Chapter 38 – Competing for Points (Book 2 Start)


Month 11, Day 30, Monday 8:45 a.m.

When the scrying attack hit Sebastien, she immediately began empowering her new anti-divination ward. The skin of her back prickled like it was being stabbed with needles as the five artifact disks that Liza had embedded under the skin of her back consumed her blood. Sebastien channeled the magical energy this provided through the small Conduit pressed between her ankle and the inside of her boot and right back into the spell.

The University dorm around her held only a few stragglers, people picking up their things before class. No one was paying any attention to Sebastien.

She cursed the coppers, dropped the luggage she had been repacking into the chest at the base of her bed and hurried toward the bathrooms. With the ward active, it could have consequences if anyone noticed a strange difficulty focusing on her, as Liza had warned.

If things had gone even a little differently when she and Oliver went to defend his warehouse and the people inside who were being attacked by the Morrows, she might be fully rested, clearheaded, and relatively safe. If that last attack by the coppers when she was trying to distract them with her shadow-familiar hadn’t hit her, she wouldn’t have fallen and cut herself, and they wouldn’t have her blood. She could have returned to the University without fear.

And maybe, if she went long enough without giving them any more leads, living as Sebastien Siverling instead of Siobhan Naught, they would have given up searching for her.

Instead, she was trembling in a bathroom stall as she brought her strained Will to bear. The ward deflected searching tendrils of magic for the next few minutes despite the sheer power battering across the entire city through the coppers’ scrying spell. They tried harder than Liza had when she did a test of the ward’s strength, but it wasn’t enough.

Some part of Sebastien had hoped that the transformation into her male body might mitigate the coppers’ ability to find her through the sympathetic connection to her blood, but it seemed that was not the case. Siobhan’s blood was still her blood, even in Sebastien’s body. Which would have been interesting to know in other circumstances.

Panting, Sebastien rubbed the back of her neck as the stinging sensation subsided. Her head was pounding again, not as bad as when she had first strained her Will, but bad enough that she had trouble concentrating. She wished she could neglect her classes and spend the day in bed.

Instead, she steeled herself, made sure she looked calm and alert, and hurried toward the Citadel and Professor Burberry’s classroom. She arrived a few minutes late to Introduction to Modern Magics.

Professor Burberry gave her a stern glance, but didn’t say anything as Sebastien slipped into the seat beside Anastasia.

“Are you alright?” the girl murmured to her, her eyes roving over Sebastien’s face with concern.

Sebastien realized sweat was beaded at her temples and quickly wiped it away. “Fine. A little nauseated. Lost track of time in the bathroom.”

Ana nodded sympathetically and pulled a potion out of her bag. “It’s for stomach cramps, but it should help slightly with nausea, too. The cafeteria food is atrocious. Really, I don’t understand why we cannot simply purchase a better meal. We have the gold for it, and you’d think they’d be happy to take it. I’m going to start losing weight at this rate.”

Sebastien took the vial and stared at it bemusedly. ‘Great. There’s no reasonable way for me to decline this. I hope it doesn’t have side effects on someone who’s perfectly healthy.’ Aloud, she said, “Can it be taken on an empty stomach?” When Ana nodded cheerfully, Sebastien suppressed her misgivings and took a swallow.

Having satisfied the other girl, Sebastien settled into her ruse, hiding her fatigue as completely as she could, though for once her mind wasn’t on her classes. ‘It was well done to request Liza’s help with the ward against divination. If not for that, my time at the University would be up.’ She shuddered at the thought. Finding information on the coppers’ scrying procedure and capability was a priority, as soon as she could slip away to do so.

If I’d known how all this would turn out, would I have stayed in bed when Oliver activated my bracelet’s alarm? What would have happened to Jameson without me? He would probably still be dead.’ Setting that thought forcefully aside, she consoled herself. ‘It is possible that things could have gone worse, if I wasn’t there to distract the Morrows from bringing down the building, or to create a distraction to occupy the coppers while everyone else escaped.’ If she was honest with herself—and she tried to be—she would still go with Oliver knowing what she knew now. She would just perform better the second time around.

During the lunch period, she ate quickly, then went back to the dorms and made herself a strong cup of wakefulness brew from some tea leaves she had stashed in her trunk, as the basic meal options didn’t cover such “luxuries” as caffeine.

When she arrived at Practical Casting, she was finally more awake, though her heart was beating a little too fast and her chest held a sour tightness.

Sebastien did a double take after entering the classroom. Something was off. She frowned, looking around quickly, and then realized that the classroom seemed to have shrunk. She had noted on the first day that this was the biggest class, both in room size and number of students. Over the first few weeks, many people had stopped coming, leaving empty desks behind. Those desks were gone now, and the back wall seemed to have contracted toward the front.

Her muscles tensed with unease, and without quite realizing it she had taken her Conduit from her pocket. Walking around the room and examining the doorway showed tracks, and she realized with awe that the dividing walls that broke up each floor of the Citadel into classrooms could be moved, shifted forward or back to change the size of the individual rooms. Constructing a building with such capabilities, as this scale, was a feat she doubted could have been accomplished without impressive magic.

She took her seat, close to the front of the room on the side farthest from the door, and waited.

A few more students arrived after her, but no one else seemed to notice the classroom’s modification, or if they did they weren’t particularly surprised by it, chattering with their fellow students or hurrying to complete homework before the class started.

Professor Lacer strode in dramatically, his trench coat flapping helplessly behind him. He stopped in the middle of the lecture stage, ran his eyes over the students, and nodded to himself. “Those of you remaining are those who will not be leaving my class because of unwillingness to put in the work. You may be lacking, but at least you have shown dedication, and you should have enough experience to avoid Will-strain with some more strenuous spell-casting. Now, it is time to make you stronger.” There were some murmurs of excitement, and he waved them to silence. “How does a sorcerer become stronger?”

He paused as if waiting for an answer, but continued when no one spoke. “Through adversity. You are going to learn how to fight with your Will, and once you do, you will compete to see which of you is strongest. The winner will receive fifty University contribution points. Before you lament the unfairness of competing against those with more capacity, let me add that this competition will be broken up into brackets. There will be thirty points for the winners of each of the weaker brackets, for those of you who started out with less background but have still managed to prove their determination.”

He opened a cabinet behind his desk and pulled out a box of small tea candles, which he sat on his desk. “You have been practicing a spell to introduce movement to a small metal ball. The point of this augmented exercise is to keep the ball moving while your partner attempts to keep it still.”

He placed one candle on his desk, touched the edge with the tip of his finger, and the wick sprang into flame. “In the real world, when you are casting practically, you may find that you do not have a convenient beast core or bonfire readily available to cast your spell, and yet, you must still cast. If your Will is a pipe, and your goal is to channel enough water through it to wash away a hill of dirt, many people assume the best way to achieve the goal is to increase the amount of water that can be channeled through it at once. They attempt to make the pipe larger. In other words, to increase their Will’s capacity. To be truly powerful, however, the pipeline of your Will must be not only wide, but robust and efficient. A smaller pipe may spew water more quickly than a larger one, if its walls are durable enough to withstand the pressure. Instead of pouring a deluge of water at the hill, while most of it runs off to to the sides and only slowly erodes the dirt, if you keep your pipe small, but force the water through it at speed, the impact of the jet can scour the entire hill away, bit by bit, or simply pierce right through it.

Efficiency will allow you to use minimal resources to achieve greater effects, without wasted power spilling everywhere—everywhere except where you actually needed it to go, that is.” He examined their faces, something cynical in his expression saying that he doubted they understood him.

Being close to the front, Sebastien heard him mutter, “Perhaps I should have prepared visual aids,” to himself before continuing at full volume. “Most sorcerers waste much of the energy they attempt to channel. If you can be efficient, a mere three candles will be more than enough power for most spells you will be able to cast before earning your Apprenticeship.”

Some of the students looked skeptical.

The edges of his mouth drew down along with his eyebrows. The hair of his short-trimmed beard was always a little wild, as if it was afraid of him and trying to escape his face. “For those under one hundred thaums, one candle. Two candles under two hundred thaums. Everyone above that gets three candles. The restriction on power source should force you to focus on the quality of your Will, and not only the strength of it. Make it work. Two glyphs from now on, instead of three.”

He ignored the groans of the students. “The next few classes will have time for you to practice against each other. “This tournament is your mid-term examination. We’ll start a little early, since it will take more than a single class period, and winners will be concluded on the day of this class’s mid-term. For your mid-term score, I will be grading you on all the facets of your Will, not just its capacity. The contribution points you earn can be redeemed immediately, or saved and added to your reserves. If you haven’t already, I suggest you take a stroll through the various rewards available in the Great Hall.”

That reminder of the prize boosted the students’ excitement, and with a slight loosening of his expression, Lacer waved them all down to his desk to retrieve their candles. “Partner up against yourselves and start practicing.”

As soon as Sebastien made it back to her desk, a girl whose name she didn’t know pushed up beside her, holding a single tea candle in one hand and a chair in the other. “May I partner with you, Sebastien?”

Slightly taken aback by the informality, as well as the fact that she didn’t know the girl’s name, Sebastien nevertheless waved obligingly to her desk. The other girl only had one candle, so Sebastien set two of hers to the side to level the playing field. ‘How fortuitous. One standard-sized candle flame is only about eight thaums. Hardly enough to strain me.

With a wide grin splitting her pink cheeks, the girl pushed the chair she had brought up to the other side of Siobhan’s desk and sat down.

“Seb—” Ana called, cutting off when she saw the other girl sitting across from Sebastien already.

“Sebastien is already partnered with me,” the unnamed girl said, her smile growing a little stiffer. She tossed a look over her shoulder to where a group of more young women seemed to be paying a little too much attention to the three of them.

Ana frowned.

“I’ll be your partner, Anastasia,” a loud boy said. Alec Gervin, with his lack of manners and self-important attitude, threw his arm around her shoulder.

Ana shook her head, “Oh, thank you, Alec, but I—”

“It’s no trouble at all, cousin. Besides, you need someone who can serve as an actual challenge to you,” he said loudly, throwing Sebastien a combative look that lacked any subtlety at all.

“I doubt that person is you,” Sebastien muttered, but she waved her hand uncaringly when both girls looked as if they were about to argue with Alec. “Go ahead.”

When he had pulled Ana away, Sebastien muttered, “His ass must get jealous of all the shit that comes out of his mouth.”

The girl across from her almost choked on a surprised laugh, then clapped her hand over her mouth to stifle her giggles. “Oh, you are so bad, Sebastien!”

Alec, not completely oblivious, shot them a suspicious look, but Sebastien was careful to keep her expression innocent.

At least the Westbay boy has some actual ability to back up his attitude. Gervin…well, I would be surprised if he got into the University without some “help” from his Family.

“Do you want to attempt movement, and I’ll attempt to stop you?” Sebastien asked. They would both be competing over control of the same main Circle carved into her desk.

The girl agreed and drew the glyph for “movement” inside the Circle on her side, then connected it to a smaller component Circle where she drew the glyph for “fire” and placed her candle. “Oh, I wish we could still use three glyphs. Only two is going to make this so much harder, don’t you think, Sebastien? My name is Cynthia, by the way. I don’t know if you…” Cynthia trailed off, flushing again.

“A pleasure to meet you, Cynthia,” Sebastien said distractedly. “And I don’t mind the restrictions. After all, the point of this class is to one day allow us to cast without any spell array at all.” After a few seconds to think, she drew a somewhat obscure glyph she had learned recently, “adversity.” She, too, used “fire” in her component Circle, before palming her Conduit, which she noted with a hint of jealousy was of much poorer quality than Cynthia’s.

She’d need to be careful. Spells that directly opposed the Will of another thaumaturge put strain on the Conduit that was greater than the simple measure of how many thaums were being channeled. Meaning the Conduit was more likely to shatter unexpectedly, even at lower levels of energy. She understood the need for the efficiency Professor Lacer had lauded.

Reaching the danger level on her Conduit might come sooner rather than later, for her, especially if she was pitting her Will against a series of opponents that grew increasingly stronger. Her new main Conduit, the one she’d just bought at exorbitant prices to replace the one that shattered, was rated at only two hundred and twelve thaums. She had another one, her backup Conduit that was little more than a cloudy pebble, tucked into her boot, but its capacity couldn’t be added to the main one. It was only meant to keep her alive long enough to redirect the magical energy and safely release a spell if her new main Conduit shattered. It was a pity celerium couldn’t be melded together like any other sort of rock and still work as a Conduit. But there was a reason it was special and so expensive.

Sure, she could just throw the match to avoid the risk, once things got more difficult, but she didn’t want to. Professor Lacer would be watching and judging them. ‘I have to prove to him that I’m worthy to stay at the University.

So as she channeled Will and power into opposing Cynthia’s desire to make the ball move around the edge of the Circle, Sebastien kept an eye on her candle out of the corner of her eye. She had considered keeping a hand cupped around it so she could gauge its heat output, and thus, how strongly she was drawing on its power, but realized that would be putting a piece of herself within the spell Circle, which was dangerous. Professor Lacer would surely throw her out of his class for displaying such stupidity in front of him twice. ‘I can learn from my mistakes. I can.

So she gauged the stability of her candle flame visually, putting mental pressure on her Will like a fist squeezing water out of a wet cloth. Tighter, more compact, more directed.

When the spell array glowed with overspill power, it wasn’t because of her. After Cynthia made a few dozen stymied attempts to get the ball to move, Sebastien suggested they switch. She would move the ball while Cynthia stilled it.

Again, Cynthia was no match for her.

Sebastien abruptly and rapidly varied both the amount of power she was putting into creating movement, as well as which direction she was attempting to move the ball, jerking it around despite the pressure of the Will trying to stop her.

This time, Cynthia had used the glyph for “stillness,” but didn’t seem to have a firm enough grasp on the mental aspect of opposing Sebastien, and was easily overcome whenever the force on the ball was anything other than steady pressure in one direction.

The spell array glowed brighter as the other grew girl tired and frustrated, and her candle flame began to flicker and flutter. “How are you so good at this?” Cynthia whined.

Sebastien drew back some of her attention from the spell, allowing the ball to stop jerking around spasmodically. “You’re pushing harder, but not exercising enough control. Look at your candle flickering. The spell array’s glow is from inefficiency, too. This is what Professor Lacer was talking about. Even if your Will had a greater maximum energy capacity than mine, I might still be able to beat you if my Will was more powerful than yours in other ways. You may conceptualize it however works best for you, but without a more compressed idea of what exactly you’re attempting to accomplish, you’re wasting too much effort on things that do not directly oppose my Will. Here, I’ll put less energy into it,” she offered, giving herself the chance to take a break. “Rather than continuing to blindly push as much power into the spell as you can manage, put more effort into a clear conceptualization of what you want.”

“What I…want?” The girl’s attention had completely fallen away from the spell, and she was biting her lower lip as if nervous, looking back at Sebastien with big, limpid eyes.

Has no no one ever explained how spellcasting works to the girl, or is she simply stupid? Either way, I refuse to spend the rest of the class explaining the basic concepts. She should not be in this class with such a marked inability to focus,’ Sebastien thought with some distaste. “Yes,” she said aloud. “You want to keep the ball from moving. But specifically, you must want to keep the ball from moving more than I want to move it. You must want it more clearly and purely than I want it. You want me to fail at moving it, because there is no space within the conceptualization of your Will for me to succeed. Smarter, not just harder, as they say.”

Cynthia was blushing brightly. “You’re so smart, Sebastien. Thank you for helping me.”

Sebastien noted the bright red of the other girl’s face. ‘I hope she doesn’t believe such an attitude is attractive. Perhaps she has enough sense to be embarrassed to be so openly incompetent that she is seen to need advice from a classmate, especially a no-name like me. But flattery from someone so mediocre is unlikely to gain my favor. If she was going to be so shy and embarrassed, why ask to partner with me? Well, perhaps she was pressured into it by some kind of dare or bullying from her friend group.’ She settled back with a nod and instead of the scathing, impatient remarks she wanted to make, said instead, “I’m sure you can do it, Cynthia. Just focus.” Sebastien gave herself a mental pat on the back for her restraint and patience.

It took Cynthia a few more tries, but she did manage to improve. It still wasn’t enough to best Sebastien.

Halfway through the class, Professor Lacer called for them to switch partners.

Ana looked to Sebastien and began to rise, but another girl from Cynthia’s group of friends had lunged forward and slammed her palm on Sebastien’s desk as if it was a race. The loud cracking sound echoed through the classroom, drawing attention. “Are you free?” the new girl asked, with a sweet, almost shy voice that belied her earlier zeal.

“…Sure. My name is Sebastien Siverling,” she said warily, nodding her head in greeting.

“Helen Marvin,” the girl replied, flipping shoulder-length hair back with a practiced head toss as she sat down. “Call me Helen.”

Helen was better than Cynthia had been, and shot the other girl a smug look when Sebastien complimented her control.

Is there some sort of feud going on between them?

However, she was still no match for Sebastien. “I think you might win the whole tournament. Professor Lacer is probably expecting it, and is only putting on this show so that no one can accuse him of favoritism for awarding you points directly,” Helen said.

Sebastien’s mind blanked out for a second as she tried to figure out which part of the girl’s statement was the most wrong, and where to start with her rebuttal.

Helen didn’t seem to notice, and continued speaking. “What will you buy, if you win?”

Still trying to figure out how to respond to Helen’s previous statement, Sebastien answered this one. “Well, I haven’t perused what is on offer in the Great Hall and I’m not sure what fifty points can buy.” Privately, she admitted that she would very much enjoy a more private room or some of the better meal options.

“If you add Lacer’s points to whatever you earn at the end of term exhibitions, you’d be able to afford the hairpin carved from live star-maple wood. That hairpin would be the perfect gift for…a girl you wished would take notice of you.” Helen’s smile wasn’t over-wide, and she had looked away as she spoke, not with shyness, but as if to soften the impact of her words with nonchalance.

Still, Sebastien immediately understood her implication. She thought Sebastien was rich, and for some misguided reason also likely to gain the accolades which would get her contribution points before her fourth term. Helen wanted to attach herself to that success. Specifically, she wanted gifts like a magical hairpin from a wood known for its healing properties, likely meant to make her complexion dewy or her hair lush and shiny.

I must disabuse her of these notions immediately.’ Sebastien shook her head decisively. “I’ll do my best in this tournament, but Professor Lacer will give the prize to whoever deserves it most. People seem to have wildly overestimated his regard for me. Also, I don’t plan to participate in the exhibitions.” She paused, debating whether to make a cutting statement about her lack of romantic interest to deter the girl more directly.

What? Why would you not enter the exhibitions? Don’t you want future employers to notice you? What about the points? Money alone cannot buy many things the University has to offer.” Helen’s voice was loud, turning heads around them.

Sebastien straightened, tamping down her irritation. Her desire to avoid drawing unnecessary attention to herself wasn’t something she could say aloud, or that the other girl would even understand, apparently.

Professor Lacer coughed pointedly, stopping beside their desk.

Sebastien jerked, straightening impossibly further. She hadn’t noticed his approach. “Professor,” she greeted, with a half-bow from her seat.

His glare seemed to cast a pall of shadow over their immediate surroundings. “Why have you stopped practicing in favor of inane chatter? Is it because you feel you have learned all my class has to offer, or have you simply admitted your own incompetence and decided to give up on self-improvement in favor of flirting?” His words were precise, clipped, and cutting.

“I apologize, Professor,” Sebastien said. “I was negligent. We will return to practice immediately.”

Helen nodded quickly, pale and seemingly unable to speak.

Lacer waited a few agonizing seconds before replying, “See that you do.” He turned and walked away, his trench coat spinning out and slapping the side of Sebastien’s chair as he passed.

Sebastien spent the remainder of the class in focused spellcasting. None of her fellow students event attempted to speak to her about topics other than the task at hand. By the end of class, she felt the boost of artificial energy from the wakefulness brew and adrenaline wearing thin.

As the students filtered out, she thought she saw Professor Lacer throw her a dark look, but he was faced away when she turned to look.

Damien Westbay swaggered up beside her as they walked down the hallway. He clicked his tongue like an old matron. “Tch, tch, Siverling. Flirting? I hope you bring more focus to the tournament, or I might end up crushing you without a fight, and that would be disappointing.”

Sebastien threw him a glare, her mouth already opening to let some of the frustration and anxiety within her spill out on an appropriate target. The sight of his smug grin, less malicious than she had expected, gave her pause. ‘Could he be…joking with me?’ She wasn’t sure of that, but the thought had dispersed some of her ire. “I’m sure Professor Lacer will give you the prize you deserve. In your case, that would be…a participation trophy.” She gave him a smirk of her own and turned the corner into another hallway without giving him a chance to reply.

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