Month 9, Day 29, Tuesday 9:00 p.m.
Siobhan changed back into her own body and her old clothes, which had been the nicest ones she owned but now sported the stains and rips of her harried flight from the coppers.
Dryden took one look at her and insisted she update her wardrobe before he was seen with her in public. When she protested, he reminded her that her wanted poster showed her wearing a ratty, hooded cloak, with wild hair and a crazed look in her eyes, and a change of ambiance might allow her to hide in plain sight. As if divining her next argument, he assured her that she need not visit a seamstress. He had some spare female clothing in one of the mansion’s many guest bedrooms.
When he brought the clothing to her—a black, slim-cut dress suit with a pencil skirt and crimson cloak—she made the mistake of asking whose it was.
He gave her a pointed look. “It belongs to a previous acquaintance of mine. She stayed the night and left these behind as an excuse to return again, but her gambit failed.”
Siobhan stared blankly for a moment, then gasped in sudden realization, her embarrassment making it impossible to look him in the eye. An imagined scene with Dryden and the woman who had worn such bold clothing flashed through her mind, and she quickly gave herself a mental shake to cast the scene away.
“I assure you, she won’t miss these. Consider them yours.”
That was how Siobhan found herself walking with Dryden through the gloomy streets of the seedier part of the city, wearing a stylish outfit that was a little too expensive for her to be comfortable in.
She was on edge, waiting for every person they passed to point an accusing finger at her or scurry off to find the nearest copper, but no one seemed to recognize her. The hood of the cloak obscured her hair and her features from the light of the streetlamps, anyway. No one without some type of diviner’s sight or natural predilection to the dark, like a vampire or hag, could see her face.
Dryden was also wearing a hood. He’d reached into his pockets when they set out, but hesitated without retrieving anything. “I usually wear a mask for this sort of thing, but that could actually be more attention-drawing in the current circumstances. Like this, maybe we can just be a man and a woman walking together.”
Dryden led her on a circuitous route through the city, and she realized belatedly, when they actually doubled back at one point, that he was searching for tails. She wasn’t sure if that should frighten or reassure her, but he seemed to think they were safe. Finally, they arrived at a housing district where people lived atop each other in small, two-story apartments strung together in long rows.
Siobhan grimaced at the idea of living so close together with other families. ‘No space, no privacy.’ They walked up a rickety set of stairs that she hoped were stabilized with magic, because otherwise they seemed on the verge of collapse.
He gingerly tapped the door-knocker against its decorative metal base, which was shaped like a growling lion’s head.
She understood his hesitance when the lion shifted, glaring at the both of them and baring its teeth. After a tense moment, the door let out a “click” and the lion froze.
Dryden turned the handle and stepped through ahead of her, looking around warily before moving aside so she could follow.
Contrary to her expectations, the interior was entirely mundane.
A tall, dark-skinned woman with long, curly hair bound away from her face in a loose braid walked out of the attached, unremarkable kitchen, sipping a cup of tea. She seemed unsurprised to see them and equally uninterested in their presence. “Oliver. What do you want?”
Siobhan noted the use of his first name. ‘Perhaps that’s how he introduces himself to people in the criminal world?’
Dryden gave her a flirtatious grin. “Hello, Liza. We have need of your services.”
Liza gave him a look as dry as the Tataroc Desert, standing with one hip cocked. “Don’t be a pedant. What is it exactly that you want of me?”
“My father is in jail,” Siobhan said. “I want to communicate with him. I heard you might be able to help with that.”
Liza turned her gaze on Siobhan, humming thoughtfully. “Harrow Hill Penitentiary. High-security wing?” Before Siobhan could answer, she waved her hand dismissively and continued. “Of course it is, why else would you be coming to me? Do you have gold?”
Siobhan nodded, taking out the coin pouch she had brought. Fifty gold. It was an exorbitant amount, and it had shocked her when Dryden gave her an estimate of what the woman’s services would cost. She could pay for an entire University class with that amount, or live luxuriously off it for a couple months if she left Gilbratha. She hoped she wouldn’t have to use all of it.
Liza eyed the pouch dubiously. “Do you want him to be able to communicate back to you?”
“Do you know exactly where he is being held?”
Siobhan suppressed a grimace. “I don’t.”
The woman sighed. “Well, we can do a prerequisite homing spell if you have some of his hair or something like that. The messenger can use it to find him.”
Siobhan’s grimace slipped out. Her grandfather had bludgeoned her into the habit of disposing of any hair, blood, or nail clippings, even saliva, precisely so no one could use them in this type of spell. She had none.
Liza threw her hands in the air, spilling some of her tea. “I am not a miracle worker! If you can find a sorcerer who knows your father well enough to help me with a homing spell, I might be able to make it work. However, this will not be cheap. Seventy gold crowns.”
Siobhan almost choked.
Dryden’s eyebrows rose. “Is that not a bit excessive, Liza? It’s only a messenger spell.”
The woman scowled at them while taking another sip of tea. “It is a hazard fee. For possible Will-strain, and the cost of blood magic. I have to supplement the Will of a sorcerer trying to create a sympathetic mnemonic link and tie it into a tracking spell, as well as augment a messenger skilled enough to use said tracker while avoiding detection by the guards and wards. It requires too much energy, so I will also have to use a beast core, if you want the messenger to be viable for the standard six hours. Seventy gold.”
“I can create the mnemonic link if you show me how,” Siobhan said. “And I won’t need you to supplement my Will while I do so. I can also assist you with channeling the power for the rest of the spell. I don’t need the messenger to last very long, two hours at most. Forty gold.”
“Even if you can keep up, though I doubt you can channel more than a few dozen thaums, if that…” Liza looked her up and down, then stared challengingly into her eyes. “Blood magics are a serious crime in Gilbratha.”
Blood magics were a crime almost everywhere, and for good reason. Sacrificing a human, or pieces of one, or casting a spell that involved torture or excessive cruelty to a living being may have led to powerful spells, but the cost was unconscionable. Siobhan cleared her throat, which seemed to have dried up. “What type of…blood magic, exactly? If you plan to use any sort of human Sacrifice, I don’t believe I need your services, after all.”
Liza snorted derisively, the puff of air sending a loose curl flying away from her cheek. “This one has drunk deeply from the proverbial well, huh, Oliver? No, child, there will be no human components, no bathing in the blood of virgins. We will be casting a Lino-Wharton messenger spell. It requires a being that can speak, so we will be using a pair of ravens. One must die to temporarily enhance the capabilities of the other. The second raven will also die when the spell runs its course. Admittedly, the death of the first raven is not…pleasant, but it is over in less than a minute. If you cannot handle this, feel free to leave, after vowing not to reveal my location or this conversation.” Liza sipped her tea again, but her dark, half-lidded eyes were focused on Siobhan with the kind of concentration she had seen in hunters before they loosed an arrow at their unsuspecting prey.
Siobhan swallowed, but didn’t look away. “That’s not a problem. We’ll do the spell,” she said. In her head, she continued, ‘And while I help you cast the spell, I will be memorizing it. Two ravens. Not pleasant, but not as bad as it could be. I have used raven components in other spells, though admittedly not while the raven was still alive. If I need to speak to my father again, I will not need you.’
“I will require a blood print from both of you as assurance of your discretion,” the woman warned. “And fifty gold.”
Dryden nodded. “She has standard terms,” he explained to Siobhan. “We cannot divulge her identity, location, or the services she performed to the authorities or those we believe might mean her harm, and she must promise the same for us. It is nothing nefarious.”
‘Nothing nefarious, except for the fact that it is a blood-based vow.’ Aloud, she repeated, “Fifty gold.” Even that was almost expensive enough to make her re-think her desire to speak to her father.
Liza placed her teacup on a nearby table, dipped her finger into the liquid, and traced a quick Circle on the table around it. Using merely the warmth of the air and pure Will, she re-warmed the tea, then swallowed the rest in a single gulp.
It was a casual display of prowess, and Siobhan’s respect deepened. Control like that took more than practice to improve channeling capacity. It took both clarity and force of Will.
“Alright, then,” Liza said. “We had best get started. The spell will be active and the metaphorical grains of sand will begin falling through the hourglass directly after completion. I have a healing-style stasis spell that will let you reactivate the messenger at a later time, but that would be another twenty gold.”
Siobhan struggled to keep her nostrils from flaring in irritation. “No, we’ll use it right away, as long as it isn’t too conspicuous.”
“It is a bird. All the cells have windows. No one will notice anything out of the ordinary, and unless Harrow Hill has a warding scheme more impressive than my own”—the woman snorted at that idea—“the guards will never know.”
Similar to Katerin, Liza had a supply of parchment with the blood print spell already drawn, forcing Siobhan to wonder how common such a thing was. ‘Or, perhaps this is simply a sign that I’m associating with the wrong people.’ The three of them agreed to the terms Dryden had mentioned previously, and Siobhan gave Liza all the gold from her pouch.
Liza led them into a spare room with a closet where Siobhan supposed she kept her magical supplies. When the woman opened the closet door, however, the space on the other side was much too large.
Siobhan stepped through into the open area, which was filled with magical components, animals and bugs inside cages and containers, and shelves holding grimoires and magical reference books. ‘Did Liza set up some sort of folded space in her closet?’ There were even a couple little container gardens in the corner, growing under magical light. She’d only heard of such large applications of spacial magic theoretically, and seeing it for herself was more than a little impressive. She looked around for the visually disorienting signs of space-bending magic, but found none.
Catching the look of awe on Siobhan’s face, Liza rolled her eyes. “Close your mouth, girl. I simply purchased the adjacent apartment and the two below and knocked out some walls.”
Siobhan snapped her mouth closed, feeling her shoulders tighten and her chin lift in response to the embarrassment. At least her cheeks wouldn’t show her blush so easily in her real body.
Liza puttered about, gathering up supplies and a couple live ravens from one of the cages. She flipped through the grimoires, muttering to herself and stopping to study specific spells and take notes on a spare sheet of paper.
Siobhan mentally swallowed her drool at the display of magical knowledge surrounding her, much of it likely restricted and illegal. She had no particular desire to break the law or cast any depraved or harmful magics, but she would absolutely love to learn about them.
Finally, Liza motioned for them to go down the stairs into the attached ground level apartments. Dryden led the way, and Siobhan caught Liza eyeing his backside as he passed.
The woman noticed Siobhan’s surprise and smirked. “I can at least look, can’t I?”
Siobhan looked away, embarrassed, and Liza guffawed, while Dryden sent back a flirtatious smile over his shoulder.
Below, the walls fairly buzzed with wards, and the windows were missing entirely, though she hadn’t noticed that from the outside. Out of the corner of her eye, Siobhan saw the faint glimmer of active glyphs edging the corners of the rooms, like they were standing inside some giant artifact. The hair on her arms lifted, and she shuddered with vague delight. ‘This is how a sorcerer’s study should feel.’
The ravens didn’t seem to like it, and began squawking and flapping around inside their cage.
Liza shooed Dryden into the corner with firm instructions not to wander about, then proceeded to set up the prerequisite tracking spell she had mentioned, using a rod and string to draw a perfect Circle on the ground, which she expanded with a complicated Word array while Siobhan watched raptly.
She hadn’t known tracking spells could be done without any kind of natural link. She was even more glad for the warding medallion hidden next to the transformation amulet under her shirt. If her father had been wearing one, it would probably be able to ward off this attempt to locate him.
“He’s your biological father?” Liza asked, lighting a small brazier in one of the component Circles. “One of your hairs should help to augment the mnemonic link. Unless you’ve reached Journeyman level, I’d say you’re going to need it.”
The last time Siobhan had been tested, she could channel about one hundred seventy-five thaums, which was firmly Apprentice level, well below a Journeyman sorcerer. Somewhat reluctantly, she plucked a single strand and placed it in the component Circle where Liza had drawn the glyph that represented hair or fur.
“At least you know that much,” the woman said. She placed a small iron needle in the middle of the center Circle and turned to Siobhan. “I will handle the tracking part of the spell. You simply need to associate the needle with your father as strongly as you can while I do so. Create a sympathetic link. I will not be supplementing your Will, so if the raven cannot manage to find him, I accept no responsibility.”
Siobhan pushed down her irritation and simply nodded. She wasn’t fully recovered from her over-exertion a couple days before, but at least hadn’t done any magic yet that day. Her Will wouldn’t fail her.
When Liza gave the sign, Siobhan’s whole purpose locked onto the needle lying there on the ground before her. She ran through memories of her father in detail, cataloguing him for the purpose of the tracker, and ordering the magic to agree that the needle and her father were—antithetically—one being. It was one of the core applications of transmogrification.
When Liza finished, Siobhan relaxed her concentration. The fire in the small brazier had been consumed so thoroughly it left only ashes and cold wood behind. She was fairly confident that the linking spell had worked, but didn’t know how to be sure.
Liza seemed unworried, setting the sliver of iron aside carefully and wiping the floor clean of chalk. “You can help cast the messenger spell, since it will improve your control of the raven, but don’t get in the way,” she said. “Focus your Will on what I tell you, and naught else.”
Next, Liza tied up one of the ravens with some cord to keep it from flapping or hopping away, then used a snake tongue and a small drop of what Siobhan thought was laudanum as components in a forceful calming spell. When she was done, she placed it back into its cage, where it lay against the bars docilely.
The other bird grew more agitated at all of this, squawking and beating at the cage with its wings.
Liza drew yet another Circle and its accompanying Word array, this one even more complex. She worked at it so long Siobhan had to shuffle from foot to foot to keep her legs from falling asleep. After placing a thumb-sized beast core in one of the component Circles, Liza wrangled and bound the unsedated raven and laid it in the center of the main Circle. She placed the docile raven next to it. “We’re drawing on the vitality and intelligence of the brother for our messenger. It’s transmogrification, not transmutation, so be sure to concentrate. Don’t link their lives, we wouldn’t want both ravens to die.”
When Liza activated the spell, the unsedated raven gave a horrified shriek and wriggled around as if trying to escape. The sound quickly gurgled out, and the bird went still, its little black eyes staring at nothing.
The calm raven seemed to perk up, some vigor coming back to its gaze, but, though it struggled a little, no non-sapient creature could have resisted Liza’s magic and the forced docility.
Liza used the butt of a silver knife to crack the dead raven’s skull while the other watched with dark little eyes. She scooped out the brains and set them aside in a small wooden bowl. She also took an eyeball, a feather, and a claw, and after a quick adjustment to the Circle, told Siobhan to focus her Will on the three pieces of dead bird, exerting mastery over them, and through them, to the still living bird. “When you have these items, you will be acknowledged as the raven’s master. You will also need to see through its eyes and hear through its ears. If you botch this, you may find using the messenger quite unpleasant. Concentrate on both the domination and the communication at once.”
Siobhan wasn’t familiar with this sort of domination spell, and though the instructions weren’t unclear, they also weren’t as helpful as she would have liked. She had no time to ask for clarification, however, because Liza turned her attention back to the spell immediately and began to cast.
When it was finished, Liza dropped the bird pieces in a little pouch, which she tossed to Siobhan. “You keep that on you, if you want the messenger to obey your instructions.”
Siobhan hoped she hadn’t botched the connection. ‘What exactly does “unpleasant” mean?’ She leaned her back against the wall, breathing deeply. Casting spells didn’t require any actual physical exertion in most cases, but the strain of channeling power could still leave thaumaturges panting and trembling.
Liza, breathing barely a little harder from the effort, looked Siobhan up and down, and with a judgmental “tch,” allowed her to take a break.
‘How many thaums is this woman channeling as if it were nothing?’ Siobhan wondered.
Finally, with another adjustment to the complex Circle, moving some of the component Circles inward to intersect with the main one, Liza set the spell-calmed bird in the center again.
She placed the tiny brains of the dead raven in one of the component Circles, birdseed in another, and the metal sliver they’d spelled earlier in a third. “This is the hardest part. The brains of its brother for more intelligence, enough to follow your orders. The birdseed for loyalty to its master. The iron needle for the ability to find the target. The string…” She tied the end of a huge ball of yarn to the raven’s leg, then moved to Siobhan and tied a loop around her wrist. “He will follow your commands within the length of the string.”
Liza brought her face close and peered at Siobhan, presumably looking for signs of Will-strain.
Siobhan’s thoughts were still the slightest bit woozy, but she nodded firmly. “Yes.”
Liza turned back to the Circle, raising her hands dramatically as she set the spell in motion. “Eat,” she told the bird. Under the effects of the docility spell, it complied, pecking up birdseed, brain matter, and even the spelled needle. It swallowed them all.
Siobhan felt like she could sense the other woman’s Will as it hummed through the strings of magic itself, brushing against her own. It was like a predator, sleek and muscled, pacing hungrily.
The beast core powering the spell glowed red, and the Circle began to emit a faint, colorless light under the strain, despite how defined the Word array had been and how hard the both of them concentrated.
The raven flopped on the floor like it was being possessed by a devil, but didn’t make a sound.
Siobhan’s heart pounded in her chest and her head began to throb, but she refused to falter or to lose concentration. More than simply causing the spell to fail, loss of control over the many thaums of energy pulsing through the Circle might cause dangerous physical backlash or Will-strain.
Finally, the energy settled. The string connecting her and the raven burned up in a flash, just fast enough to singe her skin but not truly injure her.
Liza lowered her arms, and Siobhan released her mental grip on the spell.
“It is finished,” the woman said, picking up the raven and handing it to Siobhan. “He will act as your messenger with preternatural skill and intelligence—well, for a bird—as long as you do not send him beyond the length of the string, which was about thirteen hundred meters. His brain will hemorrhage and he will die between ninety minutes to two hours from now, so you must work quickly.”
Siobhan held the raven to her chest in weak arms, feeling some pity for the creature and its brother. It couldn’t be helped, though. Magic always came with a cost. “Since I spent so much,” she said, smiling feebly at the other woman, “do you think you could throw in the birdcage for free?”
Author Note: I hope you’re enjoying reading this story even a little bit as much as I enjoy writing it!
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