Month 4, Day 10, Saturday 11:30 a.m.
Siobhan woke to the metaphorical scream of a full-to-bursting bladder. She struggled her way out of the too-soft bed and stumbled to the magical chamber pot. As she relieved herself, she stared blearily at the rays of mid-morning sun slipping through the edges of the curtains. The light hurt her eyes and brought her attention to the deep throbbing in her skull, like the slow rumble of distant thunder, or a thousand distant war drums.
As she stood again, memories of the day before hit her like a maelstrom. She stumbled, stilled for long enough to regain her balance, and made her way to the bench in front of the vanity mirror.
She found herself staring at the ornate frame with a distant dread, and forced herself to focus on her reflection.
Her lips were pale and cracked, and the sclera around her right eye was the muddy brown of old blood. Healed, but not fully renewed. At least she could see out of it properly. None of the empty spots or floating lights. No hints of anything that shouldn’t be there at her peripherals.
She stared into the darkness of her own eyes, searching for signs of something else moving beneath their surface. The dream she’d had while under the sensory deprivation spell was no invention of a panicked subconscious. Something was inside her, locked away by Grandfather’s seal.
Trying to get out.
Siobhan didn’t believe the things it had told her about Grandfather having gone insane by that time, wanting to hurt her. Grandfather had died to save her.
And then the Red Guard had come in and razed the entire village to the ground. They had to, to destroy the infection.
And Siobhan had spent the last seven years now doing her best not to think about it. That still seemed safest, especially now that she had seen a glimpse of what lay beyond the seal.
Siobhan had recognized that golden eye, and it had not belonged to Grandfather. His eyes had been a rather non-distinct blue. And she feared that pulling on the memory of where such an eye really came from would lead to other memories, ones that should stay gone.
She knew the beginning, and she knew the end. Only the middle was gone, and that did not feel safe enough.
But the nightmare had revealed something to her. Grandfather had wanted her to go to one of his acquaintances to help “settle the matter” for good. Unfortunately, Siobhan had no idea of who that might be. If Grandfather had told her, that memory was lost in the middle. And with the town and everything in it being gone, there was no possibility of going through his belongings to try to find some hint of a friend or contact who might have expertise in this kind of thing.
However, it was also possible that the whole clue was a trick, that there was no friend of Grandfather’s, no permanent solution to her problem. That it was only enticement to open a box of horrors. Horrors that, once released into the world, could never be stuffed back inside the box again.
Siobhan forced herself to drink some water from her canteen despite the lump in her throat. Professor Lacer had mentioned that to split one’s Will probably required some kind of self-mutilation. ‘Should I stop practicing with that technique? But Myrddin seems to have been able to do it. Maybe Professor Lacer was wrong.’ Her practice with Myrddin’s journal hadn’t been causing any noticeable side-effects.
She gave herself a small, ironic smile. ‘Even if I shouldn’t have been able to do such a thing, I can now. Stopping will not fix whatever is wrong.’
Feeling as if she carried the weight and dust of a thousand years, Siobhan stood and moved to the attached washroom and its luxurious shower. She was covered in grime of every sort, caked and layered and crusted until she felt more filth than woman. She shuddered as the water began to beat down upon her, pressing her hands flat against the wall to brace herself.
The skin of her chest was faintly scarred from the cold-burns her medallion had given her, but the damage wasn’t distinct enough to be alarming. Even if someone noticed the scar, they couldn’t read a spell array or any glyphs from it. Her medallion itself was still intact. However, another of the glyphs—the one that signified protection from excessive energy transfer—seemed to have been damaged from channeling too much power. But at least none were broken. Even the anti-divination glyph, similarly half-melted, might have a little channeling ability left in it, if her divination-diverting ward ever failed.
The water ran cold quickly, forcing Siobhan out of the washroom. She sat before the vanity once more and dug out the final stolen healing potion as her wet hair soaked the back of her borrowed dress.
Minutes passed. ‘I don’t know what to do,’ Siobhan realized. She didn’t mean what to do in the moment. Obviously, she needed to become Sebastien again and be innocently back in her dorm at the University, studying fervently as ever. But in a more general sense, what to do about… She directed her thoughts firmly away from any hint of the thing within. ‘What to do about the seal?’
Siobhan wrapped her arms around herself and looked into her eyes. “I’m in control,” she whispered to herself. She repeated it once more, and then again, louder. But the words didn’t seem as true as they should.
Instead, she whispered, “I’m scared. Why did you leave me, Grandfather? Why didn’t you fix it?” She leaned forward until her forehead touched her knees. “Why?” she asked again, the sound smaller and more desperate.
But there was no one to answer her.
Hands shaking, she stood and splashed cool water from a decorative basin into her face. Hot tears mixed with the water, spilling out of her eyes and down her cheeks. She breathed carefully, resisting the urge to sniffle, sob, or convulse. She stared at herself as the weakness spilled out, and when her face grew warm and her eyes burned, she splashed with the cool water again.
It was as if the tears drained something undefinable from deep inside her. Finally, they dried up, and left her empty and exhausted.
She slumped back into the chair and stared at the ceiling for a long few minutes, taking stock. Finally, she whispered, “I’m okay.” She was withered and wilted, perhaps, but her clawing, ravenous tenacity was as strong as ever. Siobhan massaged her neck muscles, rolled her shoulders, and lifted her chin. “I am unbreakable,” she croaked to the puffy-eyed, miserable-looking woman in the mirror.
Then she winced as a particularly painful throb pulsed through her head, as if to admonish her for her hubris. She was exhausted, had what was probably moderate Will-strain, and despite the success of retrieving her blood and discouraging further attempts to use sympathetic divination on her, it had been a long time since the future seemed so horribly bleak.
The last time things had been this bad was after she escaped the village and was surviving on her own. Before she learned that magic could keep her from dreaming.
Before she learned that power could keep her safe.
That precept was universal, and it should still hold true here.
Rather than drink the last healing potion, she poured out some of the burning liquid on her fingertips and awkwardly rubbed it into spots on her side and back that hurt the worst. Then, she gingerly tipped a single drop into her right eye.
She had thought her pool of tears was empty, but under the searing, scouring brightness, her ducts found the ability to cry once more, spilling a line of brightness down her cheek. Her eye rolled uncontrollably in its socket, trying to escape, but the discomfort soon faded, leaving her sclera a crisp white, cleared of both the bruising and the redness from crying.
She repeated the process with her other eye, but with barely a dab of potion, just enough to remove the redness so that she wasn’t noticeably lopsided.
As she was tucking the remainder of the potion back into her satchel and contemplating the best way to leave this building and get back to the University, a knock sounded on the door.
Liza poked her head past the doorway, looking as if she too could use a drop of healing potion for her red, irritated eyes and the dark circles under them. More than a few of her corkscrew curls had lost their coherence, frizzing out into individual strands and springing up and away in strange clouds that didn’t seem to adhere to gravity. “You’re up,” she said, sounding surprised. “I thought I might need to use some caretaking spells to empty your bladder and bowels before you soiled the bed.”
Siobhan flushed so hard that it was surely visible even past the ochre brown of her skin. The last time she’d had Will-strain, she had stayed at Liza’s house and slept for an entire day. She had woken up with the bed unsoiled. This confirmation of what the the other woman had been required to do was mortifying. ‘How would it even work?’ she wondered, before shaking her head rapidly to dislodge the thought. She didn’t want to imagine it.
“You may come with me to the Retreat at Willowdale,” Liza announced, distracting Siobhan from her embarrassment. “You will be disguised as my niece, a healer in training who received schooling in Silva Erde. No magic will be done. You will follow all instructions immediately and without question. If you agree, you may arrive at my house for preparation at six tomorrow morning.”
Siobhan nodded rapidly. “I’ll be there.”
Liza narrowed her eyes. “If I find you in worse condition at that time than you are now, you will not be coming. Rest. If you wish, you may do so at my abode.”
Siobhan hesitated, but declined. Liza’s help nursing her through the next day or two would be wonderful, but it would be too suspicious for Sebastien Siverling to be missing for so long.
With a judgmental “tch,” the woman withdrew and began to close the door.
“Wait!” Siobhan called. When Liza peeked her head back in, Siobhan said, “I have your payment.”
Liza smiled widely, her whole demeanor shifting. “Oh? I thought I might have to hassle you for it.”
It was true that after paying for supplies, University tuition, and various items for Operation Palimpsest, Liza’s fees would have put Siobhan well into a deficit. She had planned to get a loan from a bank, using her status as Thaddeus Lacer’s apprentice as well as her stock in Oliver’s textile company. Failing that, to leverage Liza’s interest in researching the fidelity of Siobhan’s Will for a discount. But now, both options were unnecessary.
Siobhan pulled her satchel into her lap and rifled around in it until she had pulled a handful of small gold bars from the bottom. Just seven were enough. The original price they had agreed upon had increased with with additional requirements, the danger Liza had been required to risk, and Siobhan’s rental of some basic protective artifacts.
This was a quarter of the gold Siobhan had stolen from the Pendragon Corps’ safe, but only a small portion of the true wealth. Liza tucked the heavy bars into an inner pocket of her jacket, which showed no outward sign of the weight, or even a bulge in the fabric.
When the older woman was gone, Siobhan reached into her satchel once more. She held up one of the Conduits so that the light could flash through its crystal-clear depths. Quite wastefully, someone had actually polished the celerium, getting rid of rough edges and increasing its shine. But it was still a bit larger than the average quail egg. At higher clarity, a Conduit could channel more while remaining small.
Siobhan estimated this one could channel between five and eight thousand thaums, as could the other couple dozen. And if prices had held steady with the last time she was searching for a Conduit, they would be worth between fifteen to thirty thousand gold. Each. Maybe more, as Siobhan hadn’t payed close attention to the prices on the higher end.
Quite suddenly, Siobhan was incredibly wealthy. Nothing compared to the Crown Families, perhaps, but enough to buy a moderately priced mansion in the heart of the Lilies. Or fund a hundred or so people through the University all the way to a Master’s certification.
Wealthy enough to bribe her way to freedom, possibly, if such a thing ever became necessary.
Some people would have said such wealth made all the danger and pain worth it.
It should have been exciting, even euphoric, after all the struggle she had gone through for gold. But instead it merely felt surreal. She put the Conduit back into her satchel. To access that wealth, she would still need to find buyers for each. She could think of several options, but each had its downside.
Slowly and wearily, Siobhan climbed to her feet. She debated whether to assume Sebastien’s form now, but worried that someone might see her leaving the room that the Raven Queen had slept in. No matter how quiet the Nightmare Pack had tried to keep the information, a night was long enough for word to spread. People might even be waiting to catch a glimpse of her, or in the worst case, to arrest her.
She kept Sebastien’s clothing in her bag, carefully folded and arranged for speed of use. She put on a heavy cloak that someone—probably Liza—had left draped over a chair while Siobhan was sleeping. An examination of the fabric showed protective spell arrays embroidered into the inside of the hem in copper thread, which added weight to Siobhan’s theory.
Liza, as always, snapped and growled, and then treated Siobhan more kindly than she needed to. ‘Unless Liza tries to charge me for renting an extra artifact when I return the cloak,’ Siobhan amended wryly.
Siobhan was extremely reluctant to strain herself casting the shedding-destroyer spell, but had rationalized that she must do so anyway. But then she realized that she could simply strip the bedding off the mattress and burn it all. It was a horrible waste, but the manager wouldn’t dare to complain, and if Gera or Lord Lynwood wanted to bill her, she could afford it.
It took some time, but the magical filter on the fireplace kept the room from filling with acrid smoke as cotton, velvet, and feather down burned to ash, along with any little traces of her passing. She poured out the water from the decorative basin, wiped down everything she had used in the washroom, and then threw even the towels into the fire.
Outside, she found the hallway empty except for a pair of guards standing at the end. They bowed as soon as they saw her and didn’t rise until she had stopped in front of them. “We are honored by your presence, my lady,” one of them said, still staring at the floor.
Siobhan didn’t have the wherewithal to handle this. “I need a safe exit. Perhaps through a hidden tunnel?”
They shared a glance with each other, and then straightened. “If you’ll follow me, I will lead you to our most secure passage,” the one who had spoken before said.
Siobhan followed them through surprisingly deserted exterior hallways until they descended below ground level. “Have you had any trouble? The coppers, perhaps?”
“Nothing we couldn’t handle. There were some who heard news of your stay and wanted to call upon you, for good or ill, but we turned away all those who you yourself had not allowed access to your quarters previously.”
Siobhan ran her tongue over the back of her teeth. “Oliver Dryden?” she asked.
“He was one of them. Have we…angered you, my lady?”
“No. You did well.”
When they reached the steel door of a tunnel—a different one than the night before—she bid them farewell. As soon as the door’s dry hinges shrieked closed behind her, she stripped out of her dress and changed into her other form.
Immediately, her feet cried out inside the crushing pressure of her boots, and she fumbled to make them expand to fit her new size.
Sebastien leaned her hand against the dank, slimy wall of the tunnel, taking a couple deep breaths as the panic receded. “Stupid,” she muttered.
Using her latest bottle of moonlight sizzle, she made her way to the tunnel’s exit, which actually fed into the back of a hollow statue that sat within someone’s private garden shrine to the Radiant Maiden.
Siobhan pushed open the stone hatch and crawled out without being seen. She brushed herself free of stray cobwebs, and slipped nonchalantly into the pedestrian traffic on the nearest street. As the bright afternoon light hit her eyes despite the shading hood of the cloak, she ducked her head. Her steps were quick, but not suspiciously so, and she didn’t look around as if expecting danger and thus draw attention to herself.
‘What was their plan, yesterday?’ she wondered. ‘It seems unlikely that they hoped to capture me by following Millennium. As far as I’m aware, his ability to bypass my “immunity” to divination isn’t widely known. And if that had been the plan, one would imagine that the Pendragon operatives would have been more wary of my identity in the first place.’
Sebastien worried at the edge of a ragged fingernail. ‘Oliver didn’t know about this ahead of time—I don’t believe he would allow Theo to be placed in such danger—which means that his spies in the coppers didn’t know about it. Could it be that the High Crown implemented his contribution to the events of yesterday in secret? As insurance, in case the coppers couldn’t catch me?’
It was plausible. Especially because Oliver hadn’t been particularly concerned with whatever the coppers had planned.
‘What would I do, if I were trying to catch the Raven Queen?’ Sebastien contemplated the strange feeling of compulsion she had sensed the morning before. She had no evidence that one had actually existed except her own gut feeling, but such magic would be incredibly useful to catch someone who had displayed the Raven Queen’s supposed capabilities. If it were Sebastien in charge, Ennis’s sentencing would have just been a pretext for people to be out in the streets without any feeling of dissonance. Something obvious for a clever woman to see right through. Something to encourage her to feel superior about how stupid her opponents were.
The Raven Queen was known to be resistant to divination, but not literally invisible. If Sebastien could make it possible to very gently and lightly scan every person in the city, then any person or creature that their divination failed on would be a suspect. This would include many of those wealthy enough to afford wearable wards in their jewelry or clothing.
Sebastien would have then removed those people from the general population and done more thorough tests. Perhaps even made them take some kind of oath to enforce truth-telling. The Raven Queen’s word was her bond, after all.
Or, if removing that many people from the population wasn’t possible, she might have come up with some way to manually track those people who were resistant to divination. This could have been done with an object, if she could find a way to attach it to the suspects. Reverse-pickpocketing a spelled copper coin into their pockets, perhaps.
Or, less prone to error, something like a spell that would create an illusory, miniature replica of Gilbratha and everyone in it. The spots that were resistant to divination would have been missing, or hazy. And in this way, they might be able to track what they couldn’t track.
Except, if Liza was really as good as she believed herself to be, Sebastien’s divination-diverting ward would have re-routed that wide-spread divination around her so that she was not a missing spot, but just an empty one. Just as Sebastien could re-route the light around herself to create an illusion of invisibility.
And if Sebastien really wanted to be thorough about all this, she might have added some tiny compulsion toward recklessness and lowered inhibition. And then insulted the Raven Queen publicly. She was known to be prideful, and perhaps reckless, too.
When Sebastien recalled the details of yesterday, before she had been caught, her divination-diverting ward had activated subtly. But that would have been around the time Millennium was searching for her, drawing close. The same time the copper was talking to her. Either could have been the cause.
But all of her speculation was limited, a frog ideating inside of a well. She knew well that the Red Guard had resources she couldn’t imagine, and used spells she’d never heard of.
All that she knew for sure was that even now, she might not necessarily be safe. That was why the Raven Queen needed to disappear. Over time, she would fade from the gossip, and then from people’s memories.
The problem was, after what Sebastien had learned—or been forced to remember—the Raven Queen was still needed.
If it was possible to fix the kind of thing that was wrong with Sebastien, those most likely to have the necessary knowledge were the agents of the Red Guard.
Unfortunately, from what Sebastien knew of their vows, even an attempt to help her would be sacrilege. That which threatened the continued existence of their world must be annihilated and erased.
‘How can I trust anyone to actually help me, when, if I weren’t the one in this exact position, even my own verdict would be to kill Siobhan Naught? What might be learned from saving me could be useful, to be sure. But what is risked is greater, and not only one life is at stake.’
Sebastien took a deep breath in through her nose and out through her mouth, then pressed back her shoulders and lifted her chin, which had both sunk downward without her realizing.
‘If I cannot trust anyone to help me, then I must help myself. If the information that could lead me to a solution is out there, all I need to do is find and learn it myself.’ And, perhaps ironically, the person in the best position to do so was the Raven Queen. She knew the perfect person, the one man who might be willing to lead her to answers. As long as he didn’t understand why she needed them.
Sebastien Siverling must stay separate, unimpeachable, and deniably innocent. More so now than ever. She was terrified of the thing sealed inside her mind, seeping out into her nightmares. It would have been the greatest wish of her life to be free of that burden, to be powerful enough to crush it beneath her heel.
But more than that, more than anything, she did not want to die.
When Sebastien arrived at the dorms, she had grown woozy with the effort required to simply stay awake. She took a bland meal at the cafeteria while composing several letters, then wrote them in her dorm room. One for Tanya, to let the other woman know that all had gone well. One to Damien, something similar, but less honest. She even wrote one to Oliver, though no doubt by now he knew the situation.
And finally, one to Thaddeus Lacer, written carefully on the same paper she had bought for the High Crown, in a hand that he wouldn’t recognize as the usual spider-scrawl of his apprentice. In the end, her message was less subtle than she had hoped, because she didn’t even know enough about her problem to approach it indirectly. And above all, she needed answers. That one, she placed on Professor Lacer’s doorstep, after confirming thrice that he was gone, no one was around to see her, and that her divination-diverting ward gave no signs of activation.
Then, Sebastien returned to the dorms and cast her dreamless sleep spell at the highest strength that she could manage in her current state. She set her alarm to wake her up before the much-weakened magic could wear off and collapsed into her bed.
Want to get an email with links as soon as a new chapter comes out on my website, or get monthly Inner Circle news about my writing? Sign up for your preference here: https://landing.mailerlite.com/webforms/landing/q4b8d8
Seeing a locked chapter that should be unlocked?: https://www.azaleaellis.com/trouble-accessing-chapters/