Chapter 195 – An Unfathomable Lightness of Being

Sebastien

Month 6 Day 25, Friday 5:15 a.m.

On Friday morning, well before classes started, Sebastien left for her apartment, which was both more inviting and more well protected than it had been when she moved in. Once again, stopped by to check the lock box on her way. This time, a letter was waiting for her. Finally.

With the curtain drawn and a bottle of moonlight sizzle glowing soft and bright, she read his latest response.

If you wish to discover the physical tribute I prepared, you must meet me in person. I believe we could arrange something suitably secure.

Of the dream curse, I have included an account of all I know.

Where did you receive the hint that led to your question, if I might ask? Perhaps there is some clue within the circumstances.

When I requested you tell me about yourself, this was not what I expected. I see you are not totally unfamiliar with the techniques of a shaman, though your description of self is particularly cryptic.

Do shamans use similar chants, then?’ Sebastien wondered, but she set her curiosity aside to continue reading.

While fascinating, I admit that I was hoping for a more conventional account. Background, hobbies, and goals, if I might be so trite.

Some of my own background is known. You are probably aware that I am a special agent of the Red Guard, currently assigned to the Thaumaturgic University as a liaison. It suits my purposes well for the moment as, like you, I am conducting research into something fascinating, and some of their hoarded records are not duplicated anywhere else. I had wondered if perhaps you were aware of this research, and if, in fact, it is the reason for your particular interest in me.

That really wasn’t any less cryptic, or more revealing, than what she had told him. Was he trying to pique her curiosity? The letter continued:

Your information about Myrddin was quite the revelation. I have spent this recent time in attempts to discover a method to safely split the Will, with, I am frustrated to say, no success.

You mentioned that I might find someone capable of this feat already, and seemed to suggest that you yourself are one. Is this true? I heard from Grandmaster Kiernan, with whom I am collaborating on the journal decryption, of your conversation.

Tell me, how could it be possible that you were not there at the time of the theft? He seems to believe that you were kept within the book. It may seem absurd, but I must ask: Do you, perhaps, believe yourself to be a consciousness trapped within a memory, to have been released by some action of Siobhan Naught’s?

I ask again. Who are you?

P.S. — If you can indeed do this little “trick” to decrypt the book, what would it take to entice your aid?

Sebastien rubbed at her forehead, trying to smooth out the crease between her eyebrows. What, exactly, had Kiernan told Professor Lacer? Certainly, some of their conversation would have had to be left out if Kiernan didn’t want to reveal that he was one of the leaders of the Architects of Khronos. Settling her frustrated thoughts, she picked up the second sheet of paper, where Professor Lacer had written about the dream curse.

This incident occurred in the year 27 of the current era, less than thirty years after the fall of the Third Empire. The victim was Julissa Kimble, who married a widowed man with a daughter. The perpetrator was Winona Kimble, her stepdaughter born from the original wife. Though, in this case, the lines between “victim” and “assailant” may blur.

Julissa was resentful of Winona and systematically abused her, with the tacit allowance of her husband, who turned a blind eye. The abuse culminated in an incident on Winona’s eighteenth birthday, during a party the family was holding. (At that time, it was common for families to hold a “coming out” party for their girls, to signal that they were now available for marriage.)

The evening of the party, Julissa poured boiling tea onto Winona’s face. Winona was sent to live separately.

Fifteen years later, Winona returned for her father’s funeral, having become an accomplished thaumaturge.

She believed that Julissa had poisoned her father.

Winona managed such a powerful curse binding through a combination of cleverness and Julissa’s arrogance. She had created a potion and disguised it as tea, which they both drank atop a carpet that had been woven with a spell array to compel truth. Winona disguised her thrice-repeated grievances as reminiscence and her explanation of the terms of the spell as hints at a struggle for power between the two. Julissa agreed to the binding without realizing what she was doing, thinking to assert her power over Winona as she had when the girl still lived under her roof.

And so, the curse took hold, with the only way to break it being built into the spell from the beginning.

Julissa fell unconscious. At first, people thought she had fainted due to grief. But as her condition remained unchanged after a few days, worry grew. Winona brought in healers and specialists to see her stepmother, but none of them could find the cause. Rumors of a curse grew, and suspicion fell on Winona.

Exactly thirteen weeks after her initial collapse, Julissa died.

Winona was suspected of murder and arrested, and admitted freely to her crime. She had trapped Julissa within a repeating loop of her eighteenth birthday party, with the “world” contained to their house and backyard. The memory had been expanded to be self-reinforcing, including events that Julissa hadn’t experienced directly but which had been pieced together from Winona’s recollection and added on to. Not a detail was left out, until the world of that day seemed grounded and real.

Winona said that if only Julissa were able to understand her wrongdoings and make amends within that repeating day, resolving to live how she should have and take real steps to change the trajectory of both of their lives, she would have woken up. But she did not. We cannot know if this is true, because Winona had poisoned herself before being taken into custody and giving her statement. Her life was used as collateral to give greater strength to the curse. Without the antidote, which she had been taking on a regular schedule, she died.

I know no further details about the exact methods she used to create the curse or the repeating memory world. I suspect that Winona took these secrets to her grave.

Sebastien was both fascinated at the concept of the dream curse and disappointed that there weren’t more details. Whether something like this had been done to her, she couldn’t be sure. But it seemed like a good direction to start researching. Even if this curse-craft was only adjacent to the magic she needed to understand, it was becoming more apparent to her that all thaumaturgic crafts spilled over into other areas.

She made a mental note to dig up any information she could find about Winona Kimble, although she doubted she could access information directly related to the curse that Thaddeus Lacer couldn’t, especially since it was definitely blood magic. But there might be some relevant lead in the thaumaturgic training she’d received after she left home, in her friends, acquaintances, or the work she had been doing. Sebastien would also try to find similar magic, be it curses or mundane spells.

And perhaps she should look into what solidifying a memory might entail. Stabilizing a memory to the point that it could support itself, a self-contained ecosystem, seemed rather like something a shaman might do.

With next steps in mind, she memorized Professor Lacer’s letter and burnt everything, just as she had the last.

Then she read over Damien’s report and considered what to do with the Red Guard research mission.

She woke early in the morning, the problem still looping through her mind, and stared up at the sky through the angled window cut into the roof.

If investigating the Red Guard had only been about the truth of what happened to Newton and his family, then Sebastien might have decided to set it aside. After all, there was nothing that she could do about that. Any attempts to save his family from mind-altering spells would probably just put them in a different kind of danger. And as for Newton himself—if the thing he’d become could even be called a person anymore—what would she even do?

But Sebastien’s connection to the Red Guard ran deeper than that. Not only were they investigating her to appease the High Crown, but they also had records of the incident she had forgotten—during which the seal in her mind had been created.

Professor Lacer was one of them.

There was a chance that at some point she would become further involved with the Red Guard in some way. And if that ever happened, she needed to understand them. Knowledge was the greatest form of power, after all.

But she didn’t know what they might be capable of, so she and Damien would need to be very careful. Any further purchases of old newspapers would be done via a proxy—someone from the Nightmare Pack or Verdant Stags who wouldn’t be suspected.

With her decision made, Sebastien sent out instructions, talked back and forth with Gera and Liza over the course of a few hours, and then returned to the University. Sebastien found Damien and gave him a single, serious nod.

Damien’s face split into a satisfied smile that lacked any real joy or mirth.

“The mission parameters have been updated slightly. We’re getting help to obtain some of the older newspapers, as well as the backlog from the other publications that went out of business. If you can get that intern position at Harrow Hill over Harvest Break, that will be a big help. And from now on, we need to keep note of when anyone has a complaint against the Red Guard, or when someone has helped them out in unexpected or large ways. And we especially want to note people whose names come up repeatedly. Track the names of any coppers who are noted acting as Red Guard liaisons and make a note of any reporters who frequently handle Aberrant incidents for their paper.”

“Got it,” Damien said.

“We can expect more deliveries to your storehouse by the end of the week.”

“The higher-ups are really invested in this, huh?”

“It seems so. But we’re not to take any investigative or dangerous action ourselves. Data analysis only.”

“Of course. We can’t let the Red Guard find out that we know anything. Do you think Professor Lacer…?”

Sebastien raised an eyebrow. “Do I think he what?”

“Do you think he knows the truth?”

“Probably. But a better question might be, did he know before he took his vows?”

Damien frowned. “There’s no way. They wouldn’t take the chance of this information leaking. Maybe that’s why he’s at the University? I heard Lord Cyr talking about how the liaison position might be a punishment post among the agents. Which is crazy. I mean, he’s Thaddeus Lacer. It seems like, if he is here, it must be because he wants to be.”

Sebastien shook her head. “We don’t know enough to speculate.”

After that, Damien fell even more deeply into his research mission, while Sebastien tried to figure out how to learn more about Winona Kimble’s dream curse despite its obscurity and the restrictions on Sebastien’s access to the University library.

The shaman’s access to the dream world was almost as difficult to find information on. Previously, she would have believed that this was because shamans were less likely to write down their magical knowledge than traditional sorcerers. They were few in number and often passed down their skills and knowledge through the more archaic master-apprentice relationship, or between parent and child, rather than publishing a book. Now, she suspected something more was at play.

She ended up sending Tanya to look for information at the secret thaumaturge meetings, which would probably take a few weeks to come to fruition. After all, it was unlikely that an attendee would have that exact information on hand as soon as Tanya put forth the request.

Five days later, at the end of the quarter, Sebastien received a cheque from Oliver’s textile company for one hundred gold. That was the minimum quarterly payout, which meant that her four-percent stake in the company hadn’t earned more than that.

Sebastien took some time to write a response to Professor Lacer while she was out depositing the cheque. She considered waiting to reply as long as he had delayed, to give him a taste of his own medicine, but that seemed like juvenile pettiness.

Even if he had waited over a month to write her back, he’d also provided valuable information. But his curiosity about her was distressing. Sebastien sat back and bit her lip. ‘How would the Raven Queen respond to this?’ She allowed herself to smile. ‘Obviously…she would go on the aggressive.’

You are full of curiosity, Thaddeus Lacer. It is a trait that I share and appreciate, but not one that I will indulge endlessly. I have told you who I am. If you do not believe me, or feel that my answer was not satisfactorily comprehensive, that is unfortunate.

I am myself, as I have always been, no matter what name I take.

The details of my background are something you may learn in time, if you prove yourself trustworthy. My hobby is magic. My goal is knowledge, and through knowledge, power. Through power, freedom.

Do not ask for more unless you are willing to pay with real truths of your own, of equal value and proportionate risk.

While I am unsure why most find splitting the Will in two directions at once to be such an obstacle, it is indeed a trait I possess. I would be willing to collaborate if appropriate assurances of my safety could be made, and proper enticement given.

As mentioned above, I value knowledge, freedom, and the right kind of secret. I dislike being hunted, controlled, or vilified. What can be done about this, I wonder?

She considered adding her thanks for information on the dream curse but decided against it. Thankfulness didn’t really fit the tone of the rest of the letter. If she’d had some interesting information of relative usefulness, she would have included that instead, but what did she know that Thaddeus Lacer didn’t?

Sebastien sealed the envelope carefully, wondering if he might indeed be able to offer her something that would make another appearance as Siobhan Naught or the Raven Queen worthwhile. If so, she would need to stall until she’d successfully managed to decrypt her own copy of Myrddin’s journal. It would be very embarrassing to discover that there was another layer of security beyond the current one, after all.

Over the next couple of weeks, Sebastien poured her focus into spellcasting, and particularly the light-refinement spell, until her muscles began to harden and grow defined beneath her skin and her joints stopped aching. Her first priority had to be maintaining the integrity of her mental defenses, always. And as a nice additional bonus, it seemed that either time or all the work that she was putting in was helping to erase any lingering urges for the beamshell tincture. Working on light-refinement seemed to suppress the urges almost as well as getting a full meal.

Second to that, she memorized glyphs and practiced splitting her Will. Sometimes, she even listened to the more boring lectures while practicing, careful not to accidentally channel any energy into a nonexistent spell array.

Casting both the magnifying divination spell and Professor Lacer’s transmutation exercises at the same time allowed her to improve two or three times as quickly as she had been before. She reached the point that Professor Lacer had required quickly enough and began pushing for an accomplishment worthy of contribution points. Transmuting a diamond from pure air was as difficult as it sounded, but at this point it was only a matter of power and time.

If only all of her problems were so simple.

Sometimes, she helped Damien to cast some of the more power-intensive information-collating spells or spent time reading through frustratingly vague articles and underlining small hints of relevant information. Occasionally, she got distracted and found herself reading through tangential articles about the omens of political upheaval in Osham. There were fascinating exposés from former citizens about what it was like to live under such an authoritarian regime, and the systematic oppression the populace suffered.

The northern islands had been facing some severe ice storms from the north and were expected to slide into famine if a solution couldn’t be found.

And Silva Erde was publicly blaming Lenore’s “misuse of magic” on the increase of magical beasts that were plaguing their forests. And apparently Lenore’s ambassador had made a huge ass of himself trying to cut down a sentient tree that was a friend of the queen’s family for six generations.

A few times when Sebastien had time away from classes, she put on a new disguise and went to help Liza with the sleep-proxy tests. They only continued to go well, and somehow, before Sebastien had realized, three weeks had passed, and the seventh month was upon them.

Liza left a note in their linked journals that their last round of testing had gone as smoothly as those before.

The sleep-proxy spell was ready.

When Sebastien arrived at Liza’s apartment, the spell arrays were already set up, and the ravens were waiting. ‘I’m not the only one who’s been excited about this.

Unfortunately, there was no easy way to increase the brain power or vitality of the ravens without fully Sacrificing their counterparts. Siobhan had the inkling of an idea that might negate the need for their deaths, but it was far from being something she could implement.

Siobhan first helped Liza to cast the spell on herself. Liza didn’t actually need anyone to joint-cast with her, but the practice for Siobhan was part of their agreement.

When it was done, Liza tilted her head back and took a deep, joyful breath. Her thick lips spread into a face-splitting smile, and her arms lifted as if to feel spring raindrops falling down from the heavens.

Siobhan watched her, unblinking, as if she could receive some of that invisible cleansing rain from proximity alone.

Liza lowered her head and arms and smiled gently at Siobhan. “You will enjoy this, I think.”

Siobhan’s skin itched beneath the surface with eagerness, her cheeks flushed, and sweat beaded on her forehead and at the small of her back. She swallowed. “Let’s set up the containment wards around my raven, then.”

Siobhan had feared that the raven might not only end up sleeping for her, but also dreaming for her. Without any way to wake, what would happen to it? What if it died? And what if, in doing so, it could cause some sort of backlash on her, who would be connected to it through binding magic? It was best to be thorough. After all, none of the sleep-proxy tests had been done with someone like her.

She’d had to pay Liza to develop them while remaining vague about what exactly they were meant to protect against, but for some extra gold, Liza had been thorough and asked no questions.

Still, as they cast the binding magic, Siobhan remained alert, ready to attack with her battle wand if something went wrong. Though truly, Siobhan wasn’t sure exactly what she expected in the worst-case scenario.

She sensed the magic attaching, little tingles penetrating through her skin to attach somewhere deep inside. Blood and flames flashed behind her eyelids for the space of a single blink. Siobhan tried not to think of that glimpse she had seen of the town as she was escaping Grandfather’s house.

And then the binding spell was finished.

It was wonderful.

She had seen quite a few people experience the spell, but somehow the reality of it still took her completely by surprise. It was like a skin made of lead had been peeled from her, and suddenly she could breathe, its weight no longer squeezing her down into a hunchbacked shape or restricting the rise and fall of her chest. When that layer was gone, she thought she was free, until another peeled away, and she realized she had still been weighed down. ‘How light is it possible for a person to get before they just float away?’ she wondered.

But no matter how much weight sloughed away, the minute after she was lighter, and then lighter still. By the time the magic settled, Siobhan felt virtually weightless.

Oh,’ she realized. ‘All this time, how much strength have I been expending just to stay upright? Just to avoid collapsing on myself like an empty balloon?

She ran her fingertips over her face, feather-light, and then down her body. ‘Is this what other people feel like all the time? No, that’s impossible,’ she reasoned. ‘If that was so, they would all be trying to take over the world…or become the next Myrddin.

“I don’t have to sleep anymore,” Siobhan whispered. She laughed breathlessly until she choked. She touched her trembling fingers to her cheeks, expecting to find tears, but her eyes were dry.

“Settle, child,” Liza said, her voice warm and low.

Siobhan pressed her hands to her open mouth, forcefully slowing the air her ragged breaths could suck in. “I’m just…so happy,” she gasped, sinking to her knees.

Liza kneeled next to her, gently rubbing circles over the center of Siobhan’s back.

It took a few minutes for Siobhan to calm, and she was left feeling somewhat limp but still deeply free. Siobhan closed her eyes and wiped the saliva that had gotten on her hands onto her clothes. “I’m so happy,” she repeated.

The raven linked to Siobhan was already blinking sleepily, its head bobbing up and down as it tried to stay awake. She watched carefully as the raven finally gave in and rested its head on its back to sleep. Siobhan tensed as its breathing deepened and slowed, but nothing happened. “I’ll keep watch on it through the night,” she said.

Liza eyed the raven, and then Siobhan, with some distrust. Though she said nothing, at the base of the stairway she stopped and activated another set of wards that glowed briefly across the ceiling of the entire lower level.

Siobhan stared vigilantly at the sleeping raven for about a half hour, but the boredom soon became agonizing. She did not take well to idleness. Her mind kept returning to the memory of darkness and solitude she’d experienced during the sensory deprivation spell. She tried to keep her mind away from the dark thoughts, but every time she relaxed her vigilance even the tiniest bit, the memories slipped back to the forefront. It did not make things easier that one part of her mind could be focused on something innocuous while another descended into memory. ‘That is the unfortunate side of so much splitting my Will, I suppose. But I feel so wonderful. How do the bad thoughts still creep in so easily?

But thinking back to that terrible moment reminded her of something less helpless. She had used her shadow-familiar to exert control, but more than that, she had been able to sense through it. How this worked, she wasn’t sure. Some sort of side-effect from filling her shadow with her Will, perhaps? It was fascinating but also seemed like it might come in useful somehow, if she became more adept with the skill. And maybe, something else to focus on would take her mind off the unpleasant memories.

She cast the shadow-familiar spell with practiced ease. With her hands in a Circle around her mouth to catch the heat of her breath, she closed her eyes and tried to feel something through her shadow.

Nothing happened. Just like every other time she’d cast the spell before the sensory deprivation, and just like the way she couldn’t feel the shadow beneath her feet normally. If she didn’t know it was possible, she would have never guessed. ‘Maybe there’s too much light? So much so that it’s overwhelming?

She hesitated before reaching into her bag for the cotton-and-wax earplugs that she used to make nights in the dorms possible. She stuffed them into her ears, though unlike the sensory deprivation spell, they did not shut out the sound of her own heartbeat. Then she turned off the light crystal, plunging herself into almost complete darkness. Her skin prickled with unease, and she hurried to recast the shadow-familiar with her eyes closed. Very deliberately, she took control of the darkness beneath and around her.

At first, this attempt seemed the same as the one prior, but as her palms began to sweat and her throat grew dry, she caught the faintest hint of light absorbed by her shadow, which encompassed almost the entire room. After that first hint, it grew clearer. There was still some light coming from the crystal at the base of the stairs, and the spell arrays filling the floor and the walls were giving off the faintest glow, which would normally be invisible to the naked eye.

Siobhan let out a shuddering sigh of relief. Somehow, knowing what was there removed the creeping sense of dread she’d developed after what she saw in the darkness of her own mind. The sensation felt a little like the philtre of darkness’s proprioception adaptation, which she’d still yet to name something less of a mouthful. ‘Maybe my experience with that is making it easier for my brain to parse this information.

Using her shadow-familiar in this way was more difficult than she had expected, soon leaving her mentally fatigued in a way that had nothing to do with capacity. So she turned the light back on, and since she was going to be staying up all night, turned her thoughts toward finding something else to do. Light-refinement was impossible without the sun, and her mind was too tired to practice Will-splitting. She’d even done all of her homework already.

In the end, she pulled out the book Professor Lacer had given her, 100 Clever Ways Thaumaturges Have Committed Suicide. Lying with her legs up against the wall and her back on the floor, she began to read.

At least fifteen different thaumaturges were known to have independently come up with the idea to draw a Circle with the inner bounding edge instead facing outward. Thus creating a Circle with a center on the other side of the planet, and only the small space that would normally be bounded on the “outside.” The bounded area would be shaped somewhat like a hot air balloon the size of the planet. It was a simple mental trick that could be backed up by a few output-directing instructions and, unfailingly, killed the thaumaturge as soon as they tried to cast a spell that spanned the entire planet. All fifteen known cases had died immediately from extreme Will-strain leading to a massive brain hemorrhage. Luckily, external backlash was minimal due to the extreme range of energy dispersal.

During the reign of the Blood Emperor, a group of thaumaturges attempted to create a wide-range communication and surveillance network by linking the consciousness of thousands of birds together and then releasing them across the country. This project met problems from the very beginning, when the birds started to die. One of the thaumaturges attempted to connect to the bird-network to find out the reason for their deaths. He immediately jumped off the top of the tower where they had been working, bashing himself head-first on the ground below.

It was speculated that the information overload had fried his brain like an egg, but many of the rumors surrounding the event insisted that he had believed that he, too, was a bird, and thus could fly.

The next entry had Siobhan giggling uncontrollably to herself as the book covered an entire series of hilarious failures and disasters resulting from witches trying to force familiar contracts with dragons. Everyone knew that dragons were notoriously contrary and spiteful—almost as bad as djinns. Siobhan really couldn’t imagine how much hubris must be involved in making such a foolish decision. Dragons grew too large to house, were ridiculously expensive to feed and care for, and had inconveniently high sex drives.

They were also masters of malicious compliance.

She had barely finished rolling around on the ground with laughter before moving on to the next entry. A young thaumaturge, jealous of his friend’s artificery project—shoes that would tie themselves—developed shoes that he believed would walk on water by repelling liquid. They caused his feet to explode as all the blood exited the area of effect at once and with extreme force.

That, too, was somehow hilarious, despite the gruesome imagery.

After that, entries covered several obviously deadly ideas in quick succession. Someone wanted to avoid being disarmed and so tried implanting their Conduit into their own flesh. Someone else cooked themselves and everyone around them with super high-frequency, low-wavelength radiation. Another, in a “genius” solution to an ongoing famine, attempted to create horse-sized chickens!

The book did a wonderful job of keeping her mind away from dark thoughts, but she made it all the way to the end and still felt that something was missing. Surely someone outside of the Red Guard would have tried casting with an Aberrant component at some point?

But she already suspected she knew what might happen if someone tried that. As she grew antsy with idleness once more, Siobhan dug deep in her satchel and pulled out her books about Myrddin once more.

I’m opening the Alcove up beyond Patreon, so if you hang out over there you may start to see new faces. And I’ll probably be on for a few hours after dinner tonight, hanging out and chatting with people, too.

I did an AMA in The Library category/subforum a couple weeks ago, which you might find interesting to read through if you haven’t seen it yet. https://alcove.azaleaellis.com/t/ama-ask-me-anything-600pm-mt/142/64

Seeing a locked chapter that should be unlocked?: https://www.azaleaellis.com/trouble-accessing-chapters/

 

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