“She sounds dangerous.”
Cal looked up from her work. Alendra was sitting opposite her on the floor of the attic of Sable and Burr’s, surrounded by scrolls and tomes. They’d been studying in silence for over an hour since Cal had told her about Renna.
“She’s not that bad,” Cal said. “Plus, she taught me most of what I know. I’d have been dead in a gutter if it weren’t for her.”
“Well, ‘not that bad’ sounds like a ringing endorsement.”
Cal rolled her eyes. “Trust me, that’s better than most where I’m from.” She looked back down at her project. This week’s artificing challenge was to make something that could be used to defend yourself. So far, she was sitting around a pile of scraps and hastily scrawled notes.
“Do you want to take a break? I feel stuck.”
“Hold on a second,” Alendra stared intently at the page of a book. “Got it!” She jumped up and put her hands out in front of her, fingers splayed and tensed.
“Oh no,” Cal said, scrambling to her feet. “Not in my room!”
“Relax, I know what I’m doing.” The air began to tremor and smell of ozone as Alendra concentrated. Cal felt a pressure, emanating from an invisible point floating in the center of the room. The wood beneath the point creaked, and the papers and books scattered across the floor as though pushed by a wind that wasn’t there. The effect held for a few moments, but it disappeared just as quickly as it appeared. Alendra threw up her hands and scowled.
“Gah! What’s wrong with me? I’m doing exactly what the books said to do!”
Cal looked around at the room.“What just happened?”
“It was supposed to be an omni-directional non-terrestrial antigravitational effect spell,” Alendra muttered, regathering her displaced books.
“Allie, you’re doing that thing again? The one that we talked about?”
“Hmm?” She looked up from her book. “Sorry, what was that?”
“You went all… Fall Court on me.”
“Right. I was trying to make this stupid spell work. It’s supposed to create a point of anti-gravitational force—that is, pushing instead of pulling. That in and of itself is hard, but I can do it. The harder part is that the force isn’t in the direction of natural gravity, so you’re working to counteract that while also adding another direction of force at the same time. Third, it’s in all directions. That’s why everything moved away from the center of the room where I cast it.”
“Okay, I think I get it. But what’s the problem? You were doing it!”
“A few seconds that leaves me breathless is hardly ‘doing it’.”
Cal tried and then failed to suppress a snicker.
Alendra frowned. “What? What’s so—” She frowned as what she’d said dawned on her. “Oh, grow up, Cal!”
Cal let out a full laugh. A couple seconds later, Alendra joined in.
“So you want the spell to last more than a few seconds,” Cal said once they’d calmed down. “What’s the problem? Is it a… energy problem? Do you not have enough?”
“No, my reserves are fine. Plenty of sleep and I ate only a few hours ago. It just takes a lot of concentration. Basic spells are like training a muscle, but this is more like juggling.” She shook her head. “I think I’m getting too frustrated to think straight.”
“Whenever I get that way, I go back to basics.”
Alendra raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t realize I was speaking to an expert in advanced spells.”
“Didn’t say I was.” Cal grinned. “But sometimes picking an easy lock gives you the confidence to pick a hard one.”
“Right. I’m sure that’s totally transferable to gravitic magic.” She rolled her eyes. “So, what, I should just lift some books?”
“You could, or you could teach me to.”
“Really? You want to try?”
“Yeah, why not? That light spell you showed me has come in handy already.”
“Okay, just the basics then. Nothing that’s Autumn Court specific.” She crossed over to the makeshift bed and sat down, gesturing for Cal to sit across from her. “You’ve been practicing the light spell?”
Cal thought back to the alley, to when she’d thrown her hands over Jasten’s eyes. She remembered his screams of pain and the light seeping through her fingers. “Yeah… I’d say I have that one down.”
“Good. We start with the same process. Energy from your body being put out into the world. Except, unlike light, gravity isn’t technically a force of energy.”
Alendra smiled, leaning forward.
“No. It’s a part of the universe and exists within all things, though we can’t see its effects in nature except for on a huge scale, like Apaernore itself.” She was speaking fast now. “But, everything attracts everything else. The books on the ground are constantly pulling on each other. The papers, this bed, the floorboards. There’s attraction between them.”
“What about you and me?”
Alendra nodded. “Definitely. People have gravity. And unlike light, for example, it’s constant. A lamp may run out of oil, but it will always be pulling on everything else.”
“So how come things don’t just slam into each other? And what about the sun? Or the moons? Why don’t they just fall into us?”
“That’s for a variety of reasons. I can explain some of it, and tell you some of it is Autumn Court secrets. But the part you should be concerned about is that gravity is weak and gets stronger the closer or more massive two things are. The celestial bodies are very, very far from us. Again, this is a simplification. So far, so good?”
A million questions swum in Cal’s head, and she wasn’t sure any of them had a good answer. Plus, it unsettled her to think that the sun was constantly pulling on Apaernore. “I’m just going to say yes so we can get to the fun part.”
Alendra laughed. “A good theoretical knowledge makes for a good working knowledge. But fine, we can move on to the fun part.” She grabbed a book off the floor and held it in her hands. “And while making things float is fun, antigravity is harder. The first thing to learn is how to amplify gravity in the natural direction. I’ll hold this book and I want you to try and make the book pull on the ground more.”
Cal frowned. “Not the other way around? Doesn’t the world pull the book?”
“Do you know how far it is from here to Tumaan?”
“What? I don’t even know where that is.”
“It’s halfway around the globe. And the answer is far. Very, very far. My point is that Apaernore is incredibly large. If you want to be the first mage to successfully bind the entire planet to do a basic spell, be my guest.” She cocked her head to the side and smiled. “If not, let’s stick with the book.”
Cal sighed. “Fine, let’s use the book, I guess.”
“Good. Like I said, gravity isn’t a force of energy. If two objects are drawn to one another, but cannot move closer, the object holds that as potential energy. When the object can move closer, their potential energy becomes kinetic energy. To increase the book’s gravitational pull, you have to pour energy into it. Just be careful, because I don’t want you setting this thing on fire. Last time, I said to focus on the heat of your palms, this time, focus on the weight.”
“Got it.” Cal held her hands out over the book, hovering inches above the leather cover. She concentrated on feeling the weight. The weight took on a new meaning with Alendra’s lecture on gravity. It wasn’t just a heaviness, it was a pulling sensation. Something tugging her extended arms down, and pulling up on the world itself. A desire for closeness.
She looked down at the book. She imagined pushing the weight she felt in her hands into the book.
At first, nothing happened. There wasn’t a light, like her first spell, and it was hard to see if anything was happening. Then, Alendra smile.
“I can feel it, the book seems heavier.”
“Really?” Cal said, her eyes snapped up, concentration broken.
“Yeah! That was it!” Alendra tossed the book aside and broke into a grin. “That was amazing!”
Cal laughed. “Well, I’ve got a good teacher.” She felt great, and not even the sudden wave of exhaustion following magic could bring her down.
“And I’ve got a good student.” She sat back, picking up the book again. “You know what? I think that helped. I’m gonna give the spell another go.” She stood up, arms towards the center of the room. The air became charged, and Cal felt the hair on the back of her neck stand upright. As Alendra concentrated, Cal felt herself being pushed backward toward the wall. She recognized the tug of gravity, but this was sideways.
She held her breath as the seconds passed and the sensation grew stronger. Soon, every item not nailed to the floor was pushed against the walls. Finally, Alendra lowered her arms and the spell ended.
“Oh my gods, I did it!” She turned and beamed at Cal. “It worked!”
“Now that was amazing,” Cal said as she stood. She was momentarily thrown off balance as Alendra wrapped her arms around her.
“Thanks, Cal.” As she pulled away, she looked around. “Oh… sorry about—”
“Nah, don’t worry about it. This place was a mess anyways.”
“If you’re sure.” She looked out the window. It was pitch black outside. “Shit, what time is it?”
“You think I can afford a clock?”
“Given your classes, it’d probably be easier for you to make one.” Alendra grinned. She stared out at the street and furrowed her brow. “I really don’t feel like making the hike back to my place.”
“Then crash here,” Cal said. “I don’t mind.”
“Thanks,” Alendra said, flopping down on the bed. She yawned and looked up as Cal sat down on the floor in front of her artificing book. “You not gonna sleep yet?”
“Not yet. I think I’m close to something.”
“Alright,” she turned over, “just don’t wear yourself out, okay?”
“Mmm,” Cal said, narrowing her eyes at the page. Something to defend yourself with, right? Cal would recommend not being stupid enough to get into the situation in the first place. That and know how to climb the walls in an alley.
But that wasn’t exactly something she could present to Teagan.
She’d scribbled half a dozen bad ideas on the page. Alendra would’ve been horrified at her treatment of the book. Using the mechanism from her jumping boots to make a punching gauntlet? There wasn’t a proper energy source, and it would do just as much damage to your arm as to the other person. Light had worked well against Jasten, but that was point-blank into his eyes. Flame… Cal wasn’t going to test a flame weapon in her wood room.
Cal’s mind wandered to the ring she’d first used to fake the entrance exam. Out of fear that someone would realize what it was, she’d stashed it under some shattered pottery on the balcony outside her room. She quietly slipped onto the porch and took out the ring.
Jewelry had never interested Cal beyond what value it had once fenced. The ring itself was rather plain, and if she didn’t know about the runes covering the inside loop, it wouldn’t even have been worth stealing if she saw it on the street. Now that she’d had artificing classes, she could actually pick out enough of the runes to know that this was more impressive than any mundane, gem-encrusted jewelry. What had the salesman called it? A gravitic-mitigation device?
Cal’s eyes widened. Runes for gravity! Her classes certainly hadn’t covered that! She hurried back inside, clutching the ring tightly. She flipped to another page in the book and started to trace out the runes on the ring. She was careful not to draw the links that would complete the enchantment.
The work was difficult. The runes on the ring must’ve been made using a magnifying glass, as they were almost impossible to pick out. By the time Cal had them all down, her eyes hurt. She stared down at the jumble of lines on the page. Some she knew, others she didn’t. It was easy enough to pick out the anchors, inputs, outputs, and even some triggers. She circled what she recognized, leaving only the unknown glyphs.
She gave only a moment’s thought to trying trial by error. The wrong circuit could set the room on fire, or explode, or something else even worse. With irritation, Cal realized her only choice was to do what she hated most.
She had to do it the “right” way.
So, grabbing her quill, she started to take notes, charting out what each part of the ring’s circuit did. There was the system to activate the ring’s power, as well as the signs for various fixed values, but the energy channeling didn’t make any sense. According to her drawings, the ring only used the heat of the wearer’s hand. That wasn’t nearly enough to create the weight-canceling effect. There was something going on here she didn’t get. At least not yet.
She moved on. This was clearly high-level artificing. As her head began to ache, she finally arrived at a rune that she knew had to represent gravity.
Using high-level magic was sure to earn marks in her favor, but what could she do with it? She started sketching concepts, but none of them stuck. She turned to a new page and started again. Still nothing.
Cal scowled, ripping the page from the book, balling up the paper, and tossing it away from her.
As it impacted softly across the room, she had an idea.
Systems worked on energy transference, right? Heat to light, light to sound, sound to kinetic. But these worked in both directions. If something could be made hot, it could be made cold. If something had kinetic energy pushing it in one direction, it could be made to move in the reverse direction. What about gravity?
Alendra has said that if two things were far apart, gravity was weak. The further apart they were, the weaker they were. If their energy was expressed as a number, like it could be in artificing runes, then it stood to reason that eventually, two things would be so far apart that their energy was essentially zero. So could they be less than zero?
Cal was making her own head hurt. She flipped to a new page in the book and started to draw in the margins.
First, she drew two circles. Objects. Because of gravity, these objects had potential energy, and if the objects moved toward each other, it transferred from potential to kinetic, didn’t it? She drew two arrows pointing at each other, each with the kinetic rune. So the potential energy due to gravity was transformed into movement, and the kinetic energy left the object when it could get no closer. Where’d it go? Well, into whatever it hit. Cal had fallen off enough roofs to know that tended to go badly for all involved.
But Alendra had also said gravity wasn’t a form of energy. If it wasn’t, then what was it? It was… a thing. A thing everything had. Just like weight, or shape, or color. It was a quality. A property.
Cal’s eyes snapped back to the ring. That’s why the energy transference hadn’t made sense! The ring didn’t use heat to lift objects; it used heat to power itself and used runes—runes Cal didn’t understand—to change the target object’s relationship to gravity!
Cal stared at her notes and frowned. They looked like the scribblings of a madman. But theoretically… it was sound.
Time to make it real. In one corner of the room, she’d started accumulating scraps of wood and metal, junk that she could practice with. She grabbed some pieces and scratched the runes in place. She didn’t know how late it was, but when she was finished, she felt pride. Sure, it was literally a piece of splintered wood covered in runes, but it might actually work!
In the end, she’d stolen a lot of the ring’s design. The body of the device she had made was a little like a crossbow, with a handle to hold and aim with. This is where she’d place a set of runes to collect heat from her hand while she held it. Next was the hard part. While the ring used fixed integer glyphs to lower an object’s gravity by a percentage, Cal had to make a system which reversed an object’s gravity. Not only that, but since gravity was so weak, she’d have to amplify the effect at the same time. She decided to give the weapon an equivalent effect to negative thirty times the planet’s gravity on a linked object. She fashioned a crude trigger that completed the circuit when pulled, activating the mechanism.
But now she had a weapon without any ammunition. She found a metal rod and scratched new runes into it, linking it to the gravity system.
When all was said and done, Cal’s hands were cramping and there was sweat on her brow. It was time to test. She loaded the rod, aimed at a wall, and pulled the trigger—
The rod shot out, lodging itself in the wall. At the same time, Cal was pushed back, knocking her to the ground. She cried out and Alendra jolted upright.
“What? What happened?” She said, raising her hands and preparing to cast a spell. She looked over at Cal, who was shrieking with laughter, then back at the wall where the rod had impacted. A spiderweb of cracks had formed around it. “Was that, uh, on purpose?”
“I didn’t think it would work!” Cal said, standing up. “Sure, I forgot to account for the effect it would have on the launcher itself, but that can be designed out.” She held up the device. “I reversed gravity!”
“Really?” Alendra blinked. A smile spread across her face. “That’s amazing!” Then, staring back at the rod, she frowned. “And then you used it to make a weapon?”
“Yeah!” She saw Alendra’s expression. “But don’t worry! It’s for class.”
“I know, it’s just…”
“What’s the problem?”
“What?” Cal asked again.
“Have… have you ever killed anyone?”
Cal cocked her head to the side. It seemed like an odd question. “A good thief doesn’t have to.”
“Is that a no?”
“I’m a good thief, aren’t I?”
“But could you do it?”
Cal thought for a moment. “Hard to say. I’ve never been in a position I couldn’t get out of before. But, I guess. If it came down to them or me, yeah, I think I could do it.”
“What about Renna?”
“I think she could too.”
“No, I mean, has she killed before?”
“You don’t know, do you?”
“It’s been years since I’ve seen her. I don’t know what’s happened since then. Why?”
Cal saw the concern in Alendra’s eyes. “Like I said, she seems dangerous.”
“And as I said,” Cal said, scowling, “I’d be dead a dozen times over if it hadn’t been for her.”
“Okay, fine, forget I said anything.” She sighed. “Just promise me you’ll be careful, alright?”
“Don’t worry,” Cal held up her new weapon. “I’ve got this thing under control.”
Alendra turned back over in bed. “I wasn’t talking about that.”