Month 11, Day 2, Monday 2:15 p.m.
Sebastien’s next class was Natural Science, which she found more fascinating than she had thought she would, mostly due to the enthusiasm of the professor. The classroom was large, and divided into two sections. One part was desks and seats for students to listen to lectures and take notes, while the other section was lined with sturdy slate tables and various pieces of equipment for them to do practical experiments.
Professor Gnorrish was a big, tall man—not the image one had of a person who spent all his time in the laboratory or library—and he had a big, tall personality and a passion for his field to match. His excited grin was infectious. He waved his arms about and let his voice boom while he spoke, and at one point Sebastien even thought he might jump up and down to better impress his enthusiasm upon them.
“Natural science is the new wave of magic, powerful because of the nature of reality, rather than in spite of it. It relies on the strength of the ties that bind reality together, rather than the strength of the caster alone. One day, I believe we will discover how to replicate all of transmogrification’s abilities with transmutation as our understanding of natural science grows.”
Some students seemed to find this ludicrous, a few rude snorts coming from a couple of boys in expensive clothes.
Sebastien turned around to throw them a disdainful glare, and was surprised to find Westbay doing the same across from her. He had walked into the classroom a minute after her, and had studiously ignored her since then, which she found perfectly acceptable.
Professor Gnorrish didn’t seem to mind the obvious disagreement, though. He nodded to the boys who had snorted. “You think me naively optimistic, I assume. Yet, let me ask you this. Have we not accomplished things in the last one hundred years that the humans of aeons past would have considered impossible to achieve without transmogrification by a powerful thaumaturge?” He reeled off a list of achievements and names, and when he finished, all the students were silent. “What more might we accomplish in one hundred more years?”
At the end of class, he instructed them to borrow and read certain books from the library, which held multiple copies of his specified texts, and then released them.
It was her free period next. Despite the pangs of hunger from her stomach, Sebastien went to the library rather than the cafeteria. She wanted to get there before all the other students picked the shelves bare of the assigned books.
Sebastien borrowed them with her student token, then sat at a table and flipped through each to gauge how long they would take her to read. She doubted the dorm room would be the best place to get work done, at least not while the other students were awake. After a few minutes, she put the books in her leather satchel and went to browse the shelves. ‘If I ever do anything to jeopardize my status as a student here, I will lose access to all these books. More books than I could read in a lifetime. I would rather cut off my own toes with a sharpened spoon.’
Thinking of the encrypted book in her room at Dryden Manor, she searched for guides on decryption. Most of them were on one of the floors still unavailable to her. The subject was large and complex, and a quick perusal showed that many of the books were beyond her comprehension. She found a couple of primers meant for children, as well as a book on unlocking, nullifying, and revealing spells. She checked all three out, then browsed some more. The sheer number of books was astounding. They even had books on Aberrants, though none on the first floor had any deeper information than what could be pieced together from rumors and newspaper articles.
Even the lure of the books all around her couldn’t distract her from making it to her next class on time. She’d been looking forward to and dreading it in equal parts since being accepted to the University. She stopped by the cafeteria to eat and quickly found her way to her next class.
Professor Lacer’s classroom was the largest she’d been in so far. Introduction to Practical Will-based Casting was her first elective, and probably popular enough to need all the desks stretching out and upward toward the back of the room.
Sebastien sat close to the front of the already filling room, trying not to fiddle from a combination of impatience and nervousness. ‘Professor Lacer may have saved me, but he also knows what an idiot I can be. He cannot have been impressed by my tantrum during the examination.’ She stilled, the remembered shame calming her. ‘But he must have seen potential in me, too. I just have to make sure he doesn’t regret his decision.’
“I heard Professor Lacer is the youngest free-caster in the last three centuries,” a man said.
“I heard he should be an Archmage already, but the council of Grandmasters just doesn’t want to recognize him because he’s too young and not from any noble bloodline,” someone else said.
“Archmage? That’s impossible,” a girl interjected, shaking her head. “I don’t care how talented he is, you need decades of practice to get that powerful. Archmage Zard wasn’t given the title until he was eighty-three. Professor Lacer can’t even be fifty yet.”
“He could be older. Heavy magic use keeps you revitalized, you know…” another girl said doubtfully. “I’m hoping learning how to free-cast will keep me wrinkle-free until I’m at least older than my mother.”
Another girl snorted derisively at that, and Sebastien suppressed the urge to nod in agreement.
“Well, I heard he was part of the Red Guard after the war,” yet another young man said, his voice hushed as if sharing a secret.
“Oh, that’s definitely true. My uncle told me the coat he wears all the time is actually an artifact spelled against blood magic curses,” the first man said. “It’s made of the skin of a half-troll, half-giant that Lacer killed during the Haze War.”
The girl who’d snorted earlier laughed. “Your uncle is either telling you tall tales, or he’s as gullible as you apparently are.”
Drawn by the conversation, another boy walked over and sat with the group of gossipers. “Did you guys hear what he did to that girl who tried to break into his house and seduce him a couple years back?”
“What?” the girl who was worried about wrinkles gasped, one hand covering her open mouth. “Who? What did she—I mean…”
The newest addition to their group nodded sagely. “My sister was a student when it happened. The girl was an upper-term research assistant, and apparently she thought Lacer was just shy when he kept rejecting her. So she tried to break through the wards to his house wearing only a cloak—nothing underneath at all! Of course, things didn’t go like she expected.” He paused dramatically as the others leaned in and urged him to continue. “His wards triggered around her and left her tied up, half naked, and green-skinned. When he found her he cursed her to never feel physical desire again, and gave her a huge, hairy wart on the end of her nose so no one else would be tempted, either.”
“No,” another boy said, leaning back and crossing his arms. He shook his head. “A professor wouldn’t do that. I mean, he probably expelled her, but they can’t just get away with cursing students whenever they feel like it.”
“Yeah, Professor Lacer’s not evil,” the girl said with a “humph.”
“But he is really strict,” the first man said. “I heard he expelled a student for coughing on him in the cafeteria.”
There were nods all around, and the conversation turned to free-casting, each student taking it in turns to brag about all the cool things they planned to do once they were able to free-cast.
Only after all the seats were filled—Sebastien was sure half the first term students had signed up for the class—did Professor Lacer stalk in, a long trench coat flapping behind him as the fabric tried to keep up with his long stride. His hair was again tied back simply at the nape of his neck. His eyebrows were bushy and winged, adding to the piercing nature of his dark eyes. He kept a beard short enough that its attempts to grow wild were restrained. Overall, his appearance matched his reputation: impatient, dangerous, and extremely competent.
He stopped in the middle of the room, staring out and up at them. It took merely seconds for the room to quiet. “Welcome to Practical Will-based Casting, or as my upper-term students like to call it, Practical Casting. In it, I will teach those of you who are willing to learn how to do what I can do.” His words were heavy with importance, though he did not shout. He turned and pointed his finger to the far side of the lecture stage.
Sebastien’s hair fluttered, though there had been no wind, and suddenly, a person appeared where before there had been nothing, standing near the wall.
She jumped in surprise, as did most of the other students, but calmed herself when she saw it was just a practice dummy. Why it had been invisible, she did not know, but she assumed it had been for dramatic effect.
Thaddeus Lacer kept pointing. His Conduit, large and clear, peeked out from the curled fingers of his pointing hand.
His other hand, held at his side, was gripping a beast core just the right size to fit within his grasp and allow his middle finger and thumb to touch.
‘Is he forming the Sacrifice Circle out of his own hand?’ Most modern magic used physical, external Circles, though older, more esoteric spells didn’t always. Sometimes a spell could be bounded by your own body, or even something intrinsically attached and belonging to you, like your shadow.
The simple shadow-familiar spell she’d shown off to Katerin, letting it writhe and seem to come to life, used the heat of her breath going through a Circle made of her hands along with the light that touched her shadow. But even with a low-powered spell like that, the air between her hands would ripple visibly with the energy being channeled.
At the tip of his outstretched finger, a spark of orange light appeared. It swirled around his fingertip and was quickly joined by others. They multiplied and coalesced in front of his finger until they formed a pulsing, bright orange ball.
Sebastien could see no shimmer, glow, or any other sign that he was channeling energy, except for the fireball hovering beyond the tip of his finger. The efficiency was superb.
Without warning, that ball shot across the room toward the dummy, expanding a little as it went. On impact, it exploded.
Sebastien felt the warm wind blow past her face.
On the far side of the classroom, the practice dummy rocked back and forth on its stand, smoking and half ripped apart.
Professor Lacer turned back to the students. “It is not necessary to contain the target of your spell within a Circle before you cast. This should be obvious. A battle wand can cast a stunning spell at a distance, but have you ever heard of someone casting a transmogrification spell to turn a distant frog into a bird?” He paused, scanning the class. “No? Why is this?”
He turned, taking a few steps to make his coat flare out dramatically again. “Is it because transmogrification does not work unless you have the target within your domain of influence?” He paused as if waiting for someone to speak up, but no one did. “I can assure you that is not the case. Is it because a being’s skin and inherent magic act as a barrier against invasive magics?” Another expectant pause. “Inherent magic is a barrier, but I can overcome it within a drawn Circle, and I can also overcome it with the fireball I just cast. Is the seeming limitation because the stunning spell, or the fireball, is much less complicated than whatever spell could turn a frog into a bird? Perhaps people simply do not have the skill to cast such magics at a distance. What do you think?”
No one answered him.
“A fireball spell shoots an actual ball of fire at the target. A revealing spell shoots vibrations and magic waves, which penetrate and then bounce back to the wand for interpretation. A stunning spell shoots a specific, low-current variation of lightning, along with the powdered saliva of a Kuthian frog, contained within a field of force. Upon release from the spell, the treated saliva rapidly degrades and becomes inert. The stunning spell is the most difficult of the three, and still only possible because the saliva needs no augmentation or other spellwork to do what it does. The common point of all these spells is that they are shooting something that exists in nature, not simply magic bound to an idea. However, with a complex enough, powerful enough spell, there is no reason that one could not shoot a spherical ranged attack that turns a frog into a bird, overcoming the creature’s resistance to magic and maintaining the complex magical instructions and power to do so over distance. The Archmage can do it. The theory is that you are literally shooting the Circle and its Word at the target. It is so hard, and requires so much power, that most sorcerers will never succeed at it in their lives, and indeed, most do not truly attempt to do so.”
‘Can you do it, Thaddeus Lacer?’ Sebastien wondered.
He turned, pointing at the wrecked practice dummy. “That is your eventual goal. At the end of nine terms, when you achieve your Mastery, one in twenty of you might have reached the level of competence that allows you to free-cast the simplest spells at range. However, unless you attempt Grandmastery, it is a more realistic goal for the majority of you to be able to free-cast normal spells, contained within an actual, physical Circle, rather than at range. Much less glamorous, but still versatile and incredibly useful. If any of you manage to free-cast a spell that requires complex magical instruction, at range, within your time at the University, I will be stunned.”
He palmed a stick of chalk, seemingly from nowhere, and drew a Circle on the ground around him. He added no glyphs, no attached component Circles or instructions. The wind was already pulling at Sebastien’s hair by the time Lacer had stood up. The man raised his arms, and the wind turned into a gale, pulling at her body and the very air in her lungs.
She gripped the edge of her desk for balance and kept her eyes greedily trained on him.
Professor Lacer began to levitate, the air under his feet shimmering like a mirage in the distance as he compressed it.
Casting spells on your own body was dangerous. This kind of levitation required him to stand within the Circle, as Professor Burberry had just warned so stridently against. Of course, Professor Lacer had proved his competence and control many times over.
‘Why doesn’t he simply use the platform spell Tanya cast at orientation?’ Sebastien thought. ‘I suppose there are any number of ways a powerful sorcerer can lift themselves from the ground. This method is certainly impressive.’ Even though she knew it was meant to motivate her, Sebastien found herself no less inspired.
“I can teach you all to do this. I can teach you to be both versatile and powerful,” he announced, settling back to the ground as the air pressure returned to normal. “Yet somehow, the statistics show that four out of ten students will drop this class in the first three weeks. Seven out of ten either stop attending voluntarily, or cannot pass this class by the end of term. Failure in my class will not stop you from continuing on to the next term in the remainder of your classes, but why do so few students succeed?”
He paused to stare them down. “Because,” he said, and suddenly his voice was louder, “this is the hardest class the University offers. It requires both intelligence and dogged determination. You will spend an hour and a half with me, three days per week, not two. If you wish to succeed, you must spend an additional two hours practicing on your own. Every. Single. Day. And that is if you already have some experience with sorcery. If your capacity hasn’t reached at least fifty thaums, you will struggle to keep up, and I recommend you return to the class next term. If you are not prepared or not willing to spend that much time, feel free to go to Administration after the end of this class and remove yourself. In the meantime, let us get to work. As I have established, there is no time to waste.”
A student raised their hand, and when Lacer called on them, asked, “Is it true you killed a dragon in the Haze Wars?”
Lacer scowled. “I am not here for gossip and dramatic stories. If that is the only reason you are here, get out.”
The student shrank back, but didn’t leave.
Professor Lacer motioned them up to the front of the class, where a pallet filled with squat cylindrical containers and small oil braziers appeared against the wall the same way the practice dummy had. “They are marked by difficulty. If your Will capacity is over one hundred fifty thaums, see me.” He glanced briefly at Sebastien.
Curious, Sebastien eyed the cylinders, which were shaped like six-inch cross-sections of a tree trunk. Or a wide wheel of cheese. They were glass-topped and seemed to be filled with water and a metal ball. When she approached, Lacer pulled out a similar squat cylinder from under his desk. It was filled with transparent sand instead of water, and the metal ball nestled within was jagged, and bigger than the ones in the water containers.
She wasn’t the only one to get sand, which was a bit of a relief after the other students’ showing in Intro to Modern Magics. ‘I suppose it makes sense that the smartest, most hardworking students would be the ones to take Lacer’s class. Among the larger student population, I don’t really stand out at all.’ The thought disappointed her a little, even though she knew it was best that no one had a reason to look at her too closely.
Suppressing a grunt of effort, she picked up the heavy glass wheel and returned it to her desk.
Professor Lacer then instructed them to place the wheel inside the Circle carved into their desks, drawing the Word over the glass top. With only three glyphs and a single numerological symbol, they were to send the iron ball rolling around the cylinder, reversing direction at random. For extra difficulty—and again he looked at Sebastien—they were to keep the ball from touching the outer edge of the wheel as it spun around.
“In this class, we will attempt to move away from the reliance on a complicated written Word. To become a free-caster, you must be able to hold the entirety of the Word within your own mind. I am going to improve not just your Will’s overall capacity, but also the other facets—explosiveness, endurance, clarity, force, and soundness. However, you will start with casting spells of moderate difficulty for long periods of time, till you are able to hold them almost without conscious effort. It has to become instinct. It will take years of effort to become proficient. The difficulty of this first exercise depends largely on how quickly you move the ball through the medium. Attempt to reach a stable output no more than seventy percent of your maximum capacity. Do not stop casting.”
With that, he turned away and plopped down at the desk at the front corner of the room.
Sebastien drew a triangle, since this was transmutation—heat energy into kinetic energy. A pentagon was more versatile, but she didn’t think she needed it, here, and a tighter fit to the purpose of the spell could improve her efficiency. For the glyphs, she chose “fire,” “movement,” and “circle” the last of which she had learned recently.
After only a few minutes of forcing her ball through the sand, Sebastien began to feel the fatigue.
When a couple of other students stopped casting, Professor Lacer looked up, his lazy expression contrasted against the snap in his voice. “If you are not approaching Will-strain, I expect you to continue casting. If you are approaching Will-strain already, I suggest you drop this class and return to it in a term or two when you have built up your stamina.” He didn’t look at Sebastien this time, but she took the words to heart.
She settled back in her seat, relaxing tense muscles and taking her eye off the circling ball. It continued moving, and she settled into deep, slow breaths, watching with an unfocused gaze. She had always been one to practice casting almost obsessively, even if not so deliberately as Lacer had instructed. She had often played with whatever small new spell she’d learned until Ennis grew irritated with her. It served her well, here. Sebastien didn’t know how long it had been when her mind started to burn. Not a real sensation, like the burn of overworked muscles, but a feeling, a strain. She breathed deeper and sank into it.
Fingers snapping in front of her face brought her back to reality.
She looked up to find Professor Lacer standing in front of her. “Class is over.”
The rest of the students were standing up from their desks, some of them moving toward the door with their practice equipment, more of them looking at her and Lacer.
She cleared her throat and let the ball slow to a stop.
“Passably well done,” he said. “Are you ready for our meeting?”
“Y—” Her voice broke, and she had to try again. “Yes.”
“Homework!” he announced sharply, raising his voice so everyone could hear, but still looking at her. “Write down every possible glyph that could be used to cast this spell, as well as ten different, fully detailed spell arrays that could do the job. Due at the beginning of next class. Dismissed.”
One of the students grumbled, “I thought this was practical casting, not practical essay-writing.”
“Understanding the processes is the first step to being able to take over those processes from an external Word,” Professor Lacer snapped back much louder, not even looking at the student. In a softer voice he said to Sebastien, “To my office, then. Keep up.” He turned and strode away, barely acknowledging the students who either stared or scrambled to move out of his path.
Sebastien grabbed her satchel and the wheel of sand, and stumbled after him, limping slightly on legs that had fallen asleep while she cast.
The hallway had curved far enough to cut off their view of the classroom door when footsteps ran up behind them. Sebastien was exasperated to find it was Damien Westbay. Again.
“Professor Lacer, would you mind if I accompany you both? I have some questions for you.” He glanced at Sebastien out of the corner of his eye, just a little too intently.
Sebastien resisted the urge to snort. ‘Obviously, he wants to spy on my conversation with Professor Lacer.’
Lacer let the silence stretch on just long enough to become uncomfortable, but when he spoke, his voice held a faint hint of amusement. “I am sure your questions can wait, Damien. You may drop by my office in half an hour.”
“I could just wait outside your door. I—” Westbay cut off when Professor Lacer raised his eyebrows.
“Half an hour, Mr. Westbay.” His words were enunciated and precise, not unkind, but still intimidating. He turned to stalk away, assured that his instructions would be followed.
Westbay pursed his lips in a way that looked unflatteringly close to a pout, but didn’t follow as Sebastien hurried after their professor.
When they got to Lacer’s office, which was done in dark woods and bright lights, with all four walls covered in bookcases and shelves holding interesting magical components and artifacts, he motioned for her to sit at the chair in front of his desk. He spoke while walking around the room, taking things from shelves and cabinets and placing them in a box. “I hope you understand that, due to the unusual nature of your attendance here, you must perform to my expectations if you wish to remain a student, Mr. Siverling.”
Sebastien nodded. “I do.”
“Your performance today was not as pitiful as many of the other students in my class, but still far from the standards I expect. To remedy this, you will practice additional casting exercises.” He set the box on the desk in front of her and then handed her a sheet of paper filled with instructions. “You must be able to perform each exercise for two hours without stop, at an acceptable level of control.”
“What is an acceptable level?” she asked, scanning over the exercises on the sheet.
He sat behind his desk. “Are you asking me so that you can achieve the absolute minimum standard of competence?” He didn’t wait for her to respond. “It will be up to you to decide what is acceptable. Do not disappoint me.”
She felt she could not possibly sit any straighter, or hold her stomach muscles any tighter. “I understand. When do you wish me to complete this by?”
“As quickly as possible. I am testing you, Mr. Siverling. I hope that is obvious. I wish to be sure I did not make a mistake.” It was not a subtle threat.
‘Two hours a day of practice will not be enough, then,’ she thought. She had no intention of disappointing him. “I understand,” she said again. “Is there anything else?”
He stared at her over the desk, his elbows resting on it and his fingers pressed together. Then he leaned back in his chair. “No. You may go.”
She stood and bowed politely. “Thank you, Professor Lacer. You are the reason I am here, and I know it. I will not disappoint you.”
“See that you do not.”
She paused in the doorway and turned back. “Why did you keep me from being expelled and banned?” She’d decided not to ask, but her curiosity had overridden her good sense.
“You are an idiot. But I try to remind myself periodically how foolish I too was at your age. It is easy to forget. Perhaps you will be able to learn better, as I did.”
She nodded silently, feeling a strange combination of shame and hope.
His dark gaze followed her as she left the room, and she took a couple of deep breaths to compose herself before hurrying toward the library with the heavy box in one arm and the wheel of sand in the other. She had work to do, and a plan to create.
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