Month 3, Day 13, Saturday 1:55 a.m.
“We need to find the most wide-open area, farthest from the ceiling or any walls,” Siobhan called out, pitching her voice to be heard over the increasingly loud panicking crowd. “If you have any black dots, use the edge of a knife to pry them out before they poison you.”
Oliver and some of the others who hadn’t lost their senses to panic or the effects of the parasites moved to guide the group toward the center of the ground floor, a common area with cells surrounding them on all sides.
Some of the scattered prisoners that remained were panicking, pleading for help or to be set free, but at least half of them were drooling, twitching messes collapsed on the floor of their cells.
Oliver moved to her side, murmuring just loud enough to be heard. “It affects everyone indiscriminately. That might actually be a good thing. The Architects of Khronos seemed pretty determined to take the prisoners alive.”
Siobhan ran her tongue over the back of her teeth. If that was true, the spell would have to end at some point so they could get into the building. Likely, by that point, everyone within would have collapsed into gibbering messes. “So we just need to wait it out?” she murmured, feeling skeptical. ‘How long can that decrepit thaumaturge keep this up?’
But she knew it was a mistake to underestimate the man. If they hadn’t stagnated, all old thaumaturges were powerful, having had the time to grow their Will with thousands of hours of practice. They really might be facing off against someone with Archmage-level power.
A nearby woman fumbled out a small cylindrical artifact, and, with a flick of the switch on its side, created a candle-sized flame. She waved it through the air, catching a couple flecks of dimmed dust. They let off sharp popping noises and disintegrated. The flame did nothing to the still-glowing motes, but after Siobhan pried a growing parasite out of the skin of her wrist before it could dig too deep, she held it out to the fire. It sizzled and, after a few moments, popped like its smaller brethren.
Others followed Siobhan’s example, one man laughing humorlessly. “I never thought I’d be grateful for your disgusting etherwood-smoking habit, Sarah,” he said, “but now I wish I had a flame of my own.”
“The benches!” another man pointed out, already moving to try and break one apart. The seat was made of wood. “We can light a fire!” With a roar, one woman snapped one of the benches in half with a single, dramatic punch. After this example, several more joined in trying to create shattered pieces of firewood, and others even removed their clothes to act as tinder.
Anyone with the ability to create even a small flame suddenly became incredibly popular, and sporadic popping of the little squid-like parasites grew to a comforting staccato.
One of the Nightmare Pack men fumbled in his pockets, triumphantly producing a small stone, which he held aloft. “I use it to heat my soup at lunch. It’s not fire, but it gets quite hot.”
Using the heat stone, they were able to burn out several infected areas difficult or unsafe to reach with a knife’s blade. While cackling evilly even as his own fingers sizzled and smoked under the heat of the stone, the man said, “Make them uncomfortable enough, and they’ll detach on their own. It’s just like sizzling the ass off a tick!”
That first man who had started to show side effects while they ran down the hallway was curled up on the ground. He had stopped tapping his tongue but was still silent and a little vague. She could only hope the effects weren’t permanent.
“We need a shield of fire,” Oliver called. “Can anyone produce something like that?”
They all looked around at each other. Enforcer Huntley pointed to an unconscious man who had been injured much earlier in the fighting, and who now had a large lump under one side of his shirt. “He’s a fire witch, but he only has a drake familiar, and the creature’s on the brink of death.”
Healer Nidson pushed through the crowd, looking harried and mussed, his clothes smeared with blood and ash, and a bruise growing quickly around the flesh of one eye. He took a few moments to examine the unconscious man and his familiar. “I might be able to wake them up,” Nidson said, shaking his head, “but there’s no chance of them managing a spell in their condition.”
“Get working on it anyway,” Oliver ordered. “We need everyone in the best possible condition for our escape.”
Siobhan noticed a black spot growing just under her collarbone. It was almost out of her line of sight, and she’d missed its initial attachment, giving it time to grow. Moving as quickly as she could under the sudden renewal of horrified adrenaline, she covered her free hand with a fold of her skirt, then pinched the exposed nugget of bug between a finger and her knife, slowly and firmly pulling it out. Its tentacles resisted, and she applied slow force, shuddering at the thought of one of them breaking off inside her and festering under her skin.
The dim motes were sprinkling down on them in ever-increasing numbers.
She tossed the bug-squid into the nearest fire, which had grown smoky with the addition of more lacquered wood and what looked to be a piece of mattress from one of the prisoners’ cells. The raw hole left behind in her skin wasn’t bleeding, and it didn’t even particularly hurt. A horrifying idea had her examining it for signs of eggs laid within, but there didn’t seem to be any.
She tried Grubb’s barrier spell again, now that so many more glowing motes had dimmed into their parasite forms. Again, it did nothing, which left her surprised and frustrated.
‘What are these? This spell should work against physical matter. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t discriminate between living or non-living, so that shouldn’t be the problem. One of its most common uses is as an umbrella against rain. But it doesn’t block air. Perhaps the parasites are too small and pollen-like to be blocked. Or perhaps they have some other property that allows them to bypass the spell, like partial incorporeality. Nothing but fire seems to work against them, and that’s strange.’
‘But…they can ride the wind. They’re tangible enough for air to affect them.’ She quickly ripped into her satchel for another piece of seaweed paper containing only a single ink Circle, this one much smaller than the one she’d used to give Enforcer Gerard partial invisibility.
With strokes of wax crayon, she improvised a spell that was a combination of the air-compression sphere, the air-based slicing spell, and Grubb’s barrier. She didn’t have time to make it detailed and perfect, but it had to be good enough that the magic, which was likely to be wild, remained controllable and containable. Her tired Will had to handle it.
She palmed her Conduit and beast core and applied her Will. A dome of air, tightly controlled but almost invisible, grew from the Circle. She held the page up to a few motes of the falling dust, watching as they were caught in the barrier and flushed to one side. More layers of the barrier continued to pulse out from the center, ready to catch any parasites that had dimmed after floating through the edges.
A smile of triumph stretched across her face. It didn’t block the parasites exactly, but it allowed her to guide their trajectory. With the right output parameters—which she didn’t know—or a large enough spell array, which was possible, she could protect their entire group.
“Are there any other sorcerers?” she asked, shuffling along in her crouching position as she hurried to draw a Circle large enough to contain everyone around the remnants of the benches. “Anyone who can cast a gust spell, or a fire spell? We can burn them or blow them away. I just need you to buy me enough time to set up a barrier spell that will work against them.”
One man raised his hand tentatively, and she handed him the spell array page with the gust spell. Her improvised barrier was too dangerous to trust to someone unsure of his own skill. The man had his own small Conduit, but had to use a piece of burning wood held over the seaweed paper page as a power source. The gust of wind he produced was rather weak, but it was enough to catch the parasitic bugs and waft them away as he swept the paper back and forth in slow, wide swaths.
Healer Nidson probably could have been quite helpful, but he was needed to keep some of those with the worst injuries alive. There were a couple of other people with very limited spellcasting experience, and they focused themselves on fire spells, one of the earliest magical applications most thaumaturges learned.
As Siobhan worked, the others kept prying out more of the little bugs from themselves and others, huddling as close together as possible. If the parasites were removed quickly, it seemed to help mitigate their lingering effects. Someone else discovered the parasites could even be caught in wetted cloth waved gently through the air, though they would still try to crawl toward the hand holding the cloth, and the whole thing would have to be discarded into the flames after a few passes.
The Morrows in the cells around them did not have such luxury, and were completely incoherent by this point. Siobhan had no love for them, but this kind of torture, to lose one’s mind, seemed too cruel a fate for anyone to be forced to endure. Still, no one had yet died under the effects of the squid-like parasites, and no one had turned to stone either, but Siobhan could see black tentacles twitching visibly beneath the skin of the afflicted prisoners.
Even with their precautions, many enforcers began to show signs of confusion and disorientation, taking longer to speak, looking or pointing in the wrong direction, and jostling into each other as if drunk.
Soon, Siobhan was finished. They all huddled in together, and she cast the air-based barrier spell in much larger form. The spell array came to life with a glow to match the yellow-white light of the motes and sweat beaded on her forehead as she struggled to contain and guide the energy surging within the spell array around their feet. She controlled the air in a dome shape above and around them, hardening it in pulsing waves of movement that caught dimmed parasites and funneled them toward the fire contained within a secondary Circle on the far side. The pops and cracks reminded her of festive fireworks on a cold night.
With the leeway of her shield, Oliver and the others grew busy planning their escape, but she was too focused on keeping the spell up, stable, and working efficiently against the parasites to listen in.
If they didn’t make it into the fire and die, the parasites she pushed away would come back for them, skittering on their tiny tentacles with a preternatural hunger for living flesh, but it took them much longer, and they still had to get past the base of her barrier.
Eventually, all the walls and furniture outside of her barrier were fully converted into the black, glittering stone, and dust and glowing motes filled the air so thickly it was hard to see the opposite wall. Inside the barrier, they were all illuminated with the brightness of a sunny day, which in other circumstances would have been pleasant, but here was terrifying.
She knew it could only have been a few more minutes, fifteen at most, when the ancient thaumaturge outside finally dropped the spell, but it seemed like much longer.
The motes of light melted away first, and then the air cleared of dust. Better even than that was how the spell-created parasites within people’s flesh disappeared, leaving raw, pink holes in the skin. Her group had fallen silent to mimic the insensate prisoners, the last of the preparations to escape when the enemy came for them being planned in whispers. Teams had been established, those with injuries were patched up, and the remaining supplies had been redistributed to give everyone a fair chance.
Everything she and Oliver had prepared, and it hadn’t been nearly enough against a few powerful thaumaturges.
But what followed surprised Siobhan. With the same colorful, aurora-like glow that had heralded the appearance of the floating meteor above, the walls around them were unmade, layer by layer. The building, the furniture, and even the floor.
Those few people who had been stuck on the floor above fell through as it melted away, and the building’s wards let off strange explosions that were quickly absorbed by that same light as they were destabilized and their energy released.
Siobhan released her barrier spell, worried that some part of the floor would disintegrate and take a piece of her spell array with it, which would be disastrous.
“We don’t need to wait,” Oliver said, elation cutting through the group’s awed silence as they watched the magical unmaking. “We can leave right now. Through the walls, even, no need to wait for a door.” Siobhan’s thoughts felt muted under her fatigue, but she allowed herself to be carried along with the others easily enough.
They did indeed break right through the melting wall, exiting from the end of Knave Knoll farthest from the front and possible observation. Those who couldn’t move on their own were carried by others, and Siobhan caught a glimpse of the cursemaster, thrown over someone’s shoulder, still alive but mindlessly drooling everywhere. Her lips twitched with amusement.
Outside, Siobhan couldn’t help but turn to watch the end of Knave Knoll. The meteor above had disappeared in the aurora, too. Soon, all that would mark the spot would be a shallow, rough pit in the land. ‘How is this possible?’ she wondered. ‘I wouldn’t believe it if someone told me they’d encountered such fantastical spell effects. Not because it should be impossible, but because it’s so…wasteful. Stuff like this is the purview of tall tales and Aberrants, but that old man was definitely human. Right?’ He had not been a slavering monster, and though decrepit, he had seemed coherent. Above all, he’d been using a spell array. Aberrants couldn’t use spell arrays. They cast through their bodies, and only had access to their single anomalous effect.
“Arise, and come to me!” cried a brittle voice. Siobhan had never heard a less compelling offer.
Oliver and Siobhan shared a look as the Morrows left behind in the disappearing building struggled to comply against their bindings, grunting and moaning futilely.
A few of their own people even seemed enticed by the order, but they were held back by their companions.
“Kneel at my feet, my servants, and sleep. When you awaken, all will be well,” the thaumaturge continued.
Siobhan’s skin prickled, and she turned her head slowly to the side, toward the canal. Maybe it was just a trick of reflected sound, but the old man’s voice seemed entirely too close. Like something out of a nightmare, the head of the elemental turtle passed the disintegrating edge of Knave Knoll. The riders were atop it once more, floating through the canal alongside Knave Knoll instead of waiting by the front door.
And so, suddenly, the enemy had a clear view of their escaping group.
There was a single moment of silence as both sides were taken aback, and then, by universal consensus, Siobhan and the others began to run.
She wasn’t sure what their enemies’ plan had been, as the Morrow prisoners were shuffling toward them. Did they plan to drown the Verdant Stag and Nightmare Pack enforcers, and somehow use the water witch’s abilities to tow the Morrows along the canal to safety? There was not enough space atop the elemental turtle’s back to carry anyone else. Perhaps they planned to capture them all. Hostages might be of use, after all.
The old, liver-spotted thaumaturge stood atop the elemental’s broad back, his face twisting in a rictus of rage.
“Scatter!” Oliver screamed, tossing out a vial that exploded into burning, noxious clouds. With the air witch controlling the earlier battle, their people hadn’t had a chance to use many of the battle philtres they had prepared, and had enough left over to be useful now.
Siobhan threw her own philtre of smoke with one hand, shooting one of her few remaining stunning spells with the wand in her other, even as a young man with a hastily splinted broken leg used the last concussive blast spell in his own artifact on the cobblestone edge of the canal, smashing the Architects of Khronos with debris.
Siobhan fired her last two stunning spells blindly over her shoulder as she turned to run, hoping to add to the confusion more than anything.
The young man with the broken leg struggled to hobble away, and she quickly outpaced him. She hesitated, wondering if she should try to help, but a Nightmare Pack enforcer picked him up like a sack of flour and ran away, shouting, “We’ll meet the dawn free and whole, you cowards. And don’t think I’ll forget your faces!”
Perhaps because of this, or just that there happened to be a break in the smoke between Siobhan and the decrepit thaumaturge at that moment, allowing him to pinpoint her location, the liver-spotted man’s expression hardened with sadistic determination. He crouched beside his chest of supplies and began to prepare a spell.
Siobhan raced toward the cross street a few dozen meters away that would put the corner of a building between the two of them, cutting off his line of sight and improving her chances at freedom. As she turned the corner, she paused to make sure no one was left behind.
A few stragglers were hurrying in her wake, led by a woman wielding the lid of a barrel as a makeshift shield to protect some of the more heavily injured. Siobhan tossed a revivifying potion toward a man who was pale to the point of greenness, then turned to continue on, mentally running through the most efficient route back to the Verdant Stag.
She took one long step, and then was wrenched off her feet by the strap of the satchel around her chest.
Her feet slipped upward as her torso was pulled backward, and she slammed into the ground, wheezing out most of the air in her lungs and cracking her tailbone against the cobblestones.
She wasted no time on being stunned, struggling against her attacker before she could fully comprehend what was happening. As she was dragged back along the ground toward the corner of the building she’d just passed, frantically scrabbling, her fingers caught on a length of rope, which twisted and contracted like a snake. It had her satchel and was pulling with some of its bunched-up coils while the head stretched out to get a better grip on the rest of her.
“You cannot escape,” the hoarse voice of the old thaumaturge called, sing-songy and unconcerned by the commotion around him. He wasn’t particularly loud, but she could still hear his voice clearly.
Siobhan scrambled to get her feet under her. She turned, wrenching away from the grip of the prehensile rope with all her weight, but it had already coiled itself well around her bag. ‘I have to let it go.’
In the moment of hesitation that followed, a masked figure stepped out from an alley diagonally across from Siobhan and shot an indistinct spell at the rope. It missed, and when the figure steadied their arm and tried to shoot again, a crack of water slapped through the smoky air and knocked them off their feet hard enough that they bounced off the brick wall behind them.
Siobhan blinked, only then realizing she had seen the mask before. It was the same one Tanya Canelo had worn to the secret thaumaturge meetings.
Spurred back into motion by Tanya’s failure, Siobhan tore the strap off over her head, careful only to avoid ripping out any of her hair, then yanked her wrist away from the searching head of the rope before it could tighten around her. Without the opposing force, she stumbled backward, almost falling over again.
Under the force that had been enough to yank her off her feet, her satchel flew toward the decrepit, vindictive thaumaturge. Siobhan stepped back to the corner, her eyes seeking out the enemy.
Behind Siobhan, a couple of the enforcers had doubled back, perhaps on Oliver’s orders when he realized she wasn’t with them. But there was nothing they could do to help her against enemies like this.
The corpse-like man’s expression of triumph soured as his bounty arrived at his feet inside coils of rope. As if drawn to her like a magnet, he noticed Siobhan peeking around the corner immediately. His eyes narrowed and his lips stretched wide in a smile. He reached a hand toward her.
She lifted her own hand to the side of her abdomen, finding the spot on the holster she wore where she had housed the button of the disintegration mine. She pressed three times in quick succession, then waited, ready to throw herself out of the path of an attack. One second passed, then two…and then the disintegration mine hidden in the bottom of her satchel activated.
The reaction was much more spectacular than she had ever anticipated. Perhaps the mine was faulty. Or perhaps it was just a result of the sudden mix of volatile potions, magical components, and space-bending spells as the disintegration effect worked its way outward. Light and color bloomed in strange, flower-like shapes, one layered atop the other in an organic expression of magic as the very air screamed and popped and twisted.
Siobhan’s eyes were still in the process of widening with surprise when the backlash from the magic-laden explosion hit her, catching her cloak and hair in a wind so strong her eyes were forced to close, throwing her backward until she hit the ground again a couple of meters back.
She curled up, flinching with an instinctive fear of being hit with debris, trying to clear the dark spot in the middle of her vision where she had been staring at the thaumaturge. After a moment, she crawled back to her feet, ears ringing, and carefully glanced around the corner, looking for the thaumaturge out of the corner of her eye rather than straight on. Her peripheral vision found nothing but a crater at the edge of the canal where the elemental had been carrying them along, but the sight made the hair on the back of her neck rise with instinctive fear. The air still swirled with colored mists and made strange sounds, and the water moved strangely at the effect’s edge, as if afraid to touch its borders, preferring to flow around.
Her satchel and all its contents were gone.
More importantly, however, the thaumaturge was definitely dead. And not just him. A ring of mutilated body parts surrounded the crater’s edge, just beyond the radius of the explosion, apparently all that remained of their attackers.
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In other news, I’m still freaking sick. Or I’m sick again? It’s actually hard to distinguish, as every time I start to feel good I seem to push myself a little too hard and then relapse. At this point, I think I just have a sinus infection. I’m well enough to get a little work done, but I’ve lost a good portion of November’s productivity to this crap. A little gem my mom used to say in my childhood, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
I don’t say this to whine, but if I don’t get back to you right away, or I’m slow with any particular task…it’s ’cause I’m sick.