Month 11, Day 28, Saturday 8:00 p.m.
Siobhan had returned downstairs and gone to sleep once again while Liza and Oliver were gone. She felt more normal when she awoke from a nightmare, though the headache and foggy thoughts still lingered. When the other two returned, she was surprised to see Oliver holding the belongings she had stashed in the alley.
“We swung around on the way back to grab them,” he explained.
She smiled in thanks. “I appreciate it. I was a little worried. I’m not sure how well they were hidden.” She looked at the box of components in Liza’s arms with interest. She was excited to watch Liza cast the warding spell, and perhaps to pick up a bit more of how the Lino-Wharton messenger spell worked.
Liza brought out a slender knife and a vial. “I’ll need some of your blood.”
“My blood?” Siobhan frowned.
She snorted at Siobhan’s hesitation. “There have been two attempts to find you past my wards already. But if you cannot trust me to take your blood, you definitely cannot trust me to make this warding artifact for you.” When Siobhan relented, Liza poked her in the arm and gathered a vial. Instead of beginning to set up the spell, Liza simply deposited the vial, along with her earlier purchases, in the room below where she’d previously cast the Lino-Wharton, then announced she was going to sleep.
Siobhan opened her mouth to protest, but remembered the bags under Liza’s eyes. The woman had been tired when they arrived, and had then spent most of the day in strenuous mental exercise. Even she would be risking Will-strain to cast such a powerful spell without being fully rested. Siobhan closed her mouth and simply nodded.
Before retiring, Liza warned Siobhan not to wander, and to go downstairs immediately if her medallion gave signs that any attempts to scry her were breaking through the wards on the upper level.
“I’m going to return home,” Oliver said. “I have business to attend to, and I would like to sleep in my own bed tonight. Will you be alright here?”
“Of course. You have your bracelet. I’ll set it off if anything horrible happens.”
As he turned to the door, he frowned. “I hope they returned my horse,” he muttered.
His words reminded Siobhan of a question she had meant to ask. “Do you know if everyone is alright? Was anyone arrested?”
His step faltered, and he hesitated a little too long in replying. “No one was arrested.”
Her eyes narrowed. “But something went wrong.”
He rubbed his face and muttered, “I am in poor form today,” before turning back to her. “They managed to get Jameson to the healer, but he didn’t survive the night.”
Siobhan reached for the nearest chair and sat down heavily. “What happened? Was it because of me?”
His words began low and a little hesitant, but grew more commanding as he spoke. “His heart gave out. I don’t know why.”
She bit her lip. “Blood loss?” Her voice was almost a whisper.
“Perhaps. I don’t know what Nidson did to combat the blood loss.”
“There are potions to boost blood regeneration, but they would have taken too long for Jameson, and over-strained his body,” she muttered. “Humphries’ adapting solution could have been spelled directly into his heart to replenish the fluid in his veins, but if the healer didn’t have any on hand…”
Oliver interrupted her musings. “This time you really must not blame yourself. Needing to heal that type of injury is something you couldn’t have anticipated. Not something you could reasonably have been expected to learn how to do ahead of time. Jameson would surely have died without you, so don’t pretend that you killed him when the truth is you simply couldn’t save him.”
She straightened her spine away from the back of the chair and nodded stiffly. ‘His words ring of truth, but that does not ease my feeling of responsibility. I was called on to save, and I did not.’
“Jameson’s family will be taken care of,” he said, somewhat awkward for once.
“That’s good,” she said dully. “I—I think I will go back to sleep.”
The muscles in his jaw clenched and released, but he said only, “Alright.”
She stood and shuffled back down the stairs. Above, the door to the mundane part of Liza’s house opened and then closed again.
Siobhan had been feeling more energetic, but the news of Jameson’s death pressed a weariness into her. It was too heavy to bear in her current state. She resisted the urge to use her second Conduit, the older, poorer quality one she had used as a child, to cast a dreamless sleep spell. Pushing too hard before her Will had fully recovered would only set her back further. Besides, she was used to the nightmares. ‘And do I not deserve them?’
The next day, the sound of Liza’s voice softly chanting and the charged feel of the air drew Siobhan down the hallway to the room where Liza was casting a spell.
The woman stood in the center of a complicated spell array containing a pentagon, hexagram, and heptagram, as well as dozens of other glyphs and numerological symbols interspersed with tiny, complicated written instructions. She must have spent hours designing and transcribing the spell array. ‘Did she even sleep?’
A beast core, glowing the green of a new sprig of grass, powered the spell, along with over a dozen components. Liza held sticks of incense in each hand, and was chanting and waving them through the air in a carefully coordinated motion that left trails of smoke that looked almost like glyphs.
Light pulsed through the lines drawn on the floor in wax and blood, like the heartbeat of a mammoth animal. She recognized some of the components, like the silver mirror, five knots of wood, five finger bones, and the dead fox with large black beans where its eyes used to be and in its mouth.
Others were more exotic, like the things Liza was using to represent and draw power from the five Elemental Planes. There was a salamander made of fire, what seemed to be a living bubble with dozens of waving tentacles sprouting from it at every angle, a large pill millipede made of dirt, a creature that she couldn’t quite make out because it was transparent and flying quickly about the confines of its component Circle, and a white fuzzy moth whose glow made Siobhan’s eyes tear up despite not being that bright.
Other things Siobhan had no reference for at all, like the vial of liquid that seemed to be still moving within the glass, not swirling about and confined, but rushing by, as if the vial was not a container at all but a window into a little portion of river. Or the straw doll cloaked in what looked to be kreidae spider silk, the cloth almost entirely invisible, with a stark dot of blood drawn on its head instead of a face.
Siobhan stayed outside the room and watched as the spell-casting went on and on. After a few minutes, the knots of wood and finger bones combined, leaving five small, textured disks behind. Then the rest of the components began to disintegrate, Liza chanting faster and faster and drawing her smoke runes ever more quickly.
Eventually, only the beast core and the life forms from the Elemental Planes were left. Liza’s voice was hoarse by then, but she never stopped, even as her voice cracked and her words turned to rasps. The creatures seemed to be distressed by the spell, moving faster and probing at the edges of the Circles containing them, but there was no escape. Each melded with one of the bone-and-wood disks and disappeared.
Liza slowed, then, but still did not stop for several more minutes.
It was only when the heaviness lifted from the air that Siobhan realized her heart was pounding as if she had been sprinting, and her fingers trembled by her side. Magic had a terrible and glorious beauty. ‘I can’t imagine anything better, more worthwhile, in the stars above or planes beneath.’
Liza was panting heavily as she turned to Siobhan. She didn’t seem surprised by her presence, though she hadn’t acknowledged Siobhan in the least while casting. “Pick up the artifacts and bring them upstairs. I’m going to get a cuppa.”
Siobhan complied. The disks were thinner than she had expected, one solid piece despite the wood and bone being marbled together. She imagined she could feel the warmth of power within them.
Upstairs, Liza emerged from her side of the house with a steaming cup of tea, then rummaged in one of her cabinets till she found a device that consisted of a series of glass balls and lenses at adjustable distances from each other. She set it on the table, turned on a light crystal, and took the disks from Siobhan.
With tools the size of needles, she began to carve on the surface of the disks, creating a spell array that was simpler than the one she had used to cast the spell in the first place, but still so complicated it barely fit.
Knowing that she would need to help Liza cast the messenger spell soon, Siobhan moved to the couch and closed her eyes, slowly bringing her Will to bear, not on a spell but on the rhythms and warmth of her own body. She was gentle, pulling and prodding at her control to make sure there were no points of serious pain or strain remaining.
Her head began to throb again, but the pain was dull, and her thoughts were not as slow as they had been when her Conduit first broke. As long as she didn’t bring the full force of her Will to bear, joining a mnemonic link to Liza’s tracking spell shouldn’t be difficult. In fact, it might even be easier, since she had grown more powerful since the last time. If not for the possibility that they had moved her father since her previous contact with him, they wouldn’t have needed to add a tracking function to the messenger at all.
It took Liza a couple of hours to finish all five of the ward disks. When she did, she sat back and rubbed at her tired eyes, then got another cup of tea. Finally, she turned to Siobhan.. “I hope you are not afraid of a little pain,” she said with an ominous gleam in her eyes. “It’s time to insert these beneath your skin.”
Siobhan eyed the disks, glad that Liza hadn’t made them larger. “I’m ready. Where will we put them?”
“On your back, I think.”
“What happens if I fall, or something hits me?”
“They won’t break, don’t worry.”
Siobhan took off her shirt and turned her back to Liza, who held a small athame in her hand. She balled up her shirt and shoved part of it into her mouth, biting down.
“Don’t move,” Liza warned, and began to cut.
Siobhan gasped and couldn’t help screaming a little through the cloth in her mouth. The cut was painful, but the feeling of something foreign sliding underneath her skin was worse, not only painful but also unnerving.
Liza began to speak, perhaps to distract Siobhan from the pain. “I call it a planar diversion ward. The artifact was created with your blood, and should settle into your body’s ecosystem without trouble, so we don’t need to worry about attempted rejection. Like your grandfather’s ward, this will activate automatically when any sort of divination is attempted toward you. It will work unaided against weaker spells, but will require your guidance and Will to augment it against more determined attempts. With the sheer efficiency of the design and its connection to the five Elemental Planes, you should be able to stymie attempts by those magnitudes more powerful than you, as long as your Will is clear, sound, and forceful.”
Liza repeated the process of inserting the disks four more times, one for each corner of the pentagram, the top disk sliding under the skin at the base of Siobhan’s neck. When she was finished, she wiped up the blood with a rag and used a couple of salves that left the slices in her back nothing more than thin scars next to slightly firmer places on her skin.
Then, she drew a final spell array on Siobhan’s back and made her lay down while she cast an augmented healing spell, reattaching the flow of blood through the disks. “Your blood will act as Sacrifice, so no need to prepare anything else. If all goes well, even with heavy use the spells within should last for a few decades,” she said with pride. “It is a masterwork.”
Siobhan shuddered and moved around to test the feel of the new additions to her back. They still hurt, and she imagined they would for a while, until her body grew used to them.
“Let us test it,” Liza said, taking a crystal ball off a shelf and heading back downstairs.
Siobhan helped her to clean up the spell array on the floor of the casting room, and then Liza spent a couple of minutes drawing the array for a rudimentary scrying spell. She dropped the dirty, bloody rag in the component Circle that called for a tracking link, the beast core from the earlier spell in the powering section, and the crystal ball in the center. “You will feel the pressure when I attempt to scry you. The artifact is connected to your body, so all you need to trigger it is your Will and a Conduit.”
The only other artifact Siobhan had ever heard of that could be controlled with Will alone was the transmutation amulet that hung around her neck, though it didn’t even have any components that she could tell. ‘Does that mean its creator was at least a Grandmaster of artificery? Perhaps they were even an Archmage.’ The thought sparked a feeling she couldn’t quite label.
“Remember, this ward is not meant to directly oppose a scrying spell. It turns aside, deflects, and hides you instead, which is what will allow a sorcerer as weak as you to successfully overcome the much stronger casters the coppers can supply. You should be careful of using it when people in your immediate vicinity are already focused on you, as some of the effects may spill over into your physical surroundings. People will be less likely to notice you and find it harder to focus on you while it is active, and this could lead to suspicion among the observant.” With that, she took out her Conduit and began to cast.
Siobhan felt the pressure of Liza’s attention immediately, as if a giant eyeball with thousands of tentacles hung in the air above her, the tentacles closing in. She held the small, cloudy Conduit that she hadn’t used since she was a child and pushed her Will into the artifact on her back. She was careful not to push too hard, both because she wasn’t fully healed from the Will-strain, and because this Conduit couldn’t channel more than a hundred thaums. She sincerely did not want to experience the backlash of a failed Conduit, again.
She felt the effects of the ward take hold. The mental sensation of pushing aside notice was difficult to describe, except that she felt like one of the Fey, who were supposedly so agile they could dance between the raindrops without ever being hit. The five spots on her back stung as if being poked by a few dozen needles, repeatedly.
Liza dropped the spell, tossing the bloody rag into the brazier in the corner and setting it alight. “It works. I was using at least eight hundred thaums there, and I still couldn’t bring your image or location into clarity, and it had nothing to do with the wards around my house.”
Siobhan grinned, reaching a hand back to rub at the disks under her skin, which felt a little cool for a few seconds after Liza stopped casting. She ran up the stairs again to examine her back in the large silver mirror against one of the walls. The flesh around the disks had already regained most of its color by the time she reached it. “Let’s try another type of divination!” she called back down the stairs as Liza followed at a slower pace.
Liza raised her eyebrows. “Sure. If you’d like to pay me for additional work.”
Siobhan clamped her mouth shut immediately and put her shirt back on, but she couldn’t help the giddy feeling inside or the upward twitch of her lips. This was magic, real magic, and it belonged to her. “Can I activate it without a divination attempt to deflect?” She tried it before Liza could answer, deflating a little when it didn’t work.
“No,” The woman confirmed, then muttered something that sounded like, “greedy and unappreciative of my genius.”
‘I won’t be able to use it to sneak around without being noticed, then. Well, not unless I could somehow purposefully trigger a scrying attempt…’ She would have to test what types of minor divination were recognized by the ward, and then see if there was some way to cast them into a potion or simple artifact of her own. Still, her biggest priority had been achieved.
The coppers would not have her.
“This is wonderful, Liza. Thank you.” She pushed her sincerity into her voice. “I can’t wait till I’m as knowledgeable and powerful as you.”
Liza snorted. “I wouldn’t hold my breath until then, child,” she said, but she covered her small smile with her teacup.
Want to get an email with links as soon as a new website chapter comes out, and/or get monthly Inner Circle news about my writing? Sign up here: https://landing.mailerlite.com/webforms/landing/q4b8d8