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 component to display a reference 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 and 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. Their bodies, which seemed to be formed of precious metals polished to a high sheen and looked nothing like their mundane carp cousins, were a great subject to show a solid grasp of reflection. 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 slight 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 of 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 her fatigue and frustration, and there was no way to hold back the huge smile she gave in return.
“As promised, for a 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 struggled to remain three-dimensional and solid-seeming but still earned him two contribution points. When Professor Lacer had moved on, 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 pinecone 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 been scribbling all the necessary notes, and leaned against his desk. “This final exercise is the one students generally have the most trouble with. As we 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. In response to a small motion of his hand, a black wax stick floated free of the box. He guided it to draw a thick Circle on the stone floor with a couple of 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 flakes 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 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 and pulled 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 another, or a dozen others, in a way that may 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. She had also performed a few herself for Modern Magics, such as color-changing, locking a door using a leather knot as component, and most recently a sharpness spell, which took the sharpness of a component to give a temporary edge to a dull knife. Despite her general consternation and confusion with the subject as taught by Pecanty, she was excited to delve deeper. Transmogrification could do things that transmutation couldn’t yet, and with enough skill it was the craft most capable of further developing the dreamless sleep and sleep-proxy spells.
“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, and finally 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 before 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 attached temporarily 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 began to move, flowing 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, turning 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 allows a caster to create a larger structure with less power. This use of transmogrification is superior in other hypothetical situations as well. Consider a situation where you do not have an abundance of building material, or environmental forces require quick work.”
Sebastien had seen a similar spell cast by an upper term student earlier that year, with which they used a model house as a component to mold snow. 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 then floated 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 the benefactor adds some important value to the beneficiary’s life, ideally some level of protection, the beneficiary can take on part of the burden in order to continue to receive protection from the cursed individual.
“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 the class, 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 seeking support in his presence, and found him wearing a deep scowl of concentration, strain clear in the tight muscles of his jaw and flared nostrils. He was casting something.
‘A spell 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, she brought her Will to bear as if casting a counter-spell, 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.
They hesitated, though Damien half-lowered as if to obey her, his face screwed 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 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, sheepish 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 milder 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 necessary spells or groups of spells, just as one would procure a license to allow them 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 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,” Professor Lacer said, dismissing the interjection. “Now, for the exercise you will be performing. 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. But all of you will be using the same component: one fallen autumn leaf. I have a collection in the box on my desk. 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 most obvious, 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 of Professor Pecanty’s class, she had been able to come up with a couple of extra third order associations based on myths and stories where leaves featured prominently, but obviously she was missing a huge number 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.
When Professor Lacer spoke, his voice carried 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-awareness.”
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 to trees like feathers were 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 desk’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 draw the stored light from the brownish-orange, slightly wrinkled leaf. 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, tracking 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. But she said only, “No, not any more than usual.”
“How have you been progressing with the auxiliary exercises I assigned you at the beginning of term?”
She tensed. “I’ve been keeping up with them. I haven’t started the final exercise 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 utilizes the leaf in a different way and use that as the final auxiliary exercise instead. This would 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.”
“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 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 turned a bright cherry red and 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 in the transmogrification exercise.
Damien never showed up.
“He must be sulking,” Ana said wisely. “If he’d gotten his way, he’d be here crowing about it.”
Ana seemed to feel that Damien was being foolish, but Sebastien could sympathize. 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 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 transmogrification 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 alcove 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.
The magic reacted wildly, twisting and bucking like a wild horse, nearly wrenching free from Sebastien’s control.
Sucking in a hissing breath, Sebastien reacted on pure instinct, transferring the pressure and energy flow to the black sapphire Conduit pressing against the skin of her side. Though she had to force herself to concentrate through the shock dulling her conscious mind, she maintained the magic for several long, tense heart beats.
Then, gently, afraid to injure her Will, she released the spell.
Her held breath shuddered out between tight lips, and her hands began to tremble as she stared down at the clear shards in her hand.