Alinore Valmont. Venday, Aries 8th, 2348 AA. 8:08 PM. Athenaeum (Girl’s Dorm – Yew).

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Lin sucked her index finger. That’s like the fifth time! She had been cross-stitching for over an hour, and it was actually only the fourth time. She was hoping that overworking her opus could somehow spur her brain to produce the chemicals she needed for the Chirothecam—the most common, homeopathic solution for urdo-transmitter deficiency that did not involve the use of other illicit substances.

But her fingers were already cramping, and seemingly oversensitive. Her guts had been knotted since this time last night. She woke up to a migraine that faded around noon, and sought vicious vengeance over dinner.

I’m beginning to hate my body. If I was born a man, I wouldn’t have to put up with this shit. Or the leering. Hell, mom would have treated me like Athren 2.0 instead of her precious broodmare in waiting.

She sighed and took a deep breath.

You don’t wish you were a man. You’ve dealt with your mother so far and you will keep dealing with her.  A bad period is child’s play by comparison. You can take this. She forced a smile and nodded, just like Pensey taught her. The little ritual had come in handy a surprising number of times, but tonight it rang hollow.

It would be nice if my brain could produce at least some of the chemicals I need. Some dopamine would be nice. Serotonin, maybe? To say nothing of fucking Urdothine.

Lin looked out the window of their fourth-year dorm room. It was at the top of Yew, and it would be the last year they lived there before moving to Eld, the female dorm for Declared aspirants. There was a decent view of the central arroyo and Old Town. Usually, the sight of it kindled something in here. A deep affection. A sense of duty with a reassuring weightiness.

She loved her city, and had thought of it as ‘hers’ ever since Athren snuck her some comic books from the Athenaeum when she was nine-years-old. Old Town was a good time incarnate. Shops and food and a lively civic works program that held film festivals and put on public entertainment on a regular basis. Westmarque was the greatest bookstore on the planet—she had compared London and New Amsterdam’s offerings and found them pretentious and dry by comparison.

But the city had its share of secrets and scars as well. The origin of the briars, the techniques used to build the Colorado Bridge, the multitude of urban myths surrounding them both… and a very interesting spectrum of crime as well. Well. I don’t love the crime. But it poses an interesting challenge. You have high-concept malefactors from both CalTech and Athenaeum. More traditional gang crime up north. All kinds of stuff in the Reservation. And layer the high crimes of the affluent on top of all of that…  

She snickered at herself. What kind of aspiring Keeper romanticizes crime? What kind of psychopath does it to cheer themselves up? Somebody desperate? Somebody deranged? Is there a difference?

Lin knew she was desperate, but she wondered if it had warped her somehow. Left her deranged. Her desperation seemed to draw the luster out of the things that usually kept her world bright. You turn sixteen tomorrow. Your dad probably bought you a car. The whole cohort is going to dinner at your favorite Japanese restaurant… The last thought brought a smile to her face. When Lin’s mother balked at hosting only Pensey and Vetha, Lin publicly invited her entire cohort. Not everybody was coming, of course, but she hoped the inflated bill would twist the screws against her mother, however faintly. Even that comfort was fleeting, however.

Yup. I’m deranged alright.

She looked at the clock. Still two hours before lights out. It seemed like a shame to waste the time. There was always something that could be refined, reviewed, or expanded upon in some way. But Lin was tired, and Pensey was leading a pre-Leximancy study group that would undoubtedly run until their curfew.

To hell with it. Lights out. Early happy birthday to me.

—Satday, Aries 9th. 6:08 AM.—

Lin woke when a pillow slapped her in the face.

“Wake up, birthday girl!” Pensey said, beaming over her.

“My fucking nose!” Lin said, and started laughing.

The sudden pain somehow struck her as funny. Pensey brought her hand to her mouth. If Lin cracked up after getting hit, it usually meant she’d been seriously hurt. This morning though, it was just funny. Lin seized the opportunity to retaliate, catching Pen with a body blow from her own pillow. Pen yelped and tottered away.

“So how do you feel? Any fresh insights? Abrupt surges in maturity?”

“Clearly,” Lin laughed. “As for insights, Mornings still suck, apparently. How are you so peppy?”

“I’ve been excited to give you your present.”

Lin mouthed a silent “aw” and made a heart with her fingers which she held against her chest.

“Give it to me tonight at the party, though,” she said. “I want to do my regular workout and then review everything I’ve covered with Carroll before we meet this afternoon. I’m sure he has some ridiculous challenge concocted.”

“On your birthday?” Pen asked. “Even Steinbeck gave me the afternoon off for mine.”

Lin made a shocked face. Pensey emanated emphatic agreement. Lin continued:

“It’s his sense of humor. His idea of birthday lumps, I guess. I’m sure he also has a very thoughtful gift.”

“All the better that I give you my, carefully thought out, perfectly safe gift now, then,” Pensey said, exaggerating her insistence while emanating reassurance.

Lin narrowed her eyes.

“I don’t like anything about the way you phrased that.”

“I have been half-dosing,” Pensey said, with a sort of gloved-gauntlet firmness.

Lin didn’t track her meaning at first.


“My Focaline. I’ve been taking only half the prescribed dose for six weeks now.”


Lin’s eyes widened as Pensey’s proposed solution started to dawn on her. Pen, don’t do this. Don’t tempt me like this.

“Because my prescription is stronger than it needs to be, apparently,” she said, brightly. “Since the second week of Pisces, I’ve only been taking half a vial. One week, I tried going down to a quarter, which was too low. That was why I couldn’t solve a single divinatory equation in meta-numerology for a week. But at half? I still don’t have spasms.”

Pensey reached into her book bag, and thrust a half-filled vial of viscous, luminescent green fluid into Lin’s hands. She pushed the vial back shaking her head, suddenly quivering.

“Pen, I… I can’t. I appreciate it so much, but if I get caught my life is over. I just…” Lin shook her head.

Here it is. A solution in a bottle. Salvation.

Lin’s grades had been stellar across the board since she joined. But now, in contract magic courses, her practical scores in contract magic had plummeted from “Excellent” and “Exceptional” to “Adequate,” and once “Subpar.” And that would only last so long, as practical ability scores would receive an increasing amount of weight in total grade scores as time went on. Athenon had made it clear that if Alinore couldn’t maintain a grade point average “becoming of a Valmont,” he would also pull her from the Athenaeum.

But Pensey is giving me a way out. An actionable answer instead of more miserable, pseudo-science and self-help pablum from the arcanet. I know I can trust her. I’d trust her with my life. But what about drug tests? What if we get caught? Is it really cheating?

“You want to fight for a fairer world, right?” Pensey asked her seriously.

Lin nodded.

“That has to start with yourself. You can’t deny yourself the help you need, the help you deserve and expect to serve people without growing bitter or resentful.”

Lin opened her mouth to object again. Instead, all she could manage was:

“Yeah, I guess it’s a good thing you didn’t give me this at my party.” Pensey laughed, though Lin wasn’t sure the joke warranted it. “Pen, I don’t know what to say. What about drug tests?”

“I talked to Carroll about that.”

“What?” Lin’s heart stopped dead.

“See, I knew your next objection would be that Carroll would never agree with this. But I knew he would. So… I talked to him. And he’s on-board, Lin.  As long you stick to a half vial—the same dose as me—and use it responsibly, sparingly, he’ll notify us of the drug testing schedule. The good news is, Focaline is alchemical. It transmutes. That means it is extremely long-acting, but traces of it only exist…”

“…In the body for a short period of time,” Lin finished, nodding. The ghost of a smile flickered across her face. This could work.

“How are you gonna be a Keeper if you can’t keep a secret?” Pensey asked.

“That is incredibly dark, Pen!”

Pensey shrugged, smiling.

“Take your first dose. Trust me. I know what Carroll has cooked up for you and it’s a doozy.”

Shock and outrage overtook Lin’s expression.

“You lying little…!”

—Venday, Aries 9th. 3:37 PM. The Athenaeum (Practical Room 7C)—

“I felt it was important,” Carroll said. “To at least see if a chemical imbalance is at the root of all your troubles. That said, the test I prepared for you, assumes you have kept perfect pace with your cohort all this time. Which, in your case, is yards ahead of the pack.”

Lin nodded, impatient. They were in one of the many dungeon-like practical rooms; a huge, windowless box, armored in dark brown ceramic tiles warded to withstand the rigors of elemental magic practice, patched with blocks of bare soil to practice Earth contracts. Carroll stood next to a large tarped device, while baskets of different kinds of anima gleamed in the dim yellow lighting, arranged in a ring. There were classical cardinal elements of magic, as well as metaphysic, transmutation, Gygax anima governing electricity and kinetic force in varying grades, and a few sensory anima. Most of the anima governing elements were ‘blunted,’ which means they would simulate the effects of their respective element to a milder degree, that was hopefully non-lethal in the case of sparring or catastrophic mis-cast, and less likely to induce exus with repeated casting.

All the same, the orbs seemed to call out to Lin. Like baskets of whispers. Bushels of wicked promises. Is this what it’s like for everybody else? Her wyrd felt explosively powerful. She could practically taste the ether as her wyrd inhaled it, and every exhalation was like a crashing tide. Is this in my head?  For the first time, Lin felt like her powers could keep up with the rest of her. Her soul was aligned with her mind and body. She was only dimly aware of the ache in her lower abdomen. Her migraine had receded completely.

“As you know,” Carroll continued, unnecessarily. “The Valmont line is supposed to have a tremendous aptitude for abnormally rapid contract magic…”

“Master,” Lin said, exasperated. “Let’s begin. What is my challenge?”

Carroll sighed, then smiled, and removed the tarp from the device next to him. An old, combat training golem stood next to him. Modern models were nearly human in terms of human stature, and they could be set to speeds meant to match contract-enhanced opponents. This one looked more like an artificer’s take on a gorilla mixed with an artist’s anatomy doll. All round edges connected by bulbous articulation orbs, save for its boxy head, which had a broad, star-shaped sensor array that minimized its blind spot.  Most of its body had heavy plastic paneling all over designed to dull the impact of magic against their delicate, enchanted innards, which were bulkier back in the day. Twenty? Thirty years ago?

“This,” Carroll said, putting his hand on the golem proudly, “Is Adam.”

“Sounds about right. He looks old enough,” Lin said witheringly.

Carroll’s face wilted.

“I can dance circles around that damn thing, master!”  Lin complained.

Carroll shoved his glasses against the brim of his nose, scowling.

“I certainly hope so. Because he will do his best to box you senseless. The force of a single blow isn’t sufficient to break a rib, but if it catches you in the face, you’ll have a nasty shiner for your birthday dinner.”

A funny smirk appeared on Lin’s face.

Carroll deflated again, and asked:

“You were just thinking of getting hit deliberately to spite your mother, weren’t you?”

Damn you! How am I so obvious?

“No,” Lin scoffed.

“Good. Because it can give you a concussion. The strength limiters are imperfect. A little finnicky, even. And accidents can happen depending on the opponent’s velocity—”

“So, I’m sparring against this thing?” Lin cut him off, while loosening up her shoulders. “I think destroying antiques is a crime against culture, don’t you?”

Carroll gave her a humorless chuckle.

“I think you will find Adam quite hearty, my dear. He was wrought by masters of the old ways of golemancy. Artificers from the Antwerp Athenaeum who followed ancient Jewish rituals.”

“Well, that’s convenient. I’m on a strictly kosher fight diet.”

Carroll ignored the quip.

“He has a very… unique and ironic enchantment. The conditions of his core contract grant him near invulnerability in exchange for displaying a single, clear weakness. I have assigned that weakness to change every ten seconds. And each weakness is programmed to be a specific contract from your curriculum. Not all of the contracts will be explicitly offensive in nature, mind you.”

“Oh,” Lin said.

“There will be no bluffing his sensors with sorcery to simulate elements, either. Don’t think I didn’t think of that! Depending on how powerfully you perform the contract on Adam, his resonators will afford you points in proportion to your contract’s efficacy. All the while,” Carroll continued. “He will attack and evade you. Occasionally, he will be vulnerable to kinetic sorcery or physical impacts as well, so you will need to get up close and personal occasionally, or you’ll sacrifice points. Moreover, you must stay within the ring of anima baskets.”

Lin nodded. This wasn’t trivial. Especially if Carroll made aftermarket modifications to the thing. Sloppy runic code bothered him. And if he didn’t have the ability to alter it with his own weak wyrd, he would pester a colleague into doing it for him in exchange for a favor. And who knows, maybe this is all in my head?

“You will have three minutes in the ring to score as many points as possible. And aim high Alinore, because your score will determine what you receive for your birthday.”

Lin laughed. That’s it? Those are the stakes?

“If you score under one hundred points, for example, you get to write me a thirty-page paper about the surprising pertinence of fecal matter in criminal investigations.”

First of all: gross. That is uncalled for. Secondly:

“I’m sorry; did you say thirty? Before the Chirothecam?”

“If you score over one hundred,” Carroll continued as if he didn’t hear her, and produced an urdoscope in a leather holster with a beautifully monogrammed AV on it. “You receive this.”

Lin gulped. Well. That’s night and day.

“And if you somehow manage three hundred points,” Carroll said a touch smug. “You get this.”

He reached into his robes, and produced a gun in a black leather holster. A gun that Lin immediately and unmistakably recognized as “The Treatise” Model Nine Auto-Revolver, produced by Locke firearms, more commonly referred to as “The Locke.”

Lin’s mouth hung open. She practically drooled.

“Really?” She asked.

“Really,” Carroll sighed. “And don’t worry. If you don’t crack it this year, there will always be next year’s challenge. Now. Before we begin. Any questions?”

“Yeah. Why isn’t the gun’s holster also monogrammed?” Lin asked haughtily.

Carrol gave her a flat stare as he tucked the gun back into his robes.

“I am amending your failure state. It will be a thesis paper on the significance, nay, the very… vitality, of bodily secretions of every variety, in criminology. Page length to be determined at my satisfaction.”

Lin smiled wickedly. Yeah, keep talking, Master. I’m going to win that damn gun.

“You can select any two anima you want to begin with. Consider well, as your starting toolkit should constitute the foundation of your strat—”

“Ready,” Lin said, slotting a middle-grade force animus and general sensory animus into her licenses.

Carroll grinned. Lin smiled back. Oh, come on. Not much of a test when you tell me I’ve got it right.

“Adam?” Carroll called. “Let’s get down to business.”

Three things happened very quickly. Adam dinged, like an elevator arriving. Then the sigil for ‘Dhashiel’s Remote Combustion’ appeared over his head, holographically. Finally, the construct lurched forward at Lin with surprising speed, its fists nearly large enough to grab her around the waist.

She immediately rolled to the side to dodge its bulk and started to flee for the far end of their arena, where the basket of fire anima awaited. Mid-run, Lin attempted a double contract. I know these principles, and I finally have the chemicals. Why walk when you already know how to run?

In the space of two seconds, she performed a flawless reflex booster contract. The spirits seemed hungry to cooperate and eager to please. Dangerously pliable, really. Lin envisioned the sacred root of the spell’s sigil to satisfy the first spirit—the sensory enhancer—and then performed the finger gestures for the second spirit as time seemed to slow down. Once the kinetic anima kicked in, the slowdown only applied to everything else.

Then the damn thing intercepted her.

It didn’t even attempt to run around Lin; it used its explosively powerful, double-jointed legs to flip over her and land in between her and the basket of fire anima.

Shit! How many seconds do I have left?! No. You knew that was a trap. Don’t think about the score, think about the execution. Besides, I’ve got all the time in the world now.

As soon as the thing recovered from its jump, Lin launched herself between its legs, taking it’s relatively predictable programming by surprise. She snatched a fire animus. Time was still blissfully slow. She had never pulled off something so profound so easily before! She released the catch on the side of her license to eject the empty orb and slotted in the fresh spirit with one fluid gesture.

Then she turned, performed the gestures required for Dhashiel’s, finishing with a finger gun. This seemed to please the spirit. Greatly. Lin gave it a relatively risky, but extremely straightforward command: Light that bitch up.

The top of the construct erupted in sparks as a plume of fire blazed to life around its rectangular head. The thing rocked onto its back-foot. A giddy rush of chemicals flooded Lin’s brain.

Elevator ding. The thing took a swing. Faster than it had before. Lin felt the rush of wind from its fist kiss her hair. Holy shit. Concussion nothing. That thing would take my head off. She sprang to the side, looking to see what the next weakness was. It was a fist.

Lin lunged for a quick punch, only for it to backhand her. Low. In the abdomen. Where she was already cramping. Jesus Fucking Christ! She started to drop to one knee, nearly vomiting. But her contract still held. She had time to think about how to react. But it had already retreated away from her, guard raised, intelligently anticipating her hunger for the points.

Lin darted to the side, ignoring the taunt, picking up another Gygax anima, and an Air anima, simply because they happened to be nearby. If neither one is a weakness, I still have other options. The thing’s marker showed the symbol for Electric Pulse. Lin used her freshly acquired Gygax anima to cast the spell and the burst of electricity blasted the golem. She made a point of counting how long it took the thing to reboot. It dinged after about one and a half seconds.The sigil for the new weakness read Redgerd’s Soak.

Lin couldn’t see the blue, turquoise, and purple hued water anima anywhere. Damn. It’s directly behind it isn’t it? Lin started circling toward the basket, and saw that it did contain the anima she needed for the spell. The golem continued to guard the anima, arms raised and ready to answer Lin’s approach with an attack. Antique or no, this is not a normal training golem. Carroll went to town on this thing’s code.

Then it blasted her. The thing fired a kinetic bolt from its right fist that caught Lin right in the jaw.

What the hell!? She torqued and pitched toward the ground, trapped in a body too stunned to respond to her lightning quick commands. The pain seemed to last forever with her sped-up reflexes. Move, move, move, move! Goddamnit! Come on! Then Lin’s mind pivoted. That blow shutdown my body, but not my mind or wyrd.

With a deft twist of sorcery Lin rolled mid-air, and managed to land on her feet. But the golem still had its guard up, dancing surprisingly lightly between its enormous, two-toed, long-heeled feet. I’ll let the weakness lapse and go for a different animus. But when the ding came, it once again displayed the sigil for Redgerd’s Soak.

Fine. Let’s see how you handle this. Lin used the wind anima to cast Astero’s Ranged Retrieval, directing the spell past the bot, directly toward the top gem in the basket of blunted water anima. A human opponent might be able to interfere with a counter-spell, or raw reflex, but advanced as the training golem was, it didn’t have a wyrd of its own, or the dexterity to snatch the cerulean orb out of the air.

The she ejected her spent wind orb, slotted in the water orb, and cast Redgerd’s Soak. It was a near thing, she was so caught up in the momentum of her magic that her fingers nearly tripped over the gestures required to appease the spirit. Sloppy work, but the spell went off. A sheet of wyrd-enriched water instantly condensed over the golem, slapping it in the face. The golem’s sensors glowed a dull red. Which probably means I just scored a glancing blow.

Lin grinned. Doesn’t matter. I have my trump card. As long as I can remotely summon anima with Astero’s Ranged Retrieval, blasting this thing with the right spell will be a cinch.

She grabbed three more air anima from the nearby basket, stuffing two in the pockets of her pants and replacing the spent water anima. Meanwhile, the golem dinged, displaying the sigil for Jutting Earth; a straightforward earth spell that caused a spike of bare earth to erupt from the ground.

As Lin rushed to grab an earthen animus, the golem quickly retreated until it was equidistant from every patch of bare earth. Damn! How am I supposed to lure that hunk of shit close enough to the earth to hit it? Then another idea flared bright in her mind.

Lin cast Jutting Earth on the nearest patch of earth, which was still roughly twenty yards from the golem. When the spike of compact earth emerged from the ground, Lin cast a second contract using the wind anima. Astero’s Directed Gale. She instructed the spell to grab the shaft of earth, and fling it at the golem. Adam was smart, but not smart enough to anticipate that. The sharp clod of earth slammed into its chest, and it shut down again for another reboot period.

Lin grabbed a metaphysic animus since it was nearby, and she was sure Carroll would require it at some point. Adam dinged. This time it displayed the symbol for the same reflex boosting kinetic contract that Lin had used.

Wait! I have to buff the damn thing as I fight it?!

Lin hesitated, then dashed back to the basket of Gygax anima. Somewhat reluctantly, she cast the spell. Her wyrd was beginning to ache. Strange symbols encroached on the edge of her visions, and voices that she couldn’t hear, but intrinsically understood goaded her to lean into the magic. You are capable of even more than this. Lin resisted them. She had only experienced the onset of exus once before, on her best day of training.

When the contract struck Adam, it shut down as usual. Then it started up again after only half a second. The kinetic contract reduced its reboot period? Lin barely had enough time to think the question before the thing rushed her, and landed a solid right hook against her barrier contract. The barrier shattered, sending Lin sprawling onto the floor.

Then there was a stopwatch beep.

“That’s round one!” Carroll called.

“There are rounds?” Lin groaned.

As she pushed herself up, she hocked a bloody glob of spit onto the tiles.

“Ugh. Really, Alinore. I realize these tiles are enchanted to self-sanitize but that’s still disgusting.”

“There are rounds?” Lin repeated, irritated.

“Indeed. Three one-minute rounds and three twenty-second breaks between them. Just enough to ensure you don’t enter exus.”

“You might have mentioned that earlier,” Lin said tersely.

“You seemed to be in a great hurry, my dear. I didn’t want to hold you up.”

“Uh huh. Any other surprises? Like, I dunno, say: arm cannons?”

“Ah, yes.” Carroll said, as if it slipped his mind. “Adam is outfitted with a wholly unique synthetic mind of my design. It is only active for up to ten minutes at a time, but it is capable of learning new tactics, and a few pre-programmed surprises simulating sorcery. The more consecutive points you score, the more of those tricks it will use.”

Oh, screw you!

Ding. Adam sprang back to life.

“Round two has begun!” Carroll said, delighted.

The golem displayed the sigil for Mnemonic Index; a metaphysical spell that enhanced the acuity of memory with regards to a specific subject. Lin fled as the speed-enriched construct came out swinging. She managed to fire off the index contract mere seconds before its fist made contact with her again.

She took the half-second opportunity to dash for the Gygax anima again, desperate to restore her kinetic barrier. But a pulse of energy yanked her ankle from behind, causing her to fall to the floor. Another trick. Great.

Without looking, she rolled to her right, just as the golem chased after her with another huge jump. The sigil above its head showed a pentacle, which was commonly associated with raw sorcery. Adam extended its arm toward Lin and she could feel etheric energy swelling in its wrist. With a savage whip of sorcery, Lin redirected the golem’s hand to its head. And as she hoped, just before the golem’s sensors could shut down, the thing fired its energy pulse into its own head.

As it registered the sorcery and froze, the force of its own blast sent it toppling over to the floor roughly. Lin shot Carroll a smug look as she dashed back to the Gygax anima basket. He didn’t seem to notice, looking at his felled champion with concern.

The golem dinged in half a second, again, displaying the sigil for Byron’s Pyrokinetics, but its motoric artifice seemed to be malfunctioning slightly. Lin dashed toward the basket of fire anima. She could feel her reflex boosting contract fading, which meant she would soon be at a catastrophic speed disadvantage.

Hit it hard enough to buy yourself time! As Lin slotted in the fire anima, she envisioned the golem’s rear resonator as one of those carnival bells that you had to strike with a hammer. This seemed to tickle the fire animus, but it also demanded the result of an arcane equation. Lin solved its riddle in a quarter second, almost like her mind was on rails. This is it. The Valmont’s gift. My gift!

As she completed the spell, a blazing hammer slammed into the golem before it could finish standing, and Lin ‘leaned’ behind the spell, funneling the full strength of her sorcery into the spell’s impact. Again, the golem sparked and its limbs twitched. An almost pitiful whirring noise escaped its joints.

Then the whirring sharpened into a whine, which further sharpened into an ear-piercing din. Lin covered her ears on reflex, dropping the Gygax anima she had grabbed to refresh her reflex boosting contract. Is it broken or is that a goddamned fire alarm!? She looked to Carroll, a question on her face. He also had his ears covered, but wore a Cheshire smile, and emanated for her to continue.

The noise made it almost impossible to think. Lin managed to cast another kinetic booster, but this one was sloppier, weaker than before. It was all she could do to stumble through the incantation with the shrieking construct. The golem had risen to its feet and raised its guard, seemingly recalibrating. It’s sigil relayed Gastov’s Convenient Knot; one of the first kinetic contracts aspirants were ever taught.

Lin grabbed another kinetic animus and cast the spell almost unbidden. She couldn’t remember if she performed an incantation, a string of gestures, or some combination thereof. The spell struck home, stunning Adam for another half second, finally silencing the obnoxious alarm. Meanwhile, a voice purred in her ear: Yes. Embrace it, Alinore. This is what you were denied. Now you may claim it in earnest. More magic. More anima. Do not stop. Lin slapped her cheek and shook her head. Am I slipping? Exus was wily. It could overtake even skilled casters in the heat of battle without them noticing.

The stopwatch beeped just as Adam dinged again.

“That’s it for round two!” Carroll said, voice slowed by the sensory boosting contract. He slapped his hands together, and rubbed his palms with satisfaction.

“What’s my score?” Lin asked.

“Who says you get to know?”

“Come on. I’m walking into your trap here.”

“Sounds like you’re already snared. Focus on your execution.”

I bet I’m out of the danger zone for the excremental paper, but he thinks I don’t have a shot at the gun.

“You’ve got a shot,” Carroll said and winked. “But this round will need to be your best yet.”

Lin scowled. He’s trying to make me desperate.

Twenty seconds seemed to last an eternity with her reflex contract active. Lin danced between her feet to keep herself warm and engaged. She slotted in the air animus she had grabbed earlier.

“In any event, the Focaline seems to be working out,” Carroll said, a touch smug.

Lin grinned. He’s as thrilled as I am.

The stopwatch beeped again. Carroll rubbed his hands together and called out.

“Oh, Adam? Initiate Limit Break Protocol.”

Adam dinged twice in confirmation. What, more tricks? Lin raised her guard, expecting the golem to move twice as fast, or blast her with hidden missiles, or some other ridiculous horseshit. But Adam showed no discernible difference. Carroll might just be messing with me. The hologram displayed the sigil for Night Sight. Lin didn’t have an ocular, glamour, or visual animus, so she cast the contract for Astero’s Ranged Retrieval again… and ding! The hologram had changed back to Redgerd’s Soak. In only half the normal time.

Five seconds per spell!? Lin swore as she dashed toward the water basket. She slotted the animus into her left license and enveloped it in another curtain of water. Ding! Clay Plates of Avalon. That should slow down it’s movement at the very least. Lin snatched orbs from two adjacent baskets—fire and metaphysic—and stuffed them into her pockets in case she needed them later. I can’t rely on retrieving them at this rate. I need them ready to deploy.

Lin could feel her reflex-boosting contracts starting to strain slightly. Shit! If I don’t recast the spell, I’ll be too slow to even compete, but recasting it will cost me at least one weakness rotation. Maybe two. She reached the basket of blunted earth animus, and made a point of instructing the spell to make the plates as heavy as possible, brittle, and rigid. A funnel of earth erupted from one of the room’s bare patches, compacting itself into an armor of extremely thick shingles of compressed earth.

Adam displayed a fist icon.

Lin dashed forward, and launched a well-aimed, sorcery-assisted punch at the plate guarding its closest sensor. She managed to shatter the plate and get the points, at the expense of nearly breaking her hand. Affecting the other parameters of the contract made the plates thicker. Fortunately, they seemed to be slowing Adam down physically.

Again, Lin used his reboot period to snatch more orbs into her robes. This would be so much easier with a declared license! Having another anima slot on each wrist would eliminate a lot of the running and juggling from the equation. But I’m sure that’s the point. The Chirothecam was the final test before aspirants were allowed to declare their Discipline, and it would be testing the full extent of an aspirant’s prowess with their base licenses.

The plates worked wonders, fortunately. Adam’s calibrations were off, and his inborn safety limiters prevented him from exerting the necessary force to move appreciably. Lin was able to score three more contracts against him on short order. Unfortunately, the display shifted to Kassathon’s Shattering; a spell specifically designed to shatter constructs made of wyrd-enriched earth.

Lin hissed, reluctantly grabbing the sonic animus that would work best with the spell. Then halfway through casting, her reflex enhancers lapsed. She tripped on the last syllable, and her head was filled with a horrible, brain-rattling shriek as the spell miscast. Her ears rang until her vision blurred and her eyes became heavy lidded. It’s like Kimiss… No. It’s like Vetha punched me full in the face.

She did her best to shake it off, channeling her wyrd inward to dissolve the remnant magic. Then she saw the hologram change. How many points did I just miss!? Shit! Lin started casting the construct before she consciously recognized the symbol of Byron’ Pyrokinetics.

“You need ten more points, Alinore! Eight seconds left!”

The distraction served its purpose. Lin stuttered on the incantation. Her fingers knotted together, ruining the precise sequence of gestures required. The spell rebounded spectacularly. An explosion of smoke and cinders knocked Lin off her heels and stole her breath. She was at the ass opposite end of the arena from the basket of fire anima. I can’t safely get passed the golem and I’m out of wind anima. Damn you, Carroll!

Before she could hit the floor, Lin clenched her jaw and furrowed her brow. No. I’m not giving up yet!

Premade, purpose-driven anima were the easiest way to cast contracts, especially since they were standardized to synergize with a caster’s licenses. That interface, using a license as a go-between for spirit and wyrd, was the safest way to wield complex magic. But people had been casting contracts for over a thousand years before the Second Amagium’s invention of anima vessels and magic licenses.

Lin used sorcery to cushion her fall into a rear summersault and rolled back to her feet. She extended her arms outward, closed her eyes, and probed the room’s ether for a spirit of fire. Maddeningly, the fire anima at the far end of the room glowed like a beacon in her mind, but they were trapped inside vessels, and unable to respond to her call.

But the heat of battle, or perhaps the ungodly heat of the flame-kissed, dungeon-like room, had coalesced into something usable. Lin seized it with her wyrd, and drew it into herself. She could hear Adam stomping forward, she could feel the impact of his feet against the tiles, and she knew he would reach her in less than a second.

Time seemed to dilate to an even slower degree as her reflex contract finally exhausted itself. That final push was just enough. Lin courted the contract with an elaborate stream of visualizations, incantations, and gestures. The spirit conformed to the strictures of Byron’s Pyromancy, and obediently awaited Lin’s orders.

Mere words couldn’t encompass her commands. Her passion, her desperation to win, her frustration with the maddening, artificial opponent before her, came to a violent head. Since Lin had drawn the anima directly from the ether, rather than a blunted vessel, it was a genuine, unfiltered fire contract. A brilliant ball of blue flame surged forth from her outstretched hands, followed by a steady column of fire.

The projectile struck Adam at center mass, and it was lost to an explosive conflagration. Once again, Lin was knocked backwards by her own spell, the backdraft singeing her uniform and hair, and this time, her wyrd was too exhausted to catch her. She fell to the ground heavily, but barely felt it. Her body glowed with a euphoric high.

“Adam, stop!” Carroll commanded. “Lin, are you alright!?”

“Never better,” she murmured, and then laughed as she sat up. “Not sure I can say the same for Adam.”

She tilted her chin at her ruined opponent. The golem’s head was gone, to begin with. There was a still-burning hole in its upper chest, and its right arm had been blown clean off. Each of the earthen plates had been reduced to charcoal, and most of the plastic plating beneath them had melted. It took two halting steps forward—left arm reaching out for a hand-hold, retaliation, or God knows what—then fell heavily to the tiles, breaking into even more pieces of smoldering artifice.

Carroll let loose a pathetic little pop of a shriek, horribly distraught.

“Adam! Lin, what have you… Err rather, how did you do that? Those damn things are supposed to be blunted! A student could have been killed…!”

“I performed a natural cast,” Lin said, trying to sound calm, prim, and not at all giddy.

“You perform…” Carroll’s eyes widened until they seemed to consume his glasses. “You performed a natural cast? You used an ambient animus to…” Carroll nodded, replaying the fight in his head. “Yes, I thought you had only one fire animus. That was… Well done, my dear!” He beamed, though then tried to recant his approval. “You are never to practice that skill again unless under my supervision, is that clear? That was exceedingly dangerous, Alinore. Ambient anima, particularly those that dwell in training halls or battle grounds are exceedingly feral.”

“Did I win?” Lin asked.

“Well, you certainly won’t be writing any treatises on …” Carroll began his tired joke again.

“Did I get three hundred?” Lin asked again, insistent.

Carroll opened his mouth and closed it.

“Well, that’s the thing, Lin. I don’t know. Adam is dead now,” he raised his hand toward his ruined champion, then let his arm fall to his hip with a slap. “And since you destroyed his sensor relay…”

“Wait! What about your recorder?” Lin asked, desperate.

Carroll held up the stopwatch and score tallier. The small device’s display read “Connection Lost,” pulsing in a steady rhythm.

“Let me see that!” Lin hissed and snatched the device out of her master’s hand. She tapped one of the buttons on the side to go to menu, and then looked up score history.

“Ah-ha!” She shouted, triumphant, and thrust the device back in Carroll’s hands.

The display read: “Latest session – 303 (Interrupted, Connection Lost).”

Carroll sighed.

“Well, fuck.”

And that was the cherry on the sundae. Carroll rarely swore. In fact, from what Lin had observed, she was the only person on the planet who could manage to make him do it. Lin held out her hands expectantly. Carroll delicately placed the monogrammed urdoscope in her palms. Lin held it up to her cheek, smiling appreciatively, and then pocketed it and held out her hands again.

Carroll turned away from her, looking wistfully at Adam. Lin cleared her throat.

“What?” Carroll asked, voice dry.

“What do you mean ‘what?’ I beat your hellish little birthday gauntlet! I won my damn gun!”

Carroll sighed and nodded with long-suffering patience.

“I thought you wanted the holster monogrammed?”

Lin beamed.

“Oh. Yes, please!”

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