Chapter 176 – Out of the Night

Siobhan

Month 4, Day 9, Friday 10:00 p.m.

Siobhan was reaching the edge of her limits.

The vision in her right eye was fading, not with darkness but with an empty spot that she couldn’t tell was there until something disappeared into it. Whatever was wrong with her ribs was becoming more debilitating, sending moments of sharp pain radiating through her back and upper abdomen that were followed by a deep, dull ache. Even her shadow-familiar was becoming difficult to maintain past the mental fatigue and an increased distractibility. Her thoughts attempted to wander off on the silliest tangents when they should be gripped tight around the magic.

She wanted to rest. But the Pendragon Corps operatives might still try to scry Anders, and she didn’t feel right leaving Theo or Miles to the care of these people who had already shown they couldn’t protect them.

Miles had stumbled with fatigue when they climbed out of the boat, too tired to even respond to Theo’s sneered comment about being a little baby. Whatever strange abilities he had, they were not without cost. Enforcer Fring was carrying the boy now, his weight barely a hindrance to the large man.

Siobhan looked toward the sprawling southern edge of the Mires, where small campfires dotted the rocky soil and illuminated the shacks and tents that housed people who couldn’t afford to live within the protection of Gilbratha’s walls, such as they were.

Not that this part of Lenore was very dangerous. Not due to monsters, at least. The army had long since cleared this central area of magical land beasts, culling them down to the last. And water beasts wandering into the Charybdis Gulf from the ocean were unlikely to attack people on land. But that didn’t mean people here were safe. The coppers didn’t come this far south, after all.

Siobhan jerked her mind away from the tangent, focusing for a couple seconds on the shadow-familiar spell to make sure it was steady, its tendrils spread widely enough to protect everyone against possible divination attempts.

The others made the job easier, automatically gathering around her as if she was a campfire on a cold, fearful night.

The safest place she could think of was Liza’s apartment—or rather, apartments—but she couldn’t take them there. The woman wouldn’t abide the danger that could bring to her home, and without showing them Liza’s secret attached apartments, the small main abode would have trouble fitting a group of this size.

The Verdant Stag had wards, too, and even more after the Knave Knoll incident, but judging from Miles’s story and Theo’s capture, it might not be safe there. ‘And,’ a small voice in the corner of her head said, ‘Oliver might be there.’ Obviously, she would need to see him, to speak to him again, sometime soon. But for the moment, there was nothing she would love to avoid more. If it would be safest there, of course she would go anyway, but if she were the one who had planned all this, it certainly wouldn’t be.

She cleared her throat and said wearily, “We need to find a safe place. I fear the Verdant Stag and Lynwood Manor will be watched by the enemy. I know the location of several of the Verdant Stags’ safe houses, but we need somewhere more permanent, ideally warded against scrying. I cannot keep this protection active for much longer. Unless any of you are secretly ward-masters?”

She shook her head before anyone had a chance to respond. No, of course they weren’t. That was silly. She smacked her tongue, realizing how thirsty she was, and dug in her satchel for the canteen of water within. It was almost empty, but if she held it for a while with the cap off, the little spell array she had carved into the bottom and charged—making the canteen a cheap artifact—would draw in moisture from the air to refill its stores.

Jackal and Enforcer Fring shared a look. Anders glanced around, then took a small step closer. “I agree. If we don’t have a place to hide, we’re gonna have to leave Gilbratha right quick. I’ve got a cousin in a little town east of Paneth. But that body seems to be failing you,” he added, looking pointedly at Siobhan. “Doesn’t seem like you’ll last the night.”

The praying woman sucked in a gasp of outrage, but Siobhan nodded, her neck feeling slightly too loose and her giant, throbbing brain slightly too heavy. “The Will is resolute, but the flesh is imperfect,” she said, quoting a half-remembered idiom.

Surprisingly, it was Martha who came up with an answer. “We can go to one of our safe houses in the old Morrow territory. There’s one that connects to a hidden tunnel leading to one of Lord Morrow’s old underground fighting arenas. It’s ours now, too. And the place should have some wards. And extra fighting supplies, and people on our side. And even a healer on staff?” she added uncertainly as people stared at her.

“It’s…a good idea. But how do you know about that?” Enforcer Fring asked.

Martha harrumphed at him, crossing her arms. “I hear quite a lot, living in the Lynwood house, and especially being young Millennium’s maid.”

After a few moments of discussion, they agreed that this was their best option. It was early enough in the night, and beginning to grow warm enough, that people were still out and about. And Siobhan’s group was quite conspicuous. They had found a barrel of fresh water on the boat and used it to clean up a little, but they were still an eclectic congregation and obviously somewhat battered.

She tried to make her shadow-familiar cloak hang more like actual fabric, hugging closer to the fabric of her dress, which was much too fluffy and pastel green to flaunt openly. The tendrils that were looped around the others thinned to the barest thread, almost invisible unless one was looking for them.

They came across some mostly-dry clothing hanging from a makeshift clothesline and paid the scraggly man guarding the line for a couple of spare outfits. Anders was able to change out of the bold Pendragon Corps colors, and Martha got a light cloak to cover up her maid’s uniform.

Siobhan was out of luck, if she had ever had any to begin with, stuck in her dress. All she could do was hug the fabric with her shadow and activate her dowsing artifact in the hope that the low-level spillover from her divination-diverting ward’s automatic activation would be enough to keep eyes off of her.

They kept to the shadows of back alleys and streets where the light crystals had been stolen out of the lamp posts.

One of the men let out a gasp and raised his arm to wave at a small group of patrolling Nightmare Pack enforcers, but Gerard stopped them and pulled them back into the alley. “We don’t know if there’s a leak, or how loyal those men really are. And the larger our group, the more likely someone notices us and talks. There are already too many of us.”

This caused some anger among the Nightmare Pack members of their group, but they continued on alone, ducking through the streets in sudden bursts of movement, wary of anyone and everyone still moving at that hour. Siobhan couldn’t even tell if she was frightened, or if running into trouble would be a relief, but they soon enough made it to Martha’s safe house, which was empty, and much nicer on the inside than either of the Verdant Stag safe houses that Siobhan had been in.

From there, they descended through a tunnel that was revealed by lifting up an ornate bathtub, which was built quite ingeniously on a hinge with a spring to handle the weight. The tunnel itself was carved from more of the ubiquitous white stone, but here beneath the surface, they stood in a couple of inches of brackish water. Little crabs scurried out of their way, and lichen and a thin brown film covered the damp walls.

Enforcer Gerard had to kill a truly enormous spider barring the way about halfway through the tunnel. It had some mild form of camouflage that might have been magical and was large enough to kill and eat the crabs, or anything smaller than the average cat. Siobhan could barely spare a thought for it beyond an exhausted wish that they could move faster.

When they arrived at the end of the tunnel, barred by a rusted iron door, they knocked loudly and waited an irritating amount of time for a response.

When it finally came, the door inching cautiously open with a horrible shriek of ungreased, rusted hinges, the group of battle-ready Nightmare Pack members on the other side were immediately and obviously relieved by the sight of Millennium in Enforcer Fring’s arms.

They questioned the man rapidly as the rest of the group squeezed through the half-open door, and another man in an ostentatious outfit—with actual velvet coattails—sent a runner to inform Lord Lynwood.

The group fell silent when Siobhan stepped through, her clothing coated in shadow made more obvious in the light of the room. Her arm was beginning to ache from holding her hand up to her mouth for so long, so she switched arms, looking around.

After a long few seconds of complete silence, Fring took charge of the situation, listing what they needed, and when most of the people had rushed off to do his bidding, he explained the situation and events of the day with occasional interjections from the others.

The man with the velvet coattails was apparently the manager, and he directed them to a larger room, where people quickly returned with extra chairs, food and water, and the on-staff healer.

Siobhan waited for the arena’s employees to bring a set of portable anti-divination wards, which they set at the corners of the room and attached to the corners of the ceiling, before speaking. “I require clothing.”

The employees froze, looking to the manager, who hesitated a moment but then murmured instructions to one of the women. She looked at Siobhan and then back at the manager as if she wanted to argue.

“Quickly,” Siobhan added.

The woman left the room at a dead sprint.

Theo giggled and sent Siobhan an exaggerated wink and grin, despite his obvious fatigue. The healing potion he’d taken earlier had refreshed him, but he was still a young boy and it had been a very long day.

The woman returned less than a minute later with a slim-fitting red dress that was missing several sections of actual fabric around the legs and mid-section in favor of sheer lace.

Siobhan stared at it for a moment, trying to gauge if this would be any better than remaining in her current attire, but decided that no matter how flamboyant it was, it was better than remaining in the same outfit she’d been kidnapped in.

The employee bowed deeply to her, then offered to escort her to a private room where she could change. Siobhan took her up on the offer. Alone, she belatedly realized that she could drop her shadow-familiar now. Her mind felt strange without anything to grasp onto, like a fist with stiff fingers that didn’t want to unbend. She felt vulnerable without her shadow, despite how useless it was as any kind of effective protection.

With the occasional whimper of pain and frustration, Siobhan struggled out of her clothing and into the new outfit. She considered taking off her corset to get a sense of the damage underneath, and maybe ease the pain that was being exacerbated by the black sapphire and a beast core pressing into her injured side, but decided to put it off. At the very least, the corset seemed to be holding her insides in place, and wasn’t that what compression bandages would do? ‘Who knows?’ she thought blearily, her head listing to one side before she snapped it upright again.

She returned to the hallway, which was empty, and shuffled back the way she’d come, only to meet Lord Lynwood, Gera, and Katerin charging in the other direction. Gera turned her head over her shoulder and snapped, “Hurry up!”

Liza was trailing behind the three, and the target of this order. One side of Liza’s upper lip twitched with irritation, and she returned a hard stare that Gera didn’t seem to notice at all, too focused on reaching her son.

The three of them recognized Siobhan at the same time, slowing so quickly they almost tripped over each other. Under Gera’s observation, the divination-diverting ward tingled to blood-sucking life.

Siobhan waved at the nearby door. “Miles and Theo are there. Safe,” she added.

The three of them hurried on, Lord Lynwood and Gera both pausing to make awkward, hasty bows to her before crashing through the doorway.

Liza, much less frantic, stopped beside Siobhan, her lips tightening as her gaze flicked over Siobhan’s own, then around her head and down to her faintly trembling fingertips. “This was not the plan, girl,” she said severely.

Siobhan smiled wryly. “No plan survives contact with the enemy,” she quoted. “But I survived. We survived. And as far as I’m aware, this time I didn’t make any disastrous mistakes. Did you…?”

Liza grimaced. “I succeeded, if a little more dramatically than I had hoped.”

Siobhan was almost too fatigued to feel the relief she had been anticipating since coming up with the plan. She wanted to ask for details but decided that such things could wait.

“They barely had a smear of blood on a shard of glass, but it is now destroyed, according to our contract. The Raven Queen has made triumphant appearances throughout the city today. Even more than planned, it seems. I hope you can handle the consequences of all this extra attention.”

Siobhan began to shrug, then stilled with a wince as the movement tugged on her ribs. “I don’t really plan to handle anything. I’ll just disappear. I would have done that from the beginning, had they let me.”

Liza pursed her lips. “We will see.”

“They added some portable wards to the room, but it could probably use something better if you can manage it on the fly. I might be safe from their divination now, but for one of them, that’s most definitely not the case.”

Liza sighed, following Siobhan into the room and pulling out supplies for drawing a spell array from one of her vest’s pockets.

A sudden wave of dizziness sent Siobhan stumbling, but she caught herself before she could fall.

The healer, currently tending to Miles, half-stood as if to go to Siobhan.

She waved him off. “I am fine. See to the boy.” She didn’t want to take off her corset yet, which he would need to do to deal with her ribs, and it wasn’t as if he could fix her Will-strain. She fumbled in her satchel for one of the two remaining healing potions, downing the entire thing in another burning, Radiant gulp.

She hissed, scouring light spilling from between her teeth as her side pulled and shifted with the scream of stretched muscles and grinding cartilage. Her right eye itched and watered, and a sudden violent cough sent a weak cloud of darkness puffing from between her lips.

She, and everyone else in the room, stared at it as it dissipated into the air. “That definitely should not happen,” she muttered. It seemed she still had some tweaks to do with the proprioception philtre of darkness. Which needed a name of its own. ‘Naught’s philtre of shadowed perception? No, too wordy.

She looked up to see that several of her rescued group members wore expressions of concern and belatedly realized that perhaps coughing up darkness would be more worrying to someone who didn’t know the reason. “Do not worry, just a small side-effect. There should be no permanent damage to the flesh,” she said, pressing her hand to her chest, over her lungs. It didn’t even hurt to breathe.

Liza pressed one hand to her forehead and sighed.

Martha nodded slowly, jerkily. “Not to worry, not to worry,” she repeated under her breath, though Siobhan had no idea who she was trying to reassure.

The praying woman, whose name Siobhan still didn’t know, pushed aside Jackal, who was staring at Siobhan in disgusted fascination. “Is this something you could do for someone else, my queen? Someone loyal and true?”

Siobhan tried to parse the strange woman’s question, and then realized she was requesting access to the modified philtre of darkness. ‘Naught’s philtre of night and knowledge!’ some part of her brain suggested gleefully. “I could,” Siobhan agreed aloud, “but it might be slightly dangerous. It obviously needs some adjustments. It can be invaluable in an emergency, but it does not last very long, and it is quite difficult…” The dizziness returned, and she trailed off, grasping for the nearest chair, which the manager pushed toward her like an obsequious suitor.

“You need rest,” Liza said. “That healing potion cannot fix everything.”

“Oh, yes,” Siobhan agreed. “I am in desperate need of sleep. As always!” This thought was desperately, tragically hilarious, and before she knew it a high-pitched giggle that might have been edging on a crazed cackle burst from her throat.

She pressed a horrified hand to her mouth, shoving the embarrassing sound back down.

Lord Lynwood visibly shuddered.

Only Theo seemed to have any sympathy for her. He rose with great difficulty from the chair he had been curled up in while Katerin fussed over him, came to Siobhan’s side, and patted her hand.

He didn’t offer any words of consolation, but the gesture still caused Siobhan’s eyes to burn with sudden emotion. She closed them lest anyone see a hint of extra shininess.

The manager cleared his throat. “You would be welcome to one of our private rooms, humble as they may be,” he offered. “They are warded. Perhaps not to the mistress’s standards, but safe enough, and all of us here would fight to defend the building from unwanted guests, if necessary. None will speak of your presence, on pain of death.” He looked to Lord Lynwood for confirmation, but the man only nodded, his eyes on Miles.

Siobhan looked at Liza, who shrugged. Since the thought of trying to return to the University at this time seemed a little like a bad idea and a lot like torture, Siobhan agreed to the offer. She gestured to Liza, Gera, and then, after a moment, to Katerin as well. “Would you accompany me? I have some questions as well as some information to relay.”

“I will keep watch over Millennium,” Lord Lynwood assured Gera.

Katerin was reluctant to leave Theo, but when the boy offered to simply come along with too-bright eyes and a sudden surge of energy, she, too, agreed to leave the boy under the protection of Lord Lynwood and the various enforcers.

The room the manager offered was large and gaudily opulent, with gold-foiled filigree making an appearance on the walls and almost every piece of furniture. This was contrasted against vast amounts of red velvet. In the center of the room, a frankly enormous four-poster bed with a velvet canopy was featured.

Siobhan didn’t have the presence of mind to hold back her grimace.

The manager noticed and bent at the waist immediately. “I apologize for the deficient standards of our establishment. I assure you, our hospitable spirit is not lacking. You are our honored guest, if there is anything you wish us to change, or anything—”

Siobhan waved her hand to silence him. “It’s fine.” She moved to the plush seat beside the bed and lowered herself carefully onto it.

When the manager had gone and the door was closed behind him, Gera moved to stand a couple meters in front of Siobhan and sank to her knees. “I thank you, and owe you a great debt, Queen of Ravens,” she said, head bowed.

Katerin’s jaw dropped, and even Liza, who had been moving to draw extra temporary wards on the walls, watched with surprised amusement.

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