Chapter 0: The Man Who Would Become King

Once upon a time, in a world not so unlike our own, the King of the World was a mere man. He was born and raised to loving and successful parents, who eventually passed onto him a large inheritance of both wealth and humanity. The former he used wisely to travel the world, thus increasing the latter. He spent years exploring all the nations, with all their cultures, their peoples, and their magics.

For you see, his world was full of magic. That's not to say that our own isn't, as long as you know where to look, but in his world it is much more real, much more tangible. You don't have to know where to look. If anything, you'd have to be willfully and spectacularly oblivious not to see it. Nobody is quite sure where they came from, but there are symbols of power, called Glyphs, that allow the people of that world to tap into the pool of magic that exists within everyone and produce fantastical effects and spells. With this magic, anything and everything is possible. From producing a ball of fire to throw, to gaining the ability to fly, to animating brooms to sweep around the house.

The Man Who Would Become King spent many years learning of the different ways that different people in different cultures used magic. Although he himself was not much of a magician, he was truly fascinated by the savants and masters of the art, for the things they did seemed impossible, even by the standards of that world. And often it was with no more than a few Glyphs at a time (spells are made by chaining Glyphs together, with more Glyphs being a more complex spell, so the elegant simplicity of the masters was truly impressive), although there were some who took great pride in the number of Glyphs they could fit into a single effect. The Man took meticulous notes on both the masters and their craft, and spent many hours asking them questions and listening to their stories.

On one such occasion, when the Man was visiting an old and respected Master of Fire in the Jungle of Sted, who was known for putting on magnificent displays of quite literal fireworks, he questioned the Master on why he used fire magic so freely when he lived in a jungle.

"Surely there must be a risk of starting a fire that burns down your home!" The Man said.

"This is true," said the Master. "But I take precautions so that it does not happen, and thus my shows are less likely to burn anything down than an ordinary cooking fire."

"What sort of precautions?" The Man asked, already starting to scribble away in his notebook.

"Take this, for instance," the Master said, as he began drawing Glyphs in the air, his finger leaving an orange-red glow in its path. As the symbols 𐠤𐠃 were hanging there, he spoke their names, in a deep and resonant voice that he usually reserved for performances, "RE OH" (which translates, insofar as translation is possible, to "create fire"), and a small flame appeared in his hand. The Man's eyes lit up and his pen moved ever more furiously as this occurred. The Master held the Man's attention with the fire and an indulgent smile, and before the Man could react, the Master's other hand had shot out, grabbed the notebook, and thrust it into the flame. The Man recoiled in horror, as much of his life's work burned before his eyes.

"Why?!" he cried, "I've been using that book to collect knowledge of magics for years! And now, in an instant, it's gone!"

The Master simply smiled, and waited for the Man's panic and confusion to wane, as he saw that, although the book was indeed on fire, it was also entirely unharmed. After a moment, the Master pursed his lips and blew at the book, and the fire went out.

"That is my secret," the Master said, "Although the flames are quite real, they will cause no harm, for I have long since weakened the strength of all my fire."

"This is incredible!" The Man gasped, as he inspected his notebook. There was no sign that the book had ever so much as seen a flame. "But why? Surely doing that makes the fire useless for all purposes other than your performances."

The Master nodded sagely, and said "That is precisely why. You see, I learned the great and terrible Secret of Fire at a young age, which made me a wonderful wielder of it. However, with every flame I made, every spark I called forth, a little more of my self was consumed. There came a day when I saw my reflection and couldn't recognize the empty husk that stared back at me. The terrible Secret of Fire is this: There can be no light without consumption, no heat without destruction. Since then, my only goal in life has been to spit in the face of that Secret. To reject it, and find a flame that does no harm, producing light and heat without burning anything."

The Man was awestruck, and exclaimed "It seems you've succeeded, then!"

The Master's mouth twisted in a wry smile, and he said "No, I'm no closer now than the day I started. The fire may not burn objects, but I'm as much a fuel to it as I ever was."

And that is how the Man Who Would Become King learned the nature of power.

Sometimes a master would only agree to meet with someone they thought was worthy. So it was that a Master of Chains was holding a public challenge in the City of Stones when the Man Who Would Become King happened to be visiting. In one of the larger plazas of the town, the Master had completely ensconced himself in a huge ball of chains, as wide and as tall as three men standing on top of each other, and suspended by other chans from the buildings around the square. The challenge was to break the chains and reach the Master inside.

So far, no spell nor blade had been able to make even a dent in the mass of metal, and a long line of petitioners had formed to test their worth. Seeing his chance to meet a master of such a relatively unpopular art, the Man got in line as well. The line moved slowly, as many of the challengers were stubborn. Each seemed convinced that if they just spent long enough hacking or blasting away at the chains, surely they would give out eventually. However, a score and a half of fools later, the chains gleamed as brightly as if they had been freshly cast. There were a few more clever attempts made, such as trying to use ice to make the chains brittle, or sending water into the Master's hiding place, trying to get him to yield for want of breath, however these were no match for the sheer power of the Master's spell. One mage did eventually get quite far, using a spell of breaking to push through several of the outer layers, much to the gathered crowd's excitement. However, before she could reach the center of it, she collapsed in the exhaustion of having spent more power than her body could handle in such a time. After this, the broken chains mended themselves back together before the next challenger could take advantage of the weakness.

After several hours of waiting, it was finally the Man's turn. He had spent all his time in the line taking notes on what hadn't worked, what could have worked if done a little more cleverly, and what hadn't yet been tried. So prepared, he walked up to one of the lower chains connecting the ball to the buildings, and cast his spell.

"LO TA NU OH, RE OH" 𐠒𐠭𐠝𐠃𐠤𐠃 (which, insofar as translation is possible, means "Enchant this object to be flammable, and set it alight").

Although the Man was not particularly skilled in enchantment, he did have knowledge of the secret of fire, and was thus able to utilize the element much more effectively than most. The flames were slow to catch, as the enchantment on the chains was weak, but the moment they did, they became a raging inferno that traveled along the chain at an incredible speed, and burned the mass in the center to cinders within the space of a second. Out of this dropped a quite surprised and only slightly singed Master of Chains. 

The Master strode over to the Man Who Would Become King, and said "That was quite the impressive fire! I see I'm not the only master in town."

The Man made a humble gesture, and said "I am no master, I have merely conversed with some, and was hoping desperately to add another to that list."

The Master gave the Man an appraising look, and said "You have me for as long as you wish, after that display. What say we talk over a meal? I've been in there all day, and I am famished."

So the Master and the Man found a table to dine at and some food to eat, and the Man asked many questions. The most important among them was this:

"Why did you choose chains as the object of your mastery? There are many other magics that are seen far more frequently."

To this, the Master replied, "Because I learned the Secret of Chains, of course. It was the first magic that truly spoke to me, and thus became the prime object of my study for some time."

"Well what is the Secret of Chains?" The Man asked, pen poised over his ever-present notebook.

"If I just told you, that would take all the fun out of it!" The Master said, smiling. "You overcame my chains, what do you think the Secret was?"

The Man pondered this for some time, thinking back on both his own magic and all the attempts that came before. Once he came upon an answer, he hesitantly started speaking, and gathered confidence as he continued. "Well, nobody could break the chains from the outside, I had to change the internal properties of them in order to even start. However, once the fire started, there was nothing you could do. Although the chains protected you, they also imprisoned you, and you couldn't avoid the fire unless you broke free of them." The Master nodded encouragingly, and the Man continued, "So if we take that and apply it on a more general level, chains hold back others, but you, their master, can become as burdened by them as anyone else. Their strength is also their weakness."

"Precisely," the Master smiled.

And that is how the Man Who Would Become King learned the nature of bonds.

Not all masters were so helpful or forthcoming as these two, and some needed persuading. There was one time, when the Man was walking down a street in the Timber City, taking in the sights, when something grabbed his traveling pack and started flying off in the opposite direction. Although he could not see what was clutching it, the Man could see the pack, and so made use of magic to grab it back. "LO TA RE SE WI LE" he intoned, as he hastily drew the accompanying Glyphs 𐠒 𐠭𐠤𐠩𐠴𐠐. Translating this, insofar as such a thing can be done, reveals it to mean "Enchant that object to create many strong chains." Although he was still not especially good at using most magics, the Man's knowledge of the Secret of Chains enabled him to cast this spell, even at such a distance. The flying pack suddenly sprouted chains due to the magic, which struck out randomly and attached it to the surrounding buildings and (fortunately empty) road, holding fast in place. As the pack came to a sudden stop, the Man heard a yelp, presumably from who- or whatever had been carrying it.

As he ran to close the distance, he spotted a ghostly outline of a man suspended in the air, pierced through the chest by one of the chains that had come out from the pack, but seemingly not in pain. The outcry had been a noise of surprise, and the apparent Thief was idly fidgeting with the chain that held him when the Man arrived and called out to him excitedly, "Who are you, and what magic are you using?"

The Thief seemed to be taken aback by the Man's tone and eager expression, at least as much as a featureless outline can appear so. After a moment, his form solidified somewhat, and his face appeared as a smiling mask. "I am nobody of import, but I see I have chosen the wrong mark. As someone who knows the Secret of Chains, you are my natural enemy, for you make it annoyingly difficult to slip away as I usually do."

"I apologize for inconveniencing you so, but while I have you here, I must know, how is it that you usually slip away? And, for that matter, what about my chains makes it difficult to do so?" the Man inquired.

The Thief paused for a moment, and then said "You must not be very experienced in using your magics, as any master can tell you that chains empowered by their Secret are binding to all things, not just the tangible. As for how I usually slip away, it's by being just that: intangible. Now I would greatly appreciate it if you could let me down, it's terribly uncomfortable to be restricted to such a small form." The mask of the Thief tilted in such a manner as to look inquisitive.

"I'm sorry, but you did just try to steal my pack, the least you can do is tell me what you're master of, and the Secret you hold."

At this, the Thief laughed, and the mask tilted to wear the same expression as an elder amused by the antics of a child, but ready to reprimand them anyway. "You certainly are audacious, asking for a secret so easily as that. I will at least tell you that I am a Master of Air, but I will only tell you the Secret of it if you give me one in return. Tell me the Secret of Chains, that I might never be bound like this again."

"How do I know you won't take the Secret and leave without telling me yours?" The Man wisely asked.

"Ah, you're smarter than you look!" said the Thief, with a playful mask. "That is exactly what I would have done if you'd given me the chance. Similarly, if I'd given you my secret, I'm still at your mercy even if you don't give me yours, so it seems we're at an impasse. But since you look like such an interesting fellow, how about we stake it on a little game? We take turns asking each other questions about the nature of the magics in question, and the first one to guess the other's secret wins."

The Man pondered this for all of a second, then looked up and said "Deal."

This was met with another laugh from the Thief, who then said "Since you have the advantage here, I'll start. What is a chain?"

"A series of links." answered the Man simply. "My turn. What is it about air that made you choose to master it?"

"It was extremely helpful to get me out of a...predicament, a while back." the Thief replied. "What is a chain for, aside from holding things?"

"Broadly speaking, nothing. You could perhaps say 'connecting things', but that may indeed fall under the former. When you join with the air, what does it feel like?"

The mask's eyes seemed to glint. "It feels like I am free to do whatever I please. What is the weakest part of a perfect chain?"

"The holder. I think I've got your secret, now"

"Oh? Go ahead and take a guess, then."

"The Secret of Air is that with it, you can bypass all restraints."

The mask considered this for a moment, then the Thief said "Nope! Although you're actually not too far off. Allow me to demonstrate..." The mask looked up towards the sky so that its eyes appeared to close for a moment, and the Thief drifted down, passing straight through the chain that had been holding him up. "The true Secret of Air, as I learned in a cell many years ago, is that freedom isn't about bypassing restraints. It's about realizing they never existed at all." The Thief, now starting to fade back into a form of pure air, leaned in close to the Man. "Meanwhile, the Secret of Chains, as you've made abundantly clear, is that their bearer is just as bound as his prisoner."

The Thief was no longer visible, but the Man felt a cool breeze blow by him, and as it passed his ear he heard a whispered laugh. He would later check his belongings to find that most of his money had disappeared.

And so, the Man Who Would Become King learned about the nature of freedom.

Years later, when the Man finally decided that he would become King, all of these lessons, as well as the myriad others he collected, served him exceedingly well, but that's a story for another time.

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