Casper grinned down at the tiny flower pot that Mel had placed before him, sweat trailing a thin line from his brow to the lining of his shirt. He’d done it. It had taken three tries, and what had felt like the mental equivalent of a three hundred pound deadlift, but he’d done it. He wiped the moisture from his face with a sleeve and turned to his teacher, giddy.
“I did it!” He crowed. “I made a flower!”
“You made a daffodil,” Mel corrected from her seat off to the side, gracing the boy with a small chuckle, a note of genuine surprise sounding out in her mind. “Or a seedling of one, at least. Good job, kid. It usually takes weeks for newbies to build up the reserves for a new spell. Guess you must have been training with your power a lot, huh?”
“Eh,” Casper laughed tiredly. “More like I never figured out how to turn it off. Guess that counts as training, sorta.”
“I guess it does,” Mel agreed. “Right. Now, you get to go home. You’re done for the day. Practice that spell every day until you can cast it without feeling like you’re passing a gall-stone, and then you should be about ready to choose what you wanna focus on.”
“Focus?” The boy asked. “What do you mean?”
“What you want to specialize in,” Mel shrugged. Then, seeing the blank look he was giving her, she sighed. “Right, sorry. Forgot you’re a newbie.” She leaned back against a drawer, shifting around for a moment until she was more comfortable, then continued.
“Okay,” she started, her tone businesslike. “So, the first thing you need to know is that there’s basically two kinds of spells out there. Number one-” she held up a finger demonstratively. “-Is what you call your innate magic, or Sorcery. This is a spell that’s completely unique to you, and that only you can ever really cast; your power.” She glanced across at Casper to make sure he was listening. He nodded, and she continued. “This is a spell that’s basically just the magical representation of your soul. Your personality, your genetics; a little bit of everything, really. Distill that all down, and you get your first spell. You can’t really teach it, because you don’t even consciously know the steps you’re taking to cast it.”
Casper nodded again, listening to the older woman intently.
“Now, type number two-” Mel raised a second finger. “-Is what you’d call learned magic, or wizardry. These are the spells that can be learned because the steps needed to cast them are simple enough that they can be memorized and passed from person to person. The flower growth would be your first wizard spell. Now, these spells tend to be a lot weaker and less flexible than your innate spell at first, because your soul is having to waste a lot of energy doing something that isn’t familiar to it.” She chuckled again. “That’s why you’re so tired after only making half a flower. Don’t worry, though, that becomes less of a problem with practice. You’ll develop a bigger supply of energy, and the spells will cost you less as your soul becomes more familiar with them. The more you use a spell, the less it costs.”
“Okay,” Casper nodded. “That makes sense, I guess.”
“Good,” Mel grinned. “Now shush, I’m not done. Thing is, that one intuitive spell you’ve got there isn’t the only one you’ll have, in the end. See, the more new spells you learn, the more new information and material your soul has to base all new innate spells on. So every once in a while, it’ll start growing new spells out of all the stuff it’s learned, combined with all the bits of you that made your first spell.”
“Uh,” Casper began, confused. “I… think I get it?”
Mel shook her head.
“Here,” she chuckled. “I’ll give you an example. Say your base spell is that you can breathe fire, right? And you spend a whole lot of time learning spells that are all about being able to move things around with your mind. Eventually, your soul might develop a new power based around controlling the fire with your mind, or you might learn to control stuff by breathing on it. It’s a stupid example, but basically that.”
Casper sat there for a long while, gazing blankly across at the older woman while he absorbed that new information. After a few minutes, she spoke again.
“You’re trying to think of cool things to mix your power with, aren’t you?”
“Good,” she grinned. “Then you’re starting to understand what I mean by choosing what to focus on. Let’s take Freja as an example,” she gestured absently at the corridor leading back into the shop. “She started out with a power based on enchantment. She could make things a little harder to break when she touched them. So, she decided to focus on that enchantment part of her power. She started to learn as many different kinds of magic as she could, because she wanted to be able to put a bunch of different magical effects into the things she touched. She became an enchantment specialist. Your job, while you’re mastering that plant growth spell, is to figure out how you want your magic to grow from here on out. Do you want to focus on feeding your innate powers and try to learn a little bit of everything, or do you want to learn a lot of one particular kind of spell to try and grow your magic in a more specialized direction?”
Casper opened his mouth to reply, then closed it again, thoughtful. That was a big question. Mel patted him on the shoulder.
“No need to answer right away,” she said, her tone brusque. “Just take some time to think about it, okay?” She thought for a moment, then added: “Don’t worry. It’s easier than it sounds. You just need to figure out what you want to be.”
Yup. Big question.
Casper stepped out of the Rose Bouquet that afternoon feeling utterly drained. His pocket was a good two hundred dollars lighter and he had been instructed to keep the small flowerpot that he now held clutched under his arm, but for now, he didn’t really care about it. Right now, he wanted a donut. Everything else could wait.
He stepped out onto the street and, seeing the people still littered about the sidewalk, took a moment to compact his power back down to allow him a modicum of privacy. Now, where to find a good donut? Thinking about it, he thought he recalled seeing a small bakery on his way over from Tasha’s place. That would do. He would go there, sit down, and devour as much sugar as he could find. Casper nodded to himself and set off down the street at a jog, hunger winning over against his exhaustion.
He felt the thing enter his power’s range just a split second before it struck him. In the single moment that he had with it inside of his awareness, he registered that it was small, fast moving, and very, very hungry. Had his power been extended to its fullest range, he might have had time to move himself out of the creature’s path, but as it was, he felt it impact against the back of his shoulder before he’d even had time to move, heard something tearing at the fabric of his shirt, then felt something sharp digging a number of thin, shallow lines along his skin.
He let out a cry of surprise and pain, swatting blindly at the thing with his free hand in an attempt to dislodge it dropping his flower pot in the attempt and sending his seedling spilling out onto the pavement. He felt the creature pull away, taking to the skies with a rustle of its wings. Casper stared after the thing as it flew away, the first instinctive traces of tears drawing themselves unbidden to the corners of his eyes. Was that a bird? It looked like one, but he’d never felt a bird so… focused. What the hell had just happened? He tried to move his shoulder and winced. Whatever it was, it had done a number on his back, tearing a ragged strip of his shirt free in its attempt to burrow towards his skin. He tried to turn his head far back enough to check the injury by eye, but couldn’t quite manage it. He settled for checking it by hand, twisting his arm behind his back to brush his fingertips against the skin, trying to ignore the sting of it.
When he pulled the limb back, he saw his fingertips coated with a thin layer of blood. Well, that sucked. A few people around the street were looking at him, most with a degree of sympathy to their expressions, one or two with surprise. He ignored them. Instead, he focused his attention on pressing his power outwards, swelling it out to encompass the full length of his range, trying to find that bird again. It felt weird, and he wanted to know why.
What he found was not reassuring.
There were more of them, now. Gathering on the insides of rooftops, flying in low so as to keep the sky clear, hiding; all of them with that same, insatiable sense of hunger. He frowned. This was not how birds were supposed to act.
Nervously, Casper continued his route home, keeping his power unfurled, painfully aware of the swarm continuing to gather on the rooftops around him. Whole groups of them were flitting from building to building as he moved.
They were following him.