Chapter 184 – Ritual Under Moonlight

Sebastien

Month 4, Day 11, Sunday 1:00 p.m.

Sebastien hurried across the University grounds toward the Menagerie, grimacing as she checked the time on her pocket watch. A good number of students returning for the spring term were wandering the pathways, but they moved aside easily enough to let her pass.

After returning from the Retreat, she had taken a nap at Liza’s, calling on the woman to help cast her dreamless sleep spell once more. Somehow, she had slept for four hours straight.

Now, she was rushing to hit a fast-approaching deadline. The new moon—also known as the dark moon—would hit the highest spot in its travel for the day in almost exactly forty minutes. Somewhat bizarrely, it was only five minutes ahead of when the sun would reach its highest point. The moon would be completely invisible, but all her references and calculations assured her this was the correct time.

If Sebastien missed it, she would have to wait an entire month to start the guiding light ritual to create the symbol she would use as a beacon, which already took almost seven weeks to complete. Normally, she would have chosen to let her Will rest more, but the ritual’s minimum thaum requirements were child’s play. It required clarity and focus, not a vast capacity. Her head still ached somewhat, but surely it wouldn’t be much worse than the technique she’d used to calm the Archaeologist, as the man called himself.

And since the ritual process would have to be repeated seven times, if she wanted to push power into it just to be safe, she would have other chances to do so.

In addition to the fact that she could cast it, what had interested Sebastien most about this esoteric spell, and induced her to memorize its requirements, was that the beacon could not be traced back to her. If successful, it would leave her in complete control without generating dangerous loopholes. ‘It must not work off the principles of sympathetic magic,’ Sebastien mused.

As she continued deeper into the Menagerie—though not past the wards of the secondary gates that protected students from the dangers that lay deeper into the semi-wild artificial forest—the surrounding students noticeably thinned out.

Luckily, there was no one lingering around the clearing that she had taken to practicing light-refinement in. She hadn’t planned far enough ahead for this ritual to have found a suitable replacement location. As Sebastien began to draw the huge Circle she would need into the ground with a sturdy stick, she suddenly realized that, for once, what she was doing wasn’t illegal. Even if someone noticed her, the most that would come of it would be gossip. She chuckled. ‘Wow. What a strange life I lead, that I automatically assume my projects outside of schoolwork will get me sent to jail.’

She added a heptagram within the Circle, making sure the lines of the seven-pointed star were as straight and even as possible. She accompanied each movement with a deep hum that reminded her of the light-refinement spell. Then she placed components in each of the seven outer spaces the star had created: a handful of unsprouted seeds, tossed carelessly; seven polished shards of silver, in which her reflection could be seen; a vial of shade dust, left corked so that its contents could not float away on the breeze; a strip of soft leather, tied into a knot over and over again until it could be tied no more; seven eyes of a mantis shrimp—which could have been substituted with the eye of a prognos if she were willing to do something so heinous, according to the Comprehensive Compendium of Components; an adder stone, the hole through its center worn naturally by time and fate; and finally, a blue-grey gauze created from the silk of the portal-weaver spider and woven into the shape of a circle one thread at a time. That had been the most expensive component of them all.

It would have been nice to know the exact purpose of each component, the better to focus her Will, but the text she had memorized hadn’t been that thorough.

Sebastien fumbled in her satchel for a piece of paper and her second vial of free-writing potion. She didn’t need it to last very long, so she only swallowed a third of the vial while reviewing the requirements of the chant she needed to create.

“The Self, the Other, the Fate, and the Summons,” she muttered as parts of her mind relaxed like unclenching fingers while others stirred to life. The chant’s structure was defined, and a few key words and phrases in specific places were required, but beyond that her options were open.

Her hand on the paper moved almost without her conscious control, and though she was vaguely aware of the words spilling out from the tip of her fountain pen, she couldn’t have told someone what they were, if asked.

Sebastien finished writing before the potion wore off, but continued her preparation so as not to waste any time. She pulled a large stone bowl from her satchel, filled it with distilled water, and then sprinkled in a handful of chunky white salt, her hand moving in the shape of a heptagram once more.

Into a small mortar, she measured a dollop of honey. A sprinkle of three different spices joined that. Each movement was accompanied by the same deep hum. As she ground up the mixture with a pestle, it took on the vibrant, shocking red of fresh blood.

Next, she used her athame to carefully cut out the shape of her chosen symbol from a sheet of glue paper. She wet the paper and pressed the outline to the skin of her chest, below her collarbone but above her heart. This left only the exact shape of the symbol open to the air, so that she couldn’t accidentally misdraw it and ruin everything.

By that time, the free-writing potion was beginning to wear off, and only a few minutes remained until the moon had risen to its highest point over the horizon. She picked up the sheet of paper with the scrawled chant to review it, hoping to memorize it in time.

A frown creased the skin between her eyebrows and deepened as she read. It wasn’t as blatantly embarrassing as her previous attempts, but in other ways, it was much worse. It was…disturbing.

She read over each section of the chant again, then roughly rubbed her arms, where the hair had risen with a chill. ‘Do I want to use this? Is it… Where did these words come from?’ She couldn’t help but think of the thing locked behind the seal in her mind.

Sebastien lowered the paper and looked up at the sky, her eyes watering as she stared past the sun. ‘Whatever truth it may or may not contain, it’s not as if pretending it doesn’t exist will change anything. That’s what I’ve been doing for years, and look where it’s gotten me. Certainly, I am not yet destroyed, but that is not the path to salvation. I don’t want to be afraid of everything.

And so she gritted her teeth, checked her pocket watch once more, and placed the mortar of red paste atop her head, balancing it carefully. Then, holding the stone bowl of salt water in her hands, she moved to the northernmost point of the heptagram. She took a deep breath and dipped the fingers of the hand that held her Conduit in the water, then began to walk the arc of the Circle. With each measured step, she sprinkled water along her path.

She cleared her throat and began with the part of the chant labeled, “the Self.”

“I am a changeling like the seasons,

A daughter of shadow and light,

Of Charybdis mists and raven’s flight,

And always I seek after mysteries.”

Her head throbbed slightly as the water grew cooler, but neither her voice nor her Will faltered. She reached the northernmost point of the heptagram again and then began to walk the shape, speaking the chant of “the Other.”

“Shadows of the past become shades of the present.

Old scars peel open like doors.

And a hungry sky watches

As I sing the dead to life.”

Sebastien shuddered and almost decided not to continue. Surely, a one-month delay was tolerable, and she could come up with something less creepy to say about herself? But instead, she continued with “the Fate.”

“As I ornament this veil with thorns,

I shall drink the sea to quench my thirst.

The taste of nothing on my tongue

Will be a knife as sharp as its wielder.”

She moved to the space in the middle, dipped her finger into the saltwater once more, and painted over the symbol on her chest, making sure to fill in all the space and every edge of the glued-on template to make it as perfect as possible. Finally, she lifted her free hand to the mortar on her head, dipped her forefinger into its contents, and spoke “the Summons” while painting careful lines across her face. This was the only part of the chant that was predefined.

“Mark me, scarred and tattered witness of days,

One who weaves the thread that still is woven.”

She painted the red mixture of honey and spice from her hairline straight down over her eyelid and again on the other side. Finally, she drew a line from the center of her bottom lip down her chin, all the way to the hollow at the base of her throat.

“Heed me, one who howls unheard.

I command you. Grant me eyes that see.”

Sebastien tensed, some part of her expecting something to happen. But nothing changed, for good or ill. Then, she repeated the process from beginning to end six more times, burning the symbol into her mind a bit deeper every time. And then it was over.

Still, nothing happened, and Sebastien felt somewhat silly for her earlier trepidation. The parameters of the spell were pretty clear. It wasn’t like the chant could make itself true just by saying it. If it was accurate and specific enough—though filled with metaphor and flowery word choice—once she had completed this process six more times at specific lunar phases, she would gain a very specific ability. If it wasn’t, the ritual would fail.

Most likely, her subconscious had just noted the final section of the chant and matched the first three sections with words that were suitably dramatic and tonally congruent.

Still, she couldn’t help but wonder from what part of her subconscious mind the words had come. She thought back to the other thing she had written under the effects of the free-writing potion. Could that, too, have been a little truer than she thought, the words not just random ominous lines patched together to sow confusion, but pulled from some coherent part of her subconscious?

Sebastien briefly considered what might happen if she took another swig of the free-writing potion and then asked the thing behind her grandfather’s seal a question. She shook her head rapidly as a shudder rolled down her body. “No, no. I will not be doing that,” she muttered to herself.

Her mood was dark as she scrubbed her face clean and packed everything up. The symbol lingered in her mind like a spot of darkness in her vision after staring at a bright light. But it faded away from her consciousness as she scuffed out the spell array, then left the Menagerie. At least half the students had arrived already and were busy catching up on gossip.

Several were reading newspapers. Sebastien considered trying to find one that had been discarded, or even asking to borrow one so that she could read whatever they were saying, but couldn’t bring herself to do so. ‘No. Don’t run away,’ she thought, immediately spinning on her heel to ask a man if she could borrow his paper when he was done with it. She was good at not thinking about things. But she didn’t want to pretend Parker’s death hadn’t happened. Her Will-strain wasn’t so bad that traumatic thoughts were a threat to her wellbeing.

The man agreed with a bright smile and thrust it on her before he even finished reading, as if it were her doing him a favor rather than the other way around.

It was the Daily Sun, a sensationalist gossip rag that only pretended to write anything of substance.

“Raven Queen Claims Gilbratha!” it announced in a big bold headline. She read the beginning of the article.

While discerning readers who have kept up with our publications may have expected that the Raven Queen would attempt to interfere with Ennis Naught’s sentencing, her actual response was beyond all our prognostication!

Sebastien snorted and began to skim. Halfway down the page was more speculation and interpretations of a paraphrased version of the free-written message she had delivered to the Edictum Council.

The Raven Queen was frightening and evil and had been trying to do some city-wide blood ritual with all the ravens. An anonymous “expert” calculated that some kind of geas might have been placed on anyone who watched the spectacle too long.

She had also declared war on the Thirteen Crown Families and threatened to eat them. Whether this was hyperbole or literal threat, the writer felt that the latter was most likely. After all, ravens were carrion eaters!

And it was a confirmed fact from an anonymous source in the coppers that the Raven Queen could explode her body into a flock of ravens as a way to travel quickly and avoid notice. Each raven could become a version of her so that, if necessary, she could act in a dozen places at once.

This was how she had attacked the Edictum Council and the University at the same time!

The Pendragon Corps had been holding some of her thralls—or maybe some spies from Osham—and she had attacked and freed them. Or held them hostage. Who knew? The more theories, the better, even if they were contradictory!

During the ensuing battle, the Pendragon Corps conjured a miniature sun to fight her—or maybe an angel from the Plane of Radiance, depending on the “eyewitness” account. And in turn, the Raven Queen had called upon the very darkness itself, as she was known to do, and created an eclipse. She then cursed the Charybdis Gulf kraken into a frenzy until it sank the boat of her enemies, after which she and the others rode away atop its back as it waved one tentacle mockingly.

The High Crown had declared that he was taking measures to ensure the safety of the city and its people, and so the Raven Queen would probably be caught or killed soon. Or she would kill and eat the High Crown and take his place, starting a new regime of bird worship.

The Raven Queen’s bounty had been raised to the truly towering sum of twenty-five thousand gold crowns. It was enough to entice professionals to come after her, perhaps. ‘Even more reason to disappear.’

The story didn’t mention Parker or his death. Sebastien took a deep breath and lowered the asinine paper. She would make sure that his family was taken care of. She had the gold to make it so, now. And it would not do to be known as an oath breaker.

Sebastien shoved the newspaper in a trash bin on her way back to the dorms, where she drew aside the curtain in front of her own cubicle to find someone waiting for her within. She recognized Damien, but the shock had hit her first, so she still jumped and gasped.

Damien stood from where he had perched atop the trunk at the foot of her narrow bed. He looked her up and down, narrow-eyed and thorough, missing nothing. “Where were you?” he asked, clenching and unclenching his fists at his side.

“In the Menagerie?” she said, an ominous hunch urging her to lift her chin and straighten her shoulders defensively.

“No, that’s—why didn’t you come to Westbay Manor? Didn’t you get my letter?”

Sebastien nodded slowly, curling her fingers around the leather strap of her satchel. “I did get it. But I wasn’t in any danger.” ‘Not at that point, anyway,’ she added silently. Aloud, she continued, “And I had things I needed to get done before the term started. It was bad timing.”

Damien stared at her for a few long seconds, then stepped forward until they were only a few inches apart.

Sebastien resisted the urge to retreat.

“Is it confidential? Do we need to go somewhere private to talk?” Damien asked quietly, staring into her shoulder. “Did she do something to you?”

Sebastien gritted her teeth together. She had realized, obviously, that she would need to have a complicated conversation with Damien, because he was incapable of suppressing his curiosity. Also, now that all the bracelets that had connected him to her were useless and also possibly recognizable to the High Crown’s operatives and the coppers, she would have to come up with some excuse to make him get rid of them.

But she hadn’t yet worked through this conversation in her mind. There was simply too much going on, too many things that required her attention, and she was less capable of juggling it all than normal. “We should go elsewhere,” she answered in the same conspiratorial tone, hoping that, in the time it took them to travel to a “safe” location, she could come up with a strategy for the conversation.

Damien’s eyes traveled around, looking not at reality but at the images in his mind’s eye. “The study room?” he finally suggested. “We can close the door and maybe cobble together a basic sound-muffling spell?”

Sebastien agreed, her mind spinning as they walked. She was paying so little attention to their surroundings that a flush-faced firstie with her head bowed almost rammed into her.

Damien grabbed Sebastien’s forearm and tugged him out of the way just in time. He waved the girl away impatiently as she tried to apologize, and as they walked on again, he very pointedly ran his grip from Sebastien’s elbow down to the wrist.

Normally, Sebastien wore an assortment of simple bracelets on that forearm, hidden under her clothes, but the Pendragon Corps had ripped them all away.

In the study room they used in the mornings, a group of students sat around the main table, playing some sort of game using tiny flags, miniature tokens on a board, and dice. “This is our room,” Damien announced loudly. “Get out,” he said, pointing imperiously toward the door.

One of the women puffed up in anger and opened her mouth to argue, but a man leaned over and spoke in her ear, just loud enough for them all to hear. “That’s Damien Westbay and Sebastien Siverling.”

She deflated. The game players packed up and left, a few of them throwing dark looks at Damien and Sebastien.

The two of them checked the room for eavesdroppers or listening devices with what Sebastien might normally have thought was an abnormal level of paranoia. She resolved to learn a sound-muffling spell like the one Professor Lacer often free-cast, but Damien was able to put together something similar enough to speak safely.

When they were sure it was safe, Damien rounded on Sebastien. “Your bracelets are all gone,” he announced.

“Yes,” Sebastien admitted. Despite the delay, she still hadn’t come up with a good way to reveal what she needed without giving away her real secrets. She could try to deny Damien any extra information, but his curiosity was almost as powerful as hers. He wouldn’t be able to let it go, and even if not now, that could mean disaster for her down the road.

“I can deduce a few possible reasons,” Damien continued boldly. “Perhaps you took them all off to go undercover or something. Or, you were doing something dangerous and almost got caught, and you had to hide them somewhere in case they might be traced back to me and whoever else is on the other end. Or one of our allies betrayed us, but you don’t know who, and you got rid of any connections that could be used against us as a precaution. Or…you got into a really bad situation and you broke them all, desperate for help. But if that was the case, I should have been alerted. And I wasn’t.”

As Sebastien listened to Damien so proudly spout these rather outlandish hypotheses, she had an epiphany. She didn’t need to find a way to explain things or to lie convincingly. Given even the slightest input and asked to deduce something, Damien could deceive himself without any extra help.

If Sebastien could give him carefully curated hints, Damien could make deductions that he would believe, and she could either let those deductions stand or modify them with a bit of guidance. She wouldn’t even need to lie. She cleared her throat. “First, I need you to know that I truly had no intention to get involved with anything that happened yesterday. But the choice was taken out of my hands. What do you know about what happened? I’m sure you must have heard some of it.”

Damien took a deep breath. “I think I know basically what the newspapers know, though I learned it a bit earlier. I was at the Edictum Council building when everything started. I’m sure you have a better understanding of the details than me, actually. The higher-ups probably filled you in on whatever they know,” he said bitterly.

He crossed his arms over his chest, jutting out his jaw. “On the other hand, I had no idea what was happening! I was forced to team up with Oliver Dryden in a desperate attempt to find out what was going on and if anything had happened to you.”

Sebastien inhaled sharply and choked on her own saliva. She coughed, mentally reeling. Sebastien knew it would seem suspicious if she acted too interested. “You teamed up with Oliver Dryden?” she repeated with an attempt at nonchalance. “How did it go? Was he…an asset?”

Damien’s glower grew darker. “Well, he isn’t very likable, is he? Also, I have to say that he seems to be missing a basic understanding of how to work for a secret organization. Perhaps he needs some sort of training? Not everyone is a natural at clandestine operations. But at least he cares,” Damien added grudgingly. “He didn’t just sit around all googly-eyed like a lot of the other nobles. He tried to do something. And he has some of his own contacts, which might make him a valuable asset.”

“His own contacts?” Sebastien echoed leadingly.

“Yes, some people who were sending him messages and such. And he had no trouble getting invited to the Rouse Family’s afterparty, despite being a foreign lord. Wait.” Damien eyed her strangely. “Don’t tell me that his membership to our organization got denied?” He sounded half scandalized, half delighted, though she wasn’t sure where this deduction had come from. “I only teamed up with him because you’d mentioned previously that he was trying to join—a provisional member, just like me. But I did think it was suspicious that the man supposedly left his star emblem at home. I flashed mine at him, and he just stared blankly at me for a moment like a complete boob. Did his emblem get confiscated when he was rejected? And since I obviously didn’t know that, he decided to take advantage of the situation?”

Damien was speaking, of course, about the light-crystal coasters that Sebastien had modified to take the shape of a thirteen-pointed star.

“I’m not totally sure. Hopefully I’ll know soon,” Sebastien said. “And…I’m not saying he’s an enemy. But you shouldn’t blindly trust him. He might have his own agenda.”

Damien grew somber and nodded gravely. “Can you tell me more, or is it confidential?”

Sebastien shook her head, her silence enough of an answer.

“Okay. But there’s another important matter at hand.” He clenched his fists and spoke in a distinctly aristocratic tone. “I want to lodge a formal complaint with the higher-ups.”

Sebastien blinked.

“We have a severe problem with communication! I was totally in the dark and unable to help on Friday. And before you argue that I’m not a full member yet, I don’t think it makes sense to turn down help wherever you can get it. I may be a provisional member, but I’m still a member. I still took the oath. Even if I couldn’t have been informed about the details of what was going on, at the very least we need some method to get emergency missions on the fly. Did you know that Oliver Dryden has a distagram?” Damien threw up his arms in frustration and turned to pace back and forth in front of her. “Why don’t we all have distagrams, or some kind of secret communication artifacts like what the Red Guard uses? I mean, what if something were to happen to you? I would have literally no way of knowing how to get in contact with the higher-ups to ask for help.”

Damien stopped and pivoted on the spot with narrow eyes. “Do we need gold? Is that it? Because I am totally prepared to bribe my way into full membership with a large ‘donation.’ I can tell Titus I spent it on something foolish, or donated the gold to charity or something. You should suggest that to the higher-ups. Well, don’t say it exactly like that. Word it more tactfully, of course.”

Sebastien opened her mouth and then closed it again without saying anything.

“In the end, one of the coppers noticed me and dragged me back home to Westbay Manor, just as Lord Dryden got a message that seemed important. I had to wait two hours, alone with only the servants and my own horrid imagination, for Dryden’s runner to arrive. And the message only said, ‘Sebastien reported alive. No access to him. No other news.’”

Sebastien winced.

“I snapped one of the bracelets you gave me at around the same time that the Raven Queen supposedly broke those elite enemy spies out of the secret prison where they were being held and then escaped on a stolen ship. But I didn’t get a response from you until yesterday afternoon, and then it was some vague platitudes not to worry. I know you couldn’t write anything sensitive in case the message was intercepted, but…” Damien shook his head helplessly, a hint of desperation pulling at the corners of his lips. “What happened, Sebastien?”

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