Month 1, Day 20, Wednesday 11:30 p.m.
From out of Siobhan’s line of sight, the remaining copper shot a couple of red stunning spells at the Aberrant’s prime mass—their wands’ default spell—though either because of his distance from their target or the Aberrant’s gradual increase in power, the threads didn’t still for as long as they had before.
The people above called out to the coppers for rescue, enticing the strings further up toward the ceiling.
One of the people that might have been able to save them had just died. Now the coppers would be more wary, more cautious. Maybe they would move too slowly out of care for their own well-being to save Siobhan and the others before it was too late.
Siobhan was terrified. She knew she was, but her body didn’t agree. It was surreal to experience such a disconnect of emotion from physiological response. She felt detached from herself. She had grown used to feeling a little uncomfortable, a little displaced in her own skin, after using the artifact. This was different. She had never felt that her existence was a consciousness so distinct and separate from the meat suit she wore as a body.
It made her wonder again if there was any evidence of consciousness beyond the electrical and chemical signals processed by the brain. She didn’t believe it—her sense of detachment was unreliable and there was no measurable evidence of such a phenomenon, but the curiosity it sparked made her feel more settled, more like herself.
She was a creature of curiosity, after all. ‘If I cannot rely on others, I will rely on myself. I will find a way out of this.’
Neither of the Morrows seemed as frightened as they had been before.
Tanya was still looking to Siobhan for salvation with out-of-character faith, but none of the clawing desperation that had been there after Newton first lost control.
All of the people who had been infected were now fully string, too, but Sticky Fingers was still breathing shallowly, resting in a coagulating pool of his own blood as the strings crawled over and past him, uncaring.
“An Aberrant’s powers are always unique, like snowflakes, but they are often based on the circumstances in which they lost control,” Siobhan muttered aloud, running her fingers over her cold-chapped lips.
Tanya nodded, a faint frown of confusion creasing her brow.
“Newton was casting a self-calming spell. The strings are imitating the hum of it. Transferring the calm to us. Can you feel it?” Siobhan asked.
“I feel it,” Chief said, his voice a little too loud.
“The strings are drawn to movement. Especially to screaming. But they’re ignoring him”—Siobhan pointed to Sticky Fingers—“because he’s unconscious. I think they can tell the difference between a living, agitated body and someone in a state of complete calm. They ignored your hand once you cut it off, too,” she murmured to Chief.
“So if it keeps giving off that sound, maybe we’ll be calm enough to be safe?” Tanya asked.
Siobhan gave her a bitter smile. “If you would like to use one of the few remaining stunning spells to knock yourself unconscious and wait for rescue, you can. But I have a different idea.”
Tanya hesitated before shaking her head. “No. The coppers will be calling in the Red Guard right now. Who knows what they’ll do? Maybe they’ll quarantine the whole building and kill everything inside. Newton—this Aberrant, I mean—it’s a Blight-type. It spreads. I heard there’s a town near Vale that had a bad Blight-type twenty years ago. The whole town is still trapped inside a sundered zone.”
The words produced a small flutter of actual, physical anxiety in Siobhan’s chest, and she closed her eyes for a moment to force it back.
“I’ll follow you,” Tanya added. “What do you need me to do?”
“Us as well,” Chief concurred immediately.
Sniffles nodded rapidly.
“Do you know the spell Newton was using?” Siobhan asked.
Tanya deflated with disappointment. “No. It was a family spell, and I only know he used it when he became too stressed, or when he needed to relax to sleep. I could try to recreate it…?”
“No need.” Siobhan handed Tanya both confiscated stunning wands, confident in Tanya’s temporary trustworthiness as well as her composure. “When I give the signal, stun the closest strings, then switch immediately to the slicing spell.” She sat down and began to unlace her left boot. She’d read that the human body didn’t actually need its pinky toes for balance. In the worst case scenario, if this didn’t work, her hands would be more useful than her feet, and the feet were farther away from her vital organs.
She could have taught Tanya the self-calming spell and tried to use her as the experimental subject instead, but doubted the woman would be willing to put her own life on the line.
And even if Tanya was willing, she didn’t have the experience with the spell that Siobhan did. If she failed, creating another node of strings closer to the storage closet, that would make things worse for Siobhan, while still not absolutely proving that the idea couldn’t work.
Siobhan couldn’t trust anyone but herself with this task.
She stood, one foot bare against the floor. “Stay close. If this doesn’t work, cut off the infected section immediately. I expect the strings will move quickly. Don’t try to save too much of my leg. Aim for the mid-calf or the knee.”
Tanya’s lips firmed, and she nodded, her knuckles white around the wand’s handle.
Siobhan reached out and touched Tanya’s hand. “Steady, okay?”
“Okay,” Tanya breathed.
Turning back to the main floor of the shop—now a wreckage of broken furniture and organic webs of the Aberrant’s string—Siobhan took a deep breath, bringing her hands to her chest and creating a Circle with her thumbs touching her middle fingers. She exhaled on a deep hum, the spell coming easier to her than it ever had before. Her voice mixed with the humming of the strings filling the room. She matched their sound as closely as possible, a low droning, and kept going with every deep breath until her heartbeat was calm and the last remnants of acrid adrenaline had dissipated.
She had never been so placid. Even her thoughts felt slow.
Tanya stepped forward, and with a motion from Siobhan, used the last stunning spell from one of the wands on the closest string from only a few inches away. It and those nearby stilled completely, confirming Siobhan’s suspicion that the efficacy of the spell decreased with distance, as was the case with many long-distance spells.
Still humming, she reached forward with her foot. She could feel her heartbeat attempt to spike with apprehension, and she paused to make sure she was as calm as could be again.
Then, she moved her foot forward the last couple of inches, touching her pinky toe to the string.
She drew her foot back, peering at it in what little light remained from the street and the tipped-over lamps inside the room. No buds forming.
‘But maybe that’s just because she stunned them. We’ve only got three stunning spell charges left. That’s not enough to get all the way out of the room. It needs to work on the active strings too.’ So, Siobhan waited until they began to grow forward again and let the string touch her once more.
It curled almost curiously around her toe and over her foot, but still didn’t stop and pierce her, and no buds of infection grew in her flesh.
She pulled her foot back, then pressed it against the string a little harder, to make sure movement wouldn’t trigger their attack suddenly.
The string grew upward and turned back on itself under the pressure of her flesh, heading slowly back through the air the way it had come, like a tree that was bound with straps would grow into the shape it was forced to conform to.
Still humming, she pulled her foot back, stepping away from the growing strings. They didn’t follow her with any particular interest, as if deaf to the noise she was making because it matched their own.
Beside and slightly behind her, Tanya’s mouth had dropped open.
“Come,” Siobhan mouthed, making sure all three of her short-term allies could see and read the word on her lips.
Sniffles and Chief hurried out of the storage closet with soft steps, keeping Siobhan between themselves and the strings.
She jerked her head toward the door to the stairway on the other side of the room, then started to move, a little uneven since Sniffles was still carrying her other boot. She didn’t want to waste time putting it back on while the Aberrant was still growing stronger.
Very carefully, Siobhan led the three of them through the room, physically blocking or turning the strings back on themselves where necessary.
She considered trying to save Sticky Fingers, maybe pulling him into a safer location at the least. ‘He’s a panicker, though, and hostile to the Raven Queen. He could get us all killed.’ They kept their distance from him and walked past. Neither of the Morrows protested.
Halfway to the stairway, the rogue magic sirens went off, their high-pitched ringing making the other three jump in surprise and agitating the Aberrant.
Her companions calmed almost immediately, probably due in large part to the effects of the Aberrant’s humming, and Siobhan felt only the barest thump of alarm.
She knew, intellectually, that she was in danger of dying a horrible, gruesome death, the kind that would give someone nightmares. Her mind kept thinking of it, imagining it and yearning for all the things she had yet to accomplish with her life. But her body was too calm to feel it. Her heartbeat was placid, her muscles relaxed, and her veins free of the burn of stress-response chemicals.
The strings were a little more aggressive after the sirens started, but she reassured herself that even if her state of forced calm was no longer adequate to move through them, she would survive as long as they cut off the infected appendage quickly enough.
As they got to the stairway, Siobhan first turned back the strings curling around the door and along the walls, guiding them until they exited back into the main room against their instincts, then blocked the way so the others could pass ahead of her.
She looked up to the shadowed ceiling where the strings were matted and curled up, a feather of foreboding brushing against the back of her mind.
She turned and walked up the stairs, relaxed down to her faintly-vibrating bones and too lethargic to hurry.
The third floor was an apartment, and apparently housed the shop owner and a couple generations of his family.
Tanya, Sniffles, and Chief had stopped a little way into the living area.
Over Tanya’s head, Siobhan saw a burst mass of strings writhing around the middle of the room. A middle-aged man was being turned, from the legs upward.
The strings had burrowed their way directly through the floor from the lower level in several spots, and one must have caught him. They were moving slower than they should have, and Tanya’s outstretched wand was enough for Siobhan to guess they’d been stunned.
‘Only a couple of charges left,’ Siobhan thought.
Huddled against the far wall were two women and three young children. They were shivering in horror, one young boy’s face pressed to his mother’s neck to keep him from seeing the man’s fate, but none were screaming, at least.
The grandpa had attempted to attack the strings, apparently, as his spear was caught up in the mass, but he was huddled against the wall to the side, warding off more pieces of the Aberrant with his paltry wooden shield.
Siobhan’s eyes met those of the man dying slowly in the middle of the room. It was too late to cut off his legs, as his lower stomach was unraveling already. Even Myrddin might not have been able to save someone missing half their organs.
He was struggling against the forced tranquility. “Have mercy, save them,” he gasped out, just before his lungs became visible from the inside of his chest cavity.
As she stepped around him toward the women and children, they huddled back away from her, and she realized it probably seemed quite sinister for her to have her hands in a Circle in front of her chest and be humming the same deep note as the strings. She couldn’t stop to explain, but hoped they understood her intentions from the way she pushed the strings back from them and gestured with her head for them to move through the path she’d created.
It was too late to save the grandfather. The strings had bored through and around the edge of his shield, and as soon as they touched him it was over. He fairly exploded into flesh-strings, splashing against the wall and into his own shield.
A couple of the children screamed, and Siobhan had to move quickly to block the strings drawn by the noise. The one positive of the rogue magic sirens was that the strings were less aware of individual small noises, less likely to hone in on the subtle sounds of movement.
There were windows on this floor, barely large enough for the adults to crawl out of, but no way to get safely down to the ground. A jump from this high would break bones, at the least, and the bricks of the outer wall wouldn’t provide nearly enough purchase to climb down.
Siobhan led them all to a bedroom at the far end of the upper floor where none of the strings had broken through yet, finally dropping the calming spell so she could speak. There was a window, and if they could get someone to bring a ladder, or create some sort of cushion against the ground, they could escape through it. And if not, they could take their chances with broken bones.
Chief began to explain the situation to the family members in hushed tones just loud enough to be heard over the combined sirens and Aberrant humming.
Looking through the window, Siobhan could see a line of bright lights being set up about a block away, facing the building but barely able to illuminate it through the thick, obscuring fog. “They’re setting up a quarantine cordon,” she murmured. “They want to be able to see anything that tries to escape.”
Tanya moved to stand beside her, looking out with a hint of alarm. “Reinforcement coppers, probably. The Red Guard should be here soon, and they’ll…handle things.”
One of the women was crying silently, her hand held over her son’s mouth to muffle his sobs, too.
Sniffles handed her the red Morrow handkerchief he’d had tied around his arm, but she threw it back in his face, which shocked him and brought a few more tears to his own eyes.
Siobhan drew Sniffles to the window, opening it as far as it would go and making him hold out the lamp he’d brought from downstairs. “Keep waving it. Someone should notice it, and they might be able to help you get down.”
“You’re not coming with us?” Tanya asked, then answered her own question. “Of course not. They would try to arrest you on sight.”
Siobhan nodded silently. She had hoped to escape from the upper floor, but there was another problem she had to deal with. ‘I left evidence downstairs. My bag, which is full of supplies, including a spare set of male clothing and the bracelets I gave Newton. The ones he never broke to ask for help. Even if I could afford to replace everything, who knows what the Red Guard could do with all that? They have magic the common person couldn’t even imagine.’
She wasn’t sure if it was out of compassion, or her completely missing sense of urgency, but she took a couple of minutes to teach Tanya the esoteric calming spell, in case the other woman needed to block strings trying to enter the room. It took time and practice to get really good at a spell like that, but hopefully it would make some small difference.
Tanya seemed almost afraid to cast it, but picked up the mechanics quickly. She was a fourth-term University student, after all.
Satisfied that she’d done all she could, Siobhan took back the wand that still had two charges of the stunning spell and turned to leave the room.
Tanya reached out, grabbing hold of Siobhan’s elbow to stop her. “I never meant…” She swallowed. “I never meant to make an enemy of you. Any offense I caused you by working with the Morrows, or the University, I apologize.”
Siobhan’s thoughts were too sluggish to work out the best way to respond to that. In the end, she only nodded silently, then left the room, turning back toward the stairway.
Strings were crawling along the walls and through the air from the lower floor. She tucked the wand between her teeth. With a deep breath, she brought her hands back to her chest, began to hum, and faced the stairway.
She tried to move, but her feet refused.
Not because she was incapacitated, but because she desperately, wretchedly wanted to do anything else but face the Aberrant head on. If it were possible, she would go to truly extraordinary lengths to avoid the thing.
But that could mean being forced to leave the University or being caught by the coppers. Neither of those were acceptable alternatives.
With only one road before her, she started to force her way down through the drifting strings, back toward the vibrating shadows and the origin of it all.
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