Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Rachel Mrotek
Copyright July 1st, 2017
This story is dedicated to my family, my friends, and my most generous subscribers, whom I have listed below. Without their help, support, and contributions, this production would not be possible.
Valis watched. The viewing glass hummed softly, melting away the walls of the Jaspers estate. It was the third day in a row that he had been driven to activate the device. The gems were beginning to look a little pale. Soon they would be drained and turn to little more than coloured glass, and that would be the end of his snooping.
It was worth it. The woman was planning a spell for the Jaspers, and burning incense to prepare the site. That meant only one thing.
It was an old story. Take a rich family with political power, add a powerful magic user, throw in a dash of paranoia, and sooner or later somebody would want to see the future. Valis’ problem was that this magic user could probably deliver it.
He’d asked around. Her name was Azarelle. She was an academic from the old country. Nobody knew what she was sent up for, but it must have been big. Magicians didn’t often get sentenced to exile. They tended to be wealthy, and most of the time they had political connections. There must have been an enormous public outcry.
Either way, she was the Jaspers’ newest prize, and she was making them a fortune, cooking up high-end sorcery and potions. It was only a matter of time before they realized her real potential.
Still, augury. It was very touchy work, and it didn’t take much to throw it off. The worst part was the spell would give you a premonition whether you got it right or not; it just wouldn’t be accurate. It was no wonder that augury had developed a long-standing reputation for hucksterism.
Valis had visited an augury chamber once, when he was still back home in Sylarea. They put them out in the desert. It made it easier to measure and control the variables. An augury on the subcontinent would be almost impossible.
Things would get complicated if she succeeded.
He was distracted by a squawk.
He turned to the crow.
The bird was right. He still hadn’t reported it. His superiors would want to know. Tormar couldn’t afford a drawn out conflict any more than the Jaspers. If he failed to inform them of something that might upset their plans, there would be consequences.
And then there was always the graver possibility: she might discover what was really going on. That would be even worse.
Again true. He did have a reason for failing to report.
He was curious.
Her personal project was coming along. It was hard to tell what she was doing. From his vantage point on the roof, he couldn’t see the table, and there wasn’t much that he could glean from the snippets his so-called assistant chose to report. From the materials she’d been gathering it looked like some kind of measuring device.
Just what she planned to do with it he had no idea.
“I know. I know.”
If he reported what she was up to they would send someone. They would send someone and that someone would kill her, and he would never get to satisfy his curiosity, or anything else for that matter.
She was quite beautiful.
If only there was some way to convince her of the danger. Perhaps she would change her plans. He watched as she left the room, heading back to her office. Her preparations were almost complete.
It would be tonight.
She sat at her desk. She would rest before the casting. It was funny. If the spell was successful she might not believe her eyes. She might assume that something had gone wrong and ignore everything.
But his masters would never take that chance.
They were always watching.
They would know immediately if they were detected. They would insist that something be done. His only chance was to convince them that she wasn’t a threat; or better yet, that she could be useful.
He needed to talk to her.
He went inside and scribbled out a note. It had to be brief, something that no one would suspect but that she wouldn’t question. He chuckled to himself. Months of research and it all came down to this: a few words and a scrap of paper.
He rolled it up and returned to the roof. The bird was waiting.
“You know what you’re supposed to do?”
The bird snatched the note up into its beak.
“Just drop it on the desk and get out of there. Try not to let anyone see you.”
“Okay. Good luck.”
It flew off to complete its mission. Valis watched it go.
War was coming. It was inevitable, but there was still some good to be done. There were still lives to be saved. If he was lucky Azarelle’s would be among them.
“She’ll be here.”
“You told her how important this was?”
“I told her. She’s been preparing all week. Give her a moment. She’ll be here.”
Lon turned away from his brothers. She’d set the spell up in the middle of their dining room. There wasn’t enough space in her office, or so she had explained. Lon was pretty sure she just didn’t want to disrupt the private project she had going in her chambers.
It was just as well. This room was more secure. It had taken five days to assemble the components she requested, and a further three for her to prepare and lay them out in an intricate pattern on the floor.
He sipped his drink. Magic. It was all over his head. He’d never been much of a musician, and as he understood it the two were pretty much the same. He was just glad they’d found Azarelle when they did. The situation with Tormar couldn’t be left alone. They were expanding again, the fifth time in as many months.
The loss of a few outlying territories weren’t a concern. They were only sparingly productive, and he and his brothers barely had control of them anyway. This was about Selapak. The city was everything.
Azarelle was the key.
His brothers didn’t approve of his interest. She was an asset. It didn’t pay to get close. They preferred to keep the syndicate’s relationship with the professor professional. Lon wasn’t sure he could. She was a rare and beautiful woman, and far smarter than he; yet he had no trouble talking to her. Maybe it was because she always seemed to be half asleep. It was hard to be intimidated by someone who answered the door in her pyjamas and survived on a diet of coffee and shortbread.
He’d caught her with bacon, but only twice.
The door opened and she came into the room. He nodded at her and she nodded back.
She was wearing the pin.
That was his brother, Rias, the oldest of five. The syndicate was his idea: an organization that could survive the winter. It had taken years for them to lay the foundation. Now they were in charge and it was time to see if they were strong enough.
“Sorry. I had to make some last-minute adjustments.”
She shook her head.
“Not at all. Shall we begin?”
Lon went over to her and spoke into her ear.
“Thank you for doing this.”
“It’s no problem. Just don’t expect any miracles. Augury has a reputation for a reason.”
“I know. Just do your best.”
She lifted an imperious eyebrow.
“I see you’re wearing the pin.”
A smile picked at the corner of her mouth, just barely. She tilted her head.
“Don’t expect any miracles.”
Lon retreated to the corner. She sat down in the middle of the floor, at the centre of the design. Lon was sure there was a pattern to it, although he hadn’t asked her to explain. He’d observed that one of the lines she’d traced pointed to the spot on the horizon where the sun rose, and another to where it set. There was probably some significance to that.
The lines were intersected by concentric rings. The components they’d supplied had been placed along them at seemingly random intervals: quartz crystals, gemstones, plants, burning incense and candles. There was an incomprehensible artistry to their positioning, an inexplicable pattern, clearly evident but impossible to quantify. It was organic, like the position of leaves on a branch.
It was quite a display, and not an inexpensive one. He hoped it would be worth it. Despite her attempts to qualify their expectations and forewarn his brothers, she would be in a lot of trouble if it didn’t.
Azarelle shut her eyes.
This was such a bad idea.
No lab, no controlled environment, a laundry list of substandard materials—Lon had done his best, but still—and absolutely no concrete understanding of the regional field. It was going to be rough.
She hadn’t told them that.
Actually she had, but they didn’t want to hear it. Ironically, if it hadn’t been for all the work she’d been putting into her personal project, there would have been no hope at all. At least she had a few preliminary readings she could take into account.
There were still too many unknowns. Even her clothing injected an unknown element. After all, she didn’t know what they were made of, or what they’d been dyed with. That was the sort of thing people forgot when it came to augury. The magic reacted to everything, and controlling it was like designing the acoustics of a room. Every object resonated with its own small effect, and they added up faster than you thought. Really good augury was done in special rooms in the middle of nowhere, and in the nude.
Obviously that wasn’t an option here.
She took a breath.
She began to whisper. The words were unintelligible to those who didn’t already understand the underlying theory, mostly because they weren’t really words. The concept of “magic words” existed only in the minds of those unfamiliar with the practice. It wasn’t about the words.
It was about sound.
There were no records of the discovery of magic, nor any accounts of its early study. All those transcripts were lost during the great cataclysm of the Iiari, when the gods were driven from the world. They say the Branch Courts of the Faylene still maintained an oral history from that period, but it had never been shared with mortals. All that mortals had left were the anecdotes and tales of the old masters. It was from them that their discipline had sprung.
The governing field of magic blanketed the globe like a skein of tangled yarn. Its many threads formed a complex pattern: over the land, under the sea, and through the sky. The so-called magic words created sympathetic vibrations, plucking at the weave like fingers on harp strings. The right combination of tones would blend together, amplified in places and dampened in others by the physical reagents in use. The magic did the rest, vibrating and bending the laws of reality, time, and space. That was the practice of magic. Not so much an equation as a working theory.
And of course there was the Chord.
Azarelle wasn’t sure she believed in it: the consciousness in the weave. It was a story told to new magicians, and written off by many as the nothing more than a symptom of the unpredictable chaos that resulted from the fact that no spell, no matter how expertly performed, was ever perfectly cast, an artefact of magical subharmonics and overactive imaginations, of no greater significance than pictures seen in clouds.
Or maybe…it was alive. There was no evidence truly proving or disproving its existence. How like a god to be so evasive.
She kept whispering and the spell began to form. She could feel it, like air and electricity on her skin. It rose up, a growing sound, inaudible to others but playing soft music in her ears. They could only hear her whispers. She kept her eyes closed, listening to the complexities of the sound.
She could feel the discordant elements. Poor components. A rough casting. They made her skin crawl. It was a feeling she hoped she would never get used to. She really missed her lab. The acoustics had been great. In the end it didn’t matter. Needs must when the devil drives. The Jaspers wanted a peek at the future, and a peek they aimed to get.
She continued reciting the incantation, thankful in hindsight for all those hundreds of hours spent slaving away under her instructors at the academy, committing spell after spell to memory.
“Someday you might not have a library,” they had said.
She wondered if this was what they’d had in mind.
The trilling of the weave began to build on itself, tiny vibrations merging and growing like waves moving in on a beach. She began to feel a pressure on her mind. The augury was coming. The future was beginning to bleed into her consciousness and mingle with the stimuli of the present.
Real and unreal. Visible and invisible. Past and future. Soon they would be indistinguishable. Augury. It took your perspective away; it robbed you of your sense of things, and it was only after the magic had passed and you scrambled to retain and decode your tangled memory that you realized how screwed up the experience really was.
She groaned inwardly even as she spoke the final words and opened her eyes.
And then it all made sense.
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