Month 2, Day 11, Thursday 10:30 a.m.
“I want to learn more about Myrddin,” Sebastien told Professor Ilma, standing next to the lectern as the rest of the students filtered out after the end of class. “I checked the library, but there are so many books about him, I don’t have any idea where to start. I was hoping you could give me some recommendations?”
“Are you hoping to focus on any particular aspect of Myrddin’s life, or are you looking for general information?” Ilma asked.
“I’m hoping to learn historically accurate information about him in general, but I do have a particular interest in his inventions and discoveries.”
“Hmm.” Ilma took a few moments to gather up her things, then checked her pocket watch. “I believe I have just the thing, Mr. Siverling. If you will follow me? This shouldn’t take long.”
Wondering where they were going, Sebastien trailed alongside the blue-tinted woman.
“Did you ever solve your problems?” Ilma asked. When Sebastien didn’t immediately answer, Ilma clarified. “I’m referencing whatever had you so foiled when we met in the library some time back, that I offered unsolicited advice about. I believe you said, and I quote, ‘My life is falling apart.’”
Sebastien flushed at the reminder of her own dramatics. “You told me humans are like cockroaches,” she remembered. “Versatile, incredibly resilient, and we breed quickly. I do seem to keep going somehow, no matter what happens.”
“That does not exactly answer my question.”
Sebastien considered the question for a long moment. “I’m working on it,” she finally said. “I found a different way to approach solving some of my piled-up problems, and I’m trying to make sure that my current issues don’t create a further avalanche of problems by destabilizing the precarious balance that makes up the rest of my life. It was good advice. To be honest, however, I had a hard time figuring out how to implement it. One of my friends actually offered the current solution I’m working toward.”
“Giving advice is easy. Taking it is harder, and implementing it hardest of all. It is not so simple to really change. It requires us to go against all the rivers of habit and mental conditioning that have been worn deep into our bodies and minds throughout our lifetimes. Diverting those rivers requires dams and digging new pathways and a ridiculous amount of work. At least you were receptive enough to take your friend’s guidance when offered. Being willing to grasp opportunities is important.”
The last few days, since working out her agreement with Ana and Oliver, had shown Sebastien how foolish she was being when she tried to design a plan to solve all her problems. Instead of working herself to the bone, she’d been doing only the minimum required to keep up with her school assignments, and it had been absolutely wonderful. Her only side project had been planning and preparing for “Operation Defenestration,” as Damien had insisted on calling it. That was more than enough to keep her busy outside of schoolwork, but she wasn’t alone in the project, and she’d found, with a pleasant feeling like a surprise sunrise, that she could delegate a lot of the work to her two very motivated partners.
Sebastien was still tired in a bone-deep way that had nothing to do with lack of sleep, but she had actually woken up with a few sparks of energy that morning, even without the beamshell tincture. Not enough to get through the day, but it was a sign that, whatever was wrong with her, she was recovering.
Some of her ideas to fix things had been good, but her overall solution would have only made things worse in the long run. She had tried, but hadn’t successfully taken Ilma’s advice to come at her problems from a sufficiently different angle, or to be ruthless with discarding problems that couldn’t—or shouldn’t—be solved, and she hadn’t focused enough on pulling in new resources that would give her more options.
Sebastien had kept trying to solve everything the same way she always did—more work, more personal responsibility. She knew she wasn’t capable of living fully in the moment when there were problems on the horizon, and that kind of lackadaisical lifestyle seemed eminently foolish and undesirable anyway, but she’d been forgetting to live. She needed to grasp the opportunities she was being afforded and enjoy them while she still could. After all, as Newton had proved, her world could abruptly and conclusively end at any time.
It’s not as if she hadn’t been able to recognize the problem, the unsustainability of all her obligations, but when it came down to it, she hadn’t been able to break herself out of that pattern of behavior. When she was on the edge of breaking down, she somehow returned to trying to fix the world, and herself, with more work. Like an addict.
Now Sebastien had a viable path in front of her that didn’t require her to spend every spare moment of her days practicing and casting, and meant she didn’t need to brew from sunup to sundown both days of the weekend. She could take time to chat with her friends, or take a walk in the Menagerie, or even just read a book that wasn’t critical to her immediate advancement.
Even if Ana’s plan fell apart completely, Sebastien would still try to avoid falling back into the same grind. Hard work was one thing. Causing herself a nervous breakdown, or Will-strain, was another entirely.
Sebastien was jostled from her thoughts as Ilma stopped, unlocked a door, and waved Sebastien inside.
“Welcome to my office,” Ilma said.
It reminded Sebastien a little of Kiernan’s office, with all the books and strange knickknacks, except much more cluttered and less expensive looking.
Ilma went straight to one of the shelves that lined the walls and pulled down two books. She handed them to Sebastien. “I recommend these two references.”
Sebastien took them, scanning the titles quickly. Both were thick, leather-bound books. The first, Myrddin: An Investigative Chronicle of the Legend, seemed like just the thing she was looking for. The second, Enough Yarn to Last the Night: A Collection of Myths from the Life of a Man with Many Names, was covered in a faded gold filigree and, as far as she could tell, contained a multitude of hand-painted illustrated children’s tales, fantastical and anything but historically accurate.
Perhaps reading the doubt on her face, Ilma said, “It is best to absorb opposing views and different sources of information when approaching contentious topics. Broadening your horizons is valuable and allows you to see things that others cannot. Do not discount the worth of these tales gathered from and written by the people who lived during Myrddin’s time. Understanding the culture, the biases, and the things everyone of the time thought were ‘obvious,’ will give you perspective. Also, there are some notes within these books that you might find relevant.”
Sebastien held them carefully, aware of how valuable they probably were. “Thank you. I will read them both,” she promised, suddenly worried that she was leaving sweaty fingerprints on their covers.
“You are welcome. Bring them back to me when you are finished, preferably by the end of next term, before the summer break,” Ilma said, turning away. “You had best hurry to your next class. You only have a few minutes.”
Sebastien thanked her again and turned to leave.
“Also, please tell Professor Lacer that he still has my book on pre-Cataclysm information storage artifacts. He promised he would return it to me a month ago. I won’t have him ‘accidentally’ adding my rare texts to his personal collection.”
“Er, I’ll remind him,” Sebastien said.
During their next class together, Sebastien borrowed a square silk scarf from Damien and carefully wrapped both texts, fearful that they would accidentally be scratched or have ink spilled on them, or something equally horrifying, while stored in her school satchel.
That evening, after running through a couple hours of Professor Lacer’s spell exercises and taking a half hour to carefully transfer the gold coins sewn into the lining of her old boots to her new pair, she pulled the books out for a bit of reading while she procrastinated going to sleep.
She examined Myrddin: An Investigative Chronicle of the Legend first. The book was heavy in names, dates, and constant mentions of cross-references and corroborating information, but still managed to be engaging.
Little was known about Myrddin’s early life, and while rumors had abounded and speculation continued long after his death, none had any support beyond hearsay. The author speculated that Myrddin may have been low-born, or, more likely, the illegitimate child of a minor noble. Even his original name was somehow in question, as various records from around the known lands referred to him by different monikers. In different countries and cultures, he was known as Emrys, Ambrosius, Merzhin, and in the central plains that became Lenore—Myrddin.
Myrddin began to make a name for himself around twelve-fifty BCE, when he was already an adult. The roving sorcerer’s exact age was unknown, but he was fairly powerful by that time, and supported himself by taking difficult to solve contracts from villages and towns that could afford his help, slowly working his way up to more and more prestigious—and difficult—projects.
Myrddin’s fame truly began to explode when he agreed to a duel with a wealthy noble scion from a country to the south that no longer existed. Different accounts gave different reasons for the duel: Myrddin wanted the noble to free an abused griffin, or gift Myrddin his manor, or vouch for Myrddin to enter a secret society of elites.
But the duel, along with its terms, was widely popularized and well attended by the wealthy and literate, resulting in extensive anecdotal records of the event. Myrddin would cast only one spell, a shield, and if the noble scion could get past it through any means of cleverness or brute force, without violating the standard terms of a duel—which required both parties to stay within their allotted spots on the field—Myrddin would admit defeat. The nobleman was allotted from sunup to sundown to complete this.
Myrddin spent over an hour before the sun rose setting up the spell array, which had not been documented and was unfortunately lost to time. Despite the work that went into casting it, his shield spell seemed innocuous, even laughable, at first. It manifested as a small black disk hanging in the air between Myrddin and his opponent.
The noble mocked Myrddin loudly, boasting that such a tiny shield would not be able to protect him. Then he attacked. Some said the noble’s first spell had been a fireball, others a flaming arrow, and others some kind of flashy fire-bird construct.
All agreed that the black disk had absorbed it. Myrddin stood unharmed, and the shield grew larger.
Each time the nobleman attacked, whether in the form of energy-based spells or using the environment to shoot physical projectiles, Myrddin’s spell absorbed it, moving to do so if necessary. The small black disk grew with each attempt, as if feeding on the energy of his enemy’s attacks. Even when the nobleman tried a pincer attack, Myrddin only had to take one step to the side to avoid it while the shield flitted back and forth.
Some accounts from the audience said that the disk began to create its own cold wind, with a rim of frost around the edges, and that as the blackness grew larger it began to curve around into a giant dome to cover Myrddin, still expanding.
The nobleman cast more and more frantically, trying to overwhelm the shield, to find a loophole, or to slip past its defenses with subterfuge.
Nothing worked, and the shield only continued to grow.
By midday, when the sun was highest in the sky, Myrddin’s opponent had exhausted himself. He sat down on the ground to rest and contemplate his next move.
Myrddin stood behind his shield. Some of the records said he was silent, eminently self-confident, while others claimed that he mocked the nobleman.
When an hour had passed, the nobleman stood and admitted his defeat. He knew that he did not have the energy to continue to cast indefinitely, and worried what would happen when the black dome grew so large that it reached him, fearing that it would eat him just as it had eaten every one of his attempts to harm Myrddin.
The author mentioned that there was some speculation among historians about the function of Myrddin’s spell, suggesting it to be more mundane than popularized by these anecdotes, and its ability to absorb attacks was just smoke and mirrors to make it seem more intimidating. It could have had matter disintegration and energy dispersal functions, with Myrddin manually controlling its size after each attack as a way to play up his prowess and psychologically dominate his opponent.
Sebastien didn’t believe it. After all, the transformation artifact was no illusion. She imagined casting such a shield herself. No longer needing to worry about the dodging and footwork that Professor Fekten was trying to carve into his students would be amazing, since she was, frankly, terrible at that kind of thing.
Myrddin’s spell may have been lost to time, but surely she could recreate it, and others just as impressive, once she became an Archmage. Even better if she could free-cast such a wonder. She spent a few minutes imagining herself as powerful as Myrddin, preeminent above all others. It felt a bit childish, but at the same time, what was her goal if not to be the best?
If she never stagnated, never stopped improving, what other outcome could there be? She would live a long, long life of ever-increasing power, until she had unraveled the secrets of the world, unraveled the secrets of magic itself.
A note at the bottom of the page, written in Ilma’s sloping hand, drew Sebastien out of her juvenile daydreams. It referenced an entry in the other borrowed book.
Curious, Sebastien opened Enough Yarn to Last the Night: A Collection of Myths from the Life of a Man with Many Names, being even more careful as she turned the lovingly-painted pages.
The first section contained stories about Myrddin’s childhood, each more fantastical and unlikely than the next. One told of how Myrddin’s mother had been barren, and after a long search, was able to find a friendly Titan that fed her a drop of its blood that grew into Myrddin in her womb. Considering the last of the titans had died or disappeared around eight thousand BCE, this was exceedingly unlikely.
Another recounted how Myrddin was found as an infant, cupped inside the flower of a gigantic water lotus from which he had grown—sprouted, to be more accurate. Sebastien actually snorted aloud.
Yet another talked of how he was half-fey and had grown up much-abused in their secret realm before escaping as a young man and entering the world of humans. Still ridiculous, seeing as someone would have been able to discern the signs of his parentage, just as she had done with Millennium, but at least the war that wiped out the fey had only occurred a few hundred years before Myrddin lived. It was more believable than him being molded from a drop of Titan blood, but that’s about all she could say for the theory.
Sebastien flipped to the story that the note had referenced in the first book. It told of how Myrddin, as a young, willowy sprout of a man, had looked up at the sky and yearned. So he rode upon a cold northern wind, up, and up, and up. He spoke to the moon, but she would not help him. He flew farther and spoke to the stars, but they were too fickle. Finally, he flew even farther, into the darkness beyond the edge of heaven, and spoke to Night herself.
She thought him brave and charming, though his life was just a twinkle, a blink of an eye, to one such as herself. Saddened by the future she knew would come, she agreed to grant him a boon.
Myrddin asked for an unbreakable shield that could not be bypassed and would protect him from even Death itself.
Night told him that nothing could protect such a bright spark from Death, but she gave him a piece of herself to shield him from all else, should he use it correctly.
With a piece of Night in his hand, Myrddin fell back down to the earth.
Sebastien saw why the note-taker—probably Ilma—had made the connection. Both stories were talking about the absorbent shield, though one was based in reality and the other in the fantastical imaginings that people without education, who had been raised on stories and lore and superstition to explain their world, might use to explain such a thing.
‘It is somewhat interesting, I suppose, but I’m not sure if it’s actually valuable,’ Sebastien thought. Perhaps one of the later stories would provide the insight Ilma seemed to be hinting at.
Too much time had passed while Sebastien was reading, so she cast her dreamless sleep spell and forced herself to close her eyes, thinking only of the phantom swirls of random color that swam across the inside of her eyelids and not of all the work she needed to do.
In the morning, she returned to the abandoned art supply room on the second floor of the Citadel to practice casting something she didn’t want anyone to see. It was part of her general decision to be more prepared, but also a bit of a break from all the planning and groundwork for Operation Defenestration.
Taking a jar of dead beetles, crickets, and even a couple of cockroaches from her satchel, she broke several into pieces. Some of the pieces she scattered around the edges of the room, keeping the rest for herself.
Using her folding slate table, she drew out a relatively simple spell array based on the same principles of the shedding-disintegration spell she used to get rid of any stray pieces of herself that might otherwise be lying around. Except this new spell worked not just on the area inside the Circle, but on the sympathetic connections of her target.
She calmed her mind, taking out the beast core she’d taken from Tanya in case her lantern wouldn’t provide enough instant power, and began to cast.
With a surge of Will and power, the beetle within her Circle turned grey and fell apart into a small heap of dust and a waft of almost-invisible smoke. The tiny pile of dust seemed smaller than the section of beetle had been.
The magic hadn’t fought her like she had been prepared for, which meant that even though she had created this little curse herself, it wasn’t new magic. Someone, probably multiple someones, had used either this exact spell or a variation of it enough times that the spell had flowed easily. Which made sense.
Sebastien stood and moved to the other side of the room, where a matching tiny pile of ultra-fine dust sat, dispersing in a puff with the accidental air current her approach caused.
With a grim smile of satisfaction, Sebastien returned to her spell array to repeat the process. She would be ready if the time ever came that she needed to combine this spell with the reverse-scrying function. She only needed to find a way to protect herself from disintegrating like the rest of her pieces, but she had some ideas for that. If the coppers still had her blood, they would receive a nasty surprise the next time they tried to use it against her.
Plus, being well-practiced with sympathetic curses seemed like a useful thing in general.
I’ve been writing all day and I’m only stepping away from the ink mines for a moment to post this chapter and hopefully reply to some of your comments.
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