Month 4, Day 11, Sunday 5:30 a.m.
Very early Sunday morning, after waking for what seemed to the be dozenth time to the alarm spell she’d set on her pocket watch, Sebastien took a morning dose of all her prescribed concoctions. Then, she retreated to the nearby bathroom—thankfully empty—and retrieved the beast core and Conduit that she had swallowed.
It was an experience she resolved never to think about again. Even the thought of returning the Conduit to Professor Lacer at some point made her skin flush from her neck up to her forehead.
Sebastien was thankful that the man had found her at the perfect time yesterday, so that the healer could—unknowingly—lie to him, instead of forcing Sebastien to do it herself. Sebastien wasn’t confident in her ability to trick him when he was on guard for it.
For a moment, she had worried that his diagnostic spell had given some hint of the five ward disks embedded under the skin of her back. But instead, apparently she was anemic and needed to put on a bit more fat. It was true that the divination-diverting ward might have, cumulatively, consumed a bit more blood over the last few months than intended. It was also true, what with the constant exercise as she practiced light-refinement, as well as the extra energy required to keep up with heavy magic use, that she might not have been managing her sustenance properly over the break. It was harder to remember when there were no classes to structure her day, and when everything else seemed more urgent than taking a break to eat. In fact, she could recall a handful of times that she only forced herself to do so when the insidious cravings for a dose of beamshell tincture returned, or when her fingers began to tremble.
Sebastien looked into one of the bathroom’s mirrors, tilting her head as she examined her face for signs of malnutrition. She was thin, yes, but really the worst of it were the bruise-like crescents beneath her eyes, and that her lips were pale and cracking. She took a bit of headache salve from her satchel and rubbed the minty oil on her lips, and then pinched a bit of color into her cheeks. “Better,” she murmured. She wasn’t sure if she was quite handsome, but she did look…distinguished. Striking.
Sebastien turned her attention to the—thoroughly cleaned—beast core and Conduit that she had retrieved. The Conduit was fine, though perhaps slightly shinier than it had been before. The beast core, however, was almost empty of power. When she held it within the Circle of her grip and sensed at it for the familiar well of power, she got the feel of a depleted spark instead.
Which was slightly concerning. Sebastien reassured herself that she would know if she had somehow cast through her own flesh at any point, because that wasn’t the sort of thing someone could miss. Perhaps beast cores simply didn’t react well to the chemicals of a digestive system.
‘Could I have internal burns from the energy discharge?’ If she had, the healing potions had probably fixed any problems. In fact, it might even have been contact with the healing potions that caused the issue in the first place, if they were trying to cleanse her of an “impurity.” Radiant energy was multi-faceted, after all, as harsh and unforgiving as it was restorative.
Sebastien put the beast core in her satchel and reattached the Conduit chain to her pocket watch with some bending of the delicate links, and then left for Liza’s. The sun was rising earlier and earlier lately, which she appreciated because it decreased some of the bitter cold, but it also meant that it was harder to travel unnoticed through the darkness.
The evening before, after taking the potions prescribed by the University healer, Sebastien had realized that keeping all of the things she’d stolen from the armory safe in her bag was probably a bad idea. If someone were to search it and discover the secret compartment, it would be hard to explain why she had a veritable fortune in gold and celerium.
It was also possible that the gold bars had some tracking function embedded within them, where she couldn’t see. While she had kept her satchel close enough by her side that her divination-diverting ward could activate if someone tried to find her through it, there had been no scrying attempts. It might be paranoia, but if that happened to change during one of the moments when her satchel was too far away for the spillover effects from her ward to protect it, the consequences could be severe.
Normally, she would have kept something sensitive like this at Oliver’s house, or at the Verdant Stag. In fact, she still hadn’t retrieved Myrddin’s journal from the guest room floor. Oliver might not even be aware that the book was there, but if he was, and he was angry about Operation Palimpsest… This caused a spike of anxiety that was quickly suppressed by the potions Sebastien had taken.
If she left such sensitive items at Liza’s house, they would be protected by the woman’s wards. ‘But would they be protected from Liza herself?’ She remembered Oliver saying that Liza had a code of honor, but that Sebastien would not be buying her loyalty. And Liza was, for some reason, in constant need of gold. If Sebastien kept her things there, she had no way to stop Liza from snooping, and wasn’t sure that Liza would be able to resist the temptation if she learned of such an opportunity.
Sebastien could place her things in a warded box in a bank vault, but if the High Crown’s people overcame the bank’s wards, they would not only have a way to trap her when she came to retrieve the items, but also a blatant link from the Raven Queen to Sebastien Siverling’s identity.
Placing a fortune in her various stashes of emergency belongings throughout the city was obviously a horrible idea, for so many reasons that she didn’t want to take the time to list them.
Her last option seemed to be the Nightmare Pack. Gera, at least, could probably be trusted not to betray the Raven Queen’s trust by snooping in her belongings. And the Nightmare Pack was wealthy enough—and committed enough crime—that they should have some well-warded, secret, and protected locations to store something for her.
But even so, she didn’t feel quite secure unloading such sensitive items on…well, anyone, really.
She thought over that problem, and others, as she made a couple stops along the way to change her body and clothes and make sure she wasn’t being followed.
Damien had written her back yesterday evening, urging her to come to Westbay Manor and lamenting that his overprotective older brother had him on literal house arrest as a reaction to the Raven Queen’s latest shenanigans. Damien had assured Sebastien that Westbay Manor was one of the safest places in the city. No doubt he was desperate for news. But she had taken a dose of the anti-anxiety potion just before, and was too tired to even send a response to him before falling asleep again.
Siobhan rubbed her cold-numbed hands together, making a mental note to send Damien another message when she got back from the Retreat.
When Siobhan arrived, Liza thrust a cup of tea into her hands, then ushered her to an armchair, where Siobhan spent the next thirty minutes dozing off—but not actually sleeping—while Liza used a potion to curl Siobhan’s hair.
Sleepily, she asked Liza if she could build a warded box with similar protections to her divination-diverting ward.
Liza walked into the next room and came back with a small, square chest made of a peculiar wood marbled with white streaks. “I made a few to sell based on the same principles of your ward. Rather ingenious, and the shape is perfect for stable protection, so it is much more power-efficient than trying to shield a human. It doesn’t work exactly the same, of course, because it cannot ride piggyback on your body or your Will, but it’s some of the finest security that coin can buy. Two hundred gold.”
Siobhan took the chest into her hands, opened the lid, and peered inside. The space had none of the tell-tale visual confusion that accompanied space-bending magic. “It’s not expanded on the inside,” she said, disappointed.
“I could add that in, for an extra hundred gold. Or, you could purchase a larger model. I don’t have any on hand, but I could have one ready in a week, if you don’t need a rush job. It has a three-sided lock. One, a personalized key—some specific object that you must present. Two, a piece of your blood, saliva, or hair—which it will immediately destroy after verification. And three, a verbal phrase spoken aloud.”
“How many of these have you sold?”
“A few. People at the secret meetings have found them intriguing.”
“If I buy two, will you give me a discount? Three hundred fifty.”
“I have to make each by hand, and the worth of my efforts does not decrease by fifty coins simply because you purchase two. Likewise, there are no logistical problems with shipping or storage that such a small order would ease.”
“Hmm. You wouldn’t happen to have left a back door for yourself to open these things without the blood and password, would you?” Siobhan asked.
Liza stared at her. “Truly, you have the mind of a criminal.”
Siobhan scowled at her. “That is a common-sense question!”
Liza harrumphed. “I have left no such back door. But if I were determined to break the same wards I created, I would have a better chance of doing so than most.”
“And don’t you see how two hundred gold is too steep for a cramped box that doesn’t have the versatility of my personal ward and that you’ve admitted you could probably break into? I have powerful enemies, and you left the army years ago. They could have artificers on the cutting-edge of the latest research who could totally crush your protections. And what about the Red Guard?”
Liza let out an incredulous bark of a laugh. “What I’m hearing is that, with such powerful enemies, you have desperate need of my services and no other options. Also, I am the cutting edge of the latest research, you obnoxious girl. I would pit my skills against any Red Guard diviner. They surpass me only in resources, and that cannot be helped unless you wish to pay approximately twenty to thirty times more.”
Siobhan gave up, paying four more gold bars for two of the warded chests, though it pained her to feel her—admittedly unearned—wealth flow throw her fingers like water. Always, it seemed, the more she had, the more she spent.
Then, some transmutation adjusted the shape of Siobhan’s fake nose to more resemble Liza’s. The woman gave her one of her dresses, modified for Siobhan’s more slender frame, and told her to answer by “Amelia.”
Less than an hour later, Siobhan climbed out of a carriage and followed her “aunt Liza” into the Retreat at Willowdale. The Silvia Nakai identity was burned. It could never be used again, and Siobhan had hinted in her letter to him that Oliver should discreetly cover any tracks he might have left. It meant that at the moment, she had no valid identity papers.
But she did have Liza, and for this, at least, that was all that mattered.
The same shaman that Liza had been walking with last time joined them in the Retreat’s lobby.
Unlike the lower levels in the main part of the building, the severe trauma ward had few communal areas in favor of individual rooms with windows in the doors, padded floors and walls, and soft-edged furniture bolted to the floor.
In what open activity areas there were, guards watched actively, rather than being on-call. In one room they passed, a patient was drawing a spell array on the padded walls using their own feces. Except the spell array was all wrong, with lopsided, open numerological symbols, and some glyphs that Siobhan didn’t recognize, even after all of her study to learn any glyph that Myrddin’s journal might throw at her.
Liza motioned to one of the Retreat’s workers, who rushed off to deal with the patient.
Siobhan wanted to ask if that person was really going to try to cast a spell, and if so, what might happen. But Liza had warned her not to ask questions, and Siobhan could guess the answers well enough.
She caught a glimpse of another patient, who was scratching at their skin in swirling patterns that looked as if they had bled and healed and bled again, countless times. Others paced, muttering to themselves or jumping at imaginary sounds.
But most of those held in the severe trauma ward were quiet, melancholic, or catatonic.
The man she was there to see was in one of the rare common areas, sitting in a chair beside a window and reading a book, though he paused frequently to give the potted plant on the windowsill suspicious glances.
The Retreat employee escorting them introduced them to the man, who stood and offered a handshake. “I am the archaeologist,” he said.
Liza raised an eyebrow and shared a look with the shaman.
The patient pulled back his hand, balling it into a fist, and gave Liza and the shaman the same suspicious look previously reserved for the potted plant.
Their employee escort laughed awkwardly. “His name is Edgar. We’ve been trying to help him reclaim it, but losing the connection to one’s name seems to be a common side effect of overexposure to the Black Wastes.” She turned to the man and spoke slowly, as if to a child…or a dog. “Edgar, these people are here to help you.”
Siobhan found the condescending tone distinctly unpleasant, and perhaps Liza agreed, because she shooed the woman away.
The archaeologist didn’t react at the sound of his name, but was now glancing around the room as if looking for an escape route.
Liza’s shaman reached into his beaded leather bag for some of the tools of his trade. “So, a standard anchoring and spirit-world barrier?” He looked up at the archaeologist. “It will work best if I have your cooperation. Are you familiar with lucid dreaming?”
Siobhan knew what lucid dreaming was, but the other jargon went right over her head.
The archaeologist, however, found the shaman’s words very alarming, and immediately moved to escape.
The shaman fumbled and almost dropped a bundle of woven herbs, and Liza stepped in front of the archaeologist to block his way, but didn’t attempt to touch or grab him.
One of the guards at the corner of the room was striding forward, already reaching for a black baton at his waist. Whether it was a cudgel or a battle wand, Siobhan didn’t know, but she could see the archaeologist fraying at the edges, his eyes growing wilder even as he pulled his hands in toward his chest and hunched his shoulders.
Siobhan held up her hands, palms outstretched to either side. “Stop,” she commanded.
To her surprise, they did. Everyone in the nearest half of the room turned to look at her, and the archaeologist tightened even further, like a coiled spring.
Reminded of a similar situation, where communication was difficult and the one she wanted to help only feared her, Siobhan reached out with her Will. She added no power, grasped for no energy, only announced her desire and command to the world in the same way she might when setting up a complex spell. It grated against her still-recovering Will-strain, but not even as much as casting the weakest possible version of her dreamless-sleep spell. “Archaeologist, you are safe,” she said simply. It was what he called himself, and what she would call him.
The man stilled, then slowly turned to face her.
She didn’t smile or reach for him, only tried to push her surety of that statement into her Will. She would not harm him, nor allow any here to do so. He could trust himself to know the correct thing to do. He could trust himself to settle into himself, and into this moment. To relax was good. To be filled with confidence was only right and natural.
The archaeologist took one step toward her, and then another, straightening even as his shoulders loosened and fell. His hands returned to his sides and uncurled from their fists. He sighed, as if he had stepped from the searing heat into a cool room, and smiled at her. “Oh, that’s very nice. Sorry about the skittishness,” he added, looking around at the others. “I’m still recovering from the trauma. I have good days and bad days.”
Exposure to the Black Wastes caused paranoia, nightmares, and hallucinations at the best of times, and the effects were lingering.
Liza and the shaman were both staring silently, and after an awkward moment where no one responded to the man, the shaman turned to Liza. “I admit, I was somewhat skeptical of the quality of a healer’s apprenticeship in Silva Erde, but that is a most impressive technique.” He turned back to Siobhan, fluttering his hands in the air. “Even I can feel it, somewhat. How does it work? You’re not a free-caster, are you? Surely not—so young!”
“I also had no idea,” Liza said, staring at Siobhan piercingly.
Siobhan’s stomach flipped with sudden dread. Surely, this was not another ability that she shouldn’t have? “I’ve simply found that some living beings are sensitive to the Will. We may not have any way to quantify it, technically, but that does not mean we are oblivious to it.” These words weren’t exactly true, as it seemed that Myrddin had found some way to do the supposedly impossible, but of course she couldn’t say so.
“Oh, marvelous!” the shaman said, clapping his hands together. “I know what you mean, and it’s certainly true that we have a hind-brain sense for powerful thaumaturges—especially when they’re angry!—but I’ve never heard of someone using their Will so deliberately outside of active casting. I suppose it’s not so different to the techniques used when dream-walking? But you must have trained incessantly to improve your clarity and forcefulness! And how did you know that Edgar would be receptive to such a thing? I suppose his exposure to the Black Wastes has thinned his natural protection and left him more sensitive.”
Siobhan cleared her throat awkwardly. “They’re doing a lot of experimental work in Silva Erde,” she hedged.
“Practices to markedly improve fidelity through focus on the facets of clarity, force, and soundness,” Liza murmured. “Or so I imagine.”
“Oh yes, not nearly so bound to the strictures of modern sorcery over there, or so I hear,” the shaman agreed. “Edgar,” he added, “I simply must try this technique. Let me know what you feel.” The shaman closed his eyes, raised his hands to his temple, and concentrated.
Siobhan could feel his Will in the air, and withdrew her own, holding back a sigh of relief at the lessened pressure in her head.
The archaeologist lifted his hands and wiggled them in a “so-so” motion. “Ehh, I can get the sense of it, but it’s not as crisp or smooth as Miss— Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name,” he said, turning abruptly back to Siobhan.
“Call me Amelia,” she said.
The archaeologist nodded amiably, reaching out and taking her hand to shake, even though she hadn’t offered it. He shook it up and down for a bit too long, as if he’d forgotten how many pumps was standard. “Really very nice. You three are here to help speed my recovery, then? I heard I’m the only one who made it out. Well, not physically, but mentally, you know.” He tapped his forefinger twice against his temple.
“I would like to try the technique as well,” Liza interrupted.
Like the shaman had done, she raised her hands to her temples. She scowled at the archaeologist and began to tremble slightly, her face growing red.
The archaeologist shrank backward, and Siobhan quickly filled the area with her own Will again to combat the predatory swoop of Liza’s intention. It reminded Siobhan more of the magical wind attacks of a gigantic roc than any sort of soothing aura of peace.
“No, no, nope!” the archaeologist yelped.
Liza’s efforts eased. “What did I do wrong?”
The archaeologist shook his head repeatedly. “Well, you might as well press a pillow over someone’s face to get them to stop worrying about the monster under the bed. And it was all choppy”—he slashed his hand through the air repeatedly—“and both of you were too shallow. Very fake-feeling, no smoothness, no depth. Where’s your sincerity?” he added sagely, crossing his arms over his chest. “You’ll need to train a bit more to match Amelia here. Honestly, if I were you two, I’d be ashamed to have been surpassed so handily by a woman decades your junior. As they say, as you make your bed, so will you lie in it.”
Liza ground her teeth in frustration, but didn’t argue.
Siobhan very carefully didn’t meet her gaze.
The shaman chuckled awkwardly. “Well, I suppose you’re ready for the anchoring then, eh, Edgar?”
The archaeologist peered at him not with anxious paranoia, but with something Siobhan guessed might have been skepticism. “I’d rather not. Someone with such a half-hearted, ham-fisted Will, rooting around in my head?”
The shaman’s mouth fell open, and then he flushed bright red. “Well, I never!” He turned to Liza. “Madam, let us attend to those who need us, and leave this ungrateful chap to his own devices. If he wants to recover without treatment, I say let him do so!”
It had always been the plan that Liza would go and do whatever it was she did while Siobhan used her temporary cover identity to speak to the archaeologist. Despite this, Liza now seemed somewhat reluctant to leave, and only begrudgingly nodded. “We will talk later,” she said to Siobhan.
Siobhan and the archaeologist moved back to the window, where Siobhan sat across from him.
He looked nervously at the plant. “Sorry, could you do the thing again? I still get a little paranoid around greenery. In the Black Wastes, a bush isn’t just a bush. Or it might not be a bush the next time you look. Maybe it’s grown eyeballs, or you try to wipe your butt with one of the leaves and suddenly it’s turned into a tongue—” He shuddered, then leaned in and whispered, “That actually happened to one of the team. I won’t say who. You may think it sounds funny, or that I’m joking, but I assure you, when such a thing actually happens to you, it is a deeply horrifying experience.”
Siobhan took a moment to get into the right mindset, then reached out with her Will again to convey the idea of safety and confidence to whatever part of him could sense it. “I’m actually here to ask about what happened, and what you discovered. Are you able to talk about it?”
“I hope you don’t want me to relive that experience. If there were some way to burn the whole thing from my mind, I would do it. Except for Myrddin’s hermitage. I want to remember that.”
Siobhan suppressed her curiosity. She would love to hear every detail about Myrddin’s lost hermitage, but that wasn’t why she was here. “I don’t need any of the lurid stories. It’s only that the facts of what happened are…slightly confusing. What exactly did you retrieve?”
“Oh, well you know most everything had been preserved by the wards for hundreds of years. It wasn’t until one of the warding stones—more like boulders—was cracked in one of the Black Waste shifts—that’s the theory anyway—that we were able to find the hermitage at all. We got a lot of old books, a few artifacts of historical significance, and a veritable fortune in beast cores and celerium. The biggest haul was the ward stones themselves.” The archaeologist looked around, then leaned in to whisper. “But the most important thing we recovered were Myrddin’s personal research journals.”
Siobhan’s heart was pounding, but she did her best to keep the urgency from her face. “Interesting,” she said, in the tone people used when they were curious but not entirely riveted. “Were there any self-charging artifacts? Or, did you find Myrddin’s rumored enormous Conduit? Perhaps something like a control mechanism for Carnagore?”
‘Anything,’ she explained silently, ‘that could be more important than one of the books. Anything Oliver could have stolen.’
“Oh, no. If those things were real, Myrddin probably had them on him when he died, wherever that is. It’s possible one of the artifacts will reveal something when examined more closely. We didn’t want to risk damaging anything on-site, and didn’t have the sanity left to linger. We just packed everything we could carry that had the slightest significance, and returned as quickly as possible. However, even if the originals were lost, I’m hopeful that one of Myrddin’s five research journals will contain the method to recreate his experiments. In fact, I’m quite positive of it.”
Siobhan swallowed, her tongue suddenly dry and too thick in her mouth. “Five journals? Are you sure?”
The archaeologist raised an eyebrow. “Five journals, one for each of my fingers. I don’t believe I was going so insane by that point that I would have become confused about something so simple.”
Siobhan cleared her throat. “I ask, because as far as anyone seems to know, there are only four. The University retains three, while the fourth was stolen by a fearsome character who goes by the moniker ‘the Raven Queen.’ There has been quite the hullabaloo about it.”
The man’s eyes widened, and then widened again almost comically, before collapsing into a vicious scowl. “That murderous half-breed! It must have been her. She disappeared last, when we were only a couple days from the edge of the Black Wastes. Vanished in the night. She must have stolen one.” His left foot tapped rapidly against the floor, and he eyed the potted plant again, scooting as far away from it as the confines of the armchair would allow.
He lifted a thumb to his mouth and began to bite at the nail. “Oh no, oh no. Which one did she take, do you think? The one on the table? The one that has the answer? Oh no. That dirty half-breed was probably a spy. Osham would want this. Need it. They’ve been feeling the pinch, too. I heard they sent their own expedition, too slow, but that must have been a cover. By now, Osham’s had the book for months and probably decrypted it. I need to talk to the High Crown.”
He made to stand, and Siobhan increased the force of her Will, urging him to restfulness. She needed more information still.
The archaeologist sat back down, his attempt at movement aborted, but his agitation unsoothed. “This means war,” he said, biting down hard enough on the cuticle of his thumb that the skin broke and began to bleed. “Or, or, maybe we can steal it back. Or kidnap some of their researchers and torture the information out of them.”
He began to mutter incomprehensibly, his sentences incoherent and interspersed with “half-breed,” “Osham,” and, “the book. We need the book.”
“Archaeologist,” she snapped.
His gaze jerked back toward her.
“None of the women returned alive. Who was this thief?”
“A half-breed water bitch. Too-big eyes, deep and hiding her secrets and malice. She wanted to kill me, I could tell. But I had a plan and I was going to kill her first. Except then she disappeared. And, oh, Myrddin forgive us, she took the book.”
Siobhan tried to push even more serenity into her Will, but even without the lingering Will-strain she would have struggled to do so in her own current mental state, and it had little effect. “What was in the book she took?”
The archaeologist stilled, then leaned back from her, tilting his head too far away so that he was looking down the entire bridge of his nose at her, his eyes squinted almost closed. “Why would you ask that? Are you an Osham spy, too?”
Before Siobhan could answer, the archaeologist had lunged for the potted plant, and was trying to wrench it off the table, presumably to throw at her. However, it was glued to the surface, and so he quickly entered a futile wrestling match with the furniture, dirt spilling from the pot as he tried to wrench the entire table from its spot despite the bolts securing it to the floor.
The same guard from earlier hurried forward again, and together with a couple of the other employees, he shoved the end of the baton into the center of the archaeologist’s chest and activated whatever spell was contained within.
The archaeologist relaxed abruptly, so completely that he might have slumped to the floor if not for the support of the employees.
One of the women apologized to Siobhan while ushering her out and to the doorway of the room where Liza and the shaman were still working.
Siobhan remained outside, but still caught a glimpse of a much nicer private room, with fake windows showing illusions of various types of scenery, and a whiff of gentle incense. Siobhan waited in the hallway with her back against the wall so that she could not give in to the urge to peek further. She ignored the strange looks from the Retreat’s employees until Liza exited.
The woman was in a peculiar mood that Siobhan couldn’t quite read, and so the carriage ride back to Gilbratha-proper was strained and silent.
‘I still cannot be totally sure that Oliver is behind the disappearance of this undine cambion and the fifth book. But I will be surprised if I find that he was not. I know my book is one of Myrddin’s true journals. There is evidence enough of that. It is simply one of the five, and, judging by the archaeologist’s response, it’s likely that the one I hold is not the most important one, not the one everyone is looking for.’
The most pressing question in her mind, however, was why this other book was so important. The archaeologist had used the word “need,” and even believed that ownership would be enough to cause war between Lenore and Osham. Perhaps he was being paranoid. But, judging by the amount of resources the Architects of Khronos and the Thirteen Crowns had been willing to put into finding her…perhaps it was not merely paranoia.
‘Oliver might know the answers, but I cannot ask him. The High Crown knows, and perhaps Titus Westbay, but they are both out of my reach.’ However, there was at least one other who should know, and who she could access.
Though she had planned to lie low, it seemed that the Raven Queen needed to make a visit to Grandmaster Kiernan.
The Archaeologist narrated the prologue of Book 1.
(Also, this author does not endorse the Archaeologist’s bigotry.)
And The Catastrophe Collector: Larva is live on bookstores pretty much everywhere. Some places haven’t updated the price yet so you can still grab it for $2.99 because they’re in a price-matching war.