Shadows of the Limelight, Ch 16: Smoke and Mirrors

Vidre fell.

Glass twirled in the air around her, spreading as it fell with her. It seemed to move backwards, because it was falling more slowly than she was. The moment stretched out in front of her, a half second where she was surrounded by her domain and empty air. Death lay below her, coming more quickly with the tightly spaced beats of her heart. She shattered her armor, fracturing it along intuitive lines. The pieces broke off and tumbled away from her, dozens of pounds of glass that had formed a protective shell around her cracking like an egg.

She could aim to hit the street headfirst. If she closed her eyes she wouldn’t be able to see the inevitability of the crash. She would crack her skull or snap her neck, possibly both, but either way it would be a swift and merciful death. It would be possible to die, quickly and simply, instead of the experience of pain and the fight that would surely come after it. The thought passed through her mind quickly, just long enough for three floors of the Ministry of Legends to pass her by. She would remember it later, with a small amount of suppressed longing.

Vidre had learned the art of falling at a small temple in Luchistan, in the far east. It had been early in her career aboard the Zenith, before Gaelwyn had saved Welexi’s life and come aboard, but after the Peddler’s War. Their tour of the far east was more to offer a cleansing of the palate than anything else. Vidre had gone to the temple alone, in part because she and Welexi had gotten in a fight that both would afterward pretend hadn’t happened. Vidre had thought that the Luchistani monks would have something clever and wise for her, which was always how it had gone in the stories, but instead their style of martial arts was almost entirely concerned with how to take an impact against the ground.

It was nearly worthless for an illustrati. Fights were about which domain you had and how much power you could bring to bear with it. Heavy armor was the norm, as were long weapons with a fair amount of reach. There were a number of domains that allowed for an attempt as suffocation through various means as well, which meant distance was preferred. The only domains that favored grappling were the bodily domains, more to find or create a gap in the armor than anything else. Even then, being able to properly take a fall didn’t matter to someone like Vidre. She was simply too durable for a throw to do any damage. She had sparred with the monks all the same, learning as much of their techniques as a week would allow, but that was more for the sake of being able to tell the story later. The monks focused on rolling, turning the moment of impact into sideways movement, but this only worked if the fall had an angle to it. It wasn’t until her final day at the temple that a wizened old man gave her careful instructions on how to survive a straight drop. She’d thought it useless but learned it anyway; it probably saved her life.

Vidre spread herself out, with her forearms in front of her and her feet angled downward. The idea was to take the hit from the ground in as many places as possible, so that no one location would be taking the brunt of the impact. All this was accomplished in the last half of the fall, but had been planned from the moment that Welexi had made his own graceful exit from the Ministry of Legends. At the last moment, Vidre turned her head to the side, then slammed into the ground.

She came to with a throbbing headache, not too many seconds after she’d made impact. There was a moment of disorientation and pain, until the pain had sharpened into something visceral, leaving the sense of confusion behind. Vidre got to her feet with an involuntary groan. She had gotten lucky; despite the pain and blood streaming from her, nothing seemed to be broken. Her hearing was less than it had been at the start of the day, thanks to the grenade and a number of pistol shots, but it was clear that the people around her were screaming; pieces of glass as sharp as razors were raining from the sky.

Vidre reached down to pick up a piece of glass with shaking fingers. She began to form it into a dagger with a familiar manipulation of her domain; she would remake her armor as she went. When she told this story later, her landing would be flawless, with one leg splayed out to the side and her hand just barely touching the pavement of the street. In the story she would catch her glass daggers from the air as they fell.

Vidre looked around briefly, trying to see the best direction to run in. She winced when she saw a man clutching a bleeding woman. Vidre had been thoughtful in shattering her armor; she had made the pieces sharp. Vidre had known there might be civilians below, but she’d done it anyway, the better to inflict casualties that would need to be dealt with. The stories she would tell of this moment would leave out the pain and suffering of those people who had only been caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Vidre took off at a sprint, trying her best to ignore the pains in her body and the unease in her mind.

They made their way through the city, moving as quickly as they could while staying inconspicuous. It was a sunny day, not quite right for a hood, but Vidre’s swollen red face would have drawn more stares than the unseasonable hood did. Dominic extended the shadows that her hood cast, further obscuring her face from view. This did little to hide her limp, or the hint of glass beneath her clothing. If they were stopped by any guards, Dominic was certain that she would kill them. Even with the beating she’d taken, she was too beautiful to pass as anything but an illustrati. She had not been built for subtlety.

“Where did you find your clothing?” asked Dominic.

“Not the time for idle conversation,” said Vidre. She licked a small amount of blood from her lips.

“I was chased by the parapetti in Gennaro quite a few times,” said Dominic. “I learned the art of blending in. If you look around us, you’ll see a fair number of people engaged in idle conversation. Even if you didn’t, the guards will be less likely to try speaking with us if they thought they’d be interrupting.” He kept his voice low enough for a relatively private conversation. The sounds of the city would drown them out.

“They wouldn’t be so foolish as that,” said Vidre.

“Yes they would,” said Dominic. “They wouldn’t even realize the impulse. At any rate, it’s not as if speaking to me is going to make it more likely that we’re found out.”

Vidre glanced toward Dominic. “Parance and I have a long history,” she replied. “There are difficulties in forging the sorts of relationships that will last a long stretch of absence, but I made a disproportionate number of them here. Part of that is owed to the Peddler’s War, and the long stretch of time we spent in the Iron Kingdom. Once I’d killed my pursuers, I had options in front of me.”

“You came to Hartwain’s looking for me,” said Dominic. He tried to keep his voice light. Anyone glancing at them might mark the hooded figure as odd, but Dominic’s casual air would deflect attention.

“I came to Hartwain’s because too many of the people I’d known had been attacked,” said Vidre. “Today was the day they made their grand move. It’s virtually certain they thought our presence necessitated it. If their trap had worked, they would have to explain to everyone why they’d killed us. If they hadn’t sprung a trap, there was a risk we would uncover something. They used what element of surprise they had now, while they still could.” Vidre pursed her lips from the shadows of the hood. “So to answer your question, I went to Merrith’s house. She was an illustrati of gold; she was an hour dead when I got there, along with her husband and two of their servants.”

“I’m sorry,” said Dominic.

“I said it was a lasting relationship,” said Vidre. “Not a lasting friendship.”

They walked in silence for a few steps, with Vidre leading.

“Where are we going?” asked Dominic.

“Hopefully to the place that the Sunhawk will assume we’d meet,” said Vidre. There was something cutting about the way she used his title. “We met during the Peddler’s War, in a small courtyard just south of the Elnor. It’s not a story that we’ve told anyone, so no one would think of it as a meeting place. Everywhere else is the home of an illustrati; if Hartwain and Merrith are any indication, the illustrati in this city aren’t safe. Those that aren’t being slaughtered are traitors or pawns.” Her eyes rested on Dominic for a moment. “Hopefully Welexi thinks of the same place I do, or I don’t know how we’re going to find him.”

“He’ll be easy to notice,” said Dominic. “A tall, bald man with dark skin would stick out even if Welexi weren’t famous.”

“Assuming they’re both still alive, he’ll send Gaelwyn,” said Vidre. She swayed slightly as she stepped forward.

“Are you going to be okay?” asked Dominic.

“I told you,” said Vidre. “There’s blood pooling in my boots.”

“It’s going to look suspicious if I have to carry you,” said Dominic. He tried to keep his voice light and cheery, with the same nonchalance she was showing him, but he didn’t know what he would do without Vidre. In the short term, he would be lost and alone in a city that was actively hostile to him. In the long term, his career as an illustrati would be jeopardy. That was without considering the fact that she was a friend, of sorts. There was a small romantic attraction buried beneath the stories they’d been telling and the displays they’d been putting on for the public.

“I’ll be fine,” said Vidre. “Not feeling up for my side of a conversation, I’m afraid.”

“That’s okay,” said Dominic. “I can do the talking.”

Dominic stole for the first time when he was nine years old. His father had taken him to market, in part so there would be an extra set of hands to carry back the fruits they used for the specialty breads. Dominic had absentmindedly grabbed a plum while the adults were talking. This wasn’t too uncommon in the bakery. His father had called them baker’s treats, though the fruit given to Dominic and his siblings was often slightly spoiled. When Dominic realized that he shouldn’t have taken the plum from the fruitmonger’s stall, he quickly stuffed it into his pocket before anyone could notice, just in time for his father to look at him.

Dominic had thought his father had seen him steal the plum. The whole walk back, Dominic was waiting for the moment of rebuke. His father didn’t have much of a temper, but the few times Dominic had seen it, it had left him shaken, even when it was directed at his brothers or sisters. The admonishment never came. When they were done unpacking the fruits, Dominic went to the room above the bakery that he shared with his brothers and cautiously took the plum from his pocket. He ate it quickly, while there was no one to catch him, devouring the sour, slightly unripe flesh of the plum as quickly as he could. When all that was left was the pit, Dominic opened the window and hurled it over the tiled roof of their next door neighbor. His hands were sticky with plum juice, so he wiped them on the side of his brother’s bed, and with that, all signs of the crime had vanished.

After a day had passed, fear gave way to relief and happiness. He was given his baker’s treats just like his brothers and sisters were. There was no lasting consequence from the theft. Not even the fruitmonger seemed to have noticed a single plum was missing. The next time Dominic went to the market with his father, they were given a warm greeting before the haggling over prices, with no one seeming to have noticed what Dominic had taken for himself. Dominic found himself volunteering for trips to the market often, primarily to think about the best way to steal another piece of fruit, or a confection from the candy stall.

He was caught for the first time when he was twelve years old. He had some small amount of free time in his day, between his duties at the bakery and the schooling that his mother provided. Mostly he was alone, or with his sister Anna, who followed him around like a shadow. Dominic hadn’t found a tutor in the criminal arts, nor did he know where you might find someone like that, but he’d been inventing his own rules and methods. He’d stolen that first plum through distraction, so this became the pillar of his budding school of thought. He enjoyed spending time with his little sister, both because she worshiped him, and because she was useful at turning away the attention of a shopkeeper.

While Anna asked the confectioner about all sorts of inane questions about what sorts of ingredients were in his chocolates, Dominic picked up some of the small candies. He would pick up two of them at once, take a moment to look at them, then put one back while palming the other. It was something that he’d practiced at home, with small rocks, enough that he’d thought it was nearly seamless. After the candy was safely in his pocket, Dominic looked towards the confectioner, who was still wrapped up in speaking to Anna. Dominic helped his sister pay for a treat — another thing he thought would eliminate suspicion — then walked out of the store. He was grabbed by the shirt just as he stepped into the street.

The confectioner yelled at him, a storm of curse words that quickly left Anna crying. Dominic first tried to deny that he’d taken anything, but the confectioner reached into Dominic’s pocket to pull out the stolen candy. People were watching them, but Dominic couldn’t do anything; the man was twice his height, with a painfully firm grip.

“Third time this week!” yelled the candy maker. “Third time a child comes in to steal from me! Where are your parents that let you roam this city?”

“I’m an orphan,” said Dominic, trying to think of a way out of this.

The confectioner gripped Dominic around the throat. “Liar,” he said. “I can take you to the parapetti and have them sort you out or you can tell me where your father is.”

Dominic relented and gave directions to the bakery where they made their home. He had thought that would be the end of it, that he would have some time to figure something out before his father was informed, but that was not to be. The confectioner closed up his shop, holding tight to Dominic the entire time. Dominic had been frog-marched down the streets and back home, where the confectioner had explained things to Dominic’s father. A beating ensued, one that left Dominic sore for a week after. His father had roared about the respect of the community, the irresponsibility of bringing Anna into it, the reprehensibly immoral behavior, on and on until he’d finally worn himself out. The punishments had been piled high.

It wasn’t the end of theft for Dominic, but it was the beginning of the end of his relationship with his father.

They arrived at the courtyard with only a single close call. A small group of guards had gone marching past them in double time. One of the guards had turned to look at them, slowing slightly, but Dominic had pretended to laugh at a joke, which was enough for the guard to continue on with his group. It had put Dominic even more on edge than they’d been before; their survival hinged on small situations like that, not all of which he would be able to see coming. He wanted to turn his head to watch every person they passed, looking to see whether they were being followed, or whether someone was going to fetch the guard. That paranoia would only attract attention though, so Dominic kept himself engrossed in telling stories to Vidre. These were small things, anecdotes about his mother’s love and his father’s wrath, play-by-plays of the rooftop races, and stories of daring capers with his friends as they committed their minor crimes. Vidre kept her eyes moving, not seeming to listen to him, and Dominic tried not to feel slighted by that.

The courtyard was a small one, with several stone benches to sit down on and a lonely tree in the middle of it straining up towards the light. It was nearly deserted, save for a small man with closely-cropped red hair and simple clothing. He looked at them for a moment before giving them a nod and looking around. When he’d made sure the coast was clear, the muscles beneath his face shifted until he looked like Gaelwyn. He let the disguise drop for only a moment before changing his face again. There was enough to give him away, if you were intimately familiar with the man. His eyes stayed the same. Everything else was different though.

“Claire isn’t feeling well,” said Dominic. “Do you mind if we rest for a bit before moving on?”

Gaelwyn nodded once before taking Vidre’s arm and helping her to sit down. Relief flooded onto her face as Gaelwyn kept his hand lightly touching her forearm. Dominic tried not to recoil back when the skin of Vidre’s face contorted as the muscles shifted beneath it. Gaelwyn held a hand out toward Dominic, who took it with only a slight amount of hesitation.

Lingering soreness from the fall and the chase vanished in an instant. Dominic felt a surge of energy in his legs, as though he were ready for another run across the city; for all he knew, he now was. The changes to his face felt like someone was prodding at his cheeks from the inside, pushing outward in ways that were uncomfortable. When Gaelwyn was finished, Dominic’s face felt like someone had made him put on a mask that didn’t quite fit. He tried his best to ignore it, but the feeling wasn’t quite right with what his mind had known.

“I’ve heard that Welexi is on the run,” said Gaelwyn. He glanced to the buildings that surrounded them, each with windows into the open air the courtyard provided. Many of the windows were open. If anyone was actively eavesdropping on them, it was too late to try to conceal their identities, but there was no sense in saying things out loud into so much silence.

“I heard that too,” said Vidre. “Though I can’t imagine the city would be friendly to him, or the others he was traveling with.”

“I imagine he still has friends,” said Gaelwyn. “Come on, we should get going.” He looked at Vidre’s face. “Keep the hood up.”

“Oh la, well it is so nice to meet someone new!” cried the woman when they entered. Dominic had been given her name, Charnel, and her domain, skin, but he knew nothing else about her. She looked young, but the domain of skin could accomplish that with ease. Her dress was light yellow, with small flowers of silk stitched onto it. This added to her light and airy appearance. Her house matched her in many ways; the windows let in as much light as possible and the woods were all light colors instead of dark. She was wealthy, as most illustrati were, so the place was filled with the curlicues and gold leaf that Dominic had come to expect.

“Oh my, the Queen of Glass, but I almost didn’t recognize you beneath that hood,” said Charnel. She swept forward with her dress trailing behind her. “Such a pity to hide your beauty with the ministrations of the Red Angel.” She held a dainty hand in front of her. “You have a fabulous bone structure none the less. It would be my utmost pleasure to give you what healing our good doctor could not.”

Vidre took the offered hand. Dominic watched the cuts stitch themselves back together, as though the skin had never been touched at all.

“You insist on keeping that scar?” asked Charnel. “I know it’s an affectation, but oh la, I find it so dreadful.”

“Are we safe here?” asked Vidre. “Merrith and her husband are dead, Hartwain has lost her domain.”

Welexi unfolded from the chaise he was sitting on. “Together we are safe. There is no force in the world that can stand against us.”

Vidre took off the hooded cloak and began shaping her armor around her, growing in more glass where it was needed. “I take that to mean that we’re not secure here. Gaelwyn, can you change my face back to what it was?”

“Why?” asked Gaelwyn. “We might have to leave on short notice.”

“We might be attacked here,” said Vidre. “In case you’re killed, I don’t want to be stuck with such homeliness.” She watched him with piercing eyes.

Gaelwyn moved forward and began to undo the changes he’d wrought. “It was the easiest disguise,” he said. “There are only so many changes that I can make without changing the skin or the underlying bone.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Vidre, though she had been the one to insist on being changed back. “We need to plot our next move.”

“Castle Launtine,” said Welexi. “It’s the seat of the Iron King’s power.”

“He’s dead,” said Vidre. “None of this makes sense if he’s alive.”

“All the same,” said Welexi. “Our enemy has been pretending that the Iron King is alive. In order to do that, they would need full control of Castle Launtine, if only to prevent their ruse from being discovered. Charnel has led me to believe that directives are still issued from the castle, even if the day-to-day running of the Iron Kingdom is done from within the ministries.”

“You still want to cut off the head,” said Dominic. “But what if there’s no head to cut off?”

“Explain,” said Vidre.

“I mean … it’s probably not just one person. It could be many. Some of them are within this city as we speak, they’re the ones who attacked the illustrati.” He paused. Now would be the time to speak out and explain what Faye had said. “Are we going to kill all of them?”

“Every collective has a leader,” said Welexi. “Every group has a vital member. There is something inherent to human nature that causes this. You saw even as the Parliament of Torland was forming, they were fighting with each other for the positions of power they’d built. We will find them. There will be a reckoning.”

“And then what?” asked Dominic. “If the Iron King really is dead, who will rule once you’ve killed everyone in this conspiracy?”

“We’re not in the business of crowning kings, Lightscour,” said Welexi. He had a sour look on his face. Dominic knew the man well enough to have some guess at his thoughts; Welexi had said that there would be a reckoning and that grand proclamation was supposed to be the end of the conversation. That was how it would be in a story. “Even if a number of the Iron King’s bastards have been killed, some must still remain. There are protocols for dealing with this sort of thing.” He said it with a wave of the hand.

“Being realistic though,” said Dominic. “Protocol won’t select the best ruler for this kingdom. And if we were to install a tyrant on the throne, or someone easily deposed by the next conspiracy after this one, what good does that do for the story?”

“It’s not always about the story,” said Welexi. “It’s about doing what is good and letting the story follow on its own.”

“But that’s what I’m saying,” protested Dominic. “Is killing all these people really good, given what we’d be leaving in our wake?”

“We can stay behind to rebuild,” said Vidre.

“It’s a possibility,” said Welexi.

Dominic had nothing to say in return. He had a horrible, sinking feeling that they were following the path of a story, rather than the path of good. Faye’s people were far from innocent, but neither were Vidre and Welexi. Together they had killed a dozen people today, with only a weak excuse of self-defense. Vidre seemed to kill whenever that was the most efficient way to get to her goals. Welexi was the same, but less forthright about it. Both had fought on the side of the Iron Kingdom at the same time that Gaelwyn was doing his terrible experiments at the Iron King’s behest. Gaelwyn was famous then; they had to have known.

“I won’t be coming with, I’m afraid,” said Charnel. “Oh la, I would love to come with, to see the grandeur and the adventure of a castle assault, but you must know that skin has few applications in the martial arts. Besides that, of course I have my services to think of. In these times there will be many who need mending, you understand. If we are to have new blood at the top, there will be many elevated in their own ways, whether by fame or money. They’ll want my services.”

“You’re not safe here,” said Vidre. “They have some capacity to steal your fame from you, along with your domain.”

“I won’t be safe there either,” said Charnel. “I think you can agree with that. At least here I have not been harassed. Perhaps I’ll take a vacation to the country for a few weeks until things settle down. I have an estate two days ride away, did you know?”

“Very well,” said Welexi. “We will wish you luck in your journey.”

“A present for the young illustrati,” said Charnel. “Before the four of you take off to save the world.” She stepped toward Dominic with a smile. “What changes would you like for your skin?” she asked with a sweet smile.

“My skin?” asked Dominic. “I think I’m fine with it.”

“Oh, well you’re far too young to have crow’s feet, that’s for certain, but there are other things that the domain of skin can do. It’s not just for looking youthful, you know. Were you aware that the domain of skin is the only one of the bodily domains that encompasses a sensory organ?”

“That’s not quite true,” said Gaelwyn. Vidre and Welexi had moved away to speak on travel preparations, but Gaelwyn had stayed to watch this exchange. “Bones and flesh have nerves in them. It’s part of why breaking a bone is so painful.”

“Oh la!” said Charnel. “The boy knows what I mean. We touch with our fingertips. We feel the wind on our face. I can deaden the nerves or enhance them.” She winked. “Or I can toughen your skin up, enough that your flesh would be protected from all manner of dangerous implements.”

“Don’t do that,” said Gaelwyn. “I can’t repair skin, it’ll leave you with painful wounds that heal slowly.”

“Do whatever you think is best,” said Dominic. “I’d prefer something … subtle.”

They left Parance under the cover of darkness. Charnel had nothing that was suitable for camping, but she did have a wide variety of clothing for them to take, some of it borrowed from her servants. Dominic had left his expensive purple outfit sitting in an alley somewhere in the monstrous grid of the city, so he was down to simple workman’s clothing. As soon as they were past the last row of houses, he began to conjure his armor of shadow into place. He’d taken some reinforcement of his skin, as well as some deadening of his nerves, which made him feel slightly out of sorts. Vidre and Welexi must have taken such enhancements ages ago, along with enhancements to strengthen their bones. It helped to explain some of their nonchalance when it came to pain. Charnel didn’t remove pain entirely — Dominic had prodded at the meat of his leg to make sure — but the sensation was far less extreme than it had been. He had been made more muscular too. With Gaelwyn and Charnel working together, his skin could stretch to accommodate more extreme changes of the flesh. When he looked at himself in the mirror, it was difficult to recognize the man that he’d been before.

Getting horses would have been difficult, so they went on foot instead. Once they were on the road out of the city, they began to run, moving with the strength only an illustrati could bring to bear. Dominic found the pace they were keeping somewhat slow, so he sprang ahead, scouting out the plentiful shadows. It was easier to tug on the shadows when it was nighttime; his domain was in abundance here.

They stopped after an hour of running, in order to cool down and drink from flagons of water. They were going as fast as a horse at a gallop, which they would only be able to sustain for as long as it took to get to Castle Launtine, and then only with periodic refreshing of their muscles from Gaelwyn. If they’d had an illustrati of blood as well, Dominic had thought they might be able to run forever, but Gaelwyn had said the body had many processes that were little understood. Dominic hadn’t pressed the point; he didn’t want to know what lines of experimentation had shown about the limits of the domain of flesh.

“Did Hartwain say what form the artifact took?” asked Welexi. “We know precious little about it.”

“It’s about the length of my forearm,” said Dominic. “With a hexagonal hole near the top. It has the same insistence on the mind as other artifacts.”

“We need to know whether it’s aimed like a pistol or needs skin contact,” said Vidre. “Did she say?”

“No,” said Dominic. So far he’d avoided lying to them, but he knew he couldn’t hold back much longer. “They have double illustrati. Illustrati with two domains. Or maybe more.”

Vidre and Welexi exchanged a glance while Gaelwyn’s eyes went wide.

“If you could merge the bodily domains into a single person, or even just the major ones, the possibilities available would be nearly endless.” He looked down at his hand. “It’s possible, with skin, flesh, and bone to regrow fingers, or to make new ones, but the level of technical knowledge required means that there are limits on what can be done by even a specialized team of illustrati. The communication alone is burdensome. But if you could feel flesh and bone at the same time, you might be able to alter them in perfect coordination —”

“If they truly have such a device, it must be destroyed,” said Welexi. “It was bad enough when I believed that it could only make exchanges.”

“You should have told us about this sooner,” said Vidre. “If we’d been attacked —”

“We were not,” said Welexi. “It doesn’t matter, at any rate. We know now to treat every illustrati we face as though they might display a second or third domain at a moment’s notice.”

“There’s a strong possibility that we’ll die in this assault,” said Vidre. “This began back with Wealdwood and Cerulean Bane attacking us. They’d been tracking us for months. That means the conspiracy had a full year to collect powers from whomever they might like, all under the authority of the Iron King. We don’t know what we’re walking into here.”

Welexi smiled. “That’s what makes it so heroic.”

They continued on through the rest of the night, traveling in darkness. There were scattered clouds that obscured the moonlight, which made it difficult to see on the road. They ran in silence with long, bounding strides that did little to tire them, breaking only occasionally. They would have outpaced a galloping horse sent from the city, but over the course of four hours they didn’t encounter another soul on the road. It was nearly dawn when Castle Launtine came into view. They turned off into the woods, to a place far enough from the road that they wouldn’t be seen, then began to make camp. Vidre shaped her glass into a convincing impression of a gray rock, large enough that they could crawl inside it.

“We sleep here until midday,” said Welexi. “We’ll take shifts.”

“How are we getting into the castle?” asked Dominic.

“Oh,” said Vidre. “I think you know we have a flair for the dramatic.”

Castle Launtine was located on a tall, rocky hill, with a small village spread out some distance from it. Vidre, Welexi, Gaelwyn, and Dominic stood a mile away, on top of a similar rocky hill, separated by a mile of open air. They had made a few concessions to visibility. Vidre’s armor was frosted glass now, reflecting no sunlight, while Welexi was projecting little light. The castle itself was a tall building, eight stories that added to the considerable height of the hill. Cannons stuck out from the lower walls, bristling forward at angles in order to cover the most ground. The stone was worked and smooth, with no obvious handholds. There was a winding path that led up to the castle, with a thick iron gate thirty feet tall barring the way.

“What are we doing up here?” asked Dominic. He’d held his tongue up until this point, but now curiosity was burning at him.

“You see those cannons?” asked Vidre.

“Yes,” said Dominic slowly.

“Castle Launtine is one of the most secure fortresses in the world,” said Vidre. She took off her glass breastplate and began to shape it, stretching it out into a disk. “Now, you might think about bringing in an illustrati of stone to come in from underneath, burrowing a tunnel to leave an entryway, or just toppling the structure from beneath in order to kill everyone inside. You’d pretty quickly find that there’s several solid feet of iron stopping you. You’d then probably bring an illustrati of iron in, but as soon as he moved aside the metal, he’d get a heap of sand down on top of his head. There are layers upon layers of traps that prevent that sort of thing.”

“The Iron King’s defenses around the castle were considerably weakened by the fact that he liked to brag about them to everyone who visited,” said Gaelwyn.

“Well, certainly,” said Vidre. She kept making the disk larger, until it was nearly as tall as she was. Dominic was worried that it would be visible from the castle in the way that it reflected the light, but he said nothing. “And of course, the castle is vulnerable to someone flying in from above, but there’s only one man with that power and in either case that’s quite difficult to defend against. A lone man going into a well-organized, well-defended castle alone is also probably a suicide mission.”

“I am not quite so heroic,” said Welexi.

“What are you making?” Dominic asked.

“Spyglasses are one of the trinkets I make,” said Vidre. She gave Dominic a feral smile. “This is only a larger application of the same principles.” She kept up the expansion, making a disk — a lens — so large that she had to make a brace of glass on which to rotate it. “Hellishly difficult, of course. Try drawing a perfect arc with a pen and it would be easy enough to point out the imperfections even with the naked eye. We need something far more precise than that.”

“You mentioned this when we were trapped,” said Dominic. “You’re going to … what, cook the guards up on the parapets?” If Dominic looked carefully, he could almost make out the small shapes up on the walls.

“No, we’re going to explode their powder stores,” said Welexi. He cracked his knuckles and watched as the lens began to take shape. “We’ve been within the walls of Castle Launtine often enough to know its layout.” He crooked a finger forward. “I never supposed we’d have to do something like this, but the powder stores are just beyond that wall. We only need a lens built precisely enough to focus all the light I produce into a single point, which we’ll angle straight through that window there.”

“The lens focuses light on a point in space,” said Vidre as she worked the glass. “We only need to make certain that the point is precisely positioned on a wall a mile away from us. Easy.” She stood back to look at her work. “I think we’re good to go. Dominic, if you could cover us in shadow, I would appreciate not going into combat with burnt skin.”

“Wait,” said Dominic. “We’re doing this now?”

“It will take some time to find our range,” said Vidre. “When we tell the story, it will work perfectly the first time, but in reality, it will take a half hour, maybe more. Shadows, if you please.”

Dominic cloaked them all in shadow, save for Welexi. Welexi produced light from his hands, directing it towards the lens. Dominic hadn’t seen anything like this before, but it was clear why it wasn’t too useful; it was brighter than a hooded lantern, but the effect was mostly the same. Through the lens though, the light was angled toward a distant spot. Dominic saw no change in the castle, but he didn’t have the spyglass that Vidre was using to examine their work.

“I wish we could have done this at nighttime,” she said. “It would be easier to examine our work. Unfortunately, much easier to see from a distance when you’re lighting up the night.”

It took another twenty minutes of minor adjustments, until finally Vidre could see that the lens was focusing on the right spot. Dominic had thought that Welexi was producing a lot of light before, but now that the weapon was properly set up, the illustrati of light began pushing the full weight of his domain through him. It was all that Dominic could do to angle the shadows, but even then it was as though they were standing in strong daylight. Vidre kept her spyglass pointed at the castle.

“We’re spotted,” she said. “Looks like they’re raising the alarm.”

“Let them,” said Welexi.

The base of the castle exploded outward as the gunpowder ignited, sending chunks of rock tumbling through the air. Dominic saw the walls of the castle lurch, sending men he could barely see tumbling down to the ground below. Dust, smoke, and fire rose in the distance, obscuring the castle. The sound came afterward, like a pistol shot writ large. The trees in the valley below swayed backwards. Dominic couldn’t take his eyes from the scene.

“Come on,” said Vidre. “We just spent the element of surprise.”

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Shadows of the Limelight, Ch 16: Smoke and Mirrors

5 thoughts on “Shadows of the Limelight, Ch 16: Smoke and Mirrors

  1. I was winding down before finally falling asleep when I had this crazy thought.

    The flame Illustrati from the Flower Queen’s court, the alchemist who purified her drugs, is the Illustrati who is trying to convince Dominic to defect. This is possible because of the bodily domains in combination, forming a more advanced version of Gaelwyn’s disguise, and the Harbinger artefact.

    I had to get up and post this now because I think there’s a decent probability of that reveal happening in the next chapter.

    1. dominic was approached by faye before they reached the flower queen’s court, when flame-alchemist was occupied there. oh, i guess faye could have taken flame-alchemist’s power, and then taken on her shape and form. convenient that she wouldn’t have to bother with dying her hair the right color. but did she have hair when she talked with dom later?

      i did have suspicions that faye was the girl who wanted to be dom’s apprentice in his home town.

  2. Do you have any idea how big a lens you need to focus enough light to set off gunpowder from a mile away? Lenses magnify stuff. They don’t make it brighter. Which means that at best your whole lens is the brightness of the sun. So you need an angular size larger tan the sun.

    1. It’s true that you can’t make the light brighter etc, as Randall shows in the article, but a) it says explicitly that it was as if they were standing in bright sunlight, despite Dominic’s shadows shielding them, and, following on form that, b) what’s to say that the light Welexi provides isn’t brighter than the Sun (and therefore hotter)?
      If you don’t like that explanation, just call it a plot device and move on. Minor deviations from the regular laws of physics aren’t too awful for a more fantasy-focused book, and if Alexander gets bothered by it he can work in a way for someone to take advantage of that inconsistency and break physics more usefully.

    2. With a perfect lense the distance doesnt really matter until it gets really big (and weird wave effects start screwing with the light)- the lense makes sure that all light entering it at the correct angle hits the same spot on the gunpowder’s container (gonna assume this is wooden).
      So main thing here is power. as a kid i made some wood smoke and char with a 4cm diameter magnifying glass in sunlight. Vidre’s is maybe 2m across so 2500 times area. Welexi’s light (even just the undirected spill-over that hits Dom) is much brighter than the sunlight i had as a kid; conservatively let’s call it 4x normal sunlight in intensity for the stuff hitting the lense. So we have enough power to char wood 10,000 times over – that powder keg is going up in flames even if Vidre fails to focus it properly.

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