Chapter 148 – A Tree of Sand and Light

Sebastien

Month 3, Day 25, Thursday 2:00 p.m.

After leaving the infirmary with a clean bill of health, Sebastien and Damien returned to the Flats to give their “after-action reports,” which took a distressingly long time. She was sure most of the other students weren’t treated like witnesses in an investigation, forced to repeat things and dig for details and motivations over and over again. The proctors taking her report kept making notes and stopping to murmur together, throwing her odd looks.

In the end, she insisted upon leaving in time to make it to her scheduled slot in the Practical Casting exhibition. Once again dressed in her own clothing, with the security of her holster and the black sapphire Conduit pressed against the skin of her back, she hurried across the grounds. As she strode with purpose, those in the crowds milling about made way for her. Sebastien ignored the various stages, food carts, and game stations to arrive at the stage that had been set aside for the Practical Casting students.

The performances were running behind schedule, so Sebastien took a seat in the small area at the front of the stands set aside for students like her, setting the box that contained her supplies by her feet. Several of the nearby students introduced themselves, while others whispered together, not even trying to hide the fact that they were talking about her.

Sebastien sighed, turned her attention toward the stage, and did her best to ignore them like the irritating flies they were. Small mirrors similar to those used in the Defense exam arena had been set up on stands, replicating the image reflected in them onto much larger mirrors that would allow even those at the back of the stage to see clearly, though they carried no sound.

A third-term student who had cast a fairly simple spell with only a single glyph stepped down, replaced by a fourth-term who quickly moved to set up their own performance. They then used a single spell array to create a fountain show from a shallow basin of water. It seemed the Practical Casting exhibitions at this point were nothing particularly impressive. She suspected the upper-term students had been scheduled for the day after, saving the best for last.

As another lackluster presentation followed, Sebastien’s thoughts wandered to more impressive magics. Professor Lacer had done more ambitious spells with a casual wave of his hand. She could only imagine what he was capable of with transmogrification’s higher-order connections. Had he ever traveled to one of the Elemental Planes, perhaps? She would love to experience such wonder.

Sebastien thought back to that strange twinkling meteor that the old man from the Architects of Khronos had cast above Knave Knoll. It, too, must have been some kind of transmogrification. She still hadn’t figured out how it might work, or even why a spell would be designed like that. Perhaps a fourth-order association, the kind Professor Lacer had said was beyond the scope of their class?

The breeze blew her hair into her face, carrying the scent of sweet treats, fresh mud, and the budding greenness of spring, all riding over the ever-present salt of Charybdis Gulf. Sebastien tucked her pale hair behind her ears. Even her hair was an example of the kind of magic her fellow students could not hope to imitate. It had grown longer after all the time spent in this body. Perhaps it was time to cut it.

Shortly after the Knave Knoll attack, Sebastien had overheard a group of upper-term students gossiping. Apparently, one man had gone down to peek around the crime scene, making himself temporarily popular with all the classmates who were hungry for gossip. When she had inserted herself into the conversation, the man had been eager to tell her what he could.

“Well, I couldn’t get close because the Red Guard are still swarming around the site. They have it cordoned off, and the coppers were stationed around the edge to keep people from slipping past. But I saw the crater! It was dozens of meters across. I can’t even imagine the type of spell that could have caused such a thing.” The man had continued on for a long while after that, sharing inane details and his own speculation while Sebastien tried to pretend like she was still interested. “Whoever those terrorists were, they must have been as dangerous as an Aberrant, don’t you think? But if you’re interested just because the Red Guard was there, I’ll have to disappoint you, because I’m pretty sure no actual Aberrants made an appearance.”

“What?”

“Oh, well, I heard you were interested in Aberrants, right?”

“Where did you hear that?” Sebastien had asked, frowning.

The man had raised his eyebrows, then gave her a commiserating smile. “Oh, you know, around. It’s common knowledge that you fought one. I really admire your courage, but you shouldn’t be so reckless. I’m sure Professor Lacer would be willing to recommend you to the Red Guard once you’ve gotten your certification and completed your apprenticeship. There are rumors he used to work for them.” He’d laughed, then. “Well, you’d know that better than I, wouldn’t you?”

Sebastien frowned, ignoring the latest student’s presentation as she stared off into the distance. ‘Even if it was a fourth order association, why would it create such a wasteful spell? Are there some rules or principles I’m unaware of? What is the point of creating a physical manifestation and destroying an entire building when it would seemingly have been simpler to just use some mass paralysis spell or send in some sedative?’ Perhaps the wards had been set up to block more common applications, and the Architects had needed to get creative to bypass them, she reasoned. Or maybe the thaumaturge she’d accidentally killed was just showing off.

“—erling. Mr. Siverling!”

Sebastien jerked to alertness, turning to the student aide calling her name in an annoyed tone.

The woman rapped her knuckles on her clipboard. “Are you prepared? Please take your place on the stage.”

Sebastien stood and hurried to climb the stairs with her box of supplies. As a student at third term or below, she’d only been given ten minutes to display her skills, so she needed to set up quickly. As she crouched to draw out her spell array, a quick glance up revealed that the audience stands were packed much fuller than they had been when she arrived. Many of the seats were taken not by outside guests but by her fellow students, indicated by the wooden tokens they all wore.

She shot a quick look to the judge’s table, where Professor Lacer sat. Now that her mind was not so occupied with the possibility of being blasted to smithereens by another of her professors, seeing him reminded her of Oliver’s recent secret note. Again, it had been disguised as a promotional letter from a local tailor’s shop, but the message inside implied that Thaddeus Lacer had requested to meet the Raven Queen. Oliver had sent a second note after that, asking to meet at her earliest convenience, but even if she hadn’t been avoiding him, she’d had no free time during finals week.

As she crouched on the stage, staring up at Professor Lacer, she had a moment of vertigo. She didn’t know what to do with that information. Not after the recent upheaval in her situation. Or at least her comprehension of the reality of her situation.

Professor Lacer gave her a small, almost imperceptible nod, jarring her attention back to the current moment. She focused her Will into the setup, every movement purposeful, chalk lines large enough to sprawl over almost the entire stage. Both a triangle and a pentagram went inside, for control over both energy and matter. Three glyphs—“light,” “shaping,” and “heat”—went at equidistant points around the center. She finished by setting two clay pots in their smaller component Circles on either side, and one pot full of gravel at the front, nearest the stage and the judges. For this spell, she didn’t even need a beast core. In fact, taking the power from elsewhere was part of the show.

Finally, she stood to the side of one of the largest spell arrays she had ever used, took a deep breath, and wrapped her fingers around her Conduit. She was ready.

Her Will contracted down, caught the light within the area bounded by the Circle, and channeled it into the lines of the spell array. Sebastien’s heart beat firmly, a little too fast but without fear, and she couldn’t help the smile that spread across her face as she pulled the darkness back to create a backdrop. She pulled heat from the area, reaching deeper and deeper into the pitch black shadows until the water particles in the air turned to ice.

As the breeze dragged at the area with ephemeral fingers, a white fog manifested from the shadows. Sebastien had practiced this several times and knew that the effect was quite dramatic. Ominous, even.

She held that steady for a few seconds before moving on to the second step. While maintaining the Sacrifice of light and heat, she pulled at the sticky, metallic sand in the leftmost component pot. The clumped chunks and tendrils moved through the air slowly, almost invisible against the darkness until she used some of the light she was siphoning off from the back half of the Circle to add a glow. As the glowing particles and tendrils arrived at the front, she compressed them into the shape of a single glowing seed.

Then she did the same for the other pot, pulling a dark amber, honey-like substance to the seed, where she integrated the two in marble-like patterns. It was a resin that she had mixed various incense oils into until she got just the right smell.

That was the final step. She closed her eyes and imagined the finished product, then opened them, a blazing determination in her chest, fueling her Will as she began to showcase her abilities in earnest. She pulled on the light and the heat and used its energy to fuel her control of the sand, the resin, and the ethereal glow all at once.

She had been practicing this in phases, first teaching herself to mold the sticky sand like a sculptor, then doing so while adding tiny sparkles and wisps of light, and then the addition of the backdrop of darkness to set it all off.

None of the pieces of this spell were so difficult by themselves, but doing them all at once was a strain on her multitasking abilities, and she felt likely to fumble the whole thing due to sheer complexity. One spell, multiple complex effects, but each of them based on simple principles. Most of which she had learned in Professor Lacer’s class, or from the auxiliary exercises he had assigned: complex movement of an object, the particulate to stone spell, using light as both Sacrifice and output. If she hadn’t been practicing with all the individual elements for so long, this likely would have been impossible, even with a complex spell array with dozens of glyphs and a fully written Word.

The glowing seed broke open, a delicate, hopeful leaf sprouting out from it even as roots dug downward into the gravel. She fed the living sculpture more metallic sand and amber resin, weaving them together as the seed sprouted into a sapling, sprouting branches and leaves as it shoved its way out and up from the dark ground. The tree grew bolder and more robust as it aged under her Will. As if speeding through days, weeks, and months, strands of resin and sand layered atop each other and reaching outward toward the sky.

As the tree grew larger, the strain on her Will increased, pushing at it from every direction as if the tree was trying to burrow out of her grasp like roots through an old cobblestone wall.

She had tried using a tree nut to add some transmogrification to the spell and thus make the shaping easier and more instinctive but found that it only made everything harder and left her struggling to weave all the pieces seamlessly together. Instead, she had to hold the evolving shape entirely in her mind, the evocative parts meant to stimulate emotion carefully planned and controlled.

The living sculpture reached the height of her hip. She had wanted to add sounds and maybe illusory birds in the tree’s branches at this point, but that was still beyond her. Instead, for the final step, she molded the last of the resin into the shape of tiny fruit, then channeled heat into the tree, from root to crown. The resin layered throughout the tree began to smoke and glow a smoldering orange that would burn for a couple of hours, until it was all burnt away. The heat had the added effect of solidifying and hardening all of the sticky metallic sand firmly in place.

Breathing hard, she let the spell stay as it was for a moment. Then, slowly, the ethereal glow disappeared. The darkness that she had held toward the back of the Circle swept forward to make a complete dome once more, gobbling up the tree.

Two precise seconds of darkness passed, and then she dropped that as well, revealing the final result.

A miniature tree sat on the stage in its gravel-filled pot, only a few feet high but as gnarled and detailed-looking as she could make it. The resin ran through its bark in decorative, marble-like stripes and hung from the tips of its branches like teardrops. It fumed like dying lava, smoke from the carefully blended incense that she had mixed into it beforehand riding on the breeze in tendrils that looked surprisingly graceful.

Sebastien eyed the result with mixed feelings. It looked pretty enough, she supposed, but it was nothing special. She wasn’t powerful enough yet to produce any truly impressive spectacles. She looked out at the audience, and then at the judges, trying to gauge their reaction. They were all still and silent, staring down at her. She had been worried that she was unable to make the tree any larger but hoped the image replicating mirrors would have mitigated that problem. Now, she was less sure.

She bowed to the audience. ‘Maybe I should have chosen something besides a tree? Perhaps the audience would have appreciated something more dramatic, like a sculpture of a sky kraken. Using the animal from their crest would have even shown loyalty to the University. Why didn’t I think of that beforehand?’ Trying to keep her disappointment from her face, Sebastien picked up the tree sculpture and turned to walk off the stage, leaving the two empty pots behind.

“Sebastien Siverling, first-term student and apprentice of Professor Thaddeus Lacer!” the student aide repeated somewhat belatedly.

Someone in the audience screamed with excitement, then started clapping wildly. Sebastien looked up in surprise.

Damien stood there grinning with all his might, surrounded by his group of Crown Family friends, all packed into the stands amongst their classmates. Others soon followed his example. The applause grew louder than she had expected, with several shrill voices screaming her name, some even stamping their feet when it seemed that their hands and mouths together couldn’t create enough noise.

One girl actually threw a rose at her, and Sebastien had to duck to avoid being caught in the face by its thorny stem.

Wide-eyed, Sebastien hurried toward the judge’s table, where several of them were whispering together, no doubt discussing her fate. She sat the tree down in its center, cleared her throat against the smoking incense, and said simply, “A gift. Thank you for the opportunity.”

The bark and leaves glinted as the texture caught the light, and the resin within seemed to seethe with rage. She hoped that, seeing it up close, the detail she had put so much effort into might impress them a little, along with the smell. Pecanty loved it when his students talked about smell. There might be those among the judges just as obsessed with it as him.

As she turned to walk away, the audience was still clapping and yelling. Fighting down a blush, she bowed to them awkwardly again, then moved through the stands to join Damien and the others. She sat down and tried to drown out the noise, letting her mind relax after the arduous undertaking of her performance.

The judges conferred for a couple of minutes while the student aide helped ready the stage for the next exhibition. To her surprise, the one in the center stood up, holding a megaphone cone to his mouth. “To Sebastien Siverling, seventy contribution points for exceptional power, depth of range, and stability,” he announced.

Officially, contribution points weren’t finalized until the exhibitions had ended, after which they would be posted on the announcement board in the library and at the University entrance, as well as mentioned in most of the local newspapers. After all, there were a limited number of points to go around, and the most impressive exhibitions were saved until Friday. The judges only made immediate announcements of contribution points for those who made an extraordinary showing.

Damien screamed in Sebastien’s ear, seemingly more excited about this than she was. “By all the greater hells! Sebastien, why didn’t I know you were going to do something that amazing? You told me you were just going to display your grasp on the stuff we mastered in class!”

While those around her were jostling and cheering, she looked over to Professor Lacer, who gave her a smile and a single, slow nod.

“I’m an official apprentice, now,” she murmured, laughing as she slumped back into her seat.

 

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