Binding Energy

(late 2002; written for A Dark Portal)
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"I don't know about this, Fhai. We both know that such things have not been done before, and I've not been convinced that I'd like to see it tried..."

Lixyi did her best to keep her expression neutral, arms crossed before her as she attempted to project body language representing both authority and calm disapproval, but knew that she was failing. Her fingernails tapped a staccato rhythm against the bronze bracer wrapped about her left wrist; she could cease the nervous gesture with a thought, but the moment she allowed her attention to drift back to the topic at hand, the sound would begin to echo through the room anew. Fhai's eyes followed the motion, and the way that his lips quirked in quiet amusement annoyed her. True, she was but a Journeyman - or Journey-lady, as she proclaimed herself upon her first visit to the Hall of Summoners in Stronghaven, a visit made in far more relaxed times - but any fool could see the ridiculousness of her dear Master's words. She took a step forward, hoping to hide her trembling with the motion of her robes, but before she could speak again, Fhai raised a hand.

"Hush, little bird - your beak's clacking says more than your warble. Advancement is always frightening, and no one will deny that unless they are far less clever than either you or I. How do you think the first Summoner felt, opening the gates to the plane of fire?" His grin was there, but the crow's feet around his eyes lay flat, untouched by the curve below - an indication that his question was more serious that he was likely to admit aloud.

The girl thought back through history lessons of ages past, then began to smirk herself, seeing a way to escape her current image as a nagging, tense student. "None too healthy, I would suspect, given that nothing remained of him but ash moments later, mmm?" She forced a twinkle into her gaze, one left quite underrepresented in her stomach, which felt more like lead-lined leather than flesh.

"Quite true. Now, think: how many of our people have lived and thrived because that man lost his life discovering our art? I know that you do not feel guilty for succeeding where he failed; if you did, you would be too weak to achieve anything, because success's best mount is failure." Fhai shrugged, allowing his lanky frame to slouch so that he more closely matched her height - even in the wooden shoes she crafted while listening to him recite the ancient cantos one afternoon, ones whose soles were as thick as his palm was wide, she was a head shorter than he - and reached out, idly tapping the bracer on her right wrist with an index finger. She glanced downward, her own beat momentarily stilled by the unexpected accompaniment.

"I just don't want to see you hurt." Her gaze roamed the floor, tracing the long boards onto which she had sketched magical diagrams and upon which she had slept for well over two years, as her cheeks began to glow a faint rose. She shook her head slightly, hoping that a few wisps of hair would escape their braided confinement to hide her embarassment.

They didn't. Raising an eyebrow, Fhai stopped tapping, his slipper-clad feet almost leaving Lixyi's field of vision as he took a few steps to the left, contemplating. When he spoke next, his tone was understanding but firm, unrelenting as an oak. "I never want to see anyone hurt, but if we don't try this, you know what will happen. The storm has kept Stronghaven from receiving grain from Miaun for weeks; you've seen the hollow cheeks walking through the city as much as I have. We simply cannot spare the energy to open enough gates to transport the amount of food needed unless we learn to get some back."

She sighed, remembering too well the casting of the night before - hours spent forcing her mana to flow into the rifts that stretched across the aether to reach the distant city until she could no longer stand, hours spent fighting back tears of exhaustion and the physical pain resulting from overextending herself. She was but a Journeyman, and nowhere near ready to accept the burden placed upon her, but what could she do? Her Master was spending his formidable store of power, as well, along with the others in her Guild; she was certainly not the only one suffering, particularly when she considered the peasants starving in the streets.

Damn this Fluxstorm! She felt blood begin to pool over the back of her hand as she dug in with her nails, grimacing in desperation. It had raged over the region for far too long, darkening the sky and filling the air with layers of poison that choked any trying to leave the city's wards. Only those with transportation magic could be of use, and those without were growing angry at being so dependent; ironically, they had begun to turn on the Summoners, demanding that they do more in less time. She knew that Fhai was correct, both about what he had said and what he had not had to - more would die if they could not transport more food, and if they did, the Summoners would be blamed. Both results frightened her, yet what her Master suggested was nearly as bad.

"I hope I have this right. When you release the gate, you plan to... draw energy from it?"

"Yes - drain the same mana that was put into it and use it to strengthen myself. You've studied enough spell theory to know that it could work, and that it would aid us tremendously."

"It could work too well."

"I know." Again he moved to stand before her, his eyes glowing like a wolf's in their intensity as he lifted her chin, forcing her to look up at him. "That is why I will try it first, before explaining to anyone else in the Guild. I trust you, my dear, or I would never have said a word. I also trust your mind, which is why I want your suggestions, but have no doubt: I will do this either way. If you try to stop me, I will entangle you in the broom closet and you'll miss the show." He smiled, but it was a terse expression, the shadowed spot where his right eye tooth once existed making the effect eerie in the evening light. She shuddered despite herself, the tremor originating in her neck and winding its way down to her thighs, but found herself nodding.

"I... won't get in your way. You've thought it through, and the basic plan is good. Just be sure to open a channel back to the aether; you'll be getting a lot of mana back, since it will be your own energy plus that generated by the spell itself." Her right hand dropped to her side, fingers toying with the satin folds of her robe as she splayed those of her left across his face. "Mother watch and Mother bless, Mother love you without duress."

At this benediction, the aging Summoner's eyes grew slightly misty; he clearly understood the God-Born faith well enough after years spent teaching her to know its rarity and personal power. Reaching up, he grasped her left wrist lightly, drawing her fingers away from his cheeks before letting go. "Thank you. Now, you stand there -" he gestured with one foot at a protective circle sketched on the floor in white chalk, "- and we will begin. If I should melt, know it is by thy beauty and no fault of mine." Winking, he ushered her into position, then turned to face the opposite wall, fingers dancing as the spell was begun.

"Miihe ca-manne, miihe ca-manne, miiiiiii..." The syllables poured from his lips as the first few bits of mana began to flow from his fingertips, weaving themselves into wispy threads as if guided by the tiniest of spiders. Arcing over his head and stretching out just beyond his shoulders to either side, they began to slip downward, spiralling about each other to become chains which wound into bands, edges hardening as they became more tangible. The bands merged into sheets, and the sheets, growing denser and beginning to shine with a phosphorescent inner glow, soon thickened into a single, physical presence.

At this point, Fhai fell silent, crossing his wrists and pointing a palm at either side of the gateway, whose borders bled outward into the room with grasping tendrils of mana. His eyes closed, and Lixyi's breath caught in her throat; this was when the Summoner forced his vision of a distant spot upon the material before him, and a flawed view could cause all manner of damage. However, a Master is not so without good reason, and within moments, a blurry scene faded into view. Colours brightened as shapes grew more distinct, and the practice room - the tiny one just down the hall in the Summoners' Guild, in fact - became fully visible. The Journeyman's heart would not slow, however, for the exercise she so dreaded was the next step.

The Master Summoner reached out, sliding both hands over the surface of the gate as they vanished to palm-depth into the other room. Beads of sweat formed on his brow and rolled down his nose and cheeks, but his eyelids did not so much as flutter as he began to step backward - moving first one foot, then the other. His fingers trailed away from the rippling aether, drawing out narrow strips of practice room: the leg of a table stretched from his index finger, while the wagging tail of their dog, Mya, bent back and forth between the right middle and ring. Lixyi watched, fascinated by her first sight of something completely new, the tensions of her own body unfortunately not forgotten as she waited, knees locked and muscles straining.

"Miihe ca-manne cra'a!" The sudden scream was jarring, but that was the purpose. Lixyi's eyes shut reflexively, and when she opened them, she saw her Master sitting several armlengths from where the gate had previously stood, and blinked several times, seemingly unable to trust her vision. Flashes of amber light erupted about his shaking frame, leaking from his skin and blazing brightly before fading. As he lifted his head and met her gaze, she saw that his irises were the same colour, molten gold with stripes of silver and narrow bands of black that spun about his pupils for several moments. As she stared, the light show ended and his usual green-eyed look returned, along with a broad smile.

"That was surprisingly fun. Would you care to fetch our poor townspeople a bushel or two with me, my lovely student?...and what are you staring at, hmmm?"