Month 11, Day 28, Saturday 4:30 a.m.
Sebastien bolted upright before she could stop herself, but then froze, opening her mouth to breathe so that her panicked gasps would be less audible.
She slid off her bed, pressing her feet to the cold stone floor with careful, deliberate movements. Turning to the bed, she cast the spell to disintegrate fallen hairs or other remnants from her body. Now would be the worst possible time to neglect that safety measure.
‘How did they find me?’ she wondered frantically. Still, that answer wasn’t the most important thing at the moment. ‘I have to escape.’
She moved to the chest at the foot of her bed and pulled out her things, most of which she kept organized within her luggage bags, and so required very little preparation to simply pick up and leave.
She dressed as quickly as possible, slung her school satchel over her shoulder, and slipped from the room, carrying both her boots and her luggage. She put her boots on when she reached the hall, then picked up one bag in either arm and hurried out of the dorm building. Outside, the wind had picked up, clearing away the night fog and whipping hair into her face.
Her student token bounced against her chest beside her warded medallion and the transmutation amulet. ‘Should I get rid of the token? They might be able to track it.’ She decided to ditch it after she had escaped the grounds. It would be fastest to go down through the tubes, but she didn’t want to do so without anything to slow her descent, not again, and she needed the student token for the tube system’s magic to recognize her.
She was panting by the time she reached the glass tubes, but Fekten’s training in Defensive Magics had deepened the well of physical energy she had to draw on, and she didn’t slow. Her bags went in first, and then her legs, and she was off.
Only then did she have the horrible thought that her student token may have been compromised, and the tubes would trap her within till the authorities reached her—though she didn’t know if such a thing was actually possible. To her great relief, the tubes worked as normal, simply setting her and her luggage down on the bouncy surface below.
She grabbed both bags and was struggling off the absorbent landing pad toward the street when the sound of a horse’s hooves clopping to intercept her cut through the wind. She dropped the larger bag, the one with her clothes and more unimportant belongings, and turned to sprint away, when Dryden’s familiar voice called, “It’s me! Get on the horse, it’s an emergency.”
She stopped running and turned as he drew the panting beast up beside her.
His eyes flicked between the bag in her arms and the one she had dropped. “They haven’t discovered you, but I had no other way to get your attention. Stash your bags somewhere no one will find them and climb up behind me. There’s no time to wait, lives are at stake.”
His urgent, low voice cut through the fog of panic in her mind. She ran back, picked up the bag she had dropped, and then found a half-broken wooden crate in a nearby alley to stash her things underneath. She took off her student token, too, just to be safe, leaving only her school satchel and her clothes on her body. “What’s going on?” she asked, panting as she climbed up behind him on the horse. It was saddled for one, which made it less than comfortable.
“The Morrows attacked a building of mine, downhill. Workers were inside, on an early shift. My people called for one of the emergency response teams, but the Morrows were prepared for that,” he said, pushing the poor horse hard. He tossed a bundle of cloth back to her. “Wear your cloak and change forms. The Morrows are trying to take the building down around the workers’ ears. We have injured, maybe dead, and the emergency response team cannot get in to help. The other two teams are being roused from their homes, but it may be too late by the time they arrive. Katerin sent me a message, and I triggered your ward immediately. I hope you will forgive me for the fright.”
She tossed the red-trimmed cloak around her shoulders, pulled the hood down, and pressed a hand to her chest to settle the stolen artifact against her skin. With a tingle, her body shifted, and her skin darkened like the blush of a desert rose. “Why did you trigger my ward? What is it that you think I can do about this?” The sound of her old voice was almost startling, and she clutched at Dryden’s waist to keep herself steady as the horse’s muscles undulated under her. Its hoofbeats thundered off the stone around them, distorted by the wind, and the shadows were barely pushed back by increasingly sparse streetlamps.
“Katerin and the reinforcement teams are being deliberately delayed. I have no other options. They have magic-users, Siobhan. And you know how to heal.”
She gaped at the back of his head. “What? I told you, I don’t know any battle magic! And I can only heal small wounds! You would be better off transporting the injured to a healer!”
“I will do the fighting. I fear it may be too late to reach the healers, especially if we cannot break the Morrows’ siege quickly.” He turned his head slightly, to see her out of the corner of his eye. “The workers are innocent, Siobhan. They’re in desperate need of help. Will you not at least try? You will be paid.” His voice broke a little on those last words.
Tingles went up her spine as her back muscles clenched too hard for comfort. She considered refusing, demanding that he stop and let her return to the University, but the words wouldn’t leave her mouth. ‘I am already on my way there,’ she thought with a kind of dry resignedness. Her memory flashed to the moment she’d pressed her bloody thumb against the magical agreement with Katerin. ‘And I cannot refuse repayment in favors unless they are morally objectionable. Not unless I want to bear the consequences.’ The thought of releasing her blood for Katerin to use against her led to a shudder that wasn’t just because of the cold. Katerin was kind, but she was in no way soft. Siobhan belonged to the Verdant Stag.
“I just want to make sure you are aware, fully aware, that I am not a licensed healer, and I’m not just saying that. I don’t know what I’m doing. I shouldn’t be the first one you go to in an emergency. I should be the absolute last resort.”
“You are.” He paused. “I don’t know what you’re imagining, but I don’t have some sort of secret underground battlefield-healer on retainer. Any legal healer won’t come to a still-ongoing gang fight. I hope—I hope you aren’t needed. And I hope that if you are, you can be the stopgap, to buy just enough time till a real healer can be had. Emergency response, right?”
‘What does it say about me, that I’m rushing into this when a real healer would refuse?’ Still, she didn’t ask him to turn back or let her off.
By the time they arrived, the frigid winds, now carrying the scent of lightning mixed with a hint of feces, were strong enough to distort the sounds of fighting. Even so, Siobhan could see a glow that pulsed artificially from a couple of city blocks away, far enough for them to slow the horse.
Dryden pulled out a battle wand from inside his vest, and they dismounted. He led the horse over to the sidewalk, loosely tying it to a post in front of a building. Then he pressed himself close to the side of the buildings and approached the glow of magic and the screams.
Siobhan made sure her hood was pulled fully down over her face and followed after him. When they got to the corner, she crouched down, peering out into the cross street.
The warehouse under attack stood across the street to their left and about a block away. It had large, many-paned windows running along all three sides she could see, more than a few of which were broken, and the light crystals shining within showed a large barricade the workers must have set up to protect them from spell attacks.
The entire building was vibrating, whatever spell was causing the effect pulsing like an ocean wave. As she watched, a couple more windows broke, their glass falling away and shattering against the ground.
On the street before the warehouse, four people, whose shoulders bore the vibrant green antlers of the Verdant Stag, were crouched behind another makeshift barrier. It had the layered, poured-mud quality of a liquid stone potion, which expanded and hardened when it touched air, and could be used for emergency walls in situations like this. One of the team lay flat, moaning in pain and clutching at his leg, while the other three occasionally popped their heads out and shot up the street.
Their target, almost directly in front of the warehouse, was a group of seven people, each wearing a red bandanna around their neck or arm. They had their own barrier, a glowing half sphere that rose from seven bricklike objects laid on the ground around their group.
One edge of their glowing barrier spell touched the corner of the warehouse, and one of their number was crouched at that edge, casting the spell that was shaking the building on its foundation. The sound of buried thunder, rattling metal, and breaking glass grew louder as the spellcaster continued.
The Morrows’ barrier absorbed incoming spells, yet allowed spells shot from within to exit, meaning they had the clear advantage in both numbers and power. A couple of them had battle wands of their own, which they shot at the emergency response team whenever they saw an opportunity. Magicians, who were often not true spellcasters at all, but used artifacts and tools to do their magic, were often derided, but they could be as dangerous as any other thaumaturge.
Dryden withdrew his head from around the corner and turned to her. “The barrier. What do you know about it? Can you take it down?”
She shook her head. “I’m no expert, but spell-barrier wards always have a weakness. They have to be set up to block specific spells, so there’s always something that can get through them. Alternatively, you can overpower them with brute force, or use a counter-spell specifically to break the barrier. The problem is, I don’t know the counter-spell, and I really doubt I have enough power to brute force it, especially without getting close enough to touch it.”
“And a spell that can get through it? One it wasn’t created to block?”
Siobhan thought frantically, running through her repertoire of knowledge. She knew more than she had the last time she’d been in such a desperate situation, attempting to escape from the coppers chasing her, but she still wasn’t versed in battle magic, and her repository of spells wasn’t much larger than it had been, though it had a better foundation. All that was coming to mind were the spells she had been doing constantly for Professor Lacer.
The idea caught her. She poked her head out again, watching the wind push debris across the cobblestones. She pulled her head back and looked around. “Is there a way onto the roof from here?”
“I believe there’s one in the alley near here. I’ll check.” Dryden stood up and ran back the way they had come.
Meanwhile, Siobhan gouged her nails into the wooden paneling that divided the closest window into little panes. She broke a couple nails, but was able to break the wood, too, getting at the glass held within. She carefully wriggled the pane out of its bindings, then settled it on the ground and pulled an oil pastel out of a pocket. She drew a Circle and the glyphs for “line,” “movement,” and “circle” on the glass.
Then, she drew over a dozen more Circles on the other panes of glass in the window, with pentagons for each, along with the glyphs for “force,” “compression,” and “sphere.” From a case in her bag, she took a very small oil lantern, which she had found useful more than a few times over the years when the weather was not conducive to an open flame. The spell array to spark the wick was carved on the bottom of the lantern, and once she got her Conduit out of her vest pocket, only took a small push of Will.
Dryden returned, dropping down beside her. “There’s an old building about a block east with a ladder up the back. Will that work?”
“As long as it’s close enough for me to target the Morrows from. Now be quiet. I need to concentrate.” With the energy from the lantern, which she held up into the Circles she had drawn on the window glass, she crushed each pane into a vaguely ball-like shape of jagged, cutting edges. The crisp shattering and brittle crunching was loud enough to temporarily overpower the howling of the wind. A little dribble of honey helped the balls keep their shape.
She turned the first, still whole, pane of glass upside down, being careful not to smudge the Circle. She mixed more honey with adhel juice and smeared it on her left palm, creating a strong, sticky film. She pressed that hand to the pane of glass, and was pleased when it stuck without effort.
Now, with a portable spell array, she held her left hand over the balls of shattered glass and activated the spell array drawn on the glass pane. When she lifted her hand, both the pane and the glass spheres came with it. She held the pane up like a waitress carrying a tray full of food, stood, and tucked away the rest of her supplies with her free hand. “Alright. Lead the way.”
Climbing the ladder with only one hand was decidedly more difficult than she had anticipated, and she had to hold her Conduit in her mouth and hook the next rung up with her chin a couple of times while she released her grip with her free hand. Every gust of wind set her heart to pounding, and she remembered belatedly that she really had no love for heights, but by that time it was much too late to give up.
The ladder ended at the roof, which held a gazebo-like structure that had at one time likely housed a bell, but was now empty. The wind was even stronger up high, tugging at her like little grasping fingers as she tried to navigate the steep, shingled surface.
Dryden wrapped an arm around her waist to help stabilize her, but ended up fairly carrying her as they scrambled up and into the protection of the empty bell tower.
From inside, she saw that the stone stairs leading down into the building had half broken and crumbled away, which was probably the reason for the ladder in the first place. She carefully edged around the opening to the broken stairs and looked out over the street below from the far side.
Lightning flashed, so bright that the whole world looked as it did in daylight for a single instant. Thunder followed close behind it.
Dryden reached into his cloak and pulled out a mask. It was smooth and white, with two round holes for the eyes. When he put it on, something happened, a sort of gathering darkness that seeped out around the edges in tendrils and settled behind the empty eyeholes, obscuring the man beneath.
Siobhan couldn’t help her grin. “Impressive.”
He waved a hand at her, a slight flourish in the movement. “Please, sorceress. Upstage me.” He turned his head meaningfully toward the Morrows below.
Most of the glass had fallen from the warehouse windows by that point, and the walls were groaning under the pressure of the vibrations the Morrow caster was creating. A man screamed inside the building, and Siobhan knew there was no time to waste.
She palmed her Conduit, chose one of the balls stuck to the glass pane, and drew it to the center. She wished she had a beast core to pull energy from, but could only take her lantern from where she’d hastily stuffed it in a pocket and hold it within the sphere of influence created by the Circle.
Her hand was within the sphere of influence as well, and she reminded herself with some trepidation not to give herself frostbite.
She had practiced this spell for many hours, till she could do it half asleep and at a moment’s notice. It was only slightly harder to do it now, with adrenaline rushing through her body and the wind tearing at her so hard she had to crouch slightly to avoid being knocked over. It took a handful of seconds to get the glass ball rotating so fast its jagged edges were shrieking against the pane underneath. It was easy, with such a small ball, and no sand to slow it. The hardest part was actually keeping it from shooting off under the force of its speed.
The spell array glowed slightly as she poured on more power, not totally efficient even with all her practice. The Word was too simple.
When she released the ball, it shot forward faster than she could see, exploding against the ground below, just to the side of the Morrows’ barrier.
Small glass shards shot out in every direction, and the gang member nearest the impact screamed and stumbled back. Their barrier didn’t block solid objects, which Siobhan had noticed while watching the leaves and debris the wind sent down the street entering and exiting with no problem.
Siobhan frowned. ‘Aiming is harder than I anticipated.’
The emergency response team, which was to their right, now, took the opportunity to fire some spells of their own.
Siobhan spun up her next shot and managed to aim this one into the barrier sphere. Once again, the glass hit the street and exploded outward.
One of the Morrows turned in their direction, but didn’t look up until another flash of lightning illuminated the street. Then, he pointed up at Siobhan and Dryden with a shout to his fellows.
The Morrow sorcerer crouching at the edge of the group turned to look, then screamed at her teammates, “Keep her off me!”
Siobhan was already spinning up another glass ball. A brief glow from her spell array, enough speed to start a screeching that even the wind couldn’t cover, and release.
The man who had pointed them out went down, scrabbling at his abdomen dramatically.
She’d managed to hit him mostly from luck, as the wind had slightly changed the angle of her shot. By the time he started to scream, she’d already shot again. “How long till the backup teams get here?” she said, shouting to be heard over the wind.
“Katerin is on it,” Dryden screamed back. “They’ll be here soon!” He fiddled with the settings on the battle wand he still held, then leaned forward and fired off a concussive blast, aiming at the ground at the edge of the barrier rather than directly at it. It barely cracked the cobblestones, but it was enough to make a couple of their opponents flinch and stumble, so he repeated it.
“Soon?” Siobhan repeated unappreciatively, peering through the broken windows of the warehouse, trying to see the workers within from her better vantage point. Past the barrier of boxes and bags of what seemed to be dirt, she saw four people hiding. They had a couple of small wounds, but had bandaged up the more serious with torn strips of clothing.
Apart from them, from the right edge of the building nearest the street, another worker’s head popped up and then ducked back down again, but the woman was visible for long enough for Siobhan to catch her expression of fear and the blood smeared across her cheek.
There was a loud crack, the sound of an impact, and then part of the warehouse’s roof crumbled and fell in. The screams from within were almost drowned out by the sound of the building’s partial collapse.
Siobhan’s shoulders straightened in response. She realized she’d been holding her breath and took a dizzy gulp of air. “I guess I had better finish this myself, and quickly,” she murmured, knowing her words wouldn’t be audible.
She sent off another shot, hitting one of the Morrows who was attempting to shield the female sorcerer. “Two down,” she said.
One of the Morrows sent a bright orange bolt shooting from their wand straight toward her. She stumbled to the side to avoid the spell, and for a moment thought it was going to hit her, but instead it impacted the stone of the bell-tower ceiling behind her with a sizzle and whoosh of heat.
She paused a moment, her heart pounding so hard she could feel it pushing against her ribs. The warding medallion her grandfather had given her was slightly cold against her chest, indicating that one of the protective spells had activated, probably changing the trajectory of the attack just enough to save her. She resisted the urge to turn her head and look at the place where the spell had hit. Instead, she cast the sphere-spinning spell again and launched the next glass projectile.
Dryden and Siobhan continued to dodge the spells shot back at them, though not without close calls. She nearly cracked her spell array when she was forced to drop to her chest to avoid another orange bolt, but escaped merely with the breath knocked out of her. Her pounding heart had taken her past lightheadedness and into the kind of focus that expanded her sensory intake rather than narrowed it.
She was low on ammunition by the time she managed to hit the third Morrow directly, the glass ball ripping into his shin. It was enough to take the man off his feet, and at that point, the three magicians who hadn’t been hit directly grew less focused on recklessly returning fire. One of them brought out a light crystal contained in a lensed lantern and shined a bright beam of light toward the rooftop.
‘That is actually pretty clever.’ She squinted against the light. ‘With my vision impaired, I’m less likely to hit them.’
Instead of using the opportunity to attack her, however, two of them dropped to the ground and began tending to their downed comrades.
She caught a glimpse of the puddles of blood spreading out on the cobblestones and swallowed hard. The glass shards were more effective than she had anticipated—or intended. She hesitated before launching the next one. Her aim was far from perfect, and when the glass smashed into the sidewalk close to the female sorcerer’s side, Siobhan wasn’t sure whether she was relieved or disappointed.
The woman screamed and fell over onto her left side, clutching at her right arm.
Siobhan spun up her last glass ball, waiting and watching. She didn’t want to waste her last shot.
The woman’s screams quieted, and she turned to face Siobhan, clumsily drawing a new Circle on the ground with her left hand. Presumably, it would be a ward to protect against Siobhan’s attacks.
Siobhan wasn’t sure if she should target the female sorcerer again to keep her from completing the new array, or shoot at one of the others. The woman would only be able to hold one spell at a time, so as long as she was warding against being shot, she couldn’t continue to attack the warehouse.
That was when a brick came flying out of one of the broken warehouse windows and clipped the gang member holding the lantern in the shoulder. The man stumbled and fell, dropping his wand. Another brick followed quickly after, and the magicians, including one of those she had shot directly earlier, turned their attention once again to the warehouse, while the sorcerer drew out her spell in blood-splattered chalk.
Dryden yelled a warning to the workers within that was lost in the howl of the oncoming storm.
Before the Morrows could retaliate for the bricks, a bolt of light cut through the darkness to her left, from further up the street, drawing their attention.
The shot had come from a third group of people who were running down the street toward them. In another bolt of lightning, Siobhan caught a glimpse of blood-red hair and the spring-green antlers of the Verdant Stag among the new arrivals, and felt her knees go weak in relief.
Katerin had arrived with the reinforcements.
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