Chapter 174 – Pyrrhic Victories


Month 4, Day 9, Friday 9:00 p.m.

After more than an hour of walking through winding tunnels of various shapes and sizes, interspersed with the occasional cave, Anders stopped them. “That’s the way we’d go if we wanted to come out on the secluded white cliffs path,” he said, pointing down a tunnel to their right, from which a briny breeze wafted. “But if we want to hit the ferry directly, we can continue on that way.” He jerked his thumb forward. “I can only estimate, maybe five hundred paces?”

Millennium nodded, eyes unfocused as he tilted his head to listen. “It sounds good. Safe. For now. But I think it would be better to leave when it gets dark.” His eyelids drooped, and he swayed on his feet, exhausted from more than just the physical ordeal. Listening to the whispers, or at least deciphering them into coherent meaning, drained him.

They continued on to the spot Anders and several of the others judged best. Siobhan passed around her water canteen, then sat back with the children while the others began to set up their stolen shielding artifacts to try and stabilize the stone around them and dampen the sounds of drilling.

“Miles,” Siobhan murmured to the sleepy child tucked under her arm. “How did you find me? In the streets earlier today, I mean. I’m supposed to be immune to divination.”

He frowned, pulling up his knees to his chest and leaning into her for warmth. “I can’t do divination,” he murmured. “I haven’t started to learn any real magic yet, remember?”

“But you did find me. Using the whispers.”

He nodded, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath. “You smell good.”

The boy must be delusional with fatigue, since she was pretty sure she smelled of sweat, dirt, and fear. “Miles.”

“The whispers aren’t divination. They’re not actually whispers, either. It’s hard to explain. I just kind of…listen to the sounds of the world underneath the rest. It kind of blends together like music, or murmurs from a crowd too far away and too jumbled to make out what they’re saying, only the emotion. Does that make sense?”

It did not, but Siobhan doubted he could explain it better. “Go on,” she said.

“Listening to the sounds underneath became a lot, lot easier since I’ve been able to sleep. It is really hard to hear you from afar, and I couldn’t find you by scent, either, even though yours is so distinct. But there’s a kind of music to the way you move through life. Your whispers have a tone, and, like, an echo. I actually didn’t find you, exactly, but I got close from the ripples you left, and also just how the safest direction just always happened to be moving closer to you. I was already going in your direction even before I had the idea to find you. And then, once I was close enough, I could hear you with my actual ears from about a block away. But that’s not divination. I just have good hearing. I’m part sylphide, you know. From my dad’s side.”

Setting aside how his abilities work, if that’s true, then it might actually have been very lucky for me to be there to save Miles,’ Siobhan realized. ‘If the High Crown had kept him, Miles might have been used to track me down.

The others were done with their preparations, and Parker pulled out his battle artifact, the one with the drilling spell, and pointed it nervously at the stone wall of the tunnel.

Theo looked on with avid interest, trying to creep forward from around the praying woman, who was keeping him at a safe distance.

Siobhan raised a hand. “Wait. I have a better idea that has much less chance of drawing attention our way.” She climbed back to her feet and pulled out a sheet of seaweed paper with the stone disintegration spell array. “This one is mostly silent. And I would guess much more efficient. Used in conjunction with something like a small wind spell to remove the crumbled stone, you could carve out sections of the wall with precision and set them aside, with much less noise, no tremors, and less possibility of causing a tunnel collapse.”

By the time the sun had set, Siobhan’s ward had fended off two more divination attempts, and they had cut a narrow tunnel that spilled out almost directly into the Gulf. There were also faint sounds of pursuit echoing from the direction they had come. The enemy seemed to be moving slowly, but they were catching up.

Siobhan crawled through the tunnel and peeked out into the moonless night.

The nearby dock had a couple of boats moored, if one could still call these small luxury vehicles boats. All were more than large enough to carry all twelve escapees, though some looked expensive enough that they might have some sort of on-board security system. There was a guard in a small watchtower, but the shroud of night was thick enough for Siobhan to stretch out a section of her shadow in a thin umbrella over the entire group, who huddled under it fearfully as they scurried as silently as possible for their boat of choice—the one that seemed easiest to operate and least likely to set off any alarms.

When they unmoored, pushing away from the dock, their boat lit up. Siobhan’s first, adrenaline-drenched thought was that they had been spotted, and someone was shining a light on them. But no, it was their boat, somehow detecting that it was nighttime and automatically turning on both a headlamp crystal and several lights across the sides.

Such a feature was surely very useful for traveling the night waters safely or night-fishing for those creatures attracted by the light, but totally inappropriate for stealthily stealing a boat and escaping with it.

And, of course, the dock guard wasn’t blind, and realized what was happening. The Verdant Stag enforcer whose name Siobhan still didn’t know was their captain, as he was the only one with some experience as a fisherman. He scrambled frantically for a way to turn the bright beacons off, while the others clumsily tried to adhere to his commands about lowering the sails and doing something or other to the rudder.

Siobhan wasn’t paying attention to that, too busy scanning the docks and the white cliffs for danger.

The watch-tower guard loudly rung an alarm bell with a tumultuous clanging that traveled clearly across the water, turning on a huge light crystal inside of a lensed housing, which focused the beam into a spotlight.

It swiveled a few times across the docks, catching the edge of the small tunnel they had created just as their pursuers reached its mouth. The guard had noticed, and the light paused for a second, adjusting to illuminate the enemy more clearly.

At the head of the group, a man in the same uniform and resplendent armor of the Pendragon operatives squinted and shielded his eyes against the light, yelling at the guard.

“It’s the captain,” Parker murmured.

The spotlight spun towards the water, and despite their success in turning off the beacon of light crystals, they still hadn’t floated very far from their initial position. The watch-tower guard found them again easily enough.

Siobhan didn’t flinch when the light hit her, allowing her shadow to darken opaquely against the bright assault, protecting her face and eyes as well as the rest of her body.

As several of her people used some emergency paddles to increase their speed and push them further into the Charybdis Gulf, Siobhan met the Pendragon captain’s gaze across the water. She smiled, though he couldn’t see, and he snarled, shouting indistinguishable orders at his subordinates.

The other Pendragon men scurried around with impressive coordination, a couple moving to follow along beside Siobhan’s stolen boat on land, while most tried to commandeer a boat of their own.

Siobhan hadn’t hoped for things to go so poorly, but that didn’t mean she was unprepared. She turned to Anders and Parker, giving them a nod.

With his mouth pressed together in a grim line, Anders pulled out the Radiant explosive they had taken. Together, he and Parker primed it to go off after impact, and then Parker tied it inside a cradle of thin rope, which he used to swing the explosive around his head like a giant slingshot, faster and faster. The air whistled impressively from the device’s speed, and they ducked down to avoid any accidental collisions.

When Parker finally released the explosive, it flew through the air in a palatially wide arc, up, and then down, trailing rope with an audible slither over the railing.

For a moment, it seemed like it would miss the pursuing boat and splash rather harmlessly into the water. But in the only moment of good fortune Siobhan felt she had experienced all night, the fabric-covered device hit the edge of the deck.

Several of the High Crown’s men jumped off the edge into the dark, filthy waters.

The captain himself simply raised his arm and covered himself in a dome-shaped shield.

When the explosion went off, Siobhan had to turn her face away from the light, even with her shadow to shield her eyes. It blew a hole in the side and deck of the commandeered boat and sent the whole vessel rocking wildly side to side.

Disappointingly, it did not look as though the vessel would sink.

But one of the masts had been damaged, and there might have been a small leak or two in the side. The men the captain might have ordered to row to catch up with them were splashing about in the Gulf, with her smaller boat drawing quickly ahead.

Soon, Siobhan’s boat reached the edge of the range of the watchtower’s spotlight. A little more, and they could escape into the night.

Up above, forms made small by distance stood on the edge of the white cliffs, looking down on them from the eastern edge of the University grounds.

An aborted cry sounded from the shore, near where the operatives had been running along beside her boat. She couldn’t see them anymore, and could only hope they had met misfortune.

Siobhan worried for a moment that the pursuing operatives might produce something spectacular that would allow them to catch her, like a powerful wind spell released directly into their boat’s sails, or some other kind of propelling spell, like the rare wheeled river boats that ran off magic.

When the captain rummaged around in the back of the boat and returned with a staff-like device that she couldn’t quite make out under the cover of darkness, she tensed.

He pointed it at them.

“Faster,” she urged. Her boat wasn’t maneuverable enough to dodge, but most spells had a limited effective range. She imagined he might strike them with lightning, or shoot a piercing spell through their hull, but the projectile he shot from the staff-like device had no special color, and didn’t even glow.

Millennium cried out in dismay.

She heard the whistle of the attack a second before it hit, and realized her error of judgment. The captain hadn’t grabbed a staff at all. It might not even be magical, though the length it had crossed was quite impressive for an entirely mundane weapon.

It was a harpoon.

Her shadow billowed out instinctively to meet it, as if she could somehow block the path of the bladed weapon, but of course the harpoon passed straight through.

It missed her, passing a few feet to her left and stopping behind her with a sound like a goat carcass being quartered in a butcher’s shop. A moment of slicing through wet muscle fiber, the splintering crack of bone shattering under a sloppy cut, and then the dull thud of wood behind the blade, stopping its momentum.

Siobhan turned to follow the sound, letting her shadow drop down and allow what little starlight shone from above to illuminate the boat.

Parker drew in a long, ragged breath of horror, looking down at the harpoon piercing messily through his thigh, which was already spilling blood like a gurgling spring. Then he screamed, high-pitched and ragged.

She had a moment to think that at least it wasn’t his abdomen, or he might be dead already.

Then the tip of the harpoon somehow retracted and bent, gripping around the back of Parker’s thigh. The trailing line went taut, reeled in by a winch as if Parker was some giant fish. And then he was simply yanked off the side of the boat, dragging across the surface of the water like an awkwardly shaped throwing stone. He had just enough moments above the surface not to drown. He used them to scream at first, but soon fell silent.

Siobhan lowered her outstretched hand, which had been much too slow to try and catch him. She stared uselessly.

“Can’t you do something? Drag him back?” Turner asked tremulously, cutting through the silence.

The rest of the group was all looking to her as if she could somehow fix this. Suddenly irritated, she clenched her free fist, letting out a deep breath through the Circle of the hand in front of her mouth. She drew in her shadow a little tighter. “Did you not see that wound? If I fight for him, he will die, ripped apart like a rag doll fought over by two dogs.” If she had acted fast enough, she might have been able to cut the rope before it was reeled in, but she had been stunned and just as useless as the rest of them.

“But you promised him a boon,” Anders said.

“He has a daughter, does he not? The boon will still be granted. He may simply not be around to appreciate it,” she snapped. She spun on her heel, looking toward their fisherman captain. “Take us out quickly. We need to get past the southern straits and the remnants of the white cliffs. We don’t want anyone trying to ambush us again.”

The only silver lining was the sudden lurch of the Pendragon operative’s commandeered boat, which soon began to sink. The Radiant bomb must have done more damage than she thought, but she couldn’t even manage a vindictive smile.

The rest of her people got to work in grim silence. Within an hour they had made their way all the way out of the city and managed a somewhat iffy crash-landing on the shore south of the Mires.

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