First Duel

Carsten Kotter does a little literary experimentation this week with a Magic-inspired creative writing piece. Let him know what you think of it in the comments!

Following the mana lines is dangerous. I had heard as much when I started my search, but now—now I know. It held too much promise, though. The lines seemed to stretch further through the folds of the multiverse than anything I’d ever observed. No way could I just ignore such an enticing adventure.

I wasn’t unprepared, either. I had received the best magical education available—spell theory, training fights—from highly experienced instructors, some of them even planeswalkers themselves. The Academy offered it all.

And following my apprenticeship, during my guided voyages of exploration from good old Dominaria to the outer wilderness of Zendikar and the dark beauty of Innistrad, I had accumulated knowledge and experience hard to match for anyone with a less strident training regimen. Strange new planes allowed me to discover rare, savage creatures and to master weird but powerful forms of magic. Yes, I knew myself well prepared, ready for anything. I was drunk on my own power. So when I found one of the deep lines, I didn’t hesitate; I felt no need to be careful. I simply picked up the trail and followed it.

Following a mana line is complicated—nothing like planeswalking. Just traveling is easy, instinctive. If you have the gift—the spark—all you need to do is visualize the place you want to reach, twist reality just so, and soon enough you end up where you expected to go.

To follow a mana line, you need to concentrate, to constantly adjust the mana flow around you to match the configuration of the line. Otherwise, you’ll drift and end up only Nicol Bolas knows where.

My teachers always stressed that being a planeswalker was dangerous, that there were ruthless, cruel beings out there always on the lookout for new prey. I considered them frightened old men then, secure in the knowledge of my own power. Just like you do now. So when I recognized the difficulty of moving with the mana line, I lowered my guard and concentrated utterly on the task at hand.

It was thus through inattention that I entered my first real duel. As I moved along the line, a sudden premonition grabbed me. I could feel a force, an incredible force dark as the void between the worlds, pushing at the mana line, deforming it, creating space inside this manifestation of pure magic. Surprise and fear barely had time to register before I impacted, broke through the barrier, and came into this new place. The first moment after my body remanifests, everything seems empty.

Suddenly I notice a figure in a black robe, face hidden in shadow, with bone-white hands protruding from the dark recesses of the robe’s wide arms. It floats in the emptiness before me far on the other side. Already it emanates the telltale tingle of someone establishing a mana link. The smell of rot and decay starts to waft through the void—black mana!

Only my teachers’ excellent preparation saves me. Without conscious thought, my favorite arsenal of defensive spells pops into my mind, and I move to establish my own mana links.

While I’m still preparing, he cuts his arm with an obsidian dagger. But the dripping blood evaporates, transforming into a weird form of mana I’ve never seen before or since, and sudden pain flares behind my temples. I can feel his spell crawling through my head—probing, prying, revealing everything I had planned and ready—the knowledge flowing straight into my adversary’s mind. The violation ends, and I feel shaken.

I send out my mind to the tropical rainforests of Zendikar, pass through the gateway there—some of the vegetation rips my skin—and follow the mana link to the lushly forested tropical island I love so well. I didn’t want to use this mana yet, though; I’d rather stay ready to defend at a moment’s notice. But I only catch a whiff of salty air as my adversary establishes another mana link and accelerates his thought processes with some blue mana of his own—no threat yet.

I reach out to the memory of another island, standing at the rim of a smoldering crater smelling the sea breeze. Now I am ready, guarded. It’s time to make a move. From among the tropical fauna, I call forth one of the swift, nimble mongeese that have so impressed me with their elegance, and when my opponent starts to chant the opening lines of some unholy ritual, I focus my mana into a spear that pierces the fabric of his spell, ripping it apart.

I ponder my options while my scaly friend draws blood—not much, admittedly, though it’s a start. All I can come up with for now was another mana link, though I can feel more defensive options just waiting to come forth.

My enemy focuses a stream of black mana and reaches out, and I can hear some infernal whispers. Nothing good can come of this. As I feel the form and size of his spell, I realize I can easily draw a snare of mana around it. One pull and it’s caught, rendering it useless.

He retaliates fiercely. I can feel his spell, fast and powerful, rush towards me. It breaks into my mind again; this time when the pain fades, something is lost, gone from my mind. Ripped out with such force I can barely remember what it was.

I need to catch my balance, recover, and strike back. A little blue mana makes my mind move faster. Ideas flow in, pushing useless options out of my mind, and I remember the mad researcher I met on Innistrad. I also recall how he ended up after his experiments. Just a little exertion brings him forth, unassuming and puny. I hope my opponent will underestimate him like his colleagues did.

Oblivious to my actions, my opponent spends more mana focusing his mind, manipulating his thoughts and scouring even the future for deeper insights. Nothing real, no threat, though. I start to relax a little. My summoned army should take him down soon, and he still has nothing to defend.

I make sure the seeker finds his secret—as disgusting as seeing that transformation happen again may be—and now my adversary has to contend with the attentions of an angry insect hybrid. I can see him falter under the blows.

He takes his vengeance, though. More black mana flows, and I can barely bear the pain as his spells rip my mind apart. My concentration is gone—all I have left is a desperate strike back. I canalize the pain, add red mana, and throw a bolt of pure lightning that makes him writhe in turn. My allies’ blows, more powerful than before, pummel him again, and I can feel his strength draining away. Soon now, just another strike.

His concentration is unbroken, though, and I can only remember one last trick, still reeling from his blows against my mind.

He starts murmuring again—another ritual even darker than the one before. Though I sever a mana link with a dazing blow, more mana serves to stabilize his spell.

His incantation continues, bringing forth momentary images of torture, death, and pain. So much strength, so much power flows into him. The darkness of black mana surrounds him fully now. He once again calls out to some infernal being, asking for dark secrets. If only I remembered that which he excised, surely I could stop him, but alas, I’m helpless.

Fire! Flames! Everything gone before appears again, too fast for me to follow. Afterimages, the only way I have to guess at what he’s doing. There is some method to this madness. I can feel a huge wave of black mana building, rising, lifting the now-imposing figure far above me in this empty place.

He lifts his hands with a few fast movements, and suddenly something’s there between us. Tendrils, black as nothingness yet enveloped in unworldly purplish light, rush towards me. I cringe and try to dodge them to no avail. The first one touches me, and I can only scream. There comes another, and it seems to set my skin on fire. The agony is so piercing, and more are coming—I can see them.

I can’t stand it, can’t resist. This will crush me, kill me, drive me mad. Instinctively, blinded and crippled by the pain, I realize there is one thing I can do. I grasp for the line, the mana line, and pull. There is no focus, no sense of direction, nothing. Just the trapped animal’s urge to get away. While losing consciousness, I can feel myself drifting out of the unnatural, empty sphere and going somewhere, anywhere. The tendrils rush through the empty space I just vacated. Anything has to be better than this.

When I awoke, I was too weak and broken to realize much of my surroundings. It took hours for me to even recognize the healer’s office—the one back here in the academy. Still, today I am convinced I would have surely died had it not been for the diligence of the teachers here.

Unbeknownst to all of us, they had created a safety line for every student, a tiny spell of infinite complexity that would automatically pull us back to the academy should we get lost somewhere in the limbo of realities.

This precaution alone brought me back to a place of friends, of healers and mighty wizards sworn to do good, instead of leaving me stranded, mindless, helpless floating in the nothingness between the worlds.

It took weeks for me to recover my mind, months to rebuild my strength. Still today, whenever I catch the moldy whiff of black mana, I can feel the panic rising, can feel my defenses snap into place ready to strike and strike hard. Never again will I allow myself to be caught unguarded—and neither should you. In the real world, nobody asks if you’re ready to start a fight. Get used to the idea.

– From the lectures of Anon Canouris II, dueling instructor at the Unseen Academy

Alright, I know this was very different fare from what you usually come here to read, but I felt like doing a little literary experimentation. Let me know what you think!

Until next time, feel the Magic!

Carsten Kotter