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Chapter 1 – Escape Via Unexpected Transmutation

Siobhan

Month 9, Day 28, Monday 1:00 a.m.

For once, Siobhan felt grateful that the average person was such an imbecile. The coppers were no exception, even in a big city like Gilbratha. Shivering in the dark, she took another peek out of the alley behind the inn, tugging down the hood of her ratty, stolen cloak. She had to be sure the ambush they’d set couldn’t snap shut around her. The coppers were positioned at both street corners, and she guessed they were waiting in the inn’s common room, and probably outside her door as well.

The coppers had the right idea, staking out the room her father had rented for them.

Siobhan would have preferred not to return to the inn, but she had no choice. Her belongings, including her grimoire, were there. She couldn’t afford to lose what little she had. Lucky for her, the coppers had apparently failed to consider the fact that she wasn’t a blazing idiot. She wouldn’t simply walk, oblivious, through the front door.

As far as Siobhan knew, the room was still undisturbed, probably because they’d noticed the rudimentary alarm ward she’d set on the doorframe. Tripping it would have alerted her to the manhunt’s progress and kept her from walking into their trap.

Either that or they’d subverted the ward and were waiting for her in the unlit room, the more obvious guards only serving as decoys, encouraging her to discard her vigilance.

Siobhan grimaced, looking up at the dark, many-paned window on the second floor. She would just have to be careful. ‘Climbing a building can’t be so hard, can it? It’s not as if I have a choice, after all.’ With a nervous breath and a very careful twisting of her thoughts away from the possibility of falling, she crossed the alley. Her hands reached for the wooden slats, and she began to climb, fitting fingers and the tips of her boots wherever she could.

The wood was faintly damp, and in more than a few places it had bred a slimy film. When she reached the second floor, her right hand slipped, but she managed not to cry out, despite breaking most of the nails on her left hand as she dug her fingers even harder into the crevasse. ‘And it took so much effort to grow those stupid nails,’ she thought wryly. ‘I guess I really never will fit into high society.’ She shuffled sideways till she reached the window of the room she’d left that morning, a time that now seemed a lifetime away, full of innocence and hope.

Bracing the toes of her boots between the wooden siding panels, she peeked in, moving her head slowly to avoid drawing notice. Her fingers trembled on the edge of the sill with the pressure she placed on them, and she was excruciatingly conscious of how close she was to falling backward. She saw no one within, no inky shadows that looked more suspicious than any other.

Siobhan had placed the alarm ward over the window as well, but that didn’t matter, unless they were very much cleverer than she was giving them credit for. If they were that clever, she would simply have to run, again.

No, the bigger problem was her lack of formal training or experience with breaking and entering. The latch was locked from the inside. She was sure there were spells that could reach through a barrier and undo a simple latch-lock. However, she didn’t know any of them.

That would have posed a problem, if not for the versatile nature of sorcery.

I can’t let something this trivial stop me,’ she thought, glaring at the wood-bordered glass panes. ‘I need my grimoire.’ She made sure her feet were stable, then released one hand’s death grip on the windowsill. Her cold, clumsy fingers fumbled in one of the pockets of the ratty jacket she wore under the even more ratty cloak. She pulled out a soft wax crayon and carefully drew a small Circle on the glass, completely enclosing one of the hand-sized panes. That was where the magic would take effect.

There could be no gaps in the Circle. Mistakes could be deadly.

Though she shook with the effort, Siobhan slowly drew a larger Circle around the first, dragging the crayon over the wooden divisions between the panes with careful precision. That was where she would write the Word, the instructions that would help guide the magic to the right purpose.

She drew a third, small Circle on the windowsill itself, then connected it to the outer Circle on the glass with a line. That was a component Circle, where she would place the Sacrifice, which would be consumed as she cast the spell. She wrote the glyph for “fire” within it, though she would sacrifice no actual fire. It was close enough to the idea of heat to work. More fumbles into her many pockets turned up a vial of honey, of which she tipped a sluggish drop into the component Circle on the windowsill. Next, a small, rolled-up ball of similar stickiness—spiderweb. She reached for a wad of cotton, but found she had none.

Biting back a curse, she reached again for the wax crayon and wrote the glyph for “silence” in the space between the two overlapping Circles on the glass. She didn’t know the glyph for “stillness,” but she did know “slow,” so that’s what she wrote. She squeezed in what further detailed instructions would fit, but it wasn’t much. Finally, Siobhan drew a pentagon within the inside Circle.

She made the mistake of looking at the ground below and had to swallow down her lurching stomach and steady her trembling legs. Magic required concentration. She couldn’t allow her circumstances to dull her wits if she wanted to succeed. ‘Grandfather didn’t teach me to be the type of sorcerer who has performance problems,’ she thought, sneering at her faint reflection in the glass. ‘He also didn’t teach me to make up spells out of desperation…’ This thought popped into her head unbidden, and she pushed it away. Untested spells were always dangerous. It was always safer to copy a spell you already knew to work, which, ideally, had been proven over generations of regular use, than to try something entirely new. If the magic rebelled and she lost control, she might die.

But she was desperate. ‘It’s a simple enough spell. Surely at least some sorcerers have done something similar before. And even if the magic turns wild, it only means I must control it all the more tenaciously.

She glared at the spell array she’d drawn and let her Will spill out into the world, activating the spell. The magic took hold of the windowpane, and she winced. The array was proving its inefficiency by letting off a glow. She focused harder, and the light dimmed, though not enough to be truly stealthy. Siobhan could only hope that no one was watching, because the glowing spell array would be obvious against the darkness.

After hurriedly wrapping her free hand in a fistful of cloak, she gave a sharp jab toward the glass. On the bright side, there was no loud shattering of glass. On the not-so-bright side, that wasn’t because her spell had successfully muffled the sound, but because the force of her blow had been too weak to break the window.

Siobhan drew back her fist and punched harder. This time, the windowpane broke. The sound of shattering glass was muffled, and the shards slowly floated down toward the grimy floor inside, like feathers.

Feathers, that would’ve been a good component. A couple might have eased the Will-drain. And maybe a pentagram would have been better than a pentagon. That spell was mostly transmogrification,’ she thought, releasing the mental effort that kept the spell going. Where the component Circle had been, both the honey and the blob of spiderweb were gone. The whole spherical area within had frozen so solid she knew it would burn her skin and break away from the wall if touched. The air became visible as it passed over the spot, little particles of water turning to ice in an instant.

She’d used up all the heat. Such inefficient spellwork was embarrassing, and a little frightening, because if the spell had run out of fuel she could be dead. Still, it was the best she could do in that moment, and it had worked.

Siobhan reached through the newly created opening, and with a simple flick of her finger, opened the latch. It creaked. She froze, waiting for a response. None came, except for a sudden chill from the pebble tucked into the lip of her boot as her ward alerted her of the intrusion. Gingerly, she pulled open the window, leaning back in a way that made her sick to her stomach to allow it to swing outward. She climbed into the room, careful not to set her booted foot down on the shards of glass below.

An effort of memory brought to her mind’s eye the state of the room as she and her father had left it, and a look around confirmed that nothing seemed to have changed. She hurried to gather her things, and only remembered at the last moment that one floorboard creaked when stepped on, just in time to avoid it.

She grabbed her small pack, which contained her grimoire, a little box of spell components, and her spare Conduit, as well as her extra, more worn set of clothes—the ones she hadn’t wanted to wear to the University—and hairbrush, which was free of any hair of course, as Grandfather had taught her.

She gathered up her father’s things next. What was light enough to carry, anyway. Finally, she did a quick sweep of the inn’s lumpy straw beds for stray hairs or other pieces of themselves they may have left behind, a well-practiced spell burning anything relevant to smokeless ash.

As she was finishing, the telltale footsteps of a copper sounded from the stairs below, the copper hobnails in the soles of their boots clicking against the wood.

Siobhan made sure her packs were tightened securely to her body and returned to the window. A piece of glass, invisible in the shadows, cracked under her boot. She froze.

Outside the door, someone’s weight shifted, boots shuffling over the wooden floor.

She scrambled to crawl back through the window, made awkward by her load. To her relief, the door didn’t burst open, as she would surely have been caught halfway through maneuvering back outside.

“Investigator,” two men greeted, the nervousness of those who knew they had not been quite as vigilant in their task as might be desired apparent in their voices.

“Anything to report?” a third man’s voice replied perfunctorily, the scratch of a sore throat roughening the sound.

“No, Investigator,” came the jointly spoken reply.

The man let out a wet cough. “We’ve got the wardbreaker here. Occupants are listed as one Ennis Naught and his daughter, with no proof of a license for thaumaturgy, so we’re good to ward-break.” After a pause, he added in a low grumble, “Six hours later.”

One of the guards let out a nervous laugh as Siobhan leaned back and closed the window. She reached through the opening she’d created and re-latched the lock, then stared at the broken windowpane in dawning horror.

“Planes-damned Crown bureaucracy,” the guard said with an awkward laugh. “Always making our jobs harder, am I right?”

The investigator didn’t reply, but there was more nervous shuffling, and then another set of footsteps and the dry sound of chalk scraping against the other side of the door.

Siobhan held back a stream of invective as she shuffled along the wall, trying not to let the packs drag her over backward. ‘I hope you find your hide burned by a fire demon from one of the greater hells, Father,’ she thought. ‘How dare you put me in this position, you criminally irresponsible, thieving, sorry excuse for a caretaker. If Grandfather were still here, I would never be reduced to climbing down the side of some flea-ridden inn to escape from the coppers. Grandfather would never have used me as a decoy to evade capture for his own feckless crimes!

Distracted by her own mental tirade, one foot placed slightly wrong was all it took for the packs on her back and the immutable force of gravity to undermine her hold on the wall. Siobhan fell backward.

She suppressed a scream, experiencing a moment of terror before landing on the mucky cobblestone of the alley below. The impact knocked the breath from her lungs with an audible “oomph!”

The packs, filled mostly with cloth, had cushioned her fall. She arched her back and pulled at the air, her hands scrabbling at nothing as her mouth gaped like a fish. ‘Oh, I’ve killed myself,’ she wailed mentally. ‘What an ignominious end, dashed upon the ground…’ The tiniest bit of breath filtered into her lungs, and that led the way for more. Once she was sure that her back hadn’t snapped like an incense stick from the fall, she sat up and stumbled to her feet, only to freeze as a light shone from the window above.

They must have broken the ward on the door, since it hadn’t alerted her to the intrusion.

A quick mental argument about whether it was more stealthy to press herself against the side of the building to be more difficult to spot, or to remain frozen to avoid drawing eyeballs to suspicious movement in the darkness, yielded no good answer. She was left no time to think of a better option, because one of the people above hurried directly to the window and looked out.

When they shone a beam of light out into the alley where she stood, all thoughts of stealth vanished and Siobhan bolted.

Shouts followed her, and as she skidded around the corner into the street, the copper at the end of the block saw her and gave chase.

Instead of cursing, Siobhan saved her breath for escaping.

“Halt!” the copper yelled.

She ignored him, darting around the nearest corner and sprinting blindly down the alley. This part of the city had only the rare crystal streetlamp illuminating the darkness, which worked both for and against her.

The copper’s clacking footsteps echoed loudly behind her, and were soon joined by others as his associates gave chase.

She scrambled around another corner, her boots slipping in something rancid and slimy as she rushed deeper into the maze of poorly planned and haphazardly constructed buildings. Behind her, red light flashed as a magical projectile impacted against the wall she’d just passed. A stunning spell.

At least they aren’t trying to kill me,’ she thought, somewhat hysterically.

Her heart in her throat, Siobhan pumped her arms and legs even faster. She had no idea where she was going. If she’d had time, she would have scouted the surrounding area before going back for her things, but she had barely managed to find the inn again after escaping from the University. She’d been right not to wait any longer, or the coppers would have entered the room before she did, and what few resources she had just recovered would have been lost. She was tiring quickly. She’d never been particularly athletic, and sprinting at top speed for any length of time while carrying a third of her weight in luggage was shockingly difficult.

She came to a “T” shaped junction. Another frantic turn around the corner sent her stumbling over detritus hidden by the dark. She went sprawling forward, scraping her palms against the stone and slamming her chest into the ground, which only made her much-abused lungs ache even more.

Siobhan scrambled back to her feet and found herself facing the sudden end of a short alley. There was nowhere for her to run. She spun around, hoping for the alley to extend in the other direction, but found that to be a dead-end as well. Her only way out, the alley she’d just come down, led straight back to the chasing coppers.

Her breath came fast and her head whipped around as she searched for something, anything that would allow her to escape. ‘Do I have a spell that could help me here?’ She could think of nothing. From the sound of the shouts and clacking footsteps, she didn’t have the time to draw out a Circle and the Word to guide a spell even if she knew one that might help.

When a window at the other tail of the alley screeched open and a man’s head popped out, already looking at her, her heart jumped as if it meant to crawl up through her throat and escape her body.

Instead of calling out that he’d caught her or pointing a battle wand at her, the dark-haired man waved her over. “Hurry,” he called in a low voice.

Siobhan hesitated less than a second, since a suspicious stranger on the poor side of the city, who was at least nominally willing to help her, was sadly the best option currently available. She dashed across the alley, cringing as she briefly exposed herself to the approaching coppers.

Another blast of red light shot out toward her from the tip of a battle wand, but the aim was off. The spell splashed ineffectually against the wall once again, leaving a subtle scorch mark and a puff of steam behind. That one had been more powerful than the last.

She grabbed the dark-haired man’s outstretched hand. With their combined effort, she scrambled up and through the window, her packs scraping against the frame and snagging for a single, panicked instant before releasing. Siobhan tumbled to the floor, wild-eyed, and the man immediately closed the window and moved further into the building. While she struggled to regain her bearings, he was picking up a small oil lantern from the floor, the flame within illuminating the darkness with a dull orange flicker.

“Follow me,” he said, the words fully enunciated and carrying the kind of confidence that told her he hadn’t even considered that she might do otherwise.

She complied, noting the upright way he moved and the expensive fabric and cut of his suit. This man wasn’t one of the poor locals, but unless he was leading her into an elaborate trap, he also wasn’t a copper. She looked for signs of sorcery—the many pockets filled with component materials, or a jewel clear enough to be a Conduit. Despite the fashionable cut of his clothes, his pockets didn’t seem to hold anything, and he wore no jewelry. That alone didn’t mean he wasn’t a thaumaturge of some sort, but he was unlikely to be a sorcerer, at least.

He led her out a side door into another narrow alley, then into a building on the other side. Once the door was shut behind them, he peeked out a small opening in a boarded-up window, and after a few seconds, sighed in relief. “We should be safe to wait them out here.” He hung the lantern on a nail sticking out of a nearby support beam, then turned to face Siobhan. He was clean-shaven, wavy hair falling over his forehead in a way that made him look slightly boyish, but which was offset by an angular jaw. His lips curled up at the sides, giving him an ever-so-slightly amused expression as he stared back at her.

She backed up to a safe distance from him.

He let out a soft snort, as if offended. “I assure you, I mean you no harm.”

“Forgive me if your words do not reassure me in the slightest,” she said, still more than a little breathless.

He spread his hands, holding them up in an innocent pose. “I have helped you evade law enforcement at my own risk. What more can I do to reassure you?” Despite his words, something about the amusement in his low voice communicated clearly that he was not a danger to her only because he chose not to be.

Siobhan was very conscious of the leather book pressed against the skin of her back and the amulet hanging down from one of the cords around her neck, both disguised by her clothing. ‘Maybe he does have a Conduit, and it’s simply hidden.

She glared at him, chin raised high. “Perhaps you can explain how you found yourself so conveniently placed to come to my rescue.” Siobhan was tall for a woman, but very aware that without magic she stood little chance of defeating most opponents. Unfortunately, her Will was almost exhausted, and confined within such a small space, without even a battle artifact, she wouldn’t have enough time to cast any serious magic before it was too late. She slipped the packs’ straps off her shoulders in case she needed to move nimbly. They would just be extra handholds for someone to grab her with.

He stared at her assessingly. “I am a philanthropist.”

Siobhan’s eyes narrowed. “You’re a criminal,” she said, her tone daring him to deny it.

He slipped his hands into his pockets and grinned. “Then we are alike, no?”

She looked him up and down, mentally calculating the cost of his outfit, which was probably worth as much as the Conduit in her pocket. His stance was arrogant and assured, like her own, but hers was the result of conscious training and self-discipline, while his was natural, a product of inborn arrogance and a lifetime of privilege. She didn’t bother to hold back her scorn. “No, I think not.”

Rather than offending him, this sent one side of his mouth curling up in amusement. “So you’re evading law enforcement out of…innocence?”

She had no response to that. ‘I’ve been unwittingly implicated in a life-ruining crime, but I’m innocent, I swear!’ didn’t seem likely to convince him, assuming she saw a point to defending herself, which she didn’t. ‘Even if he believed me, it’s too late to change things now.

The man didn’t let the awkward silence stretch out. “Perhaps you can agree that, for the moment, our interests seem aligned?”

“I know my interests. What are yours?”

His expression turned a little more serious. “You have made quite a name for yourself in a very short time. The city is abuzz with it—” He cut off as the eponymous sound of copper-nailed boots striking against the cobblestones resounded through the alley beside them.

The coppers weren’t running this time.

When she heard them pound on a nearby door and demand entrance, Siobhan thought she might be sick. “Is there another exit?” she hissed, reaching into her jacket to clasp her Conduit, though she knew once they found her, all hope was lost.

He shook his head with slow finality, the last of his nonchalance burned away.

In the alley, they heard the coppers break down the other door when no one answered.

Her other hand reached up to press against her chest, feeling the amulet against her skin. She looked around, but there were no windows except the boarded-up one by the single door.

The man peeked out through the gap in the boarded window again. “We have less than a minute. Is there anything you can do? A spell? Something to hide us, or perhaps a big blast to knock them out of the way and leave them unable to give chase?”

“No, no,” she said, patting the pockets of her jacket, hoping to prove herself wrong. ‘Why did Grandfather never teach me any battle spells?’ she wailed to herself. ‘Is there any magic besides sorcery I can employ?’ Her mind ran through its repertoire of knowledge—everything Grandfather had taught her, the things she had picked up from other thaumaturges while traveling with her father, and the things she had experimented with.

She had some minor healing salves in her pack, and the medallion hanging from her neck would protect her from certain dangers, but none of the magic she knew was particularly offensive, and of the spells that might be useful, she couldn’t cast any of them quickly.

Magic was the answer to almost every problem, but only if you were very, very good at it. Her ignorance and lack of skill damned her.

The coppers were at the door. One slammed their fist against it. “By order of the Crowns, open up!”

The man ruffled his hair till it stood on end, took off his jacket and unbuttoned the collar of his shirt, then moved to stand between her and the door, his knees dipping slightly as if to prepare for sudden movement.

Does he plan to fight the coppers? What can he hope to do, unarmed against a battle wand?

The wood shuddered under another pounding fist.

Siobhan’s free hand clutched at the artifact. ‘I think I’m going to pass out.’ When the copper’s first concussive spell on the door cracked its wood, her eyes closed in a reflexive flinch. Her mind settled instinctively into the perspective that allowed her to channel her Will, and she reached out for what little power she had access to without a Circle. Her body flushed with a warm tingle. ‘Oh no, I really am going to pass out…

The second attack broke through the doorjamb, sending the door itself slamming against the wall and splinters of wood flying through the room.

Her attempted rescuer flinched, raising his hands before the threat of the copper’s extended battle wand. His pose showed that he meant no harm, but his knees were still slightly bent, perhaps hoping to take them by surprise.

A uniformed man and woman stood in the shattered doorway, both breathing hard.

Siobhan resolved that she would attack if he did. She might not be particularly useful in a fistfight, but at least she could help even the odds, and maybe keep one of them from calling for reinforcements while the man fought the other one.

The copper’s female partner stepped around him, shining a lamp over both of them. The woman looked around suspiciously, her eyes flicking around the dark corners of the room and then settling down to glare at the two of them.

Squinting against the bright light, Siobhan unclenched her fists, leaving her Conduit in her pocket, and raised her hands into the air. Her eyes flicked down to the battle wand holstered at the female copper’s hip. ‘That artifact likely contains more of those stunning spells. Meant to incapacitate, not kill.’ Perhaps if she lunged for the woman fast enough, she could steal it and use it against her and her partner. ‘The wand can’t be that difficult to operate, surely?

She plotted out her vector of attack in a blistering fury of concentration. ‘I can do this. I can.’ Two steps forward, duck down to avoid the spell from the male copper, spin to reach the woman’s side and simultaneously use her as a partial body shield. Snatch the wand—

“Have you seen anyone come this way? Tall, dark-haired woman. Might have been wearing a hooded cloak. A thaumaturge,” the woman said.

Siobhan blinked. ‘Is this a joke?’ Her hood had fallen down around her shoulders, revealing her face and hair. The woman was looking right at her. Perhaps their description of her appearance was somehow incorrect, maybe of someone older than her, or with some sensationally evil feature, like glowing red eyes. Siobhan carefully didn’t look at the packs on the ground, which were more evidence of her identity.

Her rescuer turned to look at her, and the momentary widening of his eyes when they landed on her, combined with the pinch of pain caused by too-tight boots that had fit fine only seconds before, gave Siobhan the last clue she needed.

“Heard footsteps goin’ into the buildin’ ‘cross the street,” she said, hoping her flinch at the sound of her own voice hadn’t been noticeable. The sound was scratchy and deep, unmistakably male. She cleared her throat, doing her best to imitate the Gilbrathan poor people’s accent. “There was this bright light, a green one. We figured it best to stay out the way.” She wasn’t an actor, but with singularity of purpose, a simple change in mannerisms wasn’t so difficult. She hoped she didn’t seem suspicious, as she hadn’t prepared for this. Still, better to speak less, to give them less chance to notice something amiss.

“You didn’t open the door when we called for entry,” the male copper said, the words an accusation.

“We were…occupied. You broke it down before we had the chance,” her rescuer said, adjusting the waistband of his pants with obvious awkwardness.

He’s insinuating I’m a prostitute,’ Siobhan realized, not having to act to adopt an embarrassed expression.

The male copper grimaced with faint distaste, but the female’s eyes narrowed as they roved over Siobhan’s body.

Siobhan’s clothing was covered in pockets, but that style wasn’t reserved only for magic-wielders. Plus, the state of her clothes and the obvious lack of wealth and hygiene didn’t evoke thoughts of a powerful thaumaturge. She had taken off the few trinkets she normally wore, and her Conduit was safely tucked away. She was wearing trousers rather than a skirt, and if they rode a little high on her ankles and loose around the hips, that only suggested she couldn’t afford tailoring.

The woman pointed her wand at Siobhan, and Siobhan tensed again, thinking her deception had been discovered.

However, instead of ordering her to lie down on the ground with her hands behind her head or shooting her with a stunning spell, the woman fiddled with the artifact’s controls for a couple seconds, then cast an almost invisible wave that washed over Siobhan and prickled against her skin.

The spell irritated her nostrils and eyes, forcing her to blink back tears. ‘Some kind of revealing or nullification spell?

The copper lowered her wand. “Across the alley, you say?” She nodded to her partner, who hesitantly lowered his own wand, though he kept his glare trained on Siobhan’s rescuer. Despite their obvious mistrust, an out-of-place gentleman committing no obvious crime with a ragamuffin homeless person apparently didn’t compare to the urgency of finding Siobhan. After a final admonition to report any sightings of the “rogue and dangerous thaumaturge,” and to be sure to avoid her for their own safety, the coppers left.

Siobhan waited to be sure the coppers were gone before examining herself. Instead of her skin’s normal ochre, she had grown even paler than her rescuer, and when she tilted her head down to look at her body, light blonde hair fell into her face. The fine strands were cut short, to just below her chin, rather than the normal dark mane that grew past the small of her back. Her boots pinched uncomfortably around larger feet, and she was fairly certain she had grown taller as well.

The man settled the door back in its frame and then looked her transformed body up and down. “You cast an illusion of a man over yourself? It’s not what I expected, but, I admit, it is quite impressive.”

Siobhan shook her head, wide-eyed. “It’s not an illusion,” she said. ‘And I didn’t cast it,’ she continued silently.

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