Chapter 131 – Refraction


Month 3, Day 13, Saturday 1:40 a.m.

Under the ominous flashing of lights and the low moan of the alarm, Knave Knoll’s guards rushed into action, ensuring all the remaining prisoners were locked away and then jogging to defensive positions.

Enforcer Gerard grabbed a young guard as she passed. “Take over here,” he ordered. “When they’re finished, escort the prisoner back to their cell.”

He moved to leave, but the cursemaster called out, spittle flying off his shiny lips as he protested. “Just what is going on!? I was assured of my safety when I took this job. Surely, you cannot be leaving my protection to this woman and a couple of healers. I insist that you escort me away from this place if there is danger!”

Gerard turned back, his expression still as calm and impassive as ever. “Knave Knoll is the safest place you could be. When things have settled down, I promise we will escort you back to your lodgings. In the meantime, please complete the assignment.” He jerked his chin toward the prisoner halfway through receiving their seal, then left, ignoring the cursemaster’s sputtered protests.

Healer Nidson, by contrast, seemed entirely unperturbed. “Shall we continue?” he asked mildly.

The cursemaster gave him a curdling glare, but turned back to the unfortunate prisoner.

Siobhan had to shake her limbs to rid herself of the cold stillness that had settled over her when the alarm started. Per her agreement with Oliver, she could leave if she thought herself to be in danger. But whatever the problem was, she couldn’t hear any sounds of fighting.

The prisoner and cursemaster were both agitated, which made this final seal more dangerous. She might be needed if Healer Nidson had to fight against another seizure. Plus, if she left now, it would be on her own, which might actually be more dangerous than staying put, surrounded as she was by well-stocked and trained enforcers who were ready to handle the danger for her.

The situation is dangerous, but it doesn’t yet seem to be a disaster, and doesn’t call for panic or rash decisions. I need more information.

The cursemaster moved faster than ever, and, with a nervous bow, the guard escorted the prisoner out of the infirmary as soon as it was done. She met no resistance from the Morrow man, who was probably relieved to get away from them.

This left Siobhan, Healer Nidson, and the cursemaster alone in the infirmary.

“We should find out what’s going on,” Siobhan said.

“Yes!” the cursemaster agreed. “I require a safer location, with guards, while the situation is ongoing. Somewhere I can set up wards…”

“I will clean up here,” Healer Nidson said, already moving to arrange the room to his liking. “I have a sense that my service will be necessary. Miss Nakai, please go along to let them know that I will be prepared to assist with injuries as soon as possible, and report the situation back to me.”

With the cursemaster tagging along, superciliously muttering to himself about the lack of respect and professionalism, Siobhan left to find Enforcer Gerard, or whoever was in charge of the security measures.

As she passed one of the small windows on the second floor, where a guard had lowered the glass and activated some kind of hidden mechanism that was probably a ward inlaid into the wall, she paused, peeking out over the man’s shoulder.

To the west, less than a couple of blocks away and moving slowly in their direction, spells lit up the night. And suddenly she could hear the sounds of fighting. It was hard to make out the details, but she saw three wagons retreating along with the first of two separate groups of people. “One of the convoys was attacked,” she whispered.

“If they can make it back, it will be fine,” the guard replied.

Siobhan turned away, hurrying on to the administrative office in the upper corner of the building. ‘This isn’t the low-key mass arrest we planned,’ she thought. ‘This is going to bring the coppers down on us, too. No matter what deal Oliver made with them, there’s no way the Crowns will overlook a secret, independent jail run by a local gang.

When Siobhan and the cursemaster entered the already crowded room, Enforcer Gerard looked up from a distagram artifact just like the one Oliver had in his home office. The normally stoic man’s expression had grown grim under the weight of the problem.

The cursemaster immediately and loudly complained about his treatment. “I am a man of particular means, and I never forget an enemy,” he added with a yellow-toothed smile that was meant to be intimidating—and it was, but it also made Siobhan have the sudden urge to kill him and thus remove him as a threat.

Enforcer Gerard was more circumspect, sending two of the guards to set the cursemaster up in one of the solitary confinement rooms on the ground floor, where he would be “insulated” from any trouble.

When the distasteful man had left, Siobhan relayed Healer Nidson’s message, sidling closer to the crowded window to see out.

Reinforcements from Knave Knoll had gone out to the convoy’s aid, but the enemy had crippled two of the three wagons, and several dead or dying horses lay across the ground. And then, in the light of one of the bright lamps the enemy was shining to keep the guards half-blinded, Siobhan caught sight of Oliver’s mask as he turned his head to look back. She felt like their eyes met for a moment, and then the bottom half of the wagon he was standing behind exploded.

Oliver went down with it.

His horse fell with him, screaming with a pain and terror that seemed all too human. The sound cut through the noise of the battle for an instant. And then the sounds dampened entirely, as if they’d gone underwater.

Siobhan frowned in confusion as the spell-fire from their side faltered and people began to claw at their faces and throats.

“Up to the roof!” Gerard snapped.

One of the guards hesitated. “But they’re still out of range, we can’t accurately—”

“I don’t care!” Gerard screamed, his clipped voice reminding Siobhan of Professor Fekten for a moment. “Get up there, take your stations, and distract the enemy, or our people are going to die!” As three-quarters of the guards scrambled to do as he said, Gerard moved to the weapons cabinet against the far wall, picking up a machete and strapping it to his waist, then adding a thick vest with a rigid collar that came up to protect his neck and the back of his head. “I’m going down there. Someone needs to take out that thaumaturge before he suffocates the whole group to death,” he announced. “Roberts, you’re in charge in my absence. You know the protocol.”

“But that’s a suicide mission!” Roberts protested.

As she listened, Siobhan’s skin had grown alternately hot and cold. Now, without thinking, she blurted, “I can help.”

Gerard didn’t stop to argue with Roberts, just waved for Siobhan to follow as he jogged down the hall to the stairwell. “I know you are…capable,” he said, giving her a piercing look. “Can you remove the thaumaturge who is choking the air out of them? I estimate we have less than two minutes before the tides of battle turn irretrievably against us. I’ve seen this tactic before.”

I am not getting into a one-on-one against a powerful thaumaturge!’ she yelled silently, the words echoing inside of her skull. Out loud, she blurted, “I can make you invisible. For a little while. Enough to get behind the enemy line and make a single blow.”

“A powerful boon. I accept. What is required of me?” he asked without hesitation.

“I need you to remain in my line of sight. I’ll go up to the roof. Pour some of this on your back so I can keep track of you,” she said, her fingers adroitly pulling out a bottle of moonlight sizzle without needing to look. “The invisibility will only activate from the front. From the back, you’ll glow as bright as a beacon.”

Gerard took the sealed bottle and smashed it against the wall. From the broken spout, he poured the cool glow of the liquid over the back of his armored vest, still jogging toward the back exit.

Siobhan turned around and sprinted for all she was worth toward the entrance to the roof, thankful that she’d taken the time to look over the building plans beforehand. As she ran, she pulled at the knowledge and mindset she would need to cast an invisibility spell, her thoughts splitting and wrestling all the disparate pieces together at once with the inexorable dexterity of a kraken’s tentacles. Central symbol, a triangle. She had enough time for three glyphs, maybe—just enough to stabilize the intent. The output-adjusting parameters. Some she had practiced, some she had only learned of during Professor Lacer’s private lecture.

And most importantly, the actual application—the natural science of such a phenomenon.

“Get out of my way!” Siobhan shrieked at the guards blocking the pull-down staircase, scrambling up it so fast she had to use both her hands and her feet to stabilize herself.

All a half-sphere of invisibility required was tightly-controlled refraction. Professor Gnorrish had explained it during one of his recent lectures. She pulled at the memory, and for a quarter second of horror, worried that it would refuse to come.

But then it was there in its totality.

They were in the illusion tunnel between the Citadel and the library. Professor Gnorrish paused for a moment, using a handkerchief to wipe away the sweat on his forehead and take a few deep breaths. “Now, you’ve all heard of refraction, and seen examples of it. Refraction happens when electromagnetic radiation passes through a substance with a different density, at an angle. A medium such as water is more dense than air. As light enters, it slows down. But the light doesn’t change energy; you’ve all seen that light doesn’t change color just because it passes through water or clear glass. What does change is the distance between the wavefronts. Let’s return to our analogy of the boat on the ocean. Those original slow, mild waves get closer together, but move proportionally slower, so your boat is still only experiencing one rise and fall every minute. It’s steeper, but the total energy of the light waves hasn’t changed.”

The illusion morphed to show a series of waves hitting a glass block straight-on. As they passed through it, they grew much closer together, stretching out again as they exited. The block slowly rotated, and the waves within angled with it, straightening out again as they exited the block on the other side—but now slightly lower down.

“Imagine a sheet of metal is passing through the air toward you. It’s too stiff to bend. You press your finger against one side of it and apply a little resistance. The part you pressed on is suddenly moving slower, and so the whole sheet of metal pivots toward that side, and is now moving at an angle. The light has just entered a substance with a different density. Now, say someone else is behind you, and when the metal sheet reaches them, they poke the other side and straighten the metal sheet out again, sending it off in the same direction but at a slightly different location than its original trajectory would have caused. The light has just exited the substance. Refraction works kind of like that, and it’s why you’ll only see refraction when light enters or exits a substance at an angle. The really interesting thing is, that angle doesn’t need to be a straight line. It can be curved. This is the concept that optical lenses are based on, allowing the creation of eyeglasses, telescopes, and even your own eyeballs.”

Instead of undulating waves, the light changed to be depicted by flat sheets passing through the block of glass.

Sebastien had reached out to the block, moving slowly and telegraphing her intention for Professor Lacer’s benefit. She adjusted its angle and watched as the representation of refracted light moved with it, forced to turn as it passed through, and then allowed to straighten as it exited.

The students around her gasped. For once, she agreed with the general sentiment. ‘This is amazing!

Gnorrish continued as some of the other groups started to pick up on the true nature of this lecture and the utility of the simulation chamber. “Now, when the substance is too dense for light to propagate within, instead of refracting, it reflects. Glass, water, and other semi-transparent substances are only reflecting a small percentage of the overall light that hits them, but when their surfaces are smooth enough, it allows a mirror-like reflection. In fact, if any substance was smooth enough, you would get that same mirror-image reflection, because there’s no natural substance with complete transparency.” The lecture had continued after that, moving on to their experimentation with lenses while Professor Lacer controlled their group’s illusion.

Siobhan held all the relevant information in her mind simultaneously, like water in a glass, as she skidded to a stop at the edge of the flat-topped roof. Around her, the others were hurriedly setting up the portable battlements they’d stashed for just such an attack. The largest sheet of seaweed paper she had was already in her hand, and rather than carefully unfold it, she shook it wildly, letting its edges catch the wind and rip it open. “Help me stabilize it!” she snapped to the nearby enforcers. “One at each corner!”

They hurried to place hands or weighted objects down over the paper.

This sheet, and the blank Circle already drawn on it, were big enough to cover an entire person. She hadn’t known what she might need it for, but it was one of the many emergency preparations she’d been slowly building up.

More thankful than ever for all the practice she’d been getting with minimalist spell arrays and working with light, she scrambled atop the paper to draw out the glyphs and central numerological symbol as quickly as possible. Then, she added the output-adjusting parameters for height, to take the half-sphere of invisibility down to street level.

She hadn’t practiced moving the output while casting with Professor Lacer, but she had no trouble doing so with her shadow-familiar, and believed the mental tether that he had called a crutch could handle such a maneuver.

She peeked over the edge of the battlement to see Gerard already running down the street toward the fighting, the moonlight sizzle smeared on his back a beacon against the night. He obviously had no plans to wait for or rely on her, but without some kind of protection, not only was it unlikely he would make it out alive, he might not even manage to take down the enemy thaumaturge.

Siobhan allowed herself a single blink to finalize the operation of the spell in her mind. All she needed to do was capture the light in the half-dome behind Gerard, route it around his body to the exact same equivalent location, and release it again. To do that, the magic would need to create the equivalent of a denser medium around him, angled in such a way as to refract the light in an arc. She held the idea of this invisible sphere around the man so tightly in her mind that she could almost feel it. And then, she created a tether between them, reaching out from the edges of the spell array, down to the street, and latching on to him, as if her shadow had stretched out and combined with his, becoming a single entity.

Siobhan opened her eyes and cast.

It took only a second for her Will to climb over the mental hurdle that allowed her to distance the output location, reaching out and grabbing the beacon of his light, gobbling him up inside her sphere of control.

For a moment, she felt like Myrddin.

Sure, with the lack of moon and all the distraction of the fighting, her spell had to redirect so little light that she could still handle it even with the increased strain of this long a distance, much farther than she had ever achieved in practice. And even though she could tell pieces of the refraction dome occasionally faltered, most likely creating mirage-like distortions or making Gerard seem like a chameleon moving just out of sync with the background, those same environmental conditions meant that it would be hard for anyone to notice.

But she felt powerful. Her knowledge and her Will could reorder the natural laws. Even if Professor Lacer had been unimpressed by her lazy workaround, and she wasn’t even strong enough to get all the way through his tests, she could do this.

That sense of triumph lasted for only a few seconds before the strain of continuing to move the output Circle along with Gerard made itself known.

Some tiny portion of her mind caught Oliver’s mussed hair rising again next to one of the crippled wagons, and any peripheral attention she had left focused on him without her conscious direction.

He had climbed up the side of the wagon and was…killing the prisoners?

Gerard had made it to the enemy. Hunching down to seem a little smaller, he cut diagonally across the street, right toward the man in the middle, whose arms were raised dramatically.

The enemy thaumaturge made a violent motion with his fist, and even from this distance, Siobhan could feel the power of it channel through to the world.

The sounds of the battle returned.

A huge, faint ripple tore through the air between the two groups, moving down toward Oliver. It ploughed through the bodies of the prisoners he had been executing and crashed into the wagon he’d been clinging to. The whole mass exploded outward in splintered wood and splattered viscera.

Siobhan’s vision flickered as something in her tried to pull her concentration away from Gerard and the spell to better see what had just happened.

She didn’t know how Oliver could have survived that attack.

The realization sent a wave of static numbness through her mind, and her concentration on the spell wavered once more.

She couldn’t spare a glimpse for Oliver’s remains. Without her, Gerard would die, too, and the enemy would roll forward over all of them. She threw her desperation and worry into the spell, letting it buoy her fatiguing Will. No matter what happened to Oliver, she would continue on. She would live. And for her to live, the enemy had to die.

The sheer violence of the attack had stunned everyone, and the friendly spell-fire that had threatened Gerard temporarily petered off. Probably, people were hiding from a potential follow up, or trying to regain their breath now that the enemy thaumaturge had released his suffocating grip.

The man swayed from the effort of that great blow. Perhaps he had reached his limit, or maybe he was only collecting himself before exerting his control over the battlefield once more, single-handedly carrying the fight for his side.

Siobhan wouldn’t learn which it was, because at that moment, Gerard threw himself forward.

The tip of his machete reached beyond the range of Siobhan’s spell, catching some reflected light for a flashing instant.

The thaumaturge looked up, but Gerard was already bringing the blade down at an angle, the force of his whole body behind the swing.

The machete hit the thaumaturge’s jaw, met the resistance of a ward that flared grey, and instantly overpowered it. The blade continued through, angling down through the jaw, and then the neck, stopping only when it met the thaumaturge’s opposite collarbone.

The man’s head flew off, launched by a geyser of blood.

Gerard stumbled as the full-body commitment to his blow pulled him off balance.

The two closest attackers stood stunned, not immediately able to comprehend what had happened, but Siobhan could feel her grip on the spell slipping. Gerard was too far, and she was too unpracticed. But she mentally dug in her claws and wrapped the weight of her Will around the spell. Her clarity might falter, but her determination remained.

Instead of immediately running away, Gerard swung again, this time cutting off the wand of the closest attacker, along with the hand that had been gripping it.

Gerard took two more steps. As he shoved the gently curved blade of his machete all the way through the chest of a third enemy, the blood spraying out and hitting a fourth in the face, Siobhan lost her grip on his concealment.

She slumped down, fighting back dizziness as she tried to ground herself in the sensation of rough gravel against her cheek and hand, one arm crushed awkwardly beneath her. She hadn’t strained her Will, hadn’t lost control or broken, she’d just given out. She had burned through her mental energy like a wick with no remaining candle, and her mind felt bruised. If she wanted to be safe, she wouldn’t be of much use for the remainder of the evening.

She couldn’t even lift her head to see over the battlements and search for Oliver’s body.

Sorry for the late chapter. I got sick Wednesday night but I thought I’d still be able to get some work done. Didn’t happen. Still sick. Not COVID. If you commented @ me, private messaged, or emailed me during this time, I’ll reply to you when I’m well again.

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