The All-Seeing Eye
On the lowest floor of the most secured and well-protected building in Atreia, the most valuable possessions belonging to crown and kingdom were safely stored. Behind a large wooden door secured with iron castings, and within a stone chamber, the most important of those objects were housed, safeguarded by the strongest spells the king’s wizards could conjure.
The Occulum was one such object. It was an ancient relic wielding potent magical potential. Millennia after its creation, its secrets were still being deciphered by its inheritors.
Large in diameter, it spanned the breadth of two horses from tip to tail, and resembled a watering well or aboveground bath basin. Though, it remained relatively shallow at only half the height of a man. The purified water within the relic welled up to touch the stone edges, where it kissed the rim without spilling over. Ornate masonry decorated the outer lip, and no visible signs of mortar could be detected in its construction, leading some to speculate that the enchantments bestowed upon the object were multifaceted enough to aid in construction as well as permanence.
Ancient magic spawned countless powerful relics over the ages. These laid, in every way, superior to their contemporary counterparts. The reasons remained unknown; though, magical scholars agreed that the total amount of magic in the world hadn’t diminished. It’s likewise agreed upon that ancient spells were exponentially more power, generating a mystery which survived through the ages. Thus, ancient relics already imbued with enchantments remained highly sought after commodities due to their awesome potential.
The Occulum was crafted long ago by such magic, and there are none like it in existence. Some even suggest that it may have even been crafted by the God of Magic himself, Oberon, the First Wizard and the Father of Magic. Or so the rumors went…
Nester never really put much stock into rumors. He had been studiously learning about the magic which fuels the Occulum for the greater part of the last three years. He familiarized himself with it’s outer workings in great detail, and was even able to pinpoint and decipher some of the more rudimentary alchemic formulas inlaid in its construction—ironically enough, nothing pertaining to its actual construction. Although, nothing about the relic was rudimentary, to say the least. As much could be seen from gazing upon its mystic waters.
The basin appeared to possess an endless depth, one so dark and infinite that it was almost black. To stare too deeply into the veil was to invite madness.
In the middle of the ethereal waters, lay a wooden replica of the island, and surrounding islets, replete with a tiny figurine of the palace in place. The figures were symbolic, a way to channel the cistern’s magic. In a way, so was the water. The enchantments allowed it to mirror the entirety of the island and project its topography back onto the table. They glowed a ghoulish green, were dappled with a smattering of sickly yellow and accented by gray undertones with black shadows. The Occulum’s range extended for leagues beyond the shoreline.
The water’s surface was called the board or table, and magical projections of living beings were reflected back onto the table. They were easily discernible, being both unique in coloring and brilliance. These were called doppelgangers, and always appeared on the table relative to their physical location in Atreia, but not always in proportion. The size and density of the being’s mana core directly affected the doppelganger’s appearance—to an extent. Denser, more potent magic, displayed as significantly brighter and—to a lesser degree—larger. One could not always tell a child from an adult via the projections, but could discern a human from an animal, and a squib from a mage.
Nester was distinguishable from his Uncle on the board, who possessed a larger and denser mana core, but the man was an exception. In reality, the Occulum had allowed Nester to visualize just how unimportant a single wizard was in the grand scheme of things. It was humbling.
Viewing the Occulum provided the observer with an unobstructed topography of Atreia and its inhabitants. Strategically, it had no equal. Hence, it had become the most prized possession of the crown, and its most closely guarded secret. Only the Royal Wizarding Corps knew of its existence, for they were avid scholars of the wizarding arts and often studied the ancient relic’s enchantments. But even those in the know were required to possess an unquestionable degree of loyalty, usually determinable by a mixture of tenure and lineage.
Nester’s uncle, Ramses, was the High Wizard in the corps. It granted his nephew an unobstructed entry into the organization, but not the respect that tenure naturally inures between peers. As such, he was often relegated to the more mundane or tedious tasks. The banal was to be his bane—in theory. On the contrary, the boy seemed to love the arrangement as much as those who did love to foist their chores off on the boy. Nester flourished in his own way under the dull veneer of the mundane.
Studying magic had been Nester’s dream since he was a youngling, and he thanked the Gods for materializing his aspiration. Though he still managed to make a concerted effort not to appear too exuberant about receiving what essentially amounted to busywork, lest the veteran wizards learn of it and reassign him elsewhere.
Unfortunately, no one had bothered to inform Nester that even nepotism doesn’t guarantee entry into the corps. He had only been admitted on his uncle’s recommendation under the condition that he remain relegated to scholastic tasks only, which Ramses had been well-aware his nephew preferred anyway.
Nester usually spent his mornings in the archives, afternoons in the library, and nights in his chambers, writing notes or reading books on magic theory. He was on his way into the archives this morning, carrying a fresh tome for jotting down notes or doodles. He wasn’t an artist per say, but he could squiggle with the best of them, and what mattered was that he understood his own references. Which he could, mostly.
The mages in the viewing room didn’t bother acknowledging his entry. They simply rose and left. It was his duty to relieve the nightwatch, and monitor the relic while he studied its mechanisms.
He set his book down on top of the stone lip with a thud. He was sure that the other mages wouldn’t appreciate the chevalier nonchalance he took with handling the Occulum, something about respect for ancestral something or other, but they left, so their opinions were invalidated. That point made moot, he joined his book, sitting cross legged atop the brim, and deactivated the Occulum.
The light faded as the magic retreated into the basin. The ethereal glow he had come to recognize as unique to the relic slowly subsided until it disappeared beneath the waters altogether. It was always a little unnerving to watch. In the back of his mind, the questions no one dared ask aloud rung triumphantly. What if it won’t reactivate? What if this is the last time? Did I make a mistake? And others.
Magic was perfect, but people were not. Everyday the Occulum was momentarily deactivated before being reactivated. This ensured that the enchantments were still functioning correctly at every stage, and that the caster was proficient in its use. The process allowed for the potential to observe error, as well as create it. The reasoning the elder wizards had ascribed to had been that the two possibilities negated each other quite nicely. Nester wasn’t sure if his uncle had been joking at the time, and hadn’t sought the man out for a correction either, wanting to hold onto his idealized childhood perceptions for a while longer. Nonetheless, there were those that argued against it. But as tempting as simply leaving the relic activated for eternity sounded at first glance, there was the chance that something may go wrong, eventually, at which point the incantation may have very well been lost for a number of centuries already.
Nester had wisely decided that he was too much a novice to comment one way or the other. Though admittedly, he enjoyed the practical application of magic the Occulum afforded. But before Nester could even think to perform his morning rituals, the water atop the table quivered. It had never done that before. Usually isolated areas might react to a great source of magic, but never had the entire table been agitated at once.
Searching for the source of the disturbance, he watched the water ripple inward from along the outer edge of the Occulum’s sphere of detection, and managed to isolate a concentration of magic to the southeast, where he guessed it had originated. He waited for a doppelganger to be projected.
An object—something—entered the Occulum’s field of vision, and the table stopped quivering. Nester noted that only the area he had singled out continued to agitate the ethereal waters. He tracked the object’s progression while it sedately moved inwards at a crawl. Whatever this object could be, it was a source of potent magic.
“What the Hell are you…” he whispered, scrutinizing the board. Hmm. Nonbiological. A wreck carrying relics, perhaps?
Usually, ships left a subtle but noticeable wake on the table. And because ships were scarcely empty, the wakes were overlooked as an irrelevant subtlety in the face of so many overt doppelgangers. But so far, this object had none.
The anomalous fluctuations were oscillating in a unique pattern that seemed to defy the Occulum’s mechanics. They were coming and going, appearing and disappearing, dancing in and out of existence as if unsure of their place in reality. Almost like they were living and dying, flaring into existence only to be extinguished. It was an odd symphony of life and death, real made unreal. Nester’s hungry mind demanded answers.
“How odd.” He hummed. Then, grabbing his tome, he documented everything as it had occurred. The information may prove invaluable later.
The water’s surface quivered again, and he drew a long line across the page in his surprise. Another anomaly entered the board. Nester couldn’t believe eyes. Another one!
“This… is not good.”
Nester admitted defeat, surprised at the speed and expedience in which he could be bested. He was completely out of his element, thrust into the unknown from a place of knowing. Flaring his magic, he signaled the nearby guards. When they didn’t immediately burst down the door in response to the nonverbal cue, he got up and went to the door. Outside the chamber, two watchmen were discussing swordless thrusting techniques. Nester thought the conversation was vulgar, juvenile, and unbecoming of royal guards. Nevertheless, he blushed.
Nester cleared his throat, regaining his composure at the same time he managed to capture their attention. “Excuse me,” He smiled, opting for politeness. “but when you’re done with that, I need you to fetch the High Wizard.”
“You mean your uncle?” said watchman number one, seemingly annoyed to have been interrupted.
“Y-yes. Him.” Nester blushed. “Please.”
“Aye, then. What’d you do?” he asked gruffly.
“You look guilty.”
“It’s true, you do.” Added number two with a smirk.
“I didn’t do anything.” Nester said indignantly. “Just please go and fetch him.” He shut the door with a little too much force, leaving the pair outside wondering about their resident wizard, not the first time. The door cracked open again, and a sheepish Nester stuck his head back outside. Fighting down another blush, and forcing a strained simile of a smile, he added “Oh, and it’s kind of an emergency, so—”
“I knew it.” Said one.
“I told you so.” Said two.
“Just hurry it up.” Nester snapped, his façade slipping. “Er, I mean, please.”
“Sure. But next time, just flare your magic if it’s an emergency. It’s faster.”
Nester slammed the door with a scowl, purposefully this time.
“Just flare your magic. It’ll be faster.” He mocked. “Pfft. Plebes.”
Nester used his newfound ire to throw himself into this latest development. The world bled away as he observed and transcribed what he saw playing out on the Occulum’s stage. It was a mystery, and to an avid subscriber of the mundane, it was exciting.
After being made aware that his nephew was summoning him, Ramses made it a point to respond promptly. No sooner did he receive the news, than he swept into the archives. He strode the hallways at a clipped pace. His nephew was many things—meek, eclectic, prodigious even—but seldom had the boy ever sought assistance, even when he should.
With a wave of his hand, the door to the viewing room swung open on groaning hinges. Almost immediately, an uncontrolled release of magic swelled over him like a warm breeze. Ramses cautiously stepped into the room in time to catch his nephew flaring his magic once more from whence he sat on the Occulum’s outer rim.
“Stop that.” he ordered brusquely. “Do you want to alert every guard in the tower and have them come running down?” He flared his own magic thrice in rapid succession, a silent instruction to ignore the previous signaled order—his nephew’s—then shut the door behind him, manually.
“Yes, actually. I do.”
Now Ramses was worried, but the boy was still sitting placidly and looked not at all troubled. He queried a brow at the young man, concerned at his antics. Though his qualms were not enough to refrain from imparting wisdom unto his kin while he surreptitiously scanned the boy for injuries and the room for impairments, looking for anything out of place. “Then lower—but do not take down—the magical dampening wards. Or better yet, simply step outside.”
“Uh… the what?”
“You’re standing in front of the most magically endowed object known to mankind. Which also happens to be the best kept secret in Atreia. Think it through.”
A dawning realization crept across Nester’s countenance, and Ramses smiled proudly at the sight.
“Oh.” Of course. The Occulum was shielded within the room. Nester had previously believed the entire tower to be warded. Though that probably remained the case, special attention was surely due to the most valuable or invaluable objects in the archives—those in this room.
“So tell me,” Ramses said, doubting that his nephew had him summoned to discuss warding techniques. “what happened?”
“This.” Nester gestured to the Occulum.
Ramses nodded. Considering that Nester was all but straddling it still, the clues were rather obvious. Speaking of—
“Get off from there.” Ramses barked, approaching the stone well. “Show some respect for the ancestors.”
The ancient wizards were considered to be the ancestors of all modern day mages, regardless of lineage, because Oberon was thought to be the father of all magicians. Thus, all wizards were related, even if in a roundabout or obscure way. Though possessing a prestigious pedigree practically guaranteed a higher socioeconomic standing nonetheless, with very few exceptions, the same could be said with or without magic.
Nester had the decency to blush. “Sorry.”
At first glance, nothing seemed out of place. Then he saw it—or rather, them. The anomalies his nephew observed earlier had grown in number. Ramses counted twelve in total. They covered a section of the table to the southeast. He saw what Nester had seen, powerful magic without the presence of a doppelganger.
A golem, perhaps? Golems were puppets, animate-inanimate objects controlled by a wizard. They had no life force to speak of, therefore their projection would’ve been absent from the board, just as it was absent now. But the disadvantage of a golem, aside from the high mana expenditure incurred from the conjuring, was that they were limited in the distance they could travel from their creator. Ergo, they were primarily defensive in application. So, no. Not quite…
“Interesting. How long—”
“Twenty-five minutes, give or take. I sent for you after observing for about five.” Nester thrust his tome out for his uncle to take.
Ramses read over his nephew’s notes, even while the boy recited them back orally, nearly verbatim. He knew Nester to be a proficient note-taker, so he read on anyway, in case the lad missed something in the telling. By the end of it, he hadn’t.
By looking, one wouldn’t have been able to make heads or tails of the Occulum’s projections. But Ramses was the High Wizard. He had been serving in the Royal Wizarding Corps for over two centuries. As a result, he knew every nook and cranny of the castle, the wizarding school, the archives, and every military installation Atreia had ever produced. He understood more about the magical intricacies inherent in the Occulum’s inner workings than the combined knowledge he had ever acquired and forgotten pertaining to any other subject. Such a level of mastery came with certain advantages.
Unbeknownst to all but the High Wizard, the War Marshals, and the royal family, the Occulum had not one, but two gifts to impart: the gifts of viewing and remote viewing. Nester only knew of the former; and lacked the ability to conjure the latter.
Ramses traced the water’s edge with an extended digit, reaching out with his magic in search of a connection. After a moment’s elusiveness, his worries intensified as a sinking realization set in. The cistern was devoid of the magical entanglement he sought. He could not pierce the veil in order to see through to the other side. But though the connection remained lost, the water still quivered beneath his touch, indicating that the Occulum still functioned as intended.
In Ramses mind, the relic was nigh infallible. He had studied the spell matrix, and had been left awed. It was elegance incarnate, truly. The thought of the ancient wizards, who were proven to be masterful occultists, overlooking anything was laughable. The simplest conclusion to draw was that these anomalies were likely a new development, unforeseen during the relic’s construction, but that left the door open for all sorts of complications. Namely, what this new magic was, and the level of threat it posed.
Ramses knew better than to attempt to force a connection, as the overcompensation of mana may lead to an overload within the spell array. Reluctantly, he retracted his magic, and his finger came away sopping wet. Staring at it, he frowned.
“What is it?”
“This has never happened before.” He admitted.
“Well, yes, of course. I can see that. It’s why I sent for you, Uncle.”
No, this was far worse than Nester thought. Though, that wasn’t the boy’s fault. Ramses had to report this to the king. In due time, of course. But first, his own investigation took precedence.
“As well you did, lad.” Ramses said noncommittally. His mind was elsewhere.
Nester beamed with pride. The self-congratulatory reflection was cut short by the troubled expression which remained plastered on his uncle’s face.
“Is this bad? I mean… is it broken?” Nester gasped in outrage. “Did I break it?” he shrieked, aghast.
Ramses would’ve laughed at his nephew’s theatrics had the situation not been as troubling. “No, no. Don’t fret, lad. There’s hardly a thing you could do to this relic that would cause harm.”
“Oh.” he sighed.
“However, that doesn’t mean that you can shirk off your responsibilities, or—”
“I know. I know, Uncle.”
“… take liberties or abuse your—”
“Respect for the ancestors. I understand.”
Ramses glared, the effect of which was muted by Nester’s refusal to make eye contact.
“Good.” He would let the matter drop for now. It wasn’t important—as important, he corrected. No, what mattered now was knowledge and understanding, trademarks of the wizarding arts. And why not start with a new perspective? “Now, tell me, lad. What do you see?”
“Uncle.” Nester whined. “I’m old enough to be married.”
“Fine. When you’re married, I’ll stop calling you that. But for now, you’re a lad.”
“Hmph.” Nester didn’t pout. He brooded.
Ramses kept a straight face, but his eyes were mirthful, and Nester had the sneaking suspicion that he was being teased. Though, he dismissed it out of hand when his uncle gestured towards the waters once more. Nester scanned the Occulum at his uncle’s insistence, scrutinizing it with a keen eye as if he were reading about it from a page in one of his many books. On some level, he was aware that he was being tested. His uncle was always testing him, but for what purpose, he never knew.
The Occulum revealed none of its secrets. If it were a book, it’d be written in gibberish. Ramses’ insistence never wavered however. Nester stared at the Occulum’s surface while Ramses stared at his nephew.
Awkward, Nester thought. He tried and failed to ignore his uncle, and was finding it increasingly difficult to focus. He could speculate all day long, but that would be no good. He would be speaking from his derriere, and somehow doubted that his uncle would approve. Still, he felt the need to say something. Anything.
“Could there be a bug in the water table, perhaps?” Nester recoiled from the look he received next. It said that his uncle thought his nephew was an idiot.
Ugh. Of course not. Idiot! Nester berated himself internally, ashamed of embarrassing himself by speaking so brashly.
“Maybe it’s bizarre weather heading inland.”
“You think it’s magical weather? My boy, if that were the case, we’d have far larger problems to worry about.”
“I know.” He did. “But I don’t know what else could cause such a wide dispersal pattern.”
Ramses didn’t know either.
“Argh!” Nester pulled his hair in frustration. “A little help here, Uncle?”
Ramses wasn’t listening, because something in what the boy said resonated with him. As he had predicted, his nephew had demonstrated an uncanny intuition. With Nester’s help, Ramses came to a realization that, in hindsight, seemed rather obvious. There were dozens of anomalies now, still largely segregated to a cornered area of the water table, but were definitely heading inland. Nester had suggested weather, but the patterns Ramses saw told a different story. They were asymmetrical, in that none were like the other, but also uniform, in that they each appeared to arise, divide, and expire in the same or similar fashion, as if several of the same things were causing the disruptions instead of just one which was massive. It wasn’t weather, nor was it merely a singularity. Rather, it was a group of things contributing to a larger set. His nephew was brilliant.
Once Ramses made that leap, the rest of the pieces started falling together. The implications were staggering.
“Look at these anomalies.”
“Okay. What am I looking for?”
“Disregard the way the Occulum typically functions, for a moment. Focus instead on their placement on the board and in relation to one another, and of course, their bearing and speed. What do these things combined suggest? What do they tell you?”
Nester was a bookworm by trade, and thus possessed an analytical mind. He suspected that his uncle had solved the riddle, and was only mildly envious. Mostly, he was awed. Of course, his uncle was the High Wizard for a reason, after all.
“Um…” Nester squinted, closing his vision off to everything but the board ahead. He disregarded what he was accustomed to seeing, and opened his mind up to new perceptions. Each anomaly was next to the other, neither too close nor too far. In fact, it almost seemed intentional, if a tad asymmetrical. Next, they were all traveling in the same direction at the same speed. Eerily, the same. But, that level of choreography wasn’t natural either.
His uncle had said, ‘in relation to one another’ suggesting that each anomaly was a singularity, a larger part of the whole. Furthermore, each one was traveling too fast to be anything but a…
“Ah. I see you understood the exercise.” Ramses said solemnly.
Eyes wide, Nester stared at his uncle. “It’s a ship.”
“No, nephew.” Ramses said gravely. “It’s many ships.” He stared grimly down at the table, and Nester followed his gaze.
“It’s a whole fleet of them.” Nester said. “But how are they shielding their magic from the Occulum? Are cloaking techniques that advanced even possible?”
Ramses hummed. “You tell me, lad. Who in the kingdom possesses the largest doppelganger?”
“You do, Uncle.” Nester said plainly. It was obvious; the man was the High Wizard.
“So, where is my doppelganger now, then?”
Nester stared down at the board. He looked, but couldn’t find it. “Uh…”
It’s not there.
“This tower was designed to hide strong magic from the world. A mere wizard’s doppelganger is of no consequence.” But Ramses was no mere wizard. And while the tower could do what he said, it was not without a great deal of effort. It had taken dozens of wizards hundreds of cumulative years to ward this tower. The initial mana expenditure had been tremendous, and the continued upkeep remained significant. That an entire fleet could be similarly enchanted was both humbling and troubling. “I must go and report this to the king. Stay here and track any further progress. I’ll send some mages to assist you, as well.”
“What is it, lad? Time is of the essence.”
“If these are ships, and they went to the trouble to cloak themselves, then would it be safe to assume that their intentions are likely… hostile?”
“Aye. Until we discover otherwise. That is the prudent thing to assume.”
“Well, in that case, then wouldn’t it make more sense for them to head straight for the capital? Instead, they seem to be detouring to an islet just south.”
Ramses took another look. His nephew was right, again. How had he missed that? While the ships would undoubtedly reach the capital, they would sail past Istan, a highly trafficked port city built upon an atoll. He had been so focused on the riddle, and its proximity to the palace, that he had neglected to account for any assets of—what he ashamedly dismissed as having—lesser importance. Any doubt of these anomalies being anything other than a mass of ships dispelled as soon as the connection was made. Istan was not an asset, nor was it lesser.
“I must go.” Ramses strode out in a flurry of billowing robes.
Nester stared down again, taking in all of the different doppelgangers which inhabited the port city. He saw some of all sizes: giant, big, small, and tiny; and everything in-between. He sighed. There were children there, he knew. Men, women, as well as animals inhabited the island. It was hard, staring at the Occulum, and not being confronted by the teaming mass of life that makes up the soul of a nation.
An outside observer might not be able to interpret the projections on the table, but to the trained wizard’s eye, each doppelganger was as unique as the person standing next to you. It was impossible to separate statistics with this inherent knowledge. There weren’t thousands of people in Istan, because each person was a unique individual, replete with their own personality and aspirations. Just as there only existed one Nester in the world, there only existed one of each individual currently residing in Istan, except thousands of times over.
He swallowed back the bile rising in his throat, feeling the weight of their lives keenly, like a physical pressure. How many lives were in danger of perishing? How many of these lights might soon be extinguished?
“Hurry, Uncle.” He whispered. His voice was drowned out by the deafening silence roaring in the empty chamber.