Chapter 147 – Harry Harold Had no Hands

Damien

Month 3, Day 25, Thursday 9:45 a.m.

As the shield went up around Sebastien, who stood with his hands raised while Professor Fekten threatened him, Damien’s vision swam and his knees almost buckled. He was hyperventilating. Wrapping both his hands loosely over his mouth, he blinked rapidly as he tried to force himself to take slow, even breaths despite his lungs screaming that they lacked for air.

Why. Why? Why? This exam wasn’t even important. It was just a test! Even if they hadn’t made it to the tower, they still probably would have gotten some points for those they had helped to rescue. There was no need for Sebastien to risk his life for this.

“Get back, Westbay!” Fekten barked at him. “Back!”

Between one moment and the next, Damien had lost something so precious. He knew that the true gravity of the situation, the depth of the consequences, hadn’t hit him yet. It had been like that when his mother died, too. It had taken weeks for him to truly accept the fact that she no longer existed, and even years later he still had moments of metaphorical vertigo when he remembered she was gone.

Sebastien was saying something, his voice scratchy with fear and muffled by the semi-opaque barrier, and Damien forced himself to focus.

“I realize it might have looked bad, but I didn’t channel magic through my own body. I’m not in any danger of a break event. I don’t even have Will-strain,” Sebastien said.

Damien stared at his friend, who, for the first time since the exam started, actually looked apprehensive.

As if reading Damien’s mind, Sebastien turned to meet his gaze and repeated, “I’m fine. This is a misunderstanding.”

Damien’s breathing began to slow, and he pulled his hands away from his open mouth, a string of saliva trailing between his palm and his lips. He had apparently started crying at some point. His face and hands were covered in tears, and salt was getting into his mouth. “A mis—misunderstanding?” Damien asked, his breath hitching. He didn’t understand how that could be, but Sebastien’s calmness was contagious.

Fekten wasn’t listening, instead screaming back to the tower to evacuate the area and let them pass through.

Sebastien drew a deep breath and yelled through the barrier, causing Fekten to flinch and his hand to tighten around his battle wand. “I did not cast through my own flesh! Damien’s Conduit fell out of his pocket, and I borrowed it.”

Fekten’s eyes narrowed. “I know what I saw, Siverling. You were casting with empty hands. I watched as Westbay returned your Conduit to you, and he didn’t pick up his own off the ground until you were already standing.”

“I was casting with my leg. My pant leg is torn, so I was able to press my skin against Damien’s Conduit where it rested on the ground,” Sebastien insisted, enunciating every syllable. He lifted his leg, displaying the long rip in the grey fabric that reached up to his knee. The pale skin of his leg was plainly visible, and though it was hard to see clearly through the barrier, it looked like there was a red mark where he might have pressed it against the faceted edges of Damien’s Conduit.

It was a ridiculous, unbelievable explanation, but something inside of Damien still unclenched. “It—it’s true,” he croaked, drawing Fekten’s attention. Damien swallowed to clear his throat and tried again, holding up his Conduit for Fekten to see. “It had fallen out of my pocket when we got hit by that soft concussive blast spell. I didn’t see it until after Sebastien stood up. It makes sense that he would have been lying on it.”

The area around them had already emptied of other students, but a few members of the faculty were slowly approaching, battle wands and other artifacts out and ready.

Professor Fekten narrowed his eyes, and the tip of his wand remained unwaveringly focused on Sebastien. “You expect me to believe that you, in a moment of panic, learned to cast through your leg,” he said, his tone completely deadpan.

Sebastien huffed. “Let me reiterate, I did not cast through my leg. I cast through Damien’s Conduit. I just…gripped it with my leg. Skin contact is all you need, not actual fingers. It’s not like this is the first time I’ve ever done such a thing. It might be slightly harder, but it’s far from impossible. Please, be reasonable. There’s no way I would have put all the students around me in such danger just to win a mock battle. Hells, I wouldn’t put myself in such danger just for the results of a test. I’m not anywhere close to failing, and if I thought the Defense elective was going to be the thing to hold me back, I could simply drop it from my schedule this coming term.”

Damien leaned over, pressing his hands to his knees and taking a couple more deep breaths. He wiped the snot and tears from his face with the rough grey fabric of his sleeve.

The other faculty members had arrived, and Fekten shared a look with a couple of them. “The boy claims he didn’t cast through his flesh, but through a Conduit touching his leg,” he explained, his skepticism clear.

“Is there any way to test it?” Sebastien asked. “I’m telling the truth, and I’m not experiencing any uncontrollable urges to cast through my flesh, but how am I supposed to prove that?”

“Put him under observation in one of the rogue magic shelters,” suggested one of the professors. “Three days should be long enough to be sure.”

Three days!?” Sebastien echoed, outraged. “I’m slotted to be in the Practical Casting exhibition later today. I can’t miss that.”

At the reminder of who he was apprenticed to, several of the professors shared glances again.

“Have him examined by a healer and give a statement to one of our Masters of divination,” someone else suggested.

Fekten agreed reluctantly, lowering his wand just slightly. “We’ll do it in the shelter under the sim room.” He reached into his pocket and fiddled with something, and the hazy barrier around Sebastien withdrew into the golden artifact at his feet. “I’m warning you, Siverling. If you’re lying, casting through your own flesh again is likely to cause a break event, in which case I will do my absolute best to kill you before you can complete the transformation.” He turned to Damien. “Didn’t I tell you to step back, Westbay? It’s not safe. You need to evacuate the area with the rest of the students.”

Sebastien turned to Damien. “I need you to go get Professor Lacer. Tell him it’s an emergency.”

Fekten’s wand rose again. “You have something to hide, boy?”

Sebastien’s tone was cold as he stared Fekten down. “On the contrary. I simply don’t feel safe being trapped underground with a professor who has repeatedly made it abundantly clear just how hair-trigger his murderous tendencies are. I can demonstrate to anyone who wishes how simple it is to cast basic spells with a Conduit touching my calf, or my shoulder, or even my ass. But I will do so under the supervision of my mentor. If you truly mean me no harm, that shouldn’t be a problem. After all, he’s trained to deal with much worse situations than an Apprentice-level Aberrant. His presence could only be a boon.”

“I’ll get him,” Damien said. Not bothering to wait for Fekten’s agreement, he turned to sprint ahead, toward the tower and the exit tunnels that would lead him to the edge of the Flats. He didn’t stop until he found Professor Lacer, then explained the situation in as few words as possible so that his panting for breath would waste less time.

Professor Lacer rose from his seat at the Practical Casting exhibition’s judges’ table and strode off in the direction Damien had come from without even a farewell to the others or a second glance toward the student on stage. “Explain the situation clearly,” he bit out as Damien hurried to keep up with the man’s much longer stride.

Damien did his best to explain, trying to gauge from Professor Lacer’s severe expression just how bad the situation was. “Did you know he could cast through other parts of his body? Is that part of the training you were giving him?” Damien asked, because there was no way he was going to ask if Professor Lacer believed Sebastien was telling the truth. He didn’t even want to ask that question of himself.

“I did not know, but such a skill is not unheard of, if somewhat difficult to develop safely,” Professor Lacer said, falling silent as they entered the heavy iron doors of the shelter.

The space beyond looked larger than Damien expected, but as he thought back to how packed together the students had been as they huddled in the shelter underneath the library, he realized that it probably only seemed larger because it was so empty.

Sebastien’s shoulders visibly relaxed when the two of them arrived, but only for a moment before he drew them back and lifted his chin again with the imperiousness that came so naturally to him, staring Fekten down as if looking at some kind of unruly puppy.

Damien moved to stand supportively at Sebastien’s side, despite the protests of the healer Fekten had retrieved, while Professor Lacer spoke to Fekten, who explained the situation much less charitably than Damien had.

Professor Lacer’s expression didn’t change at all throughout the entire thing. “My apprentice is very talented with these kinds of exercises.”

Fekten stared at him for a moment, speechless.

“It’s true,” Damien piped up, smoothing his disheveled hair back when everyone turned to look at him. “Sebastien has already learned how to distance the output of his spells. I’m not sure if you were aware, but he’s a genuine genius. Rather than doubting him and casting aspersions on his character, don’t you think you should be giving him contribution points for his impressive feats?”

The edge of Professor Lacer’s mouth quirked up for just a moment. “Indeed. Let us get this over with quickly, shall we? I have duties to attend to.”

Fekten bristled, letting out an audible snort that reminded Damien of the rumble of a dragon’s breath. The diviner and the healer both hesitated, looking at each other as if asking if this was normal, but when Professor Lacer waved his hand impatiently, they jumped into action.

Sebastien stepped into the spell array the diviner had drawn on the floor while Professor Lacer murmured with the woman, something Damien couldn’t quite catch about a “boon,” and “increasing the required power,” that made the woman pale uncomfortably. Damien suspected it had something to do with whatever the Raven Queen had done to Sebastien that he wasn’t able to talk about.

The woman cast the spell, and there were a few seconds where things felt strange, and Damien found himself looking away. As he examined the others, he was surprised to see both Fekten and the healer looking back at him.

Then Damien looked to Professor Lacer, who was staring into the center of the spell array with fascination. He followed the older man’s gaze back to his friend, who shuddered uncomfortably, rolling his shoulders.

“I’m ready,” Sebastien said.

There really wasn’t much to say, and though Fekten and the diviner questioned him multiple times about the details and forced him to repeat things, that part finished quickly.

Professor Lacer shot Fekten a disdainfully raised eyebrow. “Why don’t you demonstrate your capabilities for us, Mr. Siverling?” he asked.

With a sigh of relief, Sebastien acquiesced, pulling the Conduit Professor Lacer had lent him out of his pocket. Under the watchful eyes of all five of them, he pulled out a disk painted with a simple gust spell array from his backpack, which he was still wearing. He cast normally, first, holding the Conduit in a firm grip. Then he cast with the Conduit sitting on the back of his hand. Then, drawing a gasp from the healer, he held the Conduit in the crook of his elbow, between his bicep and his forearm, and cast the same gust spell just as easily as before.

Damien found himself grinning so wide his cheeks almost hurt, a heady cocktail of relief and pride urging him to gloat, to strut around making pointed comments in Fekten’s general direction.

Then Sebastien sat on the ground, placed the Conduit between the skin of his calf and the floor, and cast again, looking at Fekten.

The healer cleared her throat. “No signs of elevated heart rate, dilation of the eyes, bodily convulsions, or trembling in the fingers. If he were experiencing the extreme sensation that accompanies channeling magic through one’s own flesh, I would expect to see some sign of it.”

“As you can see, my apprentice is simply talented,” Professor Lacer said.

“Well,” Fekten said with a harrumph. “You still acted recklessly, Siverling. We had to suspend the end of term exam for dozens of students. I must insist that you submit yourself to the infirmary for a more thorough battery of tests before participating in the next exhibition.” He paused, then added, “At least this was a false alarm, but I cannot believe that those imbeciles acting as the enemy continued to attack you despite all the evidence of someone who was about to have a break event.”

He made a few threats that Damien tuned out before stomping off, accompanied by the healer and the diviner, who bowed to Professor Lacer before leaving.

As soon as the three of them were alone, Damien couldn’t hold it in any longer. “How long have you been able to control a Conduit through your leg!?”

Sebastien rolled his eyes. “I don’t even know, Damien. As long as I remember, I suppose. Using a Conduit touching other parts of the body is actually not that difficult. I suspect that most people just have some mental block they never attempt to overcome. As Professor Lacer might say, they get into a rut. I had no idea it would be such a big deal.”

“How could you not realize?” Damien asked. “Do you see people going around casting with their wrists, or their belly buttons?”

“Do you remember that children’s rhyme about Harry Harold who had no hands? He wore jeweled shoes so he could cast through his feet.”

Damien blinked twice. “Yes. I remember that nonsensical rhyme for children. I also remember other similar stories about children walking into a dragon’s mouth and being transported to another world, then climbing out of the dragon’s nose years later, unharmed. Or about a girl who could transform at will into a pegasus. Or the one about the one-inch boy who might come to live with you if you built an appropriately detailed miniature house for him and filled it with all of your baby teeth.”

Sebastien crossed his arms. “Well, that’s not the same thing at all.”

“Yes, yes it is. For normal people, it is. Normal people cast magic through their hands, or maybe sometimes their foreheads.” He turned to Professor Lacer for help, but the man was just watching them with something that might have been amusement. Damien threw up his hands with exasperation. “Let me be clear, the reason the coppers search peoples’ crevices is not because they’re afraid criminals will start channeling spells through the Conduit shoved up their assholes!”

Sebastien raised one eyebrow in challenge, an expression that was eerily reminiscent of Professor Lacer, and drawled, “I know I’m impressive, but I’m sure you could do it too with a little bit of practice, if you weren’t so close-minded. Myrddin would never have been able to create Carnagore or sneak into the secret realm of the fey and marry their princess if he was so pessimistic.”

Damien reached up to tug at his hair in frustration, but Sebastien laughed. Whatever tension had remained in the other young man’s frame was gone as he grinned smugly at Damien. Damien squinted at him suspiciously, keeping the warm glow of relief that had bloomed in his chest from showing on his face. “You’re poking fun at me.”

Sebastien gave him a one-shouldered shrug, turning to walk toward the shelter’s exit. “Only partially. Right?” he asked, turning to Professor Lacer.

The man hummed, looking Sebastien over speculatively. “I suppose you may be correct. I can cast with a Conduit touching other parts of my body, but I still find using my hands much easier. I cannot free-cast without them, and even some of the more difficult spells would be beyond me. I am surprised you managed to distance your spell’s output under such restrictions. However, I did not start developing the ability until I was in my thirties. Perhaps if I had started younger, I would have progressed with similar ease.”

Sebastien seemed surprised by this, and then thoughtful, his dark eyes staring into the distance as he frowned.

After they closed the shelter door behind them, Professor Lacer returned to his duties, but Damien insisted on accompanying Sebastien to the infirmary, where Ana and her little sister Nat were already waiting for them.

“We saw what happened on the big mirrors,” Nat announced immediately, her eyes searching Sebastien’s face with an endearingly sincere worry. “Are you alright? We tried to read people’s lips when you were talking with Fekten, but I’m not very good at it yet, and it was hard to see you clearly inside of that bubble.”

Damien flushed, realizing that his response—the tears and his complete loss of composure—had likely been shown in great detail, duplicated from the small mirrors in the arena onto the much larger ones erected for the audience to watch the most interesting events of the mock battle. The practical part of the Defensive Magic exam was automatically displayed as part of the exhibition, and one of the biggest lures of the entire event.

Sebastien reached out to take Nat’s hand, squeezing it reassuringly and making the girl’s cheeks flush pink. Once again, he quickly explained the misunderstanding that had caused so much pandemonium.

“Of course you would be able to do that. Doesn’t anyone here know you’re going to be a free-caster soon?” Nat asked, blowing out her cheeks with frustration.

Ana nodded sagely, the only sign of her own worry the wrinkled spots on her blouse where she must have clutched it in white-knuckled fear, which no amount of smoothing with her fingers could completely hide. “That is a good point, Nat. One that I think everyone should hear before too much undesirable gossip spreads. As they say, a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.”

Nat pressed her lips together and patted the back of Sebastien’s hand, which was still holding her own. “Don’t worry. We’ll make sure people don’t think badly of you just because that idiot professor got so frightened.”

“He’s a respected man,” Ana chided. “We can’t call him an idiot. Just…overly anxious about the safety of his students. He fought through a lot of horrible battles. Perhaps there is some lingering trauma from the Haze War.” She turned to Sebastien and gave him a brief, tight hug.

Damien smiled at her. “Thank you, Ana.”

“Think nothing of it,” she replied, taking out a small mirror from her pocket and checking her appearance, slipping on a sweet smile like a general arming himself for battle. When she finished, she passed the mirror down to Nat, who tried out several different expressions, muttering to herself as if she was rehearsing a speech.

Sebastien looked between the two young women with a bemused expression. “Yes… thank you.”

Nat tossed a lock of hair over her shoulder nonchalantly, but she couldn’t hide her excitement. “Think nothing of it. We’re Gervins, you know. This is nothing we can’t handle.”

After they left to influence public opinion in Sebastien’s favor, one of the healers took Sebastien into a private room for another checkup. Sufficiently alone but assured that plenty of healers would be around to help him if he needed it, Damien tried to cast the simplest spark-shooting spell on a piece of paper, with his Conduit held in the crook of his arm.

He did not find it nearly so effortless as Sebastien and Thaddeus Lacer had made it seem.

He felt barely any connection to the magical energy that should have been—needed to be—within his grasp. Frightened that he would lose control of the insignificant spell entirely, Damien released the energy, retracted his Will, and gripped his Conduit in his hand as he waited for his racing heartbeat to slow.

 

Author Note 2/2/23:

  1. I actually created the entire children’s rhyme, “Harry Harold Had no Hands.” I had the idea for this conversation between Damien and Sebastien over a year ago and was just waiting for the perfect place to feature it in the story. As most things of such nature, it has a dark twist. I’m no good at poetry, so don’t expect much, but you can read it FOR FREE here: Bonus Stories and Deleted Scenes
  2. The Honeymoon Suite “short story” turned into a novelette with multiple chapters. 5 have already been posted, with at least 2 more to come over the next few days. If you want to read it, you only need to be a patron at the $2 tier. Feedback from readers:
      • “I’m losing my mind with giggles over here. This is WONDERFUL! You took a great idea and made it fucking amazing”
      • “Screaming crying throwing up I love this so much”
      • “At this point I find the interlude more entertaining than the main plot.”
  3. A (canonical) deleted chapter from the beginning of Book 3 is also now available for patrons. It’s just a ton of bonus content raining from the sky, guys. Check out Preventative Measures.
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