Month 1, Day 20, Wednesday 11:20 p.m.
Siobhan stood, staring at the sphere of web-like strings. She realized, with a distant horror, that the strings were red and pink and white. The colors of the inside of a body. It seemed, for a moment that stretched on forever, that the world had stilled.
All was silent.
Then the strings began to vibrate. The movement was gentle and soft, but produced a faint noise, like a thousand distant cellos playing the same deep note. A few strings were spread out against the wall and floor, like vines.
With a sudden breath that set the world into motion again, Siobhan stepped backward, bumping against the table and making its legs shudder over the wooden floor. Her bladder tried to release under the effects of mindless terror, and she realized barely in time to keep from pissing herself. Her leg muscles were trembling uncontrollably. Siobhan braced herself on the table to keep from collapsing again.
‘What was that? The world broke, just for a moment. Or my mind did.’ Whatever it was had affected Tanya, too, but not the Morrows.
Tanya was on the floor next to the man she’d attacked, struggling to crawl to her feet.
The Morrow closest to what had once been Newton screamed.
It was a thoughtless sound, not an intimidating yell or a frightened cry, but the mindless, hoarse shriek of terror of an animal in the night.
He raised the wand in his hand and shot a concussive blast spell at the Aberrant. From as close as the Morrow was standing, the blast spell would have broken a human’s ribs, tossed their body back hard enough to knock them unconscious against the brick wall, and probably ruptured a couple of organs.
The foggy spell washed over the Aberrant, rippling out against the vibrating strings that contained its form like a bucket of water splashed into a pond, going through and past and impacting with a loud, dull sound against the front wall behind it. The humming strings were agitated at its passing, but seemed unharmed. The tips of the strings, spread out like vines, writhed curiously.
The Morrow man kept screaming and shooting one overpowered concussive blast after another, till the bricks of the front wall began to shatter and crumble and the boarded-up windows were blown clear again.
Siobhan covered her mouth. She held in the convulsive sob that wracked through her body so hard she felt she might choke on it.
The other Morrows joined the first in attacking, one almost hitting Tanya with a fireball as she crawled across the room toward Siobhan.
The fireballs were moderately effective, singeing and withering the Aberrant’s flesh-colored strings, but weren’t enough to actually catch the thing on fire.
The slicing spells cut through the strings, and could get through the protective sphere, but not all the way through the lumpy mass within. They didn’t seem to be doing much real damage. The strings sprouted offshoots from their severed edges and wove themselves back together again with nothing more than a vague scar to show for it.
“Kill it!” Chief screamed. The barrage of spells was enough to collapse a large section of the front wall Newton had been leaning against when he lost control and send a couple of pieces of burning furniture tumbling into the street.
The Morrows quickly ran out of the offensive spells they’d chosen. One or two at a time, they paused to switch the settings on their wands or replace them with another offensive artifact that still had a charge remaining. Each spell within a multi-option artifact like the more expensive battle wands had its own pool of magical energy to draw from, so when they were out of one, they had no option but to switch to something else, and when they ran out of everything useful, they would be helpless.
The man who’d attacked the Aberrant first was still screaming, his wand outstretched but empty of concussive blasts, and him too insensate to switch to a new spell.
The strings nearest him were growing through the air, extending in a liquid pour and hardening in place as they went. It looked like a snake’s slither, and gave Siobhan the same sense of foreboding as they approached him.
He didn’t move, just kept screaming and trying to fire an empty wand.
For a moment, when the first string touched his neck, nothing happened. Then, the skin bulged out in a boil, like the growing bud of a flower.
The bud sprouted.
The man’s neck unraveled, strands of his flesh and blood rising up and disentangling themselves from the rest of him, as if he had been made of millions of tightly packed strings all along. The inside of his throat was visible for a moment, and then his screams choked off as the strands continued to spread, his body slowly coming apart like an unfurling flower of human thread.
The remaining Morrows spread out and retreated toward the back of the room, knocking carelessly into the displayed wooden furniture, their horror tangible. One of them had started to sob, his arm shaking so badly his slicing spells were shooting harmlessly past the Aberrant and disappearing into the fog outside the front wall.
Siobhan took another step back, her eyes opened as wide as they could go, her hand clamped over her mouth.
Still crawling, Tanya grabbed the edge of Siobhan’s cloak.
Siobhan looked down into Tanya’s desperate face.
“Help me. Save me. Please,” Tanya croaked.
The words were ridiculous, a sign of desperation making the other woman reach for whatever feeble hope she could find, but they still acted like a shocking splash of cold water to wake Siobhan from her horrified stupor. She reached down, grabbing Tanya’s arm and helping her to her feet. Above Tanya’s head, her eyes flicked around, cataloguing the situation and their options.
Newton had been near the shop’s front door when he lost control, and a whole section of the wall was now missing entirely, but there was no way they could escape past his still-spreading tendrils. There were a couple of boarded-up windows at the far end of the front wall, but strings were already growing toward them, and by the time she and Tanya managed to break the boards free they would likely have reached the windows.
The Morrows were between them and the stairway leading up to the higher floor.
Behind them was the door to the other room.
“Come on,” Siobhan ordered, her voice barely loud enough to be heard past all the screaming and the battle spells. Still holding Tanya’s arm, she hauled the other woman around the table, weaving through the furniture toward the far door. ‘Maybe there will be a window that we can crawl out of.’
Siobhan yanked on the handle. It was locked. She held back a whining moan of frustration, the hair on the back of her neck prickling as she imagined the strings weaving through the air, searching for her. ‘Can I break down the door with a few kicks? If only I had my bag, my supplies, I could open it easily.’ Siobhan still had a few different writing implements, and even though she didn’t have her lantern, she could use the heat in the air to power the spell…but the lack of proper components would make it more difficult.
She peered at Tanya, who was trembling, her bloodless lips pressed together. The other woman should still have all her supplies, including a handy beast core and whatever else she’d been carrying. “Open the door,” Siobhan ordered her, turning to face the room again. Tanya was a fourth term University student. She would be faster than Siobhan, anyway.
“O-okay,” Tanya stammered behind her.
The Morrow who’d been subsumed by the Aberrant was completely string already, the double-thump of a heartbeat spreading through its vibrating, hollow mass, and its own searching tendrils already spreading toward the other Morrows.
It reminded Siobhan of a fungus, spreading, seeding, and sprouting more of itself. This was the kind of Aberrant that the Red Guard labeled a Blight-type. If allowed to get out of control, they could cause true devastation.
Chief had calmed, and was shouting orders. He and two of the others were moving the furniture into a barricade piled up in the middle of the room, trying to block off the strings of Newton and their subsumed comrade.
Sticky Fingers, the one that had shot at Siobhan, was still on the floor, unconscious and untouched on the wrong side of the barricade, but apparently they had given up hope for him. Blood was pooling around his head from whatever Tanya had done to him.
The remaining Morrows had moved to stunning spells, conserving their charges, only shooting a single spell at a time.
It was the first thing that actually seemed to have an effect on the Aberrant. Wherever the crackling red spells hit, the strings stilled in a couple of meter radius, silencing their humming and slowing their inexorable growth. The Morrows were using the time this bought them to strengthen the barricade.
But the strings weren’t just growing through the air. They were also spreading along the darkness of the far wall and even up toward the high ceiling. The Morrows’ barricade wouldn’t save them.
One of the Morrows had climbed the steps to the door at the back of the room and was kicking at it, no doubt hoping to break open an escape route, just like Siobhan and Tanya. Every kick was preceded by a loud scream, as if the man thought that would give him more strength, and the strings growing along the wall seemed to surge faster in response to the desperate sound.
He noticed them, screamed again, and threw himself back toward the middle of the room.
The strings detached from the far wall, growing back the way they’d come, following him. He kept screaming, pointing wordlessly at the strings that were now coming at them from the side of the room as well as the front.
Behind Siobhan, Tanya let out a sob of relief as the lock clicked open and the door swung inward.
A quick glance was all it took for Siobhan to realize there would be no escape from this room. It was a storage closet—full of tools, wood, and supplies in crates and on shelves. There was no window, only brick walls.
When they were both inside, Tanya moved to close the door behind them, but Siobhan shook her head. A closed door wouldn’t stop the strings. They could slip through the cracks. Better to be able to see, to know what was happening.
The man who had been trying to kick open the shop’s back door calmed enough to aim his wand and shoot two stunning spells, which stilled the strings reaching for him entirely. He quieted, his eyes wide, panting heavily, and then suddenly jumped as if he’d been stung by a hornet.
He looked down in horror at something Siobhan couldn’t see.
She could guess what had happened, though. One of the strings had slipped through the barricade and touched his leg or foot.
He tried to run, but stumbled. Soon after—quicker this time than with the first victim—he began to unravel, one leg unfurling into an amorphous cloud of flesh-colored strings.
Siobhan pushed back her sleeve, picked out the correct bracelet by the colored string tied around each, and snapped it decisively, shoving the now-unlinked remains into a pocket. It wouldn’t tell Oliver where she was, but he would know that something had gone wrong and she was in immediate danger. She chose the next bracelet by the pattern and color of the string she’d tied around it. She slipped it off without breaking it and, aiming very carefully, threw it out the window and into the foggy street as hard as she could.
She’d never assumed she would be in a situation like this, but she and Oliver had agreed on what to do in a dire emergency. He would have a divination cast using the pair to the bracelet she’d just thrown away, and as long as the target was far enough from her that her divination ward didn’t act to protect her by blocking it, he would find her. She hoped.
The Morrows had grasped the situation. A couple of stunning spells knocked the latest victim unconscious, slowing the strings sprouting from his body. Unfortunately, their path to the back door was soon to be blocked off.
Bulldog, the fat man with unfortunate jowls, noticed her standing in the storage closet’s doorway. He pointed toward her and Chief hesitated, looking around wildly for any other option, but, seeing none, nodded.
The three remaining Morrows began to head toward Siobhan and Tanya, navigating through the overturned furniture.
The younger one who had started crying—Siobhan dubbed him Sniffles—was holding a lamp to keep an eye out for sneaking strings waiting in the shadows to touch them.
The strings from the original core of the Aberrant had reached Sticky Fingers now. They crawled over him in several areas, but he was still human. Siobhan wondered for a moment if he’d died, and the strings only took root in living flesh, but his chest still rose and fell slightly.
Siobhan let out a loud, shaky breath as the realization hit her. ‘The Aberrant is ignoring him.’
The other three Morrows were getting closer to her, and as they pushed a fallen cabinet out of their way with a loud scratch across the floor, the strings nearest them began to grow in their direction.
“Lady Raven Queen, we’re begging your pardon!” Chief yelled at her as they approached. “Please give us your protection, we’ll give you anything you want—”
Siobhan’s hand shot out toward him in a stopping motion, and he froze mid-step, the two behind him jostling a bit at the unexpected halt. She lifted her index finger slowly and pointedly to her lips. With her other hand, she pointed at what had once been Newton, then pointed to her ear. “It can hear you,” she mouthed silently.