Amates 19, 1277. Mid-afternoon. Town of Banye. Walking down the south side of town.
The trip from the Sheldrake to Mikasi’s workshop didn’t take that long.
As farming and ranching towns on the prairie went, Banye wasn’t that large. Only one hard-packed dirt street meant it was easy to navigate. This quick trip also wasn’t very exciting, other than the conversation.
“So,” I said slowly to Tyre as we walked. “When were you going to tell me that you set me up?”
That earned me a look of feigned shock. It didn’t last long. Another one of Tyre’s ‘amused with the world’ chuckles rumbled in his chest.
“About now, most likely. I didn’t figure it would take long before you realized I brought us to Banye on purpose.” He shrugged. “Tela, you’ve been stewing over those notes about that Autowinder Whatsit…”
“Automatic Crystal,” I corrected him.
“Right, that. The Automatic Crystal. You’ve been stewing over your journal ever since we left Ishnanor.”
I started to reply, but he held up a hand to stall me. The wind kicked up around us, stirring a faint trail of dust with the smell of prairie grass and wildflowers.
“Hold the plum line and let me get this out,” Tyre said. “You’ve been chewing over this so much that you’ve skipped at least a meal or two.“ He gave me a sideways glance. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed.”
There wasn’t a good reply to that. Tyre was right. I had skipped a meal or two in favor of redrawing some part of the relic. If I wasn’t sketching, I was reading copies of Foldor Gilstock or Nilna Sestoros’ journal entries. Maybe I had been a bit focused. It wasn’t like I was starving myself.
Tyre waved a hand at Mikasi’s adobe brick workshop ahead of us at the edge of town.
“So, I used the route that would bring us through Banye. Mika’s erratic, but I’ve known him a bit longer than I’ve known you. The two of us did some ruin poaching back in the day and he’s one of the sharpest minds I know.” Tyre shrugged at me again. “This way, you have someone about as smart as you to toss ideas around with.”
He let out a slow sigh, then focused on the walk ahead of us.
“I meant well, Tela. This,” he waved a hand in a slow circle, “expedition? Race? It’s important. I understand that. But you’re important, too. There’s a good chance Mika can give us a fresh look at what seems to be an old problem. Which means we’ll have a leg up on the Crimson Company with knowing what’s ahead.”
I really wanted to be irate with him, but I couldn’t. Tyre was a good friend. In many ways, he was more like a favorite uncle. When I was a little girl, he had always been there for me. Especially every time I tried to stow away aboard the Sheldrake. I rubbed my eyes with one hand while I squeezed the leather strap of the satchel slung across my chest with the other.
“All right. Yes, I’ve been a bit… focused? Focused.” I held up my hands for emphasis. “I’ll give you that. Also, maybe I have needed to consult with someone to get some fresh ideas. Ki can listen to me babble about the same thing only so much. Besides, Ki’s studies lean toward medicine, medicinal magics, herbs, languages, and the like. The Automatic Crystal is a little outside of what he knows.”
I pursed my lips before I smiled at Tyre.
“So, all right. Mikasi is odd. Really odd. But if he has some new idea or better way to look at this thing we’re chasing? I might hug him until he turns blue.”
Tyre barked out a short laugh.
“Bargained fair and true,” he replied while he gestured to the front door of Mikasi’s workshop.
The outside of the workshop was just as Mikasi described. It was a plain, dark tan adobe brick, two story building, similar to a handful of other adobe brick buildings in Banye. A blacksmith’s shop, which was little more than a tacked-on room with one wall removed, extended from the back.
Inside, Mikasi’s place was far more interesting.
The entry way was just that. A table, chair and not much else. Past the entryway was a room lined with stained bookshelves made from an orange-gold cedar. They were slightly warped from age and the weight of haphazardly stacked books with the occasional specimen jar.
I didn’t recognize the specimens, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to. All I knew was that the jars contained either an unusual plant, or some small dead creature, floating in a blue-green fluid. So, I kept my distance from those. The books were more interesting, anyway.
They were leather bound journals like the one Mikasi carried. Only these were thick with bookmarks and odd scraps of yellowed paper sticking out of them at odd angles. What little handwriting I saw on the outside matched Mikasi’s own scrawl. I couldn’t help but wonder, what other Ancient Order papers did the little inventor have tucked away in there?
I didn’t have much time to think that through, since the next room was Mikasi’s actual workshop. It smelled of glue, boiled dye, tannin, and a bucket of other odors I couldn’t begin to identify. That last sentiment almost held true for the collection of inventions scattered around the room or hung from the ceiling.
A flock of small, hand-held hydraulis pumps sat gathered on one table. Nearby, a halfling-sized backpack frame with a pair of long wooden cylinders in place of the pack itself leaned against one wall. I had some guesses as to what it was for, but I wasn’t entirely sure.
To my left, on a long cedar table, was a modest-sized telescope and a miniature spyglass. Both were bolted into their own stands. The telescope was pointed out through the window at the sky. But the spyglass? It was pointed at a flat plate of glass on the table. Then there was the one thing that really caught my attention.
Attached to the ceiling was a harness sporting a pair of wings. The hinged wings were bat-like with what might be an oilcloth stretched between the wooden wing ‘bones’. It looked like the whole thing was designed to collapse into the harness and pack. I stared at it, fascinated.
“I designed it as a means to let someone fly. Like a bird or a dragon!”
I fought down a real urge to jump or yelp. Mikasi had wandered up next to me while I was lost in my sightseeing. That was a bad mistake on my part. I really needed to be more mindful of what was around me.
“Does it work?” I asked while I caught my breath.
“In principle. But I’ve only ever tried it with smaller ones carrying a bundle of carrots, or a straw doll.” Mikasi clapped his hands, then rubbed them together. “So, you had something you wanted me to look at?”
I raised my eyebrows at that before I produced my journal out of its satchel, then flipped it open to my notes.
“Yes, this. The Ancient Order called it an Automatic Crystal of the Eclipse.”
Mikasi frowned over the notes and sketches. Occasionally, he would nod or tap a part of a drawing with a finger when some small part caught his attention.
“This is very interesting. An ‘Automatic Crystal’ you say?” He scratched his chin. "It reminds me of something.”
“Well, there’s a lot of guesswork over what the thing actually did.” I pointed at a set of my notes on a page. “Here’s what I think it was for…”
It turned out Tyre had a good idea. I needed someone to have an old-fashioned debate with me over the Automatic Crystal. Mikasi was just what the physician ordered.
We talked for at least an hour, maybe more. I lost track of time. Mikasi had cleared off his workbench for us, mostly with a sweep of his arm. Scattered bits of string, coils, toothed wheels, and things I couldn’t identify either found the floor or wound up piled at the far end of the table.
The conversation started with what I learned from Ihodis in Ishnanor and the journals from Foldor Gilstock and Nilna Sestoros. Then I tossed out my own theory that the relic was actually used for study and learning.
Mikasi replied in kind with new ideas. It wasn’t long before something took shape. Something completely unexpected.
I rubbed the sides of my head as Ki set a cup of coffee on the table next to me. Where he found the coffee, I had no idea. I barely paid it any mind.
“Wait. You mean this could be something that ‘pumps light’? How does that even work?”
Mikasi shrugged. “Light does flow. I’ve been over everything Cesibus wrote, and his mathematics make so much sense.” He waved his hands like he was fanning flies. “But no, I don’t mean literally ‘pump’ light. Think, like a spyglass with a candle on one side!”
“The light is focused,” I said with some thoughtful hesitation. “Channeled like… water moving through a hydraulis pump.”
“Like water,” Mikasi repeated with a bright grin.
Kiyosi placed another cup that matched mine next to Mikasi. The dark rich smell of roasted coffee teased my nose.
“Both of you. Drink,” he ordered. “It’s been hours. At least most of a day.”
I did a double take at both the cup and Ki as my mind soaked in the idea about what he just said. Through the window, the last of the afternoon sun was sitting low over the plains, turning prairie grasses and rocks an amber gold. The day was almost done. Ki smirked at me.
“Right. Drink,” I replied and grabbed the cup. Mikasi did likewise.
Ki wasn’t wrong. It did help. The tension around my eyes relented while the deep roasted flavor of the drink spread a gentle warmth through me. I took another sip, then set the cup down.
“So it could be used for study or teaching. If your notes here, and your equations there, are even close, then those knobs on the Crystal’s surface allow a person to adjust the crystal’s actual facets on the inside.”
Mikasi nodded vigorously.
“Indeed, yes! Which changes how the light passes through,” he said. “A person could use a strong light, then point it at say, cloth, and let you see the finest detail of the weave. Like you suspected, a teaching or study tool.”
I drank more of my coffee.
“That would explain why references to Automatic Crystals have been found in old alchemist workshops.”
Mikasi pointed at a simple drawing of two spheres with lines running between them.
“Yes! Also, here it seems reasonable that focused, flickering light could travel between two Automatic Crystals. It could easily be a way to send messages.”
“Like using mirrors to reflect sunlight to send ship to ship messages. Only,” I hesitated at the implications. “This wouldn’t be just simple words. The ball shape with all those facets would be like dozens of mirrors working together. This might have been able to send complicated messages. Maybe complete sentences?”
Mikasi raised his hands over his head as if cheering.
“Like an entire language! A written language of light!”
I just stared at the drawings and equations in astonishment. Then my thoughts wandered down a dark alley, as they often did.
“It sounds almost magical. If this focused light, and someone sent a magical light through the Crystal while adjusting the facets…” I let the words hang in the air.
“The spell would be altered, focused. Most likely enhanced while it passed through,” Ki added from the other side of the worktable. “Granted, the magic I’ve studied is healing magic, but still… certain healing magics do involve light. Magical light that can affect the body or mind. Also, healing magic can cause harm instead of mend harm.”
A dead silence hung in the room. The implication was ugly, but there it was.
“It could be used as a weapon,” I said softly. “All those facets might let someone ‘tune’ a spell passing through it. I’m not sure if a city’s Schutz Field could effectively stop magic like that if it was a focused, altered spell designed to affect minds… or steal a person’s health.”
“Gods of the Cresting Tides,” Ki whispered.
Tyre frowned, darker than I had ever seen before.
“And that… that right there… is why we need to make sure the Crimson Company doesn’t lay a grubby finger on the thing,” he growled.
“Maybe no one else,” I whispered.