Month 1, Day 20, Wednesday 11:00 p.m.
Siobhan held back a growl of aggravation when she realized she’d lost track of Tanya and Newton for the third time that night. ‘Curse you for being so paranoid, Tanya.’
The meeting had started late, and now it was almost midnight. It was cold, the streets were slippery with ice and so foggy she had a hard time keeping sight of them from a block away. She just wanted to drop off the supplies she’d purchased and return to her bed, but she was stuck doing her due diligence in case Tanya and Newton stopped somewhere or talked to someone interesting. Even if she hadn’t cared about what she might learn, she’d promised Newton that he would have backup. They had left the meeting before her, and she’d had to use the compass divination spell to find them.
Then, they’d suddenly escaped her sight again, despite how innocuously far back from them she’d been walking, almost invisible with all the fog. Assuming that Tanya was jumpy because of what had happened to the Morrows, Siobhan decided it would be less conspicuous if she were to follow them back to the University from an adjacent street, rather than trailing directly behind them.
But apparently they’d veered off again.
Stopping at the darkest point between two streetlamps, she set down the small box of healing potions she’d bought, crouching to cast the compass tracking spell on the disk connected to the one in Tanya’s boot, using one of her paper utility spell arrays. In the alley next to her, the red M of the Morrows had been painted over by the glowing yellow eyes on black background of the Nightmare Pack, Oliver’s new allies. ‘I need an artifact that will scry me on demand and activate the spillover properties of my divination-diverting ward.’ She had an agreement with Katerin to scry one of her linked bracelets if she ever encountered an emergency, but while hasslesome, this situation didn’t quite count. An artifact would allow her to turn the effect on and off at will, even several times in a single hour. She resolved to look for a more convenient solution as soon as she had the opportunity.
The burnt stick swung around, pointing toward Siobhan, and for a second, she was confused. She realized what it meant too late as Tanya’s voice came from behind her.
“Raise your hands and stand up slowly. I have a wand pointed at your back, so don’t try anything funny.”
Her mind racing furiously, jarred out of the fatigue and frustration that had apparently been clouding her judgment, Siobhan activated the spark-shooting array drawn in the corner of the page where she’d added a daub of wax to help accelerate the fire. The seaweed paper was fire resistant, not immune, and it immediately caught on fire, destroying the evidence of her spellcasting.
By the time Tanya realized what she was doing and yelled, “Stop!” it was too late.
Siobhan then lifted her hands and stood as Tanya had instructed.
In front of Siobhan, a hooded man walked up with a wand in his outstretched hand. It had to be Newton. They had closed in on her from both front and back. ‘Does he realize I’m his promised backup?’ There was no way to let him know, if he didn’t.
She turned her head enough to see the wand pointed at her from behind.
“Step away from the wall, into the street,” Tanya ordered.
Siobhan obeyed, her hood still up and her mask covering her face. ‘What will I do if they find out who I am? Would they turn me in to the coppers?’
“Don’t move.” Tanya jerked her head toward the supplies on the ground. “Check what they were doing there.”
Newton moved to the sidewalk, looking quickly through the box, then picking up the bone disk and saving the stick from burning up along with the paper. “Um, those are the things she bought, and this is…bone.”
Tanya urged Siobhan to move closer to the nearest streetlamp.
Newton followed, using its light to examine the disk. “I think it was a divination spell.”
“Were you tracking us?” Tanya demanded.
‘Neither Newton nor Tanya have any idea who I really am. I can still find a way out of this.’ Siobhan remained silent.
“Guard her,” Tanya said.
Siobhan stood still, watching the slightly trembling tip of Newton’s wand as Tanya tinkered with something behind her.
‘I hope that’s not shackles.’
A flare went off with a sharp pop and a shriek. Siobhan flinched as the red light shot into the sky, illuminating the blanket of fog with a diffused penumbra as it burst above them.
‘A flare beacon. There’s no way that was anything other than a call for backup. But who was she signaling?’ It was unlikely to be the coppers, based on the previous lack of cooperation between the University and the Crowns, not to mention the fact that they’d just come from making illegal trades with questionable thaumaturges. The University might have someone available and on call to respond to emergencies, or it could be someone from the Morrows or another criminal organization that had escaped Oliver’s roundup. She wasn’t sure which would be worse.
“You have no chance of getting away,” Tanya announced, a hint of nervousness leaking through what she probably meant to be an imperious tone. “Your best bet is to talk. Who are you? Why were you following us? Are you working for the Verdant Stag, or the Nightmare Pack?”
‘I could refuse to speak, but that will just encourage her to use violence, and only postpones the inevitable when whoever she called arrives. I need some way to shift the paradigm here. Bribes? Threats?’ Siobhan considered breaking the bracelet that was connected to Oliver’s. She could break it to let him know that something had gone wrong, but it would take some time to find her and then come help her, and Tanya or Newton might hit her with whatever spell was in those wands if she made such a suspicious movement. No one knew where she was, or what she was doing. If she disappeared tonight, it might be for good.
She had her paper spell arrays, a few useful potions, and her stunning-spell battle wand, but all of those were in her bag, and would take time to retrieve and use. She would need a distraction or a barrier between herself and them to make those options feasible.
She could turn back into Sebastien and reveal herself, but that might not necessarily mollify Tanya, and it would completely wreck the delineation between her two identities.
It was too late to pretend to be Silvia, or any other random civilian. She was wearing her original body, which Tanya had definitely seen the wanted posters for, so as soon as they took off her mask and hood she would be revealed. The only real option was to rely on the exaggerated reputation of the Raven Queen and hope that she could threaten or coerce them into letting her go.
The silence had stretched out, and Tanya barked, “Talk!” The tip of her wand pressed between Siobhan’s shoulder blades threateningly.
“It is not you I want, Tanya Canelo,” Siobhan said, her attempt at a dry, calm tone ruined by the rough crack of tension that broke her voice. She swallowed, trying to wet her dry throat.
Tanya drew in a sharp breath. “How do you know my name?”
Siobhan ignored the question. “You have chosen your alliances poorly.”
Newton’s wand dipped briefly, his free hand clenching and unclenching at his side.
Siobhan hadn’t meant to implicate him, and hoped that wasn’t the way Tanya would interpret the words. “They use you for their own ends. They ignore your fear and your attempts to reason with them. When you are alone and in need, will they return your loyalty? Or will you be tossed aside and silenced, an inconvenient liability?”
“What do you know of my alliances?” Tanya demanded, angry but with shallow confidence.
Siobhan turned slowly to face Tanya, her hands still up in the air. “I have seen your shadow pace at night as sleep evades you, Tanya Canelo.” It was even true, though she declined to mention that the shadow was visible under the crack at the bottom of Tanya’s dorm room door. “You still have a chance to walk away tonight, to return to your bed and your troubled dreams without true harm.”
Tanya’s knuckles were white around the base of the battle wand. “You’re bluffing. New—” She cut off before completing Newton’s name. “Check her bag and her pockets.”
Newton shuffled closer, shrinking back for a moment when Siobhan turned her head to look at him. “Sorry,” he muttered as he took the strap of her bag and slipped it off her shoulders.
Siobhan was grateful that she’d had the foresight to leave anything that might connect her to Sebastien back in the room at the Silk Door. Newton might be sharp enough to have recognized her school satchel. This bag, smaller and less conveniently filled with partitions, held components, paper spell arrays, and the wand in a secret pocket along the bottom, which she had added with some clever application of a mending spell. That was all. Still, best not to let him look in it at all. “Newton Moore. Your family would miss you. Your Grams taught you better than this. Make a wiser choice.”
He released the strap, dropping the bag like it was a hot coal, stumbling back from her. “How did—how did you—”
“Who are you?” Tanya demanded again.
“You already know the answer to that question, Tanya,” Siobhan murmured. “Or at least, you know the name they call me.”
“What does she mean? What does she mean, Tanya?” Newton demanded tightly.
She didn’t answer him. “Take the bag out of her reach at least, Newton.”
Gingerly, looking at Siobhan as if waiting for her to snap and attack, he did so, sliding the strap over his arm but leaning away from the bag as if he was afraid it would blow up.
The best way to make a sorcerer harmless was to remove access to their Conduit. They hadn’t managed that, as her black sapphire was tucked inside her boot, but the second best way was to remove access to their supplies.
“You’re bluffing,” Tanya said to Siobhan, lifting her chin challengingly.
‘Of course I am, you idiot woman,’ Siobhan thought. ‘Just let me go before it’s too late.’ She lowered her hands slowly.
“Hands up!” Newton yelled.
“It is okay, child,” she said to him, turning her head far enough toward him that she might be able to dodge if he tried to shoot her out of nervousness. “I mean you no harm. You have not made the same poor choices as this one.” When she was assured that he wasn’t about to panic, Siobhan returned her shadow-concealed gaze to Tanya. “You’ve been asking questions about me on behalf of your masters. Reckless.”
“Take off your mask and hood,” Tanya said. “If you’re the Raven Queen, prove it.”
“The Raven Queen?” Newton whispered.
Siobhan tilted her head to the side. “There really is no need for masks, I suppose.” Everyone already knew what Siobhan looked like, after all. Her likeness had been plastered on wanted posters across the city. “I will remove mine if you do the same. I know what you look like already, so there is no need to hide.” It would place her at a disadvantage to be the only one with readable facial expressions. Time was running out before whatever backup Tanya had called arrived, and making her and Newton feel a little more vulnerable might help facilitate her escape.
Her two captors shared a look, and Siobhan was careful to remain still so as not to startle them. Finally, Tanya nodded.
They each removed their concealment, moving slowly. Standing within the circle of light from the streetlamp, which quickly gave way to the darkness of the fog, it seemed like they were the only three in the world.
Tanya and Newton’s eyes were drawn to the feathers extending from Siobhan’s hair first, and then roved over her face.
She felt exposed, almost naked in her vulnerability. Some part of her expected the coppers to jump out from behind a corner and arrest her on the spot.
She stayed very still, her head cocked a little to the side. ‘I’ve used the stick. Now, to try the carrot.’ She met Tanya’s gaze, which was a little watery from either fear or the cold. “It is not too late to make a different choice.”
“What do you want from me?” Tanya whispered.
“Tonight? Simply that we go our separate ways, and neither of you are harmed.”
“You were the one following us!”
“Coincidence. If I wanted to harm you, I could have done so long before tonight. But time is running out. They will be here soon.” She could hear the faint echoes of words and the running footsteps of a group approaching through the fog. “There are other options, a different path to what you need. For both of you,” she added, sparing a glance for Newton, who looked like he might be sick, his lips pale and trembling and his eyes bloodshot. “You may request a boon from me and mine in exchange for your services. I can be quite generous with those who please me.”
Tanya licked her lips. “And the Morrows?”
Siobhan waved her hand in a falsely nonchalant motion. “It is the end for them.” The muffled echoes of footsteps were drawing closer.
“What did they do to offend you? I never—I was—”
Whatever Tanya was going to say, it was too late, and she cut off as a motley group of a half-dozen men rounded the corner. Their leader pointed at the three of them. They wore strips of red cloth tied around their upper arms, a sign of the Morrows.
Siobhan slipped her hood back up quickly to conceal her features. She was somewhat surprised that they were either stupid or bold enough to openly wear the symbols of a deposed gang. ‘Some of them must have slipped through the cracks. They are lower-level members, most likely. Perhaps there is still room for me to escape. Perhaps a bribe?’
The man in the lead glared at all three of them. “Who called?”
“I did,” Tanya said with a grimace, still staring at Siobhan.
Newton lowered his wand and hunched his shoulders, shrinking back to the side of the nearest building, near where he’d set Siobhan’s bag at the edge of the light.
The man looked Tanya up and down, too slowly to be polite. “You a Morrow? I don’t see the M.”
Tanya huffed. “I’m affiliated. How else do you think I got the flare beacon artifact?”
“Could a’ stolen it. Could be a trap,” one of the others offered.
This led to a general muttering and shifting, and a couple members lifted battle wands of their own toward the trio.
“I recognize her,” a smaller man piped up from the back of the group. “Saw her visitin’ the boss a couple times at the Bitter Phoenix.”
The leader puffed up his chest, glaring down at Tanya. “Well, the boss ain’t around no more. Why you callin’ for help? This one givin’ you trouble?” He peered suspiciously at Siobhan. “She one of the Nightmare Pack?”
Tanya’s eyes flicked from the man to Siobhan and back, unsure.
He seemed to pick up on this, because after a second of silence, he reached out and grabbed Tanya’s arm. “Take their wands,” he ordered.
Tanya tried to jerk back from him, but his grip was strong. Though she raised her wand, she hesitated, looking between the trigger-happy Morrows and Siobhan. Her hesitation cost her.
Her wand was wrenched from her grip by one of the Morrows.
Newton gave his up willingly enough, but still received a rough shove as thanks.
“We’re supposed to be allies!” Tanya growled.
The leader, who Siobhan mentally dubbed Chief, grinned humorlessly at Tanya, raising the wand he’d taken from her to point at Siobhan, who was nominally unarmed. “That agreement was with the old boss. You and I will need to make a new deal.” He jerked his head. “Let’s move. I don’t want to stick around for anyone else that flare beacon might have attracted. The coppers are patrolling all night lately, and those Nightmare Pack bastards go rabid at the sight of us.”
Wands trained on their three captives, the Morrows picked up the box of potions with pleasant surprise, then took them a few blocks away. Seemingly by random, Chief picked out a brick, three-story building with boarded-up shop windows across the ground level and dark apartment windows above on the third. The door was locked, but they broke it open with some difficulty and brute force, ripping the inner lock free from its moorings.
The inside of the shop, which took up an area the height of the first two floors, was filled with high-end wooden furniture, some completed and some halfway through assembly. It was a woodworking shop. As the Morrows searched for a light-crystal lamp and turned it on, Siobhan’s eyes flicked around.
There were two other doors besides the one they’d just broken through: one to the side that looked like it might lead to a storage closet, and another at the back, at the top of a short series of steps. Her eyes flicked to the high ceiling, listening for movement that would signify people waking up in the rooms above. It would be simplest if the building was empty. The variable of civilians could throw a wrench in even the best escape plans.
The Morrow guarding her motioned for Siobhan to back up toward the side of the room. She did so until her legs bumped against a heavy table. “Keep your hands up,” he warned.
“So what can you offer me, girl?” Chief asked Tanya. “Any reason I shouldn’t just hold you and these other two for ransom?”
Newton let out a small, distressed sound.
The Morrow holding him gave a disgusted grunt and dropped his arm. “Don’t try anything stupid,” he warned, turning away to light another of the lamps on display, which he took to the counter and used to start rifling around, probably hoping to find any poorly secured coin. He grabbed random small items that caught his interest and shoved them in his pockets.
Siobhan dubbed him Sticky Fingers.
Newton backed up to the front wall, bracing against it and dropping Siobhan’s bag beside him. She hadn’t even noticed him pick it up. He placed his hands together, thumbs to forefingers, and began the hum for his calming spell, ignoring the disgruntled surprise of a couple of their captors.
“What is he doing?” a fat man with unfortunately saggy jowls demanded, pointing his wand at Newton. Siobhan named him Bulldog.
Tanya motioned for them to calm down with her raised hands. “It helps him keep from panicking. He’s not accustomed to situations like this.” She lifted her chin, glaring at the leader. “So, you’re going to hold us for ransom? Ransom by who? Your bosses are all locked up, and if you’re hoping for someone to pay you, they’ll need to be free first.”
Chief coughed—a gruff, blustering sound. “Perhaps I just have to kill you three, strip you naked, and throw you in the nearest canal, then. If you can’t offer me anything…” He trailed off threateningly.
Newton’s hums grew a little louder, as if he were trying to drown out their voices.
A muscle in Tanya’s jaw jumped as she ground her teeth. “I’m working to free Lord Morrow. I’m sure he’ll be in a generous mood if he knows you were helpful in doing so.”
“Ehh…that’s not exactly what I’m wanting to hear, girl. Word on the street is, Lord Morrow is dead. As for the rest of them…I kinda prefer my sudden rise in station now that they’re gone. Well, if you know where Lord Morrow stashed the Morrow operation funds, I might be interested in that.”
Despite the turn toward threats of violence, Siobhan was encouraged by this development. She didn’t want the University involved, and apparently not every member of the Morrows knew about their connection. Additionally, this proved that Chief was both stupid and open to a bribe. Perhaps she could offer for them to take her to the Verdant Stag for the ransom they wanted? She could use one of the wooden and pewter bracelets around her wrist to alert Katerin of an emergency, and when they arrived the Stag enforcers could take out this entire group of idiots.
“I can offer you a beast core. Three million thaums of power. One for each of us,” Tanya said.
Every Morrow head in the room turned to look at her.
“Oh?” Chief’s grin returned. “Search them,” he ordered.
‘A competent leader would have thought of that long before, especially since Tanya and Newton were openly carrying battle wands when they arrived.’
Tanya’s eyes flicked to Siobhan, almost as if she expected Siobhan to get them out of this mess somehow.
‘You should have let me go earlier, and then none of us would be in this situation!’ Siobhan wanted to scream.
Sticky Fingers, who had been rifling around the shop counter, reached for Siobhan’s bag, which was sitting at the still-humming Newton’s feet.
Newton also looked to Siobhan, a spike of anxiety returning to his expression, which had been momentarily loosening under the effects of his spell.
Siobhan pushed back a flare of embarrassment, because when nothing happened to the man searching her bag, Newton would know she had been bluffing.
“I’d like to propose a counter offer,” Siobhan said, thinking quickly and speaking slowly. “You can ransom both us and our belongings from someone who can afford it. You have the authority to treat with other gang leaders, as the new head of the Morrows, I assume?” As long as the Stags came out victorious, and Siobhan didn’t get injured or killed in the crossfire, she would walk away no poorer, with all her belongings.
The attention turned toward her.
One of the Morrows held up a lamp to better see her, while the one who’d been guarding her pushed her hood back so that her face was clear.
“And who are you?” asked Chief, grimacing with disgust at the feathers sprouting from her hair.
Introducing herself as the Raven Queen might not be the smartest decision this time. What if their avarice didn’t outweigh their fear and aggression?
Near the front of the room, Sticky Fingers shifted around. As soon as his eyes landed on Siobhan’s uncovered face, they widened. He looked back toward the shop counter, then again to Siobhan. His expression twisted with shock and horror. The hand holding a wand shot up, pointing at Siobhan. “It’s a trap! It’s her! Run, run away, it’s her!”
Before anyone could respond to what he’d said, his finger clenched, tugging on the trigger of the wand, and Siobhan had a fraction of a second for stunned, horrified realization as an orange spell coalesced at the tip and shot toward her.
Her latest wanted poster was tacked to the cork board beside the shop counter.
It was too late to dodge—they were only a few meters apart. She instinctively threw up her hands, closing her eyes and ducking her head.
There was a moment of stunned silence in which she had time to recognize that she hadn’t been hit by what she was pretty sure was a fireball spell, though she could feel the heat licking at her face and hands.
She opened her eyes tentatively.
The fireball hung in the air in front of her outstretched hands, roiling and expanding as it lost the cohesion and power of its condensed form.
She was as stunned as everyone else until she felt the burning cold of her warding medallion against her chest. She stepped quickly to the side, letting the fireball slide past her. It whooshed across the room and impacted against the brick wall on the other side, its energy dissipated enough that it left nothing more than scorch marks.
“Idiot!” Chief screamed at Sticky Fingers. “You’ll burn the place down around us!”
The skin of Siobhan’s chest was rapidly beginning to hurt, and she resisted the urge to curl up protectively around herself. ‘The spell must have been coming at me perfectly dead center for the deflection spell to stop it rather than shunt it to the side.’ It was meant to be an energy-saving measure to deflect rather than to simply shield, which was probably how her grandfather had stuffed so many protections into a single artifact, but with the perfect angle, that apparently backfired. ‘Once again, Grandfather saved my life.’
But the danger wasn’t over. After one more stunned second, which Sticky Fingers used to fumble with this wand, he pulled the trigger again. Thankfully, this time the spell wasn’t orange.
Siobhan was prepared, sidestepping the rapidly expanding, almost invisible spell and taking only a bruising blow across her arm. Behind her, furniture was overturned and chunks of brick were blasted from the far wall.
But the other Morrows were spreading out, their own wands raised toward her, and she knew the situation was quickly degrading. ‘I have to run.’ But she had very few options without her bag of components and pre-drawn paper arrays, and there were Morrows between her and the door.
With a distraction, something else for them to shoot at instead of her, maybe she could dive for her bag, break a philtre of darkness, and escape with Newton in tow. Tanya might escape if she was quick-thinking and nimble on her feet, but she would have to fend for herself. Siobhan couldn’t save both of them.
Siobhan raised her hands to her mouth, cupping them into a Circle, and rushed through the chant for her shadow-familiar at a low mumble. “Life’s breath, shadow mine. In darkness we were born. In darkness do we feast. Devour, and arise.” Then she added a huge exhale to power the spell with the heat of her breath. The truncated ritual was a greater strain on her Will, but she pushed the magic into her shadow with only a single repetition of the chant instead of three. She had no time for three.
She used the same shadow form she’d used last time when the coppers were attacking, a tattered form of darkness with a fluttering cloak and a huge beak extending from the hood that covered its head.
Tanya dodged a spell with a smooth sliding movement, then leapt for Sticky Fingers, pushing his wand arm away and smashing her forehead into his face.
Siobhan sent her risen shadow moving away from her to the side, trying to draw their spells harmlessly into the back of the room. She hoped the construct was dark and substantial enough to be a proper distraction despite her rushed execution of the spell.
She spun toward Newton, crouching low.
His mouth hung open with horror, his glassy, bloodshot eyes locked on the unnaturally tall shadow-form behind her. His hands were still cupped in front of his chest, but it was obvious that the self-calming spell had been forgotten. Her bag sat at his feet.
Tanya cursed as she grappled with Sticky Fingers.
The others were screaming. One spell shot past over Siobhan’s crouched head, and a couple more of different colors passed harmlessly through her shadow familiar, which she let ripple but not disperse.
All the hair on Siobhan’s body rose at once with a tingling urgency. An instinct that lived somewhere in the back of her mind screamed at her to run, to escape.
A pressure moved through the air, a shiver that hurt her eyes and scraped along her teeth and spine.
She released her shadow-familiar spell almost too fast for safety and let her crouch continue downward, pulling herself into a fetal position, her arms shielding her head.
With a crack that was more hindbrain sensation than sound, the world twisted.
Siobhan’s eyes rolled back into her head as reality ceased to conform to its normal pattern.
She felt all the things at once, tasted emotions, heard the ripples of space, and felt time shudder through her skin.
It was over in an instant, almost too fast for her brain to grasp what was happening, which she could only be grateful for. She suspected that extreme briefness was the only thing that allowed her to maintain her sanity.
She lay on the smooth, polished wood of the floor, letting out a few sobbing breaths as warm tears spilled down her temple. The scream of fear in the back of her mind was still going, and as her brain regained control of her body, she climbed clumsily to her hands and knees. She was already bruised from slipping on the ice, and this had only made it worse, but that concern was far from the forefront of her mind.
In the spot where Newton had been, stretching out a couple of meters, was a hollow sphere of randomly connected, faintly vibrating strings, like a shell made out of thread-thin vines. Crouched within, in a vaguely fetal position, was a dark form, indistinct under a mat of more strings, which grew over the form like old mold.
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