Chapter 200 – A Separation

Siobhan

Month 8 Day 14, Saturday 8:55 p.m.

Siobhan slid to a stop in front of the Red Guard agent, falling on her bottom and scrambling back to her feet.

“There’s no point in running. We’re destined to meet under the rain,” they said, somehow seeming both bored and frustrated. “I commend your ingenuity, but escape is futile without fulfilling the terms of our agreement. Without defeating me, this barrier will not drop. You have ninety seconds left.” They had already retied and latched all of their clothing.

To Siobhan, it seemed as if she had been fighting for long minutes already. Her breath came in ragged gasps, her soaked hair and clothes were plastered to her, and on each exhale cold raindrops that kept trying to choke her splashed out from between her lips.

She straightened and dual-cast the gust spell and fabric slicing spell. The gust spell from the side, once again carrying a stinging barrage of captured raindrops, and the fabric-slicing spell originating right behind the agent’s neck.

She hadn’t really been trying to kill them before, because killing a Red Guard agent seemed like a great way to make sure they relentlessly hunted her to the end of the known lands, but now she was desperate.

Their grotesque pink glove sliced through her gust spell, sending the air spiraling out in random eddies and smoothly severing her connection to the magic. Siobhan braced for some kind of backlash, but she still had control over her spell array, and whatever path the energy might have taken to travel back to her had been severed just as surely as the spell itself.

But even as that spell failed, the disk of slicing air behind the agent’s neck shot forward. Even if they had anticipated her trick, they wouldn’t have had time to escape. It cut into the side of their neck but met some kind of protective ward that flared bright.

Siobhan mentally cursed the Red Guard’s enchanted clothing budget.

That was enough warning for them to jerk their head to the side, but on instinct Siobhan created a second and third slicing spell just behind the first, so close together they were almost like two sheets of paper. The ward flared brighter, and yet brighter again as the agent stumbled to the side.

They lifted their right arm toward Siobhan and made a sharp motion, pulling back their wrist. A click sounded, almost inaudible beneath the rain, and a deep purple, arrow-shaped spell shot toward her.

Siobhan’s warding medallion grew abruptly, bitingly cold, but it was lucky that she was already throwing herself out of the way to avoid the purple spell, because her medallion barely managed to nudge it off course by a couple of inches.

Siobhan clumsily stabilized her footing, throwing one hand out for balance to recover from her frantic lurch. She was not nearly as good at footwork as the agent. If this turned into a real fight, she would die. Or she would lose and be stripped of some concepts she found very important.

But to Siobhan’s delight, her third slicing spell managed to overcome the ward and put a fairly deep gash into the agent’s neck as it lost stability.

Blood spilled faster than it could be diluted away by the rain, but not enough to indicate a nicked artery. With an audible gasp, they lifted their right hand to press against their neck. Their head dipped down for a long second before it rose again, those flat stones staring at Siobhan once more. “I suspected, but you really are casting two spells at once,” they said. “One might presume that you are simply masterful at quick-casting and switching between spells, but that’s not the case at all. This puts your interest in Myrddin’s journal in a new light. Did it teach you how to do that?”

Siobhan ignored them, taking the time they were talking to close some of the spell rod’s segments so that she could get a better grip to open others. Her fingers were beginning to grow clumsy with the cold, or maybe just from too much adrenaline. She cast another two gust spells, starting a few feet out and coming at the agent from either direction. One, the agent caught with their glove—which was growing further up their arm and had already reached their elbow—and severed.

The other gust spell caught against their neck and picked up some of their blood as the rain passed, bringing it to Siobhan. She spilled the blood-tainted rainwater over the spider-silk array for a deafening hex.

“And where is your Conduit? Surely even a Naught wouldn’t be so foolish as to cast through their own flesh? You remember what happened to your mother, don’t you?”

Siobhan gave a choked exhale, as if she’d been punched in the stomach. It fogged in the cold air. She pulled on the deafening hex with a wrenching heave of her Will, even as she dragged a finger through the bloody water, disregarding the boundary of the Circle.

With a second swipe, she transferred the trace of blood on her finger to the center of the of the disintegration curse’s array.

She had originally learned the curse to try and target her own blood, but had never practiced it on a living creature—only dead bugs and the like. Now, she pulled every thaum that one half of her Will could channel from the beast core pressed to her back, targeting the nearest match for that blood, which happened to be the open wound in the agent’s neck.

It was immediately apparent to her that she did not have enough source material. Either that, or the barrier of a living thaumaturge’s control over their own body, commonly known as the skin barrier, was harder to overcome than she had expected.

The deafening hex would last until they received healing, if she had done it right, so she turned her entire Will to the disintegration curse.

Siobhan channeled the spell at what was likely the very edge of her black sapphire’s capability and fought for control of the Red Guard agent’s body.

They reeled back, grabbing at their neck again, but this time with the severing flesh-glove. Its fingers sliced into their skin, only making the bleeding worse, and tendrils lifted from it as if seeking to invade the blackening, slowly eroding wound. They hissed in pain and horror, jerking the flesh-glove away.

Siobhan shot them with another concussive blast spell, but they crouched down.

Their right elbow drove down into their right knee. A metallic click hinted at the artifact hidden under their pants. They ducked their head as a shield of force bloomed out to absorb the blast in a ripple of light. Three more concussive blasts met the same futile end, and the agent lifted their arm and flicked back their wrist once more, releasing another purple arrow of magic.

Siobhan slipped on the wet stone as she tried to dodge and the spell shot over her. The ground hit hard, almost knocking her air out and dislodging her Will. She took a moment to ensure her concentration was in place before climbing painfully back to her feet.

A real-world, desperate magical battle was different from a controlled classroom environment. Siobhan’s stamina was already fraying, and she doubted she could win against a Red Guard agent in a contest of Wills. She shivered convulsively as the cold bit into her soaked clothing.

Their neck was bleeding even more now as Siobhan’s disintegration spell began to eat deeper, and they reached their right hand into their jacket pocket.

Siobhan saw only the handle of a battle wand before she lunged forward and past, the arm with her spell rod stretching out to snag them around the neck. She slid around behind them, squeezing their neck inside the crook of her elbow while she pressed the arm bearing the flesh-glove against their side with her knee. It was an awkward position, and she feared she had made an error, because she couldn’t bring as much pressure to bear on the deadly appendage as she had hoped. Not enough to completely immobilize it. Siobhan slid her battle wand inside the collar of her shirt so that the handle rested just under her chin, then reached into her boot and pulled out her dagger.

The fleshy tendrils wriggled curiously under her pant leg, but none of them attacked.

She slid the dagger along the wound in their neck but didn’t thrust it in. “One twitch of that arm and I spill every drop of blood inside you,” she whispered as they struggled to move.

The agent stilled.

“Drop the spell!” she roared out. “Or your partner dies.”

But of course, no matter what basic training in submission holds Professor Fekten had given her, Siobhan was an amateur at best.

The Red Guard agent threw their head backward and cracked the back of their skull into Siobhan’s chin, cracking her teeth together and sending stars shooting across Siobhan’s vision.

It was true that her spells weren’t enough to win the fight against a Red Guard agent who was serious about fighting back, but Siobhan saw now that her response to that realization had been wrong. She lacked experience and had made a stupid mistake out of panic.

She dropped her hold on the disintegration curse before it could inevitably slip her grip, hoping that none of her teeth were broken. She tasted blood, then screamed hoarsely as her wrist was twisted until the knife slipped out of it. She tried to scramble backward, sure that a death strike with the flesh-glove’s severing claws was coming, but their grip on her wrist twisted again and sent her collapsing to the ground to try to avoid the pain.

The agent laughed. “Oh, you’re quicker on the uptake than I expected. You noticed our little trick, huh? But too bad, avoiding any high-powered spells and resorting to mundane weapons won’t save you, either.”

Little trick?’ Siobhan wondered.

They flipped around, shoving Siobhan to the ground with her arm twisted painfully and their knee to her chest as they wrested her spell rod from her other hand. Their flesh-glove had advanced all the way to their shoulder now, and would soon reach the bare skin of their neck. “I guess you won’t freeze to death, but that really wasn’t much of a danger in three minutes, anyway, no matter how much power you tossed around. We wanted to be gentle,” they said, panting much less hard than Siobhan. “The human body isn’t that durable. The other option was physical pressure. I’ve seen a man crush his own body like a grape with the backlash from a single battle spell.”

The cold,’ Siobhan realized. ‘It’s the middle of summer.’ She’d been too distracted by the nightmarish phenomena, and then the running and the fighting, to notice, but such a sharp drop in temperature wasn’t normal. ‘It’s some sort of backlash from my magic. If I had been a more powerful thaumaturge, would I have frozen the both of us in here like some sort of giant, space-magic snow globe? Well, the Red Guard agent likely has some kind of temperature-controlling enchantment embroidered into their gear. So really, I would have just frozen myself.

“Your three minutes are up,” the agent said emotionlessly. “I win.”

Siobhan wanted to argue that she was still alive, even if they had immobilized her, and thus hadn’t technically lost, but knew it was useless. No one who acted like them would be willing to let her debate her way to freedom. She bucked upward, just hard enough to throw the agent off balance and free one of her arms.

An engraved wooden case fell out of their pocket, clattering against the stone.

Rather than attack with her freed hand, Siobhan brought it to her mouth, cupped into a small Circle, and breathed out, “Shadow mine, devour and arise.”

It was a much-truncated version of the thrice-repeated chant this spell was supposed to require, but just like one could minimize the written Word of a spell array with enough practice and clarity, she had some leeway in the spell, which she’d probably cast a few thousand times throughout her life.

The shortcut did cost her, as her shadow was harder to control than normal, sluggish and a little clumsy when trying to take precise shapes, but it slid out from under her and rose up beside them all the same.

The Red Guard agent didn’t notice at first. But when the rain that passed through Siobhan’s shadow-familiar turned to sleet, adding sharp noises of ice on stone to the susurrus of rain, they stilled.

Siobhan could feel the surprise, and then the fear, run through them.

They turned their head to the side, slowly, to look at her shadow, their neck stretching up and back until they could see the huge beak poking out from underneath the black hood. “Ah.”

Siobhan bucked again, wrenching a muscle in her back as she threw them off. She scrambled backward.

“What are you?” the agent asked, staring at her silent shadow-familiar.

Of course it didn’t respond.

Siobhan lunged for her spell rod while they were distracted and managed to scoop it up, putting the agent between her and her shadow. She narrowed her eyes, gauging the distance to the rain barrier, which was getting harder to see as the rain within the Circle fell more quickly. ‘If I could send my shadow out, would that disrupt the spell somehow? It’s a little bit like passing the barrier myself. Or maybe it would be better to leave the shadow here to distract them and try to make it out myself again. I’ll only get one chance, and it seems like the second option is more likely to save me if it works.

But perhaps the agent sensed something, because their head whipped around toward her, and though their mask and the flat stones over their eyes were expressionless, somehow Siobhan knew that they had focused on the hand in a Circle over her mouth.

They looked down, their eyes trailing from the tip of Siobhan’s foot along the thin thread of shadow that connected her to the rest of it. Her control was weak; the spell had been cast too hastily, leaving the tether easily visible to one looking for it.

Siobhan sucked in a breath of panic as they swiped at it with their flesh-gloved arm, fingers scoring into the cobblestones as if it were butter.

In a moment of desperate inspiration, Siobhan detached the output of her spell so that it could not be severed.

She’d never tried it before with any spell that wasn’t strictly based on modern sorcery, but it seemed to work just fine. The Red Guard agent sliced through the space where the tether between Siobhan and her familiar had been, and nothing happened.

And then a terrible vertigo washed over Siobhan. Her eyes rolled back in her head, and when she opened them again, she was on the ground. She vomited a little, the burning remnants of her dinner with Liza spilling out over her lips, over her fingers still cupped around her mouth, and mixing with the water flowing between the street’s cobblestones. ‘Did my Will break? But I can still think. Did someone else just have a break event…like what happened with Newton?

This wasn’t nearly as bad as the sensory scramble and deep, horrifying wrongness had been when Newton broke, though. She still had a grip on her shadow-familiar, miraculously.

Siobhan’s senses stabilized quickly, and she struggled to her hands and knees, scrabbling for her spell rod once more. Her battle wand was gone somewhere, kicked away in her struggle with the agent, perhaps.

The agent was already on their feet and had backpedaled to keep both Siobhan and her shadow in their field of view.

Siobhan followed the direction of their head to her shadow. Its shape had collapsed. Instead of the shadow-familiar’s slender, macabre form under a tattered cloak, a roiling, amorphous mass of bubbling darkness writhed on the ground.

She could still feel it, somehow, and thinking of it brought back a momentary flash of vertigo. She tried to get it to reform, but it was as if her Will were trying to lift a boulder twice her size. The response was horribly sluggish, and it felt like the power sources of light and the heat of her breath were not enough.

The agent screamed, high and sharp, and backpedaled once more, head darting frantically between Siobhan and her detached shadow. The rain barrier around them thinned out, leaving the spatial distortion at the edge of the spell obvious.

Siobhan swallowed and slowly looked down at her feet.

Despite the light of the single remaining streetlamp against the surrounding darkness, Siobhan’s body cast no shadow. Her heart began to race, speeding faster and faster as if trying to bludgeon its way out of her chest. She blinked and swallowed down a scream of her own.

A few whimpers still slipped through.

With deep, shuddering pants just on the edge of a sob, she redoubled her efforts to regain control of her shadow, to bring it close and reattach it, but though she was not completely powerless, it fought against her.

Rather than flatten and inch closer, it began to rise up. At first she thought it was regaining its most-used form from recent months. But as its form grew stable, she realized it was something entirely different.

It was a woman, wearing a fluttering cloak. Feathers sprouted out around her temple and between the strands of long straight hair that floated on an invisible wind. It was her, dressed as the Raven Queen and formed of darkness.

It was Siobhan.

And then it opened its eyes. It met her horrified gaze with bright, glowing-amber irises.

I’m opening up naming ideas for the Cult of the Raven Queen. What do Siobhan’s misguided “followers” call themselves? Please go over to Azalea’s Arcane Alcove to submit your ideas.

Edit 4/11: I hate to postpone chapters, especially 2 weeks in a row, but things have been really hectic for me this week moving into the new place, and the last 2 days I’ve been feeling feverish and foggy.

(Ever since I got Covid a few years back, I feel like my body has to fight some minor illness off every month or two, whereas before I literally would go 1-2 years with only a single minor cold. Which really sucks. My self-identity as a super healthy person is taking a blow.)

But pushing through feeling ill has led me to still feel ill, but also getting the signs of an impending ocular migraine. Today’s advance chapter needs significant edits/tweaks before I post it, but even though I’ve been trying to work on it for the last 6 hours, I’ve only managed to get about 20 minutes of actual concentration in. I previously figured out the changes I need to make, but now I’m literally having trouble focusing long enough to follow the logical story thread of the chapter from beginning to end. As the days wears on, it’s becoming obvious to me that I’m not going to be able to manage it until I’m feeling better.

Ideally, that will be tomorrow, but if I start feeling even worse then maybe not.

I’m sorry. Believe me, I want to make progress on this book just as much as you guys want to read it.

 

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