Clockwork Souls – Chapter 10

People says there is an Art to Killing, as though it takes any special quality to stab someone in the neck. The only Art to found in combat is in the grace and speed and tactics around not killing someone. That is where true accomplishment lies. Not everyone appreciates Art of course. Those people we stab in the neck.

– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame

I expected Doxle to take me back up onto the platform and demonstrate the techniques I needed to learn in whatever painful fashion amused him. I don’t know what in our time together so far had given me the idea that he would bother with any sort of physical effort when a few thousand words would suffice instead.

Instead of the platform, he lead me out of the sparring room, past a pantry with the scents of at least six dozen different teas wafting out of it, and to a sumptuous library with roughly three times as many books as the shelves could hold. He turned as we passed through the archway into the room and gestured for me to take my choice of seating around a low central table which was surprising free of book piles.

I picked out a chair that was large enough I could have curled up into a ball and gone to sleep in it. It was stuffed with enough padding that the temptation to sink into both the chair and a dreamless slumber was challenging to resist, but my curiosity was enough to keep me awake.

Doxle ran his hand over the archway and it shrunk down until it was the size of a keyhole in the wall. The move trapped me in the library with him, which I wasn’t overly fond of, but I refrained from shredding the covering on the chair. There was always time for that later, and I could see the benefit privacy might hold assuming he really was going to tell me how to kill Idrina Ironbriar.

“We have much to talk about, shall I send for some refreshments?” Doxle asked, taking a spot on the couch on the opposite side of the table from me.

“We just ate,” I said. He nodded in understanding and I had the distinct suspicion the question had been a test.

He’d called me a Form Shifter, which was superficially true. Did Form Shifters need to eat after each transformation though? It occurred to me that while I understood what I could do fairly well, most of what I knew about the magic of the Empire was related to the common, everyday magics people used. Given that  my first encounter with High Magic had included some extremely painful surprises, my ignorance was looking to be more of a liability than I’d thought it would be.

“I suppose that’s true,” Doxle said. “Let us begin your instruction then.”

“How do I kill her?” I asked, hoping to skip past the long winded explanations of overly obvious or unimportant details.

“Poison in her wine,” Doxle said. “That’s an old favorite, though not among the Ironbriars, which is why it’s reasonably likely to work.”

“How do I kill her in a fight?” Because apparently I had to extremely specific if I wanted useful answers from him.

“Stabbing generally works. Barring that I would suggest falling back on slashing, or, if no better option presents itself, bludgeoning her.”

I was wrong. More specific questions still yielded useless answers.

“I tried that,” I said. “Didn’t work.”

“Perhaps you need to practice stabbing more?” He made a feeble little stabbing motion with his hand. “It’s what the Ironbriars swears by. Practice until your arms drop off and then glue them back on and practice some more.”

“I have until tomorrow morning.” I knew he had useful ideas, and I knew I couldn’t reach across the table and choke them out of him, but it was growing more and more tempting to try.

“Shame, I don’t think you can get your arms to fall off even once in that time.”

“So what can I do?” I wanted there to be a single secret for undoing a High Magic caster’s powers but I knew things couldn’t possibly be that simple.

“Not fight?” Doxle asked.

“And when she doesn’t give me that option?”

“Ask for forgiveness?”

“And when she doesn’t grant it?”

“You are in quite the negative mood, aren’t you?” he asked, conjuring a cup of tea for himself from thin air.

I didn’t answer that. I’d been stabbed through the heart. He knew I’d been stabbed through the heart. He was smart enough to draw a line from there to my current mood.

“There is a lesson here, I promise you,” he said after a long moment’s silence.

I waited. There were many lessons I could take from his lack of useful answers. Some of them he may even have intended.

 “You’re asking the wrong question,” he finally said. “It’s not a matter of how you can kill a caster of Ironbriar’s caliber. Killing is easy. People are extremely fragile things. Present company excluded. You don’t want to kill her. That’s too simple. What you want, what you’re really asking, is how you can overcome her magic.”

I nodded. Killing Idrina Ironbriar seemed like a terrible waste. Being killed by her seemed quite a bit worse though. If there was a path between those two, then it would be nice to know about it.

“Good. That seems to have gotten your attention,” Doxle said and set his cup down. “If I’m going to explain how to deal with other casters however we will need a common base of understanding to draw on.”

I nodded. I didn’t mind learning about history and theory. Grammy Duella had taught me about a lot of things and hired tutors for some of the things she wasn’t familiar with herself.

It struck me as odd, in hindsight, that Grammy hadn’t provided more education in the magical arts. Maybe she was hoping that without training any talent I had would fade and people would basically ignore me? If so the strategy had worked for years, right up until the point where it hadn’t.

“Where does magic come from?” Doxle asked.

“The world,” I said. He wanted me to be engaged for this, so I treated it like a class with Grammy.

“That is true for Common Magic,” he said. “High Magic however comes to us from other worlds.”

“The Transcendent Planes?” I asked. I’d heard the term but I didn’t really know what it meant, it just seemed like it fit.

“That is one name for them,” Doxle said. “It suggests several false things though. First that the worlds High Magic is drawn from are uniform, or even vaguely similar to one another. Second that they represent a more advanced stage of being, rather than a lateral one.”

“Lateral?” I asked.

“Some history is in order.” It was a warning, but not one that I needed. I was perfectly capable of following a lecture provided the speaker knew what they were talking about and provided enough information for the audience to follow along too.

“Common Magic has always been a part of our world. It is a natural aspect of the structure of our reality. That limits it but also makes it widely available and far safer to use than the alternative.”

“No casting madness?” 

“You remembered! Yes, Common magic does not require the caster to twist their minds out of phase with our world. Common casters are as capable of losing touch with reality as anyone else is mind you, but it’s not their magic which drives the wedge between them and our world.”

I nodded so that he would go on.

“Originally, High Magic was less perilous too,” Doxle said. “When the Empire was first founded, High Magic rarely snapped any casters’ minds, and on the occasions when that did occur, there were widely applicable treatments which could bring them back into alignment.”

“But that’s not true anymore?” That seemed odd, but there wasn’t a shortage of stories of old casters being more than a little mad.

“No. It’s not.” The scent of ashes escaped his tight control before he clamped down again it. “For centuries the High Plane, the only one that we had at the time, was the subject of intense research, and because of its stability we discovered many elements of how magic worked. Too many as it turned out.”

“What happened?” I asked, guessing this had something to do with the calamity that nearly ended the Empire of the Three Peaks a few centuries back.

“The Empire conquered many lands and peoples, but eventually it reached the end of what the High Plane could support. That was when research on the High Plane became a serious business. Without the ability to extract more power from it, the Empire woul be forced to accept its borders and cease expanding its sphere of control. Have you ever tried to tell a noble family that they can’t buy a second new city this month because all the cities have been sold already and there are no new ones to bid on?”

“The wanted to mine more from the High Plane and they broke it,” I guessed, mostly to show I was following along.

“The ambitions of the Empress and her Celestial Weavers went far beyond the High Plane,” Doxle said. “Developing more efficient refining techniques wasn’t going to yield the quantity of power that we needed. We need more than a better approach. We needed new High Planes.”

“What did you do?” I asked, genuinely curious.

“The Celestials Weavers crafted their greatest spell, one which drew in the strength of all Common magic in an area and used it to make contact with a new High Plane.”

“And it worked, didn’t it?”

“Yes. Yes it did.”

“Right up until it didn’t?”

“For efficiency sake, the spell the Celestial Weavers cast drew the other High Plane in to overlap our world, just as the original High Plane does.”

“Overlap? How didn’t they crash into each other?” I asked.

“The first High Planes were conceptual realms. They had no axis of physical existence, and so they presented no danger to our world.”

“You said the ‘first’. There were others?”

“With the casting by the Celestial Weavers? Many others. Far more than the crafting should have captured.”

“What happened?” I asked, images of an apocalypse dancing in my head.

“They crashed into each other and shattered,” Doxle said. “From one High Plane we vaulted up to hundreds or perhaps thousands. None of them complete but all of them brim with power waiting to be taken.”

“But that was still okay for us?”

“No,” Doxle said. “The first few High Planes to crash together had no physical element but that wasn’t true with all of them. As High Plane after High Plane slammed into each other and our world, the cataclysm began to draw into farther realms, and some of them were quite physical.”

“That sounds like the end of the world.”

“We’re getting there.”

I could smell just the faintest trace of grief underlying the poorly controlled scents of ash and lightning. I wasn’t sure if I should read anything into it though. Doxle had proven that he could lie via his scent. In fact it was probably something he did subconsciously. So was he unintentionally revealing something true or intentionally being misleading? I didn’t know him well enough yet to tell for sure, but my gut said he was being honest so far.

“The problem with High Planes which have a physical dimension is that they cannot overlap with our world. Not without one of the two world’s physical laws being destroyed, which then tends to destroy the rest of the world too.”

“So were all the broken High Planes destroyed by our world when they crashed into us then?” I asked, not seeing how we would be here to be having this discussion otherwise.

“They were not,” Doxle said. “We should not have survived that catastrophe.”

“But we did?” It wasn’t a question that we had but rather how.

“Yes, and all it took was the sacrifice of the best woman I ever had the pleasure to know.”

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