The Last Incantation
(c) 2012 Alex Shvartsman
There is no such thing as a young wizard.
“Life is but a thin candle,” was among the first lessons Thalen taught us. “If you aren’t careful it can melt away before you know it.” I listened eagerly then, having finally come of age to study the arcane arts. I was intimidated by what lay ahead and excited about being lectured by Thalen himself.
“We do not teach magic to young people,” said Thalen, “because most of them lack the maturity to use it wisely. This sort of patience cannot be learned; it is acquired only with natural age. That’s why you had to wait until you turned thirty to begin your studies.” Rumor had it that Thalen himself broke this law and learned his magic as a young man. There are many such rumors of Thalen and Gessa, the best among us.
They did not train at the hall. They arrived already masters of sorcery, crackling with power, and madly in love with each other. Thalen and Gessa were the stuff of legends. There was no challenge they wouldn’t undertake together, no spell they couldn’t cast. They healed the sick and won battles with an easy grace, and always together. They gave generously of their magic for the benefit of others, and they aged so very quickly. By the time their bodies turned sixty, Thalen and Gessa retired from active spellcasting.
After two years of study, those of us who persevered were aging men and women in our mid-forties. You can’t learn magic without practicing it, and that takes a toll. To instantly mend a broken leg steals a week of your life. To break a drought and summon rain may cost you a couple of months. You can kill a man with a glance, but you will instantly age a decade. Anything is possible; the more powerful your magic, the higher its price.
Today some of my former classmates appeared old and wizened but others remained in their forties. A few chose a quick and easy path – trade a decade for a trove of treasure. Is it so different from toiling much of your life away as a farmer or craftsman? Precious few were idealistic enough to use their powers for the benefit of others, to give of themselves the way Thalen and Gessa have done. I harbored my abilities like a miser with a fistful of copper. A mere threat of magic could serve nearly as well as the real thing.
In their twilight years Thalen and Gessa became convinced that magic could be tamed. They dreamt of casting spells without draining one’s life force. Anyone else suggesting this would be laughed out of the hall – but these two had earned our admiration, and their theories were treated with respect even if they never seemed to yield any results. They tried to cheat the universe of the price it demanded for miracles, until Gessa ran out of time.
Anything is possible with magic, even rejuvenating a person. Thalen, who would have gladly sacrificed anything for Gessa, watched her body succumb to old age. He didn’t have enough magic, enough years of his life left to help her. As she wasted away, Thalen worked feverishly to master the new form of spellcasting. Then she slipped into a coma, her final hours upon her.
Thalen announced that he would make his attempt. He would combine old and new magic to bring his lover back from the brink. He invited his favorite students to observe and study his new methods, to preserve the new magic after he was gone. We didn’t have much faith in his mad plan but came anyway, and made preparations of our own. We came to say goodbye to the greatest of us all, for no matter the outcome for Gessa, one thing was certain – Thalen would not survive his incantation.
One hundred wizards filled the hall. I watched Thalen whisper a spell over Gessa, whose frail body lay still on the bed in the center. Her ragged breathing was loud enough to be heard from where I stood. Thalen’s chant grew until he was shouting the words of power, shedding weeks and months of his life with a casual disdain of a youngster. The air sizzled with energy. Thalen gave everything he had left, until he collapsed onto the ground, barely more than a skeleton. The last thing he saw as he died was a forty-year-old Gessa, stirring under the blankets, her breath no longer belabored by age.
I looked around at the faces of my fellow wizards. Their eyes were moist with grief and brows sweating from their own arcane efforts. The math of a rejuvenation spell is brutal. Three years will buy you one, and that is a poor bargain. Thalen died happy, thinking his last incantation proof that he had discovered a way around paying this price. Except that he hadn’t.
One hundred friends and students, volunteers all, each gave a year of our own lives to Gessa. Thirty three years shed from her body’s age in moments. A gift we gave gladly, even if Thalen would have never knowingly accepted it of us.
Gessa will wake soon. She will never know of our contribution. She will believe that Thalen’s incantation had worked, and will continue their research. If anyone besides Thalen is capable of creating an entirely new way to do magic, it is Gessa. One day she might even succeed, and everything will be different.
Until then, there will be no such thing as a young wizard.
Alex Shvartsman is a writer and game designer. He traveled to over 30 countries, played a card game for a living, and built a successful business. Alex resides in Brooklyn, NY with his wife and son.
A member of SFWA, he had over 30 original short stories published since 2010. His stories appeared in Nature Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, Penumbra, Buzzy Magazine and many other venues. Alex was recently accepted into the prestigious Viable Paradise workshop and will be attending in October. He is currently hard at work on his first editorial project — Unidentified Funny Objects is a collection of humorous SF/F short stories due out in the fall of 2012.