Month 1, Day 11, Monday 4:00 p.m.
The healers passed around calming potions to all the students, leaving a bottle inside the cubicles of everyone who wasn’t there to take them directly.
Sebastien wasn’t stubborn about it. She took a dose—a single swallow—right away, then left the building for a long walk through the Menagerie, trying not to think past the magical haze of well-being the potion imparted.
She returned a few hours later, after the sun had set and the cold was starting to hurt enough that she noticed it through the waning power of the potion.
Back in the dorms, she learned from gossip she couldn’t help but overhear that the dead boy had been practicing magic with his friends, who were all cramming in what study they could before the tests. They had returned to the dorms together, and he’d complained of dizziness and lied down to take a nap.
His friend, the girl who’d been sedated and taken to the infirmary with him, had tried to wake him about half an hour later, when the smell of vomit and shit suddenly became noticeable.
It was too late. He was already dead.
The healers had declared it an aneurism caused by Will-strain.
That evening, before lights-out but after all the students had returned to the dorm, Tanya and Newton stood at the front of the room and gave another lecture about safety and ensuring the health of their minds and magic. “Go to sleep early tonight,” Tanya said, “and take a calming potion if you need one. Please be careful not to cast any strenuous magic under the effects of a calming potion, though, as it can impair your control. My advice is not to worry about the mid-terms or any other schoolwork. Your sanity and your life are more important than your homework, and this was a blow to all of us.”
“It will take time to recover,” Newton said in a rough voice. “We’re here for you if you need help, as are any of the healers, and your professors, too.”
Sebastien cast her dreamless sleep spell with as much power as she could pour into it, then used the esoteric humming spell that Newton had taught her to relax her body, and finally took another swallow of calming potion before sticking waxed cotton in her ears to block out the sounds of the other students. Finally, as prepared as she could be, she went to sleep.
Tuesday was subdued.
Damien seemed shocked by the death and kept wanting to talk about it, going in circles about how horrible and sad it was without really saying anything new.
Sebastien went through that conversation with him a couple times, then foisted him off on Ana and his other friends. It wasn’t the first time she’d seen death, of course, but she kept remembering the feel of the dead boy’s skin under her fingers, still warm. ‘One in fifteen of us will die or go insane before we become Masters,’ she reminded herself. ‘Tanya was right. He won’t be the last. But I won’t be one of them.’
She forced herself to focus during her classes, and after them on the basic books about emergency healing she’d borrowed from the library.
The latter, at least, gave her some comfort.
On Wednesday, normal classes were cancelled.
Instead, they started the day with Professor Gnorrish’s mid-term examination for Natural Science. The exam was a more elaborate version of his normal tests, with a lot of extra questions and some interactive content with pictures, like Sebastien remembered from the entrance exam. She could answer questions about everything they had covered in class, but when it came to higher-level extrapolations based on a deeper understanding of those same concepts, she found herself stymied at least half the time.
At least this test wasn’t never-ending, like the written entrance examination. She was able to get through the whole thing with enough time to go back to some of the questions she’d been unsure about and think on them a little harder.
After that came Professor Ilma’s exam for History of Magic. That one only had twenty questions, but they all needed to be answered in short-essay format. Sebastien knew Professor Ilma well enough by now not to bother regurgitating anything from a book. Instead, she made her own arguments and even openly admitted on a couple of questions that she had no idea about the answer, yet still gave all the evidence that might support some kind of conclusion.
She was still scribbling frantically when the bell rang to signal the end of the test period, and groaned in dismay as she tried to finish her current thought in still-legible handwriting before someone stopped her.
After almost five hours of test-taking, she was exhausted, but after dinner she asked around in the dorms and managed to find some second term students who also had Professor Pecanty. She asked them about his tests. She and he thought nothing alike, and she was worried that his tests would be as subjective as the literary analyses they did in class.
“Oh, yeah,” one second term student she’d found said. “Pecanty’s the worst. Each test is going to have a randomly-assigned essay question at the end. He told my my analyses was ‘shallow and simplistic.’”
Another student snorted from the corner. “That’s because you’re writing to the topic, not the teacher. I have a system. Gets me a perfect score every time.”
“You’re a suck-up,” the first student said.
His friend shrugged. “Well, the contribution points he gave me are why we have this room, so don’t complain too much when you’re benefitting from my largesse.”
Sebastien turned to the man with eagle-eyed interest. “What’s your system?”
“Easy,” he said, not even looking up from the magazine she recognized as the latest Aberford Thorndyke story. They were more popular than she’d suspected. “I make as many connections as possible, always. If there’s a short answer or essay question, I try to make at least two allusions to another story or poem we’ve talked about in class. Bonus points if it’s a play or opera I saw outside of the University, or a story one of my many fake aunts, uncles, or grandparents told me when I was little, accompanied by some poignant memory. In addition to that, I try to use at least five vivid, poetic, ‘feeling’ or ‘sensory’ words. He really loves it when I mention a smell or a taste. For example, a strong, salty sausage might remind me of my mother’s bloody hands in the winter, pale with cold, and the iron and shit I smelt as the pig she’d slaughtered bled out into a steel bucket, its squeal of terror still ringing in my ears.” His tone had taken on an imitation of Pecanty’s rhythm as he spoke the last bit. He waved his hand leadingly. “Like that.”
Sebastien nodded with wonder. “Can you give me some more examples? Just so I can get the feel of it?”
The boy laughed. “Dream on, firstie. I’m busy reading, so go bother someone else. Unless you’re willing to trade contribution points for it? I’ve been wanting to upgrade my meal plan…” He looked up, eyebrows raised expectantly.
She pressed her lips together and shook her head. “Thank you for your help.”
He looked back down, losing interest in her immediately.
Sebastien asked for advice from a couple other students who had experience with Pecanty, but got nothing as good as that first offering.
The Sympathetic Science exam was first on Wednesday, and she was careful to make even more connections than reasonable, backing them up with sensory allusions that otherwise had no connection when necessary. She even tried to make her handwriting as beautiful as possible, because that seemed like the kind of thing that Pecanty might subconsciously favor. When she finished the test, she went back over every written answer, making sure that where possible, she’d made at least two allusions and used at least five evocative emotional or sensory words.
‘If this doesn’t work, there’s really nothing I can do. Except something like…blackmail?’ Sebastien shook her head at that fanciful thought and hurried quickly to lunch. She wanted to eat as soon as possible so that her stomach would be settled before the Defensive Magic exam.
She still arrived on the white flats slightly queasy, though that was more to do with apprehension about the grueling physical torture she was about to experience.
Using whatever magic allowed him to rearrange the stone of the white flats, Fekten had set up an almost comically difficult obstacle course. The students were to complete it as quickly as possible, with their grade depending on their speed for each section, and then take the written exam.
Looking at one section of the course where they were meant to leap across a scattered path of columns raised over a meter above the ground, Sebastien gulped. Another section required them to climb up a rope to cross a tall wall, then slide down the other side into a tunnel that was somehow filled with water. ‘I’ll be surprised if no one gets seriously injured.’
As if that thought were some sort of prophecy, Fekten introduced the gathered students to the healers he’d called to supervise his mid-term.
Sebastien let out a deep breath and massaged her neck, trying to let go of her anxiety. She almost wanted to try Newton’s humming spell, but there wasn’t enough time for it to really settle into her body before the test started.
Instead, she cast her esoteric pain-muffling spell. All it really did was help her to ignore the discomfort, not lessen it, but that was enough to let her push through. The obstacle course included a one mile run as well as a sprint through a corridor lined by mannequins that shot the same colored light-projectiles Fekten’s class had been practicing their footwork and dodging against.
Sebastien finished the course with a time slightly better than the middle of the pack, but could take no time to recuperate. She followed the students who had finished before her to run to the desks set up in the biggest room of the sim building. Throwing herself into a desk with a blank tests already waiting for her, she pulled out her pen.
Only then did she release the pain-muffling spell.
Her handwriting was even worse than normal, with the occasional ink-smudge from sweat, but she felt confident in her answers on all the various dangers and tactics that Fekten had been lecturing about every class period. It was even easier to remember it all with her lungs aching for air and her muscles burning with fatigue, actually.
She stumbled away from the white flats to the dorm showers, ate at the cafeteria, and then took a nap in an attempt to recover from her listlessness. ‘I cannot wait until something else can do some of my sleeping for me.’
Sebastien arrived at the Practical Casting classroom about ten minutes early, but there were already students gathered, and a couple of them were competing against each other in their tournament brackets while Professor Lacer supervised.
A girl approached Sebastien and said, “I’m your next opponent. Do you want to get a head start on the matches? Professor Lacer said we could.”
“Sure.” Starting ten minutes earlier could mean ten more minutes of recovery between it and the subsequent match.
They set up, waited for Professor Lacer’s requisitioned student aide to note their names, and then began to cast.
Sebastien’s opponent was familiar with her trick from the first match and was able to withstand the initial powerful push. “Did you really think the same trick would work twice in a row?” the girl asked.
Sebastien shrugged. “It’s not like I lose anything in the attempt. Besides, if I did not push hard, what if you took me by surprise instead?”
They settled into the struggle. The girl was strong, but after a few minutes it became apparent that she lacked practice. Her Will was neither as clear, sound, nor forceful as Sebastien’s.
As time went on, the girl’s candles began to flicker and flutter.
Sebastien sensed weakness and pushed even harder.
Her opponent squeezed her fists and glared at the ball that kept inching against her in little bursts, never quite for three seconds at a time, but growing ever-closer. Her face began to turn red from the effort, but she pulled too hard and one of her candles was quenched. The cold wick let out a small trail of smoke.
That was it. With three candles against two, Sebastien won immediately.
Damien and Ana arrived just as Sebastien was getting up from the table.
“No!” Damien cried dramatically. “I missed it? Sebastien, you should have stalled! I didn’t even get a chance to make any bets.”
Ana elbowed him in the side. “Damien. No one was going to bet against Sebastien again after what happened last time.”
Damien held his chin in his hand, frowning thoughtfully as he looked Sebastien up and down. “Not necessarily. He just needs to be up against an opponent no one thinks he can beat…”
“And then what if he loses? Why don’t you just stick with the winnings you already have and be content?”
“Sebastien definitely won’t lose,” Damien said.
“How can you know that? He’s in the most difficult bracket, against students from upper terms…”
They continued to dispute the issue, but Sebastien tuned them out.
The other matches finished, too, and when the bell rang, Professor Lacer announced, “We finish the tournament today! Since this is the last test period of the week, the matches can continue on even after the test period technically ends. With the number of students still remaining, this seems likely. Anything after the test period ends is entirely optional, and will be for contribution points, not your grade.”
Despite how fatigued most of the students probably were at the end of the mid-terms, most seemed enthused to see this contest through to the end. Of course, at least half of them had nothing to do except spectate today, having already lost their own matches on Monday, which probably contributed to their high spirits.
This time, Sebastien actually watched the matches with Damien and Ana. They murmured observations to each other, and she took note of those in her bracket who she might have trouble with.
Sebastien’s second match was also against a woman. Her opponent was good. Neither of them had a marked advantage, not with only three candles to draw on. They struggled back and forth, slamming at each other with bursts of unsustainable power that they had to release lest they quench their flames.
Sebastien bore down with her Will, tuning out everything else but the flames, the movement of the sphere, and her pure denial that the other woman could best her. Five minutes passed, then ten, then fifteen.
If neither of them won soon, they would both be disqualified at the twenty-minute mark.
Eventually, though, Sebastien began to gain the edge. The longer and harder she pushed, the more eagerly the magic responded to her. The air of the Sacrifice Circle around her candles grew chilled, but their flames never sputtered. Each pulse of extra power she funneled into the spell flowed only more smoothly.
In contrast, Sebastien’s opponent couldn’t maintain the same level of focus and control she’d started the match with. Oh, she didn’t degrade drastically, but there had been no space for mistakes.
Sebastien moved the ball, not quickly, but inexorably, and her opponent couldn’t stop it in time.
“Winner, S. Siverling,” the student aide muttered, going to write her name on the blackboard next to her upcoming opponent.
Sebastien rolled her neck, which was a little stiff from staring down at the table for so long. She had Damien point out her next opponent, a man who was sitting away from the rest of the crowd with his eyes closed, a slight grimace on his face.
Sebastien felt a little apprehensive about competing with someone so calm, but reassured herself that she could win. ‘I’ll freeze the table if I have to. Everything within the Circle belongs to me, and it might be enough for one surprise shove of power that doesn’t rely on the candles.’
However, when the two of them were called up to compete, the man pushed reluctantly through the crowd, met her gaze, and shook his head. “I don’t think I can. I’ve got a headache, and I think I might be approaching Will-strain.”
Professor Lacer nodded. “Understood. Be sure to go to the infirmary if you need to,” he said, the pen on his desk still scribbling away by itself. He looked at Sebastien, then added, “I commend your good sense.”
“Forfeit, win goes to Mr. Siverling,” a student aide said.
A couple students groaned.
Sebastien looked around for the perpetrators, but the boys she suspected refused to meet her gaze. ‘Are they rooting against me?’
As if to make up for this, a group of young women standing to the side gave her exited smiles and gestures of encouragement. “You can do it, Sebastien!”
The next matches took more time, as the more powerful people were pitted against each other and put up a better fight. Damien lost his third match, but put up a strong resistance, and Professor Lacer even gave him a small nod when it was over.
Sebastien suppressed a spike of jealousy.
Ana, with a dogged determination that Sebastien found surprising, won her own match, but then excused herself from the tournament to avoid Will-strain, too.
By Sebastien’s fourth match of the day, there were only a handful of contestants left in her bracket. She sat across from a young man who was growing a thick winter beard, which was impressive for a student their age.
“Nunchkin,” he introduced himself with a nod.
“Siverling,” she said with a nod of her own.
In his Sacrifice Circle, Nunchkin wrote the glyph for “wax” instead of “fire,” or even the less-common “heat.”
Sebastien had a premonition of doom as soon as she saw that, but it was too late to respond to it even if she could think of some way to do so, because the student aide was already counting them down, and among the cheers of their classmates, the match began.
Sebastien slammed on the sphere immediately, and it moved under her Will, but not for long, as Nunchkin opposed her.
The sphere sat still for a long while, trembling minutely under the opposing forces. Then, slowly, it began to shift in Nunchkin’s direction, against her.
Sebastien stopped it, but she couldn’t do more than that. It sat trembling again, and then slowly rolled against her.
The sphere stopped again, but Nunchkin just kept on pouring more and more power into the spell.
Her eyes flicked up to see that the wax of one of Nunchkin’s candles was visibly disappearing, as if a few large, invisible ants were nibbling at it.
Turning matter directly into movement was an incredibly advanced conversion. Using matter as a power source rather than a transmutable component was possible, but generally inefficient and gruelingly difficult. It was why most sorcerers used flames, beast cores, or even something like the power of the flowing water in a river to provide the energy for their spells.
Running out of the specified form of energy and having the spell resort to using matter instead was one of the most common ways to lose control of your magic and get Will-strain. Put plainly, it was beyond her.
The little spots of missing wax grew.
Sebastien’s eyes narrowed. As the spots grew larger, she could see their shiny, liquid edges, and faint shimmers in the air.
‘But maybe he’s not using the wax directly. Could he be using his Will to create a wick-like construct, and burning up the wax? If he’s using the light as well as the heat, that might be why I can’t see any visible flames.’
Her epiphany had cost her in a moment of distraction. Nunchkin had pushed the ball against her for almost a full revolution of the glass wheel and was about to win.
In a sudden effort, Sebastien used the idea she’d come up with earlier and sucked all the heat from the table beneath her Sacrifice Circle. The frosted-over section of the slate table groaned from the sudden temperature change. It was enough to match Nunchkin and even push back for a moment, but the heat was gone soon enough, not quite enough to keep her going for the full three seconds as he increased his own spell’s power to oppose her.
Still, it had bought her a little time to think.
Wax did not need a wick to burn, technically. The wick was useful because it drew melted wax up into the heat of the flame and burnt it there. Most of what the flame was devouring was actually the wax, not the wick at all. The problem with trying to burn wax without the wick was that the substance would disperse the heat throughout its volume, making it difficult to maintain the combustion point. The wick kept a small amount of liquid wax at the right spot, without enough volume to disperse the heat before it caught fire and was converted into more heat, light, and various gasses.
With the incredibly rudimentary spell array that Professor Lacer insisted on, what she did with the magic could be any number of things that used “heat” for the purpose of creating “movement.”
A candle flame created around eighty thaums, give or take. Three candles left her stymied at a little under two hundred thaums, total. But there was much more energy than that within the entire candle.
Sebastien drew on the heat in the melted wax of one of her own candles, experimentally, pulling at the part around the base of the flame, drawing it up into the wick.
The flame flared higher, the inefficiency of the burn clear in the dark tendril of smoke that began to curl up from the flame’s orange tip. Suddenly, she had more energy to work with, maybe an extra dozen thaums.
‘I have all the power I need. It is only a matter of Will. Always, always, only a matter of Will.’
Nunchkin actually revealed a small smile, though he didn’t look at her, his eyes trained on the sphere with unwavering focus.
Splitting her concentration on creating movement in the wax, as little as it was, with controlling the iron sphere, made things more difficult. But it was more than worth it for the extra power.
She repeated her trick with the other two candles, sending their flames flaring angrily higher.
She had the upper hand again, for a moment.
But it was only a moment.
With the inexorability of the setting sun, Nunchkin kept pouring on more and more power.
Sebastien would never have been able to keep fighting back if she hasn’t spent so many hours practicing the sphere-spinning spell.
Nunchkin’s spell array was glowing with inefficiency despite his prowess.
Her’s didn’t, not even the barest flicker.
There was enough heat for her in the candle wax, and she flared her candles higher and higher until they were like small torches, ready to burn out before their time.
But her Will could only channel so much.
The sphere began to move against her, once more.
She slammed her Will against the it like she might throw her body against a barred door.
But Nunchkin was unfazed, and she felt the taut fist of her Will start to tremble with strain. ‘I have to let go,’ she realized. ‘I’ve lost.’
She did so with careful control, watching the sphere spin the wrong direction, faster and faster until it became a blur.
She almost didn’t hear it when the match was called in Nunchkin’s favor.
As she stood up from the desk, Damien slammed into her, grabbing her arm and screaming in her ear to be heard past the cheers filling the room. “Planes-damned, I’ll kick an earth-aspected weta if that wasn’t one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen!”
Damien pulled her through the crowd, high-giving people as they passed, crowing unintelligibly amid the noise as if he himself had just won the entire tournament.
Luckily, Nunchkin drew most of the attention away from them as they got to the edge of the crowd.
Rubbing her forehead, Sebastien moved to an empty desk a distance away from the front of the classroom and slumped down into the chair.
Even Ana was grinning widely. “Good job, Sebastien. That was indeed very impressive. I’m sure Professor Lacer was pleased.”
Damien nodded, still vibrating with excitement. “What you did with the candles? Oh, I think I gasped out loud when I saw it! I never even thought of doing something like that, but the rules definitely don’t say you can’t, and Professor Lacer must not have a problem with it, or he would have said something.”
Sebastien sighed, letting her shoulders slump. “I don’t know what you think was so impressive about that display. I lost.”
Damien’s excitement dimmed, and he shared a look with Ana.
“You put up an impressive fight,” Ana said. “You proved that your Will isn’t only powerful, but sound, and forceful, and clear.”
“You’re only a first term student, Sebastien,” Damien said. His voice was gentle, as if explaining something worryingly simple to her, and he doubted her ability to grasp it. “Nunchkin is a fourth-term. And I heard someone saying he’s taken this class twice before.”
Sebastien’s eyes widened.
“So you see, no matter how much of a prodigy you are, you can’t expect to beat that kind of experience, and—” Damien cut off as Sebastien let her forehead thunk onto the table.
“Sebastien?” he asked.
She raised her head, unable to keep the disappointment from her face. “You’re telling me I lost to someone who failed this class the first two times?”
Ana raised her eyebrows and lifted a hand to her mouth to disguise sudden amusement. “I think you may be focusing on the wrong part of that statement, Sebastien.”
Damien blinked a few times, then shook his head as if to clear his thoughts. “Umm. Yes. What Ana said. Let me explain this—”
Sebastien waved away their counterproductive attempts to console her. “It’s okay. I’ve got time. I’ll catch up to him. I definitely won’t fail this class and have to retake it!” she announced, clenching her fists.
“Yes, well…good,” Damien said, seeming a little confused.
They returned to watch the last couple matches between semifinalists, and Sebastien kept an eye out for other tricks she could appropriate.
Nunchkin and a girl with a fierce glare were the two finalists.
Nunchkin’s opponent used the same technique as Sebastien to increase the amount of power she had to draw on, and came closer than Sebastien had to taking Nunchkin out in the beginning of the match, but still failed to beat the pressure of his slow, inexorable ramp-up.
Nunchkin was declared the winner of the largest bracket, as well as the overall tournament, and awarded the biggest contribution point prize. He smiled humbly and gave a bow to Professor Lacer.
Sebastien wanted to scowl, but realized that would be childish, and so tried to keep her expression bland, if not exactly pleasant.
“Well done!” Professor Lacer said in a loud voice that cut through the chatter. “Well, to most of you. It is time for the prizes. As promised, the winner of each bracket will receive fifty contribution points. However, those of you who put up a good fight or displayed some piece of exceptional control or ingenuity will also be rewarded for your efforts.”
The students cheered, laughing and yelling and generally making a ruckus as Professor Lacer called students out from the crowd and handed them a ticket noting their points, murmuring a few words of praise to each.
To her surprise, even though she hadn’t even gotten to the top three of her bracket, Professor Lacer called her name.
She pushed through the crowd, who were muttering something about her being at Apprentice-level capacity already, and took the ticket. Five contribution points.
Lacer nodded at her. He didn’t smile, but it was almost as good when he said, “Impressive problem-solving and control under pressure.”
Struggling to hold her own expression to merely professional satisfaction rather than profound relief and even a little bit of glee, she gave him a shallow bow. “Thank you.”
He nodded and called the next name.
Sebastien tucked the ticket into her pocket, patting it in satisfaction as she returned to Damien and Ana. “Well. I suppose I didn’t do too badly.”
Damien rolled his eyes hard enough they might have gotten stuck. “Right.”
“So. Restaurant? Live music? Teasing Alec?” Ana asked, grinning winningly.
Sebastien was in too good a mood to refuse.
Besides, her brain and Will both needed a break.
She needed to be fully rested for the attack on the Morrows, after all.
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