Month 2, Day 13, Saturday 8:00 a.m.
Siobhan had to knock at Liza’s door a second time after the first yielded no results. When the lion door-knocker tried to bite her, she yanked her fingers away and glared at it.
There was a sharp thud followed by copious swearing from within, and when Liza finally opened the door, she was favoring one foot slightly. She scowled at Siobhan, her dark brown curls springing out from her head every-which-way, not so unlike a lion’s mane of her own. “The sun is barely risen. If this is not a matter of life-and-death urgency…”
“Er, didn’t we plan to test the sleep surrogate spell today?”
Liza’s scowl grew darker. “I have had four hours of sleep, and you are here while the sun is literally still rising.”
Siobhan nodded in a way that she hoped looked sympathetic. “I understand. But on the bright side, that will no longer be a problem for you once this spell is ready. If you let me in, I can start getting the spell array set up while you sleep a little longer.”
Liza stared at her inscrutably for a moment, then sighed, moving aside so Siobhan could enter her home. She shuffled into the kitchen, muttering something about an “inconsiderate, willfully-oblivious child.”
Siobhan ignored Liza’s grumbling, cheerfully requesting a cup of tea for herself. Liza was like one of those dogs that barked a lot, even at people they knew and liked, but who would begrudgingly allow themselves to be petted anyway. Making progress on this spell couldn’t wait, and would likely take the majority of the day. After ensuring she wouldn’t get struck by a lightning ward or a stupidity curse or the like, Siobhan made her way through the closet at the back of the apartment into the secret side of the building where Liza kept her books and components.
The few dozen mice Siobhan had bought were held in a multi-leveled terrarium in the corner, scampering happily around a bed of sawdust.
The sempervivum apricus, which she had brought over along with the mandrake from Dryden Manor, was looking a bit better after a couple of weeks under bright light, but its soil was growing drier than even such an arid climate plant preferred, and the mandrake was no longer dehydrated, but its leaves were still drooping. Siobhan found a watering can, and after peering into it suspiciously and giving it a few sniffs, she watered the mandrake, caressing its leaves and humming to it as best she could. Then, she took a small jar of water imbued with energy from the Plane of Radiance that she had bought from an expensive alchemy shop, mixed a few drops with the remaining water from the can, and poured it onto the sempervivum apricus.
The little motes of light beneath the succulent flesh brightened noticeably and began to travel through its system more quickly.
Siobhan had never been the best at horticulture, with more skill at harvesting plant components than keeping them alive. It hadn’t ever made sense to start a component garden since she had to move every few months, but she took some small pleasure in keeping these two plants alive.
Liza came into the room with two cups of tea, looking slightly more alert. She chugged her tea immediately, ignoring the heat, but when Siobhan stretched her hand out to receive the other, Liza pulled back and started drinking from that one, too. “Rude girls who make me take care of six dozen mice and show up unannounced to cause me problems do not get tea.”
“I’m not tired, anyway,” Siobhan mumbled, unperturbed. She had taken the beamshell stimulant that morning, and for once had been sleeping enough that she wasn’t physically exhausted.
Liza’s supercilious smile fell away, replaced by another frustrated scowl. “Are you attempting to irritate me?”
Siobhan paused to consider. “No?”
“You are not paying me enough to put up with this. Perhaps I should raise my fee.”
Siobhan opened her mouth to remind Liza that it was actually Siobhan who was being paid, but the other woman’s scowl was warning enough. She closed her mouth silently.
Liza gave a satisfied “hmph” before taking another sip out of her second teacup, and then gestured to a pile of large sheets of paper atop one of the tables. “Since I found myself with more time than I had expected while I waited on the remaining supplies, I did a little research and made some modifications to the spell theory that I think will improve the efficiency when the subjects are separated by a greater distance. You seem to have referenced the Lino-Wharton messenger spell, but the process behind its function is not entirely in alignment with what you intend for this new spell.”
Siobhan eagerly looked over the modifications. Liza had made more adjustments to the method of binding, which Siobhan hadn’t been able to find much solid information on. Many binding spells were either not robust enough to handle this kind of powerful spell, considered blood magic, or too complicated to be held on the library’s first floor. Liza had tweaked other small things across all the steps of the spell and added a note that a docility spell cast on their animal subjects beforehand would make the whole process easier. “This is fantastic,” Siobhan said. It would have taken her months of research to come up with the refinements Liza had been able to do in a week.
Liza dropped a stack of books on the table beside Siobhan, each with several strips of paper peeking out between the pages to mark places of interest. “You can read up on the theory while I get the spell array inscribed. With a delicate spell like this, it is very important that we both have the same understanding of how it works so that we can exert our Wills toward the same goal. Struggling against each other even subtly could lead to catastrophe.”
Siobhan nodded absently, already tuning out the world as she fell into the spell theory. Professor Lacer had encouraged her to take further developments back to him for approval, but she didn’t feel it was necessary, considering Liza’s credentials.
Over an hour later, she was drawn from her studying as Liza came back up.
From one of the supply closets, Liza pulled out a large metal ring that looked something like a bear trap, with smaller disks and adjustable legs shooting off it. She cleared a table to use the device while Siobhan watched curiously. “It is a medical diagnostic artifact. An old one that I have upgraded and recharged. It’s meant for humans, but it will still return something for the mice, and it is not as if I will be attempting to heal them based on the diagnostics,” the woman explained.
Siobhan understood instantly. “We’ll be able to accurately measure the changes in their health from beginning to end. It could be valuable data, even if we have to do some translating to mouse and eventually raven biology.” It was a serious improvement over the basic diagnostic spells Siobhan had found in the library.
They placed the mice within the metal ring one after the other, tagging them with little identifying labels around their hind legs. They used a notebook to record the meanings of the complex color and shape readings the artifact gave, which they needed a separate scroll with the key to understand. Siobhan was sure that modern diagnostic artifacts had been upgraded to output more easily decipherable words or numbers, because it was a trying process that had both her and Liza scowling and cursing with frustration by the time they finished.
Finally, they moved to one of the warded spellcasting rooms below.
The bounding circle Liza had drawn covered nearly the entire floor. The sleep-proxy spell would be cast in multiple stages, and rather than having to redo the spell array for each stage, Liza had set up different sub-arrays around the main central array so they could simply move the mice from one step in the spell to the next in a circular path. Finally, the mice would be bound to each other in the final, central step.
Each subordinate spell array was written in a different medium. Plain chalk was enough for the easiest steps. Thick lines of glittering wax—the sparkle coming from a mix of powdered quartz, amethyst, and moonstone—were used for one of the more powerful sub-arrays. Another was composed of carefully deposited lines of black salt, bound to itself and the floor with honey and nightshade oil. Most of the components were already set in their places, just waiting.
Siobhan scrutinized Liza’s work, checking for mistakes, a giddy feeling bubbling up in her chest the whole time. She felt like, if she jumped, she might just float away. ‘It’s finally happening. This is the answer, and it’s almost ready. I must ensure nothing goes wrong, so close to success.’ The last thought sobered her a bit, but nothing could have subdued her at this moment.
When Siobhan had reviewed the setup and deemed it correct, Liza stepped carefully around the edge of the room, scooping the mice into a large bowl, deep enough that they couldn’t crawl out of it. She set the bowl in the center of the complex subordinate spell array nearest Siobhan. “Have at it. This one should be simple enough for you to handle on your own.” Their agreement to collaborate included allowing Siobhan to gain skill casting the necessary magic, otherwise Liza probably would have handled everything by herself.
The forceful calming spell used a small drop of laudanum to sedate and a snake’s tongue to make the mice more suggestible to commands. Siobhan had never cast it before, but she’d seen Liza do so more than once. It was a stretch to spread the magic through the whole squirming pile of mice, but after a few minutes their struggles eased.
Siobhan dropped the spell and picked up one of the small creatures, which sat in her hand pliantly. Trustingly. “Sorry about this,” she murmured, picking up another and moving them both to the next subordinate spell array.
For this spell, she needed Liza’s help.
Using transmogrification to enhance a creature through the Sacrifice of another was blood magic, of course, especially since the Sacrificed mouse would be alive for the process. The Third Empire had done a lot of experimentation with transmogrificational enhancements under the rule of the Blood Emperor, some of them notoriously gruesome, but rarely successful.
“Remember not to bind their lives together,” Liza said.
Under Liza’s guidance, they drew on the vitality and brain function of one mouse, creating a sympathetic connection between its required properties and those of the other mouse. The Sacrifice squeaked shrilly, writhing in sudden pain, but it was soon over. The small creature lay dead next to its companion, a thin ribbon of blood running from its whiskered nose. Siobhan cringed, realizing they would need to do this at least a dozen more times that day. “Couldn’t we at least sedate them more thoroughly, or do something to numb their pain?”
Liza gave Siobhan an unimpressed look. “It’s a mouse.”
Liza let out a scoffing sigh.
The mouse in the center regained some vigor as the initial steps of the spell worked to make it more robust. Its trust turned to alarm at the fate of its counterpart, but it didn’t break through the docility Siobhan had forced on it.
Overcoming her distaste, Siobhan used her silver athame to open the dead mouse’s skull and scoop out the brains, along with cutting away a small chunk of each of the organs, muscle, and even a tiny bit of bone. She moved to the next subordinate array, setting the tiny brain in one of the component Circles, and other bits of meat and organs in the others. They had taken a bit of everything because they didn’t know what hidden processes might be carried out while sleeping, or what organs besides the brain might create necessary hormones. This step required more power, for which Liza had provided a dull orange beast core the size of a grape. It would be plenty, for such a small creature.
The pieces of the Sacrifice had already been linked to the still-living mouse in the previous step, and now they would imbue it with their properties. “Spells like this are always a bit wild,” Liza warned. “Remember, we care about the brain, any hormones that facilitate rest and sleep, and the immune system. If we do this well, little number one here will improve by about thirty percent.”
“Only that much?”
“Without me, you could not hope to reach even fifteen percent. One-third improvement from a single Sacrifice is quite outstanding. Reaching fifty percent without Sacrificing a specimen that is significantly superior to the creature you are boosting is nigh impossible, even if you are willing to spend ten lives to improve one.”
“What a waste,” Siobhan said softly, looking at the small carcass she’d set in a bowl to the side, ready to be disposed of.
“Indeed. But you cannot gain something for nothing, and in any transformation there is always loss.” They turned back to the spell, and with Siobhan’s command to “Eat,” the mouse traveled around the Circle, swallowing the chunks of bloody meat from each of the component Circles. She could almost sense the magic weave itself into the mouse as it went, occasionally stuttering until Liza and Siobhan’s Wills forced it to smooth through the fabric of the creature’s being, irrevocably changing it.
The power expenditure was frankly ridiculous, and Siobhan knew that without Liza, a spell that they completed within twenty minutes would have taken her an hour, and had her approaching Will-strain, too.
The next step was kinder—on the creature, at least. It was the linchpin of the whole plan, and if it failed, everything would be for naught. ‘No pun intended,’ she thought.
This sub-array was drawn in black salt, carefully poured into the shapes of symbols and glyphs using a funnel. In the final spell, they would use a preserved raven’s egg to strengthen the connection, but binding only two mice together didn’t require that, so the main components were only the mandrake root, still in its large pot, and a knot formed of wood, not carved but woven in on itself and forced to grow that way until it hardened. The knobby, vaguely human-shaped vegetable beneath the dirt would provide its surrogate-concept properties to the spell.
They took a moment to make sure they were both in the correct mindset, maintaining clarity over a strong desire for wakefulness, relief that someone else would take the burden, and Siobhan’s own inherent fear of sleep. That last bit had garnered only a silent look and a nod from Liza, no questions, for which Siobhan was thankful. She could not turn that emotion off, so Liza would have to adjust her own focus to match Siobhan’s.
They used a small needle to prick the enhanced mouse along with the one that would be wakeful, taking a tiny speck of blood from both. They mixed that with a pinch of elcan iris pollen in a small metal bowl. Siobhan held a flame beneath the metal bowl until the mixture began to smoke, a pink-tinged incense that they avoided breathing in lest it make them sleepy.
Liza carefully guided Siobhan through dragging that incense into the shape of six glyphs, including those for “exchange,” “sleep,” and “binding,” while whispering a chant to help solidify the Word.
“Share the crimson blood of oaths, little griefs soon to be soothed.”
“Breathe the stinging wind of sleep, brief regrets soon to be forgotten.”
“Weep for the blissful shadow mists, stygian dreams soon to be gifted.”
“Awake to the burning midnight sun, scattered hours soon to be harvested.”
Siobhan could feel the magic in their words, in the way the sound undulated and deepened with the passage of power.
This wasn’t Siobhan’s area of expertise, but it seemed a better method of binding than what she’d come up with on her own. Still, it was enough of a strain, even with mice as the subject, that she was relieved Professor Lacer had insisted on the testing. The magic was almost tangibly wild, pushing against the confines of the spell array and their Wills—untamed. She couldn’t have done this with any more difficult test subjects, and certainly not on herself.
Despite the difficulty, it was the quickest part of the process. After drawing the glyphs and speaking the chant, they waved the blood and pollen smoke in a circle around the two mice. As soon as the creatures inhaled, it was done.
The inhalation was a form of consumption, a symbol of their willing acceptance of the other’s blood. That bound them to each other, with the mandrake allowing one to be a proxy for the other, and the pollen helping tune that binding specifically to the domain of sleep.
Liza waved the smoke away, and some of the wards on the walls shimmered as they worked to clear the air, which Siobhan thought was a rather clever setup.
Siobhan peered curiously at the mice. They both seemed fine. A little drowsy, perhaps, but still unquestionably alive. The enhanced mouse, which was bearing the load of sleep for both creatures, didn’t seem visibly more affected than the other one, either. “The extra fatigue isn’t instant,” Siobhan said. “I thought it wouldn’t be, but since I had to design the spell myself, I wasn’t sure…”
Similar to Siobhan’s latest iteration of her dreamless sleep spell, the rejuvenating spell was halfway to being an artifact. It had no trigger and no way to stop the release of magic after the initial spell was cast, but the spell array would trap the magical energy to be released over time. The magic wouldn’t have a consistent output, but would trickle more and more slowly until the rejuvenating spell broke entirely and needed to be recast.
Liza probably could have made an actual artifact to cast the rejuvenating spell on the mice, but it would have been prohibitively expensive while being less efficient, with the way the binding spell was set up. It was the same reason they weren’t using a rejuvenating potion.
Instead of cutting pieces from the sempervivum apricus or even using up the whole plant to power a real artifact or potion, drawing on the plant over time—while it still lived—allowed it to steadily replenish its own healing properties without needing to recover from trauma. It also fit better into the symmetry of the spell, the sleeping mouse drawing on the healing properties of a living object over time, the same way the wakeful mouse drew on the sleeping mouse’s healing properties.
Liza placed a second, empty terrarium within the inner Circle of the final array. The main components for this bit were the sempervivum apricus plant and a handful of moonseed berries.
This part of the spell took the longest to cast, but didn’t strain against Siobhan’s limits so harshly. Liza was providing most of the power, and the magic felt much more tame. Still, when they were finished, Siobhan was breathing heavily from the effort. “At least we don’t have to do that part every time.” The spell would heal all the mice within its inner Circle, so they would just be leaving the second terrarium there with all the sleeper mice in it, while the wakeful mice would go back into the main terrarium upstairs.
Liza took a note of which mouse was bound to which, and then they started the process from the beginning with a new trio of mice. Though Liza had grumbled about it, she gave the Sacrifice a drop of pain-numbing solution that wouldn’t impair the vitality transfer too much. It was easier when Siobhan knew the creature wasn’t terrified and in pain.
They were able to get through a good handful of mice over the next few hours, as the casting times were much reduced when working on such simple creatures. When they finally cast it on a human, it would take longer and require even more power.
They took a sorely-needed break for the lunch hour, eating in exhausted silence until Siobhan asked, “What kind of terms could a second-term University student expect, if they wanted to borrow approximately five hundred gold?”
Liza didn’t even look up from her plate. “I am not lending some random University student—or you—five hundred gold.”
“I’m not asking you to lend me anything. I just want to know realistic terms that someone who does lend money would offer. Do you think a second-term University student could do better than fifty percent interest, compounded yearly?”
“Are you trying to break into the loan shark business?”
Siobhan lamented the fact that Liza seemed to have such a low opinion of her. “I’m asking for a friend.”
Liza stared at her. “Right.” Her tone said that she didn’t believe Siobhan whatsoever. Even so, after a dramatically weary sigh, she answered. “If your friend is lending to someone that can prove they’ve passed at least one term, I’d say twenty to twenty-five percent interest is reasonable. If the borrower has proof of above-average grades, or has something valuable to put down as collateral, your friend could probably reduce that to fifteen percent. Most certified banks don’t do that kind of lending because of the regulations and the need for a certified thaumaturge co-signer, so the numbers I’m quoting are from more…questionable organizations. You cannot reasonably charge someone fifty percent interest, Siobhan. If they have even the slightest bit of sense, they will go elsewhere. If they, for some reason, have no other options besides you, I would advise you to think twice about lending to them. To people who are truly desperate—reckless—even a blood-print vow may not allow you to recoup your investment.”
Siobhan absorbed this information with dismay. Apparently, she didn’t have even the slightest bit of sense. Though, she supposed she was a particularly high-risk borrower, what with being actively wanted for treason and blood magic. “I understand. And let me reiterate that I’m not trying to become a loan shark.”
Liza grunted dubiously.
Siobhan mentally tucked away this information. Her current loan was soon to be covered by the Gervin textile commission, but she would need more, both for the next term and to spend on experiments like this one. Having other, better options would be useful as a bargaining chip if she needed to negotiate with Katerin and Oliver.
There was no way she would be duped into another fifty-percent-interest loan.
Even if Ana’s plan fell through, and thus Siobhan didn’t get paid for it, she might still reach out to a more reasonably priced loan shark, get a lower interest rate loan, and use that to pay back the Verdant Stag. It would save her a lot of coin in the long term.
She would even bet that, if future loans were necessary, Oliver would be willing to beat anyone else’s terms to keep her employed by and doing ongoing, random favors for the Verdant Stag.
“Were there any results from your mysterious examination that I should know about?” Liza asked.
Siobhan, who had almost forgotten about Professor Lacer’s tests already, grinned. “Nothing. You do impressive work.”
Liza harrumphed. “Of course I do.”
When she and Liza had rested enough to regain some mental vigor, they returned downstairs. By the end of the day they had completed casting the sleep-proxy spell on over a dozen sets of mice. Siobhan was in no state to concentrate after that, so Liza handled the second set of diagnostic records. The first sleeper mouse was already resting, while its counterpart was zooming around with the other wakeful mice, playing exuberantly. Liza would continue casting the spell on more mice over the next few days, until their sample size was at a reasonable number. It wasn’t as if she really needed Siobhan’s help, after all.
According to Liza, there were no immediately concerning signs in either the wakeful or sleeping mice. Siobhan didn’t even try to suppress her ridiculous grin.
Liza gave her a small smile in return. “You’re not nearly as abysmal at this as I feared. Oliver must have been working you hard.”
Siobhan shrugged noncommittally. “I keep busy.”
“It’s the only way to avoid stagnating.” Liza gave her a slice of melted cheese between two thick pieces of bread, then shooed her out of her house. “Come back soon, and we’ll look over the results. The spell should last for at least ten days, just covering those tiny little mice. I’m hoping for a full two weeks.” Without waiting for a response, Liza shut the door in her face.
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