Chapter 151 – One Hundred Ways to Die

Sebastien

Month 3, Day 27, Saturday 3:00 a.m.

Sebastien sat at the head of her dormitory bed, looking through the window. The University was quiet enough to hear the wind. She hadn’t realized how much ambient noise thousands of students could add to a place, even at night when they were all supposed to be asleep.

It reminded her of traveling between distant cities with Ennis on roads protected only by man-sized ward stones and the occasional army patrol. When she woke in the dead of night, after the fire had gone out and the howls of wolves and magical beasts sounded too close, so many more stars were visible in the night sky, enough that she might have almost been able to navigate by starlight alone.

Sebastien picked up 100 Clever Ways Thaumaturges Have Committed Suicide and settled in to pass the time with a few entries. The title was not entirely accurate. Sometimes, “clever” experiments didn’t kill the caster but rather the subject of the spell or even completely unrelated innocents who happened to get too close. All told in an almost comically dry tone, about half of the entries within referenced something done during the era of the Blood Empire, notorious for its immoral exploration of magic’s furthest reaches.

The other half were from random thaumaturges who thought they’d had an ingenious idea that would revolutionize the world. Many of these ideas were obviously foolish, but somewhat frighteningly, many others seemed almost reasonable. As the title said, “clever.”

She picked up where she had left of, a story of an apprentice alchemist, who, dissatisfied with his lot in life, attempted to Sacrifice a potion to empower another potion, believing that, as they were the same type of potion and even brewed as part of the same batch, doing so would simply boost the effects.

But what would be the point?’ Sebastien wondered. ‘If he wanted a stronger brew and could produce a minimum of two weaker potions in the same batch, he could have simply altered the alchemical process to make only one significantly stronger potion. Doing so by casting a spell would actually be less efficient, because some part of the original is always lost in Sacrifice. Well, perhaps this was only the initial test—a supposedly safe trial before he moved on to more daring experiments.

The apprentice alchemist’s attempt led to his immediate death via magical explosion, but according to the book, his theory hadn’t been completely wrong, only improperly executed. It was hypothetically possible to Sacrifice a potion to enhance another potion, but the process was complicated, delicate, and dangerous. The book didn’t get too far into advanced theory, but apparently rituals involved in alchemy created a kind of self-referential weave of magic based on the components and process of combining them. The magic of the completed potion was not the same as the magic of the individual components beforehand.

Rather than simple addition—one potion plus one potion equals a super potion—it was like trying to combine the threads of two embroidered three-dimensional symbols after the fact. The practice was of little use other than bragging rights over one’s theoretical understanding and fine control.

Next came the story of Severin Whilkes, a woman known for developing several modern cosmetic glamours, had decided to experiment with Sacrificing her own fat stores for power. She found initial success, but while demonstrating this feat to a group of her contemporaries, lost control. Rather than mercifully dying, her Will broke, and she became an Aberrant. Most of those in the audience were downed by the experience, but one woman’s daughter, a girl of twelve who had not yet begun to practice magic, had fumbled out the battle wand from her mother’s purse and used every single fireball spell stored within to kill the Aberrant.

In the process, six women were killed by the Aberrant, which was classified as a Fiend-type as its attack was touch-based and lacked any abstract effects. While using illusions to appear as a young, slender girl, it ate them from the inside, leaving empty bags of skin behind.

Afterward, the investigation used divination to reconstruct an image of the Aberrant from its charred remains. It was nothing more than a huge ball of layered, wrinkled, and sagging flesh peppered with random eyes, mouths, and noses.

It would be like trying to cast through a Conduit that’s been embedded inside your bodypossible, but incredibly dangerous. Without the natural barrier of your skin, the only thing containing the magic would be your Will. Any tiny mistake and suddenly you’re not just Sacrificing your fat stores but channeling through your own flesh.’ This was not one of the particularly clever experiments.

The next entry was about a thaumaturge who lived during the Third Empire—under the reign of the infamous Blood Emperor. The man had attempted to develop a spell that could directly improve one’s Will, under the theory that thaumaturges had a magical “core” that could be stimulated externally. After multiple failures that involved the death of his test subjects, he concluded that there was, in fact, no magical core, and no way to directly improve the Will. He tossed that idea aside and decided to develop a spell that would practice magic for the subject.

Sebastien didn’t need to read the rest of the entry to know how badly this would go, but she continued on, grotesquely fascinated. After even more failures, and the threat of his research being defunded, the thaumaturge decided that the way to do this was to create a spell that could take over the subject entirely, affecting perfect mind, body, and emotional control, as all those were needed to effectively exert the Will.

After the death of even more subjects as he fine-tuned this delicate and powerful spell, he saw initial success, followed by the subjects repeatedly going insane and dying from Will-strain. In addition to the mental strain, exacerbated by whatever was left of the subjects’ original personality fighting against the curse he’d forced on them, there was only so much effort a person could exert over a given period of time without hurting themselves.

His efforts, however, did lead to a wave of popularity among the wealthy and influential, who began cursing their “lazy” children with a much milder compulsion to make them more driven to practice. This was, of course, still accompanied by all the associated negative side effects, including debilitating Will-strain, and thankfully outlawed with the fall of the Third Empire and the rise of the Thirteen Crowns.

The next two entries were similar.

In the entry after that, several people over the course of history had tried to Sacrifice a spell array to improve another spell array. This was not simply difficult, like with potions, but impossible, and it invariably led to immediate loss of control of the spell, accompanied by severe backlash.

Spell arrays could, however, reference attached or embedded sub-arrays, often seen in artificery when complex instruction was required. Spell arrays could be incredibly complex and multi-layered, performing sub-functions that fed larger functions. But if you wanted to make your array itself more robust, there was only one way: use better conductive materials, the best being celerium.

The entry after that was worryingly reasonable. A man had the clever idea that Sacrificing things could be used as a direct form of attack.

Sebastien stopped reading, hoping to figure out the dangers on her own, admittedly as a way to soothe her worries that she might try something similarly unsafe without proper consideration. ‘This would require one to either be a free-caster, or for the enemy to step into or be close to the spell array’s Circle. It would require the caster to be close to or in sight of the enemy. With those restrictions, how would I attack someone else, and conversely defend against such an attack?

She wasn’t a free-caster, so her enemy would need to be directly within her spell array, but she could lay a trap and lure them into it. The easiest thing to Sacrifice would be the heat within the Circle. She would have to channel that energy into the spell array, and then onto something else, even if that was only forcing the heat to radiate outward.

But her capacity was too low to absorb heat fast enough to cause more than a mild chill. If she could pull the heat directly from the enemy’s body, that would be more effective. ‘But what about the natural barrier of their skin? Would authority gained within the bounds of the spell array take precedence over that?’ She anticipated it would make things more difficult, at the very least. Against a being with a strong Will of their own, it might make more direct attacks nearly impossible.

If she had some of their blood, that could be bypassed, but then it seemed simpler just to curse them directly. Even Thaddeus Lacer couldn’t do something edgy like Sacrificing the heart right out of his enemies’ chests.

But above all, before Sebastien made any debilitating progress with such a method, the enemy was likely to just walk out of the Circle.

What if she could draw a spell array around a sleeping enemy? Though if she could do that, again it seemed better to subdue or kill them more directly.

I could Sacrifice the oxygen in my enemy’s lungs. The open pathway to the outside world should negate the skin’s barrier, and everyone needs to breathe.’ It could be done fast enough to cause confusion and disorientation. If she did that in conjunction with Sacrificing the light, someone might not be able to find their way out before they collapsed. The targeting would need to be precise, and her focus clear, but it seemed plausible.

How would I defend against something like that?’ Immediately, the answer came to her. Just as she had fought over the spell array to spin a metal ball around a circle in Professor Lacer’s class, she could fight over control of a spell array surrounding her. She may not have drawn it, but who was to say it, and the area within it, didn’t still belong to her? Even if her opponent was stronger, with the right application of surprise and intent, she might be able to make them lose control of the spell. In the worst case scenario, the extra stress could even cause her opponent’s Conduit to shatter. Most people did not carry a handy backup somewhere on their person—and even if they did, she had recently discovered that most people wouldn’t have such an easy time using one.

Feeling that she understood the biggest dangers, Sebastien returned to 100 Clever Ways Thaumaturges Have Committed Suicide.

The man who had inspired this entry hadn’t settled for anything so mundane as her ideas. He had a much higher capacity than Sebastien, and thus greater options. He had designed a torture cage of sorts for his ex-wife, also a powerful thaumaturge in her own right. When she entered the bounds of his pre-drawn Circle, he immediately Sacrificed all the air around her, leaving her in a low-temperature, depressurized vacuum, just as Myrddin had postulated filled the space between planets and stars. The air that was Sacrificed powered the barrier, keeping her trapped inside.

Unlike the common misconception, without the conduction and convection of heat facilitated by the atmosphere, the only way to lose heat was through radiation, even at low temperatures. Thus, the man’s wife did not immediately turn into a human-shaped icicle.

Sebastien knew this because, for some time as a child, she had dreamed of riding a sky kraken beyond the edge of the world, into space, and had spent a lot of time trying to find solutions for all the ways Grandfather warned she would die. She didn’t remember that dream ending. Just, one day it was gone.

Sebastien shook her mind back to the present and the page in front of her.

The absence of pressure was a problem. The woman had tried to hold her breath as the air in her lungs expanded, and ended up rupturing the delicate tissue. The blood in her veins began to boil, essentially causing embolisms—blood vessels being blocked by gas bubbles in the bloodstream.

Without oxygen, her brain immediately began to shut down, and she would have passed out in less than half a minute and died in under two, except for the fact that she was as paranoid as her ex-husband was sadistic. She carried an expensive healing potion at all times, with the bottle’s lid spelled with the same modified piercing spell Healer Nidson had used to get Humphries’ adapting solution directly into the bloodstream.

Using the overpowered reparative effects, the woman bought herself time, which she used to bombard the spell’s barrier with a battle wand while simultaneously wresting control of the spell array from her husband.

He couldn’t withstand the dual-sided attack and lost control. The air rushing back in caused the woman more damage, but not enough to overcome the lingering effects of her healing potion.

In the end, she caught him, overpowered and beat him bloody, then dragged him literally kicking and screaming into the spell array he had meant for her. He died approximately two minutes later. There were illustrations to drive home the point.

His ex-wife was questioned and charged with excessive force when retaliating, but as she was now the lover of the town’s most influential man, her actions were deemed self-defense and all charges were dropped.

Sebastien set the book down. Fascinating as it was, this was not helping to soothe her anxiety. ‘Maybe, just maybe, sitting around in bed reading about everything that can go horribly wrong is making it worse.

The sun was not yet rising, but the University grounds were lit, and the streetlamps in the nice areas of town had been on all night. No carriages would be out at this early hour, but she was no stranger to walking, and she still had a key to Dryden Manor.

She arrived quite chilled, closing the front door stealthily behind her and tiptoeing through the dark house up to the guest room set aside as her own. A couple minutes of work got Myrddin’s journal out from its hiding place within the stone floor, and she couldn’t help but let out a breath of relief upon seeing it. Though she had no particular reason to believe Oliver would suddenly go after her book, or that he even knew where it was, her current lack of trust in him had left her paranoid.

It had been weeks since she received the decryption spells from the secret thaumaturge meetings, but she had been so busy she hadn’t made much progress after that first night.

She tried the more standard divination spell first, while she was still mentally fresh. It required her to make an extremely fine alchemical powder, which she sprinkled over and around the book. When she finally cast the actual divination spell, the powder shifted and began to glow, highlighting areas of recent interaction and possible interest. As she had feared, it showed a few of her own fingerprints, as well as drawing attention to the otherwise invisible signs of tampering where she had cut away the binding to search for clues. Nothing seemed like an actual clue toward decrypting it, or any potential password.

She had expected as much and wasn’t too disappointed.

The brute-force mathematical decryption came next, which still required a few more hours of work on her part to reduce the power requirements—which she achieved by extending the casting time—and to solidify the Word so that a layman such as herself could understand. In the end, she put an entire stack of notes within one of the component Circles because she couldn’t actually fit everything within the spell array scratched onto the floor in chalk.

Finally, she spent the next three hours feeding the spell array a steady stream of energy from a grouped series of candles. Her beast core didn’t have the power to last that long, and besides, she wanted to reserve it in case of some future emergency.

It was too much power, and too long spent concentrating, even for her. The book sat there innocently, the glyph on the front shifting as steadily as ever. Once it was clear she was not making any progress, and she could not safely continue, she dropped the spell. She had to close her eyes against a wave of dizziness and nausea as the room spun around her.

The sun was up now, and despite the early hour, she felt almost sick with sheer mental fatigue, as if her thoughts were unmoored.

When the dizziness passed, she stared impassively down at the mess of her latest attempt. It took a while to build up the energy, but eventually she roused herself to clean it all up and hide the book away again. She hesitated before sealing it beneath the floor. ‘I cannot take it with me to the University, and I dare not leave it somewhere without wards better than I can cast… Perhaps Liza would be willing to keep it securely?’ Sebastien considered. But she hadn’t forgotten Oliver’s warning when he first introduced her to Liza. The woman was trustworthy, but not honorable. Even if she agreed to house something so potentially dangerous, could Sebastien trust her with the temptation?

In the end, she sealed the floor seamlessly over it once again.

As she exited her room and walked down the stairway into the entrance atrium, Oliver turned from the front doorway he had just been about to step through. His eyes widened with surprise.

Simultaneously, they said, “We need to talk.”

 

Edit 4/13: I need to take an unexpected break week while I work on managing a recent health issue. I’d be more specific but I’m not entirely sure what’s wrong with me yet. I’ll be back with the regularly scheduled chapter next Thursday.

 

I’m really excited to announce that PGTS officially has fanfiction!!!

Jaye Finch has written two really great little stories, both from Thaddeus Lacer’s POV concerning recent events in the story.

Jaye doesn’t have a platform of their own, so we agreed that I would host the fanfiction here.

They are free, of course, and I really think you guys will enjoy them. Check them out in the Fan Works section!

In other news, I know I promised you that bonus Damien POV chapter following up on The Honeymoon Suite. It’s written but I haven’t had a chance to edit it yet. I promise you’ll get it before next Thursday!

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