Chapter 209 – Fundamental Attribution Error

BELOW IS A SNEAK PEEK OF THIS CONTENT!
SiobhanMonth 8, Day 21, Saturday 6:55 a.m.Captain Aisling and Agent Marcurio shared a look of surprise and distrust at Siobhan’s offer of a shadow-familiar demonstration.“Totally safe,” Siobhan repeated.Agent Marcurio’s tails lashed back and forth in...
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Chapter 204 – Hermeneutics

Sebastien

Month 8 Day 15, Sunday 1:15 p.m.

The next day, Sebastien walked a long, winding route through Verdant Stag territory on the way to Nightmare Pack’s fighting arena. It was sunny, without a trace of clouds in the sky, but she wanted to be triply certain she was not being tracked or followed. Her divination-diverting ward didn’t so much as twitch, and though she was aware that she might have no idea if some more arcane magics were being used, she noticed nothing alarming.

It was apparent that Oliver had been busy improving his much-expanded territory over the last few months. It wasn’t just the quality-of-life things like the clean streets and the fact that there was a noticeable decrease in homeless people in the poorer areas.

It seemed like at least one building on every street was being renovated, or torn down and rebuilt. She passed at least six different areas where old, run-down buildings were being razed and replaced with tall, multi-story apartment buildings. The one farthest along was already being filled with appliances, the interiors painted a bright, cheery yellow. Every single one had a window large enough to climb through and an external stairwell to escape the building in case of emergency.

Each apartment was small, but Sebastien imagined living there would be comfortable and hopeful. They had been designed with a future in mind for each inhabitant, and Sebastien remembered how Oliver had once spoken of the diseases that stemmed from despair.

There were small shop fronts that Sebastien didn’t remember, which brought to mind the loans that the Verdant Stag provided.

Every street corner had a vivid green flag, and people were wearing clothing that looked new, in the kind of bright colors that would normally never be seen in the Mires. ‘Though I guess this can’t really be called the Mires anymore,’ she mused.

She walked until her shirt stuck to her back, soaked in sweat, but couldn’t take off her thin linen jacket in case the leather holster under her shirt became visible. Tiny insects forced her to wave her hands in the air constantly, until she eventually gave up and decided they could crawl in her hair and drink her sweat as long as they didn’t try to bite her.

She found the house with the private garden shrine, and after a few minutes of watching, slipped into the tunnel that led to the Nightmare Pack’s fighting arena. She changed into Siobhan in the darkness of the tunnel.

When a giant spider tried to ambush her from the darkness, coming only inches from slamming into her head, she dearly wished for the battle wand she’d lost in the fight with the Red Guard agent. In the end, she was forced into a wild fight against the creature using dual-cast slicing spells and the light projectile spell.

She won, but arrived at the iron door on the other side of the tunnel out of breath and rather disheveled.

The man who opened the door took a long look at her, and then very carefully did not stare as she passed. The whole arena had been closed for the day, despite the gold it would cost, as a safe place for Theo and a select group of trusted people to celebrate his birthday. A gift from the Nightmare Pack to the Verdant Stag.

Siobhan gave her own, much less extravagant, gift to Martha, then headed up to one of the private booths that overlooked the party area, so as not to disrupt the atmosphere. It would be hard for many of the adults to enjoy Theo’s birthday party or act normally with the Raven Queen in attendance, after all.

Down below, Theo was busy telling a small group of children and several adult gang members the “Tales of the Raven Queen.” But of course, the story featured himself as the hero. Things might have spiraled quickly into the realm of the unbelievable, but Miles was there, constantly muttering contradictions to everything Theo was saying, until the whole storytelling time devolved into bickering between the two.

Gera, who was standing on the edge of the group and listening to the children’s stories, turned slightly and lifted her face toward Siobhan. She mouthed, “I’m sorry,” and bowed deeply. She must have sensed Siobhan’s presence, even this far away from the main party crowd.

“No need,” Siobhan responded in a murmur that had Miles turning toward her like a dog with perked ears, despite how impossible it should have been to hear her. “Let the children have fun.” It actually rather fit with her gift to Theo.

Katerin had contacted her several times mentioning that Theo wanted, more than anything, for Siobhan to attend his birthday party. And so she had rented a camera obscura and used it to take photographs of illusions that told the story of Theo the Dragon Hunter and his sidekick, Empress Regal, then had the photographs printed and bound into a book.

Miles tried to get up and leave to join Siobhan, and then Theo noticed what was happening and tried to trip him, but Gera caught Miles before he could hit the ground and kept both boys from leaving.

Siobhan raised a hand to her mouth to cover a chuckle.

But Oliver had noticed her too, and he wasn’t so easily dissuaded. It only took a few minutes for him to make his way up to the private box. He leaned against the balustrade next to her, his forearms on the banister and his hands clasped together. “I talked to Katerin,” he said abruptly. “And she told me I was being an idiot. Our relationship could never have been free or equal, with the way it started. She told me I was showing my rich childhood and sense of entitlement, that I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like for you. But I want you to know, I really didn’t ever plan for this. And while I cannot say for sure whether Ennis was compelled to steal the book, I certainly didn’t order something like that.”

Siobhan remained silent, considering his words for some time before speaking. “I didn’t tell Ana to sabotage the Gervin textile commission. She did that without my knowledge, and not even out of any particular malice toward you. And…even if I had known all the consequences of my plan on the day of Ennis’s sentencing, I still would have gone through with it. I had to stop the divination attempts. But maybe if I had trusted you a bit more, I would have told you about it.”

“I suppose I could say the same about the book.”

“And now, we both have a big secret of the other’s,” she said, turning to face him directly. “Have you ever heard of the term mutually assured destruction?”

One side of Oliver’s mouth quirked up in a small, wry smile. “The perfect recipe for a stable alliance? One with neither indebted to the other.”

“Perhaps. Have you heard from Kiernan about whatever is going on in Osham?”

Oliver sighed and let his head flop forward until his chin touched his chest. A lock of dark hair spilled down over his forehead. “He wasn’t at his house and hasn’t responded to any of my missives. I contacted Tanya Canelo, but she didn’t know anything else, and I didn’t want to put her in danger out of respect for you. It hasn’t even been enough time for the team I sent to Osham to arrive. I’m…worried.”

“Hmm. Well, the Red Guard came after me last night.”

Oliver’s head snapped up. He opened his mouth, closed it again, then choked a little. After taking the time to clear his throat, he said, “Your news is much more shocking than mine.”

Siobhan told him about the incident, much more honestly than she had to Professor Lacer, though still not the full truth. No one could know about the thing inside the seal.

Oliver wasn’t as surprised to learn the truth of how the Red Guard operated as she had been. In some ways, despite his altruism, he was less naive than her.

She added a quick explanation of the measures she had already taken to mitigate the danger. “It’s not enough. I need to do more, and be proactive.”

Oliver rubbed his thumb across his lower lip. “Do you think the growing Raven Queen mythos might be an issue? The agent mentioned it specifically, and from what I can tell, it’s only spreading.”

Siobhan rubbed her forehead. “What do you mean? Even more rumor-mongering about how I’m a flesh-eating creature who’s planning to Sacrifice all of Gilbratha in a blood ritual?”

“Well, more like the opposite. I meant the people who have been praying to you. Mostly among the poor commoners. It’s quite popular in both Verdant Stag and Nightmare Pack territory. There’s even a woman going around writing up some holy book and holding church services where she talks about you? Some basic prayers are becoming standardized, and your ‘believers’ have taken to wearing feathers and other raven paraphernalia to signify their alliance—and most importantly—their protected status. I think the rumors about your vindictiveness are actually what people find most appealing. They feel like you’ll make their enemies pay to the last drop of blood if retribution is ever called for. As long as they’ve paid in advance or can be called upon for a useful favor sometime later.”

Looking down at the people below, Siobhan caught at least three people wearing something that might have been “raven paraphernalia.” Some tiny feather earrings, a wooden pendant of a bird in flight, and an actual bird’s skull hanging from a strip of leather. “How could I have believers!?” she exclaimed. “I’ve obviously never answered any of their prayers!”

“Well, according to the rumors, you have answered some. And I know this sounds counterintuitive, but I think your ‘fickleness’ might actually be working in your favor in this case. Everyone who prays to you knows you answer the prayers you want to, not the ones they want you to. You prefer your payment in advance, and if you seem not to be accepting their offerings, they suspect that you also have no intention to answer their prayers. Just the other day I heard a woman who seemed to be, well, bragging about the fact that you were not all-powerful, which was actually somehow proof that you were real and could be relied upon, and that you needed time to rest and regain your strength before you could ‘manifest’ again.”

“What about the fact that I made an appearance in Silva Erde? Don’t people think I left Gilbratha?” she tried.

Oliver gave her a pitying look. “You can move through the shadows, traveling as fast as the sunset. And be in several places at once, watching through the eyes of any raven. And—”

“Okay, stop! I understand.” Siobhan squeezed her eyes shut, clenched her jaw, and let out a muffled whimper as she stomped her feet in place. ‘I don’t want to be involved with something like this!’ she screamed internally. ‘Why!? Why are people doing this?’ If no one were watching, she might have dropped to the ground and flailed around screaming like a child having a temper tantrum. ‘Just for once, would it be too much to ask for things to be easy?

“It’s too late to stop it,” Oliver announced cruelly. “But at least we can mitigate the potential future damage. Before people do something dangerous in your name, like a blood Sacrifice of thirteen cows or burning an effigy of the High Crown.”

“Why are these ideas so specific?” she whispered, horrified. “Have you heard people discussing that?”

Oliver placed his hand on her shoulder sympathetically. “I cannot stop the rumors, but we could spread new ones, or even secret informational pamphlets. Something to guide what cannot be stopped. You’d need to decide what direction you want to take things, though. Maybe you should talk to the woman who’s writing a book about you?”

“Stars above!” She took a deep, stabilizing breath. “I need to think. I need time to think about…this.”

“Fair enough. Do you want to go down there and perform some magic for Theo’s birthday? He keeps talking about this raven that Katerin is convinced is imaginary…”

“Oh, do you mean Empress Regal?”

Oliver’s eyebrows rose. “Don’t tell me…”

“She’s entirely real. Perhaps I should summon her?”

This is the last chapter of Book 4.

I’ll be going on a hiatus as I plot and write the beginning of Book 5, A Cauldron of Bitterness. I anticipate it will be 6 weeks of behind-the-scenes work on my part before I’m able to post again. (So, we’ll likely see the next chapter on April 4. Edit: April 5, due to moving into a new house on April 4, which I did not anticipate when originally setting that date.)

I’ll try to keep in touch here, but you can also get updates if you’re on my newsletter. I’ll be around in the Alcove, and posting character cards and such fun stuff in the meantime, too.

I’m offering a sincere “thank you very much” for all of your support along the way. I look forward to exploring many more books to come with you all.

Happy Reading. 🙂

Azalea

 

Chapter 203 – Icarus Rising

Siobhan

Month 8 Day 14, Saturday 11:45 p.m.

Siobhan inclined her head gracefully and walked past Professor Lacer as he held the door open for her. His gaze was fixated on her, and she imagined she could feel it hot on her skin as he examined her.

He waved her into his living room, which was surrounded by packed bookcases and sported one lone couch. Only a single lamp was lit, sitting on a small table by one of the couch arms and spilling gentle warm light. It was obviously more of a study than a room set up for entertaining guests. Professor Lacer quickly picked up the stacks of paper that had been sitting on either side of the couch—half-graded homework from his classes, by the looks of it—and motioned for Siobhan to sit.

He hesitated, looking at one of the empty spots on the couch, and then left the room, presumably to bring in a chair.

Siobhan looked around, her back ramrod straight and her hands on her knees. Suddenly, she was even more nervous than she had been on the long walk here. ‘Where do I put my hands?’ she wondered. It seemed unlike the Raven Queen’s persona to sit so primly, but how else could she arrange herself? She tried several different positions in quick succession and was trying to figure out if she could tuck one leg under herself and lounge regally to the side when Professor Lacer returned.

She froze, half leaned over, and ended up slowly tilting onto her side, her head coming down on the couch’s arm. She stared straight ahead, too mortified to meet his gaze as he stood there staring at her with a wooden chair in his hands.

Slowly, so as not to seem too flustered, she pushed herself back upright and crossed one leg over the other. “Do you have anything to drink?” she asked, still refusing to meet his gaze. Maybe if she had something to occupy her hands with, it would help. And sipping on a drink could be a good excuse to stop and think if she needed time to figure out what to say. “Something hot,” she added. The night was still warm, but her palms felt clammy, and she would prefer comfort over refreshment.

“Do you plan to be awake for the remainder of the night?” Professor Lacer asked. While he was gone, he had tied back his hair at the nape of his neck as he usually wore it, and his night clothes were suddenly wrinkle-free, as if he’d free-cast an ironing spell over himself.

Siobhan stared at him. “Yes.”

“How do you take your coffee?”

“Plenty of milk and a dash of sugar.”

His eyes trailed over her face and down to her hands. “I do not have milk. Or sugar. Also no cream.”

Siobhan resisted the urge to ask him why he had even inquired about how she took her coffee, then.

He cleared his throat. “Perhaps some mulled wine instead?”

“That would be acceptable,” she said immediately, regretting that she had brought up the subject in the first place.

The small kitchen was visible from the living room, and Siobhan watched, turning her head to peek over the back of the couch as Professor Lacer puttered around his kitchen. The image was surreal. Obviously, she’d known Thaddeus Lacer existed outside of his classroom, or the battlefield, or whatever it was he did for the Red Guard. But she’d never imagined him doing something so mundane. She almost, almost blurted out, “Do you know how to cook?” as an innocuous conversation starter, but thank the stars she managed to keep her mouth shut until he returned with two steaming mugs filled with dark, spicy liquid.

He took the seat across from her, waiting for her to take a sip.

Instead she said, “I thought it was time we met, Grandmaster Lacer.”

He leaned back, crossing one ankle over the other knee, and sneered slightly. “Long past time, I think. Curious, how you wrote to me denying any near plans for in-person appearances, and yet only a week later made a visit to that buffoon Kiernan.”

Siobhan took a sip of her mulled wine to stall for time, staring at Professor Lacer over the rim as she tried to decipher his expression and tone. ‘Is he upset? How am I supposed to respond to that?’ She swallowed, gave him a small smile, and said, “I needed to speak to him for a very particular reason. I suppose you were very much looking forward to meeting me, then?”

Professor Lacer scoffed and looked away, as if the very notion were ridiculous. “Hardly. I simply find your double standards to be rather rude.”

Siobhan was…pretty sure that wasn’t true. He had expressed interest in meeting her several times, even going so far as mentioning it to her as Sebastien.

“As is showing up in the middle of the night without even the courtesy to warn me in advance,” he added. His tone was hard, but something about the words reminded her of how Theo bickered with Miles.

At least half of Siobhan’s tension evaporated. ‘Is this what Professor Lacer is like around his peers?’ Her smile grew wider. “Let me guess. You are surrounded by imbeciles day and night, and on top of that, all of the children you call your students. Every day that passes without any noticeable progress in accessing the content of Myrddin’s journals is only more galling. A supreme waste of time that my presence much earlier could have alleviated, even if you hoped you would be able to manage it yourself. The High Crown grows ever more impatient and demanding, your peers sink further into desperation, and your patience wears ever thinner.”

She had noticed the signs of his growing irritability in class. As the semester wore on, he’d been snapping at underperforming students and berating stupidity more often than normal. Even she, as Sebastien, had been treading lightly around him.

His expression might have once been inscrutable, but Siobhan had learned to notice the tiny twitches at the corner of his mouth and the way the creases at the corners of his eyes grew slightly deeper. Both signified pleasure, or perhaps amusement. She still wasn’t very good at reading his subtleties. Usually, it happened when she had said something particularly clever or lamented the general state of uselessness that most people walked around in. “That is not an incorrect assessment of the situation,” he said. “Are we to play a guessing game, then, Queen of Ravens?”

Siobhan shook her head. “It is late, and I have had a trying day. Let us set aside games for the moment.”

Professor Lacer tilted his head to the side by a few degrees. “Are you tired? I have heard it said that you do not sleep. You mentioned you planned to be awake for the remainder of the night.”

“I do sleep. Sometimes,” she said. When he stared at her silently, she added, “I slept just yesterday. I know fatigue more intimately than you know the feel of your Conduit, but I am not that kind of tired. Surely you understand weariness? And please, call me Siobhan. You have no idea how tedious I find the obsequiousness and foolish titles.”

“Of course. I suppose you may call me Thaddeus, in that case,” he said, taking a sip of his mulled wine. As she had done earlier, he stared at her over the rim while he did so. “Have you come for your tribute, then? I admit I am surprised it took you so long to retrieve it, though it has remained safe in my custody.”

She leaned back, suddenly curious. “I did not come for that, specifically, but I am curious to know what you have prepared for me. You may present it, if you are ready.”

He raised his eyebrows. “You do not know what it is?” When she shook her head, he stood and moved into the other room. “I had assumed you would have deduced it by now. Unless you are playing a game with me, despite your stated weariness, and I am about to discover I do not have what I think I have.”

Siobhan sipped silently at her wine; she had no idea what he was talking about and did not want to make herself seem stupid.

Professor Lacer brought back a small lead box, presenting it to her with a subtle flourish.

Siobhan took it. Within, a familiar ring was nestled in velvet. “My mother’s ring,” she whispered. She examined it for flaws, but except for the fact that the celerium set within the silver band at the perfect depth to press against the skin was still intact, the only difference from the one she had retrieved from the Gervin manor was the small flaw in this one.

It even still had the rotating base that could be used to activate the Loomis anti-awareness field and chameleon effect embedded into the silver.

Her gaze snapped up to Professor Lacer. “What is this? How do you have it?”

“I take it from your reaction that you did not know I acquired it from Malcolm Gervin’s vault some time ago. I thought it would be a fitting tribute. But I never imagined you would not have learned of the replacement by now. It seemed you had a real interest in…family matters.”

“I did know about the replacement. I just thought it was…someone else.” Siobhan picked up the ring, running her fingers over the familiar tiny scratches in the silver. She slipped it onto the middle finger of her left hand, which she suddenly realized looked quite like her mother’s had, before the woman died. If Ennis hadn’t sold off the celerium from her mother’s heirloom, and maybe hadn’t stolen the book on purpose, did that change anything?

But their conversation through the bars of his cell at Harrow Hill repeated in a flash, along with all the other times he had disappointed and endangered her. Those were not misunderstandings or accidents, and Siobhan found that she harbored no regret for her decision to sever that man from her family.

She wanted to try casting with her mother’s ring, so bright and incredibly pure except for that one tiny blemish at the edge. It was rare to find a piece of celerium so small—only finger-width in diameter—that could still channel a Master’s capacity. Of course, knowing more about celerium than she had as a child, she knew that the gem’s size meant it could probably only handle five to six thousand thaums, no matter how pure it was. That capacity could be achieved with about twenty years of dedicated spellcasting.

That was why Naught mothers passed it down to their daughters so early in life. If Siobhan’s mother had only lived a decade or so longer, the ring probably would have become Siobhan’s directly.

Siobhan looked up at Professor Lacer, her eyes narrowed. “You replaced this ring with a diamond one, correct?”

“Yes.”

Siobhan’s voice grew hard and clipped. “And why, pray tell, Thaddeus, did you create fault lines that would cause it to shatter at the first attempt to cast through it? Were you attempting to sabotage me? I would think you, of all people, would understand the danger. A break event does not only jeopardize the thaumaturge, but all those around them.”

Professor Lacer did not look the least bit contrite. “But you are a Naught, correct? As I understand it, your family has some resistance to the overwhelming effects of casting through your own flesh. If your Will were not nimble enough to drop the spell as your Conduit shattered, you would have a backup option.” He watched her unblinkingly, as if he could draw some kind of information from the smallest of her reactions.

That was a more callous response than she ever would have expected from him. “Are you aware of how my mother died?”

“Miakoda Naught? I have heard Ennis Naught’s version of the story.”

“Ennis No-Name,” she corrected immediately. “But if that is the case, you should know that our bloodline does not protect us. Not truly.”

“That may be as you say, but…you are here before me and seem just fine. You are not so weak that such a simple trick was your undoing. And I did leave a hint. The fault lines were noticeable, if you examined the diamond closely.”

Siobhan swallowed. She simply hadn’t assumed someone would have booby-trapped a Conduit.

“I left the ring partly as a message, and partly as a punishment for anyone that might try to use it in your stead. You seem the type that would find that amusing.”

Siobhan stared at him as if seeing him for the first time. “I think you have some misconceptions about my sense of humor.”

“Do I? Well, I look forward to learning more about you.”

“Aren’t you a member of the Red Guard? Do your vows not preclude you from taking such risks with other people’s lives?”

He smiled enigmatically, without the crinkling at the corners of his eyes that indicated the expression was real, and took a long swallow of his wine. “The chance of an Aberrant forming from a break event is quite small, and considering where that would likely be and who it would affect, I deemed the risk acceptable. Gilbratha has several teams on hand to deal with rogue magic incidents, considering the thaumaturge population. Malcolm Gervin’s only child, the only true innocent who was likely to have been affected, is of University age and spends the majority of his time away from home,” he said rather than answering her actual question.

“And the servants? Are they not innocent? Or his wife?”

“I would judge them to hold only different degrees of guilt. And before you ask, the threat beyond that was quite negligible. Even if, in the extreme edge case, the worst were to happen, weak thaumaturges create weak Aberrants.”

“Newton Moore was a weak thaumaturge. And yet the Aberrant formed from him killed several who I would consider to be true innocents.”

Professor Lacer nodded. “Truly regrettable, and I do mean that. If I had the choice, I would have saved them even at risk to myself. But that Aberrant was not an existential threat. And as a statistic, the victims did not even create a blip in the number of deaths that occur in Gilbratha every day.”

Siobhan reached up to run a fingertip over one of the feathers sprouting from her hair. “How would you react if your student deliberately sabotaged a Conduit like that?”

His gaze dropped from her feathers to her eyes. “Are you…chastising me?” he asked, faintly surprised.

“Do you deserve to be chastised?”

His expression fluctuated rapidly for half a second, then smoothed again. He stared down into the contents of his mug for a moment, then said, “Perhaps.”

Just as she was trying to process her surprise, he said, “I take your point, Siobhan.”

The sound of him saying her name—her original name—derailed any other thoughts.

“I have been curious. Why were you there that evening? I don’t believe you caused the Moore boy’s break event on purpose.”

Siobhan let out a long, slow breath and ignored his question. “Let me make another guess, Thaddeus. There is much that I do not know about this world, but I am learning all the time, and it seems to me that the Red Guard, and possibly the Crowns, and maybe even those who run the University, have no true intention to stop break events. Why would that be?”

“Is it possible to stop break events?” he asked, mostly in the leading way that meant it was a rhetorical question, but with a hint of attentiveness in his gaze that suggested he thought she might have a different answer.

Ideas about what the subtext beneath his non-answer might mean spooled off in every direction, but she forcefully reined in her attention. “I suppose the Red Guard might even find weak and easily subdued Aberrants to be beneficial. Quite useful, for the kind of work your agents do. In fact, that leads me to the main reason for my visit. I met four of your colleagues earlier this evening, and while they might have had fun playing with their various toys, I have to say I found the experience quite unpleasant.”

Professor Lacer had been about to take another drink, but instead he set his mug aside and rubbed at his beard. “Are they all still alive?”

“They are. I recognized the backlash effects of the binding magic immediately and kept my response measured, but in the end…” Siobhan sighed, trying to seem as exasperated as possible. “I was forced to activate a particular defensive measure. You see, my grandfather spent quite a while on a project meant to protect me before…well, before he died. He was capable of producing self-charging artifacts, and he wanted something that would be both thorough and versatile. The end result was partially unfinished, but I still found it quite useful.”

Siobhan told him the story of her encounter with the Red Guard earlier that evening, trying to make herself seem as competent as possible. In her version of events, she had been offended by the agent’s words, curious about their strange methods, and then done her best to escape without serious harm to them or herself once she realized the trap she’d fallen into. Unfortunately, the agent had grown frightened and tried to hurt her, forcing her to resort to other methods to protect herself.

“The shadow-familiar spell has quite a few useful aspects, but it really isn’t as powerful or dangerous as it might seem. And I want to be clear that it is magic, and not an Aberrant, because with the way I managed to slip your colleagues’ grasp…” She sighed, rubbing the bridge of her nose as if she had a headache. “I can already imagine the kind of rumors that might follow.”

Siobhan looked up at Professor Lacer and leaned back, waving a hand derisively. “Surely you have noticed how the average person completely fails to use rational analysis when coming to conclusions, especially about things that surprise or frighten them? It is almost sad how easily people revert back to mysticism and creating fairy tales to explain reality, even when that requires them to discard obvious contradicting facts. And somehow, I doubt that every individual who bears the red shield can be considered an outlier. More likely, they are just more of the same, and even less likely to question themselves because they are so sure they know the truth of this world, the secrets that most people are blind to. People in that position are susceptible to forgetting that they can be wrong, too.”

She was paraphrasing many of the things that he had said to her, so she knew her argument should sound reasonable.

Siobhan raised one eyebrow. “Unless you wish to assure me that members of the Red Guard are trained to actually think, and are not susceptible to the instinctive biases and aversion to real work that stops lesser people from finding the truth, rather than finding an easy answer?”

Professor Lacer smiled at her, without a hint of irony or weariness. He lifted his hand to cover his mouth and then laughed as if he couldn’t hold it in. “I think you know that I cannot argue. I admit, this conversation is…as refreshing as I had hoped. But what would you have me do?”

“Can you act to mitigate their stupidity? Before they work themselves into a tizzy and set out on a hunt? And please instruct them not to accost me so rudely in the future. If they want to communicate with me, they can do so through you.”

“So what should I explain to them about your…shadow-familiar? If I might make a guess of my own, your grandfather’s work is related to the method to encode and encapsulate a consciousness or trap a being within a memory that you were inquiring about.”

Siobhan hesitated before answering with a slight nod.

He smiled again, but this time without the joy. “Well that is truly fascinating.”

“Would it be a problem if you revealed that?”

Professor Lacer rubbed at his chin, looking into the distance. “Not in the way you mean, I think, but there are certain factions and individuals who would likely be enticed by the implications and possibilities.”

Siobhan nodded slowly, involuntarily mimicking him by raising a hand to her chin. “They might want to try creating another Carnagore, or the like.”

“Do you think that might be possible?”

“Of course it is possible. If Myrddin did it, someone else can too. But whether it could be done based on the principles of my shadow-familiar…of that I am not sure. So, will I be safe from harassment if you pass along this information? I refuse to be a test subject.”

“The only way to be totally crossed off the possible hazards list is to allow a comprehensive, in person assessment at one of our field bases. But considering your situation, I would not recommend that course of action for one who values their freedom as much as yourself. While you might not be the kind of threat we are required to deal with, I think several people would find you too valuable to let you slip from their grip once they had you. However, if I arrange myself as your contact and downplay the reality of your shadow-familiar, you might get away with it.”

“If you wish, feel free to explain to them that I can control the form and actions of the shadow, similar to how one would with an illusion spell.”

“You are certain that it has no other capabilities? No dangerous effects? I listened to the Pendragon operatives’ debrief after your retrieval of the people they had kidnapped. In particular, I am referencing the fact that it crawled down a man’s throat and seems to have driven him to a mental break, if not a magical one.”

Siobhan looked down at her shadow, trying to keep the doubt from her face. ‘The being trapped behind the seal…could it possibly have been exerting some influence on the shadow-familiar spell? I have no idea what it’s really capable of. But…I think I would have noticed. I would have felt something. And it was lying about being able to possess my shadow at any time.

She raised one eyebrow. “It absorbs heat. And it never truly crawled inside that man. It was just pretending. It shrank as it passed his lips, never getting farther than the back of his tongue. It is not actually corporeal. At worst, he might have experienced a headache from the roof of his mouth growing too cold.”

Professor Lacer snorted in amusement. “I see. I will pass that along. I believe you will be able to avoid intense scrutiny. Perhaps not forever, but for a time.”

Siobhan supposed that was the best she could hope for. “Nothing is forever.”

One more chapter tomorrow. 🙂

Seeing a locked chapter that should be unlocked?: https://www.azaleaellis.com/trouble-accessing-chapters/

 

Chapter 202 – Countergambit

Siobhan

Month 8 Day 14, Saturday 9:10 p.m.

Siobhan stared at the crumbling stone wall of the gate house. ‘What just happened?

She examined her shadow for several long minutes, experimenting with moving it around and shaping it as she liked to see if there was any hint of the feedback or resistance she’d gotten from the being when it was present. But there was nothing. The spell was still harder to use than normal, but when she adjusted the Circle over her mouth to include both her hands and said the full chant, repeating it three times as the spell was always meant to be cast, any difficulty disappeared.

With great trepidation, she released the shadow-familiar spell, expecting something horrible to happen in retaliation. But nothing did.

Siobhan let out a shuddering sigh and collapsed to the ground for a moment, curled up around her light-coaster in a fetal position with her back to the wall. She shivered. Though it was a warm night, she had been chilled by the agent’s magic and now the moisture in her clothes was beginning to evaporate. It felt like the core of whatever created heat within her was depleted.

Though eating was the last thing she wanted to do, she fumbled open her satchel until she found a pouch of dried nuts, meat, and fruit, along with her self-refilling canteen of water. The mundane act of eating made what had happened before seem almost surreal, but it also gave her strength.

She sat back up and used a spare bit of orb-weaver silk dipped in water to clean herself up, wiping away the smeared and running makeup and the traces of vomit. She took off her clothes, cast the water-falling spell in a pass from the top of the pile to the bottom, until the fabric was mostly dry and a puddle of water remained on the floor.

Then she changed into Sebastien’s form and clothes, just in case, small protection though it was. The Red Guard might have needed her to be out in the rain for the spell they used, but she had no guarantee that they might not have some other way to find her. At least Sebastien’s clothes were totally dry and warm. And somehow, it felt slightly safer in this body. She ran her tongue over her teeth, feeling the differences as she mentally settled into herself.

What do I do now? The seal in my mind… Is it broken?

Sebastien began to comb over the events of the last hour in excruciating detail.

The greatest upcoming danger is the next time I go to sleep. If nothing happens then, it doesn’t mean I’m safe, but as strange as it may seem, I’m actually not much worse off now than I was before. That thing has been in my head for about seven years, and I swallowed that beast core months ago.

Sebastien took out a jar of bruise balm and began to catalogue her minor injuries, rubbing the alchemical concoction into any she found. She’d bitten the inside of her cheek, and even though skin-knitter was not supposed to be swallowed, she awkwardly rubbed a trace amount inside her mouth and let it sit.

I don’t think that thing knew I was able to sense its emotions and true intentions. It could have been trying to trick me, if it’s much cleverer than I imagine, but I believe it was lying about being able to possess me at any time. Which means not feeding it any more power or detaching anything that could be considered part of myself for it to take control of.’ She snorted in dark amusement. ‘No trying to remember it. Anything it wants, I will deny it.’ She had to keep it weak while she worked on a solution.

Even with it inhabiting her shadow, she’d had some control. Just not enough. If her Will had been stronger, she might have been able to force her shadow to follow her commands anyway, reattaching it to herself and forcing that thing out. Or if she’d merely cast the shadow-familiar spell with the full, thrice-repeated chant, that alone might have been enough to keep the thing from slipping its bindings and overpowering her.

Sebastien closed her eyes and tried to search through her own mind. ‘Is the seal broken, then? Or just imperfect?’ Because Grandfather had missed one of her memories, the one he didn’t know she had. Sebastien shied away from touching it or thinking about it too directly. Surely, if the seal were broken, she would not be sitting here wondering and worrying about it. ‘But I can’t be sure that a failure like this didn’t weaken it. Isn’t that one of the ways to break a curse? Force it to fail in an edge case, or under some convoluted set of circumstances that don’t quite fall under its purview, over and over until the binding breaks?

So it was something to be cautious of, but at the moment she thought it was still in place and working as Grandfather had intended. Mostly.

The being had considered the Red Guard a threat, but, ironically, that had manifested in a seeming attempt to protect Siobhan from them. That could be simply because the Red Guard were capable of destroying it—and helping her. Or the Red Guard could just as easily be a threat to them both, and the being had been trying to avoid mutual destruction with its host.

What was the purpose of the Red Guard’s actions tonight? It seems very strange that they would just go about trapping dangerous thaumaturges in the streets and threatening them.’ But when she considered the pieces that didn’t fit together perfectly, another perspective suggested itself. ‘It all hinges around that secondary cold effect that was directly increasing every time I cast a spell—no, a better way to say it would be every time I used magic or channeled energy.

The cold backlash was separate from the space-bending, destiny-controlling spell. Which, in itself, probably helped not only to keep the citizens of Gilbratha unaware but also protected them against anything Siobhan might have unleashed. It might even work on Aberrants, in which case really only the agent inside with her and maybe the one casting the spell would have been in danger.

What would have happened if I’d been as strong as they thought I was?’ Even one ultra-powerful attack or escape attempt would have frozen her to the point of uselessness, and every attempt to negate that effect would have only made it worse. Eventually she would have been defeated by her own actions. All the agent needed to do was stay alive long enough to allow that to happen. ‘But why have the agent inside the barrier with me at all? Some kind of insurance? Or maybe…they were necessary.

“Oh,” Sebastien whispered. “It was binding magic.” In the beginning, they had explained the terms. Siobhan needed to “last” three minutes. If she lost, they would take her life, her autonomy, and her name. If she won, they would give her a chance to make a request and have it heard. And as a show of goodwill, the agent started out by giving her “an opportunity,” which, vague as it was, in the old stories would have clearly indicated that they were positioning themselves as at least a neutral party, if not an ally.

Without Siobhan fully understanding what was happening, the binding would have been weaker, but she hadn’t denied the gift of an opportunity. And the agent had never explicitly said they were going to fight. They had only implied it, in word and in tone. The wooden box had fallen out of the same pocket they had been reaching for when Siobhan attacked. What was that? “A…dueling board game?” It looked similar to the much larger one Rhett sometimes carried around in a briefcase.

If I’m right, that means that I was challenged to a contest by a “friendly” stranger. I accepted their gift but then broke faith by attacking. The agent even literally told me, “No matter what magic you use, you will find that every attack only brings you closer to defeat.” It seemed like a threat, but it was a warning. An explanation of the terms.

Sebastien let out a single, sharp laugh. “What a dirty trick. Definitely something out of a cautionary child’s tale.” She doubted such a thing would work without the extra power an Aberrant might bring to bear. The effect was probably strengthened by the agent remaining “friendly,” by not attempting to do any harm in return. They had only attacked her after she first succeeded in causing an injury, after all. ‘What would have happened if I sat down and played a three-minute round of the dueling game with them?

She would have had to be even more prescient than the agent had mistaken her to be to try something like that under the circumstances. ‘They weren’t trying to kill me. Maybe capture? Possibly even make some kind of bargain. But seeing as they were under binding magic, that agent was almost certainly telling the truth, even if everything they said was intentionally misleading. And I cannot see how there is any interpretation of an intent to take my life, my autonomy, and my name from me that I would welcome. It was horrific and entirely unacceptable. And what they offered in return, if I won, was mostly useless. There was no promise of safety or compliance with my request. Only “to be heard.”

But even if, by some strange stretch of the imagination, the Red Guard could have been friendly, she found them as deeply untrustworthy as the thing sealed in her mind. And maybe almost as dangerous.

They would not help her out of altruism, and the only thing of value that she could really offer, or bargain with, was her ability to open Myrddin’s journals. Everything else was a facade, and even if she attempted to deceive them, if she was ever called upon to prove herself, she would fail.

How likely is it that they’ll let things go—let me go—with this?’ Technically, she had won the encounter. The thing controlling her shadow had made her request in her stead, and they “heard” it, but she highly doubted that was going to matter.

Having experienced what they did, the Red Guard were probably more worried about her existence now than they had been at the beginning of the night. Depending on what they decided her shadow was—though the most obvious conclusion seemed hard to deny—they would only be even more intent on her destruction.

Or whatever it was they really did to Aberrants. Somehow, Sebastien suspected that it was possible there were some fates worse than death.

Well, I want to live. So what are my options?

She could give up on all of her goals and plans and leave Gilbratha, or even Lenore, entirely. The thought brought up immediate and deep feelings of rejection. She had an irreplaceable opportunity here in Gilbratha, working with Thaddeus Lacer and Kiernan’s faction of the History department. It wasn’t just access to Myrddin’s other journals, but also to the University archives, and, potentially, to the Architects of Khronos themselves.

Leaving the country would mean solving one problem by abandoning a possible solution to another. And there was no guarantee the Red Guard wouldn’t still find her. They were an international institution and served no country or ruler, after all.

Another possible option was to seek protection from them. She didn’t think Oliver and the Verdant Stags, or any of the other local gangs, had the power to stand against the Red Guard. For that, she would probably need the help of someone like the High Crown. ‘I do have a very powerful bargaining chip in my ability to open Myrddin’s journals.’ The High Crown might have been the one who sent the Red Guard after her, but that didn’t mean he had the power to call them off. But he wouldn’t kill her, and probably wouldn’t hand her over to anyone else, out of fear of losing a monopoly on Myrddin’s research if nothing else.

But that supposed protection would really be imprisonment. And as for the High Crown, she had tried to bargain with him once before. Her position was stronger now, what with Operation Palimpsest and the aftermath of his kidnapping attempt. But she almost certainly couldn’t trust the man.

He tried to kidnap Theo and Miles. He had them put under that sensory deprivation spell.’ She had only ever seen Lord Pendragon’s face in paintings and black and white photographs, but she imagined it now. A deep animosity filled her belly and twitched at her fingertips, urging her to curl them into fists. ‘No. He is not an option.

She was unsure if any of the other Crown Families would have the power to protect her from the Red Guard. If there was one, she guessed it was most likely to be the Westbays. ‘Unless there was a civil war, I can’t imagine that being a viable option. Even if I could somehow convince Titus, what about the real lord of the family, his father?

The only other option would be to place herself at the mercy of the Architects of Khronos. She really didn’t trust them, either, but if she was driven to desperation, it might be an option. Kiernan was one of their leaders, and he feared her. But considering their own goals and past actions, it didn’t really seem like a stable organization or a safe place to entrust her wellbeing.

I wouldn’t even trust them to take care of a pet. But I suppose it’s an option to keep in mind if all else fails. Alright then. If I can’t depend on external protection, what alternatives do I have?’ Working through her problems like this always helped to settle Sebastien’s mind. There was something about the clarity that deliberate thought brought her that made her feel as if she had some small measure of control. Even now, some of the anxiety was receding from her chest and the muscles of her shoulders and back.

Liza’s divination-diverting ward hadn’t worked against whatever magical-law-breaking spell the Red Guard had utilized, obviously, but there was a small possibility that if Sebastien brought the problem to her, along with enough gold, she would be able to create something to protect Sebastien against similar attempts in the future. Maybe.

But there are also Red Guard defectors out there, right?’ she thought with building excitement. If she could find and hire one of them, she might be able to get that kind of ward. It would probably need Aberrant components, which she had no idea how to source and were probably catastrophically expensive.

But perhaps the Architects of Khronos had connections that she could use. Their number had included a Red Guard defector, after all.

And in the meantime, perhaps she could try to lower her perceived level of threat.

Ostensibly, the Red Guard would trust Thaddeus Lacer’s opinion, right?’ They were only oath-bound to deal with Aberrants and thaumaturges who were a threat to others on a large scale. The average person might think that the Red Guard dealt with any and all petty blood sorcerers, but that wasn’t the case.

It was also possible that, after tonight, Thaddeus Lacer would no longer consider the Raven Queen a possible ally, but if there was one person in the world she had a chance of convincing who could actually help her, it was probably him.

She ran through a dozen permutations of a conversation with him but soon realized that she didn’t know him well enough to predict how he might respond to the Raven Queen. To a peer.

She checked the sky for clouds, and then, with a combination of grim determination, excitement, and trepidation, she returned to Siobhan’s form. Or perhaps more accurately, the Raven Queen’s form. Not some perky or disarming disguise, but the full long black hair, the red and black feathers, and lips painted so dark a red it was almost black in harsh, precise lines across her mouth.

After the last time she had found herself in woeful need of an outfit change, she had tightly folded some basic clothing at the bottom of her satchel. She pulled it out now, smelling the absorbed fragrance of various herbs as she pulled on a simple black dress and wrapped a velvet-trimmed cloak around her shoulders.

She checked the sky for clouds before she left, then walked north. She used the hood of the cloak to shield her features from those who still walked the streets at this time, and activated her divination-diverting ward with the dowsing artifact to turn away their thoughts.

She had no other student’s token to activate the transport tubes, but according to the rumors, the Raven Queen wouldn’t need to travel in such a mundane manner, anyway. She would simply need to return to the dorms as Sebastien Siverling when this was done, just in case.

It was easy enough to find Professor Lacer’s little cottage.

Remembering some of the stories about what happened to students who tried to trespass, Siobhan stayed several meters back as she retrieved her spell rod. She used a detached-output version of the basic float spell to lift his door knocker and let it drop back to the metal several times. Then she closed her spell rod and tucked it back into her satchel. Hopefully he was not a heavy sleeper.

Almost a minute later, he opened the door with one of the dourest scowls she had ever seen him wear. His hair was loose around his face, and rather than his usual long jacket and suit combination, he was wearing a loose, soft shirt and pair of pants. His expression slipped away as he stared at her for several long seconds of silence.

She raised her left hand slightly. “Hello, Grandmaster Lacer.” Her voice was slightly scratchy with nerves.

A combination of wonder and pleasure crossed his face as he sucked in a deep breath.

Siobhan realized that even his positive expressions were almost always tinged with irony, weariness, or pessimism, because his face looked different—younger—now that, for a moment, they were absent.

“You’re here,” he breathed. His hands flexed and twitched as if he had been about to make some aborted movement. Then he tucked his hair behind his ears very deliberately, the opposite of the flustered preening that she’d seen Damien do so many times. “Would you like to come in?” Professor Lacer asked.

Only a couple of chapters left in this book!

If you feel like supporting me or just would like to have a copy of your own, the ebook is at $5.99 right now and will go up to $7.99 on the 20th.

The book is live and available for immediate download on my shop, and on preorder for the 20th on all other bookstores. Paperbacks are also available, with audio coming in a few months.

A Foreboding of Woe

 

Edit 4/30: My writing computer, an iMac, has been a trooper for many years with zero problems, but in the last few days has very suddenly slowed down to the point it takes minutes to load a web page. It will not even open Scrivener–which I need access to for all my lore and plotting notes. I am taking it into the repair shop directly after posting this message, but if they cannot fix it I’ll need to buy a replacement. I’m almost certain to miss this week’s Thursday chapter. It’s just one thing after another this month, huh?

 

Chapter 201 – A Sealed Memory

Siobhan

Month 8 Day 14, Saturday 8:59 p.m.

The Red Guard agent screamed, and as if that had been a trigger, a scream burst from Siobhan’s mouth, too.

Siobhan’s shadow waited patiently for them to run out of breath, then turned its head to the agent. “You had better take off that glove before it consumes you.” It even sounded like Siobhan, though distant and muffled, as if heard through a wall.

Then it turned to her. “Siobhan, leave now. I will take care of things here, child.”

Another moment of vertigo hit her, but this one was more cerebral than physical, brought on by the sheer inconceivability of the situation. Except it wasn’t totally inconceivable. Those glowing amber eyes were familiar, and for a moment, a flash of blood and brain matter pooling out in front of the fire came to mind.

That was followed by a blink-fast vision of an egg with a yolk made of blood.

And then, even faster and on the edge of passing too quickly for her mind to grasp, a doorway filled with hungry sky.

Siobhan flinched back.

“Run,” her shadow added.

And she did.

Siobhan sprinted without coherent thought, fleeing with rabbit-panicked, pounding footsteps. The only bit of rationality remaining within her chest allowed her to keep that one vomit-wet hand to her mouth. The Circle remained unbroken, and some tiny part of her Will was left behind with her shadow.

She did not want to know what might happen if she dropped her shadow-familiar spell while it was detached and outside of her control.

And if not for her ability to split her Will, the panic might have overcome even a lifetime’s training to maintain concentration.

It was exhaustion that finally slowed her, her muscles burning and clumsy despite her pleas to continue. Her lungs heaved, screaming within her chest as if they had been scorched and blackened.

Sprinting at full speed had never been her forte, and she doubted she’d made it more than a kilometer at best. She stumbled to the side of a building and put her back to it as she looked around wildly for danger.

The streets were mostly empty, though the rain had lightened. The few pedestrians on the sidewalks noticeably avoided meeting her gaze or even looking at her. ‘I probably look crazed and dangerous,’ she realized. ‘Maybe I am crazed and dangerous.

The stones beneath her feet and the brick of the building behind her were still shadow-free. ‘I am a woman without a shadow,’ she thought inanely. ‘It sounds like one half of a bad riddle.’ Siobhan swallowed down another sudden surge of bile.

She recognized the street she was on, and the house numbers were coherent and in the correct order. No one was watching through the windows, and those few people who passed her in the street had faces, even if they weren’t turned her way. All the streetlamps were working.

She could still feel her shadow, somewhere behind her. She had never stretched it so far from her. But then again, she had never detached it before, either.

When her breathing began to settle, she closed her eyes and thought she could almost tell what it was doing, sense its movements and its actions as it absorbed and expelled energy to stay coherent in form and affect the world around it even in minuscule ways. It was a little bit like sensing through the raven with the Lino-Wharton messenger spell, a little like the proprioception philtre, and above all reminded her of the bits of experience she’d had sensing the world through her shadow. Which made sense when she considered it.

She swallowed back a hysterical laugh at her own stupidity.

It was…standing before four Red Guard agents. At least she was pretty sure they were Red Guard agents. What the shadow had wasn’t a sense of sight, even if it was absorbing the light reflected off of their bodies. ‘So it had been two teams, then. The other two agents were probably lying in wait to act as backup.’ She could distinguish the one that had fought her from the other three, who had a lot more gear and were carrying full-size shields. As Siobhan concentrated harder, she made out some movement and vibration.

It was talking. “I find it displeasing when people attack my followers.”

Strangely, the burst of outrage that this description of Siobhan sparked helped to calm her down more than anything else. She pushed away from the side of the building, looking for somewhere familiar. Somewhere she could hide safely, both from any further threat from the Red Guard and from anyone who might happen to notice a strange woman without a shadow.

“But I will not attack you,” Siobhan’s shadow continued, gesturing to the agent wearing the mask with the flat stones for eyes.

Their flesh-glove had reached their neck and was stretching around it and up over their face.

“You can go ahead and take off that Aberrant before it eats you.”

The Red Guard agents shared distrustful looks.

“What are you?” one of the new ones asked.

“I believe I am known for keeping my word. And even if you do not trust me, that thing is definitely going to kill you if you keep waiting.”

As the flesh-glove pulsed and tightened some of the tendrils around the agent’s neck, two of them finally gave in and spent a few moments freeing the host of the Aberrant parasite.

The fourth agent stood guard with their shield lifted and their gaze never wavering from Siobhan’s shadow.

Removing the flesh-glove, now more like a flesh arm, required the use of some tinctures as well as brute force, and left strange wounds on the agent’s flesh. Even to the shadow’s perception their skin was completely white, as if it had been crushed or sucked dry of blood.

Siobhan turned the corner and walked down a long, narrow path that led to an abandoned gate house she had used to change once before. ‘I had no idea you could use an Aberrant in such a way. Was it always just a hand, or did they cut that piece off the larger creature to take advantage of its anomalous effect? Do they have to treat it with something, like curing leather, or run it through some kind of ritual to make it useable as a tool? Obviously, the ability to sever everything, including the ties of magic itself, would have amazing utility.

The Red Guard agent took a healing potion to manage the glove’s aftereffects and the wound on their neck, which looked quite gruesome, as if ten thousand ants had taken a bite and carried away little bits of flesh.

“Who are you?” asked the agent standing between her shadow and the other three.

One of the others, wearing a complex metallic monocle attached by a clamp to the side of his head, leaned forward and whispered in the speaker’s ear.

Either her shadow’s senses weren’t strong enough to pick it up, or Siobhan simply wasn’t skilled enough at interpreting its information, but she couldn’t make out what he was saying.

“Is it not obvious?” Siobhan’s shadow asked. “I am the Raven Queen.”

Once more, Siobhan’s outrage spiked. ‘How dare that thing impersonate me!?

“The Raven Queen? Not Siobhan Naught?” the agent asked.

Her shadow clasped its hands behind its back and leaned forward playfully, eyes wide. “I think you should understand the importance of names.” It straightened. “And since I won our little contest… What were the terms again?” It tapped a forefinger on its lips. “Your lives, your autonomy, and your names?”

The agents’ fingers clenched around shields and battle artifacts, their knees loosening in case sudden movement was necessary.

“Well, I suppose I can leave you all three of those things,” Siobhan’s shadow said. “But I think I deserve some answers, at the very least.”

“We never planned to harm her,” the masked agent blurted. “It was just a test! We were hoping to gain some information, make sure she wasn’t a danger to society, and maybe—”

“You never meant to kill her, perhaps!” Siobhan’s shadow snapped, cutting the agent off. “But that is not the equivalent of meaning her no harm. Or do you think I have no idea about what goes on under the symbol of the Red Guard?” It sneered, gesturing to their shields.

Siobhan climbed a crumbling stone wall and sneaked in through the window of the abandoned gate house, both quite difficult maneuvers with only one arm free. She curled up in the dusty corner, trembling, and fumbled the light crystal coaster out of her satchel. ‘What do I do?’ she wondered. ‘What do I do now? That thing has taken my shadow. Can you…live without a shadow?’ It seemed anathema, and she wasn’t even sure how such a thing could be happening, as it contradicted all the laws of Natural Science that she knew. ‘I don’t want to die. I haven’t even had a chance yet, not really. I want to live.’ She repeated it in a whisper. “I want to live. Maybe Liza can help me. Or Professor Lacer. I just have to recover enough to get to them. I won’t let the shadow-familiar spell go. I can keep casting it as long as I stay awake. I won’t fade away. I won’t break,” she muttered rapidly.

Elsewhere, in the city that was not the city, the Red Guard agents bristled, shoulders pulling back and chins lifting. “We act for the good of the world!” declared the agent in front. “I ask again. Who are you? What are you? What is your purpose?”

“For the good of the world?” Siobhan’s shadow repeated, ignoring their questions. “But what does that really mean? Quite a lot could be justified with the goal of saving the world, and against such serious threats. My desires are quite simple, and I think it should be clear that I have done nothing to make an enemy of you. Do not make an enemy of me, and perhaps there will be room to coexist. This world is large, after all.”

Siobhan did not feel that this was likely to convince the Red Guard at all, but she didn’t think she herself could have done better.

“The girl is a genius, and we both know how to hold a grudge. Hear me, mortals, as you have promised. Do not look for me. If I wish to contact you, I will have no trouble reaching you.” And to punctuate this obvious threat, there was a sudden rush of confusion.

If Siobhan hadn’t been sitting down already, she might have fallen over.

And suddenly, her shadow was in front of her again. It examined her for a moment, then mimicked her stance, sitting in front of her toe to toe. “Why did you run so far!?” it cried, angry and frightened. It was growing quickly tired, she knew, just as she knew that being so close to her sparked some undefinable longing. “Did you consider what might happen to me if I ran out of power before being able to return to you?”

Siobhan stared at it, wide-eyed. She glanced away from its amber eyes for a moment, to the spot where the tip of its toes touched hers.

And then it melted back into the floor, becoming two-dimensional and stretching underneath her and up the opposite wall where the light from the coaster by her side threw it.

Siobhan lifted her right arm, and her shadow moved with her, even though the amber eyes were still staring back at her. ‘Did it really just…come back?’ But it had. She could feel its connection, just as she had felt its disconnection. ‘It could be a trick. I can’t let down my guard.’ She continued to keep her hand in front of her mouth and a spark of her Will active in the spell, even though her hand and elbow were getting stiff from being held in the same position for too long.

“What are you?” she whispered.

“At the moment, I am your shadow,” it replied. Somehow, it was talking by vibrating the air. Considering that speaking without a tongue or lips was probably quite difficult, it was doing an admirable job of mimicking her voice.

“And when you are not my shadow?” Siobhan breathed, her back itching with new sweat against cold, damp clothes.

“I suppose there are a few ways one might describe me. For the moment…I suppose you can consider me a sealed, but not quite forgotten, memory.”

Siobhan shuddered convulsively. As shameful and horrible as it was, her eyes burned with the first onset of tears. She clenched her teeth so hard her jaw creaked under the strain and tilted her head back. She would not cry.

She could still sense something from it, the way it noted the jump of the muscles in her jaw and throat, tracking every involuntary movement with a mean amusement. It was enjoying this.

A surge of hatred, sickly sweet and cold, swept through her.

“Raaz didn’t quite catch everything,” it said. “Don’t you remember when we met? Don’t you remember my name?”

Siobhan did remember, even if she desperately wished she didn’t, but she wouldn’t say it. “If you’re sealed, how are you doing this? Taking over my shadow?”

Its amusement grew. “Well, you so kindly swallowed a beast core for me.”

She gasped. “You absorbed the power from the beast core? How?

It continued as if she had not spoken. “And then you detached a piece of your existence for me, one conveniently not bound by the seal.”

Siobhan, for some reason, wanted to laugh. She tasted blood in her mouth.

“With the little cracks in said seal, it only took some effort and a bit of power to slip into the empty spot. I have to admit, I had such fun.”

“What would have happened if you ran out of the power you absorbed from that beast core while detached from me, inhabiting my shadow?” she asked.

“I would have had to slip into someone else’s shadow,” it said, but Siobhan felt its uncertainty and fear. “I believe I would have had to consume the original shadow to take over. Quite difficult to do with a powerful thaumaturge.”

Siobhan did her best to keep her face from reacting. This, she was sure, was a lie. It had made that up. It had no idea what would happen if it ran out of power away from her, but it didn’t believe it would be anything good. “Can you take control of my shadow again?”

“Any. Time. I. Want,” it said drolly.

That was a lie, too.

“Can you tell what I’m thinking?”

“Of course. I live in your head, darling. I ride around inside your thoughts.” It wavered, though neither the light nor Siobhan had moved. “I know how afraid you are right now,” it whispered. “But there’s no need to be quite that terrified. I was very helpful tonight, don’t you think? I protected you, at the cost of using up that meager bit of power. I was useful, and the borrowing of your shadow caused you no harm.”

But she could still feel the truth of the monster, and the way its rapacious feeling of starvation only heightened at the dilation in Siobhan’s pupils and the pulse in her throat. It didn’t want to eat her, literally. It just wanted to kill her and use her corpse for its own purposes. Metaphorically. Maybe not her physical corpse. But something like that.

And it was true that she was afraid, but if it had really been able to feel her emotions, it would have picked up on the hatred that she was barely tamping down. Her eyes burned with tears, but not from fear or despair. She simply felt too much loathing for one body to contain.

It was because of this thing that Grandfather was dead. Because of it, she had lost everything.

Siobhan swallowed and firmed her voice. “What do you want?”

Its voice warbled a little more, growing faint. “I want you to remember me,” it said.

Siobhan could feel its presence receding, leaving her natural shadow behind. Its eyes were the last to go, staring at her until the glow finally disappeared.

Wheew! *gasps with exhaustion.* The book is almost here and there’s so much admin stuff to do.

Happy Reading, guys. 🙂

 

Seeing a locked chapter that should be unlocked?: https://www.azaleaellis.com/trouble-accessing-chapters/

 

Chapter 200 – A Separation

Siobhan

Month 8 Day 14, Saturday 8:55 p.m.

Siobhan slid to a stop in front of the Red Guard agent, falling on her bottom and scrambling back to her feet.

“There’s no point in running. We’re destined to meet under the rain,” they said, somehow seeming both bored and frustrated. “I commend your ingenuity, but escape is futile without fulfilling the terms of our agreement. Without defeating me, this barrier will not drop. You have ninety seconds left.” They had already retied and latched all of their clothing.

To Siobhan, it seemed as if she had been fighting for long minutes already. Her breath came in ragged gasps, her soaked hair and clothes were plastered to her, and on each exhale cold raindrops that kept trying to choke her splashed out from between her lips.

She straightened and dual-cast the gust spell and fabric slicing spell. The gust spell from the side, once again carrying a stinging barrage of captured raindrops, and the fabric-slicing spell originating right behind the agent’s neck.

She hadn’t really been trying to kill them before, because killing a Red Guard agent seemed like a great way to make sure they relentlessly hunted her to the end of the known lands, but now she was desperate.

Their grotesque pink glove sliced through her gust spell, sending the air spiraling out in random eddies and smoothly severing her connection to the magic. Siobhan braced for some kind of backlash, but she still had control over her spell array, and whatever path the energy might have taken to travel back to her had been severed just as surely as the spell itself.

But even as that spell failed, the disk of slicing air behind the agent’s neck shot forward. Even if they had anticipated her trick, they wouldn’t have had time to escape. It cut into the side of their neck but met some kind of protective ward that flared bright.

Siobhan mentally cursed the Red Guard’s enchanted clothing budget.

That was enough warning for them to jerk their head to the side, but on instinct Siobhan created a second and third slicing spell just behind the first, so close together they were almost like two sheets of paper. The ward flared brighter, and yet brighter again as the agent stumbled to the side.

They lifted their right arm toward Siobhan and made a sharp motion, pulling back their wrist. A click sounded, almost inaudible beneath the rain, and a deep purple, arrow-shaped spell shot toward her.

Siobhan’s warding medallion grew abruptly, bitingly cold, but it was lucky that she was already throwing herself out of the way to avoid the purple spell, because her medallion barely managed to nudge it off course by a couple of inches.

Siobhan clumsily stabilized her footing, throwing one hand out for balance to recover from her frantic lurch. She was not nearly as good at footwork as the agent. If this turned into a real fight, she would die. Or she would lose and be stripped of some concepts she found very important.

But to Siobhan’s delight, her third slicing spell managed to overcome the ward and put a fairly deep gash into the agent’s neck as it lost stability.

Blood spilled faster than it could be diluted away by the rain, but not enough to indicate a nicked artery. With an audible gasp, they lifted their right hand to press against their neck. Their head dipped down for a long second before it rose again, those flat stones staring at Siobhan once more. “I suspected, but you really are casting two spells at once,” they said. “One might presume that you are simply masterful at quick-casting and switching between spells, but that’s not the case at all. This puts your interest in Myrddin’s journal in a new light. Did it teach you how to do that?”

Siobhan ignored them, taking the time they were talking to close some of the spell rod’s segments so that she could get a better grip to open others. Her fingers were beginning to grow clumsy with the cold, or maybe just from too much adrenaline. She cast another two gust spells, starting a few feet out and coming at the agent from either direction. One, the agent caught with their glove—which was growing further up their arm and had already reached their elbow—and severed.

The other gust spell caught against their neck and picked up some of their blood as the rain passed, bringing it to Siobhan. She spilled the blood-tainted rainwater over the spider-silk array for a deafening hex.

“And where is your Conduit? Surely even a Naught wouldn’t be so foolish as to cast through their own flesh? You remember what happened to your mother, don’t you?”

Siobhan gave a choked exhale, as if she’d been punched in the stomach. It fogged in the cold air. She pulled on the deafening hex with a wrenching heave of her Will, even as she dragged a finger through the bloody water, disregarding the boundary of the Circle.

With a second swipe, she transferred the trace of blood on her finger to the center of the of the disintegration curse’s array.

She had originally learned the curse to try and target her own blood, but had never practiced it on a living creature—only dead bugs and the like. Now, she pulled every thaum that one half of her Will could channel from the beast core pressed to her back, targeting the nearest match for that blood, which happened to be the open wound in the agent’s neck.

It was immediately apparent to her that she did not have enough source material. Either that, or the barrier of a living thaumaturge’s control over their own body, commonly known as the skin barrier, was harder to overcome than she had expected.

The deafening hex would last until they received healing, if she had done it right, so she turned her entire Will to the disintegration curse.

Siobhan channeled the spell at what was likely the very edge of her black sapphire’s capability and fought for control of the Red Guard agent’s body.

They reeled back, grabbing at their neck again, but this time with the severing flesh-glove. Its fingers sliced into their skin, only making the bleeding worse, and tendrils lifted from it as if seeking to invade the blackening, slowly eroding wound. They hissed in pain and horror, jerking the flesh-glove away.

Siobhan shot them with another concussive blast spell, but they crouched down.

Their right elbow drove down into their right knee. A metallic click hinted at the artifact hidden under their pants. They ducked their head as a shield of force bloomed out to absorb the blast in a ripple of light. Three more concussive blasts met the same futile end, and the agent lifted their arm and flicked back their wrist once more, releasing another purple arrow of magic.

Siobhan slipped on the wet stone as she tried to dodge and the spell shot over her. The ground hit hard, almost knocking her air out and dislodging her Will. She took a moment to ensure her concentration was in place before climbing painfully back to her feet.

A real-world, desperate magical battle was different from a controlled classroom environment. Siobhan’s stamina was already fraying, and she doubted she could win against a Red Guard agent in a contest of Wills. She shivered convulsively as the cold bit into her soaked clothing.

Their neck was bleeding even more now as Siobhan’s disintegration spell began to eat deeper, and they reached their right hand into their jacket pocket.

Siobhan saw only the handle of a battle wand before she lunged forward and past, the arm with her spell rod stretching out to snag them around the neck. She slid around behind them, squeezing their neck inside the crook of her elbow while she pressed the arm bearing the flesh-glove against their side with her knee. It was an awkward position, and she feared she had made an error, because she couldn’t bring as much pressure to bear on the deadly appendage as she had hoped. Not enough to completely immobilize it. Siobhan slid her battle wand inside the collar of her shirt so that the handle rested just under her chin, then reached into her boot and pulled out her dagger.

The fleshy tendrils wriggled curiously under her pant leg, but none of them attacked.

She slid the dagger along the wound in their neck but didn’t thrust it in. “One twitch of that arm and I spill every drop of blood inside you,” she whispered as they struggled to move.

The agent stilled.

“Drop the spell!” she roared out. “Or your partner dies.”

But of course, no matter what basic training in submission holds Professor Fekten had given her, Siobhan was an amateur at best.

The Red Guard agent threw their head backward and cracked the back of their skull into Siobhan’s chin, cracking her teeth together and sending stars shooting across Siobhan’s vision.

It was true that her spells weren’t enough to win the fight against a Red Guard agent who was serious about fighting back, but Siobhan saw now that her response to that realization had been wrong. She lacked experience and had made a stupid mistake out of panic.

She dropped her hold on the disintegration curse before it could inevitably slip her grip, hoping that none of her teeth were broken. She tasted blood, then screamed hoarsely as her wrist was twisted until the knife slipped out of it. She tried to scramble backward, sure that a death strike with the flesh-glove’s severing claws was coming, but their grip on her wrist twisted again and sent her collapsing to the ground to try to avoid the pain.

The agent laughed. “Oh, you’re quicker on the uptake than I expected. You noticed our little trick, huh? But too bad, avoiding any high-powered spells and resorting to mundane weapons won’t save you, either.”

Little trick?’ Siobhan wondered.

They flipped around, shoving Siobhan to the ground with her arm twisted painfully and their knee to her chest as they wrested her spell rod from her other hand. Their flesh-glove had advanced all the way to their shoulder now, and would soon reach the bare skin of their neck. “I guess you won’t freeze to death, but that really wasn’t much of a danger in three minutes, anyway, no matter how much power you tossed around. We wanted to be gentle,” they said, panting much less hard than Siobhan. “The human body isn’t that durable. The other option was physical pressure. I’ve seen a man crush his own body like a grape with the backlash from a single battle spell.”

The cold,’ Siobhan realized. ‘It’s the middle of summer.’ She’d been too distracted by the nightmarish phenomena, and then the running and the fighting, to notice, but such a sharp drop in temperature wasn’t normal. ‘It’s some sort of backlash from my magic. If I had been a more powerful thaumaturge, would I have frozen the both of us in here like some sort of giant, space-magic snow globe? Well, the Red Guard agent likely has some kind of temperature-controlling enchantment embroidered into their gear. So really, I would have just frozen myself.

“Your three minutes are up,” the agent said emotionlessly. “I win.”

Siobhan wanted to argue that she was still alive, even if they had immobilized her, and thus hadn’t technically lost, but knew it was useless. No one who acted like them would be willing to let her debate her way to freedom. She bucked upward, just hard enough to throw the agent off balance and free one of her arms.

An engraved wooden case fell out of their pocket, clattering against the stone.

Rather than attack with her freed hand, Siobhan brought it to her mouth, cupped into a small Circle, and breathed out, “Shadow mine, devour and arise.”

It was a much-truncated version of the thrice-repeated chant this spell was supposed to require, but just like one could minimize the written Word of a spell array with enough practice and clarity, she had some leeway in the spell, which she’d probably cast a few thousand times throughout her life.

The shortcut did cost her, as her shadow was harder to control than normal, sluggish and a little clumsy when trying to take precise shapes, but it slid out from under her and rose up beside them all the same.

The Red Guard agent didn’t notice at first. But when the rain that passed through Siobhan’s shadow-familiar turned to sleet, adding sharp noises of ice on stone to the susurrus of rain, they stilled.

Siobhan could feel the surprise, and then the fear, run through them.

They turned their head to the side, slowly, to look at her shadow, their neck stretching up and back until they could see the huge beak poking out from underneath the black hood. “Ah.”

Siobhan bucked again, wrenching a muscle in her back as she threw them off. She scrambled backward.

“What are you?” the agent asked, staring at her silent shadow-familiar.

Of course it didn’t respond.

Siobhan lunged for her spell rod while they were distracted and managed to scoop it up, putting the agent between her and her shadow. She narrowed her eyes, gauging the distance to the rain barrier, which was getting harder to see as the rain within the Circle fell more quickly. ‘If I could send my shadow out, would that disrupt the spell somehow? It’s a little bit like passing the barrier myself. Or maybe it would be better to leave the shadow here to distract them and try to make it out myself again. I’ll only get one chance, and it seems like the second option is more likely to save me if it works.

But perhaps the agent sensed something, because their head whipped around toward her, and though their mask and the flat stones over their eyes were expressionless, somehow Siobhan knew that they had focused on the hand in a Circle over her mouth.

They looked down, their eyes trailing from the tip of Siobhan’s foot along the thin thread of shadow that connected her to the rest of it. Her control was weak; the spell had been cast too hastily, leaving the tether easily visible to one looking for it.

Siobhan sucked in a breath of panic as they swiped at it with their flesh-gloved arm, fingers scoring into the cobblestones as if it were butter.

In a moment of desperate inspiration, Siobhan detached the output of her spell so that it could not be severed.

She’d never tried it before with any spell that wasn’t strictly based on modern sorcery, but it seemed to work just fine. The Red Guard agent sliced through the space where the tether between Siobhan and her familiar had been, and nothing happened.

And then a terrible vertigo washed over Siobhan. Her eyes rolled back in her head, and when she opened them again, she was on the ground. She vomited a little, the burning remnants of her dinner with Liza spilling out over her lips, over her fingers still cupped around her mouth, and mixing with the water flowing between the street’s cobblestones. ‘Did my Will break? But I can still think. Did someone else just have a break event…like what happened with Newton?

This wasn’t nearly as bad as the sensory scramble and deep, horrifying wrongness had been when Newton broke, though. She still had a grip on her shadow-familiar, miraculously.

Siobhan’s senses stabilized quickly, and she struggled to her hands and knees, scrabbling for her spell rod once more. Her battle wand was gone somewhere, kicked away in her struggle with the agent, perhaps.

The agent was already on their feet and had backpedaled to keep both Siobhan and her shadow in their field of view.

Siobhan followed the direction of their head to her shadow. Its shape had collapsed. Instead of the shadow-familiar’s slender, macabre form under a tattered cloak, a roiling, amorphous mass of bubbling darkness writhed on the ground.

She could still feel it, somehow, and thinking of it brought back a momentary flash of vertigo. She tried to get it to reform, but it was as if her Will were trying to lift a boulder twice her size. The response was horribly sluggish, and it felt like the power sources of light and the heat of her breath were not enough.

The agent screamed, high and sharp, and backpedaled once more, head darting frantically between Siobhan and her detached shadow. The rain barrier around them thinned out, leaving the spatial distortion at the edge of the spell obvious.

Siobhan swallowed and slowly looked down at her feet.

Despite the light of the single remaining streetlamp against the surrounding darkness, Siobhan’s body cast no shadow. Her heart began to race, speeding faster and faster as if trying to bludgeon its way out of her chest. She blinked and swallowed down a scream of her own.

A few whimpers still slipped through.

With deep, shuddering pants just on the edge of a sob, she redoubled her efforts to regain control of her shadow, to bring it close and reattach it, but though she was not completely powerless, it fought against her.

Rather than flatten and inch closer, it began to rise up. At first she thought it was regaining its most-used form from recent months. But as its form grew stable, she realized it was something entirely different.

It was a woman, wearing a fluttering cloak. Feathers sprouted out around her temple and between the strands of long straight hair that floated on an invisible wind. It was her, dressed as the Raven Queen and formed of darkness.

It was Siobhan.

And then it opened its eyes. It met her horrified gaze with bright, glowing-amber irises.

I’m opening up naming ideas for the Cult of the Raven Queen. What do Siobhan’s misguided “followers” call themselves? Please go over to Azalea’s Arcane Alcove to submit your ideas.

Edit 4/11: I hate to postpone chapters, especially 2 weeks in a row, but things have been really hectic for me this week moving into the new place, and the last 2 days I’ve been feeling feverish and foggy.

(Ever since I got Covid a few years back, I feel like my body has to fight some minor illness off every month or two, whereas before I literally would go 1-2 years with only a single minor cold. Which really sucks. My self-identity as a super healthy person is taking a blow.)

But pushing through feeling ill has led me to still feel ill, but also getting the signs of an impending ocular migraine. Today’s advance chapter needs significant edits/tweaks before I post it, but even though I’ve been trying to work on it for the last 6 hours, I’ve only managed to get about 20 minutes of actual concentration in. I previously figured out the changes I need to make, but now I’m literally having trouble focusing long enough to follow the logical story thread of the chapter from beginning to end. As the days wears on, it’s becoming obvious to me that I’m not going to be able to manage it until I’m feeling better.

Ideally, that will be tomorrow, but if I start feeling even worse then maybe not.

I’m sorry. Believe me, I want to make progress on this book just as much as you guys want to read it.