Chapter 1 Hat

        Magic was all about Roween, even here, and she hated it.
        She'd been staying in the inn almost a week now, far from towns of any consequence, waiting, trying to keep dry. It rained forever on the northern borders, heavy rain, monotonous, an unending, dull, background strum that was always present, nagging at her, drumming, insisting that it be heard no matter what she did to try shut it out. Rain, magic. If only she could once again imagine silence...
        She paid the barman, silver, took her coffee over to a table some way from the entrance. It was warmer, less damp there, and the distant, cloud-filtered light greyed everything to drabness, ghosted people, hid their faces; hid their eyes.
        The bar was busying up. Locals mainly, the usual shifts of homeward-headed miners, loggers, potters; later, there'd maybe be some of the heavy labourers who kept the rivers banked, stopped the roads and bridges from washing away. Roween glanced around, tried to look bored, picked out the day's new outsiders: three of them - better-dressed sorts complaining to one another about their rooms, self-consciously avoiding mention of the weather. Likely they worked in sales or something; no-one she knew, anyway, no-one she was expecting.
        Folk here never talked about the weather, ever. Climate control is smart enough magic for the areas where it's controlled; it's not so smart for wherever the bad stuff crashes instead. Last time there'd been more than a day of sun in the borderlands was maybe four or five years ago, and as for night-time... Roween recalled the perpetual streams that striated the sloped window of the garret she'd rented; she shuddered. When was the last time these people had seen a star?
        Crack! The main door swung open wide, jarring against its stop with a juddering creak. A heartbeat passed, two, no-one entered, then just as a shout went up, "Keep out that wet!" a woman appeared, tall, young, dangerous. Throwing back the hood of a cloak as light and as dry as ashes, she paused in the doorway; her high-styled, painfully blonde hair almost gleamed as she looked about, minding for movement, eyes alert with a wincing intensity.
        She was Someone, and she was making an Entrance.
        Whispers began, low, fearful.
        Roween heard a hushed voice nearby - "Who..?" - but she didn't reply, took a slow breath instead, deep, long, tried to stop her pulse from dancing stupid. It's her, it is her, Conley of Malith.
        So it was starting.
        A man grabbed Conley by the arm. "Nice cloak, lady," he sneered. "You're either very rich, or one big mage..."
        "Both," she replied, glancing at his hand, "like you're both very drunk and one big empty-head." She walked across to the bar, the workman's grip slackened impotent by the nervous laughter of his peers.
        The barkeep eyed her, face stone. "And what can I get you, miss?"
        She smiled, turned to face the crowd. "I'm looking for someone, a girl: she's short, dark-haired, with quirky, crooked eyes. She came this way six, perhaps seven days ago."
        The room went silent, dead but for the patient patter of the rain.
        "I see..." Conley straightened, looked back to the barman. "You'd remember her, I think - she pays coin."
        He met her eyes, seemed to freeze, his cheek twitching briefly.
        A nod, short, towards the corner farthest from the door.
        "Thank you," sweetly. "Now, let's see if co-operation is contagious..."
        Languidly, Conley strode over, stopped before a table. Behind it was seated a small figure in a large, leather greatcoat, bobbed hair framing a thin face, attractive in a way, except...
        Conley snorted, folded her arms. "Look at me."
        Roween obeyed, betrayed herself.
        "The librarian's daughter, yes..." Conley was half-smiling; she broke to a grin, then immediately frowned. "Outside - now."
        Glared, "Outside!"
        For an instant, Conley looked like she might pick Roween up by the hair and drag her into the rain, but she collected in time, calmed herself, iced. "Fine. Inside then. It's your secret..."
        Roween glanced away. She'd mind-run this encounter a hundred   times, felt she ought to be able to cover whatever approach Conley took. And yet... She bit her bottom lip.
        Conley was pulling up a chair. Behind her, the locals wavered between staying to watch events and getting the life out while they still could. Conley paid them no heed at all, staring only at Roween, forcefully, determined.
        The smaller woman took another sip of coffee, leisurely faced her destroyer.
        "I want to know," Conley began, then faltered. "Look, I just want to know how you fixed those books."
         Roween nodded, slowly, the relief welling inside her. Conciliatory, managing her arrogance. She glanced down, thumbed the handle of her mug. "Fixed in what manner?"
        Someone was finally closing the door. Conley heard, fluttered her hand to sanction it but didn't turn, remained focused on Roween. "Fixed in whatever manner it takes to clear the magic off every one of them!"
        Roween looked up, registered the anxiousness in Conley's face. Perhaps aloofness is the wrong way to deal with her? She cleared her throat, spoke. "I know about books," swallowed, "grew up with them. Until about ten years ago, anything real sensitive they used to seal direct, half a day of gestures over each one. Took another half a day to unseal them when you wanted a read. Some special thirty-gesture segment wound in near the end, stopped you getting in unless you knew it. These days, they just slap on a Magicorp binder and it responds to a spoken password. Current opinion is, there's no way to crack either type of seal open. Makes sense: people keep a lot more than just books behind Magicorp binders."
        Conley was tapping on the table with a fingernail, agitated, hurried. "Well current opinion is wrong, and wrong in a big way. Those books weren't just opened, the seals were completely wiped. Their binders are nothing more than polished copper discs with the Magicorp logo stamped on the front, there's not a buzz of magic inside - it's as if they're blank. As for the older books, it would have taken twenty years to undo all of those, even if the wound-in sequence of every one was recorded, which it wasn't."
        People were beginning to sneak away, fearful, edgy. Another ten, fifteen minutes, then the law-and-order mages would be here.
        Roween continued. "And you think I know something about it? A lowlife bookfetch like me? You're the doctor of magic, you figure it out."
        Conley's eyes were diamond. "Listen, Roween, I'm trying to be patient, but I don't like the way you're throwing walls! I've travelled some considerable distance to find you, and now I'm here I'd greatly appreciate it if you didn't play dumb. You know exactly what happened in that room, and you know its implications on the whole of science." She gripped the edge of the table. "Stop pretending you don't! I could easily... Tell me, I must - " her voice shook as she retained control. "Just tell me what happened!"
        "Uncross my eyes."
        Conley was caught off-balance. She opened her mouth to speak, didn't seem to find words.
        "I've had this squint all my life. They can do fancy cosmetic magic these days, some of the city clinics. People go in, come out you don't recognise them. So uncross my eyes, should be simple enough for you."
        There were audible mutterings in from those who had chosen to stay.
        Conley smiled, unsure. "Is - is that all you want? If I give you normal eyes, you'll tell me what happened to those books?"
        "I'll show you."
        She shrugged, pulled up her right sleeve. "Fine, well, let's see, I don't know the sequence for a permanent fix off-hand, but I can do you a temporary to be going on with. Only illusory, of course, your vision won't change, but your looks certainly will. Can you make a focus?"
        Roween obliged, holding her hand fixedly, fingers touching, pointing inwards, thumb on the second joint of her forefinger. She made mental note as the young mage began her gestures: wrist, palm, fingers, fingers - hot, she's fast - wrist, point, fist - yes, she's starting a minor illusion - palm, point, fingers - so she's honest, anyway, could have tried a one-line charm or something.
        Conley slid into the gestures with graceful speed, locking each one just long enough for it to take before she went on to the next. She watched what she was doing, but inattentively; her hand seemed almost animated, independent of her will. Roween could only gaze and admire.
        "Not long now," Conley murmured, "nearly finished, just one more repeat of that segment and - there!" She looked up, into Roween's still misaligned eyes. "I - ?"
        Roween stood, swiftly. "Follow me!"
        Not-quite-so-fair hair came tumbling down about Conley's face as she stared at her hand in dizzy astonishment; her cloak buckle dropped, hit the table, bounced, rolled. "I made the right spell, I'm sure of it, I could flick out a minor illusion half asleep, I - "
        Behind her, there was uproar. The innkeeper was clutching at the stump of his left arm, blood showering the counter. Some kind of foreman had collapsed unconscious, and there were people shouting and knocking things over. Conley stared around dazedly, like everything looked fuzzy. She felt Roween snatch at her arm.
        "Out, now, to your horse! Before they turn on us!"
        Mute with confusion, Conley stumbled after her.

* * *

        They'd stopped just beyond a bridge spanning one of the main drainage channels that funnelled water down to irrigate the sun-regulated valleys below. There were trees here, broad-leafed: good for shelter, good for cover. Conley hadn't spoken since they'd left the inn, and all Roween had said was, "Conley! South."
        Conley missed her waterproof cloak. It was made of powdered bone for lightness, webbed together with a proprietary East/Trad flux spell. Four hundred clicks it'd cost her, from Hease and Eller's, and yet the instant she'd loosed her illusion the flux had just winked out; she'd been left sitting in a slowly falling cloud of bone dust. Roween clearly had something that flattened magic.
        Conley watched the girl trying to throw a spark onto her tinder. Fire, that would take, what, three-fifty gestures to create? Why waste time with flint? Does her antimagic have permanent effects? She looked over to the horses. Blurred. So her lenses must still be gone; that meant she most likely had blue eyes again, too - the grey had been an indulgent present from her father a couple of new years ago.
        She remembered the innkeeper, desperately trying to stem the flow of blood from an arm missing from the elbow down. Probably a prosthetic, a piece of meat or something - maybe even the original - cooked up to look, feel and function like a plus-strength normal arm; two days of solid work to build - the surgeons even needed people around to cast wakers at them while they gestured. Hot, whatever she's using, it can blow away a damned prosthetic! She wondered fleetingly where an innkeeper might get that kind of free money.
        Roween had lit the fire, was walking over to her.
        "I hit your cloak, your face colours, probably your click-well, your hair twice, I think the ring changed, anything I've missed?"
        Conley resigned herself to the loss of her click-well: there was maybe two thousand of company money in it, all gone. The spare on her horse had around seven hundred, if that hadn't been blanked as well. Good enough to last her, but damn, two thousand down, just like that!
        She remembered Roween had asked a question. "Er, my eyes, I'm short-sighted. Things start to blur out after a couple of paces."
        "Why didn't you have them fixed physically? Oh, the colour, you must've used those MedSpell lenses. Change hue at will, right?"
        "I kept them at grey, used them mainly for night sight and flash-protection. In my line of work, you catch a lot of flashes..." She paused a moment. "My leg's fine?"
        A semi-shrug. "Shouldn't it be?"
        Conley glanced towards the fire, fingered the side of her nose. "When I was fourteen, I fell from a window, smashed my leg up really bad. I was in surgery for almost a week, three medics working on me in eight-hour shifts. Once they'd pulled back the muscle and bound the splinters together with white gel, I was still in soft support for six months before I could walk again unaided."
        "You healed naturally. Impossible without the magic to set it on course, but once everything had been put back where it ought to go, nature could take over. That barman's prosthetic worried you?" Conley nodded. "Well forget it. He's been running happy shots for years - only way some of the folk round here can tolerate the constant rain, it can sort of get to them."
        Conley was guarded. "So what's wrong with happy shots? They're legal..."
        Roween paused, frowned. "A lot's wrong with happy shots. What in particular was wrong with these happy shots is they came from a black-fac in Cala Bay Town. Maybe two percent were very unhappy shots, like people had to keep taking more happies just to stay unsuicidal. He kept thirty-plus hooked that way, but maybe ten more spiked themselves, couldn't afford supplies." She put her hands in her pockets. "Look, we going to stand here all evening? That's the last of my kindling there."
        The two walked to the fire. Roween flopped down and crossed her legs, the greatcoat engulfing her even more spectacularly than it had at the inn. Conley hesitated; she still wasn't quite as wet as the grass.
        "Take the leather mantle off my horse?" suggested Roween. Conley shrugged acceptance, turned to go. "Oh, and fix your eyes while you're over there."
        The mage looked back, askance over her shoulder. "So this system you have of countering magic, it won't completely stop me from forming spells?"
        "Not baby ones cast on yourself, if they're harmless enough, no. You can think of the effect as being like a sudden flash of intense light: close up, it'd blind anyone, but further away it would depend on the individual, and at some distance everyone would be far enough away to be safe from instant sight loss - even if it did still hurt their eyes some awhile. For me, sensitivity to magic is dependent on the nature of whatever spells are involved: the more powerful they are, and the greater their effect, the more they're all at risk. You should be perfectly able to do your eye stuff."
        Conley smiled, made her way to the horses.

* * *

        When Conley returned, Roween was cooking some kind of squirrely meat skewered on the end of a dagger. The wrap-pouch was burning on the fire; Conley couldn't read the label.
        Roween didn't look up. "Took a while - did you use a Chewt- Farmer sequence or did you go straight for a hardener?"
        Conley squatted down on the horse cloak and smiled, widely. "Well, I tried a variation of Chewt-Farmer: I spliced in the light-bending segment from one of Farmer's localised illusions - it takes less time to gesture than the full sequence, and it's more flexible when you initialise the focus. It won't give you magnification, but then you don't want that for eyes unless you can take the headaches. I spent the rest of the time on a few other small enchantments."
        Roween looked across at her. "Nice hair," she sighed, returned to roasting the sinewy chunks. "So, how did you come to fall out a window?"
        "I don't really remember," she warmed her hands, "it was several years ago."
        "Eight or nine, yes, guess that's time enough to forget."
        "You seem to know a lot about me."
        "I do?" She took a bite of meat.
        "Well, you know my name, my age, what I do..."
        Roween chewed as she spoke. "You're Dr Conley of Malith. You're a year younger than I am. You're the brightest light in the research group at Porett Technologies. Prior to that, you were at the Academy, putting in the best postgraduate thesis for at least a decade, working under the supervision of your father, the Academy's chancellor." She swallowed. "Yes, I suppose I know something about you; what do you know about me?"
        "I hadn't thought you were my elder, that's surprising. You even look like you're in your teens." Her voice was approving. "Well, let me see, I know your name is Roween, and you're sometimes called Roween Sage because your father is senior librarian at the Academy. Your mother died when you were, what, six? I'd figured it was when you were a toddler. Your father brought you up alone, his career suffering as a result. You left home around four years ago, abruptly, after the book episode. The next anyone hears of you is this Spring. It's taken me four months to track you down."
        "Four months' searching... And what have you found?"
        Conley considered. "I've found something I don't understand. I wouldn't have believed what happened in the inn if I hadn't," she stared deep into the flames, "hadn't seen it myself."
        "I knew as much, that's why I had to show you. Complete negation of magic, it's, well, hard to accept. People can rationalise it for one-off surprises such as the books; after all, spells can wear off with time, so maybe seals just don't last as long as we thought? Perhaps they're reaching their limit now, they were invented fifty-odd years ago. Yes, that would square why the older books were clean of magic. As for the binders, well you could hypothesise that there must be some simple-yet-secret way to deactivate them, which someone - me - had bumbled across by accident."
        Conley nodded. "I reasoned something like that, yes."
        "So if you could verify the facts, and make your findings public, all confidence in Magicorp binders would disappear. The company's stock would plummet, no-one would touch their other products, and they'd be tangled in lawsuits for years..."
        "...leaving the field clear for Porett Technologies." She smiled. "You're smart! That's a fair summary of how I analysed it in the research proposal - when I applied for funding to mount this trip - but Porett and I both knew it was far more complicated than that. Some of the spell-sealed books had been done as controls when Magicorp first brought out their binders, so they were ten or eleven years old, max. Pre-war dusties failing I could believe, but not at the same time as the new stuff."
        Roween offered her a piece of charred meat. "It's alright, take it, I lost three wrap-pouches when the magic fell out of them, we get to eat it all."
        Conley pulled the chunk from Roween's knife, dropped it on her lap to cool. She nodded. "Well, as for what happened to the binders, that really puzzled me. They weren't just turned off, they were dead. Even with access to Magicorp's sequence patents, no-one could do that. I read a dozen recent papers from a conference on cancelling; only the philosophers have even touched the subject so far, and none have produced a workable theory of how it could happen. The central issue wasn't how to do it, but whether it was possible at all! Yet these binders, they were lifeless..." She shook her head, slowly.
        Roween watched her absently pop the meat into her mouth, lost in reflection, oblivious to the sound of unending rain cascading on the trees. The intensity was still in her eyes, despite the shock she'd had. "You were basically right, of course - you know that now. But it's not an artefact, I don't wear a special pendant or anything. It's me, something I just do, when spells are cast at me. Can't help it, can't control it, it just happens. But I've figured all about it: why I can do it, when, how it works..."
        "I need to know," said Conley, softly, still gazing into the fire.
        "You need to be educated..." Roween answered, earnestly. She paused a moment, then suddenly clapped her hands. "So, first, we have to make a trip someplace!"
        Conley abandoned her thoughts to reality. "Out of this wet?"
        "Well out. Cala Bay Town."

Copyright © Richard A. Bartle (
21st January 1999: isif1.htm