Month 12, Day 15, Tuesday 12:30 p.m.
Sebastien didn’t worry about someone walking in on her. She had locked the door, and besides that there had been enough dust in this room to tell her that it was rarely used and likely unmonitored. She’d cleared out a little corner in the back of the room to practice in. She couldn’t practice this divination in the dorms behind the paltry protection of her curtain, or in the public practice rooms, after all. It was illegal for anyone besides the coppers to sympathetically scry for a human.
As always, she started with the Circle. Divination was finicky. For power, the spell required special candles infused with scented oils and preferably dyed certain colors, rather than a coal brazier or her much more convenient lantern. She set them evenly around the main Circle’s edges, in the component Circles meant for them.
Then she placed the map, which covered the entirety of Gilbratha, and was fairly accurate everywhere outside the Mires, which were haphazard and frequently changing, a sea of shanty houses built out of old wood and white stone stolen from the dwindling remains of the southern white cliffs.
The spell had a few prerequisites, and in some ways was more like alchemy than the actively-cast sorcery she practiced in her classes. Actively cast spells, like what she practiced for most of her classes, would dissipate as soon as she released her Will. With ritual magic, spells were not controlled by the Word of a spell array, but woven into and absorbed by the matter they were bound to through the practice of the ritual. The magic created a kind of multi-dimensional weave with its host, which was self-sustaining enough to be semi-permanent. This was what allowed potions to work months or even sometimes years after they had been brewed. As a tradeoff, it took way longer and lost about a third of the energy right away, with the remaining magical effect slowly degrading after that.
Sebastien used some small pieces of dirt, rock, and slivers of bark that she had collected from a relatively wide section of the city and carefully labeled. She placed them on the map as precisely as possible, according to the places she’d obtained them, then added a handful of tent spikes, for their concept of anchoring.
She dipped her finger in the wax of the nearest candle, suppressing a wince at the heat of it. The wax quickly cooled as she drew her hand away, creating a film over her skin. She repeated the process with the other five candles until her fingertip had a thick coating of layered wax. Concentrating hard on her memory of each anchor spot in the city, she first touched a tent spike, then, as if pulling a thread from it to the map, she drew a hexagram around one of the pebbles. As she moved, slowly and deliberately, as if the spell was an animal that might attack if she startled it, she chanted in a low voice. “To the earth you are bound. Weight of stone, iron, and root. Foot to foot, head to head, heart to heart. As the roots of a tree are reflected in its branches, be as one.” The candles flickered, and the wax at her fingertip grew a little softer.
‘No mistakes. Your Will is absolute,’ she told herself, redoubling her concentration. She could have done this from outside the Circle, using a long stick to write instead of her finger, but the book she’d learned the spell from had cautioned against sloppiness, and she knew from her work with alchemy that any feeling of detachment would work against the purpose of the spell, which was all about creating sameness, connectivity, to the point that in the eyes of magic, one became the other.
Panting once she finished, she cleared away the dirt, bark, and stone putting them back into their labeled bags. She would need to use them again any time she wanted to re-cast the spell, because with such a short ritual, and the map being a pre-created item that hadn’t been inherently changed during casting, the spell’s weave would unravel and degrade quickly.
A single pea sized drop of mercury—the most expensive part of the spell—came next. Her cauldron was much too big for it, and so she used a small metal bowl the size of a finger cymbal, large enough to hold only a single swallow. She placed it in the center of the map instead of over any of the flames, dropping the mercury from its vial into the bowl. “To search and seek. To hark and peek,” she began, slowly and deliberately adding the ear of a bat, an eagle’s eye, and a tiny glass lense from a child’s toy. She stirred, six times six, with a rod made of dehydrated sprite honey mixed with the powder of a lava-pepper. The rod shrank with each stir, until she was holding only a stub, but within the little bowl remained only a trembling, mirror-like ball of spelled mercury, still only the size of a pea despite the absorbed components.
The final step was the actual divination spell, which did require a spell array. Moving the map and mercury to the side, she drew it carefully and consulted the book to make sure she’d not forgotten anything and fully understand the purpose of each glyph, numerological symbol, and word. The map went back into the Circle, and a little dot of the mercury was placed in its center, with the rest set aside for future attempts. She caught the tip of a little bundle of dried herbs on fire in the nearest candle, snuffed the flame immediately, then waved the bundle about to let the herb smoke settle through the air.
Remembering how she’d seen Liza work at one point, Sebastien drew a hexagram with the smoke, then glyphs for “key” which could also be interpreted as “answer,” and “discovery.”
Using one of her own hairs—which was much less likely to have people panicking and calling for the coppers than a drop of blood, if she were to be discovered—she began to cast, focusing on how desperately she needed to know exactly where her missing blood was.
The most difficult part of the map-based divination spell was that she wasn’t skilled enough to work past the huge beacon of the blood in her own body.
That was the downside to scrying for her own blood.
The upside was that if it was someone else’s blood, with a weaker sympathetic connection, someone as unskilled and untalented at divination as she was might not have been able to successfully cast the spell at all.
The first couple times she attempted it, the little dot of spelled mercury rolled across the map to the University, and more specifically, the western edge of the Citadel where the abandoned storage room was. She was scrying herself. “Yay,” she said dully, sagging back as she released her draw on the special candles.
It would have been a small silver lining if her ward had activated, but there had only been a small tingle in her back before it fell silent. Apparently it was impossible to cast a divination spell on herself while simultaneously warding one off, as they were strictly opposing thought processes, and her mind couldn’t split into two independent consciousnesses. This meant that she couldn’t simply cast a simple scrying spell on herself whenever she wanted to sneak around without being noticed.
When the pin-head sized dot of spelled mercury lost its shininess—and its magic, she gave up. She only had so many attempts before she would need to buy more, and “try harder” did not seem to be the answer.
More research revealed a solution to the first problem.
Sebastien could piggyback on the searching magic of the coppers’ attempt to scry for her to override the pull of the blood in her own body and find the few drops they were using.
Of course, there were wards to stop that kind of thing, but apparently they were expensive, and generally not useful for law enforcement, because they had no need to disguise the fact that they were scrying for you. If you found and approached them, it only made their arrest of you easier.
She couldn’t practice that variation successfully until they made an attempt to find her at a convenient time, but she still tried to increase her facility with divination spells. Holding off the scrying attempt at the same time as tracking it back would be very difficult, and if she wasn’t prepared, either of the spells might fail. If the divination failed, she only risked Will-strain, but if the divination-diverting ward failed, she might actually be caught. The ward wasn’t strong enough to hold off the coppers without her active participation.
The only reason she could—hypothetically—do both at once was because, first, the ward handled most of the actual work for her, only needing her to feed it more power rather than control the spell. Secondly, the ward against divination was shielding against someone else, which was the same target she was attempting to find. It was like two people hiding in a dark forest, both trying to find the other, which was conceptually possible, rather than attempting to move and be still at the same time, which…wasn’t. Hopefully it worked. If it didn’t, she was unlikely to kill anyone except herself as long as she cast it in a suitably secluded area.
She set aside most of her free time all week to practice in the abandoned storage room, prepared to wake early and slip back out to eat breakfast before her first class started.
Her ire with Professor Pecanty flared back to life when she returned to Modern Magics on Wednesday, but she suppressed it.
Professor Burberry used a dab of hair-loss potion on the mice they had used to practice the color-changing transmogrification spell, then used another potion to help the fur regrow.
Some students’ mice grew colored fur, somehow permanently, inherently changed so that that was simply the true color of their fur.
Sebastien’s mice grew back a little splotch of white hair, which stood out starkly on its otherwise rainbow-colored pelt. She felt the uncomfortable prickling of shame as she stared at it. ‘Maybe if Professor Pecanty would actually help me understand, I could do it better,’ she snarled to herself.
Professor Burberry handed out contribution points to those who’d managed to create truly permanent change.
Ana nudged Sebastien, giving her a small smile. “Don’t be too harsh on yourself, Sebastien. I’m sure you can get it, if you try again. It’s not as if your grade will be marked down just because you didn’t manage to imbue the entire mouse with enhanced properties. You did change the color of the fur, and you did it perfectly.”
Sebastien shook her head, and Ana looked like she might keep trying to comfort her, or encourage her, or whatever she was trying to do, but then Westbay came up, holding his flower-patterned rodent, and distracted her. “Do you think the colors would pass down to a child, if I bred it with a white mouse? Or what if we bred a red mouse and a green mouse? Do we get brown mice babies?” He reached into his pocket and fed the creature a little piece of bread roll that he’d taken from breakfast.
“I don’t know, but I wonder if brightly-colored rabbits or other docile creatures might make a good gift product for children,” Ana said. “My little sister would probably love a bright pink mouse.”
Sebastien, with what she thought was incredible self-control, did not throw herself into practicing the color-change spell outside of class. Her focus remained on preparing for the reverse-scry.
The only side project she allowed herself was making sure she had a dozen ink spells drawn on parchment and ready to go. She’d made some of them large enough that she had to fold up the spell array to get it to fit inconspicuously within her bag, while others were small and ready to be used immediately, only requiring she place their components for rapid casting. She’d decided on fourteen simple spells that she thought could help in a variety of emergency situations.
She didn’t have the time to make real progress with the paper design, or practice any of the spells until they were second nature, but she did some that she’d been long familiar with, and more that she was practicing in Professor Burberry’s Modern Magics and her other classes. Having them ready in her satchel made her feel a little more prepared, even if they probably wouldn’t make much of a difference.
On Thursday morning, she got a little too engrossed with practice in the abandoned classroom on the second floor and forgot to stop for breakfast. She hurried back to the dorms to put the divination components back in the chest at the foot of her bed before History of Magic. Professor Ilma always jumped right into the lecture right away, and Sebastien would miss out if she was even a minute late.
In her hurry, she wasn’t paying attention to where she was walking, and ran right into Tanya, their female student liaison and Newton’s counterpart, outside the dorm as they both turned a corner.
Tanya was surprising solid, and rather than falling or stumbling, she spun around, snatching the spelled paper bird she had dropped out of the air before it could flutter feebly away. She didn’t bother to stop, simply snapping, “Watch where you’re walking, Siverling. You could put a lady’s shoulder out.”
“I’m sorry!” Sebastien called after her.
Tanya waved an uncaring hand in the air without looking back, her head bowed to read whatever message had been folded inside the spelled piece of paper.
As Sebastien grabbed the homework she’d left in her trunk and emptied her school bag of the bulky divination components, she heard the shuffle of hard leather on stone. She whipped her head around to see Westbay slouching against the side of her little stone cubicle, his chestnut hair perfect and his grey eyes staring out over the seemingly constant bags of fatigue under them, which seemed to be genetic, because he slept almost nine hours every night.
She shoved the lid of her chest shut, turning to him. “What do you want, Westbay? Shouldn’t you be getting to class?” The rest of the dorm was almost completely empty, except for a few students rushing off to their first class. With the sprawling expanse of the University grounds, they were already likely to be late unless they ran.
He shrugged. “It’s just History of Magic. A different section than whatever class you’re in. My professor won’t even realize I’m gone. Say, have you read any more of those Aberford Thorndyke stories I lent you? I got the latest issue delivered. I can pass it on once I’m finished, if you’re up to speed on the timeline.”
Sebastien was torn between rolling or narrowing her eyes. ‘He’s not one to skip classes so nonchalantly. Is he truly that desperate for someone to talk about his little detective stories, or is he fishing? How long was he standing there?’ She reached for the curtain beside the opening to her dormitory cubicle. ‘Best to be calculated in my response, let him feel comfortable enough to give himself away.’ “Sure, but I’m not finished with the stack you gave me before, so there’s no—” Her tongue stumbled to a halt and her eyes widened for a moment before she controlled her expression.
Westbay looked at her with confusion.
“I just remembered something. Homework. Sorry, Westbay, no time to talk. You should go to class even if your professor isn’t noting your attendance. History is important.” With that rushed tumble of words, she pulled the curtain shut right in his face and turned back to the trunk.
She was being scried.
As she pulled the components for the reverse-scrying spell back out again, she listened to Westbay’s footsteps retreat.
She poked her head out when she had everything laid out on the floor of her cubicle, just to make sure she was alone, then turned back around. The timing was lucky. Many of the most time consuming parts of the divination were in the prerequisite spells cast on the components like the drop of mercury and the map. Without being artifacts themselves, the magic would wear off somewhat quickly, but they were still ready to go at the moment.
As quickly as she could, she drew the spell array, placed the candles, the map, and the dot of mercury, along with a bronze mirror she’d polished herself and a few other components that would help her augment the target of the divination. She dabbed a bit of herb smoke around and began to scry. Carefully.
It was more difficult than she’d expected. Much more. It wasn’t that she didn’t have the power, though that was part of the problem. It was her concentration, the clarity and stability of her Will, for one of the first times in recent memory, unable to meet her demands. Maybe it was because she was just really untalented with divination.
Rather than stiffening, she relaxed and controlled her breathing, routing every last drop of energy and control to her Will.
A part of her attention went toward feeding the divination-diverting ward in her back, deflecting attention and slipping away from the prying tendrils of the rival sorcerer. That part was easier, and didn’t require the same focus that reaching out through space and the ripple of magic for a tiny missing piece of herself did. She couldn’t get too focused on the spell, or her ward would grow weak enough that they might find her, but splitting energy and concentration like this was not something that came naturally to humans.
It was like trying to play two different songs on the piano at the same time. The reverse-divination was difficult and complicated, while empowering the ward took only a couple plinking notes, but it was still almost impossible to keep them going together. Trying to cast two actual spells at the same time would have taken the equivalent of four hands, and while she was reluctant to say that it was impossible, it would require both spells to be merged into one, more complicated spell with multiple outputs, rather than two separate spell arrays.
The dot of spelled mercury moved over the map, and at first her insides tightened with frustration, because it was just finding her again, but then it rolled right over the spot where it usually stopped.
The mercury settled at a spot she judged to be slightly northwest of the student dorms.
She held the spell for a couple more seconds, staring at the map. Then she let the magic go, shoving everything haphazardly into her trunk, uncaring of the hot candle wax spilling onto her belongings. She didn’t bother with a locking spell, because it was too different than the magic of the planar ward, and she didn’t want to risk failure.
‘My blood is at the University.’
She shook her head. ‘But the coppers have it, don’t they? I expected to find it at their station, or maybe at the prison or even a black site where they hold important evidence. So why is it here? Here, and at Eagle Tower, where the professors and high level students carry out experiments?’ She hurried from the room and out of the building, moving with purpose but without panic.
‘It could have been here all along, if my information was just wrong from the beginning, but I don’t think so. Did they give my blood to the University in hopes the diviners here could do a better job? The University does have a stake in my capture, after all. The book was theirs. But would the coppers give up such a big win? It seems unlikely. They’re tenacious, as evidenced by the continued attempts to find me despite their ongoing failure.’ She walked along the winding path into the cultivated woods between the Citadel and Eagle Tower. The scrying attempt was getting stronger as it went on, and had already been going for several minutes, longer and harder than most she’d fended off before.
‘Maybe that’s it. They’ve failed to find me and this is their next move. A better spell array than whatever they have access to at Harrow Hill, stronger thaumaturges, maybe more than one casting the spell at the same time. And they’re close to me, even if they don’t realize it. That’ll make it easier. This is their sharper knife, their bigger hammer, the thing they pull out when they really need a win.’
As Eagle Tower appeared through the veil of the trees, she looked up at the looming obelisk of pale stone. ‘If they’re powerful enough to find me, I have to stop them. Somehow.’