Chapter 133 – Embers of a Dead Star

Siobhan

Month 3, Day 13, Saturday 1:50 a.m.

Siobhan’s warding medallion had activated several times, helping to protect her against multiple attack spells and even some shrapnel, and its unpleasant cold against the skin of her chest was a constant reminder of the danger she had stepped into. Believing that they’d killed Oliver, she’d been vengeful and had recklessly joined in attacking the enemy along with the guards on the roof around her.

But somehow Oliver had survived. She’d watched as he made it through the doors to Knave Knoll, covering his retreat as best she could when the Architects of Khronos sent even more powerful enemies to try and stop them.

I should probably go back down and assist Healer Nidson. I saw a lot of injured men and women,’ she thought. She was running low on stunning spells and battle philtres, anyway. Before she could retreat into the safety of the building, however, she was distracted by an alarming sight.

At the rear of the enemy reinforcements, near the bridge behind the sea turtle, an old man who looked half-desiccated, with thin, mottled skin that clung tightly to his bones, was crouched on the ground beside a chest of supplies, setting up a spell array of wrought iron with a diameter wider than he was tall. She’d heard that soldiers sometimes used huge metal war arrays with modular pieces for powerful attacks.

The thaumaturge slid a metal glyph the size of his palm into place within this portable war-Circle.

“That man in the back is the highest priority target,” she called out, pointing down at him. “Take him out with prejudice, before he can finish whatever he’s preparing.”

Several of her allies attempted to do so, but the water elemental protected him from all their attacks, and he didn’t even bother to lift his head from his work, so assured was he of his safety.

“It could be an artillery spell,” Siobhan warned, turning back to the trap door in the center of the roof. ‘I’m not sure if the wards can stand up to something like that,’ she worried silently. ‘I’ll tell whoever’s in charge below, someone who might actually be able to do something about it, and then I’ll go help Healer Nidson. I’m useless in the fight at this point, and this isn’t exactly a safe location.

Before she could step down, Oliver’s head poked out of the trap door’s entrance. “Are you sure you don’t have a taste for danger? At the most, I expected you to be safely assisting Healer Nidson, not battling like a valkyrie up here.” The grin hidden by his mask was clear in his voice.

Siobhan scowled at him, ignoring his teasing. “I think we’re still in danger.” She explained quickly, and his expression sobered.

“Everyone should come inside. As soon as we activate the final lockdown wards, not much should be able to get past them. Let the coppers deal with these mercenaries; we have more important things to worry about. The Verdant Stag is being attacked. I need ten men to resupply and come with me to assist the home base, urgently.”

Siobhan didn’t understand why he would be willing to leave Knave Knoll in such a precarious situation. The Verdant Stag had their own enforcers, after all. But then she shook herself. The Verdant Stag also housed Katerin, and Theo. His life was more important than the remaining prisoners, and the guards and enforcers here were as safe as they could be considering the circumstances.

“You stay with Nidson. The others will need your help to evacuate,” Oliver said to Siobhan, already lowering himself back down.

“What about the coppers?” she asked, moving to follow him.

“We’ll be leaving the Morrows to them. Anyone who’s still in this building when the coppers enter is going to be arrested. It’s a shame to lose the investment, but it was too late as soon as the fighting drew attention here. It was only ever viable as a secret.”

She hoped the circumstances wouldn’t somehow allow the Morrows here to go free but knew that was out of her hands. “How long do we have?” she asked, stepping away from the flimsy, unfolded stairs so those following her could descend.

Before Oliver could answer, something changed above her, making the hairs on the back of her neck stand up like the moment before a lightning strike.

She threw herself to the ground. “Take cover!” she yelled. The decrepit thaumaturge had moved so much faster than she had thought possible.

Those still on the stairs scrambled down in a reckless mass of limbs. One of the people stuck on the roof let off a scream of despair. Some scrambled toward the edge of the roof furthest from the fighting, while others hunkered down and activated shielding artifacts if they had them.

The effects of the spell didn’t come as she had feared, and after a few seconds she lowered her arms from around her head and tentatively peeked upward.

In the air a dozen meters above Knave Knoll, a wispy glow of light undulated, reminding Siobhan of a rare aurora she’d seen once as a child on an island far to the north. From its billowing, ethereal sheets of color, a mottled, pockmarked boulder grew from nothing.

The dark rock reminded her of a piece of coal, somehow grown to the size of a whale. It looked like she imagined a meteor might. It even began to twinkle with little embers of light, but those glitters looked not like the orange smolders of coal, but like the yellow-white embers of a dead star.

As she watched in stunned silence, those twinkling sparkles of gold grew brighter and brighter. The floating meteor trembled, the gold pulsed, and glowing dust began to fall from it.

Siobhan scrambled back from the trap door’s opening, until her back pressed against the hallway wall. “Don’t let it touch you!” she called out. There was no way this was harmless, or their attackers wouldn’t be waiting patiently outside.

“What is it?” asked one of the men beside her, shield spell stretched out from the tip of his trembling wand.

“Help! Help!” a woman above screamed. “We’re still here, don’t leave us!”

“They’re going to drop a giant rock on us!” one guard yelled, turning to run away.

This only caused more panic, but the glowing dust came down surprisingly slowly, wafting back and forth on every small current of the air, as if each piece were made of feathers rather than stone.

Siobhan grew even more worried as that dust fell right through the ceiling, completely unaffected by the physical barrier.

The guard beside her lifted his wand so the domed shield faced upward, but it, too, did nothing to slow the dust. Siobhan’s heart went cold with dread. She looked down the hallways that stretched out from this central area in all four directions. The gold dust was sprinkling down in every direction that she could see, seemingly unaffected by distance. ‘But the wind is blowing outside,’ she remembered. ‘If this was anything like real dust, the direction the wind is blowing from would be less saturated, because the particles would have been swept away.

The twinkling of the bizarre meteor above them brightened as she fumbled for the paper spell array she’d drawn Grubb’s barrier spell on. It might be the lowest-powered barrier spell she’d been able to find in the University library, but it was supposed to protect against weak physical projectiles.

Since it didn’t matter where she stood, she moved closer to the trap door so that she could see what was happening above more clearly.

One of the guards stuck on the roof stepped closer, his wand lifted in a trembling, white-knuckled grip. He released a fireball spell right at the meteor. Past the woof of impact and the hungry roar of the flames, myriad tiny firecracker-like pops were audible. The flames seemed to burn away some of the rock on the pockmarked surface above, though even the full impact of the spell barely caused its looming mass to tremble.

“Why would you do that?” another guard screamed at him. “You have no idea if that would have worked. It could have exploded the whole thing and brought it down on us!”

“I’ve never seen a problem that enough fire can’t kill,” the first man spat back, lowering his wand. “But I’m out of charges. I think it helped a little?”

More gold sparkles had been revealed, glowing even brighter. The dust sprinkled down more thickly, though it still floated extremely slowly, catching each eddy in the air and swirling under the golden light like dust motes in a late afternoon sunbeam through a window. ‘It didn’t help at all. If anything, it worsened our situation,’ Siobhan thought. ‘But the fire did seem to affect the dust.

“This has to be some sort of poison,” one of the men babbled loudly over the frightened murmurs of his companions. “We can’t just sit here and let it get us! I say we all make a run for it a-all…” He swallowed and seemed to lose concentration for a moment. “All at once. Before we can’t.”

Oliver agreed. “Come down!” he called. “Single file, no shoving.”

As the guards tentatively followed his orders, fearful to move directly underneath the mysterious meteor, Siobhan went into the nearest hallway, holding Grubb’s barrier spell up above her head. Clutching her Conduit and the second beast core she’d splurged on, she cast the spell. It, too, did nothing.

She watched the dust sprinkle down around her, noting that her warding medallion didn’t seem to recognize it as a threat. Whatever wards the building contained were similarly unresponsive.

Dropping the spell as she reached the end of the hallway, she looked out and to the left to catch a glimpse of the ongoing battle outside. ‘Shouldn’t the coppers be doing something about this?’ She snorted at her own naivety. When had she ever been able to rely on the coppers to save her? The enemy thaumaturges were still at the edge of the canal in front of Knave Knoll, and the coppers were still in their barricaded station on the street beyond. Though she caught the light of a few spells flying in various directions, it was obvious they weren’t particularly effective.

The glowing dust was floating down to the floor now, and where it touched her, it passed through her clothes and flesh without sensation, seeming completely harmless.

But as she watched, one piece of dust right in front of her face lost its glow, and was caught in the soft wind of her exhale, swirling forward into the window. Where it touched, a little pointy black bulb grew on the glass, and in between one second and the next, the glass in front of her face turned into the same mottled substance as the meteor above. Siobhan stumbled back in horror, but couldn’t tear her gaze away from the spot, which continued to grow as tiny gold motes of light bloomed in it, too.

She pressed a fist to her mouth, biting down on the knuckles to keep herself from screaming as she spun around, her eyes searching for more signs of the spell’s effects.

“What is it?” a woman asked. Siobhan was surprised to see the hallway before her filled with most of those she’d been fighting with on the roof above. They had followed her, as if she must know what she was doing.

Siobhan ignored her, spotting several sections of the ceiling that were becoming dark, pockmarked stone, some already meeting and melding together into a single mass that released even more dust. She shared a look with Oliver, and they seemed to come to the same conclusion simultaneously.

“We have to get out of here, right now,” Oliver said. “Split up, one group for each wing. Get everyone. I don’t care how injured or busy they are. Carry them with you if they can’t walk. We’ll meet by the emergency back exit. If you’re not there in two minutes, expect to be left behind.”

Siobhan began running even before Oliver had finished speaking, more grateful than ever for Fekten’s lessons that had kept her in the best physical condition of her life. One of the men who had chosen the same direction as her nodded jerkily as he ran, his head flopping a little too far up and down in a way that looked uncomfortable. “Small groups,” the man said. “Be-because…” His eyes lost focus for a moment, and he shook his head as if to clear it. “It’s easier to hide when you’re small. Easier to… We could hide under the bed, maybe? Or if it gets really bad, in the c-c-closeeeeet?” It was obvious that something was very wrong with him.

Quickly, the cause became apparent.

“He’s got black spots on his skin,” the woman nearest him announced, flinching back. “Little bumps. They’re growing!”

He twitched, his lips pursing and retracting wetly. “But I’ll need, my, my”—he searched for the word—“blanket-t-t.” He continued to make tapping sounds with the tip of his tongue.

It was true. Some of the dust that had stopped glowing must have landed on him, and just like the window glass, he was being consumed.

“Cut them out!” Siobhan screamed, almost tripping over her own feet as she reached down to pull the long, thin dagger from its place between her shin and her boot. She grabbed the man, yanking him about so that she could see the black spots more clearly. Some of the others stopped and helped her hold him still as he jerked against her grip, but others left them and ran ahead with clear terror.

Siobhan found a couple of black bumps on his neck, and one on his bare forearm, and dark vein-like tendrils were starting to spread from them. She peered at the growing masses for a moment before pressing in near the edge of one with the tip of her dagger.

To everyone’s surprise and horror, the spot pried out easily enough with a knife, though the dark tendrils seemed to resist extraction. It was wriggling. Siobhan held it up to the light, displaying a small, squid-like form with thin, barbed tentacles. She tried to crush it between the ground and her blade, but despite the pressure she applied, it wouldn’t die. To the contrary, its tendrils seemed to reach greedily for the exposed flesh of her hand.

She felt her skin ripple as her whole body shuddered with a wash of visceral disgust. “The dust, it’s actually spores, or eggs, or tiny little bugs,” she deduced aloud. “If it touches you, it latches on and affects your mind, and maybe it’ll slowly turn you into stone, too.”

Everyone else quickly began to check themselves for similar black spots, some discovering them and prying them out. One of the men discovered a black spot on the back of his companion’s neck, and in his haste to remove it, cut the other man quite badly.

Siobhan turned to run again, doing her best to examine herself visually while also avoiding any dimmed motes of magical dust—tiny parasites. She wished she had a strong beam of light, as that would make seeing their inconspicuous forms floating in the air much easier. When she passed a couple of guards stationed at the outer windows to watch for danger from other directions, she screamed for them to follow.

They were alarmed enough at the phenomenon with no apparent source that they followed without question.

One of the Nightmare Pack men had a physical shield, wood reinforced by bands of metal. He held it up over himself and a couple of others that huddled together under it like an umbrella. It did nothing for the glowing dust motes, but Siobhan noticed it push away some that had dimmed, though they were so light they just hung in the air and swirled around in the wake of their passing, wafting after them as if reaching for their skin.

As her group skidded and stumbled to a stop in front of the door that led to the stairwell, Siobhan clenched her jaw. The door was a quarter converted into dark stone already, and the corruption was spreading toward the ground. The door wasn’t locked and the handle was still clean, but it wouldn’t open. The door and wall were melded together into a single entity where they’d been converted to stone.

She stepped back sharply and gestured to her companions. “Break it down!”

They got to work immediately, clearing the space a few meters in front of the door while a couple of women with concussive blast charges in their wands attacked the bottom half of the door. It was sturdy, reinforced specifically to stand up to attacks, and the glowing ripple that ran over its surface under the blows revealed it was magically reinforced, too.

The rest of the group tried to huddle under any physical barriers they could manage, but while the glowing motes of dust passed through everything, their dimmed counterparts were not constrained only to traveling on the currents of the air. Though the man with the wood and metal shield continued to hold it up, the dust that fell atop it somehow rolled over the bands of metal that should have acted as a barrier, tumbling off the sides and then floating inward again.

As one crossed in front of Siobhan’s face, she saw the almost invisibly thin tentacles that would grow if allowed to plant themselves in flesh. It was using them to grasp the air, sailing through the currents like a boat through the ocean.

She thought back to the meteor floating in the air above them. ‘What the hell is this spell? It seems ridiculous—impossible. It’s so excessive—that rock isn’t an illusion, it’s a physical mass. Where did the energy for that come from? And so complex, creating the semblance of life to disseminate its effect. Are we fighting against a Grandmaster, or even an Archmage? But even so, why not just some widespread hex or curse? All this extra effort seems…prohibitive.

People were scrambling like they had ants under their clothing, letting out a little burst of panicked activity every time they found a parasite latching on, often slicing into themselves as they fumbled in their attempts to cut them out.

Another group of escaping guards joined them at the door, and soon enough they had it blown open. They all scrambled down the stairs with so much stumbling, shoving panic that Siobhan felt like they were on the edge of turning against each other.

Once on the ground floor, they sprinted toward the back exit, those with injured companions either dragging them or outright carrying them if they had the strength. The glowing motes were already down here, having passed right through the floor above.

Oliver’s group, much larger and coming from the other direction, had arrived before Siobhan’s, and were already trying to break down the door. But several of his people were yelling as they attacked it, and those on the edge were staring with numb defeat. Many others were displaying strange tics or vacant stares that indicated they’d been infected. Perhaps some of them didn’t even know what to watch out for.

Siobhan knew, without even needing to push through the crowd of panicked and injured, that they were too late. She looked around, noting how much of the structure was pocked black rock, and how thick the glowing motes in the air had grown.

They were trapped within Knave Knoll, and even the walls had turned against them.

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