The lock mechanism spat jittering sparks of lightning in all directions, and Polly jerked her hands away from it. Her gloves were spelled against magic, of course, and she’d done the work herself so they actually protected her, not like half the Guild-certified rubbish. But her fingertips had to be bare for her to feel her way through magic like the defenses on this door. Now they tingled, half numb and half pins-and-needles.
“I hate fieldwork.” she hissed, pissed off, but not as much as the wyvern steadily clawing its way through the back door of the chamber. The shrieks coming through the metal-plated doors were a combination of claws and voice, both shrill with anger at the intruders.
Kelly laughed breathlessly beside her, folded almost in half against the floor, her short swords both smearing blue blood on the gritty floor. “Come off it, Pol, you know you like a challenge.” Polly didn’t have to look to see the wicked smile being shot in her direction, she was far too familiar with it. Besides, that would have meant looking away from the combination of mechanics and magic keeping the door shut against them.
Rubbing her fingers together one last time, Polly reached up and adjusted the dials on the side of her glasses, then lay her hands cautiously back on the edges of the spell. The lines of power knotted through the door gleamed silver through the smoky grey of her activated glasses, making it easier to slip her fingers under them one at a time, pull them from the surface, unwind them from each other. She muttered as she worked, trying to figure out the best way to get through the mechanical lock once she was done with this, and watching for extra tricks and turns hidden in the spell at the same time.
Normally, you’d have to break the spell with something stronger, or something which could cancel it out, or absorb it - all of which were guaranteed to trip some kind of irreversible wedge or block on the doors so you’d have to hack them to pieces before they would come down. But no one ever planned a defence against their work being taken to pieces, strand by strand, because it was unheard of. You couldn’t see magic, not distinctly, not even if you were one of the lucky few who had natural Sight.
No one ever planned for Polly and her spelled glasses.
It had taken her nine months to get them working; partly because she couldn’t write any of the experimental results down without the Guild figuring out what she was working on, and keeping track of all the variables had been a pain. But she’d managed it, and two weeks later she’d been out of there for good.
Three more strands of power, two. The warmth of them vibrating under her touch. One.
Polly unlooped the last thread, and watched with satisfaction as the whole spell-structure shivered and vanished.
“Got it.” She announced, then realised Kelly was pushing back up onto her feet, raising her swords again.
“Good, ‘cause if we’re not through that door in about ten seconds, our friend back there’s coming with us.”
The shriek of claws on masonry was louder - Polly looked back, and caught sight of the wickedly curved talons ripping the wall to pieces about the back door to the chamber. Each long steel curve was the length of her forearm, and there were teeth somewhere behind them. No time for elegant - she grabbed one of the shards of tile from the floor (no sense wasting a dagger when she’d have to come back for it unless she wanted the Guild to get their hands on her things) and slammed one end into the cogs, twisted it, and nodded to Kelly as she got herself out of the way.
Kelly’s arm swung back and the reinforced leather of her wristguard slammed into the back of the tile, forcing the point deep into the gears, spinning them There was a clang, a grinding sound, and when Polly threw herself at the door it began to scrape open under her weight. Kelly joined her, and they pushed hard enough that all the debris from several centuries of decay was forced back on the other side, leaving an opening wide enough for two slender girls to get through. Polly grabbed the light-globe they’d been using and rolled it through the gap, checking for the flash of magic or traps waiting for them - as soon as she was sure it was clear she followed it, and Kelly was at her shoulder.
They got the door shut again just as the wyvern howled into the room they’d left, half the wall coming with him.
“Lock this one. We’ll go out another way.” Kelly said, a grin flashing across her face.
Polly glared at her. “What way? There wasn’t anything in the plans we found.”
“You’ll find something.” Kelly said, and walked over to pick up the glowing sphere of pottery. “You always do.”
Polly glared at the back of Kelly’s head, which had as much impression as Kelly’s grins had on her. She pulled a dagger from the scabbard on her hip, and began to scratch hurried runes into the doorframe. “I hate fieldwork.” She said, once more, with feeling.
She’d met - no, seen - Kelly for the first time almost a year after she’d split from the Guild, about the time when she’d begun to worry that they really weren’t going to stop chasing after her. They must have learnt about the glasses, once she’d left. Or at least that she could now unwind spells with no backlash.
(To be fair, that was the only way she’d been able to get the Guildmark off her hands. But she’d hoped she’d look like too small a problem to come after, if she kept her head down and did nothing to call their attention.)
Polly had picked Brimigan as her next stop because of the Tournament. The weather was turning, and she didn’t have the skills to stay alive outside town – Guild – shields when the Wild howled through the land, but in the crowds come to watch, she hoped she could stay unnoticed.
Unfortunately, the last of her money was fast vanishing, again. She hadn’t planned for needing to keep this quiet for this long. But the Tourney also meant crowds of prospective customers, and more non-Guild level Technicians than you’d ever see anywhere else but the outskirts of the Citadel. She set herself up on one of the streets just off the main square, and offered the same kinds of repairs and refortification spells as everyone else.
(Her work was better than theirs, of course. But it usually took people a while to find that out.)
The first five days of the Tourney all centred about the square, and the contraption (the Gauntlet) which the Guild set up there for the entertainment of the crowd. A massive, mechanised obstacle course, the Gauntlet sprawled out from the Guild Hall across most of the space available; vendors crowded about the edges, and people paid to have a seat in a window to watch. Groups of five warriors who wanted to enter the Tournament proper were released into the shifting maze at once, and had to fight their way across it – only the first person from each group would win, both a small prize and the right of entry to the melee on the sixth day, on the borders of the town.
(The seventh day was for continuing the drinking started the night before, in celebration or commiseration depending on how the fighters and the betting had gone.)
This was the third day – the Guild watchers were more relaxed by now, and Polly came through to the square to buy herself something to eat, giving in to the smells which had been wafting towards her for the past two days. She watched the spectators in the Guild’s private box for a minute, before turning her attention to the Gauntlet, biting into a hot spiced pasty.
One contestant fell as she turned, the roar of the crowd going up as he hit the floor hard and stayed down, probably knocked out cold by one of the moving beams when he was watching the other fighters instead of where he was going. The rest of them were just as bad – not one person seemed capable of predicting either the mechanics or the spells in control of them.
Polly finished her meal as the final woman left clambered wearily up to the end platform and was cheered. She turned away, wondering if she should buy something from one of the sweet stalls as well while she had the chance, flush with the success of her morning still weighing down her purse.
A new cheer had her turning back.
A new group had entered the Gauntlet; was that it? All four seemed as bad as the last… lot… and then she spotted the fifth. A dark shape, lithe, swinging up and onto one of the horizontal bars at precisely the moment she needed for it to carry her cleanly over the next obstacle, and up behind one of her opponents. The girl’s boots swung down together to knock her target clear of the platform and then drop onto it herself, landing precisely. She paused for a second at most, and then set off through the next section in one long and confident motion, perfectly timed.
Polly couldn’t tear her eyes away until the girl was through, and the crowd roaring appreciation. But she lost sight of her when she went to collect her prize – and why was she wasting time, anyway. She had money to earn.
That evening, she was headed back to the dingy attic room she’d rented when a smooth voice hailed her. “You were watching me, earlier.”
Polly blinked, not daring to adjust her glasses to help see through the gloom – not in the middle of a town, with the Guild everywhere – until the shadows by the side of the Inn resolved into the girl who had run the Gauntlet almost literally. Short dark hair and a bright tooth-baring smile, eyes which crinkled in invitation or amusement, or maybe both.
“Was it exciting?” The girl purred – young woman, actually, probably close to Polly’s age now she was seeing her closer, despite the flexibility she’d demonstrated. And that was definitely an invitation, even Polly could tell.
“I’m not interested in things like that.” Polly told her, curtly, and turned away.
“Which? The Gauntlet, or sex? You were staring hard enough you have to be interested in one or the other.” Polly looked back, in spite of her better instincts, to see the other woman slink across to her. She was scrutinized, and then she was grinned at, and fought back a scowl. “I’d bet you were watching the Gauntlet.”
“Well, it’s one of the biggest pieces of Technician craft around. And you are a Technician, aren’t you. Guild-trained, too, though you aren’t charging their prices.”
Polly pulled off one of her gloves silently, and waved a bare, unmarked hand between them. “I’m not Guild.” She said, flatly, and turned away.
“…More interesting by the second.” The woman murmured, and then she was following Polly down the alley.
“Look, whatever it is you think I am, I’m not, okay?” Polly hissed, glancing back.
The woman shrugged. “I just think you’re a Technician, and better than any of the others clamouring for attention. I’ve got an… interesting piece of work, and I don’t trust the Guild to do it. Would you take a look?”
Polly’s curiosity was going to get her in trouble she couldn’t get out of one day. She hesitated. “…What do you mean, interesting?”
“This scabbard needs repairing.”
Scabbards were some of the most boring work about – all they needed to do was hold a sword, there was no call for enhancing them beyond that – but something in the tone of the woman’s voice made Polly turn right back and look properly at what was being held out to her.
It took a moment, but when she spotted the markings embossed in the leather and almost worn away through years and years of use, her heartbeat quickened. She knew that pattern. Her gaze darted to the hilt of the sword. It looked ordinary enough – until she reached up and nudged at her glasses, witnesses be damned, and could see the coils of spellwork embedded in it. “This sword…”
“It can cut through anything the Wild throws at me. Illusions, creatures, ghouls. It’s how I make my living – I couldn’t bear being trapped in a town. Can you?” Polly glanced at her, sharply. “But it’s hard on the scabbard. The containment spell is slipping. I want you to renew it for me.”
“…Not here.” Polly knew there was no use denying it; she would do this for nothing, just to get a look at the spells worked on the blade. There were only a handful of swords like this in existence; she’d thought they all belonged to Shire Reeves or Guild Chasers. She wasn’t going to ask how this woman had one, though the laughter in her eyes almost dared Polly to do so. “Come on. I have a room inside, no one will see us there.”
“Don’t you want my name first, before inviting me to your bedroom?” The laughter was creeping into the woman’s voice now. Polly should have been irritated, instead she just rolled her eyes.
“Why bother? I’d have no idea if you were telling me the truth.”
“I knew I was going to like you.”
Polly ignored that, and opened the back door to the Inn. She went past the noise of the taproom to head up the stairs, and up another set, her customer several paces behind and moving almost silently even though she was carrying a large pack as well as the sword.
They were halfway along the final corridor when Polly knew something was off.
More specifically, her security spells were.
She adjusted her glasses again, and the magic came into focus. The light wrapping about the door was just as neat as she’d left it, but as soon as she’d got her glasses working Polly had experimented with the ways of changing spell-shapes without altering their performance. She’d found a way of adding a coil to the end of her work – a signature, invisible to anyone else.
Whoever had recast the spell on her door? Hadn’t used it.
The woman had stopped behind her when Polly paused. “What’s wrong?” She murmured now.
“Someone’s been inside.” Polly waved a hand at the door, calculating furiously. “Might be someone still inside. They’ve reset the wards.”
“You need to get in anyway?” Polly nodded. Her equipment was mostly in there still, hidden – not under the floor. That was the first place anyone looked. “Right. Do you have another way in?”
“The window’s visible from outside, there’ll probably be someone watching it. But I don’t actually need to get into the room...” Polly retreated to the top of the stairs, and turned back to the woman. “Could I borrow your sword a second? It’ll be quicker than finding a pole long enough.” She waved at the hatch to the loftspace in the ceiling.
The woman smirked, and ghosted across the corridor. “Here, let me.” She said, and used the tip of the sword to push the hatch up and aside. Polly had been planning on using a chair from one of the other rooms to get up to the hatch, if this ever proved necessary. Now she watched, bemused, as the woman sprang up and caught the edges of the hole, swinging for a second before pulling herself inside, then leaning back through and reaching out for Polly.
Polly took a deep breath, tried to ignore the fall of stairs beside her, and leapt up.
Scrambling inside jarred her shoulder, but there was so much noise from the drinkers downstairs that anyone in her room shouldn’t have heard them yet. She hoped. She crawled along the narrow space, moving her weight fraction by fraction to keep the boards from making any noise, until her hands finally brushed against the cloth of her pack – still safe where she’d left it. She checked the hidden pocket, and her money from the previous days was safe, too.
She passed it back to Kelly, then slowly, carefully, peeled back the loose board to peer down into the room she’d been renting.
If she was sensible, she’d just leave now, with her things, and get as far away from here as she could tonight.
If she was that sensible, she’d never have left the Guild.
The dials on her glasses turned until she could see the figure crouched by her door, identity disguised by the heavy bulk of their clothing. She turned the dials further, and the soft gleam of the traps set for her came into view. She studied them carefully, then slithered backwards until she was pressed along the side of her customer-conspirator.
“You implied earlier you aren’t fond of the Guild?”
“How good are you at throwing things?”
One carefully aimed knife throw, and they dropped down into the room next to an unconscious Chaser, wrapped in the embrace of a near-silent trap. The room was too dark for anyone outside to see into without the door open or any other lights; carefully, Polly ransacked the Chaser’s pockets and took all he had of supplies and money, while her guest looked on admiringly, the occasional quiet laugh whispering through the air.
Ten minutes later, they were two streets away and moving swiftly. “Do you have anywhere safe we could stop for me to do that job for you?” Polly asked. “Free of charge, in thanks.”
She was met with a shake of the head, and felt her heart sink – she couldn’t lose the chance to see that sword up close – but before she could beg, she was being smiled at.
“I have a different proposal. You weren’t the only one who had a visitor this evening – looks like we’re both leaving town, and you impressed me back there. Why don’t you come with me for a while? I can get us through any storms, and I think you’d be much better support than my last partner.”
“Partner? Doing what?”
“Oh, this and that. Liberating old places from the treasures they don’t need to have anymore, mostly. Your skill with traps would be an asset.” Polly hesitated, looking at the outstretched hand. “It’ll keep you out of the way of the Guild more than fixing people’s things does. If we don’t get on, you can always leave again – in the next town, if you really want. But I think we could work well together.”
Polly looked at the sword again, and sighed. The chance to see it in action? She suspected this woman knew she couldn’t turn that down. She reached out. “If we’re going to be working together, I guess I’ll need a name to call you, at least.”
“Call me Kelly.” The smirk was back, full force. “There’s at least three other people who do still alive.”
Together, they made their way along the coast, in a rambling fashion which looped backwards and forwards. Mostly they left places fairly quickly, but sometimes something caught their attention – a pretty face attracting Kelly, a new library for Polly. And sometimes if they needed money, Polly would send a quiet word out and sit in the corner of some Public House with her tools earning them money for their keep. Then they stayed until trouble started, or until Kelly got bored.
It wouldn’t have been much of a race, but Kelly could get bored very quickly.
Kelly listened, too, to gossip and scandal and whatever rumours her lovers tried to impress her with. Whenever she heard something of interest, they detoured inland for a few days, sometimes weeks, visiting ruined castles, tournaments, abandoned temples left by the Artificers. Kelly was a genius at finding things of value left behind, at making her way through mazes and traps of all kinds. Polly didn’t see why she was needed, but then, with her glasses and her spells, she could get them inside without springing any of the traps.
Slowly, Kelly taught her more, in the name of ‘keeping herself in shape’. How to defend herself, how to move across a floor of broken tiles without making a sound, how to climb – walls, cliffs - a very tall chimney, on one notable occasion which involved a Griffin.
The Guild kept after her. But, with Kelly’s help, she stayed one step ahead.
When she got caught up in work, it was like drowning. Only without the fear and the inability to breathe and the dying at the end of it. It was dangerous, because she couldn’t defend herself when she was focused like that, could barely remember to eat even if she set timed reminder spells to bug her about it. So Polly hadn’t done any work, not real work, since the Guild. She’d tinkered and played about with things, remade other people’s inventions so they actually did what they were touted to for the occasional disgruntled customer who was fed up with applying to the Guild for a refund, but she’d done nothing of her own.
After the years of steady practise while she worked her way through the Guild Schools, and then the Guild itself, not even the insanity and demand of Kelly’s demented quests could wear out her mind or her magic enough to let her settle. Ideas itched at her, all the irritations of the world which she could fix, could make better. But it wasn’t safe, and she trusted Kelly with her life but her creations are something else entirely, something she’s never let anyone else take from her grasp, though the Guild thought they’d done it for a while there. Besides, they were on the run all the time, drawing trouble like a beacon shining out on it.
A couple of months into their partnership she followed Kelly through a wood with nothing approaching a track in front of them, Kelly’s certainty in their direction at odds with the lack of information about where that direction was taking them. One day losing their tail by going off track through the woods was usual enough for them, but this was day five, and they hadn’t been pressed that hard before they slipped away. With nothing else to distract her, she kept slipping into a haze of theories which tugged at her mind as irresistibly as sleep at the end of a very long day. Every time she shook herself out of it and looked up, Kelly was still there in front of her.
The gloaming came fast under the dense rustling of the canopy, and it was a shock to break out of it into a glade still just about bathed in the lazy end of the day’s sunlight. There was a cliff in front of them - it took Polly a moment to notice it, because it was covered with enough moss and fern to make it blend right in with the leaves about them. That, and she was busy trying not to fall over Kelly when she stopped without warning at the edge of the trees, examining a boulder which must have fallen from the cliff eons ago.
Polly went to pass her, eager for the sunlight and a chance to stretch in the open while Kelly did... whatever she was going to do, but Kelly’s arm shot out and grabbed her, yanking her firmly back to the edge of the clearing. “Stay put.” she ordered, absently, and Polly reached for the dials on her glasses.
There was magic in the clearing. After being grabbed, it came as no surprise, but then again it did - it drifted slowly, a gleaming mist in the dusky light, swirling and breaking apart like clouds on a windy day. Even with her glasses, there was nothing she could do to make it coalesce. That meant either it was disguising itself somehow, like nothing she’d heard of before - or it was formless, free magic, somehow gathered here. Some kind of… natural spring?
“Hah,” said Kelly, in the same tone she used when she’d just found the latest artifact or the next of her conquests. She put one of her hands on the boulder, and reached back for Polly’s arm. The yank to get her close enough her hand would touch cool stone, damp with gathering dew in the shadows, had Polly off balance enough she looked away from the clearing for a second, just a second.
And then she looked back and there was a cottage tucked against the solid rock wall, stone walls daubed with moss, the turf roof growing healthily.
Polly blinked, then took her glasses off to rub at her eyes before putting them back, but the cottage remained stubbornly present.
The drifting magic had vanished completely. The air looked a little darker without it, the greens of the trees a fraction deeper; but the light changed constantly at this kind of hour. Kelly let her go, and strode across the grass like this was a perfectly normal end to the day. Polly stumbled after her, fiddling with the dial on her glasses - no matter what she set it to, she could make out no magic at all on the building. Any concealment that complete should leave a mass of residue behind! If it wasn’t - “...What is this place?” She asked, just as Kelly shoved the door open with barely a glance for any traps.
“A safe place.”
Polly stood on the threshold, and peered into the dim room, the only light filtered through cracks in the shutters over the windows and door. The same door which looked like nothing more than wood, but thrummed under her hands.
“Come on, Pol. Promise you it’s safe.” Kelly appeared, and stood with one hand resting on a cocked hip, staring Polly down. “No one can find us here.”
“But where are we? Nothing this big can be hidden that tidily- revealing it would...” Polly trailed off, thoughts reaching ahead. “You said we’re safe. So this building must still be hidden from view, and the magic drifting about... that was residue. From an old spell. A really, really big old spell. ...Whatever you did didn’t work on the stone, it worked on us.”
“Brightest girl in the room again.” Kelly said, with a glimpse of white teeth as she smiled.
“The clearing looks the same out there, but the magic’s gone. Which means we’re here before that spell was cast. We’ve moved in time.”
“That kind of magic takes adepts, lots of them. And Artificer power supplies.” Polly narrowed her eyes at her travelling companion. “Whose is this place, and are they going to turn up and find us here?”
“No. This place - look, come in, I hate squinting against the light. It’ll give me wrinkles.” Kelly sighed, and Polly found herself relaxing, because it was the exact same put-upon smile she’d only heard when they were alone and no one was listening in. She came in, muddy boots leaving damp tracks in the dust.
Inside, it was obvious that the cottage had been built right up against the cliff, because the back wall was natural rock, unsmoothed. There was a bed at the far end of the room, with a large trunk at the foot of it, both covered in dust. The middle was taken up by a large wooden table, surface scarred visibly even through the dirt, and there were shelves and a long low basin carved out of the cliff behind Kelly. Both end walls had a fireplace built into them; the one this end was rigged with hooks and the other accessories of a basic kitchen. Kelly thought the one by the bed had shelves cut about the edge, like one might need for keeping potions warm as they ‘took’, but there wasn’t enough light to be certain even with her glasses helping her eyes adjust; the windows were filthy.
“Look at the mantelpiece.” Kelly said, so Polly turned to the nearest one. It was a massive slab of limestone, lighter grey than the rest of the place, and there was a shield carved into the surface. The shape was worn rough and smooth, as if it had stood outside for an age, but the design was still visible enough.
“...Oh.” She looked at Kelly, seeing again the well-worn sword which hacked through anything, the attitude which was half arrogance but with the competence to back it up. “Oh. You’re...”
Kelly just nodded, as if she wasn’t one of the most wanted people in the land just from the blood rushing in her veins.
“Look. My great-great-grandmother had seven granddaughters who survived the first purge, but she was too canny to believe they’d be left alone. She took this from the ruins of the old castle, and brought it here, then they built this place, and set it just a fraction out of time with the rest of the world. Only her descendants can open the gate. There aren’t many members of the actual family left - most married into another and settled down to a new identity, forgetting the old one. We have a spell which makes sure we do forget, if we choose to leave. So unless one of my cousins has come back from Stilensia without warning, we’re not going to have company.”
“...Oh.” Polly said, again. The trust - blind trust - in letting her know this, in letting her in...
Though really, Kelly could kill her without breaking a sweat, even if she was in top form and surrounded by parts and the time to work them into a defence. She’d known that long before now.
“But come on, here, this isn’t what we’re here for.” Kelly said, and stalked across the room to the end of the bed. Conversation over, apparently. Polly stumbled after her. Kelly grabbed her arm again as soon as she came in reach, and for the second time she found herself tipping over while her hand rested on solid rock. “Say ‘umbra acceptus mea’, and please don’t argue about the grammar, my great-uncle was awful at languages.”
“Umbra acceptus mea.” Polly repeated, and she hated feeling confused. She really, really hated it, and around Kelly she felt confused most of the time.
Under her hand, the wall trembled, and then she could see a spell unfurling from the rock itself; golden light limned a rectangle five foot high and spilled out towards her hand, wrapped about it, stretched about her wrist. It itched, and she stayed very, very still as it assessed her.
The light shimmered into a soft silvery glow which retreated back to the edges of that rectangle, and then it was swinging away under her touch. The silver shivered away, then started again, but from a distance. It brightened in slow degrees, and each second revealed more of the kind of workshop she’d dreamt of in her cramped Academy bed, facing another day of shared desk-space and other people contaminating the supplies she needed.
“It’s probably dirtier than the rest of the place put together. It only accepts Technician-Mages, and only one of you at a time - there haven’t been any in the family since Great Uncle Tiberius, so no one’s been in to clean up.”
“It’s secure against everyone else for life, now it’s keyed to you.” Kelly promised, distantly, as Polly stumbled through the doorway, cataloguing the shelves and their contents, the wands of metals and wood scattered over the desk, the pots spilling wire of all shades and widths. “You can even shut me out.”
And that was why she’d told Polly what this place was, who she was. Offering the information up in exchange for Polly trusting this opportunity. “...How long are we staying?” Polly asked, no doubt in her mind that they were staying, just like she’d known she was going to accept Kelly’s offer, that first night. Some things were inevitable, and most of them were the woman in front of her.
“I have to clean the place before we leave.” Kelly said, sounding distinctly unimpressed. “I can’t spend much time cleaning every day, I’ll go mad. It’ll take me at least a fortnight.”
“You’re helping me clean this bit first.” Polly told her, finally certain of herself. Kelly grinned back.
Whatever reason Kelly had for keeping Polly around, she meant to keep her around for good. And Polly found she didn’t mind the idea at all.
(She wasn’t going to let Kelly know that, of course. Give her an inch, and she’d take a fifty-mile diversion to make Polly practise her field skills, again.)
Kelly seemed to have contacts everywhere, wandering out of the shadows in half the towns they slipped into, and dashed out of. Kelly’s people got the supplies Polly wanted, and they sold what she made; the most frequent fence was a man who seemed as entranced by Kelly as she wasn’t particularly by him, and he turned up almost as frequently as the Guild’s chasers. But he gave them a good price when Kelly smiled, so it was worth it, even if the Guild were using him as a way to track them.
There were abandoned villages and hamlets dotted about the countryside, even lone farms, from the time when there were enough of the Artificer power-spheres left for people to own the smaller ones; once, it was said, even way-stones had a sphere and a shield strong enough to keep the Wild out when the weather turned stormy. But that was centuries ago. Before the Guild took on every Technician capable of maintaining the Spheres, before the power began to run out. Now, the Generators in the towns were the only ones still running, jealously guarded and kept up by the Guild; the source of their strangle-hold on the entire land.
The spell and the craft needed to make the spheres was lost with the Artificers, of course. There was no way to replicate them. So the Guild said; so the world believed. It wasn’t like they had any reason to keep people dependant on them, was it. What with the tithes and the privileges even the lowliest Guild Technician was granted, all of which would vanish if people could live without them again. No motive at all.
Polly had tried, but not even the tutors who liked her had given her access to a power sphere; not until you’re an Adept, sworn to the Guild, they said. That was the law. Precocious and fatally curious, she’d had to steal it for herself, learning to pick locks and move silently, slipping through the back corridors of the Citadel and down into the heart of the Guild’s complex. When she finally found her way into the sphere-chamber, the rush of power as the door opened had terrified her. It was so loud, so bright – a song sung just on the edge of hearing, and magic so powerful that even to the naked eye it was visible, gleaming and writhing at the heart of the seven large spheres. She’d flung herself inside the chamber and shut the door before she could think better of it, hoping none of the Guard had heard her, not believing they could have missed it.
The room was perfectly round, the spheres carefully arranged at the centre, each wrapped in a wire cage and lashed to the walls in seven directions. Power flickered and spilled down over those long chains, feeding into rune-marked collection pipes in the walls. Polly was on a walkway which wrapped about the centre of the walls, so that Technicians could get to the collection pipes, presumably. There was nowhere to hide, no niche or shadow, no way to get below the balcony she stood on without merely falling into the bottom of the room. Polly clambered up, instead, along one of the pipes, ignoring the sharp ache in her fingers; she scrambled onto the top of the brick guard where it was met by one of the cables from the Spheres, and hoped desperately that when the Guards came in, they wouldn’t look up.
Seconds ticked past slowly, and even with her heart thundering inside her chest the roar of the Generator was louder, pressing inside her bones. It felt like it was bypassing her ears and battering directly at her soul.
Given she was going to be in trouble anyway, was going to be thrown out of the Guild, maybe even into prison, there was no reason she shouldn’t get what she came for, was there. So Polly looked across, and took in every detail she could of the spheres in front of her.
They were… almost like any ordinary light sphere; a glass ball with a spell trapped inside, the magic tweaked so it would glow visibly. But these were each the size of Polly’s torso, not her hand. And the magic… it wasn’t the indistinct cloud that she was used to, from the few visible spells like light and the drawings done by people who actually had the sight. It was… liquid, writhing. Ribbons which gleamed and shifted and seemed to be in three places at once burning her eyes, but ribbons all the same.
They took her breath away.
Polly sat there and watched them for nearly an hour before she could break away, before she actually believed no one had heard anything – that maybe there wasn’t anything to hear, if you weren’t a mage. That the ‘sound’ was actually the sheer pressure of power being created in the air between the slowly spinning spheres, the interaction between them amplifying the spell inside. That was how they didn’t run out – they fed off each other, somehow.
And the light…
Spells looked ambiguous because you saw every aspect, every possible aspect, all at once. A blur of past and present and future, everything possible. Magic was complicated, too complicated for the human eye to comprehend. That was what she’d been taught. This distinction shouldn’t be possible, but there was no way to doubt the evidence in front of her.
Perhaps the spell in the spheres was so… so big, that it was actually simple, too. Anything complicated with that much power involved… she’d wanted to see the spheres because she didn’t understand how they could possibly be maintained. She’d been prepared for a massive structure of shields and spell-laced netting controlling them. Instead they just sat there, calm and fearsome.
She came to two, inescapable conclusions.
If she could see this spell, then it must be possible to see other spells somehow.
And if this spell truly was that simple, then it must be possible to replicate it.
The Guild was in control of all the Spheres, and of all the Technicians who had a chance of understanding them. They had to know what Polly now did, it was far too plain to see – literally see¬. Which meant that the Guild was deliberately stopping new Spheres being produced by anyone to keep control of them.
Polly slipped out of the chamber with her body almost as shaken as her view of the world about her.
She started planning her new glasses within the month.
When they stumbled into the final, innermost chamber of the former palace, Polly was shaking with adrenaline and exhaustion in equal measure. She dropped down to the floor by the entrance, and left Kelly to it. This was her specialty, after all. Persuading these places to offer up their gifts to her like she was born to inherit them.
Which, well, with her family line? She quite possibly was.
Polly just hoped it would be worth it. A wyvern, honestly.
There was no clue on the doors, just an inscription: ‘welcome to those of Trinian’. Trinian was the patron of the people who needed no patron, who made their own luck and their own way. Apt for Kelly. Probably for herself, as well.
She closed her eyes and drank from her flask, listening absently to the clattering of Kelly’s progress through the chamber. She went over the route they’d taken to get here, searching for a way out which would hopefully bypass the rather miffed Guardian, when something snapped her back into the moment.
The chamber was… silent.
“Kel?” She scrambled back to her feet, abandoning her bag in her haste, but Kelly wasn’t hurt, hadn’t triggered any final trap. She was staring down at a podium in the centre of the room, and there was a glimmering blue-violet light flickering over her.
Polly had seen that light only once before.
Carefully, she made her way through the hush of the room, almost afraid to breath. It couldn’t be… how… but when she reached the podium herself and looked down, it was.
“Worth the wyvern?” Kelly spoke softly, and that meant something.
“How did you know?” She asked, heard herself ask, voice echoing distantly in her ears. She couldn’t take her eyes off the Sphere.
“The day we met, I saw you.” Kelly stepped closer. “You were watching me run the Gauntlet. So when I won, I looked for you. You were staking out the Guild Hall. Only two reasons for that; you wanted entry to the Guild, or you wanted entry to what they kept. And your work was far too good for the Guild to ever turn you down. Then they tried to kill you, that evening. That settled it.”
“…You knew this was here. This is what you’ve been searching for, all this time.” Polly breathed out, hands hovering reverently over the gleaming surface. Not as large as the ones in the Citadel – fortunately, or they’d never manage to move it, and she had none of the tools she needed here to work with it. Plus, Wyvern.
“I knew it was somewhere near the coast.” Kelly hummed in agreement. “I always have done. There was no point finding it until I found someone who could use it, though.”
Polly looked up at that, and the light reflecting on Kelly’s face made it even more inscrutable than usual. “Use it for what, Kelly?”
“I thought we could start by changing the world, if you’re up for it.” Kelly shrugged. “How is up to you. You’re the Technician.”
Polly stared down at the Sphere, and reached out for it. The power sang through her fingers and up her arms, vibrating deep into her chest. She imagined the abandoned homes coming back to life again, people able to leave the net that the Guild had cast; space for all the people crowded into the Towns to spread out. She could do it.
They could do it.
She met Kelly’s eyes, and grinned, sure that for once her expression matched the victory in her friend’s. Then she tightened her grip, and lifted it up. Kelly’s hands joined hers and the song grew ever stronger, until she could almost hear the words, the light of the Sphere spilling about them.