Chapter 192 – Nine Full Breaths

Sebastien

Month 4 Day 17, Saturday 9:45 p.m.

After allowing time for her burning eyes and shaky breath to settle, Sebastien had done her homework while considering what to say to Ana. She worked slower than usual.

When she finally confronted the other young woman that evening, Ana nodded her head easily. “I did deny his contract. You know I can forge my father’s signature.” She frowned suddenly. “Is that a problem? I did it so that I could offer you something valuable in exchange for your help, even if indirectly. Did you have a personal investment in that sub-commission? I thought, in the worst-case scenario, I could forge it again, well, just like I ended up doing.”

“You did it because everything is transactional with me?”

Ana reached forward and touched Sebastien’s elbow. “I shouldn’t have said that. It’s not actually true. You do plenty of things without being paid for them. And what I was requesting… Only an idiot like Damien would agree to commit a crime against a member of the Thirteen Crown Families without reservation.” She chuckled. “I did it so that I could offer you a favor. I thought it would be very gauche to write you a cheque or something. Sebastien, what’s wrong?”

Sebastien shook her head quickly. “Nothing.” She stepped away, just in case Ana got it into her head to give Sebastien her second hug of the day.

Ana’s eyes narrowed. “Lord Dryden was upset about it,” she deduced. “Did he cause problems for you, Sebastien? Do you need help?”

Sebastien let out a choked laugh. “I think I can handle it.”

Ana pursed her lips doubtfully. “You’d let me know if you did, though, right? I have some power now, you know?” She plucked pridefully at the collar of her shirt.

In the end, she ushered Sebastien back into the dorms, and somehow drew all of her friends into Sebastien’s small cubicle with a few subtle words and the reveal of a package of tiny butter cookies. They didn’t leave until one of the faculty shut off the dorm’s lights, despite Sebastien’s several attempts to get some solitude.

After that, the week passed so quickly Sebastien didn’t even feel it slipping through her fingers. There had been no divination attempts, no sudden emergencies or disasters, and her only immediate source of frustration was the ongoing feeling of discomfort when she tried to release her iron grip over the idea-source of transmogrification spells. It felt wrong to ask for darkness and get a strange, almost unreal sensation of cold to go along with it. She hated the lack of precision and specificity. She hated the knowledge that her spells were being, in some small part, controlled by the minds of a hundred million random people. It didn’t feel safe, and more than that, it didn’t feel right to give up her grip over any part of the magic.

But at least her spells were working. She hadn’t even been suffering from flashes of nightmare trying to break through the shields of her dreamless sleep spell, as long as she recast it halfway through the night. She guessed it might be because her Will was growing stronger. If she worked hard enough, maybe she could outpace the next disaster and actually be ready to face it.

On Wednesday, Sebastien completed the second repetition of the guiding light ritual. She had done a second, thorough search for similar glyphs and found nothing concerning, but what really convinced her to continue was the fact that she’d had no trouble the first time, even with Will-strain.

And again, the second repetition of the ritual gave her no cause for concern, despite her watchfulness.

And now, Sebastien was riding around in a fancy carriage with a man and woman who were paid to show her houses and apartments available for long-term rental. It was not going well.

The man was like a self-righteous pencil who sniffed judgmentally every time he saw a bit of dirt, and the woman laughed at everything Sebastien said, even though she hadn’t made a single joke. They had shown her three apartments and two houses already. Each was overly fancy, unreasonably priced, and in the parts of town where the coppers regularly patrolled. One even included private guards, and their upkeep was part of the rent.

As their carriage stopped in front of the sixth place of the morning, Sebastien took one look at the building and shook her head. “No.”

“No?” the pencil man repeated in his overdone high-class accent.

“No,” Sebastien confirmed. They had stopped in front of a two-story house covered in windows. There was barely enough space between it and the houses on either side for a broad-shouldered man to walk. At the house on the right, an elderly couple sat in rocking chairs on their front porch. At the house on the left, children played in the front yard, and their mother looked out of the window and waved at Sebastien with a pleasant smile. The lawns were manicured, and the street clean.

Across from Sebastien, the woman laughed awkwardly.

“I am serious,” Sebastien said. “Don’t you have any cheaper options? Perhaps in the poorer parts of town? Or a place with a lot of privacy. A small cottage surrounded by a high fence. Or an apartment with thick walls and no windows. I don’t care if it’s a little run-down.”

Really, Sebastien was hoping for some place where the neighbors weren’t the type to make friends or notice a bit of strangeness, where she could make modifications to the structure without anyone noticing or complaining that she had no permit, and that certainly wouldn’t be frequented by coppers or guards.

“No…windows?” the woman asked, laughing uncertainly.

The two housing agents shared a look, and then the man opened his ring binder and began to flip through listings. “I have no listings without windows.” His tone of disdain said that they were a reputable company and didn’t represent people who would try to rent out hovels. “Might I suggest a thick, light-blocking curtain? Perhaps velvet. If both privacy and price are also a concern…” He huffed, as if Sebastien had given him an unreasonable request, but finally picked up the little bell hanging by the carriage door and spoke into it to give the driver a new address.

They traveled south for the better part of an hour in a silence that the woman gave up on filling. But the apartment they finally reached was…not bad. It was an attic apartment, the third floor above a house that had been divided vertically into two other units.

On the eastern side lived two men who shared the rent. They were either not at home or felt no need to peek out of their two small windows in curiosity, so Sebastien only knew this because the agents told her. In the western side was an extended family packed in tight. Apparently a couple had taken in other family members after a tragedy, leaving them with three adult women, one man, and several children of varying ages.

The family might have been a dealbreaker if not for the symbol finger-painted in yellow and black on the inside of their front window. It showed a moon with the silhouette of a wolf’s mug howling up into the night—the symbol of the Nightmare Pack.

The pencil man, when asked, rattled off some statistics about crime and theft that he tried to make sound as good as possible, but which were egregiously high when compared to the numbers he’d given her at several of the other locations.

The attic apartment was accessed by a set of stairs running diagonally up the back of the building. It had three windows, each on different walls, but only one with glass to let in light instead of sealed wooden shutters. And that one was cut into the ceiling, facing up and out so that no one could see in. Each window was big enough that she might crawl through it in an emergency. And finally, a locked hatch door in her floor would allow her into the family’s space if she broke the lock and forced her way through. ‘Multiple ways to get in or out in an emergency,’ Sebastien thought.

The attic’s floor space was fairly large, but the angled ceiling meant at least half of the area would require her to duck down to move around, lest she knock her head. A few old cabinets, a chest of drawers, and a narrow bed frame remained, gathering dust. There was no stove or running water, a chimney flue but no fireplace, and the rent was dirt cheap. There were signs of old wards carved into the floor and walls for sound muffling and temperature regulation, though all had long run out of power.

“A thaumaturge lived here,” she said. “The owner is okay with magical modifications?”

“As long as you pay a year in advance, don’t destroy anything, and sign a contract making you liable for repairs on any damages you inflict.”

“I’ll take it,” Sebastien said. Really, she just needed a place to keep certain things safe and away from prying eyes. And adding extra wards would be a good project for her. Come Harvest Break, she would no longer be able to stay at the University.

She signed the paperwork, wrote a cheque, and then shooed both agents out and down the narrow stairs. Then, she changed the physical locks on the doors and windows and added basic locking wards, which she tied to a series of strings that would break if the wards did. She was careful to establish the clarity of her casting to ensure that the magic would remain coherent enough to bypass her divination-diverting ward if necessary.

Then she opened up the paired journals she had given Gera and Liza, and wrote to both of them. Her message to Liza was longer as it included her thoughts on the magic that might be used to heal Anders’ dog. The most straightforward way would be to kill a dozen or so dogs and funnel their vitality into him. But Siobhan simply wasn’t willing. The second obvious option was to take a smaller amount of vitality from each Sacrifice. Just not enough to kill them.

But taking vitality wasn’t as simple as removing a year or two from the end of their lives in exchange for a few more months for Bear. Even if she could modify the quality-transference spell that she’d learned from working with Liza so that it didn’t require Bear to eat one of their vital organs, even taking some of their vitality would be more like giving them a horrible illness that they would never fully recover from. It would tax their bodies irrevocably and make them more likely to succumb to illness, injury, and old age.

However, if Sebastien’s idea worked, they would lose something much less precious. And the rest she could probably handle with the mirrored-healing spell.

Sebastien tucked the journals away into the small chest of drawers, which was probably meant to be a bedside table, and shoved that into one of the inconvenient corners where the roof almost met the wall, far enough away that the sympathetic link wouldn’t come into contact with the area effect of her divination-diverting ward.

She spent the rest of the day cleaning the place from top to bottom, and when she became exhausted, she left for food and a mattress to put on the bedframe.

That evening, she made a long list of all the modifications she needed to make to the space, along with things to buy or create to make the apartment livable. She then spent the rest of the evening working on Myrddin’s journal. As ever, her efforts were futile, but she was getting better. It was rarer that she got stuck on unrecognized glyphs, and her Will flitted from concept to concept more easily. Even splitting her Will required less effort as she grew more accustomed to the practice. ‘Soon,’ she vowed, glaring at the incomprehensible pages.

She had planned to go back to the University, but she ended up staying the night and the next day as well. It was nice to have a private space to herself, without the sounds of a hundred other people echoing through a long room. And as long as she kept a vial of moonlight sizzle beside her head while she slept, the darkness could easily be dispelled, and along with it, her fear.

Still, it would be nice to have some things to make the place seem less cold and bleak. Some magical plants that didn’t need excessive care. Maybe a fish to keep her company.

A quick check of her linked journals showed responses from both Gera and Liza. Gera was making good progress on gathering the dogs Siobhan had requested, and Liza had left six pages of notes about Sebastien’s method to improve Bear’s health. Liza had also left some scathing comments about her lack of continued involvement in the sleep-proxy tests while simultaneously urging against her presence…and asking for more gold. And in a small postscript, Liza added that the Archaeologist had escaped the Retreat’s custody.

This sent a rush of sudden fear through Sebastien. If someone were to question the Archaeologist, it might lead back, eventually, to Liza. “Has he run away, or could he have been kidnapped?” she asked.

A response came back after less than an hour of waiting. There were no signs of a struggle, and the man had taken what few belongings he had with him. All evidence, and his obvious paranoia, pointed to him having gone into hiding. And with what Sebastien now knew about Myrddin’s journals, perhaps he had made the right choice.

On Sunday, she finally found a response from Professor Lacer.

She returned to the room she’d rented before opening it. Her heart pounded as she pulled a single sheet of paper from the envelope.

 

I have prepared a physical tribute that I believe you would be quite interested in, but I am happy to exchange knowledge. In fact, curiosity is my reason for contacting you, as I believe you know. There are too few deserving of my interest.

Is my knowledge of rare and dangerous magic your reason for contacting me?

As for your payment in knowledge, I have several thoughts:

Perhaps, this being is contained within its own memory, such as a sub-personality encapsulated away from the main consciousness, triggered by certain recollections. An example might be a younger version of a person, triggered by thinking about or reliving a traumatic experience that was originally experienced in youth. Shoddy memory wipes can sometimes cause symptoms like this.

Two hundred years ago, there were records a curse that trapped a woman within eternal sleep. After her death, the perpetrator was discovered. They revealed that the woman had been trapped within a memory, reliving it over and over, but had failed to find the key to break the binding magic. The curse had been meant to teach a vindictive lesson.

I have heard tales of shamans whose minds become lost forever in the spirit world, leaving their bodies an empty shell, soon to die. This may seem somewhat counter to what you are asking, but recent advancements in shamanry among research-dedicated agents of the Red Guard have them attempting to create wards of a sort—walls and protective structures—within the spirit world itself. A futile effort, like building castles of sand before the waves. But, if the anchoring was successful, a spirit-walking shaman could protect their mind against erosion within this structure, perhaps. Some have hypothesized that the soul is, in fact, separate from the body—and specifically separate from the brain. There is no corroborated evidence of this, to my knowledge. But if it was indeed the case, and the soul contained information, then perhaps a shaman could continue to exist in some coherent form within the spirit world, even after their body had died from neglect.

This is not my area of expertise, and I must warn you against being known to explore this path of magic. Even if it does hold the answers you seek, it is possible that activity within the spirit realm could leave traces, and the Red Guard does not allow experimentation along this path. It is too dangerous.

Or, perhaps you are speaking of something more unambiguous. A way to somehow strip a being from their body and condense their consciousness into information, then encode it into the form of a memory? Memories are never forgotten, but by breaking all connective bonds of recollection, one could force forgetfulness and thus lock the memory, and the consciousness, away.

The last would require some ability to isolate what creates consciousness, which, as far as I am aware, is yet beyond us. But an advanced simulacrum of consciousness, of intelligence, could be possible.

If you wish more detailed information from me, I will require more information about the nature of your curiosity. As it is, I am speculating blindly within a vast cosmos of possibilities, and my usefulness is limited.

In return, I have a question of my own. Are you truly Siobhan Naught? And if so, were you always? Tell me of yourself.

Furthermore, since you hinted at it, now you must tell me the trick to Myrddin’s journal.

 

Siobhan memorized the letter easily enough, then lit it on fire and watched it burn away to ash. Professor Lacer’s response had ignited her thoughts in a greater blaze than the paper itself, but it was less directly helpful than she had hoped. She didn’t know enough detail to guide her questions.

And what about shamanry could be so dangerous that the Red Guard actively forbids people from experimenting with the spirit world? It must be very easy to become an Aberrant from doing the wrong thing.’ It made a certain kind of sense, because she’d heard the spirit world likened to a dream realm that intruded upon the thoughts even as the thoughts spilled out into the surroundings. It probably took an exceedingly strong Will to safely do more than visit.

Resolving to think on the matter for a while before replying to him, she locked up her new apartment, having left the two warded chests behind. Each was hidden separately and doubly warded with a trigger that would alert her if they were disturbed. One held Myrddin’s book, the other her selection of stolen celerium.

Sebastien’s life continued on with a suspicious lack of problems or obstacles, which only made her attack the few that she could still do something about with more rabid intensity. She researched the web of connotative connections. She asked others what they thought, what they felt, when given concepts like “light” or “darkness.” She cast her transmogrification spells over and over, hoping that her feeling of discomfort would abate.

It did not abate. And then she realized, in a sudden epiphany while eating dinner on Wednesday, that she had been going about the whole thing wrong. Maybe some thaumaturges could give up control to the ephemeral amassed understanding, easily and willingly allow a hand on the reins other than their own. But she could not. And she should not have to.

While transmogrification spells were not meant to use her as the idea-source, that did not mean she had to give up guidance or control. Perhaps the spells should not use her ideas directly, but those ideas should still be the guidelines for as well as the borders of what it drew from the greater common consciousness.

She stood up without finishing her meal, rushed back to the dorms, and set up the spell that would allow darkness to descend from the component of an autumn leaf. “I am the master,” she said to herself, applying her Will with every word, though she channeled no power yet. “Darkness will descend, as I command it, pulled from every idea of the long dark winter that exists or has existed. Every memory, every thought, every dream. Darkness from above, exactly. No more, no less. Heed me,” she snarled.

And when she cast, night spilled over the upper bounds of her Circle, like an egg of ink cracked over a dome. It flowed down quickly, and so thick that she could barely make out the leaf within. There was no chill wind, no eerie sense of death or solitude, no foggy impression that she had given up complete and utter domination over this small half-sphere within her Circle.

Sebastien stared at it for a while, her heart pounding with exultation, and then she let the spell drop. The sun had not yet set. She stood up and left the dorms, heading to her special clearing in the Menagerie with ground-devouring strides.

When she reached it, she rolled her shoulders and stretched her legs, thinking of all the things the light-refinement spell was meant to do. The filtered light would heal, repair, and energize. It would refine her, just as she refined it. And not only her body, but also, and most importantly, her mind. It would strengthen her mind, shore up her natural defenses, and bring her clarity. It would anchor her Will to something too robust to strain, too powerful to break. It would reduce her need for sleep.

“The light will heal me, rejuvenate me, but it will also make me more. I will refine it, and be refined in turn,” Sebastien announced, once again filling her words with her Will. “Heed me.” She fell into the first stance of the movement.

She had practiced this spell—the humming, the precise movements, the purposefulness—until she could complete the entire sequence three or even four times without collapsing. Usually, she would start to see a visible mote of light around the time that she finished the first repetition.

Now, it appeared after only nine full breaths.

She had thought she understood how the spell worked—some sort of energy conversion from light into something her body could use, that also burned away impurities. Energy that would speed her mind and fill her cells with vigor. But that had only been her rationalization.

She did not understand how this spell worked or what it was really doing to her body and mind. But she thought she understood, now, what it meant to call upon the weight of an idea so pervasive that it had worked its way into everyday simile and metaphor. ‘It is not true,’ some part of her thought. ‘But it does not need to be true. It is real, and this accumulated force of conviction has true power behind it. And one day, I will understand not only how to control it but how it works. Genuine understanding.

It was a promise steeped in hubris, but with hair-thin lines of light trailing her every movement, hanging in the air, and flowing in through her forehead, she meant it.

Her veins seemed to fill with molten honey and her mind with the song of the cosmos. All she could see were the ever-refining patterns of light. All she could hear was her own humming, which traveled through the folds of her brain before doubling back like ripples in a pond. Where each wave passed, filaments of brightness grew, tiny stars exploded into children that grew into stars themselves, and the illumination revealed the weight and gravity of the space surrounding it, which was not empty but filled with her Will. It was not water, but still seemed somewhat like an ocean—too small to be called such, but determined and crushingly inexorable despite its weakness.

She stopped, finally, not because she grew tired, but because the last sliver of the sun had slipped over the horizon. She panted, her body drenched in sweat, every cell bursting with life.

“Oh,” she said into the darkness of the Menagerie.

And then she laughed.

 

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