Chapter 126 – Output Circle


Month 3, Day 7, Sunday 9:00 a.m.

Sebastien arrived at Professor Lacer’s office Sunday morning right at nine. There had been no need for the beamshell tincture to boost her energy levels that morning, such was her excitement for the chance to take another step toward learning to free-cast.

He waved her in, closing and locking the door behind her. “I do not want you distracted at a critical moment if some buffoon decides to burst in without knocking,” he explained. He turned to his desk, where a coffee tray rested, and poured himself a mug. He looked to her with a questioning eyebrow.

“Yes, please,” she agreed, more for the chance to share a morning coffee with Thaddeus Lacer than out of a desire for caffeine.

He reached for the trench coat draped over his desk chair, pulled a flask from the inner pocket, and poured some of the liquid within into his coffee. “I am not an alcoholic, if you were wondering,” he said. “This is a special wakefulness concoction that I developed myself. Useful for when emergencies allow me no time to sleep. I would offer you some, but the taste is extremely unpleasant, and if you were so exhausted as to need it, that would be a sign that we should postpone this lesson.”

Sebastien nodded, then shook her head. “I don’t—need it, that is. I’m awake.”

Professor Lacer handed her a steaming mug, into which he had added neither sugar nor cream, then took a reluctant gulp of his own brew. His exaggerated grimace and the little involuntary shudder that ran through him was…almost cute.

Sebastien turned her attention to her own coffee. ‘I must be sleep deprived if my mind could make a connection between the word “cute” and Thaddeus Lacer,’ she thought. ‘There has never been a man who matched that descriptor less.’ Aloud, she said, “So what am I going to be learning today? You said it would help prepare me for free-casting?”

Professor Lacer stepped back around his desk toward the center of his office, where the furniture had been pushed out of the way to provide space. “Thaumaturges, like all people, can become set in their ways, their brains wearing down comfortable pathways of frequent travel. This happens with the Will as well, and the more those comfortable pathways are traveled, the more difficult it can be to climb one’s way out of the valleys created. This is why, for example, I assigned first term students an exercise using light as both Sacrifice and output. Climbing out of that rut is the point behind what you will attempt today.”

He pulled a wrapped piece of chalk from his vest pocket, drawing a simple and yet somehow perfect Circle on the floor without any guidelines. Then he exchanged the chalk for his Conduit and a beast core. “Spells learned by fledgling thaumaturges like yourself are almost always bound by the confines of the central Circle of your spell array. The output effect is contained and controlled within. This is fine—and safe—to start out with, but one who hopes to become a free-caster should not settle too comfortably into this habit.” A glowing sphere, a simple light spell, appeared inside of the chalk Circle. “Tell me what you know about spells whose output is actualized outside of the Circle.”

Sebastien quickly organized her thoughts. “The easiest example of such spells still kind of work by controlling the area bounded by the Circle. Like a spell that creates cold in the area surrounding the Circle by gathering all the heat inside it, or the gust spell, which just expels air from the Circle in a specific direction. But there are plenty of spells with more complex directional effects. They still originate within the Circle of the spell array, but then travel outside it. You talked about this in the first lesson at the beginning of the term,” she remembered.

Professor Lacer turned to watch her as she continued to speak, his gaze inscrutable as the words tumbled from her more quickly, her excitement building the longer she spoke.

“Examples are fireball spells, which shoot an actual ball of fire at the target, revealing spells, which shoot vibrations and unseen waves, and even the stunning spell, which shoots a low-current electrical charge along with the powdered saliva of a Kuthian frog, all contained within a field of force that dissipates on contact with the target. You said the commonality between these kinds of spells is that they shoot something that exists in nature, just bound in a compact form that decoheres with distance and time. But, with enough power and control, one should be able to shoot transmogrificational long-range spells by shooting both the Circle and the Word at its target, which is supposed to be incredibly difficult.” She paused, then added, “I can shoot a directional slicing spell that works by compressing air. And the gust spell. And, of course, Newton Moore’s spell that uses the Circle of the hands, but the effects of which travel throughout the caster’s physical body.”

Professor Lacer nodded, turning back to the spell resting on the floor. Suddenly, the area outside the Circle glowed with diffuse light, and then, after a few seconds, the light gathered in a wedge-shaped beam on one side. “These directional applications still depend upon the center Circle. As do projectile applications.” The light coalesced back into a sphere in the middle, then suddenly shot out, expanding and dimming slightly before impacting against the far wall, where it burst and immediately dissipated. “These parameters of direction, velocity, and even containment force are generally written into the spell array.”

“Are you going to teach me how to bypass those limitations? Remove those parameters from the spell array, maybe?” It seemed like the logical next step to her.

“That is not an unreasonable guess, but based on my observations, that is not something you should need my help with. If you practice slightly modifying those output parameters beyond the exact limitations of the spell array, you should be able to work up to removing them entirely. There is another parameter which we will be focusing on today.” He glanced back at the Circle on the floor, but the sphere of light instead appeared floating between the two of them at head height. It had not originated within the Circle.

Sebastien stared into the light with admiration, and then turned to meet Professor Lacer’s dark blue eyes with open avarice. “I’m ready.”

His lips twitched with somewhat mocking amusement. “I am aware. This exercise is difficult, and for those with an undeveloped Will, can be dangerous. You have the requisite experience and control, as evidenced by the Henrik-Thompson capacity test I supervised a couple of months ago, as well as your recent performance with the illusion spell. One might expect to see the equivalent in a third-term student, one who entered the University having never cast a spell before,” he said pointedly, though she knew he didn’t actually care for the rules and laws restricting magic. “Most importantly, however, and unlike our young Mr. Westbay, I know you are prepared to learn this because you have done it before.”

She looked at the ball of light hanging in the air and then back to him. “What? When… Ah!” She thought she knew what he was referencing. “During the entrance exam. When I threw that…temper tantrum with the blue flame spell,” she said, rubbing the back of her neck and looking away.

“Indeed. And when you accomplished this, the spell array certainly did not contain a coherent Word describing the parameters of an output generated outside of the Circle. You brought that flame to life in the air with Will alone. At the time, I remember being surprised you had not killed yourself in the attempt, but I am quite sure you at least approached Will strain, if not stepped directly into it. Today, you will learn to do this with the proper spell array.”

Professor Lacer gestured to the chalk Circle on the floor, and a purposeful gust of wind originated at their feet, cleared away the dust, and deposited it in the wastebasket beside his desk. “Let us have a quick lesson on how to read and adjust the output parameters, and then you will attempt the exercise yourself.”

He turned to one of his bookcases, pushing on the edge. It slid to the side, apparently resting on tracks rather than the floor, and revealed a blackboard that had been concealed on the wall behind it. Then, writing out multiple example spell arrays for her, he gave a thirty-minute lecture on the concept, which she absorbed like a dry sponge.

Finally, he said, “Now, put this principle into practice. You will start with an output on the ground approximately one meter away from your spell array. Once you’ve mastered that, you can try for longer distances, then lifting the output vertically, and then a combination of the two. More advanced applications will have you further increasing distance or trying to cast with a denser substance than air between you and the target location. I would request that you only attempt this under my supervision until I say otherwise. And, as a warning against your proclivity for reckless stupidity, do not attempt to do this with, say, a person or a crowd of people between you and your target. You are likely to face resistance due to the inherent magical barrier of their bodies creating an impassable obstacle. Also, you should be aware that most household wards will act as a shield against this by blocking the energy transfer.”

Sebastien’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully as she considered how one might get around such wards, but she didn’t spend much effort contemplating it. Moving to the center of the room, she crouched to draw out her own spell array with a wax crayon, which was less likely to smear catastrophically as she walked around. Unlike Professor Lacer, she wrote out the full Word with detailed instructions inside her spell array, taking the beast core he tossed her way as a convenient source of power. She left out only the anchored location parameters.

As she palmed the Conduit Professor Lacer had lent her, attached by a chain to her pocket watch, she stilled, staring down into its crystalline depths. Despite her excitement for the lesson, her mind wandered to her mother’s conduit. Malcolm Gervin had indeed brought the forgery that she had placed in the vault to their meeting. Either he was being disingenuous, or he had no idea that the one he had was a fake, which only confirmed her suspicions that Ennis had sold the original celerium at some point. The thought once more filled her with rage. She was almost looking forward to his trial, when he would finally see some consequences for all the harm he had done.

Sebastien forced her mind back to the present moment. The magic required her focus. Drawing on the beast core, she first created a small ball of light within the spell array’s main Circle, both to warm up her mind and make sure she had no trouble with the spell effect itself. She had never drawn on a beast core for light before, after all.

Then she dropped the spell and prepared to cast it again, this time adding the final parameters. She brought her Will to bear, staring at a spot exactly one meter away from the center of the Circle and…nothing happened. Power had been drawn through her Conduit and was circling through the wax lines of the spell array, but no light had appeared where she intended.

No glowing sphere had appeared at all. It felt as if the magic had sputtered against her Will at the last moment, like a candle flame about to go out, struggling feebly for its life, and then…nothing.

She tried again, to the same result. And again. Frowning with consternation, she reviewed the spell array, then took a few moments to go over the concept in her mind once more, focusing on the mental image of a ball of light appearing where she had instructed. This would improve the clarity of her Will.

This time, she leaned into the spell, baring her teeth and driving her Will against the reluctant fabric of reality. ‘Light. Light!’ This time the magic didn’t simply sputter, it bucked against her. It didn’t feel exactly like the wildness of new magic that hadn’t yet been broken in, but more as if she was trying to play the child’s game of hoop-rolling, but her wheel kept getting stuck in unforeseen ruts in the road and being drawn off course.

Cold anxiety settled in her gut. ‘Is my mind already so congealed in its ways, my Will so intractable, that I cannot adapt?

“This is expected to be difficult,” Professor Lacer said. “Even I had trouble with it, on my first attempts. Do not grow discouraged. You must simply keep trying until you crack open the new paradigm. You may stay in my office until noon. There are plenty of protective wards, and I will not let anything happen to you. Schedules allowing, you may come back to practice again next weekend, and the one after that, and so forth until you succeed. Periodically, I will give other lectures on topics that may provide you…inspiration. For now, you may be best served by grasping the full measure of the problem. The better your understanding of your current limitations, the more use you will get out of related information.”

She didn’t respond, still scowling down at the floor with enough ire that her expression could have scoured the stone away.

When she failed to respond, he added, “Do not allow your frustration to make you careless. A mistake here could be very dangerous, with the magic outside the bounds of the spell array and thus unrestricted.”

Sebastien stood, rolling her Conduit between her fingers and pacing back and forth. “I don’t understand what I’m doing wrong. Like you said, I’ve done this before successfully. I—” Sebastien broke off as her eyes caught on the cover of the book Professor Lacer was reading. ‘A History and Guidebook of those who Call Themselves the People: Nomadic Tribes of the Northern Islands,’ the title read. A shock of mixed alarm and curiosity shook her from her thoughts. Her mother had been of the People. That book was about her own ancestry.

Perhaps seeing the curiosity on her face, Professor Lacer said, “The indigenous peoples of the northern islands are quite fascinating. I recently became interested in them in relationship to the Raven Queen. Half of her supposed civilian identity comes from those who call themselves the People.”

“How do you know that?” she asked, trying to seem innocently curious.

“I am a friend of Titus Westbay, who runs the local coppers. Occasionally I am called in to consult on particularly difficult or interesting cases. I was not always a teacher, you know,” he added with a wry twist of his mouth, almost self-deprecating. “You may find it interesting to know why a group of insular, nomadic minorities are called that, even by outsiders, when it seems more likely we would come up with some other designation for them. It is an example of some of the most widespread, impressive transmogrification I have seen, a curse whose details have been lost to time and can only be speculated at. The Church of the Radiant Maiden was leading their crusade about four thousand B.C.E., expanding their grasp toward the scattered nations on the outskirts of the western continent, and had begun to persecute the People. You’ve heard the history, I’m sure. Many atrocities, dehumanization, slavery and forced familiar contracts of sentient beings, etcetera.” He waved his hand nonchalantly.

“The People could not stand up to the weight of the Church’s sheer scale, but they had other specialties. They forced all outsiders to call them “people” in their own language, a curse whose remnants last to this day. The closest guess we have about their method, pieced together from battle reports, is that they used a large ritual sacrifice of their enemies. When I say large, I mean a ritual that spanned tens of kilometers, coordinated by smoke signals and light shone on the clouds, performed on a day of importance and with the cooperation of every single member of the scattered tribes. Curses may all have their keys, but this one was never broken. Though the compulsion itself has faded, the power of even that much energy consumed by the eons, the naming habit persists. Impressive, is it not? These are the Raven Queen’s ancestors.”

Sebastien nodded silently, running her tongue over the back of her teeth for a moment. Her grandfather had told that story many times, though the details were slightly different. Hesitantly, she asked, “So, do you know anything else about the Raven Queen?”

He smiled with a strange, dark delight that made Sebastien’s hair stand on end. “She had a very interesting childhood.”

“What do you mean?”

“I only know as much as the coppers have been able to glean, but the Red Guard has records of an Aberrant incident, and some of those closest to her had very interesting backgrounds. I will not share the details, so snuff out that burning curiosity, child.”

Sebastien took a moment to digest this, then decided to pry at the information she had originally wanted more directly. “I heard rumors that she made another appearance recently?”

Lacer snorted disdainfully. “Despite how much those currently investigating her might want to believe otherwise, that was not the Raven Queen.”

Sebastien’s throat went dry. “What do you mean?”

“Too many discrepancies. Supposedly, the Raven Queen and a companion were meeting with an unknown party and was either betrayed by them or ambushed by a third group. There is a surprising lack of testimony. However, examination of the crime scene has revealed that some of the attacks were underpowered, almost as if they were not meant to kill. There was some residue left from the Raven Queen’s clothing, including a couple of black feathers. However, they were not raven feathers, but crow feathers, and had been sewn and glued onto the fabric.” He gave her a pointed look.

“Crow feathers…” she murmured. “I suppose they look quite similar, to a layperson.”

“Additionally, eyewitnesses say she and her companion ran away from the scene in a very mundane manner, which is certainly possible, but somewhat implausible, given that multiple previous reports have noted that she has some stealth-based ability to slip away or disappear, possibly with the aid of shadows. Even if for some reason that was not possible in this instance, we have the final discrepancy. The one unreliable eyewitness who saw the tail end of the actual incident insists that the Raven Queen was free-casting some kind of darkness spell on her attackers, and killed them all with little more than a wave of the hand. In reality, while there are signs of multiple different philtres of darkness and even some modified firecrackers, all the attackers seem to have escaped on their own, with no signs of injury. Given all this evidence, what would be your conclusion?”

Sebastien tried to smile, though it felt awkward on her face. “Someone was impersonating the Raven Queen?”

“Indeed. A clever impersonation, to be sure, but no match for the investigative power of Crown-funded law enforcement. If it really was her, then she is playing a game several levels deep, too many even for me to comprehend. But despite all this, and all the confusion this incident has created, some of the coppers are intent on labeling it a Raven Queen sighting. Apparently the hope of progress and having something to report to the High Crown is enough of a reason to ignore the facts.”

“But that’s entirely counterproductive,” she said, noting the irony that if they found the Raven Queen impersonators or the Raven Queen herself, she would be caught either way.

Professor Lacer slid a marker into his book to hold his place, and then reached for the remaining coffee and poured himself a second cup, which he reheated simply by sliding the tip of his finger around the rim of the mug. “You would think that any rational person would understand that. When playing against someone as painfully clever, dangerous, and powerful as the Raven Queen, their halfhearted efforts will never be enough to catch her. Some of them are more interested in seeming as if they are doing their jobs than producing results. There is a difference between showing that you’ve tried and actually trying.”

“But surely some of them are putting in the work?”

He took a sip, this time forgoing the splash of something extra. “Some of them. But you might be surprised by how common a failing this is, Mr. Siverling. The majority, alas, have not trained themselves to latch onto confusion like they should. Confusion is the difference between what your models of how the world works predict, and reality. The first virtue of a thaumaturge is curiosity, but the second virtue is relinquishment—the ability to let go of incorrect beliefs when they are leading you to incorrect answers. The ability to change your mind.”

Lacer stood abruptly, verve flowing through him and animating him the same way it often did when he gave a dramatic lecture at the front of the classroom. “Sebastien, when you are confused, that is a sign. A huge red warning sign that, if you have trained yourself properly, you should realize is the equivalent of a rogue magic siren going off right next to you. But most people feel instead a slight uncertainty, or a sense of sneaking suspicion, there for only half a moment before they roll over and bury it with justifications and tightly held beliefs that are too precious to be challenged.”

He moved around his desk and began to pace, gesturing with the hand not occupied with a coffee mug. “A man who has never seen the sky before may believe that it is purple. When he finally crawls out of his cave and sees an expanse of blue above him, he will be confused. His model of the world conflicts with reality. Rather than justifying that what he sees cannot be the sky, he should update his predictive models—his beliefs—and understand that the sky is blue.

“If a woman believes that her partner is faithful to her, but her partner is acting secretive and staying out late, she may become suspicious. Rather than rationalizing away these behaviors, since they are evidence against the believed faithfulness of her partner, she should investigate. Doubt’s purpose is to erase itself, one way or the other. If your models of reality seem to conflict with actual reality, the ability to be curious, and the ability to relinquish your beliefs, will allow you to determine actual reality, and thus whether your models should be kept, discarded, or updated.”

Sebastien couldn’t help but absorb some of Lacer’s passion for the subject, the rightness of his words settling somewhere deep inside of her. Their message seemed obvious, but she knew from experience that nominally understanding something and actually living by its principles was not the same thing. “You’ve mentioned the virtues of a thaumaturge before. Curiosity, and now relinquishment. Are there more?”

He stopped pacing and turned to face her. “There are twelve virtues in the Way.”

She leaned forward. “The Way of true power? You mentioned that before, too.”

“The Way of true power. The Way of victory. It has no formal name, but in simplified terms, it is simply the art of not being stupid.” He sipped his coffee, staring at the floor with a mirthless severity. “A surprising amount of the time, you will find that winning is about not being stupid. Which is harder than it might sound, because these meat suits we wear, our brains, are built to take shortcuts that save energy, and to encourage behaviors that would keep us alive in a primitive environment. They are not built to be always right. One of the greatest frustrations of my life,” he added in a low murmur.

“What are the other virtues?” Sebastien asked.

Lacer observed her for a few long moments during which she was careful not to fidget, meeting his challenging gaze unflinchingly. “No, I do not think I will tell you,” he mused. She wanted to protest, but he continued. “Listing them out for you to memorize will not do you any good. At worst, it will make you think you understand and adhere to them. It is best if you search them out for yourself, internalizing their lessons as you learn and grow.” His tone gentled. “This is the effort of a lifetime, child. You will have time.”

“You’ll still teach me about them, though, right?” she asked.

“When appropriate. Now, back to work with you,” he said, waving his hand at her in a clipped shooing motion as he summoned the book he had been reading and moved to sit in one of the plush chairs resting against the wall.

She hesitated, looking from the spell array on the floor to the book in his hands. Grabbing her Conduit for what she vaguely recognized was the sense of comfort and safety it gave her, she narrowed her eyes. “I have a sneaking suspicion that you’re reading that book out of more than simple curiosity. You’re looking to gain knowledge towards a purpose,” she said boldly, despite the little voice of anxiety inside that wanted her to shrink back and be silent for fear of exposing herself to danger. “Have you learned something new?”

He glanced at her over the top of the book. “Already putting my lessons into practice, Mr. Siverling?”

Sebastien nodded. “I always do.”

Lacer actually smiled at that, filling her with a quick flush of pride, but he immediately returned to reading. “Might I suggest that if you have more questions that would distract from your spellcasting, you try to find out the answers yourself through applying your mind to the problem?”

“But I don’t have access to the amount or quality of information that you do,” she protested.

He quirked up one eyebrow. “An astute observation. Perhaps that is a sign that you, a first-term University student who has displayed a proclivity for questionable judgment and jumping into danger, are not qualified to deal with the issue and thus should not recklessly poke your head into it.”

She didn’t know what to say to that.

After a short pause, he lifted his head again, shifting slightly. “I understand that you are interested in the Raven Queen because of the ‘blessing’ she imparted upon you. But I assure you, she is not particularly interested in you. She was using you as a tool to communicate indirectly. You need not fear that she has some vendetta against you. If you do find yourself in contact with her once more, mention of my name might do well as a talisman of protection. There is no need to worry or obsess over her.”

Sebastien wanted to protest that she was not obsessed with the Raven Queen, but instead asked, “Why do you think she’s interested in you? You seem awfully sure.”

Professor Lacer acted as if he hadn’t heard her, but the sharp tapping of one impatient forefinger against the arm of his chair was enough indication that he had run through whatever limited pool of indulgence he allowed her.

She returned to the wax spell array, kneeling on the stone floor before it. The difference between her attempts now and her success during the entrance exam was that at that time, she had been desperate, terrified, and enraged. Her Will had been undeniably imbued with that ephemeral property, forcefulness.

Now, Sebastien tried to grasp hold of that again. ‘I want this. I must make it work. If I fail here, my dreams are shattered. This is the step that will take me beyond my mediocre, helpless existence. Without this, I will not reach true power.’ She allowed herself to wallow in bad memories, something she so often avoided, until tears prickled at her closed eyes and goosebumps rose on her arms and back. With trembling fingers and a racing heart, she tightened her fist around her Conduit, opened her eyes, and reached over to draw an ephemeral Circle around the empty spot on the floor where the light should appear, hoping that the act would somehow bridge the gap in her mind.

And in doing so, she realized that perhaps she’d been going about this all wrong. Not only had she cast a similar spell during the entrance exam, but she frequently cast a spell whose output location she controlled at will: her shadow-familiar.

She sat back on her heels, rolling that thought over in her mind. Her shadow-familiar had the advantage of being formed of her shadow, which inherently belonged to her in a way that some random spot on the floor a meter away from her spell array did not. But perhaps she could borrow some principles from it. Namely, the fact that, as long as it was connected to her by a single thread of shadow, a tether, where it went and what shape it took mattered not.

She held her hand out over the Circle, far enough away to be outside of its bounds, allowing her shadow to fall within it. She imagined a band of control spreading from the center of the Circle out to the spot where the spell effect should be generated, a channel through which power and her Will could both flow.

Light,’ she snarled mentally, staring at that empty spot. She would not accept failure. She could not even conceive of failure, such was her determination.

A small glowing sphere bloomed on the floor a meter away, surrounded by nothing and wavering translucently. Her spell array glowed at first with inefficiency, but quickly dimmed as if cowed by her glare.

She was concentrating too hard to be elated as she brought the ball of light into greater resolution and stability. She held it until the trembling subsided from her fingers and her racing heart slowed, until the dread riding on her shoulders dissipated. Then, finally, she released the spell.

Sebastien turned to Professor Lacer only to find him already watching her, his book set aside and forgotten.

I am speeding right along with the revision, and will be sending off the semi-final manuscript to my editor by next week, if everything goes well!

Also, I really wish I had magical coffee like Siobhan.

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