Month 12, Day 7, Monday 1:30 p.m.
It wasn’t the first time Sebastien had heard Aberrant sirens. However, this prior experience did nothing to calm her, as the sound only brought back memories she would rather have forgotten. She looked around for signs of chaos and destruction, but other than panicking students and the faculty moving to direct them all to safety, saw nothing.
Clutching her school satchel in one hand and her Conduit in the other, she joined the congregating students in the central atrium of the library. The whole ground floor of the building was filled.
As the sirens continued, she listened to the worried conversations of the other students.
“I heard someone say it was an Aberrant,” a young woman said. “Do you know where it appeared?”
“It might not be an Aberrant,” another woman said comfortingly. “The sirens don’t distinguish between different magical dangers. It could just be a rogue blood sorcerer casting some dangerous magic.”
A nearby man said, “You know blood magic users are more likely to mutate into Aberrants, so that’s not exactly reassuring.”
A boy fidgeted, looking around as if danger might pop out from behind one of the other students. “My older sister is a copper. She told me the last time the sirens went off, it was a loose elemental, an enraged sylphide from the Plane of Air. Someone did an over-ambitious conjuring without strong enough bindings, and it went wrong. The sylphide choked the air right out of a whole city block of people. Drowned without a drop of water.”
He’d spoken loudly, and some of those around him reached for their chests and throats as if to ensure they were still breathing properly.
Sebastien knew it was nothing compared to the destruction the right kind of Aberrant could wreak. It was lucky that such a small percentage of spells ever went that horribly wrong, and most people who lost control were simply left dead or mentally incompetent. ‘At least you can reason with a sylphide,’ she thought.
“What if it’s an attack on the city wards?” someone asked.
“That’s ridiculous,” someone else snorted. “Even the Titans would know better than to besiege Gilbratha. The wards are unbreakable.”
“It could be the kraken.”
“The kraken hasn’t been seen for the last two hundred years. It’s an Aberrant, I tell you.”
“It doesn’t matter what it is, nothing is going to get past the library wards. They were cast by Archmage Zard,” the woman said, one arm around her frightened friend.
That seemed to calm most of the students, until one girl whispered. “But I have family in the city…what about them?”
“If they know what’s good for them, they’ll get to the shelters,” a boy said.
Sebastien wanted to snap at them all to shut up, wanted to pace back and forth, wanted to cast some magic so she could feel like she was actually doing something useful. She pressed her way out of the crowd and brought her Will to bear. Creating a Circle with her middle fingers touching her thumbs and awkwardly curling a pinky around her Conduit, she brought out a hum from deep in her chest, casting the esoteric self-calming spell that Newton, their group’s student liaison, had taught her.
As she forced her body to calm, she realized she’d been more agitated than she’d realized. Her heartbeats slowed, the stress-response chemicals burning in her blood cooled, and her muscles relaxed a little more with every deep hum.
When she finally opened her eyes, the panic of the other students seemed a little absurd. ‘We’re safe. And even if we weren’t, there’s little that sitting around and worrying about it will do. If we aren’t already prepared, that won’t change in the next few hours. Best to just get on with life.’ She didn’t have the luxury of spare time to waste.
Sebastien nudged back through the crowd to use one of the search crystals, burning a card with keywords about divination in its brazier. She’d picked up an armful of books and was looking for an out-of-the-way table when she noticed Newton at a spot that would be perfect. With the library so packed, there weren’t many options. “Can I sit here?” she asked. Her shoulders were beginning to tense again under the screaming of the sirens and the palpable tension of the crowd, and the rationality she’d struggled to achieve was already being replaced by deep-seated wariness, her eyes flicking around distrustfully.
Newton looked up a little slowly, as if he’d been focused on the handwritten sheaf of notes in front of him, but his eyes hadn’t been moving across the page, just staring at the same spot. “Oh, hello, Sebastien. Sure, feel free to join me, as long as you don’t expect entertaining company. I’m afraid I’m a little…preoccupied.” His face was drawn, and though his posture was proper, something about his unfocused eyes spoke of deep fatigue.
She sat, her back a little too straight, even for her. “Even better. I’d prefer not to sit around speculating.”
When the sirens suddenly stopped a couple minutes later, Newton took a deep breath, but his fingers creased his note paper, as if he was both relieved and even more worried at the same time.
Sebastien tried to conceal her own relief. If the sirens were turned off, that meant that the coppers believed they had dealt with the problem, or at least that it was contained, no longer a potential danger to the whole of the city. They would have to wait for confirmation before leaving the library, even so.
She eyed Newton. “That spell you taught me is useful. Especially for situations like this,” she offered, trying not to make her concern obvious.
He met her gaze for a long few seconds.
“I also have some of that anti-anxiety potion from the infirmary left,” she added.
He gave her a small smile. “Is this a role-reversal, Sebastien? You looking out for me?”
She shrugged. “Sometimes, when you’re really tired, you don’t realize how hard you’re fighting it. Your body tightens up until you’re like this tight little rock on the edge of a precipice. If you can rest, when you wake up everything seems a little more manageable, and you have the option to be flexible instead of shatter.”
“Sound advice. Almost as if you know from experience,” he said, his wry smile growing.
She rolled her eyes. “I’m used to fatigue. It’s the people that bother me.”
“Right,” he said, sniggering behind his hand. But he took her hints and spent a couple minutes humming, performing the same esoteric spell he’d taught her.
When he opened his eyes, she looked up from the irritatingly oblique divination reference she was trying to read.
“You were right, I’m tired,” he said. “But I’m used to fatigue, too. It’s the fact that my family is out there in the city, possibly in danger, that worries me.”
“Oh.” She didn’t know what to say to that.
“They don’t live in the best neighborhood,” Newton continued. “And as you might not be surprised to learn, Gilbratha’s emergency shelters are well over capacity in the poorer areas. Sometimes you need to bribe the guards to get in. And my family, well, my father’s fallen ill. He’s been out of work for the last few weeks, and without him—” Newton pressed his lips together and shook his head. “All of us Moores are stubborn. I’m just worried they chose to stay at home, block the doors, and hide under the beds rather than evacuate for the shelters if they knew they would have to beg to be let in.”
Newton had already been worried about money, spending his extra time tutoring and taking the student liaison job to ease the burden of tuition. If his family was poor enough without his father’s income that they had to worry they couldn’t spare the coin to get into the shelters, they almost certainly wouldn’t be able to afford for Newton to continue his education. “Are there any other thaumaturges in your family? Someone you could trade messenger spells with?” Sebastien asked.
He shook his head. “My mom and sisters know some kitchen magic and a few esoteric things, but they’re not sorcerers. They don’t even have real Conduits. They’re definitely not powerful enough to defend themselves, either. My grandmother might have been able to cobble something together, but she’s going senile now.”
“The sirens have stopped, so they’ll probably let us out soon. You can go check on them personally. I doubt anyone will notice if you miss one class after all this pandemonium.”
“You’re right,” he said, relaxing a little.
She hesitated, realizing it might be rude to ask, but couldn’t stop herself from doing so anyway. “Was your father the main source of income for your family?”
He pressed his lips together. “Yes. And I know what you’re getting at. I have no University sponsor. If he doesn’t recover…” He took a deep breath. “Without my family’s help, I cannot pay my own way. It’s just too much. But if I leave now—” He paused, cleared his throat, and continued in a forcefully calm tone. “Apprentices don’t earn enough to support a family and also save much, especially not at first. It might be ten years or more before I could return to continue my education. Maybe never, if healer’s fees for my father become too much. I don’t want to be stuck doing busy work for a Master for the rest of my life.”
Sebastien wanted to suggest that Newton take his father to the Verdant Stag and see if they could help with something in the alchemy shop, or connect him to an affordable healer, but she didn’t. Sebastien Siverling should have no way to know about the Verdant Stag’s operations. ‘I’ll talk to Oliver about it. Maybe he can find some way to get the information to Newton’s family more surreptitiously,’ she told herself.
The library doors stayed closed for over an hour longer, until the faculty in the administrative section of the building received word that it was definitely safe to release the students.
Newton and most of the other students left as soon as they were able, but Sebastien remained behind, reading about divination. She struggled to focus, her mind returning several times to what might have caused the rogue magic sirens.
Divination was the only branch of magic she wasn’t particularly interested in. When she was younger, she’d had fantasies about getting tips from the spirits or seeing the future in a basin of water.
It turned out, beyond basic things like dousing for water or sympathetic scrying for a location, most humans weren’t built for real divination. The very talented could get vague hints about possible futures or answers about specific questions, but she’d discovered she was lucky to be able to tell which card was next in a shuffled deck.
Then she’d met a shaman, who’d talked up the greatness of his branch of magic. Shamans could breach the walls between the mortal world and the domain of spirits to achieve similar effects without the need for talent.
He’d had her drink an alchemical concoction that left her spewing from both ends, incapacitated with pain, and hallucinating for two days.
She’d come to her senses terrified, half-dead, and with nothing to show for it but dream-like memories that flashed behind her lids in sickly colors when she closed her eyes for the next few hours.
“You just don’t have the constitution for greatness, dearie,” he’d said.
She’d tried to kick him in the knee out of sudden rage, but was too weak to do even that. Since then, she’d focused on practical magic, something she could use to affect her reality rather than trying to pull the answers to life from the ether.
All that to say, she didn’t have much knowledge or experience in divination, which meant trying to put a stop to the scrying attempts would require extensive research. She would wait to start practicing the actual spells at least until tomorrow. She didn’t want to push herself too hard when her recovery was still fragile.
She didn’t feel much more confident about her plan by the time she left the library for Lacer’s Practical Casting class, but she was determined. There were no problems that a combination of magic, power, and knowledge-backed ingenuity couldn’t fix.
‘I’ll need to prioritize, though,’ she admitted. ‘I can’t handle practicing new utility spells, researching sleep spells, and trying to learn about emergency healing while also working on this. Everything but school work and getting my blood back from the coppers will have to wait.’
All the students were still absorbed by the earlier sirens, and the class was filled with chatter waiting for Professor Lacer to arrive. It was normal for him to stride in with his coat flapping behind him after all the students had been waiting for a few minutes, but as time passed, it seemed strange that he was so late.
“He might not be coming,” said Westbay, who had taken it upon himself to sit beside Sebastien.
“Because of whatever caused the sirens?” she asked.
“Sometimes he gets called away from the University to deal with special cases if the Red Guard is going to be slow in arriving, or if the coppers need an expert consultant.”
“There are rumors he was in the Red Guard at one point, too,” she said slowly.
Westbay shrugged. “Who knows? There are a lot of rumors about him, and a good half of them are completely ridiculous.”
“I thought… He’s a friend of your Family, right? You don’t know?”
Westbay gave her a flat stare. “I’m flattered you think so highly of me, but you know the ranks of the Red Guard are confidential, right? The Westbay Family does handle the internal security of the city, but I’m only the second son, not even finished with the University yet. They don’t tell me anything actually important,” he said with irritation.
The other students were starting to chatter about Lacer’s absence, and when one person speculated that the Charybdis Gulf’s kraken had taken him back to its sea lair because it wanted his seed for its progeny, Westbay raised his eyebrows as if to say, “See? I told you people make up the most ridiculous rumors.”
She conceded the point.
Professor Lacer still hadn’t arrived thirty minutes after his class was supposed to start, and whatever discipline the students might have retained had entirely evaporated away as they chattered and gossiped and worked on homework from other classes.
“I think it was probably an Aberrant,” a man seated near to Sebastien said, immediately drawing her attention, and that of the other students close enough to hear him. “Gilbratha gets at least one ‘creature of evil’ per year, on average, so it wouldn’t be a surprise.”
The woman he’d been speaking to grimaced. “Someone experimenting with blood magic? Some evil spell?” She shuddered delicately. “I cannot imagine why anyone would dabble in such a thing, knowing the consequences.”
Aberrants were actually quite rare, Sebastien knew, but it was true that most of the incidents came from thaumaturges dabbling in immoral things and corrupting their Will, which was likely one of the reasons that blood magic in general was so highly illegal. If Gilbratha had one every year, it was only because of the high concentration of thaumaturges, both legal and criminal.
A younger girl, obviously a commoner by the low quality fabric of her clothes, leaned toward the two. “Are all creatures of evil Aberrants? I thought some of them were…beasts, or evil Elementals, or something.”
The man shrugged. “Well, they might be. Only people who don’t really know what they’re talking about use the more generic terms, like ‘creatures of evil.’ Commoners and non-thaumaturges. It’s a catch-all for any living rogue magic element.”
The woman said, “Well, Aberrant or whatever it was, the Red Guard has handled it now, and we will know soon enough, once they have finished their investigation. It did not take them very long to send the all-clear signal, so it must not have been particularly difficult to deal with.”
Beside Sebastien, Ana nodded at that. “That is true. When I was a child, we were stuck in the basement shelter for almost two days. Mother was worried they were going to have to set up a sundered zone right in the middle of Gilbratha. A rather powerful sorcerer had corrupted his Will and broken while trying to revive a newly-dead body. It took the Red Guard some time to figure out how to deal with the Aberrant that resulted.”
Westbay looked dour. “I remember that. Titus was here at the University, and father was dealing with the incident. It was just me and the servants the whole time, waiting for news. All Aberrants have a weakness, though, a counter to their ability. You just have to find it.”
Sebastien frowned. “What about Aberrants like Metanite, or Red Sage? It seems like the Red Guard would have found their weakness by now, if they really had one. Metanite isn’t even contained within a sundered zone.” Sundered zones were the effect of the world’s most powerful barrier spell, and could contain almost anything. They created perfectly, unnaturally white quarantine domes, and were used exclusively to keep the world safe from Aberrants that couldn’t be otherwise killed or neutralized. Metanite had destroyed the one they put around it just as it destroyed literally everything else it touched with its void-black form.
Westbay shook his head at her. “Just because it can’t be killed doesn’t mean there is no counter. Metanite is slow and shows no signs of intelligence. With enough vigilance, space-warping magic is plenty to deal with it. And the Red Sage is contained within a sundered zone.”
“But it’s not stopped,” Sebastien argued. “Whatever ability Red Sage has is either summoning people to hear its prophecies or manipulating reality to make them come true, even from within its sundered zone.” The spell that created sundered zones did not stop sapient creatures that could give their informed consent from entering the barrier, nor from exiting again as long as they had not been tainted by any tangible or magical effect within. The Red Sage could see the future, supposedly, and whatever it prophesied would come true. Except it pronounced better fates to those it liked, and horrible ones to those it disliked, and all its prophecies came true in the most horrible way possible. People somehow always managed to get past the security measures to Red Sage in the hopes of bribing the Aberrant to receive a favorable prophecy for themselves, no matter the destruction the fulfillment of the prophecy would inevitably wreak on the world and lives of those around them.
“Sure, but the Red Guard is working to mitigate the effects of the prophecies as well as limit who gets to speak to the Red Sage. There haven’t been any major disasters in at least a hundred years, and you also have to take into account that two of its three available prophecies are taken up just keeping them from destroying or stopping it. Their very existence has almost entirely constrained it. Imagine what it could do, unchecked.”
“But that’s all they can do. Constrain it. Just the same as the Dawn Troupe. Dozens of people die every year to that one.”
“Again, because people are stupid and visit the Dawn Troupe on purpose in the hope of winning a boon. That’s not the Red Guard’s fault. Anyone who isn’t stupid or suicidally reckless is safe from the Dawn Troupe.”
“If enough people don’t visit, the agreement with the Aberrant is that it can go on a hunt,” Sebastien said. “That’s what it bargained. Don’t you think that has something to do with why the newspapers report it whenever someone manages to get out alive with a boon? It entices the general idiot specimen to offer up their own life so it’s not so obvious that the Red Guard actually has no way to stop the Dawn Troupe. And what about Lugubrious? Cinder Stag? That’s to say nothing of those Aberrants that you and I have no idea about. Can you truly tell me you don’t think they exist? Aberrants that they can’t catch? Ones they don’t even know about?” Sebastien’s voice had grown harder, sharper, and she realized she was leaning toward him, glaring into his eyes.
People were staring at her.
“You know so much, Sebastien,” a girl a few desks away said with a simpering smile that lacked any real thoughtfulness and made Sebastien want to smack the expression off her face.
Sebastien leaned back, looking away with a sharp exhale.
Ana eyed Sebastien. “You know rather a lot about this.”
“It seemed rather prudent to do at least basic research about creatures that are created without warning and can wipe out an entire city.” Sebastien couldn’t understand why more people weren’t interested in learning everything they could about Aberrants. At most, incidents would be reported in the paper, and there would be warnings about the danger of blood magic and unlicensed, improperly trained thaumaturges. She was sure some people were researching the beings extensively—how else would the Red Guard be equipped to deal with them?
However, as a normal person, a commoner, trying to get information about Aberrants or the mental break that created them from anything but rumors and vague news stories was an exercise in frustration. Those in power probably didn’t want to cause a panic, while the average person just wanted to go about their life, peacefully, moronically pretending that it had nothing to do with them, wouldn’t affect them. Even the University library kept most of that information on the third floor or in the underground restricted sections.
“It’s a real threat. A danger to the entire world. Aberrants don’t die of old age, and they keep being created,” she added in a calmer tone. ‘It only takes one to destroy everything you’ve ever known and cared for,’ she added silently.
“Maybe you should join the Red Guard,” Westbay said. “They might not be perfect, but they do protect Lenore pretty well. They need people who are powerful and passionate about protecting the country.”
Sebastien wasn’t sure how to respond to that, caught between surprise, amusement, and denial.
Ana turned away from Sebastien, putting on a bright smile. “All that as it is, the Red Guard has no doubt performed valiantly in this instance,” she announced. “Let us discuss something more pleasant? I’ve heard Professor Boldon was proposed to by one of his student aids.”
The others were drawn in by this semi-scandalous declaration, and Sebastien took the welcome reprieve to chastise herself for allowing her interest in the topic to override her discretion. She was easily caught up in theoretical discussions, sometimes without properly taking into account her audience and what was appropriate to reveal about her opinions.
Not long after, a student aid walked in and told them that the class had been assigned to self-study in the absence of their professor. The student aid sat behind Lacer’s desk at the front corner of the room and started scribbling on a paper while looking at them, as if to record their adherence to the task.
Westbay quickly turned to Anastasia. “I’ll partner against you to start, and Siverling can watch and give us some pointers.”
Sebastien raised an eyebrow, but didn’t protest.
Ana hesitated, looking at Sebastien. “You don’t mind? We’ll be competing against each other in a few weeks, after all.”
Westbay shook his head condescendingly. “Siverling’s not so selfish that he can’t set aside practicing for a single period to help his friends. Right, Siverling?”
The two of them set up the spell array and competed against each other for a few minutes while Sebastien watched. Then, they stopped and turned to her expectantly. “Well?” Westbay asked.
She stared back at them for a few seconds. ‘Where does this bright-eyed anticipation come from? Are a few tips from me so valuable? Well, I suppose I am better than either of them.’ She cleared her throat. “What do both of you visualize when you move the ball?”
Anastasia looked unsurely between Sebastien and Westbay. “Umm, I just imagine the ball…moving?”
“How? What causes it to move? It just moves on its own?” Sebastien asked.
“I imagine an invisible force behind it, pushing,” Westbay said.
Sebastien nodded. “Westbay, your visualization seems to be a little stronger than Ana’s. And you’ve both practiced this spell a lot, so there’s not a ton of inefficiency. But…Will isn’t just about how much energy you’re channeling, or even how efficiently you do it. At least that’s how it seems to me. When you know exactly what you want, as clear as high quality celerium, and you want it really, really bad, it makes a difference. Knowing exactly what you want can be tricky, but an easy way to create effects like this is to think about how you might create them without magic. You could nudge the ball around with your finger, and that would work, but you’ll never get real speed or efficiency out of that. Swinging it around like a rock in a shepherd’s sling would be better. If you can handle it mentally, a geared crank that sends the ball shooting around two times, or a hundred times, for every revolution of the crank… It matters.”
Damien had started scribbling on a spare piece of paper almost as soon as she started talking. “I think I understand. Give me a moment to come up with a model.”
Sebastien turned to Ana. “You don’t care enough about the outcome. Don’t ask, don’t order, just…believe. There’s a reason it’s called the Will. You must become a god, a force of nature, and the ball moves because the laws of reality that you created say that it moves.”
Ana stared into her eyes for a long moment. “Is that how you do it?”
Sebastien chuckled. “All good thaumaturges have to be a little narcissistic, I think.”
“It sounds…appealing, that kind of control.”
“Of course. Magic is…it’s the fabric beneath reality. It’s in everything. When you touch magic…” Sebastien shook her head, feeling visceral electricity running through her skin at the thought, raising the fine hairs all over her body and setting her blood alight. “There is nothing more worthwhile.” Her hand had gripped her Conduit while she wasn’t paying attention, and she released it, sitting back and rolling her shoulders. “Okay. Try again.”
They did. The improvement wasn’t huge, especially with them already having so much experience casting the same spell over and over, but it was noticeable. Maybe a five percent increase in power, and about the same improvement to their efficiency. It was enough to put a huge grin on Westbay’s face and have Ana laughing lowly. They drew the attention of those sitting near.
“You really are a genius,” Westbay said. “This is as good as if I just gained ten thaums in five minutes of work.”
A girl whose name Sebastien had already forgotten leaned in, tucking her hair behind her ear. “Are you handing out tips, Siverling? Teaching the class in place of Professor Lacer?”
“I don’t have anything to say that you shouldn’t already know,” Sebastien said shortly.
Despite the fact that she’d just coached him, Westbay crossed his arms over his chest and gave their curious classmates a glare. “Focus on your own tables,” he snapped at them.
And so, they spent the rest of the class period like that, with Ana and Westbay practicing while Sebastien watched and gave them little hints to improve their performance—and their classmates not-so-inconspicuously continuing to eavesdrop.