Freebie Mondays: Peer Reviewed Studies (Story 9 of 22 Stories in 2022)

Freebie Mondays: Peer Reviewed Studies (Story 9 of 22 Stories in 2022)

Since I write roughly 22 stories every year, I thought it might be fun to do a project for 2022.

In 2022, the 22 shorts I write for my blog will be taken from prompts related to the 31 stories in 31 days project from January of 2022. Each will relate to the multiverse that all of my stories take place in, and I will try to keep the main characters that appear on my blog to the background (unless I get a super cool idea).

I’ve written each of these stories on stream. If you want to witness this installment as it was crafted, the VOD is on youtube!

The prompt for this one was: even the animals noticed the change.

This ties in with my “Max Max” style fantasy setting. Find more details here!
. . .

Aeriannan had never seen a group of more pretentious people than the stuffy individuals crammed around the conference room table when the lights finally dimmed to indicate the start of the presentation. Biting the lower portion of her lips, she wriggled and squirmed within the small space available to her, hoping she could gain enough space to lay her notebook on the table without bumping into the people packed to either side of her.

Many of the meeting’s other participants likewise set notebooks in front of them and poised pens to write on them. Some writing utensils were already in motion, though Aeriannan couldn’t fathom what there was to write down before the speaker began their lecture.

Unsuccessful in her initial efforts, Aeriannan finally elbowed the man sitting next to her so that he would shift several inches to his right. With a soft sigh, the young sorceress finally set her small notepad in front of her and opened to a fresh page.

Those that weren’t preparing to  take notes pushed glasses up their noses or cleared their throats as they settled in for what was sure to be a lengthy meeting. Aeriannan chanced a glance at the back row of chairs, where her mentor sat, but the woman who had accompanied her to this convention was as stoic and unreadable as ever.

Rather than an introduction, the presentation began with a series of slides. A forest not unlike the one where she lived appeared on the dim white square set at one end of the table, the branches of its trees vibrant with green leaves and flower blossoms. As abruptly as it appeared, this image vanished, replaced by a rolling river bank. That picture gave way to a great sand beach which, in turn became the outskirts of a city dotted with tall trees and open park spaces.

Aeriannan was beginning to wonder if she had somehow stumbled into the midst of a photography lecture when the main speaker finally emerged from the shadows to clear his throat. “We see these images every day,” he announced, waving dramatically to the lingering cityscape. “They are images of life on our fair green orb. But do we ever really pause to think about what they mean?”

On the far side of the room, someone snorted. That sound was followed by a series of quickly muffled giggles as the more studious members of the meeting searched for the source of the disturbance. Aeriannan couldn’t help sympathizing with the snorter, however; she was beginning to wonder about the point of all this.

The presenter merely smiled tolerantly and folded his hands in front of him. He oozed pretension from every pore, his slight smirk suggesting he knew something the rest of the group simply was not intelligent enough to fathom without his assistance.

“Shall I let you in on the secret?” he demanded, eyeing the shadows where the snort had come from. When no further sound issued from the room, he turned and tapped the button that would advance the slides.

“These pictures represent prosperity, a planet and its inhabitants thriving on the natural resources provided by its creation process. A cycle meant to last hundreds of thousands of generations, if not more.

“But that continuation depends upon a delicate balance established at some point in our planet’s distant past. New studies provide evidence that suggests the cycle of that prosperity may be taking a devastating turn. And if this imbalance is not corrected, more of our world might begin to look like this.”

The bright cityscape vanished, replaced by a sprawling desert. Initially, Aeriannan saw nothing wrong with this. Deserts were as beautiful as the rest of the planet’s landscape with their sprawling golden brown sands and clear blue skies. But this image quickly faded, replaced by a desolate swamp filled with oozing, viscous brown water and stunted, black trees. That gave way to what appeared to be an abandoned city lot, choked with the littered remnants of some festival or another and pockmarked by cracks in the pavement. The windows of the buildings in the background were shattered, and the paint peeled from most of the walls.

Aeriannan frowned, reflecting that these were merely places people might consider less beautiful rather than actual troublesome environments. But before she got much further than the single thought, the speaker once again folded his hands in front of him.

“These are just simulations of course. You must imagine an entire world choked with desert, littered by the remnants of a fallen civilization. Imagine a world with no clean water where it’s nigh impossible to grow food for consumption. These are the realities we may face if we do not awaken to the problems our planet now faces.”

“And I assume at some point you intend to enlighten us about the actual facts of these problems?” Aeriannan recognized the voice of her stern mentor speaking from the chairs  pressed against the back wall. “Or should we expect this entire meeting to be filled with fear-mongering?”

Again, a light round of chuckles melted from the shadows but, this time, there were also several nods of agreement.

Aeriannan cast a nervous glance at the main speaker expecting this outburst would disturb him far more than had the first. But he merely smirked and hit the button that advanced the slides.

This time, the photographs disappeared entirely, replaced by a series of graphs with tiny labels Aeriannan had to squint to read. Around her, many of the meeting’s other participants began scribbling furious notes.

With crimson creeping into her cheeks, Aeriannan bent over her notepad and began tracing the lines of the graphs, though she couldn’t label them until she used a small spell to enhance her vision.

Even with the labels, the charts didn’t initially make any sense to her. They were measuring the presence of something she had never heard of. Thus she couldn’t tell if it was a chemical or even if it was something produced naturally or the byproduct of some industrial process. Based on the murmurs of her fellows, however, she guessed several of them had at last identified the point of this lecture.

“As you can see, the amount of natural magic energy we detect in certain ecosystems has begun to fluctuate. Where magic flowed in strong currents a decade ago, it has begun to trickle. Likewise, areas that have seen little to no magical activity have begun to surge with activity.

“Our studies show that the change in magical presence in various environments has a drastic effect on the landscape.  For instance, where magic has been leached from the environment, the growth of plants becomes stunted. In some areas, harvest yields have steadily declined. Some fields have even gone completely fallow and no amount of attempting to re-infuse the land with the usual minerals has revived its potential.”

At last, the charts Aeriannan copied began to make sense. The substance she had not been able to identify must be a scientific term for magic or the particles thought to make it up – a term the mages in her order had long since rejected. Those who made use of magic instinctually understood its ebbs and flows without the mechanical equipment the lecturer described for the undertaking of his studies.

But that did not make the lecturer’s claims any less interesting. Far from it. As someone who showed great potential – according to her instructors – Aeriannan was fascinated by the effect her weavings might one day have on the world surrounding her. The archmage of her order was strong enough to move entire trees within the forest their enclave inhabited. She could shape the land according to her whim, carving clearings and choking pathways almost at whim.

Aeriannan’s instructors promised that if she was diligent in her studies, she might one day possess the same talents. Perhaps that might even allow her to prevent the leaching effect described here.

“Even animals responded to the change,” the lecturer declared as he activated another series of photographic slides. “Wild herd animals naturally wandered from lands leached of magic toward places where the magic remained the same or stronger. Further, our studies revealed that animals born into the spaces which lacked magic or where the magic flows were stunted tended to be weaker and have a higher chance of deformity or sudden death.

“You might wonder why any of us should worry about the effects I describe. After all, if magic is flowing out of one area and into another, the areas with increased magical flow must surely take the place of the lands leached of their magic, right?

“Wrong!” the lecturer exclaimed without waiting for an answer and pulled another series of charts onto the projector’s screen.

“In fact, the plant life in the areas with increased magical flow does grow at an accelerated rate, but it also appears to mutate, causing it to affect the surrounding land in negative ways. Likewise, the animals that occupy or wander into these areas of newly enhanced magic tend to act erratically when compared with their normal behavioral patterns. Many become more aggressive and more likely to attack without provocation. Several of our researchers were injured while making these observations, leading to several irrefutable results.”

“Are you certain this isn’t based on circumstantial evidence?” Again, the voice belonged to Aeriannan’s mentor and, this time, her words summoned a splash of crimson to Aeriannan’s cheek.

Luckily, no one seemed aware of the fact that Aeriannan was with the aggressive speaker and, when no gazes turned in her direction, she was able to relax.

The head lecturer chuckled. “We have cold hard numbers, don’t we?”

“That does not mean you are not conflating the results of these tests in order to see what you wish to see. Magic has ever flowed in cycles. Sometimes it waxes and sometimes it wanes – much as the moon – leading to seasons, much as those created by the solar cycle. Where magic abandons now, it will soon enough renew. Some of those cycles may take decades or even centuries, but that does not mean we should panic over a small series of shifts.”

Again, several murmurs of agreement accompanied the stern words and others began to pipe up with stories about places where magic flow had shifted only to return to its original course a few weeks, months or years later.

Every mage had stories of unexpected magical behavior. Unlike with regular scientific principles, what one expected was often not what one encountered. That was why the weaving of magic required such intense focus and concentration. Even a complete weaving with an active effect could drain a mage’s energy and focus if they weren’t careful.

Had that not been the case, every apprentice with even an ounce of talent would have fancied themselves an archmage, and the rank would have had no honor associated with it.

Aeriannan feared the idea of a world where anyone could wave their fingers and summon magical effects. She often worried that was the end goal of these scientific studies – as did many of her instructors – and she rather thought they were overreaching their area of expertise publishing the results of these studies in such an inflammatory fashion.

“We have, of course, been monitoring the effects of these magical alterations for the last two decades,” the main lecturer announced as he attempted to regain control over the meeting. “None of these results are presented in haste or without careful consideration and extensive peer review. That said, we realize that many of these studies are still in their preliminary stages. We have compared extensively against historically gathered data trying to piece together magical momentum over the last several thousand years, but many of those records are incomplete, which leaves us doing a great deal of guess work.

“It seems to us better to present the possibility of a growing magical crisis than to sit back and wait until we are the midst of it. Especially since there is a direct correlation between these errant magical shifts and heavy use of magic for industry.”

There was no subtlety the outburst that followed this statement. The effect of heavy magical use on the environment had become something of a buzzword while Aeriannan was growing up, and mages always reacted to it strongly.

It took some time for the head lecturer to regain control of the conversation. It seemed that every time he opened his mouth thereafter, someone from the gathering cut in, preventing him from fully supporting each of his arguments.

Aeriannan watched events unfold in silence, writing down each quote that struck her with clarity and making certain she copied each of the charts that appeared during the presentation. She was relatively certain that she wouldn’t ultimately end up doing much with this information, but she thought it would serve someone back at the enclave, even if it was just to write a proper entry for the library.

If these scientists wanted information about the movement of magic during the last millennia, they need not look further than enclaves such as the one she hailed from. Meticulous records were kept by adept-level mages and the masters that tended to serve their grander purposes. But of course, these were also the world’s best kept secrets. No adept wanted another mage stealing their research or accomplishing their goals before they were able.

Upon reflection, Aeriannan imagined that would make jobs like the head lecturer’s very difficult indeed. It would be generations before he and his fellows had enough evidence to support the shift he claimed had already started.

“The most important thing to keep in mind,” he declared at the close of his lecture, at last seeming somewhat harried by the difficulties, “is that these changes will eventually reach a stage at which they cannot be reversed. We believe that if we begin regulating heavy use of magic across the board, we will be able to slowly revert the changes before they become dangerous. But at our current rate of consumption, the crisis tipping point will come upon us faster than we imagine possible.”

It was an ominous statement on which to end the meeting, and Aeriannan jotted it down just in case any of her sisters asked about how things went when she returned home.

The meeting broke up far more quickly than it started. Each of the note-takers seated around the table closed their notebook and straightened their paper stacks, then folded them beneath their arms as they filed from the room. Aeriannan followed their example, hoping she looked more official than she felt.

She and her mentor had been somewhat last-minute additions to the attendance list for this convention, likely admitted only because they rushed halfway across the world to participate. With the outcry against current magic use growing louder by the month, it seemed many adepts now believed it was time for mages to participate in the conversation – and eventually gain control of the narrative.

Coming from such an influential enclave granted Aeriannan and her mentor perks many of the other attending mages lacked, though she happened to know the main way they had gained entry to this convention was to claim their goal was to educate the next generation of mages. Hence why Aeriannan, still the lowliest level of apprentice, was here.

“Such poppycock,” her mentor muttered as she fell into step behind her on the way through the door. They were among the last to leave the meeting, as they had been among the last to arrive, and it was clear her teacher was agitated by the events of the morning.

“You don’t think his arguments have any merit?” Aeriannan asked meekly. “I thought the part about the animals was particularly compelling.” And it was hard not to imagine the impact of such an effect on her future, even if she sincerely believed the lecturer to be overreacting.

“I think these scientists have little clue what they are talking about,” her mentor declared. Though after a moment she halted and glanced over her shoulder, causing Aeriannan to bounce off her back.

“Take heed, child,” the old woman murmured, her voice low and conspiratorial. “While I do not believe we have any need to worry, we must make a diligent report to our mistress when we return home. If there is to be a crisis in the future, we must prepare our guard against it early. Yes. That way we will have a great advantage if this tipping point should ever occur.”

Aeriannan rather thought that was exactly what the man in charge of this meeting had been trying to warn them against – localized protections wouldn’t benefit anyone else in the event of a crisis. But she bit her tongue.

She was incredibly fortunate to have been chosen to attend this convention, and she didn’t want to risk any future chances at similar honors by displeasing the woman in charge of such choices. Instead, she cracked her notebook open, jotted another quick scribble, then hurried diligently in her mentor’s wake.

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