Chapter 97 – Properties of Explosive Materials


Month 1, Day 29, Friday 10:30 a.m.

Sebastien recognized one of the girls gossiping about Newton from Practical Casting. Some time ago, the young woman had tried to flirt with her, hinting that Sebastien should buy her a gift from the offerings in the Great Hall with her contribution points. Sebastien had forgotten her name.

“But Moore always seemed so nice!” one girl exclaimed in a scandalized tone, leaning further into the huddled group. They had either not realized Sebastien was standing nearby or were too oblivious to realize how rude they were being.

Another girl tittered. “Well, obviously he was involved in…questionable activities. The revelation might be sudden, but there’s too much evidence to deny it. I mean, how else do you find yourself entangled in a battle with gang members and the Raven Queen, and then turn into an Aberrant?”

Sebastien’s breath was coming fast. She curled her hands into white-knuckled fists, her short nails digging into her palms with a welcome sting.

“He must have corrupted his Will,” said a third girl. “What kind of magic do you think he was dabbling in? And what about the other student liaison, that Canelo girl? I hear she’s refusing to talk.”

The girl Sebastien recognized from Practical Casting shook her head. “She was cursed to be unable to speak of it, from what I heard. As for Newton Moore, he probably did it because he needed the coin. People will degrade themselves in a lot of ways when they need coin.”

The first woman sneered. “He didn’t fit in here, did he? If he was going to end up so desperate to stay that he let his Will be corrupted, perhaps he shouldn’t have been admitted in the first place.”

Perhaps cued by some change in Sebastien’s bearing or expression, Ana reached out for her arm, but it was too late. Ana’s fingers slipped off as Sebastien strode toward the group. Her breath came hard, her wide-eyed gaze tracking over the women’s amused, scandalized expressions, taking in every nuance as if preparing for battle.

Sebastien’s voice was deep with anger, and she could feel the rumble in her chest, but couldn’t quite hear it past the rush of blood in her ears. “Newton Moore was worth more than the entire lot of you.”

The women spun to face her, their expressions ranging from surprise to dismay. The girl from Practical Casting blushed, then paled.

Sebastien’s slow, bitingly enunciated words came faster as she continued. “It is clear you have no idea what you are talking about, yet find some kind of sick, self-titillating pleasure in spewing vile opinions and allegations about others who aren’t around to defend themselves. It speaks more about you than it does about Newton. I feel like I’m being made dirty just standing in your presence, but putting you in your place is a service to the entire world that everyone else in your lives has obviously neglected.”

There was a short, stunned silence, and conversation began to die out around them as people turned to watch the altercation. “Excuse you? We were just talking!” one girl retorted.

Sebastien let out a sharp laugh. “I am also ‘just talking.’ The difference is that I do not pretend my words are harmless. My words are meant to slap you across the face in lieu of my hand.”

The girl flinched back, looking at the fists balled at Sebastien’s sides.

“I’m sorry, Sebastien, we shouldn’t have…” The girl from Practical Casting trailed off, biting her lip.

“Do not sully my name by letting it pass your lips,” Sebastien hissed. The crowd was growing thick with onlookers.

One of the women looked around as if for help, then burst into tears.

Ana stepped up behind Sebastien, laying a hand on her shoulder and murmuring into her ear. “That’s enough. I understand, but if this goes on, you could be the one getting in trouble.” Louder, she called out, “I’m sorry, he’s been under a lot of stress with everything that happened, and I don’t think anyone would have appreciated hearing people speak ill of their dead friend.” There were sympathetic murmurs among the crowd. “Please let us pass. He needs some space.”

Sebastien clenched her fists even harder, gritting her teeth, but had enough sense not to protest or continue her tirade, letting Ana usher her through to freedom.

When they were clear, Ana gave her an exasperated look. “Was that really necessary?”

Sebastien remained silent, unrepentant, her jaw lifted and clenched.

Ana sighed. “You may get away with that sort of thing now, under the circumstances and with your budding reputation, but one of these days your tongue is going to get you in trouble with the wrong person.”

“I know,” Sebastien admitted. “It’s almost surprising that it hasn’t happened already. But sometimes, I just—when I heard what they were saying—” She peeled back her lips in a silent, feral snarl and shook her head. “It’s not in my nature to be silent,” she finished in a softer voice.

Ana sighed, wrapping one arm around Sebastien’s shoulder as they walked and pulling her in to her side for a half-embrace. “Oh, Sebastien,” she murmured, shaking her head. Ana kept a hold of her for a few more moments, gaze firmly forward, then relented and released her.

By lunchtime, the remnants of Sebastien’s rage had left her, like a glowing ember cooled to ash. Its passing left her so fatigued she could barely muster up the energy to eat. Normally, she was ravenous from the constant effort of working her brain and her Will to learn and channel magic. After forcing down food until she started to gag with every bite, she left the others at their cafeteria table and went outside, hoping the fresh winter air would invigorate her.

She huddled into her jacket, sitting on a bench below a crisp pine tree to watch her breath fog up in little clouds. The chill sank into her slowly, but not unpleasantly, and away from the noise and press of the other students, she didn’t feel so jarringly out of sync. She closed her eyes and pulled up her scarf around her nose and ears, hibernating until it was time to go to Practical Casting. Her joints felt stiff and old, and even Professor Lacer’s class wasn’t enough to excite her.

When she entered, the classroom felt wrong, and she realized that its size had decreased once more, to accommodate the reduced number of students remaining. At this point, it was a similar size to many of her other classrooms, down from the beginning of term when it had been by far the largest.

Professor Lacer made his dramatic last-minute entrance as he often did, immediately quieting all conversation. The man looked tired, the lines at the sides of his eyes a little deeper.

Sebastien took a perverse pleasure in the evidence that other people were struggling in the same way she was.

“Some of your number have recognized their inability to proceed in this class and decided to give up, either for this term or forever,” he announced at full volume, his deep voice easily carrying to all corners of the room. “If you are questioning your ability to handle the workload or the pressure, I urge you to follow in their footsteps. I have limited time and do not wish to waste it on doomed prospects.”

With that, he turned to the blackboard, casting a spell with an absent wave of his hand. A stick of chalk jumped up and began to scratch out words and glyphs. “We will continue to work on your grasp of light as a Sacrifice. For those of you who may be interested in healing, proficiency with channeling and controlling light energy can give you a significant boost with spells that use components or energy from the Plane of Radiance. Of course, healing is not the only option for Radiant energy. I once saw a woman use a pocket-sized planar portal to channel a focused beam of energy that burnt cleanly through an entire group of enemies, and a few hundred meters into the mountainside behind them.”

Sebastien was momentarily distracted wondering how that would be possible, since as far as she was aware, planar portals were specifically designed to contain and shield against uncontrolled spillover from the Elemental Plane they were accessing. People passed through the portal—each wearing a specially designed protective suit—gathered and secured components, and exited. Only wild, natural planar portals were unconstrained in a way that would allow immediate use of their energy. And she was pretty sure that direct planar warfare was against some treaty all the major and most of the minor countries had agreed to. The potential consequences were on par with loosing a high-level Aberrant.

Professor Lacer first lectured on various glyphs that were directly or tangentially associated with light-based spells, then set them to practice.

Sebastien had made significant progress on her illusion spell, but still hadn‘t caught up to Nunchkin’s level. Normally, that would have bothered her, since she was still bitter that he had bested her in the class tournament, but at the moment she simply wanted to make it through the class period without drawing Professor Lacer’s ire.

A few minutes before the end of class, Professor Lacer ended their practice. “With mid-terms over, it is now time to start considering the end of term exhibitions. In many classes, particularly in the upper terms, they will display the practical portion of the final exam as part of the exhibition. While this class is almost entirely practical, I do not include it in the exhibitions at lower levels, since none of you are advanced enough to do anything impressive. If you wish to prepare an individual presentation for those classes that are not automatically entered, you are free to do so—at risk of great personal embarrassment. However, I urge you not to attempt to free-cast in the exhibitions. While success would certainly be an impressive feat and gain you points, I have a clear understanding of your capabilities, and let me assure you that you are more likely to cause yourself Will-strain, or worse.” He looked to Sebastien for a moment, and she nodded back quickly to assure him she had no plans for such foolishness.

It was a reminder that she was supposed to earn fifty points in the exhibitions. She hadn’t forgotten, exactly, but she’d put it out of her mind as something that she wouldn’t need to worry about until later.

Lacer continued, “If your goal is to earn points, especially in the first three terms where most students have no particularly impressive skills, I would suggest something more flamboyant or flashy.” He let slip a grimace of distaste, which Sebastien thought was ironic considering his own penchant for the dramatic. “While, nominally, the point of the exhibitions is to demonstrate skill in various areas, in practice, you are statistically more likely to be rewarded with points if you provide an entertaining demonstration versus showcasing your skills in a way that does not stimulate the audience. After all, the University wants to show off to all the guests who come specifically to watch. And spend coin.”

When the class was released, Sebastien turned to Damien. “I thought the point of the exhibitions was to showcase our talents for potential sponsors or employers. Can they, or the judges, not discern between skill and flash?”

Damien looked incredulously to Ana, who laughed and shook her head. “Sebastien, you seem to have misunderstood.”

Damien nodded. “It’s true, they say the exhibitions are for the sake of the students, but they seem more like a multi-day magical street fair. I attended every year as a child, and they were the highlight of my spring.”

“It’s not optimal for students who are trying to focus during that critical time,” Ana added, “but the University has some token policies in place that are supposed to be for student benefit and maintain our learning environment. But they’ll never restrict entrance to only potential employers or sponsors. It’s too big a revenue source, as well as a great way to build and spread their reputation.”

“So…I’m supposed to put on a show for who knows how many people, who might not even have any idea about how magic works, as part of a gigantic festival. And get fifty contribution points,” Sebastien said, dragging her hand down her face in the way that she’d seen Oliver do when he was overwhelmed.

“You’re not shy around crowds,” Damien said. “Or around anyone,” he added in a low mutter. “I’m sure you’ll be fine as long as you prepare.”

Ana smiled encouragingly. “I believe in you. But in case you’re interested, there are records, both from the internal University publication and official reports, that detail what kinds of exhibitions received rewards. That should allow you to tailor your efforts to your audience.”

“Thank you.” Sebastien didn’t want to research prior exhibitions, or start planning and developing a magical performance. She was struggling to care. But she recognized that trying to “wing” something at the last minute was a bad idea. If she failed to meet his demands, Professor Lacer might not allow her to remain at the University. Even though she was too tired to feel it at the moment, she knew her lifelong dream of learning magic wasn’t something she could allow to slip through her grasp. When she had recovered from this malaise, whatever it was, she would regret inaction.

Damien seemed to notice a little of what she was feeling on her face. “Are you okay, Sebastien?”

“Tired,” she replied simply.

“Really? I mean, is that it? I know you can’t talk about what happened with us, but maybe you should go to the infirmary? They have mind-healers who’ve taken confidentiality vows. You seem…”

Sebastien rubbed her eyes. “I don’t need a mind-healer, Damien. I just have a few too many things on my plate at once.”

Damien was silent for a moment. He looked to see that Ana was distracted with talking to someone else, and far enough away not to hear, then said quietly, “Maybe I could help take a few ‘things’ off your plate? I can handle more responsibility.”

Sebastien wanted to snap that his nosiness, his inclusion in her secrets, was one of her many problems. Instead, she gritted her teeth and announced abruptly, “Actually, I am going to go to the infirmary. Maybe they have something stronger than coffee to help keep me awake.”

She could practically feel Damien’s solicitous gaze on her back as she strode away.

Instead of the infirmary, though, she veered off and made for Professor Lacer’s office, where he retreated as soon as possible after his classes. She knocked sharply, then opened the door and strode inside, stopping in front of Lacer’s desk.

He looked up slowly from the scattered papers and books. Some held complicated spell arrays and what might even have been a half-finished ward plan for a residence. “How can I help you, Mr. Siverling?”

Sebastien clenched and unclenched her fists, let out a slow breath, and said, “Professor Lacer, I respect and admire you.”

He raised an eyebrow.

“However, I have to insist that you respect my personal boundaries. It is unacceptable for you to cast magic on me against my will, without my consent. Especially magic that will force me to sleep. Or in any way affect my mental state. I would never have consented to it, and will not consent to the like in the future.”

Thaddeus Lacer placed down his pen and leaned back in his seat. He met her gaze for a few long, agonizing seconds. “I understand. I will not do such a thing again, and will try to remember to ask your consent before casting any other magics that affect your person, unless I judge you are in immediate and severe danger without my interference.”

Sebastien’s shoulders loosened, but she lifted her chin, giving him a dignified nod. “Thank you. I’ll leave you to your work.” With a shallow bow, she turned and left the room without another word.

IMPORTANT NEWS: I recently received word that my father is in the hospital and not doing well. He has Covid, a serious pre-existing condition, and additional health issues. If things go poorly, I may need to take extra, unexpected time off.

However, if everything goes according to plan, the next chapter will come out Thursday, 2/24, according to the slow-down announcement posted here:

Additionally, a Patreon-exclusive excerpt from Siobhan’s Grimoire will be going up on Thursday, 2/10.

As an update for my progress on catching up with the writing: During this last week I got sick (not anything serious) and was out of commission for a few days, but still managed to content-revise three chapters and write two more from scratch. I’m fairly slow, so that’s good progress.

I hope to make even better progress over the next couple weeks.

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