Duel arcane was the invention of human wizards. As much as wizards liked to poke fun at warriors, they did appreciate how the muscle bound brutes settled things man to man, if that’s what it came down to. Steel against steel, that was the warrior way, and the early wizards didn’t have anything close to it.
The first to stumble upon it was an Endiron wizard named Algerin Bluefist, named for the ever-present blue glove on his left hand … no, he didn’t moondance. Algerin was rather young for a wizard (meaning his beard hadn’t fully grown into its wizardly length) and on the pudgy side – a lack of athleticism as a teenager inspired his initial attraction for the arcane arts. Algerin lived about the same time Korak invaded Sangrithar and killed Queen Avara. He belonged to the Endiron Conglomerate, a poorly named wizard’s guild with a dual threat membership. If their spells didn’t get you, their hard deals would.
Algerin was researching a new spell in the safe room. That was the guild’s version of a shooting range – a cellar the size of a basketball court with thick stone walls, plenty of targets and nothing of any real value. Unfortunately for him, neither Sudnar nor Harnor was paying any attention that day and every attempt met with failure.
Algerin vented his frustration at the stone idol he’d used for practice He reached for the Spires and lashed out instinctively, without bothering to shape his power with a spell. The really old sorcerers, the ones from the Elder Days didn’t always need a spell, but human wizards did. Nothing should have happened. Algerin shouldn’t have released his power, not without a spell to shape it, but he did in a Sith Lord sort of way. Raw, crackling energy burst from his fingers and struck the idol, shattering it to smithereens.
Algerin slumped to the floor, exhausted, but excited. The next day he returned to the safe room with a shiny new idol and lots of ideas, but no real plan. He didn’t know how to make the secret sauce and couldn’t replicate his feat. He went back to the safe room the next day, and the next and every day thereafter until the other wizards began to worry. His beard grew long (finally, they whispered) and after a thousand and one days, a tall man, with dark, wavy hair colored like a two-striped skunk knocked on the safe room’s door. He had a narrow face, with sunken cheekbones and piercing dark eyes. He wasn’t bearded, though it seemed like he should have been.
“I heard about you,” the man said abruptly after Algerin let him in. “Let me see what you’re working on.”
“There’s nothing to see,” said the dejected Algerin, too tired to ask the stranger his name or purpose. He didn’t know everyone in the guild. Only a senior wizard would be down here, but senior wizards wore long wizardly beards, and this man was clean-shaven. “I can’t do it.”
“Try,” the stranger winked. “For me.”
Algerin sighed and tried again, for at least the ten thousandth time. Beneath the stranger’s light tone lay a commanding presence. He released his power upon the idol. Nothing, not even a sputter.
“Again,” said the stranger.
Once more, Algerin complied. He concentrated until his power begged for release. He willed the idol to explode. It didn’t even wobble, let alone shatter into a thousand pieces. “It’s no use.”
“Don’t give up,” the stranger said tartly. “You’re on to something.”
“What’s the use? It was a freak accident, nothing more. I’ve wasted too much time already.”
“One more time,” the stranger insisted. “Then I’ll leave you alone.”
“No, Ravager take you.” It had been a long day. Algerin was tired.
“Just one more time. Then, I’ll go.”
“You swear? By the Councilor?” Algerin would do it, just to make him go away.
The man’s face tightened. “Pick someone else. Golden Finbardin … or The Lady of Esel if you prefer. Anyone but the Councilor … or the Seeress.”
His odd reply put Algerin off. Swearing by the Councilor was the best way to show that you really meant it. “Then swear by Harnor. If that won’t do, to the Pits with you.”
The man smiled. “Splendid choice. I swear by Harnor, Lord of the Spires. I won’t pester you any more if you’ll give it one more try.”
Algerin closed his eyes and drew power again. He felt a magikal nudge from the man. It was like one of those Claritin commercials. The ones where every color is muted until the drug kicks in and then the world explodes in color. The energy Algerin drew from the Spires was raw and unfiltered, like it had been that first time. He pointed and the idol exploded.
Reluctantly, an exhilarated and exhausted Algerin broke his connection to the Spires before he burned out. That much power was dangerous. “What did you do to me?”
“It wasn’t hard to figure out, not after watching you try,” the man bragged. “I just nudged you in a different direction.”
“What in Erlik’s Eye does that mean?” It was official. His exhaustion surrendered to curiosity.
“Didn’t you feel it” the man asked. His smug expression irritated Algerin. “You blew right past the Towers. You bypassed them and drew directly from the Spires. I nudged you in the right direction.” His expression clouded. “I should have figured it out sooner. I have a blind spot when it comes to the Towers.”
“Who are you?” Algerin finally asked. “And how do you know these things?”
“My name is Tarik,” the man said, as if that explained everything and of course, it did. Twenty-five hundred years after the Reckoning, every wizard in the world had heard of Tarik, child of the Harnae. He was the world’s most famous wizard, with guest memberships at every guild on Fanar and some on the far away continents of Shurlind and Kandagard.
Then Tarik explained it to Algerin, just as he later explained it to me. The Towers were buffers protecting human wizards from burning up. They also prevented a wizard from achieving his full potential. When Algerin had reached out to the Spires in frustration, he’d short-circuited those safety measures. The idol exploded so colorfully because he’d tapped the Spires directly.
Tarik told Algerin that he was lucky not to have died. The human form wasn’t meant to hold such power and exhaustion was the first sign of going too far. Had he sustained his connection to the Spires, it might have killed him.
“Is there a way to safely and consciously draw power from the Spires?” Algerin asked.
“I never really gave it thought until now. Why would I bother when for me, the Towers don’t exist. If I hadn’t been studying you, I wouldn’t even have noticed them. Let me think. Hmm …” he scratched his chin. “There may be a way. Let’s start by splitting this into two problems. First, you need to bypass the Spires and second, you need some way to contain the power so it doesn’t destroy you. Now that I know what I’m looking for, the first is easy as pie.” Tarik never lacked for confidence.
“Show me,” said Algerin and he reached for power.
“Hold on,” Tarik yelled. “Its too dangerous without the second piece. That shouldn’t be too difficult. All we have to do is mimic how the Towers buffer.”
“Is that all?” Algerin worried.
“Don’t sweat it,” Tarik reassured him. “Go ahead and cast some spells. I’ll watch.”
“What sort of spells?”
“It doesn’t matter. Turn the idol into a flower, light it on fire, levitate it, whatever, I don’t care. Just make it big, whatever it is. I want get a better picture of what grandpa’s towers are doing.” Not only was Tarik confident, he was a namedropper.
“What do you see … when I cast a spell?”
Tarik laughed, “You light up like an Elf!”
“I do? But … but I don’t have an aura. No human wizards do.”
“Sure you do, it’s just on a different wavelength. Sort of like a whistle that only a dog can hear. Go ahead, sling a few.” After Tarik told me this story, I called him Rover for the next month.
Algerin cast spell after spell, until he was too tired to light a candle. The entire time, Tarik observed and took mental notes. He commented occasionally on Algerin’s technique, offering suggestions to improve a particular spell, or arching an eyebrow, or mumbling to himself, or studying something that Algerin couldn’t see.
The next morning, Tarik and his victory smirk were waiting for Algerin in the safe room. I could picture it well. It was the same smirk he wore whenever he told me the story. “I figured out, Algerin. It was pretty simple, once I put my mind to it. All you have to do is erect a shield. I’ll show you.” Confident, name dropper and a show-off.
A misty dome surrounded Tarik and Algerin. “This mimics the Tower’s buffers. It will shield you from direct exposure to the Spires. Once it’s in place, nothing can pass in or out of it.” Tarik dismissed the shield and then created another slowly, so that Algerin could watch how he did it. “Did you get that?”
“Good. Give it a try.”
Algerin repeated Tarik’s spell. A dome flickered into existence and then flickered out. He tried again with the same effect.
“What’s the matter?” Tarik asked with some impatience.
“I can’t do it,” Algerin said. “I’m not strong enough.”
“Sure you can,” Tarik countered as his logic was infallible. “It’s an easy spell.”
“For you, maybe, but not me. I’m a human wizard, remember. I’m not even the strongest of my order. Odaxis holds that distinction.”
“Well then, go get him.” I can picture Tarik saying this. It wasn’t “go get him, you ignorant fool”, nor was it “go get him. I, Tarik command thee”, it was more like “if he’s the best man for the job, then go get him ASAP, times a wastin.”
“I beg your pardon,” Algerin replied. Not fluent in Tarik’s nuances, he took the suggestion as quite rude, instead of merely somewhat rude.
“I said go get him. There has to be someone in this house of magik who can erect a simple shield.” When Tarik told the story, he pretended he’d been polite about it, but I knew him too well. I’d bet you a beer that my version of that line is closer to the truth than the Grush dung Tarik tried selling me.
Muttering obscenities, Algerin left the safe room and returned shortly with a thin, elderly gentleman wearing blue and yellow robes and a pair of spectacles and carrying a silver staff etched with runes. And, of course, he had a long, wizardly beard. “May I introduce you to Odaxis, the head of our guild.”
The old man bowed his mostly bald head. “A pleasure to meet you, Lord Tarik.”
“Indeed. Has Algerin explained why you’re here?”
“Briefly. It sounds dangerous, flirting with the Spires.”
“It is. It can be deadly,” Tarik agreed. “Unless you’re properly shielded. That’s why I asked for you. Let me show you.”
Tarik summoned the opaque dome twice, once quickly and again slowly. That was his method of teaching. He’d have never cut it at the University. Professors require patience. Students often ask the same question over and over. I had one that simply couldn’t remember the name of the Elven Firstborn. No matter how many times I told him, he insisted on calling him Mammaran. I blamed it on his mother. Five years is too long to breast feed.
Odaxis attempted raising a shield. It flickered out after a few seconds just like Algerin’s had.
“Solare burn me,” Tarik swore. “Not you too!”
Odaxis tried again and the dome started to fizzle. Before it flickered out completely, Algerin added his power to Odaxis’s and the dome stabilized. “That’s it,” Tarik shouted. “You’ve done it.”
The dome filled most of the safe room and was too thick to see through. They could only see each other. It was like nothing in the world existed except the three of them inside the dome. “Now,” said Tarik. “Try casting a spell out of the dome.” Algerin shot a bolt of lightning. When it reached the dome, it fizzled. Odaxis tried fire, acid and cold with the same result. “I told you. Nothing can get through.”
Odaxis disappeared and then reappeared a moment later, frowning. Tarik couldn’t keep the smirk from his face. “Nice try, but no far traveling allowed once you’re inside. Now, let’s get on to the important part, shall we? This all started with Algerin’s little idol experiment. When he made the idol go boom, he released raw power without using a spell to shape it. For that, you have go directly to the source. I do that every day, but for you human wizards, it’s very dangerous. If Algerin had kept it up, he’d have died. Inside this shield though, it’s safe. I’ll show you.”
Tarik then demonstrated the technique. It wasn’t difficult, he told me, just obscure and not easily stumbled on. To his utter satisfaction and slight surprise, both human wizards mastered the trick easily and unleashed a torrent of raw, arcane energy against the impenetrable dome. They found the experience both exhilarating and terrifying.
“Remember, don’t try this without the shield. It won’t be pretty if you do.”
“How do we get rid of it?” Algerin asked.
Tarik smiled. “Oh, that’s easy. When one of you dies, it will disappear.”
“That’s comforting,” said Algerin.
“Cheer up, there’s another way. The two of you have to face each other. There, that’s it. Now hold hands. Come on, don’t be shy. Now click your heels together.” Both wizards turned to look at him. “Okay, I was kidding about the heels. Just wish the shield away while holding hands. That’s it.”
The shield vanished. Algerin slumped down on the floor and leaned his back against the wall. “Why the long face?” Tarik asked. “You did it.”
“Big deal,” said Algerin. “It’s useless. It takes two wizards to raise the dome and once it’s up, everything outside may as well be in another fold of the Girdle. Solare burn me, I thought I was on to something.”
Odaxis spoke up. “Have heart, Algerin. This may be more useful than you realize …”
And that, noble reader, is how duel arcane was invented.