The mysterious substance of mana is the foundation of magic. Magic is initiated and sustained through mana. Its lack or abundance sharply delineates what is and is not possible for a given mage to accomplish. It is not entirely wrong to say that having enough mana to produce the desired effect is the single most important thing when it comes to magic – the prerequisite that must be met before the mage can even begin their work.
And yet, having a sufficient quantity of mana is only half of the battle. Mana does very little on its own, after all. Something needs to take control of the mana and direct it towards a coherent goal. This directing, this shaping of mana is what people call spellcasting.
And being capable of spellcasting is what truly makes mages so formidable.
Before a person can even think of performing magic, they must master a few minor but absolutely necessary skills. Specifically, they need to learn how to sense their own mana, quickly and reliably draw upon their personal mana reserves, consciously direct their mana along specific ways, visualize the desired result with a high degree of detail and clarity and exercise discipline over their thoughts to maintain concentration during spellcasting.
Although none of these skills are terribly difficult on their own, developing all five into a seamless and reliable whole has proven to be rather difficult. The process takes 2-4 years for an average mage and requires considerable work ethic and introspection. Instructors can provide guidance, but everyone’s thoughts and mana are somewhat different – it is up to aspiring mages themselves to figure out what works for them personally and what doesn’t. Some people just can’t do that while others lack the discipline to apply themselves to the problem with sufficient intensity. Numerous mage aspirants have been stopped from achieving their dreams at this very first step in the process.
In truth, the situation here has improved considerably in modern times. The increasing number of mages and the accumulation of magical knowledge available to the public have led to a specialized profession of magic instructors and vastly better training methods than what had existed in the past. Consequently, the success rate of passing this first major hurdle has gone way up than it was in the past. Historically, mages were fairly uncommon and magical training was done mostly through apprenticeships. Very few of these ‘master mages’ actually knew how to teach – they knew what worked for them and simply taught that to any student that came their way. If that was a poor fit for the student, well… tough luck. Go find another teacher willing to take you in. And that was assuming that the mage in question honestly tried their best when teaching someone. For many mages, the primary motivation for accepting apprentices was to have some extra hands to fob off all the boring chores and unpleasant work onto.
Of course, most modern magic instructors and teaching institutions actually demand far more than mastering just these five elementary skills from their students. Anyone who seriously intends to be a mage in one of the Altazian Splinter States, for instance, will also have to memorize a great number of different chants and gestures, develop an ability to draw upon ambient mana to replenish their personal mana reserves, learn the relevant laws governing the use of magic and a whole host of other things. But strictly speaking, one can do magic without satisfying these extra requirements. It’s just usually illegal to do so.
The oldest and simplest form of magic is unstructured magic. Anyone with prerequisite basic spellcasting skills is capable of performing it to some extent. All they have to do is visualize the effect they’re trying to produce and then direct mana at the problem until they get what they want. They may not succeed the first time, or the second time, or the tenth time, but they are bound to succeed eventually. They just need to keep at it long enough.
Unstructured magic works because souls can, to some extent, figure out how to perform feats of magic on their own. If given aid in directing mana outside the body and presented with a clear picture of the desired goal, the soul will slowly chip away at the problem in question, getting closer and closer to a solution with each attempt. Since this is a very blind and crude process, however, it can take quite a while before it converges on a viable solution. If the desired magical effect is complex or mana intensive, the training could take years, decades, or even so long that no person would live to see the results within their natural lifetime. Such long training times can be made more manageable by breaking down complex effects into multiple simpler steps and by studying similar magic, but the fact remains – unstructured magic is generally very time-consuming to train.
Some effects are easy to accomplish with unstructured magic. Mana is very much inclined to produce light, heat and kinetic force. In fact, it often does so against the caster’s wishes – most spellcasting is not flawless, and wasted mana naturally manifests itself in the form such energies. If the caster has a healthy amount of control over the mana involved in the spell, this means unwanted glows, rapid increase in the temperature of surrounding area and chaotic waves of kinetic force (often perceived as strange wind by spectators). If not, a failed spell could easily blow up in the caster’s face or burn their hands off. Thus, unstructured magic that deals with said energies is quite easy. Turning objects into sources of illumination, igniting paper and levitating things are all examples of elementary tricks that virtually every mage is capable of.
(As an aside: Because of its obvious inclination towards light and heat, magic has historically been heavily associated with fire in many different cultures. Ikosians, for instance, considered magic to be fashioned from the fire of the primordial world dragon from which the world was created.)
Unstructured magic is extremely flexible. The caster can use it at will, with no forewarning or preparation, and can adjust the details of what they’re doing from moment to moment, adjusting to changing circumstances far more agilely than a structured spell ever could. Not only is this a great boon in situations where speed and adaptability is crucial, it also means that many structured magic defenses – especially simpler, low-level ones – have trouble effectively countering unstructured magic. They are made for blocking rigid spell constructs that attack a target in very specific ways and have trouble dealing with magic that can be adjusted on the fly to attack their weak points or slip past their blind spots.
All this said, unstructured magic is something that virtually nobody trains exclusively in. Every mage has some amount of ability in it, but this is purely because a certain level of unstructured magic expertise is vital as a foundation for another system of spellcasting. One that gives results much faster than unstructured magic and also gives the mage a much more versatile set of magic skills to boot.
Unstructured magic can, in theory, do anything. It is unbounded and freeform. However, it is that very freedom that that is in some ways the problem. With no limiters in place, the soul loses itself in the vast space of different possibilities and takes an impractically long time to reach a viable solution for problems presented to it. What if there was a way for mages to direct the flow of mana in a more precise, forceful manner? What if one could tell the soul, not just what to do, but explain to it exactly how it should go about doing it?
Structured magic – also known as bounded magic and the divine limiter system – is a method of doing just that. By performing a series of words and gestures, the caster can invoke a rigid mana construct that directs mana in very specific ways. These rigid mana constructs are called spells in casual parlance, and also invocations… for Ikosians believe that structured magic had been handed to mankind by the gods themselves in ancient history.
Handed by the gods or not, spells are not black boxes that nobody understands. Rather, each spell is essentially constructed out of lego-like ‘blocks’ (spell elements) that can be assembled into all sorts of ways to produce desired effects. Humans cannot create new types of spell elements, but existing ones can be combined in novel ways easily enough. Spell crafters are constantly inventing new spells through this process and it doesn’t seem like the potential of the system as a whole is anywhere close to being fully tapped.
In order to cast a structured spell, the caster must communicate the structure of the spell in question to their soul. This is usually done by reciting a chant and performing a series of hand gestures. Specific words and gestures invoke specific spell elements, essentially explaining to the soul of the caster how it should go about constructing the spell boundary. The reason both chanting and gestures is typically used is to cut down on spellcasting time – by ‘speaking’ two things at once, the casting time is essentially halved. ‘Silent spells’ that only used gestures and ‘still spells’ that only use chants both exist, and naturally take far longer than regular spells to cast.
Although spell elements are bound to certain words and gestures (henceforth: proxies), the proxies do not possess power of their own. If a spell proxy is used in normal social interaction, by a person ignorant of its significance, it will invoke nothing except its mundane meaning. Even knowing that a word or gesture is a proxy is not enough. They must know exactly what the proxy stands for in order to use it.
Spell elements are not exclusively tied to one specific proxy. Modern mages typically use the Old Ikosian language and conventions in their spellcasting, but it is entirely possible to bind a spell element to another proxy. Doing this requires cooperation of a mage already capable of invoking spell elements, but this isn’t an especially stringent requirement. This is especially important for non-human species like aranea, who are incapable of mimicking human speech and hand movements, but even some human cultures find the default Ikosian magic vocabulary too alien for their liking. As such, spell elements are bound to new words and gestures all the time. It should be noted, however, that there are many spell elements and that the translation of the entire Ikosian spellcasting language into another functional spellcasting language is a major undertaking that can easily take decades of hard work to accomplish. On top of that, this makes it more difficult to use the bulk of existing magical literature, and is thus often more trouble than it’s worth.
Invoking a spell element successfully is obvious. Thus, if a mage performs a proxy incorrectly and fails to invoke a spell element, they will immediately know it. However, they can still ruin the spell without realizing it by missing some of the proxies, adding ones that shouldn’t be there or performing proxies in incorrect order.
In any case, although a spell boundary defines how the mana should be used to produce an effect, that doesn’t mean that performing the spell will result in a successful magical effect the first time its cast. The spell boundary simply narrows down the possibility space to something small enough that the soul can figure it out relatively quickly.
Still, even if the learning process is not instant, it is blazingly fast when compared to alternatives. Spells that would take decades of training if done through unstructured magic can be learned in a week, and things that would require a week of tireless repetition can be mastered in five minutes of practice.
There are trade-offs involved, of course. Although a spell boundary massively shortens the time necessary to learn a piece of magic, the rigidness of the mana construct limits the ability of the caster to adjust the effect of the spell beyond what is programmed into the spell boundary. Generally, the caster defines how the spell will behave when he casts the spells – after that, the magic mostly does its own thing and the caster has very limited ability to change its behavior beyond just dismissing it entirely and casting a brand new spell.
This inflexibility can be ameliorated by having a mage invest some of their time into unstructured magic related to often-used spells. Doing this allows the caster to use more loosely defined spell boundaries in their spells, which gives them more freedom in adjusting their effects to suit their needs at the moment. This practice is widely used among modern mages, and is the main reason why modern structured spells are so flexible compared to their ancient counterparts. Previously, a combat mage had to learn 15 individual variations of a fireball spell if they wanted to have a high degree of control over the blast radius, fire intensity and other variables. The modern version of the fireball spell can do everything those 15 variations did, provided one has sufficiently high shaping skills to actually cast the spell.
In addition to being inflexible, structured spells also require a rather lengthy casting procedure. This is both inconvenient and dangerous. Especially in battle but sometimes even outside of it – the longer the casting procedure, the more chances for something to do wrong or for the caster to be interrupted halfway through. And while unstructured magic can usually be dismissed or adjusted if something goes wrong, structured magic essentially offloads a lot of the mana shaping and safety control to the spell boundary… if it is damaged or improperly made, the caster could easily end up dead.
It is possible to shorten the casting time of structured spells. The first method is through spell formulas, which are outside the scope of this article. The second method is by casting a spell so often that it becomes reflexive. That is, the soul gets so proficient at shaping the mana into that specific spell that the mage in question can start gradually dropping proxies from the casting procedure one by one. Eventually, the spell can be executed with a single word or gesture… or even with a mere thought.
The problem is that it takes years for a spell to reach that level. Developing reflexive magic is not that much faster than developing unstructured magic.