The Flaw in All Magic Sample

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“YOU HAVE TO let me look at the workshop!”

“Absolutely not,” said Dean Greymond. They were standing in the hall just outside the room where they’d questioned Kivit Thrung.

“If he didn’t do it, and no one went in or out, it raises a thousand questions,” said Tane. “Even if someone had been waiting inside since before Kivit got there, how did they get out after the building was closed down? No illusion would have done it once the guards were on alert.” True invisibility was impossible—the closest thing was the instinctive gnomish ability to blend into their surroundings with illusion, which was extremely difficult for a mage to emulate consciously. And it didn’t hold up well under scrutiny. “That leaves, what… a portal? That’s dangerous magic.” An improperly stabilized portal could swallow whoever stepped through it into the Astra—not to mention the things that could come out.

“You know we have very strict portal wards,” Greymond said. “Only the deans or the chancellor can make a portal into or out of University grounds, and it wasn’t one of us—we had a meeting in Chancellor Nieris’ office that night that went very late, and no one was absent.”

“That’s exactly my point,” said Tane. “This looks impossible at a glance. Whoever did it might have left some sign, and just looking at diagrams isn’t going to tell me—”

“It’s all you’re going to get, Mister Carver. You did well with Thrung, but I shouldn’t have let you go that far. I have to admit, I was… curious. To see what you could do, now that I know you have no magic. But the constabulary will be arriving soon, and we can’t have you running around the University where someone might get the wrong idea. Can you imagine how it would look if word reached the Gazette that you were assisting in the investigation?”

“Dean Greymond, please.” Tane needed this. His friend was dead, and he needed to know who had done it, and why—and beyond that, solving an impossible crime where the mages of the University and Stooketon Yard couldn’t would go a long way towards proving the point he’d been trying to prove for years. “I just want to help.”

“And you can. It will help us a great deal to have those diagrams proofed for errors, and you will be paid well for it. That is your role here. Nothing else.”

She isn’t going to listen. I’m wasting my breath. Tane nodded. “Of course, Dean Greymond. I’m sorry, I’m just… invested in this. Allaea was my friend.”

Greymond’s eyes narrowed and took on that faraway look. Looking for lies. “Mister Carver, promise me you won’t try to get into the workshop.”

Careful. Easy breaths. “I won’t.”

She watched him a moment longer, pursed her lips, drummed a finger against her leg. Finally, she turned to the guards at the door. “You,” she said to the half-orc. “Escort Mister Carver off campus. See that he goes nowhere but out through the gates.”

“Yes,” the half-orc woman said, and took Tane’s arm in a startlingly firm grip. “Come.” She had a strong Svernan accent—the Audish words came out short and clipped.

Tane went along without a fuss. It didn’t matter. He’d already made his choice, and Greymond’s divinations had been easy enough to evade.

He was getting into that workshop, one way or another.

Outside, on the front steps of the divination hall, the half-orc released his arm. “Don’t run,” she said in her heavy accent. “I am faster.” She bared her teeth in a wide, unsettling grin.

“I don’t doubt it,” Tane said agreeably, matching step with her down the path toward the campus center. He was going to have to slip her guard before they reached the gates, or he’d never get back in, but for that he’d need to put her at ease first. “Forgive me if this is nosy, but you must come from Sverna by your accent. We don’t see very many orcs here who weren’t born on the Isle.” The orcish homeland was highly isolationist, and they had no magic there—quite the opposite of the Protectorate. But then, Svernan orcs weren’t supposed to approve of breeding with humans either, and here this woman was. “It feels like there’s a story there, if you don’t mind telling it?”

“Clever man,” she said with another toothy grin. “I was born in Sverna, yes. There, do what clan chief says, every day. Everything is… ordinary. Boring. I wanted to see things. See magic.”

“Well you came to the right place,” said Tane. “There’s nowhere more magical than the Protectorate, and most of it is here in Thaless.” He stopped, and extended his hand. “I’m Tane. Carver.”

She squeezed his hand too tight and shook vigorously. “Kadka, of Clan Nadivek. Or was. Now not so much.”

“It’s a pleasure, Kadka. Have you been here for very long?”

“Only month, little more,” she said. “Is still new for me.” That was good. She might not know the best paths across campus yet. “But not new for you, yes? Sivisk”—that must have been the kobold guard—“tells me you were student in magic here with no magic. How do you fool so many mages for so long?”

“Trickery and deceit, mostly,” Tane said. “I’m strong at magical theory, which made the practical parts easy to fake.”

“Teachers never ask you to make spell?”

“Of course, but that’s not so hard. A little sleight of hand—” He reached behind Kadka’s ear and produced a brass coin, to her obvious surprise, then flipped it into the air, caught it, and spun it across his knuckles. “—and you’d be surprised what you can do. An artifact up the sleeve to duplicate one spell or another, that sort of thing. With proper misdirection, they never notice a thing.” She was still staring at the coin in his right hand when he opened the left one, revealing the silver-on-blue enameled badge he’d plucked from her coat.

She laughed, a too-loud cackle of delight. “You are clever man. But why do they never make spell to catch lies, or see if magic is yours?”

“Those can be fooled, but no one is casting them in the first place if they don’t have reason to. I didn’t give them a reason. It’s like this: there are three schools of magic a student can concentrate in. Invocation and Artifice both require harnessing magical energy with showy words or glyphs, and you’re expected to produce tangible, physical results. Divination is all about quietly searching the Astra for answers that you can usually get out of people without any magic at all, and if you get one wrong, well, it’s known to be an unreliable art. I’ll give you one guess where I declared my concentration.”

“So you are like mage with no magic,” said Kadka with an impressed nod. “You must know much about spells, to do this for so long. This is why Greymond asks for your help?”

They were nearing the narrow gap between the lecture theatre and Thalen’s Hall—the administrative center of the University. There were no guards in sight. And Kadka seemed charmed by his story, for the moment.

He wasn’t going to get a better chance.

“Something like that,” Tane said. “And I want to help. The woman who died… I knew her.”

Kadka frowned. “I am sorry. There is no good way to lose friend, but that is bad one.”

“That’s why I wanted a closer look. I know you’re supposed to bring me to the gates, but maybe we could stop by the artifice workshops? We don’t have to go in, I just… I want to see for myself that they’re taking the investigation seriously.”

She hesitated. “Greymond says—”

“I know. Look, though.” He still had her badge in his hand, and he flipped it over to show the polished brass on the back where the glyphs were engraved. On this side, glinting in the light, it looked like nothing more than a strangely patterned coin. “These glyphs are keyed to the campus wards. They determine who can go in and out. Without one of these, I can’t get anywhere I’m not supposed to, so…” His foot caught on a cobblestone, and a glinting circle fell from his hand, rolling away into the grass. “Well that was stupid. Can you see it?”

Kadka stepped off the path, kneeling to look for her badge.

The moment her back was turned, Tane bolted.

He darted into the narrow alley between buildings just ahead and to his right. Kadka shouted what might have been a Svernan curse—“Deshka,” it sounded like—and then he heard her running. He took a left into the alley behind the dining hall, where a locked gate barred the way. With any luck, Kadka would see that and assume he’d gone the other way, which would cost her time heading back toward the lecture theatre before joining with the main footpath on the other side.

But Tane had cut through this gate many times when he’d been a student. The latch was easy to flip.

He rounded the next corner and froze, holding his breath and waiting for the patter of Kadka’s feet passing by the little alley. And there it was—she was going the wrong way. Thank the Astra.

Tane exited the alley onto the open grass of the campus center. From there it was a quick sprint across to the artifice workshops on the north side.

He was panting as he neared the broad brick building, but he couldn’t see Kadka behind him yet. He forced himself to slow down and breathe through his nose. Don’t want to look too suspicious to the guards.

There were two men at the door, a broad-shouldered human and a dwarf with thick mutton-chop sideburns.Spellfire, let them not recognize me.

“Gentlemen.” Tane gave them a nod, and strode confidently for the door.

The dwarf moved to block his way. “The building is closed, sir.”

Tane flashed them Kadka’s badge—he’d palmed it up his sleeve and dropped the coin for her to chase. “That’s why I’m here,” he said. “Dean Greymond asked me to double check the wards, make sure no one has access who shouldn’t. We don’t want the scene tampered with before the constables get here.” He shook his head sadly. “That poor girl. I hope they catch the bastard who did this soon.” Greymond had said they were still keeping the murder quiet—just knowing about it would make his story credible.

“Damn right,” said the big human. “No one should die like that.” He waved his partner aside. “Go on in. It’s the one at the far end of the hall.”

Tane pushed through the doors, risking a quick glance over his shoulder. Still no sign of Kadka, but she wouldn’t be long. It would take her a moment to explain why she didn’t have her badge, and then they’d come after him.

He didn’t have much time.

Two smaller workshops sat at either side of the mage-lit hall, but Tane hurried toward the far end. The primary workshop took up most of the back half of the building, an ample space for artificers to develop the magical devices and machines that made their small island nation a powerful force in the economy of the Continent.

The door wasn’t locked. Tane was certain that the keys to most doors on campus had been misplaced long ago out of simple disuse—the wards were meant to be an improvement over any mundane lock.

But they hadn’t been enough to protect Allaea.

I hope this works. If it didn’t, it was going to be like walking into a wall. He took a deep breath, and stepped forward through the open doorway. He felt a familiar tingle on his skin, and the hair on the backs of his arms stood up as he met the wards.

And then he was through.

There was no time for relief. The guards would be coming soon.

The workshop stretched open before him, a vast, warehouse-like space stacked with shelf after shelf of artifacts and components and ancryst machines in various states of disassembly. The metals common to artifice glittered in the dim magelight: copper for conductivity, brass for insulation, silver for amplification, gold for stability. Stacks of tubes and plates were interspersed with brass chests, carefully sealed to protect the magically reactive ancryst stone within. Gears and cogs and rods of iron and steel were strewn everywhere—Astrally inactive metals that wouldn’t interfere with the magic fields that drove ancryst machinery. High up on the walls, in the shadows near the ceiling, he could vaguely make out glyphs of the wards surrounding the room.

And there was the body.

Tane hadn’t seen her at first. She’d been left for the bluecaps to examine with their divinations, lying face-down on the floor some ten feet back, half-hidden between shelves. Devastatingly close to the door. If she’d just been a little bit faster

He knelt beside her. Her head lay on its side, staring back at him with scorched, empty eye-sockets. Thank the Astra Indree isn’t here to see her like this. He wouldn’t even have known it was Allaea if Greymond hadn’t told him. Much of her skin had melted and sloughed from her skull, leaving exposed patches of blackened bone crumbling to powder in places. Only a few locks of blonde hair remained on her scalp, clinging to patches of flesh the spellfire hadn’t touched. Tane’s stomach lurched, and he had to look away.

I’ll help find whoever did this to you, Allaea. I promise you that.

There were no scorch-marks anywhere but on her flesh, no signs of fire behind her. Despite its great heat, spellfire went only where it was aimed by a mage, and burned only what it was permitted to burn—assuming, of course, that the spell was worded properly. But scattered metal parts and stray gemstones marked the way she’d come, knocked from the shelves in her haste. The trail led deeper into the workshop. There was something strange about that. If he snuck up on her with the intent to kill, how did she get this far? He should have been between her and the door, but it looks like he was chasing her this way.

A sudden thud came from the doorway, and a grunt of pain. Tane leapt to his feet and looked toward the sound.

Kadka was outside, rubbing her nose where it had struck the wards. She gave him a rueful grin. “Forgot. No badge.”

She was, as far as he could tell, alone. “Where are the other guards?”

“Outside. I tell them I have message for you from Dean Greymond.”

“What? Why?”

Kadka shrugged. “Tell them you stole badge, maybe trouble for me. We leave quietly now, maybe not.”

“You’re not angry?” Orcs had a reputation for ill temper, though Tane supposed that could easily be rumor and prejudice. There weren’t many of them in the Protectorate to judge by.

“Why be angry? You wanted to help friend. And chase is more exciting than standing by door all day.” She grinned again, and then cocked her head. “How are you inside? Even with badge, should only let in deans and guard now, yes?”

Tane’s fists clenched with an anger he knew all too well. He forced one open, found the brass watch casing in his pocket, and touched the familiar dents and scrapes. “I’ll tell you how. Someone was careless. There are two wards on this room. The first is used in secure areas all across campus, a general purpose ward that keeps out anyone but registered faculty, staff, and students. Present and former students, so they can bring wealthy alumni through when they need donations. The second ward narrows access to anyone who can get through the first and has a properly glyphed badge. When they restricted the wards, they didn’t change the first one, and I am in the registry as a former student. Expelled, but that’s a kind of former. That phrasing was the first thing I noticed when Greymond showed me the ward diagrams. They did restrict the badges allowed through the second ward, but University Guard badges still have access.” He flashed her badge. “And I have this.

“Small oversights. Easy to correct. But nobody did, so here I am. They assumed no one would get by both wards, or maybe no one noticed the problem at all—no mage is going to look very closely at some glyphs in the corner once the spell’s been cast. Any of the staff who maintain those glyphs and the gems that power them might have caught it, but they don’t know what they’re looking for. Menial jobs like that are beneath a trained mage. People who can’t cast spells don’t get to understand them.

“You came here for the magic? Well, let me tell you the most important thing about magic, Kadka. There’s a flaw in all of it, the same flaw in every spell: the mage. When they make a mistake, who’s going to challenge them on it? That’s why I’m standing here. That’s why my friend is dead. Because there’s always—”

A distant howl cut off the end of Tane’s diatribe, something like an animal’s call with the low crack and groan of sudden frost behind it. It had to have come from deeper in the workshop, but it sounded somehow further away than the size of the room would allow. His heart thumped against his chest, and he half-turned toward the sound, then back toward Kadka.

She was staring past him, a focused glint in her eye. Drawing her shortsword with one hand, she beckoned to Tane with the other. “My badge,” she said in a low voice. “Something is in there with you.”


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