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Jessica, Cinis

“Conflict was not my purpose in coming here,” said the woman. “I came to repay a debt.”

“Your debt is not with him, he’s never left Querkus,” Jessica retorted, and she held her stance. The woman’s voice washed over her and, unless she held her thoughts tightly, seemed to pick them apart, eroding them away with each syllable.

This isn’t good, she thought, extending her senses toward the lady and feeling nothing but water. I can’t feel anything. It just feels like water, straight water. Even her voice feels like it’s made of water. And thinking back, she remembered a lesson from Cesaro, a lesson that had made the hairs on her neck rise at the time and now made her spine tingle.

“Jessica,” he had said as they walked together, him leading her down a forest path, the thick trunks around them an indication of the depth into which they had travelled. Above, shafts of light pierced through the leaves, few reaching the vegetation on the ground below. “Dear, as you have learned by now, increasing your skills aids in the identification of when others are actively using magic. You could sense when your sister used Air Magic, though you were untrained at the time. The reason why is that she was clumsy—it would be similar to you slamming your fists down on piano keys, and calling it music. Even if you attempt to ignore the notes, they are still jarring, and they still stand out.”

“Yes, it did seem like that,” she said. “Or as if someone was flashing a bright light in my eyes.”

“Precisely, Jessica, precisely. However, as magical skill improves, it is no longer so staccato. Instead of out-of-place notes, it would be as if an expert musician was playing the keys. And if he was particularly skilled, you likely would not notice at all. They would blend so well with reality that they would be indiscernible from reality—more than indiscernible, some argue that it is reality itself. Magic is all around us; there is magic that keeps you alive, there is magic as fire burns, there is magic in the light that shines from the stars overhead at night. But it is so natural, soperfect, so pure, that it may as well not be there.”

“So you’re saying that I can only identify magic that is pieced together by the unskilled because it appears artificial?”

“More than appears. It is artificial. They are pushing nature’s laws, contorting them in ways that stand out because they simply are not meant to be. But a great magician, one truly talented, does not distort the laws. Instead, they use them to their advantage. They improve, rather than detract. And when magic is worked in this way, it is harmonized to such a degree that it is nearly impossible to tell it is even there at all. Recognize that, Jessica. Recognize that just because you can barely sense magic does not mean it is weak; rather, it means the opposite. That it is powerful, that its skill level is leagues above your own, and that you might be in danger. The more detail that magic has while appearing not to be magic to your senses at all, the more powerful an entity you are dealing with.”

“How can I tell if it even is magic, then? How do I know it is not natural, or something innocent?” she asked, noticing that the dirt path in front of her had turned rocky, and that there were jagged crags jutting out from the sides, stones carved long ago that formed walls as high as her knees.

“That’s the heart of the question, Jessica. But often, you’ll simply know.”

“That makes no sense,” she answered. “I think I would be able to sense whether it was magic from pretty far away, especially if it was powerful. I’d feel the disturbance. And if I can’t, then there is no way to tell.”

“Dear, you think you could tell, then, if some of the most powerful magic you’ve ever encountered was nearby?” asked Cesaro, turning to face her, an eyebrow raised.

“Definitely,” she answered, meeting his gaze. “Otherwise, it’d be like I was blind.”

“Interesting. Do you know why I brought you here, Jessica? Why we took this hike nearly ten miles into the forest, far away from any sort of town?”

“No. If I remember correctly, you refused to explain it to me when I asked and dismissed the question. I figured that you were trying to get me more in touch with life or something.”

“Close,” he said. “As you mentioned, dear, you’d be able to sense magic nearby. Can you tell me why, exactly, there is a boulder the size of a horse floating a hundred feet above your head right now?”

“Why there is a what?” she said, and she looked upward. “By Corsus!” She darted left to avoid the falling stone near the top of the trees, the granite angled down at her like a falling point. But as she moved, the stone stayed still, hovering as if it were suspended by cable.

“What? What is that?” she asked. “Are you doing that? Are you holding that up there? The weight would be astronomical!”

“If I was, shouldn’t you be able to feel it?” he asked. “But no, I am not. It’s the same as that one, thirty feet to your left, and that one, just ahead. Strange, no? Look around you Jessica—there are dozens, all held in place. Surely thatcannot be natural. Yet you feel no magic.”

“What is this place?” she breathed. Another floating rock caught her eye, this one at head level and the size of her fist. Walking over, she placed her hands against it and pushed, but it felt locked in place, as if it were cemented into a wall. Extending her senses, she found little suspicious about it. It was simply rock—rock with the dull thrum of power echoing from deep within it, which she could just barely touch, and which danced outside her perspective.

“Ruins,” answered Cesaro. “Ruins from long ago, long before you were born, Jessica. What they are I cannot say, but I can assure you that the magic that holds these in place is incredibly strong, yet you cannot sense it from mere yards away. And whoever, or whatever put these in place was a masterful artist, one whose skill was likely unmatched. His work has persisted for thousands of years, even after everything else had fallen away.”

Back on the raft, extending her senses toward the figure, Jessica felt the same sensation she had when examining the rocks—dull thrum of power behind a wall of water—and her heart rate accelerated.

***

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