Match lit the candle at the corner of the desk. He didn’t need to, really, but maybe that was the point.
Two thickly bound books lay on the desk, open, spaced eight inches apart, spines parallel. The arrangement was made lopsided by the bulk of the tome on the right-hand side. Its cover was framed by a silver-clad iron filigree. Its previous owner had cared for it well—the silver was dusty with some months of neglect and nicked with years of travel and consultation, but it was untarnished, and the leather it cradled was soft and supple. Match could imagine its owner, a cloaked monster hunter, perhaps, with a high widow’s peak (widower’s peak?) and gaunt cheeks, spending a few minutes polishing nightly: a short, serene cleansing ritual, good for both the appearance of the book and the mental hygiene of its owner.
By contrast, the book on the left was plain, bound in a brown-green-gray pebbled leather. It was unassuming, but it was valuable in its own right, taken from the back of a felled wyvern. It needed no such polishing, requiring merely an occasional application of oil to allay the weathering effects of sun, rain, and wind. (Match felt a pang of jealousy. Why didn’t he have a ritual for mental hygiene? Was he a mental slob? He supposed he would need to come up with one. Washing his hat, perhaps. That felt appropriately wizardly, at least.)
The old saw about judging a book by its cover was just as true here as it was anywhere else, of course. The real value of these tomes lie in their pages, laden with dense calligraphy.
The tome on the left held a dozen or so pages of modest treasures. It contained the secret knowledge, written in an intricate personal shorthand, that would allow one to lull a belligerent mortal to sleep, to call to the realms of spirits for a resonant soul, and to reveal secret arcane connections between things that would otherwise go unseen. And, of course, the secret knowledge that allowed one to hurl magical bits downrange at moving targets with enough force to concuss a hobgoblin. Unglamorous, but quite necessary. Not a bad collecion, all told.
The tome on the right held some of those… and more.
Match unrolled a piece of scratch parchment: a temporary medium for the messy chyme of the long digestion required to understand his departed colleague’s notes. He laid it out on the desk in the space between the spellbooks. Then he dipped his quill in ink, moved it to the note sheet, scanned his eyes to the top of the right-hand book, and began.
Illusion, Unseeming, triplicate in essentia…
… third essentia. Heavily mentally constitutive, main body provided by…
Match blinked in the candlelight, brow furrowed.
… own focus? Focus on self?
He referred to his notes to try to remember the author’s tendencies with the oft-ambiguous Sylvan phrasing ia dillae, but he found his vision swimming, his mind struggling with some nebulous distraction.
Was he this tired already? Unusual.
The moment he closed his eyes to rub his brow, the shifting haze in his fore-mind gave way to perfect clarity. Ah.
Wizards consider time to be another, fourth axis of existence. Abscissa, Ordinate, and Applicate axes can be used to comprehensively describe the positions of objects in a room… so long as they aren’t moving. Considering how many things have a habit of moving, this system is frequently found wanting. A fourth axis may be figured: Temporal. This has the benefit of generality. But it has one very serious drawback: all of the arithmetic is more difficult. Many wizards will go to great lengths, employing vices, adhesives, freezing spells, and muttered threats to keep their subjects still long enough to do their sums and products the easy way.
For that matter, almost all people find it easier to ignore the Temporal axis in their day-to-day life. Or at least, they figure it differently and separately. Most of us see space exclusively in the first three axes, flattening away the Temporal, just like painters tend to skip over painting the back of the chair that is obscured behind their posing subject or the appalling mound of dust and dead ants hidden under the rug.
“Painters are the laziest of the artists,” Master Hechtan had grumbled on more than one occasion. “Cut-corners. No pride in their work.”
Almost all people see space like that. Some gifted few are able to peer into the depth of it, to see the rolling contours of steadily increasing and decreasing Temporality, to follow the planes and tangents and intersections of the future and past.
Most of them are quite mad.
Once you begin to see reality arc itself behind you, into the past, it’s a simple thing to re-imagine yourself standing there and to compare with your memory. Oh, you say, I remember Master Hechtan ordering me to scrub the hourglass, and now I can see the little tower study, its contents, and its inhabitants undulate along from then to now, where the master is downstairs in court and I’m seated with this brush and soapy basin. The dangerous bit is to try to do the same to the future. To envision yourself at a point ahead on the four-axis curve as it draws nearer to you is attractive and addictive, and after a short while it becomes a habit, and after a few years of answering questions before they’re asked you forget just where on the curve you are. You can quit at any time, you say!
The further you look ahead—the deeper you breathe in—the more difficult the premonition and the more dangerous it is to make a habit of placing your mind there.
When Match would find his mind’s eye drifting to the self ahead of himself, Master Hechtan would give him a good caning. For his own good, of course. Nothing wrong with going a little mad; every proper master wizard was a little mad, but as a pupil he hadn’t earned that privilege yet.
Match had once asked his master how it was that he could tell that he was having premonitions without permission.
“Your eyes glaze over.”
Match considered this.
“But doesn’t that happen in other situations too?”
“Yes. Like when you daydream instead of paying attention to lecture.”
“And… oh. Cane anyway.”
The conditioned fear of pain welled up in Match’s heart and bubbled to his throat, but the serenity of his later training pushed it back down. He saw the mysterious, bleak province of Barovia roll forward, the pale sun’s spatial-temporal arc hanging overhead as its haggard residents traced an enitre day in the misty streets. He saw himself and his new companions with some clarity, on a gentle arc around the village and finally… down, somewhere. That must be it. Down, wherever it was, it was a noisy confluence of positions and velocities. This must have been (must have been going to be?) what he was seeing—out of the corner of his mind, as it were—that grabbed his attention away from the spell study.
He focused, reading the situation carefully, studying the trajectories of the moving parts. Then, the hard part. He tried to map that to a new point of view: his own, at the time of the action.
From there it felt like a fight. Hasty, sudden motion whirled around him. He would be at the back. Hand outstretched here, legs shoulder width apart. Lichen would be relatively stll at his side, concentrating, perhaps. Something with fangs and claws would be struggling with Yang. It would be vile, its arc jerky and violent. Those fangs… fangs. Match would be shouting. Yang would prepare for the lunge. Awful, deadly fangs would flash at her right shoulder.
Match extracted his mind and placed it back where it belonged: a dark room upstairs in the Blood-on-the-Vine. Two spellbooks were open on the table, an Invisibility spell freshly translated and transcribed onto his own. Wait. No. Not quite, he still had the last third of the spell’s substance to decipher. There we go.
Fangs flashing over Yang’s right shoulder. He’d have to remember that for later.
He pushed himself back from the desk slightly and felt himself breathe for a few minutes.
He had a talent for premonitions. He had, possibly, a greater talent for the accompanying skill of mental fortitude. Madness had not yet come for him, and all of these portents, while taxing to study, had never much intimidated him the way he felt they ought to.
“Fah!” Master Hechtan had once exclaimed. “You children with natural gifts. Being gifted with mental strength makes you weak. You don’t earn anything that way.”
At the time, Match thought that was self-evidently stupid, and he thought he was so clever in pointing out that maybe if he hadn’t earned his mental fortitude, perhaps his master hadn’t earned his position as a court wizard, on account of being human. Only real tough tieflings had a hill worth climbing to earn it, surely.
Leaving aside the finer points of struggle, Master Hechtan had decided that Match had earned a good caning, at least.
Match chuckled inwardly, now. There was a logic to it. He couldn’t rely on his natural proclivity for sanity forever. Eventually his youth would erode (hopefully, even—it was certainly better than the only alternative) and the natural healing vigor of his mind and body would slow, and it would require more and more will and careful self-cultivation to remain anchored in the present reality. He would need to begin practicing sooner rather than later. Maybe that was his old master’s intended lesson.
Maybe he should wash his hat after finishing this spell.