Chapter 71 – The Penultimate Piece


Month 1, Day 9, Saturday 9:00 a.m.

After changing back into Sebastien, she went to Oliver’s house to drop off the purchased packages for the Verdant Stag in his office. Over a hundred gold went to pay down her debt, though she kept fifteen gold for herself. ‘I’m making progress.

She put her two new potted plants in her room, turning on the light crystal lamp and placing it right beside the sempervivum apricus. They needed a lot of light to survive, and, with it being winter this far north, the illumination from the gloomy sky through the window wouldn’t be enough.

On Friday, she decided to go back to Professor Lacer, but the thought of seeing him reminded her of the auxiliary exercises, which she had been somewhat slacking off on. During the free period where her second class of the day would have been, she slipped into the classroom used by Damien and his little study group, which was empty. She secretly stole some of Damien’s coffee, then spent the whole period practicing a simple spell that compressed air into a ball. It seemed to augment the rock-creation and disintegration spell that Professor Lacer had introduced in class, but she found the extra control she gained from it was particularly useful for improving the range and size of her fabric-slicing spell, which used an edge of compressed air.

That evening, she took time to review and clean up the sleep-proxy spell she’d been working on for the last few weeks. It was the most complex spell array for anything she’d ever considered casting, largely because she had tried to make the Word as comprehensive as humanly possible, including the equivalent of pages of detailed instructions in tiny script which spiraled around a long section of the edge.

On Saturday morning, she rolled up the extra-large sheet of paper she’d written the spell array on and put it into her satchel, anxiety turning her stomach sour.

Professor Lacer had told her to bring it to him when she’d finished improving it. Showing what could easily be construed as evidence of intent to cast blood magic to a professor sounded like an absolutely idiotic idea. But since he already knew she was working on it, hadn’t expelled her, and instead actually helped her with it, it’s not like this second review would place her in any additional danger.

From what she’d seen of Professor Lacer so far, it seemed more likely he would expel her for trying to cast it without a final review by an expert than for the spell itself.

His only office hours that didn’t immediately follow one of his teaching periods were early in the morning on Saturday. Sebastien suspected this was meant to deter those without a true reason to see him, since most students would be sleeping in, and those who weren’t might prefer breakfast to his oppressive demeanor and scathing tongue.

She knocked on his door.

It opened, seemingly on its own. Professor Lacer was sitting behind the desk with a mug of steaming black coffee. He motioned her in, closing the door behind her with a nonchalant wave of his hand, within which he held a small beast core for energy.

Without preamble, she took the rolled-up paper out of her bag and handed it to him.

He took it with a slightly raised eyebrow and laid it flat across his desk. “This is quick work,” he murmured, his eyes flicking over the spell array as he sipped his coffee.

It’s easy to work on it when I can’t sleep,’ she thought.

He waved absently for her to sit down.

About ten silent minutes later, he looked up. “Passable, for a first term student. At least you’ve done your research. It should not immediately blow up, with the right Will.”

Sebastien let out a soft breath, deflating slightly. She swallowed. “On an unrelated note, I’d like to use one of the school’s Henrik-Thompson artifacts to test my capacity. Would you be willing to facilitate that?”

His eyebrow raised again, and he stared at her for a moment.

She stared back, sitting stiffly.

He stood abruptly, and she almost startled. Downing the rest of his coffee, he rolled up her spell notes and handed them back to her. “Come,” he said, motioning with his wrist. “Do you know how to calculate thaumic requirements?”

She hurried to follow him. “I understand the theory. We’ve done a little practice in Burberry’s Intro to Magic and in Natural Science, but the calculations are beyond me for this spell.”

“Hmm,” he said inscrutably. He led her down a couple of curved hallways to a door near Burberry’s classroom. It was a storage closet. He pulled a Henrik-Thompson testing artifact off one of the shelves, placing it on the floor in the middle of the room. He looked around and then pulled a small brazier off another shelf, lighting it with a snap of his fingers. “Well, go ahead. I will take the measurement reading,” he said.

Her star sapphire Conduit was still tucked uncomfortably inside the lip of her boot, pressing against her calf, but the one he’d given her was in an easily accessible pocket, secured from loss by the chain threaded through her vest and attached to her pocket watch.

He eyed it with satisfaction, nodding slightly.

She sat down on the floor cross-legged, focusing her Will to prepare for a hard push.

With a wave of his hand, Professor Lacer created a sucking motion in the air behind her, pulling the door closed on the two of them.

For a moment, she felt trapped in this small, dark room with a powerful, dangerous man standing over her. Then she reminded herself how ridiculous she was being and began to pull energy from the brazier, pushing it into the spell array attached to the crystal ball of the artifact.

She bore down with her Will, tightening her grip on the magic, commanding the power to flow, more and more, until the storage closet filled with light.

She felt the strain as she reached the edge of her capacity. She breathed into the stretch, holding tighter and pushing farther, just a little farther.

Finally, she reached the point where she could go no further without snapping. She held the magic for a second, then two, and then released it slowly, making sure it didn’t burn her like a rope slipping too fast through her fingers.

She rolled her shoulders and her jaw. Something inside her mind felt stretched, but not strained. Loose and relaxed.

“Three hundred fifteen thaums,” Professor Lacer announced, giving her a sidelong glance.

It was more than she’d hoped. It meant maybe she could try to cast the spell soon, rather than waiting weeks or months to become strong enough.

“How many hours a week do you spend casting?”

Sebastien stood, dusting off her backside. “I don’t keep track. I just practice till I’m too tired to go on.”

He stared at her for a moment, then quenched the flames in the brazier and returned the items to the shelves they’d come from. “Your Will is not as abysmal as I feared, but it will not be nearly enough to cast that spell. Even with the variable casting times you have built into the process, you would need at least five hundred thaums of enduring capacity to finish the casting in less than four or five hours. Perhaps six or even seven hundred. The final step would take you perhaps three hours, at that strength. I did not calculate it precisely.”

Sebastien’s stomach dropped somewhere down around her feet. Or at least it felt like it. Enduring capacity wasn’t the same as maximum capacity. She could hold about two-thirds of her maximum for long periods, and even then, casting at the edge of her limit for three hours in a single stretch would be quite a feat. She needed to gain another two or three hundred thaums before being able to cast the spell. If she had been practicing magic for a few thousand more hours, gaining a few hundred thaums would be much quicker. But for someone at her strength, it would take her another thousand hours of practice or so, at the very least.

She slumped.

Professor Lacer eyed her for a while longer, then spoke as if he didn’t notice her discouragement. “New spells must be tested before being cast on anything, or anyone, of importance. I am sure you have heard the somewhat famous example of Master Susva, who perished while testing new healing spells on himself.”

“Yes,” she said. “He damaged his body’s ability to create more blood and died several weeks later. He didn’t understand the theory behind what he was doing well enough, which is a common danger for spell-creators. Running a diagnostic spell on a test subject like a mouse might have saved his life.”

“Come with me,” he said. He led her back to his office, where he scribbled something on a paper card.

She moved to the fire in the corner, took out the rolled-up paper with the evidence of her sleep-proxy spell, and fed it into the low flames, making sure no little bits escaped. She told herself it wasn’t out of spite, but caution. She’d already done the same to the rest of the notes she’d taken. The only parts that remained outside her mind were in her grimoire, and that was warded against intrusion.

Professor Lacer noted her actions with an inscrutable look as he handed her the card. “This book should be in the library. It explains how to run a proper experiment and interpret the data. Professor Gnorrish is competent enough, but he will not be running his first term students through this type of rigorous analyses.” He paused, then said, “Your improvement might be quicker than you think. If you look in the more advanced research texts on the subject, you will find that not everyone advances at exactly the same rate. You have talent, Mr. Siverling. That will only become more and more apparent over time, and with dedication.”

Is he trying to cheer me up?’ she wondered. Normally, hearing Thaddeus Lacer admit that she had talent would have made her ecstatic. Even now, it was…pretty awesome. “Thank you,” she said. “Is there any way to increase channeling capacity more quickly? Special exercises, or a spell…?”

“Many thaumaturges throughout history have asked that same question. If I were to give advice, I would tell you to continue doing whatever you have been doing.”

Somewhat disappointed, she moved to tuck the card into her pocket, but caught a glimpse of writing on the back and flipped it over. It was a ticket for one contribution point. She looked up to him with wide eyes.

His lips twitched in a flicker-fast hint of amusement. “One point, for curiosity, and the good sense not to let it turn into foolishness. Learning how to thread the needle between greatness and recklessness is of the utmost importance. Complacency will lead you only to mediocrity, but recklessness in search of greatness can provoke horrors you have never imagined.”

She tucked the card away in her vest pocket, trying not to grin. “I will not be reckless,” she promised. “I understand the danger.”

“Do you?” He seemed skeptical, but waved a hand at her before she could answer. “Off you go now. I expect this little extracurricular project will not affect your performance in next week’s mid-terms.”

“Of course not,” she said, remembering her shameful performance on the entrance exam. “I won’t let people question your decision to have such a mediocre student admitted.”

His eyebrow quirked up again, and this time his smile was a bit slower. “See that you don’t,” he said without looking at her, focused on a half-read sheaf of papers on his desk.

Sebastien shut the door to his office behind her, her emotions a mix of buoyant light and sinking dark. ‘An extra two hundred thaums, minimum. That could take me until I’ve finished my third term and gotten my official Apprentice certification. It’s great that the spell is tenable, and it’s even better that Professor Lacer seems to have acknowledged me, but it doesn’t solve my problem. Is there any way to reduce the spell’s power requirement without lowering its efficacy?’ Thinking of spending the next year or more in her current situation made her eyes burn with stymied rage.

I have to find a way. Not recklessly. It may not be worth my life, but it’s worth a lot. How can I cast a spell that I can’t cast?

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