Chapter 188 – The Curse of Curiosity

Sebastien

Month 4, Day 16, Friday 5:10 p.m.

Without being able or allowed to cast magic, Sebastien found herself with a surprising amount of extra time. And though she had planned for everything that involved Siobhan Naught or the Raven Queen to be settled with the completion of Operation Palimpsest, obviously things had not gone according to plan.

Sebastien knew she had a tendency toward recklessness that she hadn’t yet learned to suppress, but she liked to think that, as long as she had enough time to plan ahead, she was capable of noticing and avoiding unnecessary risks.

And so, she didn’t approach Grandmaster Kiernan for answers. She didn’t do anything that required her to assume her other body. She didn’t even leave the University grounds for the remainder of the week.

Instead, she did her best to act like a totally normal student and kept her eyes and ears open. Sebastien had listened to more gossip in the last few days than she had the entire previous term. She read rage-inducing newspapers from all the Crown-approved publications, as well as a worrying one from The People’s Voice.

While they might be getting away with publishing something closer to the truth by simply quoting speculation and comments from anonymous civilians, some of those comments might edge close enough to subversion to be called treason. At least the lack of outright and biased vilification of the Raven Queen showed that Oliver hadn’t—yet—turned on her.

In addition to all that, she subtly probed Professor Lacer for information.

According to him, the Red Guard had probably assigned a pair of agents to investigate her, and she could only hope that they were less easily biased by the things in the newspapers and the gossip floating around than the average person. Surely, they would find that the Raven Queen wasn’t nearly as special or dangerous as people were making her out to be?

But just in case, Sebastien didn’t want to give them any chance to actually meet her. She very much doubted that they would be as incompetent, literally and metaphorically divided, or confused as the Pendragon Corps operatives had been.

During her preparations for Operation Palimpsest, Sebastien had rented several locked boxes at various locations under different names, as that seemed the safest way to communicate with Professor Lacer. Tanya would transport the letters between pickup locations for herself and Professor Lacer, adding a degree of separation. When he deposited a letter into one, Tanya would move it to a different location for Sebastien or some other lackey to pick up. When Sebastien wanted to return a message, she would do the same, and he could retrieve her letter after it was ferried to the second location Professor Lacer was aware of.

Four different lockers for a simple letter exchange was convoluted and created a delay, but it probably made exchanging letters with him about fifty percent safer. Hopefully.

She was pretty sure he had no intention to turn the Raven Queen over to the authorities, anyway. And she was even more desperate for information about the seal in her mind than she was about Myrddin’s journal and what Oliver’s true role in the whole thing had been. But it was best to be cautious.

Sebastien left the keys under Tanya’s pillow with another short note and an explicit order to discard her shoes and buy another pair.

Before the linked bone disk was blown up along with all the other things she’d had in her previous bag, she had given a few shavings to Oliver so that the Verdant Stag could keep track of Tanya during what ended up being the Knave Knoll attack. Who knew how he might use them, if he had any remaining?

Sebastien had yet to confront Oliver, or even see him, since everything had happened. They had only exchanged a couple of coded letters, carried by a trusted runner. She couldn’t help but search them for clues to his mood or intentions, but his words were all bland and inscrutable, conveying only the necessary information and nothing more. Perhaps hers seemed the same to him.

She didn’t want to put off the inevitable confrontation any longer, but every time she thought of going to speak to Oliver, her mind spiraled into questions about Myrddin’s journal. There was such an obvious, gaping hole of information—the only question that the Archaeologist hadn’t answered for her—that she kept worrying at it like a tongue wiggling a loose tooth.

What was in the book?

She tried to distract herself with schoolwork while she allowed time and the most immediate danger of discovery to pass. It helped to keep her mind occupied, but almost immediately she began to miss her ability to cast magic. At least half a dozen times a day she began to set up a spell array and then remembered that the only magic she was allowing herself was the dreamless sleep spell, and that only from necessity.

It became a second loose, aching tooth, sitting opposite her unsatisfied questions and pushing her toward the edge of some sort of distressed outburst. She grew more silent as she felt the urge to snap at strangers and her friends alike every time she opened her mouth. They were all so intensely irritating, and it was a test of both her willpower and her resolution to be kinder.

While studying the items that Professor Lacer had instructed them to learn to create, Sebastien realized that his selection was far from random. Stone, vegetation, and fabric gave them a broad range of experience that would be useful when trying to use duplicative transmogrification or even pure transmutation to create broadly similar items.

But these specific items were special. The scab-root, so aptly named, came from a mountainous area on the far west coast, south of the equator. The plant killed all but the most tenacious of competitors simply by sucking up so many of the nutrients that were needed to survive. If not for how slow-growing it was, it would have been a devastatingly efficient invasive species. It sent out its ugly, knobby roots a long way before sprouting up another plant, and it was endangered because everyone hated it. It apparently tasted disgusting…but it had almost every single nutrient someone would need to survive. If one could supplement their diet with even small amounts of animal fats and proteins, they could live off scab-root indefinitely.

They might lose weight because of how disgusting it was, but they would survive.

The diamond had an obvious use: It could be utilized as an alternative to celerium for casting magic. Any diamond she created would need to be as close to perfection as possible, though, otherwise it would take one the size of her fist just to handle basic spells. And, of course, like all non-celerium Conduits, it would be more prone to shattering under the pressure of casting. One could also sell diamonds for enough money to purchase other basic necessities, though thaumaturge-created gems had relatively low values.

Sebastien imagined making a pair of curved, razor-sharp daggers out of pure diamond but was disappointed to discover, upon further research, that diamond was a rather brittle material and not suited as a knife. Or a shield. Or a full suit of glittering armor, alas.

The ribbon was spider-silk from the moon-orb weaver. It had been dyed with magic alone to create the impression of a painting through adjusting the light-reflecting properties of each filament-fine thread. It could be used to clothe herself with a fabric of truly surprising strength. When she ran it between her fingers, it reminded her of honey on her tongue, so smooth and compliant. Like the other two, it had no inherently magical properties.

It was also, despite her original conception of spider-silk, a passable substance through which to channel magic. Not because it was fire-resistant, but because it was an efficient channeler of power and wouldn’t heat as easily as paper. She had plans for it, and put it first on the schedule to master.

Together, all three objects covered almost everything she would need to survive in a long-term emergency such as getting lost in the wilderness.

But even such fascinating study couldn’t fully distract Sebastien from the loose-tooth questions that just sat around calling attention to themselves all the time. “What was in the book?” “How, exactly, was Oliver involved?” The third question was less defined, but consisted of a deep dread that woke her up before her alarms went off, wondering desperately about the seal in her mind and how she should deal with it.

By the time Friday evening rolled around, Sebastien was almost crawling out of her own skin with frustration. Her head had stopped hurting a couple of days before, but when she had asked if she could be allowed to start casting again since she felt fine, Professor Lacer had given her a short, sharp, “No.”

When she hadn’t responded aloud, he had repeated the word, as if to make sure she could understand basic speech, and she had shuffled off with her head bowed and shoulders drooping. He had called out to her departing back that she could go back to the healers for a follow-up examination when she finished her potions, and so she had been extremely careful to take them on the most frequent schedule allowed.

Sebastien forced herself to eat dinner first, and then mark it off on her tracking sheet, before hurrying to the infirmary. She sat through the examination with deliberate stillness, answering the healer’s questions with a severe expression as he tried to judge her health without the benefit of diagnostic spells. The man seemed reluctant to make any assertions without the benefit of his spells to confirm, but Sebastien hated the invasive, naked feeling of divination sliding past her wards. Without Professor Lacer there to force the issue, she glared the healer into submission and got a pass to return to casting.

With the sign-off slip in hand, Sebastien hurried straight to Professor Lacer’s office, hoping that he would be in residence. When he called for her to enter, she waved the slip at him triumphantly, breathing hard from her forced march across the University grounds. “I’m cleared to cast spells again,” she announced. “And Friday evening is technically the weekend, isn’t it? Can you supervise me? I want to try real output detachment and that autumn leaf transmogrification again. I’ve been thinking about them, and I believe I have both figured out.”

Professor Lacer lifted his pen from the page, where it had created an ink blot. “I see your convalescence has not improved your patience. Clear the furniture, and cast a few basic spells to get your Will warmed up first.” He retrieved his Conduit from a vest pocket and turned the ink blot into a fine black dust, which he blew away with a short puff.

As she drew out a spell array on the stone floor, Sebastien found herself grinning with excitement.

Professor Lacer stood up from his desk and moved to stand a few feet away with his hands in his pocket. His lips twitched upward when she met his gaze. “If you had a tail, it would be wagging. Go ahead, then.”

Sebastien flushed and made a concerted effort to compose herself before running through a few of the most basic spells. Finally, she set up a spell array to create a small sphere of light, with the output appearing one meter outside the circle and one meter above the ground.

Before she tried to cast the spell, she summoned up the epiphany she’d had after asking Liza about output detachment. ‘Detaching the output of my spell from the source should be no harder than splitting my Will. And energy does not need to travel through a physical medium.’ Perhaps this was not the same mental resolution that Professor Lacer used to detach his own output, but Sebastien felt confident that it could work. It was likely to work.

I am so weak. If I can’t make progress, my problems will overtake and devour me.’

She would make it work.

Sebastien took a deep breath, and as she exhaled slowly, she brought her Will to bear, filling the spell array, saturating the Circle until it was full and then compressing every speck of her purpose. Her resolve was as hard as granite and as heavy as the ocean. Reality would bend for her like a fresh willow branch. It was not strong enough to resist. It had never been meant to resist.

Light,’ she thought, staring at an empty point in the air as she split the Sacrifice from the output. It did not need a tether, some material substance for her to channel power through. It could receive energy just as light traveled through the void. It did not need a connection to the Circle, only to her Will.

The sphere of light appeared, bright and sure, floating in the air as if it had always been there. The spell array did not flare bright with wasted power.

“I did it,” she said confidently.

Professor Lacer squinted his eyes, peering carefully at the empty area between the sphere of light and her spell array. “It seems you might be right,” he said. “Let us see.” He ran her through the same exercises that he had that first day. Where she had struggled before, with her back turned and her eyes closed, she now found it easier. And before, she had failed to create the light past a solid barrier or in a location that she could imagine but had never seen, but now her Will was able to overcome, with extra effort put toward extreme clarity of purpose.

“Well done,” Professor Lacer said with a kind of quiet gravitas that let her know he meant it. He handed her a slip for twenty contribution points. He did not seem to notice anything strange about the method she had used, nothing abnormal about the brain that could have split the input from the output in the same way she split her Will.

Sebastien relaxed, trying to bask in the glow of success, just as she basked in the glow of the sun while practicing light-refinement. She had taken a real step to becoming a free-caster. It was wonderful…but it wasn’t enough.

She tucked the contribution point slip safely away in the inner pocket of her suit vest. “Now, for transmogrification?”

“Very well.”

This one, she felt less confident about. She had spent some time over the week trying to pound the ideas of darkness associated with an autumn leaf into her mind—not her own ideas, but the ways the average person would, perhaps unknowingly, connect the two.

Try not to force it. A million minds hold this idea for me. All I need to do is call upon the intangible weight of ideas they’ve already created.’ She tried to imagine it, what it might mean for all those ideas to be smashed together into some ephemeral whole, a concept as broad as “the darkness” condensed into a word, or in this case, a glyph and a component.

Her Circle grew gloomy and dark from the left-hand corner first, like some kind of reverse sunrise. The leaf, the only spot of bright color lying on the floor, became washed out, a darker grey lying dead upon the lighter grey of the stone below. She could feel a faint chill emanating from the half-sphere of the output effect, not because she had sucked up the heat for power, but because autumn came with cold. Sebastien waved her hand around the bounds of the Circle, frowning. The spell wasn’t consuming warmth from the air. In fact, she wasn’t sure that a temperature-sensing artifact would pick up an actual difference in heat distribution within the bounds of her Circle. But it seemed cold.

She held the spell for a while, feeling vaguely off-balance, as if she were sitting on a slope at the edge of a very steep ravine.

“Another success,” Professor Lacer intoned softly.

Sebastien let the spell drop. “I can do better.”

He raised one eyebrow.

“I can tell I’m still missing something. It doesn’t feel right. I’m lacking…clarity.”

Professor Lacer contemplated her, his expression inscrutable. After an uncomfortably long pause, he said, “Clarity has always been one of the more impressive facets of your Will. If you feel you are lacking, then I will not gainsay you. At your current standard, you should have no trouble with your classes, but adequacy is hardly an achievement. I am interested to see how you improve.”

The satisfaction Sebastien had gained from practicing magic again, as well as her long-overdue success with output detachment, faded away soon after she left Professor Lacer’s office. She couldn’t be sub-par at transmogrification. Things were calm now, but it seemed inevitable that dealing with the seal in her mind would one day require more of her than she was currently capable of.

As Grandfather had said to her, ‘If you don’t know what you need, seize power, for it can be converted into almost anything else.’ Again, as ever, it was true.

Sebastien spent the rest of the evening in her cubicle trying to get rid of that off-balance, unsettled feeling while casting transmogrification-based spells. She did not succeed, and the loose-tooth itch of unanswered questions in her mind seemed to feed on her frustration until she gave up her attempts.

She cast her dreamless sleep spell as she normally did, trying not to think about the parts of it that relied on transmogrification, and then lay in the darkness for a full hour, unable to sleep.

Finally, she rose, picked up her satchel, and walked out into the night, leaving her student token behind in her cubicle. Just that morning, she had snatched a token that an upper-term student had left lying at the foot of a bench outside. Obviously, the lectures at the beginning of term hadn’t worked. Sebastien had pocketed it on a whim, mostly, but if she were honest, a potential use had been in mind from the beginning. And she did try to be honest with herself.

Disguised by a hood, Sebastien walked to the transport tubes and, seeing that there was no one around, rode one down into the city. She tucked the student token at the base of the tubes, hidden under a rock. A long walk took her to a run-down inn that was about as far from the Silk Door as she could get. The whole way, she contemplated what she was doing, but some part of her knew it was already too late. Sebastien had made up her mind. She wouldn’t wait for answers any longer. She used one of their rooms to change into her other body.

Siobhan left still in Sebastien’s clothing, then found one of the more obscure places noted on Oliver’s map of the city as a good place to escape pursuit by the coppers. In an abandoned gate house tucked away in a small copse at the edge of a manor, she changed her clothes and magically dyed her hair the dark of blackest night.

Returning to the University, she retrieved the upper-term student’s token as she passed.

She walked into the darkness of the woods until she found a spot of almost pitch blackness, so dark she couldn’t even see her hand in front of her face. There, she slipped on the wire-framed feather ornaments that Oliver had gotten her. Luckily, she had left them and some of her other most precious belongings behind before the Knave Knoll attack, or they would have disintegrated along with everything else. They wiggled and disappeared into her hair, allowing the feathers to slide naturally through the long dark strands.

The stolen student token allowed her onto Grandmaster Kiernan’s front porch. Any records after would list a visit by that unfortunately careless student, who had no actual connection to either of her identities. It wouldn’t get her past the front door, of course, but she had other ways to make sure he would speak to her.

Siobhan had been planning to simply knock on the front door, but she could hear shuffling sounds and muffled thumps of movement inside. A peek through the edge of Kiernan’s window showed the man slipping on his jacket as if to leave.

At first, her heart rate spiked with fear that he was already aware of her presence, but she quickly realized that his face held none of the tension of someone who was aware of a visit by the Raven Queen. She might not be the best at understanding facial expressions, but Kiernan seemed slightly absentminded and maybe irritated.

So Siobhan tiptoed over to one of the porch chairs and sat down.

Kiernan had opened the door and stepped past her before registering her presence in the corner of his vision. He froze, did a double-take, and then went rigid.

Siobhan could practically see the shock run through him as his entire body stiffened from toe to head. If he could fly, he would have lifted off the ground.

“Sit with me,” she said, motioning to the other porch chair.

“I had nothing to do with what happened,” Kiernan immediately said. He regained control over his faculties with surprising speed and gave her a ninety-degree bow. “I am not so foolish as to keep doubling and tripling down on my mistakes, my lady. I promise you, I had nothing to do with the kidnappings, or the divination attempts, or—or any of it. I will vow to it, if necessary.”

Siobhan hadn’t suspected him; the true culprit of everything that had happened the Friday before seemed quite clear. “I know,” she agreed easily, exaggerating her sense of ease as well as her certainty. She gestured to the seat next to her once more.

Grandmaster Kiernan shuffled closer, then sat on the edge of the seat gingerly, as if prepared to spring to his feet again at a moment’s notice. She allowed herself a small, vindictive smile at the distinct difference between his behavior now and how he had treated her when she was Sebastien.

“I had no choice but to betray the Verdant Stag,” he announced.

Why is he bringing this up? Is he, perhaps, searching his memory for what sin he might have committed to require a visit from me? Like a child accidentally confessing their crimes when given a stern look from a parent?’ “Continue,” she said, curious. “I’m not here to harm you. I simply hope to have a more…open communication.”

“I felt I had no choice,” Kiernan repeated. “I do not know if Lord Stag told you, but I was blackmailed to ensure the escape of several important Morrows by an ally of theirs that had remained free. But it was not only that. The Verdant Stags have been very clearly setting themselves up to take power from”—he lowered his voice secretively—“the Architects of Khronos. They’re edging in on beast core procurement and other smuggling monopolies, gaining influence, and with the book…”

“Yes?” she asked, suppressing signs of her own spiking interest.

“Well, it seems like they want to squeeze us for rare magical components and the end-product celerium while keeping the real power and control for themselves. Perhaps Lord Stag even hopes to play us against the Crowns and try to benefit from civil war. They’ve made absolutely sure to get their hands on a complete celerium supply chain. I hope you understand the kind of…desperation this situation could inspire.”

Siobhan cleared her throat. Somehow, she didn’t think he was speaking about celerium mining. “How, exactly, is the book integral to a complete celerium supply chain?” She knew she was giving some measure of power away by asking so clearly, but this was too important a question to edge around.

Kiernan gave her a strange look. “You can speak freely with me, my lady. I already know that it holds the process for purifying and draining beast cores of power without shattering them, allowing us to turn them into pure celerium that can be used as Conduits.”

Siobhan nodded slowly, trying to make sure that her body gave away no involuntary signs of shock. “Tell me, do you have any other reasons for suspecting that the Verdant Stag wants to take advantage of a civil war?”

“Well, perhaps they have some other plan. If I were being charitable, I might say that Lord Stag is actually attempting to prevent upheaval. But it’s already far too late to stop it. Possession of the knowledge in that book is going to be critical with what’s coming. There will be mass panic once the populace learns that the celerium mines are running dry.”

 

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