Month 11, Day 2, Monday 4:00 a.m.
When Sebastien woke on Monday morning, with only the light of the stars filtering in through the window to see by, she didn’t know where she was for a moment. She lay still, her Conduit in her hand without having knowingly grabbed it, and waited for the danger to reveal itself. As her brain cleared of dream residue, it caught up with recent events, and she realized she was in a dorm room with over one hundred other students. If something external had woken her, it was likely just a snore.
She grabbed the pocket watch sitting on her bedside table and held it up to the window to read the time in the faint light. Setting the watch back down with a sigh, she got up. With a fresh set of clothes, one of the luxurious towels she had brought from Dryden Manor, and the pouch that held her hygiene materials, she tiptoed off to the bathrooms assigned to their dorm. The bathroom, like the dorm, was all one big room, but at least the thin walls enclosing the showers and self-cleaning chamber pots provided some privacy.
The water was hot, and the feel of it beating down on her shoulders as she washed helped to put her at ease. When she returned to her bed, she felt calm enough to secure at least a few more hours of rest. She knew that she would need it.
When she woke again to the vibration of her spelled pocket watch, she felt ridiculously refreshed. ‘Well, that is almost twice as much sleep as I normally get. I suppose I’ve forgotten what it feels like to be rested. Perhaps the library will contain a stronger version of the dreamless sleep spell. It would be wonderful to feel like this every day.’ She dressed in one of her much-too-expensive suits and carefully filled its pockets with her standard gear, then recast the locking spell on her trunk before leaving for the cafeteria.
The comments about the University food had not been in jest. It was…lacking, both in taste and in volume. ‘It’s funny how quickly you can adapt to hedonism,’ she thought, spooning tasteless oat slop into her mouth. A mouth-watering omelet with cheese and fresh vegetables and a stack of waffles with nuts and drizzled syrup had called tantalizingly to her stomach…but they were only for students with contribution points. The worst thing, though, was that coffee required points, which shouldn’t have been a surprise, considering its cost. ‘Just a couple months ago, on the road, I was conditioned to campfire food with only the occasional seasoning, and wouldn’t have found this meal lacking. Staying at Dryden Manor has spoiled me. Perhaps I can buy some spices in the city and add them to the meals myself.’
Her first class was Introduction to Modern Magic, in one of the slightly wedge-shaped classrooms on the ground floor of the Citadel. The surface of the students’ desks were made of dark slate, like the blackboard at the front of the room, and had a main Circle and a few attached component Circles carved into the surface already, ready to be filled with a written Word array. Sebastien assumed this was for both safety and convenience. ‘It’s impossible to carelessly smudge a carved line.’
The teacher was an older woman, but despite her grey hair, her cheeks were rosy, her lips plump, and her eyes bright. All signs of rejuvenating cosmetic magics, or perhaps glamours. “Welcome, students!” she said, her tone both kind and enthusiastic, like some perfect mother from a child’s tale. “I am Jan Burberry, Professor of Modern Magics and Master Sorcerer. You can call me Professor Burberry.”
“This is Introduction to Modern Magics. The class is an amalgam of many of your other classes, taking bits from all of them, and encouraging you to put those pieces together as we learn to both understand and cast spells. It is not called simply ‘Introduction to Magic’ because we will be focusing on the contemporary understanding and innovations to our process that have allowed us to make such great strides as a nation. I am talking about sorcery.” She looked around at all the students, who were listening raptly with an energy that would no doubt wane later in the term as the novelty wore off and fatigue set in.
“Sorcery is, in fact, inherently no different from other forms of magic. We have simply given a new name to a new, more ordered method of thinking about magic, and about the world. Modern magic is quantified and defined—as best we can, anyway. We understand the purpose of the Word, and with transparent methods of notation, a spell can be learned by someone halfway across the country, with no need for a teacher to walk the neophyte through each step. Natural science allows us to understand the world and use its established rules to affect change. A broader comprehension of sympathetic science allows us to devise a way to attain almost any imaginable spell output.” She said the words with the gravitas they deserved, a kind of gleeful avarice in her eyes, and suddenly Sebastien saw how a woman such as Professor Burberry had become a Master of sorcery, a shiver of excitement aroused in her own chest.
The professor stopped and looked at a young man in the middle of the classroom. “Do you know the commonly used analogous terms for the effects of natural science and sympathetic science?”
The young man stiffened in surprise and swallowed heavily. “Err, transmutation and transmogrification?”
Professor Burberry nodded. “Correct. As you should know, transmutation is the magical art of transforming something from one form into another, natural form, configuration, or element of itself. A common example is transforming water into ice, or mud into stone. Transmutation takes one thing and turns it into another directly. Transmogrification takes the intangible qualities of something and uses them to transform something else or cause some effect. A common example of this is using a feather, preferably a white feather, in a spell to reduce weight. Even if you see the connection between a feather, flight, and the idea of weightlessness, why does the color of the feather matter? You will dig deeper into this in your class on sympathetic science.
“All magic consists of the same basic elements. Components, if you will.” She paused, and scattered members of the class tittered at the little joke. “It is often said that magic has three necessary elements. This is wrong. It is similar to the misconception that we live in three dimensions. Can anyone explain what I mean by this?”
The classroom was silent. Sebastien frowned, trying to figure out what the woman was getting at. ‘Will, Word, and Sacrifice are the elements of magic. What three dimensions do we supposedly live in? Does she mean length, width, and height, like a three-dimensional box?’
The woman’s next words confirmed this suspicion. “There are three spatial dimensions, but the fourth dimension is time, which allows us to experience the other three. Time is not different from space, it is simply that we live inside it, and so we cannot see it. Or at least, that is the latest theory of Archmage Bolton from Silva Erde.” She drew some depictions on the board of how the world would be perceived in one, two, three, and four dimensions.
Sebastien drank in the explanation with excitement, her mind swirling as her paradigm of the world shifted. She had never thought of time in that manner before. ‘If that’s true, then doesn’t it mean time can be bent or changed, like the other three?’ She imagined a pocket of invisible time tucked away from the rest of the world, like the amulet she wore under her shirt had been tucked away inside a space-bending spell in the leather of the stolen book. Perhaps one day, she could create such a thing.
Professor Burberry turned from the drawing on the blackboard. “Does anyone know the fourth dimension of magic, now?”
Slightly behind Sebastien and to her right, a familiar voice called out, “You are speaking of the Conduit, Professor.”
She turned to see the rude, grey-eyed boy, a small smirk playing about his mouth.
The professor tipped her head to him in acknowledgment. “That is correct, Mr. Westbay. The Conduit is the fourth element, which allows the expression of the initial three. All students should have one, and you will need one for this class. Conduits for sorcerers are a mineral called celerium. Celerium, in its purest and most conductive form, is a clear crystal. In addition to being the only suitable Conduit for a sorcerer, it is useful in a number of artifacts and other delicate and powerful spells, and with the limited amount that can be mined each year, it is understandably a valuable resource.” She stopped, her eyes on Sebastien. “Do you disagree, young man?”
Sebastien belatedly realized that she had been frowning, her head tilted to the side quizzically. She may have even given a small shake of her head, before Professor Burberry reminded her that she was visible to the other people in the classroom, and, beyond that, that the person teaching her was not her grandfather, the man that relished dissension as a sign of actual thought from his pupil. ‘I must stop forgetting that.’ Aloud, she said, “Oh, no, Professor. I apologize.”
Burberry gave her a raised eyebrow and a challenging quirk of her plump lips. “No need to back down now, young man. Are you a witch, perhaps? You have your own familiar and feel it is just as good as a celerium Conduit?” Her words were—ever so slightly—mocking. “Tell us what is on your mind. Do not be shy.”
Sebastien could feel herself straightening in response, but resisted the urge to stand. “I just thought that it seemed you were leaving out other possible Conduits besides celerium. I have a celerium Conduit myself, and I agree that they are superior for sorcerers, but as I understand it, one can use anything at all as a Conduit. It’s just that most things don’t work very well for the purpose, or have other downsides or requirements, like using your own body as a Conduit, or needing to make a contract with a being from another plane.”
Burberry had lost her faint smile and was now staring at Sebastien grimly. She let the silence drag on for too long, until it became uncomfortable. “I see I should have allowed you to remain silent.” Finally, she turned to the rest of the class. “Using your own body as a Conduit is not just ‘bad.’ I do not consider it a viable option at all. I would sooner try to use the very air within my lungs to channel magic than such a ridiculously dangerous and suicidal method. Strike the possibility, the very idea, from your minds. Never consider it, even in the direst of circumstances. If you have no Conduit available to you, it would be better to die than to cast with your own flesh and blood.” Again, she let the silence drag on, meeting their eyes with a hard gaze.
‘Knowledge is always better than ignorance. How could it be better to have no idea about the possibility than to understand and be wary of the dangers? Burberry doesn’t believe this, it seems. If today is any indication, she will teach us what she thinks is good for us to know, not everything there is. But who is she to decide what we should know? Who is she to limit me at all?’ Sebastien found her heart pumping faster with indignation and tried to relax. ‘She and I are philosophically incompatible. Still,’ she consoled herself, ‘she is a Master of sorcery. There is much for me to learn from her.’ Sebastien had lost some of her enjoyment in Burberry’s lecture, but she continued to pay attention.
“It is my duty to impress upon you, as I attempt with all my students, the danger of this path you have chosen to walk. Perhaps you have heard the statistics.” Her voice was strained as she continued. “I have seen too many young lives snuffed out in the most gruesome of manners. Let us talk about the main ways we, as thaumaturges, put ourselves in danger. We will have this discussion once. If I see anyone carelessly putting themselves or others at risk, be assured I will punish you to the fullest extent of my authority.”
She glared out at them until she was sure everyone was paying complete attention, then moved to write on the chalkboard. “Energy imbalance. Circle placement and disturbance. Will-strain. Conduit failure. Blood magic and corrupted Will.”
She tapped her chalk on the first item on the list. “Objects have an energy coefficient that is based partially, but not completely, on their density. This affects both necessary input and output of a spell, as well as the strength of Will required to cast it. Let me give you some examples. If you are attempting a simple shape-change transmutation, say molding a twig into the shape of a block, with a one-gram twig and an output of a two-gram block, the extra mass has to come from somewhere. Somewhere you didn’t plan on, which means you don’t have the proper Word setup for it. The magic will become unstable, and if your Will is strong enough, the remaining wood might be carved out of somewhere else within the bounds of the Circle, and avoid the whole spell failing outright. What if your input and output volumes match, but you are molding a metal rod instead of a twig?” She turned expectantly toward her students.
“It takes more energy,” someone supplied.
“Exactly. You will require a sufficient energy source to mold a material with a higher energy coefficient, as well as a stronger Will. What if you have not supplied enough energy?”
“It must come from somewhere,” Sebastien muttered.
Burberry pointed at her. “Yes. But where?”
“From somewhere inside your Circle, hopefully. If your Will is strong enough, as you mentioned, you might be able to turn the spell to eating at the warmth of whatever matter lies within the spherical boundaries. Then, at the matter itself. Dirt, air, whatever there is. Will is a glue that can fill in the gaps, but there has to be something there to work with. You’d be risking the magic escaping your control and causing either physical or mental backlash.”
“Let us ponder the situation in the other direction. You have a small flask of water. You attempt to put all the energy from a bonfire into it. What happens?” she asked, still staring at Sebastien.
“If the flask is sealed, it explodes. I suppose the nature of the damage would depend on how quickly you were transferring the energy. If your Will has a high enough capacity to push the contents of the flask from water to gas instantly, it could be very dangerous.”
The woman nodded, humming thoughtfully. “Alright. Let’s talk about the Circle itself, then. Let us say you are casting a spell on a piece of leather. Creating a purse that wards against thieves, perhaps. You stick your hand into the Circle. What happens?”
Sebastien’s stomach twisted. That was not a random question. ‘Professor Burberry must have heard about my idiocy during the verbal entrance exam.’ She hesitated before answering. “Any number of things could go wrong. Perhaps the spell doesn’t distinguish between leather and living skin, and your hand is flayed and made into a purse.”
Burberry’s tone was cold. “And perhaps you lose control of the spell when that happens. Perhaps everything within the Circle explodes, and you die. Perhaps the loose magic rips your mind apart and you are left a mumbling idiot screaming at invisible terrors and wetting the bed for the rest of your life.”
Sebastien swallowed. “Yes,” she said, her voice little more than a shamed whisper, though her chin did not bow and her shoulders did not hunch.
Burberry turned to face the rest of the class again. “You can also cause damage by disturbing the boundary of the Circle. If it is drawn in chalk or scratched in the dirt, and something breaks the enclosure of the Circle, your control over the Sacrifice and the magic moving through the spell will be severely compromised. You will be lucky to escape with just Will-strain, if you are able to release the magic ‘safely’ and end the spell-casting prematurely. I recommend only casting spells with fully carved or engraved Circles, such as the ones the University provides.” She motioned to their slate desks.
“Who can tell me the causes, signs, and side-effects of Will-strain?”
The grey-eyed boy to Sebastien’s right raised his hand immediately, and the professor nodded to him. “Your Will can be strained from losing control of a spell’s magic, or simply from channeling too much at once, or for too long,” he said, reciting the answer with the cadence of something memorized. “It starts with headaches, dizziness, and inability to concentrate. At this point, a few days of rest from spellcasting or mental strain will heal you. With more moderate strain, judgment is impaired. Sometimes thaumaturges display difficulty modulating emotions, with rapid swings from one to the other. At this point, one to two weeks of rest is recommended, along with a visit to a healer to ensure there is no lasting damage. Then hallucinations, with the more severe ones resulting in paranoia and even accidental harm to oneself or others. The strain is very serious at this point. You should ignore the hallucinations. Avoid focusing on them and forcefully relax yourself, even if that requires sedatives. There is still a possibility of recovery at this point. Beyond it, the Will-strain damage is irreversible, and results in complete insanity and at times, the loss of higher brain functions.”
“A good answer,” Burberry said.
Out of the corner of her eye, Sebastien could see the boy trying to shoot her a superior look. She didn’t turn toward or acknowledge him in any way.
He humphed and deflated a bit.
“Let me impress upon you all that even mild Will-strain is nothing to shrug off,” Burberry continued. “You will be excused from in-class exercises and casting homework if you bring a note confirming Will-strain from our infirmary, and the medics there are well-versed in treating it.”
She turned back to the next item on the board. “Now, Conduit failure. This danger can come as a sudden surprise to a thaumaturge, and, indeed, there is little warning. Most commonly, a Conduit fails because it is not rated for the volume of energy being channeled through it. This can happen as a sorcerer outgrows their crystal. This is also why we attempt to quantify the energy needed for modern spells, and note it. If your Conduit is not rated, get it tested, and do not cast spells above its limit. We will be testing your Will’s capacity on the Henrik-Thompson scale today. Your Conduit should always be more powerful than you are. If it is not, replace it immediately. For non-sorcerers, such as witches, who channel their magic through a contracted being, failure due to simple lack of channeling capacity is much rarer. Deliberate sabotage by an improperly bound being is more common, but beyond the purview of this class.”
She turned back to the board, tapping her chalk on the last item on the list. “Finally—and I hope none of you ever have to deal with this particular risk factor—extreme mishaps are common with those who cast blood magics and other depraved spells. You can corrupt your Will, which has consequences greater than any Will-strain or spell gone wrong.” Burberry paused and looked at the ground for a few long seconds, her rosy cheeks pale. “Those who cast magic with a corrupted Will have a chance to become an Aberrant. A grotesque, mindless monster bent on evil.” She didn’t elaborate further.
The class broke into murmurs. ‘Aberrants are like a scary story used to frighten children, to them,’ Sebastien mused. ‘They hear about them, but one has never touched their lives.’
“Some Aberrants still have enough of their higher brain function to cast magic.” Burberry looked to Sebastien. “They channel it through their own bodies. Which, incidentally, is another way to corrupt your Will, even with the most innocent of spells.”
Sebastien looked back at her, trying to show that she understood the woman’s point, though she still didn’t feel a simple mention of what was possible deserved such an overreaction.
The lecture turned to the other topics they would cover that term, and ended halfway through the ninety-minute period to allow time for the testing of their Wills.
Burberry brought out a crystal ball embedded in the surface of a complicated spell array etched in copper. This was the Henrik-Thompson measurement artifact, named after its creators. She dimmed the light crystals illuminating the room and lit a small brazier burning some kind of oil.
The students were to channel light through the crystal ball using the flame in the brazier as an energy source. Sebastien had tested herself in one of the larger cities she and Ennis had traveled through over a year prior. The Henrik-Thompson scale only measured the amount of energy someone could channel, not any of the other facets of Will power, but it was the most widely used metric, probably because it was easiest to test, and often showed correlation to the overall caliber of a thaumaturge’s Will. The brighter the light, the more power they were channeling per second.
Burberry placed a Conduit on the copper plate. “Everyone will cast with this today. It is rated to Master level, so have no fear of exceeding its capacity. Remember, if you test above your Conduit’s thaum rating, replace it as soon as possible.” She paused, then said firmly, “There will be no disturbances or distractions while another student is casting.”
Some students struggled to conduct even the barest flicker of light, even in the dimness of the room. Those were the people who didn’t come from rich families that only abided by the laws restricting learning or teaching magic when they saw fit. For some, it might even have been the first spell they ever cast, strange as that seemed to Sebastien. Many commoners never cast any real magic in their lifetimes.
The rich boy who seemed intent on quarreling with her didn’t hesitate in front of the spell array. He caused the crystal to glow brightly and held the light steady, clear evidence that he had long practice in spell casting. He glared down at it as he pushed his Will to its limits.
It was also obvious when Burberry showed neither surprise nor concern that the University didn’t expect these laws to be universally enforced. “One hundred sixty-six thaums.”
It was an impressive number, judging by the average of ten among true novices, and seventy from those who had prior experience casting. He shot Sebastien a smug look.
When it was her own turn, Sebastien was surprised by her performance. Under the steely force of her Will, the crystal glowed bright and brighter, and Burberry’s eyebrows rose slightly as it illuminated an area a few feet in diameter.
Sebastien felt like she might be able to push a little harder, but she was aware of the gazes of sudden interest or surprise. She was also aware of her lack of any real background. Sebastien was an illegitimate heir of the nonexistent Siverling family. With mild disappointment, she held the spell at its current power, and then released it. She wouldn’t be able to show them her prowess or superiority, but that was probably for the best. ‘Sebastien Siverling shouldn’t stand out, so once he’s gained his eventual certification, he can melt away without anyone being particularly interested.’
“Two hundred three thaums,” Burberry announced.
It was higher than Sebastien had thought it would be. ‘I’ve improved,’ she thought, keeping the pleased smile from her face.
The pretty girl who slept in the bed across from Sebastien’s gave her an assessing look, not even trying to be subtle about it, then raised an eyebrow toward her friend.
Sebastien gave him a bland look, then returned to her seat, the edges of her lips twitching.
Once everyone had finished, Burberry recommended the same remedial casting classes and supervised practice rooms Tanya and Newton had mentioned the day before. “Practice is extremely critical to improving your Will’s capacity. The more you practice, the faster you grow. For those of you on the lower end, you will find, with some variation due to talent and the effort you place into your practice, that your capacity improves by about one thaum for every fourteen hours of spellcasting. If you were to practice for an hour every day for the next ten years, you might find it only takes five hours to gain a thaum. Archmage Zard can gain a thaum in half that. Of course, he has to train with much more powerful magic to do so. The improvement from practice might be negligible in the short term, but over time, with dedication, it can be the difference between cooling your house to a comfortable temperature during the summer and saving an entire village from a forest fire. Your potential is limited only by your lifespan—which will be lengthened with consistent magic use—and your dedication to continually stretching your limits.”
‘Even the most powerful thaumaturges die eventually, though,’ Sebastien thought, thinking of her grandfather. ‘And if it were truly so easy to become an Archmage, there would be more of them.’
Burberry gave the class a handful of simple variations on a rudimentary spark-shooting spell meant to teach the students how to mold their mindset and their Will toward various effects and get comfortable writing spell arrays. She explained how the spell array worked in detail.
Sebastien had learned the spell as a child, to ward off animals. She hadn’t used all the spell array variations Burberry wanted them to practice, but as with most of the simple spells she’d learned that young, she had practiced creating sparks to exhaustion, perpetually entertained by the wonder of casting magic. She would have no trouble with any of the variations, even if she didn’t have the specific spell array meant to send the sparks shooting up, or change their color.
Burberry handed out little pouches with one lava berry, a dried fire salamander, and a small piece of flint, to be used as sympathetic components instead of the natural component of the heat within the Circle. She said nothing about returning these components after using them to practice, but none of the spell variations should actually consume them, so Sebastien hoped she would get to keep them. Growing her stock of components had been a never-ending struggle throughout her life, and for these, she figured she was paying the University more than enough.
It became more obvious which students had never really cast before as Burberry walked them through using tools to draw an even Circle and measuring the placement of the internal triangle used to cast this spell.
“For those of you with higher capacities, remember that growth comes from effort. If you can cast this spell easily with only a couple sparks, push yourself. Go to one of the supervised practice rooms and see how many sparks you can create at once, or how far you can get them to fly. Control the specific shade of the sparks as you change their color. If you are lazy, you will find that other students soon surpass you, and by the end of term it might be too late to put in effort. The University has no need for the lazy.”
Burberry let them practice for the last few minutes of class under her supervision, answering questions and correcting mistakes, and then told them to practice all the little variations on shooting sparks till they had a firm grasp on it before class on Wednesday.
After class, the boy who’d been doing his best to irritate her since they met brushed by her in the hallway. “Don’t get complacent, Siverling. Professor Lacer might see through you just as easily as Burberry did, and he doesn’t abide fools in his presence.”
She lost her patience, no longer finding his childish frustration with her superiority amusing. Sebastien rounded on him. “Listen, Westchester, Westerfield, whatever your name is, I’d appreciate it if you drop this little one-sided feud you’ve built up in your own mind and let me learn in peace. Do you have nothing important in your own life to tend to, that you must constantly stick your nose into mine?”
His eyes widened, then narrowed. “You don’t remember my name?” he asked suspiciously.
She sighed, looking toward the ceiling for patience. “We’re not friends. I wouldn’t even consider us acquaintances. And you’re certainly not my arch-nemesis, if that’s the impression you got from someone having the guts to call you out on your lack of manners. I can assure you, all the other ‘commoners’ in line were thinking it, too. Everyone else was simply too resigned to say it aloud.”
“I introduced myself to you when we met,” he said, still hung up on the surprise of not being the most memorable person in her life.
She stared at him flatly.
“The professor called my name in class.”
She threw up her hands and turned on her heel, striding off down the hallway. “I don’t have the time or patience for this,” she muttered. “I have to get to class.”
After a few seconds, he caught up to her, getting in front and then blocking her way. “My name is Westbay. Damien Westbay!” He jabbed a thumb at his chest, glaring at her. “Don’t forget it.”
“Oh, my mistake. Please continue while I take notes.” She twirled her hand dramatically, stepping around him and pulling out her map of the University to find her next class.