“So not only did you lie to skip your foraging duties, you also almost managed to get yourselves killed by a Farro bird?”
“Yes, that’s right,” said Noel.
“And you’re telling me, that a couple of kids managed to outrun a Farro bird inside the forest without losing a single limb?”
“Yes, ma’am, we didn’t lose any limbs,” I said.
“Oh, I see, I understand now,” said Vell as she nodded with her arms crossed, “getting attacked by a Farro bird wasn’t exciting enough for you two. You wanted to get your fill of adventure by messing with me!”
She grabbed our ears and dragged us to the elders’ tent. I was afraid we’d be hit or spanked but it looked like both Vell and Starry preferred emotional punishment instead. Getting scolded was one thing, but hearing about how disappointed they were and how much they loved and cared for us was really tough. I’d only been in the Jora tribe for a couple days but even I felt like I’d spit in the faces of the ancestors who’d sacrificed their lives to keep us safe.
The elders also made us do a bunch of chores during our free time and made us stay up with the night watch to teach us the ‘boring side of adventure.’ Since I had only just arrived and they concluded—correctly—that Noel had been the mastermind behind our little adventure, the elders made sure to give her a special serving of scolding and chores.
But Noel didn’t seem to care too much. She didn’t say anything to the elders and received her punishments silently. She was used to it. I was sure she’d drag me away somewhere again once the elders were finished punishing us. Man, kids are stubborn.
Doing chores gave me some time to think about magic. The birds had given us the fundamentals of magic, but there wasn’t much we could do with it yet. When I told Noel how I set the Farro bird on fire, she tried to recreate my magic by setting a branch on fire but it didn’t work. I had only been able to use magic because I’d had a modern scientific education and knew how combustion worked. Explaining it to Noel on the way back to camp and then later during our chores still wasn’t enough to make her truly ‘understand’ what she had to do.
Knowledge and wisdom. What a crazy type of magic system. Why couldn’t we just learn spells or level up in easily defined and numbered categories? In most fantasy settings, you would either have a hard magic system or a soft magic system.
In hard magic systems, the rules were clearly defined. You had to recite spells or use a potion to cast magic. Magic power might be something you’re born with or something you had to work to acquire. There didn’t have to be a rule for everything, but in general, there were rules and limitations on magic and everybody had to follow them. In a hard magic system, magic could become a sort of science.
In soft magic systems, the rules were less clearly defined. A wizard might appear out of the blue, start casting magic, and have a sudden weakness appear out of nowhere. Vague laws might exist, something about love being stronger than hate or the importance of balance over passion. There could even be a few hard rules, or maybe only certain types of magic were possible, but overall, magic was magic precisely because it was ‘magical’ not scientific; magic did not need to be defined.
But magic being bound by ‘knowledge’ and ‘wisdom’ meant the magic of this world was neither hard nor soft. If one had to understand reality to change it, that would mean magic was somehow limited by reality. This also meant there was a rule that said that in order to know magic, you had to know about some aspect of reality.
And wisdom was even more limiting. Knowing about reality was one thing, but to understand how to use that knowledge while casting magic, meant you had to practice. Wisdom was like experience, it was something you gained over time. Every time I set something on fire, I would have a slightly better understanding of how to do it next time.
But there was more to this type of magic and it was this possibility that made me incredibly excited but also kind of afraid. It was this possibility that introduced the ambiguity that might make this world’s magic a lot ‘softer’ than it first appeared. After all, although the birds had given us the fundamentals of magic…
“What does fundamental even mean?” I asked aloud.
Noel and I were alone on one side of the camp at night. Sharun wasn’t on night watch tonight and I didn’t know any of the other hunters on night watch duty, so Noel and I could sit on our own as long as we kept our eyes on the empty plains in front of us.
Honestly, I had no idea why we were sitting here. It wasn’t like we could see any farther than a few feet in the darkness. There was a fire burning in the middle of the camp and it kept pretty much every monster and animal away, which was probably one of the reasons why it was so revered by the elves. I heard all kinds of noises out on the plains, and could’ve sworn I saw shadows and shapes sneaking around in the moonlight.
“Fundamentals?” said Noel, in a low whisper. “Fundamentals are the base of a tree. Is it something else in your language?”
The base of a tree was a good analogy. “No, it’s pretty close. If we wanted to climb a tree, we would start from the base of the trunk. We would slowly go up along the trunk, and cross various branches until we hit the top.”
“So you think learning magic is like climbing a tree?”
“Well, maybe,” I said, bringing out a small piece of wood. “It definitely works with my idea, so let’s run with it. Imagine magic is like a tree. We could climb the tree, right? We could start looking at the world around us, learning from the elders, breaking things down to see how they work, and doing experiments to figure things out. We could make ‘knowledge’ and ‘wisdom’ our foundations and then build on top of it.”
Noel nodded. “That makes sense. It’s also probably what the birds wanted us to do.”
“Have you ever heard of those birds before?” I asked.
“No, but it sounded like they were connected to the moon and the red star, and there’s only one other character in that story,” said Noel.
“Right, the God of Madness’ lover,” I said, staring at the moon. It was nice and calm tonight, but I still remember how it had stared at me that night.
“So if the birds wanted us to learn magic around ‘knowledge’ and ‘wisdom,’ it might not be the best idea to do so,” I said.
Noel frowned. “I see. What kind of being would the God of Madness fall in love with?”
“Not one we can completely trust.”
“Not one we can ignore either.”
I nodded. “I don’t think the birds will be insulted. They did say what they taught us was only a gift. And I think they knew ‘fundamentals’ would mean ‘base of a tree’ in your language.”
“So they wanted us to have this conversation?” asked Noel.
“I don’t know,” I said, “but I don’t think they’ll mind if we extended this metaphor a little more.”
I drew a tree in the ground with a stick. Pointing at the base, I said: “This is knowledge and wisdom.” I drew a branch further up. “After gathering some knowledge and wisdom, we can cast some magic like I did.” I drew some leaves on the branch. “I created fire with magic, but we could probably do other things too. Each of them is like a leaf on this branch. A different type of knowledge.”
“I see,” said Noel as she picked up her own stick. “And each new branch.” She made a new branch above mine. “Is more wisdom, or experience.”
“And if we keep going,” I said. Noel and I made more branches and leaves until… “we reach the top of the tree.”
A small tree drawn in the dirt. Somehow, it looked majestic and powerful, even though it was a crude little dirt drawing.
“But this is the important part,” I said, bringing my stick back to the base of the tree. “The base of the tree is the most useful to us, because we want to climb the tree. But what about the tree itself?”
“The tree itself?”
“Yes, isn’t there something below the base of the trunk? Something that isn’t directly useful to anyone trying to climb the tree, but without which the tree wouldn’t even stand upright.”
“The roots!” said Noel. “Are you saying there’s something below knowledge and wisdom? If knowledge and wisdom are the fundamentals, the base of the tree of magic, then there must be roots too.” Noel furrowed her brows. “The birds’ gift didn’t mention anything about the roots of magic though.”
“That’s because we don’t really need to know about the roots of magic to climb the tree. The roots are there, even if we can’t see them,” I said.
“I see,” said Noel. “But we want to know about them so we can better understand the tree itself.”
Noel nodded with a smile. “So what are these roots?”
I smiled back at her. “It’s kinda complicated, so let me explain it through a story. See, there was this elf back in my tribe who was really good at this kind of stuff.” I leaned back and faced the moon. “His name was Plato.”