Chapter 202 – Countergambit

Siobhan

Month 8 Day 14, Saturday 9:10 p.m.

Siobhan stared at the crumbling stone wall of the gate house. ‘What just happened?

She examined her shadow for several long minutes, experimenting with moving it around and shaping it as she liked to see if there was any hint of the feedback or resistance she’d gotten from the being when it was present. But there was nothing. The spell was still harder to use than normal, but when she adjusted the Circle over her mouth to include both her hands and said the full chant, repeating it three times as the spell was always meant to be cast, any difficulty disappeared.

With great trepidation, she released the shadow-familiar spell, expecting something horrible to happen in retaliation. But nothing did.

Siobhan let out a shuddering sigh and collapsed to the ground for a moment, curled up around her light-coaster in a fetal position with her back to the wall. She shivered. Though it was a warm night, she had been chilled by the agent’s magic and now the moisture in her clothes was beginning to evaporate. It felt like the core of whatever created heat within her was depleted.

Though eating was the last thing she wanted to do, she fumbled open her satchel until she found a pouch of dried nuts, meat, and fruit, along with her self-refilling canteen of water. The mundane act of eating made what had happened before seem almost surreal, but it also gave her strength.

She sat back up and used a spare bit of orb-weaver silk dipped in water to clean herself up, wiping away the smeared and running makeup and the traces of vomit. She took off her clothes, cast the water-falling spell in a pass from the top of the pile to the bottom, until the fabric was mostly dry and a puddle of water remained on the floor.

Then she changed into Sebastien’s form and clothes, just in case, small protection though it was. The Red Guard might have needed her to be out in the rain for the spell they used, but she had no guarantee that they might not have some other way to find her. At least Sebastien’s clothes were totally dry and warm. And somehow, it felt slightly safer in this body. She ran her tongue over her teeth, feeling the differences as she mentally settled into herself.

What do I do now? The seal in my mind… Is it broken?

Sebastien began to comb over the events of the last hour in excruciating detail.

The greatest upcoming danger is the next time I go to sleep. If nothing happens then, it doesn’t mean I’m safe, but as strange as it may seem, I’m actually not much worse off now than I was before. That thing has been in my head for about seven years, and I swallowed that beast core months ago.

Sebastien took out a jar of bruise balm and began to catalogue her minor injuries, rubbing the alchemical concoction into any she found. She’d bitten the inside of her cheek, and even though skin-knitter was not supposed to be swallowed, she awkwardly rubbed a trace amount inside her mouth and let it sit.

I don’t think that thing knew I was able to sense its emotions and true intentions. It could have been trying to trick me, if it’s much cleverer than I imagine, but I believe it was lying about being able to possess me at any time. Which means not feeding it any more power or detaching anything that could be considered part of myself for it to take control of.’ She snorted in dark amusement. ‘No trying to remember it. Anything it wants, I will deny it.’ She had to keep it weak while she worked on a solution.

Even with it inhabiting her shadow, she’d had some control. Just not enough. If her Will had been stronger, she might have been able to force her shadow to follow her commands anyway, reattaching it to herself and forcing that thing out. Or if she’d merely cast the shadow-familiar spell with the full, thrice-repeated chant, that alone might have been enough to keep the thing from slipping its bindings and overpowering her.

Sebastien closed her eyes and tried to search through her own mind. ‘Is the seal broken, then? Or just imperfect?’ Because Grandfather had missed one of her memories, the one he didn’t know she had. Sebastien shied away from touching it or thinking about it too directly. Surely, if the seal were broken, she would not be sitting here wondering and worrying about it. ‘But I can’t be sure that a failure like this didn’t weaken it. Isn’t that one of the ways to break a curse? Force it to fail in an edge case, or under some convoluted set of circumstances that don’t quite fall under its purview, over and over until the binding breaks?

So it was something to be cautious of, but at the moment she thought it was still in place and working as Grandfather had intended. Mostly.

The being had considered the Red Guard a threat, but, ironically, that had manifested in a seeming attempt to protect Siobhan from them. That could be simply because the Red Guard were capable of destroying it—and helping her. Or the Red Guard could just as easily be a threat to them both, and the being had been trying to avoid mutual destruction with its host.

What was the purpose of the Red Guard’s actions tonight? It seems very strange that they would just go about trapping dangerous thaumaturges in the streets and threatening them.’ But when she considered the pieces that didn’t fit together perfectly, another perspective suggested itself. ‘It all hinges around that secondary cold effect that was directly increasing every time I cast a spell—no, a better way to say it would be every time I used magic or channeled energy.

The cold backlash was separate from the space-bending, destiny-controlling spell. Which, in itself, probably helped not only to keep the citizens of Gilbratha unaware but also protected them against anything Siobhan might have unleashed. It might even work on Aberrants, in which case really only the agent inside with her and maybe the one casting the spell would have been in danger.

What would have happened if I’d been as strong as they thought I was?’ Even one ultra-powerful attack or escape attempt would have frozen her to the point of uselessness, and every attempt to negate that effect would have only made it worse. Eventually she would have been defeated by her own actions. All the agent needed to do was stay alive long enough to allow that to happen. ‘But why have the agent inside the barrier with me at all? Some kind of insurance? Or maybe…they were necessary.

“Oh,” Sebastien whispered. “It was binding magic.” In the beginning, they had explained the terms. Siobhan needed to “last” three minutes. If she lost, they would take her life, her autonomy, and her name. If she won, they would give her a chance to make a request and have it heard. And as a show of goodwill, the agent started out by giving her “an opportunity,” which, vague as it was, in the old stories would have clearly indicated that they were positioning themselves as at least a neutral party, if not an ally.

Without Siobhan fully understanding what was happening, the binding would have been weaker, but she hadn’t denied the gift of an opportunity. And the agent had never explicitly said they were going to fight. They had only implied it, in word and in tone. The wooden box had fallen out of the same pocket they had been reaching for when Siobhan attacked. What was that? “A…dueling board game?” It looked similar to the much larger one Rhett sometimes carried around in a briefcase.

If I’m right, that means that I was challenged to a contest by a “friendly” stranger. I accepted their gift but then broke faith by attacking. The agent even literally told me, “No matter what magic you use, you will find that every attack only brings you closer to defeat.” It seemed like a threat, but it was a warning. An explanation of the terms.

Sebastien let out a single, sharp laugh. “What a dirty trick. Definitely something out of a cautionary child’s tale.” She doubted such a thing would work without the extra power an Aberrant might bring to bear. The effect was probably strengthened by the agent remaining “friendly,” by not attempting to do any harm in return. They had only attacked her after she first succeeded in causing an injury, after all. ‘What would have happened if I sat down and played a three-minute round of the dueling game with them?

She would have had to be even more prescient than the agent had mistaken her to be to try something like that under the circumstances. ‘They weren’t trying to kill me. Maybe capture? Possibly even make some kind of bargain. But seeing as they were under binding magic, that agent was almost certainly telling the truth, even if everything they said was intentionally misleading. And I cannot see how there is any interpretation of an intent to take my life, my autonomy, and my name from me that I would welcome. It was horrific and entirely unacceptable. And what they offered in return, if I won, was mostly useless. There was no promise of safety or compliance with my request. Only “to be heard.”

But even if, by some strange stretch of the imagination, the Red Guard could have been friendly, she found them as deeply untrustworthy as the thing sealed in her mind. And maybe almost as dangerous.

They would not help her out of altruism, and the only thing of value that she could really offer, or bargain with, was her ability to open Myrddin’s journals. Everything else was a facade, and even if she attempted to deceive them, if she was ever called upon to prove herself, she would fail.

How likely is it that they’ll let things go—let me go—with this?’ Technically, she had won the encounter. The thing controlling her shadow had made her request in her stead, and they “heard” it, but she highly doubted that was going to matter.

Having experienced what they did, the Red Guard were probably more worried about her existence now than they had been at the beginning of the night. Depending on what they decided her shadow was—though the most obvious conclusion seemed hard to deny—they would only be even more intent on her destruction.

Or whatever it was they really did to Aberrants. Somehow, Sebastien suspected that it was possible there were some fates worse than death.

Well, I want to live. So what are my options?

She could give up on all of her goals and plans and leave Gilbratha, or even Lenore, entirely. The thought brought up immediate and deep feelings of rejection. She had an irreplaceable opportunity here in Gilbratha, working with Thaddeus Lacer and Kiernan’s faction of the History department. It wasn’t just access to Myrddin’s other journals, but also to the University archives, and, potentially, to the Architects of Khronos themselves.

Leaving the country would mean solving one problem by abandoning a possible solution to another. And there was no guarantee the Red Guard wouldn’t still find her. They were an international institution and served no country or ruler, after all.

Another possible option was to seek protection from them. She didn’t think Oliver and the Verdant Stags, or any of the other local gangs, had the power to stand against the Red Guard. For that, she would probably need the help of someone like the High Crown. ‘I do have a very powerful bargaining chip in my ability to open Myrddin’s journals.’ The High Crown might have been the one who sent the Red Guard after her, but that didn’t mean he had the power to call them off. But he wouldn’t kill her, and probably wouldn’t hand her over to anyone else, out of fear of losing a monopoly on Myrddin’s research if nothing else.

But that supposed protection would really be imprisonment. And as for the High Crown, she had tried to bargain with him once before. Her position was stronger now, what with Operation Palimpsest and the aftermath of his kidnapping attempt. But she almost certainly couldn’t trust the man.

He tried to kidnap Theo and Miles. He had them put under that sensory deprivation spell.’ She had only ever seen Lord Pendragon’s face in paintings and black and white photographs, but she imagined it now. A deep animosity filled her belly and twitched at her fingertips, urging her to curl them into fists. ‘No. He is not an option.

She was unsure if any of the other Crown Families would have the power to protect her from the Red Guard. If there was one, she guessed it was most likely to be the Westbays. ‘Unless there was a civil war, I can’t imagine that being a viable option. Even if I could somehow convince Titus, what about the real lord of the family, his father?

The only other option would be to place herself at the mercy of the Architects of Khronos. She really didn’t trust them, either, but if she was driven to desperation, it might be an option. Kiernan was one of their leaders, and he feared her. But considering their own goals and past actions, it didn’t really seem like a stable organization or a safe place to entrust her wellbeing.

I wouldn’t even trust them to take care of a pet. But I suppose it’s an option to keep in mind if all else fails. Alright then. If I can’t depend on external protection, what alternatives do I have?’ Working through her problems like this always helped to settle Sebastien’s mind. There was something about the clarity that deliberate thought brought her that made her feel as if she had some small measure of control. Even now, some of the anxiety was receding from her chest and the muscles of her shoulders and back.

Liza’s divination-diverting ward hadn’t worked against whatever magical-law-breaking spell the Red Guard had utilized, obviously, but there was a small possibility that if Sebastien brought the problem to her, along with enough gold, she would be able to create something to protect Sebastien against similar attempts in the future. Maybe.

But there are also Red Guard defectors out there, right?’ she thought with building excitement. If she could find and hire one of them, she might be able to get that kind of ward. It would probably need Aberrant components, which she had no idea how to source and were probably catastrophically expensive.

But perhaps the Architects of Khronos had connections that she could use. Their number had included a Red Guard defector, after all.

And in the meantime, perhaps she could try to lower her perceived level of threat.

Ostensibly, the Red Guard would trust Thaddeus Lacer’s opinion, right?’ They were only oath-bound to deal with Aberrants and thaumaturges who were a threat to others on a large scale. The average person might think that the Red Guard dealt with any and all petty blood sorcerers, but that wasn’t the case.

It was also possible that, after tonight, Thaddeus Lacer would no longer consider the Raven Queen a possible ally, but if there was one person in the world she had a chance of convincing who could actually help her, it was probably him.

She ran through a dozen permutations of a conversation with him but soon realized that she didn’t know him well enough to predict how he might respond to the Raven Queen. To a peer.

She checked the sky for clouds, and then, with a combination of grim determination, excitement, and trepidation, she returned to Siobhan’s form. Or perhaps more accurately, the Raven Queen’s form. Not some perky or disarming disguise, but the full long black hair, the red and black feathers, and lips painted so dark a red it was almost black in harsh, precise lines across her mouth.

After the last time she had found herself in woeful need of an outfit change, she had tightly folded some basic clothing at the bottom of her satchel. She pulled it out now, smelling the absorbed fragrance of various herbs as she pulled on a simple black dress and wrapped a velvet-trimmed cloak around her shoulders.

She checked the sky for clouds before she left, then walked north. She used the hood of the cloak to shield her features from those who still walked the streets at this time, and activated her divination-diverting ward with the dowsing artifact to turn away their thoughts.

She had no other student’s token to activate the transport tubes, but according to the rumors, the Raven Queen wouldn’t need to travel in such a mundane manner, anyway. She would simply need to return to the dorms as Sebastien Siverling when this was done, just in case.

It was easy enough to find Professor Lacer’s little cottage.

Remembering some of the stories about what happened to students who tried to trespass, Siobhan stayed several meters back as she retrieved her spell rod. She used a detached-output version of the basic float spell to lift his door knocker and let it drop back to the metal several times. Then she closed her spell rod and tucked it back into her satchel. Hopefully he was not a heavy sleeper.

Almost a minute later, he opened the door with one of the dourest scowls she had ever seen him wear. His hair was loose around his face, and rather than his usual long jacket and suit combination, he was wearing a loose, soft shirt and pair of pants. His expression slipped away as he stared at her for several long seconds of silence.

She raised her left hand slightly. “Hello, Grandmaster Lacer.” Her voice was slightly scratchy with nerves.

A combination of wonder and pleasure crossed his face as he sucked in a deep breath.

Siobhan realized that even his positive expressions were almost always tinged with irony, weariness, or pessimism, because his face looked different—younger—now that, for a moment, they were absent.

“You’re here,” he breathed. His hands flexed and twitched as if he had been about to make some aborted movement. Then he tucked his hair behind his ears very deliberately, the opposite of the flustered preening that she’d seen Damien do so many times. “Would you like to come in?” Professor Lacer asked.

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A Foreboding of Woe

 

Edit 4/30: My writing computer, an iMac, has been a trooper for many years with zero problems, but in the last few days has very suddenly slowed down to the point it takes minutes to load a web page. It will not even open Scrivener–which I need access to for all my lore and plotting notes. I am taking it into the repair shop directly after posting this message, but if they cannot fix it I’ll need to buy a replacement. I’m almost certain to miss this week’s Thursday chapter. It’s just one thing after another this month, huh?

 

Chapter 201 – A Sealed Memory

Siobhan

Month 8 Day 14, Saturday 8:59 p.m.

The Red Guard agent screamed, and as if that had been a trigger, a scream burst from Siobhan’s mouth, too.

Siobhan’s shadow waited patiently for them to run out of breath, then turned its head to the agent. “You had better take off that glove before it consumes you.” It even sounded like Siobhan, though distant and muffled, as if heard through a wall.

Then it turned to her. “Siobhan, leave now. I will take care of things here, child.”

Another moment of vertigo hit her, but this one was more cerebral than physical, brought on by the sheer inconceivability of the situation. Except it wasn’t totally inconceivable. Those glowing amber eyes were familiar, and for a moment, a flash of blood and brain matter pooling out in front of the fire came to mind.

That was followed by a blink-fast vision of an egg with a yolk made of blood.

And then, even faster and on the edge of passing too quickly for her mind to grasp, a doorway filled with hungry sky.

Siobhan flinched back.

“Run,” her shadow added.

And she did.

Siobhan sprinted without coherent thought, fleeing with rabbit-panicked, pounding footsteps. The only bit of rationality remaining within her chest allowed her to keep that one vomit-wet hand to her mouth. The Circle remained unbroken, and some tiny part of her Will was left behind with her shadow.

She did not want to know what might happen if she dropped her shadow-familiar spell while it was detached and outside of her control.

And if not for her ability to split her Will, the panic might have overcome even a lifetime’s training to maintain concentration.

It was exhaustion that finally slowed her, her muscles burning and clumsy despite her pleas to continue. Her lungs heaved, screaming within her chest as if they had been scorched and blackened.

Sprinting at full speed had never been her forte, and she doubted she’d made it more than a kilometer at best. She stumbled to the side of a building and put her back to it as she looked around wildly for danger.

The streets were mostly empty, though the rain had lightened. The few pedestrians on the sidewalks noticeably avoided meeting her gaze or even looking at her. ‘I probably look crazed and dangerous,’ she realized. ‘Maybe I am crazed and dangerous.

The stones beneath her feet and the brick of the building behind her were still shadow-free. ‘I am a woman without a shadow,’ she thought inanely. ‘It sounds like one half of a bad riddle.’ Siobhan swallowed down another sudden surge of bile.

She recognized the street she was on, and the house numbers were coherent and in the correct order. No one was watching through the windows, and those few people who passed her in the street had faces, even if they weren’t turned her way. All the streetlamps were working.

She could still feel her shadow, somewhere behind her. She had never stretched it so far from her. But then again, she had never detached it before, either.

When her breathing began to settle, she closed her eyes and thought she could almost tell what it was doing, sense its movements and its actions as it absorbed and expelled energy to stay coherent in form and affect the world around it even in minuscule ways. It was a little bit like sensing through the raven with the Lino-Wharton messenger spell, a little like the proprioception philtre, and above all reminded her of the bits of experience she’d had sensing the world through her shadow. Which made sense when she considered it.

She swallowed back a hysterical laugh at her own stupidity.

It was…standing before four Red Guard agents. At least she was pretty sure they were Red Guard agents. What the shadow had wasn’t a sense of sight, even if it was absorbing the light reflected off of their bodies. ‘So it had been two teams, then. The other two agents were probably lying in wait to act as backup.’ She could distinguish the one that had fought her from the other three, who had a lot more gear and were carrying full-size shields. As Siobhan concentrated harder, she made out some movement and vibration.

It was talking. “I find it displeasing when people attack my followers.”

Strangely, the burst of outrage that this description of Siobhan sparked helped to calm her down more than anything else. She pushed away from the side of the building, looking for somewhere familiar. Somewhere she could hide safely, both from any further threat from the Red Guard and from anyone who might happen to notice a strange woman without a shadow.

“But I will not attack you,” Siobhan’s shadow continued, gesturing to the agent wearing the mask with the flat stones for eyes.

Their flesh-glove had reached their neck and was stretching around it and up over their face.

“You can go ahead and take off that Aberrant before it eats you.”

The Red Guard agents shared distrustful looks.

“What are you?” one of the new ones asked.

“I believe I am known for keeping my word. And even if you do not trust me, that thing is definitely going to kill you if you keep waiting.”

As the flesh-glove pulsed and tightened some of the tendrils around the agent’s neck, two of them finally gave in and spent a few moments freeing the host of the Aberrant parasite.

The fourth agent stood guard with their shield lifted and their gaze never wavering from Siobhan’s shadow.

Removing the flesh-glove, now more like a flesh arm, required the use of some tinctures as well as brute force, and left strange wounds on the agent’s flesh. Even to the shadow’s perception their skin was completely white, as if it had been crushed or sucked dry of blood.

Siobhan turned the corner and walked down a long, narrow path that led to an abandoned gate house she had used to change once before. ‘I had no idea you could use an Aberrant in such a way. Was it always just a hand, or did they cut that piece off the larger creature to take advantage of its anomalous effect? Do they have to treat it with something, like curing leather, or run it through some kind of ritual to make it useable as a tool? Obviously, the ability to sever everything, including the ties of magic itself, would have amazing utility.

The Red Guard agent took a healing potion to manage the glove’s aftereffects and the wound on their neck, which looked quite gruesome, as if ten thousand ants had taken a bite and carried away little bits of flesh.

“Who are you?” asked the agent standing between her shadow and the other three.

One of the others, wearing a complex metallic monocle attached by a clamp to the side of his head, leaned forward and whispered in the speaker’s ear.

Either her shadow’s senses weren’t strong enough to pick it up, or Siobhan simply wasn’t skilled enough at interpreting its information, but she couldn’t make out what he was saying.

“Is it not obvious?” Siobhan’s shadow asked. “I am the Raven Queen.”

Once more, Siobhan’s outrage spiked. ‘How dare that thing impersonate me!?

“The Raven Queen? Not Siobhan Naught?” the agent asked.

Her shadow clasped its hands behind its back and leaned forward playfully, eyes wide. “I think you should understand the importance of names.” It straightened. “And since I won our little contest… What were the terms again?” It tapped a forefinger on its lips. “Your lives, your autonomy, and your names?”

The agents’ fingers clenched around shields and battle artifacts, their knees loosening in case sudden movement was necessary.

“Well, I suppose I can leave you all three of those things,” Siobhan’s shadow said. “But I think I deserve some answers, at the very least.”

“We never planned to harm her,” the masked agent blurted. “It was just a test! We were hoping to gain some information, make sure she wasn’t a danger to society, and maybe—”

“You never meant to kill her, perhaps!” Siobhan’s shadow snapped, cutting the agent off. “But that is not the equivalent of meaning her no harm. Or do you think I have no idea about what goes on under the symbol of the Red Guard?” It sneered, gesturing to their shields.

Siobhan climbed a crumbling stone wall and sneaked in through the window of the abandoned gate house, both quite difficult maneuvers with only one arm free. She curled up in the dusty corner, trembling, and fumbled the light crystal coaster out of her satchel. ‘What do I do?’ she wondered. ‘What do I do now? That thing has taken my shadow. Can you…live without a shadow?’ It seemed anathema, and she wasn’t even sure how such a thing could be happening, as it contradicted all the laws of Natural Science that she knew. ‘I don’t want to die. I haven’t even had a chance yet, not really. I want to live.’ She repeated it in a whisper. “I want to live. Maybe Liza can help me. Or Professor Lacer. I just have to recover enough to get to them. I won’t let the shadow-familiar spell go. I can keep casting it as long as I stay awake. I won’t fade away. I won’t break,” she muttered rapidly.

Elsewhere, in the city that was not the city, the Red Guard agents bristled, shoulders pulling back and chins lifting. “We act for the good of the world!” declared the agent in front. “I ask again. Who are you? What are you? What is your purpose?”

“For the good of the world?” Siobhan’s shadow repeated, ignoring their questions. “But what does that really mean? Quite a lot could be justified with the goal of saving the world, and against such serious threats. My desires are quite simple, and I think it should be clear that I have done nothing to make an enemy of you. Do not make an enemy of me, and perhaps there will be room to coexist. This world is large, after all.”

Siobhan did not feel that this was likely to convince the Red Guard at all, but she didn’t think she herself could have done better.

“The girl is a genius, and we both know how to hold a grudge. Hear me, mortals, as you have promised. Do not look for me. If I wish to contact you, I will have no trouble reaching you.” And to punctuate this obvious threat, there was a sudden rush of confusion.

If Siobhan hadn’t been sitting down already, she might have fallen over.

And suddenly, her shadow was in front of her again. It examined her for a moment, then mimicked her stance, sitting in front of her toe to toe. “Why did you run so far!?” it cried, angry and frightened. It was growing quickly tired, she knew, just as she knew that being so close to her sparked some undefinable longing. “Did you consider what might happen to me if I ran out of power before being able to return to you?”

Siobhan stared at it, wide-eyed. She glanced away from its amber eyes for a moment, to the spot where the tip of its toes touched hers.

And then it melted back into the floor, becoming two-dimensional and stretching underneath her and up the opposite wall where the light from the coaster by her side threw it.

Siobhan lifted her right arm, and her shadow moved with her, even though the amber eyes were still staring back at her. ‘Did it really just…come back?’ But it had. She could feel its connection, just as she had felt its disconnection. ‘It could be a trick. I can’t let down my guard.’ She continued to keep her hand in front of her mouth and a spark of her Will active in the spell, even though her hand and elbow were getting stiff from being held in the same position for too long.

“What are you?” she whispered.

“At the moment, I am your shadow,” it replied. Somehow, it was talking by vibrating the air. Considering that speaking without a tongue or lips was probably quite difficult, it was doing an admirable job of mimicking her voice.

“And when you are not my shadow?” Siobhan breathed, her back itching with new sweat against cold, damp clothes.

“I suppose there are a few ways one might describe me. For the moment…I suppose you can consider me a sealed, but not quite forgotten, memory.”

Siobhan shuddered convulsively. As shameful and horrible as it was, her eyes burned with the first onset of tears. She clenched her teeth so hard her jaw creaked under the strain and tilted her head back. She would not cry.

She could still sense something from it, the way it noted the jump of the muscles in her jaw and throat, tracking every involuntary movement with a mean amusement. It was enjoying this.

A surge of hatred, sickly sweet and cold, swept through her.

“Raaz didn’t quite catch everything,” it said. “Don’t you remember when we met? Don’t you remember my name?”

Siobhan did remember, even if she desperately wished she didn’t, but she wouldn’t say it. “If you’re sealed, how are you doing this? Taking over my shadow?”

Its amusement grew. “Well, you so kindly swallowed a beast core for me.”

She gasped. “You absorbed the power from the beast core? How?

It continued as if she had not spoken. “And then you detached a piece of your existence for me, one conveniently not bound by the seal.”

Siobhan, for some reason, wanted to laugh. She tasted blood in her mouth.

“With the little cracks in said seal, it only took some effort and a bit of power to slip into the empty spot. I have to admit, I had such fun.”

“What would have happened if you ran out of the power you absorbed from that beast core while detached from me, inhabiting my shadow?” she asked.

“I would have had to slip into someone else’s shadow,” it said, but Siobhan felt its uncertainty and fear. “I believe I would have had to consume the original shadow to take over. Quite difficult to do with a powerful thaumaturge.”

Siobhan did her best to keep her face from reacting. This, she was sure, was a lie. It had made that up. It had no idea what would happen if it ran out of power away from her, but it didn’t believe it would be anything good. “Can you take control of my shadow again?”

“Any. Time. I. Want,” it said drolly.

That was a lie, too.

“Can you tell what I’m thinking?”

“Of course. I live in your head, darling. I ride around inside your thoughts.” It wavered, though neither the light nor Siobhan had moved. “I know how afraid you are right now,” it whispered. “But there’s no need to be quite that terrified. I was very helpful tonight, don’t you think? I protected you, at the cost of using up that meager bit of power. I was useful, and the borrowing of your shadow caused you no harm.”

But she could still feel the truth of the monster, and the way its rapacious feeling of starvation only heightened at the dilation in Siobhan’s pupils and the pulse in her throat. It didn’t want to eat her, literally. It just wanted to kill her and use her corpse for its own purposes. Metaphorically. Maybe not her physical corpse. But something like that.

And it was true that she was afraid, but if it had really been able to feel her emotions, it would have picked up on the hatred that she was barely tamping down. Her eyes burned with tears, but not from fear or despair. She simply felt too much loathing for one body to contain.

It was because of this thing that Grandfather was dead. Because of it, she had lost everything.

Siobhan swallowed and firmed her voice. “What do you want?”

Its voice warbled a little more, growing faint. “I want you to remember me,” it said.

Siobhan could feel its presence receding, leaving her natural shadow behind. Its eyes were the last to go, staring at her until the glow finally disappeared.

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Chapter 200 – A Separation

Siobhan

Month 8 Day 14, Saturday 8:55 p.m.

Siobhan slid to a stop in front of the Red Guard agent, falling on her bottom and scrambling back to her feet.

“There’s no point in running. We’re destined to meet under the rain,” they said, somehow seeming both bored and frustrated. “I commend your ingenuity, but escape is futile without fulfilling the terms of our agreement. Without defeating me, this barrier will not drop. You have ninety seconds left.” They had already retied and latched all of their clothing.

To Siobhan, it seemed as if she had been fighting for long minutes already. Her breath came in ragged gasps, her soaked hair and clothes were plastered to her, and on each exhale cold raindrops that kept trying to choke her splashed out from between her lips.

She straightened and dual-cast the gust spell and fabric slicing spell. The gust spell from the side, once again carrying a stinging barrage of captured raindrops, and the fabric-slicing spell originating right behind the agent’s neck.

She hadn’t really been trying to kill them before, because killing a Red Guard agent seemed like a great way to make sure they relentlessly hunted her to the end of the known lands, but now she was desperate.

Their grotesque pink glove sliced through her gust spell, sending the air spiraling out in random eddies and smoothly severing her connection to the magic. Siobhan braced for some kind of backlash, but she still had control over her spell array, and whatever path the energy might have taken to travel back to her had been severed just as surely as the spell itself.

But even as that spell failed, the disk of slicing air behind the agent’s neck shot forward. Even if they had anticipated her trick, they wouldn’t have had time to escape. It cut into the side of their neck but met some kind of protective ward that flared bright.

Siobhan mentally cursed the Red Guard’s enchanted clothing budget.

That was enough warning for them to jerk their head to the side, but on instinct Siobhan created a second and third slicing spell just behind the first, so close together they were almost like two sheets of paper. The ward flared brighter, and yet brighter again as the agent stumbled to the side.

They lifted their right arm toward Siobhan and made a sharp motion, pulling back their wrist. A click sounded, almost inaudible beneath the rain, and a deep purple, arrow-shaped spell shot toward her.

Siobhan’s warding medallion grew abruptly, bitingly cold, but it was lucky that she was already throwing herself out of the way to avoid the purple spell, because her medallion barely managed to nudge it off course by a couple of inches.

Siobhan clumsily stabilized her footing, throwing one hand out for balance to recover from her frantic lurch. She was not nearly as good at footwork as the agent. If this turned into a real fight, she would die. Or she would lose and be stripped of some concepts she found very important.

But to Siobhan’s delight, her third slicing spell managed to overcome the ward and put a fairly deep gash into the agent’s neck as it lost stability.

Blood spilled faster than it could be diluted away by the rain, but not enough to indicate a nicked artery. With an audible gasp, they lifted their right hand to press against their neck. Their head dipped down for a long second before it rose again, those flat stones staring at Siobhan once more. “I suspected, but you really are casting two spells at once,” they said. “One might presume that you are simply masterful at quick-casting and switching between spells, but that’s not the case at all. This puts your interest in Myrddin’s journal in a new light. Did it teach you how to do that?”

Siobhan ignored them, taking the time they were talking to close some of the spell rod’s segments so that she could get a better grip to open others. Her fingers were beginning to grow clumsy with the cold, or maybe just from too much adrenaline. She cast another two gust spells, starting a few feet out and coming at the agent from either direction. One, the agent caught with their glove—which was growing further up their arm and had already reached their elbow—and severed.

The other gust spell caught against their neck and picked up some of their blood as the rain passed, bringing it to Siobhan. She spilled the blood-tainted rainwater over the spider-silk array for a deafening hex.

“And where is your Conduit? Surely even a Naught wouldn’t be so foolish as to cast through their own flesh? You remember what happened to your mother, don’t you?”

Siobhan gave a choked exhale, as if she’d been punched in the stomach. It fogged in the cold air. She pulled on the deafening hex with a wrenching heave of her Will, even as she dragged a finger through the bloody water, disregarding the boundary of the Circle.

With a second swipe, she transferred the trace of blood on her finger to the center of the of the disintegration curse’s array.

She had originally learned the curse to try and target her own blood, but had never practiced it on a living creature—only dead bugs and the like. Now, she pulled every thaum that one half of her Will could channel from the beast core pressed to her back, targeting the nearest match for that blood, which happened to be the open wound in the agent’s neck.

It was immediately apparent to her that she did not have enough source material. Either that, or the barrier of a living thaumaturge’s control over their own body, commonly known as the skin barrier, was harder to overcome than she had expected.

The deafening hex would last until they received healing, if she had done it right, so she turned her entire Will to the disintegration curse.

Siobhan channeled the spell at what was likely the very edge of her black sapphire’s capability and fought for control of the Red Guard agent’s body.

They reeled back, grabbing at their neck again, but this time with the severing flesh-glove. Its fingers sliced into their skin, only making the bleeding worse, and tendrils lifted from it as if seeking to invade the blackening, slowly eroding wound. They hissed in pain and horror, jerking the flesh-glove away.

Siobhan shot them with another concussive blast spell, but they crouched down.

Their right elbow drove down into their right knee. A metallic click hinted at the artifact hidden under their pants. They ducked their head as a shield of force bloomed out to absorb the blast in a ripple of light. Three more concussive blasts met the same futile end, and the agent lifted their arm and flicked back their wrist once more, releasing another purple arrow of magic.

Siobhan slipped on the wet stone as she tried to dodge and the spell shot over her. The ground hit hard, almost knocking her air out and dislodging her Will. She took a moment to ensure her concentration was in place before climbing painfully back to her feet.

A real-world, desperate magical battle was different from a controlled classroom environment. Siobhan’s stamina was already fraying, and she doubted she could win against a Red Guard agent in a contest of Wills. She shivered convulsively as the cold bit into her soaked clothing.

Their neck was bleeding even more now as Siobhan’s disintegration spell began to eat deeper, and they reached their right hand into their jacket pocket.

Siobhan saw only the handle of a battle wand before she lunged forward and past, the arm with her spell rod stretching out to snag them around the neck. She slid around behind them, squeezing their neck inside the crook of her elbow while she pressed the arm bearing the flesh-glove against their side with her knee. It was an awkward position, and she feared she had made an error, because she couldn’t bring as much pressure to bear on the deadly appendage as she had hoped. Not enough to completely immobilize it. Siobhan slid her battle wand inside the collar of her shirt so that the handle rested just under her chin, then reached into her boot and pulled out her dagger.

The fleshy tendrils wriggled curiously under her pant leg, but none of them attacked.

She slid the dagger along the wound in their neck but didn’t thrust it in. “One twitch of that arm and I spill every drop of blood inside you,” she whispered as they struggled to move.

The agent stilled.

“Drop the spell!” she roared out. “Or your partner dies.”

But of course, no matter what basic training in submission holds Professor Fekten had given her, Siobhan was an amateur at best.

The Red Guard agent threw their head backward and cracked the back of their skull into Siobhan’s chin, cracking her teeth together and sending stars shooting across Siobhan’s vision.

It was true that her spells weren’t enough to win the fight against a Red Guard agent who was serious about fighting back, but Siobhan saw now that her response to that realization had been wrong. She lacked experience and had made a stupid mistake out of panic.

She dropped her hold on the disintegration curse before it could inevitably slip her grip, hoping that none of her teeth were broken. She tasted blood, then screamed hoarsely as her wrist was twisted until the knife slipped out of it. She tried to scramble backward, sure that a death strike with the flesh-glove’s severing claws was coming, but their grip on her wrist twisted again and sent her collapsing to the ground to try to avoid the pain.

The agent laughed. “Oh, you’re quicker on the uptake than I expected. You noticed our little trick, huh? But too bad, avoiding any high-powered spells and resorting to mundane weapons won’t save you, either.”

Little trick?’ Siobhan wondered.

They flipped around, shoving Siobhan to the ground with her arm twisted painfully and their knee to her chest as they wrested her spell rod from her other hand. Their flesh-glove had advanced all the way to their shoulder now, and would soon reach the bare skin of their neck. “I guess you won’t freeze to death, but that really wasn’t much of a danger in three minutes, anyway, no matter how much power you tossed around. We wanted to be gentle,” they said, panting much less hard than Siobhan. “The human body isn’t that durable. The other option was physical pressure. I’ve seen a man crush his own body like a grape with the backlash from a single battle spell.”

The cold,’ Siobhan realized. ‘It’s the middle of summer.’ She’d been too distracted by the nightmarish phenomena, and then the running and the fighting, to notice, but such a sharp drop in temperature wasn’t normal. ‘It’s some sort of backlash from my magic. If I had been a more powerful thaumaturge, would I have frozen the both of us in here like some sort of giant, space-magic snow globe? Well, the Red Guard agent likely has some kind of temperature-controlling enchantment embroidered into their gear. So really, I would have just frozen myself.

“Your three minutes are up,” the agent said emotionlessly. “I win.”

Siobhan wanted to argue that she was still alive, even if they had immobilized her, and thus hadn’t technically lost, but knew it was useless. No one who acted like them would be willing to let her debate her way to freedom. She bucked upward, just hard enough to throw the agent off balance and free one of her arms.

An engraved wooden case fell out of their pocket, clattering against the stone.

Rather than attack with her freed hand, Siobhan brought it to her mouth, cupped into a small Circle, and breathed out, “Shadow mine, devour and arise.”

It was a much-truncated version of the thrice-repeated chant this spell was supposed to require, but just like one could minimize the written Word of a spell array with enough practice and clarity, she had some leeway in the spell, which she’d probably cast a few thousand times throughout her life.

The shortcut did cost her, as her shadow was harder to control than normal, sluggish and a little clumsy when trying to take precise shapes, but it slid out from under her and rose up beside them all the same.

The Red Guard agent didn’t notice at first. But when the rain that passed through Siobhan’s shadow-familiar turned to sleet, adding sharp noises of ice on stone to the susurrus of rain, they stilled.

Siobhan could feel the surprise, and then the fear, run through them.

They turned their head to the side, slowly, to look at her shadow, their neck stretching up and back until they could see the huge beak poking out from underneath the black hood. “Ah.”

Siobhan bucked again, wrenching a muscle in her back as she threw them off. She scrambled backward.

“What are you?” the agent asked, staring at her silent shadow-familiar.

Of course it didn’t respond.

Siobhan lunged for her spell rod while they were distracted and managed to scoop it up, putting the agent between her and her shadow. She narrowed her eyes, gauging the distance to the rain barrier, which was getting harder to see as the rain within the Circle fell more quickly. ‘If I could send my shadow out, would that disrupt the spell somehow? It’s a little bit like passing the barrier myself. Or maybe it would be better to leave the shadow here to distract them and try to make it out myself again. I’ll only get one chance, and it seems like the second option is more likely to save me if it works.

But perhaps the agent sensed something, because their head whipped around toward her, and though their mask and the flat stones over their eyes were expressionless, somehow Siobhan knew that they had focused on the hand in a Circle over her mouth.

They looked down, their eyes trailing from the tip of Siobhan’s foot along the thin thread of shadow that connected her to the rest of it. Her control was weak; the spell had been cast too hastily, leaving the tether easily visible to one looking for it.

Siobhan sucked in a breath of panic as they swiped at it with their flesh-gloved arm, fingers scoring into the cobblestones as if it were butter.

In a moment of desperate inspiration, Siobhan detached the output of her spell so that it could not be severed.

She’d never tried it before with any spell that wasn’t strictly based on modern sorcery, but it seemed to work just fine. The Red Guard agent sliced through the space where the tether between Siobhan and her familiar had been, and nothing happened.

And then a terrible vertigo washed over Siobhan. Her eyes rolled back in her head, and when she opened them again, she was on the ground. She vomited a little, the burning remnants of her dinner with Liza spilling out over her lips, over her fingers still cupped around her mouth, and mixing with the water flowing between the street’s cobblestones. ‘Did my Will break? But I can still think. Did someone else just have a break event…like what happened with Newton?

This wasn’t nearly as bad as the sensory scramble and deep, horrifying wrongness had been when Newton broke, though. She still had a grip on her shadow-familiar, miraculously.

Siobhan’s senses stabilized quickly, and she struggled to her hands and knees, scrabbling for her spell rod once more. Her battle wand was gone somewhere, kicked away in her struggle with the agent, perhaps.

The agent was already on their feet and had backpedaled to keep both Siobhan and her shadow in their field of view.

Siobhan followed the direction of their head to her shadow. Its shape had collapsed. Instead of the shadow-familiar’s slender, macabre form under a tattered cloak, a roiling, amorphous mass of bubbling darkness writhed on the ground.

She could still feel it, somehow, and thinking of it brought back a momentary flash of vertigo. She tried to get it to reform, but it was as if her Will were trying to lift a boulder twice her size. The response was horribly sluggish, and it felt like the power sources of light and the heat of her breath were not enough.

The agent screamed, high and sharp, and backpedaled once more, head darting frantically between Siobhan and her detached shadow. The rain barrier around them thinned out, leaving the spatial distortion at the edge of the spell obvious.

Siobhan swallowed and slowly looked down at her feet.

Despite the light of the single remaining streetlamp against the surrounding darkness, Siobhan’s body cast no shadow. Her heart began to race, speeding faster and faster as if trying to bludgeon its way out of her chest. She blinked and swallowed down a scream of her own.

A few whimpers still slipped through.

With deep, shuddering pants just on the edge of a sob, she redoubled her efforts to regain control of her shadow, to bring it close and reattach it, but though she was not completely powerless, it fought against her.

Rather than flatten and inch closer, it began to rise up. At first she thought it was regaining its most-used form from recent months. But as its form grew stable, she realized it was something entirely different.

It was a woman, wearing a fluttering cloak. Feathers sprouted out around her temple and between the strands of long straight hair that floated on an invisible wind. It was her, dressed as the Raven Queen and formed of darkness.

It was Siobhan.

And then it opened its eyes. It met her horrified gaze with bright, glowing-amber irises.

I’m opening up naming ideas for the Cult of the Raven Queen. What do Siobhan’s misguided “followers” call themselves? Please go over to Azalea’s Arcane Alcove to submit your ideas.

Edit 4/11: I hate to postpone chapters, especially 2 weeks in a row, but things have been really hectic for me this week moving into the new place, and the last 2 days I’ve been feeling feverish and foggy.

(Ever since I got Covid a few years back, I feel like my body has to fight some minor illness off every month or two, whereas before I literally would go 1-2 years with only a single minor cold. Which really sucks. My self-identity as a super healthy person is taking a blow.)

But pushing through feeling ill has led me to still feel ill, but also getting the signs of an impending ocular migraine. Today’s advance chapter needs significant edits/tweaks before I post it, but even though I’ve been trying to work on it for the last 6 hours, I’ve only managed to get about 20 minutes of actual concentration in. I previously figured out the changes I need to make, but now I’m literally having trouble focusing long enough to follow the logical story thread of the chapter from beginning to end. As the days wears on, it’s becoming obvious to me that I’m not going to be able to manage it until I’m feeling better.

Ideally, that will be tomorrow, but if I start feeling even worse then maybe not.

I’m sorry. Believe me, I want to make progress on this book just as much as you guys want to read it.

 

Chapter 199 – An Exchange of Blows

Siobhan

Month 8 Day 14, Saturday 8:50 p.m.

There was no response to Siobhan’s challenge. As the streetlamp’s light flickered for a painfully long moment, she slid her hands along the spell rod and found the segment for a light spell without looking. She snapped open that array and dropped her barrier spell so as not to give away her ability to dual-cast so early, then cast the light projectile. It was one of a few new spells that she had added to her utility list.

A bright sphere shot up and out in a long arc, reaching the edge of the rain barrier and exploding in a flash of eye-searing brightness as it impacted the almost solid wall of rain. The water diffused the light, illuminating a dark silhouette just on the other side.

They were too distorted by the flowing water for Siobhan to make out any details, but they clearly flinched away from the light projectile’s point of impact.

Siobhan grinned. “Found you!” she intoned, sing-song and under her breath. She was, admittedly, feeling a little crazed from the stress.

This situation didn’t feel like it could get much worse, but somehow, after months and months of feeling an inescapable foreboding, it was almost a relief for the thread to finally have snapped.

The silhouette hesitated, then stepped through the rain, which parted over around them like a bead curtain. They wore a leather mask depicting a human face that looked just a little too realistic.

Is that made from human skin?’ Siobhan wondered wildly.

But instead of eyes, or even holes to see through, it bore two flat stones, the perfect size for skipping across placid water. “Tch, you’re no fun,” they said.

Siobhan couldn’t tell their gender from their voice, and their form gave nothing away either. They walked toward her sinuously. They wore a long leather jacket that reminded her of Professor Lacer’s, though theirs was threaded through with bands of metal and embroidered with glyphs around the edges. Probably not a Pendragon Operative, which left either an Architect of Khronos or a Red Guard agent.

Siobhan instinctively tried to take a step back, only to be reminded that her back was against the wall. “What do you want?”

“To see the Raven Queen, of course. There are so many rumors about you, and the High Crown is rather upset about it. But even if not for him, we would want to meet you anyway.”

“Red Guard agent,” Siobhan said. An Architect could have just gotten Kiernan to pass along their request for a meeting.

The agent tilted their head to the side, hands on their hips. “Yes.” They reached slowly into the inner pocket of their leather jacket and retrieved the iconic red shield symbol. “Do you know, the more we researched, the more intrigued we became? But you’re a hard person to meet. We had to make it rain an inconvenient amount, trying over and over to get this rare opportunity for our destinies to align. Do you know how many people with some vague connection to the Raven Queen we’ve almost caught by accident? And you almost tricked us with that little appearance in Silva Erde.”

“It only works in the rain?” Siobhan asked. She tried to remember if she’d been out in the rain recently. She had, in fact, on several occasions. Except that it had always been as Sebastien. It was possible they’d found and discarded her multiple times, not knowing who she was. “It’s not sympathetic magic, then. How does it work?”

“We’re well aware that you have some impressive defenses against sympathetic magic. No, this spell is entirely different. More like creating the opportunity for a moment outside of real space. With us both under the rain, all the threads of our destiny warp to allow us to meet for a time, so long as the spell persists. A fortuitous encounter.”

Siobhan narrowed her eyes, searching the last few minutes of her memory with frantic precision. “Outside of real space?” she repeated under her breath. She could recall no coherent street names, house numbers, or business signs. The letters were jumbled in her memory, approximating words but not quite matching, the numbers sometimes turned the wrong direction and entirely out of order. It was too dark to see outside of the rain barrier now, but she was pretty sure none of the surrounding houses and buildings would have matched up with what she had memorized of the city.

“Space magic, some kind of separate pocket that approximates Gilbratha,” she deduced. “What happens when the spell falls?”

The agent remained silent, their expression hidden completely under the mask as those flat pebbles stared at Siobhan in place of eyes.

There were several options, but the most advantageous would be that Siobhan exited the space where she had entered it, and the agent did the same, hopefully far away. “I was under the impression that your agents run in teams of at least two. Where is your partner?”

They weren’t stupid or reckless enough to answer. Presumably, at least one more agent was maintaining this space-bending, “destiny-warping” spell. There could be more.

“What kind of Aberrant components would create an effect like this?” Siobhan tried. “Nightmare-type?”

They chuckled. “Really, the classifications are too vague to be effective. Some bureaucrat thought a consistent labeling scheme would be a nice accomplishment to write on his gravestone and forced that uselessness on the rest of us. But I think this would be labeled pretty squarely as a Mystic-type with an Eldritch facet.”

Mystic-types were a long-range subset of Blight and Nightmare-types. They affected people or places far away from themselves, often with methods that were difficult to trace. Rather than shooting a fireball like a Scourge-type might, a Mystic-type would cause someone three kilometers away to spontaneously combust. And Eldritch-types had strange and abstract effects, often dealing with time, space, emotion, or some sort of weird concept like “truth.”

Siobhan let out a long, low breath at the agent’s confirmation. The Red Guard really were using Aberrants for components. She understood how useful that obviously was, but there was something repulsive about the idea.

The agent tilted their head to the side and broke the silence. “Did you know, one of the theories about you is that you’re an Aberrant?”

Siobhan blinked the water out of her eyes. “One that can speak, like the Dawn Troupe or Red Sage? But…surely my actions, even from the most distorted accounts, are a bit more complex than that? If I were an Aberrant, it would be impossible for me to resist propagating whatever my magical effect was for this long. There would have been signs.”

“Signs like the Raven Queen’s fervent and growing following?” The smile was very apparent in the agent’s voice. “Some Aberrant effects are subtle. But not to worry. You have been seen casting various spells on several occasions. As you probably know, Aberrants can only create their specific anomalous effect, no matter how amazingly lucid they might seem. Even if you had the strangest break event possible, an Aberrant would have been limited a little more than some of the reports indicate. But you are a blood sorceress, are you not?”

Siobhan remained silent. The Red Guard might practice blood magic themselves, as was clear from what had happened to the Moore family, but that didn’t mean they would allow others to do so indiscriminately. After all, they also encouraged the belief that blood magic led to corrupted Wills and break events.

“We have proof. You’ve used a Lino-Wharton messenger spell on multiple occasions, and some flesh-molding spells, and perhaps even some nightmare curses.”

“Nightmare curses?”

The agent shrugged. “Well, we didn’t find firm evidence of that, so it’s debatable. But with public opinion as it is…”

“Who would believe me if I protested?” Siobhan asked bitterly. “Is that why you’re here, then? To arrest me? Or maybe you want the book?”

They hesitated. “We are interested in the book, of course, but that’s not why you and I are here. No, we’ve met tonight to determine your fate. I am giving you an opportunity, real and finite. If you win, you deserve to survive. You’ll keep your life, your autonomy, your name. If I win…” They reached into their pocket and pulled out a severed hand, which they gripped by the wrist. It was a little bulkier than a standard human hand, and at first Siobhan thought it had been skinned.

The hand was light pink, like candy rather than muscle, with slightly glowing veins pulsing through the flesh. Its tips formed claws, though without any actual keratin. The bright pink flesh simply came to a curved point. “If I win, then I will take all of those things from you. If you win, or can last three minutes against me, you’ll be given the chance to make a request and have it heard. No matter what magic you use, you will find that every attack only brings you closer to defeat.”

What an incredibly arrogant thing to say.’ It was meant to intimidate, of course, and Siobhan was loathe to admit that it had worked.

“Your three minutes start now.” The Red Guard agent began to slip their own left hand into the wrist, as if it were a glove, and the flesh wriggled and throbbed as it sucked up their fingers. Their other hand reached into their pocket, likely for some kind of battle artifact.

Siobhan’s hands moved quicker than they ever had in her life, snapping open another of her spell rod’s segments even as she shot a second light projectile directly at the agent’s masked face. She followed that up with three rapid-fire fabric slicing spells, modified from their original form into a rotating disk of air that was a lot more powerful over longer distances. She shot one of the slicing spells directly behind the light projectile and the following two to either side, hoping that at least one of the three would catch the agent’s exposed neck, even if they tried to dodge.

They ducked, and the light projectile skimmed right over their head.

Siobhan reached in her satchel for the potions organized within.

The slicing spells, normally almost invisible, caught the raindrops as they shot through the air, scattering tiny beads of water and giving themselves away. The agent dodged the first two, and then caught the third with the grotesque pink glove.

The tip of the claws glowed, trailing a tiny after-image in the air as if they were slicing space itself. Siobhan’s spell broke apart, energy spilling out around the thick clawed fingers with a distorted whooshing sound.

Siobhan’s eyes widened and she almost choked on the proprioception philtre of darkness she was swallowing. She dashed the remainder of that vial and a second one against the ground between them and sprang to the side as the clouds of darkness exploded outward.

Her hand dug into her satchel again, coming back with her battle wand, which was fully charged. She shot three stunning spells through the darkness, her aim just a little off as her sense of self expanded beyond the confines of her body.

Despite the thick black clouds surrounding them, the agent seemed to sense the battle spells and was able to slide sinuously between them, catching only the crackling edges along their protective clothing. Their pebble-eyed mask still seemed to be looking right at her, and Siobhan’s suspicion that they could still somehow sense her through the darkness gained weight as they began to walk toward her. They stretched out their left hand toward her, the flesh-glove’s pink glow smothered by the black clouds. When they put it on, it had covered only their hand. Now it was creeping up their forearm, painful-looking tendrils stretching out and clamping down hard enough to cut off the blood supply.

Siobhan shoved her battle wand in her mouth, holding it between her teeth as she used her freed hand to rifle around in her satchel for a small component. She retrieved a short leather cord tied in a simple noose knot, popped open yet another spell array segment, and pressed the knot to the slightly sticky spot she had prepared in the component Circle ahead of time. She spat out her battle wand, switched its output to concussive blasts, and shot two of them while her Will handled a simple unlocking spell with detached output.

She poured every speck of power she could channel into the unlocking spell, even as she took her battle wand between her teeth again and opened the spell rod’s stone-disintegration and gust spell array in quick succession. Both her mind and her hands worked with a nimble coordination and instant precision that she might have found gratifying in a less dire situation.

As the agent dodged both concussive blasts, every knot, buckle, and button on their clothing sprang open. The straps holding their mask to their head released, though it didn’t fall away from their face.

Siobhan grinned fiercely around the shaft of her battle wand as she cast the stone-disintegration spell with the other half of her Will. It was rare for clothes to be warded against the very simple unlocking spell, which wasn’t meant for clothing at all but, with the right application of Will, could be bent toward that purpose.

To the agent’s credit, they didn’t stop to try and retie their boots, merely grabbed their belt with their right hand and used the shoulder of their left arm to keep their mask pressed in place while they—seemingly instinctively—threw themselves out of the way of Siobhan’s follow-up concussive blast in a contorted twist.

The agent was a much better duelist than she was, and if they’d been attacking as well as defending, she would have stood no chance. But they couldn’t have anticipated that she could cast two spells at the same time while also attacking with a battle wand.

In the darkness, they dodged right into the rain-slicked tripping hazard she’d disintegrated into the cobblestones where she anticipated they would move. Their untied boots did nothing to support their ankles, and they began to fall.

Siobhan waved the spell rod, a detached-output gust spell gathering up raindrops and pelting them into the side of the agent’s mask with enough speed and impact that they sounded like pebbles shot from a sling. She kept the spell going even as she turned to run, hoping to dislodge their creepy mask and maybe irritate their eyes.

She sprinted out of the dark clouds of her philtre, which were already beginning to thin under the effects of the rain. The air outside of the clouds was surprisingly sharp and cold. Siobhan wrung out every ounce of explosive speed Fekten had drilled into her, trying to reach the edge of the rain barrier.

She shoved her battle wand back into her satchel and skidded around the nearest corner.

She was growing closer to the rain barrier at first, but the single shining streetlamp was somehow ahead of her rather than behind. Siobhan’s sense of space tripped over itself as she tried to reorient.

And then the Red Guard agent stepped leisurely around the corner a few meters in front of her.

Days passed faster than my sense of time could keep up with, and today I looked up and realized we’ve only got a few left until the early release of this book on my shop. (It’ll be delivered midnight of the 15th from me, and the 20th for other bookstores.)

I don’t like having chapters on the Patreon be behind what people can access if they pay for the complete book, and we’re also almost at the 200-chapter milestone, which I wanted to give a bonus for anyway.

For these reasons, I’m going to do daily chapter releases until Saturday, when we reach the end of the book. Even though it means I have to go on a hiatus to build up the backlog again, this seems preferable than keeping you guys hanging past the point the book is published.

 

Chapter 198 – Strange Phenomena

Sebastien

Month 8 Day 13, Friday 11:00 p.m.

Sebastien had to knock for a while before Thomas the doorman and pseudo-butler opened the door for her, sleepy eyed. “Sorry about the late hour. Is Oliver here?”

Thomas nodded silently, his eyes flicking up toward Oliver’s study and giving her all the information she needed.

She strode toward the stairs without further delay. However, she stopped at the study door, bracing herself to see Oliver in person once more. She did a quick check of her body, straightened her shoulders, lifted her chin, and smoothed her expression as close to the placid perfection of a lake as she could manage. Then she knocked.

Oliver took a long few seconds to respond. “Come in.”

He was rubbing his eyes tiredly as she opened the door, but his hands fell down as he saw her. His complicated tie had been pulled loose and his sleeves were rolled up to his forearms. “This is an unexpected visit,” he said. It had been months since the last time they had spoken in person, and the letters they exchanged were far from personal. “Is something wrong?”

“I know that you’ve had some continued business with the Architects of Khronos. Were you aware that they’ve sent a force to kidnap a group of people from Osham?”

Oliver’s expression flattened. “No. Where did you hear about this? Who are the targets?”

“Tanya Canelo informed me earlier today, but she didn’t know much. I don’t know the targets or any other relevant information. But, considering the greater political circumstances, I found this news…concerning. I know you’re originally from Osham. I thought you might still have some contacts there.”

Oliver was nodding rapidly to himself, his gaze harried and distant. He stood abruptly and moved to the cabinet that held his distagram. While Sebastien watched, he sent off several short messages in quick succession, taking only enough time to tune the communication band each time.

“I need to talk to that snake Kiernan, but I don’t have a good excuse to bust in and drag a University Grandmaster out of his bed in the middle of the night. Someone might get suspicious.”

Sebastien hesitated. “All you need is a student or faculty token to use the transport tubes, even after hours. As long as you’re circumspect, no one will even notice you were there.”

“I have some University contacts, but no way to get a token fast enough. I’ll have to wait to talk to him in the morning.” Oliver slammed his fist into the dark wood of the cabinet beside the distagram and swore. “What are they thinking!?”

Sebastien hesitated before reaching into her pocket and retrieving her student token. “Use this,” she offered, holding it out to him. It felt somewhat sour to be offering aid of any kind to Oliver, but this didn’t put her in much danger, and there was more at stake than their relationship.

Oliver’s gaze switched between the wooden token and her face. “Will you come with me, then? Perhaps as the Raven Queen?”

“No. I’m not getting involved in whatever this is. I’m a simple University student, and I plan to remain that way.”

Oliver gave her an odd look. “Okay. How do you want me to return your student token to you?”

“Leave it here. I’ll pick it up tomorrow. And whatever you’re planning to do, don’t implicate Tanya. She put herself at risk to inform me.”

“Of course. Are you going to stay the night? We haven’t touched your room.”

Sebastien shook her head. “I have other accommodations.” She shook her student token impatiently, and Oliver moved forward to get it.

He stared into her eyes as he took it, his fingers brushing against hers. “Thank you.”

Sebastien clenched her jaw for half a second. “You’re welcome.”

“Do you want some sort of payment for this?”

Sebastien hesitated, remembering his comments about the transactional nature of their relationship. She was tempted to request something cutting, but in the end said, “You can keep me updated on whatever you learn.”

Oliver tucked the wooden token away in the inner pocket of his suit vest. “I heard about your father’s escape last week. Are you…doing alright with everything?”

Sebastien clenched her jaw again, then shrugged. “He’ll never find me, even if he tries. Which I doubt he will. Knowing him, he’s scurried back to the northern islands or some other distant land and will be hiding out in some small village, cursing my name every time he gets a little too deep into his drink.”

“I’m sorry.”

She glared at him. “I’m not. Unless you count the fact that I’m sorry that piece of trash managed to escape.”

Oliver very obviously swallowed back whatever words he wanted to say. “I have to go.” He hesitated, then added, “You are welcome to stay here, if you wish. Whenever.”

Sebastien raised one eyebrow and silently spun on her heel, leaving the study and making her way back down the stairs.

Oliver followed almost immediately on her heels. When they reached the street in front of his small manor’s gates, they turned in different directions.

Sebastien didn’t look back. After about a block, her pounding heart settled. She paused after turning the corner and rubbed at her shoulders, neck, and the sides of her jaw to release the tension there. “Damn you, Oliver,” she muttered. What right did he have to act like he cared?

Resolutely, she put the matter from her mind and walked on, taking in the fresh night air after the recent rain.

When she got to her apartment, she opened Professor Lacer’s letter. It was short, notifying her that they had completed their half of the agreement and inquiring when they could meet to collaborate on Myrddin’s other three journals. He also asked if she had any involvement in Ennis Naught’s freedom.

Sebastien drew a spark-shooting array on her little folding slate lap table and watched the letter burn to ash.

She drew out her dreamless sleep spell in oils and tinctures on her pillow, then dragged her bed underneath the window cut into the angled ceiling so that she could look at the stars as she fell asleep. She’d found she could tell when her raven was becoming unbearably weary because some of her normal fatigue began to accumulate again.

In the morning, she picked up her student token from Dryden manor, though Oliver was not home to give her an update. Sharon was there and made a lot of fuss about how much she’d missed Sebastien before roping her into breakfast with the rest of the servants.

After that, her belly round with food, she sent a quick letter via runner to Damien, who was overly prone to worry and might foolishly panic that she had never made it back to the University the night before. Then she devoted herself once more to opening Myrddin’s journal.

Halfway through the day, she succeeded again, only to immediately lose control as she tried to turn the pages too fast, eager to get back to the place she had left off last time.

Sebastien stared down at the incomprehensible, squiggly ink lines and shifting diagrams and almost threw the book across the room. Only supreme, saint-like patience allowed her to close it firmly and put it back into the warded chest.

After that, she was too frustrated to make much progress on anything, so she gave up and made another visit to the artisan who had created her spell rod. She was going to invest in an experimental business venture with the man. Plans and paperwork took most of the afternoon, and then she went through the very long and unpleasant process of transforming into a disguised variation of her female form to visit Liza.

The older woman helped to recast the sleep-proxy spell with a fresh raven, and then they had dinner together, which Siobhan ended up cooking most of because, even after so many years, Liza’s only real skill in the kitchen revolved around the teapot. Usually, the woman ate simple meals that required little preparation or went out to eat, but with Siobhan in tow it was unwise to spend time in a public location.

Liza had been practicing some of Professor Lacer’s exercises, which Siobhan found somehow both vindictively satisfying and ironic, and after dinner they competed with a metal ball around a Circle, just as the students had in the Practical Casting in-class tournament during term one.

Liza won, but only by devouring the wax of her tiny candle as Sacrifice more quickly than Siobhan could do the same for hers. The limitation of a single candle was supposed to keep them on even footing, but when they had sucked the flame dry and moved on to the wax, capacity mattered once more. The woman sniffed loudly and hid her smile behind the rim of her teacup, while Siobhan suppressed the urge to accuse her of cheating.

I could have won, too, if I’d resorted to dual-casting,’ she thought.

It was almost dark by the time she left, mentally charting out her route to the next safe place she would use to transform back into Sebastien.

In the time she had been inside with Liza, clouds had rolled over the sky, filtering out the light of the sunset into something bruise-purple and dramatic. Without fanfare, it began to rain once more. Sighing, Siobhan reached into her satchel to retrieve the plain black umbrella she had taken to carrying around with her lately. ‘One would think some weather thaumaturge is experimenting over Gilbratha with all this rain. Isn’t summer supposed to be dry? Maybe it’s because we’re so close to the coast.

But her umbrella wasn’t there. Siobhan cursed as she realized that she had left it back at the dorms on Friday. The rain quickly swelled from a light drizzle to fat, heavy droplets of warm water, as if the sky were weeping. Around her, people began to hurry, those without umbrellas using their bags, clothes, or convenient newspapers as shields against the sorrow of the heavens. And, as always seemed to happen in times like these, there wasn’t a carriage for hire to be seen.

I need to find shelter or some way to keep dry. The rain might damage my disguise.’ She slipped one hand into her satchel as her mind spun over various options. ‘Grubb’s barrier spell would make a perfect umbrella. And it’s one of the options in my spell rod. But would casting that possibly draw more attention to me in this part of town?’ She was at least a kilometer north of the Mires, but not surrounded by so many rich or powerful people that having a water-repelling artifact or casting a spell for such a minor inconvenience would be seen as normal.

Her neck tingled uncomfortably, and Siobhan realized that she had begun walking faster without realizing it. She slowed her steps, searching for a glass window in which she could search behind herself as she wondered at the cause of her unease. ‘Did I subconsciously notice something off without realizing it?

She turned all of her attention toward observation, her fingers curling around her spell rod and drawing it from her satchel.

A couple dozen meters down the street, the rain began to fall even more heavily, creating a stark delineation. She tracked the path of this increased rainfall, and as her head swiveled, she saw that there was a similar phenomenon on the street behind her. She found the correct segment of her spell rod and twisted it open, then immediately cast Grubb’s barrier spell, distanced from the top edge by about a foot, as she had built into the spell array when she created it.

As the dome of force appeared, she held up the spell rod like an umbrella and used the shield she had created to peer up and around, trying to make out if the rain was falling heavier around her in a huge Circle as the tingling horror along her arms and the back of her skull suggested.

While the barrier spell might draw attention to her, it might also provide some small measure of protection against an attack with physical properties.

There was a change in the feel of the air, a shift in the muffled sounds of the city past the rain, and an intangible sense of isolation.

The air, which had smelled clear, sharp, and a little salty, took on the smell of something Siobhan couldn’t identify but which raised goosebumps along her skin.

Siobhan took a sharp turn to the right, heading down the sidewalk of a major cross-street. Her eyes swept around, examining everyone nearby for suspicious behavior. She tried to keep her face impassive and her pace only as hurried as the other pedestrians who wanted to get out of the rain.

I have to assume whatever this is, it is targeting me. But who is behind it?’ Unfortunately, Siobhan had too many potential enemies to narrow them down. ‘How did they find me? Did they follow me from Liza’s? Is it possible that she sold me out?

The barrier of heavier rain was following her.

Siobhan’s eyes trailed along the rooftops. Although she found no one there, her cheeks paled as she noticed an oddity in the windows of all the buildings. Normally, those without glass, wax paper, or some other protection against the rain would have been shuttered tight. But they were all open.

And behind them, people were peeking out, their faces obscured by rain, curtains, or shadows. ‘They’re all watching me.

Siobhan’s breath hitched, and she forced it to smooth. ‘How is that possible? What is happening?

An idea sparked in her mind, followed by a sudden rush of hope. She lifted her free left hand and pinched her nostrils closed, closed her mouth, and then attempted to breath in through her nose. It was a little trick that she’d read in a book but never found use for before, because the faint remnants of her dreams that occasionally slipped through her dreamless sleep spell weren’t so normal or coherent as to allow her to become lucid while asleep. But she knew that, in a dream, attempting this would have her breathe through her closed nose, a clear indication that what was happening was not real.

She got no air, even though she strained hard enough to wrench something inside her chest. ‘This is real.

Siobhan lamented her lack of foresight. Despite all of the preparations she had made, she hadn’t replaced her sympathetically connected bracelets with anything else, partially because she felt she could no longer trust Oliver or Katerin and did not want to be on call for their own emergencies. ‘I don’t know what to do. Back to Liza’s? Get to one of my emergency stashes and flee the city?

Very quickly, the few people who remained outside were disappearing. Though normally Siobhan would assume they were just hurrying to get out of the rain, the way some people were literally turning around and walking away from her, regardless of the direction they had been going before, worried her. It was as if there was some kind of repulsive force not only keeping out the absolute deluge of rain the rest of the city was experiencing but also urging others to leave this strange Circle.

What worried her even more was that, somehow, she couldn’t see the faces of the people around her. Whether they were covered by umbrellas, arms raised to hold some more makeshift barrier overhead, or they just ducked away or turned their heads at the perfect time to avoid her glance, she could never make out their features.

People were still watching through the windows. They, too, were serendipitously faceless.

Siobhan had the creeping feeling that if she were to stomp up toward one of the windows and stare unblinking, when the coincidences keeping her from seeing them clearly ran out, they would be truly featureless, a smooth span of flesh in the shape of a head. ‘If I grabbed one of these pedestrians and swung them around to look at me, what would I see?

Siobhan had read and heard enough horror stories to know better than to attempt such a thing.

As abruptly as possible, she pivoted into an alley to the right and flicked the switch on her dowsing artifact. When she hit the next street, she turned right again, going back in the general direction she’d come from. It was a bold decision, and she kept a sharp eye on the edge of the heavy rain as she hurried back the way she’d come. Was it her imagination, or had the Circle lagged behind for a couple of seconds after her abrupt change in direction?

She was suddenly alone, as if she had blinked and everyone else had disappeared. The pedestrians that had been walking along the sidewalk were all gone. There were carriages at the end of the street, but even as she watched they disappeared through the boundary of rain.

Clamping down on a rush of terror, Siobhan sprinted forward and around another corner. She was not fleeing mindlessly, but hoping against hope that she could outpace the spell, or at least the spellcaster. Rain pooling between the cobblestones splashed out with every footstep, and she was grateful not to be wearing a dress whose skirt would get soggy and heavy.

That was when the streetlamps began to go out.

As soon as the barrier of rain in front of her passed the light, it died, flickering out even as it passed into the Circle. Only those that had been inside with her before the effect started remained lit. This happened twice more before Siobhan realized that if this continued, she would eventually be plunged into darkness. And she was showing no signs of being able to outrun the Circle of relatively lighter rain.

With only one streetlamp remaining, Siobhan skidded to a stop near the metal pole. She pressed herself to the side of the building nearest it, not so close to the light that she would blind herself to any attacks from the darkness. ‘What kind of spell does something like this?’ she wondered. ‘If I had to guess, it seems most likely to be some kind of mind-affecting curse that’s controlling my perceptions. Either that…or something like what the old man did at Knave Knoll. This is all too big, too crazy, to be a standard spell actually affecting reality. And I’m pretty sure they don’t have any pieces of me to work with, nor have I done something that would be an obvious method to anchor binding magic.

Siobhan took a deep breath and yelled out, “A spell like this comes from one of three sources. You are an Architect of Khronos, an agent of the Red Guard, or a Pendragon operative. Come out and face me!”

Her words were swallowed up by the seething choir of a million raindrops, and the crystal of the streetlamp began to flicker weakly.

 

We are nearing the end of this book. That’s the good news, because there’s fun stuff ahead. 🙂

The bad news: Based on my lack of sufficient backlog, I’m going to have to take a bit of a hiatus on the weekly chapters after this book comes out so that I can produce some chapters for Book 5. I’m not sure how long yet; it’ll depend how fast I can get Book 5’s plotting finished. It’s hard to predict exactly because sometimes I get stuck and have to think my way through or around a problem.

Seeing a locked chapter that should be unlocked?: https://www.azaleaellis.com/trouble-accessing-chapters/

 

Chapter 197 – A Life’s Work

Sebastien

Month 8 Day 9, Monday 5:15 p.m.

Sebastien’s eyes eagerly focused on the first page of Myrddin’s journal. His handwriting was a little messy, somewhat overly looping and decorative, but she could read it with a little extra effort.

The first page held a single paragraph. Some of the words were spelled strangely, and some of them were archaic choices that she’d never heard anyone actually use. These, she mentally translated into what she guessed were their contemporary counterparts to more easily parse the meaning.

I considered writing this in my native language, but it has been so long the movements feel strange under the tip of my pen, and my hand is clumsy with it. To think what it would be like to attempt with a quill! I find before me the endeavor of a lifetime, a goal truly worthy of all my efforts, and I can only lament that I wasted so much time on foolishness and self-indulgence. I will make penance for the consequences of my actions by fixing the wrongs I have caused, if it is the last thing I do. Please wait, and though I do not deserve it, please forgive me, as I can never forgive myself.

That was all it said.

When Sebastien turned the page, the paper briefly flashed with another two glyphs. She almost fumbled the switch in her Will’s focus, but though her heart jumped in trepidation, the contents of the journal remained clear.

Sebastien let out a tremulous breath of relief. The contents of the next page seemed completely disconnected from what she quickly realized must have been a preface.

That jackass Tarquin has come up with a viable method for self-charging artifacts.

I cannot hate him too much, as it seems likely that this will be a critical component of The Work, and he has unknowingly made my job easier.

But the concept will need improvement. And testing. Lots of testing.

I cannot make any more mistakes where it counts.

After that, the rest of the page and the one after contained complex calculations, some diagrams, and what seemed to be various spell array elements that were never quite combined into a whole. Myrddin had added notes and questions to himself, sometimes answering them and sometimes seeming to skip to some other only tangentially related idea.

This is the method to create self-charging artifacts like my transformation amulet,’ Sebastien thought, her chest filling with wonder and delight. That delight soon sank away. ‘But I cannot understand it at all.

She wasn’t sure if that was because Myrddin’s notes were nearly incomprehensible or if she simply didn’t know enough about artificery and whatever other underlying principles he was referencing. She had wanted to take that class and been forced to give up the idea, but even after two semesters of artificery, she doubted she would be able to figure out what Myrddin was talking about.

Reading while continuing to apply her Will in two different directions was difficult, and she couldn’t even begin to attempt to puzzle out anything confusing. She had only the barest shred of concentration left over. To be able to study anything from Myrddin’s journal, she would need to copy it out elsewhere by rote, then release her Will from the journal.

Every time Sebastien turned the page, two more glyphs flashed, and she had to quickly switch the focus of her Will. Even though she wasn’t channeling any power, keeping the book from descending into incomprehensibility again was surprisingly straining in a different way than unlocking it in the first place had been. After a few minutes she could already feel her mind growing tired. It was like holding one’s arms straight out to either side. It seemed like it should have been effortless, but soon enough even strong muscles would start to burn, tremble, and falter.

Sebastien moved faster, skimming over the pages instead of trying to read them in detail with her faltering attention.

Myrddin finished the development of the self-charging artifact’s concept, and over four pages after that, wrote down some truncated spell instructions and a full set of spell arrays. It was all still far beyond her, but at least somewhat more comprehensible than his notes had been.

The pages after that dealt with a second method to achieve the same thing, and just as she was turning the page of what seemed to be yet a third method to create self-charging artifacts, her Will slipped.

Sebastien drew back her concentration with a flinch, but there was no pain, confusion, or frayed thoughts. She hadn’t actually been casting, after all. With no energy being channeled, there was nothing to cause backlash.

She stared at the incomprehensible pages, then laughed, giddiness bubbling up and out of her throat like a living thing. She stood and paced back and forth wildly, unable to contain all of her energy in stillness. ‘I did it. I did it!’ she crowed internally.

And it turns out Myrddin actually wasn’t the initial inventor of the self-charging artifact, though he seems to have improved and expanded upon the initial concept quite a lot. I’m pretty sure that last method was using a beast core for energy, which is definitely a lost art,’ Sebastien thought, remembering a small footnote in a book she’d read about artificery.

Myrddin was also rumored to have developed artifacts that could be triggered with Will alone. Maybe this journal would explain how that worked, if she could get far enough into it. Maybe it would explain how he had made her transformation amulet. ‘Truly, wondrous knowledge lies between these pages,’ she thought, hugging the book to her chest like it was a beloved child. ‘It might not have the answer to creating purified celerium, but to me, other lost knowledge is just as valuable. And I am the only one with access.

It was easy to see how some thaumaturges grew so greedy with their spells and little inventions. There was something about being the only one to have a secret, to decide who might know and who would remain ignorant, that felt like being better than everyone else. It wasn’t true, of course, but she could see how one might get the two confused and be unable to give up on that perception out of pride or fear.

Once Sebastien had gotten over her fit of giddiness, she spent the rest of the evening trying to get back into the journal.

She had no success, and returned to the dorms barely in time to avoid missing curfew.

This repeated for the next three days, until on Friday, the newspapers reported on a confirmed sighting of the Raven Queen in Silva Erde.

The Architects of Khronos had used the raven-summoning spell in the middle of a large city, in the middle of the day. And that evening, they had cast a giant illusion on low hanging clouds. A woman cloaked in fluttering, tattered darkness walked through the firmament, appearing from the curve of one cloud and eventually disappearing behind another, returning to the darkness from whence she came.

I’m pretty sure they just cast a light spell up at the clouds and then used a moving silhouette to simulate the Raven Queen moving above,’ Sebastien deduced based on her own experience with how overblown the newspaper reports could be.

The papers were all speculating about why the Raven Queen had moved to Silva Erde, with many of them stating with confidence that she must have run from Lenore to escape the Thirteen Crowns’ power. Despite only a week having passed since Ennis’s escape from the labor camp, none of the reporters dared to jump to what must have been the obvious, enticing speculation about whether or not she had broken him free.

The coppers probably won’t let their guard down entirely, but I’m sure they’ll stop looking so hard. Maybe in a couple of months, I can get the Architects to fake another sighting and really solidify the idea that I’ve left.

Sebastien stopped by the library after Practical Casting to finish her homework, planning to go to her apartment again right after dinner.

But Ana skipped up beside her and announced, “We’re going to the Glasshopper! Damien’s treat, in exchange for losing the bet with me on Monday. Set aside whatever ridiculous study project you’re working on and come with us! Consider it active recovery.”

Sebastien hesitated, but the offer of free, delectable food, when compared against another evening of disappointment and frustration, was simply too good to pass up. With a surge of defiance, she agreed.

Talk among her friends was mostly focused around the end of month exams and magical exhibitions. Sebastien listened without contributing her own opinion, allowing her mind to relax and ride the gentle waves of conversation.

Rhett was the only one not with them, as he had a previously scheduled date with some upper-term duelist woman that he’d been struggling to get to pay attention to him all term.

As they approached the transport tubes, one of the faculty members across the white stone entrance area watched their group with a bit too much interest for Sebastien’s comfort.

Waverly peeked at the man from under her fringe of black hair, then moved to the other side so that Brinn and Damien would keep her out of sight. As the smallest of their group, the others made easy cover. “Hurry,” she muttered.

The transport tube guard, there to facilitate and coordinate transportation and shipments for the commoners without University tokens, narrowed his eyes suspiciously.

But Sebastien’s group was already traveling down before a frustrated, “Wait!” came from the faculty member. By then it was too late to stop them.

Waverly sagged with a relieved sigh, then pushed up her glasses and lifted her head to stare up at the man expressionlessly.

Brinn glanced between them. “Waverly?” he asked, the question clear in his voice.

She huffed. “I’m not actually allowed to leave University grounds right now. Too many demerits this semester.”

“I didn’t know you had that many. Is this because of that time you tried to sneak into the High Tower? I told you not to irritate Archmage Zard. You know no one but him and his apprentices are allowed in there.”

Waverly pursed her small, pink lips. “I heard he had a kelpie captured inside. Do you know how rare those are? If Archmage Zard would have just responded to my letter asking to visit, I wouldn’t have had to break in.”

“But you didn’t break in! You failed! You got caught, and it was enough to get you grounded. What happens if you get even more demerits from this?”

Sebastien had vaguely heard about this fracas earlier in the semester, but thankfully Waverly, unlike Ana, hadn’t tried to pull Sebastien into any of her schemes, and so had taken the punishment alone.

“That wasn’t what got her grounded,” Ana said softly, the smallest twitch of her lips hinting at amusement.

Waverly shot the taller girl a look of betrayal.

Brinn just stared down at his best friend silently, like some kind of sad, droopy tree.

“Fine!” Waverly cried, throwing her hands up. “I was also accused of colluding with the familiar of one of the professor’s aides in my witchcraft class. It slipped the terms of its bindings.”

Alec rubbed his chin gleefully. “Oh, yeah. His familiar torched all of his things, right? Including his Master’s thesis, all of his notes, and even some family heirlooms? That was you?”

“All well-deserved revenge,” Waverly huffed. “He was abusing her. And they didn’t even have any proof that I was involved.”

Brinn raised his eyebrows, then looked to Ana for the truth.

Waverly crossed her arms. “Just because she really liked me and came to visit me after she was free doesn’t mean I colluded with her!”

“That she came to visit during the disciplinary hearing, looking like a tiny fire version of you, and gave you some ashes from her former master’s belongings probably didn’t help,” Ana muttered dryly.

“Ashes born from revenge are a perfectly useful spell component,” Waverly snapped back.

“How did I not know about this?” Brinn asked. “We’re best friends, Waverly!”

“You were too busy playing with your trees and that herbology project! And I wouldn’t have to keep secrets if you weren’t such a nagging grandmother. You know that demerits don’t actually matter, right?”

Brinn opened and closed his mouth like a fish, his eyebrows falling from their hurt upward curve to a flat stare.

Waverly gulped. “I was just feeling lonely because you were ignoring me!” she tried. And before Brinn could respond, her childlike arm rose and pointed accusingly at Alec. “And Alec killed the tree you gave him! He drowned it.”

Damien gasped dramatically, then elbowed Sebastien in the side and flashed her a secretive grin. “Alec, how could you!?”

Alec looked around for sympathy. Finding none, he threw up his hands in exasperation. “I accidentally overwatered it! Don’t say I drowned it. That sounds like I murdered it or something. I was just trying to take good care of it, and then when it got sick, I tried giving it more water…and well, you know.”

“I gave you specific care instructions,” Brinn said flatly.

“It…looked thirsty?” Alec tried, cringing away. As soon as they reached the bottom of the tube, he rushed out into the open air and hurried to flag down a carriage. “Oh, it seems we have too many people to ride together. I’ll just take this one and go on ahead. See you guys at the Glasshopper!”

Sebastien and her four remaining friends squeezed into a second carriage.

Brinn looked at all of them. “The trees I gave you guys are still alive, right?”

“Of course,” Sebastien agreed immediately. Everyone else nodded with varying degrees of confidence.

“I should check up on them, just in case,” Brinn decided, totally distracted from Waverly’s indiscretions.

As they rode, Ana turned to Sebastien and spoke softly. “All the ventures I’ve taken on as the Gervin heir have been going well. Especially the one with Lord Dryden. I’m hoping to collaborate on a few more projects with him. But I thought you might be interested to know that I went ahead and invested in the research we talked about.”

Sebastien searched her memory for a conversation about research, but before she found it, Ana said, “The research that uses bini frogs and their hormonal sex changes.” She paused and added, “To allow two women to have a child together?”

“Oh. Well, that’s great.” Sebastien nodded encouragingly.

Ana smiled softly. “Yeah. If not for our conversation that day, I daresay my life would be a lot different right now. Thank you.”

“Maybe it wouldn’t have been exactly like this, but I believe you would have done something about your uncles even without me.”

“Maybe hired an assassin!” Ana joked.

Their meal at the Glasshopper was as sublime as the only other time Sebastien had been there. This time, a group of air witches were playing a quartet of harps backed up by an oboe. The entrancing music shivered through the air and across her skin like a physical touch, while the meal exposed her to textures and flavors that would no doubt ruin her for ordinary food if she experienced such luxury too often.

As they all reached the limits of their stomach capacity and began to get sloppy on alcohol, Damien grew quiet and distracted, frowning into his bubbly, frothing drink, which had come in a tiny edible cauldron.

“Father is going to be sentenced soon,” Alec announced. “I really hope they put him in a labor camp. I heard sometimes people get out with just a huge fine and their Family name stripped from them. Can you imagine how he would be?” He shuddered.

“He killed a prostitute. They found some pretty good evidence. You always do time for murder,” Ana said. She paused to hiccup, then continued, “And more importantly, my father wouldn’t let him stay free to stab him in the back out of some misdirected revenge.”

Damien swirled his drink, letting false smoke spill over the side and down his hands. “My father has been away for months, and it’s been wonderful. I wish he oversaw army training exercises all the time.”

Ana swayed in her seat, frowning in confusion as she popped a glowing candy the size of a grape into her mouth. It exploded audibly, and she sneezed out gold and red sparks. “I thought Lord Westbay was training the private security for some new research facility. You know, after what happened with that terrorist attack. Maybe it was just a rumor.”

“Well, maybe it’s true. Not like Father would bother to tell me anything,” Damien said sardonically. “Even Titus has been too busy to have me home for the weekend for weeks now.”

Ana rounded on Damien, accidentally twisted too far, and Sebastien had to catch her to keep her from tipping her chair over backward.

“Thank you,” Ana said, patting Sebastien’s arm like someone would praise a dog. “Damien! Titus is putting too much responsibility on you. I know you’re excited about your Harrow Hill internship this fall, but it hasn’t even started and just the practice p-project is driving you to distraction. You shouldn’t have to develop new filing methods all by yourself, don’t you think? Hire an expert, I say. You’re not a clerk. And isn’t it so sad that you haven’t even seen your brother in weeks? Why is he too busy to make time for you?” She sniffed loudly, her lower lip pouting out.

Brinn gave everyone a pacifying smile. “I’m sure Titus has been very busy, what with the Raven Queen and those Architects of Khronos people on top of everything else.”

“Do you think Nat’s sad, too?” Ana asked softly. “She’s probably lonely and too thoughtful to say anything, don’t you think?”

As if he hadn’t heard her, Damien nodded at Brinn. “Oh, it’s not even just that. Well, maybe the Raven Queen or the Architects are behind it, but people have been disappearing from among the commoners. Investigating the disappearances is drawing the coppers thin, and the High Crown doesn’t want to approve any budget increases because he says their performance is too poor, but really, what are they supposed to do?”

Sebastien frowned. “I didn’t know about the disappearances. Let me guess. They’re happening among the poor people? Maybe the homeless?”

“Of course.” Damien glowered into his drink. “One of the new captains discovered what seems to be systematic and escalating numbers of disappearances.”

“Blood magic or serial killer?” Waverly asked.

“Hopefully the latter,” Ana said, enunciating carefully to keep from slurring. When Brinn frowned at her judgmentally, she added, “I mean, hopefully neither, obviously. But if I had to pick one, a serial killer, human trafficker, or anything like that is way less dangerous than a blood magic user doing something horrid with all of those lives. An Aberrant endangers everybody.”

Damien and Sebastien shared a look, but they didn’t argue.

Soon after, they left the Glasshopper. It had rained while they were eating, and the warm light of the streetlamps reflected beautifully off the shallow puddles and rain-slicked cobblestones. It was the wettest summer in Siobhan’s memory, seeming to rain almost every other evening.

Before they could hail a carriage, a boy on the street corner called out, “Extra, extra! Breaking news. Red Guard fight against a rogue magic user in the streets!”

Damien took a sharp breath and seemed to partially shake off his inebriation in the few seconds it took him to reach the paper boy and buy the single leaflet of breaking news. Sebastien moved over, both of them standing beneath the streetlamp as she read over his shoulder. The “extra” didn’t actually say much of substance.

A Red Guard team had fought a running battle with a man just a few blocks east of Waterside Market earlier that evening. Some impressive spells had been tossed back and forth, but nothing like what the old Red Guard defector had cast at Knave Knoll. Several people had been injured, a jentil had died, and one person’s house had collapsed when an entire wall got blown out.

“Maybe it was the kidnapper,” Ana said, still swaying on her feet. “Trying to do blood magic.”

“Or one of the Architects,” Brinn added.

“Or one of the Raven Queen’s acolytes?” Alec said. “Just because she’s in Silva Erde doesn’t mean all of her allies have left.”

Sebastien considered several possibilities. All of them were worrying at some level. In the end, instead of escorting her friends back to the dorms herself, she stuffed them all into a carriage and paid the driver extra to ensure that they arrived safely at their destination.

Damien tried to protest, any soberness that he’d felt from his adrenaline spike clearly wearing out as his last drink of the evening hit his bloodstream.

Fortunately, Sebastien had a ready-made excuse. “There isn’t enough room. Besides, I want to pick up a few things while I’m out. I’ll be there before curfew.” Technically, on weekend nights the curfew only precluded students from wandering University grounds and buildings, and didn’t require they actually stay in the dorms. Higher-term students had even fewer restrictions.

“You can’t pay for the carriage,” he tried to tell her, quite serious but slurring. “You don’t have any money. I know all about it. Wait, no, it’s me that doesn’t have any money.” He pressed a hand to his chest, smiling sloppily. “We’re poor together, now.”

“I’m rich,” she assured him, then shoved him firmly back into his seat and shut the carriage door. As soon as the carriage was out of sight, she hurried to the lock box to check for a response from Professor Lacer. ‘I’ll swing by the apartment just to make sure it wasn’t Liza or one of Gera’s people who got taken by the Red Guard, too,’ she planned.

To her delight, there was a letter waiting for her, but when she picked it up, the smile slid from her face. There were two letters. One envelope was blank and expensive looking, as she had been expecting. The other was of much cheaper paper and had been signed with a crude drawing of a raven feather.

Sebastien ran her finger over the drawing. ‘Something from Tanya?’ she guessed. Sebastien had used a similar drawing in place of a more traditional signature a couple of times when leaving notes for the young woman in her dorm. Her suspicion mounting, she hurried to find a dark alley where she would be shielded from the sight of anyone passing by, then used her thirteen-pointed star light coaster to illuminate the paper as she opened the letter.

The message within was quite simple.

My lady, I am leaving this message for you on Friday the 13th.

Sebastien looked around again suspiciously. Tanya must have dropped it off some time earlier that day. Reassured that no one was watching her, Sebastien continued reading.

I am not sure if you will find it important, but I have overheard some loose talk by the Architects of Khronos. I suspect they are planning to kidnap a group of people from Osham, and have in fact already sent a strike team. From what I overheard, and my own speculation, this seems…big. I do not know the purpose of this assault, nor where these people may be kept, but I find the timing suspicious. It seems unlikely that they would attempt to pin such an act on you, but you are known to be traveling, and I thought you might like to know, just in case.

I hope you get this letter soon.

I will attempt to find out more if you instruct me to do so.

Loyally yours,

TC

Sebastien gave a deep sigh, tilting her head up to look at the night sky. ‘This…might be important. I think perhaps I should talk to Oliver. He’s from Osham, after all.

Chapter 196 – Ashes of the Phoenix

Siobhan

Month 7 Day 15, Thursday 12:15 a.m.

Siobhan turned the pages of Myrddin: An Investigative Chronicle of the Legend until she found a section that drew her attention.

Somewhat famously, Myrddin was said to have been given a quest by a dragon that required him to turn clay to flesh.

Siobhan had seen Professor Lacer actually do this in class, with a turtle. Of course, Professor Lacer wasn’t rumored to have created sentience, nor true life out of clay.

But if Myrddin had done something similar, it was easy to see where such exaggerated rumors came from. It was even possible that a dragon really had tried to give him an impossible task out of mischievousness or vindictiveness.

The author of this book agreed, and also tied the rumor to Carnagore, the metal horse who had seemed so lifelike. Myrddin was known to have killed at least two dragons single-handedly, and the rumors had probably spread from the latter event, when he carried the beast’s corpse back to the nearest village with him and single-handedly revived their economy with the butchering and sale of dragon parts.

The linked stories in Enough Yarn to Last the Night: A Collection of Myths from the Life of a Man with Many Names were as fanciful as one might have expected. In one, a golem formed from mud learned to be a real person after following Myrddin around for a while. In another, Myrddin built a sandcastle, which turned into a miniature city that ants took over and ruled for several generations of mythically heroic struggle and betrayal.

Even more famous than the tales of turning clay to flesh were the stories about Myrddin having used phoenix ashes to resurrect his recently deceased lover, though in some stories it was instead his son. There were six different connected stories in the book of illustrated children’s tales, and the investigative history book explained that historians believed these tales, greatly exaggerated, led to the overhunting of phoenixes and their subsequent endangerment.

Phoenixes, never that prolific, were now on the brink of extinction, and the use of any components from them was illegal. And they could, in fact, be used to save the life of someone who had died within the last three minutes, under the Will of a Grandmaster and with at least seventy percent of the deceased person’s body parts, which must include their heart and their brain.

But the phoenix had to have died within the last three days for the magic of their components to remain active, and they were notoriously difficult to contain, and beyond that, difficult to keep alive in captivity.

No one’s life had actually been saved in exchange for that of a phoenix for the last four hundred years. At least not openly.

Of all the myths she’d read, these seemed the most firmly based on plausibly real events.

Siobhan flipped the page to the next story. In this one, Myrddin went into the Forest of Nod again. He was searching for something important, which the story didn’t specify. Rather than finding whatever he was looking for, he stumbled into a Circle made of mushrooms and river pebbles—a doorway to the hidden land of the fey.

He spent seven months in their realm, dancing their dances, eating their food, and wooing their women, all while he kept a watchful eye on every piece of magic, learning it in secret.

In the end, they revealed their nefarious intent. He would remain forever in their realm unless he married the sickly fey princess and tied his life-force to hers. Having partaken of their hospitality, he had no right to refuse and leave freely. But using the magic he had stolen from them, Myrddin turned the tables, stole the sickly fey princess, and escaped.

He exited seventy years younger than he had entered, because time passes differently in the realm of the fey, and he had been living backward inside of it.

Siobhan frowned, noting this second reference to the man moving backward through time. ‘Do these stories stem from him being so incredibly long-lived? Even most Archmages only average one hundred forty years, with the oldest of them getting to one hundred seventy, or in a couple of cases, two hundred years old. But Myrddin was recorded as living at least three hundred years, even in the respected historical texts. How much time did he spend casting, to make that possible?

She blinked up at the illustration in the book, then let it fall to her chest as her arms grew tired from holding it above her. ‘Myrddin could most likely split his Will, right? Is it possible…that he just spent all of his waking hours casting something, while the other half of his Will took the burden of going about daily life?

She sat up. ‘Could I do that?

Rolling around on the ground while reading had freed her warding medallion and transformation amulet. Siobhan moved automatically to tuck them back under her shirt, but froze with the black stone of the transformation amulet in her hand.

But what if Myrddin didn’t really live that long? What if it just seems that way…because of something like this amulet? If this works to give the same body to anyone who uses it, then Sebastien Siverling could actually be two or more people if there were duplicate amulets, or if I gave it to someone else.’ The idea exploded inside of her mind like a fireball. ‘Myrddin doesn’t have to be one person. It could have been a group of powerful thaumaturges working together, or even a family passing down the legacy from generation to generation.

She snapped Enough Yarn to Last the Night shut, turning back to An Investigative Chronicle. She skimmed every page, looking for any mention of fair-skinned, fair-haired men in Myrddin’s history. A few hours took her all the way through the book but didn’t lead to anything conclusive. Myrddin had had dozens of friends and companions throughout his very long life, many of whom had died. But the author wasn’t prone to overly describing people’s appearances. Myrddin himself was never known for particular paleness, and several drawings and paintings of him had been made. They were of poor quality and exactness compared to the artistic accomplishments of modern painters, but he had brown or black hair, and his nose was not nearly as long or sharp as hers.

‘I suppose it’s possible that a group of Myrddins might have used an amulet with a different appearance. And…it’s also possible that Myrddin was a genuine person, that was his real identity, and he created this amulet so that he could sneak around without being noticed. He was rather famous, after all, and in his later years grew quite reclusive. A body like this, so obviously not Myrddin, would have made it easy for him to pop by the market or travel.

That seemed more likely. After all, Myrddin was undeniably one of the most powerful, intelligent thaumaturges of multiple generations. Even if his inventions could have been the work of a group, how could they have created one thaumaturge more powerful than the next, until it reached the point of absurdity? Certain feats of magic couldn’t be falsified.

Siobhan checked on the sleeping raven, running another diagnostic spell. The creature seemed completely fine. It wasn’t twitching with dreams, nor did it show any signs of elevated stress levels, except for extreme fatigue. Unlike the normal short sleep patterns of birds, it had gone into a deep sleep almost immediately and stayed there.

Even though hours had passed, she was feeling just as refreshed as ever.

And her Will had recovered, too.

Realizing it would be a good idea to test Will-splitting while connected to the raven in a controlled environment, just in case, Siobhan attempted it. When the raven didn’t react, she continued, and ended up spending the rest of the night practicing without ever feeling weary.

When she left in the morning, with plenty of time to spare before Thursday’s classes started, the raven was still sleeping deeply, perfectly fine.

Sebastien stopped at the lock box on the way back to the University and was surprised to find a letter from Professor Lacer. After the last time, she had been prepared to wait for a long while again. He must have replied to her almost right away for the letter to already be waiting.

To make sure she had time to read it, she bought a few freshly baked rolls stuffed with beans and vegetables on the side of the road and ate them on the way back. Then she scurried into the Menagerie, as if she was going to do a morning light-refinement session, but instead opened Professor Lacer’s letter.

I am not surprised at your goals or interests. Anything less would leave me disappointed.

I take your point. I am certain I could share information of similar risk and perhaps even greater importance, but like you, I do not feel comfortable doing so over letter with someone I am not fully sure I can trust. Perhaps one day we will each prove ourselves to the other.

My curiosity will not waver, but I do not need the answers spoon-fed to me.

You have the skill we need, and after some discussion with Grandmaster Kiernan, I believe we can offer you appropriate compensation and enticement to apply it. The man is wary of you, of course, but even more so, he is motivated to decrypt these books through any means possible. The High Crown has been applying increasing pressure on the University to give up the texts so that he may attempt decryption with his own experts. I do not believe you need worry that Grandmaster Kiernan will betray you.

Additionally, should you agree to lend your efforts to this endeavor, I will speak favorably of you to my colleagues in the Red Guard.

They are, indeed, interested in you, but they do not carry the High Crown’s grudge. He cannot command us, no matter what he likes to think. The Red Guard exists to handle very specific types of threats, and unless I am very mistaken, you are not one of them.

Please refrain from proving my testimony wrong with some attempt to do a blood Sacrifice of everyone in Gilbratha, or anything similarly dangerous and ostentatious.

In addition to that, we can provide a safe meeting location for our collaboration. I will be involved in its setup and shielding and can assure you of its quality.

And as a third step toward ensuring your comfort and safety, Grandmaster Kiernan has volunteered to hire a covert team who will go to Silva Erde to spread false information that you have been sighted there.

Sebastien lowered the letter, which fluttered slightly in the summer breeze. Late-blooming flowers were beginning to wilt from some of the trees, and petals danced through the air, carrying a faint scent of sweetness and heat. Sebastien waved away a bee from her sweaty forehead and reread the last offer.

That covert team is definitely just some minions from the Architects of Khronos. But pretending that I’ve left the country, and backing that with evidence, is actually a wonderful idea. Much better than simply lying low and hoping my enemies will give up. I should give them the raven-summoning spell so that they can do something flashy.

The letter continued.

As you also value knowledge, I would guess that you may be interested in Myrddin’s remaining journals. Obviously, you will have access to the three we hold during the decryption and study process.

To sweeten the deal, I can provide you access to the University’s library and restricted archives, without limit, via a University token spoofed to mimic Archmage Zard’s. He has full authority to come and go as he wishes, without the wards sending notice or alarms to anyone on the security committee. It should go without saying that I would expect you to be discreet with its use and do nothing that would implicate me. I believe I will be able to manage this fraud within the next couple of weeks, but due to the risks involved, will only move forward if you agree.

Altogether, I hope Grandmaster Kiernan and I have offered sufficient enticement to collaborate. If you agree, we will begin preparations immediately.

P.S. — I hope that you are able to place the lock back upon the books when we are not using them?

Sebastien swallowed hard and, after checking to make sure she was unseen, burnt this letter just as she had all the rest.

Professor Lacer’s offer was emphatically attractive. Even if she hadn’t trusted him, with such enticing offers she would have had to accept anyway. The only reason to turn down his proposal would be if she really couldn’t overcome Myrddin’s lock and thought that they might turn on her with twice as much enmity as they had allied with her if they were to discover it.

It began to rain, and Sebastien hurried to Professor Ilma’s class while mentally composing her response. She would send it that very evening.

I agree to your terms. You may begin preparations.

I will not join you until you have fulfilled your promises. I am currently working on a venture of my own, which I must complete before I turn my efforts elsewhere, but I believe I will be free to help by the time you have completed your side of the bargain. If not, there may be some delay.

I have attached instructions for a spell that you might find useful in creating a false sighting of the Raven Queen. Please do not abuse it.

It wasn’t like someone else couldn’t come up with such a spell on their own, but she would find it somewhat disconcerting if clouds of ravens started appearing willy-nilly, with nothing to do with her. It was uncomfortable to realize that she couldn’t really stop anyone from using the reputation of the Raven Queen for their own benefit.

Sebastien considered Professor Lacer’s postscript question but left it unanswered, because she had no idea.

She sat through History of Magic in a daze, only snapping out of it when the bell rang to signify the end of class. Instead of rushing out with the other students, she shuffled up to Professor Ilma. When the blue-skinned woman looked at her inquisitively, Sebastien said, “I’ve been reading the books on Myrddin that you lent me. I was wondering, do you have any theories on why he might have disappeared for most of the last few decades of his life? What was he working on? Did he have any notable or powerful friends or acquaintances? And these notes written in the margins. Can you tell me more about the connections?”

Ilma shook her head. “I have read both of the books I lent you, but those notes were not written by me. My mentor was quite interested in Myrddin, but he passed away long ago and unavailable to answer your questions.”

“Oh,” Sebastien said. She had just assumed that the handwriting within was Ilma’s.

“If you have read both books, I can recommend more resources from the library that would cater to such speculation. But to be honest, too much about Myrddin’s life is lost to stories. Even the things that should be clearly recorded are tainted with theatrics. It is sure that Myrddin was an ambitious, powerful genius, and that he knew this about himself. I suspect that he died alone, a lonely, bitter old man, and that the world can only be thankful he did not become an Aberrant. Dozens, if not hundreds, of historians have asked similar questions and wildly chased any perceived remnants of his footsteps in an attempt to find his lost legacy, but until recently, all for naught.”

Ilma patted Sebastien on the shoulder. “Perhaps when my colleagues in the History department finally decrypt his journals, we will learn more about the truth of his life, particularly his last years.”

Sebastien thanked her and left, disappointed.

That night, she was reminded of her complete lack of need to sleep. She spent almost the whole evening in several sessions of Will-splitting practice interspersed with glyph memorization and organizing the important information from newspaper articles on rogue magic incidents that had garnered Red Guard response. In the end, she took only a ninety-minute nap before dawn, as they had discovered that getting even small amounts of rest could greatly increase the time that the sleeping raven lasted, and she did not want to kill it.

In the morning, she was still refreshed, and a session of light-refinement to greet the dawn filled her with any energy she lacked.

Despite how wonderful freedom from sleep was, and how truly sublime it continued to be as the days passed, Sebastien still couldn’t release the sense of dread that hounded her every footstep.

During class Sebastien sometimes became distracted with daydreams about the Red Guard bursting in through the classroom windows to arrest her, or going to sleep during the few times the sleep-proxy spell wasn’t active and never waking again, or even worse, going to sleep and finding herself trapped inside the memories she had forgotten.

This looming sense of doom was even more constant than the summer rains and drove her to study and practice incessantly, and with the combination of the sleep-proxy and light-refinement spells, she was able to recover from exertion like never before while putting in even more hours of effort. On the weekends, she stopped by Liza’s to switch to a different raven before the strain became too much for the previous one.

Soon, Tanya would have the first returns from the secret thaumaturge meeting, though she doubted whatever the young woman brought would be anything compared to the hoard of knowledge held in the University archives.

And then, a month before the end of term exams, Ennis Naught escaped from the labor camp he was assigned to, cutting his one-hundred-year sentence down to less than one.

Sebastien expected a furor to follow, revitalizing the flagging interest in the Raven Queen, but the news was only reported by one newspaper, one time, and none of the others picked it up. Only The People’s Voice, which didn’t really count, and was again treading on dangerous ground as some of the quotations from anonymous commentators edged on doubting the capability of the Crowns’ justice.

The lack of news coverage showed her more clearly than anything how tight a grip the Crowns had on information. The Rouse Family, bearer of the Twelfth Crown, owned the newspapers either directly or in essence, along with the larger entertainment halls, opera houses, and brothels.

Sebastien was less concerned by the news about Ennis than she expected herself to be. But in a way, it made sense. She had disowned him. Ennis No-Name had no connection to her. And when he died, his remains would not be buried with the family.

She was sure he wouldn’t come looking for her. His sense of self-preservation was too great, and his concern for her had always been too little.

The next day, as a precaution to ensure students wouldn’t have any issues when pushing their Wills to the limits, Professor Burberry held another in-class session of the Henrik-Thompson tests.

“You should switch the scale to Apprentice level, or maybe Journeyman?” Sebastien suggested when it was her turn. “Otherwise the light may be too bright.”

While Professor Burberry checked her previous records for Sebastien’s initial results from the first term and raised a skeptical eye, some of the other students whispered or sent her dirty looks. But Burberry complied without comment.

Sebastien palmed the Conduit Professor Lacer had given her, along with the beast core Professor Burberry provided, and began to channel energy through the Henrik-Thompson device.

The glow quickly grew to a glaringly bright white, and Sebastien closed her eyes to reduce the irritation as she pushed at her limits. She stopped before she got so close to the edge of her ability that it felt dangerous, held there for a few seconds, and then released the magic.

The other students were silent.

Professor Burberry cleared her throat and quietly wrote down the results. “Six hundred eighteen thaums.”

Murmuring arose among the other students immediately, and even Damien gave Sebastien a look of surprise.

Burberry frowned down at the number, checked the testing artifact, and then turned suspiciously on Sebastien. “Were you deliberately underperforming on this test last term?”

Sebastien flinched in surprise. She was pretty sure she had, in fact, slightly underperformed, because she’d still had an underpowered Conduit at that time.

Before she could speak, Damien piped up. “Sebastien is just incredibly talented, and he practices all the time. Seriously. I find him practicing in the middle of the night, and he’s so busy with Professor Lacer’s special apprentice assignments that he isn’t even properly making time to spend with his friends.”

Ana rolled her eyes. “You barely make time to spend with your friends recently, either, but do you want to bet your Will hasn’t passed five hundred thaums?”

“Ten gold,” Damien muttered back out of the side of his mouth without ever taking his eyes off Burberry.

Professor Burberry ignored them, examining Sebastien with concern. “How many hours a day are you practicing?”

It wasn’t the first time someone had asked that question, but it was the first time that the answer was high enough that she couldn’t be truthful. “Maybe six or so,” Sebastien said. In truth, since the sleep-proxy spell had been working, that number was more like ten.

“Are you using glamours to hide the signs of fatigue?” Burberry asked, leaning in to peer at Sebastien’s face through her glasses. “No, it doesn’t seem so.” Burberry, whose surprisingly smooth, plump skin showed its own signs of magical cosmetics and glamours, should know.

Some quick mental math made it obvious why Burberry was acting so strange. Sebastien had started the University testing at just over two hundred thaums. And in less than two terms, she had tripled that.

To put it in perspective, the average student, casting for the first time on entering the University and practicing three hours per day for the next three terms, might get their Apprentice license at two hundred and sixty thaums. If they stayed five terms to get Journeyman certification with an extra two terms for a specific specialization, that same student would be at about six hundred fifty to seven hundred thaums.

This was the difference that dedication, effort, and variety could make to a person’s Will. But, doing the math, it still seemed like Sebastien was progressing slightly faster than she should have, if she was really averaging six hours per day for most of that time. Perhaps some days she had worked a little longer. ‘Or perhaps I’m secretly just that talented?’ she wondered, feeling a little smug.

Burberry pursed her lips. “Well, I suppose by your age Thaddeus Lacer was already at four or five thousand thaums.”

Sebastien’s smugness dropped away like a stone block slipping through her fingers.

“He chose his apprentice well. But child, you have plenty of time ahead of you. There’s no need to push yourself so hard. Remember to take a well-deserved break every now and again.” She turned to the other students. “In fact, I encourage all of you to take a break the day before your final exams so that your minds and Wills can tackle any obstacles while fresh. Cramming until the last second often results in worse performance.”

Burberry returned to the testing, and Damien also requested she set the artifact to the Apprentice scale. His light wasn’t as bright as Sebastien’s, and his results came out at three hundred seventy thaums, despite pushing himself until his cheeks trembled.

Ana held out her hand triumphantly for the gold.

Damien stared at her hand, opened and closed his mouth, and said, “I don’t have the gold on me. I’ll pay you later.”

Sebastien wondered whether Damien had gotten any more allowance since the beginning of the term and if, when he had made the bet, he had forgotten that he didn’t actually have ten gold. He spent the rest of the class time glowering silently at any student who dared to speak.

That evening, Sebastien retreated to her apartment under the cover of her trusty umbrella, despite the fact that it was a Monday. She had spent much of the weekend trying to open Myrddin’s journal, and she felt like she was on the razor’s edge of success.

Sebastien retrieved the ancient leather book from its hiding spot, took it out of the warded chest, and dual-cast a few simple spells to warm up her Will. All of this practice had been noticeably affecting the nimbleness of her Will, which was spilling into all of her other spellwork. Beyond that, the huge breadth of glyphs she now knew meant she could be so exact in her meaning that she’d also improved her efficiency.

As she began what was probably her three thousandth attempt to get past the journal’s test, Sebastien wasn’t even excited. She was still determined to succeed, but the uncooperative book had long ago thrashed any immediate hope out of her.

Instead of falling behind as the two glyphs appeared faster and faster, or stumbling when some obscure glyph that she couldn’t remember appeared, the glyphs stilled for the final time, and then sank into the leather surface.

Sebastien stared down at Myrddin’s journal, careful not to let her shock distract her from continuing to apply her Will on those two meanings, just in case. With trembling fingers, she opened the leather cover. The writing inside had resolved into clarity.

In a rush this evening, must drop chapter and run!

 

Chapter 195 – An Unfathomable Lightness of Being

Sebastien

Month 6 Day 25, Friday 5:15 a.m.

On Friday morning, well before classes started, Sebastien left for her apartment, which was both more inviting and better protected than it had been when she moved in. Once again, she dropped by to check the lock box on her way. This time, a letter was waiting for her. Finally.

With the curtain drawn and a bottle of moonlight sizzle glowing soft and bright, she read Lacer’s latest response.

If you wish to discover the physical tribute I prepared, you must meet me in person. I believe we could arrange something suitably secure.

Of the dream curse, I have included an account of all I know.

Where did you receive the hint that led to your question, if I might ask? Perhaps there is some clue within the circumstances.

When I requested you tell me about yourself, this was not what I expected. I see you are not totally unfamiliar with the techniques of a shaman, though your description of self is particularly cryptic.

Do shamans use similar chants, then?’ Sebastien wondered, but she set her curiosity aside to continue reading.

While fascinating, I admit that I was hoping for a more conventional account. Background, hobbies, and goals, if I might be so trite.

Some of my own background is known. You are probably aware that I am a special agent of the Red Guard, currently assigned to the Thaumaturgic University as a liaison. It suits my purposes well for the moment as, like you, I am conducting research into something fascinating, and some of their hoarded records are not duplicated anywhere else. I had wondered if perhaps you were aware of this research, and if, in fact, it is the reason for your particular interest in me.

That really wasn’t any less cryptic, or more revealing, than what she had told him. Was he trying to pique her curiosity? The letter continued:

Your information about Myrddin was quite the revelation. I have spent this recent time in attempts to discover a method to safely split the Will, with, I am frustrated to say, no success.

You mentioned that I might find someone capable of this feat already, and seemed to suggest that you yourself are one. Is this true? I heard from Grandmaster Kiernan, with whom I am collaborating on the journal decryption, of your conversation.

He seems to believe that you were kept within the book. It may seem absurd, but I must ask: Do you, perhaps, believe yourself to be a consciousness trapped within a memory, to have been released by some action of Siobhan Naught’s?

I ask again. Who are you?

P.S. — If you can indeed do this little “trick” to decrypt the book, what would it take to entice your aid?

Sebastien rubbed at her forehead, trying to smooth out the crease between her eyebrows. What, exactly, had Kiernan told Professor Lacer? Certainly, some of their conversation would have had to be left out if Kiernan didn’t want to reveal that he was one of the leaders of the Architects of Khronos. Settling her frustrated thoughts, she picked up the second sheet of paper, where Professor Lacer had written about the dream curse.

This incident occurred in the year 27 of the current era, less than thirty years after the fall of the Third Empire. The victim was Julissa Kimble, who married a widowed man with a daughter. The perpetrator was Winona Kimble, her stepdaughter born from the original wife. Though, in this case, the lines between “victim” and “assailant” may blur.

Julissa was resentful of Winona and systematically abused her, with the tacit allowance of her husband, who turned a blind eye. The abuse culminated in an incident on Winona’s eighteenth birthday, during a “coming of age” party the family was holding.

The evening of the party, Julissa poured boiling tea onto Winona’s face. Winona was sent to live separately.

Fifteen years later, Winona returned for her father’s funeral, having become an accomplished thaumaturge.

She believed that Julissa had poisoned her father.

Winona managed such a powerful curse binding through a combination of cleverness and Julissa’s arrogance. She had created a potion and disguised it as tea, which they both drank atop a carpet that had been woven with a spell array to compel truth. Winona disguised her thrice-repeated grievances as reminiscence and her explanation of the terms of the spell as hints at a struggle for power between the two. Julissa agreed to the binding without realizing what she was doing, thinking to assert her power over Winona as she had when the girl still lived under her roof.

And so, the curse took hold, with the only way to break it being built into the spell from the beginning.

Julissa fell unconscious. At first, people thought she had fainted due to grief. But as her condition remained unchanged after a few days, worry grew. Winona brought in healers and specialists to see her stepmother, but none of them could find the cause. Rumors of a curse grew, and suspicion fell on Winona.

Exactly thirteen weeks after her initial collapse, Julissa died.

Winona was suspected of murder and arrested, and admitted freely to her crime. She had trapped Julissa within a repeating loop of her eighteenth birthday party, with the “world” contained to their house and backyard. The memory had been expanded to be self-reinforcing, including events that Julissa hadn’t experienced directly but which had been pieced together from Winona’s recollection and added on to. Not a detail was left out, until the world of that day seemed grounded and real.

Winona said that if only Julissa were able to understand her wrongdoings and make amends within that repeating day, resolving to live how she should have and take real steps to change the trajectory of both of their lives, she would have woken up. But she did not. We cannot know if this is true, because Winona had poisoned herself before being taken into custody and giving her statement. Her life was used as collateral to give greater strength to the curse. Without the antidote, which she had been taking on a regular schedule, she died.

I know no further details about the exact methods she used to create the curse or the repeating memory world. I suspect that Winona took these secrets to her grave.

Sebastien was both fascinated at the concept of the dream curse and disappointed that there weren’t more details. Whether something like this had been done to her, she couldn’t be sure. But it seemed like a good direction to start researching. Even if this curse-craft was only adjacent to the magic she needed to understand, it was becoming more apparent to her that all thaumaturgic crafts spilled over into other areas.

She made a mental note to dig up any information she could find about Winona Kimble, although she doubted she could access information directly related to the curse that Thaddeus Lacer couldn’t, especially since it was definitely blood magic. But there might be some relevant lead in the thaumaturgic training Winona had received after she left home, in her friends, acquaintances, or the work she had been doing. Sebastien would also try to find similar magic, be it curses or mundane spells.

And perhaps she should look into what solidifying a memory might entail. Stabilizing a memory to the point that it could support itself, a self-contained ecosystem, seemed rather like something a shaman might do.

With next steps in mind, she memorized Professor Lacer’s letter and burnt everything, just as she had the last.

Then she read over Damien’s report and considered what to do with the Red Guard research mission.

She woke early in the morning, the problem still looping through her mind, and stared up at the sky through the angled window cut into the roof.

If investigating the Red Guard had only been about the truth of what happened to Newton and his family, then Sebastien might have decided to set it aside. After all, there was nothing that she could do about that. Any attempts to save his family from mind-altering spells would probably just put them in a different kind of danger. And as for Newton himself—if the thing he’d become could even be called a person anymore—what would she even do?

But Sebastien’s connection to the Red Guard ran deeper than that. Not only were they investigating her to appease the High Crown, but they also had records of the incident she had forgotten—during which the seal in her mind had been created.

Professor Lacer was one of them.

There was a chance that at some point she would become further involved with the Red Guard in some way. And if that ever happened, she needed to understand them. Knowledge was the greatest form of power, after all.

But she didn’t know what they might be capable of, so she and Damien would need to be very careful. Any further purchases of old newspapers would be done via proxy—someone from the Nightmare Pack or Verdant Stags who wouldn’t be suspected.

With her decision made, Sebastien sent out instructions, talked back and forth with Gera and Liza over the course of a few hours, and then returned to the University. Sebastien found Damien and gave him a single, serious nod.

Damien’s face split into a satisfied smile that lacked any real joy or mirth.

“The mission parameters have been updated slightly. We’re getting help to obtain some of the older newspapers, as well as the backlog from the other publications that went out of business. If you can get that intern position at Harrow Hill over Harvest Break, that will be a big help. And from now on, we need to keep note of when anyone has a complaint against the Red Guard, or when someone has helped them out in unexpected or large ways. And we especially want to note people whose names come up repeatedly. Track the names of any coppers who are noted acting as Red Guard liaisons and make a note of any reporters who frequently handle Aberrant incidents for their paper.”

“Got it,” Damien said.

“We can expect more deliveries to your storehouse by the end of the week.”

“The higher-ups are really invested in this, huh?”

“It seems so. But we’re not to take any investigative or dangerous action ourselves. Data analysis only.”

“Of course. We can’t let the Red Guard find out that we know anything. Do you think Professor Lacer…?”

Sebastien raised an eyebrow. “Do I think he what?”

“Do you think he knows the truth?”

“Probably. But a better question might be, did he know before he took his vows?”

Damien frowned. “There’s no way. They wouldn’t take the chance of this information leaking. Maybe that’s why he’s at the University? I heard Lord Cyr talking about how the liaison position might be a punishment post among the agents. Which is crazy. I mean, he’s Thaddeus Lacer. It seems like, if he is here, it must be because he wants to be.”

Sebastien shook her head. “We don’t know enough to speculate.”

After that, Damien fell even more deeply into his research mission, while Sebastien tried to figure out how to learn more about Winona Kimble’s dream curse despite its obscurity and the restrictions on Sebastien’s access to the University library.

The shamans’ access to the dream world was almost as difficult to find information on. Previously, she would have believed that this was because shamans were less likely to write down their magical knowledge than traditional sorcerers. They were few in number and often passed down their skills and knowledge through the more archaic master-apprentice relationship, or between parent and child, rather than publishing a book. Now, she suspected something more was at play.

She ended up sending Tanya to look for information at the secret thaumaturge meetings, which would probably take a few weeks to come to fruition. After all, it was unlikely that an attendee would have that exact information on hand as soon as Tanya put forth the request.

Five days later, at the end of the quarter, Sebastien received a cheque from Oliver’s textile company for one hundred gold. That was the minimum quarterly payout, which meant that her four-percent stake in the company hadn’t earned more than that.

Sebastien took some time to write a response to Professor Lacer while she was out depositing the cheque. She considered waiting to reply as long as he had delayed, to give him a taste of his own medicine, but that seemed like juvenile pettiness.

Even if he had waited over a month to write her back, he’d also provided valuable information. But his curiosity about her was distressing. Sebastien sat back and bit her lip. ‘How would the Raven Queen respond to this?’ She allowed herself to smile. ‘Obviously…she would go on the offensive.’

You are full of curiosity, Thaddeus Lacer. It is a trait that I share and appreciate, but not one that I will indulge endlessly. I have told you who I am. If you do not believe me, or feel that my answer was not satisfactorily comprehensive, that is unfortunate.

I am myself, as I have always been, no matter what name I take.

The details of my background are something you may learn in time, if you prove yourself trustworthy. My hobby is magic. My goal is knowledge, and through knowledge, power. Through power, freedom.

Do not ask for more unless you are willing to pay with real truths of your own, of equal value and proportionate risk.

While I am unsure why most find splitting the Will in two directions at once to be such an obstacle, it is indeed a trait I possess. I would be willing to collaborate if appropriate assurances of my safety could be made, and proper enticement given.

As mentioned above, I value knowledge, freedom, and the right kind of secret. I dislike being hunted, controlled, or vilified. What can be done about this, I wonder?

She considered adding her thanks for information on the dream curse but decided against it. Thankfulness didn’t really fit the tone of the rest of the letter. If she’d had some interesting information of relative usefulness, she would have included that instead, but what did she know that Thaddeus Lacer didn’t?

Sebastien sealed the envelope carefully, wondering if he might indeed be able to offer her something that would make another appearance as Siobhan Naught or the Raven Queen worthwhile. If so, she would need to stall until she’d successfully managed to decrypt her own copy of Myrddin’s journal. It would be very embarrassing to discover that there was another layer of security beyond the current one, after all.

Over the next couple of weeks, Sebastien poured her focus into spellcasting, and particularly the light-refinement spell, until her muscles began to harden and grow defined beneath her skin and her joints stopped aching. Her first priority had to be maintaining the integrity of her mental defenses, always. And as a nice additional bonus, it seemed that either time or all the work that she was putting in was helping to erase any lingering urges for the beamshell tincture. Working on light-refinement seemed to suppress the urges almost as well as getting a full meal.

It also helped with Fekten’s class to a surprising degree, as balance and stamina seemed to bleed into all other physical activity. Fekten had never quite gotten over the incident during the end of term exams, and watched her with a gimlet eye as if she might just warp into an Aberrant at any time. Her grade had also somehow failed to improve, despite the fact that she now routinely outperformed at least half of her classmates.

Her other classes were going better, and the difference in the effort that she poured into learning compared to the average University student started to bear fruit. Her spells were stronger and more efficient than theirs, but she was also rapidly closing the knowledge gap that had seen her receive such a mediocre score on the entrance exam.

Second to that, Sebastien memorized glyphs and practiced splitting her Will. Sometimes, she even listened to the more boring lectures while practicing, careful not to accidentally channel any energy into a nonexistent spell array.

Casting both the magnifying divination spell and Professor Lacer’s transmutation exercises at the same time allowed her to improve two or three times as quickly as she had been before. She reached the point that Professor Lacer had required quickly enough and began pushing for an accomplishment worthy of contribution points. Transmuting a diamond from pure air was as difficult as it sounded, but at this point it was only a matter of power and time.

If only all of her problems were so simple.

Sometimes, she helped Damien to cast some of the more power-intensive information-collating spells or spent time reading through frustratingly vague articles and underlining small hints of relevant information. Occasionally, she got distracted and found herself reading through tangential articles about the omens of political upheaval in Osham. There were fascinating exposés from former citizens about what it was like to live under such an authoritarian regime, and the systematic oppression the populace suffered.

The northern islands had been facing some severe ice storms from the north and were expected to slide into famine if a solution couldn’t be found.

And Silva Erde was publicly blaming Lenore’s “misuse of magic” for the increase of magical beasts that were plaguing their forests. And apparently Lenore’s ambassador had made a huge ass of himself trying to cut down a sapient tree that had been a friend of the queen’s family for six generations.

A few times when Sebastien had time away from classes, she put on a new disguise and went to help Liza with the sleep-proxy tests. They continued to go well, and somehow, before Sebastien had realized, weeks had passed, and the seventh month was upon them.

Liza left a note in their linked journals that their last round of testing had gone as smoothly as those before.

The sleep-proxy spell was ready.

When Siobhan arrived at Liza’s apartment, the spell arrays were already set up, and the ravens were waiting. ‘I’m not the only one who’s been excited about this.

Unfortunately, there was no easy way to increase the brain power or vitality of the ravens without fully Sacrificing their counterparts. Siobhan had the inkling of an idea that might negate the need for their deaths, but it was far from being something she could implement.

Siobhan first helped Liza to cast the spell on herself. Liza didn’t actually need anyone to joint-cast with her, but the practice for Siobhan was part of their agreement.

When it was done, Liza tilted her head back and took a deep, joyful breath. Her thick lips spread into a face-splitting smile, and her arms lifted as if to feel spring raindrops falling down from the heavens.

Siobhan watched her, unblinking, as if she could receive some of that invisible cleansing rain from proximity alone.

Liza lowered her head and arms and smiled gently at Siobhan. “You will enjoy this, I think.”

Siobhan’s skin itched beneath the surface with eagerness, her cheeks flushed, and sweat beaded on her forehead and at the small of her back. She swallowed. “Let’s set up the containment wards around my raven, then.”

Siobhan had feared that the raven might not only end up sleeping for her, but also dreaming for her. Without any way to wake, what would happen to it? What if it died? And what if, in doing so, it could cause some sort of backlash on her, who would be connected to it through binding magic? It was best to be thorough. After all, none of the sleep-proxy tests had been done with someone like her.

She’d had to pay Liza to develop the wards while remaining vague about what exactly they were meant to protect against, but for some extra gold, Liza had been thorough and asked no questions.

Still, as they cast the binding magic, Siobhan remained alert, ready to attack with her battle wand if something went wrong. Though truly, Siobhan wasn’t sure exactly what she expected in the worst-case scenario.

She sensed the magic attaching, little tingles penetrating through her skin to anchor somewhere deep inside. Blood and flames flashed behind her eyelids for the space of a single blink. Siobhan tried not to think of the glimpse she had seen of the town as she was escaping Grandfather’s house.

And then the binding spell was finished.

It was wonderful.

She had seen quite a few people experience the spell, but somehow the reality of it still took her completely by surprise. It was like a skin made of lead had been peeled from her, and suddenly she could breathe, its weight no longer squeezing her down into a hunchbacked shape or restricting the rise and fall of her chest. When that layer was gone, she thought she was free, until another peeled away, and she realized she had still been weighed down. ‘How light is it possible for a person to get before they just float away?’ she wondered.

But no matter how much weight sloughed away, the minute after she was lighter, and then lighter still. By the time the magic settled, Siobhan felt virtually weightless.

Oh,’ she realized. ‘All this time, how much strength have I been expending just to stay upright? Just to avoid collapsing on myself like an empty balloon?

She ran her fingertips over her face, feather-light, and then down her body. ‘Is this what other people feel like all the time? No, that’s impossible,’ she reasoned. ‘If that was so, they would all be trying to take over the world…or become the next Myrddin.

“I don’t have to sleep anymore,” Siobhan whispered. She laughed breathlessly until she choked. She touched her trembling fingers to her cheeks, expecting to find tears, but her eyes were dry.

“Settle, child,” Liza said, her voice warm and low.

Siobhan pressed her hands to her open mouth, forcefully slowing the air her ragged breaths could suck in. “I’m just…so happy,” she gasped, sinking to her knees.

Liza kneeled next to her, gently rubbing circles over the center of Siobhan’s back.

It took a few minutes for Siobhan to calm herself, and she was left feeling somewhat limp but still deeply free. Siobhan closed her eyes and wiped the saliva that had gotten on her hands onto her clothes. “I’m so happy,” she repeated.

The raven linked to Siobhan was already blinking sleepily, its head bobbing up and down as it tried to stay awake. She watched carefully as the raven finally gave in and rested its head on its back to sleep. Siobhan tensed as its breathing deepened and slowed, but nothing happened. “I’ll keep watch on it through the night,” she said.

Liza eyed the raven, and then Siobhan, with some distrust. Though she said nothing, at the base of the stairway she stopped and activated another set of wards that glowed briefly across the ceiling of the entire lower level.

Siobhan stared vigilantly at the sleeping raven for about a half hour, but the boredom soon became agonizing. She did not take well to idleness. Her mind kept returning to the memory of darkness and solitude she’d experienced during the sensory deprivation spell. She tried to keep her mind away from the dark thoughts, but every time she relaxed her vigilance even the tiniest bit, the memories slipped back to the forefront. It did not make things easier that one part of her mind could be focused on something innocuous while another descended into memory. ‘That is the unfortunate side of splitting my Will so much, I suppose. But I feel so wonderful. How do the bad thoughts still creep in so easily?

But thinking back to that terrible moment reminded her of something less helpless. She had used her shadow-familiar to exert control, but more than that, she had been able to sense through it. How this worked, she wasn’t sure. Some sort of side-effect from filling her shadow with her Will, perhaps? It was fascinating but also seemed like it might be useful somehow, if she became more adept with the skill. And maybe, something else to focus on would take her mind off the unpleasant memories.

She cast the shadow-familiar spell with practiced ease. With her hands in a Circle around her mouth to catch the heat of her breath, she closed her eyes and tried to feel something through her shadow.

Nothing happened. Just like every other time she’d cast the spell before the sensory deprivation, and just like the way she couldn’t feel the shadow beneath her feet normally. If she didn’t know it was possible, she would have never guessed. ‘Maybe there’s too much light? So much so that it’s overwhelming?

She hesitated before reaching into her bag for the cotton-and-wax earplugs that she used to make nights in the dorms possible. She stuffed them into her ears, though unlike the sensory deprivation spell, they did not shut out the sound of her own heartbeat. Then she turned off the light crystal, plunging herself into almost complete darkness. Her skin prickled with unease, and she hurried to recast the shadow-familiar with her eyes closed. Very deliberately, she took control of the darkness beneath and around her.

At first, this attempt seemed the same as the one prior, but as her palms began to sweat and her throat grew dry, she caught the faintest hint of light absorbed by her shadow, which encompassed almost the entire room. After that first hint, it grew clearer. There was still some light coming from the crystal at the base of the stairs, and the spell arrays filling the floor and the walls were giving off the faintest glow, which would normally be invisible to the naked eye.

Siobhan let out a shuddering sigh of relief. Somehow, knowing what was there removed the creeping sense of dread she’d developed after what she saw in the darkness of her own mind. The sensation felt a little like the philtre of darkness’s proprioception adaptation, which she’d still yet to name something less of a mouthful. ‘Maybe my experience with that is making it easier for my brain to parse this information.

Using her shadow-familiar in this way was more difficult than she had expected, soon leaving her mentally fatigued in a way that had nothing to do with capacity. So she turned the light back on, and since she was going to be staying up all night, turned her thoughts toward finding something else to do. Light-refinement was impossible without the sun, and her mind was too tired to practice Will-splitting. She’d even done all of her homework already.

In the end, she pulled out the book Professor Lacer had given her, 100 Clever Ways Thaumaturges Have Committed Suicide. Lying with her legs up against the wall and her back on the floor, she began to read.

At least fifteen different thaumaturges were known to have independently come up with the idea to draw a Circle with the inner bounding edge instead facing outward.

This created a Circle with a center on the other side of the planet, shaped somewhat like an ultra-massive hot air balloon, with the thaumaturge standing in the opening. It was a simple mental trick that could be backed up by a few output-directing instructions and, unfailingly, killed the thaumaturge as soon as they tried to cast a spell that spanned the entire planet.

All fifteen known cases had died immediately from extreme Will-strain leading to a massive brain hemorrhage. Luckily, external backlash was minimal due to the extreme range of energy dispersal.

During the reign of the Blood Emperor, a group of thaumaturges attempted to create a wide-range communication and surveillance network by linking the consciousness of thousands of birds together and then releasing them across the country. This project met problems from the very beginning, when the birds started to die. One of the thaumaturges attempted to connect to the bird-network to find out the reason for their deaths. He immediately jumped off the top of the tower where they had been working, bashing himself head-first on the ground below.

It was speculated that the information overload had fried his brain like an egg, but many of the rumors surrounding the event insisted that he had believed that he, too, was a bird, and thus could fly.

The next entry had Siobhan giggling uncontrollably to herself as the book covered an entire series of hilarious failures and disasters resulting from witches trying to force familiar contracts with dragons. Everyone knew that dragons were notoriously contrary and spiteful—almost as bad as djinns. Siobhan really couldn’t imagine how much hubris must be involved in making such a foolish decision. Dragons grew too large to house, were ridiculously expensive to feed and care for, and had inconveniently high sex drives.

They were also masters of malicious compliance.

She had barely finished rolling around on the ground with laughter before moving on to the next entry. A young thaumaturge, jealous of his friend’s artificery project—shoes that would tie themselves—developed shoes that he believed would walk on water by repelling liquid. They caused his feet to explode as all the blood exited the area of effect at once and with extreme force.

That, too, was somehow hilarious, despite the gruesome imagery.

After that, entries covered several obviously deadly ideas in quick succession. Someone wanted to avoid being disarmed and so tried implanting their Conduit into their own flesh. Someone else cooked themselves and everyone around them with super high-frequency, low-amplitude radiation. Another, in a “genius” solution to an ongoing famine, attempted to create horse-sized chickens!

The book did a wonderful job of keeping her mind away from dark thoughts, but she made it all the way to the end and still felt that something was missing. Surely someone outside of the Red Guard would have tried casting with an Aberrant component at some point?

But she already suspected she knew what might happen if someone tried that. As she again grew antsy with idleness, Siobhan dug deep in her satchel and pulled out her books about Myrddin once more.

 

I’m opening the Alcove up beyond Patreon, so if you hang out over there you may start to see new faces. And I’ll probably be on for a few hours after dinner tonight, hanging out and chatting with people, too.

I did an AMA in The Library category/subforum a couple weeks ago, which you might find interesting to read through if you haven’t seen it yet. https://alcove.azaleaellis.com/t/ama-ask-me-anything-600pm-mt/142/64

Seeing a locked chapter that should be unlocked?: https://www.azaleaellis.com/trouble-accessing-chapters/

 

Chapter 194 – Damien’s Report

Sebastien

Month 5 Day 9, Sunday 7:05 p.m.

After an entire weekend of casting through most of her waking hours, Sebastien’s mind still felt like a well-used muscle, weak and on the verge of soreness. But her debts were paid, she had resources left over, and her Will was growing.

Sebastien stopped at her apartment to write a return letter for Professor Lacer.

She was very aware that once the letter left her possession, it would no longer be protected against divination. She did not want to lie, partially because doing so might damage his willingness or ability to help her, but she also had no intention of revealing too much.

His speculation had opened a broad spectrum of possible worries, but she could not follow up her previous question with one about Aberrants, or any questions about the incident in which Grandfather had died.

What is this physical tribute you have prepared?

I appreciate your thoughtful answer to my question. Regrettably, I cannot divulge more about the circumstances behind it, because I do not know. The only hint that was given to me I have already passed on. More research is required.

I would appreciate more information about this dream curse.

Sebastien paused, lifting her pen carefully away from the paper so as not to leave an ink blot. She also wanted to ask about the Red Guard’s experiments with shamanry, but his warning had been quite clear. However, that only made her more curious to learn about it.

She wouldn’t have considered this avenue if she were not desperate.

She had once been quite interested in divination, in the hopes of divining the future and gaining some tools to mitigate oncoming bad fortune. But she had no talent in the craft. And then she’d actually met a shaman. He claimed to be able to breach the walls between the mortal world and the domain of spirits in order to achieve effects similar to divination. He’d had her run errands for days to prove her dedication before giving her an alchemical concoction that was supposed to open her inner eye.

It left her spewing from both ends, incapacitated with pain and hallucinating for two days.

When she came to her senses, she was terrified, half dead, and had nothing to show for it but dream-like memories that flashed behind her lids in sickly colors when she closed her eyes.

“You just don’t have the constitution for greatness, dearie,” he’d said.

She’d tried to kick him in the knee out of sudden rage but was too weak to do even that.

Ennis made it clear how much of a waste of time the whole endeavor had been. He was sure she would be better off pretending to be a shaman to con people out of a handful of coin.

Since then, she’d focused on practical magic, something she could use to affect her reality rather than trying to pull the answers to life from the ether.

But, no matter how much of a scam shamanry is, if there are any real techniques I could learn, perhaps I could create my own mental wards to reinforce whatever Grandfather did,’ Sebastien thought.

She continued writing.

Of myself: I am Siobhan Naught, but I am also the Raven Queen, and I have been called by other names. In some ways, names have a power all their own, but in other ways, they are just labels.

Sebastien hesitated before using the weird chant again, but she felt that it was cryptic enough while still being honest. It would allow her to reply to his request for information without really saying anything about herself or her life.

I am a changeling like the seasons, a daughter of shadow and light, of Charybdis mists and raven’s flight, and always I seek after mysteries.

Make of that what you will.

For your attempts on Myrddin’s journal, the man had capabilities and knowledge that I have never heard of from others. While many of his exploits are now thought to be exaggerated by rumor due to their implausibility, I know for a fact that several are quite literal. For instance, the ability to split one’s Will.

To my surprise, I have found that people do not practice casting two spells at once. I cannot be sure why.

I would caution against attempts at personal experimentation here, unless you are quite sure that a human such as yourself could survive the attempt without breaking. However, if you can find a method to recreate this ability, or someone capable of it already, you will make progress.

She was careful not to say that he would be able to read the book with that skill, because there could be some other barrier to success that she hadn’t yet encountered.

She resisted the urge to add more questions about the Red Guard’s secrets or where she might learn more about these recent advancements in shamanry. It might be taken as a request to violate his vows to them, and she was not sure how he might take that. Nor what his vows might require him to do, if she said something that made him believe she could be a threat.

I will see what might be found elsewhere, and then, if that bears no fruit, I will gauge how dangerous it might be to ask him. Perhaps once I have spent more time gaining his trust.

She dropped off the letter for Tanya to ferry on her way back to the University and made it to the dorms only a few minutes before curfew.

The week passed uneventfully, spent on classes, homework, spell practice, and a search of the library for unrestricted books that might give her some deeper understanding of the things Professor Lacer had mentioned in his last letter. In what free time remained, she continued to practice light-refinement. One of the spell’s effects was supposed to be clearing intrusive mental forces. And what were her nightmares, if not that?

Perhaps it was working, because though she had been dreading what might come after her experience under the sensory deprivation spells, her nightmares were no harder to deal with than usual. In fact, she slept easier than normal with a combination of light-refinement practiced during the day and Newton’s self-calming spell in the evening.

There were no attempts to scry her and no emergency communications from anyone she knew. She had completed the fourth repetition of the guiding light ritual, and though the symbol—and possible glyph—she’d created lingered in her mind longer each time, like a dark spot after staring at the sun, there had been no struggle with wild magic or backlash.

The next weekend, Sebastien went around the city improving her emergency stashes and creating a few new ones. She added more coin, water canteens with moisture-gathering arrays drawn on their bases, and some quick disguise items. Along with that, she left some of the orb-weaver silk sheets she’d been creating. Some, she had painted spell arrays on, in liquid that was a mixture of giant squid ink, dragon blood, and flakes of natural gold. To that, she had added the sap from two different trees to keep the ink from bleeding, even when exposed to the elements. Other sheets she left bare, to be used as needed with the bottle of conductive liquid and brush she added to each stash.

Sebastien didn’t trust this sense of normalcy. She suspected it was just the lull in the eye of the storm, and if she grew complacent, her future self would look back in desperate regret.

Damien had gone home over the weekend but apparently spent most of his time at Harrow Hill convincing Titus to give him an internship during Harvest Break. He returned to the University with a tidbit of confidential gossip: several skilled people from the History department had been tasked with a special mission by the Westbay Family—find the Architects of Khronos.

Ostensibly, having expertise in an area that the terrorists had shown a theological interest in might help the faculty discover clues that the average copper would miss.

In reality, they had been tasked to find themselves.

Sebastien almost spat out a large mouthful of wakefulness brew all over the study group’s classroom table and ended up breathing some of it in trying to suppress her amusement. ‘There’s no way that was an accident. Titus suspects them. It’s some kind of mind game. Maybe he wants to watch exactly what they do, where they focus…and what they ignore? Because the avenues they don’t pretend to explore are more likely to bear fruit?

But if they were doing this, it probably meant that they hadn’t been able to find enough evidence to connect Kiernan and the others to the Architects, which was somewhat surprising considering the amount of effort the coppers had been putting into it. After all, the Architects didn’t have the same advantages she did, and with a larger organization, there were bound to be more weak links.

Near the end of the year’s fifth month, at one-thirty in the morning with a full moon that hung low over the horizon, Sebastien completed the guiding light ritual. The symbol she had created was seared indelibly somewhere in the back of her mind, impossible to ever forget. She had a strange awareness of it that was ever-present but somehow not distracting at all.

Immediately, Sebastien used some of the remaining saltwater from the ritual and another of her glue-paper stencils to paint her symbol seven times over on the back of her thirteen-pointed star light coaster while whispering the now-familiar chant.

With each word and each pass over the sharp, winged symbol, more awareness grew in that new spot in the back of her mind reserved for the thing she had created. When she was finished, it had doubled to contain this second symbol, yet somehow still required the exact same amount of concentration. Which was to say, none.

But like the group proprioception spell or her improved philtre of darkness, when Sebastien focused on the light coaster, there was a distinct sense of her symbol’s location in the real world, in relation to her.

Sebastien closed her eyes, rotated the inner section to turn the light crystal on, and then hurled it into the Menagerie. Then, peeking occasionally to make sure she didn’t trip over anything, she used the awareness tucked away in the back of her mind to track it down once more.

She found it lying face down within some thick-leaved plants, turned off the light, and tucked it back into her pocket. She wasn’t yet sure exactly how she would use such an ability, but the spell itself was both fascinating to have attempted and gratifying to have succeeded at. If only she knew more about the additional functions that could be added to symbols that had “taken” strongly.

After that, almost a month passed. Uncertain danger hung in the air as heavily as the damp heat, pressing in on her skin and leaving her to struggle a little too hard for breath. She felt in her bones that her time was running out, but the days just kept passing without any events of particular note.

The most dangerous thing Siobhan did was the occasional disguised aide to Liza’s sleep-proxy testing. They were getting close to the end, and none of their test subjects had shown worrying symptoms or side effects. In fact, they were all at least twice as healthy as they had been to start, though that could have been because the tests had provided both gold and food.

Professor Lacer still hadn’t replied to her latest letter. Sebastien found herself glaring at him in class more than a few times, wondering why he hadn’t written her back. She even checked to make sure Tanya was properly transferring their correspondence. Her only consolation was that he seemed as frustrated as Sebastien, if not even more so. Rumors even began to circulate about why he was in such a particularly bad mood.

In one, his secret love child with a princess of Silva Erde had just come calling, asking for Professor Lacer to help him depose the current rulers and take the throne, no matter that the monarchy was just an ornamental position in that country.

In another, Professor Lacer was arguing with the headmaster because he’d been disallowed from doing magical experiments on his students. People started cheering the headmaster on whenever they passed him, and though the elderly man had absolutely no idea what was happening, he accepted this enthusiasm with grand smiles and waves at his new fans.

Though no one knew what Sebastien suspected was the real reason, the most realistic rumor was that the High Crown was again trying to force Professor Lacer to take his heir as an apprentice, and Professor Lacer was running out of ways to refuse without seeming rude now that he had proved he was willing to take at least one apprentice.

The panic about the Raven Queen had died down with the lack of new events. The coppers were back to their normal schedules and arrest patterns, and the newspapers had long since moved on to other topics. There was even some speculation that she had fled the country in fear of the High Crown’s retaliation.

At the beginning of the year’s sixth month, one of the coppers was found to be a spy for the Architects of Khronos. Almost before the word could even spread, the copper was found dead in her interrogation cell, and her only known contact with the Architects, a mercenary, disappeared.

Pretty much everyone agreed that he was dead, too.

And so the Architects of Khronos continued to elude the coppers, though the tension gripping Gilbratha tightened one notch further.

Near the end of the sixth month, on a Thursday evening, Damien came to her, pinch-lipped and even more tired-looking than normal. The perpetual bags under his eyes that didn’t seem to depend on how much sleep he got now had a bruised quality. Recently, he had fallen into his research project with an unquenchable focus that Sebastien recognized in herself.

“I have a mission report,” Damien said, handing her a contract-sized envelope that he’d already sealed with glue, wax, and a looping pen scrawl over the sealed edge to ensure that anyone trying to peek at or tamper with the contents would have a difficult time disguising their actions. “This is for you to give to the higher-ups. It’s got everything in it.”

“I’ll handle it,” Sebastien promised.

Damien looked around mistrustfully, then asked, “Can we talk about what I found? You were going to be given this mission originally, so it’s not like any of the results should be secret from you?”

“We can talk about it,” Sebastien agreed. After all, she was the only “higher-up” in their little secret organization of two. “Do you want to go to the study group room?” Lately, Damien had often commandeered the empty classroom to have a large enough space to cast some of his more complex collation and word-search spells.

“No. Let’s go to my cubicle,” Damien answered.

Professor Lacer had given them both the spell array for the sound-muffling spell he often free-cast, but Damien hesitated to speak even after it was active. The number of boxes stacked against the cubicle wall had decreased somewhat as he removed content that wasn’t relevant, but a new shelf attached to the stone dividing wall held over a dozen binders stuffed with pages.

Sebastien waited silently, an odd mix of apprehension and excitement fighting in her stomach.

Finally, Damien spoke. “I have been collating all the articles that include suspicious rogue magic incidents. Some are definitely Aberrants, but others might be Aberrant-related without being labeled as such.” He reached out and lifted one of the binders from the shelf, handing it to Sebastien.

She opened it, flipping through the newspaper clippings, sections of which Damien had underlined. The articles were pasted to the left side of each sheet, and on the right side, Damien had written some notes and listed the basic information about the event in a more structured list.

“They’re organized by estimated power level, both of the Aberrant and of the magic used to respond,” Damien said. “Those are the weakest. Apprentice-level or lower.” He pointed to the binder farthest to the right, which was much less full. “And those are the ones inside sundered zones, or the ones so powerful that even a sundered zone won’t contain them. Archmage-level.”

“I want to read all of these,” Sebastien said, fascinated.

“I’ve just managed to successfully cast some information-collating spells that can take structured information and output it in concise numerical summaries in the form of different types of graphs or tables. There’s still a lot of work to be done for the mission, but I wanted to give the higher-ups a preliminary report…because I think I found something.” Damien rubbed his bloodshot eyes.

“It’s been a huge hassle. You wouldn’t believe how vague many of these reporters are and how much guessing I have to do about at least half of these incidents,” he said, staring at the boxes stacked up against the wall. “I ended up going to the census archives and pulling information on any named thaumaturges within those pages.” He pointed at the binders. “I verified whether or not they were certified and got their educational level, as well as their area of academic focus, if they had one.”

Sebastien narrowed her eyes. “Was there a trend?”

“I’m not sure yet. Not an obvious one, anyway. But that’s not my point.”

“What is your point?”

“The Red Guard is extremely competent and powerful. But the problem is, they’re so secretive, even when it doesn’t make sense that they would need to keep their methods confidential. I keep noticing it. They perform some crazy feat of magic that I’ve never heard of before, but the newspaper article barely gives two vague sentences for it. The papers that regularly provided more detail have all gone out of business within the last few decades, which is strange, right?”

Damien continued before Sebastien could respond. “And maybe that could just be a coincidence, but I can’t stop thinking about it. I suspect that the Red Guard has some kind of specific anti-Aberrant spells that they don’t want the public to know about. Just like how the details of the sundered zone spell are so secret.”

Damien rubbed his fingers over his chapped bottom lip and turned to face Sebastien. “There are innocent explanations. Like, they don’t want terrorists to develop countermeasures to their proprietary spells. Or they don’t want stupid people trying to mimic their spells without the kind of training they go through to be able to control them. But I don’t think that’s it. I suspect… I suspect the Red Guard is using blood magic against the Aberrants.”

He paused to let the gravity of this accusation sink in, but Sebastien’s mind had jumped to the spell that the ancient thaumaturge had cast at Knave Knoll, before she accidentally killed him.

That man was a rogue Red Guard agent who had abandoned his vows and gone on the run. And he’d cast a spell so strange that not only had she never heard of its like before, she couldn’t even understand how or why it behaved as it did. The meteor hanging in the air, the little dust-sized parasites phasing through matter, the walls and doors fusing together. It was complex and powerful and impressive enough to befit a Red Guard member, but why the flashiness? Why the wastefulness, when the same result might have been generated without the need to create any physical phenomena?

The man would have had to use an entire sack of beast cores to power such a spell, surely?

But Sebastien didn’t think he had. That kind of seeming wastefulness—limitless power spilling out in strange ways as an effect propagated—was seen only one other place.

Aberrants.

They seemed to break the laws of magic that those with unbroken Wills and coherent minds were restricted to.

What would happen if I tried to use a piece of an Aberrant as a spell component?’ Sebastien wondered.

If she were inclined to gamble, she would bet that, in the hands of a powerful thaumaturge, the resulting spell would look something like what had happened at Knave Knoll.

She thought of Newton, turned into strings the color of flesh and bone, spilling out and consuming every living, frightened thing it touched, like some kind of fungus. ‘What kind of effect would come from casting with a piece of that string?

Sebastien had one hidden in the floor under the chest at the foot of her bed, after all. She could test her theory.

No, no, I’m not going to do that. I have no idea how dangerous it might be, and I can learn from my mistakes. I will not recklessly endanger my life, nor the lives of those around me.

Sebastien swallowed, looking again at Damien’s chapped lips and wan face. ‘Is it possible I’m jumping to conclusions?’ She thought back over Professor Lacer’s lecture about what to do when you were suspicious. ‘I want to know the truth, no matter how it makes me feel.

“Is there any evidence that could, in the right light, act to disprove your suspicion that the Red Guard uses blood magic?” Sebastien asked. “Think hard.”

Damien blinked at her. “Well, except for the fact that blood magic is evil, and maybe—if that isn’t a lie, too—leads to corrupted Wills and increased break events? The fact that the Red Guard is supposed to stand for justice and their oaths to protect the world from magic gone wrong?”

“Except for that,” Sebastien agreed. Because she knew that blood magic wasn’t evil. The Red Guard might have their oaths, but they also did things like malign the dead and then place mind-controlling spells on their families. Which was, in her opinion, one of the actually evil ways to use blood magic.

“I can’t think of anything else,” Damien said. “Maybe there’s some secret reason for their actions that would never occur to me, but…” He trailed off helplessly.

Sebastien closed her eyes and breathed deeply. Then she opened them again. “There are some things I need to tell you.” She checked to make sure the sound-muffling spell would still cover them and then motioned to the narrow bed. “Sit?”

She pulled her satchel’s strap over her head, reached inside, and turned on the dowsing artifact, which was currently using the other half of a small twig she’d broken and tucked in her pocket as a target. She turned up the artifact’s strength to its highest limit, then sat close enough to Damien that their arms touched. This close, he would be protected by the spillover effects, too. Maybe this was unnecessary, but it couldn’t hurt, and she had no idea what the Red Guard might be capable of anymore.

Sebastien cleared her throat and, haltingly at first, but then with growing ease, told Damien what had happened to Newton’s family.

“The Red Guard does blood magic on Lenore’s innocent citizens,” Damien whispered.

“That, in large part, was what your mission was about,” Sebastien said. “We wanted to figure out how often they play with people’s memories surrounding an Aberrant event. Because obviously, they are going to extensive lengths to lie to the public in at least some cases. But Damien…I don’t think they’re trying to hide the blood magic. Or, not just that. Those proprietary, powerful spells that they use against Aberrants? I think… I think they’re using Aberrant components against other Aberrants.”

By this point, Damien was so pale that, if he hadn’t been sitting down, Sebastien might have worried that he would faint and collapse.

She told him about the attack on Knave Knoll, and specifically some of the details that hadn’t made it into the papers, though she didn’t mention how she knew.

“It makes a horrible kind of sense,” Damien croaked. He swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down. “You would need powerful weapons to fight powerful enemies. But this…if they’ve been lying about this, what else?”

Sebastien thought she understood what he was feeling. Unmoored, floating in space as the ground and walls that he had grown up believing in fell away. “I don’t know. But I think you should hand the mission over to me. You can teach me the spells you were learning, but it’s too dangerous for you to continue digging into this.”

“But not too dangerous for you?”

Sebastien pressed her lips together.

“No. I’m not going to stop,” Damien said.

Sebastien hesitated. “Damien…our organization isn’t as large or powerful as you might like to believe. We might not even be able to do anything impactful with the information. And if the Red Guard were to find out and come after us…I don’t know that we could stop them.”

“That just makes uncovering the truth even more important! The Red Guard aren’t bound by Crown law. They are an independent, non-political force, and if they are corrupt, we need to know!” He reached over and gripped her forearm. “Sebastien, if this is true, think about what it means. What happened to Newton?”

She stared at Damien.

Slowly, he released her arm. “I’m not giving up on this mission.”

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Chapter 193 – Almost New Again

Sebastien

Month 4 Day 30, Friday 7:05 p.m.

Sebastien’s elation, along with the feeling of inexhaustible energy, deserted her not long after she stopped casting the light-refinement spell, leaving her with trembling muscles, exhaustion, and a terrible thirst. But, as before, some faint mist lingered within her for longer.

By Friday, she was so sore that she had to take a pain potion and massage an entire jar of salve into her muscles before she could make it to breakfast. When Damien learned that she had used her contribution points to earn a special spell, approved and translated by Professor Lacer, he flushed like a cherry with jealousy. But he didn’t ask her to share it. She had earned the knowledge, and to take it from her for free would be dishonorable. Even in this way, the culture of hoarding knowledge pervaded.

She suspected, however, that he was trying to come up with something worth trading for the spell instructions.

After school on Friday, she headed into Gilbratha proper to pick up the device she’d commissioned from an artisan weeks before. When she had explained how it should work, he had called it an escrima, which was apparently some kind of short stick weapon from the East.

That was not exactly an accurate descriptor.

The artisan’s hands were thick and powerful, his skin layered with old scars but his fingers dexterous. He handed over a cylinder of metal that appeared deceivingly simple. “Rather ingenious, if I do say so myself. I’m wondering if there might be a market for more of them ‘round here. Lots of thaumaturges.”

“Maybe,” Sebastien agreed, examining the spell rod she had commissioned. It was thicker than the standard battle wand—it had to be, to fit the internal mechanisms—but only about four centimeters across. And it was heavy, which meant it could double as a bludgeoning weapon in a pinch. Approximately every inch, a thin line divided the rod, and on each resulting segment, the artisan had chiseled in a braille number, from one to twenty. The numbers repeated all the way around the cylinder, each on their own subsection.

Sebastien slid her fingers along the numbers and nodded to herself. ‘I can learn to recognize them.’ She gripped the rod on either side of a segment in the middle, held it out in front of her, level with the ground, and then twisted.

The segment between her hands sprang outward with a snapping sound as the springs activated, leaving her holding a metal rod with a framework disk extending from its middle. It looked as if the geometric bones of a dinner plate the diameter of her forearm had grown out from the middle of the rod, suspended around a thin support beam running through the center.

The spell rod was based on the portable, expanding war Circles that the army used. They could be opened into a Circle or collapsed down into a compact star shape, with several thick metal rods attached to each other on scissor-like joints.

Sebastien twisted the rod again, and the framework disk collapsed back in on itself, fitting together so neatly it appeared as just another segment of the rod. Unlike the rest, the segments on either end had a small embedded switch she could flip to snap them open or closed.

“It has downsides,” she said. “Whatever carries the spell array has to be able to expand and retract, too. If this was meant to serve a more powerful thaumaturge, you might need to add a spell array made of metal, or bone, or powdered celerium sealed into a sheet of gold. But to make the spell array expand and retract along with the framework… Maybe you could manage it with precisely cut sheets that could dilate open and closed like an iris.”

Sebastien twisted each segment of the spell rod open and closed, testing to make sure nothing caught or stuck. “But if you created even a small break in the spell array, where one line didn’t connect precisely to the next, you could end up causing some magical…accidents.”

The artisan peered at his creation with sudden distrust.

“I have a workaround for that, but it requires any spells I cast to remain below a certain capacity. This is more useful in battle than a tome, but it still requires both hands to use. Which means people would need to wear their Conduit as a ring or bracelet, or put it down every time they need to open a spell array or change spells.”

Of course, again that didn’t matter to her. She had a Conduit pressed to the skin of her back, so her hands could be free at any time.

“People would need to be very careful that they knew exactly which spell they’d just unfurled, because trying to cast a fireball in the heat of battle when you’ve just opened the disk for a food-preserving spell will not work as expected. More danger of Will-strain or even break events.”

Sebastien swung it a few times, listening to the sound it made as it cut through the air.

“It also only has two spots to place spells that should be flush against a surface or that should shoot from a particular spot,” she said, motioning to either end. “The middle disks would probably end up being a little awkward to use for most thaumaturges, because the rest of the device might get in the way. You’d need the spells to have some kind of directional focus, and then be sure that you were always holding the spell rod so that directional focus was pointed in the direction you thought it was. So you don’t end up shooting yourself in the face with a fireball from one of the inner disks. I think a lot of people who might like this would prefer using a battle or utility wand instead, and the more powerful would probably go for a tome.”

The artisan looked increasingly gloomy. “Are you sure it’s safe for you to be playing with that, lad? I didn’t realize all the dangers.”

“Of course!” Sebastien assured him, reaching for her money pouch. With the ability to use a minimalist enough spell array, she could hold the exact direction of a projectile spell in her mind and never need to worry about which of the three hundred sixty degrees of her spell rod were pointed away from her. And of course, there was always output detachment.

“You could get rid of a lot of the downsides if you made the pieces detachable. If you’re interested in testing the market, I would be open to investing. I have at least one friend who would probably find it irresistible. And I’d bet there’s a market among beast hunters and adventurers. This thing can hold twenty different utility spells, from fire starters to emergency beacons to a rain repeller. You don’t need excessive power for any of that. And if you make a really long one, it could even double as a walking staff.”

The gleam had returned to the artisan’s eyes, and he rubbed his palms together. “You bring me down just to float me back up again, huh, kid? How big an initial investment are we talking?”

Sebastien ended up getting stuck at the artisan’s shop for another hour, somewhat regretful of her earlier uncharacteristic talkativeness born of excitement.

As she finally left, she made a mental list of the spells that she would insert into the spell rod. She had made some progress with the orb-weaver silk and hoped to be able to make a fabric upon which she could paint her spell arrays from that. For the sudden expansion and contraction that the spell rod required, such a thin, magically conductive fabric would work even better than the thick seaweed paper.

The seaweed paper would still be useful for larger spells or ones where she needed to cast a spell flush with another surface and output detachment wasn’t the best option.

The next day, it was in the newspapers that the Architects of Khronos had raided a Crown storehouse attached to a jointly funded research facility. Supposedly, they’d stolen thousands of gold worth of supplies and components and killed several of the guards.

Sebastien took every sentence with a huge crystal of metaphorical salt. She would have been more likely to get something approaching the real story from one of the people who were involved, or even from Oliver. At least this didn’t endanger her directly. She wasn’t called upon to contribute or do damage control. It had no connection to the unassuming student, Sebastien Siverling.

She smiled. It was nice that the newspapers had something more recently interesting to focus on and could, perhaps, stop trying to wring some more juice from Sebastien’s other identity.

With painstaking practice over the next week, she was able to produce a silk fabric transmuted from cotton—which was close enough to the original to make the process easier—that she couldn’t tell apart from Professor Lacer’s sample, even when using the divination spells to examine her creation more closely. To satisfy Professor Lacer, she would need to be able to create orb-weaver silk fabric from anything, but for her current purposes cotton was enough.

On Friday, she found Gera had written in the notebook that the dogs were ready. Liza had agreed to help in exchange for the mirrored-healing spell, and so Siobhan spent a couple of hours on another painstaking transformation into the autumn-headed pirate maid. She didn’t know how some women did their hair and makeup every morning. Even with just the little experience she had, it was incredibly boring and time consuming.

After even more hassle taking a roundabout journey to make sure she wasn’t being followed, Siobhan arrived at Lynwood manor just after the last light of the sun had disappeared from the horizon. The night was moonless, and rain clouds blanketed the sky. They had wetted the streets earlier but were now calm.

Gera must have informed the guards that Siobhan could look different, because as soon as she said that she was expected for an appointment with the matron of the house, both guards’ eyes started to sparkle and they waved her in like she was the High Crown’s wife. She had to give them a secret, angry look for them to remember they should pretend she was just a normal citizen. They grew as stiff as two fence posts at the sight.

Siobhan sighed. ‘Next time, I’ll sneak in through the back garden.’

A servant escorted Siobhan to that same back garden, which was…destroyed. Dozens of dogs were scattered throughout it. They had dug up and trampled the flower beds and bushes, and it seemed at least one of them had been gnawing at the bark of the fledgling trees. There were more than Siobhan had expected.

Gera seemed somewhat frazzled, her hair tangled and her clothes stained as she tossed out various orders to the dogs’ caretakers. As soon as she saw Siobhan, she sagged. “Oh thank the stars you’re here,” she said on a heavy exhale. Louder, she announced, “Everything you requested is ready…ma’am.”

Gera led the way to the manor’s second floor, where they had cleared a large room of furniture and filled it instead with the necessary spell components, empty tables along the walls, and a few kennels. Siobhan busied herself setting up while she waited for Liza to arrive but was soon interrupted as someone knocked gently on the door.

Anders was on the other side, accompanied by the oldest, unhealthiest looking dog Siobhan had ever seen.

“This…is Bear?” The creature was pressing up against Anders’ leg as if to keep from falling over.

Anders went down on one knee, his head hanging low. Out of uniform, he looked different. Without the blue and gold, his strong features appeared more threatening, but somehow that seemed like a mask over a great well of fatigue.

Siobhan had thought that the number of homeless dogs collected to provide the Sacrifice was excessive, but now that she saw Bear, she felt that even three hundred might not be enough. Even Gera’s description hadn’t done the creature justice. He had once obviously been a terrifyingly large dog, but now it was surprising that he even managed to stand on his own three feet. She would have believed it if someone told her this was not a dog but in fact a dog-shaped magical beast aligned with death and decay.

She stared down at Anders incredulously. ‘He scammed me! I’m supposed to make this dog healthy again? Who does he think I am, Myrddin!?

But of course she couldn’t say that aloud. “Bring him in. The process will likely take all weekend. We will need to go slowly so as not to shock his system. Do you know if any of the potions he’s on will react negatively to sedatives?”

Liza finally arrived halfway through Anders’ recounting of everything he had been doing to keep Bear alive. She set her leather healer’s bag on one of the tables and then began to remove the surgery equipment from within.

Anders stared at each tool as she removed it, the skin around his eyes growing pinched.

“Bear will be sedated for any procedures that might bring him excessive discomfort,” Siobhan assured him preemptively. “Please have someone bring in the first Sacrifice. You may wait outside while we work, if you wish.”

Anders kneeled down again to hug Bear, whose tail wagged listlessly, and then did as Siobhan requested.

She and Liza went over the spell they had modified once more, ensured that the spell arrays were perfect, and then Liza walked Siobhan through the process of ritually removing a dog’s testicles.

Siobhan had not wanted to kill to boost Bear’s vitality, and with her new understanding of how transmogrification worked, she had realized that maybe she didn’t need to. There were more ways to approach the concepts of “life,” “youthfulness,” and “vitality” than the obvious. Reproductive organs were inherently associated with all of those ideas. Maybe they wouldn’t work quite as well to improve Bear’s health as the more direct Sacrifice of a brain for intelligence or a life for more health, but all that mattered was that it could work.

After all, the city was overpopulated with homeless animals. So much so that, during the winter, they often became a food source of last resort for those in the poorest parts of the Mires. They had an almost unlimited supply of donors. This would help Bear while simultaneously tackling the problem of overpopulation.

The entire surgical operation, which was done inside a spell array they had drawn on one of the tables, only took about thirty minutes. When they were finished, they used a few dabs of healing potion on the Sacrificial dog and set it aside in one of the kennels to wake up naturally.

Then came the process of feeding the testicles to Bear, who seemed particularly unenthused about the idea. They were forced to find a potion to artificially increase appetite as well as chop up the testicles and add them to a broth that Bear could lick up.

Liza, who was better at math and had more experience with blood magic than Siobhan, had estimated that rather than the thirty percent efficiency they might have gotten with a full-vitality Sacrifice—with Bear eating the heart and lungs—they were instead getting something like eight percent efficiency. And for a dog as old and unhealthy as Bear, that efficiency might be lowered by half again, with his body simply unable to process all of the improvements. For that reason, they had slightly modified the spell to affect him more gently over a longer period of time. Which meant they needed to complete the whole process eight to twelve times for the same effect. Each time would provide diminishing returns, but with care and enough Sacrifices, they might be able to boost him by thirty to forty percent overall.

They monitored Bear afterward and took several diagnostic scans to ensure he was healthy over the next couple of hours. In between tests, Siobhan taught Liza the mirrored-healing spell.

“This is…so simple,” Liza said with wonder. “And yet, it has such wonderful utility. It’s not even necessarily restricted to fresh wounds. If anything, it’s like a flesh-based duplicative transmogrification spell. If it weren’t blood magic, can you imagine how useful this would be?”

“It’s definitely much cheaper than most healing magic,” Siobhan agreed. “Even if it could just be approved for use by certified healers…”

Liza grunted. “Unlikely. Circumstances would have to be dire for the Crown Families to approve an amendment like that. And only the desperate and the poor would be willing to receive healing based on blood magic.”

After Bear showed no adverse effects, they did the second and third round of vitality boosting and left him to rest again while Liza got some practice with mirrored healing, using a few of the dogs that had been brought in with wounds as her patients. After a couple more rounds of boosting Bear’s vitality, the last of which Siobhan was allowed to do herself under Liza’s supervision, they opened the door to retire for the night.

Anders was waiting outside, sitting in a chair a few feet down the hallway. He sprang up immediately, his gaze searching their expressions and then moving down to look for Bear.

Siobhan stepped aside and motioned for the dog to walk past her.

One of Bear’s front legs was still missing, but she thought his hopping gait seemed a little less pained than it had when she arrived. His lolling tongue was wetter and pinker, and his wagging tail had enough force to thump her painfully on the way past.

Anders fell to his knees, taking stinky licks on his face while hugging Bear around the neck.

Siobhan held back a grimace of distaste. Anders was letting Bear lick him on the mouth. ‘Surely that isn’t sanitary?’ she thought. Aloud, she said, “Someone needs to remove the other dogs from the kennels. They should recover for about three days, after which they can be released back to wherever they came from.”

Anders stood. “The other dogs…are alive?”

Liza huffed. “Secretly, your Raven Queen is a Titans-damned bleeding heart. They’re all alive, barely any worse for wear. And that’s why this whole job is going to take the entire weekend.”

“I simply prefer not to harm those who do not deserve it,” Siobhan said. “And I think the development of a creative magical method to extend life is worth a weekend.”

Anders let out a shuddering exhale. “Oh. Oh, that’s wonderful.” He blinked rapidly, his eyes shining with a thin layer of tears that looked totally out of place on his rugged, menacing features. “I thought… Well, I thought you were going to Sacrifice them all in a blood magic ritual.”

Siobhan and Liza shared a glance, and Liza smirked. “Basins of blood, artfully arranged entrails, and vivisected corpses? Is that what you were expecting?” the woman asked.

His expression firmed. “I apologize.”

Liza let out a short, sharp laugh that was less mocking than it could have been. “No need. Despite the common perception, not all blood magic is so…flamboyant. That said, the tables and tools should all be sterilized, and each of the Sacrifices given a mild pain reliever when they wake. You were not totally wrong, after all.” She winked at Anders and walked past.

Liza returned home for the evening, but Siobhan remained in a luxurious guest room and made everyone except Millennium extremely uncomfortable at the breakfast table the next morning. Gera had her son basically confined to his room so that he wouldn’t intrude on their work, and he was blatantly sulking about it.

Saturday was much of the same, except that in between sessions of removing testicles and boosting Bear, Liza attempted to regrow a missing paw on one of the other dogs.

For something like this, mass was important. After all, the flesh and bone of the paw had to come from somewhere.

As Siobhan supervised Liza’s slow progress on the sedated test subject, she thought aloud. “Bear’s missing leg and eyeball would be a large percentage of his mass, and he doesn’t have an ounce to spare. If we want to fix him, we’re going to have to find another source of meat and bone. Maybe we could bring in a fresh cow or deer leg? Or if there are any recently killed dogs…”

Liza grunted, and Siobhan fell silent so as not to distract her. However, when Liza was finally finished regrowing the—hairless—paw, Liza said, “We shouldn’t try to pull flesh from elsewhere. Have you ever seen what happens when the body rejects an intruder? Infection, followed by death. A horrible, painful death. If we don’t perfectly copy the flesh of the dog we’re adding mass to, its body will somehow detect the invader and attack the new flesh. I cannot achieve such perfection, and I sincerely doubt you can, no matter how clear or forceful your Will.”

When Liza’s practice subject woke up, it spent quite a while licking at its hairless paw, then continued to limp around as it had done before, the paw dragging whenever it came close to the floor. The dog ate ravenously when offered food but, no matter how they tried to encourage it, refused to place weight on its new paw.

Siobhan used the magnifying divination spell learned from Professor Lacer to examine the structure of the new appendage, with specific attention given to the connection spot between old flesh and new. Everything looked perfect…at first. But some of the filament-fine threads that she suspected might be nerve fibers weren’t perfectly connected.

She switched to examining the dog’s other front paw to confirm her suspicions.

Liza had copied the other paw with passable exactness, but that was part of the problem. Real creatures weren’t exactly symmetrical. The blood vessels were properly attached, because Liza wasn’t an idiot, but in addition to some of the nerve fibers not quite matching, many of them seemed to fizzle out like burnt hairs before they reached all the way to the edge of the skin.

Siobhan could have tried to cast the magnifying divination spell simultaneously with the mirrored-healing—it was almost as if the two were created to work together, and with all the practice she had been getting lately, she thought that she might have been able to hold both at once despite their relative complexity—but that would have revealed her ability to split her Will.

I need to do that for Professor Lacer’s transmutation exercises, though,’ she realized. ‘I could speed up my rate of learning so much if I could see my mistakes in real-time.

It was an exciting thought, but for the moment she simply tried to memorize exactly how the nerves in the healthy paw looked, then sedated the dog and cast the mirrored-healing spell once more. She went over Liza’s work with a metaphorical fine-toothed comb, urging the paw to perfection rather than just symmetry. She even thickened the skin of the paw-pad somewhat, so that it wouldn’t be as tender and sensitive.

By evening, the dog was walking. Though not quite perfectly, since he seemed to have forgotten what it was like to have all four paws.

Liza, disgruntled, questioned Siobhan about what kind of exercises she did to improve her clarity, forcefulness, and soundness. Tentatively, Siobhan explained the exercises Professor Lacer had given her the term before, along with the variations she practiced to approach satisfactory levels of control over each, though of course she didn’t mention where any of the spells came from.

They put the dog out in the back garden again, where he grew excited and sprinted around at full speed, his ears tucked to his head, tongue hanging out with joy, and tail streaming out behind him. He stumbled often, and each time would stop to stare and lick at his new paw. But there were no pained whimpers and no limp dragging, and the paw mostly kept up with his attempts to become a racing dog.

Martha, who had come out to give the dogs their evening meal, did a double-take when she saw him with all four paws. She stared at Siobhan for an uncomfortably long moment, then returned to her work at the urging of the impatient dogs, her expression pensive.

They continued their work after dinner, and Liza made another attempt to regrow flesh long lost, this time in the form of docked ears and tail. Again, Siobhan had to come along behind her and refine her work, which had Liza wordlessly grinding her teeth for the remainder of the evening.

On Sunday, Siobhan did at least half of the testicle-removal surgeries. If only her capacity were high enough, she thought she could cast the whole vitality transference spell on her own—without having to modify it so that it took all day. But it would be years yet before she reached Liza’s strength.

On each dog they used as Sacrifice, she began to cast the magnifying divination spell to examine their eyeballs in exhaustive, meticulous detail, while Liza continued to practice mirrored healing. She was getting better, and even had a few divination spells of her own to examine her results, but she struggled to get the same exhaustively fine detail as Siobhan.

Liza’s capacity is so high, she probably hasn’t needed to care about perfect efficiency in decades. And if you don’t need exact perfection for most things, it would be easy to get out of the habit of extreme precision,’ Siobhan mused.

By this point, Bear had received over three dozen boosting spells, and most of the dogs in the back garden were recovering. Bear’s appetite had grown explosively, to the point that they needed to bring in extra food beyond the testicle soup, and he kept barking and trying to jump around. Being so big, his bark was loud and deep enough that the whole manor could hear it, and he was heavy enough to knock Siobhan or Liza over if he jumped onto them when they weren’t braced for it.

Liza snapped her fingers at him, pointed to the ground, and ordered, “Sit!”

Bear’s butt plopped directly onto the ground within his spell array’s Circle, though his tail was wagging so fast they had to ensure he wasn’t damaging the spell array, which had happened several times already.

After three final sessions of vitality transference, they sedated Bear and brought in the youngest and largest of the Sacrifice dogs as a reference so that Siobhan could remove the film of cataracts and then tweak the lens in Bear’s remaining eye.

After that, Liza worked to copy that eye into Bear’s empty socket, and Siobhan followed up with a refinement pass. Attaching the optic nerve was delicate and difficult, and Siobhan couldn’t help but lament how foolishly the eyeball was put together. Surely there was a better way to design such an organ?

They covered the new eye with a patch and allowed Anders into the room before the sedatives wore off so that the whole thing wouldn’t be too much of a shock on the ancient dog’s system.

When Bear finally awoke, his tail started wagging so hard that it shook his whole body. He limped and jumped around the room, his missing leg doing little to deter him from looking around, though every few steps he took he would return to press his shoulder against his master’s leg.

When Anders took off Bear’s eye patch, the dog froze. He looked around slowly, then let out a deep, explosive bark of shock.

Bear’s tail wagged so hard he literally knocked himself off balance, and he rolled on the ground barking until Anders rubbed his belly.

Tears fell onto Bear’s short, still-thin fur. “Thank you,” Anders squeezed out in a hoarse voice.

“We can fix the missing leg, too,” Siobhan said. “But Bear needs to gain weight before it would be safe. His vitality has been boosted, but the effects will take time to show. His appetite has already improved, so he should put on weight quickly. With the proper nutrients, his organs should return to working as they’re meant to, and his joints might even loosen. Visibly, his hair will grow in thicker and maybe lose some of the grey. In a few months, if he’s gained enough weight, we can return to grow him another leg. But unless we do it in sections, it will certainly be a strain on his body. I would suggest you get him a prosthetic in the meantime. Perhaps a wheel attached to a harness, as the least invasive option. Or, if you have the gold for it, a clockwork artifact with some complex instructions, to mimic his existing leg.”

Or,” Liza said, “now that Bear is healthier, once a little time passes and all the residue from his potion regimen clears from his system, he might be able to accept a course of limb-regrowing potions that use axolotl components. It will be more gradual, and though it is said to be quite a protracted, unpleasant experience, you would not need to rely on us. It would be less of a shock to Bear’s system, and his happiness could be managed by some strong anti-itch and pain potions.”

Siobhan was a little embarrassed. In the excitement of the moment, she had forgotten that option even existed.

Anders cleared his throat and sniffed wetly, then stood. “How long does he have, now?”

Siobhan and Liza shared a look. Neither of them really knew for sure. That was the kind of thing you needed a whole data set to be certain of, and they only had this one dog. Siobhan decided to err on the side of caution. It would look very bad if she overestimated, and this breed of dog was probably lucky to make it to the age of ten normally. “Two years extra, if you manage his health carefully. If he begins to show signs of deterioration, you may call upon me to perform this service once more. Preferably before his status becomes this dire.”

Anders nodded with determination, then took a knee in front of her. “Thank you.”

Siobhan waved at him to rise. “You paid for this,” she reminded him. “And dearly.”

“It was worth it,” Anders said, looking her straight in the eyes.

Liza offered to give Bear’s new care requirements to Anders in exchange for his help cleaning up the room, and Siobhan spent a half hour visiting Millennium before she left.

Behind her, Gera stood with a lost look, her hands limp at her sides. “What am I supposed to do with all these dogs?”

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