The idea of “spells as living entities” is worth considering. My main inspiration here are the works of Jack Vance. Terry Pratchett uses it very effectively for comic effect. Our goal, however, is somewhat different from these authors, as we are trying to make magic a bit darker and scarier.
This idea can explain various parts of a spell system. For example, spells mishaps are just strong spells that the wizard was unable to control for a moment. Spells occupy a place in the wizard’s mind. They can reproduce and be extinguished, like viruses or bacteria, and they can make the wizard sick in the brain. They can lie dormant in old grimoires and scrolls, or be trapped in talismans and wands. They can mutate with time, or generate funny interactions with one another. Magic items lose power after all spells store within are spent – leaving a single spell unused might prevent this in some cases, probably because some spells can reproduce by parthenogenesis.
These things would ordinarily inhabit another planet, parallel to our own, where they roam free, only to be randomly picked by random wizards to fuel their actions. The most powerful ones could even take a physical form if they wish. Every wizard should have some grasp of this concept, even if only in a subconscious manner.
What kind of beings are spells, exactly? Well, that is up to you. They might be spirits, demons, angels, elementals, or beings of pure energy. Their minds are probably extremely simple or completely alien. They might be servants or parts of powerful beings (the god of fire, etc.). One would assume they do not mind being used by wizards, perhaps because they follow a higher order, or do not grasp the concept enough to organize a rebellion. They probably do not enjoy staying for too long in our plane, since most magic is temporary.
The truth, however, could be darker than the characters know.
Maybe these beings can feel, and consider every casting a small torture, and repeated summoning a form of slavery. The screaming faces that appear every time you hurl an energy spell at your enemies are more than illusions. Magic artifacts may require the binding of a sentient spirit in a piece of metal or wood. Like trapping fireflies to make a lantern… or imprisoning Beethoven in a music box for your own amusement.
The demon that lives in your sword is always willing to help you in your fights in exchange for some blood… but for how long? Maybe all wizards know this and keep it secret, or maybe they refuse to see it. Maybe it is only a theory, a legend, a hunch… an uneasy feeling in the back of their heads.
And maybe one day the wizards might find that these things want revenge.
As I've said above, this is adapted from my book Dark Fantasy Magic. It contains shorts essays and many tables that deal with magic, wizards, spells, etc.
You can find it by clicking on the link above.
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