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Chapter 33 – Temporary Inversion of Income vs. Expense

Siobhan

Month 11, Day 28, Saturday 8:00 a.m.

Siobhan jerked her legs away from her chest, scrabbling to get her hand past her vest and shirt to whatever was causing the pain. She yanked out the straps around her neck, the warded medallion and the transmutation amulet dangling from her clenched fist.

The medallion was covered in frost.

It took her a few seconds to comprehend what that meant, her mind still fogged by stress and sleep. Once she did, she snapped the leather cord keeping the medallion attached to her and tossed the frosted disk into the embers of the fireplace. “Shit! Shit, shit, shit!” she cried unthinkingly, causing Oliver to jerk to wakefulness.

“What? What is it?” he said, snapping upright and looking around.

“We are being scried!” she hissed, lunging for the small box of wood beside the fireplace and tossing a couple pieces onto the embers. She grabbed a lump of charcoal from the edge of the fire, heedless of the risk of burning her fingers, and drew a large Circle around the hearth and the chimney.

She stepped back to avoid the reach of the sphere and almost dropped her Conduit as she fumbled it out of a vest pocket. She had cast the spark-shooting spell plenty of times during her life, but without proper, easily ignited kindling, and in such a panic, her first attempt failed to reignite the flames.

Siobhan paused, took a deep breath, and released it slowly, forcing the full pressure of her Will to bend the world—specifically, to ignite the piece of wood at the center of the Circle. A large, bright spark settled at the point where her eyes were focused, and with an effort that sent a spike of pain through her head, the wood caught fire. Rather than simply sit back and let the flame spread naturally, she kept pushing with her Will, pulling at the edges of the heat, forcing the fire to flare up as quickly as possible.

Beside her, Oliver tossed something into the fireplace, and the flames roared up greedily.

The medallion sucked at the warmth of the now blazing fire.

“Whiskey,” Oliver explained, tucking the flask back into a pocket.

“Good idea.” She dug in her pack, pulling out a couple jars, some cotton, a few pieces of paper, and a wrapped ball of beeswax. She tossed everything but the jars into the fire, then dug out the salves from the jars and flicked that in too. The flames consumed and burned brighter, a few licking up with strange colors, and she squinted into them to see the medallion.

“Talk to me,” Oliver said. “Do we need to run?”

“Not yet. The medallion contains a protective spell, a strong one. Anti-scrying is included. We’re safe as long as it has enough heat to stay charged. But it is bad. Very bad.” She could hear a faint sound from the metal, as if it was groaning in pain. Whoever was on the other end of the scrying spell was pouring an excessive amount of power into it. They had to be a Master at least, or maybe a group of Journeymen casters.

With a trembling breath, she drew the glyph for “heat” on the hearth in front of her, inside the Circle, then pressed her Conduit between both hands and began to cast, pulling tongues of flame off the fire and feeding them to the medallion in bright splashes. She began to shiver, not from cold, but from the waves of pain running from her head down her spine, sending involuntary spasms through her muscles.

The medallion continued to absorb the heat, and so she ignored the strain and continued to feed it. She heard Oliver calling her name in alarm, but couldn’t spare the concentration to respond in any way.

Finally, the medallion stopped absorbing the heat she channeled to it.

Very carefully, she released the energy and detached her Will from the spell. Just as she was releasing it, the magic under her control shuddered, and she was splashed with a small explosion of still-burning embers and ash from the fireplace.

Oliver cursed, using his damp quilt to pat her down and sweep away the embers.

She pulled her hands apart numbly, ignoring the deep indentations her Conduit had made in her skin.

The crystal crumbled apart, falling to her lap in pieces.

That happened when too much power was channeled through a sub-par Conduit.

None of the pieces were big enough to be useful for spellcasting anymore, but she still gathered them up with trembling fingers and put them in one of her pockets. ‘Thank the stars above it didn’t break until the last moment.

She’d heard more than one story about a Conduit shattering while someone was in the middle of channeling magic. The kindest outcome was Will-strain. Explosions were common, as the power contained within the Circle escaped. One woman had one of her legs switched with her donkey’s. A man had tried to keep casting to avoid that, and ended up channeling the magic through his body. The euphoria was too much for him, and though he lived, slowly progressing into dangerous madness that forced her grandfather to kill him, Siobhan had always thought it would have been a mercy if he’d died immediately.

“It’s over, I think. They didn’t find us,” she whispered, shivering. “But this means they have a piece of me. But how, how would they get—” She closed her mouth slowly, then looked down at her palm and the spiderweb of scars across its surface. “It started raining,” she murmured. “But they must have picked up the glass before that. They have my blood.” Feeling dizzy, she let herself fall back to sit on the floor.

Oliver’s face was pale. “They will keep trying, again and again.”

“The wards on the medallion won’t hold out.” She stood with a wobble and did not shake off Oliver’s concerned hand on her arm as she might have otherwise. She pulled her hair back from her face, combing it roughly with her fingers and then pulling on her cloak and tucking it under the hood. “Do you know where they might keep the evidence? Is it possible we could get it back, or…destroy it?”

He rubbed his hand down his face. “I assume they keep evidence at Harrow Hill, but I have no idea where specifically, and I don’t know how we would go about accessing it.”

She shook her head, biting down on her thumbnail.

Stirring from the bedroom announced that Mrs. Branwen or one of her children had woken, probably because of the ruckus the two of them were creating.

Siobhan crouched down uncomfortably close to the fire, reaching for the iron poker and digging out her medallion. It fell onto the stone of the hearth. She waved her hand over it, gauging the heat radiating off the metal for a few seconds. It stayed warm, indicating the scrying attempt had definitely ended, so she wrapped the edge of her cloak around her hand and picked it up. One of the tiny glyphs carved into its surface was smeared, probably from a combination of the spillover heat and channeling too much power, almost unrecognizable. Artifacts could be recharged, if you knew the right spell—which she didn’t—but it would be impossible to do so with damage to the spell array. At least the other protective spells woven into the metal disk were still functional. She pressed her lips together, then pocketed the medallion. “The next time they try that, the ward is going to fail, and they are going to find me.”

“How long do we have? Your medallion cannot be the only answer. We can get another one. Liza, she could cast the spell.”

Mrs. Branwen opened the door and stuck her head out. As soon as her eyes landed on the charcoal Circle around her fireplace, she slipped out, shutting the door to the bedroom behind her with a stern warning to her children to stay put.

Siobhan grimaced. “I’m not sure. Liza may be skilled, but this medallion was created by my grandfather. He was more powerful by far. Liza could protect me if she was with me to cast the spell, but if Seb—” She glanced at Mrs. Branwen. “If he simply disappears from school, that’s suspicious too, right?” Staying with Liza would destroy her ability to attend the University. There had to be another way. “Still, this medallion has multiple protections built into it, and each one is necessarily weaker for the versatility. Perhaps she could help with a spell specifically to protect against scrying. Her house is—”

She stopped and took a couple shuddering breaths, focusing her mind as if she was casting a spell. Her body was still, her mind the opposite. Crises always seemed to make her smarter, quicker. “We should leave,” she said, already turning toward the door. “You will want to erase the spell array,” she said to the woman. “Just in case.”

Mrs. Branwen had already grabbed a straw broom from the corner and started sweeping away the charcoal marks on her hearth.

Oliver followed after Siobhan, but stopped to tell the woman, “I don’t expect anyone to come knocking, but if they do, you can count on the Stag.” He closed the door gently behind him.

Siobhan turned the corner into a small alley and pressed the dark stone of the transformation amulet against her skin beneath her clothes, sparking the change with a pulse of Will. Even that small amount of effort sent a spike of pain through her head. In a moment, she was Sebastien again. She took off the cloak Oliver had given her when he picked her up on his horse and tucked it into her bag. It wasn’t safe to walk the streets as her true self, and at this point she wasn’t technically doing anything illegal. “I have a plan.”

The sun had just begun to peek over the horizon, but most of the city had not yet stirred from their beds, so they passed through the streets unnoticed. “Liza’s house is warded,” Sebastien explained to Oliver as they walked, just barely slow enough not to seem strangely hurried. “I’m sure it will have protections against scrying. I should be safe there until we can come up with a real solution, which you were correct in saying that she might be able to help with.”

Sebastien felt too dizzy to properly tally up her remaining coin, but remembered it was barely over two hundred gold. ‘In addition to Liza’s help, I will need to obtain a replacement Conduit.’ Once, she would have considered two hundred gold enough money to do nearly anything, but since coming to Gilbratha she had become quite disillusioned.

When they neared Liza’s house, Sebastien ducked into another alley and returned to her form as Siobhan. Liza only knew the dark-haired woman, and she didn’t want to associate Sebastien with a criminal.

She let Oliver use the animated lion door-knocker, taking deep breaths to steady herself as they waited.

They hurried into the house when the door opened, and Siobhan took a sweeping glance of the street as she closed the door behind them. She saw nothing suspicious, and hoped that was because no one was watching them, and not because their possible enemy was skilled enough to evade notice.

Liza came out of the attached room already scowling, the dark bags under her eyes only seeming to deepen as her gaze swept over the two of them. “The planes-damned sun has barely risen, Oliver. What fresh hell have you brought to my doorstep today?”

Oliver looked to Siobhan, but she was slow to answer, so with a concerned frown, he spoke. “We were in an altercation last night. Part of this involved a mostly harmless skirmish with the coppers, and we believe they obtained a small amount of Siobhan’s blood. They tried to scry her.”

Liza’s face twisted angrily. “And you brought them straight to me?” Her arms fell to her sides and her fingers spread as if she meant to claw the air.

“No,” Siobhan said, shaking her head somewhat frantically as she felt the tightening of the air that signified the waking of a powerful Will. “I have—had—a warding medallion. The scrying failed, but my Conduit broke, and I need your help. The house is warded, right? I wouldn’t have come here otherwise. I just need your help to make another anti-scrying artifact, and th—” Her tongue seemed to stumble over itself, and she reached out to brace herself on the wall as the room tilted slowly.

Oliver grasped her arm. “Siobhan, are you alright?”

Liza “tched” loudly. “Will-strain. Her Conduit broke?”

Oliver nodded. “Yes. How bad is it, can you tell?”

Siobhan straightened. She’d come close to Will-strain a couple times in her life, but this time she seemed to have tipped over the edge. “Not bad, I think. I have a headache and I feel dizzy and dis…disoriented.” She paused, then continued, enunciating carefully. “But I’m not seeing or hearing anything strange, and I can remember everything that has happened since my Conduit broke until now.”

Liza waved an impatient hand at them. “Well, hurry and follow me, then. We had best get inside the stronger wards below. The girl will need rest.”

Oliver kept a hand around Siobhan’s arm as they followed, which she acknowledged the need for as the room spun, this time more violently.

“How desperately do they want to find you?” Liza asked once they were down below.

“Quite desperately, I would imagine,” Oliver said quietly.

Liza grunted, leading them past the room they had cast the messenger spell in the last time and to a door made of iron bars, like a jail cell. A quick touch of her hand to the lock opened it, and she waved to the spartan cot within.

What type of guest does she normally keep in this room, to require a door made of bars that can only be opened from the outside?’ Siobhan sat down on the cot, closing her eyes to avoid seeing the vaguely shimmering lines and glyphs covering the walls at the edges of her vision. Leaning back against the wall, she allowed her muscles to relax slightly. “My medallion uses heat to power its defenses,” she said, pulling the metal disk out of her pocket and holding it out to Liza. “I tossed it into the fire and used an impromptu spell to force heat into it, but it was still barely enough.”

Liza examined the medallion, pulling a convex lens out of a pocket and peering through it at the artifact. She was silent for a long while, then said, “Wait here,” and walked out of the room.

Oliver shoved his hands in his pockets and rocked back and forth on his heels for a moment, then with a sharp sigh sat beside Siobhan on the cot.

Siobhan thought she might have dozed off, because she closed her eyes, and when she opened them, Liza was already walking back through the door. “This is very interesting work,” she said. “Some of the most efficient energy transformation I have ever seen, as well as a surprising number of protections woven into such a small area. Who created it?”

“My grandfather,” Siobhan said.

Liza peered at her, then back to the medallion. “Well. I cannot recreate this. Not without some intensive study and perhaps taking the medallion apart. It seems the spells are literally woven through the metal, layer upon layer. The anti-scrying spell was pushed too far to simply be recharged.”

Siobhan frowned. The medallion was one of the few things she had left of her grandfather. She didn’t want Liza to dissect it like a frog. Plus, it still had a half-dozen other protections in place, all of which should still be functional. “Can you make me an artifact just for the scrying? It doesn’t need to be like the medallion, as long as it works. Something a little more powerful would be good.”

“Something more powerful than this?” Without waiting for them to respond to her incredulous question, Liza said, “Wait here,” and left once again.

This time, she was gone for longer, and Siobhan definitely dozed off while waiting. Liza returned with her arms full of various arcane books, set them on the ground, and then left again to fetch a small wooden block covered in a complicated spell array. She placed it on the ground, flattened her palm to it, and muttered something Siobhan didn’t quite catch. The block unfolded, becoming a chair and desk made out of hundreds of smaller segments.

Siobhan blinked, hoping that her mind had not sunk into hallucinations.

Liza smirked at them as she set the books on the table. “I call it the portable office. Horribly complicated, of course, but extremely convenient when you need a place to sit and work while on the go. For ninety gold, I can make you or your friends one too.”

Siobhan and Oliver shared a look, but Liza had already turned her attention to the spell books, so they were saved from answering.

Liza flipped through the books seemingly at random, taking notes and leaving small bookmarks between the pages.

Siobhan would normally have attempted to read over the woman’s shoulder, but her head had begun to pound fiercely, and she found she didn’t have the wherewithal to do anything other than lie back and breathe carefully.

She hadn’t realized that Oliver left the room until he came back carrying a tray with a kettle of tea, a jar of minty salve, and a couple slices of thick brown bread smeared with creamy butter. He poured Liza a cup of tea first, which she gave him a distracted nod of thanks for, then set the tray on the cot beside Siobhan.

She fumbled to open the jar of headache-relieving salve, then smeared it not only on her temples but across her hairline, the back of her neck, and even kneaded a bit into the muscles of her shoulders. It was powerful, and began to work almost immediately. It didn’t remove the mental fog or disorientation, but it helped to push the throbbing, nausea-inducing pain back enough that she could function past it.

When she set the jar down, Oliver pressed a cup of tea and a slice of bread into her hand. “You need to eat and get some liquid in your system, I think,” he said. When she hesitated at the thought of putting anything in her roiling stomach, he loomed over her threateningly. “If I need to, I will force it into your mouth and pinch your nose closed until you swallow.”

She scowled at him and took a sip of tea, then a nibble of the rich bread. “No need to be so dramatic,” she muttered.

Liza frowned at the sound of her voice, turning to her. “You should be asleep, girl. But since you are not…I have some ideas for a solution to your problem. What do you think about this? We could anchor the warding spell in your flesh. A tattoo or a brand would work, but I think a carving might be most effective. When active, the spell would use your blood as a component, which is doubly effective for its power and because they are using your blood to track you. I have some other ideas too, which should sharply increase the effectiveness of the ward.”

“A carving? Would this be visible?”

“Yes. Five of them, I think, one for each of the Elemental Planes…” She turned back to the books, which seemed to have multiplied atop the table.

“That won’t work,” Oliver stated. “She needs something that can be hidden, and that isn’t permanent like a scar.”

Liza raised her head and glared at him, then Siobhan. “Is this true?”

“Yes. Scars like that might raise unwanted interest.” She had no intention of removing her clothes in front of someone else at any time during her stay at the University, but allowing for such an easy method of distinguishing her identity was senseless. It could go wrong in so many ways.

Liza took a sip of tea and seemingly dismissed the two of them from her thoughts once again.

Siobhan finished two cups of tea and another slice of bread, and when she woke, she was covered by a thick, soft blanket and had a fluffy pillow under her head. She was alone in the room, and though the headache-relieving salve seemed to have used up its magic, the throbbing in her temples was bearable. Both Oliver and Liza were gone, along with the table, chair, and books.

She rose and went to the room with Liza’s magical chamber pot. She thought about exploring the lower level to see what else Liza kept in the most secure part of her secret abode, then decided it was probably too dangerous to do so without Liza’s knowledge or permission. There would likely be defenses woven into the very walls. Instead, she climbed the stairs to the upper level where Liza kept her own miniature Menagerie and the bookcases. The light coming through the windows had changed position. Siobhan judged it to be early evening.

Oliver looked up from the couch he was sprawled on, setting aside the book he had been reading. “How is your brain?”

“Better,” Siobhan said.

Liza scribbled a few more words on the huge roll of paper laid on the desk before her, then turned to Siobhan as well. “Come over here and look at this. I have designed the warding spell we will use. It is absolutely ingenious, if I do say so myself. If I cared about titles and thought I had a chance of being accepted through that bigoted, discriminatory council, I might apply for Grandmastery in the field with this.”

Siobhan walked to the table and saw that the paper was covered in spell designs and notes. It was complex and obviously powerful, and once again she rethought her opinion of this woman. ‘The next time she tries to charge more for the possibility of Will-strain, I’m not likely to believe her.’ She read the scribbled note that estimated this artifact would take over seven thousand thaums to charge with the warding spell. A Master might graduate from their seventh term at the University with a Will that could handle one to two thousand thaums, depending on their dedication, while most Apprentices, after three University terms, couldn’t do much better than three hundred. “What is it anchored to?” she asked, frowning as she read the glyph for “blood” as a multi-use Sacrifice.

“I will be creating five disks to hold the spell. We will insert them under your skin, Oliver said that would be fine. Aside from a small scar, they will be undetectable, and can be removed and replaced if you ever need the spell recharged.”

“It’s amazing,” Siobhan said honestly. She put her hand over the pocket where the shards of her Conduit rested. “Liza, there is something else I might hire you to do. That raven messenger spell, the Lino-Wharton? I was wondering if you could do that again.”

Oliver frowned. “You wish to speak to your father again?”

Siobhan shook her head. “No, but my main Conduit was shattered, and he has one that belongs to me. It was my mother’s. It that should be strong enough to last me for a long time. I want it back.”

“It’s unlikely he has it on him,” Oliver said. “He would have been searched and relieved of any magical items before being put in the cell. Your Conduit is either in an evidence box, the item holding room, or one of the guards has taken it for themselves and conveniently forgotten to note that it was in his possession when he was brought in.”

Siobhan shook her head. “I don’t think so. This Conduit is the gem in an heirloom ring. The band of the ring is an artifact that creates a Loomis anti-awareness field along with a minor chameleon effect. I think he still has it, or he would have complained about them stealing from him.”

Oliver looked to Liza. “Would they not have some way to check for an active spell?”

Liza snorted. “The ability to do a general check for an active spell doesn’t exist. People detect spells by casting a specific counter-spell or detection spell and seeing if anything happens. If people could detect magic so easily, that would mean we had at least some true understanding of magic. That is not the case, unfortunately. Harrow Hill’s wards should be able to detect a fluctuation in certain types of energy that usually signify a spell being cast or ended, but that is as close as they get. However, depending on the quality of the Conduit your father holds, it may not be cost-effective to retrieve it. Without your ability to assist my spell casting, even a short-duration messenger will cost you fifty gold. Is the Conduit worth more than that, or do you simply want it for its sentimental value?”

Siobhan pushed a few loose strands of hair away from her face. “The firstborn in my family have used it as their primary Conduit for at least a few generations. It was my mother’s. It should be able to support a sorcerer of at least Master level.”

Liza nodded appreciatively. “Well, you will want to retrieve it, then, especially with the price of celerium lately. However, this brings me to the matter of payment. Two hundred fifty gold for the anti-scrying ward, and fifty for the messenger spell.”

Siobhan stared at her in shock. Two hundred fifty gold for the scrying ward? That was enough money for a family to live on for a year. It was more than she still had left. She might have been able to afford it, just barely, if she hadn’t bought any new clothes for Sebastien. But she had.

Why did I not get the Conduit from my father when I had the chance?’ she lamented.

Siobhan swallowed painfully. “If you let me borrow a Conduit, I can help you cast the messenger spell again. And if there are any parts of creating the ward artifact that I could aid you in, I’m more than willing to do so. Can we negotiate on the price? Perhaps you could use less potent materials, or…”

Liza sighed deeply, closing the book in front of her. “I have done all this work, only to find that you cannot afford my services?”

Siobhan cursed the fog still clouding her mind. “It’s not that I cannot afford them, it is just that I cannot afford them right now, or that I cannot afford them in gold.”

“You’re broke.”

“I’m not broke. I’m merely experiencing a temporary inversion in my ratio of income versus expenses,” Siobhan shot back.

Oliver barked out a surprised laugh.

Liza glared at her for a long few seconds. “Hmph. Well, perhaps you would like to do a trade? Your little medallion, for instance. I would pay one hundred fifty gold for that. Or, if you are able to retrieve this Conduit from your father and it is as unclouded as you say, it could pay for both spells itself, and a replacement Conduit of lesser value, beyond that.”

Siobhan was silent as she suppressed her instinctive denial. ‘The ring is my birthright, but what good is a birthright if I am dead or in prison?’ The medallion had been made by her grandfather, and still had half a dozen other warding spells that were active, but he would have scoffed at her sentimentality and told her that survival was paramount, and that was the purpose of the medallion in the first place, whether it protected her from an opponent’s spell or bought her enough gold to do the same. Still, both the medallion and the ring were hers, even if her father had taken the ring to wear himself, and she didn’t want to lose them.

Oliver cleared his throat. “If you wish, Siobhan, your payment for yesterday could be given to you in gold. One hundred gold, I think, if we include a bonus for being called on without notice?”

Her stare turned to him, and he looked away.

“I cannot offer such a large bonus in the future, but…just this once,” he said. “You likely saved me the bribes I would have had to pay to get my people out of Harrow Hill.”

Siobhan felt her lip tremble and carefully steeled her face so her expression didn’t crumple with tears. ‘The Will-strain is making me volatile.’ She knew the offered payment was likely several times more than the wand-wielding magicians Oliver employed would be compensated. Though the coppers, perhaps, wouldn’t have acquired her blood if he had not asked for her aid, this was really just a continuation of the trouble that had begun before she’d even met him, trouble that almost certainly would have caught up with her already if not for his involvement.

Clenching her jaw, Siobhan avoided thinking about his kindness or her overwhelming relief until she could speak without embarrassing herself. “Yes, I would like my payment in gold this time,” she said, nodding just deeply enough to show her gratitude without making a big deal of it. Thinking about it another way, Oliver was partially responsible for both the loss of her Conduit and for the coppers obtaining her blood. If she’d stayed at the University that night, they might have eventually given up looking for her entirely. ‘In that sense, he owes me. This is nothing more than what he should do, even if technically he’s not obligated to.’ She felt a bubbling rush of irritation and resisted the urge to scowl at him. ‘If I’d been smart, I would have required compensation for injury and loss to be a provision in the blood print vow.

She swallowed down her mercurial emotions and turned to Liza. “I cannot offer you my medallion for good, but if you would like to examine it, without damaging it, I would be happy to allow you to research it for one hundred gold.”

“Twenty,” the woman shot back without hesitation.

“Once you’ve researched it, the spells can be recreated. They aren’t unique anymore, which makes the medallion less valuable. Eighty.”

“Sixty-five.”

“Deal.” Siobhan reached out her arm to shake Liza’s hand. With this, she still had some gold left over.

“Deal.” Liza accepted the handshake. “I will go get the blood print vow sheets. After we complete the vow, Oliver and I are going shopping, and you are going back to sleep.”

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