Sery sat in her usual study room, reading the new tome Foria had given her. It was titled,
On Sources: A History and Theoretical Framework
Chapter 2: The Golden Age of Sources
Much of our knowledge on Sources in the distant past comes from oral tradition and sparse records kept by certain old religious organizations. These peoples did not use modern, rigorous systems of measurement and classification, so little is certain, but it is clear that several millennia ago, Sources were much more abundant than they are now, perhaps as common as one in fifty mages, compared to our current estimates of one in 1-2 million. During this period, known as the Tribal Age, it was generally accepted that Sources created all the magic used by all mages in the world, a belief now referred to as the Source Hypothesis. The majority of modern scholars are skeptical of this, due to the current scarcity of Sources and no noticeable failure in magic. Those who still hold this belief point out that not a single known Source since their decline in frequency has been rated at less than four stars, a statistical impossibility if Source strength is distributed along the same normal curve as other mages, with the population mean at half of one star. Given that in any given generation, the Archmage is usually rated at six stars, it is unlikely that even multiple four-star Sources would be able to supply mana particles at the rate they are being consumed. Source Hypothesis scholars posit that perhaps weaker Sources are simply never discovered and go about their lives assuming they are true nulls while still generating magic, though multiple population surveys looking for this within null citizens have not yielded any results.
Regardless of whether Sources are the sole producers of mana particles, they are certainly able to refill a mage’s
instantly, compared to the weeks to months this takes through passive mana particle absorption. It was for this ability that they were gathered in the years preceding and during the Archmage Wars that devastated the lands that would eventually become the Seven Kingdoms, between 700 and 1200 years ago. It was during this time, when many Sources were forced into breeding programs and not allowed to choose their partners, that they experienced a precipitous decline in population frequency. The Tribal Age accounts differ, but our best estimates are that approximately half of Sources’ children once became Sources. The records from the Archmage Wars show that the first generation of breeding programs attained close to this rate, but by the second generation, the child of two Sources had only a 1/1000 chance of gaining the ability. By the third generation, the rate was so low that it was not calculable, and Sources had effectively disappeared from the population.
Sery stopped reading to rub her eyes. The wording of this book was much more convoluted than the introductory text Foria had first given her, and often referred to concepts from subjects she had not learned about. Sery had already gone downstairs twice to ask Foria to clarify things from Chapter 1, and she did not want to bother the busy web-mage any more today.
Sery wished Veltyen were here.
She shook the thought from her head. Veltyen often travelled away for jobs, the nature of combat-oriented work being that there was not a lot to do in one place. She would have to be beyond spoiled to want him to change his whole life to keep her company. No, she would simply be happy when he was here, and work hard to be deserving of this wonderful life he had given her.
Before Sery could turn back to her overly-complicated book, someone tapped on the door and opened it. Sery looked up, surprised to see Foria. Surely lunch was not for at least another hour?
Foria’s expression was unusually grim. “Sery, are you able to come with me for a little bit?” the web-mage asked.
Sery nodded and stood, leaving her book behind. She felt a knot form in her stomach, wondering what bad thing had happened to make Foria look so unhappy.
Seeing Sery’s anxiety, Foria consciously took a deep breath and smiled. “It’s nothing major, Sery. Just one of our guild members not taking care of himself. He’s constantly overdrawing his
and making himself sick. He just got back from a job and is doing it again, and I thought you could help him. Either way, it’s not an emergency.”
Sery nodded again, relaxing. If all that was needed was a magic boost, Sery was confident she could help.
Foria led the way out of the guild hall. On the way out, Sery noticed a new sign at the front that read, ‘Visitors, please press palm against mana crystal interface’. Foria’s usual dimension-magic interface was now on the counter, facing outwards, rather than in its usual spot on the desk behind the counter. Sery was curious about the new arrangement, but Foria looked focused on the problem with the guild member, so Sery hurried after the web-mage’s brisk stride without asking.
Foria kept up the same pace through the streets of Eterna, arriving at a large, three-storey apartment block only a few streets away from Veltyen’s apartments. The web-mage pulled open the front door and continued inside, clearly familiar with the building. Sery followed, absorbing the clean-but-plain entranceway that led to hallways of numbered apartment doors on either side and an equally serviceable staircase straight ahead. Foria took the stairs to the second floor, which revealed hallways identical to the ground floor. Foria strode to the door numbered ‘27’ and knocked.
There was no immediate response, but Foria looked confident that she would be answered. A minute later, the door opened, revealing a man a perhaps few years younger than Veltyen. His skin was pale in a way that implied illness, and there were dark circles under his light brown eyes. His short brown hair had streaks of silver in it, but also threads of white, and was coarse in texture, as if he had been ill for a long time. Though it was almost noon, he wore a rumpled, grey sleeping outfit and was barefoot.
Leaving the door open, the young man turned and stumbled back into his apartment, climbing back into the bed he had clearly just left. Foria strode inside and Sery followed uncertainly, gently closing the door behind her.
Sery took in the apartment at a glance. Much smaller than Veltyen’s living quarters, the bachelor suite was a single room. The bed was at the far end from the door, under the apartment’s single small window. On the left was a kitchenette with a few cupboards and a small mana-crystal stove. On the right was a plain table with two matching chairs. There were clothes draped haphazardly over the bed’s footboard and unwashed dishes on the table, but the room was otherwise clean.
Foria had made her way over to the bed and was looking down at its occupant, hands on her hips. Sery went to stand next to the web-mage and gasped. The young man now looked deathly ill; even his lips were pale and his eyes were unfocused. How had he become so much worse in less than a minute?
“Stop that,” Foria snapped. “You’re killing yourself just to recover a few days earlier.” When there was no reply, her voice turned icy. “I don’t care if your
is replenished tomorrow; I’m taking you off the active list for a month.”
Colour abruptly flooded the young man’s face. It was the same paleness it had been when he opened the door, but looked positively healthy compared to the deathly pallor it had been bare seconds ago. He sat up. “You can’t do that,” he protested.
Foria’s eyes narrowed. “What makes you think I can’t?” she asked, voice soft with threat.
The two locked eyes in a battle of wills, and it was the young man who looked away. “Fine, fine,” he muttered. A healthy pink flowed into his skin and he suddenly looked to be in perfect health. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and sat scowling at his feet.
Satisfied, Foria turned to Sery. “Sery, this is Asher Pallei, one of our guild members. I’m sorry for all the confusion, but could you give him a boost? I’ll explain after. Asher, Sery is Eterna’s newest member. She’s a Source, and I expect you to write up an agreement with her as soon as you get dressed.”
Sery did not understand all that was happening, so she focused on what she did understand. The young man – Asher, she reminded herself – look startled when she grasped his hand. “What—” She closed her eyes.
His words cut off when magic began to flow.
Sery took the fizzy magic inside of her and poured it into Asher’s
. The strange thing was, it never seemed to fill up. In her mind’s eye, she sensed that it was not very large – perhaps slightly bigger than Kiera’s, so she guessed it rated three-star – but the mana particles that she poured in seemed to disappear somewhere, leaving it no fuller than before.
Frowning, Sery pushed harder on her magic, trying to fill up the
faster than it could empty. Her heart began to pound and she became dizzy, but she stubbornly continued to increase the flow, pouring her magic out.
Sery blinked open her eyes to find herself looking at an unfamiliar ceiling. Turning her head, she saw that she was lying in Asher’s former place on his bed. Frowning in disorientation, she slowly sat up. Her limbs felt shaky for a moment, but quickly steadied.
Foria was not in the apartment, but Asher was. The young man jumped up from his seat at the table. “You’re awake! How do you feel?”
Sery nodded, not quite comfortable speaking while alone with this stranger. When he frowned in confusion, she forced herself to add, “Fine.” The word came out more timidly than she had intended.
“…Good. Foria went out to find a life-mage to look at you. Eterna’s not big enough to rate a full-time healer, but most life-mages have enough training to deal with the major things. She should be back soon.”
Sery nodded again, rising from the bed to take the other seat at the table. Being in a spare guest bed was one thing; being in the bed someone actually slept in was totally another.
As she moved, Asher made an abortive movement forward, as if to help her, but stopped when it was clear she was steady on her feet. Standing indecisively for a moment, he suddenly brightened and asked, “Would you like some tea?”
Sery nodded, more because making tea would take Asher’s attention away from her rather than any thirst. It was impossible to be unobtrusive while being stared at. She was gradually beginning to feel hungry, but remained silent. A clock on the wall told her that it was past noon. It seemed that she had fainted, and stayed that way for over an hour.
Asher went to his kitchenette and rummaged in the cupboards before coming up with a plain earthenware teapot and matching cups. Putting water to boil, he opened a tin of tea leaves and put a pinch into the teapot. Asher’s movements were not clumsy, but it was clear that this was not something he did often.
Asher poured the boiling water into the teapot and carried it over to the table. Sery got up to bring the cups over before he could make a second trip. “Oh— Thanks,” he said.
As he poured the tea, Sery noticed Asher’s guild mark on his left palm, a dark purple. He was a dimensional mage like Foria, then. Now that he was no longer ill, his expression was intelligent and focused. He handed her a cup of tea. “Thank you,” she mumbled. The cup had a handle, so she was able to pick it up, but it was too hot to drink. She blew on the liquid gently.
Asher did not appear to have the same difficulty, sipping at his tea without concern for the heat. His expression, however, was uneasy. “I suppose you’d like an explanation of what happened,” he said.
“What appears to have happened – and, of course, I’ve never encountered a Source before, so this is all educated guessing – is that I took more mana particles from you than your
could spare at one time. Your body went into unconsciousness in order to stop the transfer.”
Sery nodded. The textbooks that she had read so far did not specifically explain how Sources’
differed from other mages, but it was an unbreakable rule that to become overly depleted resulted in illness, even death in extreme cases. “But…” she started. She still did not understand where the magic had gone.
“How did I manage to absorb so much?” he guessed. Sery nodded and he continued, “I’m technically a three-star mage, but one of my skills is manipulating the time dimension. By storing extra magic in the future and drawing on it at need, I can function as a five-star mage.”
Sery stared. Using magic from the future?
Asher smiled at her expression. “Yes, that is how everyone reacted when I first proposed this mechanism, but I managed to make it work. Got two papers published in the
Guild Association Journal
out of it, too.” He visibly shook off his smug look and returned to the topic. “Anyways, the point is, I’ve trained myself to automatically store whatever magic I’ve managed to absorb in my future
to maximize the rate at which I replenish my stores. I can’t leave my present
empty, of course, but I’ve managed to sustain a rate as low as thirteen percent.”
“That’s too low,” Sery protested. Anything below 20% was considered bad for health. Sery now understood why Asher looked so deathly ill before.
Asher waved a hand dismissively. “It may be a bit uncomfortable, but I’m totally fine afterwards.”
Sery did not feel comfortable arguing with a near-stranger, but she hoped Foria would return soon to talk some sense into this young man who was clearly pushing himself past his body’s limits. She took a sip of her tea and scalded her tongue.
As if summoned by her thoughts, a sharp rap sounded at the door. Foria entered without waiting for a response, leading an older woman in her sixties dressed for rough outdoor work.
Foria’s harried expression calmed somewhat upon seeing Sery. “Sery! How are you feeling?”
Sery nodded, belatedly adding a verbal, “Fine.”
Foria absently acknowledged the words, more concerned with a visual inspection of Sery’s health. Satisfied, she moved away and introduced, “This is Agatha Groves, a life-mage from one of the farms that supplies Eterna. She graciously agreed to take some time to look at you today. Agatha, this is Sery, our newest guild member and a Source.”
“Hello,” Sery greeted timidly. “Thank you for coming.” She attempted to stand, but was waved down by both Foria and Agatha.
“Hello to you, girl,” said Agatha. Her eyes were sharp despite the wrinkles in her skin and the grey mixing with the silver in her hair, and she looked over Sery’s condition in a swift glance. “Well, if you’re up and talking, there’s probably not much I can do for you, but let me take a look with my other senses, since Foria went through all the trouble of coming to get me.”
Agatha took Sery’s hand and closed her eyes much as Sery did when she transferred magic to someone else. The life-mage’s trance lasted much longer; over a minute passed before she opened her eyes and announced, “Nothing life-threatening happening, which is all I’d be able to sense. I’m a cheese-maker, not a healer. Girl could probably use a few extra meals, but you don’t need magic to see that.” She released Sery’s hand.
Foria sighed in relief. “Thank you, Agatha. I can arrange for a cab to drive you back—”
“I can walk,” Agatha interrupted. “The day I need to be driven for a quarter-league trip on a warm, sunny day is the day I need to retire and start spoiling my grandchildren.”
“Well, if you’re sure… I’ll add today’s fee to your invoice for next week’s shipment,” said Foria.
“No need,” Agatha countered, “I gained more magic than I used just now. Girl packs quite the punch.”
Money again. Sery had none, but she had something mages seemed to value. Reaching out hesitatingly, she brushed her fingers against the back of Agatha’s hand and pushed a dab of her fizzy magic into the life-mage. It was enough to fill Agatha’s small
to the brim.
Agatha caught her breath and straightened abruptly. “Well.” Another breath, and then a sharp look at Sery. “Girl, don’t just go around throwing your power around. Some people might not like it, and some people might like it too much, if you catch my drift.”
Sery frowned in puzzlement. Foria looked somewhat confused, though she appeared to agree with Agatha’s sentiment. In contrast, Asher seemed to understand completely, and shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
“I see that you don’t,” Agatha said dryly. “I’ll leave it to Foria to explain. Fair weather to you.” Nodding to each of the three guild members, she took her leave.
“Thanks again, Agatha!” Foria called after her.
As the door closed, the web-mage fixed a sharp eye on Asher. His reaction had not escaped her notice, either. “Explain.”
Asher shifted again, avoiding eye contact. “It’s, uh, the transfer…”
“Yes, that is the topic of conversation,” Foria said with exaggerated patience.
“It, uh, feels…” he glanced around, as if looking for an escape route. Finding none, he lamely ended, “Good.”
Foria’s eyebrows shot up. Sery was still confused, but Foria appeared to have understood something from Asher’s words that Sery failed to grasp. “Good,” she repeated flatly.
Asher replied only with a look of embarrassed acknowledgement.
“Well.” Foria visibly gathered herself and changed the subject. “I wanted to get a contract between you two written up and signed today, but it appears that another day might be better. I’ll take Sery back to the guild to rest and you,” she glared admonishingly at Asher, “will stop actively shortening your lifespan.”
Asher nodded. “About the active list…” he trailed off hopefully.
Foria rolled her eyes and said, “I’ll list you as active, but if I even notice you
about going below twenty-five percent
reserves, I’ll send you into early retirement, effective immediately.
“Twenty-five?” Asher protested. He subsided when Foria shot him a quelling look. “Fine,” he sighed.
Foria smiled, returning to her usual serene mood. “Excellent. Drop by the guild hall and we’ll set things up. See you later. Come on, Sery.” Foria let herself out of the apartment, and Sery followed with a hurried exchange of goodbyes with Asher.
Foria set a much more relaxed pace on the way back. “Are you really okay?” she asked Sery, genuine concern in her expression.
Sery nodded. “Hungry, though.”
Foria blinked in surprise and laughed. “We are late to lunch, aren’t we? Maurio won’t be pleased.”
Suddenly, the web-mage’s glasses flashed with light. Foria lifted a hand to the frames and said, “There’s someone at the front desk. Sery, do me a favor and don’t let me crash into anything while we’re walking.” She placed a hand on Sery’s shoulder.
Sery nodded though she did not understand the request.
The necessity of a guide became clear when Foria’s lenses gained opacity and she stared at something beyond her present surroundings. Sery began to walk more carefully, paying attention to any uneven spots on the street that might cause Foria to trip.
“Hello there, Mr. Whittler. How are you today?”
“No, sorry. I am just returning to the guild hall now; what you’re seeing is a projection of my image.”
“Yes, I rarely step away from the desk during operating hours, but there was a somewhat urgent situation to deal with. Anyways, how may Eterna help you today?”
“Excellent; and how is he doing?”
“Good to hear. You can just leave the letter behind the counter and I will transmit its contents over to Tille’s Guild as soon as I return.”
“How many pages is it?”
“That will be the standard fee of 10 Os.”
“Thank you. You can just leave it beside the letter.”
Foria bowed formally, the motion looking extremely odd as she continued to walk. “Thank you, Mr. Whittler. Have a nice day!”
Foria’s glasses became clear again, and she took her hand off of Sery’s shoulder. “Thanks, Sery.”
Sery nodded and looked up at Foria curiously.
Catching the glance, Foria explained, “That was an image projection through the information dimension to my screen at the front desk. It takes quite a bit of power to run, so I don’t use it very often. I guess I can be a bit more wasteful with magic now that you’re here,” she said with a wink.
Sery nodded again despite not fully understanding the explanation.
Foria laughed. “Oh, Sery.” She sighed. “Veltyen is not going to be happy about today.”
Sery tilted her head in curiosity. “Why?”
Foria shot her a disbelieving look. “Perhaps you’ll recall losing consciousness about an hour ago?”
Sery’s eyes widened in consternation. She did not want to make Veltyen worry. “…Don’t tell him?” she suggested.
Compared to before, the disbelief in Foria’s expression was even more pronounced. “You really think that that’s a viable option? Veltyen doesn’t have a temper at all, but if anything was guaranteed to make him angry, that would be it.”
Sery stared at the ground, silently accepting the rebuke.
Foria bumped her shoulder against Sery’s. “Hey, chin up. It’s not like you committed a crime or anything. Besides, Veltyen is far more likely to yell at me – or maybe Asher – than you.”
Sery nodded, but the fact remained that Veltyen would be upset because of something she had done. She silently vowed to work even harder to not make trouble and be helpful to him and the guild.