Chapter 186 – Symbolic Meaning


Month 4, Day 12, Monday 2:15 p.m.

Professor Lacer clasped his hands behind his back and began to pace slowly. His voice was precise, clipped, and loud enough to be easily heard. “It may be the second term, but this class remains an introduction to Practical Will-based Casting. Some of you have been personally approved to move onward from the first term’s class. Some of you have been kept for a second or third attempt to meet my standards before advancing.”

This statement was met by the noise of embarrassed shuffling from some of the students.

After a pause, Professor Lacer continued. “This class is not like your others. You will not squeak by here on a modicum of effort. To meet my standards, you must continue to practice for a minimum of two hours outside of class, every single day. If you do not, please do not imagine I will somehow fail to notice.”

He stared at them all with dissatisfaction. “Once, when I was a relatively new professor, I thought that this need not be repeated past the first term. I was proven wrong. If you have doubts about your ability to keep up, please desist from wasting my time and leave now. I loathe marking homework papers, and I do not forget those who inconvenience me needlessly.”

Professor Lacer paused for an uncomfortably long moment, his eyes meeting those of each student in the room individually, as if to intimidate them into dropping his class. No one dared to avoid his gaze, though several flinched when they met it. Finally, he continued. “Having said that, as the exercises you will be attempting become more difficult, know that I consider endangering yourselves or your classmates an even greater affront than laziness. You will double-check all spell arrays before casting, and if you ever attempt to cast magic without your full faculties, or to disregard the impending signs of Will-strain, you will wish you had gotten away with being expelled from my classroom.” He looked at Sebastien then.

Someone behind Sebastien gulped audibly, and Damien ducked his head and looked at Sebastien out of the corner of his eye, but she simply nodded back at Professor Lacer.

“This term, rather than reaching full mastery over any single spell, you will be gaining experience with a large range of spells. All spell arrays may use only two glyphs, maximum, and no additional language, numbers, or words. It is important that you make the proper choices about what parts of the spell array can be cast aside. You will learn to choose the most relevant glyphs. ‘Good enough’ is never acceptable in my classroom.”

Sebastien was confident in her knowledge of glyphs, which had been thoroughly honed by all of her preparation for accessing Myrddin’s journal. Choosing the correct one for a particular application was only a matter of understanding and thoughtfulness.

Professor Lacer motioned to the blackboard against the front wall, and a stick of chalk rose to draw the most common elemental glyphs in a line across the top. “Children memorizing these glyphs are often encouraged to recognize them as if they were simplified drawings of the elements they represent. And, indeed, that may be how they came about originally. Some are undeniably simplified pictograms, but as a whole, glyphs are ideograms—symbols that represent a concept. They are used almost exclusively in the Word—an external clarification of intent—while spellcasting.”

Another wave of his hand, and the chalk scratched out another line of glyphs below the first. These were more obscure, their meanings more specific, and Sebastien only recognized a third of them.

“There are thousands upon thousands of known glyphs, and perhaps even more that have been lost to the sands of time or simple obscurity. Some of these you may be familiar with. Some are rare. And a handful would probably be recognized by only a few dozen people in the known lands. With practice, glyphs allow you to encapsulate more complex topics into a spell’s Word in a smaller space and with less time spent writing. However, glyphs are useful for more than that. A glyph meaning ‘fire’ will always be more effective than the written word, ‘fire.’ Does anyone care to attempt an explanation of this phenomenon?”

An upper-term student tentatively raised her hand. “Is it because glyphs are universal? Even if we don’t speak the same language, we can use the same glyphs.”

Professor Lacer nodded to the woman. “A reasonable attempt, Miss Bell, but not fully accurate. One can use a spell array written in another language to the same effect as a native, as long as one takes the time to learn the meaning and purpose of the words they use. The primary danger would be the presence of cultural differences that create a certain nuance being lost in translation, which could affect the outcome. In addition, glyphs are not fully universal. While we share a wide range, there are hundreds of notable differences between various countries and isolated groups. However, it is true that this single glyph for ‘fire’ will have been more widely used by thaumaturges from all countries, species, and origin than any one language’s alternative. Glyphs, like any magic, grow smooth and easy through continued use. This symbol has a history behind it that would be difficult to supplant.”

He nodded toward the blackboard, and a third line of glyphs was drawn. Each was distinct, but they all shared a certain indefinable quality. They were balanced and, if not all simple, all clear and almost…striking.

Sebastien recognized a couple. “Magic,” she mouthed, intrigued. ‘Are all these glyphs subtly different descriptions of the Will? Particular facets, perhaps?

Professor Lacer caught the word on her lips and sent her a subtle look of approval. Or at least she thought it was approval. It might also have been amusement. “There have been a surprising number of attempts to bind the very idea of magic, of intrinsic power, into the shape of a mundane glyph. Evidence of the hubris of thaumaturges, I suppose,” he said wryly, his gaze trailing slowly over the final line of glyphs. “With the right access and the right knowledge, one can begin to trace back glyphs to their origin, and from there, to judge the ideas of the society from whence they came.”

The chalk moved and drew a single glyph under a glyph for “magic” that was formed of a straight upward line bordered by upward-arcing lines on either side. The new glyph underneath it was similar, but the arcing lines were connected to a “v” shape instead.

“This glyph for ‘magic’ first appears in records dating back approximately four thousand years, used by a society of people who lived among the Starpeak Mountains. You may notice that it bears obvious relation to the still-common glyph for ‘flight,’ with elements of the connotation of ‘height,’ ‘elevation,’ and even…‘awe.’ You can imagine, perhaps, why to a certain kind of person, who valued certain kinds of things, the glyph for ‘magic’ would be so similar. This glyph for ‘flight-elevation-awe,’ to our knowledge, came before their attempt to define ‘magic.’”

Sebastien’s eyes narrowed, her gaze crawling over the glyphs for “magic” again. A few of them, she thought, bore certain similarities to other glyphs. One that might have been a twist on “grasping-hand,” another that was almost certainly based on the “ever-open-eye” that had no lid and so could not close, and a third reminded her of a tree with roots as deep and wide as its branches.

“Some ambitious historians have attempted to uncover the first glyphs, those that were created shortly after the Cataclysm—or even, possibly, before it.” The chalk settled down on the tray at the base of the blackboard, and then two of the glyphs began to glow. Their fire-bright forms rose from the board as Professor Lacer guided the illusion up to hang in the air in front of him, high and large enough for everyone to see.

One was a simple dot within a circle. The other was a bright disk surrounded by eight wavering rays, with an empty ring disconnecting the filled inner disk from the outer rays. It reminded her of the sun. Or, if it had been drawn in ink rather than light, perhaps an eclipse.

“These are the two oldest glyphs that represent ‘magic’ currently known to mankind,” Professor Lacer said. The brightness of the illusion cast harsh shadows on his face as he stared up at them. “They have no clear origin. What must those ancient people have known, or believed, that these were the most appropriate representations of power?”

Professor Lacer let the illusion fade. He cleared his throat and continued in quick, clipped tones. “There is a school of thought whose proponents insist that there is a perfect symbolic representation for all concepts. One for any particular idea you could think of. They suggest that the creation of new glyphs is simply a futile attempt to discover this perfect symbolic representation with blind fumblings. They believe that the physical world is not as real or true as timeless, absolute, unchangeable ideas. That there is a blueprint to perfection, and that our attempts to describe that perfection with glyphs are like outlining shadows that have been cast on a wall and declaring that our scribbles are equivalent to the being that cast them. But still, this false equivalence allows us to access some small portion of that perfection to empower our magic.”

He looked to Sebastien. “What do you think of this?”

She straightened, her heart giving a single heavy thump and then beginning to race along with her thoughts. Sebastien didn’t rush to speak, letting a few agonizing seconds of silence pass as she made sure of her answer. “I don’t agree.” Before he could prompt her for clarification, she took a deep breath and continued, drawing on the first example that came to mind. “For instance, consider the two glyphs that both mean ‘death-during-sleep.’” Her hands twitched as she realized that, unlike Professor Lacer, she could not simply free-cast an example for the entire class to see.

To her relief, he raised an eyebrow, then turned to the blackboard again, where the chalk jumped up and drew out two very different symbols. “These two?”

She swallowed. “Yes. They look almost nothing alike, obviously. A proponent of the ideal-form theory might suggest that these two glyphs actually encapsulate very different ideas, perhaps one being peaceful rest and the other a sudden theft of life. But each of these glyphs created almost interchangeable results, in both effect and efficiency, when used in experiments during the Third Empire.”

Professor Lacer gave her a nod and the very shallowest of smiles. “My apprentice is correct,” he said to the other students. And then, looking back at her, he added, “Interesting reading you have been doing.”

“We have the best library in the known lands. It would be foolish not to take advantage of it.”

His small smile grew larger. “Indeed.” He turned his attention back to the classroom as a whole. “So, it would seem that these two glyphs hold exactly, or almost exactly, the same meaning, despite their very different forms. But let us consider the opposite. What happens when a single glyph has two disparate, even opposite, meanings?”

He looked to Nunchkin.

The man’s eyes widened with suppressed panic. “Is that possible?”

“Perhaps not.” Professor Lacer raised his hands, one empty and the other holding his Conduit, in a motion that was akin to a shrug but didn’t involve his shoulders.

Sebastien’s eyes narrowed. Surely, Professor Lacer was not actually ignorant of the answer? ‘Someone must have tried that at some point. Maybe it’s even in my book of one hundred ways to die. But how, exactly, do you make a glyph?’ She hadn’t ever heard or read anything that gave such instruction or referenced use of the technique, but she couldn’t help but think that maybe it would be similar to the ritual she was performing to create a unique symbol linked to her and her alone. ‘If glyphs can be worn smooth by use, just like spells… You would be trying to overcome those deep-worn grooves, which seems like a great way to break your Will. Alternatively, you would need to give the glyph disparate meanings from the very beginning and…see what happens?’ That, too, seemed like a great way to die or become an Aberrant. She would not be attempting to personally sate her curiosity.

As if Professor Lacer’s thoughts had followed the same course as her own, he grimaced and raised the forefinger of his free hand. “There are records of several attempts to create new glyphs that intentionally or unintentionally infringed upon well-established glyphs, with grievous results. Do not attempt the modification of any glyphs. If you are interested in their creation, you may take advanced spell creation classes once you have your Master’s certification. Again, let me impress upon you that this is a warning against egregious stupidity.”

Sebastien suppressed a flinch. If her guiding light ritual was indeed creating a new glyph, then…well, it probably would have already harmed her if she’d failed to be original enough. It could also mean that any similar glyphs weren’t “established” enough to cause problems. She could, perhaps, go to Professor Lacer to ensure it was safe. Even though he’d watched her memorize the spell while they were in the archives, he might not have realized the contents. ‘But he would probably want to read the chant that goes along with it. And I’m…not comfortable with that.

She had time before the next repetition to decide what to do.

Professor Lacer cleaned the chalk off the blackboard, then drew out almost two dozen glyphs dealing with fire and heat. “This week and the next, we will be focusing on spells within a domain that I once heard a student describe as ‘fiery.’ While, if forced, you could simply use the glyph for ‘fire’ in many of the arrays, the wise among you will become familiar and proficient with this list. Several of these take concepts that would normally require two different glyphs and condense the idea into a single symbol. This is useful because precision and clarity increase efficiency, of course. However, you may also find yourself grateful for this experience if you ever need to draw out spell arrays in an emergency situation, or for any artificers among you, to fit your spell array into the smallest possible space. Most importantly, practice with increasingly minimalist spell arrays will help you become less mentally reliant on an indulgently overweight written Word.” Some humor leaking into his voice, he added, “When you must hold the entire thing within your mind, you will appreciate succinctness.”

With that, he called the students up to the front to each accept a thick sheaf of papers that covered the necessary glyphs in detail along with the dozens of spells they would be trying over the next two weeks. From there, a locking shelf beside the blackboard opened to allow them to pick up boxes of mundane components and supplies they would use for the casting.

There were fifty different spells that used the supplied glyphs in some way, but they spanned from expelling diffuse heat from a Circle, to burning a detailed image into a sheet of maple wood, to freezing ice shapes into water.

Some of the spells were marked for in-class attempts only, and Sebastien made a note to work on those with priority once she was cleared to cast again, lest she run out of time. At this rate, by the end of term they would have at least forty minutes of practice with pretty much every application of active-cast spells they might ever need.

As the students filtered back to their seats, Ana said, “This will be so much more bearable than last term. Did you know, I actually started dreaming about some of those spell exercises?”

“That’s because you never took Sebastien’s advice to try adjusting the spell in different ways while using the same spell array, nor did you try any of the challenges to stretch different facets of your Will,” Damien said, lifting his nose with a superior sniff.

Ana rolled her eyes.

Damien turned to Sebastien. “Professor Lacer knows about your concussion, right?”

“He does,” Sebastien said.

“Do you know what our special mentorship project is going to be this term? Another fifty spells on top of these ones, maybe?” Damien asked.

Ana shuddered. “I’d sooner join a monastery with the Stewards of Intention.”

“I don’t think you can technically call them monasteries—” Sebastien started, but she cut off when Damien waved his hand as if to say how unimportant this distinction was.

Damien placed his hand on Sebastien’s shoulder. “And that, Ana, is why Sebastien and I receive special tutoring from Professor Lacer and are on our way to being free-casters. Sometimes you have to put in the hard work if you have any ambition.”

Ana scowled at Damien. “I have plenty of ambition. I just don’t want to spend a third of my waking hours trying to become the next Archmage when there are other perfectly good ways to spend my time that aren’t so boring.”

Sebastien rubbed the bridge of her nose as the two bickered good-naturedly around her.

While the other students began to cast, she studied the sheaf of papers, familiarizing herself with the few glyphs she hadn’t yet learned, reading thoroughly through all the spell instructions, and making notes.

At the end of class, Professor Lacer asked her to meet him in his office.

Sticking his tongue out gleefully at Ana, Damien practically skipped by Sebastien’s side as they split off from the rest of the students to walk down the gently curving Citadel hallway toward Professor Lacer’s office.

“Childish,” Sebastien muttered, most of her thoughts distracted by trying to grasp some large, ephemeral idea that had been forming throughout Professor Lacer’s class but that she couldn’t quite grasp. ‘If glyph-creation has anything at all in common with my beacon-creating ritual, does that mean that all you need to create a glyph is intention, clarity, and…repetition?’ That hazy idea in her mind pulsed and vibrated, as if it were a dozen transparent images that simply needed to align, and suddenly, they would all make sense.

“Ana and I have been friends forever,” Damien said. “We’re practically siblings. And this morning, Ana said my haircut was ‘okay.’ And then, when I asked her again, she said it was ‘rather long up top.’ And then she said I look like a rooster with a swirly cockscomb!” Damien drew in a deep breath of outrage, his fists clenched at his side. “Can you believe that?”

“Mmhmm,” Sebastien replied absently, even more of her attention turning inward. ‘And once you create a glyph, just like a spell, you can make it easier to use through, again, repetition. But why does that work? What is there to keep track of how many times…or how many people…have used a glyph or cast a spell?’ She almost stumbled as the cohering idea surged like a heartbeat inside her mind. ‘This is important. I am confused. I am suspicious. I only have to fit the pieces together to find the real question I should be asking.’

Beside her, Damien continued to speak. “So then, of course I told her that her pants were too tight, of a poor cut, and making her rear look overly round and a little saggy. And she threw a bottle of ink at me!”

“How astounding,” Sebastien said. She searched her memory for moments of previous confusion, reviewing and discarding those that did not seem to match and gathering those that could be connected. ‘What keeps track of a new glyph’s form in the first place? Glyphs are shapes that connect to ideas. They represent ideas. Just as magical components connote certain concepts…but where do those concepts come from?’ She was breathing harder, her Conduit held tight in trembling fingers.

Damien was still talking, but by now no piece of her was spared to listen to him.

If culture can affect the ways spells work, or which glyphs you use to create an effect, then the concepts must come from the minds of those who use them, right?’ She had speculated similarly before, but it felt different now. It felt like there was something deeper at play. ‘If the color red means good luck to one culture but death and sickness to another, spells from people of those cultures might use the same red apple to different effect. Why wouldn’t it work the same for glyphs? Is it because no one uses a ritual to cement the magical use of a red apple? And why are some people able to use an autumn leaf for a transmogrification spell that causes darkness to descend, but I am not?

She reached the door to Professor Lacer’s office and leaned one hand against the wall to support herself as the world fuzzed out around her, too unimportant to allot any mental power to. ‘Is this why Pecanty goes over stories and plays and etymology? Because magic is somehow listening to the ideas of all the people in the world? Does that spell not work for me because my understanding doesn’t fit with the worldview of the average person? Because “darkness descending” doesn’t make any sense to me? Because I know that’s not how light works and I can’t unknow it?

Sebastien swallowed hard. ‘But if that’s the case, why would learning transmutation concepts make transmogrification easier? It should be the opposite, right? Every time we learn a bit more of the truth, we would lose a bit more access to the myth. Or maybe…it’s more personal. Damien is going to most of the same classes as me, but he’s not having any trouble with transmogrification. What’s the difference between him and me?

There were a lot of options, but the one that stood out to her was very succinct. ‘Damien does no blood magic.

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. ‘Is it not a myth that one can corrupt their Will? Is that what it actually means? That suddenly, we can’t access the same magic as everyone else, and when we keep trying, something inside us breaks?’

But no, that didn’t really make sense. Liza probably did more blood magic than anyone Sebastien knew, and she had no trouble at all with transmogrification. The relief left Sebastien momentarily dizzy. ‘So what is it, then? My idea is wrong, somehow. And whatever within magic keeps track of these things can tell.

She opened her eyes to find herself half collapsed against the wall, her forehead leaning against the white stone as Damien’s fingers dug into her shoulders with worry.

Then the world lurched around her as the air pressed into her legs, back and the back of her neck, hardening enough to lift her and wrench her free from Damien’s grip.

“Infirmary, now!” Professor Lacer snapped from behind her, already floating her along ahead of him.

Sebastien’s arms flailed out as she instinctively tried to grab onto something for balance and control, but there was nothing. She looked around wildly, trying to understand what was happening, and caught Damien’s pinched expression and white lips as he looked back to Professor Lacer while half jogging along beside her floating body.

“I don’t know what happened. We were just talking, and then it seemed like he was dizzy or in pain. He wasn’t responding to me. And then he kind of just slumped over into the wall. Is it the Wi—the concussion?”

“Most likely,” Professor Lacer agreed. “Speed is of the essence. Run ahead to the infirmary and let them know that we are coming. I want a full emergency team on standby and fully prepared when we arrive.”

Damien sprinted off without even a second of hesitation.

“Wait, wait!” Sebastien yelled. “I’m okay! I’m not hurt!”

Professor Lacer didn’t stop floating her at a speed that was almost a run, but he did rotate her so that she could see his face, and he hers. “You had collapsed.”

“No. I was thinking. I had an…epiphany. It was very shocking.”

Professor Lacer slowed and looked past her to Damien, whose racing footsteps had stopped. His lips pressed together, and she could almost see the thoughts racing behind his eyes, but rather than urge Damien to continue, he looked back to Sebastien. “Are you entirely certain? Are you experiencing any dizziness, pain, or confusion? Any phantom sights or sensations? Inexplicable emotions?”

Sebastien raised her hand to stop him. “No, none of that. I’m fine. I’ve been taking all of my potions and getting extra sleep. I was thinking so hard I forgot to stand up. And I have questions.”

Professor Lacer slowed, then returned her to her own two feet.

Damien hurried back to her side, his hands hovering as if to catch her if she collapsed.

Professor Lacer closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “You were thinking so hard that you forgot to stand up,” he repeated, as if it were the most inane thing he had ever heard.

But Sebastien couldn’t spare the energy or time to be offended. “Is magic sentient?” she asked.

Professor Lacer froze, lowering his hand and looking at her.

“Because,” Sebastien continued, “if it isn’t, how does transmogrification work?”


This one needed a lot more minor fixes than usual, which probably means more slipped through the cracks, too.

And for those of you very interested in the healing of Bear the dog, I want to assure you that I have not forgotten him.

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