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Chapter 133 – Embers of a Dead Star

Siobhan

Month 3, Day 13, Saturday 1:50 a.m.

Siobhan’s warding medallion had activated several times, helping to protect her against a couple of attack spells and even some shrapnel pieces, and its unpleasant cold against the skin of her chest was a constant reminder of the danger she had stepped into. After believing that they’d killed Oliver, she’d been vengeful, and recklessly joined in attacking the enemy along with the guards on the roof around her.

But somehow, Oliver had survived. She’d watched as he made it through the doors to Knave Knoll, covering his retreat as best she could when the Architects of Khronos sent even more powerful enemies to try and stop them.

She was running low on stunning spells and battle philtres. ‘I should probably go back down and assist Healer Nidson. I saw a lot of injured men and women,’ she thought, but was distracted by an alarming sight.

At the back of the reinforcements, near the bridge behind the sea turtle, an old man that looked half-desiccated, with thin, mottled skin that clung tightly to his bones was crouched on the ground, setting up a spell array of wrought iron with a diameter taller than him. She’d heard that soldiers sometimes used huge metal war arrays with modular pieces for powerful attacks.

Even as she peered out at him, the thaumaturge slid a metal glyph the size of his palm into place within this portable war-Circle.

“That man in the back is the highest priority target,” she called out, pointing down at him. “Take him out with prejudice, before he can finish whatever he’s preparing.”

Several of her allies attempted to do so, but the water elemental protected him from all their attacks, and he didn’t even bother to lift his head from his work, so assured was he of his safety.

“It could be an artillery spell,” Siobhan warned, turning back to the trap door in the center of the roof. ‘I’m not sure if the wards can stand up to something like that,’ she worried silently. ‘I’ll tell whoever’s in charge below, someone who might actually be able to do something about it, and then I’ll go help Healer Nidson. I’m useless in the fight at this point, and this isn’t exactly a safe location.

Before she could step down, Oliver’s head poked out of the trap door’s entrance. He grinned at her. “Are you sure you don’t have a taste for danger? At the most, I expected you to be safely assisting Healer Nidson, not battling like a valkyrie up here.”

Siobhan scowled at him, ignoring his teasing. “I think we’re still in danger.” She explained quickly, and his expression sobered.

“Everyone here should come inside. As soon as we activate the final lockdown wards, not much could get past them. Let the coppers deal with things here; we have more important things to worry about. The Verdant Stag is being attacked. I need ten men to resupply and come with me to assist the home base, urgently.”

Siobhan didn’t understand why he would want to leave Knave Knoll in such a precarious situation. The Verdant Stag had their own enforcers, after all. But then she shook herself. The Verdant Stag also housed Katerin, and Theo. His life was more important than the remaining prisoners, and guards and enforcers here were as safe as they could be considering the circumstances.

“You stay with Nidson. The others will need your help to evacuate,” Oliver said to Siobhan, already lowering himself back down.

“What about the coppers?” she asked, moving to follow him.

“We’ll be leaving the Morrows to them. Anyone who’s still in this building when the coppers enter is going to be arrested. It’s a shame to lose the investment we put into this place, but it was too late as soon as the fighting drew attention to it. It was only ever viable as a secret.”

She hoped the circumstances wouldn’t somehow allow the Morrows here to go free, but knew that was out of her hands. “How long do we have?” she asked, stepping away from the flimsy, unfolded stairs so those following her could descend.

Before Oliver could answer, something changed above her, sending the hairs on the back of her neck rising like the moment before a lightning strike.

She threw herself to the ground, expecting another horrible blow like the one that had almost killed Oliver. “Take cover!” she yelled. The decrepit thaumaturge had moved so much faster than she thought possible.

Those still on the stairs scrambled down in a reckless mass of limbs. One of the people stuck on the roof let off a scream of despair. Some scrambled toward the edge of the roof furthest from the fighting, while others hunkered down and activated shielding artifacts if they had them.

The effects of the spell didn’t come as she had feared, and after a few seconds she lowered her arms from around her head and tentatively peeked upward.

In the air a dozen meters above Knave Knoll, a wispy glow of light that reminded Siobhan of a rare aurora she’d seen once as a child on an island far to the north undulated. From its billowing, ethereal sheets of color, a mottled, pockmarked boulder grew from nothing.

The dark rock reminded her of a piece of coal, somehow grown to the size of a whale. It looked like she imagined a meteor might. It even began to twinkle with little embers of light, but those glitters looked not like the orange smolders of coal, but like the white-yellow embers of a dead star.

As she watched in stunned silence, those twinkling sparkles of gold grew brighter and brighter. The floating meteor trembled, the gold pulsed, and glowing dust began to fall from it.

Siobhan scrambled back from the trap door’s opening, until her back pressed against the hallway wall. “Don’t let it touch you!” she called out. There was no way this was harmless, or their attackers wouldn’t be waiting outside patiently.

“What is it?” asked one of the men beside her, shield spell stretched out from the tip of his trembling, outstretched wand.

“Help! Help!” a woman above screamed. “We’re still here, don’t leave us!”

“They’re going to drop a giant rock on us!” one guard yelled, turning to run away.

This only caused more panic, but the glowing dust came down surprisingly slowly, wafting back and forth on every small current of the air, as if each piece were made of feathers rather than stone.

Siobhan grew more worried as that dust fell right through the ceiling, completely unaffected by the physical barrier.

The guard beside her lifted his wand so the domed shield faced upward, but it, too, did nothing to slow the dust. Siobhan’s heart went cold with dread. She looked down the hallways that stretched out from this central area in all four directions. The gold dust was sprinkling down in every direction that she could see, seemingly unaffected by distance. ‘But the wind is blowing outside,’ she remembered. ‘If this was anything like real dust, the direction the wind is blowing from would have less.

The twinkling of the bizarre meteor above them brightened as she fumbled for the paper spell array she’d drawn Grubb’s barrier spell on.

Since it didn’t matter where she stood, she moved closer to the trap door so that she could see what was happening above more clearly.

One of the guards stuck on the roof stepped closer, his wand lifted in a trembling, white-knuckled grip. He released a fireball spell right at the meteor. Past the “woof” of impact the and hungry roar of the flames, myriad tiny firecrack-like pops were audible. The flames seemed to burn away some of the rock on the pockmarked surface above, though even the full impact of the spell barely caused a tremble through its looming mass.

“Why would you do that?” another guard screamed at him. “You have no idea if that would have worked. It could have exploded the whole thing and brought it down on us!”

“I’ve never seen a problem that enough fire can’t kill,” the first man spat back, lowering his wand. “But I’m out of charges now. I think it helped a little?”

More gold sparkles had been revealed, glowing even brighter. The dust sprinkled down even more thickly, though it still floated extremely slowly, catching each eddy in the air and swirling under the golden light like dust motes in a late afternoon beam of light through a window. ‘It didn’t help at all. If anything, it worsened our situation,’ Siobhan thought. ‘But the fire did seem to affect the dust.

“This has got to be some sort of poison,” one of the men babbled loudly over the frightened murmurs of his companions. “We can’t just sit here and let it get us! I say we all make a run for it a-all…” he swallowed and seemed to lose concentration for a moment. “All at once. Before we can’t.”

Oliver agreed. “Come down!” he called. “Single file, no shoving.”

As the guards tentatively followed his orders, fearful to move directly underneath the mysterious meteor, Siobhan moved into the nearest hallway, holding Grubb’s barrier spell up above her head. Clutching her Conduit and the second beast core she’d splurged on, she cast the spell. It, too, did nothing.

She watched the dust sprinkle down around her, noting that her warding medallion didn’t seem to recognize it as a threat. Whatever wards the building held were similarly unresponsive.

Dropping the spell as she reached the end of the hallway, looking out and to the left to catch a glimpse of the ongoing battle outside.’Shouldn’t the coppers be doing something about this?’ She snorted at her own naivety. When had she ever been able to rely on the coppers to save her? The enemy thaumaturges were still at the edge of the canal in front of Knave Knoll, and the coppers were still in their barricaded station on the street beyond. Though she caught the light of a few spells flying in various direction, it was obvious they weren’t being particularly effective.

The glowing dust was floating down to the floor now, and where it touched her, it passed through her clothes and flesh without sensation, seeming completely harmless.

But as she watched, one piece of dust right in front of her face lost its glow, and suddenly caught in the soft wind of her exhale, swirling forward into the window. Where it touched, a little pointy black bulb grew on the glass, and in between one second and the next, the glass in front of her face turned into the same mottled substance as the meteor above. Siobhan stumbled back in horror, but couldn’t tear her gaze away from the spot, which continued to grow as tiny gold motes of light bloomed in it, too.

She pressed a fist to her mouth, biting down on the knuckle to keep herself from screaming as she spun around, her eyes searching for more signs of the spell’s effects.

“What is it?” a woman asked. Siobhan was surprised to see the hallway before her filled with most of those she’d been fighting with on the roof above. They had followed her, as if she must know what she was doing.

Siobhan ignored her, spotting several sections of the ceiling that were becoming dark, pockmarked stone, some already meeting and melding together into a single mass that released even more dust. She shared a look with Oliver, and they seemed to come to the same conclusion simultaneously.

“We have to get out of here, right now,” Oliver said. “Split up, one group for each wing. Get everyone. I don’t care how injured or busy they are. Carry them with you if they can’t walk. We’ll meet by the emergency back exit. If you’re not there in two minutes, expect to be left behind.”

Siobhan began running even before Oliver had finished speaking, more grateful than ever for Fekten’s lessons that had kept her in the best physical condition of her life. One of the men from who had chosen the same direction as her nodded jerkily as they ran, his head flopping a little too far up and down in a way that looked uncomfortable. “Small groups,” the man said. “Be-because…” His eyes lost focus for a moment, and he shook his head as if to clear it. “It’s easier to hide when you’re small. Easier to… We could hide under the bed, maybe? Or if it gets really bad, in the c-c-closeeeeet?” It was obvious that something was very wrong with him.

Quickly, the cause became apparent.

“He’s got black spots on his skin,” the woman nearest him announced, flinching back. “Little bumps. They’re growing!”

He twitched, his lips pursing and retracting wetly. “But I’ll need, my, my,” he searched for the word, “blanket-t-t.” He continued to make tapping sounds with the tip of his tongue.

It was true. Some of the dust that had stopped glowing must have landed on him, and just like the window glass, he was being consumed.

“Cut them out!” Siobhan screamed, almost tripping over her own feet as she reached down to pull the long, thin dagger from its place between her shin and her boot. She grabbed the man, yanking him about so that he could see the black spots more clearly. Some of the others stopped and helped her hold him still as he jerked against her grip, but others left them and ran ahead with clear terror.

Siobhan found a couple of black bumps on his neck, and one on his bare forearm, and dark vein-like tendrils were starting to spread from them. She peered at the growing masses for a moment before pressing in near the edge of one with the tip of her dagger.

To everyone’s surprise and horror, the spot pried out easily enough with a knife, though the dark tendrils seemed to resist extraction. It was wriggling. Siobhan held it up to the light, displaying a small, squid-like form with thin, barbed tentacles. She tried to crush it between the ground and her blade, but despite the pressure she applied, it wasn’t dying. To the contrary its tendrils seemed to reach greedily for the exposed flesh of her hand.

She felt her skin ripple as her whole body shuddered with a wash of visceral disgust. “The dust, it’s actually spores, or eggs, or tiny little bugs,” she deduced aloud. “If it touches you, it latches on and affects your mind, and maybe it’ll slowly turn you into stone, too.”

Everyone else quickly began to check themselves for similar black spots, some discovering them and prying them out. One of the men discovered a black spot on the back of his companion’s neck, and in his haste to remove it, cut the other man quite badly.

Siobhan turned to run again, doing her best to examine herself visually while also avoiding any dimmed motes of magical dust—tiny parasites. She wished she had a strong beam of light, as that would make seeing their inconspicuous forms floating in the air much easier. When she passed a couple of guards stationed at the outer windows to watch for danger from other directions, she screamed for them to follow.

They were alarmed enough at the phenomenon with no apparent source that they followed without question.

One of the Nightmare Pack men had a physical shield, wood reinforced by bands of metal. He held it up over himself and a couple of others that huddled together under it like an umbrella. It did nothing for the glowing dust, but Siobhan noticed it push away some that had dimmed, though they were so light they just hung in the air and swirled around in the wake of their passing, wafting after them as if reaching for their passing skin.

As her group skidded and stumbled to a stop in front of the door that led to the stairwell, Siobhan clenched her jaw. The door was a quarter converted into dark stone already, and the corruption was spreading toward the ground. The door wasn’t locked and the handle was still clean, but it wouldn’t open.

She looked up at the corners of the doorjamb, and realized that where the conversion had passed, the door and wall were melded together into one single entity. She stepped back sharply and gestured to her companions. “Break it down!” she snapped.

They got to work immediately, clearing the space a couple of meters in front of the door while a couple of women with concussive blast charges in their artifacts attacked the bottom half of the door. It was sturdy, reinforced specifically to stand up to attacks, and the glowing ripple that ran over its surface under the blows showed it was magically reinforced, too.

The rest of the group tried to huddle under any physical barriers they could manage, though the dimmed parasites were not constrained only to traveling on the currents of the air. Though the man with the wood and metal shield continued to hold it up, the dust that fell atop it somehow rolled over the bands of metal that should have acted as a barrier, tumbling off the sides and then floating inward again.

As one crossed in front of Siobhan’s face, she saw the almost invisibly thin tentacles that would grow if allowed to plant themselves in flesh. It was using them to grasp the air, sailing through the currents like a boat through the ocean.

She thought back to the meteor floating in the air above them. ‘What the hell is this spell? It seems ridiculous—impossible. It’s so excessive—that rock isn’t an illusion, it’s a physical mass. Where did the energy for that come from? And so complex, creating the semblance of life to disseminate its effect. Are we fighting against a Grandmaster, or even an Archmage? But even so, why not just some widespread hex or curse? All this extra effort seems…prohibitive.

People were scrambling like they had ants under their clothing, letting out a little burst of panicked activity every time they found a parasite latching on, often slicing into themselves as they fumbled in their attempts to cut them out.

Another group of escaping guards joined them at the door, and soon enough they had it blown open. They all scrambled down the stairs with so much stumbling, shoving panic that Siobhan felt like they were on the edge of turning against each other.

Once on the ground floor, they sprinted toward the back exit, those with injured companions either dragging them or outright carrying them, if they had the strength. The glowing motes were already down here, having passed right through the floor without whatever method caused them to dim and become able to affect their surroundings.

Oliver’s group, coming from the other direction and much larger, had arrived before Siobhan’s, and were already trying to break down the door. But they several of his people were yelling as they attacked it, and those on the edge were staring with numb defeat. Many others were displaying strange tics or vacant stares that indicated they’d been infected. Perhaps some of them didn’t even know what to watch out for.

Siobhan knew without even needing to push through the crowd of panicked and injured that they were too late. She looked around, noting how much of the structure was pocked black rock, and how thick the glowing motes in the air had grown.

They were trapped within Knave Knoll, and even the walls had turned against them.

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Chapter 132 – Armageddon Game

Oliver

Month 3, Day 13, Saturday 1:45 a.m.

Huntley crawled off of Oliver, of the bigger man’s knees digging painfully into his thigh as he dragged himself to the side. The single-use emergency ward Huntley had activated flickered against the dust and debris, then died.

Huntley coughed, rising to his hands and knees to turn a baleful scowl onto Oliver’s prone form. “What were you thinking, you imbecile!? You were standing there in clear view of the enemy! Did you think none of them would try to take advantage of that? You can’t expect to use the prisoners as a shield if you’re actively slaughtering them!”

Oliver groaned, feeling as if his body were a scrambled egg. He had been thinking that Elmira was crippled and dying, and that they were all being suffocated into debility. He had been thinking that the situation was desperate, and that killing the prisoners might give them some leeway. These people would do too much damage if they were allowed to go free, anyway.

In a way, his plan had worked.

Oliver rolled onto his side, coughing out a fine spray of blood onto the filthy cobblestone. He stared at it in surprise for a couple of seconds, then climbed unsteadily to his feet. His battle wand was gone, and when he took a step, he stumbled and almost fell, if not for Huntley’s stabilizing grip. Long wooden splinters had impaled Oliver’s leg in several places. He reached down and tugged at the largest, but his fingers slipped off the bloody surface, and the movement sent another dizzying explosion of pain throughout his chest and back.

He straightened, fumbling for the emergency healing potion he kept within a metal-plated pocket of his jacket. The reinforced crystal of the vial was thankfully still intact. Oliver downed it in a single searing gulp, his eyes closed against the light of its glow, and Huntley surprised him by yanking out a piece of wood as long and thick as his forefinger from Oliver’s leg. The rest, he left in, simply wrapping the whole mess in a large green handkerchief.

The healing potion spread its magic throughout Oliver’s chest, but despite its potency and commensurate price, he could feel it petering out against his natural resistance before it made it much further. One of the many curses of his bloodline.

Coughing again, Oliver looked out over the street-sized battlefield. While Oliver was still insensate after the attack, someone had taken down the air witch and a couple of the others. But the remaining enemy forces hadn’t lost their determination, even though there were only a handful left. That didn’t bode well. A couple were crouched down behind liquid stone barriers, but some moved to run off to the side. They were not fleeing in panic.

A masked person stepped out of the darkness around the corner and shot a stunning spell at one of the withdrawing attackers, hitting them in the back and sending them into a comical, painful-looking sprawl. The masked person, whose only distinguishing feature was their chin length blonde hair, nodded at Oliver and returned to the darkness. His first thought was that one of his people had been clever enough to disguise themselves and infiltrate the enemy, but he didn’t recognize that mask, and all of the spells that had been tossed around so casually tonight had been lethal, not safely incapacitating. It seemed the enemy had a traitor in their midst.

When Oliver drew a deep breath to shout again for their people to retreat back into Knave Knoll, throwing himself into a coughing fit. They needed to hurry, because he was worried about the enemy circling around to come at them from the sides, or even try to cut them off entirely.

His men moved as quickly as their battered bodies could manage, using the wagons and some hastily poured liquid stone in the gaps and even over the wood itself to create a barrier between themselves and the few remaining enemies on the main street.

They used what horses still lived to carry bound prisoners like sacks of grain. As people passed over the canal bridge to the front of Knave Knoll, Oliver looked for Elmira. She had been downed by that first blow that knocked him off his feet, one of her legs shattered near the hoof, but still alive, lying on the ground beside the wagon.

At first he found only chunks of meat, wood, and broken cobblestone whose specific origin he couldn’t distinguish. There had been eight prisoners in that single wagon, and at least half of them had been caught by the air witch’s vindictive final attack.

Then he found Elmira’s head. It lay a few meters away from where she’d fallen, blown away from her body. If not for the air witch, perhaps she could still have been saved. With enough money and the right magic, even a pulverized leg was not a death sentence for an Erythrean.

He turned and moved with the others over the canal, every step sending a spike of knee-trembling pain up through his leg. The front doors of Knave Knoll opened, waiting for them to reach it. Safety was close at hand.

Oliver turned at the sound of splashing water behind them. When he saw the group arriving, shooting along the waters of the canal itself at the speed of a galloping horse, for just a moment he thought that the reinforcements he’d called for had come up with some strange and innovative new method of travel.

That moment was over faster than the blink of an eye, as he immediately realized they weren’t his reinforcements at all. They were the enemy’s.

Stopping before the bridge, a huge water elemental clambering up out of the canal. Elementally imbued liquid made up the body of a great sea turtle, swirling a serene, crystalline blue with little streaks of rust red concentrating around its shell.

Eight more enemies sat upon its transparent back. Its witch rode in a strange saddle at the base of its neck, while the others clutched on wherever they could find a grip.

The sea turtle’s paddle-like flippers were poorly suited to walking on land, but as its human cargo hopped off, it rose into the air, floating as if it were in the water. On the mundane plane, such a stunt must have taken quite a lot of energy to maintain.

Oliver’s people responded quickly to the new threat, some attacking the turtle and its former riders while others hurried to move their prisoners and injured into Knave Knoll.

From the battlements above, spells rained down, and Oliver caught a glimpse of Siobhan, looking like the bright-eyed school mistress everyone had been terrified of as a child. Her grey-streaked hair was pulled back in a severe bun, her artificially blue eyes seemed to glow against the backdrop of the darkness, and her expressionless face promised punishment.

She pulled a bright green potion out of her bag, stood, and hurled it in a full body motion toward the rear of their position, where one of the enemy had been trying to circle around on them.

The potion vial broke on impact, spilling across the man’s chest and activating with a screeching sizzle. The man screamed with matching shrillness as his clothes and skin melted away with a burst of steam.

The turtle turned sideways so that its shell was facing his people, swimming quickly between them and its crew. It took the majority of the spell attacks on its rust-swirled shell, which took some damage, but not nearly as much as it should have, and quickly began to repair itself.

Siobhan stood up again, hurling another of her green vials. That one seemed to agitate the elemental, drawing a warbling scream from its throat. Its waters swirled more quickly, and then some green-tinged drops rained down, expelling the potion along with some of its mass. It was only angered, swimming faster through the air as the water witch glared murderously at Siobhan.

A bruise-purple spell shot toward Siobhan. Without any change in her alert, focused expression, she lazily sidestepped it, her battle wand flicking out from some hidden spot and shooting two bright red stunning spells toward the enemy who had attacked her, one just over his left shoulder, to draw his attention, and the second right behind it, aimed right for the spot he stepped into as he attempted to dodge. She barely even watched to make sure the man went down.

Protected by Huntley, Oliver was one of the last to make it past Knave Knoll’s entryway. As the large doors closed behind him, he saw a large group of uniformed coppers arriving from the south, moving in an alert formation and armed for battle.

One of the guards by the door looked them over. “Healer Nidson is set up in the infirmary for anyone who needs help.”

Huntley turned immediately to Oliver, wearing a half-expectant, half-demanding expression. “Let’s go.”

Oliver waved him off. “I already took a healing potion. There are more important things for me to do at the moment, and people who need help more than I.” Doing his best to disguise the agony it caused, he made his way up the stairs to the office on the second floor, where the security measures were controlled, and where he hoped to find Mr. Gerard waiting with some good news.

Instead, he found that Gerard had gone out on a suicide mission, leaving one of the lower-level enforcers in charge.

Three of their five prisoner convoys seemed to have made it to their destination without issue, but the reinforcements Oliver had called for had never arrived. Those who came to help were some of the enforcers who had been meant to escort the final convoy.

Outside, the coppers were setting up a barricade, shining bright lights on their attackers, similar to what had been done to the convoy. Using a voice-amplifying artifact, one of them called for those fighting down below and on the roof to stand down or be met with force.

The turtle turned toward them and spewed out a concentrated stream of water, not at any of the people, but at the liquid stone barriers they were trying to establish. The expanding potion was washed away even as it was being poured, before it could solidify, and those coppers that were clipped by the stream of water found it carried enough force to knock them off their feet.

Knave Knoll was burnt. After the original conspicuous battle to take down the Morrows, the coppers couldn’t afford to keep letting stuff like this happen. It made them look ineffectual. With Knave Knoll’s location and purpose known, it was useless.

The coppers needed a win, and Oliver only hoped he could take advantage of that to redirect some of the following antagonism away from his people. Despite the fighting, he and Lynwood were effectively delivering over a hundred criminals to pump up the arrest numbers, and if the coppers could overcome those attacking the building, they could claim victory in a huge battle.

It was even one of the best locations for something like this to happen. Knave Knoll was located in a more industrial area, so there weren’t as many people out on the streets. There were few homes in the area, and any homeless that could have fallen casualty to the battle had the opportunity to run away. The surrounding buildings had not been the focus of any attacks, leaving the innocent mostly unscathed.

But as Oliver turned to the messages hanging from the distagram on a curling strip of paper, his attention slipped away from the fighting and any plans to manage the fallout.

The reinforcements he’d called for hadn’t come because they were needed elsewhere. At nearly the same time their convoy had been ambushed, two of their major storehouses and the Verdant Stag’s home base had also triggered emergency alarms.

Was someone trying to loot their supplies, while they were too busy elsewhere to respond?

But then, even as he watched, the distagram printed a third, simple code of letters and numbers. The alarm for the Verdant Stag’s underground vault had been triggered. The vault that so few people knew about, where he kept the most important items. Katerin couldn’t have revealed its location, not even under torture.

This, more than anything, cemented his surety that the Architects of Khronos had been behind the attack, despite how much he’d been hoping for an alternative explanation. He knew this, because that was the same hidden, secure vault where he kept the incense censor they had given as a tribute to the Raven Queen while waiting to sell it.

More importantly, however, it was where he kept the book that he’d had stolen from the University’s archaeological expedition. The real book, not the replacement they’d taken from another box and slipped into its place before anyone had a chance to catalogue the exact differences between Myrddin’s journals.

Siobhan had been so unfortunate as to steal that replacement before the University could discover the duplicity, and somehow, the spiral of events leading out from that single action had brought them here.

Oliver had to get back to the Verdant Stag.

Original Author Note: I was pretty wiped out for over a week, but I’m slowly getting back on my feet. Still low on stamina. I hate missing so much writing time like this, but I’m looking forward to jumping back into the story with the beginning of Book 4.

Thanks for all your support and kind words of encouragement. 🙂 Enjoy the chapter!


Update 12/2:

1. A little sneak peek at a couple of the short story ideas that patrons are voting on right now, chosen at random from the list of 10:

Liza’s Special Ops: After her child-soldier service in the Haze War, Liza was part of a special ops squad that carried out missions for the High Crown. This short story would show one of those missions, and likely touch on the incident that has pushed Liza to her current situation in the time of the PGTS main storyline. (And possibly show her first meeting with a child-sized Oliver.)

The Honeymoon Suite: Titus (Damien’s older brother) finds out about the “honeymoon suite” misunderstanding involving Damien, Sebastien, and the hotel clerk. He remembers that Sebastien was found with a dress in his bag during Newton’s Aberrant incident, and comes to the wrong conclusions about Sebastien’s relationship with his little brother. Later, drinking whiskey with his too-nice friend Oliver Dryden, who is once again trying to get him involved in some philanthropic endeavor or another, Titus changes the subject to Damien’s school successes, trying to pry out some information about this suspicious Sebastien. Oliver is a little tipsy, doesn’t think it through, and tries to hide their connection. Titus sees right through this and comes to his own conclusions. Obviously, Damien’s fragile heart is in danger of being broken by some untrustworthy scoundrel. POV Titus. (If I write this, it might end up becoming canonical.)

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Chapter 131 – Refraction

Siobhan

Month 3, Day 13, Saturday 1:40 a.m.

Under the ominous flashing of lights and the low moan of the alarm, Knave Knoll’s guards rushed into action, ensuring all the prisoners were locked away and then jogging to defensive positions.

Enforcer Gerard grabbed a young guard as she passed. “Take over here,” he ordered. “When they’re finished, escort the prisoner back to their cell.”

He moved to leave, but the cursemaster called out, spittle flying off his shiny lips as he protested. “Just what is going on!? I was assured of my safety when I took this job. Surely, you cannot be leaving my protection to this woman and a couple of healers. I insist that you escort me away from this place if there is danger!”

Gerard turned back, his expression still as calm and impassive as ever. “Knave Knoll is the safest place you could be. When things have settled down, I promise we will escort you safely back to your lodgings. In the meantime, please complete the assignment.” He jerked his chin toward the prisoner half way through receiving their seal, then left, ignoring the cursemaster’s sputtered protests.

Healer Nidson, by contrast, seemed entirely unperturbed. “Shall we continue?” he asked mildly.

The cursemaster gave him a curdling glare, but turned back to the unfortunate prisoner.

Siobhan had to shake her limbs to rid herself of the cold stillness that had settled over her when the alarm started. Per her agreement with Oliver, she could leave if she thought herself to be in danger. But whatever the problem was, she couldn’t even hear any sounds of fighting.

The prisoner and cursemaster were both agitated, which made this final seal more dangerous. She might be needed if Healer Nidson had to fight against another seizure. Plus, if she left now, it would be on her own, which might actually be more dangerous than staying put within the walls with all the trained and well-stocked enforcers who would handle any danger for her.

The situation is dangerous, but it doesn’t yet seem to be a disaster, and doesn’t call for panic or rash decisions. I need more information.

The cursemaster moved faster than ever, and with a nervous bow, as soon as he was finished, the guard escorted the prisoner out of the infirmary. She met no resistance from the Morrow man, who was probably relieved to get away from them.

This left Siobhan, Healer Nidson, and the cursemaster alone in the infirmary.

“We should find out what’s going on,” Siobhan said.

“Yes!” the cursemaster agreed. “I require a safer location, with guards, while the situation is ongoing. Perhaps somewhere I can set up wards, if the situation deems it.”

“I will clean up here,” Healer Nidson said, already moving to arrange the room to his liking. “I have a sense that my service will be necessary. Miss Nakai, please go along to let them know that I will be prepared to assist with injuries as possible, and report the situation back to me.”

And so, with the cursemaster tagging along, superciliously muttering to himself about the lack of respect and professionalism, Siobhan left to find Enforcer Gerard, or whoever was in charge of the security measures.

As she passed one of the small windows on the second floor, where a guard had lowered the glass and activated some kind of hidden mechanism that was probably a ward inlaid into the wall, she paused, hurrying closer to take a peek out over the man’s shoulder.

To the west, less than a couple of blocks away and moving slowly in their direction, spells lit up the night. And suddenly she could hear the sounds of fighting. It was hard to make out the details, but she saw three wagons retreating along with the first group. “One of the convoys was attacked,” she whispered.

“If they can make it back, it will be fine,” the guard replied.

Siobhan turned away, hurrying on to the administrative office set into the upper corner of the building. ‘This isn’t the low-key mass arrest we planned,’ she thought. ‘This is going to bring the coppers down on us, too. No matter what deal Oliver made with them, there’s no way the Crowns could overlook a secret, independent jail run by a local gang.

When Siobhan and the cursemaster entered the already crowded room, Enforcer Gerard looked up from one of the same distagram artifacts that Oliver had in his home office . Finally, the man’s expression had grown grim under the weight of the problem.

The cursemaster immediately and loudly complained about his treatment. “I am a man of particular means, and I never forget an enemy,” he added with a yellow-toothed smile that was meant to be intimidating—and it was, but it just made Siobhan have the sudden urge to kill him and thus remove him as a threat.

Enforcer Gerard was more circumspect, and sent two of the guards to set the cursemaster up in one of the solitary confinement rooms on the ground floor, where he would be “insulated” from any trouble.

When the distasteful man had left, Siobhan relayed Healer Nidson’s message, sidling closer to the crowded window to see out.

Reinforcements from Knave Knoll had gone out to the convoy’s aid, but the enemy had crippled two of the three wagons, and several dead or dying horses lay across the ground. And then, in the light of one of the bright lamps the enemy was shining to keep the guards half-blinded, Siobhan caught sight of Oliver’s mask as he turned his head to look back. She felt like their eyes met for a moment, and then the bottom half of the wagon he was standing behind exploded, taking him down with it.

The horse beside him screamed so loudly, so humanly, that the sound cut through the noise of the battle for an instant. And then the sounds dampened entirely, as if they’d gone underwater.

Siobhan frowned in confusion as the spell-fire from their side faltered, and people began to claw at their faces and throats.

“Up to the roof!” Gerard snapped.

One of the guards hesitated. “But they’re still out of range, we can’t accurately—”

“I don’t care!” Enforcer Gerard screamed, his clipped voice reminding Siobhan of Professor Fekten for a moment. “Get up there, take your stations, and distract the enemy, or our people are going to die!” As three-quarters of the guards scrambled to do as he said, Gerard moved to the weapons cabinet against the far wall, picking up a machete and strapping it to his waist, then adding a thick vest whose rigid collar came up to protect his neck and the back of his head. “I’m going down there. Someone needs to take out that thaumaturge before he suffocates the whole group to death,” he announced. “Roberts, you’re in charge in my absence. You know the protocol.”

“But that’s a suicide mission!” Roberts protested.

As she listened, Siobhan’s skin had grown alternately hot and cold. Now, without thinking, she blurted, “I can help.”

Gerard didn’t stop to argue with Roberts, just waving for Siobhan to follow as he jogged down the hall to the stairwell. “I know you are…capable,” he said, giving her a piercing look. “Can you remove the thaumaturge who is choking the air out of them? I estimate we have less than two minutes before the tides of battle turn irretrievably against us. I have seen this tactic before.”

I am not getting into a one-on-one against a powerful thaumaturge!’ she yelled silently, the words echoing inside of her skull. Instead, she blurted, “I can make you invisible. For a little while. Enough to get behind the enemy line and make a single blow.”

“A powerful boon. I accept. What is required of me?” he asked without hesitation.

“I need you to remain in my line of sight. I’ll go up to the roof. Pour some of this on your back so I can keep track of you,” she said, her fingers adroitly pulling out a bottle of moonlight sizzle without needing to look. “And the invisibility will only activate from the front. If someone looks at your back, they’ll be able to see you and the glowing beacon.”

Gerard took the bottle, whose lid was sealed on because moonlight sizzle became inert if exposed to air for more than a half hour or so, and unhesitatingly smashed it against the wall. As he smeared the cool glow of the liquid over the back of his armored vest, still jogging toward the back exit, Siobhan turned around and sprinted for all she was worth toward the entrance to the roof, thankful that she’d taken the time to look over the building plans beforehand.

As she ran, she pulled at the knowledge and mindset she would need to cast an invisibility spell, her thoughts splitting and wresting all the disparate pieces together at once with the inexorable dexterity of a kraken’s tentacles. Central symbol, a triangle. She had enough time for three glyphs, maybe. Just enough to stabilize the intent. The output-adjusting parameters. Some she had practiced, some she had only learned of during Professor Lacer’s private lecture.

And most importantly, the actual application—the natural science of such a phenomenon.

“Get out of my way!” Siobhan shrieked at the guards blocking the pull-down staircase, scrambling up it so fast she had to use both her hands and her feet to stabilize herself.

All a half-sphere of invisibility required was tightly-controlled refraction. Professor Gnorrish had explained it during one of his recent lectures. She pulled at the memory, and for a quarter second of horror, worried that it would refuse to come.

But then it was there in its totality.

They were in the illusion tunnel between the Citadel and the library. Professor Gnorrish paused for a moment, using a handkerchief to wipe away the sweat on his forehead and take a few deep breaths. “Now, you’ve all heard of refraction, and seen examples of it. Refraction happens when electromagnetic radiation passes through a substance with a different density, at an angle. A medium such as water is more dense than air. As light enters, it slows down. But the light doesn’t change energy; you’ve all seen that light doesn’t change color just because it passes through water or clear glass. What does change is the distance between the wavefronts. Let’s return to our analogy of the boat on the ocean. Those original slow, mild waves get closer together, but move proportionally slower, so your boat is still only experiencing one rise and fall every minute. It’s steeper, but the total energy of the light waves hasn’t changed.”

The illusion morphed to show a series of waves hitting a glass block straight-on. As they passed through it, they grew much closer together, stretching out again as they exited. The block slowly rotated, and the waves within angled with it, straightening out again as they exited the block on the other side—but now slightly lower down.

“Imagine a sheet of metal is passing through the air toward you. It’s too stiff to bend. You press your finger against one side of it and apply a little resistance. The part you pressed on is suddenly moving slower, and so the whole sheet of metal pivots toward that side, and is now moving at an angle. The light has just entered a substance with a different density. Now, say someone else is behind you, and when the metal sheet reaches them, they poke the other side and straighten the metal sheet out again, sending it off in the same direction but at a slightly different location than its original trajectory would have caused. The light has just exited the substance. Refraction works kind of like that, and it’s why you’ll only see refraction when light enters or exits a substance at an angle. The really interesting thing is, that angle doesn’t need to be a straight line. It can be curved. This is the concept that optical lenses are based on, allowing the creation of eyeglasses, telescopes, and even your own eyeballs.”

Instead of undulating waves, the light changed to be depicted by flat sheets passing through the block of glass.

Remembering her earlier attempt, Sebastien reached out to the block, moving slowly and telegraphing her intention. She adjusted its angle and watched as the representation of refracted light moved with it, forced to turn as it passed through, and then allowed to straighten as it exited.

The students around her gasped. For once, she agreed with the general sentiment. ‘This is amazing!

Gnorrish continued as some of the other groups started to pick up on the true nature of this lecture and the utility of the simulation chamber. “Now, when the substance is too dense for light to propagate within, instead of refracting, it reflects. Glass, water, and other semi-transparent substances are only reflecting a small percentage of the overall light that hits them, but when their surfaces are smooth enough, it allows a mirror-like reflection. In fact, if any substance was smooth enough, you would get that same mirror-image reflection, because there’s no natural substance with complete transparency.” The lecture had continued after that, but the other relevant parts had been her play with lenses at the end, as Professor Lacer controlled their group’s illusion.

Siobhan skidded to a stop at the edge of the flat-topped roof, where others were setting up the portable battlements they’d stashed for just such an attack. The largest sheet of seaweed paper she had was already in her hand, and rather than carefully unfold it, she shook it wildly, letting its edges catch the wind and rip it open. “Help me stabilize it!” she snapped. “One at each corner!”

This sheet, and the blank Circle already drawn on it, were big enough to cover an entire person. She hadn’t known what she might need it for, but it was one of the many emergency preparations she’d been slowly building up so that she would be ready for whatever disaster inevitably fell on her.

Moving as quickly as possible, more thankful than ever for all the practice she’d been getting with minimalist spell arrays and working with light, she scrambled atop the paper to draw out the glyphs and central numerological symbol. Then, she added the output-adjusting parameters for height, to take the half-sphere of invisibility down to street level.

She hadn’t practiced moving the output while casting with Professor Lacer, but she had no trouble doing so with her shadow-familiar, and believed the mental tether that he had called a crutch could handle such a maneuver.

She peeked over the edge of the battlement to see Gerard already running down the street toward the fighting, the smeared moonlight sizzle on his back a beacon against the night. He obviously had no plans to wait for or rely on her. But without some kind of protection, not only was it unlikely he would make it out alive, he might not even manage to take down the enemy’s powerful thaumaturge.

Siobhan allowed herself a single blink to finalize the operation of the spell in her mind. All she needed to do was capture the light in the half-dome behind Gerard, route it around his body to the exact same equivalent location, and release it again. To do that, the magic would need to create the equivalent of a denser medium around him, angled in such a way as to refract the light in an arc. She held the idea of this invisible sphere around the man so tightly in her mind that she could almost feel it. And then, a tether between them, reaching out from the edges of the spell array, down to the street, and latching on to him, as if her shadow had stretched out and combined with his, becoming a single entity.

Siobhan opened her eyes and cast.

It took only a second for her Will to climb over that mental hurdle that allowed her to distance the output location. She couldn’t see Gerard from the front, but her Will still reached out and grabbed the beacon of his light, gobbling him up inside her sphere of control.

For a moment, she felt like Myrddin.

Sure, with the lack of moon and all the distraction of the fighting, her spell had to redirect so little light that she could still handle it even with the increased strain of distance. And even though she could tell pieces of the refraction dome occasionally faltered, most likely creating mirage-like distortions or making Gerard seem like a chameleon moving just out of sync with the background, those same environmental conditions meant that it would be hard for anyone to notice.

But she felt powerful. Her knowledge and her Will could re-order the natural laws. Even if Professor Lacer had been unimpressed by her lazy workaround, and she wasn’t even strong enough to get all the way through his tests, she could do this<i>.

That sense of triumph lasted for only a few seconds, before the strain of continuing to move the output Circle along with Gerard made itself known.

Some tiny portion of her mind caught Oliver’s mussed hair rising again next to one of the crippled wagons, and any peripheral attention she had left focused on him without her conscious direction.

He had climbed up the side of the wagon and was…killing the prisoners?

Gerard had made it to the enemy. Hunching down to seem a little smaller, he cut diagonally across the street, right toward the man in the middle, whose arms were raised dramatically.

The enemy thaumaturge made a violent motion with his fist, and even from this distance, Siobhan could feel the power of it channel through to the world.

The sounds of the battle returned.

A huge, faint ripple tore through the air between the two groups, moving down toward him. It didn’t pause, ploughing through the bodies of the prisoners Oliver had been executing and crashing into the wagon he’d been clinging to. The whole mass exploded outward in splintered wood and splattered viscera.

Siobhan’s vision flickered as something in her tried to pull her concentration away from Gerard and the spell to look at what had just happened.

She didn’t know how Oliver could have survived that attack.

The realization sent a wave of static numbness through her mind, and her concentration on the spell wavered once more.

But then she firmed the grip of her Will. She couldn’t spare a glimpse for Oliver’s remains. Without her, Gerard would die, too, and the enemy would roll forward over all of them. She threw her desperation and worry into the spell, letting it buoy her fatiguing Will. No matter what happened to Oliver, she would continue on. She would live. And for her to live, the enemy had to die.

The sheer violence of that attack had stunned everyone, and the friendly spell-fire that had threatened Gerard temporarily petered off. Probably, people were hiding away from a potential follow up, or trying to regain their breath now that the enemy thaumaturge had released his suffocating grip.

The man swayed from the effort of that great blow, and she could see him clearly because Gerard was already so close, just there in front of him.

Perhaps the thaumaturge had reached his limit, but whether he could have continued his reign of overpowering strength, single-handedly carrying the battle, would remain a mystery.

Because Gerard threw himself forward, the tip of his machete reaching outside the range of Siobhan’s spell and catching some reflected light for a flashing instant.

The thaumaturge looked up, but Gerard was already bringing the blade down at an angle, the force of his whole body behind the swing.

The machete hit the thaumaturge’s jaw, met the resistance of a ward that flared grey, and instantly overpowered it. The blade continued through, angling down through the jaw, and then the neck, stopping only when it met the thaumaturge’s opposite collarbone.

The man’s head flew off, buoyed by a geyser of blood.

Gerard stumbled as the full-body commitment to his blow pulled him off balance.

Two nearby attackers noticed something was wrong, but they seemed too surprised to immediately comprehend what was happening.

Siobhan could tell, despite her determination, she was losing her grip on the spell. Gerard was too far, and she was too unpracticed. But she maintained the magic, mentally digging in her claws and wrapping the weight of her Will around the spell. Her clarity might falter, but her determination remained.

Instead of immediately running away, Gerard swung again, this time cutting off the wand of the closest attacker, along with the hand that had been gripping said wand.

Gerard took two more steps, and as he shoved the gently curved blade of his machete all the way through the chest of a third enemy, the blood spraying out and hitting a fourth in the face, Siobhan lost her grip on his concealment.

She slumped down, fighting back dizziness as she tried to ground herself in the sensation of rough gravel against her cheek and hand, one arm crushed awkwardly beneath her. She hadn’t strained her Will, hadn’t lost control or broken, she’d just given out. She had burned through her mental energy like a wick with no remaining candle, and her mind felt bruised. If she wanted to be safe, she wouldn’t be of much use for the remainder of the evening.

She couldn’t even lift her head to see over the battlements and search for Oliver’s body.

Sorry for the late chapter. I got sick Wednesday night but I thought I’d still be able to get some work done. Didn’t happen. Still sick. Not COVID. If you commented @ me, private messaged, or emailed me during this time, I’ll reply to you when I’m well again.

Chapter 130 – Prisoner Convoy Attack

Oliver

Month 3, Day 13, Saturday 1:30 a.m.

Oliver had been apprehensive about this final step of the Verdant Stags’ takeover for a while. He still hoped that the rumors of clandestine preparation for violence had nothing to do with him, or at least that it had nothing to do with the Architects of Khronos. It could be that a Morrow member or affiliate they had failed to capture or kill in the beginning had hired mercenaries. Or, perhaps one of the other gangs from the more affluent parts of the city had some stake in keeping the Morrows out of jail. Lastly, it was even hypothetically possible that one of the previously released Morrows with less egregious crimes had somehow broken or sidestepped the vow of nonaggression he’d required.

Riding the lovely, intelligent horse Elmira, Oliver headed out with one of the convoys that held a greater percentage of the most important Morrows, as Liza and Lord Lynwood had done with their own convoys a little earlier. The most experienced and loyal enforcers from the Verdant Stag and Nightmare Pack accompanied them. Other than some useless struggling by some of the Morrows, his group had met no trouble so far, and Oliver knew that little could stand in the way of such a group, but he couldn’t help but look around for potential danger, tensing every time they passed people still awake and about so late in the night. The sky was moonless, the only illumination coming from the sporadic street lamps and windows with a light still on inside, which made every shadow more sinister.

He was just beginning to relax as they made it a few minutes out from Knave Knoll when a runner sprinted up behind their small convoy, waving a slip of paper frantically in the air.

Heart sinking, Oliver turned Elmira back to meet him.

The young man was too out of breath to talk after sprinting a few city blocks at full speed, but the slip of paper said all that was necessary. “Terrier heading directly to the egg. ETA 10mins.” It was printed on a familiar strip of paper, from the extra distagram he’d managed to buy for Knave Knolls’s administration office. Of course, the message was in code, in case anyone was tuned into the same band, but the message was clear to Oliver. Tanya Canelo was heading right to Knave Knoll, and moving quick.

“How long ago did you receive this?” Oliver asked.

“Three…minutes,” the young man gasped.

Oliver called for the convoy to halt, his thoughts racing as he tried to figure out the implications of this news. It couldn’t be anything good, and though Canelo was not supposed to know this location, her movement was unlikely to be a coincidence. He considered the possibility that she was one of a group, heading to intercept them.

If they pushed forward, they might be able to get to Harrow Hill before anyone could catch them, and he doubted even the Architects of Khronos would be willing to start a fight directly in front of the coppers. Alternatively, they could fall back to Knave Knoll, which was heavily fortified and could withstand anything their convoy’s guards couldn’t.

The preparation that Oliver and Siobhan had done over the last few days that decided him. He couldn’t imagine many scenarios that they were unprepared to handle. He ordered them onward, urging them to increase the pace.

It took less than a minute for him to doubt that decision.

The enforcers at the head of the convoy saw the enemy first, sounding the alarm.

“Ambush,” Enforcer Huntley murmured, even before the forms hidden in the alleys on either side made themselves known, shining lensed lanterns at the convoy like spotlights.

Their ambushers were riding horses of their own, and though it was difficult to make them out with the bright lights shining their way, Oliver counted more than a dozen.

“Stop!” called one of the men in front of them, arm straight and pointing a battle wand their way.

Oliver reached slowly under his jacket and fiddled with the artifact there. “Reinforcements will be here as soon as possible,” he murmured, drawing his hand back out with a battle wand of his own clasped securely in his palm.

“Give up the prisoners, and you may leave unharmed,” the leader of their ambushers called. “If you resist, or attempt to attack, we will annihilate you all.” There were no obvious signs who these people were, and many wore hoods or masks to cover their features. Oliver didn’t want to jump to conclusions. His enemy would remain unnamed until he was sure.

Huntley cursed, low and vicious, one arm tugging on the reins of his horse to move between Oliver and the enemy, the other already securely clutching own battle wand.

“I must have been cursed to live a life of adventure,” Oliver said wryly. Either someone had betrayed his plans at the last minute, even after all the precautions he took not to be predicted…or whoever objected so strenuously to their transfer of the Morrows was powerful enough that they didn’t need to be tipped off. A last-minute divination, perhaps.

Eyeing their ambushers, the shadows behind the eye holes of his mask helping to dampen the harsh lights pointed at him, Oliver considered trying to just smash straight through. They would likely get into a running fight, but as long as they could make it to Harrow Hill, their opponents wouldn’t be able to stop the arrests.

But that was more dangerous, not only for the prisoners, who he couldn’t say he particularly cared about, but also for his people. Their attackers were on horses of their own, and his people wouldn’t be able to outrun them with the wagons. Getting the prisoners to Harrow Hill wasn’t so high priority as to be more important than the lives of his enforcers, or those of his allies.

“Circle up and retreat to the base!” he yelled. “Move left!” The streets were too narrow to allow for the wagons to turn around directly, so they would need to move sideways before turning once again to return the way they’d come.

In the wagon beside Oliver, one of the bound Morrows, head covered with a sack, let out a crowing laugh. “You upstart pillocks think we don’t have friends? When we’re all free, we’re gonna drag your men naked through the streets while those people you think love you throw stones.”

Elmira shifted sideways and gave a threatening snap of her teeth toward the speaker, who flinched at the unseen clacking sound so near his face, and wisely decided to return to silence.

Their attackers hesitated no longer, raising hollow tubes Oliver recognized as military-issue mortars to their shoulders.

“Fire!” the leader yelled, the domed fog of a concussive blast spell shooting for the head of their convoy from his own battle wand.

“Take cover!” Oliver screamed in response. There wasn’t much space to maneuver, nor cover to take, but his people scattered a little or ducked behind the wagons.

The mortars released their payload with a sound that was half pop and half crack of thunder, shooting the clay spheres of true battle philtres in an arc toward Oliver’s convoy and startling some of the more skittish horses.

His people were able to avoid being hit directly, but the spheres broke on impact with the ground and the wagons, bursting with the sick yellow-green of the philtre of stench and the brown-red heat shimmer of pepper bombs.

Both were meant to incapacitate, not kill. It could have been much worse. Their enemies were taking the safety of the Morrow prisoners seriously, which could work to Oliver’s advantage.

Oliver’s people moved with alacrity, trying to stay as far away from the smoke as possible while still guarding the wagons. The wind blew the smoke back toward their attackers, which gave his people time to put on the single-use, clear-faced masks that would filter the air to protect their eyes and respiratory system. “Advance to the left!” Oliver urged again, sending back a few battle spells of his own, as did many of his people. Most missed, or were absorbed by magical shields.

Beside him, Huntley was less trigger-happy, but took an opportune shot perfectly placed to take out one of their opponents. Unfortunately, a shimmering, four-cornered translucent shield suddenly expanded outward from a much smaller shield carried by one of their ambushers, protecting the wielder and the men to several feet on either side of him from Huntley’s spell.

That their enemy had access to military equipment and powerful artifacts was worrisome, but Oliver’s side had the greater numbers, and didn’t need to worry about avoiding lethal shots to the prisoners.

The Morrow prisoners were beginning to cough and gag despite the protection of the sacks of their head, which was silencing some of their screams. Some of Oliver’s people hadn’t yet managed to get their masks on, too busy dodging or firing attacks while atop their panicking horses. Oliver was once again grateful for Elmira, because Erythreans weren’t nearly so skittish in the face of danger.

Thankfully, the man who had been outfitted for just such a situation remembered his orders, and hurriedly pulled out an artifact from his saddle-bags, which sent out a pulse of power that muted the panic as well as the senses of the horses in a dozen-meter radius. The magic was light enough that it wouldn’t stop any particularly panicked horse from breaking free, and was tuned specifically to their species, but everyone within the area of effect felt some of the spillover.

The calm was useful. The dampened senses were not. But it was worth it, to maintain their group’s mobility and control over the wagons.

An enemy man raised his hands, not in surrender, but in a motion of power and control.

As if they were all in the eye of a hurricane, the wind stilled. The air turned thick and soup-like for a moment, enough for Oliver to feel the press of its anachronous solidity against his skin. It was hard to breathe.

The smoke from the battle philtres hung in place, the spewing gasses building up into a thick roil. And then, it swirled outward, moving toward Oliver’s people like a great python slithering toward prey, eager to encircle and constrict. It focused first on those who had not yet managed to put on their masks, but quickly attacked the rest. The protective masks could only handle so much. If they were rendered ineffective…

Shocked, Oliver looked back toward the man who had his hands raised. Either he was a free-caster, or a witch with a powerful–and invisible–familiar from the Plane of Air. One was, of course, worse than the other, but in both cases, his response was the same. Oliver’s estimation of the danger his people were in rose sharply, and he screamed, “Go, go, go! Break through!”

His words were muffled within the strangely static air, but they still traveled well enough for his people to hear and try to comply. Oliver deftly switched his wand’s output to a piercing spell, firing in rapid succession at the air-controller.

Despite his people’s attempts to cover their faces or hold their breath, many had begun to cough and gag as the air of the philtres followed them unnaturally.

The user of that expanding shield moved to stand slightly in front of and to the side of the air-controller. Though Oliver experimented against its defenses, targeting different edges in the hope of overwhelming it, and even coordinated one overwhelming assault that had the man behind the shield grimacing with fear, in the end all attacks splashed harmlessly against the shimmering barrier.

But, despite the difficulty, they had managed to retreat into a cross-street, and turn again to make their way back toward Knave Knoll, the enemy harrying every step. Another barrage of battle philtres landed in front of them, creating a yellow and red mix of clouds across the street, too thick to see through. The air-controller immediately moved to direct the effects toward the most vulnerable. At this point, his people were all wearing their masks, but they were down a couple of men.

“That shield spell is being actively-cast!” Huntley shouted loud enough despite the stillness of the air to make Oliver flinch. “I can see his concentration straining. He must have a spell array embedded in the shield.”

Oliver quickly snapped orders for several of the men to peel off from the main group with the express mission of taking down the enemy shielder. He ducked to avoid a simmering orange curse that almost clipped the top of his head, then sent back a piercing curse to one of the enemies not covered by the giant magical barrier.

The woman wasn’t quick enough to throw up a personal barrier or dodge, and took the spell to the side of her neck, which lost a chunk of flesh half the size of Oliver’s fist and sent her reeling backward with a lethal spray of arterial blood.

Huntley and three others went after the shielder, fighting their way past the answering concentration of enemy fire. One man took a flying jump off of his horse as the creature went down under a nasty rupturing spell, its innards spilling out in a steaming mess from the gaping wound in its belly.

“Damp masks over your mouth and nose,” a Nightmare Pack woman barked to those closest to her, using a canteen to wet a bright yellow bandanna and tie it over her mask as a second line of defense, clumsily controlling her horse with her knees alone. She was almost hit by a concussive spell, but one of the other enforcers got between her and the enemy to throw up a personal shield spell with their battle wand in time.

The Nightmare Pack woman nudged her horse closer to Oliver’s. “I think I can give that air witch some trouble.”

Elmira complied with the barest twitch of the reins.

“It’s definitely an air witch, not a free-caster?” Oliver called, directing Elmira to dodge a concussive blast with the barest twitch of the reins.

“No Conduit!” the woman replied distractedly to his question. “If he was a general free-caster, he would still be using a Conduit. That he’s not means he’s channeling through his familiar. We can hope air spells are the only thing he has this kind of control over. Besides,” she added with a predatory crinkle of the skin around her eyes, “I am an air witch, and my familiar can feel his.”

Flows of air gathered around and rushed out from her hand, which rippled under the effects of a mirage. She aimed the narrow gust of wind at the battle philtres in a sweeping motion, pushing their spewing fog away from their people and back toward the enemy, disrupting the snake-like currents that had been focused on the other enforcers.

The enemy air witch responded immediately to this attempt at resistance, curling the smoke of the philtres around to circle Oliver and the woman instead, trying to press in on them.

Spell-fire concentrated on them, and Oliver was hard-pressed to block it all. He was thankful for Elmira’s nimbleness, as the horse sidestepped several attacks that would have left them incapacitated, or even dead. Soon there was no clean air to draw on.

The woman could have pulled her familiar back to protect herself, but stubbornly refused to do so. Even with all the protection against the battle philtres, her eyes began to swell and stream from irritation. She scowled stubbornly, her pressure on the magic unrelenting despite the distraction.

The attack team had managed to get a Verdant Stag enforcer into position. She had circled around from the back, climbed a few meters up the wall of mismatched stone, and now took her shot. Her slicing spell cut through from the enemy’s flank, behind the line of the shield barrier, perfectly targeted the wielder’s back.

The shield wielder was armored, but the spell was enough to break his concentration. His barrier spell broke like the bone of a Titan, sending an explosion of slicing force out in a vertical circle, cutting through the air and the ground but unfortunately not injuring any of their enemies.

It was enough to distract the enemy air witch, and the smoke of the philtres flushed out under the force of the Nightmare Pack woman’s spell. She sucked in a desperate breath, then started coughing raggedly, but wind continued to gush out from her hands.

Before any of the enemy’s number could respond to the fallen shield, the enforcer hanging from the wall followed her carefully aimed slicing spell with a concussive blast. It slammed the discombobulated shield wielder forward like a punch from an angry god, sending him tumbling toward the convoy like a rag doll. The shield clattered off into the street between their two groups.

A Nightmare Pack enforcer rushed forward into a struggle over control of the shield with an enemy man that had lunged to retrieve it.

Oliver’s people took out two more of the enemy, and suddenly they had the advantage in numbers. Even against such powerful thaumaturges, they were winning.

The Verdant Stag sniper aimed next for the air witch, but it was too late.

The man had seen her. A violent slashing motion of the witch’s arm across his chest—a single motion from right to left, filled with command—was followed a second later by a howl of wind. It slammed her off the side of the building, spinning her upside down and slamming her into the wall of the opposite building with so much force that she was pinned there for a moment. Finally, she slid to the ground head-first, collapsing bonelessly into a heap at the edge of the street.

Oliver winced. The woman had been brave, and perhaps even turned the tide of battle for them, but she was unlikely to survive that. If she was still alive, they needed to retrieve her and get her to Healer Nidson as quickly as possible, which would be difficult considering the enemies between them.

She had also angered the witch, and after taking her out, the man turned toward the rest of them. Having given up total air control of the battlefield, he now resorted to individual attacks, waves of wind targeting those covering the rest of the convoy’s escape.

The guards had been doing well, taking down a couple more enemies positioned at the flanks. But a few blows from the enemy air witch sent people sprawling, not nearly as forcefully as the attack against the sniper, but more than enough to disrupt their formations and put them back on the defense, halting any progress and giving their enemies the upper hand once more.

Their own air witch was much too weak to match him, and one particularly harsh blow sent her reeling off of her horse. Huntley caught her, but her eyes had lost focus, and the shimmer of her familiar was missing. Hopefully the being hadn’t died.

But hope was at hand. They had made progress, and the canal bridge just before Knave Knoll was in sight at the end of the street. If they could get past it, not only would the reinforced building be a fortified position, but they could block off the bridge itself with liquid stone or some of the wagons and temporarily slow the enemy’s advance.

As if sensing his intentions, the enemy leader, his own personal shield artifacts still undeleted, called out instructions to his men. Within twenty seconds, several of the horses were dead, and at least two of the wagons were missing wheels.

Oliver gritted his teeth. He hated to complement the enemy, but their leader was obviously insightful and decisive. Oliver could retreat, but not without a huge struggle to keep the prisoners.

Elmira whinnied in distress as he slipped down from her back, moving to put the single intact wagon between them and the enemy. Oliver patted her neck absently, his stomach hurting for the death of such innocent creatures.

A few guards rushed out from Knave Knoll to come to their aid, which was against protocol, but Oliver was grateful for it anyway. With them, the numbers would be even more in their favor, and perhaps it would give them the leeway to move some of their wounded back for treatment.

If they could just take down the air witch, the tides of the battle would turn completely in their favor.

He looked down to check his pocket watch, hopeful that the prepared reinforcements he had called for earlier would arrive soon. That’s when a concussive blast spell hit the wheel of the wagon right beside him, taking out both wheels and continuing on toward Oliver’s legs. Time did now slow at all as he realized the approaching danger. In fact, the whole thing was a blur of confusion and belated response, over in a moment as he tried to jump high enough to dodge the foggy force and blasted out wooden splinters, but was still clipped, sending him twisting through the air, his face on a path to slam into the side of the wagon.

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Chapter 129 – Sealing of Tongues

Sebastien

Month 3, Day 9, Tuesday 6:00 a.m.

Sharon had to pull Sebastien out of bed in the morning, chattering to herself as she cleaned up the papers scattered everywhere, daintily avoiding the writing Siobhan had done directly on the floor. The saintly woman didn’t so much as give Sebastien a dirty look for the extra work.

Fifteen minutes later, Sebastien entered Oliver’s office, carrying an overfilled breakfast tray. “You have a job for me?” she asked without preamble.

His knee bounced rapidly for a moment before he stood from his desk, moving to pace in front of the fireplace. “As you know, I still have the worst of the Morrows, including the majority of those who held more influential positions, incarcerated in our secret jail. After what happened with the University most recently, I started digging a little deeper into their activities. I believe they never intended to work sincerely with either of us. Why they are so determined against the Verdant Stag, I do not know, but there are signs that someone is putting together an assault force. It’s possible that I am being paranoid, but I suspect they plan to try to stop me from sending the Morrows to Harrow Hill.”

Sebastien set the tray down, her mind struggling out of its fugue as the seconds passed in silence. “I assume you have a plan to deal with this? How does it involve me?” she asked, her shoulders tensing as she prepared to argue.

“This Friday night—early Saturday morning—we’ll be turning over the remaining Morrow prisoners to Harrow Hill for sentencing. I have a group of the coppers in my pocket now, and we’ve arranged for everyone necessary to be on the swing shift. As secretly as possible, we’re going to deliver the Morrows to Harrow Hill directly, along with their confessions, witness accusations, and what evidence of their crimes we’ve collected, well before the anyone suspects. By morning they’ll all be booked, with evidence of their crimes on file. No matter how corrupt some of the coppers are, there will be no way to reverse the situation. It’s the last step, and I want to make sure it goes perfectly.”

“And you need me for this?”

He waves his hand. “Oh, no! I need you for what comes before. Nothing dangerous. As you might imagine, the Morrows have quite a lot they could potentially talk about under questioning, not only about their own activities, but about Kiernan’s faction, who are calling themselves the Architects of Khronos, and also about the Verdant Stags. Some of them know things I don’t want getting out, or that I’d like to hold in reserve rather than going full fireball spell, metaphorically. Keeping testimony about the Architects of Khronos in reserve could effectively hold them hostage. And so, inspired by Tanya Canelo, I’ve hired a cursemaster to handle placing a conditional lock on their speech.”

Sebastien frowned. The whole thing seemed rather complicated, but she supposed that when you were in opposition to the established regime, didn’t want to kill your enemies, and didn’t have the resources to run a long-term prison or work camp, things got convoluted. “You…want me to assist the cursemaster?”

“I want you, as Silvia Nakai, to assist Healer Nidson. The whole process is a little dangerous, and I’d rather not have any of them die or be permanently damaged by accident.”

She noted that he didn’t say he didn’t want them to die or be damaged at all. Perhaps if it was on purpose, that would be acceptable to him.

“Healer Nidson requested you specifically. Apparently, he was impressed by your performance the last time you worked together. I do have others with healer training, but none that I trust as much as you. Information security is paramount. As much as possible, I want to surprise everyone not directly involved. It would be a few hours of late night work, you would get to experience some very rare magic up close, and I don’t expect you to put yourself in any danger. If anything were to go wrong, there is a back exit that you can take immediately.”

She hesitated. “I can literally just run away if things go wrong?”

“Yes. Use your judgement to decide if that’s necessary. The guards will be numerous and heavily armed. Even if we do meet obstacles of any sort, we should be able to blast right through them.”

“But there is an enemy that specifically wants to stop you from succeeding. You cannot assume they are foolish or weak. And it seems like something always goes wrong with these dangerous missions. I don’t want to be involved in things that could get me killed, Oliver.”

Oliver’s fingers kneaded at the muscles of his neck. “I am making every reasonable preparation, Sebastien,” he said tiredly. “And we don’t even know that something will go wrong. You’ve done plenty of missions for me that haven’t resulted in combat. Most of the secret meetings, putting up the emergency response flags, and even this recent work against the Gervins. When things have been a little more dangerous, you’ve still acquitted yourself admirably. We’re in this together, or haven’t you realized? When the Morrows are safely locked away, you’ll be safer, too. Why are you so resistant to the idea?”

I’m so resistant because I’m waiting for something to go horribly wrong, like it always seems to. I cannot withstand it if things keep getting worse for me,’ she thought wearily.

He shook his head, then finally stopped pacing and really looked at her. “I’m sorry. I know you’re struggling too, but I don’t have a lot of options. And I think what I’m asking is reasonable. Do I need to remind you of the debt you owe? The Gervin sub-contract has yet to land on my desk.”

She glared at him for a long few seconds. “I’ll need to prepare. We need to prepare. If I’m going to be involved, I need to be sure things are done right. It’s going to be difficult, on such short notice. Stars above, I don’t have time for this.”

Taking a deep breath to fortify herself, she squared her shoulders, lifted her jaw, and said, “Let us discuss the payment first.” She might not be able to get out of this, to be just a University student, but she could make Oliver’s wallet hurt for the offense.

They spoke for over an hour, her questioning his preparations and suggesting a few additions. When there was no more time, she hurried back to the University, mulling over all the necessary preparations and adjustments to her plans.

She took the beamshell tincture with the cafeteria breakfast, and then spent the rest of the day on the go, trying to squeeze every last drop of value from each spare minute. In the evening, she made a series of eclectic purchases, inspired by Ana and Damien’s ingenious contributions to Operation Defenestration.

The remainder of her week was spent in preparation, with more emergency stash locations and disaster plans, as she struggled to recover from the sleep deprivation that single late night of spell research had caused.

When Ana and Damien had worked on the planning and preparation for Operation Defenestration, they had opened Siobhan’s eyes to how much someone’s image could change just from a bit of makeup and the right clothes, as well as the sheer extent of what some of the nobles would do to change their appearance, and thus the market for such things.

And so, she’d availed herself of some darkening cream for her skin, to turn her smooth ochre tint into a slightly more blue-based brown, a prosthetic nose with thicker nostrils and a bit of a bump in the middle, and finally, some color-changing lenses made of reinforced glass, to turn her dark eyes into a light blue.

The lenses were the most difficult part of the whole transformation, as she’d had a lot of trouble getting them into her eyes, and once there, to settle properly over her watering eyeball. They didn’t exactly make her eyes unremarkable, as the bright blue stood out starkly against the deep dark brown beneath, giving her a striking, piercing gaze, but they did definitely help to make her look nothing like herself.

Along with a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, some artful grey streaks in her hair, and a little bit of transparent tightening paste she’d dabbed at the corner of her eyes while squinting to give herself wrinkles, she truly appeared to have transformed into someone else. Perhaps an aunt, or an older cousin.

Siobhan had wondered if she should start trying to think of herself as Silvia, when she was in her new and improved disguise. Ultimately, she decided against it, because incorporating more than two distinct self-identities seemed like both too much work, and the kind of thing that could lead to dissociation of her base identity. She’d already had some trouble with that.

She arrived the Verdant Stags’ secret jail, an unassuming, rectangular brick building whose most interesting feature was the strategic positioning of small windows that looked more like arrow-slits, only on the second floor. Apparently, some clever enforcer had started calling it Knave Knoll, a witticism based on Harrow Hill, and the name had stuck. It was a couple of hours before midnight on Friday, and she had slipped by the late-night revelers braving the barely-above-freezing temperatures without notice.

Each of the fifteen wagons waiting in a nearby warehouse would carry prisoners to Harrow Hill, leaving in sets of three at slightly different times and taking random routes that some dice would decide at the last minute. The dozens of enforcers from both the Nightmare Pack and the Verdant Stag who would escort each convoy were waiting either there, or inside the jail. They were the most trusted from both groups, but had still been questioned and searched before she arrived, if everything was running on schedule. The full kit of mismatched battle artifacts, potions, and horses for every one of them had cost a fortune. But they were prepared for almost anything. And if all went well, they would have no reason to use any of it.

After going through the strict security process, she found Oliver inside, waiting with Healer Nidson. The man made no comment on her disguise, simply nodding in greeting, and she assumed Oliver or Katerin had informed him of her updated appearance. Her need for anonymity was a hint at her true identity, but there was little she could do about that at this point. Oliver seemed sure that Healer Nidson was trustworthy, and it was true he didn’t seem inclined to ask questions.

Oliver was visibly tense, his muscles tight and prone to flinching. When he saw her, he made an obvious effort to relax. “What is it they say? It’s not paranoia if they’re really out to get you?”

“It’s still paranoia,” she responded wryly. “But as someone much smarter said, ‘A concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that are real and immediate is the process of a rational mind.’”

“Master Heller, right?”

“I didn’t think you read fiction.”

“My sister read it to me as a kind of reverse bedtime story.”

Healer Nidson interjected before they could continue. “You’re sure none of these people are going to somehow be let off or ‘accidentally’ escape Harrow Hill?”

“The shift manager made sure I would have the right people there tonight, and none of the wrong. Once everything is on file, it would take someone very bold to try and tamper with the evidence. There is not that much leeway in the conviction process. When the right people are in the right jobs, Crown law isn’t actually that horrible. These people are going to be executed or heavily fined and sent to work off their debt in various unpleasant work camps, most likely the celerium mines. And even I wouldn’t be willing to risk a mass breakout from Harrow Hill. The High Crown might actually call in the army to exact retribution and stomp down with the firm boot of the law.”

So all we have to do is get them there,’ Siobhan reassured herself. ‘And all I have to do is follow along behind Healer Nidson and do what he says.’ She didn’t say it aloud, because she wasn’t so stupid as to trigger the whole mission going horribly wrong.

As soon as the cursemaster arrived, escorted by Enforcer Gerard, the four of them moved from the lobby area into Knave Knoll proper. The building had obviously been modified, but she suspected that at one point, before the second floor was added, it had been a barn for exotic, dangerous animals. The steel troughs stacked in a corner and the ventilation tubes running through each of the stall-sized cells gave it away, as did the lingering smell of manure, distinctly different from human stench.

Gerard led them to a small infirmary room, where a prisoner was already waiting on the single narrow medical bed within, set in the far corner of the room. The guard who had been with him bowed and left in a hurry.

Within the small infirmary, the cursebreaker lowered the deep hood of his worn leather cloak to reveal sallow, sickly features. His cheeks still held the faint white lines of old scars, and his thin lips were shiny with spit.

Sebastien found him immediately distasteful. ‘Is he deliberately trying to look the part of the evil cursemaster? The leather of his cloak is even discolored and patched, like it was made of pieces of human skin sewn together.’ She shuddered at the thought, glad that they weren’t doing this in a cell, where she would be forced to squeeze in close enough to smell him.

The Morrow man looked Enforcer Gerard and the cursebreaker up and down. “Here to brand your insurance into me, huh? But if you’re worried about us breaking the vow, what’s to say we don’t break a curse, too?”

“I am an expert,” the cursebreaker said simply, his voice dry and raspy, as if his throat had been slit at some point and the healer hadn’t put it back together quite right. He wasted no time getting to work.

He pulled a jar from one of the many pockets inside his dank cloak, and began to write on the floor with the dark-brown, congealed substance within, which shimmered green in the light of the wall lamp. A whiff of it hit Siobhan’s nose, and from the salty-sweet, coppery tang, she identified blood as one of the major ingredients. He was creating a spell array, but she didn’t recognize at least half of the glyphs, and the use of numerological symbols was…strange. He drew two different versions of a heptagram, one even and broad, and the other strangely lopsided and spiky. Other lines branched off of this combined symbol, connecting particular glyphs and even a few other small symbols at the edges. In the center, he drew a filled-in circle the size of his fist.

When he finished that, the cursemaster took out a leather wrap, unrolling it to reveal over a hundred slender needles, some long and some short. He dipped a few dozen in the jar of blood, then set them aside. Then, he pulled out two small scrolls, one tied with a green ribbon, and the other with a red. “You understand the contents of the seal I will be placing on you?” he asked, waving them at the prisoner. “You may read them again, to familiarize yourself, if necessary.”

Siobhan’s attention caught on the word “seal,” and her interest deepened. ‘Was something like this done to me?’ she wondered.

The prisoner waved a hand, his jaw clenched tight as he stared with futile unwillingness at the cursemaster.

“Very well.” He produced a milky-white potion, into which he dipped a tiny brush and wrote something indistinguishable around the edges of both scrolls. When he finally unrolled them, he drew a thin slice across the Morrow man’s hand and forced him to create a large blood print on both of the scrolls, which he then burned up. The prisoner reluctantly ate the ashes, and then the real work began.

The cursemaster brought out a strange lump of clay—no, not clay. Siobhan had thought it was clay because of the way it squished in his hand. But the surface was pink and smoothly textured, and the lines of his fingers left no prints in its surface as he began to mold it. It was a little ball of flesh.

The prisoner almost gagged, and she sympathized. The cursemaster worked with frightening speed, molding the ball of flesh into a surprisingly realistic doll-like form. “A hair,” he demanded, holding his hand out. When he received it, fresh plucked from the Morrow man’s head, he stuck it into the scalp of the doll, which absorbed it like someone hungrily sucking up a noodle. The doll’s features clarified, and Siobhan watched in horror as it grew to resemble the prisoner almost exactly over the course of a handful of seconds.

The cursemaster produced a small wooden box, which looked rather like a miniature coffin, and set the tiny simulacrum inside, where it rested peacefully.

The Morrow man was breathing hard, staring at it with bulging eyes, and when the cursemaster reached for him, he jerked back. “No, no, don’t touch me!”

“It is much too late for that,” the cursemaster said. “Hold still. I will complete the task I was assigned with your cooperation or without it. But my employer would prefer it if I leave you undamaged. Excessive struggling will make things…dangerous. The brain is a delicate thing, after all.”

When he picked up two of the longer needles, the prisoner started to hyperventilate, and scrambled back into the corner. “Please, don’t do this! I promise I won’t talk!” Seeing the cursemaster unmoved, the man’s eyes turned toward Healer Nidson and Siobhan. “Help me! Help!” He began to sob.

Siobhan turned to Healer Nidson.

His expression was grim, his lips pressed together tight and compassion in his eyes. “If you would like, I can give you a minor sedative to help keep you calm, and something to keep you from accidentally moving. I would recommend the latter, at least. Even a small flinch could do damage.”

After a long moment of horrible disillusionment, the prisoner accepted both. Healer Nidson didn’t need Siobhan’s help to provide a couple of potion doses, and soon enough the cursemaster got back to work. The prisoner was moved into the center of the spell array, his head resting over the central dot.

The cursemaster inserted both long needles, tipped in that strange blood concoction, directly through the man’s skull and into his brain, seeming to encounter no resistance as he did so.

The Morrow man’s eyes were open, leaking silent tears.

Humming under his breath, the cursemaster opened the prisoner’s mouth, pulled out his tongue, and began to insert the shorter needles into the soft flesh. It quickly became apparent that he was building a particular pattern, though Siobhan couldn’t be sure if it was somehow matching the spell array underneath, or something new altogether.

He released the man’s tongue to draw back into his mouth with the needles still in it, then stood up, patting his hands on his knees where he’d gotten a little dusty from kneeling. He pulled out the larger needles from the man’s skull, cleaned them thoroughly, then picked up the little box with the simulacrum. Very casually, he wiped his finger across the lips to erase them, leaving a blank swath where the mouth had been. Then he closed the lid and handed the box to Gerard. “This one is finished.”

Siobhan stared at the silently crying man as a couple of enforcers arrived to carry him away, wondering if this was what the Architects of Khronos had done to Tanya—if there were still needles in the other young woman’s tongue, hidden within the soft pink flesh. At least this Morrow man had deserved punishment, either directly or through being complicit in the crimes of his organization and underlings. Still, the whole thing left the palms of her hands sweaty and an unpleasant dizziness in her stomach.

She watched an almost identical process play out a few more times with impressive speed, and finally mustered up the courage to speak about an hour later, while they were waiting for the next important prisoner. “I noticed you used some principles of binding magic. But it wasn’t an equivalent exchange, right? Which is why it’s considered a curse. Does the seal only work on speech? Could you seal someone’s ability to cast certain magic, or think of certain things, or…” She trailed off as Healer Nidson shook his head at her.

The cursemaster didn’t respond to her questions, and didn’t even look her way.

In the hallway outside, the guards were beginning to lead away some of the prisoners for loading into the wagon convoys. Some struggled, some were crying, and some looked numb. While none bore the signs of physical torture, she looked at some of their eyes and realized that did not preclude more subtle forms of persuasion.

One guard sneered at a woman who was sobbing and grabbing onto his shirt. He pried her fingers off him, then examined both of her empty hands as if suspecting that she had tried to pickpocket him. “If you didn’t want to pay the price, you shouldn’t have committed so many crimes,” he said.

She scoffed through her tears. “We paid for our crimes, quite literally, and now we’re being turned into the coppers to pay again? You may pretend to be righteous, but in truth you’re maggots, stripping every last ounce of flesh off our rotting carcasses!”

Enforcer Gerard turned to Siobhan. “That woman was a child trafficker. I’m sure you’ve heard the stories about what happens to stolen young children. Oliver found some of them in the basement of a Morrow lieutenant’s house after two days of questioning her. Three were already dead, and one of the little girls was pregnant.” He spoke loudly enough to be heard by those passing by.

Siobhan blanched, her stomach rolling over inside her as sudden tears prickled at her wide eyes. She knew too well what could happen. She pushed the thoughts away with a physical shudder.

“They were going to die anyway!” the woman screeched. “Their parents couldn’t afford to feed them. You don’t know where they came from. Some of them ended up with better lives, because of me!”

One Morrow man passing by closed his eyes to her words. “Shut up!” he screamed at the woman, and Siobhan suddenly knew that he had been aware of the child trafficking. He felt badly about it now, but not enough to do anything at the time.

Any the sympathy she’d had for the cursemaster’s victims died a little inside her. If she ever found out that Oliver was doing something so heinous, he would immediately and forever become her enemy. That these Morrows had willingly worked with an organization where such things were acceptable made them complicit. No matter what reason they had joined, the people who were still here, being taken to Harrow Hill, deserved their punishment.

Her respect for Healer Nidson increased when one of the cursemaster’s subjects began to convulse as he inserted the needles into her brain.

Healer Nidson immediately stopped the cursemaster, and with Siobhan’s help, stabilized the woman so she didn’t do any further damage to herself. Then he used a complicated healing spell with several components from the Plane of Radiance, which caught the tail end of her seizure and soothed her into a deep sleep. The light was bright and pure, harsh and cleansing, and from the spillover alone, Siobhan could feel how light could be used in transmogrification to such great effect.

Undeterred, the cursemaster finished the seal, and once again motioned for the next prisoner to be brought in. But before they could arrive, one of the guards hurried up with a whispered message for Enforcer Gerard.

The man’s expression didn’t shift, but his muscular shoulders drew forward like a bear preparing to run toward the enemy. Siobhan caught some of his murmured reply. “Only two more prisoners to go. Don’t start loading the final convoy yet. Give us twenty minutes.” As the guard ran away to carry the message, Gerard said to the rest of them, “Nothing for you to worry about, just some precautions.”

Siobhan was intensely curious, but couldn’t ask for more details when acting as Silvia and in front of the other two.

Halfway through the final seal, the hallway lights shut down. They flickered back on, now shining a deep red. They flickered off again and were replaced by blue lights. The sequence repeated with ponderous ominousness. In the sudden silence that resulted, Siobhan could hear a low, moaning alarm, not screeching like the city-wide rogue magic alarms, but nevertheless disquieting. She recognized the sequence, as one of the many parts of preparation she had made for this evening, but the one to speak was Enforcer Gerard.

“Stop all prisoner transports and activate security measures,” he recited.

“We’re being attacked,” Siobhan predicted with numb lips.

If you’re seeing this chapter, you’re seeing the updated website. Man, this took me way too many hours. And even now, not everything is finished! We’ve got some new content (illustrations and the like) and more coming.

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Chapter 128 – Raven Summoning Spell

Siobhan

Month 3, Day 8, Monday 10:15 p.m.

Grumbling mentally about the inconvenient meeting times and locations, Siobhan walked out of the secret meeting of underground thaumaturges. Tanya had not been at the new, appropriately underground venue this time, and Siobhan suspected that she, along with some of the other missing members, were no longer welcome after the security crackdown.

It hadn’t subdued the trading, and Siobhan found herself leaving with more than she had planned. She had a box full of potions, a couple of scrolls containing the instructions for her new decryption spells, and a slightly heavier coin purse after selling a few pieces of her own information, along with the coin from fencing off the Gervin uncles’ confiscated belongings. That was all planned.

She hadn’t planned to buy a new enchanted satchel, big enough to fit Siobhan’s old female satchel inside, due to a minor space-bending spell. It even sat light on her shoulder due to a lightness pell. Also, the third scroll in her inner jacket pocket, the instructions for a spell to summon the Raven Queen.

The spell had been offered during the previous meeting, but was, rightfully, met with general skepticism, both because of the high price and because summoning spells were so deeply unreliable, with potentially long payoff times, and even then with “results” open to interpretation. Internally, she had scoffed that such a spell would allow anyone to meet her, and was sure that even if it did work, the summoner would have no idea that the innocuous person they just happened to pass in the street one day was actually an alter ego of the Raven Queen. She was even more skeptical, because the seller claimed to have tested it successfully and successfully requested a boon from her, and yet she had no memory of meeting him—except for during the secret meetings themselves, and she was quite sure he had no idea who she was.

Summoning spells were supposed to create a weak attraction to something that met your defined requirements, subtly nudging the world—and perhaps more likely, the caster themselves—to come in contact with the object of their search parameters over some vague upcoming period of time. The more undefined the parameters, or more distant the target in space or in time, the weaker this force of attraction became. A few more scientifically minded thaumaturges had even posited that the whole subset of divination was a scam, with people succumbing to the placebo effect or seeing “signs” that matched their target, because with a vague enough target and enough mental contortion, anything could meet the criteria. Even the fact that general summoning spells were still legal pointed toward their lack of efficacy.

In any case, this spell was supposed to allow someone to meet the Raven Queen. Only one person had been foolish enough to purchase it, and tonight they had come back irate at the spell’s failure, demanding a refund. Apparently, rather than allowing them to meet the Raven Queen, the spell had gotten them bombarded by a flock of corvids. They dropped the spell, but by the time the effects had dissipated, they were covered in peck and claw wounds and bird shit.

The arbiter had settled the dispute, but Siobhan found the whole thing hilarious, and bought the spell instructions for a pittance, since it seemed like the kind of thing that might come in handy at some point. It almost didn’t seem like the standard summoning spell at all, rather some sort of area-effect compulsion, much more direct in both execution and effect than the little she knew of the craft as a whole.

Stopping in an almost pitch-black alley, Siobhan took off her feathers and turned her cloak inside-out to change the color, then flagged down a carriage that bore a small painted rendition of the Verdant Stag’s green antlers on its side. The box of supplies was too heavy to carry all the way, and though she had traveled to the meeting with Liza, she was on her own now and felt safer within the obscuring walls. She had bought some potions that she’d never made before, and sold the recipe for the fever reducing potion, which she had brewed several times for the Verdant Stag.

Now, someone else could do the same, or just supply the people who would have otherwise bought from the Verdant Stag, still indirectly putting her out of a job. This was why spell information was often so tightly held, as having a monopoly on anything useful had obvious benefits. But that restrictive and selfish mindset seemed silly to Siobhan. ‘Magic is better spread as far and wide as possible. If there’s no longer demand for this concoction, it won’t matter to me, because I’m always growing and learning and will be able to make something new that people want to buy. Additionally, the best thaumaturges will make the best potions, and their reputations can keep them selling even in a saturated marked. And if that places a strain on the supply of magical components, then there should be more jobs in sustainably sourcing components, or research into viable alternatives.

Her mental tangent ended as she arrived at the Verdant Stag, going around to one of the back entrances, where an enforcer let her in. He immediately returned to reading a flimsy pamphlet, ostentatiously labeled The People’s Voice, apparently one of the first editions of a newspaper run by the Verdant Stag. Oliver was truly the boy with a finger in every pie.

Siobhan dropped off the box at the apothecary, then made her way to Katerin’s office. When she knocked on the door, a familiar, distinctly non-Katerin voice called, “Enter.”

Inside, Katerin’s chair was facing away from the door, seemingly empty. Then, a small foot reached out for purchase on the side of the desk, and the chair swiveled slowly around. Theo was sitting there, his copper hair mussed and what looked to be homework sprawled out over the dark wooden desk. He had steepled his fingertips together and was glaring over them in a parody of a powerful businessman, though his legs were dangling. When he saw Siobhan, he perked up, forgetting his little act. “It’s you! I haven’t seen you in so long! Why’re you in your Raven Queen body? Didja go after one of your enemies tonight? Didja do something super awesome and nightmarishly horrible to them? Do you have any other bodies you can change into? Can you really travel through the shadows, and if so, can you take someone small with you, maybe? ‘Cause I was thinking, that would be really awesome to try, and I promise I wouldn’t be any bother—” He cut off the rapid-fire questions suddenly, having inhaled and choked on some of his own saliva.

Siobhan waited patiently for him to recover.

After some dramatic hacking, bent over the desk, Theo looked up at her, red-faced, watery-eyed, and suspicious. “Did you just hex me to shut me up?”

Siobhan rolled her eyes. “No. And if I did, it would have been a jinx, not a hex. Making you choke on your own spit is more of a prank than anything malicious. Isn’t it a little late? I’m pretty sure Katerin wants you in bed by this hour. And are you still working on your homework?”

Theo quickly slammed shut his textbooks and shuffled all his paper into a haphazard stack, slipping the whole mess into one of Katerin’s desk drawers. “That’s not important, and Katerin isn’t here right now. Now that all the trials and stuff are over, she’s getting ready for transferring all the rest of those bad guys to the coppers for official sentencing and jail and stuff. Do you know how long it takes to earn enough money to buy a utility wand? I’ve been working on it for months now, and I’m still only maybe halfway there. Maybe you could talk to Katerin about increasing my wages?”

Siobhan raised an eyebrow at the non-sequitur, noting that he hadn’t answered her questions. “Your wages for what?”

“Homework and stuff.”

“The same homework that you haven’t completed and just shoved in a drawer?”

Theo gave her a hard stare, his expression asking if she was really pointing that out. “Et tu, Brute?” he muttered, hopping down from Katerin’s chair.

Siobhan wondered if he even knew what that meant, or was just parroting something he’d heard others say.

“Well, to make up for it, you can take me with you when you go shadow-walking,” Theo offered magnanimously, coming around the desk to stand in front of Siobhan.

“That’s a rumor based on zero facts.”

Theo’s mouth dropped open in stunned dismay, but then his eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Zero? Really? Even if you can’t shadow walk, you’ve gotta have something interesting that you can show me. I mean, you always have something interesting. Last time, it was all those totally awesome stories about the Black Wastes. Mr. Mawson totally hated that, but I cited all those sources you told me about and he had to give me a good grade. Katerin kept saying I was going to have nightmares, but I didn’t have any at all, so you don’t have to worry about treating me like a little kid.” He reached out boldly to take her hand in both of his, staring up at her with big watery eyes.

Siobhan hesitated, but she was trying to be kinder to herself, as well as to others, and some childish play might be just the thing. As the end of term was approaching in just a few more weeks, the stress among her classmates had grown palpable. When she woke in the middle of the night now, several other students were likely to be awake, lights coming from their curtained cubicles as they tried to cram a whole term’s knowledge into their skulls. It was like the stress was infectious.

She herself wasn’t worried about the general exams, because it was clear she wasn’t in the bottom ten percent of her student group, and thus in no danger of being held back, but the end of term exhibitions were looming ominously, and she was struggling to get as much power from Professor Lacer’s transmogrification exercises as the spells should have provided at her capacity.

“Please?” Theo wheedled.

“Fine,” she acquiesced. She had a few more simple spell arrays drawn on paper now, and she easily found the simple illusion spell. She placed the paper near the light on Katerin’s desk so that she would have more to draw from, and created an image of a cute little dog on the page, wriggling around with excitement as it looked at Theo.

The boy watched with wide eyes, and was smart enough to stop himself from reaching out to touch it, despite his obvious desire.

But soon enough, he frowned. “This is neat and all, but it’s not very ‘Raven Queen,’ is it?”

She morphed the dog into a tiny black dragon, breathing fire, which drew Theo’s interest more strongly, but he still wasn’t satisfied. “But it’s just an illusion. There isn’t a cool story to go along with it, and it’s not even leaving the page. Don’t you have anything more…dangerous? Or at least more impressive?”

Siobhan let the spell drop, staring down at the top of Theo’s curly copper head with exasperation. “Fine. But we’ll need a place open to the air, though preferably not exposed to widespread observation.”

“Of course not,” Theo agreed, already tugging at her hand to lead her away. “We can use one of the rooms with a balcony hanging over the back courtyard!”

Siobhan took a few minutes to more thoroughly examine the spell instructions and imprint the process into her mind, then got to work out on the chilly balcony, setting up the spell array on her portable slate table rather than wrestle with getting an unbroken Circle across the wooden boards beneath her.

It was a bit cramped to fit the three raven feathers—which she had double checked to ensure they weren’t crow feathers after learning of Ana’s mistake with the Raven Queen costume—plus the shade dust, an offering of something shiny and valuable, and a lump of iron. The spell called for a raven eyeball as well, but Siobhan didn’t have one, and with the feather wasn’t sure it was necessary, especially since she knew what the spell actually did. She also didn’t have magnetite, which she had substituted for the iron. It wasn’t ferrimagnetic, since the inherent magnetic domains were all randomly oriented and thus canceled each other out. But the magnetic domains still existed, so she thought it should be good enough. Siobhan might have been able to forcibly magnetize her little lump of iron, but it seemed foolish to try without research and safety measures, especially for something so trivial. For the final component, she just placed down a polished gold crown.

When she was ready, she set the slate table on the balcony deck, added her lantern for power, and stood over it with her hands raised dramatically as Theo watched avidly from the side. Siobhan was trying to take a lesson in spellcasting theatrics from Professor Lacer, who always looked so impressive. In a low, deep voice she said, “Oh raven of the night. With hunger I seek you, persevering. To the earth I draw you, a beacon. With luster I entice you, worthy.”

The chant seemed obviously cobbled together, and the magic wobbled unsteadily under the grip of her Will, new and wild.

She had no intention of letting it slip from her grasp, and imagined the effects of the spell spreading out just like the tendrils of a divination, seeking a matching target and enticing it to approach.

They sat on the corner of the balcony while they waited, their legs dangling off the edge for a quarter hour while Siobhan concentrated with one part of her mind while using the other to chat with an increasingly impatient little boy.

“Are you sure it’s working?” Theo asked, and as if on cue, the first raven arrived.

It landed not on the balcony or the center of the spell array, but on Siobhan’s shoulder. She had been a little worried that the spell wouldn’t be powerful enough to wake any birds from their sleep.

Theo gasped, staring up at the creature in awe.

Unlike the account the purchaser of this spell had given, the raven seemed entirely docile, and maybe even friendly—curious. It watched both of them from its little black eyes, then pecked at Siobhan’s hair, pulling gently in a motion that felt like grooming.

Tentatively, Theo reached up to pet it, pausing for a moment before his fingers came into contact with its feathers to give it time to react.

The raven remained still, and when Theo finally touched it, gently sliding his fingertips over its dark, shimmering feathers, the boy sighed dreamily. “You’re so pretty,” he told it. “And smart.”

The raven bobbed its head up and down, then nibbled gently on his fingers, making him giggle with delight.

“Oh, I should have brought some food for you,” he lamented, suddenly heartbroken by this oversight.

“I have some,” Siobhan offered, carefully moving to pull out the same pouch of dried fruits and nuts that she secretly took with her to breakfast.

Theo held up the bits of food in his palm, and the raven hopped over to his shoulder instead. He petted its feathers, murmuring constant and ever more hyperbolic praise as it nibbled away with its sharp beak, careful not to accidentally hurt him. “Oh, you’re the most genius bird in Gilbratha. And the most beautiful. Your feathers probably look like a black rainbow in the sunlight. You’re a mighty hunter. And a cunning thief. And all the other ravens are jealous of you…” He continued in this vein for a while.

Siobhan watched on with satisfaction, feeling a warmth at his childish enthusiasm and instant adoration. But after another quarter hour the second raven arrived, and got into a bit of a tussle with the first over who had rights to the food.

Theo struggled to mediate. “Be nice. There’s enough for both of you. I’ve got a whole pouch, see?” he said, shaking the food Siobhan had bought for herself without a care to leave any for her. “No, Blacky,” he said to the smaller one, “be nice to Empress Regal. She was here first. Why don’t you ask her if you can have some of the raisins, too?” He turned a hard stare on the first raven, who hesitated, but grudgingly nudged one single raisin toward Blacky.

The ravens seemed to start some sort of argument, hopping on Theo’s lap and tugging at his hair and clothes while squawking belligerently at each other and throwing wing fisticuffs.

Theo had to resort to threats to get them to stop. And then the third and fourth raven arrived, each taking one of Siobhan’s shoulders. They cawed loudly right in her ears and eyed each other with distrust, and then all four started hopping and flapping around in some kind of territorial dance that she was worried might accidentally disrupt the spell array.

At that point, Siobhan dropped the spell, because she wasn’t a complete fool, and drawing a swarm of ravens, even in a discrete place at night, seemed like a great way to draw unnecessary attention.

Three more ravens arrived after that, flying around the balcony with confusion. After a minute or so they left, followed by the others.

Theo’s raven was the last to depart, but not before finishing the last of the snacks. It gave Theo’s bright copper hair a friendly tug, then swooped down and picked up the gold piece Siobhan had laid out as a component before flying off into the night.

“Hey!” she called after it angrily. “Bring that back!”

It’s mocking caw soon faded into the distance.

Suddenly, the whole thing didn’t seem worth it, after all. A whole gold piece was a steep price to pay for less than an hour of fun for a little boy. With a sigh, she packed up the spell components and her lantern, shooing Theo off to bed before Katerin could return and get angry with the both of them.

After returning to the Silk Door and Sebastien’s form, she checked her pocket watch, noting the late hour and vacillating for a moment over what to do next. Responsibly, she should return to the University and go to sleep. But the decryption spells she had been waiting so long for were calling to her from the inside pocket of her jacket, whispering of the mysteries they could uncover and the power of knowledge.

So instead, knowing she would likely regret it in the morning, Sebastien headed to Dryden Manor. She had the beamshell tincture if she really needed it, after all.

Oliver was there when she arrived, but seeing that she was busy and distracted, he said only, “Have breakfast with me in the morning before you head back. There’s some upcoming work I want to talk to you about.”

With a murmured agreement, Sebastien headed up to her room and took out the spell instructions, as well as the books on more complex math that she had borrowed from the University library in anticipation of needing them.

Spreading out her books and papers over the floor and plopping down cross-legged on a cushion, she delved into the theoretical information. As she had worried, the spell was complex, the math slightly beyond her, and the power requirements entirely beyond her. But those were only roadblocks, and with enough tenacity, they would all be overcome.

She worked well into the night, deciphering the math and turning the formulas into graphs and charts that took up a lot more space, but were easier for her to grasp, writing notes that explained how the spell worked in more detail so she could stabilize the Word, and calculating out how to modify the spell to stretch out its casting time such that she could handle it on her own.

She got lost within the work, so focused on wrenching apart the puzzle pieces and forcing them back together that she didn’t retire to the bed until the early hours of the morning. Thinking of the raven stealing her coin, a giggle burst out of her. It probably had a whole cache of stolen loot. She drifted off to sleep imagining other people being victim to similar thefts, but superstitiously believing that the ravens were demanding tribute on behalf of their queen, tittering woozily to herself all the while.

I almost forgot to post the chapter today, because, when you work 7 days a week, sometimes you forget what day it is.

IMPORTANT: I’m revamping my website, and will be moving over to a new host on Monday. There may be some site downtime from Monday-Tuesday because of this. Hopefully, it will fix some of the sporadic access problems people have experienced.

 

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