Scene 13: Jeopardy

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Amalia sat at her workbench surrounded by five brand-new protection amulets. She’d bought them on her way back from school, after meeting the woman from the library. She’d consulted her new guard- she really needed to learn the poor man’s name- on where to find shops selling magical machines. The amulets themselves ended up not being that expensive, but the crystals that powered them were. Luckily, she had a few extra crystals on hand at the apartment, and she didn’t have to buy the crystals with the amulets; they were sold separately.

She was still reveling in the joy of having her own allowance. Back at home her mother had final say on all purchases, and while mother wasn’t awful about it, she didn’t approve of Amalia buying things just to break them.

And that was exactly what she was going to do. She was going to take apart these amulets and figure out how they work.

By law, taking apart the amulets was illegal. People were not allowed to alter machines once they bought them, and taking it apart to see how it works with the intention of building a better version was especially illegal. However this crime paled in comparison to stealing a book of black magic. Getting caught making her own protective amulet only amounted to a small fine, and no one would smear Amalia’s reputation for it.

She could just attempt to make her own from scratch, but that was a monumental task that would take months, not days. And she wanted this made soon. Being potentially involved with a spy and/or aware of a conspiracy meant that she needed better protection. Well, not really. It seemed that even ordinary citizens needed powerful protection amulets if they wanted to traverse the city safely.

And besides, the law prohibiting the modification of magical machines was idiotic. She would have to have a specific license in addition to her current Engimancy license to be able to take these apart. She’d briefly entertained just getting the additional license, but the paperwork took months to process and required the applicant to have five years of experience in the industry, and sign non disclosure agreements, and she would have to work for one of the companies that make the amulets, and she would have to have that company’s written permission, as well as send in paperwork detailing what she planned on changing with regards to that amulet… it went on and on.

It was obscenely frustrating and obnoxious.

She didn’t see how those laws could benefit engimancers or the people who need protection amulets. It wasn’t like she was planning on selling her modified amulets to anyone, so she wouldn’t be stealing a profit from the companies who made them. And no other products were treated quite like magical machines were- no one cared if you tore out pages in your own books or modified your own clothing. It was a stupid set of laws.

Oh well, time to break some pointless, unnecessary laws for the sake of her protection.

She picked up the first amulet. It was oval, with a small latch on the front that clasped shut. The small hatch contained the socket that usually housed the crystal.There were no screws or anything else that would make it easy to open. Which shouldn’t surprise her because no one wanted it to be opened.

The socket’s edge wasn’t soldered to the main case, so she used a thin metal lever to pop it out. Something made a nasty cracking noise as she applied force to it. Oh well, that was why she bought five. She could sort out how to open it without damaging it once she’d seen the insides.

With the socket removed she could see that the back of the crystal socket was soldered to the first disc. Well, that was inconvenient.

Opening the actual casing took a bit of effort. She pried it open where the chain connecting the top top of the amulet looped through a small metal piece. There was a small gap between the two pieces of metal that cased the amulet’s innards.

The whole thing popped open, revealing a mesh of wires and thin discs surrounded by a thin plastic coating that prevented the wires from making contact with the metal casing. The wire mesh surrounded three slim discs separated by thin sheets of plastic.

She cut the wire mesh- which likely carried out the function of aiming the protective barrier- so she could get to the discs. The top disc had metal whorls pressed into its surface, forming a complicated pattern that was almost beautiful in its complexity.

Each whorl carried out some function. As an engimancer, she studied how magic was bent into different forms by different kinds of whorls, and then used that knowledge to design magical machines like these amulets.

Amalia's amulet

At first glance she could already recognize a few pieces of the puzzle. A large swirl next to a double bond of wire with three lines leading in from the other side that meant this piece would send the magic out of the front disc into the next disc.

The front piece basically functioned as a sieve pulling energy from the crystal to different parts of the machine. It looked like the wire mesh sent the magic out of the amulet in a pulse.

She gently separated the discs from the plastic. Holes had been cut in the thin sheets of plastic so the specific pieces could communicate. It was very sloppy work overall. They had tried to squeeze in whatever they could onto the disc, and a few of the whorls were sloppy molded.

And with parts of it– it was impossible to figure out what they were trying to do. Half of the third disc wasn’t even hooked up to the power crystal. She groaned and dropped her head into her hands. She sincerely hoped her own amulet wasn’t so shitty. It was a premium model, so it shouldn’t be, but the seller in the shop assured her that these were good models as well.

The whole point of this exercise, of course, was to see how she could improve it, and to do that she needed to know what each whorl did. So she took out a piece of paper and wrote down all the functional whorls she could recognize. Then she drew the ones she didn’t, annotating their positions on the discs.

A few of the ones she didn’t know were found in her textbooks. About eight or so were unknown to her.

But that was why she bought extra amulets.

She used a small tool to remove one of the unknown whorls and see what happens. Basically, it was a simple experiment. Remove one variable and see what changes. It should give her an idea how that whorl functioned.

She reconnected all the pieces using straight wire, because straight wires do not influence the form of the magic.

And then she moved the butchered amulet to the extra room. The room was used for storage and served as a charging station for the crystals. Every night before bed she’d put the crystals from the security system into the rack under the skylight. Then she’d replace all the crystals.

In this case, since she didn’t know what was going to happen with the whorl missing from the protective amulet, so she took the rack of crystals down from the skylight where they were charging and put them in the hall outside. She’d put them back later.

Amalia put a small crystal in the socket to the amulet and set it in the center of the room. Then she stepped away.

Standing at the doorway to the room, Amalia took a small rhasi from her pocket, and hurled the coin at the amulet. The wire mesh flashed and the coin hurtled straight back at her. She squeaked, jerking out of the way as the coin embedding itself in the ceiling.

Well, then.

After that, she used the door as a shield.

Eight long hours and two more holes in the wall (she’d put boards over the skylight and window after the first hit. No need to explain broken glass to her father,) she had down how two of the eight unknown whorls worked. She’d skipped dinner and worked on through the night. It wasn’t like she would be able to sleep anyway, so why keep up the pretense?

The third unknown whorl remained a mystery until she’d fired multiple coins at the amulet while walking towards it. It turned out, unknown whorl three, four, and five controlled whether or not it stopped slow moving objects instead of only stopping fast moving objects. She’d ended up being able to make it repel still objects.

And by that she means she got the amulet to float. It was probably the most interesting thing she’d done. Ever.

At that point, she was bored of repetitive tests. So she decided to fiddle with the wire mesh that was supposed to go around the disc.

It was made of whorls of metal, only they were spread out differently in three-dimensional space instead of flat on a planar surface. It made them more difficult and annoying to work with, but allowed for more combinations.

Two more hours and her eyes were blurring from exhaustion.

But as she sat at her desk at five in the morning, as the first brush of dawn colored the sky gray, she understood why no one wanted people to be able to take these apart without a license.

A few changes and her amulet could become a weapon. She could make it fire bullets back at someone. She could send out a wave of force that could probably knock someone off their feet. Granted, she’d need a bigger crystal if she wanted to do that, and even with a bigger crystal, she’d still only get maybe two good shots out of the deal, but it was better than nothing. And, okay, knocking someone back- at most- two feet wasn’t really a powerful weapon, but still.

Her head felt fuzzy and her tongue felt like sandpaper in her mouth. She’d think more in the morning. Afternoon. Later.

And as she got ready for bed, her brain started sketching the schematics for one that could, maybe, punch a hole in someone’s chest. Or in a wall. She could concentrate the power into one small fist-sized punch. Not that she wanted to punch a hole through someone’s chest. Like, there were plenty of legitimate uses for such a design. Demolition, maybe?

And most people didn’t want to put holes in people’s chests anyway. The whole license thing was really frustrating. If she just used the amulet and never checked out the insides, she’d be using a shitty product that would probably burn out due to inefficient heat distribution in, what, a year? How were consumers supposed to know the product that they’re buying is even capable of doing what it says it does? And she guessed there were laws preventing companies from abusing that. Probably. Because she couldn’t imagine the government could be that irresponsible.

And it’s not like the majority of people knew how to tell the difference between one functional whorl and the next, either. Most people were completely ignorant of how magic works. Like how people think doctors can make you grow extra limbs, or how some people believe magic can summon lindworms from the abyss. Half of it’s ignorance and the other half is sheer stupidity.

She flopped face down onto her bed.

But on the other hand, with the license system was in place, you had a dedicated force of people you knew weren’t going to turn the amulets into weapons. And they could check the quality of the products. It could just be that there weren’t enough licensed practitioners around to meet the demand. And those people were checked every year, so the public could feel safe knowing the engimancers weren’t turning amulets into hidden magical revolvers or something stupid like that. Whatever. She was too tired to do this anymore.


 

She slept for maybe three hours before she woke up panting, covered in cold sweat. Images were on replay behind her eyelids. Lothar’s skull, the clumps of brain matter… chunk of hair on the ground– she turned over and retched onto the floor.

After, she lay on the bed, legs tangled in the sweaty sheets, staring at her dresser. Breathe in, breathe out. Focus on the sensations around you. The pungent odor of the sick, the stale smell of sweat over spicy wood. She was fine. She’d make an amulet with a better crystal system- it’d last longer and protect her thoroughly, and then she wouldn’t have to feel like that again.

Twenty minutes later found Amalia sipping well-earned tea in the kitchen. She’d cleaned up her sick (which was potentially the most disgusting thing she’d ever done and the smell almost made her gag again) and then took a shower. She was starting to feel human again. Today was her day off class, so it wasn’t like she had to keep a schedule. If she got tired again, she’d just take a nap.

She ate food, alleviating the headache,- she probably should have eaten dinner last night- and then went back to work.

Amulets four and five were in one piece, and she could make, maybe if she was lucky, two different kinds of amulets. She had an idea of one that would knock someone off their feet. Offensive, but not lethal. That design was the easy one- at least, compared to the defensive model she had in mind.

First she sketched the designs out on paper, she needed to figure out how to incorporate her edits. Then came the calculations. The casing didn’t support a larger crystal, so she would have to improvise. She didn’t want this to be noticeably different from a normal amulet.

So she was taking the front panel and crystal socket from the first amulet she’d experimented on- the front disc had cracked but the casing and socket were still in good shape- and she could just solder the two front pieces together. That should theoretically give her twice the original power. It wouldn’t sit flat on her chest, because the cover to the second socket would make the back uneven, but it was just a small detail that few would ever notice.

However, that solution created a whole new host of problems. The first disc handled power distribution, and was facing the original crystal socket. The secondary socket was on the opposite side.

Usually a metal bracket wrapped around the crystal inside the socket, and was pressed into the first disc. She couldn’t do that with the the second crystal socket, so she’d clip the bottom of the second crystal’s socket to a wire and run it to the front. Of course, she’d need to insulate it from the casing and the wire mesh that wraps around the discs. It was going to be sloppy. She grimaced.

And you know what really annoyed her? They used the cheapest possible metal, which would warp if the magic power was increased. And of course, since form equals function, that would destroy the function amulet. So she was going to have to replace some of the metal whorls on the disc, and put converters into the areas she didn’t need to change, so no one area got overloaded.

Those changes wouldn’t take up too much room, thank goodness, and her tools were high quality so she could make more delicate, smaller whorls than they did, which would take up less space. And she wouldn’t need anymore wire, because all she needed was the standard wire she kept on hand for her experiments. The soldering iron was still packed with the other engimancy gear, so she’d have to dig all of that out.


 

The dics ended up being an utter mess. She couldn’t spread the converters out, so they popped out of the discs instead. Re-doing the whorls on the discs in her own metal was tedious at best, and frustrating at worst. They were small, so to curl them properly, she had to use specialized tools to grip the metal and had to view them through a magnifying glass. Using it for too long made her eyes ache. Well, that probably had more to do with using it all last night and not sleeping much.

Then there was the issue with second crystal socket: she’d had to re-arrange the wire mesh to accommodate it.

The whorls in the mesh were significantly more complicated and difficult to work with than those on flat discs, and several times she almost threw her tools down and called it a day- just trash the whole project. It wasn’t worth it.

Fuck it. She got this far, she wasn’t giving up now.

So instead, she got creative. She couldn’t re-bend everything into the proper shapes, and wouldn’t even know where to begin with that, so she cut the mesh of one of the amulets in half and replaced the back half of the mesh with the front half from the other one. It was just one big repeating pattern, anway. And while the protection would be weaker to attacks from directly above or to the sides, it would still offer more protection than the original, and the overall effect would be the same. Before she put the casing on– and that meant reconfiguring the casing and still wasn’t entirely sure how she was going to do that, because the two front pieces didn’t really fit together properly–

But before she even bothered with the casing, because that was a whole other beast entirely at this point, and she was having a sinking feeling that this wouldn’t end up looking like the original as much as she wanted… she needed to test the device to make sure it worked as intended.

So she tossed a rhasi at the machine from her position behind the door, just in case she miscalculated something.

It sailed past the amulet, unhindered. The amulet sparked with white sparks twice before shuddering to a stop. A faint curl of smoke drifted up from the discs. She waited another minute, just to be safe, and went to the center of the room to pick it up.

The wood beneath the amulet was black, with thin lines- almost like veins- leading away from the amulet. What the heck?

It didn’t make sense. It should have worked. It really should have worked. She stomped over to the amulet and took out the crystals. Both were entirely drained. What did they do, drop all their power into the floor?

The veins on the floor were, well, incredibly creepy. Great. Now she’d need to find a rug to cover the floor in addition to a couple small paintings to cover the holes in the wall. Father likely wouldn’t check the ceiling, so she wouldn’t worry about that one.

She put the two used crystals on the rack in the hallway- she’d put it back after she was done.

Back in her workshop, she put aside the defensive amulet. Fuck it. She just just needed a break, and after lunch she could work on the offensive amulet. Her first experiment with the whorls got her relatively close to what she wanted, anyway. She’d need to tweak the outer wire mesh and play with a few whorls, but it wouldn’t be nearly as complicated as the defensive amulet, since she wasn’t planning on giving it a secondary crystal. And she’d get to play with new whorls, which were always more fun to experiment with than ones she already knew.

After lunch found her frowning over the wire mesh. She wanted to focus all the energy out the front of the amulet, not dispersed around the person it protected.

Some time later, she wasn’t really keeping track anymore, she came up with an idea and fixed it.

So now she had to test it. She filled one of her boxes with books off her bookshelf and other heavy items. A person was what? 130-200 lbs? This was close enough. And she was really hoping nothing caught on fire. She liked her books.

She flung a coin at it, and the coin sailed past the amulet (as intended), and the amulet fired a pulse of energy at the box, knocking it back a couple feet. YES!

She grinned, elated. Yes, yes yes! She did it!

Amalia makes the amulet

But that wasn’t the end to the tests. Next she put the amulet in the middle of several boxes, because she wasn’t entirely sure it wasn’t firing off energy towards, say, the person that was holding it or innocent bystanders.

But it turned out she did it right. It worked. It really worked.

She smiled so wide it hurt her cheeks. This? This was a high. This was the best feeling in the world. She created something new, something that worked.

Now she had to make it so it operated on the press of a button, which should be significantly less difficult than anything she did so far. She just cut out the disc controlling the detector- the part that detected whether or not an object was coming towards the amulet- and she didn’t have any scrap metal, so she’d just need to make it so the crystal itself acted as an on switch.

Two springs and a couple small pieces of plastic, and a small chain later (taken from one of the other amulets), and she had a functioning button.

The casing needed to be soldered together, because right now she was just keeping it together with-

A loud buzzing filled the townhouse, interrupting her thoughts.

What?

It sounded like the alarm to the aegis security system, the alarm that indicates a break in. But why…?

And then it hit her. Usually she charged the aegis crystals before she went to bed. So the aegis had been operating on backup power.

And now that power was failing.

Someone was getting in.

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