I’m late to the meeting the next morning. After working out the basics of Thiano’s asylum I’d gotten home so exhausted my brain wouldn’t stop whirring through possibilities. Deniel finally suggested brewing a magic tea to put me to sleep, which worked, though it kept me sleeping longer than I have time for.
Not longer than I needed, unfortunately, and I don’t feel sharp enough to save the world with my current capacity for insight. Nevertheless, the world is not waiting, and it’s not as though I don’t have access to more tea. I have the skills to brew a short term solution for myself—once I’ve had a cup to make my brain start working.
“Glad you could join us,” Lorwyn says when I arrive at the back of the shop with Yorani, the wretch, still sleeping curled around my neck.
Lorwyn, Ari, Tamak, and Glynis are all already there, gathered grouchily around Lorwyn’s workspace. They look exactly as they did when we were planning for the tournament match together, and I’m not sure if that should be a relief or a cause for concern. This time the stakes are so much higher.
Without bothering trying to get a word in—and indeed, their conversation continues without me—I duck into the stacks and come back with a tea sachet from the bulk stock area.
Lorwyn raises her eyebrows at me as she waves a kettle to heat, my stomach twisting at the sensation of witchcraft. “You sure you don’t need something a little more, uh, potent?”
“I’m not drugging myself with magic,” I say firmly. The tea I’ve selected is as basic as we carry: green leaves a step down in quality from a traditional blend. “I am going to drink something that is entirely predictable—”
“Hey now, all my blends are thoroughly tested—”
“—to my body, which is going to need to hold up however long this takes to fix and could probably use something it’s entirely used to.” I grab a cup and dump the tea into the nearest strainer that looks dry, so it probably doesn’t have any magic on it.
“By ‘this’,” Lorwyn says, “you mean—”
Glynis says, “Let’s pretend we believe she just means the imminent end of the world. Even I’m tired thinking of anything bigger than that.”
“And I,” I say, pouring hot water over the leaves with great care, because right now this cup of tea is very important to me, “am going to pretend I believe once we manage that I’ll get to sleep for at least a little while. What do you have?”
“Are you, uh, sure you don’t want to wait until you have some tea in you?” Glynis asks me. “We’re getting kind of theoretical here.”
“That’s an understatement,” Ari puts in.
My stomach twists and Lorwyn says, “Tea’s ready. You’re welcome.”
She takes the strainer from the cup and passes it back to me. I take one sniff and blink: she’s correct. “Since when can you…?”
“Uh, always?” Lorwyn looks both amused and smug, an expression reminiscent of one I see on Talsion when he’s tricked Yorani somehow. “Obviously it doesn’t work for testing when I don’t know what a tea is going to taste like, but this is basic. You know what, while I’m at it, now it’s cool enough—go ahead and knock it back and I’ll make you another.”
I take her at her word and drain the cup, passing it over.
After a moment of silence, Ari finally says, “I’m not sure which of you I’m more upset by right now.”
Lorwyn glances at Tamak and whispers loudly, “That’s code for they missed us terribly.”
Tamak grins fleetingly as Ari rolls their eyes, though his expression quickly settles back into contemplation, like he’s chewing on a difficult problem.
And, well, it doesn’t take much to guess what it is.
“Before we devolve into name calling, we have a couple theories,” Glynis says. “Starting with Nakrabi magic.”
“Spirits,” Ari corrects her.
She shrugs. “Okay, sure, let’s start with Nakrabi spirits, in the sense of their magic that’s infused into objects, even if they don’t think of them as spirits, rather than their craft and practice of making that happen. The first thing I realized is that their way of doing things must burn the spirits out.”
I look at Lorwyn. “Is that tea ready yet?”
She passes me the cup. “This one’s stronger, so sip it this time.”
I make a face at her but oblige before turning back to Glynis. “I assume that conjecture is based on the fact that their magic has become a precious commodity, which wouldn’t be so if their existing magical objects remained at full power.”
Lorwyn says, “It’s unnatural that you can talk like that before you’re even awake.”
“If my time at Miteran’s fancy university taught me anything, it’s that if anything Miyara’s toning it down for our benefit,” Ari mutters.
“Exactly,” Glynis says pointedly, ignoring them both. “But Nakrabi magic must differ from magecraft, because a magecraft working can run out of power, but then it just stops working, right? Dead spots don’t crop up when your house cooler goes bad.”
“We can’t prove that,” Ari says, switching back to the topic at hand because even poking at me can’t keep them from discussion of magical theory. “It’s not impossible Istalam was relying on colonialism to cover the creeping effects of magecraft.”
“But no mages know how to target that drain, and I don’t know how you’d make sure dead spots only appear in places you don’t like if you didn’t even know that was an option.” Glynis shrugs. “But obviously I can’t ethically test that until we know how to not trap spirits with Nakrabi magic, which is why I started by calling it a theory.”
“Oh,” Ari says. “Fair. Theory means something different in academic circles. I’ve been doing a lot of research lately.”
“Hold a moment,” I say.
Glynis puts her hands on her hips, exasperated. “Already? I warned you—”
“Did you just imply you can perform Nakrabi magic?” I ask.
Everyone looks at her, and she purses her lips. “I think so? I can’t be sure, obviously, because I can’t test, but Thiano gave me enough of the basics I can extrapolate. And we have that tech we stole too, I just don’t want to experiment with it until we’re pretty sure, because we only have the one piece.”
She can perform magecraft, incorporate it with witchcraft, and understand Nakrabi magic.
I nod as if this is not world-changing, because in truth it confirms a suspicion I’ve held for some time now. “So the situation may in fact somehow still be even worse than it already was, the theory being that magecraft somehow allows spirits to return to the world, but Nakrabi magic condemns them to a slow death and they are gone forever. Do I have that right?”
Ari notes, “You’re much less infuriatingly optimistic when you’re tired. Are you sure you need more tea?”
I intend to settle for a mild glare, but Yorani abruptly launches herself off my neck and flaps right into Ari’s face. They stumble back, startled, as the tea spirit snaps her wings wide at the last moment to halt her momentum.
“What she said,” I say as Yorani lazily circles Ari’s head.
“Oh good, you have an attack dragon now,” Lorwyn says. “That’s definitely not concerning.”
“I am sure she will only use her powers for good,” I say. “Ari no doubt agrees.”
The baby dragon in question stops teasing Ari and flutters up to sit on Glynis’ head, peering down at her and anything she might look at with interest.
I envy her perspective. I wonder what it would be like to see the world as Glynis does.
Glynis reaches her arm up to pet Yorani and otherwise ignores the small scaly creature on her head. “To your point, yes—stay on track here people, the messengers’ guild would have rejected all of you for reporting this scattered—and also what that means is the first thing we have to figure out is how to free the Nakrabi spirits.”
“Not why they die in the first place?” I ask.
“It’s sort of the same question,” Glynis says. “Like, take your bracelets.”
I hadn’t made that connection. I look down at them askance, at where I have been unwittingly using power that will kill the spirits it belongs to.
“No, not like that,” Glynis says impatiently, even though I haven’t said a word. “You’re not a Nakrabi mage, so you shouldn’t be able to use the magic.”
I let the fact that she thinks she can do so and that isn’t noteworthy pass. “Is it not that the objects work without active manipulation, just with the intent of the Nakrabi magic worker?”
“I mean, maybe, but that’s not what Thiano made it sound like,” Glynis says. “Since the bracelets work for you at all, my guess is it’s because the spirits want to work for you.”
I consider that. “It’s a nice thought, but we can’t prove it. And even if they’re willing to help me, I still don’t want to drain their… life force. Magic. Whatever it is.”
“I wonder if it really does though.” Lorwyn taps her fingers on her desk. “If they get to choose. Intent seems to be the one common element of all the magic we’re familiar with.”
“Not the only one,” Glynis says without explaining.
“If the spirits can’t choose to be bound up in an object, and we have no reason to expect they can, we still need a way to release them,” I say firmly.
“Completely invalidating all of Nakrab’s magic expertise,” Ari says. “I like it.”
Tamak speaks up for the first time, though his attention still doesn’t seem to be on us. “I’m not sure the Te Muraka can help with this. We can create objects too, but it uses our own power, which is a loss. When we eat Nakrabi magic, we consume it like food.”
“But you don’t leave holes in the world either,” Glynis points out.
“You haven’t seen where we lived in the Cataclysm,” Tamak says.
“I have,” Lorwyn says, “but more importantly I’ve seen where you live here. Given everything going on with the barrier lately, the Te Muraka compound would be showing the evidence of dead spots if your magic worked that way.”
“We don’t know with any certainty how different it is, though,” Tamak says. “It’s one of the reasons we’re so careful. Nakrab didn’t know for a long time that their magic was coming out of their own land, either.”
“Eh, I don’t think this is the right angle to be concerned about,” Ari says. “Think of magic workers less like humans for a second and more like cows.”
I admit this is not a turn I expected this conversation to take. I glance at Lorwyn without a word and sip my tea as she covers a snicker.
“Provincial farm person,” Glynis says fondly.
“Ignorant city girl,” Ari shoots back without rancor. “I just mean, grazing cows eat grasses off the land, but doing so also improves the land.”
“Is this a poop thing, farm person?”
“Partially, yes,” they say. “Cow manure is great for encouraging growth. But they’re also spreading seeds with their hooves to expand diversity among grasses and breaking up crusted earth, which also stimulates grass growth. So they’re not just eating a resource, they’re improving the sustainability of the resource at the same time.”
“Grazing means not all in one place, though,” Tamak points out.
“Sure. And in the Cataclysm the Te Muraka stayed in one place, right? You were trapped. And now you’re not.” Ari shrugs. “Maybe your magic won’t be the key to solving this one, but I just mean, let’s not go borrowing trouble, okay? We don’t have any definitive evidence yet that your magic is a problem.”
“And Nakrab,” Glynis says, “may just be doing theirs wrong. Like if they could just fix it by learning to graze, or whatever metaphorical equivalent applies, everything would work fine. What an optimistic thought, farm person.”
“Don’t push it,” Ari snipes.
“Great, so that brings us to fixing an entire magic system no one here can practice,” Lorwyn drawls. “I’m so glad we got together to talk about this.”
“So my actual theory,” Glynis presses on, “is that at least in the short term, we may be able to make a temporary emergency fix. Like, uh, draining the infection out of a wound before applying a, um, poultice so it heals right—”
“I think we need to stop with the metaphors,” Lorwyn says.
“For once I agree completely,” Ari says. “I mean, good effort Glynis, but—”
“Fine, but my point stands, and I think it’s why both witchcraft works on Nakrabi magic and magecraft at least currently doesn’t,” Glynis says.
There it is.
“I’m listening,” I say.
“Witchcraft is about changing an object’s nature,” Glynis says, “rather than binding magic to a purpose. It’s more… efficient, I guess. So when Lorwyn destroys Nakrabi tech, what she’s doing is directly undoing their magic by instantly altering what the object fundamentally is.”
“That’s about what it feels like, yeah,” Lorwyn confirms.
I frown thoughtfully. “That’s why navigating the Cataclysm is more natural for a witch too, isn’t it?”
“Yes, exactly,” Glynis says. “Since there’s not still any specific object causing the Cataclysm to persist, Lorwyn can’t just fix the whole thing, but her magic is uniquely suited to living magic because it’s so immediately adaptable.”
“Not as good for dealing with lesser humans who feel threatened by my natural superiority.” Lorwyn sniffs.
It’s a distraction, but I don’t call her on it. That witches could have been part of the solution to the problems caused by the Cataclysm this whole time if people hadn’t been too scared and bigoted is worth distracting me from. Every time I think I can’t get angrier about our treatment of witchcraft, somehow I do.
“So the short version of my theory, which we are still working out the specifics of,” Glynis says, “is that Nakrabi magic requires an object to infuse, so we should just be able to infuse it back. But from what I got from Thiano, ‘land’ or ‘air’ or ‘the world’ or ‘back from whence you came’ aren’t specific enough to qualify—they’re not, like. Countable, I guess?”
“Discrete,” I say. “Individually separate and distinct.”
“Right, exactly. So we use magecraft to establish a perimeter, because what magecraft is great at is structures. Essentially, the magecraft will define the boundary of what will become the destination for the magic. Then within that boundary, Lorwyn changes the nature of the tech. The spirits leave the object and go into whatever magecraft has defined, and since it’s not a usable object—”
“I have many questions,” I say.
“Oh, you and me both,” Lorwyn says. “We’re assuming that when I unworked tech in the past I didn’t just kill the spirits, for one—”
“I’m not assuming that at all,” Glynis protests.
“Oh, that’s better!”
“Thiano thought the spirits couldn’t be freed directly, but they can be transferred. So—”
“So you think they can indirectly be transferred to freedom?” I ask.
“I… yes, basically. Honestly the bigger problem is that even if we can make this work, there’s an awful lot of Nakrabi tech out there and only one Lorwyn. Witches aren’t exactly going to be lining up to volunteer to help with a public initiative.”
“Nakrab will have to learn to help themselves,” I say. “One problem at a time. How sure are you that this will work?”
“Theoretically? Very. The specifics definitely need work though.” Glynis sighs. “Elowyn’s message about arcanism is great for thinking about stuff like this in a broader scale and how everything fits together, but there are so many ways you can combine different threads it’s kind of hard to isolate which one is the right combination, you know?”
I blink; set my cup down. “Wait. Message? I thought you talked to Elowyn in person when you got back to Sayorsen.”
Glynis blinks back at me. “No, we set up a different way to leave messages for each other. Does that matter?”
I turn quickly to Tamak and Lorwyn—but mainly Tamak. “When was the last time you saw Elowyn? Or Karisa, or Taseino?”
“Yesterday afternoon,” Lorwyn says slowly—
—but Tamak’s eyes change color completely, turning full black.
“It’s the device,” he says in a low voice full of dread, and my blood runs cold.
“Don’t try to stop me from going after her,” he snarls, rounding on me.
I step in close to him and put my hands on either side of his face, locking my gaze on his. “Stay in human form until you know what she needs from you.”
His eyes flicker, an orange slit appearing in the middle, and Tamak nods sharply. “I will be what she needs.”
His voice is a growl, but it’s still a voice making human sounds. I release him, and Tamak surges to the door faster than an ordinary human could move: I blink and he’s gone, the door slamming into the exterior wall with the force of his exit.
“Yorani, he may need help,” I say. “Can you find Entero and bring him to wherever Tamak is?”
The tea spirit wastes no time with questioning chirps or goodbyes or anything else, but is gone nearly as quickly as Tamak was.
“Wait,” Glynis says, apparently catching up, “I can find—”
“No,” I say, “you are the only member of that team I know the current whereabouts of, not to mention the only one who has some idea of how we may be able to save the world, and I need your knowledge right here.”
Glynis abruptly sits down all the way on the ground. “And I was gone, which left a hole in the team. Spirits, you don’t think—”
“Ari,” I interrupt, “now that you’re away from Miteran can you put communications through to Ostario?”
“Yes,” they say without argument, already reaching into their pockets for structural materials. “What am I telling him?”
“It’s what he’s telling Saiyana,” I say. “They both need to be prepared for Nakrab to try something on the barrier, because whatever they’re planning will be big. We’ll convey more pertinent details as we have them.”
“Pertinent?” Lorwyn echoes.
But Ari doesn’t ask any further questions, and I meet Glynis’ stricken gaze.
“What we are not telling them at this moment,” I say, “is that yes, I absolutely think that Karisa has been kidnapped.”
Continue to Chapter 33!