Despite his many years of experience dabbling in the arcane, Arcanist Sylar Spellsight once more felt like a mere Neophyte.
Chaos-Fire, the Essence pair slid into a single subshell. It was not a spell matrix that would give any meaningful result – for reasons unknown even to the brightest of Archmages in recorded history, the Core Essences only started to modify the flavour of spells starting from the First Level onward.
He held it there for a moment, concentrating hard. Then, slowly, he let the latent power resting within the Essences activate, willed by his soul, turning them into Soulburn.
Two Ferins of Essence. One Pyran of Soulburn. He knew the theory by heart; could rattle it off since his first days under Master Rynwald. As a Diviner, he was more in touch with Essence than many of his peers, and as an Arcanist, the capacity of his Soulburn cache was nothing to scoff at. Essence activated, burned off the power dwelling within, and decayed into Soulburn, that was then vented off to supposedly return on a great big cycle to be replenished into Essences in the Planes Beyond.
Despite all that, the blasted Soulburn just simply refused to cooperate with his demands, no matter how much he prodded, pleaded, or threatened it.
As an Arcanist of his level of expertise, the single Pyran of Soulburn faded away into nothingness shortly thereafter. Soulburn decay was generally defined by first order kinetics – current Soulburn multiplied by a variable factor, alongside a numerical constant. The exact values varied from mage to mage, but the underlying principle was immutable.
Raising a weary hand, he marked down another failed attempt to tap on Soulburn. This now made it 723 wasted Chaos-Fire pairs, all in the afternoon since they had returned to the Lu Estate.
He was absolutely certain it was possible – it was a farfetched leap of knowledge from his observations, but Elder Yang’s damned hints and the fact that every cultivator up on the Penshan Peak seemed to subject themselves to such an agonisingly boring task suggested that there was a purpose to it.
He sighed, rubbing at his brows. Though he had enthusiastically begun the exercise, optimistic in his chances of finding some hitherto unknown discovery, his posture had gradually declined from sitting perfectly upright in his seat into his current poor mimicry of an ooze slowly creeping across the length of the table.
He didn’t know how the cultivators up on the mountain managed their meditation sessions. Planes Beyond, he would never want to go on an extended meditation session like the Grandmaster and one of the Sect’s Elders currently were. Magic was supposed to be fun! He signed up for Fireballs and Thunderbolts, not to spend hours fruitlessly repeating an exercise any Neophyte could perform!
Perhaps it would be better to turn to other tasks on his list. It would be beyond amazing if he could multitask with this exercise while practicing with Sixth Level spells – Flare Beam, for example; he had gotten rather rusty with that – but alas, he was wary about the dangers of Soulburn. If he could scarcely learn to control a single Pyran of Soulburn, an accident while carrying well over seven hundred could prove disastrous.
“Fire-Fire, Form-Fire, more Fire-Fire…” he muttered under his breath, tracing out a quick sketchy representation of the matrix of the spell. It was his old habit – for spells he wasn’t too familiar with, having a visual reference helped when constructing the matrix within his soul.
127 Essence Pairs in total for a Sixth Level spell. This was going to be a long afternoon.
Then, came a series of tentative knocks on the door, and Sylar decided he would welcome any distraction.
“Come in,” he said, standing up.
The door slid open, and Qiyu’s face peeked shyly through the gap, accompanied by her father. “Master Sylar,” she greeted with a slight bow.
“Hello, Qiyu, Jin,” he said. He glanced outside the window – where had all those hours gone? “Is it time already?”
Qiyu nodded. “Is it okay?”
“Sure,” he said, waving her in. He put the incomplete matrix of Flare Beam aside, for now. “Make yourself comfortable.”
They had come to a little arrangement, of sorts. In exchange for Sylar agreeing to tutor Qiyu in the ways of Essence Studies (well – cultivation, to them), and act as a makeshift guard in case the estate came under attack again, he was free to take lodging in their Estate and use any amenities he desired, until the time came when he decided to depart.
For today, he had agreed to offer tutelage just before evening set in, and again after dinner if she was so inclined.
“I will return to my duties, now,” Jin said, as Qiyu took her seat. “Sylar, can I entrust her to you?”
“Sure. I’ll try my best to make sure she doesn’t blow herself up.”
Jin stared at him, unimpressed.
“That was a joke,” he clarified.
“I’m aware.” Jin sighed, shaking his head. “Your humour could use some work.”
“Duly noted. I’ll try my best to make sure I don’t blow myself up.”
Jin didn’t even bother commenting, just sighing heavily once more, and slid the door shut behind him.
“So,” Sylar broke the silence. “Let’s begin where we left off, shall we?”
“This time, I want you to start by trying to draw in Essence without my use of Share Sense. I know it’s been a day now, but try and recall how it felt. Extend your soul to feel for the Essence all around you, and pluck only the Fire Essences.”
His was an unfounded training method, and though he saw great initial success, he saw a flaw in it. Share Sense could easily become a crutch if over-relied upon, and Sylar loathed for that to happen.
Qiyu was the very model of diligence, hanging onto his every word, and he wondered if he’d ever been the same with Master Rynwald. He liked to think so. She nodded with determination, closed her eyes, and began to concentrate.
Ambient Essence began to stir, but her touch was not quite forceful or selective enough. Still, she was trying her best.
“Keep working at it,” he encouraged. All he received was the slightest of nods in response, her eyes still shut tight in focus.
Well, might as well do something productive, he thought. Something as complex as Flare Beam’s spell matrix was a bit much if he wanted to continue keeping an eye on her, which unfortunately meant that he was back to the damned Soulburn exercises.
The 724th Chaos-Fire pair was again a failure, as was the 732nd, a bare minute later.
After ten minutes, he was again starting to get bored. He could feel the Soulburn – and he thought he could ever so subtly nudge it to vent it slightly faster (as fast as one could get with a single Pyran, anyway), but manipulating it in any other way was completely out of the question.
Qiyu at least looked like she was enjoying some progress. Fire Essences were becoming separated from its sister Primals, shifting about. All Neophytes differed in their approach to Essence manipulation – some got the hang of first learning to draw it in, before distinguishing them apart once they knew the sweet spot with which to tug with their soul. Others, like Qiyu, first identified the unique flavours of each, before proceeding further.
Now that he thought about it, how did cultivators begin their training? From what contextual clues he had – Elder Yang’s cryptic hints, Wu Guanzhong’s and his fellow Sect-siblings’ belittling of his abilities at his lack of what they termed qi, and their genuine surprise that he was capable of decently high-level spellcasting – Sylar gathered that he was cultivating in the reverse order of what they were used to.
Spiritual cultivation, Elder Yang had said. His mind was refined, but his body was brittle.
If so, that meant that Soulburn alone was sufficient for harnessing this qi of theirs to strengthen the body, without the execution of any actual spells. Even the youngest of the cultivators he had glimpsed, who couldn’t be older than seven, were already engaging in the exercise. He liked to think that he had a better grasp on the finer aspects of Substantiology than a mere brat, so what was he missing? Why couldn’t he wield Soulburn like they did, when he already had well over a decade of experience in the art?
A line of questioning to follow up on later. He smiled, as Qiyu gasped, two Ferins of Fire Essence newly-infused into her soul.
It took a good twenty minutes or so. Not too shabby, considering it was only her second time, and it had been a day since his experiment with Share Sense.
“You remember what to do?” he asked. She nodded firmly. “Go on, then.”
He watched, the constituent Fire-Form and Fire-Fire pairs for Shape Fire primed and ready just in case she lost control. She closed her eyes, exhaled, and –
Backlash. She gasped, her breath catching, as the two Ferins of Essence activated improperly, and were burned away without effect.
“I – I’m sorry!” She looked at him in a panic, afraid that she had done something wrong. “I don’t know what happened!”
“It’s okay,” he assured her. “That’s what we call a backlash, or false casting. Even with the right matrix, if you activate the Essence wrongly, the spell can still fizzle out and fail. Take a short break, and wait for the Soulburn to fade. Everyone goes through it.”
“Even you, teacher?”
He gave a wry smile. “Especially me. Trust me, you don’t want to hear half of Master Rynwald’s complaints.”
“What is the right way to do it?”
“It’s hard to explain. I’m not sure if Share Sense will even be able to help clarify it. It’s less of something you perceive, and more of an… impulse, I guess,” he said, searching for the right word. “You know what? I think I asked Master Rynwald the same thing when I was a Neophyte.”
It was nostalgic, even though he was now an unofficial tutor of his own right. Back then, he could hardly chain two cantrips together, while he was now able to toss around Cutting Gales and Earthen Shells with impunity.
“How long did it take for you?”
“You really shouldn’t compare like that,” he chastised lightly. “Each Essence Pair has its own flavour and activation method. Given how many possible pairs there are, you’ll have a lot of combinatorial diversity.”
“What do you mean?”
“Put it this way,” he said. He wasn’t quite sure how strong her foundation in mathematics was – it had taken a fair deal of diligent study on his part back when he had just started his training when he was nine. “You know the different types of Essence you felt with my Share Sense, correct?”
“Well, there’s more to it than that. You felt the four Primal Essences, and five of the Seven Transcendentals. Life and Death were probably too faint for you to sense. In addition, there are two Core Essences that aren’t found in the natural world. Instead, each person makes only one specific type – Order, or Chaos.”
He spoke slowly, giving her time to digest the information. “Taking just one type of Core Essence into account, that’s already twelve different types of Essences to consider. That gives seventy-eight different possible combinations of Essence Pairs already, and ninety-one if you consider Core duality. Of course, most people don’t bother mastering all. I haven’t touched Death Essence.”
Come to think of it… was that what the cultivators here struggled with; getting a hang of the different flavours? Was that why they took to what they termed spiritual cultivation only after they honed their bodies through mysterious applications of Soulburn, focusing instead on the Cores and Primals?
“As a Neophyte, most people master the Four Primals first. That’s ten possible Essence pairs, each requiring its own special touch. You’ll find some easier to master than others.”
“That many possibilities in total?” Rather than being cowed, she seemed amazed by the underlying complexity. “How do you know?”
“Simple combinatorics,” he said. “Take the first example – twelve choose two with replacement gives thirteen factorial divided by two factorial eleven factorial which –“ He paused, sensing that he was losing her. “You know what? Ask your father. Say that you’ve suddenly and inexplicably awoken a profound interest in combinatorics, and that you want to learn more. Use those exact words, and don’t mention my name.”
Lucky me. Teaching Substantiology was one thing, while mathematics was another matter entirely. Such a sweet, naïve child.
“So, it could just be that Fire-Fire isn’t quite your cup of tea,” Sylar continued. “Once you get the hang of it, it becomes completely natural, you don’t even think about it anymore. You already successfully performed the spell once yesterday. Give it a few minutes, try again, and see if you can do it.”
“Yes, teacher.” Qiyu swept the fringe of her hair aside, tidying it up slightly after it had been displaced by her reaction to her failed casting. “I’m sorry I didn’t get it right.”
“Don’t be. These things take time. It’s already amazing that you’re drawing in Essence as it is.”
There was silence for a brief moment. Qiyu squirmed slightly in her seat. “Umm…” she hesitated. “Can I ask a question?”
“What is it?”
“Why are you weaker than the Righteous Heart’s cultivators?”
Ouch. And here he had just been calling her a sweet, naïve child. Even then, she was looking curiously at him, lacking any malice or ill-intent.
“Back where I come from, our cultivators pretty much only ever trained with Spiritual Arts. I’ll admit, it’s mind-boggling how different your cultivators are to those I’m used to,” Sylar said. “From what I can gather, your cultivators hone body, mind, and soul, and understand Essence in a completely different manner from myself.”
“So it’s your body that is weak?” Qiyu unknowingly twisted the knife with her words. “You should get stronger, then! Your Spiritual Arts were so much more powerful than that Senior Disciple’s!”
“It’s not that simple. Based on my understanding, your cultivators use something they call qi, in order to temper the body. I think it relates to Soulburn somehow, but I just don’t see it.” He sighed, slouching over with his torso resting on the table once more, uncaring about decorum. “For the longest time, I thought that Soulburn was… well, waste. I’ve spent all afternoon trying to use it in any way I can, but no matter what I try, it just refuses to budge in any way that matters.”
He didn’t know why he was airing his thoughts aloud. Perhaps his frustration was getting the better of him. He would admit to being embarrassed, humiliated, and annoyed that the kids on the mountain somehow possessed a great secret he couldn’t decipher.
“It just doesn’t fit,” he insisted. “Soulburn definitely can’t be placed into an Essence shell. Even the greatest of masters from Resham never succeeded in doing that. It can be nudged in the Soulburn cache to vent at a marginally faster rate by modifying the rate constant, but then it just disappears. I don’t know what I’m missing.”
He sighed. He was doing a lot of that, recently. “So that’s the problem,” he concluded. “I could go on for hours on the finer details of Essence Studies and Substantiology, but I just can’t figure out how Soulburn relates to qi. It doesn’t help that the daoshi somehow fits in somewhere as well if what Wenchai told me is accurate, even though as far as I can tell all it does is provide Life Essence.”
Qiyu nodded, a thoughtful look in her eye, having listened attentively during his impromptu rant.
“Sorry,” he said, waving his arms, and pushed himself back to a more professional-looking posture. “Do you want to get back to practice?”
“Teacher.” She still had a faraway look in her eye. Then, with a tone of curiosity, she asked a question. “It’s a silly question... but if you can’t touch the Soulburn when it's already stored, and you can’t put it back with Essence, what about using it in between?”
“In between?” he asked, furrowing his brows.
In the Transition?
Substantiology dogma dictated that Essence pairs activated and decayed, giving off their potential resting within.
And yet… for all their flavours, they all became the same resultant product. Pyrans of Soulburn. Spell theory had always held that the potential contained within was released when spells manifested. By returning to the Planes Beyond after being vented, Pyrans of Soulburn regained their lost potential, and leaked back into the material world as Essence – more so here, in the Immortal Lands, than back in Resham. It was the Essence Cycle.
But that wasn’t true. There was one big conundrum in Essence Studies, one that had never been solved to this day: what happened during failed activation of spells? Where did the potential energy go?
There, Essence became Soulburn, but there was no spell manifestation. Some suggested that it leaked directly back into the Planes Beyond; that it was too inherently unstable to be manifested in the material world.
But if it was instead released during the transition period, without a primary loss in the form of manifested spells, and then turned back into Soulburn all the same…
Surely a mage would have found that by now, if not at least considered it?
But then again, mages weren’t muscle-brained idiots. They – Sylar included – were, apparently, just regular old idiots who never considered the fact that a whole branch of Substantiology might be entirely wrong. Boring, unimaginative, arrogant idiots.
If this was indeed the case, the implications were staggering. Even if a mage had found it, they would naturally have tried forcing it to become part of a spell. Cultivators manipulated this loss of potential, infusing it into their bodies, rather than externally into the world beyond the self.
It… fit. Planes Beyond, it all fit. Burning away Core-Primal pairs, because those were the most available, and likely easiest to be self-aware of. Using the daoshi for an early boost, because they held Life Essence. For an Acolyte – or whatever the cultivator equivalent was – handling ambient Transcendentals directly might be difficult. If they imbibed it in through some obscure brewed elixir, they could draw upon the Life Essence, and release the potential held within.
And there were ninety-one pairs to draw from. Ninety-one potentials, each with their own unique flavour. Ninety-one ways to temper the body. Zhu had been burning Order-Death in front of his own eyes. The Righteous Heart Sect began with Core-Primals, and if his intuition was correct, transitioned to the Life contained within daoshi.
Forgotten Gods, who even said that was the limit? Did the potential change depending on which combinations of Essence Pairs were simultaneously burned, in the same way that spells manifested differently? Was this what Guanzhong had meant when he had mentioned their Sect’s cultivation secrets?
Even during Sylar's training, it had been well into his second year of apprenticeship that he finally got his way through the seventy-eight combinations of Essence pairs, Death not included. Trying to harness the lost potential would be like learning to crawl once more.
And – he could not get over it – there were ninety-one of the most basic units; possibly more when higher-scale complexity was applied.
Forget a correction to Essence Studies – if this was correct, it revolutionised the field.
And a damned ten-year-old child who had never been exposed to cultivation or Substantiology saw it before Sylar did, albeit unknowingly.
He needed to try it. Fate-Fate, the Diviner’s choice, and the one pair that had ever really clicked with him on his first try.
He burned it incorrectly, ignoring the proper casting of True Strike, a spell that that few mages ever used. It became Soulburn.
But there – in that nigh-imperceptible instant of transition, so faint that he could find it only when he was consciously looking, and even then wasn't fully convinced he hadn't just imagined it. There was just the barest of somethings there, that slipped from his grasp almost immediately, and vanished into nothingness – back to the Scribe’s Sanctum where it originated, probably. The sensation felt completely different from handling a properly activated Fate-Fate pair. How had he missed this all these years?
He had been so satisfied with the proper casting of spells, so self-assured that spells were all that Essence was good for, that he’d ignored this secret lying in plain sight. Why would any sane mage ever deliberately cause their spell to fail? So arrogant in their success, they had never looked to see what happened when they failed.
Another pair slid in place. Again, there was something. He tried to reach out, and again it slipped.
He couldn’t possibly enjoy success overnight. That was naïve.
But unlike the six-year-old kids up on the mountain, he was a bloody savant at Essence manipulation in comparison. His Essence flux, Essence capacity, rate of Soulburn dissipation, and Soulburn capacity far exceeded theirs.
Qiyu’s worried voice snapped him out of his rushing thoughts. “I’m sorry if I said something stupid –“
“Qiyu,” he interrupted. Already, he was snatching a stray sheet of parchment, penning down his thoughts furiously. “You’re a genius. An insane, naïve, annoyingly wonderful genius.”
He didn’t much care about making his body punch harder, but durability and speed were very much welcome. Beyond that, was there more? If half of what he knew about Essence Studies was apparently already incorrect, who was to say that the cultivators had the full picture? Could this lost potential be used for something else?
Sylar didn’t know. But as a Diviner, he thrived in not knowing. It was the purpose for their school's existence. He was once more the Neophyte, exploring a whole new wondrous world of magic.
“Let’s get back to work,” he ordered a stunned Qiyu. Who knew what kind of expression he even had on his face now? “This time, even if you fail to manifest a spell, try doing exactly as you suggested. Focus on the moment when Essence becomes Soulburn, and try infusing it into your body. Let’s reverse engineer your cultivators’ damned Body Tempering techniques.”
Sylar’s Secret Logbook-Diary
I have not written in a diary in over a decade, but in light of today’s events, perhaps it is the time to begin this practice again?
For you see, today was possibly the second most important day of my life. The first, of course, was when I first discovered the glorious world of Substantiology. No mage can ever forget their first successfully cast spell.
But I digress. Today, I have learned that I have only ever been tapping on one half of the power that dwelled within Essence. Perhaps the ancient mages of the lost Rostaran Civilisation knew better, or perhaps the few Archmages who chanced upon this had hidden this secret from the rest of the world – but it scarcely matters right now. What matters is figuring out how it works.
I am determined to tap on the potential that lies within the Fate-Fate Essence Pair. It seems… fitting, for a Diviner like myself. Over the evening, I have gotten used to continually keeping it going. In Resham, it would have been a waste of Essence – but here, with this much ambient Essence, this little expenditure means nothing.
I still struggle to infuse the released energy into my body. I think I am having a better sense for it, now that I know what to look for, but taking hold of the energy is another matter entirely. To be frank, I’m not sure if I’m even doing it right. From my understanding, strengthening the body is a long process, that can take upwards of months to years. Perhaps I am merely being impatient.
Qiyu, on the other hand, is adamant that she has managed something. I would not know – even with a Diviner’s sight, I have absolutely no idea what to look for. Still, her current rate of Essence acquisition and Soulburn dissipation is – well, there is no polite way to put it – abysmal. If she somehow manages to reach this mystical state that the cultivators call a tempered body first, I will be sorely humiliated.
Best hope it doesn’t come to that, eh?
… why am I even writing that comment to myself?
Anyway! Even as I put ink to paper, I continue to burn Fate-Fate. Hopefully, I will soon achieve results. I wish I could consult with the Elder about whether this theory is correct, or if I have become some crazy conspiracy theorist seeing things where there are none, but alas, the secrets of cultivation are well-guarded by their practitioners. Time will tell, I suppose.
Hmm… since I’m writing in a diary anyway, there was a funny incident over dinner. Qiyu actually asked Jin if she could be taught about combinatorics, saying that – I kid you not – she had ‘suddenly and inexplicably awoken a profound interest in combinatorics’. I, of course, disavowed myself from any such involvement. You should have seen the look on Jin’s face!
Wait, if I write ‘you’ in a diary, do I really mean me?
You know what? Diaries are confusing. This was a mistake.
Why am I even still writing this???
Back to practice!
[This log entry was ripped from its pages, and seared into nothingness by a Dancing Flames spell seconds later. Sylar Spellsight would later never admit to having written it in the first place.]