Chapter 193 – Almost New Again

Sebastien

Month 4 Day 30, Friday 7:05 p.m.

Sebastien’s elation, along with the feeling of inexhaustible energy, deserted her not long after she stopped casting the light-refinement spell, leaving her with trembling muscles, exhaustion, and a terrible thirst. But, as before, some faint mist lingered within her for longer.

By Friday, she was so sore that she had to take a pain potion and massage an entire jar of salve into her muscles before she could make it to breakfast. When Damien learned that she had used her contribution points to earn a special spell, approved and translated by Professor Lacer, he flushed like a cherry with jealousy. But he didn’t ask her to share it. She had earned the knowledge, and to take it from her for free would be dishonorable. Even in this way, the culture of hoarding knowledge pervaded.

She suspected, however, that he was trying to come up with something worth trading for the spell instructions.

After school on Friday, she headed into Gilbratha proper to pick up the device she’d commissioned from an artisan weeks before. When she had explained how it should work, he had called it an escrima, which was apparently some kind of short stick weapon from the East.

That was not exactly an accurate descriptor.

The artisan’s hands were thick and powerful, his skin layered with old scars but his fingers dexterous. He handed over a cylinder of metal that appeared deceivingly simple. “Rather ingenious, if I do say so myself. I’m wondering if there might be a market for more of them ‘round here. Lots of thaumaturges.”

“Maybe,” Sebastien agreed, examining the spell rod she had commissioned. It was thicker than the standard battle wand—it had to be, to fit the internal mechanisms—but only about four centimeters across. And it was heavy, which meant it could double as a bludgeoning weapon in a pinch. Approximately every inch, a thin line divided the rod, and on each resulting segment, the artisan had chiseled in a braille number, from one to twenty. The numbers repeated all the way around the cylinder, each on their own subsection.

Sebastien slid her fingers along the numbers and nodded to herself. ‘I can learn to recognize them.’ She gripped the rod on either side of a segment in the middle, held it out in front of her, level with the ground, and then twisted.

The segment between her hands sprang outward with a snapping sound as the springs activated, leaving her holding a metal rod with a framework disk extending from its middle. It looked as if the geometric bones of a dinner plate the diameter of her forearm had grown out from the middle of the rod, suspended around a thin support beam running through the center.

The spell rod was based on the portable, expanding war Circles that the army used. They could be opened into a Circle or collapsed down into a compact star shape, with several thick metal rods attached to each other on scissor-like joints.

Sebastien twisted the rod again, and the framework disk collapsed back in on itself, fitting together so neatly it appeared as just another segment of the rod. Unlike the rest, the segments on either end had a small embedded switch she could flip to snap them open or closed.

“It has downsides,” she said. “Whatever carries the spell array has to be able to expand and retract, too. If this was meant to serve a more powerful thaumaturge, you might need to add a spell array made of metal, or bone, or powdered celerium sealed into a sheet of gold. But to make the spell array expand and retract along with the framework… Maybe you could manage it with precisely cut sheets that could dilate open and closed like an iris.”

Sebastien twisted each segment of the spell rod open and closed, testing to make sure nothing caught or stuck. “But if you created even a small break in the spell array, where one line didn’t connect precisely to the next, you could end up causing some magical…accidents.”

The artisan peered at his creation with sudden distrust.

“I have a workaround for that, but it requires any spells I cast to remain below a certain capacity. This is more useful in battle than a tome, but it still requires both hands to use. Which means people would need to wear their Conduit as a ring or bracelet, or put it down every time they need to open a spell array or change spells.”

Of course, again that didn’t matter to her. She had a Conduit pressed to the skin of her back, so her hands could be free at any time.

“People would need to be very careful that they knew exactly which spell they’d just unfurled, because trying to cast a fireball in the heat of battle when you’ve just opened the disk for a food-preserving spell will not work as expected. More danger of Will-strain or even break events.”

Sebastien swung it a few times, listening to the sound it made as it cut through the air.

“It also only has two spots to place spells that should be flush against a surface or that should shoot from a particular spot,” she said, motioning to either end. “The middle disks would probably end up being a little awkward to use for most thaumaturges, because the rest of the device might get in the way. You’d need the spells to have some kind of directional focus, and then be sure that you were always holding the spell rod so that directional focus was pointed in the direction you thought it was. So you don’t end up shooting yourself in the face with a fireball from one of the inner disks. I think a lot of people who might like this would prefer using a battle or utility wand instead, and the more powerful would probably go for a tome.”

The artisan looked increasingly gloomy. “Are you sure it’s safe for you to be playing with that, lad? I didn’t realize all the dangers.”

“Of course!” Sebastien assured him, reaching for her money pouch. With the ability to use a minimalist enough spell array, she could hold the exact direction of a projectile spell in her mind and never need to worry about which of the three hundred sixty degrees of her spell rod were pointed away from her. And of course, there was always output detachment.

“You could get rid of a lot of the downsides if you made the pieces detachable. If you’re interested in testing the market, I would be open to investing. I have at least one friend who would probably find it irresistible. And I’d bet there’s a market among beast hunters and adventurers. This thing can hold twenty different utility spells, from fire starters to emergency beacons to a rain repeller. You don’t need excessive power for any of that. And if you make a really long one, it could even double as a walking staff.”

The gleam had returned to the artisan’s eyes, and he rubbed his palms together. “You bring me down just to float me back up again, huh, kid? How big an initial investment are we talking?”

Sebastien ended up getting stuck at the artisan’s shop for another hour, somewhat regretful of her earlier uncharacteristic talkativeness born of excitement.

As she finally left, she made a mental list of the spells that she would insert into the spell rod. She had made some progress with the orb-weaver silk and hoped to be able to make a fabric upon which she could paint her spell arrays from that. For the sudden expansion and contraction that the spell rod required, such a thin, magically conductive fabric would work even better than the thick seaweed paper.

The seaweed paper would still be useful for larger spells or ones where she needed to cast a spell flush with another surface and output detachment wasn’t the best option.

The next day, it was in the newspapers that the Architects of Khronos had raided a Crown storehouse attached to a jointly funded research facility. Supposedly, they’d stolen thousands of gold worth of supplies and components and killed several of the guards.

Sebastien took every sentence with a huge crystal of metaphorical salt. She would have been more likely to get something approaching the real story from one of the people who were involved, or even from Oliver. At least this didn’t endanger her directly. She wasn’t called upon to contribute or do damage control. It had no connection to the unassuming student, Sebastien Siverling.

She smiled. It was nice that the newspapers had something more recently interesting to focus on and could, perhaps, stop trying to wring some more juice from Sebastien’s other identity.

With painstaking practice over the next week, she was able to produce a silk fabric transmuted from cotton—which was close enough to the original to make the process easier—that she couldn’t tell apart from Professor Lacer’s sample, even when using the divination spells to examine her creation more closely. To satisfy Professor Lacer, she would need to be able to create orb-weaver silk fabric from anything, but for her current purposes cotton was enough.

On Friday, she found Gera had written in the notebook that the dogs were ready. Liza had agreed to help in exchange for the mirrored-healing spell, and so Siobhan spent a couple of hours on another painstaking transformation into the autumn-headed pirate maid. She didn’t know how some women did their hair and makeup every morning. Even with just the little experience she had, it was incredibly boring and time consuming.

After even more hassle taking a roundabout journey to make sure she wasn’t being followed, Siobhan arrived at Lynwood manor just after the last light of the sun had disappeared from the horizon. The night was moonless, and rain clouds blanketed the sky. They had wetted the streets earlier but were now calm.

Gera must have informed the guards that Siobhan could look different, because as soon as she said that she was expected for an appointment with the matron of the house, both guards’ eyes started to sparkle and they waved her in like she was the High Crown’s wife. She had to give them a secret, angry look for them to remember they should pretend she was just a normal citizen. They grew as stiff as two fence posts at the sight.

Siobhan sighed. ‘Next time, I’ll sneak in through the back garden.’

A servant escorted Siobhan to that same back garden, which was…destroyed. Dozens of dogs were scattered throughout it. They had dug up and trampled the flower beds and bushes, and it seemed at least one of them had been gnawing at the bark of the fledgling trees. There were more than Siobhan had expected.

Gera seemed somewhat frazzled, her hair tangled and her clothes stained as she tossed out various orders to the dogs’ caretakers. As soon as she saw Siobhan, she sagged. “Oh thank the stars you’re here,” she said on a heavy exhale. Louder, she announced, “Everything you requested is ready…ma’am.”

Gera led the way to the manor’s second floor, where they had cleared a large room of furniture and filled it instead with the necessary spell components, empty tables along the walls, and a few kennels. Siobhan busied herself setting up while she waited for Liza to arrive but was soon interrupted as someone knocked gently on the door.

Anders was on the other side, accompanied by the oldest, unhealthiest looking dog Siobhan had ever seen.

“This…is Bear?” The creature was pressing up against Anders’ leg as if to keep from falling over.

Anders went down on one knee, his head hanging low. Out of uniform, he looked different. Without the blue and gold, his strong features appeared more threatening, but somehow that seemed like a mask over a great well of fatigue.

Siobhan had thought that the number of homeless dogs collected to provide the Sacrifice was excessive, but now that she saw Bear, she felt that even three hundred might not be enough. Even Gera’s description hadn’t done the creature justice. He had once obviously been a terrifyingly large dog, but now it was surprising that he even managed to stand on his own three feet. She would have believed it if someone told her this was not a dog but in fact a dog-shaped magical beast aligned with death and decay.

She stared down at Anders incredulously. ‘He scammed me! I’m supposed to make this dog healthy again? Who does he think I am, Myrddin!?

But of course she couldn’t say that aloud. “Bring him in. The process will likely take all weekend. We will need to go slowly so as not to shock his system. Do you know if any of the potions he’s on will react negatively to sedatives?”

Liza finally arrived halfway through Anders’ recounting of everything he had been doing to keep Bear alive. She set her leather healer’s bag on one of the tables and then began to remove the surgery equipment from within.

Anders stared at each tool as she removed it, the skin around his eyes growing pinched.

“Bear will be sedated for any procedures that might bring him excessive discomfort,” Siobhan assured him preemptively. “Please have someone bring in the first Sacrifice. You may wait outside while we work, if you wish.”

Anders kneeled down again to hug Bear, whose tail wagged listlessly, and then did as Siobhan requested.

She and Liza went over the spell they had modified once more, ensured that the spell arrays were perfect, and then Liza walked Siobhan through the process of ritually removing a dog’s testicles.

Siobhan had not wanted to kill to boost Bear’s vitality, and with her new understanding of how transmogrification worked, she had realized that maybe she didn’t need to. There were more ways to approach the concepts of “life,” “youthfulness,” and “vitality” than the obvious. Reproductive organs were inherently associated with all of those ideas. Maybe they wouldn’t work quite as well to improve Bear’s health as the more direct Sacrifice of a brain for intelligence or a life for more health, but all that mattered was that it could work.

After all, the city was overpopulated with homeless animals. So much so that, during the winter, they often became a food source of last resort for those in the poorest parts of the Mires. They had an almost unlimited supply of donors. This would help Bear while simultaneously tackling the problem of overpopulation.

The entire surgical operation, which was done inside a spell array they had drawn on one of the tables, only took about thirty minutes. When they were finished, they used a few dabs of healing potion on the Sacrificial dog and set it aside in one of the kennels to wake up naturally.

Then came the process of feeding the testicles to Bear, who seemed particularly unenthused about the idea. They were forced to find a potion to artificially increase appetite as well as chop up the testicles and add them to a broth that Bear could lick up.

Liza, who was better at math and had more experience with blood magic than Siobhan, had estimated that rather than the thirty percent efficiency they might have gotten with a full-vitality Sacrifice—with Bear eating the heart and lungs—they were instead getting something like eight percent efficiency. And for a dog as old and unhealthy as Bear, that efficiency might be lowered by half again, with his body simply unable to process all of the improvements. For that reason, they had slightly modified the spell to affect him more gently over a longer period of time. Which meant they needed to complete the whole process eight to twelve times for the same effect. Each time would provide diminishing returns, but with care and enough Sacrifices, they might be able to boost him by thirty to forty percent overall.

They monitored Bear afterward and took several diagnostic scans to ensure he was healthy over the next couple of hours. In between tests, Siobhan taught Liza the mirrored-healing spell.

“This is…so simple,” Liza said with wonder. “And yet, it has such wonderful utility. It’s not even necessarily restricted to fresh wounds. If anything, it’s like a flesh-based duplicative transmogrification spell. If it weren’t blood magic, can you imagine how useful this would be?”

“It’s definitely much cheaper than most healing magic,” Siobhan agreed. “Even if it could just be approved for use by certified healers…”

Liza grunted. “Unlikely. Circumstances would have to be dire for the Crown Families to approve an amendment like that. And only the desperate and the poor would be willing to receive healing based on blood magic.”

After Bear showed no adverse effects, they did the second and third round of vitality boosting and left him to rest again while Liza got some practice with mirrored healing, using a few of the dogs that had been brought in with wounds as her patients. After a couple more rounds of boosting Bear’s vitality, the last of which Siobhan was allowed to do herself under Liza’s supervision, they opened the door to retire for the night.

Anders was waiting outside, sitting in a chair a few feet down the hallway. He sprang up immediately, his gaze searching their expressions and then moving down to look for Bear.

Siobhan stepped aside and motioned for the dog to walk past her.

One of Bear’s front legs was still missing, but she thought his hopping gait seemed a little less pained than it had when she arrived. His lolling tongue was wetter and pinker, and his wagging tail had enough force to thump her painfully on the way past.

Anders fell to his knees, taking stinky licks on his face while hugging Bear around the neck.

Siobhan held back a grimace of distaste. Anders was letting Bear lick him on the mouth. ‘Surely that isn’t sanitary?’ she thought. Aloud, she said, “Someone needs to remove the other dogs from the kennels. They should recover for about three days, after which they can be released back to wherever they came from.”

Anders stood. “The other dogs…are alive?”

Liza huffed. “Secretly, your Raven Queen is a Titans-damned bleeding heart. They’re all alive, barely any worse for wear. And that’s why this whole job is going to take the entire weekend.”

“I simply prefer not to harm those who do not deserve it,” Siobhan said. “And I think the development of a creative magical method to extend life is worth a weekend.”

Anders let out a shuddering exhale. “Oh. Oh, that’s wonderful.” He blinked rapidly, his eyes shining with a thin layer of tears that looked totally out of place on his rugged, menacing features. “I thought… Well, I thought you were going to Sacrifice them all in a blood magic ritual.”

Siobhan and Liza shared a glance, and Liza smirked. “Basins of blood, artfully arranged entrails, and vivisected corpses? Is that what you were expecting?” the woman asked.

His expression firmed. “I apologize.”

Liza let out a short, sharp laugh that was less mocking than it could have been. “No need. Despite the common perception, not all blood magic is so…flamboyant. That said, the tables and tools should all be sterilized, and each of the Sacrifices given a mild pain reliever when they wake. You were not totally wrong, after all.” She winked at Anders and walked past.

Liza returned home for the evening, but Siobhan remained in a luxurious guest room and made everyone except Millennium extremely uncomfortable at the breakfast table the next morning. Gera had her son basically confined to his room so that he wouldn’t intrude on their work, and he was blatantly sulking about it.

Saturday was much of the same, except that in between sessions of removing testicles and boosting Bear, Liza attempted to regrow a missing paw on one of the other dogs.

For something like this, mass was important. After all, the flesh and bone of the paw had to come from somewhere.

As Siobhan supervised Liza’s slow progress on the sedated test subject, she thought aloud. “Bear’s missing leg and eyeball would be a large percentage of his mass, and he doesn’t have an ounce to spare. If we want to fix him, we’re going to have to find another source of meat and bone. Maybe we could bring in a fresh cow or deer leg? Or if there are any recently killed dogs…”

Liza grunted, and Siobhan fell silent so as not to distract her. However, when Liza was finally finished regrowing the—hairless—paw, Liza said, “We shouldn’t try to pull flesh from elsewhere. Have you ever seen what happens when the body rejects an intruder? Infection, followed by death. A horrible, painful death. If we don’t perfectly copy the flesh of the dog we’re adding mass to, its body will somehow detect the invader and attack the new flesh. I cannot achieve such perfection, and I sincerely doubt you can, no matter how clear or forceful your Will.”

When Liza’s practice subject woke up, it spent quite a while licking at its hairless paw, then continued to limp around as it had done before, the paw dragging whenever it came close to the floor. The dog ate ravenously when offered food but, no matter how they tried to encourage it, refused to place weight on its new paw.

Siobhan used the magnifying divination spell learned from Professor Lacer to examine the structure of the new appendage, with specific attention given to the connection spot between old flesh and new. Everything looked perfect…at first. But some of the filament-fine threads that she suspected might be nerve fibers weren’t perfectly connected.

She switched to examining the dog’s other front paw to confirm her suspicions.

Liza had copied the other paw with passable exactness, but that was part of the problem. Real creatures weren’t exactly symmetrical. The blood vessels were properly attached, because Liza wasn’t an idiot, but in addition to some of the nerve fibers not quite matching, many of them seemed to fizzle out like burnt hairs before they reached all the way to the edge of the skin.

Siobhan could have tried to cast the magnifying divination spell simultaneously with the mirrored-healing—it was almost as if the two were created to work together, and with all the practice she had been getting lately, she thought that she might have been able to hold both at once despite their relative complexity—but that would have revealed her ability to split her Will.

I need to do that for Professor Lacer’s transmutation exercises, though,’ she realized. ‘I could speed up my rate of learning so much if I could see my mistakes in real-time.

It was an exciting thought, but for the moment she simply tried to memorize exactly how the nerves in the healthy paw looked, then sedated the dog and cast the mirrored-healing spell once more. She went over Liza’s work with a metaphorical fine-toothed comb, urging the paw to perfection rather than just symmetry. She even thickened the skin of the paw-pad somewhat, so that it wouldn’t be as tender and sensitive.

By evening, the dog was walking. Though not quite perfectly, since he seemed to have forgotten what it was like to have all four paws.

Liza, disgruntled, questioned Siobhan about what kind of exercises she did to improve her clarity, forcefulness, and soundness. Tentatively, Siobhan explained the exercises Professor Lacer had given her the term before, along with the variations she practiced to approach satisfactory levels of control over each, though of course she didn’t mention where any of the spells came from.

They put the dog out in the back garden again, where he grew excited and sprinted around at full speed, his ears tucked to his head, tongue hanging out with joy, and tail streaming out behind him. He stumbled often, and each time would stop to stare and lick at his new paw. But there were no pained whimpers and no limp dragging, and the paw mostly kept up with his attempts to become a racing dog.

Martha, who had come out to give the dogs their evening meal, did a double-take when she saw him with all four paws. She stared at Siobhan for an uncomfortably long moment, then returned to her work at the urging of the impatient dogs, her expression pensive.

They continued their work after dinner, and Liza made another attempt to regrow flesh long lost, this time in the form of docked ears and tail. Again, Siobhan had to come along behind her and refine her work, which had Liza wordlessly grinding her teeth for the remainder of the evening.

On Sunday, Siobhan did at least half of the testicle-removal surgeries. If only her capacity were high enough, she thought she could cast the whole vitality transference spell on her own—without having to modify it so that it took all day. But it would be years yet before she reached Liza’s strength.

On each dog they used as Sacrifice, she began to cast the magnifying divination spell to examine their eyeballs in exhaustive, meticulous detail, while Liza continued to practice mirrored healing. She was getting better, and even had a few divination spells of her own to examine her results, but she struggled to get the same exhaustively fine detail as Siobhan.

Liza’s capacity is so high, she probably hasn’t needed to care about perfect efficiency in decades. And if you don’t need exact perfection for most things, it would be easy to get out of the habit of extreme precision,’ Siobhan mused.

By this point, Bear had received over three dozen boosting spells, and most of the dogs in the back garden were recovering. Bear’s appetite had grown explosively, to the point that they needed to bring in extra food beyond the testicle soup, and he kept barking and trying to jump around. Being so big, his bark was loud and deep enough that the whole manor could hear it, and he was heavy enough to knock Siobhan or Liza over if he jumped onto them when they weren’t braced for it.

Liza snapped her fingers at him, pointed to the ground, and ordered, “Sit!”

Bear’s butt plopped directly onto the ground within his spell array’s Circle, though his tail was wagging so fast they had to ensure he wasn’t damaging the spell array, which had happened several times already.

After three final sessions of vitality transference, they sedated Bear and brought in the youngest and largest of the Sacrifice dogs as a reference so that Siobhan could remove the film of cataracts and then tweak the lens in Bear’s remaining eye.

After that, Liza worked to copy that eye into Bear’s empty socket, and Siobhan followed up with a refinement pass. Attaching the optic nerve was delicate and difficult, and Siobhan couldn’t help but lament how foolishly the eyeball was put together. Surely there was a better way to design such an organ?

They covered the new eye with a patch and allowed Anders into the room before the sedatives wore off so that the whole thing wouldn’t be too much of a shock on the ancient dog’s system.

When Bear finally awoke, his tail started wagging so hard that it shook his whole body. He limped and jumped around the room, his missing leg doing little to deter him from looking around, though every few steps he took he would return to press his shoulder against his master’s leg.

When Anders took off Bear’s eye patch, the dog froze. He looked around slowly, then let out a deep, explosive bark of shock.

Bear’s tail wagged so hard he literally knocked himself off balance, and he rolled on the ground barking until Anders rubbed his belly.

Tears fell onto Bear’s short, still-thin fur. “Thank you,” Anders squeezed out in a hoarse voice.

“We can fix the missing leg, too,” Siobhan said. “But Bear needs to gain weight before it would be safe. His vitality has been boosted, but the effects will take time to show. His appetite has already improved, so he should put on weight quickly. With the proper nutrients, his organs should return to working as they’re meant to, and his joints might even loosen. Visibly, his hair will grow in thicker and maybe lose some of the grey. In a few months, if he’s gained enough weight, we can return to grow him another leg. But unless we do it in sections, it will certainly be a strain on his body. I would suggest you get him a prosthetic in the meantime. Perhaps a wheel attached to a harness, as the least invasive option. Or, if you have the gold for it, a clockwork artifact with some complex instructions, to mimic his existing leg.”

Or,” Liza said, “now that Bear is healthier, once a little time passes and all the residue from his potion regimen clears from his system, he might be able to accept a course of limb-regrowing potions that use axolotl components. It will be more gradual, and though it is said to be quite a protracted, unpleasant experience, you would not need to rely on us. It would be less of a shock to Bear’s system, and his happiness could be managed by some strong anti-itch and pain potions.”

Siobhan was a little embarrassed. In the excitement of the moment, she had forgotten that option even existed.

Anders cleared his throat and sniffed wetly, then stood. “How long does he have, now?”

Siobhan and Liza shared a look. Neither of them really knew for sure. That was the kind of thing you needed a whole data set to be certain of, and they only had this one dog. Siobhan decided to err on the side of caution. It would look very bad if she overestimated, and this breed of dog was probably lucky to make it to the age of ten normally. “Two years extra, if you manage his health carefully. If he begins to show signs of deterioration, you may call upon me to perform this service once more. Preferably before his status becomes this dire.”

Anders nodded with determination, then took a knee in front of her. “Thank you.”

Siobhan waved at him to rise. “You paid for this,” she reminded him. “And dearly.”

“It was worth it,” Anders said, looking her straight in the eyes.

Liza offered to give Bear’s new care requirements to Anders in exchange for his help cleaning up the room, and Siobhan spent a half hour visiting Millennium before she left.

Behind her, Gera stood with a lost look, her hands limp at her sides. “What am I supposed to do with all these dogs?”

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