Piece Two – A Puzzling World

Curian stared intently at the curious trinket on the table before her. She had seen something very similar, if not entirely identical, to it, but so long ago it may as well have been a previous lifetime. She wondered what it could be, or what could be hidden within the trinket, and so with a deep breath and a gentle touch she picked the trinket up and began turning it over in her hands. She listened closely for any sounds, but there were none to be heard.

“All right, you go ahead and be difficult,” Curian muttered. “I’ll figure you out before long.” She picked at one of the small switches only to discover it refused to move, as if it were locked in place. She turned the trinket over in her hands and found another only to be met with the same results. She set it down on the table and sighed. She stepped away from the table, her feet leading her to a small shelf.

She retrieved a stoppered bottle of rum for which she’d traded a story and a fresh baked loaf of bread. The traveler, who had only stayed at her modest cottage for a night, insisted it was one of the finest rums she would ever drink as it had been stolen from the lost temple of some God-King whose name had been forgotten over time and lack of worship, and so it was only to be imbibed under very serious or auspicious circumstances.

Once the stopper was removed the smell hit her like a falling boulder. It was far from subtle, and stunk of very old bananas and spices. Curian tried wafting the aroma to see if that would lessen its punch. It didn’t–if anything, the potency and pungency of the rum’s funk only seemed more intense.

Curian took the small bottle of rum back to the table and set it next to the curious trinket.

“If I have to, and only if I have to, I suppose it’s worth a try,” Curian said to herself, eyeing the drink. She wrinkled her nose. “Not just yet.”

She picked up the trinket again, turning it over in her hands. A dial near Curian’s right thumb felt like it jutted out a little further than the surrounding metal. First, a turn clockwise which seemed to do nothing. She turned it back, then counter-clockwise until there was a soft clicking sound. Curian nearly dropped the trinket, excitement washing over her in a wave at the possibility of progress. She let go of the dial to explore the rest of the trinket, and the dial snapped back into its original position.

“Damn you,” Curian muttered. “That wasn’t very helpful.” She eyed the rum again. She sighed, somewhat resigned, and hoped that the traveler hadn’t been lying.

“Bottom’s up,” Curian said, pinching her nose with her fingers as she upended the bottle into her mouth. It tasted like warmth, first and foremost, followed by a powerful mix of cinnamon, bananas, and porridge. It far more dense than she had expected, but still went down smoothly and left a lingering tingling feeling dancing about her tongue and around her teeth. She set the bottle down as steadily as she could, the spirits already doing their work.

“Forgotten God-King, let’s hope your fancy swill was worth it,” Curian said as she picked the trinket back up. She turned it over in her hands, her eyes probing and poking at every inch of its surface. The dials, it seemed, as well as the buttons and switches all seemed to be at set intervals, grouped in small trios–one of each. They all looked identical, or close enough to identical at a glance, but Curian remembered the dial she had found that seemed to be recessed into the metal. She turned the trinket over in her hands again, feeling around it until she located the dial she sought. Again, she turned it counter clockwise until there was a soft click. This time, however, she held it in place. Gently, she set the trinket down on the table and held the dial with one hand while testing the button with her free hand. It moved into the trinket with a soft pop, and a silver door shut over where it had been.

Cautious, but driven by greater curiosity still, Curian attempted to engage the switch. She nudged it with her thumb, and with little effort on her part the switch moved upwards until it jutted out slightly from the trinket’s surface.

“Finally getting somewhere,” Curian murmured to the trinket only for the stench of banana funk on her breath to hit her nose. She thumbed at the switch again and it snapped downwards into the trinket. A thin line of ruby appeared where the switch was, and before Curian could react the dial slipped from her grasp and disappeared into the trinket to be covered by a small image of the sun.

That’s when Curian heard the ticking sound begin. Something had started to whir gently within the trinket, ticking not entirely like a clock and not entirely like a bomb. It had an urgency to it, and Curian could feel her breath catch as she waited. The trinket grew white hot in a flash, previously feeling cool to the touch. She dropped it to the table, and it rolled and spun gently for a moment before it stopped.

“What…” Curian said before she was cut off. The trinket spun rapidly on the table, the other dials and switches and buttons activating seemingly of their own accord. A gentle chime issued from the trinket as each set of interfaces disappeared beneath its metal surface. By the time the last one disappeared, it glowed like a coal in the fireplace. The ruby lines seemed to crawl along the trinket’s surface as the trinket continued to spin wildly. It snapped to a sudden stop, the image of the sun facing Curian.

The sun had a little face etched into its surface, and Curian was certain the face winked at her.

The trinket exploded outwards into the room in a brilliant flash of light.

“Oh, shit,” Curian managed to say as she was enveloped in the warm, brilliant bloom. Everything was suddenly dark, save for points of light that hurtled past Curian at extraordinary speeds.

Everything stopped.

Curian found herself standing at the base of a long, winding stone stairway that snaked its way through what must have been a wondrous castle at one point, though it was but an echo of its former self. To call it ruins would be generous, with parapets that sloped abruptly into courtyards and towers whose rooms were open to the air on most sides. Amidst the ruined castle loomed a tower higher than the others. The stairway wrapped and wound its way from where Curian stood to the top of the tower.

And in the air above the tower, glowing more brilliantly than a bonfire in the dead of a winter’s night, floated the curious trinket.

Capturing the magic of magic systems

The concept of magic (or magick, in some cases) is absolutely fascinating to me. It’s neither inherently good nor evil, and it has a virtually unlimited number of practical uses. Each fantasy world has its own approach to magic use and magic systems, too, further adding to a story’s complexity. Better still, magic can range in importance from being a key plot device to just being background noise.

Alternatively, there are plenty of arguments against magic in fantasy (written, on-screen, etc). It feels like a cheap solution that characters can use to further the plot and bypass otherwise-insurmountable obstacles. It’s lazy. There are too many different approaches to the same thing. And so on. While I appreciate these views, I don’t necessarily agree with them. I think a large part of how well or poorly magic and a magic system works in a story comes down to how it impacts the way characters interact. I’m not just talking about how characters interact with each other, but also with situations and environments.

A quick and easy example to go off of: a character is entering some temple hall. It’s vast and ancient, and above all else it’s most certainly very dark. Yes, the character should be carrying a torch. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. There’s always a chance some giant spider-demon had to be dispatched by the torches flames earlier. That’s not the point. The chamber is, as all ancient temple halls are, loaded with dastardly traps just waiting for some careless rube to trigger them. There are also convenient, relatively well-used torches lining the walls. They’re extinguished, however. It’s not like someone gets paid to stick around these places and reignite torches for a living; the folks who did wised up years before and unionized, making it near-impossible to keep such rooms as this well lit.

Now the character could very well build suspense by crossing this room by torchlight. There’s no doubt in my mind that readers would be on the edge of their seats, fearful for our nameless hero. Or the hero could ignite the torches with a well-used, well-timed spell. With the right elements–a mysterious shadow shifting about, or perhaps something foul awakened by the newly reignited torches–and the right pacing, this use of magic works to help the plot along while still helping build tension. This example doesn’t even begin to delve into the realm of possibility in which backfiring spells and misspoken curses, among other things, exist.

There’s also a lot of fun in basing entire civilizations around a centralized magic system. It allows for a lot of fun what-ifs. What if that society’s magic system collapsed suddenly (whether that was by means of the magic suddenly no longer being accessible or turning against the magic users)? What if the ability to properly harness magic was only afforded to society’s super-rich? Or perhaps its outcasts, instead?

Obviously, all things in proper moderation and so on and so forth.

What’s the best approach to magic? To really own it and make it part of a story? To let it be a small part of a bigger world? Or, perhaps, is it best to just avoid it entirely and work on other methods of storytelling?

Finding magic, and a touch of personal philosophy

Or “I could have very easily gone for the low-hanging fruit and said ‘Phil-osophy’, but I’m usually not that awful”.

This is going to be a surprisingly serious post, which I realize is somewhat unusual. Don’t worry. The usual safety net of snark and cynicism will still be there. Moving along.

I strongly believe it’s possible to find magic, at least some sort of magic, in all things. I don’t mean this in the you-got-a-letter-to-Hogwarts way, though that would certainly be cause for celebration. The sort of magic I’m talking about isn’t a new discovery, either, but it’s something people have always enjoyed. Things like reading a book outside on a nice, just-warm-enough-but-not-too-hot summer evening; seeing a friend for the first time in years; perhaps learning something new about yourself as a person. I could easily go on for a good while with examples just like those. Continue reading