The Etymology of Magic

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The Etymology of Magic

“Language allows us to think clearly,” Faine said, looking at the rows of rapt students sitting in front of him.

He was standing on the dais, framed by the windows which he’d darkened with shutters, and this was the most anticipated lecture of each academic year. It was a coming-of-age experience; a rite of passage. Whether they’d admit it or not, it was the reason that most of his students were here at all.

“In the ordinary, tedious, needlessly complicated world of humans, there are endless distractions, and equally endless things to master,” he continued. “Like these accursed things.”

He took his mobile phone from his pocket, and held it disdainfully in the palm of his hand, fingers stretched out as if to minimise contact with it. He enjoyed the device, truth be told, but it was grotesquely inefficient for most of its main purposes. He pocketed it once more.

“In our world, however, there are fewer things — and they are much more potent. You all know what I’m driving at, of course. We have a number of terms for it, including the Working of the Earth, but the human world is most fond of the simplest: magic.”

A young woman in the front row looked like she might topple forward out of her seat, and Faine suppressed his amusement. They had so far to go, but they were always so eager. It was as it should be.

“Magic, above all, is a language,” Faine said. “And today, you shall begin to learn its vocabulary.”

A man in the second row with an outrageously prominent facial tattoo reached for his ball-point pen, but Faine shook his head.

“To try to inscribe what I tell you would be futile,” he said. “The ink would run, and bleed, and evaporate. Only the mind can hold the components of magic together. For now, be content to listen carefully.”

Faine went to the place in his mind that was more familiar than his own reflection in a mirror. In it, he saw the shapes, and he heard the sounds as he spoke them in the voice of his consciousness. In the air in front of him, a sigil appeared, fully a metre tall and gleaming in vivid blue. The young woman in the front row audibly gasped.

“This is Taër,” Faine said. “Its meaning is somewhat akin to summon. It is one of the five Base Works.”

He lifted his arms, gesturing as much for dramatic effect as anything else, and four more sigils took shape as his mind spoke and saw them, each with its own colour of light; purple, green, red, and white. He pointed to them one by one.

Sråf, to banish. Niêk, to protect. Ruøl, to damage. Yaīm, to control. You will spend a month of study on these alone. The Base Works are components of the act of magic; in other words, they are your most rudimentary verbs.”

The sigils themselves were complex and ornate, irreducible and impossible to embellish. Every magician had his or her own description of them, but they evoked natural things, and a sense of unity. Faine had always half-seriously wondered if they were the physical shapes of thoughts, imprinted upon the brain.

“The etymology of magic is obscure, but it is of course a layer amidst others. For now, consider these Works to have their own intrinsic power.”

It was at this point in the lecture that Faine liked to give a demonstration. He raised his hand once more to draw the attention of his students, centred his mind, and spoke.

Taër areén.”

The young woman screamed, and Faine wasn’t in the least bit surprised. A hulking great football-player sort of brute near the rear of the room fainted. These were not uncommon reactions.

The creature he’d called into the room was grotesque by conventional aesthetic standards, though it was a supremely evolved predator. It normally existed in a rather different plane of reality, and it resembled a sort of hybrid insectoid-crustacean, jet black, and nearly two metres in length. It was a fearsome sight — and utterly helpless in an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere. The thing clicked pitifully, and Faine promptly sent it back to where it had come from.

Sråf areén.”

He allowed his students to regain a measure of composure for a moment, taking the opportunity to check his phone for any new emails or other notifications. He had none, which was the ideal scenario.

“That delightful beast was something we call a binder, and you wouldn’t want to meet it on its home turf. The sigil areén, which you’ve heard but haven’t seen yet, means something like creature. It is one of the many Base Means of magic, or if you prefer, it is a noun. This semester, you’ll be largely engaged in learning many such Means.”

Faine lifted himself from the floor, rising slowly into the air until his head was only a short distance beneath the ceiling beams. Every eye in the room was upon him.

“Heed me well, now, my friends,” he said. The young woman had recovered some colour in her cheeks, and the football player had regained consciousness, and looked extremely irritated at himself. There was absolute silence.

“The Working of the Earth takes a keen intellect, and three things all in unison. Always three.”

He paused, then he raised his hand and ticked off each item on his outstretched fingers.

“First, the sigils, held firm in the mind — the only force which can contain them,” he said.

“Second, the names of the sigils, both Works and Means, spoken in the proper manner. By convention, we tend to speak silently, in our heads, but aloud will work every bit as well.”

He drifted downwards slightly, unhurried, enjoying the complete focus of everyone he could see.

“And third, you must believe in the Fabric.”

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