Chapter 320: A Promising Lead

on July 1, 2016 in Volume 2 Book 10: Lucky Thing, Volume 2: Sophomore Effort

In Which Professor Stone Has An Axe To Grind

The next morning, I found myself staring at the ring for several minutes before I moved to pick it up. I think the general feeling of unease that had pervaded my dreams persisted into my waking hours.

The night before, I had been so sure the ring was just a hunk of metal. That morning, though, everything about it bothered me.

Using my enchantment skills, I extended all of my senses, mundane and mystical, to their fullest. I widened my scans a bit, not focusing solely on the material of the ring itself. I was trying to pick up any trace of… anything, really… anywhere on it. Anything magical, anything malign, anything intelligent, anything portentous.



Well… something. Something faint, and not within the ring at all. There was a smidgen of a magical aura, like a trace of lipstick left on a glass. It was weak and very diffuse, though strongest on one side of the ring, one small notional sectional on the underside, opposite the setting.

I noticed the trace too late, and like little motes of pollen or dust it scattered under the pressure of my magical examination.

“Everything okay, baby?” Amaranth asked.

I jumped and straightened up.

“What? I don’t know,” I said.

“The ring is still… the ring?” she asked. “Nothing came back to it in the night?”

“Last night, I would have argued that nothing could come back, since I didn’t think anything had left it in the first place,” I said.

“Something’s changed?”

“I’m not sure,” I said. “There was a tiny trace of magic.”

“Mackenzie Jo Blaise!” she said, grinding her bare heel into the carpet in frustration. “You said there was nothing magical about it!”

“I did, ma’am!” I said. “And there isn’t, ma’am! But I found a faint trace this morning and I now think there was something magical close to it, at some point.”

“And you didn’t find this trace last night?”

“I looked as hard as I could,” I said. “But I didn’t think of everything. I was looking at the aura of the ring as a whole, and it didn’t look like there was anything. The cross-contamination from whatever magical thing was handling it was very faint, very easy to overlook.”

“Is there any chance it could have affected you?”

“None,” I said. “It’s not… organized. It’s not a spell, it’s not an entity, it’s not an enchantment. It’s just residue. Was just residue. It didn’t take much more than the metaphysical equivalent of a swift breeze to sweep it away.”

“…but if you missed that, what else might you have missed?”

“Anything else I’m still missing is smaller, fainter, and less consequential,” I said.

I bent down and scooped the ring up, then put it on the desk and got dressed.

“So you’re going to see Professor Stone about it today?” Amaranth asked.

“If he’ll see me today,” I said. “I think I should probably make an appointment… he strikes me as a pretty by-the-book kind of guy, and I don’t really have the same kind of relationship with him that I have with Professor Bohd.”

“Alright,” Amaranth said. “Well, maybe leave the ring here until you know you’re going to see him.”

“Okay,” I said. I couldn’t think of a reason why I would need to, but I didn’t have any reason why I couldn’t, either.

I fired off a short, polite a-mail asking Professor Stone if he would be available to give me his opinion on a ring, and then went about my day. I got a response in mid-morning. It seemed I was in luck: his office hours were booked solid, but he was in the midst of a personal project that was keeping him in his workshop at all hours, and he’d welcome a short break any time between six PM and midnight.

My last class ran until after six, so I decided to head over after dinner. We had a big group that night spread out across a few nearby tables, Hazel and the kobolds Shiel and Nae included. I felt Hazel’s eyes on me a few times. Looking to see if I was wearing the ring?

I rehearsed in my head an explanation that I was looking for a cord or something, since it would be a bit loose for my fingers, too, but she never asked. She was interested, as ever, in her endless and fruitless miniature war with Shiel.

I wasn’t that interested in the game itself, but the saga of Hazel’s one-sided rivalry with Shiel was kind of engrossing in its own way. Separate from any of the league games, the two of them had kept a campaign going for well over a year now. It wasn’t just a single battle, but a persistent world with the ongoing story of a battle between two rival nations.

That story had long since been stretched to the point of ridiculousness, as very time Hazel’s remaining forces were on the brink of being wiped out completely… which was frequently… Shiel would spot her a fortunate coincidence that allowed her to call up more reserves, recruit new allies, or otherwise garner reinforcements.

To my knowledge, Hazel had never won a battle against Shiel. I didn’t follow the standings, but I wasn’t sure she had won a battle against anyone except for the luckless first-timers who had the rules explained by her as they went. But it always seemed to me like it was Hazel who enjoyed the matches against Shiel more, that Shiel kept their private war going as an indulgent favor to a friend more than for any other reason.

It wasn’t that Hazel enjoyed losing battles, at least not that I’d ever noticed. What she liked was lost causes. I think the real joy for her was not in developing strategies or executing maneuvers, but in spinning out narratives and making blustering boasts.

If she had been playing the part of the captain of a ship rather than the general of an army, she not only would have gone down with the ship, but would have insisted to her last burbling breath that she had the entire enemy armada right where she wanted it, or inventing wild claims about advances in the field of submarine warfare that would allow her to strike from below as soon as she completed her descent.

That night, though, it seemed like there was a different tenor to her boasts. She sounded confident rather than desperate.

“Can’t wait to get back to it,” she said. “Can’t wait. After all this time, I finally have you right where I want you.”

“I thought I was always right where you wanted me,” Shiel said. “You’ve been saying that for months.”

“Oh? Well, yes. Right,” Hazel said. “True enough. But those were just the early maneuverings, the opening gambits. Now it’s all coming together, like. Now you’re really going to see something.”

Normally, this would be the point where Shiel would say something either wholly dismissive or sarcastically supportive, but instead she said, with a note of frustration in her voice, “Okay, I admit you’ve been lucky lately…”

“A Willikins makes her own luck,” Hazel said.

Maybe I was imagining the differences in their voices. Maybe I was a little sensitive to mentions of luck. But the whole thing unsettled me enough that I finished my dinner early and excused myself to go visit Professor Stone.

The dwarven aesthete kept an office with a small front room and a large but very snug workshop at the back. The outer door was closed but with the shade up and a light on inside, through which I could see that the inner door was propped open.

I gave a polite rap, though I didn’t know if he’d hear me… there was a pretty loud, pretty steady noise coming through it. I gave the doorknob a try and it was unlocked. I reminded myself that I had asked him in advance and been told any time, but I mentally prepared an apology all the same as I pushed through.

Inside the workshop, he didn’t exactly have his nose to the grindstone… it was held a suitable distance back, along with the rest of his face. His always groomed beard was wrapped in something that looked a bit like a leather sheath, which in turn was secured through a loop in an apron of shining mail. He was wearing goggles with eyepieces faceted like jewels, and an emerald-studded helmet with crenelations along the top, like a castle.

He glanced up at me, then withdrew the ornate silvery-colored axe whose edge he had been improving from the wheel and set it aside. He took a step back from the workstation before lifting the goggles that I now realized were part of the helm’s visor.

“Ms. Mackenzie!” he said, slapping his gloved hands on his apron. He sounded genuinely happy, which was not unusual, and excited to the point of boisterousness, which was. “I trust you are well?”

“Uh, yeah,” I said. I nodded at the axe. “Is that mithril?”

“Oh, my, yes!” he said. “Not just alloyed steel, but the pure stuff! Better than pure. It’s a new mithril/adamantine blend… with a few other proprietary substances which I can’t begin to mention. Very few of us have access to it yet. I am pleased to be one of them! Something of a pilot program, you might say.”

“I didn’t think you worked much in weapons,” I said.

“Well, they aren’t my forte, exactly,” he said, leaving the e silent. “But I cut my teeth on them, the same as every dwarf does, and the muscles never really forget. Not my first choice, mind you. The original proposal I submitted was for an elegant strongbox, but it was rejected. I considered a suit of armor for my second attempt, but an axe required less of an outlay in materials, so it seemed the more strategic choice given that my goal was to work with it at all.”

“Should you be telling me all this?”

“My dear pupil, I’m not so excited by my good fortune I would forget I’m a dwarf! This much is known publicly, if not widely,” he said. “I don’t expect you follow the advanced alchemical metallurgy trades at all or you’d already know of it.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” I said. “I’m glad you got your shot.”

“Yes, indeed,” he said. “But you intimated to me you had an item of which you would like my appraisal?”

“Yeah,” I said, sticking my fingers into my pocket to fish out the ring. “A friend of mine gave me this, and I was hoping you could tell me something about it.”

He pursed his lips at the sight of it and muttered a soft, “Oh, my,” then looked up at me. “You wouldn’t be asking me what it’s worth, I hope?”

“I’m hoping to learn anything about it you can tell me,” I said. “The only thing I know about it is that it’s probably dwarven.”

“He didn’t tell you what it means?” he said.

“She, actually.”

“Oh! Terribly sorry, impertinent of me to assume,” he said. “I don’t judge. Only, this is a male campus… but of course, there is the city, and it’s mixed…”

“Oh, Professor… it wasn’t from a dwarf!” I said.

The reference to a male campus had been enough for me to realize his mistake. Due to either an ancient curse or some quirk of their make-up, adult dwarven society was so heavily segregated by binary gender that humans who first met male dwarves had tended to assume that all dwarves were male, or that all dwarves of any gender looked the same.

In order to avoid the kind of raucous fighting that erupted whenever the twain happened to meet, dwarves divided the surface world up by a mixture of geography and calendar. The campus of a college like MU was never coed as far as the dwarves were concerned.

“Oh? Then maybe your friend did not realize what this was, either,” he said. He held out his hand, and I handed the ring to him. “This is… well, you might call it an engagement ring, though it’s not quite at that level of formality. It’s something closer to a promise ring, or the class ring that I’m given to understand human youths sometimes give to their sweethearts.”

“That’s interesting,” I said.

It certainly cast a slightly different light on the situation, if Hazel had been given the ring, rather than having found it in some deserted corner of the Underhall. Had a curse been handed down in Andreas’s family?

“It is,” he said. “Perhaps it’s none of my business, but does your friend have… or perhaps I should say, did she have a dwarven beau, with whom she might be now on the outs?”

“That’s a little tricky for me to say,” I said. Her relationship with Andreas did have its ups and downs, as far as I knew, but I hadn’t been aware of any dramatic break-ups recently. And if he had given her a promise ring, I had to think they were past the point where there might be a small, quiet split.

“I certainly don’t mean to pry,” he said. “But, purely offhand, I can think of few reasons a non-dwarf would carry such a ring, nor any other reasons why she should then give it away. I would advise you not to show it around, nor dispose of it until you’re sure neither of them would ask for it back.”

“In dwarven culture, would the ring still belong to him?” I asked.

“That varies with the circumstance of the giving,” he said. “Not all dwarven gifts are gifts as you would understand them, though I gather you are aware of that fact. But sometimes a gift is given freely, ‘no strings attached’, I think you would say, as a gesture of both generosity and personal security. Still and all, judging by the wear and the style, this looks like a ring that has served its purpose for two or three generations, so it would be fair to assume the giver would like to see it remain in his family line, given the chance. If he did give it away completely, it would of course be up to you whether he should lose it for an act of youthful impetuosity.”

“I don’t think I’d keep it if he asked for it back,” I said. “It doesn’t mean anything to me, and it sounds like it would mean a lot to him.”

“Indeed,” Professor Stone said. “I should point out, it would not be considered rude to ask him how much it’s worth to him.”

“…I don’t think I could do that,” I said.

“I only mention it because it might salve his pride a bit to be able to buy back the treasure he gave away,” the professor said. “Not much, under the circumstances, but a bit.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said. “Though, I don’t actually know the circumstances? We’re still speculating. Can you tell me what clan it’s from?”

“Well, it isn’t a Sternbauer,” he said, laughing. “I mean, it is not crude by any measure, but whoever made this is not principally a jeweler. Beyond that, it would be very hard to narrow down… it’s almost quintessentially dwarven, and of a style that was popular in many clans around the time of Magisterion’s war.”

He lowered his goggles and held a finger up to them. The facets reshaped themselves, the front-facing-eye-part narrowing.

“Let’s see,” he said. “The metal is titanium steel…”

“Titanium?” I repeated.

“Yes. Humans don’t work with it,” he said. “It can be quite useful in weapons or armor, but this is not the right grade. The lines on the ornament are evocative of stonework, so it might well be from a clan known for masonry or stonecutting, but, well, again, that is also a common feature of the dwarven aesthetic. Also, knowing its point of origin would not necessarily help you determine if your friend was given this ring by her beau.”

“You said he’d probably want to keep it in the family.”

“Yes, but dwarven lineage is a bit more complex than you are likely thinking,” he said. “Sons trace their fathers and daughters their mothers, as I’m sure you are aware, but heirlooms may pass down on either side. If this were a creation of Clan Steinmetz, or Clan Hewer or Rockcrusher, it might have been given as a token to a member of another clan, and then passed down a child who would be inducted into either parent’s clan, who would give it as a token to still another clan.”

“Right,” I said.

“If you can stomach some more advice from an old dwarven meddler,” he said, handing me back the ring, “I would ask your friend what her situation is.”

“I’m not sure she’d tell me the truth,” I said. “When she gave it to me, she said it was a good luck charm and she wanted to pass it on.”

“Well, that doesn’t sound like someone whose heart was burdened by it,” he said.

“No, it really doesn’t,” I said. I started to put the ring back in my pocket, then stopped… that wasn’t really necessary, but I was having my own private war inside my head about how far to take this, and somehow the act of putting the ring away felt like ending the conversation. “There isn’t… Professor, have you ever heard stories about rings like this being cursed?”

He looked at me for a long moment and then he laughed again.

“I’ve heard plenty of stories about cursed relationship gifts, but I’m not sure in the manner you mean it,” he said. “Ms. Mackenzie, haphazard though you may be in your approach to the art, you are a far more talented enchantress than you are a designer, and you’re not bad at design. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that little circle of metal is not cursed, not enchanted, not remotely magical at all.”

“Yeah, but, I’m not exactly fully trained,” I said. “My friend has been acting strange, and I worried I might have missed something.”

“Well, I didn’t give it a prolonged examination, but I do have some powerful divinatory enchantments on my eyepieces,” he said. “And I can assure you, no cursed item may enter my workshop. Anything that could break that particular safeguard… well, believe me, you would know there had been a fight.”

“That makes me feel slightly better,” I said. “I mean, you’re not wrong… I was pretty sure I would have been able to tell, but, you know…”

“Absolutely. It’s always better to have outside confirmation,” he said.

“My friend has been acting strange, though,” I said. “Strange enough that we were worried about a curse.”

“And might not that be down to an unfortunate development in her personal life?” Professor Stone said. “My dear Ms. Mackenzie, talk to her. If she wouldn’t tell you about the ring, simply ask her how she is doing. She might appreciate it more than you know.”

“Yeah, I’ll do that,” I said. “Thanks. Sorry for having taken up my your time.”

“On the contrary, I appreciate the diversion!” he said. “My current task is exciting, but quite demanding. On that note, I’m afraid I really must resume my work.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Thanks again.”

I left, of two minds. On the one hand, he was right: something like a break-up might explain Hazel acting differently. On the other hand, I hadn’t exactly gone into detail, and I wasn’t sure that her specific odd behavior fit that bill.

In particular I wondered: if the ring was a lingering reminder of a failed relationship, why would she have been showing it off?

The other thing that bothered me was that Stone had confirmed this ring was not a copy of a centuries-old heirloom, but the original. It didn’t seem likely that the impressively magical, probably cursed one would be the copy.

Had there always been two rings, then? If so, what was the connection between them?

Tales of MU is now on Patreon! Help keep the story going!

Or if you particularly enjoyed this chapter, leave a tip!

Characters: ,

16 Responses to “Chapter 320: A Promising Lead”

  1. zeel says:

    It’s possible that her actions were just caused by relationship trouble. Andreas could have given her the ring, later they broke up. When she was asked about it, she didn’t want to go into the whole thing… she lies. Later, she rids herself of the ring by giving it to Mackenzie.

    This would mostly explain things. Except that the ring seemed to have an effect on the observer, people noticed it in a way that is not consistent with a mundane object.

    But based on Stone’s examination, it does seem highly unlikely that this ring has any curse or enchantment. Leaving the possibilities that it’s not the same one Hazel had before, and she used slight of hand to give Mackenzie the mundane one (she saw the enchanted one at first). Or as many have mentioned, it could be the cord Hazel used to wear it that is really cursed.

    Or, and this possibility seems like something Mackenzie should have thought of: perhaps the subtle arts has something akin to curses/enchantments that can be at play… but are too subtle to be detected by most or any arcane means.

    The wisp of enchantment though… I think that supports the cursed cord theory. The ring was in close contact with the highly enchanted cord for an extended period. That would understandably leave a mark.

    Current score: 5
    • Nocker says:

      I doubt such a thing would easily be missed by such strong protective enchantments.

      My present theory is the magic is somehow from Hazel herself. Nae had an affinity for some types of nagic. Maybe Hazel is manifesting her own dealie.

      Current score: 1
      • Angelo says:

        Or the course/parassite was in the ring and after x time was able to travel to/possess Hazel and the ring is now empty.

        – The smiget of magic is the remainig of the transfer
        – Hazel strange behaviours are caused by the parassite altering her.

        ^ These are my 0.02c

        Current score: 1
        • fionag11 says:

          Yes, I think somehow the magic was transferred to another object or Hazel herself. Thus only a trace is left, and Hazel still has the luck, and she knows it; thus did not mind giving away the ring.

          Current score: 0
  2. Leishycat says:

    I was right, it was an engagement ring! xD

    Current score: 3
    • fionag11 says:

      But maybe not Hazel’s. I actually don’t see any reason to doubt that she did just find it, like she said, although maybe there was more to the finding of it than she revealed. Could one of Glory’s enemies have planted it in the building?

      Current score: 0
  3. Nocker says:

    Well if it’s a generic design it really is possible one is enchanted and the other is a fake. But Stone said this was an original so you’d either have two centuries old rings or a plain original and an enchanted reproduction.

    Obviously the cord being enchanted seems like another obvious issue but that raises the question of why Hazel has an enchanted cord and wont tell. If I remember right you can get luck boosting gear in town since MoreMu gave Jamie enchanted earrings with +Luck on them in addition to other stuff. So it’s not a rare property or one impossible to get ahold of.

    Just using a cord of Luck isn’t exactly high profile and putting a ring on it just draws attention to it.

    Current score: 0
  4. Alex says:

    Typo: “as very time Hazel’s” should be “as every time Hazel’s”.

    Current score: 1
  5. Erm says:

    It was weak and very diffuse, though strongest on one side of the ring, one small notional sectional on the underside, opposite the setting.

    Wouldn’t that be roughly in the same spot as a cord would touch it, if you attached it to a cord?


    Current score: 3
    • Caddan says:

      That was my thought as well. Maybe it’s the cord that’s cursed, not the ring. The ring could very well have been found just like Hazel said, and the cord too. Of course since everyone is misdirected to the ring, the cord slips by unnoticed.

      Current score: 3
  6. Erm says:

    raucous fighting that erupted whenever the twain happened to meet

    I’ve always wondered; how do MU dwarves actually reproduce? Or is this fighting just foreplay?

    Current score: 0
    • Kobold says:

      My understanding is that reproduction is the only time they meet on purpose. It’s probably rather violent.

      Current score: 0
  7. Nym says:

    That line at the end heavily implies it’s part of a matched set – it’s entirely possible that Hazel did switch the cursed ring for this one, or that there’s some other, more complicated relationship between them

    Current score: 1
  8. Zathras IX says:

    Hazel’s campaigns are
    Land battles in Asia full
    Of horse maneuvers

    Current score: 3
  9. TogashiSoka says:

    Woot, I called this back when they were debating the ring at the beginning of this arc…

    Nice to be right about something for once lol

    Current score: 0