by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Abyss & Apex, January 2020
You stole a piece of my power from me. And it took me fifteen years to recognize it.
We were acolytes together, studying under Mage Dawlins. I studied ice magic. You studied fire. And Tilly was studying flora spells. She is part of this. She always was. We both loved her. No, I’m giving you too much credit. I make that mistake. I’ve been making it for years. It’s a hard habit to kill.
I loved Tilly — her impish smile; the subtle, clever jokes she told that wouldn’t fully hit me until hours later; and of course, the way she could summon flowers from the cracks in the concrete and paint murals on the walls in shades of moss before she’d ever been formally taught the spells. Life magic flowed through her. And she glowed with delight at every new spell she learned.
I loved her. You dated her.
Her long dark hair would fall in front of her face when she leaned over her spell books, too focused on her studies to notice, and you could sweep it away from her face, tuck it behind an ear, playfully touching her cheek, her chin, and finally distracting her completely with a kiss. I only watched, trying not to care. I didn’t have time for romance anyway. Ice magic is a slower magic than others. Powerful, yes. But only after years of study. Life magic produces a veritable fireworks display of brightly colored petals even in the hands of the newest initiates. Fire magic is more flashy still. But ice? It takes time. Time to control. Time to appreciate. Time to develop into the powers I have now.
I can create castles of ice on the surface of a sun-beaten pond in midsummer. I can draw water from the air and fill a room with sparkling chandeliers, carefully crafted prisms that cast rainbows from their facets.
But I couldn’t back then. All I could do was make an ice cube form — perfectly square in every dimension — in the middle of a beaker of room temperature water. Mage Dawlins was impressed. She encouraged me. She knew it was hard watching her other acolytes show off their dancing flowers and swirling flames while all I had to show for my work was a lump of inanimate ice. If I focused really hard, I could make it wibble wobble in its tepid bath, spreading ripples over the surface of the water in the beaker.
Then one night when we sneaked into Dawlins private library — you, me, and Tilly — we found a book with arcane spells, magic that didn’t fit into the primary fields of study. We weren’t supposed to be there, and Tilly kept giggling, excited, maybe scared we’d be caught. The fear — just a little, not too much, because what would Dawlins really do to us? — made it more fun. We each picked a spell and copied it down, planning to learn them later. Tilly picked a spell for tantalizing squirrels, making them into temporary minions. I didn’t pay enough attention to yours, but I know now what it was. I recognize it whenever I read the papers lately. All of the stories… All of the mages hurt… All of the power stolen. I am ahead of myself. We’ll get there.
I picked a simple memory spell, a forgetting spell. I wanted to forget the fool I’d made of myself in mundane school before I knew I was a wizard, before I knew about wizards at all. I wanted to forget the fight I’d had with my mother, the horrible things I’d said to her before leaving to be apprenticed to Mage Dawlins. It was a foolish wish, a young, naive wish. But I was young and naive, and it was late at night. I was giggling with friends, and it all seemed so fun.
So I copied the spell down, and I studied it. I stayed in the library all night. At some point, Tilly left, hoping to find a squirrel in the trees on the school grounds to make dance with her new skills. You left with her. You always followed her lead. I stayed studying, because I studied more slowly. I always struggled to learn what came easily to the rest of the acolytes. But I was not going to be foiled. I was not going to miss out on my part of the fun, just because I couldn’t learn as fast.
I fell asleep. I thought I was safe. I was in my teacher’s personal library. I was seventeen, and no one had ever touched me without my permission before. I had shared spells with a boy once — holding out our hands palm to palm, letting my ice magic flow into him and his earth magic flow into me. With our hands together, he had cooled his drink at the dining hall table, and I had cracked one of the clay plates. He’d laughed and I’d smiled. It was beautiful, consensual, completely shared and completely under my control.
But what happened to me that night was not.
I woke up, head against the hard wood of the desk I’d been studying at and arms tingling from the edge of the table cutting off their circulation. But my shoulder — bare because it had been an unseasonably warm spring, and I was wearing a sundress — tingled too. I felt your hand against my shoulder, and I looked up surprised. Did you want something? I would have asked, but instead I felt the magic flowing out of me. No magic returned. Just leaving, flowing from my shoulder into the hot skin of your hand.
“There’s no time,” you said. “Tilly will be in trouble for using the squirrel spell if I don’t get to Dawlins and use the forgetting spell you’ve been studying right away.”
“Okay,” I mouthed, unable to fully summon my voice. You knew how to manipulate me. How to convince me I would have okayed your actions if you’d only asked, convince me that I’d given you tacit permission through my unspoken love for Tilly. But you didn’t ask. I didn’t give permission. You pulled the spell straight out of my body, and then you used the spell you’d learned earlier that night — the one that would let you keep it.
I fell back asleep feeling dirty, feeling drained. When I woke up again, I convinced myself I could never have learned such a difficult spell as the forgetting spell. It must have been a dream. If I had learned the spell, I would have still known it. Wouldn’t I? Spells can only be borrowed, not stolen. As far as I knew. I wasn’t sure what had happened, and when I asked Tilly about that night, her face flushed red, and her tongue stumbled, more embarrassed and flustered than I’d ever seen her before. But one thing was certain — she couldn’t make squirrels dance. She wouldn’t even look at squirrels anymore.
But sometimes, when you walked under the trees, the branches above rustled and swayed. I swear, some days the squirrels waltzed when you walked past.
After that night, Mage Dawlins kept her private library locked. Tilly broke up with you, quit her studies, and moved away, back to being mundane. (I know she gave up magic, but I hope she at least gardens. I hope there are still flowers in her life.) And I focused on my studies, pushing my feelings for Tilly away deep inside. I might have reached out to her, continued our friendship at least, but I could no longer think about her without my feelings being tainted by thoughts of you.
I was in awe of you, such a powerful magician. I followed you around, studying near you, wishing a piece of your greatness would rub off on me. What I really wanted was my own magic back, the piece of my life — no matter how small — that you had stolen. But I couldn’t see that. All I could see was your allure. Your magic. Your power.
You had to be powerful. I could never have turned a piece of my own magic over to you permanently, so if it wasn’t a dream, you had to have learned the spell on your own, glancing over my shoulder, reading a spell one time through that I had been studying uselessly all night, too dense to understand. But that’s not what happened. It’s what I believed for many years, but it’s not true. You took my spell from me, leaving me to doubt myself, second guess every spell I learned after that one, always wondering if I was good enough or if somehow my magic would inexplicably slip away, leaving me less than I had been before I started. And I wasn’t the only one you did this to.
You grew more and more powerful. So did I. But not as fast as you. None of us grew as fast and as powerful as you, because you no longer needed to study. Only to touch — take the spells; erase the taking. You’ve been doing it for years, building an empire of every flavor and color of magic, all stolen.
But you’ve finally been caught, and mages across the land are beginning to remember the power you’ve taken from them. They’re coming to recover their spells, and your fireballs — the only spell that was ever truly yours, or did you steal that one somehow too? — cannot keep them all away.
You are not magical. You never were. You are a thief.
You are nothing.
And I am stronger with my ice powers than you will ever be. I can build a carapace of ice for myself, armor that chills the air around me and protects me from your fireballs. I can skate on blades of ice across frost rivers that form at my command, personal highways arching and flowing like ribbons through the air. I can throw blades of ice, thinner than leaves and sharper than knives that shatter into shrapnel as bright and pointed as needles, only to melt away after their damage is done.
You will not be able to stop me. You haven’t been able to stop the others. You are losing already.
As more and more of your memory spells wear off with the crumbling passage of time, more and more of us will come to take our power, our spells back, until every last breath of your stolen magic is gone. You will be left with nothing but a memory that you cannot erase.
Because that spell is mine.