Month 4, Day 1, Thursday 10:55 a.m.
‘Perhaps splitting your Will isn’t actually so hard, just like casting through a Conduit held somewhere besides your hands or your forehead isn’t so hard. Maybe, the only real barrier is getting stuck in a mental rut, just like Professor Lacer talks about. Maybe, if everyone wasn’t so convinced it was impossible, it would be easier,’ Sebastien reasoned. She had a relatively high opinion of herself, she knew, but she didn’t imagine she was some destined prodigy that would overturn all the established rules of magic. ‘This has to have an explanation. If Myrddin could do it, too, that’s proof that it’s not so impossible. But there’s only one way to find out.’
And so, Sebastien hurried to the library, where she checked out a reference filled with old and uncommon glyphs, some of which were only used in the far reaches of the known lands. When she arrived at Dryden Manor, she hurried past Sharon as politely as possible, and found the book hidden under the floor, as always, seemingly untouched since her last visit.
She studied the shifting symbol on the front cover. Most of the time, it was incoherent, but sporadically, it resolved into a glyph she recognized, before shifting into headache-inducing incomprehensibility once more. She stroked her fingers over the ancient leather with one hand.
Soon, the glyph shifted to something she recognized—ironically meaning “open” or “unlock”— she turned the full force of her Will toward the concept, her free hand carefully gripping her Conduit, to mitigate risks. Applying Will without actually channeling energy into a spell was like breathing an emotional opera song. The muscles in one’s throat would clench, breaths deep and posture straight, and yet no actual air could hit the voice box, no sound pass the lips. It would be very easy to slip up, some of the inherent passion of the mimicry leaking through into action.
Rather than the incoherent shifting it had displayed up until that point, the glyph on the front settled under her Will, then very purposefully flowed into a rare form of “flight” that she almost didn’t recognize, and held there. As she’d guessed, she must have passed the identity authentication without trouble.
Grinning so hard her cheeks hurt, Sebastien changed her Will to match. This continued twice more, until she hit a glyph she didn’t recognize. She tried to hold her Will steady while she turned to the reference text she’d brought for this very purpose, but finding a glyph based on its shape alone, among tens of thousands of others, was an involved process.
Myrddin’s journal only waited a few seconds before the glyph once more dissolved into random incoherence that made her eyes ache.
When she found the glyph she hadn’t known, which was “pressurized depth” often associated with the part of the ocean where light from the surface could no longer reach, she made a second attempt. Again, she ran into a glyph she didn’t know. The process repeated until she grew frustrated and her eyes and head began to throb from the strain of examining the journal.
So Sebastien set aside her efforts for the moment and turned toward something she hoped would be more rewarding—refinement of the nine heavens, third sequence. Whatever that meant, exactly.
A note from Professor Lacer encouraged her to read through all the instructions at least twice before she attempted to cast the spell, and after that gain a measure of mastery over the physical movements and the audible intonation separately, before attempting to combine both together with actual casting.
Sebastien read through page upon page of complex diagrams of the human body moving in very specific ways that went along with tonal sounds that Professor Lacer had translated into basic syllables rising and falling along modern musical notation. In addition to all that, to cast the spell one would have to keep in mind the mental focus and understanding of the process. These techniques were never meant to be learned from a book. Even for someone like her, who had no trouble retaining written information, it would have been so much easier to understand if she could simply watch someone else perform the spell and try to mimic them.
It took her over an hour to get through the first read-through, and left her mind in a completely different state of exhaustion than her attempts on the journal.
More of said attempts led nowhere, faltering each time when she met a glyph she didn’t recognize. ‘I need to learn a lot more glyphs,’ Sebastien realized. It seemed somewhat excessive that there should be thousands upon thousands of glyphs in existence. What spell would need such a thing? But there were quite a few glyphs with duplicate meanings, or subtle variations in context, or obscure uses that could only be relevant in some of the strangest of spells. At her level, with the kind of spells she could cast, she had no reason to know or use the large majority.
Specificity helped in any Word structure of a spell, but even then most high-level effects could be accomplished with only a thousand or so glyphs. But Myrddin had known more, and so Sebastien had to know more.
She switched between Myrddin’s journal and the esoteric spell until the evening, when Sharon forced her to come down to dinner.
Oliver arrived halfway through the meal, brightening noticeably when he saw Sebastien. He joined them at the servant’s table in the kitchen, serving his own meal and telling jokes and funny stories throughout.
He made them laugh so hard that Thomas, doorman and general laborer, choked on a piece of food. The man grew so purple that Sebastien grew worried and cast a spell to clear his airways—one she most often used to erase the signs of crying—to great applause.
Sharon broke out the cooking brandy, mixed it with some honey and spices and heated it over the stove, and forced them all to drink the overly sweet concoction.
Sebastien tried to refuse, but admitted after she had swallowed an obligatory cup that it was indeed supremely warming, filling her with a gentle weight and flushing her cheeks. She was relaxed without being clumsy or tired, and even tried a few stories of her own, carefully edited to remove specifics and incriminating information.
When Sharon and the others finally left, the round woman hugged her close, something Sebastien found she didn’t mind so much when she felt like this.
Oliver stood at the entrance to the kitchen, leaning against the doorjamb with his ankles crossed and his hands in his pockets, watching fondly. When they were alone, he straightened. “I have some news,” he announced, something in his tone making it obvious that this was not positive information.
“Tell me,” Sebastien replied, straightening her shoulders in preparation for a blow.
“The coppers have a plan to try and catch you during your father’s sentencing.”
She smiled and relaxed. “I know. That’s part of why I plan to spend most of the day locked away in a warded room at Liza’s.”
His eyes widened, and then he chuckled. “Oh. Well, if you’re not irrepressibly drawn to the drama of it all, as they seem to be placing all their bets on, no matter what measures they put in place to capture you, it won’t be effective.”
If this were before Sebastien had learned of Oliver’s secrets and grown wiser to his manipulations, she might have told him about her plan to take advantage of the coppers’ assumptions in a bid to relieve them of her blood and thus their only leverage over her. But things were different now, even if he didn’t know it, and so she just smiled and nodded. “Well, tell me about their plans anyway. I don’t want to be caught unawares if they try something at a different time.”
Oliver didn’t reveal anything particularly worrying. Heavily armed teams ready to respond at the slightest sign of her appearance, magical artifacts to overpower and capture her, soldiers and Red Guard agents called in to assist each team of coppers with anything that required heavier magical power. Even some sort of special cell prepared for her in the highest-security wing of Harrow Hill.
None of it would be useful if she didn’t walk into their trap.
Sebastien made sure Myrddin’s journal was hidden away once more and returned to the University dorms, where she ironically felt more secure than the guest bedroom that had been set aside for her at Dryden Manor. Once again, she was reminded of the need for some place that she could truly call her own. A safe house that she could ward and feel safe keeping things she didn’t want anyone to find.
For the moment, it was still beyond her means. But it wouldn’t always be, if Oliver’s textile business continued to pay out.
As Sebastien lay in bed, the lexicon illuminated by the pale blue glow of moonlight sizzle, her mind wandered away from the page and back to Professor Lacer’s lecture that morning. He had given it for a reason, one which had nothing to do with her plans for the day of Ennis’s sentencing, nor Myrddin’s journal. It was supposed to help her with output detachment.
Something about the difference between divination and binding magic was important. Perhaps even something about the difference between those two and actively cast curses.
Professor Lacer may have wanted to guide her to the answer with vague hints and allusions, but she didn’t want to spend dozens or hundreds of hours trying to research the underlying mechanics of it all in the hopes of having an epiphany. Those hours spent studying would be useful, because more knowledge of magic was always useful, but she was impatient to make actual progress. It seemed like everything she did advanced by only one tiny step at a time, and in this case, the information that could impact the Raven Queen was time-sensitive.
Luckily, she had a contact with some expertise in the field of sympathetic divination who might be less reticent to just tell her the answer. And Sebastien had a planned meeting with the woman in just a couple days.
After taking a moment to set up her dreamless sleep spell just in case, Sebastien fell to sleep still browsing through the lexicon of glyphs. When she woke, she returned to Dryden Manor for further attempts on the journal. As she watched a fancy carriage pass by in the street, a stray thread of nostalgia hit her as she wondered what Damien was up to.
‘Hopefully not getting himself into any trouble with that mission I assigned,’ she thought. Then, pressing her hands together, she sent a prayer to the forces of irony that they would not act on her inauspicious thoughts.
But thoughts of her…friend—yes, her actual friend, despite how annoying she often found him—made her wonder what he would think about her Sowing Break activities. No doubt, Damien would want to give her plan a dramatic name. ‘Something like…Operation Blot out the Sun.’ Sebastien snickered, but decided to give her plan a much less dramatic monicker in Damien’s honor. “Operation Palimpsest,” she whispered to herself.
The past couldn’t be erased entirely, but after this she could start anew. The Raven Queen would be able to return to obscurity like Oliver had suggested, and that persona’s connections to Sebastien Siverling, and maybe even Siobhan Naught, would fade away like old ink left too long in the sun.
As Sebastien dedicated herself to learning new magic and the various preparations for Operation Palimpsest, she quickly fell into a haze of hyper-focus on her work, until the rest of the world seemed to blur away around her, except for brief moments of interaction with those who had a part to play in the plan.
In addition to several meetings with the various accomplices that would be doing all the dangerous work, she made a final visit to the secret thaumaturge meeting, where she sold off several spells and instructions for various concoctions to fill her pockets with the coin she needed. If Operation Palimpsest succeeded, the Raven Queen likely wouldn’t be attending again for a long time, if ever.
Obscure glyphs played across Sebastien’s eyelids as she went to sleep, and she studied the third sequence of refinement of the nine heavens, which she had mentally shortened to “light-refinement,” until she could have reproduced the sheaf of papers Professor Lacer had given her from memory.
When she began to practice the movements, they seemed relatively easy, if complex. They felt relatively easy, for the first three minutes or so, before her muscles began to burn unbearably under the weight of holding herself just so while making slow, controlled movements through the sequence. Her body was so sore from practicing the strange dance of the gestura that she had taken to bathing in a tincture-infused bath at Dryden Manor before leaving for the day, and giving herself a full-body massage with a muscle-soothing ointment when she woke.
She was not becoming any better at imprinting the movements into her body, but she could hold the entire dance in her mind now. It was only her weak muscles and tremulous balance that failed her. It was humbling to realize that if not for five months of Fekten’s grueling classes, light-refinement would have been impossibly beyond her. Being able to walk from one town to the next in a single day, while carrying a pack on one’s back, did not translate into the kind of extreme fitness needed here.
Each time she failed to unlock Myrddin’s journal, each glyph Sebastien learned from the lexicon, she held the image in her mind and committed it to memory by enforcing her Will with that concept. Something about the process made the abstract symbols even easier to memorize than she would have expected. She didn’t even need to draw them over and over as she had when first learning as a child. Something about the process of applying her Will seemed to imprint their forms on her brain.
As her knowledge grew, she could follow the ever-changing sequence of glyphs for longer, and noticed that they began to come faster and faster, testing not only her knowledge but her speed and clarity. All of the free time she had been so excited about at the beginning of Sowing Break had disappeared. If anything, her own projects took up even more time than those that had been assigned to her by others.
She took one afternoon to test how long it took the stomach of a raven to digest various materials to the point that they could no longer be tracked through sympathetic divination. Another evening, she spent creating dozens upon dozens of sympathetically linked anklets just the right size to fit around the legs of said ravens.
The only slight kink in the preparation for Operation Palimpsest was that Tanya, who was in charge of a relatively small portion, had been called on by the Architects of Khronos for a mission. It would take the woman away for a day or two right before Ennis’s sentencing. As long as nothing went wrong on that mission, Tanya would return in time to pick up the last item she needed—a raven to act as a messenger.
The part that made Sebastien apprehensive was that Tanya had no idea what the Architects were sending her to do. No matter Kiernan’s platitudes to Oliver, Sebastien didn’t trust the Architects to be plotting anything that would work in her best interest. Tanya seemed to agree, but assured her that she would report back all of the relevant information.
The brightest point in all of it was the sleep-proxy spell. Tests were going very well, and she was impatient to reach the end of them. She could very much use an extra eight hours in the day. As Siobhan was assisting Liza with the human testing, she remembered her resolution to “cheat” and get answers to the questions Professor Lacer had left unanswered directly from an expert.
“The ward you made for me protects against pretty much any form of divination,” Siobhan murmured. “But what about actively cast curses?”
Liza pulled a corkscrew curl out of her face and wound it around the rest of her hair a few times, somehow creating a ponytail out of only hair, with that single lock acting as the tie. It stuck together, with no signs of slipping loose.
Siobhan had completely forgotten her question in favor of flabbergasted awe. Her own hair could never achieve such a feat.
“You are aware, I hope, that many definitions have more to do with social or legal labels than the actual process or implementation of a thing. A curse, technically, is any magic that has severe, long-lasting negative effects that impact a living being. But what most laymen think of when they hear the word curse is some insidious, long-lasting effect that will drive the victim to their death, either directly or indirectly.”
“Blood magic, essentially,” Siobhan said. “Any curse that uses binding magic would probably be classified that way.”
“In essence, yes. My work will not protect against such a thing. But if you are only worried about actively cast curses—I assume using sympathetic principles rather than some battle spell being shot at your face—then my ward should protect you. That is what you mean, yes? If you plan to get into an active altercation, the wards on your medallion are more likely to be useful, but I warn you, they do not make you invincible.”
Siobhan nodded absently. “No battle spells shot at my face,” she agreed. “So divination and actively cast spells using a sympathetic link must work on the same principles.”
Liza raised an eyebrow, as if wondering if Siobhan was stupid. “Both are cast from a distance, presumably without knowing where you are. A divination spell that returns information about you to the caster shares one thing with any actively cast, long distance curse, compulsion, or even messaging spell. Both must find you to work.”
“Of course,” Siobhan muttered with growing elation. It made so much sense, she didn’t know why she hadn’t realized it before. The classifications may be different, but the actual principles of these spells would be the same, at least in part. After all, what was a divination if not a jinx or a hex that stole your privacy?
Liza continued, apprehension as clear in her voice as her distrust of Siobhan’s ability to stay safe. “If you step inside the enemy’s Circle, or they are looking you right in the eyes and know where you are, my ward will fail so fast you probably won’t even notice its feeble struggle, no matter what principles their curse uses. If the caster can supply your location, nothing will save you.”
But that didn’t seem to be true. Siobhan could think of many times she’d been in the presence of someone trying to divine something about her, and the ward still activated.
She said as much, and Liza smirked. “Did you think stopping the magic from finding you was the only protection I embedded in my ward? Do you think me an amateur? Those disks in your back shunt aside divination rays so thoroughly you might as well be a hole in reality. That protects you from active attempts using sympathetic links, but my ward goes a lot farther than that to stop any and all other methods of divination. We just spoke of how classifications can be misleading, did we not? Divination is not all poppet effigies and spells using your target’s discarded fingernail clippings. My ward shunts aside, reflects, captures, discourages, and devours any non-mundane possibility of information leaking to magical observation.” Liza’s lips spread into a prideful grin, her white teeth starkly contrasting the dark skin around them.
“It can’t stop any and all outside effects, only information leaks. And so it protects me only when the effect, whatever it might be, requires information the caster doesn’t have,” Siobhan said, grinning back.
Liza crossed her arms, irritation leaking back into her expression as she admitted, “That is so, but it is also true that without the aspect of shunting aside the ephemeral rays, the ward becomes much weaker. It is easiest to avoid the fight against your opponent’s magic entirely.”
“Wait, is that why I can’t activate the ward by scrying myself?” Siobhan blurted. “I tried once, and it barely fluttered. But of course, I know where I am, and everything about me, better than anyone. The ward never had a chance. I thought…” Siobhan trailed off, because she couldn’t say that she had thought the attempt failed because the concepts of finding herself while simultaneously empowering the ward to avoid being located were simply too divergent, and her Will couldn’t manage. It seemed she hadn’t been the problem at all. At least not in the way she had assumed.
“Wait. I created a simple artifact. Two linked items, one of which would respond when the other was activated. Similar to the emergency flags the Verdant Stags put on street corners throughout their territory. And that didn’t have any trouble activating, even after you placed the ward disks in my back. Shouldn’t the ward have blocked it? Because to activate, it needs to find me, right?”
“Hmmm,” Liza said, her eyebrows lifting with the faintest hint of surprise. “You cast the linking spell, correct?”
“That is…somewhat unusual. Are you sure the ward did not activate?”
Siobhan searched her memory, pulling up as many details as possible about the time Damien had activated one of their linked bracelets when Tanya went missing. It had been only hours before Newton’s break event. And whatever the beamshell tincture had been doing to her memory, this one was still clear. Not perfect, of course, because even she did not keep truly perfect records of every moment of her life, but coherent and complete. “It didn’t,” she assured. “And if it had, I doubt my little artifact would have been able to overcome it, even without my help to feed the ward extra power.”
Liza stared at her for a few long, uncomfortable seconds. “I can think of only one possible explanation. The ward recognized your magic. This… Our understanding of the Will and the more ephemeral aspects of the mind and spirit are still greatly lacking. But if this did happen…”
“I have no reason to lie to you.”
Liza nodded. “Well, then your Will must be incredibly clear, forceful, and sound, to retain such coherence after being stored in an artifact, to the point that it could confuse my artifact into thinking you were casting actively and thus already knew its location.” She tugged at a curl that had sprung free from the rest, pulling it straight and then letting it coil up again repeatedly. “I am very interested in how such a thing might work. I did not create this loophole intentionally,” she admitted reluctantly. She pursed her lips. “Perhaps you would be interested in partnering for some research, at some point? I am interested to see what other applications such extreme fidelity could have. There are…implications.”
Siobhan tilted her head to the side. “Really? I am that amazing?”
“That is one word for strange, mutant, or savant,” Liza replied back, her lip quirking up in a soft smirk that softened the bite of her words. “Perhaps you have more potential as a thaumaturge than I believed.”
“Well, I could conceivably have time for such a project over the summer, if the compensation is adequate,” Siobhan agreed.
Liza grimaced, probably realizing that Siobhan would try to gouge her for every copper coin.
Siobhan couldn’t help her own smile, though it was not completely carefree. If her Will was stronger in these other facets that were so much harder to measure than capacity, it was probably because she cared so much more, and tried so much harder, than the average thaumaturge. She understood the need for an unbreakable, iron grip over each and every spell. There was no room for leniency or imprecision in her magic.
As Siobhan helped with entering the records into their experiment log books and cleaning up the hotel room of the signs of the sleep-proxy spell, she remained lost in thought. ‘If divination and curses that required divination both use some sort of invisible “ray” or “tendril” to find their target—’ both of which were ways she’d heard it described—‘how does binding magic differ? And why is it relevant to detaching the output of my spells?’
As they rode back to Liza’s apartment with the back of a wagon filled with some covered boxes containing the ravens being used in their testing, Siobhan shifted around in her seat, trying to find the muscles that hurt least to apply pressure to, and asked, “Is the way divination differs from binding magic relevant to detaching the output of your spells from the spell array’s bounding Circle?”
“I do not know. I cannot detach the output of my spells,” Liza said. When Siobhan looked at her with obvious surprise the woman huffed. “It is not a feat that the military teaches, even in their more covert divisions. Someone on my squad could do it, and it did come in quite useful in certain situations, but I was our artifact and divination specialist.”
“Was that person a free-caster? Perhaps you could ask them about it and pass along the information?”
Liza remained silent for a long few moments, looking resolutely ahead until Siobhan suspected she had somehow offended the older woman. “He never became a free-caster. And I am afraid he is not available to teach anyone anything.”
Siobhan didn’t pride herself on her tact, but she knew enough to change the subject. Most likely, this teammate of Liza’s was dead.
Still, she found that the conversation had drawn a veil from her metaphorical eyes. ‘I can split my Will in two different directions. Why have I had such trouble splitting the output of my spell from the source?’ She had the urge to try the exercise once more, but refrained. If she figured out a way to accomplish detachment in a completely different way than Professor Lacer intended, he might be able to tell, and thus reveal her ability. But the greatest deterrent was her worry that just splitting a piece of a spell off in the wrong way sounded like a great way to lose control of the magic and end up as an entry in the book Professor Lacer had gifted her.
There was a reason why true output detachment was dangerous enough that Lacer required her to practice it under his supervision. It wasn’t something she should experiment with on her own.
‘And he can’t split his Will, so whether it works or not, it’s unlikely to be the revelation he was trying to impart to me.’ That night, as she lay in bed and considered the tether method she’d been using, then imagined what it might be like to just sever it, splitting the input from the output in the same way she split one part of her mind into two, she realized what was missing.
‘How is a spell with detached output receiving the necessary energy to create its effect? There is no spell array for power to travel through. Is it being channeled through the air? But heat spillover would probably create a visible ripple with stronger spells. Or, perhaps, the power needs to be converted to some kind of invisible vehicle. Like extra high or low wavelength electromagnetic radiation.’
Sebastien sat up in her bed, the idea too startling to hold while lying down. ‘Is that how divination rays work? Because magic requires energy to work. If they are sending feelers out halfway across the city, gathering information, and then returning that information, there must be some medium upon which the information rides, right? Some energy that their spell array is radiating, maybe literally.’
She retrieved her grimoire and began to scribble down her epiphanies and speculation in a scrawl that was even more spidery than usual. ‘But if that’s the case, how does binding magic work? All the restrictions and downsides that divination faces make sense if I’m correct. Distance, barriers, and wards increase the cost or even halt the spell entirely. But once cast, binding magic cannot be thwarted so easily. How is it getting its energy?’ That question yielded no sudden ideas or plausible answers, and so she set it aside in the vast mental sea of things she wondered about but didn’t yet have an explanation for.
One day, if she had her way that sea would run dry.
She snorted at herself. ‘Or, more likely, the more you learn the more you will realize you don’t understand, and you were just too ignorant to realize that you didn’t know before.’
And so she returned to her study and practice, one painful movement of the light-refinement sequence melding into another, glyph after glyph embedded in the depths of her mind, and the occasional craving for lightning-quick energy reminding her to have a meal and thus suppress her cravings.
It was after about a week of this that Sebastien was taken totally by surprise as the glyph on the front of Myrddin’s journal split into two.
She almost fumbled, but the urgency of not knowing how long the glyphs would wait for her spurred her to action. Her Conduit pressed painfully into her clenched fist. Sebastien let her eyes unfocus a little bit, so that neither glyph was clearer than the other, and then, mentally, did what her eyes could not and focused on both at once, wielding all the force of her Will.
The glyphs switched calmly to another set.
Almost immediately, she ran into one that she did not know, and her progress was lost.
But Sebastien was not disappointed.
‘I was right. Myrddin could split his Will, just like me. Perhaps it really isn’t so difficult.’ But she quickly discarded the idea of going to Professor Lacer and showing him that he was wrong. Not only did she feel no impetus to help the Architects of Khronos decipher the journals they still held, she didn’t need the scrutiny that such an ability might bring her.
And, somewhere deep inside, she feared that if someone were to dig, they might find that something was very wrong with her, after all.
She was no Myrddin, able to do as she wished while fearing no one. And if it were true that the brillig were dual casters, what did it say, that they had been slaughtered to the very last?
If someone else had accomplished what she could, surely it would have been news enough that Thaddeus Lacer, with all his connections and his clearance within the Red Guard, would have heard of. If she was not alone, any others were keeping their ability a closely guarded secret.
But this also meant that unless someone else discovered a trick to confuse whatever mechanism the journals were using to monitor the caster, she was currently the only one in the known lands who could decipher Myrddin’s journals.
And what was that, if not a form of leverage?
Response to the Engagement Challenge: 100 Ways to Die has been stupendous and overwhelming. Thanks to everyone who’s participated so far, and if you haven’t, there’s still time.
Seeing a locked chapter that should be unlocked?: https://www.azaleaellis.com/trouble-accessing-chapters/