Month 2, Day 12, Friday 6:30 p.m.
Siobhan felt surprisingly secure as she walked through the darkened streets of the Mires. Her new dowsing artifact was active, trying to find her through a piece of thread she’d pulled off her scarf. Her divination-diverting ward was blocking it quite easily, and simultaneously hiding her from more mundane methods of observation. The eyes of those she passed slid off her, their minds turning to other things when they might have wondered about her. If anyone tried to follow her, the ward, along with her evasive maneuvers and circuitous route, would make things exceedingly difficult. Even if someone did manage to follow her, she had her stunning wand, her warding medallion, and even her hidden knives.
She might not be a dangerous free-caster yet, but she was well prepared for either fight or flight. Hopefully, better prepared than any potential enemies.
Siobhan was on her way to Liza’s in the hope that they could travel to the secret meeting of thaumaturges together. She would take all the protection she could get, even if only for a portion of her evening.
At that moment, Damien was back at the University working on Operation Defenestration, while Ana was meeting with a shaman, who was supposed to help the other girl be absolutely sure she remembered the combination to Malcolm Gervin’s vault.
There had been some talk of kicking off the plan this weekend, but Sebastien had insisted they wait, both so that they could be better prepared in general, and so that she could finish creating a fake version of her heirloom Conduit ring. If the original was in Malcolm Gervin’s vault, she was going to take it back and replace it with a fake.
The forgery was rather slow-going, as she didn’t want it to be obvious, and it require a lot of delicate control with the various modifications of the stone-creating exercise they had learned in Professor Lacer’s class. She had bought some quartz, which she was molding and faceting into the fake Conduit, and some silver for the setting and ring itself. She was even doing her best to embed a fake chameleon spell array, which wouldn’t work, but would seem to have simply run out of power unless it was examined by an artificer. After that, the ring would need to be properly scratched and tarnished.
It was all good practice for Professor Lacer, as well as the end of term exhibition she was planning. While Damien and Ana were working out the details of Operation Defenestration, squabbling back and forth, Sebastien took the chance to catch up on spell practice, and felt that at least she was no longer falling behind the pace of the class.
If the trend held, in a couple weeks Professor Lacer would introduce the next exercise, which the final bonus exercise he’d given her would augment.
When a woman’s angry scream pierced the air from a nearby ally, Siobhan flinched out of her musings. Her first instinct was to duck out of the way and take cover in an unlit doorway, but she realized the scream didn’t have anything to do with her.
The woman’s scream was followed by a man’s, and then a loud slap followed by obvious sounds of a struggle. The woman screamed again, much weaker this time, almost despairing.
The streets weren’t yet completely empty, but Siobhan watched as the few others still out, instead of going to investigate or try to help, ducked their heads and hurried away even faster. Siobhan looked toward the nearest street corner, but this part of the city was apparently outside of Verdant Stag territory. There was no green flag to pull for help.
Siobhan hesitated. ‘This could be some sort of trap. But is that more likely than someone actually needing help? I’ve got my stunning wand, my ward active, and all my utility spells on paper. I’m in a better position to actually do something about an incident than almost anyone else here. If I duck my head and scurry on, just like the rest…’ Some time ago, Siobhan had resolved that she would try to avoid making choices she would regret, and if she just left, she knew she would always wonder.
So Siobhan walked over to the alley, stepping gingerly to try and reduce the noise of her boots against the ground, and peeked around the edge.
A woman was lying on her back, desperately clinging to a satchel, while a man knelt over her, yanking at it, and another man stood a few feet away, apparently acting as a lookout. The three were silhouetted by light shining through the alley from the street on the other side, but Siobhan couldn’t make out many details.
“I curse you!” the woman wailed. “I will sacrifice to the Raven Queen tonight, that she may listen to my prayer!”
Siobhan’s eyebrows rose.
“May the Raven Queen cast down a curse upon you! May you never sleep in peace again!” the woman continued.
The man kneeling over her gave her another harsh slap, finally yanking the satchel away from her suddenly weak fingers. He tossed it to the lookout, who began to rifle through it. Then the first man started fumbling around the woman’s waist. Siobhan didn’t know if he was trying to search her pockets or strip off her pants for something worse, but she had seen enough.
The woman’s curse had given her the perfect idea to deal with the situation without having to endanger herself. She hesitated for a moment as she held her hands to her mouth in a cupped Circle, remembering the last time she’d cast this spell. But the people in the alley weren’t casting anything to be distracted from, weren’t on the edge of a mental breakdown from terror, and the spell itself was harmless. She still hesitated a few seconds more, knowing she was being foolish but unable to push away her deep dread. Hearing a faint sob from the woman, Siobhan steeled herself and began to cast, channeling power through the Conduit strapped to her torso. With a thrice-repeated chant, her shadow rose up from the ground, stretching around the corner into the alley and stretching up to loom over the men.
She molded it into the form that was quickly becoming familiar, a hooded figure with a huge beak, tattered cloak billowing in an intangible wind. There wasn’t much light for her shadow to absorb, so the warmth of her breath through the Circle of her cupped hands made up the difference in power, and Siobhan winced at the biting cold in her fingers.
She couldn’t see what was happening, but there were no screams or sudden sounds of fleeing footsteps, even after she waited a few seconds. Hoping her divination-diverting ward would keep them from noticing, she peeked around the corner.
The woman was staring at the shadow-familiar’s form, wide-eyed and silent, but both of the men had their backs to it and hadn’t noticed.
Grimacing at the cold in her fingers that was beginning to become a bone-deep ache, Siobhan adjusted her shadow’s form, letting it reach out with one void-black, spindly appendage with too-long fingers. Those fingers reached around as if to grasp the skull of the man who had, at this point, pulled the woman’s pockets inside-out and fumbled open her belt.
He noticed immediately as the inhuman fingers passed in front of his face, absorbing the light of the far street. He screamed, high-pitched and hoarse, jerking back and falling onto his backside.
His eyes bulged wide open as they followed the fingers back to the arm, back to the floating figure.
Siobhan turned its hooded head, as if following the man’s movement.
His partner with the stolen satchel had turned to see the cause of the disturbance, but frozen in place, silent. The sound of trickling water against the ground gave away his loss of control over his bladder.
The man on the ground scrambled backward like a crab until his back hit the wall, started to scream again, but cut off the sound halfway by clamping his hand over his mouth.
Siobhan waited for them to run away, but they just stood there. The shadow-familiar spell couldn’t control sound, and if she spoke, she might give away her position peeking around the corner. With an uneasy sigh, she stepped into the mouth of the alley. “Leave her be,” she said through her cupped hands. “Go home.”
It wasn’t the most dramatic thing to say, but it worked to wake the men from their stupor. They scrambled to run away, the one who’d urinated himself still holding the woman’s satchel.
Siobhan sighed, and then, with some effort, sent her shadow to the other end of the alley to block their way.
The men skidded to a stop at its sudden movement, so quick it seemed to almost fly. “No, no, no!” the man who had hit the woman muttered between ragged sobs.
The distance made maintaining control of her shadow more difficult, as it was only connected to her by a thin string running along the length of the alley, but the increase in absorbed light helped to mitigate the strain.
Her shadow reached for the satchel.
The man flinched away before realizing its purpose, but then tossed the satchel toward her shadow’s hand like it was a live coal. “Take it, take it!” The satchel moved through the shadow and fell to the ground.
That was enough for Siobhan. She let her shadow sink back to the ground, flattening and rushing back toward her at a speed too fast for the naked eye to capture.
The men sprinted away without a single glance backward.
Siobhan tucked her hands under her armpits, trying to regain some of the heat the frigid air had sucked away from them. “Do you need healing?” she asked the woman.
The woman had been looking toward the other end of the alley, and at Siobhan’s question, her head turned back around with almost comical slowness. She swallowed, wide-eyed. “Queen of Ravens?” she asked, her voice cracking. She scrambled to her hands and knees, bowing until her forehead touched the ground. “I beg your forgiveness! I should not have used your name in my curse, I—”
The woman stopped speaking as soon as Siobhan sighed and took a step forward. “I am not angry at you,” she said. “Stand up, if you can.”
Hesitantly, the woman raised her head, then crawled to her feet, re-fastening her belt and smoothing down her clothes with trembling hands. “Thank you for saving me, um, your majesty.”
Siobhan almost groaned aloud. “I have no need for such titles.”
“My apologies, Queen of Ravens,” the woman said, immediately bowing again.
“Do you need a healer?” Siobhan asked again.
“No, no, I’ll be fine. Just a couple bruises and scrapes, thanks to you.”
“Do you need help getting home?”
“…No?” The woman was wringing her hands, looking everywhere but directly at Siobhan.
‘Perhaps I am frightening her, only making things worse,’ Siobhan realized. “I will take my leave, then. Be careful.”
She turned to go, but the woman called out, “Wait! I will sacrifice to you tonight, as I promised, Queen of Ravens. Do you have any requirements for your altar? What do you prefer to receive?”
Siobhan gave the woman an incredulous stare. No one in modern times actually believed you could sacrifice to some higher power on an altar in exchange for their blessings. She realized that if she simply left the woman, the rumors about her could get truly out of control. She needed to set the record straight if she didn’t want people burning up dead ravens, or food they should have kept to eat themselves in the hope that Siobhan could somehow improve their lives. “I do not take sacrifices made upon an altar,” she said, her voice slow and firm as she tried to impress the words upon the woman. “It is also of little use praying to me. I am not all-powerful. I happened to be near and able to do something tonight, but you cannot count on that happening again.”
“I understand, my queen,” the woman said. “But…I do not have anything worthy of repaying you for this boon. I have heard about your requirements—tribute upon meeting, something of value, both worthy and interesting. I could give you the contents of my bag, but—”
Siobhan lifted her hand to stop her. “No need. This was a simple enough thing, and though I do take tribute of valuable items, that is only from those who have the wealth to afford it.”
The woman’s hand-wringing grew more violent. “What will you take from me, then?” she whispered.
Remembering how the Morrow member Chief had asked if he owed her the life of his first-born child after she patched up the stump of his arm, Siobhan suspected something similar was going through the woman’s mind. Doubting she could disabuse her of her superstitious notions entirely, Siobhan decided on a different approach. “I will take from you a favor,” she said. “One day, you will have a chance to repay my aid, either to myself or to one under my protection, one like you were tonight. When the moment comes, you will take it, even at some small risk to yourself.”
The woman’s hand-wringing stopped. “Yes, Lady Raven Queen. How will I know the moment when it arrives, or what I am to do?”
“You will know it by the feeling,” Siobhan said. This way, the woman could choose to help anyone, in any way, whenever she had the opportunity, and feel reassured that she had repaid her debt.
The woman bowed yet again, and Siobhan took the opportunity to further empower her anti-divination ward and walk away.
She checked the time on her pocket-watch and grimaced. There wasn’t enough leeway remaining for her to get to Liza’s house and then on to the secret meeting spot before things started, and she needed to arrive early enough to talk to the organizers.
With a surreptitious check to ensure she still wasn’t being followed, Siobhan hurried on. She put on her mask and feathered hair ornaments outside, then walked up and gave the passphrase. “I need to speak to the person in charge of security,” she told the door guard.
He eyed her dubiously, but told her to wait in one of the side rooms down the hallway, similar to the one where they’d held her initial interview. Soon after, a couple masked people entered, one a prognos. Siobhan suspected she was the same woman she’d spoken to previously, who had done Siobhan’s entrance interview. The prognos nodded to the other administrator. “I am at your service, honored guest,” she said to Siobhan.
Siobhan explained that their members might be under additional scrutiny, or even in danger of people attempting to track them home. “I hope you can put some measures in place to mitigate the risk.”
“Is this…because of the incident that happened a couple weeks ago with the Morrows?” the prognos woman asked.
“It’s an effect of it,” Siobhan said. “Your meetings here have at least one member that works for the University. While they are quite interested in finding me, I doubt they care as much about following your rules. They may cause harm to others in their desperation to find me. I suggest you increase your security, particularly with measures to keep the members from being followed or ambushed. I would also suggest that you put particular care toward vetting any new applicants.”
The prognos woman and the masked man shared a sour look. After a few moments of severe silence, the woman bowed deeply to Siobhan. “We take this information extremely seriously, and I assure you we will take immediate measures to mitigate the danger. Thank you for bringing this to our attention.”
Siobhan nodded. “I’m sure.” A secret organization like this wouldn’t survive if the members couldn’t feel secure about attending meetings. Before returning to the main room, Siobhan discreetly removed her feathered hair ornaments and made sure that every inch of her skin was covered, before finally turning off the dowsing artifact. Keeping it active might have drawn more attention than it diverted, if people noticed difficulty focusing on her.
She paused at the entrance, scrutinizing everything and everyone. Liza didn’t seem to be present, though Siobhan couldn’t be sure. Tanya was there, again recognizable from her shoes.
Siobhan, too, was still wearing the same pair of new boots that Oliver had bought her, but she’d cast a color-changing charm on them while at the Silk Door. In addition to their size change, the change in color was more than enough to keep them from being recognizable. Compared to her, Tanya was sloppy.
Siobhan tried to guess if there was anyone new attending the meeting, perhaps planted by the University. Oliver had passed on Tanya’s message that they didn’t know about the Raven Queen’s participation, but Siobhan didn’t trust that assurance of safety. She couldn’t tell if there were new members or not, especially since not every member might attend every meeting, and the majority of members didn’t have any particularly distinguishing features that she could recognize past their masks. At the very least, that anonymity worked in her favor as well.
Siobhan entered and took a random chair.
Tanya didn’t seem to notice Siobhan, her gaze unmoving from her own clasped hands.
Siobhan outwardly ignored her in return, though in truth she kept a watchful eye on all the members, not relaxing for a moment.
Tanya shifted uncomfortably every time a woman spoke, but kept her head down.
In the first part of the meeting, Siobhan tried to make her voice sound a little deeper without being obvious, and offered up three of the decryption and unlocking spells she’d learned that hadn’t turned out to be useful on the stolen book.
She ended up selling spell information to several different members, some of them taking all the spells and others only choosing one, for an astounding total of one hundred ten gold. ‘Spells that can be used for illegal, or at least questionable purposes seem to sell quite well. Perhaps some of these people want to know the spell so they can guard against it, but more likely, this kind of information is harder to find through legitimate means. And, of course, the people that come to these meetings are less likely to care about legality.’
When it was time to make requests, she spoke up again. “I’m willing to purchase more powerful or unconventional decryption spells. I have some foundation in these types of spells, so I am interested in new methods. I’m already familiar with symmetric decryption against one and two-block independent encryptions. I’m interested in spells that can break two-block encryptions that go through multiple rounds of encryption processes. I will pay in gold.”
Symmetric encryption had been around for a long time, and was one of the simplest methods, allowing decryption with the very same key that had been used to encrypt in the first place. If the letter“A” was encrypted with a move of six letters down the alphabet, into “G,” the decryption would simply move “G” six letters back up the alphabet.
Two-block encryptions took the message and split it into two pieces, then applied encryption separately on each half, then combined them again for the encrypted result.
The most powerful encryptions, ones she’d only read about in theory and that required more mathematics than she was comfortable with, took the split message through several rounds of encryption, each of which needed to be worked through backward. For instance, “A” from one block would turn into “G”, and then into “14” and then into “0xE.”
Siobhan turned down some offers, either because she already knew a spell based on the same principles, or because the requirements were unmanageable, but there were a couple offers that drew her attention.
A man raised his hand. “I have a method. It requires a lot of power, but it’s very effective. It’s best joint-cast with another person, but I have an adapted method that allows you to set up and charge one side as a slow-release artifact and then move your attention to the other. I would not recommend this method for any security that needs to be cracked in less than an hour. Three thousand thaum minimum capacity, and it will work on encryptions that have gone through up to seven rounds of processes. The set-up is quite complicated, and I don’t have it memorized, but I could bring it to the next meeting, for one hundred fifty gold.”
The spell sounded well beyond her, but she had realized while creating the sleep-proxy spell that if you were willing to be creative and spend a lot more time on casting, many spells could be recreated at a lower capacity requirement. Decryption should be equally viable cast over a long period than a short one, unless of course the passkey was actively changing. An actively-changing passkey seemed like just the kind of trick her book would be based around, even if no one had openly invented spells based on that principle yet. Still, she couldn’t turn down the chance. If she couldn’t use the spell, she still might be able to sell the information on it at some point and recoup some of her costs. “That might be of some use to me,” she admitted. “But the restrictions are rather inconvenient. Seventy gold.”
“This knowledge is quite rare. One hundred twenty gold.”
“Rare only means it is more likely to be unoptimized, and dangerous to cast from its newness. Eighty-five gold.”
“That’s a risk that most higher magics will carry, especially these kinds. It seems you’ve tried other options and haven’t had success. One hundred ten is my final offer.”
During the pause, another man on the opposite side of the circle of seats tentatively raised his hand. “Um, I have an option you might consider, depending on what you’re trying to crack. It’s not decryption, exactly. It’s a divination that helps to reveal hints about the passkey. It works best if the encryption, or lock, or whatever has been opened many times. Basically, it picks up on echoes of what previous people have done.”
The man who’d made the first offer crossed his arms with irritation at the interjection.
“Do the echoes need to be recent?” Siobhan asked.
“Well, it does help. The divination is picking up clues in the environment, and those will be fainter with more time passed. But as long as there is a strong enough impression, or the traces have remained undisturbed even if a lot of time has passed, it can still work. It’s based off similar principles to the spells coppers use to investigate a crime scene.”
Siobhan doubted much trace evidence would remain on the book after all this time, and especially after the lengths she’d gone to trying to find clues. “I’m not sure that would be useful for this particular application, but I am interested. Twenty gold?”
“Thirty?” he asked hesitantly.
“Twenty-five. That seems more than fair, especially as I happen to have another contact that I believe has access to that same spell.” That wasn’t exactly true, but it was possible Damien could access the spell the coppers used, and she could theoretically find some excuse to get him to teach her.
“Deal,” the man agreed.
Siobhan turned her gaze back to the man who’d made the first offer. “It’s possible that I will no longer need your spell by next week. I’m willing to offer you ninety-five gold today.”
He hesitated, tapping his foot on the floor. “I would require assurances that you wouldn’t spread this information around. For such a low price, I need the information to remain limited and valuable to others who might be interested.”
“Then we have a deal, I suppose.”
Siobhan looked to the arbiter, and he nodded, noting it down. In the end, counting what she’d earned and what she’d spent, she had gained two new spells that she would have had trouble accessing elsewhere for only ten gold, net. A bargain.
As the meeting moved on from sales to a free exchange of information, Siobhan listened curiously. People offered up warnings about areas where crimes had been committed, places to find limited-time deals on certain components, and the latest news about the Morrow, Nightmare Pack, and the Verdant Stag, which devolved into arguing until the arbiter brought the discussion back into line.
There were even a couple rumors about sightings of the Raven Queen, but she knew none of them were actually her.
It was during this time that the arbiters began to take small groups of people aside, bringing them through the hallway into the back room. Siobhan noted this with interest, and wondered if it had anything to do with the warning she had given them.
When the meeting ended, she completed what transactions she’d agreed to settle that day, giving out coin and sheets of paper with carefully-transcribed spell instructions. For the decryption spells, neither seller had them memorized or written down, and so she would have to wait for the next meeting to receive them.
When that was done, the familiar prognos woman took Siobhan aside, alone. “We are ensuring that none of our members have ill will toward the Raven Queen, nor any intention to betray the rules otherwise. None will leave until we are confident in them, and any who do not pass under scrutiny will not return. The next meeting will not be held here,” she said, slipping Siobhan a slip of paper with an address. “Your passphrase will stay the same. I hope this is all to your satisfaction?”
Siobhan memorized the address and handed the slip back. “You are moving to act on this even quicker than I had hoped.” And, in truth, much more thoroughly as well. “I am reluctantly impressed,” she admitted.
The woman let out a relieved sigh, and Siobhan could hear the smile in her voice as she said, “Please feel free to leave now, through one of our secret exits if you wish. We have no need to question you, and no wish to waste your valuable time.”
There should still be time for Siobhan to work on forging the ring that evening, but she had big plans for the weekend. Only Sunday would be spent in an exhausting all-day slog of alchemical brewing. Saturday would instead be spent on a visit to Liza’s to follow up on their agreement. Siobhan was so excited she doubted she would be able to sleep properly.
She slipped back out into the night, her exit watched by a guard with a harsh scowl and glowing eyes that tracked through every shadow and flicked to every hint of movement with suspicion. ‘It is quite nice to be taken so seriously,’ she reflected. ‘Perhaps there are some positives to this Raven Queen identity to go along with all the danger.’
Gabrielle is still working on A Binding of Blood’s audiobook, so I’m taking these extra few days of writing time to try and finish SOL’s first draft. Looks like it’s going to be about 54-55 chapters total. We’re already over 190k words, the longest book I’ve written to date. I’ll be trying to slim down that word count a little during the final revision pass, but historically I usually end up adding words instead, so I don’t know what’s going to happen.
Trouble accessing a chapter? Troubleshooting tips: https://www.azaleaellis.com/trouble-accessing-chapters/
Want to get an email with links as soon as a new chapter comes out on my website, or get monthly Inner Circle news about my writing? Sign up for your preference here: https://landing.mailerlite.com/webforms/landing/q4b8d8