The first thing Thistle noticed as she set her bag down was the quiet. It had taken her longer than expected to get out of range of Lyra and Brent's constant bickering, and from where she was standing their campsite was lost among the trees and underbrush.
White oak. Red maple. Ooh, a dogwood in full bloom…Thistle categorized the trees almost without noticing, taking a deep breath of the crisp, fresh air. Cords of tension in her shoulders relaxed as she settled against the trunk of a spruce and sat down. Could use more flowers, though…
Her magic hummed in agreement, and Thistle could almost feel nature itself reaching out to her, thirsting for the energy to grow and sprout and thrive. It was a pleasant sensation, but one Thistle was uncomfortable with. She hadn't done anything to deserve this power, and she knew she was unworthy of it. Bad enough when all magic was new and confusing. Now that Thistle was actually getting the hang of it, there was nothing to stop her from accidentally getting people killed.
Stop it, Thistle commanded herself, hating how weak she sounded even in her own head. That's why you're out here instead of helping set up camp.
There was a small wave of guilt as she thought of the others off doing all the hard work while she sat around doing nothing. Thistle quashed it as best she could as rummaged through her bag, but all she could manage was to replace it with anxiety. What if she couldn't help find the missing miners? What if there really was a cave elf lurking in the dark caverns, and she was unable to protect the others? What if, what if, what if…
Shut up. Worrying about it isn't going to solve anything.
Unlike all the others, that voice sounded like Lyra. Thistle returned her focus back to the task at hand, wishing she had an ounce of the outspoken elf's courage. It didn't take her long to find the list Orrig put together. Written in the orc's bold handwriting, it listed the spells she should be ready to use, from most important to least. The battle magic was quickly skimmed over, though the reminder that cave elves were resistant to fire worried her some. Healing magic she was likewise prepared for—it was the field she was most practiced in after growth spells, after all.
No, her problem was written at the very top of the list. Orrig explained that the group was likely to be separated while searching the confusing labyrinth of tunnels. Alone and in the dark, he was right to say that communication was going to be their highest priority. It was a simple spell, the sort of thing a first-year academy student should be able to pull off.
Should, being the operative word.
"Okay, I've got this," Thistle whispered to herself, reaching into her bag a second time for the spell book she'd purchased in the city. She'd never had much of a formal magical education, and survival took precedence over learning magic in the proper, standardized way. Until today, there was no reason to learn a communication spell.
"All I have to do is change the sound of audible speech to electromagnetic waves that can be sent and received between four people hundreds of meters away from each other. Underground." Thistle didn't actually know if being below ground had any effect on the spell, and this book didn't say. Surely Orrig wouldn't have expected her to use it if it wasn't possible, but sometimes she thought that he overestimated what she was capable of.
"Concentrate magic into a focal point at the center of the palm, paying special attention to the receiving-transmitting components, blah, blah, blah." Thistle skimmed the passage she'd read a dozen times already before propping the book up on her knee for reference. With grim determination, she extended her hand, calling upon her magic. A small ball of light formed in her palm, not nearly as bright or big as it should have been, but not bad for a first attempt.
The light squirmed in her hand, the laws of physics demanding that the energy dissipate and the equilibrium of the universe be restored. Thistle buckled down her will until it stabilized once more. She could feel how her distribution of magic was uneven, leading to lost energy and inefficient, sloppy spellwork. That, she knew, would improve with time as she became more familiar with the spell. Orrig only cared if she could get the job done, not how pretty she looked doing it.
Stupid, lazy girl! Embarrassment to every real mage, you ought to be ashamed of yourself…
Magic surged down Thistle's arm and into her hand, overloading the spell and causing it to explode in a blinding flash of light that left spots dancing in her vision. It happened so quickly and with such violence that for a few minutes Thistle was left frozen in place, utterly blindsided by her own incompetence.
Finally she remembered herself. "Stupid, stupid, stupid!" Thistle slammed the book closed and shoved it back into her bag. Theory was not her problem. She was the problem, and as soon as Orrig realized that he'd fire her.
That was almost too terrible to think about. Unlike almost everyone else she had ever met, the taciturn orc didn't ask questions, or even look like he cared to know the answers. Brent and Lyra were more curious, but they spent too much time at each other's throats to demand too much of her. And Brent, at least, knew what it was like to be unwanted. That had to count for something.
The anger faded, leaving a leaden melancholy in its place. With a heavy sigh, Thistle called on her magic a second time, coaxing the small ball of light into her palm like she would a frightened bird.
It came more this slowly this time. Her mechanics were better, and the spell was stronger for it. The matrix of carefully woven magic floated a few inches above her palm, pulsating with an energy that Thistle felt rather than saw.
"That's more like it," she said, unable to keep the pleasure out of her voice. "Now, for the split…"
The book talked about creating two halves of the same whole, but Thistle thought that in this case mitosis made the better metaphor. Really, this was no different than the rapid cell division that came to her so effortlessly. With a twitch of her fingers the ball split neatly in half. She brought one closer to herself and sent the other a few feet away.
If she'd done it right, then both parts should be able to receive and transmit sound. "Hello," Thistle said, loudly and clearly.
Perhaps she was imagining it, but Thistle thought she heard the faint echo of her words coming from the other half of her spell. Of course, she'd have to test it properly with the others, but it worked! It was only an elementary spell in ideal conditions, but it worked! Grinning like a loon, Thistle doubled down on her focus.
The two balls quivered and split again, each one of the four parts only a quarter the size of the original—too small to carry the energy required to maintain the spell. Thistle could only keep them into existence for a couple of seconds before they poofed into nothingness.
Thistle wasn't one to swear like Brent or Lyra, but at that moment she almost wished she was.
Time passed, and Thistle's frustration mounted. Every time she thought she made a breakthrough she managed to find a new and creative way to fail. She didn't understand what she was doing wrong, and she was beginning to believe that she wasn't going to understand until it was too late.
The nature of the communication spell was part of it. The majority of Thistle's repertoire consisted of big, flashy spells that were over and done with in seconds. Orrig expected her to maintain the line of communication for hours if the need arose. The delicate balance of energy input and long-term spell stability was a puzzle she had yet to crack.
Distance and scale were also a problem. Thistle could manage the binary form at a hundred meters or the quadratic form at a few feet, but not the quadratic form at a hundred meters. If they only split up into two groups Thistle was almost sure that they would be okay, but there was no guarantee that they would have that luxury.
"I suck," Thistle groaned, burying her head into her hands.
"No you don't."
Thistle jumped at the unexpected voice, jerking her head up to where Brent was standing a mere ten feet away. She felt her face flush with mortification. "How long have you been standing there?" she demanded, her voice more harsh than intended. Thistle instantly regretted her tone, but Brent only shrugged.
"Not that long. Orrig wanted me to tell you we're ready when you are."
"You are?" Thistle said. "How can you be ready?"
"What do you mean?"
It was a loaded question, but instead of shutting up her traitorous mouth answered, "We're hunting cave elves. Doesn't that worry you?"
"Elf," Brent corrected. "The report says there was only one. And what's the big deal? They're just monsters, like wyrms or minotaurs. It's not like they've got feelings. Besides, if the thing is killing miners then it needs to be put down, end of story."
Thistle hung her head. "I guess," she said quietly. "I…I need a few more minutes."
"Is that spell giving you trouble?" Brent asked. "I thought it was an easy one."
"It is," Thistle said, feeling small and worthless and insignificant.
"Oh, good." Brent set aside his sword and shield before plopping down beside her, a small smile on his face.
"It is not good," Thistle snapped. "Most would say that it is, in fact, very, very bad."
Brent laughed, surprisingly deep and full. It was much better than his usual surly self, Thistle found herself wishing he would do it more often. "No, no, no, that's not it. I was just starting to think you were perfect at everything. It's good to see you're mortal like the rest of us."
"I'm not perfect."
"Says the girl who singlehandedly saved a wizard school from being consumed by the pits of hell." The grin widened, exposing oversized canines.
"I did not—"
"Anyway," Brent continued, cutting off her protest. "I don't know jack $%*# about magic, but maybe it would help if you talked it out. What's the problem?"
Thistle opened her mouth to explain the multitude of reasons why she couldn't manage the spell before promptly shutting it again. Her excuses were just that: excuses, and bad ones at that. There was no reason why she couldn't manage such a simple spell, if not for one thing.
"It's a mental block," Thistle said miserably, her shoulders drooping in defeat.
Thistle thought a moment, gathering each word she wanted to say before speaking. "It's difficult to explain if you're not a practitioner, but at its core all magic is an exercise of the mind," she began slowly. "Everyone is born with some capacity for magic, just like anyone can learn to draw or play an instrument, or learn a martial art. Very few tap into that potential, and fewer yet have the strength of will to become fully qualified mages."
"Just like not everyone who learns a few chords on a lute can become a bard?" Brent said.
"Yes, that's it exactly. But unlike almost every other discipline, magic almost exclusively springs from here." She tapped her temple. "And here," she said, pointing to her heart.
Brent tilted his head in thought. "So when you punch the air to make a fireball or clap your hands to call light…?"
"My body is acting as a focus for the mind. Most of the time no physical action or incantation is needed for a spell to work, so long as the mage has proper focus and strength of will. Though only the best can manage doing that on a consistent basis and still maintain good fundamentals." Thistle sighed. "It's not worth the risk, if you ask me."
"Huh. So your problem with this spell is some sort of mental block? If you get rid of the block you'll be able to do it?
"It's not that simple, but yeah. I think so."
The pair were silent for a time. Thistle leaned back against the rough bark of the tree and gazed wistfully at the open sky. It was stupid to open up to Brent like this. Conversation—real conversation, rather than the glorified arguments that he and Lyra passed off as conversation—naturally led to questions she dare not answer. Questions led to suspicion, and suspicion invariably ended with her being chased out of town with torches and pitchforks.
Glancing down at Brent's sword, Thistle suppressed a shudder. By the time it was all said and done she'd probably be wishing for torches and pitchforks.
"So what's your hang up?" Brent asked finally. "What's got you so stumped?"
"It's a communications spell, and, well, I've not had anyone to talk to since…in a long time." If Brent noticed her correction, he didn't show it. "It's causing…cognitive dissonance."
Brent turned to face her properly. "What?"
Choosing her words with great care, Thistle said, "I don't talk much. It's true," she said when he rolled his eyes. "It's true, and it's stupid." I'm stupid…
"Well, I know you don't like talking with us, but have you ever thought that maybe we like talking to you?" This time it was Thistle who rolled her eyes, and he continued earnestly, "It's true. You're really smart, even if you do have your weird plant thing, but you don't treat the rest of us like we're dumb. Even when we are." He chuckled to himself. "Especially when we are."
Thistle's stomach clenched painfully. "It's not that I don't like talking to you guys. I just…don't know how."
It was a lie, or at least an equivocation. Everything they knew about her was based on a precarious stack of half-truths and evasions. If they knew, if they even suspected, they would reject her just like all the rest. Thistle wasn't sure if she could stand that. Even the illusion of belonging was better than the crushing weight of loneliness she'd experienced for so long.
They'll hurt you, you know. Only a fool voluntarily walks a path that will cause them pain. You never listen to me. Gods, what will it take to get it through your thick skull—
"You seem to be doing okay right now," Brent said, his gentle voice cutting through the sea of negativity. "Why don't you try it one more time? You got this."
Thistle's protests withered to ash on her tongue. "I'm not sure…"
"I am," he said forcefully. "You're the best mage I've ever seen."
That wasn't true, but it seemed impolite to say so out loud. Squaring her shoulders, Thistle once again called on her magic, emptying her mind of all else to concentrate solely on this one simple spell. Old books called this the intense focus required to preform all magic rumin, the etymological root of the word ruminate. It literally meant to chew the cud, and while it seemed simple enough in theory, there weren't many who could muster the concentration required to preform even the simplist magic, let alone with the quickness needed for practical casting.
There was the strange sensation as Thistle felt herself overriding the laws of nature through sheer force of will. Magic flowed out from her core through her hand like a river rushing downstream. She was familiar enough with the channels it was supposed to go that it was easy to direct, her entire will focused on shaping the raw magic into a useful spell. Receiving and transmitting of electromagnetic waves. That's all it was, simple communication.
A sphere of light formed in her palm, no larger than an apple. In her periphery, Thistle could see Brent's grin widen, but she didn't acknowledge it. The sphere split (just like a mother and daughter cell) and split again.
"Go on," Thistle said quietly, and one of the lights floated over to Brent's shoulder, changing from white to light blue as she whispered the incantation that would bind it to him for the duration of the spell.
She waited for it to explode or fade or fail, but - almost anticlimactically - nothing happened.
"You did it!" Brent said. "I knew you could. Forget cognitive dissonance, you just needed a little practice."
Unperturbed by her lack of enthusiasm, he jumped to his feet. "Great! Now let's go kill us some cave elves."
"Elf. The report said there was only one."
"Whatever. We're finally ready." Brent gathered his weapons before giving Thistle a sheepish look. "Uh, by the way, what's cognitive dissonance?"
"When you have two ideas about something that are contradictory," Thistle said, gathering her bag as she stood.
"Interesting." He set off briskly towards camp. "Like your mind's fighting itself? That sounds complicated."
Thistle hung her head—stupid, foolish, never can survive on your own, listen to me—and followed at much slower pace.
"You have no idea."