to both theorise and cast a spell by daybreak was impossible. He could either race against time to work out a new matrix from scratch, or gather the Essences needed.
“Sylar,” Wenchai said sombrely. “You know what Zhu did, right? Can you help her with your Spiritual Arts?”
That seemed to catch Jin’s attention. He reached over, tugging at Sylar’s sleeve. “Please! My daughter… Qiyu is all that I have left!”
“I can’t help,” Sylar said quietly, frustrated at himself. All his years of foray into Essence Studies, and there was still nothing he could do.
“There has to be something!”
“I can Divine what it was, but I don’t know how to counter it. If I had some time to study it, I might be able to come up with something, but then I would still need time to draw the Life Ess –“
He paused, his eyes widening.
“Never mind.” Sylar was already running back into the room, where Qiyu was still subject to the unending terror of Horrid Nightmare. “I need parchment and ink! Lots of it! Wenchai, get me all the daoshi you have!”
“Do you want to save her or not?”
Without wasting any more time, Jin ran in another direction, shouting orders at startled servants. Wenchai dashed toward the stables.
In the room, Sylar dipped a finger in one of the pigmented powders that Zhu had pretended to use in his bogus concoction. Recalling the constituent pairs of the affliction he had witnessed during his casting of Detect Affliction, he began to sketch a rough matrix on the wooden table.
Horrid Nightmare was a Fourth Level spell. That meant 31 Essence pairs in their subshells, arranged into five discrete shell layers.
It was plenty of combinatorial diversity – but it was still only a Fourth Level spell. Any higher, and it would have been a few days’ worth at least, what with how each additional spell level exponentially increased its complexity. Breaking a Sixth down could take close to a month at Sylar’s current experience. It would have taken even longer for anyone who hadn’t gone into semi-retirement and dedicated themselves to Substantiology.
Jin entered at some point, holding a thick wad of sheets of parchment, alongside a brush and inkwell. Sylar accepted it, copying down the work he had already began.
“Can you –“ Jin’s voice cracked. “Can you save Qiyu?”
“I don’t know.” He didn’t even look back at the governor, fully concentrating on his work. “Give me time.”
A Death-Fate pair here? No, that would destabilise the first layer… but if we move the Spirit-Death pair to here, then maybe…
He continued working. Bits were crossed out, bundles of parchment scrapped and thrown aside, restarting his work over and over again.
At some point, he finally managed to recreate the matrix. For the first time since he began his work, he looked away from the parchment. By then, it was already entering nightfall.
Not fast enough.
“Is it done?” Jin asked immediately. He and Wenchai had been standing by Qiyu’s bedside, not even conversing between themselves, so that they did not distract him as he focused.
“That was the easy part.” Sylar drew an Earth Spike cantrip, and pinned the reverse-engineered matrix of the Horrid Nightmare spell onto the wall, not caring about the property damage. “Now I need to make the counter-spell from scratch.”
How long did he have left? Eight hours? Six?
Spellcrafting wasn’t a popular art in Resham, since mages just tended to copy spells from one another anyway. It wasn’t an efficient expenditure of time. Still, Sylar had gone into the subject, since he sorely wanted that Lich’s artifact analysed. This wasn’t going to be a Divination spell, which complicated matters – but he had the foundation down.
Besides, unlike the Sixth Level spell that had sent him here just earlier today, counteracting a Fourth Level spell was going to be much easier by comparison. If he could do it once, he could do it again.
It took hundreds of sketched Essence pairs, and well over fifty full sheets of parchment – but finally, he was done.
63%, his final calculation greeted him, bolded and underlined several times. 37% chance that the spell would backfire.
He glanced out the window. Already, the sky was starting to brighten just ever-so-slightly.
“Sylar?” Wenchai spoke. Jin jerked toward him, his focus fully drawn onto his daughter. “Have you done it?”
“Sixty-three percent chance that it will work,” he said. “If I had more time, I could try to raise it a bit more, but…”
“Do it.” Jin’s expression was unreadable. “Please, Sylar.”
“I will need your herbs, Wenchai.”
“Bah, take the damned things!” He handed over the bundles of daoshi he had managed to take with him in his wagon. “Just do what you need to do!”
He nodded, then appraised the herbs once more. While having extra Essence was useful, environmental Essence could potentially destabilise the matrix of spells that used reagents for their casting. He carefully titrated and calculated how much Life Essence was required, and placed the unneeded daoshi on the opposite corner of the room.
Just one more final inspection. He cast a series of Level 0 Identify spells on anything that even remotely looked like it might contain a trickle of Essence. Good thing he did, too. Even a little bit of Essence contamination would lower the probability of success.
“Move that ornament on the wall to the other end of the room,” he ordered, pointing. “Wenchai, hold the matrix diagram up for me.
Jin rushed to do as he was told. Wenchai stood on the other end of the bed, holding out the parchment that bore complicated sigils and sketches. “Like this?”
Sylar nodded. After hours of theorycrafting, it would all be settled within a few moments.
Now, then. Moment of truth.
He took a long, hard look at the proposed matrix, even though he had it well memorised from the hours he had spent devising it. Then, he inhaled, drawing in Essence from the daoshi, placing them immediately into Essence pairs with Primal and Transcendetal Essences as he had theorised. Some of the vibrancy of the herbs diminished, their magical properties stripped away from them.
And then, he cast his spell, pushing the matrix through his soul, that their effects would be manifested in the material world. It was the first time he would be using Restoration Magic above the Second Level.
A series of glyphs appeared, surrounding Qiyu at her mid-section. They spun, rotated, and converged in the centre, combining into a spherical and continuous set of glyphs.
And in an instant, with a flash of green light, it was done.
“Did – did it work?” Jin asked, breaking the silence, after the light dissipated.
Sylar glanced at Qiyu. The glyphs had sunk into her flesh, some residual glow passed into her skin. A repeat of Detect Affliction that used up almost all his remaining Fate Essence came back clean. Though some of the pallor remained, her shaking had stopped.
He nodded. “Done.”
Jin wept, and embraced his daughter tightly in his arms.
He yawned. After that much casting, his Soulburn was starting to act up, even though it wasn’t yet close to his maximum capacity. His Essence stores were becoming drained, too. “Now, if you don’t mind me, I’m going to take a nap.”
Sylar walked over to a nearby wall, uncaring about decorum, leaned against it, and began to drift off into sleep. There was a lot to unpack about the day – how and why these cultivators seemed to behave like hybrids of warriors, monks, and mages, what his next steps were, what plans Zhu’s unknown Sect had for Penshan and whether he should intervene, and whether he even wanted to return to Resham – but for now, he needed a break. He already had a sleepless night preparing his spell of Divination; disassembling a spell and engineering a counterspell was too much for him.
Gods in Planes Unknown, that had been a terribly long day.
A Primer on Transmutation for the Neophyte Mage – by Arcanist Sylar Spellsight
Transmutation is the art of change. Spells of Transmutation tap on the innate Quality resting within all of Creation, drawing Form Essence from the Manifold Forge to reshape, reforge, rebrand, and alter the quality of the material world. Complementary to this is the school of Enchantment, that acts on the Potential of all things.
The most basic of Transmutation magic is the X to Y transmutation. In theory, all things can be transmuted to another. This spell is unique, in that the same matrix can be applied to multiple X to Y spells. For example, Chalk to Stone and Water to Mud have the same underlying matrix, but are called by different names. Indeed, Earth to Mud is sometimes also called Softening, because it is the far more direct application of the spell.
In practicality, things have greater potential to become certain things than others. Water to Fire, though possible through a Fifth Level spell (as demonstrated by Spellsong Ratunda’s excellent treatise – heavy recommendation to peruse it), is far more practical through a series of five separate Transmutations of lower level, that move potential in several discrete steps. Water to Blood, Blood to Mud, Mud to Earth, Earth to Phosphorus, and Phosphorus to Fire. Less Essence expenditure, less acquisition of Soulburn, and less likelihood of throwing your spellbook away in frustration after the umpteenth failed casting.
Combined with other Essences, Form Essence can be a force to behold. Its most common partners are the Primals, that allow for material transmutations. Additionally, through Form-Spirit pairs, the resultant transmutation may possess extraordinary potential more than what is physically possible for the material, as is common for Enchantment spells.
Through change, Transmutation can also manipulate the material, although such usage is typically for the least complex of substances. Shape Water, Shape Earth, Shape Fire, and Shape Wind are spells of the First Level. Trying to Shape and manipulate, say, an Iron Golem MK II (no advertising intended), is near impossible, but theoretically possible through a spell of extraordinarily high level and with a complex matrix. By that point, it is perhaps more feasible to simply create the damned golem for yourself.
Though it may not seem the case at first glance, Transmutation synergises well with Illusion magic. Where Transmutation seeks to turn one reality into another, Illusion desires to convert the unreal into reality. The counterspells are then, of course, different – is the Fogscreen in front of you a product of Transmutation, or an illusion drawn from the Hollow Reality? Your opponent will need to decide how to counter it, giving you an opportunity to seize the advantage.
Over the next few years in the Nimbrian Academy of Essence Studies, you will be exposed to a broad education in each of the schools of magic. Though I most heavily favour Divination, Transmutation is a versatile art, and has seen me through many dangers during my adventuring days.
– An excerpt from an introductory book intended to be given to new students at the Nimbrian Academy of Essence Studies. Alas, no students ever signed up, and no eyes have ever beheld this text.