Chapter 196 – Ashes of the Phoenix

Siobhan

Month 7 Day 15, Thursday 12:15 a.m.

Siobhan turned the pages of Myrddin: An Investigative Chronicle of the Legend until she found a section that drew her attention.

Somewhat famously, Myrddin was said to have been given a quest by a dragon that required him to turn clay to flesh.

Siobhan had seen Professor Lacer actually do this in class, with a turtle. Of course, Professor Lacer wasn’t rumored to have created sentience, nor true life out of clay.

But if Myrddin had done something similar, it was easy to see where such exaggerated rumors came from. It was even possible that a dragon really had tried to give him an impossible task out of mischievousness or vindictiveness.

The author of this book agreed, and also tied the rumor to Carnagore, the metal horse who had seemed so lifelike. Myrddin was known to have killed at least two dragons single-handedly, and the rumors had probably spread from the latter event, when he carried the beast’s corpse back to the nearest village with him and single-handedly revived their economy with the butchering and sale of dragon parts.

The linked stories in Enough Yarn to Last the Night: A Collection of Myths from the Life of a Man with Many Names were as fanciful as one might have expected. In one, a golem formed from mud learned to be a real person after following Myrddin around for a while. In another, Myrddin built a sandcastle, which turned into a miniature city that ants took over and ruled for several generations of mythically heroic struggle and betrayal.

Even more famous than the tales of turning clay to flesh were the stories about Myrddin having used phoenix ashes to resurrect his recently deceased lover, though in some stories it was instead his son. There were six different connected stories in the book of illustrated children’s tales, and the investigative history book explained that historians believed these tales, greatly exaggerated, led to the overhunting of phoenixes and their subsequent endangerment.

Phoenixes, never that prolific, were now on the brink of extinction, and the use of any components from them was illegal. And they could, in fact, be used to save the life of someone who had died within the last three minutes, under the Will of a Grandmaster and with at least seventy percent of the deceased person’s body parts, which must include their heart and their brain.

But the phoenix had to have died within the last three days for the magic of their components to remain active, and they were notoriously difficult to contain, and beyond that, difficult to keep alive in captivity.

No one’s life had actually been saved in exchange for that of a phoenix for the last four hundred years. At least not openly.

Of all the myths she’d read, these seemed the most firmly based on plausibly real events.

Siobhan flipped the page to the next story. In this one, Myrddin went into the Forest of Nod again. He was searching for something important, which the story didn’t specify. Rather than finding whatever he was looking for, he stumbled into a Circle made of mushrooms and river pebbles—a doorway to the hidden land of the fey.

He spent seven months in their realm, dancing their dances, eating their food, and wooing their women, all while he kept a watchful eye on every piece of magic, learning it in secret.

In the end, they revealed their nefarious intent. He would remain forever in their realm unless he married the sickly fey princess and tied his life-force to hers. Having partaken of their hospitality, he had no right to refuse and leave freely. But using the magic he had stolen from them, Myrddin turned the tables, stole the sickly fey princess, and escaped.

He exited seventy years younger than he had entered, because time passes differently in the realm of the fey, and he had been living backward inside of it.

Siobhan frowned, noting this second reference to the man moving backward through time. ‘Do these stories stem from him being so incredibly long-lived? Even most Archmages only average one hundred forty years, with the oldest of them getting to one hundred seventy, or in a couple of cases, two hundred years old. But Myrddin was recorded as living at least three hundred years, even in the respected historical texts. How much time did he spend casting, to make that possible?

She blinked up at the illustration in the book, then let it fall to her chest as her arms grew tired from holding it above her. ‘Myrddin could most likely split his Will, right? Is it possible…that he just spent all of his waking hours casting something, while the other half of his Will took the burden of going about daily life?

She sat up. ‘Could I do that?

Rolling around on the ground while reading had freed her warding medallion and transformation amulet. Siobhan moved automatically to tuck them back under her shirt, but froze with the black stone of the transformation amulet in her hand.

But what if Myrddin didn’t really live that long? What if it just seems that way…because of something like this amulet? If this works to give the same body to anyone who uses it, then Sebastien Siverling could actually be two or more people if there were duplicate amulets, or if I gave it to someone else.’ The idea exploded inside of her mind like a fireball. ‘Myrddin doesn’t have to be one person. It could have been a group of powerful thaumaturges working together, or even a family passing down the legacy from generation to generation.

She snapped Enough Yarn to Last the Night shut, turning back to An Investigative Chronicle. She skimmed every page, looking for any mention of fair-skinned, fair-haired men in Myrddin’s history. A few hours took her all the way through the book but didn’t lead to anything conclusive. Myrddin had had dozens of friends and companions throughout his very long life, many of whom had died. But the author wasn’t prone to overly describing people’s appearances. Myrddin himself was never known for particular paleness, and several drawings and paintings of him had been made. They were of poor quality and exactness compared to the artistic accomplishments of modern painters, but he had brown or black hair, and his nose was not nearly as long or sharp as hers.

‘I suppose it’s possible that a group of Myrddins might have used an amulet with a different appearance. And…it’s also possible that Myrddin was a genuine person, that was his real identity, and he created this amulet so that he could sneak around without being noticed. He was rather famous, after all, and in his later years grew quite reclusive. A body like this, so obviously not Myrddin, would have made it easy for him to pop by the market or travel.

That seemed more likely. After all, Myrddin was undeniably one of the most powerful, intelligent thaumaturges of multiple generations. Even if his inventions could have been the work of a group, how could they have created one thaumaturge more powerful than the next, until it reached the point of absurdity? Certain feats of magic couldn’t be falsified.

Siobhan checked on the sleeping raven, running another diagnostic spell. The creature seemed completely fine. It wasn’t twitching with dreams, nor did it show any signs of elevated stress levels, except for extreme fatigue. Unlike the normal short sleep patterns of birds, it had gone into a deep sleep almost immediately and stayed there.

Even though hours had passed, she was feeling just as refreshed as ever.

And her Will had recovered, too.

Realizing it would be a good idea to test Will-splitting while connected to the raven in a controlled environment, just in case, Siobhan attempted it. When the raven didn’t react, she continued, and ended up spending the rest of the night practicing without ever feeling weary.

When she left in the morning, with plenty of time to spare before Thursday’s classes started, the raven was still sleeping deeply, perfectly fine.

Sebastien stopped at the lock box on the way back to the University and was surprised to find a letter from Professor Lacer. After the last time, she had been prepared to wait for a long while again. He must have replied to her almost right away for the letter to already be waiting.

To make sure she had time to read it, she bought a few freshly baked rolls stuffed with beans and vegetables on the side of the road and ate them on the way back. Then she scurried into the Menagerie, as if she was going to do a morning light-refinement session, but instead opened Professor Lacer’s letter.

I am not surprised at your goals or interests. Anything less would leave me disappointed.

I take your point. I am certain I could share information of similar risk and perhaps even greater importance, but like you, I do not feel comfortable doing so over letter with someone I am not fully sure I can trust. Perhaps one day we will each prove ourselves to the other.

My curiosity will not waver, but I do not need the answers spoon-fed to me.

You have the skill we need, and after some discussion with Grandmaster Kiernan, I believe we can offer you appropriate compensation and enticement to apply it. The man is wary of you, of course, but even more so, he is motivated to decrypt these books through any means possible. The High Crown has been applying increasing pressure on the University to give up the texts so that he may attempt decryption with his own experts. I do not believe you need worry that Grandmaster Kiernan will betray you.

Additionally, should you agree to lend your efforts to this endeavor, I will speak favorably of you to my colleagues in the Red Guard.

They are, indeed, interested in you, but they do not carry the High Crown’s grudge. He cannot command us, no matter what he likes to think. The Red Guard exists to handle very specific types of threats, and unless I am very mistaken, you are not one of them.

Please refrain from proving my testimony wrong with some attempt to do a blood Sacrifice of everyone in Gilbratha, or anything similarly dangerous and ostentatious.

In addition to that, we can provide a safe meeting location for our collaboration. I will be involved in its setup and shielding and can assure you of its quality.

And as a third step toward ensuring your comfort and safety, Grandmaster Kiernan has volunteered to hire a covert team who will go to Silva Erde to spread false information that you have been sighted there.

Sebastien lowered the letter, which fluttered slightly in the summer breeze. Late-blooming flowers were beginning to wilt from some of the trees, and petals danced through the air, carrying a faint scent of sweetness and heat. Sebastien waved away a bee from her sweaty forehead and reread the last offer.

That covert team is definitely just some minions from the Architects of Khronos. But pretending that I’ve left the country, and backing that with evidence, is actually a wonderful idea. Much better than simply lying low and hoping my enemies will give up. I should give them the raven-summoning spell so that they can do something flashy.

The letter continued.

As you also value knowledge, I would guess that you may be interested in Myrddin’s remaining journals. Obviously, you will have access to the three we hold during the decryption and study process.

To sweeten the deal, I can provide you access to the University’s library and restricted archives, without limit, via a University token spoofed to mimic Archmage Zard’s. He has full authority to come and go as he wishes, without the wards sending notice or alarms to anyone on the security committee. It should go without saying that I would expect you to be discreet with its use and do nothing that would implicate me. I believe I will be able to manage this fraud within the next couple of weeks, but due to the risks involved, will only move forward if you agree.

Altogether, I hope Grandmaster Kiernan and I have offered sufficient enticement to collaborate. If you agree, we will begin preparations immediately.

P.S. — I hope that you are able to place the lock back upon the books when we are not using them?

Sebastien swallowed hard and, after checking to make sure she was unseen, burnt this letter just as she had all the rest.

Professor Lacer’s offer was emphatically attractive. Even if she hadn’t trusted him, with such enticing offers she would have had to accept anyway. The only reason to turn down his proposal would be if she really couldn’t overcome Myrddin’s lock and thought that they might turn on her with twice as much enmity as they had allied with her if they were to discover it.

It began to rain, and Sebastien hurried to Professor Ilma’s class while mentally composing her response. She would send it that very evening.

I agree to your terms. You may begin preparations.

I will not join you until you have fulfilled your promises. I am currently working on a venture of my own, which I must complete before I turn my efforts elsewhere, but I believe I will be free to help by the time you have completed your side of the bargain. If not, there may be some delay.

I have attached instructions for a spell that you might find useful in creating a false sighting of the Raven Queen. Please do not abuse it.

It wasn’t like someone else couldn’t come up with such a spell on their own, but she would find it somewhat disconcerting if clouds of ravens started appearing willy-nilly, with nothing to do with her. It was uncomfortable to realize that she couldn’t really stop anyone from using the reputation of the Raven Queen for their own benefit.

Sebastien considered Professor Lacer’s postscript question but left it unanswered, because she had no idea.

She sat through History of Magic in a daze, only snapping out of it when the bell rang to signify the end of class. Instead of rushing out with the other students, she shuffled up to Professor Ilma. When the blue-skinned woman looked at her inquisitively, Sebastien said, “I’ve been reading the books on Myrddin that you lent me. I was wondering, do you have any theories on why he might have disappeared for most of the last few decades of his life? What was he working on? Did he have any notable or powerful friends or acquaintances? And these notes written in the margins. Can you tell me more about the connections?”

Ilma shook her head. “I have read both of the books I lent you, but those notes were not written by me. My mentor was quite interested in Myrddin, but he passed away long ago and unavailable to answer your questions.”

“Oh,” Sebastien said. She had just assumed that the handwriting within was Ilma’s.

“If you have read both books, I can recommend more resources from the library that would cater to such speculation. But to be honest, too much about Myrddin’s life is lost to stories. Even the things that should be clearly recorded are tainted with theatrics. It is sure that Myrddin was an ambitious, powerful genius, and that he knew this about himself. I suspect that he died alone, a lonely, bitter old man, and that the world can only be thankful he did not become an Aberrant. Dozens, if not hundreds, of historians have asked similar questions and wildly chased any perceived remnants of his footsteps in an attempt to find his lost legacy, but until recently, all for naught.”

Ilma patted Sebastien on the shoulder. “Perhaps when my colleagues in the History department finally decrypt his journals, we will learn more about the truth of his life, particularly his last years.”

Sebastien thanked her and left, disappointed.

That night, she was reminded of her complete lack of need to sleep. She spent almost the whole evening in several sessions of Will-splitting practice interspersed with glyph memorization and organizing the important information from newspaper articles on rogue magic incidents that had garnered Red Guard response. In the end, she took only a ninety-minute nap before dawn, as they had discovered that getting even small amounts of rest could greatly increase the time that the sleeping raven lasted, and she did not want to kill it.

In the morning, she was still refreshed, and a session of light-refinement to greet the dawn filled her with any energy she lacked.

Despite how wonderful freedom from sleep was, and how truly sublime it continued to be as the days passed, Sebastien still couldn’t release the sense of dread that hounded her every footstep.

During class Sebastien sometimes became distracted with daydreams about the Red Guard bursting in through the classroom windows to arrest her, or going to sleep during the few times the sleep-proxy spell wasn’t active and never waking again, or even worse, going to sleep and finding herself trapped inside the memories she had forgotten.

This looming sense of doom was even more constant than the summer rains and drove her to study and practice incessantly, and with the combination of the sleep-proxy and light-refinement spells, she was able to recover from exertion like never before while putting in even more hours of effort. On the weekends, she stopped by Liza’s to switch to a different raven before the strain became too much for the previous one.

Soon, Tanya would have the first returns from the secret thaumaturge meeting, though she doubted whatever the young woman brought would be anything compared to the hoard of knowledge held in the University archives.

And then, a month before the end of term exams, Ennis Naught escaped from the labor camp he was assigned to, cutting his one-hundred-year sentence down to less than one.

Sebastien expected a furor to follow, revitalizing the flagging interest in the Raven Queen, but the news was only reported by one newspaper, one time, and none of the others picked it up. Only The People’s Voice, which didn’t really count, and was again treading on dangerous ground as some of the quotations from anonymous commentators edged on doubting the capability of the Crowns’ justice.

The lack of news coverage showed her more clearly than anything how tight a grip the Crowns had on information. The Rouse Family, bearer of the Twelfth Crown, owned the newspapers either directly or in essence, along with the larger entertainment halls, opera houses, and brothels.

Sebastien was less concerned by the news about Ennis than she expected herself to be. But in a way, it made sense. She had disowned him. Ennis No-Name had no connection to her. And when he died, his remains would not be buried with the family.

She was sure he wouldn’t come looking for her. His sense of self-preservation was too great, and his concern for her had always been too little.

The next day, as a precaution to ensure students wouldn’t have any issues when pushing their Wills to the limits, Professor Burberry held another in-class session of the Henrik-Thompson tests.

“You should switch the scale to Apprentice level, or maybe Journeyman?” Sebastien suggested when it was her turn. “Otherwise the light may be too bright.”

While Professor Burberry checked her previous records for Sebastien’s initial results from the first term and raised a skeptical eye, some of the other students whispered or sent her dirty looks. But Burberry complied without comment.

Sebastien palmed the Conduit Professor Lacer had given her, along with the beast core Professor Burberry provided, and began to channel energy through the Henrik-Thompson device.

The glow quickly grew to a glaringly bright white, and Sebastien closed her eyes to reduce the irritation as she pushed at her limits. She stopped before she got so close to the edge of her ability that it felt dangerous, held there for a few seconds, and then released the magic.

The other students were silent.

Professor Burberry cleared her throat and quietly wrote down the results. “Six hundred eighteen thaums.”

Murmuring arose among the other students immediately, and even Damien gave Sebastien a look of surprise.

Burberry frowned down at the number, checked the testing artifact, and then turned suspiciously on Sebastien. “Were you deliberately underperforming on this test last term?”

Sebastien flinched in surprise. She was pretty sure she had, in fact, slightly underperformed, because she’d still had an underpowered Conduit at that time.

Before she could speak, Damien piped up. “Sebastien is just incredibly talented, and he practices all the time. Seriously. I find him practicing in the middle of the night, and he’s so busy with Professor Lacer’s special apprentice assignments that he isn’t even properly making time to spend with his friends.”

Ana rolled her eyes. “You barely make time to spend with your friends recently, either, but do you want to bet your Will hasn’t passed five hundred thaums?”

“Ten gold,” Damien muttered back out of the side of his mouth without ever taking his eyes off Burberry.

Professor Burberry ignored them, examining Sebastien with concern. “How many hours a day are you practicing?”

It wasn’t the first time someone had asked that question, but it was the first time that the answer was high enough that she couldn’t be truthful. “Maybe six or so,” Sebastien said. In truth, since the sleep-proxy spell had been working, that number was more like ten.

“Are you using glamours to hide the signs of fatigue?” Burberry asked, leaning in to peer at Sebastien’s face through her glasses. “No, it doesn’t seem so.” Burberry, whose surprisingly smooth, plump skin showed its own signs of magical cosmetics and glamours, should know.

Some quick mental math made it obvious why Burberry was acting so strange. Sebastien had started the University testing at just over two hundred thaums. And in less than two terms, she had tripled that.

To put it in perspective, the average student, casting for the first time on entering the University and practicing three hours per day for the next three terms, might get their Apprentice license at two hundred and sixty thaums. If they stayed five terms to get Journeyman certification with an extra two terms for a specific specialization, that same student would be at about six hundred fifty to seven hundred thaums.

This was the difference that dedication, effort, and variety could make to a person’s Will. But, doing the math, it still seemed like Sebastien was progressing slightly faster than she should have, if she was really averaging six hours per day for most of that time. Perhaps some days she had worked a little longer. ‘Or perhaps I’m secretly just that talented?’ she wondered, feeling a little smug.

Burberry pursed her lips. “Well, I suppose by your age Thaddeus Lacer was already at four or five thousand thaums.”

Sebastien’s smugness dropped away like a stone block slipping through her fingers.

“He chose his apprentice well. But child, you have plenty of time ahead of you. There’s no need to push yourself so hard. Remember to take a well-deserved break every now and again.” She turned to the other students. “In fact, I encourage all of you to take a break the day before your final exams so that your minds and Wills can tackle any obstacles while fresh. Cramming until the last second often results in worse performance.”

Burberry returned to the testing, and Damien also requested she set the artifact to the Apprentice scale. His light wasn’t as bright as Sebastien’s, and his results came out at three hundred seventy thaums, despite pushing himself until his cheeks trembled.

Ana held out her hand triumphantly for the gold.

Damien stared at her hand, opened and closed his mouth, and said, “I don’t have the gold on me. I’ll pay you later.”

Sebastien wondered whether Damien had gotten any more allowance since the beginning of the term and if, when he had made the bet, he had forgotten that he didn’t actually have ten gold. He spent the rest of the class time glowering silently at any student who dared to speak.

That evening, Sebastien retreated to her apartment under the cover of her trusty umbrella, despite the fact that it was a Monday. She had spent much of the weekend trying to open Myrddin’s journal, and she felt like she was on the razor’s edge of success.

Sebastien retrieved the ancient leather book from its hiding spot, took it out of the warded chest, and dual-cast a few simple spells to warm up her Will. All of this practice had been noticeably affecting the nimbleness of her Will, which was spilling into all of her other spellwork. Beyond that, the huge breadth of glyphs she now knew meant she could be so exact in her meaning that she’d also improved her efficiency.

As she began what was probably her three thousandth attempt to get past the journal’s test, Sebastien wasn’t even excited. She was still determined to succeed, but the uncooperative book had long ago thrashed any immediate hope out of her.

Instead of falling behind as the two glyphs appeared faster and faster, or stumbling when some obscure glyph that she couldn’t remember appeared, the glyphs stilled for the final time, and then sank into the leather surface.

Sebastien stared down at Myrddin’s journal, careful not to let her shock distract her from continuing to apply her Will on those two meanings, just in case. With trembling fingers, she opened the leather cover. The writing inside had resolved into clarity.

In a rush this evening, must drop chapter and run!

 

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