Month 4, Day 10, Saturday 8:30 a.m.
The Pendragon Corps captain, hands still clasped behind his back as the severity of the situation settled into everyone’s minds, spoke again. “Much of our information comes only from the traitor that we were able to snatch back from her grasp. He has been questioned thoroughly and has made some…outlandish claims.”
“Bring the traitor,” the High Crown commanded. “I would speak to him.”
This was accomplished with surprising speed. The man must have been kept nearby in anticipation of the High Crown’s wish.
The one they had called Parker was supported by both elbows by his former comrades. His dragging feet moved clumsily back and forth as if to walk, but never quite managed to take any of his weight. The man was dead-eyed, unable to focus, and his pupils visibly dilated.
These were signs of nominally illegal interrogation potions and spells, and the tremors in Mr. Parker’s lips, eye muscles, and fingertips might indicate that he had been repeatedly tortured and healed. The men on either side of him forced him to his knees.
When Mr. Parker saw the High Crown, some inklings of feeling returned to his face. “Please. I had no choice. I had to do what she said. All of our preparation was useless, and our lives were on the line. She would have escaped even if we didn’t help her. She said as much, and you know she doesn’t lie.”
“It was your duty, and your vow, that you would place your own life secondary to my wellbeing and orders,” the High Crown said, looking down at him.
Mr. Parker changed tack. “Maybe I can still be useful to you. The Raven Queen trusts me now. Maybe I can help you find her. Or I could act as bait, just like the children were supposed to!”
The High Crown scoffed, and several people around the room chuckled spitefully.
Mr. Parker slumped, muttering rapidly under his breath.
The man on his left frowned and leaned in to hear better, then reared away in shock. “He’s praying to the Raven Queen!”
Tension filled the room almost palpably, and Thaddeus caught several people glancing suspiciously toward the nearest shadows, and a few even had the sense to look toward the vaulted ceiling.
But she did not come for Mr. Parker. One of the High Crown’s advisors snorted. “If it is true that she can hear the pleas of her followers, she must also have heard his offer to betray her. Surely, her requirements for loyalty are higher than what that cretin possesses.”
This seemed to be the impetus Mr. Parker needed to regain his vigor. Tremors wracked through his frame as he lifted his head and shouted, his voice cracking wildly. “I will offer my soul! My blood, my bone, my free Will. Save me, my queen, and devour my enemies!”
The High Crown stumbled away from him, and several of the other guards stepped in as if to protect him.
The guard closest to Mr. Parker kicked him in the side of the head, stopping the prayers as their captive lost consciousness.
The High Crown was breathing heavily. “Take him away.”
A small trickle of blood smeared against the floor as they did so. Either the High Crown had chosen the people for his Corps poorly, the elite training was actually anything but, or the man who held the highest position in the nation was simply the type to destroy any loyalty one might have had to him by dint of his unbearable personality.
Or, the Raven Queen was simply that compelling.
“Maybe we should have let him keep trying,” that same advisor said. “If she appeared, we might have caught her.”
What fools. Even if she had been able to hear Mr. Parker’s desperate prayer—improbable—she was unlikely to risk herself for such a dullard. Rather than pleading the inevitability of his betrayal, Mr. Parker should have pleaded his innocence. Of course, some lie that the Raven Queen had taken control of his mind or body would have only added to the confusion and thus aided her as well as himself. A man without even the most basic sense, hoping that his life was valuable enough for her to risk her own?
The advisor’s thoughtless remark was, perhaps, not what the High Crown wanted to hear. He turned on the Pendragon Corps captain, and ground out between clenched teeth, “Explain to me the incompetence that could have led to such total failure of our meticulously laid plans.”
Hands still clasped behind his back, the captain did not flinch in the face of the High Crown’s wrath. Speaking clearly and concisely, he explained the events as he knew them, filling in all of the gaps in the story that had been left by the other operative’s shared memories.
Thaddeus agreed that Mr. Parker’s claims, related secondhand, were indeed outlandish, some more so than others. That the Raven Queen could respond to the prayers of her “believers” was absurd. More likely, she had a spy within the palace, knew of their plans ahead of time, and had gotten herself captured on purpose. It might even be one of them within this very room.
The claim that she had performed some wicked ritual on one of the injured captives was nothing to get excited about. She had already been known to heal with blood magic, and indeed enjoyed flaunting the fact that she could do so. The prohibition on and stigma against blood magic was one of the many levers of power that the Crowns held. Was subtly changing the public’s perception of blood magic just another way that she was trying to undermine them?
Even the fact that she seemed to have been casting without a Conduit—despite visibly using one in other instances—did not confound him. He had looked into the Naughts, and if his suspicions were correct, there was a good reason that Raz Kalvidasan had integrated himself with the family. The bloodline had not saved Siobhan Naught’s mother, but perhaps the daughter was stronger.
And as for free-casting a precise slicing spell that murdered two of the High Crown’s men—who she shouldn’t even have been able to see past the glare of the spotlight—well, Thaddeus had done that himself. It was moderately amusing to see them cite this as they argued the evidence for and against her being an Aberrant, instead of merely a free-casting sorcerer.
Other claims, however, had no obvious explanation.
He could not rationalize the fact that she had attacked the diviners at Eagle Tower at the same time that she had been crawling her way out of a sensory deprivation spell in a cell underneath Pendragon Palace.
Thaddeus could easily imagine how she might have called the ravens, caused the birds to give a false positive to divination attempts, and delivered the letter to the Edictum Council at the same time that she made an in-person appearance at Eagle Tower. But two in-person appearances at the same time was impossible.
Someone suggested that perhaps only the Raven Queen’s shadow companion had attended the group of captives, somehow sharing power with one of the women—most likely this Silvia Nakai—and thus allowed the Raven Queen to act at such a distance. That it changed the appearance of the woman to so closely match the Raven Queen’s visage was…part of the effect. Supposedly.
Was it possible that the Raven Queen’s appearance at Eagle Tower was the real ruse? Had any there seen her face? Surely one of the people there could cast an illusion spell to share their own memories, unreliable as such things might be.
One of the High Crowns’ other advisors, silent up until now, pushed up his gold-framed glasses, cleared his throat, and forced some steel into his spine, though his knees were trembling faintly. “Could it be possible that Ennis Naught was never actually an accomplice? Or at least, not a willing one? If she really does possess the power to, well, forgive my unintended pun, but to possess people, to control them, she could have used it with him.”
“But he testified otherwise,” someone else pointed out.
“We’ve never trusted his testimony,” another argued. “And at this point, what does it matter? He has been sentenced. We can only hope that useless man gives us a chance to capture the Raven Queen.”
The nervous advisor wrung his hands. “Based on my understanding of the Raven Queen’s personality and motivations, I would suggest that all of the woman’s actions yesterday were not, in fact, in response to Ennis Naught’s sentencing, but because of the children. She did not even attempt to free the man, while instead putting herself at great risk to retrieve the children and deprive us of valuable resources. She may feel that he has betrayed her, and is thus no longer worthy of her efforts. I do not believe he retains any use as a lure.”
The High Crown’s knuckles were white as he clutched the edge of his desk, but he did not sweep off the contents onto the floor in a fit of rage or start screaming. “Is she actually becoming stronger, awakening to new abilities, or was she deliberately underperforming in the beginning?”
“The prayer might have something to do with it,” one of the few women in the room suggested. “We have records of suggested experiments during the Third Empire that hoped to use the masses to provide strength to certain ideas.”
“Why did none of our preparations to contain her work in the slightest?” The High Crown asked the first advisor.
The man struggled to speak for a moment. “The…brighter the light, the darker the shadow?”
“It couldn’t have been an elemental familiar,” someone else interjected. “Elementals are always strongest when surrounded by energy that matches their own nature. If it were a devil—if those even exist—it would be weak to Radiance.”
“Unless it’s very old and powerful, and our spells simply weren’t strong enough to weaken it sufficiently. Or, perhaps, our theories about the Plane of Darkness are incorrect.”
“I still say that thing is an Aberrant,” one of the Pendragon operatives offered. “It wouldn’t be totally unprecedented, would it?” the man asked spitefully, looking at Thaddeus.
Several people began to speak over each other, agreeing, disagreeing, and putting forth their own theories.
The High Crown slammed down his fist on the desk to maintain order. He hung his head for a moment, grey braids swinging gently. “So, does this Raven Queen have any true weaknesses?” he asked softly.
Thaddeus scoffed. He pinched the bridge of his nose, and then took a moment to re-tie his hair at the base of his neck. There was no need for him to contribute to the increasingly wild speculation. At this point, he had to admit that he was simply lacking the proper information to come to any reasonable conclusions.
When he looked up, the High Crown was staring at him speculatively. “What do you think, Grandmaster Lacer?”
Thaddeus raised one eyebrow. “I do not think the correct direction is to continue jumping to conclusions about her seemingly impossible abilities,” he drawled. “You did so in preparation for yesterday, and look where it led.”
“All this adds up to you telling me only that you do not know? I need answers, Grandmaster Lacer,” the High Crown said dangerously.
Thaddeus stared back for a moment, and then said, “It seems there are two options being bandied about. One, that the Raven Queen is a genius with magic we have never seen before. This magic allows possession of the bodies of those who pray to her, existence in several places at once, and in several different forms—including the body of multiple ravens—and that she is not only a free-caster but can also cast without any external Conduit. Two, that she is something else entirely. An Aberrant, or perhaps some ancient creature told of only in stories lost to time. If forced to choose between the two…I would present a third option.”
Thaddeus paused, and everyone held their breath as if to leave room for him to speak. “She is exceedingly clever, and exceedingly powerful. That is obvious. She has indeed done things that I have not seen before. But perhaps this evidence of things that seem to be impossible is merely what we can see of her metaphorical sleight-of-hand, meant to send her enemies looking in the wrong direction. However, all I can say for certain is that I do not know, and I will not pretend that I do. The evidence is too lacking, and more than that, too contradictory. It is also potentially tainted. Attempts to deduce meaning from it are just as likely to lead one through a maze of the Raven Queen’s making—and to an end of her choosing—as they are to lead to the truth.”
She was like a stage magician, performing for the ignorant. Thaddeus could not help the ideas and theories running through his head, but he was aware that he had reached the point where he needed to see for himself what lay behind the curtain and under the stage. Looking at where the Raven Queen pointed everyone’s attention—to the flamboyant, impossible trick—would not give him any answers.
Titus spoke for the first time since before watching the illusory memories. “Could all of these seemingly impossible feats be things learned from Myrddin’s stolen journal?”
It was like a slicing spell had cut through the air in the room, and every eye turned toward Thaddeus, the only one who could possibly answer that question.
“Speak, Grandmaster Lacer,” the High Crown commanded. “Your High Crown commands you.”
“I have taken vows of secrecy.” That is what Thaddeus said aloud, though it would have been more accurate to state that the High Crown’s commands meant nothing to Thaddeus, personally. “I can reveal that we have yet to decrypt the remaining journals. That she could have learned such feats from the journal, if she were to somehow have done what an entire team of professors and I myself have not yet been able to achieve is…possible. It might not explain everything, such as the mystery behind her identity, but it could explain some of her most recent abilities.”
Titus shifted uncomfortably, looking between Thaddeus and the High Crown, and then added, “There are also some things that suggest the Raven Queen might originate from a land past the northern ice oceans and the Abyssal Sea.”
Several of the advisors gasped, hands raising to their mouths in fear. Even the captain had closed his eyes for a moment, as if the words were a blow.
“Speak clearly, boy,” the High Crown said slowly. “You mean from the same land as the Blood Emperor.”
Thaddeus’s face remained as expressionless as stone as Titus Westbay explained the very same reasoning that Thaddeus had used to come up with the absurd theory while they were in the carriage.
Despite Thaddeus’s attempts to encourage caution, the discussion devolved once again into rampant speculation.
Against the healers’ supposed recommendations, the High Crown ordered them to bring in Jorgensen—the one who had been violated by the shadow companion.
They carried him in on a stretcher between four other healers, with the head healer walking beside. The scratch marks on Jorgensen’s face had been healed, but his eyes told of a greater scarring, deep inside where only a mind healer might have a chance to help.
Thaddeus had seen people like this before, ones who had had their Wills broken by experience, rather than strain.
The poor-man’s palanquin stopped in front of the High Crown. “I can walk,” Jorgensen told the High Crown absently, but made no move to rise from the stretcher, and the healers did not set him on the ground.
“What is the diagnosis?” the High Crown asked, looking at the grey-bearded expert. “What did the Raven Queen’s shadow creature do?”
The old man hesitated. “It hard to say for certain. Obviously, she has damaged something in his mind. He has also been having horrible nightmares, reliving his…traumatic experience. Sometimes, these episodes are triggered while he is awake.”
The healer glanced at Jorgensen, who, despite the vague wording, was pressing his fingers into the flesh of his throat. His nails had been clipped down to the quick to keep him from scratching himself.
“There is no sign of any physical damage that operative Jorgensen did not cause himself. There are no signs of any lingering active magic. We have searched for some remnant of the creature within him, but found nothing.” The healer spread his hands helplessly to the sides. “To be honest, we cannot be sure that we are even searching in the right way, or for the right thing. Despite the risk of worsening Jorgensen’s condition, we have been doing recall exercises and searching for triggers that might have been seeded in his mind. If there is a key, I believe it will be in the dreams, but so far they are only repetitions of the traumatic event with small variations.”
Thaddeus noted the way others, and especially his former comrades, looked at Jorgensen with both pity and wariness, as if he might be a trap waiting to spring shut. Even if he could recover physically and mentally, his future here, in the Pendragon Corps, was gone.
“Operative Jorgensen,” the High Crown said. “Do you have anything you wish to report to me?”
The man stared at the High Crown, and then began to shudder. His convulsions grew stronger, and were accompanied by a ragged gasp.
He was weeping. “Please— ‘Elp me,” he sobbed.
The High Crown frowned and made a sharp motion with his fingers, and one of the healers hurried to tip a swallow of calming potion into Operative Jorgensen’s mouth.
The man choked on it, but managed to calm his breathing. He spoke again with a weak, breathy voice. “The darkness was watching, knowing. But the creature…it was hungry. So empty, so cold, like it had never known the warmth of the sun or the touch of a mother. And it got inside me. But I can’t feel it. It’s just…gone. But I fear that it took something from me. Except, except—” He let out a wet, ragged cough. “What did it take? What did it eat? What am I missing?”
His voice grew louder, first with fear, and then with anger. He shouted, “And your healers! Your healers are useless! Send me to someone who can actually help! I served you loyally,” he screamed, his voice going ragged. “Your honor demands that you have me treated! I’ve heard the whispers, already, after only a day. Do you think I’m deaf? I don’t belong in some retreat for the broken and the weak! I won’t go! I won’t! Is this the honor of Lord Pendragon, the High Crown? At least the Raven Queen would, would— She would rip the sun from the sky to protect those who follow her!” He threw his head back and laughed mockingly, and the sound bounced off the walls and ceiling, echoing, until his throat gave out from the stress and his laughs turned into wheezing gasps.
I try not to give names or distinct characteristics to people who aren’t important or recurring, because I don’t want to give them inappropriate weight in the readers’ mind. But I wonder, is number of “advisors” and vagueness too confusing in this chapter?
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