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I am writing a contemporary fairy tale. Based on various bits of lore, I have used woods such as ash and rowan as substances which can affect fairy magic.

In the first instance, I have a fairy lord using a ash staff presumably to augment the magic he is creating (this is not explicitly stated, but he uses the staff as he casts spells and I had intended the staff for the purpose.) In the next instance, I have the protagonist use an ash stick to break through magical barriers and to destroy magical constructs.

The magic is quite varied, with different fairies weaving different spells. With the wood interaction, quite commonly a fairy will cast some sort of defensive barrier around themselves, which bullets can't penetrate but the ash wood can. Another instance sees a fairy lord control magical light constructs to attack a character, but again the ash wood is able to easily destroy the constructs.

The fairy magic is powered by ambient energy from living beings (plants, animals etc,) drawn into crystals which act as a sort of reservoir. A fairy does not hold a crystal, but rather crystals are positioned throughout the land, so access to energy varies depending on distance from one of these crystals. Blocks can be put in place to disrupt this energy, so there are areas which act as deliberate dead zones. There are two different types of fairy magic seen in the book, with users of type A unable to draw power from type B crystals. Crystals can be transformed from A to B and vice versa through a process (corruption, taint, purification etc.) The same base energy is used for both A and B magic, like energy going into a electromagnet that can have its polarity flipped.

Is there any example of a substance that has a dual effect on a form of energy? By "dual effect" I mean similar to the wood in the story being able to augment the use magic and also dissipate magic energies.

I was thinking of something like electricity and metal, where perhaps the staff acts as a conduit, but the stick later acts more like a lighting rod to dissipate the charge, but I'm not really sure, it doesn't feel completely right to me.

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closed as primarily opinion-based by sphennings, Azuaron, JBH, Slarty, MozerShmozer Nov 29 '17 at 18:54

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding Frankie! If you would like to read a little more general discussion about possible explanations for staffs that are related to magic I can recommend one of my questions: Why would a staff increase the magic power of a mage?. Some of the answers may be interesting for you. Good question by the way. If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – Secespitus Nov 29 '17 at 11:53
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    $\begingroup$ Frankie, @sphennings is right and it's important that you understand why. Creative answers notwithstanding, what you've asked for are actual examples of a substance that interacts with magic as described. By definition, there are none. Part of our goal is to help you become a better user of our site. Removing the first question (which can only be answered "no") actually improves your question. Including a few more examples of how you wish your magic to be affected would also improve your question. Thanks! $\endgroup$ – JBH Nov 29 '17 at 16:23
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    $\begingroup$ Also remember any sufficiently explained magic is indistinguishable from technology. It's very easy to make your magic mundane if you try to ground it in reality. If you want a staff to do one thing and a stick to do another the reason is obvious. One is a staff and one is a stick. Magic shouldn't care about material science. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Nov 29 '17 at 16:26
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH That sounds like an excellent bit of superstition that would make the world feel just a little bit more magical. "On the first full moon after her grandaughter's birth, she ventured out into the woods to collect twigs of holly, mistletoe, ash, and elm, and bound them up in a leather satchel to prevent the faeries from whisking her away and replacing her with a changling." $\endgroup$ – sphennings Nov 29 '17 at 16:37
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    $\begingroup$ Oh, I just noticed your rep indicates that you are a brand new participant here — Welcome! You’ll encounter concepts we have here like primarily opinion based (POB) and other issues and conventions with experience. I would like to point out the Sandbox post on Worldbuilding Meta, and note that you can come up to speed by reading the comments also on both good and poor posts. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Nov 30 '17 at 0:18
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The "substance" or rather structure that you're looking for that works in an almost identical way to how you describe your dual-purpose wands is a Prism.

Indeed much like your fairy lord uses his ash staff to disperse his magical energy into a specific spell, so does a prism split white light into a rainbow. Once the white light has been broken up into its constituent spectral colors it can then be recombined by another prism back into white light.


To make this parallel with optics even more potent, perhaps you should think of your magical system in this way:

Magic is everywhere, in the trees, in sunbeams, in living creatures. You don't feel anything from this ambiant magic however because it is all mixed together, it has no character, no refinement, in other words it is blank, much like the color white.

A fairy (or any magical user) gets around this and produces all manner of different spells not by concentrating their own magical field but rather by doing the opposite, by breaking it up so that the underlying aspects of the mixed magical energy can surface and be used to produce tangible effects.

This takes skill and innate aptitude: being able to use ones own body as a lense to weave specific spells out of white nondescript concentrated magical energy is what seperates none magic users to mages. Of course one can always use tools to amplify one's own abilities (in the case of the fairy lord) or to subsitute one's lack of abilities (in the case of your protagonist).


Addendum to fix inaccuracies due to OP's edit clarifying the world's magic system:

Numerous types of prisms and filters exist in the real world, the ones we typically think about is the one talked about above, where white light is converted to a rainbow. However some prisms like dichroic prism can seperate a single color out of white light.

It would seem like the crystals discussed in the question work like the latter. Type A crystals seperate a specific "magical frequency" out of ambiant magic so that it can be used to produce spells by spell casters who are proficient in that type of magical energy. Type B crystals do the same with a different magical frequency and so on. "Corruption/Purification" is simply the process of subtly altering a crystal so that is seperate a different frequency. This is in no way dissimilar to real dichroic prisms. Indeed simply by changing the orientation of the prism one can make it filter out whatever color one wishes.

However since it turns out that in this question's world crystals are already used to process ambiant magic, why would a fairy lord need an ash wood staff?

To answer is rather simple, the ash staff is used as a secondary prism to divide magical frequencies even more precisely. Indeed even in real life prisms that say for example split blue light from the rest, there still exists a whole many (a technically infinite amount) different types of light frequencies just within "blue light", to put it another way, what we usually describe as "blue" is actually a range of frequencies that exist within the visible spectrum (the shorter ones).

But what of the recombination process, wouldn't the ash tree wand belonging to the protagonist just recombine all that sub-type A/B magical frequencies back into "pure" type A/B magical energy? Couldn't being hit with a blast of non-refined type A/B energy still hurt them?

Sure it probably could, however that isn't a problem if we remember how the original crystal magic prism works. It seperates type A/B magic from ambiant magic. But what about the leftover? What about all the magical frequencies that aren't seperated? Since they aren't used they must saturate the environment around the crystal. And what happens if you used a magic prism (ash wand) to combine that leftovers with type A/type B magic? Eureka! You get "white" ambiant magic which is harmless!


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  • $\begingroup$ This actually works really well with certain elements of the story. I'm going to update the question because the magic is actually somewhat better defined than I'd originally thought (for other novels I've had very set rules of magic, but this one was a bit less science and bit more fantasy.) $\endgroup$ – Frankie Nov 29 '17 at 13:14
  • $\begingroup$ I upvoted because you fit the circumstances fairly well, my only ambiguity is at the corruption purification aspect. Are you saying that that is essentially tuning the prisms to more easily emit certain bands? $\endgroup$ – anon Nov 29 '17 at 15:08
  • $\begingroup$ @anon Corruption? Purification? I don't believe I used those words so I'm sure to what you're refering to exactly. In the real world a prism naturally breaks white light (which is a combination of all the frequencies within the visible spectrum) into its constituant colors. You can recombine this rainbow back into white light with a second prism. I'm proposing that OP's magic works in a similar way. A mage takes ambiant "white" magic and seperates it into different "magical frequencies" so that those can be used to produce spells. As with prisms in also works the other way round. (1/2) $\endgroup$ – AngelPray Nov 29 '17 at 15:19
  • $\begingroup$ @anon A magic user or someone with an appropriate tool (in this case a wand made out of the wood of an ash tree) can recombine the different "magical frequencies" that make up a spell back into "white" magical energy, which is neutral and can't really do anything harmful. In this way OP's protagonist removes magical barriers by using an ash wand as a prism to turn the spell back into normal ambiant "white" magical energy. This is simply a metaphor of course, I'm not saying OP's magic is light or words identically to light but rather that it can be thought of in a similar way. (2/2) $\endgroup$ – AngelPray Nov 29 '17 at 15:21
  • $\begingroup$ hmmmm reconsidering my vote then because the OP clearly mentioned the corruption/purification of the crystals which to me suggests a territorial mechanic allowing sides to firmly control fixed regions. By your explanation the crystal just constantly emits relying on the user to handle the conversion which does not address that mechanic. $\endgroup$ – anon Nov 29 '17 at 15:48
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You can make it so that ash absorbs magic naturally and stores it, having a natural effect of "popping" or disrupting magical effects it may encounter. It would take knowledge and a focused will to release such a store of magic.

This effect would make any item made of ash which has come into contact with magic hold some kind of charge and thus potentially able to provide a magical charge.

A given piece of ash would only be able to hold a charge relative to its size (a bullet made of ash would be able to absorb a small amount of magic, while an arrow would be able to hold more). This of course means that if the magic is not drained out of an ash item somehow its usability as a magic destabilizer would be limited to the amount of charge that it could hold.

The older the original ash tree, and depending on the way the item is crafted, an ash item could hold a greater charge/ have a greater popping effect - it makes sense for a bullet or arrow to be reasonably simple, unless the craftsman takes the time to carve glyphs and symbols into them, while more care and dedication would be put into selecting the wood for crafting the staff and in the making of the staff itself.

Alternatively, along similar lines, ash naturally disrupts magic but also absorbs it. Only a tool carved with certain special magical symbols and prepared exactly right can be used to usefully absorb, concentrate, channel and discharge magical energy.

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    $\begingroup$ a bit like a magnet disturbs a magnetic field, and a well-shaped magnet or one made out of special material (neodymium) would have a lot of effect. $\endgroup$ – Borgh Nov 29 '17 at 13:23
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I think I get it now. Here is how I would justify it. Please forgive me for choosing a real world concept instead of a material.

Your defensive barrier is a metastable state of magic. Here is a wikipedia article explaining the concept of metastability that also includes a nice drawing: click.

The wood is used to get (whatever medium, let's say the air itself) into a state that blocks about anything. If done right by an expert, the wood channels (the right kind of, the right amount of) magic. The air will enter a metastable state that will act as a shield.

Now it would be possible that the shield as a lifetime and will return at one point to the stable (ground) state. It is also possible that this lifetime is extremely long and such a shield is permanent.

One nice benefit, this idea also explains magical skill: The novice caster will not manage to hit that state just right, his defensive shields will only last a couple of moments if at all.

Now, channeling even more magic into it via the wood will cause the medium to return to its equilibrium state. It gives the whole thing enough of a push to destroy the shielding. Once again, skill or experience might be a factor here, but it doesn't have to be.

This also can explain why the hero needs the same kind of wood to channel the magic. Anything else might simply not interact with that particular state.

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Your magics sounds like they could be analogous to the relationship between a Wireless Access Point and a Wireless Network.

The first is the physical device with the network connection, hardware, and antennae. This would be the physical crystal itself that is the source of the energy.

The second is the configuration that allows you to connect to the device. This is the "configuration" of your crystal (corrupted, purified, tuned, etc).

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The dual nature is not in the substance of magic itself. Rather it is in the theory and application of how sapients use the magic. Compare it to electricity: We use both alternating current, and direct current. Both provide us power to do things. Power can be converted from one to the other. However directly plugging in one type to the other usually breaks one or more things.

Wood acts as an insulator for electricity let it act the same for magic. So the ash wood allows you to pierce through certain magic affects since it is insulated from them. Your fairy lord is manipulating large amounts of magic that if they touched directly would fry their mind or soul. The Rowen staff insulates the mage from that affect while keeping the magic controlled enough to be manipulated.

Alternative view of insulator: It’s not that it’s particularly powerful. However for certain tasks multiple magic’s needs to be worked in a different way in order to achieve best results. Using an insulating staff the fairy lord can work one part of the magic on one side of the staff, and a second portion on the opposing side. The staff provides a barrier to keep them magic’s from interfering with each other until the appropriate time.

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Think of heat and metal. Heat (ash) makes the metal (magic) more pliable - which helps the metal (magic) to be formed. So it can be formed into a spell, or an unwoven spell.

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I think if you consider Magic as energy, and keep things internally consistent, you can construct all kinds of cool rules.

Many fictional magic systems bring in the traditional view of cold iron and how it is poison to the fay. Mercedes Lackey took it a step further in her "Serrated Edge" series by having modern day elves using the measured effect of iron on magic to unleash trick shots at enemies.

So look at the properties of actual Ash wood and make it a conductor for magical energy. In the same way that metals and magnets can have an impact on how electricity flows, you can have crystals and ash and rowan impact the flow and storage of magical energy.

Your rules are your own, of course, but you could do a lot for yourself by reading a 5th grade to 8th grade introduction to electricity and circuits as a guideline. Think of your crystal as a zinc acid battery. Better crystals are like Lithium Ion batteries for magic. Inferior Ash wood is like aluminum wiring, while Rowan from a unique tree is like the purest silver. In the same way that Electrical engineers can take various materials, measure their effects and use that information to create miracles of science like the computer, Have your gifted Mages approach magic the same way. The skilled and wise could use that knowledge to create a super flexible and efficient focus like Gandalf's staff, while mere hacks get a stick that shoots a few sparks.

The real key is to create logical rules and stick with them. That always creates the best fantasy.

Mercedes Lackey, and Jim Butcher are two of my favorite authors that have taken the time to move past the "because Magic" thing and get into why magic works. They both start with Magic is Energy.

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I think of faeries as being inherently magical, so they do not need any device to do magic. However, inasmuch as they are a reservoir for magic (possibly an intermediate for your crystals), they do need methods to direct, channel and focus magic - hence the needs for wands, staffs and other objects. These objects may modify the magic in some way but do not add any further magic (i.e. they are not, themselves, a source of magic).

Neither do wands hold nor store magic, so a wand becoming the focus of a magical charge (as opposed to being used to focus one) would naturally dissipate that magic, effectively acting as a shielding. The method of dissipation is likely to be a property of the material of which the wand is constructed, taking into account natural affinities. Wood may affect surrounding vegetation and produce weather effects, metal may spark and affect nearby machinery, bone may cause metabolic and psychological effects (so probably not a good shield). Different woods, metals, etc are likely to cause such effects in different ways with different intensities. For example, hard woods and strong metals are likely to transfer more charge to their environment, whereas weaker materials may transfer less, but become structurally damaged in the process, so that they will need to be replaced or replenished over time. It also follows that weaker materials will be less effective in casting magic.

This means, if a staff is used to dissipate a magical charge, it must be made of the right material with the right affinities so that the dissipation of the charge does not cause too much damage to its immediate surroundings. Since weaker materials will have a less damaging effect on their surroundings, they may be preferable for shielding purposes, but in taking damage themselves will need to be maintained more or will soon become ineffectual.

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