Read a Practical Guide to Sorcery

Chapter 4 – Puzzles & Self-Creation

Siobhan

Month 9, Day 28, Monday 5:30 a.m.

Siobhan woke with a strangled scream in her throat, her jaw clenched so hard she could feel her teeth creaking. Ephemeral flashes of flames reflecting off pooling blood passed in front of her eyes as she stared into the darkness. Her heart pounded as if she had been racing through the streets of Gilbratha in a wild panic, and the soft sheets below her were cold with sweat. The flashes of her dream faded as she left sleep behind, and she forced herself to relax. ‘I forgot to cast my dreamless sleep spell,’ she realized.

She sat up and moved stiffly to the window, undoing the latch and pushing it open. The cool air flushed in, smelling of salt. She looked out onto the empty street below and kept breathing till she had calmed. It was only then that she became aware of her body, which was still transformed into the unfamiliar male form. The night before, Dryden had brought her to his house—though to her eyes it looked more like a mansion—and she had immediately, recklessly, fallen asleep on the bed in a second-story guest room, with her packs tucked in beside her for some semblance of safety.

Siobhan’s lack of discomfort with the new body sent an incongruous shudder down her spine. ‘It cannot be normal for me to forget that my body is not my own. It’s been less than a day, and yet I’ve slipped into this skin so seamlessly it might as well have been mine since birth. Is there some sort of error in my psyche that makes me so detached? Or, perhaps this abnormal level of comfort is an effect of the spell. The creator was certainly skilled enough to do something like that.’ The thought comforted her, and she deliberately decided to believe the latter explanation.

The transformation didn’t seem to have degraded overnight. There was no slippage back into her female form, and no loss of control or feelings of disassociation with the new body. A perfunctory examination showed no change to the artifact, either, though she knew no diagnostic spells to be sure of that.

Despite her discomfort with this form, and the dread she felt over its possible consequences—magic always had a cost—she couldn’t pretend to be anything other than overwhelmingly, pathetically grateful that she’d discovered the amulet. This body gave her access to magic, to knowledge beyond anything a commoner could ever dream of. It was the tool that would let her unravel the inner secrets of the universe and then remake them according to her Will. And it would keep her out of jail.

She would wear it until it became as natural as her first form. She would love it.

Absently picking at the dirt under her nails, Siobhan moved to the corner and activated the light crystals. Ironically, the brightness only made the shadows at the corner of the room and under the door seem more ominous.

Awkwardly, she sat on the chamber pot in the corner and relieved herself, experiencing the strange sensation of magic cleaning and drying her nether regions for the first time. The chamber pot, which was apparently an artifact, began to process the waste, and another spell kept the smell from filtering out into the room. Unsure how to feel about this use of magic, Siobhan limped back to the packs on the bed and dug around in one for a small jar of bruise salve.

As she slowly rubbed the salve into the bruises that seemed to cover half her newly pale body in mottled purple, blue, and green—a pattern that, though painful, looked almost artistic—Siobhan considered her transformation. ‘At least I know injuries transfer between my normal and transformed states. I wonder how it works. Will I have my time of the month, or have those organs been absorbed and transformed too?’ She shuddered at the thought of things that could potentially go wrong. What if she were to transform from a female to male halfway through her time of the month, and the remaining blood was not either absorbed into the spell or expelled from her body? ‘I hope the artifact’s creator considered possibilities like that. What about aging? If that’s considered damage like a wound, then both bodies should age at the same rate. If I build muscle as a man, will I be stronger as a female?’ She imagined her normal body bulging out of her clothes with muscle, and let out a small snort of amusement.

She’d made the bruise salve herself, and it was high quality, sending alternating waves of chill and warmth through her flesh, easing the pain and stiffness and speeding her healing. She should’ve applied the salve last night, before the injuries had time to settle. They would take longer to heal, now.

She stretched experimentally, then moved to the door and carefully opened it, peeking into the dark hallway beyond. It was empty, except for the ornate rug and a couple of little tables with vases and knickknacks that were likely worth more than her Conduit.

She slipped out, closing the bedroom door behind her. She noted the utter lack of bending or creaking beneath her feet as she walked down the hallway. The floor was made of solid, uncut marble, despite the fact that she was on the second level. ‘What a waste of resources. How much magic went into building this house?’ Still, it suited her purpose at the moment.

She reviewed her hazy memories of arriving the night before, the effects of Will-strain evident in retrospect. Too much spellcasting, along with stress and fatigue, led to a variety of side-effects, and could be truly dangerous. She’d been distracted and disoriented, and much of her journey to Dryden Manor had been lost to a minor fugue state.

She vaguely remembered that he’d told her the servants didn’t live in his house, and had all gone home, before personally serving her some drinking water and leading her up the stairs to the empty bedroom. ‘I believe I made quite a few less than intelligent decisions yesterday,’ she admitted ruefully. However, no one had yet invented a spell to travel back in time, so there was nothing to be done about it but accept her current situation and move on.

The first few doors she opened led to other bedrooms, so rather than accidentally open the door to Dryden’s room and—if he had an alarm ward set—alert him to her intrusion, she found her way down the stairs back to the first level. The rooms there were more varied, though equally opulent, and she couldn’t help her bright smile of excitement when she found a sizeable room filled with books. She’d heard of libraries before from her grandfather, and though this didn’t seem so large as what she had imagined, there were still more books than she’d ever seen in one place. Large windows were placed to let in the sunlight during the day, and at the far side of the room, next to a bay window with a wide bench beneath it, sat an imposing desk covered with papers.

Siobhan headed straight for it. She eyed the closed drawers on the sides, but didn’t touch them in case they were warded. She didn’t even turn on the crystal lamp atop the desk, and instead clasped her hands behind her back to keep them from wandering curiously. She bent over to read what she could by the light of the moon and the streetlamps through the half-uncovered window. To her disappointment, she found nothing scandalous or nefarious. In fact, most of the papers seemed to be notes or information about the logistics of starting and running various businesses. “First choice of workers should be the Mires—the neediest will benefit most,” Dryden had scribbled on one paper.

When further examination—still without touching—uncovered nothing more, Siobhan turned to the bookshelves covering the walls. She didn’t use the ladder to reach the higher shelves, simply perusing the titles of the books within her reach. To her disappointment, the only books about magic were theoretical and abstract in nature. There were no grimoires or educational texts, though she did find a shelf of fiction novels—sensationalist adventures and other silly stories. Disappointed, she stopped by the kitchen on the way back to her room, pilfering a couple out-of-season fruits and a loaf of bread. Magic was hungry work.

What did I expect to find?’ She wasn’t sure, but she knew a piece of this puzzle didn’t fit with the others. She wasn’t valuable enough for Dryden to go to all this effort to help her, especially if he and Katerin were true to their word and didn’t plan to make her do anything morally reprehensible to repay them. ‘If that were true, it would take much less effort to simply hire a legitimate sorcerer. The terms of my loan may be ridiculously biased toward Katerin, but I’d guess the book and the artifact to be worth more than the interest she’ll earn from me. If it were true that they didn’t want either item because of the danger of law enforcement, why would they be willing to associate with the person who stole it? No, I cannot trust them.

In the light of her room’s spelled crystal lamps, she consumed the food ravenously while examining the floor beneath one of the plush rugs. The marble underneath was just rough enough to take chalk easily. No doubt that was on purpose, an affectation of the wealthy, since the ability to perform magic was a status symbol. She rolled the rug up and away, settling it in the corner. The stone was cool against her bare feet, but she didn’t mind.

She knelt on the ground and pulled out a stick of chalk wrapped in wax paper, then peeled away one edge to open up the drawing medium. She drew a Circle, using a string to keep it as close to perfectly round as possible. The Circle was large, allowing plenty of room for the Word, the instructional spell array that would help her guide the magical energy. Time slipped away as she bent her mind to the puzzle of creating a decryption spell, so that she didn’t even notice the pastel light of dawn creeping over the horizon and giving the room a ghostly feel.

She was familiar with the encryption spell on her own grimoire, which Grandfather had designed and helped her cast as a child. Decryption was complex and difficult, an ever-evolving field which she knew little about. Although she could design a spell that would probably decrypt her own grimoire, if she were powerful enough, that was only because she understood the original encryption.

After placing the stolen book in the center of the main Circle, Siobhan took a step back. The risk she was about to take was unlikely to pay off, but it wasn’t as if she knew anyone who could help her with this, and she needed to know what the book said. Hopefully, there would be some explanation about the amulet. She looked over the spell again, searching for any obvious risks or inefficiencies. She’d heard plenty of horror stories about careless sorcerers and minor mistakes, and wasn’t eager to become someone else’s cautionary tale.

Magic, in its most basic form, was change. A trade of one thing for another.

There were three elements to every spell, though the way a thaumaturge achieved each element would vary according to their craft, as well as their level of skill and personal preference. The three elements were the Will, the Word, and the Sacrifice.

The Circle facilitated all three elements, and most magical crafts used one in some way. In drawing a Circle, you placed a physical boundary around a spherical domain you controlled, signifying that the things within were yours to trade away and change as you wished. It was possible to create a spell that affected something at a distance, like the stunning spell stored in the coppers’ battle wands, but those effects started within a Circle too.

A thaumaturge’s Will made magic possible. Philosophers and scientists alike struggled to define it to their satisfaction, but Siobhan had always felt it was quite simple. The Will was a combination of heart-wrenching desire and undeniable command that she pushed into the fabric of the world. Reality bent under the force of her Will because it could not have done otherwise.

The stronger a person’s Will, the more power they could channel, the less defined the Word needed to be, and the less power would be lost in conversion. With a strong enough Will, the knowledge to match it, and the right resources, a thaumaturge could raise mountains with a wave of their hand, pierce the veil between life and death, and travel into the Elemental Planes. She doubted there was anything magic could not accomplish, if the thaumaturge was strong enough.

The Word guided the transformation of energy or matter, steering the effects of the spell. It could be any type of instruction, though with sorcery it was most often written into the Circle as an array of glyphs and numerically significant symbols. These were often supplemented with speech or written instructions, especially for complex effects. Here, the Word was as complex, clear, and detailed as she could make it, which would hopefully reduce strain on her Will.

The Sacrifice was what one gave up for the effect of the spell. It could be an object, like a blob of mud used to create a brick, or energy, like the heat from a flame.

Modern magic had defined two different subsets of spells. Transmutation was based on the natural sciences. Water had a natural connection to ice, because with only a change in energy, one became the other. Transmogrification was based on sympathetic science. Water had a sympathetic connection to a drowning curse because people mentally associated deep waters with death. Thus, water could be used as a Sacrifice in a variety of different spells with completely different effects.

For this spell, she was using a few different components based on truth, text, and good sight. The flame from a small oil lantern would provide her with energy.

Finally, the Conduit channeled the thaumaturgic energy being converted. For most sorcerers, this was a celerium crystal, which could withstand powerful magical forces without exploding or melting. Celerium was the only element that even the most powerful could not transmute duplicates of, nor could they use transmogrification to transfer its properties through Sacrifice. It had esoteric properties that they did not understand, but which made it specially suited for its purpose. It could only be found in natural deposits like Lenore’s mines.

Her own Conduit was rated up to two hundred fifty thaums, which was still a few dozen more than her Will could handle. Eventually, with practice to strengthen her Will, she would need to upgrade. When the time came, her father would pass down her mother’s Conduit to her, an heirloom ring that he wore to remember the woman by, since Siobhan didn’t technically need it yet. Or so he insisted.

The first and most important rule her grandfather had pounded into her head was the importance of never, ever, performing a spell without a proper Conduit.

He’d given her nightmares with his cautionary tales. She was only ten at the time, and hadn’t started her apprenticeship with him, but he’d found her pretending to cast magic from one of his books instead of writing her assigned essay. She remembered it well. ‘Magic is like a beast,’ he had said. ‘Or a swarm of insects,’ he amended.

She’d been terrified by a swarm of angry bees only a couple of weeks before, and her eyes widened as she pulled the covers up a little higher under her chin.

Used properly, it can be guided with your Will. Controlled. But never tamed. However, it must have something to travel through as it transforms your Sacrifice into your magical effect. And without a Conduit, it will travel through you. Like a swarm of invisible insects, it will crawl inside and infest you. It will spread from your body to your mind, and some say even your soul,’ he intoned ominously as she stared at him unblinkingly.

It will bite, and tear, and sting you from the inside. But you will not realize it. For at the first touch of magic in your flesh, in your mind, you will feel only bliss. Such bliss that you will never want to stop. That is its poison, its revenge for your hubris in channeling it directly. Even those with the strength of your mother’s bloodline have lost themselves to it. I have seen a man’s flesh bulge out with pustules that burst and revealed clusters of eyes growing beneath his skin. I have seen a woman whose mind warped such that she felt an all-consuming hunger for the flesh of children whose blood still ran warm in their veins. Another man simply…disappeared. He was screaming with pleasure, but it sounded like he was being tortured. He faded away before my eyes—right in the middle of the street—and was never seen again. Though occasionally, when I walked that street at night, I would hear faint echoes of his screams in the wind.

She had whimpered, and Grandfather’s faraway gaze had returned to the present, peering down at her sharply. ‘And that is why we never cast without a Conduit. Especially with your father’s weak bloodline. It is not safe, my child.

Even now, Siobhan shuddered at the images her grandfather’s words had conjured. Assured that everything was as safe as she could make it, Siobhan clasped her Conduit between both hands and bent her Will to the decryption spell, the candle flame trembling as she pulled at it.

The text inside remained a jumbled mess of letters she recognized mixed with ones she was sure she’d never seen, none forming anything like comprehensible words, or any pattern at all. The occasional inked graph or illustrations were nothing more than loopy scribbles that seemed as if someone had tried to draw something from memory, with their eyes closed, without ever lifting their pen from the paper. Looking at it from afar, with her eyes slightly squinted, it seemed deceptively, tantalizingly close to coherence. There were words, paragraphs, and illustrations, not so different from her own grimoire. But when she focused, it made the back of her eyes ache to try and read it.

So she pushed harder, all of her concentration focused on that particular type of resolve that caused the world to bend and bow down under the weight of her Will. The candle flame guttered out, and she stumbled as the spell failed, vertigo sending the room spinning around her. ‘How pitiful,’ she thought angrily. ‘Close to Will-strain from a single failed spell?

She’d known the risk was unlikely to pay off, but she was still bitterly disappointed. Either the book’s creator had been a much stronger thaumaturge than her, or the gap between the method of decryption and the sophistication of the encryption was simply too great. Most likely both. It didn’t help that she was still exhausted from the day before.

Siobhan noted details of the failed decryption spell in her grimoire, then returned to the stolen book, flipping through it in the hopes of finding some sort of clue in the jumbled, unintelligible symbols and shifting, half-ephemeral drawings that always twisted or faded before her eyes could quite capture them. Returning to a previous page, she found it completely different from the first time she looked at it. The number of pages couldn’t even be counted with any certainty.

Shutting the book, Siobhan’s eyes lingered on the single rune stamped on the cover. It refused to clarify into a shape with meaning. ‘Perhaps the text itself isn’t encrypted, but is casting some sort of illusion spell on me?

She rooted through her pockets, wondering what spell components she had that could be associated with clarity of mind. ‘Would the small shard of crystal and the eagle feathers from my dreamless sleep spell be useful? Maybe some ginseng, too, though I don’t have any with me.

When the door to her room opened, half her components were laid out on the floor, grouped by their sympathetic properties. She had scribbled over the half-erased Circle from the first spell with notes, arrows, and partially designed spell arrays.

Dryden’s gaze swept over the room.

Siobhan sat back on her heels and followed the path of his eyes, suddenly aware of the mess she’d made. “I have a system,” she muttered, alarmed to feel a blush creep up her cheeks. “It only looks like chaos to the untrained eye.” At times, she could get a little carried away trying to solve a puzzle.

He leaned a shoulder against the doorway, one eyebrow raised. “Obviously.”

Only now, as she looked at him without the pall of danger hanging over her every thought, did she realize how perfectly attractive the man was. His shoulders were broad, his hair soft and shiny-looking, and his gaze bright enough to reveal a keen mind beneath. He was likely a competent thaumaturge. His pristine white shirt cuffs were rolled up to his elbows, and as he crossed his arms she noted the muscles in his forearms and his long, graceful fingers. The vague feeling of attraction made her uncomfortable, and more aware than ever of her transformed body. She looked away.

After a moment, he waved at her impatiently. “At least the transformation spell lasted the night. Come, there is much to do if we are to submit your application for the entrance exams by the end of the day. We have until six before they stop accepting new applicants.”

Siobhan shot to her feet. “Six tonight? That’s the cut-off for this entire term!?” The new body’s voice refused to pitch as high as she pushed it, cracking instead.

He motioned for her to follow him again, this time more impatiently. “Indeed. Therefore, we must get to work immediately. You can return to summoning a demon, or whatever you were doing, later.”

She grimaced and hurried to re-stock her pockets and her little storage box with the components strewn across the floor. “I was attempting to decipher the book,” she muttered, following him down the hallway.

“Oh? Did you have much success?” he said without turning his head.

“No,” she admitted grudgingly. “I’m not an expert on wards or encryptions, and I lack the proper components for more efficient spells of that nature.”

“Hmm.” Dryden seemed neither surprised nor disappointed. “Well, you’ll learn at the University?” It was a statement, but pitched like a question.

“Yes,” she said firmly, absently somewhat pleased at the gravitas a male voice lent to her inflection. She had never been the squeaky sort of female, but few women who were not addicted to smoking cat’s-cough could achieve such a natural-sounding resonance.

Siobhan spent the majority of the day under Dryden’s instruction. First, he sent her to take a bath in his luxurious bathing room, once again made of marble. The taps were spelled to spill hot water into a basin sunk into the floor. ‘Just who have I gotten myself involved with?’ she wondered while scrubbing herself with scented soaps and some porous thing she thought might be the corpse of a sea-plant called a “sponge.” Dryden wasn’t one of the Crown Family surnames, but the level of wealth on display in his home evoked a sense of royalty.

After that, he had her dress in a deliciously soft woolen suit, one of his own, that he said was “from last year’s style” with a self-aware, slightly mocking sneer in his voice, as if he knew how absurd he sounded. The suit was too big for her, but they had no time to tailor it. He even examined her walk as they moved to the book-filled study she had snooped around the night before to make sure she didn’t sway her hips in a feminine manner. “Among the crowd you’ll be associating with, appearances are important. Attractiveness, body language, and eloquence are essential tools. People can be power, if you know how to cultivate them,” he said.

It was obvious he followed his own advice. Dryden’s appearance, his home, the way he interacted with the world and those around him, it all amplified the impression of tasteful, controlled wealth and power.

Still, it’s so tedious. People are, in general, uninspired troglodytes. People might be power, but magic is power, too, and it’s a power I much prefer. A person may betray or disappoint you, but you can always depend on your own mastery of magic.

He motioned for her to sit down in one of the plush chairs as a servant brought them food. When the woman left, he said, “It must seem, to anyone who bothers to look, as if you fit in at the University. You will walk like them, talk like them, and dress like them. The goal is to avoid notice altogether.” He looked at her critically, then sighed. “My job here could be harder, I suppose. If not for the clothes, and the fact that you’re sitting like a girl, I might not realize immediately that you’re an impostor. Spread your legs!” he snapped.

Siobhan did so, and realized immediately that it was much more…comfortable, that way. She had tried not to pay too much attention to the area between her legs while bathing, but she supposed she’d best get used to being a young man, since she would be spending quite a long time in this form, if things went well.

“Now, let us come up with your story, young man. What is your name?” Dryden leaned back in his leather chair, leveling her with a challenging gaze.

Siobhan was intelligent enough not to blurt out her own name, at least. ‘Best if it’s something similar enough to my real name that I react naturally upon hearing it, but not so similar as to be suspicious,’ she thought. “My name is Sebastien,” she said, feeling out the name as it passed her lips.

Dryden nodded his approval. “It sounds high-class enough. And the last name? You cannot be from an established family, but you’re more likely to be accepted if you don’t seem to be a commoner.” He transitioned to muttering as he got up to poke around one of the bookcases along the walls. “It’s sad, but the statistics speak for themselves. After all, the final round of examination is proctored by a panel of professors who carry out their responsibility to impartiality with varying levels of sincerity. Best if you claim to be from a minor noble line from outside Lenore, I think.”

A few minutes of rifling through books brought out a satisfied “Aha!” and Dryden returned with an old book, which he set on the desk. He jabbed his finger at the center of a page filled with lists of names. “Siverling. Sebastien Siverling. The line seems to have died out a few hundred years ago, so no real heirs will be around to contest your place in their family. If someone questions you, you can simply admit to being from a bastard line and pretend to be offended, or some such nonsense.”

Siobhan’s eyes narrowed. “Why are you doing this?”

He frowned at her. “Being prepared is very important. Taking risks leads to getting caught. As a child, I tried to sneak things past my mother all the time, and she would discover my plans if I left even the slightest possibility open to her. I learned that the only way to truly get away with something is to be meticulous in both planning and execution. I don’t think humans are designed to be naturally good at subterfuge.”

She shook her head, not willing to be distracted. “You know what I mean. Why are you going to such lengths to help me? Putting yourself at risk to find me in the first place is one thing, if you really thought I was a powerful sorcerer who might be willing to help you with illegal magics. However, as soon as you learned otherwise…I’m surprised you didn’t attempt to silence me on the spot. Beyond that, you’ve left me with this artifact and the accompanying text, are, in essence, sponsoring me through the University, and have taken me into your home to help me succeed. Do you make deals like this with every hopeful sorcerer you meet? What is it that you expect from me?”

Dryden returned to his seat, staring at her in a way that made her straighten her posture defensively. “Sebastien, you seem to be under the impression that you’re special to me for some nefarious reason that I’m hiding. And you are, in that you have a somewhat unique potential to be extremely useful to me one day. However, I’m not helping you because you’re special. If that was the whole of it, I would rather avoid the hassle you represent and leave you to your own devices while hoping you muddle through somehow. No, I’m helping you because I feel like it. I told you at our first meeting. I am a philanthropist. And I can help you just because I decide I would like to.”

“That still doesn’t explain all—”

With an irritated swipe of his hand, he cut her off. “I enjoy righting wrongs. It has nothing to do with you. Don’t be so conceited. You are not so unique or valuable that I need to trick you through some elaborate ploy. I help you, you repay me through competence, and in the meantime I get the satisfaction of knowing that I can affect real change on the world, both directly and on a larger scale. I told you. There is power in people, in connections. You’re not the first I have taken a personal interest in elevating from their station in life, and you will not be the last. Please don’t misunderstand me. Focus on being accepted to the University so that you can repay me for my generosity.”

Siobhan looked away, trying to keep her embarrassment and irritation from showing. She felt unfairly chastised, and beyond that, she wasn’t sure she believed him. ‘Who is Oliver Dryden, anyway?’ Katerin had loaned her the money based on little more than his recommendation, or rather, his subtle command. He was the wealthiest person Siobhan had ever met, though perhaps not the wealthiest person in the city of Gilbratha. He was involved in some operation that could use a low-level, illegal sorcerer, rather than simply purchasing legitimate, University-certified labor. His eyes had held a spark when he spoke of affecting change on the world, the same type she had seen in her grandfather’s when he worked larger spells.

And why was he there last night, in person? Even if he thought I was a powerful, valuable sorcerer, shouldn’t he have had some minions available for a job like that? Or does he have so many of the local coppers in his pocket that he would have been fine even if they arrested him?’ Each question only made her more suspicious. ‘If that’s the case, then last night was just an act for my benefit, to make me trust him—him personally.’ She had too little information to judge properly, but she resolved to keep her guard up and her eyes open.

I am special, though,’ she thought defiantly. ‘If he’s chosen a person to be in his debt based on future utility, he’s chosen well, even if he doesn’t know it.’ She couldn’t say that aloud, however, for fear of being scoffed at. She would make sure to absorb every drop of knowledge and magic available to her in preparation for the day when the metaphorical fly in the ointment became obvious.

Chapter 3 – A Business Contract

Siobhan

Month 9, Day 28, Monday 1:25 a.m.

“Siobhan Naught,” she said, introducing herself to her rescuer in return. She followed when Dryden led her out of the maze-like alleys to the main streets, where they both were careful to avoid any outward display of apprehension. They stopped at the smaller side door of a sprawling, multi-storied building that had once been made of stone, then added onto with wood. It stood out against its surroundings, both for size and because it had real glass windows, which wasn’t unheard of, even on the edge of the poorer section of Gilbratha, but it was a sign of prosperity that none were broken or patched up with oil paper. Some of the windows still shone with light despite the late hour.

Someone had painted a small symbol in bright green above the door. ‘Antlers,’ she thought.

Dryden rapped in a distinctive pattern, which Siobhan immediately memorized, and after half a minute of silence, the door opened.

A red-headed boy peered out from around the edge of the door, a bright grin growing on his face when he saw who it was. “Mr. Oliver!” he exclaimed, opening the door wider to let them in. “What’re you doing here so late? Didja hear about the powerful witch who attacked the University and then escaped capture by a whole squad of coppers? It was so awesome! She called on a greater demon from the Plane of Darkness.” The boy punctuated his words with exaggerated motions and scary sound effects. “And while the coppers were busy with it, she escaped by turning into a raven!”

Dryden gave Siobhan a wry look, but his tone was light and appeasing when he spoke to the boy. “Is that so, Theo? I heard she was a sorcerer, not a witch. And isn’t the Plane of Darkness something that only exists in fantasy stories?”

Theo frowned. “If she was a sorcerer, how’d she conjure the demon? Oh!” he said, brightening. “Maybe it wasn’t a demon at all! What if it was a spell-created construct? And maybe turning into a raven was actually a sneaky illusion, or a super-powerful body-switching spell that let her teleport to wherever the raven came from!”

Siobhan couldn’t resist a slight chuckle. The boy’s portrayal of her escape was much more dramatic than she remembered the actual encounter being. “Maybe this sorcerer was up against less than a full squad of coppers, and maybe she just did some simple magic that interacted well with her surroundings to prevent them from following her. Like an overpowered breeze that kicked sand into their eyes and made them stumble off the side of a ledge.”

Theo frowned at her, then shook his head emphatically. “No, that’s stup—I mean, that’s silly. You totally left out the greater demon. Why would a powerful sorcerer just blow sand in people’s faces? All the stories I’ve heard about her escape were much more…” He trailed off, waving his hands around as he searched for the right word.

“Dramatic?” Dryden offered.

Theo nodded. “Yes. That. Oh, I hope one day I’ll learn magic and be that powerful. I’m gonna go questing beyond the wards of the city and help battle the beasts of the wild lands. I’ll fight a dragon, one with a beast core as big around as my head!” He held his hands up to show them the size of this future prize.

Naive child. Traveling beyond the warded borders of civilization involves much less glory and many more sore muscles, sleepless nights on the ground, and the grating, constant tension of waiting for nature to turn on you.’ Siobhan knew this because living with her father meant they were never welcome in any one town for long, and even if he didn’t get them run out, he was soon ready to chase after the next “opportunity.” At least Lenore wasn’t particularly infested with magical beasts, as long as you avoided the country’s wilder borders.

“Is the manager here?” Dryden asked, smiling kindly. “Tell her I would like to speak with her, and I’ve brought a guest.”

“Katerin’s upstairs in her office. Just follow me,” Theo said, running off toward the stairs at the far side of the large room.

Dryden sighed and shook his head at the child’s oblivious back, but motioned for Siobhan to accompany him as he followed.

The large room inside was mostly filled with tables, except for the long bar backed by bottles and kegs at one end, and the curtained stage at the other. On the far wall, scribbles that looked like various bets and their odds covered a spacious chalkboard. A door led off to what she thought was a kitchen. Siobhan imagined it was a popular establishment, with so many attractions to draw the locals. It would be easy to camouflage any suspicious activity within the chaos of legitimate patronage. If the other rooms up above were for guests, making this an inn as well as an entertainment hall, even better.

The three of them went up the stairs and down to the end of the connected hallway. Theo knocked perfunctorily, then opened the door and poked his head in. “Katerin, Mr. Oliver’s here, and he brought a man disguised as a homeless person with him.”

Siobhan stared at the bright hair on the back of the child’s head. “What?” She didn’t realize she’d spoken aloud until both Dryden and Theo turned to look at her.

Theo gave her a little smirk that held no malice. “Well, I’m not gonna tell anyone. But your cloak seems to’ve been taken off a homeless man, and the jacket underneath doesn’t fit you properly. But you talk and walk like someone from a Crown Family, and when Mr. Oliver looks you in the eyes, you stare right back at him. So, I figure it’s a disguise.”

Siobhan struggled to keep the surprise from her face. She had indeed stolen the cloak from a man passed out on the side of a street in hopes it would help disguise her. The clothes beneath were meant for a female, of course, and too small for this new body, in addition to having been torn and dirtied in her escape. “Well, you may be right about the clothes and the mannerisms, but I can assure you, I am quite homeless.”

Theo shrugged.

From within the room, Siobhan heard a loud sigh, followed by a woman’s voice with a throaty, biting accent. “Let them in, Theo, and go to bed. I do not wish to have to tell you again. If I find you haven’t gone to sleep…” The threat in her voice was obvious, and the boy blanched and ran off with one last wave to Dryden, leaving the door open behind him.

Siobhan’s stomach clenched with apprehension, but she didn’t wait for Dryden to lead her in. She stepped forward, pushing the door the rest of the way open.

Behind an imposing mahogany desk, which was covered in papers and lit with a warm yellow glow from a light crystal, sat a beautiful, crimson-haired woman with heavy-lidded eyes. ‘Vampire,’ came Siobhan’s immediate thought. However, further inspection revealed olive-toned skin, and when the woman smiled, the teeth behind her lips were square-tipped and distinctly humanoid. ‘Of course, that could be an illusion.’ If Siobhan had water imbued with energy from the Plane of Radiance, she could be sure, but even displaying a capped vial would be an overt act of aggression to a real vampire. Besides, if the woman were disguising her true nature, why would she not change the color of her hair, as well?

Relax,’ Siobhan thought to herself. ‘There is a difference between wariness and skittish paranoia.’ With a conscious exhalation, she nodded at the woman and stepped forward to make way for Dryden to enter behind her.

Katerin raised an eyebrow at him.

The amusement in Dryden’s voice was obvious. “What I found wasn’t exactly what I went looking for.”

“I can see that. What is it, exactly, that you have brought me, Oliver?” she said, not unkindly, as shrewd eyes looked Siobhan’s new body up and down.

Dryden moved to stand beside the fireplace in the corner, sighing with exaggerated relief at the warmth.

Katerin’s impatience grew palpable.

“I’m not sure how to explain this,” he finally said, one edge of his lips curling up.

Katerin’s mouth tightened. “I’m too tired to deal with this shit, Dryden. Just tell me.”

When Dryden still hesitated, Siobhan spoke. “I’m the one the coppers are looking for,” she said simply. She couldn’t stop her gaze from twitching nervously toward Dryden, uncomfortable with incriminating herself before another stranger. However, the woman had obviously been complicit in Dryden’s plan to aid and bargain with a fugitive sorcerer. Being coy wouldn’t help her here. Siobhan tried to reassure herself that things could hardly get worse, but she was, regrettably, too intelligent to believe her own lie. ‘It can always get worse.

Dryden lost his smirk, along with his control of the conversation and Katerin’s attention, but he nodded reassuringly at Siobhan as she opened her mouth to continue explaining.

“I had no plans to steal anything, but when I found myself in possession of the book, it was already too late. Within the book was an artifact that causes a full-body transmutation.” She gestured to herself. “I meant to become a student of the University just this morning, before my life was torn apart by the imbecilic, egocentric and completely outrageous actions of a man who could not consider the needs of someone else before himself even if he were cursed with a blood-bound vow of philanthropy!” She ran out of breath and realized she was panting, her teeth bared. She swallowed deliberately, then closed her mouth and ran her tongue across the inside of her teeth for a couple of seconds to regain her composure. “Forgive me. I am…upset to have my wellbeing and future jeopardized so severely.”

Katerin let out the smallest huff of air. It might have been an indicator of amusement.

Dryden cleared his throat. “She has a clean identity. To attend the University, she now only needs money.”

Katerin leaned her elbows on the desk and dropped her head forward to rub at her temples. “Perhaps you could slow down and explain things to me in more detail. With some coherence, this time.”

Siobhan flushed and was discomfited to realize that, with such pale skin, the involuntary reaction was probably quite obvious.

This time, Dryden took the initiative to explain. “The reports of the nefarious sorcerer who stole an ancient text brought back from the University’s latest expedition were…somewhat exaggerated.” He continued, explaining everything he and Siobhan had discussed.

Katerin seemed to grow more tired as he spoke.

Siobhan, in contrast, drew herself up even straighter, as if impeccable posture would shield her against disappointment.

“A loan of that size is a significant investment,” the woman said. “It is not the first time one of the common people have requested it. Without a license to practice, it is unlikely he…she”—Katerin looked at Siobhan and waved a hand dismissively—“would ever be able to repay me. A license requires that she be able to gain admittance as well as complete at least the first three terms. I will need assurance that she can do so,” she said, turning to Siobhan.

Siobhan knew what Katerin meant. “You wish to see me perform a spell?”

“You told Oliver here that you were capable of such. If that is true, perhaps you’ll be useful. However, you must also demonstrate the capability of this artifact. If you cannot successfully disguise yourself in the long term, it’s pointless to continue this discussion.”

Siobhan pushed back her shoulders, the movement of this new body feeling less wrong already. Did it matter if the form were not her own—not quite right—if, by using it, she could learn magic? There was little she wouldn’t be willing to pay. She reached up to the amulet at her neck and pulled it out of her clothing once again. A quick glance showed interest from both Dryden and Katerin, but none of the greed that would signal danger. Even with the ability to inspect the amulet again in the light, she saw no obvious controls or switches, no signs of it being an artifact at all. If it only worked one way and the spell never wore off, she would never return to her former appearance.

The thought made her hand clench around it with apprehension, and her mind slipped into that particular kind of focus that spellcasting required. As she had done so many times before, she reached for a spark of power to feed into the spell. There was no Circle, but for only the barest hint of energy, she didn’t need one. The artifact warmed her palm, and then that same tingling warmth spread across her frame. Obviously, the artificer who created it had been a Master, at the least. Within a couple of seconds, the warm tingle receded.

When Siobhan opened her eyes, their viewpoint was just a little lower than what she had already grown used to. She let out a sigh of relief. Her shoes no longer pinched, and a quick look down at herself revealed long, pitch-black strands of hair and the creamy ochre skin that revealed her heritage. Her mother had been one of the People.

Katerin looked her up and down, then nodded. “Now turn back.”

Siobhan did, grimacing at the pinch of her boots and the sense of physical dysmorphia.

“What are the base ingredients of a fever-reducing potion?” Katerin asked.

Siobhan didn’t even need to think. “There are a few different variations of fever reducers. Common ingredients are white willow bark, boneset, yarrow, ice, or any body part from an albino frost toad—though the core is the best—lake fog harvested before the sun fully rises, spearmint, and a couple of feathers from a dove or a sparrow for a feeling of breezy comfort.”

Katerin didn’t seem impressed, but she didn’t seem disappointed, either. “You can brew all of these variations?”

Siobhan nodded. Simple healing potions and salves were always in demand, and it had been an easy way for her to trade for goods or a place to sleep in the towns her father and she had passed through. She rarely had access to any ingredient she wanted, so had often been forced to brew variations based on what she could forage from the nearby land. She had even used them herself a few times.

Dryden shared a quick look with Katerin, then said, “You mentioned simple spell creation. If I wanted you to find a way to continuously circulate water from the ground up to a higher location in a way that would require little maintenance, could you do that? A method that doesn’t require constant attention from a thaumaturge, to be specific.”

Siobhan frowned. “I would need a power source, of course, but that seems fairly simple. I’d need some time to design the most efficient array, and maybe a couple of reference texts, but if we could use a small fire as a Sacrifice, and ensure it continued to be fed, it should provide enough power for lift. Perhaps, if we could then catch the water falling down again, I might be able to design something that recycled the gravitational momentum to make the circulation more efficient. It would still need to be recharged, but as an artifact rather than an actively-cast spell, it’d probably last a while. To be honest, artificery isn’t my specialty, though,” she admitted reluctantly.

Dryden’s broad smile gave her some reassurance.

Katerin leaned forward. “And you’re able to recharge artifacts?”

“Basic ones, yes. I would need to know what was Sacrificed and what the artifact’s purpose is, but that’s often explained in the engraved Word array guiding input, conversion, and output.”

Siobhan knew she was exaggerating a little. She’d only recharged the simplest of artifacts before, things like light crystals or a spark shooter. Her grandfather hadn’t gotten around to teaching her more than the basics. Most of her knowledge was hard-won and scattered, gained however she could from whoever she found to teach her along the way. She wasn’t picky. Magic was magic. If she were admitted to the University and gained access to their resources, she was sure she could work out how to recharge more complicated artifacts.

“Show me something esoteric,” Katerin said.

Siobhan quickly ran through her somewhat limited repertoire, searching for something she still had the Will to guide and the proper components for the Sacrifice. Esoteric spells were often small tricks that had been passed down through a family, or from master to apprentice, and didn’t comply to the stricter structure of modern sorcery. Some didn’t even use a physical spell array.

The shifting shadows caused by the dancing flames in the fireplace drew her eye, and she turned toward the far wall, staring down at her own shadow. ‘Somehow, I don’t imagine this was how you saw me using this little trick, Grandfather.’ Tucking her Conduit between two fingers, she made a Circle with her hands, forefingers and thumbs touching each other. She exhaled through it. Her breath turned visible as it floated past her fingers, the heat sucked from it. She pressed her toes a little harder against the ground, and whispered, “Life’s breath, shadow mine. In darkness we were born. In darkness do we feast. Devour, and arise.”

She repeated this three times, and with each repetition her shadow darkened slightly, unnaturally. After the third time, the shadow writhed across the floor. It stretched long, crawled up the far wall, and then turned its head as if looking around, two spots of shadow missing to create two round, bright eyes, all while Siobhan remained still. The air between her hands shimmered faintly with the magic, like a heat mirage, but there was no spell array to let off a glow. As a child, she had used the shadow-familiar spell to play, like other children held mock tea parties with their dolls.

Dryden let out a small exclamation, and Siobhan released the magic, letting her shadow return to normal.

“Do you have any battle magic?” Katerin asked.

Siobhan hesitated. “Not as such. There are many ways magic can be used offensively, but I’m not well-versed in any specific combat spells. I do know a vexing tone hex, but it’s mostly useful against animals.”

Katerin waved that away with a flick of her wrist. “You are aware that practicing magic without a license is a crime in Lenore? That includes recharging artifacts and any alchemy which surpasses basic ingredient-combining.”

Siobhan narrowed her eyes, though she knew the words weren’t a threat. Those things were likely what they wanted from her. “You could simply wait three terms till I gain an Apprentice license.”

Katerin smiled, showing off her human teeth again. “Alternatively, you could simply perform any crimes in the identity which is already a criminal.” Her eyes carefully scanned Siobhan’s face for her reaction. Before Siobhan could respond, Katerin continued. “Because, you see, this is a very high-risk loan on my part. One thousand gold crowns per term? At half again that in yearly interest? Even if you manage to gain your license, an Apprentice still couldn’t afford to repay me the monthly interest. I just don’t see how that benefits me, when what I really need isn’t money, but a thaumaturge.”

Siobhan almost choked. “One thousand? Half again—fifty percent—in yearly interest? Per term?” With a single loan, she would owe fifteen hundred gold crowns by this same time next year, and with an additional thousand each term, she would owe over four thousand six hundred gold by the time she got her Apprentice license, which would come with over two thousand gold in yearly interest. Impossible. “I would be indebted to you for the rest of my life.”

Katerin waved her hand dismissively. “The University is quite expensive, and you’ll also need living expenses. One thousand isn’t outrageous, especially if you wish for this disguise of yours to fit in. As for the interest rate…” She smiled without mirth, and Siobhan wondered again if the woman was altogether human. “Well, what kind of business do you think we are? No, you’ll not be able to repay me in gold crowns. However, I’m quite willing to be repaid in services rendered. If you perform well, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to pay off the debt in a few years. Magic pays well.”

Dryden walked over to Siobhan and clapped her on the shoulder, squeezing gently. He ignored her instinctive flinch. “Don’t worry, Siobhan. We don’t wish for you to do anything morally reprehensible, I’m sure. Only for you to practice what skills you have for our benefit, and the benefit of those who need them and cannot receive help elsewhere.”

If he’s telling the truth, it’s no more than I’ve done before,’ she acknowledged. Except that in the outer villages and towns, no coppers would arrest and imprison someone for working a little magic. In fact, the local thaumaturges and law enforcement were often the most likely to be able to afford or trade for what she could offer. ‘I can simply give back whatever I do not spend once the term has started. Just because she gives loans in increments of one thousand gold doesn’t mean I truly need to borrow that much.’ Her hesitation came from the feeling that these people would ask more of her than she was willing to give, once they had bound her to them. Even so, she was not so naive as to lie to herself now. She would not be walking away from the deal. “I maintain the right to refuse any favors you may request of me, and each one must be attached to a monetary value for repayment.” She raised her chin in challenge.

Katerin shrugged. “You may refuse, if you wish, but only on the basis of our request being morally reprehensible—not simply distasteful, dangerous, or inconvenient. Keep in mind that repayment must be made one way or the other. I will not allow you to postpone till you graduate. Still, there are many things you might do, if some particular request is distasteful to you. We are not unreasonable.”

Siobhan’s mind spun. ‘Am I missing anything here?’ She stared Katerin down. “I assume this is obvious, but this agreement must remain confidential. I cannot have my new appearance compromised.”

Katerin and Dryden shared a look of amusement. “Of course,” Katerin said, and Dryden nodded in agreement.

“You will also need access to certain amenities, I believe,” Dryden said, gazing at her ragged clothes while fingering the breast of his own suit. “If you want to fit in, that is.”

Siobhan stiffened at the implied insult, a slurry of defensive words rising up in her throat. She swallowed them back down. ‘He’s right. Just because I don’t like the way it sounds doesn’t make it any less true.’ Her fingers trembled, and she forced them to relax. She hated people who got offended by the truth, people who felt the need to lash out at the one who spoke it. She wouldn’t be one of them. Instead of a verbal response, she nodded jerkily. ‘I want new clothes. I deserve them. This is good.

After that, things went quickly. Katerin fetched a small chest filled with gold. Siobhan almost dropped it, surprised at the weight, even though she had known objectively that gold was one of the heaviest substances. It was a common spell component, though she had never had the opportunity to use any as a Sacrifice.

Powerful thaumaturges could transmute cheaper substances, like lead, into gold or other precious metals, but it still remained a difficult and expensive process which kept those products out of the hands of the poor. Despite this ability, the Crowns’ coinage remained valuable because it was created with some secret method to verify its authenticity. The penalty for attempting to create a counterfeit was death, and they controlled the amount minted, thus maintaining the value of their currency. Siobhan held the locked box tight against her chest, glaringly conscious of its worth. “Do you need me to sign some sort of contract?”

“Of course. You will be giving a blood print vow.”

The color drained from Siobhan’s face.

Katerin waved her hand as if shooing away Siobhan’s misgivings. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, but that”—she pointed to the chest—“is quite a large sum of money. I won’t use the blood print unless you force me to find you and make things…right.” She smiled widely. “The vow will cover the terms of the loan and repayment, with a restriction against malfeasance on both our parts. Besides, my blood is required too. Don’t be so distrustful.”

Siobhan’s arms tightened around the chest of gold. Each small piece might as well have been a little drop of knowledge, of magic. ‘Didn’t I already admit I wouldn’t be walking away?’ she asked herself. She wasn’t capable of such a thing. It would have been easier to ask her to cut off her own foot than to abandon this opportunity. ‘I will simply have to ensure I repay them, one way or another.

Katerin unlocked a drawer in her desk and took out two pieces of parchment with the vow’s Circle and Word array already drawn on them.

How often does she use blood prints, that she has the spell so readily accessible?’ Siobhan examined the Circle, trying to decipher how the magic worked. It would compel them to keep the promise they made when pressing their blood into it, and allow use of the blood by the wronged party if either of them reneged on their agreement despite the compulsion. It seemed as though any attempt to use the blood without meeting those requirements, which could only be malicious, would result in the immediate incineration of that party’s copy of the agreement. She wished she knew more about this particular type of blood magic, other than the general warnings about how illegal and dangerous all blood magic was.

“We both have some magical training, so there’s no need to have a third party as a binder,” Katerin said. She took a fountain pen and wrote out a couple of paragraphs explaining the exact terms of their deal on both copies.

Siobhan read it carefully, relieved to know that the interest would only compound once yearly, and the daily rate would be recalculated every time she made a payment. She took the fountain pen from Katerin’s desk and added on a clause stating that the lender would act in good faith, allowing the borrower opportunity to repay the debt in a timely manner.

Katerin smiled wryly and nodded, then placed a piece of amber and a knotted leather cord in the component Circles, with a small candle as Sacrifice. She pricked the pad of her thumb with the letter opener on her desk, then gestured for Siobhan to do the same.

They both pressed their bloody thumbs into the middle of the Circle, and Siobhan followed Katerin in speaking.

“I, Katerin Russey, am the lender.”

“I, Siobhan Naught, am the borrower.”

With the starting phrase, “By my blood, I vow,” they read the agreement together, slowly and carefully enunciating each word. They finished the spell with, “So mote it be.”

The candle flame guttered out as if pinched by an invisible hand, and the lines on the parchment glowed as the spell bound them to their vow.

Both the knot and the piece of amber had been consumed, and Katerin took out another set for the second copy of the blood print spell, relit the candle, and they repeated the process. The magic felt even stronger with the repetition. When they finished, Katerin took one copy, and Siobhan the other.

Siobhan didn’t feel any different, but she knew the only way to escape from this vow would be to complete the terms or destroy both sets of spelled parchment.

Katerin carefully stowed her own copy of the parchment in the locked drawer. Her tone became businesslike as her attention seemed to drift away from Siobhan. “Your first payment will be due by the end of the month.”

Siobhan found herself out on the streets again almost before she realized what happened, the built-up fatigue of the day catching up with her in snippets of detachment and a skewed sense of time. It was over. Over. ‘But what now? Where am I to go?’ She looked around at the unfamiliar streets, wondering if perhaps she should return to Katerin and ask if she could rent a room for the night. She had slept on the ground before, but with the chest of gold sitting so heavy in one of the packs on her back, she didn’t feel secure sleeping in the streets.

Dryden stepped past her, then stopped and turned, one of the streetlamps illuminating him from the side and throwing a stark shadow into the street. “I suppose you’ll need a place to stay for the night? The inns will be closed by now, and you don’t want this appearance associated with the Verdant Stag.”

She nodded.

“You will come to my house,” he announced, as if there was no room for argument. “We’ll prepare you for what’s to come.”

“I don’t need your help.”

His mouth twisted into that vulpine smile again. “You misunderstand. I’m helping myself. Any benefit to you is incidental.”

Somehow, those words made it bearable. “Alright.”

Chapter 2 – Opportunity Knocks for a Sorcerer

Siobhan

Month 9, Day 28, Monday 1:20 a.m.

Siobhan had always prided herself on her intelligence. Taking stock of the facts was easy. She reached down and gripped the flesh between her legs for confirmation. Yes, she had been transformed into a man.

Her rescuer’s eyebrows rose as he watched her grope herself.

She’d noticed no signs of a Circle or the necessary Word to implement such a complex and delicate transmutation. ‘Even if those were disguised, or I simply missed them, who would have been the one to trigger the spell?’ The man in front of her hadn’t done so, or he would have better hidden his surprise when he first saw the change. It hadn’t been the coppers, for obvious reasons, unless there was some grand conspiracy with convoluted goals…No, a much more likely answer was pressed against her now-flat chest, still slightly warm.

The amulet throbbed a little, like a heartbeat calming after a burst of exertion. She reached up and snatched it out from under her clothes, fumbling to untangle its chain from that of the warding medallion she wore, holding it away from her body in horror. The amulet, a dark, matte stone disk clasped in a simple setting and hanging from a leather cord, swung innocently under her fist. She laid it on the floor and took a step back.

The man obviously didn’t know what was going on, but mimicked her step backward with an expression of concern. “What’s wrong?” Perhaps subconsciously, his hands lowered, as if to shield his crotch.

The amulet didn’t react, but removing contact with her body also didn’t reverse whatever magic it had cast on her. “It’s an artifact. It may be dangerous,” she said, once again forcing herself not to cringe at the deepness of her voice. Even the feel of her teeth in her mouth was wrong. She felt an edge of panic pressing in on her strange, pale skin, the kind of fear stemming from complete disorientation that a babe must feel upon being born into the world. ‘My mind is my own,’ she reassured herself, reaching for her Conduit with her free hand simply for the reassuring feel of it. She focused her Will on remaining calm, not ceding control to the situation. If she fell apart now, all might be lost. ‘My magic is my own.

The man looked from it to her. “May be?” he repeated. “Isn’t it your artifact? How do you not know?”

She didn’t respond, but he wasn’t stupid either.

“Is this what they are looking for? What you stole?” He spoke in a low voice, as if worried someone might overhear.

“I did not steal it!” she snapped at an equally low volume. At his unperturbed look of skepticism, she grimaced. “I was drawn into this unknowingly. By the time I realized what was happening, it was too late, and I’d already been made complicit. I was forced to flee.”

He stayed silent for a few moments, then said, “That is indeed unfortunate. However, I was under the impression the University was searching for a magical text of some sort? One they discovered on an archaeological expedition?”

The words reminded her of her distrust toward him. “You seem quite knowledgeable about this,” she said flatly.

He raised his hands again in a placating gesture. “Half the city knows about it by now. And yes, it is why I’m here. Similarly to the coppers, I thought you might return to your place of residence. An acquaintance of mine was able to get the location from the coppers, with just a little bit of bribery. I wasn’t sure that a powerful thaumaturge such as yourself would need help, but was prepared to offer it in the hopes you would find yourself favorably disposed to help me in return. I saw you run, and quite luckily you headed my way. I know a few shortcuts through this part of the city and managed to get ahead of you.”

That she was so predictable was worrying. “You want my help, in exchange for keeping me from being arrested?”

He nodded. “My acquaintances are in need of a powerful thaumaturge. A…sorcerer?” he asked leadingly.

She briefly contemplated pretending to be the powerful sorcerer he seemed to believe she was. Unfortunately, magical expertise was not something you could simply fake, unless you were a magician running a scam against a bunch of country yokels. He would expect her to actually be able to help, and when she couldn’t…‘Would he turn on me, then? No, better to leave the city now. Perhaps one of the magical arcanums of another country will take me in.’

Siobhan shook her head. “I cannot help you.”

She turned her attention back to the artifact on the floor. Gingerly, she picked it up, searching for any indication of controls, like a button or switch she had missed before, or even the symbols and glyphs of a spell’s Word etched into it, perhaps worn away by time. She found nothing.

Her thoughts turned back to the stolen book. Her father had thrust it into her hands and told her to run away. Considering that they were already being chased, it hadn’t occurred to her at the time to question him, but when she finally had a moment to stop and think—after escaping from the coppers for the first time that day—she knew she’d made a mistake. Looking furtively around for observers, she had hoped the book wasn’t too valuable, that perhaps she could simply go back to the University and return it, denouncing the impetuous crimes of her father.

Instead, she’d made her next mistake when she decided to examine the stolen book more closely. It was old and leather-bound, with no title except for a glyph stamped into the front cover. She didn’t know its meaning, and the shape seemed to shift continually. A quick flip through the parchment pages had shown the contents were encrypted.

The leather binding on the inside edge had come slightly loose, subtle enough that she’d almost missed it. Curiosity had always been one of her vices. Unable to restrain herself, she had pulled the leather cover back farther, revealing a spell array burnt into the leather. The Word was complex, well beyond her, but she recognized the main symbol within, a nonagon, which her grandfather used when doing space-bending spells. She had touched the edge with her finger and pushed a spark of Will into the Circle, her free hand clasped around her Conduit.

She knew her Will was too weak to power such a spell, so she wasn’t sure what she had been expecting. Perhaps she’d just wanted the feel of being so close to complex magic that would be beyond her skill for many years still. What she hadn’t expected was for the book to forcefully jump out of her hand, and she’d almost screamed and drawn attention to herself.

It had landed on the ground a few feet away, its leather re-bound so tightly that no clue to what lay underneath remained. Beside the book, lying on the hard cobbles, was the amulet she held now. Regretting her actions, she’d tried to peel back the inside of the book’s cover to put the amulet back, but, unable to do so, she’d resorted to hiding both the book and the amulet on her person, berating herself for reckless stupidity.

She realized now that both the leather cover of the book and the amulet that had come out of it were artifacts—objects with pre-cast spells embedded into them for later release. Except she had never heard of an artifact triggered only by Will and the barest spark of energy rather than some external activation method.

The text might have a clue about how the amulet works—how I can regain my correct form—if I could just decrypt its protective enchantments to read it. For the moment, however, it might be best to remain a blonde man for the sake of obscurity, and hope whatever spell it has subjected me to doesn’t wear off at an inopportune moment.’ She hung the amulet around her neck again and tucked it under her clothes along with her warding medallion, despite how uncomfortable its touch now made her. It was safest there, and she was safest with it hidden and close. If she lost it, she might never turn back. There was no pain, no strangeness to her thoughts. She guessed that the amulet wasn’t a cursed artifact, unless the curse was very subtle. Strange and frightening, but perhaps—hopefully—not dangerous.

The man stepped forward, but stopped when she retreated again to maintain the distance between them. “Don’t dismiss my offer so quickly. What we require is nothing dangerous,” he said. “My acquaintances mean you no harm, and you can trust that if I meant to betray you, I could have done so already. Perhaps you don’t need help to evade arrest, but surely there’s something else I could offer? At this point, I seem to be the only ally you have.”

Siobhan gritted her teeth. ‘I hate this,’ she thought, ‘even more so because he’s not wrong, but that doesn’t mean I can trust him.’ As a wanted criminal, she wasn’t safe anywhere within Gilbratha, and maybe not anywhere within the country of Lenore, if the book was valuable enough. If she left the city without clearing her name, she never would be. Not in her normal body, anyway, if it was even possible to return to it. Her father was somewhere here, evading the coppers just like her. He may have started all this in the first place, but she doubted he had comprehended the full consequences of his actions, and she was very aware that, unlike her, he had no magic to help him.

However, the real motivation for her hesitation was the University itself, and the knowledge of magic it offered. She was greedy for it, and had been for so long. To get so close, only to have all her aspirations ripped from her, caused an almost physical pain in her chest. If the slightest chance remained, she couldn’t give it up. The Naught bloodline was about the lone incentive someone might have to sponsor her. “I want my name cleared and to be granted admission to the University,” she said. “Can you do that?”

The man frowned. “I don’t understand why you would need help to accomplish that, with your capabilities.”

“Can you do it or not? If not, there’s no reason for us to continue talking.”

He blinked, his gaze assessing. “It seems very possible. They’re holding entrance examinations in a couple of weeks.”

A tingling rush of hope swept through her, but she did her best to tamp it down. “I can provide minor healing and create some useful salves and potions. I have some background in sorcery, and I can develop rudimentary spells according to necessity. I know a few protective wards, and some minor esoteric magics from a few different disciplines. I am fully literate and good with numbers, and my Will is strong enough to channel at least one hundred seventy-five thaums continuously on the Henrik-Thompson scale. I can recharge artifacts, and…” She flexed her fingers, and her eyes flicked around as she searched her mind. ‘What else can I offer?

He spoke before she could continue, his eyebrows raised high. “You’re not a fully trained sorcerer? How did…ah.” He reached an uncallused, manicured hand up to his face and rubbed the dark stubble on his jaw.

Siobhan swallowed back the bitter taste of disappointment. It was obvious she wasn’t useful enough for him to agree.

“The person who dragged you into this. The man? He’s the sorcerer?”

Siobhan almost snorted at the absurd statement. Her father, a sorcerer? Her father didn’t have the discipline. “No. He’s not a thaumaturge,” she said. Her disappointment rose back up, hot and rancid. “He merely saw something that piqued his kleptomaniacal urges and decided to take it. Of course, when the hue and cry was raised, he ran. The man is my father,” she spat, “so I ran with him, not yet understanding what he had done. And when he pressed a book to my chest and told me we needed to split up, I was frightened and listened. I should have abandoned him to his own fate, but now it’s too late.”

The man took two deep breaths, his body shifting slightly as if he were restraining himself from pacing. “And the artifact? This…?” He waved his hand at her body.

She shuddered, and the visceral reaction only made the wrongness of her transfigured body more blatant. She resisted the urge to scratch at her newly-pale skin, instead pushing the blonde hair back from her face and shuffling to relieve the pinching in her toes. “It came with the book,” she said, reluctant to divulge the details. “When the coppers pounded at the door, I panicked, and must have activated it somehow.”

His gaze grew piercing. “You have the book still?”

She nodded. “It’s encrypted, so I haven’t read it, but it’s obviously valuable. If you aren’t interested in my services, perhaps I can trade the book for my earlier request? I must attend the University,” she said, trying to sound assertive but unable to keep the edge of desperation from her voice.

He tilted his head to the side, and when he spoke, his words were slow and deliberate. “Why must you?”

“To learn magic,” she said, as if the answer was obvious. “The Thaumaturgic University of Lenore is the premier arcanum in the world, and if not that, then definitely the best in all Lenore. I will learn sorcery. You can take the artifact as well, of course. A full-body human transmutation should be worth the price of whatever bribes you have to make to get the charges on me dropped. It might even be useful in your…line of work.”

He let out a small snort of laughter and put his hands in the pockets of his suit pants, rocking forward and back a few times as he stared at her. “No, I don’t think my acquaintances will buy the book and artifact from you.” He held up a hand to forestall her immediate objection. “You will need the artifact to attend the University, after all.” He paused as if to wait for her to request clarification, but when she only stared at him silently, he cleared his throat and continued. “The book is most likely connected to the artifact, and is no use to me as I cannot decrypt it. Due to its source, I cannot resell it, either. As for clearing your name, you may be slightly underestimating how seriously the University and the Crowns are taking this offense. The young woman who I helped out of the alley, the one with the dark hair, those cheekbones, and those eyes? She will never attend the University.” He looked her up and down. “This blonde young man with the aristocratic features, though? He is a different matter.”

Siobhan narrowed her eyes. “And you can secure a sponsorship for this…young man?”

He shook his head again. “I believe my acquaintances can provide you something to make a sponsorship unnecessary, if your intelligence can earn you a spot deservedly. They can provide you the money to pay your own way.”

She nodded thoughtfully, acknowledging and then ignoring the alarm bells in the back of her mind. Even if this transmutation was not permanent, if it held up for a reasonable amount of time and could be repeated, the man’s idea could work. The realization made her feel as if the world had shifted around her, bringing with it a ray of light, shining through a new opening into the cage that had been confining her. Knowledge, magic, was at her fingertips, almost within reach. Suddenly the artifact didn’t feel so frightening against her chest, and when she spoke, the idea that this voice, this body, might allow her to learn magic gave it a certain charm. “A loan, I assume? What do the attached strings look like, Mr….” She trailed off pointedly. ‘I know there will be strings attached. I only hope the strings aren’t barbed.

He grinned like a fox, the edges of his lips curling up a little too far in a way that made her think of skinjackers and the cautionary tales mothers recited for children before bed. “You can call me Mr. Dryden. Let me take you to my associates. We can speak more there, out of the dark and the damp.”

Chapter 1 – Escape Via Unexpected Transmutation

Siobhan

Month 9, Day 28, Monday 1:00 a.m.

For once, Siobhan felt grateful that the average person was such an imbecile. The coppers were no exception, even in a big city like Gilbratha. Shivering in the dark, she took another peek out of the alley behind the inn, tugging down the hood of her ratty, stolen cloak. She had to be sure the ambush they’d set couldn’t snap shut around her. The coppers were positioned at both street corners, and she guessed they were waiting in the inn’s common room, and probably outside her door as well.

The coppers had the right idea, staking out the room her father had rented for them.

Siobhan would have preferred not to return to the inn, but she had no choice. Her belongings, including her grimoire, were there. She couldn’t afford to lose what little she had. Lucky for her, the coppers had apparently failed to consider the fact that she wasn’t a blazing idiot. She wouldn’t simply walk, oblivious, through the front door.

As far as Siobhan knew, the room was still undisturbed, probably because they’d noticed the rudimentary alarm ward she’d set on the doorframe. Tripping it would have alerted her to the manhunt’s progress and kept her from walking into their trap.

Either that or they’d subverted the ward and were waiting for her in the unlit room, the more obvious guards only serving as decoys, encouraging her to discard her vigilance.

Siobhan grimaced, looking up at the dark, many-paned window on the second floor. She would just have to be careful. ‘Climbing a building can’t be so hard, can it? It’s not as if I have a choice, after all.’ With a nervous breath and a very careful twisting of her thoughts away from the possibility of falling, she crossed the alley. Her hands reached for the wooden slats, and she began to climb, fitting fingers and the tips of her boots wherever she could.

The wood was faintly damp, and in more than a few places it had bred a slimy film. When she reached the second floor, her right hand slipped, but she managed not to cry out, despite breaking most of the nails on her left hand as she dug her fingers even harder into the crevasse. ‘And it took so much effort to grow those stupid nails,’ she thought wryly. ‘I guess I really never will fit into high society.’ She shuffled sideways till she reached the window of the room she’d left that morning, a time that now seemed a lifetime away, full of innocence and hope.

Bracing the toes of her boots between the wooden siding panels, she peeked in, moving her head slowly to avoid drawing notice. Her fingers trembled on the edge of the sill with the pressure she placed on them, and she was excruciatingly conscious of how close she was to falling backward. She saw no one within, no inky shadows that looked more suspicious than any other.

Siobhan had placed the alarm ward over the window as well, but that didn’t matter, unless they were very much cleverer than she was giving them credit for. If they were that clever, she would simply have to run, again.

No, the bigger problem was her lack of formal training or experience with breaking and entering. The latch was locked from the inside. She was sure there were spells that could reach through a barrier and undo a simple latch-lock. However, she didn’t know any of them.

That would have posed a problem, if not for the versatile nature of sorcery.

I can’t let something this trivial stop me,’ she thought, glaring at the wood-bordered glass panes. ‘I need my grimoire.’ She made sure her feet were stable, then released one hand’s death grip on the windowsill. Her cold, clumsy fingers fumbled in one of the pockets of the ratty jacket she wore under the even more ratty cloak. She pulled out a soft wax crayon and carefully drew a small Circle on the glass, completely enclosing one of the hand-sized panes. That was where the magic would take effect.

There could be no gaps in the Circle. Mistakes could be deadly.

Though she shook with the effort, Siobhan slowly drew a larger Circle around the first, dragging the crayon over the wooden divisions between the panes with careful precision. That was where she would write the Word, the instructions that would help guide the magic to the right purpose.

She drew a third, small Circle on the windowsill itself, then connected it to the outer Circle on the glass with a line. That was a component Circle, where she would place the Sacrifice, which would be consumed as she cast the spell. She wrote the glyph for “fire” within it, though she would sacrifice no actual fire. It was close enough to the idea of heat to work. More fumbles into her many pockets turned up a vial of honey, of which she tipped a sluggish drop into the component Circle on the windowsill. Next, a small, rolled-up ball of similar stickiness—spiderweb. She reached for a wad of cotton, but found she had none.

Biting back a curse, she reached again for the wax crayon and wrote the glyph for “silence” in the space between the two overlapping Circles on the glass. She didn’t know the glyph for “stillness,” but she did know “slow,” so that’s what she wrote. She squeezed in what further detailed instructions would fit, but it wasn’t much. Finally, Siobhan drew a pentagon within the inside Circle.

She made the mistake of looking at the ground below and had to swallow down her lurching stomach and steady her trembling legs. Magic required concentration. She couldn’t allow her circumstances to dull her wits if she wanted to succeed. ‘Grandfather didn’t teach me to be the type of sorcerer who has performance problems,’ she thought, sneering at her faint reflection in the glass. ‘He also didn’t teach me to make up spells out of desperation…’ This thought popped into her head unbidden, and she pushed it away. Untested spells were always dangerous. It was always safer to copy a spell you already knew to work, which, ideally, had been proven over generations of regular use, than to try something entirely new. If the magic rebelled and she lost control, she might die.

But she was desperate. ‘It’s a simple enough spell. Surely at least some sorcerers have done something similar before. And even if the magic turns wild, it only means I must control it all the more tenaciously.

She glared at the spell array she’d drawn and let her Will spill out into the world, activating the spell. The magic took hold of the windowpane, and she winced. The array was proving its inefficiency by letting off a glow. She focused harder, and the light dimmed, though not enough to be truly stealthy. Siobhan could only hope that no one was watching, because the glowing spell array would be obvious against the darkness.

After hurriedly wrapping her free hand in a fistful of cloak, she gave a sharp jab toward the glass. On the bright side, there was no loud shattering of glass. On the not-so-bright side, that wasn’t because her spell had successfully muffled the sound, but because the force of her blow had been too weak to break the window.

Siobhan drew back her fist and punched harder. This time, the windowpane broke. The sound of shattering glass was muffled, and the shards slowly floated down toward the grimy floor inside, like feathers.

Feathers, that would’ve been a good component. A couple might have eased the Will-drain. And maybe a pentagram would have been better than a pentagon. That spell was mostly transmogrification,’ she thought, releasing the mental effort that kept the spell going. Where the component Circle had been, both the honey and the blob of spiderweb were gone. The whole spherical area within had frozen so solid she knew it would burn her skin and break away from the wall if touched. The air became visible as it passed over the spot, little particles of water turning to ice in an instant.

She’d used up all the heat. Such inefficient spellwork was embarrassing, and a little frightening, because if the spell had run out of fuel she could be dead. Still, it was the best she could do in that moment, and it had worked.

Siobhan reached through the newly created opening, and with a simple flick of her finger, opened the latch. It creaked. She froze, waiting for a response. None came, except for a sudden chill from the pebble tucked into the lip of her boot as her ward alerted her of the intrusion. Gingerly, she pulled open the window, leaning back in a way that made her sick to her stomach to allow it to swing outward. She climbed into the room, careful not to set her booted foot down on the shards of glass below.

An effort of memory brought to her mind’s eye the state of the room as she and her father had left it, and a look around confirmed that nothing seemed to have changed. She hurried to gather her things, and only remembered at the last moment that one floorboard creaked when stepped on, just in time to avoid it.

She grabbed her small pack, which contained her grimoire, a little box of spell components, and her spare Conduit, as well as her extra, more worn set of clothes—the ones she hadn’t wanted to wear to the University—and hairbrush, which was free of any hair of course, as Grandfather had taught her.

She gathered up her father’s things next. What was light enough to carry, anyway. Finally, she did a quick sweep of the inn’s lumpy straw beds for stray hairs or other pieces of themselves they may have left behind, a well-practiced spell burning anything relevant to smokeless ash.

As she was finishing, the telltale footsteps of a copper sounded from the stairs below, the copper hobnails in the soles of their boots clicking against the wood.

Siobhan made sure her packs were tightened securely to her body and returned to the window. A piece of glass, invisible in the shadows, cracked under her boot. She froze.

Outside the door, someone’s weight shifted, boots shuffling over the wooden floor.

She scrambled to crawl back through the window, made awkward by her load. To her relief, the door didn’t burst open, as she would surely have been caught halfway through maneuvering back outside.

“Investigator,” two men greeted, the nervousness of those who knew they had not been quite as vigilant in their task as might be desired apparent in their voices.

“Anything to report?” a third man’s voice replied perfunctorily, the scratch of a sore throat roughening the sound.

“No, Investigator,” came the jointly spoken reply.

The man let out a wet cough. “We’ve got the wardbreaker here. Occupants are listed as one Ennis Naught and his daughter, with no proof of a license for thaumaturgy, so we’re good to ward-break.” After a pause, he added in a low grumble, “Six hours later.”

One of the guards let out a nervous laugh as Siobhan leaned back and closed the window. She reached through the opening she’d created and re-latched the lock, then stared at the broken windowpane in dawning horror.

“Planes-damned Crown bureaucracy,” the guard said with an awkward laugh. “Always making our jobs harder, am I right?”

The investigator didn’t reply, but there was more nervous shuffling, and then another set of footsteps and the dry sound of chalk scraping against the other side of the door.

Siobhan held back a stream of invective as she shuffled along the wall, trying not to let the packs drag her over backward. ‘I hope you find your hide burned by a fire demon from one of the greater hells, Father,’ she thought. ‘How dare you put me in this position, you criminally irresponsible, thieving, sorry excuse for a caretaker. If Grandfather were still here, I would never be reduced to climbing down the side of some flea-ridden inn to escape from the coppers. Grandfather would never have used me as a decoy to evade capture for his own feckless crimes!

Distracted by her own mental tirade, one foot placed slightly wrong was all it took for the packs on her back and the immutable force of gravity to undermine her hold on the wall. Siobhan fell backward.

She suppressed a scream, experiencing a moment of terror before landing on the mucky cobblestone of the alley below. The impact knocked the breath from her lungs with an audible “oomph!”

The packs, filled mostly with cloth, had cushioned her fall. She arched her back and pulled at the air, her hands scrabbling at nothing as her mouth gaped like a fish. ‘Oh, I’ve killed myself,’ she wailed mentally. ‘What an ignominious end, dashed upon the ground…’ The tiniest bit of breath filtered into her lungs, and that led the way for more. Once she was sure that her back hadn’t snapped like an incense stick from the fall, she sat up and stumbled to her feet, only to freeze as a light shone from the window above.

They must have broken the ward on the door, since it hadn’t alerted her to the intrusion.

A quick mental argument about whether it was more stealthy to press herself against the side of the building to be more difficult to spot, or to remain frozen to avoid drawing eyeballs to suspicious movement in the darkness, yielded no good answer. She was left no time to think of a better option, because one of the people above hurried directly to the window and looked out.

When they shone a beam of light out into the alley where she stood, all thoughts of stealth vanished and Siobhan bolted.

Shouts followed her, and as she skidded around the corner into the street, the copper at the end of the block saw her and gave chase.

Instead of cursing, Siobhan saved her breath for escaping.

“Halt!” the copper yelled.

She ignored him, darting around the nearest corner and sprinting blindly down the alley. This part of the city had only the rare crystal streetlamp illuminating the darkness, which worked both for and against her.

The copper’s clacking footsteps echoed loudly behind her, and were soon joined by others as his associates gave chase.

She scrambled around another corner, her boots slipping in something rancid and slimy as she rushed deeper into the maze of poorly planned and haphazardly constructed buildings. Behind her, red light flashed as a magical projectile impacted against the wall she’d just passed. A stunning spell.

At least they aren’t trying to kill me,’ she thought, somewhat hysterically.

Her heart in her throat, Siobhan pumped her arms and legs even faster. She had no idea where she was going. If she’d had time, she would have scouted the surrounding area before going back for her things, but she had barely managed to find the inn again after escaping from the University. She’d been right not to wait any longer, or the coppers would have entered the room before she did, and what few resources she had just recovered would have been lost. She was tiring quickly. She’d never been particularly athletic, and sprinting at top speed for any length of time while carrying a third of her weight in luggage was shockingly difficult.

She came to a “T” shaped junction. Another frantic turn around the corner sent her stumbling over detritus hidden by the dark. She went sprawling forward, scraping her palms against the stone and slamming her chest into the ground, which only made her much-abused lungs ache even more.

Siobhan scrambled back to her feet and found herself facing the sudden end of a short alley. There was nowhere for her to run. She spun around, hoping for the alley to extend in the other direction, but found that to be a dead-end as well. Her only way out, the alley she’d just come down, led straight back to the chasing coppers.

Her breath came fast and her head whipped around as she searched for something, anything that would allow her to escape. ‘Do I have a spell that could help me here?’ She could think of nothing. From the sound of the shouts and clacking footsteps, she didn’t have the time to draw out a Circle and the Word to guide a spell even if she knew one that might help.

When a window at the other tail of the alley screeched open and a man’s head popped out, already looking at her, her heart jumped as if it meant to crawl up through her throat and escape her body.

Instead of calling out that he’d caught her or pointing a battle wand at her, the dark-haired man waved her over. “Hurry,” he called in a low voice.

Siobhan hesitated less than a second, since a suspicious stranger on the poor side of the city, who was at least nominally willing to help her, was sadly the best option currently available. She dashed across the alley, cringing as she briefly exposed herself to the approaching coppers.

Another blast of red light shot out toward her from the tip of a battle wand, but the aim was off. The spell splashed ineffectually against the wall once again, leaving a subtle scorch mark and a puff of steam behind. That one had been more powerful than the last.

She grabbed the dark-haired man’s outstretched hand. With their combined effort, she scrambled up and through the window, her packs scraping against the frame and snagging for a single, panicked instant before releasing. Siobhan tumbled to the floor, wild-eyed, and the man immediately closed the window and moved further into the building. While she struggled to regain her bearings, he was picking up a small oil lantern from the floor, the flame within illuminating the darkness with a dull orange flicker.

“Follow me,” he said, the words fully enunciated and carrying the kind of confidence that told her he hadn’t even considered that she might do otherwise.

She complied, noting the upright way he moved and the expensive fabric and cut of his suit. This man wasn’t one of the poor locals, but unless he was leading her into an elaborate trap, he also wasn’t a copper. She looked for signs of sorcery—the many pockets filled with component materials, or a jewel clear enough to be a Conduit. Despite the fashionable cut of his clothes, his pockets didn’t seem to hold anything, and he wore no jewelry. That alone didn’t mean he wasn’t a thaumaturge of some sort, but he was unlikely to be a sorcerer, at least.

He led her out a side door into another narrow alley, then into a building on the other side. Once the door was shut behind them, he peeked out a small opening in a boarded-up window, and after a few seconds, sighed in relief. “We should be safe to wait them out here.” He hung the lantern on a nail sticking out of a nearby support beam, then turned to face Siobhan. He was clean-shaven, wavy hair falling over his forehead in a way that made him look slightly boyish, but which was offset by an angular jaw. His lips curled up at the sides, giving him an ever-so-slightly amused expression as he stared back at her.

She backed up to a safe distance from him.

He let out a soft snort, as if offended. “I assure you, I mean you no harm.”

“Forgive me if your words do not reassure me in the slightest,” she said, still more than a little breathless.

He spread his hands, holding them up in an innocent pose. “I have helped you evade law enforcement at my own risk. What more can I do to reassure you?” Despite his words, something about the amusement in his low voice communicated clearly that he was not a danger to her only because he chose not to be.

Siobhan was very conscious of the leather book pressed against the skin of her back and the amulet hanging down from one of the cords around her neck, both disguised by her clothing. ‘Maybe he does have a Conduit, and it’s simply hidden.

She glared at him, chin raised high. “Perhaps you can explain how you found yourself so conveniently placed to come to my rescue.” Siobhan was tall for a woman, but very aware that without magic she stood little chance of defeating most opponents. Unfortunately, her Will was almost exhausted, and confined within such a small space, without even a battle artifact, she wouldn’t have enough time to cast any serious magic before it was too late. She slipped the packs’ straps off her shoulders in case she needed to move nimbly. They would just be extra handholds for someone to grab her with.

He stared at her assessingly. “I am a philanthropist.”

Siobhan’s eyes narrowed. “You’re a criminal,” she said, her tone daring him to deny it.

He slipped his hands into his pockets and grinned. “Then we are alike, no?”

She looked him up and down, mentally calculating the cost of his outfit, which was probably worth as much as the Conduit in her pocket. His stance was arrogant and assured, like her own, but hers was the result of conscious training and self-discipline, while his was natural, a product of inborn arrogance and a lifetime of privilege. She didn’t bother to hold back her scorn. “No, I think not.”

Rather than offending him, this sent one side of his mouth curling up in amusement. “So you’re evading law enforcement out of…innocence?”

She had no response to that. ‘I’ve been unwittingly implicated in a life-ruining crime, but I’m innocent, I swear!’ didn’t seem likely to convince him, assuming she saw a point to defending herself, which she didn’t. ‘Even if he believed me, it’s too late to change things now.

The man didn’t let the awkward silence stretch out. “Perhaps you can agree that, for the moment, our interests seem aligned?”

“I know my interests. What are yours?”

His expression turned a little more serious. “You have made quite a name for yourself in a very short time. The city is abuzz with it—” He cut off as the eponymous sound of copper-nailed boots striking against the cobblestones resounded through the alley beside them.

The coppers weren’t running this time.

When she heard them pound on a nearby door and demand entrance, Siobhan thought she might be sick. “Is there another exit?” she hissed, reaching into her jacket to clasp her Conduit, though she knew once they found her, all hope was lost.

He shook his head with slow finality, the last of his nonchalance burned away.

In the alley, they heard the coppers break down the other door when no one answered.

Her other hand reached up to press against her chest, feeling the amulet against her skin. She looked around, but there were no windows except the boarded-up one by the single door.

The man peeked out through the gap in the boarded window again. “We have less than a minute. Is there anything you can do? A spell? Something to hide us, or perhaps a big blast to knock them out of the way and leave them unable to give chase?”

“No, no,” she said, patting the pockets of her jacket, hoping to prove herself wrong. ‘Why did Grandfather never teach me any battle spells?’ she wailed to herself. ‘Is there any magic besides sorcery I can employ?’ Her mind ran through its repertoire of knowledge—everything Grandfather had taught her, the things she had picked up from other thaumaturges while traveling with her father, and the things she had experimented with.

She had some minor healing salves in her pack, and the medallion hanging from her neck would protect her from certain dangers, but none of the magic she knew was particularly offensive, and of the spells that might be useful, she couldn’t cast any of them quickly.

Magic was the answer to almost every problem, but only if you were very, very good at it. Her ignorance and lack of skill damned her.

The coppers were at the door. One slammed their fist against it. “By order of the Crowns, open up!”

The man ruffled his hair till it stood on end, took off his jacket and unbuttoned the collar of his shirt, then moved to stand between her and the door, his knees dipping slightly as if to prepare for sudden movement.

Does he plan to fight the coppers? What can he hope to do, unarmed against a battle wand?

The wood shuddered under another pounding fist.

Siobhan’s free hand clutched at the artifact. ‘I think I’m going to pass out.’ When the copper’s first concussive spell on the door cracked its wood, her eyes closed in a reflexive flinch. Her mind settled instinctively into the perspective that allowed her to channel her Will, and she reached out for what little power she had access to without a Circle. Her body flushed with a warm tingle. ‘Oh no, I really am going to pass out…

The second attack broke through the doorjamb, sending the door itself slamming against the wall and splinters of wood flying through the room.

Her attempted rescuer flinched, raising his hands before the threat of the copper’s extended battle wand. His pose showed that he meant no harm, but his knees were still slightly bent, perhaps hoping to take them by surprise.

A uniformed man and woman stood in the shattered doorway, both breathing hard.

Siobhan resolved that she would attack if he did. She might not be particularly useful in a fistfight, but at least she could help even the odds, and maybe keep one of them from calling for reinforcements while the man fought the other one.

The copper’s female partner stepped around him, shining a lamp over both of them. The woman looked around suspiciously, her eyes flicking around the dark corners of the room and then settling down to glare at the two of them.

Squinting against the bright light, Siobhan unclenched her fists, leaving her Conduit in her pocket, and raised her hands into the air. Her eyes flicked down to the battle wand holstered at the female copper’s hip. ‘That artifact likely contains more of those stunning spells. Meant to incapacitate, not kill.’ Perhaps if she lunged for the woman fast enough, she could steal it and use it against her and her partner. ‘The wand can’t be that difficult to operate, surely?

She plotted out her vector of attack in a blistering fury of concentration. ‘I can do this. I can.’ Two steps forward, duck down to avoid the spell from the male copper, spin to reach the woman’s side and simultaneously use her as a partial body shield. Snatch the wand—

“Have you seen anyone come this way? Tall, dark-haired woman. Might have been wearing a hooded cloak. A thaumaturge,” the woman said.

Siobhan blinked. ‘Is this a joke?’ Her hood had fallen down around her shoulders, revealing her face and hair. The woman was looking right at her. Perhaps their description of her appearance was somehow incorrect, maybe of someone older than her, or with some sensationally evil feature, like glowing red eyes. Siobhan carefully didn’t look at the packs on the ground, which were more evidence of her identity.

Her rescuer turned to look at her, and the momentary widening of his eyes when they landed on her, combined with the pinch of pain caused by too-tight boots that had fit fine only seconds before, gave Siobhan the last clue she needed.

“Heard footsteps goin’ into the buildin’ ‘cross the street,” she said, hoping her flinch at the sound of her own voice hadn’t been noticeable. The sound was scratchy and deep, unmistakably male. She cleared her throat, doing her best to imitate the Gilbrathan poor people’s accent. “There was this bright light, a green one. We figured it best to stay out the way.” She wasn’t an actor, but with singularity of purpose, a simple change in mannerisms wasn’t so difficult. She hoped she didn’t seem suspicious, as she hadn’t prepared for this. Still, better to speak less, to give them less chance to notice something amiss.

“You didn’t open the door when we called for entry,” the male copper said, the words an accusation.

“We were…occupied. You broke it down before we had the chance,” her rescuer said, adjusting the waistband of his pants with obvious awkwardness.

He’s insinuating I’m a prostitute,’ Siobhan realized, not having to act to adopt an embarrassed expression.

The male copper grimaced with faint distaste, but the female’s eyes narrowed as they roved over Siobhan’s body.

Siobhan’s clothing was covered in pockets, but that style wasn’t reserved only for magic-wielders. Plus, the state of her clothes and the obvious lack of wealth and hygiene didn’t evoke thoughts of a powerful thaumaturge. She had taken off the few trinkets she normally wore, and her Conduit was safely tucked away. She was wearing trousers rather than a skirt, and if they rode a little high on her ankles and loose around the hips, that only suggested she couldn’t afford tailoring.

The woman pointed her wand at Siobhan, and Siobhan tensed again, thinking her deception had been discovered.

However, instead of ordering her to lie down on the ground with her hands behind her head or shooting her with a stunning spell, the woman fiddled with the artifact’s controls for a couple of seconds, then cast an almost invisible wave that washed over Siobhan and prickled against her skin.

The spell irritated her nostrils and eyes, forcing her to blink back tears. ‘Some kind of revealing or nullification spell?

The copper lowered her wand. “Across the alley, you say?” She nodded to her partner, who hesitantly lowered his own wand, though he kept his glare trained on Siobhan’s rescuer. Despite their obvious mistrust, an out-of-place gentleman committing no obvious crime with a ragamuffin homeless person apparently didn’t compare to the urgency of finding Siobhan. After a final admonition to report any sightings of the “rogue and dangerous thaumaturge,” and to be sure to avoid her for their own safety, the coppers left.

Siobhan waited to be sure the coppers were gone before examining herself. Instead of her skin’s normal ochre, she had grown even paler than her rescuer, and when she tilted her head down to look at her body, light blonde hair fell into her face. The fine strands were cut short, to just below her chin, rather than the normal dark mane that grew past the small of her back. Her boots pinched uncomfortably around larger feet, and she was fairly certain she had grown taller as well.

The man settled the door back in its frame and then looked her transformed body up and down. “You cast an illusion of a man over yourself? It’s not what I expected, but, I admit, it is quite impressive.”

Siobhan shook her head, wide-eyed. “It’s not an illusion,” she said. ‘And I didn’t cast it,’ she continued silently.

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Book 1: A Conjuring of Ravens

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Book 2: A Binding of Blood

Book 3: A Sacrifice of Light

Prologue – Myrddin’s Hermitage

It was a much smaller group that finally reached the cave, hidden deep within the Black Wastes. The archaeologist had known it would be dangerous. They all had. Losing half the members of the expedition before even reaching their destination was a significant setback, but the cost would be well worth it, for what they hoped to find.

The Thaumaturgic University of Lenore had organized the expedition, and spared no expense on supplies or recruitment. Thirty people had set out, almost all of them thaumaturges. Sorcerers, mostly, but also witches with carefully chosen familiars, powerful diviners to keep them from getting lost, and a handful of cross-species half-breeds with useful skills. They even had a Grandmaster-level healer.

The expedition had been fully outfitted with spell-charged battle artifacts and enchanted armor, and a full set of potions and components for spellcasting. Each member had been given a dozen high-potency beast cores to power their spells.

It had cost a fortune. The archaeologist had thought the University was going overboard. Thirty powerful thaumaturges with all the resources they could ask for would be enough to take out a nest of dragons. Maybe even a sky-kraken.

But he had underestimated the dangers of the Black Wastes.

Magical beasts had taken a handful. They had expected beasts, of course, but the Black Wastes was home to monstrosities even the archaeologist had never heard of. Mutations, most likely.

More of their number had died to the environment. From poison-gas swamps, to quicksand deserts, to craggy, crumbling peaks, their surroundings shifted with unnatural abruptness and complete randomness. Even the plant life tried to kill them. What little managed to grow was warped and deadly to consume.

But it was the lingering effect of ancient, corrupted magic that was most deadly. They all wore protective artifacts, they carried ward stones to anchor the spell drawn around their huddled campsite each night, and they had even brought along a shaman to help appease whatever spirits might reach through the veil to the mortal world. It wasn't enough.

The paranoia had started first, and then the nightmares, and finally, the hallucinations.

One of their two remaining diviners had killed himself when a spell went wrong.

Two men on watch had wandered off sometime in the night, leaving the camp unguarded, not even leaving any tracks behind.

The archaeologist knew the only remaining half-breed had been having thoughts of murdering him in his sleep. He could read it in her too-big eyes.

And so, when the last diviner pointed out the entrance to the cave, protected and concealed by a failing ward, he felt a pathetic, shivering relief.

There had been an earthquake, or some other natural disaster, that damaged the foundational ward-stones of this ancient site. It was exactly this that had allowed the University to divine the cave's general location, a boon without which the expedition would have been unsuccessful, like the many others that had failed over the previous hundreds of years.

Myrddin’s hermitage was a thing of legend and fantasy, a kind of holy grail to an archaeologist like himself. The legendary sorcerer had retreated here in his later years, disappearing from civilization for decades at a time to focus on his work, but until now, its location had been nothing more than rumor and pieced-together speculation.

The damaged wards came down easily, and the archaeologist and two others entered the cave, leaving the rest of the expedition to guard the entrance. They were the first to enter the hermitage since Myrddin himself. When they returned to the University, every one of them would be famous beyond their wildest dreams.

With effort, they opened the glyph-carved, iron doorway, and the archaeologist held his breath as he shone light into the expansive, dark room within. It had been carved out of the stone of the mountain itself. He stepped in slowly, his footsteps stirring up long-settled dust. The movement revealed the Circle of a spell array carved into the floor. Along one wall were stone shelves filled with books, some so ancient they seemed as if they would collapse into dust with a touch. Another wall displayed spell components, most decomposed to the point of uselessness.

But his attention was on the large desk in the middle of the room. Almost tiptoeing for fear of disturbing the relics all around him, the archaeologist moved toward it.

Atop it was a book. It lay open, with the handwriting stopping halfway down the page, abruptly, as if it had been interrupted. It was surrounded by loose sheets of parchment that held the faint remnants of drawings and diagrams, faded to the point of illegibility. Two bowls sat across from the book, one filled with beast cores of all different colors and sizes, enough potential energy for even the most powerful spells, and one with what seemed to be pure celerium Conduits, each half the size of his fist.

He leaned closer to the desk, ignoring the two bowls despite the wealth they contained, and peered at the ink scribbled across the book’s open page.

The writing was profoundly incomprehensible—encrypted with a spell—but still perfectly preserved. Of course Myrddin would have placed preservative spells on his research grimoire!

Wild glee rose up in the archaeologist, so heady it almost made him dizzy. He laughed aloud, the sound echoing off the stone walls with a hint of hysteria.

The book, and the research within, would be the answer to their country’s—maybe even their world’s—problems. All they needed to do was get it back to the University in Gilbratha and decrypt it.