Chapter 178 – Death Wish


Month 4, Day 9, Friday 11:30 p.m.

As Gera and Katerin left the Raven Queen’s room, Gera eyed the red-haired woman dubiously. To be so disrespectful to the Raven Queen, Katerin must have a death wish. But, to Gera’s surprise, the woman had only been mildly rebuked.

Perhaps she had done a favor for the Raven Queen at some point without receiving anything in return. Katerin might be using up a little of the credited goodwill that would have bought her with every moment of disrespect. Gera couldn’t think of any other reasonable explanation.

If Katerin was not careful, she would spend over the limit of the Raven Queen’s patience without realizing it. Gera could imagine the sudden and malicious retribution that would follow. The hair on her arms rose, and she pushed the thoughts away.

“I know you did not ask for my advice, but I will give it anyway, and freely. You should be more cautious. It is dangerous to be disrespectful to someone so powerful,” Gera said.

Katerin snorted, still reckless from her fear and anger. “So powerful? She is still a young sorcerer. What can she do to me? I doubt she’s going to try to hire an assassination in revenge for a few words.”

Gera blinked, a leftover habit from when she needed her eye to see and closing it could clear her vision. She opened her mouth and then closed it again as the confusion swirled and her understanding of the other woman rearranged. In a low, hesitant voice, she asked, “Surely you are aware that the Raven Queen is more than just a young thaumaturge? You have been involved in several of her endeavors, if only adjacently. Have you not received any reports on her abilities? Her body may seem youthful, but do not take the face of a thing as the reality of it.”

Katerin sighed, patting her breast pocket and pulling out a pipe. As they walked back to their children, she took the time to silently pack the bowl with etherwood leaves and light it. Only after she had taken a puff and blown it out again did she speak. “Being a prognos, I had imagined you would be more insightful. The rumors circling around about her are exaggerated.”

Gera suppressed her immediate outrage at the doubt of her abilities. She had dealt with that kind of thing repeatedly since she lost her vision, and though she had grown used to it, she had not grown content. She, too, kept her silence for a while, until they reached the room where those who the Raven Queen had saved waited.

She checked that her son was fine, first, and was pleased to see him sleepily blinking, but awake and unharmed. The healer nodded to her from where he was crouched over the leg of one of the young Verdant Stag enforcers, which had obviously sustained a grievous wound.

Gera’s brother by choice smiled at her, wrinkles creasing the corner of his eyes. “Miles is well. Merely exhausted.”

Gera picked Millennium up from his chair, ignoring the strain on her back muscles, and sat down with him in her lap. Only then did she speak. “Katerin, while you may know the Raven Queen’s personality better than I, please do not make the mistake of thinking I judge her abilities only from rumors. I discern from what I have sensed and experienced. The Raven Queen is no ordinary, mundane sorceress.”

Katerin, who had moved to stand beside Theo’s chair and was carding her fingers through his copper curls, sighed. She pressed her lips together as if considering how to respond. “She is clever, intelligent, and innovative. She cares more for others, even strangers, than she lets on. I would also guess that she is fairly powerful for her age, and will one day be even more so. But these ideas that she is some vengeful and mischievous being with powers that others cannot understand?” Katerin shook her head. “She cannot hear prayers, accept offerings, or travel through the shadows. She is a human, and a sorcerer, and constrained to results that can be achieved with knowledge and accumulated power.”

Several of the others were drawn to their conversation. A woman missing half her hair and sporting a wide stretch of mostly healed burn scars opened her eyes. She stood up from the corner where she had been sitting. Her skin glistened with the burn salve spread over her wounds, but she did not move as if in pain. She sneered, lifting her jaw and raising her unburned eyebrow. “An over-reliance on skepticism isn’t rationality when the evidence of things outside of your prior experience is right in front of your face.”

Katerin gaped, dumbfounded by the disdain dripping from the woman’s words.

Gera nodded to the burned woman. “I am Gera, of the Lynwood family.”

The woman nodded back. “Deidre Johnson, follower of the Raven Queen,” she said, before turning back to Katerin. “It may seem so amazing as to be unbelievable, but I have collected the evidence of her deeds, taken directly from those who have witnessed them. I’m thinking of collecting them all into a book to be copied. Perhaps you have never seen the Raven Queen in action? I, too, was somewhat skeptical deep in my heart. I played at believing, but until I was in her presence, I did not truly believe. But tonight, what I experienced…” Deidre shook her head.

A man sitting on the floor with his forehead on his knees finished her sentence. “It can never be denied.” He wore a strange mix of nice boots and tattered, rough clothing, and Gera did not recognize him.

“When they took us, they put us into some void spell, our minds plucked from our bodies and tossed into the emptiness between life and death. It cannot have had any other purpose than to drive us insane,” Deidre added.

Lynwood cursed, narrowing his eyes with hatred, and Katerin’s fingers tightened hard enough in Theo’s hair to make the boy wince and bat at her hand.

“It was entirely silent,” Miles murmured wearily. “I couldn’t even hear my own thoughts properly.”

Gera rubbed his back in small circles. “You’re safe now,” she said, kissing his forehead.

Deidre nodded gravely. “Yes. The High Crown is an evil man, to order something like that done to anyone, but especially to children. But do not worry. I have noticed no lingering effects, perhaps due to the protection of the Raven Queen. She is obviously fond of both children.”

The healer had been listening with interest at first, but now with growing unease. “I…don’t think I should be here for this,” he muttered. “I will be in my office. Have one of the workers call me if you need anything.”

As he left, two men entered with a huge, decrepit dog limping along beside them.

The man with the strangely nice shoes and tattered clothes lunged forward, everything about his demeanor changing as he hugged the dog’s neck, pressing his face into its short fur.

The creature was missing an eye and a leg, and its thin skin sagged in places and pulled tight in others, without any fat to mellow the appearance of stringy muscle and knobby bone beneath. It was either very sickly, very old, or both. The dog gave a low woof, its tail wagging lethargically.

“It’ll all be worth it, if you can live for a long time,” the man muttered into its fur, almost beyond the range of Gera’s hearing. “If I don’t lose you, too.” He pulled back, looking into the dog’s watery, clouded eyes. “Sorry for waking you in the middle of the night, Bear,” he said in conversational tones, running his hands over the creature’s saggy neck and over its bony side. “I think we’re going to have to move. But don’t worry, I’ll find you a place with a good spot by the window, where the sun comes through in the morning.”

He looked up at the men who had escorted his dog, frowning. “Did you not get his favorite toy? I specifically mentioned it. A stuffed brown bear?”

The men shared a look, then one took out a ratty brown plush toy from the back of his waistband.

“How old is that dog?” Theo asked.

The man smiled sadly. “Twenty-two.”

Katerin did a double take. “How?”

“An extremely delicate regimen of specialized potions. The same ones all those old Crown Family members take to keep one foot out of the grave. But the Raven Queen promised me she could heal him. His wounds were past the point they could be healed with most magic by the time I could afford to do so, and now he’s got too much planar magic in him to handle the influx of anything that could regrow a long-forgotten limb.”

His fingers ghosted over the stump of Bear’s missing foreleg, his smile tight with anxiety. “She can fix that with her secret blood magic. It is the boon she promised for my aid. For Bear to be healthy and live ‘an absurdly long time.’ That’s how she said it, I think.”

“That dog has already lived an absurdly long time,” Katerin said, pointing rudely. “Do you expect her to work miracles?”

The man glared at her.

Deidre cleared her throat. “If she promised it, she can do it. But to continue with my testimony…” She looked around, ensuring everyone’s attention was back on her. “While trapped in the space between, I panicked horribly. It seemed my very soul would unravel.” Deidre stared at the far wall with a haunted look in her eyes as she recalled the ordeal. “But then I prayed to the Raven Queen. I…did not actually believe that she would come. But I had to do something, and it was the only hope I could grasp onto. And she did come.”

Katerin narrowed her eyes. “I was under the impression that she was taken along with the rest of you? So really, she would have been there whether you prayed or not?”

The man with the dog and the maid Martha both shook their heads simultaneously.

The man spoke first. “I checked the identities of those we took.”

Gera stiffened, giving him another perusal. Was this man one of Lord Pendragon’s lauded elite? But the others seemed comfortable around him, which surely could not have been the case if he was one of their assaulters.

He continued, “If the Raven Queen was already among the captives, then the rumors that she can shape-shift are accurate. However, I suspect that it is more likely that rather than shapeshifting, she somehow possessed the body of one of the women—Silvia Nakai.”

Millennium made a small sound of confusion, tilting his head to the side.

Katerin pressed her lips together, as if she wanted to speak but was holding herself back.

Martha shook her head again. “No, it must be shapeshifting. Millennium led us to a woman who could supposedly help, and she did look similar. But at most she could have been the aunt of the woman we saw later. But Jackal recognized her, and Millennium did, too. They were the same person, right?” Martha looked to the two for confirmation.

Jackal nodded. “I saw her when we were helping out the Verdant Stag with that stuff at Knave Knoll. She looked different then, too. Lightning-blue eyes.”

Gera hummed. “She is getting better at looking entirely human, it seems. I cannot see color and light as most can, but I am told she forgot to add the appearance of an iris around her pupil the first time we met, and that her hair shimmered with colors hidden in the black like an oiled raven’s feather.”

Katerin had dropped her head into her hands and was rubbing her temples. “I need to sit down,” she muttered, then dragged one of the few free chairs over to sit beside Theo. “There are both items and magic that can change one’s appearance. It need not be some special shapeshifting skill. And…” she looked to the Pendragon operative. “Identities can be forged.”

But Gera could see that Katerin was being slightly untruthful, hiding something. “You may lie to others,” she said, “and even yourself. But you will find it harder to do so to me.”

Martha, who had been nodding to herself as if Katerin had offered a reasonable explanation, looked between Gera and Katerin in surprise.

Katerin gave Gera a dirty look, but remained silent.

The Pendragon operative spoke again. “I am not a good man, and I do not pretend that I am. But the spell we placed you under should not have had any long-term deleterious effects if the exposure was limited to less than a day. It was only meant to keep you from escaping or calling for help. Those tunnels were being retrofitted, but they were never meant to be used for anything more than an extra escape route for the Pendragon Family. So far from the palace, they don’t have the same kind of embedded wards that the official Corps facilities do.”

Lynwood snarled, the sound rumbling up from deep in his chest.

“It’s true,” the other man insisted. “The spell was developed to keep enemy spies from killing themselves when captured. I have experienced it myself, and it is far from the worst the Pendragon Corps has to offer. But I did not consider the danger it might have presented to a child’s undeveloped mind. Even I would have refused to torture children or animals.” He looked up, meeting the gazes of the others who had been taken. “I am sorry,” he added simply.

“Why keep us there at all?” asked Martha. “Surely there was some better place? Harrow—well, no, not Harrow Hill.” Martha frowned at the floor, pinching her chin. “She already broke into and out of Harrow Hill twice. But surely the Pendragon Corps must have some secret jail?”

Deidre’s eyes glinted. “Surely. But not quite as secret as the High Crown must have wanted, right?” she asked the Pendragon operative. “Not when he can’t trust the University…and maybe not the Red Guard, either?”

The man gave her a nod and a half-shrug. “Perhaps. All I know for sure is that the High Crown had a cell created to specifically to counteract her abilities. He spared no expense. Even I thought it would be inescapable. And if the Raven Queen had attacked in any more conventional way, from the outside, the wards may have stood, and our men would have been in position to deal with her. But she got inside somehow, without even triggering the alarms, and we hadn’t done much of any preparation for a scenario like that. And then, once the Radiant cell proved useless… I made the only choice I could.”

Deidre’s smile was lopsided, avoiding the side of her face with burns.

Gera considered how she might repay her own debt through the secondhand fulfillment of the Raven Queen’s promises. The High Crown would be after these people, and especially the traitor. It might be easiest to send the man far away, but if he was willing, Gera would prefer to keep him.

Her anger at the High Crown had diminished not at all with Millennium’s safety. Every moment that passed with the knowledge of what the leader of their country had done, her wrath bubbled up hotter inside her.

Like a volcano, it would not be contained forever. And keeping this former Pendragon Corps operative around would undeniably have its benefits, if he was willing to continue working on the Raven Queen’s behalf. Or even on Gera’s behalf, for payment in coin.

Deidre leaned over and placed a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Atonement will be made with your actions, Anders. And as it is not given for free, you will know that you deserve it, and that it cannot be taken away from you.”

Anders grimaced. “Well, that’s a hassle. But back to the topic of the Raven Queen’s arrival, I am more inclined to believe your theory, Deidre. Everyone under the effects of our spell was totally incapacitated. Parker and I were on guard anyway, because we’re professionals. It had been hours with no sign of anything strange. And then, suddenly, the shadows started moving on their own. But not like normal shadows. Total blackness. It seemed like they were exploring around the room, and then they found what they were looking for and fell onto one of the women. And then she started moving. I ran to get help, but Parker stayed behind. He saw the whole thing.”

Jackal had taken out a small dagger and begun to play with it. “It was very strange, the way she moved. Especially in the beginning. Like a puppet on strings. And when she coughed up darkness… What did you all make of that?”

“Imperfect possession,” the young man in the corner with the leg injury said, piping up for the first time. He nodded to Gera and the others, introducing himself as Enforcer Turner. “That’s what I think, anyway. And maybe it wasn’t the first time, if the woman knew to pray for it. So she’s an acolyte of the Raven Queen or whatever. She’s got a special connection. Things go wrong for her, and she calls for help. Maybe she promises some kind of payment, maybe not. The Raven Queen hears her, and maybe she hears Deidre too, and sends… I don’t know.”

He waved a hand vaguely, shrugged, and continued. “Is the darkness the Raven Queen herself? A piece of her? Some strange creature of shadow that can channel her presence? Maybe it’s even a spell. Whatever it is, it allows the Raven Queen to use some of her abilities and partially control the body of the woman,” he concluded confidently.

Enforcer Turner hesitated, then rubbed his chapped lips together and asked, “Did you guys notice that a couple times, the darkness split twice?” When no one responded, he said, “There was the physical, flesh-and-blood woman, cloaked in darkness. And the warrior shadow creature with that giant beak.” He mimed a pulling motion in front of his nose, drawing the approximate shape of the creature’s single facial feature with a grimace. “But a couple times, there was another woman, made entirely of darkness. I think that was the actual Raven Queen, manifesting separately to make sure her shadow servant was handling the danger to her acolyte properly, or something.”

Enforcer Turner looked around, and seeing that everyone was listening intently, continued with more enthusiasm. “So after coming in with the darkness to find her acolyte, the Raven Queen is trying to get everyone out, and then the guards come and attack her with fireballs and that Radiant bomb. And the light is too strong, or the connection through the shadows is too weak, and it disrupts things for a moment. They take the woman away, and I don’t know what happened then, but obviously the Raven Queen came back, tried again, and got her out. And when she did, Anders and that poor Parker guy were suddenly on her side.”

Anders nodded. “We took her to the cell. It was extremely well-warded room imbued with Radiance in every inch, from the floor to the ceiling. It took a while for the living darkness to regain its strength, but light is not the debilitating weakness we believed it would be.”

“A shadow is always darkest against the light,” Deidre said, as if reciting something, though Gera suspected the woman just liked to make up phrases that sounded meaningful.

“Yes. The flesh of her body was contained, but her power…” Anders shuddered. “Her power was not contained. I—I am not ashamed to say that seeing it spill through the doorway and stand up again was one of the most horrifying moments of my life. It does not have a body like us. I am not sure that there is even the suggestion of flesh under its cloak. But you can feel it. It is cold. But not just cold. It was hungry. Empty. It touched me—to threaten me, and I could sense its wrongness.”

Anders rocked forward and back, his arms around his knees, then relaxed as Bear hobbled forward to lick his face and lean against him. “It’s normal to lose heat when you touch something cold, but this felt different. I can’t explain it.”

He clutched the dog to his side, petting Bear absentmindedly as the creature drooled on his pants. “So she said that if we didn’t help, she would have to make us enemies, and then she would get out anyways, after plucking the necessary knowledge from our minds, and, I guess, utilizing our dead bodies to work the lock. And she offered to help Bear. And something for that idiot Parker, too. So we made a pact and let her out. And she was definitely moving like a puppet on strings for a while there.”

Turner nodded eagerly. “Yes! So the Raven Queen gets the woman’s body out, and then we all go on the attack. She’s not content to let the High Crown keep any of our stuff, like, at all. And maybe she is a little weak to Radiance, but the body she’s using is hurt. Maybe from the fighting, or maybe just from whatever she has to do to keep control of it. So she takes one of those healing potions anyway, because she cares about her believers. In a whole, ‘I protect what’s mine,’ kind of way, right?”

“Most certainly,” Deidre agreed.

“Yes! So she took the potion anyway. And then, when we were escaping and the reinforcements came after us, did you see how she fought? I saw her slap a fireball aside into the wall. And the shadow warrior, or living darkness, whatever you call it, it definitely has some connection to nightmares. I’m thinking it pulls on a person’s greatest fear. The way it moved—did anyone see it crawling on the ceiling?”

Martha raised her hand solemnly, as did one of the few who had yet to speak, a Verdant Stag enforcer. “I saw it.”

Verdant Stag enforcer added, “Whatever it is, it holds to none of the laws of a mortal being. I speak not just of gravity but…also the laws of space? I don’t pretend to be some master of natural science, but the way that thing moved, still for one moment and then, in the space of a blink, somewhere else. It shouldn’t be possible.”

Turner lifted a finger. “Let me also point out the darkness fabric, always moving in some wind no one else can feel? Did you notice how it waves rhythmically, on a kind of repeated pattern, and sometimes with that cold fog wafting off it?”

The Verdant Stag enforcer tried to crack his knuckles, pressing too hard but not seeming to feel the pain, “I’m pretty sure some of the shadow warrior’s joints bent backward when it was…you know. Crawling inside that man. Which also, just—” He heaved with sudden nausea, holding a hand to his throat. Then he looked to Katerin. “I’m sorry, but if you think the Raven Queen is anything like a run-of-the-mill sorcerer, either she really did descend on that woman tonight and you’ve only ever met her acolyte, or you don’t know her at all.”

Deidre smiled again, looking down her nose at Katerin.

Katerin was less dismissive than she had been, but more disturbed. “I know Siobhan. She would have come to me, to us, if there was some being possessing her,” she said, but Gera could hear the note of underlying uncertainty in her voice.

Millennium frowned. No doubt, he could hear even deeper.

Martha clenched her fists around the fabric at her knees. “We all saw her cough out darkness,” she said in a small voice.

“It was pretty obvious,” Enforcer Tuner agreed.

Jackal looked at Katerin’s pinched expression with sympathy. “Maybe the Raven Queen finds it amusing that some people mistake her for a normal woman,” he suggested. “She’s got a wicked sense of humor, according to the stories. And I mean that literally.”

Enforcer Turner grinned, pale-faced. “Oh, yeah. Did all of you hear the things she was saying to me while she was working her blood magic on my leg? I could hear the smile in her voice. That’s part of why I was thinking maybe she feeds on fear.”

“And she agreed that she could use that darkness just the same for m—someone loyal, if they were willing to bear the side-effects,” Deidre said.

“I bet it hurts a lot,” Enforcer Turner said, shaking his head quickly. “No, thank you.”

Millennium shook his head. “You guys are making her seem weird and scary, but she’s not—well, actually… She is really scary.”

He looked to Theo for confirmation, and the other boy nodded solemnly. “Really scary,” he echoed.

“But she’s not weird,” Miles continued. “She’s nice, and she knows a lot of strange and amazing things, and she can help you if you have nightmares or visions or need help with your sleep.”

“She does know a lot of really awesome stories,” Theo agreed. “But the first time I met her, she was pretending to be a totally normal homeless person. And she can totally shapeshift. Like, big-time.” Fingers splayed, he spread his hands wide for dramatic emphasis, and then jumped as Katerin secretly pinched him on the side. He scowled at her. “What? It’s not like they didn’t already guess.” He turned back to them. “You better not tell anyone. She would probably be upset. But if you ask her real nice-like, she’ll play with you with magic. That’s how I met Empress Regal.”

Katerin raised one eyebrow. “Empress Regal, your imaginary raven friend?”

“Empress Regal is not imaginary!” Theo protested. “She just won’t come when you’re around. And maybe it’s because you refuse to give her any gold, which I told you she wants.”

Deidre seemed quite interested in this, but her attention was drawn back to Millennium as he ignored Theo and continue speaking. “But she’s basically normal. The Raven Queen is just another one of her names. I don’t think she’s possessed or anything, even if she does have a strange echoey sound to her whispers.”

“What is this about her whispers, darling?” Gera asked.

“Well, she sounds different from most people. It’s… well, I don’t know how to explain it. Like if she were in a crowd of people, she’d be the only one walking around with a bubble of water around her. Or, like, she sounds just a little behind and ahead at the same time?” He squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed at his ears, though just as with Gera’s eyes, plugging his ears would not stop him from hearing.

“Shh,” she whispered. “I was only curious, you need not stress yourself.”

Deidre raised both eyebrows, and then winced when the motion tugged on her burns. “We know that she likes children. She would want them to be comfortable around her. And I think we all heard the boy say how he doesn’t dream anymore,” she added pointedly, then looked at Gera. “That is thanks to the Raven Queen?”

“Indeed. I do not know what Millennium told you, but I will not reveal the details. Suffice it to say, she saved his life,” Gera said. “All others had failed. It was not a matter of gold, nor influence, nor of those we called upon lacking experience or skill. She did what others could not.”

“Sleep is one of her domains of power,” Deidre agreed.

Katerin had grown pale, and the muscles around her eyes were tight. Most likely, she was now replaying all the times she had offended the Raven Queen in her mind, and remembering all the clues she had missed and times she had been deceived.

Jackal raised his hand to draw their attention. “What I want to know is, how do the rules work? The woman either was the Raven Queen from the beginning—”

Turner interrupted him excitedly. “Oh, if she really is, maybe, like, she only has limited power and most of the time, it’s sleeping? Maybe it takes time to recover. But then when it’s important, or someone makes her really angry, that part wakes up? The dark part,” he added gleefully, rubbing his palms together.

Jackal continued, speaking a little louder to express his irritation at the interruption. “That woman either was the Raven Queen from the beginning,” he repeated, “or she prayed to her. And presumably, if she did need to pray to her, she made some kind of agreement at that time. We all know that the Raven Queen requires payment for any boon she gives or favor she does, preferably in advance. Anders here made a very explicit pact with her, and fulfilled his side of the bargain already. But what about the rest of us?”

“I will pay for my son,” Gera said immediately.

“And I,” Lynwood added. They shared a wordless glance of understanding, and he squeezed her elbow with warm fingers.

Jackal nodded at them both. “Of course, and the Raven Queen is probably fine with that. She likes children, like Deidre said. But you can’t pay for all of us, and would she even let you, if you could? Is there any precedent for what to do in this situation?”

Hesitantly, Gera brought up Mrs. Dotts, who had been in a somewhat similar predicament to this one. “Mrs. Dotts told me that the Raven Queen said she doesn’t take offerings, only tributes,” Gera remembered. “But sometimes she will accept favors paid later.”

Lynwood crossed his leanly muscled arms, glowering. “It is good to ask these questions. These are the kind of conditions that can lead to…ironic conclusions.” Surely most of them in this room could think of more than a few childhood tales of beings that traded in favors, and the unfortunate endings of those stories.

Deidre nodded. “I’ve heard that. If you pray to her with a request and she doesn’t take your offering, she’s either not listening or she didn’t agree. But sometimes, a raven will come and accept the tribute on her behalf. And when that happens, you know that your problem will be solved. Of course, if your tribute wasn’t substantial enough…maybe you will remain in her debt. I’ve also heard that you can collect goodwill and make her more likely to notice you by feeding the ravens. One man nursed a raven with a broken limb back to health, and the week after he released it back into the wild, he had a dream of the bird. He woke up to find that his shop had been selected for a huge contract that would earn enough money to send all three of his children to school.”

Martha worried at her bottom lip. “So can we pay her back with favors she didn’t specifically ask for? I really don’t like the idea of being on the hook for anything, at any time, indefinitely.”

“I have been thinking about that,” Gera said. “When I spoke with the Raven Queen privately earlier, she mentioned that we may plan our own revenge on the High Crown, but that we should not expect her to be a part of it, because she needed to rest. However, we know her to be vengeful and, frankly, vindictive.”

Several of the others nodded gravely.

“So unless she somehow already obtained her revenge, she will be carrying it out later. Once she has rested. Perhaps, rather than attempt revenge of our own, we can simply be ready to lend our own efforts to hers when the time comes. This could be dangerous. If you feel that you would prefer to pay her back in a different way, perhaps you could do so proactively. She once did the same for me, choosing to pay me back for a small favor I had done her in a way that I did not request or expect.”

Author Note 9/21: I mentioned a few months back in the Inner Circle newsletter that I hoped to hire an assistant to help manage some of my gigantic workload.

I’m ready to do that now. I’m looking for 1-2 people to join my team part time. If you’re interested, or you know someone who might be interested, there is more info here:

(And wouldn’t it be great if getting some help allowed me to write even a little bit quicker?)

Chapter 177 – An Act of War


Month 4, Day 9, Friday 11:00 p.m.

Gera seemed able to sense behind herself with whatever magic allowed the woman to function so effortlessly without her eye. She turned her head slightly towards Katerin’s astonished face, and then back to Siobhan. “Is it safe to speak freely with her here?” she asked.

Siobhan nodded. Katerin had not been involved any of Siobhan’s plans for Operation Palimpsest, but there was no need for secrecy anymore. The woman might speak to Oliver, but she wouldn’t reveal any of Siobhan’s secrets to the coppers or the Thirteen Crowns.

“What is going on?” Katerin asked, her throaty, biting accent thickening as her eyes narrowed.

Gera nodded to Siobhan but ignored Katerin’s question. “I completed the task assigned to me to the best of my ability,” she reported. “All seemed to go smoothly, but when I returned, Millennium was missing, along with several of the guards. One of the servants told me that they had run from enemies some hours before, while I was gone preparing. Everyone with legs to move and eyes to see was out looking for him, but with little luck. I feared the worst. I broke the bracelet that you gave me, but there was no response. Even my greatest efforts at divination could not find my son, nor any of those that disappeared with him. I spent hours futilely attempting to track his path.”

The woman’s voice wavered and she paused to take a deep breath and loose it again.

Siobhan pulled the broken pieces of her own bracelets from her pockets, now having the presence of mind to count them and make sure none were missing. “We were deep beneath walls of stone. The magic on these trinkets was weak. No doubt, it failed to pass the barrier and petered out uselessly.”

Katerin’s eyes widened, and she pulled up her sleeve to reveal her own small handful of spelled bracelets.

“Any that are connected to me will be useless now,” Siobhan said, standing up with some effort and using the knobs on the side of the fancy fireplace to automatically light the hardwood logs within. She tossed her bracelets into the flame, watching as they burned up. The magic was gone, but this was easier than casting the shedding-disintegration spell on the pieces.

Liza snorted derisively. “So amateurish,” she muttered. Louder, she added, “I can make you something much better. For the right price.”

Gera stood, tearing the other bracelets from her own arm and throwing them into the fire beside Siobhan’s. “I called Mistress Liza in to assist my attempts, but when I learned that it was the Pendragon Corps who had taken my son…” She trailed off, closing her sightless eye and shaking her head. “But you have returned him safely. I owe you a great debt.”

Katerin was still giving Gera strange looks, but she, too, bowed to Siobhan. “You have my thanks as well. I was out managing one of our ventures, and heard about what had happened from one of the enforcers who were injured while trying to protect my so—my nephew. The man was knocked unconscious early and did not get taken with the others. I am going to knock some sense into that boy, I swear it. I…” She shuddered. “I was so terrified. Why was he taken? How did you save him? And does it have anything to do with the Raven Queen’s supposed multiple appearances today? I have been getting the most ludicrous reports, and everyone saw the ravens.”

Gera smiled proudly.

“Was that you?” Katerin demanded. She turned her bloodthirsty gaze from Gera to Siobhan. “Did you plan this? Put Theo in danger intentionally, just so that you could be seen to save him?”

Gera’s eye widened perceptibly, and she took a slow step back from Siobhan, placing her back against the wall beside the fireplace. Looking at Katerin, she gave small, surreptitious shakes of her head, as if trying to tell the other woman to shut up, but Katerin ignored her.

Siobhan raised her hand to cut of Katerin’s impending tirade. “I did not place Theo, Miles, or any of those who attempted to protect them in danger. That was the High Crown. My ability to save them was a combination of great luck and terrible misfortune. I am too exhausted to retell the events in detail, but suffice it to say that I had something planned to take advantage of the proceedings. The High Crown had his own plan in place. He wanted to capture both children, perhaps to get yourself and Gera to turn on me. But I was in the right place at the right time, he badly misunderstood my capabilities, and his plan backfired. Also, Miles is very capable, and Theo very brave.”

“Kidnapping our children may also have been a way to pressure us to asking another boon of you,” Gera added, relaxing cautiously and stepping away from the wall. “And then, to trap you if you attempted to save them. You are known to be fond of children,” she said to Siobhan.

Siobhan was too tired to ask what other things about her were supposedly “known.” “That may be so. In any case, I was forced to promise two boons to ensure our escape. I would appreciate assistance fulfilling them. I would also appreciate your help keeping the families of those I brought out tonight safe. One man did not make it. He has a daughter.”

Gera agreed immediately. “My power and resources will be turned to your purpose, as repayment. Nothing can compare to the worth of my son’s life.”

Katerin was less enthusiastic. “I might be able to help, depending on what you promised. Even though association with you is what endangered Theo in the first place,” she added sourly. “What were you thinking, doing things like this in secret, behind our backs?”

Gera drew in a sharp breath and paled noticeably, staring straight ahead with her sightless eye, as if hoping by extreme stillness she could disappear.

“Rude and thankless,” Liza muttered from where she was drawing repeated glyphs along the walls.

Katerin’s pale, slender neck flushed a few dozen shades lighter than her crimson hair, but she didn’t look away from Siobhan.

The muscle under Siobhan’s right eye was twitching. She’d run through so much adrenaline that day that she didn’t have any left to grow truly angry, but she was equally out of patience. “I think you will find,” she said in a slow, hard voice, “if you think about it a little harder, that association with”—she remembered at the last minute not to reveal Oliver’s name—“Lord Stag is what endangered Theo. In fact, the same might be said for myself.”

Katerin’s face flashed through a series of emotions that Siobhan couldn’t read. Finally, the woman pressed her thin lips together. “Perhaps you are right. But if not for him, Theo would likely have died as a babe. Lord Stag’s actions are not without consequence, but they are decisions made for the greater good. And right now, he is out there desperately trying to gather information on what’s happened to you and Theo. You don’t know how worried he was—we both were,” she corrected.

Siobhan wasn’t sure if Katerin had caught the hints of Siobhan’s suspicion and distrust, but if so, the woman didn’t show it.

Siobhan sighed, then explained the terms of the agreements she had made with Parker and Anders. “In any case, the High Crown’s plan failed, but we should not expect that the man will simply give up. He does not seem one to compromise, nor to accept defeat.”

With that, Katerin agreed easily. “Especially not after the spectacle of today. No matter his intentions, I, for one, cannot forgive this insult. Assaulting and kidnapping our children was an act of war.”

“Yes,” Gera said simply.

“Don’t be reckless,” Liza said. “Also, I will warn you now, I have no desire to be involved in any hare-brained attempts at vengeance.”

Gera bared her teeth. “But if Leandro Pendragon, cursed be his name, believes that he can simply get away with such things? That he is not only above the law, but above retribution?”

Siobhan stopped them before they could devolve into arguing and worsen her headache. “You may plan your revenge, but do not expect me to be a part of it. I must rest.” When they didn’t move, she waved her hand at them. “Go! Liza, stay,” she added.

Liza gave her an exasperated huff. “Yes, master. Bark, bark, master. Should I roll over, too?” she asked dryly.

Siobhan flushed.

At the door, Katerin looked back. “Thank you once again. Sincerely. Theo is the most important thing in my life. If there is a next time for something like this, come to me.” Then, they were gone, the door closed behind them.

“I need help removing my corset,” Siobhan told Liza. “Also, I believe I have broken a rib. And I definitely have Will-strain. I may have previously had a concussion, but the healing potions took care of that.”

With a deep, put-upon sigh, Liza rubbed her forehead. “All of this is not what I agreed to. I am going to bill you for the difference.” But when she had finished setting up the additional wards, she helped Siobhan with the ribbons and stays. As her corset was drawn away like the broken-open ribcage of some vivisected animal, Liza watched stoically while Siobhan whimpered in pain.

The leather contraption beneath the corset was much easier to remove, revealing the bloom of horrible bruises that looked weeks older than they should be. There were distinct depressions in her side where the stones of the holster had pressed most deeply into her flesh and bone.

Liza ran her fingers over Siobhan’s abdomen and spine, cataloguing Siobhan’s flinches and whimpers of pain. “I’m no healer, but this isn’t the first time I’ve seen a dislocated rib, girl. Lie down on your stomach,” she commanded. And then, with some steady pressure followed by a strange, sudden motion, she slammed Siobhan’s rib back into place.

The pain flared white-hot for a moment and then immediately died down.

“Closed reduction,” Liza explained simply. Siobhan didn’t know what that meant. “Your rib was probably fractured in addition to the dislocation, depending on how strong that healing potion you took was. But the bone is fine now. You just need to take it easy for a few weeks. No more healing potion for the time being. Trust me, you would greatly regret building up Radiant toxicity. Planar components are useful, but we mundane beings were never meant to be steeped in their energy.”

Siobhan thanked Liza weakly for her help, then moved to sit on the edge of the too-plush bed. If she were attacked in her sleep, she would struggle to wade her way off of it. She considered her next words, but was too tired to try for tact. “I need to get into the severe damage wing of the Retreat at Willowdale. I know you visit there. Can you get me past the security?”

Liza stilled, then turned to face Siobhan slowly and silently.

“I need to meet the only coherent survivor from the Black Wastes expedition,” Siobhan explained.

Liza’s voice came deep and slow. “Siobhan Naught. The parts of my life that I do not advertise are private. How dare you?” It was, perhaps, the first time that Siobhan had seen Liza truly angry. Usually, the woman grumbled and complained, but at most, deep down she was exasperated. Now, Liza’s Will was tangible in the air to whatever hindbrain sense could discern such things, her head tilted a few degrees too low as if to hide the baring of teeth.

Siobhan was very aware of not only the battle wand disguised as a decorative stick holding Liza’s bun in place, but also that pretty much every other piece of jewelry or clothing could be a battle artifact. ‘Perhaps it would have been better to approach this when I was not so tired and prone to mistakes,’ she acknowledged.

Hurriedly, Siobhan said, “I learned about your visits by coincidence! I had no intention of prying into your business. I have not been following you or anything like that, and I do not know what you do there.”

Liza was silent, still glaring, but at least she was listening.

“I understand the value of boundaries and privacy,” Siobhan continued. “I have not, and will not disrespect your privacy. If you take me, I won’t ask questions, and I will do what you tell me.”

Liza shook her head sharply.

“You can refuse,” Siobhan allowed, “but I will still need to find a way to speak to that man.”

“I do refuse,” Liza said. “You will do well to keep your promises regardless.”

The palpable pressure of Liza’s anger still hung in the air, but Siobhan was quite literally too exhausted to worry about it. If Liza wanted to kill her at this moment, there was almost nothing Siobhan could do to save herself. Siobhan flopped back onto the bed, trying to defuse the tension. “Alright. But before you go, can you help me with one last thing?”

Liza remained silent, but she didn’t leave. And as Siobhan explained the details of the dreamless sleep spell that she needed cast on her pillow, the clenched muscles in Liza’s jaw and around her eyes relaxed.

It was not hard to link together the clues and realize that Siobhan had a secret of her own.

Liza cast the spell, using Siobhan’s supplies and more power than Siobhan had ever been able to imbue it with. Before leaving, she paused at the doorway. “I will consider your request,” she said, still staring at the door. And then she was gone.

Siobhan snuggled into the thick blankets and laid her head down on the spelled pillow that smelt of her familiar tinctures, staring at the fire. For a moment, it reminded her of Grandfather, and then of her nightmare “clawing away on the inside,” as it had said.

She shuddered. Too exhausted for contemplation, she resolved to think of it later.

But Siobhan kept the crystal lamp on the bedside table turned on as she closed her eyes. The idea of being in complete darkness when the fire died down made her palms clammy and gave her the urge to look over her shoulders and under the bed for monsters.

Hey guys. I’m doing pretty good, if a little slower and more tired than normal. I hope you all are doing well, too. And as a reminder, be kind to yourselves. If you need some grace, give it to yourself.

In case you missed Monday’s chapter of The Catastrophe Collector:

The Typo Hunt for the PGTS spinoff book, The Catastrophe Collector Book 1: Larva has opened. We have several applications to join, but there are a few more spots if any of you are interested. As patrons, you’re getting first dibs here, as from past experience I know that interest in the limited number of Hunt spots is rabid.

Larva contains Chapter 1-31, so it’s an option to read quite a ways ahead of where we currently are.

If you’re interested, read through the info page, then submit your application. Info Page:

Chapter 176 – Out of the Night


Month 4, Day 9, Friday 9:00 p.m.

Siobhan was reaching the edge of her limits.

The vision in her right eye was fading, not with darkness but with an empty spot that she couldn’t tell was there until something disappeared into it. Whatever was wrong with her rib was becoming more debilitating, sending moments of sharp pain radiating through her back and upper abdomen that were followed by a deep, dull ache. Even her shadow-familiar was becoming difficult to maintain past the mental fatigue and an increased distractibility. Her thoughts attempted to wander off on the silliest tangents when they should be gripped tight around the magic.

She wanted to rest. But the Pendragon Corps operatives might still try to scry Anders, and she didn’t feel right leaving Theo or Miles to the care of these people who had already shown they couldn’t protect them.

Miles had stumbled with fatigue when they climbed out of the boat, too tired to even respond to Theo’s sneered comment about being a little baby. Whatever strange abilities he had, they were not without cost. The Nightmare Pack’s Enforcer Fring was carrying the boy now, his weight barely a hindrance to the large man.

Siobhan looked toward the sprawling southern edge of the Mires, small campfires dotting the rocky soil and illuminating the shacks and tents that housed people who couldn’t afford to live within the protection of Gilbratha’s walls, such as they were.

Not that this part of Lenore was very dangerous. Not with monsters, at least. The army had long since cleared this central area of magical land beasts, culling them down to the last. And water beasts wandering into the Charybdis Gulf from the ocean were unlikely to attack people on land. But that didn’t mean that people here were safe. The coppers didn’t come this far south, after all.

Siobhan jerked her mind away from the tangent, focusing for a couple seconds on the shadow-familiar spell to make sure it was steady, its tendrils spread widely enough to protect everyone against possible divination attempts.

The others made the job easier, automatically gathering around her as if she was a campfire on a cold, fearful night.

The safest place she could think of was Liza’s apartment—or rather, apartments—but she couldn’t take them there. The woman wouldn’t abide the danger that could bring to her home, and without showing them Liza’s secret attached apartments, the small main abode would have trouble fitting a group of this size.

The Verdant Stag had wards, too, and even more after the Knave Knoll incident, but judging from Miles’s story and Theo’s capture, it might not be safe there. ‘And,’ a small voice in the corner of her head said, ‘Oliver might be there.’ Obviously, she would need to see him, to speak to him again, some time soon. But for the moment, there was nothing she would love to avoid more.

She cleared her throat and said wearily, “We need to find a safe place. I fear the Verdant Stag and Lynwood Manor will be watched by the enemy. I know the location of several of the Verdant Stags’ safe houses, but we need somewhere more permanent, and ideally warded against scrying. I cannot keep this protection active for much longer. Unless any of you are secretly ward-masters?”

She shook her head before anyone had a chance to respond. No, of course they weren’t. That was silly. She smacked her tongue, realizing how thirsty she was, and dug in her satchel for the canteen of water within. It was almost empty, but if she held it for a while with the cap off, the little spell array she had carved into the bottom and charged—making the canteen a cheap artifact—would draw in moisture from the air to refill its stores.

Jackal and Enforcer Fring shared a look. Anders glanced around, then took a small step closer. “I agree. If we don’t have a place to hide, we’re gonna have to leave Gilbratha right quick. I’ve got a cousin in a little town east of Paneth. But that body seems to be failing you,” he added, looking pointedly at Siobhan. “Doesn’t seem like you’ll last the night.”

The praying woman sucked in a gasp of outrage, but Siobhan nodded, her neck feeling slightly too loose and her giant, throbbing brain slightly too heavy. “The Will is resolute, but the flesh is imperfect,” she said, quoting a half-remembered idiom.

Surprisingly, it was Martha who came up with an answer. “We can go to one of the our safe houses in old Morrow territory. There is one that connects to a hidden tunnel leading to one of Lord Morrow’s old underground fighting arenas. It’s ours now, too. And the place should have some wards. And extra fighting supplies, and people on our side, and even a healer on staff?” she added uncertainly as people stared at her.

“It’s… a good idea. But how do you know about that?” Enforcer Fring asked.

Martha harrumphed at him, crossing her arms. “I hear quite a lot, living in the Lynwood house, and especially being young Millennium’s maid.”

After a few moments of discussion, they agreed that this was their best option. It was early enough in the night, and beginning to grow warm enough, that people were still out and about. And Siobhan’s group was quite conspicuous. They had found a barrel of fresh water on the boat and used it to clean up a little, but they were still an eclectic congregation and obviously somewhat battered.

She tried to make her shadow-familiar cloak hang more like actual fabric, hugging closer to the fabric of her dress, which was much too conspicuously fluffy and pastel green to flaunt openly. The tendrils that were looped around the others thinned to the barest thread, almost invisible unless one was looking for it.

They came across some mostly-dry clothing hanging from a makeshift clothesline, and paid the scraggly man guarding the line for a couple of spare outfits. Anders was able to change out of the ostentatious Pendragon Corps uniform, and Martha got a light cloak to cover up her maid’s uniform.

Siobhan was out of luck, if she had ever had any to begin with, stuck in her dress. All she could do was hug the fabric with her shadow and activate her dowsing artifact in the hope that the low-level spillover from her divination-diverting ward’s automatic activation would be enough to keep eyes off of her.

They kept to the shadows of back alleys and streets where the light crystals had been stolen out of the lamp posts.

One of the men let out a gasp and raised his arm to wave at a small group of patrolling Nightmare Pack enforcers, but Gerard stopped them and pulled them back into the alley. “We don’t know if there’s a leak, or how loyal those men really are. And the larger our group, the more likely someone notices us and talks. There are already too many of us.”

This caused some anger among the Nightmare Pack members of their group, but they continued on alone, and soon enough made it to Martha’s safe house, which was empty, and much nicer on the inside than either of the Verdant Stag safe houses that Siobhan had been in.

From there, they descended from a tunnel that was revealed by lifting up the ornate bathtub, which was built quite ingeniously on a hinge with a spring to handle the weight.

The tunnel itself was carved from more of the ubiquitous white stone, but here beneath the surface, they stood in a couple of inches of brackish water. Little crabs scurried out of their way, and lichen and a thin brown film covered the damp walls.

Enforcer Gerard had to kill a truly enormous spider barring the way about halfway through the tunnel. It had some mild form of camouflage that might have been magical and was large enough to kill and eat the crabs, or anything smaller than the average cat. Siobhan could barely spare a thought for it beyond an exhausted wish that they could move faster.

When they arrived at the end of the tunnel, barred by a rusted iron door, they knocked loudly and waited an irritating amount of time for a response.

When it finally came, the door inching cautiously open with a horrible shriek of ungreased, rusted hinges, the group of battle-ready Nightmare Pack members on the other side were immediately and obviously relieved by the sight of Millennium in Enforcer Fring’s arms.

They questioned the man rapidly as the rest of the group squeezed through the half-open door, and another man in an ostentatious outfit—with actual velvet coattails—sent one of the others to run and inform Lord Lynwood.

The group fell silent when Siobhan stepped through, her clothing coated in shadow much more obvious in the light of the room. Her arm was beginning to ache from holding her hand up to her mouth for so long, so she switched arms, looking around.

After a long few seconds of complete silence, Fring took charge of the situation, listing what they needed, and when most of the people had rushed off to do his bidding, he explained the situation and events of the day with occasional interjections from the others.

The man in the ostentatious outfit was apparently the manager, and he directed them to a larger underground room, where people quickly returned with extra chairs, food and water, and the on-staff healer.

Siobhan waited for the arena’s employees to bring a set of portable anti-divination wards, which they set at the corners of the room and attach to the corners of the ceiling before speaking. “I require clothing.”

The employees froze, looking to the manager, who hesitated a moment but then murmured instructions to one of the women. She looked at Siobhan, and then back at the manager as if she wanted to argue.

“Quickly,” Siobhan added.

The woman left the room at a dead sprint.

Theo giggled and sent Siobhan an exaggerated wink and grin, despite his obvious fatigue. The healing potion he’d taken earlier had refreshed him, but he was still a young boy and it had been a very long day.

The woman returned less than a minute later with a slim-fitting red dress that was missing several sections of actual fabric around the legs and mid-section in favor of sheer lace.

Siobhan stared at it for a moment, trying to gauge if this would be any better than remaining in her current attire, but decided that no matter how ostentatious it was, it was better than remaining in the same outfit she’d been kidnapped in.

The employee bowed deeply to her, then offered to escort her to a private room where she could change. Siobhan took her up on the offer. Alone, she belatedly realized that she could drop her shadow-familiar now. Her mind felt strange without anything to grasp onto, like fist with stiff fingers that didn’t want to unbend. It felt strange, almost vulnerable, to be without her shadow, despite how useless it was as any kind of effective protection.

With the occasional whimper of pain and frustration, Siobhan struggled out of her clothing and into the new outfit. She considered taking off her corset to get a sense of the damage underneath, and maybe ease the pain that was being exacerbated by the black sapphire and a beast core pressing into her injured side, but decided to put it off. At the very least, the corset seemed to be holding her insides in place, and wasn’t that what compression bandages would do? ‘Who knows?’ she thought blearily, her head listing to once side before she snapped it upright again.

She returned to the hallway, which was empty, and shuffled back the way she’d come, only to meet Lord Lynwood, Gera, and Katerin charging in the other direction. Gera turned her head over her shoulder and snapped, “Hurry up!”

Liza was trailing behind the three, and the target of this order. One side of Liza’s upper lip twitched with irritation, and she returned a hard stare that Gera didn’t seem to notice at all, too focused on reaching her son.

The three of them recognized Siobhan at the same time, slowing so quickly they almost tripped over each other. Under Gera’s observation, the divination-diverting ward tingled to blood-sucking life.

Siobhan waved at the nearby door. “Miles and Theo are there. Safe,” she added.

The three of them hurried on, Lord Lynwood and Gera both pausing to make awkward, hasty bows to her before crashing through the doorway.

Liza, much less frantic, stopped beside Siobhan, her lips tightening as her gaze flicked over Siobhan’s own, then around her head and down to her faintly trembling fingertips. “This was not the plan, girl,” she said severely.

Siobhan smiled wryly. “No plan survives contact with the enemy,” she quoted. “But I survived. We survived. And as far as I’m aware, this time I didn’t make any disastrous mistakes. Did you…?”

Liza grimaced. “I succeeded, if a little more dramatically than I had hoped to do so.”

Siobhan was almost too fatigued to feel the relief she had been anticipating since coming up with the plan. She wanted to ask for details, but decided that such things could wait.

“They barely had a smear of blood on a shard of glass, but it is now destroyed, according to our contract. The Raven Queen has made triumphant appearances throughout the city today. Even more than planned, it seems. I hope you can handle the consequences of all this extra attention.”

Siobhan began to shrug, then stilled with a wince as the movement tugged on her ribs. “I don’t really plan to handle anything. I’ll just disappear. I would have done that from the beginning, if they let me.”

Liza pursed her lips. “We will see.”

“They added some portable wards to the room, but it could probably use something better if you can manage it on the fly. I might be safe from their divination now, but for one of them, that’s most definitely not the case.”

Liza sighed, following Siobhan into the room and pulling out supplies for drawing a spell array from one of her vest’s pockets.

A sudden wave of dizziness sent Siobhan stumbling, but she caught herself before she could fall.

The healer was tending to Miles, but half-stood, as if to go to Siobhan.

She waved him off. “I am fine. See to the boy.” She didn’t want to take off her corset yet, which he would need to deal with her ribs, and it wasn’t as if he could fix her Will-strain. She fumbled in her satchel for one of the two remaining healing potions, downing the entire thing in another burning, Radiant gulp.

She hissed, scouring light spilling from between her teeth as her side pulled and shifted with the scream of stretched muscles and grinding cartilage. Her right eye itched and watered, and a sudden violent cough sent a weak cloud of darkness puffing from between her lips.

She, and everyone else in the room, stared at it as it dissipated into the air. “That definitely should not happen,” she muttered. It seemed she still had some tweaks to do with the proprioception philtre of darkness. Which needed a name of it’s own. ‘Naught’s philtre of shadowed perception? No, too wordy.

She looked up to see that several of her rescued group members wore expressions of concern, and belatedly realized that perhaps coughing up darkness would be more concerning to someone who didn’t know the reason. “Do not worry, just a small side-effect. There should be no permanent damage to the flesh,” she said, pressing her hand to her chest, over her lungs. It didn’t even hurt to breathe.

Liza pressed one hand to her forehead and sighed.

Martha nodded slowly, jerkily. “Not to worry, not to worry,” she repeated under her breath, though Siobhan had no idea who she was trying to reassure.

The praying woman, whose name Siobhan still didn’t know, pushed aside Jackal, who was still staring at Siobhan in disgusted fascination. “Is this something you could do for someone else, my queen? Someone loyal and true, perhaps?”

Siobhan tried to parse the strange woman’s question, and then realized she was requesting access to the modified philtre of darkness. ‘Naught’s philtre of night and knowledge!’ some part of her brain suggested gleefully. “I could,” Siobhan agreed aloud, “but it might be slightly dangerous. It obviously needs some adjustments. It can be invaluable in an emergency, but it does not last very long, and it is quite difficult…” The dizziness returned, and she trailed off, grasping for the nearest chair, which the manager pushed toward her like an obsequious suitor.

“You need rest,” Liza said. “That healing potion cannot fix everything.”

“Oh, yes,” Siobhan agreed. “I am in desperate need of sleep. As always!” This thought was desperately, tragically hilarious, and before she knew it a high-pitched giggle that might have been edging on a crazed cackle burst from her throat.

She pressed a horrified hand to her mouth, shoving the embarrassing sound back down.

Lord Lynwood visibly shuddered.

Only Theo seemed to have any sympathy for her. He rose with great difficulty from the chair he had been curled up in while Katerin fussed over him, came to Siobhan’s side, and patted her hand.

He didn’t offer any words of consolation, but the gesture still caused Siobhan’s eyes to burn with sudden emotion. She closed them lest anyone see a hint of extra shininess.

The manager cleared his throat. “You would be welcome to one of our private rooms, humble as they may be,” he offered. “They are warded. Perhaps not to the mistresses’ standards, but safe enough, and all of us here would fight to defend the building from unwanted guests, if necessary. None will speak of your presence, on pain of death.” He looked to Lord Lynwood to confirm, but the man only nodded, his eyes on Miles.

Siobhan looked to Liza, who shrugged. Since the thought of trying to return to the University at this time seemed a little like a bad idea and a lot like torture, Siobhan agreed to the offer. She gestured to Liza, Gera, and then, after a moment, to Katerin as well. “Would you accompany me? I have some questions as well as some information to relay.”

“I will keep watch over Millennium,” Lord Lynwood assured Gera.

Katerin was reluctant to leave Theo, but when the boy offered to simply come along with too-bright eyes and a sudden surge of energy, she, too, agreed to leave the boy under the protection of Lord Lynwood and the various enforcers.

The room the manager offered was large, and gaudily opulent, with gold-foiled filigree making an appearance on the walls and almost every piece of furniture. This was contrasted against vast amounts of red velvet. In the center of the room, a frankly enormous four-poster bed with a velvet canopy was featured.

Siobhan didn’t have the presence of mind to hold back her grimace.

The manager noticed and bent at the waist immediately. “I apologize for the deficient standards of our establishment. I assure you, our hospitable spirit is not lacking. You are our honored guest, if there is anything you wish us to change, or anything—”

Siobhan waved her hand to silence him. “It’s fine.” She moved to the plush seat beside the bed and lowered herself carefully onto it.

When the manager had gone and the door was closed behind him, Gera move to stand a couple meters in front of Siobhan and sank to her knees. “I thank you, and owe you a great debt, Queen of Ravens,” she said, head bowed.

Katerin’s jaw dropped, and even Liza, who had been moving to draw extra temporary wards on the walls, watched with surprised amusement.

Seeing a locked chapter that should be unlocked?:

Chapter 175 – Everywhere at Once


Month 4, Day 9, Friday 5:00 p.m.

Thaddeus hurried back down to the carriage, where Investigator Kuchen was reading out a new message from the distagram.

“Update. Possible false lead on divination results. Previous signs pointed to the center of the raven swarm, but are now showing multiple results spread throughout the city. Preliminary divination suggests the ravens themselves are the target.”

Silence spread through the nearby coppers, which Titus broke with a slew of vicious cursing. He lifted his hands to his hair as if to pull on it, then forced them back to his sides. “Thaddeus,” he said, as if he were a man dying of thirst and Thaddeus had just walked by with a canteen in his hands. “What can you tell me?”

“The Raven Queen is mocking you—us,” Thaddeus corrected quickly. “We have made several failed attempts at divination, and now, she shows us that not only is she immune when she so wishes, but that even when we believe we have found her, it will come to nothing. We can make plans to capture her, but she can make plans, too, and hers will succeed where ours fail. And make us look foolish and ineffectual, at that.”

Thank you, I could have guessed that well enough,” Titus said between gritted teeth. “Do you have anything useful? Any clues? Was this a distraction for an attack on the Edictum Council, perhaps? Are the ravens some clever trick, or do we need to call in the Red Guard in force?”

Before Thaddeus could answer, the distagram activated once more. They all watched the pen scrawl hastily across the strip of paper.

Kuchen tore off the strip, cleared his throat loudly, and read, “A raven has delivered a letter to the Edictum Council. Attending Red Guard team successfully suppressed the ensuing panic. Several injuries, no deaths. Raven in custody, letter in containment wards. Ennis Naught remains in custody.”

Thaddeus and Titus shared a look, and then both hurried back to the carriage. Titus ordered several of the coppers to remain behind to secure the scene and investigate the source of the raven clouds. The rest would ride north, accompanying his carriage.

“She’s definitely an Aberrant,” Kuchen announced as they began to move.

“You have made that suggestion before,” Thaddeus snapped, “and we covered the evidence against it, just as the evidence against your other unfounded and frankly laughable theories. No matter the feat she just managed, that evidence still remains. Aberrants cannot cast spells. Like a magical beast, they propagate only their own inherent effect, simple or complex as it might be. Is your imagination truly so stunted, that you cannot comprehend how this could have been done?” he asked, gesturing vaguely to the sky. “Or, are you simply so ignorant that any innovative action must be ascribed to the mystical, inhuman abilities of an Aberrant?”

Kuchen shrank back in his seat.

Titus sighed wearily. “Thaddeus,” he admonished succinctly.

Taking courage from this, Kuchen thrust out his chin defiantly. “Where did she come from, then? Such a powerful thaumaturge takes time to develop. One with a personality such as hers surely couldn’t have gone entirely unnoticed. The Red Guard have assured us she’s not one of yours, and while they could be hiding the truth, all the other countries we have discreetly reached out to have denied any association. Is it impossible that she is an Aberrant, but one like the Red Sage or the Dawn Troupe, who require some low cunning to be effective?”

Kuchen leaned forward, lowering his voice, and continued. “I have heard the rumors of Aberrants that do not simply seem to be devious, their actions the rote artfulness of an ant hive or the routine instruction of a golem, but who are actually intelligent. In which case, their malice could be both deliberate and resourceful. Is it impossible that she is only pretending to be a thaumaturge?”

Thaddeus narrowed his eyes, wondering where, exactly, the man had heard such rumors.

Titus lifted his leg and rested the ankle atop his other knee. “Thaddeus would know best, but I haven’t heard of any Aberrant with quite so varied a repertoire as she displays. What would her concept be? ‘Dark miracles?’” He laughed humorlessly. “Or something that grew more powerful the more people thought about her?” He frowned, suddenly concerned.

Thaddeus opened his mouth to cut this fear mongering off before it could make the other two any more irrational. “Just because other countries have denied association means nothing. They could easily be lying, for a variety of reasons. If we want to come up with dubious conjecture, perhaps she was living in Myrddin’s hermitage, shielded from the effects of the Black Wastes by the man’s wards, which remained intact and active until recently. Or…perhaps she arrived from elsewhere. There has been another that emerged from the lands beyond, who had both astonishing power and control of bewildering feats. And, if I might add, my research into the topic suggests that Raaz Kalvidasan, Siobhan Naught’s adopted grandfather, may have had some connection to the Third Empire’s cohort.”

Titus’s grip tightened around his ankle. “You think she came from over the northern ice oceans? From beyond the Abyssal Sea?”

Thaddeus threw up his hands in exasperation. “I do not think that. I only mention it as a possible alternative to your investigator’s fear-mongering accusations. I have no opinion on the matter, as without more evidence, the only one who could give us answers at this point is the Raven Queen herself.”

They were distracted from the conversation by another distagram message. Apparently, witnesses reported seeing the Raven Queen atop a building near the Edictum Council shortly before the raven messenger arrived. If true, this would place her there while the raven clouds were dancing kilometers further south. The Raven Queen had, again, disappeared, and though some witnesses believed she had done so by bursting into a flock of ravens, reports were conflicting, and no flock of ravens had been seen near the Edictum Council.

Kuchen made no comment, but gave Thaddeus an acerbic glance, as if this was further evidence of the man’s pet theory.

Very shortly afterward, this news was followed up with a report that the Raven Queen was at the University. “She attacked the divination team at Eagle Tower,” Kuchen said with inappropriate excitement. He settled, coughing a few times into his handkerchief, and then asked Thaddeus, “How could she possibly have traveled so fast, if she cannot fly or travel through shadows?”

Titus actually did pull at the sides of his hair this time. “The High Crown will have my head,” he muttered, staring down at his shoes.

Kuchen’s head whipped toward him, and after a moment, the man spoke tentatively. “Do you mean that…literally?”

Titus sighed and leaned back, resting his head on the back cushion. “No. I haven’t committed treason or shown any disloyalty. But he may try to use this to weaken the Westbays’ position, touting my incompetence. And my father…will not like that,” he said simply, ominously.

When they arrived at the Edictum Council, which was on the way to the University, the distagram had scribbled out one final message. “The Raven Queen has escaped. None dead, several injured. Blood sample lost.”

Titus’s cheeks flushed with futile rage, and his foot tapped out a slow, even rhythm on the carriage floor.

As they jumped out of the carriage and strode toward the ostentatious building, one of the coppers stationed there stepped up and walked beside them. “No further disturbances since we sent the report,” the woman reported in rapid, clipped tones. “Ennis Naught remains in custody, though he made quite the racket about it. Tried to fight his way free with a pair of manacles and his bare hands, alternating screams for help and curses on his daughter’s name. He even managed to somehow get his hands on a civilian woman’s hair pin and unlock his manacles, but our security was too strong for him.”

“What of the letter?” Titus asked.

“And the raven?” Kuchen added.

“The letter is being examined for curses and nasty surprises, but so far it seems mundane. The raven is dead. Attempts to communicate with it led nowhere. We called in a shaman to try a dream-walking with the bird, but apparently there was a small explosive artifact embedded in its stomach.”

“Dream-walking? With a bird?” Thaddeus repeated incredulously.

The woman looked at him, shrugging with embarrassment. “Well, we figured, what if it wasn’t just a bird?”

Kuchen nodded in solidarity. “And why the explosive, if they weren’t worried that somehow, we would learn something from it?”

“Why the living bird at all, if she could have just delivered it from a raven made of shadows and nightmare?” Thaddeus asked sardonically.

The copper looked between the three of them with increased worry. “Wait, really? I thought her shadows could only curse you with nightmares and stuff. Not become tangible.”

Kuchen shook his head sadly. “Grandmaster Lacer is mocking us. He believes the Raven Queen to be a totally mundane sorceress.”

“Not totally mundane,” Thaddeus corrected, taking advantage of his long legs to walk faster and escape.

The letter had been removed from the middle of the Edictum Council’s central floor and placed in a smaller conference room. It sat on the center of a marble table, surrounded by experts doing various tests. Thaddeus stood to the side, looking over their heads and doing some tests of his own, at a distance. When they finally broke the black wax seal and removed the sheet of paper within, he took advantage of a simple spell to read the contents.

His lips twitched, his nostrils flared, and he read it again. As ever, the Raven Queen seemed determined to be as theatrical as possible. She must have laughed herself breathless, knowing the kind of furor this would cause.

Titus pushed the supposed experts aside, snatching the paper off of the table and reading aloud.

“On a cold wind blew strife.

The thief of fire,

Will be a light in the darkness,

A candle against the night,

And will laugh as she feasts.

Save your tears for yesterday.

As you dream of cracked roads,

And tend your garden of sticks.

For madness makes no plans,

And there is but one cure for the living.

A scream into the void echoes.

Black eyes see nothing,

But a fortune of dust,

Empty bellies and sharp teeth,

And payment in bone.”

A long silence followed his recitation, and then one of the cursebreakers muttered, “You shouldn’t have read it aloud. I’ve heard tale of subtle curses that require your participation. Do you feel any different?”

Titus looked up from the page, scowling at the man with the descending rage of a hurricane. Titus hurled the page at the cursebreaker, then turned and marched back the way he had come as the paper fluttered ineffectually through the air.

Thaddeus waited a moment as those who remained began to talk over each other. When he finally met Siobhan Naught—if that ever had been her name in truth—perhaps she would be interested to hear the effects of her schemes from one who had experienced it firsthand.

“What do you think it means?”

“Is the Raven Queen the thief of fire? A reference to the old Titanic myths, do you think? We may need to call in a lore master.”

“The first letters are all capitalized. Perhaps it’s an anagram. ‘Bestow…’ something.”

“Payment in bone? What does that mean?”

“She laughs as she feasts, empty belly, sharp teeth. Sounds like some sort of cannibalistic blood sorcery to me. That may be where she gets her power.”

“Dream of cracked roads. Is this all dream symbolism? Where’s the shaman?”

The air grew thick with the heat of their frantic inquiry, their questions tripping over each other. High pitched, a woman asked, “Could it be a prophecy?” The room quieted.

“Prophecies are a myth,” an old man snapped back quickly. “Not even an archmage prognos can accurately predict events past a few days.”

Thaddeus knew what the next words would be even before they were spoken. It would have irritated him, but obviously this kind of fatuous speculation was the point.

A blue-skinned man wearing the trinkets of a shaman cleared his throat and rebutted slowly, “The Red Sage makes prophecies.”

Silence fell for a while longer, and then the old man replied, “But those are all recorded. Unless the Red Guard has been keeping a secret?”

All eyes turned to Thaddeus.

He shook his head, and as always seemed to be his maddening responsibility, opened his mouth to be the voice of reason. “No. Let me remind you, a prediction, or even a promise, need not be a prophecy.” He turned to leave, then. If he lingered too long, Titus would leave without him.

When Thaddeus reached the carriage, Titus gave a rap and the horses sprang forward.

They sat in silence for a moment before Kuchen tentatively asked, “What do you think the letter meant?”

Titus stared out of the window unseeingly. “It means, ‘Despair, for you will never win. Spread my fame and cement the futility of your existence in the minds of all those who would bow to you. I name you enemy.’”

Kuchen blinked twice in bewilderment, then turned to Thaddeus beseechingly.

“Titus is right,” Thaddeus agreed, somewhat relieved that the man hadn’t succumbed to irrationality. “Yes, the Raven Queen has a tendency to weave clever hints into her actions and communication, but I think it most likely that her message here does not require over-deciphering.” Thaddeus, at least, had noticed none of the signs of the hidden codes he was familiar with.

“She has been quite explicit, after all. She has challenged us, insulted us, and predicted her own ferocious superiority against our futile end. She has also, I believe, made a statement about her ability to protect and shelter where we cannot, as a light in the darkness, and a candle against the night. One who has the resources to feast, while our fortune becomes dust.”

Titus closed his eyes for a long moment. “She has already been growing important in the rumors and superstitions of the commoners, gaining a foothold of interest and support among those who consider themselves misused and underprivileged with every appearance. But this…there is no coming back from today.”

“There’s still a chance to catch her,” Kuchen comforted, though Thaddeus wasn’t sure the man really believed it.

“She wasn’t even attempting to free her father,” Titus murmured.

“I agree,” Thaddeus said, inordinately pleased by this for some reason. Ennis Naught was a worthless, betraying plebeian. “In fact, she seemed more interested in the offense of attempting to divine her location than in the man,” he added. Though, with someone like her, there was no way to know how many layers deep her plan went, nor how many different goals she was able to accomplish at once.

“Maybe she will attack the prisoner convoy, or try to abscond with him from the labor camp,” Kuchen offered.

“We can only hope,” Titus said. His heel resumed tapping on the carriage floor in a steady, deliberate rhythm that reminded Thaddeus of Titus’s father. Of course, in Titus the tapping signified anxiety, whereas in Lord Tyron Westbay, it meant cold anger and thoughts of how he might take that anger out upon others.

The three of them fell to silence.

The sirens blaring over the University grounds were audible even from the base of the glass transportation tubes. When they reached the top, Titus winced and ordered someone to turn them off. “Everyone who needs to be protected will already be in one of the shelters. No need for the racket to keep reminding us, though I would predict that she’s long gone by now.”

Thaddeus found it amusing that they had felt the need to set off the sirens in the first place. The Raven Queen, as far as he knew, had never purposefully harmed a civilian—at least not those who did not act against her.

When Titus asked to talk to the people who had encountered the Raven Queen, they were directed to the infirmary. The rest of the faculty were all out searching the grounds, though more than a few of them seemed like they would rather do anything except actually find her.

Within the infirmary, the situation was worse.

A few men had obvious injuries—broken limbs, burns, and one with a foaming poultice over his eyes and a tremor in his fingers—but several others who were seemingly unharmed lay on infirmary beds with the glassy stare that indicated heavy doses of calming potions.

In the hallway and between the beds, several coppers, a couple professors, and two prognos loitered anxiously. The coppers stood at attention when Titus entered, and both professors gave Thaddeus smiles of relief. “Oh, thank Myrddin,” one man muttered, as if Thaddeus’s presence meant they would be safe now.

What a sorry excuse for a professor at the most prestigious University in the known lands.

Some of those in the beds tried to stand, but Titus waved them down. “Copper Alma, report,” he commanded.

A short woman stepped forward, gave a shallow bow, and said, “The Raven Queen came down from the roof and through the window. There were no signs of approach. She just suddenly appeared. We suspect she was there the whole time, for hours perhaps, just waiting for us to arrive and then to lower our guard. The ravens were a decoy, and a reason for us to bring the last of the blood out.”

“That’s impossible,” Kuchen interrupted. “Even if she somehow commanded the ravens from afar, who sent the bird to the Edictum Council, then? She must have flown. Were you keeping guard against birds, too? Or maybe she traveled through the shadows.”

“It’s not even night,” someone muttered.

Copper Alma shook her head. “We had the Radiant wards on around the tower to keep a barrier against encroaching shadow.”

“And we watched for ravens,” the man with the poultice over his eyes called. “Unless she literally appeared from nothing, she was hiding in wait all along.”

“We checked the wards,” the woman added. “No suspicious entries, though there is one professor who was noted as entering the building early this morning. We haven’t been able to find him.”

“So someone stole his faculty token,” Thaddeus deduced easily enough. “You should investigate his whereabouts. Are you entirely certain it was the Raven Queen herself who attacked you?”

“It was her,” one of the glassy-eyed coppers lying in bed interjected. “She wore a dark cloak, but I know it was her. Who else could swallow up the night and then vomit it out again?”

Titus raised an eyebrow.

Alma cleared her throat uncomfortably. “I apologize, sir. As she has been known to do, the Raven Queen used a philtre of darkness. We think. It was…unlike anything I’ve ever encountered. The counter-potions and spells we prepared were useless against it. Several of the men insist that the darkness was coming…from her.”

The man on the bed interjected again. “It was, it was! It was spilling from her face. But her face wasn’t a face like ours, it was just a single mouth, an open maw of darkness, and out of it rode Night, and when I breathed it, Night became part of me and I knew—I knew I was seen. I was seen,” he repeated in a hoarse wail that devolved into sobbing.

One of the healers rushed over and forced another potion down his throat, glaring at Titus.

One of the coppers beside Alma straightened his shoulders with determination. “I saw it, too. I think the darkness might have been another form of the shadow creature that is said to accompany her. It’s—” He swallowed. “It’s the only thing that makes sense.”

One of the prognos who must have been casting the divination spell piped up then. “She was several of the ravens, too. Not all of them, just a few dozen. I know that doesn’t make sense, but I know what I saw. When they dispersed, it was like she split into that many pieces. I cannot advise whether she has some strange familiar contract that allowed them to be located in her stead, or if it is some more uncanny magic at play.”

Thaddeus ran his fingers over his beard, frowning as he studied the traumatized group. “Are we entirely sure that she was spotted near the Edictum Council? How reliable are the eyewitnesses? Perhaps some work with a diviner or shaman is in order, to solidify the veracity of their testimony.”

Kuchen actually had the gall to roll his eyes at Thaddeus, though he conceded, “I will contact the team there.”

Thaddeus resisted the urge to shoot the man with a sobering spell, reminding himself that idiocy was not something that could be cured. Not past childhood, at least.

Instead, he turned his efforts to deduction. Thaddeus decided to set aside the strange shadow phenomenon, which could be accomplished with innovative spellwork. A little bit of fear, a tinge of emotion called up through transmogrification, and the ignorant would firmly believe in the power of dark miracles. The mind re-wrote memories every time they were called upon, and the truth was so easily restructured.

If it were Thaddeus who had come up with this plan, perhaps the magic calling and directing the conspiracy of ravens would have been something he imbued into an artifact. She had enough connections among the underbelly of society to put someone in charge of activating it and then secreting it away again when it ran out of power.

The raven that delivered the letter to the Edictum Council could have been the same, and any supposed sightings of the Raven Queen nearby based off of an illusion. None of the divination results had shown a hit on her appearance there, though of course that did not necessarily mean anything. They had also failed to notice that she was hiding on the roof.

As for the ravens triggering the divination in lieu of the Raven Queen, showing her anywhere and everywhere that she obviously was not, he could think of three different methods off of the top of his head to create such an effect.

None of this meant that the Raven Queen was any less special. Only less mystical and unfathomable. He was sure all of her secrets had an answer, and all the evidence that seemed to conflict, a resolution.

What fascinated Thaddeus was not her supposed strange abilities. He, too, could be said to have strange abilities, by those who knew no better. No, he was interested in her mind—her knowledge and ambitions.

Titus, Thaddeus, and Kuchen remained at the University for hours, investigating Eagle Tower and the grounds with those of the diviners who were well enough to continue working. As fascinating as the events of the day had been, Thaddeus still found them somewhat underwhelming. He had not even managed to see the Raven Queen with his own eyes. He had hoped to be more than just another spectator.

And then, as if in answer to his dissatisfaction, there was a commotion to the east, noticed by one of the faculty members still out patrolling. Thaddeus set aside any foolish notions of decorum and ran full out in a straight line across the grounds, his coat and hair flying behind him until he reached the edge of the white cliff. Behind him, Titus and several other coppers chased.

Titus free-cast a far-seeing lens spell and looked through the Circle hanging in the air in front of him.

Far below, the Raven Queen, identifiable by the darkness she wore like a billowing cloak against the spotlight shining on her, had seemingly stolen a boat. An eclectic group accompanied her, scrambling to manage the marine vehicle while she stood still, looking back at her pursuers.

Titus slowed to a panting stop beside Thaddeus and stretched his neck to see through his spell. “Pendragon Corps.”

“Indeed. What has she been up to, I wonder?” Thaddeus murmured, his eyes flicking over the situation with minute adjustments to the spell.

As he watched, one of the people with her used a rope to lob something at the boat attempting to follow them. It was an impressive throw. Several of the High Crown’s men jumped overboard before the thing exploded with light bright enough to sear Thaddeus’s eyes. He blinked, dropping the lens spell in favor of a soothing spell to clear his watering, spotted vision.

“Cast the telescope spell again, Thaddeus,” Titus commanded. “I think she’s kidnapped a couple of the High Crown’s men. Did you see the uniforms?”

Thaddeus complied, but only after sending out a surreptitious spell to create a line of force so thin it might as well have been a garrote. He placed it at neck height in front of the two operatives running alongside the Raven Queen’s boat in the dark.

It was a long way to detach the output of a spell, but he had the finesse and control to manage it. Often, this was more important than sheer power. He made no motion of his fingers, did not turn his head to target them obviously, and did not react to their aborted cries of surprise as the wards of their uniforms protected them barely long enough to realize that they were in danger.

He brought the lens spell back, wondering if the Raven Queen would notice his small contribution to her escape. Her face was obscured under the cloak of darkness, but he thought she seemed to be looking up at him in acknowledgement. Taking a closer look at her companions, he confirmed that two were indeed wearing the Pendragon Corps colors. There was also a woman in a maid uniform, several Verdant Stag and Nightmare Pack symbols, and two small children. All looked worse for wear.

When one of the Pendragon operatives used a harpoon to spear the blue-and-gold uniformed man by the Raven Queen’s side, Thaddeus revised his opinion on their loyalty. “Did they defect?” He failed to hide the delight in his tone, but Titus either did not notice, or did not care. Thaddeus also noted that her darkness had moved as if to shield against the attack, but failed to stop it. Another piece of evidence that it was not tangible.

The escapees soon reached the edge of the lighthouse’s range, and as her boat melted back into the darkness of the moonless night, Thaddeus dropped the lens spell and added one last, secret contribution to her endeavors in the form of a gaping wound in the hull of her pursuer’s boat, well under the water line.

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Chapter 174 – Pyrrhic Victories


Month 4, Day 9, Friday 9:00 p.m.

After more than an hour of walking through winding tunnels of various shapes and sizes, interspersed with the occasional cave, Anders stopped them. “That’s the way we’d go if we wanted to come out on the secluded white cliffs path,” he said, pointing down a tunnel to their right, from which a briny breeze wafted. “But if we want to hit the ferry directly, we can continue on that way.” He jerked his thumb forward. “I can only estimate, maybe five hundred paces?”

Millennium nodded, eyes unfocused as he tilted his head to listen. “It sounds good. Safe. For now. But I think it would be better to leave when it gets dark.” His eyelids drooped, and he swayed on his feet, exhausted from more than just the physical ordeal. Listening to the whispers, or at least deciphering them into coherent meaning, drained him.

They continued on to the spot Anders and several of the others judged best. Siobhan passed around her water canteen, then sat back with the children while the others began to set up their stolen shielding artifacts to try and stabilize the stone around them and dampen the sounds of drilling.

“Miles,” Siobhan murmured to the sleepy child tucked under her arm. “How did you find me? In the streets earlier today, I mean. I’m supposed to be immune to divination.”

He frowned, pulling up his knees to his chest and leaning into her for warmth. “I can’t do divination,” he murmured. “I haven’t started to learn any real magic yet, remember?”

“But you did find me. Using the whispers.”

He nodded, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath. “You smell good.”

The boy must be delusional with fatigue, since she was pretty sure she smelled of sweat, dirt, and fear. “Miles.”

“The whispers aren’t divination. They’re not actually whispers, either. It’s hard to explain. I just kind of…listen to the sounds of the world underneath the rest. It kind of blends together like music, or murmurs from a crowd too far away and too jumbled to make out what they’re saying, only the emotion. Does that make sense?”

It did not, but Siobhan doubted he could explain it better. “Go on,” she said.

“Listening to the sounds underneath became a lot, lot easier since I’ve been able to sleep. It is really hard to hear you from afar, and I couldn’t find you by scent, either, even though yours is so distinct. But there’s a kind of music to the way you move through life. Your whispers have a tone, and, like, an echo. I actually didn’t find you, exactly, but I got close from the ripples you left, and also just how the safest direction just always happened to be moving closer to you. I was already going in your direction even before I had the idea to find you. And then, once I was close enough, I could hear you with my actual ears from about a block away. But that’s not divination. I just have good hearing. I’m part sylphide, you know. From my dad’s side.”

Setting aside how his abilities work, if that’s true, then it might actually have been very lucky for me to be there to save Miles,’ Siobhan realized. ‘If the High Crown had kept him, Miles might have been used to track me down.

The others were done with their preparations, and Parker pulled out his battle artifact, the one with the drilling spell, and pointed it nervously at the stone wall of the tunnel.

Theo looked on with avid interest, trying to creep forward from around the praying woman, who was keeping him at a safe distance.

Siobhan raised a hand. “Wait. I have a better idea that has much less chance of drawing attention our way.” She climbed back to her feet and pulled out a sheet of seaweed paper with the stone disintegration spell array. “This one is mostly silent. And I would guess much more efficient. Used in conjunction with something like a small wind spell to remove the crumbled stone, you could carve out sections of the wall with precision and set them aside, with much less noise, no tremors, and less possibility of causing a tunnel collapse.”

By the time the sun had set, Siobhan’s ward had fended off two more divination attempts, and they had cut a narrow tunnel that spilled out almost directly into the Gulf. There were also faint sounds of pursuit echoing from the direction they had come. The enemy seemed to be moving slowly, but they were catching up.

Siobhan crawled through the tunnel and peeked out into the moonless night.

The nearby dock had a couple of boats moored, if one could still call these small luxury vehicles boats. All were more than large enough to carry all twelve escapees, though some looked expensive enough that they might have some sort of on-board security system. There was a guard in a small watchtower, but the shroud of night was thick enough for Siobhan to stretch out a section of her shadow in a thin umbrella over the entire group, who huddled under it fearfully as they scurried as silently as possible for their boat of choice—the one that seemed easiest to operate and least likely to set off any alarms.

When they unmoored, pushing away from the dock, their boat lit up. Siobhan’s first, adrenaline-drenched thought was that they had been spotted, and someone was shining a light on them. But no, it was their boat, somehow detecting that it was nighttime and automatically turning on both a headlamp crystal and several lights across the sides.

Such a feature was surely very useful for traveling the night waters safely or night-fishing for those creatures attracted by the light, but totally inappropriate for stealthily stealing a boat and escaping with it.

And, of course, the dock guard wasn’t blind, and realized what was happening. The Verdant Stag enforcer whose name Siobhan still didn’t know was their captain, as he was the only one with some experience as a fisherman. He scrambled frantically for a way to turn the bright beacons off, while the others clumsily tried to adhere to his commands about lowering the sails and doing something or other to the rudder.

Siobhan wasn’t paying attention to that, too busy scanning the docks and the white cliffs for danger.

The watch-tower guard loudly rung an alarm bell with a tumultuous clanging that traveled clearly across the water, turning on a huge light crystal inside of a lensed housing, which focused the beam into a spotlight.

It swiveled a few times across the docks, catching the edge of the small tunnel they had created just as their pursuers reached its mouth. The guard had noticed, and the light paused for a second, adjusting to illuminate the enemy more clearly.

At the head of the group, a man in the same uniform and resplendent armor of the Pendragon operatives squinted and shielded his eyes against the light, yelling at the guard.

“It’s the captain,” Parker murmured.

The spotlight spun towards the water, and despite their success in turning off the beacon of light crystals, they still hadn’t floated very far from their initial position. The watch-tower guard found them again easily enough.

Siobhan didn’t flinch when the light hit her, allowing her shadow to darken opaquely against the bright assault, protecting her face and eyes as well as the rest of her body.

As several of her people used some emergency paddles to increase their speed and push them further into the Charybdis Gulf, Siobhan met the Pendragon captain’s gaze across the water. She smiled, though he couldn’t see, and he snarled, shouting indistinguishable orders at his subordinates.

The other Pendragon men scurried around with impressive coordination, a couple moving to follow along beside Siobhan’s stolen boat on land, while most tried to commandeer a boat of their own.

Siobhan hadn’t hoped for things to go so poorly, but that didn’t mean she was unprepared. She turned to Anders and Parker, giving them a nod.

With his mouth pressed together in a grim line, Anders pulled out the Radiant explosive they had taken. Together, he and Parker primed it to go off after impact, and then Parker tied it inside a cradle of thin rope, which he used to swing the explosive around his head like a giant slingshot, faster and faster. The air whistled impressively from the device’s speed, and they ducked down to avoid any accidental collisions.

When Parker finally released the explosive, it flew through the air in a palatially wide arc, up, and then down, trailing rope with an audible slither over the railing.

For a moment, it seemed like it would miss the pursuing boat and splash rather harmlessly into the water. But in the only moment of good fortune Siobhan felt she had experienced all night, the fabric-covered device hit the edge of the deck.

Several of the High Crown’s men jumped off the edge into the dark, filthy waters.

The captain himself simply raised his arm and covered himself in a dome-shaped shield.

When the explosion went off, Siobhan had to turn her face away from the light, even with her shadow to shield her eyes. It blew a hole in the side and deck of the commandeered boat and sent the whole vessel rocking wildly side to side.

Disappointingly, it did not look as though the vessel would sink.

But one of the masts had been damaged, and there might have been a small leak or two in the side. The men the captain might have ordered to row to catch up with them were splashing about in the Gulf, with her smaller boat drawing quickly ahead.

Soon, Siobhan’s boat reached the edge of the range of the watchtower’s spotlight. A little more, and they could escape into the night.

Up above, forms made small by distance stood on the edge of the white cliffs, looking down on them from the eastern edge of the University grounds.

An aborted cry sounded from the shore, near where the operatives had been running along beside her boat. She couldn’t see them anymore, and could only hope they had met misfortune.

Siobhan worried for a moment that the pursuing operatives might produce something spectacular that would allow them to catch her, like a powerful wind spell released directly into their boat’s sails, or some other kind of propelling spell, like the rare wheeled river boats that ran off magic.

When the captain rummaged around in the back of the boat and returned with a staff-like device that she couldn’t quite make out under the cover of darkness, she tensed.

He pointed it at them.

“Faster,” she urged. Her boat wasn’t maneuverable enough to dodge, but most spells had a limited effective range. She imagined he might strike them with lightning, or shoot a piercing spell through their hull, but the projectile he shot from the staff-like device had no special color, and didn’t even glow.

Millennium cried out in dismay.

She heard the whistle of the attack a second before it hit, and realized her error of judgment. The captain hadn’t grabbed a staff at all. It might not even be magical, though the length it had crossed was quite impressive for an entirely mundane weapon.

It was a harpoon.

Her shadow billowed out instinctively to meet it, as if she could somehow block the path of the bladed weapon, but of course the harpoon passed straight through.

It missed her, passing a few feet to her left and stopping behind her with a sound like a goat carcass being quartered in a butcher’s shop. A moment of slicing through wet muscle fiber, the splintering crack of bone shattering under a sloppy cut, and then the dull thud of wood behind the blade, stopping its momentum.

Siobhan turned to follow the sound, letting her shadow drop down and allow what little starlight shone from above to illuminate the boat.

Parker drew in a long, ragged breath of horror, looking down at the harpoon piercing messily through his thigh, which was already spilling blood like a gurgling spring. Then he screamed, high-pitched and ragged.

She had a moment to think that at least it wasn’t his abdomen, or he might be dead already.

Then the tip of the harpoon somehow retracted and bent, gripping around the back of Parker’s thigh. The trailing line went taut, reeled in by a winch as if Parker was some giant fish. And then he was simply yanked off the side of the boat, dragging across the surface of the water like an awkwardly shaped throwing stone. He had just enough moments above the surface not to drown. He used them to scream at first, but soon fell silent.

Siobhan lowered her outstretched hand, which had been much too slow to try and catch him. She stared uselessly.

“Can’t you do something? Drag him back?” Turner asked tremulously, cutting through the silence.

The rest of the group was all looking to her as if she could somehow fix this. Suddenly irritated, she clenched her free fist, letting out a deep breath through the Circle of the hand in front of her mouth. She drew in her shadow a little tighter. “Did you not see that wound? If I fight for him, he will die, ripped apart like a rag doll fought over by two dogs.” If she had acted fast enough, she might have been able to cut the rope before it was reeled in, but she had been stunned and just as useless as the rest of them.

“But you promised him a boon,” Anders said.

“He has a daughter, does he not? The boon will still be granted. He may simply not be around to appreciate it,” she snapped. She spun on her heel, looking toward their fisherman captain. “Take us out quickly. We need to get past the southern straits and the remnants of the white cliffs. We don’t want anyone trying to ambush us again.”

The only silver lining was the sudden lurch of the Pendragon operative’s commandeered boat, which soon began to sink. The Radiant bomb must have done more damage than she thought, but she couldn’t even manage a vindictive smile.

The rest of her people got to work in grim silence. Within an hour they had made their way all the way out of the city and managed a somewhat iffy crash-landing on the shore south of the Mires.

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Chapter 173 – Caves and Corridors


Month 4, Day 9, Friday 5:30 p.m.

The Pendragon operatives didn’t chase after them right away, at least not in the time it took the philtre of darkness she had placed to wear off.

The former captives hurried through the cold, damp dark, bare feet against the rough stone for a long few minutes until they reached an area of relative safety. The injured needed to rest and be attended to. Young Enforcer Turner with the broken leg was slowing them down, and the praying woman had been clipped by a slicing spell that didn’t require a high-strength healing potion, but needed at least to be bandaged.

Everyone remained quiet and wide-eyed, the darkness and the weight of the white cliffs above them creating an illusory pressure.

Siobhan handed the praying woman a self-brewed regeneration potion, a burn salve in a jar too small to cover all of her melted skin, and a small jar of honey for the antibacterial properties. The woman took them reverently, then held them close like a dog who was suspicious that someone would try to steal her bone.

Siobhan ordered Fring and Gerard to lay Turner on the floor of a small half-scoop cave with a trickle of water flowing through its center. As she opened up the bulky wrapping around his leg to reveal the wound, illuminated by a light crystal they had retrieved, several of the others moaned in horror, and Martha turned away to retch. “Do not vomit,” Siobhan snapped. “They can use it to track you if they find it, and I do not need the extra trouble.”

“They’ll be tracking Parker and I as soon as they think of it,” Anders reported gravely. “You can do something about that, right?”

Siobhan considered the issue. The stone between them should help for the moment, and when they were free she would need to stash her new unfortunate responsibilities under some wards, but in the meantime she would have to figure something out. Her divination-diverting ward had spillover effects into the area around her. That didn’t extend very far, but if she kept Anders and Parker hanging on either arm, they would almost certainly be safe, because finding them would be equivalent to finding her by association, and the ward wouldn’t allow that.

Much more palatably, she could keep them within the boundary of her shadow. She’d never tested such a thing, but everything she knew about sympathetic divination, and what Liza had explained about the ward, suggested that it would work. “I believe I can. I will deal with that after this,” Siobhan promised.

Turner’s face was pale as he stared at the exposed meat and bone of his injury, and at the way his lower shin and foot were pointed slightly in the wrong direction despite their efforts to rejoin them with the part above. He was breathing quickly, and stammered, “I don’t want to lose my leg. Oh, please.” He reached out and squeezed Siobhan’s forearm. “I heard how you turned some Morrow man’s stump arm into a thumb. I really don’t want a thumb at the end of my leg, please, have mercy.”

Theo seemed to find the idea of a thumb at the end of Turner’s leg unbearably hilarious, and though he tried to muffle his laugh, he soon hunched over and had to brace himself against the wall under the force of his mirth. “A thumb!” he gasped.

Miles gave the other boy a disapproving glare, which he then turned on Enforcer Gerard and the other woman, as if urging them to rebuke the other boy. When no one did, Miles poked Theo in the side with vindictive force. “You’re being rude. Can’t you see he’s scared? How would you like it if someone laughed because the Raven Queen was going to turn your face into a butt?”

Theo’s eyes widened and he fell silent for two long seconds. “A butt!” he sputtered, then began to convulse with laughter so hard he struggled to breathe.

Millennium very obviously resisted the urge to kick Theo in the shin, instead moving to the other side of the group to be as far away from him as possible.

Siobhan rolled her eyes at the children’s antics.

Turner’s face paled further. “Please, my lady. I beg of you—”

Enforcer Fring gave Turner a light smack across the back of the head, eyeing Siobhan with trepidation. “Shut up,” the man said. “It’s better than dying. You should be grateful for what you can get. The Raven Queen is your savior—our savior.” He leaned closer to Turner, murmuring vehemently, “How dare you complain?”

Turner whimpered, but pressed his lips together wordlessly.

“A stump ending should not be necessary,” Siobhan murmured absently, her attention focused on the wound and what she would need to do to fix it. Turner didn’t have enough extra blood for her to use to draw out a flesh-mirroring spell array, but the fist-sized pile of soaked bandages she’d removed would be more than enough fuel for the spell. But on such a bumpy surface as the floor, chalk wouldn’t do. Inevitably, some part of the Circle would be disconnected from the rest and lead to horrible consequences. She needed to draw it with something liquid.

Then, she realized this dilemma was irrelevant. She had retrieved her satchel and everything in it, including the sheets of seaweed paper. She hadn’t duplicated her previous attempt at a tome, because she had a better idea in mind, but the artisan she’d hired to craft the device had yet to complete it. And so, she had a number of loose sheets of heat resistant paper, a few of which were blank and would be easy enough to draw the flesh-mirroring spell on.

The sheet would probably be ruined with Turner’s blood, but there were no better options at their current location.

She also didn’t want to try dual-casting in her state, but her shadow-familiar spell was protecting both her modesty and her aura of command and mystique. Without it, she would just be a young, half-naked girl.

“Everyone leave,” she ordered. “Just out of sight. I am going to heal him.”

“Oh, are you going to use blood magic?” Theo asked, still panting heavily from his laughing fit. He wiped some tears away from his eyes with his fists. “Can I watch?”

“No. But you can get dressed,” Siobhan said, pulling the tightly packed, jumbled mess of shoes and clothing out of her satchel’s expanded section, careful not to look too closely at the warped space of the interior, lest she worsen her headache.

Several of the others shared inscrutable looks and glanced at Turner with pity, but they complied without protest.

When they were gone, she had him close his eyes, quite sure that someone so timid wouldn’t make any attempts at peeking, and then finally dropped the spell. Her mind relaxed like a muscle clenched too long. She sighed with relief, but knew it wasn’t to last.

As she drew out the spell array, using his good leg as a template for the broken one, he trembled. Obviously, he was extremely frightened.

When she began to cast, he jumped, letting out a squeak followed by a pitiful whimper.

“I am not giving you a thumb,” she assured him. To distract and comfort him as she very slowly joined his bone back together, not fully, but in little sections large enough to hold some weight, she talked, keeping her voice low and soothing. “I am not cutting the leg off, either. It would be too difficult for you to escape with the rest of the group if you only had one leg. It will be an imperfect fix, because I do not have the time to do better. Our enemies are surely following us by now.” In addition to time, she lacked energy. It was also questionable whether she had the necessary skill to deal with such a grievous wound, but she elected not to mention that part.

“You will need to visit a proper healer when this is all over. I cannot say whether the leg will need to be cut off then, but if it does, I can assure you that it is entirely possible to regrow a leg.” She moved on to attaching some of the blood vessels and the larger chunks of muscle to each other and the bone itself.

“There is even a new experimental treatment for prosthetic limbs,” she said, some excitement leaking into her tone. She had heard about it in Professor Gnorrish’s class, and been interested because of the injuries Enforcer Gerard sustained at Knave Knoll. “You can have a foot grown from a modified parasitic plant that will literally sprout from your stump. Its roots will feed from your blood stream and connect to your muscle and nervous system. You would be able to control the foot with only a short delay.”

Turner moaned sickly.

“Almost done,” she promised. “The only problem with those types of prosthetics is the difficulty in perfecting the balance between keeping the plant from being too aggressive and devouring their flesh and blood symbiote, and keeping the person’s body from rejecting the invasion.”

A few meters down the hall with his back turned, the Verdant Stag enforcer whose name she didn’t know muttered, “Oh, Merlin.” He shuddered, then hunched inward and hugged his arms to his chest for warmth. Several of the others made conciliatory sounds. So far beneath the surface, and with the damp, it was cold enough that they needed to keep moving to stay warm.

“We’ll be moving again soon,” Siobhan reassured them. “Keep your backs turned.”

“Don’t worry, my queen,” the praying woman called. “I’m watching them.”

Jackal rolled his eyes so hard that his head moved from the effort, obvious even from the back of his skull.

Siobhan turned her attention back to Turner’s leg. It didn’t exactly look healthy, but she thought it would support his weight, and her head was throbbing horribly, so it would have to do.

She gathered up all the bloody cloth and the soiled paper, then dumped them in a second spell array to cast the shedding-destroyer on them.

Finally, with significant reluctance, she re-cast her shadow familiar spell, keeping the chant inaudibly quiet. When she was again decent, she allowed Turner to open his eyes, reaching out a hand to help him to his feet.

He accepted her help with reluctance, but her patch job meant that he was able to continue on with the rest of the group.

Siobhan dropped a philtre of stench in the area they had stopped, hopeful that it would take any dogs or other scent trackers out of commission if the enemy tried that tack. “I am going to spread out this shadow,” she warned. “Everything within its range should be safe from divination. It is not harmful.” They still needed to be able to see their feet to walk safely, so she spread out a wide mesh at around waist height.

Everyone seemed at least slightly uncomfortable, which Siobhan understood, as they must have seen the Pendragon operative’s response to that same shadow, but they relaxed when nothing nefarious happened. The praying woman waved her hands through it with fascination. “And you shall walk, sheltered under wings of midnight,” she whispered.

Everyone kept a noticeable, respectful distance from Siobhan, except Theo and Miles, who walked beside her like an honor guard, huffing and scowling at each other.

The praying woman stared enviously at the children, but Siobhan was happy to keep some space between herself and the peculiar woman’s antics.

“What did she do to you?” Siobhan heard Martha whispering to Turner.

He shook his head, throwing a glance Siobhan’s way. “I don’t know. She made me keep my eyes closed, and I wasn’t about to peek. You’ve heard the stories about people who look at things they aren’t supposed to, after they were warned so clearly.” He shuddered. “Yeah, no way.”

“Well, at least you can walk.” The statement sounded somewhat dubious, and Siobhan couldn’t help but feel offended.

I did my best! It’s not like there are any better healers in the group, and a standard potion would be rather useless on a wound like that without setting the bone and patching up all of that meat a bit first. People are always so entitled when they should simply be grateful.

There was some argument about the best path to escape. They could make their way to the northern lake, where the freshwater docks and wide tunnels that cut through the bottom of the white cliffs allowed people to bring in goods from the north. Some of their group argued they should go that way, leave Gilbratha entirely and circle around to enter the city again from one of the land gates, or even up through the Mires to the south. Others argued that it was best to escape through the canals, taking a path downward through the city itself.

Gerard, Jackal, Anders, and Fring all agreed and argued strongly that moving through any of the commonly used paths or checkpoints would be too dangerous. People would definitely be stationed there to catch them. “We need something else,” Jackal said. “Something they won’t be expecting.”

“At the very least, an area with as little traffic as possible,” Siobhan added, doing her best to conceal the deep-seated fatigue that was beginning to make her dizzy.

“We could try to drill our way out somewhere new,” Parker offered, holding up his battle baton.

“Do you have enough charges to get through dozens of meters of stone?” Gerard asked. “Or the ability to cast the spell yourself?”

“I can cast it,” Parker said. “But it’s an energy hog. It will take me a while to make much progress.”

They all looked to Siobhan, then, but she just shook her head silently.

Anders hesitated. “Well, there is a small path that lets out right near the Charybdis Gulf. There’s a little ferry station near there for those who would rather take a more direct route from the city proper to the Lilies. But we would surely stand out in the Lilies. Erm, you, in particular, would stand out,” he said to Siobhan. “I don’t like our chances trying to escape through any of the eastern gates.”

“A ferry…” Siobhan mused. “Why not borrow a boat? There is no need to try to sneak through the Lilies. We could sail south through the Charybdis Gulf. We would be far enough from land to be safe from most attacks, and the sun will be setting in the next few hours. The dockworkers won’t be active then, and most of the fishermen will have retired for the evening. It seems we could be out of the city before our enemies have any idea, if we move in darkness. Even if the ferry is guarded, that should be fine as long as we act competently and move swiftly. I should think most guards unwilling to risk their lives against a clearly superior force.”

“Are we leaving the city for good?” Martha asked. “I have a life here. And what about the children?”

“Of course not,” Siobhan said. “We’ll rally and come back through the Mires in smaller groups. There is no way they can watch every back alley and side street.”

Parker nodded sagely. “The sun doesn’t set until eight-something this time of year. We might even have time to drill an exit right above the ferry itself. What do you think?” he asked Anders.

The man sighed deeply. “I think that I’m wishing I saved up more coin. I would have, if I had known we were going to have to go on the run. Bear’s food is expensive, and his potion regimen even more so.”

“Ah, we need to pick up my daughter, too,” Parker suddenly realized. “Or, do you think she’d be safer staying with her aunt? I don’t…”

Siobhan remained silent as the full implications of his agreement with her hit Parker.

He paled, turning slowly to her. “Um. I am realizing that I may have chosen my boon poorly, my lady.”

She stared at him, raising an eyebrow.

Parker swallowed. “My daughter is probably still safe to inherit the house, once you’ve taken back the deed. But… I mean, there’s no way it’s safe for her to stay there right now. And, umm, it might not be safe for her aunt to stay at her house, either. The High Crown will wonder if she has any information, and he’s already proven happy to kidnap people only vaguely connected to his enemies…”

“Your families may remain safe if they are willing to leave the city, or, perhaps, to join the ranks of the Nightmare Pack or the Verdant Stag. It is easy enough to provide safe places for them to stay, and allies to watch their backs, but I cannot safeguard them every moment of the day against an attack or kidnapping attempt. There are measures they could take to ensure a swift rescue attempt, but that does not equate to true safety.”

Parker did not seem particularly satisfied by this. “Could that change, if I made another pact with you? Perhaps, long term protection, in exchange for long term service from me? I can be useful.”

The praying woman let out a small, nonverbal exclamation.

Siobhan sighed, her right eye twitching a bit as dream-like phosphenes danced in her peripheral vision, always seeming just on the edge of creating a coherent image but never managing to do so. “Let us talk about this once the night is over. We cannot waste time dawdling.”

No one had voiced any objections to her plan, so Anders led the way, though his occasional arguments with Millennium over which direction to go and which of the myriad turns to take didn’t instill much confidence in the rest of the group. Their path alternated seemingly randomly between natural caves and pathways and shoddy tunnels carved by hand—nothing so uniform or polished as the tunnels controlled by the Pendragon operatives, or even what could be found under the University.

Siobhan made sure to keep her shadow around everyone and several times felt the distant scratches of divination attempts against her ward. The High Crown’s men could have been using a sympathetic link to any of them, though she thought the irritation was strongest around Parker and Anders. She sighed deeply as she considered the long-term ramifications of today’s kidnapping.

The enemy was willing to escalate, which didn’t bode well for the future.

Theo made a rude face, and Miles tilted back his chin to look down his nose at the copper-haired boy. “I bet the bad guys didn’t even have any trouble capturing you,” he muttered. “You were probably yelling and jumping about like a monkey and drawing all the attention to yourself.”

“That’s not true!” Theo said, eyes wide and mouth falling open as if he’d been mortally offended.

“Oh, yeah? Then why are all your people hurt so badly? Way worse than my people.”

Theo gasped with outrage. “That’s—I—well, obviously way more bad guys must have come after me than you! They probably thought you were such a big baby that it would be easy.”

Siobhan placed a hand on each of their heads. “Now is not the time,” she said simply. She turned to Enforcer Gerard. “I assume they attacked the Verdant Stag? Millennium told me how they came directly to Lynwood Manor for him. If not for his abilities, there likely would have been much more bloodshed. Is everyone alright?”

Gerard hesitated, giving Theo a pitying look.

Theo scowled and bit his lip, looking down at the floor.

Siobhan’s heart sank. ‘Something happened to Katerin.

But when Gerard spoke, it wasn’t what she expected. “The Lynwood boy actually…wasn’t wrong. Theo here tried to sneak out to roam the streets and see the show. He’s getting better at stealth and unconventional approaches, but we’d all heard him arguing with Katerin about being grounded, and were on the lookout.”

Theo’s shoulders hunched and his head sank even further.

“So we noticed his escape attempt, and we were chasing after him. It might actually have been a good thing, because the Pendragon operatives weren’t expecting that. We had already passed them before we even realized we were in danger.”

Miles looked at Gerard, then back to Theo, an uncharacteristically wide, sharp smile on his face that reminded Siobhan of Lord Lynwood. “Just like a monkey,” he repeated under his breath, but more than loud enough for everyone in the quiet tunnel to hear.

Theo stuck out his jaw belligerently and and crossed his arms, pressing further into Siobhan’s shadow-clothing. “Oh yeah? Well I’ve seen the Raven Queen summon the smartest and bestest raven in the city, known as Empress Regal. She probably wouldn’t come play with you even if you had fresh fruit in your hand.”

Miles shrugged nonchalantly, grabbing Siobhan’s free hand and swinging it. “The Raven Queen designed a spell especially for me, something no one else has. I use it every night when I sleep.”

“Oh yeah? Well, well, she’s told me stories about the Black Wastes and the nightmarish horrors that live there.” He spread his hands dramatically, fingers curled into claws. “And it’s all true. You’d probably be too scared and have nightmares to listen to her stories.”

Miles let out a single, low laugh of triumph. “That’s where you’re wrong. I can listen to any scary story I want, because I don’t dream anymore. Ever.”

Siobhan sighed. “Children,” she admonished.

Author Note 9/21: I mentioned a few months back in the Inner Circle newsletter that I hoped to hire an assistant to help manage some of my gigantic workload.

I’m ready to do that now. I’m looking for 1-2 people to join my team part time. If you’re interested, or you know someone who might be interested, there is more info here:

(And wouldn’t it be great if getting some help allowed me to write even a little bit quicker?)

Chapter 172 – Fear of the Dark


Month 4, Day 9, Friday

Siobhan and her duo of newly turned pseudo-allies, who she definitely did not trust but could not do without, moved quickly toward the cell holding the others. She didn’t pretend she could defeat the Pendragon operatives in battle, didn’t know her way through the tunnels, didn’t know any of the passwords, and didn’t want to have to try to take their thumbs and hope to somehow preserve their spit while needing to cast the password-divining spell on every locked door they came to. Yes, her new companions were essential. They also led the way.

Anders began to protest against going to rescue the other captives, but Parker stopped him, leaning in to murmur, “They were praying for her help, which is the whole reason she’s here in the first place. She can’t just leave them. She has honor.”

Anders motioned for them to stop, and they peeked around a corner.

Another two guards were keeping watch in front of a windowed door that presumably held her people.

Without Siobhan’s prompting, Anders gave Parker a significant look. “We have no choice. If we fail now, we cannot even hope for a clean death,” he murmured, his words barely a breath on the air.

Parker hesitated. “Maybe they could join us?”

Anders looked toward the ceiling for patience. “Johnson and Brown both had no qualms about securing their own positions by spilling the beans about your gambling. Do you remember the punishment for that?”

Parker’s mouth tightened.

“And we don’t have time to try and convince them and get into a loud, flashy fight. Besides,” he murmured, glancing over his shoulder at Siobhan. “I doubt the Raven Queen would appreciate being asked for even more boons.”

Siobhan shook her head silently.

“Besides,” Anders added even more quietly. “Better death by our hand, than whatever the Raven Queen would do to them. As soon as we let her out of the cell, it was already too late.”

“In this situation, they would do the same to us,” Parker admitted reluctantly. He gave a sharp nod, and then walked with Anders around the corner, approaching the other Pendragon men. As the guards greeted them with confusion, her new allies attacked without fanfare or warning.

It took them about four seconds to kill their previous coworkers, using spells for distraction—as the resplendent armor protected against it—while Anders drew out a stiletto dagger and slit the throat of one and punctured the armpit of the other. Both guards collapsed almost instantly from blood loss.

Siobhan was almost as surprised by the sudden and explosive violence as the other guards. She hadn’t wanted their deaths, exactly, but it was a price she was more than willing to pay. With them out of commission, the rest was simple.

Avoiding the quickly spreading pools of blood—so much blood, it seemed like the men should have been deflating like popped balloons with its loss—they opened the door to the cell.

The captives had been returned to the sensory-deprivation spell. Siobhan sent Anders and Parker in to help retrieve them while she watched for danger. “Move quickly,” she urged, feeling the passing of every second like nails on a chalkboard.

In less than half a minute, the Verdant Stag and Nightmare Pack captives were free again, confused and relieved, but willing to move as quickly as possible.

Parker stumbled, looking down at his chest. “They’ve noticed what we’re doing. The shift lead must have seen the cells unlocking.”

Anders nodded, reaching past his armor into his uniform jacket and pulling out a badge with the High Crown’s symbol, which must have been some sort of alarm or communication artifact. “Yep. Things just got a lot harder for us,” he said gravely.

The prisoners were much worse off than they had been, injured from the guards’ attacks. Gerard was burned, and his underwear tattered enough that he might have appreciated fake clothes, like her.

Enforcer Turner had a tourniquet around his leg, over the knee. He had been blown about by the Radiant explosion, it seemed, and his previously broken leg was now snapped in half at the shin, allowing the bottom half of his limb to flop sideways. He was awake, but trembling and pale. Without better treatment, he probably didn’t have long to live.

The praying woman’s hair had been burned half away, and blisters rose up over the area, white against pink skin. Her ear was half-melted, and she smiled only with the unburned side of her face, eyes shining eerily bright as she looked at Siobhan. “You came back for me,” she murmured. And then, louder, “I will follow you through the darkness, my queen. Let your enemies be my enemies, and of all that I have, a portion will be for you.”

Siobhan was taken aback once again by the woman and her strange, almost prayer-like words, but she didn’t have time to worry about it. She pointed to the Verdant Stag man whose name she didn’t know. “Carry Enforcer Turner. We’re going to retrieve our belongings, and then we are leaving. Move quickly,” she repeated. “And help each other.”

None of them hesitated, though Enforcer Fring helped to carry Turner, as it turned out the Verdant Stag man had several broken ribs.

“I hurt my knee,” Theo announced, pale faced to the point of greenness. “I can’t run.” The normally knobby joint was noticeably swollen, as big around as the boy’s thigh.

The praying woman picked up Theo on her back without hesitation. “I can run,” she informed Siobhan.

Millennium moved to Siobhan’s side, pressing a few inches into the darkness simulating a long skirt and cloak around her. “The whispers were right,” he said in a soft voice. “But I didn’t know it would be like this. I’m sorry. We don’t have much time if we want to get our things. And I think we’re going to need them, so we better hurry. I can hear blood and pain.”

Siobhan again ordered them to shoot fireballs into the cell, which she hoped would damage any blood or hair that she or any of the others may have left behind.

Jackal and Enforcer Gerard moved up to the front of the group with Anders and Parker, who led the way and explained what they were about to face. “All your belongings have been placed in the secondary armory. The one down here,” he clarified. “There are about ten more of us—of them—” he corrected quickly, looking at Siobhan, “—in the tunnels right now. Some reinforcements from up above. They know what we’re doing and will be prepared. The exits are all reinforced, and the shift lead will have activated the emergency locking procedures. There’s no way we’re getting out of here without the supplies to blast our way free.” He looked at Siobhan again. “Unless you have a way, my lady?”

She shook her head. “It is lucky our supplies are in the armory, then. One trip to retrieve everything we need.”

Siobhan moved just behind their vanguard, with the remainder of their group following behind her. Though she couldn’t fight directly, her shadow-familiar would be good for misdirection, and a shield of darkness might help to throw off the enemy’s aim.

They heard the sounds of frantic preparation from around the corner to the armory, and tiptoed closer on their bare feet. Borrowing a Conduit from Parker, Jackal used a strange esoteric spell that turned the surface of his palm into a reflective surface, and then snuck out his hand so that they could see, hopefully without being noticed.

As predicted, the double-doored armory was buzzing with men.

Technically, Siobhan’s group had more people, but four of them were either children or noncombatants, and most of the rest were injured in some way, as well as being unarmed and unarmored, against some of the best trained and supplied men in the country.

A whispered planning session took all of a minute, and then Anders drew a thin line across Parker’s forehead with his dagger. The wound immediately spilled a surprising amount of blood down the man’s face.

We are all little more than full-to-bursting sacks of blood mixed with a bit of meat and some bones,’ Siobhan thought idly. ‘Is there a soul, some part of the Will that escapes and remains coherent, or are we but biological artifacts, dependent upon the function of our form?’ Her full attention was drawn back to reality as Parker left cover, acting out a badly injured leg that forced him to brace himself on the wall and drag the appendage behind him.

“The Raven Queen escaped!” Parker called weakly. “She’s heading toward the upper exit, the one into the palace. I don’t know how she knew—” He broke down coughing as two other men rushed out to pull him to safety. “No time, no time!” he insisted. “You have to catch her before she gets there, they’re in danger. She’ll kill them all—”

After a hurried conversation, six of the men ran off in the direction Parker had indicated.

Siobhan waited what seemed like an excruciating amount of time, but really must have been no more than two or three minutes, for Parker to give the signal. He did so in the form of a concussive blast going off from within the armory.

Jackal, Gerard, and Anders rushed forward, throwing out spells as soon as they passed through the double doorway. Siobhan followed behind them, her beaked and tattered shadow-familiar moving beside her on one side, and a smaller humanoid shadow on the other side, making her only one target of three.

As soon as she got to the doorway and could see to do so, she sent the shadow-familiar’s nightmarish form shooting forward into the center of the room, again wafting off cold, looming higher and higher until it had to hunch over at the ceiling.

Anders killed one of the men with a knife through the eyeball, giving them the advantage in numbers.

She was gratified to see several of the enemy turn their attention toward her shadow instead of her allies, some of the energy from their spells inadvertently absorbed as they passed through its incorporeal form, which bolstered it even more. She had a moment to wonder where all the excess energy might be going, as the shadow could only get so black before the darkness was absolute, and she wasn’t expending the absorbed energy to make it larger or more complex. If anything, its form simply seemed to become more and more detailed and real, until even she could barely tell it was little more than an illusion.

One-armed, Gerard lifted a smaller man by his waist, flipping him head-down and legs up before smashing him against the ground once, twice, and a third time, just to make sure he was totally dead.

One of few remaining Pendragon operatives shot some sort of withering curse at Siobhan’s shadow-familiar, which of course passed right through, but managed to hit his only remaining ally on the other side of the room, knocking the man off his feet and completely tarnishing and cracking the resplendent chest plate.

Siobhan sent a half dozen ravens shooting out of the shadow-familiar, attached by almost invisible threads of darkness, some to add to the confusion, but most to “attack” the remaining Pendragon operatives. Their cold touch worked admirably as a distraction, and her allies had little trouble killing the remaining men.

Parker pulled himself up from where he had been hiding in the corner under a kite shield sized for a giant. He gazed sadly at one of the men. “What a shame. I liked Murphy,” he said. “He didn’t retaliate, even after I got him sent to the sensory deprivation punishment for two days straight.”

Anders threw him an inscrutable look, but was already moving for the metal lockers standing against one of the walls, while the praying woman began to loot the bodies.

Siobhan recognized her satchel atop one of the tables at the back of the room, displayed carefully along with a few dozen other items that must have belonged to the others. With a quick nod of reassurance over her shoulder, she hurried forward. Their clothes were all in a jumbled pile inside a crate to the side of the tables, and she grabbed them all and shoved as much as she could fit into her satchel. They didn’t have time to dress, yet, but she didn’t want to leave anything of theirs for the enemy.

The High Crown’s men hadn’t discovered the secret compartment in her satchel, it seemed, as everything inside was still intact and undisturbed.

The artifacts that she had rented from Liza—useful against some of the more common curses that her warding medallion might not prevent—were set inside a series of Shipp’s evidence boxes, one box for each piece of jewelry. Siobhan retrieved those, but hesitated before putting them on again. Her warding medallion could protect against quite a lot, and she had resolved to be more cautious in the interest of avoiding regrets. There was one particular outcome of this day that would remain unacceptable even if she herself escaped safely.

She turned to the children. “Millennium, Theo,” she called. “Wear these, and stick together. If you’re close enough they should protect you both.”

The boys argued over who would get to wear which piece until Enforcer Gerard snapped at them. Theo took Siobhan’s lace parasol as a walking stick.

In addition to their own belongings, her people retrieved everything they could carry, as well as a few extra artifacts—the ones that wouldn’t be tracked—and battle philtres meant to supply the guards.

Perhaps most critically, they liberated a dozen high-strength healing potions from a small rack. The vials glowed with the tell-tale luminescence of the Plane of Radiance, almost mesmerizing in their promise as they swirled with clean light.

At Siobhan’s encouragement, everyone with serious injuries downed one, and Enforcer Turner took two while Gerard splinted his lower leg, leaving just two healing potions for future emergencies.

The potion burned as it filled Siobhan’s mouth and shot down to her stomach. After a moment of hesitation, it shot through her veins in a rush, as if it had been injected directly into her heart. Energy from the Plane of Radiance was not gentle. But it left her scoured and cleansed from the inside, most of her injuries abraded away.

The potion had been too weak, or she’d sustained too many injuries, to fix everything. She could feel it tugging futilely at her abdomen, bone literally shifting against flesh and the resistance of her harness and corset. Even so, the pain in her muscles was now only a general stiffness, her ribs hurt in a different, slightly less severe way than before, and her ankle took her weight easily. Her right eye still burned a little, but the feeling of pressure had lessened, and her cheek was no longer swollen and tenderized like a hammered steak.

Most importantly, her head was clearer, and the invisible bison that had been stomping on it was now only a roe deer. Healing potions could not completely fix Will-strain. The magic may have simply run out before getting all the way through her head injuries, but the continued slight dizziness and difficulty concentrating suggested the problem was deeper.

Her bracelets were there at the bottom of the clothes box, every one of them carelessly broken. She stared for a moment, wondering if that was a good thing—since they wouldn’t have been able to use them to track down her allies once the magic was spent—or a bad thing, because of the panic it might cause. Even Damien had one or two ward bracelets.

Siobhan’s watch was missing, but on Parker’s embarrassed suggestion, they found it in the pocket of one of the dead guards. She must have lost more time to the sensory-deprivation spell than she expected, as it was already after five. Ennis’s sentencing would have already started, and if nothing was going wrong, Gera, Tanya, and Liza would have already done their parts, or be about to complete them any minute.

With her mind clearer, an important question rose up. “Did your people take samples of blood or hair from those they kidnapped?”

Anders pointed to a sealed iron safe in the corner, which reminded Siobhan of the one Malcolm Gervin had kept. “We can’t open it without the captain.”

Siobhan sighed, then palmed a chunk of wax and moved to write a stone-disintegration spell on the side of the metal, slightly modified to better suit the material. “Whoever among you has the highest capacity, come drill through.”

Anders, Jackal, and surprisingly enough the praying woman all agreed to joint-cast the spell, which Anders added an entire extra ring of written explanation to. Most people didn’t have a lot of experience with minimalist spell arrays, Siobhan supposed, and it was best to mitigate risk when joint-casting.

They got through the metal in less than a minute, but the wards remained active, creating a magical barrier that began where the metal stopped.

Gerard picked up one of the brilliant dropped swords and stabbed into the hole the other three had created, activating some sort of piercing spell over and over. The magic was powerful enough to create a high-pitched ringing sound and a puff of air with every activation, but the safe’s wards remained steadfast. When the sword ran dry without having overcome the wards, he rifled through the supplies to find a round artifact the size of a fist. He shoved that into the hole, activated it, then hurriedly poured a vial of liquid stone over the outside to seal the hole.

There was a muffled explosion, the hardened stone crumbled away, and the hole revealed hot, twisted metal and a clear opening to the contents within. The praying woman carefully reached her arm through and opened the safe’s door from the inside.

They found about a dozen rather nice Conduits, a tray of the rare rectangular gold bars worth an insane one hundred gold crowns each, and a tray of berserker potions that could temporarily increase a soldier’s performance at the cost of several serious side-effects and a high chance of addiction.

They also found one of Bragg’s glass evidence boxes filled with small ampoules of blood and strands of hair. That, Siobhan had them open, incinerate, and then cast the shedding-disintegration spell on.

All the rest was poured into her weight-reducing satchel, though she had no intention of using a berserker potion herself, nor allowing anyone she cared about to do so. But it was best not to leave them for the enemy. Normally, she would have been giddy with the sudden influx of wealth, but minutes had already passed, and there were more pressing concerns. “Is there a map?” she asked. “We cannot come out the way we came in.”

“There’s a map in the shift lead’s office…but he’s probably barricaded in there,” Parker said.

“I am fairly certain I could find a different way out,” Anders offered distractedly. “My pa worked around here when I was a kid, at the freshwater docks that run through from the north, and as a canal runner before that. I spent a lot of time running the tunnels. I can think of three different possible paths out from here.”

“I can help too,” Millennium offered. “We should go that direction, first,” he said, pointing off to the side in almost the opposite direction that the other Pendragon operatives had run off toward.

Anders nodded with surprise. “Yes, that would probably be best. It will be blocked off, of course, but we can blast our way through.”

Siobhan didn’t have time to hesitate. “Let us go,” she ordered.

They moved as quickly as they could, and not a moment too soon, as the sound of running boots and angry, urgent shouting echoed down the hallways behind them.

The stone-carved corridors alternated between darkness and light for no reason that Siobhan could discern, with Anders and Miles leading them on a seemingly random, winding route toward their destination.

Young Enforcer Turner had more color in his cheeks and the strength to support some of his weight on his one good leg, but even two healing potions hadn’t fixed his injury. It appeared that the High Crown was not splurging sufficiently on the healthcare of his employees.

Gerard and Fring each threw one of Turner’s arms over their shoulders, and thus carried most of the younger, smaller man’s weight between them.

As they got closer to their destination, the halls were more often dark, the stone walls carved more roughly. Finally, they stopped in front of a huge iron plug—not a door, for there was no way to open it nor pass by—blocking off a side tunnel. “That’s the way we need to go,” Anders murmured, panting.

“A stone disintegration spell would be quietest, but some blasting or slicing spells would be quickest,” she said. “How thick is the iron?”

“I do not know, my lady,” Anders admitted. “Surely not more than a foot thick. Perhaps less.”

As their enemy rounded a corner two hallways down, with a lensed lantern sending a bright, directed beam of light their way, the decision was made for them. “Battle spells it is,” she said, stepping forward away from the group. “Go through the stone to the side.”

As Gerard snapped orders for those who couldn’t fight to press against the walls and the small alcove containing the iron blockage, Siobhan reached into her satchel with her free hand, drew out two sets of a particular potion by feel, and took the deepest possible breath against her corset, ignoring the shifting of her bones as she did so.

The operatives had gained more reinforcements again, called back from wherever they had been, but in the narrow space of the hallway their numbers made less difference.

Using her teeth to pop the cork, Siobhan downed one potion, immediately feeling a tad nauseous as her stomach began to roil. Smoke almost as black as her shadow-familiar immediately billowed up from her stomach and out of her open mouth and nostrils, and as she exhaled, it roiled off of her breath, expanding with every second until it filled the hallway around her.

Then, she threw the second philtre toward the enemy. Her shadow-familiar grew weak again in the complete darkness, pulling on the heat between her fingers for warmth. She was almost distracted from maintaining it as knowledge of her surroundings unfurled somewhere deep within her, in a part of her mind that she normally used on instinct, only rarely acknowledging it deliberately.

These were her latest iteration of a philtre of darkness mixed with the proprioception potions. As long as they lasted—only a couple minutes—she would know everything within the touch of the magical clouds, and, less importantly, within the confines of the three remaining bottles within her satchel.

Concussive blasts, piercing, and drilling spells screamed out behind her, one layered over the other in a cacophony of sound and rumbling tremors through the stone her allies were attempting to break through.

From the front, screams and muffled grunts overlapped as the Pendragon operatives fought through the sudden disorientation, shooting spells through the clouds of darkness. Most weren’t aimed well enough to do damage, but soon enough the enemy realized the nature of her trick and used a continuous blast of wind to blow away the magical particles creating the darkness.

Smoke continued to bubble up from Siobhan’s mouth and nose, and from the floor where the philtre had broken, but the wind blew it away. She leaned into the force of the gale, snarling at the enemy. Her shadow strengthened with the return of the bright light from their lensed lantern, and she sent it up to the ceiling of the tunnel.

“Your screams will echo in the void!” she bellowed at them, the sound echoing and rippling as it left her throat, distorted by the philtre like the scream of a whale from deep in the ocean. The words meant nothing, really, just the first things that came to her mind.

She had used a free-writing potion to create a cryptic, ominous note for the Edictum Council, another piece of the purposefully sown confusion. Here, too, she wanted to sow confusion and distract the enemy’s attention, and so she repeated some of the words in a philtre-warbled scream that scratched at her throat.

“My eyes see nothing but a fortune of dust.”

Upside down, her shadow-familiar skittered along the stone like a spider under the effects of a fleet-foot potion.

The enemies fired desperately at the ceiling, only adding to the deafening reverberations and making Siobhan worry that perhaps the tunnel would collapse and kill them all.

Her shadow dropped into their midst, swiping at their heads with claw-like hands trailing frozen mist, and drawing almost all of their spell-fire, which again only strengthened her shadow and caused them to inadvertently harm each other. The spell-fire and light from the lensed lantern flashed and jittered, illuminating the tunnel in irregular flares and bursts. With every moment of vision, her shadow-familiar was revealed in a new pose, like an animated drawing in a flip-book missing intermittent pages.

Even she could admit that it looked quite frightening, and the sensation of cold probably created the illusion of physical touch that must have added to the enemies’ alarm. But it would still be very difficult for her to actually harm someone with that mild heat absorption. Even with her improvements, the shadow-familiar was basically harmless.

“Empty bellies and sharp teeth, and payment in bone!” she shrieked, before descending into a rattling coughing fit that forced extra air through her Circled hand. Despite the way her eyes watered, she forced them to remain open.

Several of the men dropped to the ground and tried to crawl away from her shadow-familiar’s attacks, their eyes devoid of coherence, hot panic spilling from their panting mouths. They displayed none of the training they had undergone for the honor of becoming one of the High Crown’s personal guard. One man lay still on the ground, very much alive but staring wide-eyed at nothing.

In the face of enough terror, people often lose all that separates them from animals.’ Grandfather had told her this, and she had seen it to be true more than once.

In the confusion, one overpowered fireball spell headed Siobhan’s way, aimed almost perfectly to crash into the children huddling in the shallow alcove behind her, hands over their ears and faces tucked into their knees. It probably wasn’t even aimed deliberately.

Siobhan’s Will crushed down on reality, slowing her perception of time as she poured all of her remaining focus into reacting.

She stepped back and to the side, carefully gauging the angle of the medallion under her corset in relation to the center of the fireball. As the fireball approached, filling her vision with its ever-expanding, devouring light, she took a single step forward to meet it, her free hand held out to ensure her perfect balance as she smoothly pivoted toward the wall.

The medallion slowed the fireball and shunted it into that same wall, where it impacted with splashing flames and enough force to send Siobhan stumbling back. Her mind spun as she desperately gripped the shadow-familiar to ensure she didn’t lose control on it, drawing it back to its place at her feet.

Beautiful sparks floated in the vision of her right eye, the one that had been smashed against the wall from the Radiant explosive. She blinked, but they didn’t go away, calling insistently for her attention. A tear ran down her cheek, and when she instinctively wiped it away, her fingertips came away bloody. “Oh, that’s not good,” she murmured. She could barely hear herself over the screams from the enemy and the breaking stone behind her, but she thought her was voice beginning to return to normal as the philtre petered out.

I must have burst one of those little vessels in the sclera.’ Her chest burned once again with the sudden ice-cold chill of the medallion, glued to her skin by the sweat it had frozen. She could only hope that this repeated use wouldn’t leave any suspicious scars.

“We’re almost through!” Enforcer Gerard yelled behind her.

A few of the enemy were still up and fighting, and they grouped together into a tight formation, shields on either end, and began to move forward.

Siobhan shot a few spells from her battle wand, joined quickly by Turner and, surprisingly, both Martha and the praying woman with their stolen battle wands, but nothing made it past the Pendragon operatives’ shields.

Siobhan sent out her shadow-familiar once more, allowing it to rise up from the floor behind the enemies. It broke into a dozen ravens, rushing through their tight formation with wings trailing cold, and coalesced around the man in front. Her shadow-familiar lunged at his head, drawing the heat from his skin as it pretended to claw at his face.

She shrank its head down as it pressed into the man’s wide-eyed, deeply horrified face, giving the illusion of it squeezing itself impossibly into his screaming mouth.

Understandably, he panicked, flailing backward and dropping the shield to claw at her shadow.

It, of course, ignored all his attempts, squeezing and shrinking into his eyes, nose, and ears until it was gone.

Of course, it wasn’t gone, nor was it inside him, but none of the enemies noticed the small thread of darkness Siobhan had shrunk it down to return to her side.

The man clawed bloody furrows into his skin, trying to force his entire fist into his mouth as if he could grab her shadow by the tail and drag it back out. All the while, he continued to scream himself hoarse, the sound going on and on until he ran out of breath and choked himself with his own hand down his throat. As he convulsed, gagging and spilling bile down his neck and chest, his colleagues watched on in horror.

Then, one of them pointed their battle wand at him and stepped back warily. This set the tone of their response, and as Siobhan backed toward the jagged hole in the wall her people had created and climbed through quite awkwardly, she drew one more philtre of darkness from her satchel, took a small sip of it, and then dropped it just behind the hole.

She would know when the enemy followed, if they did so within the next couple minutes.

With a deep sigh of relief, she caught herself on the rough stone wall of the low, narrow tunnel. She took a few panting breaths to steady herself, taking stock of the pain in her head and the tremor in her Will.

The rest of the former captives stood huddled together in the light of a stolen lantern, all staring silently at her.

“What is it?” she said.

Several of them flinched at the sound of her voice, which was once again distorted oddly by the philtre. The praying woman was smiling at her with almost insane fervency.

Siobhan shook her head, decided to remain silent to keep from frightening anyone, and motioned for the group to hurry forward.

They complied with alacrity, and she brought up the rear.

I’ve been working toward this chapter for so long, and have done so many passes to make it as good as possible. I hope you guys enjoy it!

Seeing a locked chapter that should be unlocked?:

Edit 8/3: I did another of my standard iteration passes to this chapter and some of the previous ones to better weave in an understanding of the Pendragon Corps. And in doing so, as always seems to happen I had an idea about something that I was struggling to figure out a dozen+ chapters later, and I seeded in the fix for it here.

I hate to need to update things I’ve already released, but I hope you guys will enjoy it as a sneak peek into my writing process. These plots are just too complicated for me to keep everything in my head at once despite extensive planning, so this is how the looping, iterative process works.

Chapter 171 – Infernal Covenants


Month 4, Day 9, Friday

From her knees, Siobhan fell back into a seated position, crossing her legs and ignoring the pain from her ankle. ‘At least I realized in time how stupid I was being. I didn’t actually do it. But obviously I need to reassess my decisions. Is this abnormally impaired judgement, or am I just that foolish?

Will-strain started with headaches, dizziness, and difficulty concentrating. More severely, it caused impaired judgment, difficulty modulating the strength of one’s emotions, and rapid mood swings. After that, hallucinations, paranoia, and actions that caused harm to the thaumaturge themself or those around them. Beyond that, Will-strain damage was irreversible.

So, perhaps I am in the middling stage, or perhaps a concussion can mimic the effects. Or perhaps this room is cursed somehow to keep me from having the wherewithal to come up with a successful escape plan. It’s even possible there is some sort of compulsion or curse acting against me.’ In any case, it was clear that she needed to come up with a better strategy.

Have I been going in the wrong direction from the beginning? Should I even be trying to escape right now?’ The question seemed absurd, but she didn’t feel like she could trust her instincts at the moment. If she didn’t escape, “the captain” was going to come.

If she was correct about where she was being held—in a network of tunnels carved out of the white cliffs beneath Pendragon Palace—it was going to be one of the High Crown’s men. She might even meet the High Crown himself. They would want the book. Torture was a viable threat.

Of course, Siobhan would give up the book’s location immediately—Grandfather had impressed upon her that it was impossible to withstand torture forever, and best to just avoid it entirely. No information was worth her life. The only reason she would refuse to speak is if she thought she would be killed as soon as she did.

Which…might be a possibility. Siobhan rubbed her chin with her free hand. The coppers didn’t know she was here, and her allies most likely didn’t, either. Perhaps she could give up false information, or try to bargain for her release, but success seemed unlikely.

Even if they were somehow willing to turn her over to the coppers instead of dealing with the threat she posed and executing her themselves, all that awaited her was a trial for blood magic and treason, which would sentence her to death, probably by public execution.

So,’ she determined. ‘Escape really is my best option. And quickly. I’ve lost time with this foolishness, but I still may be able to do something.

She was injured and had no way to do anything about it. Her light-refinement spell wasn’t the kind of thing that brought quick results, and with her physical state she wouldn’t even be able to complete the necessary motions. The flesh-mirroring spell would require a spell array, but also a clarity of Will and level of power that she didn’t feel safe attempting.

Rather than trying to escape with the force of her magic, she needed someone to let her out.

She had access to two guards, at least one of whom had been willing to talk at her. They were frightened, obviously. She had to find a way to manipulate or bargain with them, to convince them to set her free.

Maybe the reputation of the Raven Queen could come in handy.

But she would need to be quick-witted and silver-tongued, neither of which she felt confident in at the moment. Both her wits and her tongue were more prone to getting her into trouble than out of it. If things went wrong, the guards might retaliate. Siobhan didn’t think she could withstand another of those Radiant bombs.

She thought through all of the steps to her plan first, and when she was sure she was ready, she stood and returned to the shaded window, pressing close to it in an attempt to see out through squinted eyes.

Both guards were watching her, pressed against the wall on the other side of the hallway.

She angled her head down so they couldn’t see, and with only one hand in a Circle over her mouth and a slow, whispered chant, re-cast the shadow-familiar spell.

Her shadow stretched up and over her once more, black as the pit and with access to all the power she would need to stretch for whole city blocks. It reached out to cover the little pane of reinforced glass.

The guards began to shout.

“What are you doing?” the smaller one, Parker, called, his voice pitched high in distress.

“We have to sound the alarm!” the taller one snapped.

Siobhan pushed her shadow through the window. There was no reason that light, or the absence of light, should be stopped by glass. And regardless of whatever wards the room might have to stop power or energy from passing its boundaries, unlike most spells her shadow-familiar was the absence of those things.

Both of them shot fireballs at the door, which licked harmlessly through her shadow and against the other side of the cell door. These were followed by a quick barrage of slicing spells, concussive blasts, and even some strange-colored spells that she couldn’t recognize.

It was slightly more effective than it might have seemed, as the sudden influx of energy threw her off balance for a moment. Thankfully, she recovered quickly, without further damage to her Will. Of course her shadow was completely unaffected, though she let it seethe with hints of beaks, feathers, and claws.

“Oh, Radiant Maiden, protect us,” Parker murmured.

“I’ll get backup,” the bigger guard breathed, his voice barely audible through the door between them.

“Wait,” she called, her voice loud, commanding, and clear.

The footsteps that had only just begun to recede stopped immediately as the guard stopped obligingly, and Parker pressed himself against the wall so hard it seemed like he hoped to sink into the stone.

She hadn’t expected them to actually listen to her, but this was even better. She didn’t need to rush, so she could be cinematic.

More darkness dribbled down the side of the door, thick and three-dimensional, and when it reached the floor, rose up again into a familiar form. Taller than any man, and inhumanly thin. Long, sharp-beaked darkness peeked out from underneath the hood of a tattered cloak, fluttering in an intangible wind. Skeletal, too-long fingers that came to sharp points raised toward both guards, palms outward.

“Stop there,” she commanded, “and listen.”

No footsteps sounded, so the escaping guard must have complied.

“There are many rumors about me. Have you heard that I am honorable, aiding those who deserve it and harming only my enemies?”


“Do not be afraid. You may speak without fear of retribution.”

A few more seconds passed, and then Parker responded in a halting tone. “I—I have heard that.”

“Shut up!” the other guard snapped. “You’re giving her what she wants!”

“Giving her what? She makes bargains. She can’t steal your soul just from talking to you.” In a softer voice, which perhaps he thought she couldn’t hear, Parker said, “And there’s no way we can outrun the creature of Night itself. It could cross the whole hallway in the blink of an eye, I’ve heard. We need to keep her happy, Anders. Buy some time at least. If she’s talking, she’s not cursing or killing.”

Anders spat on the floor. “I don’t get paid enough for this shit,” he mumbled. Then, louder, he said, “I have heard of your honorable nature as well as your tenacious malevolence towards those who anger you.”

Siobhan rolled her eyes behind the cover of shadow. “Have you heard that I cannot tell a lie?” She paused a few seconds, but when they didn’t reply, continued. “May my word be my bond. As of now, I do not consider you my enemies. I dislike harming the innocent. As long as you do not attempt further harm to me, that will continue to be the case. If you attempt to harm me, or to stop me, I will have no choice but to act against you.”

“T-to stop you from doing what?” Parker asked.

“Leaving, of course.”

“That’s impossible.”

She laughed, pressing closer to the glass so that she could see Anders and direct her shadow. This forced her injured cheek to press painfully against the barrier, and her eye protested the slight increase of pressure, but the pain was a necessary price to pay. “Do you really believe that?” she asked.

The part of her shadow outside the cell flashed past Anders, appearing again just behind him. It was connected to her with a line of shadow so thin it would be hard to notice. With a bit of Will and a partial splitting of her attention, she pulled heat from the air around that section alone, causing an ominous fog to roll off of its form while leaving her quite warm.

It loomed forward over Anders from behind, then let the backs of its too-long fingers trail over his cheek, sucking the warmth from the surface of his skin.

Anders stared ahead, wide-eyed and as pale as a corpse. His knees trembled badly, on the verge of collapse.

Parker whimpered.

“I assure you, this room does not work as you hoped it might,” she said. The shadow-familiar spell was perhaps her most practiced of any piece of magic she knew, and thus one of the easiest to control. But even so, the strain of holding two detailed and three-dimensional forms in her mind, one a few meters away and absorbing heat, was difficult in her state. If her Will were an eggshell, the pressure would have been putting hairline cracks through it, every moment moving her closer to the threat of implosion. “Your boss’s information about my abilities was severely lacking,” she added.

“W-what do you want from us?” Parker asked, his voice breaking.

“It is very simple. Step forward,” she commanded.

Anders seemed like he wanted to hesitate, but when her shadow-familiar pressed into his back, he stumbled forward quickly until he stood beside Parker in front of her door.

Her shadow followed, and its proximity eased the strain somewhat.

“I want you to open this door.” She waited on metaphorical tenterhooks for their response. She was botching this conversation, she knew, but Ennis had always handled the talking. This was not her area of expertise.

“I can’t do that,” Anders said.

Siobhan’s jaw clenched. “I need your thumbs, and your saliva. You may provide it for me, which I would prefer. If you do not, I will be forced to take your thumbs and saliva.”

Parker looked up at her shadow-familiar, which was tall enough to almost reach the ceiling, its huge, curved beak pointed down at them as its tattered cloak fluttered in an invisible wind. He closed his eyes in resignation. “We most truly cannot, my lady. We have sworn a vow of loyalty. The repercussions—”

“A blood print vow?” she interrupted.

Parker opened his eyes. “Yes.”

“That is no trouble. They are far from infallible. Do you know how they work? It is quite possible to circumvent them. As you are likely aware, the coppers have some of my blood as well, and yet have been completely unable to locate me despite their best efforts.”

Anders and Parker shared a look that she couldn’t decipher.

“As you may also be aware, I am able to give out certain…boons. If you wish to be free of your employers’ grasp, that is a simple enough order, and seems a reasonable exchange for the danger.”

“But you don’t know the passkey,” Anders said. He did not sound very confident about that statement.

“I can pluck it from your minds.” Her shadow-familiar lifted its slender, pointed digits and wriggled them. “Though you would find the process unpleasant, I am sure.” Her shadow-familiar looked to her, tilting its head to the side in a questioning stance that was as eager as she could make it, leaking foggy wisps of darkness that took the shape of ravens for only a moment before dissolving back into nothing.

Anders stumbled sideways into Parker, who let out an actual shuddering sob. “Please, please, don’t.”

Siobhan’s shadow-familiar settled, looking back at them. “Freedom from a blood print vow is not the only boon I can offer,” she said. “That, and one other, for each of you. But you must decide quickly, or by your very hesitation, you will be stealing time from me, and that will make you my enemy.”

Parker clasped his hands together, fingers woven through each other to squeeze out the trembling. Two seconds passed before he spoke. “I owe a debt, and the deed to my house is held by another. Can you kill him and get it back for me?”

“It is possible, though his death may not be necessary,” she replied immediately. “It would be just as simple to repay the debt, if he is a good man.”

“He’s not,” Parker asserted.

“You can’t be actually thinking of going along with this!” Anders hissed.

“I’m not about to die just to delay her a couple seconds longer,” Parker replied, his voice trembling but sure. “I have a daughter.”

“And you, Anders?” she asked. “Tell me your greatest desire, and if it is within my power, I will mold the world to align. But there is no more time. You must choose now.”

“It is treason,” he said heavily, looking at Parker.

“I want to live,” Parker replied simply. “And I want a future for my daughter.”

Anders hesitated for only a moment longer. “My dog. He’s missing an eye and a leg, for a long time now. And he’s getting older. I don’t want him to die. He’s a good dog, and he deserves more. Can you make him healthy and young again?”

She didn’t bother to hold back her smile of triumph. “I cannot make him young, but I can make him healthy. And whole. With the right resources, I imagine we could extend his life for quite a long time. Some might even say an absurdly long time.”

“And will you actually do that?” he asked, eyes narrowed.

“The deed to his house, and an enemy subdued, for Parker. For you, healing and longevity for your dog. I will do all in my power to fulfill these boons, without attempt to subvert their meaning, in exchange for your service this day, and your neutrality going forward. My word is my bond.”

“So mote it be!” Parker piped up, grim-faced and white-knuckled as he used an ancient phrase to seal the pact.

And so the guards opened the door for her.

As she limped through an invisible barrier over the doorway that scraped unpleasantly at her skin like thousands of fingernails, her shadow-familiar returned, melding into one piece. It disguised her features as well as the fact that she was bare-legged, wearing only a corset, though it couldn’t disguise the signs of injury in the way she moved.

She turned back to look at the featureless, shining room. Some of her blood had been smeared on the floor, and though the surface was smooth enough that there was no visible trace after she had wiped it up, that didn’t mean that absolutely none of her was left behind. They couldn’t spare the time to clean things properly, but she was less concerned than she might have been in other circumstances.

The magic of the room had some obvious destructive effects. Even if that didn’t make whatever trace amounts of her were left unviable for divination, and Lord Pendragon could manage to find said traces and a thaumaturge with enough clarity and power to actually use such a small amount as a component, as long as Operation Palimpsest went well, they might not even bother. With what she had planned, even an idiot would realize that trying to use sympathetic magic against her was a dead end.

Still, she turned to the guards. “Fireball the floor,” she ordered. Parker complied immediately. As the backlash of heat blew her hair around, she said, “As I doubt the High Crown will take kindly to your betrayal, if you want to live you will come with me and fight by my side.”

Anders nodded, grip firm around his huge battle wand, but Parker seemed stunned by his own betrayal.

“We are going to rescue the other captives,” she said. “Hurry, there is not much time.”

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The PGTS series:

Chapter 170 – The Heart of the Sun


Month 4, Day 9, Friday

Siobhan may have blacked out for a moment—maybe more than once—as the world spun with strange incoherent imagery and flashes of light and darkness, a song from the void reaching out to her with velvet tendrils.

Rough hands on her arms and around her waist, making her abdomen moan out in pain. The Pendragon’s guards terrified eyes matched with gritted teeth as they met her gaze for a moment. A fist in her hair, yanking her neck to the side until her spine sent out twinkling, twinging signs of warning. A swirling sickness as she was thrown into the heart of the sun and came down hard on its surface.

When she stopped wavering in and out of reality, someone was keening ferally, mournfully, warbling notes to some distant song.

As she ran out of air, she realized the sound was her own incoherent moan of confusion and pain. She forced herself to stop, even though she was pretty sure the impact on the black sapphire Conduit under the pressure of her corset had broken at least one of her ribs.

Her head ached like an invisible bison was stamping on it again, and again, and again. Concussion, certainly. Will-strain, possibly. How was one to distinguish the two when it got to this point?

Her body was even more battered and bruised than before, but it was hard to take stock of her injuries beyond the pounding of her skull and the aching claws clenching in her side with every breath.

The draw on her divination-diverting ward had stopped entirely.

Siobhan kept her eyes closed against the light and twitched her fingers. The ones of her left hand were in bad shape, smashed twice against the wall. But her right hand was fine. She reached up and touched her face. Her nose was, surprisingly, not broken or even bleeding. Her right cheekbone and the bottom of her eye socket bloomed with pain at the slightest pressure. The skin was raw, and her eye itself was filled with a strange, aching burn. She reached back and touched the back of her skull, which had a growing lump and a small wet spot of blood. She licked the blood off her finger, swallowing it along with the sudden pool of nauseated saliva in her mouth.

Her features were all in the right place, and neither her face nor her skull had caved in.

She shifted, holding back a broken whimper, and managed to rise to her hands and knees, stabilizing herself drunkenly as the world spun around her. It was too bright to open her eyes. She could see the searing white light even through the pinkness of her closed eyelids. Even ducking her head down away from the ceiling and walls didn’t ease her discomfort.

Her medallion was burning horribly cold against her chest, so it had either just wrenched itself dry and melted out yet another protective spell by blocking that Radiant explosive, or it was protecting her from something at that very moment. Perhaps both.

Her left ear was bleeding. She wiped the fluid on her corset. Even when the situation seemed dire, it didn’t do to get sloppy and start leaving your blood everywhere. That was what had gotten her into this in the first place. The thought sent her into a paroxysm of strangled giggles that just made everything worse. She couldn’t hear like she should on the left side, even as the ringing in her other ear was beginning to subside.

Even when she put a hand over her face to protect her eyes from the searing light, it was still too bright to open them. She was pretty sure that wasn’t from the concussion, though her condition might be making it worse. Despite the foolishness of casting magic in such a state, and especially after what just happened, she crouched down with her face pressed to her knees, forehead against the floor—so that what she was doing was less likely to be noticed—and brought her hands together in front of her mouth again.

She knew it was dangerous, but she was desperate. If she couldn’t even see, what chance did she have to escape? She clenched down her Will without channeling any power first, assessing its weight and coherence. It was tremulous, weaker than normal. She chanted slowly and deliberately, allowing power to trickle through the air of the Circle and into her shadow.

It made the throb in her brain worse, and she had a moment where things spun dizzily, but she maintained control though the end of the whispered chant. Her shadow was tiny, scattered to small patches over her own body, but none against the ground, even where she was pressed directly against it. But there was so much power available, the air between her fingers didn’t even grow cold.

Her head settled into a slightly worse ache, and she knew she couldn’t do anything strenuous, but this much, at least, didn’t seem to be driving her insane.

She attempted to keep her shadow’s appearance as normal as possible, purposefully going against the spell’s nature to keep from absorbing all of the light. She brought darkness up from the space between her torso and her legs, up from her armpits and between her thighs, out from the gap between her tongue and the roof of her mouth, wrapping it over her eyes in a hair-thin band that pressed flush against her flesh and widened over her pupils. She increased the drain of light over her eyes more, and more, and then even further until she was finally able to open them.

She lifted her head and looked around.

She was in a small square room, perhaps three meters across, with light shining from every inch of the walls themselves. Even the floor was glowing.

She checked for any lost drops of blood from her ear, first. She found a couple on the floor. Maneuvering her battered hand carefully, she repeated the same trick from earlier and shrank the Circle of her fingers until she could free one hand. She used it to wipe up the drops of blood and swallow them, despite the nausea. She wished she could cast the shedding-destroyer spell, but she had nothing to draw out even that simple spell array with. Nothing except her own blood, which rather seemed like it would defeat the purpose.

She stood and limped to the door that had been at her back. It, too, was glowing, and sat flush and almost seamless with the wall. A single dark pane of glass sat at head-height, an artificially darkened window, reinforced with bands of steel and barely the size of her head.

She pressed her face to the window, close enough so that she could see out into the relative darkness of the hallway.

Two guards were posted outside. She recognized the first as the one that had been screaming before. He had a name that started with “P,” but she was too woozy to search her memories for exactness. The second was one of those who had come back with reinforcements. They were the ones who had cast fireball spells to push back the prisoners and make room for the Radiant explosive.

Both were wide-eyed, their battle wands up as if she would somehow break through the door.

She angled her face against the glass, looking to the side. There was a similar locking device embedded in the wall outside this cell as the one before.

The smaller of the two guards spoke, only slightly muffled by the door between them. “You’re trapped! Don’t try anything funny, we know you can’t use your powers in that environment.”

That didn’t make any sense. If anything, this environment was wonderful, great for both her shadow-familiar and her light-refinement spells. And if she could draw a spell array, she would have plenty of power to sacrifice. But if she understood the situation correctly, this room had been created to imprison her, specifically. There must have been some rumor that the Raven Queen was weak to light, unable to use whatever strange powers she possessed outside of darkness. It fit, she supposed, thematically. Luckily, this wasn’t a story, and the Raven Queen didn’t have to adhere to storybook rules.

Siobhan’s mouth fell into a lopsided grin under the Circle of her fingers, and she swallowed again as her mouth filled with nauseated saliva.

“The captain will be here soon, and he’ll deal with you harshly if you attempt anything dangerous,” the screamer said.

“How soon?” she asked, her voice a little hoarse.

Both of guards startled slightly, as if they hadn’t expected her to be able to speak, and the larger turned on his companion with a scowl. “Don’t talk to her, Parker!”

“What if I don’t attempt anything dangerous? How will your captain treat me then?” she asked.

They didn’t respond.

Unlike the other room, the walls and door of this one were incredibly smooth, made of some hard, glowing material that definitely wasn’t the stone of the white cliffs. Leaning against the door and lifting one foot, she scratched her toenail against the door to test the material. It did nothing but create a soft squeaking sound. Even if she still had her boots and the finger-daggers hidden in the heel, she doubted the blade would make a mark.

Whoever the captain was, and whatever he had planned, she doubted it would be advantageous for her to meet him. Any advantage she could grasp required her to move quickly, to seize the initiative before they could properly respond. “What wards have been placed on the room?” she asked.

Neither of the guards responded.

She trailed her fingers along the wall, walking all the way around as she contemplated. Her thoughts were both flighty and ponderous, and she continually had to bring them back on track.

There will be some kind of built-in detector for sudden fluctuations in energy or temperature, the kind of things that signify the casting of a spell. The door is well locked, obviously. I could try to break through the wall itself—which is unlikely to succeed, given the care they put into the material—but even then I might face some kind of magical barrier in addition to the physical. Two guards outside to sound the alarm if I try anything obvious.

But Siobhan wasn’t powerless, either. She continued to walk around the edge of the room, running her fingers along the frictionless wall as she planned. Obviously the room couldn’t stop her from casting esoteric spells, and it didn’t seem to have sounded any alarm for her subtle use of the shadow-familiar spell. She might not be able to carve a spell array for anything more complex into the floor, or draw one with chalk or crayon, but she had blood.

She also had a spell to turn one of her digits into a burning coal, which might be better, because any burnt residue left behind wouldn’t be close enough to her unburnt flesh for anyone to use a sympathetic link against her.

She knew a passkey-divining spell, learned in vain for Myrddin’s journal, and a way to distance the output of a spell and thus cast short-term effects at a distance. She also knew spells to control the air for both manipulation and attack.

Perhaps she could divine the password the guards must have used to open the door and throw her into this room just minutes before.

If her spell array was large enough, she might even be able to cast it through the wall. Then, she could adjust the parameters of a barrier spell, maybe mixed with an air compression spell, to manipulate the lock’s number key mechanism and enter the passkey.

Then threaten the guards into doing their part. Or simply use her air-based slicing spell to carve through their necks, cut off their thumbs, and somehow work the fine manipulation of an air-molding spell or a floating spell to get those thumbs wetted with saliva and up to the lock.

She hadn’t done anything exactly like that before, but she’d practiced with several different types of such rudimentary manipulation spells. How hard could it be?

The password-divining spell required components, though. A fine dust, the echo from a seashell, and a lens. She had none of that…but she knew a disintegration spell. She could make a fine dust from the material of her corset, perhaps without setting off any alarms. And she had the bone of a sea creature, again in her corset and its whalebone stays. With enough Will, she could turn one of the bones to powder and then remold it into the shape of a seashell. As for the lens, she didn’t have a spyglass or magnifying glass, and probably couldn’t create them, but she did have a contact lens, made of glass just the same.

It would be the most cobbled-together spell ever.

The password-divining spell gave its output as a faint illusion, so she would need to maintain the shadow-familiar spell so that she could see, and maybe even use it to shield the spell array so that the light of the illusion wasn’t drowned out by the searing brightness all around her. But she had dual-cast spells before. She could do that.

Killing the guards would come first, so they didn’t interfere. Then, she would need to get the divination spell array’s domain into contact with the lock, because while she could adjust the output parameters, she still needed the input to be within the Circle. But that only meant burning a large enough Circle against the wall. The spherical domain could reach all the way through to the other side. She could hold the components in place against the wall with pressure. Maybe two, one with her free hand, and one with her forehead, which would still allow her the single free hand to cast the shadow-familiar spell with—

Siobhan stopped. Stopped thinking, stopped walking, stopped casting. She dropped the shadow-familiar spell and held up her hands over her eyes to shade against the searing light, which seemed to be giving her the start of a sunburn. “Oh, no,” she whispered.

That is the stupidest plan I have ever heard.

That thought seemed to echo in her mind for a moment with its sheer truth. ‘If Damien or anyone else had come to me with that scheme, I would have slapped them across the face and told them to come to their senses. Trying to dual-cast two completely different spells, using components cobbled together from shaped pieces of my clothing, while also detaching my output with a method that Professor Lacer specifically warned me might not work past a barrier spell. The only way it could have been worse is if I planned to try a different method of detachment modeled off of my Will-splitting, without anyone here to save me if it goes wrong.

All this, while knowingly under the effects of a concussion and probably Will-strain.

She took a shuddering breath and sank down onto her knees with her back facing the door. ‘I was about to kill myself. Or entirely shatter my Will and turn into an Aberrant.

Here is the much-belated chapter. The reason for this is a bit of a long story which I won’t re-post. If you want to read about it, you can do so here:

Suffice it to say, things tumbled down around me leading up to and during my trip out of state, largely by my own fault. This is last Thursday’s chapter, and this coming Thursday we’ll resume the standard schedule.

As my trip could in no way be considered a relaxing vacation (for an introvert who also doesn’t enjoy road trips), I’m about as tired now as when I left. If I can overcome the urge to work, I might even take a half day off today to try to recuperate.

Chapter 169 – A Cloak of Shadows


Month 4, Day 9, Friday

Siobhan squinted against the light, ignoring the screams of the guards outside the room while she took stock of her situation as quickly as possible. She had no idea how much time had passed, but she wasn’t starving or severely dehydrated. She did badly need to urinate, so it must have been at least a few hours.

The faintest twinge of cold needles in her back seemed to be fighting against a divination attempt, but judging by how weak it was, either the room was warded against sympathetic divination, she was very far away, or there was some other barrier between them—like the thick stone walls.

Her captors had taken everything except her tightly laced corset and the things hidden inside and underneath it. This included her harness with the black sapphire Conduit, as well as the warding medallion and amulet tucked into her cleavage. Their decency—or laziness—could be their undoing. Her arm felt bare without the array of thin alarm bracelets she was used to wearing. She didn’t know if they had broken and triggered them, alerting Oliver and Katerin to her plight.

She turned toward the sensory deprivation spell array on the ground, tearing her eyes away from Theo’s bright copper hair and gangly limbs sprawled out among the others. Enforcer Gerard lay next to him, one half of his face battered and swollen to half again its normal size. Another young man who must have been from the Verdant Stag had badly broken his lower leg. Blood had seeped through the makeshift bandage around his calf and pooled on the floor.

The enemy didn’t just go after the Nightmare Pack, it seems.’ And if their motivation held true, they had wanted Theo and Miles, specifically, with everyone else being collateral damage.

The sensory deprivation spell seemed to be an artifact laid into the floor and pre-charged. There was no obvious way to turn it off, at least not from inside the room. Breaking the Circle might be possible, if she had something to write with, but she didn’t know what effect that might have. The side effects could be worse than the original problem.

But Siobhan could reach a man who was close to the edge. She didn’t recognize him by name, but she had seen him in Verdant Stag territory, wearing a jacket sporting bright green antlers made of peeling paint.

Pushing her free hand through the bounds of the edge of the Circle numbed it quite a bit, but didn’t stop her from using it to grip his hair. It was a bit of a struggle to drag the man the foot or so necessary for his head to cross the Circle. He gasped, eyes opening wide and then slamming shut, his face contorting painfully.

She pulled a little farther, getting his arms out, and that was all he needed to scramble the rest of the way himself.

He stayed on his hands and knees, stealing a couple peeks at her through squinting, watering eyes. “The Raven Queen?” he croaked. “I mean—my lady, my queen? You came to save us?”

“Save the others. Get them out of the Circle,” she ordered, limping quickly toward the metal door, which was solid except for a barred window at head height. “And be prepared for a fight.”

The guard outside, wearing the ostentatious uniform of the Pendragon operatives—clothes that were as good as armor in their own right after all the magic woven into them—had stopped shrieking. He pointed one trembling finger at Siobhan as she approached the door and looked through the window.

He nearly fell over himself to put some distance between them, retreating down the hallway with his back pressed firmly to the wall. “Stay back! Stay back!” he screamed, but he was still only pointing with his finger, no battle wand in his hand, so she ignored him.

The Verdant Stag enforcer behind her had wasted no time complying with her orders, and the cell was quickly filled with sounds of relief, distress, and quickly murmured explanations of their situation. “Oh, she answered my prayers,” a woman moaned. “I was in darkness, and I prayed to the queen of ravens to walk through the shadows to my side. She has answered me. We are saved!”

“Wait, that woman is the Raven Queen?” Theo’s maid Martha asked, doing a double-take at Siobhan’s face.

Enforcer Gerard shushed them sharply.

“I’ll pay whatever tribute she requires, if she can actually get us out of here,” Jackal muttered.

Siobhan pressed her face close to the barred window, looking down the hall in either direction. The walls were made of white stone, chipped away in relative uniformity to create the hallways, but not smoothed or polished.

A few dozen meters to the left, another hallway cut through the stone in a perpendicular direction. That was where the other guards had disappeared. The lone guard that had been left to watch the captives had fallen silent, finally, and she could hear the echoes of his companions running and clanking beyond the corner.

Down their hallway to the right, the light cut out. Siobhan tilted her head to the side. It was too dark to see far in that direction, but the echoes bouncing back became strangely layered and choppy, suggesting that the hallways stretched on for quite a while, maze-like.

A suspicion about their location began to grow in her mind. She breathed deep, tasting the air on her tongue.

With more people working together to free the others, soon everyone was out of the spell array, and though several carried injuries of various severity, all were grim with the realization of their situation and prepared to escape at any cost.

Enforcer Gerard stepped up stiffly beside her, wearing only his underwear and clutching one arm in the other to stabilize it. The scars on his legs were visible, but whatever treatment he’d received for the injuries he sustained at Knave Knoll must have been powerful. “Thank you for coming, my lady. What is the plan?” he asked, his voice slightly slurred by the trauma and swelling marring half of his face.

“Enemy reinforcements are on their way.”

Gerard turned to the others. “Those of you with combat experience, step up on either side of the door. Theo, get into the corner, behind Enforcer Turner. You, too, Mr. Lynwood,” he added, looking at Miles.

The children hurried to shuffle into one of the corners closest to the door, behind the young man with the broken leg. Both were pale and silent with fear, but Miles gave her a tremulous smile, and Theo clenched his fists and scowled around the room.

“I didn’t actually believe in her, you know?” Turner whispered to one of the women. “Does this mean she’s really heard me every time I said her name? She could have appeared out of nowhere, just like this?”

Siobhan ignored them, pressing her face further between the bars to better see. To the side, a circular device was embedded in the wall beside their door—the locking mechanism, no doubt. “Come forward and try to break the window,” she ordered, stepping aside and ignoring the increasingly loud scream of pain from her ankle as it took her weight.

There were no obvious hinges or weak points, as the door seemed to slide into and out of a slot in the stone wall to open. She doubted they would be able to reach the unlocking device through the small window, but it didn’t hurt to try while she worked on her own solution.

She hobbled back to the Circle containing most of the room’s floor and braced herself before entering it again. She had a moment of vertigo as she once again lost all sensation, but her shadow took over again after only a few moments. She swayed but didn’t fall, and then jerkily made her way to the small puddle of mostly coagulated blood from Turner’s leg. She had nothing to carry it in, so scooped as much as she could into her free hand.

She hobbled back to the door as quickly as possible, stumbling once again as her senses returned to her.

The enforcers had apparently failed to break the window, and were now bashing themselves against the door with no luck.

“Step aside,” she told Enforcer Fring.

The eyes of those around her focused on her blood-filled hand as she used it to draw out a stone disintegration spell array on the wall behind the opening mechanism.

The reckless cacophony of approaching enemy reinforcements grew louder. But her spell array was simple, requiring only an inner and outer Circle, a pentagon, and two glyphs. The wall began to crumble away from the inner Circle as she split her Will and applied power, but she wasn’t fast enough.

The guard who had been cowering down the hall slapped himself twice in the face. His handprint stood out starkly red against his pale face as he stepped forward again, a thick battle wand that could have passed for a bludgeoning rod in one hand and some other spherical artifact in the other.

He was quickly joined by two others, each kitted out in gold and silver glittering armor worn over their uniforms. They pointed the wands at the door—at her—as they approached.

Siobhan drew her head away from the window, but she could still hear them.

Panting, one said, “The captain is still out in the city with the others. We already set off the alarm and sent a message. There were still some of our men left in the palace, and they should be able to get down here within five minutes.”

“It’s the Raven Queen! We can’t wait for reinforcements to arrive!” the previously screaming guard gritted out, panting hard. His voice sounded vaguely familiar. Though Siobhan couldn’t be sure, she thought he was the one who had been suspicious of her identity.

“Get yourself together!” another snapped. “We know the protocols, we have the supplies. The shift leader is bringing the Radiant explosive right now. He’ll be here in mere seconds. All we have to do is subdue her until then!”

“The others pray to her,” the first guard tattled hoarsely. “They’re her devotees! Probably feeding her some kind of dark power. I heard them talking about it.”

No one dignified this with a response, but a quick peek around the edge of the window showed a fourth guard rounding the corner, also in resplendent armor. He carried something large, round, and metallic, the size of a cantaloupe or a human skull.

“Kill them, my queen! Kill them all!” the woman who had apparently been praying to the Raven Queen screamed vengefully.

Though it might not have made it any worse, this did not improve the captives’ situation, as the guards shared wary looks and moved forward together.

Siobhan poured more power into the stone-disintegration spell, but was barely a few inches into the wall as two of the guards lunged forward to use the locking mechanism while the other two kept their wands pointed at the door to cover them.

The lock took a password and what seemed to be a thumbprint of saliva from two of the guards at the same time, all entered within the space of a couple seconds.

“Wait!” Siobhan cried, ducking down and desperately trying to buy time. For what, exactly, she didn’t know. After all, the guards were opening the door, which was what she had been trying to do. Her shadow swallowed her up and stretched out to either side in duplicate humanoid shapes to obscure her exact location. The door began to slide to the side.

And then the guards blasted it aside, a fireball spell forcing it the rest of the way open, spilling into the room in bright heat and light and enough sheer force to knock the closest captives off their feet and away from the doorway.

Heat searing the top of her scalp, Siobhan stumbled back, trying to press herself against the corner nearest the door but bumping into people behind her. A second fireball followed, not aimed at anyone in particular, but still licking at people’s skin and hair. It smashed against the back wall with enough force and sound to ring deafeningly, sending chunks of smoking stone flying out.

Screams wove in with a high-pitched ringing in Siobhan’s ears, which felt strangely as if they had been plugged. Those who could manage it scrambled further away from the entrance and toward the side walls.

It seemed for a moment that the guards were going to kill them all. One turned his wand on Siobhan.

She raised her free hand instinctively, as if that could ward off an attack, her shadow darkening and expanding further as her mind grasped for a solution and her Will struggled to deliver.

Then, the one who must have been the shift leader tossed in the spherical device he had brought. It landed on the floor in the center of the room.

A Radiant explosive,’ Siobhan remembered them saying. “Take cover!” she screamed, turning to the wall and crouching with her free hand covering her head. There was no true cover to take.

Her shadow instinctively coalesced behind her like a shield, and she was just realizing she should drop the spell safely while she still could, to avoid being forced to drop it from an attack, when the light and pressure hit, seemingly simultaneously.

Siobhan was slammed forward, her face crunching her fingers into the wall and forcibly breaking the Circle of her hand.

Power rushed out from between her fingers and bloomed from the collapse of the shield of darkness behind her, suddenly freed.

Her mind crackled like the pops of corn in a hot pan, and she yanked her Will away from the freed magic, spooling and condensing it in toward herself, within herself, trying to outrun the backlash before it could hitch a ride inside her. Pieces of her concentration frayed at the edges, and she abandoned them in the space between microseconds.

But this did nothing to stop the physical expression of the magical backlash. And as they had reviewed earlier that term in Professor Gnorrish’s class, every action had an equal and opposite reaction.

The power crashed into her from behind like a wave from an angry sea god. It lifted her body and slammed her again into the wall. She felt something crunching within her abdomen. Light bloomed in her skull like a flower as her cheekbone cracked against stone. She bounced off and slammed into the floor, striking the back of her head this time.

I apologize for awkward wordings and typos. I’ve looked for them and killed some, but I’m pretty sure there are more I’m just too woozy to catch.

I am going to be gone from my home and work computer next Thursday, and will schedule the Thursday post ahead of time. If anything goes wrong, I’ll try to get to Wi-Fi to fix it, but it’s possible there will be some delays.

EDIT 7/14: Slight delay on the most recent chapter. Info here: