Chapter 16

Occulum Rising


Nester sat on the lip of the Occulum, kicking his leg out in a swing. He had been watching the fleet of ships sailing for almost half an hour now, having been left in the care of two surly looking older mages by his uncle. He recognized his caretakers as elder wizards, real high-ranking honchos of the Wizarding Corps. He’d spent the first half of their stay balking under their penetrating gazes while averting his own as much as possible. He would’ve wagered that they must’ve known an interrogation spell—one cast from their eyes, somehow—for he’d been forced to swear up and down, denying his culpability, more than once during their stay, not that they’d spoken a word to him since arriving. But after the initial unease, he and they had spent the rest of their time in a protracted silence, mutually perturbed by the boredom arising out of watching one’s homeland being slowly invaded.

The water table shimmered, rippling systematically along vertices too coordinated to be a natural phenomenon. The ghostly protuberances outlined their foes, tracing phantoms in the murk, ethereal doppelgangers of adversaries, instead of the normal apparitions. Nester’s hand hovered over the disturbed surface, gently swaying over the formless specters as if commanding a troupe of marionettes, these shadow people, moving rhythmically to the cadence of his own swinging leg, an unconscious behavior born of idle distraction moreso than of any amount of forethought.

Unbeknownst to him, he was being watched. The elders regarded him dispassionately, but calculatingly.

The boy, a man old enough to be married, began to hum. His hand swayed, his leg kicked, and he purred.

“Mm-m-mmm-mm-m.”

As if by unseen command or silent signal, the stouter, balder elder’s eyes, previously glazed with boredom, suddenly widened in disbelief, sharpening in intrigue and surprise. A moment later, he spun on his cohort, who, ignorant to the internalized revelation of his peer, retained a neutrally blank visage, if tinged with curiosity, newly piqued by his peer’s swift change in demeanor. The stout, bald man placed his hand atop the other’s shoulder, which stood a foot above his own frame, sending a subtle, probing tinge of manna, which oscillated between them to complete a circuit.

The taller, leaner mage didn’t react, well used to the physical contact which preceded what he knew to become a tactile communication’s link. Sure enough, in the following moment, he heard a foreign voice announce itself in his head.

“Nantep.” It said.

The voice was his colleague’s, and sounded as if it had been spoken directly into both his ear canals, despite the stouter man not having moved or uttered a syllable aloud; neither had the boy, edged at the artifact’s rim, reacted in any notable way, which seemed statistically unlikely for someone so… flappable.

“Omar.” Nantep replied, though his lips did not move.

Their words were a script. An exchange of names had, for one reason or another, become the default preamble for this form of communication. It announced the establishment of the connection, identified the speaker, and prompted a response, all of which Nantep thought to be completely and insanely useless. But it was modest, and worked, which, perhaps, explained its lasting franchise.

“What’s the matter?” Nantep asked, prompting words from out of Omar’s silence. Hesitation, perhaps doubt, seemed to color the man’s countenance.

“The boy,” Omar eventually said.

“Aye. What of him? If you’ve come into my mind to poke around because you’re bored, you’ll have to do a finer job of entertaining me or, at the very least, dazzle me with some sparkling conversation.” Though I won’t hold my breath. Nantep’s unspoken thoughts went unheard by Omar, such was the nature of the link. But the smirk he couldn’t quite suppress revealed the substance of his private thoughts to the astute man, nonetheless.

Omar, who had become intimately acquainted with his colleague’s mannerisms over the years and could read the man like a book, scowled. “No, fool. Pay attention.” He returned his attention to Ramses’ nephew.

Nantep, with nothing better to do, followed the man’s example, regarding the boy with a renewed interest.

“Mm-m-mmm-mm-m.”

Nantep’s brow twitched at the off-key susurrations. The boy had found a new way to be annoying, and seemed to enjoy playing with this new toy.

Ignoring that, the first detail that jumped to mind was the brat’s positioning. He was shitting all over the ancestors by treating the relic like a pond to be used for recreational leisure, the sort that fish and birds shat upon with disgusting regularity. But they weren’t babysitters, and wiping snot off noses and other orifices was not in their job description. Neither did they possess the proclivity or inclination. It was Ramses’ duty to shape the lad, not theirs. Contrary to the boy’s beliefs, which they hadn’t seen fit to correct at the time, but which might’ve saved them a headache by now had they bothered to explain, they hadn’t come to watch over him, but the Occulum. However, Nantep was sure that Omar meant something else.

He sighed, ruing that the task would be made simpler if the room were quiet. A running list of the auditory spells he knew flitted through his mind, and he spent the next minute trying to jury rig an ad hoc incantation from bits of a sound nullification array he knew and a spell used to diffuse sine waves that had found application as suppressive warding according to some scrolls. He supposed the bare bones were workable, but localizing it would prove challenging as the Occulum did not play well with foreign magic.

A tapping on his shoulder distracted him from his musings, and he looked over at Omar. The man’s fingers were mirroring the subtle nodding his head was making. Following the man’s line of sight, Nantep found the boy. And, sat upon the Occulum’s rim, the child hummed.

“Mm-m-mmm-mm-m.”

Nester’s hands deftly danced across the board while he seemingly commanded the orchestral waters. It was a neat trick, Nantep admitted to himself, albeit suspiciously, beginning to suspect that he’d keened onto Omar’s observation. He waited and listened, observing. Except, this time, words accompanied the boy’s melody. But it was Omar’s voice which he heard fill his head.

I have endured beyond yesterday,

Tomorrow, I will have survived beyond today,

Always is not forever, but ever changing,

For as long as eternity persists,

This world will metamorphose,

I will endure.

It was the opening refrain from Vega’s Soliloquy, a prayer to the Goddess of the Odyssey. Among the gods, she was unique in that her kind was not subject to the rule of Hessian, for their sect existed outside of direct interference from humanity. None of their kind had blessed mankind, nor would they, if the mythos portended. But they were worshiped, nonetheless, because, as gods, they were able to manipulate the tapestry of destiny to favor the devout.

Vega was synonymous with redemption, absolution, and divine righteousness, which, to some, took the form of an ideology wherein the ends justified the means.

As the boy hummed and Omar’s unpleasant caterwauling filled his head, Nantep’s mind swam with the possibilities.

By the end of the prayer, one word filled the vacuous void left behind in the poignant silence.

“Synchronicity.” It had to be.

Wizardly scholars had coined the term only eight centuries ago, but had been taking note of its effects, in one form or another, for untold generations. The phenomenon was characterized by a meaningful coincidence in a series of events that were unrelated. These included the swarming behavior of large flocks of birds or colonies of insects, the harmonization of biological or mechanical functions to their counterparts, the sciences of numerology and astrology, and further mysteries that have eluded categorization for millennia. Synchronicity told the story of an interconnected web, woven beneath the fabric of the world, for none of these things could be connected to one another in any meaningful way, yet they appeared to be. It had become widely accepted that they were.

No one had found the cause for synchronicity, which, by its nature, was acausal, and all major theories pointed to the will of the gods as the driving engine. To a devout worshiper, this was answer enough, but to a devout scholar, it was as substantial as pointing to anything else that existed and giving the same explanation. Why is that rock brown? Oh, why, it must be the will of the gods. Nevermind the various mineral deposits in the surrounding strata.

But, truly, no one liked to admit to their own ignorance, despite that doing so, more often than not, was the first step in the road to overcoming said ignorance. Which is what likely led to the development of the conventionally accepted theory of synchronicity. It stated that the phenomenon was tied to the weaving of the tapestry, the fabric of destiny which governed all that is, was, and ever would be, and even offered an experiment for divining the credibility of the claim. However, said experiment was untestable by current magical means and, so, the theory remained—conveniently—simultaneously unprovable and un-disprovable. At the time of if its inception, it had been hailed as a great step in cultivating a grand unified theory of magic.

It was a sodden piece of horseshit, is what it was, silkily lathered up in the folly of someone who really went out of their way to say, in the most convoluted way possible, three little words: I don’t know. But, surely, that too was the will of the gods.

“Aye. I think so too.” Omar said. “Though, I doubt the boy recognizes his accomplishment.”

Nantep blinked, unaware that he had broadcast his thoughts over their link. It wouldn’t have been the first time. But he looked, and saw that Omar was right. The boy remained oblivious to their findings. However, their eyes had been opened up to a new source of light, wherein the gormless form of the boy no longer seemed as impotent as before, when previously cast in shadow. Perhaps Ramses was slyer than he pretended.

As if speaking of someone summoned them into existence, the doors opened and the wizard himself walked through with a flourish of robes, trailed by the king, the fleet admiral, and the general. The famed trinity had arrived.

Omar removed his hand, and the two Elder Wizards separated. Each inclined their heads toward the High Wizard, who returned the gesture, and bowed to the king before greeting the others with deferential nods of their own.

“Uncle!” Nester cried. Surprise had overtaken his stupor and unbalanced him precariously. His arms windmilled to keep him from falling onto the water table. He lost the fight with gravity and tipped over irreversibly.

A look of horror overcame the onlookers, though their concern was for the relic, not the boy.

Ramses shot out an arm, quick like a serpent, and grabbed. His fingers curled around empty space. Across the room, Nester froze midfall, body suspended at an unnatural angle. Ramses pulled, and Nester was yanked away from the artifact. The boy landed in a heap at his uncle’s feet.

“Ugh.” Nester groaned. “Thanks.” Shaking the vertigo from his head, he picked himself up onto all fours. “I think…” he muttered, wondering if the landing he was afforded had actually been an improvement.

Ramses spared the boy a reproachful glance before sweeping past him wordlessly. The king, along with the heads of his militaries, followed, sparing the fallen boy furtive glances, except for Maddox who was open in his judgement. The general sneered.

Only then did Nester realize the company in which he had made a fool of himself. The blood drained from his face, which hung from defeated shoulders. He could only stare at the floor, waiting for it to open up and swallow him whole. When it didn’t exhibit the desired expediency to match his needs, he began reviewing the earth magic he knew, wondering if a spell for carving a trench in the ground might be repurposed to work on the large slabs which constituted the chamber’s stone floor.

As Ramses reviewed the Occulum’s surface, the others got their first look at the anomalous behavior in action. Two-thirds of the table was quivering spasmodically, which had more to do with the focal spread of the viewing aperture than the actual size of the armada.

“You weren’t kidding Maddox said. That’s a shit show.”

“Indeed.” Ahmet said.

Longinus remained silent, a vow adopted by the others once Nantep and Omar began speaking, taking turns apprising them to the newest developments.

“There haven’t been any big changes.” Nantep said. “Well, unless you count moving from A to B, significant, in which case, a lot has happened.” He needlessly emphasized that A was the brim of the bowl and B was the fleet’s current location. “At the very least, it was enough to plot a predictive course. We’ve been updating the scroll frequently. And by we, I mean the kid, mostly. He’s proven a good workhorse, good with paperwork, if—" nothing else, he almost said, cutting himself off. It just wasn’t’ smart to insult the High Wizard’s nephew in front of both the High Wizard and the nephew himself, though he cared less about the latter.

Ramses hard eyes told him that he hadn’t quite succeeded in covering up his misstep.

“He surprised us, that one.” Omar chimed in, saving his cohort from further scrutiny by making a show of picking up a nearby map scroll. “Not did he plot this thing expertly, but went so far as to discover a layer of synchronicity to the fleet’s movements.”

Ramses eyebrows shot up, eyes briefly flitting over to his nephew. Nester remained on the floor, on all fours. He was mumbling something and had begun scrawling some sigils on the ground. He recognized the centerpoint of the array as the symbol for earth. “What are you doing?” he asked curiously.

“Trying to bury my shame.” Nester said distractedly. The words were thrown out so casually that the boy likely hadn’t been aware he’d spoken at all.

Ahmet coughed into his land, but the king’s mirthful eyes and quivering shoulders belied his amusement. Only Longinus, who appeared unaffected, was studying the board anymore. And though Maddox remained unamused, he bothered to eye the boy, if in distaste.

“Get up!” Ramses ordered.

Nester started at the command. “Huh?” He looked around, confused, for a moment before spotting Ramses. “Uncle! When did you get here?” The lad shot up and dusted himself off, walking over to the others, who were flabbergasted by the boy’s apparent bout of selective amnesia.

“Your Highness.” Nester said, bowing. “Your… Admiralness?” He tilted his head in question.

Longinus looked over, querying a brow at the bowing youth before returning his attention to more pressing matters.

“Your… Generalness.” A quicker, shorter bow.

“Hey!” Maddox said in outrage. Generalness sounded insulting, as if he were a forgettable character who filled a familiar, yet cliched, archetype, doomed to be forgotten in the annals of recorded history. “Brat.” he muttered.

“Anyway,” Omar said pithily, “the updated ETA leaves a lot to be desired, but if their course remains steady, then they’ll reach Istan in twenty minutes or so, give or take a few minutes.”

“Twenty-two.” Nester said with surety. “And a half. There’s a tailwind now, but it should flatten out in a dozen minutes or so. The talismans on the neighboring atolls atop the weathervanes placed in those areas indicate the presence of a strong headwind coming in from the west.”

“Hmm. Impressive.” Ramses said pleased.

“Indeed.” Ahmet agreed.

Nester beamed.

“I basically said the same thing.” Omar muttered under his breath, causing Nantep to chuckle. The bald man received a consoling pat on the back. The patronizing gesture shut him up, lest he look petulant in front of his betters.

“You said something interesting.” Longinus said distractedly. He was staring at the blackened pool, studying its rippling surface. “What is this layer of synchronicity the boy discovered?”

“Someone discovered synchronicity?” Nester asked curiously. He peered over the brim of the well for a better look, ignorant of the quizzical looks he was receiving.

When Omar became the focus of those questing gazes, he shrugged as if to say ‘What? You know what he’s like.’ and indeed, they did, if the nods he received in return could be interpreted as saying ‘Why, yes. Yes, we do.’

To everyone’s surprise, Nester began humming again, lolling his head left and right to the tune of a discordant melody, not that the discordant part was the melody’s fault.

I have endured beyond yesterday,

Tomorrow, I will have survived beyond today,

Always is not forever, but ever changing,

For as long as eternity persists,

This world will metamorphose,

I will endure.

Nester quieted when Omar took over, but as he became aware of the similitude between the tune he had been humming and the man’s hymn, his eyes widened. “That’s…” He trailed off.

“Vega’s prayer.” Longinus said. The admiral was the senior strategist, responsible for coordinating the nation’s defense. He reviewed the board with a troubled mien, sure the coincidence meant something, but missing the vital connection.

“And then there’s this.” Nantep said, walking up the relic. Overlaying his palms above the waters, he fed manna to the board. With a practiced ease, he manipulated the aperature, gesticulating smoothly and precisely, until the view expanded to show more of the surrounding landscape. Pleased, he cut off his connection to the device, then pointed a position on the board that extended beyond the fleet’s current location. “Approximately one league south of Istan, there’s an atoll. That’s where our girls are at.” But the water beneath his hand was clear, quivering gelatinously.

“Are you sure of this?” Ramses asked.

“Absolutely.”

“Are they dead?” Maddox asked tactlessly, bristling at the dark looks he received for his comment. “What?”

“The scrolls went dead at the same time their location disappeared, but we have reason to believe that the same effect which renders the ships invisible might be obfuscating all magic in the vicinity. Take a look here.” He pointed south of Istan, to another landmass. It appeared as a tiny smear on the board, but remained visible and teaming with life. “Port Quixote, another atoll port. And south, the Ptolemy Atoll.” The smaller atoll was devoid of life, but the outlined mass remained visible. “As you can see, the land masses are registered by the relic whether they’re manna hubs or not.” He returned to his first position on the map, the void. “But this atoll is simply gone.”

“It’s cloaked.” Longinus said, accepting the revelation.

“Correct. At least, that’s the theory.”

“Sounds pretty conclusive to me. What’s the range on this thing?”

“The interference varies. The further out, the more disruptions. However, it’s unpredictable, like the table.” He gestured the writhing water. “Whatever is causing it is also causing the disruption to the Occulum’s mechanics. And as you can see, it’s chaotic. I can’t know for sure, but I’d wager that the interference pattern, if properly charted, would resemble what we’re seeing now, from this.”

“So, there’s no way to tell?”

“Not definitively, but the Galapagos Atoll, where the girls were stationed, began showing signs of disruption about a quarter league from the fleet.”

“Again, that’s conclusive enough for me, but doesn’t that mean Istan’s about to go dark, then?” Maddox said.

“Yes. Precisely.”

“This does not bode well.” Ahmet said severely. “I can only hope they use the time they have left wisely.”

For the next twenty minutes, they stared at the board in silence, trying to decipher its secrets while they still had the chance, but as the armada encroached, it only further obfuscated the field, casting tendrils of shadow over Istan. The island was quickly swallowed whole.

A slew of others had joined their ranks since, mostly communications officers and runners. A few wizards had come and gone, speaking to Ramses privately. The same with the fleet admiral and general. But the king remained the fixture around which everyone orbited, taking the time to speak to them all at one point or another.

Nester began to feel increasingly out of place amongst the official looking rabble, sure that he lacked a vital degree of clearance to be present for the proceedings, but so far no one had bothered to usher him from the room or ask for his credentials. That he kept the company of the king by proximity might’ve lent to his credibility. Had those coming in simply assumed his presence? In any case, he felt that by leaving or bringing up the subject, he might inadvertently remind everyone in the room that he didn’t, in fact, belong there, ushering in his own punishment by way of self-fulling prophecy. If the former were the case, which he was beginning to increasingly believe, he determined to remain anonymous, a background fixture. At least, until he was caught and thrown out.

“Trafalgar should be ready soon.” Longinus said, reading from a scroll and flipping to another. “Mustang needs more time, but says he can make due.”

“Good.” Maddox said, perusing his own set of scrolls. “Kilgore’s working with the Wizard Corps to secure the city. Evacuations are at forty percent and is expected to reach seventy percent by the time this thing reaches the capital. If your ringer can do what you think he can, then that should buy us crucial time to evacuate the rest of the civilians. Of course, that depends on the size of your longshot.”

“Of course.”

“And how are the city’s defenses coming along?” Ahmet asked.

“They’ve bunkered it down to withstand the kraken itself. But let’s not test that theory, timber and blankets can only go so far.”

“That’s very good.” Ahmet was pleased. It seemed that some things were coming along swimmingly. “Ramses?” he asked, prodding the man for information.

“Charles reports that the project is contained. The facility has been evacuated and the explosive arrays are primed. He’s implemented a chain of shortrange scrolls within the tunnels to stay in contact with the island. It’s a rather ingenious method of communication.”

Ahmet chuckled. “He’s always been clever, that one, too much for his own good sometimes. And the evacuation?”

“Successful. Since we can’t offload them, all the civilians have been moved to the far side of the island.”

“Perfect. Anything else?”

“The Wizarding Corps has been setting up offensive and defensive arrays along the shoreline. We’ve limited the use of those that require multiple casters and a protracted application window. Instead, we’ve opted for quantity over quality. It’s not desirable, and wouldn’t fend off a kraken, but just about anything short thereof.”

“Good, good.” Ahmet nodded his head. Looking around the room, he sought another font of information to drain. Spying Nester, he suddenly remembered the boy’s presence. Had he stayed behind this whole time? “Ah, lad. There you are.” He said by way of summoning the boy, feigning as if he’d expected to find him, tucked away in a corner.

Nester peeped and froze to his spot, eyes wide. “Uh…”

Curious glances from across the room roamed the boy’s form, veiled by many unasked questions, all of which revolved around the visual appraisal. At the lackluster countenances ensconcing the room, he felt sure that he’d been found lacking. It was as demeaning as it was demoralizing.

“It’s a good thing you haven’t left.” Ahmet waved the boy over, ignorant or uncaring of the boy’s self-conscious fidgeting. “Come look at this and tell us what you see.” He held a scroll.

Nester trudged forward, feet leaden by insecurity. He had a fleeting thought that maybe he should’ve fled while the fleeing was good, but figured it best to face the music sooner rather than later. At least, he was among friendly company, probably. He hoped.

“I’m not really sure of what use I can be, my… uh, Your Highness.” Nester said awkwardly.

The king laughed. “Nonsense, my dear boy. You’ve outdone yourself already, even if you don’t believe it.”

The words were heartwarming, but Nester had trouble believing their candor. The king presented him with the scroll, and he took it obligingly. He pretended not to feel crushed beneath the weighty gazes of his observers; his uncle, the king, the others were judging him again and, almost surely, finding him lacking. He swallowed.

The scroll contained an updated plot correction course which tracked the fleet’s movements. He had helped chart it himself, and it had since been completed. He supposed it was as benign a thing as any to show an outsider, definitely the least classified bit of information in the room, yet he felt unworthy of the inclusion. He studied, not strategized. He wasn’t his uncle, could never be the High Wizard, and that was okay, because the world needed Nesters too, someone to fill in the gaps.

He frowned, staring at the parchment. Trying to convince himself that it was just another bit of self-study, he focused on the ink blotting the page, not his surroundings. He tuned out the conversations taking place around him. He hummed lightly; it helped him focus.

“How sure are you they’ll drop their cloak in order to fire?” Maddox asked.

“There are no guarantees, General. But our intelligence suggests they’re as blind as we are while the cloak is active. It’s a fairly good bet they’ll undo the spell in preparation to fire.”

“Hmph. I don’t deal in bets. I prefer to stack the deck.”

“As do we all.” Ahmet said. “But this is the hand we’ve been dealt. We’ll see it through.”

Maddox knew it was time to change the subject. One did not merely disagree with their retainer and expect all’s well to end well. “So, supposin’ that they intend to strafe the port or worse, they’ll have to drop trou in order to do the deed.”

“That’s… one way to put it.” Ramses said.

Maddox snorted. Defending the sensibilities of fair maidens was not his prerogative.

“There exists the possibility that they may bypass the island altogether. However unlikely.”

“Nobody likes having an enemy at their back.” Longinus said.

“You have to admit, there’s not much of an enemy left to worry about.” Maddox pointed out bitterly.

“Indeed.” The king felt the weight of his decisions come crashing down, and he sagged underfoot. This was his doing. He had left his home vulnerable, no matter how inadvertently.

A pall descended on the huddled men as they lost themselves to introspection, broken only by the spontaneous change in the Occulum’s behavior. The water vibrated so violently that it threatened to splash, though not a drop was lost. The ripples became so densely packed that they were soon indistinguishable from one another, appearing as if a new substance had formed, transformed before their eyes. Beneath the pool, a glowing surge of lights slowly waxed into existence, rising from the depths and backlighting the table. This was the moment they had been waiting for, when the fleet would expose themselves. It had begun.

Nester stared up from the chart, and gasped.

Lights, there were so many. Doppelgangers aboard ships, inside homes, along the coast, and dotting nearly half the surface area on the table. Istan had not been evacuated after all. Contrary to the report, most of the islanders were on the west end, facing the coming onslaught.

“How can this be?” Ahmet whispered unbelievingly.

Ramses shook his head, a shock of disbelief harrying his face. He had read the report himself, confirmed it with the proper codex. Leafing through scrolls, he reread the one he sought. It was from Charles.

“Is there a chance things may not be as they appear?” Longinus asked after a moment, gesturing towards the board.

Ramses hesitated, but he was already shaking his head before a response left his mouth. “No.” The word tasted like ash on his tongue. The Occulum was nigh infallible; the very fact it had been able to warn them of an invisible enemy only spoke of its superior craftsmanship.

“Someone’s leaving the island.” Nester had found his voice, but his wits were slow to return, or he wouldn’t have spoken.

They watched a ship sail out into the harbor.

A minute later, they watched it vanish. The room gasped.

Maddox growled, grabbed Ramses by the arm and ripped the scrolls from his hands. He rifled through the papers until finding the correspondence he sought, dropping the rest in his haste, reading and rereading the parchment with the most dangerous expression Nester had ever seen. By the time he was finished, the man was seething, his face so red and angry that he appeared to be on the verge of passing out. “We’ve been betrayed.” He gritted out, and threw down the scroll.

“How can this be?” Ahmet whispered brokenly.