Chapter 63 – Theoretical Exercises


Month 12, Day 23, Wednesday 10:45 a.m.

The first half of Sebastien’s school week passed rather uneventfully. There had been no more scrying attempts, and she couldn’t help but hope that the coppers might be waiting for Eagle Tower to be repaired. If she were exceedingly lucky, and she barely dared to wish for it in case of disappointment, her blood could have been lost or destroyed in the explosions, leaving them completely without recourse—and her safe.

In any case, I cannot do a reverse scry to retrieve or destroy it unless they resume attempts. So other than Oliver’s tendrils looking into how one might steal or destroy warded evidence, I’d be best-served focusing my attention on something I can actually control.

Without any progress to be made regarding the scrying attacks, she’d returned to her previous mission: solving the problem that was her lack of time and energy.

In Natural Science on Monday, Professor Gnorrish had no experiment waiting for them. Instead, the blackboards at the front of the room were covered with chalk diagrams and charts.

“Some of you may question why we spend so much time and effort on the Natural Sciences, trying to increase our understanding of the world, when there is nothing transmutation can do that transmogrification cannot. Others have wondered the same, and I believe the results of their experiments speak for themselves. To those of you who mutter among yourselves that this class is useless, who wonder why you should learn these things when they have no real utility, who have no desire to discover all the irrelevant details about how things truly work…” He turned to the blackboards. “The Natural Sciences have value beyond themselves.”

Sebastien was already beginning to decipher the significance of the data behind him, extrapolating meaning from the labels.

“We will go through the studies that prove this today,” Professor Gnorrish said. “In our first example, researchers took a baseline sample of subjects casting the color change spell. As I understand, you all have recently practiced this same spell in your Introduction to Modern Magics class, so you should be familiar with it. Researchers quantified the efficiency of casting, the area affected, and the resistance of the new color to change.” He pointed to one set of data on the graph behind him.

“Then, they had the subjects cast an analogous color-changing spell using dye and their understanding of light. Transmutation instead of transmogrification. They measured the same metrics as before.” He pointed to a second set of data. The performance was noticeably poorer than the previous attempt.

“When they had a proper baseline for both transmutation and transmogrification, the researchers put the test subjects through an intensive course on color and light theory. They then had the subjects cast the transmutation spell again. As you might guess, they improved dramatically.”

Sebastien’s heartbeat was like slow thunder rolling through her body. Her sense of time slowed as she realized what was coming next and started to extrapolate what it meant for her.

“Then, they cast the spell a fourth time, this time using the principles of transmogrification. This was not an increase in sheer power. It was an increase in skill. As you can see, learning to understand what they were trying to achieve, even when casting a transmogrification spell, created a marked increase in every single metric.” He pointed to the final set of data on the board. “This ranged from a five percent overall improvement to, in the most strikingly affected subject, twenty-three percent.”

Professor Gnorrish was uncharacteristically somber, staring out at them. “If there are things which our greatest arts and all our power cannot achieve, we must study the underlying principles until we have revealed that which was once a black box of unknowable phenomena. Only then will we surpass the previous limits of our species.”

This is what I need,” Sebastien thought. ‘It’s what I’ve been missing.

Professor Gnorrish spent most of the class going over similar studies, and as excited as Sebastien was by the topic, she had trouble focusing on the lecture past her own racing thoughts. ‘I need to learn more about the human brain, and what exactly happens to it when we sleep.

As soon as the bell rang to announce the lunch period, she went straight to the library and pulled all the books she could find on the subject. A quick skim showed which ones would be useful and which were completely beyond her current standard of comprehension. She checked out a full dozen, and had to take most of them back to the dorms because it was too much to carry through the rest of her day.

Practical Casting ended the school day with another fascinating lecture from Professor Lacer about mental exercises they could perform before casting that would improve the clarity of their Will. She had already been doing much of it, but Lacer seemed to have a deeper and richer understanding of, well, everything than she did.

Afterward, Damien and Sebastien met Newton near the eastern edge of the Menagerie, surrounded by trees and plants that would shield them from curious eyes.

It was time to pay Newton for a week of work, something Sebastien was all too conscious of. It wasn’t that she begrudged him the payment. No, he had obviously taken the task seriously. He gave them an extensive written log of Tanya’s actions accompanied by a quick verbal report of the highlights, every other day. He deserved to be rewarded for his diligence. It was just that she wished the payment didn’t have to come from her own pocket, even if the funds had been provided by Oliver. Once the coins were in her hands, she felt pained parting with them.

“She went to her dueling club yesterday,” Newton reported, “and I couldn’t follow her there. I’ve listed some of the other students that are also in the club who she seems friendly with. And I learned that she’s looking to change her student aide department next term. Rather than working with incoming students, she’s interested in a move to the History department. Which is reasonable, because it’s less work, but it’s unusual to change departments between the winter and summer terms.”

“Good work,” Sebastien said, slipping Newton his payment.

Newton tucked the coins away with a satisfied smile. “I’m off to catch her at the library. I’ve got a student to tutor, but she’ll be around too.”

As Sebastien and Damien headed for the Citadel, Damien said, “You remember my friend, Rhett Moncrieffe? He’s a member of the dueling club. He’s practically obsessed. Perhaps I can sit in on one of the sessions, and if that bears any fruit, either we bring in another informant or one of us joins the club?”

Although Sebastien was frustrated by the idea of adding one more thing to her plate, she agreed. “Let’s keep an eye out for anything interesting in the History department too. What’s the specific post she’s angling for? Would she gain access to any otherwise restricted magic or sections of the University? Is there anyone helping her to get the job?”

“This would be easier if either of us was a little less conspicuous,” Damien said. “It’s too likely that otherwise unremarkable snooping or questioning will become the topic of gossip with one of us involved.”

He’s not wrong,’ Sebastien admitted.

Setting aside the frustration threatening to dampen her mood, she stopped by the dorms to pick up some of the reference books she’d dropped off earlier and made her way back to the library.

She waited till no one seemed to be looking, then used her illicit pass to the low-security restricted section to slip through the locked door. Her pass was only good for one of the many rooms in the underground levels below, and she had to be careful not to get lost finding it.

After Damien had noticed her coming out of the Citadel’s second floor, she’d wanted a more private place to do anything truly questionable. She couldn’t take any restricted texts out of the library, anyway, which made the restricted archive the perfect place to lurk out of sight.

The aroma of old paper, parchment, and leather counterbalanced the scent of dust, with the faintest hint of dampness kept carefully controlled for the sake of the books. She breathed it in deep, then exhaled into the solitude, smiling a little to herself.

Her shoulders, which she hadn’t even realized were tight with strain, slumped with relief even as she did the same into an old wooden chair at the corner of the room. After a few moments of stillness, she got up and retrieved a half-dozen more books from the shelves without even needing to read the titles.

The light crystal near the door wasn’t bright enough, so she took out her bottle of moonlight sizzle from her satchel, gave it a good shake, and set it on the table.

Her new sapphire Conduit was pressed into the lip of her boot, which was slightly uncomfortable due to its size, but the best place she currently had for it. ‘Perhaps some sort of leather holster that I could hide under my clothes,’ she considered. ‘That would keep it against the abdomen, or maybe the small of my back.’ All that was needed to use a Conduit was skin contact, but holding it in the hand always made channeling easier, so she didn’t want to make it entirely inaccessible.

Having a sufficiently potent Conduit and a suitable backup meant one less problem, but left her with a baker’s dozen remaining.

She was as exhausted as ever, and as much as she didn’t want to admit it, felt herself straining and fraying at the edges under the stress, the school workload, Professor Lacer’s extra exercises, and her lack of sleep.

Her identity as Siobhan Naught was still wanted by the coppers for theft and blood magic.

She was destitute when compared to the heightened expenses of living in Gilbratha, and on top of that, including the exorbitant interest, owed over a thousand gold crowns to a criminal organization—a criminal organization that required her to perform undetermined favors to pay them back. The same criminal organization that technically owned thirty percent of her beloved black star sapphire.

She had a priceless, stolen, encrypted book that she hadn’t made the first bit of progress decrypting.

Her father was in jail and, at some point, would likely be sent to work in the prison mines.

She still had nothing concrete on Tanya.

And Professor Lacer, probably the smartest, most sheerly capable thaumaturge in Gilbratha, seemed to think she was a reckless imbecile. And she couldn’t refute him, even in her own mind. Which was almost the worst of it.

If I could get rid of the need to sleep, or even reduce it to a few hours a night, I’d regain all those lost hours. The creature that takes over my need to sleep will need to take over the healing and processing for me too.’ She needed to learn as much as possible about how the brain worked and sleep’s effect on both it and the body. If she could amass a huge wealth of knowledge, even if it wouldn’t directly fix her problem, it might be enough to let her cast a spell to fix the problem with transmogrification. ‘I suspect I’ll still need some downtime every night, whether that’s true sleep or simply a forced rest to allow my mind to recover, and every few days I’ll need to let the spell drop entirely. It’ll have to be in artifact form, since having to hold an active spell twenty-four hours a day somewhat defeats the purpose…

She was engrossed in her thoughts, scribbling away under the slowly fading light of the potion bottle, when the door on the far side of the room—the other door into the room, the one that never opened—opened.

She didn’t jump or jerk. She froze.

She parsed the shape of Professor Lacer’s knee-length, dark jacket out of the corner of her eye. When she turned slowly to look at him, he was already staring at her.

She didn’t try to cover up what she was working on, hoping that a lack of guilt would keep him from feeling suspicious. She could have gotten a pass to a minor restricted section from any of the Professors. She might have every right to be there.

Lacer seemed to dismiss her, walking through the bookshelves until he found whatever it was that had brought him to the room. But instead of leaving with it, he stopped in front of the table she was sitting at. His presence was like an unstable tower blocking out the sun, impossible to ignore, giving the person below the faint sense that it might come crashing down atop them at any moment.

“Don’t be rude, Siverling,” he said, motioning to the tabletop, which was mostly covered in open reference texts and pieces of paper. “Clear some room.”

She raised her gaze to meet his, not sure whether to be terrified or relieved by the sardonic quirk of his eyebrow. She scrambled to clean up the area in front of him.

He sat, placing a book on the table. He picked up her blue potion bottle, shook it to make the light brighter again, and began to read.

Sebastien stared at him for a bit, but he ignored her, turning the pages of his book just barely too fast, enough to make her wonder if he was actually reading.

Feeling awkward, she returned her gaze to her own work, and after a couple minutes of discomfort that only she seemed to feel, she decided she was being ridiculous. ‘If he’s about to get me in trouble, sitting here like a scared rabbit won’t stop him.’ She picked up her pen and took a note about the different chemicals the brain replenished during sleep, copied from the book in front of her.

Almost half an hour had passed in silence like this, and while she still thought the whole thing was strange, she’d lost her anxiety and was engrossed in study.

That was when he finally chose to speak. “How are you enjoying your classes?”

She looked up at him, but he was still staring at his book, which he was already halfway through. “I love them,” she said.

“Really? All of them?” His tone was inscrutable, but if she had to guess, she would say he was skeptical.

“Well, Pecanty is a bit…”

Professor Lacer looked up to meet her gaze.

“Stodgy. Set in his ways. Damien called him ‘uncurious,’” she said.

“Uncurious,” he repeated. “Do you agree?”

“He discourages unorthodox questions and associative thinking,” she said, her lip curling up into a sneer. “He’s a pompous academic more concerned with looking like an intellectual than exploring the depths of the field in which he is—supposedly—an expert.”

“Are you sure?”

She didn’t look away. “Yes. I’ve tried to ask questions and start discussions several times, only to be condescended to as if I am some daydreaming child too immature to realize that original thought is so naive.”

Lacer nodded. “Pecanty is an idiot. He was hit by an experimental curse when he was younger. It turned his brains into taffy. He was saved, but he’s always been a bit off since then. It seems that having new thoughts is difficult for him.”

Sebastien couldn’t tell if Professor Lacer was joking.

His eyes were wryly amused, but his voice was serious. “But you are not incurious, it seems?” he asked, looking pointedly to the books and notes in front of her. “I hardly think this could be work for any first-term class. Independent project?”

She ran her tongue across the back of her teeth. “Theoretical exercise. I’m very curious.” She tried to give her tone the same ambiguity that his had, deadpan and yet not seeming as if she expected him to take her words at face value. Her heart was beating a little harder as she waited for him to react.

“I’ll take a look,” he said, holding out an expectant hand. “I am very good at theoretical exercises. Maybe I can help.”

Slowly, she gathered up the loose papers she’d accumulated over the last few days of study and handed the stack to him.

He read through it almost as quickly as he’d read the book, his eyes flicking over her notes, questions and sloppy spell diagrams. “It is a binding spell at heart,” he murmured. “Not a vow, but an ongoing exchange?” He read for a while longer, then set down the stack. “Getting rid of the need to sleep? A little clumsy, but an intriguing idea. At least it is not some continuous stimulant spell. That would have killed you. Hypothetically.”

“And this?”

“It will have an inherent loss of efficiency over time, but as long as you only run it sporadically, the idea has merit. I would tell the average first-term student off for being an insufferable dimwit if they told me they were preparing to cast this. You need more than power for this. It will require finesse. I see the spell is broken into multiple steps, and you’ve noted extended casting times for a stronger buildup of power, which is smart. I should almost think you have experience casting similar spells.”

She kept her face impassive. She’d modeled parts of this spell, including elements of the structure and the “connection” glyph, from what she could remember of the Lino-Wharton messenger spell.

Perhaps it wasn’t a subtle dig, because he continued with barely a pause. “Still, I would warn any student at your level against attempting this spell. The thaum requirement would be rather high.” He stared at her pointedly, a reminder that he thought her a reckless dimwit. “Especially if they had no practice casting spells of a similar nature, either by the whole, or by similar component factors. The magic would be wild with its newness, its lack of history. The study you are doing there”—he nodded to the biology book in her hand—“would be useful, but insufficient without power.”

I’ll need to practice binding and healing spells, then. And get my Will capacity tested again.’ “I understand,” she said aloud.

He seemed skeptical, but returned his attention to the papers, continuing his dissection. “However, it’s obvious you don’t have any true foundation in spell theory. Your base symbol is the pentagram, which might be the most common for more powerful transmogrification spells, but for applications like this it is not the perfect channel by itself. I would suggest incorporating a hexagram for its connection to wisdom, intelligence, and the transfer of aid.”

She leaned forward, grabbing her pen to make a note. “That makes sense. But why not an octagram? This is an exchange spell. Wouldn’t the octagram’s association with balance be more useful?”

“In truth, several of the symbols are associated with balance. The octagon and octagram, specifically, are more suited toward stable systems. The balance between creation and exchange. While the octagon might be useful in creating something like a miniature ecosystem spell with little loss, the octagram is associated with true balance between creation and destruction. Justice. What people from the East might call karma. This is not a true equivalent exchange.”

He gave her a pointed look, and she nodded in concession.

“And because you agree with that statement, something might go wrong if an inexperienced spellcaster like yourself tried to cast with an octagram. Doubly so if you felt any guilt about what you were doing to the other party.”

She felt the urge to shift in her seat, suddenly uncomfortable, but there was no accusation in his tone.

“However, the clumsiest part of this is your use of glyphs. The Word is crude, obviously cobbled-together by someone with a limited pool of experience. There are better choices to describe this spell, by far.” He pulled over one of her papers and motioned impatiently for the pen, then scribbled a quick series of glyphs and their connotative translations.

Sebastien stared greedily at the alternative piece of the Word he’d just provided. “Forceful-given-transfer-gift, sleep and dreams. Forceful-taken-transfer-gift of harmony, rest and healing.” A couple of the glyphs were foreign to her, and he’d arranged them in a different order. It was the core of the spell, really. She would write the entire process and instructions out longhand as well, for stability, but the glyphs channeled and molded magic in a way that letters and words didn’t. With a simple scribble, Professor Lacer had just greatly decreased her chances of losing control of the spell. “Thank you,” she said simply.

“Come to me again when you have made further progress with the spell design. I will check it over for you. And…I hope I do not need to make this statement aloud, but your common sense has not impressed me nearly as much as your Will. A spell like this, even if cast between two perfectly consenting parties for the purpose of research, could be classified as blood magic.” His eyes were lit from beneath by the bottle of moonlight sizzle, giving his gaze an eerie quality. “The world is not kind toward…curiosity in this direction.”

She stared back at him silently for the space of a few breaths. She realized that the electrical charge in the air was a silent compact between her and Thaddeus Lacer, youngest free-caster in a century, one of the most powerful casters in the country, and likely also the most interesting. The man about whom she’d searched out any stories or news articles she could find since she was a child…approved of her efforts. He was helping her, and warning her to keep it between the two of them—to keep it from those who might not understand.

She felt impossibly, entirely awake as she silently acknowledged his warning.

He stood abruptly. “Wait here.” He walked away, exiting through the door she’d come in. He returned a few minutes later with one of the thickest books she’d ever seen. He placed it with a thud on the table before her.

A Comprehensive Compendium of Components, the cover read in gold-embossed leather. She opened the book to a random spot, flipping carefully through a few pages. The illustrations were painstaking, with the occasional gleam of precious metals or powdered gem, the letters looping and ornate. Each page had concise but detailed information on a component: different stages of growth, best conditions to harvest them for varied effects, and the various spells they were commonly—and uncommonly—used in. Many of the components were familiar, but even more were not.

She stopped on a particularly gruesome page. Harpy intestines were definitely not on the list of approved spell components. Particularly not when used in a ritual while the harpy was still alive. While not considered human by the Crown-approved definition, they were close enough that many components from their body parts were illegal. ‘That’s why this book is restricted. It truly is comprehensive.

“You should be able to find the proper components and Sacrifice within,” Lacer said.

“My pass doesn’t allow me to check any restricted books out, and there’s no way for me to put this back wherever you took it from,” she admitted.

He picked up the book, and, unsmiling, turned to the nearest bookshelf. He leaned down and inserted it between two other books on the lowest rung. “The library has no wards or alarms against misshelved books. A dreadful oversight. Sometimes books even get…lost.”

“Yes,” she said, tilting her head to the side consideringly. “Quite dreadful. Dangerous, even, for the impressionable minds of young students.”

For the first time she’d seen, Professor Lacer actually smiled, a smirk stretching across his face. It disappeared almost as quickly as it had come. “Remember to submit your efforts to me for oversight when you are ready,” he said. Without waiting for a response, he took the book he’d originally come to the room for and walked out through the same door he’d entered through, disappearing somewhere into the network of underground rooms.

Sebastien sat staring at the closed door, with all the resources she needed to design the spell that would do away with her need to sleep now at her disposal. That was fantastic.

But she was almost more thrilled to have somehow gained Professor Lacer’s approval.

As promised, since the regular Thursday chapter was so short, this is the second chapter this week. Hope you enjoyed!

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