Chapter 106 – Witchcraft


Month 2, Day 6, Saturday 12:00 p.m.

I believe other people are real,’ Sebastien thought as she walked back to the dorms. ‘I know they have real emotions, desires, and their own stories about how they got to the place they’re in. But I have very little confidence in them, other than that.

Using Professor Lacer’s thought exercise, Sebastien tried to imagine that the things Ana had said about her were true. Sebastien was sharp-tongued and rude. She’d known that for a long time. People didn’t enjoy having the unpleasant truth pointed out to them. Or at least, that was how Sebastien had justified things. But could she have been lying to herself? Was she the kind of person who treated people poorly just because she couldn’t be bothered to care about them? Or worse, because somewhere deep inside, she enjoyed hurting others?

She remembered her tirade against the group of girls that had been gossiping about Newton. She had to admit that, sometimes, she did enjoy it. The rage behind her words to those girls was rare, however. More often, she made offhand cutting remarks to those who simply annoyed her, like Alec and even Damien. Ana hadn’t often been on the receiving end of those before, but Sebastien could remember several times that Ana had laughed behind her hand at one of Sebastien’s more scathing observations. While Sebastien was rude to people’s faces, Ana made snide comments behind their back.

Sebastien groaned aloud, drawing some strange looks from a couple of students sitting on a bench beside the cobblestone pathway. She ignored them, scowling as she continued to mull over the issue.

She could admit that she had been dismissive of many of her classmates, particularly the Crown Family nobles. It wasn’t the wealth itself that bothered her, but that they felt entitled to it and thought that they were somehow better than those they ruled over. ‘As if it were anything they’d done to win the genetic lottery of birth parents.’ They were oblivious to what it was like to live in the real world that the remaining ninety-nine percent of the population inhabited, where things were difficult and unfair and someone could do everything right and still fail. It grated on her that they should have such opportunity and not even appreciate its worth, while she struggled for every scrap of knowledge and power.

Sebastien recognized she was working herself into a righteous anger and tried to let it go. While they hadn’t done anything special to deserve it, the Crown Family members and other wealthy, connected students also hadn’t done anything wrong by being born into privilege. Sure, they were ignorant and rude sometimes, but…wasn’t this whole situation caused by Sebastien’s own rudeness? And ignorance could be corrected. Some of the Crown Family students weren’t as bad as she had expected, once she got to know them. She could imagine someone like Damien genuinely caring if he were forced to truly understand what life was like for the common people.

If she were being fair, she wouldn’t hold their prejudice and immaturity against them any more than she would despise a poor commoner for not being able to read or understand the vast world of books they were missing out on. ‘Just because there are many equally as deserving as them who don’t get the opportunity doesn’t mean the nobles are less deserving.

So,’ Sebastien concluded, ‘maybe I am a snob.’ She still couldn’t help but scorn many of her classmates’ ignorance, but if she was going to acknowledge that ignorance was correctable, shouldn’t she try to do something to correct it? That was a monumental job, better suited for someone more like Oliver than Sebastien. She simply didn’t have the patience or the time. And didn’t each individual have some responsibility to correct their own ignorance? Why should that be her job?

Feeling like she’d made little progress on figuring anything out, Sebastien found Brinn and Waverly in the dorms, notes and components laid out over the girl’s rumpled bedspread.

Brinn waved Sebastien over, and she tried to force a more pleasant expression onto her face as she joined them. “What’s this for?” she asked.

Waverly took the initiative to speak, which was rare for the small girl. “I’m going to the Menagerie to make an offering! I’m pretty sure I saw a gremian in there the other day, and they’re a great option to practice making a short-term contract with, if we can get it inside a Circle.”

“Do you want to come, Sebastien?” Brinn asked.

She hesitated. Really, she would prefer to try to talk to Ana, or maybe Damien, who knew the other girl well enough that he might be able to give Sebastien advice about how to handle the situation. “Are Damien or Ana around? I haven’t seen them today.”

“Both of them are visiting their homes.” Brinn tilted his head to the side. “They mentioned it several times over the last few days.”

“Oh,” Sebastien said. She…hadn’t been paying attention. She sighed, using a finger to try to smooth out the crease of frustration between her eyebrows. “Thank you. Um, I suppose I will come along, then, if you don’t mind?” she asked Waverly. These two had been nothing but kind to her, after all, and she was interested in the chance to see some witchcraft in action. She didn’t have the mental capacity to do her homework or practice spells at the moment, anyway.

The trio gathered up all of Waverly’s preparations and walked to the Menagerie, making their way along the winding paths until Waverly pointed out a tree housing what looked like a particularly large bird’s nest. When Sebastien commented on it, Waverly grinned, exposing small, pearly-white teeth. “That’s not a bird’s nest.”

“A gremian, then?” Sebastien asked, repeating the word Waverly had used earlier. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen one.”

“Oh, they’re wonderful!” Waverly gushed, the most high-pitched and enthusiastic that Sebastien had ever seen her. “So cute, and trainable. They’re not sapient, and they can’t talk, but they’re clever enough, and willing to perform tricks and favors if you know what to offer.”

Inside a Circle scratched into the snow with a stick, Waverly set up feathers, a chicken egg, and a small drawing of a bird in flight. They were an an offering meant to entice a gremian into the Circle’s bounds. If it accepted the offering, that would be considered consent, and the gremian would be forced to enter into negotiations with her. Of course, if it didn’t like the terms she put forward, or just didn’t like her, it could refuse to make a further contract, but it wouldn’t be able to leave until she’d at least made the attempt.

“What would happen to the creature if you didn’t offer any terms? Would it be indefinitely trapped, perhaps to the point of starvation?” If so, that didn’t seem fair, since agreement under duress wasn’t exactly agreement.

Waverly laughed as they drew far enough back from the Circle that they wouldn’t spook the creature from approaching. “Oh, there are Circles like that, but they’re exceedingly foolish on the part of the caster. The creature, or elemental, that you bind isn’t forced to be loyal, only to follow the exact wording of the contract. Even if it tries to engender loyalty, that’s very dependent upon interpretation and intent. There are a ton of stories about witches binding powerful, unwilling familiars through trickery or blackmail, and it always goes badly. It would be like trying to cast with a celerium Conduit that had a mind of its own and didn’t like you. This Circle will release the creature within an hour if no deal is made, and anyways, I’m not trying to make a familiar contract, only—”

She stopped, lifting a forefinger to her mouth to signal the need for silence as she stared up at the sloppy nest molded from twigs, strips of fabric, and daubs of mud.

At first, Sebastien thought that some of the twigs were rising, but then she saw the bulging black eyes and realized that the twigs were actually brown spikes sprouting from the creature’s head.

The gremian looked at the offering below its tree, then at them, and then back at the offering. Apparently unable to resist, it crawled out of the nest and down the trunk. It was a small humanoid creature with spikes running from its head down to its butt, large bug-like eyes, and small, razor-sharp claws. It had attached feathers to its arms with precariously tied bits of old string, and strange flakes of dried fluid covered its thin, bony form, crumbling off when it moved too violently. Altogether, Sebastien imagined it was the kind of thing children might have nightmares about.

“Oh, isn’t it cute!” Waverly squealed, bouncing up and down with her hands clasped under her chin.

Sebastien and Brinn shared a dubious look over the girl’s head.

The gremian snatched up the offerings, not seeming to either notice or care as the binding activated, trapping it inside. After almost a minute of staring lovingly at the drawing of a bird in flight, while Waverly took tiny, slow steps closer, the gremian turned its attention to the chicken egg, which was half as big as its head.

The source of the flakes covering its body became obvious as it crushed the egg over its head, smearing the viscous liquid all over itself until it glistened.

“Gremians want to fly more than anything,” Waverly explained in a calm, soothing voice. “Some believe that they branched off from homunculi that were attacked with some kind of ancestral curse thousands of years ago, and eventually devolved into what you see now. They collect feathers, steal eggs, and live in nests—all futile attempts to reach the skies.”

Sebastien watched with interest as Waverly knelt in front of the Circle to bargain with the creature. She pulled out a contraption made of bamboo and waxed fabric, showing it off as she murmured, occasionally miming something to get her point across.

Eventually, the gremian agreed to whatever deal she had put forth. They both spat in their palms, shook hands—which looked rather ridiculous considering the difference in size, and the creature scampered off.

Waverly turned, grinning back at Brinn and Sebastien. “It worked. He agreed!”

“To what, exactly?” Sebastien asked.

“Well, a short-term contract, wherein he retrieves something for me and in return I give him this,” she said, holding up the bamboo and cloth contraption. “Really, the deal was pretty irresistible.”

While they waited for the creature to return, there wasn’t much to do, and Sebastien fell back into thought.

“I’m not sure what happened between you and Ana, but if you want to reconcile with her, you should be the one to make the first move,” Brinn said, catching Sebastien by surprise. “She’s not very good at reaching out, even if she wants to.”

Sebastien turned to search his gaze, but Brinn wasn’t looking at her, instead watching as Waverly molded a knee-high snowman a few yards away. “I’m not sure she does want to,” she said after a moment of consideration. “She asked me for a favor, and I…I was frazzled and the last thing on my mind was taking on a new project. I turned her down quite rudely, and she gave me a thorough verbal thrashing and hasn’t spoken to me since. She said some things that made me think she might not actually like me very much.”

Brinn blew on his bare fingers, which had turned red from the cold. “I doubt that very much. Ana can be quite fierce, but I think it’s more likely she lashed out in an attempt to hurt you rather than out of real dislike. She gets angry in the moment, says things she regrets, and then is too embarrassed and stubborn to take them back. Once, she told me I was an overly tall sad-sack who—well, I won’t get into that. Suffice it to say, she’s like the opposite of you, in a way. You’re casually rude, but once people get to know you, no one takes it seriously. It’s almost like a test, to tell apart those who have the fortitude to be your friends from the rest of the rabble. Ana wants to be everyone’s friend, but she only says cruel things to those she cares about enough that they managed to hurt her.”

“But she’s put up with my sniping and grumbling until now. Sure, most of it wasn’t turned toward her, but…”

“Have you considered that it wasn’t so much your exact words, but the emotion behind them? Generally, you speak without malice, Sebastien. But this time, you were frustrated. Maybe you wanted to put her in her place, just a bit? She’s quite sensitive to intent, the meaning beneath the sweet exterior.”

Sebastien knew that her words had been offensive, but now that Brinn had pointed it out, it seemed clear that her tone had been meant to wound. There was little Sebastien could have said with the frustration and derision filling her voice that wouldn’t have sounded like an insult, an attack, and Ana had responded in kind. That didn’t mean the other girl’s accusations had been pulled out of nowhere, however.

Sebastien crouched down, hugging her knees to her chest. “I am so bad at all this ‘people’ stuff.”

“Ehh.” Brinn shook his hand back and forth in a “so-so” motion. “That’s not incorrect, but you have a certain charm, despite that.”

She puffed out a surprised laugh, but they were both distracted as the gremian returned, a few mushrooms in its clawed fingers.

Waverly exchanged them for the contraption, which she carefully showed the excited gremian how to use.

Sebastien’s eyes widened as she understood what was going on. “I have an idea!” she said. After explaining, the three of them drew a scattering of gust spell arrays around the gremian’s tree, making sure to dig past the layer of snow and into the ground.

The creature clambered up to its nest with the contraption, which was almost bigger than it was, and then, tucking itself inside the frame as Waverly had demonstrated, it jumped off.

Sebastien activated her gust spell, throwing snow and a rush of air straight upward. It caught the wings of the gremian’s makeshift glider, and the little creature screeched in ear-piercing excitement as it began to fly.

This lasted for about fifteen seconds until it hit a tree and tumbled to the ground, dazed, but despite Waverly’s worry, the gremian seemed unharmed, and immediately scrambled back to its nest.

Sebastien laughed aloud the second time it jumped into flight, as Waverly and Brinn activated their own gust spells, trying to keep the little creature aloft. They played at this until one of the glider’s wings broke in a particularly nasty crash.

The gremian keened over it as if it had lost a family member or one of its own limbs, enough emotion in its scratchy, high-pitched wails that Sebastien felt genuine sympathy for it. She approached it slowly and, explaining her intentions in a soothing tone, though she wasn’t sure it could understand, reached for the miniature glider.

It was reluctant to let go at first, baring its teeth, but Sebastien managed to get the glider free without being scratched or bitten. Using a random twig as a component, she cast one of the many variations on her mending spell, fusing the broken wing of the bamboo frame back together.

The gremian didn’t thank her as it snatched the glider back and scampered off with it.

By that time, Waverly and Brinn were both getting hungry, and so they left the creature to its doomed flights, heading toward the cafeteria.

The two of them got lost in chatting about Waverly’s outstanding success and her plans for her next contract attempt while Sebastien trailed a few feet behind, sinking back into her thoughts.

Something Brinn had said stuck with her, the part about having a certain charm. ‘Professor Lacer is sharp-tongued. He often makes rude, even scathing comments. He makes people cry. But…I like him that way,’ she recognized with a strange sense of surprise. ‘I’m rude, too. Do I actually want to change?

She tried to be brutally honest with herself. ‘No,’ she admitted. ‘I wouldn’t change if there weren’t consequences. I haven’t changed, despite past consequences. But I do want people, specific people like Ana, to like me.’ To that effect, she could try to be more charitable toward those around her. Not some ever-smiling, gregarious butterfly. The very idea made her shudder. But at least she could try to be kind when it mattered—to those who had shown her goodwill. To those who deserved it.

Author Note 5/19/22:

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