Chapter 152 – A Troublesome Revelation
BELOW IS A SNEAK PEEK OF THIS CONTENT!SebastienMonth 3, Day 27, Saturday 7:30amOliver was in a hurry that morning, rushing off to a meeting with some new business contacts across the city, and so Sebastien joined him in his carriage.She watched him...
Chapter 151 – One Hundred Ways to Die
BELOW IS A SNEAK PEEK OF THIS CONTENT!Sebastien Month 3, Day 27, Friday 3:00am Sebastien sat at the head of her dormitory bed, looking through the window. The University was quiet enough to hear the wind. She hadn’t realized how much ambient...
Chapter 150 – Mysteries and Missions
BELOW IS A SNEAK PEEK OF THIS CONTENT!SebastienMonth 3, Day 26, Friday 8:00pmSebastien flipped bemusedly through 100 Clever Ways Thaumaturges have Committed Suicide as she returned to the dorms, skimming the entries and the simultaneously fascinating and often horrifying illustrations that accompanied...
Chapter 149 – Auxiliary Exercises Assessment
BELOW IS A SNEAK PEEK OF THIS CONTENT!Sebastien Month 3, Day 26, Friday 9:00am Friday was the last day of the exhibitions, but as first term students all of their tests were already finished, and Sebastien and her growing group of friends...
Chapter 148 – A Tree of Sand and Light
Month 3, Day 25, Thursday 2:00pm
After leaving the infirmary with a bill of clean health, Sebastien and Damien returned to the Flats to give their “after-action reports,” which took a distressingly long time. She was sure most of the other students weren’t treated like witnesses in an investigation, forced to repeat things and dig for detail and motivations over and over again. The proctors taking her report kept making notes and stopping to murmur together, throwing her odd looks.
In the end, she insisted upon leaving in time to make her scheduled slot in the Practical Casting exhibition. Once again dressed in her own clothing, with the security of her holster and the black sapphire Conduit pressed against the skin of her back, she hurried across the grounds. As she strode with purpose, those in the crowds milling about made way for her. Sebastien ignored the various stages, food carts, and game stations to arrive at the stage that had been set aside for the Practical Casting students.
The performances were running behind schedule, so Sebastien took a seat in the small area at the front of the stands set aside for students like her, setting the box that contained her supplies by her feet. Several of the nearby students introduced themselves, while others whispered together, not even trying to hide the fact that they were talking about her.
Sebastien sighed, turned her attention toward the stage, and did her best to ignore them like the irritating flies they were. Small mirrors like those used in the Defense exam arena had been set up on stands, replicating the image reflected in them onto much larger mirrors that would allow even those at the back of the stage to see clearly, though they carried no sound.
A third term student who had cast a fairly simple spell with only a single glyph stepped down, replaced by a fourth term who quickly moved to set up their own performance, then used a single spell array to create a fountain show from a shallow basin of water. It seemed the Practical Casting exhibitions at this point were nothing particularly impressive. She suspected the upper term students had been scheduled for the day after, saving the best for last.
As another lackluster presentation followed, Sebastien’s thoughts wandered to more impressive magics. Professor Lacer had done more ambitious spells with a casual wave of his hand. She could only imagine what he was capable of with transmogrification’s higher order connections. Had he ever traveled to one of the Elemental Planes, perhaps? She would love to experience such wonder.
Sebastien thought back to that strange twinkling meteor that the old man from the Architects of Khronos had cast above Knave Knoll. It, too, must have been some kind of transmogrification. She still hadn’t figured out how it might work, or even why a spell would be designed like that. Perhaps a fourth-order association, the kind Professor Lacer had said was beyond the scope of their class?
The breeze blew her hair into her face, carrying the scent of sweet treats, fresh mud, and the budding greenness of spring, all riding over the ever-present salt of Charybdis Gulf. Sebastien tucked her pale hair behind her ears. Even her hair was an example of the kind of magic her fellow students could not hope to imitate. It had grown longer after all the time spent in this body. Perhaps it was time to cut it.
Shortly after the Knave Knoll attack, Sebastien had overheard a group of upper-term students gossiping. Apparently, one man had gone down to peek around the crime scene, making himself temporarily popular to all the classmates who were hungry for gossip. When she had inserted herself into the conversation, the man had bean eager to tell her what he could.
“Well, I couldn’t get close because the Red Guard are still swarming around the site. They have it cordoned off and the coppers were stationed around the edge to keep people from slipping past. But I saw the crater! It was dozens of meters across. I can’t even imagine the type of spell that could have caused such a thing.” The man had continued on for a long while after that, sharing inane details and his own speculation while Sebastien tried to pretend like she was still interested. “Whoever those terrorists were, they must have been as dangerous as an Aberrant, don’t you think? But if you’re interested just because the Red Guard was there, I have to disappoint you, because I’m pretty sure no actual Aberrants made an appearance.”
“Oh, well, I heard you were interested in Aberrants, right?”
“Where did you hear that?” Sebastien had asked, frowning.
The man had raised his eyebrows, then gave her a commiserating smile. “Oh, you know, around. It’s pretty common knowledge that you fought one. I really admire your courage, but you shouldn’t be so reckless. I’m sure Professor Lacer would be willing to recommend you to the Red Guard once you’ve gotten your certification and completed your apprenticeship. There are rumors he used to work for them.” He’d laughed, then. “Well, you’d know that better than I, wouldn’t you?”
Sebastien frowned, ignoring the latest student’s presentation as she stared off into the distance. ‘Even if it was fourth order association, why would it create such a wasteful spell? Are there some rules or principles I’m unaware of? What is the point of creating a physical manifestation and destroying an entire building, when it would seemingly have been simpler to just use some mass paralysis spell or send in some sedative?’ Perhaps the wards were set up to block all the more common applications, and the Architects had needed to get creative to bypass them, she reasoned. Or maybe that old man thaumaturge she’d accidentally killed was just showing off.
“—erling. Mr. Siverling!”
Sebastien jerked to alertness, turning to the student aide calling her name in an annoyed tone.
The woman rapped her knuckles on her clipboard. “Are you prepared? Please take your place on the stage.”
Sebastien stood up and hurried to climb the stairs with her box of supplies. As a student at third-term or below, she’d only been given ten minutes to display her skills, so she needed to set up quickly. As she crouched to draw out her spell array, a quick glance up revealed that the audience stands were packed much fuller than they had been when she arrived. Many of the seats were taken not by outside guests, but by her fellow students, indicated by the wooden tokens they all wore.
She shot a quick look to the judge’s table, where Professor Lacer sat. Now that her mind was not so occupied with the possibility of being blasted to smithereens by another of her professors, seeing him reminded her of Oliver’s recent secret note. Again, it had been disguised as a promotional letter from a local tailor’s shop, but the message inside implied that Thaddeus Lacer had requested to meet the Raven Queen. Oliver had sent a second note after that, asking to meet at her earliest convenience, but even if she hadn’t been avoiding him, she’d had no free time during finals week.
As she crouched on the stage, staring up at Professor Lacer, she had a moment of vertigo. She didn’t know what to do with that information. Not after the recent upheaval in her situation. Or at least her comprehension of the reality of her situation.
Professor Lacer gave her a small, almost imperceptible nod, jarring her attention back to the current moment. She focused her Will into the setup, every movement purposeful, chalk lines large enough to sprawl over almost the entire stage. Both a triangle and a pentagram went inside, for control over both energy and matter. Three glyphs, “light,” “shaping,” and “heat” went at equidistant points around the center. She finished by setting two clay pots in their smaller component Circles on either side, and one pot full of gravel at the front, nearest the stage and the judges. For this spell, she didn’t even need a beast core. In fact, taking the power from elsewhere was part of the show.
Finally, she stood to the side of one of the largest spell arrays she had ever used, took a deep breath, and wrapped her fingers around her Conduit. She was ready.
Her Will contracted down, caught the light out of the area bounded by the Circle, and channeled it into the lines of the spell array. Sebastien’s heart beat firmly, a little too fast but without fear, and she couldn’t help the smile that spread across her face as she pulled the darkness back to create a backdrop. She pulled heat from the area, reaching deeper and deeper into the pitch black shadows until the water particles in the air turned to ice.
As the breeze dragged at the area with its ephemeral fingers, a white fog wafted from the shadows. Sebastien had practiced this several times, and knew that the effect was quite dramatic. Ominous, even.
She held that steady for a few seconds, and then moved on to the second step. While maintaining the Sacrifice of light and heat, she pulled at the sticky, metallic sand in the leftmost component pot. The clumped chunks and tendrils moved through the air slowly, almost invisible against the darkness until she used some of the light she was siphoning off from the back half of the Circle to add a glow. As the glowing particles and tendrils arrived at the front, she compressed them into the shape of a single glowing seed.
Then, she did the same for the other pot, pulling a dark amber, honey-like substance to the seed, where she integrated the two in marble-like patterns. It was a resin that she had mixed various incense oils into until she got just the right smell.
That was the final step. She closed her eyes and imagined the finished product, then opened them, a blazing determination in her chest, fueling her Will as she began to showcase her abilities in earnest. She pulled on the light and the heat and used its energy to fuel her control of the sand, the resin, and the ethereal glow, all at once.
She had been practicing this in phases, first teaching herself to mold the sticky sand like a sculptor, then doing so while adding tiny sparkles and wisps of light, and then the addition of the backdrop of darkness to set it all off.
None of the pieces of this spell were so difficult by themselves, but doing them all at once was a strain on her multitasking abilities, and she felt likely to fumble the whole thing due to sheer complexity. One spell, multiple complex effects, but each of them based on simple principles. Most of which she had learned in Professor Lacer’s class, or from the auxiliary exercises he had assigned: complex movement of an object, the particulate to stone spell, using light as both Sacrifice and output. If she hadn’t been practicing with all of the individual elements for so long, this likely would have been impossible, even with a complex spell array with dozens of glyphs and a fully written Word.
The glowing seed broke open, a delicate, hopeful leaf sprouting out from it even as roots dug downward into the gravel. She fed the living sculpture more metallic sand and amber resin, weaving them together as the seed sprouted into a sapling, sprouting branches and leaves as it shoved its way out and up from the dark ground. The tree grew bolder and more robust as it aged under her Will, as if speeding through days, weeks, and months, strands of resin and sand layered atop each other and reaching outward toward the sky.
As the tree grew larger, the strain on her Will increased, pushing at it from every direction as if the tree was trying to burrow out of her grasp like roots through an old cobblestone wall.
She had tried using a tree nut to add some transmogrification to the spell and thus make the shaping easier and more instinctive, but found that it only made everything harder and left her struggling to weave all the pieces seamlessly together. Instead, she had to hold the evolving shape entirely in her mind, the evocative parts meant to stimulate emotion carefully planned and controlled.
The living sculpture reached the height of her hip. She had wanted to add sounds and maybe illusory birds in the tree’s branches at this point, but that was still beyond her. Instead, for the final step, she molded the last of the resin into the shape of tiny fruit, then channeled heat into the tree, from root to crown. The resin layered throughout the tree came just short of catching fire, but began to smoke and glow a smoldering orange that would burn for a couple hours, until it was all burnt away. The heat had the added effect of solidifying and hardening all of the sticky metallic sand firmly in place.
Breathing hard, she let the spell stay as it was for a moment. Then, slowly, the ethereal glow disappeared. The darkness that she had held toward the back of the Circle swept forward to make a complete dome once more, gobbling up the tree.
Two precise seconds of darkness passed, and then she dropped that as well, revealing the final result.
A miniature tree sat on the stage in its gravel-filled pot, only a few feet high but as gnarled and detailed-looking as she could make it. The resin ran through its bark in decorative, marble-like stripes and hung from the tips of its branches like teardrops. It fumed like dying lava, smoke from the carefully blended incense that she had mixed into it beforehand riding on the breeze in tendrils that looked surprisingly graceful.
Sebastien eyed the result with mixed feelings. It looked pretty enough, she supposed, but it was nothing special. She wasn’t powerful enough yet to produce any truly impressive spectacles. She looked out at the audience, and then to the judges, trying to gauge their reaction. They were all still and silent, staring down at her. She had been worried that she was unable to make the tree any larger, but hoped the image replicating mirrors would have mitigated that problem. Now, she was less sure.
She bowed to the audience. ‘Maybe I should have chosen something different besides a tree? Perhaps the audience would have appreciated something more dramatic, like a sculpture of a sky kraken. Using the animal from their crest would have even shown loyalism to the University. Why didn’t I think of that beforehand?’ Trying to keep her disappointment from her face, Sebastien picked up the tree sculpture and turned to walk off the stage, leaving the two empty pots behind.
“Sebastien Siverling, first term student and apprentice of Professor Thaddeus Lacer!” the student aide repeated somewhat belatedly.
Someone in the audience screamed with excitement, then started clapping wildly. Sebastien looked up in surprise.
Damien stood there grinning with all his might, surrounded by his group of Crown Family friends, all packed into the stands amongst their classmates. Others soon followed his example. The applause grew louder than she had expected, with several shrill voices screaming her name, some even stamping their feet when it seemed that their hands and mouths together couldn’t create enough noise.
One girl actually threw a rose at her, and Sebastien had to duck to avoid being caught in the face by its thorny stem.
Wide-eyed, Sebastien hurried toward the judge’s table, where several of them were whispering together, no doubt discussing her fate. She sat the tree down in its center, cleared her throat against the smoking incense, and said simply, “A gift. Thank you for the opportunity.”
The bark and leaves glinted as the texture caught the light, and the resin within seemed to seethe with rage. She hoped that seeing it up close, the detail she had put so much effort into might impress them a little, along with the smell. Pecanty loved it when his students talked about smell. There might be those among the judges just as obsessed with it as him.
As she turned to walk away, the audience was still clapping and yelling. Fighting down a blush, she bowed to them awkwardly again, then moved through the stands to join Damien and the others. She sat down and tried to drown out the noise, letting her mind relax after the arduous undertaking of her performance.
The judges conferred for a couple minutes while the student aide helped ready the stage for the next exhibition. To her surprise, the one in the center stood up, holding megaphone cone to his mouth. “To Sebastien Siverling, seventy contribution points for exceptional power, depth of range, and stability,” he announced.
Officially, contribution points weren’t finalized until the exhibitions had ended, after which they would be posted on the announcement board in the library and at the University entrance, as well as mentioned in most of the local newspapers. After all, there were a limited number of points to go around, and the most impressive exhibitions were saved until Friday. The judges only made immediate announcements of contribution points for those who made an extraordinary showing.
Damien screamed in Sebastien’s ear, seemingly more excited about this than she was. “By all the greater hells! Sebastien, why didn’t I know you were going to do something that amazing? You told me you were just going to display your grasp on the stuff we mastered in class!”
While those around her were jostling and cheering, she looked over to Professor Lacer, who gave her a smile and a single, slow nod.
“I’m an official apprentice, now,” she murmured, laughing as she slumped back into her seat.
Chapter 147 – Harry Harold Had no Hands
Month 3, Day 25, Thursday 9:45am
As the shield went up around Sebastien, who stood with his hands raised while Professor Fekten threatened him, Damien’s vision swam and his knees almost buckled. He was hyperventilating. Wrapping both of his hands loosely over his mouth, he blinked rapidly as he tried to force himself to take slow, even breaths despite his lung screaming that they lacked for air.
Why. Why? Why? This exam wasn’t even important. It was just a test! Even if they hadn’t made it to the tower, they still probably would have gotten some points for those they had helped to rescue. Sebastien had no need to risk his life for this.
“Get back, Westbay!” Fekten barked at him. “Back!”
Between one moment and the next, Damien had lost something so precious. He knew the true gravity of the situation, the depth of the consequences, hadn’t hit him yet. It had been like that when his mother died, too. It had taken weeks for him to truly accept the fact that she no longer existed, and even years later he still had moments of metaphorical vertigo when he remembered she was gone.
Sebastien was saying something, his voice scratchy with fear and muffled by the semi-opaque barrier, and Damien forced himself to focus.
“I realize it might have looked bad, but I didn’t channel magic through my own body. I’m not in any danger of a break event. I don’t even have Will-strain,” Sebastien said.
Damien stared at his friend, who for the first time since the exam started actually looked apprehensive.
As if reading Damien’s mind, Sebastien turned to meet his gaze and repeated, “I’m fine. This is a misunderstanding.”
Damien’s breathing began to slow, and he pulled his hands away from his open mouth, a string of saliva trailing between his palm and his mouth. He had apparently started crying at some point. His face and hands were covered in tears, and salt was getting into his mouth. “A mis—misunderstanding?” Damien asked, his breath hitching. He didn’t understand how that could be, but Sebastien’s calmness was contagious.
Fekten wasn’t listening, screaming back to the tower to evacuate the area and let them pass through.
Sebastien drew a deep breath and yelled through the barrier, causing Fekten to flinch and his hand to tighten around his battle wand. “I did not cast through my own flesh! Damien’s Conduit fell out of his pocket, and I borrowed it.”
Fekten’s eyes narrowed. “I know what I saw, Siverling. You were casting with empty hands. I watched as Westbay returned your Conduit to you, and he didn’t pick up his own off the ground until you were already standing.”
“I was casting with my leg. My pant leg is torn, so I was able to press my skin against Damien’s Conduit where it rested on the ground,” Sebastien insisted, enunciating every syllable. He lifted his leg, displaying the long rip in the grey fabric, reaching up to his knee. The pale skin of his leg was plainly visible, and though it was hard to see clearly through the barrier, it looked like there was a red mark where he might have pressed against the faceted edges of Damien’s Conduit.
It was a ridiculous, unbelievable explanation, but something inside of Damien still unclenched. “It—It’s true,” he croaked, drawing Fekten’s attention. Damien swallowed to clear his throat and tried again, holding up his Conduit for Fekten to see. “It had fallen out of my pocket when we got hit by that soft concussive blast spell. I didn’t see it until after Sebastien stood up. It makes sense that he would have been laying on it.”
The area around them had already emptied of other students, but a few members of the faculty were slowly approaching, battle wands and other artifacts out and ready.
Professor Fekten narrowed his eyes, and the tip of his wand remained unwaveringly focused on Sebastien. “You expect me to believe that you, in a moment of panic, learned to cast through your leg,” he said, his tone completely deadpan.
Sebastien huffed. “Let me reiterate, I did not cast through my leg. I cast through Damien’s Conduit. I just…gripped it with my leg. Skin contact is all you need, not actual fingers. It’s not like it’s the first time I’ve ever done such a thing. It might be slightly harder, but it’s far from impossible. Please, be reasonable. There’s no way I would have put all the students around me in such danger just to win a mock battle. Hells, I wouldn’t put myself in such danger just for the results of a test. I’m not anywhere close to failing, and if I thought the Defense elective was going to be the thing to hold me back, I could simply drop it from my schedule this coming term.”
Damien leaned over, pressing his hands to his knees and taking a couple more deep breaths. He wiped the snot and tears from his face with the rough grey fabric of his sleeve.
The other faculty members had arrived, and Fekten shared a look with a couple of them. “The boy claims he didn’t cast through his flesh, but through a Conduit touching his leg,” he explained, his skepticism clear.
“Is there any way to test it?” Sebastien asked. “I’m telling the truth, and I’m not experiencing any uncontrollable urges to cast through my flesh, but how am I supposed to prove that?”
“Put him under observation in one of the rogue magic shelters,” suggested one of the professors. “Three days should be long enough to be sure.”
“Three days!?” Sebastien echoed, outraged. “I’m slotted to be in the Practical Casting exhibition later today. I can’t miss that.”
At the reminder of who he was apprenticed to, several of the professors shared glances again.
“Have him examined by a healer and give a statement to one of our Masters of divination,” someone else suggested.
Fekten agreed reluctantly, lowering his wand just slightly. “We’ll do it in the shelter under the sim room.” He reached into his pocket and fiddled with something, and the opaque barrier around Sebastien withdrew into the golden artifact at his feet. “I’m warning you, Siverling. If you’re lying, casting through your own flesh again is likely to cause a break event, in which case I will do my absolute best to kill you before you can complete the transformation.” He turned to Damien. “Didn’t I tell you to step back, Westbay? It’s not safe. You need to evacuate the area with the rest of the students.”
Sebastien turned to Damien. “I need you to go get Professor Lacer. Tell him it’s an emergency.”
Fekten’s wand rose again. “You have something to hide, boy?”
Sebastien’s tone was cold as he stared Fekten down. “On the contrary. I simply don’t feel safe being trapped underground with a professor who has repeatedly made it abundantly clear just how hair-trigger his murderous tendencies are. I can demonstrate to anyone who wishes how simple it is to cast basic spells with a Conduit touching my calf, or my shoulder, or even my ass. But I will do so under the supervision of my mentor. If you truly mean me no harm, that shouldn’t be a problem. After all, he’s trained to deal with much worse situations than an Apprentice-level Aberrant. His presence could only be a boon.”
“I’ll get him,” Damien said. Not bothering to wait for Fekten’s agreement, he turned to sprint ahead, toward the tower and the exit tunnels that would lead him to the edge of the Flats. He didn’t stop until he found Professor Lacer, then explained the situation in as few words as possible, so that his panting for breath would waste less time.
Professor Lacer rose from his seat at the Practical Casting exhibition’s judges’ table and strode off in the direction Damien had come from without even a farewell to the others or a second glance toward the student on stage. “Explain the situation,” he bit out as Damien hurried to keep up with the man’s much longer stride.
Damien did his best to explain, trying to gauge from Professor Lacer’s severe expression just how bad the situation was. “Did you know he could cast through other parts of his body? Is that part of the training you were giving him?” Damien asked, because there was no way he was going to ask if Professor Lacer believed Sebastien was telling the truth. He didn’t even want to ask that question of himself.
“I did not know, but such a skill is not unheard of, if somewhat difficult to develop safely,” Professor Lacer said, falling silent as they entered the heavy iron doors of the shelter.
The space beyond looked larger than Damien expected, but as he thought back to how packed together the students had been as they huddled in the shelter underneath the library, he realized that it probably only seemed larger because it was so empty.
Sebastien’s shoulders visibly relaxed when the two of them arrived, but only for a moment before he drew them back and lifted his chin again with the imperiousness that came so naturally to him, staring Fekten down as if looking at some kind of unruly puppy.
As Damien moved to stand supportively at Sebastien’s side, despite the protests of the healer Fekten had retrieved, while Professor Lacer spoke to Fekten, who explained the situation much less charitably than Damien had.
Professor Lacer’s expression didn’t change at all throughout the entire thing. “My apprentice is is very talented with these kinds of exercises.”
Fekten stared at him for a moment, speechless.
“It’s true,” Damien piped up, smoothing his disheveled hair back when everyone turned to look at him. “Sebastien has already learned how to distance the output of his spells. I’m not sure if you were aware, but he’s a genuine genius. Rather than doubting him and casting aspersions on his character, don’t you think you should be giving him contribution points for his impressive feats?”
The edge of Professor Lacer’s mouth quirked up for just a moment. “Indeed. Let us get this over with quickly, shall we? I have duties to attend to.”
Fekten bristled, letting out an audible snort that reminded Damien of the rumble of a dragon’s breath. The diviner and the healer both hesitated, looking at each other as if asking if this was normal, but when Professor Lacer waved his hand impatiently, they jumped into action.
Sebastien stepped into the spell array the diviner had drawn on the floor while Professor Lacer murmured with the woman, something Damien couldn’t quite catch about a “boon,” and “increasing the required power,” that made the woman pale uncomfortably. Damien suspected it had something to do with whatever the Raven Queen had done to Sebastien that he wasn’t able to talk about.
The woman cast the spell, and there were a few seconds where things felt strange, and Damien found himself looking away, examining the others, and was surprised to see both Fekten and the healer looking at back at him.
Then Damien looked to Professor Lacer, who was staring into the center of the spell array with fascination. He followed the older man’s gaze back to his friend, who shuddered uncomfortably, rolling his shoulders.
“I’m ready,” Sebastien said.
There really wasn’t much to say, and though Fekten and the diviner questioned him multiple times about the details and forced him to repeat things, that part finished quickly.
Professor Lacer shot Fekten a disdainful raised eyebrow. “Why don’t you demonstrate your capabilities for us, Mr. Siverling?” he asked.
With a sigh of relief, Sebastien acquiesced, pulling the Conduit Professor Lacer had lent him out of his pocket. Under the watchful eye of all five of them, he pulled out one of a disk painted with a simple gust spell array from his backpack, which he was still wearing. He cast normally, first, holding the Conduit in a firm grip. Then he cast with the Conduit sitting on the back of his hand. Then, drawing a gasp from the healer, he held the Conduit in the crook of his elbow, between his bicep and his forearm and cast the same gust spell just as easily as before.
Damien found himself grinning so wide his cheeks almost hurt, a heady cocktail of relief and pride urging him to gloat, to strut around making pointed comments in Fekten’s general direction.
Then Sebastien sat on the ground, placed the Conduit between the skin of his calf and the floor, and cast again, looking at Fekten.
The healer cleared her throat. “No signs of elevated heart rate, dilation of the eyes, bodily convulsions or trembling in the fingers. If he were experiencing the extreme sensation that accompanies channeling magic through one’s own flesh, I would expect to see some sign of it.”
“As you can see, my apprentice is simply talented,” Professor Lacer said.
“Well,” Fekten said with a harrumph. “You still acted recklessly, Siverling. We had to suspend the end of term exam for dozens of students. I must insist that you submit yourself to the infirmary for a more thorough battery of tests before participating in the next exhibition.” He paused, then added, “At least this was a false alarm, but I cannot believe that those imbeciles acting as the enemy continued to attack you despite all the evidence of someone who was about to have a break event.”
He made a few threats that Damien tuned out before stomping off, accompanied by the healer and the diviner, who bowed to Professor Lacer before leaving.
As soon as the three of them were alone, Damien couldn’t hold it in any longer. “How long have you been able to control a Conduit through your leg!?”
Sebastien rolled his eyes. “I don’t even know, Damien. As long as I remember, I suppose. Using a Conduit touching other parts of the body is actually not that difficult. I suspect that most people just have some mental block they never attempt to overcome. As Professor Lacer might say, they get into a rut. I had no idea it would be such a big deal.”
“How could you not realize?” Damien asked. “Do you see people going around casting with their wrists, or their belly buttons?”
“Do you remember that children’s rhyme about Harry Harold who had no hands? He wore jeweled shoes so he could cast through his feet.”
Damien blinked twice. “Yes. I remember that nonsensical rhyme for children. I also remember other similar stories about children walking into a dragon’s mouth and being transported to another world, then climbing out of the dragon’s nose years later, unharmed. Or about a girl who could transform at will into a pegasus. Or the one about the one-inch boy who might come to live with you if you built an appropriately detailed miniature house for him and filled it with all of your baby teeth.”
Sebastien crossed his arms. “Well, that’s not the same thing at all.”
“Yes, yes it is. For normal people, it is. Normal people cast magic through their hands, or maybe sometimes their foreheads.” He turned to Professor Lacer for help, but the man was just watching them with something that might have been amusement. Damien threw up his hands with exasperation. “Let me be clear, the reason the coppers search peoples’ crevices is not because they’re afraid criminals will start channeling spells through the Conduit shoved up their assholes!”
Sebastien raised one eyebrow in challenge, an expression that was eerily reminiscent of Professor Lacer, and drawled, “I know I’m impressive, but I’m sure you could do it too with a little bit of practice, if you weren’t so close-minded. Myrddin never would have been able to create Carnagore or sneak into the secret realm of the fey and marry their princess if he was so pessimistic.”
Damien reached up to tug at his hair in frustration, but Sebastien laughed. Whatever tension had remained in the other young man’s frame was gone as he grinned smugly at Damien. Damien squinted at him suspiciously, keeping the warm glow of relief that had bloomed in his chest from showing on his face. “You’re poking fun at me.”
Sebastien gave him a one-shouldered shrug, turning to walk toward the shelter’s exit. “Only partially. Right?” she asked, turning to Professor Lacer.
The man hummed, looking Sebastien over speculatively. “I suppose you may be correct. I can cast with a Conduit touching other parts of my body, but I still find using my hands much easier. I cannot free-cast without them, and even some of the more difficult spells would be beyond me. I am surprised you managed to distance your spell’s output under such restrictions. However, I did not start developing the ability until I was in my thirties. Perhaps if I had started younger, I would have progressed with similar ease.”
Sebastien seemed surprised by this, and then thoughtful, his dark eyes staring into the distance as he frowned.
After they closed the shelter door behind them, Professor Lacer returned to his duties, but Damien insisted on accompanying Sebastien to the infirmary, where Ana and her little sister Nat were already waiting for them.
“We saw what happened on the big mirrors,” Nat announced immediately, her eyes searching Sebastien’s face with an endearingly sincere worry. “Are you alright? We tried to read people’s lips when you were talking with Fekten, but I’m not very good at it yet, and it was hard to see you clearly inside of that bubble.”
Damien flushed, realizing that it was likely his response—the tears and his complete loss of composure—had been shown in great detail, duplicated from the small mirrors in the arena onto the much larger ones erected for the audience to watch the most interesting events of the mock battle. The practical part of the Defensive Magic exam was automatically displayed as part of the exhibition, and one of the biggest lures of the entire event.
Sebastien reached out to take Nat’s hand, squeezing it reassuringly and making the girl’s cheeks flush pink. Once again, he quickly explained the misunderstanding that had caused so much pandemonium.
“Of course you would be able to do that. Doesn’t anyone here know you’re going to be a free-caster soon?” Nat asked, blowing out her cheeks with frustration.
Ana nodded sagely, the only sign of her own worry the wrinkled spots on her blouse where she must have clutched it in white-knuckled fear, which no amount of smoothing with her fingers could totally hide. “That is a good point, Nat. One that I think everyone should hear before too much gossip that might be undesirable spreads. As they say, a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.”
Nat pressed her lips together and patted the back of Sebastien’s hand, which was still holding her own. “Don’t worry. We’ll make sure people don’t think badly of you just because that idiot professor got so frightened.”
“He’s a respected man,” Ana chided. “We can’t call him an idiot. Just…overly anxious about the safety of his students. He fought through a lot of horrible battles. Perhaps there is some lingering trauma from the Haze War.” She turned to Sebastien, gave him a brief, tight hug, releasing him before his surprise could fully take hold.
Damien smiled at her. “Thank you, Ana.”
“Think nothing of it,” she replied, taking out a small mirror from her pocket and checking her appearance, slipping on a sweet smile like a general arming himself for battle. When she finished, she passed the mirror down to Nat, who tried out several different expressions, muttering to herself as if she was talking to someone, or rehearsing a speech.
Sebastien looked between them with bemusement. “Yes…thank you.”
Nat tossed a lock of hair over her shoulder nonchalantly, but couldn’t hide her excitement. “Think nothing of it. We’re Gervins, you know. This is nothing we can’t handle.”
After they had gone to influence public opinion in Sebastien’s favor, one of the healers took Sebastien into a private room for another checkup. Sufficiently alone but assured that plenty of healers would be around to help him if he needed it, Damien tried to cast the simplest spark-shooting spell on a piece of paper, with his Conduit held in the crook of his forearm.
He did not find it nearly so effortless as Sebastien and Thaddeus Lacer had made it seem.
He felt barely any connection to the magical energy that should have been—needed to be—within his grasp. Frightened that he would lose control of the insignificant spell entirely, Damien released the energy, retracted his Will, and gripped his Conduit in his hand as he waited for his racing heartbeat to slow.
Author Note 2/2/23:
- I actually created the entire children’s rhyme, “Harry Harold Had no Hands.” I had the idea for this conversation between Damien and Sebastien over a year ago and was just waiting for the perfect place to feature it in the story. I’m no good at poetry, so don’t expect much, but you can read the rhyme FOR FREE here: Bonus Stories and Deleted Scenes
- The Honeymoon Suite “short story” turned into a novelette with multiple chapters. 5 have already been posted, with at least 2 more to come over the next few days. If you want to read it, you only need to be a patron at the $2 tier. Feedback from readers:
- “I’m losing my mind with giggles over here. This is WONDERFUL! You took a great idea and made it fucking amazing”
- “Screaming crying throwing up I love this so much”
- “At this point I find the interlude more entertaining than the main plot.”
- A (canonical) deleted chapter from the beginning of Book 3 is also now available for patrons. It’s just a ton of bonus content raining from the sky, guys. Check out Preventative Measures.
Chapter 146 – Walk The Plank
Month 3, Day 25, Thursday 9:35am
Sebastien took a deep breath and bellowed, “Down the stairwell! Get down to the ground floor!” loud enough for her voice to echo off the stone around them for several blocks.
Damien flinched, pressing one hand protectively over his ear as he stared at her incredulously.
She hurried to the center of the roof, crouched down, and waved frantically at the others to keep them from actually going down the stairs. Instead, she pointed at the building in the opposite direction from which the enemy reinforcements were coming. It didn’t have direct roof access, but it had a balcony. “We’re making a run for that balcony. We have to move faster than them, or they’ll see us. We can only hope everyone else is too focused on catching us in the stairwell, or ambushing us on the ground floor of this building to notice what we’ve done until it’s too late.”
With that, she sprinted across the roof with the plank bridge over her shoulder, maneuvering the opposite end over and down to the balcony across the narrow street as silently as possible. Two of the bigger men helped to hold down the end and keep it stable, and when Damien got across, he did the same on the other end.
“Remember, you can feel free to stay here and slow down the enemy,” Sebastien said when several of her group members stared at the precariously placed bridge with hesitation. “We’ll laud your heroic last stand to the examiners.”
In the end, two of them did decide to stay behind. As Sebastien shuffled across the makeshift bridge, feeling bile rise in her throat, she couldn’t blame them. But her grade in Fekten’s class wasn’t high enough that she could afford to fail the final exam and still pass. In the distance, the roar of the audience rose to a fever-pitch.
She caught a splinter in her palm from clutching the sides of the sloping planks too hard, but ignored the pinch of pain in favor of maintaining her precarious stability.
As she reached the balcony, several hands reached out to steady her way down, but her pant leg caught on the white stone mimicking a decorative wrought-iron fence and tore loudly. Her suit shifted strangely as it registered the “injury,” but thankfully didn’t consider it debilitating enough to theoretically kill her. Still, it would lower her final score.
Grim faced, Sebastien motioned her orders, and the others pulled the plank bridge into the room beyond the balcony to keep it hidden. She pulled the splinter out of her palm with her teeth, sucked the blood off of it, and then licked her palm a few times just to be sure. She spit out the splinter, examined it, and tucked it into her pocket. She would dispose of it safely later. One could never be too paranoid.
Without hesitation, they continued deeper into the building and down the stairwell, moving so fast that Damien barely had time to scout ahead. The ground floor was not as empty as they had hoped, and Sebastien’s heart stilled for a moment, then crashed into her ribcage as it began to race.
But the people down below wore the black of upper-term allies, not red. They were picking up supplies from a black-flagged stash surrounded by a barrier of sandbags.
A woman raised her hands to her lips for silence, and waved them on. Her eyebrows raised as she watched all eight of them hurry to the nearest window and crouch down beside it.
“No enemies in sight,” Damien reported. “The black tower is that way. Do we just make a run for it?”
Everyone turned to Sebastien.
“Yes,” Sebastien agreed reluctantly. “Damien as scout, shielders and damage dealers pair up. I’ll bring up the rear.” Nominally, with her spell array disks, she was the wildcard, but if the worst came to pass, she could abandon the rest of the group and perhaps still make it to the tower.
Without argument, they exited silently through the nearest window. When Sebastien glanced back over her shoulder before following, the upper-term woman winked at her.
Soon after, the sounds of fighting erupted behind them. Sebastien didn’t look back.
They made it almost all the way to their destination without serious incident, meeting a few more grey and black suited students along the way. They took down a pair of injured enemies who were trying to retreat from the black tower’s territory. The sounds of fighting all around them grew louder, and they passed several sandbag barricades, some manned, and some empty or collapsed.
Finally, they turned the corner toward the street that would lead them directly to the tower entrance. To their right, only a couple blocks away, the tower flew the black flag above. At its base, students in dark grey and black manned sandbag barricades.
To their left, much closer, marched an entire unit of enemy troops, at least a couple dozen people, shielding spells up to protect them as they bludgeoned their way forward. ‘So this is what the audience was making such a big fuss about,’ Sebastien realized.
The woman at the front of the enemy unit wore a dark red cloak and epaulets to signify her high ranking—and commensurate danger level. They were marching on the tower with the intent to bring it down. If they succeeded, it would fly the red flag, and those students charged with its protection would fail.
Their entire group caught sight of the advancing enemy at the same time, and as one, they made the same decision.
“Run!” Rhett yelled, shooting a futile offensive spell at the enemy.
Sebastien’s group scattered across the narrow street, sprinting for all they were worth as their allies shot spells past them to try to cover their retreat.
Sebastien kept an eye on the enemy with her peripheral vision, her shielding spell array ready to activate at any moment. The harmless test spells moved slower than real battle spells, and if she reacted quick enough, she could either dive out of the way or block them. With the wild way some of her allies were attacking, she might even need to shield against friendly fire. ‘I’m only a first term student. If I can just make it to the base, my part of the test will be over, no matter what happens next.’
Damien turned around, looking for her, then slowed down enough to run beside her instead of sprinting ahead at the front of the group. “I’ve got your back, you’ve got mine,” he said, only slightly out of breath.
Sebastien nodded curtly.
But of course, a unit meant to bring down a tower base was not short of spell power.
Sebastien saw the tell-tale foggy shimmer of a faux concussive blast spell roll out of the leader’s battle wand, followed by two more to either side, perfectly placed so that there was no dodging it.
The low-powered, small-area shielding spells that she and the other first term students had would do nothing against it.
“Tuck and roll!” Sebastien snapped half a second before the magic reached them.
Wide-eyed, Damien copied her, throwing himself to the ground in a fetal position as the magic pushed at their heels.
The faux concussive blast spell was gentler than a real one, and moved slower, but in some ways it was more powerful. Instead of slamming them into the ground and leaving them fractured, bruised inside and out, it lifted them and sent them flipping through the air.
Sebastien collided with Damien, and then the ground, and then they were rolling and tumbling together in a painful tangle of limbs. Something bashed into her hand and sent her Conduit flying. As they settled, she looked up dizzily toward the approaching enemy, cursing the rules that had forced her to leave her pocket watch and the chain that would have secured her Conduit behind.
Several of the enemy unit’s people were laughing at them, and as they neared, they raised their wands again.
Sebastien still had the handle of the shielding spell array in one of her hands, and though her suit’s sensors had registered more damage and had begun to restrict her movement, she was not entirely out of the test yet. She was still considered “alive.”
A sparkle caught the corner of her eye, resting beside Damien’s hip. His Conduit had fallen out of his pocket.
Sebastien raised the shielding spell array and her leg at the same time, confirmed that she had thought to add the basic output detaching symbols and that the beast core was still held securely in its place, and brought her calf down hard on top of Damien’s Conduit. Her ripped pant leg provided the perfect patch of bare skin to access the celerium through, and the crystalline gem dug painfully into her calf.
She grinned ferally and cast the shield spell, just in time to block the offensive sphere of light heading toward her chest. “Damien, I need you to get up without moving me—carefully, and pick up my Conduit.”
“What?” Damien asked, his voice low and horrified.
Several of the enemies showed their surprise at their offensive spells impacted harmlessly against her shield. A few hesitated, looking toward their leader for instruction, but others continued to attack.
Tangled together as she and Damien were, it didn’t take much movement for Sebastien to position the shield’s output between them and any spell that seemed like it might hit. “Hurry!” she snapped.
“How are you casting without your Conduit!?” he hissed, scrambling to pick it up from where it had rolled and almost catching a stray spell to the head. He moved so quickly he almost tripped before he could return and press it into her free hand. “Oh, by all the planes-damned idiotic things to do, Sebastien. Are you casting through your own flesh?” he wailed, his hands flapping about uselessly.
“Of course not!” she snapped.
Slowly, still holding the shielding spell between them and the enemy, she rose to her feet. “Pick up your Conduit from the ground, and get behind me.” Any little advantage might help them to make it to the tower unscathed.
She began to walk backward as quickly as her bruises and the restrictive suit would allow, blocking the increasingly frequent offensive spells and praying that the leader didn’t send another concussive blast at her. Sebastien’s mind spun through all the possible options, wondering if there was anything they could do to improve their chances.
At this point, they needed powerful backup, someone to come out from the tower and take the enemy’s attention while they retreated.
But before she could retreat more than a few meters, Professor Fekten’s voice resounded through the narrow streets, bouncing off the walls and almost screaming with tension. “Code red! Code red shutdown of area C! The exam is delayed!”
Sebastien dropped her shielding spell, looking around in confusion, relief, and a little bit of apprehension. Code red meant that there was significant danger to the students’ wellbeing nearby, and that they needed to retreat to safety.
She turned, hurrying faster to the tower as her suit released all of its restrictions. There would be tunnels at its base to lead them out of the exam arena, the same way they’d been brought into it. And at the very least, she would feel safer sheltered behind the back of someone like Fekten than right out in the middle of the street.
Except…everyone around her was scrambling back. Those close to the tower were heading that way, but the enemy unit was retreating in the opposite direction. Several people wearing black and grey were running beside them. Even Damien had retreated away from her, his expression screwed up in gut-wrenching pain as he met her gaze.
Sebastien slowed, the weight of a horrible premonition settling on her shoulders.
Fekten had left the tower and was sprinting toward her.
She stilled, dropping the spell array disk and raising her hands in the air. After a moment of hesitation, she dropped her Conduit, too, lest someone think she planned to keep casting.
“Possible break event!” Fekten screamed, tossing a small golden sphere at her feet, where it sprouted legs that dug into the ground, and then bloomed with a spherical shield.
The shield surrounded her, semi-opaque and somehow solid enough to drown out most of the screams coming from outside. Idly, Sebastien realized that she could feel the rumble of the audience’s screams through the stone beneath her feet. This must have been the most exciting thing to happen all day.
His battle wand trained on her, Fekten stepped cautiously closer. “Get control of yourself, Siverling. Do not continue casting anything. If I catch even a hint—even a whiff—of magic coming off you, I’ll knock you unconscious. If you resist, I’ll do what needs to be done.” His gaze was flinty, and his meaning was clear. If he felt he had to, he would kill her to protect the other students.
Sebastien swallowed hard, her throat suddenly bone-dry. She kept her hands raised high and met his gaze as she nodded slowly and clearly. “I understand. But I think there’s been a misunderstanding.”
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Chapter 145 – A City of White Stone
Month 3, Day 25, Thursday 9:00am
As the clear bell signifying the start of the test rang, Sebastien removed her blindfold, blinking as she adjusted to the sudden brightness. Beside her, Damien and Rhett did the same. They stood in a featureless room made of the same white stone that composed the white cliffs and the Flats. All three wore grey, one-piece protective suits provided by the proctors, though their equipment beyond that varied.
The white stone formed the vague shape of a desk at the corner of the room, possibly useful as a shield against enemy spells, and an empty window hole let in light from the outside. Behind the three, the stone formed an open doorway into the rest of the building. The proctor that had led them up from the tunnels below was long gone.
In the far corner of the room, pressed against the ceiling, a small, dome-shaped silver mirror clung, watching. Sebastien met her own gaze for a moment, lifting her chin defiantly. “Let’s get to work,” she said, her voice tight. She crouched down, slinging off the backpack she’d traded some of her defense points for as she moved to the window hole.
Behind her, Damien moved toward the doorway, placing his back against the wall to peek safely around the corner as he pulled off his own backpack and retrieved the simple scanning artifact within. He had chosen to focus on reconnaissance.
Sebastien peeked out through the empty window. They were on the third floor, it seemed. The street below, along with the buildings directly across from her, and in every direction she could see, were made of the same white stone. “Just like we thought, Damien. Urban warfare.” She scanned for color or movement, either of which could indicate they were not alone. “Looks clear.” The faculty had drawn the arena for their test—and the exhibition—up from the stone of the Flats over the course of the last week, with the huge circular wall that mimicked Gilbratha’s own being the first feature.
Several upper-term students had tried to scale the wall using various methods to get an early glimpse of what lay on the other side, only to be caught and receive demerits for the attempted cheating.
Crouching down away from the window, she poured out the contents of her backpack. She had three metal disks to draw spell arrays on, two piece of paper detailing the most simple spells that would coordinate with the the sensors on their suits, and a handful of components, including a beast core. Each student had been allotted a certain number of points, based on their performance in Fekten’s Defense class thus far. Not unlike the University’s contribution point scheme, these defense points could be used to buy supplies for the exam. This was quite necessary, as they were required to leave all of their personal belongings except for their Conduits in a secure locker.
As Damien worked with the scanning artifact, Rhett moved to the window, his white teeth standing out against the darkness of his skin as he searched the streets below. His faux battle wand tracked along with his eyes, its tip held steady in his skillful grip. “How long is this going to take you two?” A bandolier at his chest was filled with false-explosive clay shells, marking him clearly as the offensive-focused member of their team.
“A few minutes for me,” Sebastien said, using a quick-drying paint stick to draw out the spell array for the faux battle spell that would trigger their protective suit’s damage sensors without actually harming the person within. When it was ready, she could hold it up with the handles on either side and actively cast one of the same spells stored in Rhett’s wand. Except she wouldn’t run out of charges.
Damien looked up from the scanning artifact, which looked like a round dinner platter with a handle on either side. “No enemy signals within range.”
“Good,” Sebastien said without looking up from her work. I want you two to scope out the building and the surrounding area and report back to me.”
Damien nodded immediately, but Rhett frowned. “Why are we following you?” he complained. “I have the highest grade in the class. Shouldn’t I be the one in charge?”
Damien’s smile held a hint of smugness. “Because Sebastien is the best strategist. Let’s go together.”
Sebastien nodded. “Watch each other’s backs. The scanning artifact is useful, but you can’t depend on it. Meet back here in five minutes.”
Damien left the room with a serious glare, his head swiveling back and forth as he searched for anything relevant.
This gave Rhett no choice but to follow Damien, though Rhett’s murmured complaints were audible. “How do you even know Sebastien’s a good strategist? I’m a good strategist! I’m great a chess, and you know dueling takes a lot of tactics.”
“Just trust me. Sebastien works well under pressure.” Damien replied faintly. “Now hush! We’re supposed to be stealthy.”
As the paint of her spell array dried, the symbols and glyphs within the bounding Circle working together to define the Word that would help guide her magic, Sebastien placed the components. They, along with the power from her beast core, would form the Sacrifice. Each spell array disk had little half-domes with that snapped into place to hold components safely in their spot on the spell array, but she made doubly sure the few component necessary would stick with a bit of quick-drying glue. All that was left was her Will, to be channeled through the Conduit Professor Lacer had given her on a moment’s notice.
Each disk had only been meant for a single spell array, but when the front was finished, she turned them around and began to draw careful lines across the back with the thick white paint. There were no component capsules for the back sides, but where necessary, she carefully dabbed a bit of that same-quick drying glue and simply pressed the components into it to hold them safely in place. This was a little dangerous, as a sloppy thaumaturge could slip and accidentally spread their Will into the wrong spell array, but she had already proved through experience that she could manage something like this. To some, like the shield array, she added the instructions for output displacement along a single plane—an option she had asked for Professor Lacer’s permission to use beforehand.
Sebastien finished barely in time for her two teammates to return, and was already slipping two of the metal disks into her backpack. Though she had a worse grade than either Rhett or Damien, with this she had managed to give herself as many options as both of them combined. She was their wildcard, their all-rounder utility member. “Report,” she said, and didn’t miss Rhett’s small eye-roll.
Damien immediately began to speak, standing tall with his chest puffed out. “We’re in what seems to be a warehouse, but there’s nothing strategic down below. Just some basic stone shapes of large equipment, and some piles of wooden planks. There’s roof access, though. From what we could see up there, we seem to be near the center of the city, and I’d estimate the outer wall is about eight hundred meters away. There are two towers flying the black nearby. None flying the red, which is good.”
“That doesn’t mean anything,” Rhett said, shaking his head. “It’s too early for the enemy to have made much progress, yet. One of our towers is about ten blocks away to the west, and the other eight blocks away, closer to the center. Some signs of fighting in the distance, but nothing closer than three blocks. I say we head out now, see if we can take out an enemy team or two and get some extra points before making it to the tower.”
As first-term students, their man objective was simply to remain “alive,” which meant ensuring that their suits didn’t register enough damage to make the fabric turn stiff and lock them in place. That would net them the lowest grade. It would be higher if they could get to one of the towers flying the black ally banner. For extra points, they could complete various bonus objectives, such as assisting ally “troops” or working against the enemy in various ways.
“Planks, you say? Made of actual wood, not stone?” she asked.
“Yes,” Damien confirmed. “I suspect they’re meant to be supplies for us to set up makeshift barricades, but I didn’t find any nails or other supplies.”
She stood and swung her backpack over her shoulder, leading the way downstairs. She eyeballed the planks, then moved to the nearest window and measured the width of the street with her eyes. It was narrower than a real city, only about ten feet across. She looked up speculatively at the edges of the rooftops.
The sounds of fighting came faintly from the east, toward the center of the urban arena.
“Enemy signals!” Damien whispered.
Instinctively, all three of them crouched down, out of sight.
They waited a few minutes for the signals to pass, and when Damien signaled they were clear, she peeked up just enough to see the red suits of the enemy forces turning the corner away from them a few building down the street.
“We should have attacked. We have the element of surprise and there were only two of them,” Rhett muttered.
“Any extra points are a secondary objective. Our first priority is to get to one of the black towers safely.” She moved over to the planks, choosing two that looked suitable for her budding idea. “Is the roof flat?”
“Yeah,” Damien confirmed, watching her curiously but without doubt.
“Okay, I’ve got an idea. Damien, I need your help bringing two of the planks up to the roof. Rhett, you cover us. Don’t draw unnecessary attention, but you have the okay to attack ”
“Wait, what?” Rhett said, shooting her an incredulous look. “You want to fortify this place? This isn’t a good strategic location. We’re too far away from any tower.”
“That’s not what I’m thinking,” Sebastien said, moving carefully up the stairs.
“Then what?” Rhett asked, trailing behind.
“We don’t need to put ourselves in danger moving through the streets rife with fighting and scattered with enemies. If there’s a suitable path, we can travel by rooftop instead.”
Rhett eyed the planks dubiously. “That seems…dangerous.”
This time, it was Damien who rolled his eyes. “What, you’re fine to attack two enemies, but you’re afraid of heights?”
Rhett glared back, but didn’t answer.
Yet another open doorway led them to the rooftop, from which the view of the miniature city was even more impressive. ‘Is this how they raised the white cliffs in the first place? Did they just draw the stone up from the ground and mold it?’ she wondered.
A tall building blocked the path to the nearest tower, the one to the east, but there was a straight line of sight toward the one farther away in the opposite direction. “Ten blocks,” she murmured. She knew it would be a dangerous journey, but it would likely be safer. People often forget to look up.
With the planks side by side on the ground, she took out her remaining paint and drew out a wood-focused mending spell on the white stone beneath her feet. With the quick-drying glue as a component, she melded the two planks together, section by section, to create a wider surface. When she finished, she stepped back to admire her work. The bridge was crude, but it would get them across the gap between the rooftops. “It should hold,” she said, looking at Rhett and Damien. “Let’s get going.”
Damien went first, his arms spread wide for balance as he moved with surprising speed. The combined planks didn’t even wobble too badly. Once on the other side, he moved along the edge of the roof to scout out the streets around, then waved for them to follow.
Sebastien went next, and Rhett followed behind her. Suspended above the unforgiving white stone of the street, the planks bending and bouncing back slightly with every step, the ground seemed twice as far away as it had before. She had to resist the urge to fall to her hands and knees and wrap her arms around the planks to keep from falling. Instead, she went to that cold, focused place in her mind, consciously directing every twitch of muscle and movement of her limbs. ‘This is nothing,’ she reassured herself, though she was pretty sure her face was pale and her expression stiff enough to give her real feelings away.
They made it three blocks like that, traversing two flat roofs and inching along the circular edge of a domed roof. They passed several more small mirror domes, and in the distance, the dull roar of a cheering audience sounded, peaking at random moments when someone in the exam arena did something particularly impressive. When they found themselves above a fight in the street below, they paused. Three grey-suited allies—other first term students—fought against three red-suited enemies. Each group seemed to have just the basic attacking and shielding spells, and both groups already had one member “dead,” lying on the ground under the restriction of their body-suits.
The wind at this altitude wasn’t to be stopped even by the walls of the miniature city, carrying the faint chalky smell of the white stone and the sounds of screaming and fighting from all around the arena.
Rhett beamed with excitement, pushing past Sebastien to get closer to the fighting. “Extra points!” he exclaimed to Damien. Without waiting for confirmation from either of them, he pointed his battle wand and loosed one of the offensive spells. A pale purple sphere containing the slightest crackle of electricity shot out, moving at a sedate three meters per second until it impacted the back of one of the attackers.
Damien dropped his scanning artifact to the roof as he hurriedly fumbled at the camouflaging bands strapped around his suit. As the spell shimmered to life, his suit and the area around him all turned an off-white that almost blended into the stone as he moved pointedly away from the enemy’s return fire.
Sebastien cursed under her breath. She was on her own, struggling to control the plank and keep it out of sight as she pulled it back from the rooftops. She knew if she lost her balance, she would plummet to the unforgiving stone below.
Luckily, Rhett fought with an unexpected ferocity, taking down the second enemy in a matter of seconds without even coming close to being hit himself. He whooped, yelling, “Come on!” at his downed opponents.
The two grey-suited students below stared up at them with wide eyes. “Thank you!” one of them yelled up to them.
Rhett grinned back, bowing with a flourish.
Damien turned off the camouflage to save his second artifact’s limited power, then moved to help Sebastien lay the planks over the next gap between buildings. “Come on!” Sebastien snapped at Rhett, who was communicating through charades with the students below. The extra points were, of course, useful, but she would have appreciated it if Rhett could have waited to coordinate with the rest of his team before attacking.
As the duo below watched Sebastien’s trio traverse the roofway, the two survivors spoke quietly. With a quick farewell to the third member of their party, stuck unmoving on the ground, they hurried to follow along the street below. Just as Damien reached the next roof, one called, “We’re coming up!” just loud enough to be heard without drawing undue attention.
Rhett moved quickly to the opposite side of the roof, and his excitement grew palpable.
Sebastien’s eyes narrowed. “Do you see some—”
Out of nowhere, he stopped and tossed one of the clay faux-grenades—explosive potions—over the side of an intervening roof. The clay sphere landed and went off with a flash of light and a loud bang.
Sebastien flinched down automatically. “What are you doing!?”
He grinned at her, unrepentant. “I noticed an enemy-flagged supply stash about a block away. It was behind an old, rickety wooden barricade. More points!”
Sebastien gasped in shock at his recklessness, quickly ushering them forward and hurrying to place the planks down again. They needed to get away before anyone could spot them. “What were you thinking?” she demanded. “If we’re spotted—”
Sebastien’s scolding was cut off by the arrival of the two first-term students, one young man and one woman. The woman’s eyes widened as she got a closer look at the three of them.
“You’re that Sebastien guy?” she said, her face breaking into a wide grin. “The one who saved those civilians by fighting an Aberrant!”
Her partner was less enamored, but gave them all an excited grin. “Thanks again for the help. Would you like to team up? Safety in numbers, and all that. Not like you need it, but—”
Damien eyed them both warily before turning to Sebastien for confirmation. “What do you think?”
“Extra points for heroic actions,” Rhett said. “That would be two allies rescued and escorted to safety. I say they join.”
Sebastien hesitated, looking them over. She had to admit that Rhett had a point, the extra points could be useful. But that didn’t mean she was keen on taking on the responsibility of two more students. They didn’t have any special equipment, and from the little she’d seen they weren’t especially skilled.
The two of them smiled hopefully at her. “We won’t be any trouble, I promise,” the woman said.
“Alright,” Sebastien agreed with a sigh. “You can join us, but you have to listen to my orders. Failure to do so, or reckless actions that endanger the rest of the group, will see you kicked out immediately.” She gave Rhett a pointed look, which he ignored while grinning at her response.
The two were quick to agree, and with that the team of five started making their way across the rooftops again. Sebastien gave orders and kept them all organized as they scurried from building to building. Damien continued to scout the way, and several times they paused to hide from an enemy patrol passing below, despite Rhett’s protests.
“Sure, we can take a few of them out, but what happens when one of them gets word back to the rest, or alerts a more powerful enemy that we’re a threat?” she argued back. “If we fail to make it safely to the tower, we don’t just lose those additional points, Rhett. We fail the test entirely. That’s not a risk I’m willing to take.”
“Maybe you’re less willing to take the necessary risks because you have less riding on this test. No matter how well you perform today, there’s no chance you’ll end up the best student of the term. But I’m not in that same position. I need these bonus objectives, Siverling,” Rhett urged. “It’s ridiculous to ignore enemies that we could defeat.”
Luckily, both of her new charges were quiet and quick to obey her orders. When Rhett looked around for agreement with his argument, neither of them met his gaze. “We’re already down one original teammate, and that will affect our grade,” the young man explained. “I’d just rather get there safely. I can’t afford to fail.”
“I wouldn’t mind taking on some extra enemies,” Damien said, “But not while we’re still so far from the tower. Maybe we can spend a few minutes patrolling around that area once we’ve dropped these guys off.”
Rhett huffed, but seemed to realize he was outnumbered. “There’s a time limit too, you know.”
A large group of enemies below forced them to take a detour, and a couple more precarious roofs with precipitous drops slowed them.
Crouching in the middle of a thankfully flat roof as she listened to sounds of the enemies below, Sebastien estimated that they were halfway to their destination. She didn’t have her watch, but thought thirty minutes or so had passed. They were making good time.
“They’re gathering on this location,” Damien said.
“Do you think they know we’re here?” the woman, whose name Sebastien had immediately forgotten after she introduced herself, asked.
“No. I think they’re doing something else. Fighting, or setting up some strategic location. This building had no direct roof access, so they have no way to get to us even if they do realize.”
“But how do we get across without them noticing us?”
“We wait till they’re all inside,” Damien answered, staring down at the scanning artifact. “Any moment now, we’ll make a break for it.”
Everyone froze as a loud banging echoed over the bare stone, followed by shouts and screams coming from the floor below.
Damien crept forward, his camouflage active, and Sebastien followed behind him. A few meters below, a girl rushed out to the balcony. “It’s too far! We can’t jump,” the girl called back to her companions inside the building. Her suit was slightly darker than Sebastien’s own, indicating that she was a second, or maybe third-term student.
“The barricade won’t last long!” a man’s throaty voice called back to her, his voice breaking with strain. “I don’t think we can fight them all.”
Damien and Sebastien shared a look, and when she did a quick sweep of her peripheral for danger, she found the other two first-term students staring at her expectantly.
“How are we going to save them?” the young man asked.
“You could drop down there and surprise the enemy when they break down the barrier,” the woman suggested.
“There are at least eight enemy signals,” Damien said darkly. An explosion rumbled through the stone, much weakened from real battle magic, but still powerful enough to cause several shouts of fear and dismay from the students below. “And…yep, those are more on the way,” Damien added.
The five of them ducked down even further to make sure they weren’t seen. The woman bit her thumbnail. “I don’t think even Sebastien can take on that many.”
“I can take them,” Rhett offered, smiling at the woman reassuringly. “I’ll jump down to the balcony, the rest of you can find a way down to the street, and then we’ll do a pincer attack on the whole group of them. They’re in the stairwell; there’s nowhere to run.”
Sebastien opened her mouth to say that they had neither the time nor the ability to save this group, who were fighting against so many enemies, but stopped herself. “I…actually have an idea,” she realized.
Reaching into her backpack, she pulled out a different spell array disk. “I can create handholds in the stone—a ladder of a sort—for them to climb up.” She had loaded up the stone disintegration and gust spells on it, thinking that she might use it to blow a fine dust at the enemy that would irritate their lungs and eyes, or even, with enough dust, create cloud cover for her team.
With the addition of a couple glyphs to allow her to distance the output in the vertical direction, Sebastien began to cast. Sand trickled away from a section of the wall, leaving behind a divot a couple inches deep and a single handstand across.
“I’ll get them on board with the plan,” Damien said. Turning his camouflage on once again, he swung himself over the edge of the roof and dropped down to the balcony as softly as possible.
“Take this!” Rhett said, pulling an artifact off of his bandolier and tossing it down to Damien. “One-time-use shield. If they break down the barricade, just shout and I’ll be right behind you.” Sebastien was thankful that at least he hadn’t insisted on being the one to go down.
Gripping her Conduit tighter, she drew more power from the small, dull beast core, causing the sand to flow faster. With quick adjustments of her Will, she drew the detached output up the side of the wall, step by step.
Whatever Damien said below, he managed to get the other students on board more quickly than she had expected. “Hurry,” he urged, looking back over his shoulder, where another soft explosion rumbled out, shaking the stone beneath their feet.
The students wasted no time climbing up, squinting their eyes against the crumbled white stone that continued to fall from above as Sebastien created the last of the handholds.
As the first of them reached the top, she dropped the spell and reached out to help haul them up. She counted five new students, three men and two women. Flecks of white stone stuck to the sweat along their temples, which was already drying under the caress of the wind.
Below, Damien knelt to set up the shield artifact, then brought up the rear, scowling as some of the lingering dust kicked up by the students climbing above him got in his hair.
“Titan’s balls,” one of the young men murmured, staring at Sebastien. “Is he a free-caster already?”
“He’s Thaddeus Lacer’s apprentice,” the first woman responded in a murmur.
“Quiet!” Sebastien bit out, scowling out at the group as she gestured for one of the men to help her move the plank bridge to the the far edge of the building.
Damien went first again, against as the scout, but a couple of the new upper-term students paled at the sight of the precarious pathway. “No, I can’t do that,” one of the women whimpered. “Mr. Siverling, I can’t. I’m afraid of heights.” She looked down at the street below, then stepped back and squeezed her eyes shut, crouching as if she thought she might fall off the edge of the roof.
“I’m afraid of heights, too,” one of the men said sheepishly.
Rhett reached out to take the woman’s hands. “Don’t worry, we’ll definitely keep you safe.” He turned to Sebastien. “Your plan isn’t going to work anymore. I vote we stay and use our superior numbers to overwhelm the enemy. I’ll stay on the roof with those who can’t use the bridge, and the rest of you can find a way down, then circle around to meet up with us.”
“Are you sure?” the woman asked, looking up at him with watery eyes.
“Just watch,” he said, smirking. “If the others don’t hurry, I’ll have taken down all the enemies and snatched all the extra points for myself.”
Sebastien’s chest flared hot with outrage, but she tamped it down, keeping her face expressionless. “If you would like to stay behind and act as a sacrifice for the remainder of the group to get away, you may. But I will not be staying in this location for even more reinforcements to arrive. As soon as they catch wind of what we’re doing, we’re trapped up here. You realize that they don’t actually have to stick around and fight us? They can retreat back down that stairwell at any time. They could pick us off easily as we try to cross the bridge, and climbing down the side of the building would be even stupider. We need to move quickly—” she cut herself off as explosions rumbled out from the direction of the nearest red tower. Dust clouds rose, and screams of fear and anger cut through the wind.
It was a good reminder. Arguing with Rhett was just wasting time.
She let her eyes rove over the others. “If you want to come with us, you had better move quickly. Otherwise, remain here,” she said, her words clipped and her tone cold. “If you falter or make a mistake, you could very well fall to your deaths. I have no way to save you before you break yourselves across the ground like an egg. Don’t slow the rest of us down.” Turning, she hurried across the plank.
Those left behind hesitated, and Rhett gave her a long, dark glare as she reached the other side, but no one decided to remain behind, even the woman so afraid of heights.
Getting all ten students across still took an excruciating amount of time, and by the time they had done so, the enemy on the floor below had spotted them. A couple tried to follow using the handholds Sebastien had created. Her group quickly took out the first, sending him falling back to the balcony below, but the next red-suited enemy crawled up holding a shield above his head. He grinned triumphantly at them, then ducked down again, calling out to his comrades.
A couple moved to the nearest windows facing their direction and began to shoot up at them.
“Damien, find a roof with stairwell access,” Sebastien ordered. “Move fast, and take the others. We’ll hold up the rear.” They had no choice but to stay and fight in the hopes of stopping, or at least delaying, the enemy from calling reinforcements. As such a large group, they could no longer move fast enough to effectively escape.
The largest advantage of her rooftop travel plan had been negated. Luckily, the spell-fire was enough incentive for several of the students to hurry along to escape with Damien, hesitation erased.
Rhett actually managed to hit one of the enemy’s spells in mid-air. This feat detonated both spells close enough to the enemy to send the woman reeling back, her suit constricting around her and toppling her stiffly to the floor. Rhett tried to toss an explosive shell through the window as a follow-up, but his aim was off, and the clay sphere hit the wall and exploded harmlessly.
With her spell array disk, Sebastien managed to down another enemy, and one of the rescued men who had decided to stay behind with them got a lucky shot off at a red-suited woman hurrying out of the building at the ground floor. Soon after, the attacks stopped.
Rhett and the other man grinned with exhilaration, but Sebastien knew this was far from a victory. Her mouth was dry, and though the wind still carried a chill, the sun beat down on her back with enough strength to leave her armpits dripping with sweat.
Damien had led most of the students to an adjacent roof, though it was in the opposite direction of the nearest tower flying the black. As if he could feel her gaze, he pointed to the next roof and mouthed “stairs.”
They hurried to follow, crouching low and staying silent. Even Rhett seemed a little disgruntled at the reduced speed of their crossing. After all, the longer it took them to reach the tower, the less points they would receive for that objective.
However, Sebastien was no longer worried about points. As long as they could make it without their suits recording any serious “injuries,” they would easily pass the test. To the contrary, she was questioning her decision to save the extra students at all. Just because she had an idea of how to do it, didn’t necessarily mean she should have.
After all, their safety wasn’t her priority. If she and Damien had partnered with anyone else but Rhett, maybe it wouldn’t even have been an issue in the first place.
They had just made it to the stairwell when Damien reported an enemy presence down below.
Silently, Sebastien signaled for the rest of group to wait, while she and Rhett moved closer to Damien so they could discuss the situation.
Without waiting for her to question him, Damien explained. “I caught a glimpse of red below, but no enemy signals are showing up on the scanner. They must have a cloaking device.”
Rhett gazed out at the tower flying the black flag, only a couple hundred meters away. “Either we go down and fight, or we try to make a break for it across the rooftops. Or maybe we could split up, with the more combat oriented of us going down, and the rest moving as quickly as they can to safety.”
Sebastien was surprised he suggested leaving those they had rescued to their own devices, but it wasn’t a bad idea. Only, she didn’t really like either option. She couldn’t continue to inch across the gap between rooftops with the others, but going down the stairs and having to fight her way out also did not sound appealing. As her mind spun in search of a third route to safety, the flapping of wings drew her gaze to the side.
Cresting the edge of the roof was a young drake, flapping its wings frantically. Cousin to the dragon and as large a house cat, the creature wore a bright red collar. ‘An enemy familiar,’ Sebastien realized with horror.
The creature let out a loud screech half a second before Rhett’s spell hit it in the mouth and sent it fleeing back toward the ground.
Around the corner only a couple blocks from them, a group of twelve red-suited enemies turned in their direction. The leader’s arm rose, pointing right at them.
1/19: I’m back, babies! Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated. (I’ve always wanted to use that line.)
Anyway, I’m feeling well enough to work again, and I’ve got a lot of stuff coming your way over the next couple weeks. All the illustrations, deleted scenes, and bonus content I’ve been promising.
Where is the Honeymoon Suite short story? Well, I know I said I would post it on Tuesday the 17th, but like everything else, that plan was crushed by my illness. I’ll have it posted by this coming Tuesday instead.
Want to get an email with links as soon as a new chapter comes out on my website, or get monthly Inner Circle news about my writing? Sign up for your preference here: https://landing.mailerlite.com/webforms/landing/q4b8d8
Chapter 144 – Alliance Against Curiosity (Book 4 Start)
Month 3, Day 19, Friday 10:00pm
Thaddeus sat at the desk in his cottage as a storm raged outside, writing the last few pages of a guide to translating one of the more common pre-Cataclysm languages. Such a comprehensive and coherent reference would have been invaluable to him some years ago, but as none existed he had been forced to learn the hard way.
While writing the book, he had idly begun to consider how one might create a matrix of vocabulary and grammatical rules to inform an artifact that could do the translation automatically. Even if such a complex spell array would take months or years to develop, span an entire room, and be unfortunately clumsy without the help of a human operator’s deeper understanding and intuition to draw from, it was an intriguing concept.
If he took the time to develop such a spell and then publish his work, it might bring him some extra coin. Unfortunately, there was no way for him to create a translator for a language he did not already know, so the time and effort would not help him further approach the true goal of all his research. A human, even a powerful thaumaturge such as himself, had a limited lifespan. He needed to spend his only nonrenewable resource—time—in the most efficient way possible.
As often happened, thoughts of his research led Thaddeus’s mind to the Raven Queen. Just a couple days before, he had finally reached out to request a meeting through her associate, Lord Stag. He had hoped that she might contact him without the need for such, but as time passed Thaddeus had realized he must be more proactive if he wanted to move her little game of hints and intrigue toward something less nebulous. “She is stubborn,” he murmured aloud. “Not one to concede first.”
Thaddeus added the observation to his developing mental model of the powerful woman, and his thoughts turned toward her most recent exploit. He had suspected, from examining the function of the strange boon she had given his apprentice, that she may have been involved in the Haze War. The response of the protective effect to his various tests reminded him of some of the more innovative solutions the military researchers had come up with during that time, though obviously they had been expanded and improved upon.
The method she had used to kill the rogue Red Guard agent, who allied with the Architects of Khronos to attack the Stags had provided further evidence toward this possibility, as well as a reminder of her cruelty and recklessness.
A trip to one of the Red Guard bases had been enough to get a confirmation of the attacker’s identity as a former member of the Red Guard, as well as pick up some of the gossip from the emergency response squad that had first deployed to the location of the fighting when the gravity of the situation—and the type of spells being cast—became known. Observing from a roof with a good vantage point a few blocks away as they waited for backup, one of them had seen the Raven Queen kill the man. Unfortunately, even with a shaman to help solidify his memories, the details were unclear. The gang members had been throwing around battle philtres to cover their escape, clouding the view.
The rogue agent, an old man who’d gotten his hands on some dangerous items before deserting, had cast some sort of spell at those fleeing. The witness’s sight of that part had been blocked by a building. The man pulled back an item, most likely a purse but possibly a suitcase, and a woman they strongly suspected to be the Raven Queen stepped around the corner in the opposite direction of those fleeing.
She stopped to look at the old sorcerer, and without any obvious motions, free-cast an unknown spell to kill not only him, but the half-dozen enemies surrounding him.
When the turbulent effect had settled enough for the emergency response squad to get a good look again, she was gone, seemingly having made an appearance solely for that attack.
The three prognos Titus had called in to the site, along with the Red Guard’s reconnaissance and assessment team, had examined what killed the group of Architects and left behind such an alarming after-effect as thoroughly as possible before it faded.
All agreed that it had been the same particular blend of disintegration magic that Lenore’s army used in their mines during the Haze War, combined somehow with a space-bending spell to increase the sheer gruesomeness while also decreasing the chances that any standard shield could ward against the damage. There were several other twists of different types of magic that seemed random and had been hard to define, but which seemed to have increased the spectacle. They had all agreed that there was a strong flavor of darkness, along with some strange extracts of meaning related to sleep, the moon, and a few dozen other things, all too fleeting to be pinned down properly.
Thaddeus knew quite a few divination spells meant to check for anomalous effects, but the strange manifestation of magic that had been fading already by the time he arrived was complex and delicate. He was not an expert in that particular field, and his efforts had yielded no additional insight. He had considered the possibility that the lingering remnants of magic contained a message meant to be deciphered, or some kind of hint, but if that was the case he was not deft enough to grasp it.
Perhaps it was some reference to the Black Wastes, into which the expedition had traveled to find Myrddin’s hermitage. It was said that the Brillig had infected the land itself with their dangerous magic, when humans were at war with them. Thaddeus had seen similar effects just a couple times, when he caught a glimpse of some of the more restricted research in the Red Guard’s black sites, but nothing quite like this.
Still, if she had been involved in the Haze War, she was likely not much younger than him, and could even be older. Thaddeus considered, for a moment, the possibility that the Raven Queen was older—and conceivably more powerful—than Thaddeus himself. Had they ever met? Perhaps he had unknowingly sparked her interest in some point then.
Of course, that evidence did not fit with the identity of Siobhan Naught, who had been born two decades after the war. But her sheer power also seemed impossible for a girl of only twenty.
Thaddeus’s apprentice, a genius in his own way, was at that age and still far from becoming a free-caster, let alone reaching the power required to achieve some of her arrogant displays of prowess.
His thoughts were drawn back to reality as his faculty token alerted him to a security-related summons. He was to report to the deployment point at Eagle Tower. Outside his window, the storm continued on, rain lashing against the glass and the occasional branch of lighting spreading a purple-white glow over the city for a split moment. With a deep sigh, hoping that he was not about to be urged to catch some students missing after curfew, Thaddeus donned his coat and left his neglected manuscript on his desk, still unfinished.
With a simple twist of his Will, long become instinctive, he cast a dome-shaped shield around himself to protect against the lashing wind and rain and strode off toward the west side of the grounds.
When Thaddeus arrived, he found Grandmaster Kiernan waiting for him, alone. His eyes narrowed. It seemed there was no widespread emergency. Kiernan had summoned Thaddeus, specifically. “Why have you called for me?” he asked without preamble.
The stress Kiernan had been under recently manifested itself clearly, if one knew what to look for, in the man’s too-tight neck muscles and the sagging skin under his eyes. Even bathed in the warm, recycled sunlight of the light crystals, his skin looked pale and sallow. Still, he smiled with joviality, clapping Thaddeus on the arm. “Thank you for coming, Professor Lacer.”
Thaddeus resisted the urge to cast a shield between them to push away the man’s hand. He did not appreciate it when others touched him without his explicit permission.
“I would like to speak with you about…a sensitive matter that could involve the security of our school and the safety of the students. My apologies for the method of contact. I would have sent you a paper bird, but the administration center is closed this late.” He motioned for Thaddeus to walk with him, making his way to the stairwell. “As you may know, the High Crown has been…concerned, one might even say paranoid, in the days following the terrorist attack. He has even gone so far as to question people tangentially or even completely unrelated to the events.” Kiernan remained silent for a long few moments as they walked up the stairs, bypassing the door to the second floor.
Thaddeus did not enjoy conversational vagueness or the way the man skirted around the issue, but that did not mean he could not play with words as weapons and pregnant pauses as lures. “Yes. I heard he has shown an interest in your department, particularly,” he said.
Kiernan threw Thaddeus a glance, gritting his teeth together with grim viciousness, the creak of bone on bone just loud enough to be audible.
The Crowns had allocated even more resources to investigating the terrorist attack than they had to the Raven Queen, even collaborating with the Red Guard’s investigation by providing additional manpower and what information they could.
Titus suspected that some faction of the University faculty, including Kiernan and some of those close to him, were either members of the Architects of Khronos, or had perhaps been sponsoring them. There had simply been too many coincidences: rumors about the kind of magical components that were being smuggled into the city en-masse, the convenient timing of the explosion at Eagle Tower, their handling of Newton Moore’s break incident and Tanya Canelo’s involvement with that, and the most recent attack on the Verdant Stag’s various holdings, seemingly timed to coincide with the Architects’ actions. But most importantly, the History Department was still determined to keep the contents of the archaeological haul to themselves. While legally, they could do so, in practice it was a dangerous move.
Unlike normal civilians, the University faculty had all taken certain oaths and could not simply refuse to answer the coppers’ questions. None of the faculty had been arrested yet, which would suggest their innocence, but Thaddeus knew just how little an oath could mean, with the right knowledge and preparation, and how fallible wards and divination against untruth could be.
Kiernan continued to lead Thaddeus up the stairs until they reached the top floor, then reached out and unlatched the hatch door to the roof. “Do you mind?” Kiernan asked. “It seems an appropriate place to speak, but I would rather not get drenched. These old bones might just fall ill!” He grinned again, but his gaze was flat and predatory.
Raising an eyebrow, Thaddeus cast his shield spell again, this time enveloping both of them within it, and led the way onto the roof. “A rather dramatic meeting place, no?” he asked, moving closer to the edge, which forced Kiernan to move with him to remain within the sphere of protection. “It must be a sensitive topic, indeed.”
Kiernan didn’t respond to the jab. “You are right that the coppers have shown a particular interest in my department. At first, I thought perhaps they were using the investigation as an excuse to apply pressure in the hopes of getting their hands on things they have no right to. But then I considered another possibility. What if the investigators know something I don’t?”
“Like what?” Thaddeus asked, playing along as he began to suspect, with some amusement, where this was going.
Kiernan didn’t answer him directly. “I am aware you’ve been helping with the investigation into the Raven Queen, which is now somehow connected to these horrible terrorist attacks.” For a moment, real anger slipped through his mask, directed out at the rain-obscured city to the south. “I am worried that there might be some danger to the school—to the students as well as the faculty under my command. As one of the leaders of the security committee, it is my duty to take measures to ensure student safety. Do you know anything that might be relevant to the situation? Why are the investigators showing such interest?” He turned to Thaddeus beseechingly, his expression surprisingly sincere.
If Thaddeus had any less control over his expressions, he might have let a carnivorous smile slip. “The Raven Queen is said to bear grudges,” he said simply.
Kiernan did an admirable job of controlling his expression, but his fingers twitched.
Thaddeus continued, “There are some accounts that she fought against these terrorists, though the exact reason for her actions is debatable.”
“Grudges,” Kiernan repeated. His eyes narrowed slyly. “You’ve been working against her on this investigation for some time now, but as I understand it, the Raven Queen not only failed to harm your apprentice when they met, but gave him a boon. What could be the cause of that?”
Thaddeus thought Kiernan might have intended it as some kind of vague threat, but the question only pushed control of the conversation directly into Thaddeus’s hands. And how convenient, that Kiernan had something Thaddeus wanted. “Perhaps she understands my motivations,” he said. After a moment to let those words hang in the air, he added, “I am an inquisitive creature.”
This time, Kiernan couldn’t control the widening of his eyes. “Oh?”
Thaddeus took a half-step closer so as to loom just slightly over the other man and continued, “Indeed. I act as a consultant because Titus Westbay is a friend, and because I find the subject of these investigations rather fascinating, but mostly because I enjoy being let in on details not available elsewhere. I find such edification rather…useful. As you may know, my vows to the Red Guard preclude me taking superseding vows of loyalty to the Crowns—which is why I am only an unofficial consultant.”
Kiernan was not slow to understand Thaddeus’s implication, judging by the suspicion and surprise warring for dominance on his face.
“In return for access to interesting information, I offer my own knowledge, whether that be my understanding of magic, simple observations about things I have seen, or deductions based on the evidence provided. Often, the obvious is sitting right under their nose, waiting for me to point it out. In truth, however, I have no particular investment in helping the coppers to find the Raven Queen.” It was both a threat of what he might tell, and an offer of what he could do for Kiernan instead. The University might be an enemy to the Raven Queen just as the coppers were, but at this point Thaddeus found it unlikely that she could be in any true danger from either party, and thus had no compunction about giving his nominal aid.
Kiernan cleared his throat roughly. “What kind of information, exactly, do you find so interesting that it entices you to spend your precious time assisting them?”
“Well, you know my prior field of work. Quite fascinating. But there is a reason I took this liaison position at the University. Like you, I, too, have an interest in history. I am an expert in pre-Cataclysm society and languages, for instance, many of which survived to this day only due to the strong protections keeping them isolated and preserved. As I understand it, your people have found the decryption of the texts you retrieved quite stymieing. You asked me why the Raven Queen has showed no malice to me. Perhaps she is laying the foundation for a collaboration attempt. She may be experiencing similar difficulties with her stolen text, and realize that I could be a solution.”
Kiernan took a step back, startling when he reached the edge of the protective shield, which Thaddeus had allowed to shrink in around them, and caught a splash of cold rain across his back.
But Thaddeus was not finished yet. “Even you will likely be forced to bring in outside experts soon if you cannot show progress, perhaps hired by the Crown Families. The potential significance of what you have found is simply too great to allow failure, no matter the technicalities of the law.”
They both remained silent for a long few moments, the rain beating against Thaddeus’s Will and running down the sides of the sphere in distorting ripples.
Finally, Kiernan spoke. “It occurs to me that someone of your capabilities might find this decryption project quite intellectually stimulating.”
“And as you’ve said, you cannot take vows to the Crowns.”
Thaddeus remained silent.
“But would you be willing to take a non-disclosure vow?”
“I would,” Thaddeus replied immediately. That did not mean, necessarily, that he would be willing to keep said vow.
Kiernan swallowed, looked at the ground for a moment, and then met Thaddeus’s gaze again. He nodded sharply. “Very well. As we will be working so closely together, I hope that you will take the opportunity to sate my curiosity when applicable, as well. And if the Raven Queen does contact you… Perhaps she is curious, too.” As if doubting that Thaddeus was clever enough to understand his meaning, Kiernan clarified, “She may be interested in a similar exchange of information. After all, we do still have the rest of Myrddin’s research journals, and everything else left behind in his hermitage.”
“Perhaps we will have a chance to find out,” Thaddeus murmured, a twist of vicious amusement curling in his belly.
12/29: And we’re in to Book 4!
Book 3, A Sacrifice of Light is out now, if you’d like to grab a copy of your own. Universal Bookstore Link: books2read.com/SacrificeOfLight
If you could spread the word about the latest book, it would help a lot. Word of mouth from fans is the absolute best form of marketing, better than anything I can do myself, better than anything I can pay for.
In other news, there will be no chapter next week, as I’ve got a lot of admin and marketing work to do surrounding the launch of a book, and I also need a little break to recover from working “overtime” basically the whole month of December.
I have some bonus content/deleted scenes that will be coming out on the Patreon when I get them back from my editor, so those may take the place of the regular chapter.
I will be back with the regularly scheduled Thursday chapter on January 12. (And replying to emails and messages as soon as I have time.)
Thank you guys for all your support.
I really mean that.
EDIT 1/9: Please Read https://www.azaleaellis.com/blog/slight-delay-due-to-sickness/