Month 3, Day 9, Tuesday 6:00 a.m.
Sharon had to pull Sebastien out of bed in the morning, chattering to herself as she cleaned up the papers scattered everywhere, daintily avoiding the writing Siobhan had done directly on the floor. The saintly woman didn’t so much as give Sebastien a dirty look for the extra work.
Fifteen minutes later, Sebastien entered Oliver’s office, carrying an overfilled breakfast tray. “You have a job for me?” she asked without preamble.
His knee bounced rapidly for a moment before he stood from his desk, moving to pace in front of the fireplace. “As you know, I still have the worst of the Morrows, including the majority of those who held more influential positions, incarcerated in our secret jail. After what happened with the University most recently, I started digging a little deeper into their activities. I believe they never intended to work sincerely with either of us. Why they are so determined against the Verdant Stag, I do not know, but there are signs that someone is putting together an assault force. It’s possible that I am being paranoid, but I suspect they plan to try to stop me from sending the Morrows to Harrow Hill.”
Sebastien set the tray down, her mind struggling out of its fugue as the seconds passed in silence. “I assume you have a plan to deal with this? How does it involve me?” she asked, her shoulders tensing as she prepared to argue.
“This Friday night—early Saturday morning—we’ll be turning over the remaining Morrow prisoners to Harrow Hill for sentencing. I have a group of the coppers in my pocket now, and we’ve arranged for everyone necessary to be on the swing shift. As secretly as possible, we’re going to deliver the Morrows to Harrow Hill directly, along with their confessions, witness accusations, and what evidence of their crimes we’ve collected, well before the anyone suspects. By morning they’ll all be booked, with evidence of their crimes on file. No matter how corrupt some of the coppers are, there will be no way to reverse the situation. It’s the last step, and I want to make sure it goes perfectly.”
“And you need me for this?”
He waves his hand. “Oh, no! I need you for what comes before. Nothing dangerous. As you might imagine, the Morrows have quite a lot they could potentially talk about under questioning, not only about their own activities, but about Kiernan’s faction, who are calling themselves the Architects of Khronos, and also about the Verdant Stags. Some of them know things I don’t want getting out, or that I’d like to hold in reserve rather than going full fireball spell, metaphorically. Keeping testimony about the Architects of Khronos in reserve could effectively hold them hostage. And so, inspired by Tanya Canelo, I’ve hired a cursemaster to handle placing a conditional lock on their speech.”
Sebastien frowned. The whole thing seemed rather complicated, but she supposed that when you were in opposition to the established regime, didn’t want to kill your enemies, and didn’t have the resources to run a long-term prison or work camp, things got convoluted. “You…want me to assist the cursemaster?”
“I want you, as Silvia Nakai, to assist Healer Nidson. The whole process is a little dangerous, and I’d rather not have any of them die or be permanently damaged by accident.”
She noted that he didn’t say he didn’t want them to die or be damaged at all. Perhaps if it was on purpose, that would be acceptable to him.
“Healer Nidson requested you specifically. Apparently, he was impressed by your performance the last time you worked together. I do have others with healer training, but none that I trust as much as you. Information security is paramount. As much as possible, I want to surprise everyone not directly involved. It would be a few hours of late night work, you would get to experience some very rare magic up close, and I don’t expect you to put yourself in any danger. If anything were to go wrong, there is a back exit that you can take immediately.”
She hesitated. “I can literally just run away if things go wrong?”
“Yes. Use your judgement to decide if that’s necessary. The guards will be numerous and heavily armed. Even if we do meet obstacles of any sort, we should be able to blast right through them.”
“But there is an enemy that specifically wants to stop you from succeeding. You cannot assume they are foolish or weak. And it seems like something always goes wrong with these dangerous missions. I don’t want to be involved in things that could get me killed, Oliver.”
Oliver’s fingers kneaded at the muscles of his neck. “I am making every reasonable preparation, Sebastien,” he said tiredly. “And we don’t even know that something will go wrong. You’ve done plenty of missions for me that haven’t resulted in combat. Most of the secret meetings, putting up the emergency response flags, and even this recent work against the Gervins. When things have been a little more dangerous, you’ve still acquitted yourself admirably. We’re in this together, or haven’t you realized? When the Morrows are safely locked away, you’ll be safer, too. Why are you so resistant to the idea?”
‘I’m so resistant because I’m waiting for something to go horribly wrong, like it always seems to. I cannot withstand it if things keep getting worse for me,’ she thought wearily.
He shook his head, then finally stopped pacing and really looked at her. “I’m sorry. I know you’re struggling too, but I don’t have a lot of options. And I think what I’m asking is reasonable. Do I need to remind you of the debt you owe? The Gervin sub-contract has yet to land on my desk.”
She glared at him for a long few seconds. “I’ll need to prepare. We need to prepare. If I’m going to be involved, I need to be sure things are done right. It’s going to be difficult, on such short notice. Stars above, I don’t have time for this.”
Taking a deep breath to fortify herself, she squared her shoulders, lifted her jaw, and said, “Let us discuss the payment first.” She might not be able to get out of this, to be just a University student, but she could make Oliver’s wallet hurt for the offense.
They spoke for over an hour, her questioning his preparations and suggesting a few additions. When there was no more time, she hurried back to the University, mulling over all the necessary preparations and adjustments to her plans.
She took the beamshell tincture with the cafeteria breakfast, and then spent the rest of the day on the go, trying to squeeze every last drop of value from each spare minute. In the evening, she made a series of eclectic purchases, inspired by Ana and Damien’s ingenious contributions to Operation Defenestration.
The remainder of her week was spent in preparation, with more emergency stash locations and disaster plans, as she struggled to recover from the sleep deprivation that single late night of spell research had caused.
When Ana and Damien had worked on the planning and preparation for Operation Defenestration, they had opened Siobhan’s eyes to how much someone’s image could change just from a bit of makeup and the right clothes, as well as the sheer extent of what some of the nobles would do to change their appearance, and thus the market for such things.
And so, she’d availed herself of some darkening cream for her skin, to turn her smooth ochre tint into a slightly more blue-based brown, a prosthetic nose with thicker nostrils and a bit of a bump in the middle, and finally, some color-changing lenses made of reinforced glass, to turn her dark eyes into a light blue.
The lenses were the most difficult part of the whole transformation, as she’d had a lot of trouble getting them into her eyes, and once there, to settle properly over her watering eyeball. They didn’t exactly make her eyes unremarkable, as the bright blue stood out starkly against the deep dark brown beneath, giving her a striking, piercing gaze, but they did definitely help to make her look nothing like herself.
Along with a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, some artful grey streaks in her hair, and a little bit of transparent tightening paste she’d dabbed at the corner of her eyes while squinting to give herself wrinkles, she truly appeared to have transformed into someone else. Perhaps an aunt, or an older cousin.
Siobhan had wondered if she should start trying to think of herself as Silvia, when she was in her new and improved disguise. Ultimately, she decided against it, because incorporating more than two distinct self-identities seemed like both too much work, and the kind of thing that could lead to dissociation of her base identity. She’d already had some trouble with that.
She arrived the Verdant Stags’ secret jail, an unassuming, rectangular brick building whose most interesting feature was the strategic positioning of small windows that looked more like arrow-slits, only on the second floor. Apparently, some clever enforcer had started calling it Knave Knoll, a witticism based on Harrow Hill, and the name had stuck. It was a couple of hours before midnight on Friday, and she had slipped by the late-night revelers braving the barely-above-freezing temperatures without notice.
Each of the fifteen wagons waiting in a nearby warehouse would carry prisoners to Harrow Hill, leaving in sets of three at slightly different times and taking random routes that some dice would decide at the last minute. The dozens of enforcers from both the Nightmare Pack and the Verdant Stag who would escort each convoy were waiting either there, or inside the jail. They were the most trusted from both groups, but had still been questioned and searched before she arrived, if everything was running on schedule. The full kit of mismatched battle artifacts, potions, and horses for every one of them had cost a fortune. But they were prepared for almost anything. And if all went well, they would have no reason to use any of it.
After going through the strict security process, she found Oliver inside, waiting with Healer Nidson. The man made no comment on her disguise, simply nodding in greeting, and she assumed Oliver or Katerin had informed him of her updated appearance. Her need for anonymity was a hint at her true identity, but there was little she could do about that at this point. Oliver seemed sure that Healer Nidson was trustworthy, and it was true he didn’t seem inclined to ask questions.
Oliver was visibly tense, his muscles tight and prone to flinching. When he saw her, he made an obvious effort to relax. “What is it they say? It’s not paranoia if they’re really out to get you?”
“It’s still paranoia,” she responded wryly. “But as someone much smarter said, ‘A concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that are real and immediate is the process of a rational mind.’”
“Master Heller, right?”
“I didn’t think you read fiction.”
“My sister read it to me as a kind of reverse bedtime story.”
Healer Nidson interjected before they could continue. “You’re sure none of these people are going to somehow be let off or ‘accidentally’ escape Harrow Hill?”
“The shift manager made sure I would have the right people there tonight, and none of the wrong. Once everything is on file, it would take someone very bold to try and tamper with the evidence. There is not that much leeway in the conviction process. When the right people are in the right jobs, Crown law isn’t actually that horrible. These people are going to be executed or heavily fined and sent to work off their debt in various unpleasant work camps, most likely the celerium mines. And even I wouldn’t be willing to risk a mass breakout from Harrow Hill. The High Crown might actually call in the army to exact retribution and stomp down with the firm boot of the law.”
‘So all we have to do is get them there,’ Siobhan reassured herself. ‘And all I have to do is follow along behind Healer Nidson and do what he says.’ She didn’t say it aloud, because she wasn’t so stupid as to trigger the whole mission going horribly wrong.
As soon as the cursemaster arrived, escorted by Enforcer Gerard, the four of them moved from the lobby area into Knave Knoll proper. The building had obviously been modified, but she suspected that at one point, before the second floor was added, it had been a barn for exotic, dangerous animals. The steel troughs stacked in a corner and the ventilation tubes running through each of the stall-sized cells gave it away, as did the lingering smell of manure, distinctly different from human stench.
Gerard led them to a small infirmary room, where a prisoner was already waiting on the single narrow medical bed within, set in the far corner of the room. The guard who had been with him bowed and left in a hurry.
Within the small infirmary, the cursebreaker lowered the deep hood of his worn leather cloak to reveal sallow, sickly features. His cheeks still held the faint white lines of old scars, and his thin lips were shiny with spit.
Sebastien found him immediately distasteful. ‘Is he deliberately trying to look the part of the evil cursemaster? The leather of his cloak is even discolored and patched, like it was made of pieces of human skin sewn together.’ She shuddered at the thought, glad that they weren’t doing this in a cell, where she would be forced to squeeze in close enough to smell him.
The Morrow man looked Enforcer Gerard and the cursebreaker up and down. “Here to brand your insurance into me, huh? But if you’re worried about us breaking the vow, what’s to say we don’t break a curse, too?”
“I am an expert,” the cursebreaker said simply, his voice dry and raspy, as if his throat had been slit at some point and the healer hadn’t put it back together quite right. He wasted no time getting to work.
He pulled a jar from one of the many pockets inside his dank cloak, and began to write on the floor with the dark-brown, congealed substance within, which shimmered green in the light of the wall lamp. A whiff of it hit Siobhan’s nose, and from the salty-sweet, coppery tang, she identified blood as one of the major ingredients. He was creating a spell array, but she didn’t recognize at least half of the glyphs, and the use of numerological symbols was…strange. He drew two different versions of a heptagram, one even and broad, and the other strangely lopsided and spiky. Other lines branched off of this combined symbol, connecting particular glyphs and even a few other small symbols at the edges. In the center, he drew a filled-in circle the size of his fist.
When he finished that, the cursemaster took out a leather wrap, unrolling it to reveal over a hundred slender needles, some long and some short. He dipped a few dozen in the jar of blood, then set them aside. Then, he pulled out two small scrolls, one tied with a green ribbon, and the other with a red. “You understand the contents of the seal I will be placing on you?” he asked, waving them at the prisoner. “You may read them again, to familiarize yourself, if necessary.”
Siobhan’s attention caught on the word “seal,” and her interest deepened. ‘Was something like this done to me?’ she wondered.
The prisoner waved a hand, his jaw clenched tight as he stared with futile unwillingness at the cursemaster.
“Very well.” He produced a milky-white potion, into which he dipped a tiny brush and wrote something indistinguishable around the edges of both scrolls. When he finally unrolled them, he drew a thin slice across the Morrow man’s hand and forced him to create a large blood print on both of the scrolls, which he then burned up. The prisoner reluctantly ate the ashes, and then the real work began.
The cursemaster brought out a strange lump of clay—no, not clay. Siobhan had thought it was clay because of the way it squished in his hand. But the surface was pink and smoothly textured, and the lines of his fingers left no prints in its surface as he began to mold it. It was a little ball of flesh.
The prisoner almost gagged, and she sympathized. The cursemaster worked with frightening speed, molding the ball of flesh into a surprisingly realistic doll-like form. “A hair,” he demanded, holding his hand out. When he received it, fresh plucked from the Morrow man’s head, he stuck it into the scalp of the doll, which absorbed it like someone hungrily sucking up a noodle. The doll’s features clarified, and Siobhan watched in horror as it grew to resemble the prisoner almost exactly over the course of a handful of seconds.
The cursemaster produced a small wooden box, which looked rather like a miniature coffin, and set the tiny simulacrum inside, where it rested peacefully.
The Morrow man was breathing hard, staring at it with bulging eyes, and when the cursemaster reached for him, he jerked back. “No, no, don’t touch me!”
“It is much too late for that,” the cursemaster said. “Hold still. I will complete the task I was assigned with your cooperation or without it. But my employer would prefer it if I leave you undamaged. Excessive struggling will make things…dangerous. The brain is a delicate thing, after all.”
When he picked up two of the longer needles, the prisoner started to hyperventilate, and scrambled back into the corner. “Please, don’t do this! I promise I won’t talk!” Seeing the cursemaster unmoved, the man’s eyes turned toward Healer Nidson and Siobhan. “Help me! Help!” He began to sob.
Siobhan turned to Healer Nidson.
His expression was grim, his lips pressed together tight and compassion in his eyes. “If you would like, I can give you a minor sedative to help keep you calm, and something to keep you from accidentally moving. I would recommend the latter, at least. Even a small flinch could do damage.”
After a long moment of horrible disillusionment, the prisoner accepted both. Healer Nidson didn’t need Siobhan’s help to provide a couple of potion doses, and soon enough the cursemaster got back to work. The prisoner was moved into the center of the spell array, his head resting over the central dot.
The cursemaster inserted both long needles, tipped in that strange blood concoction, directly through the man’s skull and into his brain, seeming to encounter no resistance as he did so.
The Morrow man’s eyes were open, leaking silent tears.
Humming under his breath, the cursemaster opened the prisoner’s mouth, pulled out his tongue, and began to insert the shorter needles into the soft flesh. It quickly became apparent that he was building a particular pattern, though Siobhan couldn’t be sure if it was somehow matching the spell array underneath, or something new altogether.
He released the man’s tongue to draw back into his mouth with the needles still in it, then stood up, patting his hands on his knees where he’d gotten a little dusty from kneeling. He pulled out the larger needles from the man’s skull, cleaned them thoroughly, then picked up the little box with the simulacrum. Very casually, he wiped his finger across the lips to erase them, leaving a blank swath where the mouth had been. Then he closed the lid and handed the box to Gerard. “This one is finished.”
Siobhan stared at the silently crying man as a couple of enforcers arrived to carry him away, wondering if this was what the Architects of Khronos had done to Tanya—if there were still needles in the other young woman’s tongue, hidden within the soft pink flesh. At least this Morrow man had deserved punishment, either directly or through being complicit in the crimes of his organization and underlings. Still, the whole thing left the palms of her hands sweaty and an unpleasant dizziness in her stomach.
She watched an almost identical process play out a few more times with impressive speed, and finally mustered up the courage to speak about an hour later, while they were waiting for the next important prisoner. “I noticed you used some principles of binding magic. But it wasn’t an equivalent exchange, right? Which is why it’s considered a curse. Does the seal only work on speech? Could you seal someone’s ability to cast certain magic, or think of certain things, or…” She trailed off as Healer Nidson shook his head at her.
The cursemaster didn’t respond to her questions, and didn’t even look her way.
In the hallway outside, the guards were beginning to lead away some of the prisoners for loading into the wagon convoys. Some struggled, some were crying, and some looked numb. While none bore the signs of physical torture, she looked at some of their eyes and realized that did not preclude more subtle forms of persuasion.
One guard sneered at a woman who was sobbing and grabbing onto his shirt. He pried her fingers off him, then examined both of her empty hands as if suspecting that she had tried to pickpocket him. “If you didn’t want to pay the price, you shouldn’t have committed so many crimes,” he said.
She scoffed through her tears. “We paid for our crimes, quite literally, and now we’re being turned into the coppers to pay again? You may pretend to be righteous, but in truth you’re maggots, stripping every last ounce of flesh off our rotting carcasses!”
Enforcer Gerard turned to Siobhan. “That woman was a child trafficker. I’m sure you’ve heard the stories about what happens to stolen young children. Oliver found some of them in the basement of a Morrow lieutenant’s house after two days of questioning her. Three were already dead, and one of the little girls was pregnant.” He spoke loudly enough to be heard by those passing by.
Siobhan blanched, her stomach rolling over inside her as sudden tears prickled at her wide eyes. She knew too well what could happen. She pushed the thoughts away with a physical shudder.
“They were going to die anyway!” the woman screeched. “Their parents couldn’t afford to feed them. You don’t know where they came from. Some of them ended up with better lives, because of me!”
One Morrow man passing by closed his eyes to her words. “Shut up!” he screamed at the woman, and Siobhan suddenly knew that he had been aware of the child trafficking. He felt badly about it now, but not enough to do anything at the time.
Any the sympathy she’d had for the cursemaster’s victims died a little inside her. If she ever found out that Oliver was doing something so heinous, he would immediately and forever become her enemy. That these Morrows had willingly worked with an organization where such things were acceptable made them complicit. No matter what reason they had joined, the people who were still here, being taken to Harrow Hill, deserved their punishment.
Her respect for Healer Nidson increased when one of the cursemaster’s subjects began to convulse as he inserted the needles into her brain.
Healer Nidson immediately stopped the cursemaster, and with Siobhan’s help, stabilized the woman so she didn’t do any further damage to herself. Then he used a complicated healing spell with several components from the Plane of Radiance, which caught the tail end of her seizure and soothed her into a deep sleep. The light was bright and pure, harsh and cleansing, and from the spillover alone, Siobhan could feel how light could be used in transmogrification to such great effect.
Undeterred, the cursemaster finished the seal, and once again motioned for the next prisoner to be brought in. But before they could arrive, one of the guards hurried up with a whispered message for Enforcer Gerard.
The man’s expression didn’t shift, but his muscular shoulders drew forward like a bear preparing to run toward the enemy. Siobhan caught some of his murmured reply. “Only two more prisoners to go. Don’t start loading the final convoy yet. Give us twenty minutes.” As the guard ran away to carry the message, Gerard said to the rest of them, “Nothing for you to worry about, just some precautions.”
Siobhan was intensely curious, but couldn’t ask for more details when acting as Silvia and in front of the other two.
Halfway through the final seal, the hallway lights shut down. They flickered back on, now shining a deep red. They flickered off again and were replaced by blue lights. The sequence repeated with ponderous ominousness. In the sudden silence that resulted, Siobhan could hear a low, moaning alarm, not screeching like the city-wide rogue magic alarms, but nevertheless disquieting. She recognized the sequence, as one of the many parts of preparation she had made for this evening, but the one to speak was Enforcer Gerard.
“Stop all prisoner transports and activate security measures,” he recited.
“We’re being attacked,” Siobhan predicted with numb lips.
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