Saturday, March 9, 2013

Twenty-Eighth Beginning: Five Ways 01

It was a good thing that Alianora landed on a college campus.  She had been weak and hurried and although the portal saved her life, she hadn’t had a chance to look for more than a bush to cover her entrance.  There had been no time to find a world that matched her clothing.  It had been aim for a not-too-dense-looking bush and hope.  There was no hope left behind her.

Picking her way out of the bush, she noticed that the local clothing did not match hers in any way but, perhaps color.  That was as big a shock as any.  She spied a row of benches nearby and walked unsteadily over to sit on one, curling in on herself until her shaking stopped.

There were ducks in a long pond that no one was tending or trying to catch.  That spoke of prosperity and a nearness of authority.  She felt for the bonds of a magical authority and nearly blacked out with shock, for she felt no magic at all. None.

[On re-reading, not enough emotion in this.  This is, among other things, a terrified person.  The writing should reflect that.]


In his tower, Grindel glowered and his servants and accessories slid quietly and quickly through their tasks about him, alert for a shift in his mood, their robes rustling.  Grindel’s tower plunged down into the earth for an unknown number of levels, but at least seventeen that the servants knew of (though the accessories knew of twenty).  There was no trace of it above ground and perhaps no connection to above ground, though the air had always stayed breathable, at least as far as anyone living would tell.

Every breath in the room was uncertain, save one.  The master had been assumed to be in a good mood.  An impediment to his plans had been removed, an impediment that had resisted removal for a significant length of time.  The master should be pleased, or at least content.  And for a moment that had seemed to be the case.  The girl was dead before him and could impede the progress of his influence no more. 

Then a hand had raised in question. Question led to question. Now there was heavy sorcery in the air, enough to match the rising smell of dread.  Accessories checked and rechecked, by various means, the impact of the removal of the hindrance, and the impact was small.  There was another obstacle, or this obstacle had not been properly removed. 

The still figure in the center of the room was of slight build and only medium height,  wrapped and cowled in cloth of no particular color, though it was good quality and thick.  There was no hint of anger or threat, but around the room muscles clenched and bowels loosened.  In the eye of the turmoil, Grindel raised an ink stained hand to drum idly against his chest.

"The oracle, I believe, would be the most efficient use of my time and efforts.  I am sure you each know what would be the most efficient use of yours.  If you have any doubts, Four will coordinate."

There was a small intake of breath at this.  Not a protest, never that, just a hint of surprise and possibly dismay.  The figure turned toward it.

"Three, please update the written history of our efforts to date on this matter."

A relieved bow of pleased acquiescence from the breather, a hefty, balding man in a bright blue robe.

"Two.  One."  The figure turned and left the room.  A woman in a red robe and a man in a green one pointed quick fingers at some of the younger people looking in at the doorways.  Six pairs of feet hurried to follow their masters at a dignified pace.  That is, quickly enough to enhance his dignity while not quite compromising theirs.


It wasn't easy to become an oracle.  Nor was it painless.  In all of recorded history, more than ten millennia of records, the number of people who had done so voluntarily could be counted on one hand.  Though apprentices could argue over their beer or watered wine that history does not necessarily record everything, no one else would consider the matter to be arguable.  Oracles tended to draw attention to themselves in ways that could not be ignored.  It was their nature.  The odds of an oracle lost to history were small.

This oracle resided on what might be the lowest level of Grindel's tower, floating in a raised pool of quicksilver.  All important rooms in the tower were round and plastered with the finest plaster - plaster that was whitewashed daily, the whitewash polished back every 10 days to prevent buildup.  There were additives in the plaster to increase the whiteness and. . . to do other things.

This room was eight paces across, but the circumference of the room was sixty-five paces or more - more than seven paces longer than it should be, by all known geometry.  This alone was sufficient proof that the oracle was working.

Though he floated at hip height (Grindel's hip height, of course), the quicksilver was not that deep, only deep enough to float him.  The rest of the pool's depth was white marble, as were the pool sides, or side, if you are a purist who insists that a perfect circle has only one side, which surrounds it completely.

It takes a lot of polishing to make a perfect circle, and the marble gleamed with it.  The pool was, of course, constructed from a single piece of marble.  Joints would have marred its perfection.  No amount of fitting and polishing would have rectified the blemish.  No, it had to be one piece:  one perfect piece, and not for aesthetic reasons.

When working with an oracle, the pool was first line safety equipment.  It was standard.  What was exceptional about Grindel's pool was that the floor was also carved from the same piece of marble.  How it had been set into place no one but Grindel knew.  One assumed this provided additional safety.

There was only one door in the room - or rather one doorway.  There was no door fitted to that arched plaster entry.  There was also only one door to the hallway that curled around the outside of the room.  That was located at the opposite side from the room's door, and this doorway did have a door:  a heavy bronze monster of a thing with steel bolts and bands and filigree spellwork in many different metals.  Mirrors were hung in the oracle's room and on the outer wall of the hallway.  No space on either wall larger than a man's spread hand was uncovered.*  The inner wall was lined with crowding cabinets and chests of drawers on tall, adjustable legs.

            * When these walls were whitewashed, large portable mirrors were placed between the wall and the oracle, as the material was applied in sections.  It was careful and dangerous work.  Only skilled accessories could be trusted with it.  Fortunately, these walls only had to be whitewashed once in ten days, and polished only every hundred.  Another effect of the oracle.

The floor in the hallway heaved and buckled, piling in undulating hills along the outer walls and ribboning only slightly against the inner.  Still, the floor would shift over time, as time changed and the oracle changed with it.  Hence the adjustable legs.

Feet pattered along the hallway.  Some, by their sound, were used to the unsteady flooring and some were not.  Young hands rummaged in the cabinets, seeking masks, which were handed out.  They were found not too far from where they had been put away. 

This was not good.  Any significant shift in the future would have sent each of them to a different location.

Grindel did not take a mask.  He never did.  Not even gauze dipped in vinegar, let alone the arcane constructions and potions that were being settled into place behind him.  His accessories prided themselves on the innovations they had introduced in oracle safety gear.  They were famous for them, outside of the tower.

The six behind him were preparing for a long ordeal.  For quality control purposes Grindle never did single readings.  They were facing at least three.

Before he stepped into the room, Grindel paused to perform his customary check.  It was the check he did before attempting any major magic and he believed it to be one of the reasons he held the influence he did, when so many others who had aspired to it had fallen short or simply fallen. 

He reviewed, mentally, the procedure he was about to perform:  its steps and dangers and preventatives.  He reviewed why he had chosen to perform this particular procedure, how it fit into his plans, what he hoped to achieve by it, and whether another procedure, even a mundane one, might serve him better.

Then he reviewed his position: competitors outside the tower and staff within and what advantage they might take of the proceedings.  He was still relatively sure that the tower's screening was enough, together with the room's screens, and the hall's, to keep outsiders from knowing that the oracle was in full operation.  Still, it did not do to take chances or to miss opportunities.

"Send to the kitchen.  I want a full scry, all channels.  I want to know if anyone is so much as passively echoing our activity."

Feet pattered out of the hallway behind him.  The message would be sent quickly.

He turned his scrutiny to the staff that would be performing with him.  All the staff had been under some stress very recently, during the hunt, the capture, the questioning, the analysis, the escape and the subsequent hunts.  Now, in the aftermath, when all of the risk and emotional upheaval was supposed to be over, he was asking them to redouble their risk.  This would test them indeed.  So far they were performing well.

Lylo Pfeiffer had chosen his two most experienced Journeyers to accompany him.  They were his best and most loyal.  They had learned a lot from him and knew that their best interest lay in serving him well and making him look competent and loyal to the master.

They had varying levels of personal loyalty.  The one with the dark orange tunic and trews under his open Journeyer's Robes (which were, of course, green, his master's color) complained to his fellows and chaffed at being directed.  But he was as loyal as the remora working with him, the one with a clear lilac as her personal color.

Melody Beaversleigh had chosen her best and. . . not her worst, certainly, none of her Journeyers were that, but rather her newest.  The boy was just up from apprentice and this would be his first direct use of the procedure.  Had she seen something in the boy, for good or ill?  Was he meant as a scapegoat:  the one most likely to falter and be punished if things went octagonal?

Her voice:  "Ymarra, remember that this is Robber's first time.  Review the procedure ahead of him and question him as he goes.  Redundancy is never amiss and good procedures are to be relied upon and followed strictly, especially in times of upheaval."

Had she seen a question in his manner?  Surely not.  She had merely anticipated both that he would approve of the added layer of safety and that he would perhaps react badly if she suggested such a thing openly, without a newling to require it.  Well done.  Ymarra's voice was unobtrusive and always to the point. 

Both Ymarra and Robber wore lighter shades of red as their personal colors.  It was meant as respect and was a source of pride to Melody.

Good.  Grindel waited for Ymarra's voice to begin the preamble for the process.  Lylo's two would have to excel indeed to match the usefulness this little trick would provide.  The orange boy tended to rise to this kind of challenge, though, and the other would not let herself be outdone by her mate.  Very good.

Something had gone badly astray, of course, but it was best to focus on the solution rather than the problem.  The solution required, first, that the problem be properly defined.

Grindel folded his hands against his waist in perfect patience.  Ymarra's voice began.


Alianora watched the ducks and held her hands together to keep them from shaking.  Her elbows were planted firmly enough on her knees to be rather painful.  She glanced at her hands now and then, to comfort herself, but mostly she watched the ducks.

The ducks moved as if they were alive.  They sounded like they were alive.  She saw them eating bits of unknown things casually and bits of thrown bread avidly.  They would come up out of the water for that.  Several soiled the grass while they were out - a detail usually omitted from most illusions and impossible for golems.

She looked back at her hands.  Living magic suffused them in a shifting net of lines and pools.  Living magic was her primary talent.  Sometimes she couldn't even see non-living magic.

She looked back at the ducks.  Not a glimmer.  No magic in the grass or in the water, which was usually blinding with small life and its intent.  Was this a real place?  Had she died?  She remembered being caught, feeling her body pierced just as her spell completed.  The next memory was of unraveling.  Then she re-raveled here.  But where was here?

A bush.  That had been all she had time to think of.  A bush and. . . what?  Steering a spell of this magnitude was a complicated thing.  You had to clear your mind to do it properly.

Her spell had been improperly steered as a deliberate choice.  There had been no time.  In her panic, she had only thought of that.  "No time. . . a bush to hide in. . , can't be seen entering on the other side."

Now she considered how else she might have steered the spell.  She had not cleared her mind.  What else had she been thinking and how had that affected the portal's destination?

She could not make herself think of the last minutes in the tower.  The fear was too thick around them.  She preferred to watch the ducks.  Even if the ducks were illusions, even if they were dead, it was a relief to sit in the sun and watch the ducks.

She wondered again if she were dead.  If the glow of her hands had simply not faded yet.  She shook off the thought as pointless, counterproductive.  Wherever Here was, she would have to deal with it as a living person who ate and would be forced to soil the grass if she didn't start planning.

Grindel.  She was escaping Grindel, who had great positional magic, who had found her again and again.  She had desperately wanted to escape and never be found by him again.  Perhaps her fear had chosen a world with no positional magic.

That was an extremely comforting thought.

Perhaps, in wanting a land with no positional magic so badly, she had aimed for a land with no magic at all.  Perhaps she had made a child's bargain, in her heart:  find me a land where he can't track me and I'll give up my magic.  Perhaps it was an entirely mechanical land.  The mechanics had theorized that it was possible.

If that was true and she returned to her world with one of the ducks, she could make a living by displaying it.  Provided that she lived.  With Grindel in the world, that was unlikely.  And with no magic in this world, how would she get back, with or without a duck.

Alianora suspected that she was thinking nonsense and clasped her hands tighter.  Unless she found a pocket of magic, she would stay here in this world for her entire life.

She straightened, hands still clasped.  Well, if she had her life before her, that was a victory.  All victories had costs.  "If you don't feel the cost, you don't have victory." Grandma used to say.  Meaning that you only had something nice happening instead, which was comfortable but no particular credit to you.  You also had no goad for improvement.  Grandma had been set on improvement.

Well, if she was going to live in this world, she'd need to know more about it.  There were risks to be faced.  No telling what the language was, here, or the laws.  But there seemed to be large buildings to the west and south.  She'd walk around them, for a start.  Walking would clear her mind.

"It's important to realize that an oracle mostly operates on its own and that no oracle is operating with the well-being of its questioners in mind."  Ymarra's voice was calm and pitched low, intended for her younger mate's ears, but unconcerned that others would hear as well.  "What is the first step in creating an oracle?"

"An oracle must be blinded, to free the visualizing portions of the brain."

"And then?"

"All control of movement must be severed, so that all will to move will be directed to moving in time."

"If all control of movement is gone, how is the oracle to communicate?  Knowledge of the future is useless if it is confined to a blind, paralyzed husk."

"A permanent scrying spell is installed into the oracle, to display what it sees.  Sometimes other spells are added to allow the oracle to speak, but that is dangerous."

"Why is it dangerous."

"Two reasons.  One: being able to speak can distract the oracle and lessen its efficiency.  Two: oracles hate their questioners and will lie in ways that seek to frustrate, injure, or destroy them."

"Why is the floor buckling?"

"An oracle exists in more than one time at once.  It is smeared over a range of time.  The area around it is likewise affected.  In some areas, floor from other times has been added.  In others, floor from this time has been shifted away.  Hence buildup in some areas and removal in others, creating undulations.

"What is the purpose of the mirrors?"

"Two purposes.  One: to confine the effect of the oracle to a smaller space.  Two: To prevent others from scrying the oracle and learning your questions.  They might still scry enough to learn a portion of the oracle's answer, if they know when it is being questioned, but that is unlikely to be meaningful."

Grindel noted that the boy ordered his responses to place the most important information last.  He trusted that the habit would be addressed soon.  It was an effective rhetorical device and it could keep an apprentice from being interrupted by another apprentice before he had finished his say.  But Grindel's Journeyers must know to give the most important information first and to expect to be cut off if things were happening quickly.

Melody would see to it, he trusted.

"How do we mitigate the effect of the oracle on ourselves, as questioners?"

The boy began a complete, accurate explanation.  He began with the basic theory (known to all).  Grindel returned to his own thoughts, knowing that the boy would proceed through what he knew of other class's procedures (known less well) to the procedures his own class used (known thoroughly).  He would finish with the most important procedure.  One went near the oracle as little as possible.  Using an oracle was never safe.

Grindel stepped into the room before the boy began his second sentence. 

There were eighteen buildings, of varying sizes, in the main cluster, which was surrounded by kept lawns and parking areas.  The cars were mechanical and therefore noisy and smelly, though not so much as Alianora would have thought.

Additional, lower buildings stretched out to the south, west, and east of the cluster.  There was no sign of farming.  Alianora could think of four things that might mean:  industry, academics, government, or influence.  She considered what else it might mean that she couldn't guess, being too foreign to the place.

As she spiraled in closer, she observed.  As she observed, she grew calmer, noting with every step that her presense caused no outcry.

Most of the inhabitants ignored her, so she feigned to ignore them as well.  There was not a scrap of magic in any of them.  At least, there was no magic that she could see.

Most of them wore either tans, greenish tans, greys, or a dark green of varying muddiness.  Those were common enough colors, though there was more black than she expected and most of it unfaded.

Other colors popped up here and there, though seldom as a complete costume.  Then there was that blue.  It seemed odd that a clear medium blue would be a common color and she watched carefully to see who deferred to whom.  No one seemed to defer to any color. 

She soon noticed that the other colors seemed newer, or better cared for than the blue . . . at least some of the blue.  Blue clothes, especially trews or tabards, were allowed to fade and tatter with neither diminishment of pride nor especial pridefulness. 

Clear blue was Alianora's personal color, so she knew how difficult it was to make the dye hold fast with wear.  It was a bravado to choose a color that did not hold fast without magic.  It said that you could afford to stay indoors a lot because people came to you.  It also implied that you would no doubt always have the wealth to get new clothes as the old ones faded.

Faded clothes could be passed to personal servants, but no one here moved like a servant.  Even the man spearing small trash by the pathway somehow moved as if he had never been beaten in his life.  His blue clothes were as clean as anyone else's, even the ones carrying books.

Odder than that, the folk carrying books, and there were a lot of them, did not hold them with any reverence, but only companionably or even as a weight that they wished to put down.
Large bells began to ring somewhere in a slow shift of melody.  A torrent of hurrying legs poured from the buildings and onto the paths.  Alianora could see that here and there among there were single mates dressed oddly, both to her and in comparison to the general run of folk in the area.  The oddness of their dress was noticed by their fellows, but indulgently, as if it were an allowable personal game.
Alianora felt a wash of relief as she recognized the language being spoken around her.  Some of the usages were odd, but the general language was understandable.  She could get by as a stranger in this place if she could follow the customs.  Not a victory, perhaps, but a very very nice thing.  And perhaps a victory, if she had indeed traded her magic for it.  Yes, let's decide that was how it had happened.  Let's savor it as a victory.  He can't track me here and I can speak and bargain and learn.
Well, there's one way that he can track me.  But forcing him to use it is its own victory, and I hope it destroys him.  Let him try to shift the oracle to this place.  Perhaps if he shifts enough of it here, where there is no magic, Uncle Ascle will be freed. 

[Continued here.]

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