One of the biggest challenges I’ve encountered in writing my fantasy books is working out magical transportation. I mean, magical gateways are nothing new. Portals have been around for as long as people have believed in magic, but that’s part of the problem: when magic portals have been around forever, it’s hard to use them in an interesting way.
Every fantasy series I’ve read of late has some sort of portal system, and it’s been a relief that over the past 10 years as I’ve worked out the rules for mine, I haven’t encountered anything that works quite the same way. There will always be similarities; there’s only so much you can do when mage travel is involved. But I knew I didn’t want teleportation to be an option, and gateways needed to be special.
As with most cases where magic exists, it’s important to establish some ground rules that keep it from making things too easy. Mages range in strength from ineffective to bordering on all-powerful, so the first solution was a simple element: establishing that not every mage can open a Gate.
In my world, there are two types of mage. Bound mages and free mages have a number of differences between them, but free mages are rare to the point of being mythical. So free mages won, here: they’re the only mages who can open a Gate on their own.
The second rule I established was an extension of the first. Bound mages have access to Gates, of course, but it takes a number of them to open one, generally half a dozen or more. Since even bound mages aren’t exactly common, that immediately cuts down the opportunity for Gates to be used.
The third rule was another standard in fantasy travel: a Gate cannot be opened to somewhere you’ve never been. But while other series fail to account for the way time changes locations, I used that to my advantage. If a mage hasn’t been to a place recently, and the location has changed too much from their memory of it, they can’t reach it. A more experienced mage would have a better idea of how to work around this problem, though; opening a Gate using a specific and memorable carving on a tree as the anchor point, rather than a view of a familiar forest, would grant enough leeway to make the Gating attempt more successful. But this introduces its own set of risks, as if that tree has new carvings or lost too much of its crown in a recent storm, it would no longer be viable as a destination. This also allows a facet of danger: Gates are wild and unpredictable, and require a lot of power to control. When a Gate is misdirected, if there aren’t enough mages to stabilize and dissipate the energy that has nowhere to go, it could spell catastrophe for the whole group.
The fourth rule adds flavor, but also increases the risks that come from chancing a Gate. Gates opened without an anchor point–another mage or a magical artifact expressing power on the other end to open it–are only functional in one direction. You can see where you’re going, but once you’re through, that’s it; if there’s no anchor on the other side, there’s no going back.
There are more small tidbits about how Gates work in the world I’ve created, but these are the important ones. Magical transportation is a luxury, and robbing it of convenience helps make Ithilear a more interesting world–especially when access to Gates can make or break a country as a world power.