Chapter 160 – Decryption Clues


Month 4, Day 1, Thursday 5:30 a.m.

Sebastien woke early on Thursday morning, for once due to nothing more than her own irrepressible excitement. It had been three days since Professor Lacer took the esoteric spell for translation.

Unfortunately, it was so early that the sun had not yet risen, and Professor Lacer would not be in his office until after breakfast hours at the earliest. So Sebastien worked on her new application to the philtre of darkness. That project, along with helping Liza with the sleep-proxy experiments and brewing a few batches of important concoctions for the Verdant Stag, had taken up most of her free time this week.

After much frustration, she’d had to give up on her initial idea to allow selective vision through the dark clouds.

Creating a potion that could slightly increase the range of light that one’s eyes could see was the obvious solution. One she had no doubt someone else had already come up with. All future philtres of darkness that she brewed would take this possibility into account, and dampen or absorb the widest range of radiation she could manage.

Her next idea was to somehow link the philtre of darkness with a counter-potion, which would allow only those with the counter-potion to see. This…sounded great in theory, but she had no idea how to actually implement such a thing without completely changing the way the philtre of darkness worked. It would have to be more of an alchemical hex, if the effects were short-lived, or a curse, if they were not. In other words, she would need to turn the philtre into an air-borne poison that would cause blindness, with the counter-potion being, in fact, an antidote.

This was a step further than she wanted to take things. Especially because she couldn’t control the spread of a philtre once it was released, and might at some point need to use it in an area with civilians—innocents.

But Sebastien still felt that somehow linking the philtre of darkness to a counter was the right idea. She briefly wondered if perhaps she could create a concoction to impart some sort of echolocation sense, but discarded that option, as not only would an improved philtre’s particles easily interfere with sound, she remembered Professor Gnorrish’s warnings about the side effects of trying to give oneself extra senses.

And then the idea that had been taking root in little pieces of gathered information bloomed in her mind, like a lotus made of sunlight. ‘I don’t need to see through the darkness at all. I only need to know what’s there. And humans already have a sixth sense. It’s just that no one ever thinks about it. Proprioception.’ If she could adapt the group-proprioception potion she’d brewed for the Verdant Stags previously, she would be able to sense the cloud of darkness just as she could sense her own elbow or her big toe. If it worked like she imagined, she could know everything within it by judging where it came into contact with something that stopped its spread.

Testing is in order,’ she decided. ‘I’m going to need to buy up a big stock of magical cluster lichen.’ It would be best if she could keep it alive in seawater until she had need of it, but that would require both space and maintenance. Perhaps Liza could be convinced to lend out space in her apartments once more, once Sebastien had proof in the form of a viable concoction.

By the time Sebastien had finished noting down all of the ideas that came with her sudden epiphany, dawn was long gone and the breakfast hour had passed. “Surely Professor Lacer will be ready by now?” she murmured to herself, hurrying to put on her boots and scarf.

As she passed through the grounds, she noted the group of people standing around at the entrance, near the admissions center.

Professor Lacer’s voice was scratchy as he called for her to enter, and he seemed uncharacteristically enervated, his motions a little clumsier, his blinks a little slower.

“Are you ill?” she asked.

“Only tired. You may not be aware of this, but there is a second round of admissions, often called the ‘off-term’ round. We use it to fill in the gaps from those who were expelled or dropped out during this past term. I have once again been pulled into helping with the process. There may be fewer people, but the restriction of completing the whole process within the two weeks of Sowing Break makes things rather taxing.”

Both Newton and Tanya must have been part of the off-term admissions, to be in their fourth term while I was starting my first,’ she realized. ‘What might have happened if Ennis and I had arrived to Gilbratha just one week later? I would have missed the standard admissions testing. Maybe I would be one of those students outside, hoping to squeeze into a spot opened through someone else’s devastating failure.

“In addition to that,” Professor Lacer said, “I have a new side project. I have begun attempts to decrypt the books brought back from Black Wastes’ archaeological expedition. Myrddin’s journals. Until now, the History department has met only failure. They have grown desperate for results.”

If they’d had as little success as her, they probably couldn’t refuse arguably one of the most talented sorcerers on staff. As Professor Lacer had once mentioned, keeping even knowledge for oneself required power. ‘But wait, Myrddin’s journals? As in more than one?’ It shouldn’t have been so surprising, but she’d always been thinking of her book as the book. Sure, the expedition may have recovered lots of historically relevant books, but she’d thought of hers as special, written directly by Myrddin himself, and encrypted to keep his most important secrets. But if Myrddin had written more…

Professor Lacer raised a palm toward her to cut off any questions. “I anticipated your interest in this topic, but I have given a non-disclosure vow about any information that I might uncover.” He lowered his hand. “However…” He raised his eyebrows with subtle, secretive amusement. “The vow does not cover what methods of decryption I am attempting, nor my theories. If you would like to hear about my efforts,” he added.

“Yes!” Sebastien exclaimed, hurrying over to his desk and taking one of the chairs across from him. “You said there were multiple journals? How many? If you can talk about that, of course.”

He hummed, looking unseeingly at the wall while his lips moved soundlessly, almost as if he were testing out the words before he spoke them. “Myrddin’s hermitage was filled with quite a lot, but the most important items were four heavily encrypted journals that the historians believe contained his notes and theories on spell development. The Raven Queen has one. The University retains the remaining three. They’re quite unlike any journals that I have seen before, and seem to be fully…” He frowned, his words coming slower and with some effort, perhaps due to dissuasion from his vow. “…artifacts in their own right.”

Sebastien thought to the ever-shifting glyph on the surface of the leather bound book, and the way none of the pages ever looked the same twice. Even the diagrams and illustrations shifted incomprehensibly. “So what are you doing to decrypt them?” she asked.

“I suspect the journals are not actually ‘encrypted,’ using the standard meaning of that word. I am not attempting to use logic or mathematics to reverse-engineer the original meaning. In fact, I have reason to believe that all such efforts to this point, using all variations of currently known ciphers, have been entirely unsuccessful, revealing no coherent patterns in the text, whether that be words, symbols, or even individual letters. One possible conclusion in such a case would be that Myrddin was a mathematician so skilled that even all advancements and discoveries made in the intervening one thousand years cannot match his innovations. So skilled that the University’s considerable magical resources and the sheer weight of our combined computational power cannot brute-force past his novel encryption scheme, given months of effort.” Professor Lacer gave her a pointed, wry look that communicated exactly how little he thought of this theory.

“Another theory could be that anyone who comes into contact with the artifacts is placed under a confusion hex, so that they see the contents but cannot parse or remember them. This would be quite clever, but hexes do not travel well through reproductive media. If, for instance, a camera obscura were used to take photographs of the pages, those photographs would not also contain the hex. Even if those who came into contact with the text were permanently cursed, you could bypass the curse by having that photograph developed by someone who’d never come into contact with the journals. Then, the photograph could be viewed from a distance, through a spyglass, by someone who had never even personally met those who had contact with the journals. No matter how robust, tenacious, or infectious the curse, that person would be able to see the truth of the photograph.”

“Clever,” Sebastien praised. She’d never even heard of a curse could spread between people. Their solution seemed ridiculously over-kill. “But that didn’t work, obviously. What next?”

“I am unsure how he managed to approximate such a good model of randomness, but if I were to create such a thing, the inside pages of my encrypted journal would hold no actual data. They would be a decoy, to distract from the real method of accessing the information.” Another pointed look suggested that he believed this was exactly what Myrddin had done.

And it made a horrible sense. If the journal were encrypted, it would have had to be done in such a way as to not only scramble the text, but also the symbols and drawings, leaving them just on the edge of coherence. ‘I’ve been going about this completely the wrong way.’ If she thought of how she might go about manually breaking such a cipher, using mathematics alone, it was obvious that it wouldn’t work. But because she had been using divination, she was somehow expecting to receive some sort of coherent output based on the “magic” of it all. And even though she’d never heard of a similar encryption, she hadn’t even considered that it might all be a trick—an illusion—because this was Myrddin’s journal, and he was full of crazy feats!

She gritted her teeth. ‘Planes-dammit! Divination is useless!’ Aloud, she asked, “So the pages don’t store any actual information? How do you access the contents, then?”

“How else does one access a seemingly unbreakable, locked box? Through the key,” he replied simply, with a satisfied smile. “Which, I might add, is ingenious in its own way. The most basic protection to overcome was an identity verification. Those who worked on the project before me were able to find a loophole and spoof a positive result with a little effort. Interesting, but hardly the world-shattering innovations people often ascribe to Myrddin.”

This was disappointing, but Sebastien retained hope. The transformation amulet could place her into an entirely different body. ‘What are the chances that Sebastien Siverling’s physical form meets the identity requirements?’ she thought.

“However,” Professor Lacer added. “The other half of the key is fascinating.”

Sebastien leaned forward with anticipation.

“It requires specific knowledge as well as a notable level of thaumaturgic skill. There is a hint, of sorts—I will leave out the specifics—and at first we believed that this hint pointed toward particular spells which needed to be cast immediately. The lack of warning, as the required spell changes somewhat rapidly, would require not only a free-caster in name, but one who could cast almost anything at a moment’s notice. One who had a broad repertoire and a certain depth of experience. Combined with historical expertise and extensive research, we believed we could pinpoint the correct spells to cast upon the journal, and thus unlock it.”

The hint Professor Lacer was talking about had to be the ever-shifting glyph on the front of the book. “You believed that at first, you said. So it didn’t work?”

“It did not. Some thought that this merely meant Myrddin had some special trick—that some of the hints were misleading, or perhaps the casting was meant to start only when prompted for a particular spell, which would start off a specific sequence if successful. Some suggested that the spells necessary were merely even more obscure. Myrddin was known to be well-traveled and even to have developed quite a few of his own proprietary spells. In that case, we would have to know his secrets already to be able to access his secrets.”

Sebastien blew out an astonished sigh, leaning backward until the chair supported her once more. “Wow. That would be pretty much impossible to figure out.”

“Indeed. Luckily for us, the artifacts were never asking for a spell at all.” His gaze was piercingly bright, as if lit by something internal. “No components, no Conduit, no channeled energy. The key required merely…the application of Will.” He said the words as if they were momentous, overwhelmingly impressive.

Sebastien understood why he felt this way, because she, too, had once been surprised by this. Though in her case, she had been very aware of how much more there was for her to learn. The idea that Myrddin could create such an artifact was astounding, but still somehow plausible. For someone like Professor Lacer, who was one of the most accomplished thaumaturges in the known lands, and perhaps the world, to discover proof of something he’d never before considered possible must have been much more impactful.

She grinned, a sense of camaraderie at their shared wonder and delight in magic filling her chest. “If that’s true, it means that Myrddin discovered how to quantify the Will. At least enough to detect its application.”

Professor Lacer’s smile grew larger, and he gave her an approving nod. “Exactly. If decrypting his journals can lead to even that much understanding, it will revolutionize entire fields of magic. I had previously scoffed at the fanciful hero-worship so many people seem to hold toward Myrddin. I know many of the tales have been exaggerated and twisted beyond recognition, and I truly doubted that even the most innovative, driven genius of that time period could have surpassed all the advancements of those that came after for a thousand years or more. I still find that exceptionally unlikely. But there is another option.”

Sebastien nodded, recalling something Professor Lacer had once said on the topic. “Pre-Cataclysm knowledge, rediscovered.”

Professor Lacer spread his fingers flat on the desk and stared at them as if imaging all the knowledge his hands might one day hold. “Yes.”

“So did you succeed in completing the key?”

He raised a wry eyebrow and sat back with a sigh. “If only it were so easy. You see, the hint becomes more complicated. Whereas in the beginning it requires one simple application of Will—one concept—after a few rounds of success it moves onto two concepts. I have tried melding the concepts together in various ways, but as soon as I reach that point, each attempt ends in failure.”

I think he means that the single glyph on the front of the journal will somehow become two?’ Sebastien guessed.

“It requires not only rare and obscure knowledge to apply the correct concepts, it seems one also needs a partner whose Will can somehow balance one’s own.” Professor Lacer grimaced. “We are still struggling with that part. It does lend some credence to the rumors that Myrddin had a son, or perhaps a trusted lover or other close companion, but I am still unconvinced that there is no trick that would allow a single person to input the key. I simply find it unlikely that Myrddin would hinge his access to his own information on the presence of another person.”

Sebastien blinked a couple times, then tilted her head to the side. Surely she was missing something, because the solution seemed rather obvious. “Have you considered that instead of melding the concepts or having two people in perfect balance, you need to split your Will? ‘Cast’ both concepts at once, separately?”

Professor Lacer said nothing, so she continued hesitantly. “After all, the identity authentication didn’t require you to spoof two people…did it? Maybe the artifact can tell that there are multiple Wills being imposed, and has safety precautions against such a thing.”

Professor Lacer was silent for a moment longer, and then gave her a look filled with superior amusement. “I see you have some knowledge of the Myrddin’s mythology. Been doing your research, have you? However, you cannot believe everything you read, Mr. Siverling. The University’s library is not restricted only to texts of perfect accuracy, especially when it comes to historical records. The truth of the matter is, unless Myrddin did some extensive self-mutilation that even I cannot fathom, the idea that he could split his Will to cast multiple spells at once was simply a misinterpretation of his use of artifacts.”

Sebastien couldn’t hide her surprise. That couldn’t be right. ‘Even I can cast two spells at once. Are the glyphs very different? Perhaps they require a lot of effort or some kind of complex mental gymnastics.’ Aloud, she said, “If the concepts were similar enough, or simple enough, you’d be able to cast them both at once, right?”

Professor Lacer huffed. “I think perhaps you mean that one can combine similar or simplistic concepts into a single spell with a more complex effect. For example, a fireball spell that spins while flying to the target, and then explodes on impact. But that is quite different from casting two separate spells, holding two separate Wills, at the same time. I cannot think of any living mortal species that can truly multitask. It is said that the brillig could, but they didn’t interbreed with humans, and they are all long gone, now. Myrddin was almost certainly a full-blooded human, despite the stories. When people say that they are good at multitasking, they really mean that they rapidly switch between two separate focuses. However, to impress your Will on the world requires absolute attention, which is why distractions can be so fatal.”

Sebastien stared at him silently, hoping that her expression seemed natural enough despite the confusion rampaging through her mind like a herd of elephants. ‘But I have definitely turned my Will to enforcing two different goals at the same time. Not multiple commands compressed into a single spell.’ One such example were the multiple times she had used some portion of her Will to empower the divination-diverting ward, while simultaneously casting another spell.

Perhaps there’s something different about empowering the ward, though,’ she reasoned. ‘I’m not able to truly apply my Will in separate directions. For instance, I failed to cast a scrying spell on myself while simultaneously empowering the divination-diverting ward, which would have been more convenient than my dowsing artifact.’ She had once likened a real spell to playing a melody on the piano, while the divination-diverting ward was a simple, repeating line of notes, requiring power but little complexity.

During the Practical Casting mid-term tournament, she had split away some of her attention from moving the sphere against Nunckin to moving some of the molten wax on her candle up the wick and into the flame. It was definitely two different points of concentration, but both were still contained under the glyph “movement.” ‘So perhaps that was just a more complex version of a single spell, one coherent Word creating multiple similar sub-effects.

Despite her justifications, Sebastien remained unnerved. She felt there must have been other examples of her splitting her Will in two distinct directions, but she couldn’t remember any.

I have been setting some of this stuff up for so long. I’m really pleased to be stepping further into the mire of this story’s mysteries.

Also, this is a good reminder that they are all unreliable narrators.

Enjoy, lovelies!

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