Month 12, Day 7, Monday 12:45 p.m.
It wasn’t the first time Sebastien had heard Aberrant sirens. However, the 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 saw only panicking students and the faculty directing them all to safety.
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.
“I heard someone say it was an Aberrant,” a young woman said. “Do you know where it appeared?”
“It might not be an Aberrant,” an older 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, right? That’s not exactly reassuring.”
A boy fidgeted, looking around as if a monstrous mutant 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 attempted 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 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. ‘At least you can reason with a sylphide.’ Fortunately, most people who lost control of their magic were simply killed or mentally disabled. It was rare for a spell to go so horribly wrong that the caster mutated.
“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 older 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 hands flipped around so that her middle fingers touched her thumbs, with her pinky awkwardly curled around her Conduit, she brought out a hum from deep in her chest, casting the esoteric self-calming spell that Newton had taught her.
As she forced her body to calm, it became clear her agitation had been much stronger than she’d realized. Her heartbeat 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, sitting around and worrying about it won’t make us safer. If we aren’t already prepared, then it’s already too late. 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 other options.
“Can I sit here?” she asked. Her shoulders were beginning to tense again from the screaming of the sirens and the palpable tension of the crowd. The rationality she’d struggled to achieve was already being overridden by deep-seated wariness as her eyes flicked around mistrustfully.
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 of minutes later, Newton let out a deep breath, but his fingers kept worrying at his note paper until it was unusable. He somehow appeared both relieved and yet even more worried at the same time.
Sebastien tried to conceal her own relief. If the sirens were turned off, that meant the coppers believed they had dealt with the problem, or at least that it was contained and no longer a potential danger to the whole 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 taut 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 hint and spent a couple of 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 had no idea 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 begging to be let into a shelter.”
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, and I have her old Conduit.”
“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 while she waited for her next class. 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 that beyond basic things like dowsing 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 Sebastien had discovered that she could rarely even tell which card was next in a shuffled deck, much less divine the future.
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 felt no 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 while they waited 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 seated for a few minutes, but the minutes ticked by and Professor Lacer still hadn’t arrived.
“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 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. 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 gossiped and worked on homework from other classes.
“I think it was probably an Aberrant,” a man seated near to Sebastien said, immediately drawing the attention of the 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. 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. “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. Why this was, she didn’t know, but the Red Guard usually kept people from entering—or tried to—with a secondary barrier, and often a wall, too. 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. Desperate people continued to find ways past the security measures in the hopes of bribing the Aberrant to receive a favorable prophecy, 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. The Red Guard 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 hopes 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 do 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 someone was researching the beings extensively—how else would the Red Guard be equipped to deal with them?—but, as a normal person, a commoner, trying to get information about Aberrants or the mental break that created them 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 aides.”
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 aide walked in and told them that the class had been assigned to self-study in the absence of their professor. The student aide sat behind Lacer’s desk at the front corner of the room and started scribbling on a paper while watching 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 tapped her forefinger thoughtfully on the table . “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 badly, 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… My point is, the visualization matters.”
Damien scribbled down a handful of notes on a spare piece of paper while she spoke. “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 make Ana let out a rich laugh. They drew the attention of those sitting nearby.
“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 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 continued to eavesdrop.
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