Read a Practical Guide to Sorcery

Chapter 145 – A City of White Stone


Month 3, Day 25, Thursday 9:00am

As the clear bell signifying the start of the test rang, Sebastien removed her blindfold, blinking as she adjusted to the sudden brightness. Beside her, Damien and Rhett did the same. They stood in a featureless room made of the same white stone that composed the white cliffs and the Flats. All three wore grey, one-piece protective suits provided by the proctors, though their equipment beyond that varied.

The white stone formed the vague shape of a desk at the corner of the room, possibly useful as a shield against enemy spells, and an empty window hole let in light from the outside. Behind the three, the stone formed an open doorway into the rest of the building. The proctor that had led them up from the tunnels below was long gone.

In the far corner of the room, pressed against the ceiling, a small, dome-shaped silver mirror clung, watching. Sebastien met her own gaze for a moment, lifting her chin defiantly. “Let’s get to work,” she said, her voice tight. She crouched down, slinging off the backpack she’d traded some of her defense points for as she moved to the window hole.

Behind her, Damien moved toward the doorway, placing his back against the wall to peek safely around the corner as he pulled off his own backpack and retrieved the simple scanning artifact within. He had chosen to focus on reconnaissance.

Sebastien peeked out through the empty window. They were on the third floor, it seemed. The street below, along with the buildings directly across from her, and in every direction she could see, were made of the same white stone. “Just like we thought, Damien. Urban warfare.” She scanned for color or movement, either of which could indicate they were not alone. “Looks clear.” The faculty had drawn the arena for their test—and the exhibition—up from the stone of the Flats over the course of the last week, with the huge circular wall that mimicked Gilbratha’s own being the first feature.

Several upper-term students had tried to scale the wall using various methods to get an early glimpse of what lay on the other side, only to be caught and receive demerits for the attempted cheating.

Crouching down away from the window, she poured out the contents of her backpack. She had three metal disks to draw spell arrays on, two piece of paper detailing the most simple spells that would coordinate with the the sensors on their suits, and a handful of components, including a beast core. Each student had been allotted a certain number of points, based on their performance in Fekten’s Defense class thus far. Not unlike the University’s contribution point scheme, these defense points could be used to buy supplies for the exam. This was quite necessary, as they were required to leave all of their personal belongings except for their Conduits in a secure locker.

As Damien worked with the scanning artifact, Rhett moved to the window, his white teeth standing out against the darkness of his skin as he searched the streets below. His faux battle wand tracked along with his eyes, its tip held steady in his skillful grip. “How long is this going to take you two?” A bandolier at his chest was filled with false-explosive clay shells, marking him clearly as the offensive-focused member of their team.

“A few minutes for me,” Sebastien said, using a quick-drying paint stick to draw out the spell array for the faux battle spell that would trigger their protective suit’s damage sensors without actually harming the person within. When it was ready, she could hold it up with the handles on either side and actively cast one of the same spells stored in Rhett’s wand. Except she wouldn’t run out of charges.

Damien looked up from the scanning artifact, which looked like a round dinner platter with a handle on either side. “No enemy signals within range.”

“Good,” Sebastien said without looking up from her work. I want you two to scope out the building and the surrounding area and report back to me.”

Damien nodded immediately, but Rhett frowned. “Why are we following you?” he complained. “I have the highest grade in the class. Shouldn’t I be the one in charge?”

Damien’s smile held a hint of smugness. “Because Sebastien is the best strategist. Let’s go together.”

Sebastien nodded. “Watch each other’s backs. The scanning artifact is useful, but you can’t depend on it. Meet back here in five minutes.”

Damien left the room with a serious glare, his head swiveling back and forth as he searched for anything relevant.

This gave Rhett no choice but to follow Damien, though Rhett’s murmured complaints were audible. “How do you even know Sebastien’s a good strategist? I’m a good strategist! I’m great a chess, and you know dueling takes a lot of tactics.”

“Just trust me. Sebastien works well under pressure.” Damien replied faintly. “Now hush! We’re supposed to be stealthy.”

As the paint of her spell array dried, the symbols and glyphs within the bounding Circle working together to define the Word that would help guide her magic, Sebastien placed the components. They, along with the power from her beast core, would form the Sacrifice. Each spell array disk had little half-domes with that snapped into place to hold components safely in their spot on the spell array, but she made doubly sure the few component necessary would stick with a bit of quick-drying glue. All that was left was her Will, to be channeled through the Conduit Professor Lacer had given her on a moment’s notice.

Each disk had only been meant for a single spell array, but when the front was finished, she turned them around and began to draw careful lines across the back with the thick white paint. There were no component capsules for the back sides, but where necessary, she carefully dabbed a bit of that same-quick drying glue and simply pressed the components into it to hold them safely in place. This was a little dangerous, as a sloppy thaumaturge could slip and accidentally spread their Will into the wrong spell array, but she had already proved through experience that she could manage something like this. To some, like the shield array, she added the instructions for output displacement along a single plane—an option she had asked for Professor Lacer’s permission to use beforehand.

Sebastien finished barely in time for her two teammates to return, and was already slipping two of the metal disks into her backpack. Though she had a worse grade than either Rhett or Damien, with this she had managed to give herself as many options as both of them combined. She was their wildcard, their all-rounder utility member. “Report,” she said, and didn’t miss Rhett’s small eye-roll.

Damien immediately began to speak, standing tall with his chest puffed out. “We’re in what seems to be a warehouse, but there’s nothing strategic down below. Just some basic stone shapes of large equipment, and some piles of wooden planks. There’s roof access, though. From what we could see up there, we seem to be near the center of the city, and I’d estimate the outer wall is about eight hundred meters away. There are two towers flying the black nearby. None flying the red, which is good.”

“That doesn’t mean anything,” Rhett said, shaking his head. “It’s too early for the enemy to have made much progress, yet. One of our towers is about ten blocks away to the west, and the other eight blocks away, closer to the center. Some signs of fighting in the distance, but nothing closer than three blocks. I say we head out now, see if we can take out an enemy team or two and get some extra points before making it to the tower.”

As first-term students, their man objective was simply to remain “alive,” which meant ensuring that their suits didn’t register enough damage to make the fabric turn stiff and lock them in place. That would net them the lowest grade. It would be higher if they could get to one of the towers flying the black ally banner. For extra points, they could complete various bonus objectives, such as assisting ally “troops” or working against the enemy in various ways.

“Planks, you say? Made of actual wood, not stone?” she asked.

“Yes,” Damien confirmed. “I suspect they’re meant to be supplies for us to set up makeshift barricades, but I didn’t find any nails or other supplies.”

She stood and swung her backpack over her shoulder, leading the way downstairs. She eyeballed the planks, then moved to the nearest window and measured the width of the street with her eyes. It was narrower than a real city, only about ten feet across. She looked up speculatively at the edges of the rooftops.

The sounds of fighting came faintly from the east, toward the center of the urban arena.

“Enemy signals!” Damien whispered.

Instinctively, all three of them crouched down, out of sight.

They waited a few minutes for the signals to pass, and when Damien signaled they were clear, she peeked up just enough to see the red suits of the enemy forces turning the corner away from them a few building down the street.

“We should have attacked. We have the element of surprise and there were only two of them,” Rhett muttered.

“Any extra points are a secondary objective. Our first priority is to get to one of the black towers safely.” She moved over to the planks, choosing two that looked suitable for her budding idea. “Is the roof flat?”

“Yeah,” Damien confirmed, watching her curiously but without doubt.

“Okay, I’ve got an idea. Damien, I need your help bringing two of the planks up to the roof. Rhett, you cover us. Don’t draw unnecessary attention, but you have the okay to attack ”

“Wait, what?” Rhett said, shooting her an incredulous look. “You want to fortify this place? This isn’t a good strategic location. We’re too far away from any tower.”

“That’s not what I’m thinking,” Sebastien said, moving carefully up the stairs.

“Then what?” Rhett asked, trailing behind.

“We don’t need to put ourselves in danger moving through the streets rife with fighting and scattered with enemies. If there’s a suitable path, we can travel by rooftop instead.”

Rhett eyed the planks dubiously. “That seems…dangerous.”

This time, it was Damien who rolled his eyes. “What, you’re fine to attack two enemies, but you’re afraid of heights?”

Rhett glared back, but didn’t answer.

Yet another open doorway led them to the rooftop, from which the view of the miniature city was even more impressive. ‘Is this how they raised the white cliffs in the first place? Did they just draw the stone up from the ground and mold it?’ she wondered.

A tall building blocked the path to the nearest tower, the one to the east, but there was a straight line of sight toward the one farther away in the opposite direction. “Ten blocks,” she murmured. She knew it would be a dangerous journey, but it would likely be safer. People often forget to look up.

With the planks side by side on the ground, she took out her remaining paint and drew out a wood-focused mending spell on the white stone beneath her feet. With the quick-drying glue as a component, she melded the two planks together, section by section, to create a wider surface. When she finished, she stepped back to admire her work. The bridge was crude, but it would get them across the gap between the rooftops. “It should hold,” she said, looking at Rhett and Damien. “Let’s get going.”

Damien went first, his arms spread wide for balance as he moved with surprising speed. The combined planks didn’t even wobble too badly. Once on the other side, he moved along the edge of the roof to scout out the streets around, then waved for them to follow.

Sebastien went next, and Rhett followed behind her. Suspended above the unforgiving white stone of the street, the planks bending and bouncing back slightly with every step, the ground seemed twice as far away as it had before. She had to resist the urge to fall to her hands and knees and wrap her arms around the planks to keep from falling. Instead, she went to that cold, focused place in her mind, consciously directing every twitch of muscle and movement of her limbs. ‘This is nothing,’ she reassured herself, though she was pretty sure her face was pale and her expression stiff enough to give her real feelings away.

They made it three blocks like that, traversing two flat roofs and inching along the circular edge of a domed roof. They passed several more small mirror domes, and in the distance, the dull roar of a cheering audience sounded, peaking at random moments when someone in the exam arena did something particularly impressive. When they found themselves above a fight in the street below, they paused. Three grey-suited allies—other first term students—fought against three red-suited enemies. Each group seemed to have just the basic attacking and shielding spells, and both groups already had one member “dead,” lying on the ground under the restriction of their body-suits.

The wind at this altitude wasn’t to be stopped even by the walls of the miniature city, carrying the faint chalky smell of the white stone and the sounds of screaming and fighting from all around the arena.

Rhett beamed with excitement, pushing past Sebastien to get closer to the fighting. “Extra points!” he exclaimed to Damien. Without waiting for confirmation from either of them, he pointed his battle wand and loosed one of the offensive spells. A pale purple sphere containing the slightest crackle of electricity shot out, moving at a sedate three meters per second until it impacted the back of one of the attackers.

Damien dropped his scanning artifact to the roof as he hurriedly fumbled at the camouflaging bands strapped around his suit. As the spell shimmered to life, his suit and the area around him all turned an off-white that almost blended into the stone as he moved pointedly away from the enemy’s return fire.

Sebastien cursed under her breath. She was on her own, struggling to control the plank and keep it out of sight as she pulled it back from the rooftops. She knew if she lost her balance, she would plummet to the unforgiving stone below.

Luckily, Rhett fought with an unexpected ferocity, taking down the second enemy in a matter of seconds without even coming close to being hit himself. He whooped, yelling, “Come on!” at his downed opponents.

The two grey-suited students below stared up at them with wide eyes. “Thank you!” one of them yelled up to them.

Rhett grinned back, bowing with a flourish.

Damien turned off the camouflage to save his second artifact’s limited power, then moved to help Sebastien lay the planks over the next gap between buildings. “Come on!” Sebastien snapped at Rhett, who was communicating through charades with the students below. The extra points were, of course, useful, but she would have appreciated it if Rhett could have waited to coordinate with the rest of his team before attacking.

As the duo below watched Sebastien’s trio traverse the roofway, the two survivors spoke quietly. With a quick farewell to the third member of their party, stuck unmoving on the ground, they hurried to follow along the street below. Just as Damien reached the next roof, one called, “We’re coming up!” just loud enough to be heard without drawing undue attention.

Rhett moved quickly to the opposite side of the roof, and his excitement grew palpable.

Sebastien’s eyes narrowed. “Do you see some—”

Out of nowhere, he stopped and tossed one of the clay faux-grenades—explosive potions—over the side of an intervening roof. The clay sphere landed and went off with a flash of light and a loud bang.

Sebastien flinched down automatically. “What are you doing!?”

He grinned at her, unrepentant. “I noticed an enemy-flagged supply stash about a block away. It was behind an old, rickety wooden barricade. More points!”

Sebastien gasped in shock at his recklessness, quickly ushering them forward and hurrying to place the planks down again. They needed to get away before anyone could spot them. “What were you thinking?” she demanded. “If we’re spotted—”

Sebastien’s scolding was cut off by the arrival of the two first-term students, one young man and one woman. The woman’s eyes widened as she got a closer look at the three of them.

“You’re that Sebastien guy?” she said, her face breaking into a wide grin. “The one who saved those civilians by fighting an Aberrant!”

Her partner was less enamored, but gave them all an excited grin. “Thanks again for the help. Would you like to team up? Safety in numbers, and all that. Not like you need it, but—”

Damien eyed them both warily before turning to Sebastien for confirmation. “What do you think?”

“Extra points for heroic actions,” Rhett said. “That would be two allies rescued and escorted to safety. I say they join.”

Sebastien hesitated, looking them over. She had to admit that Rhett had a point, the extra points could be useful. But that didn’t mean she was keen on taking on the responsibility of two more students. They didn’t have any special equipment, and from the little she’d seen they weren’t especially skilled.

The two of them smiled hopefully at her. “We won’t be any trouble, I promise,” the woman said.

“Alright,” Sebastien agreed with a sigh. “You can join us, but you have to listen to my orders. Failure to do so, or reckless actions that endanger the rest of the group, will see you kicked out immediately.” She gave Rhett a pointed look, which he ignored while grinning at her response.

The two were quick to agree, and with that the team of five started making their way across the rooftops again. Sebastien gave orders and kept them all organized as they scurried from building to building. Damien continued to scout the way, and several times they paused to hide from an enemy patrol passing below, despite Rhett’s protests.

“Sure, we can take a few of them out, but what happens when one of them gets word back to the rest, or alerts a more powerful enemy that we’re a threat?” she argued back. “If we fail to make it safely to the tower, we don’t just lose those additional points, Rhett. We fail the test entirely. That’s not a risk I’m willing to take.”

“Maybe you’re less willing to take the necessary risks because you have less riding on this test. No matter how well you perform today, there’s no chance you’ll end up the best student of the term. But I’m not in that same position. I need these bonus objectives, Siverling,” Rhett urged. “It’s ridiculous to ignore enemies that we could defeat.”

Luckily, both of her new charges were quiet and quick to obey her orders. When Rhett looked around for agreement with his argument, neither of them met his gaze. “We’re already down one original teammate, and that will affect our grade,” the young man explained. “I’d just rather get there safely. I can’t afford to fail.”

“I wouldn’t mind taking on some extra enemies,” Damien said, “But not while we’re still so far from the tower. Maybe we can spend a few minutes patrolling around that area once we’ve dropped these guys off.”

Rhett huffed, but seemed to realize he was outnumbered. “There’s a time limit too, you know.”

A large group of enemies below forced them to take a detour, and a couple more precarious roofs with precipitous drops slowed them.

Crouching in the middle of a thankfully flat roof as she listened to sounds of the enemies below, Sebastien estimated that they were halfway to their destination. She didn’t have her watch, but thought thirty minutes or so had passed. They were making good time.

“They’re gathering on this location,” Damien said.

“Do you think they know we’re here?” the woman, whose name Sebastien had immediately forgotten after she introduced herself, asked.

“No. I think they’re doing something else. Fighting, or setting up some strategic location. This building had no direct roof access, so they have no way to get to us even if they do realize.”

“But how do we get across without them noticing us?”

“We wait till they’re all inside,” Damien answered, staring down at the scanning artifact. “Any moment now, we’ll make a break for it.”

Everyone froze as a loud banging echoed over the bare stone, followed by shouts and screams coming from the floor below.

Damien crept forward, his camouflage active, and Sebastien followed behind him. A few meters below, a girl rushed out to the balcony. “It’s too far! We can’t jump,” the girl called back to her companions inside the building. Her suit was slightly darker than Sebastien’s own, indicating that she was a second, or maybe third-term student.

“The barricade won’t last long!” a man’s throaty voice called back to her, his voice breaking with strain. “I don’t think we can fight them all.”

Damien and Sebastien shared a look, and when she did a quick sweep of her peripheral for danger, she found the other two first-term students staring at her expectantly.

“How are we going to save them?” the young man asked.

“You could drop down there and surprise the enemy when they break down the barrier,” the woman suggested.

“There are at least eight enemy signals,” Damien said darkly. An explosion rumbled through the stone, much weakened from real battle magic, but still powerful enough to cause several shouts of fear and dismay from the students below. “Andyep, those are more on the way,” Damien added.

The five of them ducked down even further to make sure they weren’t seen. The woman bit her thumbnail. “I don’t think even Sebastien can take on that many.”

“I can take them,” Rhett offered, smiling at the woman reassuringly. “I’ll jump down to the balcony, the rest of you can find a way down to the street, and then we’ll do a pincer attack on the whole group of them. They’re in the stairwell; there’s nowhere to run.”

Sebastien opened her mouth to say that they had neither the time nor the ability to save this group, who were fighting against so many enemies, but stopped herself. “Iactually have an idea,” she realized.

Reaching into her backpack, she pulled out a different spell array disk. “I can create handholds in the stone—a ladder of a sort—for them to climb up.” She had loaded up the stone disintegration and gust spells on it, thinking that she might use it to blow a fine dust at the enemy that would irritate their lungs and eyes, or even, with enough dust, create cloud cover for her team.

With the addition of a couple glyphs to allow her to distance the output in the vertical direction, Sebastien began to cast. Sand trickled away from a section of the wall, leaving behind a divot a couple inches deep and a single handstand across.

“I’ll get them on board with the plan,” Damien said. Turning his camouflage on once again, he swung himself over the edge of the roof and dropped down to the balcony as softly as possible.

“Take this!” Rhett said, pulling an artifact off of his bandolier and tossing it down to Damien. “One-time-use shield. If they break down the barricade, just shout and I’ll be right behind you.” Sebastien was thankful that at least he hadn’t insisted on being the one to go down.

Gripping her Conduit tighter, she drew more power from the small, dull beast core, causing the sand to flow faster. With quick adjustments of her Will, she drew the detached output up the side of the wall, step by step.

Whatever Damien said below, he managed to get the other students on board more quickly than she had expected. “Hurry,” he urged, looking back over his shoulder, where another soft explosion rumbled out, shaking the stone beneath their feet.

The students wasted no time climbing up, squinting their eyes against the crumbled white stone that continued to fall from above as Sebastien created the last of the handholds.

As the first of them reached the top, she dropped the spell and reached out to help haul them up. She counted five new students, three men and two women. Flecks of white stone stuck to the sweat along their temples, which was already drying under the caress of the wind.

Below, Damien knelt to set up the shield artifact, then brought up the rear, scowling as some of the lingering dust kicked up by the students climbing above him got in his hair.

“Titan’s balls,” one of the young men murmured, staring at Sebastien. “Is he a free-caster already?”

“He’s Thaddeus Lacer’s apprentice,” the first woman responded in a murmur.

“Quiet!” Sebastien bit out, scowling out at the group as she gestured for one of the men to help her move the plank bridge to the the far edge of the building.

Damien went first again, against as the scout, but a couple of the new upper-term students paled at the sight of the precarious pathway. “No, I can’t do that,” one of the women whimpered. “Mr. Siverling, I can’t. I’m afraid of heights.” She looked down at the street below, then stepped back and squeezed her eyes shut, crouching as if she thought she might fall off the edge of the roof.

“I’m afraid of heights, too,” one of the men said sheepishly.

Rhett reached out to take the woman’s hands. “Don’t worry, we’ll definitely keep you safe.” He turned to Sebastien. “Your plan isn’t going to work anymore. I vote we stay and use our superior numbers to overwhelm the enemy. I’ll stay on the roof with those who can’t use the bridge, and the rest of you can find a way down, then circle around to meet up with us.”

“Are you sure?” the woman asked, looking up at him with watery eyes.

“Just watch,” he said, smirking. “If the others don’t hurry, I’ll have taken down all the enemies and snatched all the extra points for myself.”

Sebastien’s chest flared hot with outrage, but she tamped it down, keeping her face expressionless. “If you would like to stay behind and act as a sacrifice for the remainder of the group to get away, you may. But I will not be staying in this location for even more reinforcements to arrive. As soon as they catch wind of what we’re doing, we’re trapped up here. You realize that they don’t actually have to stick around and fight us? They can retreat back down that stairwell at any time. They could pick us off easily as we try to cross the bridge, and climbing down the side of the building would be even stupider. We need to move quickly—” she cut herself off as explosions rumbled out from the direction of the nearest red tower. Dust clouds rose, and screams of fear and anger cut through the wind.

It was a good reminder. Arguing with Rhett was just wasting time.

She let her eyes rove over the others. “If you want to come with us, you had better move quickly. Otherwise, remain here,” she said, her words clipped and her tone cold. “If you falter or make a mistake, you could very well fall to your deaths. I have no way to save you before you break yourselves across the ground like an egg. Don’t slow the rest of us down.” Turning, she hurried across the plank.

Those left behind hesitated, and Rhett gave her a long, dark glare as she reached the other side, but no one decided to remain behind, even the woman so afraid of heights.

Getting all ten students across still took an excruciating amount of time, and by the time they had done so, the enemy on the floor below had spotted them. A couple tried to follow using the handholds Sebastien had created. Her group quickly took out the first, sending him falling back to the balcony below, but the next red-suited enemy crawled up holding a shield above his head. He grinned triumphantly at them, then ducked down again, calling out to his comrades.

A couple moved to the nearest windows facing their direction and began to shoot up at them.

“Damien, find a roof with stairwell access,” Sebastien ordered. “Move fast, and take the others. We’ll hold up the rear.” They had no choice but to stay and fight in the hopes of stopping, or at least delaying, the enemy from calling reinforcements. As such a large group, they could no longer move fast enough to effectively escape.

The largest advantage of her rooftop travel plan had been negated. Luckily, the spell-fire was enough incentive for several of the students to hurry along to escape with Damien, hesitation erased.

Rhett actually managed to hit one of the enemy’s spells in mid-air. This feat detonated both spells close enough to the enemy to send the woman reeling back, her suit constricting around her and toppling her stiffly to the floor. Rhett tried to toss an explosive shell through the window as a follow-up, but his aim was off, and the clay sphere hit the wall and exploded harmlessly.

With her spell array disk, Sebastien managed to down another enemy, and one of the rescued men who had decided to stay behind with them got a lucky shot off at a red-suited woman hurrying out of the building at the ground floor. Soon after, the attacks stopped.

Rhett and the other man grinned with exhilaration, but Sebastien knew this was far from a victory. Her mouth was dry, and though the wind still carried a chill, the sun beat down on her back with enough strength to leave her armpits dripping with sweat.

Damien had led most of the students to an adjacent roof, though it was in the opposite direction of the nearest tower flying the black. As if he could feel her gaze, he pointed to the next roof and mouthed “stairs.”

They hurried to follow, crouching low and staying silent. Even Rhett seemed a little disgruntled at the reduced speed of their crossing. After all, the longer it took them to reach the tower, the less points they would receive for that objective.

However, Sebastien was no longer worried about points. As long as they could make it without their suits recording any serious “injuries,” they would easily pass the test. To the contrary, she was questioning her decision to save the extra students at all. Just because she had an idea of how to do it, didn’t necessarily mean she should have.

After all, their safety wasn’t her priority. If she and Damien had partnered with anyone else but Rhett, maybe it wouldn’t even have been an issue in the first place.

They had just made it to the stairwell when Damien reported an enemy presence down below.

Silently, Sebastien signaled for the rest of group to wait, while she and Rhett moved closer to Damien so they could discuss the situation.

Without waiting for her to question him, Damien explained. “I caught a glimpse of red below, but no enemy signals are showing up on the scanner. They must have a cloaking device.”

Rhett gazed out at the tower flying the black flag, only a couple hundred meters away. “Either we go down and fight, or we try to make a break for it across the rooftops. Or maybe we could split up, with the more combat oriented of us going down, and the rest moving as quickly as they can to safety.”

Sebastien was surprised he suggested leaving those they had rescued to their own devices, but it wasn’t a bad idea. Only, she didn’t really like either option. She couldn’t continue to inch across the gap between rooftops with the others, but going down the stairs and having to fight her way out also did not sound appealing. As her mind spun in search of a third route to safety, the flapping of wings drew her gaze to the side.

Cresting the edge of the roof was a young drake, flapping its wings frantically. Cousin to the dragon and as large a house cat, the creature wore a bright red collar. ‘An enemy familiar,’ Sebastien realized with horror.

The creature let out a loud screech half a second before Rhett’s spell hit it in the mouth and sent it fleeing back toward the ground.

Around the corner only a couple blocks from them, a group of twelve red-suited enemies turned in their direction. The leader’s arm rose, pointing right at them.

1/19: I’m back, babies! Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated. (I’ve always wanted to use that line.)

Anyway, I’m feeling well enough to work again, and I’ve got a lot of stuff coming your way over the next couple weeks. All the illustrations, deleted scenes, and bonus content I’ve been promising.

Where is the Honeymoon Suite short story? Well, I know I said I would post it on Tuesday the 17th, but like everything else, that plan was crushed by my illness. I’ll have it posted by this coming Tuesday instead.


Want to get an email with links as soon as a new chapter comes out on my website, or get monthly Inner Circle news about my writing? Sign up for your preference here:

Slight Delay due to sickness

Hey guys,

Writing this to you very slowly while lying in bed. Please excuse any typos. I know people get anxious if there’s any delay in the regular posting schedule, so I want to update you.

I’m sick again. Some of you may know I was sick about 3 weeks out of November, relapsing 2 times when I thought I was better already. I worked really hard in December to catch up, like 260 hours.

So I was going to take the first week of January off posting. But then my partner got sock, and gave it to me. He didn’t get super sick, but I have for some reason. Like over 103 degree fever, deep and never ending chills, weird numbness in my hands.

Anyway, I’m not dying. I’m pretty sure I’m already on the downswing of all this. Buut I wanated to let you know the weekly chapter is going to be postponed for at least one more week. Very unlikely that it would be more than that.

I’m really hoping not to relapse and get fully better this time in one go.

Anyway, i’ll try to link to this post at various reader spots so everyone knows what’s going on.

Thanks guys,


Chapter 144 – Alliance Against Curiosity (Book 4 Start)


Month 3, Day 19, Friday 10:00pm

Thaddeus sat at the desk in his cottage as a storm raged outside, writing the last few pages of a guide to translating one of the more common pre-Cataclysm languages. Such a comprehensive and coherent reference would have been invaluable to him some years ago, but as none existed he had been forced to learn the hard way.

While writing the book, he had idly begun to consider how one might create a matrix of vocabulary and grammatical rules to inform an artifact that could do the translation automatically. Even if such a complex spell array would take months or years to develop, span an entire room, and be unfortunately clumsy without the help of a human operator’s deeper understanding and intuition to draw from, it was an intriguing concept.

If he took the time to develop such a spell and then publish his work, it might bring him some extra coin. Unfortunately, there was no way for him to create a translator for a language he did not already know, so the time and effort would not help him further approach the true goal of all his research. A human, even a powerful thaumaturge such as himself, had a limited lifespan. He needed to spend his only nonrenewable resource—time—in the most efficient way possible.

As often happened, thoughts of his research led Thaddeus’s mind to the Raven Queen. Just a couple days before, he had finally reached out to request a meeting through her associate, Lord Stag. He had hoped that she might contact him without the need for such, but as time passed Thaddeus had realized he must be more proactive if he wanted to move her little game of hints and intrigue toward something less nebulous. “She is stubborn,” he murmured aloud. “Not one to concede first.”

Thaddeus added the observation to his developing mental model of the powerful woman, and his thoughts turned toward her most recent exploit. He had suspected, from examining the function of the strange boon she had given his apprentice, that she may have been involved in the Haze War. The response of the protective effect to his various tests reminded him of some of the more innovative solutions the military researchers had come up with during that time, though obviously they had been expanded and improved upon.

The method she had used to kill the rogue Red Guard agent, who allied with the Architects of Khronos to attack the Stags had provided further evidence toward this possibility, as well as a reminder of her cruelty and recklessness.

A trip to one of the Red Guard bases had been enough to get a confirmation of the attacker’s identity as a former member of the Red Guard, as well as pick up some of the gossip from the emergency response squad that had first deployed to the location of the fighting when the gravity of the situation—and the type of spells being cast—became known. Observing from a roof with a good vantage point a few blocks away as they waited for backup, one of them had seen the Raven Queen kill the man. Unfortunately, even with a shaman to help solidify his memories, the details were unclear. The gang members had been throwing around battle philtres to cover their escape, clouding the view.

The rogue agent, an old man who’d gotten his hands on some dangerous items before deserting, had cast some sort of spell at those fleeing. The witness’s sight of that part had been blocked by a building. The man pulled back an item, most likely a purse but possibly a suitcase, and a woman they strongly suspected to be the Raven Queen stepped around the corner in the opposite direction of those fleeing.

She stopped to look at the old sorcerer, and without any obvious motions, free-cast an unknown spell to kill not only him, but the half-dozen enemies surrounding him.

When the turbulent effect had settled enough for the emergency response squad to get a good look again, she was gone, seemingly having made an appearance solely for that attack.

The three prognos Titus had called in to the site, along with the Red Guard’s reconnaissance and assessment team, had examined what killed the group of Architects and left behind such an alarming after-effect as thoroughly as possible before it faded.

All agreed that it had been the same particular blend of disintegration magic that Lenore’s army used in their mines during the Haze War, combined somehow with a space-bending spell to increase the sheer gruesomeness while also decreasing the chances that any standard shield could ward against the damage. There were several other twists of different types of magic that seemed random and had been hard to define, but which seemed to have increased the spectacle. They had all agreed that there was a strong flavor of darkness, along with some strange extracts of meaning related to sleep, the moon, and a few dozen other things, all too fleeting to be pinned down properly.

Thaddeus knew quite a few divination spells meant to check for anomalous effects, but the strange manifestation of magic that had been fading already by the time he arrived was complex and delicate. He was not an expert in that particular field, and his efforts had yielded no additional insight. He had considered the possibility that the lingering remnants of magic contained a message meant to be deciphered, or some kind of hint, but if that was the case he was not deft enough to grasp it.

Perhaps it was some reference to the Black Wastes, into which the expedition had traveled to find Myrddin’s hermitage. It was said that the Brillig had infected the land itself with their dangerous magic, when humans were at war with them. Thaddeus had seen similar effects just a couple times, when he caught a glimpse of some of the more restricted research in the Red Guard’s black sites, but nothing quite like this.

Still, if she had been involved in the Haze War, she was likely not much younger than him, and could even be older. Thaddeus considered, for a moment, the possibility that the Raven Queen was older—and conceivably more powerful—than Thaddeus himself. Had they ever met? Perhaps he had unknowingly sparked her interest in some point then.

Of course, that evidence did not fit with the identity of Siobhan Naught, who had been born two decades after the war. But her sheer power also seemed impossible for a girl of only twenty.

Thaddeus’s apprentice, a genius in his own way, was at that age and still far from becoming a free-caster, let alone reaching the power required to achieve some of her arrogant displays of prowess.

His thoughts were drawn back to reality as his faculty token alerted him to a security-related summons. He was to report to the deployment point at Eagle Tower. Outside his window, the storm continued on, rain lashing against the glass and the occasional branch of lighting spreading a purple-white glow over the city for a split moment. With a deep sigh, hoping that he was not about to be urged to catch some students missing after curfew, Thaddeus donned his coat and left his neglected manuscript on his desk, still unfinished.

With a simple twist of his Will, long become instinctive, he cast a dome-shaped shield around himself to protect against the lashing wind and rain and strode off toward the west side of the grounds.

When Thaddeus arrived, he found Grandmaster Kiernan waiting for him, alone. His eyes narrowed. It seemed there was no widespread emergency. Kiernan had summoned Thaddeus, specifically. “Why have you called for me?” he asked without preamble.

The stress Kiernan had been under recently manifested itself clearly, if one knew what to look for, in the man’s too-tight neck muscles and the sagging skin under his eyes. Even bathed in the warm, recycled sunlight of the light crystals, his skin looked pale and sallow. Still, he smiled with joviality, clapping Thaddeus on the arm. “Thank you for coming, Professor Lacer.”

Thaddeus resisted the urge to cast a shield between them to push away the man’s hand. He did not appreciate it when others touched him without his explicit permission.

“I would like to speak with you about…a sensitive matter that could involve the security of our school and the safety of the students. My apologies for the method of contact. I would have sent you a paper bird, but the administration center is closed this late.” He motioned for Thaddeus to walk with him, making his way to the stairwell. “As you may know, the High Crown has been…concerned, one might even say paranoid, in the days following the terrorist attack. He has even gone so far as to question people tangentially or even completely unrelated to the events.” Kiernan remained silent for a long few moments as they walked up the stairs, bypassing the door to the second floor.

Thaddeus did not enjoy conversational vagueness or the way the man skirted around the issue, but that did not mean he could not play with words as weapons and pregnant pauses as lures. “Yes. I heard he has shown an interest in your department, particularly,” he said.

Kiernan threw Thaddeus a glance, gritting his teeth together with grim viciousness, the creak of bone on bone just loud enough to be audible.

The Crowns had allocated even more resources to investigating the terrorist attack than they had to the Raven Queen, even collaborating with the Red Guard’s investigation by providing additional manpower and what information they could.

Titus suspected that some faction of the University faculty, including Kiernan and some of those close to him, were either members of the Architects of Khronos, or had perhaps been sponsoring them. There had simply been too many coincidences: rumors about the kind of magical components that were being smuggled into the city en-masse, the convenient timing of the explosion at Eagle Tower, their handling of Newton Moore’s break incident and Tanya Canelo’s involvement with that, and the most recent attack on the Verdant Stag’s various holdings, seemingly timed to coincide with the Architects’ actions. But most importantly, the History Department was still determined to keep the contents of the archaeological haul to themselves. While legally, they could do so, in practice it was a dangerous move.

Unlike normal civilians, the University faculty had all taken certain oaths and could not simply refuse to answer the coppers’ questions. None of the faculty had been arrested yet, which would suggest their innocence, but Thaddeus knew just how little an oath could mean, with the right knowledge and preparation, and how fallible wards and divination against untruth could be.

Kiernan continued to lead Thaddeus up the stairs until they reached the top floor, then reached out and unlatched the hatch door to the roof. “Do you mind?” Kiernan asked. “It seems an appropriate place to speak, but I would rather not get drenched. These old bones might just fall ill!” He grinned again, but his gaze was flat and predatory.

Raising an eyebrow, Thaddeus cast his shield spell again, this time enveloping both of them within it, and led the way onto the roof. “A rather dramatic meeting place, no?” he asked, moving closer to the edge, which forced Kiernan to move with him to remain within the sphere of protection. “It must be a sensitive topic, indeed.”

Kiernan didn’t respond to the jab. “You are right that the coppers have shown a particular interest in my department. At first, I thought perhaps they were using the investigation as an excuse to apply pressure in the hopes of getting their hands on things they have no right to. But then I considered another possibility. What if the investigators know something I don’t?”

“Like what?” Thaddeus asked, playing along as he began to suspect, with some amusement, where this was going.

Kiernan didn’t answer him directly. “I am aware you’ve been helping with the investigation into the Raven Queen, which is now somehow connected to these horrible terrorist attacks.” For a moment, real anger slipped through his mask, directed out at the rain-obscured city to the south. “I am worried that there might be some danger to the school—to the students as well as the faculty under my command. As one of the leaders of the security committee, it is my duty to take measures to ensure student safety. Do you know anything that might be relevant to the situation? Why are the investigators showing such interest?” He turned to Thaddeus beseechingly, his expression surprisingly sincere.

If Thaddeus had any less control over his expressions, he might have let a carnivorous smile slip. “The Raven Queen is said to bear grudges,” he said simply.

Kiernan did an admirable job of controlling his expression, but his fingers twitched.

Thaddeus continued, “There are some accounts that she fought against these terrorists, though the exact reason for her actions is debatable.”

“Grudges,” Kiernan repeated. His eyes narrowed slyly. “You’ve been working against her on this investigation for some time now, but as I understand it, the Raven Queen not only failed to harm your apprentice when they met, but gave him a boon. What could be the cause of that?”

Thaddeus thought Kiernan might have intended it as some kind of vague threat, but the question only pushed control of the conversation directly into Thaddeus’s hands. And how convenient, that Kiernan had something Thaddeus wanted. “Perhaps she understands my motivations,” he said. After a moment to let those words hang in the air, he added, “I am an inquisitive creature.”

This time, Kiernan couldn’t control the widening of his eyes. “Oh?”

Thaddeus took a half-step closer so as to loom just slightly over the other man and continued, “Indeed. I act as a consultant because Titus Westbay is a friend, and because I find the subject of these investigations rather fascinating, but mostly because I enjoy being let in on details not available elsewhere. I find such edification rather…useful. As you may know, my vows to the Red Guard preclude me taking superseding vows of loyalty to the Crowns—which is why I am only an unofficial consultant.”

Kiernan was not slow to understand Thaddeus’s implication, judging by the suspicion and surprise warring for dominance on his face.

“In return for access to interesting information, I offer my own knowledge, whether that be my understanding of magic, simple observations about things I have seen, or deductions based on the evidence provided. Often, the obvious is sitting right under their nose, waiting for me to point it out. In truth, however, I have no particular investment in helping the coppers to find the Raven Queen.” It was both a threat of what he might tell, and an offer of what he could do for Kiernan instead. The University might be an enemy to the Raven Queen just as the coppers were, but at this point Thaddeus found it unlikely that she could be in any true danger from either party, and thus had no compunction about giving his nominal aid.

Kiernan cleared his throat roughly. “What kind of information, exactly, do you find so interesting that it entices you to spend your precious time assisting them?”

“Well, you know my prior field of work. Quite fascinating. But there is a reason I took this liaison position at the University. Like you, I, too, have an interest in history. I am an expert in pre-Cataclysm society and languages, for instance, many of which survived to this day only due to the strong protections keeping them isolated and preserved. As I understand it, your people have found the decryption of the texts you retrieved quite stymieing. You asked me why the Raven Queen has showed no malice to me. Perhaps she is laying the foundation for a collaboration attempt. She may be experiencing similar difficulties with her stolen text, and realize that I could be a solution.”

Kiernan took a step back, startling when he reached the edge of the protective shield, which Thaddeus had allowed to shrink in around them, and caught a splash of cold rain across his back.

But Thaddeus was not finished yet. “Even you will likely be forced to bring in outside experts soon if you cannot show progress, perhaps hired by the Crown Families. The potential significance of what you have found is simply too great to allow failure, no matter the technicalities of the law.”

They both remained silent for a long few moments, the rain beating against Thaddeus’s Will and running down the sides of the sphere in distorting ripples.

Finally, Kiernan spoke. “It occurs to me that someone of your capabilities might find this decryption project quite intellectually stimulating.”


“And as you’ve said, you cannot take vows to the Crowns.”

Thaddeus remained silent.

“But would you be willing to take a non-disclosure vow?”

“I would,” Thaddeus replied immediately. That did not mean, necessarily, that he would be willing to keep said vow.

Kiernan swallowed, looked at the ground for a moment, and then met Thaddeus’s gaze again. He nodded sharply. “Very well. As we will be working so closely together, I hope that you will take the opportunity to sate my curiosity when applicable, as well. And if the Raven Queen does contact you… Perhaps she is curious, too.” As if doubting that Thaddeus was clever enough to understand his meaning, Kiernan clarified, “She may be interested in a similar exchange of information. After all, we do still have the rest of Myrddin’s research journals, and everything else left behind in his hermitage.”

“Perhaps we will have a chance to find out,” Thaddeus murmured, a twist of vicious amusement curling in his belly.

12/29: And we’re in to Book 4!

Book 3, A Sacrifice of Light is out now, if you’d like to grab a copy of your own. Universal Bookstore Link:

If you could spread the word about the latest book, it would help a lot. Word of mouth from fans is the absolute best form of marketing, better than anything I can do myself, better than anything I can pay for.

In other news, there will be no chapter next week, as I’ve got a lot of admin and marketing work to do surrounding the launch of a book, and I also need a little break to recover from working “overtime” basically the whole month of December.

I have some bonus content/deleted scenes that will be coming out on the Patreon when I get them back from my editor, so those may take the place of the regular chapter.

I will be back with the regularly scheduled Thursday chapter on January 12. (And replying to emails and messages as soon as I have time.)

Thank you guys for all your support.

I really mean that.

EDIT 1/9: Please Read

Chapter 143 – Castling Queenside


Month 3, Day 17, Wednesday 8:00 pm

It was quite simple for Thaddeus to find a Verdant Stag enforcer and free-cast a compulsion spell on the woman to get information about Lord Stag’s whereabouts. It was somewhat of an anticlimax to find that, with the right timing, he could simply walk into the Verdant Stag’s inn-cum-entertainment hall and request a meeting with the man.

He flagged down a carriage to take him there. Discarded within lay a recent issue of The Daily Sun, a rather gossipy rag. However, with little better to do in the meantime, he picked it up. The headlining article was about the recent mess with the Gervins.

Dear Reader, you may have heard rumors about the arrest of two Crown Family members, Misters Malcolm and Randolph Gervin, both younger, non-inheriting brothers to the current lord of the Fourth Crown Family.

While Harrow Hill has not yet released an official statement, this reporter was shocked to learn that the true reason for their arrest was even more scandalous than some of the rumors.

Sources close to the Family say that the brothers were acting strangely for some time before the incident. Because of this and her concern for her cousin Alec Gervin, heiress Anastasia, currently a first-term University student, set out to uncover just what was going on with the help of an anonymous private investigator.

“I don’t think she expected something like this at all,” one anonymous source said. “But once she found out they were dabbling in treason, trying to make secret deals with the Raven Queen, she couldn’t stand idle. And then Lord Malcolm tried to kill her to keep her mouth shut while he destroyed all the evidence. I heard the fighting, spells flying everywhere, and afterward the room was completely destroyed.”

Truly, if young Anastasia had not brought along her two best friends for moral support while she confronted her uncle, Damien Westbay and one Sebastien Siverling (see our March 1st article for further heroic exploits), she likely would have been killed.

Usually, in an article like this, the anonymous “sources” were either servants, employees of businesses the nobles had visited, or common business associates with a grudge. Here, he guessed servants.

The article went on in a similar thespian manner, focusing on the heroism of Thaddeus’s apprentice, who fought the older man to a standstill with the help of his two friends before the coppers could arrive. They even provided a drawing, done by a “source close to the trio,” of Siverling sitting in a window seat, looking into the distance as the light from outside spilled over him. Thaddeus thought the artist’s rendition made the boy look rather more handsome than he actually was, though the expression of focused determination was accurate.

Of course, the details about the Gervin brothers’ treasonous collusion with the Raven Queen were half-speculation and inaccurate even beyond that, but Thaddeus couldn’t be sure whether that was because of shoddy journalism or the fact that the investigators on her case were so eager to be gathering evidence about her movements that they set logic aside.

In any case, it was true that the brothers had thought they were meeting with the Raven Queen, and not to further the High Crown’s interests.

Thaddeus skimmed through the rest of the paper to ensure that it held nothing of interest or substance, then refolded and rolled it up into a tube for disposal in the nearest fireplace.

As he disembarked in front of the building that bore the green antlers so proudly, Thaddeus smiled in anticipation. The establishment was already mostly rebuilt, though the seams where new met old were obvious.

He stepped through the front door, allowing his Will to sweep out with just enough grasp on reality to make his presence felt by those who mattered. He turned to the closest enforcer and announced, “I am Grandmaster Thaddeus Lacer, and I am here to meet with Lord Stag.”

The man looked from side to side as if hoping Thaddeus had been talking to anyone but him. When everyone else pointedly refused to meet his gaze, he swallowed audibly and stepped forward. “Err, can I ask what this is about?”

“A personal matter.”

The man shifted uncomfortably. “Nothing official, then? I heard you were working as a part-time consultant for the coppers…”

“I am not here in any official capacity, and even if I were, I am not employed by Harrow Hill and thus have no authority to make arrests on their behalf,” Thaddeus said, guessing at what had the man so worried. He did not bother to say that if he really wanted to arrest someone, there was little that could stand in his way, official remit from Harrow Hill or not. After all, he was still a special agent of the Red Guard.

The enforcer cleared his throat, gave Thaddeus a bow, and said, “I will pass along your request. Please wait here,” before hurrying off toward a side door with surprising self-control.

Thaddeus took a seat at the bar on the left side of the room and ordered a surprisingly nice beer, dark as coffee and twice as bitter.

When the bartender delivered it, she tossed a paper down beside it. “Hot off the press. Something better than that drivel,” she said, nodding to The Daily Sun still in his hand.

“How much?”

She waved him off. “Free with every purchase.”

Thaddeus raised an eyebrow, intrigued by the rather thin paper titled The People’s Voice.

Before he could get far into either the news or his beer, the enforcer from before returned. “Please follow me, sir.” He led Thaddeus to an open antechamber in front of a dark wooden door on the third floor.

Seeing that several others were already waiting, Thaddeus settled into one of the chairs with the beer that no one had dared tell him to leave behind, and returned to his reading.

Terrorists Attack Gilbratha to Free Criminals

Lord Stag, leader of the Verdant Stags, is quoted as saying, “I believe justice is the responsibility of all those who find themselves with power.” However, his organization has made it clear they have no intention to take dispensation of that justice from the hands of the Crowns.

As you know, many of the members of the former Morrow gang were defeated and captured by an alliance between the Verdant Stag and the Nightmare Pack, determined to improve the lives of people in their territory. After compiling their crimes and affording some measure of restitution to those who were harmed, the Verdant Stag, with the help of the Nightmare Pack, went about transferring those heinous criminals who once walked the streets with impunity to Harrow Hill for official sentencing and punishment. Unfortunately, some parties felt removing these tyrants went against their interests.

Hidden individuals with wealth and power had been preparing to strike against Gilbratha for some time, gathering resources for battle and hiring powerful mercenaries who had lost all sense of virtue. In the wee hours of Saturday morning, they struck out in an attempt to free the criminals and sow fear into the heart of Gilbratha with a display of magical power in our vulnerable midst.

Verdant Stag and Nightmare Pack enforcers fought against these terrorists on one side while the coppers approached from the other, allies by chance. Eventually, they managed to overcome the villains, leaving over a dozen mercenaries and their masters dead, and some of the land in west Gilbratha scarred.

The article went on to cover some of the details of the battle and the impressive might of the enemy in clear, concise detail that drew Thaddeus’s attention. Particularly, the description of an elderly thaumaturge who used a war array to great effect. He matched the physical description and particular magical capability of an ex-Red Guard member. A defector who had managed to escape retaliation, until now. Thaddeus would ask for confirmation, though he was unsure if his current clearance levels would allow him access.

No civilians were killed, though several enforcers working for the Verdant Stag and Nightmare Pack fell casualty to the terrorist attack, and a handful of coppers sustained injuries. *See the end of this article for names.

Despite all the efforts made to the contrary, over one hundred Morrow criminals were apprehended and are soon to face sentencing.

Little is known about the powers behind this attack, but it is likely they still walk free, plotting to strike once more.

As always at The People’s Voice, we asked for commentary from those involved in and affected by this event, with allowance for responses to previous statements.

Mary Crafford from Bett Street: “I’m not sure why no one is talking about how the Raven Queen stepped in and kept a whole section of coppers from being annihilated. She created an eldritch maw of darkness that reached straight out of the ground and swallowed a whole squad of those [terrorists] all up before they could do any more damage. She might be mischievous and whimsical, but she gets serious when it matters.”

Terrence Filibun from Madders Row, in reply to Mary Crafford: “Everyone knows the Raven Queen is territorial. Not with land, but with her people. My uncle Dominic was there, and he told me that he was just about to be hit by a spell when she acted, probably to protect him. He has a whole nest of ravens in his backyard that he keeps fed, which everyone agrees is why she likes him so much. He’s making offerings every single day.”

Bob from Brewer Avenue: “What I want to know is, how did some group of anti-Lenore radicalists manage to hire mercenaries and infiltrate Gilbratha without the coppers getting any wind of it? Don’t we have any people assigned to protect our interests from the shadows?”

Hamish Cordwain from Worlow Apartments, in reply to Bob: “If you’re wondering how something like this could happen, why anyone would want this, just follow the gold. I’d bet anything some of the Crowns are involved, and I don’t need to be anonymous to say it. Who else has access to that kind of firepower? I went down there personally and saw the clay shards of army-issue battle philtres, just the same as we had when I was a soldier.”

Grom from Calcifer Crescent: “My niece and I watched the edges of the battle from our roof a few blocks away. We saw that huge glowing rock in the sky that disappeared a whole building, and now she’s afraid to go outside. Does anyone know the details of making an offering to the Raven Queen? I think it might give my niece some reassurance.”

Thaddeus’s brows slowly rose higher as he continued through the civilian commentary, which was a mix of ridiculous, myopic, and insightful, but altogether quite amusing. Creating a curated forum for discussion through a free newspaper was an interesting approach. If Lord Stag was behind it, as seemed likely, the man was cleverer than Thaddeus had given him credit for. He would be one to watch.

As the next person left the room beyond, Thaddeus stood and entered, heedless of whether he was technically the next in line or not.

The room was slightly ostentatious, but simple enough. The office of the one man in Gilbratha with an obvious connection to the Raven Queen, who, if the rumors were to be believed, could facilitate a meeting with her, for the right price. “I am Grandmaster Thaddeus Lacer. I wish to meet with the Raven Queen, and understand you may be able to facilitate this,” he said, not bothering with time-wasting pleasantries.

The man behind the desk, a featureless mask obscuring his expression, stared at Thaddeus through artificially shadowed eye holes. “You understand the need to prepare a worthy tribute?”

“Yes. That will not be a problem.”

“Even if the Raven Queen accepts, she may not meet you in person, as she has been known to send raven messengers in her place.”

Thaddeus did not smirk, because that would be obnoxious. “I believe she will meet me in person,” he said simply.

Lord Stag stared at him silently once more. Finally, he said, “Very well. I will inform her when she deigns to grace me with her presence. I cannot guarantee any sort of timeline, and if she accepts, she will choose the location.”

“That is acceptable.” With that, Thaddeus left, pleased that the whole thing had been much less trouble than he expected. When he returned to his cottage, he made himself a cup of coffee, using the more luxurious, slow-roasted, low-acid beans with pine nuts for flavor that he saved for when he wanted to savor the experience rather than knock back a bitter cup of energy-infused liquid. Swirling the cup gently as steam wafted from it, he looked over the papers and personal research stacked neatly across his desk.

His research was making progress, despite the time he was forced to spend in classes or grading inane homework, and the more recent distraction of the Raven Queen. It had been worth it, to take the Red Guard liaison position at the University.

But his thoughts strayed from translating pre-Cataclysm textual relics and toward the mysterious woman who they called the Raven Queen. He made his way to the room at the back of his cottage, setting down his mug of coffee atop the warded vault before moving to his bedside table, where he had personally warded a secret compartment.

He opened it, pulling out a small lead box.

Within, nestled snugly in velvet, lay an old ring. Clear celerium made up the stone, while the silver ring itself was a simple artifact, which could be activated to create a small anti-awareness field along with a minor chameleon effect. He had stolen the ring on a gamble, slightly surprised at the time that she had not already done so herself. Of course, it was possible he had taken only a competent replica, much like the one he had left behind in that idiot Gervin’s vault.

But if the ring was real, as Thaddeus believed, he was sure the Raven Queen had discovered his forgery and replacement by now. The original heirloom would be a fitting tribute to request a meeting with her, and to express his lack of hostility.

As he stared into the celerium depths, which held only a tiny flaw, a warm and visceral excitement shuddered through him. He could not wait to meet her.

The story continues in A Practical Guide to Sorcery Book IV: A Foreboding of Woe

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Chapter 142 – Epiphany


Month 3, Day 17, Wednesday 6:00pm

Somehow, Siobhan was able to hold her tongue.

In a way, it was one of the hardest things she had ever done. She wanted to ask Oliver what he had that the University hadn’t found. She wanted to confirm her suspicions. She also wanted to flip over his desk, pin him to the wall with her forearm, and scream for him to tell her the truth.

In another way, however, the enormity of this suspicion, this revelation, went beyond any pain her tongue could inflict in return. Words felt too inadequate a response, and that helped her suppress them entirely.

So instead, Siobhan thanked Oliver and Katerin, made some flimsy excuse, and left with her gold, the papers proving that Sebastien Siverling was a four percent shareholder in Oliver’s textile company. She stayed only long enough to make sure both copies of the blood print vow she’d made with Katerin were ash.

She lost time to the swirling maelstrom of her thoughts, her focus returning first at the Silk Door, as she checked in the mirror to make sure she had returned to Sebastien’s form properly, and then again when she stepped from the clear transport tube onto the edge of the white cliffs.

The sight of the Citadel in the distance, partially concealed by the trees growing between her and the building, calmed something in her. ‘No matter what, I am a student here. I made it in, and I am learning to be a free-caster.’ But that only reminded her of what she had recently learned about Thaddeus Lacer. In the space of a single day, the foundation of trust and security she had slowly begun to rely on had been ripped out from under her. Feeling physically off-kilter, she paused for a moment, pressing her hand against a tree trunk for support. She focused on the sensation of rough bark against her skin, taking in the scent of wood and earth and the ozone of a coming storm, allowing the physical input to ground her mind.

Instead of returning to the dorms or the library, she walked east along the edge of the cliff. After a few minutes, she found a secluded spot beyond the transport tubes and out of sight of the buildings. Clustered behind her, stoic evergreens mingled with trees budding green from their skeletal branches. The cold wind rattled through the winter-bare branches and scraped against the cliffside, causing a disorienting echo all around her. The sensation was only made more uncomfortable by the wind’s grasping fingers in her clothes and hair as it shoved against her back, almost as if to drive her over the edge.

In the west, the sun was setting, spilling its red-orange rays like blood across the city that stretched out below, but above them both, the dark clouds of a storm were brewing.

Sebastien did not move. A fire in her chest warmed her from the inside, flushing her cheeks, lending strength to her legs and steel to her spine. She would not yield.

She turned her mind to the evidence. She’d made an intuitive leap, but she needed to sit down and rationally consider the information that her subconscious mind had collected. Perhaps she was simply jumping to conclusions because she was so unused to trusting people.

The first piece of evidence that she considered was the conversation Oliver had with Katerin after returning to the Verdant Stag, which he probably had not thought Siobhan awake to overhear. He had something valuable in a hidden vault inside a folded space. Something more valuable than the censer, estimated at a thousand gold.

He had deduced that the Architects of Khronos had attacked Knave Knoll partially as a distraction while they sent another group to the Verdant Stag in search of the book. Which made sense. But the real book was hidden at Dryden Manor. His house had wards, but nothing like this secret vault, and he had never seemed particularly interested in where she was keeping the book, nor suggested that she should move it to this extremely secure location.

Would I have agreed to let it out of my control like that, if he had offered?’ she wondered. But no, that wasn’t the point. He had never seemed interested in her book at all. Not even just to take a look at it. To her knowledge, the book had been safe and untouched by any other the entire time. Even if he didn’t want it or the knowledge it contained for himself, he could have turned it in to the University or the Crowns for a huge negotiated payment. He could have said that he tracked down and killed the thief for the reward, thus absolving her of any suspicion while keeping himself relatively clear of the fallout.

He had even discouraged her from turning it in herself, for reasons that might have been valid but could also just be an excuse.

She remembered the secretive, smug tone of Oliver’s voice when he had been discussing the Architects’ failure with Katerin. The two of them shared a secret. Sebastien knew Oliver wasn’t obligated to share all his secrets with her, but this felt important. He had said “all their efforts” were futile, not just that night’s attack.

What if Oliver had taken something else from the same archaeological haul? An artifact, or Myrddin’s famous Conduit, or a different book. What better decoy for a missing book than another book, after all? But all the evidence pointed to her book being Myrddin’s real journal, as well as the item everyone was searching for. She didn’t think someone else could have created the transformation amulet, and Damien had mentioned to her that as far as the coppers knew, even the History department was having trouble decrypting the other texts they had retrieved.

But how likely is it that two things could go missing, and they only notice one? If they were looking for something besides my book, wouldn’t someone have mentioned it at some point?’ But then, if the gossip was to be believed, most of the members of the original expedition had died, and the three who remained had all been admitted to an asylum or some such place.

Any theft other than her book had to have been completed before the items were delivered to the University, and if everyone who was there in the Black Wastes to see exactly what they retrieved was either dead or insane…

Sebastien shuddered. She had previously dismissed the idea that Ennis was compelled to steal the book, when the alternative explanation was so simple. But what if it wasn’t so outlandish a claim? Had someone sent Ennis to jail for a crime not entirely of his own choice?

She wanted to believe that Oliver had never meant to set her, or anyone else, up for a decoy theft. Even if he had stolen something from the expedition, perhaps he had meant for its absence to go unnoticed, or to remain a mysterious disappearance.

She wanted to believe that he had been genuinely acting to help her all along. Because, really, she had needed him, provider of coin and connections, so much more than he needed her, an inexperienced and weak sorcerer with a huge target on her back. He had genuinely seemed to care for her wellbeing.

The first night I met Oliver, when he came to rescue me from the coppers, why did he do that?’ He had gone out of his way to offer his help, and on rather short notice, at that. She closed her eyes and searched her memory for detail. ‘He asked about the book, and specifically my ability to decrypt it. He was looking for a powerful sorcerer who would have had reason to steal it—exactly what everyone thought I was. And when I later asked him why he was doing so much to help me… He seemed irritated. He turned the question around on me, telling me not to be so self-absorbed. And he specifically mentioned that I was not special to him for some nefarious hidden reason. That he was helping me simply because he felt like doing so.

Sebastien rubbed at her breastbone, as if pressure could take away some of the ache beneath it. ‘Why would he word it like that? What if the real reason isn’t so innocent?’ She had previously speculated that the book held some important knowledge lost to time, such as advanced self-charging artifacts. If Oliver had something similar, perhaps he had been looking for her, or a potential employer behind her, because he hoped to collaborate on reverse-engineering some artifact, or decrypting some text of his own. Otherwise, why would that have been his first question? And why would he have kept her around when she couldn’t satisfy his hopes? Perhaps been secretly trying to decrypt Myrddin’s journal when she wasn’t around.

On the other hand, if he did steal something, and I am just a decoy, wouldn’t it make sense to distance himself from me rather than associate so closely, and with both my identities? All three, if you count Silvia.’ After all, association with her was what got the Verdant Stag raided and how he almost lost whatever was kept in the ultra-secure folded-space vault.

But maybe he felt guilty when he learned her situation, and that was why he decided to involve himself. Maybe he never planned on things working out as they had. ‘After all, it’s only now, when his interests and his secrets have been threatened, with his enemies drawing a little too close for comfort, that he suggested a way to create a third degree of separation.

Sebastien tried to calm herself down. There wasn’t enough evidence to be sure of anything. This could all be coincidence and her jumping to conclusions. But she had been confused. She was still confused, and the sick weight of loss in her stomach suggested that something irreparable was broken.

All these little suspicious events didn’t prove anything. But she could not easily dismiss them, either. She didn’t consider herself an intuitive person, but something about the look in his eyes and the set of his mouth as he talked about creating decoys had created an undeniable shift in her understanding of him. ‘So where does that leave me?’ she wondered. ‘I suspect that Oliver got his hands on something sensitive and valuable that people would go after him for. Where he got it from, or what it is, I do not know. Perhaps it could be something entirely unrelated to my book, or to Myrddin. Maybe there have been rumors about some other powerful item being found or going missing that I haven’t heard. Secondly, I suspect that my circumstance was at least taken advantage of, if not engineered directly. At the moment, that is all I have. Suspicions and strange coincidences.

Oliver was good with people. With manipulation. She was afraid that if she simply asked him, he would lie to her.

And she wasn’t sure if it would be worse if she believed whatever explanation he gave or if she didn’t.

Even if he did have something that her own book had become a decoy for, knowing the truth wouldn’t have changed much for her. The knowledge would only have made her even more of a liability to him. And though she didn’t want to think that idealistic, philanthropic Oliver would act to harm her, Sebastien also remembered the way Oliver had bound her to him with a huge debt. How he had forced the Morrow prisoners to accept a curse seal, and then, when it seemed like they might be rescued, had killed them. If he had something as valuable as her book, she could use that for leverage, either against him or to buy her own freedom. What if he decided she was a liability?

She needed another, external, way to confirm or deny her suspicions.

I am going to find out,’ she resolved. Whatever had snapped inside her, causing the sudden and overwhelming suspicion she felt toward Oliver, now buoyed her up with strength, a cold-burning source of power that would never run out until her goal was achieved. She took a deep breath of the oncoming storm, tasting the ozone in the air. She felt anything but defeated, or weak, or tired.

And while I am at it, I might as well solve my other problems, too. I am going to take control of my life, and become the master of my own fate in truth.’ She bared her teeth to the city, letting out a laugh that was all humor and no joy. She spoke, enunciating every word clearly and calmly. “The world will bend to my Will in this, just as it does in magic.”

Short Story Poll WINNERS:

With 23.92 weighted vote points, “The Honeymoon Suite” wins!

Runner-up with 19.62 vote points: “Thaddeus in the Haze War”

Third Place with 16.79 vote points: “Obliviously Heroic Sebastien”

Fourth Place with 10.92 vote points: “Liza’s Special Ops”

Voting is over but you can still comment and leave ideas for the next bonus short story.

I am swamped with getting everything for SOL’s launch ready, so I’ll be taking the rest of the month to pull slowly together all my ideas for this short story and plot out the progression.

I will start writing it at the beginning of January, and should have it posted on January 17th, barring unforeseen delays.

Also, I want to mention officially that I have some deleted chapters/scenes that will be coming to the Patreon soon. They aren’t as cool as the bonus short story, but you guys might enjoy them still.

Chapter 141 – Post Mortem


Month 3, Day 16, Tuesday 7:00pm

After receiving some more cutting commentary about her involvement with Ana’s dangerous scheme, Sebastien left Professor Lacer’s house, trying to offer as little indication as possible about just how shaken she was. She moved mindlessly, and found her feet had taken her back to the dorms without her conscious input.

In the cubicle across from her, Ana threw open the curtain and gave Sebastien a bright smile, holding up an extra-large envelope thick with paper. “Signed and sealed,” she said with a dramatic wink, handing the envelope to Sebastien. “I thought you could deliver it to Lord Dryden yourself.”

Sebastien took it numbly. “Thank you.”

Ana’s excitement fell away. “Is something wrong?”

Sebastien looked around, noting the surreptitious glances of the nearby students. She had no intention of speaking about what she’d learned of the Red Guard, and by association, Professor Lacer, lest she too be subjected to invasive fingers tampering with her thoughts and memories. Even the notion sent a cold shudder rippling up her spine until her scalp tingled. Her heartbeat was too loud, and her armpits and palms were damp with sweat.

The pause after Ana’s question had drawn on too long, and the other young woman took her by the arm and dragged her into the cubicle. Ana drew the curtain closed, ignoring the sudden explosion of scandalized murmuring around them.

Sebastien rolled her eyes. “You’ve taken me into your boudoir, Ana. We must be having a salacious affair.”

Normally this would have amused Ana, but she waved her hand in irritation as she activated a privacy artifact that ran around the length of the cubicle’s walls. “What happened?” she asked soberly.

Sebastien considered trying to lie, but she knew that Ana was much better at reading people than Sebastien was at lying. If Ana was already asking, it was too late to seem normal. Instead, after a moment of hesitation, Sebastien said, “Something disturbing happened. I…learned something I wish weren’t true. And I don’t want to talk about it.”

Ana stared at her for a moment, searching Sebastien’s eyes, and then simply nodded. “Alright then.” Pulling a box of expensive candies from her bedside drawer, she handed one to Sebastien. “So, did you hear about the feud going on between Mischner and Letty? Mischner got caught trying to spike Letty’s food, and it’s probably because Mischner’s worried about being in the bottom ten percent of the class. Mischner got a demerit, but Letty wasn’t satisfied because she felt that such a light punishment was blatant favoritism, so she wrote to Mischner’s father…”

I have good friends,’ Sebastien realized, swallowing down the lump in her throat. For once, she was grateful for Ana’s tendency to gossip, and tried to genuinely listen and remember who the people were, sinking into this alternate reality where the latest scandal was actually important.

Sebastien went through the next day feeling like she was being watched. Unfortunately, this was true, as the rumor mill had begun to churn with interest in her and her friends again. The whole Gervin Family debacle was blowing up. Even Ana, who said that this publicity was good for her future prospects and would allow her to more easily forge her own path once she took over the lordship, found it wearying, her smiles growing more and more perfect as their fellow students began to grate on her.

Damien and the rest of the group didn’t even bother to smile, circling up around their more vulnerable members like a group of wagoners defending against wolves.

During Practical Casting, Sebastien examined Professor Lacer for any hint of the outcome with the Moore family’s mind control, but he seemed the same as ever. She considered just asking him about it, but decided against it. She had been growing comfortable with him, but that was gone.

Finding herself antsy but at a loss as to what to actually do, she decided to take the textile sub-commission down to Oliver at the Verdant Stag. As the saying went, “Money doesn’t solve all problems, but it at least solves money problems.” And really, with the right attitude, quite a lot of things could be “money problems.”

On a sudden whim, she stopped by a licensed apothecary and bought herself a mild detoxifying potion that was safe to take even without healer supervision. She could have bought one at the Verdant Stag apothecary, but chose not to for two simple reasons. First, she didn’t know if the little shop was still up and running after the attack. But mostly, she didn’t want anyone to know that she needed it. The potion was unreasonably expensive, but it was worth it to help heal whatever subtle damage she’d done to herself, with the added benefit of smoothing over the cravings she was still having.

She disguised herself fully once more, but still wore her hood up to conceal her features in case the coppers were tracking who came and went from the Verdant Stag. Siobhan had fake identification papers, but didn’t know how well they would hold up if the coppers wanted to question or arrest her. If they didn’t cast any divinations, she would probably get through it safely, but she couldn’t count on that.

The Verdant Stag’s repairs were already well under way. The newly constructed sections of the building looked even nicer—and much sturdier—than they originally had. Workers with supplies both magical and mundane scurried everywhere, and the noise required one to shout to be heard.

Katerin was there amongst the hubbub, looming over Theo with one arm pointed imperiously up the stairs to her office.

The boy crawled out from underneath the floorboards, which were being replaced with a thick stone tile, his head and shoulders drooping with comical dejection as he shuffled away. As soon as he caught sight of Siobhan, he perked up, totally rejuvenated.

Katerin followed his gaze to Siobhan, then sighed and waved her over, moving to follow Theo.

They met at the bottom of the stairs.

“I only have a couple weeks to go until I’ve earned enough for my utility wand!” Theo quickly announced, beaming.

Katerin eyed him dourly. “You forgot that you’ll be fined for escaping Mr. Mawson’s lessons both yesterday and today.”

Theo deflated again. “But how am I supposed to concentrate with everything going on? It’s so loud, and everything down here is so much more interesting than doing fractions and writing essays about the government. It’s not fair! If you really want me to learn, one would think you’d get me a more interesting tutor.” He looked to Siobhan expectantly. “You think so too, right?”

“It is important to make learning fun,” she agreed. “But most children need external motivation because they can’t maintain interest in the whole spectrum of required subjects.”

“External motivation, like being paid to save up for a battle wand,” Katerin said pointedly.

“Perhaps extra credit, for intellectual work that Theo finds interesting?” Siobhan offered.

This devolved into Theo throwing out ideas about essays he could write, ranging from “the Raven Queen’s true powers,” to “best practices for solo-hunting magical beasts.”

Katerin promised only that she would consider it, then sent Theo off to her office alone while the two women continued up the stairs. “It’s been a bit busy, but I think we should sit down and talk with Oliver. There have been some…interesting developments. As an aside, you might be interested to know that Enforcer Gerard survived, thanks to a powerful healing potion that cost about three months of his wages and which he has submitted a reimbursement request for. His legs will require rehabilitation, and he’s made some inquisitive comments about possibly owing a debt to the Raven Queen.” Seeing Siobhan’s face, Katerin laughed. “Do not worry so much, girl. He doesn’t buy into all the stories. He was around to watch you from the beginning, after all. I think he just wants to thank you for your help. As do I.”

Siobhan looked away awkwardly. “Um. You’re welcome.”

Katerin nodded solemnly. “I will pass that along.”

They had to wait outside Oliver’s office, as one of the higher-level enforcers was giving him a report, and two other people were already waiting for a moment of Oliver’s time. Katerin sat and immediately focused on a folder full of her own reports, ignoring the world. ‘If his Verdant Stag office is going to be this busy, Oliver should get a secretary and put in a little waiting area with chairs,’ Siobhan mused, trying to keep her thoughts from turning back to the Moore family.

When they finally entered, Katerin closed the door behind them, suddenly and obviously dampening the cacophony of shouting and hammering that filled the rest of the building. But the chaos had made its way inside anyway, in the scattered papers over Oliver’s desk and some of the chairs, the stubble on his jaw, and the dark circles under his bloodshot eyes. But despite all this, his shoulders were squared, his eyes quick and alert, and his mouth was set in a grim, determined line. No hint of defeat hung about him.

As they sat in the plush chairs before Oliver’s desk, he moved to the front and leaned against it, ankles crossed and hands in his pockets. He stared at the floor for a few moments before lifting his head. “First, let me say that I believe the Architects of Khronos were behind the attack on Knave Knoll.”

Siobhan blinked. “Okay…? Was that ever in question?” She looked to Katerin to share her confusion.

The woman snorted, playing with the tip of her single, blood-red braid. “Exactly.”

Siobhan looked back at Oliver. “Does this have anything to do with what Tanya was talking about?”

“It does,” Oliver said. “Shortly after the attack and its…spectacular failure, costing numerous enemy lives while freeing none of the Morrows, Grandmaster Kiernan reached out to me to affirm that the whole thing was a surprise to him as well.”

“But you don’t actually believe that,” Siobhan blurted.

Oliver just smiled. “Supposedly, Kiernan had recently been contacted by a powerful man with some sort of allegiance to the Morrows. He tried to blackmail Kiernan into helping free them, under threat of releasing information about the activities of the Architects of Khronos to concerned parties in the Thirteen Crown Families. Kiernan maintains that he denied him, but when the man somehow found out about the prisoner transport, he went to Kiernan with an ultimatum. Work together on the attack, or all the information would be released. Instead, Kiernan killed him and sent Miss Canelo to warn us, but everything was already in motion, and she was too late to help.

“And Miss Canelo corroborates this story. As far as I know, she even put herself in danger multiple times during the battle in attempts to help our side. Personally, she expressed relief to me that Kiernan and his people had finally seen reason after their previous stubborn antagonism.”

Siobhan’s eyes narrowed. “It’s very convenient that the supposed blackmailer both cannot blackmail any more, and also cannot speak about Kiernan’s involvement.”

Katerin snapped her fingers and pointed at Siobhan. “Again, exactly. Even more convenient that this Kiernan supposedly knew where Knave Knoll was all along, but didn’t do anything with that information until it was necessary to ‘help us.’ He would have done better to claim that his blackmailer told him the location at the last minute.”

Oliver shrugged. “Well, Kiernan was acting under pressure. To clarify, I believe this Morrow ally was real, because upon his death, he had multiple failsafes in place that really did attempt to release damning information about the Architects of Khronos. Those attempts were quickly quashed by the Architects, of course. However, contrary to what Kiernan claims, I believe he went along with this man’s demands from the beginning, and was likely even the driving force behind the decision to attack the Verdant Stag. Freeing the prisoners wasn’t his main goal; that was simply a convenient distraction for his attempt on the book. Tanya was sent to warn us, but he never expected her to succeed. More likely, he was sending her to die while creating some insurance for himself in case things went wrong. Which they did. And so, when he got word of how disastrously the entire plan failed—”

Katerin snickered, interjecting, “Particularly, the rumors that a woman who looks suspiciously like the Raven Queen appeared out of the darkness behind our fleeing people and called down a magical attack from the heavens that was so powerful and twisted that it left remnants behind for hours, like the Black Wastes themselves had manifested in the middle of Gilbratha…” Her bright white smile stood out sharply against her red lips, and there was a dark rage there that Siobhan had never seen in it before. Katerin did not take kindly to being attacked, it seemed.

Siobhan groaned. “So, I really was recognized?”

Oliver rocked one hand side to side. “I wouldn’t say that, exactly. Maybe some of our people have suspicions, but no one has been throwing around any civilian names. You have to realize how big this little folk legend of the Raven Queen has grown. When spectacular things happen, her name is easily attached. Especially because she has been known to protect the Stags before, in equally fantastical ways. In any case, when he heard the news, Kiernan quickly pivoted to try to avoid blame and retaliation.”

Siobhan leaned back in her chair, toying with her Conduit. “Does he really think we’re so stupid?”

Katerin barked out a laugh.

“Kiernan isn’t so foolish. But at this point, when antagonism has failed so spectacularly and danger comes from multiple directions, he has little other choice. It’s a gamble without downsides. But in a way, this works out best for us. As I mentioned, Kiernan’s blackmailer had a deadman’s switch to send out damning information on their activities, which was very useful in drawing the coppers’ attention toward them, and off of us.”

“What were their activities?” Siobhan asked.

Katerin answered. “They seem to be preparing for a power struggle against the Crowns. Whether that should come from direct warfare or through political and commercial pressure, we’re not sure. But the Crowns hold certain powers over the University that restrict their freedom, and it seems these restrictions have chafed some beyond their tolerance. The Architects of Khronos pull members from more than just a disgruntled faculty, I am sure, but we are still trying to uncover more.”

Oliver pushed himself off the desk, moving to one of the shelves along the wall, where a small box sat. He opened it and removed a small vial of clear liquid from within, using the attached pipette to place a single drop in each of his bloodshot eyes. He let out a breath of relief. “I have spent the majority of my time these last few days mobilizing every resource at my disposal to turn the massive beast that is Gilbrathan law enforcement toward the Architects of Khronos. What happened at Knave Knoll was far beyond gang action. People are going to look at the gigantic hole in the warehouse district where a building used to be, and hear about the lingering magical effects on the canal, and they’re going to see a terrorist attack.”

The words chilled Siobhan. Some time ago, a group of thaumaturges deliberately turned an Aberrant loose in the heart of a city, earning the wrath of both the public and the authorities. They’d been convicted of terrorism and publicly executed—by being dragged through the streets while people lobbed balls of burning pitch at them. Such attacks were not treated lightly. “It’s going to have serious repercussions.” She had known that, but this put things in a different perspective.

Even Katerin’s vindictive amusement had sobered. “That is why it doesn’t matter how friendly this Kiernan tries to be, after his betrayal. Even if he were to work with us in good faith from now on, it is too late. The Verdant Stag cannot bear the weight responsibility for this.”

Oliver took out a pouch of dried berries and meat and shoved a handful into his mouth. He chewed for a moment, then swallowed and continued talking. “I wanted to work together with the Architects. If not directly against the Thirteen Crowns, then at least supporting each other’s defiance out of convenience. But instead, it is going to be each beast fighting alone. I hope to put enough emphasis on the Architects and their potential threat that we seem like a small catch in comparison. And while they fight with the Thirteen Crowns, the Verdant Stag can dig itself in and continue to grow.”

“How likely do you think that is to work?” Siobhan asked.

“Very. The coppers will have released their report about the forces behind the attack a few hours ago. You should see emergency extras coming from the newspapers by this evening. While the upheaval and conflict this will cause is not ideal, I felt there was little other option. However, this method also comes with risks. Attempting to influence the coppers necessarily allows them some influence on me in turn. They’ve already begun trying to pressure me to help them retrieve the stolen book through my obvious connection with the Raven Queen.”

Siobhan tensed.

He noticed, waving his hand to stop her from jumping to any conclusions. “So, I would suggest the Raven Queen stay out of the public eye, indefinitely. Perhaps even Silvia Nakai should cease her activities, as things seem to go so easily wrong around you.”

Things go wrong when I work with you!’ she protested mentally, but, though she was sure it was clear on her face, she didn’t say anything out loud.

He took another bite of the dried food. “The Verdant Stag’s resources are expanding to the point that we have many options to deal with various difficulties without you, so settling down as Sebastien Siverling shouldn’t be a problem.”

Siobhan peered into the depths of her Conduit while she thought about this, unable to quell a sense of foreboding at being cast aside, even though this was what she’d wanted. ‘I’ll be safe,’ she reassured herself. ‘I have no need of the coin, and I’m not so altruistic as to sacrifice my well-being or my life for Oliver’s ideals.’ And to make this thought a reality, she reached into her bag, which had undergone a quick color-change along with the rest of her transformation as a stopgap until she could buy a replacement.

She pulled out the envelope that contained Oliver’s sub-commission to produce textiles in the name of the Gervin Family, Fourth Crown of Lenore. “That seems reasonable, especially since I have some good news, which will bring me the funds I need to focus solely on learning.”

Oliver stared intently at the envelope, then broke the seal and took out the contract from within, skimming over it until his eyes rested on Lord Gervin’s signature and stamp at the end, right above Oliver’s own. “The terms are even better than what I initially negotiated with him,” he murmured. He threw back his head and laughed, loud and joyful, then reached out and yanked Siobhan to her feet, pulling her into his embrace as he half-leaned, half-danced from side to side.

Siobhan was horribly startled and embarrassed, peeking around to look at Katerin, but the older woman was smiling indulgently, and Siobhan couldn’t help but smile, too.

Oliver drew back, holding her shoulders, his smile so wide his eyes crinkled almost all the way closed. “You’ve done it! Oh, Siobhan, you have no idea the difference this is going to make. Our cloth is going to spread across the entire continent. We will employ thousands and clothe hundreds of thousands. And that is just the first step. In a few years, the Verdant Stag will have grown larger than any Crown Family, with the power of the common people behind us, feeding us even as we feed them in an endless cycle. I am going to take over Gilbratha, and then Lenore.” He threw back his head to crow at the sky. “I am going to take over the world!”

She laughed. “The entire world?”

Oliver waved a hand nonchalantly, releasing her and moving back around his desk to place the contract carefully in the center, like a babe in its cradle. “Well, that may be a bit of an exaggeration. At the very least, Lenore will become the hub of power for the entire continent, and a refuge of freedom and opportunity for those who feel persecuted in their homelands.” He smiled at her once more, softer this time. “I made a good move saving you from the coppers all those months ago. In some ways, it feels like so long has passed since then, and so much has happened. But in other ways, I feel as if I met you just yesterday. Do you know how startled I was when you suddenly turned into a strange young man? I was actually quite worried about the extremely powerful sorcerer I seemed to have gotten myself involved with, though I tried to put on a confident front.”

Siobhan smirked wryly. “I assure you, no matter how worried you were, I was much more terrified and in over my head.” She fidgeted then, her smirk falling away as she remembered that Oliver didn’t know about the latest scrying attempt on her.

She was loath to dampen the wonderful mood, but this wasn’t something she could put off mentioning.

Oliver sat back down, sobering slowly as she spoke.

Katerin groaned and rubbed her temples, glaring at Siobhan with exasperation, as if this was somehow her fault.

Siobhan glared back, suddenly remembering that this was the woman who had fooled her into accepting a loan with fifty percent interest. Repaying said loan was what had led to this escalation in the first place. If not for that, she could have disappeared into Sebastien Siverling almost completely.

Oliver tapped an agitated finger against the side of his desk. “You couldn’t have left some other piece of yourself behind during the fighting, could you?”

“It’s possible, of course, but I was cautious about that possibility. And there were so many people losing blood, it seems unlikely they would have collected all the samples and then performed a scrying spell of such overwhelming power on each.”

He steepled his fingers together, pressing them against his mouth for a few long moments. “I think you need to approach this problem from a different angle,” he finally said, seeming self-satisfied about whatever idea he’d had and basking in her undivided attention. “Rather than simply defend against attacks in the hope that someday you might be able to take away their leverage, why not create a scapegoat? You could make them believe they’ve succeeded in finding the Raven Queen in a way that separates you from their investigation. Or, and this is my preferred method, you send them off after a decoy. One they also can’t catch, but that will keep them occupied and distract them from realizing they should look in your direction.”

He kept talking, offering some vague ideas for how she might go about this, but Siobhan could no longer parse his words into anything coherent.

She looked from his bright eyes, to his expressive mouth, to his long fingers, and back again, searching for meaning. There was something, some hint of his body language or smugness in his tone, that tugged on the memory of him talking with Katerin after the attack, so pleased that the Architects of Khronos hadn’t found what they were looking for.

Perhaps it was just intuition, or inspiration, but she realized with a sickening shift as the world ripped itself out from underneath her feet, that maybe Oliver had carried out this exact idea already. With Myrddin’s book. The same book she had accidentally assisted in stealing, and which the coppers and the University had been coming after her for all along.

They couldn’t catch her, but they were occupied, and looking in the wrong direction.

And we are back to regularly scheduled Thursday chapters!

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Chapter 140 – Faust


Month 3, Day 16, Tuesday 5:00am

Sebastien hobbled out of the safe house, carefully locking the door behind herself and re-hiding the key. She walked slowly, allowing her stiff joints to ease as they warmed up. Despite her fatigue, she felt more comfortable out in the open than she had the night before. Most of those she passed now were laborers just starting their day, with the disquieting midnight crowd having slinked away at the earliest perceptible lightening of the sky. She didn’t make it far before she smelled food, and her focus was drawn to a stall down the street, which was selling meat pies. Her stomach gurgled, and she felt another wave of nausea. ‘I haven’t eaten since yesterday afternoon,’ she realized. ‘Perhaps some of my condition is simply due to requiring nourishment.’ She knew she could return to the University cafeteria and eat there, but the meat pies smelled so good.

I still have plenty,’ she remembered, taking a quick peek at the coins filling the bottom of the purse with a strange emotion. ‘And there is more to come from the Gervin textile sub-commission.’ It was somehow difficult to reconcile, hard to believe, that she need not scrabble to save every copper. But the evidence was clear.

So she bought herself two meat pies, then savored them as she took a carriage to the northern transport tubes, which accepted her student token and sent her shooting up to the edge of the white cliffs.

Damien had noticed her absence from the dorms and been worried, but she explained that she’d been asked to run a small errand for their secret organization and then got stuck without transportation.

“Are you sure that’s it?” he asked, tilting his head to the side. “You look…worn. Worried? It’s nothing to do with Malcolm Gervin, is it?”

“No, nothing like that. I…well, you know I have trouble sleeping. It was a rough night.” That was close enough to the truth that she didn’t feel so bad lying in the face of his genuine concern.

Damien placed his hand on her shoulder. “I won’t pry, but just know that if you ever want to talk about…anything, you can come to me.” Without waiting for her response, he returned to his own cubicle.

Against all odds and sense, Sebastien made her way through the day’s classes, then forced herself to catch up on sleep that evening. Her fatigue seemed to be a trigger for the beamshell cravings, and for the first time, she realized that sometimes Will alone might not be enough to persevere when everything inside you wanted to make a bad long-term choice for the benefit of temporary relief. Thankfully, she had thrown the beamshell tincture out, and trying to get more would require a complicated scheme involving forging a healer’s prescription. Perhaps sensing her mood, Damien and Ana left her to her own devices.

After classes, she stopped by Liza’s to tell her that she would continue to help with the sleep-proxy spell. Liza was…sympathetic, perhaps sensing how much Siobhan hated herself for this decision. But Siobhan didn’t allow herself to take any comfort in Liza’s affirmation that she was making the smart choice. Siobhan was willing to do whatever it took to achieve this goal, but that didn’t make it right.

When Siobhan belatedly mentioned her failed attempt to destroy the coppers’ blood sample, Liza snorted.

“Of course that didn’t work, girl. You’re slightly clever, not a trained expert. Did you expect that they would have no recourse against counter-divination methods developed during the Haze War?”

Siobhan flushed. ‘It does make sense that a method I got out of the first level University library would be deprecated. The coppers should be working with the most recent advancements and the best contracted casters.’ It had been hubris to assume she could best them after less than a single term at the University.

“As I’ve mentioned before, I could solve this problem for you, for a fee. Your idea to target them while they are scrying for you was a good one, and with the right implementation, could make things much easier. There would be some problems to solve, such as ensuring your safety under wards while I handled their blood sample, and the fact that I cannot guarantee the destruction of all samples, only the one they are using. If they left some under the protective wards of Harrow Hill’s evidence storage, your problem would remain unsolved.”

Siobhan narrowed her eyes. “You quoted me eight hundred gold before. If I could tell you when they are scrying me—and where they are doing it from—would that make it easier… Enough, perhaps, to reduce the price to something reasonable?”

Liza rolled her eyes, took a moment to reluctantly consider it, and finally said, “Perhaps. No less than five hundred gold.”

Siobhan hummed. “I’ll think about that. Maybe there’s a way to make it even easier. What if I lent you a sample to work with, too?” She wouldn’t have considered such a thing normally, but Liza had no need of extra tricks if she wanted to harm Siobhan. She hadn’t so far, after all, despite the bounty on the Raven Queen.

“We can talk about this again when you have the coin. Five hundred,” Liza repeated.

The possibility of purchasing help couldn’t dispel Siobhan’s dark mood, but the spark of an idea was growing.

As she left, she wondered, ‘What do I do now?’ The answer that came to her had little to do with her current dilemma, but was instead a task that had been lingering in the back of her mind for months now, actively avoided with almost the same fervor that she avoided her dreams. She pulled out a tattered envelope from her bag. It contained only a simple address, one she’d long ago memorized.

That was how, after returning once more to the Silk Door, Sebastien found herself looking up at a building in Oliver’s territory that had, only a couple of months before, been a brothel. It was nothing like the Silk Door. This building was a squat, run-down rectangle with only a few grungy windows.

The last couple of days had been warmer, and the stench of rot and waste was stronger in this area of the Mires. Oliver’s vaunted cleaning crews hadn’t made it here yet. When she opened her mouth to try and escape it, it coated the back of her mouth and throat instead, which was no better.

Steeling herself, Sebastien walked in the front door. The interior was packed with people, apparently gathering for dinner. Those without bowls of hearty seafood porridge stood in a haphazard line stretching toward the kitchen. The people were dirty, tired-looking, and distrustful, but at least not starving or freezing to death, and there was a single Stag enforcer to keep the peace between those both too desperate and packed too closely together for amity.

Sebastien managed to find someone who knew the Moore family after only a few attempts, which left her more disappointed than relieved. She had hoped they might have left for somewhere better, using the funds they got for allowing the investigation report to malign Newton to start a new life. Both for their own sake and so that she might have an excuse not to face them.

Newton’s mother, pointed out to Sebastien by her guide, was in the kitchen, ladling up soup for those in line. The woman looked haggard, and the rolled-back sleeves of her shirt openly displayed her burn-scarred forearms. She eyed Sebastien suspiciously. “How can I help you, my lord?”

Sebastien cleared her throat awkwardly. Her knees trembled a bit, and she stepped forward to disguise it. “Hello. Er, my name is Sebastien. I was a friend of Newton’s.”

The woman deflated immediately, though her expression didn’t change at first, as if she was too tired to emote. She seemed to shake herself awake, standing straighter and setting the ladle down for one of the other kitchen helpers to take over before turning to Sebastien, her brows furrowed and jaw clenched. “A little late for this kind of thing, isn’t it?” she asked.

Sebastien flushed bright red, her eyes fluttering closed in shame. “I know. I should have come earlier. I—I’m sorry. We did—a couple of my friends and I, we sent letters and a care package, when it first…when he first died. You did get it, didn’t you?”

Newton’s mother considered Sebastien for a moment, then softened. “I did. I suppose you’d better come on back, son. We can talk in my family’s rooms.”

The Moore family’s quarters weren’t as bad as Sebastien had feared, two rooms behind the kitchen that stayed a little warmer than the rest of the building, and with an actual lock on the hallway-facing door.

It seemed the whole family was packed together into those two rooms—a little cramped, but not worse than many of the rural farm homes she had seen in her time. Only here, there was no open space just outside the door, no fresh air or freedom. They were using a dying bottle of moonlight sizzle for light, because there was no window.

In the blue-tinted gloom within, an old woman huddled in the corner, staring at nothing—Newton’s “Grams.”

A man lay on the bottom bunk of two beds, asleep. The table beside him was filled with an array of potion vials, some empty. ‘Newton’s father. At least they have the means to afford healing for him.’

Two younger girls looked up from practicing sums with an abacus in the corner.

Newton’s mother stepped forward, snatching up the moonlight sizzle and shaking it harshly to try and eke out a bit more light from the bubbling bottle. “It’s no mansion, but we can afford it while our house is being rebuilt, and I’ve got a job in the kitchens that pays a little extra.”

“You did get enough…funds, then?” Sebastien asked hesitantly. “From the investigators.”

“Well, enough,” the woman agreed. “Both girls have been accepted into a school up on Lette Street, and the first year is already paid for, with enough left over for the house and the healer. My husband’s had a bit of flare-up with the continued cold weather. His lungs have some scarring that settled before we were able to get him treatment, but it’s nothing compared to the prognosis we were originally facing. It was actually your letter that did the most for us, though. Coal in the snowstorm, as they say, just enough to get by when we really needed it the most.”

Sebastien swallowed, her eyes prickling with humiliation. That had been Alec and Damien’s idea, really. She just contributed, and the letter she had written wasn’t even the truth.

“Sebastien, was it? Terrible business, really, I—” The woman’s voice broke, and she cleared her throat wetly. “Were you one of his classmates, then?”

“Yes. I—I just wanted to give my condolences,” Sebastien said, knowing even as the words came out of her mouth that banalities like that never really helped, especially from strangers. She wasn’t even quite sure they were true. ‘Is that why I’m here? To say that I’m sorry?’ Since the moment when she crawled up off the furniture shop’s floor and realized what had happened to Newton, she hadn’t let herself sink into really thinking about it. It was impossible to avoid, now, looking at the people he’d left behind. Apologizing was rather useless, just sentiment. What was really important was the resolution to do better.

She could console herself with the fact that she had never lied to Newton or tried to coerce him into doing anything dangerous. He had known going with Tanya would be a risk, and he had known there could be greater reward in it, too. Perhaps he hadn’t truly understood what he was getting himself into. Or perhaps he had just been too desperate to decline. If she hadn’t pulled him into this whole thing in the first place, he would undoubtedly be alive. Hells, if she hadn’t gotten caught and allowed that whole fiasco with the Morrows, if she hadn’t frightened him to death with her shadow-familiar spell…

Sebastien had known since she was young that anything she cared about, she had to take responsibility for. There was no use in blaming anyone else when things went wrong, just as she couldn’t depend on anyone else to make things go right. She was the only thing she controlled. Her, and her magic.

If she could have done something differently to change the outcome, and she didn’t, then it was her fault. Pretending the weight of responsibility didn’t land on her just because she was too tired to admit it, to accept it, was weakness. It was a deflection. Newton coming to harm wasn’t unforeseeable. She’d chosen to involve him anyway. Other people, even he himself, had chosen to go along with it. But no one else’s culpability lessened her own.

She swallowed hard past the lump in her throat. She had facilitated Newton’s break, his death. And maybe there were things she could have done to better prepare him. Ways she could have mitigated the danger. She would keep this failure in mind for the future. But she couldn’t pretend that she would never place someone else in harm’s way again. The world was dangerous. She wasn’t powerful enough to control everything. And sometimes things spiraled out of her control and people got hurt. She was responsible, but she wasn’t to blame. She wouldn’t put this, at least, on herself. Not all of it.

“I am sorry,” she said. “For your loss. Newton didn’t deserve what happened to him.” And it was true.

“Oh, thank you child.” His mother pulled over the room’s single small stool and waved for Sebastien to take it, perching herself on the edge of her husband’s bed instead. “It was a horrible shock. I mean, I noticed he was getting a little too interested in magics better left alone, but I never thought—” She pressed her fingers to her lips, shaking her head as her eyes grew glassy.

Sebastien frowned.

“He fell in with a bad crowd,” the grandmother said from the corner, still staring into the air.

“Yes,” his mother said, “but we never expected him to dabble in whatever corrupted magic transformed him into a creature of evil—one of those Aberrants.”

In the corner, one of the girls began crying softly. “It wasn’t his fault. I know it!” she said.

The mother shook her head sadly. “He did what he did, Beshi. Sometimes you don’t know people as well as you think. Maybe it was our situation that pushed him to it in desperation.”

Sebastien opened her mouth, closed it, then shook her head. “Umm…well, I don’t think that’s exactly true.”

The father had woken at some point and struggled to sit up. Newton’s mother hurried to help him. “What do you mean?” he asked.

“Newton did get caught up in things that were too much for him to handle,” Sebastien said, “but he wasn’t doing anything…depraved. It was the circumstances that caused his break, not a corrupted Will.”

The man shook his head, but started coughing. After that, he seemed too blearily exhausted to continue contributing to the conversation.

His mother frowned at Sebastien. “He was dabbling in magics better left alone.”

“No. He was casting a completely harmless self-calming spell when it happened. He taught it to me at school, and I’ve cast it myself several times. He said his grandmother taught it to him.” She looked to the woman in the corner, who seemed to focus for the first time, meeting Sebastien’s eyes. This was information that she shouldn’t have, perhaps, but she couldn’t let them go on believing a lie about their dead son.

“He wasn’t, and then suddenly he was,” the decrepit woman said. “He wasn’t, and then he was, like a sick wind.”

Sebastien’s hand had fallen to the pocket where she normally kept her Conduit, and she forced herself to settle both hands in her lap, not wanting to be rude. She felt uneasy, as if she were standing at the edge of the white cliffs above the sea, and the wind was a little too strong for safety.

“I don’t think that’s true at all. He got involved with something over his head, and it was too much for him and he broke, but he wasn’t doing anything nefarious. He was captured, along with some other University students, and threatened by the Morrows.” She swallowed hard to push past her tightening throat as the vow she’d given to the Red Guard tried to restrict her. “There was fighting. He wasn’t even involved. Just an innocent casualty,” she finished quickly, before it could stop her.

“I knew it!” the crying girl said. “I knew he wouldn’t!”

His father frowned severely. “Are you sure? But that can’t be—” He was cut off by another coughing fit, wet and painful-sounding.

“That—” His mother was shaking her head, over and over, touching her ear as if she’d gotten water trapped inside it. “That can’t be. Newton—my son, my son was dabbling in magics better left alone. He was dabbling.”

Sebastien’s back muscles were tightening almost painfully with how straight she was sitting. Looking around the windowless room, she suddenly felt claustrophobic.

The father’s coughing fit went on and on until he was red-faced and teary-eyed, struggling to draw breath.

His wife hurried to uncork one of the potions on his bedside table and help him drink it, calming his coughs but also drawing his eyelids down into heavy, sleepy blinks.

“The scarring is treatable, but it’s a painful, expensive process. We’re hoping things will get better once it warms up around here,” she explained, as if fearful of judgment.

Sebastien shifted uncomfortably. “Why do you think that Newton was dabbling in corrupted magics? Did he ever mention something like that to you?”

“No, of course not!” the woman snapped. “But he was. I know it.”

Sebastien swallowed. “How do you know it?”

The woman pressed her hand over her mouth again, shaking her head rapidly while looking toward the ground.

Sebastien looked between the father and the grandmother. “Is there any actual evidence that he was doing something nefarious? Did the coppers tell you that?”

The grandmother spoke up again. “He was innocent, and then, suddenly, he wasn’t. And we knew it.”

Sebastien went cold. “When did you know?” she asked, her lips numb as the words passed over them.

“Few weeks ago. Maybe a couple months.”

“And around the time when you suddenly knew, did someone visit you? Someone who asked questions about Newton? Any thaumaturges?” Sebastien’s voice grew unconsciously softer, as if she were afraid of someone overhearing her. She looked around to all the family members packed into the small room.

They looked confused, shaking their heads, except for the grandmother. “I definitely did not meet anyone who wanted to change my mind about little Newt. Definitely.”

That was a little too specific, and a little too sure.

Sebastien supposed if someone had put a geas or similar magic on her, forcing her to believe something, then forced her to forget about that, too, she might be able to suss out what had changed. She would need to be able to recognize that what she believed now was suddenly and inexplicably different than what she’d believed before, without any new evidence to create the shift.

She would ask herself who had done this to her, or when it had been done, and find an answer that she was strangely, absurdly sure wasn’t correct. This belief would have no corroborating evidence. And so, the one that felt least likely was, conversely, most likely to be the answer.

It’s what Newton’s Grams had been hinting at from the beginning. Sebastien supposed that, being a thaumaturge, even a weak one, her mind was more resistant to whatever had been done to them. At least whoever had tinkered with their brains had spared the two children, though she didn’t know if that was because they had a sense of ethics or if they just thought it didn’t matter because no one would believe a child, anyway.

“Has anyone suspicious been hanging around? Or anyone who definitely isn’t suspicious?”

None of the Moores remembered anything, though Sebastien was sure she couldn’t trust their judgment on the matter. Sebastien attempted to keep digging, asking increasingly specific questions in an attempt to reverse-engineer the answers, but within minutes Newton’s mother and both sisters had collapsed into frustrated, confused tears, and the grandmother had begun to bang the back of her head against the wall, staring at nothing as she repeated, “I know it, I know it,” over and over.

Knowing that her absence would likely do more to calm them than anything else she might attempt, Sebastien retreated, feeling like she was escaping as she stepped into the light outside. She couldn’t help looking around suspiciously, paranoid that whoever had done this to the Moores was watching. ‘Is there anything that’s suddenly changed about my own beliefs? Anything that I’m strangely sure of?’ She tried to rifle through her thoughts in search of concerning signs but found nothing. She didn’t know if that meant she was fine, or just really bad at noticing whatever geas had been placed on her.

Could this have anything to do with the investigation into the Raven Queen? But that doesn’t make sense. How would doing this help the investigation? And if they got to his family, who else?

She hailed the first carriage and took it straight back to the University. Professor Lacer wasn’t in his office, but she remembered where his cottage was. She hurried east across the grounds, and, when she found it, pounded on the door.

Professor Lacer opened it with a thunderous scowl. “What is the meaning of this?” he snapped.

“I need to speak with you.”

He looked her over, his concern both obvious and somewhat surprising. “Is this about what happened over the weekend? Did the Raven Queen contact you?”

“What? No! I need to speak with you,” she repeated. “Privately.”

His gaze swept over the grounds behind her, but he stepped back and let her in. “What is the matter?”

“Do you remember the night that Newton Moore broke? All of it?”

He leaned forward, his gaze piercing. “I do. Have you remembered something relevant about the incident?”

“No. This is about… I went to visit his family.” She took a deep breath, watching him carefully as she said, “I believe Newton broke while casting a simple self-calming spell. Esoteric, vibration-based. Not corrupted in nature. It was an unfortunate accident. Do you agree?”

“I do.”

She sagged with relief. “Oh, thank the stars above.”

“What are you getting at?”

“Someone has tampered with the minds of Newton Moore’s family. Poorly. They now believe he was involved in some sort of blood magic, and that’s what caused his break. I worry the same might have been done to some of the students in his term. The ones who gave those statements about him.”

Professor Lacer leaned back. “Is that all?”

“Well…yes.” She rocked back on her heels. ‘Isn’t that enough?

“I thought it would be something much more dramatic, with how anxious you were. Still, you did the right thing in making me aware. Sloppy work, to make it so obvious. I will send them back to do a better job.”

“Who?” she asked, her voice barely a whisper.

“The Red Guard, of course. Sometimes memetic spells, when cast incorrectly, will start to fray and show their holes over time as the brain picks at their edges.”

Sebastien had gone cold inside. She felt suddenly, starkly unsafe. “And why did the Red Guard do this?”

“To control public perception, of course.” He raised a hand to stop her, as if she had been going to protest. “I know that is not the answer you seek, but if you wish to dig deeper, you should do so on your own. Some answers are best discovered yourself, if you wish to ever truly understand them. But…be cautious. You do not want to draw so much negative attention that you receive a visit yourself.”

Sebastien hadn’t known it before, but there had been some sense of security granted by the structure of society, the supposed duties of the Crowns and the Red Guard toward the citizens. She had thought her own model of the way the world worked to be correct. And despite his caustic nature, she had believed in the bulwark of her professor, Thaddeus Lacer, against danger.

And in a handful of sentences, that naivety had been stripped from her.

Alright, this is a 6th bonus chapter, extending the exclusive chapters from 4 to 5!

Chapter 139 – Sword of Damocles


Month 3, Day 15, Monday 6:00pm

After spending a few hours catching up on schoolwork, Sebastien retrieved her borrowed books about Myrddin, settling in for some light reading to pass the evening hours. She was both antsy and tired, and had been having trouble concentrating. Though it almost physically pained her to admit, she knew it was because she was craving the beamshell tincture.

She ground her teeth together with futile anger. ‘I can’t believe it’s so easy to almost destroy your own future. But at least I realized now, before things got worse. My Will is still strong enough to get back on track. I control my mind. I control my body. They do not control me.’

Hoping to distract herself, she bundled herself up in her bed, still wearing her jacket for warmth. Resting Myrddin: An Investigative Chronicle of the Legend on her knees, she flipped toward a section nearer the middle.

Several accounts corroborated the fact that Myrddin had, at some point after rising to fame, replaced his more traditional jewelry-style Conduits with a huge sphere of celerium mounted atop a staff. Accounts of the staff itself varied, and even during his life didn’t seem to have a common consensus.

Some said Myrddin had taken it from a twisted branch broken from the heart of a lightning-struck tree—a tree that had grown alone at the top of a mountain, constantly buffeted by storms. Other accounts said the staff was smooth dark stone, inlaid with symbols and lines of gold. Still others said that it was white and slightly porous, carved from the finger bone of a long-dead Titan.

What remained relatively consistent were reports of the Conduit itself, a sphere of polished crystal, as clear and bright as fresh spring water. Its size had been compared to both of a man’s fists together or a pomelo fruit. If true, the book estimated it would have been one of the largest celerium Conduits known to history, at approximately eight to ten inches in diameter.

Its true clarity was somewhat controversial, as one of Myrddin’s contemporaries had written a letter in which he claimed to have examined the Conduit and found a black speck at the very center, about the size of a peppercorn. But even with a small imperfection, such a Conduit could theoretically channel hundreds of thousands of thaums.

Sebastien lifted her gaze from the page, staring into the middle distance as she imagined what it would mean, to need a Conduit that robust. Even Archmage Zard, capable of amazing feats, having been witnessed putting out forest fires and capturing a whale as big as the ship he rode upon by simply lifting it out of the water and holding it there, was only estimated to have a capacity of seventy to ninety thousand thaums.

She thought back to the theory that Myrddin himself had created the white cliffs that surrounded Gilbratha. Suddenly, it didn’t seem quite so unrealistic, though the real question was how a human could grow their Will to that level before simply dying of old age. Thaumaturges lived longer, of course, but generally not more than one hundred twenty years, even for the most dedicated and accomplished. Myrddin had lived longer than that, between two hundred and three hundred years. For a long time after his final disappearance, people had refused to believe he was truly dead.

What must it be like, to walk through the world like that, knowing that with a single thought you can end storms, level mountains, and erase anyone or anything that angers you from existence?’ Siobhan wondered. She imagined the weight of a Will that powerful. It would feel like fate itself was drawn toward her, like she was a star in the midst of the sidereal void, her gravity the only the thing that mattered.

Sebastien was so lost in her thoughts she didn’t recognize the cold prickling in her back at first. It was the sense of prying violation, fingers grasping for her body, eyes roving over her secrets, that had her shooting upright so quickly the book tumbled to the floor.

She fell to her hands and knees, stumbling over her blanket and almost tearing the fabric as she tried free herself. She fumbled out her Conduit so that she could boost her divination-diverting ward’s power.

As the five disks under the skin of her back drew more blood, the deflecting shield pushing the prying divination tendrils away with more power and giving her the pseudo-sensation of more space, she took a deep, relieved breath. ‘My blood must not have been destroyed in the Eagle Tower explosion, like I hoped,’ she realized. ‘Either that, or they have something new from me.’ She had known the Eagle Tower repair was almost finished, but foolishly hadn’t been on guard for a surprise attack.

One hand reaching for her satchel, she swung the strap over her shoulder, picked up the fallen book, and cautiously peeked around the dividing curtain between her and the rest of the dorm. Several students were sitting in the hallway between male and female cubicles, playing a game that involved cards and dice. But they didn’t seem to have noticed her sudden panic.

Moving as quickly as possible, she settled back down and prepared to cast a disintegration curse on her blood, targeted precisely through the reverse-scrying spell she’d previously used to pinpoint the diviners’ location at Eagle Tower.

Despite the unpleasant pseudo-sensations and fear that always accompanied a divination attempt on her, she grinned. Finally, she would be free of the threat hanging over her head like a sword waiting to drop.

Keeping a small part of her concentration on empowering the divination-diverting ward, Sebastien used the majority of her Will to cast the curse.

She waited for the divination to drop as the blood was destroyed, but nothing happened. She pushed harder, feeding more power into the spell and scowling with the force of her concentration.

Still nothing changed, except that the strength of the divination slowly increased.

She kept trying for a minute longer, but with each second that ticked by, her hope faded. More and more of her concentration was required to empower the ward as the divination grew stronger, leaving less to cast her curse. Finally, there was no choice but to admit that she had failed. And worse yet, this divination was already as strong as any she had faced before, and was growing only stronger.

They’re going to put everything they have into this.’ Sebastien felt her shoulders tightening with anxiety and straightened, rolling them backward to release some of the tension. ‘What do I do?

She knew from experience that she couldn’t stand up to their best efforts. Surely the pressure would only get worse. If Liza were here, the woman could probably throw up a quick ward to help, but she wasn’t.

Liza’s wards can still protect me. I just need to get inside her house.’ Cautiously, she slipped from the room and walked down to the end of the hallway, trying not to draw any extra attention to herself that would cause someone to notice the spillover effects of the ward. She clung to the less used pathways to the University entrance, slipping down in one of the tubes while the guards were distracted by a group of drunk students returning from their weekend revelries. Below, she traveled through side streets and alleyways, keeping her cloak pulled up to hide her features as she hurried.

Some part of her had hoped that the divination attempt would give out after at first a few minutes, and then a few tens of minutes, but instead the pressure only increased, until she could feel her heartbeat pushing against the inside of her skull. She didn’t have the luxury of time to stop by the Silk Door, but she’d had the foresight to put a pair of clothes for either form in each of her emergency stashes. She retrieved one from a hole under a particularly large cobblestone in a fenced-off alley, changing her form and her outfit right there in the cold twilight.

The dress was frilly and pastel, nothing like what she would normally wear. With a small hand mirror, she added her prosthetic nose as well, but passed over the blue contact lenses. They were memorable, and she did not want to be noticed. She shoved the emergency bag inside of her school satchel, which she had no intention of abandoning even if it was a clue.

She was grateful for the half-light of the setting sun as she scurried up the metal staircase to Liza’s door, frantically clacking the door-knocker.

Siobhan waited, shifting from foot to foot and biting her lip impatiently. She knocked again.

No response.

She turned to grip the railing, squeezing the cold, hard-edged metal until it dug into the skin of her palms. ‘I have to leave,’ she realized. ‘I cannot hold it off, and so I must escape. If I cannot get far enough in time to weaken the divination’s power, I may have to leave the city for good, giving up my life here—everything I have come so close to accomplishing—entirely. And every moment I waste makes that increasingly likely.

Siobhan threw herself down the stairs and began to run south. If the coppers were in Eagle Tower, the direction opposite them was the most direct method of escape. If they were in Harrow Hill Penitentiary, she would be better served by going across the Charybdis Gulf to the east, but that would more likely slow her down than anything, especially since she still needed to go south to exit the encirclement of the white cliffs.

She flagged down the first carriage she could find, a nice vehicle with two healthy looking horses and shock absorbers attached to the wheels. She hurled herself inside, urging the driver to continue on her way.

With the increased speed of the carriage, she felt some incremental relief, though the pressure was not receding quite as quickly as it had originally built. Even as she was moving away, they were pouring on the power like syrup over pancakes. Still, at least the balance was moving in the right direction.

The carriage driver grew uncertain as they moved farther into the Mires, but she urged him on. He asked again for a particular destination when they crossed the demarcation line of the white cliffs, which was surrounded by a shanty town that had spilled beyond the once-perfect circle of the city.

When they left the sprawling, improvised housing behind, the countryside opening up to rocky, brush-filled stretches of land on either side of the pitted road, the driver finally stopped the carriage. “I’m not taking you any further without payment.”

Siobhan huffed at him, dug in her purse, and tossed up a handful of silver coins. “My sister is giving birth in the nearest village.” She searched her memory of the maps she’d studied in Oliver’s office. “Umm, Tidewater, I believe it’s called. Hurry.”

The man gave her a dubious look, but weighed the coin in his hand, tucked it in a pocket, and urged the horses on.

Slowly, the strain receded, and finally, an hour after it had started, the divination dropped entirely. Siobhan sagged with relief. They hadn’t broken through. She was safe and could return to the city.

The only problem was, she couldn’t very well tell the driver that she no longer cared about attending her niece or nephew’s birth, and that he should just turn around.

It took them another half hour to arrive at the little village that she hoped was named Tidewater, and she had to give the driver even more coin before he left. By then, it was already quite dark, and of course such a small town had no carriages waiting to be hired. If it were day, she might have bummed a ride on the back of a north-bound wagon, but for the remainder of the evening, it appeared she was out of luck.

She could probably get a ride in the morning, but she needed to be back at the University in time for her classes, shortly after the sun rose. She searched her coin purse, judging what remained after replenishing most of her stock over the last couple of days and her impromptu carriage ride. She somehow had enough coin left after her shopping excursion to buy a donkey, or even a horse, if one were available for sale, but such an urgent purchase would be suspicious. Oliver had been generous, with both the hazard pay and the funds to reimburse her for what she had lost.

A search of her memory and some quick calculation of the time she had traveled told her she was about fifteen kilometers outside of Gilbratha. ‘That’s not much,’ she reassured herself. ‘I can walk that in just a few hours, and be back at the University and in my bed before curfew.

And so she set off, following the distant carriage back down the road they’d come from. It soon became clear to her that, while her overloaded school satchel was wonderful for storing components and books, it was less ideal for hiking. She had also unfortunately failed to replenish her customary bottle of moonlight sizzle, and her normal lantern had been disintegrated. She searched for the light crystal coaster that had come in so handy recently, only to remember that she’d carelessly left it in her bedside drawer the evening after using it in the fight against Malcolm Gervin.

The weight of the satchel’s strap seemed to dig into her shoulders and hurt her ribs with its increasingly cumbersome weight. She quickly drank through her entire canteen of water, but without a convenient source of light, couldn’t stop and set up a spell array to gather more. Her mouth grew dry, and then a headache bloomed. The potions in her bag began to seem appealing more for their liquid content than their magical properties.

The night was so dark that she could barely see the road beneath her feet. But she could hear the ocean, and the occasional yips, howls, and hoots of animals, their cries carrying far on the still night air and leaving her on edge and jumpy.

Shivering and stumbling in the dark, she finally had an idea. She stopped in what she thought was the middle of the road, pulled off one of her boots, and retrieved a paper spell array from her emergency bag. With fingers numb from the cold, she managed to pry open the heel of her boot, then used the finger-knife sheathed within against the flint to create a spark. It lasted only a moment, but by doing this repeatedly, she hoped to read the spell array’s purpose. She might be able to cast in the dark if she already knew with total surety what spell it was, but accidentally mis-matching her Will to the Word could have disastrous consequences.

The sparks revealed that the paper held Grubb’s barrier spell, which she then funneled power through in the most inefficient way possible, allowing the lines of the spell array to glow and heat. With one half of her mind focused on the light from that, she was able to set up a spell to gather water from the air, which she switched over to until her canteen was full. She emptied the bottle, grimacing at the slightly strange taste of the water, and then repeated the process. ‘It would be a good idea to carve the water-gathering spell array into the base of the canteen,’ she realized.

This emergency bag didn’t have any light-based spells in it, but it did have a few blank sheets of paper, and she was still wearing her holster with the beast core. After once again switching to the inefficient barrier spell to create a glow, she drew out a standard glow spell with a directed beam.

Finally, she slipped her boot back on and continued, holding the sheet of shining paper out before her.

She shuffled and limped her way north for hours. Tanya had created an extended reprieve for Siobhan when she blew up Eagle Tower. It had allowed Siobhan to grow complacent. Sure, she’d been trying to prepare for every eventuality, but this problem had begun to seem less urgent. ‘It’s like the sword of Damocles, constantly hanging over me like a guillotine,’ she thought wearily.

When she finally made it into sight of the Mires, she dropped her glow spell to be less conspicuous. She wasn’t alone in the streets, despite the late hour, and some of those who noticed her passing eyed her with predatory contemplation. ‘Stumbling through the southern Mires so obviously alone—and wealthy, in this dress—is a great way to get stabbed and stripped naked, left to die in some unnamed alley.

She crouched down to retrieve the thin, hook-edged dagger from the calf of her boot, rolling her tired shoulders back and meeting the eyes of anyone who stared too long. This late at night, in this part of the city, there were no carriages she could flag down. She was so tired, and every joint in her body ached.

She tried to run coherently through her options. The safest place would be Liza’s, but there was no guarantee the woman would be home this time, either. She could go to the Verdant Stag, but it was still a couple of kilometers away, and Siobhan didn’t feel like she could manage even a few hundred more meters.

A safe house,’ she thought. Latching onto the idea, she combed through her memories and tried to place herself on the dense map of the city. There was a place close by.

She was still trying in vain to remember the password when she arrived fifteen or so minutes later, but when she saw the building, she remembered this location was unoccupied. She counted the bricks on the wall from the back door, seven over, six down, then pried off the facade, pulling out the rugged iron key and using it to let herself in.

After closing and locking the door behind herself, she dropped her satchel, leaned back, and slid down the door until she sat on the floor. She drew her cloak closer, hugging herself as she shivered from a combination of cold and bone-deep exhaustion. “I made it,” she murmured. “Everything is still fine. Just a bit of extra exercise. Fekten would be so proud if he knew.”

She planned to rest for a while and then continue on, thinking somewhere in the back of her mind that she would rise when dawn came and hurry back to the University before anyone important noticed that she had been gone.

Instead, crouched against the wood wall of an abandoned house, Siobhan fell asleep. Without the dreamless sleep spell to stop it, she dreamt.

Siobhan found herself in a diaphanous nightgown, her small brown feet peeking out under the hem, her toes dirty and soles calloused. She looked at her hands, noting their equally small—childlike—size, and the fact that she was having trouble counting exactly how many fingers she had. “Oh no,” she muttered. Or maybe just thought. She couldn’t quite be sure because her lips hadn’t moved.

She was in her childhood house where she had stayed with Grandfather, in front of the tower room with the lead door. Her hand reached toward the doorknob and twisted, then pushed the heavy door open.

Siobhan kept her eyes down, her long dark hair falling forward to obscure her vision at the peripherals. Her bare feet passed over the sticky, red, fungus-like tendrils that had crept their way over the stone floor. They pulsed gently under her, warm and alive compared to the cool stone.

Though she tried to stop, or at least to slow herself, she walked to the center of the room, catching the edge of a mirror frame in her vision. She tried not to look, but she wasn’t in control. The mirror, a rectangle taller than it was wide, was framed in smoldering brimstone, carved in the shape of twisted and elongated limbs, with disjointed fingers poking out here, a knee bent backwards there at the corner, and horribly mangled human feet at the bottom, as if they had been crushed under the monstrous weight of the mirror.

Siobhan’s heart began to beat rapidly, dizzying her and leaving the edges of her vision blurry and dreamlike. Her eyes dragged themselves up to the reflection, which showed not her, but a window looking out over a surreal landscape that had been painted in muted earth tones and fog.

In the distance, hunched forms shuffled. As she stared, they became more defined.

“No, no,” she pleaded, trying to wrench her focus away.

As if in answer to her desperate prayer, her eyes began to move again. But not away. Up—toward the top of the frame—and she couldn’t stop them and she couldn’t look away, but she knew that whatever she saw was going to be horrible, going to break her heart and wrench open her mind. She tried to scream, but what came out were just muted whimpers and whines, like a wounded animal.

Finally, the smoldering brimstone face at the top of the mirror came into view, bound into the frame.

Siobhan tried not to recognize it.

She reached up, ready to claw at her own eyes to stop herself from seeing. Just as her fingertips dug into their slimy wetness, she woke.

She was keening, low and strained, her cheek pressed against the wood panels of the floor. She jerked her head back and scrambled backward like a crab, slamming her head into the wall, her eyes still clenched shut. A few more keening moans slipped out of her before she had the wherewithal to clamp a hand over her mouth.

She flipped over onto her knees, pointing her feet so that she could fold forward over her legs until the top of her forehead made contact with the wooden floor again. She felt like she couldn’t breathe, like she was suffocating, her heart pounding so hard, pumping so much blood that she started slipping around at the edge of consciousness, black and red washes spilling across the backs of her eyelids. ‘This is a panic attack,’ she told herself. ‘Get control. Breathe. Count and hold.

Slowly, much too slowly, she regained control of her body, calming enough to function, the involuntary reactions to panic ebbing away like a lazy tide, breath by breath. It could have been seconds or minutes, she couldn’t tell.

I need the sleep-proxy spell,’ she told herself. ‘It doesn’t matter what I have to do. Development has to move forward.

She changed forms in the dark, fumbling with her clothing.

Climbing up to stand on trembling legs, she stumbled to the window shutter and opened it, letting in light and fresh air through the glassless frame. Some detached part of her noted the paleness and largeness of her hands. In some small way, it was a comfort, this sharp divide between reality and the dream. ‘I’m Sebastien now,’ she thought with the smallest twitch of a humorless smile.

She had to admit to herself that she had probably always been going to give in to Liza, to set aside her qualms and whatever worth the life of a raven or a pixie or a monkey held. She had just been looking for a way to keep going past her own guilt and shame. Otherwise she wouldn’t have only asked for time away to think, she would have made concrete promises about the lines she was not willing to cross.

If there was any other option, I would take it,’ Sebastien thought.

Tears welled up in her eyes and flowed down her cheeks, accompanied by a sharp, aching pain in her chest that made her want to wail and devolve into body-convulsing sobs at the unfairness of her life.

Instead, she kept breathing smoothly, pushing that feeling down until it reluctantly ebbed away. The tears didn’t stop for a while, nor did the shivering.

This is the 5th of 5 bonus chapters brought to you by my lovely patrons! If you are one of those patrons, you still have one more bonus chapter coming tomorrow, which will increase the number of exclusive chapters from 4 to 5.

Voting is still ongoing for the PGTS short story ideas!

Edit 12/29: No chapter next week, as I’m recuperating from working “overtime” the entirety of December as also very busy with all the launch administration. The regular Thursday chapter will be back on 1/12.

In the meantime, there will likely be some bonus content released on the Patreon to tide people over.

EDIT 1/9: Please Read

Chapter 138 – Pixies and ravens


Month 3, Day 13, Saturday 11:30pm

As Lord Gervin escorted the three young people who had caused him so much trouble that night into Ana’s carriage, which would take them back to the University, he extended his hand for Sebastien to shake.

She did her best to stifle the lingering tremors in her hands. The terror of fighting Malcolm Gervin had been almost as bad, if in a different way, as surviving the attack on Knave Knoll. Her face still felt stiff and bloodless, but she did her best to smile pleasantly.

“If you are in town this summer, I would like to invite you to attend my Family’s annual soiree, Mr. Siverling. It will be a good opportunity for you to network.”

“He will be there,” Ana replied on Sebastien’s behalf, pulling her into the carriage.

Once they were settled inside and safely on their way, Ana threw her head back and let out a cackle.

They all shared triumphant smiles, and then Damien finally exploded. “Myrddin’s bushy black beard, Sebastien! That battle was amazing! Why don’t you perform at that level in Fekten’s class?”

Sebastien leaned her head against the seat’s plush back, closing her eyes. “I cheated, you might say, in the fight against Malcolm. Fekten’s class requires actual skill with the mechanics.”

“Speaking of, why didn’t you tell me the, um, your artifact can shoot spells? I thought it was only a light!” Damien, impressively, did not look guiltily toward Ana, who had no idea about the significance of the modified drink coasters that both Sebastien and Damien had.

Sebastien pulled it out from her pocket, showing Damien the back, where she had carefully painted a spell array in a color that almost matched the stone. “It is just a light crystal. I was using this spell to Sacrifice the produced light and then shoot it. Malcolm was right, it’s just a harmless visual effect, but it ended up being quite useful.”

Damien leaned closer to stare at the spell array, his brows climbing up his forehead. “But the spell spheres were coming out all different colors.”

Sebastien tucked away the thirteen-pointed star. “That part wasn’t too difficult. Shorter electromagnetic wavelengths have more energy, while longer wavelengths have less. I had to do some practicing to get my control fine enough to reliably hit specific colors, but I wanted to be sure that my Will’s clarity was high enough to differentiate my control over the particular effects of my spell array while maintaining the light crystal’s internal integrity.”

Damien sat back, staring into the distance with cloudy eyes. “Right. We learned about that in class.” His voice grew softer and softer as he continued. “So I suppose, if you’re ingenious enough, this little stuff really can come in handy…”

He recovered after a few minutes, turning to Ana, who was still grinning and letting out sporadic malevolent laughs. “How is Alec going to take this?” he asked.

“Alec will be fine. After all, he is going to become the head of the Gervin Family’s closest branch line, once Malcolm and Randolph are officially disowned,” she said.

Sebastien knew it wouldn’t be quite that easy. But at least, when the gossip grew rampant, Alec would be able to rely on his friends, the clout of his station, and his personal fortune.

When they finally arrived at the University, it was past curfew and the lights were out, so they snuck into the dorms as silently as possible. It was all Sebastien could do to cast her dreamless sleep spell before passing out.

She struggled to wake and clear her fuzzy mind enough to recast it halfway through the night, and didn’t even bother with the usual hour of homework she got in around that time. Some inconsiderate idiot’s playful shout woke her in the morning, and she just laid in bed for a few minutes afterward, watching the light come in through the window to her right.

When she finally crawled out of bed, she saw all the replacement supplies she’d purchased the day before sitting on the ground, waiting for her to organize and store them. She hadn’t replaced her artifacts, but had managed to find most of her components and a few emergency potions that she either didn’t have the time or the expertise to brew herself. All in all, it had been an expensive affair, as the prices had climbed even higher than usual. She tossed her blanket off, exposing herself to the chill air and cold stone of the floor, and began to rifle through the drawer of her bedside table.

She pulled out the almost-empty vial of beamshell tincture, saved from destruction by virtue of being left out of her bag. Her fingers trembled as she unsealed it and caught the acrid scent of the gritty sludge within.

She stopped, holding out the vial to the light. Setting it on the windowsill, she stared at it, reflecting on what she’d just done. The automatic way she’d searched it out, the way her body reacted to the unpleasant scent, but most importantly, the visceral memory of electrifying energy that was urging her on so subtly from the back of her mind.

She rifled through the drawer again until she found the information card originally tied around the vial’s neck. Though she knew what it said, she read it again. Beamshell tincture was addictive, of course, but it also caused trouble sleeping, energy debts, and most importantly, could impair the memory.

Sebastien stepped back, pressing her lips together and folding her arms over her chest in a hug. She prided herself on her mental strength, and that included the absolute grasp of her memory, but she couldn’t help but think about the small slips, the little failures of recall she’d been having lately. Times when thinking or casting magic had felt dizzying. She had ignored them, or made excuses.

For a moment, she imagined taking just a half-dose, just enough to help her get through the day. ‘Oh,’ she thought. With shaking hands, she picked up the vial, slid it into her pocket, and hurried to the bathroom, where she didn’t even bother to avoid the other students as she poured the remaining contents down the sink, running the water until the glass container was empty and clear. ‘I don’t need it. I’ll just steal some of Damien’s coffee,’ she assured herself. ‘I’m fine. I don’t need it.

She did her best to put it out of her mind. ‘The sleep-proxy spell will do a better job with what I really need, anyway,’ she thought, trying to be optimistic.

But then, with a sudden rush of horror, she remembered that Professor Lacer had invited her to practice detaching the output of her spells again on Saturday…and that, between the battle and Operation Defenestration, she had completely blown past the entire day without a second’s thought of Lacer or schoolwork.

She dressed in a flurry and hurried across the grounds to Professor Lacer’s office, only to find a note on the door stating that he had cancelled his weekend office hours. ‘Because of the fighting. He’s probably helping with the investigation,’ she realized. ‘He wasn’t here, so he has no idea I completely forgot.’ She sagged with relief.

“No need to be so disappointed. I am here now,” Professor Lacer said, speaking directly behind her.

Sebastien jumped a full foot in the air, then spun to face him while clutching the fabric of her jacket over her hammering heartbeat, scowling fiercely.

He seemed to find her reaction amusing, raising a steaming coffee mug to cover his smile. His eyes were bloodshot, and his hair was starting to come loose from where he had tied it at the base of his neck. “I heard about what happened yesterday evening. Are you well?”

“With Malcolm Gervin? I’m fine.”

He moved past her, unlocking his office door. “You took a big risk. Do not imagine I am blind to the political motives behind ruining such a powerful man. Do you realize how high the stakes were? That man attempted to murder you and your companions. It is good to make powerful friends, but you must be sure that they are worth the effort.”

“I was prepared,” she said.

Professor Lacer raised a dubious eyebrow, but said, “I suppose you did escape unscathed, though that does not mean you were wise. Risking your safety to increase the weight of a scandal? If not for some connections in high places, you may have been charged with illegal possession of a battle wand, despite the upstanding way in which you used it.”

Her mouth opened, but no sound came forth. She knew a license was required to carry a battle wand, but she had been carrying one for some time now, and used one more than once without ever needing to consider the legality. Damien had his own…but no doubt did so legally.

Professor Lacer sighed deeply, seeming to read her thoughts from her expression. “Indeed. You are no end of trouble to me.” He pulled an envelope from his jacket’s inner pocket and tossed it to her.

With trepidation, she opened it, only to discover a license for a battle wand of “reasonable offensive and defensive power” within. It was dated the day prior, and her name was written as the recipient. Someone had pulled some strings for her. “I don’t know what to say,” she admitted.

“You may thank me.”

She cleared her throat past the lump that had suddenly formed in it. “Thank you. Truly.”

He waved away her words with an absent motion of his hand, but the harsh lines at the edges of his eyes and mouth softened somewhat. “There will be no output detachment practice today. You have just been through an ordeal and were no doubt up until the wee hours testifying to the coppers, and I have other pressing work.”

Sebastien hesitated before leaving. “What happened on Friday night… Did that have anything to do with the Raven Queen?”

“The investigation is still ongoing, but I suspect she did respond to the attack, and managed to kill the perpetrator. Identification of the remains will be…complicated. This time, the coppers should be grateful to her. The man would likely have gone free if not for her, and was undoubtedly a danger to more than just a small-time gang.”

Sebastien wanted to ask more, but Professor Lacer shooed her away with another absent wave of his hand, already focused on a stack of homework papers from one of his upper-term classes. She closed the door behind her as she left, wondering if the prisoner transport going so wrong would in turn make things even harder for her. At least, with her debt soon to be wiped out, she wouldn’t need to keep putting herself in danger for the Verdant Stag.

She headed south, toward the transport tubes. The University grounds were abuzz, contractors milling about under the supervision of professors and other faculty members as they decorated and set up facilities for the end of term exhibitions. From the look of things, they were expecting a large influx of people.

In the city below, it seemed everyone had a newspaper to read about the recent slew of exciting events, and Siobhan even noticed several copies of Oliver’s publication, The People’s Voice, which was now slightly larger than the average pamphlet.

Liza opened the door after only one use of the lion’s-head door knocker, seeming excited—even energized—for once. “About time you arrived,” the woman said, grabbing Siobhan’s arm and pulling her inside. “I’ve been waiting for you since five this morning.”

Siobhan let Liza pull her through the door, deciding not to mention Liza’s grumpy complaints the last time she’d come over early in the morning.

“I bought another batch of animals to do the third round of testing on,” Liza continued, barely looking at Siobhan. “More mice, plus some of the new batch of raven chicks, and a set of raccoons. Your notes were right about them; both have better brains than mice. For thoroughness, we should test some magical creatures as well, so I got a set of pixies, too. I wanted monkeys—they have brains most similar to a human’s, without needing to break the harsher laws—but my usual supplier is having issues getting stock into the city after that whole fiasco with your friend Oliver and those red-clad thugs.”

Liza’s excitement was contagious. “The test results are still good, then?” Siobhan asked, grinning.

Liza wound her mane of springy curls into a bun, which she stabbed through with a wand to keep in place. “No deaths. One month in, and no signs of lingering trauma! Our sleepers are down pretty much constantly, and the second round of waking mice are showing signs of fatigue, but are still healthy overall.”

“That’s amazing! A one-hundred percent success rate is pretty impressive, even if our sample size isn’t that large. Liza, we are geniuses!”

Liza’s lips pursed at first, but she couldn’t keep them from spreading into a smile. “So it seems.” She pushed a cup of steaming tea into Siobhan’s hands, then ushered her into the adjacent hidden apartment through the false back of the bedroom closet. The room smelled faintly of plants, dirt, and animal musk, and was filled with the muffled chirps, squawks, and growls of various creatures. It probably would have been much louder and smellier if not for the convenience of magic. “However, there is one side effect,” Liza added. “It seems our waking mice cannot sleep with the spell active. That ability seems to have been Sacrificed. I wasn’t sure if that would happen or not, but I think it’s safe to say their fatigue has grown great enough that they would be sleeping if they could.”

Siobhan frowned. “Is that going to be a problem, do you think?”

“Binding magic works with active, ongoing trades. The ability to sleep returns once the spell is ended, and as I said, there is no long-term infirmity. Once we break their connection, both mice return to normal, though of course the sleeper mice are permanently more robust.”

“And the sleepers aren’t being damaged?”

“Well, they probably are, but the increased healing factor of the spell is balancing that out for now. I’ve been trying to keep them hydrated with a nutrient draught while they’re unconscious, but I imagine if we were to continue the spell for longer than a couple of weeks at a time, they would all die.”

Siobhan hesitated, but eventually voiced her thoughts out loud. “We should keep the spell running until they do die. For the data.” It felt cruel, but nothing worthwhile came without a cost. They needed to know what would happen. After all, a raven was more likely to die under the strain of a human’s mind, and if that caused some catastrophic backlash, she would much rather learn about it now.

Liza nodded absently. “Of course. We’ll want to have as much information as possible before we start human testing. That’s going to be the hard part.” She waved Siobhan over to the logbook where she had diligently recorded the daily status of their mice. “Go ahead and review everything. I had a couple of ideas for minor improvements to the spell, which I’ve noted. While you familiarize yourself with that, I will make the final preparations for the third round of experiments. Meet me down below as soon as you are ready.” She grabbed two of the cages along the wall, heaving one under each arm and ignoring the alarmed whines of the fat raccoons within.

Siobhan turned her attention to the logs and notes, which Liza had put her customary great care into. The sleeping mice actually started out healthier than the waking ones, likely because of the blood magic they’d done to boost their vitality and brain function, along with the continuous healing provided by the sempervivum apricus while the spell was ongoing. The equilibrium shifted after about ten days, by which time most of the sleeper mice were unconscious the majority of the time, with a few of them only waking long enough to eat, drink, and defecate. By this point, fourteen days into the second round of testing, the sleeper mice were no longer waking at all, and the diagnostic testing showed their health declining precipitously despite Liza’s attempts to keep them alive.

When Siobhan had gone over the logs as well as thoroughly internalized Liza’s improvements to the spell, which required her to read a few bookmarked passages from some medical reference texts, she joined the older woman in the casting rooms down below.

Liza had filled up two more rooms with the expansive sleep-proxy spell array, and apparently bought her own supplies, including more mandrakes and sempervivum apricus. They were all larger—and therefore more expensive—than the ones Siobhan had supplied. The whole lower level was filled with various terrariums of mice going through different stages of the spell, and their body heat alone kept the place warm.

Siobhan looked around with admiration. Liza had been working on this constantly, it seemed, whether or not Siobhan was available. She felt a warm spike of gratitude, before she remembered that the older woman was getting as much out of this as Siobhan.

Siobhan almost expected Liza to try and hand her a bill for half of the additional creatures and supplies, and was already planning how she could argue her way out of it, but Liza didn’t mention anything, and Siobhan wisely kept her mouth shut. After all, what was this if not Liza’s way of helping develop and test the spell, which was part of their contract? Siobhan mentally patted herself on the back for the foresight to bring the other woman in on the project.

“Are you ready?” Liza asked.

“I am.” With that, they began a full day of strenuous spellcasting. They started with a couple more sets of mice, then a set of raccoons, then the ravens, before breaking for lunch. The raccoons and ravens were both more difficult than the mice, and Siobhan wondered what it would be like to try and cast the spell on a human. She had calculated an extended casting time, but without Liza it probably would have taken Siobhan at least three hours, even on a mouse. Casting for such an extended time was a danger on its own, as most minds had trouble maintaining such extreme concentration for long periods of time.

When they broke for lunch, Siobhan discovered that Liza had only a moldy heel of bread, some pickled plums, and a bit of jam in her kitchen. Neither of them felt like shopping for ingredients and trying to prepare anything, so they ate at a nearby bar, where the proprietress provided fresh fruit at Liza’s request—with a little extra coin slid across the counter—despite the fact that it was still winter.

“I really think it’s going to work,” Siobhan said as they ate.

Liza smiled, wiping some clotted cream from her dark lips. “I think so too, girl. What are you going to do with an extra eight hours every day?”

“Everything,” Siobhan responded immediately, her voice dreamy. Liza snorted, and Siobhan flushed, hurrying to correct herself. “Well, I’ll study things I’m interested in, work on some projects I never seem to have time for, and maybe even do some work to bring in extra coin. Do you think it will improve our Will’s recovery time? That’s one of the main functions of sleep. If it does…I could cast for an extra three hours a day, maybe, without needing to worry about strain.”

“Three hours out of eight? Do you spend six hours a day casting now?” Liza asked, one arched eyebrow raised.

Siobhan hummed noncommittally. “Not every day. Sometimes I spend more, generally on the weekends. I think it averages out to about six hours a day, though.”

Liza nodded approvingly. “No wonder your Will is improving so quickly. Most serious thaumaturges don’t average over four hours a day. What do you do that takes so much time?”

Siobhan hesitated.

“If that is too invasive a question, feel free to change the subject,” Liza said, pointedly looking away to give Siobhan a semblance of privacy.

“Well, no, it’s not. I brew for the Verdant Stag and sometimes do other projects for them, but the majority of my casting time is spent practicing basic spells, pushing myself to tweak their outputs while still using the basic spell array, that kind of thing.” She paused, adding cream to her second cup of tea. “I want to be a free-caster,” she admitted.

“Ambitious.” Liza eyed her for a moment, taking another bite of food. “Not impossible, though. Free-casting was never my own focus. It requires too much instant mental flexibility. I prefer to sit down and slowly work through a problem, layering new revelations and improvements into my work. Artificery is much less dangerous, as well.”

“What will you do with your extra eight hours?” Siobhan asked.

Liza looked down at her plate, now almost empty, for a few seconds. “Research,” she finally replied.

“Research about what?”

“That is too invasive a question.” Liza met Siobhan’s gaze unflinchingly, but didn’t sound angry.

Siobhan nodded easily. “Okay. Shall we get back to work, then?”


Siobhan’s excitement hadn’t waned, despite their large lunch trying to draw blood away from her brain for digestion. However, when she got a good look at their next test subjects, some of the feeling soured.

The pixies watched with big, frightened eyes as Liza and Siobhan prepared the spell array for them. They were less than eighteen inches tall, their small fingers wrapped around the bars of their cage, their multi-petaled flesh wings trembling enough to shake off flakes and peels of ever-regenerating dandruff—more commonly known as pixie dust, a useful magical component and the main reason the creatures were often kept as pets.

They made nasty faces and gestures, and one of them even knew a few curse words, which it threw out with little artifice or understanding. Like parrots, they could memorize and reproduce sounds and words, and even understand a few of particular importance, but couldn’t hold a coherent conversation.

The little creatures fought back viciously when Liza took them out of the cages, scratching and biting and shrieking until the woman subdued them all with her docility spell.

Siobhan wondered if they understood what was about to happen to them. She found herself sweating a bit as they took away the creatures’ fear and ability to feel pain with a couple drops of a potent numbing potion.

Transferring the vitality and brain function of the Sacrifice was harder than with the mice, and even harder than the raccoons, about on par with the ravens. The pixie they were drawing from didn’t try to escape, and she assured herself that it wasn’t frightened or feeling pain, but at the last minute, as the connection took hold and wrenched, its dark eyes met hers. One second it was alive, and the next it wasn’t. Its eyes were still wet and glassy, still looking at her, but empty. Its fingers twitched once, and a mix of blood and clear liquid ran from its snub nose.

Siobhan took a clumsy step backward.

This feels wrong. This is wrong.’ The thought filled her mind, unbidden but undeniable. The pixie’s body was limp, flaking wings still, half crushed beneath its body, senseless little fingers and sightless staring eyes—

Bile suddenly rose up in Siobhan’s throat, and she took another step away, turning to rest her forehead against the cool stone of the wall, her back to what they had just done—what she had just done. She closed her eyes, breathing deeply until her stomach stopped trying to surge up into her throat. Her back tingled with a cold sweat as she straightened her shoulders and turned around.

Liza was watching her silently, her expression inscrutable.

Siobhan swallowed, keeping herself from looking back at the dead creature as she met Liza’s gaze. “I don’t want to do that again. They’re so—they’re too intelligent. No monkeys, either. Pixies, monkeys, anything intelligent shouldn’t have to die for our experiments. We can test on them, but I don’t want to kill them just to boost our sleeper.”

Liza looked down at the dead pixie. “Pixies and monkeys do look very human, don’t they? But magic comes at a cost, girl. Always. Great magic comes at great cost. If you cannot bear to pay it, perhaps you are not suited to this life.”

Siobhan flinched as if she’d been slapped, but clenched her fists. “There is a reason blood magic is illegal.”

Liza scoffed derisively, contempt clear in her voice. “Please tell me you do not believe that shite about evil magics corrupting the Will. Weakness corrupts the Will. Hesitation. Indecision. Any other tales are just pretty words to keep the masses from realizing the truth.” She pressed her lips together firmly, and when she spoke again her tone was kinder. “What makes one animal more important than another? You eat them, you use their pieces in your magic, you even wear their skin,” she said, waving to Siobhan’s leather boots. “The pixie looks so much like us, and suddenly you grow a conscience, but you must realize, your hesitation is not based on some inherent ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness.’ Ravens are at least as intelligent as these creatures, whether magical or not. Some believe them to be sapient, you know, able to communicate with each other, make plans for the future, and solve complex problems. They, too, can learn to speak some of our words. And yet, you have been okay with killing quite a few of them.”

“Is that true?” Siobhan asked, though she really didn’t think Liza was lying to her. She remembered the feeling of using the Lino-Wharton messenger spell to control a raven’s body, speak with its tongue, and see with its eyes. All that was possible, of course, because the ravens were strong and smart enough to handle the strain of her human mind, if only for a short time. “They’re as smart as pixies?”

“Ravens are social creatures full of curiosity. They can solve puzzles and problems, learn new behavior to obtain desired results, and innovate solutions. They use improvised tools to obtain food and defend their territory. Some pairs even mate for life. In my opinion, if the only criteria is intelligence, they far surpass the pixie.”

A sickening mix of chemicals rushed through Siobhan’s bloodstream, making her heart clench a little too hard and her veins burn. She was too aware of her skin, and every touch of fabric or air against it was an irritant. She wanted to move, but she forced herself to stay still, letting this new perspective sink in.

Liza scoffed. “I should have known you were too soft when you wanted to give the mice a pain potion,” she muttered. Louder, she said, “Take a good look inside yourself, girl, and question why you are hesitating now.”

Siobhan looked back at the dead pixie, letting out a slow breath through pursed lips, just on the edge of a whistle. If the pixie had looked like a giant cockroach instead of having fingers and pink flesh, even if someone had told her the cockroach was just as intelligent, it wouldn’t have felt so wrong.

Be honest. Twist the knife,’ Siobhan ordered herself. She cared more because of the way it looked. It hurt to admit that to herself, but it was the truth. She twisted the knife of introspection further, as Professor Lacer had taught her. ‘If it is wrong to kill a pixie, then it is wrong to kill a raven. And perhaps it was. Was it also wrong to kill a mouse? Where is the line between an acceptable Sacrifice and excessive cruelty?’ No matter the creature, it was legally blood magic to use a living creature not just as a component but as a Sacrifice.

“Perhaps it would ease your mind to know that the Sacrifice of their life is well worth the gain,” Liza said after Siobhan’s silence dragged on. “I am not wasteful nor disrespectful of their lives, child. When we are finished here, each piece of them will be saved for use as components in other magic. These creatures are not afraid or in pain, as we ensured. Their lives were ended as gently as possible, and their Sacrifice will go toward a remarkable, significant advance in magic.”

Siobhan still didn’t respond. Using a creature in magic was not so different from slaughtering a creature to eat. In fact, it might be better, because many spells would not use up all the matter of a Sacrificed creature, allowing the remains to be used for food, tools, or even other spells afterward. She didn’t feel guilt when she ate meat. But she usually didn’t eat sapient creatures, either.

Would she have had such a reaction if someone else had done the butchering for her? Most likely not. This realization shamed her, because that kind of dissociation from reality, allowing someone else to take the blame and the responsibility, was a betrayal of herself. ‘If I am in control, then everything within my control is my responsibility. Just like it was my fault that Jameson died, like it is my responsibility to prepare for the future, I am accountable for the weight and consequence of my actions. A living creature that can have hopes for the future, that can make plans to solve its problems and carry them out, that can understand and think and feel… That’s a person. Not a human, but I never want to make the mistake of believing only those who look and act like me are people. And to kill a person… That is murder.

She felt another rush, a visceral response as her stomach churned and goosebumps rippled in a wave across her skin. For the first time, she longed for the transformation contained in the amulet around her neck, if only to get out of her own body. “Would it be possible to use mice, or some other less intelligent creature, to boost a pixie, or a raven?” Siobhan asked. It wasn’t right to kill mice, either, perhaps, but it was a sin she felt she could still bear, for a worthy purpose.

“It is not so simple, for the same reason one should not attempt to Sacrifice the mind of a pixie to increase your own intelligence. They are too weak, and incompatible besides. If we were willing to risk failure and its consequences, we might Sacrifice the pixie to boost the mouse, but not the other way around.”

When Siobhan remained silent once more, Liza continued. “There are other alternatives, but I believe you will find them even more distasteful. We could cast this spell, now, with unboosted creatures, but if you try to do that later, you will find that you kill raven after raven with the strain of taking your sleep. This doesn’t solve your problem with causing a death, and it might prove dangerous to you, as well. We do not yet know what happens when the sleeper dies under the strain of the spell.”

That option was, in effect, giving up on the spell—something Siobhan couldn’t bring herself to do, despite her guilt. “And the other option?” Siobhan asked.

“Use a human instead. They would not be in danger with spell periods of a week or so at a stretch, if the notes you’ve given me about the source of this spell are correct. However, that option comes with dangers and difficulties of its own.”

Siobhan flexed her fingers, spreading them wide to avoid digging her fingernails into her palms until they bled. “Even if we could find someone willing to give up their waking hours, there’s still the ethical dilemma of testing something potentially dangerous on a human. Also, the extreme illegality makes it perilous. If word got out…”

Liza nodded. “I can tell you now, I will not be developing the spell with human sleepers. Too many things could go wrong, and the consequences are much too severe, especially when we have a perfectly viable alternative right here. If you take that path, you will be on your own. So, girl, I believe you need to make a choice about what is more important to you. An extra eight hours a day for the remainder of your life, and all that such an opportunity could bring you, or the lives of these small creatures. I do not deny that their lives hold obvious value, at least in the eyes of magic, but their continued existence will not bring any value to you, nor to the world as a whole. I think the greater good is obvious.” Her eyes roved over Siobhan’s face for a few seconds, and something about what she saw softened her expression. “I think you know it too, child.”

Siobhan hesitated. It wasn’t just the extra time that this spell would give her, but an escape from sleep and all that it entailed. But she wanted to stop regretting her choices, and this seemed like the kind of festering, small wound that would poison her over time. She didn’t want to stop caring about people who were different than her, who couldn’t defend themselves against her. Her forehead and back prickled with cold sweat under Liza’s impatient gaze. “I need some time to think about this,” Siobhan said finally. “Maybe, in the meantime, we could finish off the rest of today’s tests with some different variations? Mice sleeping for some of the more complex creatures, to test what happens with inherently uneven binding spells? It could give us some good data about what will happen when it’s a human on the waking side.” That it would also save the lives of those more intelligent creatures went unspoken between the two of them.

With a displeased grimace, Liza agreed, and they returned to work, though the ruined mood between them made the ensuing hours uncomfortable and silent.

Liza apparently hadn’t forgotten about the cost of the extra supplies she bought, because she informed Siobhan as she was leaving that she could either provide half their value in gold or Liza would take those funds out of Siobhan’s cut of any coin she earned from the knowledge in the long term.

Dejected, Siobhan agreed. At least she didn’t have to pay from her own meagre funds.

That evening, she had to use Newton’s self-calming spell to force her body to relax enough for sleep, as her thoughts kept returning to a small, snub-nosed face with blood and brain matter running from the nostrils, and the final twitch of dirty little fingers. ‘I am a blood magic user, and not just by legal interpretation. I have used the life of a still-living being as a Sacrifice, and I cannot deny that it is a loathsome, monstrous thing. Whether morality is objective or subjective, killing a sapient being when I do not need to for my own survival still fills me with shame all the same. And yet, I am so greedy, I want to find some way to justify it, to rationalize it, so that I can continue to gain the benefits. But I cannot do that. It would be lying to myself. If I move forward with these experiments, I must do so with my eyes open to my own character. If I continue, it will be because I have decided that my own happiness, comfort, and curiosity are worth more than the life of another who does not deserve death, but is too weak to stop me.

Having admitted this to herself, Sebastien was able to find some peace. Whatever her decision, she would face the truth of it directly. And if she was honest with herself, which she was trying to be, she knew that she might very well decide to continue.

This is the 4th of 5 bonus chapters brought to you by my lovely patrons!

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Chapter 137 – The Final Fiasco


Month 3, Day 13, Saturday 7:10pm

Ana screamed as the spell approached, jerking the decanter of water up in front of her head as if that would save her, but instead just splashing herself in the face.

Damien whipped his wand forward, but Sebastien was in front of him, between Damien and Malcolm. The stunning spell he almost released would have hit Sebastien in the back.

Sebastien stepped forward into the foggy spell, his own wand producing a shimmering shield about a meter in diameter, held at such an angle as to deflect the hostile spell just enough to send it blasting into the wall rather than himself or Damien behind him.

The force of the concussive blast pushed Sebastien’s arm aside and drove him back a step. Malcolm had actually attacked to kill! For some reason, Damien had expected the man to use a more acceptable stunning spell, or maybe a binding spell. Ana was his niece.

Without the slightest change in expression, Sebastien’s fingers twitched over his wand, switching its output, and then shot a bright red, crackling stunning spell.

Malcolm dodged the spell almost contemptuously, the dueling training that all respectable Crown Family members went through on full display in the way he held his cane—more suitable for a wand than such a large artifact—and his nimble footwork. He returned another concussive blast. But Damien had confiscated his normal cane during their meeting with the fake Raven Queen, and Malcolm’s temporary replacement was heavier and more unwieldy. His aim was imperfect, and the spell went wide.

Sebastien didn’t even bother to dodge it, walking forward calmly. “Ana, the fire!” he snapped, still expressionless.

She let out a small, dismayed chirp, and Damien hurried forward to escort Ana across the room so she could douse the fire, putting himself between her and the two fighting men.

Sebastien put up another shield against a concussive blast, this time bracing himself against the magical blow head-on, his platinum hair fluttering back in the wind caused by the magical impact. His free hand slipped into his pocket and whipped out a familiar, slim disk, which he pointed toward Malcolm. Another stunning spell from the wand followed, pointed toward Malcolm’s right foot. Half a second behind, the thirteen-pointed star went black, and then a bright blue spell shot out of it.

Malcolm dodged to his left to avoid the stunning spell, but his eyes widened as he saw he had moved into the path of the mysterious blue follow-up spell. But, alas, he twisted around with impressive alacrity, catching the spell on the metal side of his cane, which flared with its own magic and allowed him to deflect the blue light into the wall behind him, where it disappeared without a trace.

But Sebastien was already following that spell up with another from the disk. This one was purple, and the one that followed a bright, alarming green.

Damien hadn’t even seen him adjust the output, though it might be possible that the different spells were stored in a particular, static order, and Sebastien had no choice of which came next. He’d heard of such “dueling-chains” before.

Malcolm exerted himself to the limit to dodge the consecutive spells, but the next one, a cheery pink, managed to clip his leg as he was still recovering from an impressive spin move. Malcolm’s features contorted into a horrified grimace, but then his face slackened in surprise.

Sebastien had already fired a concussive blast spell from his wand, but whatever had been done to Malcolm’s leg wasn’t enough to stop him from meeting the blast with his own.

The air rumbled like distant thunder under the force of the colliding spells, and wind blasted out in every direction, so powerfully that Damien had to brace lest he be pushed backward into Ana.

Malcolm threw back his head and laughed. “Did you think I wouldn’t notice, boy? That is nothing but a bauble, shooting pretty lights.”

Sebastien grimaced but continued to attack, his hand snapping out to grab a decorative pillow off the back of an armchair and whip it toward Malcolm. Then, moving so quickly Damien could barely keep up, Sebastien shot another stunning spell in the pillow’s path, followed by almost simultaneous releases of a dark blue spell from the light crystal artifact and another stunning spell, with the stunning spell following so closely behind the dark blue spell that they almost overlapped. Then, lowering his wand back to his hip, he switched the output and shot a concussive blast to cap it all off.

Sebastien’s footwork was anything but polished, and he kept his wand held close to his torso and stable rather than outstretched and flashy, but there was something about him that was simply inexorable, each movement bringing him closer and closer to Malcolm.

The first stunning spell caught up with the pillow, exploding it into a cloud of smoking, electrocuted feathers and fine dust. Malcolm sneered at the blue spell, noticing the red crackle hiding at its rear almost too late. He lunged to one side, his knee twisting under him as a low table got in the way of his movement. The stunning spell didn’t hit him, but some of its expanding edges caught the arm that held his cane, sending it into twitching spasms and forcing him to switch the weapon into the other hand. “You’re a clod-heeled fool—” he began to snarl, but was shut up by the arrival of the slightly slower concussive blast, thrusting the smoking feathers toward Malcolm in a wave.

Malcolm slammed his cane against the ground to give himself leverage, but his starting position was too awkward, and the blast took him in the side, throwing him through the air and into a chair near the wall, which tumbled over backward with him in it. He tumbled to his feet, disheveled and wild, his cane rising quite impressively with the momentum to point at Sebastien again. His mouth stretched in a feral grimace, his intent to kill clear and frightening.

But Sebastien was, somehow, only a couple of steps away already. He crouched out of the path of the cane and lunged forward. The light crystal artifact had returned to its place in his pocket, where its light peeked through.

Malcolm tried to drop the cane’s tip, but ended up only hitting Sebastien’s guarding forearm, shooting another concussive blast over Sebastien’s head and into the floor behind him.

Sebastien’s wrist twisted around, his fingers gripping the shaft of the cane and then continuing to twist, even as he head-butted Malcolm right in the abdomen.

The cane was ripped out of Malcolm’s grip just as his breath was driven from his lungs. Malcolm stumbled back, the knee he had twisted earlier almost giving out on him. Still maintaining his sneer, his hand reached into his suit’s inner pocket for a backup weapon.

But Sebastien swung the cane by its end, taking Malcolm across the jaw with the ornate handle hard enough to produce a sickening crack and snap the man’s head to the side.

Malcolm’s knees collapsed from under him.

Sebastien adjusted his grip on the end of the cane, and then struck Malcolm again, this time in the shoulder.

Malcolm screamed then, his jaw hanging strangely.

Sebastien stilled, finally, his wand pointed directly at Malcolm’s face from only a few inches away. He was panting as if he’d just finished one of Professor Fekten’s grueling classes.

Despite his injuries, Malcolm still glared up at him defiantly, his gaze moving from Sebastien’s own to the tip of the wand trained on him.

“I only have concussive blast spells left,” Sebastien said. “Try anything, and I’m sure I can press the trigger before you can get out of the way.”

Malcolm remained still, his eyes moving instead toward Damien and Ana.

Damien let out a shaky breath, realizing his hand was trembling around his outstretched wand.

Behind him, Ana had managed to douse most of the flames and pull the half-charred, partially soaked documents from the fireplace. She had remained crouched on the floor, watching the fight just like Damien. “The coppers will be able to reconstruct the information, surely,” she said, her voice cracking. Her hands were shaking, too, which was somehow a relief, since it meant Damien wasn’t alone. He had thought this would be exciting, but the rush of terror, both for himself and for his friends, was anything but exhilarating.

Damien lowered his wand but kept it clenched tightly in his sweaty palm, feeling slightly sick from the rush of anxiety.

“Damien, help me tie him up and search him,” Sebastien ordered, his eyes never leaving Malcolm. He stepped back a few feet, his wand steady.

Outside, the sound of multiple approaching carriages, some stopping at the front, while some horses clopped around the edge of the mansion toward the side and back entrances, signaled the arrival of the coppers. There was too much commotion for it to have been Lord Gervin alone.

Damien did as Sebastien had ordered, feeling a little safer with each artifact and piece of clothing he stripped off of Malcolm.

They left the man in his underclothes, tied up by his own torn up shirt. His jaw was broken, but Damien still wrapped a sleeve around his mouth to muzzle any attempts at speech.

“The journal?” Sebastien asked urgently.

Ana pulled it out of her pocket, unwrapped it from the wax paper protecting it, and, after a moment’s hesitation, held one end over the small flames toward the back of the fireplace that had survived her dousing. The edges blackened and smoked, and when the pages caught, she quickly snatched it back and used the wax paper to pat out the fire. Then, she stood and walked over to Malcolm, holding the little journal.

She reached out to the older man as he glared up at her spitefully, running her fingers through his hair like a mother might to her child. Then, her fingers clenched into a fist and she yanked.

Malcolm let out a muffled grunt of pain, and she pulled back a dozen or so plucked hairs. Letting the journal, filled with achingly precise handwriting, fall open, she carefully placed a couple of the hairs between the pages. Then she shoved the journal into his face, rubbing its leather surface against his cheek, grinding against his skin and the saliva-soaked gag. She opened the book and rubbed some of the pages against another cheek. Finally, she walked around behind him, forced his clenched fists open, and pressed his fingers into the surface. “This is overkill, in my opinion,” she said conversationally. “This journal isn’t going to the coppers, after all, and I doubt Father will be so thorough as to have a divination cast on a journal filled with what is obviously your handwriting and a ton of evidence that is independently corroborated elsewhere…but I promised I would follow all the safety measures.”

The coppers were inside now, some of them shouting. Ana stood back up, slipping the journal into her pocket and moving to stare down into her uncle’s face. “You will never belittle, undermine, or spew your cruelty to Natalia or me ever again. You will not make my mother feel somehow inadequate. You will not make my sister cry, or encourage others to do so. You will not scar Alec, physically or emotionally. You will not keep tearing at him until he becomes more and more like you. You will lose the respect and trust you have so meticulously cultivated in my father, and when this is over, I am sure even that idiot Randolph will not stand by your side.”

Multiple sets of loud footsteps spread into the rooms below and started pounding up the stairs.

Ana leaned down to whisper to Malcolm. “Everything that is about to happen to you, all that you will lose, all the indignities and pain you will face, know that it was because of me. And know that there is nothing you can do. If I have any reason to believe this punishment was not sufficient for you to learn your lesson, I will take care of the matter more…permanently.”

The meaning of that threat was obvious, like something an international villain or heinous gang lord would say, but somehow sounded so thrilling coming out of her mouth.

Ana stepped away, the confidence slipping from her shoulders even as huge tears welled up in her eyes and slipped down her cheeks. She reached for Damien and tucked her head into his shoulder, sobbing loudly just as the coppers pressed into the room, their own wands out and sweeping over the four of them.

Sebastien, who had tucked away his wand just in time, stepped back from Malcolm, raising his empty hands to the coppers. He looked to Ana, but she was too busy crying to talk.

“How could you take so long to arrive!?” Damien complained. “Is this the kind of response time the Crown Families can expect?”

The coppers shared several awkward, confused glances, and then a man Damien recognized as Investigator Kuchen, who had been working with Titus on the Raven Queen’s case, stepped forward. “Apologies, my lord. Can you tell us what’s happened here?”

“We’ve apprehended the criminal ourselves,” Damien said, patting Ana on the back as she continued to cry. “Heiress Gervin didn’t want to believe that her uncle could do something so heinous and insisted on confronting him to hear the truth from his own mouth. But when he learned he’d been discovered, he set about trying to destroy the evidence, and then attacked us when we tried to stop him. My friend Sebastien Siverling defeated him in a duel. So, as you can see, we have done your jobs for you, and the criminal is subdued and ready for arrest. Much of the evidence is on the floor in front of the fire, I imagine, half-burned and rather waterlogged. If you show any measure of the competence I know Gilbrathan coppers are capable of, I am sure you will be able to recover any relevant information from it.”

They had more questions, of course, and when Lord Gervin burst in only a few minutes later, pushing forcibly past a couple of the coppers who tried to stall him, the whole explanation had to start from the beginning.

Ana had stopped crying by then, making a show of composing herself again, smoothing down her blouse and tugging at the seams of her trousers.

Lord Gervin was quickly caught up on the situation, his expression darkening with anger and disgust as his younger brother was hauled out of the room.

“We’ll see that he gets the medical attention he requires,” Investigator Kuchen assured Lord Gervin. “The investigation will be thorough and unbiased.”

It was unclear whether this was meant to be a reassurance or a threat, but Lord Gervin nodded. “No less than I would expect.”

The night stretched on for quite a while longer as they were moved into another room and questioned while the coppers searched Malcolm’s office and the rest of the house for evidence. With the adrenaline wearing off, Damien realized how tired the whole thing had made him, but he didn’t deviate from the story they had set up ahead of time, and he was sure Sebastien and Ana were sticking to the story just as closely. They had even practiced this part, after all, with Ana giving them tips about how to seem most believable while Sebastien did his best to trip them up.

Finally, as the hour grew late, Ana’s father stepped in and put an end to the questioning. “My daughter needs rest, and her friends as well, after such a harrowing event. We will comply fully with the investigation into these deeply surprising and saddening crimes carried out by my brothers, but any further questions can be answered later. Please make an appointment beforehand.”

He waited until all of the coppers had filed out of the room, then eyed the three of them silently. “What is this?” he asked, inadvertently repeating the words of his younger brother from earlier that night.

Ana stood up confidently, reaching into her pocket and pulling out the slightly burnt journal. “I pulled this from the fire,” she said, offering it to her father.

“You kept this from the coppers?” Lord Gervin asked, accepting it slowly.

“I flipped through it before they arrived. There are some…sensitive entries. Things I thought you might not want getting out. Specifically, some interesting ideas about the Gervin Family line of succession in the case of your unexpected and early demise.”

Lord Gervin stared at her for a few moments, then down at the journal in his hand.

Out of everything they had done for Operation Defenestration, the journal had taken the longest hours and some of the most meticulous work. It had been written in a hand indistinguishable from Malcolm Gervin’s own, using the sample photographs of the documents from the vault to ensure fidelity. Ana hadn’t touched it with her bare hands until just that night. She had used ink from Malcolm Gervin’s supplier, and the exact same model as his favorite pen. It had a couple of Malcolm’s hairs in it, his fingerprints, and even probably some of his saliva.

Much of the information would be corroborated by the other documents the man had tried to destroy, and from the work the private investigator had done. She had only needed to add a few pieces of false information, hidden among the rest.

“You kept this from the coppers, but not your young friends?” Lord Gervin asked, his eyes resting longer on Sebastien than Damien. “I do not recognize this young man.”

Ana gestured smoothly to Sebastien. “This is Sebastien Siverling, Professor Thaddeus Lacer’s apprentice.”

Sebastien bowed slightly, seeming rather bored, as if he met Crown Family heads all the time. “Well met.”

The man narrowed his eyes. “Hmm. You were the one who assisted the Red Guard in taking down an Aberrant earlier this year? I read about you in the paper,” he said with grudging acceptance. “Always playing the hero, I see,” he added sourly.

Ana ignored that comment. “Damien and Sebastien are both my allies, Father. I had no intention of confronting Uncle Malcolm by myself. I needed trustworthy backup.”

Her father’s eyes narrowed. “I could comment on your choice to confront him at all, daughter. It all seems rather…orchestrated, does it not? If you truly wanted to keep this within the Family, why alert the coppers?”

She returned his gaze unflinchingly. “The private investigator was becoming…unmanageable. He was frightened, both by the evidence of treason, which he was legally obligated to report, and by the involvement of the Raven Queen. He believes she saw his face. I tried to pay him off, enough to leave Gilbratha and live in another city for the rest of his life, but…fear makes people irrational. By the time I learned of what he’d done, alerting the coppers, all I could do was send the message to you and rush here. As for keeping this matter within the Family, as I mentioned, these are my allies, Father.” The emphasis gave the word a different, more political meaning, and Damien saw it when the understanding and suspicion crystallized within Lord Gervin’s eyes.

Ana noticed, too, her voice hardening and tone growing colder. “Besides, Malcolm and Randolph are only branch Family members, and surely soon to be denounced. I am the heir, and I don’t consider myself associated with them. Neither will those who really matter associate me with them. Especially not after tonight, when Malcolm tried to kill me as I confronted him. I’m sure the news will spread.”

Lord Gervin’s hand pressed against the pocket containing the journal. “Rather vicious of you, daughter,” he said, but his tone was approving, a contemplative smile growing on his face. “I see you do not wear those trousers just for show. You have taken down an opponent without leaving any leeway for feminine kindness. Perhaps you are not as weak as your mother.”

Ana gave him one of her sweetest smiles. “I may have a velvet exterior, but I assure you, it hides a core of steel.”

“You are my daughter indeed,” Lord Gervin said, the smile growing larger.

The man was very stupid and extremely blind, Damien thought, for it to have taken something like this for him to realize Ana’s worth. But even as Damien was somewhat disgusted, he couldn’t help but feel a pang in his chest. He doubted there was anything he could do to get his own father to approve of him like that.

He looked to Sebastien, and the other young man slipped him a secretive, wry smile, and the barest hint of a nod.

Damien smoothed back his hair, and then suppressed a smile as he slipped his hand into his pocket. He realized with giddiness that it was done. They had succeeded. He ran his fingers over the smooth crystal of the thirteen-pointed star symbol within. He was part of something larger than himself, doing something as meaningful as it was sometimes difficult. Here, his efforts actually mattered.

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