A/N: The posting of this story marks something of a milestone for me. At the beginning of 2013, noticing that I had a slight backlog of Tome of Eldritch Omake and Suffer Not a Witch chapters, I set myself the goal of going through the entire year, posting one chapter of GrimGrimoire fanfiction every Sunday. Fifty-two weeks, and fifty-two chapters.
I won't be continuing this goal through 2014, but the Sunday updates will continue for another five weeks or so (after all, Spectral Dance has three more chapters before the end). Thanks to all of my readers who keep coming along for these stories!
~X X X~
"I can't believe I let you talk me into this!"
Bartido Ballentyne stopped moving and turned back, shielding the candle with his hand against the sudden draft caused by his movement.
"That's the fourth time you've said that, Hiram. Seriously, I'd have thought you'd have figured it out by now."
Hiram Menthe's expression looked almost demonic to his fellow apprentice. Bartido noted that the dim, shifting light was playing tricks, casting eerie patterns of deep shadow and pale light across the planes and angles of his friend's face and reflecting off his glasses. Perhaps this was what was causing his face to look so distorted?
No such luck. He was just upset.
"Do you realize how insane this is? Forget the fact that we're bound to blunder right into the ghost of Lujei Piche and end up as the subject of a Hallow's Eve horror story. Just leave that out for now, because that's the least crazy thing about this. We're sneaking into the private library of Professor Gammel! The entire reason he has those books in there is because he doesn't want to leave them out where we students can freely get at them."
"Hence the sneaking," Bartido agreed. "But really, I'm sure there are some books like that, all right, but most of them are just ones he doesn't want to trundle back and forth to the library for every time he wants them. Running the Magic Academy comes with privileges, after all. And that's what you're looking for, anyway. I can't imagine anyone would get bent out of shape about you looking for the Limbo grimoire."
That wasn't just empty reassurance. There was good reason why Bartido had wanted Hiram to come along. The book Hiram wanted was, while probably off-limits to students, essentially innocuous, an advanced grimoire of Necromancy.
Bartido, on the other hand, was after something very different. He was at the Silver Star Tower under false pretenses. While he genuinely was an Alchemy apprentice, he was also a foreign spy with the assignment to recover the Philosopher's Stone.
The Stone had been the possession of the late, very unlamented Archmage Calvaros, though he'd needed Gammel and Lujei's help to create it. With it, he'd come very close to conquering the kingdom (and after that, no doubt, neighboring nations, the continent, to probably the world; Calvaros had definitely been the conquer-the-world sort of villain) by sheer magical force. By all accounts, the thing was still somewhere in the Tower. A primary part of the reason Gammel Dore had been allowed to open the Magic Academy—and the subsequent, hard-won respectability given to magicians—was so he could search for the Stone on behalf of the Crown.
Somehow, Bartido had the feeling that Professor Gammel wasn't looking all that hard.
If that was the case, he couldn't blame him too much; artifacts of overwhelming power were sure to make more trouble than they fixed. But Bartido had his own job to do, and he couldn't let Gammel's excessive scruples (or general incompetence, if that was the case) stand in his way.
So, when Hiram had opened the door for him, Bartido had pounced on the chance it offered to search Professor Gammel's library. Obviously, he didn't expect to find the Stone itself (though who knew?), but there could be diaries of his search efforts, maps of the tower, records of what Calvaros had done that might shed light on where it might be, or other useful items. The chance to prowl through Gammel's private papers with a relatively innocuous excuse was just too good to pass up.
And he'd be damned if he was going to miss that chance just because Hiram had a sad want of man parts!
(Okay, that wasn't fair; it wasn't that Hiram lacked courage, just that he had a stick up his butt about rules and regulations and other similarly annoying concepts. Really, you'd think he had some personal stake in people following the lawful order of things the way he sometimes went on about it.)
Seeing that his sadly sneakiness-deprived friend was starting to waver again, Bartido decided to go for the kill shot.
"Besides, you want to impress Miss Opalneria on the upcoming proficiency exam, don't you? So she'll formally take you as her personal apprentice and you can focus on working directly with her in your own field?"
This was not, as it sounded, an appeal to Hiram's professional ambition. He just had to say it that way to avoid getting Hiram's back up (Sneaky Spy Manipulation Lesson #37). The real motivation Bartido was trying to evoke was Hiram's crush on the Necromancy professor, Opalneria Rain. Whom, Bartido had to admit, definitely had her appeal in that tightly-buttoned, prim-and-proper way that presumably held a core of blazing passion she kept contained for fear it could not be controlled. She seemed a little high-maintenance for Bartido's taste (and besides, one didn't poach on a friend's love life), but to each his own.
And to Hiram, Ms. Opalneria was definitely to his taste. There was no mistaking it, regardless of how he tried to keep it to himself, particularly for a young man of Bartido's romantic experience. To become her personal apprentice the way Bartido was to Dr. Chartreuse would put the two of them in close contact, spending time together late into the night. It would be a dream come true for his friend, especially if a forbidden student-teacher romance should happen to result. (All right, not that forbidden, since Hiram was of age and thus the primary concerns were ethical, and the Magic Academy didn't work like a normal university as far as grades and the like went. Knowing Hiram, he'd probably thought through it all because a taboo affair would be a turn-off for him.)
"Oh, fine. But if we get caught, I'm blaming this entirely on you."
"Humility may be a virtue, but this hardly seems the time for it."
"How would you know?"
"Thankfully, I have far too noble a character to take offense to that," Bartido joked. Hiram just rolled his eyes.
The discussion apparently over, Bartido took a deep breath and turned the knob. Old hinges obviously neglected by Professor Gammel's elven housekeepers creaked as the door swung open.
The first thing they noticed was how dark it was in the library. Bartido knew that there was a massive chandelier hanging from the ceiling that was more than enough to keep the room illuminated, but in the dead of night with no one using the library it was left unlit. They had a candle, but it was not like one of those on stage, where a character would lit a taper in a dark room and the stage manager would turn up all the floodlights at once. About all this did was let Bartido see where he was putting his feet.
"What is it, Hiram?"
"I stubbed my toe on the corner of a bookshelf."
"...We need more light."
"Yes. Yes, we do. Did you happen to bring a lamp along?"
"This wasn't my idea!" Hiram hissed, apparently working on the theory that people who thought up plans should be the ones to recognize potential complications and prepare for them. Which was, in fact, a pretty good theory, so Bartido couldn't really argue against it without sounding like an idiot. Though planning to have two people search a library of magic books with one candle had given him a head start in that direction.
"That's it!" He snapped his fingers, the sound echoing loudly throughout the room.
"We're magicians, so what if we laid down a couple of Runes? Combined, they'd be almost as bright as the chandelier."
"That's actually a pretty good plan."
He took out his wand and began to sketch out the design of a Hades Gate on the floor before him. Bartido moved over a few feet to his right so they'd have enough space and got to work laying out a Laboratory. He didn't have his grimoire with him to work from, but this was one that he'd drawn and studied so many times that he knew it by heart. A minute or so later and the two Runes shone forth, the ghostly pale of Necromancy and the brilliant gold of Alchemy.
"Well, while it may not be your favorite discipline, you have to admit that Alchemy is the best type of magic for when you need to light a room," he said with a grin. The success had obviously helped to relax Hiram, as he returned the smile.
"I'll gladly cede you the honors in the area of providing basic illumination so the rest of us can see to do the real work," he shot back, and Bartido chuckled.
"That's the spirit."
He looked around the room, trying to get a sense of what their next step would be. Bookcases lined all four walls, broken only by a high, arched window with diamond-shaped panes set to the left side. Since it hadn't cast any useful illumination, Bartido figured that it was an overcast night, or maybe a new moon. Alchemy wasn't influenced significantly by the phases of the moon or the positions of the stars the way Glamour could be, so Bartido didn't usually pay much attention to astronomical events, not unless he was planning a moonlight date with a pretty girl.
The importance of astrology in Glamour was indicated by the great bronze orrery that dominated the center of the room. It was very similar to the one in Professor Gammel's workroom, but this one was even larger, rising at least nine feet from the floor. The other difference was that unlike the workroom orrery, which was active, its wheels turning and spheres tracing the movements of celestial bodies, the brilliant green light of Glamour projecting images of the current influences, this one sat inert and quiet.
"Still, I hope we don't need to draw any more Runes," Hiram noted. "I'm a bit low on mana after today's experiments."
"You could always call up a few ghosts and have them tap that crystal." He pointed to the jewel-like accumulation of mana that had formed where the natural flows of mana came together. There were dozens of points like it throughout the Silver Star Tower, a sound explanation of why the Archmage had built his stronghold in that place to begin with. "Of course, Professor Gammel might notice if you drained it too much; the orrery is basically sitting on top of it."
"Actually, that isn't a bad idea." Hiram flicked his hand at his Rune and it began to shine more brightly with the work of summoning.
Deciding that Hiram had a pretty good idea (especially since it had been his own to begin with), Bartido followed suit. The crystal wasn't of any use to him, as only one magician at a time could access a crystal's resources, but he thought a homunculus's clairvoyance might prove useful in searching for hidden passages, so he set about adding the additional designs and additional mana, to his Rune that would enable him to summon and empower such creatures.
Hiram's ghost arrived before Bartido was done; he sent it after the crystal and it was at work on building its sanctuary when Bartido started summoning his homunculus.
"Let's get started; I don't want to stay here any longer than we have to."
"You'll get no argument from me, there. I don't want to be here when, with your luck, Professor Gammel will come in to get some volume of obscure arcana to read with his breakfast."
"With my luck?" Hiram's eyebrows went up.
"Of course, yours. I always get lucky." Bartido smiled broadly at that.
"...I should know better than to actually ask you to talk by now."
"Don't be silly; without me around, you'd never think outside that nice, comfortable box of yours."
"The box would indeed be comfortable right now, back in bed rather than sneaking around Professor Gammel's private documents."
"The box wouldn't be on its way to becoming the Magic Academy's preeminent Necromancy apprentice, either. It's all a matter of perspective, Hiram."
"Probably because if you look at your decisions straight-on, they show up as being completely insane!"
"And yet, you're here. Let's get to work. Why don't you start over on that side of the door, I'll start on this side, and we'll work our way around the room until we meet in the middle?"
"That should work well enough."
They each turned to their respective shelves and started looking through the books. It soon became evident that Professor Gammel didn't bother with any kind of indexing system, or more likely used one that only he understood the principles behind. From Bartido's perspective there appeared to be no order at all; the books weren't organized by author, by title, by subject, or for that matter by size or color.
"That would be interesting, a library organized by color," he remarked.
"Well, there are plenty of nobles whose libraries are just for show anyway, so they'd probably be interested in setting their up as a work of art."
Hiram's remark had been as sour as one could expect a bookish magician's complaint about illiterate men and women of leisure could be, but Bartido hadn't missed that it wasn't the first time the young man had shown casual familiarity with the habits of the upper crust. The magicians at the Tower came from all walks of life, so it wasn't unusual that Hiram might have been of noble birth, but it was unusual for him to hide it if that was the case.
Curiosity was, naturally enough for a spy, one of Bartido's besetting sins. He was, therefore, extremely interested in just what it was that his friend was holding back. But this wasn't the time or place for that.
Time, especially, had become the enemy. Without any recognizable plan of organization, it was impossible to skip over sections of the shelves. When a book wasn't instantly recognizable, he had to take it down, look at it, and move on to the next. It would take hours to go through the entire laboratory at that rate, one by one.
The arrival of the homunculus suggested an idea to him. He'd created it because he thought there might be secret compartments or panels. If he'd been in Gammel's position, he wouldn't leave information about the Philosopher's Stone just lying out where any snoopy apprentice might get hold of it.
Clairvoyance wouldn't do anything for identifying books or revealing Gammel's system of ordering them, but it would do very well for letting Bartido know if there were any hidden places behind the shelves. Setting the last book he'd checked back into place, he mentally ordered the familiar to invoke its ability.
Bartido shuddered as the effect hit him. At once, his perceptions seemed to contract and expand at the same time. A yellowish haze settled over everything as his vision, linked to his familiar's, began to extend not just where light traveled but where the flow of magic could, through the reality that an Astral entity could perceive. Barriers of mere solid matter could not obstruct it; he could see right through furniture, doors, and walls within the range of vision. And that range ran in all directions throughout the area of effect of the clairvoyance, which was not the same area as Bartido's line of sight. It was still fairly disconcerting for his brain to try to process both his ordinary vision as well as the clairvoyant view all at the same time, a feeling very much unlike anything that nature could provide.
Well, except for that one time as a teenager when he'd downed most of a bottle of absinthe thinking it was just another kind of wine. That had been an experience in unnaturally altered perceptions!
Though the shift was unusual, though, Bartido had experience as an alchemist in processing it; the homunculus was one of the most basic Alchemy familiars and its clairvoyance a fundamental tool in magical combat given that it was the only way the other creations had to harm Astral opponents. Apprentices learned quickly or they stayed apprentices, and Bartido was pretty well past that in his chosen field.
He noticed that Hiram had already summoned a couple of additional ghosts to continue drawing mana from the crystal. This seemed a little aggressive for Hiram, until Bartido turned it around and realized that no, it was just the application of standard practice—a magician ordinarily used multiple familiars to gather mana, in order to maximize the amount available, so for Hiram to do the same now might be him conservatively following force of habit. That was a more natural way to think about it, at least.
After all, Hiram Menthe was already breaking rules and sneaking around behind the teachers' backs. Any more creative and innovative thinking from him in one night would probably be too much for the fabric of the universe to take.
What was not giving rise to humor was the fact that there didn't appear to be any secret passages, hidden nooks behind the shelves, or other miscellaneous construction features which loudly trumpeted "Important Stuff Hidden Here." Unless, of course, Professor Gammell had devised a way to conceal such places from magical sight because after all he was presumably hiding them from a tower full of nothing but magicians and being himself the greatest living magician in the kingdom he presumably knew how clairvoyance worked.
Meaning, now that Bartido thought of it, that he was probably giving himself a headache for nothing.
He let the clairvoyance drop, wobbling a little as his perceptions returned to normal.
"Well, we can rule out any secret compartments," he told Hiram. "I didn't see any with my homunculus."
"Obviously. If Professor Gammel had any hidden safe or the like, he wouldn't waste time on something that could be found by any near-beginner in Alchemy."
It bothered him more than it probably should have that Hiram had realized that at once.
"Besides, I'm only looking for a high-level Necromancy grimoire. It's valuable and powerful, yes, but it's not some rare treasure like the Lemegeton that would have to be carefully locked away and hidden from everyone."
Since "That's true, but I'm looking for something extremely rare so I can steal it back to a foreign country" didn't seem like the best response to Hiram's fairly obvious point, Bartido was left with only a selection of lame, half-baked excuses.
"I thought it was better to get the complete picture of what we were searching first. You never know, right?" was the one he settled on. He capped it off with a big smile designed to encourage understanding and good, hearty comradeship.
At least that was one theory. Hiram just rolled his eyes.
"Please, Bartido, I don't want to be here any longer than I have to be. If we get caught, Ms. Opalneria will never pick me as her apprentice. We'll be lucky not to be expelled! So try to focus on—"
He probably had several increasingly pointed remarks to make, but was thankfully interrupted by the whirring of gears. Both magicians turned their heads in the direction of the sound.
Possibly, "thankfully" was not exactly the right description for that interruption, Bartido realized with a sinking heart.
"Oh, hell, the orrery's activated!"
Indeed it had; the great bronze device was fully in motion, the noises the creak of gears and cogwheels that had become a bit stiff and ill-lubricated from extended disuse. But it was definitely in motion now, the planets moving in their orbits, the night sky slowly spinning to show the positions of the stars, the celestial bodies aligning. There were even sparkles of green light at the pointed tip of the machine, suggesting that like the one in Gammel's workshop it was invested with Glamour magic.
"How are we going to explain this?" Hiram half-asked, half-pleaded. "When Professor Gammel comes in here tomorrow and sees this running, he's going to know that there was someone in here."
"He won't know who," Bartido pointed out.
"You don't think he'll ask? I need to take the grimoire with me to study or it doesn't do me any good. And even if he doesn't find me with it, demonstrating a skill drawn from a book everyone knows is stolen won't win me any friends."
"You've kind of got a point. Ms. Opalneria doesn't seem like the kind of person who'd reward that particular sort of initiative. We're going to have to shut this thing off if we're going to accomplish anything."
Constellations were taking shape in outlines of green light, the forms of animals spelling out the astrological influences significant to the workings of various magic. A unicorn pranced through the air, chasing or being chased by a soaring eagle.
"That's obvious. The question is, how do we do it?"
"I don't even know how it turned on in the first place. I know I didn't touch it!"
"Well, I didn't either and—Bartido, wasn't it three months ago that the eagle was last in ascendance?"
Bartido rolled his eyes.
"Trust you to notice that the thing is set wrong. It hasn't been running for who knows how long, so it's still set to whatever date it was when it was shut down."
Then, because it had been that kind of night, the eagle gave a defiant screech and dove at Bartido.
Bartido flung himself aside and the eagle struck the floor, bursting in a shower of green flame.
"What was that?"
"It must be some kind of magical security device," Bartido realized. "It woke up because we were trying to take the books."
"That's insane! This room may be off-limits, but it's still just a library. Some innocent apprentice might blunder into a deathtrap. Professor Gammel wouldn't do such a thing."
"You mean, like he wouldn't let the ghost of Lujei run loose to do whatever she likes to students she catches wandering the halls after dark?"
"What makes you think he has anything to say about what Lujei does?"
"It was probably your clairvoyance that set it off. Someone stealing a book is one thing, but having familiars running loose in the room, using magic..."
That didn't quite hold together right, but Bartido figured they'd debated the point long enough.
"Look, that eagle's reforming. Maybe if we leave empty-handed, it'll go back to sleep. Then Professor Gammel won't know it ever turned on."
"What about the book?"
"We can always come back tomorrow, which we can't do if we get killed in here tonight."
They bolted for the door, but when Bartido reached for the handle, he found himself unable to open it. In fact, he found himself unable to even touch the thing, as his hand was stopped by a shimmering in the air, a kind of barrier.
"I think I figured out what the unicorn is for," he said.
"Don't just stand there impressed. Do something!"
"Hey, I'm good with my fists, but I can't punch down a magical barrier! Why don't—oof!"
The "oof" was because Hiram had suddenly given him a two-handed shove in the chest, knocking him flat on the stone floor. Bartido didn't complain because the sprawled position gave him an excellent vantage point to watch another green bolt blast through the space his torso had just been occupying. It was considered bad form to whine about the specific means a person used to keep a large hole from being blown through one's chest.
"It was the books," he decided. "When we picked up the first book, it activated, raising the barrier to keep the presumed thieves from escaping with their loot. Then, when it sensed the clairvoyance, which included it in the area of effect, it switched over to combat mode."
"Then you have an idea of what will make it shut off?"
"The destruction of all targets, maybe?"
"That isn't helpful!"
"At least we can die knowing that Professor Gammel didn't leave a killing machine for anyone who just touches his books." He pushed himself back to his feet.
"No, just for the idiots who use clairvoyance who make a pointless search for hidden compartments!"
"You sound like you think this is my fault."
"Good, then I'm being clear in my meaning."
A phantom stepped forth from the Hades Gate just then; Hiram must have started summoning it when the first eagle strike had launched at them. Bartido hadn't been neglecting his side of things, though; he'd been pouring more mana into his own Rune, infusing it with the power to enhance his homunculus's psychic abilities. Thus, when Hiram's ghost knight stepped forward to swing his flaming sword at the orrery's base, Bartido's homunculus sent up a bolt of light at its upper works, a light that burst into a shower of sparkling, crackling explosions.
Unfortunately, the psychic storm and the phantom's blow ran into the same problem: the door wasn't the only thing shielded by a barrier; the orrery itself was as well. If it was anything like a unicorn's holy barrier, some measure of the force of the attacks actually got through, but the vast majority was left behind. Plus, the massive orrery was a lot tougher than a belly-high unicorn.
The attacks did accomplish one thing, though: they captured the magical construct's attention. When the eagle struck again, it didn't dive at Bartido for a third time, but at the phantom. The bolt hit home, blasting the ghostly knight out of existence. Bartido supposed that he should have expected that; Glamour was the magic of the natural order and was especially effective against the works of Necromancy, which called back the spirits of the dead in contradiction of that order.
"This isn't going to work," Hiram said.
"You're telling me! If it can keep that barrier going, it won't matter even if I create a chimera. Not that I even could do that; I haven't got the mana and that's the only crystal in the room."
"I don't think I can keep this up until morning, either," Hiram said. "Even with the crystal I'm going to run out sometime once the supply is exhausted."
"Well, keep it up for now. At least it buys us time to think of something else."
Hiram couldn't find anything to argue over in that logic. He'd already started to summon a series of phantoms, each of the knights ready to step in and replace the one that had fallen before it.
"So what are we going to do?"
"You're asking me?"
"You're the one who's had all the bright ideas so far tonight," Hiram accused.
"You've hated all my ideas."
"At least they are ideas. Some plan, no matter how ridiculous, at least has some chance of success, which is a lot better than the no chance that we've got right now!"
Bartido set his Laboratory to work on creating another homunculus. The psychic storms were more powerful than the phantom attacks simply because they involved multiple blasts, which meant each one hit the barrier about fifteen times to the sword's one. Unfortunately, the homunculi required mana to use their ability, mana which they only regenerated slowly, so the best he was hoping for was that it might serve as a distraction, absorbing attacks away from Hiram's phantoms—or worse yet, Hiram's Rune, if the machine had the ability to recognize the source of the problem instead of the effect. In a battle of attrition, even the little mana he could add might help, and...
Wait a minute.
"Hiram, I think I've got something."
"Unicorns can't keep their barriers up forever, right? Eventually they run out of mana. And this thing is blocking the door, protecting itself, and launching magical attacks all at the same time. Even if it has a large starting store of mana, it shouldn't be able to keep up with us forever."
"I don't see it slowing down, Bartido."
"No, you don't, and that's exactly my point. It's not slowing down!"
It clicked into place for Hiram.
"Ah! Where is it getting its mana from, you mean?"
"Right! It has to be getting an extra supply from somewhere, faster than just its natural absorption from the environment."
"So where's it coming from?"
"I don't think it's a coincidence that the thing is basically standing on top of that crystal."
"The crystal? But how? It isn't connected to it at all. And besides, I have a sanctuary claiming it, so someone else shouldn't be able to use the same crystal."
"I don't know; it's just the only thing I can think of right now. Familiars can regenerate from ambient mana a lot faster than human magicians can, so maybe it's the same for crystals? Like, while we have to have our familiars establish control by a sanctuary and mine it in chunks, maybe the orrery can just bleed it off by proximity."
"Or maybe it has a completely different source of mana."
"Maybe it does, but do you have any better ideas?" Bartido waved a hand towards the battle, where another phantom was being extinguished. "That's not getting any better, and I'm totally out of mana now."
"I haven't actually heard the part where any of this guesswork constitutes an idea," Hiram shot back.
Bartido almost came out with a sarcastic line about it being blatantly obvious and how amazed he was that Hiram hadn't noticed it, but backed off at the last second. The other apprentice genuinely wasn't all that good at improvising once Plan A and Plan B had run off the rails, and on top of that he was probably just as scared as Bartido. Maybe more so, since while they were both stuck in the room fighting the magical death machine Hiram just didn't have Bartido's comfort with making it up as he went along, plus the pressure was all on him since being the one with mana, he was going to be the one who did all the heavy magical lifting.
There was a difference between banter, teasing, friendly rivalry, and just being an ass.
"If we can cut off its supply, it won't be able to keep the barriers up. Start calling up some more ghosts in between the phantoms when you can and strip that crystal dry."
"And if you're wrong?"
The shattering of glass heralded the end of one of the homunculi.
"If I'm wrong, then how are we worse off than we are now?"
"...There is that."
It was a slow and painstaking process. Most times, when one side has an idea by which they can turn the tide and win a fight, it's a dramatic thing, quick and explosive with all of the inherent violence thereof. This was the opposite. It wasn't a bolt of lightning or an avalanche; it was a river wearing away at a rock face to create a canyon after centuries of erosion. Using well-timed attacks from Bartido's homunculi to shift the enemy's attention away and buy opportunities, Hiram soon had a small army of ghosts ferrying mana. Ten minutes passed, then twenty, until at last the work started to pay off as they could see the crystal shrinking.
"Almost..." Bartido murmured, and realized that he'd have been on the edge of his seat if this really was the theater. In moments, he'd know if the idea was going to work, or if they were going to be stuck there until Hiram's mana ran out, at which point they'd likely be playing dodge-the-magic-eagle until one of them inevitably screwed up and was struck down.
He really didn't like that second set of alternatives.
Then, the crystal vanished at last. Two phantoms leapt, side-by-side, at the orrery, their swords reflecting off the barrier. The verdant eagle flashed down again, and then there was one phantom.
"I think we're out of luck, Bartido."
"No, wait, look!"
The eagle was reforming, but the unicorn was starting to flicker. Like a Rune that had been nearly destroyed by attacks, the image faded in and out, making Bartido hope that the same logic applied here.
"Keep after it! It's running on stored mana now, and that won't hold out forever."
He suited his actions to his words, and ordered his last homunculus to launch its final psychic storm.
"No, Bartido, wait, it's—"
He glanced at Hiram in surprise. Then, the phantom struck again, and the image of the unicorn vanished entirely. With it went the barrier.
The psychic storm detonated a moment later.
It will be noted that a homunculus's psychic storm is powerful. It was devastating against Astral enemies, capable of shredding even Morning Stars with a couple of storms, or consuming whole squads of phantoms at once. It was less overwhelming to creatures with bodies of substance, but even so it was still quite dangerous.
It will further be noted that a unicorn's barrier, which the orrery seemed to be emulating, was not an impenetrable defense like a stone wall. Some of an attack's force was able to leak through, albeit only a tiny fraction. The orrery, therefore, had been taking a mild battering throughout the fight, not enough to hamper it, but at least enough that it was weakened a bit. One might compare it to a boxer that hadn't been hurt by an opponent's punches, but was getting weary from them, his guard flagging a bit so that he was open and exposed for a real haymaker.
The screech of rending metal, bolts shearing off, rods bending, gears grinding against one another, was a little like a banshee's shriek in their ears. The damage was extensive; it had destroyed the animating force of magic that turned the clockworks into a construct, and all that was left were the physical forces of the animation.
Which forces, due to the damage to the works, caused the orrery to violently tear itself to pieces. It didn't precisely explode, since there was no chemical reaction, but it might as well have done, from all the shrapnel flung everywhere. A gear-wheel smashed into a bookcase and crushed a shelf, sending books spilling onto the floor. A uniquely illuminated copy of the Gehenna grimoire was impaled by a flung rod in a parody of a vampire being staked. The planet Saturn, a bronze orb the size of a cannonball, missed Hiram's skull by inches, passing so close that its rings brushed his ponytail and had they been razor-edged (which they weren't, because Gammel Dore was considerably saner than the average designer of magical contraptions) would have snipped it right off. Bartido took a glancing blow to the ribs from a chunk of metal that gashed his vest but not the skin beneath.
"You probably deserved that," Hiram said unsympathetically after seeing that the injury wasn't serious.
Probably he'd waited until seeing that.
"Look what you've done!" he went on, waving his hands at the general carnage. "Do you realize what Professor Gammel is going to say when he sees this?"
"It does seem as if it'll be hard to hide that someone was here," Bartido agreed.
Hiram stared at him in disbelief.
"How can you be so blasé about it? What are we going to do now?"
"Now? Nothing. We're going to walk out of here, go back to our rooms, and get a good night's sleep. If we're really lucky, Professor Gammel will think his construct ran wild on its own or because of something leftover that one of these books or artifacts did, some bit of stray magic. If we're less lucky, he'll realize someone was in here, but there's no way to prove who."
It may have sounded like Bartido was attempting to cravenly weasel his way out of punishment. One must remember, though, that Bartido was a foreign spy sent to acquire the Philosopher's Stone from the Tower, and therefore (a) his attitude towards Professor Gammel's personal property wasn't likely to be too sympathetic given that he was there to steal the most valuable piece of it, and (b) getting kicked out of the Tower would make it impossible to finish his mission, so he wasn't about to risk that if he could help it. His weaseling was, therefore, tactical rather than cowardly.
Well, mostly. He was human, after all.
"They'll find us out right away!"
"How? We're not leaving any evidence, we're not taking anything with us that could be found in our rooms, and I'm certainly not going to tell anyone I was here. So unless you're driven by the urge to confess, I say we admit tonight was a failure, chalk it up to experience, and get the heck out of here before we're caught."
He strode quickly to the door and yanked it open, only to find himself face-to-face with an apparition. A voluptuous woman in a scanty dress (nice!), a rose vine curling around her limbs like an embracing lover, the thorns piercing the soft flesh in numerous places (a little kinky, but hey), hovered in the air, her translucent image glowing softly (uh-oh).
"So that's what made all that awful noise," Lujei said, looking past Bartido into the room. "You two have been very bad boys. Dear old Gammel's going to have a fit when he finds out about this, and then he'll be all bothered by having to figure out what to do. So why don't you come with me and we can save him all the trouble, hmm?"
"You're right, Hiram; we should stay right here in this room and take our punishment like men."
"Oh, pooh, you're no fun at all."
The sound of footsteps coming along the corridor cut the conversation short, much to Bartido's relief.
"Lujei? What's going on in my library?" the deep voice of Gammel Dore was plain to hear.
"I'm not entirely sure. I heard something interesting happening, so I came to see what it was, and what did I find but these two young men trying to slink away from the scene of the crime."
"In all fairness, I was the only one doing any slinking," Bartido pointed out. A gentleman had to stick up for his friends, after all.
"Is that Mr. Ballentyne's voice I hear? Why am I not surprised?"
A lesser man than Hiram, or one with a better sense of humor, would have made some kind of smart remark just then, but Bartido was spared for one reason or the other.
"And Mr. Menthe as well," Gammel continued as he stepped past Lujei to fill the doorway. Despite his age, he was a big man, both tall and broad, and his flowing robes only added to that impression. Keen eyes like a hawk's took in the scene before him, missing nothing. One big hand stroked his beard rhythmically as he weighed the matter.
"Apprentices," he sighed. "This, Lujei, is why we can't have nice things."