Chapter 78 – A Sacrifice of Light


Month 1, Day 18, Monday 5:00 a.m.

Sebastien got back to the University before the sun rose. Most of the students were asleep, but a good number were still up, likely because of the widespread fighting in the city below. She slipped past any students she crossed paths with, avoiding notice with a combination of patience and the occasional distraction. She wished again that she had some way to activate her divination-diverting ward on command.

She’d washed the worst of the grime off herself at the Silk Door, taking a couple of extra minutes to turn her hair back to the blue-black of the Raven Queen before she transformed, but leaving behind Siobhan’s body didn’t get rid of the fatigue. She felt tired in all the ways—mentally, physically, emotionally.

A quick check showed that Tanya was still inside her room when Sebastien returned.

Mumbling at Damien when he questioned her, she took a shower and managed to get a couple of hours of rest before the school day started. The wit-sharpening potion had worn off, and she felt slightly detached from the world, as if an ephemeral blanket were wrapped around her, muffling her senses and delaying her reactions.

She hadn’t had a chance to talk to Oliver or Katerin. If not for the fact that the fighting had eventually stopped, with a group of Stag enforcers arriving to take away what had become dozens of Morrow prisoners, she wouldn’t have known the outcome. She was still ignorant of the details, but she presumed if the Morrows had won, her night would have ended very differently.

Damien proved his worth by supplying her with delightful, sublime, life-saving coffee, brewed strong enough to melt a spoon and already imbued with wakefulness magic.

She almost cried out of gratitude.

There was a lot of distracted discussion about the night before, with rumors of varying credibility already circulating. Most agreed that several of the most influential gangs in the Mires had gotten into a battle, with chaos and collateral damage ensuing.

The fighting was over and the fires had been put out before morning, but now the coppers were dealing with looting. There had been a call for volunteer healers from the University. Some of the students in that career track would be able to get practice working on the poor, who couldn’t complain if their healer’s skills were sub-par because they weren’t paying anyway.

At breakfast, Tanya was visibly alarmed to hear all the gossip, but other than asking the other students for details, she didn’t do anything suspicious. She didn’t talk to Munchworth or any of the other professors. There were no other signs that anyone had contacted her or that she was reaching out, either.

Sebastien assumed Tanya was biding her time, and was a little impressed with the girl’s dedication to maintaining her cover. It could be hard to maintain procedure even when you thought you were safe and unwatched, especially when something like this happened.

Still, Tanya would have to do something soon. And when she did, they would be watching.

Newton, however, pulled Sebastien and Damien aside at breakfast to let them know that he was leaving to check on his family, who lived near one of the areas where there had been fighting the night before. “Tanya said she wanted to come with me, but I convinced her that at least one of the student liaisons for our group needed to stay behind. Other students might need our support, after all.”

Damien and Sebastien shared a quick glance. ‘This is horrible timing. But there’s no way I can refuse to let him leave. And even if I tried, I couldn’t force him to stay.

“Go. We’ll keep an eye on things here. Let me know if you need anything. I might be able to help.”

After Newton left, Damien said, “We’ll have to take turns watching Tanya throughout the day. There’s no way we can monitor her during classes, but we might be able to keep an eye on her between them in case she tries to talk to anyone suspicious or slip away.”

They set up a schedule to do that while seeming as normal and unsuspicious as possible. One of them would slip away at least once during every class to use the compass divination spell on the bone disk and make sure Tanya didn’t cut out in the middle of a class. It was the best they could do with the resources at hand.

Sebastien stopped by the Administration center in the library before classes, and among the crowd of students doing the same, inquired if there were any letters for her. As she’d hoped, there was a note from Oliver, dropped off early that morning by a runner. The name on the outside of the letter indicated it was from Fortner’s, the high-class bespoke clothing shop he frequented, but she knew it was really from him.

Sebastien went into a bathroom stall to open the letter. The outer page was an actual advertisement from Fortner’s, but inside that was a small square of paper. In a hurried scrawl, it read, “My niece’s violin recital went fairly well. She managed to win first place, though it was a close battle between her and the next girl. She made a fumble in the first movement, and her rival was unexpectedly well-prepared with a powerful piece of their own. Still, she prevailed. She has blisters that might take some time to heal, and I expect some snide words from those who aren’t so happy at her success, but she’s on track for the all-city competition, and I expect her to move forward from this even stronger.”

Sebastien read it twice to make sure she hadn’t missed anything within the cryptic message, then turned it over and drew a spark-shooting spell array on the back. She burned the entire thing to ashes in a couple of seconds, crumbled the ashes between her fingers, and dropped them into the magical chamber pot, which filtered them into its holding tank. Finally, she washed her hands, trying to make the pale blonde man in the mirror look less anxious.

In her first class of the day, Introduction to Modern Magics, Professor Burberry looked less pink-cheeked and bright-eyed than Sebastien had ever seen the older woman. “As most of you know by now, yesterday night the city was rocked by war between a handful of the criminal organizations that make their claim on the less affluent areas.”

This drew the scattered attention of the students like dangling a piece of bacon in front of a dog.

She continued, “The Crowns have mobilized the coppers to control any violence, looting, and property damage. The Order of the Radiant Maiden and the Stewards of Intention are both temporarily taking in those who have been injured or lost their homes to fire or spellwork. We’ve sent some of our own higher-level students with healing expertise to help as they can. If any of you have family affected by this, you can get a pass to leave for the rest of the day in the Administration office. Above all, however, I would like to stress that the Crowns have this incident firmly in hand, and we at the University stand behind them. There will be increased patrols to ensure the safety of the citizens in these tumultuous times and relief efforts to help those who are affected get through the aftermath, and those responsible will be arrested. The worst is over. Please don’t worry about it. Remember, as students, you are here to learn.”

Several of the students left, presumably to get passes from the Administration office, and Burberry gave her lecture without further allowance for distraction.

I wonder if Oliver realized it would get this big. The Crowns will have to make at least a token response. They have to be seen doing something. And maybe they’ll even make a real attempt, if the spectacle of this embarrassed them enough. The coppers didn’t particularly care about the Verdant Stag, at least not before the Raven Queen came along. But now…

She didn’t know enough to truly speculate, but she was apprehensive. ‘This cannot have been the optimal outcome.

Sebastien fumbled through her classes for the first half of the day, for once unable to care that she was missing a chance to learn. She revived only long enough to keep tabs on Tanya. Luckily, a lot of the other students were similarly bleary in the aftermath of their mid-term celebrations followed by the pandemonium of the night before, so she didn’t stand out.

A nap during the lunch period, while Damien kept an eye on Tanya, and yet another cup of coffee helped refresh Sebastien for Practical Casting.

Which was fortuitous, because Professor Lacer conducted an impromptu assessment of their progress in the last exercise he’d assigned—using three different methods to turn sand into a rock.

He had them come up in groups. With a beast core in his hand, he crossed his arms, leaned against his desk, and watched them perform the sand-to-stone transformation using transmutation, duplicative transmogrification, and true transmogrification. The pen on the desk behind him scribbled notes. Rarely, he commented, giving a student with particularly poor performance scathing admonitions, or someone with an impressive showing a few words of praise and tips to further improve.

Sebastien didn’t perform as well as she would have liked. Her transmutation was passable. She used heat and pressure to form a very small pebble at first, which she added to bit by bit.

“Your understanding of the process is still not complete enough, and that is creating inefficiency,” Professor Lacer said, frowning. “You could do this at least twice as quickly with more thorough study and some practice.”

Sebastien wanted to melt into the floor, but she straightened her shoulders and nodded. Her duplicative transmogrification was faster, the sand taking on the characteristics of the dragon scale they’d been given.

Professor Lacer plucked the ball of textured rock off the table in front of her. With a slight narrowing of his eyes and a faint ripple of magic in the air, it crumbled in his hand. He dumped the dirt back in front of her. “Barely passable,” he said. “Too brittle, more like glass than dragon scale. You lost at least thirty percent of the durability during the process of duplication. Next time, take your time before casting and get a better grasp on the dragon scale, both in your feeling of ownership and your attention to its details. Weigh it in your hand. Taste it if necessary.”

Sebastien noted his advice, but lamented her own lack of preparation. Obviously, Professor Lacer was hinting that she was not on the right track, and might not satisfactorily grasp the auxiliary exercises he’d assigned her and Damien by the end of term. She took her time with the final variation, true transmogrification, trying to make her Will as clear and forceful as possible.

Once again, Professor Lacer shattered the resulting rock with a spell. This time, he frowned but said nothing.

Sebastien suddenly realized that this was actually worse than being offered correction and advice. ‘It shouldn’t have shattered so easily, right? A real dragon scale wouldn’t have.’ She went back to her seat, trying to figure out where exactly the spell had gone wrong. While others went up to the front to be assessed by Professor Lacer, she practiced the transmogrification, over and over, forming the ball of idea-infused rock and then returning it to sand.

When the assessments were finished, Professor Lacer introduced the third main exercise of the term.

He was even more crisp than usual, seeming irritated enough that none of the students dared to let out a peep or hint at any distraction that might draw his attention and ire.

“The mid-terms are over. Congratulations to some of you. Grades and rankings will be posted by the end of the week in the Great Hall. We will not wait for them to move on. There is little enough time to beat some basic competence into your heads as it is. This time, we will be using something new as the Sacrifice.”

‘I’m falling behind,’ Sebastien acknowledged with a sinking feeling. ‘I have already fallen behind.

Professor Lacer had given her five exercises to work on privately. As they progressed through the in-class exercises, it was clear that the bonus ones were meant to augment these. She was still working on the air compression exercise, and had planned to start the next one—changing the color and shape of a candle flame—in a week or two. If she hadn’t been distracted with everything else, like keeping track of Tanya, developing the sleep-proxy spell, and all the time she spent working for the Verdant Stag, maybe she would have had time to keep up.

Professor Lacer walked to one of the empty student desks in the front row, his Conduit in hand. “Many thaumaturges become set in their ways of thinking. They are stuck within the patterns of thought they have worn in their own minds, like a carriage wheel becoming stuck in a rut. This presents itself in various ways, but there are many such barriers between the average sorcerer and a free-caster. Magic does not have limits. Humans have limits that we impose upon magic. One such obstacle that we create for ourselves is the type of energy source we use. It is accepted that most any type of matter can be used in basic transmutation spells—living, nonliving, from solids to gasses, in any particular cellular structure. Thaumaturges accept that they can turn mud into a brick, or even into a diamond, with enough power. But when asked about where that power comes from, you get the same handful of answers every time. Too many thaumaturges never cast with any energy source besides fire or a beast core. You need to practice thinking in other ways while your minds are still malleable.”

On the desk in front of Lacer, the spherical area marked by one of the component Circles carved into the surface disappeared.

Sebastien looked closer, her interest piqued. ‘No, not disappeared. It’s not invisible—that is a bubble of shadow. He is intercepting all the light passing through the Circle’s boundaries.

“There is nothing in magic that restricts the source of energy. For some reason, humans find using heat more instinctive than, say, a lightning bolt. Some theories suggest that is because it is easy to associate the fire, which consumes its carbon-based fuel in exchange for heat and light, with our consumption of the fire in exchange for a magical effect. Yet, it is considered an advanced application to use the energy inherent in a slice of bread to power a spell, despite the fact that human bodies use that same type of energy to power our own continued existence. Most would find it much easier to access that power by setting the piece of bread on fire.”

He looked down to the little dome of darkness atop the table. “We will be practicing with light as an energy source. A simple transmutation spell, with light energy as the input as well as the output. Some of you may find this easier than others.” He met Sebastien’s eyes for a brief moment. “The least limited among you may have already cast spells like this.”

Sebastien thought of the amulet that gave her this form, pressed even now to her chest underneath her clothes. ‘Maybe it uses some kind of esoteric power?’ She had wondered before, many times, how it worked. The transformation magic had not degraded, nor gotten any slower, nor left her with any pain or weariness when it activated.

She caught herself lifting her hand to rub the amulet through her shirt and consciously refrained. No artifact could contain unlimited power. When they were created, they were charged with a certain number of spells, which would either contain their own power source—this was more common—or pull from some external power source, which she knew was possible but had never seen in action. She had only learned the vague theory of it from her grandfather.

Distracted for once from Professor Lacer’s lecture by her thoughts, Sebastien’s eyes narrowed. The artifact was also special in that it could trigger with even a minor application of her Will. ‘How does it even recognize Will? To do so, the effects of Will have to be somehow quantifiable in the first place, which is something we haven’t managed to do even up until now—but the amulet does it, and would hypothetically be very old. Perhaps it uses transmogrification for this instead of transmutation. After all, some animals seem to be sensitive to magic being cast around them, and even humans feel a kind of hindbrain “awareness” around powerful thaumaturges in the middle of casting. That could be more than the senses subconsciously picking up on subtle energy spillover from spell inefficiency.

In any case, this was not an issue that she could afford to be complacent about. Things went wrong when she got complacent. And she had been using the amulet rather a lot lately. If it ran out of charges, she would have absolutely no way to fill it again. ‘Maybe the book it came in contains instructions on how to cast the spell. That would make sense.

Professor Lacer pulled out a small carving from his pocket, placing it in the second component Circle on the desk and recapturing her attention. “There are varying difficulty levels for this exercise.”

A spot within the central Circle of the desk brightened, then resolved into a replica of the carving. It expanded to be easily viewed by the whole class: a crude carving of a little boy with his dog at his feet. At this size, with only the Sacrificed light from the much smaller component Circle, the image was vaguely thin, like someone could poke a hole in it with their finger. “The easiest method is to replicate the image of a spell component…” The image turned, but it was flat, and the back was nothing more than an exact mirror image of the front. “Two-dimensionally. The next level of difficulty is maintaining a three-dimensional visual illusion.”

This time, when the image flipped around, it wasn’t flat, but instead showed the side and back of the boy and his dog.

He picked up the carving and tucked it back in his pocket. “After that, you may attempt to remove the source material entirely. You may start again with the two-dimensional…” The image of light resolved into silhouettes of darkness upon a light background, again the boy and his dog, but in a slightly different pose, one Professor Lacer had created himself.

“But those who wish to achieve true mastery should introduce a real challenge.” The silhouettes began to move, the dog wagging its tail and the boy reaching down to scratch behind its ears.

Sebastien grinned. ‘It’s not so different from the kinds of shadow-plays I’ve seen in the market.

Except, under Professor Lacer’s sudden frown of concentration, the moving silhouettes gained realistic, rich color and shape. A background appeared around them, a field of green grass with a single tree in the distance, with a wide blue sky above. It seemed to gain substance, losing that semblance of thin illusion. The spell Circle was like a window into another place.

Sebastien was close enough to see individual blades of grass, and when the wind blew within the dome atop the desk, she thought for a second that she felt it on her skin.

The boy and his dog were real, not a crude wooden carving, and when a shadow passed over them from above, they reacted with surprise and fear.

They ran. The boy kept looking up and back over his shoulder, until he missed a gopher hole in the ground and went into a tumbling fall. When a dragon slammed down in front of them, the illusory ground trembled.

The dog took up a defensive position in front of the fallen boy, its hackles raised and its teeth bared as it barked viciously and soundlessly at the much larger dragon.

The boy scrambled to his feet and began to back away.

With a deep breath, the dragon gathered its magic, releasing it in a stream of fire that washed over the dog, vaporizing its fur and incinerating it where it stood.

The boy broke and ran.

The dragon hopped forward and happily snapped up the dog-shaped meat snack, then swayed after the boy until it moved out of the viewing window Professor Lacer had created.

The students stared at the scorched ground for a few seconds before Professor Lacer released the light-transmuting spell. When he did, it was like he’d broken some sort of bewitchment hex over them, and a few people suddenly started breathing again or let out nervous laughs.

“Anyone who manages a passable version of a three-dimensional image from imagination will get contribution points. Movement is not necessary, and will be beyond most, if not all of you. Do not let that discourage you from trying, however.”

As he walked back to his desk, he said, “Homework is, as always, at least three fully fleshed spell arrays that you could use to create these effects if you were not in Practical Casting and forced to use a minimalist array. As you practice casting, three glyphs are allowed, two is recommended, and anyone still casting with three by the time we move on to the next exercise should be aware that their laziness is unacceptable and will be the main obstacle between them and true progress. Start your attempts now, with a focus on consuming all the light available so that you may repurpose it.”

He settled back into his desk chair and began to look through a stack of papers, ostensibly intent to ignore them for what remained of the class period.

Sebastien had indeed cast with light before. She had done so during her disastrous entrance examination. But then, she’d also used heat to augment the spell, and when all was said and done, she’d probably come close to giving herself Will-strain. But much more often, she had done so through her shadow-familiar spell, which she had been casting since she was a child. The Sacrifice of light was why her shadow grew so unnaturally, opaquely dark, and it provided the extra power that her warm breath through the Circle of her hands lacked.

She took a moment to write out the symbol and two glyphs, trying to settle the perspective of pulling on light for power in her mind. ‘Plants do it. Why not me?

She started out with the simplest of exercises, trying to replicate the image of a single copper coin.

She looked up and toward the back of the class, where Nunchkin was working on a three-dimensional light construct. She couldn’t see the spell array on his desk, but would have bet that he had already advanced to using only two glyphs. Sebastien straightened and turned her focus back to the small Sacrifice Circle where she’d drawn the glyph for “light”. ‘I’ll start with a two-dimensional static image. I can focus on restructuring the light once I’ve mastered drawing upon it. This shouldn’t be so hard. It’s light to light, not like I’m trying to use the light to power a movement spell. I’ve cast the shadow-familiar spell enough times that this should be easy.

It was not easy. Using only two glyphs and without the thrice-repeated chant of the esoteric shadow-familiar spell, the magic seemed to be deliberately trying to slip out of her grasp, as if the light were water trickling through her cupped hands.

By the end of class, she at least had the Sacrifice consuming enough light that she couldn’t see anything inside it, a little dome of black being repurposed into an undefined blob of light hanging in the middle of the larger inner Circle.

She could have made it easier by adding the third glyph, but refused to give in to the temptation. ‘I want to be a free-caster. If this is hard enough to make me give up, I should save my money for something with a better return on investment than University tuition, because I will never achieve true greatness.

Nunchkin’s Sacrifice Circle was just as dark as hers, but he had already begun to form a blurry three-dimensional image of what seemed to be a silver crown, rather than a vague blob.

Sebastien’s Will was already fatigued as she exited the Citadel for the day, surrounded by milling students, and made her way to the library.

Tanya was still in class for another hour, and if she maintained her regular schedule, should be joining Newton at the library directly afterward.

Damien waited outside to keep an eye on her in case she broke her routine, but if she came to the library as expected, he wouldn’t follow her inside. Despite volunteering for this duty, he complained bitterly about sitting by himself on a cold bench, to Sebastien’s complete lack of sympathy.

Remembering her earlier inspiration about the transformation amulet, she searched the shelves for information on historical feats of artificery. ‘There has to be a clue, somewhere. Maybe I have simply been searching in the wrong place.

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