Chapter 179 – Pyrrhic Failures

Thaddeus

Month 4, Day 10, Saturday 7:30 a.m.

Much of the night was spent at the Raven Queen’s various crime scenes searching for some tiny bit of evidence that might have been missed, and questioning civilians. Despite Titus’s growing agitation and the air of dogged desperation that suffused the coppers, Thaddeus took some time to nap in the carriage, as none of this was so important that he felt the need to miss an entire night of sleep. It was not he who had to answer to the High Crown, and Thaddeus was already mostly sure that the Raven Queen had left no special clues for him.

In the morning, Titus received a summons to Pendragon Palace. The shadows under his eyes seemed to grow deeper, all his frustrated energy momentarily constrained to stillness and silence. Finally, he raised his eyes to the northeast, to the white and gold palace sitting atop the white cliffs. It bathed in the light of the rising sun while the fog that rose up around it created a sort of golden aura.

Thaddeus considered for a few seconds and then invited himself along.

Titus gripped Thaddeus’s forearm and gave him a weak but sincere smile. “Thank you,” he said in a low voice, seemingly under the impression that Thaddeus had made this decision for Titus’s benefit.

Thaddeus did not disabuse him of this notion. When the three of them arrived, Investigator Kuchen stayed with the carriage to keep watch on the distagram in case urgent information should be relayed. One of the palace guards led Titus and Thaddeus to Lord Pendragon, more commonly known as the High Crown.

The man wore no crown today. He had a surprisingly lush head of long greying hair, which hung down to his lower back. It had been artfully braided in circles and looping patterns capable of holding a minor magical charge.

He was gathered with several advisors and a full cohort of his personal corps in a high-ceilinged room with an oversized settee rather than a throne. Bookshelves lined the wall behind a huge desk, which was accompanied by several smaller desks to each side.

An entire wall made of glass—or perhaps crystal—overlooked Gilbratha. Just before the transparent wall, a circular pond filled with bright blue, gold, and purple fish sat recessed into the polished white marble floor.

The High Crown stood behind the large desk, reading through reports with a heavy scowl on his face.

Though this was not the throne room or the war chambers, the handful of advisors present had placed themselves as if it were. They stood facing each other in two groups before either side of his huge desk, leaving a walkway between them. Only the High Crown and the Crown Archivist could sit. His advisors stood, with their own underlings and assistants behind them.

Behind and to the side of the High Crown’s desk, a group of Pendragon operatives stood in full uniform and at attention.

Lord Rouse, the sycophantic, information-hoarding weasel of the twelfth Crown Family, was present, with the elegantly beautiful Ambassador to the Public standing behind him, but they were missing the other ten lords of the Crown Families. Most of the other advisors were minor nobles and those more trusted by the High Crown.

That, in fact, might be why they were meeting here, rather than somewhere more traditional. Surely some of the other Crown Families had concerns about the Raven Queen.

The High Crown’s scowl grew heavier as Titus and Thaddeus entered. “Lord Commander Westbay,” he said.

Titus stiffened further, all signs of his earlier rhythmic fidgeting completely absent as he moved to stand along the front line of one of the groups, no assistants or underlings present to stand behind him. Investigator Kuchen had escaped an unpleasant situation.

Thaddeus was not beholden to the High Crown, and so he instead moved to lean against one of the support pillars a bit further back, but still close enough to see and hear everything that happened.

The Internal Inquisitor stood even further back than Thaddeus, inconspicuous against the far wall, in modest clothes that seemed to blend in. Most likely, they were enchanted to make him less remarkable, which was a desirable quality for someone in his position. This was a man that even the Crown Families feared; his duty was to deal with social unrest and treason.

“Please explain the debacle of the last twenty-four hours from your own perspective,” the High Crown ordered.

Titus went down on one knee, bowing his head. “I apologize for our failure to apprehend the Raven Queen, my lord.” The High Crown remained silent, so Titus proceeded to honestly explain the sequence of events. He did not try to make himself or his people look any worse or better than they were, and the High Crown seemed surprised at none of it.

When he was finished, the High Crown waved his hand in frustration and allowed Titus to rise from the uncomfortable position. “I wish I could say that your failure surprises me, but I am not so foolish. Woe unto those who cannot recognize a trend,” he said pointedly.

Titus did not flinch.

“This is why I came up with a backup plan that included a more urgent and compelling impetus for her to take action.” The High Crown turned to one of his most trusted advisors, the Recipient of Edicts, and nodded.

The man bowed in acknowledgment, then stepped forward. “We were able to identify and locate several targets of high value, who, taken hostage, were likely to incentivize key parties. Namely, the criminal forces who have shown a positive relationship with the Raven Queen. We judged them quite likely to beseech her for aid.”

The Recipient of Edicts swallowed to wet his throat and licked his lips. “Our divination experts and personality profilers deduced that if we gave her a hint to their location, the most likely outcome was an attack by the Raven Queen in an attempt to save these targets. Alternatively, refusal could have caused discord between the Raven Queen and her allies.” The man’s eyes flicked toward the High Crown nervously. “The marked tendency toward loyalty from those who have interacted with her has caused us a great deal of difficulty. We judged that, even in a non-optimal outcome, creating a rift could allow us to incentivize her allies to become informants.”

“Who, exactly, did you take hostage?” Thaddeus asked, his voice cutting sharply through the room despite the fact that the High Crown had not given him permission to speak. He received a few sharp looks, but no rebuke.

The advisor looked to the High Crown for permission. Receiving it, he said, “Theodore Russey and Millennium Lynwood, young scions of the Verdant Stags and the Nightmare Pack, were taken along with their companions and attempted protectors, which…may have been a mistake.” His fingers tapped nervously on the seam of his pant leg. “We couldn’t have known. The Raven Queen is rumored to care especially for children, and these two are connected to those in positions powerful enough to hold sway with her. We had hoped to take a third, for insurance, but the last escaped our grasp.”

The High Crown sent Thaddeus a sharp glance filled with a surprising amount of suspicion.

“Children?” Titus murmured. He swallowed, then followed Thaddeus’s lead in ignoring courtesy and asked, louder, “Were the children harmed? Was anyone killed?”

The advisor looked to the uniformed Pendragon Corps captain, his rank proudly announced by the badge at his shoulder. The middle-aged man had a shaved head contrasted by surprisingly thick, dark eyelashes. The captain shook his head. “Some injuries, no deaths. We inspected the children upon capture, and they were healthy.”

Titus relaxed, but Thaddeus’s mind was still hooked on that suspicious glance from the High Crown. Who else fit the criteria—young, helpless, and positively associated with the Raven Queen? The answer came quickly.

While Thaddeus’s apprentice might not be entirely useless, he would stand no chance against the Raven Queen or the Pendragon Corps. And with the boon the Raven Queen had given him, she had forged a connection between them in the High Crown’s mind.

Rage flowed through Thaddeus so quickly that he swayed on his feet from the force of it. His vision tinted red, and before he made the conscious decision to do so, he was already lifting a hand toward the High Crown, the Word of a spell to rend the man into seven pieces forming in his mind.

The High Crown flinched back, and two of his personal force hurried to place themselves between their master and the sudden danger Thaddeus presented.

Forcefully, Thaddeus reined himself in, curling his fingers into a clenched fist so tight it might leave bloody crescents in his palm. He lowered his hand.

Beside him, Titus had reared back in horror. At the back of the room, the Internal Inquisitor was watching expressionlessly. And in front of the High Crown’s desk, the Court Sorcerer was sneering at Thaddeus.

“My apprentice was the third,” Thaddeus said simply, still staring at the High Crown. “But you didn’t capture him. Where is he?”

The High Crown’s lips curled back in a combination of derision and superiority. If he were a man born of lower breeding, he might have spit on the floor and cursed. Instead he said, “If he was not with you, then who knows where that troublesome child might be? Perhaps in the bosom of the Raven Queen, even now. Remember yourself, Grandmaster Lacer. All in Lenore bow to my rule. If I had told you of my plan ahead of time, you would have given the boy to me yourself.”

Thaddeus’s eyelids fluttered with renewed rage, quickly suppressed. The Red Guard, the Architects of Khronos, and the Raven Queen herself were proof enough that the first statement was untrue. And as for the second, Thaddeus found it exceedingly unlikely that he would have capitulated to such a demand. He could think of six alternatives of varying violence—and recklessness—off the top of his head.

But Thaddeus did not say any of this out loud. Instead, he changed the subject. “Your plan worked. At least to draw her attention and ire. But obviously, she escaped. So what went wrong?”

“Obviously the information provided to His Eminence from the supposed ‘experts’ was all wrong,” Lord Rouse said, looking pointedly at the Recipient of Edicts, who adroitly shot back a nasty look using only the side of his face that was hidden from the High Crown, while the other side remained placid.

The High Crown’s temples pulsed as he clenched his jaw.

The Pendragon Corps captain nodded at another of the operatives, who stepped forward and laid out an unfolding metal Circle, obviously based on the innovations of the portable war Circles. The man used this to cast an illusion, including both visuals and sound.

The spell’s fidelity was obviously substandard, the clarity of the caster’s Will wavering. But while it might not have been technically flawless, the illusion was captivating. The man portrayed his own point of view as he and his companions loaded a group of unconscious men and women into the back of a wagon. The illusion focused on one woman in particular as the other people and environment blurred into indistinguishability.

She seemed to be in her forties, though she could be much older if she was a practiced thaumaturge, with light brown skin and long hair, both tinted with warmth. Someone, perhaps out of the operative’s sight, or even he himself, said the words, “Silvia Nakai,” in a muffled, distant tone.

The illusion fizzled out and then reappeared abruptly, this time showing the man’s view as he ran down a white stone hallway, a thick battle wand in one metal-gauntleted hand.

Darkness coalesced behind the window of a door, roiling like the surface of a cauldron. The man and his similarly outfitted companions worked together to open the door and then fire spells inside blindly.

The Raven Queen appeared in triplicate, each body of darkness moving in tandem as she ducked strangely to the side, her joints at too-sharp angles and her response speed almost inhumanly quick. A physical leg, bare at least to the thigh, poked out of the shadows in the wrong place for a moment, then drew back into the darkness.

Thaddeus stared in fascination as the Pendragon operative threw in a device about the size of a cantaloupe, and the Raven Queen shrieked a warning to her companions, the darkness abandoning its human forms and moving as if to shield her against the device’s effects.

There was a flash of brightness, so white it blinded the Pendragon operative. When the illusion returned, he and another were carrying the Raven Queen, though she was stripped of her magical shadow and looked significantly different than the woman they had first thrown into the carriage. Younger. Prettier, though in a strange way that seemed subtly and disturbingly off. And more damaged, Thaddeus noted. She sported what looked to be a shattered eye socket, and a translucent pink liquid filled her ear cavity.

They locked her in a room that, even through the filter of the man’s recollection, was eye-searingly bright, and then the memory jumped once again.

One of the other operatives, injured and panicked, sent this man and several others off to catch the escaped Raven Queen. Then, in a jerky transition, the view panned over the dead bodies of those who had stayed behind. “If Parker hadn’t sent us away, that would have been us, too,” the caster murmured. “We thought maybe he ran when she attacked, or maybe his body was cooling in the dark somewhere unseen. But no. We found him soon.”

Again, time was skipped, and now the man was running with a group through a dark hallway. They turned a corner and came upon the Raven Queen and a dozen or so others, a bright lantern sending stark shadows stretching out behind them. The same operative who had sent them away stood behind her.

A murmur arose, and Thaddeus let out a sharp breath of amusement through his nose. How embarrassing for the High Crown. The Red Guard’s methods of ensuring loyalty were seemingly much more effective than those of the Pendragon Corps, but Thaddeus knew well that nothing could truly ensure loyalty from one who did not wish to give it. Many a witch had discovered this. Even Thaddeus himself was proof of that fact.

The Raven Queen turned toward the caster’s point of view slowly, the movement of her head trailing unnaturally behind her body. The upper half of her face was visible here, the darkness of her cloak, hair, and feathers fluttering in a wind that seemed to touch only her. Her eye socket was significantly less damaged, as if she had received healing between the memories. But her features looked even stranger than before. Her cheekbones were too sharp, her eyes too dark and sunken, remaining shadowed despite the brightness of the light turned on her.

Thaddeus grimaced at the caster, who was watching his own illusion replay his experiences—or more accurately, his memories—with obvious fear.

Even if a shaman had worked with him to help clarify and solidify his memories, the mind kept only imperfect copies of reality, accessed and recopied imperfectly each time like a child’s game of whispered gossip. In situations of great stress, fidelity fell even further. This version of events was appropriately dramatic, but its resemblance to what had actually happened could only be left to the imagination.

Darkness swirled up, obscuring the Raven Queen’s form completely for a moment before falling back down to reveal her hand held in a Circle in front of her lips. Several people around the room flinched as the Raven Queen’s mouth fell open, her jaw unhinging and her cheeks stretching like some kind of deep-sea monster. Until, from deep in her throat, darkness boiled up.

In the man’s memories, this darkness rushed at him like a racing snake, and then there were several long moments of blindness interspersed with flashes of light and spell-fire, until someone had the presence of mind to unleash a wind spell.

“A philtre of darkness?” Thaddeus wondered. “But if so, what was the Circle for?” He glanced around, taking in the others’ response to what was being shown.

To his surprise, it was the Pendragon operatives—nominally hardened, skilled men—who had the most visceral response. Several were pale, and one was even hugging himself and trembling faintly as he watched the illusion.

Perhaps not a philtre of darkness, then. Or not just darkness. To engender such an effect, she might have used a fear hex. A powerful one, to have seated the emotions so deeply that they reared up again now.

The illusion’s caster was breathing hard. He closed his eyes for a moment, letting the image fade. “When you’re in the darkness, you can feel it watching you. It’s huge, all-knowing.”

The man who was hugging himself nodded. “It’s like gazing into the night sky and suddenly realizing that each and every star is actually an eyeball. And as soon as you realize that, they all look at you. They can feel that you’ve discovered them.”

Thaddeus rubbed his jaw, the short hairs of his beard scratching back and forth against each other. “Interesting.”

Impatient, the High Crown urged the operative to continue with his display.

The Raven Queen leaned into the force of the wind spell, a piece of her shadow breaking off from the part surrounding her and rising up to the ceiling. She opened her too-large mouth once more. Though darkness continued to billow up from inside, streaking out behind her as it was caught on the air, this time she spoke.

The sound was…disconcerting. Even Thaddeus felt the hair on his arms rise in an instinctive response as she paraphrased sections of the letter she had left at the Edictum Council. Her words seemed to come from underwater, with an echo, but were also distorted unpredictably, with some parts stretching out like a song and others compressing into a sudden snap.

But while her imprecation continued, the Pendragon operative’s viewpoint swung upward to follow the shadow companion that had broken away.

Thaddeus examined its form with interest, noting the too-thin, too-long limbs, the enormous beak that seemed to be the only feature of its face, and its complete lack of adherence to gravity. He wondered, if they examined the ceiling where this had happened, would they find puncture or scratch marks in the stone, or, as he suspected, would it be marked only by the useless spells they fired at and through it?

It moved with insect-like quickness despite its size. Whenever the almost constant flashes of spell-fire fell to a moment of darkness, it seemed to jump forward with zig-zagging motions, moving impossibly quickly, as if freed from realistic constraints by its lack of visibility.

When it fell into the midst of the caster’s group, Thaddeus began to understand the reactions of the men who had, presumably, been present during this fight.

The creature loomed almost impossibly large, and a white fog wafted off its void-black form. “Cold air,” Thaddeus murmured with surprise. “Oh, that’s clever.” Was it a side-effect, or was that the source of the creature’s—or perhaps the spell’s—power?

But he had no time to dwell on speculation, as the operative fell to the ground and tried to crawl away from the creature, which was now behind him. His panicked scrabbling took him closer to the Raven Queen herself.

She stepped forward and batted an enormous fireball spell into the wall with her bare hand. Thaddeus took a deep breath, wondering at the lack of a Conduit. Was that reality, or just a failing of this man’s observational skills?

She swayed on her feet for a moment, her sunken eyes growing unfocused as a bloody tear ran down her cheek. She wiped it away and stared at it with surprise, and in a flash of light the white of her right eye appeared clearly. It was completely crimson surrounding the blackness of her pupil and iris. The eye looked straight into Thaddeus’s, piercingly focused, as if it could feel his gaze through time and the filter of this man’s memory.

The Pendragon operative apparently found this enough incentive to return the way he had come. Those enemies of the Raven Queen that remained now huddled together to shield against the escaping group’s spell-fire. This worked for a short while, as the shadow companion had disappeared at some point when the operative was trying to crawl away.

But soon, it reappeared, dozens of ravens flying through the enemy group’s midst from seemingly nowhere. The ravens coalesced around the man at the front of their formation, and the shadow-creature reformed, descended upon him.

Thaddeus watched, wide-eyed, skin tingling, as the creature clawed its way into the man’s mouth and squeezed itself inside him. It seemed to go on forever, but in reality it happened quite quickly.

There was a long moment of stillness and silence, both from the illusion and in the present room.

Thaddeus replayed the images in his mind, his blood rushing with excitement. Surely, no matter how distorted the man’s memories, he could not have fabricated something like that. What, exactly, would the shadow companion do to a person, once inside them?

The operative casting the illusion let the light decohere again as he took several long, deep breaths and wiped away the sweat beaded along his pale forehead. “Jorgensen is still alive,” he croaked, his voice wavering. “We don’t know what that thing did to him. The healers can’t tell.” Without having to be asked, he resumed the illusion, showing himself raising his battle wand to Jorgensen and stepping back warily. Then, the illusion fell dark. “The Raven Queen and her followers were gone. Disappeared into more of that watching darkness. We…made the decision not to follow without reinforcements.”

No one suggested that had been the incorrect response.

The Pendragon Corps captain glanced at the inert metal spell array on the floor and then around at all of them. “During the events you just saw, the Raven Queen was also active in several other places throughout the city. Simultaneously,” he clarified, for anyone too stupid to understand him the first time. “She later escaped into the Charybdis Gulf by stealing a boat. We were able to retrieve one of the two men who betrayed the High Crown for her, but all others went free.”

The Advisor of Virtue let out a deep breath and summarized the sentiment of the room. “Fuck.”

 

I don’t want to re-do events we’ve already seen too much, but it felt like it would be hard to show reactions and deductions without also understanding the experience from the investigative side of things. I hope it’s enjoyable rather than boring. We’ve got one more Thaddeus POV chapter still to come in this arc.

And secondly, just a heads up that the TCC Typo Hunting Team Round 2 is open, if anyone who wasn’t on the first round team finds themself interested.

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