Meanwhile, at Strang’s tower…
Last session, we had a sort of post-credits scene, in which Needles revealed something to Jed, and was himself surprised:
Hours later, Needles pulls a merry Jed aside from the party. “Hey,” he said, holding out a globe of orichalcum wire tracery the size of a basketball. “I traded for this at the pub. Think it’s worth anything?”
Then, as they watched, many of the places where the wires met started to glow and blink like fireflies…
Now, I would like to present a sort of post-post-credits scene, in which we get to see what Strang was doing at just about the same time.
* * *
Faithful Mamu had brought the latest artifacts recovered by the ruffians of Corbin, Inc. Strang had hoped for something more substantial, but three pins were better than nothing. The question was, where did those pins fit in the skeletal structure that was taking shape in the middle of Strang’s study?
Finally, there was a structure to work around. For so long, he had worked only with unconnected fragments of the Apparatus. It had been like trying to figure out the picture on a jigsaw puzzle with only the four corner pieces. Now, with recent additions, connections were becoming apparent.
The dwarves had once called the thing the Archway, or possibly Apparatus, of Argha-hal. The identify of “Argha-hal” was still murky, but as Strang looked at the partially-constructed device, he understood the uncertainty in the first rune. It was halfway between an arch and a piece of machinery. It looked as if one part of the structure would form an open arch with a pointed top, of generous width but only just tall enough for an average man to have to stoop to step through. Of course, it would be too short for a human, having been designed by and for dwarves.
It also seemed that there would be no place for this hypothetical man to step through to. According to Strang’s latest construction, the completed Apparatus would form a sort of curving, lop-sided, triangular pyramid. The open archway would form one face of the pyramid. The other two would be barred by various tubes and mechanisms forming a loose cage. Even if the interior were completely open — unlikely, in Strang’s estimation — there wouldn’t be enough room inside for even a dwarf to stand upright.
The pins. He had collected these kinds of pins before, many times. They were used throughout the Apparatus to connect larger, more complex pieces, one to another. They weren’t interchangeable, either, like simple bolts or screws. It had taken weeks of minute inspection before he had understood: their lengths varied by a few hundredths of an inch, and their ends bore a pattern of grooves, invisible to the naked eye. They were made to fit into their designated locations like a key in a lock.
Once, he would have been faced with the overwhelming task of trying each pin against the hundreds of available sockets. (Or possible sockets, he corrected himself. Many of the tiny pin-pricks scattered across the surface of the device served other purposes. On more than one dark night, Strang had contemplated the possibility that most of them might only be decorative.) Luckily, those days were done. Now, the song of the pieces themselves guided him. He could hear their song, now, after so many years of study. He could hear it in his head.
Now, the song was quiet. The voices of the pieces had been subdued, ever since the latest disappointment. They had really been looking forward to reuniting with their mates. He wasn’t sure if the pieces were sad, exactly, or even if they could feel sad in the same way a human or a halfling could. It was just as likely that they had expended all their energy in reaching out to their missing mates, and now they slept, like a farmer after a hard day’s work on the harvest. Either way, their voices were only a constant murmur. The melody that they sang was one that Strang had come to think of as their equivalent of the town crier’s “All’s well” — it said that they would mention anything worth mentioning, but there wasn’t anything to speak of at the moment.
It was enough. One by one, Strang took the pins, and guided them across the surface of the structure. Twice, he finished the process, shook his head, and carefully put the pin aside, in a velvet-lined box. The third time, as the pin came close to its proper location, he could hear… something. An echo, nearly simultaneous with what it echoed, but just slightly off-key? Yes, just so. He could hear an echo come into the quiet buzz of the song. Then, it was simply a matter of moving the pin to and fro, listening to the changes, until he located the proper socket. Much like tuning a musical instrument by ear, he had often thought.
Ever since he first started on this quest, to re-assemble the lost pieces of the Apparatus, it had worked that way. The first steps were always faltering, laborious things, more frustration than progress. Then, one small breakthrough would open up another, slightly easier, avenue of research. Knowing one fact would make it possible to learn another three.
As the Fluidist archmage sat studying his work, in the small hours of the morning, he was astonished to see thousands of tiny specks of light appear across the surface of the partial Apparatus! The chorus of pieces’ voices burst into full song: one of their mates was near! It saw light, it felt heat, it interacted with the invisible emanations of enchanted items, and now it was raising its voice, calling out!
Strang staggered from the change in his pieces’ song. They were calling back to their lost mate, as loud as they could. The room became bitter cold. The fire on the grate was doused as if by a pail of water, and the lamp went out, plunging the room into darkness aside from the fairy light shed by the Apparatus itself. Even though he was standing still, Strang felt the indescribable, unmistakable prickle down his spine that meant he had passed from one system of mana to another, one offering a different level of power. He felt certain, without checking, that the normal mana of his study was being drained. The Apparatus was drawing in power on multiple levels, clearly.
None of that, as startling as it was, was the thing that nearly took Strang to the floor. It was the song itself. The pieces had many voices, all singing together. Now, they were all singing variations on “Here we are, how are you, we’ve missed you, what’s the news?” Oh, but the number of variations! Some of the voices were telling stories, giving their long-lost mate an update on their experiences since they had all last made contact. Some were describing parts of town, or the people in it. Some seemed to be reciting lists, like a customer at the market checking off purchased items.
Many of the songs within the greater chorus reminded Strang of experiences from his adventuring youth, ones dealing with soldiers and mercenaries. They were… reporting in. Like sergeants reporting readiness to an officer. Or, rather, reporting losses. There were so many missing pieces…
All but blind from sensory overload, Strang groped for ink and quill. He was overhearing secrets that might take years to uncover through research, but for every item he caught, there were a dozen that slipped through the fingers of his mind!
He understood, now, why the pieces of the Apparatus didn’t appear to be enchanted, despite being clearly unnatural. They were layered, like an onion. The outer layer was cold, hard, unbreakable orichalcum. Inside some (most? all?) of the pieces, there was another layer of meteoric iron, itself concealing an enchanted core. That core… he wasn’t sure, but he thought it might be enchanted like a Bottomless Purse, to be bigger on the inside than the outside. There was no way of telling how much carrying capacity was concealed within the machine, nor what all that space was filled with.
Strang had a few shrewd guesses as to contents, though. First and foremost, he suspected those folded spaces were filled with the minds behind the song. Second, they must contain the tools that those minds used to manipulate the material world.
One strand of the music caught his attention. That thread of the song was almost babbling about the things that would become possible, once the local structure was reunited with this mysterious mate. It had started off talking about mathematical calculations, but now it was talking about “overlapping the test spaces, as we did in our youth” and wondering about the conditions of “the Between-Places, the Tunnels At The Edge Of Time”.
Strang blinked, three times, very rapidly. He couldn’t be understanding that correctly. There were some magics that had been forbidden by the gods themselves… or so he had been taught.
Gathering his robes about himself against the chill, he approached the apparatus. He couldn’t sing back to the pieces of orichalcum, of course, but he had learned how to communicate with them. To some extent, at least. He touched certain spots on the Apparatus, with an air reminiscent of the half-deaf cleric who played the organ at the cathedral during services. As he did, the song changed. He guided it towards answering certain questions, fighting to phrase them in a way that a collection of singing enchantments would understand.
The first light of dawn was creeping through the window when Strang sat back, exhausted, but satisfied. The Apparatus had finally agreed to his proposal, with conditions. If he could reunite his pieces with this mysterious orb. If they started out slow, like an athlete warming up before a competition. If he promised to use them to find their other missing mates, and their cousins… they would be willing to bend the laws of magic. To skirt by the will of the gods.
They would be willing to open a door from Strang’s study to a far-off location, allowing passage between the two without crossing the space between. While they gathered their strength, they could only do the trick with certain remote locations, but those locations happened to be the facilities used in the construction of the Apparatus itself. Their explanation was obscure in the extreme, but he got the idea that the pieces of the Apparatus had learned their trade in these rooms. Apparently familiarity with the terrain was a great advantage when violating the laws of nature.
Strang’s eyes narrowed.
“Next question,” he muttered to himself, watching the lights dance across the Apparatus. “Who here in town has my orb?”