[More short fiction. Dabbling in a bit of worldbuilding here. Enjoy!]
Excerpted from The Four Forbidden Magicks, Vol 2. Restricted to licensed Adept-grade mages of the Third Circle or higher.
The manipulation of anything has rules that need to be followed. What appears to the layperson as magic is simply an application of rules that aren’t universally known and understood. This is true of any form of magic, from the simplest apprentice’s bonfire to the manipulation of the very fabric of reality itself.
One of the earliest tests of an apprentice mage is to have them force their favored element to work in ways counter to its nature. Extinguishing fire without water, causing water to flow uphill, rendering air motionless… all of these force the element to work against what it naturally does, and will cause the apprentice to experience what’s known variously as “feedback”, “mana-burn”, or “metafriction”. The sensation is unpleasant, a mildly painful reminder that elements have rules that need to be respected, if not necessarily followed. Extinguishing a candle by manipulating fire may sting, or cause a young mage to tense in pain. Attempting to extinguish a burning building in the same way may very well leave a mage catatonic from shock, or kill them outright. Scale is important. However, guiding a fire to burn particular things, or ensuring that it stays controlled runs far less counter to the nature of fire, and while it may cost energy or otherwise drain a mage, the amount of feedback is much lower; the fire “resists” this manipulation less.
Chronomancy follows much the same rules, but on a larger scale. Time seeks to flow in a particular direction, at a particular speed, and more importantly it creates a tapestry of chronology that it maintains. To manipulate this natural tendency is the purview of the time mage, but the flow of time is no apprentice’s candle. As one of the Firmament Elements that shapes and defines reality, Time is much more resistant to manipulation, and it can quickly destroy an thoughtless wielder. Manipulations of time need not necessarily be subtle, but they do need to be well-considered and carefully in keeping with the nature of the element.
Those unfamiliar with chronomancy often ask first about “time travel”. The ability to move between the past, present, and future is the beginning and end of what most people consider when they think of a time mage’s inclination. This is further muddied by the occasional knowledge that time travel has, indeed, been attempted with success. The reality is somewhat more complicated. One must consider the natural inclinations of time. Traveling to the future is easy, and is the “successful” time travel often heard about on the lips of laymen and apprentices. Traveling to the future is largely a form of stasis; the traveling mage is merely removed from the flow of time, and assuming they are left unbothered for the duration of the spell (fairly unlikely), will find themselves in the future once the requisite time has passed, the intervening hours or years seemingly instantaneous. While possible and effective, this use of chronomancy has been highly regulated against, partly because of the desire to avoid maintaining a collection of mages in stasis and reintegrating them after their time skip; early experiences with mages traveling to the future via chronomancy have resulted in a high cost incurred with helping them “catch up” to the modern day. As a result, this use of chronomancy is highly restricted, and unapproved uses are subject to counterspelling and other such methods to prematurely cancel the effect.
Once travel to the future is explained, the question of traveling to the past comes up. For as technically easy as it is to travel to the future, travel to the past is starkly different. Time seeks to maintain the integrity of its tapestry, and inserting oneself into the existing weave is a significant disruption. The further back in time one attempts to travel, the larger the disruption is. This form of chronomancy runs perhaps the most counter to the natural behavior of the element as possible. The longest any mage has managed to successfully travel back in time and survive the process has been nine minutes and fifteen seconds, and the price was extremely high. As a pyromancer inexpertly wielding flame may find themselves with burns, the inexpert chronomancer may find themselves aging prematurely. In the case of the nine-minute time traveler, she had apparently aged decades almost instantaneously, and the resulting shock and trauma to her system left her in terminal condition; while she survives the process, it was not for long. Some evidence exists to support the theory that the occasional appearance of dust or ashes in unexpected quantities is the result of attempted chronomancy, and that the dust is the hyper-aged remains of the hapless mage.
With time travel being alternately easy-but-forbidden or functionally impossible, the question remains regarding the usefulness of chronomancy. As far as Forbidden Magic goes, it lacks the raw destructive power of a bolt of Void, or the flexibility of bending the rules of magic itself through Mana, yet it is as difficult and taxing to manipulate as Balance, with as many dangers. Time is a more subtle magic, though no less powerful than its contemporaries. Much of this power relies upon understanding what can and cannot be manipulated, and there are two major approaches to this.
The first approach is to manipulate the flow of time itself. Slowing down the flow of time is nearly impossible, but speeding up one’s perception of it and ability to act within it is much easier. With plenty of opportunity to consider an incoming projectile, or develop a counterspell, or prepare a response of any kind, a chronomancer can react with seemingly impossible speed, with precision and accuracy. While it is illegal to transport oneself into the future, the use of chronomancy in food services has ensured naturally fresh food to anywhere in the world, and valuable documents and artifacts can be protected from decay, while injured or sick people can be transported in near-perfect safety to treatment without deteriorating further.
The second approach is to leverage the inherent uncertainty of the future, explore its possibilities, and choose an optimal outcome. While attempting to do so on a large scale is difficult and potentially dangerous (looking into the future is confusing at best, insanity-causing at worst), it’s much easier to do this on a smaller, more immediate level. If I take a swing with a sword at an enemy, there are myriad ways in which I could strike, and the precise path of the blade is not known until it actually occurs. With chronomancy, I can lean on this uncertainty, swinging in a variety of ways all at once until one swing resolves into a “real” swing. This is often casually referred to as “bending the probability curve”, and while it is a significant use of energy, the results are undeniable. A chronomancer can be an expert swordsman or peerless marksman simply by bending the probability curve to make every swing or shot an ideal hit. It is, of course, limited by one’s own physical ability and knowledge, but the potential is very high.
Of the four Forbidden Magics, chronomancy is the most widely used, and the easiest to be licensed for. The potential of the discipline is much higher than the simple manipulations most commonly used, but very few practitioners explore the element, either through fear instilled by their instructors or a lack of creativity. As a result, it is a largely underrated form of magic, and a savvy time mage can perform feats that can stymie even expert practitioners favoring other elements.
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