Clockwork Souls – Chapter 11

Forgetting our history does not doom us to repeat it. I assure you, I am quite capable of remembering every terrible mistake I have ever made and that has done precious little to prevent me from making them over and over again.

– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame

I knew who had saved the empire from its greatest calamity. Everyone did. Hundreds of years later they still sang praises to the name of the Empress Eternal. 

“How did she do it?” I asked. I’d always been curious how one person had born the the weight of a thousand worlds, even if it was only long enough to spare all of the life on this one.

“Foolishly,” Doxle said. He’d conjured something stronger than tea to his hand when I wasn’t looking and took quite a bit more than a sip before continuing. “I won’t bore you with the details, the important element is that instead of the High Planes crashing through the world, they all crashed into her.”

“That doesn’t sound particularly survivable,” I said. I’d always assumed the ‘Eternal’ part of the Empress’s title was metaphorical. She hadn’t been seen in centuries and while the Great Houses ruled in her name, I don’t think anyone believed they answered to anyone except each other.

“It wasn’t,” Doxle said. “Not even the self-proclaimed ‘Greatest Dweomer Crafter of the Age’ could have managed to do what she did. At least not without cheating, which she also did, but then he was far too self absorbed to for her strategy to ever have occurred to him.”

“You were there?” It didn’t seem impossible. I had no idea how long demons lived, and it seemed like an ‘Imperial Advisor’ might be have been called on when Empresses Court were trying the most difficult spell ever attempted.

“Unfortunately yes,” Doxle said. “Had I been elsewhere – where I should have been – the whole affair might have been avoided entirely. Or we’d all be quite dead. Or never born at all in your case I suppose.”

Or I would have been something else entirely. Something I would probably mourn the loss of if I had any connection to it anymore. 

“We’ve covered this general topic before though,” Doxle said. “Let’s get to the useful bits. You do have any early day tomorrow after all.”

I bit back any show of disappointment from crossing my face. I couldn’t lie through scent like he could though, so maybe he could tell anyways? It didn’t matter. 

“Following all the dramatics the calamity inspired, people discovered that the magic they had access too was greatly expanded. For some people.” He looked weary at the thought of that and took another pull from the seemingly bottomless glass in his hand before continuing. 

“There’s been a popular belief, widely encouraged by the Great Houses, that High Magic, and the Transcendent Arts in general, are the purview of the nobility alone. Any commoners who exhibit talent with advanced magecraft, or esoteric potion distillation, or any other ‘noble’ pursuit are said to be the descendents of a noble bastard whose breeding threw true a generation or two down the line.”

He gave me a questioning glance, not so subtly inquiring if that description applied to me. It didn’t, though not for the reasons he would discover if he searched my family tree.

“Each caster with a talent for the Transcendent Arts is connected to one or more of the fractured High Planes and draws their magic from there,” he said. With a wave of his hand he tossed the glass he was drinking from onto the table where it shattered into a shower of crystalline razors and then hung frozen in the air, forming of a model of the High Planes and their interaction with our world.

“Our friend from Ironbriar showed us techniques from at least two world fragments. Possibly three. Can you guess what they were?” He touched two of the shards and they lit up with a deep green light. A third flickered on and off with as well as though it was uncertain which state it should be in.

I ignored the model. I could visualize the idea well enough, I didn’t need it spelled out for me like that. I also knew an that we’d reached the portion of the lecture where interaction was useful so I considered the question he posed.

“She has a connection to somewhere the let’s her conjure spears, or maybe weapons in general?” I said, working out the answer as I spoke. “And somewhere that made her fast.”

Her speed had been one of the big problems in the fight. I’m not slow but she was so quick that I hadn’t had many options available for how to handle her.

“Excellent observations,” Doxle said. “The one you missed was the ability which lost her the match.”

“She didn’t really lose,” I said.

“You didn’t beat her. She most certainly lost though. Understand that the difference between those two is the fulcrum a great many things in the world turn on. To Ironbriar’s credit, she acknowledged the difference and accepted the reality of the situation. A great many people in positions of power have profound difficulty doing that and it tends to lead to the most unpleasant sorts of drama.”

I nodded in acknowledgement. I still didn’t feel right about claiming a victory over her. If we had held an immediate rematch, the outcome would have been in her favor. Life doesn’t always allow for do overs though. Sometimes we only have one chance to do our best.

And sometimes our best isn’t good enough. And then we have to live with that.

“Her trick of bouncing off the wall might have been a spell from the same High Plane as the one that enhanced her speed, but I believe it wasn’t,” Doxle said, moving on with the lecture.

“Because of the flash of light from her feet?” I asked.

“You noticed that? Oh very good. Yes, spells from the same source tend to be accompanied by the same sort of visible and auditory flourishes. Ironbriar’s hastening spell was almost purely internal. Very well executed with no visible bleed over. The jumping spell however looked to be divided between internal and external effects, with the flash of power an unavoidable side effect.”

“So she can draw on three High Planes. How many more could she have?” I asked. Magic weapons, speed, and enhanced leaping weren’t wonderful to fight against, but I hadn’t pressed her all that hard so it seemed entirely possible that she had even worse tricks she could pull out if she had to get serious.

“Most casters your age can only pull from one High Plane,” Doxle said. “Its possible that she could have access to dozens or hundreds of other sources of magic but her performance suggests that we will not be that lucky.”

“She’ll have more than hundreds of spells to cast?” I asked.

“No, just the opposite,” Doxle said. “A caster with hundreds of planar connections to draw on is almost useless in a battle.”

“But you would never know what spell they might throw at you?”

“And neither would they,” Doxle said. “Remember to cast a High Magic spell requires bending your thoughts until they merge with the reality of the High Plane you’re trying to cast through. With hundreds of connections to pick from, the caster will be hard pressed to quickly align their thoughts with just one of them. Yes, they have more versatility, but their spellcasting tends to be exceedingly slow and the chance that they lose their grip on this reality is significant.”

“She wasn’t slow.”

“Which suggests those may be the only three High Planes she can draw on. Whether or not that is the case, those are most certainly the ones she has focused on training. To be able to cast as cleanly as she did, she had to have developed her magecraft skills to levels only prodigy’s tend to reach.”

“There’s a way this helps me thought. Isn’t there?” 

“Of course. Think about what it means that Ironbriar has three spells from three different sources. Think about what that means for her.” He was testing me again, but this was the sort of test I was used to during a lecture. It meant I had the pieces I needed to answer his question. I just needed to put them together.

I glanced away from Doxle and turned my thoughts inwards. The kind of casting he described sounded alien to me. The magics I worked didn’t require bending my mind out of synch with reality, but rather focusing in on myself and touching on who and what I was.

But I was weird.

Which meant the Doxle was probably right about what Idrina had to go through to cast her spells. A brief moment of madness to cast each one? No, that wasn’t right. It wasn’t madness, if madness was even a real thing. She was twisting her mind so that for an incredibly brief instant, the world that was real to her was one where she could create a spear with a thought.

In doing that though, the world we shared wouldn’t have seemed real to her anymore.

Nor would the other High Planes she could cast spells from.

“Spells can only be cast from one plane at a time?” I said, testing out whether the idea worked or not.

“There are exceptions, but yes, in general that is true,” Doxle said. His eyes were glowing with the bright orange of anticipation, as though I almost had the answer.

Which I guess I did.

“Whenever she has to cast a spell, she’s locked out from the other realms she can cast from? Oh! No, wait. Casting a spell locks the caster out from all the other planes their connected to, including this one!”

A smile broke out across Doxle’s face than reached up to crinkle his eyes in mirth too.

“Exactly. Battlefield casting like Ironbriar performed is fiendishly hard and perilous even for those who are excellent at it. Note how she cast the spell to summon a spear well before you were in melee range. She used the spear’s appearance as a distraction to cover casting the hastening spell and then simply maintained the flow of magic to that spell while you fought.”

“Shouldn’t the spear she summoned have gone away when she cast a spell from a different plane?” I asked.

“That’s a more complicated question,” Doxle said. “It depends largely on what the spear actually was. If it was a purely mundane implement, then the act of summoning it was the only magic required for its existence. Once it was in her hand it was the same as any other spear. More or less.”

“How much more and how little less?” I asked.

“Mundane objects conjured by magic have subdivisions too, based largely on the laws of the High Plane where the spell came from. In most cases, the objects vanish after a period of time as the High Plane calls them back. Other summoned items will age at an ever accelerating rate, or will simply disappear at some regular interval, sunset and dawn being typical examples.”

“And if it’s not a mundane item?” I asked.

“Mystically instantiated weapons tend to need the caster’s magics to remain strong and viable for their task. As soon as the caster stops supplying magic, the weapons vanish. Normally weapons do not require much magic for preserve their existence, well below the draw of a typical caster. True magic weapons are a different story though. Those are things like swords of fire or blades of light and they require substantial amounts of magic to summon and maintain. They can be quite showy but are usually a tremendously bad idea given how much they weaken the caster.”

“Can I have one?” I asked. Tremendously bad idea or not, wielding a weapon of pure magic seemed like it would at the very least give me a brutally effective offensive option.

“Certainly!” Doxle said. “All you have to do is learn to cast it on your own.”

“Not going to teach me how to create one are you?”

“I might, if the mood takes me, but alas, it is absent at the moment,” Doxle said. “At present however you have little need for such a thing.”

“It wouldn’t help when I have to fight her again?” 

“It would be a distraction at best. You already have the tools you need.”

“Hit her when she’s casting?”

“She thinks she can cast quickly enough to safely execute spells in battle, and she’s largely correct. No matter how good she is though, casting spells in combat is dangerous. It’s a narrow window of opportunity to take advantage of that, but she no longer has the element of surprise she enjoyed in your first battle, and you know what to watch for.”

“I guess that will have to be enough.”

“Let us hope,” Doxle said, dismissing the model of shattered glass with another wave. “You should turn in early tonight. You have not had the easiest of days recently.”

I could agree with all of that and was ready to fall asleep in the chair almost immediately but was brought back to alertness by Doxle’s next comment.

“Before you turn in though, there is one more thing we should discuss.” He paused for either for effect or to ensure I was following him. “We’ve spoke of how you might kill Ironbriar. We should address the question of how we might kill you.”

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