Magic and Balance
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"Now, listen closely. What I'm about to tell you is very important. Do you understand this, Catorsia?"

The voice of the elder witch, an ancient practitioner of thaumaturgy, fell upon the ears of the young felid fellow sitting before her like a lid falling upon a coffin. When a witch told you that what they were about to tell you was very important, you listened. You didn't simply listen, and god forbid you ever pretended to listen, but you listened with everything you had in you.

Unfortunately, Catorsia was a rather unobservant child, and had never learned this sacred fact of life.

"Yes, Mrs. Ghetrun. Of course." they said, eager to get on with the rest of the lesson.

Hrefna Ghetrun, senior witch and elder master of the thaumaturgical arts, stared upon her new pupil. It had been ages since she had been sought for teaching, as many considered her nothing more than a senile old woman who sat up late at night gibbering madness — or to some, sacred wisdom. And yet despite her age, Hrefna was astounded to find she was still very much in the teaching condition.

Teaching came to Hrefna naturally. It was a mark of a good magician to be able to teach others, to further on the esteemed art of weaving the fate of the world to your will. Dramatic as that may sound, it was nothing short of the truth. But the truth can always understate itself, and the overstatement of the matter was that real magicians hardly had any power. Fighting for dominance over destiny itself was as fruitless an endeavor as trying to wrest a bar of soap off of the bottom of the tub.

Yet still, many tried, and many failed, but the key thing keeping the whole cycle going were the simple concepts of determination and inspiration.

People were determined to learn anything that sounded new and entertaining, and became inspired when they heard of the power that magic could bestow upon them. Thus it was that many people had come to Hrefna over the course of her long life, seeking teaching in the way of witchcraft, just as she had done nearly a century ago.

Something that people often ignored when they became inspired by the power of magic, was the fact that absolute power often corrupts absolutely. A warning was heretofore given to all practitioners of magic across all of history, and it was a very important warning to give. And so, Hrefna cleared her throat, and asked again.

"Are you absolutely sure you understand how important this is? I don't need you staring off into space and missing this cause it's gonna be a very important warning, so you better listen here." said Hrefna.

"I'm absolutely sure, miss." said Catorsia. "I'm listening with both ears."

And just to demonstrate their point, they wiggled the two long ears atop their head.

"Good," she said, allowing a smile to creep across her face. "This warning is the warning that was given to me and all that came before me, passed down along generations, so you can see how it's quite important. It goes as such: When practicing magic, make sure that you've got a clear head and can properly exercise your will, your dominance over the magic — for if you do not control it, it will control you."

Catorsia blinked.

"Is that clear?" asked Hrefna.

"Is that all there is to it?" asked Catorsia.

Hrefna always hated it when people answered a question with another question, but luckily she had managed to get her temper under control over the years. So, she merely sighed, and said: "Yes, that's all there is to it. Magic is a wild thing, you see. An unruly beast. Don't believe what any wizards you may have heard tell you, they haven't the faintest idea what magic really is."

Catorsia tilted their head. "But you do?"

Hrefna puffed her chest out pridefully. "Yes, of course I do. All witches be knowing what exactly magic is and how to control it. Not like those damn wizards always meddling with things they don't understand. Magic is… you can think of it as raw creation. But it ain't just that. It's also destruction too, and everything in between. You see, magic's always been around. Probably even 'fore the winds came scorching around Orium's plains."

Catorsia listened intently, and provided comments only when they felt it necessary. Just to show that they were still listening.

"That long ago?" asked Catorsia.

"Yes, that long ago. Hell, maybe even longer ago than that. Point is— Magic's not something you mess with. It's powerful. The key to it all is balance." said Hrefna.

"Balancing what, exactly?"

"Balancing your own willpower and the strength of the inspiration surging into you. Magic gives you the inspiration and the power to meddle with things. But you're the one who's using it, and it's your will that shapes it. It's only a tool, but that's only so long as you make it one."

"If you ain't strong enough, or your will falters, even for a moment, the magic sees an opportunity. It tries to take control. Nobody ever figured out why it tries to take control, nor what its ultimate goal may be, but it always ends up driving those who are too weak mad. Always raving about whispering in their heads and how they can see people's souls and whatnot and the grand interconnectivityedness of everything." said Hrefna.

She paused to make sure Catorsia was still listening.

"You got all that?"

"Yes ma'am."

"Any questions so far?"

Catorsia put a paw to their chin and thought for a minute. Questions, hm? Well, I have a lot of them, but where to start?

"Hm… has anybody ever let themselves get taken by this magic before?" they asked at last.

Hrefna's eyes widened, and her eyebrows came with them. Not enough to show genuine concern, or to evoke any feeling of worry. Just enough to show intrigue.

"Let themselves get taken? Well…" she tapped her chin and thought for a moment. "There was that one time, a few decades back. I might be the only damn person left alive who knows about it."

Catorsia tilted their head.

"You hear about the Old Society, right? The one that was in the past, up before all these newfangled buildings were erected out in the plains and Orium tried to get itself back on its feet? Eking out an existence, and all that? That's your daily life, ain't it?" said Hrefna.

"Yes…?" said Catorsia, with an air of trepidation.

"I was still around 'fore all that happened." said Hrefna.

Catorsia's eyes widened this time. They widened by a large margin, and showed off the genuine concern and surprise that they were feeling down to their core.

"You were?!"

Hrefna nodded. "I was. I was there. You wanna know what happened?"

Catorsia swiftly nodded, their eyes gleaming.

Hrefna sighed. Of course they were a history nerd as well. "It all started about 80 years ago. I was only 21 at the time — just a wee lass. Come, follow me outside. We're going to do some open-field lecturing. New practice I just made up."

Hrefna stepped dutifully outside — or as dutifully as her frail old body would allow — and Catorsia followed behind, practically bounding after her.

Once they were out in the clearing outside of Hrefna's tent — or what could pass as a clearing on a world covered in barren plains and tall cliffs, which was comprised mostly of a small bowl between some mountains — Hrefna led Catorsia out into the center of the circle and spread out her arms wide. Catorsia held down their robes, as the wind blew them around frantically, and listened for what would happen next.

"You see all this, all around us? These barren plains, this barren little bowl nestled in between some mountains? This used to all be lush. It was beautiful. There were trees growing here, and everything. There was rivers flowing down the mountaintops, glorious waterfalls that people would write up tall tales about bathin' under — don't do that, by the way — and there were flowers of all the colors of the rainbow. And now? It's all gone." called Hrefna, over the sound of the howling wind.

Catorsia gasped, but their utterance was lost to the wind. "WHAT HAPPENED?!" they shouted, in a vague attempt to make their voice heard.

"You needn't shout — I've learned how to tune out the wind, y'know."

"Oh. Sorry." said Catorsia, much quieter this time. "What happened?"

"That's a good question, ain't it? Scholars up at Erminya have been studying that question for decades. Shame that there ain't any witnesses left alive, 'sides me, and I'm nothing but an old crone." said Hrefna.

"So, you don't remember?" asked Catorsia.

"Memory's a transient thing. If you get caught up wondering what you do and don't remember, then you won't have any time left to learn anything new." said Hrefna. "But I do know that it definitely had something to do with magic. You can still sense it, all around — practically around the whole planet. It was a bit overwhelming at first, but you get used to it. You've been studying how to detect thaumaturgical signatures and all that, haven't you?"

Catorsia nodded. "Yes. I know all about the different aspects and intensities and colors —"

Hrefna waved a hand. "Nevermind all that. You needn't be explaining to an elder witch about that stuff as if I don't already know. We're gonna do a little test. I want you to try sensing the magic in this area, using whatever you learned in them thaumaturgy books, and tell me what you see. Remember — control the magic, don't let it control you!"

Catorsia closed their eyes, and concentrated. They formed a mental image of the surrounding landscape, which was not very hard seeing as how there was nothing but barren plains, mountains in a bowl shape, and Hrefna's tent. Then, they tried to call out to the magic.

Magic is a peculiar thing. You can't go looking for it, and when you find it, you can't steal it for yourself. Many have tried, with little to no success. Magic needs to come to you. But if you don't put on a show of it, the magic will pass you right by. What magic is attracted by, is ideas. They don't have to be especially new, or especially bright, but you have to be passionate about them. Creativity, imagination — that's what feeds magic, that's the bait you set to lure it in.

And so Catorsia imagined. They imagined a scene around them, constructed out of the vivid imagery Hrefna's description of the land had set in their mind. Beautiful trees, towering high into the sky, rivers and waterfalls flowing down and around the mountains, flowers of all colors of the rainbow — and then they threw in some more to liven things up.

Deers cantering through the forest, hopping nimbly over logs. Rabbits scurrying away into their homes, hiding from the watchful eyes of the birds up above. And finally, people. They imagined that there had once been more people living here than just Hrefna. They imagined houses, much more impressive than a mere tent, and they imagined carved dirt paths and farms, and the sounds of village folk bustling through the town and going about their day.

And finally, the magic came. It crept in slowly, but its arrival was always unmistakable. A voice sounding much like their own whispered in the back of Catorsia's mind: Isn't this scene a bit too peaceful?

And Catorsia snapped open their eyes.

All around them, the landscape was awash in a dark red light. Particles of solid white light floated up from the ground, drifting lazily high into the sky. Many of the white specks circled around Hrefna, and around the sparse grasses that grew on the plains, and around Catorsia themselves. But most important of all was the sky itself. You could always read the intensity of magic by what color the sky was.

When the magic was happening actively, this color change would occur in the real world, flashing for a brief moment and dazzling all. It only ever appeared again when using the special gift granted to thaumaturgists, an ability known as Second Sight — the thaumaturgical sixth sense.

Second Sight could be tricky to glean anything from, especially in areas where a lot of different magic had occurred. Magic often dissipated over time as well, which only threw another wrench in the mix. But none of that was a problem, not here, not now.

The sky was solid black. Not merely black like the night, but the kind of black that was suffocating, that absorbed all light and completely stripped your eyes of their function. The kind of black that was so black that your brain would invent images made out of more black simply because it couldn't cope with the lack of visual information to process.

It was the color of Death. And it hung over the land in all directions, for as far as Catorsia could see.

"My god…" they whispered, as tears slowly streamed down their cheeks. "It's horrible!"

Catorsia slammed their eyes shut, and slowly opened them again, relieved to see that the Second Sight had left them.

Before them was the ordinary sight of the barren plains, and Hrefna standing before them.

"Well? What'd you see?" she asked.

"I— everything was red white and black." muttered Catorsia.

"You know what that all means?" said Hrefna.

"I know that the black is Death, but I don't know about the rest…" they sniffed.

"The white specks were the aspect the magic was targeting," said Hrefna. "They circled around you and me and all the grass. The magic was targeting life itself. The red… well, that's the aspect. Destruction. And finally, the sky— black as Death itself. That all comes together to form a very grim picture."

"Someone… tried to destroy all life on Orium?" asked Catorsia.

"Exactly."

"But why? Who would do such a thing?!"

"I ain't got a clue who, but I know why. It's the answer to your earlier question. This —" she motioned to the landscape all around them, "This is what happens when you let the magic take control. This is why everyone who practices magic is warned about the whole willpower thing. If you can't control it, it controls you — and it does whatever it damn well wants. Nearly ended all life on Orium, it did."

"Such terrifying power…" muttered Catorsia.

"Indeed. Are you sure you still want to go through with this?" asked Hrefna.

Catorsia thought deeply on this question. "Do… do you think I should?"

"That's a question you have to answer yourself," said Hrefna, her eye twitching slightly. This one, always answering questions with another question. It was almost enough to wake up an elderly lady's long-buried temper. "I can't do it for you."

Catorsia nodded, and spun around, observing the plains.

"I think… I think I'll go home now, and take some time to think about it." they said.

"Good lad. Go on then, back to the tent. I'll help you pack your stuff back up." said Hrefna.

A few minutes later, Catorsia walked out of Hrefna's tent, carrying a backpack stuffed full of scrolls, books, and snacks, and set off on their path back home. Before going, they made sure to turn around and wave. "Goodbye, Hrefna. Thank you!"

"It's no problem. Goodbye, Catorsia. See you next Tuesday!" called Hrefna.

And they were off.

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