Month 12, Day 20, Sunday 6:10 p.m.
Oliver had been right. The Silk Door was safe in its sordidness, as long as Siobhan didn’t make a scene. It was the kind of safe house where neither of her identities would seem strange, but which she could reasonably still want to avoid talking about or being trailed to or from, without seeming suspicious.
Shortly before the assigned meeting time with the Nightmare Pack leader, Siobhan walked up to the gate in front of the manor address Oliver had given her.
Katerin was already casting a weak divination spell with Siobhan as the focus.
She could feel the prickling coldness of the disks under her back as her ward fought against it and the way no one seemed to notice her as she moved through the darkening streets.
Siobhan had learned her lesson with the blood-mixed ink, and instead of giving Katerin something that someone else might also be able to scry for, like a piece of her hair, Katerin was attempting to locate Siobhan’s bracelet that was a match to her own. It was close enough to attempting to locate Siobhan directly that the ward still worked to block it, though not as efficiently.
There was a guard in front of the Nightmare Pack manor. He jumped suddenly when she stopped in front of him. White-faced, he took a single look under her hood and bowed deeply. “M—My apologies, Mistress. You startled me.”
Assured that the anti-divination ward was working as intended, she simply nodded silently.
The guard hurried to open the gate for her and usher her to the front door of the manor, where a few hissed words sent another servant scurrying to fetch Lord Lynwood at top speed.
Lynwood, a dark-skinned man with many small braids and bright amber eyes, appeared shortly afterward. He, too, took one look at her and bowed deeply.
‘It’s a sign of respect, that he’s come to fetch me himself.’
“I am Lord Lynwood, the leader of this group. We call ourselves the Nightmare Pack. I place myself at your service.”
“Well met,” she murmured.
Lynwood straightened, and with a boyish, awkward hesitation she wouldn’t have expected from the wolf-in-tailored-suit Oliver had described, he held out an elbow for her to take.
She pushed the hood of her cloak back, waved off the servant who stumbled forward with an offer to take it from her, and accepted his arm. She was as tall as him, and his eyes slid off her own when they met.
“I apologize for our lack of courtesy,” he said. “We had thought…” He cleared his throat. “Well, we thought you might appear out of the shadows or come through the window.”
She carefully kept her mouth from dropping in shock, and then suppressed an amused guffaw. ‘What does he think this is, some sort of fairy tale? The rumors circulating about the Raven Queen must be absolutely outrageous.’
Oliver had warned her to speak as little as possible, especially about topics she didn’t understand, and to adhere to formality when she did speak. ‘It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt,’ she quoted mentally. So she simply said, “That would have been rude,” with the barest hint of a smile.
“Right.” Lynwood nodded, then finally began to lead her down the hallway.
They had been walking for a few seconds when he said, “You smell of sweet dreams.”
She was prepared for his strangeness this time, and didn’t falter. ‘Is he being literal? Perhaps his heightened senses are picking up the herbal tinctures I use in my dreamless sleep spell?’ She simply hummed in response.
The house was big and beautiful, filled with art, greenery, and signs of life, and she felt some part of herself start to relax.
“You are the one they call the Raven Queen?”
“A name I did not choose for myself. But yes, that is what they call me.”
“Does the name displease you?” he asked.
She hummed noncommittally again, and said, “You can call me that, if you like.”
He led her into the drawing room, where about a half dozen people were waiting for them. The light crystals were very dim, with most of the illumination coming from a roaring fireplace. A couple of those within were servants, and the others were likely high-ranking members of Lynwood’s organization.
Two chairs were aligned against the wall near the fireplace, larger and more ornate than the rest of the furniture in the room, like thrones in comparison. A woman prognos with her eye scarred out stood closest to the chairs, while the others stayed a couple meters away.
‘Is it right to call her a “woman,” when she’s not human? But “female” just sounds like I’m talking about an animal, and she is a person. Do prognos, or other species, have their own terms for man and woman?’ Siobhan wondered.
Lynwood led Siobhan to the chairs, but as soon as they drew closer the eyeless prognos gasped and recoiled.
Siobhan felt the increased pressure on her anti-divination ward and fed more power into it through the Conduit she had hidden inside the lip of her boot. ‘She must be using a divination spell to sense the world around her in lieu of her lost vision. I can only hope she doesn’t notice anything strange about me.’
Lynwood stared at the woman, who ducked her head and murmured an apology. He looked to Siobhan with a touch of renewed wariness, then took one seat, offering Siobhan the other. “This is my sister-by-choice, Gera. Would you like refreshments, Queen of Ravens?” he asked.
One of the servants immediately stepped forward, offering a plate of wine, cheese, and fruits.
Siobhan waved the servant away. She was too nervous to eat, and it didn’t seem like something people would tell stories about the Raven Queen doing, anyway. “My thanks, but no.”
Lynwood shared a meaningful look with one of the others standing to the side.
Siobhan hoped she hadn’t offended him.
“We would like to thank you for agreeing to meet with us.” Lynwood motioned to the other servant, who hurried forward and kneeled before the two of them, holding a tray with three wooden boxes on it. “We were not sure what tribute you might find preferable, so we prepared a selection. Please choose whichever pleases you best, Queen of Ravens.”
The servant opened all three boxes with the slow fanfare that signified treasure. His fingers were trembling faintly, and he didn’t dare to meet her eyes.
Siobhan had to hold back a gasp of avarice as she saw what the Nightmare Pack was offering her, simply for her presence. It might be rude, but she could take one of these items and walk away without fulfilling whatever request they had.
“Phoenix ashes,” the servant introduced the vial in the first box.
Phoenix ashes were an incredibly rare spell component, used in powerful healing, fire, and even, supposedly, spells that could effect one’s destiny. Most famously, they were said to have been used by Myrddin to resurrect his recently-deceased lover. There were only a few grams within the vial, but if the ashes were what they said, she could sell each gram for at least a hundred gold, and maybe more to the right buyer.
“The wolf-pelt of a skin walker,” he said when opening the second box.
This was less valuable, monetarily, but just as rare, and usually not something you could buy on the open market, or even the black market. The animal-form pelts of skinwalkers were usually burned with their users, when the person died. Prepared properly, they could give someone a lesser version of the animal-transformation skill of the skinwalkers themselves. Used as a component in other spells, they could tame some of the rarer and more vicious beasts, or be used in binding the most powerful of familiars to a witch’s service.
The last box was a black stone polished into the shape of a flattened oval, about one-third the size of Siobhan’s palm. When the firelight hit it, a six-rayed star of light shone out of the depths of what she suddenly realized was a gem.
“A black star sapphire,” the servant said, darting a glance at her.
She’d never seem a gem of any kind that big, but she’d heard of star sapphires. They could be used as components in space-bending spells of various kinds. She’d heard a story of a king’s messenger who used a black star sapphire to step between the shadows, traveling faster than any mortal man could otherwise, bearing a message from his king all the way to an allied kingdom in the space of a single night, and then back again the next.
She couldn’t properly judge how much it would be worth, especially in Gilbratha, but estimated it would normally be less expensive than the phoenix ashes but more valuable than the skinwalker’s wolf-pelt. But what drew her to it wasn’t its properties when used in spells.
It was the fact that sapphires were one of the gems that could be used as a passable replacement for celerium as a Conduit. And with the current prices of celerium, it was likely that other gems were also rising in worth. If it was natural, and not thaumaturge-created, it might even be the most expensive of the three. Gems increased in price exponentially with their size. Like all other substances besides celerium, a sapphire wouldn’t be as efficient, and would heat after extended, heavy spellcasting, and be more likely to shatter under the strain. Still, this one was large enough that it had to be better than her old Conduit. ‘Several times better, in fact, if I estimate correctly,’ she thought.
Siobhan hesitated between the phoenix ashes and the black star sapphire, trying to weigh which was worth more in the current marketplace conditions. If Conduits weren’t so expensive, it would have definitely been the phoenix ashes, but the lack of supply changed things. And more pressingly, she wanted a Conduit.
Professor Lacer had lent her one, but it wasn’t hers. If he ever took it back, or something else happened to divest her of it, she would be reduced to relying on her useless, dinky backup again. If she took the star sapphire, she would have security. It was even something that most people wouldn’t immediately associate with the word “Conduit,” since it wasn’t celerium.
She had been through enough in her life to know you couldn’t rely on anyone else or the things they gave you. One could only rely on themselves and what they had the strength to take.
‘If I take the ashes, seventy percent of the selling price should still be enough to get me a better backup Conduit than the one I have now, especially if I can sell my current one for anything close to what I paid for it. However, word of phoenix ashes being sold would definitely spread, and I’m not sure how the Nightmare Pack might feel about me immediately exchanging their gift for money.’ She looked to Lynwood and the others, but didn’t have the skill to read their expressions.
‘If I take the sapphire, what about Oliver’s cut? I could probably convince him to let me pay it off slowly, but if not, seventy percent of the sale price would still get me a backup Conduit, if not one quite as powerful as the sapphire itself. I also have to consider how distinctive the sapphire is. It cannot be used in both my identities.’
In the end, personal desire won out over considerations of greatest utility. The star sapphire called to her. It was as simple as that. She reached for the polished gem, feeling its cool, smooth weight on her palm. “This tribute pleases me,” she said.
Lynwood and Gera glanced at each other, despite her lack of eye.
‘I hope they’re not upset that I chose what might be the most valuable among the three,’ Siobhan thought. There had been a lot of subtle looks between her hosts, and it was a little worrying that she couldn’t decipher the silent conversations they seemed to be having around her, about her.
‘Was it a test? I suppose we’ll see shortly if I failed. In any case, I’m not giving my new Conduit back.’
Lynwood turned back to her. “There are rumors about you and your formidable abilities. I wonder if you could help me judge the accuracy of these rumors.”
‘So now we finally get down to it. Best not to brag too much, so I don’t have to live up to unreasonable expectations. Still, the Raven Queen has to be worth the tribute they just paid to have this meeting.’ Rather than volunteering information, she nodded, as close to regally as she could manage. “Ask.”
“I have heard you take another form, one composed of the wings of night herself.”
Siobhan was conscious of Gera standing right beside them. While the blinding of the eye would have made it more difficult for the woman to use her divination abilities, it was obvious by the continued pressure on Siobhan’s divination-diverting ward that the woman was not crippled by this. She might know if Siobhan lied.
So Siobhan said, “I do take another form, but I fear the details of the rumors you’ve heard are…somewhat exaggerated by retellings and the imagination of fanciful minds.”
“Men say that those who earn your wrath have tortured dreams, and that those dreams only grow stronger with time until they start to seep into reality.”
‘That sounds like a dreamless sleep curse and the hallucinations that come with extreme fatigue.’ She shook her head. “Perhaps some of the weaker-willed people who have made themselves my enemies have nightmares, but that is only a measure of their own poor mental constitution. I have laid no curses. Well, not within Gilbratha,” she amended. Shortly after Ennis retook guardianship of her in her youth, she had placed a weak curse on the threshold of a particularly dislikable young man’s house.
“But your magic has no need of the glyphs and symbols that the humans use to ground their spells?” Lynwood asked insistently.
‘Is he trying to confirm that I can cast esoteric spells?’ She tilted her head to the side, confused. “I can channel magic through the modern spell arrays, but in truth no magic of any species requires glyphs and symbols. They are an aid, a powerful one, and as my…well, let’s call him my grandfather—would have said, oftentimes a crutch. I am not powerful enough yet to freely cast whatever magic might come to mind, though I do have a few tricks that need no written Word.”
“You are young, still?”
She was growing even more confused. ‘That should be obvious. He’s looking right at my face. Maybe he’s wondering if I’ve used glamours or rejuvenating spells? He thinks maybe the Raven Queen is an older woman pretending to be young? It would explain the ridiculous rumors about me being so capable.’ She gave a single nod of agreement. “Young enough,” she said, trying for some sort of cryptic middle ground. “These questions are not the reason you requested my presence,” she said, keeping the uncertainty out of her voice and making it a statement instead.
Lynwood looked to Gera again, then back to Siobhan. “You are correct. I apologize for my circuitous interrogation. We have need of someone with power over the domain of sleep. When we heard about you, we thought perhaps you could help where many of our more traditional methods have failed.”
“I do have some knowledge in that area,” she admitted, “but not all things are within my power. Please be more specific.” If they wanted her to go dream-walking or some such, she would be of little use, but ironically, she did probably know more about sleep-related spells than most professionals, due to her personal interest over the past many years.
Lynwood motioned to the door which had been closed behind them, and one of his people standing off to the side opened it, ushering in an old maid holding the hand of a young boy, who looked to be between eight to ten years old.
“My son cannot sleep,” Gera said softly.
Siobhan looked between the boy and Gera, but failed to see a resemblance. The boy looked almost like a normal human, having two eyes on either side of his nose instead of one in the middle of his forehead. Except for the abnormal paleness of his skin and the dark circles under his bloodshot eyes, he would have been unexceptional.
‘He must not be a full-blooded prognos,’ Siobhan assessed. “He is your biological son?” she asked.
“Yes.” Gera nodded, motioning to the old maid to step back.
Siobhan’s eyes widened as the boy’s skin glimmered ever-so-faintly from the light of the fireplace shining directly on him. ‘Not only part prognos, then.’
The boy blinked sleepily up at her, expressionless.
“The boy is dying,” Lynwood said. “All mortal beings need to rest. With every passing year, his dreams grow stronger, and without the ability to block them, he grows wearier and weaker.”
The boy didn’t seem to find this news surprising, still staring at her while blinking slowly.
“You want me to stop the boy’s nightmares?” Siobhan asked. The sides of her mouth twitched, and she clamped down on the bubble of amusement trying to rise up through her chest at the absurdity of the situation. She knew plenty of spells for that, sure, but she hadn’t even managed to stop her own nightmares.
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