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Chapter 25 – Alchemy

Sebastien

Month 11, Day 14, Saturday 5:30 p.m.

Sebastien considered sending a message to Dryden through the University Administration center, whose mail department was behind the occasional paper bird she saw flying through the air, but decided against it, since she didn’t know what information Administration tracked when sending them. Or even if the spell worked at distances farther than the University grounds. She resolved to learn how to cast it, or another simple communication spell, herself.

Instead, she simply arrived at his house that evening, her nose and cheeks red from the cold.

Dryden offered her a cup of hot, spiced cocoa, which she would normally have savored and allowed to warm her, but she took just a sip, set it down on the edge of his desk, and promptly forgot about is as she explained why she’d come.

Dryden was much less concerned about the coppers’ knowledge of the raven messenger than she was. He was sleep-deprived, the symptoms of which she was quite familiar with. He rubbed bloodshot eyes. “So they know you spoke with him. He knew nothing relevant, so they couldn’t have learned much from him. And it’s not as if finding the dead raven can lead them back to you. You are a young man from a good background attending the very prestigious Thaumaturgic University of Lenore. Siobhan is a poor young woman who is in hiding or has left the city altogether after arguing with her father. No matter what other clues they gather—and trust me, what they have is not enough to be useful—there is a disconnect between those ideas. There is no precedence for such a thing. Even if they had real evidence, it’s unlikely they could understand the true implications of what they were seeing.”

She grimaced, pacing back and forth in front of him. “I understand what you’re saying, but there could be factors at work that we don’t understand, or pivotal pieces of information we’re missing. Is there any way to get better insight into what their investigation has uncovered? I would feel better if we knew they were nowhere near to discovering the truth, as opposed to merely hoping and speculating that I am safe. That we are safe.”

He sighed, running a hand over his jaw. “You’re right. I don’t have any direct contacts in Harrow Hill, but I can inquire around. Give me a few days.”

She stopped pacing and nodded, letting her shoulders hang with released tension.

“While you are here, why not stay for dinner?” he asked.

Almost giddy with the relief that Dryden would be using his considerable resources to make sure she was safe, she laughed. “Yes, please! I cannot wait to taste something other than the University slop!”

Dryden yawned a lot and ate slowly, but seemed pleased to have her drop by. He enquired about her progress in her studies, asked intelligent questions when she explained what she was learning, and looked at her with an expression that was not quite satisfaction and not quite pride, but which left her feeling quite gratified with his company.

After dinner, he went back to his study, and she took the time to check on the ancient book she’d hidden inside the mattress in her room. It was still there, seemingly undisturbed.

She took it out and placed it on the floor, staring at the incomprehensible glyph stamped into its leather cover. She needed a better hiding place for it. ‘Maybe I could cut up some of the floor, hollow out a hole in the marble the exact size of the book, and then seal it back up again?’ She eyed the matte marble dubiously. Each square was fit snugly against the others, with no visible grout or binding medium. ‘My mending spell might be able to handle that, but how am I supposed to cut one of those blocks free? Could I use a sympathetic movement spell to lift one directly out of the floor?

She leaned her ear to the floor and tapped on it, hoping for a hollow sound. There was none. ‘Not a facade, then. The marble must be at least two inches thick. Knowing the Gilbrathan tendency for excess, these floors are made of pure stone.’ She hurried back downstairs and looked at the ceiling from the ground floor. Sure enough, it was marble. ‘They could have put a facade on either side, but I’d bet they just made the whole structure from stone and used extreme precision and magic to keep everything together.

Some quick calculations disabused her of any hope of using a sympathetic connection to lift one of the blocks. ‘I’m at somewhere over two hundred thaums, but under two hundred and fifty. That’s enough to lift about fifty pounds, or twenty-three kilograms, one meter per second. But those blocks have to be many times that. I might be able to manage if I could lift very slowly, spreading that energy expenditure out over a longer time period, but there’s still the structural integrity of the floor to consider. Plus, if they bound the blocks together with anything, I’m back to needing some sort of cutting spell.

She set the idea aside as impractical and pulled out her grimoire.

She caressed the scuffed leather cover lovingly, then flicked through the pages filled with notes, questions, and sketches till she found the page where she’d copied decryption, nullifying, and revealing spells from the reference texts she’d found in the University library. Students weren’t allowed to take books off University grounds, so she’d painstakingly copied the relevant sections into her own grimoire.

These spells may be simple and meant for children, but that doesn’t mean they won’t work. We’ve made significant advancements since the time the amulet and the book were created. Maybe one of these will work based on a principle the creator didn’t think to ward against.

It took her over two hours to work through every spell she’d copied, drawing the arrays onto the floor in chalk, setting out the components closest to the suggested ones from the books, and then erasing the Word and trying again with the next one.

She kept hoping that the next one would work.

None did. That might have been because of the exceptional creativity of the creator, or her own relative weakness.

In the end, she was exhausted. She dragged herself back to the University, numb frustration hounding every step.

Back at the dorms, she skipped Professor Lacer’s exercises for once and simply went to sleep. She felt better in the morning, but she was becoming less enchanted with only having access to the first level of the library. Maybe what she needed was on one of the upper floors, or even the archives in the lower levels.

Over the next week, she tried not to let her worry over the investigation affect her studies. If anything, her fear of possible expulsion and arrest pushed her harder. It was an impulse to absorb all the magical knowledge she could in case this opportunity was ripped away.

Professor Lacer apparently got angry at some mishandling of magic by one of the second term students and had him expelled from the University in a scene that Sebastien hadn’t personally witnessed, but which grew more dramatic with every retelling she heard. She even heard a version that claimed Lacer turned the student into a sheep out of anger and sent the bleating young man back to his family with a note that said, “Your son was raised like an animal, so I have unified his outer appearance to match the inner.”

It wasn’t that she believed the rumors—well, not the more theatrical versions—but they did little to reassure her of the stability of her status as a student.

On Saturday, she left the University early in the morning and spent some time browsing Waterside Market for ingredients. As someone without even an Apprentice license, technically she shouldn’t have been allowed to buy magical items, even if she was a University student, because they provided their students with supplies. However, an attitude of arrogance, her expensive clothing, and a quick flash of the sky kraken burnt into the back of her student token allowed her to get what she needed, and no one insisted on needing to see her certification before selling to her. It probably helped that she didn’t require any restricted or particularly powerful components.

Waterside Market itself imbued her with a kind of giddiness, despite the pain she felt in her money purse when looking at the standard prices. They had spell components from all over the world, some of which she had never heard of and others which she couldn’t afford.

The people were just as varied and interesting.

She saw a sorcerer walking around with a big tome of magic, which would allow him to cast a variety of spells with less than half the normal amount of preparation. The price of such a tome was ridiculously exorbitant, however.

A woman wearing robes of silk woven with active, slightly glowing spells walked past with a pair of guards, her face so beautiful Sebastien was sure she must use glamours.

There were people of other species too. Not so many of them as to avoid the looks of curiosity, but not enough to cause a sensation with their unusual appearance.

A hag wearing a big hat to protect her cataract-covered eyes from the weak sun was selling poppet luck charms that Sebastien thought might have been made of human hair.

A pixie fluttered within a huge birdcage, throwing curses and lewd gestures at the crowd, the dandruff from its constantly peeling wings falling to the bottom of the cage. Small containers of pixie dust were advertised for sale on the table beside it.

A slew of witches were recognizable because of their contracted creatures. Many were accompanied by elementals from one of the other planes, but a couple by simple magical creatures, like a cockatrice or a drake.

Sebastien caught a glimpse of a coy kitsune slipping through the crowd with her fluffy tails wrapped around her body.

A prognos, with one large eye in the center of his forehead, read fortunes at a gaudy stall. Sebastien avoided the prognos’s gaze, just in case he could see through her transformation.

A crowd consisting mostly of children and their parents surrounded an illusionist who was putting on a shadow-play, colored lights and shadows taking the form of simplified scenery and people. A young pickpocket grazed through the edge of the crowd, nimble fingers darting out whenever an opportunity presented itself.

Sebastien didn’t call out the thief, simply made sure her own purse was secure and moved on.

She already had her own small cauldron, which was all she could handle at her Will’s capacity, but along with the ingredients, she bought a whole box of small jars and vials to hold single doses of the alchemical concoctions she was about to make.

She arrived at Dryden Manor well-prepared. When she had seen him the Saturday before, she had verified that brewing at his house would be safe, and he had promised to move the finished products to the Verdant Stag for her.

She walked in through the unobtrusive door to the side of the kitchen, grinning at the servants when they exclaimed in surprise. With a wink at Sharon, who tittered like a girl ten years younger, Sebastien struggled up the stairs and gave a perfunctory knock on the doorjamb of Dryden’s study with her foot—since both her arms were full—then poked her head into the room. Dryden’s head jerked up from whatever he was working on and he blinked in surprise, seeming to come out of a fugue of intense concentration. His expression and posture both relaxed when he recognized her, and he smiled.

“I’m here to brew. Where do you want me?” she said with a grin, panting under the weight of her supplies.

“Come in,” he said, rising from his desk. “You can set your supplies there,” he said, gesturing to the bare stone table set against the inner wall of his study, near the fireplace.

“You rearranged things,” she said, looking around.

“Yes. As I understand it, there should be a clear area around the brewing station in case of accidents or explosions. I didn’t want my belongings covered in acid.”

“Nothing I will brew today is in danger of exploding,” she said flatly, one eyebrow rising.

He snickered, but pointed to the table. “Slate, since it’s chemically resistant. The fireplace is connected to the one below, so the wards should vent any fumes from your brewing.” He pointed to a basin beside the table. “That basin is spelled to draw up fresh water from the well, and has a setting to banish its contents, so you can wash your tools.”

He lingered as Sebastien set down her supplies and unpacked everything. “What are you making today?” he asked, leaning against the fireplace.

She rubbed her tired arms and put her small cauldron on the table. “It’s early yet, so I should have enough time to make a few batches. I think it will be fever-reducing potion, a minor healing salve for cuts and scrapes, and maybe a small amount of the philtre of darkness you requested, if I have the time.”

“None of the other battle potions or philtres?” He sounded disappointed.

“I’ll attempt one or two, if I can. I’ve never brewed most of the ones on your list before, and I have to be careful not to push myself too hard.” Her choice of what to brew this first day had been based on what would be most useful for the average citizen who went to the Verdant Stag. Once she felt she had produced a reasonable amount of basic healing concoctions, she had ideas about what would make her the most gold for the least effort. For instance, an elixir of euphoria was one of the more expensive items on the list Katerin had given her, and though it could be used in small doses to combat low spirits, it was more often sold recreationally. A potion of moonlight sizzle and the philtre of darkness were both something fun she wanted to try for herself, though Dryden’s emergency response teams could use them as well.

“You’re right, of course. I’m sure the University is pushing you hard, and your health is more important than a few potions. It’s only that I was somewhat excited to see them in action,” he said with a chagrined smile. “You have enough vials and jars to store it all?”

She nodded.

“You kept your receipts for the ingredients? You can give them to Katerin and she’ll reimburse you, or take the cost off your debt.”

“I have them with me. Will you give them to her, when you see her?” she asked, pulling the small stack of receipt papers from one of her larger pockets, which also held the loose change from her purchases.

Dryden’s fingers brushed against hers as he took the receipts, and a visible spark of static leapt between their skin, causing both of them to jump. She chuckled nervously, but he only rubbed his fingers together with an absent look on his face. “I have an update on the investigation,” he said with no preamble.

Her head snapped toward him.

He waved his hand. “It’s nothing to be excited about, one way or the other. It seems your father spoke to the guards about your visit, and the coppers have the raven in an evidence box, so they have Siobhan Naught firmly connected to the crime of blood magic. They are no closer to catching you, and it seems the investigation has stalled since then. They’re trying to figure out if you have a source of information within the University that tipped you off about what, where, and when to steal, hoping they can trace your ‘source’ back to you. If nothing happens to warm the investigation up, I expect it will be set aside to free up resources soon. In a few years, you will likely have no trouble returning to Siobhan’s form, though you wouldn’t be able to use your real name, of course.”

She wasn’t surprised that her father—Ennis, she reminded herself—hadn’t kept his silence about their visit, but she would be lying to herself if she didn’t admit the small pang in her chest was from disappointment. “Any news on a trial or sentencing for him?”

Dryden shook his head. “Not yet. I suspect they’re waiting till they either catch you or give up hope of doing so.”

She began to arrange her supplies on the table. ‘I have no plans to be captured. So what will happen to him then?

“Are you alright?” Dryden asked, startling her from her thoughts.

She looked up and gave him a small smile. “Yes. Don’t worry about me, I won’t jeopardize your safety—or my own—with more sentiment.”

“That wasn’t—” He sighed and shook his head, rubbing at the stubble on his jaw. “I didn’t mean to imply that.”

“Thank you for looking into the investigation, Mr. Dryden,” she said, then turned her attention back to her preparations.

After a pause, he returned to the work at his desk.

Sebastien filled the cauldron with the appropriate amount of water, poured some oil into the brazier beneath it, and set it alight to start the water warming. Like all other magic, alchemy required the three elements of Word, Will, and Sacrifice, and used a Circle to constrain the domain of effect.

The Circle ran around the center of the cauldron’s round belly, and the sphere of containment spread from there. The mouth of the cauldron was open to the air, as if the sphere had part of the top sliced off. Alchemists knew to take care not to let their hands dip into the sphere, even if it was invisible. Unlike modern sorcery, alchemical spells were cast as a ritual. The components—also ingredients, in this case—were both a portion of the Sacrifice and the Conduit through which the magic would flow. Alchemical concoctions usually took at least an hour to complete, sometimes much longer, and required concentration for the majority of the process.

She poured out a Circle of white salt on the table and prepared the ingredients for the fever reducer within its boundaries. Alchemy required a steady flow of energy rather than large bursts, except on rare occasions, but she still wouldn’t be able to safely make more than twenty doses at once.

Sebastien had plenty of experience brewing this potion, as it was universally useful, and though most of the heat and inflammation-reduction was focused on the head, it also doubled as a mild pain reliever. Someone was always willing to purchase one, and some variation of the ingredients was always relatively easy to purchase or gather.

Careful not to disturb the salt with her movements, she sliced willow, crushed spearmint, swirled a vial of lake fog nine times counterclockwise, and powdered a few hens’ teeth, to start. As she worked, she bent her Will in a steady stream upon the ingredients, directing their magical properties to specific purposes.

When she finished the initial ingredient preparation, she turned to the now-boiling cauldron and sprinkled the first of the ingredients in, moving her hand in a circle as she did. In addition to the ingredients themselves, the heat of the boiling water acted as Sacrifice, slowly dissolving the components within, even sometimes things like pebbles or glass, which otherwise wouldn’t have melted under such moderate heat.

The Word was held in the brewer’s mind as a specific intent or series of intents while they completed each step of creation, and was sometimes aided by a few rhymes or chants spoken over the boiling cauldron.

Similar to artificery, alchemy was so useful because, although slow, it allowed one to bind the effects of a spell into something that could be used later, and could be used by a relatively weak thaumaturge to create a spell they otherwise might not be able to cast on demand. Of course, some of the magical energy was lost along the way—about thirty percent, in most cases. A potion could also spoil, so some people felt alchemy was inferior to artificery, which could capture and release a larger portion of the imbued energy due to the spells being set into stone, metal, or some other high-efficiency material.

She liked alchemy in part because it was much more accessible to a commoner such as herself. Artificery required not only the components to charge the spell, but also expensive materials for the artifact itself, which many people couldn’t afford, and access to the complex mathematical and logical strings used to create the Word. Alchemy was more common, and despite the complicated rituals, it was still simpler than the elaborate, tiny spell arrays that an artificer had to carve into their items. Thus, alchemy was easier to learn outside of a structured environment like the University.

But mainly, it was the ability to cast alchemical spells as a ritual rather than an immediate spell that gave alchemy its advantage. Over the course of ninety minutes, Sebastien could pack more magic into a single-use potion than she could ever hope to cast instantaneously while imbuing an artifact.

She added the ingredients with her hands, as her grandfather had taught her, thinking of their purpose as she did so. She took deep breaths and hummed on the exhale, deep in her throat, as he had often done when brewing, though she had no proof that it actually helped. When she stirred the brew, she did so with wood taken from a living tree, feeling it heat up as magic flowed through it. She imagined the relief the potion would give the drinker, the banishment of pain, the feeling of an aching head cooling as its owner fell into sleep, while the body remained warm enough to fight off sickness. She could feel the mental fatigue as time went on, the potion greedily drinking up all the magic she could channel into it.

She brewed for a few hours, with breaks in between each session, and returned to the University after sharing another fine dinner with Dryden, where she stuffed herself to the point of bursting in an attempt to make up for the exhaustion of extended magical exertion.

She came again on Sunday, earlier this time without the need to visit the market, and returned to brewing. She pushed herself, wanting to get as much done as possible before returning to classes the next day. Plus, all magical exertion was useful to increase her Will capacity, the more difficult the better.

By sunset, vial racks filled with potions and cartons of salve jars were stacked beside the table.

She’d made two batches of the fever reducer and the minor healing salve, which went by the more common name of “skin-knitter,” as well as a single batch of the much more magic-intensive, but also better paying, revivifying potion. She’d also borrowed one of the big pots from the kitchen and used it in place of her cauldron to create a gigantic batch of the potion of moonlight sizzle, which she’d put in squat little jars that glowed ever-so-faintly blue.

When shaken, the potion roiled with contained bubbles and let off a soft but bright glow that mimicked the light of a full moon and was powerful enough to illuminate a small room on its own. It was best brewed under the actual light of a full moon, but she had substituted owl feathers and a couple handfuls of powdered moonstone, which seemed to work well enough. A jar of moonlight sizzle didn’t last as long as a spelled light crystal, only about five hundred hours, or three full weeks of light, and the output wasn’t steady, as you had to shake it every half hour or so to restart the bubbles, but it was cheaper than a light crystal, and significantly cheaper over time than an ordinary candle. Plus, she could use it to read under the covers in her dorm without worrying about setting the bed on fire with her little lantern flame.

For Dryden, she made a small batch of Speer’s philtre of stench, the fumes of which she had made sure to keep confined within the cauldron’s influence, and the philtre of darkness, which was magically intensive enough that she could only make a half-dozen per batch, like the revivifying potion.

She made sure everything was labeled properly with little slips of paper, but hesitated before signing them. It was standard for any magical creations to come with the mark of the creator, as not all thaumaturges were equal, and the consumer might prefer one alchemist, sorcerer, or warder over another. In the end, she simply initialed each of them “S.S.” and took one of each concoction for herself, with Dryden’s permission.

“No need to take it out of your commission. Think of it as a tip for your hard work,” he said, grinning at her.

Her fingers trembled faintly with exhaustion, and she had to force her eyes to focus properly. ‘I pushed myself too hard,’ she admitted, but, looking at the product of her labors, she felt no regret. ‘Still, that’s over twelve gold of pure profit, enough to cover almost nine days of accrued interest, and a handful of potions for my own use, too. If I do this every weekend till the end of term, I will at least have kept up with the interest on my debt. As my Will continues to strengthen, I’ll be able to make more expensive concoctions, and more doses per cauldron.

In a day, she had earned as much as a poorly compensated worker might make in three weeks. ‘If they have enough demand to purchase everything I can make during the ten weeks of break time the University has every year, I may even be able to pay off a good portion of the principal as well.’ Despite her fatigue, she felt satisfied with her productivity. That is, until she considered that the loan she’d been given was only for one term at the University, and she didn’t have enough left to cover the second term of the year, so would undoubtedly have to take another loan from Katerin.

Dryden looked over the table full of her work with satisfaction, rocking back and forth on his heels. “This is wonderful, Sebastien. It will make a real difference in the lives of dozens of people.”

“Well, that’s nice too, but I’m mainly interested in the money,” she admitted. “I wouldn’t work this hard for altruistic reasons.”

He gave her a slightly lopsided smile. “Well, people are selfish. That’s human nature. In a perfect world, society would incentivize individual action that was also good for the whole.”

She hesitated, but said, “There’s no such thing as a perfect world.”

The rocking on his heels stopped. “I know that,” he said softly. He picked up a potion of moonlight sizzle and shook it, watching the cold light spill past his fingers. “But it’s not unreasonable to think it can get a little better, wouldn’t you agree?”

She didn’t answer, partly because she wasn’t sure if she did agree, and partly because she was skeptical that he really believed it, either. ‘He seems too intelligent to be so…naive.’

She half dozed her way through dinner with Dryden, who seemed equally fatigued, and made it back to the dorms shortly before lights-out with barely enough energy for her nighttime routine.

Her third week at the University passed without comment, though she noticed the other students’ interest in her didn’t seem to have diminished. In fact, she found people she didn’t even recognize from her dorm—complete strangers—staring at her when they thought she wasn’t looking. A pair of girls even went so far as to follow her between classes, quickly ducking into doorways or behind other students and giggling to each other when she looked at them.

Ana, who had been walking with her at the time, laughed at Sebastien’s expression of confusion. When Sebastien scowled at her, the other girl explained. “They think you’re handsome, Sebastien. Take it as a compliment. Not all females can be as self-composed and unaffected as I.”

Sebastien felt particularly stupid for not considering that as a possibility, though she didn’t think it explained the entirety of the interest her schoolmates seemed to hold for her. ‘Perhaps my attempts to seem unassuming and forgettable have instead created an aura of mystery.’ While that would have at one point amused and even gratified her, now it was a depressing thought. ‘I hope not. People want to solve mysteries.

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