Chapter 175 – Everywhere at Once

ThaddeusMonth 4, Day 9, Friday 5:00 p.m.Thaddeus hurried back down to the carriage, where Investigator Kuchen was reading out a new message from the distagram.“Update. Possible false lead on divination results. Previous signs pointed to...
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Chapter 174 – Pyrrhic Victories


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s the captain,” Parker murmured.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He pointed it at them.

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

Millennium cried out in dismay.

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

It was a harpoon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter 173 – Caves and Corridors


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Siobhan rolled her eyes at the children’s antics.

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

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

Turner whimpered, but pressed his lips together wordlessly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turner moaned sickly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She stared at him, raising an eyebrow.

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

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

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

The praying woman let out a small, nonverbal exclamation.

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

No one had voiced any objections to her plan, so Anders led the way, though his occasional arguments with Millennium over which direction to go and which of the myriad turns to take didn’t instill much confidence in the rest of the group.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gerard hesitated, giving Theo a pitying look.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Siobhan sighed. “Children,” she admonished.

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

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

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

Chapter 172 – Fear of the Dark


Month 4, Day 9, Friday

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

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

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

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

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

Parker hesitated. “Maybe they could join us?”

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

Parker’s mouth tightened.

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

Siobhan shook her head silently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gerard picked up one of the brilliant dropped swords and stabbed into the hole the other three had created, activating some sort of piercing spell over and over. When the sword ran dry without having overcome the wards, he rifled through the supplies to find a round artifact the size of a fist. He shoved that into the hole, activated it, then hurriedly poured a vial of liquid stone over the outside to seal the hole.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it?” she said.

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

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

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

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

Seeing a locked chapter that should be unlocked?:

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

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

Chapter 171 – Infernal Covenants


Month 4, Day 9, Friday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The guards began to shout.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Leaving, of course.”

“That’s impossible.”

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

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

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

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

Parker whimpered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can’t do that,” Anders said.

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

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

“A blood print vow?” she interrupted.

Parker opened his eyes. “Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s not,” Parker asserted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so the guards opened the door for her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter 170 – The Heart of the Sun


Month 4, Day 9, Friday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She lifted her head and looked around.

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

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

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

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

Two guards were posted outside. She recognized the first as the one that had been screaming before, and the second as one of those who had come back with reinforcements. They were the ones who had cast fireball spells to push back the prisoners and make room for the Radiant explosive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They didn’t respond.

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

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

Neither of the guards responded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It would be the most cobbled-together spell ever.

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

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

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

That is the stupidest plan I have ever heard.

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

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

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

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

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

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