I know I disappeared off the face of the earth for a few weeks after BayCon. (I have more to say about that in my own journal.) I do apologize if my silence has been a letdown. But the important thing is that I've returned from the e-wilderness back to e-civilization with a story!
The "real world" of Legend of Hero is an alternate Earth known as The Tomorrowlands Universe, where a dragon was caught on a live news broadcast in late 1996. Since then, a number of people have transformed into creatures of legend and magic is a very real force. Today's story skips into the new millennium, where magic is easier to take for granted and creative wizards have started to push the boundaries of applied willpower ...
"Change of Mind" -- which blossomed from quick filler into sprawling epic -- will run today, Monday, and Thursday, after which normal Legend of Hero goodness will resume. Enjoy the change of pace.
"What do I think?" Randall repeated in disbelief. "It's a horrible idea!"
"Oh, come on," Alethea said. "Give me one reason why."
"Where do I start?" He pointed to the television, where the chaos was still unfolding amid general media panic. "Even assuming she caused no permanent damage, she's sending dozens of people to the hospital and might touch off sympathetic symptoms in millions more. Millions!"
"The spell has potential," Alethea said, twirling a pale finger through her straight brown hair. "Her execution was the problem."
"I don't care how much potential the 'Eyes of Thoth' have, the mere mention of them is a ticking time bomb."
"Give me some credit, Randall. I wouldn't use the same name, and I wouldn't cast it on the public, only on people ready to face the effect. Instead of a misguided act of hostility --"
"-- it would be a therapeutic tool." Alethea spread her arms. "Strip away your mental blocks and get a look at the real you. Thoth's Mirror."
"By the Lady, Leeth." Randall sighed. "I can't believe you. Some nutbar commits magical assault on an entire courtroom full of people and the only thought in your head is how to recreate her effect."
In the distance, the front door opened and shut.
"There was more to it than assault. If her goal had been damage --" Alethea stopped mid-sentence, cocked her head at the door, and flicked her fingers at the television. The screen changed to the disaster movie playing on HBO, the soundtrack merging smoothly with the earlier news report.
"I'm back!" Tamara said, walking into the living room with a smile on her olive-tanned face, the snow-dusted arms of her overcoat wrapped around a large bag from the liquor store. "Our party tonight is gonna -- oh, hi, Randall."
"I thought I heard chatting when I came in. What were you guys talking about?"
"Mage stuff," Alethea said before Randall could answer.
Tamara's lips pursed in disapproval. "C'mon, Leeth. You know how I feel about that."
"I do, Tammie."
When Tamara went to the kitchen to unload the liquor, Randall leaned in. "In all seriousness, let the idea go. It's just going to invite trouble."
Alethea cupped her chin in her hand, then a mischievous smile spread across her face. "Not if you help me with it," she murmured.
"What?!" Randall whispered, restraining his voice with an effort.
"You're the most level-headed, cautious mage I know. Help me design the spell. If we can't make it safe enough for you, I'll give it up. If it doesn't help you, I'll give it up."
"Leeth, whether I help out or not --" Randall began. Then the full implications hit him. "You want to cast it on me?!"
* * * * *
"I can't believe I let you talk me into this," Randall grumbled as he chalked symbols onto the cement floor of the garage. "I swear, if I didn't hate my job so much ..."
Alethea flipped through their eight pages of notes. "Admit it. It's not about that. You're curious."
"It is about that. Completely. I loathe software QA and I could probably double my income by quitting and doing freelance mage work, but I still drag myself to the office every day. Why am I torturing myself?"
"And yet, even realizing that, you're trusting your answer to a reworked magical assault spell. Face it, you're curious."
The phone in Randall's kitchen rang. He wiped his forehead, leaving a streak of chalk dust across his already-pale skin, and stared off into space. "Tamara's calling to see if you're here. She seems mildly disturbed."
"Oh, for ..." Alethea started, then sighed and muttered an incantation under her breath. Concentrating, she pointed into the kitchen, then gestured at herself, and the cordless phone rocketed through the garage to her waiting hand. "What's wrong, Tammie?"
The phone was briefly silent.
"... Leeth? What are you doing at Randall's?"
"I told you last night. Don't you remember?"
"No. I was trying to find you. I didn't expect you to answer the phone. I hate it when you freak me out like that."
"What do you want, Tammie?"
"I'm sorry. ... I just thought you were going to help me clean up the party mess."
"I am. When I get back from Randall's."
"You said we'd have the day together once the house was clean. I've only now found you and it's eleven."
Alethea walked into the house and glanced at Randall's wall clock. "I'm sorry. I'll be back as soon as we're done."
"When will that be?"
"Maybe a couple of hours."
"I'm sorry. This is important."
"More important than me?"
"Tammie. You're being passive-aggressive again --"
The rest of the conversation passed in a spiral of criticism and placation. Alethea hung up with a sigh and returned to the garage to find Randall leafing through the notes.
"Sorry about the interruption," she said. "The usual."
Randall shook his head. "I wish I understood how you two do it. Argue so often, I mean. And yet you're still together."
"It's just disagreements. It's not like we're fighting."
"Even that time she spent the night at my place?"
Alethea shrugged. "She needs time to cool off sometimes. But we both know that we do better together than we do apart."
"... I'll take your word for it."
Alethea pursed her lips in mild disapproval. "So are you ready?"
He gestured at the notes. "One thing first. The safeguard you wrote last night basically makes you invisible to me while the Mirror's up. Why did you also add an effect to inhibit your self-perception?"
"Honestly? I'm not sure the safeguard's enough. Once I establish the mental link for monitoring, if something I do draws attention to the fact of my presence, you might see what I see -- including myself. If even I don't know I'm there, I can be sure I won't cause a distraction."
"But you'll lose your sense of self entirely for the duration of the spell!"
"That's why I added the safeword. If either of us thinks I'm stuck, it kills the spell and regrounds me immediately."
Randall flipped to the last page. "Which will prevent disasters, sure. But we already addressed the disasters. I'd be more worried about the side effects."
"It means extra reassurance of the spell working safely. I want this to work."
Randall tried again. "Do you really think you need redundant safety at the cost of big personal complications?"
"If I didn't need complications," Alethea said, "I'd give up magic."
* * * * *
Randall gradually became aware of a hand on his shoulder.
"The spell's done," a male voice said from up above him. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," Randall said, but it was in Alethea's voice. Puzzled, he opened his eyes to find himself sitting cross-legged on the floor in Alethea's body, with a second Randall standing over him.
"Hold on," the sitting Randall said, realizing the situation. "The self-blinding effect is still up." With a moment's focus, he located and undid the extra effect he -- Alethea -- had layered into the spell, and his -- her -- original consciousness flooded back in.
Alethea let out a long breath and collapsed back onto the floor. "By the Lady."
"You can say that again," Randall said, sitting down alongside her.
"It's like there are two people in my brain," Alethea said. "Give me a minute. I need to remind myself that I'm Alethea again. What about you?"
"It worked," Randall said in a faraway voice.
They sat in silence for half a minute.
Alethea brought up a hand, waved it slowly in front of her face, and very deliberately curled her fingers into a fist. "I'll be grounding myself back into my body for a little while yet. Movement seems to be helping."
"You should write the grounding in," Randall suggested. "Next time, add a trigger on spell completion -- have that kill the blind and start a mantra with some self-reinforcing autohypnosis."
"Yes. Yes! That would do it."
"And include your target too. I'm not having the two-brain effect you are, but it's going to take me a while to process everything."
"I'll do that," Alethea said, sitting up. "So -- it worked. What was your epiphany?"
"... What do you mean? I saw myself -- I mean, you -- watching the whole time. Didn't you see everything I did?"
"Actually, no. Remember, I needed to keep some distance in case you hit something overwhelming."
"I was focusing on your emotional reactions to what you were experiencing. When you had a strong reaction, I'd get an echo of the trigger, but I get the sense I missed the big breakthrough."
"Yeah. The actual change didn't feel like that big a deal. The shock was in facing --" Randall stopped, staring at Alethea in dawning realization. "Oh god. You saw --?"
"Um," Alethea said, "yeah."
"Shit." Randall buried his face in his hands. "Leeth, I can explain --"
Alethea shifted uncomfortably. "It's alright, Randall."
"I was young," Randall said desperately. "I was stupid, really stupid --"
"Randall," Alethea interrupted, "I know. I didn't just see ... it. I also saw all the guilt you carry around about it, and what you've done to make up for it. Really, seriously? It's alright."
"Please don't tell --"
"It won't leave this room."
Randall let out a long breath. "Thank you."
"... Don't mention it."
"By the Lady," Randall said softly. "Are you sure you want to keep casting this, Leeth? You'll have to go through this with everyone you help."
"Don't take this the wrong way, but it felt sort of ... liberating? ... seeing the skeletons in your closet." Alethea smiled sheepishly. "I'm curious now to see what other people beat themselves up over. I think I can do it without judging."
Randall stood and paced around the room. "I think I know what you mean. It's also liberating knowing that you've seen the worst of me and didn't run away screaming." He laughed. "But here I am obsessing over my little fears when the spell just changed my whole damn life."
Alethea climbed up into the folding chair at his workbench. "So what happened when we got started?"
"It felt like I was being pulled out of myself," Randall said. "Then I saw ... possibilities. I saw all these different mes, like looking in a funhouse mirror at just the right angle. And I knew, when I looked at one particular version of me, what was different about it -- both the good and the bad."
"That must be what brought up all the memories."
"Yeah. Make sure your other clients are prepared for that. I finally managed to focus on my original question, but as a mage I'm used to focusing my willpower despite distractions. Someone not ready for it could easily have gotten sidetracked for the spell's duration."
"I see what you mean," Alethea said. "I can meet with my clients a few times beforehand and teach them some focusing tricks. So what was so illuminating about the multiple Randalls?"
"It wasn't magic-for-a-paycheck holding me back -- it was the self-promotion! I found the me that would truly succeed as a consultant, and it was because he was good at aggressively selling himself. That change came at the expense of reducing virtues like humility and introspection. That's when I started sifting through the other variations nearby, and I found a solution whose tradeoffs were all positive."
"Awesome! What is it?"
"Go work for a magitech firm! They're always looking for folks with the right skills, the pay is good, and all it would take is enough momentum to actually quit my current job. So I chose a Randall like the old me but more open to risks and less submissive --"
"Wait, wait," Alethea said, jaw dropping, "you chose a new you?"
"Yeah," Randall replied, staring at her as if she had questioned that they were speaking English.
"You just picked a personality from the menu, like you were ordering dinner, and boom, that's you now?"
"It wasn't quite that miraculous," Randall said. "Just nudging existing characteristics around, emphasizing or nullifying various influences. I don't think I could have ended up with anyone who wasn't essentially me. But, yes -- I became a new Randall, and I felt the difference as soon as I made my choice."
Randall walked over to Alethea and knelt at her side. "Leeth. Do this. Needless to say, I'm sold."
Alethea stared down at the chalk circle and shook her head. "I figured that out when your first reaction was to tell me ways to improve the spell. But it's still weird to hear you say it."
"Granted, this comes with a big grain of salt, because it's the new less-cautious Randall's advice, but even the old me couldn't deny the power of the spell any more. I saw what drives me, and I was able to shape that consciously." He stared intently into her eyes. "Someone with the honest drive to change themselves could walk in to you and fix their lives in the span of 20 minutes. Kick a self-defeating behavior pattern. Nullify a crippling fear. Abandon an addiction. This is a spell the world needs."
"Jesus," Alethea repeated. "You -- Randall -- are begging me to go cast Thoth's Mirror on strangers."
"I don't know whether to be glad that I won you over, or afraid that I've unleashed a monster."