Dawn Harshaw / Dream Magic: Awakenings / Chapter 8 - Ritual Magic
Repetition might not be the mother of learning, but it is the mother of conditioning!
- Spells and Wizardry, Psychic Handbook
"Rose, right? I remember you. If you ever visit the Outpost, I'll make sure to find you a mentor in negotiation and diplomacy."
Before Mr. Smith arrived, the three of them were lounging in the benevolent shade of a big tree. Eric felt rested - really rested, as if he slept through a week straight. Through the attunements, he caught a glimpse of the many things going on inside him; he gained confidence and hope for the future ahead. Lucy and Rose seemed to share his contemplative disposition. Did the girls grow taller, or is my memory messing with me?
"Joe asked me to run you through the basics of ritual magic. It should do you good, especially in light of your recent experiences." Mr. Smith wiped a low-hanging branch out of his face. "Ritual magic makes it easier to channel the elemental energies into their proper places and keep your consciousness finely honed. I have time now, but we can also schedule a class for a later time. Which do you prefer?"
Eric didn't know what ritual magic was, but he enjoyed Mr. Smith's nightmare examination class. Mr. Smith was wearing the same tie-less suit, and even the collar of his shirt was tightly buttoned. Won't he choke? Eric ran his fingers through the neckline of his own t-shirt as an assurance. He caught the looks of Rose and Lucy, waiting for him to say their decision out loud.
"Sure," Eric said. "We can do it now."
They began to stand up, but Mr. Smith gestured for them to stay and sat down next to them. He cracked his fingers.
"Focus item users would say that ritual magic is an obvious offshoot of focus magic, since concentrating and channeling is its primary domain. If you ask elementalists, they will say that ritual magic is part of earth magic, as it deals with formation and stability. There are other theories too, but I prefer a simpler viewpoint." He paused.
"Humans are creatures of habit. You are young and may not fully realize the impact of this statement. As you grow and become more experienced, you'll notice people around you falling into obvious habitual patterns: thought patterns, emotional responses, social behavior - in about that order. People become predictable, and even worse, they develop a certain blindness towards themselves."
Mr. Smith thumped on his knee.
"Habits are powerful things. If uncontrolled, habits are something that happen to you, something that you fall into. The most devious nightmares appear when your fear gains control of your habits. In such a state, the breaking of habits is of utmost importance."
"Thankfully, habits can be controlled, and moreso, consciously cultivated. On the individual level, most of ritual magic is about harnessing the power of such cultivated habits," Mr. Smith continued. "Can you tell me what you think a magic spell is?"
Lucy took out her handbook and started flipping through it.
"An incantation," Rose said.
"A formula?" Eric asked.
"An incantation or a written formula is often a part of a spell, but rarely the wholeness of it. If we're talking about a formula in the sense of an algorithm, then we're closer to the mark," Mr. Smith said.
Lucy found what she was looking for and read aloud from the book: "...every magic spell is in fact the habitual application of ritual magic: a string of gestures, movement, mental or emotional steps etc. that can efficiently, reliably, quickly and repeatably lead to the desired magical outcome."
"Hey, that's cheating! You're not supposed to read the answer from the book," Rose said.
Lucy slammed the book shut. "No, it isn't."
"Yes, it is," Rose said emphatically.
Eric rolled his eyes.
"That's a decent definition," Mr. Smith said. "Mastering an individual spell is about conditioning your mind and body to make the familiar steps of achieving a familiar intermediary goal. If you cast a spell a thousand times, and if you pay at least a little attention to what you're doing, you will certainly improve. Practice makes perfect, as they say. From then on, casting that spell will require minimal conscious effort, thus freeing you from the 'how' and enabling you to focus on the goal."
"So, you carve the spell into your brain," Eric said.
"That's an interesting view, if a little simplistic. Yes, the pathways of a spell become carved into your brain through practice. Any questions?"
"Don't we have to memorize spells?" Lucy asked.
"It is common practice for mages to jot down ideas in a spellbook, much like cooks or alchemists collect recipes in a cookbook. Study and memorization are beneficial for researching and designing a spell, but are not integral parts of spellcasting. In other words, a recipe is not enough - it takes a master chef's art and experience to create a culinary marvel."
"That bacon we ate was pretty tasty... just sayin'," Eric whispered to Rose.
"Simple is often better, I agree," Mr. Smith said.
* * *
Knees slightly bent, Eric stepped back with his right foot, drew his hands to his right hip and pushed out, focusing on the air sphere to contain the fire bursting forth from his hand. He did it the way Ohlson taught him before, but the results were still not satisfactory. Much better than the flame jet, though.
The fire that left his hand bumped against the magic sphere containing it, curled within it... but the restrictive air shape dissipated soon enough and the fire lashed out in the direction it was travelling towards. The flames flashed and then disappeared, leaving a trail of smoke which promptly disappeared too.
Mr. Smith was sitting under the tree, watching the three of them train intently. Every now and then he got up to offer advice and suggest adjustments.
Each of them had to pick a basic elemental spell to practice. For Eric, this was naturally the fireball; he already knew what he was supposed to do, but his execution was lacking. Nevertheless, the feeling of fire within him was more in-tune than before, and he knew he would get it right if he kept practicing.
Eric paused to catch his breath and replenish his concentration. He looked over to Lucy and Rose to see if they were making progress.
Rose was able to turn a magic sphere into a large ball of air, which whooshed and went out as a gust of wind. It was impressive to see leaves and dust twirling in the air, but the airball did not pack much of a punch. Not yet. Progress was slow, but there was progress.
Lucy was trying to make a waterball. She was unsure whether to pick water or earth as her first element, but after discussing it with Mr. Smith, he agreed to explain to her various ball-type spells of both. Lucy was able to turn the motions of the magic sphere into an internally waving, watery substance that floated above her hand. Like a spherical glass of water without the glass. She couldn't hold it for more than a second or two - the water splashed on her palm, poured down from her hand and soaked into the ground. Her clothes were drenched from all the previous attempts.
Eric took another breath and repeated the process. A fireball flew out if his hand, but the containment shape dispersed and the flames lashed out in the direction of travel.
"That's a nice firebolt. Don't worry, you're making progress," Mr. Smith said to Eric. "You're just trying too forcefully. Here, like this," he stood next to Eric and assumed a similar training pose. "If you're pushing out with both hands, like you're doing now, you're imparting too much force and that makes containment difficult. It's good technique for earth or water personalities, but you already have a lot of fire within. Try positioning one hand under the sphere for stability, and pushing out with the other one as you're used to."
Eric assumed the stance, and when he pulled back his hands to the right side of his hip, the palm of his left hand was facing up. Eric pushed out and let go, following the fireball's path with his eyes. This time it looked much more like a proper fireball, and it traveled a longer distance before flaring out.
"Well done. Keep practicing until you're comfortable with the spell," Mr. Smith said.
"As an alternative, you can put both hands under for stability, and push only with your mind. This way is slower, but you can guide it like a missile if you maintain a more demanding level of concentration. Instead of the fireball flying away from you, imagine part of you flying with it, pushing it to where you want to go."
"You could also try pushing with one hand from the side and positioning one hand above - using the energy from your hand to impart a spin, like you would in table tennis. This helps with containment at the expense of control, but at least the power level doesn't change."
"Thank you," Eric said. He was proud of his success, and eager to try again.
Mr. Smith walked away from Eric and addressed Rose. "Good job, however, your shape is not structurally sound. Don't only weigh down on the rotation from the outside, but also expand to it from the inside. This way, the resistance..."
Eric moved his arms and legs around as an impromptu stretching exercise. He put his hands on his hip, stretched his neck and torso backwards, then around in a circle. He took a deep breath and assumed the familiar stance.
* * *
Eric caught sight of Kyle and Lyle sneaking around. The two of them hid behind a tree, occasionally peeking out and whispering. Eric pretended not to notice, but he kept watching from the corner of his eye. The brothers sprinted towards a bush and then hopped behind a young tree, the trunk of which was not wide enough to conceal them completely. The whispering got more spirited, but when a dog's bark was heard in the distance, they stopped jabbering and froze.
Eric carried on with his practice.
Soon enough, Eric saw the two shapes sneaking even closer in a cartoony way: knees raised high, trying to touch the ground only with the tip of their toes and spreading their arms out for balance. Slipping through shadows in broad daylight, haha.
"Now", Eric heard the not very silent whisper.
In their hands, Kyle and Lyle made a fireball each, pushed the two together into a bigger one, and started charging towards Eric and the others. They roared, and the fireball grew in size as they came closer. It was obvious to Eric they had containment as well as control issues, but since there were two of them steering the spell, the charge continued in a straight-enough line.
"I've got this!" Rose shouted and sent an airball flying.
The smaller ball of air entered the unstably large fireball, and like a balloon, it popped. The minor explosion ruffled the boys' hair and sent fiery chunks of energy flying. Some of those chunks fell down on them, leaving charcoal marks on their faces and singeing their clothes. Eric grimaced involuntarily when the smell of burnt hair reached him.
Despite the results, Kyle and Lyle were giggling and grinning as they walked closer, obviously quite satisfied with their prank. "That was great, wasn't it!"
Eric couldn't help but laugh, and so did Lucy and Rose. The charred remains of a leaf landed on Eric's arm, and he brushed it off.
"You're interrupting my class," Mr. Smith said flatly.
The grins waned, and Eric could almost see what went through the pranksters' minds: first a sense of dread, then thoughts scrambling for a witty retort, and finally submission.
"Sorry... we didn't know it was a class." They backed away a few steps.
You don't mess around with a man who doesn't smile.
"Just as well... I might even have use for you. How about you go get the dog while I talk to my students? We will all play a game together," Mr. Smith said, sounding almost ominous.
Kyle was visibly relieved to get off so easy.
"Yes! We'll be right back!" Lyle shouted, already on his way.
Mr. Smith turned to Lucy, Eric and Rose. "So far, we talked about spells as personal rituals based on controlled habits. I won't go in-depth, but I will mention that if there are more people involved, habit is complemented by protocol and various techniques of symbol-weaving, telepathy, and channeling become more useful. Inter-personal rituals can be constructed carefully, relying on the protocol part, but good teams can also 'wing it', so to say, by relying more on the habitual component of their shared history."
"Are we going to practice such a spell?" Lucy asked.
"No, that would be excessive. We're going to focus only on the most important part: teamwork."
"I don't get it," Eric said. "What kind of rituals are these?"
"An inter-personal ritual can range from opening a faraway portal and summoning a major demon, to organized druidic sanctification of land or the more esoteric rituals of reality-weaving... It can be anything really. Powerful spells that are not too time-sensitive are often performed collectively. Even the compounded fireball those noise-makers made counts as such a ritual."
"So, what are we going to do then?" Eric asked.
"We're going to play catch," Mr. Smith replied, and turned his head in the direction of a loud bark.
Strangely, the two riders on top of Duke were silent this time, and they remained silent even after dismounting. They must've used up their daily noise allowance. Duke went around to each member of the group, greeting with a sniff and getting a pat in return. Even Mr. Smith patted Duke, and the dog quietly curled up by his side.
Mr. Smith extended his hand in front of him. A fireball appeared, floating above his palm. He looked at Lyle, shouted "Catch!", and lobbed the fireball in a gentle arc.
Lyle caught the ball with both hands.
"Good. Now throw it to someone else."
Lyle grinned, swung his arm back, and threw the fireball with full strength at Rose.
"Hey!" She dodged.
"I said throw to, not throw at!" Mr. Smith reprimanded. He made another fireball and tossed it to Kyle.
Kyle threw it to Rose; she caught it and passed it to Eric.
Eric held out both hands in front of him, preparing to catch with his hands as well as his mind - this was, after all, the spell he was practicing for hours. It was smaller and less powerful than the ones he made, but the rotations of the sphere containing the fire were adequate. He easily continued those movements in his imagination and caught the fireball. The fire in it was similar to the feeling of his own fire, and now in full control of the spell, he threw the ball to Lucy as delicately as he could.
"Ouch, burning!" Lucy caught the fireball, but dropped it at once. It fell to the ground and dispersed.
"That's alright," Mr. Smith said and made yet another fireball.
When the ball got to Lucy, she dropped it again, and the scenario repeated itself several times. On the fourth try, Lucy caught the fireball by letting her hand slide into the center of it - it looked like her hand became a torch. She waved her hand in Mr. Smith's direction, and the fireball flew off. She smiled with relief.
After a while the group's confidence broadened, and Mr. Smith switched to an airball.
Rose did not so much catch, but deflect with elegance. Lucy handled it without problems, too.
When it got to Kyle or Lyle, the ball of air spread out and weakened, but when they passed it on, it narrowed and strengthened again.
"Don't just throw the ball and forget about it; this is a team exercise. Follow it, guide it, and offer control to the person you're throwing it to. When you're catching, you're claiming control. When you're throwing, you're bestowing control. Feel the ebb and flow of the spell's energies, and make it as easy for your teammates as you can."
There was too much movement and speed in the airball for Eric to comprehend it fully. He focused on the parts of it that he understood, kept it from falling apart, and passed it on as soon as he could.
"What if someone works against us?" Rose asked.
"In that case, the push and pull becomes a battle of minds. It can be very hard to claim control over a hostile spell. Dispelling it by exploiting the structure of the spell is easier. At least one dispel ritual should be part of your arsenal, but master the basics first and worry about the rest later."
The waterball was next on the menu. When Lucy pitched, it seemed to Eric like moving stillness; translucent and ethereal. However, when he had to catch, it just shifted around his hand before slipping away and splattering on the ground.
After several tries, he came up with a trick: he imagined catching and throwing, catching and throwing, and so on many times while the ball of water flew towards him. It was a strange feeling, like when a raindrop shatters into even smaller drops: each reflecting light similarly, but separately. Despite the strangeness, it worked, and Eric managed to pass the ball on without splattering.
Kyle and Lyle had no such insight, and the waterball splashed on their hands every single time. They grew increasingly restless and began deliberately hitting it, aiming for the splatter to soak someone else.
"That will be enough. I think we covered the basics," Mr. Smith said. "We also trained a lot, and as far as I'm concerned, the class is finished. How do you feel about homework?"
"If we could-"
A resounding "NO!" from the rest of the group drowned Lucy's voice out.
Dawn Harshaw / Dream Magic: Awakenings / Chapter 8 - Ritual Magic