Silver in the Ashes: Chapter 32 (draft)

The next morning dawned grey and stormy, enough so that when Fest first awoke he was fairly certain that he’d somehow managed to wake himself up several hours before dawn. It was only when he overheard the sound of clattering crockery and footsteps on the floor below that he realised that it must be at least seven or eight in the morning, and that the complete lack of light was less to do with the time of year (though that was definitely a factor) and more to do with the thick blanket of clouds covering the sky from one tree-lined horizon to the other.

Judging by the noises he could hear coming from the next room, he wasn’t the only one to have slept in a little later than intended: from Avebury’s side of the wall, he could hear the kind of thuds and clatters that tended to result from someone trying to get dressed in a tearing hurry and managing to put half their gear on upside down and backwards as a result, accompanied by a litany of swearing which would have been impressive if it hadn’t been Avebury saying it (and therefore, by definition, incapable of being impressive in any way shape or form).

Ha! Not so bloody poised and proper when you think there’s nobody listening, are you?

He’d left his own clothes and boots relatively neatly folded by the bedroom door after his adventure last night and, by comparison to Avebury’s apparent struggles, his own attempt at getting dressed as fast as possible went about as smoothly as he could’ve wanted (barring a brief moment of confusion when he wound up trying to put his left boot on his right foot and wondering why it wasn’t going on properly).

See? I can play you at your own game, too. Now who’s the model student, huh?

Admittedly, he was having a silent argument with someone who almost certainly wasn’t even thinking about him at all, which wasn’t exactly a stunning testament to his ability to stay focused on his studies, but apprentices were allowed a little rivalry, and he was still going to beat Avebury downstairs to breakfast.

…Or not. Somehow, despite the fact that he was almost certain he’d left his room before the other apprentice, when he made it downstairs he found Avebury, poised and perfectly dressed as always (save for a slight greyness around the mouth) already sat at the table and apparently in the middle of a philosophical discussion with the Archmage (who also looked as though he’d not slept particularly well, and that was another point to add to the tally of things which pointed towards something going on that he was still being kept in the dark about).

Damn it! How does he do that?

He slipped into his own seat, trying to avoid catching the attention of either of the other two people at the table, and was gratified to find another dark brown glass bottle of blood and alcohol already placed inconspicuously on the table by his tea glass. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a lot better than nothing, and the fact that someone (likely one of the servants) had gone to the trouble of looking it out for him was cheering in a way he didn’t entirely have the words for.

“Good of you to join us,” Avebury said, in a tone which implied the exact opposite. “I trust you had a pleasant night’s sleep.”

How much do you know about what happened last night? He’d assumed that the other apprentice had been asleep when he’d headed downstairs – or, at the very least, preoccupied with whatever illness had dragged him away from the dinner table the night before. If he’d been awake, and heard what’d happened, then…

Then he knows that there was something out there in the forest and that we don’t know what – or who – it was. Which the Archmage has likely told him anyway, because he’s not going to want either of his apprentices to get murdered by a mysterious whatever-it-is.

But I still don’t like the idea of him knowing I was out there.

“I slept well enough,” he said, because it was both true and also the safest option. “Did you?”

“Well enough,” the Sinnlenst echoed. “Despite the weather.”

Are you trying to make a point? Or am I being paranoid and reading more into what you’re saying than what’s actually there? “I didn’t expect the storm to last through to this morning.”

“You surprise me. I’d have thought a country boy would know the moods of the mountain better than that.”

“I know the Tivana. The forests round here are different.” And you know as much. You just wanted to make me say it.

“Not so different that you’d mistake a three-day storm for an overnight one, surely?”

“Says the man who’s never set foot outside the city,” Fest shot back, stung by the criticism (and, if he was honest, still more than a little on edge about the possibility of Avebury knowing more than he was letting on about what’d happened the night before).

The Sinnlenst raised a supercilious eyebrow. “Now whoever told you that? Just because my people are a good deal less… backcountry than yours doesn’t mean they don’t have an estate outside the walls.”

Backcountry? You say that again in that tone of voice and I’ll call you out for it, see if I don’t. “Don’t you bring my family into-“

“Gentlemen,” the Archmage said, raising a warning hand. “I’d appreciate it if we could manage to avoid a duel at the breakfast table if at all possible.”

“Sorry, sir,” Fest muttered, and had the satisfaction of hearing Avebury sounding equally as chastened as he echoed the apology.

“Thank you. It’s going to be rather hard to teach the two of you if I’m forced to referee disagreements every five minutes, and I’d rather not waste your time and mine that way. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. Now, I’m assuming you’re both familiar with the standard methodology for combining sigils, so we’ll begin today with a practical demonstration of one of the more advanced permutations – after breakfast, of course. In the meantime, Mr Avebury, can you tell me what Korrevech says on the topic of overlapping circles, specifically when it comes to interleaving the secondary effects of spells?”

The rest of breakfast passed in a blur of similar verbal essay questions, many of which Fest found himself struggling with – though, curiously, Verist didn’t seem to be too annoyed with him for his lack of knowledge. If anything, he seemed pleased by the fact that Fest was willing to admit when he didn’t know something – much to Avebury’s apparent annoyance, since the other apprentice would apparently rather make up something completely out of whole cloth than admit that he couldn’t remember a fact or didn’t understand a question.

Between his rising anxiety and the tension of being examined, Fest managed to drink a fairly large portion of the bottle of blood before remembering exactly how much alcohol it’d been cut with, with the result that, by the time breakfast was over and the three of them were rising to head down to the workroom, his tongue was significantly looser than it might otherwise have been.

Which was, in hindsight, probably why he elected to draw the Archmage aside as they left the breakfast room and ask, as quietly as he could manage under the circumstances, whether there was anything going on in the house that he ought to know about.

Verist looked at him for a long moment, long enough for him to realise that he might have just made an exceptionally costly mistake, before smiling, just a little. “You, my young friend, are a good deal sharper than I gave you credit for.”

“Thank you, sir.” I think.

“As a matter of fact, I’ve asked Thomas and Cyra to devote some time today to ensuring that the wards and other magical defences of this place are all in proper condition – after the incident last night, it seemed only prudent. Given your sensitivity to magic, I suspect that you might well be feeling the effect of their efforts.”

Except that’s not what I’m talking about, and I’m pretty sure you know as much. And it doesn’t explain the fact that you talked about multiple guests when you should have only meant Avebury. He wasn’t quite tipsy enough to voice either of those thoughts out loud, however, and Avebury was already looking back at the two of them with an expression which suggested that he was about to head back and insinuate himself into the conversation.

And whatever is going on, I feel like Avebury knowing any more about it than he already does is a very very bad idea.

“Thank you, sir,” he said, out loud. “That does make sense, now you’ve told me.” And you know that I know that you know that it doesn’t make a lick of sense, because I can’t feel anything which’d suggest the wards are being worked on in any way, which means that you just lied to me. And if you know that I know that, then you know that I know you were lying just now, and…

And I’ve already got a headache, and today’s barely started.


Sabbat woke up slowly, clawing his way back to consciousness from a sleep filled with half-remembered dreams of blood and dark water. At first he couldn’t remember where he was – and, given what that usually meant, he had his razor halfway out of his pocket before that memory filtered back through.

Bedroom. Servants’ quarters. Couldn’t face the walk back to the other room, and Archer still wasn’t seeing properly, so decided to kip here.

Speaking of Archer…

The other side of the bed was empty.

Where’d he get off to? And why the fuck didn’t he think to wake me before he left?

He wasn’t panicking. Archer knew the place better than he did – stood to reason that if he wanted to head out to get breakfast or go hunting or whatever else vampires did of a morning, he’d not need to wake Sabbat to ask for advice on how to do it.

Could wish he’d left a note, though. How the hells am I supposed to know where he’s gone if he doesn’t leave a fucking note?

He sat up, wincing as the motion sent a jolt of pain sparking down his spine.

Getting fucking sick of that. Ain’t the fucking box supposed to be dealing with it?

If it was, it was doing a fucking terrible job. He pressed a hand against it, feeling the inlaid metal twisting under his palm, and swore under his breath.

“Y’goin’ t’see your way clear t’fucking workin’ any time soon?”

If it heard him, it didn’t give any sign. Didn’t surprise him, if he was honest – over the past couple of days it’d felt halfway as though the bastard thing was doing everything it could to get out of holding up that part of its end of the deal (not that he’d agreed to any sodding deals in the first place, mind, but since when’d that stopped anyone who reckoned they could get a hold on you?)

And now he was thinking about it as though it was a person, which was a fucking bad sign.

It’s just a fucking box. Blood-bonded, and cursed, and almost certainly fucking killing you, but it’s just a fucking thing. Whoever’s got hold of the other half of it – that’s who we need to be looking for.

His mouth tasted of blood, but he was used to that now – as much as he was used to the nausea, and the coughing, and the pain in his chest, and the flares of agony that seemed to start at the base of his skull and radiate out along his spine and down his arms and legs. Whatever the bastard box was doing to him, it’d somehow got its claws into almost every single part of his body, enough so that he could almost imagine that silver inlay tracing the insides of his veins, scrimshawing his bones, swirling over the slick canvas of his organs.

Think if I cut my arm open I’d bleed silver instead of red?

Stupid thought. The kind you got if you made the mistake of using Smoke to take the edge off a pain you reckoned you might be able to solve yourself. Kind that led to you trying to pull your own cracked tooth or set your own broken ankle, and that went nowhere good.

Didn’t stop him thinking it, though.

The room was still dark – the shutters were closed, and he’d not got up to light any of the lamps yet – and a small part of him wanted nothing more than to lie back down and let sleep claim him again. Let Archer deal with solving the bloody mystery. Let someone else figure out how to fix the bastard thing.

The rest of him – the stubborn Steepside brawler who refused to back down from a fight, the whoreson gutter rat who’d kicked and clawed his way up from runaway to Order assassin, the pirate who’d laughed in the teeth of gales and run the ratlines in a howling storm – snarled that sleeping was the last bloody thing they should be doing. So it hurt. So fucking what? He’d run three streets on a broken ankle before, hadn’t he? Gone a full fight with three broken ribs, one of which by rights should’ve put a hole in his lung? Stood up to any number of floggings and grit his teeth and not given anyone the satisfaction of hearing him scream? So why in the name of the Lady should this fucking chunk of hardwood and whoever was responsible for the other side of it get the satisfaction of breaking him when nothing in the rest of his life had?

“Go fuck y’self,” he growled, out loud.

“I’m not entirely sure what I’ve done to deserve that kind of an awakening.”

“Archer?” The voice had come from somewhere down on the floor next to the bed – he shifted position, looking over the edge, and found himself face to face with a very bleary-eyed vampire sitting cross-legged in the middle of a pile of books, half of which were open at random pages and the other half stuffed with bookmarks. “-th’fuck’re you doin’ down there?”

“Honestly?” Archer said, adjusting his eyepatch and blinking in a way which reminded Sabbat all too much of the previous night. “I’m not entirely sure. I know I meant to go to bed once I’d finished looking up… something, but I’m damned if I can remember what it was.” He stretched, unfolding his legs with a wince and a muttered ‘oh, for the sake of all the gods’, and looked up at Sabbat again, frowning. “How are you feeling?”

“Been better.” Couldn’t say he’d been much worse, and Archer’d catch him in the lie if he tried. “Ain’t dyin’ just yet.”

For some reason, that made Archer wince, though he tried to hide it. “Do you feel up to some breakfast? By my guess, we should be able to get down to the kitchen without running into anyone we’re trying to avoid.”

Right now the idea of eating anything made his guts twist uncomfortably, but getting breakfast meant getting out of the room, which meant getting away from that oh-so-fucking-tempting bed and the bone-deep desire to take another hit of Smoke (which’d likely go better than going back to sleep, and would take the edge off the worst of the pain, but hadn’t he just fucking proved that Smoke right now would be a fucking terrible idea?)

“Aye, can do that.”

Standing took more effort than it had the day before, and the floorboards seemed to pitch under his feet as though the Hall were a ship on stormy seas – but, with more of an effort than he’d ever admit, even to Archer, he managed to get himself upright without having to brace on the bedpost and, once he’d managed that, everything seemed to even out enough that he could keep his balance relatively easily.

“Y’comin’?” he asked, turning back at the door.

Archer hadn’t moved. Or rather, he’d got halfway to standing up, and then sat back down on the bed, burying his head in his hands.

“Y’alright?” Stupid fucking question. Course he’s not alright.

“I-” He sighed. “Can you come back over here and sit down for a moment? I can’t say this to your back.”

What? His heart seemed to skip a beat, battering at the inside of his ribcage as though it was trying to force its way out. The fuck do you have to say to me that you’re using that tone of voice? And that you want me to come back and sit down by you for?


“Course.” He walked back over, concentrating on every step as the deck- the floor swayed under his feet. Sitting down proved trickier than standing up, in terms of not overbalancing and falling back onto the bed, but he managed it eventually, leaving a foot or so of space between himself and Archer in case-

In case what? The hells do you think he’s going to do?

“Thank you,” Archer said, once he’d got himself settled. He took a deep breath, lifting his face up out of his hands, and Sabbat noticed the tell-tale streak of wetness running from the corner of his eye. “I- Gods, I don’t know how to do this.”

“Fuckin’ say it, whatever it is, and have done with it.” His chest burned, enough that he couldn’t get a full breath of air, and he wasn’t sure whether it was the box’s doing, or whatever it was that was making his heart race and setting his pulse pounding in his ears. “Ain’t anythin’ the two of us can’t fuckin’ deal with.”

Another wince, this one obvious enough that he couldn’t hide it. “Don’t. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Please.”

“An’ who’s sayin’ I ain’t keepin’ it?”

By way of an answer, Archer lent over, picking up one of his notebooks from the top of the nightstand and opening it to the most recent page. “Here.”


“Take it. Check my calculations, if you’d like. They match Verist’s almost exactly, but I’d appreciate another pair of eyes.”

“‘specially on account o’the fact you’ve only got the one,” Sabbat muttered, almost automatically. He took the notebook, staring uncomprehending at the dense block of copperplate filling most of the page. “This was what y’needed me over here for? T’check your ritual notes?”

“Not entirely.” He took another deep breath, wiping his eye with the back of his hand. “The calculations- I- Oh gods damn it.”

“Spit it out, Archer. Ain’t goin’ t’be any worse’n sittin’ here waitin’ fer you t’fuckin’ tell me.”

“You’re dying.”

“Tell me somethin’ I don’t fuckin’ know.”

“Fast. A week.”


He’d known, of course. Hard not to, when you were spending half the time half-choking on your own blood. But there was a difference between knowing it was happening and having it laid out in front of you with a fucking deadline attached.

Could always take the blade. Stop whoever’s behind this having the fucking satisfaction.

And then they’d have fucking won anyway, because they’d have made him make that choice.

No. We fucking fight this. Might be a death sentence, but you ain’t on the gallows yet, and there’s a fair fucking walk between here and the noose. And since when were you ever going to go fucking quietly, if it came to it?

If it gets bad enough, then. And only then.

And assuming we ain’t found the other way out of this along the way.

He’d not ask Archer for that. Not again. Not after the way he’d flinched away from him when he’d made the suggestion. But if Archer offered… well, there were worse ways to go, if it went wrong.

“Y’got a plan,” he said, out loud. “I know you, Archer. You ain’t about t’let this happen without a fight if y’can do a damn thing t’stop it. Which means you’ve got a plan.”

“I do. Or, at least, I have the beginnings of one. Philip did most of the original research, but I think between the two of us we’ve managed to put together the start of something which might work.” He nodded towards the notebook, still open in Sabbat’s hand. “It’s in there – at least, what there is of it. If you’re feeling up to helping me with the research side of things-“

“Stop assumin’ I ain’t capable. I ain’t fuckin’ dead yet.”

That actually got a smile out of him, which was a fucking miracle considering the circumstances. “Alright. Breakfast first, then we’ll work on what to do next. I need some books out of the library, but I’d rather avoid running into our fellow guests if at all possible, which means we’ll likely have to wait until tonight for that-“

“Or y’let the one of us who’s actually a fuckin’ thief handle it.”

“Or that, I suppose. Though I’d prefer to be able to take my time looking through the books rather than handing you a list and hoping that what you bring back has what we need.” He frowned. “As for the rest of today… I have a couple of ideas, but they likely require bringing Viola and Mortimer up to speed on all the details of the current situation.”

“-th’fuck’s Cervanso doing up here? Ain’t she s’posed t’be back in the city?”

“Ah. I forgot you weren’t awake for that. I’m not entirely sure what she’s doing up here, but she and Mortimer seem to be working together on whatever it is. I suspect it’s likely connected to the fact that both Mortimer and Fest encountered something strange in the forest last night – Philip’s current theory is that it’s likely a Sinnlenst agent of some sort, though the gods alone know what they’re doing up here.”

“Might be connected t’those bastards wi’ the cart full o’ silver,” Sabbat suggested. “It’d makes sense for Cervanso t’be involved if they’re targetin’ werewolves.”

Gods, but he had to admit he was glad Cervanso was up at the Hall. She’d a good head on her shoulders, and, what was more, she’d had his back in that fight in the alleyway, and at the bloody Sinnlest meeting.

Course, this ain’t that kind of fight.

But he was fairly certain she’d have his back anyhow. Even if he wasn’t looking forward to explaining the whole fucking situation to her (and like hells he’d let Archer do that for him. Bad enough he kept assuming that Sabbat couldn’t do half the things he’d normally do without having him take over explaining the damn box as well).

Either way, good that she was here.

“Y’reckon it’s t’do with that?” he asked, after a while, since Archer didn’t seem to have much in the way of reply.

“That’s a worrying idea,” the vampire admitted. “But I’m not certain that’s connected – or, at least, not as obviously as that. The Sinnlenst might be speciesist, but I doubt that they’d target the entire werewolf population of the city that openly. That’s akin to a declaration of war, and given they’re currently recruiting werewolves, that doesn’t entirely track.”

Fair point. It’d completely fucking slipped his mind that Cervanso’d technically been recruited by the Sinnlenst – add that to the pile of fucking things he’d forgotten over the past few days. “Then what th’fuck’re they doin’ tryin’ t’cart a whole pile o’silver into the city?”

“I wish I knew. It could be for some sort of working, but I can’t think of anything which would take that much in the way of metal.”

“Maybe they’re tryin’ t’make more fuckin’ boxes.”

Archer frowned. “If they are, we have a problem. Verist suggested that the one you’re dealing with has been either modified or repaired in some way, which lends a worrying amount of credence to that theory.”

“Y’mean it ain’t s’posed t’be doin’ this?”

“It’s supposed to be stable, apparently. As it stands, it’s drawing more of your magic out of you than you can replace, which is why-“

“Which is why there’s a fuckin’ deadline.”

“Exactly. It’s a little more complex than that-“

“Ain’t it always.”

“Are you aware of the theory of the vessel anima?”

“Course.” It wasn’t something he’d put much in the way of time into studying, but that didn’t mean he didn’t know the basics. “You reckon the box is actin’ as a fuckin’ vessel?”

“Potentially, yes,” Archer said, in a tone that implied he’d not expected Sabbat to work that out quite so fast. “That’s certainly the theory Verist and I have been working on.”

“Makes sense. Would make sense as to why I ain’t able t’get further’n a few feet away from the bastardin’ thing.” And, as a sudden thought struck him: “Th’fuck’s it done t’the existin’ vessel?”

“I wish I knew. It’s possible that it’s essentially usurped the connection and done nothing else, but I suspect that’s wishful thinking.”

“Goin’ t’need t’work somethin’ out t’fix that.”

“I have an idea on that front,” Archer said, “though I’m not entirely certain it’s a good one.” He reached for the notebook, taking it back and flicking through the pages until he landed on one with a pair of ritual geometry diagrams drawn in thin black ink. “I’ll need both Viola and Mortimer’s help with this, if it goes ahead, since I may well not be able to complete the ritual by myself.”

What the fuck’re you up to? If Archer was assuming he wouldn’t be able to complete the ritual, that meant he was planning on doing something self-sacrificing – or, in other words, monumentally stupid. “You ain’t plannin’ on offin’ y’self, are y’?”

“No – or, at least, not intentionally, and definitely not permanently. But-“

“Then what?” And don’t think I didn’t fucking notice that wasn’t a fucking ‘no’ at all.

“How much do you know about blood transfusions?”

What? “That’s a fuckin’ stupid idea, an’ you know as much.”

“It may be. But it may also be the only way to solve this.” He tapped the centre of one of the diagrams with his forefinger. “My research suggests that there’s a possibility – and it is only a possibility – that a transfusion of my blood might allow you to replenish your internal store of magic. That is, it would allow you to refill your vessel to the point that you could safely break your connection with the box.”

He had to admit, the idea made a certain amount of sense. Didn’t mean he had to like it, though. “How much blood are y’goin’ t’need t’give up fer that t’work? An’ how sure are you that it’ll do anythin’ other’n drain you an’ possibly kill me? Seems t’me you’re stakin’ a fuck of a lot on this roll fer someone who ain’t playin’ with loaded dice.”

Archer sighed. “I know. And believe me, I don’t suggest this lightly – and I don’t suggest it as anything other than a last resort. But if we can’t find any other way to break your connection, then…”

“I’m dyin’ anyhow, so y’might as well try?”


Last-ditch hopes and million-to-one chances. Course it’d come down to that – what else’d it be, for someone who’d been a follower of the Lady since he was old enough to understand the sense behind the words he’d heard whispered by half the folks who’d raised him when they thought no-one was listening?

“‘s a fuckin’ stupid plan,” he said, out loud, because it was. “An’ it’s a fuck of a lot more reckless than I’d’ve been expectin’ from you.”

“Can you blame me?”

“No.” Hadn’t he gone and ripped those Sinnlenst bastards to shreds when they’d hurt Archer – because they’d hurt Archer? And hadn’t he given Archer his own blood and willingly, twice, and almost killed himself doing it the second time? Least he could do was let him get even. “Ain’t goin’ t’tell you ‘s a good idea, ’cause it ain’t. But I ain’t goin’ t’let that research o’yours go t’waste either.”

“You’ll do it?”

“If it’s the only game goin’? Aye.”

“Thank you,” Archer said. He reached out for the notebook, the tips of his fingers brushing briefly across the back of Sabbat’s hand as he did so. “I…”


“Nothing. Thank you for being willing to- Thank you.”

That ain’t what you were going to say, is it? But he was too damn tired and too damn sick to try and puzzle out whatever was going on in Archer’s head at the moment – if it was important, he’d say something, and if it wasn’t, then there was nothing to be said anyhow. “Y’still plannin’ on breakfast?”

“Yes. If nothing else, I forsee a fairly intensive few days of research ahead of us, and it’d be wise to be as fortified as possible before we head into that.” He stood up, closing the notebook and slipping it back into his pocket as he did so, and offered Sabbat a hand. “Come on.”

Normally, he’d’ve ignored the offer. But there was something in Archer’s expression that he couldn’t entirely read – and, besides, he was fairly fucking certain he’d not be able to make his way to standing again without leaning on something anyhow.

And, when he took Archer’s hand and allowed the vampire to pull him to his feet, he couldn’t help but notice a brief flash of that same strange warmth he’d felt in his chest back at the start of this whole bloody confusing mess of a conversation. It lingered long enough after Archer let go of his hand (and that letting go was more reluctant than it had any right to be, it felt like) that he had to admit that it was there – which mean having to acknowledge that it felt a fuck of a lot like the edge of that same feeling he’d had when Archer’d said that he trusted him, back when they’d had that fight over Cervanso borrowing the shirt. Same feeling he’d had in the bathhouse, as well, and when he’d given his blood to Archer – both times – and there was an implication there that he wasn’t entirely certain he wanted to look too closely at, given the circumstances.

Ain’t got the time or the energy to try and untangle that right now. Deal with it later.

Assuming there was a later. But like fuck he was going to go asking after things he wasn’t certain he wanted the answers to right now, especially when the both of them needed all their focus on the research in front of them.

If he doesn’t feel the same way, that’s a complication neither of us fucking need right now. And if he does, it’s only going to hurt worse if we can’t fucking fix this.

Logically, it made sense. It was pragmatism. It was the right thing to do.

Still didn’t stop it feeling a fuck of a lot like cowardice.


[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 © 2023 by Finn McLellan.  All rights reserved.

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