I knew the war was turning our way when my father handed me a necklace, from which depended ten tiny pearls. Its presence seemed so incongruous I asked him “What is this?”
“It is Imaginem vis.” he answered. “The War Council thought you could make the best use of it.” Then he dropped it into my hand and I stared at it, as if wondering how an impossible object could have weight.
There was very little vis left in circulation in Europe. The War Council had so many demands on its resources that some of the covenants in Thebes and Italy were being asked to cast a weak Aegis. A lucky magus who crushed a sprite might trade its single pawn of Corpus vis for any number of pawns of Aquam. Even Imaginem vis was scarce. Many members of House Jerbiton were waiting out the war in the Dominion, and each seemed to want to cast The Shrouded Glen. Magic is more difficult in cities regardless, and so much as the Flambeau liked to carry Ignem vis, many Jerbitons were trading for it, at quite favourable rates.
There was still some around, of course. It had just never trickled down to me, before, other than the stealthy healing of my wounds by a disaffected Tytalus. Perhaps I’d impressed someone. Perhaps, having defeated my father, I was now a senior magus. Perhaps because so many people were dead or deserters that mine were the only hands left? All this aside, it felt excellent to know I was carrying vis. I could exceed myself, if I needed to.
“Whose was it?” I asked, assuming it had come from the preponderant source in recent times.
“It is wild harvested, I believe.” he answered with a smile. “It comes to you with the complements of the Alexandrian League.”
“I am sorry father, but I do not know who they are. I do however, thank them.” I put it on and tucked it under the neck hem of my robe. WE don’t wear jewellery into battle in my House. We like uniformity. It feels comfortable, and filial.
“The Trianomans have managed to shift some of the Jerbiton magi from their neutrality. They do not want to fight personally, but they do not want us to lose. Well, let me be more precise: the do not want a tribe of druids to claim the Order’s great library. A Jerbiton — I want to say Archmagus, but I really mean someone who hosts lovely parties that they all like attending — has created a group who have decided to send us aid in kind, if not in blood.”
“How much did they send?”
“One hundred pawns of various types.” He paused for effect, obviously happy to bear good news for once.
I wanted to say “Good grief.” but that would have annoyed him: pointless enthusiasms always did. “That seems generous?” I ventured.
“It has been an excellent market in which to profiteer.”
“Will none of them fight?”
“Some three or four. There is talk of getting some of you together, and seeing what you can come up with.”
“Sorry, father: who is “you”?”
“You, a couple of idealistic Jerbitons who have volunteered to fight, and Apophany of Criamon.”
“Criamon are pacifists. They literally can’t attack people. or their magic stops working.” I knew he knew this. One of the excellent things about my House is that when you are wrong, you are encouraged to just be wrong, so that you can be corrected. Private error is a vice. Error before a master allows growth and is not frowned upon. This sounds surprisingly like democracy to outsiders, but that’s not how it works, and they rarely see this process. Before outsiders, we have one voice.
“Apparently not all of them.” he continued. “One of them had a revelation. Her explanation is made up of words I understand individually, but make no sense when run together. The consequence of it is that she can use a staff to prod the metaphysical place where your mind interfaces with your muscles. It’s agonizing, or alternatively, quite uplifting, depending on how hard she’s doing it.”
I found the whole idea of someone massaging my ghost with a stick disturbing, so I hurried on “So, why gather us?”
“”You are all illusionists. It would be good to slow the enemy’s development of position. Every few days, we seem to earn a little more support from the neutral Houses. Some magi still can’t bring themselves to believe that this is about to happen, but when each does, their guilty desire to make good is valuable to us.”
“I’d be happy to meet them.”
When we did meet, there was an extra maga, named Callida of Verditus. I’d met her before, when she led me to see her pater at Heartfoam. We’d exchanged barely a few sentences then. “Sorry, are you an illusionist?” I asked.
“No, I’m a redsmith.” she arched her eyebrow and I thought “How does House Verditius keep itself fed and clothes if they get so offended all the time? They have the social skills of rocks.” Then she smiled and said “…but my master thought you might need some spikes at the bottom of the pit.” I nodded.
“Are you spiky then?” asked a Jerbiton I knew was named Malvolio.
“Perhaps she’s just prickly?” added Benvolia, who was possibly his sister or cousin. I could see they were about to do one of their interminable bantering conversations, and so decided to just shut them up immediately. I mean, there was a war on, and we all loved to laugh, but they just did this boring single-entendre stuff. I’d only known them a couple of hours and I was sick of it. Even now I feel kind of guilty about how much I loathed their routine. They were good kids. They deserved better. Then again, so did so many others.
“And for a final introduction, Callida, this is Apophany of Criamon.”
Callida stared at the little woman, sitting at a trestle table, in plain clothes, eating lunch.
“What’s on that bread roll?”
“Pleased to meet you, too.” she said, putting it down while she spoke.
“No, seriously. Aren’t you useless now?”
“You think I lose my powers if I eat bacon?”
“I had been lead so to believe.”
Apophany turned her glass of water into wine, then drank it. Callidfa looked increasingly disturbed. “You’re a Tytalus pretending to be a Criamon.”
“No, I’m a follower of Criamon.”
“Where are your tattoos?”
“They fell off.”
“That’s not possible.”
“I have them in my bag, if you’d like to see them.”
“You have your skin in a bag?”
“No, just my tattoos. On their own. I use them as spellcasting tools sometimes.”
“That’s just weird.”
“Not really. You have casting trinkets. That’s weird. Your lot should get that fixed.”
“Are you picking a fight? You can’t…”
“Actually I can. I’m perfectly capable of belligerence. I call it “The Path of Walking Backwards”. It’s new.”
“Can the rest of you do this?”
“Oh, Heaven’s no. Only me. The rest of them think I’m courting the permanent loss of my powers.”
“Are you saying you are too mad for House Criamon?”
“No. They haven’t thrown me out. I’m still a Criamon. I’m just not bound by the rules of the House. I may do what needs to be done, so that others need not sully their souls. I will eat the sins of the world, and leave the House pure. Am I sounding addled enough for you yet? I can start spinning in circles if you like. Convulsions are also possible, but only after lunch.” She bit the sandwich again and made sounds of approval that were exaggerated and reminded me of my father’s wolf, who does similar things.
Callida stopped for a moment, then said “I didn’t see this conversation going this way at all.” Apophany smiled, swallowed and said “One little piece of enlightenment. That’ll be fivepence.”
“What happens if I give you the five pence?”
“Either I laugh at you or I get dragged into Twilight. Depends who you ask.”
“Now you sound like one of them.”
“I am one of them, but you really need to meet more of us. None of us actually sound like this. Not even me. No, that’s not a puzzle. Not really. Think about it for a sec.”
“Can we start again?”
“Sadly, that’s inevitable.”
“I am Callida. Hello.”
“I’m pleased to meet you. My name is Apophany. Would you like some lunch?”
I knew if we sat down to eat the comedy twins would start up again, but I also knew that Apophany might be doing some weird Criamon metaphor involving bread and bacon and the geomancy of condiment bottles. “While we eat, can we think of terrible things to do to the enemy, please? Practical, terrible things. No jokes. No moral lessons, No ridiculously complicated gadgets. Illusions followed by confusion or death, please.”
“Confusion to our enemies!” toasted Apophany.
Wine seemed like a good idea. My temples were starting to ache, and I had the distinct sensation the only way out was through.