Chapter 139 – Sword of Damocles


Month 3, Day 15, Monday 6:00pm

After spending a few hours catching up on schoolwork, Sebastien retrieved her borrowed books about Myrddin, settling in for some light reading to pass the evening hours. She was both antsy and tired, and had been having trouble concentrating. Though it almost physically pained her to admit, she knew it was because she was craving the beamshell tincture.

She ground her teeth together with futile anger. ‘I can’t believe it’s so easy to almost destroy your own future. But at least I realized now, before things got worse. My Will is still strong enough to get back on track. I control my mind. I control my body. They do not control me.’

Hoping to distract herself, she bundled herself up in her bed, still wearing her jacket for warmth. Resting Myrddin: An Investigative Chronicle of the Legend on her knees, she flipped toward a section nearer the middle.

Several accounts corroborated the fact that Myrddin had, at some point after rising to fame, replaced his more traditional jewelry-style Conduits with a huge sphere of celerium mounted atop a staff. Accounts of the staff itself varied, and even during his life didn’t seem to have a common consensus.

Some said Myrddin had taken it from a twisted branch broken from the heart of a lightning-struck tree—a tree that had grown alone at the top of a mountain, constantly buffeted by storms. Other accounts said the staff was smooth dark stone, inlaid with symbols and lines of gold. Still others said that it was white and slightly porous, carved from the finger bone of a long-dead Titan.

What remained relatively consistent were reports of the Conduit itself, a sphere of polished crystal, as clear and bright as fresh spring water. Its size had been compared to both of a man’s fists together or a pomelo fruit. If true, the book estimated it would have been one of the largest celerium Conduits known to history, at approximately eight to ten inches in diameter.

Its true clarity was somewhat controversial, as one of Myrddin’s contemporaries had written a letter in which he claimed to have examined the Conduit and found a black speck at the very center, about the size of a peppercorn. But even with a small imperfection, such a Conduit could theoretically channel hundreds of thousands of thaums.

Sebastien lifted her gaze from the page, staring into the middle distance as she imagined what it would mean, to need a Conduit that robust. Even Archmage Zard, capable of amazing feats, having been witnessed putting out forest fires and capturing a whale as big as the ship he rode upon by simply lifting it out of the water and holding it there, was only estimated to have a capacity of seventy to ninety thousand thaums.

She thought back to the theory that Myrddin himself had created the white cliffs that surrounded Gilbratha. Suddenly, it didn’t seem quite so unrealistic, though the real question was how a human could grow their Will to that level before simply dying of old age. Thaumaturges lived longer, of course, but generally not more than one hundred twenty years, even for the most dedicated and accomplished. Myrddin had lived longer than that, between two hundred and three hundred years. For a long time after his final disappearance, people had refused to believe he was truly dead.

What must it be like, to walk through the world like that, knowing that with a single thought you can end storms, level mountains, and erase anyone or anything that angers you from existence?’ Siobhan wondered. She imagined the weight of a Will that powerful. It would feel like fate itself was drawn toward her, like she was a star in the midst of the sidereal void, her gravity the only thing that mattered.

Sebastien was so lost in her thoughts she didn’t recognize the cold prickling in her back at first. It was the sense of prying violation, fingers grasping for her body, eyes roving over her secrets, that had her shooting upright so quickly the book tumbled to the floor.

She fell to her hands and knees, stumbling over her blanket and almost tearing the fabric as she tried to free herself. She fumbled out her Conduit so that she could boost her divination-diverting ward’s power.

As the five disks under the skin of her back drew more blood, the deflecting shield pushing the prying divination tendrils away with more power and giving her the pseudo-sensation of more space, she took a deep, relieved breath. ‘My blood must not have been destroyed in the Eagle Tower explosion, like I hoped,’ she realized. ‘Either that, or they have something new from me.’ She had known the Eagle Tower repair was almost finished, but foolishly hadn’t been on guard for a surprise attack.

One hand reaching for her satchel, she swung the strap over her shoulder, picked up the fallen book, and cautiously peeked around the dividing curtain between her and the rest of the dorm. Several students were sitting in the hallway between male and female cubicles, playing a game that involved cards and dice. But they didn’t seem to have noticed her sudden panic.

Moving as quickly as possible, she settled back down and prepared to cast a disintegration curse on her blood, targeted precisely through the reverse-scrying spell she’d previously used to pinpoint the diviners’ location at Eagle Tower.

Despite the unpleasant pseudo-sensations and fear that always accompanied a divination attempt on her, she grinned. Finally, she would be free of the threat hanging over her head like a sword waiting to drop.

Keeping a small part of her concentration on empowering the divination-diverting ward, Sebastien used the majority of her Will to cast the curse.

She waited for the divination to drop as the blood was destroyed, but nothing happened. She pushed harder, feeding more power into the spell and scowling with the force of her concentration.

Still nothing changed, except that the strength of the divination slowly increased.

She kept trying for a minute longer, but with each second that ticked by, her hope faded. More and more of her concentration was required to empower the ward as the divination grew stronger, leaving less to cast her curse. Finally, there was no choice but to admit that she had failed. And worse yet, this divination was already as strong as any she had faced before, and was growing only stronger.

They’re going to put everything they have into this.’ Sebastien felt her shoulders tightening with anxiety and straightened, rolling them backward to release some of the tension. ‘What do I do?

She knew from experience that she couldn’t stand up to their best efforts. Surely the pressure would only get worse. If Liza were here, the woman could probably throw up a quick ward to help, but she wasn’t.

Liza’s wards can still protect me. I just need to get inside her house.’ Cautiously, she slipped from the room and walked down to the end of the hallway, trying not to draw any extra attention to herself that would cause someone to notice the spillover effects of the ward. She clung to the less used pathways to the University entrance, slipping down in one of the tubes while the guards were distracted by a group of drunk students returning from their weekend revelries. Below, she traveled through side streets and alleyways, keeping her cloak pulled up to hide her features as she hurried.

Some part of her had hoped that the divination attempt would give out after a few minutes, and then a few tens of minutes, but instead the pressure only increased, until she could feel her heartbeat pushing against the inside of her skull. She didn’t have the luxury of time to stop by the Silk Door, but she’d had the foresight to put a pair of clothes for either form in each of her emergency stashes. She retrieved one from a hole under a particularly large cobblestone in a fenced-off alley, changing her form and her outfit right there in the cold twilight.

The dress was frilly and pastel, nothing like what she would normally wear. With a small hand mirror, she added her prosthetic nose as well, but passed over the blue contact lenses. They were memorable, and she did not want to be noticed. She shoved the emergency bag inside of her school satchel, which she had no intention of abandoning even if it was a clue.

She was grateful for the half-light of the setting sun as she scurried up the metal staircase to Liza’s door, frantically clacking the door-knocker.

Siobhan waited, shifting from foot to foot and biting her lip impatiently. She knocked again.

No response.

She turned to grip the railing, squeezing the cold, hard-edged metal until it dug into the skin of her palms. ‘I have to leave,’ she realized. ‘I cannot hold it off, and so I must escape. If I cannot get far enough in time to weaken the divination’s power, I may have to leave the city for good, giving up my life here—everything I have come so close to accomplishing—entirely. And every moment I waste makes that increasingly likely.

Siobhan threw herself down the stairs and began to run south. If the coppers were in Eagle Tower, the direction opposite them was the most direct method of escape. If they were in Harrow Hill Penitentiary, she would be better served by going across the Charybdis Gulf to the east, but that would more likely slow her down than anything, especially since she still needed to go south to exit the encirclement of the white cliffs.

She flagged down the first carriage she could find, a nice vehicle with two healthy looking horses and shock absorbers attached to the wheels. She hurled herself inside, urging the driver to continue on her way.

With the increased speed of the carriage, she felt some incremental relief, though the pressure was not receding quite as quickly as it had originally built. Even as she was moving away, they were pouring on the power like syrup over pancakes. Still, at least the balance was moving in the right direction.

The carriage driver grew uncertain as they moved farther into the Mires, but she urged him on. He asked again for a particular destination when they crossed the demarcation line of the white cliffs, which was surrounded by a shanty town that had spilled beyond the once-perfect circle of the city.

When they left the sprawling, improvised housing behind, the countryside opening up to rocky, brush-filled stretches of land on either side of the pitted road, the driver finally stopped the carriage. “I’m not taking you any further without payment.”

Siobhan huffed at him, dug in her purse, and tossed up a handful of silver coins. “My sister is giving birth in the nearest village.” She searched her memory of the maps she’d studied in Oliver’s office. “Umm, Tidewater, I believe it’s called. Hurry.”

The man gave her a dubious look, but weighed the coin in his hand, tucked it in a pocket, and urged the horses on.

Slowly, the strain receded, and finally, an hour after it had started, the divination dropped entirely. Siobhan sagged with relief. They hadn’t broken through. She was safe and could return to the city.

The only problem was, she couldn’t very well tell the driver that she no longer cared about attending her niece or nephew’s birth, and that he should just turn around.

It took them another half hour to arrive at the little village that she hoped was named Tidewater, and she had to give the driver even more coin before he left. By then, it was already quite dark, and of course such a small town had no carriages waiting to be hired. If it were day, she might have bummed a ride on the back of a north-bound wagon, but for the remainder of the evening, it appeared she was out of luck.

She could probably get a ride in the morning, but she needed to be back at the University in time for her classes, shortly after the sun rose. She searched her coin purse, judging what remained after replenishing most of her stock over the last couple of days and her impromptu carriage ride. She somehow had enough coin left after her shopping excursion to buy a donkey, or even a horse, if one were available for sale, but such an urgent purchase would be suspicious. Oliver had been generous, with both the hazard pay and the funds to reimburse her for what she had lost.

A search of her memory and some quick calculation of the time she had traveled told her she was about fifteen kilometers outside of Gilbratha. ‘That’s not much,’ she reassured herself. ‘I can walk that in just a few hours, and be back at the University and in my bed before curfew.

And so she set off, following the distant carriage back down the road they’d come from. It soon became clear to her that, while her overloaded school satchel was wonderful for storing components and books, it was less ideal for hiking. She had also unfortunately failed to replenish her customary bottle of moonlight sizzle, and her normal lantern had been disintegrated. She searched for the light crystal coaster that had come in so handy recently, only to remember that she’d carelessly left it in her bedside drawer the evening after using it in the fight against Malcolm Gervin.

The weight of the satchel’s strap seemed to dig into her shoulders and hurt her ribs with its increasingly cumbersome weight. She quickly drank through her entire canteen of water, but without a convenient source of light, couldn’t stop and set up a spell array to gather more. Her mouth grew dry, and then a headache bloomed. The potions in her bag began to seem appealing more for their liquid content than their magical properties.

The night was so dark that she could barely see the road beneath her feet. But she could hear the ocean, and the occasional yips, howls, and hoots of animals, their cries carrying far on the still night air and leaving her on edge and jumpy.

Shivering and stumbling in the dark, she finally had an idea. She stopped in what she thought was the middle of the road, pulled off one of her boots, and retrieved a paper spell array from her emergency bag. With fingers numb from the cold, she managed to pry open the heel of her boot, then used the finger-knife sheathed within against the flint to create a spark. It lasted only a moment, but by doing this repeatedly, she hoped to read the spell array’s purpose. She might be able to cast in the dark if she already knew with total surety what spell it was, but accidentally mis-matching her Will to the Word could have disastrous consequences.

The sparks revealed that the paper held Grubb’s barrier spell, which she then funneled power through in the most inefficient way possible, allowing the lines of the spell array to glow and heat. With one half of her mind focused on the light from that, she was able to set up a spell to gather water from the air, which she switched over to until her canteen was full. She emptied the bottle, grimacing at the slightly strange taste of the water, and then repeated the process. ‘It would be a good idea to carve the water-gathering spell array into the base of the canteen,’ she realized.

This emergency bag didn’t have any light-based spells in it, but it did have a few blank sheets of paper, and she was still wearing her holster with the beast core. After once again switching to the inefficient barrier spell to create a glow, she drew out a standard glow spell with a directed beam.

Finally, she slipped her boot back on and continued, holding the sheet of shining paper out before her.

She shuffled and limped her way north for hours. Tanya had created an extended reprieve for Siobhan when she blew up Eagle Tower. It had allowed Siobhan to grow complacent. Sure, she’d been trying to prepare for every eventuality, but this problem had begun to seem less urgent. ‘It’s like the sword of Damocles, constantly hanging over me like a guillotine,’ she thought wearily.

When she finally made it into sight of the Mires, she dropped her glow spell to be less conspicuous. She wasn’t alone in the streets, despite the late hour, and some of those who noticed her passing eyed her with predatory contemplation. ‘Stumbling through the southern Mires so obviously alone—and wealthy, in this dress—is a great way to get stabbed and stripped naked, left to die in some unnamed alley.

She crouched down to retrieve the thin, hook-edged dagger from the calf of her boot, rolling her tired shoulders back and meeting the eyes of anyone who stared too long. This late at night, in this part of the city, there were no carriages she could flag down. She was so tired, and every joint in her body ached.

She tried to run coherently through her options. The safest place would be Liza’s, but there was no guarantee the woman would be home this time, either. She could go to the Verdant Stag, but it was still a couple of kilometers away, and Siobhan didn’t feel like she could manage even a few hundred more meters.

A safe house,’ she thought. Latching onto the idea, she combed through her memories and tried to place herself on the dense map of the city. There was a place close by.

She was still trying in vain to remember the password when she arrived fifteen or so minutes later, but when she saw the building, she remembered this location was unoccupied. She counted the bricks on the wall from the back door, seven over, six down, then pried off the facade, pulling out the rugged iron key and using it to let herself in.

After closing and locking the door behind herself, she dropped her satchel, leaned back, and slid down the door until she sat on the floor. She drew her cloak closer, hugging herself as she shivered from a combination of cold and bone-deep exhaustion. “I made it,” she murmured. “Everything is still fine. Just a bit of extra exercise. Fekten would be so proud if he knew.”

She planned to rest for a while and then continue on, thinking somewhere in the back of her mind that she would rise when dawn came and hurry back to the University before anyone important noticed that she had been gone.

Instead, crouched against the wood wall of an abandoned house, Siobhan fell asleep. Without the dreamless sleep spell to stop it, she dreamt.

Siobhan found herself in a diaphanous nightgown, her small brown feet peeking out under the hem, her toes dirty and soles calloused. She looked at her hands, noting their equally small—childlike—size, and the fact that she was having trouble counting exactly how many fingers she had. “Oh no,” she muttered. Or maybe just thought. She couldn’t quite be sure because her lips hadn’t moved.

She was in her childhood house where she had stayed with Grandfather, in front of the tower room with the lead door. Her hand reached toward the doorknob and twisted, then pushed the heavy door open.

Siobhan kept her eyes down, her long dark hair falling forward to obscure her vision at the peripherals. Her bare feet passed over the sticky, red, fungus-like tendrils that had crept their way over the stone floor. They pulsed gently under her, warm and alive compared to the cool stone.

Though she tried to stop, or at least to slow herself, she walked to the center of the room, catching the edge of a mirror frame in her vision. She tried not to look, but she wasn’t in control. The mirror, a rectangle taller than it was wide, was framed in smoldering brimstone, carved in the shape of twisted and elongated limbs, with disjointed fingers poking out here, a knee bent backwards there at the corner, and horribly mangled human feet at the bottom, as if they had been crushed under the monstrous weight of the mirror.

Siobhan’s heart began to beat rapidly, dizzying her and leaving the edges of her vision blurry and dreamlike. Her eyes dragged themselves up to the reflection, which showed not her, but a window looking out over a surreal landscape that had been painted in muted earth tones and fog.

In the distance, hunched forms shuffled. As she stared, they became more defined.

“No, no,” she pleaded, trying to wrench her focus away.

As if in answer to her desperate prayer, her eyes began to move again. But not away. Up—toward the top of the frame—and she couldn’t stop them and she couldn’t look away, but she knew that whatever she saw was going to be horrible, going to break her heart and wrench open her mind. She tried to scream, but what came out were just muted whimpers and whines, like a wounded animal.

Finally, the smoldering brimstone face at the top of the mirror came into view, bound into the frame.

Siobhan tried not to recognize it.

She reached up, ready to claw at her own eyes to stop herself from seeing. Just as her fingertips dug into their slimy wetness, she woke.

She was keening, low and strained, her cheek pressed against the wood panels of the floor. She jerked her head back and scrambled backward like a crab, slamming her head into the wall, her eyes still clenched shut. A few more keening moans slipped out of her before she had the wherewithal to clamp a hand over her mouth.

She flipped over onto her knees, pointing her feet so that she could fold forward over her legs until the top of her forehead made contact with the wooden floor again. She felt like she couldn’t breathe, like she was suffocating, her heart pounding so hard, pumping so much blood that she started slipping around at the edge of consciousness, black and red washes spilling across the backs of her eyelids. ‘This is a panic attack,’ she told herself. ‘Get control. Breathe. Count and hold.

Slowly, much too slowly, she regained control of her body, calming enough to function, the involuntary reactions to panic ebbing away like a lazy tide, breath by breath. It could have been seconds or minutes, she couldn’t tell.

I need the sleep-proxy spell,’ she told herself. ‘It doesn’t matter what I have to do. Development has to move forward.

She changed forms in the dark, fumbling with her clothing.

Climbing up to stand on trembling legs, she stumbled to the window shutter and opened it, letting in light and fresh air through the glassless frame. Some detached part of her noted the paleness and largeness of her hands. In some small way, it was a comfort, this sharp divide between reality and the dream. ‘I’m Sebastien now,’ she thought with the smallest twitch of a humorless smile.

She had to admit to herself that she had probably always been going to give in to Liza, to set aside her qualms and whatever worth the life of a raven or a pixie or a monkey held. She had just been looking for a way to keep going past her own guilt and shame. Otherwise she wouldn’t have only asked for time away to think, she would have made concrete promises about the lines she was not willing to cross.

If there was any other option, I would take it,’ Sebastien thought.

Tears welled up in her eyes and flowed down her cheeks, accompanied by a sharp, aching pain in her chest that made her want to wail and devolve into body-convulsing sobs at the unfairness of her life.

Instead, she kept breathing smoothly, pushing that feeling down until it reluctantly ebbed away. The tears didn’t stop for a while, nor did the shivering.

This is the 5th of 5 bonus chapters brought to you by my lovely patrons! If you are one of those patrons, you still have one more bonus chapter coming tomorrow, which will increase the number of exclusive chapters from 4 to 5.

Voting is still ongoing for the PGTS short story ideas!

Edit 12/29: No chapter next week, as I’m recuperating from working “overtime” the entirety of December as also very busy with all the launch administration. The regular Thursday chapter will be back on 1/12.

In the meantime, there will likely be some bonus content released on the Patreon to tide people over.

EDIT 1/9: Please Read

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