The trouble with time, Archer mused, was that it had a habit of continuing to move forward even when you least wanted it to.
He shifted position, careful not to jostle the warm, damp head resting heavy on his shoulder. He’d not expected Sabbat to actually fall asleep on him, but now that the assassin had done as much, he’d rather have cut his own arm off than wake him unnecessarily.
Unfortunately, the Sinnlenst have other ideas. And I’d rather neither of us were caught unawares when Avebury finally makes his appearance.
By his reckoning, the apprentices would be arriving at some point in the next hour or so. They’d likely not make it to the bathhouse as their first port of call – even if one or the other of them did want to wash the road-dust away, Verist was well aware of who exactly was currently in possession of the place, and quite capable of diverting their attention away until such a time as Archer and Sabbat could get themselves back to the house – but even with that caveat, it was more than time for the two of them to be making preparations to leave.
And yet here he was, still half-submerged in the blissfully warm water, resolutely not making any attempt either to wake Sabbat or extricate himself from under the younger man’s sleeping form.
The problem is, I know full well what we should be doing, and yet I have absolutely no desire to do it.
Part of that, he suspected, was to do with the Smoke. While he’d not partaken of any himself – and, thankfully, vampires were a damn sight more immune to the stuff than humans were – there was enough of a fug of it hanging in the air that even without meaning to he’d probably inhaled more than would have been wise if he’d wanted to keep his wits about him.
At least I’m not hallucinating, I suppose. And if all it’s going to do to me is make me feel somewhat more relaxed… well, I can think of worse possible side-effects. Though, admittedly, there’s not a world of difference between ‘relaxed’ and ‘stupefied’.
Slowly, and with a reluctance which felt like moving through wet sand, he lifted a hand from the water and pressed his palm flat against the cool tiles at the side of the pool, focusing on the shift in temperature as the warmth of the water bled away from his skin.
Wake up. You don’t need to move quickly, but you do need to move.
Sabbat shifted position as he did so, mumbling something in his sleep in a language which Archer vaguely recognised as the street cant used by the thieves and gangers who roamed the streets around Steepside. His face had relaxed from its habitual scowl and, coupled with his damp hair and the bruise-dark circles under his eyes, it made him look suddenly and terrifyingly vulnerable – as though he were halfway to his pyre already.
I will find a way to fix this. No matter what it takes.
The assassin’s eyelids flickered, the barest hint of white visible between them, and he turned his face away with a growl of irritation.
“Sabbat. We need to go.”
“Yes, I’m well aware of that fact – and believe me, if I could, I’d let you stay that way.” If you didn’t look quite so much like a sixdamn corpse, at any rate. “Avebury’s likely to be here within the hour, and I’d vastly prefer it if we weren’t caught unarmed and unawares.”
“Not yet.” There’d be time enough to discuss exactly what they were going to do about Avebury when they’d solved the problem of the Sinnlenst’s hold over Fest and Viola – until that moment, any overt move against him would likely cause more trouble than it’d be worth. “Can you stand?”
“Gi’ me mom’nt.” He blinked, rubbing at his eyes with the heel of his hand. “Y’sure we can’t jus’ stay here?”
“Unfortunately so. How are you feeling?”
That much was obvious – and worrying. Archer had dodged enough punches and thrown knives to be aware how Sabbat normally responded to being woken, and this strange lethargy was half a world away from that. Although, he supposed, there was also the Smoke to consider – how many pipes had the assassin smoked before he got there, after all?
That’s it. It’s the Smoke, and the heat, and nothing to do with the damnable box at all.
And that’s a fine lie to comfort myself with if I ever heard one.
“How long d’we have?” Sabbat asked, after a moment. He sat up, wringing the water out of his braid, and glared across at the doorway, almost as though he expected the Sinnlenst to walk through it at any minute. “Time enough t’lay an ambush?”
“I don’t know. And, much as I’d dearly love to, we’re not ambushing him.”
“Why th’fuck not?”
“Because he’s holding blackmail material on two of our compatriots, and he’s smart enough to have put a failsafe in place in the event of his death.” And you know all of this. I know you do.
“Course he is.” The assassin scowled. “An’ y’said as much before, din’t you?”
“Fuck!” Sabbat’s fist hit the side of the pool with a crack, the sound echoing off the tiles. “Shitfuckin’ sixdamn fuckin’ cuntin’ shit!” He hissed a breath in through his teeth, rubbing his knuckles with his uninjured hand, and added, quietly, “I fuckin’ hate this.”
“I know,” Archer said, as calmly as he could. He reached out a hand towards Sabbat’s shoulder, pulling it back as the assassin jerked away from his touch. “I will- we will find a way to fix this. I promise.”
“An’ what good’s that goin’ t’do?” Sabbat snarled. “Still ain’t got a clue what the fuckin’ thing is, or what it’s doin’ t’me, or who th’fuck’s sendin’ messages by carvin’ them into my fuckin’ arm!”
“We know a damn sight more than we did before we came here!” Archer shot back, heatedly. “And I promise you – and yes, I am going to continue to say that, even if you don’t believe me – I promise you I will find a way to fix this, even if I have to go to the gates of the hells themselves to do so!” He broke off, breathing hard, and realised with a sudden shock that he was standing, still up to his waist in the water, some distance away from where he’d been sat. “I- That is-“
“‘s a fair fuckin’ way t’go,” Sabbat said, quietly. “Even for a friend.” He smiled lopsidedly. “Din’t realise y’cared that much.”
“You didn’t- For the sake of all the gods! I’d hardly have dragged you all the way up here if I didn’t lo- if I didn’t care what happened to you, would I?”
“S’pose that’s true enough. So y’reckon y’know enough t’start workin’ on gettin’ me untangled from this fuckin’ thing?”
“Maybe. I need to do more research – and I’d appreciate your help with that, since Verist’s likely going to be too busy dealing with his apprentices to spend as much time as he’d like on this. I think the suggestion of putting the box into some kind of stasis is likely our best starting point, especially if, as seems likely, that stops or at least slows whatever it is that it’s doing to you.”
“Gives us more time t’figure it out,” Sabbat agreed. “Less it decides t’try takin’ me down with it.”
Which seems all too likely, given how attached it seems to be to you. “It’s a possibility, I admit, but my hope is that if it did try something like that-” and when did I start thinking of it as a sentient being? “-then we’d be in a position where we could easily break the circle and stop the ritual before it took effect. Assuming that everything goes as planned, however, it should buy us at least a few more days to find a way to sever the connection properly.”
Sabbat nodded. “‘s as good an idea as any. Where’re you plannin’ on doin’ the ritual? Can’t use your mate’s workrooms, not wi’ the fuckin’ Sinnlenst wanderin’ about.”
“I know. Verist’s put some rooms aside for us in what used to be the servants quarters – the apprentices won’t go beyond the baize door without permission, which he’s not going to give them, so we’ll have most of that side of the house to ourselves.”
“An’ the servants?”
“Both of them live on the ground floor, so we won’t be much in their way. The Hall was designed to hold five times the current number of guests, as well as a full staff, so there’s more than enough space.”
“Already set aside, including herbs and candles enough for us to go through several iterations of whatever binding spell we decide on. As well as every book Verist could think of which might help us, and several of his personal journals. Believe me, if he could do more, he would.”
The assassin inclined his head in grudging acknowledgement. “Reckon he’s goin’ t’have his hands full keepin’ Avebury from killin’ your red-eye brat.”
Gods. I’d almost forgotten Fest was mixed up in all of this. Unfortunately, Archer had rather more pressing concerns to deal with than keeping his young friend from getting himself into any more trouble. “I’m rather hoping Fest can look after himself, at least for the meantime.”
“An’ if the Sinnlenst bastard baits him into lashin’ out again?”
Then I’ve just been partway responsible for unleashing an untrained and exceptionally powerful sorcerer in my oldest friend’s home. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. Besides, I’m sure Verist can handle it if things do look set to turn violent.”
From the look on Sabbat’s face, he didn’t entirely agree. Archer couldn’t blame him – as far as the assassin was concerned, Verist was a greying scholar more at home with his books than in any sort of confrontation. Whereas the Verist I know did more than his share of brick-throwing when it came to the riots in the run-up to the Revolution. That, and scrapping with the Watch.
Time enough to explain that later, though. He waded to the far side of the pool, pulling himself up out of the water and padding across to the bench where the clean towels were laid out. Behind him, a splash and a muttered curse heralded Sabbat’s own exit from the pool – the assassin grabbed the proffered towel and rubbed it roughly across his body, scrubbing hard enough to leave red welts across the scar-marked skin of his chest and legs.
Archer didn’t look away – bad enough that Sabbat seemed to have already noticed the change in his demeanour back in the city without compounding the error now – but he felt the tips of his ears start to burn nonetheless. There should have been nothing notable about seeing the other man naked, given the number of times they’d bathed and dressed in the same room, but over the past few weeks something had shifted in an indefinable way, lending an air of danger to what would otherwise have been a perfectly ordinary interaction.
I… Gods, this is not the time to be thinking about that. Any of it.
If he was in love with Sabbat – and there didn’t seem to be any other explanation which so readily fit the available evidence – then he was hardly going to bring it up to him while the assassin was in his current state, especially when Archer was the only one in a position to be of much help.
I won’t have him feeling as though he has to agree to anything because he’s indebted to me. We do this as equals, or not at all.
Which meant that, for the moment, his feelings were a damn sight less important than the combined threat posed both by the box and Avebury’s presence at the Hall.
“You plannin’ on standin’ there for the rest of the evenin’? Thought y’said we needed t’be leavin’.”
And I’ll solve nothing by getting so damn wrapped up in my own thoughts that I forget we’re working against the clock. “Apologies.”
“You still stewin’ over what I did t’those Sinnlenst?” Sabbat asked, his voice muffled by the shirt he was in the middle of dragging over his head. “Ain’t as though they wouldn’t’ve done the same t’us if it’d bin reversed, an’ you know as much.”
“No, it’s not that,” Archer replied, honestly, though the reminder of the incident made him wince. We’re going to have words about that at some point, you and I. Not now, and not soon, but I’m not going to let that go without at least some kind of an explanation – not least because I’m worried it’s got something to do with that sixdamn box. “I’m trying to work out the best way of getting back to the Hall without attracting undue attention.”
A lie, but a reasonable one, and a good deal less likely to lead to awkward questions than explaining exactly what it was he’d actually been thinking.
“‘s easy enough, especially after dark. Jus’ stick t’the treeline ’til we get in sight of the door t’the kitchens, then break into the shadow of the second stable block, follow that through the door, an’ head up the back stairs. Don’t see why y’needed t’take so long considerin’ it.”
“You’ve barely been here a day and you’ve already memorised the layout? I’m impressed.”
The assassin rolled his eyes. “Ain’t that hard t’get your head around, especially when there ain’t much in the way of exits. Besides, I asked Verist t’look me out a map while you were sleepin’ this mornin’. Figured it’d be worth gettin’ an idea what we were workin’ with before any bastard Sinnlenst decided t’make a play.” He yanked at the top of his boot with barely-concealed irritation. “Wasn’t countin’ on one of ’em walkin’ in with a fuckin’ invitation.”
“Believe me, I’m as unhappy as you are with that particular turn of events,” Archer agreed, tightening the knot of his neckerchief and tucking the ends of the fabric into the top of his waistcoat. “But, unfortunately, Verist’s right – the boy’s up to something, and there’re perilous few other magicians I’d trust to both be able to work out what it is he’s planning and, more importantly, put a stop to it.”
Especially since whatever it is Avebury’s working on almost certainly has something to do with that shipment of silver we intercepted.
He was still no closer to figuring out exactly what the Sinnlenst could want with silver, let alone why they’d need that much of it – given the current circumstances, solving that particular mystery wasn’t exactly a priority – but none of the possibilities were good.
Thank the gods that we stumbled on them when we did, then. Even if I could wish that the fight had gone differently. He reached up, pressing a fingertip against the barely-noticeable dent in his forehead where the Sinnlenst bullet had hit home. The damage to the back of his skull was still healing, but his hair hid the worst of it, and, by the time the sun rose tomorrow, that too would be reduced to an almost imperceptible scar.
Though burning through that much magic is going to mean multiple hunting trips in the near future, if I want to avoid passing out every time I stand up.
If they were back in Sacaan, of course, he’d be able to source the blood he needed relatively easily – butchers’ shops, slaughterhouses, and even the odd bar all provided sanguine refreshment for the city’s yellow-eyed vampiric population, not to mention the various higher-end shops selling blood-and-alcohol mixes ritually prepared in order to keep them fresh for as long as required. This far outside the city walls, though, the pickings were significantly leaner, and the odds of getting spotted by Sinnlenst spies meant that a trip down to the nearest village was almost certainly out of the question.
Ah well. It’s hardly as though I lack experience hunting my own food, when it comes down to it. Admittedly, most of that experience was in Efir, but I’m sure enough of the basic knowledge carries across.
He fastened on his sword-belt, touching his crossed fingertips to the worn hilt of the knife sheathed across his back as he did so – an old superstition, but at this point he rather felt they needed all the luck they could get.
“Aye.” With his hair braided back and his coat buttoned to his throat, the assassin looked as sharp and dangerous as a knife-blade, a far cry from the brittle vulnerability of his sleeping self. He slipped a hand into his coat pocket, pulling out his razor and flipping the blade open along his knuckles. “What d’y’reckon? Headin’ out now?”
“Yes. Though you’re not going to need that.” I hope.
“We’re almost there,” Avebury said. He reined the horses to a walk and looked back over his shoulder, frowning. “And not a moment too soon. It’ll be a blizzard tonight, I suspect.”
He wasn’t wrong, Fest thought. The clouds looked as dark and ominous as any he’d ever seen, and the wind whipping through the trees tasted enough of ice to make his jaw ache. At least we’ll be inside when the worst of it hits, I suppose. And, by all accounts, Cauldwell Hall’s supposed to be one of the best places on the mountain to see out a winter storm.
Of course, whoever’d made that observation in the first place probably hadn’t been factoring in the probability of seeing out said storm in the company of someone who was a) blackmailing you, and b) very likely to murder you if they found out that you were playing them for a fool.
He took a deep breath, settling back on the bench and trying very hard to look like someone who was definitely not playing anyone for a fool. It wasn’t easy, especially with Avebury shifting about next to him as though he’d got a splinter somewhere unfortunate and was trying to work it loose.
If I didn’t know better, I’d say he was nervous.
“Watch yourself,” the Sinnlenst said, after a while. He nodded ahead of them, to where the road seemed to make a right turn and vanish straight into the sheer rock wall they’d been travelling in the lee of for the last several minutes. “You see that?”
“Unless I’m much mistaken, that’s the gateway to the Hall. My research suggests that there are likely to be significantly stronger wards here than anything you’ve encountered before – unsurprising, I suppose, given the Archmage’s power – and I’ve little idea how they’ll interact with your innate magic.” He smiled, tightly. “This may prove instructive. For us both.”
Wards? I’ve never had a problem with wards before, even some of the stronger ones we’ve been working with at the university. Aside from the nosebleeds and the dizziness, of course, but that’s the same with any spell, and wards are normally less bad for it because they’re passive rather than active. Something doesn’t add up here.
He wasn’t going to say as much, of course. Avebury was clearly rattled, and, while there was a small part of him which relished that fact, the rest of him was a lot more concerned with exactly what the Sinnlenst was expecting to happen.
Is this something to do with whatever it was that Lucy Foreval did to me? If the wards are going to react to that, then….
Then he was going to have to do some very fast thinking when it came to explaining to the Archmage exactly why one of his newest apprentices was apparently dragging a horrifying shadow from the Void along behind him.
That’s not going to happen. Anneke banished it back to where it came from – I think – and, in any case, it was probably only summoned because of their spell. It isn’t following me around…. I hope.
Besides, he’d got the impression that Avebury and Foreval didn’t exactly see eye to eye on… well, a lot of things, to be honest. Given the fact that, from what he’d been able to gather from Avebury’s conversation, the two of them were also very possibly lovers, that was surprising, but it was hardly as though he had much experience on that front.
He looked up at the ridge-line, barely visible in the gathering gloom, and wondered suddenly whether the Archmage had people out on guard watching for their approach. It didn’t seem likely, given what he knew of him – Verist was famously reclusive, and apparently ran his estate on the absolute bare minimum of staff – but the thought of being observed by some watcher hidden in the trees did very little to make him feel any more sanguine about the whole situation.
The sleigh rounded the corner at the end of the road and, ahead of them, the cliffside split open, revealing a short tunnel carved into the bare rock of the ridge. It was wide enough for the sleigh – though only just – but the gathering dusk made the rough-hewn walls feel oppressively close, as though the mountain itself was bearing down on them. Fest shivered, feeling the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end as they made their slow way through the gap – he had a sudden, fierce urge to throw himself bodily over the back of the sleigh and out of what was feeling more and more like the closing throat of some terrible beast.
If this is one of the wards Avebury was talking about, I can’t say I like it much.
He stole a glance over at the Sinnlenst, but the other boy seemed to be focusing all his attention on the road ahead, apparently unperturbed by their surroundings – though, on closer inspection, Fest spotted a muscle in the side of his jaw ticcing rhythmically under his skin.
At least it’s not just me, I suppose.
He blew out a breath through his nose, counting to ten as he did so in an attempt to calm his racing heart. The last thing he needed right now was to faint again, especially since, if that happened, he didn’t entirely trust Avebury not to pitch his unconscious body into the nearest snowdrift.
Of course, he’d then have to explain why one of the two looked-for apprentices hadn’t shown up, but I’m fairly certain he’d find some sort of excuse. Probably one which got me into even more trouble, knowing him.
Eventually, after what felt like a lifetime, the walls around them seemed to pull back and away, revealing a wide expanse of white snow, glimmering in the fading light. Across the broad, tree-bounded courtyard loomed an imposing, fortress-like building which seemed, to Fest’s eyes, to be halfway between a back-country manor house and one of the border castles in Masika which had, supposedly, been built just after the Fall.
So that’s the Hall, then.
He’d been expecting something of the sort – he’d grown up in the hill country, after all, and was fairly well acquainted with the fortified manors belonging to the older noble families – but even with that pre-existing knowledge, the sheer scale of the place took his breath away, standing as it did alone and unyielding in the face of the howling wind and driving snow. There were lights at the windows, though, and, when he strained his ears, he thought he could make out the sound of conversation coming from beyond the closed shutters and barred doors.
Well, he is supposed to be expecting us. Though I hope there aren’t too many other people there – the last thing I need right now is to try and remember how to be sociable when I’m already on edge.
He looked back across at Avebury, in time to see the Sinnlenst grimace and put a hand to his chest, just below his heart.
“Are you alright?”
“Yes,” Avebury replied, curtly.
That should have been that. But Fest’s mouth moved, independent of his mind, and with mounting horror, he heard himself say “Really? Because you don’t look it.”
“I’m fine,” the Sinnlenst ground out, teeth clenched. His fingers tightened on the reins enough that, if he wasn’t wearing gloves, Fest was fairly certain he would have been able to see the knuckles standing white under his skin. “Nothing you need to concern yourself with.”
“Liar,” said Fest’s treacherous mouth. He clapped a hand over it, trying to fight back whatever mad impulse had taken control of his vocal cords. It’s not as though I wasn’t thinking it, admittedly, but the last thing I needed was to out and say it.
Thankfully, Avebury seemed too distracted by whatever was going on with him to bother lashing out. “I am fine,” he said, again, even more unconvincingly this time. “And you should worry more about yourself. Your nose is bleeding.”
Which was true, though not exactly surprising – the Archmage apparently had powerful wards up, and nosebleeds were a fairly common side effect of that kind of thing for magicians who were particularly sensitive to the presence of strong magic. In fact, if he was honest, he’d have been surprised if his nose wasn’t bleeding.
I’m a lot more interested in what those wards seem to be doing to you, actually. Because I’m fairly certain that’s what’s going on, and I’m equally certain that you really don’t want me asking any questions about it.
Thankfully, his mouth seemed to have finally come back into line with the rest of his brain, meaning that when he slowly took his hand away from it, he wasn’t suddenly forced into asking any of the half a dozen things that had patiently lined themselves up behind his teeth while he’d been watching the Sinnlenst trying (and failing) to pretend that nothing was wrong.
Why did you say that you were worried about the effect the wards would have on me, when they’re clearly affecting you far worse? Were you trying to distract me? What were you trying to distract me from? Is this something to do with whatever happened to your arm, since you’re equally cagey about that, or do you just not trust me enough to tell me anything? (Which is fair, admittedly, since I am working for your enemy, but I’m pretty sure you don’t know that or else I’d be a lot more dead than I currently am).
What are you hiding? And, more to the point, is it something that’s going to come back and bite me or anyone I care about?
He put his hand into his pocket, feeling the reassuring presence of the letter and the note Anneke had passed him just before they’d left the university. He’d not had time to look at either of them – not without the possibility of Avebury reading over his shoulder, at least – but the thought of being able to take the time later this evening to settle down and read them set a warm glow blazing at the base of his stomach.
I might be apprenticed to a terrifying stranger and partnered up with a blackmailing speciesist who’s almost certainly going to kill me if he finds out what I really am, but at least I’ve got someone on my side who knows where I am.
More than one person, in fact, if that encounter on the road was anything to go by.
Archmage Verist’s son. And apparently just as much of a Sinnlenst as I am, which means not one at all. How many other Order spies are there that I don’t know about?
Probably a fair number, if he was honest with himself. He might be a part of the Order now, but he was still very much a new recruit – and, more to the point, was still potentially being spied on by one of Avebury’s most trusted allies.
…I hope she wasn’t watching that conversation, or things might be about to go bad. Or, I suppose, worse.
Whatever was wrong with Avebury seemed to be fading, at least – that or the Sinnlenst was getting better at hiding it – which meant that he had one fewer immediate problems to worry about.
Unfortunately, that problem had just been replaced by a significantly larger one. Specifically, the fact that the door of the Hall had opened and there, framed in the glowing lamplight, was a figure who could be none other than the Archmage himself.
And he did not look pleased.
[START (SERIES) – Blood on the Snow: Chapter 1]
[Author’s note: this is first/discovery draft content – I apologise for the likely increased number of typos]
Copyright © 2022 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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