Chapter 198 – Strange Phenomena

Sebastien

Month 8 Day 13, Friday 11:00 p.m.

Sebastien had to knock for a while before Thomas the doorman and pseudo-butler opened the door for her, sleepy eyed. “Sorry about the late hour. Is Oliver here?”

Thomas nodded silently, his eyes flicking up toward Oliver’s study and giving her all the information she needed.

She strode toward the stairs without further delay. However, she stopped at the study door, bracing herself to see Oliver in person once more. She did a quick check of her body, straightened her shoulders, lifted her chin, and smoothed her expression as close to the placid perfection of a lake as she could manage. Then she knocked.

Oliver took a long few seconds to respond, “Come in.”

He was rubbing his eyes tiredly as she opened the door, but his hands fell down as he saw her. His complicated tie had been pulled loose and his sleeves were rolled up to his forearms. “This is an unexpected visit,” he said. It had been months since the last time they had spoken in person, and the letters they exchanged were far from personal. “Is something wrong?”

“I know that you’ve had some continued business with the Architects of Khronos. Were you aware that they’ve sent a force to kidnap a group of people from Osham?”

Oliver’s expression flattened. “No. Where did you hear about this? Who are the targets?”

“Tanya Canelo informed me earlier today, but she didn’t know much. I don’t know the targets or any other relevant information. But, considering the greater political circumstances, I found this news…concerning. I know you’re originally from Osham. I thought you might still have some contacts there.”

Oliver was nodding rapidly to himself, his gaze harried and distant. He stood abruptly and moved to the cabinet that held his distagram. While Sebastien watched, he sent off several short messages in quick succession, taking only enough time to tune the communication band each time.

“I need to talk to that snake Kiernan, but I don’t have a good excuse to bust in and drag a University Grandmaster out of his bed in the middle of the night. Someone might get suspicious.”

Sebastien hesitated. “All you need is a student or faculty token to use the transport tubes, even after hours. As long as you’re circumspect, no one will even notice you were there.”

“I have some University contacts, but no way to get a token fast enough. I’ll have to wait to talk to him in the morning.” Oliver slammed his fist into the dark wood of the cabinet beside the distagram and swore. “What are they thinking!?”

Sebastien hesitated before reaching up for one of the several cords hanging around her neck and retrieving her student token. “Use this,” she offered, holding it out to him. It felt somewhat sour to be offering aid of any kind to Oliver, but this didn’t put her in much danger, and there was more at stake than their relationship.

Oliver’s gaze switched between the wooden token and her face. “Will you come with me, then? Perhaps as the Raven Queen?”

“No. I’m not getting involved in whatever this is. I’m a simple University student, and I plan to remain that way.”

Oliver gave her an odd look. “Okay. How do you want me to return your student token to you?”

“Leave it here. I’ll pick it up tomorrow. And whatever you’re planning to do, don’t implicate Tanya. She put herself at risk to inform me.”

“Of course. Are you going to stay the night? We haven’t touched your room.”

Sebastien shook her head. “I have other accommodations.” She shook her student token impatiently, and Oliver moved forward to get it.

He stared into her eyes as he took it, his fingers brushing against hers. “Thank you.”

Sebastien clenched her jaw for half a second. “You’re welcome.”

“Do you want some sort of payment for this?”

Sebastien hesitated, remembering his comments about the transactional nature of their relationship. She was tempted to request something cutting, but in the end said, “You can keep me updated on whatever you learn.”

Oliver tucked the wooden token away in the inner pocket of his suit vest. “I heard about your father’s escape last week. Are you…doing alright with everything?”

Sebastien clenched her jaw again, then shrugged. “He’ll never find me, even if he tries. Which I doubt he will. Knowing him, he’s scurried back to the northern islands or some other distant land and will be hiding out in some small village, cursing my name every time he gets a little too deep into his drink.”

“I’m sorry.”

She glared at him. “I’m not. Unless you count the fact that I’m sorry that piece of trash managed to escape.”

Oliver very obviously swallowed back whatever words he wanted to say. “I have to go.” He hesitated, then added, “You are welcome to stay here, if you wish. Whenever.”

Sebastien raised one eyebrow and silently spun on her heel, leaving the study and making her way back down the stairs.

Oliver followed almost immediately on her heels. When they reached the street in front of his small manor’s gates, they turned in different directions.

Sebastien didn’t look back. After about a block, her pounding heart settled. She paused after turning the corner and rubbed at her shoulders, neck, and the sides of her jaw to release the tension there. “Damn you, Oliver,” she muttered. What right did he have to act like he cared?

Resolutely, she put the matter from her mind and walked on, taking in the fresh night air after the recent rain.

When she got to her apartment, she opened Professor Lacer’s letter. It was short, notifying her that they had completed their half of the agreement and inquiring when they could meet to collaborate on Myrddin’s other three journals. He also asked if she had any involvement in Ennis Naught’s freedom.

Sebastien drew a spark-shooting array on her little folding slate lap table and watched the letter burn to ash.

She drew out her dreamless sleep spell in oils and tinctures on her pillow, then dragged her bed underneath the window cut into the angled ceiling so that she could look at the stars as she fell asleep. She’d found she could tell when her raven was becoming unbearably weary because some of her normal fatigue began to accumulate again.

In the morning, she picked up her student token from Dryden manor, though Oliver was not home to give her an update. Sharon was there and made a lot of fuss about how much she’d missed Sebastien before roping her into breakfast with the rest of the servants.

After that, her belly round with food, she sent a quick letter via runner to Damien, who was overly prone to worry and might foolishly panic that she had never made it back to the University the night before. Then she devoted herself once more to opening Myrddin’s journal.

Halfway through the day, she succeeded again, only to immediately lose control as she tried to turn the pages too fast, eager to get back to the place she had left off last time.

Sebastien stared down at the incomprehensible, squiggly ink lines and shifting diagrams and almost threw the book across the room. Only supreme, saint-like patience allowed her to close it firmly and put it back into the warded chest.

After that, she was too frustrated to make much progress on anything, so she gave up and made another visit to the artisan who had created her spell rod. She was going to invest into an experimental business venture with the man. Plans and paperwork took most of the afternoon, and then she went through the very long and unpleasant process of transforming into a disguised variation of her female form to visit Liza.

The older woman helped to recast the sleep-proxy spell with a fresh raven, and then they had dinner together, which Siobhan ended up making most of because, even after so many years, Liza’s only real skill in the kitchen revolved around the teapot. Usually, the woman ate simple meals that required little preparation or went out to eat, but with Siobhan in tow it was unwise to spend time in a public location.

Liza had been practicing some of Professor Lacer’s exercises, which Siobhan found somehow both vindictively satisfying and ironic, and after dinner they competed with a metal ball around a Circle, just as the students had in the Practical Casting in-class tournament during term one.

Liza won, but only by devouring the wax of her tiny candle as Sacrifice more quickly than Siobhan could do the same. The limitation of a single candle was supposed to keep them on even footing, but when they had sucked the flame dry and moved on to the wax, capacity mattered once more. The woman sniffed loudly and hid her smile behind the rim of her teacup, while Siobhan suppressed the urge to accuse her of cheating.

I could have won, too, if I’d resorted to dual-casting,’ she thought.

It was almost dark by the time she left, mentally charting out her route to the next safe place she would use to transform back into Sebastien.

In the time she had been inside with Liza, clouds had rolled over the sky, filtering out the light of the sunset into something bruise-purple and dramatic. Without fanfare, it began to rain once more. Sighing, Siobhan reached into her satchel to retrieve the plain black umbrella she had taken to carrying around with her lately. ‘One would think some weather thaumaturge is experimenting over Gilbratha with all this rain. Isn’t summer supposed to be dry? Maybe it’s because we’re so close to the coast.

But her umbrella wasn’t there. Siobhan cursed as she realized that she had left it back at the dorms on Friday. The rain quickly swelled from a light drizzle to fat, heavy droplets of warm water, as if the sky were weeping. Around her, people began to hurry, those without umbrellas using their bags, clothes, or a convenient newspaper as shield against the sorrow of the heavens. And, as always seemed to happen in times like these, there wasn’t a carriage for hire to be seen.

I need to find shelter or some way to keep dry. The rain might damage my disguise.’ She slipped one hand into her satchel as her mind spun over various options. ‘Grubb’s barrier spell would make a perfect umbrella. And it’s one of the options in my spell rod. But would casting that possibly draw more attention to me in this part of town?’ She was at least a kilometer north of the Mires, but not surrounded by so many rich or powerful people that having a water-repelling artifact or casting a spell for such a minor inconvenience would be seen as normal.

Her neck tingled uncomfortably, and Siobhan realized that she had begun walking faster without realizing it. She slowed her steps, searching for a glass window in which she could search behind herself as she wondered at the cause of her unease. ‘Did I subconsciously notice something off without realizing it?

She turned all of her attention toward observation, her fingers curling around her spell rod and drawing it from her satchel.

A couple dozen meters down the street, the rain began to fall even more heavily, creating a stark delineation. She tracked the path of this increased rainfall, and as her head swiveled, she saw that there was a similar phenomenon on the street behind her. She found the correct segment of her spell rod and twisted it open, then immediately cast Grubb’s barrier spell, distanced from the top edge by about a foot, as she had built into the spell array when she created it.

As the dome of force appeared, she held up the spell rod like an umbrella and used the shield she had created to peer up and around, trying to make out if the rain was falling heavier around her in a huge Circle as the tingling horror along her arms and the back of her skull suggested.

While the barrier spell might draw attention to her, it might also provide some small measure of protection against an attack with physical properties.

There was a change in the feel of the air, a shift in the muffled sounds of the city past the rain, and an intangible sense of isolation.

The air, which had smelled clear, sharp, and a little salty, took on the smell of something Sebastien couldn’t identify but which raised goosebumps along her skin.

Sebastien took a sharp turn to the right, heading down the sidewalk of a major cross-street. Her eyes swept around, examining everyone nearby for suspicious behavior. She tried to keep her face impassive and her pace only as hurried as the other pedestrians who wanted to get out of the rain.

I have to assume whatever this is, it is targeting me. But who is behind it?’ Unfortunately, Siobhan had too many potential enemies to narrow them down. ‘How did they find me? Did they follow me from Liza’s? Is it possible that she sold me out?

The barrier of heavier rain was following her.

Siobhan’s eyes trailed along the rooftops. Although she found no one there, her cheeks paled as she noticed an oddity in the windows of all the buildings. Normally, those without glass, wax paper, or some other protection against the rain would have been shuttered tight. But they were all open.

And behind them, people were peeking out, their faces obscured by rain, curtains, or shadows. ‘They’re all watching me.

Siobhan’s breath hitched, and she forced it to smooth. ‘How is that possible? What is happening?

An idea sparked in her mind, followed by a sudden rush of hope. She lifted her free left hand and pinched her nostrils closed, closed her mouth, and then attempted to breath in through her nose. It was a little trick that she’d read in a book but never found use for before, because the faint remnants of her dreams that occasionally slipped through her dreamless sleep spell weren’t so normal or coherent as to allow her to become lucid while asleep. But she knew that, in a dream, attempting this would have her breathe through her closed nose, a clear indication that what was happening was not real.

She got no air, even though she strained hard enough to wrench something inside her chest. ‘This is real.

Siobhan lamented her lack of foresight. Despite all of the preparations she had made, she hadn’t replaced her sympathetically connected bracelets with anything else, partially because she felt she could no longer trust Oliver or Katerin and did not want to be on call for their own emergencies. ‘I don’t know what to do. Back to Liza’s? Get to one of my emergency stashes and flee the city?

Very quickly, the few people who remained outside were disappearing. Though normally Siobhan would assume they were just hurrying to get out of the rain, the way some people were literally turning around and walking away from her, regardless of the direction they had been going before, worried her. It was as if there was some kind of repulsive force not only keeping out the absolute deluge of rain the rest of the city was experiencing but also urging others to leave this strange Circle.

What worried her even more was that, somehow, she couldn’t see the faces of the people around her. Whether they were covered by umbrellas, arms raised to hold some more makeshift barrier overhead, or they just ducked away or turned their heads at the perfect time to avoid her glance, she could never make out their features.

People were still watching through the windows. They, too, were serendipitously faceless.

Siobhan had the creeping feeling that if she were to stomp up toward one of the windows and stare unblinking, when the coincidences keeping her from seeing them clearly ran out, they would be truly featureless, a smooth span of flesh in the shape of a head. ‘If I grabbed one of these pedestrians and swung them around to look at me, what would I see?

Siobhan had read and heard enough horror stories to know better than to attempt such a thing.

As abruptly as possible, she pivoted into an alley to the right and flicked the switch on her dowsing artifact. When she hit the next street, she turned right again, going back in the general direction she’d come from. It was a bold decision, and she kept a sharp eye on the edge of the heavy rain as she hurried back the way she’d come. Was it her imagination, or had the Circle lagged behind for a couple of seconds after her abrupt change in direction?

She was suddenly alone, as if she had blinked and everyone else had disappeared. The pedestrians that had been walking along the sidewalk were all gone. There were carriages at the end of the street, but even as she watched they disappeared through the boundary of rain.

Clamping down on a rush of terror, Siobhan sprinted forward and around another corner. She was not fleeing mindlessly, but hoping against hope that she could outpace the spell, or at least the spellcaster. Rain pooling between the cobblestones splashed out with every footstep, and she was grateful not to be wearing a dress whose skirts would get soggy and heavy.

That was when the streetlamps began to go out.

As soon as the barrier of rain in front of her passed the light, it died, flickering out even as it passed into the Circle. Only those that had been inside with her before the effect started remained lit. This happened twice more before Siobhan realized that if this continued, she would eventually be plunged into darkness. And she was showing no signs of being able to outrun the Circle of relatively lighter rain.

With only one streetlamp remaining, Siobhan skidded to a stop near the metal pole. She pressed herself to the side of the building nearest it, not so close to the light that she would blind herself to any attacks from the darkness. ‘What kind of spell does something like this?’ she wondered. ‘If I had to guess, it seems most likely to be some kind of mind-affecting curse that’s controlling my perceptions. Either that…or something like what the old man did at Knave Knoll. This is all too big, too crazy, to be a standard spell actually affecting reality. And I’m pretty sure they don’t have any pieces of me to work with, nor have I done something that would be an obvious method to anchor binding magic.

Siobhan took a deep breath and yelled out, “A spell like this comes from one of three sources. You are an Architect of Khronos, an agent of the Red Guard, or a Pendragon operative. Come out and face me!”

Her words were swallowed up by the seething choir of a million raindrops, and the crystal of the streetlamp began to flicker weakly.

 

We are nearing the end of this book. That’s the good news, because there’s fun stuff ahead. 🙂

The bad news: Based on my lack of sufficient backlog, I’m going to have to take a bit of a hiatus on the weekly chapters after this book comes out so that I can produce some chapters for Book 5. I’m not sure how long yet; it’ll depend how fast I can get Book 5’s plotting finished. It’s hard to predict exactly because sometimes I get stuck and have to think my way through or around a problem.

Seeing a locked chapter that should be unlocked?: https://www.azaleaellis.com/trouble-accessing-chapters/

 

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