Month 2, Day 26, Friday 10:00 p.m.
After the disastrous meeting, she changed back into Sebastien’s body at the safe house, but Oliver insisted on her coming back with him to Dryden Manor, just in case. She hadn’t applied for nor been permitted to make a home visit from the University this weekend, but she doubted there would be any serious repercussions or suspicion for a student being gone from the dorms on a weekend night.
“Don’t worry about doing any more investigation on your own. No following Miss Canelo, or snooping around Grandmaster Kiernan’s office,” Oliver said, his tone more warning than reassuring. “You getting tangled up in some trouble is the last thing we need now.”
Sebastien felt vaguely offended. “We have that map-based divination spell that I linked to her boot. I wouldn’t need to track her directly.”
“That’s fine, as long as you don’t get caught.” Oliver’s fingers tapped the edge of the carriage seat for a moment. “Honestly, what we really need isn’t someone to spy on her. It’s for her to work for us. And the target for any espionage should be Kiernan and his more direct lackeys like Munchworth, not a second-tier lackey just running errands.”
And Oliver was right. When she got back to his house and tried the spell, the divination gave her nothing of use, showing Tanya in what was probably her dorm room, with no obvious inclination to leave. Sebastien slept uneasily, an anxious sense deep down telling her that she had gone wrong somewhere along the way, maybe some time long ago, like a tree that twisted and grew grotesquely around some restraint it could not overcome.
She woke early on Saturday, took a bit of the remaining beamshell tincture in her morning coffee, and slipped away to the Silk Door. She had more supplies for her emergency stash there, adding some disguise items—hair dye, a weak second-hand pair of glasses that wouldn’t affect her vision too much, and a couple of makeup products. She also added a small canteen of water and a sealed pouch full of dried fruit, totally hardened bread rolls, and some meats. She had learned a simple dehydration spell and created them herself. Everything except the dried fruit would probably taste quite horrible, but it was cheaper than buying proper rations. ‘I suspect this dehydration spell could be turned into a desiccation curse with some minor adjustments,’ she mused, sealing up the floor over her emergency stash once more.
Water was more important than food, and the canteen was too small to last even an entire day, but water could be gathered from the air with a relatively simple spell, while it was much harder to access calories on the run.
She had already added the same extra items to her other stash. ‘It’s a start, but two locations isn’t enough.’ She put the task from her mind for the moment, reassumed Siobhan’s form, and headed off to Liza’s, where she helped with a second round of sleep-proxy tests on more mice. The whole bottom level of Liza’s apartments were filled with the experiments, the air warm to the point of stifling despite the chill outside.
Before leaving that evening, Siobhan borrowed Liza’s diagnostic artifact, hoping it would help her to answer some of her many unanswered questions about Myrddin’s transformation amulet. When she got to the Silk Door, Siobhan used the diagnostic artifact on herself, taking care to write down all of its different, semi-incomprehensible results on a piece of paper, with extra attention given to her brain and what hormone levels the device was able to pick up.
Then, she used the amulet to transform, once again timing the process as accurately as possible. It still took less than a second, and though she’d been keeping track for a while now, the variation between transformation was minute, and seemed more to do with her inability to measure with total exactness at such small intervals than any actual variance in the amulet’s speed.
When she tested herself with the diagnostic artifact for the second time, there were some minor changes in addition to the obvious ones that took her size, mass, and sex. The results of such an old, clunky artifact weren’t as robust or refined as what the cutting-edge healers and researchers were using, but it was enough to see that there was indeed a difference in her hormones between the two forms.
The variance was actually strange in a way she hadn’t expected, however. The difference between Siobhan and Sebastien was less than the difference between the male and female mice. If she had an opposite-sex twin, the differences would probably be greater.
What these results meant in the grand scheme of things, Siobhan didn’t know, but she stared at the paper for a long time, letting some small amount of relief unkink the tight spot at the back of her mind that had been subconsciously worrying about this.
‘One test doesn’t make a data set, though. I’ll need to do more experiments before I give it back to Liza.’ With this in mind, she switched back and forth several times, timing each transformation and recording the diagnostic results. They were all within a standard range of deviation.
Because she needed to return the diagnostic artifact in the morning, instead of returning to the University, she went back to Dryden Manor, having settled in Sebastien’s form.
Oliver was either gone or already asleep by the time she arrived, and she shuffled through a dark, silent house to the upstairs bedroom set aside for her. Her sleep was restful, as it could only be with her dreamless sleep spell, but short. She awoke with a start in the wee hours of the morning, well before the sun had even begun to edge in pastel colors toward the eastern horizon.
A restless anxiety was filling her again, and she decided to get up and make herself useful instead of force herself back to sleep. She took her diagnostic artifact with her, walking in sock-covered feet to Oliver’s office. Locking the door behind her, she turned on the light crystals and took her diagnostic results once again. Except for some small variance that could be explained by sleep, there was little difference from the results of the night before.
Setting the artifact aside, Sebastien turned toward the alchemy table, where supplies were waiting for her. She hadn’t been brewing as much lately, her weekends taken up by other, more pressing matters, but this was a good opportunity to perform a test while also making some coin and strengthening her magical facility. Plus, she needed another bottle of moonlight sizzle for herself, as her own had spent a lot of time shaking around in her bag and glowing futilely within, and thus was starting to dim prematurely.
Taking extra care to be aware of both her mental state and the effect and qualities of her Will, she brewed a large batch of moonlight sizzle in the huge soup pot that had never made its way back to the kitchen after she originally commandeered it months ago. The pot required her to adjust the direction of her Will a little, since it didn’t have the fat, spherical stomach of a standard cauldron, but the potion within would be little affected as long as she stirred it properly.
After her first batch was completed and bottled, she used the diagnostic artifact, and then switched back into Siobhan’s body after making sure the curtains were drawn over the windows and the door was properly locked.
Then, she brewed another batch of moonlight sizzle, again with extra awareness of her mind and her Will.
Halfway through this batch, a knock on the door made her jump, though she was proud of the fact that her grasp on the magic she was imbuing into the concoction didn’t slip, despite her surprise. “Who is it?” she called, deepening her voice in the hope of approximating Sebastien’s normal tone.
“It is I, the owner of this house, attempting to get into my own study?” Oliver replied through the door, his tone rising at the end in bemusement.
Siobhan hurried to the door, staying out of sight of the hallways as she unlocked and opened it just enough to let him through. She closed it and locked it behind him, then turned to find his eyes trailing slowly over her form. Sebastien’s clothes were too tight in some places and too loose in others, and she had rolled up the hems of the pants and sleeves so they didn’t drag.
Oliver raised his gaze to meet hers without a hint of apology, giving her a questioning look.
“I’m doing some tests on the transformation,” she explained. “I thought I might as well make myself useful while I’m at it.”
“You’re lucky I didn’t immediately assume you were a burglar and kick down the door. If I hadn’t smelled your brewing through the door, I might have.”
She rubbed the back of her head awkwardly, fingers tangling in her long hair and forcing her to tug them free with a wince. “Oops? I hope you don’t mind that I spent the night again?”
His expression flickered too fast for her to track, some unknown emotion or automatic response quickly suppressed. He hesitated slightly too long, just staring at her, then said, “Not at all.”
She raised one eyebrow.
He gave her a slightly lopsided smile. “You should know you’re welcome to spend the night any time you like.”
Siobhan blinked once, and then the possible double entendre filled her with horrid, belated embarrassment. She hurried around him and back to the alchemy station to continue her work, thankful that her darker skin would not show a blush like Sebastien’s. It took a few moments for her to regain full focus on the magic, but she managed, and the next time she looked away from the cauldron, Oliver was at his desk writing a letter, seeming to have forgotten her presence entirely.
She completed the final diagnostic test after finishing the second batch of moonlight sizzle and using up the remainder of the potion vials she had on hand. Again, the results left her somewhat relieved, as the difference between her two forms seemed negligible. She had already known that her magic was the same, her Will just as forceful and clear in either body, but this test had also confirmed that. The downside to this relief was that the tests left her as clueless as ever about the function of the amulet, and frustrated that she had made no progress decrypting the stolen book. She had some hope for the spells she’d ordered at the last secret meeting, whose instructions she would receive at the next meeting in about a week.
The sun had risen and the streets grown busy by that time, and Oliver spared her yet another trip to the Silk Door and back to Liza’s house by hiring a runner to return the diagnostic artifact for her. When she asked about his progress with Kiernan’s faction, he said, “I have made more than a few moves in response to what happened, gathering information and consolidating power. I am meeting with him later today. I plan to make my stance extremely clear, and we will see how they respond. Their next move will determine everything going forward, but so far my experience with them has not led me to optimism.”
Siobhan let out a small breath.
He twirled the pen in his fingers, which somehow didn’t spew ink everywhere. “It’s not all bad news. We’re going to put the incense burner in an auction being held in Paneth the end of next month. I had it appraised, and it’s genuine. If things go well, you and I will split almost a thousand gold.”
She paused for a while to let that sink in. It wasn’t so long ago that such a number, when Katerin offered it as a loan, had seemed astronomical to her. She knew such an amount was actually pocket change to Oliver, but to her it meant freedom. “If that’s accurate, it’ll be enough to almost pay off my remaining debt.” Then, her earnings from the textile commission would be almost entirely profit. She would be…rich.
Oliver snickered at her sparkly eyed look of anticipation. “I hope you’ll still stop by to brew for me every now and again, even if you don’t need to?”
She turned back to Sebastien as Oliver watched. “Well, it is good practice, and I’ll need to restock and expand my own potion supply anyway.”
He smiled ruefully as she left, shaking his head.
She took a carriage back to the University and used one of the lift tubes instead of walking up the steep winding path cut into the white cliffs, looking out over the city as she rose. The sight was invigorating, but what waited for her slightly less so. “Homework.”
Sebastien filched some of Damien’s coffee to invigorate herself, and was joined in her ink-smeared labor over the next few hours by varying members of the Crown Family friend group. Her most critical homework discharged more quickly than she had anticipated, Sebastien considered going to the supervised spellcasting rooms, or even to the abandoned classroom to work on her sympathetic curses, but instead she pulled out the history books Professor Ilma had lent her.
Remembering the various professors who had accompanied Kiernan to the meeting with the Raven Queen, most of whom she believed were directly part of or tangentially related to the History department, Sebastien wondered if Professor Ilma was involved with them at all. It was hard to imagine such a thoughtful woman who valued critical thinking so dearly joining up to the same cause as Munchworth, but either way Sebastien supposed it didn’t really matter, because the knowledge Ilma offered was still valid and valuable.
Sebastien had been reading Myrddin: An Investigative Chronicle of the Legend in small chunks when she had time, but had only managed to get a few chapters into the book, which was still covering Myrddin’s earlier deeds, often with handwritten notes pointing to similar myths from the other book. She continued from where she had left off.
Around the time when Myrddin was rising to prominence, he and a few of his contemporaries demonstrated the first known self-charging complex artifacts. Some of these were operated to great effect, and some to great disaster when things went wrong. There was contention even at the time about who was the first to achieve such a landmark advancement in the craft of artificery, but the back-and-forth struggle for supremacy certainly sped up growth in this cutting-edge field.
At various times, Myrddin displayed several artifacts believed to be self-charging. Sebastien found one anecdote particularly amusing. During Myrddin’s travels through the Tataroc desert with one of the local clans, he was said to have developed a box-like device that gathered water from the air, using the heat within to both create balls of ice as well as play sensual, soothing music—which of course he composed himself, because Myrddin was the consummate polymath. This ice-making music box, the ultimate desert climate luxury, had a great appeal to the young men and women of the clan, who vied to be the ones to share iced drinks with Myrddin each day.
But Myrddin’s most famous self-charging artifact was his horse. Like him, the creature had several names, depending on the region and time period, but the most commonly used was Carnagore, which might have had roots in the words “hooves of dawn,” but in the current language sounded rather bloodthirsty.
When Carnagore, a great beast made of white metal, had made his first appearances many had assumed Myrddin was doing fell experiments on a living subject. This wasn’t illegal at the time, being well before the atrocities and stigma of the Blood Empire, but the cruelty associated with turning a horse’s skin to malleable metal, replacing its eyeballs with spherical stone artifacts, and replacing its teeth with multiple rows of shark-like fangs was frowned upon for its brutality.
Several journals, letters, and even one autobiography from a contemporary agree that Myrddin eventually made a statement that Carnagore was not a modified creature of flesh, but an artifact that he had created and which was—most notably—charged by a beast core. His huge mount was said to sprint twice as fast as a normal horse, and could gallop tirelessly for a full day and night without breaks, a feat that would have killed a normal horse several times over. It did not spook or shy, could climb mountainsides like a goat, and was a vicious, bright-shining and glowing-eyed beacon of terror in battle.
Over time, Myrddin continued to add to Carnagore’s abilities, giving it a range of auxiliary spells that could be activated when necessary. Some speculated that he even managed to give Carnagore some semblance of a sentient mind, either created from whole-cloth or taken from a living animal and inserted into the artificial beast. As evidence of this were the times that Myrddin was said to have given his horse instructions and left it to carry them out autonomously, or instances where Carnagore acted to protect Myrddin from threats even the man was not aware of. However, the rumors and hearsay about Carnagore were at times even more outlandish than those about Myrddin himself, so many of the creature’s reported abilities could not be corroborated.
This entry in Myrddin: An Investigative Chronicle of the Legend led Sebastien once again to the less academically rigorous book, Enough Yarn to Last the Night: A Collection of Myths from the Life of a Man with Many Names.
Myrddin was said to have gone deep into the Forest of Nod, a land untouched by man, and in the very center crawled into a well. He crawled down for three days and three nights, and when he finally reached the dry bottom, he rested. When he awoke, the sun shining down from directly overhead for but a moment as it reached the perfect alignment with this round tunnel into the depths of the earth, Myrddin found that he was not alone, but accompanied by a palm-sized, chimerical beast.
Its features shifted, the head of a lion and the tail of a scorpion at one moment, and then the wings of an eagle and body of a turtle the next. The beast had been sealed for eons, and was very weak, and so entered into a pact with Myrddin. It would serve him, and he would take it out of the well and strengthen it.
It hungered and thirsted greatly, and each time it feasted, it grew stronger. Myrddin rode it into battle against an adze, and Myrddin’s beast companion drank its blood. They killed a skolex worm, and the beast ate its teeth. They hunted a mammoth, and the chimeric beast ate every inch of its fur and skin, from snout to tail. They hunted a dragon, and Myrddin’s beast ate its bones. With each defeat of an enemy, it consumed a piece of them, growing larger and more powerful, taking on their strength and eschewing its own weaknesses.
They traveled together for many years, and the creature was loyal, acting as Myrddin’s mount, and his shield, and his sword as needed, its shape-changing abilities allowing it to be always the perfect companion. Finally, they hunted a human, and the creature ate the brain, and thus grew to understand the loves and hates of man.
It remained loyal, becoming a sworn brother to Myrddin, but its hunger could not be sated. Eventually, no prey in the world could slake its ravenous hunger or increase its strength, and its gluttony turned to Myrddin himself. It longed to kill and devour the man, from the hair on his head to the marrow in his bones. It knew the evil of this deed, and wept bitterly, but could not resist its nature. It would kill and consume Myrddin, and then it would devour the world itself.
And so they fought, again for three days and three nights. Myrddin struck it down endlessly, carving off its wings, peeling off its skin, pulling its teeth, and chopping off its limbs. It grew smaller and weaker with each defeat, and when it again fit within the palm of his hand, he returned it to the well in the Forest of Nod, leaving it sealed once more, but not without giving it one last gift.
He dropped seven tears into the well, so that the creature could drink them and know sorrow.
The myth ended there, leaving Sebastien somewhat bemused about the connection between it and Myrddin’s creation of Carnagore. Both were mounts with expanding abilities, and both were said to have developed some greater intelligence over time. Both of them would have used the power of powerful defeated beasts for sustenance. Rather than the blood and fur and bone, that sustenance probably came from the beast cores of slain magical beasts, and it made sense that such a powerful artifact as Carnagore would have needed powerful beast cores as well. ‘Hells, the cost of running Carnagore might have been what spurred Myrddin to slay all those magical beasts,’ Sebastien mused, snorting to herself.
What interested her, however, were the times when Carnagore seemed to act on its own, while Myrddin was otherwise occupied with something else. It was certainly possible that Myrddin had either given it true reasoning capabilities, or even just such complex instructions that it simulated a sapient mind, but she wondered if some of those rumors could have stemmed from him creating artifacts that could be operated with an application of Will alone. Just as her amulet needed no physical switch or verbal command, Carnagore, a much more complex creation, could have acted based on Myrddin’s Will, a puppet of sorts.
Corroborating her theory was the fact that Myrddin had once left Carnagore at the top of a mountain for several months—perhaps he’d run out of beast cores—and witnesses said the horse became as cold and still as stone, its eyes dark and lifeless. It did not move even when birds perched atop its body, finally only returning to life when its master returned. Perhaps there had been some energy remaining to sustain an organic mind in a hibernating state, or perhaps the creature really was just created with enough complex commands to simulate the ability to reason, and could thus be turned on and off at will. ‘But isn’t it also possible that Carnagore is evidence of an entirely different innovation?’
Sebastien was lost in her musing, staring at an illustration of Myrddin slaying his chimeric companion, which at that point had taken the form of a human with tentacle arms, when her eyes caught a small note written in the margin. It read only “B.K.?”
Sebastien wondered what the initials might stand for, and almost instantly a possibility came to her. The Beast King was sleeping, deep below the ground, and had been for the entirety of living memory. No one knew what he looked like or what his capabilities were, but powerful diviners consistently predicted when asked that if he woke from his long sleep, calamity would follow. However, the Beast King was sleeping somewhere in Silva Erde, not the semi-mythical Forest of Nod, whose location was lost to humankind, if it had ever existed.
Some of the details seemed to fit, but if Professor Ilma had been correct to link the legend of Carnagore to this myth, then it would mean that Myrddin’s horse was buried in Silva Erde and the potential harbinger of great destruction. Sebastien’s preferred theory was that the Beast King was a powerful Aberrant, on the level of Metanite or Cinder Stag, horribly dangerous but ultimately harmless if managed properly and not provoked.
Perhaps the initials weren’t even referring to the Beast King. Like many of the entries in the books, Sebastien felt they held a peculiar weight of significance, but if any deeper meaning or epiphany existed, it remained opaque. Perhaps she was only assigning meaning where there none existed, swayed by the weight of the amulet around her neck and her long-stymied desire to understand.
This is the first of 2 make-up chapters. The next chapter is the regularly-scheduled Thursday chapter. Enjoy!