Read a Practical Guide to Sorcery

The Care and Feeding of Magical Creatures

Azalea Ellis posting on behalf of Jaye Finch, per our agreement.


Late afternoon during the first few days of the break between Sebastien’s 1st and 2nd term

[Honeymoon Suite Inspired, Absolutely, Definitely Not Canon or Canon Adjacent in the Past or Future]

Thaddeus walked back from his meeting with the University administration, musing about his recent interference in his apprentice’s personal life. The Dean of the University refused to allow students to stay in the dorms over the break because the dormitories were scheduled to be cleansed magically, and the wards were to be strengthened and re-cast in preparation for the following semester. The University had grown increasingly paranoid about the possibility of a student triggering a mass break event, especially after his apprentice’s dramatic incident with one of his colleagues at the end of the winter term. Warding specialists had been summoned from several major arcanums to assist with the monumental task, and the University administration had spent the last few weeks working closely with the Red Guard to update their containment features. He had, of course, been consulted, but he had no interest in sacrificing the precious few weeks of the break when he could delve deeper into his research. The Dean had been eager to express his complete confidence in student safety measures for the next semester, and he reassured Thaddeus that his apprentice was welcome to stay in the dormitories or future breaks. Of course, the Dean was a fool. No amount of planning could prevent the inevitable.

But that was why they hired Thaddeus, after all. 

He had complete confidence in his skills to deal with most potential threats that could erupt at the school, but he cursed himself for the string of decisions that led him to this afternoon’s failed meeting. Allowing his emotions to get the better of him was one of his few lingering bad habits. 

He suspected his desire for company–for a companion–had spurred him on to make an exception for Sebastien Siverling’s intellect and exceptional talent, taking the young man on as his apprentice. He had imagined spending a few hours a week on private lessons with Siverling, being able to split his attention between the additional exercises and grading coursework, with no other disruptions to his life. 

Initially, Thaddeus had rejected the idea of acquiring a feline companion because the care and feeding of a pet would require a commitment of his time, possibly more than he desired. Cats were demanding, curious creatures that might disrupt his work flow. . .  Or, worse, spill coffee on priceless texts and leave ink prints on his belongings. He doubted that any affection he had for a cat would last if his research were to be destroyed. 

Contrary to his expectations, in a few short months he found himself spending more time on Siverling than he possibly could have spent caring for a pet. He found himself losing sleep, chasing the boy about the city to rescue him from his own reckless idiocy, and even resorting to petty bribery to keep the boy out of the hands of the coppers.

Offering to let his apprentice stay at his cottage until he could convince the school to allow him stay in the dormitories for the summer was yet another mistake. 

Now, after two days of Siverling sleeping on his couch, he had been forced to reassess his prior assumptions about his apprentice’s competence at life. The young man wasn’t semi-competent, he was utterly inept. Instead of sleeping, he stayed awake casting spells in the middle of the night. Instead of eating, he downed a cup of coffee and disappeared to the library until they kicked him out. Thaddeus supposed that the lure of the library was at least partly responsible for Siverling’s gaunt appearance, but a lecture on the many ways a thaumaturge could break their Will by neglecting to fuel their body’s basic needs was still not enough to get him to show up for dinner. 

He supposed he should be grateful that Siverling was, at least, fastidious about his personal hygiene. 

He walked up the winding path to his home and placed his hand on the door, opening it with a scowl as he released his hair from its tie and stepped inside. 

Siverling was sprawled on the floor in the living area, with the carpet rolled back and draped on his overstuffed chair to provide access to the floor. The boy was outlining a complex spell array, and although Thaddeus could not see the Circles in any detail, he wasn’t similarly spared from seeing the rest of the room. 

The boy’s luggage was tucked in a corner, but his satchel was hanging open off of the desk chair. It appeared as though the entire contents of the bag had been upended on Thaddeus’s previously neat floor. Components, books, pens, and chalk littered the smooth stone. Mathematical equations and smeared notes and gibberish covered the floor, with lines linking frantically from idea to idea, connecting notes on the baseboards to the floor where the boy kneeled. 

Thaddeus closed the door behind him slowly and firmly, pausing to allow the sound to penetrate his apprentice’s thick skull. The boy tensed, turned around, and opened his mouth as if to speak – and then quickly closed it. 

Perhaps there was some small amount of sense buried deep inside his brain. 

Thaddeus leaned back against the door and raised an eyebrow. Siverling swallowed audibly, and tentatively said, “It’s not… Well…” He cleared his throat and his poor attempt at an explanation evaporated in the air between them. “I got carried away. I apologize. I’ll clean this up immediately.”

Thaddeus said nothing, allowing the silence to sink into the room as he watched his apprentice start to erase the chalk markings on the floor with his ink-stained fingers and a handkerchief. He watched, letting the minutes pass as his glare waned into faint amusement. Before he allowed himself to shed his annoyance completely, he checked the desk and end tables for any damage to his precariously stacked sheafs of papers. He was certain that there must be a mug of coffee somewhere amidst the chaos. 

He found the nearly empty mug on the floor–thankfully safe from any priceless historical texts or his manuscript–and rescued it and an overturned ink pot from creating any further messes. He could clean the entire room up in a fraction of the time, of course, but his apprentice was the one responsible for this disaster, and he would require a small amount of time to muse on his mistakes. Thaddeus, realizing that most of his lingering irritation could be attributed to simple hunger, went to the kitchen and toasted bread to prepare several sandwiches. By the time he finished preparing their dinner, Siverling stood tall and composed at the entrance to the kitchen. 

Thaddeus handed him a plate and waved him to the table, waiting until they were both seated to speak. “The Dean and the University Administration will not allow you to stay in the dormitory over the break.” He took a bite of his sandwich and watched his apprentice carefully. There was no reaction other than the flash of emotion deep within Siverling’s eyes that he quickly replaced with his usual mask. Thaddeus assumed the emotion was horror, and continued to eat, perversely enjoying the charged silence that stretched between them. 

“I can find somewhere else to stay. I tried to explain to you before that this is an enormous miscommunication. Dryden—Lord Dryden–is not nearly so bad as Titus made him out to be. I do have other friends in the city. . .”

That was most certainly not an option. Thaddeus had no reason to doubt Titus, but even if his friend’s story about the unhealthy obsession Lord Dryden harbored for his apprentice was partially true, he would not allow Dryden to have further interference in his apprentice’s life. The young man had already proved that he was foolish enough to put himself under someone else’s control, and that could interfere with Thaddeus’s plans for his future. He finished his first sandwich and continued to the next, still carefully watching the young man sitting across from him. 

“I told you that you would stay here until you could resume living in the dormitories. I see no reasons to change our arrangement. However, from this point forward, I expect your behavior to change.”

Siverling stared at him for a few moments with his dark, assessing gaze, and nodded, then turned his full attention to the sandwiches on his plate. 

Thaddeus watched him finish the plate of food with a faint sense of satisfaction, and decided that, perhaps, he should be grateful that Siverling didn’t shed.

Chaos in the Riptide

Per our agreement, I, Azalea Ellis, am posting this content on behalf of Jaye Finch.


Month 3, Day 25, 5:30 p.m.

(Set between 148 and 149)

Thaddeus strode from his office towards the library administration center with a purpose, parting the stragglers in the hallways with his scowl. As he walked through the open doors, he preemptively glared at the administration assistants to deter any further amorous advances from the staff.  In the past, he might have taken a malevolent pleasure in allowing them to embarrass themselves, but over time he found himself less amused by the prurient interest that Gilbrathans seemed to have with him. Perhaps, due in part to his expression or the end of term distractions, the behavior of the woman on duty was professional as she handed him a small message. He read it and immediately left, traveling towards the University exit and hailing a carriage once he was at the base of the cliffs.

As Thaddeus headed back to his favorite book store, a small, multi-story shop on the edge of the Mires, he mused over the latest incident he rescued his apprentice from.  He had expected more surprises as he continued to assess the progression of Siverling’s abilities in their private lessons, but to learn that he could cast with a conduit touching any part of his body was as startling as it was intriguing. There were thaumaturges throughout history who, reportedly, could cast through conduit contact on any part of their skin. While this was not a topic that he was an expert in, one of the texts he recently acquired about the People contained a small anecdote about the ability, asserting that it was a genetic predisposition instead of a learned skill. 

He had not been entirely honest with his students or his colleagues today, of course. After decades of attempts, he could barely cast a simple levitation spell with his conduit pressed in the crook of his arm or between his wrists. The overpowering riptide of magical energy that his Will effortlessly channeled slowed into the barest trickle once the conduit lost contact with his hands, as if he was a leviathan of the rainforest cut down to the roots. 

But Thaddeus had no incentive to admit to other professors that he was not capable of performing fantastical feats of magic, especially those that his apprentice demonstrated with ease. Now that he had time to contemplate his earlier decision, Thaddeus decided that he made the correct choice on the way to the underground shelter–he would prefer not to draw more unwanted attention to his apprentice. Idly, he wondered if he knew of the thaumaturge who laid the foundations for Siverling’s exceptional control and force of Will, but he dismissed the thought. When the next term resumed, there would be plenty of time to sate his curiosity about his apprentice’s background. 

As he exited the carriage and paid for his ride, the warming air filled his nose with the city scents, salt air, and the faintest stench of the Mires. The bookstore was one of many buildings in Gilbratha that had seen better decades, with several additions piling on top of each other to create a cramped, multi-story shop that catered to the esoteric interests of academics. He suspected that the shop may originally have been a front for criminal activity, considering the location and niche offerings. Perhaps it still was.

He ducked slightly as he walked in, breathing deeply to fill his lungs with the unmistakable scent of the old bookstore, antique texts mingling with the new in the dusty shop. The light crystals were dim but plentiful, and every nook and narrow aisle was adequately lit, with stools scattered in corners to access the shelves that reached to the ceiling. The proprietor stepped partway down the stairs and asked, “Are you in a hurry today, Grandmaster Lacer? Your order is here, but I received a small shipment of miscellaneous texts from an estate sale that are supposed to be from the Blood Emperor’s reign. I haven’t had a chance to evaluate their authenticity, but they struck me as something you might be interested in.”

“I have a few minutes,” he said as he followed the shopkeeper to the second floor and perused the crate. He found nothing of particular relevance to his research, but that was to be expected. He browsed the stacks, picking up a newer book that had information on pre-Cataclysm magical artificery. Rumors suggested that the University expedition may have uncovered artifacts in addition to the books, and Kiernan had hinted that he might have the opportunity to examine the haul–perhaps some of those items could be from before the Cataclysm? His lips curved upwards in a faint smirk, and he paused to rein in his thoughts. Excitement was no excuse for making baseless assumptions, no matter how fascinated he might be about the whispers passed between the faculty. The discoveries were almost guaranteed to be valuable, but it was unlikely that even a small percentage of the rumors he heard were based in truth. 

The normal ebb and flow of the University gossip had been swept into a tsunami with the arrival of his mysterious apprentice, and while he attempted to ignore the inane chatter of the students, it was impossible to avoid completely. Even he had heard a few variations on the kraken rumor that started at the beginning of the term. 

Thaddeus strongly suspected it originated from Munchworth. 

His smirk widened maliciously when he recalled the petrified looks on the faces of the upper term history students last month when he assigned them demerit points for repeating the drivel. In any case, it did not matter. His new agreement with Kiernan would provide more than enough opportunities to indulge in petty vengeance that would be more satisfying to him than a simple cutting remark in a faculty meeting.

Thaddeus wondered how his apprentice ignored the ever-increasing outlandish rumors, and almost laughed to himself at the absurdity of his speculation. The real wonder was how Siverling managed to survive his first term, or even into his teens, with such a proclivity for recklessness. Practically, of course, he was an imbecile, but he was such a thaumaturgic prodigy that Thaddeus found himself willing to go to surprising lengths to protect the young man. He doubted that his guidance and criticism would be enough to keep Siverling from participating in perilous adventures in the following term, but Thaddeus was uninterested in wasting his time on someone who would kill himself before he achieved his Mastery. Perhaps he would have to find a different way to tailor his message to Siverling, as the boy didn’t seem to absorb his lectures about good judgment as voraciously as he consumed lessons in free casting.

As he walked down the stairs, he asked the proprietor, “I am searching for a gift to express my affection to someone I care for. A gift to communicate that I want them in my life.”

The older man attempted–and failed–to keep the surprise off his face, and walked to the counter. He rummaged in the cabinets beneath and pulled out a copy of a book titled Dream Work, putting it in Thaddeus’s hands. “Ah! A gift for a lover, perhaps? This is a personal fav-“

“Something more practical,” Thaddeus interrupts, setting the book of poetry onto the counter. He glanced about the displays and spotted a self help book with a trite title, leafing through it rapidly while tuning out the shopkeeper’s banal remarks. 

He closed the book and set it with his other selections. How utterly appropriate. “This will do.”

The shopkeeper stared incredulously at the book, “I’m not sure if that will send the message you intend… Most ladies prefer something a bit more, ah, heartfelt.”

Luckily, Thaddeus was not interested in purchasing books of poetry for a potential lover, and he doubted that his apprentice would be unclear about his intentions after reading this particular book. It was not as if he was giving the young man jewelry, after all. He paid for his books, carefully storing them in a satchel he had created with a library’s worth of shelving tucked neatly into the folded space. One never knew when they might need to have the right book on hand. He nodded a brusque farewell and entered the darkness of the street, hailing another carriage to take him back to the foot of the cliffs.

As he rode up the incline to the University, he carefully removed the brown paper covered parcel of his special order from the folded space in his bag. He unwrapped it and held the three books in his hands with an almost visceral excitement. Blood, Bone, and Gold: Casting with Creative Conduits, Out of Bounds: a Timeless History of the Native Tribes, and Nomadic Tribes of the Continent, the latter of which was a series. An abundance of curiosity about the world was, after all, the first virtue of a thaumaturge.

In the back of his mind, a question remained. What if she did not live up to his expectations? What if his carefully constructed idea of the mysterious woman was flawed, and he had created a simulacrum of her that was nothing more than what he wanted to be true?

Standard disclaimer: I, Jaye Finch, do not own anything in the Practical Guide to Sorcery Universe or any related source material or characters  and will not make any money off of this creation. I retain my rights to have it shared or taken down now and in the future. 

PGTS is owned by Azalea Ellis and she retains her copyright to her books, characters, universe, and all related source material. She has my permission to publish this and any other writings I send her to her website or social media under the penname. Neither of us will profit off of this writing, and the story is intended for entertainment purposes only.

Chapter 148 – A Tree of Sand and Light


Month 3, Day 25, Thursday 2:00pm

After leaving the infirmary with a bill of clean health, Sebastien and Damien returned to the Flats to give their “after-action reports,” which took a distressingly long time. She was sure most of the other students weren’t treated like witnesses in an investigation, forced to repeat things and dig for detail and motivations over and over again. The proctors taking her report kept making notes and stopping to murmur together, throwing her odd looks.

In the end, she insisted upon leaving in time to make her scheduled slot in the Practical Casting exhibition. Once again dressed in her own clothing, with the security of her holster and the black sapphire Conduit pressed against the skin of her back, she hurried across the grounds. As she strode with purpose, those in the crowds milling about made way for her. Sebastien ignored the various stages, food carts, and game stations to arrive at the stage that had been set aside for the Practical Casting students.

The performances were running behind schedule, so Sebastien took a seat in the small area at the front of the stands set aside for students like her, setting the box that contained her supplies by her feet. Several of the nearby students introduced themselves, while others whispered together, not even trying to hide the fact that they were talking about her.

Sebastien sighed, turned her attention toward the stage, and did her best to ignore them like the irritating flies they were. Small mirrors like those used in the Defense exam arena had been set up on stands, replicating the image reflected in them onto much larger mirrors that would allow even those at the back of the stage to see clearly, though they carried no sound.

A third term student who had cast a fairly simple spell with only a single glyph stepped down, replaced by a fourth term who quickly moved to set up their own performance, then used a single spell array to create a fountain show from a shallow basin of water. It seemed the Practical Casting exhibitions at this point were nothing particularly impressive. She suspected the upper term students had been scheduled for the day after, saving the best for last.

As another lackluster presentation followed, Sebastien’s thoughts wandered to more impressive magics. Professor Lacer had done more ambitious spells with a casual wave of his hand. She could only imagine what he was capable of with transmogrification’s higher order connections. Had he ever traveled to one of the Elemental Planes, perhaps? She would love to experience such wonder.

Sebastien thought back to that strange twinkling meteor that the old man from the Architects of Khronos had cast above Knave Knoll. It, too, must have been some kind of transmogrification. She still hadn’t figured out how it might work, or even why a spell would be designed like that. Perhaps a fourth-order association, the kind Professor Lacer had said was beyond the scope of their class?

The breeze blew her hair into her face, carrying the scent of sweet treats, fresh mud, and the budding greenness of spring, all riding over the ever-present salt of Charybdis Gulf. Sebastien tucked her pale hair behind her ears. Even her hair was an example of the kind of magic her fellow students could not hope to imitate. It had grown longer after all the time spent in this body. Perhaps it was time to cut it.

Shortly after the Knave Knoll attack, Sebastien had overheard a group of upper-term students gossiping. Apparently, one man had gone down to peek around the crime scene, making himself temporarily popular to all the classmates who were hungry for gossip. When she had inserted herself into the conversation, the man had bean eager to tell her what he could.

“Well, I couldn’t get close because the Red Guard are still swarming around the site. They have it cordoned off and the coppers were stationed around the edge to keep people from slipping past. But I saw the crater! It was dozens of meters across. I can’t even imagine the type of spell that could have caused such a thing.” The man had continued on for a long while after that, sharing inane details and his own speculation while Sebastien tried to pretend like she was still interested. “Whoever those terrorists were, they must have been as dangerous as an Aberrant, don’t you think? But if you’re interested just because the Red Guard was there, I have to disappoint you, because I’m pretty sure no actual Aberrants made an appearance.”


“Oh, well, I heard you were interested in Aberrants, right?”

“Where did you hear that?” Sebastien had asked, frowning.

The man had raised his eyebrows, then gave her a commiserating smile. “Oh, you know, around. It’s pretty common knowledge that you fought one. I really admire your courage, but you shouldn’t be so reckless. I’m sure Professor Lacer would be willing to recommend you to the Red Guard once you’ve gotten your certification and completed your apprenticeship. There are rumors he used to work for them.” He’d laughed, then. “Well, you’d know that better than I, wouldn’t you?”

Sebastien frowned, ignoring the latest student’s presentation as she stared off into the distance. ‘Even if it was fourth order association, why would it create such a wasteful spell? Are there some rules or principles I’m unaware of? What is the point of creating a physical manifestation and destroying an entire building, when it would seemingly have been simpler to just use some mass paralysis spell or send in some sedative?’ Perhaps the wards were set up to block all the more common applications, and the Architects had needed to get creative to bypass them, she reasoned. Or maybe that old man thaumaturge she’d accidentally killed was just showing off.

“—erling. Mr. Siverling!”

Sebastien jerked to alertness, turning to the student aide calling her name in an annoyed tone.

The woman rapped her knuckles on her clipboard. “Are you prepared? Please take your place on the stage.”

Sebastien stood up and hurried to climb the stairs with her box of supplies. As a student at third-term or below, she’d only been given ten minutes to display her skills, so she needed to set up quickly. As she crouched to draw out her spell array, a quick glance up revealed that the audience stands were packed much fuller than they had been when she arrived. Many of the seats were taken not by outside guests, but by her fellow students, indicated by the wooden tokens they all wore.

She shot a quick look to the judge’s table, where Professor Lacer sat. Now that her mind was not so occupied with the possibility of being blasted to smithereens by another of her professors, seeing him reminded her of Oliver’s recent secret note. Again, it had been disguised as a promotional letter from a local tailor’s shop, but the message inside implied that Thaddeus Lacer had requested to meet the Raven Queen. Oliver had sent a second note after that, asking to meet at her earliest convenience, but even if she hadn’t been avoiding him, she’d had no free time during finals week.

As she crouched on the stage, staring up at Professor Lacer, she had a moment of vertigo. She didn’t know what to do with that information. Not after the recent upheaval in her situation. Or at least her comprehension of the reality of her situation.

Professor Lacer gave her a small, almost imperceptible nod, jarring her attention back to the current moment. She focused her Will into the setup, every movement purposeful, chalk lines large enough to sprawl over almost the entire stage. Both a triangle and a pentagram went inside, for control over both energy and matter. Three glyphs, “light,” “shaping,” and “heat” went at equidistant points around the center. She finished by setting two clay pots in their smaller component Circles on either side, and one pot full of gravel at the front, nearest the stage and the judges. For this spell, she didn’t even need a beast core. In fact, taking the power from elsewhere was part of the show.

Finally, she stood to the side of one of the largest spell arrays she had ever used, took a deep breath, and wrapped her fingers around her Conduit. She was ready.

Her Will contracted down, caught the light out of the area bounded by the Circle, and channeled it into the lines of the spell array. Sebastien’s heart beat firmly, a little too fast but without fear, and she couldn’t help the smile that spread across her face as she pulled the darkness back to create a backdrop. She pulled heat from the area, reaching deeper and deeper into the pitch black shadows until the water particles in the air turned to ice.

As the breeze dragged at the area with its ephemeral fingers, a white fog wafted from the shadows. Sebastien had practiced this several times, and knew that the effect was quite dramatic. Ominous, even.

She held that steady for a few seconds, and then moved on to the second step. While maintaining the Sacrifice of light and heat, she pulled at the sticky, metallic sand in the leftmost component pot. The clumped chunks and tendrils moved through the air slowly, almost invisible against the darkness until she used some of the light she was siphoning off from the back half of the Circle to add a glow. As the glowing particles and tendrils arrived at the front, she compressed them into the shape of a single glowing seed.

Then, she did the same for the other pot, pulling a dark amber, honey-like substance to the seed, where she integrated the two in marble-like patterns. It was a resin that she had mixed various incense oils into until she got just the right smell.

That was the final step. She closed her eyes and imagined the finished product, then opened them, a blazing determination in her chest, fueling her Will as she began to showcase her abilities in earnest. She pulled on the light and the heat and used its energy to fuel her control of the sand, the resin, and the ethereal glow, all at once.

She had been practicing this in phases, first teaching herself to mold the sticky sand like a sculptor, then doing so while adding tiny sparkles and wisps of light, and then the addition of the backdrop of darkness to set it all off.

None of the pieces of this spell were so difficult by themselves, but doing them all at once was a strain on her multitasking abilities, and she felt likely to fumble the whole thing due to sheer complexity. One spell, multiple complex effects, but each of them based on simple principles. Most of which she had learned in Professor Lacer’s class, or from the auxiliary exercises he had assigned: complex movement of an object, the particulate to stone spell, using light as both Sacrifice and output. If she hadn’t been practicing with all of the individual elements for so long, this likely would have been impossible, even with a complex spell array with dozens of glyphs and a fully written Word.

The glowing seed broke open, a delicate, hopeful leaf sprouting out from it even as roots dug downward into the gravel. She fed the living sculpture more metallic sand and amber resin, weaving them together as the seed sprouted into a sapling, sprouting branches and leaves as it shoved its way out and up from the dark ground. The tree grew bolder and more robust as it aged under her Will, as if speeding through days, weeks, and months, strands of resin and sand layered atop each other and reaching outward toward the sky.

As the tree grew larger, the strain on her Will increased, pushing at it from every direction as if the tree was trying to burrow out of her grasp like roots through an old cobblestone wall.

She had tried using a tree nut to add some transmogrification to the spell and thus make the shaping easier and more instinctive, but found that it only made everything harder and left her struggling to weave all the pieces seamlessly together. Instead, she had to hold the evolving shape entirely in her mind, the evocative parts meant to stimulate emotion carefully planned and controlled.

The living sculpture reached the height of her hip. She had wanted to add sounds and maybe illusory birds in the tree’s branches at this point, but that was still beyond her. Instead, for the final step, she molded the last of the resin into the shape of tiny fruit, then channeled heat into the tree, from root to crown. The resin layered throughout the tree came just short of catching fire, but began to smoke and glow a smoldering orange that would burn for a couple hours, until it was all burnt away. The heat had the added effect of solidifying and hardening all of the sticky metallic sand firmly in place.

Breathing hard, she let the spell stay as it was for a moment. Then, slowly, the ethereal glow disappeared. The darkness that she had held toward the back of the Circle swept forward to make a complete dome once more, gobbling up the tree.

Two precise seconds of darkness passed, and then she dropped that as well, revealing the final result.

A miniature tree sat on the stage in its gravel-filled pot, only a few feet high but as gnarled and detailed-looking as she could make it. The resin ran through its bark in decorative, marble-like stripes and hung from the tips of its branches like teardrops. It fumed like dying lava, smoke from the carefully blended incense that she had mixed into it beforehand riding on the breeze in tendrils that looked surprisingly graceful.

Sebastien eyed the result with mixed feelings. It looked pretty enough, she supposed, but it was nothing special. She wasn’t powerful enough yet to produce any truly impressive spectacles. She looked out at the audience, and then to the judges, trying to gauge their reaction. They were all still and silent, staring down at her. She had been worried that she was unable to make the tree any larger, but hoped the image replicating mirrors would have mitigated that problem. Now, she was less sure.

She bowed to the audience. ‘Maybe I should have chosen something different besides a tree? Perhaps the audience would have appreciated something more dramatic, like a sculpture of a sky kraken. Using the animal from their crest would have even shown loyalism to the University. Why didn’t I think of that beforehand?’ Trying to keep her disappointment from her face, Sebastien picked up the tree sculpture and turned to walk off the stage, leaving the two empty pots behind.

“Sebastien Siverling, first term student and apprentice of Professor Thaddeus Lacer!” the student aide repeated somewhat belatedly.

Someone in the audience screamed with excitement, then started clapping wildly. Sebastien looked up in surprise.

Damien stood there grinning with all his might, surrounded by his group of Crown Family friends, all packed into the stands amongst their classmates. Others soon followed his example. The applause grew louder than she had expected, with several shrill voices screaming her name, some even stamping their feet when it seemed that their hands and mouths together couldn’t create enough noise.

One girl actually threw a rose at her, and Sebastien had to duck to avoid being caught in the face by its thorny stem.

Wide-eyed, Sebastien hurried toward the judge’s table, where several of them were whispering together, no doubt discussing her fate. She sat the tree down in its center, cleared her throat against the smoking incense, and said simply, “A gift. Thank you for the opportunity.”

The bark and leaves glinted as the texture caught the light, and the resin within seemed to seethe with rage. She hoped that seeing it up close, the detail she had put so much effort into might impress them a little, along with the smell. Pecanty loved it when his students talked about smell. There might be those among the judges just as obsessed with it as him.

As she turned to walk away, the audience was still clapping and yelling. Fighting down a blush, she bowed to them awkwardly again, then moved through the stands to join Damien and the others. She sat down and tried to drown out the noise, letting her mind relax after the arduous undertaking of her performance.

The judges conferred for a couple minutes while the student aide helped ready the stage for the next exhibition. To her surprise, the one in the center stood up, holding megaphone cone to his mouth. “To Sebastien Siverling, seventy contribution points for exceptional power, depth of range, and stability,” he announced.

Officially, contribution points weren’t finalized until the exhibitions had ended, after which they would be posted on the announcement board in the library and at the University entrance, as well as mentioned in most of the local newspapers. After all, there were a limited number of points to go around, and the most impressive exhibitions were saved until Friday. The judges only made immediate announcements of contribution points for those who made an extraordinary showing.

Damien screamed in Sebastien’s ear, seemingly more excited about this than she was. “By all the greater hells! Sebastien, why didn’t I know you were going to do something that amazing? You told me you were just going to display your grasp on the stuff we mastered in class!”

While those around her were jostling and cheering, she looked over to Professor Lacer, who gave her a smile and a single, slow nod.

“I’m an official apprentice, now,” she murmured, laughing as she slumped back into her seat.

Chapter 147 – Harry Harold Had no Hands


Month 3, Day 25, Thursday 9:45am

As the shield went up around Sebastien, who stood with his hands raised while Professor Fekten threatened him, Damien’s vision swam and his knees almost buckled. He was hyperventilating. Wrapping both of his hands loosely over his mouth, he blinked rapidly as he tried to force himself to take slow, even breaths despite his lung screaming that they lacked for air.

Why. Why? Why? This exam wasn’t even important. It was just a test! Even if they hadn’t made it to the tower, they still probably would have gotten some points for those they had helped to rescue. Sebastien had no need to risk his life for this.

“Get back, Westbay!” Fekten barked at him. “Back!”

Between one moment and the next, Damien had lost something so precious. He knew the true gravity of the situation, the depth of the consequences, hadn’t hit him yet. It had been like that when his mother died, too. It had taken weeks for him to truly accept the fact that she no longer existed, and even years later he still had moments of metaphorical vertigo when he remembered she was gone.

Sebastien was saying something, his voice scratchy with fear and muffled by the semi-opaque barrier, and Damien forced himself to focus.

“I realize it might have looked bad, but I didn’t channel magic through my own body. I’m not in any danger of a break event. I don’t even have Will-strain,” Sebastien said.

Damien stared at his friend, who for the first time since the exam started actually looked apprehensive.

As if reading Damien’s mind, Sebastien turned to meet his gaze and repeated, “I’m fine. This is a misunderstanding.”

Damien’s breathing began to slow, and he pulled his hands away from his open mouth, a string of saliva trailing between his palm and his mouth. He had apparently started crying at some point. His face and hands were covered in tears, and salt was getting into his mouth. “A mis—misunderstanding?” Damien asked, his breath hitching. He didn’t understand how that could be, but Sebastien’s calmness was contagious.

Fekten wasn’t listening, screaming back to the tower to evacuate the area and let them pass through.

Sebastien drew a deep breath and yelled through the barrier, causing Fekten to flinch and his hand to tighten around his battle wand. “I did not cast through my own flesh! Damien’s Conduit fell out of his pocket, and I borrowed it.”

Fekten’s eyes narrowed. “I know what I saw, Siverling. You were casting with empty hands. I watched as Westbay returned your Conduit to you, and he didn’t pick up his own off the ground until you were already standing.”

“I was casting with my leg. My pant leg is torn, so I was able to press my skin against Damien’s Conduit where it rested on the ground,” Sebastien insisted, enunciating every syllable. He lifted his leg, displaying the long rip in the grey fabric, reaching up to his knee. The pale skin of his leg was plainly visible, and though it was hard to see clearly through the barrier, it looked like there was a red mark where he might have pressed against the faceted edges of Damien’s Conduit.

It was a ridiculous, unbelievable explanation, but something inside of Damien still unclenched. “It—It’s true,” he croaked, drawing Fekten’s attention. Damien swallowed to clear his throat and tried again, holding up his Conduit for Fekten to see. “It had fallen out of my pocket when we got hit by that soft concussive blast spell. I didn’t see it until after Sebastien stood up. It makes sense that he would have been laying on it.”

The area around them had already emptied of other students, but a few members of the faculty were slowly approaching, battle wands and other artifacts out and ready.

Professor Fekten narrowed his eyes, and the tip of his wand remained unwaveringly focused on Sebastien. “You expect me to believe that you, in a moment of panic, learned to cast through your leg,” he said, his tone completely deadpan.

Sebastien huffed. “Let me reiterate, I did not cast through my leg. I cast through Damien’s Conduit. I just…gripped it with my leg. Skin contact is all you need, not actual fingers. It’s not like it’s the first time I’ve ever done such a thing. It might be slightly harder, but it’s far from impossible. Please, be reasonable. There’s no way I would have put all the students around me in such danger just to win a mock battle. Hells, I wouldn’t put myself in such danger just for the results of a test. I’m not anywhere close to failing, and if I thought the Defense elective was going to be the thing to hold me back, I could simply drop it from my schedule this coming term.”

Damien leaned over, pressing his hands to his knees and taking a couple more deep breaths. He wiped the snot and tears from his face with the rough grey fabric of his sleeve.

The other faculty members had arrived, and Fekten shared a look with a couple of them. “The boy claims he didn’t cast through his flesh, but through a Conduit touching his leg,” he explained, his skepticism clear.

“Is there any way to test it?” Sebastien asked. “I’m telling the truth, and I’m not experiencing any uncontrollable urges to cast through my flesh, but how am I supposed to prove that?”

“Put him under observation in one of the rogue magic shelters,” suggested one of the professors. “Three days should be long enough to be sure.”

Three days!?” Sebastien echoed, outraged. “I’m slotted to be in the Practical Casting exhibition later today. I can’t miss that.”

At the reminder of who he was apprenticed to, several of the professors shared glances again.

“Have him examined by a healer and give a statement to one of our Masters of divination,” someone else suggested.

Fekten agreed reluctantly, lowering his wand just slightly. “We’ll do it in the shelter under the sim room.” He reached into his pocket and fiddled with something, and the opaque barrier around Sebastien withdrew into the golden artifact at his feet. “I’m warning you, Siverling. If you’re lying, casting through your own flesh again is likely to cause a break event, in which case I will do my absolute best to kill you before you can complete the transformation.” He turned to Damien. “Didn’t I tell you to step back, Westbay? It’s not safe. You need to evacuate the area with the rest of the students.”

Sebastien turned to Damien. “I need you to go get Professor Lacer. Tell him it’s an emergency.”

Fekten’s wand rose again. “You have something to hide, boy?”

Sebastien’s tone was cold as he stared Fekten down. “On the contrary. I simply don’t feel safe being trapped underground with a professor who has repeatedly made it abundantly clear just how hair-trigger his murderous tendencies are. I can demonstrate to anyone who wishes how simple it is to cast basic spells with a Conduit touching my calf, or my shoulder, or even my ass. But I will do so under the supervision of my mentor. If you truly mean me no harm, that shouldn’t be a problem. After all, he’s trained to deal with much worse situations than an Apprentice-level Aberrant. His presence could only be a boon.”

“I’ll get him,” Damien said. Not bothering to wait for Fekten’s agreement, he turned to sprint ahead, toward the tower and the exit tunnels that would lead him to the edge of the Flats. He didn’t stop until he found Professor Lacer, then explained the situation in as few words as possible, so that his panting for breath would waste less time.

Professor Lacer rose from his seat at the Practical Casting exhibition’s judges’ table and strode off in the direction Damien had come from without even a farewell to the others or a second glance toward the student on stage. “Explain the situation,” he bit out as Damien hurried to keep up with the man’s much longer stride.

Damien did his best to explain, trying to gauge from Professor Lacer’s severe expression just how bad the situation was. “Did you know he could cast through other parts of his body? Is that part of the training you were giving him?” Damien asked, because there was no way he was going to ask if Professor Lacer believed Sebastien was telling the truth. He didn’t even want to ask that question of himself.

“I did not know, but such a skill is not unheard of, if somewhat difficult to develop safely,” Professor Lacer said, falling silent as they entered the heavy iron doors of the shelter.

The space beyond looked larger than Damien expected, but as he thought back to how packed together the students had been as they huddled in the shelter underneath the library, he realized that it probably only seemed larger because it was so empty.

Sebastien’s shoulders visibly relaxed when the two of them arrived, but only for a moment before he drew them back and lifted his chin again with the imperiousness that came so naturally to him, staring Fekten down as if looking at some kind of unruly puppy.

As Damien moved to stand supportively at Sebastien’s side, despite the protests of the healer Fekten had retrieved, while Professor Lacer spoke to Fekten, who explained the situation much less charitably than Damien had.

Professor Lacer’s expression didn’t change at all throughout the entire thing. “My apprentice is is very talented with these kinds of exercises.”

Fekten stared at him for a moment, speechless.

“It’s true,” Damien piped up, smoothing his disheveled hair back when everyone turned to look at him. “Sebastien has already learned how to distance the output of his spells. I’m not sure if you were aware, but he’s a genuine genius. Rather than doubting him and casting aspersions on his character, don’t you think you should be giving him contribution points for his impressive feats?”

The edge of Professor Lacer’s mouth quirked up for just a moment. “Indeed. Let us get this over with quickly, shall we? I have duties to attend to.”

Fekten bristled, letting out an audible snort that reminded Damien of the rumble of a dragon’s breath. The diviner and the healer both hesitated, looking at each other as if asking if this was normal, but when Professor Lacer waved his hand impatiently, they jumped into action.

Sebastien stepped into the spell array the diviner had drawn on the floor while Professor Lacer murmured with the woman, something Damien couldn’t quite catch about a “boon,” and “increasing the required power,” that made the woman pale uncomfortably. Damien suspected it had something to do with whatever the Raven Queen had done to Sebastien that he wasn’t able to talk about.

The woman cast the spell, and there were a few seconds where things felt strange, and Damien found himself looking away, examining the others, and was surprised to see both Fekten and the healer looking at back at him.

Then Damien looked to Professor Lacer, who was staring into the center of the spell array with fascination. He followed the older man’s gaze back to his friend, who shuddered uncomfortably, rolling his shoulders.

“I’m ready,” Sebastien said.

There really wasn’t much to say, and though Fekten and the diviner questioned him multiple times about the details and forced him to repeat things, that part finished quickly.

Professor Lacer shot Fekten a disdainful raised eyebrow. “Why don’t you demonstrate your capabilities for us, Mr. Siverling?” he asked.

With a sigh of relief, Sebastien acquiesced, pulling the Conduit Professor Lacer had lent him out of his pocket. Under the watchful eye of all five of them, he pulled out one of a disk painted with a simple gust spell array from his backpack, which he was still wearing. He cast normally, first, holding the Conduit in a firm grip. Then he cast with the Conduit sitting on the back of his hand. Then, drawing a gasp from the healer, he held the Conduit in the crook of his elbow, between his bicep and his forearm and cast the same gust spell just as easily as before.

Damien found himself grinning so wide his cheeks almost hurt, a heady cocktail of relief and pride urging him to gloat, to strut around making pointed comments in Fekten’s general direction.

Then Sebastien sat on the ground, placed the Conduit between the skin of his calf and the floor, and cast again, looking at Fekten.

The healer cleared her throat. “No signs of elevated heart rate, dilation of the eyes, bodily convulsions or trembling in the fingers. If he were experiencing the extreme sensation that accompanies channeling magic through one’s own flesh, I would expect to see some sign of it.”

“As you can see, my apprentice is simply talented,” Professor Lacer said.

“Well,” Fekten said with a harrumph. “You still acted recklessly, Siverling. We had to suspend the end of term exam for dozens of students. I must insist that you submit yourself to the infirmary for a more thorough battery of tests before participating in the next exhibition.” He paused, then added, “At least this was a false alarm, but I cannot believe that those imbeciles acting as the enemy continued to attack you despite all the evidence of someone who was about to have a break event.”

He made a few threats that Damien tuned out before stomping off, accompanied by the healer and the diviner, who bowed to Professor Lacer before leaving.

As soon as the three of them were alone, Damien couldn’t hold it in any longer. “How long have you been able to control a Conduit through your leg!?”

Sebastien rolled his eyes. “I don’t even know, Damien. As long as I remember, I suppose. Using a Conduit touching other parts of the body is actually not that difficult. I suspect that most people just have some mental block they never attempt to overcome. As Professor Lacer might say, they get into a rut. I had no idea it would be such a big deal.”

“How could you not realize?” Damien asked. “Do you see people going around casting with their wrists, or their belly buttons?”

“Do you remember that children’s rhyme about Harry Harold who had no hands? He wore jeweled shoes so he could cast through his feet.”

Damien blinked twice. “Yes. I remember that nonsensical rhyme for children. I also remember other similar stories about children walking into a dragon’s mouth and being transported to another world, then climbing out of the dragon’s nose years later, unharmed. Or about a girl who could transform at will into a pegasus. Or the one about the one-inch boy who might come to live with you if you built an appropriately detailed miniature house for him and filled it with all of your baby teeth.”

Sebastien crossed his arms. “Well, that’s not the same thing at all.”

“Yes, yes it is. For normal people, it is. Normal people cast magic through their hands, or maybe sometimes their foreheads.” He turned to Professor Lacer for help, but the man was just watching them with something that might have been amusement. Damien threw up his hands with exasperation. “Let me be clear, the reason the coppers search peoples’ crevices is not because they’re afraid criminals will start channeling spells through the Conduit shoved up their assholes!”

Sebastien raised one eyebrow in challenge, an expression that was eerily reminiscent of Professor Lacer, and drawled, “I know I’m impressive, but I’m sure you could do it too with a little bit of practice, if you weren’t so close-minded. Myrddin never would have been able to create Carnagore or sneak into the secret realm of the fey and marry their princess if he was so pessimistic.”

Damien reached up to tug at his hair in frustration, but Sebastien laughed. Whatever tension had remained in the other young man’s frame was gone as he grinned smugly at Damien. Damien squinted at him suspiciously, keeping the warm glow of relief that had bloomed in his chest from showing on his face. “You’re poking fun at me.”

Sebastien gave him a one-shouldered shrug, turning to walk toward the shelter’s exit. “Only partially. Right?” she asked, turning to Professor Lacer.

The man hummed, looking Sebastien over speculatively. “I suppose you may be correct. I can cast with a Conduit touching other parts of my body, but I still find using my hands much easier. I cannot free-cast without them, and even some of the more difficult spells would be beyond me. I am surprised you managed to distance your spell’s output under such restrictions. However, I did not start developing the ability until I was in my thirties. Perhaps if I had started younger, I would have progressed with similar ease.”

Sebastien seemed surprised by this, and then thoughtful, his dark eyes staring into the distance as he frowned.

After they closed the shelter door behind them, Professor Lacer returned to his duties, but Damien insisted on accompanying Sebastien to the infirmary, where Ana and her little sister Nat were already waiting for them.

“We saw what happened on the big mirrors,” Nat announced immediately, her eyes searching Sebastien’s face with an endearingly sincere worry. “Are you alright? We tried to read people’s lips when you were talking with Fekten, but I’m not very good at it yet, and it was hard to see you clearly inside of that bubble.”

Damien flushed, realizing that it was likely his response—the tears and his complete loss of composure—had been shown in great detail, duplicated from the small mirrors in the arena onto the much larger ones erected for the audience to watch the most interesting events of the mock battle. The practical part of the Defensive Magic exam was automatically displayed as part of the exhibition, and one of the biggest lures of the entire event.

Sebastien reached out to take Nat’s hand, squeezing it reassuringly and making the girl’s cheeks flush pink. Once again, he quickly explained the misunderstanding that had caused so much pandemonium.

“Of course you would be able to do that. Doesn’t anyone here know you’re going to be a free-caster soon?” Nat asked, blowing out her cheeks with frustration.

Ana nodded sagely, the only sign of her own worry the wrinkled spots on her blouse where she must have clutched it in white-knuckled fear, which no amount of smoothing with her fingers could totally hide. “That is a good point, Nat. One that I think everyone should hear before too much gossip that might be undesirable spreads. As they say, a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.”

Nat pressed her lips together and patted the back of Sebastien’s hand, which was still holding her own. “Don’t worry. We’ll make sure people don’t think badly of you just because that idiot professor got so frightened.”

“He’s a respected man,” Ana chided. “We can’t call him an idiot. Just…overly anxious about the safety of his students. He fought through a lot of horrible battles. Perhaps there is some lingering trauma from the Haze War.” She turned to Sebastien, gave him a brief, tight hug, releasing him before his surprise could fully take hold.

Damien smiled at her. “Thank you, Ana.”

“Think nothing of it,” she replied, taking out a small mirror from her pocket and checking her appearance, slipping on a sweet smile like a general arming himself for battle. When she finished, she passed the mirror down to Nat, who tried out several different expressions, muttering to herself as if she was talking to someone, or rehearsing a speech.

Sebastien looked between them with bemusement. “Yes…thank you.”

Nat tossed a lock of hair over her shoulder nonchalantly, but couldn’t hide her excitement. “Think nothing of it. We’re Gervins, you know. This is nothing we can’t handle.”

After they had gone to influence public opinion in Sebastien’s favor, one of the healers took Sebastien into a private room for another checkup. Sufficiently alone but assured that plenty of healers would be around to help him if he needed it, Damien tried to cast the simplest spark-shooting spell on a piece of paper, with his Conduit held in the crook of his forearm.

He did not find it nearly so effortless as Sebastien and Thaddeus Lacer had made it seem.

He felt barely any connection to the magical energy that should have been—needed to be—within his grasp. Frightened that he would lose control of the insignificant spell entirely, Damien released the energy, retracted his Will, and gripped his Conduit in his hand as he waited for his racing heartbeat to slow.

Author Note 2/2/23:

  1. I actually created the entire children’s rhyme, “Harry Harold Had no Hands.” I had the idea for this conversation between Damien and Sebastien over a year ago and was just waiting for the perfect place to feature it in the story. I’m no good at poetry, so don’t expect much, but you can read the rhyme FOR FREE here: Bonus Stories and Deleted Scenes
  2. The Honeymoon Suite “short story” turned into a novelette with multiple chapters. 5 have already been posted, with at least 2 more to come over the next few days. If you want to read it, you only need to be a patron at the $2 tier. Feedback from readers:
      • “I’m losing my mind with giggles over here. This is WONDERFUL! You took a great idea and made it fucking amazing”
      • “Screaming crying throwing up I love this so much”
      • “At this point I find the interlude more entertaining than the main plot.”
  3. A (canonical) deleted chapter from the beginning of Book 3 is also now available for patrons. It’s just a ton of bonus content raining from the sky, guys. Check out Preventative Measures.

Chapter 146 – Walk The Plank


Month 3, Day 25, Thursday 9:35am

Sebastien took a deep breath and bellowed, “Down the stairwell! Get down to the ground floor!” loud enough for her voice to echo off the stone around them for several blocks.

Damien flinched, pressing one hand protectively over his ear as he stared at her incredulously.

She hurried to the center of the roof, crouched down, and waved frantically at the others to keep them from actually going down the stairs. Instead, she pointed at the building in the opposite direction from which the enemy reinforcements were coming. It didn’t have direct roof access, but it had a balcony. “We’re making a run for that balcony. We have to move faster than them, or they’ll see us. We can only hope everyone else is too focused on catching us in the stairwell, or ambushing us on the ground floor of this building to notice what we’ve done until it’s too late.”

With that, she sprinted across the roof with the plank bridge over her shoulder, maneuvering the opposite end over and down to the balcony across the narrow street as silently as possible. Two of the bigger men helped to hold down the end and keep it stable, and when Damien got across, he did the same on the other end.

“Remember, you can feel free to stay here and slow down the enemy,” Sebastien said when several of her group members stared at the precariously placed bridge with hesitation. “We’ll laud your heroic last stand to the examiners.”

In the end, two of them did decide to stay behind. As Sebastien shuffled across the makeshift bridge, feeling bile rise in her throat, she couldn’t blame them. But her grade in Fekten’s class wasn’t high enough that she could afford to fail the final exam and still pass. In the distance, the roar of the audience rose to a fever-pitch.

She caught a splinter in her palm from clutching the sides of the sloping planks too hard, but ignored the pinch of pain in favor of maintaining her precarious stability.

As she reached the balcony, several hands reached out to steady her way down, but her pant leg caught on the white stone mimicking a decorative wrought-iron fence and tore loudly. Her suit shifted strangely as it registered the “injury,” but thankfully didn’t consider it debilitating enough to theoretically kill her. Still, it would lower her final score.

Grim faced, Sebastien motioned her orders, and the others pulled the plank bridge into the room beyond the balcony to keep it hidden. She pulled the splinter out of her palm with her teeth, sucked the blood off of it, and then licked her palm a few times just to be sure. She spit out the splinter, examined it, and tucked it into her pocket. She would dispose of it safely later. One could never be too paranoid.

Without hesitation, they continued deeper into the building and down the stairwell, moving so fast that Damien barely had time to scout ahead. The ground floor was not as empty as they had hoped, and Sebastien’s heart stilled for a moment, then crashed into her ribcage as it began to race.

But the people down below wore the black of upper-term allies, not red. They were picking up supplies from a black-flagged stash surrounded by a barrier of sandbags.

A woman raised her hands to her lips for silence, and waved them on. Her eyebrows raised as she watched all eight of them hurry to the nearest window and crouch down beside it.

“No enemies in sight,” Damien reported. “The black tower is that way. Do we just make a run for it?”

Everyone turned to Sebastien.

“Yes,” Sebastien agreed reluctantly. “Damien as scout, shielders and damage dealers pair up. I’ll bring up the rear.” Nominally, with her spell array disks, she was the wildcard, but if the worst came to pass, she could abandon the rest of the group and perhaps still make it to the tower.

Without argument, they exited silently through the nearest window. When Sebastien glanced back over her shoulder before following, the upper-term woman winked at her.

Soon after, the sounds of fighting erupted behind them. Sebastien didn’t look back.

They made it almost all the way to their destination without serious incident, meeting a few more grey and black suited students along the way. They took down a pair of injured enemies who were trying to retreat from the black tower’s territory. The sounds of fighting all around them grew louder, and they passed several sandbag barricades, some manned, and some empty or collapsed.

Finally, they turned the corner toward the street that would lead them directly to the tower entrance. To their right, only a couple blocks away, the tower flew the black flag above. At its base, students in dark grey and black manned sandbag barricades.

To their left, much closer, marched an entire unit of enemy troops, at least a couple dozen people, shielding spells up to protect them as they bludgeoned their way forward. ‘So this is what the audience was making such a big fuss about,’ Sebastien realized.

The woman at the front of the enemy unit wore a dark red cloak and epaulets to signify her high ranking—and commensurate danger level. They were marching on the tower with the intent to bring it down. If they succeeded, it would fly the red flag, and those students charged with its protection would fail.

Their entire group caught sight of the advancing enemy at the same time, and as one, they made the same decision.

“Run!” Rhett yelled, shooting a futile offensive spell at the enemy.

Sebastien’s group scattered across the narrow street, sprinting for all they were worth as their allies shot spells past them to try to cover their retreat.

Sebastien kept an eye on the enemy with her peripheral vision, her shielding spell array ready to activate at any moment. The harmless test spells moved slower than real battle spells, and if she reacted quick enough, she could either dive out of the way or block them. With the wild way some of her allies were attacking, she might even need to shield against friendly fire. ‘I’m only a first term student. If I can just make it to the base, my part of the test will be over, no matter what happens next.

Damien turned around, looking for her, then slowed down enough to run beside her instead of sprinting ahead at the front of the group. “I’ve got your back, you’ve got mine,” he said, only slightly out of breath.

Sebastien nodded curtly.

But of course, a unit meant to bring down a tower base was not short of spell power.

Sebastien saw the tell-tale foggy shimmer of a faux concussive blast spell roll out of the leader’s battle wand, followed by two more to either side, perfectly placed so that there was no dodging it.

The low-powered, small-area shielding spells that she and the other first term students had would do nothing against it.

“Tuck and roll!” Sebastien snapped half a second before the magic reached them.

Wide-eyed, Damien copied her, throwing himself to the ground in a fetal position as the magic pushed at their heels.

The faux concussive blast spell was gentler than a real one, and moved slower, but in some ways it was more powerful. Instead of slamming them into the ground and leaving them fractured, bruised inside and out, it lifted them and sent them flipping through the air.

Sebastien collided with Damien, and then the ground, and then they were rolling and tumbling together in a painful tangle of limbs. Something bashed into her hand and sent her Conduit flying. As they settled, she looked up dizzily toward the approaching enemy, cursing the rules that had forced her to leave her pocket watch and the chain that would have secured her Conduit behind.

Several of the enemy unit’s people were laughing at them, and as they neared, they raised their wands again.

Sebastien still had the handle of the shielding spell array in one of her hands, and though her suit’s sensors had registered more damage and had begun to restrict her movement, she was not entirely out of the test yet. She was still considered “alive.”

A sparkle caught the corner of her eye, resting beside Damien’s hip. His Conduit had fallen out of his pocket.

Sebastien raised the shielding spell array and her leg at the same time, confirmed that she had thought to add the basic output detaching symbols and that the beast core was still held securely in its place, and brought her calf down hard on top of Damien’s Conduit. Her ripped pant leg provided the perfect patch of bare skin to access the celerium through, and the crystalline gem dug painfully into her calf.

She grinned ferally and cast the shield spell, just in time to block the offensive sphere of light heading toward her chest. “Damien, I need you to get up without moving me—carefully, and pick up my Conduit.”

“What?” Damien asked, his voice low and horrified.

Several of the enemies showed their surprise at their offensive spells impacted harmlessly against her shield. A few hesitated, looking toward their leader for instruction, but others continued to attack.

Tangled together as she and Damien were, it didn’t take much movement for Sebastien to position the shield’s output between them and any spell that seemed like it might hit. “Hurry!” she snapped.

“How are you casting without your Conduit!?” he hissed, scrambling to pick it up from where it had rolled and almost catching a stray spell to the head. He moved so quickly he almost tripped before he could return and press it into her free hand. “Oh, by all the planes-damned idiotic things to do, Sebastien. Are you casting through your own flesh?” he wailed, his hands flapping about uselessly.

“Of course not!” she snapped.

Slowly, still holding the shielding spell between them and the enemy, she rose to her feet. “Pick up your Conduit from the ground, and get behind me.” Any little advantage might help them to make it to the tower unscathed.

She began to walk backward as quickly as her bruises and the restrictive suit would allow, blocking the increasingly frequent offensive spells and praying that the leader didn’t send another concussive blast at her. Sebastien’s mind spun through all the possible options, wondering if there was anything they could do to improve their chances.

At this point, they needed powerful backup, someone to come out from the tower and take the enemy’s attention while they retreated.

But before she could retreat more than a few meters, Professor Fekten’s voice resounded through the narrow streets, bouncing off the walls and almost screaming with tension. “Code red! Code red shutdown of area C! The exam is delayed!”

Sebastien dropped her shielding spell, looking around in confusion, relief, and a little bit of apprehension. Code red meant that there was significant danger to the students’ wellbeing nearby, and that they needed to retreat to safety.

She turned, hurrying faster to the tower as her suit released all of its restrictions. There would be tunnels at its base to lead them out of the exam arena, the same way they’d been brought into it. And at the very least, she would feel safer sheltered behind the back of someone like Fekten than right out in the middle of the street.

Except…everyone around her was scrambling back. Those close to the tower were heading that way, but the enemy unit was retreating in the opposite direction. Several people wearing black and grey were running beside them. Even Damien had retreated away from her, his expression screwed up in gut-wrenching pain as he met her gaze.

Sebastien slowed, the weight of a horrible premonition settling on her shoulders.

Fekten had left the tower and was sprinting toward her.

She stilled, dropping the spell array disk and raising her hands in the air. After a moment of hesitation, she dropped her Conduit, too, lest someone think she planned to keep casting.

“Possible break event!” Fekten screamed, tossing a small golden sphere at her feet, where it sprouted legs that dug into the ground, and then bloomed with a spherical shield.

The shield surrounded her, semi-opaque and somehow solid enough to drown out most of the screams coming from outside. Idly, Sebastien realized that she could feel the rumble of the audience’s screams through the stone beneath her feet. This must have been the most exciting thing to happen all day.

His battle wand trained on her, Fekten stepped cautiously closer. “Get control of yourself, Siverling. Do not continue casting anything. If I catch even a hint—even a whiff—of magic coming off you, I’ll knock you unconscious. If you resist, I’ll do what needs to be done.” His gaze was flinty, and his meaning was clear. If he felt he had to, he would kill her to protect the other students.

Sebastien swallowed hard, her throat suddenly bone-dry. She kept her hands raised high and met his gaze as she nodded slowly and clearly. “I understand. But I think there’s been a misunderstanding.”

Author Note:

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