Isabelle was careful to be as discreet as she could be while her father spoke to his people down below. Richard had taken them into the Raven’s Fort, which was distinct from Ravenfort, despite the fact that it sat entirely inside the city that shared its name. Thousands of years ago, when Retrein was a Narcian colony, the elderly witch Meriah had had her men build a fortress on the Lockey River to defend against the hostile “wood-folk,” who had deep ties with the Wild Spirits. Meriah, who prized her raven familiar Irric dearly, flew banners with a black raven on a grey field, and this gave the fortress its name.
Meriah had been the Royal Observer for the King of Narica in this expedition, and had the equivalent rank of an army general. The fortress had held out against attacks for several years before a second wave of colonists founded Canwick nearby. Canwick began to grow, and people began to refer to the settlements between the fortress and Canwick as “Raven’s Town.” Eventually, Raven’s Town expanded, absorbing Canwick and clearing away much of the forest, and the city came to be named after the fortress.
The odd consequence was that even after Retrein amicably seceded from Narcia, Raven’s Fort was still considered Narcian territory, by the right of the King. Then, of course, Narcia became a republic, which might have been the end of it, but the Raven’s Fort insisted that it remained the last true remnant of the Kingdom of Narcia, despite the fact that, through treaties, it was under the protection of the Queendom (but not the Queen) of Retrein and bound by the Royal Laws, with a few complicated exceptions (for instance, the Raven’s Fort made no distinction between theft and larceny, which were two very different things in the eyes of most Retrons.) To this day, the Observer was considered the ruler of the Raven’s Fort, and even Queen Elona officially had to request permission to enter.
Despite the fact that it was only about a square mile in size, the Raven’s Fort had developed its own unique culture, and was governed by four guilds, each representing the forces under Meriah’s command, or so the legends went. These were the Macer Guild, the Foster-Lumbers, the Trapsman’s Guild, and the Witch’s Coven. Only the last of these still had anything to do with its original purpose (the Macers, for example, had been soldiers, but now were effectively a bank.)
The Coven kept the oldest library in Retrein, and possibly the entire continent of Ganlea. The base of the building was made of thick stone, and much of its size was fairly box-shaped, but a precarious-looking tower – one that made Carom’s Hight look as stable as a pyramid - rose out of it. From a distance, an observer might assume that the tower – which at one point along its length did actually twist in a corkscrew shape, among its other undulations – was rather small. In fact, the bulbous peak of the tower was the size of a large house, and it was in this place that Isabelle had managed to wander off while her father was speaking with the Coven’s Matron.
She had no idea what to look for, but Jim had suggested this area for her to check. She still did not know what to make of the demon. Her father described him as one of the most evil and dangerous beings she would ever meet, but so far, Jim had seemed practically friendly. She knew this could be an act, but for whatever reason, she felt more comfortable talking about magic with him than with her father. Richard had always been reluctant to discuss the practice with Isabelle, and made no secret of the fact that he hoped she would choose another profession when she was an adult. Yet in recent months, she seemed to be learning to perform magic completely by accident.
She had very little control over her strange brand of magic. Occasionally, she would sense something that was not there, perhaps seeing a little glowing shaft of light or feeling something like a gossamer string. They were easy to push aside or blow away like dust. She had not even realized that her father’s Vault was so thoroughly enchanted until Jim told her.
As Jim explained, magic, by its strictest definition, and the only one accepted by rational people, was essentially the substitution of another universe’s laws in a limited space or time. Knowing which universe to tap into was a key to being successful in the practice of magic. There were only a handful of these useful universes that students of the arcane had catalogued, and while they did not have names, they had clear uses.
So, Isabelle walked down the aisle marked “Compendia,” while a sweet-looking old lady dressed in black sat at the desk and sipped some sort of strange tea and stroked the adorably affectionate cat that stood on her desk.
It was difficult work. One book referred to another, and at one point she had to go to the woman at the desk to unlock a huge tome that required a key. There seemed to be hundreds of descriptions that only half-matched what she had done.
Finally, two books after the one that needed a key, she found what she was looking for: “Aetherial Awareness Without Augment.” That seemed to fit her best. Unfortunately, after the description of the ability was described, rather than an index of affiliated gods and practical disciplines that followed all the other types of magic she had seen, there was simply a note that read: “I. S.”
Isabelle approached the old witch, who was now scratching the chin of the sprawling cat, much to the feline’s delight. “Excuse me,” she said.
“I found this note here. ‘I. S.’ Do you know what it means?”
The witch frowned thoughtfully and pulled out a gigantic reference book, which she let thump down on the desk, scaring the cat away. The witch flipped through the pages eventually coming to the right part of the glossary. “Let’s see here. ‘I. S.’ There we go. ‘Instrumenta Sapientes.’”
“What does that mean?” It had the sound of one of the secret languages. In Invocative Magic, these strange, foreign tongues were used to reach out to gods and spirits, who would act on behalf of the conjurer. Likewise, in Aetherial Magic, words such as these were often used in conjunction with the proper equipment as psychological tool to allow the magician to attain the right state of mind to interact with the hidden energies they wished to manipulate, though some arcane physicists had hypothesized that in these cases, the invocations functioned on the principle of a placebo effect.
The Librarian-Witch responded. “Tools of the Sages.’ Here, take a look.”
Isabelle looked through the fine, fine print of the glossary. There it was, “Instrumenta Sapientes.” The entry read:
“Tools of the Sages. See: Aetherial Awareness, Telekinesis, Timewalking, Path of Aeoes. See also: Non-magic Arcane Phenomena.”
Non-magic? The revelation sat like a heavy stone in her gut.
The old witch smiled up at her. “Did you find what you wanted, love?”
(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2013)