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.

 

Chapter 199 – An Exchange of Blows

Siobhan

Month 8 Day 14, Saturday 8:50 p.m.

There was no response to Siobhan’s challenge. As the streetlamp’s light flickered for a painfully long moment, she slid her hands along the spell rod and found the segment for a light spell without looking. She snapped open that array and dropped her barrier spell so as not to give away her ability to dual-cast so early, then cast the light projectile. It was one of a few new spells that she had added to her utility list.

A bright sphere shot up and out in a long arc, reaching the edge of the rain barrier and exploding in a flash of eye-searing brightness as it impacted the almost solid wall of rain. The water diffused the light, illuminating a dark silhouette just on the other side.

They were too distorted by the flowing water for Siobhan to make out any details, but they clearly flinched away from the light projectile’s point of impact.

Siobhan grinned. “Found you!” she intoned, sing-song and under her breath. She was, admittedly, feeling a little crazed from the stress.

This situation didn’t feel like it could get much worse, but somehow, after months and months of feeling an inescapable foreboding, it was almost a relief for the thread to finally have snapped.

The silhouette hesitated, then stepped through the rain, which parted over around them like a bead curtain. They wore a leather mask depicting a human face that looked just a little too realistic.

Is that made from human skin?’ Siobhan wondered wildly.

But instead of eyes, or even holes to see through, it bore two flat stones, the perfect size for skipping across placid water. “Tch, you’re no fun,” they said.

Siobhan couldn’t tell their gender from their voice, and their form gave nothing away either. They walked toward her sinuously. They wore a long leather jacket that reminded her of Professor Lacer’s, though theirs was threaded through with bands of metal and embroidered with glyphs around the edges. Probably not a Pendragon Operative, which left either an Architect of Khronos or a Red Guard agent.

Siobhan instinctively tried to take a step back, only to be reminded that her back was against the wall. “What do you want?”

“To see the Raven Queen, of course. There are so many rumors about you, and the High Crown is rather upset about it. But even if not for him, we would want to meet you anyway.”

“Red Guard agent,” Siobhan said. An Architect could have just gotten Kiernan to pass along their request for a meeting.

The agent tilted their head to the side, hands on their hips. “Yes.” They reached slowly into the inner pocket of their leather jacket and retrieved the iconic red shield symbol. “Do you know, the more we researched, the more intrigued we became? But you’re a hard person to meet. We had to make it rain an inconvenient amount, trying over and over to get this rare opportunity for our destinies to align. Do you know how many people with some vague connection to the Raven Queen we’ve almost caught by accident? And you almost tricked us with that little appearance in Silva Erde.”

“It only works in the rain?” Siobhan asked. She tried to remember if she’d been out in the rain recently. She had, in fact, on several occasions. Except that it had always been as Sebastien. It was possible they’d found and discarded her multiple times, not knowing who she was. “It’s not sympathetic magic, then. How does it work?”

“We’re well aware that you have some impressive defenses against sympathetic magic. No, this spell is entirely different. More like creating the opportunity for a moment outside of real space. With us both under the rain, all the threads of our destiny warp to allow us to meet for a time, so long as the spell persists. A fortuitous encounter.”

Siobhan narrowed her eyes, searching the last few minutes of her memory with frantic precision. “Outside of real space?” she repeated under her breath. She could recall no coherent street names, house numbers, or business signs. The letters were jumbled in her memory, approximating words but not quite matching, the numbers sometimes turned the wrong direction and entirely out of order. It was too dark to see outside of the rain barrier now, but she was pretty sure none of the surrounding houses and buildings would have matched up with what she had memorized of the city.

“Space magic, some kind of separate pocket that approximates Gilbratha,” she deduced. “What happens when the spell falls?”

The agent remained silent, their expression hidden completely under the mask as those flat pebbles stared at Siobhan in place of eyes.

There were several options, but the most advantageous would be that Siobhan exited the space where she had entered it, and the agent did the same, hopefully far away. “I was under the impression that your agents run in teams of at least two. Where is your partner?”

They weren’t stupid or reckless enough to answer. Presumably, at least one more agent was maintaining this space-bending, “destiny-warping” spell. There could be more.

“What kind of Aberrant components would create an effect like this?” Siobhan tried. “Nightmare-type?”

They chuckled. “Really, the classifications are too vague to be effective. Some bureaucrat thought a consistent labeling scheme would be a nice accomplishment to write on his gravestone and forced that uselessness on the rest of us. But I think this would be labeled pretty squarely as a Mystic-type with an Eldritch facet.”

Mystic-types were a long-range subset of Blight and Nightmare-types. They affected people or places far away from themselves, often with methods that were difficult to trace. Rather than shooting a fireball like a Scourge-type might, a Mystic-type would cause someone three kilometers away to spontaneously combust. And Eldritch-types had strange and abstract effects, often dealing with time, space, emotion, or some sort of weird concept like “truth.”

Siobhan let out a long, low breath at the agent’s confirmation. The Red Guard really were using Aberrants for components. She understood how useful that obviously was, but there was something repulsive about the idea.

The agent tilted their head to the side and broke the silence. “Did you know, one of the theories about you is that you’re an Aberrant?”

Siobhan blinked the water out of her eyes. “One that can speak, like the Dawn Troupe or Red Sage? But…surely my actions, even from the most distorted accounts, are a bit more complex than that? If I were an Aberrant, it would be impossible for me to resist propagating whatever my magical effect was for this long. There would have been signs.”

“Signs like the Raven Queen’s fervent and growing following?” The smile was very apparent in the agent’s voice. “Some Aberrant effects are subtle. But not to worry. You have been seen casting various spells on several occasions. As you probably know, Aberrants can only create their specific anomalous effect, no matter how amazingly lucid they might seem. Even if you had the strangest break event possible, an Aberrant would have been limited a little more than some of the reports indicate. But you are a blood sorceress, are you not?”

Siobhan remained silent. The Red Guard might practice blood magic themselves, as was clear from what had happened to the Moore family, but that didn’t mean they would allow others to do so indiscriminately. After all, they also encouraged the belief that blood magic led to corrupted Wills and break events.

“We have proof. You’ve used a Lino-Wharton messenger spell on multiple occasions, and some flesh-molding spells, and perhaps even some nightmare curses.”

“Nightmare curses?”

The agent shrugged. “Well, we didn’t find firm evidence of that, so it’s debatable. But with public opinion as it is…”

“Who would believe me if I protested?” Siobhan asked bitterly. “Is that why you’re here, then? To arrest me? Or maybe you want the book?”

They hesitated. “We are interested in the book, of course, but that’s not why you and I are here. No, we’ve met tonight to determine your fate. I am giving you an opportunity, real and finite. If you win, you deserve to survive. You’ll keep your life, your autonomy, your name. If I win…” They reached into their pocket and pulled out a severed hand, which they gripped by the wrist. It was a little bulkier than a standard human hand, and at first Siobhan thought it had been skinned.

The hand was light pink, like candy rather than muscle, with slightly glowing veins pulsing through the flesh. Its tips formed claws, though without any actual keratin. The bright pink flesh simply came to a curved point. “If I win, then I will take all of those things from you. If you win, or can last three minutes against me, you’ll be given the chance to make a request and have it heard. No matter what magic you use, you will find that every attack only brings you closer to defeat.”

What an incredibly arrogant thing to say.’ It was meant to intimidate, of course, and Siobhan was loathe to admit that it had worked.

“Your three minutes start now.” The Red Guard agent began to slip their own left hand into the wrist, as if it were a glove, and the flesh wriggled and throbbed as it sucked up their fingers. Their other hand reached into their pocket, likely for some kind of battle artifact.

Siobhan’s hands moved quicker than they ever had in her life, snapping open another of her spell rod’s segments even as she shot a second light projectile directly at the agent’s masked face. She followed that up with three rapid-fire fabric slicing spells, modified from their original form into a rotating disk of air that was a lot more powerful over longer distances. She shot one of the slicing spells directly behind the light projectile and the following two to either side, hoping that at least one of the three would catch the agent’s exposed neck, even if they tried to dodge.

They ducked, and the light projectile skimmed right over their head.

Siobhan reached in her satchel for the potions organized within.

The slicing spells, normally almost invisible, caught the raindrops as they shot through the air, scattering tiny beads of water and giving themselves away. The agent dodged the first two, and then caught the third with the grotesque pink glove.

The tip of the claws glowed, trailing a tiny after-image in the air as if they were slicing space itself. Siobhan’s spell broke apart, energy spilling out around the thick clawed fingers with a distorted whooshing sound.

Siobhan’s eyes widened and she almost choked on the proprioception philtre of darkness she was swallowing. She dashed the remainder of that vial and a second one against the ground between them and sprang to the side as the clouds of darkness exploded outward.

Her hand dug into her satchel again, coming back with her battle wand, which was fully charged. She shot three stunning spells through the darkness, her aim just a little off as her sense of self expanded beyond the confines of her body.

Despite the thick black clouds surrounding them, the agent seemed to sense the battle spells and was able to slide sinuously between them, catching only the crackling edges along their protective clothing. Their pebble-eyed mask still seemed to be looking right at her, and Siobhan’s suspicion that they could still somehow sense her through the darkness gained weight as they began to walk toward her. They stretched out their left hand toward her, the flesh-glove’s pink glow smothered by the black clouds. When they put it on, it had covered only their hand. Now it was creeping up their forearm, painful-looking tendrils stretching out and clamping down hard enough to cut off the blood supply.

Siobhan shoved her battle wand in her mouth, holding it between her teeth as she used her freed hand to rifle around in her satchel for a small component. She retrieved a short leather cord tied in a simple noose knot, popped open yet another spell array segment, and pressed the knot to the slightly sticky spot she had prepared in the component Circle ahead of time. She spat out her battle wand, switched its output to concussive blasts, and shot two of them while her Will handled a simple unlocking spell with detached output.

She poured every speck of power she could channel into the unlocking spell, even as she took her battle wand between her teeth again and opened the spell rod’s stone-disintegration and gust spell array in quick succession. Both her mind and her hands worked with a nimble coordination and instant precision that she might have found gratifying in a less dire situation.

As the agent dodged both concussive blasts, every knot, buckle, and button on their clothing sprang open. The straps holding their mask to their head released, though it didn’t fall away from their face.

Siobhan grinned fiercely around the shaft of her battle wand as she cast the stone-disintegration spell with the other half of her Will. It was rare for clothes to be warded against the very simple unlocking spell, which wasn’t meant for clothing at all but, with the right application of Will, could be bent toward that purpose.

To the agent’s credit, they didn’t stop to try and retie their boots, merely grabbed their belt with their right hand and used the shoulder of their left arm to keep their mask pressed in place while they—seemingly instinctively—threw themselves out of the way of Siobhan’s follow-up concussive blast in a contorted twist.

The agent was a much better duelist than she was, and if they’d been attacking as well as defending, she would have stood no chance. But they couldn’t have anticipated that she could cast two spells at the same time while also attacking with a battle wand.

In the darkness, they dodged right into the rain-slicked tripping hazard she’d disintegrated into the cobblestones where she anticipated they would move. Their untied boots did nothing to support their ankles, and they began to fall.

Siobhan waved the spell rod, a detached-output gust spell gathering up raindrops and pelting them into the side of the agent’s mask with enough speed and impact that they sounded like pebbles shot from a sling. She kept the spell going even as she turned to run, hoping to dislodge their creepy mask and maybe irritate their eyes.

She sprinted out of the dark clouds of her philtre, which were already beginning to thin under the effects of the rain. The air outside of the clouds was surprisingly sharp and cold. Siobhan wrung out every ounce of explosive speed Fekten had drilled into her, trying to reach the edge of the rain barrier.

She shoved her battle wand back into her satchel and skidded around the nearest corner.

She was growing closer to the rain barrier at first, but the single shining streetlamp was somehow ahead of her rather than behind. Siobhan’s sense of space tripped over itself as she tried to reorient.

And then the Red Guard agent stepped leisurely around the corner a few meters in front of her.

Days passed faster than my sense of time could keep up with, and today I looked up and realized we’ve only got a few left until the early release of this book on my shop. (It’ll be delivered midnight of the 15th from me, and the 20th for other bookstores.)

I don’t like having chapters on the Patreon be behind what people can access if they pay for the complete book, and we’re also almost at the 200-chapter milestone, which I wanted to give a bonus for anyway.

For these reasons, I’m going to do daily chapter releases until Saturday, when we reach the end of the book. Even though it means I have to go on a hiatus to build up the backlog again, this seems preferable than keeping you guys hanging past the point the book is published.

 

Chapter 198 – Strange Phenomena

Sebastien

Month 8 Day 13, Friday 11:00 p.m.

Sebastien had to knock for a while before Thomas the doorman and pseudo-butler opened the door for her, sleepy eyed. “Sorry about the late hour. Is Oliver here?”

Thomas nodded silently, his eyes flicking up toward Oliver’s study and giving her all the information she needed.

She strode toward the stairs without further delay. However, she stopped at the study door, bracing herself to see Oliver in person once more. She did a quick check of her body, straightened her shoulders, lifted her chin, and smoothed her expression as close to the placid perfection of a lake as she could manage. Then she knocked.

Oliver took a long few seconds to respond. “Come in.”

He was rubbing his eyes tiredly as she opened the door, but his hands fell down as he saw her. His complicated tie had been pulled loose and his sleeves were rolled up to his forearms. “This is an unexpected visit,” he said. It had been months since the last time they had spoken in person, and the letters they exchanged were far from personal. “Is something wrong?”

“I know that you’ve had some continued business with the Architects of Khronos. Were you aware that they’ve sent a force to kidnap a group of people from Osham?”

Oliver’s expression flattened. “No. Where did you hear about this? Who are the targets?”

“Tanya Canelo informed me earlier today, but she didn’t know much. I don’t know the targets or any other relevant information. But, considering the greater political circumstances, I found this news…concerning. I know you’re originally from Osham. I thought you might still have some contacts there.”

Oliver was nodding rapidly to himself, his gaze harried and distant. He stood abruptly and moved to the cabinet that held his distagram. While Sebastien watched, he sent off several short messages in quick succession, taking only enough time to tune the communication band each time.

“I need to talk to that snake Kiernan, but I don’t have a good excuse to bust in and drag a University Grandmaster out of his bed in the middle of the night. Someone might get suspicious.”

Sebastien hesitated. “All you need is a student or faculty token to use the transport tubes, even after hours. As long as you’re circumspect, no one will even notice you were there.”

“I have some University contacts, but no way to get a token fast enough. I’ll have to wait to talk to him in the morning.” Oliver slammed his fist into the dark wood of the cabinet beside the distagram and swore. “What are they thinking!?”

Sebastien hesitated before reaching into her pocket and retrieving her student token. “Use this,” she offered, holding it out to him. It felt somewhat sour to be offering aid of any kind to Oliver, but this didn’t put her in much danger, and there was more at stake than their relationship.

Oliver’s gaze switched between the wooden token and her face. “Will you come with me, then? Perhaps as the Raven Queen?”

“No. I’m not getting involved in whatever this is. I’m a simple University student, and I plan to remain that way.”

Oliver gave her an odd look. “Okay. How do you want me to return your student token to you?”

“Leave it here. I’ll pick it up tomorrow. And whatever you’re planning to do, don’t implicate Tanya. She put herself at risk to inform me.”

“Of course. Are you going to stay the night? We haven’t touched your room.”

Sebastien shook her head. “I have other accommodations.” She shook her student token impatiently, and Oliver moved forward to get it.

He stared into her eyes as he took it, his fingers brushing against hers. “Thank you.”

Sebastien clenched her jaw for half a second. “You’re welcome.”

“Do you want some sort of payment for this?”

Sebastien hesitated, remembering his comments about the transactional nature of their relationship. She was tempted to request something cutting, but in the end said, “You can keep me updated on whatever you learn.”

Oliver tucked the wooden token away in the inner pocket of his suit vest. “I heard about your father’s escape last week. Are you…doing alright with everything?”

Sebastien clenched her jaw again, then shrugged. “He’ll never find me, even if he tries. Which I doubt he will. Knowing him, he’s scurried back to the northern islands or some other distant land and will be hiding out in some small village, cursing my name every time he gets a little too deep into his drink.”

“I’m sorry.”

She glared at him. “I’m not. Unless you count the fact that I’m sorry that piece of trash managed to escape.”

Oliver very obviously swallowed back whatever words he wanted to say. “I have to go.” He hesitated, then added, “You are welcome to stay here, if you wish. Whenever.”

Sebastien raised one eyebrow and silently spun on her heel, leaving the study and making her way back down the stairs.

Oliver followed almost immediately on her heels. When they reached the street in front of his small manor’s gates, they turned in different directions.

Sebastien didn’t look back. After about a block, her pounding heart settled. She paused after turning the corner and rubbed at her shoulders, neck, and the sides of her jaw to release the tension there. “Damn you, Oliver,” she muttered. What right did he have to act like he cared?

Resolutely, she put the matter from her mind and walked on, taking in the fresh night air after the recent rain.

When she got to her apartment, she opened Professor Lacer’s letter. It was short, notifying her that they had completed their half of the agreement and inquiring when they could meet to collaborate on Myrddin’s other three journals. He also asked if she had any involvement in Ennis Naught’s freedom.

Sebastien drew a spark-shooting array on her little folding slate lap table and watched the letter burn to ash.

She drew out her dreamless sleep spell in oils and tinctures on her pillow, then dragged her bed underneath the window cut into the angled ceiling so that she could look at the stars as she fell asleep. She’d found she could tell when her raven was becoming unbearably weary because some of her normal fatigue began to accumulate again.

In the morning, she picked up her student token from Dryden manor, though Oliver was not home to give her an update. Sharon was there and made a lot of fuss about how much she’d missed Sebastien before roping her into breakfast with the rest of the servants.

After that, her belly round with food, she sent a quick letter via runner to Damien, who was overly prone to worry and might foolishly panic that she had never made it back to the University the night before. Then she devoted herself once more to opening Myrddin’s journal.

Halfway through the day, she succeeded again, only to immediately lose control as she tried to turn the pages too fast, eager to get back to the place she had left off last time.

Sebastien stared down at the incomprehensible, squiggly ink lines and shifting diagrams and almost threw the book across the room. Only supreme, saint-like patience allowed her to close it firmly and put it back into the warded chest.

After that, she was too frustrated to make much progress on anything, so she gave up and made another visit to the artisan who had created her spell rod. She was going to invest in an experimental business venture with the man. Plans and paperwork took most of the afternoon, and then she went through the very long and unpleasant process of transforming into a disguised variation of her female form to visit Liza.

The older woman helped to recast the sleep-proxy spell with a fresh raven, and then they had dinner together, which Siobhan ended up cooking most of because, even after so many years, Liza’s only real skill in the kitchen revolved around the teapot. Usually, the woman ate simple meals that required little preparation or went out to eat, but with Siobhan in tow it was unwise to spend time in a public location.

Liza had been practicing some of Professor Lacer’s exercises, which Siobhan found somehow both vindictively satisfying and ironic, and after dinner they competed with a metal ball around a Circle, just as the students had in the Practical Casting in-class tournament during term one.

Liza won, but only by devouring the wax of her tiny candle as Sacrifice more quickly than Siobhan could do the same for hers. The limitation of a single candle was supposed to keep them on even footing, but when they had sucked the flame dry and moved on to the wax, capacity mattered once more. The woman sniffed loudly and hid her smile behind the rim of her teacup, while Siobhan suppressed the urge to accuse her of cheating.

I could have won, too, if I’d resorted to dual-casting,’ she thought.

It was almost dark by the time she left, mentally charting out her route to the next safe place she would use to transform back into Sebastien.

In the time she had been inside with Liza, clouds had rolled over the sky, filtering out the light of the sunset into something bruise-purple and dramatic. Without fanfare, it began to rain once more. Sighing, Siobhan reached into her satchel to retrieve the plain black umbrella she had taken to carrying around with her lately. ‘One would think some weather thaumaturge is experimenting over Gilbratha with all this rain. Isn’t summer supposed to be dry? Maybe it’s because we’re so close to the coast.

But her umbrella wasn’t there. Siobhan cursed as she realized that she had left it back at the dorms on Friday. The rain quickly swelled from a light drizzle to fat, heavy droplets of warm water, as if the sky were weeping. Around her, people began to hurry, those without umbrellas using their bags, clothes, or convenient newspapers as shields against the sorrow of the heavens. And, as always seemed to happen in times like these, there wasn’t a carriage for hire to be seen.

I need to find shelter or some way to keep dry. The rain might damage my disguise.’ She slipped one hand into her satchel as her mind spun over various options. ‘Grubb’s barrier spell would make a perfect umbrella. And it’s one of the options in my spell rod. But would casting that possibly draw more attention to me in this part of town?’ She was at least a kilometer north of the Mires, but not surrounded by so many rich or powerful people that having a water-repelling artifact or casting a spell for such a minor inconvenience would be seen as normal.

Her neck tingled uncomfortably, and Siobhan realized that she had begun walking faster without realizing it. She slowed her steps, searching for a glass window in which she could search behind herself as she wondered at the cause of her unease. ‘Did I subconsciously notice something off without realizing it?

She turned all of her attention toward observation, her fingers curling around her spell rod and drawing it from her satchel.

A couple dozen meters down the street, the rain began to fall even more heavily, creating a stark delineation. She tracked the path of this increased rainfall, and as her head swiveled, she saw that there was a similar phenomenon on the street behind her. She found the correct segment of her spell rod and twisted it open, then immediately cast Grubb’s barrier spell, distanced from the top edge by about a foot, as she had built into the spell array when she created it.

As the dome of force appeared, she held up the spell rod like an umbrella and used the shield she had created to peer up and around, trying to make out if the rain was falling heavier around her in a huge Circle as the tingling horror along her arms and the back of her skull suggested.

While the barrier spell might draw attention to her, it might also provide some small measure of protection against an attack with physical properties.

There was a change in the feel of the air, a shift in the muffled sounds of the city past the rain, and an intangible sense of isolation.

The air, which had smelled clear, sharp, and a little salty, took on the smell of something Siobhan couldn’t identify but which raised goosebumps along her skin.

Siobhan took a sharp turn to the right, heading down the sidewalk of a major cross-street. Her eyes swept around, examining everyone nearby for suspicious behavior. She tried to keep her face impassive and her pace only as hurried as the other pedestrians who wanted to get out of the rain.

I have to assume whatever this is, it is targeting me. But who is behind it?’ Unfortunately, Siobhan had too many potential enemies to narrow them down. ‘How did they find me? Did they follow me from Liza’s? Is it possible that she sold me out?

The barrier of heavier rain was following her.

Siobhan’s eyes trailed along the rooftops. Although she found no one there, her cheeks paled as she noticed an oddity in the windows of all the buildings. Normally, those without glass, wax paper, or some other protection against the rain would have been shuttered tight. But they were all open.

And behind them, people were peeking out, their faces obscured by rain, curtains, or shadows. ‘They’re all watching me.

Siobhan’s breath hitched, and she forced it to smooth. ‘How is that possible? What is happening?

An idea sparked in her mind, followed by a sudden rush of hope. She lifted her free left hand and pinched her nostrils closed, closed her mouth, and then attempted to breath in through her nose. It was a little trick that she’d read in a book but never found use for before, because the faint remnants of her dreams that occasionally slipped through her dreamless sleep spell weren’t so normal or coherent as to allow her to become lucid while asleep. But she knew that, in a dream, attempting this would have her breathe through her closed nose, a clear indication that what was happening was not real.

She got no air, even though she strained hard enough to wrench something inside her chest. ‘This is real.

Siobhan lamented her lack of foresight. Despite all of the preparations she had made, she hadn’t replaced her sympathetically connected bracelets with anything else, partially because she felt she could no longer trust Oliver or Katerin and did not want to be on call for their own emergencies. ‘I don’t know what to do. Back to Liza’s? Get to one of my emergency stashes and flee the city?

Very quickly, the few people who remained outside were disappearing. Though normally Siobhan would assume they were just hurrying to get out of the rain, the way some people were literally turning around and walking away from her, regardless of the direction they had been going before, worried her. It was as if there was some kind of repulsive force not only keeping out the absolute deluge of rain the rest of the city was experiencing but also urging others to leave this strange Circle.

What worried her even more was that, somehow, she couldn’t see the faces of the people around her. Whether they were covered by umbrellas, arms raised to hold some more makeshift barrier overhead, or they just ducked away or turned their heads at the perfect time to avoid her glance, she could never make out their features.

People were still watching through the windows. They, too, were serendipitously faceless.

Siobhan had the creeping feeling that if she were to stomp up toward one of the windows and stare unblinking, when the coincidences keeping her from seeing them clearly ran out, they would be truly featureless, a smooth span of flesh in the shape of a head. ‘If I grabbed one of these pedestrians and swung them around to look at me, what would I see?

Siobhan had read and heard enough horror stories to know better than to attempt such a thing.

As abruptly as possible, she pivoted into an alley to the right and flicked the switch on her dowsing artifact. When she hit the next street, she turned right again, going back in the general direction she’d come from. It was a bold decision, and she kept a sharp eye on the edge of the heavy rain as she hurried back the way she’d come. Was it her imagination, or had the Circle lagged behind for a couple of seconds after her abrupt change in direction?

She was suddenly alone, as if she had blinked and everyone else had disappeared. The pedestrians that had been walking along the sidewalk were all gone. There were carriages at the end of the street, but even as she watched they disappeared through the boundary of rain.

Clamping down on a rush of terror, Siobhan sprinted forward and around another corner. She was not fleeing mindlessly, but hoping against hope that she could outpace the spell, or at least the spellcaster. Rain pooling between the cobblestones splashed out with every footstep, and she was grateful not to be wearing a dress whose skirt would get soggy and heavy.

That was when the streetlamps began to go out.

As soon as the barrier of rain in front of her passed the light, it died, flickering out even as it passed into the Circle. Only those that had been inside with her before the effect started remained lit. This happened twice more before Siobhan realized that if this continued, she would eventually be plunged into darkness. And she was showing no signs of being able to outrun the Circle of relatively lighter rain.

With only one streetlamp remaining, Siobhan skidded to a stop near the metal pole. She pressed herself to the side of the building nearest it, not so close to the light that she would blind herself to any attacks from the darkness. ‘What kind of spell does something like this?’ she wondered. ‘If I had to guess, it seems most likely to be some kind of mind-affecting curse that’s controlling my perceptions. Either that…or something like what the old man did at Knave Knoll. This is all too big, too crazy, to be a standard spell actually affecting reality. And I’m pretty sure they don’t have any pieces of me to work with, nor have I done something that would be an obvious method to anchor binding magic.

Siobhan took a deep breath and yelled out, “A spell like this comes from one of three sources. You are an Architect of Khronos, an agent of the Red Guard, or a Pendragon operative. Come out and face me!”

Her words were swallowed up by the seething choir of a million raindrops, and the crystal of the streetlamp began to flicker weakly.

Sebastien

Month 8 Day 13, Friday 11:00 p.m.

Sebastien had to knock for a while before Thomas the doorman and pseudo-butler opened the door for her, sleepy eyed. “Sorry about the late hour. Is Oliver here?”

Thomas nodded silently, his eyes flicking up toward Oliver’s study and giving her all the information she needed.

She strode toward the stairs without further delay. However, she stopped at the study door, bracing herself to see Oliver in person once more. She did a quick check of her body, straightened her shoulders, lifted her chin, and smoothed her expression as close to the placid perfection of a lake as she could manage. Then she knocked.

Oliver took a long few seconds to respond, “Come in.”

He was rubbing his eyes tiredly as she opened the door, but his hands fell down as he saw her. His complicated tie had been pulled loose and his sleeves were rolled up to his forearms. “This is an unexpected visit,” he said. It had been months since the last time they had spoken in person, and the letters they exchanged were far from personal. “Is something wrong?”

“I know that you’ve had some continued business with the Architects of Khronos. Were you aware that they’ve sent a force to kidnap a group of people from Osham?”

Oliver’s expression flattened. “No. Where did you hear about this? Who are the targets?”

“Tanya Canelo informed me earlier today, but she didn’t know much. I don’t know the targets or any other relevant information. But, considering the greater political circumstances, I found this news…concerning. I know you’re originally from Osham. I thought you might still have some contacts there.”

Oliver was nodding rapidly to himself, his gaze harried and distant. He stood abruptly and moved to the cabinet that held his distagram. While Sebastien watched, he sent off several short messages in quick succession, taking only enough time to tune the communication band each time.

“I need to talk to that snake Kiernan, but I don’t have a good excuse to bust in and drag a University Grandmaster out of his bed in the middle of the night. Someone might get suspicious.”

Sebastien hesitated. “All you need is a student or faculty token to use the transport tubes, even after hours. As long as you’re circumspect, no one will even notice you were there.”

“I have some University contacts, but no way to get a token fast enough. I’ll have to wait to talk to him in the morning.” Oliver slammed his fist into the dark wood of the cabinet beside the distagram and swore. “What are they thinking!?”

Sebastien hesitated before reaching up for one of the several cords hanging around her neck and retrieving her student token. “Use this,” she offered, holding it out to him. It felt somewhat sour to be offering aid of any kind to Oliver, but this didn’t put her in much danger, and there was more at stake than their relationship.

Oliver’s gaze switched between the wooden token and her face. “Will you come with me, then? Perhaps as the Raven Queen?”

“No. I’m not getting involved in whatever this is. I’m a simple University student, and I plan to remain that way.”

Oliver gave her an odd look. “Okay. How do you want me to return your student token to you?”

“Leave it here. I’ll pick it up tomorrow. And whatever you’re planning to do, don’t implicate Tanya. She put herself at risk to inform me.”

“Of course. Are you going to stay the night? We haven’t touched your room.”

Sebastien shook her head. “I have other accommodations.” She shook her student token impatiently, and Oliver moved forward to get it.

He stared into her eyes as he took it, his fingers brushing against hers. “Thank you.”

Sebastien clenched her jaw for half a second. “You’re welcome.”

“Do you want some sort of payment for this?”

Sebastien hesitated, remembering his comments about the transactional nature of their relationship. She was tempted to request something cutting, but in the end said, “You can keep me updated on whatever you learn.”

Oliver tucked the wooden token away in the inner pocket of his suit vest. “I heard about your father’s escape last week. Are you…doing alright with everything?”

Sebastien clenched her jaw again, then shrugged. “He’ll never find me, even if he tries. Which I doubt he will. Knowing him, he’s scurried back to the northern islands or some other distant land and will be hiding out in some small village, cursing my name every time he gets a little too deep into his drink.”

“I’m sorry.”

She glared at him. “I’m not. Unless you count the fact that I’m sorry that piece of trash managed to escape.”

Oliver very obviously swallowed back whatever words he wanted to say. “I have to go.” He hesitated, then added, “You are welcome to stay here, if you wish. Whenever.”

Sebastien raised one eyebrow and silently spun on her heel, leaving the study and making her way back down the stairs.

Oliver followed almost immediately on her heels. When they reached the street in front of his small manor’s gates, they turned in different directions.

Sebastien didn’t look back. After about a block, her pounding heart settled. She paused after turning the corner and rubbed at her shoulders, neck, and the sides of her jaw to release the tension there. “Damn you, Oliver,” she muttered. What right did he have to act like he cared?

Resolutely, she put the matter from her mind and walked on, taking in the fresh night air after the recent rain.

When she got to her apartment, she opened Professor Lacer’s letter. It was short, notifying her that they had completed their half of the agreement and inquiring when they could meet to collaborate on Myrddin’s other three journals. He also asked if she had any involvement in Ennis Naught’s freedom.

Sebastien drew a spark-shooting array on her little folding slate lap table and watched the letter burn to ash.

She drew out her dreamless sleep spell in oils and tinctures on her pillow, then dragged her bed underneath the window cut into the angled ceiling so that she could look at the stars as she fell asleep. She’d found she could tell when her raven was becoming unbearably weary because some of her normal fatigue began to accumulate again.

In the morning, she picked up her student token from Dryden manor, though Oliver was not home to give her an update. Sharon was there and made a lot of fuss about how much she’d missed Sebastien before roping her into breakfast with the rest of the servants.

After that, her belly round with food, she sent a quick letter via runner to Damien, who was overly prone to worry and might foolishly panic that she had never made it back to the University the night before. Then she devoted herself once more to opening Myrddin’s journal.

Halfway through the day, she succeeded again, only to immediately lose control as she tried to turn the pages too fast, eager to get back to the place she had left off last time.

Sebastien stared down at the incomprehensible, squiggly ink lines and shifting diagrams and almost threw the book across the room. Only supreme, saint-like patience allowed her to close it firmly and put it back into the warded chest.

After that, she was too frustrated to make much progress on anything, so she gave up and made another visit to the artisan who had created her spell rod. She was going to invest into an experimental business venture with the man. Plans and paperwork took most of the afternoon, and then she went through the very long and unpleasant process of transforming into a disguised variation of her female form to visit Liza.

The older woman helped to recast the sleep-proxy spell with a fresh raven, and then they had dinner together, which Siobhan ended up making most of because, even after so many years, Liza’s only real skill in the kitchen revolved around the teapot. Usually, the woman ate simple meals that required little preparation or went out to eat, but with Siobhan in tow it was unwise to spend time in a public location.

Liza had been practicing some of Professor Lacer’s exercises, which Siobhan found somehow both vindictively satisfying and ironic, and after dinner they competed with a metal ball around a Circle, just as the students had in the Practical Casting in-class tournament during term one.

Liza won, but only by devouring the wax of her tiny candle as Sacrifice more quickly than Siobhan could do the same. The limitation of a single candle was supposed to keep them on even footing, but when they had sucked the flame dry and moved on to the wax, capacity mattered once more. The woman sniffed loudly and hid her smile behind the rim of her teacup, while Siobhan suppressed the urge to accuse her of cheating.

I could have won, too, if I’d resorted to dual-casting,’ she thought.

It was almost dark by the time she left, mentally charting out her route to the next safe place she would use to transform back into Sebastien.

In the time she had been inside with Liza, clouds had rolled over the sky, filtering out the light of the sunset into something bruise-purple and dramatic. Without fanfare, it began to rain once more. Sighing, Siobhan reached into her satchel to retrieve the plain black umbrella she had taken to carrying around with her lately. ‘One would think some weather thaumaturge is experimenting over Gilbratha with all this rain. Isn’t summer supposed to be dry? Maybe it’s because we’re so close to the coast.

But her umbrella wasn’t there. Siobhan cursed as she realized that she had left it back at the dorms on Friday. The rain quickly swelled from a light drizzle to fat, heavy droplets of warm water, as if the sky were weeping. Around her, people began to hurry, those without umbrellas using their bags, clothes, or a convenient newspaper as shield against the sorrow of the heavens. And, as always seemed to happen in times like these, there wasn’t a carriage for hire to be seen.

I need to find shelter or some way to keep dry. The rain might damage my disguise.’ She slipped one hand into her satchel as her mind spun over various options. ‘Grubb’s barrier spell would make a perfect umbrella. And it’s one of the options in my spell rod. But would casting that possibly draw more attention to me in this part of town?’ She was at least a kilometer north of the Mires, but not surrounded by so many rich or powerful people that having a water-repelling artifact or casting a spell for such a minor inconvenience would be seen as normal.

Her neck tingled uncomfortably, and Siobhan realized that she had begun walking faster without realizing it. She slowed her steps, searching for a glass window in which she could search behind herself as she wondered at the cause of her unease. ‘Did I subconsciously notice something off without realizing it?

She turned all of her attention toward observation, her fingers curling around her spell rod and drawing it from her satchel.

A couple dozen meters down the street, the rain began to fall even more heavily, creating a stark delineation. She tracked the path of this increased rainfall, and as her head swiveled, she saw that there was a similar phenomenon on the street behind her. She found the correct segment of her spell rod and twisted it open, then immediately cast Grubb’s barrier spell, distanced from the top edge by about a foot, as she had built into the spell array when she created it.

As the dome of force appeared, she held up the spell rod like an umbrella and used the shield she had created to peer up and around, trying to make out if the rain was falling heavier around her in a huge Circle as the tingling horror along her arms and the back of her skull suggested.

While the barrier spell might draw attention to her, it might also provide some small measure of protection against an attack with physical properties.

There was a change in the feel of the air, a shift in the muffled sounds of the city past the rain, and an intangible sense of isolation.

The air, which had smelled clear, sharp, and a little salty, took on the smell of something Sebastien couldn’t identify but which raised goosebumps along her skin.

Sebastien took a sharp turn to the right, heading down the sidewalk of a major cross-street. Her eyes swept around, examining everyone nearby for suspicious behavior. She tried to keep her face impassive and her pace only as hurried as the other pedestrians who wanted to get out of the rain.

I have to assume whatever this is, it is targeting me. But who is behind it?’ Unfortunately, Siobhan had too many potential enemies to narrow them down. ‘How did they find me? Did they follow me from Liza’s? Is it possible that she sold me out?

The barrier of heavier rain was following her.

Siobhan’s eyes trailed along the rooftops. Although she found no one there, her cheeks paled as she noticed an oddity in the windows of all the buildings. Normally, those without glass, wax paper, or some other protection against the rain would have been shuttered tight. But they were all open.

And behind them, people were peeking out, their faces obscured by rain, curtains, or shadows. ‘They’re all watching me.

Siobhan’s breath hitched, and she forced it to smooth. ‘How is that possible? What is happening?

An idea sparked in her mind, followed by a sudden rush of hope. She lifted her free left hand and pinched her nostrils closed, closed her mouth, and then attempted to breath in through her nose. It was a little trick that she’d read in a book but never found use for before, because the faint remnants of her dreams that occasionally slipped through her dreamless sleep spell weren’t so normal or coherent as to allow her to become lucid while asleep. But she knew that, in a dream, attempting this would have her breathe through her closed nose, a clear indication that what was happening was not real.

She got no air, even though she strained hard enough to wrench something inside her chest. ‘This is real.

Siobhan lamented her lack of foresight. Despite all of the preparations she had made, she hadn’t replaced her sympathetically connected bracelets with anything else, partially because she felt she could no longer trust Oliver or Katerin and did not want to be on call for their own emergencies. ‘I don’t know what to do. Back to Liza’s? Get to one of my emergency stashes and flee the city?

Very quickly, the few people who remained outside were disappearing. Though normally Siobhan would assume they were just hurrying to get out of the rain, the way some people were literally turning around and walking away from her, regardless of the direction they had been going before, worried her. It was as if there was some kind of repulsive force not only keeping out the absolute deluge of rain the rest of the city was experiencing but also urging others to leave this strange Circle.

What worried her even more was that, somehow, she couldn’t see the faces of the people around her. Whether they were covered by umbrellas, arms raised to hold some more makeshift barrier overhead, or they just ducked away or turned their heads at the perfect time to avoid her glance, she could never make out their features.

People were still watching through the windows. They, too, were serendipitously faceless.

Siobhan had the creeping feeling that if she were to stomp up toward one of the windows and stare unblinking, when the coincidences keeping her from seeing them clearly ran out, they would be truly featureless, a smooth span of flesh in the shape of a head. ‘If I grabbed one of these pedestrians and swung them around to look at me, what would I see?

Siobhan had read and heard enough horror stories to know better than to attempt such a thing.

As abruptly as possible, she pivoted into an alley to the right and flicked the switch on her dowsing artifact. When she hit the next street, she turned right again, going back in the general direction she’d come from. It was a bold decision, and she kept a sharp eye on the edge of the heavy rain as she hurried back the way she’d come. Was it her imagination, or had the Circle lagged behind for a couple of seconds after her abrupt change in direction?

She was suddenly alone, as if she had blinked and everyone else had disappeared. The pedestrians that had been walking along the sidewalk were all gone. There were carriages at the end of the street, but even as she watched they disappeared through the boundary of rain.

Clamping down on a rush of terror, Siobhan sprinted forward and around another corner. She was not fleeing mindlessly, but hoping against hope that she could outpace the spell, or at least the spellcaster. Rain pooling between the cobblestones splashed out with every footstep, and she was grateful not to be wearing a dress whose skirts would get soggy and heavy.

That was when the streetlamps began to go out.

As soon as the barrier of rain in front of her passed the light, it died, flickering out even as it passed into the Circle. Only those that had been inside with her before the effect started remained lit. This happened twice more before Siobhan realized that if this continued, she would eventually be plunged into darkness. And she was showing no signs of being able to outrun the Circle of relatively lighter rain.

With only one streetlamp remaining, Siobhan skidded to a stop near the metal pole. She pressed herself to the side of the building nearest it, not so close to the light that she would blind herself to any attacks from the darkness. ‘What kind of spell does something like this?’ she wondered. ‘If I had to guess, it seems most likely to be some kind of mind-affecting curse that’s controlling my perceptions. Either that…or something like what the old man did at Knave Knoll. This is all too big, too crazy, to be a standard spell actually affecting reality. And I’m pretty sure they don’t have any pieces of me to work with, nor have I done something that would be an obvious method to anchor binding magic.

Siobhan took a deep breath and yelled out, “A spell like this comes from one of three sources. You are an Architect of Khronos, an agent of the Red Guard, or a Pendragon operative. Come out and face me!”

Her words were swallowed up by the seething choir of a million raindrops, and the crystal of the streetlamp began to flicker weakly.

We are nearing the end of this book. That’s the good news, because there’s fun stuff ahead. 🙂

The bad news: Based on my lack of sufficient backlog, I’m going to have to take a bit of a hiatus on the weekly chapters after this book comes out so that I can produce some chapters for Book 5. I’m not sure how long yet; it’ll depend how fast I can get Book 5’s plotting finished. It’s hard to predict exactly because sometimes I get stuck and have to think my way through or around a problem.

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

 

Chapter 197 – A Life’s Work

Sebastien

Month 8 Day 9, Monday 5:15 p.m.

Sebastien’s eyes eagerly focused on the first page of Myrddin’s journal. His handwriting was a little messy, somewhat overly looping and decorative, but she could read it with a little extra effort.

The first page held a single paragraph. Some of the words were spelled strangely, and some of them were archaic choices that she’d never heard anyone actually use. These, she mentally translated into what she guessed were their contemporary counterparts to more easily parse the meaning.

I considered writing this in my native language, but it has been so long the movements feel strange under the tip of my pen, and my hand is clumsy with it. To think what it would be like to attempt with a quill! I find before me the endeavor of a lifetime, a goal truly worthy of all my efforts, and I can only lament that I wasted so much time on foolishness and self-indulgence. I will make penance for the consequences of my actions by fixing the wrongs I have caused, if it is the last thing I do. Please wait, and though I do not deserve it, please forgive me, as I can never forgive myself.

That was all it said.

When Sebastien turned the page, the paper briefly flashed with another two glyphs. She almost fumbled the switch in her Will’s focus, but though her heart jumped in trepidation, the contents of the journal remained clear.

Sebastien let out a tremulous breath of relief. The contents of the next page seemed completely disconnected from what she quickly realized must have been a preface.

That jackass Tarquin has come up with a viable method for self-charging artifacts.

I cannot hate him too much, as it seems likely that this will be a critical component of The Work, and he has unknowingly made my job easier.

But the concept will need improvement. And testing. Lots of testing.

I cannot make any more mistakes where it counts.

After that, the rest of the page and the one after contained complex calculations, some diagrams, and what seemed to be various spell array elements that were never quite combined into a whole. Myrddin had added notes and questions to himself, sometimes answering them and sometimes seeming to skip to some other only tangentially related idea.

This is the method to create self-charging artifacts like my transformation amulet,’ Sebastien thought, her chest filling with wonder and delight. That delight soon sank away. ‘But I cannot understand it at all.

She wasn’t sure if that was because Myrddin’s notes were nearly incomprehensible or if she simply didn’t know enough about artificery and whatever other underlying principles he was referencing. She had wanted to take that class and been forced to give up the idea, but even after two semesters of artificery, she doubted she would be able to figure out what Myrddin was talking about.

Reading while continuing to apply her Will in two different directions was difficult, and she couldn’t even begin to attempt to puzzle out anything confusing. She had only the barest shred of concentration left over. To be able to study anything from Myrddin’s journal, she would need to copy it out elsewhere by rote, then release her Will from the journal.

Every time Sebastien turned the page, two more glyphs flashed, and she had to quickly switch the focus of her Will. Even though she wasn’t channeling any power, keeping the book from descending into incomprehensibility again was surprisingly straining in a different way than unlocking it in the first place had been. After a few minutes she could already feel her mind growing tired. It was like holding one’s arms straight out to either side. It seemed like it should have been effortless, but soon enough even strong muscles would start to burn, tremble, and falter.

Sebastien moved faster, skimming over the pages instead of trying to read them in detail with her faltering attention.

Myrddin finished the development of the self-charging artifact’s concept, and over four pages after that, wrote down some truncated spell instructions and a full set of spell arrays. It was all still far beyond her, but at least somewhat more comprehensible than his notes had been.

The pages after that dealt with a second method to achieve the same thing, and just as she was turning the page of what seemed to be yet a third method to create self-charging artifacts, her Will slipped.

Sebastien drew back her concentration with a flinch, but there was no pain, confusion, or frayed thoughts. She hadn’t actually been casting, after all. With no energy being channeled, there was nothing to cause backlash.

She stared at the incomprehensible pages, then laughed, giddiness bubbling up and out of her throat like a living thing. She stood and paced back and forth wildly, unable to contain all of her energy in stillness. ‘I did it. I did it!’ she crowed internally.

And it turns out Myrddin actually wasn’t the initial inventor of the self-charging artifact, though he seems to have improved and expanded upon the initial concept quite a lot. I’m pretty sure that last method was using a beast core for energy, which is definitely a lost art,’ Sebastien thought, remembering a small footnote in a book she’d read about artificery.

Myrddin was also rumored to have developed artifacts that could be triggered with Will alone. Maybe this journal would explain how that worked, if she could get far enough into it. Maybe it would explain how he had made her transformation amulet. ‘Truly, wondrous knowledge lies between these pages,’ she thought, hugging the book to her chest like it was a beloved child. ‘It might not have the answer to creating purified celerium, but to me, other lost knowledge is just as valuable. And I am the only one with access.

It was easy to see how some thaumaturges grew so greedy with their spells and little inventions. There was something about being the only one to have a secret, to decide who might know and who would remain ignorant, that felt like being better than everyone else. It wasn’t true, of course, but she could see how one might get the two confused and be unable to give up on that perception out of pride or fear.

Once Sebastien had gotten over her fit of giddiness, she spent the rest of the evening trying to get back into the journal.

She had no success, and returned to the dorms barely in time to avoid missing curfew.

This repeated for the next three days, until on Friday, the newspapers reported on a confirmed sighting of the Raven Queen in Silva Erde.

The Architects of Khronos had used the raven-summoning spell in the middle of a large city, in the middle of the day. And that evening, they had cast a giant illusion on low hanging clouds. A woman cloaked in fluttering, tattered darkness walked through the firmament, appearing from the curve of one cloud and eventually disappearing behind another, returning to the darkness from whence she came.

I’m pretty sure they just cast a light spell up at the clouds and then used a moving silhouette to simulate the Raven Queen moving above,’ Sebastien deduced based on her own experience with how overblown the newspaper reports could be.

The papers were all speculating about why the Raven Queen had moved to Silva Erde, with many of them stating with confidence that she must have run from Lenore to escape the Thirteen Crowns’ power. Despite only a week having passed since Ennis’s escape from the labor camp, none of the reporters dared to jump to what must have been the obvious, enticing speculation about whether or not she had broken him free.

The coppers probably won’t let their guard down entirely, but I’m sure they’ll stop looking so hard. Maybe in a couple of months, I can get the Architects to fake another sighting and really solidify the idea that I’ve left.

Sebastien stopped by the library after Practical Casting to finish her homework, planning to go to her apartment again right after dinner.

But Ana skipped up beside her and announced, “We’re going to the Glasshopper! Damien’s treat, in exchange for losing the bet with me on Monday. Set aside whatever ridiculous study project you’re working on and come with us! Consider it active recovery.”

Sebastien hesitated, but the offer of free, delectable food, when compared against another evening of disappointment and frustration, was simply too good to pass up. With a surge of defiance, she agreed.

Talk among her friends was mostly focused around the end of month exams and magical exhibitions. Sebastien listened without contributing her own opinion, allowing her mind to relax and ride the gentle waves of conversation.

Rhett was the only one not with them, as he had a previously scheduled date with some upper-term duelist woman that he’d been struggling to get to pay attention to him all term.

As they approached the transport tubes, one of the faculty members across the white stone entrance area watched their group with a bit too much interest for Sebastien’s comfort.

Waverly peeked at the man from under her fringe of black hair, then moved to the other side so that Brinn and Damien would keep her out of sight. As the smallest of their group, the others made easy cover. “Hurry,” she muttered.

The transport tube guard, there to facilitate and coordinate transportation and shipments for the commoners without University tokens, narrowed his eyes suspiciously.

But Sebastien’s group was already traveling down before a frustrated, “Wait!” came from the faculty member. By then it was too late to stop them.

Waverly sagged with a relieved sigh, then pushed up her glasses and lifted her head to stare up at the man expressionlessly.

Brinn glanced between them. “Waverly?” he asked, the question clear in his voice.

She huffed. “I’m not actually allowed to leave University grounds right now. Too many demerits this semester.”

“I didn’t know you had that many. Is this because of that time you tried to sneak into the High Tower? I told you not to irritate Archmage Zard. You know no one but him and his apprentices are allowed in there.”

Waverly pursed her small, pink lips. “I heard he had a kelpie captured inside. Do you know how rare those are? If Archmage Zard would have just responded to my letter asking to visit, I wouldn’t have had to break in.”

“But you didn’t break in! You failed! You got caught, and it was enough to get you grounded. What happens if you get even more demerits from this?”

Sebastien had vaguely heard about this fracas earlier in the semester, but thankfully Waverly, unlike Ana, hadn’t tried to pull Sebastien into any of her schemes, and so had taken the punishment alone.

“That wasn’t what got her grounded,” Ana said softly, the smallest twitch of her lips hinting at amusement.

Waverly shot the taller girl a look of betrayal.

Brinn just stared down at his best friend silently, like some kind of sad, droopy tree.

“Fine!” Waverly cried, throwing her hands up. “I was also accused of colluding with the familiar of one of the professor’s aides in my witchcraft class. It slipped the terms of its bindings.”

Alec rubbed his chin gleefully. “Oh, yeah. His familiar torched all of his things, right? Including his Master’s thesis, all of his notes, and even some family heirlooms? That was you?”

“All well-deserved revenge,” Waverly huffed. “He was abusing her. And they didn’t even have any proof that I was involved.”

Brinn raised his eyebrows, then looked to Ana for the truth.

Waverly crossed her arms. “Just because she really liked me and came to visit me after she was free doesn’t mean I colluded with her!”

“That she came to visit during the disciplinary hearing, looking like a tiny fire version of you, and gave you some ashes from her former master’s belongings probably didn’t help,” Ana muttered dryly.

“Ashes born from revenge are a perfectly useful spell component,” Waverly snapped back.

“How did I not know about this?” Brinn asked. “We’re best friends, Waverly!”

“You were too busy playing with your trees and that herbology project! And I wouldn’t have to keep secrets if you weren’t such a nagging grandmother. You know that demerits don’t actually matter, right?”

Brinn opened and closed his mouth like a fish, his eyebrows falling from their hurt upward curve to a flat stare.

Waverly gulped. “I was just feeling lonely because you were ignoring me!” she tried. And before Brinn could respond, her childlike arm rose and pointed accusingly at Alec. “And Alec killed the tree you gave him! He drowned it.”

Damien gasped dramatically, then elbowed Sebastien in the side and flashed her a secretive grin. “Alec, how could you!?”

Alec looked around for sympathy. Finding none, he threw up his hands in exasperation. “I accidentally overwatered it! Don’t say I drowned it. That sounds like I murdered it or something. I was just trying to take good care of it, and then when it got sick, I tried giving it more water…and well, you know.”

“I gave you specific care instructions,” Brinn said flatly.

“It…looked thirsty?” Alec tried, cringing away. As soon as they reached the bottom of the tube, he rushed out into the open air and hurried to flag down a carriage. “Oh, it seems we have too many people to ride together. I’ll just take this one and go on ahead. See you guys at the Glasshopper!”

Sebastien and her four remaining friends squeezed into a second carriage.

Brinn looked at all of them. “The trees I gave you guys are still alive, right?”

“Of course,” Sebastien agreed immediately. Everyone else nodded with varying degrees of confidence.

“I should check up on them, just in case,” Brinn decided, totally distracted from Waverly’s indiscretions.

As they rode, Ana turned to Sebastien and spoke softly. “All the ventures I’ve taken on as the Gervin heir have been going well. Especially the one with Lord Dryden. I’m hoping to collaborate on a few more projects with him. But I thought you might be interested to know that I went ahead and invested in the research we talked about.”

Sebastien searched her memory for a conversation about research, but before she found it, Ana said, “The research that uses bini frogs and their hormonal sex changes.” She paused and added, “To allow two women to have a child together?”

“Oh. Well, that’s great.” Sebastien nodded encouragingly.

Ana smiled softly. “Yeah. If not for our conversation that day, I daresay my life would be a lot different right now. Thank you.”

“Maybe it wouldn’t have been exactly like this, but I believe you would have done something about your uncles even without me.”

“Maybe hired an assassin!” Ana joked.

Their meal at the Glasshopper was as sublime as the only other time Sebastien had been there. This time, a group of air witches were playing a quartet of harps backed up by an oboe. The entrancing music shivered through the air and across her skin like a physical touch, while the meal exposed her to textures and flavors that would no doubt ruin her for ordinary food if she experienced such luxury too often.

As they all reached the limits of their stomach capacity and began to get sloppy on alcohol, Damien grew quiet and distracted, frowning into his bubbly, frothing drink, which had come in a tiny edible cauldron.

“Father is going to be sentenced soon,” Alec announced. “I really hope they put him in a labor camp. I heard sometimes people get out with just a huge fine and their Family name stripped from them. Can you imagine how he would be?” He shuddered.

“He killed a prostitute. They found some pretty good evidence. You always do time for murder,” Ana said. She paused to hiccup, then continued, “And more importantly, my father wouldn’t let him stay free to stab him in the back out of some misdirected revenge.”

Damien swirled his drink, letting false smoke spill over the side and down his hands. “My father has been away for months, and it’s been wonderful. I wish he oversaw army training exercises all the time.”

Ana swayed in her seat, frowning in confusion as she popped a glowing candy the size of a grape into her mouth. It exploded audibly, and she sneezed out gold and red sparks. “I thought Lord Westbay was training the private security for some new research facility. You know, after what happened with that terrorist attack. Maybe it was just a rumor.”

“Well, maybe it’s true. Not like Father would bother to tell me anything,” Damien said sardonically. “Even Titus has been too busy to have me home for the weekend for weeks now.”

Ana rounded on Damien, accidentally twisted too far, and Sebastien had to catch her to keep her from tipping her chair over backward.

“Thank you,” Ana said, patting Sebastien’s arm like someone would praise a dog. “Damien! Titus is putting too much responsibility on you. I know you’re excited about your Harrow Hill internship this fall, but it hasn’t even started and just the practice p-project is driving you to distraction. You shouldn’t have to develop new filing methods all by yourself, don’t you think? Hire an expert, I say. You’re not a clerk. And isn’t it so sad that you haven’t even seen your brother in weeks? Why is he too busy to make time for you?” She sniffed loudly, her lower lip pouting out.

Brinn gave everyone a pacifying smile. “I’m sure Titus has been very busy, what with the Raven Queen and those Architects of Khronos people on top of everything else.”

“Do you think Nat’s sad, too?” Ana asked softly. “She’s probably lonely and too thoughtful to say anything, don’t you think?”

As if he hadn’t heard her, Damien nodded at Brinn. “Oh, it’s not even just that. Well, maybe the Raven Queen or the Architects are behind it, but people have been disappearing from among the commoners. Investigating the disappearances is drawing the coppers thin, and the High Crown doesn’t want to approve any budget increases because he says their performance is too poor, but really, what are they supposed to do?”

Sebastien frowned. “I didn’t know about the disappearances. Let me guess. They’re happening among the poor people? Maybe the homeless?”

“Of course.” Damien glowered into his drink. “One of the new captains discovered what seems to be systematic and escalating numbers of disappearances.”

“Blood magic or serial killer?” Waverly asked.

“Hopefully the latter,” Ana said, enunciating carefully to keep from slurring. When Brinn frowned at her judgmentally, she added, “I mean, hopefully neither, obviously. But if I had to pick one, a serial killer, human trafficker, or anything like that is way less dangerous than a blood magic user doing something horrid with all of those lives. An Aberrant endangers everybody.”

Damien and Sebastien shared a look, but they didn’t argue.

Soon after, they left the Glasshopper. It had rained while they were eating, and the warm light of the streetlamps reflected beautifully off the shallow puddles and rain-slicked cobblestones. It was the wettest summer in Siobhan’s memory, seeming to rain almost every other evening.

Before they could hail a carriage, a boy on the street corner called out, “Extra, extra! Breaking news. Red Guard fight against a rogue magic user in the streets!”

Damien took a sharp breath and seemed to partially shake off his inebriation in the few seconds it took him to reach the paper boy and buy the single leaflet of breaking news. Sebastien moved over, both of them standing beneath the streetlamp as she read over his shoulder. The “extra” didn’t actually say much of substance.

A Red Guard team had fought a running battle with a man just a few blocks east of Waterside Market earlier that evening. Some impressive spells had been tossed back and forth, but nothing like what the old Red Guard defector had cast at Knave Knoll. Several people had been injured, a jentil had died, and one person’s house had collapsed when an entire wall got blown out.

“Maybe it was the kidnapper,” Ana said, still swaying on her feet. “Trying to do blood magic.”

“Or one of the Architects,” Brinn added.

“Or one of the Raven Queen’s acolytes?” Alec said. “Just because she’s in Silva Erde doesn’t mean all of her allies have left.”

Sebastien considered several possibilities. All of them were worrying at some level. In the end, instead of escorting her friends back to the dorms herself, she stuffed them all into a carriage and paid the driver extra to ensure that they arrived safely at their destination.

Damien tried to protest, any soberness that he’d felt from his adrenaline spike clearly wearing out as his last drink of the evening hit his bloodstream.

Fortunately, Sebastien had a ready-made excuse. “There isn’t enough room. Besides, I want to pick up a few things while I’m out. I’ll be there before curfew.” Technically, on weekend nights the curfew only precluded students from wandering University grounds and buildings, and didn’t require they actually stay in the dorms. Higher-term students had even fewer restrictions.

“You can’t pay for the carriage,” he tried to tell her, quite serious but slurring. “You don’t have any money. I know all about it. Wait, no, it’s me that doesn’t have any money.” He pressed a hand to his chest, smiling sloppily. “We’re poor together, now.”

“I’m rich,” she assured him, then shoved him firmly back into his seat and shut the carriage door. As soon as the carriage was out of sight, she hurried to the lock box to check for a response from Professor Lacer. ‘I’ll swing by the apartment just to make sure it wasn’t Liza or one of Gera’s people who got taken by the Red Guard, too,’ she planned.

To her delight, there was a letter waiting for her, but when she picked it up, the smile slid from her face. There were two letters. One envelope was blank and expensive looking, as she had been expecting. The other was of much cheaper paper and had been signed with a crude drawing of a raven feather.

Sebastien ran her finger over the drawing. ‘Something from Tanya?’ she guessed. Sebastien had used a similar drawing in place of a more traditional signature a couple of times when leaving notes for the young woman in her dorm. Her suspicion mounting, she hurried to find a dark alley where she would be shielded from the sight of anyone passing by, then used her thirteen-pointed star light coaster to illuminate the paper as she opened the letter.

The message within was quite simple.

My lady, I am leaving this message for you on Friday the 13th.

Sebastien looked around again suspiciously. Tanya must have dropped it off some time earlier that day. Reassured that no one was watching her, Sebastien continued reading.

I am not sure if you will find it important, but I have overheard some loose talk by the Architects of Khronos. I suspect they are planning to kidnap a group of people from Osham, and have in fact already sent a strike team. From what I overheard, and my own speculation, this seems…big. I do not know the purpose of this assault, nor where these people may be kept, but I find the timing suspicious. It seems unlikely that they would attempt to pin such an act on you, but you are known to be traveling, and I thought you might like to know, just in case.

I hope you get this letter soon.

I will attempt to find out more if you instruct me to do so.

Loyally yours,

TC

Sebastien gave a deep sigh, tilting her head up to look at the night sky. ‘This…might be important. I think perhaps I should talk to Oliver. He’s from Osham, after all.

Chapter 196 – Ashes of the Phoenix

Siobhan

Month 7 Day 15, Thursday 12:15 a.m.

Siobhan turned the pages of Myrddin: An Investigative Chronicle of the Legend until she found a section that drew her attention.

Somewhat famously, Myrddin was said to have been given a quest by a dragon that required him to turn clay to flesh.

Siobhan had seen Professor Lacer actually do this in class, with a turtle. Of course, Professor Lacer wasn’t rumored to have created sentience, nor true life out of clay.

But if Myrddin had done something similar, it was easy to see where such exaggerated rumors came from. It was even possible that a dragon really had tried to give him an impossible task out of mischievousness or vindictiveness.

The author of this book agreed, and also tied the rumor to Carnagore, the metal horse who had seemed so lifelike. Myrddin was known to have killed at least two dragons single-handedly, and the rumors had probably spread from the latter event, when he carried the beast’s corpse back to the nearest village with him and single-handedly revived their economy with the butchering and sale of dragon parts.

The linked stories in Enough Yarn to Last the Night: A Collection of Myths from the Life of a Man with Many Names were as fanciful as one might have expected. In one, a golem formed from mud learned to be a real person after following Myrddin around for a while. In another, Myrddin built a sandcastle, which turned into a miniature city that ants took over and ruled for several generations of mythically heroic struggle and betrayal.

Even more famous than the tales of turning clay to flesh were the stories about Myrddin having used phoenix ashes to resurrect his recently deceased lover, though in some stories it was instead his son. There were six different connected stories in the book of illustrated children’s tales, and the investigative history book explained that historians believed these tales, greatly exaggerated, led to the overhunting of phoenixes and their subsequent endangerment.

Phoenixes, never that prolific, were now on the brink of extinction, and the use of any components from them was illegal. And they could, in fact, be used to save the life of someone who had died within the last three minutes, under the Will of a Grandmaster and with at least seventy percent of the deceased person’s body parts, which must include their heart and their brain.

But the phoenix had to have died within the last three days for the magic of their components to remain active, and they were notoriously difficult to contain, and beyond that, difficult to keep alive in captivity.

No one’s life had actually been saved in exchange for that of a phoenix for the last four hundred years. At least not openly.

Of all the myths she’d read, these seemed the most firmly based on plausibly real events.

Siobhan flipped the page to the next story. In this one, Myrddin went into the Forest of Nod again. He was searching for something important, which the story didn’t specify. Rather than finding whatever he was looking for, he stumbled into a Circle made of mushrooms and river pebbles—a doorway to the hidden land of the fey.

He spent seven months in their realm, dancing their dances, eating their food, and wooing their women, all while he kept a watchful eye on every piece of magic, learning it in secret.

In the end, they revealed their nefarious intent. He would remain forever in their realm unless he married the sickly fey princess and tied his life-force to hers. Having partaken of their hospitality, he had no right to refuse and leave freely. But using the magic he had stolen from them, Myrddin turned the tables, stole the sickly fey princess, and escaped.

He exited seventy years younger than he had entered, because time passes differently in the realm of the fey, and he had been living backward inside of it.

Siobhan frowned, noting this second reference to the man moving backward through time. ‘Do these stories stem from him being so incredibly long-lived? Even most Archmages only average one hundred forty years, with the oldest of them getting to one hundred seventy, or in a couple of cases, two hundred years old. But Myrddin was recorded as living at least three hundred years, even in the respected historical texts. How much time did he spend casting, to make that possible?

She blinked up at the illustration in the book, then let it fall to her chest as her arms grew tired from holding it above her. ‘Myrddin could most likely split his Will, right? Is it possible…that he just spent all of his waking hours casting something, while the other half of his Will took the burden of going about daily life?

She sat up. ‘Could I do that?

Rolling around on the ground while reading had freed her warding medallion and transformation amulet. Siobhan moved automatically to tuck them back under her shirt, but froze with the black stone of the transformation amulet in her hand.

But what if Myrddin didn’t really live that long? What if it just seems that way…because of something like this amulet? If this works to give the same body to anyone who uses it, then Sebastien Siverling could actually be two or more people if there were duplicate amulets, or if I gave it to someone else.’ The idea exploded inside of her mind like a fireball. ‘Myrddin doesn’t have to be one person. It could have been a group of powerful thaumaturges working together, or even a family passing down the legacy from generation to generation.

She snapped Enough Yarn to Last the Night shut, turning back to An Investigative Chronicle. She skimmed every page, looking for any mention of fair-skinned, fair-haired men in Myrddin’s history. A few hours took her all the way through the book but didn’t lead to anything conclusive. Myrddin had had dozens of friends and companions throughout his very long life, many of whom had died. But the author wasn’t prone to overly describing people’s appearances. Myrddin himself was never known for particular paleness, and several drawings and paintings of him had been made. They were of poor quality and exactness compared to the artistic accomplishments of modern painters, but he had brown or black hair, and his nose was not nearly as long or sharp as hers.

‘I suppose it’s possible that a group of Myrddins might have used an amulet with a different appearance. And…it’s also possible that Myrddin was a genuine person, that was his real identity, and he created this amulet so that he could sneak around without being noticed. He was rather famous, after all, and in his later years grew quite reclusive. A body like this, so obviously not Myrddin, would have made it easy for him to pop by the market or travel.

That seemed more likely. After all, Myrddin was undeniably one of the most powerful, intelligent thaumaturges of multiple generations. Even if his inventions could have been the work of a group, how could they have created one thaumaturge more powerful than the next, until it reached the point of absurdity? Certain feats of magic couldn’t be falsified.

Siobhan checked on the sleeping raven, running another diagnostic spell. The creature seemed completely fine. It wasn’t twitching with dreams, nor did it show any signs of elevated stress levels, except for extreme fatigue. Unlike the normal short sleep patterns of birds, it had gone into a deep sleep almost immediately and stayed there.

Even though hours had passed, she was feeling just as refreshed as ever.

And her Will had recovered, too.

Realizing it would be a good idea to test Will-splitting while connected to the raven in a controlled environment, just in case, Siobhan attempted it. When the raven didn’t react, she continued, and ended up spending the rest of the night practicing without ever feeling weary.

When she left in the morning, with plenty of time to spare before Thursday’s classes started, the raven was still sleeping deeply, perfectly fine.

Sebastien stopped at the lock box on the way back to the University and was surprised to find a letter from Professor Lacer. After the last time, she had been prepared to wait for a long while again. He must have replied to her almost right away for the letter to already be waiting.

To make sure she had time to read it, she bought a few freshly baked rolls stuffed with beans and vegetables on the side of the road and ate them on the way back. Then she scurried into the Menagerie, as if she was going to do a morning light-refinement session, but instead opened Professor Lacer’s letter.

I am not surprised at your goals or interests. Anything less would leave me disappointed.

I take your point. I am certain I could share information of similar risk and perhaps even greater importance, but like you, I do not feel comfortable doing so over letter with someone I am not fully sure I can trust. Perhaps one day we will each prove ourselves to the other.

My curiosity will not waver, but I do not need the answers spoon-fed to me.

You have the skill we need, and after some discussion with Grandmaster Kiernan, I believe we can offer you appropriate compensation and enticement to apply it. The man is wary of you, of course, but even more so, he is motivated to decrypt these books through any means possible. The High Crown has been applying increasing pressure on the University to give up the texts so that he may attempt decryption with his own experts. I do not believe you need worry that Grandmaster Kiernan will betray you.

Additionally, should you agree to lend your efforts to this endeavor, I will speak favorably of you to my colleagues in the Red Guard.

They are, indeed, interested in you, but they do not carry the High Crown’s grudge. He cannot command us, no matter what he likes to think. The Red Guard exists to handle very specific types of threats, and unless I am very mistaken, you are not one of them.

Please refrain from proving my testimony wrong with some attempt to do a blood Sacrifice of everyone in Gilbratha, or anything similarly dangerous and ostentatious.

In addition to that, we can provide a safe meeting location for our collaboration. I will be involved in its setup and shielding and can assure you of its quality.

And as a third step toward ensuring your comfort and safety, Grandmaster Kiernan has volunteered to hire a covert team who will go to Silva Erde to spread false information that you have been sighted there.

Sebastien lowered the letter, which fluttered slightly in the summer breeze. Late-blooming flowers were beginning to wilt from some of the trees, and petals danced through the air, carrying a faint scent of sweetness and heat. Sebastien waved away a bee from her sweaty forehead and reread the last offer.

That covert team is definitely just some minions from the Architects of Khronos. But pretending that I’ve left the country, and backing that with evidence, is actually a wonderful idea. Much better than simply lying low and hoping my enemies will give up. I should give them the raven-summoning spell so that they can do something flashy.

The letter continued.

As you also value knowledge, I would guess that you may be interested in Myrddin’s remaining journals. Obviously, you will have access to the three we hold during the decryption and study process.

To sweeten the deal, I can provide you access to the University’s library and restricted archives, without limit, via a University token spoofed to mimic Archmage Zard’s. He has full authority to come and go as he wishes, without the wards sending notice or alarms to anyone on the security committee. It should go without saying that I would expect you to be discreet with its use and do nothing that would implicate me. I believe I will be able to manage this fraud within the next couple of weeks, but due to the risks involved, will only move forward if you agree.

Altogether, I hope Grandmaster Kiernan and I have offered sufficient enticement to collaborate. If you agree, we will begin preparations immediately.

P.S. — I hope that you are able to place the lock back upon the books when we are not using them?

Sebastien swallowed hard and, after checking to make sure she was unseen, burnt this letter just as she had all the rest.

Professor Lacer’s offer was emphatically attractive. Even if she hadn’t trusted him, with such enticing offers she would have had to accept anyway. The only reason to turn down his proposal would be if she really couldn’t overcome Myrddin’s lock and thought that they might turn on her with twice as much enmity as they had allied with her if they were to discover it.

It began to rain, and Sebastien hurried to Professor Ilma’s class while mentally composing her response. She would send it that very evening.

I agree to your terms. You may begin preparations.

I will not join you until you have fulfilled your promises. I am currently working on a venture of my own, which I must complete before I turn my efforts elsewhere, but I believe I will be free to help by the time you have completed your side of the bargain. If not, there may be some delay.

I have attached instructions for a spell that you might find useful in creating a false sighting of the Raven Queen. Please do not abuse it.

It wasn’t like someone else couldn’t come up with such a spell on their own, but she would find it somewhat disconcerting if clouds of ravens started appearing willy-nilly, with nothing to do with her. It was uncomfortable to realize that she couldn’t really stop anyone from using the reputation of the Raven Queen for their own benefit.

Sebastien considered Professor Lacer’s postscript question but left it unanswered, because she had no idea.

She sat through History of Magic in a daze, only snapping out of it when the bell rang to signify the end of class. Instead of rushing out with the other students, she shuffled up to Professor Ilma. When the blue-skinned woman looked at her inquisitively, Sebastien said, “I’ve been reading the books on Myrddin that you lent me. I was wondering, do you have any theories on why he might have disappeared for most of the last few decades of his life? What was he working on? Did he have any notable or powerful friends or acquaintances? And these notes written in the margins. Can you tell me more about the connections?”

Ilma shook her head. “I have read both of the books I lent you, but those notes were not written by me. My mentor was quite interested in Myrddin, but he passed away long ago and unavailable to answer your questions.”

“Oh,” Sebastien said. She had just assumed that the handwriting within was Ilma’s.

“If you have read both books, I can recommend more resources from the library that would cater to such speculation. But to be honest, too much about Myrddin’s life is lost to stories. Even the things that should be clearly recorded are tainted with theatrics. It is sure that Myrddin was an ambitious, powerful genius, and that he knew this about himself. I suspect that he died alone, a lonely, bitter old man, and that the world can only be thankful he did not become an Aberrant. Dozens, if not hundreds, of historians have asked similar questions and wildly chased any perceived remnants of his footsteps in an attempt to find his lost legacy, but until recently, all for naught.”

Ilma patted Sebastien on the shoulder. “Perhaps when my colleagues in the History department finally decrypt his journals, we will learn more about the truth of his life, particularly his last years.”

Sebastien thanked her and left, disappointed.

That night, she was reminded of her complete lack of need to sleep. She spent almost the whole evening in several sessions of Will-splitting practice interspersed with glyph memorization and organizing the important information from newspaper articles on rogue magic incidents that had garnered Red Guard response. In the end, she took only a ninety-minute nap before dawn, as they had discovered that getting even small amounts of rest could greatly increase the time that the sleeping raven lasted, and she did not want to kill it.

In the morning, she was still refreshed, and a session of light-refinement to greet the dawn filled her with any energy she lacked.

Despite how wonderful freedom from sleep was, and how truly sublime it continued to be as the days passed, Sebastien still couldn’t release the sense of dread that hounded her every footstep.

During class Sebastien sometimes became distracted with daydreams about the Red Guard bursting in through the classroom windows to arrest her, or going to sleep during the few times the sleep-proxy spell wasn’t active and never waking again, or even worse, going to sleep and finding herself trapped inside the memories she had forgotten.

This looming sense of doom was even more constant than the summer rains and drove her to study and practice incessantly, and with the combination of the sleep-proxy and light-refinement spells, she was able to recover from exertion like never before while putting in even more hours of effort. On the weekends, she stopped by Liza’s to switch to a different raven before the strain became too much for the previous one.

Soon, Tanya would have the first returns from the secret thaumaturge meeting, though she doubted whatever the young woman brought would be anything compared to the hoard of knowledge held in the University archives.

And then, a month before the end of term exams, Ennis Naught escaped from the labor camp he was assigned to, cutting his one-hundred-year sentence down to less than one.

Sebastien expected a furor to follow, revitalizing the flagging interest in the Raven Queen, but the news was only reported by one newspaper, one time, and none of the others picked it up. Only The People’s Voice, which didn’t really count, and was again treading on dangerous ground as some of the quotations from anonymous commentators edged on doubting the capability of the Crowns’ justice.

The lack of news coverage showed her more clearly than anything how tight a grip the Crowns had on information. The Rouse Family, bearer of the Twelfth Crown, owned the newspapers either directly or in essence, along with the larger entertainment halls, opera houses, and brothels.

Sebastien was less concerned by the news about Ennis than she expected herself to be. But in a way, it made sense. She had disowned him. Ennis No-Name had no connection to her. And when he died, his remains would not be buried with the family.

She was sure he wouldn’t come looking for her. His sense of self-preservation was too great, and his concern for her had always been too little.

The next day, as a precaution to ensure students wouldn’t have any issues when pushing their Wills to the limits, Professor Burberry held another in-class session of the Henrik-Thompson tests.

“You should switch the scale to Apprentice level, or maybe Journeyman?” Sebastien suggested when it was her turn. “Otherwise the light may be too bright.”

While Professor Burberry checked her previous records for Sebastien’s initial results from the first term and raised a skeptical eye, some of the other students whispered or sent her dirty looks. But Burberry complied without comment.

Sebastien palmed the Conduit Professor Lacer had given her, along with the beast core Professor Burberry provided, and began to channel energy through the Henrik-Thompson device.

The glow quickly grew to a glaringly bright white, and Sebastien closed her eyes to reduce the irritation as she pushed at her limits. She stopped before she got so close to the edge of her ability that it felt dangerous, held there for a few seconds, and then released the magic.

The other students were silent.

Professor Burberry cleared her throat and quietly wrote down the results. “Six hundred eighteen thaums.”

Murmuring arose among the other students immediately, and even Damien gave Sebastien a look of surprise.

Burberry frowned down at the number, checked the testing artifact, and then turned suspiciously on Sebastien. “Were you deliberately underperforming on this test last term?”

Sebastien flinched in surprise. She was pretty sure she had, in fact, slightly underperformed, because she’d still had an underpowered Conduit at that time.

Before she could speak, Damien piped up. “Sebastien is just incredibly talented, and he practices all the time. Seriously. I find him practicing in the middle of the night, and he’s so busy with Professor Lacer’s special apprentice assignments that he isn’t even properly making time to spend with his friends.”

Ana rolled her eyes. “You barely make time to spend with your friends recently, either, but do you want to bet your Will hasn’t passed five hundred thaums?”

“Ten gold,” Damien muttered back out of the side of his mouth without ever taking his eyes off Burberry.

Professor Burberry ignored them, examining Sebastien with concern. “How many hours a day are you practicing?”

It wasn’t the first time someone had asked that question, but it was the first time that the answer was high enough that she couldn’t be truthful. “Maybe six or so,” Sebastien said. In truth, since the sleep-proxy spell had been working, that number was more like ten.

“Are you using glamours to hide the signs of fatigue?” Burberry asked, leaning in to peer at Sebastien’s face through her glasses. “No, it doesn’t seem so.” Burberry, whose surprisingly smooth, plump skin showed its own signs of magical cosmetics and glamours, should know.

Some quick mental math made it obvious why Burberry was acting so strange. Sebastien had started the University testing at just over two hundred thaums. And in less than two terms, she had tripled that.

To put it in perspective, the average student, casting for the first time on entering the University and practicing three hours per day for the next three terms, might get their Apprentice license at two hundred and sixty thaums. If they stayed five terms to get Journeyman certification with an extra two terms for a specific specialization, that same student would be at about six hundred fifty to seven hundred thaums.

This was the difference that dedication, effort, and variety could make to a person’s Will. But, doing the math, it still seemed like Sebastien was progressing slightly faster than she should have, if she was really averaging six hours per day for most of that time. Perhaps some days she had worked a little longer. ‘Or perhaps I’m secretly just that talented?’ she wondered, feeling a little smug.

Burberry pursed her lips. “Well, I suppose by your age Thaddeus Lacer was already at four or five thousand thaums.”

Sebastien’s smugness dropped away like a stone block slipping through her fingers.

“He chose his apprentice well. But child, you have plenty of time ahead of you. There’s no need to push yourself so hard. Remember to take a well-deserved break every now and again.” She turned to the other students. “In fact, I encourage all of you to take a break the day before your final exams so that your minds and Wills can tackle any obstacles while fresh. Cramming until the last second often results in worse performance.”

Burberry returned to the testing, and Damien also requested she set the artifact to the Apprentice scale. His light wasn’t as bright as Sebastien’s, and his results came out at three hundred seventy thaums, despite pushing himself until his cheeks trembled.

Ana held out her hand triumphantly for the gold.

Damien stared at her hand, opened and closed his mouth, and said, “I don’t have the gold on me. I’ll pay you later.”

Sebastien wondered whether Damien had gotten any more allowance since the beginning of the term and if, when he had made the bet, he had forgotten that he didn’t actually have ten gold. He spent the rest of the class time glowering silently at any student who dared to speak.

That evening, Sebastien retreated to her apartment under the cover of her trusty umbrella, despite the fact that it was a Monday. She had spent much of the weekend trying to open Myrddin’s journal, and she felt like she was on the razor’s edge of success.

Sebastien retrieved the ancient leather book from its hiding spot, took it out of the warded chest, and dual-cast a few simple spells to warm up her Will. All of this practice had been noticeably affecting the nimbleness of her Will, which was spilling into all of her other spellwork. Beyond that, the huge breadth of glyphs she now knew meant she could be so exact in her meaning that she’d also improved her efficiency.

As she began what was probably her three thousandth attempt to get past the journal’s test, Sebastien wasn’t even excited. She was still determined to succeed, but the uncooperative book had long ago thrashed any immediate hope out of her.

Instead of falling behind as the two glyphs appeared faster and faster, or stumbling when some obscure glyph that she couldn’t remember appeared, the glyphs stilled for the final time, and then sank into the leather surface.

Sebastien stared down at Myrddin’s journal, careful not to let her shock distract her from continuing to apply her Will on those two meanings, just in case. With trembling fingers, she opened the leather cover. The writing inside had resolved into clarity.

In a rush this evening, must drop chapter and run!