Chapter 149 – Auxiliary Exercises Assessment

Sebastien

Month 3, Day 26, Friday 9:00 a.m.

Friday was the last day of the exhibitions, but as first-term students, all their tests were already finished, and Sebastien and her growing group of friends could peruse the spectacle at their leisure. The University grounds were transformed, packed with stalls alongside all the cobblestone paths and temporary stages with amphitheatre-like grandstands for the audience.

Sebastien had been too caught up in the workload and stress that accompanied the end of term to really appreciate the sheer effort the University put into the exhibitions. They wanted to show, indisputably, why they were the most prestigious University in the known lands. The best of the best fought for a spot within its lauded grounds, and any employer or organization could be assured of a graduate’s drive and skill.

There was nowhere else in the world like this.

At this point, all of the exhibitions were focused on upper-term students, some of whom already had their Master’s certification and had stuck around on research-focused courses in the hopes of becoming Grandmasters.

Some students had recently patented artifacts, including one that could literally lift you out of bed and dress you for the day in under sixty seconds, including a necktie and accessories. A clockwork cat with sapphire gems for eyes seemed to track the movement of passersby, its ears swiveling and tail swishing. One student had hired a chef to show off his portable camping cook-set, which heated food without a fire, light, or smoke.

It made her jealous that she’d not had the space to fit artificery into her own schedule.

Damien bought the group little baggies of exotic nuts that had been tossed in a butter and brown sugar mix and then coated in a floury powder. Each bag was two silvers, an exorbitant price for such a small snack, but like the food at the Glasshopper, it was somehow worth it simply for the decadent experience.

After that, they watched five witches put on a spectacular mock battle. The men and women had familiars from each of the five elements, and their fight seemed more like a choreographed dance as they allowed themselves to be tossed high into the air and caught safely in the grip of the massive earth and water elementals. The show was very popular with the masses, and even though it had little real-world application, Sebastien could admit that it was impressive. Waverly, of course, loved it, and hung around after the show to try and talk with the witches, staring at their familiars with covetous, shiny eyes.

There was even a small mathematics exhibition where chalk-wielding students raced to solve complex equations on large blackboards. Even though Sebastien was watching them solve the equations step by step and the progression should have been clear, she still found herself with squinty eyes and a headache trying to comprehend what they were doing.

Damien coaxed her away with skewers of some flaky white fish that had been battered, fried, and then artfully drizzled with a tangy sweet sauce. Sebastien actually drooled while eating it, and had to wipe the edge of her mouth surreptitiously to make sure no one noticed.

Unfortunately, one girl on the edge of the path had apparently been watching her, and when their eyes met, she blushed, looked away, and then returned to staring at Sebastien. Then, she actually licked her lips with an exaggerated amount of wet, pink tongue, held one finger up in a shushing motion, and winked.

Sebastien turned her head away, her face blank as she died a little inside. ‘Erase it. Erase it from your brain,’ she urged herself. ‘Oh, look, there’s so much magic to watch!

Despite her fascination pulling her in five different directions at once, she did her best to stay with the rest of the group. Their presence acted as a kind of shield against the rest of the crowd, and several times one of them had to step in to help guard one of the others from overeager strangers.

Rhett, hands deep in his pockets and the arms of his jacket tied around his neck, sidled closer to Sebastien as they watched a horticulture student’s trained flowers open and close in waves along with the music the woman played for them. “I made things difficult during the Defense exam,” he said.

Sebastien didn’t reply, glancing briefly at him before refocusing on the performance.

“I’m not the best at teamwork sometimes. My mother says it’s because I’m an only child.” Rhett rocked back and forth on his heels, and then finally said, “I’m sorry.”

Sebastien nodded. “We’re all learning,” she said, and knew by the somewhat hesitant smile Rhett gave her that he took it as forgiveness. She reminded herself that she was trying to be kinder and refrained from saying what she really wanted to. ‘I can forgive, if the person is deserving. But I never forget. I won’t give him a chance to repeat his mistake in any situation where the outcome is actually important.

Still, she knew how difficult it could be to admit you had been wrong, and there was something to respect in that.

After another snack of beautifully pleated steamed buns, each stuffed with a range of fillings from sweet to savory, their group shoved into the packed audience area of an illusion-play.

Cute stylized animals were the main characters, and the theme was all about friendship, forgiveness, and banding together to fight against a greater enemy—an Aberrant that threatened the continued existence of the animals’ village.

Three students ran the entire thing, including not only the pristine illusion itself, complete with realistic shadows and complex facial expressions, but also a moving backdrop and spells to create sound effects and the animals’ voices. The play even featured the occasional gust of wind carrying faint scents. The three casters synced their efforts seamlessly together, creating a thing of wonder.

Sebastien felt lucky to experience it, ignoring the contents of the play in favor of appreciating the sheer skill and polish it demonstrated. As they walked away, it left her somewhat dissatisfied with herself. ‘I still have a long way to go before I can brag about having any real grasp on light or illusions.

Damien distracted her with a strange, cylindrical roll of colorful vegetables and rice wrapped tightly in a translucent dough. “You dip them in this brown sauce!” he explained excitedly, holding out a cup full of dark liquid for them to share. “They’re from the East.”

They were divine. ‘I could really get used to being rich enough to eat like this all the time. How am I supposed to go back to cafeteria food?’ Suddenly, the complaints from her fellow students at the beginning of the term made more sense. ‘What a wonderful incentive to earn and spend contribution points. Stick, meet carrot,’ she mused. She caught Damien watching her eat with an irritating, smug expression on his face but decided not to protest. After all, she was eating for free.

But the highlight of her day was the aspiring Grandmaster student who had announced that he would publicly open a portal to the Plane of Radiance. Sebastien and Waverly were equally enthusiastic about dragging the others into the warded University classroom where the feat would be displayed, early enough that they were sure to get seats. This exhibition required them to sign a waiver acknowledging the risk to their safety, but at least their student tokens got them in for free.

The organizers were handing out large glasses covered with black cloth. When she looked closely, Sebastien could see the glyphs embroidered into the fabric and chiseled into the glass around the edges. The overwhelming, cleansing Radiance could blind one just as surely as staring into the sun, and the glasses were necessary to protect their eyes.

Sebastien chose a seat as close to the front as possible, giving her a good view of both the complex spell arrays, drawn onto the floor at the front of the classroom in polished stone and precious metals, and the rare components placed around the edges. The Word for the planar portal itself was ridiculously complex, and around that a secondary barrier spell had been drawn. Both required multiple large, gem-like beast cores for power.

The secondary barrier was manned by a professor—as a failsafe—while the would-be Grandmaster began to cast. The spell took almost twenty minutes to complete. When the shimmering sphere of the portal finally appeared like a bubble of light, Sebastien put on the cloth-covered goggles, watching wide-eyed as the shining bubble grew to the size of a person.

When the bottom of the sphere barely touched the center of the spell array, it stabilized. Here was an example of output detachment—or perhaps just distancing—at work, the center of the effect hanging in the air to allow a full sphere rather than a dome.

Beyond the edge of the portal, vague, bright outlines of what seemed to be a field of flowers swayed gently in an inaudible wind. In the distance, trees of light rose up with a strange, coherent symmetry that spoke to her of justice, hope, and an unflinching judgment of all that was less perfect.

A small form raced across the field, perhaps some rabbit-like creature, white on white. Before her eyes could parse what they were seeing, a streak descended from the sky like a lance, and burning gold splashed out from the small creature.

A feathered being looked up from its kill, seeming to meet her gaze all the way across the field and through the portal.

As she watched, the student caster climbed into a one-piece protective suit that covered him from head to toe, sealing together seamlessly like it was made of a thick liquid instead of fabric. He stepped forward with deliberate care and obvious apprehension, pierced the portal, and entered the Plane of Radiance. If he remained within the sphere, he should be safe enough.

Watching the feathered predator in the distance as it began to tear at its prey, he crouched down and dug up several of the flowers, placing them in sealed glass containers. After only a couple minutes, he stood and returned to the mundane plane, holding up the retrieved samples to resounding applause.

The portal closed with little fanfare, as if there had never been a doorway to another world just hanging right there, only a few dozen feet away.

Sebastien sat still as the rest of the audience filtered out of the large classroom, replaying the experience in her mind, her skin rough with goosebumps. She remembered Professor Lacer mentioning offhand that he’d once seen someone weaponize a planar portal, then shot upright like she’d been struck by lightning. “I—I have to go!” she told the others, already hurrying off at a pace that was only slightly below a run, stretching each stride as far as it would go.

I can’t believe I forgot!’ Her mind raced, but quickly settled on a destination. She found Professor Lacer just as the Practical Casting exhibitions were ending. He was retying his hair with a leather cord at the base of his neck, the edges of his mouth turned down with fatigue. He’d trimmed his beard recently and scratched at it idly as she stopped in front of him.

“I’m ready to be assessed on the auxiliary exercises you assigned whenever you want,” she said, breathing heavily. “If this is an inconvenient time, I’ll be available during the Sowing Break. I’m staying in the dorms.”

“I was wondering if you were conveniently forgetting about that in an attempt to avoid scrutiny,” he drawled. “Mr. Westbay found me to complete this days ago.”

Sebastien remained silent, without excuses.

Professor Lacer sighed good-naturedly, waving for her to accompany him. “Go retrieve the practice supplies and come to my office, then, lest you gain an unfair advantage from extra time to practice.” The words were scathing, but his tone was mild.

Sebastien eyed him with puzzled amusement. ‘Was that a joke?’ Once again, she turned and hurried off, this time to the dorms where the box of spell exercise instructions and supplies waited. Thinking back to the beginning of term when he had given her the assignments, she remembered planning to master them by mid-term to prove her dedication. That seemed a laughable goal now. Even after the entire term, she was still apprehensive about her results.

When she arrived at his office, a Henrik-Thompson testing artifact sat on Professor Lacer’s desk. “We might as well keep abreast of your progress in the more conventional metric, as well,” he said. “But start with the exercises.”

She set up her small slate table as a casting surface, then began with the first auxiliary exercise from the beginning of term. The mirrored movement spell used two of the plain metal balls Lacer’s students had practiced so much with, one following the motion of the other. She was able to replicate the simple back-and-forth movement of the first ball in reverse, angled, or even in a curved sweep. To show off a little, she finished by lifting the “mirrored” ball a few inches off the slate surface, something she hadn’t practiced but which now came with surprising ease.

Then came the three-dimensional glass maze, which would rearrange itself and force her to start from the beginning any time the metal ball touched one of its walls. Here, too, the magic was malleable and acquiescent, her Will having little trouble accelerating and decelerating the ball on a moment’s notice. When she had proved her capability with that, she redrew the simplistic spell array to demonstrate some more innovative solutions, such as creating a repelling force along the glass walls of the maze that made failure almost impossible.

Professor Lacer raised an eyebrow at this, but his reaction was inscrutable. She couldn’t help but think that this must all seem so banal to him. She was akin to a toddler playing with wooden blocks while he built Titanic monuments.

Next, she displayed a less obvious spell, the air-compression exercise, which could be vaguely visible as a shimmer in the air.

Professor Lacer cast something with a wave of his hand, then stared more intently at the mirage in the center of her Circle.

A divination of some sort,’ she realized. Whatever it was, it only caught the barest edges of her divination-diverting ward and was easy enough to ignore.

She drew as much air as she could into a single point, then allowed it to explode outward with enough force to create a popping sound and blow her hair back from her face. Then she repeated the compression but released the air with gentle control. Then, rather than a uniform sphere, she pressed the air into simple shapes of increasing complexity.

Finally, she adjusted the spell array and created a more complex form, like a string of oddly shaped pearls formed in a loop. She took some time to concentrate, adjusting the details until everything was just right. Then, one after the other, she allowed the areas of compressed air to pop. Each let off a slightly different sound, and all together they formed an extremely rudimentary, frankly horrible-sounding tune made up of about six different notes.

Professor Lacer hummed ambivalently, and the sense of observation from his divination spell dropped.

Sebastien rolled her head from side to side to stretch her tense neck muscles, then rolled her jaw. She had been clenching it without realizing.

With a deep breath, she erased that spell array and drew out yet another, this time setting a small tea candle in the center and lighting it. She fed her Will gently into the spell array, trying to imagine the transition of wax into gases, heat, and light. Changing the color, brightness, and shape of the candle flame had been much more difficult before all the practice she did for the exhibition, but at this point it didn’t give her much trouble.

It was the final exercise that made her most apprehensive.

She had taken a second autumn leaf transmogrification exercise so that Professor Lacer would teach her output detachment. To complement the in-class exercise, which used the idea of light stored in the leaf’s creation, she had chosen something relatively simple—the darkness of a long winter night.

But as she brought down shadow to the center of the Circle, it was noticeably less stark than what she could have achieved using simple transmutation or even absorbing light as a Sacrifice. Without the glyph for “light” allowing her to affect that energy, trying to smother the area in darkness instead was so much more difficult than she could have expected.

Professor Lacer frowned, and this time there was no question about his verdict. “What is your intention?”

She explained the exercise she’d picked. “The spell instructions specifically say that the light doesn’t disappear, but darkness descends, overpowering day.”

His frown grew deeper. “Try again, but this time think about the retreat of the sun.”

He asked her to change her focus thrice more, focusing on the connotation of the time just after sunset, a winter night with only stars, and even a night sky with the clouds blocking out the moon. His frown grew deeper with each attempt, and she thought her shadows might actually be growing weaker. Perhaps it was her lack of familiarity with these new twists on the concept.

She flushed, unable to meet his gaze. She forced herself not to hunch her shoulders or hang her head like a snail trying to retreat into its shell. “It doesn’t really make sense to me,” she admitted. “Darkness doesn’t descend. It’s just an absence of light. Shadow can’t overpower light.”

Professor Lacer sighed, moving away to lean against his desk. “This is not the first issue you’ve had with transmogrification, correct? I noticed your in-class exercise of a similar nature was weaker than your usual standard. And I believe you mentioned some struggles with Pecanty?”

“Yes…” she agreed in a small voice, placing her hands carefully on her knees. “I can create shadows or darkness a lot of other ways, but… Maybe I’m just not grasping the concept correctly?”

He nodded thoughtfully. “Not everyone has natural talent in this area. At least you did not attempt to cheat by using transmutation.”

The words hit her like a blow, but she didn’t flinch. Her heart had begun to crash against her ribcage from the inside, but her cheeks lacked the tingle of a blush. Professor Gnorrish had once shown how a strong grasp of transmutation principles could improve one’s performance when creating the same effect with transmogrification. ‘If I hadn’t been researching light so deeply, would my attempts have been even more lackluster?’ Sebastien turned her head to meet Professor Lacer’s steady gaze. “Is there anything I can do?”

“Let us try once more.” He palmed his Conduit, weighing it for a moment before he closed his fingers around it. “Look at the leaf again. Trace its veins with your eyes. Remember its smell. You must know that this leaf came from a tree that witnessed the final winter of its world.”

His Will began to swim through the air, coiling tighter and tighter, bringing with it a strange chill and changing the light, as if she were staring at the world from underwater, or perhaps during an eclipse. She shuddered but forced her focus onto the leaf and his words. No thaumaturge worth their salt would be distracted by the insignificant details of their environment while in the middle of casting. Her shadow was still more “shrouded twilight” than “inky midnight,” but at least it had improved from her most recent attempt.

“On the shortest, coldest day of the year, the sun was like weak tea, barely breaking through the gloom. The world, like the tree that this leaf fell from, had gone into hibernation in an attempt to conserve energy until the sun grew strong and came close again.”

A depressive bleakness settled against her skin, and when she breathed, it rode the air inside her and coated her lungs. She breathed out, trying to push that feeling into the shadow that came from this imaginary leaf from the end of the world.

“But instead,” Professor Lacer said, his voice low and sinister, “the sun set, never to rise again. The long night went on and on, and the cold sank deeper and deeper, past the crust of the earth and into its warm core. It smothered the last warmth and light of the world like a baby strangled in its crib. And the tree sat there, this dead leaf abiding in the placid, frigid darkness.”

Sebastien shivered at the imagery, her eyes stinging from the cold as she struggled to breathe in the syrup-like air, which pressed on her from the inside and out as if urging her to lie down and die. Her bones ached. Two tears spilled down her cheeks, and even she couldn’t tell if it was a response to the cold or to the infectious emotion. The shadow at the center of the spell array was a godforsaken sooty grey, significantly better than before but still an obvious disappointment.

As Professor Lacer drew back whatever spell he had been casting, she released her own as well. “I have been practicing as much as I’m able,” she said. “Though perhaps I haven’t put in as many hours on this spell as some of the earlier ones, I’m really not sure why I’m having such trouble. Perhaps it’s because my other spell with the same leaf was using such a completely opposing concept. I think I did a lot better with that one.”

“I believe I understand what your problem is, but it is something that you must overcome on your own. You may not be naturally apt with transmogrification, but you are stubborn and resourceful. Try harder. Dig deeper. Dissect your failure.” He looked at her, his gaze heavy and piercing.

“I will,” she promised, her voice scratchy.

“Let us test your capacity,” he said simply.

Sebastien’s knuckles went bloodless-white as she squeezed her Conduit. She stood and moved over to his desk where the artifact sat. He handed her a beast core, and she held nothing back, sucking power from it like the hungry maw of a whirlpool and slamming it into the artifact as if her life depended on it.

She pushed until she had to close her eyes against the brightness of the light. Her ears rang with a high-pitched buzz. She breathed out and tasted blood, though she knew it was only an illusion from how hard her heart and lungs were working, as if she was pushing herself to the limit in a dead sprint for Fekten’s class.

When she reached her breaking point, the arm of her clenched fist was trembling. She opened her eyes, staring into the light for a moment, and then released the spell even as she began to release her Conduit. She loosened one stiff finger at a time, until it dropped to hang helplessly from the chain that connected it to her pocket watch.

“Four hundred twelve thaums,” he announced. “We will have to recalibrate the settings for a higher-term student next time, or you will blind us both.”

Students who had never cast before entering the University could expect to end their first term with a capacity between eighty to one hundred sixty thaums, depending on how much time and effort they put in. Her head start had given her more than just the obvious advantage, as the Will advanced faster when the foundation it grew from was larger. Archmage Zard, who was over a hundred years old and whose capacity was estimated to be in the tens of thousands, could probably improve by a couple hundred thaums within half the time it had taken her. And at the age of eleven, it had taken her almost two weeks of strictly supervised, short practice sessions to improve by a single thaum.

For her to break four hundred thaums now was not unexpected, as she had been improving at a steady pace, but when she thought back to the beginning of term, it put her firmly in the middle range of a standard Apprentice who had just received their license. It also meant that she had more than doubled her capacity from the beginning of term. In only five months, she had achieved almost as much as in all the years since she began learning from Grandfather. Her progress had stagnated for much of that time, however, with not enough time spent practicing and no new magic to stretch her Will. ‘It was the right decision to come here. Despite everything.’ When trying to do the math on the ratio of improvement, she realized that her birthday had passed, without her even realizing it, and she was now two decades old.

Professor Lacer moved around to the other side of his desk, reaching into one of the drawers and pulling out a parcel wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine. “I must commend your dedication. It is obvious from your rate of improvement.”

Normally, praise from him would leave her feeling like she could float on air. It still did, to some extent, especially after the poor performance she’d shown just before, but the feeling was more relief than pride. She remembered the complete nonchalance of his expression after she told him what happened to the Moore family. ‘Where does he draw the line?’ she couldn’t help but wonder, some of that cold bleakness he had spread through the room earlier returning to her chest. ‘If he would do that to them, just for being related to Newton, for loving him… What would it take for him to do something similar to me?’ Sure, she was his apprentice, but that could only hold so much weight.

She swallowed. ‘I will have to observe him for much longer to understand him. To find out if, like Ennis, Thaddeus Lacer is the type to throw those closest to him to the wolves when it becomes convenient.

He held the parcel out to her. “For you.”

Sebastien accepted it, her eyes widening with surprise. She could tell by the feel that it was a book.

Professor Lacer gave her a small, amused smile—as if they shared some joke. “As you have succeeded in becoming my official apprentice, you should read that and heed the advice within. I bought it specifically thinking of you.”

Whatever doubts and suspicions she held were nothing in the face of his words, and she flushed. Bowing deeply to avoid his gaze, she tried to settle her expression. “Thank you.”

“Alright, off with you then,” he said, waving his hand in a shooing motion. “Don’t do anything foolish with all this free time.”

Sebastien exited the office and closed the door behind herself, then took almost a minute just to settle her rioting emotions. She was unused to feeling so many different things at once.

Realizing how embarrassing it would be if Professor Lacer exited his office and found her still outside, she hurried off. Outside, the sky was streaked with the orange and pink of an approaching sunset; the assessment had taken longer than she expected.

With careful movements and slightly trembling fingers, she unwrapped the book without tearing the plain brown paper. It was large but less than an inch thick, with glossy, colorful ink embossed on the front cover.

Sebastien read the title, then read it again. She blinked twice.

100 Clever Ways Thaumaturges Have Committed Suicide it read, and in smaller print down below, How to Avoid Offing Yourself Through Sheer, Reckless Stupidity.

“Heed the advice within,” he had said, smiling as if they were both sharing a joke. “I bought it specifically thinking of you.”

Sebastien let out a sharp, scoffing laugh that somehow ended up morphing into real mirth. “Okay,” she muttered to herself, looking back over her shoulder in the direction of his office. “I can admit, it’s a pretty appropriate gift.”

 

Sorry it’s a few hours late. I went to proofread the chapter before uploading and ended up adding almost a thousand words. That’s very common for me–looping and expanding–and that’s how my books always grow so long even though I try to control the length.

In other news, I’m about halfway through writing The Honeymoon Suite’s follow-up story. I’m not sure if it’ll be officially part of the Honeymoon Suite novelette, or separate, since it is bonus content set in Book 4 instead of Book 3, and it’s from Damien’s POV.

A sneak peek of the premise: After Sebastien runs off, a copper who introduces herself as Alma flags Damien down.

I will try to post it before next week’s regular Thursday chapter.

Edit 3/27: I forgot to mention, there is a fanfiction omake set shortly before this chapter from Thaddeus’s POV of buying Sebastien’s gift from a very bemused bookstore proprietor. https://www.azaleaellis.com/pgts/fan-works/chaos-in-the-riptide/

Check it out!

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