Dawn Harshaw / Dream Magic: Awakenings / Chapter 16 - Symbol-Weaving

Chapter 16 - Symbol-Weaving


The obvious limitation of mathematics is the unquestioned axiom, but there is a hidden one as well: dogma. To define an axiom, we have to define what it means to define. If we don't, we fall into a continuous collapse of meta-mathematics, and to prevent that, we define 'to define' against our own consciousness that thinks about mathematical concepts. Thus, symmetry is broken and an axiom is established against the backdrop that is dogma.

We have to see mathematics for what it is: a human language doing its best to tame magic with form alone.

- Where Magic and Science Meet,
Dreamer's Handbook

The traditional method of linear definition and axiom enumeration lends itself well to doing calculations. Alternatively, we can create an axiom by plugging the problem parts into an equation (e.g. Euler's Identity) and proceeding with circular definitions from that point on. Symmetry-breaking using functional inequalities offers multiple handles for relation and theory management, and lends itself better to under- and overstanding the local axiom/dogma dynamic.

[Editor's comment: Interestingly, proctors of non-mathematical sciences use analogues of the latter approach, but rarely without a degree of stubborn ignorance; often claiming that the method they use is the one and true 'real' scientific method.]

- Where Magic and Science Meet,
Dreamer's Handbook

Kyle and Lyle were dragging a large sack.

"No! We don't need... help..." Kyle said, panting.

With the sun about to set, after a long afternoon combing the field for litter left by goblins, Eric was glad the day was nearing its end. The goblins weren't an orderly bunch; rubbish was everywhere, smelling awful and sticky with sweat and dirt. And who knows what other bodily excrements. Yuck.

"Did you clear the entire tree line?" Mr. Smith asked.

"I think we... got everything," Kyle said.

The sack fell to the ground with a thud.

"Did you destroy all the wards?"

"We did. They pissed all over the trees," Lyle pinched his nose in disgust.

"Good job."

Kyle and Lyle sat down next to Mr. Smith. They were breathing heavily.

"Wards are like booby-traps, right? Isn't that dangerous?" Rose asked.

"There are many types of wards," Lucy said.

Mr. Smith raised an eyebrow. "You think I would use Kyle and Lyle as mine clearers? Those were just harmless alarm wards."

"What do you mean?"

"Some warlords send out children as human mine detectors; to step on mines so their own troops could safely pass."

Eric contemplated the implications. "Kids our age get sent to their deaths like that?"

"No, not your age. You would be more valuable as a soldier since you can hold a firearm. Younger children."

"But that's horrible! Goblins really do these kinds of things?" Rose asked.

"No. Humans do, back in the real world."

A feeling of intense wrongness pressed against Eric's mind and swirled in his stomach. It makes no sense. A tinge of guilt over his relative privilege colored the wrongness.

Eric decided to push the feeling away. It's too big for me. I'm a kid; I'll deal with it when I'm an adult.

Kyle and Lyle were catching their breaths and paid no heed to the discussion.

"Tell him about the robot!" Lyle nudged his brother.

"Oh yea, we found a broken robot! It was too heavy for us to bring back with the rest of the garbage. Should we go back for it?"

"Are you strong enough to carry it?"

Lyle raised his arms to show off his muscles.

Kyle nodded. "Come," he said to Lyle and the two of them ran off.

"The problems of the world are heavy... You can't tackle it all at once." Mr. Smith drew the sack closer. He picked up a stick and poked around in it.

"If your bodies are exhausted but your minds are still fresh, I can teach you some basics of symbol-weaving. It could prove useful in the long run."

"Yes!" Lucy said.

Lucy... Eric sighed. I hope it's not all talk.

Mr. Smith examined several items from the sack: a wooden rod, an armor piece, a crude bracelet.

"Symbols are anchor points. We all operate with symbols, internally as well as externally. The benefit of using a symbol is that it gives awareness a somewhat fixed point to shift, focus on, and run circles around. It is a reflection through which understanding can be made clear."

He went through more items; a patched breastplate, the head of an axe, a broken sword.

They all had markings, reminding Eric of the many carvings found on classroom desks. Goblins get bored too.

"I hoped there would be something useful here, but... nothing."

Once Mr. Smith put everything back, the sack floated up into the air and turned into flames. The flames burned searing white, and the resulting ashes promptly phased out of existence. "The portal strained the realm enough, no need to compound the stress with these reality-remnants. The goblins brought over some of their flora too, but we'll leave that Maeve and her assistant."

Mr. Smith threw away the stick. "I'll explain more of the theory, then. Pay attention."

"Understanding is the inward motion of a net; rationalizing the world and slicing it with Ockham's razor. The constriction and expansion of relations, the normalization, the simplification, the grasping of essence and the pruning of the irrelevant to bring back a useful simulation - this is 'understanding'."

Eric chuckled. "I don't understand understanding."

"You jest, however, the mind is wondrous... Anyway," Mr. Smith gesticulated rigidly with his arms as he talked.

"Overstanding is the outward motion of a net; charging out and projecting its reality into the world. It is the exclamation, the bursting of pipes, the change of simple into complex, the release of ratios and relations, the imprinting of existence upon the Void."

"What kind of net are you talking about? Like a fishing net?" Rose asked.

"Kind of. A net is a semi-stable structure arising from the holographic principle, marked by the lines of broken symmetry. It is rudimentary self-awareness. Well, technically all awareness is self-awareness, but we reserve the term for the more shielded ego-structures with distinctive identities. In the case of humans, the net is the neural structure of the brain, anchoring and projecting the mind through a cloud of electromagnetic awareness."

A twitching facial muscle made a vein pop on Mr. Smith's face as he concentrated his thoughts into words and prepared to impart them.

"But, that's a topic for another day. What is important for us now is the direction of this motion: understanding moves the world inside and overstanding moves it outside."

"In the physical realm, the brain commands the limbs by sending electric impulses through the nerves, and overstanding occurs indirectly, in a higher order of abstraction - you imagine what you want, and achieve it through the use of your body. Overstanding directly requires fluidity of identity, and is rarely practiced by non-mages, but we all do it in the less heavy realms of dreams."

"Just as our bodies have heartbeats, so do our minds find the stability of existence in the pulsation between understanding and overstanding."

"We arrive at two of the most primal archetypes a symbol-weaver operates with: That which only understands can only observe, and is called the Taker. That which only overstands can only act, and is called the Giver."

"These two archetypes form the philosophical basis of many religious beliefs as well as more practical approaches. Of course, absolutes don't actually exist in separation, and you must cover all your base when constructing deities."

Eric noticed a hissing sound. Kyle and Lyle were pulling a large, metallic thing, and the sound came from the object sliding through the grass, occasionally hitting a small stone or a lump of earth.

"We got the robot!" Lyle yelled. He and Kyle brought the hunk of metal near the group and dropped it with a clank.

Mr. Smith grabbed the stick again and strategically poked the thing a few times. "Hmm, this might actually be useful..."

"Yay!" Kyle high-fived Lyle. "It was trying to climb a tree."

The thing was composed of metallic plates, with parts of it missing. It had a head, a torso, and one leg - but the arms and the other leg were gone. The undamaged parts had a metallic shine of orange and yellow. It still tried to move - without much success. A large, round symbol on its forehead emitted a faint blue light.

"This is a golem, albeit severely damaged. Maybe you saw the few guarding the portal."

"It's not a robot?" Lyle asked.


"Aw..." Kyle and Lyle's enthusiasm faded. Sulking, they wandered away.

Mr. Smith continued. "Interest in golem animation among goblin tribes is a recent development. The human threat is one factor, but goblins are scavengers by nature and they also possess a fascination with monstrosities. However, I don't think you're interested in goblin psychology; what is of interest to us is this round, engraved symbol." He pointed to the golem's forehead.

"This symbol represents the awareness and influence of the one who put it there. It's not the symbol which animates that which is less animate - it is the clear mind of the mage, funneled through and reflected around the external symbol placed on the golem."

Mr. Smith lowered his arm.

"A golem with a single symbol is crude and difficult to control. Placing a symbol on each limb is more flexible, but also energy intensive. Technomages place many symbols, thus they gain precision and a wide variety of options."

"One solution to increased complexity is automation, in which case the symbolism may distance from the mage's mind. In earth-heavy planes, when the symbolism becomes so dense as to become completely interweaved with the imprinted material, we call it 'technology'."

"Generally, you can treat a symbol like a miniature ego-image, a mediator of your presence. Whereas with elemental spells you mostly externalize emotions, with symbol-weaving you externalize your thoughts. The external form of a symbol serves as reinforcement, be it written, spoken, painted, pushed directly into another mind, or otherwise."

Mr. Smith lifted the golem's head and traced the outline of the symbol with his forefinger.

"A golem's symbol is its central point and also a weak point. Removing the symbol disturbs the clarity of the caster's understanding, and dispels the symbol's power. Of course, removal is not always easy, as the caster's mind extends it a degree of protection."

"It's not uncommon for symbol-weavers to forget about some symbols they maintain. Since they keep operating on a subconscious level, such neglected symbols become a drain on the psyche. It requires self-discipline to keep such clutter at bay. By destroying this damaged golem, we're actually doing the shaman a favor."

Mr. Smith placed his hand on the golem's forehead for a few seconds. The golem stopped twitching, and when Mr. Smith removed his hand, the metal below it was spotless and shiny - no sign of engraving.

"Now that the essence of the golem is destroyed, let's clean up the remains."

The plates of metal rose up into the air. A thin layer of smoke enveloped the plates as they began glowing white. With a bright flash, the floating metal turned into putty and imploded shortly thereafter. It left only a faint metallic smell behind.

"Some symbols are sleek and simple, capturing the essence of related understanding. Other symbols are complex, with parts maintaining sub-associations of their own. Then there are symbol-sets, where the meaning is attached not to a single symbol but to an arranged collection of them. Do any of you know what these are? We all use them."

"Words?" Rose asked.

"Runes?" Eric asked.

"An alphabet?" Lucy asked.

"Correct. The sounds and markings of an alphabet form words, which are the carriers of meaning and exist within the framework of a language. Linguistic magic is very powerful, but also insidiously dangerous. It boosts thinking, and as a bonus, provides a relatively objective baseline for communication. Word-symbols of social languages reach deep into the collective unconscious and find their meanings there."

"The pull of language on the psyche is very strong; a language is a framework of symbols so extensive it very much tints the experienced reality. If you're not careful, it can become a mindmap telling you the world is flat."

Mr. Smith cracked his fingers.

"One misconception among fledgling mages is the 'true name' myth: believing that everything has a 'true name', and that by knowing the name the mage can claim complete control over the thing named. Unfortunately for them, labeling and categorizing does not equate with understanding."

"The true name of a thing is the thing itself. To experience the reality of that thing, the mage has to tear down the veil of linguistic abstraction and one's own symbolic constructs. It's not easy, especially for adults, who are often stuck in their own 'fishing net', as you say. That's why namelessness is considered sacred in some cultures."

"Elementalists, too, may confuse the elements as standalone things of 'true reality', and not as constructs of their own understanding. Truth is always in motion."

Too... much... info. My head hurts...

"But, enough theory, how about some practice?" Mr. Smith flicked his hand, and a shining symbol appeared in the air; the lines within it growing like branches of a tree. "Stand up, raise your arms, and concentrate on..."

* * *

"...you use too much power. Shall we take a break? I'll tell you a story," Mr. Smith said.

The exercises weren't difficult, but they were mentally tiring, and Eric welcomed a short recess. The three of them sat down on the grass.

"I got addicted to power when I was younger. I craved it, I needed it. I worked for a major company at the time, and climbed the corporate ladder quite fast. A born leader, they said. People jumped at my command. Increasingly, all my emotions got tied to the feeling of power, and my thoughts revolved around its reflection, a social construct: money."

This is not just any story, but his story! Eric perked up.

"I quit my job as an executive and made even more money sailing solo on the waters of global finance. Focusing on money as a measure of self-worth gave me focus, but such single-mindedness was taking its toll."

"I started having horrible nightmares at night and excruciating migraines at day. I ignored the nightmares, medicated heavily for the migraines, and drudged on. I held power in the world, but it was destroying me."

"Not long after, I was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Treatment didn't help; it threw my body in shambles and hastened my demise."

Eric bowed his head. Terminal illness? That's... This was one of those things that were so bad Eric didn't know what to think about, much less say.

"I met Master Joe during a particularly nasty nightmare episode. He made me stop and realize that death was imminent if I continued on this path. He offered me an out; it came with a heavy price, but considering the alternative it wasn't a difficult choice."

"With his help, I hacked away pieces of myself, keeping only the clearest parts of who I am. I died - but my body survived. Ironically, since only the clearest, strongest parts of me remained, I could handle even greater power than before."

Mr. Smith rolled up his left sleeve. He flexed his fingers a few times, and the skin on his arm turned transparent. A flow of red and black energies constituted the hand, reminding Eric of the violent energies of the bear-demon as it tried to break free.

"With most of my emotions gone, all I had was my mind, which I was forced to hone even more to contain the power flowing within. I turned my understanding into a benign prison for myself, and that allowed me to live the way you see me today."

Mr. Smith rolled up the other sleeve of his suit and let the skin on his hand turn transparent.

Eric saw a black swarm composing that hand. Bugs? He strained his eyes. Symbols?! He saw letters form words, numbers jump in and out of equations, and other symbols he knew not what they meant or how they were interacting. They flowed with a staggered motion in and out of Mr. Smith's body, forming the black hand shape that was visible.

"As you can see, symbol-weaving is very important to me, as it keeps me from losing control and bursting out in flames."

Mr. Smith rolled down his sleeves and clutched his hands. The violent energies meshed with the myriad symbols, and his skin rematerialized.

"The reason I shared my tale with you is because I see a similar hunger for power in the three of you. If you continue on paths of power, work on self-discipline, since only you can save you from yourself. Keep your ambition in check and you won't fall into the same trap I did."

Chapter 15 - Demonology   Dream Magic   Chapter 17 - Telepathy


Dawn Harshaw / Dream Magic: Awakenings / Chapter 16 - Symbol-Weaving