Month 4, Day 9, Friday
In an ironic boon, with Siobhan’s panic at the thought of death had come something else—a very faint burn, a muted rush. Adrenaline. Relief tumbled through her so violently she probably would have felt dizzy with it if not for this strange sensory deprivation effect.
It was enough for her to conclude that she wasn’t dead, and her body was still there. She was simply cut off from the sensation of it. Most likely, the “everybody clear” she’d heard earlier was someone checking before they activated a spell array. It was an effective method to keep prisoners from attempting escape, even after the stunning spells wore off.
She would not have the slightest chance of calculating where they were being taken based on time passed and the number of turns the wagon took.
Even though she had ways to call for help, she could not implement them.
Siobhan did what she could to keep her mind moored, but without any of her senses, existing effectively as consciousness in the void, it was difficult to anchor herself.
She could tell that time was passing, and tried to focus on that certainty, though it was hard to quantify exactly how much without her heartbeat or breaths to compare against. It helped at first, but after a while she began to lose her grip on time, too.
She drifted off for a moment, and when she—metaphorically—jerked back to attention, she had no idea how long she had been in the nothing. ‘How long until I go insane?’ she had to wonder. Perhaps in response to this, she began to see phosphenes in the uniform eigengrau darkness of the abyss. The strange colors and shapes created by her detaching mind were incoherent, at first, any meaning bestowed in the same way one could find recognizable shapes in the clouds.
But after a while, they began to cohere into something recognizable. ‘I’m retreating into illusions to create a false sense of security and keep my mind from spiraling off into insanity,’ she reasoned, noting her surroundings and the too-sharp, too-vibrant sensations of an imagined body. Anything to house her consciousness was better than nothing, she supposed. Though she would have preferred a different setting. Almost any other setting, in fact.
Siobhan stood in a place she remembered well from childhood. She was in Grandfather’s house, standing before a half-open door. Not the metal one, from the magical workshop in the tower, but the wooden door with the warped board that left a little crack just at eye height. When she was a child, would peek through it into Grandfather’s room sometimes.
But now, she was too tall, and would have to crouch down to see through it. ‘At least I am not thirteen again,’ she thought, though the sheer relief of that confirmation seemed strangely powerful. ‘Am I often thirteen, in my dreams?’ She couldn’t remember.
Siobhan usually imagined her nightmares as a kind of physical mass locked away in her head. A slimy, putrid, hungry liquid. Normally, it was contained perfectly, but in sleep—in dreams—she was unguarded, the dream-space undefined enough that the box keeping it all sealed up tight became undefined, too. And so, the nightmare-stuff had a chance to leak out.
If she could wake quickly enough, most of it would get sucked back into the box as reality reasserted itself, leaving only the lingering terror and flashes of strange imagery.
Now, though, without the anchoring of her physical body, things normally confined to dreams started to leak out.
Siobhan had no need to peek through the door. She already knew what was on the other side. ‘My mind could have conjured almost any other scene to keep me from the insanity of sensory deprivation,’ she lamented. ‘But of course it always comes back to this.’
Siobhan braced herself and opened the door. The warding medallion was there on the table, with all of Grandfather’s artificery gadgets and lights and lenses that helped him use tools sized for a little bug. His gift for her, not finished yet.
Grandfather’s corpse was there, too, half his head a hollow. Brain matter and blood, so much blood, pooled in front of the fireplace, its warm flames reflecting off the dark, placid surface.
Just as she had in reality, Siobhan moved past the corpse to the table, picking up the medallion.
She examined it for a moment, feeling the weight of it in her hand, the moldings of glyphs and symbols on its surface, so vivid despite it all being a figment of memory and imagination.
Something rustled behind her, and she spun around, heart leaping in her chest.
Grandfather’s corpse had sat up. One of his eyes was missing, blown away and leaving only an empty, ruined socket. The other watched her with a bright golden iris staring out from blood-red sclera. “It’s not complete, you know. I never had the chance to finish it.”
Siobhan’s knees trembled and she clenched the medallion in one fist so hard her knuckles whitened, the other bracing against the desk to help support her weight. “This didn’t happen.”
Grandfather tilted his head to the side, letting her see the hollow, meaty cavern that made up the remaining half his skull. “How would you know? You do not remember anything.”
Her voiced cracked. “I remember this part.”
“You should remember more,” he said, his eye suddenly intense, almost glowing against the shadows of his face, the fireplace behind him giving him a halo of brightness. “If you just remembered, you could fix things, don’t you think? You would know why you have these nightmares, and maybe they would stop.”
“I know well enough why I have them.” She did, even if she tried never to think of it or the thoughts connected to it. She knew well enough, and could guess at the rest.
Grandfather’s expression drew together cruelly, his mouth twisting in a sneer. “Do you truly? Do you think I had your best interest at heart by this time? I’d already gone quite insane. I harmed you, and you cling onto the wound like it is a gift.”
Siobhan shuddered. “You are not my grandfather. I remember this night, and this did not happen. You’re…the nightmare. Or a piece of it, trying to leak out of the box.”
His sneer slipped away too quickly to be natural and he laughed lightly, almost seeming proud. “It seems he raised no imbecile. You are correct, more or less. He did not have enough time to do a perfect job, and he never expected his patchwork solution to have to last this long. He had planned for you to go to one of his acquaintances who would settle the matter for good. But you forgot about that part, and he was too incoherent to realize he needed to repeat it for you. So you let things stay like this, trying your little patchwork solutions that are about as effective as using your finger to plug a leak in a dam.”
Grandfather—or rather the thing wearing his body—lurched forward, rising to his feet like a puppet on strings. “You can’t keep depending on the seal to hold. It’s cracking, my little hazelnut,” he said, using the term of endearment only her grandfather had called her. “And it’s going to fail soon. You need to take control. ‘You control your mind, it doesn’t control you.’ Remember?”
“You just want me to let you free,” she whispered. “But I won’t. I never will.”
He lurched forward a couple more steps, his face too hidden in shadows to make out the features except for that gold, glowing eye. “What do you think is in the box? Aren’t you curious? Aren’t you afraid? Don’t you hear me scratching from the inside?”
He reached for her, and she stumbled back until she hit the wall, the panic strong enough that she could once again feel the physical sensation of chemicals in her body. Her dream-self’s breaths were tremulous, sweat beaded on her upper lip and her brow, and her fingers were ice-cold. She thought she might throw up from the sheer, savage dread that knotted her stomach. Silently, she screamed at herself to do something, do anything, to stop this.
And as she always did in times of trouble or uncertainty, she reached for her magic. She brought her Will to bear, letting it stretch out through her body, through the room, all that her mind had created.
“I am in control,” she said slowly, carefully. “I do control my mind.” And suddenly, perhaps aided by the fact that she was not unconscious, but in fact quite awake and lucid, the memory returned to the state of what actually happened.
Grandfather was nothing but a corpse on the ground, all his power gone and all that remained nothing more but cooling flesh and blood.
Siobhan didn’t want to keep playing out the memory, and with a thought, her consciousness returned to the nothingness of sensory deprivation. But with her Will so active and spread through the domain she always—inherently—controlled without the need for a Circle, she felt something else. Her own body.
With her Will activated, she knew where her hands were, and where her face was, and where her feet were, and she even had a very muted sensation of touch, feeling the faint echoes of cool air on her legs and arms, and the deep chill of stone beneath her.
Siobhan could feel the discomfort of the beast core and Conduit pressed against the skin of her back, forcing indentations in her flesh to fit themselves. Which meant she hadn’t been stripped entirely. She still had some limited resources, though her dress and her shoes seemed to be missing. As she focused her attention, she could even feel the well of potential energy trapped inside the beast core, just waiting to be used. A faint echo of that power came from inside her abdomen—the beast core she had swallowed.
Pushing her Will beyond her body didn’t do much, and she wasn’t even sure it was working, but it did give her an idea. She tried to move, slowly and carefully, bringing her Will to bear in her arms, trying to fill her flesh with the presence of her ability to command the world, and thus push out whatever was inhibiting her.
Her movements were more jerky than she had hoped, clumsy and jittering, but she managed to get both of her hands in front of her face. Pressing hard to make sure everything was in place, she shoved her hands together in front of her mouth, joining her fingers and thumbs together in a Circle with great care.
She swirled her Will around her head and her arms again just to make absolutely sure her breath was filtering through the Circle and her fingertips were touching securely. She pulled at the beast core on her back, being extremely careful to avoid the one she’d swallowed, taking the tiniest bit of power and pushing it through where the black sapphire Conduit was.
Suddenly, she was aware of the Conduit the same way she was the beast core.
Relief, fear, and excitement crashed together in a cacophony of physical sensation that sent goosebumps rising over her skin and urged her breaths faster.
She had the Sacrifice and the Will, but she could not feel her own lips or tongue well enough for a verbal chant—the Word.
Taking care to hold the chant and its meaning, they way each word felt and sounded, clear in her mind, she silently recited a familiar chant, thrice over. ‘Life’s breath, shadow mine. In darkness we were born. In darkness do we feast. Devour, and arise.’ With each repetition, she felt a stronger connection to her shadow, until finally it was finished, and there was more of her.
She let out a silent laugh on an exhale. It had worked. She could sense everything her shadow touched. She had thought it might, hoped it would, on the premise that the shadow absorbed light and perhaps other things in the electromagnetic spectrum, and thus through the process of absorption might be able to give her a sense of her surroundings that her actual body lacked. Her Will could ride it just like it rode her physical body.
Her shadow pooled in the angles of her body and beneath her, unmoving, but dense and ready. There was barely any light, and as the spell pulled on her breath for heat instead, her fingers began to ache.
‘There is no difference between light and the rest of electromagnetic radiation. I should be able to use even the invisible light for power.’ The spell gained stability and the ache in her hands receded somewhat as she mentally adjusted its parameters. But she needed more. She ran through her understanding of the more esoteric aspects of light. ‘Heat and light are really two sides of the same coin. Everything that has a temperature is very subtly glowing, well below the level that the human eye can pick up, as the electrons step up and down their levels. Can I suck all of the “potential” light out of the places my shadow touches? The spell already pulls heat from my breath, so this shouldn’t even be that difficult of a conceptual shift.’
The draw on the heat of her breath through her fingers disappeared almost entirely, and her shadow solidified somehow, the sensations it was feeding back to her becoming more tangible, and the metaphorical ink of its form growing deeper, the better to stretch farther and wider.
Siobhan directed her shadow to rise up, embracing her, and let out a tremulous breath. She could feel its chill, like the underside of a pillow. But the sensations it brought were like a fire in the darkness, shelter from a raging storm, or the embrace of her mother’s arms. Though she remained in a different type of absolute darkness, she was no longer senseless or helpless. She was no longer so afraid.
Siobhan spread her shadow further, searching outward. She was in a relatively small room with nine others, including someone she thought was Millennium, but also another small boy. Everyone was lying on the floor unconscious. All were alive, though a few were obviously injured.
The Pendragon operatives had somehow transported them without breaking the sensory deprivation spell, and it was likely that many of the others were not truly unconscious any longer, merely trapped within senseless bodies and the shell of their own minds.
There was a spell array on the floor around them, which was hard to decipher the details of with the ambiguous understanding she could draw from her shadow as it ate the smallest glow of inefficiency that the lines put off.
Siobhan spread her shadow further, and found, to her dismay, a form standing against the edge of the wall by the door, behind her.
The movement of their limbs was too flailing to decipher coherently, as the person—likely a guard—left the room, slamming the door behind them. Which meant she had just alerted the enemy to her consciousness, and didn’t have much time.
She pulled her shadow mostly back in, keeping it in a blanketing shape over where her body once was as she attempted a jerky crawl away. Just in case they tried to kill her, a decoy might buy her a little time.
As soon as she crossed the edge of the Circle, all of her senses rushed back in, and everything she had felt from her shadow disappeared under the barrage of too-powerful feedback from her body. She could smell all the nuances of blood and sweat and mineral-laden water on dank stone, taste her own tongue in her mouth, and feel all the many aches and pains she had accumulated. She could hear screams and the sound of fleeing footsteps. And apparently, she had swallowed the chain connected to Professor Lacer’s Conduit while insensate, leaving the beast core and Conduit much more difficult to retrieve.
Slowly, she slid her hands closer together over her mouth, keeping the Circle intact until one of her hands was making a small Circle of its own within the other. Then, she drew the outer hand away. Despite her adjustment, using only one hand to create the Circle instead of two, the shadow-familiar spell remained steady, its chill form cloaking her with no additional strain.
Feeling blindly under the cover of her own shadow, she felt at her face. Her fake nose was hanging half-off, the connective glue likely torn by her flailing attempts to press a Circle to her mouth. She removed her disguise, slipping the contact lenses and the fake nose into the bodice of her corset, atop the medallion and transformation amulet that were somehow still hidden between the press of her rather meagre cleavage. They must have been protected from notice and theft by the warding spell woven into the medallion, with the amulet going unnoticed by proximity. ‘A warding artifact is much less useful if anyone can take it off you.’ She would have lost the golden artifact long ago if her father could actually manage to remember it existed.
She finished by scratching away the fake wrinkles at the corners of her eyes and mouth. She knew it was unlikely she could keep tonight’s identity completely separate from the Raven Queen’s, but sowing any little bit of confusion among her enemies could only help her.
She stood stiffly, with a deep moan of pain. The concoctions she had used that morning had all worn off. Her sore muscles screamed once more on top of all the new bruises, a badly battered tailbone, and a wrenched ankle. She allowed the shadows spilling through the room to drop to the floor and then converge on her, slipping away from her face to create a kind of cloak and cowl to cover up her hair. As a final touch, the shadows formed the impression of wispy feathers around the hood.
An overhead light crystal burst to life, painting the room in stark lines and feeding even more power into her shadow. She flinched at the sudden brightness and instinctively guided the thinnest possible shroud of darkness over her face to filter the light.
The one remaining guard outside, visible through the small window set into the door of the white stone room, was still screaming wordlessly, futilely, as she opened her eyes and met his gaze.
This has been a long time coming, but it’s just the beginning.
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