Month 1, Day 11, Monday 2:15 p.m.
Sebastien had wanted to have the sleep-proxy spell ready before the mid-terms, to help her perform better on the test, but after realizing all the work that was left to be done, she dropped that idea.
Sebastien spent most of her weekend the same as the one before. Brewing, resting, and then brewing some more, till her brain was foggy and her stomach screamed for calories to fill the void inside her. She had wanted to try some of the other potions that the Verdant Stag enforcers might find useful in a fight, like the liquid stone potion, or the bark skin potion, but there was no time, and with her limited resources she was trying to prioritize what she knew would be the most useful.
The absolutely wonderful thing was that after putting most of what she’d gained from selling off her old Conduits toward her debt, she was accruing slightly less interest every day, and also putting any new repayment directly toward the principle balance.
Monday dawned with a tangible air of panic. It was the week of the mid-terms, which would be held Wednesday through Friday in lieu of the normal class schedule, and a good portion of the students seemed to be surprised to realize they only had two days left to prepare.
Sebastien reviewed the notes she’d taken since the beginning of the term and took the time to look up the things she felt vague on, but didn’t bother to panic. She’d been diligent throughout the term so far, and at this point there was little that a couple more days of frantic cramming could do.
Professor Lacer started the mini-tournament in his class that day. Normal classes would be canceled from Wednesday through the end of the week, so they were getting a head start since completing the tournament would take longer than the extended period they had been assigned for the mid-term on Friday.
The students arrived to see that the classroom had been rearranged from its normal setup. Six desks had been moved to the lecture stage at the front of the room, with a large area cleared around them. A chair sat on either side of each desk, and an empty glass wheel with an iron sphere inside sat atop it.
The tournament brackets were written on the blackboard at the front of the room. There were three sections, grouping people who had started the class under one hundred thaums, between one hundred and two hundred thaums, and then everything above that.
The students crowded closer to the blackboard to see who they would be paired up against for the initial match, chattering excitedly amongst themselves.
Professor Lacer had been sitting at his desk when they came in, reading through a bound sheaf of papers. When the bell rang, he stood up. That simple movement was enough to quiet the entire classroom. “Our class’s miniature tournament starts today. We’ll use this time to go through elimination rounds, narrowing down the number of matches we need to get through on Friday. A single loss will see you disqualified to move on. If any match lasts longer than twenty minutes, both sides will be disqualified. I’ve requisitioned a couple student aides to keep track of wins and losses and keep things going smoothly, but I’ll personally be giving each of you your mid-term score.” He gestured to the two student aides, who waved to the room.
“What are we being graded on?” a student asked.
“Your Will,” Lacer said simply. “To be clear…your performance today is a chance to either confirm the assessment I’ve made of each of you throughout the term so far…or surprise me. I have made a reasonable estimation of both your dedication and your skill. Your grade will depend on the effort you have put into improving during the entire term so far as well as your ability to demonstrate your grasp of the various aspects of a powerful Will. I will be noting your capacity, your efficiency, your force, and your soundness. If you do surprise me, hope for your own sake that it is positively—a show of extra capability under pressure, rather than a disappointment.”
He moved to the front of the room and walked slowly pas them, watching them critically in a way that reminded Sebastien of Fekten. “In case any of you have forgotten, this class is called Practical Will-based Casting. There will be no theoretical or written portion to this exam. What matters is your ability to perform in a real-life situation with real stakes. Remember, the winners in each bracket will get contribution points in addition to a grade. Let’s get started. Six matches at a time, from the top.” He waved his hand impatiently and the first twelve students scrambled to find their partners and arrange themselves under his impatient stare.
“The desks have been marked with a direction, clockwise or counter-clockwise. If the sphere moves in your direction for more than three consecutive seconds, you have won,” he said.
When the first twelve contestants were seated, the spell arrays were written, and the student aides had their pocket watches, clipboards, and pens ready, Professor Lacer nodded sharply. “Begin.” He watched intently as the students obeyed.
Damien, Ana, and Sebastien stood to the side watching. Sebastien was in the third bracket. She looked around, but even a perusal of the stronger students in the class didn’t lead to an epiphany about the identity of her partner. She leaned closer to Damien, murmuring, “Do you know who S. Vanderville is?”
“Simon Vanderville,” Damien murmured back, not taking his eyes off the contestants. Less than a minute in, half of the matches had already been decided, with one side being unable to keep their opponent from moving the sphere against them for three consecutive seconds.
“Okay. But who is that?” she asked. “Can you point him out?”
Damien’s eyebrows rose, but when he looked at her sincere expression, he sighed and rolled his eyes in amusement. “I forgot. You erase ‘unimportant things’ like peoples’ names from your memory.” He jerked his chin toward a familiar looking man. “That’s Simon. You’ve actually partnered with him several times, Sebastien.”
Vanderville noticed her looking and gave her a solemn nod.
“He doesn’t stand a chance against you,” Ana said, giving Vanderville a sweet smile that contrasted her words.
Vanderville blushed and looked away.
Damien snorted. “Of course he doesn’t. Sebastien couldn’t even remember his name. He’s going to crush Vanderville like an ant.”
From her vague memories of practicing against him, Sebastien thought that was probably true. “Well, I’ll try not to be too ruthless about it. I want to make sure Professor Lacer has enough time to judge both of us thoroughly. If I just win in the first three seconds, that wouldn’t be fair to Vanderville.”
Damien stared at her for a second, his eyes narrowed. “Do you think you could? Win in the first three seconds, that is?”
Sebastien ran her tongue across the back of her teeth for a few seconds of contemplation. “I think so. If for no other reason than that it would probably take him off guard.”
Damien nodded, rubbing his fingers together thoughtfully. He turned to Ana. “What would you say the odds on that are?”
“At least three to one,” Ana replied immediately.
Damien turned back to Sebastien. “Do it. Don’t go easy on him.” With his fingers digging through his pockets, Damien turned away and began to weave through the crowd, murmuring something to the people he passed, occasionally pointing out Sebastien and his upcoming opponent to them.
Sebastien frowned after hm, then turned to Ana expectantly. “Is he taking bets?”
Ana smiled serenely. “As children, we used to do it frequently to get extra coin for spending, until all our friends refused to wager with us any more. He’s always enjoyed that look of surprise and dismay on people’s faces when he’s proven right.”
“Smug little shit,” Sebastien muttered.
Ana elbowed her in the side, not hard enough to really hurt.
Sebastien laughed. When Damien looked her way, Sebastien mouthed “Fifty-fifty,” to him.
With an expression of reluctance, he nodded and continued working the crowd.
“Wait. Should I be looking worried right now?” she said. “If I look too confident, they might not want to bet against me.” Ennis had loved to gamble, often to their detriment, but he’d also been a schemer that did whatever possible to tip the odds in his favor. Sometimes that worked out, and sometimes it got them into even more trouble.
Ana sighed deeply and walked away to chat with another group of students. At first, Sebastien thought she’d irritated the other girl, until she heard her say, “I know Sebastien probably doesn’t have a chance against Vanderville, but he’s my friend, so I’m still going to bet on him. What do you think? I heard Vanderville’s a third term student, on track to be a student liaison next term. Sebastien’s been practicing, but… He was up studying all night. He must be exhausted. Am I going to lose my coin?”
Some of the group members immediately agreed, with some variation of amusement and excitement, that she was going to lose her bet, and briefly consoled her before going to place their own wager with Damien.
Sebastien concealed her smile, doing her best to look both exhausted and secretly apprehensive.
The first set of matches took less than five minutes, on average, with each desk being vacated and filled again under the direction of the student liaisons as soon as a winner was declared.
Professor Lacer, leaning against his desk and observing, never moved from his spot or dropped his concentration, though his lips moved frequently as if he were muttering, and his pen scribbled notes as if controlled by an invisible hand.
After a few rounds of matches in the first bracket, Sebastien realized she was wasting precious time and not gaining much from watching, so she took out a book and moved to the edge of the room to read.
She became engrossed, and was surprised when one of the student aides approached her with irritation. “Siverling? It’s your turn.”
Sebastien hurriedly tucked the book back in her satchel and walked through the crowd to take a seat across from Vanderville at the desk. She drew her own preferred glyphs onto the Circle and began bringing her Will to bear.
She didn’t start channeling any of the power from the three small tea candles prepared for her. She was just preparing, coiling up like a snake about to strike.
As soon as the student aide said the word, “Start,” Sebastien unleashed all the tension she’d been gathering. She sucked at the candles, riding the edge between extinguishing them and drawing as much power from their heat as possible. Her Will bore down like a clenching fist, squeezing as much utility out of the power as she could.
The sphere spun around the wheel so quickly it turned into a blur.
Three seconds later, the student aide said, “Winner, Siverling!”
Vanderville stared at the ball as it slowly lost momentum. He looked up to Sebastien, then down to the ball.
He looked like a puppy that had just been struck by lightning and didn’t understand what had just happened.
Sebastien felt a little bad for him. “Better luck next time.” She stood and met Professor Lacer’s gaze for a moment, but his expression didn’t give anything away.
Damien jumped up and down from excitement, shaking Ana’s arm. “Did you see that!?” he exclaimed.
There were quite a few looks of shock and dismay among the other students, likely those who had bet against Sebastien.
Sebastien gave Damien a small smirk as she passed, the crowd parting for her as she returned to the edge of the room and took out her book again.
Damien spent the remainder of the class period extracting coin from the people who owed him.
When the bell rang to signify the end of the period, the class had finished all the initial elimination rounds and a handful of the second-level matches, too.
As they made their way back to the dorms, Damien counted the money and handed Sebastien her cut.
She grinned, infected by his enthusiasm. She’d just made nine silver from a little bit of showing off. University students were much too rich. “That won’t keep working over and over,” she warned.
“Oh, don’t be such a downer, Sebastien,” Damien said. “What do you say we go down into the city tonight and get a real meal with our winnings? I can’t stand another night of the cafeteria slop while watching upper term students eat lobster and pheasant. It’ll be fun! And we need the energy for the upcoming tests. Come on! We can get the whole gang together.”
Sebastien frowned reluctantly. Any restaurant Damien picked was sure to be expensive, and as much as she wanted a good, filling meal, she also had the weight of her debt to the Verdant Stag hanging over her, and her need to prepare for not only the mid-terms, but her upcoming job as an assistant healer.
“Come on,” Damien wheedled. “You can make fun of Alec as much as you want. Doesn’t that sound refreshing?”
Ana let out a snort of amusement. “Damien’s right. You need to take breaks to perform at your maximum potential, Sebastien. I know a nice restaurant with great musicians, not too ostentatious. The Glasshopper has the most delightful desserts, and I really do mean delightful. There is even pudding that they set on fire when they serve it to you!” She reached out and tugged on Sebastien’s sleeve cajolingly, batting her lashes over those big blue eyes.
“I suppose,” she agreed reluctantly. ‘If I pretend money is not fungible, I can pay for it with the unexpected windfall I just made and not feel too pained.’
There was a crowd in the dormitory hallway, blocking them from getting into their dorm room.
Sebastien frowned, taking in the expressions of the students milling about. “Something’s wrong.”
Damien reached out to grab another student’s elbow. “What happened?”
“Someone died,” they said.
The words knocked the exuberance out of Damien’s eyes. “Who? Was it in our dorm?”
The student responded, but Sebastien wasn’t listening. Two infirmary employees were carrying a stretcher with a cloth-covered body through the doors, and the crowd pressed back and parted to give them space.
They passed right by Sebastien. Her senses took in every detail as the sounds around her seemed to blur and soften, like she was hearing them from underwater.
White cloth, contouring around the body and features just enough to make what lay below obvious.
The smell of hastily cleaned vomit and feces. Bodies released, when the life left them. It was common.
No crimson, no smell of blood.
The person’s hand slipped from the side of the stretcher and flopped down. It was almost voyeuristic, that peek at what lay beneath, and it felt like a perverse glimpse into something that should have been shrouded.
Without thinking, Sebastien reached out, grasping the dead boy’s pale wrist between her fingers and slipping it back under the protective covering of the white cloth.
His skin was still warm.
It was only once the stretcher was out of sight that the sound of the world rushed back in.
Near the doors of their dormitory room, a girl wailed, collapsing to her knees as two of her friends held her. Tears streamed down all three of their faces.
That, too, seemed like something private that Sebastien wasn’t meant to see. She turned her head away as a couple more healers from the infirmary tipped a potion against the girl’s lips, urging her to swallow.
Her wails of anguish cut off as the potion sedated her, and they carried her off, too, leaving her two crying, but less hysterical friends behind.
A warm hand slipped over the top of Sebastien’s, and she looked down to see that at some point, she’d grabbed Damien’s wrist and was squeezing it in a bruising grip. She let him go immediately, looking away from his expression of sympathy.
She turned back, not quite sure where she was planning to go, just wanting to get away from the dorms, from the too-close crowd and the feeling of suffocation.
Tanya was standing right beside her, an inscrutable expression on her face, her arms crossed over her chest.
Sebastien met her eyes for a second.
Tanya sighed. “Will-strain,” she said. “He won’t be the last.”
The words reverberated in Sebastien’s mind with a rumble of premonition.
Sorry I missed last week’s chapter. I got covid and was out of commission. I’m fine and slowly recovering now, just tired.
We’re about ready for the next Patreon Goal bonuses, which includes an omake chapter this time around. I’ve got a list of ideas, and patrons are going to be voting on them. If you have any ideas for something you’d particularly like to see added to the poll, let me know via commenting below.
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