Chapter 163 – Refinement of the Nine Heavens

Sebastien

Month 4, Day 7, Wednesday 7:00 p.m.

When Sebastien grew frustrated at her continued failure with both the journal and light-refinement, she turned her attention to one of the other esoteric spells she’d memorized. Turning the tip of her finger into a burning coal wasn’t something she could practice, but learning to leave an invisible tracking mark on something was possible.

This spell had attracted her because the items she placed her mark on couldn’t be used to track back to her unless she maintained an open connection to them. After her recent enlightenment, she knew that this said some interesting things about how the spell actually worked. It was like whatever sympathetic link she created had to be activated to appear, rather than existing continuously.

The process that would allow her to create these beacons wasn’t that difficult, as far as the magic went, but it had very specific ritualistic requirements that would extend over almost two months. It also required her to create a personalized symbol that wasn’t in use anywhere else and a self-descriptive chant to go along with said symbol. The text had mentioned something about being as dramatic as possible while remaining accurate, as specificity and uniqueness made the ritual more likely to “take.”

And, supposedly, if it worked well enough, one could further modify the beacon with additional functions, though the author hadn’t known more, as his own attempt hadn’t met that vague criteria.

Sebastien designed a personalized symbol easily enough—a few angled lines that evoked both wings in flight and blades. It reminded her of the Raven Queen persona, all freedom and a hint of violence, and was also a reference to the blade of enlightenment, forever cutting through reality to the truth.

She grinned at the idea of painting the tag on walls and claiming territory, just as the other gangs in the city did. Not that she would ever do such a thing—too much hassle to maintain, and just another way to make the Crowns hate her even more. After checking her glyph lexicon just to be sure she couldn’t possibly be copying some other widely used shape, she set that part aside.

The chant was harder. It had four parts, meant to describe the “self,” the “other,” the “fate,” and the “summons.” Perhaps there had been more description or guidance somewhere in the archive, but if so, she had not seen it, much less memorized it.

Everything Sebastien came up with, she loathed. She was trying to be dramatic while remaining accurate, but the pseudo-poetry was so bad as to be embarrassing. Her whole face flushed with shame merely imagining reciting any of it aloud. As a preemptive safety measure, she made sure to burn all the paper she had scribbled verses on, just to make absolutely sure no one would ever read it.

As Sebastien guarded the fireplace while every last bit of paper turned to ash, she realized there had to be an easier way. And as soon as she had the thought, she remembered that there was a potion some diviners would take to allow them to write without conscious thought. Autography, she thought it was called. How it actually worked was irrelevant as long as the potion didn’t cause violent nausea, hallucinations, or the other common side effects of divination aids.

Surely, anything she wrote under its effects couldn’t be as bad as the self-flagellation she’d just put herself through.

Early in the morning on Thursday, one day before Operation Palimpsest would officially kick off, Sebastien took a hot shower to loosen her sore muscles and aching joints and then headed out to the Menagerie to practice the Refinement of the Nine Heavens at sunrise. There was a nice clearing a few minutes in that was sheltered from the sight of the rare person who might walk by, and well away from the areas that students taking the off-term entrance examinations were allowed to wander. Sebastien did not want an audience to her sweaty, trembling failure.

With the study and practice that had taken up so much of her time over the remainder of the Sowing Break, Sebastien had come to understand the goal of the spell a little better. It was not simply a strange song and dance.

Her core, somewhere around her navel, was the center of a Circle—or rather, a sphere—and she was drawing a complex, three-dimensional numerological symbol in the air using her hands and feet. The symbol and her corresponding movements began simply, but they became increasingly complex as she continued the process. There were even instructions about matching her breaths to the movements and how long each was supposed to take, along with the chant of tonal sounds that accompanied particular movements. ‘More than a song, it’s like using my voice as a wind instrument.

Exploring this kind of magic, so different from the modern sorcery she was most familiar with, should have been fascinating. And it was. But most of all, it was incredibly grueling.

She had never realized how poorly balanced she was until the tiny auxiliary muscles used to draw the symbol for this spell were so sore they cried out at any activation. This also introduced her to all the muscles she hadn’t even known she had.

Luckily, the movements themselves seemed designed to warm and stretch her, so despite the pain caused by multiple hours a day of intense effort, she didn’t believe she was in danger of injuring herself. She wanted to try the spell at sunrise, mid-afternoon, and sunset, as there had been some vague mention about different relationships with the different “heavens.” It was possible that the third sequence would be easier at a certain time of day, or even a certain time of year.

The air was nippy, but not enough for her breath to fog, and the last patches of snow were beginning to melt from the shadowy spaces that saw little sunlight. Spring had come, and the whole world knew it, from the birds to the earthworms to the shoots of grass.

Sebastien took off her boots first, to allow the pads of her feet and her toes full access to the ground and thereby increase her grip and stability. She took a deep breath, forced her hands as far down the sides of her thighs as she could hang them, which helped force her perpetually stiff shoulders to relax, and looked up at the sky.

Then, with a deep breath, she began to move, the wordless tone of her voice following her movements exactly.

Muscles that felt like they had been tenderized and joints that insisted they belonged to a centenarian screamed in protest against the necessary motion. Thankfully, the movements were broad strokes at first, and by the time they had become more precise, forcing her to balance on one leg while she drew gentle incoming waves with the toe of her other foot, she was warm enough that the pain faded.

Again, she lamented the fact that, unlike other people, she did not seem to have this thing called “muscle memory” that people talked about. The movements of her limbs did become more practiced with repetition, but anything in a sequence, or that demanded specific responses to specific stimuli, required constant, active thought from her. It never became instinctive. One move never flowed naturally into the next.

And so, it was as much a mental exercise as a physical one—keeping track of all her limbs in a three-dimensional space, remembering what came next, controlling her voice to make nonsense tonal sounds while keeping the count of each breath despite the urge to collapse into a panting heap, and through all that, still holding the idea of drawing in the light of the sun and filtering it with her movements until it was in a state to be absorbed.

How someone could manage this without some ability to split their concentration in multiple directions, I do not know.

She found it helped to keep the image of the symbol she was drawing in her mind and to remind herself that she was drawing it, rather than just dancing in place. Recently, when struggling to manage all the different components of the spell, she had started assigning color to the sounds, pretending that the symbol she drew changed color with each “humm,” “ooohh,” and “aaah.” The trick helped her to fit all the pieces together, and keeping track became easier.

There was a pattern to the spell, and though none of it ever became effortless, she had begun finding herself sinking into the required concentration. The rest of the world fell away, leaving only her body, moving just so, her breath, barely enough to sustain her, so that her pores seemed open in an attempt to absorb oxygen, and her voice, vibrating lightly and smoothly like a caress that helped to support her, nudging her just so when she would otherwise fall out of alignment.

Every time, of course, she eventually did fall out of alignment, some part of her failing and sending the rest tumbling like a house of cards. Quite literally, as she almost always ended up sprawled out on the ground, panting for breath.

As had happened only a few times, that morning she managed to make it through an entire round of the symbol, the end being the exact same point as the beginning, without any obvious mistakes. Her body seemed to buzz, her skin beaded with a light sheen of sweat, and her breaths came heavy but not heaving.

She was not so exhausted that she needed to stop, and so she continued.

Sebastien was halfway through the second circuit when a tiny strand of light appeared, as thin as the gossamer newly hatched spiders used to ride the air currents every autumn, following along behind the path of her finger.

She almost lost concentration, and the gossamer light faded. But as Sebastien renewed her focus on filtering in sunlight through the ever-smaller details of the symbol, the light trailing her movements returned.

She could feel some kind of energy entering into her. Not through her navel as she had originally expected, but through her forehead. ‘It must be light,’ she realized, ‘or at least some of the properties of light riding along on the converted energy.

It was wonderful, invigorating in a completely different way than the beamshell tincture. Where the sludgy concoction electrified her, leaving her tense, jittery, and full to bursting, this washed over her like the warm, buoyant waves of a saltwater pool, just dense enough to keep her afloat. It soothed where it passed, correcting small errors and wounds and leaving just a tiny bit of itself behind, little more than a metaphorical scent.

Despite the focus casting this spell required, her Will was somehow marginally refreshed, her mind expanded so that it was just a tiny bit easier to hold all the different facets of the spell with the necessary level of focus.

It was her body that gave out first, but unlike with most spells, there seemed no danger of backlash even as the bounding Circle and the symbol she had been creating were broken. Light billowed out around her like a puff of dust, and as her mind was left holding absolutely nothing, she stopped applying her Will and began to laugh lightly. There was no wryness to the sound, no undertones marring her pure delight.

As she tried to tuck her Conduit back into her pocket and crawl to her hands and knees, her body instead flapped around awkwardly, so exhausted that it refused to listen to her. She lay in a crumpled heap of sharp angles, staring up at the foliage and small creatures of the Menagerie around her. ‘I may have pushed myself a bit too hard.’ It was lucky that no one was around to catch her in such an undignified position.

Also lucky was the fact that she didn’t actually need to do anything tomorrow and could sit in Liza’s warded spare room all day while whining to herself about the extreme muscle soreness that was likely to compound upon what was already there.

Once she had managed to climb to her feet, she stumbled off directly to the infirmary. ‘None of my salves or potions are strong enough to handle this. Hopefully they’ll have something better to mitigate the pain and help my body recover.’ She did not relish the onset of consequences for her actions.

But I succeeded!’ she reminded herself, smiling brightly even as she struggled to maintain her balance on the slight angles of the cobblestone path. The aftereffects of the light-refinement lingered with her, an invisible glow in her mind.

After a visit to the very judgmental and exasperated healers at the infirmary, Sebastien took a long shower, rubbed herself down with a salve specifically meant to soothe sore muscles, and then dressed presentably. The Retreat at Willowdale had sent a favorable response to her overture, and whoever had written the reply even seemed to know of Sebastien, though only through her connection to Thaddeus Lacer.

They had invited her to visit in the afternoon. Sebastien splurged on a carriage with actual shock-absorbers, and then cast her own cushioning spell on a piece of seaweed paper she placed over the seat. These efforts made the ride nearly bearable, but every bump and divot in the road out of Gilbratha still seemed to punch her in some tenderized muscle or another. The muscle-soothing salve either wasn’t strong enough, or it was already wearing off.

Sebastien refrained from whimpering only out of consideration that, with the relative quiet of the countryside, the driver might be able to hear her. She alternated tiny sips of one of her regeneration potions with a nourishing draught and the mild pain-relieving potion the healers had given her.

When they arrived, Sebastien crawled out into the circular, cobblestone driveway of an enormous estate. The building in front of her would have been a sizable manor house on its own, but it seemed another hulking beast of a facility had been added on. Multiple stories high, the rectangular wings stretched out to either side and some undefined distance toward the back. Altogether, the Retreat reminded her of a turtle that had lain morosely on the ground, a small head sticking out at the front as its colossal mass succumbed to gravity.

The caretaker in charge of meeting her was a woman in her twenties, quite cheerful and enthusiastic as she led Sebastien inside and got her checked in as a visitor. She was an obvious contrast to many of the other employees Sebastien saw, who were in various states of visible fatigue. They seemed unhappy, and even those who smiled looked strained or wan. ‘Or perhaps it’s apathy brought on by extended periods of stress,’ Sebastien mused, watching as one of the patients in a common area threw up, and the nearest caretaker moved to clean the mess without a single word or twitch of expression.

“Most of our volunteers will read to the patients, though sometimes they bring other experiences, like music or art projects. Sometimes we even have a thaumaturge who performs magic tricks for them! Of course, some of the patients can be frightened of magic, but many of them retain their original delight in such things.”

“How many people do you keep here?” Sebastien asked as they passed hallway after hallway, moving deeper toward the center of the huge building.

“Oh, some two or three thousand people, long-term, perhaps? We always have a good few dozen or more temporarily admitted. I’m not sure of the exact numbers, but it does add up. We’re the best treatment center for over a hundred kilometers around, and everyone who can afford it wants the best for their family members.”

“And people who get severe Will-strain and never recover just…live here for the remainder of their lives?”

“We don’t only treat victims of Will-strain. Insanity and other mental illnesses or abnormalities come in a lot of different forms and from different sources. But yes. The University sponsors treatment for some of its former students, and donations from generous businesses, families, and individuals cover room and board for many other unfortunates who don’t have someone to pay their way. Of course, those families who can afford it have their relatives hosted on the upper floors. Very nice, premium service.” The woman made an “okay” sign with her fingers and winked at Sebastien.

“Grandmaster Thaddeus Lacer, my mentor, told me that the survivors from the latest expedition to the Black Wastes were sent here,” Sebastien lied.

“Oh yes, it’s very sad,” the woman said, nodding happily. “They were so brave, and if the rumors are to be believed, they actually found Myrddin’s hermitage! It’s too bad most of them won’t be able to appreciate the fruits of their endeavor. Totally scrambled, if you know what I mean. Can’t even talk coherently. Only one of them is showing any signs of recovery.”

“Oh? Do you think it would be possible for me to meet him?” Sebastien hoped she sounded perfectly normal, at most star-struck but definitely not as if she were hiding nefarious intentions. “Grandmaster Lacer told me he almost went on that expedition. They would have been teammates.”

“I’m afraid not, sir. He’s with the rest in the severe trauma ward.” She gestured vaguely in the direction of the rightmost wing. “That’s not open to the public, except for direct family members, for the safety of both the patients and the visitors. Sometimes they have episodes of confusion and can get violent.” The woman looked both ways, leaned closer, and murmured, “Sometimes they even try to cast magic.”

Sebastien was disappointed, but not overly surprised. Her plans never seemed to work out so smoothly, with so little effort. ‘If he’s recovering, perhaps I can wait until he’s moved into the general population, or even released entirely.’ But leaving things up to chance and time like that made her apprehensive. He was her only direct source of information, the only one who could reveal what Oliver may or may not have done, and if something were to happen to this man…

Sebastien managed to volunteer to interact with the patients in the common room closest to the severe trauma ward, hoping to gather information about how the Retreat’s systems worked and what might be needed to bypass their security.

She decided to read to the patients and, with the employees’ permission, set up an illusion spell array to illustrate the contents of the story with people and backgrounds made of simple shapes and colors. Extra practice with magic was always welcome. Splitting her concentration between reading as dramatically as possible, with different voices for each of the characters, while also improving the details of her illustration might even help train her Will for real splitting.

Sebastien cut off mid-word as Liza’s familiar voice echoed down the hallway. She looked up in surprise as the older woman came into view. On her left, one of the Retreat’s healers walked with her. A man wearing rather flamboyant robes woven with stylistic glyphs kept pace to her right, bearing the standard accessories of a shaman.

Behind them, some of the Retreat’s other employees carried several leather cases. They could have been filled with belongings, but by the way Liza and the healer were seriously discussing treatment methods, Sebastien judged them to contain equipment.

Liza made brief eye contact with Sebastien, who only then realized that she’d been staring, but the woman passed on into the severe trauma ward with no sign of recognition.

 

I’m poking my head out of the ink mines to take care of some administrative and marketing duties at the start of this month. There is so much to do, and always, it seems, so little time.

I’m considering hiring a part time VA/administrative assistant, but right now, I literally don’t have the time to set aside to hire someone and get them up and running with what tasks I could hand off.

As I mentioned recently, advance PGTS chapters are now solely the domain of the Master ($7) tier or higher.

The next chapter is coming Tuesday the 6th, as a reward for everyone’s involvement in the 100 Ways to Die Engagement Challenge.

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