Read a Practical Guide to Sorcery

Chapter 127 – A Monster Egg

Thaddeus

Month 3, Day 7, Sunday 10:00 a.m.

Thaddeus set down his book and stared at his apprentice, who had just managed to detach the output of his spell from the central Circle after only an hour of focused effort. He had estimated that the boy, due to a combination of talent, work ethic, and sheer stubbornness, would succeed in two to six months, practicing for a few hours every weekend, wearing down those mental ruts as Thaddeus slowly helped him grasp the necessary concepts.

Thaddeus himself had taken almost a week of practice when he gained this same ability many years ago. He knew people that struggled with it for a year or more, and many more never managed to overcome their over-reliance on the spell array, and specifically, the bounding Circle.

Perhaps young Siverling’s previous success under emotional duress had been more impactful than Thaddeus estimated. Or perhaps the boy had already been working toward this even before Thaddeus deemed him ready to make the attempt.

The boy release the light spell with a hiss of air, breathing heavily from the exertion.

“Do it again,” Thaddeus ordered, moving to examine the exact mechanism his apprentice was using more clearly.

Siverling struggled with the attempt for a minute or so, but managed to the feat once more.

Thaddeus’s eyes narrowed, examining the spell array, and he cast a minor divination spell that was meant to aid perception, highlighting the signs of magic that were too subtle for the human senses to parse apart from the surrounding feedback. “Again, in the opposite direction.”

Siverling adjusted his spell array, and once more created the light sphere outside of the Circle. Sweat began to bead on his temples.

“Hmm.” Thaddeus leaned closer, examining the space between the output and the central Circle. He could see the energy flowing along the stone floor in a single band, not quite enough to let off a visible glow, but obvious enough with the aid of his perception spell tuned to exactly such a thing. “Rather than physically create a connecting line, you have extended your spell array with an effort of pure will. In a way, this is impressive, and speaks to your future as a free-caster, but it is not the result I require.”

The boy slumped with dismay, but quickly firmed up his spine again. “I don’t understand.”

“This is the most common method for displacing the output, but your understanding is still bounded by your previous experiences, and I think you will find this method to have certain limitations. Still, you have taken a firm step toward true detachment, and are wearing away at the edges of familiarity.”

Siverling’s expression grew grim. “Am I?” He murmured. “What is the eventual goal, then? What do you mean by true detachment?”

“Better if you come to understand more organically. We can still continue as planned, though the timeline has accelerated somewhat. You will explore the limits of your current abilities, and I will offer you knowledge that you may form into a solution. After all, following exactly in someone else’s footsteps is its own kind of rut. Can you continue?”

Siverling nodded adamantly.

“Then let us begin. First, we expand the distance.”

What followed forced Thaddeus to reconsider his opinion of his apprentice’s talent. The boy was a monster.

Thaddeus, too, was a monster, but he had grown accustomed to being alone in that, outpacing the talented and crushing those with bright futures under the weight of their inferiority. He had thought Siverling talented, special–hungry–but for the first time, Thaddeus began to see that the boy was just an egg, still developing his potential. Given the right nutrients and guidance, when he hatched, his growth could be explosive.

This realization further fanned the flame of greed within Thaddeus, for what the boy could be to him. It did not exactly mirror his interest in the Raven Queen, but there was a special kind of pleasure in nurturing a seed—when the seed was worthy of the effort, something so elusive that Thaddeus had never before taken an apprentice.

Siverling seemed to have absolutely no trouble extending the displacement of the spell the entire length of Thaddeus’s office, either finding the stretch no more difficult, or simply improving so quickly that the added strain only set him back to the baseline effort.

Thaddeus then had the boy close his eyes before casting once again, as many thaumaturges over-relied on their vision to guide their Wills. Siverling’s brow furrowed, and his breathing deepened, but he managed after only a couple more minutes. “Wow, that was significantly harder,” he exclaimed despite his almost instant success.

They adjusted the spell array’s output parameters once more, to allow the light to hang in the air over Thaddeus’s desk, and this time Thaddeus had his apprentice turn his back on the spell array and location of the output.

The boy gripped his Conduit tightly, his other hand clasped around his fist, his eyes closed and head bowed in concentration.

Thaddeus was fairly confident the increased difficulty here would stymie the boy, if not for several months, at least for a session or two.

Siverling’s jaw grew tight, his brow furrowed, and despite his admirable control keeping his breaths deep and even, his temples grew wet with sweat. But then, he lifted his head proudly, opened his eyes, and rolled back his shoulders, and the light flickered into being over Thaddeus’s desk.

Wisely, Siverling dropped the spell after only a moment to confirm that it had succeeded, the pride and command melting out of his posture as he did so. Without prompting, he moved to one of the chairs shoved over to the wall and plopped down to rest.

For the first time, Thaddeus became curious about the boy’s background. To achieve this, he must have had a solid foundation, with a particular focus on his Will’s forcefulness and clarity. Whoever had taught the boy had served him well, though if it had been Thaddeus, he was sure the boy’s capacity would have been pushed much higher, as well.

After allowing Siverling time to recover, they continued searching for a progression of the exercise that would finally stymie the boy. When he finally discovered one, he was unsure if he was pleased or dissatisfied. Siverling’s Will-modified spell array could stretch around corners, but not pass through a solid barrier, and could not navigate an area the boy had not seen before on its own, even to reach a theorized destination within that area.

It was obvious the boy was tiring by this point, so Thaddeus allowed him to rest. “The method you are currently using is useful, but it has weaknesses, as you can see. You should consider it a crutch, at best. While it would be dangerous to demonstrate at the moment, based on what I have seen I believe your displacement method would be weak against shielding spells and general wards. It has no penetrative power. But, perhaps much more dangerous, it is likely vulnerable to severing spells and other disruptions. If you encountered that, there is a reasonable chance your spell would fail and you, as well as those around you, would have to deal with the backlash. Let me stress again, this is not a party trick to play around with, and should not be practiced without supervision.”

The boy nodded tiredly, barely able to focus his eyes. “I understand. I won’t do anything foolish.”

“Hmph. We shall see.”

Siverling pressed his lips together and wisely did not argue. Instead, after a few moments, he simply said, “Thank you.”

Thaddeus turned back toward his desk. “You are welcome. That concludes this weekend’s session. If you have time, feel free to come back next Saturday to practice, though I will not be giving a lecture or more guidance for a while yet.”

Siverling sat for a while longer, staring up at the ceiling, but eventually pried himself out of the chair and shuffled for the door. He paused before leaving, turning to Thaddeus with uncharacteristic hesitation.

“What is it?” Thaddeus asked.

Something resolved in his apprentice’s eyes. “I’m not sure if you’re aware, but I’m friends with Anastasia Gervin, and acquainted with her cousin Alec. Alec went home to visit yesterday…and all was not well. His father and his other uncle were acting…agitated. Unusually so. Alec came home early to insulate himself from the tension. I was curious…and confused,” Siverling emphasized.

Thaddeus raised an eyebrow. “I see. Anything else?”

“No. I only have suspicions, and I can’t say they entirely make sense, especially if the latest incident wasn’t actually the Raven Queen. But…perhaps it’s something to keep an eye on, and I know you’ve helped with the investigation in the past. You’re friends with Titus Westbay, right? Unfounded suspicion would sound better coming from you than troublemaking students like Damien or I. And I also don’t want Alec to have to deal with the pressure of being questioned about his father. The man already has a tight grip of fear over him. I…am worried for Alec, as unpleasant a personality as he may be. I just hope that if there is something going on, if there is further evidence, it won’t be overlooked.” Sebastien closed his eyes for a moment, letting out a slow breath and some tension along with it.

“Thank you for telling me.”

Siverling gave him a small, wry smile, a slight nod, and closed the door gently behind himself when he left.

Thaddeus set aside his reading, picking up his jacket and making his own way out of the Citadel, walking toward the northwest. He was aware of the trust the boy placed in him. Such faith was foolish, perhaps, but he could not deny that it was perfectly designed to create mirroring feelings of warmth within himself.

Thaddeus, as well as the coppers, had already been aware of the branch Gervin line attempting to treat with the Raven Queen, of course. But if they had continued attempting to do so even now…acting without the oversight of the investigation, in collusion with someone wanted for treason and blood magic, there would be punishment. That they had not actually met with the Raven Queen did not matter, if they had been attempting to do so.

He chuckled to himself as he walked into the trees, considering the irony of those to brothers treating with a fraudulent Raven Queen. Because Thaddeus was well aware of what they must have been attempting, and the whole thing was rather amusing. They had been lucky not to have met the real woman.

After a moment to consider all the factors, Thaddeus decided that he would, in fact, pass this suspicion along to Titus.

As Thaddeus exited the trees before Eagle Tower, looking up at the repaired edifice, so close to being finished, his smile widened. The real Raven Queen had been quiet lately. He wondered if the coppers would grow desperate enough to try something more than divination with what little of her blood remained to them.

But most of all, he wondered how she would respond this time.

Done with the larger revisions, doing a prose editing pass before the book goes off to the professional editor in a couple days. (I haven’t reached this chapter yet, so sorry about the errors that surely still remain.)

I actually hate this low-level stuff. I would rather do Chinese water torture for 10 hours a day than proofread for 10 hours a day. But! It helps a lot to improve the final quality, and I really care about that, so somehow it’s worth it.

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Chapter 126 – Output Circle

Sebastien

Month 3, Day 7, Sunday 9:00 a.m.

Sebastien arrived at Professor Lacer’s office Sunday morning right at nine, with no need for the beamshell tincture to boost her energy levels, such was her excitement for the chance to take another step toward learning to free-cast.

He waved her in, closing and locking the door behind her. “I do not want you distracted at a critical moment if some buffoon decides to burst in without knocking,” he explained. He turned to his desk, where a coffee tray rested, and poured himself a mug. He looked to her with a questioning eyebrow.

“Yes, please,” she agreed, more for the chance to share a morning coffee with Thaddeus Lacer than out of a desire for caffeine.

He reached for the trench coat draped over his desk chair, pulling a flask from the inner pocket and pouring some of the liquid within into his coffee. “I am not an alcoholic, if you were wondering,” he said. “This is a special wakefulness concoction that I developed myself. Useful for when emergencies allow me no time to sleep. I would offer you some, but the taste is extremely unpleasant, and if you were so exhausted as to need it, that would be a sign that we should postpone this lesson.”

Sebastien nodded, then shook her head. “I don’t—need it, that is. I’m awake.”

Professor Lacer handed her a steaming mug, into which he had added neither sugar nor cream, then took a reluctant gulp of his own brew. His exaggerated grimace and the little involuntary shudder that ran through him was…almost cute.

Sebastien turned her attention to her own coffee. ‘I must actually be sleep deprived, if my mind could make a connection between the word “cute” and Thaddeus Lacer,’ she thought. ‘There has never been a man who matched that descriptor less.’ Aloud, she said, “So what am I going to be learning today? You said it would help prepare me for free-casting?”

Professor Lacer stepped back around his desk toward the center of his office, where the floor was cleared, furniture pushed out of the way to provide space. “Thaumaturges, just like all people, can become set in their ways, their brains wearing down comfortable pathways of frequent travel. This happens with the Will as well, and the more those comfortable pathways are traveled, the more difficult it can be to climb one’s way out of the valleys created. This is why I assigned first term students an exercise using light as both Sacrifice and output. Climbing out of that rut is the point behind what you will attempt today.”

He pulled a wrapped piece of chalk from his vest pocket, drawing a simple and yet somehow perfect Circle on the floor without any guidelines. Then, he exchanged the chalk for his Conduit and a beast core. “Spells learned by fledgling thaumaturges like yourself are almost always bounded by the confines of the central Circle of your spell array. The output effect is contained and controlled within. This is fine, and safe, to start out with, but one who hopes to become a free-caster should not become too comfortable with this.” A glowing sphere, a simple light spell, appeared resting upon the stone floor inside of the chalk Circle. “Tell me what you know of spells whose output is actualized outside of the Circle.”

Sebastien quickly organized her thoughts. “The easiest example of spells whose effects work outside of the Circle still kind of work by controlling the area bounded by the Circle. Like a spell that creates cold in the area surrounding the Circle by gathering all the heat inside it, or the gust spell, which just expels air from the Circle in a specific direction. But there are plenty of spells with more complex directional effects. They still originate within the Circle of the spell array but then travel outside it. You talked about this in the first lesson at the beginning of the term,” she remembered.

Professor Lacer turned to watch her as she spoke more quickly with excitement, his gaze inscrutable.

“Examples are fireball spells, which shoot an actual ball of fire at the target, revealing spells, which shoot vibrations and unseen waves, and even the stunning spell, which shoots a low-current electrical charge along with the powdered saliva of a Kuthian frog, all contained within a field of force that dissipates on contact with the target. You said the commonality between these kinds of spells is that they shoot something that exists in nature, just bound in a compact form that decoheres with distance and time. But with enough power and control, one should be able to shoot transmogrificational long-range spells, by shooting both the Circle and the Word at its target, which is supposed to be incredibly difficult.” She paused, then added, “I can shoot a directional slicing spell that works by compressing air. And the gust spell. And, of course, Newton Moore’s spell that uses the Circle of the hands but whose effects travel through bounds of the physical body.”

Professor Lacer nodded, turning back to the spell resting on the floor. Suddenly, the area outside the Circle glowed with diffuse light, and then, after a few seconds, the light gathered in a wedge-shaped beam on one side. “These directional applications still depend upon the center Circle. As do projectile applications.” The light coalesced back into a sphere in the middle, then suddenly shot out, expanding and dimming slightly before impacting against the far wall, where it burst and immediately dissipated. “These parameters of direction, velocity, and even containment force, are generally written into the spell array.”

“Are you going to teach me how to bypass those limitations? Remove those parameters from the spell array, maybe?” It seemed like the logical next step to her.

“That is not an unreasonable guess, but based on my observations, that is not something you should need my help with. If you practice slightly modifying those output parameters beyond the exact limitations of the spell array, you should be able to work up to removing them entirely. There is another parameter which we will be focusing on today.” He glanced back at the Circle on the floor, but the sphere of light instead appeared floating between the two of them at head height. It had not originated within the Circle.

Sebastien stared into the light with admiration, and then turned to meet Professor Lacer’s dark blue eyes with avarice. “I’m ready.”

His lips twitched with somewhat mocking amusement. “I am aware. This exercise is difficult, and for those with an undeveloped Will, can be dangerous. You have the requisite experience and control, as evidenced by the Henrik-Thompson capacity test I supervised a couple of months ago, as well as your recent performance with the illusion spell. One might expect to see the equivalent in a third-term student who entered the University having never cast a spell before,” he said pointedly, though she knew he didn’t actually care for the rules and laws restricting magic. “Most importantly, however, and unlike our young Mr. Westbay, I know you are prepared to learn this because you have already done it before.”

She looked at the ball of light hanging in the air and then back to him. “What? When… Ah!” She thought she knew what he was referencing. “During the entrance exam. When I threw that…temper tantrum with the blue flame spell,” she said, rubbing the back of her neck and looking away.

“Indeed. And when you accomplished this, the spell array certainly did not contain a coherent Word describing the parameters of an output generated outside of the Circle. You brought that flame to life in the air with Will alone. At the time, I remember being surprised you had not killed yourself in the attempt, but I am quite sure you at least approached Will strain, if not stepped directly into it. Today, you will learn to do this with the proper spell array.”

Professor Lacer gestured to the chalk Circle on the floor, and a purposeful gust of wind originated at their feet, cleared away the dust, and deposited it in the wastebasket beside his desk. “Let us a have a quick lesson on how to read and adjust the output parameters, and then you will attempt the exercise yourself.”

He turned to one of his bookcases, pushing on the edge. It slid to the side, apparently resting on tracks rather than the floor, and revealed a blackboard that had been concealed on the wall behind it. Then, writing out multiple example spell arrays for her, he gave a thirty-minute lecture on the concept, which she absorbed like a dehydrated sponge.

Finally, he said, “Now, put this principle into practice. You will start with an output on the same x-axis plane—the ground—approximately one meter away from your spell array. Once you’ve mastered that, you can try for longer distances, then the y-axis, then a combination of the two. More advanced applications will have you further increasing distance, or trying to cast with a denser substance than air between you and the target location. I would request that you only attempt this under my supervision until I say otherwise. And as a warning against your proclivity for reckless stupidity, do not attempt to do this with, say, a person or a crowd of people between you and your target. You are likely to face resistance due to the inherent magical barrier of their bodies creating an impassable obstacle. Also, you should be aware that most household wards will act as a shield against this, due to blocking the energy transfer.”

Sebastien’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully as she considered how one might get around such wards, but she didn’t spend much effort contemplating it, instead moving to the center of the room and crouching to draw out her own spell array with a wax crayon, which was less likely to smear catastrophically with her walking around. Unlike Professor Lacer, she wrote out the full Word with detailed instructions inside her spell array, taking the beast core he tossed her way as a convenient source of power. She left out only the anchored location parameters.

As she palmed the Conduit Professor Lacer had lent her, attached by a chain to her pocket watch, she stilled, staring down into its crystalline depths. She had confirmed—Malcolm Gervin had brought the exact same forgery that she had placed in the vault to their meeting. Either he was being disingenuous, or he had no idea that the one he had was a fake, which only confirmed her suspicions that Ennis had sold the original celerium at some point. The thought once more filled her with rage. She was almost looking forward to his trial, when he would finally see some consequences for all the harm he had done.

Sebastien forced her mind back to the present moment. The magic required her focus. Drawing on the beast core, she first created a small ball of light within the spell array’s main Circle, both to warm up her mind and make sure she had no trouble with the spell effect itself. She had never drawn on a beast core for light before, after all.

Then she dropped the spell and prepared to cast it again, this time adding the final parameters. She brought her Will to bear, staring at a spot exactly one meter away from the center of the Circle and…nothing happened. Power had been drawn through her Conduit, was circling through the wax lines of the spell array, but no light had appeared where she intended.

No glowing sphere had appeared at all. It felt as if the magic had sputtered against her Will at the last moment, like a candle flame about to go out, struggling feebly for its life, and then…nothing.

She tried again, to the same result. And again. Frowning with consternation, she reviewed the spell array, then took a few moments to go over the concept in her mind once more, focusing on the mental image of a ball of light appearing where she had instructed. This would improve the clarity of her Will.

This time, she leaned into the spell, baring her teeth and driving her Will against the reluctant fabric of reality. ‘Light. Light!’ This time, the magic didn’t simply sputter, it bucked against her. It didn’t feel exactly like the wildness of new magic that hadn’t yet been broken in, but more as if she was trying to play the child’s game of hoop-rolling, but her wheel kept getting stuck in unforeseen ruts in the road and being drawn off course.

Cold anxiety settled in her gut. ‘Is my mind already so congealed in its ways, my Will so intractable, that I cannot adapt?

“This is expected to be difficult,” Professor Lacer said. “Even I had trouble with it, on my first attempts. Do not grow discouraged. You must simply keep trying until you can crack open the new paradigm. You may stay in my office until noon. There are plenty of protective wards, and I will not let anything happen to you. Schedules allowing, you may come back to practice again next weekend, and the one after that, and so forth until you succeed. Periodically, I will give other lectures on topics that may provide you…inspiration. For now, you may be best served by grasping the full measure of the problem. The better your understanding of your current limitations, the more use you will get out of related information.”

She didn’t respond, still scowling down at the floor with enough ire that her expression could have scoured the stone away.

When she failed to respond, he added, “Do not allow your frustration to make you careless. A mistake here could be very dangerous, with the magic outside the bounds of the spell array and thus unrestricted.”

Sebastien stood, rolling her Conduit between her fingers and pacing back and forth. “I don’t understand what I’m doing wrong. Like you said, I’ve done this before successfully. I—” Sebastien broke off as her eyes caught on the cover of the book Professor Lacer was reading. ‘A History and Guidebook of those who Call Themselves the People: Nomadic Tribes of the Northern Islands,’ the title read. A shock of mixed alarm and curiosity shook her from her thoughts. Her mother had been of the People. That book was about her own ancestry.

Perhaps seeing the curiosity on her face, Professor Lacer said, “The indigenous peoples of the northern islands are quite fascinating. I recently became interested in them because half of the Raven Queen’s supposed civilian identity comes from those who call themselves the People.”

“How do you know that?” she asked, trying to seem innocently curious.

“I am a friend of Titus Westbay, who runs the local coppers. Occasionally I am called in to consult on particularly difficult or interesting cases. I was not always a teacher, you know,” he added with a wry twist of his mouth, almost self-deprecating. “You may find it interesting to know why a group of insular, nomadic minorities are called that, even by outsiders, when it seems more likely we would come up with some other designation for them. It is an example of some of the most widespread, impressive transmogrification I have seen, a curse whose details have been lost to time and can only be speculated at. The Church of the Radiant Maiden was leading their crusade about four thousand B.C.E., expanding their grasp toward the scattered nations on the outskirts of the Western continent, and had begun to persecute the People. You’ve heard the history, I’m sure. Many atrocities, dehumanization, slavery and forced familiar contracts of sentient beings, etcetera.” He waved his hand nonchalantly.

“The People could not stand up to the weight of the Church’s sheer scale, but they had other specialties. They forced all outsiders to call them “people” in their own language, a curse whose remnants last to this day. The closest guess we have about their method, pieced together from battle reports, is that they used a large ritual sacrifice of their enemies. When I say large, I mean a ritual that spanned tens of kilometers, coordinated by smoke signals and light shone on the clouds, performed on a day of importance and with the cooperation of every single member of the scattered tribes. Curses may all have their keys, but this one was never broken. Though the compulsion itself has faded, and the power of even that much energy has been consumed by the eons, the naming habit persists. Impressive, is it not? These are the Raven Queen’s ancestors.”

Sebastien nodded silently, running her tongue over the back of her teeth for a moment. Her grandfather had told that story many times, though the details were slightly different. Hesitantly, she asked, “So, do you know anything else about the Raven Queen?”

He smiled with a strange, dark delight that made Sebastien’s hair stand on end. “She had a very interesting childhood.”

“What do you mean?”

“I only know as much as the coppers have been able to glean, but the Red Guard has the records of an Aberrant incident, and some of those closest to her had some very interesting backgrounds. I will not share the details, so snuff out that burning curiosity, child.”

Sebastien took a moment to digest this, then decided to pry at the information she had originally wanted more directly. “I heard rumors that she made another appearance recently?”

Lacer snorted disdainfully. “Despite how much the investigation team might want to believe otherwise, that was not the Raven Queen.”

Sebastien’s throat went dry. “What do you mean?”

“Too many discrepancies. Supposedly, the Raven Queen and a companion were meeting with an unknown party, and was either betrayed by them or ambushed by a third group. There is a surprising lack of testimony. However, examination of the crime scene has revealed that some of the attacks were underpowered, almost as if they were not meant to kill. There was some residue left from the Raven Queen’s clothing, including a couple of black feathers. However, they were not raven feathers, but crow feathers, and had been sewn and glued onto the fabric.” He gave her a pointed look.

“Crow feathers…” she murmured. “I suppose they look quite similar, to a layperson.”

“Additionally, eyewitnesses say she and her companion ran away from the scene in a very mundane manner, which is definitely possible, but somewhat implausible, given that multiple previous reports have noted that she has some stealth-based ability to slip away or disappear, possibly with the aid of shadows. Even if for some reason that was not possible in this instance, we have the final discrepancy. The one unreliable eyewitness account who saw the tail end of the actual incident insists that the Raven Queen was free-casting some kind of darkness spell on her attackers, and killed them all with little more than a wave of the hand. In reality, while there are signs of multiple different philtres of darkness and even some modified firecrackers, all the attackers seem to have escaped on their own, with no signs of injury. Given all this evidence, what would be your conclusion?”

Sebastien tried to smile, though it felt awkward on her face. “Someone was impersonating the Raven Queen?”

“Indeed. A clever impersonation, to be sure, but no match for the investigative power of Crown-funded law enforcement. If it really was her, then she is playing a game several levels deep, too many even for me to comprehend. But despite all this, and all the confusion this incident has created, some of the coppers on the investigation team are intent on labeling it a Raven Queen sighting, because she has been lying low for a while now, and this would give them some hope of progress, and something to report to the High Crown.”

“But that’s entirely counterproductive,” she said, noting the irony that if they found the Raven Queen impersonators or the Raven Queen herself, she would be caught either way.

Professor Lacer slid a marker into his book to hold his place, reaching for the remaining coffee and pouring himself a second cup, which he reheated simply by sliding the tip of his finger around the rim of the mug. “You would think that any rational person would understand that. When playing against someone as painfully clever, dangerous, and powerful as the Raven Queen, their halfhearted efforts will never be enough to catch her. Some of them are more interested in seeming as if they are doing their jobs than actually producing results. There is a difference between showing that you’ve tried and actually trying.”

“But surely some of them are actually trying?”

He took a sip, this time forgoing the splash of something extra. “Some of them. But you might be surprised by how common a failing this is, Mr. Siverling. The majority, alas, have not trained themselves to latch onto confusion like they should. Confusion is the difference between what your models of how the world works predict, and reality. The first virtue of a thaumaturge is curiosity, but the second virtue is relinquishment—the ability to let go of incorrect beliefs when they are leading you to incorrect answers. The ability to change your mind.”

Lacer stood abruptly, verve flowing through him and animating him the same way it often did as he gave a dramatic lecture at the front of the classroom. “Sebastien, when you are confused, that is a sign. A huge, red warning sign that, if you have trained yourself properly, you should realize is the equivalent of a rogue magic siren going off right next to you. But most people feel instead a slight uncertainty, or a sense of sneaking suspicion, there for only half a moment before they roll over and bury it with justifications and tightly held beliefs that are too precious to be challenged.”

He moved around his desk and began to pace, gesturing with the hand not occupied with a coffee mug. “If a man who has never seen the sky before believes that it is purple, but when he finally crawls out of his hole he sees an expanse of blue above him, he will be confused. His model of the world conflicts with reality. Rather than justifying that what he sees cannot actually be the sky, he should update his predictive models—his beliefs—and understand that the sky is blue.

“If a woman believes that her partner is faithful to her, but her partner is acting secretive and staying out late, she may become suspicious. Rather than rationalizing away these behaviors, since they are evidence against the believed faithfulness of her partner, she should investigate. Doubt’s purpose is to erase itself, one way or the other. If your models of reality seem to conflict with actual reality, the ability to be curious, and the ability to relinquish your beliefs will allow you to determine actual reality, and thus whether your models should be kept, discarded, or updated.”

Sebastien couldn’t help but absorb some of Lacer’s passion for the subject, the rightness of his words settling somewhere deep inside of her. Their message seemed obvious, but she knew from experience that nominally understanding something and actually living by its principles was not the same thing. “You’ve mentioned the virtues of a thaumaturge before. Curiosity, and now relinquishment. Are there more?”

He stopped pacing, turning to face her. “There are twelve virtues in the Way.”

She leaned forward. “The Way of true power? You mentioned that before, too.”

“The Way of true power. The Way of victory. It has no formal name, but in simplified terms, it is simply the art of not being stupid.” He sipped his coffee, staring at her shoes with a mirthless severity. “A surprising amount of the time, you will find that winning is about not being stupid. Which is harder than it might sound, because these meat suits we wear, our brains, are built to take shortcuts that save energy, and to encourage behaviors that would keep us alive in a primitive environment. They are not built to be always right. One of the greatest frustrations of my life,” he added in a low murmur.

“What are the other virtues?” Sebastien asked.

Lacer observed her for a few long moments during which she was careful not to fidget, meeting his challenging gaze unflinchingly. “No, I do not think I will tell you,” he mused. She wanted to protest, but he continued. “Listing them out for you to memorize will not do you any good. At worst, it will make you think you understand and adhere to them. It is best if you search them out for yourself, internalizing their lessons as you learn and grow.” His tone gentled. “This is the effort of a lifetime, child. You will have time.”

“You’ll still teach me about them, though, right?” she asked.

“When appropriate. Now back to work with you,” he said, waving his hand at her in a clipped shooing motion as he summoned the book he had been reading and moved to sit in one of the plush chairs that had been moved against the wall.

She hesitated, looking from the spell array on the floor to the book in his hands. Grabbing her Conduit for what she vaguely recognized was the sense of comfort and safety it gave her, she narrowed her eyes and said, “I have a sneaking suspicion that you’re reading that book out of more than simple curiosity. You’re looking to gain knowledge towards a purpose,” she said boldly, despite the little voice of anxiety inside her that wanted her to shrink back and be silent for fear of exposing herself to danger. “Have you learned something new?”

He glanced at her over the top of the book. “Already putting my lessons into practice, Mr. Siverling?”

Sebastien nodded. “I always do.”

Lacer actually smiled at that, filling her with a quick flush of pride, but he immediately returned to reading. “Might I suggest that if you have more questions that would distract from your spellcasting, you try to find out the answers yourself through applying your mind to the problem?”

“But I don’t have access to the amount or quality of information that you do,” she protested.

He quirked up one eyebrow. “An astute observation. Perhaps that is a sign that you, a first-term University student who has displayed a proclivity for questionable judgement and jumping into danger, are not qualified to deal with the issue and thus should not recklessly poke your head into it.”

She didn’t know what to say to that.

After a short pause, he lifted his head again, shifting slightly. “I understand that you are interested in the Raven Queen because of the ‘blessing’ she imparted upon you. But I assure you, she is not particularly interested in you. She was using you as a tool to communicate indirectly. You need not fear that she has some vendetta against you. If you do find yourself in contact with her once more, mention of my name might do well as a talisman of protection. There is no need to worry or obsess over her.”

Sebastien wanted to protest that she was not obsessed with the Raven Queen, but instead asked, “Why do you think she’s interested in you? You seem awfully sure.”

Professor Lacer acted as if he hadn’t heard her, but the sharp tapping of one impatient forefinger against the arm of his chair was enough indication that he had run through whatever limited pool of indulgence he allowed her.

She returned to the wax spell array, kneeling on the stone floor before it. The difference between her attempts now and her success during the entrance exam was that at that time, she had been desperate, terrified, and enraged. Her Will had been undeniably imbued with that ephemeral property, forcefulness.

Now, Sebastien tried to grasp hold of that again. ‘I want this. I must make it work. If I fail here, my dreams are shattered. This is the step that will take me beyond my mediocre, helpless existence. Without this, I will not reach true power.’ She allowed herself to wallow in bad memories as she so often avoided, until tears prickled at her closed eyes and goosebumps had arisen on her arms and back. With trembling fingers and a racing heart, she tightened her fist around her Conduit, opened her eyes, and reached over to draw an ephemeral Circle around the empty spot on the floor where the light should arise, hoping that the act would somehow bridge the seeming gap in her mind.

And in doing so, she realized that perhaps she’d been going about this all wrong. Not only had she cast a similar spell during the entrance exam, but she frequently cast a spell whose output location she controlled at will: her shadow-familiar.

She sat back on her heels, rolling that thought over in her mind. Her shadow-familiar had the advantage of being formed of her shadow, which inherently belonged to her in a way that some random spot on the floor a meter away from her spell array did not. But perhaps she could borrow some principles from it. Namely, the fact that as long as it was connected to her by a single thread of shadow, a tether, where it went and what shape it took mattered not.

She held her hand out over the Circle, far enough away to be outside of its bounds, allowing her shadow to fall within it. She imagined a band of control spreading from the center of the Circle out to the spot where the spell effect should be generated, a channel through which power and her Will could both flow.

Light,’ she snarled mentally, staring at that empty spot. She would not accept failure. She could not even conceive of failure, such was her determination.

A small glowing sphere bloomed on the floor a meter away, surrounded by nothing and wavering translucently. Her spell array glowed at first with inefficiency, but quickly dimmed as if cowed by her glare.

She was concentrating too hard to be elated, bringing the ball of light into greater resolution and stability. She held it until the trembles subsided from her fingers and her racing heart slowed, until the dread riding on her shoulders dissipated. Finally, she released the spell.

Sebastien turned to Professor Lacer only to find him already watching her, his book set aside and forgotten.

I am speeding right along with the revision, and will be sending off the semi-final manuscript to my editor by next week, if everything goes well!

Also, I really wish I had magical coffee like Siobhan.

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Chapter 125 – Blackmail

Damien

Month 3, Day 6, Saturday 5:30 a.m.

A week after exposing Professor Lacer’s favoritism and, despite Damien’s best arguments to the contrary, being forbidden from attending Sebastien’s private tutoring session, Damien was still fuming. According to Professor Lacer, he “had neither the requisite experience nor control.” Apparently, whatever lesson he was going to teach would normally be restricted to students in their third term or higher. Damien had redoubled his efforts at the auxiliary exercises, and even experimented with some variations to test his Will as Sebastien did, determined to have a firm grasp on all of them by the end of the term. He would prove to Professor Lacer that he could keep up!

For the moment, as Sebastien and he walked through the still-dark, early morning streets of Gilbratha, Damien set aside his ire. Not because he was too tired to care. To the contrary, Damien’s every cell was alive with excitement.

Everything was ready, and they were about to carry out the penultimate step in Operation Defenestration. If this went well, Ana’s uncles would be deposed, her power as the heir would be assured, and maybe Sebastien would even report Damien’s contribution to the higher-ups in their secret organization, and finally make him a full member!

Sebastien was leading, and he took them on a winding route through the city, eyes flicking around with constant watchfulness in a way that kept Damien on edge, until finally they arrived at the hotel. From there, Damien stepped forward, nodding haughtily at the night shift clerk as he set down the luggage case with all of their supplies. “I would like to purchase a room. Full bathing facilities are required.”

The clerk looked lazily between Damien and Sebastien, whose cloak hood was still pulled down far enough to conceal his features, then smirked and said, “Of course. The honeymoon suite is available, if you would like?”

Sebastien froze, turning to stare at the clerk.

Damien felt his face flush horribly red. “No!” he snapped. He cleared his throat, amending in a more reasonable tone. “No. I misspoke. Two rooms. I wish to purchase two adjacent rooms, each with their own bathing facilities.”

As the clerk complied, moving so slow it had to have been on purpose, Damien avoided taking a peek at Sebastien’s face, wishing for his own to cool down faster. He refused help carrying up their bags, and together they hurried up the stairs and to their rooms, only one of which was actually necessary.

Entering together, Sebastien immediately took off his cloak and jacket, moving to the dining table where Damien laid the luggage case.

After Ana had convinced them to go through with the costume, they had argued about who exactly was going to impersonate the Raven Queen, but Sebastien won. He was taller, and thus more imposing. Damien had been miffed about this, but as he watched Sebastien emerge from the bathroom in the Raven Queen costume, he had to admit that he was impressed.

Sebastien wore a wig of long black hair that they had dyed themselves, and a long, lacy black dress under an oversized hooded cloak that concealed his lack of feminine curves. The clothes were tattered and wispy at the hems, artfully torn by Ana and her eye for fashionable dramatism, and they had sewn in black feathers here and there. The outfit was both authentic and intimidating. But what was most impressive was how Sebastien moved with a natural feminine grace—a hip sway that wasn’t overdone, an alluring tilt of the jaw, and simultaneously elegant and arrogant gestures with his arms and wrists.

Damien stepped closer, examining what little skin would be visible through the tattered clothes. They had used a generous amount of Ana’s bronzing lotion over Sebastien’s skin, which made the pale boy a little too orange, but still much closer to the Raven Queen’s supposed skin tone. “Not bad,” Damien allowed. “Sit down, and I’ll do your face.”

With a long-suffering sigh, Sebastien sat by the table and tilted his head up for Damien’s ministrations.

Damien pulled out the makeup palette that Ana had bought and taught him how to use, carefully dusting and painting until Sebastien’s eyes were dark gems staring out of smoky blackness, and his lips were a deep wine color, even darker than blood. Damien did his best to keep his hands steady, too aware of the warmth of Sebastien’s breath for comfort. When he stepped back to admire his work, he had to admit that Sebastien made an undeniably striking woman. “Are you frightened?” he asked.

Sebastien raised an eyebrow. “No.”

“But your hands are shaking,” Damien pointed out.

Sebastien looked down to them with surprise. “I’m not frightened. Not excessively so,” he amended. “I must not have eaten enough for breakfast. Or maybe I’ve had too much…coffee. But don’t worry, I can handle my part.” Sebastien stood and pulled up his hood. He posed with unnatural stillness, his head tilted as he stared at Damien from the darkness beneath the fabric, black hair and feathers obscuring most of his features, while the makeup distorted the rest.

Damien’s shuddered, pretty sure he could feel Sebastien’s Will roiling out like the hungry waves of a dark ocean, sinister and prepared to consume whatever they could drag into their depths. “That’s perfect,” he whispered, then added more loudly, “You should definitely activate your Will when we meet them. Oh, this is going to be spectacular.”

“If everything goes well, that is,” Sebastien said.

Damien rolled his eyes. “We’ve planned for literally everything that could possibly go wrong.” He opened his jacket to display the rows of healing and battle potions within as evidence. “We have backup, and we’re going to search Malcolm and Randolph for any nasty surprises when they arrive. It’s going to go perfectly.”

“Don’t tempt the gods of irony,” Sebastien admonished. “No plan survives contact with the enemy.”

Damien just sighed, putting on his own disguise, which was much simpler. New clothes bought off the rack instead of tailored to him, a mask bought from a street stall—instead of a costume shop, on Sebastien’s recommendation—and a cloak with an equally deep hood. All black and appropriately dramatic.

The coolest part of his disguise was actually the collar he wore around his neck, hidden by the high neckline of his shirt, which pressed into his voice box and would magically alter the sound when he spoke. They were great for costume parties, and the artifact had come from a joke shop., Rather than a collar that would make him sound like a little girl, which Ana had suggested, Damien had chosen one that would make his voice artificially deep, with a strange reverberation. He hoped it would put a tremble of fear in the uncles’ knees.

Still, he had been warned to speak as little as possible, just in case they somehow recognized the cadence of his voice, if not the sound.

Sebastien put on a second cloak, less tattered and more nondescript, to cover his Raven Queen costume, and together they left the hotel through a back entrance, still with plenty of time until the sun began to rise. They wanted to travel while the streets were still empty, and hopefully arrive well before the two they were supposed to meet, in time to do one last safety check of the area.

Sebastien was still wary of tails, but he was impressively subtle in searching for them, and even their winding route would have seemed natural to anyone not specifically following them. He moved as if he belonged there, among the increasingly run-down buildings and streets lined by trash and frozen feces. Sebastien barely took note of these things, and didn’t even seem nervous. It was as if he went undercover for high-stakes meetings all the time. And maybe he did.

Damien did his best to imitate him, to act as if he belonged with absolute confidence. As they entered the parts of the city that had been involved in the gang fights earlier that term, the cleanliness actually improved, but there were still damaged buildings. Their destination was one such building, an old stone construct covered with dead crawling vines, whose roof had crumbled away some time ago, if the interior was any indication.

Snow had piled up and mostly melted away, leaving a lumpy sheen of compacted ice in the middle of the room, with dead and hibernating plants sprouting out of the ground in several places where the planks of the old wooden floor had either rotted away or been forcefully removed, perhaps for firewood. There were signs of homeless people bedding down here to escape the elements—tattered bedding and barrels full of trash and ash—but they were alone in the building at the moment, as Sebastien had sent some local contact to clear the transitory residents away the night before.

After a quick search of the area, an examination of the surrounding buildings, and confirming the signals that meant both their backup and the private investigator Ana had hired were in place and ready for the upcoming meeting, Sebastien and Damien stood in wait, covered by the deeper shadow of the part of the roof that remained, up against a load-bearing wall. “They will come, right?” Damien murmured.

“They should,” Sebastien said, but his tone held a tension born from uncertainty. Ana had sent a blackmail note to her uncles the night before, threatening them with the information they had uncovered—the proverbial stick—and offering to trade the book for the Raven Queen’s ring—the carrot. She had enclosed a black feather with the letter as a signature.

Damien had wanted to cut and paste letters from many different newspapers to send an untraceable and intimidating message, but Ana thought that wasn’t “classy” enough for someone like the Raven Queen, and didn’t seem believable.

Despite their initial worry, as the sun began to rise, the two of them watched through a window opening that had long been free of any glass as their two victims arrived, scurrying nervously through the street with their heads on a paranoid swivel. It seemed they had done as the note demanded, coming alone.

Sebastien reached under his skirts for the makeshift pocket Ana had sewn there, revealing a small vial filled with a dark, roiling concoction. He uncorked it, letting his skirts fall back down as the contents fairly exploded from the glass container. Smoke billowed out from beneath his dress, an ominous and translucent grey that sometimes flashed purple. Apparently, it was a modified philtre of smoke, meant more for theatrical effect than obscuration. The cumulous clouds stayed low to the ground, roiling balefully as they spread, and should last for the entire duration of the meeting.

Malcolm and Randolph arrived with perfect timing, just as the smoke reached the edge of the shadow that Sebastien and Damien had sequestered themselves within.

Both men stiffened and froze as the smoke attacked their gaze to Sebastien, though Malcolm recovered quickly, tightening his grip around the ornate head of his cane and stepping fully into the room.

Randolph—the infamous cousin Robbie’s father—was less bold, though the tremor in his hands as he followed his older brother into the room could have as easily been aftereffects from an overindulgence in alcohol and other less savory substances, as it might have been from simple fear.

Damien and Sebastien stepped forward in turn, with Sebastien leading and Damien trailing behind a few respectful feet. Damien shuddered as he felt Sebastien’s Will roil out into the slow-moving smoke, riding on it with malevolent intent.

Both Malcolm and Randolph Gervin seemed to feel it too, as Malcom stiffened and swallowed heavily, while Randolph sidled a little more directly behind his brother, as if to use him as a shield.

At this angle, with the roof and part of the wall gone, the four of them were fully visible from a window on the upper floor of a nearby building, where the private investigator was waiting with a camera obscura. Damien believed this would be the perfect moment to take a couple shots, but he kept his eyes from straying in that direction, and hoped the flash of light wouldn’t give their plan away too early.

Malcolm Gervin cleared his throat. “We came alone, as required, and have brought the ring. Did you bring the book?”

Sebastien turned his concealed face toward Damien in wordless command.

Damien stepped forward. “I need to search you for weapons or any other items that would constitute a betrayal,” he said, his voice coming out like a rock giant gargling pebbles.

Malcolm’s mouth tightened, but he nodded.

Damien came around behind them, searching Randolph first, and then Malcolm, being as thorough as possible as he ran through a mental list of all the ways people had ever hidden something on their person in an Aberford Thorndyke story. He found several pieces of contraband, including multiple battle wands, a philtre of liquid fire, a bracelet that Randolph insisted was just a valuable piece of jewelry, and an actual hidden breastplate underneath Malcolm’s shirt. He took them all, including both men’s coin purses and Malcolm’s cane, which Damien knew held a hidden knife, placing them in a pile beside Sebastien’s feet. The man didn’t actually need the cane to walk, after all, though Malcolm tried to protest that he did. Damien found the Raven Queen’s ring, too, but Malcolm refused to let him take it until they had exchanged for the book.

Through it all, Sebastien remained silent, except for small twitches of her arms or head, which was more unnerving than being screamed at might have been.

Finally, Damien returned to his place at Sebastien’s side. “We have the book,” he confirmed. “And the proof of your other activities.”

“How do we know you have made no copies, and will not betray us after getting what you want?” Malcolm asked.

Sebastien laughed, a low, eerie sound that genuinely made Damien uncomfortable.

He recovered quickly, saying, “If the Raven Queen planned to harm you, there would be little you could do to stop her. But she is honorable. You came to have what is hers through honest means, and though you may be of reprehensible character, as long as you do not make an enemy of her, she will have no reason to retaliate.”

Sebastien nodded, reaching into the inner pocket of his cloak. He pulled out first a folder stuffed with papers and photographs of evidence, and then a large volume, its leather binding tattered, its pages smelling of smoke and rancid, spiced sausage.

Damien allowed himself a smile of pride beneath his mask. He was the one who’d designed and put together the book, with a little help from Ana, and it was a perfect base for the skill with illusions that had cemented Sebastien’s role as the Raven Queen in this little play.

The inside of the front cover held a spell array that Sebastien used to create the illusion of a strange, shifting glyph on the front, half-disguised by the streaked, bloody handprint, as if someone had died as it was pried out of their grasp. The pages glowed so slightly it was only visible in contrast to the relative gloom of their surroundings, but the light was a dark, sinister color that wasn’t quite purple—blacklight, just on the edge of human perception. As the book’s faint light passed over Sebastien’s costume, the honey they had splattered and streaked over the fabric in violent patterns became briefly visible, like a dream peeking into the waking world.

Both of the Gervins’ attention locked onto the book like it was a glass of water and they were drowning men—as if it were the most important thing in the room. “A worthy trade,” Malcolm said, holding up the small jewelry box and opening it to reveal with ring within. “With this returned, and your silence about the rest, the bond made with your father—or at least the man who calls himself such—will be nullified, Queen of Ravens.”

Sebastien stepped forward, leaning to examine the ring with false curiosity.

The Gervins would have done better to pay attention to their surroundings, as when Malcolm moved closer to make the exchange, a huge fireball shot out from the roof of that same building where the private investigator was hiding.

The spell headed straight for Sebastien, who ducked just in time. It then splashed against the ground a few feet away, the edges of the flame licking at the smoke and the hem of his tattered costume.

Malcolm and Randolph both stumbled back, each reaching for an artifact only to find it missing, taken by Damien during his search.

Sebastien stood, looking from the scorch mark on the ground to the roof where the fireball had come from.

Yet another black-cloaked form stood there proudly, pointing a battle wand down at them. Before anyone could respond, they shot again.

Sebastien and Damien moved back to evade it, and the spell landed between them and the Gervins.

“Betrayal!” Sebastien snarled, his voice almost unrecognizable with authentic-sounding rage.

Again, Damien couldn’t help but flinch, a visceral reaction to the sound. Sebastien was, apparently, an amazing actor who would have made a name for himself in the University theatre club. The smoke beneath the Raven Queen costume began to billow more strongly, as Sebastien activated the gust spell array they had scratched into the inner side of one of Sebastien’s boots.

Putting a spell array in such a place was both dangerous and absolutely ingenious, but the effect was spectacular, sending her costume fluttering out with imagined power and pushing the smoke out in waves of grey and purple.

“No, no, we didn’t!” Randolph screamed.

“We are not allied with them, I swear it,” Malcom called. “We came alone, and in good faith!”

But it was too late, because another wand-holding attacker walked up the street, and a third appeared atop one of the other nearby roofs. Both shot spells toward Sebastien and Damien, ignoring the Gervins.

And that was Damien’s cue. In one smooth flourish, he pulled the wand from his own hidden wrist holder, throwing up the shield spell contained and waiting within. It blocked both the fireball spell—which was carefully calibrated to be more light than heat or force—as well as pieces of stone that a concussive blast spell had shattered in their direction.

Then, he switched to the second setting, which normally held a standard stunning spell. He had a license for the battle wand, but it was hard to get approved for anything more lethal on the grounds of “protection.” Still, Sebastien had somehow come through again, taking the wand and returning with a different variation on the stunning spell charged within. It acted in almost exactly the same way, but instead of the standard bright red, the spell that shot out, crackling faintly with arcs of electricity and glowing dust, was a sickly green that reminded Damien of puke.

Malcolm literally threw himself to the ground to avoid it, expressions of outrage and terror fighting for dominance on his face. “Stop! We’re on your side!”

“You betrayed us!” Damien yelled. “You’re going to wish you were dead.” Adrenaline was coursing through his veins, and his voice cracked, but he was pretty sure, judging by the expression on Malcolm and Randolph’s faces, that he was totally pulling off the charade.

Malcolm’s expression hardened, and as he crawled back to his feet, he reached into his mouth. With one finger, he popped something out from between his jaw and his cheek, and clenched it in his hand hard enough that his knuckles turned white.

Immediately, a dome shimmered around him, and a second later the man had disappeared. Only the faint disturbance of the smoke floating along the ground revealed his position, as, shielded and invisible, he ran out the door.

Randolph fumbled to do the same, but dropped whatever artifact contained such an impressive spell, and went scrambling for it on the ground among the trash and rubble, his face turning puce with terror before he was able to retrieve and activate it.

The trio of attackers surrounding the decrepit building continue to attack Damien and Sebastien, though somehow their spells were either mis-aimed, poorly timed, or just didn’t manage to do any damage past Damien’s shield.

Sebastien strode into full view in the middle of the room, head hanging low as he slowly raised his arms, hands peeking out from within his long, tattered sleeves. A turned his head toward their first attacked, reached out to them, pointing and finger and then making a crushing motion with his fist. half a second later, something exploded with a rumble of thunder and the soundless eruption of a true philtre of darkness.

Sebastien did this twice more, once for each of the other two hired actors that his contacts among the secret organization had allowed him to procure, to the same sensational result.

With their “attackers” thus subdued, having set off a philtre of darkness and a single-shot firecracker at their own feet at Sebastien’s motion, he and Damien were quick to leave, rushing along their designated escape route to the safe house Sebastien had insisted on.

The coppers would be drawn by the noise, and they wanted as few sightings of the Raven Queen as possible. This whole thing was supposed to be a big production, but Damien shuddered to think of what might happen if the real Raven Queen heard about their impersonation and took offense.

They sprinted through back alleys and through run-down buildings, with so many twists and turns that if not for Sebastien to lead him, Damien thought he might have gotten himself lost. Then, they turned abruptly into a little cottage’s side door, where they changed their appearance. Sebastien took off the wig, carefully removed all of the makeup and skin toner, and stripped off the dress. With his white-blonde hair pulled back at the base of his neck in the same style Professor Lacer often wore, and a different cloak over simple clothing, he looked completely different. Damien took off his mask, and switched around the two-colored cloak he wore to display the inner forest green instead of the black.

They exited the cottage from a different door as nonchalantly as possible, and found Ana’s carriage waiting nearby. They hopped in, and the driver clicked his tongue to the horses immediately, sending them off back toward the nice part of the city and the hotel rooms Damien had booked.

“So do you think it worked?” Ana asked.

“Definitely,” Damien said, feeling like he was about to vibrate out of his seat. “Oh, Ana, it was amazing. You should have seen your uncles. So cowed. They fell for it completely. And Sebastien! Best impersonation of the Raven Queen I’ve ever imagined. He missed his calling as a stage actor.” As they rode through the streets, Damien recounted the whole sequence of events to Ana, ignoring Sebastien’s frequent snorts of disagreement and incredulous expressions.

“That’s really exactly how it all happened, Ana. Sebastien likes to downplay things, you know,” Damien insisted.

“And he’s so jaded,” Ana agreed, nodding wisely.

Sebastien ignored them both. “How do you think the coppers will take this?” he asked.

“I don’t know, but isn’t that irrelevant as long as they don’t find out who was really involved?” Damien asked.

Sebastien did not seem mollified by this argument.

As they snuck back into the hotel, having to duck out of the way of early-rising inhabitants a couple times before they reached their room, Damien asked, “What’s going to happen to all their things? We just left them behind. Will the coppers be able to identify their owners, do you think?”

Sebastien gave him the first real grin of the night as they closed the door behind them. “Our allies out there this morning should pick it up before the coppers arrive. Partial payment for their services, I suppose. There might even be some coin left over for us.”

Neither Damien nor Ana had the same gleeful response to the promise of loot, until Sebastien added, “I was thinking, maybe we could set up an education fund for Newton’s family. He has younger sisters, I think. If the family even wants more of their children learning the same magic that killed their son, that is.”

That immediately sobered the mood, but they all agreed it was a good idea. Damien and Sebastien both retreated to the bathrooms to wipe off any evidence of their adventure, and finally met Ana in the lobby to return to the University.

No one would even realize they had left.

As they were riding up one of the transport tubes, watching the sun as it rose high enough in the sky to cut through the morning fog, Damien turned to Sebastien, smirk displayed in full force. “I told you the plan would work perfectly.”

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Chapter 124 – The Architects of Khronos

Oliver

Month 3, Day 3, Wednesday 9:10 p.m.

Oliver sat in a dim, smoky bar that was becoming too familiar, drinking an amber-colored fruit juice that was almost as expensive as liquor while he waited for his meeting with Gilbratha’s premier information broker. The last few days had been less than pleasant, as he pried around the edges of the truth about Siobhan’s meeting with Grandmaster Kiernan’s people, and their perhaps not-so-sudden attack.

Kiernan’s faction didn’t take Oliver seriously, and the proof was that they hadn’t been cautious enough in their aggression. Recently, Oliver had been increasingly impressed with the utility of Lord Morrow’s little black book, and thinking of ways to create similar leverage for himself. Really, his success was partially Kiernan’s fault. That first meeting, when they had sent Miss Canelo with the phonograph, had given him the idea.

Kiernan’s group had been so focused on the Raven Queen that they hadn’t considered what other dangers might lurk in the warehouse where they met. And so, after their attack, they had spoken freely.

Oliver had hidden three phonographs throughout the room, and after the meeting went so disastrously south, he retrieved them. Their sound-capturing membranes had been shredded by the sudden explosions of spell-fire, leaving the captured sound indistinct and marred with crackles and hisses. But with three copies, an assistant was able to piece together a coherent recording of Kiernan’s conversation.

It had been illuminating.

“They were prepared,” Kiernan said, once the sounds of battle against the Verdant Stag guards had settled, “but not enough to overcome us. But you moved too soon. We could have gleaned more clues about her real motivations and plans.”

His female companion replied, “She had no intention of negotiating with us. I think that was obvious.”

Someone else interjected, “Do you think she knows about our plans?”

“She is clever,” Kiernan admitted, “and I cannot figure out her game. But if she truly planned to go to the High Crown, why has she not done so already?”

Someone else laughed derisively. “Does she expect Lord Pendragon to first pay tribute to meet with her, I wonder?”

There was a pause, during which Oliver assumed looks were being traded, and then Kiernan continued. “What was this meeting really about, for her? If she knows of us, she must know the Architects of Khronos will not be thwarted by this setback she engineered. We will have what we need. Our hand will write the chronicle of history.”

As far as Oliver had been able to dig up the first time he’d heard of the Architects of Khronos, the name belonged to a Titan with some kind of destructive, time-based powers. Details were hard to assemble, as Khronos either went by various names, such as Hyperion, Cronus, and Mylinos, or he was often confused with several of his contemporaries whose powers encouraged similar interpretations. So many thousands of years later, it was difficult to uncover the truth. But Oliver didn’t need to be a history expert to understand the hubris and greed of the name they had given themselves.

On Sunday, just over a day and a half after they triggered the wards on the raven messenger’s cage, Grandmaster Kiernan—ostensibly the leader of this faction—had agreed to meet with Oliver, bringing some subordinates and guards with him.

As Lord Stag, Oliver had made his position and the trouble they’d caused for him clear. Kiernan had seemed deeply frustrated by the failure of negotiations with the Raven Queen, blaming his female subordinate for going against his orders. After dumping the fault on her shoulders, he waved the woman forward like a mother with a shy young child.

She’d bowed at a ninety-degree angle before Oliver and apologized profusely for her incendiary actions, her cheeks red and eyes glittering with shame and frustration.

As if to patch over the damage, Kiernan had pressed forward with an attempt to deepen their relationship with the Verdant Stag, offering high-level magical favors and submitting another order for all the same things they’d been buying from the Morrows.

“Speaking of the Morrows,” Oliver had said, “As you know, the majority, especially in the higher echelons, were captured alive.”

Kiernan had smiled with soulless joviality. “Yes, we’ve heard about your little ‘trials’ and the coin you’ve been throwing around in the name of restitution. Perhaps not what I would have done, but an interesting choice that has certainly yielded results for your reputation.”

“Well, we are in the process of extracting everything of value from them, from assets to…knowledge. I do not believe in waste.” Oliver had been satisfied to see the understanding in Kiernan’s eyes, and even more satisfied to see the tension that understanding caused. Oliver knew about the Architects of Khronos, as well as their treasonous activities and preparations. If they made an enemy him, there would be consequences.

“When I finish with them,” Oliver continued, “I will pass those who have signed nonaggression vows along to the coppers, but I would like to assure you that their tongues will be sealed from particular topics that might affect our interests. Similar to one Tanya Canelo.”

This time, Kiernan didn’t flinch at the proof of Oliver’s knowledge, but he took a few moments too long to respond, and Oliver’s peripheral vision caught a couple of Kiernan’s underlings sharing a look behind his back.

Kiernan cleared his throat. “I very much appreciate the…honor of a man who does not kill his enemies, and instead uses them. However, I would be much more comfortable if my people could assist in the sealing process. I’m sure you understand how much a man like me values his peace of mind.” He boomed out a sharp, jolly laugh. “Why, at my age, lost sleep leads to a man growing haggard and frail!”

Oliver agreed that they could help, if they wished, but Kiernan had more to say. “What of those who do not vow their harmlessness?” he asked. “I assume some of those in higher positions retain either loyalty or pride, despite your best efforts. And surely some you cannot trust, no matter what they vow?”

“Yes. And while I respect such willpower, they may not retain loyalty and pride in addition to their lives,” Oliver replied simply.

Kiernan coughed, bringing a fist to his mouth. “Hmm. Perhaps we could assist with those. Do not be too hasty to throw away their lives before all avenues have been explored. I assure you, we have means that the average torturer cannot match.”

Oliver agreed to that as well, feeling that he was beginning to grasp the edges of their goals.

And so, after more planning and promises, the group from the Architects of Khronos had left his office, and Oliver dug into the work they had left for him, as unavoidable and unpleasant as a huge shit left in the middle of his bed.

He had told Kiernan, after the man continued to pry for information, that he planned to move the prisoners on the twenty-fifth of the month. He would be putting out false rumors of a plan to move them on the twentieth—bait to suss out any possible dissenters or enemies. But really, neither plan was legitimate. If things went well, he hoped to move the prisoners on the twelfth, well before the Architects of Khronos would be prepared to intervene.

It was his last test to see if their desire to cooperate was sincere.

And of course, almost immediately after returning to the University on Sunday afternoon, Grandmaster Kiernan had left again to meet with someone else. Oliver knew this—though not much more—because of his operatives within the University.

Oliver swirled the juice in his glass with a wry smile, taking an awkward sip through the piece of hollow rye grass the bartender had inserted when he saw Oliver’s mask. Perhaps “operatives” was too extreme a word. But he was slowly building a network of informants, made up mostly of student aides and upper-term students from common backgrounds. He was gathering promising young people in administrative or assistant positions that orbited the people he was really interested in, who needed sponsors to be able to continue their schooling.

Siobhan had been a wonderful lesson in the possible benefits of such an arrangement, though none of the handful of people in this budding network had brought him anywhere near the same level of advantages or trouble that she did.

Oliver covered the cost of the minimum four classes for them, and would provide bonuses if they sent him any particularly juicy information. He was circumspect with his recruitment, but confident in the potential of such a network. It was obvious from how the faculty treated young Miss Canelo that they did not respect people like her, and due to that lack of respect would fail to be properly wary. People with power often dismissed the presence of “the help.”

And so, the scattered reports he’d gotten from his handful of informants had led him to the Bitter Phoenix, with the cloying smoke in the air now filtered by the featureless mask of Lord Stag, and two of his most battle-capable enforcers sitting at a nearby table and watching for danger.

Before Oliver had finished the drink with a careful balancing act—prying only the bottom half of his mask away from his face while he sucked the liquid up through the grass tube—the doorman to the back room gave the bartender a nod.

Oliver moved through into the large room beyond the tavern, his bodyguards following closely behind. The room was filled with even more smoke, and the people displayed a strange mix of unnatural conditions. Some were languid and mellow, some strangely joyful, but most were filled with the frenzied focus that signaled quintessence of quicksilver. Oliver wondered how much of the information broker’s knowledge came from extrapolating particulars about his own clients. Perhaps some of these people were not addicts—or not just addicts—but working for the well-informed man.

And perhaps some of them would go to the rehabilitation center that Oliver had built from Lord Morrow’s former mansion in the city center, and get help. Oliver made a note to tell his one and only journalist, young Mr. Irving, to do an article about it. He couldn’t force anyone to admit themselves, but he could make sure they knew about the opportunity to take back control of their lives.

He passed through into the smokeless hallway beyond, and then into the information broker’s room, where a secretary used a device to scan Oliver for weapons, then waved him onward to where his enforcers could not follow.

The information broker’s bald head shone like a crystal ball in the light of the lamp on his desk. He looked up with a smile from a desk even more cluttered than Oliver’s, taking off his thick spectacles. “Always good to see one of my favorite customers. I received your payment in advance. Eager, are we?”

“I think you can understand my concern.”

“Oh, well, indeed. You came to me for knowledge, and as ever, I can deliver. Though I cannot say for sure what the goal is, your suspicions of movement were correct. Someone who very much wishes to remain hidden has put out offers to some powerful mercenaries in the last few days. If you suspect them to be your enemies, now is the time to prepare.”

Author Note 10/27/22:

I’ve updated the website, which may require you guys to log in again to see the locked/advance chapters, just a heads up. If you find that you’re having issues with that, see the link below. If you have other issues with the website, let me know. I’m still in the process of getting everything settled and all the new content rolled out, but there may be various lingering errors otherwise that I can do something about.

(There won’t be any weekly notification email about this chapter today, because the SPF and DKIM records are still updating with my new hosting service.)

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Chapter 123 – An Honorable Burial

Sebastien

Month 3, Day 2, Tuesday 6:45 a.m.

 

Sebastien woke groggily early on Tuesday morning, the lingering acid of anxiety making it impossible to sleep more than fitfully. She sat up in her bed for a few moments, staring out the window. The shards of the Conduit she’d broken the night before sat in a small pouch in her bedside drawer. She took it out, shaking them into her palm. They glittered with a kind of inner luminescences, light scattering off the sharp edges and new facets.

She clenched her fist around them until they dug into her skin, just on the edge of slicing into her. With a sigh, she unclenched her fist. Injuring herself—drawing blood—would be foolish and do nothing to change the situation for the better.

Shaking the shards back into the pouch, she stood and got dressed, walking through the crisp gloom toward the eastern edge of the white cliffs. Once there, she looked out over Gilbratha and the Charybdis Gulf. Fog stretched over the land below like a blanket, heavy and thick.

When her mother’s ring had shattered, she had almost lost control of the spell and suffered backlash. If not for her paranoid preparations with the holster and its backup Conduit, she would have.

She had been horrified by its failure, thinking that she’d carelessly destroyed this last remnant of her mother. But subsequent examination had revealed something she never would have suspected. Like the ring she had put into Malcolm Gervin’s vault, the one she had stolen was a forgery.

It was well-done, to be sure, even better than her own. But the celerium had been replaced by a thaumaturge-created diamond—one with a fault that made it unusable as a Conduit. The diamond had fallen apart along clear-cut lines, as if someone had purposefully created it to shatter as soon as any attempt was made to channel magic. When she knew what to look for, she found proof. The celerium of the real ring had contained a small blemish, while the diamond did not.

Did Malcom Gervin have the foresight to keep a fake in his vault?’ Perhaps they were antagonizing someone much more dangerous than even Ana assumed. Sebastien might be able to tell for sure, when they completed the second stage of Operation Defenestration that weekend, but the possibility made her nervous.

At first, having just stabilized the spell and staring down at the broken ring, her thoughts had whirled like debris in a hurricane, the shock quickly giving way to panic. But then she’d had a single thought that calmed them all.

Celerium is worth a lot. Perhaps it was for more than sentiment and vanity that Ennis insisted he would wear the ring, and not me. Me, who was the thaumaturge, and rightful owner of the Naught family’s heirloom.’ She suspected that Ennis had sold the real ring, or at least the celerium within its silver setting, some time ago. He would have known how absolutely enraged this would leave her, so it made sense that he would have hidden the truth.

When she had realized this, she actually cried a little bit at the loss of this last link to her mother. Despite how much she denied it, how foolish she knew it was to care, there had been some lingering affection for her father, too. He had made life difficult, but he’d also given her sporadic affection that occasionally shone genuine, and kept her fed. He had taken her to healers when she needed it, and never hit her. He had been a precarious anchor when things were at their worst and she lost everything else. Now, though, the thought of him only filled her with rage. She screamed out over the silent city below until her voice cracked, and then descended into a violent coughing fit.

When she finally regained her breath, streams of tears cutting down her cheeks, she snarled out at the squat building of Harrow Hill Penitentiary, barely visible toward the west edge of the city. “May you receive exactly what you deserve, Ennis No-Name,” she growled, her voice hoarse. “Once of my blood, but no more. I commend your blood and body to the earth, and your soul to the Plane of Darkness.”

Sebastien stood there panting, and after a moment, felt rather foolish for the dramatics. At least no one had been around to see her. The horizon was quite bright already, and feeling in no mood to watch a cleansing sunrise, she turned back.

As she was trudging back to the dorms to pick up her things, feeling sorry for herself, she noticed Tanya’s familiar form standing to the side of the cobblestone path near the door, looking down at something.

As Sebastien drew nearer, she realized the other woman was looking at a carcass. It was a raven, its neck broken and one side of its head bashed in. It was still too cold for ants or flies to be active, so the carcass was relatively unmolested otherwise.

Tanya’s face was pale, verging on green, her lips chapped and cracked, and she wasn’t blinking or moving as she stared down at the dead bird.

Sebastien slowed to a stop beside her. “Someone was playing with a slingshot and using this poor guy as target practice, it looks like,” she murmured.

Tanya jumped, as if she hadn’t noticed Sebastien’s approach, but then relaxed when she saw who it was. “It’s a girl,” she said. She swallowed. “A female raven.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. She’s a little smaller than the males, and her throat feathers are shorter and neater.”

Sebastien examined the creature dubiously. “They all look the same to me.”

“It’s a female. I know it. Of course it would be a female. Just lying here, dead and waiting for me to stumble upon as soon as I left the building. It’s still warm, you know?”

Sebastien realized suddenly why Tanya was so petrified. ‘She thinks this is some kind of message from the Raven Queen—maybe in response to that disastrous meeting with Kiernan and Munchworth’s faction. She’s terrified of retaliation.’ There was little Sebastien could do to reassure Tanya, especially without incriminating herself for having too much information. She tentatively patted Tanya’s shoulder. “Why don’t we bury it,” she suggested, “and then go to the library and get some studying done? If you want, we can steal some of Damien’s coffee, too. I know where he keeps it.”

“Yes, a respectful, honorable burial,” Tanya muttered, nodding to herself. “Right away, let’s do that right away.”

While Tanya rushed to go get a “burial shroud,” Sebastien used a stick to dig a hole at the base of one of the many trees, which was somewhat difficult with the ground as cold and hard as it was.

Tanya returned with full pockets and a large silk handkerchief, fine enough to be worth a good handful of silver, which she wrapped the dead raven in. They buried it under the tree, and then Tanya pulled out incense, a few pieces of quartz, a polished silver coin, and a few vials of herbal oils from her pockets. She pressed the quartz and silver into the dirt, muttering something that could have been a chant for esoteric magic, or a prayer. After sprinkling the herbal oils around the whole area, she lit the incense stick, which she pushed into the soil so that it would stay upright as it burned down. “May I be forgiven in my ignorance,” she murmured fervently, clenching her eyes shut. “And may the soul of this creature find peace.”

Finally, Tanya let out a deep sigh of relief and turned to Sebastien, who had watched most of this process in tolerant bemusement. “Thank you. This was a great idea. Man, you’re really useful, huh?” she added with a sharp chuckle.

Sebastien grimaced. The bell rang the hour, and students began to make their way from the dorms to the cafeteria.

Tanya rose, giving Sebastien a hesitant look. “Do you…want to eat together?”

“Go ahead without me,” Sebastien said. “I need to get some things from the dorm first.” She lingered, making sure that Tanya was going to the cafeteria, then hurried back to the dorms. She put on a pair of gloves, then stole a pen left on the desk of a random dorm mate. Thus protected, she wrote a quick note, hesitated before signing it, and eventually just drew a little doodle down at the bottom. Then she found Tanya’s upper floor cubicle—now that Tanya was no longer a student liaison with a room of her own. It was bigger than the first term dorm cubicles, with a nicer bed and more furniture, but still only guarded by a curtain. She placed the note atop Tanya’s pillow.

No one saw Sebastien enter or exit, but as she was walking to the cafeteria, Tanya came hurrying up the path in the opposite direction, her face tense and her eyes wary and darting. She definitely wouldn’t have had time to finish eating already, which meant that something had happened.

“What’s wrong?” Sebastien asked, turning to follow when Tanya didn’t stop for her.

“Someone broke the ward line around my bed,” Tanya said.

Sebastien went cold. ‘Of course she would have a ward placed.’ Sebastien herself had one, after all. “Do you know who it was?” she asked.

“Hopefully just one of my snooping dorm mates. Hopefully…” Tanya repeated, walking even faster.

Sebastien followed her into the building and up the stairs, keeping a couple meters back as Tanya ripped open the curtain of her cubicle with wild eyes. She froze, then stepped toward her bed trepidatiously.

Sebastien moved closer so that she could watch Tanya’s face. She knew what was written within, after all. What Tanya did next would hint at her true loyalties.

Tanya stared at the note for a few long moments, then placed it on the ground and activated the spark-shooting spell array Sebastien had drawn around the message, watching as the note burned to ash, taking any evidence.

“What was that?” Sebastien asked.

Tanya lifted her head toward the ceiling, took a huge breath, and exhaled long enough that it seemed like she might collapse in on herself like an emptied rubber balloon. “It was a reprieve,” she replied cryptically, her voice soft and mellifluous. Then, with an awkward smile, perhaps realizing how strange this would seem to an outside, she continued. “Nothing bad or dangerous. It was…a nice note. I burned it because some people might not like it that I’m not being completely ostracized, after what happened with Newton.”

Sebastien didn’t inquire further, though Tanya’s explanation was sloppy at best. She had left the note, despite the danger, because Tanya had been so incredibly anxious and exhausted, wound taut like a string about to snap. It had contained a simple message. “I do not blame you, but for your own safety, I advise you find other wings to shelter under.

Sebastien remembered what had happened to Newton when he was that stressed. This simple act might mitigate a similar future for the other woman. She wanted to be proactive enough to stop having such huge regrets. As an additional bonus, this was proof that Tanya was not completely loyal to Munchworth, or to Kiernan’s faction, as she had immediately used the spark-shooting array for its implied function.

As they walked back to the cafeteria together, Tanya seemed to be thinking deeply. “Other wings…” she murmured. Suddenly, her eyes lit up, and she turned to Sebastien. “What are your plans for the future, Sebastien?” she asked suddenly.

Sebastien blinked. “Um, I’m going to become a free-caster.”

Tanya nodded. “And what will you do then? Work for one of the Crown Families? Do research? Get a position at the University?”

“I’ll…” Sebastien suddenly realized that she had no concrete goals for a profession. She perhaps normally wouldn’t have said it, but her feeling about the ring, and Ennis, were still simmering in the back of her mind, making her reckless and truthful. “I will be powerful. And with that power, I will seize control of all that dares threaten me. I will bend this world to my Will and strip away all its secrets.” As soon as she said it, she regretted it.

To Sebastien’s surprise, Tanya laughed aloud, throwing her head back and looking at Sebastien with sparkling eyes. “Somehow…I’m not surprised. Such a goal suits you.”

Sebastien shifted the strap of her bag on her shoulder, looking away. ‘Maybe I would enjoy a job as a researcher, as long as I got to pick the direction.

“Perhaps you will need allies to achieve such a future,” Tanya said, her tone weighty. She gave Sebastien a small, innocuous smile that belied the meaning of her words. “I would be useful. I may have hit rough waters at the moment, but I am resourceful, and one might find that I have surprisingly few qualms. This all assumes, of course, that you are just as vehement in protecting your allies and subordinates as you are yourself.”

Sebastien stared at her for a long moment. “Are you looking to secure a job, post-graduation?” she asked, offering the most mundane interpretation she could think of.

“A job? Perhaps. If my employer were powerful enough. You do seem to have a lot of connections.”

There was no way that could be misconstrued. Tanya was trying to make herself useful to Sebastien in exchange for some sort of favor. She ran her tongue over the back of her teeth, considering, and then said slowly. “What do you need, and what can you offer me?”

Tanya quickly hid her smile, shrugging. “I’m not offering anything specific. If you need something that other people can’t help with, or that you would rather be kept discreet, as I said, I’m resourceful. As for what I need… You have an aura around you, Sebastien. It draws attention. I just want to stay close enough that I’m illuminated by that light, so that I can’t be dismissed as insignificant or disposable.”

Sebastien narrowed her eyes, trying to parse Tanya’s meaning. While it could have been simple social maneuvering, trying to get closer to the Crown Family members that Sebastien found herself spending time with, Sebastien thought Tanya really meant that she wanted to give Kiernan and Munchworth a reason to hesitate before sending her on any more suicide missions, or simply killing her off as insurance.

But Sebastien wasn’t sure that she trusted Tanya, and she definitely didn’t want to get this identity further embroiled in the whole intrigue surrounding the Raven Queen. It would have been easier if Tanya made this offer to someone like Oliver, who could actually use her. “I’ll think about it, but I don’t really need anything, and I think you’ve overestimated my influence.”

“Do think about it,” Tanya agreed, unperturbed.

Sebastien tried to figure out if Tanya had any suspicions about her real identity, but didn’t think that was the case. She suddenly realized that the whole thing might have been caused by the message she’d left. ‘Did Tanya think that her proximity to me at the time of receiving the message was some sort of sign? It’s obvious from the whole thing with the raven burial that she’s superstitious. Well, I can’t see the harm in it, as long as I don’t encourage her. Myrddin knows, I don’t need another Damien. Can’t I just have a single week where nothing goes wrong?’ The thought registered in Sebastien’s mind with an ominous echo, and she stopped in her tracks. “Go on without me,” she said to Tanya. “I just realized I forgot something in the dorms. My—my scarf.”

Before the other woman could reply, Sebastien spun back around and hurried off. ‘I’m not paranoid,’ she thought. ‘Well, maybe I am. But that kind of irony-tempting thought is often a sign that something horrible is about to happen. Just in case, just in case…’ She scurried into her empty dorm room and rushed through the steps to uncover the sealed vial with the string of an Aberrant within.

She held it up to the light and peered at it intently, turning the vial around to look at the wire-like, blood and bone colored string from every angle. Finally, she let out a sigh of relief. It had not changed. Tentatively, she let out a deep hum, just to make sure. It didn’t react.

Chuckling ruefully at herself, she put it away again. But she still made a quick check of all her other preparations and supplies, and did a mental review of all her pre-planned escape routes and responses to various disastrous scenarios. ‘As Master Heller said so famously, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” After all, a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that are real and immediate is the process of a rational mind.

This is the 2nd of 2 make-up chapters. Next is the regularly-scheduled Thursday chapter.

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Chapter 122 – Practical Transmogrification

Sebastien

Month 3, Day 1, Monday 2:15 p.m.

Professor Lacer glared out over his classroom. “While you may feel compelled to distraction, you all would do well to give me, and this class, your full attention. Anyone who fails to do so will face…consequences.” Some of the students had failed to immediately quiet when he entered the room, drawing his ire, but none were foolish enough to question what exactly he meant by “consequences.”

Sebastien was grateful for the temporary cessation of stares and whispers, at least for the ninety minutes this class period would occupy.

“We are moving on to the final exercise of the term,” Professor Lacer announced, “but we will start with one last opportunity for you to display your progress on the previous exercise. For those of you who are failing this class, you had better pray that you improved over the weekend. Begin casting your illusion spells. I will walk among you and take note.”

Sebastien hurriedly chalked out the glyphs of her minimalist spell array on her desk. Many of the other students placed a reference component to display an image of, whether they had gone for the easiest, two-dimensional illusion, or the more difficult three-dimensional replica. Sebastien did not, the only reference coming from her mind.

Closing her eyes, she took a few calming breaths and began to bring her Will to bear as she reviewed the spell processes, taking light from the Sacrifice Circle and molding it to her Will within the inner Circle. She focused on the illusion she wanted to create, trying to solidify each detail with extreme clarity, until the image in her mind was as solid as reality.

She opened her eyes and cast the spell, her Will like a vice, squeezing every drop of power and control out of the Sacrifice Circle, which was suddenly nothing more than a black dome of nothingness. If her brain had been a muscle, it would have been trembling from the strain of the load it carried, just on the edge of her capabilities.

In the main Circle, a small fish appeared in the air, shiny-scaled sleek. She had spent quite some time practicing this spell in the Menagerie, crouched next to one of the guld fish ponds until she had memorized their small flitting forms. She moved her head a little to see the fish from different angles, ensuring that it looked correct from all sides. The fish flickered and dimmed a little as even that little bit of movement interfered with her concentration.

She sat back, holding the illusion until the strain settled a bit and her mental grip firmed up. Then, slowly, she guided the fish to move, swimming in slow motion through the air. She had sunk so deep into concentration that she didn’t even realize when Professor Lacer stopped by her side.

“You lack a setting or backdrop to ground the illusory creature in reality,” he murmured, his voice soft.

The fish flickered and dimmed again, and she scowled, sweat beading at her temples and her breath growing labored as she brought the illusion back into clarity.

“Your shadows are imperfect, too flat, and the reflection off the scales is contrived. But the translucency of the fins is a nice touch, and the image does approach realism. I have seen enough.”

With a shudder, she dropped the spell, releasing the fist that was clenched around her borrowed Conduit and looking up at him.

He gave her the barest hint of a smile. “A remarkable improvement from your first attempts, and impressive work from a first term student. A feat worthy of my apprentice.”

She felt like a miniature sun had bloomed within her chest, warming her as it seared away all her fatigue and frustration, and there was no way to hold back the huge smile she gave in return.

“As promised, for the passable three-dimensional image from imagination, I am awarding you five contribution points. For the addition of movement, another ten. See me after class.” Before she could respond, he had moved on.

From the desk beside her, Damien scowled at his own illusion, which was struggling to remain three-dimensional and solid-seeming, but still earned him two contribution points. When Professor Lacer passed, Damien grimaced, tossing Sebastien a reluctant thumbs-up.

Ana hadn’t even tried for the more difficult versions of the exercise, but her three-dimensional copy of a reference pine cone was without fault, and still received a nod from Professor Lacer.

When he had traversed the whole classroom, Professor Lacer returned to the front, where his pen had independently scribbled all the necessary notes, and leaned against his desk. “This final exercise is the one students generally have the most trouble with. As one can anticipate the upcoming distraction of the end of term exams and exhibitions, I advise you all to put in the time and effort for this one as early as possible. We have previously dipped into transmutation, as well as the places where transmutation and transmogrification can meet and meld. Today and through the end of term, this class will be focusing solely on familiarizing all of you with practical transmogrification.”

He turned to pull a box from one of his desk drawers, from which a motion of his hand drew a floating black wax stick. He guided it to draw a thick Circle on the stone floor with a couple component Circles attached, but as always, no written Word of any type. He placed a beast core in one of the component Circles and a jar of bright blue butterfly wings in another. “When you think of transmogrification, and especially free-cast transmogrification spells, awe-inspiring and dramatic visual effects might come to mind.” A miniature snowstorm came to life within the Circle, the clouds writhing with ever-changing faces contorted with anger and fear. With a gust of wind, the snow blew out of the Circle and dusted the first few rows of students, including Sebastien.

She stared at one of the snow drops as it melted against the skin of her forearm, the melting ice creating a screaming face that stared back up at her pleadingly.

Professor Lacer dropped the snowstorm spell and replaced the jar of butterfly wings with a bright purple plum, its skin shiny and inviting, with a bright green leaf still attached to the stem. “You think of the amazing things thaumaturges are able to do with magical components, or components imbued with the energy of one of the Elemental Planes.” A ribbon of golden light grew out of the plum, singing with a voice that was part choral and part string instrument, but all enchantment.

For a few moments, Sebastien wanted nothing more than to consume that sound and the plum that had borne it. She had enough sense and self-control to restrain herself even under the effects of the music, but some of the other students actually stood from their desks and moved forward before Professor Lacer dropped the spell.

He scowled at them, and shamefaced, they hurried to return to their seats. He returned the plum to the box, pulling out a large conch seashell in the light pink and deep orange of a sunset. “But magical components can become a crutch, a bad habit like inefficiency in your casting or relying only on fire and beast cores as power sources. For a powerful, properly educated, and mentally nimble thaumaturge, even mundane components can give you access to a variety of magical effects.”

He waved nonchalantly toward the blackboard, where a piece of chalk rose up and drew out a pentagon. “You may have heard it said that ideas, or concepts, are like drops of dew on a spiderweb. Triggering one can lead to vibrations that trigger one or a dozen others in a way that can seem random, but is in fact based on the complex logic of associations.”

Sebastien had seen a lot of simple transmogrification spells in Pecanty’s Sympathetic Science class, as he demonstrated things associated with whatever poem or play they were studying that day, and performed a few herself for Modern Magics, such as the color-changing, locking, and most recently the sharpness spell, which took the sharpness of a component to give a temporary edge to a dull knife. But she was excited to delve deeper, despite her general consternation and confusion with the subject as taught by Pecanty. Transmogrification could do things that transmutation couldn’t yet, and with enough skill it was the craft that could further develope things like the dreamless sleep and sleep-proxy spells, or the kind of feats Myrddin had been capable of.

“First order associations are the most obvious, and often the easiest to use in transmogrification. Let us explore the options that this mundane seashell can grant, to the right mind and the right Will.” Professor Lacer held up the conch for them to see, then placed it in the component Circle, then tossed a length of white cloth into the center Circle. “I could use transmogrification to take the exact gradient of color from the shell, for example, and apply it to a beautiful ballgown.”

The cloth immediately showed a beautiful wash of sunset pink to orange, and Professor Lacer picked it up to display it to the class. He set it aside, pulling out a large jar of dirt and setting that in the center instead. “Or, we could use the shell, which is created from almost pure calcium carbonate excretions, to adjust the properties of this dirt. As both of these spells use duplicative transmogrification to copy the physical properties—a feat that could be performed with transmutation as well—these effects do not necessarily wear off as soon as the caster loses focus.” He picked up the jar of dirt, which was now a pale white color. “And so, this calcium carbonate can be used in soaps, or burned and mixed with other substances to create cement.”

He turned to the board behind him. Inside the pentagon was written, “Conch shell,” and each of the five corners grew an attached note of simple spell effects that could be drawn from it.

“Duplicative transmogrifications aren’t the only first order effects. If this were a nautilus shell, with the ever-expanding spiral, the reference to the Fibonacci sequence can be useful in complex divinations dealing in certain kinds of prediction. If the crab, snail, or mollusk that lived in a shell is still alive and recently removed, one might use the shell in a divination to find the creature. The shell might even be useful as a simple representation of the sea itself, in combination with other components.”

He put the length of colored cloth back into the Circle. “Second order associations are slightly more conceptual, less concrete. The shell could be used to give a beautiful ball gown an enchantment that makes its skirt undulate like the waves of the sea on the beach.” The cloth rippled suggestively, but fell still as Professor Lacer dropped the spell and removed it again. “Without anchoring this enchantment to the cloth with embroidered spell arrays, the effect will not last without my Will, as this spell changes no physical property, only imbues the target with a concept. That concept has not been intrinsically bound to the cloth through a ritual to change the cloth’s magical nature, simply temporarily attached through an actively cast spell.”

The jar of calcium carbonate made a reappearance, this time poured out into the Circle. “The conch shell is used as a trumpet, and if you hold it against your ear, folk tales say you can hear the rush of the sea from which it was born, making it a passable component for spells to send or even store messages. Other second order associations would be a shield, armor, or shelter. A home.” The particulate matter flowed and rose up, first into a dome shape that vaguely resembled the conch shell, where it settled for a moment. “Here, we have an emergency shelter that is closely associated with the source component,” Professor Lacer said. The material of the white dome flowed again, gaining four walls, a domed roof with a chimney stack, and a door. The material settled, turing vaguely pearlescent, like the inside of a shell. “And one less closely associated, but still a shelter. Now, you could do something similar with transmutation alone, if you have the knowledge and the power, but it would be more difficult to maintain both structural stability and such thinness of the walls, which allow a caster to create a larger structure with less power. This use of transmogrification is superior in other hypothetical situations as well. Consider that you do not have an abundance of building material, or that environmental forces require quick work.”

Sebastien had seen a similar spell cast by an upper term student earlier that year, but using a model house as a component to mold snow instead. That had been interesting, but this was even more captivating.

The house rippled and flowed into a small canoe-like shape, and Professor Lacer continued. “Using transmutation to solidify particulate matter in the middle of the open ocean would be much more difficult, as the water seeks to turn your dirt to mud and wash it away. Transmogrification allows you to increase the speed of casting, and using the shell as a template, negates the need to concentrate on and mold a molecular structure that is impervious to water.” The boat fell apart, shrinking back into a pile of white dust that rose up and returned to the jar on its own.

Professor Lacer turned to the blackboard once more, and lines extended from the pentagon, creating a second layer of spell effects. The web was beginning to take shape. “Now, for third order associations. These are even more conceptually vague, less anchored to the reality of the shell and more to the ideas of the shell.”

His voice grew softer, more sibilant, as if caressing the words as they passed through his lips. “The creation of a shell is a cumulative effort of small steps that build into something greater over time. In this way, the shell is useful to stabilize magical projects that cannot be completed all at once, but require a strong foundation that future advancements will rest upon.

“The shell is protection to its inhabitant, but also a burden that they must carry with them always, weighing them down. It has been used in spells that allow a protector or benefactor to share a curse—and thus weaken it—with those under their care, as those people take on a burden in order to continue to receive the accompanying benefits.

“The shell is a barrier for a vulnerable creature. Ground down, they are used in talismans to protect babies and toddlers against harm. Some mind-healers suggest they might be useful in spells to soothe those who are overly receptive to stimuli. And finally, as they hold the supposed echo of the sea, they can be used in divination, to grasp an echo of things that once were, or even the echo of things to come.”

Sebastien shuddered as goosebumps traveled down her back and arms at the sound of those words in Professor Lacer’s voice. He understood the all-encompassing allure of powerful magic, and there was a hunger in his voice that reverberated against an answering ravenousness deep inside her. One day, she would grasp all this knowledge, this power, and more.

Professor Lacer’s gaze drew inward with concentration, and as he swept his arm in a wide motion toward all of them, she thought she caught a slight twitch of brightness from the Circle and beast core.

The shell disintegrated, but even as she was frowning, trying to figure out what had just happened, she realized that it would be better to do so from outside.

Damien reached over and grasped her arm. “It’s not safe. We need to leave,” he said urgently.

“Class is over already?” Ana murmured, picking up her bag and moving to pack away her note taking materials.

Some students were already on their way out the door, without even bothering to take their belongings.

Sebastien frowned harder, looking around in confusion. She definitely needed to leave, but…why? She looked to Professor Lacer, instinctively believing she might find an answer on his face, and found him in a deep scowl of concentration, strain clear in the tight muscles of his jaw and flared nostrils. He was casting something.

Something to protect us?’ she wondered. Instinctively, she knew that was not true. As more students left the room, and Damien tugged impatiently on her arm again, she understood. ‘No. Something to make us leave.

As soon as she understood that, she brought her Will to bear as if casting a counterspell, mentally circulating the ephemeral force through her body and mind, grasping her thoughts and emotions and shining the light of scrutiny on them. “Sit back down,” she ordered Damien and Ana. Her voice was hard and commanding, brooking no argument, just as her Will did not allow the reality of the world to argue against its commands.

Both of them hesitated, though Damien half-lowered as if to obey her, before screwing his face up with confusion.

“We don’t need to leave,” Sebastien continued. “Professor Lacer is casting some kind of compulsion spell using the seashell.” She met both of their eyes. “It would be very embarrassing to be so weak-Willed that we left the room, don’t you think?”

Both of them sat back down, and Ana stubbornly unpacked her things again, clenching her jaw and glaring at each item as if it had personally offended her.

They weren’t the only ones to resist the compulsion, and Sebastien noted that Nunchkin barely seemed inconvenienced, leaning back comfortably with his arms crossed over his chest.

Finally, when about half the students had made their way into the hallway, where they seemed to be milling about in confusion, Professor Lacer dropped the spell. “An empty shell is an abandoned home,” he pronounced loudly and sharply, so that all the students could hear him. “And can be used in both a hex and curse meant to remove people from their abode. The hex temporarily, and the curse permanently, and often maliciously.”

As the students filed back in and retook their places sheepishly under Professor Lacer’s judgmental stare, he continued. “A shell such as this can even be used as one component in a more nefarious curse. Just as the flesh of the inhabitant has left the shell, so might one force the soul to leave the body, and in so doing create a mysterious death.”

Damien leaned toward Sebastien, covering his mouth to whisper. “I read about that! Aberford Thorndyke solves a mysterious murder by a lighthouse captain who was doing blood magic!”

Sebastien’s thoughts caught on the reference to blood magic. ‘Don’t compulsion spells fall under that category? Professor Lacer just removed the free will of a classroom full of sapient beings.

She wasn’t the only one to make that connection, apparently, as a girl on the other side of the room raised her hand and asked that exact question, her tone prim and more than a little disapproving.

“There are exceptions to every rule,” Professor Lacer said. “Some of the more mild spells that may technically fall under the broad categories that encompass blood magic remain legal due to their harmlessness or utility. Additionally, members of certain professions may receive licenses to cast particular spells or groups of spells, just as you would procure a license to allow you to carry a battle artifact outside the army or employment by the coppers. This particular spell is often used to evacuate buildings on short notice, in case of fire or other danger. It is mild, has no lingering effects, and is non-traumatic. I assure you, I am licensed to cast it.” He gave the girl a cutting look, slightly irritated, slightly contemptuous, and she shrank a little in her seat. Sebastien didn’t really need more evidence that Professor Lacer had once been part of the Red Guard, not after the way he had interacted with them in front of her, but she imagined that it could be a useful spell for evacuating people during rogue magic events, too. Just the kind of thing they would have a reason to use.

He turned back to the blackboard, adding a third and final rung to the pentagonal web. “Fourth order associations are dangerous, even for me, and beyond the purview of this class. Now, for the exercise you will be performing,” Professor Lacer said, dismissing the interjection. “Unlike previous exercises this term, where each of you may have cast slight variations on the spells or attempted advanced versions, each student will be casting their own unique spell for this exercise. But all of you will be using the same component. One fallen autumn leaf. I have a collection in the box on my desk, but you may also feel free to procure your own, as long as the leaf is mundane, with no inherent magical properties. First, you will take fifteen minutes to brainstorm a list of every transmogrification-based spell you could cast using an autumn leaf as the sole component, ranked by closeness of association. These lists will be turned in to me for grading. After this, you will choose one spell from an assortment of prepared spell arrays, which I have confirmed are all safe to cast from.” Professor Lacer returned to his desk, where he pulled out a stack of papers, each with a spell array and instructions. “Begin.”

Sebastien hurried to label a paper with three columns. The first order associations were the easiest, and she scribbled out a half dozen easily. But the second and especially third order associations quickly became more difficult, and sometimes, she had trouble knowing which category a certain spell would fall under.

When she asked about this, Ana said, “I don’t believe there is a clear delineation between rungs. A lot about transmogrification isn’t clearly defined.”

“Go with your gut,” Damien agreed, too busy scribbling to look up from his paper.

By the end of the fifteen minutes, Professor Lacer had pinned up almost a hundred spell arrays to the walls at the front of the classroom, and Sebastien had written down less than three dozen possible spells, each idea coming slower than the last. Thinking to Professor Pecanty’s class, she had been able to come up with a couple extra third order associations, based on myths and stories where leaves featured prominently, but obviously she was missing a huge amount of possible correlations. She didn’t even come up with as many options as Damien and Ana. Her only consolation was that Nunchkin, too, seemed to have trouble with the assignment.

They turned in their papers and then moved on to browse the spell arrays on the wall.

Professor Lacer spoke, his voice carrying over and cutting through over the noise of their shuffle and scattered murmurings. “You will choose one exercise, which you will practice through the end of the term. Your goal will be to take the original spell array, and through practice and mastery, pare it down as far as possible, while maintaining the most robust effect possible. I would advise you all to choose a spell that falls within your capabilities, considering your skill level and how much time you will have to devote to this exercise through the end of term. Ambition is a virtue for thaumaturges, but so is self-knowledge.”

Browsing through the spell arrays while she did her best to avoid bumping into the other crowding students, Sebastien saw that many were subtle variations on others, even ideas that she’d had herself. Autumn leaves could work in spells based on the premise of connection to the cold air of coming winter, transformation and metamorphosis, and decay. Some, however, were novel and surprising, like the third-order spell that worked on the premise that leaves were like feathers as a tree was to a bird. She could tell immediately that such a spell wasn’t a good choice for her, because that concept didn’t settle easily in her thoughts, like a puzzle piece not quite finding its spot.

She knew almost immediately when she had found the exercise she would work on, taking it down from the wall to claim it for her own. It was a third order concept, and would hopefully tie in with all the other work she had been doing to prepare for the end of term exhibition. An autumn leaf had stored all the light that went into its creation through photosynthesis. With the right mindset, that light could be released again.

There was still some time remaining until the end of class, so after browsing through the spell arrays remaining on the wall to try and see where her imagination had fallen short, Sebastien grabbed a random leaf from Professor Lacer’s box, returned to her desk, and meticulously copied down the complex, detailed spell array from the paper to the carved Circle in the desks’s surface. Using her little shielded lantern as a power source—which she kept closed so that she couldn’t see the light of the flame and accidentally draw on that instead—she settled her mind and attempted to cast the spell.

The magic wasn’t exactly wild, but it was in no way docile, either, and it felt like she was trying to blow a bubble out of room temperature tar as she channeled power through the array and tried to pull at the leaf for its light. She paused, settled her thoughts and tried to improve the clarity of her Will, then tried again. By the end of class, she thought she almost had a glow from the leaf, but it was more of a flicker, and before she could be sure, the bell rang to signify the end of class.

As Professor Lacer had requested, Sebastien stopped by his desk before leaving to pick up her contribution points slip. He attended to the other students who had earned points first, then turned to her. He leaned back against his desk, his gaze evaluating her, flicking from her fingers, to her clothes, to the bags under her eyes and the tension at their corners. “Are you finding your classes a strain, with all of the recent events?”

Is that a trick question?’ she wondered. “…No?” she said. “Not any more than usual.”

“How have you been progressing with the auxiliary exercises I assigned you at the beginning of term?”

She stiffened. “I’ve been keeping up with them. I haven’t started the final one yet, but I’ve been advancing through them at the same pace we do in class.”

He nodded inscrutably. “I believe the instructions I left say that you are to develop a transmogrification spell yourself, but if you like, you can pick another spell that uses the leaf in a different way, and use that as the final auxiliary exercise. It should allow you slightly more free time.”

“Okay…?” Was she showing signs that she was having trouble keeping up with the workload?

His lips quirked up at her obvious confusion, subtle enough that some might not have noticed. “That extra time could be used taking an additional, private lesson from me. Despite your questionable decision-making capabilities and general semi-competence at life, you’ve shown an acceptable work ethic, admirable curiosity, and an adroit grasp of concepts and control of your Will.”

Sebastien reeled.

“Your other Professors have given me positive reports of your performance in their classes as well, though Master Fekten laments your ineptitude with complex footwork.” His smile grew slightly larger. “If you wish, and if you have the time and energy to handle it, I believe you may be ready for one of the preparatory exercises in spell augmentation that can be a useful foundation from which to approach free-casting.”

Sebastien blinked twice, his words exploding in her brain like a flash of lightning and leaving her momentarily speechless. She was too surprised to be happy for only a few seconds, and then elation shivered through her, so strong she actually thought her eyes might start tingling with tears. She took a deep breath, only then realizing that she’d stopped breathing for a long moment, and then released it again, flexing her fingers and squaring her shoulders as she forcibly suppressed the roiling surge of emotion. “I would be interested in that. I’m sure I can make time.”

“Spend the week practicing the transmogrification exercises. If you feel you can handle it, you may drop by my office on Sunday morning around nine.”

Sebastien’s voice broke when she tried to speak, and she had to swallow and clear her throat. “I—I’ll be there.”

“I look forward to it. That is all.” He dismissed her with a nod.

Sebastien wasn’t exactly sure how she got out of the classroom, and it wasn’t until she ran into Damien and Ana, who had been waiting for her by the Citadel doors closest to the library, that she came back to reality.

When she explained what Professor Lacer had said, Damien grew a bright cherry red, drew himself up like a rooster. “Private tutoring!? I’ve been doing the extra exercises, just like you! Why didn’t he mention anything about this to me? Is he trying to exclude me? I may not be the second coming of Myrddin, but I’m sure I can keep up with an extra spell or two to practice. I’m at least a one-in-a-hundred genius!”

Ana snorted out a laugh. “One in a hundred? That doesn’t seem very impressive…”

Damien, if possible, grew even redder, then without saying another word, he stalked off in the direction Sebastien had come from, ready to have a pointed talk with their professor.

Sebastien and Ana went on to the library, where Sebastien spent some time frantically researching photosynthesis to try to improve her facility the the transmogrification exercise.

Damien never showed up.

“He must be sulking,” Ana said wisely. “If he’d gotten his way, he’d be here and crowing about it.”

Ana seemed to feel that Damien was being foolish, but Sebastien could sympathise. If Damien were the one getting private lessons on free-casting from Thaddeus Lacer, she would be viciously jealous. Of course, she would have done whatever it took to get Damien to pass along what he learned to her, even if Professor Lacer refused to tutor her personally.

It wasn’t until the middle of the night, when her the ward she’d placed on her watch had buzzed to wake her up from her first sleep session before the nightmares could take hold, that she decided to try to cast the spell again with her mind fresh from sleep.

On a whim, she took out her mother’s ring—and Conduit—that Sebastien had hidden next to the piece of Aberrant string in the warded carve out beneath the floor. Something felt strange as she channeled the magic, the spell feeling rebelliously stiff and slow. In the dim light cast by her lamp, it was easier to see the faint shimmer of light that coalesced on the leaf as she began to have success.

And then, the clear Conduit set within her mother’s ring shattered.

Sebastien almost lost control of the spell, completely surprised and taken aback, but some instinct allowed her to transfer the pressure and energy flow to the black sapphire Conduit, still pressing against the skin of her side inside the holster that she wore at all times except to bathe.

She released the spell as quickly as possible without injuring her Will, then sat, trembling slightly as she stared down at the clear shards in her hand.

Man, I freaking love Professor Lacer’s class.

The 2nd of the 2 make-up chapters I owe from last month will come out on Monday, 9/19.

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Chapter 121 – The Daily Sun

Sebastien

Month 3, Day 1, Monday 7:25 a.m.

Sebastien arrived to breakfast a few minutes late, joining her friend group—because they were her friends, and if she was being honest and less of an asshole, she should admit that—at the table. She took out a pouch of mixed nuts and dried fruit from her pocket, sprinkling it atop the steaming slop, then looked up to see Ana watching her over the morning newspaper with an expression of concern, her mouth tight as if holding back words.

“Extra calories and some flavor. I picked this up from the market. Just because the University won’t sell us firsties proper food doesn’t mean we can’t bring it in ourselves, as long as we’re discreet.” Sebastien smiled, shaking the pouch invitingly. “I’m willing to share?”

Ana just stared at her, swallowing hard, then looked away, her eyes flicking around the room.

Sensing that something was wrong, Sebastien followed Ana’s gaze. Those with their own newspaper subscriptions were buried within the flimsy, ink-stamped pages, reading avidly. “Did something happen?”

Rhett lowered his own newspaper. “The coppers released their report into…” he paused, looking at Ana, and then to Damien, who was reading the other half of Ana’s newspaper, the part with the comics and stories instead of the serious news.

Ana cleared her throat. “Into the Aberrant incident,” she finished for Rhett. “With Newton.”

The whole table looked up at once. Sebastien’s blood ran cold.

Damien reached over and ripped the paper out of Ana’s hand, his eyes flickering over the words and widening with horror.

Sebastien wished she, too, could grab the paper for herself, but he was too far away. “What does it say?” she demanded.

Damien’s eyes stopped flicking back and forth over the words. He closed them for a few achingly drawn-out heartbeats, reached up trembling fingers to smooth back his hair, and then returned his gaze to the top of the page and began to read aloud.

Corrupted Magics Led to Rafton Street Aberrant Incident, Seven Dead

Readers may remember the rogue magic incident of six weeks prior, many being woken from their sleep to the disquieting sirens. While speculation and rumors surrounding the events of that evening on Rafton Street have abounded, the investigation report carried out by the coppers and the Red Guard has now been completed and released. You are reading it first, here in the Daily Sun.

On that foggy evening, seven people died, including one copper, two civilians, and the University student whose self-destruction caused most of the damage. Photographs of the site and victims have been restricted, but according to the investigation report and eyewitness accounts from the family whose home was broken into and destroyed, those deaths were appalling and brutal. “My husband unraveled like a spool of thread,” Molly Harper said, sobbing as she struggled to get through her interview with this reporter.

Local copper Willy Brodson, who was first on the scene and witness to his partner’s death, said, “This job is dangerous, and you know that, but you never quite expect that your next patrol will be your last. He didn’t even know what hit him. To die like that…I can only pray to the Radiant Maiden that his soul will be able to rest in peace.”

The night’s horrific events were hosted by an eclectic cast. According to the investigation report, a group of local gang members, the Morrows—who were one of the main forces involved in the fighting that caused so much destruction to the city not long prior—arrived at the Harper’s business and residence late at night, having captured three people they believed to be unexceptional. The scoundrels planned to rob and perhaps ransom or blackmail their captives. Unknown to them, one of the seemingly innocuous victims was none other than the Raven Queen herself in disguise.

Though the Raven Queen needs no introduction to the locals, this reporter will remind you that she has been involved in several violent incidents, and is wanted for treason, the practice of blood magic, and numerous other crimes. For more details, see previous Daily Sun issues, listed at the end.

The other two stars of the evening were a pair of third-term University students, both student liaisons and respected among the faculty and their peers. How this eclectic trio came to meet, this reporter does not know, and alas, those who might tell, either will not or cannot. We can speculate that perhaps the students, both being from impoverished backgrounds, hoped to gain the bounty for the Raven Queen’s capture. Or, perhaps, the Morrows captured them while they were dealing with her in some more nefarious capacity. It is even possible that the whole incident was planned to draw out and kill the Morrows.

In any case, once the hooligans had broken into the Harpers’ shop, which is on the ground floor beneath their home, fighting broke out. While the Raven Queen and her shadow companion were terrorizing the astonished Morrow members, University student Newton Moore tried to cast a dangerous spell. It was at that point that everything went horribly wrong.

As readers may know, those who cast immoral magics—and blood magic specifically—are more likely to corrupt their Wills and become Aberrants when the strain of their evil magics becomes too much. The exact nature of Moore’s attempted spell is unknown, but Elden Preem, a local expert on rogue magic events, speculates that it may have been some sort of mass mind-control spell, meant to take control of the fighters for his own benefit.

It does cause one to wonder, could mind-controlling spells or other underhanded tactics have played any roll in Moore’s admittance to the University? Master Patham, a University faculty member, assured this reporter that, “The entrance procedures are properly safeguarded against any kind of exploitation or malicious influence. Newton Moore may have become misguided out of desperation, but he entered the University legitimately, and earned his position as a student liaison the same.”

Inquiries revealed that Moore’s family lost their home in the recent gang violence, with some of his family members being injured, and in danger of eventual destitution. Friends of his say that it was around this time that he began to act differently, becoming more secretive and showing signs of mental and emotional strain. He began to fall in with a bad crowd and likely experimented with corrupting magics as an answer to his problems, not knowing what the consequences would be. It is even possible that he was out for revenge on the Morrows, who he could have held responsible for his situation.

One anonymous friend who was close to Mr. Moore before he fell to his darker impulses stated, “Newton was always a little desperate, you know? He really needed his place here. At first, that just made him a hard worker, and he seemed like a really nice guy. But after his family hit hard times, I started seeing a hint of something darker in his eyes. He started acting strange and slipping away to do secretive stuff at odd times. I distanced myself from him at that point, but I never imagined he could actually be doing blood magic or whatever. It just goes to show, you can’t trust everyone.”

Whatever the reason, Mr. Moore dragged many victims down with him. There has been some valid speculation about whether this includes his his fellow student liaison and friend, young Tanya Canelo, or if she was complicit in these events from the beginning. In either case, she no doubt regrets her involvement, as the girl who experienced the whole event was hit by a powerful curse that will affect her until her dying day. What she saw that night, she may never speak of. “It’s very tragic,” one University faculty member who declined to be named stated. “The curse is unbreakable, and the poor girl cannot even undergo counseling to soothe the burden these memories must place on her mind. So betrayed by one she thought a friend. I know she had nothing to do with Moore’s degeneracy. He probably called upon her for help that night, just like that Siverling boy, and she had no idea what she was getting into. I’m sure she would have reported him to the faculty if she knew what was going on.”

And Moore did, indeed, call upon another innocent for help—young Sebastien Siverling, first-term apprentice to Grandmaster Thaddeus Lacer and friend to a number of Crown Family youths, including the Gervin heiress and the younger Westbay. Sources say the courageous but somewhat hapless boy was contacted via artifact, arriving to find the Aberrant already in the midst of its murderous ways. Gullibly believing that Moore needed his help, Mr. Siverling entered the scene and, apparently, was forced to do battle with the Aberrant itself. Though the exact nature of his duel with the evil creature remain undisclosed, the young man, widely known as a prodigy among his classmates, managed to subdue it long enough for the Red Guard to arrive!

“It’s no surprise to me at all,” one anonymous fellow student commented. “I mean, there must have been a reason for Thaddeus Lacer, a war hero, to take him as an apprentice. Sebastien is so intense, you can just tell he’s got hidden, complex depths, like a tortured hero.”

Several students agreed that aside from his small group of friends, Mr. Siverling keeps to himself and focuses on his studies. Somewhat appropriately, considering who he is apprenticed to, he has gained a certain reputation for a sharp tongue. “I’ve never met someone so impolite and tactless. It’s almost like he’s trying to create enemies, too stupid to realize he doesn’t have the foundation to bear the consequences of his actions.”

However, other students argue with this interpretation of his personality. “Sebastien might come off gruff, but that’s just because he has really high standards. He’s actually kind of nice. I’ve seen him helping other students with their spellwork—even ones who aren’t part of his group of friends, and he’s nice to anyone who doesn’t waste his time. And—this is a kind of a secret, but [a fellow student who declined to be named] told us she saw him making a nest for some sprites when winter hit, so they wouldn’t die. We’ve all been taking turns feeding them since then. It’s a little secret pet project that Sebastien and a small group of us are in on. He doesn’t have the patience for people who are lazy or rude to others, and he doesn’t care if you’re rich or connected or not. People who don’t like him…well, they’re the people who gave him a reason to comment on their misbehavior.”

And so, it seems that Mr. Siverling has a history of pitting himself against what he considers to be injustice, even at risk to himself, and without ever asking for reward.

As Agent Vernor of the Red Guard stated about his actions that night, “Courageous is just another word for stupidity, in this case. Both the Raven Queen and an Aberrant were on-site. It’s only through luck that he managed to walk away from that night alive. But not unscathed…” Agent Vernor refused to comment further, but this reporter cannot help but speculate.

It is believed that Miss Canelo was cursed by the Raven Queen herself, and Mr. Siverling may have been subjected to a similar misfortune. Could he have been undergoing treatment for injuries, either physical or mental? The Raven Queen is known to be vindictive.

Mr. Siverling spent several days away from the University after his battle against the Aberrant. Student Bayo Oswin claims to have seen the aftermath, as Grandmaster Lacer brought Mr. Siverling back to the University for healing in the wake of his ordeal. “[Siverling] looked like a corpse. It was too dark to see if there was blood, but Professor Lacer was floating him in the air because he’d passed out from some kind of injury. Professor Lacer got him straight to the infirmary.”

University healers have refused to comment on Mr. Siverling’s admittance, citing confidentiality vows. Healer Prium announced, “That boy is a hero, and I’ll thank all you vultures to leave him alone! Bad enough what he went through. Thank him by giving him the peace he so obviously wants and deserves!”

Grandmaster Lacer and Mr. Siverling were both unavailable for comment.

The biggest mystery of the evening surrounds the presence of the Raven Queen. Why was she there? What was her purpose in cursing young children? Was she the one who drew foolish Mr. Moore into the darker aspects of the thaumaturgic arts? Despite her known vendetta against the Morrow gang and her spiteful acts against the two living University students, eyewitness reports from both the surviving Morrows and the Harpers say that the Raven Queen protected them against the Aberrant, using unknown and powerful magics. It seems even such a bold criminal can unite with others to do good when faced with such horrific evil.

The mysterious villain then slipped away before the coppers arrive through some unknown means, seen by none. This reporter doubts the veracity of the rumors, but heard from multiple sources that it is well known among the southern areas of the city, where she has been most active, that the Raven Queen can travel through the shadows, and has the ability to disappear as long as no watchful eye is upon her.

Despite the tragedy and mystery surrounding the event, the Red Guard arrived promptly and managed to secure the scene and kill the Aberrant, valiantly preventing any further deaths. After having conducted a thorough investigation, they assure the citizens that the area is safe, and that no anomalous effects linger either in the building or in the survivors. They once again caution against blood magic and other immoral undertakings, and urge all citizens who have knowledge of possible practitioners of corrupting magic to report them. If you see something, say something.

Together, we can help create a safer Gilbratha.

“What. The. Fuck.” Alec said, punctuating the silence that followed Damien’s recital of the article.

“My sentiments exactly,” Sebastien said, feeling perfectly attuned with Alec for once. Shock was quickly giving way to rage, and she could feel the tingle that signified her cheeks flushing. The things written about her were profoundly uncomfortable, but the things about Newton sent ripples of fury through her skin, the emotion seeming too large for her body to contain.

Damien laid the newspaper down, his clenched fingers wrinkling and tearing the delicate paper. “It’s a hack piece. Newton fell in with a ‘bad crowd?’ He was casting corrupted magic? Bullshit! And the stuff about Sebastien? Who are all these people given anonymous statements, acting like they know him!?”

“Newton wasn’t like that,” Alec said firmly, staring down at the table. “He was a nice person. He never got impatient with me, even when he was obviously tired and I couldn’t grasp what he was trying to teach me. He never said an unkind word about anyone, even when people were rude to him. And there’s no way he was doing blood magic, no matter how poor his family is. He wouldn’t. This writer doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Who are his supposed friends that said those things about him?”

“It’s sensationalized,” Ana said softly. “You’ve all seen this a thousand times, don’t be surprised now. They just want to sell more copies, and the whole story makes for very interesting reading. But all interesting stories need a hero and a villain.”

“I would have thought the Raven Queen would take the role of villain,” Sebastien said.

Ana shrugged. “But she helped protect civilians against the Aberrant this time, and it’s hard to make that fit. It’s possible other newspapers will have different takes on the whole thing, though. And Sebastien, if I were you I would be on the watch for a sudden influx of interest from the rest of the student body. Please don’t snap and start cursing anyone this time. They’re going to be stupid either way, and that’ll just draw even more attention toward you.”

Sebastien looked around, and as Ana had predicted, found dozens of people watching her from around the room, some already whispering gossip.

“Did the reporters even bother to ask you for a statement?” Damien demanded. “No one talked to me.”

Sebastien shook her head. “No. I didn’t even know this was happening.” In the corner of the room nearest the door, Tanya stood up, threw away her food uneaten, and hurried out, escaping the stares and whispers directed her way.

Someone spoke loudly in her wake, his voice carrying over the hushed murmuring. “I bet she was messing around with that same dangerous shit that turned the other guy into an Aberrant.”

Before anyone else could respond, Alec stood up, so abruptly that his chair skidded back and fell over. The cafeteria quieted so quickly that the clatter of the fallen chair was the only sound. “Shut up!” Alec yelled, turning to face the direction of the speaker.

Before he could continue, Ana grabbed him by the arm. “They’re like a pack of rabid dogs right now,” she hissed. “They’ll tear you to pieces if you start siding with an Aberrant.” When Alec looked as if he was going to protest, his thick bushy brows drawn down low like two bristling caterpillars, his eyes glinting with what might have been the first signs of tears, Ana hauled him physically out of the room.

Rhett watched them go, then leaned in over the table, resting his jaw on his palm. “It’s social suicide to argue that a guy—who turned into an Aberrant and killed six other people in a way so horrendous that even the Raven Queen stepped up to save people—was actually a nice, innocent person,” he drawled. “That’s why his supposed friends turned on him.”

Damien stood. “But the reporters should have some integrity, at least. This whole thing is outrageous. I’m going to write Titus about the Daily Sun’s libel.” He turned to Sebastien. “They’d never do such shoddy reporting without hard evidence about someone who could afford to sue them, don’t you think? Maybe they’ll change their tune, when they realize Newton had real friends with enough power to make them sorry. I’m going now.”

Sebastien’s lips turned down wryly at the thought that this was the first time Damien was truly acknowledging the effects of the class divide. “I’ll come with you,” she said. “But eat first. You’ll be dead on your feet by lunchtime without the calories.” She never wasted food, no matter how upset she was, and it wasn’t as if she could take the bowl of oatmeal with her to eat later. Her hands trembled as he brought the spoon to her mouth, unable to taste the oatmeal or the treats she’d added to it. She had planned to take a half-dose of the beamshell tincture, but there was no way she could add that electric energy onto the wash of anxiety and anger that was burning like acid through her body.

Damien huffed, but when he couldn’t convince her, he sat back down and shoveled his food away without even bothering to chew.

They left the cafeteria together, both wearing imposing scowls that were enough to keep the other students away, for the moment. Sebastien remained silent as Damien muttered angrily to himself about all the threats he would make to the Daily Sun, and how he wanted to make the people who’d given negative testimony about Newton sign a written apology. “If the Sun doesn’t agree, I’ll send Titus after their owner. I’m pretty sure they’re run by a lesser branch of the Rouse Family…” Damien trailed off as they spotted Professor Lacer striding briskly down one of the nearby pathways. “We should talk to him about this!”

“Do you think he could do anything?”

Damien scoffed. “He’s Thaddeus Lacer, he’s a professor here, and this involves the reputation of a good student and the University itself. I’m sure he’d be willing if both of us asked him to do something.”

They ran to catch up with Professor Lacer, and under the man’s questioning, arched eyebrow, Damien spewed out the whole situation in a single breath, somehow remaining coherent as he did so.

Professor Lacer scowled. “The reporters refrained from harassing you, I hope, Mr. Siverling? I warned them meticulously…”

That explained why Sebastien hadn’t been approached. Either the reporters had been discreet when questioning the other students, or she had simply failed to notice them.

“That’s not the point!” Damien insisted. “It’s everything else they wrote.”

“I see,” Professor Lacer drawled. “And what do you expect me to do about this?”

Damien was taken aback. “You don’t…care?”

“About the reputation of a foolish child who I never met, that endangered my provisional apprentice’s life while trying to take on the Raven Queen and doing a horrible job of it? I cannot say that I do. But that is not the point, child. Do you really believe that the University was ignorant of what would be printed? Yes, much of what you say was written is a lie, but that lie is beneficial to many parties. Think.”

“I don’t understand. What good does it do anyone to tell people that Newton was a bad person?” Damien asked, his voice strained.

Professor Lacer sighed. “Not that he was a ‘bad person.’ That he corrupted his Will through morally repulsive magics.” He turned to Sebastien, looking at her expectantly.

Frowning, she thought as quickly as she could. “It’s bad publicity for model University students to have break events. Or any connection with the Raven Queen. But they couldn’t blame it all on her because she fought against the Aberrant after Newton died…?”

“Partially,” Lacer said, seeming disappointed in her response. “The University does not want it to seem like the Raven Queen has a particular vendetta against the institution, nor that she might make it a point to endanger innocent students simply for attending. Not when she’s proven so difficult to catch, and fear and awe for her is growing so out of control. The University wishes to be considered as safe as possible, considering it’s an institution that hosts young thaumaturges, and especially because the end of term exhibitions are coming up, which is a big source of revenue.”

“So something needs to separate Newton from the rest,” Sebastien mused.

“Indeed. Otherwise, people might start getting uncomfortable. What else?”

Damien still seemed confused, but Sebastien understood. “It’s not just people worrying about the University being safe from the Raven Queen. It’s about people feeling safe from thaumaturges in general, isn’t it? Because if a nice boy like Newton could break, never having dabbled in anything corrupt, and end up horrifically murdering six other completely unsuspecting and innocent people…then no one is safe. And if no one is safe, that’s evidence that the Crown Families don’t have as much control as people think.”

Professor Lacer smiled. “Very good.”

Damien blinked, looking between them with dismay. “But what about Newton? And his family? They don’t deserve this. Even Sebastien is getting pulled in!”

“Mr. Moore’s family have surely been compensated for the dishonor. Generally, in a situation like this the Red Guard would offer them something like a replacement house and to cover all their medical expenses. And if they like, they will have been moved out of Gilbratha to a place where none of the neighbors will know what happened. Despite your outrage, there is little to be done, and if you will take some advice from me, little that you should do. As for Mr. Siverling’s involvement, I am afraid that is an unavoidable consequence that he brought upon himself. I have done what I can, but even I cannot keep people from gossiping. Now off to class with you. I am busy.” He walked away without another glance to them.

“See you in class,” Damien mumbled after Professor Lacer’s back. After a few moments, he turned to Sebastien. “So I can’t make them retract the article?”

“Maybe you can, but it won’t be the only article. And if even his family has been paid off to agree with what they’re saying…” She looked down, kneading at the muscles in the back of her neck to try and stave off a headache. “This is very disappointing, and somewhat disillusioning.”

Damien let out a scoffing laugh. “Understatement of the century.”

“That’s hyperbole. You’ve just been too gullible all your life,” Sebastien retorted without any of the usual humor that would have accompanied their bickering. “I should have actually guessed something like this would happen.”

Damien looked around to see if anyone was watching, glared harshly at those he caught looking, and then whispered, “Is there anything they can do? Our people? Newton was working for them, by proxy, I mean.”

“I doubt it,” she replied shortly. She wasn’t prepared to put everything at risk just to fight a war of public opinion. “At least Newton isn’t around to know about this.”

“That is not a silver lining, Sebastien!” Damien snapped, then spun on his heel and stomped off to class.

Sebastien followed him, her mind playing over the memory of Professor Lacer’s completely unsurprised face as Damien explained the situation. ‘They reported on what happened, but they were duplicitous about the details. What else might be false like that? How many of the newspaper reports I read about other Aberrants were partially falsified or simply misleading, too? Does the Red Guard keep real records of the break events? They must.’

She remembered Liza scoffing at the idea of blood magic corrupting the Will. ‘Is it possible…that they’ve been lying all along about what creates an Aberrant? I mean, the Will breaking and losing control of the magic is real, but what about the rest?

Next chapter is the regularly schedule Thursday chapter on 8/15.

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Chapter 120 – Carnagore

Sebastien

Month 2, Day 26, Friday 10:00 p.m.

After the disastrous meeting, she changed back into Sebastien’s body at the safe house, but Oliver insisted on her coming back with him to Dryden Manor, just in case. She hadn’t applied for nor been permitted to make a home visit from the University this weekend, but she doubted there would be any serious repercussions or suspicion for a student being gone from the dorms on a weekend night.

“Don’t worry about doing any more investigation on your own. No following Miss Canelo, or snooping around Grandmaster Kiernan’s office,” Oliver said, his tone more warning than reassuring. “You getting tangled up in some trouble is the last thing we need now.”

Sebastien felt vaguely offended. “We have that map-based divination spell that I linked to her boot. I wouldn’t need to track her directly.”

“That’s fine, as long as you don’t get caught.” Oliver’s fingers tapped the edge of the carriage seat for a moment. “Honestly, what we really need isn’t someone to spy on her. It’s for her to work for us. And the target for any espionage should be Kiernan and his more direct lackeys like Munchworth, not a second-tier lackey just running errands.”

And Oliver was right. When she got back to his house and tried the spell, the divination gave her nothing of use, showing Tanya in what was probably her dorm room, with no obvious inclination to leave. Sebastien slept uneasily, an anxious sense deep down telling her that she had gone wrong somewhere along the way, maybe some time long ago, like a tree that twisted and grew grotesquely around some restraint it could not overcome.

She woke early on Saturday, took a bit of the remaining beamshell tincture in her morning coffee, and slipped away to the Silk Door. She had more supplies for her emergency stash there, adding some disguise items—hair dye, a weak second-hand pair of glasses that wouldn’t affect her vision too much, and a couple of makeup products. She also added a small canteen of water and a sealed pouch full of dried fruit, totally hardened bread rolls, and some meats. She had learned a simple dehydration spell and created them herself. Everything except the dried fruit would probably taste quite horrible, but it was cheaper than buying proper rations. ‘I suspect this dehydration spell could be turned into a desiccation curse with some minor adjustments,’ she mused, sealing up the floor over her emergency stash once more.

Water was more important than food, and the canteen was too small to last even an entire day, but water could be gathered from the air with a relatively simple spell, while it was much harder to access calories on the run.

She had already added the same extra items to her other stash. ‘It’s a start, but two locations isn’t enough.’ She put the task from her mind for the moment, reassumed Siobhan’s form, and headed off to Liza’s, where she helped with a second round of sleep-proxy tests on more mice. The whole bottom level of Liza’s apartments were filled with the experiments, the air warm to the point of stifling despite the chill outside.

Before leaving that evening, Siobhan borrowed Liza’s diagnostic artifact, hoping it would help her to answer some of her many unanswered questions about Myrddin’s transformation amulet. When she got to the Silk Door, Siobhan used the diagnostic artifact on herself, taking care to write down all of its different, semi-incomprehensible results on a piece of paper, with extra attention given to her brain and what hormone levels the device was able to pick up.

Then, she used the amulet to transform, once again timing the process as accurately as possible. It still took less than a second, and though she’d been keeping track for a while now, the variation between transformation was minute, and seemed more to do with her inability to measure with total exactness at such small intervals than any actual variance in the amulet’s speed.

When she tested herself with the diagnostic artifact for the second time, there were some minor changes in addition to the obvious ones that took her size, mass, and sex. The results of such an old, clunky artifact weren’t as robust or refined as what the cutting-edge healers and researchers were using, but it was enough to see that there was indeed a difference in her hormones between the two forms.

The variance was actually strange in a way she hadn’t expected, however. The difference between Siobhan and Sebastien was less than the difference between the male and female mice. If she had an opposite-sex twin, the differences would probably be greater.

What these results meant in the grand scheme of things, Siobhan didn’t know, but she stared at the paper for a long time, letting some small amount of relief unkink the tight spot at the back of her mind that had been subconsciously worrying about this.

One test doesn’t make a data set, though. I’ll need to do more experiments before I give it back to Liza.’ With this in mind, she switched back and forth several times, timing each transformation and recording the diagnostic results. They were all within a standard range of deviation.

Because she needed to return the diagnostic artifact in the morning, instead of returning to the University, she went back to Dryden Manor, having settled in Sebastien’s form.

Oliver was either gone or already asleep by the time she arrived, and she shuffled through a dark, silent house to the upstairs bedroom set aside for her. Her sleep was restful, as it could only be with her dreamless sleep spell, but short. She awoke with a start in the wee hours of the morning, well before the sun had even begun to edge in pastel colors toward the eastern horizon.

A restless anxiety was filling her again, and she decided to get up and make herself useful instead of force herself back to sleep. She took her diagnostic artifact with her, walking in sock-covered feet to Oliver’s office. Locking the door behind her, she turned on the light crystals and took her diagnostic results once again. Except for some small variance that could be explained by sleep, there was little difference from the results of the night before.

Setting the artifact aside, Sebastien turned toward the alchemy table, where supplies were waiting for her. She hadn’t been brewing as much lately, her weekends taken up by other, more pressing matters, but this was a good opportunity to perform a test while also making some coin and strengthening her magical facility. Plus, she needed another bottle of moonlight sizzle for herself, as her own had spent a lot of time shaking around in her bag and glowing futilely within, and thus was starting to dim prematurely.

Taking extra care to be aware of both her mental state and the effect and qualities of her Will, she brewed a large batch of moonlight sizzle in the huge soup pot that had never made its way back to the kitchen after she originally commandeered it months ago. The pot required her to adjust the direction of her Will a little, since it didn’t have the fat, spherical stomach of a standard cauldron, but the potion within would be little affected as long as she stirred it properly.

After her first batch was completed and bottled, she used the diagnostic artifact, and then switched back into Siobhan’s body after making sure the curtains were drawn over the windows and the door was properly locked.

Then, she brewed another batch of moonlight sizzle, again with extra awareness of her mind and her Will.

Halfway through this batch, a knock on the door made her jump, though she was proud of the fact that her grasp on the magic she was imbuing into the concoction didn’t slip, despite her surprise. “Who is it?” she called, deepening her voice in the hope of approximating Sebastien’s normal tone.

“It is I, the owner of this house, attempting to get into my own study?” Oliver replied through the door, his tone rising at the end in bemusement.

Siobhan hurried to the door, staying out of sight of the hallways as she unlocked and opened it just enough to let him through. She closed it and locked it behind him, then turned to find his eyes trailing slowly over her form. Sebastien’s clothes were too tight in some places and too loose in others, and she had rolled up the hems of the pants and sleeves so they didn’t drag.

Oliver raised his gaze to meet hers without a hint of apology, giving her a questioning look.

“I’m doing some tests on the transformation,” she explained. “I thought I might as well make myself useful while I’m at it.”

“You’re lucky I didn’t immediately assume you were a burglar and kick down the door. If I hadn’t smelled your brewing through the door, I might have.”

She rubbed the back of her head awkwardly, fingers tangling in her long hair and forcing her to tug them free with a wince. “Oops? I hope you don’t mind that I spent the night again?”

His expression flickered too fast for her to track, some unknown emotion or automatic response quickly suppressed. He hesitated slightly too long, just staring at her, then said, “Not at all.”

She raised one eyebrow.

He gave her a slightly lopsided smile. “You should know you’re welcome to spend the night any time you like.”

Siobhan blinked once, and then the possible double entendre filled her with horrid, belated embarrassment. She hurried around him and back to the alchemy station to continue her work, thankful that her darker skin would not show a blush like Sebastien’s. It took a few moments for her to regain full focus on the magic, but she managed, and the next time she looked away from the cauldron, Oliver was at his desk writing a letter, seeming to have forgotten her presence entirely.

She completed the final diagnostic test after finishing the second batch of moonlight sizzle and using up the remainder of the potion vials she had on hand. Again, the results left her somewhat relieved, as the difference between her two forms seemed negligible. She had already known that her magic was the same, her Will just as forceful and clear in either body, but this test had also confirmed that. The downside to this relief was that the tests left her as clueless as ever about the function of the amulet, and frustrated that she had made no progress decrypting the stolen book. She had some hope for the spells she’d ordered at the last secret meeting, whose instructions she would receive at the next meeting in about a week.

The sun had risen and the streets grown busy by that time, and Oliver spared her yet another trip to the Silk Door and back to Liza’s house by hiring a runner to return the diagnostic artifact for her. When she asked about his progress with Kiernan’s faction, he said, “I have made more than a few moves in response to what happened, gathering information and consolidating power. I am meeting with him later today. I plan to make my stance extremely clear, and we will see how they respond. Their next move will determine everything going forward, but so far my experience with them has not led me to optimism.”

Siobhan let out a small breath.

He twirled the pen in his fingers, which somehow didn’t spew ink everywhere. “It’s not all bad news. We’re going to put the incense burner in an auction being held in Paneth the end of next month. I had it appraised, and it’s genuine. If things go well, you and I will split almost a thousand gold.”

She paused for a while to let that sink in. It wasn’t so long ago that such a number, when Katerin offered it as a loan, had seemed astronomical to her. She knew such an amount was actually pocket change to Oliver, but to her it meant freedom. “If that’s accurate, it’ll be enough to almost pay off my remaining debt.” Then, her earnings from the textile commission would be almost entirely profit. She would be…rich.

Oliver snickered at her sparkly eyed look of anticipation. “I hope you’ll still stop by to brew for me every now and again, even if you don’t need to?”

She turned back to Sebastien as Oliver watched. “Well, it is good practice, and I’ll need to restock and expand my own potion supply anyway.”

He smiled ruefully as she left, shaking his head.

She took a carriage back to the University and used one of the lift tubes instead of walking up the steep winding path cut into the white cliffs, looking out over the city as she rose. The sight was invigorating, but what waited for her slightly less so. “Homework.”

Sebastien filched some of Damien’s coffee to invigorate herself, and was joined in her ink-smeared labor over the next few hours by varying members of the Crown Family friend group. Her most critical homework discharged more quickly than she had anticipated, Sebastien considered going to the supervised spellcasting rooms, or even to the abandoned classroom to work on her sympathetic curses, but instead she pulled out the history books Professor Ilma had lent her.

Remembering the various professors who had accompanied Kiernan to the meeting with the Raven Queen, most of whom she believed were directly part of or tangentially related to the History department, Sebastien wondered if Professor Ilma was involved with them at all. It was hard to imagine such a thoughtful woman who valued critical thinking so dearly joining up to the same cause as Munchworth, but either way Sebastien supposed it didn’t really matter, because the knowledge Ilma offered was still valid and valuable.

Sebastien had been reading Myrddin: An Investigative Chronicle of the Legend in small chunks when she had time, but had only managed to get a few chapters into the book, which was still covering Myrddin’s earlier deeds, often with handwritten notes pointing to similar myths from the other book. She continued from where she had left off.

Around the time when Myrddin was rising to prominence, he and a few of his contemporaries demonstrated the first known self-charging complex artifacts. Some of these were operated to great effect, and some to great disaster when things went wrong. There was contention even at the time about who was the first to achieve such a landmark advancement in the craft of artificery, but the back-and-forth struggle for supremacy certainly sped up growth in this cutting-edge field.

At various times, Myrddin displayed several artifacts believed to be self-charging. Sebastien found one anecdote particularly amusing. During Myrddin’s travels through the Tataroc desert with one of the local clans, he was said to have developed a box-like device that gathered water from the air, using the heat within to both create balls of ice as well as play sensual, soothing music—which of course he composed himself, because Myrddin was the consummate polymath. This ice-making music box, the ultimate desert climate luxury, had a great appeal to the young men and women of the clan, who vied to be the ones to share iced drinks with Myrddin each day.

But Myrddin’s most famous self-charging artifact was his horse. Like him, the creature had several names, depending on the region and time period, but the most commonly used was Carnagore, which might have had roots in the words “hooves of dawn,” but in the current language sounded rather bloodthirsty.

When Carnagore, a great beast made of white metal, had made his first appearances many had assumed Myrddin was doing fell experiments on a living subject. This wasn’t illegal at the time, being well before the atrocities and stigma of the Blood Empire, but the cruelty associated with turning a horse’s skin to malleable metal, replacing its eyeballs with spherical stone artifacts, and replacing its teeth with multiple rows of shark-like fangs was frowned upon for its brutality.

Several journals, letters, and even one autobiography from a contemporary agree that Myrddin eventually made a statement that Carnagore was not a modified creature of flesh, but an artifact that he had created and which was—most notably—charged by a beast core. His huge mount was said to sprint twice as fast as a normal horse, and could gallop tirelessly for a full day and night without breaks, a feat that would have killed a normal horse several times over. It did not spook or shy, could climb mountainsides like a goat, and was a vicious, bright-shining and glowing-eyed beacon of terror in battle.

Over time, Myrddin continued to add to Carnagore’s abilities, giving it a range of auxiliary spells that could be activated when necessary. Some speculated that he even managed to give Carnagore some semblance of a sentient mind, either created from whole-cloth or taken from a living animal and inserted into the artificial beast. As evidence of this were the times that Myrddin was said to have given his horse instructions and left it to carry them out autonomously, or instances where Carnagore acted to protect Myrddin from threats even the man was not aware of. However, the rumors and hearsay about Carnagore were at times even more outlandish than those about Myrddin himself, so many of the creature’s reported abilities could not be corroborated.

This entry in Myrddin: An Investigative Chronicle of the Legend led Sebastien once again to the less academically rigorous book, Enough Yarn to Last the Night: A Collection of Myths from the Life of a Man with Many Names.

Myrddin was said to have gone deep into the Forest of Nod, a land untouched by man, and in the very center crawled into a well. He crawled down for three days and three nights, and when he finally reached the dry bottom, he rested. When he awoke, the sun shining down from directly overhead for but a moment as it reached the perfect alignment with this round tunnel into the depths of the earth, Myrddin found that he was not alone, but accompanied by a palm-sized, chimerical beast.

Its features shifted, the head of a lion and the tail of a scorpion at one moment, and then the wings of an eagle and body of a turtle the next. The beast had been sealed for eons, and was very weak, and so entered into a pact with Myrddin. It would serve him, and he would take it out of the well and strengthen it.

It hungered and thirsted greatly, and each time it feasted, it grew stronger. Myrddin rode it into battle against an adze, and Myrddin’s beast companion drank its blood. They killed a skolex worm, and the beast ate its teeth. They hunted a mammoth, and the chimeric beast ate every inch of its fur and skin, from snout to tail. They hunted a dragon, and Myrddin’s beast ate its bones. With each defeat of an enemy, it consumed a piece of them, growing larger and more powerful, taking on their strength and eschewing its own weaknesses.

They traveled together for many years, and the creature was loyal, acting as Myrddin’s mount, and his shield, and his sword as needed, its shape-changing abilities allowing it to be always the perfect companion. Finally, they hunted a human, and the creature ate the brain, and thus grew to understand the loves and hates of man.

It remained loyal, becoming a sworn brother to Myrddin, but its hunger could not be sated. Eventually, no prey in the world could slake its ravenous hunger or increase its strength, and its gluttony turned to Myrddin himself. It longed to kill and devour the man, from the hair on his head to the marrow in his bones. It knew the evil of this deed, and wept bitterly, but could not resist its nature. It would kill and consume Myrddin, and then it would devour the world itself.

And so they fought, again for three days and three nights. Myrddin struck it down endlessly, carving off its wings, peeling off its skin, pulling its teeth, and chopping off its limbs. It grew smaller and weaker with each defeat, and when it again fit within the palm of his hand, he returned it to the well in the Forest of Nod, leaving it sealed once more, but not without giving it one last gift.

He dropped seven tears into the well, so that the creature could drink them and know sorrow.

The myth ended there, leaving Sebastien somewhat bemused about the connection between it and Myrddin’s creation of Carnagore. Both were mounts with expanding abilities, and both were said to have developed some greater intelligence over time. Both of them would have used the power of powerful defeated beasts for sustenance. Rather than the blood and fur and bone, that sustenance probably came from the beast cores of slain magical beasts, and it made sense that such a powerful artifact as Carnagore would have needed powerful beast cores as well. ‘Hells, the cost of running Carnagore might have been what spurred Myrddin to slay all those magical beasts,’ Sebastien mused, snorting to herself.

What interested her, however, were the times when Carnagore seemed to act on its own, while Myrddin was otherwise occupied with something else. It was certainly possible that Myrddin had either given it true reasoning capabilities, or even just such complex instructions that it simulated a sapient mind, but she wondered if some of those rumors could have stemmed from him creating artifacts that could be operated with an application of Will alone. Just as her amulet needed no physical switch or verbal command, Carnagore, a much more complex creation, could have acted based on Myrddin’s Will, a puppet of sorts.

Corroborating her theory was the fact that Myrddin had once left Carnagore at the top of a mountain for several months—perhaps he’d run out of beast cores—and witnesses said the horse became as cold and still as stone, its eyes dark and lifeless. It did not move even when birds perched atop its body, finally only returning to life when its master returned. Perhaps there had been some energy remaining to sustain an organic mind in a hibernating state, or perhaps the creature really was just created with enough complex commands to simulate the ability to reason, and could thus be turned on and off at will. ‘But isn’t it also possible that Carnagore is evidence of an entirely different innovation?’

Sebastien was lost in her musing, staring at an illustration of Myrddin slaying his chimeric companion, which at that point had taken the form of a human with tentacle arms, when her eyes caught a small note written in the margin. It read only “B.K.?”

Sebastien wondered what the initials might stand for, and almost instantly a possibility came to her. The Beast King was sleeping, deep below the ground, and had been for the entirety of living memory. No one knew what he looked like or what his capabilities were, but powerful diviners consistently predicted when asked that if he woke from his long sleep, calamity would follow. However, the Beast King was sleeping somewhere in Silva Erde, not the semi-mythical Forest of Nod, whose location was lost to humankind, if it had ever existed.

Some of the details seemed to fit, but if Professor Ilma had been correct to link the legend of Carnagore to this myth, then it would mean that Myrddin’s horse was buried in Silva Erde and the potential harbinger of great destruction. Sebastien’s preferred theory was that the Beast King was a powerful Aberrant, on the level of Metanite or Cinder Stag, horribly dangerous but ultimately harmless if managed properly and not provoked.

Perhaps the initials weren’t even referring to the Beast King. Like many of the entries in the books, Sebastien felt they held a peculiar weight of significance, but if any deeper meaning or epiphany existed, it remained opaque. Perhaps she was only assigning meaning where there none existed, swayed by the weight of the amulet around her neck and her long-stymied desire to understand.

This is the first of 2 make-up chapters. The next chapter is the regularly-scheduled Thursday chapter. Enjoy!

Chapter 119 – A Gilded Cage

Siobhan

Month 2, Day 26, Friday 9:00 p.m.

Wearing all the accoutrements and the blue-black iridescent hair of the Raven Queen, Siobhan rode in a nondescript carriage through the night streets of Gilbratha, accompanied by Oliver and a couple of the Verdant Stag’s most trusted enforcers. They were on their way for a meeting with a handful of University representatives.

“We gave them the location at the last minute,” Oliver assured her, perhaps picking up on the anxiety that she had tried to keep hidden. Or perhaps he just knew her well enough by now to guess at it. “So they won’t have had a chance to lay any traps, and we already know they won’t be calling in the coppers. With the additional layer of removal that Liza is helping with, you’ll be even more secure. We’ve scouted out both locations ahead of time, and you have three different escape routes and plenty of backup if necessary.”

“I know,” she assured him. She wouldn’t even be in the same room, or the same city block, with the University representatives. She was more anxious about the possibility that, just maybe, this meeting could lead to a solution to her status as a wanted criminal, and not just be a way for her to scam something valuable out of Munchworth’s faction.

The carriage, which had taken a circuitous route to avoid any tails, soon stopped in front of a unremarkable building, which the four of them entered. The property had no direct connection to the Verdant Stags, and was being used as a high-class restaurant during the day, with an open floor plan and stairs on either side that led up to a loft area.

Liza was waiting on the ground floor, having cleared an area of tables and set up the Lino-Wharton messenger spell array on the floor. She was halfway through casting already, and waved Siobhan forward to complete the latter half of the binding.

She handed Siobhan a pouch of dead bird pieces, which Siobhan hung around her neck, then attached a string around Siobhan’s arm. She noted that the it was much longer than the ones Liza had used when Siobhan was paying her. This was all on Oliver’s bill, and would be taken out of his cut of whatever tribute the University member’s brought, so she didn’t care that it must have cost extra.

“Due to all of your shenanigans, I’ve had to order a whole new batch of raven chicks. I can’t keep up with the supply, and even if buying random ones from live component shops can make up the numbers, its best if they’re from the same brood for this kind of thing. Do you know how much hassle it is to raise a batch of raven chicks?” Liza grumbled. “I need an assistant, but of course it’s impossible to find someone who is competent, trustworthy enough to allow into my home, and also palatable enough to spend time with. Plus, they should be attractive. A nice, muscular man with good teeth to do my bidding around the house, that’s what I need…”

Siobhan had been sympathetic at first, but as Liza’s muttering went on, she let out a snort.

The woman’s glare snapped over to Siobhan. “You think I’m joking? You try running a black market business for damn fool clients, all by yourself, and see if you don’t long for a competent helper.”

“But does he need to be an attractive, muscular man with good teeth?”

“As a grown woman, having visually pleasant surroundings is an important factor in improving my workplace environment, and accordingly, improving my mood.” Liza cast the last step of the spell, and as the string burned up, fast enough to singe but not injure her, the connection was formed. Liza handed Siobhan the raven and shooed her away.

Siobhan realized that their little conversation had significantly calmed her anxiety, and wondered if perhaps Liza had done it on purpose. She carried the raven up to the loft, where an open window was waiting for her. Taking a moment to review the directions from this building to the meeting point, she tossed the raven out of the window, letting its flight instincts take over as she guided it using the mental tether between them.

The raven arrived in only a few minutes, flying into a warehouse that was in no way associated with the Verdant Stag through an open window. How convenient it was, to have wings.

The building was lit with a few lanterns set about the room, and another Verdant Stag enforcer jumped out of their skin when they heard the sound of her arrival and met her raven eyes. In the middle of the room, set upon a crate for height, rested a large bird cage decorated with metal filigree. With her human eyes Siobhan guided the raven down to it, pulling the door closed behind her. It latched automatically and she swore the raven could feel the magic wash over its feathers in an uncomfortable prickle.

The enforcer watched this, wide-eyed, then bowed deeply to her.

She had the raven bow to him in return, then asked, “Are they on their way?” with the squawky bird’s voice.

The enforcer gulped, looking as if he wanted to be anywhere else. “Yes, my lady. They should arrive in a few minutes at most. Can I…do anything for you in the meantime?”

She squawked out a laugh. “Are you offering me refreshments?”

“Umm…”

She felt a little bad about the way his wide eyes darted about frantically. “Do not worry, I was only humoring myself. I need nothing.”

It didn’t take long for the University cohort to arrive, three men and two women led by yet another Verdant Stag enforcer.

Siobhan recognized Grandmaster Kiernan immediately. Somehow, she wasn’t surprised by his involvement. There were a couple other professors she recognized as well, also from the History department. Munchworth wasn’t there. ‘Perhaps they are displeased with his performance, or maybe he just doesn’t rank high enough to be involved in a meeting like this.’ She did her best to memorize all five faces.

Kiernan looked around the warehouse, then narrowed in on the raven with a piercing stare. “Where is she?” he asked, eyeing the raven with some suspicion.

“I am here,” she said through the bird. In her real body, she opened her eyes and looked around with paranoia, despite knowing how unlikely it was that she could be discovered here.

“We were under the impression that you would meet with us in person,” Kiernan snapped. “I like to look my conversation partner in the eye.”

“And I like to maintain a healthy distance from people who wish me ill,” she replied, letting the raven nonchalantly groom a couple of feathers on its shoulder with its beak. “I agreed to this meeting when your request was most humbly brought to me by Lord Stag, but even he cannot convince me to do anything I do not wish to.” At Oliver’s request, Siobhan was trying to reinforce their idea that she and the Verdant Stag were separate, and that no amount of pressure on them would equate to pressure on her.

After a long moment where she was pretty sure she heard him grinding his teeth, he said, “I am Grandmaster Kiernan.”

“I believe there is no need to introduce myself in return. What tribute have you brought me?” If it was something worthless, she might actually just fly away and make them try again next time with something better. She couldn’t let them think that she could be bullied or pushed around.

Kiernan steps aside so the woman behind him can bring forward the wooden box she is carrying. The woman knelt, then pulls a somewhat smaller case out of the box, which she opened to reveal a bejeweled, gold bowl molded with intricate designs and a lid that is covered in holes. “This incense-burner was used by shaman-king Deon, who ruled in Qusnia, which is a country to the southeast that has long been lost to the sands of time. It was gifted to him by his wife upon their first meeting, and is valued at one thousand to fifteen hundred gold. All authentication documents are included.”

That was much more expensive than Siobhan had expected, and definitely made the danger of this meeting worth it for the tribute alone. But it was also quite inconvenient, since it wasn’t the kind of thing one could sell easily on the open market. They would have to find a wealthy collector, or perhaps give it to an auction house on consignment. ‘I’m sure they did that on purpose, just to be a nuisance.

“It is acceptable,” she said after a long moment of consideration. She turned to the enforcer beside her, giving him a nod.

The man picked up the case, putting it back in the box, and then moved to the front door of the warehouse, where a delivery runner was just arriving. The runner didn’t work for the Verdant Stag and had no idea what was going on, other than the need for a standard vow of discretion. He took the box, bowed quickly to the enforcer, and ran away with it. He would take it to another, secure location, where Oliver’s people would examine the tribute for tricks, repackage it to avoid any sabotage or tracking spells, and from there store it somewhere safe.

The University cohort watched the runner disappear with consternation. There were a few long moments of awkward silence as no one spoke. A couple of Kiernan’s companions shuffled uneasily, looking between her and the shadows at the edges of the warehouse.

When the silence continued past the point of awkwardness, Siobhan wondered. ‘Is this a negotiation tactic? Is Kiernan trying to make me uneasy and force me to speak first?’ If so, she was displeased to admit that it was working. The Lino-Wharton raven messenger spell would only last so long. If the meeting dragged out too long, the raven might just suddenly die in the middle of their conversation, and that wasn’t the message of confidence and authority she wanted to portray at all. So she guided the raven to talk. “Do not waste my time. You have come to ask a boon of me, so do so.”

Kiernan cleared his throat. “The book. Do you still have it?”

Siobhan paused, then asked carefully. “Myrddin’s book?”

Kiernan nodded, confirming her suspicions. In her real body, Siobhan turned from the window, pacing back and forth for a few steps as the reality of her situation settled in her mind. She turned her attention back to the ephemeral tether controlling the raven. A little too much time had passed, and everyone was staring at the creature with expressions that ranged from fear to suspicion.

“I do have it.”

Almost as one, the entire University group relaxed, making relieved expressions or blowing out deep sighs. Kiernan smiled, but his expression quickly grew cautious again. “Have you decrypted it?”

Siobhan considered lying, but that was too dangerous. After all, the University had everything else from Myrddin’s hermitage—enough to recognize if she had no idea what she was talking about. “I have not.” She hesitated, but added, “My purpose for it was different. While I am sure whatever lies within is fascinating and of great historical significance, I have no immediate need for it.”

“Then why did you steal it in the first place?” one of Kiernan’s companions demanded.

Kiernan gave him a glare for the interruption, but still turned back to the raven in expectation of an answer.

“The theft was…incidental. It was never my goal, in truth. You could consider it a coincidence.” She doubted even a skilled diviner would be able to discern whether a raven was lying without actively casting a divination spell on it, but she was trying to show sincerity. Lying about this would just make everything more complicated.

The man who had interrupted gave an angry huff. “You don’t expect us to actually believe that?”

Siobhan wished the raven had eyebrows that she could raise individually. “I find it amusing, that you believe your security so unbreakable, so competent, that there must be some grand conspiracy behind my acquisition of the book. I assure you, that is not the case. This line of conversation is becoming tedious. Let us get to the point. You would like the book returned.”

“Yes,” Kiernan said.

“I am amenable to that, but I will require something in exchange. Something that cannot so easily be bought with coin.”

Kiernan frowned, tilting his head to the side. “The incense burner…was it not sufficient?”

The raven let out a sharp, squawking laugh that made the enforcer standing next to it jump. “That was a tribute, given for the honor of my presence alone. It was not payment.”

Kiernan scowled, but said, “Fine. What is it that you wish?”

“I wish to stop being hunted for the theft. And for any other crimes I may or may not have committed in the meantime,” she said simply. “I would like a legal pardon.”

Everyone in the room stared at her as if she had just grown a second head, or as if she had suggested that she and Kiernan go into a back room and do something lewd. “A legal pardon.” Kiernan repeated.

“I find it tedious to be so harassed.” And terrifying. “Having returned the book, and done no real harm to those who do not deserve it, it seems reasonable that I should be free of reprisal as well, does it not?” She was aware that wasn’t really how the law worked at all, but she was also aware that the law was not enforced equally and impartially. “This is what I want. However, I have doubts whether you can realistically promise me this. Do you have the authority, or the influence, to grant me a pardon? Or perhaps some other way to ensure I can walk the streets in peace? I am open to…creative solutions.”

There was a long silence, and she had the raven open its beak again to say, “You are not the only ones who want this book. Perhaps someone else would even count it as a positive that I kept it out of your grip. Someone like the High—”

Siobhan reeled backward, cringing as she tried to protect her head with her arms. She stumbled into the railing at the edge of the loft, and if not for its protection, she might have fallen right off and dashed herself onto the floor below like a too-ripe peach fallen from the tree. She crouched down, and only when she felt large hands on her shoulders, gripping her roughly, did she realize she was keening aloud.

She quieted herself, taking quick, deep, breaths, her eyes wide and staring out over her knees.

“What happened? What did they do? Siobhan, talk to me!” Oliver demanded above her, giving her a little shake as he examined her for damage.

She raised her gaze to his, noting the tight lines of strain around his eyes. “The raven died,” she whispered hoarsely. Saying it aloud helped somehow. It was the raven that had died, not Siobhan. “The cage activated and killed the raven with a superheated fireball. Very…” She swallowed. It had been different from times before, when she ended the spell on purpose. She had been fully immersed in its senses, and some of the raven’s own emotions might have rippled back to her through their connection before it was immediately and forcibly severed. “It was very melodramatic.” She rolled her shoulders back to release some tension, straightening her clothes in a way she suddenly realized she’d picked up from Ana.

“They tried to bypass the wards, then?” Oliver asked.

“A free-cast divination spell, I’m guessing. It couldn’t have been an artifact, unless one slipped past the search. I think I felt my ward start to activate for a moment,” she said, rising back to her feet with Oliver’s steadying hand on her elbow. “I’m fine,” she assured him. “But they were probably trying to find me.”

He ignored her, looking around suspiciously, his hand on her shoulder guiding her down the stairs as if he was afraid she would trip and fall. “We’re leaving. Mr. Huntley, any signs of hostile activity or observation?”

The enforcer shook his head. “Negative, Lord Stag. We are safe for extraction.”

As they rode away in the carriage, on their way to another of Oliver’s warehouses where she could change back into Sebastien, Siobhan tried not to let the disappointment settle in her bones. It wasn’t so surprising that they would betray her, really. She hadn’t been expecting it at that particular moment simply because she hadn’t considered that one of them might be a free-caster, allowing them to move against her without any outward sign. She knew free-casters existed, obviously. She was trying to become one, after all. But they were rare. Rare enough that she’d made assumptions, at least subconsciously.

The warded cage had detected that something that was trying to access the raven under similar principles to what the blood-print vow used to protect the blood thumbprints. Such wards weren’t infallible, but they could detect divination tendrils—or rays, or waves, whatever divination actually used to gather information—as well as sudden transfers of various types of energy. False positives were possible, of course, but that was why one should keep their copies of the blood print vow in a safe, warded location.

This hadn’t been a false positive. They had been trying to find her. That was why Kiernan was upset that she hadn’t met with them in person. “They never planned to negotiate with me in good faith from the beginning,” she said dully.

Oliver grimaced. “Maybe. Or maybe one of them just got a little too bold. In any case, you won’t be taking such a risk again.” His hand was still on her elbow, and he took his gaze away from the carriage window to look her over again for damage. “I’m sorry. I never should have agreed to set up a meeting with the Raven Queen.”

She let out a low sigh. “It’s alright. It’s not like we’re any worse off than we were beforehand. If their words can be believed, we now have an incense burner worth at least a thousand gold. I…overreacted. To the raven getting disintegrated, I mean. It just took me by surprise.”

Oliver was silent for a moment, and then his hand slid down from her elbow, gripping her smaller hand in his and squeezing. “I’m going to have quite a lot to say to them as Lord Stag. If the Raven Queen really was a wild creature of vengeance, that little stunt they pulled could have put me and the whole of the Verdant Stag in danger. The University has a lot of power and resources. I thought it would be truly advantageous if we could be allies.”

“To avoid being beset by enemies on all sides,” Siobhan deduced. “Since they’re already somewhat rivals with the Thirteen Crowns.”

“Yes. But…tonight has made me warier.”

“What are you going to do?”

He turned back to look out the window, and a few seconds passed before he answered. “I don’t know. In the short term, at least, I have to bide my time and consolidate the Verdant Stag’s power. We’re not strong enough to afford direct confrontation.”

She let the conversation die, taking some comfort in the anchor of Oliver’s hand against hers. When the carriage finally slowed to a stop in front of a small house, she asked, “What do you think happened to the enforcers who were in the warehouse with the raven?”

“I don’t know,” Oliver said grimly, but it went unspoken between them that there was a good chance fighting had broken out, and against University professors with at least one free-caster, the Verdant Stag enforcers, competent and well-equipped as they were, might not have come out ahead.

Some news:

News #1: Remember when I had to skip a couple releases last month? Well, it’s time to make up for that. There will be an extra chapter on Monday, 9/5, in addition to the regularly scheduled Thursday chapter. This is make-up chapter 1 of 2.

News #2: A Binding of Blood (Book 2 in this series) is out in audiobook and live in bookstores. If you’d like to pick up a copy for yourself, you can do so on Audible or Amazon.  (Apple Books pending, they’re just very slow.)

News? #3: Also, I’m going through and doing a mass typo-update this evening. That doesn’t apply to Patreon chapters, as I’ve always maintained I wouldn’t add one more place I needed to update typos, but website chapters will be updated in a few hours.

 

Trouble accessing a chapter? Troubleshooting tips: https://www.azaleaellis.com/trouble-accessing-chapters/

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Chapter 118 – Wave-Particle Duality

Sebastien

Month 2, Day 21, Sunday 5:00 p.m.

It took some time for the trio to return to the University, as Nat had been afraid to return home, and Ana took some time getting her settled.

To Sebastien’s surprise, they found Alec sitting on a bench not far from the transport tubes, his head hanging while one knee bounced rapidly. As they drew close, he looked up, his face slackening with relief. He hopped up and hurried over, his eyes searching her face as he fumbled in his school satchel. He paused in front of them, only then seeming to realize Ana was not alone. “They know?” he asked.

She nodded silently.

He pulled out an awkward handful of small, half-full jars. “I was worried about you. I can’t tell if you got healed, or it that’s just a really good glamour, but I wanted to give you some of the stuff I keep on hand.” He thrust the jars at her, which she had to cradle awkwardly in her arms when they were too much to hold in her smaller hands. “I took off the labels, sorry about that. This one helps a lot with bone fractures, but you’ll want to use it first because it irritates the skin so it’ll show if you use it last. This one is good for healing cuts without leaving any scars. Just leave it on until there’s no trace. This one is good for the really deep bruises, and this one for the surface level bruises, to remove the traces of blood from underneath the skin and heal up your burst capillaries. Oh, and this one is a burn salve. I don’t think you need that one so I’ll just take it back.”

He’s used those himself. Often.’ The words resounded hollowly in Sebastien’s head.

Ana remained silent for a few moments, staring down at the jars, and finally said, “Thank you. I did already get healed, but I appreciate it.” She put them in her own bag as Alec shuffled awkwardly.

“How bad was it? I can’t believe you finally snapped. I almost had a heart attack when you insulted Father and threw marmalade on him, Ana. You’re so slender and—I mean—your bones must be delicate. I had this horrible thought that your eye socket would shatter and your eyeball would fall out, just hanging by a string. I saw that once, on one of Father’s hunting dogs. He had to put it down.”

Ana reached out and grabbed Alec’s hand where it had been fiddling with the strap of his satchel. She held it between both of her own. “Thank you.”

Alec settled, closing his eyes as he took a single deep breath. “It’s best not to provoke him, Ana.”

“It’s too late to stop now,” she murmured. “Someone needs to stand up to him for once.”

Damien moved forward, clapping a hand on Alec’s shoulder. “You should stop visiting home for the next little while, Alec. He’s probably going to get worse.”

Alec’s shoulders started to hunch for just a moment before he straightened them again. “He wouldn’t like that. He likes me to make a report every other weekend, at the very least. Like I said, it’s best not to provoke him. He can hold a grudge.”

“So cut ties entirely,” Sebastien said, the words spilling out without her conscious control.

Alec’s caterpillar eyebrows drew together. “But that’s impossible. He’s my father.”

“That means nothing.” She swallowed hard. “You have options. Listen to me. You don’t have to go see him. You don’t have to follow his orders. If he comes after you, you have friends. You never have to be alone with him again. If you’re willing to go scorched-earth, threaten to give an expose on his treatment to one of the local newspapers. Or one of his rivals. Not a bluff. A threat.”

“But…” Alec shook his head.

“What do you really have to lose? Does he provide any benefits that you can’t afford to lose, or that you can’t find elsewhere? You are not obligated to obey him or to love—” Sebastien cut off, looking away as she cleared the lump in her throat. She had kept going back to Ennis. She’d felt like she should, or that she had to, but why?

Damien was nodding along. “Sebastien’s right. You’re his only legitimate child. For various reasons, he’s unlikely to disinherit you.”

Alec pulled his hand back from Ana’s. “He might. Just to spite me. If he withdrew his donations, I might lose my place at the University,” he admitted, looking at the ground.

Sebastien shrugged. “Even if he did, as long as you place high enough by the end of term, you won’t be expelled. And after that, you don’t need him to pay your way. There are other options.”

He scowled at her. “I’m not interested in leeching off my friends. I don’t need charity.”

“You wouldn’t need to. You can get legitimate loans in quite a few different places, and pay your own way.”

“And then what? Get a job working for one of the other Crown Families?” he scoffed. “Try and run a shop or something?”

“Perhaps. You have time. There is no reason you have to remain incompetent.”

Alec opened his mouth as if he wanted to retort angrily, but closed it. “Is that what you did? Cut ties with your family?”

Sebastien’s lips tightened. “Does it matter?”

“It matters if you’re giving me advice you have no idea about.”

“I have no more family,” she said, not exactly answering the question. “And no need of them. You don’t, either.”

Damien stepped forward, pulling on Alec’s shoulder to turn him around and walk onwards. “All of us can relate, I think.”

Ana reached out to give Sebastien’s hand a squeeze, and she looked over at the young woman in surprise.

Ana smiled softly, crookedly. “That was nice of you,” she murmured as the other two walked ahead.

“I literally did almost nothing, except insult him.”

“I think he needed that. I wasn’t being harsh enough. He doesn’t like to feel weak. Coming from you, it seemed more legitimate. A challenge rather than a defeat.”

Sebastien raised one dubious eyebrow. “Are you sure?”

Ana shrugged, smiling mysteriously. “We’ll see.” She wrapped her arm through Sebastien’s and they followed Damien and Alec.

After a while of silence Alec said, “I could join the army, maybe. They don’t require you to be a really great thaumaturge, as long as you’re competent. I’m not good enough for them to sponsor me, but they would probably pay enough to get by once I got my certification. And it’s respectable enough, serving the country.” He sounded doubtful, but his shoulders weren’t hunched.

The next few days passed uneventfully, and by Wednesday Sebastien felt she was really beginning to get a grasp on working with light. She had been practicing with Professor Lacer’s exercises, both creating illusions as well as the auxiliary exercise that required her to change the color, brightness, and shape of a candle flame. She had even been playing with a lens-based fire starter and a couple spells she had learned as a child, such as the glow and light-show spells.

She’d even been secretly practicing with her shadow-familiar, repeated castings getting rid of the lingering trauma and trepidation she had felt toward it since the incident with Newton. She played around with shadow-puppet shows and made random objects sparkle with an intensity that she hadn’t since she was a child with the untiring obsession of a new trick.

Some of Sebastien’s deeply depleted well of internal energy was returning, though she had good days and bad days, and had already consumed half of the little vial of beamshell tincture. Soon, she hoped, she wouldn’t need it any longer.

As Ana and Damien joined her outside the Natural Science classroom, Sebastien lifted an inquiring eyebrow.

Ana murmured looked around the mostly empty hallway, then murmured, “Nat wrote that everything is fine. Father has been grumpy, but mostly everyone is just leaving her alone. Uncle Malcolm visited him this morning and they seem to have gotten over their anger at each other. If Malcolm suspects anything, he’s not making it obvious.”

Ana had been called home to the Gervin manor for a visit on Monday evening, reamed out by her father, and stripped of her allowance and further visitation rights with her little sister for the remainder of the semester. Luckly, Lord Gervin didn’t know about the sympathetically connected journals the two girls shared, and he didn’t respect Ana enough to be truly wary of her.

“When can we move forward with the second phase of the plan?” Damien asked.

“I’m still compiling the blackmail note. Are you finished with the sketch of the ring, Sebastien?”

“I am, but I think we should give it some time before contacting Malcolm to let the incident on Saturday evening fade from his memory a little. It will make him less likely to draw connections. Perhaps you can send the first contact next week. That would also give you a chance to find some corroborating evidence for the other crimes, like embezzlement, before he’s wary enough to try and clean up any crumbs that might still be lying around.” What Sebastien didn’t say was that she wanted to postpone the next phase of Operation Defenestration because Oliver had set up a meeting of sorts between the Raven Queen and the University that Friday, and she didn’t want to try and split her attention between the two high-stress undertakings.

She was trying not to be too hopeful about the outcome of their meeting, but she couldn’t help the anticipation building in her gut. She didn’t know what they might be able to offer her, but they were powerful and even had political influence. And if they could be reasoned with, perhaps the coppers could be reasoned with, too. ‘Would the High Crown be willing to meet with the Raven Queen? He has the power to actually give me a blanket pardon. Working with the coppers might anger the University, since they want the book, but it could be more beneficial for me.’ She resolved to keep her eyes and her mind open. Perhaps they could even work out some kind of deal like she had with Ana, where Sebastien got what she needed not directly through the University, but tangentially, cooperation with them giving her another bargaining piece.

The bell to mark the start of class interrupted Sebastien’s thoughts, and the trio hurried in to take a seat.

Professor Gnorrish’s assistant was handing out components to every desk, mainly consisting of a ring on a stand, a few petri dishes, and a small, clear glass bead. “Today marks the end of our study of light,” Gnorrish announced. “You will be using what you have grasped to create your own lens spell, which you will use to observe and sketch a likeness of some microorganisms. I have provided various bacteria as well as some relatively harmless viruses. To pass this segment, you must be able to refract light well enough to observe the bacteria, but I have contribution points for anyone who is able to also clearly observe the viruses, which will require much finer control. I expect developing and refining this spell will take many of you some time, so you had best get started. Also, as a reminder, spells to view microscopic organisms are not new magic, but if any of you develop something particularly innovative and feel that the magic is struggling against you, please err on the side of caution and call me over to review your attempt rather than risking your safety.”

The students immediately got to work, drawing out their spell arrays on their desks, which had a perfect Circle already carved into the surfaces.

Sebastien chose the triangle as her base symbol, because light was a form of energy without mass, and she would be using only transmutation to achieve the effect. She brought her Will to bear, lightly and idly pressing it into the chalk lines as she mused over the best way to get the desired results.

She took longer than many of the other students to complete the spell array, pausing to stare at it silently multiple times as she considered the best placement for glyphs and the best way to clearly explain what she wanted to happen. When it was complete, she moved one of the virus petri dishes to the center, below the metal ring she would be using as a viewing range, but she still didn’t start casting.

Instead, she mentally reviewed everything she knew about light that could be useful for this particular application, trying to grasp it all at once like her mind was a fist stuffed full of wriggling worms. A wave of dizziness overtook her, sending her swaying in her seat. Concentration broken, she shook her head and took a few deep breaths, squinting against her sudden headache. It was as if the weight of the knowledge had knocked her off balance. She rubbed on some minty headache-relieving salve and tried again. She remembered how they had played with light in the crystal tunnel illusion chamber, how it had reacted to their meddling. She imagined her eye and mentally tracked the path of how the human body processed visual input. When she felt that she had meticulously examined all her knowledge, she finally began to cast.

Her spell created an additional light source beneath the petri dish and used multiple concurrent lenses. The one nearest her, hanging within the metal ring, magnified things a little, perhaps thirty times. But below that she had a second lens effect that was smaller and stronger, and below that, another that hung just above the petri dish, even stronger.

It was a strain to hold all three lenses at once as part of a single spell, but not beyond her capabilities.

At first, the spell gave her only a vague blur when she looked into the ocular lens, but she was able to calibrate the output with a few adjustments of her Will. Soon enough, she was able to focus on the strange little organisms that she had seen before only in drawings. Even her best efforts left things a little blurry and hazy, as it seemed like the light was shining right through the viruses, their edges and details undefined. Even the slightest jostle of the table or the petri dish sent the field of view wildly off course, and holding the spell was quickly giving her a headache. She had been feeling a little off-kilter lately. ‘But what could cause this? Has something changed? I’m tired, but I’m always tired.

She could spare little attention from the casting, and set her thoughts aside to sketced out what she saw as quickly as possible, trying to get through the most difficult part of the assignment before moving on to the bacteria, but before she could do so, a looming presence beside her table, wafting off heat, made her look up from the spell.

“May I?” Professor Gnorrish asked, gesturing to the ocular lens.

Holding the magic in a vice grip, Sebastien nodded, stepping back.

Gnorrish made some interested, excited humming noises as he looked through the lens, then to the sketches she had made, and finally examined her spell array in greater detail. Finally, he straightened, and Sebastien released the magic with a small wince of mental fatigue.

“Fantastic!” he said, his voice less booming than normal in consideration of the other students who were busy casting and who might make a mistake if they were unfortunately startled. “You have a strong understanding which has led to strong spellcasting, and Will that shows both force, stability, and clarity. This is one of the best attempts of this exercise by a first term student that I have seen in the last ten years. Come by my desk at the end of class to pick up your contribution points.” Gnorrish spun around and lumbered off on a slow round through the classroom, occasionally stopping to give praise or helpful tips to students.

By the time Gnorrish called halt to the exercise, less than fifteen minutes remained to the class period, but he seemed more enthusiastic as ever. “While this has been a quick review of the topic, we’ve barely scratched the surface of understanding what light is, how it affects the world around us, and what we can learn from it. With light, as in all aspects of natural science, everything goes deeper. I don’t fully understand light, and I suspect even the researchers focused on the study of electromagnetic radiation don’t, either. Let’s take these last few minutes of class to discuss some topics on the cutting edge of natural science.”

Sebastien hurriedly took out her new binder of notes and a fountain pen. The more difficult topics that showed deeper understanding were the things Gnorrish loved to use for extra credit questions on his weekly tests.

“A ‘quantum’ is the smallest measurement of energy, and indivisible. A ‘photon’ is a single quantum of light, a single packet of radiation.’

Sebastien frowned, scribbling quickly to try and get the new definitions down.

“This is important because, by understanding that energy can only be absorbed or released in these tiny, differential, discrete packets, we can account for certain objects changing color when heated, as the electrons within their atoms gain or lose discrete amounts of energy in the form of light. Just as a blacksmith can judge the temperature of metal by the color of its glow, so can we judge the heat of a star.”

For once, Gnorrish wasn’t waving his hands around or pacing, his voice loud, but measured and calm as he spoke from the front of the classroom. “All matter can absorb electromagnetic radiation, and all matter at a temperature above absolute zero will emit electromagnetic radiation, even if it’s too little for your eyes to pick up. With a spectrometer—a light-sensing artifact—thousands of times more sensitive than the human eye, we would be able to distinguish not only temperature, but the exact makeup of other celestial objects. The amount of energy given off by a hydrogen atom, when its electrons lose a very specific amount of discrete energy packets in the form of photons is different than the amount of energy given off by a helium or calcium atom. These differences in energy correspond to minute differences in the color of light that escapes as they lose energy. We will soon be able to look at Mars, Jupiter, passing asteroids, and even planets from the next solar system, thousands of light-years away, and calculate what they are made of.”

Sebastien’s hand began to cramp as she wrote even faster. Gnorrish was blowing past words and ideas that she’d never encountered before. ‘What is this about electrons emitting light?’ She needed to stop and think about it to let her mind wrap around the ideas, but Gnorrish wasn’t pausing.

He turned back to the blackboard, where he used a quick spell array to create an illusion of a small sphere of white light floating within darkness. “I believe light can tell us more about the universe we live in than even that.”

When he launched into an explanation of how light sometimes acted as a wave, and sometimes like a particle, and the different experiments that gave confusing results, Sebastien gave up taking notes, staring at Professor Gnorrish with dismay as she flexed her aching fingers.

His eyes roved over the students slowly. “As one researcher said, ‘It seems as though we must use sometimes the one theory and sometimes the other, while at times we may use either. We are faced with a new kind of difficulty. We have two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do.’” He paused dramatically. “Light is like nothing else that we are accustomed to dealing with. If we could understand this seeming duality, it might be the key to unraveling more of the inner workings of the universe.”

He pointed to the illusion of a sphere of light floating in darkness. “Perhaps, one or more layers of understanding deeper, we could begin to understand the fundamental principles of existence, and even how magic itself works.”

Sebastien’s eyes widened. ‘Is it really that significant?

Professor Gnorrish continued trying to explain “wave-particle duality,” “quanta” and “photons,” and how they interacted with electrons and stuff, but Sebastien was rather…lost.

She looked around. Some of the other students were also showing expressions of confusion, a few were staring blankly, having obviously given up, but some were diligently taking notes without concern. ‘I’m lacking some sort of fundamental understanding. I’m not grasping these definitions, the underlying mechanics and properties of discrete quanta, or what electrons really are, or maybe even what radiation really is. Without that, I certainly can’t understand how these things fit together into a greater explanation of the mechanics of the universe. I know keywords and I’ve memorized some places to insert those keywords into patterns and sentences, like “light is neither a particle nor a wave, but some combination of both,” but I actually don’t understand what that means at all.

She was surprised by the sudden surge of keening distress that rose up in her chest like sour wine, and she tried to tamp it down. ‘I don’t understand,’ she admitted to herself. She was normally quite confident in her own intelligence, but she felt so out of her depth she might as well have been a floundering—or drowning—child who had never before even seen the ocean.

Are some of my classmates actually understanding this? Perhaps they have a much better educational background than me.

At the desk to her right, Damien was frowning, and a quick peek at his notes showed that he’d written several question marks in the margins. Surely, Damien Westbay, second in line to become the Family head, would have had the best possible education.

Or, perhaps those who seem unconcerned have fallen into the trap of memorizing keywords and answer-patterns, and don’t realize that they, too, don’t understand.

But Ana was one of those taking nonchalant notes, resting her chin on her hand and her elbow on her desk while listening to Gnorrish.

When the bell clanged to signify the end of class, Sebastien packed her things in a daze. “Did you understand what Professor Gnorrish was talking about, at the end? About the waves and particles and quantum?”

Ana shrugged. “I understood well enough.”

Damien and Sebastien shared a look of dismay.

“Not in the way that Gnorrish talks about understanding!” Ana added quickly. “I don’t grasp it so completely I could recreate it from nothing, but is that really necessary? He said it was on the cutting edge of natural science, and what, a primordial particle?”

“Elementary particle,” Sebastien corrected automatically.

Ana rolled her eyes, ignoring Sebastien’s interjection. “If I actually understood that, I’d be an Archmage already. I have no ambition to start casting spells that unravel the universe, or whatever. Grasping the general concept is enough for me.”

Damien nodded, his shoulders falling. “I suppose we are only first term students.”

Sebastien couldn’t relate to Ana’s sentiment at all. The idea that someone could know something was wrong, deficient, in their understanding, and know that there was a way to at least somewhat fix that deficiency, but deliberately decide not to… It was alien to her. Especially—specifically—when that knowledge would affect her facility with casting an entire branch of spells.

As the other students filtered out, Sebastien stayed behind to pick up her contribution points. Ten of them, which was a rather large amount for someone like Gnorrish, who often gave out fractions of points so as to be able to give them more often. “Thank you. Are there any reference that could explain what light is and how it works on a fundamental level more…simply?” she asked. “Maybe with illustrations to help me imagine how it works? I couldn’t really grasp much from the last bit of class, and I feel like I’m missing something foundational.”

Gnorrish laughed. “I commend your curiosity, Mr. Siverling. The true secrets of light are a bit beyond the purview of this class. If you wish deeper understanding, self-study is indeed your best option.” He gave her a small list of books, as well as a larger list of specific research articles that would help with the more recent theoretical advancements. “The articles can be quite dry and…impenetrable. And generally, there are no illustrations, except for a few graphs and tables, perhaps. I hope you don’t get too discouraged, nevertheless. Even I wouldn’t confidently state that I fully understand how light works, and I’ve been at this for far longer than you. Light is only energy, after all, and energy is one of, if not the elementary building block of the universe.”

Thanking him again, Sebastien took Professor Gnorrish’s list to the library. The articles were indeed “impenetrable,” written using long, convoluted sentences filled with jargon. She couldn’t even check them out because many did not have duplicate copies yet, and thus the research and knowledge contained in them was rather valuable.

Perhaps I won’t come to understand the mechanics underpinning the universe, but this should at least help me make my end of term exhibition more likely to impress…and maybe give me the edge I need to beat Nunchkin in Practical Casting.

I’m back!

The next chapter will be the regularly scheduled Thursday chapter on 9/1, no more delays.

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