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Chapter 49 – Reverse Scrying

Sebastien

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The most difficult part of the map-based divination spell was that she wasn’t skilled enough to work past the huge beacon of the blood in her own body.

That was the downside to scrying for her own blood.

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

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

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

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

More research revealed a solution to the first problem.

Sebastien could piggyback on the searching magic of the coppers’ attempt to scry for her to override the pull of the blood in her own body and find the few drops they were using.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some students’ mice grew colored fur, somehow permanently, inherently changed so that that was simply the true color of their fur.

Sebastien’s mice grew back a little splotch of white hair, which stood out starkly on its otherwise rainbow-colored pelt. She felt the uncomfortable prickling of shame as she stared at it. ‘Maybe if Professor Pecanty would actually help me understand, I could do it better,’ she snarled to herself.

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

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

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

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

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

The only side project she allowed herself was making sure she had a dozen ink spells drawn on parchment and ready to go. She’d made some of them large enough that she had to fold up the spell array to get it to fit inconspicuously within her bag, while others were small and ready to be used immediately, only requiring she place their components for rapid casting. She’d decided on fourteen simple spells that she thought could help in a variety of emergency situations.

She didn’t have the time to make real progress with the paper design, or practice any of the spells until they were second nature, but she did some that she’d been long familiar with, and more that she was practicing in Professor Burberry’s Modern Magics and her other classes. Having them ready in her satchel made her feel a little more prepared, even if they probably wouldn’t make much of a difference.

On Thursday morning, she got a little too engrossed with practice in the abandoned classroom on the second floor and forgot to stop for breakfast. She hurried back to the dorms to put the divination components back in the chest at the foot of her bed before History of Magic. Professor Ilma always jumped right into the lecture right away, and Sebastien would miss out if she was even a minute late.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Westbay looked at her with confusion.

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

She was being scried.

As she pulled the components for the reverse-scrying spell back out again, she listened to Westbay’s footsteps retreat.

She poked her head out when she had everything laid out on the floor of her cubicle, just to make sure she was alone, then turned back around. The timing was lucky. Many of the most time consuming parts of the divination were in the prerequisite spells cast on the components like the drop of mercury and the map. Without being artifacts themselves, the magic would wear off somewhat quickly, but they were still ready to go at the moment.

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

It was more difficult than she’d expected. Much more. It wasn’t that she didn’t have the power, though that was part of the problem. It was her concentration, the clarity and stability of her Will, for one of the first times in recent memory, unable to meet her demands. Maybe it was because she was just really untalented with divination.

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

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

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

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

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

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

My blood is at the University.’

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

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

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

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

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Chapter 48 – Unresolved Curiosity

Sebastien

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

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

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

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

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

It also helped that the map-locating spell didn’t require any particularly expensive components.

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

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

It was likely that getting her blood from the coppers would take a combination of money and power, neither of which she had at the moment, especially since her current Conduit couldn’t channel the full power of her Will. Retrieving her blood, like figuring out a solution to her sleep problem, would likely be a long-term project.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rest of Westbay’s group of Crown Family friends had been interacting with Sebastien more frequently, likely spurred on by the boy’s own sudden amicability toward her.

They sat around her, Ana on one side and Rhett Moncrieffe on the other, and the rest of the group scattered close by. After a single silent nod to Sebastien, Moncrieffe turned his attention to the pretty girl on his other side, who blushed under the weight of his attention. Sebastien was relieved he wasn’t as pushy as Westbay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter 47 – Useless Clutter

Sebastien

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The thought was a reminder of her own situation. Everything in this city cost, and she was running low on coins. After the healer’s fee for treating her Will-strain, she was once again poor. Aside from the emergency gold hidden in the lining of her jacket and boots, she had a little less than five gold crowns to her name. At one point, she would have considered that a fortune. Now, she knew how little it could actually get her.

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

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

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

“Um.”

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

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

“I wasn’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sebastien walked past all of them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, like the stories of the adventurers who explored the BlackWastes to try and uncover the dragon corpses. They told crazy, and I do mean insane stories about the things they saw—and that’s only the third of the adventurers that made it back out alive.”

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

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

“Two pages.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katerin raised her eyebrows.

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

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

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

Sebastien winced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There’s a shop about half a kilometer north of here. They’ll pay for things like that, mostly from people who’ve died, or who are upper class enough that they want new clothes before their old ones are useless, but are still poor enough to hope to make some coin back. Tell them I sent you, and don’t accept the first number they offer.” Katerin scribbled their name and location on a scrap of paper and handed it to Sebastien.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sebastien shifted, her shoulders tightening. “Well, if I find myself slipping into feeling of worry or guilt, I only need to remind myself that if Ennis Naught somehow gets out of jail for the crime he actually committed… If he hadn’t given my birthright heirloom ring with a Master level Conduit to the Gervin Family, it would be worth more than enough to buy him new clothes and support him even after his ungrateful daughter sold all his things.” Her voice petered out on a low snarl.

Katerin just stared back silently.

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

She made five gold off the lot.

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Chapter 46 – The Intersection of Transmutation and Transmogrification

Sebastien

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

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

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

But everyone’s favorite was the days when he demonstrated free-casting.

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

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

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

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

Within the briny jar, the three white balls disintegrated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The girl sat back, frowning, but silent.

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

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

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

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

Professor Lacer dropped the spell without further fanfare.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sebastien grinned just to see it.

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

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

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

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

Professor Lacer turned to her. “Explain.”

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

With a very slight smile, he floated the mirror over to the lamp on his desk to show the effect more clearly. “Mr. Siverling is correct. The dorienne invisibility spell is more power-intensive than it should be, if the process were truly being copied, and killed its creator on his initial test casting. Transmogrification is unclearly defined. The thing that is used is not always an intangible property. Sometimes, rather, it is a tangible process that you could create with transmutation, with enough study. Sometimes, transmogrification molds connotative associations, which are intangible and often beyond our powers of transmutation. But sometimes, transmogrification simply copies a state or process from the Sacrifice, whole-cloth. And sometimes it does one while the ignorant researcher who does not understand the limitations of something like the dorienne fish…believes it to be doing another. This spell was created to copy the process of the dorienne, a much less power-intensive shortcut than the true invisibility spells of the time. And yet, in their lack of understanding, the creator of this spell did not copy, but drew on their idea of the dorienne’s invisibility, never having noticed that the dorienne casts a shadow, or understood what this means.”

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

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

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

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

He slammed the mallet down onto it, shattering the glass sphere into powder and shards. “Fairly weak.” As if nothing had happened, the pieces drew back together, melting again into a ball. “Do not forget you must not only create the compressed sphere, but also return your component to its original state.” The reformed ball crumbled into sand under his Will.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author Note:

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

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Chapter 45 – Sirens

Sebastien

Month 12, Day 7, Monday 1:30 p.m.

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

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

As the sirens continued, she listened to the worried conversations of the other students.

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

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

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

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

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

Sebastien knew it was nothing compared to the destruction the right kind of Aberrant could wreak. It was lucky that such a small percentage of spells ever went that horribly wrong, and most people who lost control were simply left dead or mentally incompetent. ‘At least you can reason with a sylphide,’ she thought.

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

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

“It could be the kraken.”

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

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

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

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

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

As she forced her body to calm, she realized she’d been more agitated than she’d realized. Her heartbeats slowed, the stress-response chemicals burning in her blood cooled, and her muscles relaxed a little more with every deep hum.

When she finally opened her eyes, the panic of the other students seemed a little absurd. ‘We’re safe. And even if we weren’t, there’s little that sitting around and worrying about it will do. If we aren’t already prepared, that won’t change in the next few hours. Best to just get on with life.’ She didn’t have the luxury of spare time to waste.

Sebastien nudged back through the crowd to use one of the search crystals, burning a card with keywords about divination in its brazier. She’d picked up an armful of books and was looking for an out-of-the-way table when she noticed Newton at a spot that would be perfect. With the library so packed, there weren’t many options. “Can I sit here?” she asked. Her shoulders were beginning to tense again under the screaming of the sirens and the palpable tension of the crowd, and the rationality she’d struggled to achieve was already being replaced by deep-seated wariness, her eyes flicking around distrustfully.

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

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

When the sirens suddenly stopped a couple minutes later, Newton took a deep breath, but his fingers creased his note paper, as if he was both relieved and even more worried at the same time.

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

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

He met her gaze for a long few seconds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh.” She didn’t know what to say to that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Divination was the only branch of magic she wasn’t particularly interested in. When she was younger, she’d had fantasies about getting tips from the spirits or seeing the future in a basin of water.

It turned out, beyond basic things like dousing for water or sympathetic scrying for a location, most humans weren’t built for real divination. The very talented could get vague hints about possible futures or answers about specific questions, but she’d discovered she was lucky to be able to tell which card was next in a shuffled deck.

Then she’d met a shaman, who’d talked up the greatness of his branch of magic. Shamans could breach the walls between the mortal world and the domain of spirits to achieve similar effects without the need for talent.

He’d had her drink an alchemical concoction that left her spewing from both ends, incapacitated with pain, and hallucinating for two days.

She’d come to her senses terrified, half-dead, and with nothing to show for it but dream-like memories that flashed behind her lids in sickly colors when she closed her eyes for the next few hours.

“You just don’t have the constitution for greatness, dearie,” he’d said.

She’d tried to kick him in the knee out of sudden rage, but was too weak to do even that. Since then, she’d focused on practical magic, something she could use to affect her reality rather than trying to pull the answers to life from the ether.

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

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

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

All the students were still absorbed by the earlier sirens, and the class was filled with chatter waiting for Professor Lacer to arrive. It was normal for him to stride in with his coat flapping behind him after all the students had been waiting for a few minutes, but as time passed, it seemed strange that he was so late.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She conceded the point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But it’s not stopped,” Sebastien argued. “Whatever ability Red Sage has is either summoning people to hear its prophecies or manipulating reality to make them come true, even from within its sundered zone.” The spell that created sundered zones did not stop sapient creatures that could give their informed consent from entering the barrier, nor from exiting again as long as they had not been tainted by any tangible or magical effect within. The Red Sage could see the future, supposedly, and whatever it prophesied would come true. Except it pronounced better fates to those it liked, and horrible ones to those it disliked, and all its prophecies came true in the most horrible way possible. People somehow always managed to get past the security measures to Red Sage in the hopes of bribing the Aberrant to receive a favorable prophecy for themselves, no matter the destruction the fulfillment of the prophecy would inevitably wreak on the world and lives of those around them.

“Sure, but the Red Guard is working to mitigate the effects of the prophecies as well as limit who gets to speak to the Red Sage. There haven’t been any major disasters in at least a hundred years, and you also have to take into account that two of its three available prophecies are taken up just keeping them from destroying or stopping it. Their very existence has almost entirely constrained it. Imagine what it could do, unchecked.”

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

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

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

People were staring at her.

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

Sebastien leaned back, looking away with a sharp exhale.

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

“It seemed rather prudent to do at least basic research about creatures that are created without warning and can wipe out an entire city.” Sebastien couldn’t understand why more people weren’t interested in learning everything they could about Aberrants. At most, incidents would be reported in the paper, and there would be warnings about the danger of blood magic and unlicensed, improperly trained thaumaturges. She was sure some people were researching the beings extensively—how else would the Red Guard be equipped to deal with them?

However, as a normal person, a commoner, trying to get information about Aberrants or the mental break that created them from anything but rumors and vague news stories was an exercise in frustration. Those in power probably didn’t want to cause a panic, while the average person just wanted to go about their life, peacefully, moronically pretending that it had nothing to do with them, wouldn’t affect them. Even the University library kept most of that information on the third floor or in the underground restricted sections.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sebastien raised an eyebrow, but didn’t protest.

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

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

“…Right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damien had started scribbling on a spare piece of paper almost as soon as she started talking. “I think I understand. Give me a moment to come up with a model.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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