Magic: An Overview
Magic has been practiced in some form or another since before the dawn of human history, though it's been something of an obscure practice in more recent times for numerous reasons. Although almost anyone can theoretically learn magic to some degree, it takes considerable time and effort to make the skill a very useful one. As most people throughout recorded history have been limited in what free time they had, relatively few ever became what might be considered masters of magic - most were dabblers at best.
Like any other skill or area of study, magic has always been filled with an assortment of hindering misconceptions, many of which have taken ages to dispel. For example, some incorrectly supposed that one might have to be the seventh son of a seventh son to have the gift, or that one had to show magical ability before the age of thirteen, or that one could only gain the gift through elaborate or even dangerous rituals. Some mistakenly believed that one absolutely had to use certain items or techniques, or even use a special language. And while many mages over time were able to discover for themselves that such things were not true, limitations in communication and travel made it difficult to share and spread the knowledge.
And for every real practitioner, there were usually any number of frauds. Those who were exposed as such or just failed to produce the results they claimed they could led to increasing doubt that magic even worked at all, dissuading many from seriously exploring the subject. Aside from that, fears that practitioners were consorting with evil forces and working sinister agendas sometimes led to shunning, and even persecution. (Though in reality, most mages shared in the same general religious views as those around them, and very few outright tried to align themselves with forces typically considered evil.) Many cunning folk were put on trial during the Protestant Reformation, their old traditional folk practices considered demonic and dangerous.
But despite all challenges and problems, the art of magic has always been alive in some form or another. Genuine magic-users have lived many lifestyles and have served in many capacities. Some have been court magicians, some have been town healers, others have been fortune tellers, and some just used their magic to assist in their own everyday lives. And as travel and communication became easier, mages were better able to share their knowledge and discoveries. Books were published, and societies and informal schools formed. Although many early-established societies were and still are highly secretive, more open groups formed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
But even as these groups began, plenty of frauds and con artists founded their own schools and sold their own books, often peddling mangled and watered-down versions of other people's philosophies and teachings. (Unfortunately, many - if not most - of the alleged mages that one will encounter are still frauds.)
In the early 1950's, magic (and all things mystical) suffered a setback when concern grew over its possible detriment to society. As the US government and others with political sway became more aware of its presence, many of them believed that it would distract people from clean and wholesome lifestyles and draw them into alliances with diabolical forces, resulting in the inevitable collapse of society once people were engaged in casting spells and becoming vampires instead of marrying and raising children. Others didn't believe that such things truly existed at all (it wasn't hard, since few people had first-hand experience), but still agreed that interest in such topics would be of no value to anyone. The US government encouraged the publication of material that alleged the detriment of all mystical matters, whether they claimed that such things were the work of evil forces, that it was all a ruse to trick people into furthering the Communist agenda, or that those who believed in such things were simply self-deluded fools. Overall it was a success; many people were deterred from the subject, and it took decades for public interest to truly spark again.
In 1974, the US military began experimenting with magic (partly spurred on by reports that the Soviets were doing it already), typically by having soldiers practice techniques described in books on the subject. Reports of an early test indicate that a fair percentage of the soldiers who underwent the experiment began having heightened intuitive abilities after awhile, one started having fairly accurate dreams of the near future on a regular basis after several months, and one was able to create small lights after about a year of dedicated practice. However, long-term testing over the years found that results of the last two types always took significant time to develop, and there was never any guarantee that the dreams of the future would be entirely accurate, or even useful. In a few cases a few seers capable of remote viewing did emerge, but it turned out that the sort of places they really wanted seers to look into tended to be difficult, if not impossible for them to view for the fact that others have a strong will for it not to be seen that blocks the vision of seers.
Ultimately, magic was considered useful in theory, but in practice too slow and unreliable to justify standardized use. And so, non-magical techniques and methods won out. However, this has not prevented the occasional CO from breaking out the old manual to give to soldiers who seem to have some potential, or just to give them something to keep themselves out of trouble with in their off-hours, and the military may still make use of someone's magical skill if it proves to be useful.
There have been a some incidents of experiments (usually illegal) that involved abusing the subjects (such as through electric shocks, sensory deprivation, brain surgery, etc.) but none of them encouraged the development of any magical or psychical ability. If anything, it only hindered it; those who were not abused consistently showed greater progress than those who were.
Currently, it's estimated that approximately 0.014% of the US population has been practicing magical techniques with at least some regularity for at least three years, and that similar numbers can be found in countries that do not censor or discourage it. (Of course, it's difficult to know for certain just how many are frauds, and how many genuine mages simply have not openly identified themselves.)
The Mechanics & Use Of Magic
Almost everyone has at least some magic skill potential, and everyone has an innate magical field (or aura) whether they use it or not. If magical levels were measured in on a scale from 1-10, the average person would be at a 2. Many people practice magic without knowing it. Those who strongly disbelieve in magic will actually unknowingly create protective nullifying fields around themselves. A non-believer's nullifying field may even gum up a mage's ability to cast a spell in the first place. Simply not wanting a spell to work on you will generally put up a resistive force between you and the caster - though who will win out will depend on which party is stronger. And a large number of people who really want something kept secret (such as the contents of a secret base) may unknowingly place a barrier over it that prevents seers from getting visions of it, if they are present in the area.
How fast a practicing individual will gain proficiency can vary. Humans who have had little to no magical exposure may take around 3-5 years before dramatic results (such as being able to light candles or create pinhead-sized balls of light) are possible, though they may start experiencing less dramatic results (such as a heightened sense of intuition or a faint sense of the immediate future) within six months to a year. People in this group comprise about 99.6% of the US population.
Those who have had moderate exposure to magic (such as by having powerful spells cast on them recently, or by living in areas with strong magical fields, or by being in proximity to people with strong magical fields for awhile) often see results like these in 2-4 years. These people comprise about .27% of the US population.
Those who have been exposed to very strong amounts of magic typically take 1-3 years to see dramatic results, and likely already have a strong sense of intuition already. People in this group comprise about .04% of the US population.
The time can potentially be cut down by having a powerful mage "jumpstart," so to speak, another person's magic field with a strong magical input. Those who have been jumpstarted may see dramatic results within about six months to a year.
Once dramatic results occur, the mage's magic field would be approximately 4-5. Most mages who have been regularly practicing for several years are somewhere around 7-8. A few particularly gifted individuals might end up stronger. (Though no matter how strong the field, a mage's ability to cast good magic is only as good as the mage's ability to focus!) Research has indicated that somewhere around 67% of all (proven) mages have a field in the 3-4 range, 32.727% have a field in the 5-6 range, 0.250% have a field in the 7-8 range, and 0.023% have a field in the 9-10 range.
The exact methods mages use vary; some schools and mentors teach different methods, and individual learners may experiment and choose what seems to serve them best. However, practices that most have in common are teaching learners how to focus and concentrate, how to pull and push power through their bodies, and how to use that power to produce desired effects. (Which, incidentally, is what the 1974 army manual covers.)
As to how magic works and what it can do, one of the first things many experienced mages will tell you about magic is that if a common household appliance exists to do the job, then it's easier just to use the household appliance. EG, you could wash all of your clothes magically (and in some cases it might be necessary), but on a regular day, your best bet's just to put it in the washing machine.
You might also be told that magic is something like applied troll physics, and that the secret to magic is to believe in something so hard that the universe itself just shrugs and says "sure, makes sense to me, we'll do things your way." Others will tell you that it's not quite so simple; they might cite an example of someone tried to substitute a yellow candle for a red one in a spell to attract a lover and ended up attracting a best friend instead. Some say that spell ingredients are a lot like poetic metaphors; the "right" ones depend a lot on context and whether the universe has a big enough frame of reference to discern what you probably mean.
Something you'll almost certainly be told be told is that the fewer laws of normal physics magic has to bend or break or less-improbable a probability one intends to alter is, the easier the spell will be. Portals through space are next to impossible for a mage to create alone and unaided. Casting a spell to make something seem extra uninteresting is often a simple matter, but a spell to actually camouflage it or render it invisible is rather harder.
Spells may be permanent or temporary, depending on the nature of the spell or the strength of the caster. If a mage casts a spell to move a bunch of small stones into a sturdily-arranged pile, the spell will never "wear off" because the shape they have been moved into is self-supporting. On the other hand, if a mage uses magic to move the same bunch of stones into the shape of an upside-down pyramid, the pile will collapse as soon as the magic weakens to the point that it can no longer support the stones. In the latter case, how long the upside-down pyramid will remain standing will depend on the strength of the spell cast on it - a weak spell might hold the pyramid up for a few minutes, but a strong one might hold it up for days.
Magic users need not only draw power from themselves, but can draw power from sources such as the earth, the sun, or the moon. However, if the power source has any sort of cyclical nature and if the spell relies on a constant stream of power, the spell will generally end at the cycle's end. In 1939, an extremely powerful mage by the name of David Vandergriff attempted to hold a cul de sac by creating an impenetrable shield around it using the power of the sun. Unfortunately for Vandergriff, the shield went down as the sun did, and he was quickly dispatched by local law enforcement.
Power can also be stored within objects. Many mages charge items with power so as to avoid running out when performing high-power magics - quartz crystals are often preferred, for the fact that they work reasonably well and are fairly inexpensive. Mysteranium-laced crystals and certain mysteranium alloys are among the best materials for holding magical power for later use. Some materials, such as aluminum, steel, and iron, readily sponge up magical power but do not let go of it easily. The best material for holding a charge for later use is viricite.
Worth noting is that drawing power from objects such as the sun, moon, etc. can take several minutes to build up a good charge. On the other hand, power in crystals that are on one's person is usually available for immediate use.
Magical Power & Capabilities
Someone with a magic field strength of about 4-5 and decently good concentration skills can (with a few moments of pre-charge and focus) be expected to perform tasks like lighting a small candle, making pinpoint balls of light, or chilling a cup of liquid. Other abilities may include creating relatively weak "good luck" charms to affect probability in their favors, or use their power to speed the healing of minor wounds. At this point, most people develop the ability to sense magical power. Because this is the point where dramatic, visible results start happening, it's sometimes referred to as "full activation," "breaking the wall," "unlocking," or similar.
Those with fields in the 5-6 range may (again, with a few moments of pre-charge and focus) be capable of creating shooter marble to golfball-sized balls of light or fire. They might be able to ice a cup of liquid over. They may be able to create small, simple illusions, large and complex enough to potentially "mask" their faces. They may also be able to heal minor wounds in a short space of time. Most dedicated practitioners in this range have been practicing 2-5 years since first achieving dramatic results.
Those with fields in the 7-8 range are often capable of creating large light balls and baseball-sized fireballs. They might be able to create illusions around their whole selves good enough for disguise. They might be able to freeze a cup of liquid in a few seconds, or heal moderate wounds in a few moments. They may be able to induce partial transformation. Most dedicated practitioners in this range have been practicing 5-9 years since achieving dramatic results.
Those with fields in the 9-10 range might be capable of creating large, complex illusions (room-sized) and inducing full transformations. They may be able to create strong "good luck" charms that significantly pulls probability into their favors. They may be able to create volleyball-sized fireballs, or freeze large objects. They might be able to heal serious injuries in a few moments. Most people in this range have been practicing ten years or more since achieving dramatic results, and few have the capacity to reach this level of skill.
After mages have done a few acts of magic at their highest performance level, they'll be magically drained and it will likely take the rest of the day for their own personal magic to recharge, and will likely be a bit physically tired from the exertion. But if they need more power before then, they can channel more from items or draw it from the environment, preferably something they have an affinity with. (It usually only takes several minutes to fully charge from something you've got a strong affinity with, but can take nearly two hours from something you've got no affinity with.) However, this will cause physical strain, especially if the mage tries to rush it. Averagely fit and healthy mages can usually channel or charge around three times their maximum power capacity before feeling somewhat tired, and around six or seven times before exhaustion.
Also remember, any given mage of a particular strength is not going to be especially good at all of the example skills. Most mages have strong talent in one or a few areas - for example, someone might be good at making fireballs, but have almost no talent for scrying. One might have a knack for seeing the future, but be awful at illusions. Someone might be good with light, but terrible with fire - or vice-versa. And as mentioned above, mages have better affinity with some things than others. For no particularly well-understood reason, some mages 'connect' with certain elements and power sources better than others. Some may find themselves at a loss when trying to draw strength from the moon, but have particular success with the earth. Some may connect to the night sky, but have difficulty with the ocean, or vice-versa. Not all power is the same - power pulled from the sea is not particularly good for making fireballs, and power from the sun is terrible for freezing things. (On the other hand, earth is neutral toward freezing, and ice is best.)
Finally, the raw stuff of magic - the stuff that is commonly described as "magical energy" - is often known as aether. Some schools and traditions eschew the use of the term "magic" altogether, and refer to the study and art of manipulating aether as aetherics.