Chapter 50 – Eagle Tower

Sebastien

Month 12, Day 17, Thursday 9:00 a.m.

Sebastien hesitated for a moment, staring up at Eagle Tower. ‘Should I just walk away? Avoid the risk and go to class along with everyone else, hide among the other students and hope no one notices me?’ Perhaps there was some future upside to walking away, but by the very nature of the future’s inscrutability, she couldn’t see what it might be. Besides, she knew she wasn’t about to stop.

Moving ahead was risky, but it was also an opportunity. As long as she held off the scrying attempt—which was becoming increasingly difficult with every passing minute—the downsides seemed minor. At most, she’d be seen as a curious student hanging about where she shouldn’t. Maybe she could learn something important.

So, after a pause to tuck her student token and restricted library pass into the pile of dirt and leaves at the base of the tree beside her, she kept walking. She didn’t want the University to be able to look up the logs of everyone who had entered Eagle Tower and find her name on them. If necessary, she would wait outside for someone to leave and slip in behind them.

Luckily, it turned out the entranceway wasn’t warded to require a student token like the Menagerie. She walked right in with no trouble.

The tower seemed even bigger on the inside, like a slightly smaller version of the Citadel. A hallway circled around between the single central room on each floor and the squat, wedge-shaped rooms on the outside. The walls of the inner room on each level were made of reinforced glass, so the researchers within were visible to those outside. Everything was brightly lit, giving off a feeling of clarity and cleanliness, and the researchers within would always be aware they were visible, which would help to keep their minds sharp and their experiments to the proper procedure.

It also let her see that she was on the wrong floor. As if designed to make navigating the tower more difficult, the entrance to the stairwell was all the way across the building from the main door, at the other end of the curving hallway. And when she got to it, the door was locked. ‘This is where they require the student token,’ she realized. ‘But it probably wouldn’t even matter if I went back and got mine. I’m not authorized to be here in the first place.

Since the last time she’d been in a similar situation, two stories up on the outside of the crappy little inn her father had rented, she’d taken the time to study a few unlocking spells.

Unfortunately, the lock was visible to the rest of the floor, making it difficult to cast a spell without being seen, and she was a first term student at the University with a Conduit that could channel barely more than two hundred thaums. The mechanism was both physical and magical, and no doubt cast by someone much more experienced than her.

One of her paper utility arrays was an unlocking spell, and she could use the slate lap table she’d taken from the abandoned supply room to support the page and the necessary components at the level of the door handle, which would speed the process of casting. That was if she could manage to split her Will to cast that while still empowering the divination-diverting ward, which seemed both unlikely and foolish. Even if that weren’t a problem, she’d still be doing it right in the middle of everyone, and she couldn’t imagine that Eagle Tower didn’t have protections against such rudimentary magic. There was a high chance she would fail and end up setting off an alarm.

She’d paused for a second too long, staring at the obstacle between her and where she needed to be, when a hand reached out from beside her and opened the door, holding it open for her.

She turned, looking a couple inches down into mercurial grey eyes. “Westbay,” she said.

He waved her through.

She stepped into the stairwell, off-kilter. ‘He followed me.

He waved a metal token at her. “You need one of these to get through the doors here. Maybe you didn’t know, if you’ve never been in here before.”

“And how do you have one?”

“I swiped it off some random person’s desk.”

On the other side of the doorway, within the silence of the stairwell, she stared at him. She didn’t make fumbled excuses about why she was in Eagle Tower. She didn’t ask him what he was doing—before at the dorms or now—right here with her when they both should have been in class. Instead, she stared silently, as if she could read his micro expressions like letters strung together on a page, as if her eyes could pierce past his skull and see into his soul.

He stared back for a few seconds, but then his eyelids fluttered and he looked away. “I…” He swallowed. “I don’t know what you’re doing,” he said, offering up answers to her unspoken questions under the pressure of her gaze. “I’ve just noticed some things lately. You’ve been…distracted. Or, focused, but just on something different. And I was curious. And…I thought maybe you could use some backup?” He grinned a little, slightly nervous but with a spark of real excitement. “Don’t worry. No one saw me, and I dropped my student token under the same tree you did.”

Sebastien had a sudden realization. ‘He thinks we’re in an Aberford Thorndyke story. This is just… He thinks we’re about to have an adventure.’ She was simultaneously relieved that he wasn’t a threat and irritated, almost offended, by his eager insouciance. ‘Nothing matters to him, because there have never been any real stakes for him—nothing he stands to lose. Maybe he cannot even comprehend that it’s not the same for everyone else.

“That’s an interesting stealth spell you’re casting,” he said, squinting at her. “An artifact, or is it something esoteric? I can feel that you’re here, but my eyes keep wanting to slip away, and I’m having trouble focusing mentally on you, like my thoughts want to slip around to the idea of you rather than the reality of you.”

If only that had kept you from following me, you thickheaded peacock.’ She barely kept herself from snapping the words at him aloud. ‘Or maybe he’s more cunning than that, only trying to seem harmless so I will not realize the danger he poses to me.

“The spell is privileged information,” she replied. “Family secret.”

He seemed to recognize the hostility she couldn’t keep from her voice. He raised his hands. “I won’t pry. I was just curious. Everyone has their family secrets. But you are doing something?”

She was about to tell him to walk away and go read his detective magazines if he wanted a sense of excitement in his life when an upper-term student, a research assistant probably studying for Grandmastery, walked down the stairs.

He stopped and looked at the two of them. “Firsties? What are you doing here?”

Westbay stepped forward. “Bruner. I can’t believe you’re still here. What is it, your thirteenth term?”

Bruner narrowed his eyes. “Westbay? Oh. I—I didn’t recognize you at first. Should have known by the eyes.”

“No matter,” Westbay said, waving his hand with regal nonchalance. “We’re on an errand for one of our professors. No time to chat at the moment, but maybe I’ll see you at a Family gathering sometime.”

Bruner’s eyes widened, and then he bowed.

Westbay grabbed Sebastien by the arm and began to drag her up the stairs.

Bruner turned and bowed again as they climbed past him, stammering. “Oh, yes, definitely. I would be honored to attend a Westbay gathering. At your convenience. Thank you, Westbay, good to see you.”

They left Bruner behind, and Sebastien swallowed the scathing words she had been about to say. “Useful,” she admitted instead, grudgingly.

Westbay grinned. “Thank you. The Family name does come in handy from time to time. Now why are we here?”

Sebastien eyed him with consideration. ‘He’s irritating and spoiled, at best, but he hasn’t told anyone about the accident in the defense building or my subsequent Will-strain. I still owe him a favor. Perhaps he doesn’t want to get rid of an asset before it can bear fruit. And as he’s just shown, he can be useful, through no merit of his own.

Aloud, she said, “No questions. In fact, don’t talk at all.” She looked around before motioning impatiently for Westbay to open the door for her.

“Where are we g—” He snapped his mouth shut halfway through the question, then lifted his hand to cover a smile that made him look like a child who’d just stolen a cookie from the jar and was reveling in the thrill of it. He tried to put on a serious face, but the excitement kept peeking through.

“You’re an idiot,” she muttered.

A spark of ire flared in his eyes, but slipped away just as quickly as it had come in favor of a rueful smirk. “And you’re a porcupine,” he muttered when her back was turned.

With saintlike self-control, Sebastien ignored him. She might even have found him harmlessly amusing if the situation wasn’t so critical. She wasn’t sure if it was her imagination, but as she climbed the stairs the pressure on her divination-diverting ward seemed to grow, until it felt like she was pressing up against some barrier to heaven with every step.

She discovered what she was looking for on the fourth floor of the tower.

It was busier than the floors below, filled with both coppers and a good handful of the faculty. The chair of the History department was there, along with some professors she was pretty sure were from the Divination department. Within the central, glass-walled room, a handful of coppers with sorcery experience were aiding a trio of prognos with the scrying spell. They stood around a huge Circle engraved into the marble tiles of the floor in precious metals and gems, with the type of components Sebastien had only ever read about in books powering the spell.

Her eyes flicked around, taking in the University staff and group of coppers watching this from the hallway. Both groups stood separately. Those from the University were tense, though some did a better job of hiding it than others, and although the coppers beside them weren’t hostile, they were far from relaxed.

The University staff didn’t want the coppers there.

But why not? That doesn’t make sense. One would think they’d be happy that the coppers have a better chance of finding me with the more powerful scrying array. Except there’s some sort of conflict of interest here, but I have no idea what it could be about. What exactly is written in that book?

Her observation and contemplation were finished in the mere two seconds that had passed since she’d opened the stairwell door.

She moved toward the closed door of a room on the outside of the hallway. Someone’s office, currently empty, which she knew because no light came through under the door. She closed the door behind herself and Westbay and turned to the window that showed a view of the hallway and central room. Moving slowly, she peeked around the edge of the drawn curtain.

The pressure on her ward actually seemed to have ebbed slightly, but it hadn’t gone away.

I made a mistake,’ she admitted to herself. ‘There’s nothing I can do here. But I’ll watch and wait. Maybe…there will be an opportunity if I’m clever enough to notice it. If I can wait them out, maybe I could see where they keep the blood, if they take it back with them or perhaps even leave it here. Though it would be considerably easier if Westbay weren’t looking over my shoulder.

“That’s a divination spell,” Westbay murmured. “Who are they looking for?”

She didn’t respond.

He smoothed a nonexistent hair back from his face. “I have a spell that can enhance hearing. Maybe we could…listen in?”

That was enough to gain her attention, despite the increasing strain of empowering her ward against scrying.

His eyes slid off her. Without waiting for further response, he dug into the couple dozen pockets built into his suit vest and jacket for his Conduit and a writing implement.

Two minutes later, he’d used a thin black stick to draw a spell array on both palms. He didn’t use any components, shaking his head at her offer of the small lantern she carried in her bag. “It barely uses any power. The warmth of my hand will be more than enough. This spell is all about…control.” Somewhat comically, he placed his hands behind his ears, cupping and swiveling them like he was pretending to be a dog.

She caught the faint smell of honey. ‘Are the components part of the array itself? Maybe honey for capturing sound and charcoal for filtering?’ She was curious, but it would be rude to inquire or study the spell array too closely. Some magic was a closely guarded secret passed down within families or from master to apprentice, and Westbay had just refrained from questioning her about the spell he thought she was casting to avoid notice.

“It enlarges the surface area that can capture incoming sounds, filters them, and lets me artificially focus my hearing,” he murmured, wincing when he turned back to the hallway. “Loud.” After a few seconds, his expression settled into fascination. “They’re chanting. For the spellcasting. It’s advanced. I haven’t heard anything like it.”

Sebastien straightened her shoulders and settled her mind. The Conduit in her off hand was flush with energy, the five Circles in the flesh of her back were cold and filled with the sensation of needles, and she imagined that within half an hour she would start feeling faint from blood loss. ‘How long can this go on?’ It was becoming increasingly obvious that she was the metaphorical frog being slowly boiled alive, too stupid to realize the water was heating.

“Someone in the hallway just said something about the Raven Queen,” Westbay said. He stared blankly for a moment, and then his head turned slowly toward Sebastien. “They’re scrying for her…right now?”

She had a sudden vision of herself in jail, trying to convince the coppers as Sebastien Siverling that she had no idea why Siobhan Naught’s blood kept leading back to her. ‘Would they believe me, if I pretended to have met the Raven Queen and had my blood stolen by the “evil sorceress” to use as a red herring and lead the investigation in the wrong direction?

She shook her head. ‘No, I’m sure they have wards against untruth, and obviously they have access to more than one prognos. They’d know right away if I tried to lie. And with enough reason to look into me, they’d tear my entire backstory apart.

She tried to estimate how many thaums of heat and blood she was channeling. ‘Close to two hundred already. According to what Liza told me, they must be channeling many times that. There are so many of them, they can probably keep going well beyond what I can handle. Sticking around is no longer feasible, leaving me two viable options. I can ask Westbay to borrow his Conduit, which is surely rated much higher than mine, or I can run now and hope that I’m far enough away by the time their scrying spell breaks through my ward that they cannot catch me.

She felt flushed beneath her jacket and scarf, but resisted the urge to pace back and forth between walls that felt like they were closing in. ‘If I borrow Westbay’s Conduit, he’ll wonder why I need it. He might connect the dots. If I run, at least I have the gold I sewed into the lining of my clothing and boots.’ There might still be time to get her things from the dorms. If she hired a carriage, she could be halfway out of Gilbratha before they found her. If it turned out she could, somehow, hold out longer than they could, she could simply return as if all was well. ‘Or…should I attack Westbay and take his Conduit? If I could keep him from sounding the alarm until I’d escaped, I’d at least have a Conduit powerful enough to handle my Will. It would buy me a few more minutes, maybe half an hour.’ The thought made her feel a small prick of guilt. He was often irritating, but he hadn’t done anything to truly deserve that. ‘His family could afford to buy him twenty more Conduits without even cutting into the budget for their next high society ball. It wouldn’t hurt him at all for me to take it, except for a blow to his pride,’ she reasoned.

She was considering it, thinking about how she might have him follow her back to the dorms, steal his Conduit, and then tie him up in one of the bathroom stalls before escaping, when someone she hadn’t expected to see opened the door to the fourth floor.

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Chapter 49 – Reverse Scrying

Sebastien

Month 12, Day 15, Tuesday 12:30 p.m.

Sebastien didn’t worry about someone walking in on her. There had been enough dust in this room to tell her that it was rarely used and likely unmonitored, and she had locked the door just in case. She’d cleared out a little corner in the back of the room to practice in. She couldn’t practice this divination in the dorms behind the paltry protection of her curtain, or in the public practice rooms, after all. It was illegal for anyone besides the coppers to sympathetically scry for a human.

As always, she started with the Circle. Divination was finicky. For power, the spell required special candles infused with scented oils and dyed certain colors, rather than a coal brazier or her much more convenient lantern. She set them evenly around the main Circle’s edges, in the component Circles meant for them.

Then she placed the map, which covered the entirety of Gilbratha. It was fairly accurate everywhere except the Mires, which were haphazard and frequently changing, a sea of shanty houses built out of old wood and white stone stolen from the dwindling remains of the southern white cliffs.

The spell had a few prerequisites, and in some ways was more like alchemy than the actively cast sorcery she practiced in her classes. Actively cast spells would dissipate as soon as she released her Will, but with ritual magic, spells were not controlled by the Word of a spell array, but woven into and absorbed by the matter they were bound to through the practice of the ritual. The magic created a kind of multi-dimensional weave with its host, which was self-sustaining enough to be semi-permanent. This was what allowed potions to work months or sometimes even years after they had been brewed. As a tradeoff, it took way longer and lost about a third of the energy immediately, with the remaining magical effect slowly degrading after that.

Sebastien used some small pieces of dirt, rock, and slivers of bark that she had collected from a relatively wide section of the city and carefully labeled. She placed them on the map as precisely as possible, corresponding with the places she’d obtained them, then added a handful of tent spikes, for their concept of anchoring.

She dipped her finger in the wax of the nearest candle, suppressing a wince at the heat of it. The wax quickly cooled as she drew her hand away, creating a film over her skin. She repeated the process with the other five candles until her fingertip had a thick coating of layered wax. Concentrating hard on her memory of each anchor spot in the city, she first touched a tent spike, then, as if pulling a thread from it to the map, she drew a hexagram around one of the pebbles. As she moved, slowly and deliberately, as if the spell was an animal that might attack if she startled it, she chanted in a low voice. “To the earth you are bound. Weight of stone, iron, and root. Foot to foot, head to head, heart to heart. As the roots of a tree are reflected in its branches, be as one.” The candles flickered, and the wax at her fingertip grew a little softer.

No mistakes. Your Will is absolute,’ she told herself, redoubling her concentration. She could have done this from outside the Circle, using a long stick to write instead of her finger, but the book she’d learned the spell from had cautioned against sloppiness, and she knew from her work with alchemy that any feeling of detachment would work against the purpose of the spell, which was all about creating sameness and connectivity, to the point that in the eyes of magic, one became the other.

Panting once she finished, she cleared away the dirt, bark, and stone, putting them back into their labeled bags. She would need to use them again any time she wanted to recast the spell, because with such a short ritual, and the map being a precreated item that hadn’t been inherently changed during casting, the spell’s weave would unravel and degrade quickly.

A single pea sized drop of mercury—the most expensive part of the spell—came next. Her cauldron was much too big for it, so she used a small glass bowl the size of a finger cymbal, large enough to hold only a single swallow. She placed it in the center of the map instead of over any of the flames, dropping the mercury from its vial into the bowl. “To search and seek. To hark and peek,” she began, slowly and deliberately adding the ear of a bat, an eagle’s eye, and a tiny glass lens from a child’s toy. She stirred, six times six, with a rod made of dehydrated sprite honey mixed with the powder of a lava-pepper. The rod shrank with each stir, until she was holding only a stub, and within the little bowl sat a trembling, mirrorlike ball of spelled mercury, still only the size of a pea despite the amalgamated components.

The final step was the actual divination spell, which did require a spell array. Moving the map and mercury to the side, she drew it carefully and consulted the book to make sure she’d not forgotten anything. She’d already studied the spell to ensure she fully understood the purpose of each glyph, numerological symbol, and word, but now she reviewed them all again. The map went back into the Circle, and a tiny dot of the mercury was placed in its center, with the rest set aside for future attempts. She caught the tip of a little bundle of dried herbs on fire in the nearest candle, snuffed the flame immediately, then waved the bundle about to let the herb smoke settle through the air.

Remembering how she’d seen Liza work at one point, Sebastien drew a hexagram with the smoke, then glyphs for “key” which could also be interpreted as “answer,” and “discovery.”

Using one of her own hairs—which was much less likely to have people panicking and calling for the coppers than a drop of blood if she were to be discovered—she began to cast, focusing on how desperately she needed to know exactly where her missing blood was.

The most difficult part of the map-based divination spell was that she lacked the skill to work past the huge beacon that was the blood in her own body.

That was the downside to scrying for her own blood.

The upside was that if it was someone else’s blood, with a weaker sympathetic connection, a sorcerer as unskilled and untalented at divination as she was might not have been able to successfully cast the spell at all.

The first couple of times she attempted it, the tiny dot of spelled mercury rolled across the map to the University, and more specifically, the western edge of the Citadel where the abandoned storage room was. She was scrying herself. “Yay,” she said dully, sagging back as she released her draw on the special candles.

It would have been a small silver lining if her ward had activated, because she could have found a way to make that useful, but there had only been a gentle tingle in her back before it fell silent. Apparently, it was impossible to cast a divination spell on herself while simultaneously warding one off, as they were strictly opposing thought processes, and her mind couldn’t split into two independent consciousnesses. This meant that she couldn’t simply cast a scrying spell on herself whenever she wanted to sneak around without being noticed.

When the pin-head sized dot of spelled mercury lost its shininess—and its magic—she gave up. She only had so many attempts before she would need to buy more, and “try harder” did not seem to be the answer.

More research revealed a solution to the first problem. She found the answer, ironically, in a book that leaned more toward history than magical instruction. Liza had, perhaps, mentioned her participation in the Haze War for a reason.

It was the perfect example of how necessity—war—stimulated invention. The war had started over greed for Lenore’s celerium mines and the foreign invention of an improved method for divination-based, long-range attacks. Silva Erde and several smaller countries had banded together against Lenore. This led to the counter-invention of an anti-divination fog. This “haze” was spread over the tactical areas and battlefields, blocking the targeting ability of enemy long-range attacks. The haze inspired the creation of a biological warfare philtre that spread on the air and thrived in the low-light of the haze. Of course, this led to an immediate improvement in wearable air-filtering and skin-protecting artifacts. Stronger divination spells began to filter through the haze. Reverse-scrying spells were vastly improved, making them much more dangerous for the distant attackers, who could be pinpointed through their own attacks and attacked in turn. Eventually, exploring the principles behind how the haze actually worked, Lenore discovered the existence of divination rays and revolutionized the anti-divination field.

While the concepts were mentioned, many of the spells themselves were still either confidential or beyond her access level, but the basics of reverse-scrying were available freely, since the concept far predated the recent military improvements.

As the book suggested, once a diviner sent out feelers, it was much harder to stop someone following those feelers back to the source. Sebastien could piggyback on the searching magic of the coppers’ attempt to scry for her, thus overriding the pull of the blood in her own body to find the few drops they were using.

Of course, there were wards to stop that kind of thing, but apparently, they were expensive, prone to failing, and generally not useful for domestic law enforcement, because they had no need to disguise the fact that they were scrying for you. If you found and approached them, it only made their arrest of you easier.

Sebastien couldn’t practice that variation successfully until they made an attempt to find her at a convenient time, but she still tried to increase her facility with divination spells. Holding off the scrying attempt at the same time as tracking it back would be very difficult, and if she wasn’t prepared, either of the spells might fail. If the divination failed, she only risked Will-strain, but if the divination-diverting ward failed, she might actually be caught. The ward wasn’t strong enough to hold off the coppers without her active participation.

The only reason she could—hypothetically—do both at once was because, first, the ward handled most of the actual work for her, only needing her to feed it more power rather than control the spell. Secondly, the ward against divination was shielding against someone else, which was the same target she was attempting to find. It was like two people hiding in a dark forest, both trying to find the other, which was conceptually possible, as opposed to attempting to move and be still at the same time, which…wasn’t. Hopefully it worked. If it didn’t, she was unlikely to kill anyone except herself, as long as she cast it in a suitably secluded area.

She set aside most of her free time all week to practice in the abandoned storage room, prepared to wake early and slip back out to eat breakfast before her first class started.

Her ire with Professor Pecanty flared back to life when she returned to Modern Magics on Wednesday, but she suppressed it.

Professor Burberry used a dab of hair-loss potion on the mice they had used to practice the color-changing transmogrification spell, then used another potion to help the fur regrow.

Some students’ mice grew colored fur, somehow permanently, inherently changed by the spell. Most regrew the same solid white as before. At the place where the potions had been used, Sebastien’s grew back a little splotch of white hair, which stood out starkly on its otherwise rainbow-colored pelt. She felt the uncomfortable prickling of shame as she stared at it. ‘Maybe if Professor Pecanty would actually help me understand, I could do it better,’ she snarled to herself.

Professor Burberry handed out contribution points to those who’d managed to create truly permanent change.

Ana nudged Sebastien, giving her a small smile. “Don’t be too harsh on yourself, Sebastien. I’m sure you can get it, if you try again. It’s not as if your grade will be marked down just because you didn’t manage to imbue the entire mouse with enhanced properties. You did change the color of the fur, and you did it perfectly.”

Sebastien shook her head, and Ana looked like she might keep trying to comfort her, or encourage her, or whatever she was trying to do, but then Westbay came up holding his flower-patterned rodent and distracted her. “Do you think the colors would pass down to a child if I bred it with a white mouse? Or what if we bred a red mouse and a green mouse? Do we get brown mice babies?” He reached into his pocket and fed the creature a little piece of bread roll that he’d taken from breakfast.

“I don’t know, but I wonder if brightly colored rabbits or other docile creatures might make a good gift product for children,” Ana said. “My little sister would probably love a bright pink mouse.”

Sebastien, with what she thought was incredible self-control, did not throw herself into practicing the color-change spell outside of class. Her focus remained on preparing for the reverse-scrying.

The only side project she allowed herself was making sure she had a dozen ink spells drawn on parchment and ready to go. With the fire-retardant seaweed paper, she actually didn’t have to use her blood to keep the paper from burning up along the lines of the spell array. Sebastien had realized, after all the research into divination she’d been doing, how incredibly stupid her plan had been. By removing her blood from the barrier of her skin, she had made it theoretically possible for the coppers to find it, even if they couldn’t find her.

How did the coppers not find me already? Do they know where I am and are just toying with me for some reason? Maybe they want me to lead them to my accomplices.’ But if that were the case, why would they have continued their attempts, over and over? She wasn’t entirely oblivious, and she’d noticed nothing suspicious, no one watching her or going through her things.

Perhaps they hadn’t found her yet, after all. If so, that might have something to do with how she kept her school supplies nearby constantly, and the divination-diverting ward had some minimal area-of-effect capabilities that affected perception around her. They had no way to find that blood without finding her, and she was very thoroughly warded. If she had left the inkwell or a paper spell with her blood far enough away that the coppers could conceivably find it instead of her…or if they had been using a spell with different divination outputs that would give them information only on the inkwell instead of broad information that included her…

Maybe they had been having the same trouble as her with scrying for anything small past the huge beacon of her body, but she didn’t know enough about how the ward worked to count on that. With most wards, whatever was behind them would be completely blocked off, and that would only make it more likely for their magic to focus on the unwarded traces of her.

In shuddering horror, she had destroyed the whole inkwell along with the small paper spell array she’d created previously, then gone through all her things casting the shedding-disintegration spell over and over, ensuring not even a drop of blood-laced ink, or hair, or anything remained.

When her racing heart had calmed, she tried to think of any other critical mistakes she might have made. She held a trembling hand to her lips, holding in a tremulous laugh. With her track record, she probably had made more than one, and just didn’t realize it.

The blood print vows I made, what about those? Could the coppers scry for those, even if they cannot find me?’ She had a copy of each, but so did Katerin and Liza. Liza’s would definitely be behind wards, and she was pretty sure Katerin’s would, too, but her own copies might not be safe. They were hidden with the stolen book at Dryden Manor. Of course, the spell did have restrictions against any use of the blood without one of the parties having broken their vow, but she wasn’t sure if that also acted as a ward against divination. She resolved to make sure Dryden Manor was properly warded, and if not, learn to set up small anti-divination wards herself. Luckily, that was a small amount of blood, barely a drop, and would give off a much smaller beacon than the amount she’d added to the ink or the mass of her own body.

When she had calmed enough that her hand didn’t shake, she laid down spell arrays, in ink only, on her seaweed paper. She made some of them large enough that she had to fold up the spell array to get it to fit inconspicuously within her bag, while others were small and ready to be used immediately, only requiring that she place their components for rapid casting. She’d decided on fourteen simple spells that she thought could help in a variety of emergency situations.

In the middle of the night, as if they were trying to catch her off guard, the coppers scried for her again. The prickling of cold needles in her back woke her as her ward went to work before she was even conscious.

The Citadel will probably be locked at this time of night, and besides, I don’t have any time to waste.’ It wasn’t as safe as her abandoned classroom, but instead she went to one of the more inconvenient bathrooms on the dorm’s second floor, where there were fewer students. She checked the stalls rapidly, then shoved a wedge of wood underneath the door from the inside to keep it from opening. She’d taken the wedge from the door of a random classroom days before, for situations specifically like this.

She had all the components for the mapped divination spell, but casting the prerequisite magic on the map, which had worn off since her earlier practice, was torturously slow and difficult, with much of her attention split toward warding off the coppers’ attention. The reverse-scry itself might have actually been easier than the setup, being more congruent in concept and intent.

She had barely finished anchoring the map and was only a couple of seconds into the reverse-scry when the five disks embedded in her back calmed, the pressure easing.

Rather than sigh in relief, Sebastien slumped forward, letting out a low groan of defeat. ‘Did they sense what I was doing? Is that why they stopped? But it was so soon! The mercury had barely even started to tremble!

She paced for a while, her reverse-scrying spell waiting in the stall farthest from the door, some part of her hoping that the coppers would try again.

They did not.

Reluctantly accepting this, Sebastien quenched the candles, packed up the spell components, and tried her best to go back to sleep.

The coppers didn’t try again over the next couple of days, and she worried that they really had sensed her attempt to find her blood and become more wary. It was…disheartening, but she continued to practice, just in case. She didn’t have time to make real progress with the paper design, or practice any of the spells until they were second nature, so she focused on those she’d been long familiar with, or which she was practicing in Professor Burberry’s Modern Magics and her other classes. Having them ready in her satchel made her feel a little more prepared, even if they weren’t particularly powerful.

On Thursday morning, she got a little too engrossed with practice in the abandoned classroom on the second floor and forgot to stop for breakfast.

She hurried back to the dorms to put the divination components away in the chest at the foot of her bed before History of Magic. Professor Ilma always jumped into the lecture right away, and Sebastien would miss out if she was even a minute late.

In her hurry, she wasn’t paying attention to where she was walking, and ran right into Tanya, their female student liaison and Newton’s counterpart, outside the dorm as they both turned a corner.

Tanya was surprising solid, and rather than falling or stumbling, she spun around to snatch the spelled paper bird she had dropped out of the air before it could flutter feebly away. She didn’t bother to stop, simply snapping, “Watch where you’re walking, Siverling. You could put a lady’s shoulder out.”

“I’m sorry!” Sebastien called after her.

Tanya waved an uncaring hand in the air without looking back, her head bowed to read whatever message had been folded inside the spelled piece of paper.

As Sebastien grabbed the homework she’d left in her trunk and emptied her school bag of the bulky divination components, she heard the shuffle of hard leather on stone. She whipped her head around to see Westbay slouching against the entrance of her little stone cubicle, his chestnut hair perfect and his grey eyes staring out over the seemingly constant bags of fatigue under them. She wondered idly if the condition was genetic, because he slept almost nine hours every night.

She shoved the lid of her chest shut before turning to him. “What do you want, Westbay? Shouldn’t you be getting to class?” The rest of the dorm was almost completely empty, except for a few students rushing off to their first class. Considering the sprawling expanse of the University grounds, they were already likely to be late unless they ran.

He shrugged. “It’s just History of Magic. A different section than whatever class you’re in. My professor won’t even realize I’m gone. Say, have you read any more of those Aberford Thorndyke stories I lent you? I got the latest issue delivered. I can pass it on once I’m finished, if you’re up to speed on the timeline.”

Sebastien was torn between rolling or narrowing her eyes. ‘He’s not one to skip classes so nonchalantly. Is he truly that desperate for someone to talk about his little detective stories, or is he fishing? How long was he standing there?’ She reached for the curtain beside the opening to her dormitory cubicle. ‘Best to be calculated in my response, let him feel comfortable enough to give himself away.’ “Sure, but I’m not finished with the stack you gave me before, so there’s no—” Her tongue stumbled to a halt and her eyes widened for a moment before she controlled her expression.

Westbay looked at her with confusion.

“I just remembered something. Homework. Sorry, Westbay, no time to talk. You should go to class even if your professor isn’t noting your attendance. History is important.” With that rushed tumble of words, she pulled the curtain shut right in his face.

She was being scried.

As she pulled the components for the reverse-scrying spell back out again, she listened to Westbay’s footsteps retreat. With hands quickened by worry, she pulled the components for the reverse-scrying spell back out again. It seemed she might not be getting to class after all.

After checking to make sure she was alone, Sebastien carefully laid everything out on the floor of her cubicle. In a way, the timing was lucky. Many of the most time-consuming parts of the divination were in the prerequisite spells cast on the components like the drop of mercury and the map. Without being an artifact itself, the magic on the map would wear off somewhat quickly, but it was still ready to go at the moment.

As quickly as she could, she drew the spell array, then placed the candles, the map, and the dot of mercury, along with a bronze mirror she’d polished herself and a few other components that would help her augment the target of the divination. She dabbed a bit of herb smoke around and began to scry. Carefully.

It was more difficult than she’d expected. Much more. It wasn’t that she didn’t have the power, though that was part of the problem. It was her concentration. The clarity and stability of her Will, for one of the first times in recent memory, proved unable to meet her demands. ‘Maybe it’s because I am so exceptionally untalented with divination,’ she thought bitterly.

Rather than stiffening, she relaxed and controlled her breathing, routing every last drop of energy and control to her Will.

A part of her attention went toward feeding the divination-diverting ward in her back, deflecting attention and slipping away from the prying tendrils of the rival sorcerer. That part was easier, and didn’t require the same focus that reaching out through the city for a tiny missing piece of herself did. She couldn’t get too focused on the spell, or her ward would grow weak enough that they might find her, but splitting energy and concentration like this was not something that came naturally to humans.

It was like trying to play two different songs on the piano at the same time. The reverse-divination was difficult and complicated, while empowering the ward took only a couple of plinking notes, but it was still almost impossible to keep them going together. Trying to cast two actual spells at the same time would have taken the equivalent of four hands, and while she was reluctant to say that it was impossible, it would require both spells to be merged into a single, more complicated spell with multiple outputs, rather than two separate spell arrays.

The dot of spelled mercury moved over the map, and at first her insides tightened with frustration, because it was just finding her again, but then it rolled right over the spot where it usually stopped.

The mercury settled at a spot she judged to be slightly northwest of the student dorms.

She held the spell for a couple more seconds, staring at the map. Then she let the magic go, shoving everything haphazardly into her trunk, uncaring of the hot candle wax spilling onto her belongings. She didn’t bother with a locking spell. It was too different from the magic of the planar ward, and she didn’t want to risk failure.

My blood is at the University.’

She shook her head. ‘But the coppers have it, don’t they? I expected to find it at their station, or maybe at the prison, or even a black site where they hold important evidence. So why is it at Eagle Tower?’ She hurried from the room and out of the building, moving with purpose but without panic.

Eagle Tower was where the professors and high level students carried out their experiments, Sebastien knew.

It could have been here all along, if my information was wrong from the beginning, but I don’t think so. There’s a reason the pressure is so much stronger this time. Did they give my blood to the University in hopes the diviners here could do a better job? The University does have a stake in my capture, after all. The book was theirs. But would the coppers give up such a big win? It seems unlikely. They’re tenacious, as evidenced by the continued attempts to find me despite their ongoing failure.’ She walked along the winding path into the cultivated woods between the Citadel and Eagle Tower. The scrying attempt was getting stronger as it went on, and had already been going for several minutes, longer and harder than most she’d fended off before.

Maybe that’s it. They’ve failed to find me and this is their next move. A better spell array than whatever they have access to at Harrow Hill, stronger thaumaturges, maybe more than one casting the spell at the same time. And they’re close to me, even if they don’t realize it. That’ll make it easier. This is their sharper knife, their bigger hammer, the thing they pull out when they really need a win.

As Eagle Tower appeared through the veil of trees, she looked up at the looming obelisk of pale stone. ‘If they’re powerful enough to find me, I have to stop them. Somehow.

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Chapter 48 – Unresolved Curiosity

Sebastien

Month 12, Day 14, Monday 9:00 a.m.

After getting rid of Ennis’s belongings, Sebastien spent the night studying, allowing her magic-casting faculties to rest, except for a single use of the divination ward against a scrying attempt. The coppers seemed to be trying at random times, hoping to catch her off guard, but with the way the ward worked, it would start to veil her even without her conscious aid, and the stabbing feel of it in the skin of her back when it activated was impossible to ignore or sleep through.

After a couple days of research, she determined that a map-based location divination was her best option. Her blood was almost certainly at the coppers’ base, and Oliver was doubtful of their ability to access it. But that simply wasn’t acceptable. There had to be a way to actually solve the problem, and pinpointing the location of her blood was the first step in doing so.

The spell she eventually settled on was meant to precisely determine the location of the separated piece of her blood on a map. With multiple castings, she could use more detailed, close-up maps to determine its location with increasing precision. Once she knew exactly where it was, she could destroy it.

Maybe I could have a Lino-Wharton raven messenger fly in an explosive potion, or force my blood to escape from its confines with a telekinetic spell, or even get Liza’s help with a switching spell or something. It is impossible for them to ward against everything.

It also helped that the map-locating spell didn’t require any overly expensive components, except for the tiny vial of mercury and an eagle’s eye.

That weekend, Sebastien bought alchemy ingredients at Waterside Market again—which Oliver reimbursed her for—along with the ingredients for the scrying spell—which she had to cover herself. She then spent almost the entire weekend brewing for the Stags to try and pay off at least some of the interest on her debt. She focused on the more intensive potions that Oliver’s enforcers would need, like the philtre of darkness and revivifying potion, as well as the blood-clotting potion, which she could produce a lot more of in a single batch. Every enforcer should be supplied with at least two.

Despite her inability to channel large amounts of energy through her new Conduit, she could still complete potions in smaller batches. These were worth more than many of the more common-use potions sold in the Verdant Stag’s little alchemy shop, and she made a single extra dose in a couple of her batches for herself, so she still came out ahead.

It was likely that getting her blood from the coppers would take a combination of money and power, neither of which she had at the moment. Retrieving her blood, like figuring out a solution to her sleep problem, would likely be a long-term project.

A week after the rogue magic sirens had gone off, the coppers released a statement about their cause. It had indeed been an Aberrant.

Apparently, a prostitute had been attempting to cast an illegal, dangerous allure spell and had corrupted her Will. She’d broken under the strain and become a rabid creature of evil. The Red Guard had dealt with the Aberrant easily enough, and there were no lingering effects or danger.

Everyone was talking about it that Monday in Intro to Modern Magics. There was plenty of gossip and speculation, but no real details. Being as pleasant as possible, Sebastien even asked Damien Westbay, “Is that the full story? Have you heard any more details?”

He brightened perceptibly under her interested gaze. “My brother wrote to me that the spell she was trying to cast was new magic, something she cobbled together trying to do more than one thing at once. She was apparently disfigured, so she turned to magic out of desperation to attract customers,” he said.

“What were the abilities of the Aberrant?” she asked. “Some kind of allure effect, I’m assuming.” Usually, Aberrants had some relation to what the thaumaturge had been casting when they broke.

Westbay shook his head regretfully. “I don’t know. He didn’t go into detail. I could write him and ask, if you want?”

Sebastien hesitated, considering it, but shook her head. The last thing she wanted was for the leader of the coppers to know her name, or anything else about her. “No, that’s alright. Thank you, though,” she murmured, her thoughts turning inward.

Westbay beamed as if he’d won some sort of award.

Professor Lacer might know something, too, if the rumors about his past association with the Red Guard were true, but she was afraid to ask him for gossip.

Professor Burberry reeled back in the students’ attention to introduce their project for the week, a color-changing spell. It was labeled a transmogrification spell, and they were all given half a dozen different items in bright colors to use as components, plus a little vial of yak urine, which was apparently known for its ability to help dyes stay color-fast. They would be casting the spell on a white mouse with the intent to overcome its natural resistance and change the color of its fur.

The rest of Westbay’s group of Crown Family friends had been interacting with Sebastien more frequently, likely spurred on by his own sudden amicability toward her. They sat around her, Ana on one side and Rhett Moncrieffe on the other, with the rest of the group scattered close by. After a single silent nod to Sebastien, Moncrieffe turned to the pretty girl on his other side, who blushed under the weight of his attention. Sebastien was relieved he wasn’t as pushy as Westbay.

As Burberry lectured on the details of the color-change spell, Waverly Ascott tried to read a book on summoning under the table while Brinn Setterlund gently covered for her and alerted her whenever she needed to pretend to be paying attention to the professor.

When the time came to cast the spell, Ascott succeeded without much trouble despite her lack of attention, then returned to her surreptitious reading, her straight black hair shifting forward to hide her face.

Ana caught the direction of Sebastien’s gaze and leaned a little closer to murmur, “She dislikes Burberry because Burberry is prejudiced against witches.”

Now that Ana mentioned it, Sebastien realized that there had been hints of that in Burberry’s lectures. Sorcerers reigned supreme in their professor’s mind. “But…Waverly is a sorcerer?” Sebastien murmured, turning her eyes back to the caged mouse in front of her whose hair they were supposed to be turning different colors.

“For now, yes. The Ascott Family doesn’t approve of her interests, but she’s preparing to make a contract with a powerful Elemental. She’ll have succeeded by the time we finish with the University, if not sooner.”

Sebastien was intrigued, and could admit she respected that kind of passion, even if she herself preferred the personal control of sorcery. Instead of a celerium Conduit, witches channeled magic through their bound familiars, which could be tamed magical beasts, creatures, or even sapient beings conjured from one of the Elemental Planes. There was less chance for a witch to lose control or go insane from Will-strain, as their familiar took on some of the burden of casting, and the witch would always find casting spells that were within the natural purview of her familiar’s magic easier. However, spells that were antithetical to the familiar’s natural abilities would be more difficult.

Witches gave up versatility for focused power and safety. And for some witches, maybe for companionship.

Sebastien returned her focus to her own spellcasting, but was distracted again as Alec Gervin snapped at the student aide leaning over his shoulder.

“I did exactly what you said! You’re bungling the explanation. It’s useless, I can’t work with you. Send over the other guy,” he said, jerking his head at the other student aide with a glower.

The student aide seemed taken aback, but Gervin was resolute and got his way.

To Sebastien’s surprise, Westbay waved the reprimanded student aide over and made a murmured apology for his friend.

Sebastien grunted in disgust. “Surprising, that you and he share the same last name,” she murmured to Ana.

Ana smiled demurely, her eyes remaining on her own mouse, which was cowering in the corner of its little cage. “Alec was never taught finesse. He’s failing several classes, and he’s afraid of what’s going to happen when the Family finds out. His father, my uncle, is a horrid man. I’ve no particular love for Alec, but it’s best to think of him like an abused dog. He lashes out at strangers because his master lashes out at him.” Her smile grew crooked, a little wicked. “In fact, he’s like a dog in many ways.”

That’s no excuse,’ Sebastien thought, but she was smirking too.

But as they were filtering out of the class, Sebastien brushed against Gervin, who was still glowering with those bushy black eyebrows. “Our student aide, Newton Moore, does paid tutoring,” she murmured to Gervin. “He taught me a spell, and I found his explanation to be very clear. Perhaps you’d prefer working with him?” Alec Gervin could afford it, and from what she’d learned, Newton could use the coin.

Gervin scowled at her suspiciously, but she was already pushing past him.

On Tuesday, after Sympathetic Science, Sebastien stayed to talk to Professor Pecanty while the other students left.

“How can I help you, young man?” he asked in that lilting cadence that made everything he said sound like poetry.

“I’ve got a couple of questions about transmogrification.” Pecanty nodded, so she jumped right in. “Does it actually matter the conditions when components are gathered? What’s the difference between morning dew gathered before the sun rises or afterward? Or from morning dew and a bit of steam from a boiling cauldron?”

Pecanty’s genial smile fell away, and he seemed to puff up a bit. “I think you’re a little too young to be questioning the achievements in understanding of all those that have come before you. Surely you can see that the intrinsic properties of morning dew are very different than steam off your cauldron? This is Sympathetic Science, Mr. Siverling. If you still wish to question the expertise of myself and the people who have filled our library with books on the subject, please wait to do so until you are at least a Master of Sorcery.”

Sebastien’s shoulders tightened, and her chin rose involuntarily, even though she knew it wasn’t a good idea to challenge a professor who was so obviously unimpressed with her. “Well, what about the different types of transmogrification? Professor Lacer mentioned it. Some of it’s copying a template, and some of it uses ideas that are so vague as to be ungraspable. Are the delineations between different types of transmogrification officially recognized? I’ve never heard anyone talking about that.”

“Transmogrification is all the same. If you do not understand, it is because your foundation is patchy and weak. Understanding builds upon previous learning and enough practice that the feel becomes instinctual. If you are too impatient to put in the long-term effort without succumbing to your need to force the world into your little boxes of classification and order, you will never progress past petty questions that have no answers. Go now, young man, and try to see the beauty in the book of poems I assigned, rather than analyzing every word for its technical definition. Believe me, this type of questioning will not serve you well in my class, or in this craft.” He waved his hand at her and turned away dismissively.

Sebastien’s heart was beating loud in her ears, and she felt her cheeks tingle with blood. Clenching her jaw hard to keep herself from speaking, she strode out of the classroom and up to the second floor, where she’d recently found an out-of-the-way classroom that had at one point been used as a supply room for the elective art classes. There was an old slate lap table with a carved Circle that had once been an artifact whose magic kept the rain and elements off the writing surface. Now, it was empty of energy and entirely mundane—which was probably why it had been abandoned. It was the perfect aid to help her practice her fabric-slicing spell on one of the walls. She left behind light gouges in the white stone until her anger had dimmed and cooled to embers rather than a fire devouring her rationality.

Panting, she put away the small folding table and set up a spell to practice sympathetic divination. ‘Time to find my blood.

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Chapter 47 – Useless Clutter

Sebastien

Month 12, Day 9, Wednesday 3:45 p.m.

As Sebastien left the Practical Casting classroom, Anastasia and Westbay fell into step on either side of her.

“That was amazing!” Westbay crowed, his grey eyes bright and glinting. “I can’t believe Professor Lacer isn’t an Archmage already. Did you see that turtle? He turned clay into flesh.”

“Most impressive,” Ana agreed. “Do you think he was making some sort of allusion to the task given to Myrddin by the dragon?”

“What?”

“Well, as you said, he’s not an Archmage yet. That classroom holds several members related to the council of Grandmasters that he would need to confirm him. Perhaps he hopes to subtly influence the council’s decision by pairing himself to Myrddin in the eyes of their beloved family members. At some point, they won’t be able to deny him without being seen as petty and foolish to the masses.”

“Well…I suppose that’s possible,” Westbay said doubtfully. “But do you think he even cares about the title?”

“Who knows? Titles can hold power. Freedom,” Ana said, her fingers absently stroking the spine of the ornate pink journal she carried with her everywhere and wrote in every evening.

“What I want to know is whether that turtle was edible,” Westbay said, turning to Sebastien. “If I were trapped in a dungeon cell, with only the stones in the wall around me and some turtle eggs, could I create an edible creature? Not a living one, but flesh that would provide calories and nutrition?”

Sebastien raised her eyebrows as they stepped into the Great Hall. “I doubt you could. Or any of us. Rather than flesh, stone to a simple sugar might be possible, and could keep you alive, if not healthy. Besides, if you’re trapped in a dungeon cell and somehow have enough power to transmogrify stone into an edible, dead turtle, I think there are better uses for your efforts. Like escaping.”

Westbay blinked a couple times before launching into a response, but Sebastien’s attention was drawn to the far side of the Great Hall, where Newton was stepping down from the stage where the contribution point prizes were displayed. The older young man looked tired, but not much worse than he had a couple of days before. ‘Is he looking for something to help his father? Or maybe something he could sell for gold?

The thought was a reminder of her own situation. Everything in this city cost too much, and she was running low on coins. After what she set aside to repay Oliver for Healer Nidson’s fee, she was once again poor. Aside from the emergency gold hidden in the lining of her jacket and boots, she had a little less than eight gold crowns to her name. At one point, she would have considered that a fortune. Now, she knew how little it could actually get her.

She had a few contribution points by now, earned by performing well in her classes and on tests. ‘Perhaps there will be something I could afford.’ “I’m going to look at the prizes,” she announced, interrupting whatever Westbay was saying and striding away immediately.

Westbay grumbled, “Were you even listening?” as he hurried to catch up.

“No, not at all,” Sebastien admitted. It was the truth, but just because she hadn’t been actively listening didn’t mean she didn’t hear. “You said that in this hypothetical situation, maybe the dungeon cell had some sort of protective warding that didn’t allow you to break out, and no one was coming to feed you because they were afraid you would attack them, so they were hoping to kill you through simple starvation, and wouldn’t they be surprised when they came to check on you a month later and the cell was filled with turtle corpses, and you’d made turtle-shell armor and weapons and were ready and waiting?”

“Um.”

She shook her head with exasperation. “Honestly, Westbay. You’re like a child.”

“I thought you said you weren’t listening?”

“I wasn’t.”

Ana let out a long, low laugh. “Oh, Damien. You do have the most amusing outraged expression!”

Westbay had fallen behind in his confusion, and he ran a few steps to catch up with Sebastien as she climbed onto the stage. “You weren’t listening, but you retained the information anyway? But what about when we first met? You forgot my name. In fact, you heard it several times, but still didn’t remember it.”

Most of the prizes were in display cases or otherwise warded against theft. Sebastien skimmed the summary cards beneath a row of wands as she spoke. “It’s like my mind is a vast ocean. It can hold quite a lot, but all the useless information kind of settles to the bottom. Very hard to find anything down there in the dark, piled up with all the other clutter.”

Useless information?” Westbay’s voice had grown decidedly shrill.

She rolled her eyes at him. “Don’t be so dramatic. I remember your name now, don’t I?”

He started muttering something about, “the most narcissistic, pig-headed, rude man…think you’re the second coming of Myrddin…oh no, don’t bother remembering useless information like my name,” but she tuned him out again, browsing further.

She knew he wasn’t actually upset, after all. His eyes were still light grey and he hadn’t started fidgeting with his hair or clothes. ‘If I irritate him enough, I wonder if I could get him to use that favor I owe him just to dull the razor of my tongue.

Unfortunately, she was the one who was irritated by the way he’d suddenly started hanging around her. She didn’t trust his sudden turn toward amiability. But he was determined it seemed, and undeterred by her snark.

Ana, silently aware of Sebastien’s frustration, gave her a crooked smile when Westbay wasn’t looking.

Atop the stage were potion ingredients, spellcasting components of varying rarity, and even things like the powder of gemstones and precious metals that could be used as components or to draw a more conductive spell array. The professors, or perhaps higher-level student aides, had probably transmuted them from something much less expensive. Of course, none of the items on offer were legally restricted, but a few were probably hard to come by in the city market, regardless of coin on hand.

Then, magical items created by the professors. A multitude of artifacts, enchanted clothing, and strange alchemical concoctions. The artifacts ranged from the useful—a better lock for the storage chests in the dorms—to fanciful and strange—a pillow that sang lullabies out of its felt mouth.

There were even a couple of small Conduits displayed in one of the glass cases. Sebastien eyed them with interest, but they were far beyond what she could afford, even the smallest costing over twelve hundred contribution points.

Ana seemed particularly interested in the enchanted clothing, eyeing the glyphs embroidered into the cloth with a magnifying glass that she pulled out of a pocket. “That’s a very elegant solution. I’ll have to write father about it,” she muttered.

Westbay focused on the divination supplies, staring at an artistic deck of cards and a rune-inscribed basin for far-viewing. “This is what Aberford Thorndyke used to catch the hen-thief terrorizing that rural village!” he exclaimed, grinning at her, his earlier ire forgotten. Westbay was taking seven classes this term, the last of which was Divination.

Sebastien grimaced at the reminder of her own struggles with that field of magic. If only she could foist the work off onto someone like him. She sighed at the thought. ‘Even if I could find someone to do it, I couldn’t afford to hire them.

A big book on a pedestal listed the other things she could buy, going into detail about what exactly she would be purchasing. In addition to purchasing better cafeteria food, there was also access to various upper sections of the library, private tutoring with University student aides of different levels and areas of expertise, and a list of the available—increasingly luxurious—dorm rooms. If she could afford it, she could live in a penthouse suite with a built-in kitchen and bathroom, all in pale marble and dark granite, and eat purple lobster three times a week.

If she had five hundred points, she could exchange them for tuition on a single University class. A quick calculation told Sebastien that if that exchange rate held steady, each point was worth about one silver crown, which was actually a significant amount.

Sebastien could afford some of the less interesting components and alchemy products, but nothing she particularly needed, and nothing she could resell for a good sum.

But the possibility had reminded her that she did have some things she didn’t need.

Instead of accompanying Anastasia and Westbay to the library, she dropped off her new practice components from Practical Casting in her dorm cubicle and left for Oliver’s house.

He wasn’t home, but the servants greeted her happily, and Sharon forced her to sit down and have an afternoon snack that was really more like a full dinner, grinning and blushing behind her hands every time Sebastien showed appreciation for the non-University food.

When Sebastien was stuffed so full it was almost painful to walk, she went to the room Oliver was lending her and took the bags she’d brought with her that first night out of one of the closets.

Ennis’s things. The bags she’d retrieved for him from that room at the inn, when she still thought he was a real father to her.

She took out one set of clothes. They were a little too short and wide for Sebastien, but she could make some adjustments so that they would fit her better. She was not very handy with a needle and thread, but that was alright. It made sense to keep a simple set of male clothes with her, ones not as attention-drawing as the items in Sebastien Siverling’s wardrobe. Perhaps someday she would need to present herself as a more mundane blonde man.

With Ennis’s luggage slung across her shoulders, she started walking. She kept an eye out for anyone watching or following her, but saw no eyes that were anything more than curious. Sebastien dressed like Oliver—like she could feed a family of four for a month with the price of her perfectly tailored suit made of silky, thick wool and the stylish jacket over it. She looked like she was actually warm. ‘And I’m hauling three bags stuffed with the worldly possessions of a nomadic conman,’ she thought. ‘They’re probably wondering where my manservant is.

Her shoulders hurt by the time she reached the Verdant Stag, but she didn’t want to waste coin on anything unnecessary, like the luxury of a carriage.

She’d only been to the inn-slash-entertainment-hall a few times as Sebastien. There were a couple of musicians on stage, and people were filtering in as the sun set and they got off work, filling up the seats and ordering food and ale from the bar. People were betting with a bookie in front of the large chalkboard against the other wall. She recognized one of the Stag enforcers leaning up against the wall near a hallway.

Sebastien walked past all of them.

Theo was at the top of the curved staircase at the far side of the room, sitting with a book and what looked like a half-written essay. The boy leaned his copper-haired head back until it thunked against the wall behind him, his eyes closed and his mouth yawning open in a soulless gape of boredom.

A laugh barked out of Sebastien’s throat without warning, and Theo jerked to awareness.

“Sorceress!” he yipped. His eyes widened and he looked around, covering his mouth with his hand, but there was too much other noise in the room below for anyone to have heard him. He took his hands away, examining her curiously. “You don’t look homeless anymore.”

She grinned at him. “Having trouble with your homework?”

“Ugh!” He rolled his head back dramatically again. “It’s an assignment from Mr. Mawson, my tutor. I’m supposed to write an essay on the Black Wastes, but it’s so boring. I don’t even know what to talk about. They’re black. The Brillig caused them thousands of years ago when we were at war with them, when they knew we were gonna win and they didn’t want us to have anything good if they couldn’t. And stuff dies there. How’m I supposed to say any more than that? I’ve never even been there. I’ve never been more than a day’s walk away from Gilbratha.”

Sebastien shook her head. “Whoa. Well, if you think the Black Wastes are boring, I must say it sounds like your tutor may be a teeny bit incompetent. He left out all the interesting parts and wanted you to write an essay copied from a book?”

Theo’s eyes widened, then narrowed. “What do you mean, interesting parts?”

“Well, like the stories of the adventurers who explored the Black Wastes to try and uncover the dragon corpses. The few who made it out alive told crazy—and I do mean insane—stories about the things they saw.”

Dragon corpses? What kind of things did they see?”

“Well, how long is your essay supposed to be?”

“Two pages.”

She waved her hand carelessly. “That’s nothing. Take notes. I will give you the information for the source material you can say you referenced if your tutor gives you problems, too.” She settled next to him on the top step of the stairs, speaking slowly. “This comes out of Edward Leeson’s third volume of ‘History of the Indomitable Race,’ which is actually kind of an ironic title, because…”

She told stories, repeating particularly interesting sections, answering questions, and helping him spell certain names while Theo scribbled as fast as he could to keep up with the information. Almost an hour later, he had three pages of notes and a cramping hand. “Okay. I think that’s enough material,” she said finally.

He sighed with relief as he stretched out his fingers, but still pouted reluctantly. “What about the other knight who went in with Briarson?”

She stood and began to walk down the hall to Katerin’s office, and Theo gathered up his things and scrambled to walk with her. “Briarson said that his partner went to check the perimeter around their camp, but didn’t come back until dawn, and when he did, he was glowing and shooting off sparks of green light, ‘like a dandelion in the wind.’” She used her fingers to indicate the quotation, then knocked on the door to Katerin’s office. “So Briarson shot him with an arrow. Well, six arrows. Briarson said his partner kept getting up again, so he had to keep shooting. No one knows if that really happened or if Briarson had gone insane by then.”

When Katerin called for them to come in, Theo bounced into the room. “What happened then? Did Briarson get out?”

Sebastien shook her head. “No, he never did. We know all this because a later expedition found his journal. It had been enchanted to ward off the elements. That expedition confirmed Briarson’s body was right there in camp, dead of unknown causes. And they found the arrows he’d shot on the other side of camp, broken and rotting. But they didn’t find the body of his companion.”

Theo’s eyes were round. “Could he have…got up again? Like Briarson said?”

Katerin raised her eyebrows.

Sebastien shrugged, suppressing her smile. “No one knows. Maybe he was a hallucination. Or maybe he was real, but he wasn’t Briarson’s friend at all. Maybe Briarson’s friend never came back from checking the perimeter.”

Theo shuddered in delighted horror. “Titan’s balls, I can’t wait to rub this in Mr. Mawson’s face. He never said anything about any of this stuff. Not the good stuff, I mean, just the death tolls and the loss of farmland and the boring recovery efforts.”

“Language, Theo,” Katerin reprimanded lazily, her accent throaty and biting. “And maybe he never said anything about that because he didn’t think it was appropriate to regale a young boy with horror stories.”

Sebastien winced.

“They’re not horror stories! They’re real! The sorcer—I mean, he”—Theo jerked his head to Sebastien as he bounced over to Katerin’s side—“gave me all sorts of sources. This all comes out of real books that he read. It’s for my essay on the Black Wastes, which are actually super cool and not boring at all.” He waved the scribbled sheets of note paper at her.

Katerin sighed, but ruffled his hair with a smile. “Okay. Real horror stories, then. Make sure you thank Sebastien here. And that essay better be good enough that I can rub it in Mr. Mawson’s face, too, when he comes complaining to me.” She winked at him. “Now go to your room and finish your homework.”

Grinning wide and gleefully as only a child could, he ran out. “Thanks, Mr. Sebastien!” he called over his shoulder.

“Err, I’m sorry if—” Sebastien started, but Katerin cut her off with a wave of her hand.

“No, no, it’s fine. Great, actually.” She stood, walking to the window and shutting the curtains against the night. “Oliver suggested a reward system to get Theo more focused on his learning, and it’s been working to some degree, but Theo’s only been dragging himself through it for the end prize. I overheard him giving himself a pep talk in the bathroom yesterday.” The woman chuckled fondly. “It’s nice to see him actually excited about learning for once.”

Katerin’s crimson hair and white teeth, especially after night had fallen, still made Sebastien think of a vampire. Or maybe it was something about the way the muscles around her eyes and mouth were tight with what was probably tension and fatigue, but looked a little like hunger, too. Her eyes roved over the leather and canvas luggage bags Sebastien had let drop to the floor. “What have you brought me?”

“The belongings of one Ennis Naught,” Sebastien replied softly. “I was hoping to get your advice on the best way to sell them.”

Katerin raised an eyebrow, but replied smoothly. “Nothing that would lead back to him, and through him to you, I hope?”

“Of course not. Good clothes, a warm, waterproof jacket, and fancy knickknacks he collected to make himself seem cultured or richer than he actually was.” Ennis had accumulated a lot for someone with such a nomadic lifestyle. Sebastien had taken only the bags that were light enough to carry, which meant she mostly had his clothes, and the rest had been left at the inn for the coppers. “It should be worth at least a few gold, even used.”

“There’s a shop about half a kilometer north of here. They’ll pay for things like that, mostly from people who’ve died or commoners who are upper-class enough to wear only new clothes but aren’t wasteful enough to throw away their worn purchases from last year. Tell them I sent you, and don’t accept the first number they offer.” Katerin scribbled their name and location on a scrap of paper and handed it to Sebastien.

“Thank you,” Sebastien said. She turned to the door, then hesitated. “Are there any updates?”

Katerin eyed her thoughtfully, then took out a pipe from the drawer in her desk and began to fill it with a dark blue crumble that Sebastien recognized as dried etherwood leaves. The smoke was smooth and calming, and great for blowing smoke rings, but nonaddictive. Either it was laced with something else, or Katerin’s smoking habit was purely recreational. “He’s still in jail. They brought in a cursebreaker and a shaman to see him, with no luck. He’s still telling the same story.”

Sebastien frowned. “You mean…the truth?” ‘A shaman might help him to clarify his dreams or memories to give better testimony, but why a cursebreaker?

Katerin placed the pipe onto a round glass coaster with a spell array molded into its surface. She paused to concentrate, frowning until a spark burst to life in the bowl of the pipe, orange smoldering in the depths of the dried leaves. “Well, yes. But I’m not sure they believe the truth, with the sudden notoriety of the Raven Queen. Our contact says most of them think he’s just a pawn in the Raven Queen’s scheme and doesn’t know anything useful. But the coppers are unwilling to give up on Ennis just yet. They hope he might lead them to her involuntarily.” She looked up, sucking on the mouth of the pipe and then tilting her head back to release a thick ring of light blue smoke. “She’s contacted him twice already, after all.”

“Ah.” Sebastien ran her tongue across the back of her teeth. “But they’re not torturing him, or threatening execution?”

“You sure you want to get rid of those bags?” Katerin’s gaze was piercing, but her expression showed no actual curiosity.

“Yes.” Sebastien gripped the straps of the packs tighter.

“It’s just that someone who really does not care wouldn’t be asking me these things, right?”

Sebastien shifted, her shoulders tightening. “Well, if I find myself slipping into feelings of worry or guilt, I need only to remember that, if Ennis Naught somehow gets out of jail, he only has himself to blame for giving my birthright heirloom ring—with a Master level Conduit—to the Gervin Family, which would have been worth more than enough to buy him new clothes and support him. Even after his ungrateful daughter sold all his things.” Her voice petered out on a low snarl.

Katerin just stared back silently.

Sebastien straightened her shoulders, lifted her chin, and left for the address of the shop Katerin had given her.

She made five gold off the lot.

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Chapter 46 – The Intersection of Transmutation and Transmogrification

Sebastien

Month 12, Day 9, Wednesday 2:15 p.m.

Professor Lacer was back in the Practical Casting classroom on Wednesday. For once, he was there ahead of the students. He leaned against his desk, which displayed a scattering of components.

A demonstration,’ Sebastien thought with excitement. Professor Lacer’s classes tended to be filled with a lot of practice, but he also often lectured on the kind of fascinating topics that were beyond the purview of their other classes. He introduced ideas and talked about spells that they couldn’t explore at their low level of skill, but which were still fascinating. Sometimes he made them do thought exercises that seemed designed to force them to think creatively and come up with non-standard solutions to problems.

But everyone enjoyed the days when he demonstrated free-casting the most.

As soon as they’d all settled, Professor Lacer pushed away from the edge of his desk. “Just as our understanding of magic has changed as we created the modern practice of sorcery, our labels have evolved. Ancient humans had no concept of a delineation between transmutation and transmogrification. It was all magic. Now, we say that transmutation is based on natural conversion of form or energy, and transmogrification is a borrowing of concepts. Of ideas. Intangible properties. Today, we are going to explore the intersection of transmutation and transmogrification.

“Transmogrification intersects with transmutation in three main ways. One, when both are used for separate aspects of a spell to create a synergistic effect. Two, when transmutation is not enough, and so we boost the effects by adding transmogrification toward the same purpose, adding a punch of efficacy to efficiency, as it were. Three, when the caster is using transmogrification not toward an intangible idea, but to copy a process, or, as happens more often, to copy part of a process in addition to the idea of the process that the caster does not understand.”

He crouched down and drew a Circle on the ground, about a meter across. “We will start with the simplest of intersections: spells that use both for a synergistic effect, transmutation for one facet and transmogrification for another.”

He turned to his desk, moving a block of heavy clay, three small white balls floating in a jar of yellow pickling brine, and another jar of water containing a frond of seaweed and some sand to the floor. From his pockets, he pulled out his Conduit with one hand and a beast core with the other. The block of clay rippled and morphed into the shape of a turtle, surprisingly detailed and lifelike. “A simple shape-change transmutation, using the provided clay and the energy from this beast core to mold it according to my Will. What comes next is, arguably, more interesting,” he said.

Within the briny jar, the three white balls disintegrated.

Color and texture seeped over the turtle, turning it from clay to flesh and shell.

It came to life with a sudden jerk, like someone awoken from a nightmare to find themselves in unfamiliar surroundings.

“Pickled turtle eggs for the animation, the concept of the life that would have been, borrowed and molded into a lifelike simulation. Transmogrification. Let me point out that I have no idea if those eggs were fertilized or not, or if there were stillborn turtles within. And in case any of you have not been paying attention when we talk about theory, let me also point out that I have not created life. I have created a lifelike golem that will last as long as my concentration does.”

A student raised her hand, and he nodded to her, indicating that she could speak.

In a slightly hushed tone that nevertheless was clearly audible in the classroom—the rest of the students held their breath, as if any disturbance would break the spell—she asked, “Is it possible to create life? I’ve heard there have been experiments, but the creatures always die as soon as they let the spell drop. Professor Boldon said creating true life was one of the inherent limitations of magic.”

“Of course it is possible,” Professor Lacer immediately dismissed. “If you believe anything is impossible, it is because you are too primitive to understand how it works, or too weak to make it happen. If a woman can create true life in her womb, a thaumaturge can create true life with magic. Eventually, someone will cross that seemingly impassable barrier, just like we have crossed so many before.”

The girl sat back, frowning but silent.

Sebastien remembered Professor Gnorrish’s class on the theory of spontaneous generation. ‘Is it that we don’t understand what makes something “alive,” and so we cannot create life? Or perhaps there is something—a soul?—that requires too much energy, or that we are not giving the proper Sacrifices to recreate. But if that were the case, we would be able to measure the soul escaping from the body upon death, correct? I don’t believe there is any evidence of that. Unless the “soul,” or whatever it is that we’re missing, doesn’t actually reside within the body.’ It was a fascinating idea, with interesting implications. Who wouldn’t want to escape death? If you could understand enough to create life through magic, surely that was a huge step toward staving off death. One might even be able to simply transfer themselves into a fresh body when they got too old. ‘Of course,’ she thought wryly, ‘Research into the topic would almost certainly be classified as blood magic, whether it deserved to be outlawed or not.’ Before she could lose herself to contemplation, Professor Lacer’s spell drew her attention back.

Seawater burst out of the final jar, dispersing in an artful splash around the spherical confines of the Circle, and then seeming to expand impossibly while simultaneously disappearing.

The turtle rose up, swimming around the air as if it were in a dome-shaped aquarium. “And here,” Professor Lacer continued, “I have taken that concept of buoyancy that a creature might experience surrounded by seawater and applied it to the area under my control. I have slowed down the steps of this spell so that you can see the delineation between transmutation and transmogrification, but in many other spells both effects are simultaneous. We go as far as we can with transmutation, and bridge the gap with transmogrification.”

It’s true. Spells do that all the time. And it makes sense, if there isn’t any actual difference between the two. The two T’s are just labels we’ve used to explain what we’ve always been doing. A divider that’s only in our minds.’ It was an interesting way to look at things, as if she had tilted her head to the side and saw that the shape she’d thought was a square was actually a diamond, but it wasn’t some world-shattering revelation. Things like this were why she loved this class, as tedious as the magical exercises could sometimes be.

Professor Lacer dropped the spell without further fanfare.

The turtle fell to the floor, lifeless and a little damp.

He picked it up and tossed it into a box beside his desk without care, then grabbed a glass bottle of amber liquid. “For the second most common intersection of the two, take this whiskey spelled to impart a sense of warmth and wellbeing by the shot. Alcohol does this naturally, and the fermentation and distillation are a form of transmutation, whether processed magically or not. The addition of transmogrification magic uses that same alcohol and a couple of other ingredients to boost the effects beyond simple inebriation.”

“Do we get a practical demonstration of that, too?” a student called out. “I could do with a shot of warmth and wellbeing.”

This caused scattered laughter, and even Professor Lacer allowed a small quirk to his lips. “Even if University rules allowed it, I would not be so reckless as to give students anything that would combine lowered inhibitions and a sense of wellbeing. You already mistake yourselves to be invincible.”

He picked up a metal box, touching the controls to turn the walls of the artifact transparent. Within lay a shimmering, tapered slab of something that looked like dark oil.

That’s the same kind of evidence box the coppers use to keep things in stasis.

“Finally, transmutation intersects with transmogrification without us realizing it. The spell cast using this fish is one interesting example.” He opened the top, placed the box down, and then cast a levitation spell on the specimen using only his Conduit and the beast core for power. Even the Circle was maintained within his mind, and cast at a distance, just as he’d spoken of on their first day of class.

Sebastien grinned just to see it.

The fish floated between Professor Lacer and the students, turning slowly so they could see its flat, slablike form. “The dorienne fish survives and hunts using particularly impressive camouflage,” he introduced. “It can see through its skin, and it processes the input from one side of its body and mimics it on the other with precise control of its pigmentation. The dorienne is only able to do this from one side at a time, and will turn to keep one broad side facing a predator or its prey, so that it remains effectively invisible.”

He floated the dead, preserved fish into the Circle he’d drawn on the floor earlier, then placed a foot-wide mirror with a frame of ornate scrollwork across from it. “Although we are aware of how the dorienne fish works, those who first discovered it knew only that the fish could be invisible from one side at a time. They created a spell that seems to copy that process.” He pointed, and the mirror became invisible, frame and all.

With a deep breath and a scowl of concentration, he moved slowly to face the students again. Now floating in front of him, the partially invisible mirror rotated to its visible side, and then around again. “The spell does not actually copy the process of the fish. Can anyone tell me how they are different?”

Sebastien leaned forward in her seat, her eyes devouring every movement as the mirror continued to spin at different angles around its axis. “It’s actually invisible.”

Professor Lacer turned to her. “Explain.”

“With the way the fish works, light hits both sides. It’s only changed what one of its sides looks like to mimic the effect of light passing straight through. The spell you’re casting has made one side of the mirror invisible. When the invisible side is facing the light source, it casts no shadow. Light is passing right through it.”

With a very slight smile, he floated the mirror over to the lamp on his desk to show the effect more clearly. “Mr. Siverling is correct. The dorienne invisibility spell is more power-intensive than it should be if the process were truly being copied. It killed its creator on his initial test casting. Transmogrification is unclearly defined. The trade for your Sacrifice is not always an intangible property. Sometimes, rather, it is a tangible process that you could create with transmutation, with enough study. Sometimes, transmogrification molds connotative associations, which are intangible and often beyond our powers of transmutation. But other times, transmogrification simply copies a state or process from the Sacrifice, whole-cloth. And occasionally it does one while the ignorant researcher who does not understand the limitations of their subject believes it to be doing another.

“This spell was created to copy the process of the dorienne, a much less power-intensive shortcut than the true invisibility spells of the time. And yet, in their lack of understanding, the creator of this spell did not copy, but drew on their idea of the dorienne’s invisibility, never having noticed that the dorienne casts a shadow or understanding what this means.”

He placed the fish back in the stasis artifact and then snapped his fingers.

Boxes appeared at the back of the classroom as if they’d been there all along—and they probably had been. “We will be moving on to another exercise today. You have had five weeks to practice moving a ball in a circle, and while you should continue to practice so that you do not grow rusty before the mid-term tournament, it is time to stretch your Will in other ways. Come up and grab a set of components. They are rated by thaum capacity.”

Once all the students had filed down, retrieved the appropriate components, and returned to their desks, he continued. “You each have two bottles of dirt and a small dragon scale. Your dirt varies both in volume and the ratio of clay to sand. Those of you with a larger amount or sandier material will find this exercise more difficult. Your goal is to turn particulate earth into a solid sphere capable of withstanding pressure, and then back again. You will use both transmutation and transmogrification to achieve this. The dragon scale is to be used as a template of form as well as for the idea of its strength. In a month, you should be able to create a sturdy ball of earth from any combination of methods. From pure transmutation using pressure or heat or whatever natural process you can come up with, to accurately copying the internal structure of the dragon’s scale, to imbuing your ball of earth with the defensive power of a dragon.”

Professor Lacer had his own set of components on his desk, along with a steel mallet. He poured out a jar of pure sand. Under his hand, it glowed brightly with heat, flowing and melting into a sphere of opaque glass. “Transmutation,” he said.

He slammed the mallet down onto it, shattering the glass sphere into powder and shards. “Fairly weak.” The pieces drew back together before melting again into a ball. “Do not forget you must not only create the compressed sphere, but also return your component to its original state.” The reformed ball crumbled into sand under his Will.

He picked up the dragon scale and laid it next to the pile of sand. The sand once again glowed and drew together into a sphere, but its surface was matte this time, and Sebastien thought she could make out the same patterning as the dragon scale sitting on the desk beside it.

“The simplest form of transmogrification,” he said. “Copying. The internal structure of a dragon’s scale is no more an intangible quality than its color is. Both are knowable, explainable by the natural sciences. And yet, spells like this have been labeled and cast as transmogrification by those who don’t understand how these things come to be. I will move the sphere to the floor this time. I do not wish to damage my desk.”

He brought down the iron mallet even harder than before. The sound of the impact was like the muffled crack of a frozen tree branch fracturing in the cold of winter under the weight of too much snow. The sphere was scuffed where the mallet had struck, but remained whole. He repeated this several more times to the same effect. Turning to one of the other students near the front, a strong-looking young man, Lacer called him up to take the mallet.

While the young man kept bashing away at the sphere, Lacer stood and continued lecturing, his words punctuated by the cracking sound of the mallet against the ball. “If I were to take the time to understand how the scale of the dragon is created, what the cells are made of and how their structure provides such defensive qualities, I could mold the sand without the need for a template to copy. The advantage of this method, as well as transmutation, is that as long as the transformation is complete by the time the casting stops, the changes will remain. I have created permanent change from a temporary application of magical power.”

Finally, after a few dozen more whacks from the enthusiastic student, the sphere broke, falling to jagged shards like a piece of hard candy.

Professor Lacer had him stand by while he returned the pieces to sand once again, this time using the second jar as a component. “What you can copy in one direction you can copy in the other. Rather than disintegrating this through transmutation, I am copying the state of the sand.”

The sphere’s recreation took slightly longer the third time, and Sebastien imagined she felt the weight of Professor Lacer’s Will brushing against the air.

When he finally held it up to them, it looked like the first time, shiny and semi-transparent. “This ball is a simple-structured glass imbued with the concept of a dragon’s defense. True transmogrification, completely conceptual without any accompanying physical change. It is an actively cast spell, not an enchanted artifact, so the magic won’t hold long, but while it does…”

He tossed the sphere to the man holding the mallet, who caught it clumsily, then placed it on the floor and whacked.

The sound was different, not such a clear crack, but deeper and hollower, as if the force of the blow had reverberated through something bigger than the sphere. The man repeated this dozens of times, but the sphere remained completely unharmed, pristine and unscuffed even after he began to pant and sweat.

Finally, Professor Lacer stopped him, once again turning the sphere back into sand, then levitating that sand back into its bottle. “Your turn,” he said to the class. “Homework will be theoretical research: the glyphs and spell arrays you could use to make these effects happen. Three glyphs, maximum. Be creative, be exhaustive. Due next Wednesday.”

Sebastien’s jars weren’t quite filled with pure sand, as the ones Professor Lacer used for his demonstration had been, but they were far from the clay dust she saw some of the other students working with, and there was enough to create a ball almost an inch in diameter. It would require both more power and more skill. With only middling success, she attempted to transmute the sandy dirt into a rock. By the end of the class period, she was frustrated with her dinky little Conduit. It kept her from crushing or heating the material with enough strength to create anything more than a lumpy ball with the consistency of sandstone.

Author Note:

Hopefully my explanations about how the magic works under the hood are clear. Sometimes it’s hard to tell, because I’m coming at it from the mentality of someone who already understands, since I’m the one who created the system. Please let me know (at any point) if you get confused so I can work to make things more transparent!

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Chapter 45 – Sirens

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Sebastien

Month 12, Day 7, Monday 12:45 p.m.

It wasn’t the first time Sebastien had heard Aberrant sirens. However, the prior experience did nothing to calm her, as the sound only brought back memories she would rather have forgotten. She looked around for signs of chaos and destruction, but saw only panicking students and the faculty directing them all to safety.

Clutching her school satchel in one hand and her Conduit in the other, she joined the congregating students in the central atrium of the library. The whole ground floor of the building was filled.

“I heard someone say it was an Aberrant,” a young woman said. “Do you know where it appeared?”

“It might not be an Aberrant,” an older woman said comfortingly. “The sirens don’t distinguish between different magical dangers. It could just be a rogue blood sorcerer casting some dangerous magic.”

A nearby man said, “You know blood magic users are more likely to mutate into Aberrants, right? That’s not exactly reassuring.”

A boy fidgeted, looking around as if a monstrous mutant might pop out from behind one of the other students. “My older sister is a copper. She told me the last time the sirens went off, it was a loose elemental, an enraged sylphide from the Plane of Air. Someone attempted an over-ambitious conjuring without strong enough bindings, and it went wrong. The sylphide choked the air right out of a whole city block of people. Drowned without a drop of water.”

He’d spoken loudly, and some of those around reached for their chests and throats as if to ensure they were still breathing properly.

Sebastien knew it was nothing compared to the destruction the right kind of Aberrant could wreak. ‘At least you can reason with a sylphide.’ Fortunately, most people who lost control of their magic were simply killed or mentally disabled. It was rare for a spell to go so horribly wrong that the caster mutated.

“What if it’s an attack on the city wards?” someone asked.

“That’s ridiculous,” someone else snorted. “Even the Titans would know better than to besiege Gilbratha. The wards are unbreakable.”

“It could be the kraken.”

“The kraken hasn’t been seen for the last two hundred years. It’s an Aberrant, I tell you.”

“It doesn’t matter what it is, nothing is going to get past the library wards. They were cast by Archmage Zard,” the older woman said, one arm around her frightened friend.

That seemed to calm most of the students until one girl whispered, “But I have family in the city… What about them?”

“If they know what’s good for them, they’ll get to the shelters,” a boy said.

Sebastien wanted to snap at them all to shut up, wanted to pace back and forth, wanted to cast some magic so she could feel like she was actually doing something useful. She pressed her way out of the crowd and brought her Will to bear. Creating a Circle with her hands flipped around so that her middle fingers touched her thumbs, with her pinky awkwardly curled around her Conduit, she brought out a hum from deep in her chest, casting the esoteric self-calming spell that Newton had taught her.

As she forced her body to calm, it became clear her agitation had been much stronger than she’d realized. Her heartbeat slowed, the stress-response chemicals burning in her blood cooled, and her muscles relaxed a little more with every deep hum.

When she finally opened her eyes, the panic of the other students seemed a little absurd. ‘We’re safe. And even if we weren’t, sitting around and worrying about it won’t make us safer. If we aren’t already prepared, then it’s already too late. Best to just get on with life.’ She didn’t have the luxury of spare time to waste.

Sebastien nudged back through the crowd to use one of the search crystals, burning a card with keywords about divination in its brazier. She’d picked up an armful of books and was looking for an out-of-the-way table when she noticed Newton at a spot that would be perfect. With the library so packed, there weren’t many other options.

“Can I sit here?” she asked. Her shoulders were beginning to tense again from the screaming of the sirens and the palpable tension of the crowd. The rationality she’d struggled to achieve was already being overridden by deep-seated wariness as her eyes flicked around mistrustfully.

Newton looked up a little slowly, as if he’d been focused on the handwritten sheaf of notes in front of him, but his eyes hadn’t been moving across the page, just staring at the same spot. “Oh, hello, Sebastien. Sure, feel free to join me, as long as you don’t expect entertaining company. I’m afraid I’m a little…preoccupied.” His face was drawn, and though his posture was proper, something about his unfocused eyes spoke of deep fatigue.

She sat, her back a little too straight, even for her. “Even better. I’d prefer not to sit around speculating.”

When the sirens suddenly stopped a couple of minutes later, Newton let out a deep breath, but his fingers kept worrying at his note paper until it was unusable. He somehow appeared both relieved and yet even more worried at the same time.

Sebastien tried to conceal her own relief. If the sirens were turned off, that meant the coppers believed they had dealt with the problem, or at least that it was contained and no longer a potential danger to the whole city. They would have to wait for confirmation before leaving the library, even so.

She eyed Newton. “That spell you taught me is useful. Especially for situations like this,” she offered, trying not to make her concern obvious.

He met her gaze for a long few seconds.

“I also have some of that anti-anxiety potion from the infirmary left,” she added.

He gave her a small smile. “Is this a role-reversal, Sebastien? You looking out for me?”

She shrugged. “Sometimes, when you’re really tired, you don’t realize how hard you’re fighting it. Your body tightens up until you’re like this taut little rock on the edge of a precipice. If you can rest, when you wake up everything seems a little more manageable, and you have the option to be flexible instead of shatter.”

“Sound advice. Almost as if you know from experience,” he said, his wry smile growing.

She rolled her eyes. “I’m used to fatigue. It’s the people that bother me.”

“Right,” he said, sniggering behind his hand. But he took her hint and spent a couple of minutes humming, performing the same esoteric spell he’d taught her.

When he opened his eyes, she looked up from the irritatingly oblique divination reference she was trying to read.

“You were right, I’m tired,” he said. “But I’m used to fatigue, too. It’s the fact that my family is out there in the city, possibly in danger, that worries me.”

“Oh.” She had no idea what to say to that.

“They don’t live in the best neighborhood,” Newton continued. “And as you might not be surprised to learn, Gilbratha’s emergency shelters are well over capacity in the poorer areas. Sometimes you need to bribe the guards to get in. And my family…well, my father’s fallen ill. He’s been out of work for the last few weeks, and without him—” Newton pressed his lips together and shook his head. “All of us Moores are stubborn. I’m just worried they chose to stay at home, block the doors, and hide under the beds rather than begging to be let into a shelter.”

Newton had already been worried about money, spending his extra time tutoring and taking the student liaison job to ease the burden of tuition. If his family was poor enough without his father’s income that they had to worry they couldn’t spare the coin to get into the shelters, they almost certainly wouldn’t be able to afford for Newton to continue his education. “Are there any other thaumaturges in your family? Someone you could trade messenger spells with?” Sebastien asked.

He shook his head. “My mom and sisters know some kitchen magic and a few esoteric things, but they’re not sorcerers. They don’t even have real Conduits. They’re definitely not powerful enough to defend themselves, either. My grandmother might have been able to cobble something together, but she’s going senile now, and I have her old Conduit.”

“The sirens have stopped, so they’ll probably let us out soon. You can go check on them personally. I doubt anyone will notice if you miss one class after all this pandemonium.”

“You’re right,” he said, relaxing a little.

She hesitated, realizing it might be rude to ask, but couldn’t stop herself from doing so anyway. “Was your father the main source of income for your family?”

He pressed his lips together. “Yes. And I know what you’re getting at. I have no University sponsor. If he doesn’t recover…” He took a deep breath. “Without my family’s help, I cannot pay my own way. It’s just too much. But if I leave now—” He paused, cleared his throat, and continued in a forcefully calm tone. “Apprentices don’t earn enough to support a family and also save much, especially not at first. It might be ten years or more before I could return to continue my education. Maybe never, if healer’s fees for my father become too much. I don’t want to be stuck doing busy work for a Master for the rest of my life.”

Sebastien wanted to suggest that Newton take his father to the Verdant Stag and see if they could help with something in the alchemy shop, or connect him to an affordable healer, but she didn’t. Sebastien Siverling should have no way to know about the Verdant Stag’s operations. ‘I’ll talk to Oliver about it. Maybe he can find some way to get the information to Newton’s family more surreptitiously,’ she told herself.

The library doors stayed closed for over an hour longer, until the faculty in the administrative section of the building received word that it was definitely safe to release the students.

Newton and most of the other students left as soon as they were able, but Sebastien remained behind, reading about divination while she waited for her next class. She struggled to focus, her mind returning several times to what might have caused the rogue magic sirens.

Divination was the only branch of magic she wasn’t particularly interested in. When she was younger, she’d had fantasies about getting tips from the spirits or seeing the future in a basin of water. It turned out that beyond basic things like dowsing for water or sympathetic scrying for a location, most humans weren’t built for real divination. The very talented could get vague hints about possible futures or answers about specific questions, but Sebastien had discovered that she could rarely even tell which card was next in a shuffled deck, much less divine the future.

All that to say, she didn’t have much knowledge or experience in divination, which meant trying to put a stop to the scrying attempts would require extensive research. She would wait to start practicing the actual spells, at least until tomorrow. She didn’t want to push herself too hard when her recovery was still fragile.

She felt no more confident about her plan by the time she left the library for Lacer’s Practical Casting class, but she was determined. There were no problems that a combination of magic, power, and knowledge-backed ingenuity couldn’t fix.

I’ll need to prioritize, though,’ she admitted. ‘I can’t handle practicing new utility spells, researching sleep spells, and trying to learn about emergency healing while also working on this. Everything but school work and getting my blood back from the coppers will have to wait.

All the students were still absorbed by the earlier sirens, and the class was filled with chatter while they waited for Professor Lacer to arrive. It was normal for him to stride in with his coat flapping behind him after all the students had been seated for a few minutes, but the minutes ticked by and Professor Lacer still hadn’t arrived.

“He might not be coming,” said Westbay, who had taken it upon himself to sit beside Sebastien.

“Because of whatever caused the sirens?” she asked.

“Sometimes he gets called away from the University to deal with special cases, if the Red Guard is going to be slow in arriving or the coppers need an expert consultant.”

“There are rumors he was in the Red Guard at one point, too,” she said slowly.

Westbay shrugged. “Who knows? There are a lot of rumors about him, and a good half of them are completely ridiculous.”

“I thought… He’s a friend of your Family, right? You don’t know?”

Westbay gave her a flat stare. “I’m flattered you think so highly of me, but you know the ranks of the Red Guard are confidential, right? The Westbay Family does handle the internal security of the city, but I’m only the second son, not even finished with the University. They don’t tell me anything actually important,” he said with irritation.

The other students were starting to chatter about Lacer’s absence, and when one person speculated that the Charybdis Gulf’s kraken had taken him back to its sea lair because it wanted his seed for its progeny, Westbay raised his eyebrows as if to say, “See? I told you people make up the most ridiculous rumors.”

She conceded the point.

Professor Lacer still hadn’t arrived thirty minutes after his class was supposed to start, and whatever discipline the students might have retained had entirely evaporated away as they gossiped and worked on homework from other classes.

“I think it was probably an Aberrant,” a man seated near to Sebastien said, immediately drawing the attention of the students close enough to hear him. “Gilbratha gets at least one ‘creature of evil’ per year, on average, so it wouldn’t be a surprise.”

The woman he’d been speaking to grimaced. “Someone experimenting with blood magic? Some evil spell?” She shuddered delicately. “I cannot imagine why anyone would dabble in such a thing, knowing the consequences.”

Aberrants were actually quite rare, Sebastien knew, but it was true that most of the incidents came from thaumaturges dabbling in immoral things and corrupting their Will. If Gilbratha had one every year, it was only because of the high concentration of thaumaturges, both legal and criminal.

A younger girl, obviously a commoner by the low-quality fabric of her clothes, leaned toward the two. “Are all creatures of evil Aberrants? I thought some of them were…beasts, or evil Elementals, or something.”

The man shrugged. “Well, they might be. Only people who don’t really know what they’re talking about use the more generic terms, like ‘creatures of evil.’ Commoners and non-thaumaturges. It’s a catch-all for any living rogue magic element.”

The woman said, “Well, Aberrant or whatever it was, the Red Guard has handled it now, and we will know soon enough, once they have finished their investigation. It did not take them very long to send the all-clear signal, so it must not have been particularly difficult to deal with.”

Beside Sebastien, Ana nodded at that. “That is true. When I was a child, we were stuck in the basement shelter for almost two days. Mother was worried they were going to have to set up a sundered zone right in the middle of Gilbratha. A rather powerful sorcerer had corrupted his Will and broken while trying to revive a newly dead body. It took the Red Guard some time to figure out how to deal with the Aberrant that resulted.”

Westbay looked dour. “I remember that. Titus was here at the University, and Father was dealing with the incident. It was just me and the servants the whole time, waiting for news. All Aberrants have a weakness, though, a counter to their ability. You just have to find it.”

Sebastien frowned. “What about Aberrants like Metanite, or Red Sage? It seems like the Red Guard would have found their weakness by now, if they really had one. Metanite isn’t even contained within a sundered zone.” Sundered zones were the effect of the world’s most powerful barrier spell, and could contain almost anything. They created perfectly, unnaturally white quarantine domes, and were used exclusively to keep the world safe from Aberrants that couldn’t be otherwise killed or neutralized. Metanite had destroyed the one they put around it just as it destroyed literally everything else it touched with its void-black form.

Westbay shook his head. “Just because it can’t be killed doesn’t mean there is no counter. Metanite is slow and shows no signs of intelligence. With enough vigilance, space-warping magic is plenty to deal with it. And the Red Sage is contained within a sundered zone.”

“But it’s not stopped,” Sebastien argued. “Whatever ability Red Sage has is either summoning people to hear its prophecies or manipulating reality to make them come true, even from within its sundered zone.”

The spell that created sundered zones did not stop sapient creatures that could give their informed consent from entering the barrier, nor from exiting again as long as they had not been tainted by any tangible or magical effect within. Why this was, she didn’t know, but the Red Guard usually kept people from entering—or tried to—with a secondary barrier, and often a wall, too. The Red Sage could see the future, supposedly, and whatever it prophesied would come true. Except it pronounced better fates to those it liked, and horrible ones to those it disliked, and all its prophecies came true in the most horrible way possible. Desperate people continued to find ways past the security measures in the hopes of bribing the Aberrant to receive a favorable prophecy, no matter the destruction the fulfillment of the prophecy would inevitably wreak on the world and lives of those around them.

“Sure, but the Red Guard is working to mitigate the effects of the prophecies, as well as limit who gets to speak to the Red Sage. There haven’t been any major disasters in at least a hundred years. The Red Guard has almost entirely constrained it. Imagine what it could do, unchecked.”

“But that’s all they can do. Constrain it. Just the same as the Dawn Troupe. Dozens of people die every year to that one.”

“Again, because people are stupid and visit the Dawn Troupe on purpose, in the hopes of winning a boon. That’s not the Red Guard’s fault. Anyone who isn’t stupid or suicidally reckless is safe from the Dawn Troupe.”

“If enough people don’t visit, the agreement with the Aberrant is that it can go on a hunt,” Sebastien said. “That’s what it bargained. Don’t you think that has something to do with why the newspapers report it whenever someone manages to get out alive with a boon? It entices the general idiot specimen to offer up their own life so it’s not so obvious that the Red Guard actually has no way to stop the Dawn Troupe. And what about Lugubrious? Cinder Stag? That’s to say nothing of those Aberrants that you and I have no idea about. Can you truly tell me you don’t think they exist? Aberrants that they can’t catch? Ones they don’t even know about?” Sebastien’s voice had grown harder, sharper, and she realized she was leaning toward him, glaring into his eyes.

People were staring at her.

“You know so much, Sebastien,” a girl a few desks away said with a simpering smile that lacked any real thoughtfulness and made Sebastien want to smack the expression off her face.

Sebastien leaned back, looking away with a sharp exhale.

Ana eyed Sebastien. “You do know rather a lot about this.”

“It seemed rather prudent to do at least basic research about creatures that are created without warning and can wipe out an entire city.” Sebastien couldn’t understand why more people weren’t interested in learning everything they could about Aberrants.

At most, incidents would be reported in the paper, and there would be warnings about the danger of blood magic and unlicensed, improperly trained thaumaturges. She was sure someone was researching the beings extensively—how else would the Red Guard be equipped to deal with them?—but, as a normal person, a commoner, trying to get information about Aberrants or the mental break that created them was an exercise in frustration. Those in power probably didn’t want to cause a panic, while the average person just wanted to go about their life peacefully, moronically pretending that it had nothing to do with them, wouldn’t affect them. Even the University library kept most of that information on the third floor or in the underground restricted sections.

“It’s a real threat. A danger to the entire world. Aberrants don’t die of old age, and they keep being created,” she added in a calmer tone. ‘It only takes one to destroy everything you’ve ever known and cared for,’ she added silently.

“Maybe you should join the Red Guard,” Westbay said. “They might not be perfect, but they do protect Lenore pretty well. They need people who are powerful and passionate about protecting the country.”

Sebastien wasn’t sure how to respond to that, caught between surprise, amusement, and denial.

Ana turned away from Sebastien, putting on a bright smile. “All that as it is, the Red Guard has no doubt performed valiantly in this instance,” she announced. “Let us discuss something more pleasant? I’ve heard Professor Boldon was proposed to by one of his student aides.”

The others were drawn in by this semi-scandalous declaration, and Sebastien took the welcome reprieve to chastise herself for allowing her interest in the topic to override her discretion. She was easily caught up in theoretical discussions, sometimes without properly taking into account her audience and what was appropriate to reveal about her opinions.

Not long after, a student aide walked in and told them that the class had been assigned to self-study in the absence of their professor. The student aide sat behind Lacer’s desk at the front corner of the room and started scribbling on a paper while watching them, as if to record their adherence to the task.

Westbay quickly turned to Anastasia. “I’ll partner against you to start, and Siverling can watch and give us some pointers.”

Sebastien raised an eyebrow, but didn’t protest.

Ana hesitated, looking at Sebastien. “You don’t mind? We’ll be competing against each other in a few weeks, after all.”

Westbay shook his head condescendingly. “Siverling’s not so selfish that he can’t set aside practicing for a single period to help his friends. Right, Siverling?”

“…Right.”

The two of them set up the spell array and competed against each other for a few minutes while Sebastien watched. Then, they stopped and turned to her expectantly. “Well?” Westbay asked.

She stared back at them for a few seconds. ‘Where does this bright-eyed anticipation come from? Are a few tips from me so valuable? Well, I suppose I am better than either of them.’ She cleared her throat. “What do both of you visualize when you move the ball?”

Anastasia looked unsurely between Sebastien and Westbay. “Umm, I just imagine the ball…moving?”

“How? What causes it to move? It just moves on its own?” Sebastien asked.

“I imagine an invisible force behind it, pushing,” Westbay said.

Sebastien tapped her forefinger thoughtfully on the table . “Westbay, your visualization seems to be a little stronger than Ana’s. And you’ve both practiced this spell a lot, so there’s not a ton of inefficiency. But…Will isn’t just about how much energy you’re channeling, or even how efficiently you do it. At least that’s how it seems to me. When you know exactly what you want, as clear as high quality celerium, and you want it really, really badly, it makes a difference. Knowing exactly what you want can be tricky, but an easy way to create effects like this is to think about how you might create them without magic. You could nudge the ball around with your finger, and that would work, but you’ll never get real speed or efficiency out of that. Swinging it around like a rock in a shepherd’s sling would be better. If you can handle it mentally, a geared crank that sends the ball shooting around two times, or a hundred times, for every revolution of the crank… My point is, the visualization matters.”

Damien scribbled down a handful of notes on a spare piece of paper while she spoke. “I think I understand. Give me a moment to come up with a model.”

Sebastien turned to Ana. “You don’t care enough about the outcome. Don’t ask, don’t order, just…believe. There’s a reason it’s called the Will. You must become a god, a force of nature, and the ball moves because the laws of reality that you created say that it moves.”

Ana stared into her eyes for a long moment. “Is that how you do it?”

Sebastien chuckled. “All good thaumaturges have to be a little narcissistic, I think.”

“It sounds…appealing, that kind of control.”

“Of course. Magic is…it’s the fabric beneath reality. It’s in everything. When you touch magic…” Sebastien shook her head, feeling visceral electricity running through her skin at the thought, raising the fine hairs all over her body and setting her blood alight. “There is nothing more worthwhile.” Her hand had gripped her Conduit while she wasn’t paying attention, and she released it, sitting back and rolling her shoulders. “Okay. Try again.”

They did. The improvement wasn’t huge, especially with them already having so much experience casting the same spell over and over, but it was noticeable. Maybe a five percent increase in power, and about the same improvement to their efficiency. It was enough to put a huge grin on Westbay’s face and make Ana let out a rich laugh. They drew the attention of those sitting nearby.

“You really are a genius,” Westbay said. “This is as good as if I just gained ten thaums in five minutes of work.”

A girl whose name Sebastien had forgotten leaned in, tucking her hair behind her ear. “Are you handing out tips, Siverling? Teaching the class in place of Professor Lacer?”

“I don’t have anything to say that you shouldn’t already know,” Sebastien said shortly.

Despite the fact that she’d just coached him, Westbay crossed his arms over his chest and gave their curious classmates a glare. “Focus on your own tables,” he snapped at them.

And so, they spent the rest of the class period like that, with Ana and Westbay practicing while Sebastien watched and gave them little hints to improve their performance—and their classmates not-so-inconspicuously continued to eavesdrop.

Another plug for the Patreon exclusive from Thaddeus’s POV, which is the length of about two normal chapters all by itself: https://www.patreon.com/posts/thaddeus-57698189

 

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Chapter 44 – Chastisment

Sebastien

Month 12, Day 4, Friday 3:45 p.m.

When class ended, Professor Lacer left immediately, not bothering to wait for the handful of students who wanted to linger and speak to him. “I have office hours,” he announced as he strode past them. “Use them.”

Damien and Sebastien shared a look of sick concern, and she took longer than necessary to gather up her belongings, trying to settle herself. Fearing that she would gather more ire by dawdling, she followed the gently curved hallway to Professor Lacer’s office. She felt sick, not only because of straining her Will beyond its limits, but because she didn’t know the extent of his anger toward her. ‘I will plead with him if I need to. But only if I need to.’ She briefly considered trying to tell some sort of half-truth that would mollify him, but her mind was too scrambled to think through the options and their ramifications.

It had been such a stupid mistake, and she regretted compounding it with an attempt to hide it. It would be horrible to be expelled, but as long as she could keep her magic and her life, she would always find a way to claw her way back up again.

She paused outside the door for a few breaths, blinking in an attempt to clarify the vision in her right eye. She pressed her trembling fingers to her sides, straightened her back, and rapped softly on the open doorframe.

“Enter,” Lacer said, his voice clipped. He’d sat at his desk and was scribbling a note. His scowl was harsh enough to toast bread. “Close the door behind you,” he said without looking up.

She did so, stopping a few feet in front of his desk. She didn’t dare to take a seat without his permission. She resisted the urge to fidget or wince with every ice-pick spike of the headache impaling her brain.

“Are you aware that without me, you would not be studying here?” he asked.

Her heart clenched. “Y—” Her voice broke, and she had to swallow before replying. “Yes.”

“And you are aware that if you make me dissatisfied, I can have you expelled before the day is out?”

“Yes.”

“Do you think there is anyone at this university whose opinion is more important than mine?”

“No,” she said. ‘Which is precisely why you can never know what I’ve been up to,’ she thought.

“Are you also aware that because of the special circumstances of your admittance, your performance reflects back upon me? If you perform poorly, or act inappropriately, my judgment will be in question. Honestly, I am currently questioning my own judgment.”

Sebastien suppressed a wince. “Yes.”

He stared at her until she wondered if she was supposed to say something else, the judgment in his gaze almost a physical weight on her body.

She couldn’t tell the truth, but she was afraid to lie, and so silence was her only refuge.

Finally, he said, “Did Mr. Westbay ask you to lose to him?”

Sebastien blinked twice. “No,” she said, her tone as neutral as she could make it.

“So you chose to pander to him. I am unsure if that makes it better or worse. I had thought you would have more pride than that.”

She remained silent, sluggishly realizing that Professor Lacer thought she’d thrown the match with Damien because he was a Westbay, and that she was either afraid to openly best him, or was trying to get on his good side by making Damien look better than he was.

Professor Lacer hasn’t noticed the signs of Will-strain? Perhaps he simply never considered that I could be that stupid.’ She was filled with relief. It was a plausible motive that had nothing to do with fleeing from the coppers, attacking another student, or using blood magic. She couldn’t overtly agree with his assumption, though, in case he really did have some divination running to reveal lies. She bowed her head, the shame of the movement all too real. “It will not happen again,” she promised, meaning every word.

“See that it does not. I will bestow my forgiveness this time. In future, if you are going to curry favor with others at the expense of your pride, do it better. I will not preach about honor and chivalry, but please, at least have the cunning not to embarrass me. You will comport yourself with my reputation in mind at all times. And in exchange for today, you will win at least fifty contribution points in the end of term exhibitions.” He paused, as if waiting for her to protest.

“I understand,” she said. Rather than worrying about drawing attention to the persona of Sebastien Siverling in the exhibitions, her immediate thought was to wonder how difficult it was to earn fifty points as a first term student. With what she knew of Professor Lacer’s standards, it was likely a hellishly difficult demand.

“Good. Now get out.”

She complied without hesitation. The relief was heady. A little scolding and a task to redeem herself. There had been no offensive spells, nothing to publicly shame her, and most importantly, no expulsion. It seemed that he hadn’t even noticed her Will-strain. ‘Could it be that the rumors surrounding Professor Lacer’s temper are somewhat exaggerated?’ She wanted to laugh.

Damien Westbay was pacing in the hallway outside the door, fidgeting with his already perfect hair and unwrinkled clothes. He stilled when he saw her. “What did he say? I can talk to—”

The smile slipped from her face. She grabbed him by the arm and kept walking. “You will not talk to him.”

“I’m sorry, Sebastien, it’s not right that you’re the one to get in trouble for this. I—”

“It’s fine. He was angry, but only because I embarrassed him with my public weakness. I have to participate in the end of term exhibitions and earn at least fifty contribution points. That’s it.”

Westbay stumbled along beside her. “Oh. Well, that’s…good?”

“Yes. Except I doubt I’ll be coming back next term if I don’t succeed.”

“He’s that angry? Sebastien…maybe we should just explain what happened?” he said reluctantly. “We could leave out the details of how I got hurt. There’s no way I’d be expelled, I’m a Westbay, and we might even be able to convince him not to inform my father—”

I could still be expelled,” she snapped. “Can’t you get that past your thick skull? I’m not worried about you, I’m worried about myself. The rest of us don’t get to take the paved road through life, Westbay. There are consequences for our actions.”

He was silent for a while, and kept walking beside her even when she released her grip on his arm. “Mood swings,” he said finally, his tone placating. “You need to go to the infirmary, Sebastien. They can help with the Will-strain.”

“No.” The anger she was feeling was perfectly legitimate, but a vivid desire to strangle the bullheaded, oblivious boy had her seriously considering slamming him into an empty classroom.

The urge was strong enough that she had to concede, at least to herself, that her decision-making faculties were impaired.

“I’ll drag you there myself if I have to. This isn’t about your preferences or wanting to seem tough. It’s not even about getting in trouble. This is about your safety, your well-being. I won’t let you jeopardize everything just because you’re feeling stubborn. Your judgment is impaired, so if I have to, I’ll make this decision for you.”

“Where did you grow the stones to act like this is any of your business?” she muttered, gritting her teeth. Before he could reply, she held up a hand toward him. “Alright, alright, stop. I don’t need to go to the infirmary. I have a friend who can help me.”

“Really?” He peered at her skeptically.

She scowled. “Really. I’m going there now. You may not have noticed, but I do have a working brain, even if it feels like it’s being stomped on by a rabid cow right now. I know I need healing.”

The worry and doubt smoothed away from his face. “Good,” he said, nodding imperiously. “If you’re not feeling better by Monday, do not come to class.”

She rolled her eyes and walked faster, hoping to outpace him.

He jogged a little to catch up, but was thankfully silent all the way to the glass transportation tubes on the south side of the white cliffs. He waved as she used her student token to activate one. “Feel better soon! And don’t come back until you do!”

She didn’t wave back.

By the time she got to Oliver’s house, the headache was making her nauseated.

Oliver took one look at her and said, “What happened?”

“Will-strain,” she replied simply, her voice soft, because she felt like speaking loudly or opening her mouth too wide might send the contents of her stomach spilling out over his polished shoes. “My professor asked me to cast in class. I don’t want to risk the healers at the University infirmary. Do you think I could see…whoever the Verdant Stag usually uses?”

“I’ll hail a carriage,” he said, though instead of doing it himself, he motioned to a servant, who hurried outside to the street. Oliver strode off into the kitchen and came back with a steaming mug of dark liquid. “I don’t keep a lot of potions in the house. They don’t work very well on me, so… The caffeine should help with your headache.”

She took the mug gratefully, sipping slowly.

“The next time something like this happens, perhaps you should consider refusing to cast magic,” he said.

“The next time?” she groaned.

Oliver gave her a wry smile, but it didn’t disguise his worry.

The servant poked their head back through the front door and said, “I’ve got one, sir.”

Sebastien took the mug of coffee with her into the carriage, which thankfully had shock absorbers to mitigate the bumps and jolts. After a few minutes of sitting and sipping, she felt well enough to talk, as long as she kept her eyes closed. “Has anything happened since I’ve been back at the University? Anything new with the Morrows?” She kept her voice low enough that no one would overhear them.

“Nothing big. There’s been some harassment, especially on the edges of our territory, but we’ve been patrolling, and we’ve invested a lot into improving the equipment and number of our enforcers so we don’t seem like such an easy target.”

“That’s good.”

“We also made an alliance with the Nightmare Pack.”

She opened one eye. “Who?”

“Another gang with no love for the Morrows. The leader would like to meet with you. Or, to be more specific, he would like to meet with the Raven Queen,” Oliver said, lifting one side of his mouth in a half-smile that lacked real amusement.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. It was another wanted poster displaying an evil version of her face glaring out underneath a hood. Only this time, the caption said, ‘Alias: The Raven Queen. Dangerous practitioner of Forbidden Magics. Flee on sight. Report any information to law enforcement. Reward for information leading to arrest: Five hundred gold crowns.’

“Flee on sight?” she muttered. Five hundred gold crowns was more than many poor families made in a year. It seemed they were taking her more seriously after her recent appearance. Even the most copper-hating or loyal person might be swayed by such a large bounty.

Oliver folded the paper away and tucked it back into his pocket. “I’ll let you consider the meeting when you are more lucid. There will be incentives.”

“I’ll have to do something to pay for the healer,” she mumbled. “Pretending to be the Raven Queen shouldn’t be much harder than pretending to be a boy.”

There was a pause, and then he said, “It seems you’ve had it worse than us. Will everything be alright, once you return?”

“I hope so,” she sighed. “The pressure keeps rising, but once I’m better, I’ll be able to handle it. Is it okay for me to meet this healer as Sebastien?”

Oliver hesitated, then said, “Well, I’m taking you there as Oliver Dryden, not the leader of the Stags. Healer Nidson is discreet, and there’s an easy explanation for how a University student got Will-strain, even if it is strange that you wouldn’t stay to be treated there.”

“We need to find a more thorough way to keep Sebastien and Siobhan separate. I can’t be switching back and forth at will. Eventually, the wrong person will notice something.”

“I have some ideas about that. We’ll talk about it once you’re better.”

The healer retained by the Verdant Stag was brusque but competent, the type of person whose eyes wouldn’t widen in surprise even if Oliver brought Myrddin himself, resurrected, into his home. Nidson gave Sebastien a quick succession of potions which calmed the pain and slowed her thoughts till they felt like cold molasses within her skull. Then he made her guzzle down a large mug filled with what tasted like a modified nourishing draught, till her stomach sloshed with every movement. He laid her down on a slate table with a Circle carved into it, then drew a spell array around her prone form.

She dozed off, opening her eyes some time later to see Nidson casting a healing spell with various exotic components as the Sacrifice, some of which she recognized, and some of which she could only speculate about.

She woke again in a carriage with poor suspension, every bump of the cobbled road jostling through her. She was slumped against Oliver, her head on his shoulder, wrapped in a blanket. He pressed a hand against her hair, keeping her from sitting up. “I need you to turn into Siobhan. Can you do that?”

She pressed the amulet against her chest and pushed at it with a small pulse of Will. The spike of pain this caused was dull and distant.

“Sleep,” Oliver said. “You’ll feel better when you wake up.”

Siobhan did feel better when she woke up, except for the disorientation and the horrible pressure in her bladder. She was alone, but recognized the small, spartan room and the door made of iron bars.

She was at Liza’s place, in the warded, secret section of her home. After relieving herself using Liza’s enchanted chamber pot, Siobhan made her way upstairs.

Liza was sitting in the apartment above, among the magical reference books, animal cages, and growing plants, sipping dark liquid that gave off a whiff of nostril-burning alcohol mixed with the earthy bitterness of coffee. She was petting a neon-bright bird that sat trilling musically on her lap. Her eyes were bloodshot, with dark, puffy circles below, and she’d tied her curly hair back into a low bun to partially disguise its unwashed frizziness. “You’re awake.”

“I feel much better,” Siobhan said. She had a faint headache still, but it was nothing compared to the horseshoe nails of pain that had been trying to chisel her skull apart, and she could see normally out of both eyes.

Liza grunted around a mouthful of alcohol-laced coffee. “You’re lucky there’s no permanent damage.”

Siobhan acknowledged that with a wince. “What time is it?”

“About five in the morning. On Monday.”

Siobhan’s eyes widened. Whatever that healer had given her must have been an extra-strength tranquilizer. It might have even slowed some of her bodily functions. ‘Or…Liza stayed up caring for me and casting spells to empty my bladder and bowels while I slept.’ The thought sent heat rushing to her cheeks. She coughed and looked away. “Oliver brought me here so I could sleep through the scrying attempts?”

“Yes. Of which there have been several. The coppers are more interested in you than I expected, child.”

Siobhan rubbed her forehead. “Unfortunately. Thank you for taking care of me.”

Liza waved a tired hand. “It is far from my first time caring for an invalid. At least you were still and silent. As long as this doesn’t happen again, you may be forgiven. I am more concerned that the solution we came to is already proving insufficient. Did the divination attempts push you so far as to cause Will-strain?”

“Oh, no, that was something else.”

Liza’s mouth tightened judgmentally. “Something else,” she repeated, supremely unimpressed. “Perhaps you should take a good look at your life choices.” She tucked the bird under one arm and put it in one of the cages scattered around the room. “Come,” she ordered, walking into the official part of her house through the attached closet door.

She made a second cup of coffee, eyed Siobhan, then added a moderate splash of liquor to it before handing it over. “Drink.”

Siobhan accepted it awkwardly. She wasn’t a fan of alcohol, but the caffeine was a lifesaver, and the minty burn of whatever Liza had added immediately provided a boost of vivacity, rather than the mellowing, depressive effect she remembered from her other attempts to drink.

Liza stared at her until Siobhan felt uncomfortable. She wondered if Oliver bringing her here was actually not okay. Or perhaps Liza was just trying to calculate how much coin she could extort from Siobhan in her weakened state. Finally, Liza spoke. “You need a more permanent solution to the scrying attempts if they are going to continue like this—and if your lifestyle continues to create moments when you cannot safely or consistently counteract them.”

“A more permanent solution, like retrieving my blood from Harrow Hill?”

“Harrow Hill has some of the best wards in Gilbratha. Theoretically, I might be able to bypass them, but in practice, with only nine thousand thaums under my command, such a course of action would be like a dragon attacking a sky kraken—an act of hubris bordering on stupidity. Any mistake would only end up giving them more opportunity to track you down. If our last transaction was any indication, it also seems that you could not afford to hire me for such a project. However, there are more creative solutions you might employ. The blood need not be retrieved, as long as they cannot realistically use it to find you.”

Siobhan’s eyes widened, her attention caught on the mention of Liza’s capacity. That was only a couple of thousand below the level when one could start thinking about getting certified as an Archmage, though a lot more went into being acknowledged as an Archmage than simple capacity. Siobhan’s eyes narrowed. “How old are you?”

Liza rolled her eyes. “Well, you just put your foot in your mouth without hesitation, don’t you?” she asked, but didn’t seem to be actually offended. “I’m sixty.” She was almost as old as Professor Lacer. Of course, neither of them looked like a commoner of the same age might, with all the magic they cast keeping them young. Liza looked closer to thirty. “Due to my advanced age, and my particular background, I have valuable experience and feel qualified to give advice on this. I participated in the Haze War, and I know first-hand that there is always a loophole that can be exploited in any ward or defensive system. If there’s no loophole, one can be created. Often this weakness lies in human error and laziness and not the external defenses. Do some research. Necessity is the mother of innovation, as they say. Alternatively, you can hire me to find a more permanent solution, for the small sum of eight hundred gold crowns.”

Siobhan sipped her minty coffee. “Do you have any particular ideas?”

Liza gave her a deadpan stare, apparently not tired enough to be tricked into giving up valuable information. “If you’re feeling better, you can leave.”

Siobhan hesitated, wondering if she should offer to pay Liza for the care and lodging while she’d been unconscious. Then she smacked herself mentally. If she could get away with something for free from the woman, she should run before Liza overcame her sleep-deprivation.

The sun was still a couple of hours from rising as Siobhan hurried out, and the streets were empty, a layer of unbroken snow covering everything. She pulled her cloak tighter around herself and felt the angry grumble of her empty stomach. Returning to Sebastien’s form in an empty alley felt safest, even though she probably could have transformed in the middle of the street without being noticed. She was still wearing the same clothes she’d left the University in a few days before. Hopefully Liza hadn’t thought that was strange. Women did wear trousers, after all, and even if they didn’t fit her very well, no normal person would jump to the correct conclusion.

When Sebastien got back to the University, she grabbed a change of clothes and went straight to the showers, luxuriating in the warm water and solitude.

She was again asleep in her bed when the rest of her dorm finally woke. As the sounds of early morning preparation woke her, she realized she hadn’t done any of her homework over the weekend. Rubbing her temples, she took a deep breath, then fumbled with the vial containing the anti-anxiety potion and swallowed a half-dose. ‘I needed the rest. Missing one weekend’s worth of homework won’t lower my grade so far that I fail. Probably.

Westbay, who was just getting dressed as she left, gave her a questioning look.

She raised an eyebrow at him, and he nodded and smiled as if she’d instead given him a reassuring, “Good morning, friend!” With a snort, she left him to comb his hair three hundred times, knowing he would keep at it until he’d beaten every single strand into submission.

She pondered her situation as she ate the bland breakfast slop. Now that her mind was clear again, she realized she’d been acting irrationally. Maybe it was a byproduct of the original Will-strain, added to the ongoing stress that she hadn’t been able to escape even before then.

She had been focused on peripherally important things, at the expense of neglecting the biggest problem in her life. This weekend could have been entirely disastrous if not for Oliver’s quick thinking. ‘What would have happened if I was unconscious and helpless outside of Liza’s wards, and the coppers scried for me?’ She shuddered at the thought. ‘What happens when they scry me while I’m in the middle of casting a difficult spell, and the distraction makes my concentration slip, and I lose control of the magic?

She forced herself to keep eating despite her sudden lack of appetite. She needed all her energy, and the basic meal options barely provided enough to sate a working thaumaturge’s increased caloric needs.

Letting the coppers keep my blood is unacceptable. I have to figure out how to stop their scrying attempts for good, before all the different pressures add up and something critical finally snaps. Either I’ll get caught, or I’ll lose control and succumb to Will-strain when they try and scry me at a bad time, or someone will notice when the seemingly unrelated Sebastien Siverling is casting anti-divination spells at the same times the coppers are searching for Siobhan Naught. I want to help the Stags, and I need to repay my debt, and it would be wonderful not to worry about sleep any more, but I have to dig myself out of this hole before anything else. Getting rid of these scrying attempts will make my entire life easier. I need to completely reprioritize. I cannot believe I’ve been so complacent even as I thought I was trying my best to become prepared.

Through her shirt, she rubbed the warding medallion her grandfather had given her, the fatigue and the shame mixing to form a prickle of tears behind her eyes. She blinked them back rapidly. ‘I still have a long way to go,’ she admitted to herself.

Sebastien hurried to complete her homework before the breakfast period ended, taking it as easy as possible through her first two classes. As was becoming her habit when she had a problem, she headed to the library during her afternoon free period before Practical Casting. Such a comprehensive repository of information would surely have a solution hidden among the shelves.

She was in the glass tunnel between the main building and the library when the sirens went off, loud and piercing and screaming of danger with their unnatural tone.

Everyone dropped whatever they were doing, some panicking, wanting to move but not knowing where to go, others moving with purpose, and a couple looking around with anxious confusion.

“It’s an Aberrant,” Sebastien heard someone say.

She realized then that she’d frozen as soon as she heard the sound, and forced herself to keep walking. Her head swiveled back and forth, her eyes wide as they absorbed everything, searching for a hint of the danger.

One of the librarians opened the door to the library, waving for the students to enter. “Come take shelter! The building has wards, and if necessary, we can take refuge in the reinforced lower levels.”

Sebastien moved as quickly as she could, her face feeling like a bloodless mask. The wails of the sirens rang in her ears till the sounds overlapped and drowned everything else out, like the surface of a lake in a rainstorm.

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Chapter 43 – Alliance with the Nightmare Pack

Oliver

Month 12, Day 2, Wednesday 6:30 p.m.

Two bodyguards accompanied Oliver as he rode through the dark streets atop his Erythrean horse. Even though his people successfully fought off the Morrows’ blatant attack on the warehouse holding his new miniature farm, he was wary of their next move.

Oliver knew he was unlikely to be ambushed in Nightmare Pack territory, but the Morrows were known for their occasional recklessness, and it wouldn’t be entirely unprecedented for his meeting with the Nightmare Pack leader to be a trap.

If anything happened, he and his two guards could fight back, and if the situation called for it, his horse could flee like the wind. Oliver wasn’t so puffed up on his own pride that he couldn’t admit that sometimes running away was the smart decision. One could always get revenge later.

Nightmare Pack territory was in the heart of the Mires, even poorer than his own territory, especially after the Verdant Stag’s various programs to improve the quality of life for his people. Here, though, the number of non-humans was noticeable. Already, he’d seen signs of a hag, a vampire, and what was either a gremlin or a homunculus.

The gang provided three main things: a safe place for non-humans to live, less open discrimination, and a sense of community. But then, it also pressured the more powerful and useful non-humans to join the gang, supported certain kinds of crime, and made law enforcement even more reluctant to help those who needed them most.

Oliver and his bodyguards stopped at the gate in front of the Nightmare Pack headquarters, a once-proud manor with a small yard in the heart of the slums. They dismounted and handed their reins to a young man who hurriedly led the horses around to the back. If he was truly wary, Oliver would have insisted the horses stay out front, ready to go, but that would have been an insult, and an inauspicious start to the alliance he hoped to form tonight.

A man with the look of a wolf in his eyes and the shape of his jaw opened the manor’s front door and bowed, motioning for them to step inside. “Welcome, Lord Stag. The pack leader awaits you.”

The manor was old, the dark wood of the interior scuffed and scratched from many years of heavy, reckless traffic and sharp-clawed footsteps. The hallways were wide, the walls covered in lifelike paintings of nature and the hunt, and mounted with the occasional taxidermied trophy.

The man gestured silently to a set of open double doors, and Oliver stepped through alone.

The room beyond was expansive, with a burning fireplace at the far end, simple rugs and a mismatched scattering of comfortable chairs and couches filling most of the rest of the room. The windowsills spilled over with potted plants, and vines crawled up the glass. Stylistic sculptures of animals in different stages of transformation between man and beast were bolted onto stands or the walls, presumably to protect them from being accidentally knocked over and shattered.

Another man stood within, facing away from the doorway, his hands clasped behind his back. He was gazing up at a large oil painting of wolves falling upon a deer in the forest, but turned when Oliver entered.

His eyes were a light amber that seemed to shine in contrast to skin that was almost as dark as his hair, which hung in tiny braids to his shoulders. His cheekbones sat high and a thick, closely trimmed beard covered his chin. Despite the semi-casual suit vest he wore and the cultured way he held himself, the wildness behind his eyes was palpable. “Welcome, Lord Stag.”

Oliver was suddenly hit with the irony of holding that pseudonym before a man like this. The leader of the Nightmare Pack was well-known to be a lycanthrope, which was the common name for those skin-walkers who could take on and off the skin of a wolf, transforming into the animal at will. Still, even in front of a wolf, a stag was not defenseless.

Oliver bowed in return, removing his mask as he straightened. They were alone, and as the one who had requested this meeting, it would have been quite rude to keep his face concealed. “Thank you, Lord Lynwood.”

“No need for a title. I am no lord. I am the alpha, and I am not above my people. I lead them, I do not own them,” the other man said.

Oliver couldn’t tell if there was hostility in Lynwood’s tone, or if he was simply sensing the watchful vigilance of a natural predator whose magic was not just something he wielded but a part of his body. So different from Oliver. “It is a beautiful painting,” he said, diverting the topic of conversation.

Lynwood didn’t give even the barest hint of a smile, though he turned to look up at the huge piece again. “Art, in its most pure form, is a melding of the unadulterated instinct and passion of a beast and the conscious control of a man. As I studied to gain control of the canvas, I found I also gained control of myself.”

“You painted this?”

Lynwood’s lips stretched into a small, satisfied smile. “To the outside world, many know me only as a somewhat eccentric artist. You might be surprised to learn that I fund a significant portion of our operations off sales of my work. Those with too much money in their coffers love to show off their deeper sense of artistic appreciation by paying exorbitant sums for grand paintings that hold a message they fear and yet pretend to understand.” He gestured around to the other paintings and sculptures scattered about. “It is not all my own work. I encourage all those in my pack to find joy in creation as well as destruction.”

“I admire your approach,” Oliver said. “That’s why I requested to meet with you today. I want to discuss a mutual endeavor that I believe could benefit both our people.”

Lynwood turned, eyed Oliver assessingly, then motioned to a couple of chairs in front of the fire. “Please, let us sit, and you can elucidate.”

Once they were both seated, Oliver said simply, “The Morrows.”

Lynwood raised his eyebrows, a silent encouragement to continue.

“You’ve likely heard of the harassment the Verdant Stag has been facing from them. When I first opened the inn and created the Stags, the Morrows resisted, but I was determined and they backed down. Due to the small size of my operation, the lack of critical territory under my domain, and my willingness to spend extravagantly to hold the area, it would have cost them more to get rid of me than the Morrows could earn by holding the territory. Or such was my theory, anyway.”

“I remember this time,” Lynwood said, nodding.

“However, they continued to abuse the people in my territory, perhaps even more than before. In addition to their usual criminal behavior—the kidnappings for their whorehouses and fighting arena, selling the worst of their addictive alchemy products, threatening people for money and favors—they harassed anyone who wore my symbol or simply lived in the wrong place. So I created enforcers to protect my people.”

Oliver gave a humorless grin, the show of teeth meant to speak to the wolf in the other man. Lynwood wasn’t the first lycanthrope Oliver had met, and thank the stars above for that experience. “The Morrows respected my boundaries once they had no other choice, at first, but recently they’ve begun their harassment again. This time, their attacks are pointed and brutal. It’s obvious they hope to collapse my organization entirely by harrying us until we cannot keep up with the cost of the damage and those within the territory lose faith in us. They plan to then take back the entirety of what was once theirs.”

“And how is this relevant to me?”

Oliver smiled again. “The Morrows overstep their boundaries. Just as they overestimate their infallibility.”

“Oh?”

“I know they’ve made themselves a thorn in your side, too. They take your people for their brothels, and they have a particular interest in non-humans for their underground pit fights. I would assume they also feed addictive substances into your territory. They don’t do all this overtly, perhaps. They don’t want to drive you to retaliate in force. But they don’t respect your authority, and they are harming your people.”

Lynwood steepled his fingers together in his lap. “It’s natural that we bicker and snap at each other. If one organization falls, another will rise to take its place, and who is to say the new order will be better than the old? Balance is important. Or, at least, the right kind of instability.” Was Lynwood hinting that if the Nightmare Pack helped the Stags take out the Morrows, his gang might not actually benefit in the end? Perhaps there was some fear that the Stags would grow greedy and turn on them next, Oliver mused.

“That’s where you’re wrong. Balance is important, I agree, but instability is only preferable if you believe that order would not bring prosperity to you and yours. By all accounts, you are a reasonable man, Lynwood. I’m a reasonable man too, when not pushed to extremes. War is costly. I wouldn’t choose it if I had other, more practical, options.”

Oliver was telling the truth. The Morrows had attacked him and killed two of his people. It wasn’t possible to back down now. They would crush him if he showed weakness. Even if by some miracle, they decided to stop harassing his people and let him keep operating, the Verdant Stag operation as a whole would still not be sustainable.

He was slowly being bled dry, and needed to increase the size and profitability of his operations to change the tide. If he could take out the Morrows and obtain even half their territory and operations—along with the more palatable streams of income—almost all of his problems would be solved in one fell swoop.

Oliver added, “In the interest of allowing as little instability as possible, I would suggest our two organizations agree to a nonaggression treaty, to be renegotiated in five years’ time.” This would give both of them time to consolidate their hold on what they gained from defeating their common enemy, without worry that either side would grow greedy and attempt to take more than their fair share.

“You are suggesting that we would benefit from allying with you against the Morrows?”

“Yes. In addition to stopping their current persecution of your people, I have no doubt some of their operations would be better managed in your hands. The fighting arena, for example. I’m sure you could provide voluntary participants, and I hear the income from the betting is quite high. They have control of Avery Park, which would seem a welcome addition to your territory. Perhaps a portion of their shops in the Night Market could do with a different owner?”

Lynwood stared at the fire for a long moment, but when he turned back to Oliver, his expression was still firmly unimpressed. “Be that as it may, it would require this operation to be successful. We might be larger than the Morrows if you count only the size of our territory and the number of people it contains, but we do not share their monetary resources. I am loath to conscript my people to fight and throw away their lives for an ally that cannot even manage to protect themselves without our help.”

“You’d be mistaken to think the Verdant Stag cannot protect itself. Surely you’ve heard of the consequences of the Morrows’ last attack on us?”

Lynwood nodded, the intensity of his amber-eyed gaze revealing an increased interest in this particular topic. “Indeed.”

“The Stags are merely more interested in supporting our own people and growing our interests than focusing unnecessary resources toward an extended skirmish. Additionally, even were we to take down the Morrows, we are still too small to hold the entire Morrow territory securely. It would be an invitation to others to try and take a piece of it, and the situation would spiral into endless conflict. That’s useless to us. I hope instead that we could both benefit from the destruction of the Morrows.”

Oliver paused, weighing his words. “Of course, our other option would be to take over only a portion of the Morrows’ operation and leave the rest open to the power struggles of the other gangs, which would only serve to destabilize and inconvenience the rest of the city.” The Nightmare Pack especially, since their territory was adjacent to the Morrows’, but Oliver left that part unsaid, sure that Lynwood knew what he meant.

“I have my doubts that the Verdant Stag could take out the Morrows as easily as you insinuate, at least without outside help. If not us, then perhaps the one who came to your aid recently. I hear she is called the Raven Queen. If we were to agree to this alliance, would she be included in this nonaggression treaty?” Lynwood was obviously fishing, hoping to learn Oliver’s connection to the mysterious rogue sorcerer.

“I do not control her, but we are acquainted, and she allows me some minor influence over her actions. The rumors about her are somewhat exaggerated. She is actually rather restrained, when not being harassed. She wouldn’t attack the Nightmare Pack without reason, and doubly so if I asked her politely not to.”

“The rumors may be exaggerated, but it is clear she is both bold and powerful,” Lynwood said, seeming more interested in the Raven Queen than he had been throughout the entire previous conversation. “Would she be adding her efforts to our own against the Morrows?”

“Perhaps, though I doubt she would take a front-line position. Her support against the warehouse attack was impromptu. She is quite busy and doesn’t take requests unless she finds them sufficiently valuable or…interesting.” He was playing into Siobhan’s reputation a bit, knowing that the less he said clearly, the more Lynwood would speculate, with his conclusions undoubtedly being more outlandish than the truth.

Oliver considered that Siobhan, a poor, self-educated young girl, was disguised as a young man with a completely different appearance and background, and secretly attending the University. He had to amend his previous thought. The truth was quite outlandish indeed. It was simply outlandish in a completely different direction than Lynwood would assume.

“How did you come to be associated with her?”

“A series of coincidences,” Oliver said.

Lynwood eyed him with some dissatisfaction. “Would it be possible for me to meet her?” he asked finally.

Oliver suppressed his expression of surprise, though a man such as Lynwood might be able to glean it from the responses he couldn’t control, like the change in his heartbeat or scent. “I could pass along your request, but I can make no guarantees.”

She would want to be paid, no doubt, and they would have to ensure that meeting in person didn’t disillusion Lynwood and endanger their alliance. All the rumors about her prowess were fabrications blown magnitudes out of proportion to reality, after all. It might be best to pretend to pass along the request and return with a denial. Or at least ensure the alliance was secure and the joint attack on the Morrows settled first, with the reward for meeting enough to make the risk worth it.

Oliver spoke before he had time to fully think through the idea, because he didn’t want his hesitation to be too obvious. “She enjoys tributes. She might be more likely to give an audience to someone who…gently incentivizes her.” He raised his eyebrows pointedly.

Lynwood pressed his fingertips together, settling back in satisfaction. “I understand.” His eyes gleamed with even more interest. “I agree to your proposal, Lord Stag, pending the appropriate particulars.”

“Wonderful.” Oliver reached into his pocket and brought out a rolled-up map of the city. “Let us work out the generalities, at least. Details can be solidified over time.” He laid the map over a short table. The area of their respective territories was painted with a translucent ink, with the parts of the city currently belonging to the Morrows divided between them.

Lynwood peered at it with interest, then pointed. “We’ll want a bit more of this area, all the way out to the canal.”

Oliver frowned. “That could be acceptable, if you’re willing to give up a little more of this residential district.”

They haggled over territory, and then went on to decide on the allocation of their respective combat forces, joint efforts to keep conflicts suppressed in the short term, and what businesses and enterprises each of them would swallow.

When they were both moderately satisfied, feeling that they hadn’t gotten a very good deal but not an exceedingly bad one either—which probably meant it was quite fair to both parties—Lynwood asked, “So, I assume you have planned further than dividing up the territory. How exactly do you propose we bring about the Morrows’ downfall?”

The edges of Oliver’s mouth curled up a little too far in a way he knew made him look vulpine, but Lynwood didn’t seem disturbed, his own lips pulling back to reveal sharp-edged teeth.

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Chapter 42 – The Mysteries of Sleep

Sebastien

Month 12, Day 2, Wednesday 6:00 p.m.

Sebastien had, in fact, strained her Will again healing that idiotic boy. It wasn’t so much the spell itself as it was trying to keep the Word almost entirely in her head while casting it. She wanted to leave no evidence of the Sacrifice for that particular spell. This way, even Westbay couldn’t truthfully say that he’d seen her use blood magic.

She had panicked when she realized what she’d done. Harming another student with careless magic use was a big deal. ‘Harming one of the Thirteen Crown Families, and a high-ranking member at that? One I’m known to dislike? Even if the University believed it was an accident, the slightest push from one of the Westbays would have a commoner like Sebastien Siverling expelled.’ It wouldn’t even have to be Damien Westbay himself who complained. If any member of his Family wanted the University to take greater responsibility for his safety, she would be the perfect scapegoat. Even Professor Lacer might not be on her side.

So she’d acted as quickly as possible to cover up the evidence, removing any need for him to report the incident. She owed him a favor now, but that was a trifle. After all, she’d been willing to owe far worse favors to borrow tuition money.

Sebastien begged some headache salve from Ana, since she’d used all of hers as fuel for the fire a few nights before, when her warding medallion had been the only thing that kept the coppers from scrying her and Oliver.

With the throbbing in her brain partially suppressed, she escaped to a dark, secluded corner of the library to do her homework. Very inefficiently.

Professor Lacer’s exercises had fallen to the wayside for the last few days. ‘I’m in no shape to do them now. I hope I don’t fall too far behind before I’m recovered again.’

That night, she took another dose of the anti-anxiety potion, but hesitated before trying to cast her dreamless sleep spell. She considered instead casting a very slow, careful, timed alarm spell on her pocket watch to wake her before she could slip too deeply into dreams, but reluctantly discarded the idea. Pushing too hard with Will-strain could make it worse, or even cause permanent damage. She had to rest as much as possible. ‘All the more reason I need access to the remainder of Keeswood’s research on the experiment that allowed one twin to bear the sleep of the other.

Two more doses of anti-anxiety potion when she woke in the middle of the night got her through to the morning. As she dragged herself off to the bathrooms for her morning ablutions, she lamented the life choices that had led her to this moment.

Without the esoteric pain-muffling spell to get her through the workout, Defensive Magic was even more grueling. When she accidentally tripped another student and caused a near-pileup while they drilled evasive maneuvers, Fekten snapped at her. “Are you a new-born puppy dog!? Out there in the real world, carelessness like that will get people killed. Keep your head in the game and your limbs to yourself!”

After classes, she scrambled to the library, where the blushing, stammering student aide gave her a pass to the restricted section where the majority of the sleep researcher’s experiment journals were held.

Information should be available to everyone in the first place,’ Sebastien thought with irritation. Even once she had proven herself worthy of the University, she still had to fight for knowledge. They didn’t want people who would only be there to reach Apprentice certifications learning anything truly useful or dangerous. Those who stayed longer would have the chance to earn the contribution points needed to get into whatever sections of the library they desired.

The door to the restricted archives was thick metal, spelled with what she thought was the same ward on the gate to the Menagerie. The new wooden token that allowed her into a specific archive shivered as she passed through the doorway. A short staircase led down to hallways carved from the natural white stone of the white cliffs that the University had been built into and atop. The hallways were narrow, the ceilings low, and the air smelled of ancient dust with a faint hint of paper and glue. ‘The smell of undisturbed books.

The student aide was needed elsewhere, so she gave Sebastien quick instructions to the single archive she could access, warning her not to get lost. “It’s said you can still hear the screams and shuffling footsteps of those who wandered until they starved to death, if you listen,” the girl murmured, her tail swishing with agitation. “It used to be a network of caves, and the only navigation aid is the archive code above each door. It’s easy to get turned around down here.”

“I’ll be careful,” Sebastien assured the student aide with a smile, repressing her impatience.

The girl blushed, said, “Good luck with your research project,” and hurried away, pausing only to remind Sebastien not to mention the pass to anyone who might get her in trouble.

Sebastien found her way easily enough, ignoring the other metal doors along the tunnel despite her curiosity. She didn’t want to set off any alarms by trying to get past a ward without the proper key. Finally, she pushed open the door to a dim room only a few meters on either side. It was quite different from the high ceilings and warm, bright light of the main library floors above. The air was still, the only movement in the room from her own entrance, but it smelled fresh, and there was no dust or spiderwebs on the rough ceiling or in the corners of the room.

She pulled every book with Keeswood’s name on it off the shelves. Her fingertips burned with excitement as she scanned the pages. It was hard to concentrate on the words, but she was determined.

Two hours later, after flipping through the whole stack, she tossed the last journal onto the table and sat back with a scowl.

The series of handwritten journals had whole volumes missing, and sections of pages had been cut away in those that remained. ‘Well, at least I know why they were restricted.’ It had never been explicitly stated in the pieces of his journals that remained, but Sebastien gathered he’d been involved in some blood magic. She hadn’t found a detailed explanation for the spell he’d used to join the sleep requirements of the two twins with no serious side effects, but he’d recorded other spells of a similar nature, and she was able to piece together an idea of how it had worked. Perhaps the details had been in one of the missing sections.

If I want to use it, I will have to redevelop it myself.

Leaving the library, she stopped by the infirmary again. She looked around cautiously to make sure the healer she’d talked with before wasn’t on duty, then inquired about some headache-relieving salve. She didn’t want to have to keep borrowing from Ana, and she wouldn’t have time to make her own until the weekend. Plus, she was paying for the infirmary as part of her tuition anyway, so she might as well try and recoup some of her gold’s worth.

When she finally got back to the dorms, she found a stack of book-bound periodicals on her desk. She eyed them suspiciously. ‘Are they trapped?’ They looked innocent, and nothing happened when she nudged the pile. They were fiction, touting the latest adventures of someone called “Aberford Thorndyke, consulting detective.” ‘Or did someone put them there so they can pretend I stole them and get me into trouble? But why would they put them in plain sight? At the very least, you’d think they’d slip them under the bed…

She looked up and saw Westbay looking at her from over his dividing wall. He sent her a wink and a thumbs-up.

Bemusedly, she realized he’d left them for her. ‘Could it be, because of my questions about the case, he thinks I have an interest in detective stories?’ The friendly gesture was still surprising, and left her a little off-kilter, unsure if she should be suspicious of some deeper layer of motivation or simply amused at his obliviousness. Perhaps a little blood, a secret, and a favor owed him was all it took to befriend Westbay. ‘Without a blood print vow to guarantee that favor I promised, I barely feel any pressure. Once enough time passes, even if he wants to get me in trouble for hurting him, the scar will have faded, and anyone he tries to tell will be suspicious about why he didn’t report it when it happened. He’s a little too naive.

After riffling through the pages of the detective stories to make sure nothing was hidden between them, she decided to humor Westbay by reading one, as each was short enough to be finished rather quickly. Her concentration was still a little too shot for schoolwork or further research, anyway.

To her surprise, she found she enjoyed the story. The plot was a little unbelievable, but it was fun to follow along as the fictional Thorndyke used his superior intelligence and observational skills to assist the coppers in solving baffling crimes, and she enjoyed the dynamic between him and his Everyman assistant, Milton.

Her pass to the restricted archive didn’t allow her to check books out or even remove them from that room, so she had to return to the archive to continue her research. Over the next couple of days, she pieced together a better understanding of the author’s work, taking pages of notes and checking out a few dense reference texts referred to in passing within the journals. The ones she had access to, anyway.

She wanted to pull her pale blonde hair out by the roots.

Apparently, she needed a deeper understanding of the workings of the brain and the immune system. Looking at the references meant for upper-term healing students, with tight-packed text and illustrations she barely understood, she drooped. ‘No truly valuable accomplishment is easy, I know. But still…this had better turn out extremely useful,’ she grumbled mentally. Truthfully, though, she would be happy with almost any small measure of improvement.

In Practical Casting, Sebastien took the initiative to approach a young woman who she vaguely remembered was a commoner without much prior experience with magic, one term above her. “Would you like to partner with me today?” she asked.

The woman’s eyes went wide, then darted around quickly, as if to make sure Sebastien was really talking to her. “Umm, I won’t be very good practice for you. My Will’s maximum capacity is only at a hundred thaums on the Henrik-Thompson scale?” she said, biting her lip.

“I don’t mind,” Sebastien assured her, sitting down on the other side of her desk without further preamble. “I’ll work on improving my efficiency, and you can work on improving your capacity. Using just a single flame will be a good challenge for me.” She placed a single tea candle in her Sacrifice Circle.

The woman looked around again, uncomfortably meeting the curious gaze of some of the other students, but silently nodded.

Sebastien’s little plan worked well, as her opponent’s enduring capacity was a respectable two-thirds of her maximum, meaning Sebastien only needed to channel about seventy thaums to keep up. Even this was enough to give her a migraine, though, and she slipped away to the bathroom to reapply headache salve. “I’m getting very tired of this,” she muttered, staring at her bloodshot eyes in the mirror above the sink.

When she returned to the class, the students were rearranging themselves, and she realized with dismay that Lacer had instructed them to switch partners.

As she was looking around for a suitable partner, Anastasia Gervin caught sight of her and began to maneuver her way.

Sebastien pretended not to see her. She liked the other girl well enough, but Ana wasn’t a suitable partner to slack off against.

Just as Ana was about to reach her side, and Sebastien had almost resolved to just grab the closest random student, Westbay hurried up from behind Ana, clapping Sebastien on the shoulder.

“Partners, Siverling?” he asked.

Ana stopped abruptly, looking at Westbay with wide eyes that narrowed suspiciously. “Really, Damien? Can’t this rivalry wait until the actual tournament?”

Sebastien almost rolled her eyes, turning to Ana. “Westbay has convinced his friends of his illusion that the two of us are rivals, too?” she asked.

Westbay shooed away her words, smiling a little too casually to seem normal. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Ana. I lent Siverling some Aberford Thorndyke stories. He likes detectives, too, did you know? He always runs off to the library right after class, so this is our best chance to discuss them.” He didn’t allow Ana to respond, his grip on Sebastien’s arm steering them back to Westbay’s desk. “So what did you think of the twist at the end, with the serial disappearances?” he asked loudly.

“It was a tad obvious,” Sebastien said truthfully, wondering what Westbay was doing but deciding to play along.

Obvious?” Westbay’s head snapped around to Sebastien, and he scowled. “How could you possibly have seen—” He cut himself off, pressing his lips together with a sharp shake of his head. “Never mind. That’s not relevant right now.” He lowered his voice, leaning closer over the table. “Do you have a headache?”

Sebastien shrugged, drawing the numerological symbols into the carved Circle between them. A triangle, for the simple transmutation of heat to movement, and then a pentagram within that, because she thought it might help with actualizing the idea of opposition.

“I know you do. I noticed you go to the bathroom, and I can smell the mint of a headache salve.”

Sebastien set the chalk down, staring expressionlessly at Westbay.

The young man continued, undeterred. “You chose to partner with Jones because she doesn’t pose a challenge, and you still had to use headache salve. You shouldn’t be here. You definitely shouldn’t be here and casting magic. Did you think everything would be better after just a day? I know you’re some prodigy who might not ever have experienced Will-strain before, but it takes two to three days of complete rest to safely recover. We covered this on the first day of classes. I know you were there.”

“I’m fine,” she insisted, lighting their candles and putting the iron ball on the edge of the Circle. “Hurry up and pay attention. Casting against each other using the same array is dangerous, and I would prefer not to be subjected to the effects of your inability to focus.”

“Professor Lacer may be strict, but he isn’t unreasonable. He’s a bit snappish toward the students to keep us from messing around, but I know him outside the University a little, and I can assure you that he’d never force you to keep casting with Will-strain.”

She pushed energy into the spell and sent the ball rolling uncontested. “You want to renege on our deal?”

“What? No.” He lowered his voice further. “Is this about…my father?” He continued quickly, “I’m not suggesting we tell everyone what really happened. We can make something up.”

“Professor Lacer will want to know what happened. You want to try and lie to him about it?” Thaddeus Lacer was one of the more common topics of student gossip. She’d overheard someone say that he had a powerful divination for untruths running all the time, and could know as soon as you said it whether you really did the homework. She didn’t know if it was true, but if anyone had both the ability and the inclination to do such a thing, it was Thaddeus Lacer. He had little patience for fools and those who stood in his way. “I have absolutely no intention of taking such a risk.”

“Well, okay, that’s probably not a good idea. You could…tell the truth?” Westbay seemed to know it was a bad idea even as he said it, judging by the cringe on his face, but he bulled on regardless. “He might be angry, but—”

Sebastien cut him off. “Of course he would be angry. What I did—” She clenched her jaw. “If you heard the same story from someone else, what would your reaction be?” In the very best case scenario, Professor Lacer would simply be disappointed in her, and maybe he wouldn’t let her stay for the next term. In the worst case scenario, he would be enraged by her second overt display of stupidity, injuring someone Lacer was presumably closer to than he was to her—she had heard him call Westbay by his first name, after all—and he would throw her out immediately. The University took it seriously when their students were endangered. Surely even more so, for the nobles.

She’d be that student people gossiped about with some ridiculous story, in which Professor Lacer turned her into a fish and hurled her over the east edge of the white cliffs—right into the Charybdis Gulf. She couldn’t tell the truth, and she couldn’t risk lying to him, either. Just the thought of approaching the topic with Professor Lacer had her heart pounding faster in her chest. She was afraid. Her headache grew worse at the increase in her blood pressure.

Westbay smoothed his hair back, making sure every strand of its waxed-perfect sloping style was in place. “Well. I know what my father would say. To be honest, I don’t want him to hear about this any more than you want Professor Lacer to know. He’d be…disappointed.”

“Yes, well, if Professor Lacer gets ‘disappointed’ in me, that’s the end of my stay here at the University,” she said, grinding her teeth.

“Right, because you’re his app—”

She kept talking, uncaring of whatever weak argument he was trying to make. “So I will say nothing. You will pay attention and play along. Stop blabbering and start casting, Westbay.”

Westbay glared, but, after a few tense seconds, he picked up his Conduit and turned his attention to the ball, opposing its slow rolling. He didn’t put much effort into it, though from the disgruntled look on his face it seemed like he was struggling and failing. “At least you remember my name now,” he muttered.

They kept the ball rolling slowly for a while, neither pushing very hard but outwardly keeping their focus for the benefit of anyone watching. Sebastien felt a tug of gratitude toward Westbay, and suppressed a grimace. ‘If not for him, I wouldn’t be in this position in the first place. Don’t go soft just because he’s being friendly now,’ she told herself. ‘He is still an unbearable ass deep down. People don’t actually change.

They continued on like that until Professor Lacer, who had been strolling along the rows of desks, occasionally stopping to give praise or a sharp rebuke, stopped beside their desk.

She couldn’t help but tense up as he loomed over them, his presence bigger than his body could ever be. She kept her eye on the rolling ball.

Westbay seemed to feel the same, but he flicked a quick glance between the professor and Sebastien, and his candle flames flickered as his concentration wavered.

Sebastien tried to stay in sync with him, to keep the ball moving steadily, but she didn’t quite manage it, and it sped up sharply for a moment.

She felt her back tensing straighter, and slowly pushed a little more power into the spell.

Westbay frowned slightly, as if he was struggling to keep the ball from moving.

“Stop,” Lacer said, his voice cutting through the class despite its low volume.

Sebastien’s heart clenched sickeningly. She released the magic, and the ball rolled to a stop, the sound of it louder than it should have been against the backdrop of the rest of the classroom. People were abandoning their own practice to look at the three of them.

Lacer waited, allowing the silence to become unbearable.

Westbay started to shift uncomfortably in his seat.

She stared at him, urging him mentally not to do anything stupid.

Finally, Professor Lacer spoke, his words carefully enunciated, precise, and somehow all the more menacing for it. “Were either of you, perhaps, under the impression that I am a blind half-wit?”

Westbay paled.

Sebastien swallowed. “No, Professor.”

Westbay echoed her.

“In that case, do you think this kind of effort,” he nodded his head to the table in between them, “is acceptable?”

Westbay looked at Professor Lacer, then back to Sebastien, wide-eyed. He tilted his head to the side, just slightly, a query.

Sebastien glared back at the boy, stony-faced. Poor performance on a single exercise in class was nothing compared to carelessly injuring a fellow student and then causing herself Will-strain while using blood magic to heal him.

That thought sent a cold centipede of horror crawling down her spine. If she hadn’t healed Westbay, there might have been some chance to come clean. But if there was any chance at all that she would be accused of blood magic, it would be better for her to cut out her own tongue. Literally. Blood magic was high treason. She would be killed. “No, professor.” Her throat was dry, and she swallowed convulsively.

“Try again,” he ordered, his voice hard despite its low volume. He held his hand out to stop them when they turned their attention back to the spell. “This time, Westbay will attempt to move the ball clockwise and Siverling counterclockwise. Perhaps a more direct competition will stir your spirits.”

Westbay quickly rubbed out and replaced his two glyphs, and they complied.

The ball moved counterclockwise in small starts as Sebastien poured on more and more power, her grip on the magic like a vise, and Westbay countered her.

They steadied out at a consistent rotation in her favor.

“Is that all you have? Push harder!” Lacer ordered.

Westbay looked at her uncertainly, but she was already complying, the ball spinning faster till it began to blur.

It slowed again as Westbay pushed against her Will. His candles flickered under the drain, and she realized suddenly how Professor Lacer had known they weren’t truly trying. Their candles weren’t showing any signs of true strain—no flickering, loss of heat, or dimming—when Westbay’s Will was likely approaching two hundred thaums and she had already exceeded that amount. If she pushed to the normal limits of her ability, she could likely suck two candles completely cold.

She pushed harder, till her own two little flames looked like washed-out ghosts of themselves. The pain was like an ice pick through her brain, and her lashes fluttered as she realized she was losing sight in one of her eyes. Sun-spots bloomed over her vision.

She swallowed down nausea, and slowly, carefully released the magic. The ball decelerated, and then reversed direction entirely. She sat even straighter, her chin high and her gaze focused vaguely straight ahead. She could have pushed through the pain, but it wasn’t worth it. Severe Will-strain could cause permanent damage. ‘My ability to cast magic is more important than even the University. I won’t jeopardize that.’ Additionally, her Conduit was only rated to two hundred thaums, and opposing another’s magic put more stress on them. If she kept pushing, she risked her Conduit shattering. She had the weak backup inside the lip of her boot, so she might be able to avoid a total loss of control, but she had no gold to buy another replacement.

There was no way she could do what Lacer wanted. She accepted this, and kept her breathing even and her hands pressed to the table to keep her fingers from trembling as she waited for the punishment that would no doubt follow seemingly willful failure.

Professor Lacer didn’t say anything at first, but she could feel his Will in the air, turning his gaze into a sucking hole.

The hair on her arms and the back of her neck lifted, and she was reminded of what it felt like to walk alone and defenseless through a dark room, with the absolute certainty that something cold and hungry was watching from the shadows.

But he said only, “See me after class, Siverling. In my office.” He turned that horrible gaze on Westbay for a moment, who quailed under its force, then stalked back to the front of the room.

Westbay watched him walk away, then looked to her, and she could see the horror she felt reflected in his eyes. “Sebastien—” he whispered.

Slowly, minutely, she shook her head. “No,” she mouthed back. “You promised,” she said, slightly louder, but slowly. “Maintain your honor, and hold your tongue, Westbay.”

She could only hope that Professor Lacer wasn’t angry enough to expel her immediately. If she had till the end of term, at least, she was sure she could come up with a plan of some sort.

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Chapter 41 – Friendships Forged by Accident

Damien

Month 12, Day 2, Wednesday 5:30 p.m.

Damien looked down to the quickly reddening slice in his shirt. Sebastien Siverling’s spell had cut across the left half of his chest and his arm. For a moment, he wondered if he was going to die, carved right through but taking a moment to notice he was mortally wounded, like he’d read in one particularly violent detective story.

But, no, he judged with relief. The blood wasn’t shooting out in huge arterial sprays. As the pain began to register, he felt his cheeks flush with shame. If Titus knew how careless he had been, needling a sorcerer while they practiced battle spells, Damien would be in for a tongue lashing at the very least. Even little children should know better. Honestly, he didn’t even know why he’d done it.

He might not enjoy admitting it, but there was a reason Professor Lacer had taken Siverling as his apprentice. Siverling was obviously talented with magic, but also had a tongue sharp enough to match the professor’s, and an air of sophistication that even Damien couldn’t match, no matter how carefully he starched his collar or styled his hair. Siverling seemed not to even notice the rest of them unless interrupted from his constant study, and then the air of superiority—only partially covered by a facade of courtesy—was obvious to Damien at least, if not to all of their other classmates.

It was only when provoked that Siverling’s true temperament slipped through, and Damien could admit that he found it somewhat enjoyable to bicker with the other young man. It had become a habit over the last few weeks, even as Damien began to understand Professor Lacer’s choice. And, reluctantly, to admit that it had not been in error.

Siverling’s face had gone pale enough to match his hair, those dark eyes standing out starkly against his skin. His angry expression slid away in favor of unadulterated horror.

Damien swallowed and raised his right arm, the uninjured one, to push his hair back from his face. Should he apologize? Probably, but it seemed strange to do so when he had been injured at Siverling’s hand.

The other young man’s jaw clenched, his teeth grinding the words like a pepper mill as he said, “Lie down on the ground and take off your shirt.” Then Siverling was turning and running for the changing rooms.

Damien stared after his escaping form, blinking. “What?” Was Siverling seriously leaving him there to go get dressed? No, he’d already been wearing his normal clothes, so that couldn’t be it. Damien looked to the dirty floor, the white dust of the Flats and whatever other filth people had stepped in tracked everywhere. “Lie down on that?” He would have to change his clothes afterward. His eyes were drawn to the crimson soaking his shirt, all the way down to the waist now. “I suppose it is already quite ruined,” he muttered. Along with his sweat and the blood, a little dirt wouldn’t make much difference.

He swayed on his feet.

Siverling, returned already without Damien noticing, grabbed him by the shoulders with a grim expression and pushed him down to the floor.

Damien realized Siverling’s instruction had been meant to keep him from fainting due to shock or blood loss. “I should be fine if I get to the healers soon enough,” he said. “There’s an alarm ward trigger on the back wall, remember?” It would alert them to an emergency and summon someone skilled enough to keep students alive in even the most grievous states. Except, if the healers were called, they would notify his family.

“If my father finds out…” he muttered quietly. Realizing he had spoken aloud, he let the statement trail off. Even the thought was frightening.

Siverling must have caught the fear on Damien’s face, because after a short hesitation, he said, “There’s no need for a healer.” He dug into the satchel he had grabbed from the changing rooms with practiced hands. “It’s just a scratch, and we will have it healed in no time.”

Damien stared incredulously at the other young man. “Just a scratch?” The pain was making itself known now, and the blood had finished with his shirt and was beginning to soak his trousers. He kept his eyes on Siverling’s face so that he wouldn’t focus on the blood. He had been injured a few times sparring with his brother or his dueling tutor, but the sight of blood still made him lightheaded. “Do you have a healing artifact in there?” he questioned. In a low murmur, more to reassure himself than anything, he added, “If there are no healers involved, my father need not know…”

The young man nodded tightly as he pulled out a couple of potion vials and the supplies to draw a spell array.

Damien frowned, shaking his head woozily. “That’s not a healing artifact.”

Siverling reached forward and tore Damien’s shirt, widening the slices the spell had made to better expose the wounds.

“You are so forward.” The words had slipped out before Damien realized what his stupid brain was thinking, and he would have been embarrassed, but he imagined almost anything he said could be excused by the circumstances.

“Lie back,” the other boy ordered, accompanying the words with a firm push on Damien’s good shoulder.

Damien complied.

“The wound isn’t that deep. I’m not sure we need a blood clotter, but it’s better to be safe. I don’t want you bleeding out before I can handle this,” Siverling muttered. He uncorked the potions, dribbling the first, and then the second across the cut from right to left.

The first was a wound cleanser, Damien thought. There was just enough in the bottles to generously cover the entire wound, and Damien winced at the burning as the wound cleanser killed any infectious agents. The blood clotter did its job immediately after. The bleeding stopped, but the slice was far from healed.

Siverling eyed it critically. “I don’t think my skin-knitting salve is going to be able to deal with that.”

Damien groaned, reaching up to touch it, but his hand was rudely slapped away by Siverling.

“Keep your filthy fingers at your sides,” the young man snapped, picking up the spell supplies. “And stay still while I work.” He leaned over Damien, drawing a large Circle on the ground around his entire torso, and then a mirrored pair over Damien’s chest and arms. Siverling hesitated for a few moments when drawing the glyphs, glancing at the blood now forming a puddle on the floor.

Finally, he drew back and reached in one of his vest pockets for something he didn’t find. He looked around and snatched up a small, contaminated Conduit that he had apparently dropped when he hit Damien with the cutting spell. He clenched it in his fists, glared down at Damien’s wound, and took a deep breath.

Damien felt the weight in the air as Siverling gathered his Will. “Wait, wait!” he said.

Siverling met his wide-eyed gaze, raising his eyebrows impatiently. “What?”

Was he seriously about to attempt a healing spell? “You didn’t even place any components in the Circle, and that Conduit wouldn’t be fit for a goblin. It’s going to backfire and injure both of us.”

Siverling’s scowl returned full force. “Shut up and stay still.”

“If you could heal something like this with nothing from the Plane of Radiance and with that Conduit, I would acknowledge you as the second incarnation of Myrddin—”

Before Damien could protest any more, the other boy began to cast.

Damien didn’t move, though he wasn’t sure if it was for fear of distracting Siverling and causing the disaster he feared, or if it was because some small part of him was watching with anticipation and a growing sense of awe.

That second, smaller part of him was fully rewarded as the cut across his chest began to tighten and heal, as if time was being wound back, so slowly it was almost possible to miss it.

Siverling’s brow beaded with sweat and his fist clenched so hard around the Conduit that his knuckles turned white. It took a lot longer than a certified healer would have managed, and there was a certain hair-raising discomfort that Damien had to steel himself against as his flesh moved. When Siverling finally finished, he released the spell with an almost tangible burst of freed power and sagged forward, breathing raggedly. He used some skin-knitter to seal the patch job.

Gingerly, Damien sat up and touched his chest. The slice was more than half-healed, red and aching, but not bleeding any more. After the skin-knitter finished, there would be a scar, so the spell hadn’t been perfect, but it was still astounding. He turned to look at the spell array on the ground, his eyes marveling at the minimalist construction. There were no components except a little oil lamp to provide energy, and no instructions besides glyphs for mirroring, flesh, and healing. His heart was pounding when he turned back to Siverling.

He watched as the young man recovered from the overexertion. It had been snark when he said he would acknowledge Siverling as the second incarnation of Myrddin. But this…

Sebastien Siverling could end up the most powerful sorcerer of their generation.

At the realization, Damien let out a slow breath. How had he not heard of the Siverling family before? Were they simply that far from Lenore? Or perhaps fallen into such ruin that their name was no longer mentioned among the influential. It might explain why, despite Siverling’s mannerisms and attire, he used such a cheap Conduit. Perhaps his family had spent all they could to ensure he would fit in amongst his peers at the University, and hoped that he could make it through the first few terms without bringing attention to the Conduit. Obviously, a better one would be needed soon if he didn’t want to risk it shattering.

Siverling raised himself back up, his spine straight and his chin raised. “It’s healed,” he said. “There’s no need to sound the alarm, or to contact your family. We may both continue on and forget this incident.” He stared into Damien’s face as if searching for something, then grimaced slightly. “Of course, I’m willing to provide a small favor as well, if you wish. I did ruin your clothing, after all.”

It was only then that Damien realized Siverling had thought Damien was threatening him when he mentioned his father’s wrath. He opened his mouth to explain and reassure the other boy, then closed it abruptly.

“A favor,” Damien agreed. “And a ceasefire between us. I apologize for my previous actions, and I hope that we can be civil toward each other going forward.” He hadn’t been raised a simpleton, and even if he was still feeling a little lightheaded, he wasn’t stupid. Alliances formed now would influence the future, as would enemies. Plus, he found himself undeniably curious about the other young man.

Siverling’s eyes widened at the offer of reconciliation, then narrowed, but eventually he nodded. “Agreed.”

“Lend me your jacket,” Damien said. “Unless,” he added, seeing Siverling’s raised eyebrow, “you wish everyone to see the state of my attire and ask questions.”

With a huff, Siverling gave him the jacket. After clearing the spell array and remains of blood from the ground, they left the simulation room together, heading back toward the dorms.

“Why aren’t you participating in the exhibitions?” Damien asked.

Siverling shot him another inscrutable look before replying. “I have no need for points, and would rather spend my time learning something useful than preparing some spectacle purely to impress the judges and audience.”

“You wouldn’t need to do much extra preparation, I think. You could simply show them your skill at purely Will-based healing spells and gain full points. Healers command a sizable income, you know. Especially ones as talented as yourself. You might even be able to earn a little money while continuing on past the third term.”

Siverling’s face grew stony, and he stared straight ahead for long enough that Damien wondered if he had said something wrong. Perhaps he shouldn’t have mentioned the bit about earning money. If Siverling’s family wasn’t impoverished, it would be gauche. If they were, maybe he was sensitive about it.

“I have no desire to ingratiate myself to those who would hold themselves above me while weighing my worth—as if I were a fat hog—nor do I feel the desire to peacock around for insignificant points and empty praise. I will not participate,” Siverling said, his lip curled in a scornful sneer.

Yes, Damien had definitely offended him. “Well, to each their own. Personally, I would enjoy moving up from the dorms. Being stuffed in with the rabble makes it so difficult to properly relax, and I know someone stole my spare pair of boots.” He scowled for a moment, thinking of what he would do to that person should he ever find them. “But there are other ways to gain points, such as the tournament in Practical Casting. If you would like to gain extra practice with competent opponents before then, you might join our study group again.”

“Maybe.”

Well, at least it wasn’t outright refusal. With persistence and cunning, he could get Siverling’s amity. Damien could be likable when he wanted to be. Even to people as insufferably rude as Sebastien Siverling. Perhaps a more direct overture of friendship was required. “You were practicing a battle spell, though I’m not sure I’ve seen that particular one before. If you have interest in dueling, both Rhett and I have some skill. His interest leans more toward competition, but I’ve received some of the same training our coppers get. I could pass along some useful tips, or help you hone your aim and footwork.”

That seemed to catch Siverling’s interest. “Right, your family is in charge of the coppers. Have there been any updates on that case you were talking about before?”

Damien suppressed a small smile. Perhaps it wasn’t the dueling Siverling was interested in, but the detective work, like Damien. Well, that made sense, as the job was both worthwhile and fascinating.

“Yes, in fact. She made an appearance in a fight between two local gangs, though the circumstances behind the whole altercation are somewhat muddy. She injured several members of one group, but they were able to retreat when things became dire. Now, one would assume this meant she was allied with the second group in some way, but when the coppers arrived, they found her performing some sort of sacrificial blood ritual on one of them.”

He grinned as Siverling’s eyes widened, satisfied with the other young man’s rapt attention. Perhaps he could share some of his old detective periodicals with Siverling. He would be bound to enjoy them. Then, at least, Damien would have one friend with whom he could talk about the latest fictional exploits of Aberford Thorndyke, consulting detective.

“Do they have any leads on her?”

He nodded. “Oh, yes. Well, she fought back against the coppers when they arrived, leaving her victim to his fate, but though we almost caught her, she managed to escape. However, one of the coppers managed to injure her, and she left a little of her own blood behind on the scenes. They have it and are scrying for her now. Of course, she’s quite a powerful sorcerer, so she’s managed to hold off the attempts so far. A couple of witnesses even say she was managing to cast spells using the air as the surface for her spell array, though I’m a bit skeptical about the veracity of those claims. We are quite confident she’s still within the city, and they’ll be bringing in some stronger scryers soon, I’m sure. I know my brother has access to a prognos or two, so I imagine it is only a matter of time before she’s caught.”

Siverling was still enraptured, so Damien went into detail, relating what he knew from the reports he’d managed to wheedle out of his brother, along with his own speculation. He continued until Siverling rubbed his forehead, wincing as if he had a headache.

Damien’s eyes narrowed, and, as he paid closer attention, he noticed the trembling in Siverling’s fingers. “You didn’t strain your Will healing me, did you?”

“No,” Siverling replied in a clipped tone.

Damien eyed him dubiously. He didn’t need to be Aberford Thorndyke to make such an obvious deduction. “It’s no use pretending you didn’t, if you did. My brother always says, ‘If you’ve strained your Will, it’s a sign you chose the wrong strategy at least two moves ago. Do not just continue on bullheadedly, as that will lead to even more catastrophic failure.’” Damien felt even worse about the whole thing now.

“First, there was nothing to heal, because nothing happened, remember?” Siverling said pointedly.

Damien nodded slowly, pursing his lips.

“So there’s no reason to go to the infirmary just for them to ask a lot of questions and prescribe a couple days of rest. Secondly, even if I had healed you, I wouldn’t have hit Will-strain just from that.”

Siverling glared at Damien until he nodded again, though he didn’t believe Siverling’s assurances at all. Obviously, he’d strained his Will from that ridiculous display of skill, but he didn’t want anyone to know. “Well…you should take a break from casting spells for a completely unrelated reason, then.” He gave Siverling a pointed look of his own.

When they got back to the dorms, Damien changed into a fresh outfit—one not covered in blood—but found Siverling gone when he emerged from the bathrooms. “Oh, well,” he said, tossing his clothes into the fireplace, both to destroy the blood and to keep the events of that afternoon secret. All in all, it had been an exciting and fruitful day.

Almost an adventure, really.

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