Chapter 175 – Everywhere at Once

Thaddeus

Month 4, Day 9, Friday 5:00 p.m.

Thaddeus hurried back down to the carriage, where Investigator Kuchen was reading out a new message from the distagram.

“Update. Possible false lead on divination results. Previous signs pointed to the center of the raven swarm, but we are now showing multiple results spread throughout the city. Preliminary divination suggests the ravens themselves are the target.”

Silence spread through the nearby coppers, which Titus broke with a slew of vicious cursing. He lifted his hands to his hair as if to pull on it, then forced them back to his sides. “Thaddeus,” he said, as if he were a man dying of thirst and Thaddeus had just walked by with a canteen in his hands. “What can you tell me?”

“The Raven Queen is mocking you—us,” Thaddeus corrected quickly. “We have made several failed attempts at divination, and now, she shows us that not only is she immune when she so wishes, but that even when we believe we have found her, it will come to nothing. We can make plans to capture her, but she can make plans, too, and hers will succeed where ours fail. And make us look foolish and ineffectual, at that.”

Thank you, I could have guessed that well enough,” Titus said between gritted teeth. “Do you have anything useful? Any clues? Was this a distraction for an attack on the Edictum Council, perhaps? Are the ravens just some clever trick, or do we need to call in the Red Guard in force?”

Before Thaddeus could answer, the distagram activated once more. They all watched the pen scrawl hastily across the strip of paper.

Kuchen tore off the strip, cleared his throat loudly, and read, “A raven has delivered a letter to the Edictum Council. Attending Red Guard team successfully suppressed the ensuing panic. Several injuries, no deaths. Raven in custody, letter in containment wards. Ennis Naught remains in custody.”

Thaddeus and Titus shared a look, and then both hurried back to the carriage. Titus ordered several of the coppers to remain behind to secure the scene and investigate the source of the raven clouds. The rest would ride north, accompanying his carriage.

“She’s definitely an Aberrant,” Kuchen announced as they began to move.

“You have made that suggestion before,” Thaddeus snapped, “and we covered the evidence against it, just as we have the evidence against your other unfounded and frankly laughable theories. No matter the feat she just managed, that evidence still remains. Aberrants cannot cast spells. Like a magical beast, they propagate only their own inherent effect, simple or complex as it might be. Is your imagination truly so stunted, that you cannot comprehend how this could have been done?” he asked, gesturing vaguely to the sky. “Or are you simply so ignorant that any innovative action must be ascribed to the mystical, inhuman abilities of an Aberrant?”

Kuchen shrank back in his seat.

Titus sighed wearily. “Thaddeus,” he admonished succinctly.

Taking courage from this, Kuchen thrust out his chin defiantly. “Where did she come from, then? Such a powerful thaumaturge takes time to develop. One with a personality such as hers surely couldn’t have gone entirely unnoticed. The Red Guard have assured us she’s not one of yours, and while they could be hiding the truth, all the other countries we have discreetly reached out to have denied any association. Is it impossible that she is an Aberrant, one like the Red Sage or the Dawn Troupe, who require some low cunning to be effective?”

Kuchen leaned forward, lowering his voice, and continued. “I have heard the rumors of Aberrants that do not simply seem to be devious, their actions the rote artfulness of an ant hive or the routine instruction of a golem, but who are actually intelligent. In which case, their malice could be both deliberate and resourceful. Is it impossible that she is only pretending to be a thaumaturge?”

Thaddeus narrowed his eyes, wondering where, exactly, the man had heard such rumors.

Titus lifted his leg and rested the ankle atop his other knee. “Thaddeus would know best, but I haven’t heard of any Aberrant with quite so varied a repertoire as she displays. What would her concept be? ‘Dark miracles?’” He laughed humorlessly. “Or something that grew more powerful the more people thought about her?” He frowned, suddenly concerned.

Thaddeus opened his mouth to cut this fear mongering off before it could make the other two any more irrational. “The fact that other countries have denied association means nothing. They could easily be lying, for a variety of reasons. If we want to come up with dubious conjecture, perhaps she was living in Myrddin’s hermitage, shielded from the effects of the Black Wastes by the man’s wards, which remained intact and active until recently. Or…perhaps she arrived from elsewhere. There has been another that emerged from the lands beyond, who had both astonishing power and control of bewildering feats. And, if I might add, my research into the topic suggests that Raaz Kalvidasan, Siobhan Naught’s adopted grandfather, may have had some connection to the Third Empire’s cohort.”

Titus’s grip tightened around his ankle. “You think she came from over the northern ice oceans? From beyond the Abyssal Sea?”

Thaddeus threw up his hands in exasperation. “I do not think that. I only mention it as a possible alternative to your investigator’s fear-mongering accusations. I have no opinion on the matter, as without more evidence, the only one who could give us answers at this point is the Raven Queen herself.”

They were distracted from the conversation by another distagram message. Apparently, witnesses reported seeing the Raven Queen atop a building near the Edictum Council shortly before the raven messenger arrived. If true, this would place her there while the raven clouds were dancing kilometers further south. The Raven Queen had, again, disappeared, and though some witnesses believed she had done so by bursting into a flock of ravens, reports were conflicting, and no flock of ravens had been seen near the Edictum Council.

Kuchen made no comment but gave Thaddeus an acerbic glance, as if this was further evidence of the man’s pet theory.

Very shortly afterward, this news was followed up with a report that the Raven Queen was at the University. “She attacked the divination team at Eagle Tower,” Kuchen said with inappropriate excitement. He settled, coughing a few times into his handkerchief, and then asked Thaddeus, “How could she possibly have traveled so fast, if she cannot fly or travel through shadows?”

Titus did pull at the sides of his hair this time. “The High Crown will have my head,” he muttered, staring down at his shoes.

Kuchen’s head whipped toward him, and after a moment, the man spoke tentatively. “Do you mean that…literally?”

Titus sighed and leaned back, resting his head on the back cushion. “No. I haven’t committed treason or shown any disloyalty. But he may try to use this to weaken the Westbays’ position, touting my incompetence. And my father…will not like that,” he said simply, ominously.

When they arrived at the Edictum Council, which was on the way to the University, the distagram scribbled out one final message. “The Raven Queen has escaped. None dead, several injured. Blood sample lost.”

Titus’s cheeks flushed with futile rage, and his foot tapped out a slow, even rhythm on the carriage floor.

As they jumped out of the carriage and strode toward the conspicuous building, one of the coppers stationed there stepped up and walked beside them. “No further disturbances since we sent the dispatch,” the woman reported in rapid, clipped tones. “Ennis Naught remains in custody, though he made quite the racket about it. Tried to fight his way free with a pair of manacles and his bare hands, alternating screams for help and curses on his daughter’s name. He even managed to somehow get his hands on a civilian woman’s hair pin and unlock his manacles, but our security was too strong for him.”

“What of the letter?” Titus asked.

“And the raven?” Kuchen added.

“The letter is being examined for curses and nasty surprises, but so far it seems mundane. The raven is dead. Attempts to communicate with it led nowhere. We called in a shaman to try a dream-walking with the bird, but apparently there was a small explosive artifact embedded in its stomach.”

“Dream-walking? With a bird?” Thaddeus repeated incredulously.

The woman looked at him, shrugging with embarrassment. “Well, we figured, what if it wasn’t just a bird?”

Kuchen nodded in solidarity. “And why the explosive, if they weren’t worried that, somehow, we would learn something from it?”

“Why the living bird at all, if she could have just delivered it with a raven made of shadows and nightmare?” Thaddeus asked sardonically.

The copper looked between the three of them with increasing worry. “Wait, really? I thought her shadows could only curse you with nightmares and stuff. Not become tangible.”

Kuchen shook his head sadly. “Grandmaster Lacer is mocking us. He believes the Raven Queen to be a totally mundane sorceress.”

“Not totally mundane,” Thaddeus corrected, taking advantage of his long legs to walk faster and escape.

The letter had been removed from the middle of the Edictum Council’s central floor and placed in a smaller conference room. It sat on the center of a marble table, surrounded by experts doing various tests. Thaddeus stood to the side, looking over their heads and doing some tests of his own, at a distance. When they finally broke the black wax seal and removed the sheet of paper within, he took advantage of a simple spell to read the contents.

His lips twitched, his nostrils flared, and he read it again. As ever, the Raven Queen seemed determined to be as theatrical as possible. She must have laughed herself breathless, knowing the kind of furor this would cause. It was almost worth three weeks of waiting, if this was what she had been preparing. Perhaps whatever she had done at the University would tie it all together.

Titus pushed the supposed experts aside, snatching the paper off the table and reading aloud.

“On a cold wind blew strife.

The thief of fire,

Will be a light in the darkness,

A candle against the night,

And will laugh as she feasts.

 

Save your tears for yesterday.

As you dream of cracked roads,

And tend your garden of sticks.

For madness makes no plans,

And there is but one cure for the living.

 

A scream into the void echoes.

Black eyes see nothing,

But a fortune of dust,

Empty bellies and sharp teeth,

And payment in bone.”

A long silence followed his recitation, and then one of the cursebreakers muttered, “You shouldn’t have read it aloud. I’ve heard tale of subtle curses that require your participation. Do you feel any different?”

Titus looked up from the page, scowling at the man with the descending rage of a hurricane. He hurled the page at the cursebreaker, then turned and marched back the way he had come as the paper fluttered ineffectually through the air.

Thaddeus waited a moment as those who remained began to talk over each other. When he finally met Siobhan Naught—if that ever had been her name in truth—perhaps she would be interested to hear the effects of her schemes from one who had experienced the uproar firsthand.

“What do you think it means?”

“Is the Raven Queen the thief of fire? A reference to the old Titanic myths, do you think? We may need to call in a lore master.”

“The first letters are all capitalized. Perhaps it’s an anagram. ‘Bestow…’ something.”

“Payment in bone? What does that mean?”

“She laughs as she feasts, empty belly, sharp teeth. Sounds like some sort of cannibalistic blood sorcery to me. That may be where she gets her power.”

“Dream of cracked roads. Is this all dream symbolism? Where’s the shaman?”

The air grew thick with the heat of their frantic inquiry, their questions tripping over each other. High pitched, a woman asked, “Could it be a prophecy?” The room quieted.

“Prophecies are a myth,” an old man snapped back quickly. “Not even an Archmage prognos can accurately predict events past a few days.”

Thaddeus knew what the next words would be even before they were spoken. It would have irritated him, but obviously this kind of fatuous speculation was the point.

“The Red Sage makes prophecies.”

The speaker was a blue-skinned man wearing the trinkets of a shaman. He spoke the words slowly, a quiet but forceful rebuttal.

Silence fell for a while longer, and then the old man replied, “But those are all recorded. Unless the Red Guard has been keeping a secret?”

All eyes turned to Thaddeus.

He shook his head and, as always seemed to be his maddening responsibility, opened his mouth to be the voice of reason. “No. Let me remind you, a prediction, or even a promise, need not be a prophecy.” He turned to leave, then. If he lingered too long, Titus would leave without him.

When Thaddeus reached the carriage, Titus gave a rap and the horses sprang forward.

They sat in silence for a moment before Kuchen tentatively asked, “What do you think the letter meant?”

Titus stared out of the window unseeingly. “It means, ‘Despair, for you will never win. Spread my fame and cement the futility of your existence in the minds of all those who would bow to you. I name you enemy.’”

Kuchen blinked twice in bewilderment, then turned to Thaddeus beseechingly.

“Titus is right,” Thaddeus agreed, somewhat relieved that the man hadn’t succumbed to irrationality. “Yes, the Raven Queen has a tendency to weave clever hints into her actions and communication, but I think it most likely that her message here does not require over-deciphering.” Thaddeus, at least, had noticed none of the signs of the hidden codes he was familiar with.

“She has been quite explicit, after all. She has challenged us, insulted us, and predicted her own ferocious superiority against our futile end. She has also, I believe, made a statement about her ability to protect and shelter where we cannot, as a light in the darkness, and a candle against the night. One who has the resources to feast, while our fortune becomes dust.”

Titus closed his eyes for a long moment. “With every appearance, she grows more important in the rumors and superstitions of the commoners, gaining a foothold of interest and support among those who consider themselves misused and underprivileged. But this… There is no coming back from today.”

“There’s still a chance to catch her,” Kuchen comforted, though Thaddeus wasn’t sure the man really believed it.

“She wasn’t even attempting to free her father,” Titus murmured.

“I agree,” Thaddeus said, inordinately pleased by this for some reason. Ennis Naught was a worthless, betraying plebeian. “In fact, she seemed more interested in the offense of attempting to divine her location than in the man,” he added. Though, with someone like her, there was no way to know how many layers deep her plan went, nor how many different goals she was able to accomplish at once.

“Maybe she will attack the prisoner convoy, or try to abscond with him from the labor camp,” Kuchen offered.

“We can only hope,” Titus said. His heel resumed tapping on the carriage floor in a steady, deliberate rhythm that reminded Thaddeus of Titus’s father. Of course, in Titus the tapping signified anxiety, whereas in Lord Tyron Westbay, it meant cold anger and thoughts of how he might take that anger out upon others.

The three of them fell to silence.

The sirens blaring over the University grounds were audible even from the base of the glass transportation tubes. When they reached the top, Titus winced and ordered someone to turn them off. “Everyone who needs to be protected will already be in one of the shelters. No need for the racket to keep reminding us, though I would predict that she’s long gone by now.”

Thaddeus found it amusing that they had felt the need to set off the sirens in the first place. The Raven Queen, as far as he knew, had never purposefully harmed a civilian—at least not those who did not act against her.

When Titus asked to talk to the people who had encountered the Raven Queen, they were directed to the infirmary. The rest of the faculty were all out searching the grounds, though more than a few of them seemed like they would rather do anything except actually find her.

Within the infirmary, the situation was worse.

A few men had obvious injuries—broken limbs, burns, and one with a foaming poultice over his eyes and a tremor in his fingers—but several others who were seemingly unharmed lay on infirmary beds with the glassy stare that indicated heavy doses of calming potions.

In the hallway and between the beds, several coppers, a couple of professors, and two prognos loitered anxiously. The coppers stood at attention when Titus entered, and both professors gave Thaddeus smiles of relief. “Oh, thank Myrddin,” one man muttered, as if Thaddeus’s presence meant they would be safe now.

What a sorry excuse for a professor at the most prestigious University in the known lands.

Some of those in the beds tried to stand, but Titus waved them down. “Copper Alma, report,” he commanded.

A short woman stepped forward, gave a shallow bow, and said, “The Raven Queen came down from the roof and through the window. There were no signs of approach. She just suddenly appeared. We suspect she was there the whole time, for hours perhaps, just waiting for us to arrive and then to lower our guard. The ravens were a decoy and a reason for us to bring the last of the blood out.”

“That’s impossible,” Kuchen interrupted. “Even if she somehow commanded the ravens from afar, who sent the bird to the Edictum Council, then? She must have flown. Were you keeping guard against birds, too? Or maybe she traveled through the shadows.”

“It’s not even night,” someone muttered.

Copper Alma shook her head. “We had the Radiant wards on around the tower to keep a barrier against encroaching shadow.”

“And we watched for ravens,” the man with the poultice over his eyes called. “Unless she literally appeared from nothing, she was hiding in wait all along.”

“We checked the wards,” the woman added. “No suspicious entries, though there is one professor who was noted as entering the building early this morning. We haven’t been able to find him.”

“So someone stole his faculty token,” Thaddeus deduced easily enough. “You should investigate his whereabouts. Are you entirely certain it was the Raven Queen herself who attacked you?”

“It was her,” one of the glassy-eyed coppers lying in bed interjected. “She wore a dark cloak, but I know it was her. Who else could swallow up the night and then vomit it out again?”

Titus raised an eyebrow.

Alma cleared her throat uncomfortably. “I apologize, sir. As she has been known to do, the Raven Queen used a philtre of darkness. We think. It was…unlike anything I’ve ever encountered. The counter-potions and spells we prepared were useless against it. Several of the men insist that the darkness was coming…from her.”

The man on the bed interjected again. “It was, it was! It was spilling from her face. But her face wasn’t a face like ours, it was just a single mouth, an open maw of darkness, and out of it rode Night, and when I breathed it, Night became part of me and I knew—I knew I was seen. I was seen,” he repeated in a hoarse wail that devolved into sobbing.

One of the healers rushed over and forced another potion down his throat, glaring at Titus.

One of the coppers beside Alma straightened his shoulders with determination. “I saw it, too. I think the darkness might have been another form of the shadow creature that is said to accompany her. It’s—” He swallowed. “It’s the only thing that makes sense.”

One of the prognos who must have been casting the divination spell piped up then. “She was several of the ravens, too. Not all of them, just a few dozen. I know that doesn’t make sense, but I know what I saw. When they dispersed, it was like she split into that many pieces. I cannot advise whether she has some strange familiar contract that allowed them to be located in her stead, or if it is some more uncanny magic at play.”

Thaddeus ran his fingers over his beard, frowning as he studied the traumatized group. “Are we entirely sure that she was spotted near the Edictum Council? How reliable are the eyewitnesses? Perhaps some work with a diviner or shaman is in order, to solidify the veracity of their testimony.”

Kuchen had the gall to roll his eyes at Thaddeus before conceding to contact the team there.

Thaddeus resisted the urge to shoot the man with a sobering spell, reminding himself that idiocy was not something that could be cured. Not past childhood, at least.

Instead, he turned his efforts to deduction. Thaddeus decided to set aside the strange shadow phenomenon, which could be accomplished with innovative spellwork. A little bit of fear, a tinge of emotion called up through transmogrification, and the ignorant would firmly believe in the power of dark miracles. The mind rewrote memories every time they were called upon, and the truth was so easily restructured.

If it were Thaddeus who had come up with this plan, perhaps the magic calling and directing the conspiracy of ravens would have been something he imbued into an artifact. She had enough connections among the underbelly of society to put someone in charge of activating it and then secreting it away again when it ran out of power.

The raven that delivered the letter to the Edictum Council could have been the same, and any supposed sightings of the Raven Queen nearby based on an illusion. None of the divination results had shown a hit on her appearance there, though of course that did not necessarily mean anything. They had also failed to notice that she was hiding on the roof.

As for the ravens triggering the divination in lieu of the Raven Queen, showing her anywhere and everywhere that she obviously was not, he could think of three different methods off the top of his head to create such an effect.

None of this meant that the Raven Queen was any less special. Only less mystical and unfathomable. He was sure all of her secrets had an answer, and all the evidence that seemed to conflict, a resolution.

What fascinated Thaddeus was not her supposed strange abilities. He, too, could be said to have strange abilities by those who knew no better. No, he was interested in her mind—her knowledge and ambitions.

Titus, Thaddeus, and Kuchen remained at the University for hours, investigating Eagle Tower and the grounds with those of the diviners who were well enough to continue working. As fascinating as the events of the day had been, Thaddeus still found them somewhat underwhelming.

Was this…it? Thaddeus had done nothing more than chase her tail like the rest of them. He had not even managed to see the Raven Queen with his own eyes. He had thought to be more than just another spectator. Had he made a mistake in joining the coppers? But without their information network, he might have been even further behind.

And then, as if in answer to his dissatisfaction, there was a commotion to the east, noticed by one of the faculty members still out patrolling. Thaddeus set aside any foolish notions of decorum and ran full out in a straight line across the grounds, his coat and hair flying behind him until he reached the edge of the white cliff. Titus and several other coppers chased behind him.

Thaddeus free-cast a far-seeing lens spell and looked through the Circle hanging in the air in front of him.

About three hundred meters below and half a kilometer out, the Raven Queen, identifiable by the darkness she wore like a billowing cloak against the spotlight shining on her, had seemingly stolen a boat. An eclectic group accompanied her, scrambling to manage the marine vehicle while she stood still, looking back at her pursuers.

Titus slowed to a panting stop beside Thaddeus and stretched his neck to see through his spell. “Pendragon Corps.”

“Indeed. What has she been up to, I wonder?” Thaddeus murmured, his eyes flicking over the situation with minute adjustments to the spell.

As he watched, one of the people with her used a rope to lob something at the boat attempting to follow them. It was an impressive throw. Several of the High Crown’s men jumped overboard before the thing exploded with light bright enough to sear Thaddeus’s eyes. He blinked, dropping the lens spell in favor of a soothing spell to clear his watering, spotted vision.

“Cast the telescope spell again, Thaddeus,” Titus commanded. “I think she’s kidnapped a couple of the High Crown’s men. Did you see the uniforms?”

Thaddeus hesitated. For a moment, a vindictive urge ran through him. How would the Raven Queen react if he stopped her boat dead in the water or released some flashy attack? But that would be foolish, and he was not desperate. He considered his goal and the best method to achieve it, and turned his focus elsewhere.

Thaddeus sent out a surreptitious spell to create a line of force so thin it might as well have been a garrote. He placed it at neck height in front of the two operatives running alongside the Raven Queen’s boat in the dark.

It was a long way to detach the output of a spell, but he had the finesse and control to manage it. Often, this was more important than sheer power. He made no motion of his fingers, did not turn his head to target them obviously, and did not react to their aborted cries of surprise as the wards of their uniforms protected them barely long enough to realize that they were in danger. Their bodies would be found before morning.

With that done, he brought the lens spell back, wondering if the Raven Queen would notice his small contribution to her escape. Her face was obscured under the cloak of darkness, but he thought she seemed to be looking up at him in acknowledgement.

She had noticed. Could she see him at this distance? Perhaps she was even free-casting her own lens spell right at that moment.

Taking a closer look at her companions, Thaddeus confirmed that two were indeed wearing the Pendragon Corps colors. There was also a woman in a maid uniform, several Verdant Stag and Nightmare Pack symbols, and two small children. All looked worse for wear.

When one of the Pendragon operatives used a harpoon to spear the blue-and-gold uniformed man by the Raven Queen’s side, Thaddeus revised his opinion on their loyalty. “Did they defect?” He failed to hide the delight in his tone, but Titus either did not notice or did not care. Thaddeus also noted that her darkness had moved as if to shield against the attack, but failed to stop it. Another piece of evidence that it was not tangible.

The escapees soon reached the edge of the lighthouse’s range, and as her boat melted back into the darkness of the moonless night, Thaddeus dropped the lens spell and added one last, secret contribution to her endeavors in the form of a gaping wound in the hull of her pursuer’s boat, well under the water line.

 

Want to get an email with links as soon as a new chapter comes out on my website, or get monthly Inner Circle news about my writing and free chapters of The Catastrophe Collector spinoff story? Sign up for your preference here: https://landing.mailerlite.com/webforms/landing/q4b8d8

Seeing a locked chapter that should be unlocked?: https://www.azaleaellis.com/trouble-accessing-chapters/

Liked it? Take a second to support Azalea Ellis on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
24 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments