Month 1, Day 18, Monday 4:15 p.m.
Sebastien found a book by an author who loved alliteration a little too much. If she wasn’t specifically searching for that topic, she might have passed over Ancient Achievements, Accomplishments, and Attainments in Artificery due to the ridiculousness of the title.
Reading through its contents, however, she was glad she hadn’t.
Myrddin had developed artifacts that could gather their own power for a spell. Supposedly. Myrddin had a lot of fantastical feats incorrectly attributed to his name that had either been done by others, or had no actual historical corroboration. There were more stories about Myrddin than there were about all the other famous thaumaturges combined.
According to the book, he had developed several versions of these self-powered artifacts, some of which seemed more unlikely than others, and which she was pretty sure from the lack of citations or evidence that the author had at least partially come up with himself, based on his speculation about how such magic would work.
For pure energy-based spells, the spell cast into the artifact to charge it could contain the parameters to gather and transform energy as part of its activation and release process.
Sebastien hadn’t spent much time mulling over this idea before, but she was now realizing that it sounded supremely dangerous and unlikely. The caster might end up freezing themselves to death as their battle wand gathered up energy to shoot a fireball at the enemy. It would have required the artificer to be able to quantify the energy and its transformation process well enough to code that into the spell, from the beginning of the process to the end, while including safety precautions and limits. Sebastien wasn’t an artificer, but it seemed almost unimaginably difficult. ‘If anyone could do it, Myrddin could.’ Still, she wasn’t convinced.
The author then postulated that the artifact could access a distant energy source, or receptacle, through a sympathetic connection.
Sebastien doubted it. ‘How far away would this work? What happens to everything in between when the energy starts flowing from the source to the artifact? Houses, trees, and random people could be fried to a crisp, or electrocuted, or… Actually, it sounds like a really great way to cause mass destruction, if it was possible, and could be replicated by someone who wasn’t Myrddin.’
Another, more likely, way had the artifact accessing external power through a specified external receptacle, like a beast core that would slot into a Sacrifice Circle that was part of the artifact—an ammunition cartridge, basically.
The final postulated method was for the artifact to open up one or more tiny planar portals and siphon pure elemental energy in the quantities and qualities necessary for the spell.
Out of all the methods, that one seemed the most impracticable to Sebastien. She couldn’t even imagine how one would go about doing that.
However it was done, and whether it had been Myrddin or someone else who discovered it, one thing was made very clear.
This was a lost art.
A lost art she hadn’t realized was lost, because her grandfather talked about it so matter-of-factly. She’d assumed artifacts that gathered their own power were merely rare and expensive because of the skill involved. Even if there were an artifact that used those methods around her, it might not have been obvious.
Her warding medallion, which her grandfather had created, gathered some of its own power through absorbing head whenever one of its protections was called upon.
And if that ability was indeed a lost art, it suddenly made sense why the University would have been so desperate to recover the book. Self-powering artifacts couldn’t cast endless spells. They still had to be charged with the spell parameters that would then gather the power and shape it into the required output. But, it meant that the artifact would need to contain much, much less power at a time, only enough to keep the shell instructions active, and not enough to hold the entire energy pool of the end-product effect.
If a stunning spell took three hundred thaums to cast, a battle wand might be able to hold seven, or nine, or thirty charges before running out of space for the miniature Circles encased within, depending on the craftsmanship and the quality of the materials.
But if you could store just the instructions for the stunning spell, with the energy of an exchangeable beast core as the source of power, a battle wand might be able to hold three times as many copies.
In effect, it was casting a spell that cast its own spell.
Sebastien thought back to Professor Gnorrish’s class some weeks before. If you could truly understand a process, down to its very molecules, well enough to reproduce it given only a piece of chalk, you could cast spells that gathered and formed their own energy.
If the encrypted book explained how to create artifacts like that, and it was something the average Master-level thaumaturge could grasp, it would revolutionize industry and the entire country. Anyone would want that knowledge.
‘If Oliver had any idea what I might have…’ She had offered him the book in exchange for help when she first met him, and he’d refused. If he had known, she couldn’t imagine he would have turned down the possible advantage. ‘Of course, trying to actually implement any changes based on this theory—if it is possible—would be difficult to impossible. Master-level might not be high enough, and finding a Grandmaster or Archmage willing to secretly collaborate would be difficult. After that, as soon as word spread about someone selling special artifacts or even knowing about it, the University and the Crowns both would swoop down on those rumors like a sky kraken.’
She looked down at the yellowed pages of the reference book, unseeing. ‘They’ll never stop, if this is really what they’re searching for. I could turn the book in, but the possible knowledge in my head would make me a liability to them. I can never be caught.’
That book didn’t have much more of value, but it did lead her to a discovery of the existence of an artifact meant to evaluate the energy stored in other artifacts—without having to take the other artifact apart. It didn’t detect magic directly. It worked by cooling down the artifact and then measuring any extraneous sources of heat. Most artifacts slowly leaked some of the energy from their captured spells, and in an extremely cold, controlled environment, this was measurable.
Without the need to take the battle wand she’d commandeered from the Morrows to an artificer, it would be able to tell her how many of the small spell Circles within were still charged. It might even tell her something about the amulet.
Lost in thought, Sebastien jerked upright when someone pulled out the chair next to her. Her eyes were stinging, and she realized she’d somehow forgotten to keep blinking. ‘I’m tired.’
Newton sat down beside her. His hair was windblown, his clothes were wrinkled and smudged with ash on his arms and legs, and the dark circles under his eyes stood out against his pale face. A smattering of blonde stubble grew from his chin. “I’m glad you’re here. I didn’t get a chance to give you my report yesterday. And something happened.”
Sebastien straightened. “With Tanya?” She pulled out her pocket watch to check the time. To her horror, her research fugue had extended through Tanya’s fourth class of the day and twenty minutes more besides.
Newton glanced toward the Administration offices, where Tanya was waiting impatiently at the end of a long line of students.
Sebastien let out a slow breath of relief.
“Yes. I just got back, and she pulled me aside to talk. She wanted to check on me and ask about my family, but she was also asking for more information on what happened. She seemed agitated when I told her the Morrows had been ousted from their former territory. She specifically asked about”—he lowered his voice—“the Raven Queen. She seemed surprised when I told her I hadn’t heard any credible rumors about the Raven Queen being involved, but she still wanted the details.”
“What did you tell her?”
“I really don’t know much. I was mostly focused on my family, and the fighting was so widespread. But I heard the Raven Queen flew above the battle in a black mist that was invisible against the night sky.”
Sebastien rolled her eyes. “If the mist was invisible, how could anyone have seen it to tell stories about it?”
Newton nodded sheepishly. “Yeah, pretty ridiculous, but, umm, Tanya seemed interested, almost like she thought it could be true. I also told her I heard the Raven Queen attacked a whole squad of the Morrows and took their bodies with her when she disappeared. And I heard someone prayed to her for protection and was able to escape through the darkness without notice, a veil of invisibility safeguarding them until they reached safety.”
Sebastien refrained from rubbing her throbbing temples. ‘This is getting ridiculous.’ “Most people don’t actually believe those stories, though, right? It’s just ridiculous rumors?”
“Of course they don’t. But no one knows exactly what she can do, so it’s hard for anyone who tells crazy stories to be judged absolutely as a liar. Anyway, that’s not exactly what I wanted to talk about. My family’s home was caught in one of the fires.”
“Are they okay?”
“Shaken. Frightened for their future. A couple light burns on my mother. She ran back into the house to save some of our things. A magician with this water-spring artifact pulled by a carriage put out the fire before our whole house could burn down, but, it’s not livable, and it will be a big job to repair, especially at this time of year. The fire, the smoke, plus the force of the water, and then sitting there drenched has damaged a lot of our things.”
‘That’s the artifact I bought at the secret meeting. Or one just like it.’
“The worst of it is that the smoke and being out in the cold all night trying to get to safety took a toll on my father’s lungs. But my family is all alive, and none of them were seriously injured. Except…well, it means there’s no chance I’ll be able to stay on at the University next term. And I mentioned that to Tanya. She…”
Newton glanced up again to peek at Tanya in the line, ensuring she still was paying no attention to them, and lowered his voice again. “She swore me to secrecy and said she knew something that might help me. A way to make money. She hinted that it was illegal, or at best, very questionably legal. That I would have to take a magically binding vow of secrecy. And that it might involve some danger to me. So, Sebastien, I really need you to answer some questions for me.”
“I’ll answer what I can,” she said.
“Working for you, I’ve been getting closer to her. She’s driven, smart, and capable. I know she considers me her friend. Reporting on her every move while knowing that she trusts me…it makes me wonder about myself sometimes. Where do I draw the line for what I’ll do to further my own goals? I used to pride myself on my integrity. But I also have to wonder if it’s all a facade on her part, too. So just tell me. Is she harming people? Why am I watching her? What exactly is she trying to get me involved in? Is she dangerous?” Newton stared at Sebastien intently.
“Relax,” she said. “Your body language is conspicuous.” She slid the book she’d been trying to read closer to him. “Pretend you’re explaining something to me.”
Newton did a passable job.
It could be dangerous to give Newton answers, but she worried that he might decide to quit helping if she didn’t.
Putting a slightly confused frown on her face, Sebastien said, “I don’t know all the details, and of what I do know, I can’t tell you everything. However,” she said quickly, forestalling the protest that was obviously on the tip of his tongue, “Tanya is involved with people who perform criminal acts that include violence against innocents. She has participated in these acts personally. There is corruption inside the University itself that goes beyond her. And there’s a reason she’s particularly interested in what happened last night.”
Newton swallowed several times, shifting in his seat like he wanted to get up and pace, but was forcefully suppressing the urge. “But she was here last night? She didn’t have anything to do with the attacks…right?”
“She didn’t directly participate in them, no. But that’s likely only because she didn’t know they were going to happen. She’s been directly involved in at least two civilian deaths. That I know of. You’re keeping watch on her for a good reason, Newton.”
This didn’t seem to reassure him. “This is way too much. I’m just trying to get my Journeyman certification. I don’t want to be involved in—whatever this is!” He waved his hand vaguely.
Sebastien hesitated, but said, “You don’t have to be. You can stop if you want. But as long as you don’t get caught, you should be perfectly safe.”
Newton stared at the book for a moment, then forced a slow, calm breath that reminded Sebastien of the spell he’d taught her. “About this…meeting, or whatever it is she wants me to accompany her to. Do you think she suspects? Is she trying to lure me off campus so she can get rid of me?”
Sebastien suspected she knew what Tanya had been hinting at. “Can you tell me more about what she wants you to do?”
Newton swallowed painfully, looking down at the book in front of him and pointing to a specific line to keep up the ruse of helping her. “She said she had an answer to my money problems, if I was willing to take a risk. She said there would probably be no direct danger, but that I would have to take a vow of secrecy. She said she’d pay me to carry a battle wand and watch her back, but that if I wanted to put some of my tutoring expertise to bear, I could make a lot more coin from the kind of information that only a University student has access to.”
That confirmed it. “There are plenty of thaumaturges in Gilbratha that aren’t officially licensed to practice, or who are interested in magics that aren’t officially sanctioned. If I’m guessing correctly, she wants you to accompany her to one of their meetings. They’ll pay for things like spell arrays, restricted components, or other magical equipment. Some of the people are probably just there to avoid the Crown’s magic tax, but others could be dangerous. However, I’ve heard there’s a well-enforced restriction on violence at the meetings, so unless Tanya expects to start a fight, I’m not sure why she’d want backup. It could just be that she’s worried about navigating through the city alone after all the violence. The streets might not be totally safe. Or it could be that she plans to make some extra stops along the way.”
“Should I agree to go with her? I don’t want to get involved in anything…well, criminal. I don’t want to hurt people.”
Sebastien rubbed the back of her teeth with her tongue, considering how to respond. “You’ll have to decide that on your own. You’re definitely not obligated to do agree. It is a risk, but the possibility of profit is real, and we might be able to use whatever information you gather.”
“But I’ll be sworn to secrecy. I won’t be able to tell you anything, really.”
She hesitated, but said, “I have a contact that attends the meeting. You can discuss events with other members, and they can tell me.” Really, it would just be a meeting set up with her in her female body. They would have to be very careful.
“If you already have someone there, why would you need me?”
“Because Tanya might talk to you about the details. My contact is a stranger to her. Still, if something goes wrong…they might be able to act as backup for you. Just something to consider. Also, we would pay you extra for the risk. But you’ll still have your assignment with me even if you decide not to do this.” She hesitated again, but decided it was only fair to be candid. “Also, there might be other options to get the money you need. I do have some contacts, and we might be able to work something out. This isn’t your only chance in the world.”
She wished she’d had someone to say the same thing to her when everything was going wrong. It was only by luck that Oliver and Katerin weren’t worse, and that her deal with them was something she could stomach. She might have made much worse bargains out of desperation, were she in Newton’s spot. “Though, to be clear, what I could connect you with probably wouldn’t be as lucrative as the danger of accompanying her.”
Newton’s shoulders visibly loosened. He laughed. “Wow. If you would have told me I would be having this conversation at the beginning of the term…” He shook his head ruefully. “I’m just a bookish commoner who’s too stubborn to admit I don’t belong here. I wasn’t meant for these things.”
Tanya paid the Administration worker for the paper bird messenger spell and moved to the stacks of special paper that she would write her letter on. She glanced over at them, and Sebastien gave her what she hoped was an unsuspicious smile.
Newton didn’t even notice.
“We sometimes find ourselves in extraordinary situations,” Sebastien said. “And then we discover that there are extraordinary depths of resourcefulness within us.”
“How did you get involved in all this? Contacts in secret meetings, digging up corruption in the University, rubbing shoulders with the children of Crown families?”
Sebastien let out a breathy laugh. “I, too, never expected to find myself having this conversation. Truly. But life has a way of surprising you. Especially when you demand more out of it. The world twists in strange ways to keep up with you.”
“I’m interested in these other opportunities to make some coin, but I think I’ll do it. Go with her, I mean. As long as there’s going to be backup there.”
“In that case, let me be clear that I intend no one at that meeting any harm. You are not associated with Gilbrathan coppers or official law enforcement of any kind. You have no plans to discuss relevant information about the meeting to any non-members. You are there for your own mercenary benefit only.”
He blinked at her.
“They will ask you,” she said. “This way, you can answer honestly.”
He gave her a slow, confused nod, but there wasn’t time for more questions because Tanya had finished sending her letter and was heading their way.
‘She was most likely contacting Munchworth, or someone else here at the University. Even if the paper birds have a delivery beacon with one of the Morrows, I doubt she’d be so reckless as to contact them directly right now.’
Tanya dropped into the seat across from Sebastien with an irritated huff.
“Thanks, Newton,” Sebastien said, pulling the textbook back over to herself. “That makes sense.”
“No problem.” He looked up to Tanya, and Sebastien was impressed with his composure, despite what he had just learned about the other girl. “Is everything okay?”
Tanya waved a dismissive hand. “Well, you know.”
Sebastien wasn’t sure they did know.
That must have shown on her face, because Tanya brought up a knee, tilting her chair away from the table to rock back and forth on its hind legs, and said, “I needed to ask one of the professors for instruction, but with everything going on I can’t get ahold of them. Had to send a bird.”
“Is it worth it?” Sebastien asked. “The contribution points for being a student liaison?”
Tanya snorted. “Of course not. They make me do all kinds of shit that I don’t want to do.” She was grinding her teeth. She stopped talking to rub her jaw, then said, “There’s a reason why you don’t see a lot of high-class students working as student liaisons. We don’t do this for the contribution points. I mean, the points don’t hurt, but the whole point of getting a position like this is to put it on your resume once you’re looking for employment. I don’t want to be poor and insignificant my entire life. I have ambitions, Siverling.”
“I can understand that,” Sebastien said.
Tanya peered at her assessingly for a few moments, rocking back and forth. “Maybe you can,” she said finally. “How did you manage to do it?”
“Build all those connections. Even if you make a mistake, or make enemies, you have a safety net. You won’t be expelled before reaching Master, and you’ll easily be able to get a position as a research assistant to attempt Grandmastery. You’re pretty much assured a job after graduation, etcetera. A lot of people will see who you surround yourself with and hesitate to make an enemy of you.”
Sebastien tilted her head to the side and said aloud, “What?”
Tanya scoffed. “Come on, Siverling. Damien Westbay, Anastasia Gervin, and Professor Lacer? I mean, I’ve heard you insult Alec Gervin to his face…and you’re still here.”
Sebastien blinked. “Well…I suppose I could get a low-level position in the coppers through nepotism, and Damien Westbay probably has enough influence to keep me out of minor trouble, but he’s definitely not going to pay my way through the University, and he can’t keep me from being expelled. To be candid, Professor Lacer vouched for me to get me through the entrance exam. I offended some of the other professors and almost didn’t make it. But that means my future here depends on him, and he’s already threatened me with expulsion multiple times.”
Tanya seemed to find this both surprising and amusing. When she was finished laughing, she wiped the wetness away from her eyes. “But he’s not actually going to do it, right? If he was, he wouldn’t have taken you as his apprentice.”
Sebastien again found herself saying, “What?”
“I mean, that was a pretty big decision on his part. You know how he is. He’s got a personality like a barbed razor blade. But he’s not going to actually expel you unless you do something really outrageous or start failing all your classes or something.”
Beside Sebastien, Newton nodded. “That’s probably true.”
Sebastien shook her head rapidly. “Oh, no. Okay, I think you have a misconception. I’m not Professor Lacer’s apprentice. He just used his veto power over the entrance council to get me admitted.”
Both Tanya and Newton stared at her silently, their expressions a mix of confusion and incredulity.
Sebastien looked back and forth between them. “Really. And I became friends with Damien…by accident.”
Tanya started laughing again and almost fell over backward when her chair overbalanced.
One of the librarians sent a death glare toward the three of them, pointing to the conspicuous sign requesting a quiet, peaceful atmosphere.
Tanya gripped the table and slumped over it, her face pressed into her elbow to muffle the disruptive volume of her mirth.
Sebastien looked to Newton for support.
He shook his head. “Sebastien, you definitely are Professor Lacer’s apprentice. It was on the announcement board for special accomplishments.”
She remained silent.
“…When the exams ranking results came out? It’s displayed to everyone.”
Sebastien hadn’t returned to the University to see her ranking after taking the exam. She’d known it would be poor. She’d barely been admitted, after all. She found herself mirroring Newton’s shaking head. “That’s impossible.”
“What’s impossible?” Damien asked. He’d waited some time to follow after Tanya into the library, and was now staring down at her shaking shoulders with suspicion. “Is she crying?”
With a few shuddering gasps, Tanya regained control of herself. “Oh, I needed that,” she muttered.
“We’re discussing apprenticeships. Do you remember who Professor Lacer’s apprentice is?” Newton asked Damien, his own lips twitching in suppressed amusement.
Damien moved to pull out the chair next to Tanya. “What? It’s Sebastien. Is this some kind of joke?”
Sebastien’s eyes lost focus. She stared into the middle distance. It all made a horrible, embarrassing amount of sense. “But you and Ana are doing the extra exercises, too?” she asked feebly.
“Well, I wasn’t willing to fall behind some rude commoner,” Damien said with a rueful smile and a shrug. “And Ana’s a good sport. I badgered Professor Lacer into allowing it, since it’s all individual work and doesn’t require any extra time on his part.”
“If you want proof, you can go look at the special accomplishments display for this term,” Tanya said, waving to a series of framed papers on the wall near the Administration center.
Sebastien got up and walked over to them in a daze. She found her name next to Thaddeus Lacer’s easily enough. “Oh,” was all she could say.
‘I’m apprenticed to Thaddeus Lacer. I am the apprentice of the youngest Master of free-casting in a century. And somehow I had no idea.’
The Patreon bonus short story, “Thaddeus Interlude – Codename: Moonsable” is complete and up on Patreon! It’s longer than I anticipated, coming in at about 7500 words, or about the length of two average chapters.
Blurb: Thaddeus plans to introduce the second exercise of the term to his Intro to Practical Will-based Casting students. But when the rogue magic sirens go off, he is called away to deal with the particularly fascinating source of the turmoil.
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