Month 1, Day 20, Wednesday 11:25 p.m.
Chief’s eyes widened, but he nodded dramatically to show that he’d understood Siobhan’s message and began to tiptoe toward her. The others copied him. If not for the situation, seeing three grown men sneak so dramatically would have been amusing. They were almost beyond the current range of the Aberrant’s strings.
The humming was growing louder, and Siobhan found her mind clear, if not calm, and her body surprisingly relaxed and ready for action, rather than paralyzed by deep-seated terror.
The three Morrows were huddled together. Sniffles, who’d been crying earlier, was now only pale-faced and tight-lipped as his eyes swept their path for strings. Chief led the way, and Bulldog pressed up behind both of them, looking over his shoulder every other second.
Which meant he didn’t see the rounded leg of a broken table the others were stepping over, and when his foot landed on it, it rolled forward, sending him pitching backward. He let out a shout of surprise and reached out to grab onto Sniffles.
But Sniffles leaned away from him, and when Bulldog hit the ground, the fancy light crystal lamp he’d been carrying fell out of his hand. The glass body shattered against the floor. He cursed, trying to quickly regain his feet, but the strings had already been drawn by his noise, and he wasn’t quick or nimble enough to get out of their way in time.
Chief turned to help, trying to haul him up, but the strings were too fast, touching Bulldog’s arm as he tried to heave himself off the ground.
Expression twisted with terror, Bulldog grabbed onto Chief, holding him tightly and screaming, “Help me! Help me, don’t leave me!”
Sniffles bolted for Siobhan, but she didn’t let him into the room, holding a hand up to his face to stop him at the door. To her satisfaction, he didn’t try to physically push past her, despite his fear.
Chief tore one arm back from Bulldog, grabbing his wand and shooting a stunning spell directly into the terrified man’s face.
Bulldog slumped backward, the strings that were assimilating him slowing their advance through his flesh.
But the screaming had agitated the Aberrant’s tendrils, and before Chief could free his other arm, one touched his wrist.
A boil began to bud on his right hand.
Siobhan was impressed with his composure as he pointed the wand at his own forearm, just above where the string was attached, and fiddled with the settings on his wand. A slicing spell shot out, cutting through the flesh and bone, almost all the way through the limb.
He gritted his teeth, holding back a scream of pain with a trembling, pale-faced exhale. He shot a second slicing spell at the same spot, severing the rest of the way through his right forearm.
Putting the wand in his mouth, he squeezed the flesh above the blood-squirting stump with his free hand, stumbling toward the storage closet with ragged gasps and a face so pale it looked green, likely more from shock than blood loss, though the latter would quickly become a problem.
“Your wands,” Siobhan mouthed slowly, holding a hand out expectantly.
Sniffles gave her his immediately. Chief hesitated, but soon opened his mouth to let her take his, as well.
She examined his bleeding stump. It wasn’t sprouting any flesh-strings, and she could see no boils. Behind him, his hand lay on the floor, only half-subsumed into string, and not transforming any further. Whatever the strings were attracted to, the severed hand no longer contained it.
She tucked both wands into one of her bigger vest pockets and stepped aside to let Chief and Sniffles enter the room, eyes sweeping over the entire shop once again.
The second infected Morrow was still being subsumed, but much slower now that he, too, was unconscious. The strings were unfurling his lower back, but his torso and head were still intact.
Bulldog had been forced into unconsciousness almost immediately, and the strings were only halfway up his arm. His expression was peaceful.
Siobhan turned around and they all retreated to the far side of the storage closet.
Tanya was glassy-eyed and had beads of sweat over her forehead despite the chill, but she looked to Siobhan with a calm, expectant readiness, as if prepared to leap to her bidding. “Should I search them?” she whispered, the words more breath than sound.
“Yes,” Siobhan said, then turned to the Morrows. “Do either of you have any concussive blast spells left?” It was dangerous to cast them in a small, enclosed space, but it might be enough to break down the wall of the storage closet and let them escape directly into the side street.
Both of them shook their heads, which was a shame.
“How many stunning spells remaining?”
The leader shook his head again, but Sniffles said, “Four. Three in mine, one in his.” He seemed sure, which was rather impressive, with all the chaos and mayhem they had just gone through.
Four stunning spells was enough to buy them a couple of minutes. Her attention turned to the Morrow leader. The slicing spell had done a relatively clean job on his forearm. There weren’t any bone fragments, at least. She had plenty of healing supplies in her bag, courtesy of the secret meeting, but that bag was lying on the ground within the Aberrant’s main string-sphere, dropped when the Morrows realized who she was.
If they didn’t do something quickly, he would pass out and then die from blood loss. His grip on his severed forearm wasn’t enough to stop the bleeding, and she doubted he’d be able to keep it up for much longer, judging from his pale skin and the faint trembling in his knees. She considered simply tying off the stump with a makeshift tourniquet and leaving Chief to his fate, but he might be useful, and even if he wasn’t—even though he was a criminal that had threatened her—the thought of huddling in fear next to a slowly dying man while she had the means to help him made her queasy. ‘It’s not about him. It’s about me and who I want to be.’
She still had a handful of supplies in the pockets scattered throughout her clothes, and they already knew her as the Raven Queen, a wanted criminal known for doing blood magic. “I can patch up your arm,” she offered, her breathy whisper almost lost amid the growing hum filling the building.
He stared at her a moment, then nodded jerkily.
“Kneel,” she said, taking the little silver alchemy athame from her pocket and unsheathing it. It was meant for cutting ingredients and occasionally waving around a cauldron while chanting, not cutting a human, but she liked to have a backup.
His eyes widened, but she only used the athame to cut away his blood-soaked sleeve, which she wrung until the blood dripped out into the growing puddle on the floor, and then tied tightly just below his elbow as a makeshift tourniquet.
This would require much more power than shifting some teeth back into their proper place or knitting together a shallow cut. There was no way she could regrow his hand, but she needed to at least stop the bleeding and close the wound.
She dipped her finger in the pooling blood, using it to draw the flesh-mirroring spell array.
Tanya looked between the array, Siobhan, and the man, but didn’t say anything. Instead, she offered Siobhan one of the beast cores, which the Morrows hadn’t had time to find and take from her.
Siobhan accepted it with interest, imagining she could feel the faint sense of bottled power within the bright yellow crystal. She guided Chief to place one arm in each of the two inner Circles. She placed the beast core in the component Circle, warned him, “Do not move,” then began to cast, using the Conduit still tucked uncomfortably inside the lip of her boot.
Despite her warning, Chief gasped and jerked as the meat of his stump moved under her control. Luckily, he didn’t leave the Circle, but she sent him a harsh glare that made his Adam’s apple bob with an audible swallow.
Without Siobhan needing to ask, Tanya moved to kneel beside him, holding one of his arms and gesturing for Sniffles to do the same on the other side.
The door to the upper floor, across the main room from the storage closet, flew open, distracting Siobhan.
An old man stood in the doorway above the small set of stairs, holding a spear and what looked like an antique wooden shield with metal banding around the sides, painted with a coat of arms. “Get out of my shop, hooligans!” he yelled, brandishing the spear from behind the protection of the shield. It was a rather belated response to all the ruckus they’d been making. Perhaps the old man had been waiting until it sounded like they were gone to come out in a show of bluster.
When no one responded, he took a better look at the ruined shop. His eyes widened, swept over the room, and without another word, he turned around and ran back up the stairs. “We have to get out! We have to get out now! There’s some rogue magic thing growing down there…” His gasping voice came through the stairway door until he got too far away to be heard past the hum of the Aberrant.
The strings grew toward the open door, drawn by his voice, and up toward the ceiling, which was thumping with footsteps and letting through more muffled voices.
Siobhan resumed her magical adjustments. She couldn’t actually mirror the regrown arm. However, she could mimic the way blood vessels shrunk as they grew into his remaining hand, forcing the ones in his stump to narrow artificially, and grow new paths between the veins and arteries. That would send the blood that would otherwise continue pumping out of him back into circulation.
“Is that blood magic?” Sniffles asked.
Tanya scoffed. “You’re in the presence of the Raven Queen, and she’s healing a man without any components. What do you think?”
“Is that…safe?” Sniffles seemed torn between leaning closer in fascination and shuffling backward to put space between himself and the blood magic, but any movement was restricted by his need to keep a firm grip on Chief’s arm.
Tanya actually rolled her eyes, one side of her mouth twitching up in a smirk despite the stress-induced sweat still wetting her temples. “She’s a free-caster. She’s more than skilled enough for something like this.”
“But…where is her Conduit?”
Tanya seemed stumped by this at first, too, but finally just said, “She’s the Raven Queen,” as if that were an acceptable explanation. “If I were you, and you make it through the night, I’d leave the Morrows. You do not want to be on her bad side.”
Sniffles shuddered with his whole body.
Siobhan was curious about the reputation the Raven Queen had somehow earned behind her back, but couldn’t split her concentration from molding Chief’s stump. She didn’t care to do a perfect job, and didn’t have the power or skill to do so even if she had. She worked quickly, then started tugging at the skin, growing it a little but mostly just forcing it to stretch around the severed flesh. In only a couple of minutes, he was left with a raw, shiny forearm stump that looked suspiciously like a fingertip. It was sloppy, but definitely satisfactory for the work of a few minutes.
Siobhan released the spell. “You still need to see a healer. I did not clean the wound.”
He gave her several quick bows, staring in wonder at his wrist, which probably still hurt quite a bit but wouldn’t be fatal within the next few hours at least. “Thank you, thank you, er, Lady Raven Queen. Am I…do I owe you my life, now? Or…the life of my first-born child?”
Siobhan was picking up the beast core, but almost dropped it in stupefaction at his second question. ‘Is he joking?’
His earnest, frightened expression belied that.
She almost shook her head, but hesitated. Why would she turn down repayment for her help when it was offered? “I do not take payment in lives,” she whispered instead, tucking the beast core into her jacket pocket. There was no way she was returning it to Tanya.
Her answer did not seem to reassure Chief in the least, but before he could continue to question her, Tanya butted in. “Mistress, is there any way to help Newton?”
There was no way to reverse an Aberrant transformation. Siobhan said so, and Tanya nodded reluctantly, her expression drawn tight with fear and dread.
‘She’s more naive than I thought, if she didn’t know that. Or maybe just desperate for hope.’
“Well, do you have some way to get us out of here? Some way to break down the wall without the Aberrant being able to sense it?” Tanya tried.
Siobhan considered. She might be able to use the trick from Professor Lacer’s class to turn small sections of the mortar between the bricks into sand, and thus open a hole for them, but there would probably be at least two layers of brick, and some sort of insulation in between them. Even if she got Tanya to help with that, it would take too long. “Silently, but not quickly,” she whispered. “The strings would reach us.”
“Well, is there maybe a way to travel with us through the shadows? Your shadow-creature seems big enough to carry us all.”
Siobhan stared at Tanya, wondering if unrealistic, fantastical thoughts were a sign of shock, since the other woman seemed to be losing her grip on reality. The question was too inane to bother with a response. Besides, Siobhan’s attention was drawn to a bright light that swept through the cleared front windows and the part of collapsed wall behind Newton.
She turned with excitement, a finger on her lip reminding the others to be quiet. The kind of lensed lantern that focused the beam in a single direction wasn’t common among civilians, and someone was shining one such beam through the fog. The people up above could have somehow summoned the coppers, or, more likely, it had been the flare followed by all the previous noise and spellcasting. With the humming of the strings drowning out other sounds, she couldn’t listen for the metallic clack of their footsteps that would signify the eponymous copper hobnails in the soles of their boots.
She had the sudden urge to call out for help, but the slowly searching strings were already almost a meter away from the doorway, crawling along the floor and hanging in vine-like patterns in the air. If she called for help, by the time the coppers got to them, they would be dead.
‘We could write a note explaining the situation, wrap it around something, and throw it out one of the windows. They could open the storage room wall from the other side.’ It could work, maybe, if the coppers had enough stunning spell charges on them and were willing to listen.
A copper stepped closer to the collapsed section of wall where Newton and the front door had once stood, shining his light through the string-filled opening. He called, “Is anyone in there? By order of the High Crown, reveal yourself!” The wand in his other hand sent out an almost-transparent pulse, likely the same revealing spell the copper team had used on Siobhan when they caught her and Oliver in that rundown building. That seemed like a lifetime ago.
The copper seemed to realize suddenly what he was seeing, and screamed over the humming, “Aberrant! Call the Red—” His words cut out in favor of a glass-sharp shriek, and his lantern fell to the ground as his arm exploded into thread.
The Aberrant’s power was growing. That had been a lot faster than either of the other two.
Another copper—his partner—shouted in alarm, and through the fog and the strings Siobhan caught what she thought was the shimmer of a barrier spell springing into existence as he scrambled to back away. His footsteps rang loud as he retreated up the fog-filled street.
The first copper tried to run, too, but the strings got to his head too quickly. He slumped to the cobblestone street as the grey strings of his brain matter fluttered outward, illuminated by the bright beam of his lensed lantern.
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