Chapter 138 – Pixies and ravens

Sebastien

Month 3, Day 13, Saturday 11:30pm

As Lord Gervin escorted the three young people who had caused him so much trouble that night into Ana’s carriage, which would take them back to the University, he extended his hand for Sebastien to shake.

She did her best to stifle the lingering tremors in her hands. The terror of fighting Malcolm Gervin had been almost as bad, if in a different way, as surviving the attack on Knave Knoll. Her face still felt stiff and bloodless, but she did her best to smile pleasantly.

“If you are in town this summer, I would like to invite you to attend my Family’s annual soiree, Mr. Siverling. It will be a good opportunity for you to network.”

“He will be there,” Ana replied on Sebastien’s behalf, pulling her into the carriage.

Once they were settled inside and safely on their way, Ana threw her head back and let out a cackle.

They all shared triumphant smiles, and then Damien finally exploded. “Myrddin’s bushy black beard, Sebastien! That battle was amazing! Why don’t you perform at that level in Fekten’s class?”

Sebastien leaned her head against the seat’s plush back, closing her eyes. “I cheated, you might say, in the fight against Malcolm. Fekten’s class requires actual skill with the mechanics.”

“Speaking of, why didn’t you tell me the, um, your artifact can shoot spells? I thought it was only a light!” Damien, impressively, did not look guiltily toward Ana, who had no idea about the significance of the modified drink coasters that both Sebastien and Damien had.

Sebastien pulled it out from her pocket, showing Damien the back, where she had carefully painted a spell array in a color that almost matched the stone. “It is just a light crystal. I was using this spell to Sacrifice the produced light and then shoot it. Malcolm was right, it’s just a harmless visual effect, but it ended up being quite useful.”

Damien leaned closer to stare at the spell array, his brows climbing up his forehead. “But the spell spheres were coming out all different colors.”

Sebastien tucked away the thirteen-pointed star. “That part wasn’t too difficult. Shorter electromagnetic wavelengths have more energy, while longer wavelengths have less. I had to do some practicing to get my control fine enough to reliably hit specific colors, but I wanted to be sure that my Will’s clarity was high enough to differentiate my control over the particular effects of my spell array while maintaining the light crystal’s internal integrity.”

Damien sat back, staring into the distance with cloudy eyes. “Right. We learned about that in class.” His voice grew softer and softer as he continued. “So I suppose, if you’re ingenious enough, this little stuff really can come in handy…”

He recovered after a few minutes, turning to Ana, who was still grinning and letting out sporadic malevolent laughs. “How is Alec going to take this?” he asked.

“Alec will be fine. After all, he is going to become the head of the Gervin Family’s closest branch line, once Malcolm and Randolph are officially disowned,” she said.

Sebastien knew it wouldn’t be quite that easy. But at least, when the gossip grew rampant, Alec would be able to rely on his friends, the clout of his station, and his personal fortune.

When they finally arrived at the University, it was past curfew and the lights were out, so they snuck into the dorms as silently as possible. It was all Sebastien could do to cast her dreamless sleep spell before passing out.

She struggled to wake and clear her fuzzy mind enough to recast it halfway through the night, and didn’t even bother with the usual hour of homework she got in around that time. Some inconsiderate idiot’s playful shout woke her in the morning, and she just laid in bed for a few minutes afterward, watching the light come in through the window to her right.

When she finally crawled out of bed, she saw all the replacement supplies she’d purchased the day before sitting on the ground, waiting for her to organize and store them. She hadn’t replaced her artifacts, but had managed to find most of her components and a few emergency potions that she either didn’t have the time or the expertise to brew herself. All in all, it had been an expensive affair, as the prices had climbed even higher than usual. She tossed her blanket off, exposing herself to the chill air and cold stone of the floor, and began to rifle through the drawer of her bedside table.

She pulled out the almost-empty vial of beamshell tincture, saved from destruction by virtue of being left out of her bag. Her fingers trembled as she unsealed it and caught the acrid scent of the gritty sludge within.

She stopped, holding out the vial to the light. Setting it on the windowsill, she stared at it, reflecting on what she’d just done. The automatic way she’d searched it out, the way her body reacted to the unpleasant scent, but most importantly, the visceral memory of electrifying energy that was urging her on so subtly from the back of her mind.

She rifled through the drawer again until she found the information card originally tied around the vial’s neck. Though she knew what it said, she read it again. Beamshell tincture was addictive, of course, but it also caused trouble sleeping, energy debts, and most importantly, could impair the memory.

Sebastien stepped back, pressing her lips together and folding her arms over her chest in a hug. She prided herself on her mental strength, and that included the absolute grasp of her memory, but she couldn’t help but think about the small slips, the little failures of recall she’d been having lately. Times when thinking or casting magic had felt dizzying. She had ignored them, or made excuses.

For a moment, she imagined taking just a half-dose, just enough to help her get through the day. ‘Oh,’ she thought. With shaking hands, she picked up the vial, slid it into her pocket, and hurried to the bathroom, where she didn’t even bother to avoid the other students as she poured the remaining contents down the sink, running the water until the glass container was empty and clear. ‘I don’t need it. I’ll just steal some of Damien’s coffee,’ she assured herself. ‘I’m fine. I don’t need it.

She did her best to put it out of her mind. ‘The sleep-proxy spell will do a better job with what I really need, anyway,’ she thought, trying to be optimistic.

But then, with a sudden rush of horror, she remembered that Professor Lacer had invited her to practice detaching the output of her spells again on Saturday…and that, between the battle and Operation Defenestration, she had completely blown past the entire day without a second’s thought of Lacer or schoolwork.

She dressed in a flurry and hurried across the grounds to Professor Lacer’s office, only to find a note on the door stating that he had cancelled his weekend office hours. ‘Because of the fighting. He’s probably helping with the investigation,’ she realized. ‘He wasn’t here, so he has no idea I completely forgot.’ She sagged with relief.

“No need to be so disappointed. I am here now,” Professor Lacer said, speaking directly behind her.

Sebastien jumped a full foot in the air, then spun to face him while clutching the fabric of her jacket over her hammering heartbeat, scowling fiercely.

He seemed to find her reaction amusing, raising a steaming coffee mug to cover his smile. His eyes were bloodshot, and his hair was starting to come loose from where he had tied it at the base of his neck. “I heard about what happened yesterday evening. Are you well?”

“With Malcolm Gervin? I’m fine.”

He moved past her, unlocking his office door. “You took a big risk. Do not imagine I am blind to the political motives behind ruining such a powerful man. Do you realize how high the stakes were? That man attempted to murder you and your companions. It is good to make powerful friends, but you must be sure that they are worth the effort.”

“I was prepared,” she said.

Professor Lacer raised a dubious eyebrow, but said, “I suppose you did escape unscathed, though that does not mean you were wise. Risking your safety to increase the weight of a scandal? If not for some connections in high places, you may have been charged with illegal possession of a battle wand, despite the upstanding way in which you used it.”

Her mouth opened, but no sound came forth. She knew a license was required to carry a battle wand, but she had been carrying one for some time now, and used one more than once without ever needing to consider the legality. Damien had his own…but no doubt did so legally.

Professor Lacer sighed deeply, seeming to read her thoughts from her expression. “Indeed. You are no end of trouble to me.” He pulled an envelope from his jacket’s inner pocket and tossed it to her.

With trepidation, she opened it, only to discover a license for a battle wand of “reasonable offensive and defensive power” within. It was dated the day prior, and her name was written as the recipient. Someone had pulled some strings for her. “I don’t know what to say,” she admitted.

“You may thank me.”

She cleared her throat past the lump that had suddenly formed in it. “Thank you. Truly.”

He waved away her words with an absent motion of his hand, but the harsh lines at the edges of his eyes and mouth softened somewhat. “There will be no output detachment practice today. You have just been through an ordeal and were no doubt up until the wee hours testifying to the coppers, and I have other pressing work.”

Sebastien hesitated before leaving. “What happened on Friday night… Did that have anything to do with the Raven Queen?”

“The investigation is still ongoing, but I suspect she did respond to the attack, and managed to kill the perpetrator. Identification of the remains will be…complicated. This time, the coppers should be grateful to her. The man would likely have gone free if not for her, and was undoubtedly a danger to more than just a small-time gang.”

Sebastien wanted to ask more, but Professor Lacer shooed her away with another absent wave of his hand, already focused on a stack of homework papers from one of his upper-term classes. She closed the door behind her as she left, wondering if the prisoner transport going so wrong would in turn make things even harder for her. At least, with her debt soon to be wiped out, she wouldn’t need to keep putting herself in danger for the Verdant Stag.

She headed south, toward the transport tubes. The University grounds were abuzz, contractors milling about under the supervision of professors and other faculty members as they decorated and set up facilities for the end of term exhibitions. From the look of things, they were expecting a large influx of people.

In the city below, it seemed everyone had a newspaper to read about the recent slew of exciting events, and Siobhan even noticed several copies of Oliver’s publication, The People’s Voice, which was now slightly larger than the average pamphlet.

Liza opened the door after only one use of the lion’s-head door knocker, seeming excited—even energized—for once. “About time you arrived,” the woman said, grabbing Siobhan’s arm and pulling her inside. “I’ve been waiting for you since five this morning.”

Siobhan let Liza pull her through the door, deciding not to mention Liza’s grumpy complaints the last time she’d come over early in the morning.

“I bought another batch of animals to do the third round of testing on,” Liza continued, barely looking at Siobhan. “More mice, plus some of the new batch of raven chicks, and a set of raccoons. Your notes were right about them; both have better brains than mice. For thoroughness, we should test some magical creatures as well, so I got a set of pixies, too. I wanted monkeys—they have brains most similar to a human’s, without needing to break the harsher laws—but my usual supplier is having issues getting stock into the city after that whole fiasco with your friend Oliver and those red-clad thugs.”

Liza’s excitement was contagious. “The test results are still good, then?” Siobhan asked, grinning.

Liza wound her mane of springy curls into a bun, which she stabbed through with a wand to keep in place. “No deaths. One month in, and no signs of lingering trauma! Our sleepers are down pretty much constantly, and the second round of waking mice are showing signs of fatigue, but are still healthy overall.”

“That’s amazing! A one-hundred percent success rate is pretty impressive, even if our sample size isn’t that large. Liza, we are geniuses!”

Liza’s lips pursed at first, but she couldn’t keep them from spreading into a smile. “So it seems.” She pushed a cup of steaming tea into Siobhan’s hands, then ushered her into the adjacent hidden apartment through the false back of the bedroom closet. The room smelled faintly of plants, dirt, and animal musk, and was filled with the muffled chirps, squawks, and growls of various creatures. It probably would have been much louder and smellier if not for the convenience of magic. “However, there is one side effect,” Liza added. “It seems our waking mice cannot sleep with the spell active. That ability seems to have been Sacrificed. I wasn’t sure if that would happen or not, but I think it’s safe to say their fatigue has grown great enough that they would be sleeping if they could.”

Siobhan frowned. “Is that going to be a problem, do you think?”

“Binding magic works with active, ongoing trades. The ability to sleep returns once the spell is ended, and as I said, there is no long-term infirmity. Once we break their connection, both mice return to normal, though of course the sleeper mice are permanently more robust.”

“And the sleepers aren’t being damaged?”

“Well, they probably are, but the increased healing factor of the spell is balancing that out for now. I’ve been trying to keep them hydrated with a nutrient draught while they’re unconscious, but I imagine if we were to continue the spell for longer than a couple of weeks at a time, they would all die.”

Siobhan hesitated, but eventually voiced her thoughts out loud. “We should keep the spell running until they do die. For the data.” It felt cruel, but nothing worthwhile came without a cost. They needed to know what would happen. After all, a raven was more likely to die under the strain of a human’s mind, and if that caused some catastrophic backlash, she would much rather learn about it now.

Liza nodded absently. “Of course. We’ll want to have as much information as possible before we start human testing. That’s going to be the hard part.” She waved Siobhan over to the logbook where she had diligently recorded the daily status of their mice. “Go ahead and review everything. I had a couple of ideas for minor improvements to the spell, which I’ve noted. While you familiarize yourself with that, I will make the final preparations for the third round of experiments. Meet me down below as soon as you are ready.” She grabbed two of the cages along the wall, heaving one under each arm and ignoring the alarmed whines of the fat raccoons within.

Siobhan turned her attention to the logs and notes, which Liza had put her customary great care into. The sleeping mice actually started out healthier than the waking ones, likely because of the blood magic they’d done to boost their vitality and brain function, along with the continuous healing provided by the sempervivum apricus while the spell was ongoing. The equilibrium shifted after about ten days, by which time most of the sleeper mice were unconscious the majority of the time, with a few of them only waking long enough to eat, drink, and defecate. By this point, fourteen days into the second round of testing, the sleeper mice were no longer waking at all, and the diagnostic testing showed their health declining precipitously despite Liza’s attempts to keep them alive.

When Siobhan had gone over the logs as well as thoroughly internalized Liza’s improvements to the spell, which required her to read a few bookmarked passages from some medical reference texts, she joined the older woman in the casting rooms down below.

Liza had filled up two more rooms with the expansive sleep-proxy spell array, and apparently bought her own supplies, including more mandrakes and sempervivum apricus. They were all larger—and therefore more expensive—than the ones Siobhan had supplied. The whole lower level was filled with various terrariums of mice going through different stages of the spell, and their body heat alone kept the place warm.

Siobhan looked around with admiration. Liza had been working on this constantly, it seemed, whether or not Siobhan was available. She felt a warm spike of gratitude, before she remembered that the older woman was getting as much out of this as Siobhan.

Siobhan almost expected Liza to try and hand her a bill for half of the additional creatures and supplies, and was already planning how she could argue her way out of it, but Liza didn’t mention anything, and Siobhan wisely kept her mouth shut. After all, what was this if not Liza’s way of helping develop and test the spell, which was part of their contract? Siobhan mentally patted herself on the back for the foresight to bring the other woman in on the project.

“Are you ready?” Liza asked.

“I am.” With that, they began a full day of strenuous spellcasting. They started with a couple more sets of mice, then a set of raccoons, then the ravens, before breaking for lunch. The raccoons and ravens were both more difficult than the mice, and Siobhan wondered what it would be like to try and cast the spell on a human. She had calculated an extended casting time, but without Liza it probably would have taken Siobhan at least three hours, even on a mouse. Casting for such an extended time was a danger on its own, as most minds had trouble maintaining such extreme concentration for long periods of time.

When they broke for lunch, Siobhan discovered that Liza had only a moldy heel of bread, some pickled plums, and a bit of jam in her kitchen. Neither of them felt like shopping for ingredients and trying to prepare anything, so they ate at a nearby bar, where the proprietress provided fresh fruit at Liza’s request—with a little extra coin slid across the counter—despite the fact that it was still winter.

“I really think it’s going to work,” Siobhan said as they ate.

Liza smiled, wiping some clotted cream from her dark lips. “I think so too, girl. What are you going to do with an extra eight hours every day?”

“Everything,” Siobhan responded immediately, her voice dreamy. Liza snorted, and Siobhan flushed, hurrying to correct herself. “Well, I’ll study things I’m interested in, work on some projects I never seem to have time for, and maybe even do some work to bring in extra coin. Do you think it will improve our Will’s recovery time? That’s one of the main functions of sleep. If it does…I could cast for an extra three hours a day, maybe, without needing to worry about strain.”

“Three hours out of eight? Do you spend six hours a day casting now?” Liza asked, one arched eyebrow raised.

Siobhan hummed noncommittally. “Not every day. Sometimes I spend more, generally on the weekends. I think it averages out to about six hours a day, though.”

Liza nodded approvingly. “No wonder your Will is improving so quickly. Most serious thaumaturges don’t average over four hours a day. What do you do that takes so much time?”

Siobhan hesitated.

“If that is too invasive a question, feel free to change the subject,” Liza said, pointedly looking away to give Siobhan a semblance of privacy.

“Well, no, it’s not. I brew for the Verdant Stag and sometimes do other projects for them, but the majority of my casting time is spent practicing basic spells, pushing myself to tweak their outputs while still using the basic spell array, that kind of thing.” She paused, adding cream to her second cup of tea. “I want to be a free-caster,” she admitted.

“Ambitious.” Liza eyed her for a moment, taking another bite of food. “Not impossible, though. Free-casting was never my own focus. It requires too much instant mental flexibility. I prefer to sit down and slowly work through a problem, layering new revelations and improvements into my work. Artificery is much less dangerous, as well.”

“What will you do with your extra eight hours?” Siobhan asked.

Liza looked down at her plate, now almost empty, for a few seconds. “Research,” she finally replied.

“Research about what?”

“That is too invasive a question.” Liza met Siobhan’s gaze unflinchingly, but didn’t sound angry.

Siobhan nodded easily. “Okay. Shall we get back to work, then?”

“Let’s.”

Siobhan’s excitement hadn’t waned, despite their large lunch trying to draw blood away from her brain for digestion. However, when she got a good look at their next test subjects, some of the feeling soured.

The pixies watched with big, frightened eyes as Liza and Siobhan prepared the spell array for them. They were less than eighteen inches tall, their small fingers wrapped around the bars of their cage, their multi-petaled flesh wings trembling enough to shake off flakes and peels of ever-regenerating dandruff—more commonly known as pixie dust, a useful magical component and the main reason the creatures were often kept as pets.

They made nasty faces and gestures, and one of them even knew a few curse words, which it threw out with little artifice or understanding. Like parrots, they could memorize and reproduce sounds and words, and even understand a few of particular importance, but couldn’t hold a coherent conversation.

The little creatures fought back viciously when Liza took them out of the cages, scratching and biting and shrieking until the woman subdued them all with her docility spell.

Siobhan wondered if they understood what was about to happen to them. She found herself sweating a bit as they took away the creatures’ fear and ability to feel pain with a couple drops of a potent numbing potion.

Transferring the vitality and brain function of the Sacrifice was harder than with the mice, and even harder than the raccoons, about on par with the ravens. The pixie they were drawing from didn’t try to escape, and she assured herself that it wasn’t frightened or feeling pain, but at the last minute, as the connection took hold and wrenched, its dark eyes met hers. One second it was alive, and the next it wasn’t. Its eyes were still wet and glassy, still looking at her, but empty. Its fingers twitched once, and a mix of blood and clear liquid ran from its snub nose.

Siobhan took a clumsy step backward.

This feels wrong. This is wrong.’ The thought filled her mind, unbidden but undeniable. The pixie’s body was limp, flaking wings still, half crushed beneath its body, senseless little fingers and sightless staring eyes—

Bile suddenly rose up in Siobhan’s throat, and she took another step away, turning to rest her forehead against the cool stone of the wall, her back to what they had just done—what she had just done. She closed her eyes, breathing deeply until her stomach stopped trying to surge up into her throat. Her back tingled with a cold sweat as she straightened her shoulders and turned around.

Liza was watching her silently, her expression inscrutable.

Siobhan swallowed, keeping herself from looking back at the dead creature as she met Liza’s gaze. “I don’t want to do that again. They’re so—they’re too intelligent. No monkeys, either. Pixies, monkeys, anything intelligent shouldn’t have to die for our experiments. We can test on them, but I don’t want to kill them just to boost our sleeper.”

Liza looked down at the dead pixie. “Pixies and monkeys do look very human, don’t they? But magic comes at a cost, girl. Always. Great magic comes at great cost. If you cannot bear to pay it, perhaps you are not suited to this life.”

Siobhan flinched as if she’d been slapped, but clenched her fists. “There is a reason blood magic is illegal.”

Liza scoffed derisively, contempt clear in her voice. “Please tell me you do not believe that shite about evil magics corrupting the Will. Weakness corrupts the Will. Hesitation. Indecision. Any other tales are just pretty words to keep the masses from realizing the truth.” She pressed her lips together firmly, and when she spoke again her tone was kinder. “What makes one animal more important than another? You eat them, you use their pieces in your magic, you even wear their skin,” she said, waving to Siobhan’s leather boots. “The pixie looks so much like us, and suddenly you grow a conscience, but you must realize, your hesitation is not based on some inherent ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness.’ Ravens are at least as intelligent as these creatures, whether magical or not. Some believe them to be sapient, you know, able to communicate with each other, make plans for the future, and solve complex problems. They, too, can learn to speak some of our words. And yet, you have been okay with killing quite a few of them.”

“Is that true?” Siobhan asked, though she really didn’t think Liza was lying to her. She remembered the feeling of using the Lino-Wharton messenger spell to control a raven’s body, speak with its tongue, and see with its eyes. All that was possible, of course, because the ravens were strong and smart enough to handle the strain of her human mind, if only for a short time. “They’re as smart as pixies?”

“Ravens are social creatures full of curiosity. They can solve puzzles and problems, learn new behavior to obtain desired results, and innovate solutions. They use improvised tools to obtain food and defend their territory. Some pairs even mate for life. In my opinion, if the only criteria is intelligence, they far surpass the pixie.”

A sickening mix of chemicals rushed through Siobhan’s bloodstream, making her heart clench a little too hard and her veins burn. She was too aware of her skin, and every touch of fabric or air against it was an irritant. She wanted to move, but she forced herself to stay still, letting this new perspective sink in.

Liza scoffed. “I should have known you were too soft when you wanted to give the mice a pain potion,” she muttered. Louder, she said, “Take a good look inside yourself, girl, and question why you are hesitating now.”

Siobhan looked back at the dead pixie, letting out a slow breath through pursed lips, just on the edge of a whistle. If the pixie had looked like a giant cockroach instead of having fingers and pink flesh, even if someone had told her the cockroach was just as intelligent, it wouldn’t have felt so wrong.

Be honest. Twist the knife,’ Siobhan ordered herself. She cared more because of the way it looked. It hurt to admit that to herself, but it was the truth. She twisted the knife of introspection further, as Professor Lacer had taught her. ‘If it is wrong to kill a pixie, then it is wrong to kill a raven. And perhaps it was. Was it also wrong to kill a mouse? Where is the line between an acceptable Sacrifice and excessive cruelty?’ No matter the creature, it was legally blood magic to use a living creature not just as a component but as a Sacrifice.

“Perhaps it would ease your mind to know that the Sacrifice of their life is well worth the gain,” Liza said after Siobhan’s silence dragged on. “I am not wasteful nor disrespectful of their lives, child. When we are finished here, each piece of them will be saved for use as components in other magic. These creatures are not afraid or in pain, as we ensured. Their lives were ended as gently as possible, and their Sacrifice will go toward a remarkable, significant advance in magic.”

Siobhan still didn’t respond. Using a creature in magic was not so different from slaughtering a creature to eat. In fact, it might be better, because many spells would not use up all the matter of a Sacrificed creature, allowing the remains to be used for food, tools, or even other spells afterward. She didn’t feel guilt when she ate meat. But she usually didn’t eat sapient creatures, either.

Would she have had such a reaction if someone else had done the butchering for her? Most likely not. This realization shamed her, because that kind of dissociation from reality, allowing someone else to take the blame and the responsibility, was a betrayal of herself. ‘If I am in control, then everything within my control is my responsibility. Just like it was my fault that Jameson died, like it is my responsibility to prepare for the future, I am accountable for the weight and consequence of my actions. A living creature that can have hopes for the future, that can make plans to solve its problems and carry them out, that can understand and think and feel… That’s a person. Not a human, but I never want to make the mistake of believing only those who look and act like me are people. And to kill a person… That is murder.

She felt another rush, a visceral response as her stomach churned and goosebumps rippled in a wave across her skin. For the first time, she longed for the transformation contained in the amulet around her neck, if only to get out of her own body. “Would it be possible to use mice, or some other less intelligent creature, to boost a pixie, or a raven?” Siobhan asked. It wasn’t right to kill mice, either, perhaps, but it was a sin she felt she could still bear, for a worthy purpose.

“It is not so simple, for the same reason one should not attempt to Sacrifice the mind of a pixie to increase your own intelligence. They are too weak, and incompatible besides. If we were willing to risk failure and its consequences, we might Sacrifice the pixie to boost the mouse, but not the other way around.”

When Siobhan remained silent once more, Liza continued. “There are other alternatives, but I believe you will find them even more distasteful. We could cast this spell, now, with unboosted creatures, but if you try to do that later, you will find that you kill raven after raven with the strain of taking your sleep. This doesn’t solve your problem with causing a death, and it might prove dangerous to you, as well. We do not yet know what happens when the sleeper dies under the strain of the spell.”

That option was, in effect, giving up on the spell—something Siobhan couldn’t bring herself to do, despite her guilt. “And the other option?” Siobhan asked.

“Use a human instead. They would not be in danger with spell periods of a week or so at a stretch, if the notes you’ve given me about the source of this spell are correct. However, that option comes with dangers and difficulties of its own.”

Siobhan flexed her fingers, spreading them wide to avoid digging her fingernails into her palms until they bled. “Even if we could find someone willing to give up their waking hours, there’s still the ethical dilemma of testing something potentially dangerous on a human. Also, the extreme illegality makes it perilous. If word got out…”

Liza nodded. “I can tell you now, I will not be developing the spell with human sleepers. Too many things could go wrong, and the consequences are much too severe, especially when we have a perfectly viable alternative right here. If you take that path, you will be on your own. So, girl, I believe you need to make a choice about what is more important to you. An extra eight hours a day for the remainder of your life, and all that such an opportunity could bring you, or the lives of these small creatures. I do not deny that their lives hold obvious value, at least in the eyes of magic, but their continued existence will not bring any value to you, nor to the world as a whole. I think the greater good is obvious.” Her eyes roved over Siobhan’s face for a few seconds, and something about what she saw softened her expression. “I think you know it too, child.”

Siobhan hesitated. It wasn’t just the extra time that this spell would give her, but an escape from sleep and all that it entailed. But she wanted to stop regretting her choices, and this seemed like the kind of festering, small wound that would poison her over time. She didn’t want to stop caring about people who were different than her, who couldn’t defend themselves against her. Her forehead and back prickled with cold sweat under Liza’s impatient gaze. “I need some time to think about this,” Siobhan said finally. “Maybe, in the meantime, we could finish off the rest of today’s tests with some different variations? Mice sleeping for some of the more complex creatures, to test what happens with inherently uneven binding spells? It could give us some good data about what will happen when it’s a human on the waking side.” That it would also save the lives of those more intelligent creatures went unspoken between the two of them.

With a displeased grimace, Liza agreed, and they returned to work, though the ruined mood between them made the ensuing hours uncomfortable and silent.

Liza apparently hadn’t forgotten about the cost of the extra supplies she bought, because she informed Siobhan as she was leaving that she could either provide half their value in gold or Liza would take those funds out of Siobhan’s cut of any coin she earned from the knowledge in the long term.

Dejected, Siobhan agreed. At least she didn’t have to pay from her own meagre funds.

That evening, she had to use Newton’s self-calming spell to force her body to relax enough for sleep, as her thoughts kept returning to a small, snub-nosed face with blood and brain matter running from the nostrils, and the final twitch of dirty little fingers. ‘I am a blood magic user, and not just by legal interpretation. I have used the life of a still-living being as a Sacrifice, and I cannot deny that it is a loathsome, monstrous thing. Whether morality is objective or subjective, killing a sapient being when I do not need to for my own survival still fills me with shame all the same. And yet, I am so greedy, I want to find some way to justify it, to rationalize it, so that I can continue to gain the benefits. But I cannot do that. It would be lying to myself. If I move forward with these experiments, I must do so with my eyes open to my own character. If I continue, it will be because I have decided that my own happiness, comfort, and curiosity are worth more than the life of another who does not deserve death, but is too weak to stop me.

Having admitted this to herself, Sebastien was able to find some peace. Whatever her decision, she would face the truth of it directly. And if she was honest with herself, which she was trying to be, she knew that she might very well decide to continue.

This is the 4th of 5 bonus chapters brought to you by my lovely patrons!

If you are a patron (at any level) and want to vote on 10 incredible short story ideas to pick the one I’m going to write, go here: https://www.patreon.com/posts/75387726

Also, after over 3 weeks, I seem to be finally better from being sick, with just a little lingering cough. Thanks for all the well-wishes. Back full speed ahead into the ink mines for me!
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