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Patreon 250 Goal Reached – Bonus Chapters and Omake Story

Hey guys! 

It looks like we have reached the 250-patron goal, which means various rewards are in order. I know many of you have been looking forward to this, so I hope you’re excited! 

To start with, I’ll be posting 6 bonus chapters for patrons, enough for 7 days of daily posts. You can expect the first bonus chapter tomorrow evening (11/30), around 5:30pm MT. All non-patrons will get 5 bonus chapters, ending the week with the Patreon 5 chapters ahead instead of 4, which will be the state of things going forward. 

With this, the Patreon will be quickly approaching the end of Book 3!

Secondly, I now also owe you guys an omake chapter/short story. We’re going to hold a vote on what I will write about.

If you have any fun ideas, or anything you would particularly like to see, please make mention of it in the comments section below. If you come up with an idea that I have inspiration for, think I could write in the frame of a short story, and which doesn’t otherwise derail my plot by spoiling something important, I’ll add it to the poll for everyone to vote on. I’ve already got a few ideas but I want to write what people want to see most.

Specificity helps. “Thaddeus’s POV of the [faculty meeting to discuss student performance] and it would be extra funny if one of the other professors was coming on to him. Bonus points if that other professor is Pecanty,” is great and easy to draw inspiration from. “Something from Thaddeus’s POV” is less useful. 

The poll will go up on Thursday, 12/1, and will stay up for about a week so all patrons have a chance to contribute.

Happy reading guys,

Azalea

Chapter 130 – Prisoner Convoy Attack

Oliver

Month 3, Day 13, Saturday 1:30 a.m.

Oliver had been apprehensive about this final step of the Verdant Stags’ takeover for a while. He still hoped that the rumors of clandestine preparation for violence had nothing to do with him, or at least that it had nothing to do with the Architects of Khronos. It could be that a Morrow member or affiliate they had failed to capture or kill in the beginning had hired mercenaries. Or, perhaps one of the other gangs from the more affluent parts of the city had some stake in keeping the Morrows out of jail. Lastly, it was even hypothetically possible that one of the previously released Morrows with less egregious crimes had somehow broken or sidestepped the vow of nonaggression he’d required.

Riding the lovely, intelligent horse Elmira, Oliver headed out with one of the convoys that held a greater percentage of the most important Morrows, as Liza and Lord Lynwood had done with their own convoys a little earlier. The most experienced and loyal enforcers from the Verdant Stag and Nightmare Pack accompanied them. Other than some useless struggling by some of the Morrows, his group had met no trouble so far, and Oliver knew that little could stand in the way of such a group, but he couldn’t help but look around for potential danger, tensing every time they passed people still awake and about so late in the night. The sky was moonless, the only illumination coming from the sporadic street lamps and windows with a light still on inside, which made every shadow more sinister.

He was just beginning to relax as they made it a few minutes out from Knave Knoll when a runner sprinted up behind their small convoy, waving a slip of paper frantically in the air.

Heart sinking, Oliver turned Elmira back to meet him.

The young man was too out of breath to talk after sprinting a few city blocks at full speed, but the slip of paper said all that was necessary. “Terrier heading directly to the egg. ETA 10mins.” It was printed on a familiar strip of paper, from the extra distagram he’d managed to buy for Knave Knolls’s administration office. Of course, the message was in code, in case anyone was tuned into the same band, but the message was clear to Oliver. Tanya Canelo was heading right to Knave Knoll, and moving quick.

“How long ago did you receive this?” Oliver asked.

“Three…minutes,” the young man gasped.

Oliver called for the convoy to halt, his thoughts racing as he tried to figure out the implications of this news. It couldn’t be anything good, and though Canelo was not supposed to know this location, her movement was unlikely to be a coincidence. He considered the possibility that she was one of a group, heading to intercept them.

If they pushed forward, they might be able to get to Harrow Hill before anyone could catch them, and he doubted even the Architects of Khronos would be willing to start a fight directly in front of the coppers. Alternatively, they could fall back to Knave Knoll, which was heavily fortified and could withstand anything their convoy’s guards couldn’t.

The preparation that Oliver and Siobhan had done over the last few days that decided him. He couldn’t imagine many scenarios that they were unprepared to handle. He ordered them onward, urging them to increase the pace.

It took less than a minute for him to doubt that decision.

The enforcers at the head of the convoy saw the enemy first, sounding the alarm.

“Ambush,” Enforcer Huntley murmured, even before the forms hidden in the alleys on either side made themselves known, shining lensed lanterns at the convoy like spotlights.

Their ambushers were riding horses of their own, and though it was difficult to make them out with the bright lights shining their way, Oliver counted more than a dozen.

“Stop!” called one of the men in front of them, arm straight and pointing a battle wand their way.

Oliver reached slowly under his jacket and fiddled with the artifact there. “Reinforcements will be here as soon as possible,” he murmured, drawing his hand back out with a battle wand of his own clasped securely in his palm.

“Give up the prisoners, and you may leave unharmed,” the leader of their ambushers called. “If you resist, or attempt to attack, we will annihilate you all.” There were no obvious signs who these people were, and many wore hoods or masks to cover their features. Oliver didn’t want to jump to conclusions. His enemy would remain unnamed until he was sure.

Huntley cursed, low and vicious, one arm tugging on the reins of his horse to move between Oliver and the enemy, the other already securely clutching own battle wand.

“I must have been cursed to live a life of adventure,” Oliver said wryly. Either someone had betrayed his plans at the last minute, even after all the precautions he took not to be predicted…or whoever objected so strenuously to their transfer of the Morrows was powerful enough that they didn’t need to be tipped off. A last-minute divination, perhaps.

Eyeing their ambushers, the shadows behind the eye holes of his mask helping to dampen the harsh lights pointed at him, Oliver considered trying to just smash straight through. They would likely get into a running fight, but as long as they could make it to Harrow Hill, their opponents wouldn’t be able to stop the arrests.

But that was more dangerous, not only for the prisoners, who he couldn’t say he particularly cared about, but also for his people. Their attackers were on horses of their own, and his people wouldn’t be able to outrun them with the wagons. Getting the prisoners to Harrow Hill wasn’t so high priority as to be more important than the lives of his enforcers, or those of his allies.

“Circle up and retreat to the base!” he yelled. “Move left!” The streets were too narrow to allow for the wagons to turn around directly, so they would need to move sideways before turning once again to return the way they’d come.

In the wagon beside Oliver, one of the bound Morrows, head covered with a sack, let out a crowing laugh. “You upstart pillocks think we don’t have friends? When we’re all free, we’re gonna drag your men naked through the streets while those people you think love you throw stones.”

Elmira shifted sideways and gave a threatening snap of her teeth toward the speaker, who flinched at the unseen clacking sound so near his face, and wisely decided to return to silence.

Their attackers hesitated no longer, raising hollow tubes Oliver recognized as military-issue mortars to their shoulders.

“Fire!” the leader yelled, the domed fog of a concussive blast spell shooting for the head of their convoy from his own battle wand.

“Take cover!” Oliver screamed in response. There wasn’t much space to maneuver, nor cover to take, but his people scattered a little or ducked behind the wagons.

The mortars released their payload with a sound that was half pop and half crack of thunder, shooting the clay spheres of true battle philtres in an arc toward Oliver’s convoy and startling some of the more skittish horses.

His people were able to avoid being hit directly, but the spheres broke on impact with the ground and the wagons, bursting with the sick yellow-green of the philtre of stench and the brown-red heat shimmer of pepper bombs.

Both were meant to incapacitate, not kill. It could have been much worse. Their enemies were taking the safety of the Morrow prisoners seriously, which could work to Oliver’s advantage.

Oliver’s people moved with alacrity, trying to stay as far away from the smoke as possible while still guarding the wagons. The wind blew the smoke back toward their attackers, which gave his people time to put on the single-use, clear-faced masks that would filter the air to protect their eyes and respiratory system. “Advance to the left!” Oliver urged again, sending back a few battle spells of his own, as did many of his people. Most missed, or were absorbed by magical shields.

Beside him, Huntley was less trigger-happy, but took an opportune shot perfectly placed to take out one of their opponents. Unfortunately, a shimmering, four-cornered translucent shield suddenly expanded outward from a much smaller shield carried by one of their ambushers, protecting the wielder and the men to several feet on either side of him from Huntley’s spell.

That their enemy had access to military equipment and powerful artifacts was worrisome, but Oliver’s side had the greater numbers, and didn’t need to worry about avoiding lethal shots to the prisoners.

The Morrow prisoners were beginning to cough and gag despite the protection of the sacks of their head, which was silencing some of their screams. Some of Oliver’s people hadn’t yet managed to get their masks on, too busy dodging or firing attacks while atop their panicking horses. Oliver was once again grateful for Elmira, because Erythreans weren’t nearly so skittish in the face of danger.

Thankfully, the man who had been outfitted for just such a situation remembered his orders, and hurriedly pulled out an artifact from his saddle-bags, which sent out a pulse of power that muted the panic as well as the senses of the horses in a dozen-meter radius. The magic was light enough that it wouldn’t stop any particularly panicked horse from breaking free, and was tuned specifically to their species, but everyone within the area of effect felt some of the spillover.

The calm was useful. The dampened senses were not. But it was worth it, to maintain their group’s mobility and control over the wagons.

An enemy man raised his hands, not in surrender, but in a motion of power and control.

As if they were all in the eye of a hurricane, the wind stilled. The air turned thick and soup-like for a moment, enough for Oliver to feel the press of its anachronous solidity against his skin. It was hard to breathe.

The smoke from the battle philtres hung in place, the spewing gasses building up into a thick roil. And then, it swirled outward, moving toward Oliver’s people like a great python slithering toward prey, eager to encircle and constrict. It focused first on those who had not yet managed to put on their masks, but quickly attacked the rest. The protective masks could only handle so much. If they were rendered ineffective…

Shocked, Oliver looked back toward the man who had his hands raised. Either he was a free-caster, or a witch with a powerful–and invisible–familiar from the Plane of Air. One was, of course, worse than the other, but in both cases, his response was the same. Oliver’s estimation of the danger his people were in rose sharply, and he screamed, “Go, go, go! Break through!”

His words were muffled within the strangely static air, but they still traveled well enough for his people to hear and try to comply. Oliver deftly switched his wand’s output to a piercing spell, firing in rapid succession at the air-controller.

Despite his people’s attempts to cover their faces or hold their breath, many had begun to cough and gag as the air of the philtres followed them unnaturally.

The user of that expanding shield moved to stand slightly in front of and to the side of the air-controller. Though Oliver experimented against its defenses, targeting different edges in the hope of overwhelming it, and even coordinated one overwhelming assault that had the man behind the shield grimacing with fear, in the end all attacks splashed harmlessly against the shimmering barrier.

But, despite the difficulty, they had managed to retreat into a cross-street, and turn again to make their way back toward Knave Knoll, the enemy harrying every step. Another barrage of battle philtres landed in front of them, creating a yellow and red mix of clouds across the street, too thick to see through. The air-controller immediately moved to direct the effects toward the most vulnerable. At this point, his people were all wearing their masks, but they were down a couple of men.

“That shield spell is being actively-cast!” Huntley shouted loud enough despite the stillness of the air to make Oliver flinch. “I can see his concentration straining. He must have a spell array embedded in the shield.”

Oliver quickly snapped orders for several of the men to peel off from the main group with the express mission of taking down the enemy shielder. He ducked to avoid a simmering orange curse that almost clipped the top of his head, then sent back a piercing curse to one of the enemies not covered by the giant magical barrier.

The woman wasn’t quick enough to throw up a personal barrier or dodge, and took the spell to the side of her neck, which lost a chunk of flesh half the size of Oliver’s fist and sent her reeling backward with a lethal spray of arterial blood.

Huntley and three others went after the shielder, fighting their way past the answering concentration of enemy fire. One man took a flying jump off of his horse as the creature went down under a nasty rupturing spell, its innards spilling out in a steaming mess from the gaping wound in its belly.

“Damp masks over your mouth and nose,” a Nightmare Pack woman barked to those closest to her, using a canteen to wet a bright yellow bandanna and tie it over her mask as a second line of defense, clumsily controlling her horse with her knees alone. She was almost hit by a concussive spell, but one of the other enforcers got between her and the enemy to throw up a personal shield spell with their battle wand in time.

The Nightmare Pack woman nudged her horse closer to Oliver’s. “I think I can give that air witch some trouble.”

Elmira complied with the barest twitch of the reins.

“It’s definitely an air witch, not a free-caster?” Oliver called, directing Elmira to dodge a concussive blast with the barest twitch of the reins.

“No Conduit!” the woman replied distractedly to his question. “If he was a general free-caster, he would still be using a Conduit. That he’s not means he’s channeling through his familiar. We can hope air spells are the only thing he has this kind of control over. Besides,” she added with a predatory crinkle of the skin around her eyes, “I am an air witch, and my familiar can feel his.”

Flows of air gathered around and rushed out from her hand, which rippled under the effects of a mirage. She aimed the narrow gust of wind at the battle philtres in a sweeping motion, pushing their spewing fog away from their people and back toward the enemy, disrupting the snake-like currents that had been focused on the other enforcers.

The enemy air witch responded immediately to this attempt at resistance, curling the smoke of the philtres around to circle Oliver and the woman instead, trying to press in on them.

Spell-fire concentrated on them, and Oliver was hard-pressed to block it all. He was thankful for Elmira’s nimbleness, as the horse sidestepped several attacks that would have left them incapacitated, or even dead. Soon there was no clean air to draw on.

The woman could have pulled her familiar back to protect herself, but stubbornly refused to do so. Even with all the protection against the battle philtres, her eyes began to swell and stream from irritation. She scowled stubbornly, her pressure on the magic unrelenting despite the distraction.

The attack team had managed to get a Verdant Stag enforcer into position. She had circled around from the back, climbed a few meters up the wall of mismatched stone, and now took her shot. Her slicing spell cut through from the enemy’s flank, behind the line of the shield barrier, perfectly targeted the wielder’s back.

The shield wielder was armored, but the spell was enough to break his concentration. His barrier spell broke like the bone of a Titan, sending an explosion of slicing force out in a vertical circle, cutting through the air and the ground but unfortunately not injuring any of their enemies.

It was enough to distract the enemy air witch, and the smoke of the philtres flushed out under the force of the Nightmare Pack woman’s spell. She sucked in a desperate breath, then started coughing raggedly, but wind continued to gush out from her hands.

Before any of the enemy’s number could respond to the fallen shield, the enforcer hanging from the wall followed her carefully aimed slicing spell with a concussive blast. It slammed the discombobulated shield wielder forward like a punch from an angry god, sending him tumbling toward the convoy like a rag doll. The shield clattered off into the street between their two groups.

A Nightmare Pack enforcer rushed forward into a struggle over control of the shield with an enemy man that had lunged to retrieve it.

Oliver’s people took out two more of the enemy, and suddenly they had the advantage in numbers. Even against such powerful thaumaturges, they were winning.

The Verdant Stag sniper aimed next for the air witch, but it was too late.

The man had seen her. A violent slashing motion of the witch’s arm across his chest—a single motion from right to left, filled with command—was followed a second later by a howl of wind. It slammed her off the side of the building, spinning her upside down and slamming her into the wall of the opposite building with so much force that she was pinned there for a moment. Finally, she slid to the ground head-first, collapsing bonelessly into a heap at the edge of the street.

Oliver winced. The woman had been brave, and perhaps even turned the tide of battle for them, but she was unlikely to survive that. If she was still alive, they needed to retrieve her and get her to Healer Nidson as quickly as possible, which would be difficult considering the enemies between them.

She had also angered the witch, and after taking her out, the man turned toward the rest of them. Having given up total air control of the battlefield, he now resorted to individual attacks, waves of wind targeting those covering the rest of the convoy’s escape.

The guards had been doing well, taking down a couple more enemies positioned at the flanks. But a few blows from the enemy air witch sent people sprawling, not nearly as forcefully as the attack against the sniper, but more than enough to disrupt their formations and put them back on the defense, halting any progress and giving their enemies the upper hand once more.

Their own air witch was much too weak to match him, and one particularly harsh blow sent her reeling off of her horse. Huntley caught her, but her eyes had lost focus, and the shimmer of her familiar was missing. Hopefully the being hadn’t died.

But hope was at hand. They had made progress, and the canal bridge just before Knave Knoll was in sight at the end of the street. If they could get past it, not only would the reinforced building be a fortified position, but they could block off the bridge itself with liquid stone or some of the wagons and temporarily slow the enemy’s advance.

As if sensing his intentions, the enemy leader, his own personal shield artifacts still undeleted, called out instructions to his men. Within twenty seconds, several of the horses were dead, and at least two of the wagons were missing wheels.

Oliver gritted his teeth. He hated to complement the enemy, but their leader was obviously insightful and decisive. Oliver could retreat, but not without a huge struggle to keep the prisoners.

Elmira whinnied in distress as he slipped down from her back, moving to put the single intact wagon between them and the enemy. Oliver patted her neck absently, his stomach hurting for the death of such innocent creatures.

A few guards rushed out from Knave Knoll to come to their aid, which was against protocol, but Oliver was grateful for it anyway. With them, the numbers would be even more in their favor, and perhaps it would give them the leeway to move some of their wounded back for treatment.

If they could just take down the air witch, the tides of the battle would turn completely in their favor.

He looked down to check his pocket watch, hopeful that the prepared reinforcements he had called for earlier would arrive soon. That’s when a concussive blast spell hit the wheel of the wagon right beside him, taking out both wheels and continuing on toward Oliver’s legs. Time did now slow at all as he realized the approaching danger. In fact, the whole thing was a blur of confusion and belated response, over in a moment as he tried to jump high enough to dodge the foggy force and blasted out wooden splinters, but was still clipped, sending him twisting through the air, his face on a path to slam into the side of the wagon.

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Chapter 129 – Sealing of Tongues

Sebastien

Month 3, Day 9, Tuesday 6:00 a.m.

Sharon had to pull Sebastien out of bed in the morning, chattering to herself as she cleaned up the papers scattered everywhere, daintily avoiding the writing Siobhan had done directly on the floor. The saintly woman didn’t so much as give Sebastien a dirty look for the extra work.

Fifteen minutes later, Sebastien entered Oliver’s office, carrying an overfilled breakfast tray. “You have a job for me?” she asked without preamble.

His knee bounced rapidly for a moment before he stood from his desk, moving to pace in front of the fireplace. “As you know, I still have the worst of the Morrows, including the majority of those who held more influential positions, incarcerated in our secret jail. After what happened with the University most recently, I started digging a little deeper into their activities. I believe they never intended to work sincerely with either of us. Why they are so determined against the Verdant Stag, I do not know, but there are signs that someone is putting together an assault force. It’s possible that I am being paranoid, but I suspect they plan to try to stop me from sending the Morrows to Harrow Hill.”

Sebastien set the tray down, her mind struggling out of its fugue as the seconds passed in silence. “I assume you have a plan to deal with this? How does it involve me?” she asked, her shoulders tensing as she prepared to argue.

“This Friday night—early Saturday morning—we’ll be turning over the remaining Morrow prisoners to Harrow Hill for sentencing. I have a group of the coppers in my pocket now, and we’ve arranged for everyone necessary to be on the swing shift. As secretly as possible, we’re going to deliver the Morrows to Harrow Hill directly, along with their confessions, witness accusations, and what evidence of their crimes we’ve collected, well before the anyone suspects. By morning they’ll all be booked, with evidence of their crimes on file. No matter how corrupt some of the coppers are, there will be no way to reverse the situation. It’s the last step, and I want to make sure it goes perfectly.”

“And you need me for this?”

He waves his hand. “Oh, no! I need you for what comes before. Nothing dangerous. As you might imagine, the Morrows have quite a lot they could potentially talk about under questioning, not only about their own activities, but about Kiernan’s faction, who are calling themselves the Architects of Khronos, and also about the Verdant Stags. Some of them know things I don’t want getting out, or that I’d like to hold in reserve rather than going full fireball spell, metaphorically. Keeping testimony about the Architects of Khronos in reserve could effectively hold them hostage. And so, inspired by Tanya Canelo, I’ve hired a cursemaster to handle placing a conditional lock on their speech.”

Sebastien frowned. The whole thing seemed rather complicated, but she supposed that when you were in opposition to the established regime, didn’t want to kill your enemies, and didn’t have the resources to run a long-term prison or work camp, things got convoluted. “You…want me to assist the cursemaster?”

“I want you, as Silvia Nakai, to assist Healer Nidson. The whole process is a little dangerous, and I’d rather not have any of them die or be permanently damaged by accident.”

She noted that he didn’t say he didn’t want them to die or be damaged at all. Perhaps if it was on purpose, that would be acceptable to him.

“Healer Nidson requested you specifically. Apparently, he was impressed by your performance the last time you worked together. I do have others with healer training, but none that I trust as much as you. Information security is paramount. As much as possible, I want to surprise everyone not directly involved. It would be a few hours of late night work, you would get to experience some very rare magic up close, and I don’t expect you to put yourself in any danger. If anything were to go wrong, there is a back exit that you can take immediately.”

She hesitated. “I can literally just run away if things go wrong?”

“Yes. Use your judgement to decide if that’s necessary. The guards will be numerous and heavily armed. Even if we do meet obstacles of any sort, we should be able to blast right through them.”

“But there is an enemy that specifically wants to stop you from succeeding. You cannot assume they are foolish or weak. And it seems like something always goes wrong with these dangerous missions. I don’t want to be involved in things that could get me killed, Oliver.”

Oliver’s fingers kneaded at the muscles of his neck. “I am making every reasonable preparation, Sebastien,” he said tiredly. “And we don’t even know that something will go wrong. You’ve done plenty of missions for me that haven’t resulted in combat. Most of the secret meetings, putting up the emergency response flags, and even this recent work against the Gervins. When things have been a little more dangerous, you’ve still acquitted yourself admirably. We’re in this together, or haven’t you realized? When the Morrows are safely locked away, you’ll be safer, too. Why are you so resistant to the idea?”

I’m so resistant because I’m waiting for something to go horribly wrong, like it always seems to. I cannot withstand it if things keep getting worse for me,’ she thought wearily.

He shook his head, then finally stopped pacing and really looked at her. “I’m sorry. I know you’re struggling too, but I don’t have a lot of options. And I think what I’m asking is reasonable. Do I need to remind you of the debt you owe? The Gervin sub-contract has yet to land on my desk.”

She glared at him for a long few seconds. “I’ll need to prepare. We need to prepare. If I’m going to be involved, I need to be sure things are done right. It’s going to be difficult, on such short notice. Stars above, I don’t have time for this.”

Taking a deep breath to fortify herself, she squared her shoulders, lifted her jaw, and said, “Let us discuss the payment first.” She might not be able to get out of this, to be just a University student, but she could make Oliver’s wallet hurt for the offense.

They spoke for over an hour, her questioning his preparations and suggesting a few additions. When there was no more time, she hurried back to the University, mulling over all the necessary preparations and adjustments to her plans.

She took the beamshell tincture with the cafeteria breakfast, and then spent the rest of the day on the go, trying to squeeze every last drop of value from each spare minute. In the evening, she made a series of eclectic purchases, inspired by Ana and Damien’s ingenious contributions to Operation Defenestration.

The remainder of her week was spent in preparation, with more emergency stash locations and disaster plans, as she struggled to recover from the sleep deprivation that single late night of spell research had caused.

When Ana and Damien had worked on the planning and preparation for Operation Defenestration, they had opened Siobhan’s eyes to how much someone’s image could change just from a bit of makeup and the right clothes, as well as the sheer extent of what some of the nobles would do to change their appearance, and thus the market for such things.

And so, she’d availed herself of some darkening cream for her skin, to turn her smooth ochre tint into a slightly more blue-based brown, a prosthetic nose with thicker nostrils and a bit of a bump in the middle, and finally, some color-changing lenses made of reinforced glass, to turn her dark eyes into a light blue.

The lenses were the most difficult part of the whole transformation, as she’d had a lot of trouble getting them into her eyes, and once there, to settle properly over her watering eyeball. They didn’t exactly make her eyes unremarkable, as the bright blue stood out starkly against the deep dark brown beneath, giving her a striking, piercing gaze, but they did definitely help to make her look nothing like herself.

Along with a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, some artful grey streaks in her hair, and a little bit of transparent tightening paste she’d dabbed at the corner of her eyes while squinting to give herself wrinkles, she truly appeared to have transformed into someone else. Perhaps an aunt, or an older cousin.

Siobhan had wondered if she should start trying to think of herself as Silvia, when she was in her new and improved disguise. Ultimately, she decided against it, because incorporating more than two distinct self-identities seemed like both too much work, and the kind of thing that could lead to dissociation of her base identity. She’d already had some trouble with that.

She arrived the Verdant Stags’ secret jail, an unassuming, rectangular brick building whose most interesting feature was the strategic positioning of small windows that looked more like arrow-slits, only on the second floor. Apparently, some clever enforcer had started calling it Knave Knoll, a witticism based on Harrow Hill, and the name had stuck. It was a couple of hours before midnight on Friday, and she had slipped by the late-night revelers braving the barely-above-freezing temperatures without notice.

Each of the fifteen wagons waiting in a nearby warehouse would carry prisoners to Harrow Hill, leaving in sets of three at slightly different times and taking random routes that some dice would decide at the last minute. The dozens of enforcers from both the Nightmare Pack and the Verdant Stag who would escort each convoy were waiting either there, or inside the jail. They were the most trusted from both groups, but had still been questioned and searched before she arrived, if everything was running on schedule. The full kit of mismatched battle artifacts, potions, and horses for every one of them had cost a fortune. But they were prepared for almost anything. And if all went well, they would have no reason to use any of it.

After going through the strict security process, she found Oliver inside, waiting with Healer Nidson. The man made no comment on her disguise, simply nodding in greeting, and she assumed Oliver or Katerin had informed him of her updated appearance. Her need for anonymity was a hint at her true identity, but there was little she could do about that at this point. Oliver seemed sure that Healer Nidson was trustworthy, and it was true he didn’t seem inclined to ask questions.

Oliver was visibly tense, his muscles tight and prone to flinching. When he saw her, he made an obvious effort to relax. “What is it they say? It’s not paranoia if they’re really out to get you?”

“It’s still paranoia,” she responded wryly. “But as someone much smarter said, ‘A concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that are real and immediate is the process of a rational mind.’”

“Master Heller, right?”

“I didn’t think you read fiction.”

“My sister read it to me as a kind of reverse bedtime story.”

Healer Nidson interjected before they could continue. “You’re sure none of these people are going to somehow be let off or ‘accidentally’ escape Harrow Hill?”

“The shift manager made sure I would have the right people there tonight, and none of the wrong. Once everything is on file, it would take someone very bold to try and tamper with the evidence. There is not that much leeway in the conviction process. When the right people are in the right jobs, Crown law isn’t actually that horrible. These people are going to be executed or heavily fined and sent to work off their debt in various unpleasant work camps, most likely the celerium mines. And even I wouldn’t be willing to risk a mass breakout from Harrow Hill. The High Crown might actually call in the army to exact retribution and stomp down with the firm boot of the law.”

So all we have to do is get them there,’ Siobhan reassured herself. ‘And all I have to do is follow along behind Healer Nidson and do what he says.’ She didn’t say it aloud, because she wasn’t so stupid as to trigger the whole mission going horribly wrong.

As soon as the cursemaster arrived, escorted by Enforcer Gerard, the four of them moved from the lobby area into Knave Knoll proper. The building had obviously been modified, but she suspected that at one point, before the second floor was added, it had been a barn for exotic, dangerous animals. The steel troughs stacked in a corner and the ventilation tubes running through each of the stall-sized cells gave it away, as did the lingering smell of manure, distinctly different from human stench.

Gerard led them to a small infirmary room, where a prisoner was already waiting on the single narrow medical bed within, set in the far corner of the room. The guard who had been with him bowed and left in a hurry.

Within the small infirmary, the cursebreaker lowered the deep hood of his worn leather cloak to reveal sallow, sickly features. His cheeks still held the faint white lines of old scars, and his thin lips were shiny with spit.

Sebastien found him immediately distasteful. ‘Is he deliberately trying to look the part of the evil cursemaster? The leather of his cloak is even discolored and patched, like it was made of pieces of human skin sewn together.’ She shuddered at the thought, glad that they weren’t doing this in a cell, where she would be forced to squeeze in close enough to smell him.

The Morrow man looked Enforcer Gerard and the cursebreaker up and down. “Here to brand your insurance into me, huh? But if you’re worried about us breaking the vow, what’s to say we don’t break a curse, too?”

“I am an expert,” the cursebreaker said simply, his voice dry and raspy, as if his throat had been slit at some point and the healer hadn’t put it back together quite right. He wasted no time getting to work.

He pulled a jar from one of the many pockets inside his dank cloak, and began to write on the floor with the dark-brown, congealed substance within, which shimmered green in the light of the wall lamp. A whiff of it hit Siobhan’s nose, and from the salty-sweet, coppery tang, she identified blood as one of the major ingredients. He was creating a spell array, but she didn’t recognize at least half of the glyphs, and the use of numerological symbols was…strange. He drew two different versions of a heptagram, one even and broad, and the other strangely lopsided and spiky. Other lines branched off of this combined symbol, connecting particular glyphs and even a few other small symbols at the edges. In the center, he drew a filled-in circle the size of his fist.

When he finished that, the cursemaster took out a leather wrap, unrolling it to reveal over a hundred slender needles, some long and some short. He dipped a few dozen in the jar of blood, then set them aside. Then, he pulled out two small scrolls, one tied with a green ribbon, and the other with a red. “You understand the contents of the seal I will be placing on you?” he asked, waving them at the prisoner. “You may read them again, to familiarize yourself, if necessary.”

Siobhan’s attention caught on the word “seal,” and her interest deepened. ‘Was something like this done to me?’ she wondered.

The prisoner waved a hand, his jaw clenched tight as he stared with futile unwillingness at the cursemaster.

“Very well.” He produced a milky-white potion, into which he dipped a tiny brush and wrote something indistinguishable around the edges of both scrolls. When he finally unrolled them, he drew a thin slice across the Morrow man’s hand and forced him to create a large blood print on both of the scrolls, which he then burned up. The prisoner reluctantly ate the ashes, and then the real work began.

The cursemaster brought out a strange lump of clay—no, not clay. Siobhan had thought it was clay because of the way it squished in his hand. But the surface was pink and smoothly textured, and the lines of his fingers left no prints in its surface as he began to mold it. It was a little ball of flesh.

The prisoner almost gagged, and she sympathized. The cursemaster worked with frightening speed, molding the ball of flesh into a surprisingly realistic doll-like form. “A hair,” he demanded, holding his hand out. When he received it, fresh plucked from the Morrow man’s head, he stuck it into the scalp of the doll, which absorbed it like someone hungrily sucking up a noodle. The doll’s features clarified, and Siobhan watched in horror as it grew to resemble the prisoner almost exactly over the course of a handful of seconds.

The cursemaster produced a small wooden box, which looked rather like a miniature coffin, and set the tiny simulacrum inside, where it rested peacefully.

The Morrow man was breathing hard, staring at it with bulging eyes, and when the cursemaster reached for him, he jerked back. “No, no, don’t touch me!”

“It is much too late for that,” the cursemaster said. “Hold still. I will complete the task I was assigned with your cooperation or without it. But my employer would prefer it if I leave you undamaged. Excessive struggling will make things…dangerous. The brain is a delicate thing, after all.”

When he picked up two of the longer needles, the prisoner started to hyperventilate, and scrambled back into the corner. “Please, don’t do this! I promise I won’t talk!” Seeing the cursemaster unmoved, the man’s eyes turned toward Healer Nidson and Siobhan. “Help me! Help!” He began to sob.

Siobhan turned to Healer Nidson.

His expression was grim, his lips pressed together tight and compassion in his eyes. “If you would like, I can give you a minor sedative to help keep you calm, and something to keep you from accidentally moving. I would recommend the latter, at least. Even a small flinch could do damage.”

After a long moment of horrible disillusionment, the prisoner accepted both. Healer Nidson didn’t need Siobhan’s help to provide a couple of potion doses, and soon enough the cursemaster got back to work. The prisoner was moved into the center of the spell array, his head resting over the central dot.

The cursemaster inserted both long needles, tipped in that strange blood concoction, directly through the man’s skull and into his brain, seeming to encounter no resistance as he did so.

The Morrow man’s eyes were open, leaking silent tears.

Humming under his breath, the cursemaster opened the prisoner’s mouth, pulled out his tongue, and began to insert the shorter needles into the soft flesh. It quickly became apparent that he was building a particular pattern, though Siobhan couldn’t be sure if it was somehow matching the spell array underneath, or something new altogether.

He released the man’s tongue to draw back into his mouth with the needles still in it, then stood up, patting his hands on his knees where he’d gotten a little dusty from kneeling. He pulled out the larger needles from the man’s skull, cleaned them thoroughly, then picked up the little box with the simulacrum. Very casually, he wiped his finger across the lips to erase them, leaving a blank swath where the mouth had been. Then he closed the lid and handed the box to Gerard. “This one is finished.”

Siobhan stared at the silently crying man as a couple of enforcers arrived to carry him away, wondering if this was what the Architects of Khronos had done to Tanya—if there were still needles in the other young woman’s tongue, hidden within the soft pink flesh. At least this Morrow man had deserved punishment, either directly or through being complicit in the crimes of his organization and underlings. Still, the whole thing left the palms of her hands sweaty and an unpleasant dizziness in her stomach.

She watched an almost identical process play out a few more times with impressive speed, and finally mustered up the courage to speak about an hour later, while they were waiting for the next important prisoner. “I noticed you used some principles of binding magic. But it wasn’t an equivalent exchange, right? Which is why it’s considered a curse. Does the seal only work on speech? Could you seal someone’s ability to cast certain magic, or think of certain things, or…” She trailed off as Healer Nidson shook his head at her.

The cursemaster didn’t respond to her questions, and didn’t even look her way.

In the hallway outside, the guards were beginning to lead away some of the prisoners for loading into the wagon convoys. Some struggled, some were crying, and some looked numb. While none bore the signs of physical torture, she looked at some of their eyes and realized that did not preclude more subtle forms of persuasion.

One guard sneered at a woman who was sobbing and grabbing onto his shirt. He pried her fingers off him, then examined both of her empty hands as if suspecting that she had tried to pickpocket him. “If you didn’t want to pay the price, you shouldn’t have committed so many crimes,” he said.

She scoffed through her tears. “We paid for our crimes, quite literally, and now we’re being turned into the coppers to pay again? You may pretend to be righteous, but in truth you’re maggots, stripping every last ounce of flesh off our rotting carcasses!”

Enforcer Gerard turned to Siobhan. “That woman was a child trafficker. I’m sure you’ve heard the stories about what happens to stolen young children. Oliver found some of them in the basement of a Morrow lieutenant’s house after two days of questioning her. Three were already dead, and one of the little girls was pregnant.” He spoke loudly enough to be heard by those passing by.

Siobhan blanched, her stomach rolling over inside her as sudden tears prickled at her wide eyes. She knew too well what could happen. She pushed the thoughts away with a physical shudder.

“They were going to die anyway!” the woman screeched. “Their parents couldn’t afford to feed them. You don’t know where they came from. Some of them ended up with better lives, because of me!”

One Morrow man passing by closed his eyes to her words. “Shut up!” he screamed at the woman, and Siobhan suddenly knew that he had been aware of the child trafficking. He felt badly about it now, but not enough to do anything at the time.

Any the sympathy she’d had for the cursemaster’s victims died a little inside her. If she ever found out that Oliver was doing something so heinous, he would immediately and forever become her enemy. That these Morrows had willingly worked with an organization where such things were acceptable made them complicit. No matter what reason they had joined, the people who were still here, being taken to Harrow Hill, deserved their punishment.

Her respect for Healer Nidson increased when one of the cursemaster’s subjects began to convulse as he inserted the needles into her brain.

Healer Nidson immediately stopped the cursemaster, and with Siobhan’s help, stabilized the woman so she didn’t do any further damage to herself. Then he used a complicated healing spell with several components from the Plane of Radiance, which caught the tail end of her seizure and soothed her into a deep sleep. The light was bright and pure, harsh and cleansing, and from the spillover alone, Siobhan could feel how light could be used in transmogrification to such great effect.

Undeterred, the cursemaster finished the seal, and once again motioned for the next prisoner to be brought in. But before they could arrive, one of the guards hurried up with a whispered message for Enforcer Gerard.

The man’s expression didn’t shift, but his muscular shoulders drew forward like a bear preparing to run toward the enemy. Siobhan caught some of his murmured reply. “Only two more prisoners to go. Don’t start loading the final convoy yet. Give us twenty minutes.” As the guard ran away to carry the message, Gerard said to the rest of them, “Nothing for you to worry about, just some precautions.”

Siobhan was intensely curious, but couldn’t ask for more details when acting as Silvia and in front of the other two.

Halfway through the final seal, the hallway lights shut down. They flickered back on, now shining a deep red. They flickered off again and were replaced by blue lights. The sequence repeated with ponderous ominousness. In the sudden silence that resulted, Siobhan could hear a low, moaning alarm, not screeching like the city-wide rogue magic alarms, but nevertheless disquieting. She recognized the sequence, as one of the many parts of preparation she had made for this evening, but the one to speak was Enforcer Gerard.

“Stop all prisoner transports and activate security measures,” he recited.

“We’re being attacked,” Siobhan predicted with numb lips.

If you’re seeing this chapter, you’re seeing the updated website. Man, this took me way too many hours. And even now, not everything is finished! We’ve got some new content (illustrations and the like) and more coming.

You may encounter issues. If you do, let me know, and I’ll see what I can do.

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Chapter 128 – Raven Summoning Spell

Siobhan

Month 3, Day 8, Monday 10:15 p.m.

Grumbling mentally about the inconvenient meeting times and locations, Siobhan walked out of the secret meeting of underground thaumaturges. Tanya had not been at the new, appropriately underground venue this time, and Siobhan suspected that she, along with some of the other missing members, were no longer welcome after the security crackdown.

It hadn’t subdued the trading, and Siobhan found herself leaving with more than she had planned. She had a box full of potions, a couple of scrolls containing the instructions for her new decryption spells, and a slightly heavier coin purse after selling a few pieces of her own information, along with the coin from fencing off the Gervin uncles’ confiscated belongings. That was all planned.

She hadn’t planned to buy a new enchanted satchel, big enough to fit Siobhan’s old female satchel inside, due to a minor space-bending spell. It even sat light on her shoulder due to a lightness pell. Also, the third scroll in her inner jacket pocket, the instructions for a spell to summon the Raven Queen.

The spell had been offered during the previous meeting, but was, rightfully, met with general skepticism, both because of the high price and because summoning spells were so deeply unreliable, with potentially long payoff times, and even then with “results” open to interpretation. Internally, she had scoffed that such a spell would allow anyone to meet her, and was sure that even if it did work, the summoner would have no idea that the innocuous person they just happened to pass in the street one day was actually an alter ego of the Raven Queen. She was even more skeptical, because the seller claimed to have tested it successfully and successfully requested a boon from her, and yet she had no memory of meeting him—except for during the secret meetings themselves, and she was quite sure he had no idea who she was.

Summoning spells were supposed to create a weak attraction to something that met your defined requirements, subtly nudging the world—and perhaps more likely, the caster themselves—to come in contact with the object of their search parameters over some vague upcoming period of time. The more undefined the parameters, or more distant the target in space or in time, the weaker this force of attraction became. A few more scientifically minded thaumaturges had even posited that the whole subset of divination was a scam, with people succumbing to the placebo effect or seeing “signs” that matched their target, because with a vague enough target and enough mental contortion, anything could meet the criteria. Even the fact that general summoning spells were still legal pointed toward their lack of efficacy.

In any case, this spell was supposed to allow someone to meet the Raven Queen. Only one person had been foolish enough to purchase it, and tonight they had come back irate at the spell’s failure, demanding a refund. Apparently, rather than allowing them to meet the Raven Queen, the spell had gotten them bombarded by a flock of corvids. They dropped the spell, but by the time the effects had dissipated, they were covered in peck and claw wounds and bird shit.

The arbiter had settled the dispute, but Siobhan found the whole thing hilarious, and bought the spell instructions for a pittance, since it seemed like the kind of thing that might come in handy at some point. It almost didn’t seem like the standard summoning spell at all, rather some sort of area-effect compulsion, much more direct in both execution and effect than the little she knew of the craft as a whole.

Stopping in an almost pitch-black alley, Siobhan took off her feathers and turned her cloak inside-out to change the color, then flagged down a carriage that bore a small painted rendition of the Verdant Stag’s green antlers on its side. The box of supplies was too heavy to carry all the way, and though she had traveled to the meeting with Liza, she was on her own now and felt safer within the obscuring walls. She had bought some potions that she’d never made before, and sold the recipe for the fever reducing potion, which she had brewed several times for the Verdant Stag.

Now, someone else could do the same, or just supply the people who would have otherwise bought from the Verdant Stag, still indirectly putting her out of a job. This was why spell information was often so tightly held, as having a monopoly on anything useful had obvious benefits. But that restrictive and selfish mindset seemed silly to Siobhan. ‘Magic is better spread as far and wide as possible. If there’s no longer demand for this concoction, it won’t matter to me, because I’m always growing and learning and will be able to make something new that people want to buy. Additionally, the best thaumaturges will make the best potions, and their reputations can keep them selling even in a saturated marked. And if that places a strain on the supply of magical components, then there should be more jobs in sustainably sourcing components, or research into viable alternatives.

Her mental tangent ended as she arrived at the Verdant Stag, going around to one of the back entrances, where an enforcer let her in. He immediately returned to reading a flimsy pamphlet, ostentatiously labeled The People’s Voice, apparently one of the first editions of a newspaper run by the Verdant Stag. Oliver was truly the boy with a finger in every pie.

Siobhan dropped off the box at the apothecary, then made her way to Katerin’s office. When she knocked on the door, a familiar, distinctly non-Katerin voice called, “Enter.”

Inside, Katerin’s chair was facing away from the door, seemingly empty. Then, a small foot reached out for purchase on the side of the desk, and the chair swiveled slowly around. Theo was sitting there, his copper hair mussed and what looked to be homework sprawled out over the dark wooden desk. He had steepled his fingertips together and was glaring over them in a parody of a powerful businessman, though his legs were dangling. When he saw Siobhan, he perked up, forgetting his little act. “It’s you! I haven’t seen you in so long! Why’re you in your Raven Queen body? Didja go after one of your enemies tonight? Didja do something super awesome and nightmarishly horrible to them? Do you have any other bodies you can change into? Can you really travel through the shadows, and if so, can you take someone small with you, maybe? ‘Cause I was thinking, that would be really awesome to try, and I promise I wouldn’t be any bother—” He cut off the rapid-fire questions suddenly, having inhaled and choked on some of his own saliva.

Siobhan waited patiently for him to recover.

After some dramatic hacking, bent over the desk, Theo looked up at her, red-faced, watery-eyed, and suspicious. “Did you just hex me to shut me up?”

Siobhan rolled her eyes. “No. And if I did, it would have been a jinx, not a hex. Making you choke on your own spit is more of a prank than anything malicious. Isn’t it a little late? I’m pretty sure Katerin wants you in bed by this hour. And are you still working on your homework?”

Theo quickly slammed shut his textbooks and shuffled all his paper into a haphazard stack, slipping the whole mess into one of Katerin’s desk drawers. “That’s not important, and Katerin isn’t here right now. Now that all the trials and stuff are over, she’s getting ready for transferring all the rest of those bad guys to the coppers for official sentencing and jail and stuff. Do you know how long it takes to earn enough money to buy a utility wand? I’ve been working on it for months now, and I’m still only maybe halfway there. Maybe you could talk to Katerin about increasing my wages?”

Siobhan raised an eyebrow at the non-sequitur, noting that he hadn’t answered her questions. “Your wages for what?”

“Homework and stuff.”

“The same homework that you haven’t completed and just shoved in a drawer?”

Theo gave her a hard stare, his expression asking if she was really pointing that out. “Et tu, Brute?” he muttered, hopping down from Katerin’s chair.

Siobhan wondered if he even knew what that meant, or was just parroting something he’d heard others say.

“Well, to make up for it, you can take me with you when you go shadow-walking,” Theo offered magnanimously, coming around the desk to stand in front of Siobhan.

“That’s a rumor based on zero facts.”

Theo’s mouth dropped open in stunned dismay, but then his eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Zero? Really? Even if you can’t shadow walk, you’ve gotta have something interesting that you can show me. I mean, you always have something interesting. Last time, it was all those totally awesome stories about the Black Wastes. Mr. Mawson totally hated that, but I cited all those sources you told me about and he had to give me a good grade. Katerin kept saying I was going to have nightmares, but I didn’t have any at all, so you don’t have to worry about treating me like a little kid.” He reached out boldly to take her hand in both of his, staring up at her with big watery eyes.

Siobhan hesitated, but she was trying to be kinder to herself, as well as to others, and some childish play might be just the thing. As the end of term was approaching in just a few more weeks, the stress among her classmates had grown palpable. When she woke in the middle of the night now, several other students were likely to be awake, lights coming from their curtained cubicles as they tried to cram a whole term’s knowledge into their skulls. It was like the stress was infectious.

She herself wasn’t worried about the general exams, because it was clear she wasn’t in the bottom ten percent of her student group, and thus in no danger of being held back, but the end of term exhibitions were looming ominously, and she was struggling to get as much power from Professor Lacer’s transmogrification exercises as the spells should have provided at her capacity.

“Please?” Theo wheedled.

“Fine,” she acquiesced. She had a few more simple spell arrays drawn on paper now, and she easily found the simple illusion spell. She placed the paper near the light on Katerin’s desk so that she would have more to draw from, and created an image of a cute little dog on the page, wriggling around with excitement as it looked at Theo.

The boy watched with wide eyes, and was smart enough to stop himself from reaching out to touch it, despite his obvious desire.

But soon enough, he frowned. “This is neat and all, but it’s not very ‘Raven Queen,’ is it?”

She morphed the dog into a tiny black dragon, breathing fire, which drew Theo’s interest more strongly, but he still wasn’t satisfied. “But it’s just an illusion. There isn’t a cool story to go along with it, and it’s not even leaving the page. Don’t you have anything more…dangerous? Or at least more impressive?”

Siobhan let the spell drop, staring down at the top of Theo’s curly copper head with exasperation. “Fine. But we’ll need a place open to the air, though preferably not exposed to widespread observation.”

“Of course not,” Theo agreed, already tugging at her hand to lead her away. “We can use one of the rooms with a balcony hanging over the back courtyard!”

Siobhan took a few minutes to more thoroughly examine the spell instructions and imprint the process into her mind, then got to work out on the chilly balcony, setting up the spell array on her portable slate table rather than wrestle with getting an unbroken Circle across the wooden boards beneath her.

It was a bit cramped to fit the three raven feathers—which she had double checked to ensure they weren’t crow feathers after learning of Ana’s mistake with the Raven Queen costume—plus the shade dust, an offering of something shiny and valuable, and a lump of iron. The spell called for a raven eyeball as well, but Siobhan didn’t have one, and with the feather wasn’t sure it was necessary, especially since she knew what the spell actually did. She also didn’t have magnetite, which she had substituted for the iron. It wasn’t ferrimagnetic, since the inherent magnetic domains were all randomly oriented and thus canceled each other out. But the magnetic domains still existed, so she thought it should be good enough. Siobhan might have been able to forcibly magnetize her little lump of iron, but it seemed foolish to try without research and safety measures, especially for something so trivial. For the final component, she just placed down a polished gold crown.

When she was ready, she set the slate table on the balcony deck, added her lantern for power, and stood over it with her hands raised dramatically as Theo watched avidly from the side. Siobhan was trying to take a lesson in spellcasting theatrics from Professor Lacer, who always looked so impressive. In a low, deep voice she said, “Oh raven of the night. With hunger I seek you, persevering. To the earth I draw you, a beacon. With luster I entice you, worthy.”

The chant seemed obviously cobbled together, and the magic wobbled unsteadily under the grip of her Will, new and wild.

She had no intention of letting it slip from her grasp, and imagined the effects of the spell spreading out just like the tendrils of a divination, seeking a matching target and enticing it to approach.

They sat on the corner of the balcony while they waited, their legs dangling off the edge for a quarter hour while Siobhan concentrated with one part of her mind while using the other to chat with an increasingly impatient little boy.

“Are you sure it’s working?” Theo asked, and as if on cue, the first raven arrived.

It landed not on the balcony or the center of the spell array, but on Siobhan’s shoulder. She had been a little worried that the spell wouldn’t be powerful enough to wake any birds from their sleep.

Theo gasped, staring up at the creature in awe.

Unlike the account the purchaser of this spell had given, the raven seemed entirely docile, and maybe even friendly—curious. It watched both of them from its little black eyes, then pecked at Siobhan’s hair, pulling gently in a motion that felt like grooming.

Tentatively, Theo reached up to pet it, pausing for a moment before his fingers came into contact with its feathers to give it time to react.

The raven remained still, and when Theo finally touched it, gently sliding his fingertips over its dark, shimmering feathers, the boy sighed dreamily. “You’re so pretty,” he told it. “And smart.”

The raven bobbed its head up and down, then nibbled gently on his fingers, making him giggle with delight.

“Oh, I should have brought some food for you,” he lamented, suddenly heartbroken by this oversight.

“I have some,” Siobhan offered, carefully moving to pull out the same pouch of dried fruits and nuts that she secretly took with her to breakfast.

Theo held up the bits of food in his palm, and the raven hopped over to his shoulder instead. He petted its feathers, murmuring constant and ever more hyperbolic praise as it nibbled away with its sharp beak, careful not to accidentally hurt him. “Oh, you’re the most genius bird in Gilbratha. And the most beautiful. Your feathers probably look like a black rainbow in the sunlight. You’re a mighty hunter. And a cunning thief. And all the other ravens are jealous of you…” He continued in this vein for a while.

Siobhan watched on with satisfaction, feeling a warmth at his childish enthusiasm and instant adoration. But after another quarter hour the second raven arrived, and got into a bit of a tussle with the first over who had rights to the food.

Theo struggled to mediate. “Be nice. There’s enough for both of you. I’ve got a whole pouch, see?” he said, shaking the food Siobhan had bought for herself without a care to leave any for her. “No, Blacky,” he said to the smaller one, “be nice to Empress Regal. She was here first. Why don’t you ask her if you can have some of the raisins, too?” He turned a hard stare on the first raven, who hesitated, but grudgingly nudged one single raisin toward Blacky.

The ravens seemed to start some sort of argument, hopping on Theo’s lap and tugging at his hair and clothes while squawking belligerently at each other and throwing wing fisticuffs.

Theo had to resort to threats to get them to stop. And then the third and fourth raven arrived, each taking one of Siobhan’s shoulders. They cawed loudly right in her ears and eyed each other with distrust, and then all four started hopping and flapping around in some kind of territorial dance that she was worried might accidentally disrupt the spell array.

At that point, Siobhan dropped the spell, because she wasn’t a complete fool, and drawing a swarm of ravens, even in a discrete place at night, seemed like a great way to draw unnecessary attention.

Three more ravens arrived after that, flying around the balcony with confusion. After a minute or so they left, followed by the others.

Theo’s raven was the last to depart, but not before finishing the last of the snacks. It gave Theo’s bright copper hair a friendly tug, then swooped down and picked up the gold piece Siobhan had laid out as a component before flying off into the night.

“Hey!” she called after it angrily. “Bring that back!”

It’s mocking caw soon faded into the distance.

Suddenly, the whole thing didn’t seem worth it, after all. A whole gold piece was a steep price to pay for less than an hour of fun for a little boy. With a sigh, she packed up the spell components and her lantern, shooing Theo off to bed before Katerin could return and get angry with the both of them.

After returning to the Silk Door and Sebastien’s form, she checked her pocket watch, noting the late hour and vacillating for a moment over what to do next. Responsibly, she should return to the University and go to sleep. But the decryption spells she had been waiting so long for were calling to her from the inside pocket of her jacket, whispering of the mysteries they could uncover and the power of knowledge.

So instead, knowing she would likely regret it in the morning, Sebastien headed to Dryden Manor. She had the beamshell tincture if she really needed it, after all.

Oliver was there when she arrived, but seeing that she was busy and distracted, he said only, “Have breakfast with me in the morning before you head back. There’s some upcoming work I want to talk to you about.”

With a murmured agreement, Sebastien headed up to her room and took out the spell instructions, as well as the books on more complex math that she had borrowed from the University library in anticipation of needing them.

Spreading out her books and papers over the floor and plopping down cross-legged on a cushion, she delved into the theoretical information. As she had worried, the spell was complex, the math slightly beyond her, and the power requirements entirely beyond her. But those were only roadblocks, and with enough tenacity, they would all be overcome.

She worked well into the night, deciphering the math and turning the formulas into graphs and charts that took up a lot more space, but were easier for her to grasp, writing notes that explained how the spell worked in more detail so she could stabilize the Word, and calculating out how to modify the spell to stretch out its casting time such that she could handle it on her own.

She got lost within the work, so focused on wrenching apart the puzzle pieces and forcing them back together that she didn’t retire to the bed until the early hours of the morning. Thinking of the raven stealing her coin, a giggle burst out of her. It probably had a whole cache of stolen loot. She drifted off to sleep imagining other people being victim to similar thefts, but superstitiously believing that the ravens were demanding tribute on behalf of their queen, tittering woozily to herself all the while.

I almost forgot to post the chapter today, because, when you work 7 days a week, sometimes you forget what day it is.

IMPORTANT: I’m revamping my website, and will be moving over to a new host on Monday. There may be some site downtime from Monday-Tuesday because of this. Hopefully, it will fix some of the sporadic access problems people have experienced.

 

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Chapter 127 – A Monster Egg

Thaddeus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Siverling nodded adamantly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hmph. We shall see.”

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

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

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

“What is it?” Thaddeus asked.

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

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

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

“Thank you for telling me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter 126 – Output Circle

Sebastien

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But surely some of them are actually trying?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are the other virtues?” Sebastien asked.

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

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

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

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

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

Sebastien nodded. “I always do.”

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

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

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

She didn’t know what to say to that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter 125 – Blackmail

Damien

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sebastien froze, turning to stare at the clerk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sebastien raised an eyebrow. “No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sebastien turned his concealed face toward Damien in wordless command.

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

Malcolm’s mouth tightened, but he nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sebastien did not seem mollified by this argument.

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

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

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

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

No one would even realize they had left.

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

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Chapter 124 – The Architects of Khronos

Oliver

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

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

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

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

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

It had been illuminating.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I think you can understand my concern.”

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

Author Note 10/27/22:

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

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

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Chapter 123 – An Honorable Burial

Sebastien

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What was that?” Sebastien asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter 122 – Practical Transmogrification

Sebastien

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sebastien reeled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damien never showed up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Man, I freaking love Professor Lacer’s class.

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

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