Timing: After escaping from Moccasin at the Isle of the Watchers, on the way to Chiaroscuro.
The sun rose steadily in the cloudless desert sky as the Crimson Gale made its way over the barren landscape. Most of the crew was quiet, working on their own pursuits or reflecting on the last few days’ events. The one notable exception was busy with a mess of tools–some corporeal, some not–and squinting against the golden sunlight that still felt so alien to her. After the Gale’s encounter with the Fair Folk, one of the engines was rattling, and Welkin had put Chelsea to work on it first thing in the morning.
“…And this needs to be working when it’s done, not blazing with hellish fire. All right?”
“Captain, those two aren’t mutually exclusive,” Chelsea replied with a grin that she hoped looked innocently playful, but came out more as “demonic glee”.
Welkin narrowed his eyes and gave Edelweiss a significant look. Watch her.
Chelsea’s attempt at Pyrian humor had not saved her from fighting two mental battles at once: one against the engine, and one against Felhart, who was unusually obstructive today.
You have better things to do than fix this.
Such as getting off this ship before your curiosity about an irrelevant scrap of paper reveals the biggest secrets of our operation. And snapping a few necks on the way, if you can.
“Define ‘us’,” she replied.
Your masters! Who gave you the powers you’re using to fix that thing!
“What’s it matter? If I go back to Malfeas I’m dead, or worse, and my ‘esteemed colleagues’ have cut me off out here.”
Your patron can still advocate for you. If you can establish yourself as an independent agent, faithful at least to Her, then she can argue for leniency, and the usual penalties would be in place for anyone who tried to harm you.
Chelsea gritted her teeth in frustration. “And I know exactly how well that will go over. She Who Lives In Her Name argues I’m too brilliant to destroy, and almost everyone agrees–‘cause she’d be right–and then Malfeas vetoes her, and I’m doomed. Or I can just wait until a Fiend crosses their fingers and kills me off anyway.”
What is your alternative? Spend the remainder of your life running from the very makers of the world, and at the end of it, return to them for justice anyway? Your soul is ours, neither life nor death will save you, and you are part of our plans whether you like it or not, Chelsea! You may as well not add to your own suffering!
Chelsea tried to block this out, but in her distracted state she managed to complete an Essence circuit while her left hand was against a turbine. It turned on for a moment, smashing her hand between the rotor and the housing. She yelped in pain and pulled her hand away to examine it. On a mortal the injury would have been crippling; for her, it hurt like crazy but probably wouldn’t cause permanent damage.
The frustration stung worse than her hand. She was in pain, for no good reason–but if she followed the logic, it was all her own fault to begin with, on many levels–and as if that weren’t enough, she had to get badgered by an inhabitant, of all things.
…Malfeas understood pain like this.
Chelsea took a deep breath and focused her Essence on her hand, and though the pain actually increased, the swelling and stiffness subsided. She reflected bitterly that though the charm surely had its uses, she might have appreciated it more this time if she actually relied more on her real hands.
Felhart seemed to have made his point, and was quiet for a bit. Without the distractions, Chelsea was able to finish work on the engine, and settled herself down with her notebook. The book was magical, though in the style of her university’s magitek rather than the science of Hell. Anything she wrote into it would eventually condense itself into neat text, as if typewritten, and would shift between pages to sort notes in whatever scheme she defined. With the right flourishes it would automatically find sums or averages of numbers, smooth the lines of a drawing, generate a graph from a table, or erase unwanted text. Most students’ notebooks ran on the Essence of the university’s manse, but Chelsea’s had made hers portable by adjusting it to run on her own Essence.
Chelsea always took detailed notes about the charms she learned, and spent the rest of the morning writing about her new pain-endurance skill. She was just about finished when Grey announced that lunch was ready.
Finish her notes, or eat with the rest of the crew?
Compliance with the collective won out. She did observe, with some amusement, that Grey sat as far away from her as possible. After lunch, she turned back to the page where she’d been writing and…there was nothing there.
Confused, she flipped backwards through the pages. It wasn’t unusual for the book to move things that needed sorting. But she’d already written this charm into the proper place, in the section she’d set aside for Malfeas’ charms. Where else could it possibly belong?…
She finally found it written on a page opposite Factual Determination Analysis, her truth-detection charm.
Why the hell did those two belong together?
She pored over her notes. None of what she’d written had changed, but the two chakra diagrams were lined right up against each other, and the other charts she’d drawn were also adjacent. She spent a while staring at them, wondering if some superficial similarity had caused the book to misclassify the new charm. She came very close to drawing that conclusion, but just as she was about to label the page more explicitly and re-sort the entries, some fleeting whimsy caused her to notice how much her charts looked like some kind of musical notation. Then it occurred to her that two lines of music did not have to be the same to sound good together–they had to harmonize.
By dinnertime, the pain in her hand had subsided, but she cast the new charm again before sitting at the table with the others. She hid her discomfort as it gave her the vague but awful sensation of suddenly getting bruised all over. Then, during dinner, she occasionally tested the truth of what someone said in conversation, not because she was really interested in whether it was true, but to feel how the Essence of the test felt against the pain in her other charm. They did seem to go together somehow, especially when reacting to half-truths. The magic wanted true statements to stay true, and false to stay false, and for wounded flesh to stay in its proper arrangement and just keep working, but the two charms needed a little more work for the effects to come together in a common theme.
* * *
Chelsea spent most of the rest of the trip working out the Essence-harmony between the two charms. Felhart gave her one reason after another why this was a waste of her time, but it was too intriguing to let go, and ignoring his badgering became easier over the course of the trip. Even so, all her work wasn’t quite enough. When they arrived at Chiaroscuro, she had still not quite perfected the new effect. It would take just a little more work, and she had an adventure to deal with first.