Month 12, Day 15, Tuesday 12:30 p.m.
Sebastien didn’t worry about someone walking in on her. There had been enough dust in this room to tell her that it was rarely used and likely unmonitored, and she had locked the door just in case. She’d cleared out a little corner in the back of the room to practice in. She couldn’t practice this divination in the dorms behind the paltry protection of her curtain, or in the public practice rooms, after all. It was illegal for anyone besides the coppers to sympathetically scry for a human.
As always, she started with the Circle. Divination was finicky. For power, the spell required special candles infused with scented oils and dyed certain colors, rather than a coal brazier or her much more convenient lantern. She set them evenly around the main Circle’s edges, in the component Circles meant for them.
Then she placed the map, which covered the entirety of Gilbratha. It was fairly accurate everywhere except the Mires, which were haphazard and frequently changing, a sea of shanty houses built out of old wood and white stone stolen from the dwindling remains of the southern white cliffs.
The spell had a few prerequisites, and in some ways was more like alchemy than the actively cast sorcery she practiced in her classes. Actively cast spells would dissipate as soon as she released her Will, but with ritual magic, spells were not controlled by the Word of a spell array, but woven into and absorbed by the matter they were bound to through the practice of the ritual. The magic created a kind of multi-dimensional weave with its host, which was self-sustaining enough to be semi-permanent. This was what allowed potions to work months or sometimes even years after they had been brewed. As a tradeoff, it took way longer and lost about a third of the energy immediately, with the remaining magical effect slowly degrading after that.
Sebastien used some small pieces of dirt, rock, and slivers of bark that she had collected from a relatively wide section of the city and carefully labeled. She placed them on the map as precisely as possible, corresponding with the places she’d obtained them, then added a handful of tent spikes, for their concept of anchoring.
She dipped her finger in the wax of the nearest candle, suppressing a wince at the heat of it. The wax quickly cooled as she drew her hand away, creating a film over her skin. She repeated the process with the other five candles until her fingertip had a thick coating of layered wax. Concentrating hard on her memory of each anchor spot in the city, she first touched a tent spike, then, as if pulling a thread from it to the map, she drew a hexagram around one of the pebbles. As she moved, slowly and deliberately, as if the spell was an animal that might attack if she startled it, she chanted in a low voice. “To the earth you are bound. Weight of stone, iron, and root. Foot to foot, head to head, heart to heart. As the roots of a tree are reflected in its branches, be as one.” The candles flickered, and the wax at her fingertip grew a little softer.
‘No mistakes. Your Will is absolute,’ she told herself, redoubling her concentration. She could have done this from outside the Circle, using a long stick to write instead of her finger, but the book she’d learned the spell from had cautioned against sloppiness, and she knew from her work with alchemy that any feeling of detachment would work against the purpose of the spell, which was all about creating sameness and connectivity, to the point that in the eyes of magic, one became the other.
Panting once she finished, she cleared away the dirt, bark, and stone, putting them back into their labeled bags. She would need to use them again any time she wanted to recast the spell, because with such a short ritual, and the map being a precreated item that hadn’t been inherently changed during casting, the spell’s weave would unravel and degrade quickly.
A single pea sized drop of mercury—the most expensive part of the spell—came next. Her cauldron was much too big for it, so she used a small glass bowl the size of a finger cymbal, large enough to hold only a single swallow. She placed it in the center of the map instead of over any of the flames, dropping the mercury from its vial into the bowl. “To search and seek. To hark and peek,” she began, slowly and deliberately adding the ear of a bat, an eagle’s eye, and a tiny glass lens from a child’s toy. She stirred, six times six, with a rod made of dehydrated sprite honey mixed with the powder of a lava-pepper. The rod shrank with each stir, until she was holding only a stub, and within the little bowl sat a trembling, mirrorlike ball of spelled mercury, still only the size of a pea despite the amalgamated components.
The final step was the actual divination spell, which did require a spell array. Moving the map and mercury to the side, she drew it carefully and consulted the book to make sure she’d not forgotten anything. She’d already studied the spell to ensure she fully understood the purpose of each glyph, numerological symbol, and word, but now she reviewed them all again. The map went back into the Circle, and a tiny dot of the mercury was placed in its center, with the rest set aside for future attempts. She caught the tip of a little bundle of dried herbs on fire in the nearest candle, snuffed the flame immediately, then waved the bundle about to let the herb smoke settle through the air.
Remembering how she’d seen Liza work at one point, Sebastien drew a hexagram with the smoke, then glyphs for “key” which could also be interpreted as “answer,” and “discovery.”
Using one of her own hairs—which was much less likely to have people panicking and calling for the coppers than a drop of blood if she were to be discovered—she began to cast, focusing on how desperately she needed to know exactly where her missing blood was.
The most difficult part of the map-based divination spell was that she lacked the skill to work past the huge beacon that was the blood in her own body.
That was the downside to scrying for her own blood.
The upside was that if it was someone else’s blood, with a weaker sympathetic connection, a sorcerer as unskilled and untalented at divination as she was might not have been able to successfully cast the spell at all.
The first couple of times she attempted it, the tiny dot of spelled mercury rolled across the map to the University, and more specifically, the western edge of the Citadel where the abandoned storage room was. She was scrying herself. “Yay,” she said dully, sagging back as she released her draw on the special candles.
It would have been a small silver lining if her ward had activated, because she could have found a way to make that useful, but there had only been a gentle tingle in her back before it fell silent. Apparently, it was impossible to cast a divination spell on herself while simultaneously warding one off, as they were strictly opposing thought processes, and her mind couldn’t split into two independent consciousnesses. This meant that she couldn’t simply cast a scrying spell on herself whenever she wanted to sneak around without being noticed.
When the pin-head sized dot of spelled mercury lost its shininess—and its magic—she gave up. She only had so many attempts before she would need to buy more, and “try harder” did not seem to be the answer.
More research revealed a solution to the first problem. She found the answer, ironically, in a book that leaned more toward history than magical instruction. Liza had, perhaps, mentioned her participation in the Haze War for a reason.
It was the perfect example of how necessity—war—stimulated invention. The war had started over greed for Lenore’s celerium mines and the foreign invention of an improved method for divination-based, long-range attacks. Silva Erde and several smaller countries had banded together against Lenore. This led to the counter-invention of an anti-divination fog. This “haze” was spread over the tactical areas and battlefields, blocking the targeting ability of enemy long-range attacks. The haze inspired the creation of a biological warfare philtre that spread on the air and thrived in the low-light of the haze. Of course, this led to an immediate improvement in wearable air-filtering and skin-protecting artifacts. Stronger divination spells began to filter through the haze. Reverse-scrying spells were vastly improved, making them much more dangerous for the distant attackers, who could be pinpointed through their own attacks and attacked in turn. Eventually, exploring the principles behind how the haze actually worked, Lenore discovered the existence of divination rays and revolutionized the anti-divination field.
While the concepts were mentioned, many of the spells themselves were still either confidential or beyond her access level, but the basics of reverse-scrying were available freely, since the concept far predated the recent military improvements.
As the book suggested, once a diviner sent out feelers, it was much harder to stop someone following those feelers back to the source. Sebastien could piggyback on the searching magic of the coppers’ attempt to scry for her, thus overriding the pull of the blood in her own body to find the few drops they were using.
Of course, there were wards to stop that kind of thing, but apparently, they were expensive, prone to failing, and generally not useful for domestic law enforcement, because they had no need to disguise the fact that they were scrying for you. If you found and approached them, it only made their arrest of you easier.
Sebastien couldn’t practice that variation successfully until they made an attempt to find her at a convenient time, but she still tried to increase her facility with divination spells. Holding off the scrying attempt at the same time as tracking it back would be very difficult, and if she wasn’t prepared, either of the spells might fail. If the divination failed, she only risked Will-strain, but if the divination-diverting ward failed, she might actually be caught. The ward wasn’t strong enough to hold off the coppers without her active participation.
The only reason she could—hypothetically—do both at once was because, first, the ward handled most of the actual work for her, only needing her to feed it more power rather than control the spell. Secondly, the ward against divination was shielding against someone else, which was the same target she was attempting to find. It was like two people hiding in a dark forest, both trying to find the other, which was conceptually possible, as opposed to attempting to move and be still at the same time, which…wasn’t. Hopefully it worked. If it didn’t, she was unlikely to kill anyone except herself, as long as she cast it in a suitably secluded area.
She set aside most of her free time all week to practice in the abandoned storage room, prepared to wake early and slip back out to eat breakfast before her first class started.
Her ire with Professor Pecanty flared back to life when she returned to Modern Magics on Wednesday, but she suppressed it.
Professor Burberry used a dab of hair-loss potion on the mice they had used to practice the color-changing transmogrification spell, then used another potion to help the fur regrow.
Some students’ mice grew colored fur, somehow permanently, inherently changed by the spell. Most regrew the same solid white as before. At the place where the potions had been used, Sebastien’s grew back a little splotch of white hair, which stood out starkly on its otherwise rainbow-colored pelt. She felt the uncomfortable prickling of shame as she stared at it. ‘Maybe if Professor Pecanty would actually help me understand, I could do it better,’ she snarled to herself.
Professor Burberry handed out contribution points to those who’d managed to create truly permanent change.
Ana nudged Sebastien, giving her a small smile. “Don’t be too harsh on yourself, Sebastien. I’m sure you can get it, if you try again. It’s not as if your grade will be marked down just because you didn’t manage to imbue the entire mouse with enhanced properties. You did change the color of the fur, and you did it perfectly.”
Sebastien shook her head, and Ana looked like she might keep trying to comfort her, or encourage her, or whatever she was trying to do, but then Westbay came up holding his flower-patterned rodent and distracted her. “Do you think the colors would pass down to a child if I bred it with a white mouse? Or what if we bred a red mouse and a green mouse? Do we get brown mice babies?” He reached into his pocket and fed the creature a little piece of bread roll that he’d taken from breakfast.
“I don’t know, but I wonder if brightly colored rabbits or other docile creatures might make a good gift product for children,” Ana said. “My little sister would probably love a bright pink mouse.”
Sebastien, with what she thought was incredible self-control, did not throw herself into practicing the color-change spell outside of class. Her focus remained on preparing for the reverse-scrying.
The only side project she allowed herself was making sure she had a dozen ink spells drawn on parchment and ready to go. With the fire-retardant seaweed paper, she actually didn’t have to use her blood to keep the paper from burning up along the lines of the spell array. Sebastien had realized, after all the research into divination she’d been doing, how incredibly stupid her plan had been. By removing her blood from the barrier of her skin, she had made it theoretically possible for the coppers to find it, even if they couldn’t find her.
‘How did the coppers not find me already? Do they know where I am and are just toying with me for some reason? Maybe they want me to lead them to my accomplices.’ But if that were the case, why would they have continued their attempts, over and over? She wasn’t entirely oblivious, and she’d noticed nothing suspicious, no one watching her or going through her things.
Perhaps they hadn’t found her yet, after all. If so, that might have something to do with how she kept her school supplies nearby constantly, and the divination-diverting ward had some minimal area-of-effect capabilities that affected perception around her. They had no way to find that blood without finding her, and she was very thoroughly warded. If she had left the inkwell or a paper spell with her blood far enough away that the coppers could conceivably find it instead of her…or if they had been using a spell with different divination outputs that would give them information only on the inkwell instead of broad information that included her…
Maybe they had been having the same trouble as her with scrying for anything small past the huge beacon of her body, but she didn’t know enough about how the ward worked to count on that. With most wards, whatever was behind them would be completely blocked off, and that would only make it more likely for their magic to focus on the unwarded traces of her.
In shuddering horror, she had destroyed the whole inkwell along with the small paper spell array she’d created previously, then gone through all her things casting the shedding-disintegration spell over and over, ensuring not even a drop of blood-laced ink, or hair, or anything remained.
When her racing heart had calmed, she tried to think of any other critical mistakes she might have made. She held a trembling hand to her lips, holding in a tremulous laugh. With her track record, she probably had made more than one, and just didn’t realize it.
‘The blood print vows I made, what about those? Could the coppers scry for those, even if they cannot find me?’ She had a copy of each, but so did Katerin and Liza. Liza’s would definitely be behind wards, and she was pretty sure Katerin’s would, too, but her own copies might not be safe. They were hidden with the stolen book at Dryden Manor. Of course, the spell did have restrictions against any use of the blood without one of the parties having broken their vow, but she wasn’t sure if that also acted as a ward against divination. She resolved to make sure Dryden Manor was properly warded, and if not, learn to set up small anti-divination wards herself. Luckily, that was a small amount of blood, barely a drop, and would give off a much smaller beacon than the amount she’d added to the ink or the mass of her own body.
When she had calmed enough that her hand didn’t shake, she laid down spell arrays, in ink only, on her seaweed paper. She made some of them large enough that she had to fold up the spell array to get it to fit inconspicuously within her bag, while others were small and ready to be used immediately, only requiring that she place their components for rapid casting. She’d decided on fourteen simple spells that she thought could help in a variety of emergency situations.
In the middle of the night, as if they were trying to catch her off guard, the coppers scried for her again. The prickling of cold needles in her back woke her as her ward went to work before she was even conscious.
‘The Citadel will probably be locked at this time of night, and besides, I don’t have any time to waste.’ It wasn’t as safe as her abandoned classroom, but instead she went to one of the more inconvenient bathrooms on the dorm’s second floor, where there were fewer students. She checked the stalls rapidly, then shoved a wedge of wood underneath the door from the inside to keep it from opening. She’d taken the wedge from the door of a random classroom days before, for situations specifically like this.
She had all the components for the mapped divination spell, but casting the prerequisite magic on the map, which had worn off since her earlier practice, was torturously slow and difficult, with much of her attention split toward warding off the coppers’ attention. The reverse-scry itself might have actually been easier than the setup, being more congruent in concept and intent.
She had barely finished anchoring the map and was only a couple of seconds into the reverse-scry when the five disks embedded in her back calmed, the pressure easing.
Rather than sigh in relief, Sebastien slumped forward, letting out a low groan of defeat. ‘Did they sense what I was doing? Is that why they stopped? But it was so soon! The mercury had barely even started to tremble!’
She paced for a while, her reverse-scrying spell waiting in the stall farthest from the door, some part of her hoping that the coppers would try again.
They did not.
Reluctantly accepting this, Sebastien quenched the candles, packed up the spell components, and tried her best to go back to sleep.
The coppers didn’t try again over the next couple of days, and she worried that they really had sensed her attempt to find her blood and become more wary. It was…disheartening, but she continued to practice, just in case. She didn’t have time to make real progress with the paper design, or practice any of the spells until they were second nature, so she focused on those she’d been long familiar with, or which she was practicing in Professor Burberry’s Modern Magics and her other classes. Having them ready in her satchel made her feel a little more prepared, even if they weren’t particularly powerful.
On Thursday morning, she got a little too engrossed with practice in the abandoned classroom on the second floor and forgot to stop for breakfast.
She hurried back to the dorms to put the divination components away in the chest at the foot of her bed before History of Magic. Professor Ilma always jumped into the lecture right away, and Sebastien would miss out if she was even a minute late.
In her hurry, she wasn’t paying attention to where she was walking, and ran right into Tanya, their female student liaison and Newton’s counterpart, outside the dorm as they both turned a corner.
Tanya was surprising solid, and rather than falling or stumbling, she spun around to snatch the spelled paper bird she had dropped out of the air before it could flutter feebly away. She didn’t bother to stop, simply snapping, “Watch where you’re walking, Siverling. You could put a lady’s shoulder out.”
“I’m sorry!” Sebastien called after her.
Tanya waved an uncaring hand in the air without looking back, her head bowed to read whatever message had been folded inside the spelled piece of paper.
As Sebastien grabbed the homework she’d left in her trunk and emptied her school bag of the bulky divination components, she heard the shuffle of hard leather on stone. She whipped her head around to see Westbay slouching against the entrance of her little stone cubicle, his chestnut hair perfect and his grey eyes staring out over the seemingly constant bags of fatigue under them. She wondered idly if the condition was genetic, because he slept almost nine hours every night.
She shoved the lid of her chest shut before turning to him. “What do you want, Westbay? Shouldn’t you be getting to class?” The rest of the dorm was almost completely empty, except for a few students rushing off to their first class. Considering the sprawling expanse of the University grounds, they were already likely to be late unless they ran.
He shrugged. “It’s just History of Magic. A different section than whatever class you’re in. My professor won’t even realize I’m gone. Say, have you read any more of those Aberford Thorndyke stories I lent you? I got the latest issue delivered. I can pass it on once I’m finished, if you’re up to speed on the timeline.”
Sebastien was torn between rolling or narrowing her eyes. ‘He’s not one to skip classes so nonchalantly. Is he truly that desperate for someone to talk about his little detective stories, or is he fishing? How long was he standing there?’ She reached for the curtain beside the opening to her dormitory cubicle. ‘Best to be calculated in my response, let him feel comfortable enough to give himself away.’ “Sure, but I’m not finished with the stack you gave me before, so there’s no—” Her tongue stumbled to a halt and her eyes widened for a moment before she controlled her expression.
Westbay looked at her with confusion.
“I just remembered something. Homework. Sorry, Westbay, no time to talk. You should go to class even if your professor isn’t noting your attendance. History is important.” With that rushed tumble of words, she pulled the curtain shut right in his face.
She was being scried.
As she pulled the components for the reverse-scrying spell back out again, she listened to Westbay’s footsteps retreat. With hands quickened by worry, she pulled the components for the reverse-scrying spell back out again. It seemed she might not be getting to class after all.
After checking to make sure she was alone, Sebastien carefully laid everything out on the floor of her cubicle. In a way, the timing was lucky. Many of the most time-consuming parts of the divination were in the prerequisite spells cast on the components like the drop of mercury and the map. Without being an artifact itself, the magic on the map would wear off somewhat quickly, but it was still ready to go at the moment.
As quickly as she could, she drew the spell array, then placed the candles, the map, and the dot of mercury, along with a bronze mirror she’d polished herself and a few other components that would help her augment the target of the divination. She dabbed a bit of herb smoke around and began to scry. Carefully.
It was more difficult than she’d expected. Much more. It wasn’t that she didn’t have the power, though that was part of the problem. It was her concentration. The clarity and stability of her Will, for one of the first times in recent memory, proved unable to meet her demands. ‘Maybe it’s because I am so exceptionally untalented with divination,’ she thought bitterly.
Rather than stiffening, she relaxed and controlled her breathing, routing every last drop of energy and control to her Will.
A part of her attention went toward feeding the divination-diverting ward in her back, deflecting attention and slipping away from the prying tendrils of the rival sorcerer. That part was easier, and didn’t require the same focus that reaching out through the city for a tiny missing piece of herself did. She couldn’t get too focused on the spell, or her ward would grow weak enough that they might find her, but splitting energy and concentration like this was not something that came naturally to humans.
It was like trying to play two different songs on the piano at the same time. The reverse-divination was difficult and complicated, while empowering the ward took only a couple of plinking notes, but it was still almost impossible to keep them going together. Trying to cast two actual spells at the same time would have taken the equivalent of four hands, and while she was reluctant to say that it was impossible, it would require both spells to be merged into a single, more complicated spell with multiple outputs, rather than two separate spell arrays.
The dot of spelled mercury moved over the map, and at first her insides tightened with frustration, because it was just finding her again, but then it rolled right over the spot where it usually stopped.
The mercury settled at a spot she judged to be slightly northwest of the student dorms.
She held the spell for a couple more seconds, staring at the map. Then she let the magic go, shoving everything haphazardly into her trunk, uncaring of the hot candle wax spilling onto her belongings. She didn’t bother with a locking spell. It was too different from the magic of the planar ward, and she didn’t want to risk failure.
‘My blood is at the University.’
She shook her head. ‘But the coppers have it, don’t they? I expected to find it at their station, or maybe at the prison, or even a black site where they hold important evidence. So why is it at Eagle Tower?’ She hurried from the room and out of the building, moving with purpose but without panic.
Eagle Tower was where the professors and high level students carried out their experiments, Sebastien knew.
‘It could have been here all along, if my information was wrong from the beginning, but I don’t think so. There’s a reason the pressure is so much stronger this time. Did they give my blood to the University in hopes the diviners here could do a better job? The University does have a stake in my capture, after all. The book was theirs. But would the coppers give up such a big win? It seems unlikely. They’re tenacious, as evidenced by the continued attempts to find me despite their ongoing failure.’ She walked along the winding path into the cultivated woods between the Citadel and Eagle Tower. The scrying attempt was getting stronger as it went on, and had already been going for several minutes, longer and harder than most she’d fended off before.
‘Maybe that’s it. They’ve failed to find me and this is their next move. A better spell array than whatever they have access to at Harrow Hill, stronger thaumaturges, maybe more than one casting the spell at the same time. And they’re close to me, even if they don’t realize it. That’ll make it easier. This is their sharper knife, their bigger hammer, the thing they pull out when they really need a win.’
As Eagle Tower appeared through the veil of trees, she looked up at the looming obelisk of pale stone. ‘If they’re powerful enough to find me, I have to stop them. Somehow.’
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