Chapter 207 – Echoes and Anxiety

Siobhan

Month 8, Day 15, Sunday 5:00 p.m.

Though it was a hassle, since she planned to talk to Professor Lacer that evening, Siobhan changed into her other form to travel back to the University. She didn’t have confirmation that the Red Guard were willing to wait until the meeting time she would set, or even that they would be amenable to a conversation at all. And though it might not hold true if they changed methods, they had indicated that they were unable to find her as Sebastien.

She looked out of the window of her hired carriage, though her mind was occupied elsewhere. ‘If I left Gilbratha, where would I go? What would I do?’ There was only one Thaumaturgic University of Lenore, but Osham and Silva Erde had their own institutions of learning. It was possible they really were inferior to the University, but after learning more and more about how politics played a role in such things, she thought it was equally possible that the Thirteen Crowns simply couldn’t admit there were viable alternatives.

After hearing some of Oliver’s stories and reading newspaper articles about Osham, she wanted to avoid spending significant amounts of time there. Besides, access to their schools was much more regulated and restricted, and would probably require her to take certain vows of service that would come into play after she graduated. She did not want to end up conscripted.

Silva Erde didn’t put as much focus on modern sorcery in favor of what many considered “softer” crafts, but surely there was still plenty to learn there. Some of her most useful spells were esoteric, after all. They might even be more inclined to teach “creative” solutions to certain unusual problems. However, she’d heard it was a lot harder to get certain spell components they considered unethically sourced, and they even fined people for foraging components from the wild without the proper licenses. Like Osham, Silva Erde was not particularly fond of Lenore, though for very different reasons.

I could buy a space-expanded traveler’s pack, take my gold and my beast cores and everything else, and pick one of the false identities I had the Nightmare Pack get papers for. I have the gold to buy my way into a year or two at most institutions, or an apprenticeship with someone powerful. I might even be able to guide my own studies, buying rare or expensive books and trading information with other thaumaturges I meet on the way.’ There was a certain appeal to the idea, especially because coin in hand would make all the difference from when she had traveled with Ennis.

But though the thought of leaving behind the danger of Gilbratha and the Raven Queen’s identity enticed her, there were other things she would be reluctant to part with. Oliver, Liza, Theo and Miles, Damien, Ana, and even Professor Lacer. Her little attic apartment that she had so many plans for. The University library. Without quite realizing it, she had begun to build a life here. And if she left, she would also be abandoning the kind of opportunities that many would kill for. Access to the restricted archives and relationships with powerful people whose contacts might help her find a way to deal with the thing inside her head.

The thought of walking away from all of that was almost painful.

But it would be better than several of the worse possible outcomes,’ she reminded herself. Another, more cynical side of her thought, ‘Except leaving doesn’t guarantee my safety. It just cuts me off from possible solutions.

All of the library’s private rooms and many of the empty classrooms of the Citadel, the University’s cylindrical main building, were occupied by other students. So Sebastien retreated to her cubicle, pulled the curtain, and set up a sound-muffling spell that she made into an artifact with the most basic of functions and charged with as much power as chalk lines could handle.

She spent the long hours until sunset trying to finish her homework, though she found that all her practice splitting her Will made it unfortunately easy to worry simultaneously while writing essays and drawing diagrams. Even math was not enough to require her full concentration.

She forced herself to wait until after the poorly enforced curfew, when the dorm lights were shut off and most of her classmates were asleep. Then, she took her satchel and slipped away to the bathroom, where she turned on her divination-diverting ward. Then she crept out of the University and into the darkness of the trees to the east, away from the cobblestone paths. There, she used her shadow to further block any potential sight, changed back into her Siobhan form, and fumblingly dressed herself. A cloak with a hood concealed her features. She made sure to exit the cover of her shadow-familiar spell several meters away from where she had entered it, even though no one was around and the paranoia was probably unnecessary.

When she had reached the edge of the trees, she looked out toward Professor Lacer’s cottage, gauging the distance. ‘Two hundred meters? I can see light through his window. I think I can make that.

Squinting slightly to try to make out detail, Siobhan re-cast her shadow-familiar spell with exceeding care, then sent it forward slowly through the darkness. She was ready to stop and drop the spell at the first sign that something was wrong, but the distance was barely a strain. She let her shadow rise up to the window, and when Professor Lacer’s silhouette passed by, she sent her shadow through the glass.

His silhouette froze.

Siobhan formed her shadow into the shape of a cute, unassuming raven. She hoped she shape was forming like she imagined. She’d never tested her precise control at such a distance, when all she could see was a little blob of darkness at the end of her tether. When she was pretty sure that Professor Lacer had seen it and knew who she was, she formed words in a looping script instead. May I visit? Turn on your porch light to invite me. Then she let her shadow retreat through the glass and dropped the spell.

The cottage’s porch light came on thirty seconds later.

Belatedly, she realized that if Professor Lacer had been entertaining company, her shadow might have gotten him into trouble. Siobhan took one last glance around to be sure no one would see her, then strode quickly to the cottage’s front door.

Professor Lacer opened it before she could knock. “I did not expect to see you tonight,” he said as she swept past him. “Are you so impatient to meet again?”

Siobhan thought she detected a hint of amusement in his voice, though she wasn’t sure if he was trying to make a joke. “I am impatient to know the outcome of your endeavor today. I am trying to curb my reckless tendencies, and I realize that if the leadership of the Red Guard is unfavorably inclined toward me, it would be very dangerous to make your organization an enemy in truth. It is a fight I am likely to lose. I am considering leaving the country, and if it is necessary, it would be best to do so as soon as possible.”

“You cannot leave!” The words burst from Thaddeus in a harsher tone than she had expected.

She turned away from restlessly examining the room to look at him.

He cleared his throat. “I meant…leaving now would be a foolish and unnecessary decision.”

She narrowed her eyes, but resisted the urge to let her emotions out in a harsh tone. She had learned from experience that people responded poorly to that, and Professor Lacer was not the type to put up with such. “The agent that I tussled with threatened to take from me my name, my autonomy, and my life.” She swallowed and again tried to regulate her voice to keep the rage from it. “I will not allow that. If they come after me again…” She wanted to make outlandish threats that she definitely couldn’t back up, but allowed the silence to stretch out, instead. “I have an unfortunate amount of experience with the way things can spiral out of control after a few unfortunate decisions. So tell me, Thaddeus, do I truly have no need to worry?”

“To be cautious, yes. To worry?” He hesitated. “I do not believe so. While certain individuals among my colleagues do hold some amount of animosity toward you, as a whole, the local leadership has been convinced of your value. The rest will be up to you.”

“They agreed to the meeting?” she asked.

“They did, and seemingly in good faith, though that does not mean they will not take precautions.”

Siobhan frowned, running her tongue over the back of her teeth as she gazed into the darkest shadows of the room.

“It would be foolish to abandon the knowledge and power you stand to gain here. Think of the work we could do together. And, might I remind you, you have already given your word that you would aid in my research of Myrddin’s journals. Doing so from afar seems implausible.”

Siobhan relaxed slightly. “I would also prefer not to leave. Please, tell me what you have learned.”

“Would you like coffee? I have purchased milk and sugar.”

She gave him a small, surprised smile. “Yes, please.”

Something of the tension in his shoulders seemed to ease, and when he returned, he told her what he could of his meeting with the Red Guard captains and their plans for her.

With every small piece of information, Siobhan’s anxiety uncoiled. Perhaps she had been overreacting. The Red Guard could be terrifying, but as long as she could convince them that she was neither an existential threat to the world nor so valuable that they should try to enslave her, everything should be fine. Probably.

“Will they expect me to take vows?” she asked, sipping her obviously very expensive coffee and savoring the slightly nutty aftertaste.

“They will certainly push hard for that concession. If you wish to adjust the terms, you may need to give up other bargaining points. The Red Guard quite loves their vows,” he added, with a wry, bitter twist of his mouth.

Siobhan really hoped that Oliver would come through with some intel on a rogue agent, because the excessive interest in the method to create Carnagore, or otherwise quantify and encapsulate a consciousness, that Professor Lacer had hinted at wasn’t actually something she could provide. Not unless she happened to find that information within her entry of Myrddin’s journals. And she certainly couldn’t let them inspect her warding medallion or the disks under the flesh of her back. ‘Perhaps there will be other knowledge in my entry that I can use to bribe them. If I can manage to read and understand enough of it before our meeting.

“Helping me like this does not violate your own vows?” she asked.

“There is wriggle room within any binding if you are tenacious enough,” he said lightly, though his eyes were shadowed. “Though I have taken vows to work toward their best interest, I do not consider this a violation. Both sides have more to benefit from alliance than strife.”

“Do you have any advice for me, then?”

Professor Lacer was silent for a long moment, and then a thin, toothless smile stretched his lips. “Be yourself.”

She blinked at him, then let out a low chuckle at the trite counsel.

“Do not let them control you,” he added firmly. “They will try.”

Siobhan didn’t stay much longer, because she quickly realized that she had gained what she could and any more would just be useless repetition. After confirming when they would make an attempt on the University’s three entries from Myrddin’s journals and reminding him to hurry with her access to the restricted archives, she returned to her previous form within the darkness of the trees, then sneaked back into the dorms.

For about half an hour, Sebastien stared out at the night sky, where sparse clouds blocked a few of the stars but felt close enough that she might have climbed to them.

Sebastien was not tired, but she was still afraid.

She rummaged in her satchel and the chest at the bottom of her bed, compiling a handful of components. She considered exactly what she hoped to do, and then began to bear down with her Will, though she channeled no energy and cast no spell.

Then, under the light of the stars and a vial of moonlight sizzle, Siobhan cut a finger-width strip from a piece of soft mermaid leather she had saved from in-class spell practice. The giant magical cephalopods were great at disguise, and with enough time, the cord would begin to visually blend into wherever she wore it, even without any added enchantments.

She used the rest of the leather to protect her hands as she massaged the strip with ghost pepper oil, allowing its burning heat to sink in. Beeswax made from honey gathered from magical flowers that were aligned with mundane light carefully sealed the leather surface. Then, she used her silver athame to cut a few notches in the leather on one side, and narrowed a section of the other side, allowing her to weave the two together.

Finally, she fit the leather band inside the Circle of her two joined hands and raised it to her mouth. “Life’s breath, shadow mine. In darkness we were born. In darkness do we feast. Devour, and arise,” she whispered slowly. She repeated this three times, and when she had an iron grip on her own shadow, she lowered her hands and separated them from around the leather Circle.

The spell held without appreciable strain, and a wild grin split her face. This was what hundreds upon hundreds of hours of practice brought you. Control.

And from now on, she would practice constantly. Sebastien slipped the leather over her foot and tightened the cord until it fit snugly as a slightly-chilly anklet. From now on, she would maintain her shadow-familiar spell at all times, using just a small part of her Will. Several uses had already confirmed that it was seemingly safe to cast the spell, and this felt like a much safer alternative than trying to avoid danger by never casting it again. If she was in constant, total control of her shadow, nothing else could be. With the barest trickle of power through the spell, her ankle wouldn’t grow too cold, and her shadow would remain visibly normal.

The need for sleep would be her only weakness. And as time went on, her mastery over her shadow would only grow. If she ever needed to fight for it again, she would win.

She spent the remainder of the night meditating over her shadow’s vague perception and, when that grew tiring, twisting it into increasingly complex shapes.

In the morning, she ate every morsel provided at breakfast, then supplemented more from her personal stores of dried meat, fruit, and crackers. Not sleeping meant that she needed more food than ever, since she dearly wanted to avoid another attempt at intervention from Professor Lacer.

She was somewhat distracted during classes, both by her shadow-familiar spell and her plans, but she did her best not to let it show.

Damien was distracted enough, and tired enough, that he dozed off during class, and luckily drew most of their friends’ concerned attention to himself. Professor Lacer ended up sending him to the infirmary for a dose of sleep potion rather than allowing him to practice during class time, despite the young man’s fervent protests.

After school, Sebastien went down into Gilbratha and put together another civilian disguise, which she used to visit Liza.

Perhaps because of the sleep-proxy spell’s effects, the woman was in one of the least grumpy moods Siobhan had ever seen her in. She didn’t even scowl when she saw who had knocked on her door. Siobhan grimaced and then proceeded to ruin Liza’s cheer.

After she was done explaining the situation with the Red Guard, and how she hoped Liza would help her prepare for the meeting, Liza stared at her, blank-faced and eyes slightly unfocused. “How do you get yourself into such trouble? Have you been cursed?” she muttered.

“Will you help?” Siobhan asked.

Liza scowled, grinding her teeth for a dozen seconds before she spoke. “I can place wards at the location and lease you a bevy of protective artifacts, but I will not be present for your meeting or in any way act personally.”

“That is enough,” Siobhan hurried to assure her.

They spent the next hour discussing everything while Liza brought out some breadsticks slathered in garlic butter. They narrowed down the best location that the other side would reasonably agree to—a magical hedge maze in the Lilies that the Red Guard could secure from civilians, and which would give Siobhan a reasonable chance of escape if something went wrong. Siobhan would be renting a ridiculous amount of warded jewelry, as well as purchasing an enchanted set of clothing-cum-armor from one of Liza’s acquaintances. Liza had never been in the Red Guard, but had worked with them a few times during the latter part of her stint in the army, and had several ideas for wards that might help counteract any nefarious schemes or help Siobhan to escape if necessary.

Before Liza could bring up the issue of payment, Siobhan said, “I have access to notes on several methods Myrddin used to create self-charging artifacts. I can make a copy for you.”

Liza froze and then agreed without haggling. “But you must pay me before your meeting. In case you never come back from it.”

Siobhan was almost as disturbed by the lack of haggling as she was by that ominous statement. ‘Is it possible that I just agreed to grossly overpay Liza?’ She had expected the fee to be well over one thousand gold, and unlike some of Myrddin’s other feats, self-charging artifacts were not completely lost. She crossed her arms and added, “In exchange, I also want you to help me develop and then apply a new version of the sleep-proxy spell. One that doesn’t rely on a single raven or have any single point of failure.”

When Siobhan explained her plan, Liza tried to argue that Myrddin’s notes weren’t worth that much, but when Siobhan offered to pay her in gold or beast cores instead, the woman’s protests died a sudden and mysterious death.

“Do you have any other advice for me about how to handle the meeting?” Siobhan asked, as she had done with Professor Lacer.

“The Red Guard is full of sanctimonious, hypocritical, covetous pricks,” Liza said, waving a breadstick around violently. “Don’t let them think they can control you.”

Siobhan’s eyebrows rose at the identical advice.

“They have a history of conciliation and pacification when they have no better option,” Liza explained. “So you need to make them believe they have no other, better, option. But you won’t be able to lie to them. They love their truth compulsions and unbreakable vows. If things look to be going wrong, better to escape, even if you have to fight your way out, than to get trapped in an unacceptable vow. If you can find anyone willing to risk themselves for you, take backup.”

Siobhan nibbled on her lower lip, nodding slowly. “One last thing. Can I get the contact info for your shaman? I have some questions I would like to ask about his craft.” Getting access to the library’s restricted archives would be invaluable, but for someone as ignorant as her, they were also likely to be difficult to navigate and beyond her understanding. Even better would be a knowledgeable, working shaman. Though she would wait to meet him until after her assessment from the Red Guard. If Liza was right, she wouldn’t be able to lie to them, after all, and they took offense to certain uses of shamanry.

 

Edit 6/13: My assistant is looking for some good content for social media, and he posted a thread on the Alcove asking for reader feedback. If you have ideas about your favorite chapter, best funny or awesome moments, good one-liners, etc, please help him out (and by extension, me) by sharing your thoughts. Also it’s fun to read other people’s favorite moments. Go here: https://alcove.azaleaellis.com/t/post-your-favorite-quotes-scenes/375/5

Original Author Note: This week is probably the last chance to come up with a cool name for the Raven Queen’s followers (led by Deidre Johnson, self-named follower and acolyte.) Feel free to add your opinions over on The Alcove or just have fun reading some of the great ideas others have offered.

In other news… ugh.

#WritingIsHard

#LifeIsHard?

#DontworryaboutmeImjustwhining

Is that how you use hashtags, guys? :P

Edit 4/30: My writing computer, an iMac, has been a trooper for many years with zero problems, but in the last few days has very suddenly slowed down to the point it takes minutes to load a web page. It will not even open Scrivener–which I need access to for all my lore and plotting notes. I am taking it into the repair shop directly after posting this message, but if they cannot fix it I’ll need to buy a replacement. I’m almost certain to miss this week’s Thursday chapter. It’s just one thing after another this month, huh?

 

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