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  • Writer's pictureMartin Vine

The Shape of Magic: Part III

The One Ring. Thanks to Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaptation of Tolkien’s fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings, you no longer have to wade through The Silmarillion to get the full backstory. In fact, I'd wager there are as yet undiscovered tribes deep in the Amazon basin who know the basic premise behind Sauron’s infamous jewellery collection and its blinding centrepiece.

One ring to rule them all, One ring to find them, One ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.

We know the ring that ended up in Frodo’s possession in Book I, The Fellowship of the Ring, was one of many gifted to the leaders of the great races of Middle Earth. We know that the whole thing was a double-cross by Sauron – part of his master plan to “rule them all” with an iron (fingerless) gauntlet from his scary, black tower in downtown Mordor.

Of course, Frodo’s was the One Ring. We get a hint of its terrible power when Gandalf refuses to so much as lay a hand upon it. Those who read The Hobbit knew in advance what it did to poor old Sméagol. Through the TLOTR primer, Frodo’s Uncle Bilbo learns that the ring bestows upon the wearer instant invisibility. And by the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, we learn of its ability to corrupt the bearer, as well as those travelling in company. We never really learn the true extent of its power.

Boromir admires the One Ring in TLOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring

It’s not important

Through The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien tells us everything we need to know about the One Ring. It played to a common fantasy theme, dating back to the age of mythology: messing with magical artefacts is not for the faint-hearted.

You may think of Boromir of Gondor, but my thoughts always return to Lorac of Silvanost. Dragonlance Saga fans will have recognised the Silvanesti royal from the previous instalment gracing the cover of a D&D module. That glowing sphere his skeletal hand is glued to is called a Dragon Orb. Lorac thought that getting his hands on such a powerful artefact would liberate his lands from invading dragons. Of course, dragons are powerful magic users in their own right, and all the hapless Lorac succeeded in doing was open a conduit between elf and lizard. Guess which one proved the more powerful of the two.

So how does all this relate to the magic of The Waking World trilogy? Hang in there – things are about to get a little strange.

Don’t laugh

As a small child, I was deathly afraid of vacuum cleaners – specifically the big noisy ones they use at closing time in department stores. Perhaps to invoke embarrassment, my mother recently reminded me of it. It didn’t work. I remember exactly why I was afraid of vacuum cleaners, and it is perfectly rational. You see, I was old enough to know that the dirt was being sucked away, but not yet old enough to know where it went. To my infant brain, the innocent hoover had the power to pull stuff out of this world.

The idea that something can get sucked out of this world into parts unknown has been a source of terror for me ever since the first day I broke from my mother’s arm to run screaming through the aisles at Grace Bros. Where did the dirt go? If you don’t know, it opens up a world of terror. The idea that there exists a void somewhere in which matter can be sucked into is terrifying enough.

What if it could take a human soul?

The forbidden zone

Another formative childhood memory – marginally less terrifying – comes courtesy of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies. In Superman II, we are introduced to a trio of Kryptonian supervillains. A stand-out scene was their trial and banishment from Krypton. The sight of three people trapped in a piece of plate-glass triggered all kinds of dark nightmares. We see their fear-filled faces, their palms pressed hopelessly against the glass. I tried to imagine what it would be like in their situation – spinning through the endless void of space. Sure they were bad guys, but flying plate-glass hell? What if all that spinning made the big, dumb, beardy one barf?

Of course, magic and technology are interchangeable, their principles applied according to genre – fantasy, sci-fi, superheroes, whatever. Regardless of your preference, the concept of an artefact/device that can trap, ensnare, steal a human soul is virtually an essential ingredient in all fantasy epics. It was certainly not lost on J.K. Rowling, who explored it through Voldemort’s horcruxes. Tolkien gorged upon it with his One Ring, Weiss and Hickman nailed it with Lorac’s Dragon Orb, but it was perhaps Robin Hobb that best tapped its potential.

In the original Farseer trilogy, coastal folk of the Six Duchies are being kidnapped by raiders from the OutIslands. If being stolen from your beds in the deep of night by reaving barbarians isn’t terrifying enough, Hobb cranks it up a notch by having the kidnapped later return as mindless zombies – Forged ones – stripped of their humanity by forces unknown. One has to invest in the follow-up Tawny Man series (highly recommended) to find the answers as to what happened to the unfortunate villagers. And it’s no spoiler to reveal that magic is at the core of their troubles.

All roads lead to Broken Meadow

Only on reflection do I truly appreciate the great cosmic soup of creative writing that sparked the genesis of The Waking World trilogy. None of it transferred on a conscious level, but these ideas filter down through the ages, and it is fitting that we pay tribute to the master storytellers who continue to influence and inspire. Many of their ideas relating to magical artefacts went into the forging of The Waking World’s most prized – the Sword of Sanctuary. In the Age of Foundation, only two known shards of the legendary geolyte crystal remain. We get a hint of how the original was destroyed in Book II, Chapter 4:

“Even though most had never seen it first hand, every school-age Syltling knew the history: the gorge had been formed when Corsair Primus Calef Whitecrow unleashed the power of the Sword of Sanctuary. As if Aethelron himself had taken a hoe to it, the earth had split apart, forming a chasm that reached all the way from cloud-kissed Lake Swännerlei to the Imperial capital. The alpen floodwaters had rushed downhill, flooding Sanufell to its tallest minaret.”
Hopskotch and the Golden Cicada: The Night of Skyfire
Sky rocks. Not good.

So what is the inherent quality of geolyte that makes it such a volatile force clasped within the palm of a Whisper mage? The answer is that it is not of the world of mortal Sylt, and was never meant to be. The genesis of the greater seam from which it was mined takes us back to Year of Empire: 1101. From Book I, Excerpt IX – The Night of Skyfire:

“And it did appear to the Syltian below as if the heavens themselves had erupted into inferno, and for a span of nearly three hours, beyond the first hour beyond midnight, great fireballs lit the skies over Celestia Gar, turning night into day as they shrieked across the horizon before smiting the earth below. Some of the grandest works of men were reduced to ash; entire communities were shut off from one another. The largest of the sky rocks ripped a great canyon out of the Fellensian Plateau that did not stop smoking for as long as Geldonian records survived.”

A sap for magic

Up to this point in Delgardian history, mages in service to Aethelron used dreigh amber to harness the power of Whisper magic. Whisper mages act as receptors and conduit, possessing the ability to channel it through their bodies and expel it as elemental energy. The dreigh amber works as a rechargable battery to catch and store the overflow. This serves a dual purpose: to prevent volatile magic overloading the wielder's mind, and as a latent source of Whisper magic that can be tapped in places of isolation.

Hopskotch and the Golden Cicada: dreigh amber
Dreigh amber: the fossilised sap of the mighty dreigh willow.

The magical properties of dreigh amber can be linked to its source, and all paths lead back to the god Aethelron. To a layperson, the dreigh amber is nothing more exotic than the fossilised sap of the the dreigh willow, a rare tree species native to Celestia Gar's Fellensian Plateau and distinguished by its gargantuan size. Dreigh amber is created when the impregnated Golden Duke cicadas slice into the bark to lay their eggs. The sap emitted is touched by the holy essence of the insects themselves, and thereby infused with the magic of Aethelron. Normal willow amber will work. Golden cicada amber works better.

Geolyte was another matter entirely, and not part of Aethelron’s original plan for Dellreigh. So where did it come from? Another clue from Book I, Excerpt XIV – The Violet Stone:

“The Fellensian archivists committed a great many hours in study and research into the most famous geolyte shard of their age – that which came to be known as the Sword of Sanctuary. And only through their science and alchemy did they eventually conclude that the mineral was neither native to Dellreigh, nor uniquely alien, but a fusion of two stones from two different worlds – both sharing properties of the other, yet evolving into something greater than the sum of its parts.”

What lies beneath

Would the Sword of Sanctuary bring salvation to the lands of Sylt, or was it destined to be their own Pandora’s box? A new and potentially volatile force had appeared upon the continent of Celestia Gar, and that it was discovered in a time of great need did not answer the question.

Of course, the Sword of Sanctuary was no created artefact, forged in the laboratory of some High Wizard or Council of Mages. It was merely one fragment of a greater subterranean seam, infused with properties heretofore unknown in the lands of Sylt. There was more of it to be mined, and factions rallying with great interest in tapping its undiscovered power.

And not all of them were very nice.

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