Chapter 199 – An Exchange of Blows

Siobhan

Month 8 Day 14, Saturday 8:50 p.m.

There was no response to Siobhan’s challenge. As the streetlamp’s light flickered for a painfully long moment, she slid her hands along the spell rod and found the segment for a light spell without looking. She snapped open that array and dropped her barrier spell so as not to give away her ability to dual-cast so early, then cast the light projectile. It was one of a few new spells that she had added to her utility list.

A bright sphere shot up and out in a long arc, reaching the edge of the rain barrier and exploding in a flash of eye-searing brightness as it impacted the almost solid wall of rain. The water diffused the light, illuminating a dark silhouette just on the other side.

They were too distorted by the flowing water for Siobhan to make out any details, but they clearly flinched away from the light projectile’s point of impact.

Siobhan grinned. “Found you!” she intoned, sing-song and under her breath. She was, admittedly, feeling a little crazed from the stress.

This situation didn’t feel like it could get much worse, but somehow, after months and months of feeling an inescapable foreboding, it was almost a relief for the thread to finally have snapped.

The silhouette hesitated, then stepped through the rain, which parted over around them like a bead curtain. They wore a leather mask depicting a human face that looked just a little too realistic.

Is that made from human skin?’ Siobhan wondered wildly.

But instead of eyes, or even holes to see through, it bore two flat stones, the perfect size for skipping across placid water. “Tch, you’re no fun,” they said.

Siobhan couldn’t tell their gender from their voice, and their form gave nothing away either. They walked toward her sinuously. They wore a long leather jacket that reminded her of Professor Lacer’s, though theirs was threaded through with bands of metal and embroidered with glyphs around the edges. Probably not a Pendragon Operative, which left either an Architect of Khronos or a Red Guard agent.

Siobhan instinctively tried to take a step back, only to be reminded that her back was against the wall. “What do you want?”

“To see the Raven Queen, of course. There are so many rumors about you, and the High Crown is rather upset about it. But even if not for him, we would want to meet you anyway.”

“Red Guard agent,” Siobhan said. An Architect could have just gotten Kiernan to pass along their request for a meeting.

The agent tilted their head to the side, hands on their hips. “Yes.” They reached slowly into the inner pocket of their leather jacket and retrieved the iconic red shield symbol. “Do you know, the more we researched, the more intrigued we became? But you’re a hard person to meet. We had to make it rain an inconvenient amount, trying over and over to get this rare opportunity for our destinies to align. Do you know how many people with some vague connection to the Raven Queen we’ve almost caught by accident? And you almost tricked us with that little appearance in Silva Erde.”

“It only works in the rain?” Siobhan asked. She tried to remember if she’d been out in the rain recently. She had, in fact, on several occasions. Except that it had always been as Sebastien. It was possible they’d found and discarded her multiple times, not knowing who she was. “It’s not sympathetic magic, then. How does it work?”

“We’re well aware that you have some impressive defenses against sympathetic magic. No, this spell is entirely different. More like creating the opportunity for a moment outside of real space. With us both under the rain, all the threads of our destiny warp to allow us to meet for a time, so long as the spell persists. A fortuitous encounter.”

Siobhan narrowed her eyes, searching the last few minutes of her memory with frantic precision. “Outside of real space?” she repeated under her breath. She could recall no coherent street names, house numbers, or business signs. The letters were jumbled in her memory, approximating words but not quite matching, the numbers sometimes turned the wrong direction and entirely out of order. It was too dark to see outside of the rain barrier now, but she was pretty sure none of the surrounding houses and buildings would have matched up with what she had memorized of the city.

“Space magic, some kind of separate pocket that approximates Gilbratha,” she deduced. “What happens when the spell falls?”

The agent remained silent, their expression hidden completely under the mask as those flat pebbles stared at Siobhan in place of eyes.

There were several options, but the most advantageous would be that Siobhan exited the space where she had entered it, and the agent did the same, hopefully far away. “I was under the impression that your agents run in teams of at least two. Where is your partner?”

They weren’t stupid or reckless enough to answer. Presumably, at least one more agent was maintaining this space-bending, “destiny-warping” spell. There could be more.

“What kind of Aberrant components would create an effect like this?” Siobhan tried. “Nightmare-type?”

They chuckled. “Really, the classifications are too vague to be effective. Some bureaucrat thought a consistent labeling scheme would be a nice accomplishment to write on his gravestone and forced that uselessness on the rest of us. But I think this would be labeled pretty squarely as a Mystic-type with an Eldritch facet.”

Mystic-types were a long-range subset of Blight and Nightmare-types. They affected people or places far away from themselves, often with methods that were difficult to trace. Rather than shooting a fireball like a Scourge-type might, a Mystic-type would cause someone three kilometers away to spontaneously combust. And Eldritch-types had strange and abstract effects, often dealing with time, space, emotion, or some sort of weird concept like “truth.”

Siobhan let out a long, low breath at the agent’s confirmation. The Red Guard really were using Aberrants for components. She understood how useful that obviously was, but there was something repulsive about the idea.

The agent tilted their head to the side and broke the silence. “Did you know, one of the theories about you is that you’re an Aberrant?”

Siobhan blinked the water out of her eyes. “One that can speak, like the Dawn Troupe or Red Sage? But…surely my actions, even from the most distorted accounts, are a bit more complex than that? If I were an Aberrant, it would be impossible for me to resist propagating whatever my magical effect was for this long. There would have been signs.”

“Signs like the Raven Queen’s fervent and growing following?” The smile was very apparent in the agent’s voice. “Some Aberrant effects are subtle. But not to worry. You have been seen casting various spells on several occasions. As you probably know, Aberrants can only create their specific anomalous effect, no matter how amazingly lucid they might seem. Even if you had the strangest break event possible, an Aberrant would have been limited a little more than some of the reports indicate. But you are a blood sorceress, are you not?”

Siobhan remained silent. The Red Guard might practice blood magic themselves, as was clear from what had happened to the Moore family, but that didn’t mean they would allow others to do so indiscriminately. After all, they also encouraged the belief that blood magic led to corrupted Wills and break events.

“We have proof. You’ve used a Lino-Wharton messenger spell on multiple occasions, and some flesh-molding spells, and perhaps even some nightmare curses.”

“Nightmare curses?”

The agent shrugged. “Well, we didn’t find firm evidence of that, so it’s debatable. But with public opinion as it is…”

“Who would believe me if I protested?” Siobhan asked bitterly. “Is that why you’re here, then? To arrest me? Or maybe you want the book?”

They hesitated. “We are interested in the book, of course, but that’s not why you and I are here. No, we’ve met tonight to determine your fate. I am giving you an opportunity, real and finite. If you win, you deserve to survive. You’ll keep your life, your autonomy, your name. If I win…” They reached into their pocket and pulled out a severed hand, which they gripped by the wrist. It was a little bulkier than a standard human hand, and at first Siobhan thought it had been skinned.

The hand was light pink, like candy rather than muscle, with slightly glowing veins pulsing through the flesh. Its tips formed claws, though without any actual keratin. The bright pink flesh simply came to a curved point. “If I win, then I will take all of those things from you. If you win, or can last three minutes against me, you’ll be given the chance to make a request and have it heard. No matter what magic you use, you will find that every attack only brings you closer to defeat.”

What an incredibly arrogant thing to say.’ It was meant to intimidate, of course, and Siobhan was loathe to admit that it had worked.

“Your three minutes start now.” The Red Guard agent began to slip their own left hand into the wrist, as if it were a glove, and the flesh wriggled and throbbed as it sucked up their fingers. Their other hand reached into their pocket, likely for some kind of battle artifact.

Siobhan’s hands moved quicker than they ever had in her life, snapping open another of her spell rod’s segments even as she shot a second light projectile directly at the agent’s masked face. She followed that up with three rapid-fire fabric slicing spells, modified from their original form into a rotating disk of air that was a lot more powerful over longer distances. She shot one of the slicing spells directly behind the light projectile and the following two to either side, hoping that at least one of the three would catch the agent’s exposed neck, even if they tried to dodge.

They ducked, and the light projectile skimmed right over their head.

Siobhan reached in her satchel for the potions organized within.

The slicing spells, normally almost invisible, caught the raindrops as they shot through the air, scattering tiny beads of water and giving themselves away. The agent dodged the first two, and then caught the third with the grotesque pink glove.

The tip of the claws glowed, trailing a tiny after-image in the air as if they were slicing space itself. Siobhan’s spell broke apart, energy spilling out around the thick clawed fingers with a distorted whooshing sound.

Siobhan’s eyes widened and she almost choked on the proprioception philtre of darkness she was swallowing. She dashed the remainder of that vial and a second one against the ground between them and sprang to the side as the clouds of darkness exploded outward.

Her hand dug into her satchel again, coming back with her battle wand, which was fully charged. She shot three stunning spells through the darkness, her aim just a little off as her sense of self expanded beyond the confines of her body.

Despite the thick black clouds surrounding them, the agent seemed to sense the battle spells and was able to slide sinuously between them, catching only the crackling edges along their protective clothing. Their pebble-eyed mask still seemed to be looking right at her, and Siobhan’s suspicion that they could still somehow sense her through the darkness gained weight as they began to walk toward her. They stretched out their left hand toward her, the flesh-glove’s pink glow smothered by the black clouds. When they put it on, it had covered only their hand. Now it was creeping up their forearm, painful-looking tendrils stretching out and clamping down hard enough to cut off the blood supply.

Siobhan shoved her battle wand in her mouth, holding it between her teeth as she used her freed hand to rifle around in her satchel for a small component. She retrieved a short leather cord tied in a simple noose knot, popped open yet another spell array segment, and pressed the knot to the slightly sticky spot she had prepared in the component Circle ahead of time. She spat out her battle wand, switched its output to concussive blasts, and shot two of them while her Will handled a simple unlocking spell with detached output.

She poured every speck of power she could channel into the unlocking spell, even as she took her battle wand between her teeth again and opened the spell rod’s stone-disintegration and gust spell array in quick succession. Both her mind and her hands worked with a nimble coordination and instant precision that she might have found gratifying in a less dire situation.

As the agent dodged both concussive blasts, every knot, buckle, and button on their clothing sprang open. The straps holding their mask to their head released, though it didn’t fall away from their face.

Siobhan grinned fiercely around the shaft of her battle wand as she cast the stone-disintegration spell with the other half of her Will. It was rare for clothes to be warded against the very simple unlocking spell, which wasn’t meant for clothing at all but, with the right application of Will, could be bent toward that purpose.

To the agent’s credit, they didn’t stop to try and retie their boots, merely grabbed their belt with their right hand and used the shoulder of their left arm to keep their mask pressed in place while they—seemingly instinctively—threw themselves out of the way of Siobhan’s follow-up concussive blast in a contorted twist.

The agent was a much better duelist than she was, and if they’d been attacking as well as defending, she would have stood no chance. But they couldn’t have anticipated that she could cast two spells at the same time while also attacking with a battle wand.

In the darkness, they dodged right into the rain-slicked tripping hazard she’d disintegrated into the cobblestones where she anticipated they would move. Their untied boots did nothing to support their ankles, and they began to fall.

Siobhan waved the spell rod, a detached-output gust spell gathering up raindrops and pelting them into the side of the agent’s mask with enough speed and impact that they sounded like pebbles shot from a sling. She kept the spell going even as she turned to run, hoping to dislodge their creepy mask and maybe irritate their eyes.

She sprinted out of the dark clouds of her philtre, which were already beginning to thin under the effects of the rain. The air outside of the clouds was surprisingly sharp and cold. Siobhan wrung out every ounce of explosive speed Fekten had drilled into her, trying to reach the edge of the rain barrier.

She shoved her battle wand back into her satchel and skidded around the nearest corner.

She was growing closer to the rain barrier at first, but the single shining streetlamp was somehow ahead of her rather than behind. Siobhan’s sense of space tripped over itself as she tried to reorient.

And then the Red Guard agent stepped leisurely around the corner a few meters in front of her.

 

Days passed faster than my sense of time could keep up with, and today I looked up and realized we’ve only got a few left until the early release of this book on my shop. (It’ll be delivered midnight of the 15th from me, and the 20th for other bookstores.)

I don’t like having chapters on the Patreon be behind what people can access if they pay for the complete book, and we’re also almost at the 200-chapter milestone, which I wanted to give a bonus for anyway.

For these reasons, I’m going to do daily chapter releases until Saturday, when we reach the end of the book. Even though it means I have to go on a hiatus to build up the backlog again, this seems preferable than keeping you guys hanging past the point the book is published.

 

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