Month 11, Day 28, Saturday 4:55 a.m.
Spells lit up the night, a barrage of force and magical effects traded between the Verdant Stags’ reinforcements and the Morrows in front of the half-destroyed warehouse.
“They’ll handle this,” Dryden screamed in her ear, clutching her shoulder. “We need to get into the building!”
With a nod, she turned and looked for a way to get down. Going back the way they had come would take a long time. They couldn’t jump down from the roof, either, unless they wanted to break a bone.
“I have a potion of feather-fall!” Dryden yelled, pointing down the broken staircase that led into the building below.
She understood his plan immediately. “Just the one?” When he nodded, she tucked her lantern and Conduit back into a pocket and held out her hand expectantly. “We can split it.”
Dryden didn’t hesitate. They each took a swallow from the small vial he pulled from his pocket, then moved to the stairwell.
With her mind on potions, Siobhan realized she might have a few useful ones of her own. She pulled the potion of moonlight sizzle out of her satchel, shaking it quickly and holding it above her head to light their way down the stairwell. They had to jump over sections of broken steps a few times, but the half dose of feather-fall was enough to partially mitigate the effects of gravity and allow them to descend safely.
When they reached the ground, Dryden led them through the obstacle course-like remains of furniture and rat carcasses littering the ground. They unlatched the front door from the inside, and Dryden poked his head out. He pulled back and turned to her, the eyeholes in his mask bleeding darkness. “The Morrows are running.”
“That’s good. Now we just need to get help to the injured workers.” She fingered the Conduit in her pocket, reassured by its familiar weight and feel. “But the warehouse doors must be locked, right?”
“I would assume so.”
“So we go in through the windows. The glass is broken out of them already. You first. I don’t want a brick to come flying at my head. They should recognize the mask, correct?” She waved vaguely to his face.
He let out a short, sharp laugh, as if surprised. “Yes.”
She nodded at him, then waved her hand impatiently. “Hurry up, then. We don’t have time to lose!”
With one last peek out the door, he dashed across the street.
She followed, her cloak whipping around and tugging at her with the force of the wind. She tucked the hand still attached to the glass pane to her side underneath her cloak to avoid it getting caught or accidentally smashing it against something. The mixture of honey and adhel juice was too strong an adhesive to remove the glass easily, and there was no time for her to work an oil mixture into it until it released the skin of her palm bit by bit.
As soon as Dryden began to climb through a broken window in the side alley, two workers rushed out from behind their makeshift barrier to help haul him through.
Of course, as soon as they caught sight of the mask, they recoiled.
“It’s okay,” Dryden assured them. “We’re here to help, I promise.”
She followed, though none of the workers helped her, even though her left hand was still out of commission.
“Wounded? Is anyone hurt?” Dryden asked, looking around urgently.
“Jameson, sir,” said one of the men who had stepped forward to help him through the window, darting little glances at Dryden’s mask. He was a large man, so much so that his shirt seams strained around his shoulders.
Siobhan mentally dubbed him Mr. Shoulders.
“Jameson was standing by the window when they first came up. They got him with a slicer, at the base of the neck.” Mr. Shoulders motioned behind the barrier, and Siobhan started moving.
The woman who had poked her head up from the corner called out, “Elba’s broke ‘is arm, but ‘e’s alright. But Cooper…Cooper…”
Siobhan stepped around the barrier and saw what they meant.
One man, pale to the point of blueness, had a friend pressing what looked like a blood-soaked shirt to his neck.
‘That would be Jameson.’
A couple meters away, another man lay underneath the jagged end of a huge piece of wood.
Her stomach roiled as the smell swept past her, carried on the wind whistling through the windows.
The support beam had been holding up the roof. She remembered the sound it made when it broke, the way the people inside had screamed as the roof collapsed inward.
It seemed that the sharp end had punched down onto Cooper, before the rest of the beam fell on top of him.
Mr. Shoulders nodded. “Cooper got caught by the support beam. He…”
Siobhan moved forward to Jameson, trying to keep her eyes off the corpse.
Blood pooled out around Cooper’s body, but that wasn’t the worst of it. His abdomen had been torn open by the beam, or had burst from the weight, and his insides were spilling out.
She opened her bag and rushed to pull out the potions within. “Jameson, is it?” she asked, looking at the still-living man in front of her. He was pale from blood loss. ‘This one is alive,’ she forced herself to say in her mind. ‘It’s up to me to make sure he stays that way.’
The man pressing the shirt to Jameson’s neck nodded, almost as white-faced himself from fear. “Yes, uh…yes, Mistress Sorceress. His neck, they got him.” His own forehead sported a goose-egg lump of a bruise, and one arm hung limp, supported on his legs at an awkward angle.
“How deep?” she asked, reading the labels she’d written on the bottles’ tags. ‘Why do I have no blood clotter?’ she lamented.
“About, err, this much?” Elba said, holding his finger and thumb up, about a centimeter apart.
Inside, Siobhan cursed, but outwardly, only nodded curtly. “How far away is your healer?”
“Healer Nidson’s. He’s fifteen minutes away, maybe, if we could take him on my horse. She runs like the wind,” Dryden said.
The others shared a look, half hope and half apprehension.
Siobhan grunted, her muscles tense with the need to move, to do something, her mind flitting from thought to thought with deceptively inefficient energy. ‘I’m not prepared for this! It’s worse than the nightmare where I arrive to class naked and without having studied for Professor Lacer’s test!’
“Can you save him?” the other man who had helped Dryden through the window asked. This man wore no shirt, probably because that was the fabric pressed up against Jameson’s neck to keep him from bleeding to death.
She forced her thoughts to focus with a mental twist not so dissimilar to bending her Will to work magic on the world. “Maybe. Give him this while I prepare,” she said, placing a bottle of revivifier beside Jameson, and taking out a soft chalk, to better write with on the dirty, debris-covered floor.
“It should give him a temporary boost of energy and keep his organs working,” she said. ‘The potion is not meant for situations like this, it’s meant to give a boost to the elderly or those recovering from a serious illness. But I’ve heard soldiers on the battlefield also use it as a stopgap in medical emergencies, or when they’re too exhausted to keep marching, and yet have no choice but to do so anyway. I doubt it will harm him, at least. I don’t think he’ll make it another fifteen minutes, so I must do something now.’
She drew the flesh-mirroring healing spell array on the ground. ‘Blood magic or not, I have no better option.’ There was plenty of Jameson’s blood to serve as Sacrifice. She looked up at his pale face, taking in his distant gaze and his shallow panting as he tried to get enough air. He had managed to swallow the revivifier with assistance, but it barely seemed to have helped. ‘He needs blood.’ At this point, even if she managed to seal his wound, he would likely still die.
She remembered her grandfather telling her about the necromantic healing done under the Blood Emperor’s reign, and the ability to take blood from one human and give it to another, either to temporarily increase performance or to keep the recipient alive after a wound. However, if the blood’s humors were incompatible with each other, mixing them would kill the recipient.
“Dry—” She cut off, realizing that she shouldn’t say his name. Instead, she waved at him impatiently.
He knelt beside her.
“I need blood. Blood from someone else, to give to him. If I don’t, he will die before we can get him to a healer.” The question was obvious, hanging in the air like a guillotine above them all.
“Blood magic?” Elba, the one with the broken arm, whispered.
The workers exchanged looks, and then the woman knelt beside Siobhan. “I will act as Sacrifice.”
Mr. Shoulders shook his head. “No! I will do it. You have a family, Misha. They need you alive.”
Siobhan huffed in exasperation. “One, I will only be taking a liter or two of blood. It will not kill you. Two, I need to test your compatibility with Jameson, so it’s not really up to you who will help him. The wrong person’s blood will kill him just as surely as none at all.”
Misha looked at Jameson, then to Siobhan. “How will you tell?”
Siobhan grimaced. She vaguely remembered her grandfather talking about the symptoms, but she didn’t remember how exactly the Blood Empire kept from killing their subjects. However, the symptoms were memorable enough. Hopefully, it wasn’t too complicated. “I will mix the blood. A poor reaction will be visible.” She rubbed the glass pane still stuck to her left hand on her clothes, cleaning its surface of the sphere-spinning spell array. “Grab a shard of glass from the windows, all of you. Cut your finger and place a drop on the glass here.”
They shared looks with each other, hesitating, and a couple turned to Dryden for assurance, though she didn’t know why they found a man wearing a featureless mask more reassuring than a perfectly normal young woman with skill in magic. Maybe they had some inkling that he was the leader of the Verdant Stags.
“Now!” she snapped. “Unless you’re willing to let Jameson die.”
“Do as she says,” Dryden ordered.
“It’s blood magic,” Elba muttered stubbornly.
“Your blood will replenish itself! A little weakness, for a month at most, and you save his life. Is that not a fair trade?!” Siobhan said, her voice growing increasingly loud.
The woman moved first, and the others followed after her.
Siobhan dipped her finger in Jameson’s blood and dabbed drops about the glass pane. When the others returned, she instructed them to add the drop of their own blood to his, and remember which was theirs. While she waited for a reaction to occur, she moved a few feet away and used her other hand to draw a new Circle on the ground, this one completely from her own imagination. ‘If only I had studied human anatomy in greater detail,’ she lamented. ‘How exactly am I supposed to get the blood from the donor into Jameson?’
She looked up at the pale, panting man. ‘Well, he already has a line to his bloodstream open, though obviously it only nicked the artery there, or he would already be dead. Perhaps I can just use the opening provided.’
When the spell array she hoped to use to siphon blood from the donor into Jameson was completed, she scowled down at the pane stuck to her left hand. None of the drops of blood was displaying any notable reaction. She ran a finger through one. ‘It’s coagulating. They’re all coagulating.’
She almost screamed in frustration. ‘Like this, any blood I put into him will be a gamble with his life. Perhaps…a divination?’ She almost laughed in despair. She had no skill in even simple divination like dousing for water. For something like this, which she understood so poorly, the chances of success were low. She was as likely to get a false answer as none at all.
‘It’s little better than tossing a coin, but it could increase my likelihood of choosing correctly by a few percentage points. Is it worth it to waste a couple minutes for such meager results, with him in such a dire state? He could die while I’m hesitating. But beyond even the danger of giving him the wrong type, I don’t know how to stop coagulation. Any blood is going to react when it touches the air. Why didn’t I think of that in the first place? The Blood Empire must have had some way to handle that, but I…I don’t know how. Is it possible to remove the air from an area entirely? Or maybe I could press someone’s wrist against his neck and keep the blood from meeting air that way?’
“Do you have wounded? We’re ready to transport them,” Katerin called from outside, her head still turned to watch for danger on the street.
Siobhan gasped in relief. ‘I’m not the only one who came to help.’ Standing, she yelled back, “Do you have any healing potions?”
One of the other Stag enforcers responded in Katerin’s place. “Aye! Revivifier, blood clotter, and wound cleanser. Liquid stone if any bones need stabilization for travel.” He hesitated, walking closer. “I also have an elixir of peace,” he said in a softer voice.
Sometimes, the elixir of peace was given to those who were going to die from their wounds, to take away pain and anxiety as they left the mortal world. Of course, it was also addictive, and often abused for the sense of total safety and security it gave.
Siobhan waved impatiently at the man. “Well, what are you waiting for? Bring them over here, quickly!” She turned to the other workers. “Perhaps giving blood will not be necessary after all.” She tried to keep the relief and profound uncertainty from her tone.
They poured the wound cleanser and blood clotter on Jameson’s neck, though the wound wasn’t bleeding as strongly as it had been at first, which she knew was a bad sign. The potion helped some, but didn’t stop the bleeding entirely. She nodded for him to be given a few drops of the elixir of peace as well. Addiction was the least of her worries.
After a small moment of hesitation, she also gave him the entire second dose of the revivifying potion, which she knew was too much, but something had to be done. The side effects were less severe than immediate death. “Alright. Lay him out here, in the middle,” she said, pointing to the healing spell array she’d drawn earlier. “Be careful not to smudge the chalk. The Circle must remain unbroken.”
The cut ran across the base of Jameson’s neck, crossing his collarbone on one side and ending at the top of his shoulder. It was deep enough to go past the skin, exposing bone, tendon, and muscle.
Once again using her lantern, in addition to any warmth that passed through the Circle on the wind, she cast the healing spell. Under her Will the wound began to knit back together, the damaged side of his neck mimicking the healthy one.
Jameson jerked, reaching up to scrabble at his neck. Apparently, they hadn’t given him quite enough elixir of peace to overwhelm his instinctive fear of feeling his flesh writhe on its own.
“Put your hands down!” Siobhan barked, the effort of speaking around her focus on the spell causing the Circle’s faint glow to pulse brighter as she lost some of her grip on the energy.
“It’s alright, Richie,” Misha said. “She’s healing you. Stay calm, just breathe, it’ll be over soon. We’re here with you. You’re safe.” The woman continued a constant stream of comforting words, calming Jameson, and Siobhan returned her attention fully to the spell.
She was almost finished, cold fingers of strain running up and down her spine and causing her body to tremble faintly, when shouting and flashes of light once again came from down the street.
“Coppers,” Dryden said, tension in his voice. “Wrap this up, if you can. We’ll take him to the healer for the rest.”
The wound wasn’t completely healed, but Jameson was no longer leaking blood. She dropped the spell, careful to avoid backlash from the energy she had been channeling. Her lantern flame had been sucked dead, and ice crystals formed in the air as it passed through the Circle from which she’d been drawing warmth, visibly outlining its barriers and deepening the chill around them.
“He’ll need to be carried,” she said. “We must hurry. He’s still much too low on blood. Is there a back way out?”
“The roof fell in. The back way is blocked,” Elba said, cradling his broken arm to his chest.
Siobhan lifted her head over the makeshift barrier of boxes and dirt bags to watch the coppers approach.
Katerin and the reinforcements she had gathered were still outside, though a couple of them had carried away the man with a leg injury. Now, they were gathering behind the liquid stone barrier and pressing themselves against the edges of the alley on either side of the street, wands drawn.
Dryden swore. “They’ll be arrested.”
Siobhan felt the urge to stand tall and straight in response to the stress, but ducked down behind the barrier again instead. “We need to get out of here as quickly as possible so they can run away too.”
He shook his head. “The coppers are well-outfitted, and won’t be as easy to deal with as the Morrows. Going out the front will just get us arrested with the others.”
Siobhan crouched with her hands against the floor, the glass pane stuck to her left palm creaking under the pressure. “Out the side windows, then, and we run out the back alleys?”
At the front of the building, spells had begun to fly back and forth, and even in the few seconds that had passed, one of the Verdant Stag members had already fallen, hit by a red spell Siobhan thought—hoped—was only a stunner.
“A distraction would be useful,” she said, even as the thought formed in her mind. “Another distraction, I mean. Something that could draw the coppers’ attention away from all of us entirely.”
“I am open to ideas,” Dryden said dryly, using a foot to break apart a large wooden crate. He turned to a couple of the others and explained that he had a horse tied up a couple blocks to the north. If they could get to it, it would carry Jameson faster than they could themselves. “Her name is Elmira. Explain the situation to her, and tell her that I asked her to help,” he said. “She’ll do as you say if you ask nicely.”
Once again, Siobhan ran through her options. ‘What do I have, and how can I use it to get us out of here?’ She had gold hidden in her clothes, but she doubted it would be enough to bribe the whole team of coppers into ignoring something this large. She had Dryden’s emergency response team, but they were no match for the coppers, and would provide maybe a minute or two more of protection, at most.
She had a couple of the experimental alchemy products Dryden had requested. ‘Perhaps the philtre of darkness? It might serve as a shield, while I set up a more useful distraction. Or maybe the philtre of stench.’ She realized the Morrows’ spell barrier probably wouldn’t have blocked the physical particles of the philtre of stench, and the philtre of darkness could have surrounded their barrier and blocked their sight.
‘If I’d thought of it, it could have entirely tipped the balance of the fight,’ she realized with shame.
However, the coppers had an option for individual shields spelled into their wands. More useful, maneuverable, and expensive than the barrier artifact the Morrows had used. But individual shield spells had their downsides, too, especially when most of the coppers didn’t even have one raised in favor of shooting offensive spells.
‘If they were smart, they would be moving in teams, with one shielding and the other attacking,’ she thought.
She wiped the remnants of blood off the edge of the glass pane onto Jameson’s pants while the others worked to lift him onto the wooden square Dryden had created from the broken crate. “I’m going to release a philtre of darkness. As soon as I do that, start moving Jameson. Get out of the building and far away. Scatter, actually. That will make it harder for them to find you.”
“What about you?” Dryden said, kneeling beside her.
“Once the darkness spreads, I’m going to throw Speer’s philtre of stench at them.”
He nodded. “It should be enough to temporarily incapacitate them if they don’t have wards against it, and might even throw off the scent hounds, if they bring them to track us.”
Siobhan hadn’t even considered the possibility of being tracked by scent, and was doubly glad she had decided to experiment with the disgusting philtre. “Hopefully my distraction gives the response team time to get away. I’ll follow as soon as I can.”
Dryden squeezed her shoulder. “I’ll stay with you. You may need help to escape, if they notice you. My wand still has a charge left.”
‘You would be smarter to simply leave the wand with me,’ she thought, but didn’t argue with him. She was frightened. He had helped her escape the coppers before. Perhaps she would need his help again. Instead, she nodded silently, and brought the philtre of darkness, which looked like roiling ink in a bottle, out of her bag. “Everyone take a look around, make sure you’re ready to move and know where to go.” Following her own advice, she took the philtre of stench out and held it between her teeth, eyeing the distance to the front wall.
Dryden grabbed onto the back of her cloak.
She dashed the vial of Darkness against the ground, shattering the glass.
Black clouds exploded outward.
She stood up, stepped sideways away from the others and the barrier of dirt bags and crates they had set up, and walked toward the front of the building, feeling the faint tug on her cloak that meant Dryden was following behind her, equally blind.
The philtre of darkness had taken her ninety minutes to create merely a half-dozen vials, and the impenetrably black clouds would disappear within only a minute, but she could never have cast this as an active spell, not with enough volume to obscure the inside of the warehouse and spill out into the street.
The darkness was not simply black smoke, obscuring vision and allowing any bright lights within it to refract off tiny particles in the air. No, this bottled spell was a cloud of actual darkness, as if each cumulous undulation cast an infinite number of shadows from every direction. Trying to see within its effects required magic specifically created to counteract it.
She kept walking till she hit the wall, despite the instinctual desire to stop early for fear of running into something. The windows, now broken, had stretched in a single row of empty space across the walls, so she didn’t have to search one out. She simply drew back her arm and threw.
She didn’t hear the vial break, but she heard the response it brought as the coppers shouted, then began to cough and gag.
“Stags, retreat and escape!” Dryden called.
Siobhan heard cursing, and the wind brought a short burst of footsteps to her ears, but she couldn’t tell who they came from, or even where.
She crouched down low to the ground as she made her way toward the west side of the warehouse and away from the coppers, not wanting to make an easier target of herself than necessary. ‘It would be the height of irony to be hit by a stray spell at this point.’ She crawled through the window, keeping her hands and any uncovered skin away from the sill as much as possible to avoid being nicked by any shards of glass.
Her eyes, wide open, caught faint light as she reached the edge of the philtre’s effects. Her knees were shaking, and she felt faintly nauseated. ‘This is one of the stupidest things I have ever done.’ A couple more steps brought her mostly out of the alchemical cloud. She poked her head slowly around the edge of the building, looking up the street toward where she had last seen the coppers. She had to make sure Katerin and the others were able to get away alright.
It seemed a couple of the reinforcement team had already retreated with their unconscious or injured members, but the others remained, fighting against the coppers while backing down the street, probably planning to scatter and run once they reached the corner.
The coppers were still affected by Speer’s philtre of stench, but not as much as Siobhan had hoped. All of them were coughing and gagging, but only a couple were on their hands and knees, retching onto the cobblestone.
The remainder were well enough to follow the Verdant Stag’s people down the street, shooting spells as they went. ‘The wind probably blew a lot of the philtre away.’ Unlike the darkness, which was magical and not in danger of being dispersed by anything but counter-magic, stench was largely reliant on physical particles for its effect.
She quickly rubbed out the glyphs on her portable glass spell array, leaving the actual Circle itself intact, and lifted it in front of her face, both hands pressed together in a praying position at its center, one on either side of the glass. Her Conduit dug into her right palm, scratching against the pane. “Life’s breath, shadow mine. In darkness we were born. In darkness do we feast. Devour, and arise.”
As it had done in Katerin’s office, on that first night in Gilbratha, her shadow darkened and writhed, moving without regard to the normal laws of light and darkness.
She continued to cycle deep breaths through the Circle, concentrating with all her might as her shadow stretched into the street till most of it stood between Dryden’s response team and the coppers.
Then, it broke from the ground and stood.
It was tall, a tattered cloak of darkness fluttering slowly, completely ignoring the whipping of the storm winds in favor of calm, liquid movement, like smoke off a pinched candle wick.
Its head was dominated almost entirely by a large beak, its other features obscured in the shadows that formed it.
The shadow-familiar spell was entirely harmless, but she hoped that they wouldn’t recognize such an esoteric spell in the confusion of battle. All she needed to do was make them hesitate enough that the Stag members could escape.
Spindly, clawed arms broke away from its sides, and it grew, towering over the coppers.
The response team recognized their opening, or were perhaps simply frightened by Siobhan’s shadow, and broke, running away under the cover of its form.
The coppers shot a few spells at it, but Siobhan clamped down on her Will, and it didn’t disperse or lighten in color. Instead, night-black ravens burst out of its sides as the spells passed through it, flying into the shadows of the alley as if to circle around to attack the coppers from behind.
Truly creating multiple different shadows with this spell was impossible. The ravens were connected to the main form by thread-thin strings of shadow, hopefully unnoticeable, and simply dispersed once they stretched too far from the main form. If she’d done it correctly, it would look like they melted into the shadows.
The coppers screamed, some firing again at the illusionary form and some firing spells erratically into the mundane shadows around them. One twisted, tripped on a cobblestone, and fell to the ground. Instead of standing he began to crawl away, his face a rictus of horror and tears. Two others broke and ran, still firing uselessly into the shadows of the alleys and doorways they passed.
Siobhan lasted only a handful of seconds more before losing control of the spell. She stumbled, half falling into the street, and her shadow snapped back into place beneath her body.
Dryden cursed, reaching down and wrapping one of her arms around his shoulders. He pulled her back away from the street, but not before one of the coppers caught sight of her, shouting “Sorceress!”
The copper shot a spell toward the alley, and it barely missed her, splashing against the ground behind them.
Regaining her footing, Siobhan turned to run deeper into the alley.
Something moved on the ground beside her, but by the time she turned to look, it was already too late. There were tentacles growing from the stone where the spell had impacted, and they snapped out and grabbed her.
Her arrested momentum tore her free of Dryden’s grip and sent her tumbling straight into the ground. She instinctively caught herself with her hands, but had forgotten the pane of glass still stuck to her left palm. It shattered against the cobblestone, sharp shards of glass biting into the flesh of her palm.
Dryden stumbled, turned, and reached for her again, grabbing her by her arms and heaving.
Her back popped in staccato as the bubbles between her spine were released, and she felt like her ankles might break, but she slipped free from the grasping tentacles and scrambled to her feet again without issue. Cradling her sliced palm to her chest and her Conduit in her other fist, she followed Dryden as they raced into the night.
12/24/20 Author Note—Please Read!:
I just got the completed first novel in this series back from my awesome line editor. There have been some changes made here and there. Mostly prose, but also some minor alterations to the story. “A Conjuring of Ravens,” book 1 in the Practical Guide to Sorcery Series, is going to be published around the end of January. (No preorder links yet.)
If any of you are interested in reading a pre-release version of this book (Chapters 1-37, plus a prologue) before it’s officially available, I am looking to put together a Typo Hunting Team. This story has already been gone over several times, but inevitably things slip through the cracks, or mistakes are created while editing or tweaking other things. I want to get more sharp eyeballs on it.
Those of you who are interested can sign up here: https://landing.mailerlite.com/webforms/landing/a1y2t4
As a thank you, people who join the team and complete the assignment will be getting a paperback copy of the published book, a signed bookplate sticker (it goes in the front of your book just like an author signature), and a $20 e-gift card to the bookstore of your choice.