Chapter 173 – Caves and Corridors

Siobhan

Month 4, Day 9, Friday 5:30 p.m.

The Pendragon operatives didn’t chase after them right away, at least not in the time it took the philtre of darkness she had placed to wear off.

The former captives hurried through the cold, damp dark, bare feet shuffling against the rough stone for a long few minutes until they reached an area of relative safety. The injured needed to rest and be attended to. Young Enforcer Turner with the broken leg was slowing them down, and the praying woman had been clipped by a slicing spell. The wound didn’t require a high-strength healing potion but needed to be bandaged, at the very least.

Everyone remained quiet and wide-eyed, the darkness and the weight of the white cliffs above them creating an illusory pressure.

Siobhan handed the praying woman a self-brewed regeneration potion, a burn salve in a jar too small to cover all of her melted skin, and a small jar of honey for the antibacterial properties. The woman took them reverently, then held them close, like a protective dog guarding a bone.

Siobhan ordered Fring and Gerard to lay Turner on the floor of a small half-scoop cave with a trickle of water flowing through its center. As she opened the bulky wrapping around his leg to reveal the wound, illuminated by a light crystal they had retrieved, several of the others moaned in horror, and Martha turned away to retch. “Do not vomit,” Siobhan snapped. “They can use it to track you if they find it, and I do not need the extra trouble.”

“They’ll be tracking Parker and I as soon as they think of it,” Anders reported gravely. “You can do something about that, right?”

Siobhan considered the issue. The stone between them should help for the moment, and when they were free she would need to stash her new unfortunate responsibilities under some wards, but in the meantime she would have to figure something out. Her divination-diverting ward had spillover effects into the area around her. That didn’t extend very far, but if she kept Anders and Parker hanging on either arm, they would almost certainly be safe, because finding them would be equivalent to finding her by association, and the ward wouldn’t allow that.

Much more palatably, she could keep them within the boundary of her shadow. She’d never tested such a thing, but everything she knew about sympathetic divination, and what Liza had explained about the ward, suggested that it would work. “I believe I can. I will deal with that after this,” Siobhan promised.

Turner’s face was pale as he stared at the exposed meat and bone of his injury and the way his lower shin and foot were pointed slightly in the wrong direction despite their efforts to rejoin them with the part above. Breathing quickly, he stammered, “I don’t want to lose my leg. Oh, please.” He reached out and squeezed Siobhan’s forearm. “I heard how you turned some Morrow’s stump arm into a thumb. I really don’t want a thumb at the end of my leg, please, have mercy.”

Theo seemed to find the idea of a thumb at the end of Turner’s leg unbearably hilarious, and though he tried to muffle his laugh, he soon hunched over and had to brace himself against the wall under the force of his mirth. “A thumb!” he gasped.

Miles gave the other boy a disapproving glare, which he then turned on Enforcer Gerard and Martha as if urging them to rebuke the other boy. When no one did, Miles poked Theo in the side with vindictive force. “You’re being rude. Can’t you see he’s scared? How would you like it if someone laughed because the Raven Queen was going to turn your face into a butt?”

Theo’s eyes widened and he fell silent for two long seconds. “A butt!” he sputtered, then began to convulse with laughter so hard he struggled to breathe.

Millennium very obviously resisted the urge to kick Theo in the shin, instead moving to the other side of the group to be as far away from him as possible.

Siobhan rolled her eyes at the children’s antics.

Turner’s face paled further. “Please, my lady. I beg of you—”

Enforcer Fring gave Turner a light smack across the back of the head, eyeing Siobhan with trepidation. “Shut up,” the man said. “It’s better than dying. You should be grateful for what you can get. The Raven Queen is your savior—our savior.” He leaned closer to Turner, murmuring vehemently, “How dare you complain?”

Turner pressed his lips together wordlessly, but a low, animalistic whimper still issued from between them.

“A stump ending should not be necessary,” Siobhan murmured absently, her attention focused on the wound and what she would need to do to fix it. Turner didn’t have enough extra blood for her to use to draw out a flesh-mirroring spell array, but the fist-sized pile of soaked bandages she’d removed would be more than enough fuel for the spell. On such a bumpy surface as the floor, though, chalk wouldn’t do. Inevitably, some part of the Circle would be disconnected from the rest and lead to horrible consequences. She needed to draw it with something liquid.

Except this dilemma was irrelevant, she realized. She had retrieved her satchel and everything in it, including the sheets of seaweed paper. She hadn’t duplicated her previous attempt at a tome, because she had a better idea in mind, but the artisan she’d hired to craft the device had yet to complete it. And so, she had a number of loose sheets of heat resistant paper, a few of which were blank and would be easy enough to draw the flesh-mirroring spell on.

The sheet would probably be ruined with Turner’s blood, but there were no better options given their current location.

She also didn’t want to try dual-casting in her state, but her shadow-familiar spell was protecting both her modesty and her aura of command and mystique. Without it, she would just be a young, half-naked girl.

“Everyone leave,” she ordered. “Just out of sight. I am going to heal him.”

“Oh, are you going to use blood magic?” Theo asked, still panting heavily from his laughing fit. He wiped some tears away from his eyes with his fists. “Can I watch?”

“No. But you can get dressed,” Siobhan said, pulling the tightly packed, jumbled mess of shoes and clothing out of her satchel’s expanded section, careful not to look too closely at the warped space of the interior, lest she worsen her headache.

Several of the others shared inscrutable looks and glanced at Turner with pity, but they complied without protest.

When they were gone, she had him close his eyes, quite sure that someone so timid wouldn’t make any attempts at peeking, and then finally dropped the spell. Her mind relaxed like a muscle clenched too long. She sighed with relief, but knew it wasn’t to last.

As she drew out the spell array, using his good leg as a template for the broken one, he trembled. Obviously, he was extremely frightened.

When she began to cast, he jumped, letting out a squeak followed by a pitiful whimper.

“I am not giving you a thumb,” she assured him. To distract and comfort him as she very slowly joined his bone back together, not fully, but in little sections large enough to hold some weight, she talked, keeping her voice low and soothing. “I am not cutting the leg off, either. It would be too difficult for you to escape with the rest of the group if you only had one leg. It will be an imperfect fix, because I do not have the time to do better. Our enemies are surely following us by now.” In addition to time, she lacked energy. It was also questionable whether she had the necessary skill to deal with such a grievous wound, but she elected not to mention that part.

“You will need to visit a proper healer when this is all over. I cannot say whether the leg will need to be cut off then, but if it does, I can assure you that it is entirely possible to regrow a leg.” She moved on to attaching some of the blood vessels and the larger chunks of muscle to each other and the bone itself.

“There is even a new experimental treatment for prosthetic limbs,” she said, some excitement leaking into her tone. She had heard about it in Professor Gnorrish’s class and became interested because of the injuries Enforcer Gerard sustained at Knave Knoll. “You can have a foot grown from a modified parasitic plant that will literally sprout from your stump. Its roots will feed from your blood stream and connect to your muscle and nervous system. You would be able to control the foot with only a short delay.”

Turner moaned sickly.

“Almost done,” she promised. “The only problem with those types of prosthetics is the difficulty in perfecting the balance between keeping the plant from being too aggressive and devouring their flesh-and-blood symbiote and keeping the person’s body from rejecting the invasion.”

A few meters down the hall with his back turned, the Verdant Stag enforcer whose name she didn’t know muttered, “Oh, Myrddin.” He shuddered, then hunched inward and hugged his arms to his chest for warmth. Several of the others made conciliatory sounds. So far beneath the surface, and with the damp, it was cold enough that they needed to keep moving to stay warm.

“We’ll be moving again soon,” Siobhan reassured them. “Keep your backs turned.”

“Don’t worry, my queen,” the praying woman called. “I’m watching them.”

Jackal rolled his eyes so hard that his head moved from the effort, obvious even from the back.

Siobhan returned her attention to Turner’s leg. It didn’t exactly look healthy, but she thought it would support his weight, and her head was throbbing horribly, so it would have to do.

She gathered up all the bloody cloth and the soiled paper, then dumped them in a second spell array to cast the shedding-destroyer on them.

Finally, with significant reluctance, she recast her shadow familiar spell, keeping the chant inaudibly quiet. When she was again decent, she allowed Turner to open his eyes before reaching out a hand to help him to his feet.

He accepted her help with reluctance, but her patch job meant that he was able to continue on with the rest of the group.

Before leaving, Siobhan peed in the little underground stream, suppressing her embarrassment, and instructed the others to relieve themselves similarly, under the privacy of her shadow.

Siobhan dropped a philtre of stench in the area they had stopped, hopeful that it would take any dogs or other scent trackers out of commission if the enemy tried that tack. “I am going to spread out this shadow,” she warned. “Everything within its range should be safe from divination. It will not harm you.” They still needed to be able to see their feet to walk safely, so she spread out a wide mesh at around waist height.

Everyone seemed at least slightly uncomfortable, which Siobhan understood, as they must have seen the Pendragon operative’s response to that same shadow, but they relaxed when nothing nefarious happened. The praying woman waved her hands through it with fascination. “And you shall walk, sheltered under wings of midnight,” she whispered.

Everyone kept a noticeable, respectful distance from Siobhan, except Theo and Miles, who walked beside her like an honor guard, huffing and scowling at each other.

The praying woman stared enviously at the children, but Siobhan was happy to keep some space between herself and the peculiar woman.

“What did she do to you?” Siobhan heard Martha whispering to Turner.

He shook his head, throwing a glance Siobhan’s way. “I don’t know. She made me keep my eyes closed, and I wasn’t about to steal a look unoffered. You’ve heard the stories about people who look at things they aren’t supposed to, after they were warned so clearly.” He shuddered. “Yeah, no way.”

“Well, at least you can walk.” The statement sounded somewhat dubious, and Siobhan couldn’t help but feel offended.

I did my best. People are always so entitled when they should simply be grateful.

There was some argument about the best path to escape. They could make their way to the northern lake, where the freshwater docks and wide tunnels that cut through the bottom of the white cliffs allowed people to bring in goods from the north. Some of their group argued they should go that way, leave Gilbratha entirely and circle around to enter the city again from one of the land gates, or even up through the Mires to the south. Others argued that it was best to escape through the canals, taking a path downward through the city itself.

Gerard, Jackal, Anders, and Fring all agreed and argued strongly that moving through any of the commonly used paths or checkpoints would be too dangerous. People would be stationed there to watch for them. “We need something else,” Jackal said. “Something they won’t be expecting.”

“At the very least, an area with as little traffic as possible,” Siobhan added, doing her best to conceal the deep-seated fatigue that was beginning to make her dizzy.

“We could try to drill our way out somewhere new,” Parker offered, holding up his battle baton.

“Do you have enough charges to get through dozens of meters of stone?” Gerard asked. “Or the ability to cast the spell yourself?”

“I can cast it,” Parker said. “But it’s an energy hog. It will take me a while to make much progress.”

They all looked to Siobhan, then, but she just shook her head silently.

Anders hesitated. “Well, there is a small path that lets out right near the Charybdis Gulf. There’s a little ferry station near there for those who would rather take a more direct route from the city proper to the Lilies. But we would surely stand out in the Lilies. Erm, you, in particular, would stand out,” he said to Siobhan. “I don’t like our chances trying to escape through any of the eastern gates.”

“A ferry…” Siobhan mused. “Why not borrow a boat? There is no need to try to sneak through the Lilies. We could sail south through the Charybdis Gulf. We would be far enough from land to be safe from most attacks, and the sun will be setting in the next few hours. The dockworkers won’t be active then, and most of the fishermen will have retired for the evening. It seems we could be out of the city before our enemies have any idea, if we move in darkness. Even if the ferry is guarded, we will be able to take it as long as we act competently and move swiftly. Few simple guards would be willing to risk their lives against a clearly superior force.”

“Are we leaving the city for good?” Martha asked. “I have a life here. And what about the children?”

“Of course not,” Siobhan said. “We’ll rally and come back through the Mires in smaller groups. They can’t watch every back alley and side street.”

Parker nodded sagely. “The sun doesn’t set until eight-something this time of year. We might even have time to drill an exit right above the ferry itself. What do you think?” he asked Anders.

The man sighed deeply. “I think that I’m wishing I saved up more coin. I would have, if I had known we were going to have to go on the run. Bear’s food is expensive, and his potion regimen even more so.”

“Ah, we need to pick up my daughter, too,” Parker suddenly realized. “Or do you think she’d be safer staying with her aunt? I don’t…”

Siobhan remained silent as the full implications of his agreement with her hit Parker.

He paled, turning slowly to her. “Um. I am realizing that I may have chosen my boon poorly, my lady.”

She stared at him, raising an eyebrow.

Parker swallowed. “My daughter is probably still safe to inherit the house, once you’ve taken back the deed. But… I mean, there’s no way it’s safe for her to stay there right now. And, um, it might not be safe for her aunt to stay at her house, either. The High Crown will wonder if she has any information, and he’s already proven happy to kidnap people only vaguely connected to his enemies…”

“Your families may remain safe if they are willing to leave the city or, perhaps, to join the ranks of the Nightmare Pack or the Verdant Stag. It is easy enough to provide secure places for them to stay and allies to watch their backs, but I cannot safeguard them every moment of the day against an attack or kidnapping attempt. There are measures they could take to ensure a swift rescue attempt, but that does not equate to true freedom from danger.”

Parker did not seem particularly satisfied by this. “Could that change, if I made another pact with you? Perhaps, long-term protection, in exchange for long-term service from me? I can be useful.”

The praying woman let out a small, nonverbal exclamation.

Siobhan sighed, her right eye twitching as dream-like phosphenes danced in her peripheral vision, always seeming just on the edge of creating a coherent image but never managing to do so. “Let us talk about this once the night is over. We cannot waste time dawdling.”

No one had voiced any objections to her plan, so Anders led the way, though his occasional arguments with Millennium over which direction to go and which of the myriad turns to take didn’t instill much confidence in the rest of the group. Their path alternated seemingly at random between natural caves and pathways and shoddy tunnels carved by hand—nothing so uniform or polished as the tunnels controlled by the Pendragon Corps, or even what could be found under the University.

Siobhan made sure to keep her shadow around everyone and several times felt the distant scratches of divination attempts against her ward. The High Crown’s men could have been using a sympathetic link to any of them, though she thought the irritation was strongest around Parker and Anders. She sighed deeply as she considered the long-term ramifications of today’s kidnapping.

The enemy was willing to escalate, which didn’t bode well for the future.

Miles tripped and she caught him with her free hand, her attention snapping back to her surroundings.

Theo made a rude face, and Miles tilted back his chin to look down his nose at the copper-haired boy. “I bet the bad guys didn’t even have any trouble capturing you,” he muttered. “You were probably yelling and jumping about like a monkey and drawing all the attention to yourself.”

“That’s not true!” Theo said, eyes wide and mouth falling open as if he’d been mortally offended.

“Oh, yeah? Then why are all your people hurt so badly? Way worse than my people.”

Theo gasped with outrage. “That’s—I—well, obviously way more bad guys must have come after me than you! They probably thought you were such a big baby that it would be easy.”

Siobhan placed a hand on each of their heads, carefully keeping her spell Circle intact. “Now is not the time,” she said simply. She turned to Enforcer Gerard. “I assume they attacked the Verdant Stag? Millennium told me how they came directly to Lynwood Manor for him. If not for his abilities, there likely would have been much more bloodshed. Is everyone alright?”

Gerard hesitated, giving Theo a pitying look.

Theo scowled and bit his lip, looking down at the floor.

Siobhan’s heart sank. ‘Something happened to Katerin.

But when Gerard spoke, it wasn’t what she expected. “The Lynwood boy actually…wasn’t wrong. Theo here tried to sneak out to roam the streets and see the show. He’s getting better at stealth and unconventional approaches, but we’d all heard him arguing with Katerin about being grounded and were on the lookout.”

Theo’s shoulders hunched and his head sank even further.

“So we noticed his escape attempt, and we were chasing after him. It might have been a good thing in the end, because the prigs in the shiny armor weren’t expecting that. We’d already passed them before we even realized we were in danger.”

Miles looked at Gerard, then back to Theo, an uncharacteristically wide, sharp smile on his face that reminded Siobhan of Lord Lynwood. “Just like a monkey,” he repeated under his breath, but more than loud enough for everyone in the quiet tunnel to hear.

Theo stuck out his jaw belligerently and crossed his arms, pressing further into Siobhan’s shadow-clothing. “Oh yeah? Well I’ve seen the Raven Queen summon the smartest and bestest raven in the city, known as Empress Regal. She probably wouldn’t come play with you even if you had fresh fruit in your hand.”

Miles shrugged nonchalantly, grabbing Siobhan’s free hand and swinging it. “The Raven Queen designed a spell especially for me, something no one else has. I use it every night when I sleep.”

“Oh yeah? Well…well, she’s told me stories about the Black Wastes and the nightmarish horrors that live there.” He spread his hands dramatically, fingers curled into claws. “And it’s all true. You’d probably be too scared and have nightmares to listen to her stories.”

Miles let out a single, low laugh of triumph. “That’s where you’re wrong. I can listen to any scary story I want, because I don’t dream anymore. Ever.”

Siobhan sighed. “Children,” she admonished.

 

Author Note 9/21: I mentioned a few months back in the Inner Circle newsletter that I hoped to hire an assistant to help manage some of my gigantic workload.

I’m ready to do that now. I’m looking for 1-2 people to join my team part time. If you’re interested, or you know someone who might be interested, there is more info here:

https://www.azaleaellis.com/join-azaleas-team-at-seladore-publishing/

(And wouldn’t it be great if getting some help allowed me to write even a little bit quicker?)

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