Chapter 39 – Paper Spells & Sleep Research

Sebastien

Month 11, Day 30, Monday 5:45 p.m.

Sebastien worried that the Morrows would rally after their failed attack and attempt to retaliate against the Verdant Stags with more violence. In fact, if the Morrows did not, it might be seen as a sign of weakness.

Consequently, they needed to recover and prepare faster than the Morrows could.

Even having acknowledged that, she didn’t have the mental energy to start brewing healing and battle potions for them right away. Besides, Katerin could brew, the Verdant Stag had at least one other alchemist making concoctions for them, and Oliver should have the funds to buy anything Sebastien could make from someone else. She was not the only supplier of the alchemical concoctions the enforcer teams needed.

Trusting someone else to be competent enough to do what needed to be done was dangerous, but she thought Oliver would do his best to make safety preparations even if she wasn’t there.

Gritting her teeth past the renewed headache from casting in Professor Lacer’s class, she went to the library. A private table hidden in a remote alcove sat thankfully empty. The natural light from the windows didn’t quite reach it, but her throbbing brain found that a boon rather than a detriment.

Sebastien pulled out some paper and her fountain pen, using cryptic notes to help organize her thoughts and rearrange her plans. Writing things down had often helped her settle her thoughts. ‘I need to study to make up for the knowledge I was missing a couple nights ago—emergency procedure and triage. Hopefully I’ll never need to use it, but… If I ever do, and I haven’t tried to correct my mistakes with Jameson, I’ll never forgive myself.’

The University had healer’s courses, but only for those above Apprentice level, starting in the fourth term once students had a better foundation. It was a complicated subject that required a lot of knowledge and power. She wouldn’t be able to learn everything on her own, but basics about how to triage and stabilize traumatic wounds should be accessible.

I need a variety of spells ready to go. Having a spell array memorized isn’t enough. It would be best if I had them primed to cast without the need to stop and draw the array, then add the components. That could be fatal, when time is precious.

With her lack of skill with artificery and her lack of funds to buy an artifact or potion, alchemy was the best way to accomplish that goal. As soon as she had the time and mental fortitude, she would go to Oliver’s house and brew a variety of the most useful potions she could think of. Starting with the blood clotter. ‘That’s good, but I should have other contingencies in place, too.

The glass pane that had made her spell arrays portable was quite useful, if unwieldy and dangerous—and ultimately disastrous when she cut herself. She could see many scenarios where something like that could be invaluable, even if actively cast spells weren’t quite as conveniently ready to use on the spot as alchemical concoctions. Alchemy didn’t have an equivalent recipe already developed for every spell, pre-brewed items couldn’t have their effects changed on the fly, and the cost of component ingredients was often higher.

The glass pane would have been even better if she weren’t forced to erase and redraw the Circle and Word every time she switched spells.

That’s what the giant tomes of magic that some sorcerers carried around were for. Some laypeople mistook them for grimoires, whose pages held instructions and notes on the spells. Magic tomes instead held useable spell arrays. They were made of special materials and cost more than a normal artifact to make, even considering that the number of pages—usually a couple dozen or less—was more castable spells than would fit in most artifacts.

The military offered its soldiers a few portable arrays made of precious, wrought metal, but those would be even less accessible to someone like her, and certainly not something she could lug around in an emergency.

Sebastien paused her cryptic scribbles, staring down at the cheap paper as the ink from her pen tip began to feather out and form a blot.

Even if she couldn’t create a tome of magic from materials meant to handle spells, that didn’t mean she couldn’t set up the Circle and Word for a few useful spells ahead of time. Normal paper was a particularly poor surface for spell casting, but as long as it worked, some inefficiency could be excused. She wouldn’t mind if the paper burnt up from the force of the magic flowing through it, since that would just destroy the evidence. In fact, it would likely be a good idea to create a small spark-shooting spell array at the corner of each page, just in case she ever needed to quickly turn one or all of them to ash to keep them from being used as evidence against her.

The library, like the jail, had wards to notify them of sudden fluctuations of energy within a small area. Such fluctuations usually corresponded to magic being cast, which was prohibited due to possible damage to the books. Thus, she couldn’t immediately test her theory, but that didn’t stop her from bouncing up to feverishly grab research and reference texts.

She found a handful of low-powered spells that seemed like they would be useful to have on hand and could be versatile. Research on emergency healing measures was less successful.

There was no information about blood transfusions except to mention that the Third Empire— also known as the Blood Empire—had performed them and that they were illegal, and like all blood magic, considered high treason. Anything useful, like how to do them safely and properly, was restricted in one of the many underground archives.

However, she did eventually find an alternative. Humphries’ adapting solution could be spelled directly into the veins in a blood-loss emergency. It’s original purpose had been to keep creatures from the Plane of Water alive on the mundane plane, but it could also act as a filler and keep blood oxygenated. It was expensive and difficult to make, and didn’t have a very long shelf-life, so it wasn’t feasible for most people except dedicated healers to stock.

And the recipe wasn’t available on the first floor of the library. She almost kicked the stand of the crystal ball search artifacts placed around the edges of the inner atrium. Despite this setback, she wrote down the locations of the books that held the recipe that were displayed in the clear crystal. ‘Just because I can’t go there myself doesn’t mean I can’t get information from the upper floors. This is innocuous enough, not like the restricted archives. I just need to get an upper-term student to check the book out for me.

Her research continued through dinner, which she was much too focused to pause for, till ten, when the library closed and she was unceremoniously kicked out. Instead of going to the dorm room—and her bed—she went to the bathrooms. She checked to make sure all the stalls were empty, then sat down on the middle of the tile floor in one of the shower stalls and pulled out her notes and materials.

Using a piece of thread as a makeshift compass tool to ensure her Circle was as uniform as possible, and thus increase the spell’s efficiency, Sebastien carefully inscribed a rudimentary barrier array onto the paper with her fountain pen. Grubb’s barrier spell had been the weakest she found in the library, and at under two hundred thaums to manifest, the only one she could hope to cast, if feebly. It only protected against physical projectiles, but she had already proven that could be critical against a certain kind of opponent.

She took the components from her school satchel and placed them atop the correct spots on the paper, lit her tiny lantern for energy, and cast the spell.

The paper caught fire along the lines of ink she had drawn, and within a few seconds was nothing but ashes and wisps of smoke. The energy she had been channeling blew the white-blonde hair away from her face and scattered the ashes around the room, but thankfully didn’t manage to do any damage to her mind or her surroundings as it escaped.

She sat back, rubbing at her forehead and letting out a disappointed puff of air. Still not completely deterred, she took out another sheet and re-drew the spell. This time, she focused on being as efficient as possible, casting more slowly and bearing down harder with her Will. The paper began to smolder and smoke along the ink lines, and though the entire sheet didn’t catch fire this time, the spell lashed against her Will and she had to release it as pieces of the spell array disintegrated from the rest of the paper.

That could be quite dangerous. What if an inner Circle containing important glyphs were to say…burn, separate from the rest of the paper and the spell, and blow away in the wind, leaving me with only part of a spell? Or if the entire paper caught fire mid-cast, and I got Will-strain from the backlash?’

She tried using a wax crayon instead of ink, but quickly found that was not the answer, as the wax melted into the paper and only added to the fuel for any opportunistic spark.

I have created a very tiny candle. No, ink is still better than wax. Perhaps the inked parts are burning because the channel through which all the energy travels is so thin? Too much heat in a small space can set almost anything alight.

Tiptoeing into the dorms, she retrieved a small ink brush from her chest of belongings. Using that, the third attempt was a bit sloppier, but the lines were definitely wider. It helped, but again, not enough. Pieces of the spell array smoldered and burned away, even with her only holding the small shield spell active for a few seconds. That wasn’t completely useless, true, but it was close to useless.

She groaned and rubbed at her aching eyes. ‘Perhaps it would be best to set this idea aside until I have access to materials better suited to channeling magic. If they aren’t too expensive, that is…’ Her eyes opened, and she stared down at the small glass inkwell beside her. She already had a material better suited to channeling magic. Her blood.

She hesitated only briefly, considering the illegality of using blood, even one’s own, to channel magic, and then cast the hesitation aside. ‘No one will find out, especially if I simply mix blood in with the ink. The blood will be unrecognizable. And if I find there is somehow danger of discovery, I can simply activate the self-destruct spark spell and burn away the evidence. It’s no different to the way I disintegrate the hair left on my pillow or hairbrush.’ Of course, this meant that the spell papers could never leave her person, but for preparedness’ sake, they shouldn’t be out of immediate access, anyway.

The brief mental nod to legality out of the way, Sebastien quickly made a small cut in her forearm with her athame, letting her blood fill the inkwell to the top. A dab of skin-knitting salve left only a small scar to mark the spot. She mixed the ink and the blood thoroughly, then painted the barrier spell on yet another piece of paper.

This time, the small barrier burst to life like a bubble, shimmering faintly, and the paper endured.

Sebastien let out a small “whoop!” of excitement, then let the spell go. Touching the paper revealed the ink lines were quite warm, perhaps almost to the point of catching fire, but casting was still feasible. ‘If I get my hands on some thicker paper, a little warmth won’t be disastrous. Maybe a double-ply bound together with paste. It should last at least a minute or two per sheet.’ Parchment, even the relatively cheaper parchment from a goat or a cow, would be extremely fire resistant, but then it wouldn’t be so simple for her to destroy any evidence that could lead to suspicion.

She placed the spell components back in her bag, carefully tucked away the paper and inkwell, and finally made her way to bed.

Only then did she remember the actual classwork that she needed to complete for Sympathetic Science the next morning. Normally, she would have completed it as early as possible, simply to get it out of the way, but now she was forced to resort to taking out her potion of moonlight sizzle and using its light to scribble her way through the assignment.

She felt sick with fatigue by the time her head hit the pillow, and by the morning it wasn’t much better. For once, not even the promise of learning magic was enticing enough to motivate her out of bed. Only the thought of her absence being noted managed to haul her to her feet.

The coppers made another attempt to scry her, and after it had failed and the adrenaline left her system, she felt even weaker.

She dragged through her classes, having to rush out of one quite suddenly when the coppers once again scried for her. At the end of the day, she went to the market to purchase better paper, as well as supplies for the most critical potions, then made her way to Oliver’s house. He wasn’t there, but she set up at the brewing station in his study anyway.

As she stirred the steaming cauldron, she had trouble focusing the full strength of her Will. Her eyelids would droop and her mind’s grip on the magic would loosen without her even realizing it, only for her to jerk back to alertness.

The third time this happened, the magic almost slipped from her grip entirely, and it frightened her enough that she stepped away from the cauldron and took a few minutes to cast some wakefulness magic on coffee pilfered from Oliver’s kitchen. When she knocked back the mixture in a single swallow, coffee grounds and all, she got enough of a rush to make it through the remainder of the potion.

Oliver still hadn’t returned by the time she’d brewed a small batch of blood-clotting potions. She took one for herself and left a note with the others for him.

The servants convinced her to stay for dinner in the kitchen, more than happy to add her to their table. Sharon fussed over the circles under her eyes and tutted over the University’s poor food quality as Sebastien stuffed herself to make up for all the energy expended channeling magic.

When Sebastien returned to the dorms that evening, she thought, ‘I need to practice my new spells just like I practice the exercises for Professor Lacer’s class if I want to be able to use them in a practical setting.’ The acknowledgment didn’t give her any extra energy, however, so she went to sleep instead.

The nightmares came particularly strong, seeming to defy her attempts to suppress them with magic, and after she woke with a pounding heart and a scream choked off in her throat, she gave up on sleep and used the time to study the theory behind the new utility spells she would be putting on paper.

She felt no better than the day before, and after lunch her body decided it was a perfect time to catch up on all her deferred sleep, so she went back to the dorms for a short nap.

Newton noticed her struggling to get out of bed and make it to Defensive Magic, and instead hauled her off to the infirmary. “I understand the desire to perform to the best of your abilities, but you have to recognize when you’re in need of rest, Sebastien,” he said. “It won’t go away just because you keep pushing. The pressure only grows worse. Trust me, I know from experience.” He had shadows under his own eyes, and his clothes were a little more rumpled than usual.

“I’ve just been having trouble sleeping,” she said. “I’m fine, really.”

“You’ll get sick if you keep pushing beyond your limits. If you’re lucky, it’ll only be physically, and not any damage to your Will.”

“I’m missing class right now,” she protested. “And Fekten just gives the lectures, not any reading or homework. If I’m not there, I’ll miss the entire topic for today, along with the participation points toward my grade.”

“The infirmary will give you a pass,” Newton replied, undeterred. He waved, ushering her in ahead of him, as if to make sure she couldn’t escape behind his back.

They cannot know I had Will-strain. They might ask questions.’ But she couldn’t say that aloud, couldn’t explain that she didn’t want to seem any different than the other students to avoid drawing suspicion to herself.

To her surprise and relief, the woman who came over to deal with them seemed completely unsurprised when Newton volunteered the symptoms he’d noticed. “You’re the third one today, and that’s only of the students I’ve dealt with personally. Sometimes I think they push you all too hard. Are you experiencing any signs of Will-strain?”

Sebastien started to shake her head, but stopped when Newton his eyebrows skeptically. “Well, I have had some headaches. But it think it’s just from the lack of sleep. The dorms, you know, I’m not used to sleeping with so many people all around me.”

“He wakes up and practices casting in the middle of the night,” Newton added.

The healer and student liaison shared a knowing look. “Well, I’m going to prescribe two days of rest from any practical exercises, as well as a mild anti-anxiety potion. The potion should last you for a couple weeks. You can take it twice a day. Once in the morning, before breakfast, and once before bed. Please come back for more at the end of that period, if you feel you need it.”

Newton nodded. “I’ll make sure he does.”

Sebastien rolled her eyes, but neither of the other two seemed to find her exasperation worth noting.

They made her take the first anti-anxiety potion before leaving, and while Sebastien disliked the artificial sense of serenity, she had to admit that she had also lost any desire to attend Fekten’s Defensive Magic class, as the idea of physical exercise sounded torturous when she could be resting in her little cubicle instead.

“I’ll have one of your friends write down notes from Fekten’s lecture,” Newton said once he’d returned her to the dorms. “Rest easy, you won’t miss anything important.”

She hummed gratefully and found herself casting her dreamless sleep spell without even worrying that Newton was watching.

He drew the curtains around her bed, and she slipped into sleep even while the sound of his footsteps faded into the distance.

She was still tired when she woke, but the nightmares wouldn’t let her rest any longer. She briefly considered going back to the infirmary to see if they could do anything to make her sleep more restful, but discarded the idea. When the dreams had first gotten so bad, her father had taken her to more than a few healers out of desperation, and there had been nothing they could do. “Dreaming is natural,” they said, “and if the girl is having nightmares, perhaps you shouldn’t tell her any scary stories before bed.” Even when he hinted at what she’d gone through before he came back for her, they had never been able to provide a solution. The dreamless sleep spell she had modified over the years was the only thing that seemed to actually help.

Besides, she didn’t feel comfortable revealing such a weakness when she was surrounded by potential enemies.

Instead, she returned her attention to her research on sleep, going through the texts on the subject that she had borrowed from the library. ‘If I’m never able to properly recover, any efforts to learn or practice other topics are useless. My Will is bound to grow brittle and snap even more quickly from desperate training without balance.’ Most of the texts were useless to her, being set aside after she skimmed through them thoroughly, but just as she was beginning to despair, she came upon a research journal written by a thaumaturge who had been attempting to learn what sleep actually did for the body.

He cautioned against attempts to avoid sleep altogether, citing an increased likelihood of becoming sick, decreased mental and magical functions, and in extreme cases hallucinations, paranoia, and even madness. Nothing she didn’t already know. She was about to toss the book aside in frustration when the author mentioned one particular experiment he had done on a pair of twins.

Using a spell that he explained only in the vaguest of terms, he had caused one twin to sleep in place of the other, allowing wakeful twin to go for over ten days without sleep. Even this was not sustainable long term, because signs of fatigue still built up in the sleepless twin, while the twin who had been sleeping for the both of them fell into perpetual unconsciousness, not even waking for the eight hours per day that should have been possible.

In fear of damaging either of them, the author had stopped the experiment. The wakeful twin had slept for a slightly extended period after the spell was released, but both recovered fully and returned to functioning normally after only a day.

Sebastien was captivated by the idea that someone or something else could do her sleeping for her. She quickly flipped through the rest of the research journal, but could find no more detail about the spell used to allow this. Standing, she pulled on her boots, preparing to go to the library and search for any other writings by the man, but realized with a bleary examination of her pocket watch that the library had already closed. She only then looked around and realized that most of the other students had returned to the dorms and settled down for sleep already.

With a deep sigh, she knelt over her pillow and cast the dreamless sleep spell as strongly as she could, setting her alarm for only a few hours later. ‘Perhaps if I wake on my own, I can recast the spell before the nightmares have time to slip in. It might allow for more overall sleep, since I won’t have to recover from them before being able to relax again.’ She took another dose of the anti-anxiety potion, and was able to get almost a full night’s rest by the morning.

She felt almost normal, but she didn’t forget the research journal or the ideas it had sparked.

Despite Newton’s good intentions, she did not give the casting pass from the infirmary to any of her teachers that day, feeling awake enough to at least complete the in-class exercises.

Professor Lacer seemed to be keeping a closer eye on her than normal, and that, too, kept her from being complacent enough to droop off. If she did, it would be the end of her, just like that boy that had supposedly been turned into a sheep and then expelled.

She stopped by the library once again after class and looked up every other text the author of the sleep-surrogate experiment had contributed to, most of which were held in one of the restricted sections, in the underground archives. She sought out one of the library student aids and enquired about accessing it. Without the contribution points to afford a pass to that section, and lacking the rapport with any of the professors that might get them to sign a special exception slip for her, in the end, Sebastien had been forced to flirt unashamedly with the student aid to get a pass. She was desperate.

The young woman, who sported a tail marking her as one of the non-human students, stammered that it would take at least a day to get a new pass created, and could barely look Sebastien in the eye past her blush. Sebastien promised to return when it was ready.

When Sebastien found herself bouncing irritably on her toes, she went to the simulation room in the big building out on the Flats, where students were permitted to practice spells and dueling for Defense class.

One of the utility spells she had researched for casting through paper was a fabric cutting spell, which sent a single slicing line outward in an arc, the shape of which could be controlled to some degree by the caster’s Will. Unlike many similar spells, it didn’t require the target to be within the Circle, as it used compressed air as the cutting edge.

And of course, she could use it to do more than cut fabric.

It wasn’t meant to work against humans, or any living thing. However, with extensive practice, and if she could channel enough power into it, it could still overcome the inherent barrier against invasive magics that most creatures maintained unconsciously, through molding the air rather than trying to attack directly with magical energy. It was meant as a close-range spell, and at longer distances the cutting edge would degrade severely, but it was one of the few potentially useful battle spells that someone of her level could cast.

She set to practicing it using one of the waist-high, slate-topped columns the sim room had helpfully raised from the floor to use as a drawing surface, aiming at a dummy only a few feet away. Keeping the air compressed for long enough that the slicing edge could travel farther was still well beyond her. She experimented with varying the size of the slice, as well as how quickly she cast.

While she was practicing, she noticed Westbay enter the room and move past her to one of the more advanced stations. He proceeded to use a battle wand in a mock duel with a dummy, which moved back and forth and sent harmless bolts of light shooting at him. He was actually quite skilled, both in his footwork and ability to dodge, and his aim. If he’d been one of the coppers chasing after her, she likely would have been hit with a stunning spell and captured.

She was still methodically sending arcs of slicing air toward her stationary dummy when he finished and walked her way again.

He stopped beside her, mopping at sweaty hair with a fluffy towel while he watched her cast.

She did her best to ignore him, powering up another slice, this one with a wider arc.

“A slicing spell? Are you planning to murder someone? My family’s copper’s will catch you, you know,” he muttered.

Sebastien spun on him before even fully registering what he said, a hot rush of fear and anger rising up from her belly as if it had been waiting there to be triggered. She opened her mouth to let it out in the form of words, and only when the spell had already been released, the edge of the slicing arc heading right for the left side of Wesbay’s chest, did she realize her mistake.

She tried to call it back, to direct the spell away, but it was too late. The edge, visible as a faintly glowing shimmer in the air, cut into him, slicing through his shirt and the skin below even as his eyes widened in belated surprise.

A red line of blood welled up, a crimson stain blooming on the crisp white fabric of Westbay’s shirt.

Sebastien’s face paled. ‘What have I done? I’ll be expelled.

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