Chapter 168 – Raven Clouds

Thaddeus

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

Everyone in the room except for Thaddeus was nervous, though some hid it better than others. He had taken one of the best seats in the back corner of Harrow Hill’s third floor meeting room, positioned next to a window.

An entire row of distagrams sat against one of the walls, manned by a couple of apprehensive young coppers. Everyone who wasn’t on duty at the Edictum Council or out patrolling the streets was here. Only those so ill or injured as to be on bed rest were off duty.

In addition, a squad of Red Guard agents had made an appearance—under relentless pressure from the High Crown—and a couple of the man’s own Pendragon Corps operatives stood near the door. They both remained silent and straight-backed, sneering at the rest, even the Red Guard agents.

The Pendragon Corps had ostentatious uniforms and sparkling artifacts, and they received special training that the First Crown Family had always touted as being the best of the best. However, the operatives rarely saw combat—even less than the average copper. It used to be that the Pendragon Corps took their numbers from people who had shown real competence in the army or as beast hunters. Historically, they even recruited extremely skilled criminals who had done nothing heinous or public enough to taint the High Crown’s reputation, offering those people service in lieu of penal servitude or death.

Now, at least half of their recruits were straight out of the University, and Thaddeus had heard rumors that the honor of the position was warring with the realities of withstanding the High Crown’s egomania and increasing paranoia.

And yet, they sneered at the coppers, swaggered through the streets, and imagined themselves equals of the Red Guard. Totally preposterous.

Unfortunately, the Pendragon operatives’ current disdain was all too understandable.

Agent Berg, the man who had botched the Moore break event aftercare, was one of those sent to assist. He was as loud as usual. Was he partially deaf, or simply oblivious?

“It was as big as a building!” Berg bragged, throwing his arms wide as several awe-struck coppers listened. “But we’re trained to handle such things, and you wouldn’t believe the kind of artifacts we get in the Red Guard. One spell, one ankle blown clean off!” He displayed none of the quietly assertive excellence that was associated with their organization’s public face.

Thus, the Pendragon operatives’ disdain.

Even Thaddeus’s apprentice Sebastien would be a better Red Guard recruit than that Berg buffoon. The thought of Sebastien caused Thaddeus a flicker of concern. Hopefully, Siverling was safe in the University dorms. This would be just the sort of thing that foolish, overly confident boy would somehow get caught up in.

But no matter Agent Berg’s attempts at distraction through braggadocio, thoughts inevitably turned back toward the reason for their presence.

“Do you have anything special to deal with the Raven Queen?” one of the coppers asked.

“If she shows her face in front of me, it’ll be the last thing she ever does as a free woman!” Berg announced, grinning widely with his hands on his hips.

A few of the coppers shared glances, dubious. “Will she show up for sure?”

Thaddeus tuned out their conversation, looking out over the city, already teeming with people like ants in a hive, all heading toward the same central point. He had considered turning down Titus’s request to act as a consultant and one more point of backup so that he could attend the sentencing, but Thaddeus had a feeling that Siobhan Naught would surprise them. He wanted to be able to respond to that. Harrow Hill was the place that would receive information most quickly, and both horses and carriages were available for quick deployment.

It had been over three weeks now since he spoke to Lord Stag about his desire to meet the Raven Queen, and she still had not responded. She was ignoring him. The knuckles of Thaddeus’s right hand grew white as he made a fist and then very deliberately released it. He could be patient. But he would not be complacent. And if she insisted on playing games, he would have to force her to pay attention.

With a curious sideways look at Thaddeus, one of the coppers asked loudly enough to purposefully be overheard, “Have you Red Guard agents seen anything like the Raven Queen before?”

Thaddeus had experienced quite a lot of fascinating and horrific things. He didn’t remember a time when he was unaware of the horrors this world could birth, but he had experienced it firsthand during his first—and last—dragon hunt. It wasn’t the magical beast itself that had been the worst of it. No, that was his teammates. The other people. And then, of course, what became of them.

In the Haze War, Thaddeus had seen wondrous magic and enormous wealth, all used for the purpose of death and domination. All that effort and waste, born from greed and, in the end, coming to nothing. What a waste of resources.

But above all, his years of active service with the Red Guard had exposed Thaddeus to sublime magic, strange ideas, and overwhelming power—all of these things coming both from their agents and from what they fought against to protect the world. The Red Guard collected the best thaumaturges, the most knowledgeable researchers, and innovators so close to the cutting edge that they sometimes slipped over it.

Rarely, however, had he met an individual so fascinating as the Raven Queen. She was simply so entertaining.

Thaddeus scowled. If today didn’t bear some sort of fruit, he would go back to the Verdant Stag with a more pressing offer. Though perhaps the Nightmare Pack would be the better option. He had heard they had a connection to the Raven Queen as well.

Thaddeus was drawn from his irritated musing as Harrow Hill’s captain walked in. In any other copper station, he would have been the highest-ranking individual, but here he was accompanied by Titus Westbay, the Lord Commander of the coppers. Investigator Kuchen trailed behind them, as unpleasantly phlegmatic as ever.

Titus nodded at Thaddeus, then went to stand against the wall opposite the distagrams, watching the captain move to the podium at the front of the room.

The captain cleared his throat loudly—and quite unnecessarily—as the room had fallen silent as soon as the trio entered. Everyone was waiting with bated breath for what they might say.

“Today, we hope to capture the criminal and blood sorceress Siobhan Naught, better known by her alias the Raven Queen. We hope to lure her to the Edictum Council, where our friends in the Red Guard have placed additional protections for the civilians. If all goes well, we will forcefully reroute her to a nearby safe location, which will facilitate her capture. We have some of the best thaumaturges in the nation working on this, but as you know, the Raven Queen has proven slippery and cunning before. We cannot afford to become complacent.”

The man glanced at Titus, and his fingers twitched in an aborted motion for the handkerchief in his breast pocket before he remembered himself. It wouldn’t look very confidence-inspiring to see the captain wiping beads of stress-induced sweat off of his bald pate in the middle of a speech.

“We are working in teams of four,” the man continued. “Some teams will spread throughout the area near the Edictum Council for immediate response, and some will be held here, ready for rapid deployment via horseback. Each team is fully prepared for contact.”

Thaddeus held back a snort. If that were true, the man wouldn’t need to say it in a bid to reassure his underlings.

“Two of the four members are devoted to shielding. Those of you with that job will carry several defensive artifacts that cover not only the standard protective wards, but also have specific spells formulated to protect against her known offensive abilities. In addition to that, all members have personal anti-nightmare curse wards. Please make sure that you’ve checked out all the equipment assigned to you and know how to use it.”

Thaddeus looked to Titus, one eyebrow raised. Could it be possible that any man or woman here would have neglected the proper training on the use of what were touted to be such life-saving defensive artifacts? Thaddeus would have doubted such stupidity could exist, but some uncomfortable shuffling amongst the rank and file suggested otherwise. Or, more generously, they might be nervous, unconvinced that Harrow Hill’s preparations would suffice.

“As we believe she may somehow be able to travel through shadows, and indeed many of her abilities being based around darkness and night, we have provided high-power light artifacts that will create a glowing barrier large enough to fit a single team. But more importantly, one member of each team has been assigned an artifact that will cast a series of miniature sun replicas in the air above you. This should allow you to negate many of her abilities.

“Watch for the shadow companion,” the captain warned. “It is known to turn into a flock of ravens, which are capable of flight and could attack from unexpected directions. Keep your eyes to the shadows and the skies.”

Thaddeus gave in to the juvenile urge to roll his eyes.

“And if you do come into contact with the Raven Queen, either out on patrol or as the first responders to an alert…” The captain trailed off, eyes tracking across the men and women heating the room with their nervous, stinking breath and sweat-flushed skin.

“The final member of each team has been equipped with several incapacitating options, which you should use immediately if it seems she will attack or escape. But, if you do come into contact with her,” he repeated, “remember that stalling is a reasonable and acceptable tactic. The very first thing you should do upon a confirmed sighting is to call for backup, which will be another two four-man teams, plus a Red Guard duo and one of Lord Pendragon’s personal operatives. If you can stall until backup arrives, we will overwhelm her with power, versatility, and skill.”

There was some muttering, then, and the captain pushed over it by raising his voice. “Our profilers suggest that if you do not show aggression toward her, she is mischievous and perhaps whimsical enough to stop and communicate with you. Even, perhaps, while knowing that backup is on the way. She is supremely confident and may feel that she is in no danger, planning to flip the tables in a big surprise.

“However.” He lifted one hand with his forefinger outstretched to emphasize his point, his speech slowing so that each word was distinguished from the others. “If you do converse with her, be extremely careful not to make any deals. This covers not only overt bargains, but also any kind of agreement for exchanges, or seemingly harmless favors.”

This caused even more muttering and nervous shuffling, but the captain made a few more mundane points and then broke off for one of his subordinates to give half the teams their patrol routes for the day.

With the meeting ended and half of the coppers filing out into the dangerous world, Thaddeus resigned himself to a long wait. He perked up every time the distagram operation reported a message from one of the patrolling teams, which they could send from one of the many waystations in their network. Each time, he was disappointed.

There were some small skirmishes and mundane arrests, but nothing worthy of Thaddeus’s interest. It wasn’t until much later in the day, when the sentencing had started, that something finally happened.

Thaddeus noticed the strange phenomenon himself before the distagram relayed the information. Sitting by the window, his eyes had been drawn to the faint dots of distant birds in the sky without his conscious input. His focus narrowed as he realized that these birds were aggregating unnaturally.

He stood, the scrape of his chair against the stone floor drawing tense eyes his way from all over the room. Thaddeus ignored them, free-casting a lens spell in front of the window to peer clearly into the distance. He adjusted its focus with some quick calculations and a roll of his fingers.

A foot-wide section of the air in front of his face now showed a much closer view of a run-down building well into the Mires. It was taller than those around it, like a single still-living soldier amongst the sprawling, mutilated bodies of his former companions.

Birds congregated around the building in an increasingly thick flock, seemingly connected by a single mind, sections of their multitude twisting and turning and changing direction at a moment’s notice in some kind of unfathomable dance. Even as Thaddeus watched, more and more feathered creatures added themselves to the delphic, hypnotic concord.

“Ravens,” Thaddeus said with awe. He watched unblinking, trying to absorb every moment of the display. It was exquisite, an arrangement that seemed as if it should have been accompanied by music. He had once heard a forty-string orchestra in Paneth, and could imagine that reverberating sound fitting with this living mass of darkness that undulated in the sky above Gilbratha.

Something twinged in Thaddeus’s chest, slightly painful, poignant, and to his surprise his eyes itched and burned in response. He blinked rapidly but refused to be ashamed. This was an involuntary, universal reaction to experiencing the practical application of genius. A visual representation of the weave of magic. And every second, more ravens joined the flock.

Others had gathered at the windows and behind Thaddeus, trying to peek through his spell to get a better look.

“Sweet Myrddin,” one of the coppers whispered through dry lips.

“It’s her. That’s her,” another said, gripping the shoulder of the man beside him and shaking him as if to better get his point across.

“How are we supposed to capture that? A bright light?” a woman asked derisively, irritation only partially masking her fear.

“Teams eight, nine, ten, and eleven, move out!” the captain shouted, snapping those who weren’t already on their way into action.

Reluctantly, Thaddeus dropped his far-seeing spell and strode toward the room’s exit, then down to the front gate. Titus had arrived ahead of him, and waved for Thaddeus to join him and Kuchen in the armored carriage attached to four great destriers.

No sooner had Thaddeus closed the door behind him than the carriage sprang into motion, the acceleration pushing him back into his seat. Outside, the coachman rang the bell to warn anyone on the streets to make way.

Thaddeus watched the sky through the small window set into the door, catching glimpses of the phenomenon toward the south the few times when the carriage was faced to allow this.

His companions were as silent as he was for the most part, though Kuchen manned the carriage’s personal distagram, relaying Titus’s message to the diviners at the University and poking his head out of the window to yell precise coordinates for the center of the cloud to the driver—not that the man would need such a thing.

The entire city could see the Raven Queen’s working. People on the streets had stopped in their tracks to stare, open-mouthed, with the more adventurous climbing onto roofs. One enterprising restaurant owner was even selling tickets to his roof to watch the show—with wine and snacks.

The distagram activated, the attached pen rising up and writing in the neat, foreign hand of whoever was sending the message. Kuchen’s eyes widened as he read. When the message ended, he tore off the strip of paper and read it again. “They found her! The divinations have shown results! She’s at…” He trailed off, looking up at Titus and Thaddeus. He cleared his throat wetly. “Well, she’s in the city, to the southwest. In the center of the raven cloud, it would seem.”

“What a revelation,” Titus drawled.

Thaddeus smirked and did his best to suppress inappropriate signs of excitement as they approached. However, one small thorn marred the experience. What was so special about Ennis Naught that she was willing to go to such lengths for him?

The Mires were far from Harrow Hill, and no matter how much Thaddeus and Titus might want to, they couldn’t literally trample through the crowds of civilians filling the streets. Long minutes before they finally arrived, Thaddeus knew they would be too late, as the unkindness of ravens began to disperse. The teams that had raced ahead on horseback reported no sightings of her.

When the carriage finally stopped at the edge of the area, which was already being cordoned off, Thaddeus grimaced. The streets and buildings were covered in bird shit, the coppers were busy questioning any civilian they could get their hands on, and the building at the center of it all was empty. Thaddeus walked swiftly through each room and examined the roof for something that the others might have missed, but he noticed nothing unusual and suspected he would find nothing she hadn’t specifically left for that purpose.

No hidden clues or messages for him.

But, visible in the distance from the vantage point of the roof, the golden spire piercing up from the dome of the Edictum Council building glinted in the sun. Thaddeus couldn’t help the smile that stretched across his face, baring his teeth in wild exhilaration. “This was a diversion,” he said.

 

Edit 8/3: Special Request: I need some help figuring out an accurate and cool descriptor for my book brand. If you’re willing to help me by answering a 3-question poll, it would mean a lot. https://www.surveymonkey.com/r…

 

Original Author Note: Two things, in case you missed the note in the Catastrophe Collector chapter on Monday.

#1: I just got the audio back for all of the recent bonus content, including The Honeymoon Suite. I have now made all the audio version covers but just have to upload the files to BookFunnel. Starting tomorrow, I will be posting those stories in audio form for people at the Grandmaster of Divination tier. ($25).

#2: There is one day left for the huge sale running on my Seeds of Chaos LitRPG series, and I could use all the help I can get spreading the word.

Word of mouth is more powerful than any marketing I can do. It would be fantastically helpful if any of you could share a short message like this:

“Azalea Ellis’s entire seeds of Seeds of Chaos LitRPG series is on a huge sale, and first book is free! You can check it out here: www.amazon.com/dp/B012CLCCAK

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