If I wasn’t already sure Avebury was a bastard of the first order, that little scene on the staircase would have removed any lasting doubt, Mortimer thought, chasing a wayward potato to the edge of his plate and spearing it on the tines of his fork.
To be grudgingly fair to the Sinnlenst, being run headlong into would put anyone on edge. But that still didn’t excuse the sheer delight he’d taken in baiting the kid, especially given that Fest was very clearly not doing well (and how was that for another problem that he now had to solve, on top of everything else? Where was he even going to get fresh blood at this time of the evening?)
And what was all that about theft? Do I have to keep an eye to make sure the silverware doesn’t go missing?
Unlikely, that – Avebury’s people were richer than most, even if his parents had lost most of their wealth (and their lives) in the Revolution. No, if the Sinnlenst was after anything, it’d more likely be artefacts or texts that he couldn’t easily get elsewhere.
I wonder if I can persuade da to make him empty out his luggage before he heads back to the city. The last thing the Order needs is any of the research stored here getting into the Sinnlenst’s hands.
The odds of that request being granted were astronomically slim, mind. While more paranoid magicians were notorious for assuming any apprentices were potential thieves, Verist had spent years cultivating a reputation as a reasonable and level-headed researcher – he’d be hardly likely to throw that away on the offchance that one of his students might try something that wrongheaded.
Not to mention the fact that if he tried to get away with any even remotely useful artefacts the wards would fire before he’d taken more than a couple of steps outside.
He blinked, coming back to the present with a start. “Apologies, I was miles away.”
“That much was obvious,” Verist said, with a smile. He reached for the wine bottle, pouring a half-measure of the deep red liquid into his own and Mortimer’s glasses as he continued. “I was asking if you happened to know anything about the current state of research into wellsprings. Mr Avebury apparently has something of an interest in the subject-” Does he now? “-but his own research has apparently been focused more on other topics, and I’m rather behind the times when it comes to that side of things.”
It was a fairly obvious play, but he couldn’t begrudge his father that. Get him talking, find out what he knows already and where that interest of his is pointed – and, more to the point, work out how much of whatever it is he’s doing he’s willing to talk about in front of the one person at this table who’s not pretending to be a Sinnlenst.
Out loud, he said: “I’m honestly not that well up on it myself, but I know that there’s been more than a little interest recently in the idea that there might be one under the city.”
That got Avebury’s attention – he looked up from his plate, eyes sparkling behind his spectacles, and gave Mortimer a look which seemed equal parts interest and disbelief. “That’s not a theory I’d heard given much weight before, I must say. What’s changed?”
“Oh, nothing much,” Mortimer said, with studied casualness. “Just a couple of old papers being reconsidered in the light of some studies which were done on the ease of doing magic at certain spots in the city.”
In truth, there was a fair bit more to it than that. Wellsprings, as anyone who’d passed first year theory knew, were areas where the ambient level of magic in the world was significantly higher for as-yet-unknown reasons – while they were much less powerful now than they had been before the Fall, they were still important enough that the Adakari had built their entire empire around restricting or granting access to theirs (though, admittedly, the Eye of the World was probably the most powerful known wellspring on the continent).
There had been rumours for years that there was a lesser wellspring under Sacaan, though until recently nobody had given that idea much more weight than any of the other folk explanations for the location of the city. With the rise in the number of magicians and the turn towards more complex experimental magic, however, especially in the years after the Revolution, certain researchers had started to notice that their spells and circles performed significantly better in some areas of the city than others, and the theory of the lost wellspring had started to become more and more prevalent in academic circles.
If there was a wellspring under the city, it wasn’t anything close to the power of the Eye of the World (which was probably a good thing, given the likely Adakari response to competition), and thus mostly of interest only to scholars and experimental magicians. But if Avebury was paying that much attention to the idea…
“I said, would you mind telling me the authors of the papers in question?”
Yes, very much so. He didn’t know any of the academics involved well, but they almost certainly didn’t deserve whatever it was the Sinnlenst would do to them if it turned out that was information they wanted kept secret. “Sorry. I don’t have the details to hand at the moment – if you come by the library when we’re back in the city, I’ll see what I can find for you on the topic.”
“That would be most appreciated. I’m especially curious as to the current theories on the exact location of the lost wellspring within the city, particularly if there’s been any more movement on the research which suggested it might be located under one of the temples.”
“As I said, I’ll see what I can find for you.” And, more to the point, what I need to carefully excise from the record if it turns out there’s anything you and yours could use that power for.
It felt wrong to be trying to out-guess a Sinnlenst on magic – everyone knew that they were supposed to be the ones who hated magicians, if they knew anything about them at all – but then again, everything about Avebury’s entire power-play and the events leading up to it had felt wrong as well, as though the very foundations of the world were being shifted in some way that he still didn’t quite understand.
If the Sinnlenst are training up magicians as anything other than some strange know-your-enemy sideline, this war’s just got a lot more complicated.
Avebury seemed to be content with that answer, at least – he turned his attention back to the food on his plate, allowing Mortimer a brief moment of respite and a chance to finally get to grips with his own meal (which, thanks to his missing arm, was taking more concentration than he would otherwise have liked).
I could have asked da if he’d mind getting Cyra to cook something that could be eaten with a spoon, I suppose, but like hells I’m giving Avebury the satisfaction.
And, besides, he’d not had proper home-cooked venison in years – and, even when he’d managed to find it outside of the Hall, it hadn’t tasted the same. This was rich and hot and dripping in heavy seasoned sauce, set off perfectly by the roasted potatoes and steamed greens piled high on the other side of the plate, and every mouthful brought memories flooding back from some dusty disused corner at the back of his mind.
You know what? Making the decision to come down for dinner after all was worth it.
Even if it does mean sharing a table with Adam bloody Avebury.
Thank the spirits and ancestors both for simple problems! Viola cheered silently, her bare feet thudding on the snow-slick cobbles as she ran headlong down the main thoroughfare out of the North side of the city.
If she stopped to think too hard about what she was doing and why, she’d have wound up feeling a whole lot less pleased with the situation, and she knew as much – the problem facing her might be simple, but it wasn’t exactly the kind of thing that, given a choice, anyone would be particularly enthused about having to deal with. But, for now, with the wind whipping her braid out behind her and the blood rushing through her veins, she couldn’t think of anything else she’d rather be doing than this.
Jenny was right – overthinking things is just chewing your own damn tail. Leastwise this way I’m actually doing something!
The street was crowded, even at this hour, and she ducked and wove between the sleighs and horses and through the crowds with an ease borne of long practice and magic-honed reflexes. She’d easily outpace Caine here, even with his advantages – his bulk would mean he’d have to go around where she could go through, and his lack of tact would mean that he’d have trouble with blockages she could get past with a smile and a wave (and the fact that most folks in the city knew better than to try and get in the way of a werewolf in a hurry).
It’d be even easier if she was four-legged, of course, but that’d mean slowing down enough to ditch her clothes, and she wasn’t about to do that until she was clear of the gate.
Which is going to take longer than usual, if this lot don’t hurry themselves up.
The closer she got to the main gate, the more and more pressed the throng of people became, until she found herself in a crush which even she couldn’t wriggle through at more than walking pace. That, in and of itself, wasn’t all that unusual – the main city gates were closed a few hours after nightfall, and there was always a last minute rush of travellers headed either in or out before that happened – but the sheer volume of people heading into the city was more than she’d be expecting to see in the normal run of things.
So either something’s already happened up in the mountains, or something’s about to.
She risked a quick look upwards, blinking snow out of her eyelashes. Mother Moon’s light shone as bright and clear as she could want – a good omen for the night ahead – but up above the pine trees that blanketed the foothills she could see a band of heavy grey cloud, low and ominous, slowly swallowing the very tops of the high peaks that bounded the city side of the caldera.
There was no way she’d be able to make her way through the gate before it closed, not if there was a storm coming off the mountain, and she’d no desire to waste precious time trying to fight her way through a tide of people who were trying to get themselves and their loved ones to safety before the weather hit.
Lucky for her, then, that this wasn’t the only gate on this side of the city.
Now I just have to hope that I’m right about where that one lets out, or this is going to be one hell of a diversion.
She’d be able to make up the time either way, especially once she’d shucked her gear and gone four-footed, but anything which slowed her down meant that Caine was gaining on her, and that meant she’d have a whole lot less time to warn Mortimer (and the others) before he showed up.
And I need to warn any local villages too – or, at least, get Verist to warn them, since I doubt they’ll take much notice of me. If there’s going to be a Turned hunting in the area, they need to know.
Verist would also likely be able to phrase it more diplomatically than she could, inasmuch as he’d probably not out and say that there was a Turned around – and he’d also be significantly less likely to point out that their cubs, wandering off on their own to gather firewood or call their animals home, would be easy prey for something as strong and fast and amoral as Caine.
Besides, even if he did mention that, they’d likely take it better coming from someone whose ancestors didn’t consider theirs to be prey. Even if I’m pretty sure it’s only a few isolated clans up in the far north who do that kind of thing now, and most of them know better than to hunt anywhere near here.
She’d managed to work her way to the edge of the crowd by this point, and a quick sideways leap to avoid a skidding sleigh landed her safely in an alleyway, free from the crush and finally able to get a lungful of air which didn’t taste of wet wool and sweat and cologne. She took a moment to steady herself and then, with a brief prayer to the ancestors that she’d picked the right direction, set off running down the narrow street, taking the corner at the end of it with a speed which very almost sent her careening off the nearest wall.
Away from the press of people, she could concentrate on speed over agility – and, even two-legged, she was more than fast enough to make up the time that she’d lost trying to get to the North gate. A quick scramble up one of the rooftop access ladders netted her a better view across the remainder of the quarter and, once she’d got her bearings, she managed to pick out the smaller gate she was aiming for, standing open and inviting at the end of a secluded pine-shaded cul-de-sac.
Perfect. And, if I’m lucky, Caine doesn’t know it’s there.
The gate she was headed to wasn’t marked on half the maps of the city – it’d been a part of one of the first temples to be built in what was now, unsurprisingly, the Temple quarter, and as such had been behind the walls of the wider compound until an earthquake around the time of the Revolution had knocked down half that temple’s outbuildings and forced a rebuilding effort which was still going on to this day. In the wake of that, it’d become a not-entirely secret way in and out of the city: the Watch in the quarter knew it was there and kept an eye on it, but in the main it was mostly used by the priests, the few folks who called that quarter home who weren’t members of the temples, and members of the Order who wanted to head out to the mountains without dealing with the hassle of passing through the North gate (the perks of having several priests among the membership meaning that almost everyone in the Order who might need the information had been shown how to get to it).
Of course, that didn’t mean that Caine automatically wouldn’t know about it, but it was a fairly good bet compared to most others she could make at the moment.
And a straight shot across the rooftops from here. Better and better.
Roofrunning wasn’t one of her preferred skills – she did better on four legs than two, and wolves weren’t exactly made for climbing – but she was decent enough at it and the Temple quarter was easier than most to traverse above the streets. Still, she breathed a sigh of relief when, after several minutes of scrambling and sliding, she dropped down from an overhanging roof and landed almost silently in a snowdrift round the back of one of Earth Brother’s smaller temples.
Earth Brother’s temples were hives of activity long into the night – as were many places in the city, admittedly – and the rattle and clatter of the looms and the weavers’ chatter covered any noise she might have made as she extricated herself from the snowbank and set off through the maze of side-ways and through-cuts which was the back half of the quarter. She’d slowed down by now – running headlong through here was only going to draw attention and get her pulled into conversations she really didn’t have the time for – and the few acolytes and priests she passed seemed not to pay much attention to her, presumably figuring her for someone belonging to any one of the other temples which shared this back-stage area between them.
He’s not likely to be able to make it down here without causing at least something of a commotion, which means I’ll have warning if he’s headed this way, she thought, and then hated herself a little for thinking it – if Caine was causing a commotion, that’d more than likely be because he’d decided to stop off for a snack along the way.
Not that half the priests around here wouldn’t be able to defend themselves, mind, but he’s a Turned. It’s a little different from dealing with the ordinary run of housebreakers and looters who think a temple might be easy pickings.
But, for the moment, the buzz of sound carried to her on the night air contained only the notes she’d expect to hear in this area of the city: the looms, the bells, the chanting, and the whisper and hum of chattering voices and padding feet in soft-soled boots. If Caine was headed the same way she was, he was either far enough behind that he’d not made it to the start of the backstreets, or he’d decided to take a different route.
Either way, he’s not here now. And if I can get out of the city without him on my tail, he doesn’t have a hope of catching me before I make the Hall.
At least, she hoped to the ancestors she was right about that. Because if she wasn’t, this whole thing was going to go sideways at a rate of knots.
“Not hungry?” Avebury asked, with an air of concern which was, to Fest’s mind at least, flagrantly false. “You don’t seem to have touched anything other than your venison.”
Fest looked down at his plate, pushing the pile of potatoes around in a vague attempt to look as though he’d eaten more than a couple of mouthfuls. “I… No, I’m- That is-“
“Leave the lad alone.” This from Mortimer, who also seemed to be having trouble with his dinner – though, in his case, it was because he was trying to navigate cutting his food with just one hand. “By all accounts he’s had the kind of day that would unsettle anyone’s appetite.”
That was true enough, he supposed, though he could wish that the older boy (man, really) hadn’t jumped to his defence quite so fast.
I can take care of myself, thank you. Though it wasn’t as though he’d been doing a particularly good job of that, all things considered. He’d even managed to get so distracted he’d flat forgotten to chase up the blood Verist had offered him, and there was no way in the hells that he was going to be able to follow up on that until after dinner – at least, not without drawing Avebury’s attention (and right now that was just about the last thing he wanted to do).
Though, speaking of Avebury…
He risked a look up from his plate, trying to avoid making eye contact with the Sinnlenst (which meant staring at him out of the corner of one eye while pretending to be very interested in one of the portraits on the far wall). There was definitely something off in the way the other boy was acting, though for the life of him he couldn’t figure out what was wrong.
I mean, it’s Avebury. Maybe that’s just his natural state when he’s not focusing on making my life hell.
That wasn’t it, though. He’d been acting odd since the start of the dinner, but it’d got worse over the last quarter of an hour – whenever he didn’t think he was being watched, he kept rubbing at his injured arm and pulling at the collar of his shirt as though he couldn’t get enough air.
In fact, if he’d been anyone other than Avebury, Fest would actually have been fairly worried about him. As it was, though, there was a fairly large part of his mind insisting that this was some sort of trick or con, and that the Sinnlenst was just waiting for him to say something or point out what was going on, so he could…
What, exactly? Making fun of me for being concerned for his wellbeing doesn’t seem worth the playacting – and besides, whatever’s wrong with his arm has been up since this morning, and I could smell the blood on him when we were riding up to the Hall.
He wasn’t the only one to have noticed the Sinnlenst’s state, then. Verist’s voice cut through the sounds of scraping cutlery and clinking glasses, raised just enough that Avebury noticeably jumped, his hand going to his throat again as he did so.
“Are you alright? You seem a little distracted.”
“I’m fine, sir,” the other boy said, fast enough that it was obviously a lie. He shifted in his seat, his face briefly contorting in what Fest was fairly certain was a grimace of pain. “Ah- That is to say, I-“
“You’re patently not bloody fine,” Mortimer said, taking a swallow of wine and gesturing in Avebury’s direction with the half-full glass. “Mind telling the class, or are you going to keep it to yourself and assume that the rest of us are too damn thick to notice?”
“Harry,” Verist said, warningly. He turned his attention back to Avebury, frowning over his spectacles. “If you’re not feeling well, you’re more than welcome to leave the table. I’ll not have you – either of you – harming yourselves trying to play the perfect apprentice, and you’ll not insult me by taking the time to look after yourselves.”
“As I said, sir, I’m fine. Please don’t trouble yourself on my account.”
And I honestly believe he means that – the bit about not wanting Verist to trouble himself, at least. Whatever’s going on with him, I don’t think it’s something that he wants any of us to be paying attention to right now.
Which, of course, made Fest all the more curious.
What are you up to?
“As you say,” Verist replied, with unhidden scepticism. He turned his attention back to Mortimer, picking up the thread of some conversation the two of them had started earlier, and Fest took the opportunity to sneak another look at Avebury, trying to work out exactly what it was that was troubling the Sinnlenst so much.
Whatever it is, it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. In fact, he looks worse and worse the longer this dinner goes on.
“How are you feeling?” Archer asked, for what felt like the tenth time in as many minutes.
Sabbat, kneeling on the floor surrounded by books and chalked sigils, looked up and rolled his eyes expressively. “How th’fuck d’you think I’m feelin’?”
“Fair. Allow me to rephrase, then: are you feeling any worse than you were before we started this particular iteration?”
The assassin shrugged. “Ain’t that easy t’tell at the moment. Could be feelin’ worse, could be just my legs goin’ t’sleep on account of bein’ sat on th’fuckin’ floor fer half a fuckin’ hour.”
“You could probably stand up and stretch once we’ve finished this round. I’ll need some more time to go through the next variant of the sigils we need anyway.”
Sabbat shook his head, wincing as he did so. “Rather get this over’n done with as soon as possible. Plenty of time t’stretch afterward.”
“Fair enough. You’ll tell me if you start to feel any worse.”
I wish I believed that.
But Sabbat had become less prone to hiding how badly he was doing over the last few days – which either meant that he’d taken Archer’s previous lecture to heart or, more likely, he was in so much pain that he couldn’t hide it any more.
“Any change with the box?” he asked, trying to drag his thoughts away from the possible implications of that realisation.
“Nothin’ as far as I can see. Ain’t able t’tell much more’n that without touchin’ it, an’ that’ll break the circle.”
“It’s easy enough to redraw. Do you want to break that circle?”
“What’re you implyin’?”
“Exactly what you told me when we were experimenting back in my rooms. You said you thought that the box had some kind of hold on you.”
The assassin grimaced. “Y’ain’t wrong. I do want t’break the damn circle, an’ I can’t fuckin’ tell if that’s me or the fuckin’ box thinkin’ it.”
At least you’re aware that it’s probably having an effect on you. That’s something, I suppose.
If Archer was being honest with himself, what he wanted to do more than anything right now was to take the damn box and throw it into the fire. Unfortunately, the one thing they’d already established from the run of recent experiments was that that’d likely go incredibly poorly.
A shame that being logically aware of that fact does less than nothing to stop me wanting to get rid of the thing.
“Do it,” he said, and hated himself slightly for saying it. “If nothing else, the healing effect seems to work a damn sight better when you’re actually touching it, and you’ve been away from it for long enough that you could probably do with more of… whatever it is that it’s doing to you.”
Sabbat scowled, though Archer was fairly certain the expression wasn’t directed at him. “An’ that’d be a fair bit more fuckin’ reassurin’ if it wasn’t fer th’fact that I ain’t feelin’ anywhere near as bad as I was the last time we tried this.”
“I don’t- I’m not sure I understand.” Or rather I do, but I’d rather live in hope that I’m wrong.
“Means it’s got its hooks enough in that I don’t need t’be touchin’ it.”
The assassin sat back on his heels, rolling his shoulders with a hiss of discomfort. “Ain’t feelin’ anywhere near good, mind, but equally well, I ain’t halfway chokin’ t’death.”
“I don’t suppose it’s possible that the damage has healed-” Archer began, but the look on Sabbat’s face cut him off mid-sentence. Of course it’s not. That would be too easy, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from this entire damn escapade so far it’s that none of this is going to be remotely bloody easy.
“Don’t be a fuckin’ idiot, Archer,” Sabbat said, but his tone was almost affectionate. “Ain’t how this works, an’ you know as much.” He reached out from the circle he was kneeling in, brushing one gloved hand across the chalk outline of the smaller circle next to him which housed the box. “Might as well see what happens, aye?”
“I suppose so. Though if it’s as linked with you as you say, wouldn’t breaking the circle-“
He didn’t get to finish his sentence. As Sabbat’s fingers crossed the line of the inner circle, there was a blinding flash of light and something smacked into his ribcage, knocking the wind out of him and sending him staggering backward across the room until the back of his legs hit the bedframe.
He sat down hard, blinking furiously in an abortive attempt to clear his vision, and, when he’d got his breath back, managed to croak out something which vaguely approximated Sabbat’s name.
Gods, please let him be alright. If he’s hurt – or worse – then I…
Sabbat’s voice, hoarse but clear, and much closer than he’d expected it to be. Thank the gods. If he’s talking, he can’t be that badly hurt. I hope.
“-ngh. Fine. Just need-” He coughed, the rest of the sentence disappearing into a fog of pain and tightness in his chest. “Ugh. Need a moment.”
“Ain’t plannin’ on goin’ anywhere,” Sabbat said. There was a creaking sound, and Archer felt the mattress dip as the assassin sat down next to him on the bed. “Y’need anythin’?”
“I’ll-” He paused and took a deliberately deep breath, feeling his lungs burn with the effort. “I’ll be alright. How are you feeling?”
“Better,” Sabbat said, with an intonation that implied he wasn’t quite as happy about that as might be expected. “Which is fuckin’ funny, since I was fairly fuckin’ certain the bastard thing’d stopped havin’ near as much of an effect on me.”
“That sounds like Smoke,” Archer said, before he could stop himself. And that’s a conversation we don’t need to be having right now. Dammit.
The assassin hissed out a breath that sounded more than half a wry laugh. “You ain’t wrong. Only difference bein’, I chose that. Din’t choose any of this.”
Archer couldn’t fault him for that statement, even if he’d have wanted to. He tipped his head back, staring upward at what he knew should be the ceiling and currently appeared to be a black void shot through with thin lines of pulsing dark red light. “Sabbat?”
“Can you see anything currently?”
“Course. Why’re you askin’?”
“Because I can’t.”
“Excuse me, sir,” Avebury said, suddenly. He dropped his fork and stood, pushing back his chair hard enough that the back of it hit the wall with an audible thud. “If you’ll forgive me, there’s something I need to deal with.”
He stalked away from the table without waiting for an answer, the door of the dining room slamming shut in his wake before Mortimer could even raise an objection to his sudden disappearance.
Gods dammit, what’s he up to? And, hot on the heels of that thought: Whatever it is, he’s not getting away with it. Not while I’m around to stop him.
“There’s something I need to deal with as well. May I be excused?”
“Of course,” Verist said, with a frown that likely mirrored Mortimer’s own expression. “Though I’ll want a report on whatever it is you find out.”
“Of course.” Not least because if he’s doing what I think he’s doing, then that’s all the justification you need to kick him all the way back to the city.
[START (SERIES) – Blood on the Snow: Chapter 1]
[Author’s note: this is raw NaNo content, so I apologise for the likely increased number of typos]
Copyright © 2022 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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