Month 3, Day 19, Friday 10:00 p.m.
Thaddeus sat at the desk in his cottage as a storm raged outside, writing the last few pages of a guide to translating one of the more common pre-Cataclysm languages. Such a comprehensive and coherent reference would have been invaluable to him some years ago, but as none existed he had been forced to learn the hard way.
While writing the book, he had idly begun to consider how one might create a matrix of vocabulary and grammatical rules to inform an artifact that could do the translation automatically. Even if such a complex spell array would take months or years to develop, span an entire room, and be unfortunately clumsy without the help of a human operator’s deeper understanding and intuition to draw from, it was an intriguing concept.
If he took the time to develop such a spell and then publish his work, it might bring him some extra coin. Unfortunately, there was no way for him to create a translator for a language he did not already know, so the time and effort would not help him further approach the true goal of all his research. A human, even a powerful thaumaturge such as himself, had a limited lifespan. He needed to spend his only nonrenewable resource—time—in the most efficient way possible.
As often happened, thoughts of his research led Thaddeus’s mind to the Raven Queen. Just a couple days before, he had finally reached out to request a meeting through her associate, Lord Stag. He had hoped that she might contact him without the need for such, but as time passed Thaddeus had realized he must be more proactive if he wanted to move her little game of hints and intrigue toward something less nebulous. “She is stubborn,” he murmured aloud. “Not one to concede first.”
Thaddeus added the observation to his developing mental model of the powerful woman, and his thoughts turned toward her most recent exploit. He had suspected, from examining the function of the strange boon she had given his apprentice, that she may have been involved in the Haze War. The response of the protective effect to his various tests reminded him of some of the more innovative solutions the military researchers had come up with during that time, though obviously they had been expanded and improved upon.
The method she had used to kill the rogue Red Guard agent, who allied with the Architects of Khronos to attack the Stags had provided further evidence toward this possibility, as well as a reminder of her cruelty and recklessness.
A trip to one of the Red Guard bases had been enough to get a confirmation of the attacker’s identity as a former member of the Red Guard, as well as pick up some of the gossip from the emergency response squad that had first deployed to the location of the fighting when the gravity of the situation—and the type of spells being cast—became known. Observing from a roof with a good vantage point a few blocks away as they waited for backup, one of them had seen the Raven Queen kill the man. Unfortunately, even with a shaman to help solidify his memories, the details were unclear. The gang members had been throwing around battle philtres to cover their escape, clouding the view.
The rogue agent, an old man who’d gotten his hands on some dangerous items before deserting, had cast some sort of spell at those fleeing. The witness’s sight of that part had been blocked by a building. The man pulled back an item, most likely a purse but possibly a suitcase, and a woman they strongly suspected to be the Raven Queen stepped around the corner in the opposite direction of those fleeing.
She stopped to look at the old sorcerer, and without any obvious motions, free-cast an unknown spell to kill not only him, but the half-dozen enemies surrounding him.
When the turbulent effect had settled enough for the emergency response squad to get a good look again, she was gone, seemingly having made an appearance solely for that attack.
The three prognos Titus had called in to the site, along with the Red Guard’s reconnaissance and assessment team, had examined what killed the group of Architects and left behind such an alarming after-effect as thoroughly as possible before it faded.
All agreed that it had been the same particular blend of disintegration magic that Lenore’s army used in their mines during the Haze War, combined somehow with a space-bending spell to increase the sheer gruesomeness while also decreasing the chances that any standard shield could ward against the damage. There were several other twists of different types of magic that seemed random and had been hard to define, but which seemed to have increased the spectacle. They had all agreed that there was a strong flavor of darkness, along with some strange extracts of meaning related to sleep, the moon, and a few dozen other things, all too fleeting to be pinned down properly.
Thaddeus knew quite a few divination spells meant to check for anomalous effects, but the strange manifestation of magic that had been fading already by the time he arrived was complex and delicate. He was not an expert in that particular field, and his efforts had yielded no additional insight. He had considered the possibility that the lingering remnants of magic contained a message meant to be deciphered, or some kind of hint, but if that was the case he was not deft enough to grasp it.
Perhaps it was some reference to the Black Wastes, into which the expedition had traveled to find Myrddin’s hermitage. It was said that the Brillig had infected the land itself with their dangerous magic, when humans were at war with them. Thaddeus had seen similar effects just a couple of times, when he caught a glimpse of some of the more restricted research in the Red Guard’s black sites, but nothing quite like this.
Still, if she had been involved in the Haze War, she was likely not much younger than him, and could even be older. Thaddeus considered, for a moment, the possibility that the Raven Queen was older—and conceivably more powerful—than Thaddeus himself. Had they ever met? Perhaps he had unknowingly sparked her interest at some point then.
Of course, that evidence did not fit with the identity of Siobhan Naught, who had been born two decades after the war. But her sheer power also seemed impossible for a girl of only twenty.
Thaddeus’s apprentice, a genius in his own way, was at that age and still far from becoming a free-caster, let alone reaching the power required to achieve some of her arrogant displays of prowess.
His thoughts were drawn back to reality as his faculty token alerted him to a security-related summons. He was to report to the deployment point at Eagle Tower. Outside his window, the storm continued on, rain lashing against the glass and the occasional branch of lighting spreading a purple-white glow over the city for a split moment. With a deep sigh, hoping that he was not about to be urged to catch some students missing after curfew, Thaddeus donned his coat and left his neglected manuscript on his desk, still unfinished.
With a simple twist of his Will, long become instinctive, he cast a dome-shaped shield around himself to protect against the lashing wind and rain and strode off toward the west side of the grounds.
When Thaddeus arrived, he found Grandmaster Kiernan waiting for him, alone. His eyes narrowed. It seemed there was no widespread emergency. Kiernan had summoned Thaddeus, specifically. “Why have you called for me?” he asked without preamble.
The stress Kiernan had been under recently manifested itself clearly, if one knew what to look for, in the man’s too-tight neck muscles and the sagging skin under his eyes. Even bathed in the warm, recycled sunlight of the light crystals, his skin looked pale and sallow. Still, he smiled with joviality, clapping Thaddeus on the arm. “Thank you for coming, Professor Lacer.”
Thaddeus resisted the urge to cast a shield between them to push away the man’s hand. He did not appreciate it when others touched him without his explicit permission.
“I would like to speak with you about…a sensitive matter that could involve the security of our school and the safety of the students. My apologies for the method of contact. I would have sent you a paper bird, but the administration center is closed this late.” He motioned for Thaddeus to walk with him, making his way to the stairwell. “As you may know, the High Crown has been…concerned, one might even say paranoid, in the days following the terrorist attack. He has even gone so far as to question people tangentially or even completely unrelated to the events.” Kiernan remained silent for a long few moments as they walked up the stairs, bypassing the door to the second floor.
Thaddeus did not enjoy conversational vagueness or the way the man skirted around the issue, but that did not mean he could not play with words as weapons and pregnant pauses as lures. “Yes. I heard he has shown an interest in your department, particularly,” he said.
Kiernan threw Thaddeus a glance, gritting his teeth together with grim viciousness, the creak of bone on bone just loud enough to be audible.
The Crowns had allocated even more resources to investigating the terrorist attack than they had to the Raven Queen, even collaborating with the Red Guard’s investigation by providing additional manpower and what information they could.
Titus suspected that some faction of the University faculty, including Kiernan and some of those close to him, were either members of the Architects of Khronos, or had perhaps been sponsoring them. There had simply been too many coincidences: rumors about the kind of magical components that were being smuggled into the city en-masse, the convenient timing of the explosion at Eagle Tower, their handling of Newton Moore’s break incident and Tanya Canelo’s involvement with that, and the most recent attack on the Verdant Stag’s various holdings, seemingly timed to coincide with the Architects’ actions. But most importantly, the History Department was still determined to keep the contents of the archaeological haul to themselves. While legally, they could do so, in practice it was a dangerous move.
Unlike normal civilians, the University faculty had all taken certain oaths and could not simply refuse to answer the coppers’ questions. None of the faculty had been arrested yet, which would suggest their innocence, but Thaddeus knew just how little an oath could mean, with the right knowledge and preparation, and how fallible wards and divination against untruth could be.
Kiernan continued to lead Thaddeus up the stairs until they reached the top floor, then reached out and unlatched the hatch door to the roof. “Do you mind?” Kiernan asked. “It seems an appropriate place to speak, but I would rather not get drenched. These old bones might just fall ill!” He grinned again, but his gaze was flat and predatory.
Raising an eyebrow, Thaddeus cast his shield spell again, this time enveloping both of them within it, and led the way onto the roof. “A rather dramatic meeting place, no?” he asked, moving closer to the edge, which forced Kiernan to move with him to remain within the sphere of protection. “It must be a sensitive topic, indeed.”
Kiernan didn’t respond to the jab. “You are right that the coppers have shown a particular interest in my department. At first, I thought perhaps they were using the investigation as an excuse to apply pressure in the hopes of getting their hands on things they have no right to. But then I considered another possibility. What if the investigators know something I don’t?”
“Like what?” Thaddeus asked, playing along as he began to suspect, with some amusement, where this was going.
Kiernan didn’t answer him directly. “I am aware you’ve been helping with the investigation into the Raven Queen, which is now somehow connected to these horrible terrorist attacks.” For a moment, real anger slipped through his mask, directed out at the rain-obscured city to the south. “I am worried that there might be some danger to the school—to the students as well as the faculty under my command. As one of the leaders of the security committee, it is my duty to take measures to ensure student safety. Do you know anything that might be relevant to the situation? Why are the investigators showing such interest?” He turned to Thaddeus beseechingly, his expression surprisingly sincere.
If Thaddeus had any less control over his expressions, he might have let a carnivorous smile slip. “The Raven Queen is said to bear grudges,” he said simply.
Kiernan did an admirable job of controlling his expression, but his fingers twitched.
Thaddeus continued, “There are some accounts that she fought against these terrorists, though the exact reason for her actions is debatable.”
“Grudges,” Kiernan repeated. His eyes narrowed slyly. “You’ve been working against her on this investigation for some time now, but as I understand it, the Raven Queen not only failed to harm your apprentice when they met, but gave him a boon. What could be the cause of that?”
Thaddeus thought Kiernan might have intended it as some kind of vague threat, but the question only pushed control of the conversation directly into Thaddeus’s hands. And how convenient, that Kiernan had something Thaddeus wanted. “Perhaps she understands my motivations,” he said. After a moment to let those words hang in the air, he added, “I am an inquisitive creature.”
This time, Kiernan couldn’t control the widening of his eyes. “Oh?”
Thaddeus took a half-step closer so as to loom just slightly over the other man and continued, “Indeed. I act as a consultant because Titus Westbay is a friend, and because I find the subject of these investigations rather fascinating, but mostly because I enjoy being let in on details not available elsewhere. I find such edification rather…useful. As you may know, my vows to the Red Guard preclude me taking superseding vows of loyalty to the Crowns—which is why I am only an unofficial consultant.”
Kiernan was not slow to understand Thaddeus’s implication, judging by the suspicion and surprise warring for dominance on his face.
“In return for access to interesting information, I offer my own knowledge, whether that be my understanding of magic, simple observations about things I have seen, or deductions based on the evidence provided. Often, the obvious is sitting right under their nose, waiting for me to point it out. In truth, however, I have no particular investment in helping the coppers to find the Raven Queen.” It was both a threat of what he might tell, and an offer of what he could do for Kiernan instead. The University might be an enemy to the Raven Queen just as the coppers were, but at this point Thaddeus found it unlikely that she could be in any true danger from either party, and thus had no compunction about giving his nominal aid.
Kiernan cleared his throat roughly. “What kind of information, exactly, do you find so interesting that it entices you to spend your precious time assisting them?”
“Well, you know my prior field of work. Quite fascinating. But there is a reason I took this liaison position at the University. Like you, I, too, have an interest in history. I am an expert in pre-Cataclysm society and languages, for instance, many of which survived to this day only due to the strong protections keeping them isolated and preserved. As I understand it, your people have found the decryption of the texts you retrieved quite stymieing. You asked me why the Raven Queen has showed no malice to me. Perhaps she is laying the foundation for a collaboration attempt. She may be experiencing similar difficulties with her stolen text, and realize that I could be a solution.”
Kiernan took a step back, startling when he reached the edge of the protective shield, which Thaddeus had allowed to shrink in around them, and caught a splash of cold rain across his back.
But Thaddeus was not finished yet. “Even you will likely be forced to bring in outside experts soon if you cannot show progress, perhaps hired by the Crown Families. The potential significance of what you have found is simply too great to allow failure, no matter the technicalities of the law.”
They both remained silent for a long few moments, the rain beating against Thaddeus’s Will and running down the sides of the sphere in distorting ripples.
Finally, Kiernan spoke. “It occurs to me that someone of your capabilities might find this decryption project quite intellectually stimulating.”
“And as you’ve said, you cannot take vows to the Crowns.”
Thaddeus remained silent.
“But would you be willing to take a non-disclosure vow?”
“I would,” Thaddeus replied immediately. That did not mean, necessarily, that he would be willing to keep said vow.
Kiernan swallowed, looked at the ground for a moment, and then met Thaddeus’s gaze again. He nodded sharply. “Very well. As we will be working so closely together, I hope that you will take the opportunity to sate my curiosity when applicable, as well. And if the Raven Queen does contact you… Perhaps she is curious, too.” As if doubting that Thaddeus was clever enough to understand his meaning, Kiernan clarified, “She may be interested in a similar exchange of information. After all, we do still have the rest of Myrddin’s research journals, and everything else left behind in his hermitage.”
“Perhaps we will have a chance to find out,” Thaddeus murmured, a twist of vicious amusement curling in his belly.
12/29: And we’re in to Book 4!
Book 3, A Sacrifice of Light is out now, if you’d like to grab a copy of your own. Universal Bookstore Link: books2read.com/SacrificeOfLight
If you could spread the word about the latest book, it would help a lot. Word of mouth from fans is the absolute best form of marketing, better than anything I can do myself, better than anything I can pay for.
In other news, there will be no chapter next week, as I’ve got a lot of admin and marketing work to do surrounding the launch of a book, and I also need a little break to recover from working “overtime” basically the whole month of December.
I have some bonus content/deleted scenes that will be coming out on the Patreon when I get them back from my editor, so those may take the place of the regular chapter.
I will be back with the regularly scheduled Thursday chapter on January 12. (And replying to emails and messages as soon as I have time.)
Thank you guys for all your support.
I really mean that.
EDIT 1/9: Please Read https://www.azaleaellis.com/blog/slight-delay-due-to-sickness/