Month 1, Day 20, Wednesday 11:45 p.m.
As Siobhan descended the stairs, she thought back to her first Defensive Magic lesson with Elwood Fekten. They’d talked about banshees and ways to defend against them. She’d looked over a couple of temporary deafening hexes after that, and knew one that she could have cast on herself, if she had the components and the wherewithal to focus, as it was rather complex.
The Aberrant’s hum wasn’t just in her ears, but in her bones. Still, she thought the deafening hex might do something. Any improvement would be useful, because she could recognize that she was slipping inexorably past extreme calm into both mental and physical slackness.
She couldn’t feel her own face. That was more than the self-calming spell could have possibly done. At this point, she could barely even muster the care to worry about what would happen as the Aberrant continued to grow stronger.
The spot where the warding medallion had grown cold against her chest throbbed with a cold-burn. Siobhan slid her cupped hands up from her diaphragm to rub against the damaged skin, welcoming the temporary surge of wakefulness that accompanied the pain.
In the room below, the illumination of an overturned light crystal lamp showed the hive-like web of strings that had grown through the room—through the air, across the floor, walls, and ceiling, and spilling out into the street.
The flesh-colored strings pressed sharply against her skin as she maneuvered through them, and she learned to avoid them more carefully the first time a vibration cut through her jacket and threatened to draw blood from her arm. It would be just what she needed to give the coppers a second blood sample to scry for her with.
As she made it farther to the front of the building, where Newton had triggered, the strings grew denser and began to respond aggressively when she was forced to push them out of the way. She had to freeze in place several times while they searched out the living creature moving among them.
When she finally reached the barrier sphere of strings around the huddled, amorphous mass that had been Newton, she spotted her bag on the floor inside, but just blinked at it lethargically for a while until she remembered that she was supposed to be retrieving it and escaping as quickly as possible.
Moving slowly, clumsily, she brought the Circle of her hands up to her mouth, pointing the wand with her teeth around the thick handle. She awkwardly leaned forward until the tip of the wand was almost touching the strings before triggering the stunning spell.
As soon as the strings stopped vibrating, she dropped the calming spell, switched the wand’s settings to the cutting spell, and used the last three charges to cut the three lines of a triangle.
The closest strings seemed alerted to her presence without her actively humming, and, as quickly as she could while feeling like the whole world had been muffled in a bottle of molasses, she switched back to the stunning spell setting—of which only one remained—stuck the wand back in her mouth, and recast the calming spell on herself. She used what felt like the last bit of urgency in her soul to climb through the triangle-shaped opening she’d created in the barrier sphere.
With such a large hole, the strings didn’t seem able to simply heal the wound, but they were already beginning to regrow new tendrils from the sliced edges.
She triggered her amulet, and immediately lost a couple of seconds to a disoriented blink as her body shifted. She almost lost concentration on the spell, too, and realized afterward that it had been dangerous to transform while casting. Anything could have happened, but mostly horrible things.
Casting took an effort of Will, and she was losing the ability to care enough to make the world bend under her heel. She looked down at the fetal mass of thrumming strings that still faintly resembled a human body.
‘Wouldn’t it be ironic if I lost control casting the same exact spell as Newton, in the same spot? This was a mistake.’ It was the last coherent thought she had as she let the spell slip to keep the magic from turning on her.
Her mind lay fallow.
She didn’t know how much time she lost, but a flash of fire and blood behind her eyelids sent a burst of fear through her.
She woke from her waking daze with a gasp, eyes wide, heart slamming against her chest with a sudden surge of energy. She’d been training herself for years to wake from her nightmares as quickly as possible, and apparently not even the absolute tranquility of an Aberrant’s anomalous effect could overpower them. She never thought she’d be grateful for what was otherwise the bane of her existence.
She was still standing. Apparently, there were no searching strings within the sphere. If there had been, one would likely have found and subsumed her while she was catatonic with serenity.
Knowing her lucidity wouldn’t last long, she shuffled closer to the origin point, the thing that had once been Newton.
She stunned it, point-blank against the part that should have been a head, and felt a wave of relief as every string in the building fell still and silent.
She could suddenly hear the sirens again, though she wasn’t sure when they’d been drowned out by the humming, and shouts from outside filtered in through the muffling fog, some fearful, some authoritative.
‘This probably won’t last long.’ Hurrying as fast as her still-clumsily relaxed muscles would allow her, she stripped out of her clothes, replaced them with the slightly worn set of men’s clothing from the bottom of her bag, not bothering with the many buttons, and stuffed the female clothing as tightly inside as she could. She would have preferred to burn them, just in case, but the coppers might see something suspicious if she did that, and if the response was extra slow, she might end up burning down the whole building with Tanya and the others trapped above.
Sebastien retrieved her stunning wand from the hidden pouch at the bottom of the bag, then shoved her head ornaments into that same narrow, hidden space without regard for the feathers or the once-gentle curve of the wire filigree. With the evidence hidden as well as she could manage, she pulled the strap over her shoulders, the weight of her magical supplies a comfort she hadn’t even realized she needed. She turned back to the fetal form that had been Newton.
Its strings were already starting to hum again, and the vibrations were spreading outward from there.
With a sharp grin that actually made her feel a pang of sorrow, she pressed her stunning wand again to the Aberrant’s “head” and shot two consecutive stunning spells. ‘There. Hopefully that’ll keep it down long enough for me to get out of here.’ If not, she only had one charge left.
She knelt, the illumination of the lights from the cordon just enough for her to see Newton’s two alarm ward bracelets, tangled through with strings. She broke them without hesitation, pulling the pieces out of the string and shoving them into her pocket, then doing the same with the bracelet whose pewter bead around her wrist suddenly grew cold.
His clothes were torn to shreds, but some of the things in his pockets had fallen to the floor. Sebastien scooped up a handful of gold crowns and his Conduit, not sure if she should feel guilty for doing so. He’d had a wand, too, but she didn’t see it. Maybe one of the Morrows had taken it off him.
The hole in the side of the string barrier was half-regrown already.
Pulling out her paper slicing spell array, she held it up near the opening by its edges, with the beast core Tanya had given her in the component Circle where she would normally have placed her little lantern.
The practice with Professor Lacer’s air-sphere spell seemed to have helped her improve her grasp on the way the slicing spell molded air into a super-condensed arc. It was still much weaker than the slicing spells that had been in the battle wands—it was only meant for cutting fabric, after all—but it was enough to cut through the strings, and she managed to enlarge the opening again with a little effort.
She climbed back through the lopsided triangle, then made her way over fallen furniture and between the frozen strings to the farthest of the windows. The boards had been knocked free by the Morrow’s initial concussive blast spells.
Moving slowly in the hopes that the fog would be enough to block her from the sight of the distant coppers along the cordon, she climbed out of the window and into the street. Just being outside of the building, finally, sent a wave of relief through her.
‘Is there any way I can give the coppers a tip about how to deal with the Aberrant, and let them know to send a ladder around to the back of the building so the others can get out safely?’ She tried to imagine a scenario in which she got the information to them without compromising her own safety. ‘Maybe Oliver could do something. I should go to his house, since he’s probably worried about me after I triggered the bracelet ward.’ Damien, too, would have been alerted when she broke Newton’s bracelets. ‘Hopefully he doesn’t panic and do anything stupid.’
Her relief had been preemptive. She’d only made it a couple of meters away from the window when a bright light burst into existence a short distance in front of her, making her squint and freeze instinctively.
“Halt!” a man’s rough voice yelled. “Hands up, fingers splayed!”
She complied slowly, her eyes adjusting to see the red shields and magical tactical gear of the Red Guard.
A whole squad of them were standing a few meters in front of her, a couple with battle artifacts trained on her while the others kept watch to the sides and behind so nothing could sneak up on them.
“Oh, hells,” she murmured aloud.
A Red Guard squad member shot a strange spell at Sebastien that she didn’t dare to try and dodge. It prickled against her skin, tickling her insides until it reached her spine, and then bounced back.
The Red Guard woman who’d shot her checked the readings off a crystal tablet, then gave a quick handsign. “No anomalies. Human.”
They relaxed a bit, and Sebastien was just about to slump with profound relief when she noticed a man to the left of the group peering closely at her, adjusting a complex metallic monocle attached by a clamp to the side of his head.
Sebastien felt the monocled man’s attention activating the divination-diverting ward placed under the skin of her back, and knew it was over for her.
“Possible Nightmare-type,” he snapped immediately.
She raised her hands even higher, fingers splayed wide. “Wait, wait! I’m human! I’m a University student, and I’m Thaddeus La—”
Before she could drop her professor’s name in the hope of making them pause, a dark purple spell shot out of the center of the front man’s shield. It hit her faster than she could blink.