PGTS

Chapter 135 – The Devil in the Details

Siobhan

Month 3, Day 13, Saturday 2:10 a.m.

The enforcers who had come back for her looked from the lingering effects of the magical explosion, to her, and back again silently. There was a long silence.

Then, one of them cleared his throat and stepped forward. “Excuse me, my lady. It seems you have no need of our help, but we would be pleased to escort you to a calmer location.”

Siobhan nodded wordlessly, but as they moved to walk away, she remembered Tanya’s strange and unexpected appearance. “Grab her, too,” Siobhan ordered, motioning to the alley where Tanya had been rebuffed as she attempted to save Siobhan.

She moved to adjust her fake glasses, but discovered that she must have lost them during the night. Her hair was coming out of its bun, and her prosthetic nose felt like it might be a little lopsided.

While no one was looking, she quickly took it off, stuffing it in a pocket and rubbing at any remnants of glue on her skin. It was dark enough that no one would probably notice, but it was more conspicuous to be obviously wearing a disguise than for the nose of someone you barely knew to look slightly smaller than you remembered.

She carefully tightened her bun, making sure that no loose strands of hair escaped. Just in case.

Tanya had a dislocated shoulder and likely a few broken ribs, but she could walk, and so their smaller group shuffled through the streets. They caught up with the main group after a few minutes, and even though she couldn’t see Oliver’s face through his mask, she watched as some of the worry in his shoulders dropped away when he caught sight of her.

They shared a silent nod, and then his attention turned to Tanya. “I was…surprised by your actions this evening. Is this your way of declaring your allegiances?”

Tanya frowned in confusion, peeking for just a moment at Siobhan, then looking back at Oliver.

He waved her forward to come stand beside him.

She complied, but not without another look over her shoulder at Siobhan, uncertainty and fear mixing behind her eyes.

Siobhan wasn’t the best with people, but even she, in her exhausted state, could recognize the conclusion Tanya was coming to. The blue eyes and the grey streak in her bun, along with the lack of feathers, didn’t seem to be enough for someone who had interacted with her directly before. Perhaps Siobhan should have left her prosthetic nose on, after all. But, small mercies, at least Tanya had previously shown a marked lack of aggression toward the Raven Queen.

“I was sent to warn you of the attack,” Tanya murmured, just loudly enough that Siobhan could hear. “I arrived too late, but I did my best to help.”

Siobhan could imagine Oliver’s eyebrows rising underneath his mask. Tanya didn’t seem to be lying, but if that was the case, how had Kiernan known the location of Knave Knoll to send Tanya to them? And who had been behind the attack, if not the Architects of Khronos?

She tried to keep her own expression contained as the two continued to talk, in lower tones that she couldn’t make out. Silvia Nakai really shouldn’t have much of an opinion about these things. At that thought, she looked around for Healer Nidson and moved to walk beside him. “I’m sorry I wasn’t able to help more. I got caught up in everything happening, and then… Well, you know.”

Nidson gave her a long look. “Healing is not the only method of preserving lives. I would say you did quite a lot. Though I was rather miffed to suddenly be without an assistant. If you still have some life in you, I am sure there will be plenty more to do before the night is over.”

Siobhan’s heart clenched tightly at that reminder that the Verdant Stag had been under attack as well, and people there, like Katerin and Theo and even the patronizing shop attendant Alice, might be injured or dead.

When they finally arrived at the Verdant Stag, the signs of the battle were conspicuous, but the active violence seemed to have passed. The fighting had been fierce, and she even noticed a couple of bloodstains frozen on the street. The Verdant Stag itself was still standing, but barely. A section near the kitchen and bar was completely blown away, leaving a gaping wound in the side of the building. Part of the floor had collapsed into the cellar, and a charred wall and support beams showed where a fire had been put out in time to save the whole building from conflagration.

People swarmed over and around the building like ants, and the performance stage, which was on the still-intact part of the building, had been set up as an emergency healer’s station, with the injured lying on rows of cots. Healer Nidson made a beeline in that direction, and she followed.

The rest of the night was a blur, and it wasn’t until the sun began to rise that Siobhan had a moment to sit, which immediately led to her finding an intact room off to the side and collapsing backward against the wall like a puppet with cut strings. She blinked sleepily, watching the busy people outside through the open doorway.

Oliver had been supervising a team that seemed to be trying to excavate the cellar. She’d known the Verdant Stag was probably some rich person’s mansion before it went into disrepair and Oliver had bought it, and the wine cellar was proof of that, because the water table was too high in Gilbratha for such a building feature to be common.

Katerin was milling about, but Theo was nowhere to be seen. Siobhan assumed that he was safe, because, while weary, frustrated, and covered in streaks of dirt blood, Katerin did not appear devastated.

Siobhan was positioned so that the light of the slow sunrise washed over her through the doorway as the sun began to peek over the white cliffs, painting her in shades that felt slightly less exhausted. One of Healer Nidson’s other commandeered assistants bustled over and handed her a mug with the distinct smell of a nourishing draught. She downed the entire pint in a single breath.

The workers had cleared the stairway into the cellar, and Oliver hurried down into the pit. ‘Perhaps he had supplies down there,’ she thought. ‘Though the storehouses must have held most of the goods, it would have been smart to keep the highest-price items in a more secure location. The vaults in his and Katerin’s office are clear for the world to see. The University must have wanted to retrieve those confessions and vows Oliver made all the Morrows give. It’s probably where he kept the incense censor. If they got that, they might have taken a lot of other important things, too.’ Perhaps her own blood-print vows with Katerin had even been housed down in a secret cellar vault. The thought sent a jolt of alarm through her, because despite the tamper-proofing on the spell, it wouldn’t be safe in the hands of an expert with a delicate touch. If more than one enemy group had a piece of her, her problems grew even more complicated. And others might not be so lawful in how they used it.

She let her eyes fall almost closed as she waited for the nourishing draught to be absorbed, but she couldn’t entirely relax, half out in the open like this. Before she returned to the University, she would need some bruise paste, and maybe a skin-knitter to get rid of the obvious signs of being in an altercation.

All of her supplies, all the components and artifacts that she’d kept in her bag, her seaweed paper spells—all of it—was gone. She only had the things she’d put in stashes around the city, and the supplies left at the University itself. She would need to rebuild her thaumaturge bag from scratch. ‘How much coin will that take?’ she wondered, tears pricking at the back of her closed eyelids even though she didn’t particularly want to start crying. She didn’t even feel sad, really, just…overwhelmed.

Even though Siobhan’s eyes were almost closed, Katerin’s blood-red hair caught her attention as the other woman came down the stairs from above. Katerin’s gaze swept the room, sliding over Siobhan and then catching and returning to her. She started making her way over but was stopped several times by Verdant Stag members giving reports or asking for instruction.

What should have taken thirty seconds ended up taking several minutes, and before Katerin could make it to the stage, Oliver had completed his inspection of the cellar and whatever else was down there and climbed back up. Pale dust had created a film over his dark hair, but his shoulders had lost their tightness, and she suspected under the mask he was smiling.

He hurried toward Katerin, too, stopping her a few meters from the room Siobhan had collapsed in. He looked Siobhan over, perhaps not catching the fact that she was still awake because her eyes were so narrowly slitted. He spoke in a soft voice, leaning in to Katerin. “They got the decoy vault,” he reported. “It’s entirely gone, ripped up by the roots and carried away, but they didn’t manage to find the folded space. None of the contracts, or—or the other thing.”

Katerin hugged herself, her hands gripping her elbows with a kind of half-suppressed vulnerability that seemed out of place on the normally confident woman. “Good, that’s good. They got the gold vault in my office, but not the one hidden behind the wall. I don’t think that’s what they were going for, anyway.”

“No. They knew exactly what they wanted. But they’ll find they didn’t get it,” he said, lips curling up in a too-wide, venomous smile.

They both turned to Siobhan then, and she opened her eyes fully as Oliver closed the door behind himself and Katerin and took off his mask, then sat down gently beside her.

“I’m fine,” she reported before either of them could ask. “I’ll need some rest, but I’ve got the weekend to recover. What of my blood print vow? Did they get that?”

“No, it is safe,” Katerin answered. “I take the security of the vows I make seriously. After all, my blood is on them, too. They found naught but some gold and other valuables, along with some decoy documents that have little importance, or are entirely fabricated.

“You were prepared,” Siobhan said.

“Not as well as we should have been, obviously,” Oliver said, taking her hand and holding it between both of his own. “I do have some bad news to report.” His expression had sobered completely. “I have to apologize, because at least part of tonight’s fracas was my fault. That incense burner that the Architects of Khronos offered as tribute, I checked it for tracking spells and found one in the packaging, which we discarded, but I didn’t consider the fact that the piece itself might be inherently trackable. One of a matched pair, made from the same batch of metal. They must have traced it back to the Verdant Stag, and were probably hoping the Raven Queen was keeping it in the same place she kept the stolen book. They never intended to deal fairly with either of us. Tonight’s attack on Knave Knoll served dual purposes, as they used it as a distraction to try to find the book. Of course, it wasn’t there, but they did manage to retrieve their incense burner. I will still compensate you for seventy percent of its approximate value. And hazard pay, for your actions tonight.”

“I need you to cover the cost of restocking my supplies, too,” she urged, tensing up a little. “I had to blow up my bag and everything in it to kill that old sorcerer. It should be considered an expense of the operation.”

“Okay.”

She relaxed. That had been easier than she expected. “What does this mean, for all of us? I warn you, I am done accepting missions like this for you. Never again, Oliver.”

“I understand. Things are going to become…contentious, I imagine. Even after all their attempts to stymie our delivery of the prisoners, I believe they will all have been arrested by now, though it is possible that some managed to avoid being poisoned by those glowing bugs and slipped away before the coppers were able to round them all up. I will be stretched thin doing damage control over the next few days. I am not sure it’s possible, but it would be ideal if we could avoid local law enforcement deciding that the Verdant Stags were at fault for making the city seem so unsafe. Luckily, I have a few more connections than I did the last time we faced something like this, and very few civilians have been impacted. On the other hand, the kind of destruction that was caused tonight is very visibly…frightening.”

Oliver rubbed his bloodshot eyes, pressing a little too hard. “Unless you wish to get more directly involved in our efforts to rebuild and maintain the right kind of influence, you should keep your head down for the moment. Don’t give Kiernan or his people any reason to look twice at Sebastien Siverling. I will give you an update when I have a more complete understanding of our situation going forward, or if there are any emergencies that could affect you.” He fell silent, looking at the people hurrying around them for a moment, and then one side of his mouth quirked up. “Also, that textile sub-commission would be a really nice break right about now, if you could swing it.” He gave her a pointed wink.

“Soon,” she promised, though at that very moment she was too drained to be excited about the prospect. “Is it safe for you to be hanging around like this? As Lord Stag, I mean. The coppers might drop by at any time.”

Katerin crossed her arms. “Hah! I’d like to see any of those fools actually manage to reach this building without our knowledge.”

“Anyone who lives or works nearby knows there’s a small reward for advance notice of such things, and we have a couple reliable informants placed around the area, too. If the coppers still managed to surprise us, I would just change clothes and slip out of the secret tunnel exit I had built last month.” Oliver winked. “Oliver Dryden has made several public appearances around members of the Crowns and prominent businessmen at the same time that Lord Stag has been sighted elsewhere. They might suspect me of something, but not being Lord Stag. The ruse probably won’t hold forever, but it is hard to overcome the assumptions that such ‘knowledge’ creates.”

“A body double?” Siobhan mused. “That’s pretty clever.”

When Siobhan felt well enough to move, she left, but not before borrowing a self-defense artifact from the Verdant Stag’s dwindling stores, just in case. The battle wand she got was quite nice, containing a set of stunning, shielding, and concussive blast spells.

Instead of going to the Silk Door from there, she borrowed some ill-fitting clothes and went to another nearby inn, where she changed back into Sebastien’s form and did some basic washing up to make herself look presentable. Then, hidden inside a cloak with a deep hood, she hired a carriage to take her to Dryden Manor, where she kept a better-fitting set of clothes. She had been coming and going from the Silk Door quite a lot lately, and wanted to avoid drawing attention to it, just in case someone from the University was watching everyone who came to or from the Verdant Stag.

As she arrived back at Dryden Manor, where the servants rushed around to get her fed, watered, and into bed under Sharon’s command, Sebastien thought back over the events of that night, specifically the Architect’s attack on the Verdant Stag’s home base.

The vault in the cellar, or perhaps connected to the cellar through some hidden passage, had captured Sebastien’s imagination. She’d always loved hidden compartments and secret rooms. The hidden dagger in her boot had even come in handy earlier that day, not to mention the effects of the concealed disintegration mine during the battle.

But something was niggling at the back of her mind. The Architects of Khronos had taken an entire vault—and apparently her incense censor—but didn’t get what they were looking for. Which made sense, if they thought the censor would be with the stolen book. But the way Oliver had told Katerin, so confidently, so vindictively…

I’m confused,’ she realized. ‘I notice that I am confused,’ she repeated, grasping onto the notion like Professor Lacer had been so adamant was necessary for any great thaumaturge. But despite realizing that, and mulling the matter over in her mind for a few minutes as she rubbed in bruise balm and skin-knitting salve and set up her dreamless sleep spell, she came to no further conclusions. ‘I’ll ask Oliver about it when I see him again,’ she resolved, letting her exhausted and much-abused brain slip into unconsciousness.

This is the regularly scheduled Thursday chapter. You guys still have 4 more bonus chapters coming!

If you are a patron (at any level) and want to vote on 10 incredible short story ideas to pick the one I’m going to write, go here: https://www.patreon.com/posts/75387726?

Chapter 134 – Explosives Solve Everything

Siobhan

Month 3, Day 13, Saturday 1:55 a.m.

“We need to find the most wide-open area, farthest from the ceiling or any walls,” Siobhan called out, pitching her voice to be heard over the increasingly loud panicking crowd. “If you have any of black dots, use the edge of a knife to pry them out before they poison you.”

Oliver and some of the others who hadn’t lost their senses to panic or the effects of the parasites moved to guide the group toward the center of the ground floor, a common area with cells surrounding them on all sides, and likely the most spacious place in the building.

Some of the scattered prisoners that remained were panicking, pleading for help or to be set free, but at least half of them were drooling, twitching messes collapsed on the floor of their cells.

Oliver moved to her side, murmuring just loud enough to be heard. “It affects everyone indiscriminately. That might actually be a good thing. The Architects of Khronos seemed pretty determined to take the prisoners alive.”

Siobhan ran her tongue over the back of her teeth. If that was true, the spell would have to end at some point so they could get into the melded-together building. Likely, by that point, they would all be collapsed, gibbering messes. “So we just need to wait it out?” she murmured, feeling skeptical. ‘How long can that decrepit thaumaturge keep this up?

But she knew it was a mistake to underestimate the man. If they hadn’t stagnated, an old thaumaturge was a powerful one, having had the time to grow their Will with thousands of hours of practice. They really might be facing off against someone with Archmage-level power.

A nearby women fumbled out a small cylindrical artifact, and with a flick of the switch on its side, created a candle-sized flame. She waved it through the air, catching a couple flecks of dimmed dust. They let off sharp popping noises and seemed to disintegrate. The flame did nothing to the still-glowing motes, but when Siobhan pried a growing parasite out of the skin of her wrist before it could dig too deep, she held it out to the fire. It sizzled, but after a few moments, popped like its smaller brethren.

Others followed Siobhan’s example, one man laughing humorlessly. “I never though I’d be grateful for your disgusting etherwood-smoking habit, Sarah,” he said, “but now I wish I had a flame of my own.”

“The benches!” another man pointed out, already moving to try and break one apart. The seat was made of wood. “We can light a fire!” With a roar, one woman’s snapped one of the benches in half with a single, dramatic punch. After this example, several others joined him in trying to create shattered pieces of firewood, and others even removed their clothes to act as tinder.

Anyone with the ability to create even a small flame suddenly became incredibly popular, and sporadic popping of the little squid-like parasites grew to a comfort staccato.

One of the Nightmare Pack men fumbled in his pockets, triumphantly producing a small stone, which he held aloft. “I use it to heat my soup at lunch. It’s not fire, but it gets quite hot.”

By the time they had broken down the door, they’d used the heat stone to burn out several infected areas. While cackling evilly even as his own fingers sizzled and smoked under the heat of the stone, the man said, “Make them uncomfortable enough, and they’ll detach on their own. It’s just like sizzling the ass off a tick!”

That first man who had started to show side-effects while they ran down the hallway was curled up on the ground. He had stopped tapping his tongue, but was still silent and a little vague. She could only hope the effects weren’t permanent.

“We need a shield of fire,” Oliver called. “Can anyone produce something like that?”

The others all looked around at each other. Enforcer Huntley pointed to an unconscious man, who had been injured much earlier in the fighting, and who had a large lump under one side of his shirt. “He’s a fire witch, but he only has a drake familiar, and the creature’s on the brink of death.”

Healer Nidson pushed through the crowd, looking harried and mussed, his clothes smeared with blood and ash and a bruise growing quickly around the flesh of one eye. He took a few moments to examine the unconscious man and his familiar. “I might be able to wake them up,” Nidson said, shaking his head, “But there’s no chance of them managing a spell in their condition.”

“Get working on it anyway,” Oliver ordered. “We need everyone in the best possible condition for our escape.”

Siobhan noticed a black spot growing just under her collarbone. It was almost out of her line of sight, and she’d missed its initial attachment, so it had had time to grow. Moving as quickly as she could under the sudden renewal of horrified adrenaline, she covered her free hand with a fold of her skirt, then pinched the exposed nugget of bug between a finger and her knife, slowly and firmly pulling it out. Its tentacles resisted, and she applied slow force, shuddering at the thought of one of them breaking off inside her and festering under her skin.

More of these were sprinkling down toward them in ever-increasing numbers.

She tossed the bug-squid into the nearest fire, which had grown smoky with additions of more lacquered wood and what looked to be a piece of mattress from one of the prisoner’s cells. The raw hole left behind in her skin wasn’t bleeding, and it didn’t even particularly hurt. A horrifying idea had her examining it for signs of eggs laid within, but there didn’t seem to be any.

She tried Grubb’s barrier spell again, now that so many more glowing motes had dimmed into their parasite forms. Again, it did nothing, which left her surprised and frustrated.

What are these? This spell should work against physical matter. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t discriminate between living or non-living, so that shouldn’t be the problem. One of its most common uses is an umbrella against rain. But it doesn’t block air. Perhaps the parasites are too small and pollen-like to be blocked. Or perhaps they have some other property that allows them to bypass the spell, like partial incorporeality. Nothing but fire seems to work against them, and that’s strange.

But… they can ride the wind. They’re tangible enough for air to affect them.’ She quickly ripped into her satchel for another piece of seaweed paper containing only a single ink Circle, this one much smaller than the one she’d used to give Enforcer Gerard partial invisibility.

With strokes of wax crayon that she tried to keep as neat as possible, she improvised a spell that was a combination of the air-compression sphere, the air-based slicing spell, and Grubb’s barrier. She didn’t have time to make it detailed and perfect, but it had to be good enough that the magic, which was likely to be wild, remained controllable and containable. Her tired Will had to handle it.

She palmed her Conduit and beast core and applied her Will. A dome of air, tightly controlled but almost invisible, grew from the Circle. She held the page up to a few motes of the falling dust, watching as they were caught in the barrier and flushed to one side. More layers of the barrier continued to pulse out from the center, ready to catch any parasites that had dimmed after floating through the edges.

A smile of triumph stretched across her face. It didn’t block the parasites exactly, but it allowed her to guide their trajectory. With the right output parameters—which she didn’t know— or a large enough spell array, which was possible, she could protect their entire group.

“Are there any other sorcerers?” she asked, shuffling along in her crouching position as she hurried to draw a Circle large enough to contain everyone around the remnants of the benches. “Anyone who can cast a gust spell, or a fire spell? We can burn them or blow them away. I just need you to buy me enough time to set up a barrier spell that will work against them.”

One man raised his hand tentatively, and she handed him the spell array page with the gust spell. Her improvised barrier was too dangerous to trust to someone unsure of their own skill. The man had his own small Conduit, but had to use a piece of burning wood held over the seaweed paper page as a power source. The gust of wind he produced was rather weak, but it was more than enough to catch the parasitic bugs and waft them away as he swept the paper back and forth in slow, wide swaths.

Healer Nidson probably could have been quite helpful, but he was needed to keep some of those with the worst injuries alive. There were a couple of other people with very limited spellcasting experience, and they focused themselves on fire spells, one of the earliest magical applications most thaumaturges learned.

As Siobhan worked, the others kept prying out more of the little bugs from themselves and others, huddling as close together as possible. If the parasites were removed quickly, it seemed to help mitigate their lingering effects. Someone else discovered the parasites could even be caught in wetted cloth waved gently through the air, though they would still try to crawl toward the hand holding the cloth, and the whole thing would have to be discarded into the flames after a few passes.

The Morrows in the cells around them did not have such luxury, and were completely incoherent by this point. Siobhan had no love for them, but this kind of torture, to lose one’s mind, seemed too cruel a fate for anyone to be forced to endure. Still, no one had yet died under the effects of the squid-like parasites, and no one had turned to stone either, though on some of the worst affected prisoners, their black tentacles twitched visibly beneath the skin.

Even with their precautions, many enforcers began to show signs of confusion and disorientation, taking longer to speak, looking or pointing in the wrong direction, and jostling into each other as if drunk.

Soon, Siobhan was finished. They all huddled in together, and she cast the air-based barrier spell in much larger form. The spell array came to life with a glow to match the white-yellow light of the motes and sweat beading on her forehead as she struggled to contain and guide all of the energy surging within the spell array around their feet. She controlled the air in a dome shape above and around them, hardening it in pulsing waves of movement that caught dimmed parasites and funneled them toward the fire contained within a secondary Circle on the far side. The pops and cracks reminded her of festive fireworks on a cold night.

With the leeway of her shield, Oliver and the others grew busy planning their escape, but she was too concentrated on keeping the spell up, stable, and working efficiently against the parasites.

If they didn’t make it into the fire and die, the parasites she pushed away would come back for them, skittering on their tiny tentacles with a preternatural hunger for living flesh, but it would take them much longer than simply sprinkling down from above, and they would still have to get past the base of her barrier.

Eventually, the were no walls or furniture outside of her barrier that were not fully converted into that black, glittering stone, and dust and glowing motes filled the air so thickly it was hard to see the opposite wall. Inside the barrier, they were all illuminated with the brightness of a sunny day, which in other circumstances would have been pleasant, but here was terrifying.

She knew it must have only been a few more minutes, fifteen at max, until the ancient thaumaturge outside dropped the spell, but it seemed like much longer.

The motes of light melted away first, and then the air cleared of dust. Better even than that was how spell-created parasites within people’s flesh disappeared, leaving raw, pink holes in peoples’ flesh. Her group had fallen silent to mimic the insensate prisoners, the last of the preparations to escape when the enemy came for them being done in whispers. They had their teams, those with injuries had been patched up, and the remaining supplies had been redistributed to give everyone a fair chance.

Everything she and Oliver had prepared, and it hadn’t been nearly enough against a few powerful thaumaturges.

But what followed surprised Siobhan. With the same colorful, aurora-like glow that had heralded the appearance of the floating meteor above, the walls around them were unmade, layer by layer. The building, the furniture, and even the floor around them.

Those few people who had been stuck on the floor above fell through the floor as it melted away, and the building’s wards let off strange explosions that were quickly absorbed by that same light as they were destabilized and their energy released.

Siobhan released her barrier spell, worried that some part of the floor would disintegrate and take a piece of her spell array with it, which would be disastrous.

“We don’t need to wait,” Oliver said, elation cutting through the group’s awed silence as they watched the magical unmaking. “We can leave right now. Through the walls, even, no need to wait for a door.” Siobhan’s thoughts felt muted under her fatigue, but she allowed herself to be carried along with the others easily enough.

They did indeed break right through the melting wall, exiting through the end of Knave Knoll farthest from the front and possible observation. Those who couldn’t move on their own were carried by others, can Siobhan caught a glimpse of the cursemaster, thrown over someone’s shoulder and drooling everywhere. Her lips twitched with amusement.

Outside, Siobhan turned to watch the end of Knave Knoll. The meteor above had disappeared in the aurora, too. Soon, all that would mark the spot would be a shallow, rough pit in land. ‘How is this possible?’ she wondered. ‘I wouldn’t believe it if someone told me they’d encountered such fantastical spell effects. Not because it should be impossible, but because it’s so…wasteful. Stuff like this is the purview of tall tales and Aberrants, but that old man was definitely human. Right?’ He had not been a slavering monster, and though decrepit, he had seemed coherent. Above all, he’d been using a spell array. Aberrants couldn’t use spell arrays. They cast only through their bodies, and only their single anomalous effect.

“Arise, and come to me!” cried a voice. Siobhan had never heard a less compelling offer.

Oliver and Siobhan shared a look, the speaker’s identity rather obvious as the Morrows left behind in the disappearing building struggled to comply against their bindings, grunting and moaning futilely.

A few of their own people even seemed enticed by the order, but were held back by their companions.

“Kneel at my feet, my servants, and sleep. When you awaken, all will be well,” the thaumaturge added.

Siobhan’s skin prickled, and she turned her head slowly to the side, toward the canal. Maybe it was just a trick of reflected sound, but the old man’s voice seemed entirely too close. Like something out of a nightmare, the head of the elemental turtle passed the disintegrating edge of Knave Knoll. The riders were atop it once more, floating alongside Knave Knoll instead of waiting by the front door.

And so, suddenly the enemy had a clear view of their escaping group.

There was a single moment of silence, as both sides were taken aback, and then, by universal consensus, Siobhan and the others began to run.

She wasn’t sure what the enemy’s plan had been, as the Morrow prisoners were shuffling toward them. Did they plan to drown the Verdant Stag and Nightmare Pack enforcers, and somehow use the water witch’s abilities to tow the Morrows along the canal to safety? There was not enough space atop the elemental turtle’s back to carry anyone more. Perhaps they planned to capture them all. Hostages might be of use, after all.

The old, liver-spotted thaumaturge stood, his face twisting in a rictus of rage.

“Scatter!” Oliver screamed, tossing out a vial that exploded into burning, noxious clouds. With the air witch controlling the earlier battle, their people hadn’t had a chance to use many of the battle philtres they had prepared, and had enough left over to be useful now.

Siobhan threw her own philtre of smoke with one hand, shooting one of her few remaining stunning spells with the wand in her other, even as a young man with a broken leg, hastily splinted, used the last concussive blast spell in his own artifact on the cobblestone edge of the canal, smashing the Architects of Khronos with debris.

Siobhan her last two stunning spells blindly over her shoulder as she turned to run, hoping to add to the confusion more than anything.

The young man with the broken leg struggled to hobble away, and she quickly outpaced him. She hesitated, wondering if she should try to help, but Nightmare Pack enforcer picked him up like a sack of four and ran away, shouting, “We’ll meet the dawn free and whole, you cowards. And don’t think I’ll forget your faces!”

Perhaps because of this, or just that there happened to be a break in the smoke between Siobhan and the decrepit thaumaturge at that moment, the liver-spotted man’s expression hardened with sadistic determination. He crouched beside his chest of supplies and began to prepare a spell.

Siobhan raced toward the cross street a few dozen meters away that would put the corner of a building between the two of them, cutting off his line of sight and improving her chances of freedom.

She turned the corner, pausing momentarily to make sure none were being left behind.

The stragglers came around the bend, one woman holding the lid of a barrel as a makeshift shield that might be of one-time use against an enemy spell as she escorted some of the more heavily injured. Siobhan tossed a pointed revivifying potion toward a man who was pale to the point of greenness, then turned to continue on, mentally running through the most efficient route back to the Verdant Stag. She took one long step and was wrenched off her feet by the strap of her satchel around her chest.

Her feet slipped upward as her torso was pulled backward, and she slammed into the ground, wheezing out most of the air in her lungs and cracking her tailbone against the cobblestones.

She waisted no time on being stunned, struggling against her attacker before she could fully comprehend exactly what was happening. As she was dragged back along the ground toward the corner of the building she’d just passed, frantic scrabbling revealed that she had been caught by a length of rope which twisted and contracted like a snake. It had her satchel, and was pulling with some of its bunched up coils while the head stretched out to get a better grip on the rest of her.

“You cannot escape,” the hoarse voice of the old thaumaturge called, sing-songy and unconcerned by the rest of the commotion around him. He wasn’t particularly loud, but she could still hear his voice clearly.

Tanya Canelo, wearing the same mask she’d adopted for the secret thaumaturge meetings, stepped out from an alley diagonally across from Siobhan and shot an indistinct spell at the rope. It missed, and when she steadied her arm and tried to shoot again, a crack of water slapped through the smoky air and slapped her off her feet hard enough that she bounced off the brick wall behind her.

Siobhan, still bound, scrambled to get her feet under her. She turned, wrenching away from the grip of the prehensile rope with all of her weight, but it had already coiled itself well around her bag. ‘I have to let it go.

She tore the strap off over her head, careful only not to rip out some of her hair, then yanked her wist away from the searching head of the rope before it could tighten around her. Without the opposing force, she stumbled backward, almost falling over again.

Under the force that had been almost enough to yank her off her feet, her satchel fairly flew toward the decrepit, vindictive thaumaturge. Siobhan stepped back to the edge of the corner, her eyes seeking out the enemy.

Behind Siobhan, a couple of the enforcer had doubled back, perhaps on Oliver’s orders when he realized she wasn’t with them. But there was nothing they could do to help her against enemies like this.

The corpse-like man’s expression of triumph soured as his bounty arrived at his feet inside coils of rope. As if drawn to her like a magnet, he noticed Siobhan peeking around the corner immediately. His eyes narrowed and his lips stretched wide in a smile. He reached a hand toward her.

She lifted her own hand to the side of her abdomen, finding the spot on the holster she wore where she had housed the button of the disintegration mine. She pressed three times in quick succession. She waited one second, then two, ready to throw herself out of the path of an attack, and then the disintegration mine hidden in the bottom of her satchel activated.

The reaction was much more spectacular than she had ever anticipated. Perhaps the mine was faulty. Or perhaps it was just a result of the sudden mix of volatile potions, magical components, and space-bending spells as the disintegration effect worked its way outward. Light and color bloomed in strange, flower-like shapes, one layered atop the other in an organic expression of magic as the very air screamed and popped and twisted.

Siobhan’s eyes were still in the process of widening with surprise when the backlash from the magic-laden explosion hit her, catching her cloak and hair in a wind so strong her eyes were forced to close, throwing her backward until she clipped hit the ground again, a couple of meters back.

She curled up, flinching in an instinctive fear of being hit with debris, trying to clear the dark spot in the middle of her vision where she had been staring at the thaumaturge. After a moment, she crawled back to her feet, ears ringing, and peeked back out around the corner, looking for the thaumaturge out of the corner of her eye rather than straight on. Her peripheral vision found nothing but a crater in the middle of the canal, the air still swirling with colored mists and making strange sounds.

Her satchel and all its contents were gone, that thaumaturge was definitely dead, and judging by the half-mutilated pieces of bodies at the edge of the explosion radius and the lack of any life signs, it had taken his companions, as well.

This is 1 of 5 bonus chapters brought to you by my 250+ lovely patrons!

Hitting this goal also means I’ll be doing a bonus chapter/short story. If you want to submit ideas for that (no need to be a patron), go here: https://www.patreon.com/posts/250-patron-goal-75262802

We’ve already got some really great ideas submitted by readers.

The poll to decide which idea gets written is going up tomorrow, 12/1. Both official voting and the eventual short story will be exclusive to the Patreon, open to everyone at any level of support.

In other news, I’m still freaking sick. Or I’m sick again? It’s actually hard to distinguish, as every time I start to feel good I seem to push myself a little too hard and then relapse. At this point, I think I just have a sinus infection. I’m well enough to get a little work done, but I’ve lost a good portion of November’s productivity to this crap. A little gem my mom used to say in my childhood, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

I don’t say this to whine, but if I don’t get back to you right away, or I’m slow with any particular task…it’s ’cause I’m sick.

Chapter 133 – Embers of a Dead Star

Siobhan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quickly, the cause became apparent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you are a patron and haven’t seen the character card portraits yet, check ’em out!: https://www.patreon.com/azaleaellis?filters[tag]=Posters%20%26%20Illustrations

If you’re not a patron, consider joining to read multiple more chapters ahead, access various illustrated excerpts from Siobhan’s grimoire, get exclusive story content (in audiobook, too), and other fun goodies. We are close to hitting a new goal (as of 11/24), and when that happens, all patrons will be able to vote on the omake short story I write as a reward. https://www.patreon.com/azaleaellis

Chapter 132 – Armageddon Game

Oliver

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

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

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

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

In a way, his plan had worked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oliver had to get back to the Verdant Stag.

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

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


Update 12/2:

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

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

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

If you want to see the rest of the options and vote, you can do so as a patron at any level here: https://www.patreon.com/posts/75387726?
 
2. The Typo Hunting Team applications for Book 3 have just opened. Book 3 covers chapter 90-143. Those who join and help me out by reading the edited version of the complete book and looking for the inevitable lingering or newly-introduced errors will get a thank-you reward of either a copy of the finalized paperback with a personalized thank you page OR a $20 e-gift card to a bookstore of your choice. Plus the obvious, and what I suspect many are most interested in…early access to advance chapters.
 
If you’re interested, you can check out the info page here: https://www.azaleaellis.com/join-the-typo-hunting-team/

Trouble accessing a chapter? Troubleshooting tips: https://www.azaleaellis.com/trouble-accessing-chapters/

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: https://landing.mailerlite.com/webforms/landing/q4b8d8

Chapter 131 – Refraction

Siobhan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Up to the roof!” Gerard snapped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then it was there in its totality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Siobhan opened her eyes and cast.

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

For a moment, she felt like Myrddin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sounds of the battle returned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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