Month 3, Day 28, Sunday, 8:00am
Siobhan had taken the time to put on a full face of makeup, learned from watching Ana create her own natural-seeming look in the morning. It was soft and feminine, much like Siobhan’s dress, a bright pastel green with flowery lace and skirts with much too much fabric. She had colored her hair a dark auburn, with the grey streaks looking like sun-kissed highlights instead. The larger prosthetic nose remained, holding up a pair of fake glasses—wire-framed, large, and round, making her look somewhat like an owl. Fake wrinkles framed her eyes, but she wished now that she had bought another set of colored contact lenses after all. This disguise was meant for the light of day, and would bear more scrutiny.
Making a mental note to correct this oversight, she left the room she had rented in Gilbratha’s largest hotel, leaving the building from a different entrance than she had entered it from. With so much traffic and so many people visiting the city at this time of year, no one would be able to watch all the entrances or keep track of who should and shouldn’t be there.
Siobhan took a carriage to a somewhat rundown business hotel, which had once been in Morrow territory and was now owned by the Verdant Stags. Liza was already waiting in a large conference room on the third floor, bossing around a few of the hotel employees. She looked quite frazzled from the effort of setting the room up for their experiments. The large meeting table had been pushed up against one wall, its spot replaced by empty floor space for the spell arrays and bird cages—still unoccupied at the moment.
The large table held some of the supplies they would be using, including a new, larger diagnostic artifact. Another smaller table against the shorter wall by the door held bowls and plates—for the food they would supply their test subjects as part of the enticement for joining.
Chairs were being laid out in rows on the far side of the room, along with a few cots for emergency use, and Liza was directing the workers about where to place various other items, including what looked to be school workbooks, puzzles, and dozens of paper-filled binders.
To Siobhan’s surprise, several poor people sporting the dirty and ragged look of the homeless and destitute were milling about near the still unfilled food table, looking awkward and unsure. She and Liza had planned that actual testing wouldn’t start until Wednesday or later. ‘Why are these people here already?’
Liza waved Siobhan over, eyeing the modified appearance. “Good work. Silvia, is it?” This was the first time Liza had seen Siobhan in this particular disguise, but they had discussed the plan beforehand.
Siobhan nodded, glancing questioningly toward the people milling about.
“I only put out word and a few fliers yesterday, but some of them are rather eager,” Liza explained. “They found the address and caused a bit of a fuss with the hotel employees. When I arrived this morning the hotel was trying to throw them out, causing an argument in the lobby.”
“Too much attention,” Siobhan said.
“Yes, so I brought them up. I thought, perhaps if we work quickly enough, we can get this small batch of test subjects started early. We’ll have to provide their meal for the afternoon and evening, but I’ve already ordered a simple soup and some loaves of bread from the hotel kitchen. In the meantime, start conducting the intake interviews.”
Siobhan had been initially skeptical of Liza’s claim that they were ready to move on to human testing already. The book Professor Lacer had recommended to her about the proper way to run an experiment said that testing on animals should take months or possibly years, and go through hundreds of test subjects, at minimum. They had done a few dozen tests, with Liza completing many of them on her own, but probably less than two hundred.
However, Siobhan wasn’t prepared to wait for years. Everything had been going so well, with no cases of failure or unforeseen side-effects. And so, she hadn’t protested.
By the time a meal had been brought up and served, Siobhan had interviewed the first handful of volunteer test subjects, run them through the fancy diagnostic artifact, and recorded all their baseline information. During that same time, Liza had set up the spell array within a curtained-off section of the room, and shooed all the nosy hotel employees out. “Don’t want them stealing any of our secrets,” she said, locking the door after them, though Siobhan knew that really, Liza didn’t want to take the chance that any of them would find some aspect of the spell suspicious. Then she left and returned shortly afterward with a cage full of sedated, already enhanced ravens.
Some of their human test subjects were quite nervous, and while they shied away from Liza with her barked orders and gimlet-eyed stare, most seemed more comfortable with Silvia, the pretty assistant with the fluffy dress and pink-painted lips.
A woman with a name tag reading “Jane,” murmured surreptitiously, leaning into Siobhan. “Do you know about what magic spell she’s going to be casting on us? Is it going to hurt? Or leave us with strange boils? I heard stories about one o’ them alchemy stores making a new hand cream they wanted tested. It was supposed to make you as soft as a baby’s bottom, but instead it made all the skin just peel right off, leavin’ people raw and bloody.”
Awkwardly, Siobhan smiled with her best expression of sympathy and patted Jane’s hand. “It’s nothing like that. This spell has been tested on animals already, and shown to be safe. You shouldn’t feel any pain at all, and there will definitely be no scarring or…boils.”
Another man who had introduced himself as Kriffer, no last name, piped up with a wise tone. “I heard they’re going to keep us awake until we start seeing hallucinations, like old Williams who’s got the ‘non-somnia.’”
“But we get a bed and three meals a day the whole time, until the hallucinations start? Plus three gold payment?” a third person asked. “That doesn’t sound so bad. I’ll take a long nap when it’s finished and wake up with enough money to rent a bed in one of the boarding houses. It’ll last me long enough to get a real job, maybe.”
“But what if the hallucinations don’t stop?” Jane asked anxiously. “I don’t want to get non-somnia like old Williams.”
Siobhan raised her hand to stop the conversation before it could devolve further. “I believe old Williams has in-somnia. And—”
Kriffer was shaking his head. “No, that can’t be right. ‘Cause ‘somnia’ means sleep, and ‘non’ means not. So non-somnia means ‘not-sleeping.’ In-somnia would mean ‘inside-sleep,’ which just doesn’t make any sense. But even if you look at it sideways that would still mean he’s always sleeping. And he can’t sleep. Besides, have you ever even met old Williams? How would you know?”
Siobhan blinked a couple times, took a deep breath to refute Kriffer no-last-name from his foundational misconception all the way up, and then let it out again with a big sigh. Arguing with someone like him was useless. “In any case,” she said, “This spell doesn’t forcefully keep you awake. It just keeps you so…healed that you don’t get tired very quickly. When the test ends, you might be a little extra tired for a day or so, and then everything will go back to normal.”
Jane seemed skeptical. “But you made us sign those papers saying we wouldn’t try to sue you if something went wrong, and we can’t talk about what happens here, even to the coppers.”
“That does not mean we believe something will go wrong,” Siobhan said firmly. Her smile was becoming more and more difficult to maintain, so she let it drop entirely. “It’s just standard procedure. Besides, the contract also mentions that if something does go wrong, we’ll pay your medical bills. That would include regrowing your skin, dealing with any boils, or teaching your brain how to sleep again.”
That seemed to mollify the whole group.
“As long as it’s our spell at fault. Which you would have to prove,” Siobhan added.
Kriffer scowled, grumbling something about them being stingy, but the conversation seemed to have reassured the others, and when she asked for a volunteer to go first, Kriffer eventually stepped forward. “Let’s just get this over with.”
Liza checked over the paperwork Siobhan had filled out for the man, then waved him over to the spell array, which was significantly simpler than the one in her house, without as many sub-arrays, since most of the steps had already been completed, the ravens were ready, and the ongoing healing spell surrounding their area of cages, concealed behind another curtain, was already active. Only the binding of man and raven remained.
Kriffer stepped past the dividing line of the curtains and into the Circle of black salt gingerly, then sank down to sit cross-legged in the middle, on Liza’s command.
“We don’t want you getting startled or dizzy and falling over when this starts,” Liza explained.
Kriffer swallowed hard, his eyes darting around as if expecting danger to rush in from some unexpected direction. When he was presented the blindfold and waxen earplugs, his apprehension only grew, but Siobhan did her best to reassure him. “It’s to keep our spell design from being leaked, just in case,” she explained. “You might feel a pricking or poking sensation on your hand during the process, but don’t worry, that’s normal. When you feel a tap on your shoulder, that means we’re done, and you just need to take a deep breath. And, if you can, think about gratefully accepting this healing.”
The mandrake pot was in place, and when Kriffer was blindfolded and deaf, they placed the sedated sleeper raven, the preserved raven’s egg, and the beast core that would power it all.
Together, Siobhan and Liza cooperated to cast the spell, their Wills swirling through the spell array, channeling thrumming power and plucking at the strings of reality.
Kriffer tensed up as Liza poked him with the needle to retrieve a tiny dot of blood, but relaxed with an expression of pleasant surprise at the ease and lack of pain when she moved on almost immediately.
Liza moved with dancer-like grace, dragging the incense made of elcan iris pollen and the mixed blood through the air, leaving behind trails of smoke in the shape of glyphs as she whispered the chant they had created to help solidify and anchor the Word that would guide its effect. Siobhan could only do her best to match her.
Even after the dozens of iterations on lesser creatures, which had allowed both Liza and Siobhan to become more familiar with the spell—and for the magic itself to grow marginally less wild—casting this spell on a human was so much more difficult. Even Liza seemed to feel the strain, her curls springing up and frizzing out, and her temples and upper lip beading with sweat. Her voice was tense with strain as they spoke the chant together, their voices little more than a murmur.
Luckily, it was over quickly, with Liza waving the last of the incense around Kriffer and the raven in a final circle. Siobhan tapped Kriffer on the shoulder and said, “Take a deep breath,” though he shouldn’t be able to hear her.
Both Kriffer and the raven complied, and it was done.
Kriffer’s breath caught on his exhale, and he got halfway through a gasp before breaking into a coughing fit.
Siobhan and Liza both hurried forward anxiously. “What’s wrong?” Siobhan snapped.
“He can’t breathe!” Liza said. “I’ve got an airway-clearing philtre on the supply table.”
Siobhan spun to retrieve the philtre as Liza tried to make Kriffer lie down. ”I don’t understand why this is happening. Some reaction to the smoke, maybe?”
Siobhan returned, dropping to her knees beside Kriffer and prying at the philtre’s cork stopper, but stilled as Kriffer waved them off, his coughing devolving into deep laughter.
“I’m fine, I’m fine!” he called. He took a deep breath, then threw back his head to look at the ceiling as a huge smile spread across. “I was just…surprised. Choked myself on accident. Is it okay for me to stand up now?”
Liza scowled at him, her fingers twitching as if she longed to strangle him. “As long as you are sure you’re having no trouble breathing or other negative symptoms.”
Kriffer literally hopped to his feet, taking some deep breaths and moving his limbs experimentally. “I feel really good, actually. Like…like I’ve got money in my pocket and a pretty girl on my arm, and we’re off to see a street show. Like watching the sun rise from the roof of the tallest house in the neighborhood. You said this is a healing spell? Myrddin’s balls, I must have been sick before, or something, because I feel great.” He started laughing, then took big, careful steps out of the Circle and threw back the curtain with a flourish. “Nothing to be afraid of at all!” he called to the others. “No boils, no hallucinations, no missin’ skin! It feels like the time my grandma took me to one of those fancy cafes for my twelfth birthday and I got a cup of coffee from fresh beans ground on the spot. Except better. Like kissing a siren.”
Jane harrumphed. “You’ve never kissed a siren!” she declared, but stepped up to the curtain. “I’ll go next.”
When the spell took hold of her, she reacted more calmly than Kriffer. “It really is…quite nice. How long will it last?” she asked.
“Three days, maybe,” Liza said. “That’s part of what we’re testing.” Turning her back with a mischievous smile, she added, “Please let us know when the hallucinations start.”
Siobhan glared at Liza, then had to spend the next few minutes reassuring Jane and the others that the taciturn older woman really had been just joking. But despite the annoyance, Siobhan doubted anything could have lowered her mood at that moment.
The spell had worked. These people were fine. Better than fine.
She resisted against the almost overwhelming desire to stretch out her arms, throw back her head, and start laughing aloud from sheer joy.
The moment passed as Liza cast the spell on the third test subject, and then the fourth.
Siobhan’s elation softened, and then sank into a relief so heavy and deep it pulled on her shoulders and made her want to cry. As long as everything went well, soon they would be able to cast it on her, too.
It had been so long, but finally, here was real hope, created with her own hands.
Liza and Siobhan took a second round of diagnostics after the whole group was bound to a sleeper raven. Though they requested that the test subjects stay in the hotel, it wasn’t strictly required. However, Liza made sure to warn all of them very firmly to abstain from alcohol or any other mind-altering substances. “If you do partake in something you should not, tell us, so that we will know what might be the cause if something goes wrong,” Liza said.
The group of test subjects seemed frightened enough by her insistence that Siobhan doubted they would be willing to risk it. None of them were addicts, who, given the opportunity, might not be able to help themselves.
As Siobhan helped Liza to put away the binding spell array, moving components back to the large conference table and clear away the black salt spell array, she considered what they had just done. Binding magic was mysterious, and seemed to overcome some of the limitations that modern sorcery suffered. In essence, binding magic effected an ongoing exchange of some sort. Obviously, most binding magic worked off of the principles of transmogrification, but unlike most transmogrification spells, which were actively cast and would cease to work when the Will and power were removed, binding magic was cast once and continued to work afterward.
It was almost as if the binding itself was some kind of tether that worked on the principles of transmutation.
‘Is it like a slow-release artifact? Or, perhaps more accurately, like a potion?’ she wondered. Potions, after all, used ritual to create a structure of magic that was not bound within a spell array, but absorbed and woven into the ingredients to create something wholly new and inherently magical in and of itself. It was not permanent, and over time, a potion’s physical form would degrade and spoil, while the magic dissipated.
‘Binding magic probably works on a similarly complex theory that I only have the most basic grasp on.’ Her classes hadn’t covered it, and the research she did previously uncovered notably few texts that explored the subject on the University library’s first floor.
Unlike potions, however, this binding could be broken. They had made sure to set a trigger for it to break when the rejuvenating spell on the sleeper raven ran out of power, but it could also be broken manually, with a simple unbinding that thematically and practically negated the agreement that allowed the initial binding.
To develop the sleep-proxy spell, Siobhan had relied quite a lot on copying structures and methods from other spells, and then even more from Liza’s extensive expertise. She couldn’t claim that she even came close to understanding how everything worked. And yet, somehow, it did.
As she sprayed the concoction that would make the honey and nightshade oil binding the black salt to the floor dissolve more easily, Siobhan asked, “Where did you learn magic, Liza? If that’s not too invasive a question.”
Liza hesitated, the small dustpan she was using to pour the black salt back into its jar pausing in mid air. “I joined the army,” she finally replied. “Of course, I knew a little before that. My mother made a living as an unlicensed diviner, when she wasn’t working as a prostitute.” She paused, as if waiting for Siobhan’s reaction, but Siobhan remained silent.
Liza continued. “I was young when the Haze War started, and got myself a job in one of the army workshops. It was off the front lines, mass-producing artifacts for the soldiers. They promised to provide free education after we’d done our stint, and magical education for those who qualified. I qualified. They kept their promise, and after it was all over, they really did put me through the University.”
“Oh!” Siobhan said. It was no wonder Liza was so knowledgeable and powerful.
“Only problem was, after I and the others gained my Mastery, they didn’t want us to go free afterward. To be honest, I didn’t particularly mind at that point. I got to work in experimental artifact development at first, but after a while I joined a small squad. We did interesting, worthwhile work, and got paid well for it.” Liza smiled absently, rolling a couple grains of salt between her fingers. Soon, though, the smile drained away, leaving a sickening grimness behind. “Or so I thought. Eventually I realized the truth, but it always seems to be too late by the time that happens, doesn’t it? For me, much too late.” She clenched her fist until her knuckles turned white, small muscles in her face twitching with rage.
Siobhan actually felt the urge to shrink back from the older woman, the chill across her skin telling her that Liza was dangerous and might strike out at any moment. Instead, Siobhan froze, hoping her lack of response would keep her from attracting Liza’s attention.
After a few moments, Liza relaxed, releasing her breath and her clenched fist. “I apologize, child. Not all my memories from that time are bad, you know. Before the end…” She stood abruptly, putting the lid on the jar of salt. “Well, did Oliver ever tell you how we met? I was actually on assignment, up north in Osham, and I met this young boy with dark, curly locks and the brightest eyes you’ve ever seen. He was already a sweet-talker then, and he tried to convince me and my squad mates to let him and his sister ride along with us to the next city. He had it all planned out. The sister was significantly older, so he was going to pretend she was his mother. They were going to go in disguise, and find work in the local lord’s stables, because their family had experience raising horses, you see?” She chuckled, but then sighed, shaking her head.
“Osham’s regime had just changed, and he was worried about the yearly conscription, since his sister was a Null, and historically Osham has rather valued them for their particular characteristics. Well, his father found out about the boy’s plan and put a stop to it all. Perhaps he wished he hadn’t, later.” She fell silent again for a few seconds. “Why does it seem like, if you keep going long enough, no story has a happy ending?”
Siobhan didn’t know what to say to that. After thinking for a while, she suggested, “Who gets to choose that the unhappy part is the ending? If you keep on, maybe it’s just another low moment along the way to triumph.”
“Hah! If death is not an ending, what is, child?”
Siobhan could have argued that viewing the metaphorical story from another perspective, things continued on as long as anyone was still alive. Everyone was the protagonist of their own story, after all. But it didn’t feel true. ‘Death would be an ending of the story for the person I care most about—myself. The only story that matters.’
Clearing her throat to disperse the tension, Siobhan changed the subject. “I have five hundred gold. You said before that would be enough to hire you. If I can give you, in advance, both the time and the location where the coppers will be scrying for me, can you retrieve or destroy the sample they’re using for the sympathetic connection?”
Liza stood and moved to the bound ravens, checking them over for signs of abnormality. “If you can do that much, it seems the job would be quite simple. Depending on the quality of their wards, of course.” She stuck her finger between the slim metal bars, poking at one of the ravens that seemed sleepier than the rest.
“It should be whatever wards are around the divination room in Eagle Tower.”
Liza’s finger stopped wriggling, and she withdrew her hand, rising and turning to face Siobhan. “That makes things difficult. They have some experimental advancements, and without knowing their setup ahead of time—acquiring the blueprint and ward plans from whoever set them up—I would need to be quite close to brute-force my way past.”
Siobhan nodded easily. “I already considered that after my last plan failed. They seem to have given up for the moment, but I’m sure they have other plans. I believe I can control the timing of their next scrying attempt. Then, all we need to do is make sure you’re in place ahead of time. They’ll come to you and get caught in an ambush.”
“After everything that’s happened, the coppers are on high alert. If someone catches sight of me, they might mistake me for the Raven Queen.”
Siobhan blinked twice, stared into the distance, and then a wide smile spread across her face. “That’s…a genius idea. It would fit perfectly! We’ll have to get you a Raven Queen disguise.”
Liza made a choked noise. “No, that’s not what I meant.”
Siobhan ignored that. “If all goes well, even if they do end up having some blood kept in reserve, they’ll realize that there’s no point to trying to use it, for scrying or anything else.”
“And just how do you plan to manage that?” Liza asked acerbically.
“By doing something…big,” Siobhan admitted. Even now, she was uncomfortable with her plan. But hiding away would only leave her vulnerable and easy to manipulate. Her ideas were a little reckless, a little dangerous, but she was facing that head on. Personally, she would be the one in the least danger, and once this was done, the Raven Queen really would be able to disappear back into the shadows for good. ‘I suppose Ennis did teach me to gamble, after all,’ she mused.
“They’re practically setting me up to do something the day of Ennis Naught’s sentencing, after all,” she said. “But it won’t be what they’re expecting, and not focused where they’re looking.”
I’m not sure why, but chapters with complex spell casting or theory often take me twice as long to write and revise as the others.
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