Chapter 166 – Poisoned Pawn


Month 4, Day 9, Friday 9:45 a.m.

Judging by the lack of nearby screams, curses, or sounds of movement, Millennium and the others were completely unconscious. In the stable behind them, horses were whinnying and the workers were alarmed, but the vague sounds of a deep voice she couldn’t quite make out comforted them. One of their attackers, most likely.

Siobhan couldn’t feel anything from the waist down. She chose to believe that was from the effects of the stunning spell and not because her spine had been broken.

No help was coming. And the world was still spinning faintly. ‘Did I hit my head?’ Or maybe that was the effects of the stunning spell. It contained Kuthian frog spit, or something, in addition to the electrical charge. She was pretty sure Professor Lacer had talked about it in one of his lectures. Which suddenly seemed hilariously ironic. She held back a giggle, then did her best to sober up.

I am about to be either captured or killed,’ she realized. ‘And there is nothing I can do about it.’ The adrenaline spike helped to settle her uncharacteristic and totally inappropriate giddiness but did nothing to help her regain control of her body.

She fumbled with the hand of the arm she was lying on for the chain holding Professor Lacer’s Conduit and her beast core, hoping no one was watching yet as she snapped the chain with a single hard yank toward her chest. She hesitated, her mind running wild as she tried to figure out what to do with them, somewhere they would be safe in the off chance that she somehow got free and was able to return to Sebastien Siverling’s identity.

Professor Lacer would kill her if she lost his Conduit.

There was no time, and with no other viable ideas, she shoved both into her mouth, trailing metal chain and all. Her arm had some trouble locating her mouth, but after smashing her nose flat and poking herself in the eye with a finger, she managed to get it all inside.

With the most painful, strained gulp of her life, she swallowed both rocks, keeping the chain in her mouth. She was lucky that she was still a young thaumaturge, because her Conduit was only the size of a large grape, and the cheap beast core a small walnut. But neither were polished or smooth. For a moment, she thought they might get stuck in her throat and suffocate her, but with a painful, scraping stretch, they passed into her stomach. She smelled blood on her exhale.

Siobhan held back a whimper, pressing her tongue hard to the roof of her mouth to trap the chain there securely. As a child, she had kept one end of a long noodle in her mouth while swallowing the rest, then pulled the whole thing back out, to the disgust of everyone else at the dinner table. She could use the chain to do the same with her Conduit and beast core.

Footsteps approached from behind her as well as to the side, but she closed her eyes despite her racing heart. There was no sense in letting the enemy know that the stunning mine hadn’t quite done its job.

A strange clattering sound came from above, and then a heavy thunk followed by what might have been a body collapsing to the ground. This was followed by a horrified gasp. “Oh please, oh please, don’t be dead,” a young man’s voice muttered, cracking under the strain of heavy emotion.

Siobhan’s stomach churned with burning acid. ‘Who is he talking about? Please, not Miles.

More footsteps came from the sides, half-muffled thuds traveling through the ground as they hopped over the courtyard wall. A man said, “One of them is still up.”

Siobhan suppressed a twitch. ‘How did they know?’ she wondered, but immediately realized that they were talking about the young man behind her.

“I’m not one of them!” he protested. “I’m just a bystander, and um, a journalist,” he added threateningly.

There was a moment of silence, followed by grunts of effort and pain and sounds of impact that seemed to indicate fighting. Siobhan picked out the sound of choking, the young man muttering, “Oh shit oh shit oh shit,” under his breath, and even another small crackle of stunning magic.

“He’s trained!” one of the men called, much less nonchalantly than earlier.

Is that boy actually fighting to defend us?’ Siobhan wondered in dawning surprise. She cracked one eyelid open just a sliver, allowing a blurry section of light through. She caught a glimpse of legs running past from the side of the courtyard—even more enemy backup.

A grunt came from behind her, and then the brown-skinned boy from before, the one who had been talking to Copper Robards in the street, stepped over her sprawled body. “The coppers are on the way! I called for them right away, and they’ll be here any minute!” he warned.

Mr. Irving, the copper had called him. He had Millennium thrown over one shoulder, the child’s insensate fingers dangling around his lower back. Irving’s other hand held…a clay roof tile? He waved the arched terracotta threateningly in Siobhan’s general direction, looking at the enemies standing over and around her. “I’m trained in the art of magi-kundo,” he announced. “I’m warning you; stay back or I can’t be responsible for what I do!” He waved the roof tile again.

Siobhan had never heard of this art. In fact, it sounded quite made-up. But she couldn’t fault him for his verbal flailing. He was a child himself, and obviously trying to protect Millennium, even if his chances were hopeless. Perhaps, if he bought enough time, she would recover enough to be of use.

“Can’t let him get away with the target,” one of the enemies muttered. The red lights of stunning spells shot toward Irving, which he dodged with frankly impressive alacrity, but they lobbed a philtre as a follow-up.

He was backed up into the fenced corner of the courtyard, with nowhere to escape and a child half his size thrown over his shoulder. He wavered dizzily, then, with one last effort, hurled the roof tile, which clipped a man she could barely see out of the corner of her eye directly in the face. Then Irving crumpled into rag-doll unconsciousness underneath Millennium.

The tile-struck man had been carrying a battle wand, from which a spell shot out. Judging by the scream that sounded immediately afterward, he had accidentally shot one of his allies.

Siobhan held back a vindictive chuckle. Some of the feeling in her limbs was returning, but the pain was almost worse than the numbness had been.

“Is he finally down?” one of the remaining enemies asked.

“He must be. Who trained him, do you think? I’ve never seen a fighting style like that. For a half-grown boy to take even one of us…”

“Go check,” the first man ordered. “And make sure the target’s okay.”

Reluctantly, a man stepped over Siobhan, coming down close enough to her face for her slitted eye to make out the spell array carved subtly into the side of his boot. He walked into the dispersing gas of the battle philtre, nudged Irving, and then checked over Millennium before carrying the child back. “Still alive, no serious injuries,” he announced. “Pupils still dilating fine.”

“Bring around the wagon,” the leader said. “The rest of you, check for any weapons or tools they could use to escape. Double-stun at any sign of movement. We don’t want any other nasty surprises. Parker only has one uninjured testicle left.”

Siobhan’s heart sank further as the others chuckled at the joke and only one pair of footsteps left for the mentioned wagons. The battle wand she’d been carrying before the stunning mine hit her was gone, dropped somewhere during her flying tumble. Even if she’d had it, she couldn’t trust her coordination to aim or even pull the trigger correctly. ‘If they don’t find both my hidden waist holster under the corset and the chain in my mouth, I’ll still have a Conduit, but I’m certainly in no shape to try and cast a spell. I’ve got the knives in my boots, too, but they’re professionals, and unlike that Irving boy, I’m not a trained fighter. I can’t think of anything I can do that is more likely to get me out of this than to get me immediately killed. It might be best to play dead, at least until I’m coherent enough to try to escape.

They searched her with surprising and somewhat humiliating thoroughness but didn’t bother to unlace or cut through her corset, perhaps because they didn’t imagine she could be hiding anything under it. All the Pendragon agents were men, after all. Her medallion was still freezing cold from attempting to protect her from the stunning mine, but it was also possible that its anti-theft mechanisms were activating to nudge them away.

One paused while running his fingers through her hair, probably staring down at her face.

She tried not to twitch or show any micro-expressions of response.

That was much harder when he said, “This one looks a little like the Raven Queen, don’t you think?”

A second pair of footsteps drew closer. “Nah, she’s too old.”

“But the Raven Queen has dark skin and long dark hair.”

The second man snorted. “So do thousands of women in Gilbratha.” Suddenly, fingers pried at her eyelid.

Siobhan picked a spot and stared at it intently as her eyelid was drawn upward uncomfortably, revealing her contact-covered eyeball underneath. “Both her hair and eyes are light brown, not black as night. No Conduit. No raven feathers made of night or crystallized blood. No shadow companion woven from condensed nightmares. And, most compellingly I might add, she was just captured by us, with no attempt to melt into the shadows or whatever. She’s an old servant just like that other one. Also, Parker, her face doesn’t even really look like the drawings. She’s a sweet older lady.”

“Check her bag,” the other one insisted stubbornly.

They jerked her around roughly to free her satchel, and Siobhan had never been so grateful for the exorbitant sum she’d spent on her replacement bag after the last one got disintegrated. It did, of course, have all of her thaumaturgic supplies, but it also had a featherweight enchantment, as well as two different divisions. One, which opened up under normal circumstances, held random odds and ends like a makeup pouch, a canteen of water, and a bag of snacks. The other division, which held everything interesting, required several of the seemingly decorative clasps to be positioned correctly and for the main latch to receive three quick taps before the mouth of the satchel was opened.

“Nothing,” the second man announced triumphantly. “In fact, she’s even got identification papers. Her name is Silvia Nakai. Get ahold of your imagination, man. You’ve embarrassed me plenty already, with the accusations against my neighbor Mara, and that waitress at the Rusty Peacock I had almost convinced to go on a date with me, and—”

“Shut up,” the leader commanded as the sound of a horse’s hooves and wooden wagon wheels returned.

“Target secured,” one of the men said. “What do we do with the others?”

“Kill them?” another suggested.

“No,” the leader said. “Take them with us.”

The man who had suggested Siobhan was the Raven Queen added incredulously, “Don’t you know this whole thing is a plot to draw her out? There’s no need to make her angrier or give her a reason to get revenge on any of us personally.”

“But won’t she be captured after this?” the one who had wanted to kill her asked.

“Sure. If it works. Haven’t you read the reports? I’m not going to gamble on her losing. Not when it’s so easy just to capture a few more people for ransom. Right, captain?”

“We weren’t ordered to kill anyone,” the man said, though Siobhan wasn’t sure if that was agreement with his subordinate’s statement or not. And she was now more than fifty percent certain that these men were plainclothes Pendragon operatives. Though it was also possible that they were mercenaries working for the Architects of Khronos, or even some other group she’d never heard of.

Soon after, Siobhan was lifted and tossed into the back of a wagon, followed by the others, their limbs dropping painfully onto her.

“Go deal with the coppers,” the leader ordered.

When her ankle twisted painfully under a limp, heavy body, she almost wished she was still numb. She couldn’t move to escape the pain without giving away her consciousness. At least her sensation of balance wasn’t careening around quite as giddily. Perhaps she would be able to escape out the back of the wagon with Miles when no one was looking. The Nightmare Pack enforcers and maid would have to fend for themselves. She couldn’t save them all.

Siobhan risked a peek out of one eye, noting the cloth covering stretching in a dome over the wagon itself, disguising the contents within.

“What about the other kid?” someone asked.

“One of the coppers vouched for him. Some small-time journalist who fancies himself a vigilante. No connection to the gangs or the Raven Queen.”

“Leave him,” the leader ordered.

Apparently “dealing with” meant working with the coppers and exchanging information, not fighting or killing them. Another tally for the Pendragon operative theory.

“Everybody clear?” someone at the front of the wagon asked. A handful of affirmative responses followed.

And then Siobhan was engulfed in darkness.

It was a darkness so complete she had never experienced anything comparable, completely different than the shadow of her closed eyelids or even the shadows on a moonless night.

That was what she noticed first.

Then came the fact that she could not hear anything, even the sound of her own breathing or heartbeat, which normally became discernible in extreme silence.

Then, that she could feel nothing, either. Not her body pressing against the wooden planks of the wagon, nor the pain in her squished and twisted ankle, nor even her tongue inside her mouth.

Her consciousness floated in nothing, completely unmoored.

She panicked. She tried to move, to scream, to bite her own tongue, anything. But if she was still connected to a brain—which she wasn’t sure of—it was no longer sending or receiving signals to her body. And then she had a horrible thought. One so horrible that it stilled her mind.

I am dead.


*Awkwardly looks away from yet another cliffhanger.*

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