Month 1, Day 21, Thursday 12:05 a.m.
Sebastien woke up gasping, a minty shock yanking her to consciousness hard enough it felt like her nose might start bleeding. She sat upright so fast she made herself dizzy, realizing with disorientation that she was lying on a portable cot in a square field tent.
A woman wearing the red shield symbol of the Red Guard, but without the tactical gear of the squad who’d found and shot her, said in a calming tone, “Easy. You might feel lightheaded or confused. You should lie back down.”
Sebastien looked at the woman, who was standing across the tent, and slowly complied.
The woman’s hard, wary expression didn’t match her tone at all. There was a barrier spell up between them, wrapping around Sebastien. That, more than anything, helped Sebastien remember the situation she was in.
“The Aberrant is attracted to sound,” she said immediately, hoping that being cooperative would lend her some goodwill. “I didn’t have a chance to tell them before they shot me. It’s drawn to sound, and it will infect anyone who’s even slightly agitated with those strings. There’s a spell that can protect against the strings, and stunning spells disable them for a short time. And there’s—there might be some people upstairs who need help.”
The woman didn’t relax at all, though she motioned to someone at the open front side of the tent. They would presumably relay the information to the people that needed it. The woman scribbled in a small notebook. “What is your name?”
Sebastien almost gave the wrong name, and might have, if she hadn’t taken to thinking of herself as Sebastien when in her male body. There were wards against untruth. Strong ones. “Sebastien Siverling. I’m a University student. Um, Thaddeus Lacer’s apprentice.” She tried not to sound awkward when she added the last bit. She realized belatedly that her shirt and vest were still both unbuttoned, and with a flush began to rectify her state of dress.
The woman’s eyebrow rose, but she scribbled again in her notebook.
Sebastien’s bag was on the table behind the woman, its contents laid out for display. Thankfully, the black and red feathered hair ornaments were not there. Either they hadn’t found them, or the ornaments had been taken away for examination elsewhere, submitted into evidence against her.
When Sebastien stopped to listen, she realized she couldn’t hear the humming any more, and the sirens had stopped, too. She didn’t know if that was because they had moved her somewhere, or if they’d already dealt with the Aberrant while she was unconscious.
The fog outside the tent entrance and the brick building she could see across the street—a different one than they’d been trapped inside—suggested that she hadn’t been moved too far. “How long have I been out?” she asked.
“Not long,” the woman replied vaguely. “Did you have contact with the Aberrant?”
Sebastien hesitated. “Well—”
Before she could continue, a familiar voice snapped, “I am more than capable of dealing with whatever anomalous effect you think you have detected from my apprentice. Let me pass!”
Someone else said, “It’s alright. Professor Lacer is with me.”
Sebastien expected them to enter the tent, and turned toward the open side with a combination of dread and relief, but instead there was more distant, muffled arguing from other voices that she vaguely recognized. She frowned, rifling through her memory for a match. She wasn’t the best with audible memories, and so she had just realized that it was Lynwood, the leader of the Nightmare Pack, and his adopted prognos sister Gera when the two of them walked in with Professor Lacer and another man who looked like an older, more severe version of Damien. Behind them trailed a man with an irritating cough and a sheaf of papers.
Gera’s single scarred eye was staring milkily at nothing, but Sebastien could feel the extra pressure of her constantly running divination spell as soon as the other woman drew close. ‘Did Oliver send her to help me?’ Gera raised her hand to push back a lock of hair from her face, and Siobhan noted the wood bracelet held together with a bead of pewter around the woman’s wrist. It was the same one Siobhan had thrown away.
Gera had divined her location, which was almost irrefutable evidence that Oliver had sent her.
Lynwood took a long look at Sebastien, examining her from head to toe, then turned to Gera.
Lynwood said, “I find myself needed elsewhere,” already spinning on his heel. He bumped into the coughing man, barely stopping to mutter, “Excuse me, Investigator.”
Professor Lacer, too, looked over Sebastien from head to toe, then gave the Red Guard woman who’d been questioning her a scathing glare that made the woman shift uncomfortably.
She straightened self-consciously. “Grandmaster Lacer,” she said. “Welcome. Melinda Vernor.” She bowed, receiving a slight nod of the head in return. “I’m surprised to see you here. Are you planning to help with the investigation?”
Professor Lacer somehow managed to give the impression of scoffing rudely without making a sound. “I am here on the invitation of Lord Titus Westbay, to provide my expertise and to make sure my apprentice is not mistreated.”
“Er.” Vernor looked rapidly back and forth from Professor Lacer to Sebastien. “I assure you, the spells used on him were not harmful. He is in adequate physical health, except for some…anomalous readings that were in effect before we encountered him. As I’m sure you know, it is our duty to ensure that no harm comes to the citizens of this country, despite the costs.”
Gera hesitated, then offered the tent in general a moderately deep bow, the pressure of her attention withdrawing from Sebastien, easing the strain on her divination-diverting ward. “I am here to offer my assistance, as I have some skill in divination, and as I understand this person”—she gestured toward Sebastien—“is of significant interest to the disturbance going on in my…neighborhood.”
The man who had to be Damien’s older brother, Titus Westbay, gave Gera an ironic look. Apparently, it was a bit of an open secret that this part of the city was now territory of the Nightmare Pack. But he said, “Welcome. I am Titus Westbay, and this investigation is under my supervision. We would be appreciative of your insight.”
Gera nodded regally, staring vaguely into mid-air. “As for the boy, he bears the blessing of the Raven Queen. This may be the anomalous effect you discovered.”
Sebastien did her best to avoid seeming surprised. ‘It’s a good cover. There’s no way for me to hide the fact that both the Raven Queen and I are resistant to divination magic. This way, it’s not something that’s unique to either of us, and it won’t be a clue that someone could use to deduce we are the same person.’ She was impressed with Gera’s quick thinking. Perhaps Oliver had told her to say that. It gave her hope that there might still be a way out of all this.
Titus Westbay’s eyebrows rose, and he shared a look with Professor Lacer. “The Raven Queen? How did you deduce this?”
“I am…acquainted with her, shall we say,” Gera said, her head turning slightly toward Sebastien as if to check for a response. “She saw fit to grant me a boon. I have seen the effect before. She can grant it at will.”
The investigator crossed one arm across his chest, thoughtfully resting his chin on the other hand. “It does make some sense.”
Westbay gave him an inquisitive look. “Expound, please, Investigator Kuchen.”
The man tucked away his handkerchief and looked through his papers nervously. “Well, we know the Raven Queen was here this evening. Two local gang members survived the Aberrant’s break event and the subsequent incident, along with the surviving members of the family who lived above ground zero. They have told quite an interesting story.”
Sebastien straightened her back, trying to control her apprehension. The wards against untruth made it more difficult, but they worked best on non-thaumaturges, the unaware, and the inebriated, since they only created a compulsion toward honesty. Truly debilitating wards against untruth were illegal, and while she suspected that wouldn’t stop those in power from using them when they felt like it was worth it, here they were still manageable. She could lie if she wanted, with a quick mind and a strong Will. She would just need to lie like her words were a spell, and she was forcing them to become the truth with her unbreakable Will. “I didn’t know it was the Raven Queen,” she said, thinking quickly. “There was a woman inside the building. She was casting Newton’s family spell, the one he uses to calm himself, and using it to protect against the strings. She saw me, and she winked at me, and I felt something, but I thought it was just a psychological reaction. Like a shiver, or something.” She considered making the obvious suggestion that the Raven Queen had been involved in Newton’s misfortune, but didn’t want to get her real identity in even more trouble with the law if it was possible to avoid it.
Professor Lacer raised a hand to stop her. “Go back to the beginning. How did you find yourself in the city, so far from the University, after curfew?” he asked pointedly.
Investigator Kuchen interjected, bowing slightly to Professor Lacer. “Newton Moore, the Aberrant’s previous name, was a student—young Mr. Siverling’s student liaison, I am told. Tanya Canelo, the other student liaison, was also there for the entire incident, but has seemingly been rendered mute. She hasn’t said a word since she was extracted from the house, despite no anomalous readings from her. We suspect she is simply refusing to speak.”
‘That probably serves Tanya well, since she can hardly tell the truth while explaining why she was out tonight.’ Sebastien was hoping to let the conversation go on as long as possible without her input so she could learn more about what they already knew, but all eyes turned toward her expectantly.
She swallowed. “Newton asked me to. He said he was going to do something dangerous, and he wanted backup. He gave me a warded, linked artifact, and I was supposed to be close enough to come find him quickly if he triggered it. I didn’t expect this, though.”
“What was he doing that was so dangerous?” Lord Westbay asked, at the same time Professor Lacer said, “And you agreed to this?”
Sebastien grimaced. “Well. Newton said it probably wouldn’t be dangerous. He wanted someone available and able to find him just in case. He asked me to keep it a secret. And I…I had some other things to do in the city anyway.”
“What things?” Vernor asked.
Sebastien cleared her throat awkwardly. “I was visiting a friend…at the Silk Door.”
Vernor grimaced in distaste then muttered, clearly audible, “I suppose that explains your state of undress. Had to rush out in a hurry, did you?” She looked back at the dress on the table, obviously coming to some strange conclusion about its origin. “I hope you didn’t forget to pay.”
Sebastien didn’t have to fake her blush. It was why the Silk Door was such a good alibi. It made sense that she would want to keep it a secret, and thinking that they had uncovered the scandalous truth, people would stop searching deeper. Sebastien had hoped she’d never have to actually use that alibi, but here she was, revealing herself as a regular visitor of the brothel only a couple of months after the waypoint between Sebastien and Siobhan had first been set up.
At least it was a high-class brothel. All the workers were treated well and compensated fairly, and none were there against their will, or under coercion, at least as far as she knew. The same couldn’t be said of many other establishments.
“Yes, yes, sex,” Professor Lacer said impatiently, waving his hand. “Hurry up and get to the relevant parts.”
“Well. The artifact was triggered. I rushed out and did the compass divination Newton taught me to find him. It took me a few tries to get close—I think he was moving—and then suddenly…something happened. I felt really strange”—she shuddered at the memory—“and the divination didn’t work anymore. I think that’s when Newton lost control and the artifact broke. Right after that, there was a lot of screaming and the sounds of battle spells. I was able to find the building by following the sound.”
She raised her hands to rub her face, but noticed some of Chief’s dried blood under her nails, so hid her hands at her side instead. “It seemed really stupid to just rush into that, so I tried to be cautious, but by the time I got there the fighting had stopped. There were these vibrating strings everywhere, and there was a huge hole in the side of the building and furniture burning in the street. I was worried to get closer, so I was watching from around the corner to try and spot Newton. Then the coppers got there, and the strings started…eating? Or infecting? They were assimilating a copper. That’s when I knew things were really bad.” She pulled her knees to her chest.
“What an astute deduction,” Professor Lacer muttered acerbically, but his eyes were searching, maybe even worried.
Sebastien resisted the urge to send him a peeved look. Her fake explanation was only slightly stupider than the real one, after all. She continued, her breath coming faster as she recalled the events of earlier that evening, without the artificial calming effects of the Aberrant to filter the experience. “The coppers used some spells, and I noticed the stunning spells seemed to actually work, but they didn’t keep attacking. They backed away pretty far from the building, and I guess they were calling the Red Guard, but there were people still inside.”
The weight of the undivided attention of Gera, Professor Lacer, and Titus Westbay was powerful. She could feel it pressing on her skin, and looked to the side, her hands clenched into fists. “They came out of a room to the side, and the one in front, a woman, was using Newton’s calming spell to counteract those strings. She was leading three others toward the door, the one that goes upstairs, and I was watching through the edge of one of the windows. She saw me, though. She…she made a shushing motion, and then she winked, and I felt like something cold ran over my body.” She looked up to Gera, not needing to affect an uncertain expression.
Gera nodded. “That was almost certainly when she bestowed her blessing upon you.”
Vernor was scribbling rapidly, frowning at her paper, while Investigator Kuchen was pale, breathing shallowly, as if too afraid to cough out loud and disrupt Sebastien’s retelling.
Professor Lacer leaned forward. “That was all? A shushing motion, and a wink? She did not communicate with you in any way?”
Sebastien shook her head. “No. She was too busy humming to talk. To be truthful, I didn’t even know who she was. She had feathers growing out of her head. The wanted posters don’t mention that. And it was dark.”
“Humming?” Vernor and Investigator Kuchen asked at the same time.
“Newton’s calming spell is esoteric. You have to take deep breaths and do a low hum through every exhale. I can show you, if you want.”
“No,” Vernor said quickly. “It could be unsafe.”
“Newton taught you this spell?” Lord Westbay asked.
“Did he learn it from the Raven Queen?” Professor Lacer added.
Sebastien’s mind kept flashing back to the moment before Newton’s Will broke. He’d been frightened, terrified. She could see his face in her mind’s eye. And what had happened afterward? She’d felt it, when it happened. Tanya had too. “He taught it to me so I could calm myself down when the other students became too irritating. He said it was a family spell, from his grandmother. So I guess you could ask her if that’s true? I’ve used it a fair number of times, and it seems harmless.”
“Deep breaths, Mr. Siverling,” Professor Lacer said, stepping past the barrier and ignoring Melinda Vernor’s aborted move to stop him. He crouched in front of the cot, placing a hand on Sebastien’s knee.
Only then did Sebastien realize she’d begun to hyperventilate. She felt like she couldn’t get enough air, like she was trapped.
“Exhale slowly.” Professor Lacer’s words were a command, and she thought she could feel his Will in the air behind them, reinforcing them. “The slower, the better. You must control your body. It does not control you. Exhale all the way.”
Sebastien complied, and he guided her breathing for a few more repetitions.
He turned to Vernor with a scowl. “My apprentice has experienced a horrific ordeal, and then was attacked by the very people meant to keep him safe. I think it is best if I took him back to the safety and familiarity of the University.”
“I have to get a statement from him,” Vernor protested. “And we need some more tests, as well. He gave anomalous readings. You should know the implications, and the dangers, Grandmaster Lacer.”
“You were seen coming out of the building through one of the windows,” Investigator Kuchen said. “Please explain how this came to be.”
Sebastien nodded. “Well, the four of them walked up the stairs, under the Raven Queen’s protection, but I was pretty sure Newton was still inside. There was a body on the floor that seemed to be unconscious, but hadn’t been infected by the strings. It was too dark to tell if it was Newton, so I just imitated what I’d seen the woman doing, and used Newton’s calming spell to protect myself from the Aberrant while I crawled in the window.”
“No one saw you do this?” Kuchen asked, his eyes narrowed.
Sebastien shrugged. “I don’t know? The coppers were pretty far back, to get away from the strings, and the sirens went off around that time so I imagine they were distracted calling for backup. It was dark, and with all the fog, I guess they just didn’t notice me. In any case, once I was inside, I was feeling really, strangely calm, and the unconscious person on the floor wasn’t Newton, so I searched around looking for him. I had—a hunch, maybe—when I saw that huge ball of strings, that maybe he was inside, and I thought he might still be safe because he knows—knew—the calming spell. I’m not really sure what I was thinking. I feel like my judgment might have been impaired.”
“Consistent with the reported anomalous effect,” Lord Westbay murmured, to which Investigator Kuchen nodded rapidly, making his own notes.
“I picked up a battle wand that must have been dropped on the floor during all the earlier fighting, and I used it to cut through the sphere of strings and crawl through it. I had to put the wand in my mouth because my hands were occupied. There was a string…body inside. Not like the other people that were turned. It still looked mostly like a human form. It had the other half of the artifact Newton g-gave me, broken. That’s when I realized it was him, and that he was…he was an Ab-Aberrant.” She clenched her chattering teeth, then continued.
“I shot him in the head with the stunning wand a couple of times, and that cleared my mind enough to let me escape.” Sebastien began to tremble.
“The boy speaks truth,” Gera said.
Professor Lacer frowned down at Sebastien’s clothing, then took off his own coat—the one that reached his knees and always fluttered behind him so dramatically—and flung it around Sebastien’s shoulders. “That is the most asinine thing I have ever heard,” Professor Lacer said, deadpan. “You deserve to be dead.” He pulled out a beast core and, with a wave of his hand, the air around Sebastien fluttered with sudden heat.
She shuddered, both from the relief of the cold and his words. “I know,” she agreed, refusing to duck her head. “I agree. I should have told someone from the beginning about what Newton was planning. But I didn’t think it would come to this. As for climbing inside that building, I can only argue temporary insanity.”
Professor Lacer’s eyes narrowed at that. “Indeed.”
“I’ll need to see that artifact,” Vernor said.
Sebastien pulled both of Newton’s bracelets and her own that had been paired with his out of the pocket where she’d stashed them. She tossed them to the edge of the shield boundary, where Vernor used a pair of tongs to reach through and pick them up.
Once broken, the sympathetic connection between the bracelets ceased to exist. Neither could be used to scry for the other, but she wished she’d thought to cast the shedding-destroyer spell on her bracelet. Most thaumaturges would find it impossible to cast with skin cells too small to even see, and even the coppers’ scrying spell probably wouldn’t lock onto such a tiny sample, but she felt uncomfortable leaving it in the hands of the Red Guard.
“Did you retrieve anything else from Mr. Moore?” the woman asked.
“Um. I picked up his Conduit.”
“We’ll need to examine that too.”
“Why?” Sebastien was pretty sure that the creation of an Aberrant had no effect on their Conduit, specifically.
Vernor motioned impatiently.
“I want to give his things back to his family,” Sebastien said stubbornly.
“You will be able to. Ms. Vernor will return Mr. Moore’s belongings to you once she has examined them to ensure they are safe and hold no important information about tonight’s incident,” Professor Lacer said, giving Vernor a hard look.
She pursed her lips sourly, but nodded.
Sebastien hugged herself, leaning forward to rest her forehead on her knees as she tried to think of anything else besides the events that filled the last hour of her memory. She wished they would become surreal, a poorly defined fog of impressions, but she knew that would never happen. Siobhan Naught’s mind didn’t forget, it only buried.
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