“You’re saying the Oracle told you two to come to her every day?” asked Starry as he took away our lit blessing sticks. We had re-lit them with magic on the way back from the Oracle.
Noel nodded. “She said the future is unclear and the starred monster is too dangerous for her to not have a couple of messengers nearby.”
“But surely we could assign someone else,” argued Vell. “Someone with longer legs to run away with or someone who can better protect themselves from monsters. You’re saying she doesn’t even want you two to come with escorts!”
I nodded this time. “The starred monster is only after big game. The two of us are small and can hide more easily. She also said that you’ll need all the good hunters and foragers to help gather food in case we end up having to run to the highlands after all.”
“Oh, and there’s something important in our future,” said Noel, “the Oracle didn’t go into the details, but she said we needed to stay close to her so she could guide us to our destiny.”
I hadn’t been sure about adding that last part into our little story but it was a great way to explain our magic. Learning magic from the Oracle would be a lot more legitimate than learning it from a bunch of birds sitting in a circle inside a tree trunk. Also, we’d be able to gather sympathy from the tribes that weren’t completely loyal to the Oracle by claiming we had learned too well from our master which was why she was trying to get rid of us.
Starry and Vell looked at each. The other elves were busy guarding the camp, gathering food, and scouting for signs of the starred monster. The elders sent Sharun and a few hunters to the nearest tribe, to begin setting up a meeting with all the tribal elders. We had already told the elders about the starred monster and the Oracle’s advice to run to the highlands, but they’d done as I’d predicted and were trying to fight instead of fleeing.
“If the Oracle sees something great in your destiny,” said Starry, “then it is not our place to hold you back.”
“But if you ever need our help,” said Vell, “please, ask us. You don’t have to carry this burden alone.” She put a hand on each of our shoulders and brought us in for a hug. “That’s what family is for. We have to look out for each other, okay?”
Noel and I nodded. I’d only known them for a couple of days but they were already treating me like family. I guess that makes sense in a close-knit society where orphans like Noel were absorbed into the larger extended family without a second thought.
I felt a little guilty about lying to them after Vell’s emotional speech. Although I comforted myself with the knowledge our actions were for their safety too. There was something unsettling about the power the Oracle had over the tribes of the Plains of Serenity. And no, I wasn’t paranoid because of the messed up things done by the oracle from Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. I liked my literature major roommate, but not enough to base life and death issues off of a book he recommended.
Giving our tribe the ability to resist the Oracle was a good thing, I told myself. And if we perfected our magic a little more, we could teach all the elves how to use it and end the need to go to The Terrible for his blessing. We could make them better hunters and make magic the center of elven life!
The elders let us go after we said the Oracle wanted us to go back after passing on her message to the leaders. Noel and I figured we needed as much time as possible to practice magic, so we would leave immediately. Starry wanted us to eat before we went, but Noel said she’d seen some fruit on the way to the Oracle’s haunt that we could eat instead.
“Is this far enough?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Noel, “the foragers and hunters won’t come this far.”
We had left the Jora tribe’s camp a while ago and went in the general direction of the Oracle’s haunt. We kept an eye out in case anyone was following us, but clearly, no one had the time. Noel and I stopped in a clearing and began preparing to train.
“Should we just keep casting fire magic?” asked Noel. “Your big plan to grow stronger was to practice like hell but is that really going to be enough?”
“We definitely need to practice,” I said, lighting a flame, extinguishing it, and then lighting it again, “but we could also think about how to use our magic more effectively. Back when I lit the Farro Bird on fire, I could only light its feathers as fuel. But now, I can even set the air itself on fire.”
“How can you do that?” asked Noel. “Don’t you need something to burn. Something like wood or feathers?”
“I am burning something,” I said. “When you burn wood, there’s stuff left behind, right? Air is kind of like that too. It isn’t one thing but many things that are mixed together to make the air around us. And some of those parts of air can be burned like wood.”
I’d spent a little more time thinking about the composition of air as well as processes for extraction of different gases. Methane and hydrogen were flammable but really hard to extract in a usable form back on my Earth. I chose to work with methane, since I knew we could sort of capture it by chilling the air and fractionally distilling it. The process was more complicated than that and I wasn’t a chemical engineer, but what I did know seemed to be enough for me to isolate and concentrate enough methane to produce a flame in the air. It wasn’t a powerful flame and I couldn’t keep it going forever, but it was better than what I’d used against the Farro Bird.
Noel stared at the flame above my hand. “So you’re still setting something on fire, but it’s not something that I can see.”
“Exactly,” I said. “Once you know there’s something you can burn in the air, it’s not that difficult to use magic to set it on fire. Setting the air on fire is pretty useful too.” I held out my hand and a flame burst forth, lighting up a few inches of air in front of my hand. “And if I can better understand how this magic works, I could throw fire at somewhere from far away or maybe even send out waves of fire around my body to stop people from getting close.” I closed my fist and the flame disappeared.
“The air is like water…” muttered Noel. “That gives me an idea.” Noel walked over to a small pond near the edge of the clearing. She stretched out both of her hands and glared at the water in the pond. I blinked a couple of times. Was Noel already trying to cast different types of magic? I’d sort of assumed she would follow my lead on magic since I had knowledge from another world, but I guess I’d underestimated her creativity.
The water didn’t move at all, but I asked Noel what she was trying to do. She said she was trying to get the water to move out of the pond in waves. She imagined the water moving like water in a river, smashing into the banks before overflowing. I decided to give it a try as well, but nothing happened.
Maybe fire was easier because it was a chemical process and involved just a few key things. Moving water wasn’t a chemical process but a physical one. Rather than understanding water, we would need to understand motion, then the motion of water, and finally the ‘wisdom’ of how to turn that understanding into magic.
It was at times like this that I wished this world had a simple magic system like in dungeons and dragons. The board-games society at my university had tried all sorts of custom tabletop and role-playing games, but none of them had a magic system that could match the fun and relative simplicity of D&D’s tiered magic system. A lot of video games had simple magic systems too, and they were always fun to play with. If all you had to do was level up to learn spells, or go to a non-playable character, or use a scroll, learning and using magic became less of a chore and more of a fun upgrade that let you go on bigger and better adventures!
Yet here we were, Noel and I, staring at a pond, trying to get the water to swish a little. I was trying to follow Noel’s method of imagining moving water, but it looked like that wouldn’t be enough. Did I seriously have to start pulling out Newton’s laws of motion to move a little water?
The real problem with using more complicated knowledge seemed to be the ‘wisdom’ part of the magic of this world. Knowing Newton’s laws was one thing, but understanding them well enough and then using that understanding to cast magic, was another. This was why I couldn’t just look up at the sun, imagine it undergoing more rapid nuclear fusion, and destroy the world with a thought.
But if I couldn’t use Newton’s laws, what other choice did I have to try to get this water to move? It’s not like there were other people obsessed with the question of change and motion before Newton…
“Wait,” I said. “Noel, let’s talk about people with funny names again for a second.”