Month 11, Day 30, Monday 10:30 p.m.
Sebastien felt sick with fatigue by the time her head finally hit the pillow, and it wasn’t much better by morning. 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 before she got very far, and after it had failed and the adrenaline left her system, she felt even weaker.
She dragged through her classes, having to rush to the bathroom 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.
The owner of the small stationery shop she visited was exceedingly solicitous, and at first she felt uncomfortable with him hovering near her and asking questions, but he turned out to be quite helpful.
“If you are looking for a fire-resistant writing surface that isn’t parchment, I recommend this one-quarter seaweed blend,” the man said, herding her around to the other side of the shop. “Darker, rougher, and thicker than fine vellum, but strong and long-lasting for any project you would like to withstand the rigors of time.”
“Is it totally flame resistant?”
He shook his head. “Unfortunately not, but it has good performance for the price. Don’t be dissuaded by the appearance. Of course, if you are insistent upon a brighter, smoother sheet, we do have more flame-resistant paper made of special magical materials—the details are a trade secret—but that option is significantly pricier.”
“No, no, this is fine.”
“Wonderful!” The man was so excited that she wondered if he’d been struggling to offload the seaweed paper. “What size would you like? We can cut it for you here, free of charge.”
Sebastien paused. The idea that she could get larger paper had never crossed her mind. She’d been stuck thinking that she would have something like a mini-tome of magic, filled with journal-sized spell arrays. But if that wasn’t the case, it gave her even more options. “No need. I need a variety of sizes, so I’ll be cutting it myself,” she said, grinning almost as wide as the shopkeeper.
A couple of gold lighter, she made her way to Dryden Manor. Oliver himself wasn’t there, but she set up the brewing station in his study anyway.
As she stirred the steaming cauldron over the small batch of grainy blood-clotting potion within, 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. 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 the rest for him with a scribbled note.
The servants persuaded her to stay for dinner in the kitchen, more than happy to add her to their table. As Sebastien stuffed herself to make up for all the energy she’d expended channeling magic, Sharon fussed over the circles under Sebastien’s eyes and tutted about the University’s poor food quality.
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 gave her no extra energy, however, so she went to sleep instead.
The nightmares came particularly strong, seeming to defy her attempts to suppress them with magic. 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 in order to make it to Defensive Magic, and stubbornly 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 are 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 physical, and not cause 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 raised his eyebrows skeptically. “Well, I have had some headaches,” she admitted. “But I 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 corrected.
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 of weeks, at single-sip doses. 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 gave her a thumbs-up. “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. 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 while the sound of his footsteps was still fading 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 she was a child and the dreams started, her father had taken her to more than a few healers out of desperation, but there had been nothing they could do. “Dreaming is natural,” one had said, “and if the girl is having nightmares, perhaps you shouldn’t tell her any scary stories before bed.” Even when Ennis 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. She would handle her problems herself, as she always had.
So 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, and were set aside after she skimmed through them thoroughly, but just as she was beginning to despair, she came upon a research journal written by Keeswood, a thaumaturge who had been attempting to learn what sleep actually did for the body.
Keeswood 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 Keeswood 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 the 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 wakeful 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, Keeswood 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 who 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 them were held in one of the restricted sections in the underground archives. She sought out one of the library student aides 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 brazenly with the student aide to get a pass. She was desperate.
The young woman, who sported a tail marking her as one of the non-human students, could barely look Sebastien in the eye past her blush. She stammered that it would take at least a day to get a new pass created, and Sebastien promised to return when it was ready.
When Sebastien found her legs bouncing irritably as she tried to write a homework essay, 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 that 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 simulation 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 had 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.
Westbay 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 coppers 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 directly for the left side of Westbay’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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