EPISODE 12: KINGMAKER

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Alinore Valmont. Venday, Ophiuchus 20th, 2344 AA. 5:47 PM. Arroyo Athenaeum (Firing Range).

Lin cracked off two shots at the next target, an illusion of a blue humanoid wireframe which dissolved into a burst of sparks as the second bullet passed through it. Four bullets left. A green target appeared—this one shaped like a bird, swooping through the air. Lin fired once, missed, and fired again, dispelling it. Another bird target appeared, and Lin shot it on reflex, dispelling it. Stupid. Birds aren’t worth that many points, and now I’m a bullet short for the next target.

The last human target in the training sequence appeared. Lin could try for a headshot, which would dispel the target immediately, but it was a risk. Misses resulted in deductions. The target will get away if I don’t hit it, though. Hardly different from a deduction.

Lin lined up the shot, but she squeezed the trigger early, and the bullet zipped over the target’s shoulder. Fuck. She halfcocked the hammer to rotate the cylinder freely, using the ejection rod to clear her spent cartridges while replacing them in sequence.

By the time she had finished the reload, the human target had timed out, and the final target in the program, an orange, ogre-shaped wireframe appeared. It required three headshots, or a full cylinder of body shots. Since it was the end of the program, and her score was already ruined, Lin simply aimed for the bulk of the creature. When the sixth bullet struck, the wireframe dissolved into a shower of sparks.

Lin set down her Socrates on the counter and turned away, frustrated. She had memorized this particular target program, and knew how to game it decently well. Her score was still competitive with most of the third-years practicing at the range, but it was a far cry from her personal best.

She stepped out of the range and removed her ear protection. Carroll was waiting in the glassed-in observation area, frowning, and idly dancing a crystalline trinket across his knuckles. He always had it on him and would often toy with it in lectures or while reading. It looked like a game piece, or a stamp of some kind, though truth be told, Lin had no idea what it was.

“Stop going for headshots on human targets,” Carroll said, a touch stern, a touch exasperated.

“I only had one shot left! Why waste the bullet?” Lin groused. “Besides, it’s not like I’m being graded. Why not challenge myself?”

“Because you aren’t challenging yourself,” Carroll said as he palmed and pocketed his trinket. “You aren’t even really practicing. You’re gunning for a high score. Otherwise, you would have tried to shoot the ogre in the head at the end, which is actually prudent.”

Given their ability to rapidly heal from small injuries, fae were generally resistant to ballistic weapons, save for purpose-built Black Iron rounds, which were rare, costly, and ethically questionable, given the fae’s extreme, agonizing allergy to iron. Otherwise, the only way to do appreciable damage to fae with firearms was to shoot them in the head. It was one of the main reasons why Keepers still carried swords.

Lin knew Carroll was right. High scores were intrinsically fun, and trying to reach them was seductive. Especially when she overtook people three or four years her senior. When she botched a shot, it shot her motivation. She felt a pang of annoyance, and tried to think of an excuse to argue her case.

“Isn’t it a useful skill to have though? Just in case?”

“No. You are training to become a law enforcement officer. Not a sniper or a blockbuster action hero. As I said before, you perform what you practice. Against human targets, it is smarter to fire at center mass. Honestly, if these programs were set up practically rather than some puerile screen game, you would receive top marks for incapacitating shots. Make a habit of popping people’s heads here, and that is exactly what you will do reflexively in the field.”

Lin sighed and nodded. Carroll smiled and cuffed her in the shoulder.

“Come on. That’s an hour. Let’s get out of here before I go deaf.”

“What are we playing with today?” Lin asked.

Carroll dedicated their post-firing range Venday sessions to the various physical tools Keepers had at their disposal. He had shown her the force’s standard shorthand for quickly recording details on a notepad, covered the proper techniques for using restrictor cuffs, and true to his word, he called in Master Elroy to show her some basic techniques with a focus staff.

“Have you used an urdoscope before?” Carroll asked.

“Yes?” Lin said, frowning at him and emanating slight disappointment.

“Good. We can skip the boring bits and jump straight to real techniques. Most Keepers use their scopes for exclusively forensic applications, but you can also use them on living subjects to get a fairly accurate assessment of someone’s urdic talents. An affinity for pyromancy, for instance.”

Lin nodded thoughtfully. That actually doesn’t sound so bad.

As they walked, Carroll resumed play with his trinket. It was made of an opalescent glass or crystal that seemed to ‘hold’ light, so when he moved it, glowing threads of energy traced its trajectory.

“What is that thing, anyway?” Lin asked.

Carroll looked at her, and a Cheshire smile spread across his face.

“It’s a mystery, really.”

“You don’t know what it is either?” Lin asked, surprised.

“Oh, it is almost certainly a queen from a chess set. I can’t imagine what else it would be, judging by its shape. But it has an enchantment on it that… well. Take a look yourself. See if you can make heads or tails of it.”

She took the piece delicately, studying its contours and feeling its ambient magical aura before exploring it with her wyrd. It seemed to have a sort of rhythmic energy to it, almost like a heartbeat or a human’s wyrd, respiring mana.

When she reached inside the piece with her wyrd, she felt an incredibly dense piece of magic locked in the piece’s metaphysical core. It felt like she was adrift in an ocean, with a whale just beneath her raft. But it was also a puzzle. The spellwork inside was intricate and in constant motion, like the gears for an expensive watch. But there is something behind it. And there is a way inside. There must be.

After a minute, Lin felt slightly dizzy and lightheaded. She withdrew her wyrd from the piece and shook her head. Carroll watched her intently, and Lin noticed he seemed to be holding his breath. When she shook her head, he smiled.

“Intriguing, no?” Carroll asked.

“Yes. Is the enchantment encrypted?” Lin asked as she puzzled over the piece.

Carroll grinned.

“In a manner of speaking. I believe this relic dates back to Chaucer’s time at the earliest. It predates any kind of incanting artifice, so this was all done manually. Its enchantments are less like daemons or other programs and more like… well. Poetry. The spellwork is elegant, symbolic, and intentionally cryptic.”

He took the piece back from Lin, holding it up to his glasses. The crystal shone a brilliant, opalescent orange in the light of the fading sunset.

“Certain historians write of relics known as Legacies. These objects supposedly contain tremendous wisdom, or secret powers that can only be imparted to the user who understands their secrets. But I’ve been studying it almost my entire life… and I have yet to solve it.”

He passed the piece back to Lin, and she prodded it with her wyrd again.

“Where did you find it?”

“I… came with it,” Carroll said, mouth twitching in a smirk.

Lin stared at him in confusion and emanated apprehensive curiosity. Carroll chuckled, then explained.

“I am a changeling. The fae abducted me before I could form memories. In fact, I don’t remember much of my time there, but what little I do recall is… rather unpleasant.”

“I’m sorry,” Lin said on reflex.

“Ancient history. Anyway, when the Keepers came across me… This was my only possession.”

“How long were you in the Faed?” Lin asked, regretting the question immediately after it left her lips. Come on. What would Pensey say? Show some compassion. Give him some privacy.

But Carroll grinned and said:

“I don’t actually know my age for certain. They found me when I was roughly two years older than you. Based on the case history of abductions in the area, they estimated I was born to a transient woman fifteen years earlier. Unfortunately, she drank herself to death shortly after I went missing. Even my real name is a mystery. I chose to adopt the pseudonym the Amagia Charell Dodgson used for his asfalis writing.”

“Master, forgive me, but… How were you accepted into the Athenaeum so late?”

Carroll laughed.

“Given my meager wyrd, it’s a fair question. In short, I was more or less adopted by the Arroyo Chapter of the Amagium before I enrolled, as a sort of… research subject. Scholars were fascinated by the fact that I didn’t develop Quirks, despite my prolonged time in the Faed. And while they studied me, I studied everything I possibly could.”

He sighed, momentarily lost to reminiscence, then turned to Lin with a twinkle in his eye.

“I was like you in that respect. Starving to learn. When I took the assessments, I set records in academic subjects. And while I don’t look it now,” he said, patting his paunch “I trained as hard as I could physically. And they grudgingly accepted me into a cohort.”

Lin looked down at the white, glowing queen in her palms.

“This is your one link to your past, and you just… play with it? Flip it around your fingers? Aren’t you scared of breaking it?”

“According to our Archivists, it’s made of an incredibly rare material known as Wishglass. It’s a kind of crystal that only exists in the Faed. And unlike most faen materials, it does not degrade on this plane.”

Lin looked at it with renewed awe. Very few florae, faunae, and minerals originating in the Faed could survive in reality for long, unless they were specially preserved. This must be priceless.

“Is it possible the Fae were the ones who enchanted it?” Lin asked.

Carroll smiled and shrugged.

“I suppose it’s a possibility. But I like to think there is a human touch behind it. Maybe it’s just my way of hoping my mother was something more than a poor drunk. An excuse to believe I was denied some greater destiny. But I’m hoping I can figure out what it contains some day. And I would love to have your help.”

Lin smiled and felt a new sort of happiness for the first time. Neither of her parents ever relied on her for anything, or trusted her with something important. She knew they both loved her, in their own ways. Her mother wanted to keep her safe and happy, without any regard for Lin’s desires. Her father doted on her on those rare times they spent together, and supported her decision to become an Amagia, but even he underestimated her.

“It’s a deal,” Lin said.

— 6:06 PM. Arroyo Athenaeum (Carroll’s Office) —

Carroll’s office was on the top floor of the Administratum, with a broad window overlooking the Athenaeum’s central park. Even on dreary days, it had a warm energy to it, and it was filled with extremely powerful grimoires—secured behind warded glass in a metal cabinet—and a variety of interesting magical trinkets from all over the world. Opposite the bookcase was a cluttered, long table that Carroll jokingly referred to as his “private lab.” More accurately, it was a collection of half-finished projects, piles of errant paperwork, and jars of random reagents.

Lin frequently requested to study in his office, because she found it quieter than the study halls where other students inevitably chatted or otherwise fooled around.

“Alright. I need a moment to answer my amail, and then we’ll get started.”

Lin plopped herself in the seat across from Carroll’s desk and pulled out a biology book, determined not to waste time waiting.  They had a test next Lunday, and she would sooner die before an asfalis subject tripped up her matriculation. Ideally, aspirants would finish their non-magical studies before they ended their third year and declared their discipline. It wasn’t a hard requirement, but students who completed their general education early were permitted to start taking elective classes.

Carroll was still getting settled when the phone in his office started to ring.

“Liss?” Lin asked, referring to Carroll’s wife.

They had met a handful of times, and Lin thought she was lovely. An asfalis library scientist who was ever-cheerful and friendly, if perpetually frazzled. Lin hadn’t seen Carroll take calls in his office from anyone else since most of the masters preferred amail to keep in touch. But judging from Carroll’s confused expression, somebody else was on the line.

“Hello? …Yes. What can I do for you, Detective? …Yes, I heard. Dreadful business.… Of course…. I see.”

A longer pause. Lin pretended to be engrossed in her textbook, but her ears strained to hear the conversation on the other end of the line.

“Ah! Yes, Harker was an excellent student…. Ha, I’m not surprised to hear it.  Flattered to have his recommendation…. Can you tell me anything else about these marks? …Really? All three databases? …Well, I’ll do my best, but I make no promises. Do you have photographs, or sketches perhaps? I can start doing some preliminary inquiries…. I’d actually prefer amail, if you can manage it…. Certainly, I imagine we’re pressed for time. Does two PM work? Excellent…. Yes, that would be most convenient. My addresses are in the faculty directory. …Alright. See you tomorrow.”

Carroll hung up the phone and sighed. Lin turned the page of her book, without looking up.

“You’re trying too hard,” Carroll said.

“Huh?” Lin asked, genuinely confused.

“That’s a biology textbook. And I know the author. He’s a bore, so I doubt you’re as engrossed in it as you appear. You’re trying so hard to seem disinterested in my conversation that you’re practically glowing. You have to keep your façade in mind at all times when going undercover.”

Lin snickered and put the book down.

“What’s the best way to eavesdrop then?” she asked.

“In a public setting? Best to act like you’re having your own phone call. But one-on-one, it’s best to just ask what the conversation was about, all innocence. What I volunteer or omit could be illuminating. Since you were eavesdropping however, tell me what you can deduce.”

Lin played back the conversation in her head as accurately as she could.

“Well… That was a detective, and you mentioned ‘dreadful business…’” The mysterious mass suicide at the Calle Colorado bridge yesterday was at the forefront of Lin’s head, but that seemed like a sensational leap, so she set aside the thought and continued her analysis based on facts. “Since you were talking about marks and you’re a language expert, I take it that means he wants some kind of consult. You also mentioned a former student recommended you. Means the detective doesn’t know you personally, so he probably didn’t attend this Athenaeum.”

Carroll’s mouth twitched in a smile.

“Very impressive. You only got one thing wrong.”

Lin drew her head back and knit her brow. I stuck to the facts!

“The detective in question is a woman.”

Lin rolled her eyes.

“Really? Dinging me for a stranger’s pronouns?”

“I’m dinging you for basing your assumptions on reliable-but-sexist statistics. How much do you know about the deaths that occurred on the Calle Colorado Bridge?”

Lin’s eyes widened before she could play things cool.

“Just the headlines and rumors,” Lin said, trying to sound nonchalant. “Six dead. Three ventures’ worth of officers injured, one in critical condition. The Force’s official statement is that circumstances are still unclear.”

“Read a little more carefully next time. The lead detective on the case is a woman. Ledelle Hopkins. If you were able to glean her name, or even her gender from my conversation, you could make an educated guess about the specific case in question.”

Lin bowed her head in concession. Damn. He has a point. Then she smiled wickedly.

“So… what you’re telling me is you’re working on the Suicide Bridge Case?”

Her eyes seemed to sparkle with curiosity. Carroll opened his mouth and closed it before answering:

“I… did not say that. And legally, I can neither confirm or deny it.”

“Can I see the marks?” Lin asked, like a child asking to open her Christmas presents.

“Lin! For somebody intent on joining the Force, you certainly have a blithe regard for the law.”

“Please? I just want to see what they look like.”

“It is out of the question,” he said, stern but good-natured. “In fact, I need you to keep these tidbits to yourself, or else we’ll both be in a world of trouble.”

“You’d be in a lot more trouble than me,” Lin observed. “I promise on my wyrd’s power to stay quiet if you show me one of the marks.”

Carroll chuckled.

“An excellent threat. Astute use of leverage. Unfortunately, I know it’s a bluff, because I know you know how damaging leaked information can be to an investigation. And I like to think that you value our relationship enough to not exploit my trust.”

Lin gave a sulky sigh and nodded. Carroll smiled and took a seat in front of his desktop incanter, which had its screen turned away from Lin.

“Endure biology just a little longer,” Carroll said absently, as he navigated something on the screen. “I need to answer a few amails and then we’ll start on urdoscopic basics…”

Carroll’s voice trailed off. Whatever he saw on the screen drained the color from his cheeks in an instant. Lin looked up and caught a glimpse of bloody gashes reflected in his glasses from his incanter screen. But Carroll closed the window too quickly for her to really process the shapes. He swallowed and took a breath before he noticed Lin was watching him.

“I’m sorry, Lin. This is… more complicated than I thought. It seems I have a very long night ahead of me. May I ask for a postponement on urdoscopy? I promise I’ll make it up to you. Soon.”

There was something desperate in his voice, and a hardness in his eyes that she had never seen before. Those marks scared him, whatever they are. Or made him mad. Or both, maybe. She had never seen either expression on her mentor’s face before, and it chilled her. Even though she had become fond of jousting with Carroll, she respected him tremendously. Whatever he saw on that screen was deadly serious.

“Sure,” Lin said slowly, and started gathering her books and notes into her backpack. “Is everything alright, Master Carroll?”

Carroll took a deep breath and tried to put on his usual, reassuring, encouraging smile. But it was stretched a little too tight. His faint wyrd felt even fainter than usual, but it was also agitated, like he was redirecting its energies to some sort of mental sorcery.

“You have nothing to fear. I promise the school is the safest place in all of Arroyo.”

Lin was slightly miffed that he thought she was afraid, but more concerned about his wellbeing.

“Are you okay though?” Lin pressed.

Carroll looked back up and his expression softened into a smile that seemed more genuine.

“You never need to worry about me, Lin. One day, it will be your turn to save the world, and I mean to fully prepare you for the task. Until then, your concern is enough.” He smiled again. “Thank you. Truly.”

Lin bobbed her head and left her professor, mind ablaze with curiosity.

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