“You must narrow in your focus,” Winvale said, his deep voice equal parts frustrated and critical. His pale green eyes narrowed in on Morane’s hazel ones, as if to demonstrate just what it meant to narrow one’s focus. It annoyed Morane how perfect an example he was, since he had seldom looked at, much less talked to, the other students in the room. They sat at the desks and in the reading chairs arranged about the tower, all of them splitting their time between reading the books they were supposed to and joining the wrinkled old wizard in staring at Morane.
She could feel the weight of their expectations, the students’ and Winvale’s, pressing down upon her shoulders. Ever since she had first learned how to see the world through her hyperagonal sense a week ago, to see things not only as they were but also as they could be through an infinite number of potential realities, she knew the expectations were high. Winvale expected much of her, constantly berating her failures and reminding her of how small her achievements were. The other students judged her, always taking pleasure in her failures and waiting to see what made her so special.
It was exhausting. Every time she tried to focus, she found her mind returning to all those eyes watching her, waiting for her to fail. She tried to funnel it into motivation, to prove them all wrong and show them why she was better than all of them. But the sneers and barely muffled laughter each time Winvale told her just how poorly she was doing were like chains, holding her down and preventing her from rising to her true height.
It was the same way when she focused her hyperagonal sense. Whenever she tried to focus, to narrow her vision to just the thing that mattered, it was inevitable the number of potentialities of so many people and objects would overwhelm her and force her to lose her hyperagonal sense. Instead of seeing with her mind, she’d be returned to the real world, always to the disapproving scowl of Dryston Winvale and the derision of her peers.
By far the most discouraging thing, though, was the object of her failures. She sat at a table in the middle of the room, the uncomfortable chair giving her splinters. Sitting on the table in front of her was an open book. She didn’t know the title or what it was about, and that didn’t matter. Her task was to make it opened to page twenty. Not flip through the pages with telekinetic power, or use illusion to make it seem as if it was open. Her task was to find the potentiality where the book was opened to page twenty, substitute that book for the closed one before her, and instantaneously and without moving the book would be open to page twenty. She was attempting to write on the scroll of this world, substituting is here with the is of a possible world. She couldn’t do it, so the book sat there, a constant reminder of her failure.
The task was meant to be simple, and yet looking through her hyperagonal sense was not the same as being able to access this book’s potentiality. And yet Morane knew the dullards who were also studying shadow magic could not understand the difference. To them, she was lucky, having used shadow magic once but failed to do so since then. Winvale knew the truth, and yet his disappointment was different. He knew she was not focusing on the book.
To use shadow magic is to see the potentialities created by conflict of the object that is to be manipulated. A warrior has a sword and is about to strike the shadow mage, who uses their hyperagonal sense to see the sword and cause it to not exist. When they use their hyperagonal sense, they are looking only at the sword, not at the warrior, the landscape, and their potentialities. If a shadow mage’s focus is too broad, it can lead to the magic twisting on them, and instead of the sword ceasing to be, it is now made out of the warrior’s flesh, or impaled in a rock. The substituting draws from the potentially of the other things and not the potentiality of the sword, and the magic isn’t what the caster intends.
“If you do not narrow your focus, your mind will become unmoored and you will lose your sense of this world. You will see only in potentialities, and lose all sense of what is,” Winvale said. “Our reality may be only one of many, but it does not change that if you lose your sense of what this reality is, your mind will lose its sense of what it thinks is real. Shadow magic will drive you insane if you do not focus. Only the most skilled can see and change so many potentialities at once.”
Morane cast her eyes from the wizard, having received the lesson, back to the book. She closed them tight, and peered sidewise into the shadows. She saw the room and its infinite potentialities, overlapping over one another and creating a continuous blur of possibility. She could see how this might drive someone insane, and how seeing this constantly would drive you further insane. She narrowed her view, focusing first on herself, the chair, the table, and the book. Then she narrowed to the table and the book, see both of them as they were and as they could be. She looked at the book, willing herself to see only it. The table and its possibilities began to fade, but just as they did, a noise caught her attention.
She pulled back, closing her mind’s eye and opening her two real eyes. Winvale was looking at a man sitting in a plush chair, and the two were talking. Morane’s mind was still busy with the transition back into the real world, and at first she could not make out their words. When she finally did, it made her stomach sick.
“I saw…I saw everything. A bird flying into the window, or not. A chair collapsing, or not. A bookcase falling over, or a shelf breaking, or a book sliding on the shelf. It was amazing, and then…” He took the same noticeable pause Morane had, his mind finally processing the impossibility and yet reality of so many things existing simultaneously because of the shadow, the conflict. “It was like I was seeing for the first time, but then I was seeing too much.”
Winvale went through the same talk he had with Morane, about how the man had accessed his hyperagonal sense but lost his sense of the tranpontine deformations that indicate reality. It was nearly word for word what he told Morane, and she realized she wasn’t so special anymore. A few other students were asking him questions, in a way they hadn’t asked her because Winvale had dismissed them the instant he sense she was successful at using her hyperagonal sense.
She was furious now, silently seething at the students, the man, and Winvale. She deserved the same admiration, but it had been denied her. Winvale was actively undermining her, she thought, he didn’t want her to succeed or be lauded for doing so. Instead of praise, she got skepticism, because he hadn’t wanted her achievement known. Now she sat like a fool in the middle of the room, staring at a book that wouldn’t open. Worst of all, this man had achieved far less than she had. She could see the transpontine deformations, she could see the reality when she peered sidewise. He had barely done anything, and she knew it would take him twice as long to get from where he was now to where she was. Her mind was clouded with anger and envy and hate. And Winvale had the gall to look at her with a sneering smile.
It seemed to happen in an instant. One moment she was in the tower, the next she was in the shadow tower. She was focused now, focused more than she’d ever been. She could see the book, closed, and see it open to every page imaginable. And she could also see the man, this new shadow mage. She kept her focus split between the book and the man. She strained, conscious of how much effort it was taking to focus on both, but then she found the potentiality she wanted. She substituted it, and then retreated into the real tower.
What she saw there was a scene of blood and gore. The book was gone from the table, and it stuck out at an angle from the new shadow mage’s back, a third of the open book imbedded in his shoulder blade. He was slumped forward in the chair, blood pouring down his back. The other mages had backed away, cowering in fear and shock. Only Winvale remained as he had been, leaning on his staff so he could talk to the man had he still been alive. The old wizard leaned down further and wiped blood away from the corner of the page. It showed the page number, twenty.
Morane was aghast, and like most everyone else, showered in droplets of blood. She’d never meant to hurt him that badly. She’d wanted the book to fly off the table and hit him, then fall the floor open to page twenty. Now he was dying, passed out from the pain or the shock. The other students stared at her in horror and fear. Gone was their derision and judgment. Morane sensed it, the fear they felt, and she pushed the incident away. Shadow magic was dangerous, and the man knew that when he volunteered. Accidents were bound to happen, after all, and sometimes accidents had horrible consequences. It was a tragedy, of course, that a prospective student, and a clearly skilled one, might die. But Morane knew that it was ultimately the same if a knight had been crushed by his horse, or blinded by a splintered lance.
Winvale knew it too, and said as much. “Shadow magic is dangerous. We are finished for the day.”
The rest of the students left, careful not to make eye contact with Morane. She contained her smile, the corner of her lip barely ticking upward. If she could not have their admiration or respect, she would have their fear. A fine substitute, and possibly a better one. She didn’t need friends, she needed to learn. And no more would she be distracted by scoffs and snide remarks.
Winvale pulled the book from the man’s shoulder and went to work healing the wound. He worked his magic on the deeper wounds first, repairing the bone, muscles, and finally skin. By that time two healers had arrived, and they carried the man out. Winvale then sat across from her, altogether unperturbed by the incident. He wiped blood from one of his wrinkled cheeks, then a bushy eyebrow, and finally from his beard, just below the ring that kept it held together. “Your focus was too broad. Keep your eye on the object, concentrate your energy towards it. Are you ready to try again?”
Morane took a deep breath and let the emotions wash away. The anger, the hate, the envy, the shock, the euphoria, all of it disappeared. She tucked a black curl behind her ear and said, “I am.”
Winvale pulled another book from a shelf and it floated across the room and landed gently on the table. She watched the green hue around it faded and then looked back to Winvale. He said, “Flip the book to the pages I say. Focus on the book, listen to my voice, and feel the conflict within it. Let the substitutes flow from the possibilities.”
Morane nodded once, this time keeping her eyes open and focusing her mind’s eye. She saw the book and only the book. Winvale’s voice echoed in her ears. 8. 76. 90. 132. 45. Every time she heard a new command, the book was opened to that page. Not turning or sorting through, just instantaneous. She could feel the shadow, the conflicts of the book, and the possibilities that created. She substituted those into the her world, and by the time she finished, she had made the book open to every single page. She wasn’t sure how Winvale kept track, but her curiosity at that quickly vanished. She had not only done her first real act of shadow magic, but she had done it ten times over.
“Good,” Winvale said, his face placid. “Now rest. Tomorrow, you learn to teleport.”
“Do you need help cleaning up?” she asked.
He glanced at the ruined, as if he had forgotten it was there, and what had taken place in it. His eyes lingered for a moment before he said, “No.”
Morane nodded and left. A small smile stretched across her face as soon as she did. She walked down the stairs to the rooms beneath Winvale’s, where the shadow mage students’ rooms were. There were a few rooms with beds and chests and little else. She went over to hers and grabbed a loose shirt and then went over to the wash bin. She looked down into the water and saw her faced covered in droplets of blood. It was disturbing, how happy she could be after what had happened. Yet she didn’t much care about the man, whose name she didn’t even know. It was the same way she’d never cared for her fellow students in Farrun, her comrades in the Wrothgarians, at Wayrest, and Evermor. The last time she’d cared for anyone, back when her best friend betrayed her. She didn’t have time for friends now, only herself.
This was right where she wanted to be. She could learn shadow magic, grow in power and ability, and then have free rein to unleash those abilities on the Thalmor once the time came. Until then she would learn, needing only Winvale to accomplish that. She didn’t care about the other students, the King whose army she’d fight in, any of it. She wanted knowledge and power, and Winvale would give her both those things. Even though she had hated him earlier, she saw now what he’d done. The smile, the criticism, he knew how to push her. And it had worked.
After washing her face, she felt too anxious to sleep. There was still light left, so the descended the tower and exited into the yard. The lesser shadow mages, though whose training would take longer and who spent more time training as nightblades and agents, were sparring down there. The bald battlemage who wore a constant frown led half, while the dour knight in his ebony armor led the other. The battlemage’s group worked with magic, the knight’s with weapons. She watched them, the two leaders mostly.
They were sparring against their students, and both were clearly skilled. The knight had learned how and where to wear blows, making use of his high quality armor. Whenever he faced an opponent with a blunt weapon, he changed his tactics, parrying blows instead of wearing them, using his opponent’s slower swings and heavier weapon to keep them off balance while he deftly attacked. The battlemage was a punishing fighter, relentless in his attacks, seemingly never on the defensive. What made him difficult to fight, she noticed, was his cunning attacks. He left runes, used different elements in the same attack, and once used chain lighting on a bird flying overheard to totally surprise one of the students. Morane was impressed with both, but realized she wasn’t in the mood to practice her regular magic. It seemed like cheap tricks compared to shadow magic.
She went back into the tower to grab some food. The bottom floor was had several tables, each with food splayed out on them. Several guards occupied one, while her fellow students, those that spent their days with Winvale, sat at another. Morane chose an unoccupied table and sat by herself. She cut off a few pieces of cheese and tore off some bread to eat with her beef and carrot stew. It was a plain meal, but she wasn’t all that picky about her food. She washed it down with some wine and then left to her bunk. She could feel the stares of the other students behind her as she left, but ignored them. She knew they were too scared of her now to do anything but stare. She climbed the stairs of the tower and went to her bed, where she stripped off her clothes and climbed in, falling into a dreamless, restful sleep.
The next day she rose early, having gone to bed early as well. She dressed and splashed her face with water before heading down the stairs to the dining hall, where she grabbed some bread and spread jelly on the slices for her breakfast. She ate as she climbed back up the stairs, and knocked on Winvale’s door. He answered after a few moments, and clearly hadn’t been sleeping.
Morane entered, and immediately noticed the chair the man from yesterday had been sitting in was gone. She thought about asking if the man was ok, but she dismissed it took a seat. The plush chair was between a strange looking alchemy table and a wooden writing desk. The alchemy table had the typical vials and bowls, but also a device that made a soft whirring sound, that looked like it was made of Dwarven metal. The writing desk, on the other hand, seemed relatively normal. It was only upon closer inspection she realized the legs of the table weren’t elegantly carved or crafted, but grown. They resembled straight tree branches, and what she thought was only darker wood was actually bark.
Winvale saw her looking at it and said, “I took it off a Druid of Galen. He infused it with a natural power that makes scrolls written on it more potent. Among other things.”
She could tell by his tone the hedge mage hadn’t given it up willingly. She wasn’t particularly interested in it, so she asked, “How do I learn to teleport?”
Winvale waved his hand and moved a comfortable chair beneath him as he sat down. He left his straight wooden staff standing. Morane wondered what the black orb wrapped in wooden tendrils at the top of the staff was, but she could spend a day asking the wizard about his various magical instruments and devices and not get through them all.
“First, read this,” Winvale said, and brought over a small book from one of the shelves.
She caught the book and looked over the letters on the leather cover. It read Stepping through Shadows and was written by the Glimmering Foxbat. Morane chuckled, and Winvale asked, “What’s so funny?”
“The author,” she said, looking up to find him not amused. “Well, whoever they are, they have a flair for the dramatic.”
“Read,” he commanded, and Morane flipped through to the first chapter.
There is no magic in the nightblade's repertoire more useful than the spell of instant translocation. Over time, its casting becomes almost a matter of reflex: one is HERE, and then, by an act of will, one is THERE.
In fact, to the experienced practitioner, translocation becomes so routine that one almost forgets how difficult it was at first to learn. It is traditional to refer to this magical art as "stepping through shadows," and indeed, the key to its mastery is the ability to "peer sidewise" and perceive the shadows cast by each entity and object in the Aurbis.
These are not, of course, the literal shadows cast by the blockage of light by an opaque object, but the emanation of the limen each object possesses—the depth-impression its existence makes in the local reality of the Mundus This requires learning to focus the hyperagonal sense through which the practitioner perceives the flow of magicka. Once the nightblade can "feel" local transpontine deformation, it becomes almost trivial to make the transliminal saltation to any point within range.
Morane was till early enough in her learning that she was unreasonably happy every time she read and understood something new. This was no different. She had already achieved the peering sidewise and the perception of the shadows objects and entities cast. She could even feel the deformations, letting her know what was real and not the conflict cause potentialities. All she needed was to learn the final step, the transliminal saltation. She didn’t see the difficulty, but she had already learned most of the steps.
“Is that all I need to know?” she asked, tossing the book aside.
“Is that all?” Winvale asked, mocking her in his annoyance. “If that is all, then you must be ready to teleport.”
Morane glared at him, but she had confidence in herself. She took a deep breath, tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, and looked at the world through her mind’s eye, seeing the shadows. Once there, though, she became quite unsure of how to proceed. She thought about accessing the potentialities of the rug, and substituting herself there, but she worried that method could end with her impaled by the rug, or with half her body stuck in the tower floor. The other option was to try and access her own potentialities, and substitute in the desired location. But that caused even more trepidation, as she didn’t know how to access her own conflict-shadow. So she returned to her real sight, with Winvale looking at her quite smugly.
“This book was written centuries before Azra Nightwielder established what we now know as shadow magic. The shadow magic described in this book is a precursor, and its method of teleportation is primitive. It only allows you to teleport within, say, the city of Camlorn. Real teleportation, through real shadow magic, is much more powerful, and difficult. You need not even bother learning how to do this simpler method, though if you wish to know, you simply substitute yourself atop the floor where it is you want to go,” Winvale said. He then demonstrated, by instantly appearing across the room. There was not a second between his sitting in the chair and his standing across the room. He then teleported back into the chair. “In the time that book was written, they found it much more difficult, because it wasn’t until Azra came along that mages realized the process of the magic. That realization makes this older form much easier to grasp today, once the nature of shadow itself is grasped. Now try again.”
Morane looked through the world with her mind’s eye, seeing the spot Winvale had teleported to. She focused on the spot, and in an instant she was standing there. She turned around to face Winvale, a grin on her face. Then she teleported back, just as smoothly as before.
“As I said, simple and primitive,” Winvale said, though his voice didn’t quite have the edge his words might suggest. Morane thought she saw his lip twitch, in what might’ve been a smile, but with his beard covering his mouth, it was difficult to tell.
“What’s real teleportation, then?” Morane asked.
“It requires finding the potentialities within yourself, the key to deeper and more powerful shadow magics. To teleport, you must find the location written on your own shadow and substitute in the new location. A more dangerous process, one that has been known to cause some mages to disappear forever, transporting themselves to another potentiality and never returning.”
“How do I find my own shadow?”
“Within the world of the potentialities, you must retreat from your own deformation. Not a simple task. Azra’s shadow metaphor is again particularly apt. When we cast a shadow, we are cognizant of both ourselves, it, and the light that allows it to exist. In other terms, we must be aware of ourselves, those things which conflict with us, and the shadow created by said conflict. As always focus on the object, your own conflict-shadow.” Winvale closed his eyes as he continued to talk. “See with your mind, find the potentialities, place what you desire, and then will it to be.”
He was gone again. Morane felt something in the air. Whereas before Winvale seemed to have moved across the room to quickly to notice, this time it seemed as though he was truly gone, like there was a void in the room, and it was not quite whole. She was worried, wondering if something had gone wrong. Then he reappeared, right back in his chair. In his hand he held a large mushroom, about the size of fist. It was a light brown, almost a tan, and splotchy. Winvale used his magic to move it over to a pot filled with soil, where he planted it.
“What is that?” Morane asked.
“A Telvanni mushroom. An acquaintance of mine allowed me a cutting from his tower.”
“You went to Morrowind?”
“Solsthiem. He hasn’t quite finished moving back to the mainland. But the distance you can teleport is limited only by your skill. So. Across the room, again.” Winvale waved his to the spot, and then set his green eyes on her and waited.
Morane hesitated. After the failure yesterday with the book, and earlier with the easy teleportation, she didn’t think it was worth trying. But she remembered who she was and why she was doing this. She didn’t fail when she set her mind to something, and she would become a shadow mage. She cleared her mind of those worries, but recalled how she felt when she first saw the potentialities. The satisfaction and confidence. She channeled that, taking those feelings with her as she looked at the world-in-shadow, and then turned her gaze inward. To her own shadow.
There she saw her many different selves, but she ignored them, moving down to the real her, the one sitting in the chair in the tower. That was it, her sitting in the tower. She found that and pulled from it both sitting and chair. She wanted to stand, and be across the room. She reached back and pulled forward the same spot she teleported to earlier and laid it within herself. She checked her magic, trying to see that she would not remove herself from this world. But it was straining, staying within the shadow world so long, and she had only moments left. She cast the spell, let the potentialities become realities, and came back into the real world to find herself across the room, and a real shadow mage at last.