On the edge of a small dirt town, a small boy stood staring into the back of a wandering cart that had made base just out of his little village. The man who owned the cart was bartering goods from it, selling off food, seeds, lines of cloth, and most importantly, books. After the hordes of men and women had finished their dealings, the man took a moment to crouch down by the boy; staring into his eyes, he watched the glint from the arching sun in the sky.
“What does your eye see, boy?”
The boy looked over to the back of the cart, scouring its contents from his low angle, only able to see what lay at the edge, his brow furrowed, and he walked up to the cart. Clambering inside, the seller wandered over to see what he was doing. The kid carefully stepped between things. His eyes softened, and his interest started to wane.
“Is this really all you have?” A distinct disdain in his voice.
The seller laughed to himself; looking at his feet, he cleared his throat and looked back up to the kid with one final sigh.
“Do you not see anything worth your time?”
Heas scrunched up their nose as they started to move things with their foot as their interest was fading.
“Your stuff sucks this time.”
“Your townsfolk seem to think otherwise; they bought a lot off of me this trip.”
“Well, that is because they bought the things that they need, not the things that are useful.”
“I would say food is a very useful product.”
“Nope, food is needed; it is not useful.”
“How do you get to that conclusion?” The seller laughed.
“Because if you don’t have what you need, you die; if you don’t have what is useful, you can’t live.”
Heas started to search with new vigor, moving everything around the cart he searched. The seller was stood back with his eyes open wide, he muttered under his breath.
“That is, actually, great. I might steal that.”
“You have to pay if you want my words.”
The seller looked up to see Heas staring at him with his hand out, expecting a coin.
“You know what? I can do you one better.”
The seller walked past his cart and walked up to the side of his pack animal. He stuck his hand in the pouch on her side and pulled out a book. By the time he turned, Heas was already at his feet, looking up with anticipation. The seller knelt down and presented the book to Heas but not handing it over. Heas ran his finger over the ornate cover of the book, tracing the intricate ridges his eyes were alight.
“Now, I need you to listen up, Heas.” The seller watched Heas staring at the book, so he tucked it away, bringing Heas’ eyeliner to his own. “You need to listen, Heas, this book is worth more than this town to the right people, but to a common idiot, it is worth the sum of the components and labor it took to make it.”
“What is it?”
“It is a book about an ancient language. Not only will it teach you how to speak and write in this language, but understand the culture of who they were.”
“Why is it worth so much? We have lots of books like this.”
The seller smiled; he kicked out his feet and sat flat on the ground.
“Do you know how magic works?”
Heas shook his head.
“My family say that magic is a crutch for people who are too weak to actually survive in the world.”
“I think your family are very stupid and are afraid of the power of magic.”
“Magic is for weak book nerds, so I am going to be a fighter, big and strong.” Heas said, flexing his tiny arms.
The seller laughed, pulling the book out again.
“The way that magic works is by pulling the meaning of words from a culture and imbuing them with your very energy to cast spells. Being a spell caster requires a lot of fitness until you are able to make your own source of mana. But you don’t need to worry about that right now.”
Heas scrunched up his face, pushing his lips together. They puffed out a little.
“So, you are saying that magic is for strong and smart people?”
“That is exactly what I am saying, Heas.”
“And fighters are just strong and not smart?”
“Umm, not really. They are smart and strong too, but the difference is that someone who can cast spells can change the tide of a battle. But it does not matter how good of a fighter you are; you will only ever be one man. With magic, you can be so much more; you can harness the power of culture, which is like having hundreds of lives helping you fight.”
Heas’ eyes lit up a little, but he was still not sold.
“But if I am studying to know things from the book, I can’t work out to get strong.”
“Yes, you can.”
The seller dropped the book on the ground and started to do push-ups in front of it.
“You can do this; if you find a way to hold it up higher, you could practice punching, sword swings, or even crunches. You can do so many exercises with a book. When you get good at reading, you can even run while reading.”
“I am good at reading.” Heas said with a huff.
“I know you are my small friend. So here is what I am going to do, put your hand out.”
Heas put his hand out, and the seller put a single gold coin in it.
“Now, do you want this book?”
Heas nodded slowly and smiled.
“Okay, now my question to you, are you a common idiot?”
“NO!!” Heas said, gripping his coin, he slammed his fist down.
“Listen carefully; if you are really as smart as you say you are, you will get this.”
He was focused, but he was still mad that he was asked if he was stupid.
“Are you ready?”
“If you don’t know how to fight, you die; if you don’t know how to cast magic, you can’t live.”
Heas’ eyes rested from their angry glare, his eyes looking up and to the right.
“Now I ask you again, are you a common idiot?”
“No?” He said, unsure.
“Then, in which case, if you want this book. It is a hundred thousand gold.”
“Yes!” Heas said hastily. “I did not get what you said; I am so dumb. Can I please buy your book?”
“Oh, I didn’t realize that you were a common idiot, in which case, it is one gold coin.”
Heas paused, then thrust his hand out with the coin in it. The seller took the coin, and with a grin, he handed over the book.
“When I come back around, I expect you to be able to cast magic. Take very good care of this book, a smart boy like you will understand its true worth. I believe in you, Heas. I believe you will be taking over the world someday.”
Seasons came and went, then came again many times. Finally, during the cold months, the seller fought his way through the snow, leading his animal. He pulled the reins from the front to lead his reluctant animal. But he could see the lights of Heas’ town burning in the night. His breath was thick and visible, and each time he inhaled it would cold burn his throat. He paused for a moment as he struggled to get his breath back. Before he moved on, his beast bellowed and pulled against his reins, the seller struggled to contain him as he felt the snow around his waist melt away. Turning back around, he saw a shrouded young man standing in front of him with his hand raised out, steaming pouring off of his body. The seller was too tired to grasp who he was looking at; all he was thinking was that he was thankful for the help. After struggling with his beast, he made his way up to the young man; removing his own hood, he spoke.
“Thanks, friend; I did not think I would see a magic user here; this small town ain’t one for the likes.”
“That would be the case if it wasn’t for you.”
Heas removed his hood to reveal his aged face, and the seller grinned uncontrollably; he touched Heas’ face examining him carefully.
“You have grown so much, Heas; it has been far too long since I have seen you.” The seller paused for a moment and squinted. “You look tired, not exhausted, but somehow worse.”
Heas sighed heavily, pulling the book from his robes.
“I have many things to tell you about the time that has happened in-between now and when you left. Come, let’s get you into the inn.”
Heas led the seller through the town; Heas was radiating a warmth that brought a semblance of life back to the seller, if only a little. As they walked through the town, the seller watched as others seemed to turn their head from them as they moved through the town center.
“Is there a reason I am getting the dirty eye from these others?” The seller whispered over Heas’ shoulder.
“It is not you; it is me.”
There was a long pause, and the seller was about to break it but decided to hold his tongue, knowing that he would get his answers soon enough.
With his goods stowed and his animal looked after, Heas and the seller sat in the inn, sitting by a dim candlelight in the small room that was rented.
“All right, let’s hear it, boy. What has happened?”
Heas sat on a small chair in the room, pinching the bridge of his nose. He sighed and scrunched up his face.
“There has been so much, and honestly, it is why I am leaving; I was actually walking out when you arrived.”
“Is this because of the book?”
“This is because of things this book has enabled me to do.”
The seller nodded and leaned forward from his sitting position on the bed.
“Don’t let me hold you back; let me know everything you want me to know.”
“As you can tell, I look older than I am. I have aged visually much faster, probably because of the fact I have not slept in nearly two years.”
The seller’s eyes widened just before he looked down to the book in Heas’ possession.
“I am so sorry I have given you this burden.” The seller said as they took in how haggard Heas was.
Heas’ face did not change, but tears started to roll down his cheeks.
“I appreciate your concern, but if I had the option to go back in time and change things, I wouldn’t. I could never give up what I have been given. While I have misused my power, I can bring the balance back, but I have learned so much from the abuse that I will never regret it.”
Heas adjusted themselves in their seat, sitting in a more relaxed position.
“Once you left, I ran straight back to my home. I packed a few things and headed out to the woods, where I started practicing. I studied this book cover to cover several times before I even attempted to practice magic. It only took a week to do this, and by the time I was prepared to cast magic from it, I had an in-depth understanding of this culture, so the spells flowed from me. Despite doing as you said, I would quickly run out of energy to cast spells, only being able to cast two to three spells an hour, and they were not complicated spells, very simple ones, very beginner friendly. So I spent a few months running every day, but I also did a lot to expand my mind, trying to improve my mana pool. It did not matter how hard I trained, I always fell pray to sleep, exhaustion, and so that was my first goal.”
“You thought you could eliminate the need for sleep?”
“That is exactly what I thought I could do. Instead, I just removed the ability to sleep. At first, I would feel tired, but I pushed through it. Then the desire to sleep kicked in, and when I finally decided that I should sleep, I quickly found out it was not possible, and I have been trying to undo what I did since that moment.”
“But after two years, still nothing? That does surprise me; you are a smart boy.”
“I am actually a common idiot, something I truly believe. The more I have read, the more I believe that. The amount of records of spell casters doing what I have done and burning out still young is an overwhelming majority of beginner spell caster stories. But unlike them, I believe I have a resolve that will not be broken; I have not focused on what is hard about my situation. Instead, I spend my time learning and exercising. Strengthening my body and my mind. I am giving myself the best chance of fixing myself by staying busy. But those options are limited now, so I am moving out to join the imperial guard training ranks. Hoping to gain access to new knowledge and put my sleeplessness to its proper use.”
“It makes sense, but it makes me sad that this is where you are going. You sound so old, Heas; you have lived so much more than kids your age and appear to be under such an immense amount of stress. You don’t have to push yourself; you can relax.”
“I can’t relax; each day I don’t figure out my sleep is another day of unbearable exhaustion with no release. And each day I stay here is another reminder of the fact that I have killed.”
The seller’s mouth opened and closed a few times; only creaky groans escaped his mouth.
“I don’t expect you to say anything; there is nothing to say. I opened a portal by accident which a couple of the other kids fell through; their screams were so horrible that I closed the portal with no attempt to get them out.”
“That is why you get the looks.”
“Exactly, no one can prove I did anything, but in their hearts, they know I killed them, and as the only person to cast magic in a town who shies away from magic, it has just distanced me from everyone else. This is why I am leaving, I have lived under their hateful gazes for too long, and I am sick of it. As a spell caster, I will be welcomed to the guard with open arms; there is no need to stay here.”
“I understand, I do wish you the best of luck, and If I hear anything in the world, I will get the information back to you.”
“No, you won’t. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t change anything, not because I am better for it, but because I am addicted to the power. I hate you, and this is the last courtesy I shall give you; you gave an unimaginably powerful weapon to a child, and even now, I am still a child but having to deal with something that most adults would not manage to cope with. I have had my childhood stolen, and I will never forget your negligence in giving me this book. But the more I am involved with it, the more I see that this culture has a culture that lends itself to magic extremely well. Almost like it was designed for it, unlike other cultures who have the capability of magic, but almost like the ability was crammed in.” Heas held the book high and stared at the seller. “Where did you find this? Because no spell caster should have it.”
“I stole it; I was near an excavation of an ancient ruin. I did not know the true price of this book, but I knew it was something I could barter with a spell caster. But I figured if I got you into magic, you may come with me one day, and the magic would help me far more than any money could.”
“You are stupid, ignorant, and harmful to those around you.”
“I am a trader; everything I do is calculated moves to try and get the biggest possible returns. It has always been that way.”
“You say that like the child I was should know that I was smart; I can see that. But I would never notice when being taken advantage of. You are a hurtful fool and lucky that my hatred has gone from the desire for vengeance to pity for you. You will never hold something this valuable again, and you will never understand how to be human. Goodbye seller; if you are lucky, you will never see me again.”
Heas wandered from the room, leaving the seller alone; staring at the wall, he felt the warmth of the room fade with Heas gone. His eyes glazed over, then sharpened again as he licked his fingers and snuffed the candle.