Chapter 201 – A Sealed Memory

Siobhan

Month 8 Day 14, Saturday 8:59 p.m.

The Red Guard agent screamed, and as if that had been a trigger, a scream burst from Siobhan’s mouth, too.

Siobhan’s shadow waited patiently for them to run out of breath, then turned its head to the agent. “You had better take off that glove before it consumes you.” It even sounded like Siobhan, though distant and muffled, as if heard through a wall.

Then it turned to her. “Siobhan, leave now. I will take care of things here, child.”

Another moment of vertigo hit her, but this one was more cerebral than physical, brought on by the sheer inconceivability of the situation. Except it wasn’t totally inconceivable. Those glowing amber eyes were familiar, and for a moment, a flash of blood and brain matter pooling out in front of the fire came to mind.

That was followed by a blink-fast vision of an egg with a yolk made of blood.

And then, even faster and on the edge of passing too quickly for her mind to grasp, a doorway filled with hungry sky.

Siobhan flinched back.

“Run,” her shadow added.

And she did.

Siobhan sprinted without coherent thought, fleeing with rabbit-panicked, pounding footsteps. The only bit of rationality remaining within her chest allowed her to keep that one vomit-wet hand to her mouth. The Circle remained unbroken, and some tiny part of her Will was left behind with her shadow.

She did not want to know what might happen if she dropped her shadow-familiar spell while it was detached and outside of her control.

And if not for her ability to split her Will, the panic might have overcome even a lifetime’s training to maintain concentration.

It was exhaustion that finally slowed her, her muscles burning and clumsy despite her pleas to continue. Her lungs heaved, screaming within her chest as if they had been scorched and blackened.

Sprinting at full speed had never been her forte, and she doubted she’d made it more than a kilometer at best. She stumbled to the side of a building and put her back to it as she looked around wildly for danger.

The streets were mostly empty, though the rain had lightened. The few pedestrians on the sidewalks noticeably avoided meeting her gaze or even looking at her. ‘I probably look crazed and dangerous,’ she realized. ‘Maybe I am crazed and dangerous.

The stones beneath her feet and the brick of the building behind her were still shadow-free. ‘I am a woman without a shadow,’ she thought inanely. ‘It sounds like one half of a bad riddle.’ Siobhan swallowed down another sudden surge of bile.

She recognized the street she was on, and the house numbers were coherent and in the correct order. No one was watching through the windows, and those few people who passed her in the street had faces, even if they weren’t turned her way. All the streetlamps were working.

She could still feel her shadow, somewhere behind her. She had never stretched it so far from her. But then again, she had never detached it before, either.

When her breathing began to settle, she closed her eyes and thought she could almost tell what it was doing, sense its movements and its actions as it absorbed and expelled energy to stay coherent in form and affect the world around it even in minuscule ways. It was a little bit like sensing through the raven with the Lino-Wharton messenger spell, a little like the proprioception philtre, and above all reminded her of the bits of experience she’d had sensing the world through her shadow. Which made sense when she considered it.

She swallowed back a hysterical laugh at her own stupidity.

It was…standing before four Red Guard agents. At least she was pretty sure they were Red Guard agents. What the shadow had wasn’t a sense of sight, even if it was absorbing the light reflected off of their bodies. ‘So it had been two teams, then. The other two agents were probably lying in wait to act as backup.’ She could distinguish the one that had fought her from the other three, who had a lot more gear and were carrying full-size shields. As Siobhan concentrated harder, she made out some movement and vibration.

It was talking. “I find it displeasing when people attack my followers.”

Strangely, the burst of outrage that this description of Siobhan sparked helped to calm her down more than anything else. She pushed away from the side of the building, looking for somewhere familiar. Somewhere she could hide safely, both from any further threat from the Red Guard and from anyone who might happen to notice a strange woman without a shadow.

“But I will not attack you,” Siobhan’s shadow continued, gesturing to the agent wearing the mask with the flat stones for eyes.

Their flesh-glove had reached their neck and was stretching around it and up over their face.

“You can go ahead and take off that Aberrant before it eats you.”

The Red Guard agents shared distrustful looks.

“What are you?” one of the new ones asked.

“I believe I am known for keeping my word. And even if you do not trust me, that thing is definitely going to kill you if you keep waiting.”

As the flesh-glove pulsed and tightened some of the tendrils around the agent’s neck, two of them finally gave in and spent a few moments freeing the host of the Aberrant parasite.

The fourth agent stood guard with their shield lifted and their gaze never wavering from Siobhan’s shadow.

Removing the flesh-glove, now more like a flesh arm, required the use of some tinctures as well as brute force, and left strange wounds on the agent’s flesh. Even to the shadow’s perception their skin was completely white, as if it had been crushed or sucked dry of blood.

Siobhan turned the corner and walked down a long, narrow path that led to an abandoned gate house she had used to change once before. ‘I had no idea you could use an Aberrant in such a way. Was it always just a hand, or did they cut that piece off the larger creature to take advantage of its anomalous effect? Do they have to treat it with something, like curing leather, or run it through some kind of ritual to make it useable as a tool? Obviously, the ability to sever everything, including the ties of magic itself, would have amazing utility.

The Red Guard agent took a healing potion to manage the glove’s aftereffects and the wound on their neck, which looked quite gruesome, as if ten thousand ants had taken a bite and carried away little bits of flesh.

“Who are you?” asked the agent standing between her shadow and the other three.

One of the others, wearing a complex metallic monocle attached by a clamp to the side of his head, leaned forward and whispered in the speaker’s ear.

Either her shadow’s senses weren’t strong enough to pick it up, or Siobhan simply wasn’t skilled enough at interpreting its information, but she couldn’t make out what he was saying.

“Is it not obvious?” Siobhan’s shadow asked. “I am the Raven Queen.”

Once more, Siobhan’s outrage spiked. ‘How dare that thing impersonate me!?

“The Raven Queen? Not Siobhan Naught?” the agent asked.

Her shadow clasped its hands behind its back and leaned forward playfully, eyes wide. “I think you should understand the importance of names.” It straightened. “And since I won our little contest… What were the terms again?” It tapped a forefinger on its lips. “Your lives, your autonomy, and your names?”

The agents’ fingers clenched around shields and battle artifacts, their knees loosening in case sudden movement was necessary.

“Well, I suppose I can leave you all three of those things,” Siobhan’s shadow said. “But I think I deserve some answers, at the very least.”

“We never planned to harm her,” the masked agent blurted. “It was just a test! We were hoping to gain some information, make sure she wasn’t a danger to society, and maybe—”

“You never meant to kill her, perhaps!” Siobhan’s shadow snapped, cutting the agent off. “But that is not the equivalent of meaning her no harm. Or do you think I have no idea about what goes on under the symbol of the Red Guard?” It sneered, gesturing to their shields.

Siobhan climbed a crumbling stone wall and sneaked in through the window of the abandoned gate house, both quite difficult maneuvers with only one arm free. She curled up in the dusty corner, trembling, and fumbled the light crystal coaster out of her satchel. ‘What do I do?’ she wondered. ‘What do I do now? That thing has taken my shadow. Can you…live without a shadow?’ It seemed anathema, and she wasn’t even sure how such a thing could be happening, as it contradicted all the laws of Natural Science that she knew. ‘I don’t want to die. I haven’t even had a chance yet, not really. I want to live.’ She repeated it in a whisper. “I want to live. Maybe Liza can help me. Or Professor Lacer. I just have to recover enough to get to them. I won’t let the shadow-familiar spell go. I can keep casting it as long as I stay awake. I won’t fade away. I won’t break,” she muttered rapidly.

Elsewhere, in the city that was not the city, the Red Guard agents bristled, shoulders pulling back and chins lifting. “We act for the good of the world!” declared the agent in front. “I ask again. Who are you? What are you? What is your purpose?”

“For the good of the world?” Siobhan’s shadow repeated, ignoring their questions. “But what does that really mean? Quite a lot could be justified with the goal of saving the world, and against such serious threats. My desires are quite simple, and I think it should be clear that I have done nothing to make an enemy of you. Do not make an enemy of me, and perhaps there will be room to coexist. This world is large, after all.”

Siobhan did not feel that this was likely to convince the Red Guard at all, but she didn’t think she herself could have done better.

“The girl is a genius, and we both know how to hold a grudge. Hear me, mortals, as you have promised. Do not look for me. If I wish to contact you, I will have no trouble reaching you.” And to punctuate this obvious threat, there was a sudden rush of confusion.

If Siobhan hadn’t been sitting down already, she might have fallen over.

And suddenly, her shadow was in front of her again. It examined her for a moment, then mimicked her stance, sitting in front of her toe to toe. “Why did you run so far!?” it cried, angry and frightened. It was growing quickly tired, she knew, just as she knew that being so close to her sparked some undefinable longing. “Did you consider what might happen to me if I ran out of power before being able to return to you?”

Siobhan stared at it, wide-eyed. She glanced away from its amber eyes for a moment, to the spot where the tip of its toes touched hers.

And then it melted back into the floor, becoming two-dimensional and stretching underneath her and up the opposite wall where the light from the coaster by her side threw it.

Siobhan lifted her right arm, and her shadow moved with her, even though the amber eyes were still staring back at her. ‘Did it really just…come back?’ But it had. She could feel its connection, just as she had felt its disconnection. ‘It could be a trick. I can’t let down my guard.’ She continued to keep her hand in front of her mouth and a spark of her Will active in the spell, even though her hand and elbow were getting stiff from being held in the same position for too long.

“What are you?” she whispered.

“At the moment, I am your shadow,” it replied. Somehow, it was talking by vibrating the air. Considering that speaking without a tongue or lips was probably quite difficult, it was doing an admirable job of mimicking her voice.

“And when you are not my shadow?” Siobhan breathed, her back itching with new sweat against cold, damp clothes.

“I suppose there are a few ways one might describe me. For the moment…I suppose you can consider me a sealed, but not quite forgotten, memory.”

Siobhan shuddered convulsively. As shameful and horrible as it was, her eyes burned with the first onset of tears. She clenched her teeth so hard her jaw creaked under the strain and tilted her head back. She would not cry.

She could still sense something from it, the way it noted the jump of the muscles in her jaw and throat, tracking every involuntary movement with a mean amusement. It was enjoying this.

A surge of hatred, sickly sweet and cold, swept through her.

“Raaz didn’t quite catch everything,” it said. “Don’t you remember when we met? Don’t you remember my name?”

Siobhan did remember, even if she desperately wished she didn’t, but she wouldn’t say it. “If you’re sealed, how are you doing this? Taking over my shadow?”

Its amusement grew. “Well, you so kindly swallowed a beast core for me.”

She gasped. “You absorbed the power from the beast core? How?

It continued as if she had not spoken. “And then you detached a piece of your existence for me, one conveniently not bound by the seal.”

Siobhan, for some reason, wanted to laugh. She tasted blood in her mouth.

“With the little cracks in said seal, it only took some effort and a bit of power to slip into the empty spot. I have to admit, I had such fun.”

“What would have happened if you ran out of the power you absorbed from that beast core while detached from me, inhabiting my shadow?” she asked.

“I would have had to slip into someone else’s shadow,” it said, but Siobhan felt its uncertainty and fear. “I believe I would have had to consume the original shadow to take over. Quite difficult to do with a powerful thaumaturge.”

Siobhan did her best to keep her face from reacting. This, she was sure, was a lie. It had made that up. It had no idea what would happen if it ran out of power away from her, but it didn’t believe it would be anything good. “Can you take control of my shadow again?”

“Any. Time. I. Want,” it said drolly.

That was a lie, too.

“Can you tell what I’m thinking?”

“Of course. I live in your head, darling. I ride around inside your thoughts.” It wavered, though neither the light nor Siobhan had moved. “I know how afraid you are right now,” it whispered. “But there’s no need to be quite that terrified. I was very helpful tonight, don’t you think? I protected you, at the cost of using up that meager bit of power. I was useful, and the borrowing of your shadow caused you no harm.”

But she could still feel the truth of the monster, and the way its rapacious feeling of starvation only heightened at the dilation in Siobhan’s pupils and the pulse in her throat. It didn’t want to eat her, literally. It just wanted to kill her and use her corpse for its own purposes. Metaphorically. Maybe not her physical corpse. But something like that.

And it was true that she was afraid, but if it had really been able to feel her emotions, it would have picked up on the hatred that she was barely tamping down. Her eyes burned with tears, but not from fear or despair. She simply felt too much loathing for one body to contain.

It was because of this thing that Grandfather was dead. Because of it, she had lost everything.

Siobhan swallowed and firmed her voice. “What do you want?”

Its voice warbled a little more, growing faint. “I want you to remember me,” it said.

Siobhan could feel its presence receding, leaving her natural shadow behind. Its eyes were the last to go, staring at her until the glow finally disappeared.

Wheew! *gasps with exhaustion.* The book is almost here and there’s so much admin stuff to do.

Happy Reading, guys. :)

 

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