Chapter 4 – Puzzles & Self-Creation


Month 9, Day 28, Monday 5:30 a.m.

Siobhan woke with a strangled scream in her throat, her jaw clenched so hard she could feel her teeth creaking. Ephemeral flashes of flames reflecting off pooling blood passed in front of her eyes as she stared into the darkness. Her heart pounded as if she had been racing through the streets of Gilbratha in a wild panic, and the soft sheets below her were cold with sweat. The flashes of her dream faded as she left sleep behind, and she forced herself to relax. ‘I forgot to cast my dreamless sleep spell,’ she realized.

She sat up and moved stiffly to the window, undoing the latch and pushing it open. The cool air flushed in, smelling of salt. She looked out onto the empty street below and kept breathing till she had calmed. It was only then that she became aware of her body, which was still transformed into the unfamiliar male form. The night before, Dryden had brought her to his house—though to her eyes it looked more like a mansion—and she had immediately, recklessly, fallen asleep on the bed in a second-story guest room, with her packs tucked in beside her for some semblance of safety.

Siobhan’s lack of discomfort with the new body sent an incongruous shudder down her spine. ‘It cannot be normal for me to forget that my body is not my own. It’s been less than a day, and yet I’ve slipped into this skin so seamlessly it might as well have been mine since birth. Is there some sort of error in my psyche that makes me so detached? Or, perhaps this abnormal level of comfort is an effect of the spell. The creator was certainly skilled enough to do something like that.’ The thought comforted her, and she deliberately decided to believe the latter explanation.

The transformation didn’t seem to have degraded overnight. There was no slippage back into her female form, and no loss of control or feelings of disassociation with the new body. A perfunctory examination showed no change to the artifact, either, though she knew no diagnostic spells to be sure of that.

Despite her discomfort with this form, and the dread she felt over its possible consequences—magic always had a cost—she couldn’t pretend to be anything other than overwhelmingly, pathetically grateful that she’d discovered the amulet. This body gave her access to magic, to knowledge beyond anything a commoner could ever dream of. It was the tool that would let her unravel the inner secrets of the universe and then remake them according to her Will. And it would keep her out of jail.

She would wear it until it became as natural as her first form. She would love it.

Absently picking at the dirt under her nails, Siobhan moved to the corner and activated the light crystals. Ironically, the brightness only made the shadows at the corner of the room and under the door seem more ominous.

Awkwardly, she sat on the chamber pot in the corner and relieved herself, experiencing the strange sensation of magic cleaning and drying her nether regions for the first time. The chamber pot, which was apparently an artifact, began to process the waste, and another spell kept the smell from filtering out into the room. Unsure how to feel about this use of magic, Siobhan limped back to the packs on the bed and dug around in one for a small jar of bruise salve.

As she slowly rubbed the salve into the bruises that seemed to cover half her newly pale body in mottled purple, blue, and green—a pattern that, though painful, looked almost artistic—Siobhan considered her transformation. ‘At least I know injuries transfer between my normal and transformed states. I wonder how it works. Will I have my time of the month, or have those organs been absorbed and transformed too?’ She shuddered at the thought of things that could potentially go wrong. What if she were to transform from a female to male halfway through her time of the month, and the remaining blood was not either absorbed into the spell or expelled from her body? ‘I hope the artifact’s creator considered possibilities like that. What about aging? If that’s considered damage like a wound, then both bodies should age at the same rate. If I build muscle as a man, will I be stronger as a woman?’ She imagined her normal body bulging out of her clothes with muscle, and let out a small snort of amusement.

She’d made the bruise salve herself, and it was high quality, sending alternating waves of chill and warmth through her flesh, easing the pain and stiffness and speeding her healing. She should’ve applied the salve last night, before the injuries had time to settle. They would take longer to heal, now.

She stretched experimentally, then moved to the door and carefully opened it, peeking into the dark hallway beyond. It was empty, except for the ornate rug and a couple of little tables with vases and knickknacks that were likely worth more than her Conduit.

She slipped out, closing the bedroom door behind her. She noted the utter lack of bending or creaking beneath her feet as she walked down the hallway. The floor was made of solid, uncut marble, despite the fact that she was on the second level. ‘What a waste of resources. How much magic went into building this house?’ Still, it suited her purpose at the moment.

She reviewed her hazy memories of arriving the night before, the effects of Will-strain evident in retrospect. Too much spellcasting, along with stress and fatigue, led to a variety of side effects, and could be truly dangerous. She’d been distracted and disoriented, and much of her journey to Dryden Manor had been lost to a minor fugue state.

She vaguely remembered that he’d told her the servants didn’t live in his house, and had all gone home, before personally serving her some drinking water and leading her up the stairs to the empty bedroom. ‘I believe I made quite a few less than intelligent decisions yesterday,’ she admitted ruefully. However, no one had yet invented a spell to travel back in time, so there was nothing to be done about it but accept her current situation and move on.

The first few doors she opened led to other bedrooms, so rather than accidentally open the door to Dryden’s room and—if he had an alarm ward set—alert him to her intrusion, she found her way down the stairs back to the first level. The rooms there were more varied, though equally opulent, and she couldn’t help her bright smile of excitement when she found a sizeable room filled with books. She’d heard of libraries before from her grandfather, and though this didn’t seem so large as what she had imagined, there were still more books than she’d ever seen in one place. Large windows were placed to let in the sunlight during the day, and at the far side of the room, next to a bay window with a wide bench beneath it, sat an imposing desk covered with papers.

Siobhan headed straight for it. She eyed the closed drawers on the sides, but didn’t touch them in case they were warded. She didn’t even turn on the crystal lamp atop the desk, and instead clasped her hands behind her back to keep them from wandering curiously. She bent over to read what she could by the light of the moon and the streetlamps through the half-uncovered window. To her disappointment, she found nothing scandalous or nefarious. In fact, most of the papers seemed to be notes or information about the logistics of starting and running various businesses. “First choice of workers should be the Mires—the neediest will benefit most,” Dryden had scribbled on one paper.

When further examination—still without touching—uncovered nothing more, Siobhan turned to the bookshelves covering the walls. She didn’t use the ladder to reach the higher shelves, simply perusing the titles of the books within her reach. To her disappointment, the only books about magic were theoretical and abstract in nature. There were no grimoires or educational texts, though she did find a shelf of fiction novels—sensationalist adventures and other silly stories. Disappointed, she stopped by the kitchen on the way back to her room, pilfering a couple out-of-season fruits and a loaf of bread. Magic was hungry work.

What did I expect to find?’ She wasn’t sure, but she knew a piece of this puzzle didn’t fit with the others. She wasn’t valuable enough for Dryden to go to all this effort to help her, especially if he and Katerin were true to their word and didn’t plan to make her do anything morally reprehensible to repay them. ‘If that were true, it would take much less effort to simply hire a legitimate sorcerer. The terms of my loan may be ridiculously biased toward Katerin, but I’d guess the book and the artifact to be worth more than the interest she’ll earn from me. If it were true that they didn’t want either item because of the danger of law enforcement, why would they be willing to associate with the person who stole it? No, I cannot trust them.

In the light of her room’s spelled crystal lamps, she consumed the food ravenously while examining the floor beneath one of the plush rugs. The marble underneath was just rough enough to take chalk easily. No doubt that was on purpose, an affectation of the wealthy, since the ability to perform magic was a status symbol. She rolled the rug up and away, settling it in the corner. The stone was cool against her bare feet, but she didn’t mind.

She knelt on the ground and pulled out a stick of chalk wrapped in wax paper, then peeled away one edge to open up the drawing medium. She drew a Circle, using a string to keep it as close to perfectly round as possible. The Circle was large, allowing plenty of room for the Word, the instructional spell array that would help her guide the magical energy. Time slipped away as she bent her mind to the puzzle of creating a decryption spell, so that she didn’t even notice the pastel light of dawn creeping over the horizon and giving the room a ghostly feel.

She was familiar with the encryption spell on her own grimoire, which Grandfather had designed and helped her cast as a child. Decryption was complex and difficult, an ever-evolving field which she knew little about. Although she could design a spell that would probably decrypt her own grimoire, if she were powerful enough, that was only because she understood the original encryption.

After placing the stolen book in the center of the main Circle, Siobhan took a step back. The risk she was about to take was unlikely to pay off, but it wasn’t as if she knew anyone who could help her with this, and she needed to know what the book said. Hopefully, there would be some explanation about the amulet. She looked over the spell again, searching for any obvious risks or inefficiencies. She’d heard plenty of horror stories about careless sorcerers and minor mistakes, and wasn’t eager to become someone else’s cautionary tale.

Magic, in its most basic form, was change. A trade of one thing for another.

There were three elements to every spell, though the way a thaumaturge achieved each element would vary according to their craft, as well as their level of skill and personal preference. The three elements were the Will, the Word, and the Sacrifice.

The Circle facilitated all three elements, and most magical crafts used one in some way. In drawing a Circle, you placed a physical boundary around a spherical domain you controlled, signifying that the things within were yours to trade away and change as you wished. It was possible to create a spell that affected something at a distance, like the stunning spell stored in the coppers’ battle wands, but those effects started within a Circle too.

A thaumaturge’s Will made magic possible. Philosophers and scientists alike struggled to define it to their satisfaction, but Siobhan had always felt it was quite simple. The Will was a combination of heart-wrenching desire and undeniable command that she pushed into the fabric of the world. Reality bent under the force of her Will because it could not have done otherwise.

The stronger a person’s Will, the more power they could channel, the less defined the Word needed to be, and the less power would be lost in conversion. With a strong enough Will, the knowledge to match it, and the right resources, a thaumaturge could raise mountains with a wave of their hand, pierce the veil between life and death, and travel into the Elemental Planes. She doubted there was anything magic could not accomplish, if the thaumaturge was strong enough.

The Word guided the transformation of energy or matter, steering the effects of the spell. It could be any type of instruction, though with sorcery it was most often written into the Circle as an array of glyphs and numerically significant symbols. These were often supplemented with speech or written instructions, especially for complex effects. Here, the Word was as complex, clear, and detailed as she could make it, which would hopefully reduce strain on her Will.

The Sacrifice was what one gave up for the effect of the spell. It could be an object, like a blob of mud used to create a brick, or energy, like the heat from a flame.

Modern magic had defined two different subsets of spells. Transmutation was based on the natural sciences. Water had a natural connection to ice, because with only a change in energy, one became the other. Transmogrification was based on sympathetic science. Water had a sympathetic connection to a drowning curse because people mentally associated deep waters with death. Thus, water could be used as a Sacrifice in a variety of different spells with completely different effects.

For this spell, she was using a few different components based on truth, text, and good sight. The flame from a small oil lantern would provide her with energy.

Finally, the Conduit channeled the thaumaturgic energy being converted. For most sorcerers, this was a celerium crystal, which could withstand powerful magical forces without exploding or melting. Celerium was the only element that even the most powerful could not transmute duplicates of, nor could they use transmogrification to transfer its properties through Sacrifice. It had esoteric properties that they did not understand, but which made it specially suited for its purpose. It could only be found in natural deposits like Lenore’s mines.

Her own Conduit was rated up to two hundred fifty thaums, which was still a few dozen more than her Will could handle. Eventually, with practice to strengthen her Will, she would need to upgrade. When the time came, her father would pass down her mother’s Conduit to her, an heirloom ring that he wore to remember the woman by, since Siobhan didn’t technically need it yet. Or so he insisted.

The first and most important rule her grandfather had pounded into her head was the importance of never, ever, performing a spell without a proper Conduit.

He’d given her nightmares with his cautionary tales. She was only ten at the time, and hadn’t started her apprenticeship with him, but he’d found her pretending to cast magic from one of his books instead of writing her assigned essay. She remembered it well. ‘Magic is like a beast,’ he had said. ‘Or a swarm of insects,’ he amended.

She’d been terrified by a swarm of angry bees only a couple of weeks before, and her eyes widened as she pulled the covers up a little higher under her chin.

Used properly, it can be guided with your Will. Controlled. But never tamed. However, it must have something to travel through as it transforms your Sacrifice into your magical effect. And without a Conduit, it will travel through you. Like a swarm of invisible insects, it will crawl inside and infest you. It will spread from your body to your mind, and some say even your soul,’ he intoned ominously as she stared at him unblinkingly.

It will bite, and tear, and sting you from the inside. But you will not realize it. For at the first touch of magic in your flesh, in your mind, you will feel only bliss. Such bliss that you will never want to stop. That is its poison, its revenge for your hubris in channeling it directly. Even those with the strength of your mother’s bloodline have lost themselves to it. I have seen a man’s flesh bulge out with pustules that burst and revealed clusters of eyes growing beneath his skin. I have seen a woman whose mind warped such that she felt an all-consuming hunger for the flesh of children whose blood still ran warm in their veins. Another man simply…disappeared. He was screaming with pleasure, but it sounded like he was being tortured. He faded away before my eyes—right in the middle of the street—and was never seen again. Though occasionally, when I walked that street at night, I would hear faint echoes of his screams in the wind.

She had whimpered, and Grandfather’s faraway gaze had returned to the present, peering down at her sharply. ‘And that is why we never cast without a Conduit. Especially with your father’s weak bloodline. It is not safe, my child.

Even now, Siobhan shuddered at the images her grandfather’s words had conjured. Assured that everything was as safe as she could make it, Siobhan clasped her Conduit between both hands and bent her Will to the decryption spell, the candle flame trembling as she pulled at it.

The text inside remained a jumbled mess of letters she recognized mixed with ones she was sure she’d never seen, none forming anything like comprehensible words, or any pattern at all. The occasional inked graph or illustrations were nothing more than loopy scribbles that seemed as if someone had tried to draw something from memory, with their eyes closed, without ever lifting their pen from the paper. Looking at it from afar, with her eyes slightly squinted, it seemed deceptively, tantalizingly close to coherence. There were words, paragraphs, and illustrations, not so different from her own grimoire. But when she focused, it made the back of her eyes ache to try and read it.

So she pushed harder, all of her concentration focused on that particular type of resolve that caused the world to bend and bow down under the weight of her Will. The candle flame guttered out, and she stumbled as the spell failed, vertigo sending the room spinning around her. ‘How pitiful,’ she thought angrily. ‘Close to Will-strain from a single failed spell?

She’d known the risk was unlikely to pay off, but she was still bitterly disappointed. Either the book’s creator had been a much stronger thaumaturge than her, or the gap between the method of decryption and the sophistication of the encryption was simply too great. Most likely both. It didn’t help that she was still exhausted from the day before.

Siobhan noted details of the failed decryption spell in her grimoire, then returned to the stolen book, flipping through it in the hopes of finding some sort of clue in the jumbled, unintelligible symbols and shifting, half-ephemeral drawings that always twisted or faded before her eyes could quite capture them. Returning to a previous page, she found it completely different from the first time she looked at it. The number of pages couldn’t even be counted with any certainty.

Shutting the book, Siobhan’s eyes lingered on the single rune stamped on the cover. It refused to clarify into a shape with meaning. ‘Perhaps the text itself isn’t encrypted, but is casting some sort of illusion spell on me?

She rooted through her pockets, wondering what spell components she had that could be associated with clarity of mind. ‘Would the small shard of crystal and the eagle feathers from my dreamless sleep spell be useful? Maybe some ginseng, too, though I don’t have any with me.

When the door to her room opened, half her components were laid out on the floor, grouped by their sympathetic properties. She had scribbled over the half-erased Circle from the first spell with notes, arrows, and partially designed spell arrays.

Dryden’s gaze swept over the room.

Siobhan sat back on her heels and followed the path of his eyes, suddenly aware of the mess she’d made. “I have a system,” she muttered, alarmed to feel a blush creep up her cheeks. “It only looks like chaos to the untrained eye.” At times, she could get a little carried away trying to solve a puzzle.

He leaned a shoulder against the doorway, one eyebrow raised. “Obviously.”

Only now, as she looked at him without the pall of danger hanging over her every thought, did she realize how perfectly attractive the man was. His shoulders were broad, his hair soft and shiny-looking, and his gaze bright enough to reveal a keen mind beneath. He was likely a competent thaumaturge. His pristine white shirt cuffs were rolled up to his elbows, and as he crossed his arms she noted the muscles in his forearms and his long, graceful fingers. The vague feeling of attraction made her uncomfortable, and more aware than ever of her transformed body. She looked away.

After a moment, he waved at her impatiently. “At least the transformation spell lasted the night. Come, there is much to do if we are to submit your application for the entrance exams by the end of the day. We have until six before they stop accepting new applicants.”

Siobhan shot to her feet. “Six tonight? That’s the cut-off for this entire term!?” The new body’s voice refused to pitch as high as she pushed it, cracking instead.

He motioned for her to follow him again, this time more impatiently. “Indeed. Therefore, we must get to work immediately. You can return to summoning a demon, or whatever you were doing, later.”

She grimaced and hurried to re-stock her pockets and her little storage box with the components strewn across the floor. “I was attempting to decipher the book,” she muttered, following him down the hallway.

“Oh? Did you have much success?” he said without turning his head.

“No,” she admitted grudgingly. “I’m not an expert on wards or encryptions, and I lack the proper components for more efficient spells of that nature.”

“Hmm.” Dryden seemed neither surprised nor disappointed. “Well, you’ll learn at the University?” It was a statement, but pitched like a question.

“Yes,” she said firmly, absently somewhat pleased at the gravitas a male voice lent to her inflection. She had never been the squeaky sort of female, but few women who were not addicted to smoking cat’s-cough could achieve such a natural-sounding resonance.

Siobhan spent the majority of the day under Dryden’s instruction. First, he sent her to take a bath in his luxurious bathing room, once again made of marble. The taps were spelled to spill hot water into a basin sunk into the floor. ‘Just who have I gotten myself involved with?’ she wondered while scrubbing herself with scented soaps and some porous thing she thought might be the corpse of a sea-plant called a “sponge.” Dryden wasn’t one of the Crown Family surnames, but the level of wealth on display in his home evoked a sense of royalty.

After that, he had her dress in a deliciously soft woolen suit, one of his own, that he said was “from last year’s style” with a self-aware, slightly mocking sneer in his voice, as if he knew how absurd he sounded. The suit was too big for her, but they had no time to tailor it. He even examined her walk as they moved to the book-filled study she had snooped around the night before to make sure she didn’t sway her hips in a feminine manner. “Among the crowd you’ll be associating with, appearances are important. Attractiveness, body language, and eloquence are essential tools. People can be power, if you know how to cultivate them,” he said.

It was obvious he followed his own advice. Dryden’s appearance, his home, the way he interacted with the world and those around him, it all amplified the impression of tasteful, controlled wealth and power.

Still, it’s so tedious. People are, in general, uninspired troglodytes. People might be power, but magic is power, too, and it’s a power I much prefer. A person may betray or disappoint you, but you can always depend on your own mastery of magic.

He motioned for her to sit down in one of the plush chairs as a servant brought them food. When the woman left, he said, “It must seem, to anyone who bothers to look, as if you fit in at the University. You will walk like them, talk like them, and dress like them. The goal is to avoid notice altogether.” He looked at her critically, then sighed. “My job here could be harder, I suppose. If not for the clothes, and the fact that you’re sitting like a girl, I might not realize immediately that you’re an impostor. Spread your legs!” he snapped.

Siobhan did so, and realized immediately that it was much more…comfortable, that way. She had tried not to pay too much attention to the area between her legs while bathing, but she supposed she’d best get used to being a young man, since she would be spending quite a long time in this form, if things went well.

“Now, let us come up with your story, young man. What is your name?” Dryden leaned back in his leather chair, leveling her with a challenging gaze.

Siobhan was intelligent enough not to blurt out her own name, at least. ‘Best if it’s something similar enough to my real name that I react naturally upon hearing it, but not so similar as to be suspicious,’ she thought. “My name is Sebastien,” she said, feeling out the name as it passed her lips.

Dryden nodded his approval. “It sounds high-class enough. And the last name? You cannot be from an established family, but you’re more likely to be accepted if you don’t seem to be a commoner.” He transitioned to muttering as he got up to poke around one of the bookcases along the walls. “It’s sad, but the statistics speak for themselves. After all, the final round of examination is proctored by a panel of professors who carry out their responsibility to impartiality with varying levels of sincerity. Best if you claim to be from a minor noble line from outside Lenore, I think.”

A few minutes of rifling through books brought out a satisfied “Aha!” and Dryden returned with an old book, which he set on the desk. He jabbed his finger at the center of a page filled with lists of names. “Siverling. Sebastien Siverling. The line seems to have died out a few hundred years ago, so no real heirs will be around to contest your place in their family. If someone questions you, you can simply admit to being from a bastard line and pretend to be offended, or some such nonsense.”

Siobhan’s eyes narrowed. “Why are you doing this?”

He frowned at her. “Being prepared is very important. Taking risks leads to getting caught. As a child, I tried to sneak things past my mother all the time, and she would discover my plans if I left even the slightest possibility open to her. I learned that the only way to truly get away with something is to be meticulous in both planning and execution. I don’t think humans are designed to be naturally good at subterfuge.”

She shook her head, not willing to be distracted. “You know what I mean. Why are you going to such lengths to help me? Putting yourself at risk to find me in the first place is one thing, if you really thought I was a powerful sorcerer who might be willing to help you with illegal magics. However, as soon as you learned otherwise…I’m surprised you didn’t attempt to silence me on the spot. Beyond that, you’ve left me with this artifact and the accompanying text, are, in essence, sponsoring me through the University, and have taken me into your home to help me succeed. Do you make deals like this with every hopeful sorcerer you meet? What is it that you expect from me?”

Dryden returned to his seat, staring at her in a way that made her straighten her posture defensively. “Sebastien, you seem to be under the impression that you’re special to me for some nefarious reason that I’m hiding. And you are, in that you have a somewhat unique potential to be extremely useful to me one day. However, I’m not helping you because you’re special. If that was the whole of it, I would rather avoid the hassle you represent and leave you to your own devices while hoping you muddle through somehow. No, I’m helping you because I feel like it. I told you at our first meeting. I am a philanthropist. And I can help you just because I decide I would like to.”

“That still doesn’t explain all—”

With an irritated swipe of his hand, he cut her off. “I enjoy righting wrongs. It has nothing to do with you. Don’t be so conceited. You are not so unique or valuable that I need to trick you through some elaborate ploy. I help you, you repay me through competence, and in the meantime I get the satisfaction of knowing that I can affect real change on the world, both directly and on a larger scale. I told you. There is power in people, in connections. You’re not the first I have taken a personal interest in elevating from their station in life, and you will not be the last. Please don’t misunderstand me. Focus on being accepted to the University so that you can repay me for my generosity.”

Siobhan looked away, trying to keep her embarrassment and irritation from showing. She felt unfairly chastised, and beyond that, she wasn’t sure she believed him. ‘Who is Oliver Dryden, anyway?’ Katerin had loaned her the money based on little more than his recommendation, or rather, his subtle command. He was the wealthiest person Siobhan had ever met, though perhaps not the wealthiest person in the city of Gilbratha. He was involved in some operation that could use a low-level, illegal sorcerer, rather than simply purchasing legitimate, University-certified labor. His eyes had held a spark when he spoke of affecting change on the world, the same type she had seen in her grandfather’s when he worked larger spells.

And why was he there last night, in person? Even if he thought I was a powerful, valuable sorcerer, shouldn’t he have had some minions available for a job like that? Or does he have so many of the local coppers in his pocket that he would have been fine even if they arrested him?’ Each question only made her more suspicious. ‘If that’s the case, then last night was just an act for my benefit, to make me trust him—him personally.’ She had too little information to judge properly, but she resolved to keep her guard up and her eyes open.

I am special, though,’ she thought defiantly. ‘If he’s chosen a person to be in his debt based on future utility, he’s chosen well, even if he doesn’t know it.’ She couldn’t say that aloud, however, for fear of being scoffed at. She would make sure to absorb every drop of knowledge and magic available to her in preparation for the day when the metaphorical fly in the ointment became obvious.

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