Month 4, Day 10, Saturday 10:00 a.m.
“I apologize, your Eminence,” the lead healer said, using a somewhat archaic title as he bowed repeatedly to the High Crown. He shot a glance toward Jorgensen that clearly said he wished he could physically shut the hysterical man’s mouth. “A reaction to the mix of potions, perhaps. His mind is volatile and weak at the moment.”
Grimly, the High Crown nodded to the head healer, and their group hurried out at a speed just below a run, carrying Mr. Jorgensen with them. They should have known better than to play games of loyalty and subversion with the Raven Queen. That they had hoped to loosen her grip on her allies by showing them her weakness was delicious irony, considering the reactions of the operatives who had interacted most closely with her.
Had the Raven Queen truly done something more nefarious to Jorgensen, or was this another decoy, serving multiple purposes and drawing their attention away from her true intention? Thaddeus looked around again. If he were trying to play the sort of game she loved so much, it would be not Jorgensen who was the delayed-trigger poison, but one of the others. One who did not even know it.
With Jorgensen gone, the conjecture grew only more outlandish, with the consensus leaning increasingly toward some kind of Aberrant influence. It might have even been due to some subconscious desire to foist the problem of dealing with her off on someone else. The High Crown, at least, had long been attempting to increase his power over Thaddeus’s independent organization, and he might see this as an opportunity.
Thaddeus remained silent unless specifically questioned. He was not convinced, again for lack of sufficient and untainted evidence, but it would explain much. If a powerful sorceress had somehow bound the service of an Aberrant, one lucid enough to follow commands and restrain itself when necessary, together most of the feats she had displayed could be explained. After all, Aberrants were not constrained to the limits of mortal sorcery.
Thaddeus would not reveal the secrets of the Red Guard to these people by suggesting such, nor add weight to their speculation, but it was inevitable that the Red Guard would also realize this possibility. And they would not be pleased. Thaddeus’s attempts to divert them would be for naught. They would investigate.
The talking went on for hours, occasionally interspersed with updates from the ongoing investigation. The Pendragon Corps had tried to find the people they had kidnapped—or at least the families of those people—without any luck. Their homes showed signs that they had left in a hurry, and even under pressure their neighbors could only say that enforcers from the Verdant Stag and Nightmare Pack had helped load clothes and other emergency belongings into a carriage a few hours before.
This was no surprise. The coppers might have arrived sooner, if the Pendragon operatives had actually known exactly who they kidnapped along with the children.
They had also had no luck finding the woman Silvia Nakai. Records showed that she had worked at the Silk Door for a time, but that establishment was notoriously tight-lipped. If Silvia Nakai was Siobhan Naught, as Thaddeus suspected, it was even less likely that they would ever catch her.
Titus’s thoughts seemed to be running along a similar path. “Siobhan Naught was seemingly a normal young girl, according to her father and those around her, until suddenly she began to display abilities beyond any realistic capabilities for one of her age and background. This sudden shift simply…doesn’t make sense. Is it possible that something similar has happened to Silvia Nakai?”
“What if…” a woman started, and then shook her head.
“Speak,” the High Crown ordered wearily.
The woman looked around, then cleared her throat awkwardly. “What if the Raven Queen is actually someone, or some thing, that the expedition brought back from the Black Wastes? In that case, Siobhan Naught and Silvia Nakai would both be…victims.”
In essence, the woman was suggesting that the Raven Queen herself was some sort of lucid Aberrant, though whether this would be in addition to the shadow Aberrant, Thaddeus did not know.
“We should watch the rumors for insight,” the advisor who had supposedly profiled the Raven Queen’s personality said. “The ones that appear first, before they have a chance to mutate as they pass from ear to ear, are most likely to be information from the Raven Queen’s allies. The ones who were there, and those closest to them.”
The suggestion made Thaddeus consider something that no one had brought up. If the Raven Queen had “followers,” could it be in a more direct sense than people who prayed to her and passed around rumors about her activities? Could she perhaps be building her own organization, independent from the Verdant Stag or the Nightmare Pack? No doubt, if this was the case, the woman would be filling the ranks with only the best.
And it would also explain at least a few of the feats she’d flaunted, in a totally mundane, if quite clever manner.
The group argued about almost everything. The only thing they could agree on was that, except for confirmation of alternative levers that might move her, they were, in fact, worse off than they had been before. The High Crown descended into a deep brooding mood.
“We will still prepare to catch her if she attempts to free Ennis Naught,” Titus offered, though it was obvious he held little hope for this.
The High Crown shooed them out with an irritated wave of his hand, and the Pendragon operatives ushered everyone except a couple of personal guards from the room.
Titus was somewhat awkward on the ride back.
Thaddeus could understand the younger man’s desire to offer the High Crown something that would ease his displeasure, but he did not appreciate the words being stolen from his own lips. Thaddeus exited the carriage at the University without breaking the silence. Once there, the first thing he did was check on his apprentice.
Thaddeus first went to the library, and then the dorms, and then cafeteria. Eventually, his stomach sinking, he tried the infirmary. Through a gap in the curtained pseudo-cubicle, he spied Sebastien’s shockingly light hair. The boy had a half-finished mug of nourishing draught in one hand and a weary tilt in his neck. Still, he flashed the healer attending him a small smile, and the grim-faced woman let out an exasperated huff.
Thaddeus strode up to them, yanking the curtain aside and pulling it closed behind him. “What has happened?”
“Oh, it’s all the fault of that damn Raven Queen,” the healer said, clicking her tongue with displeasure.
Sebastien’s eyes widened with alarm. “Well, that’s not exactly—”
Thaddeus had already free-cast a diagnostic spell before remembering that the boy’s strange boon blocked divination. He ignored Sebastien’s flinch as he ruthlessly overpowered the effect. Thaddeus’s eyes narrowed as he looked over the results, illusory images and metrics scrolling through the air.
The healer raised one eyebrow, parsing the information alongside Thaddeus. “An impressive spell, if somewhat obscure,” she commented. “I think I should clarify that the Raven Queen herself did not attack the boy. I realize my words could have been misconstrued. No need to worry about anomalous effects, torture, or…” She leaned closer, peering at the results over Thaddeus’s shoulder. “Hmm.” She shared a glance with Thaddeus, her lips pressing together.
“What? What is it?” Siverling asked, barely suppressing panic.
“It’s a concussion,” she said.
“Not Will-strain?” Thaddeus asked.
The woman turned to Sebastien. “You didn’t do any casting after you got your head knocked around, did you?”
“Of course not,” he replied immediately.
Thaddeus took a deep breath and pinched the bridge of his nose. Sebastien’s eyes had flicked subtly to the side, and his fingers had twitched. Thaddeus had noticed the boy’s habit of reaching for his Conduit whenever he felt the slightest bit uncomfortable. He gave Sebastien a pointed look.
Sebastien at least didn’t force Thaddeus to point out his lie verbally. “Well…I did cast one spell. Something to help with nightmares,” the boy admitted, almost mumbling.
Thaddeus internally lamented the generalized stupidity of his students, and the fact that his apprentice was no exception to the rule, despite the boy’s intelligence and Thaddeus’s attempts to inject some wisdom into him. If the boy didn’t look so downtrodden, Thaddeus would have given him a tongue-lashing.
The healer let out a low sound of sympathy, shooting another meaningful look at Thaddeus over Sebastien’s bowed head. “Mr. Siverling, like most of the rest of us, was out and about on Friday. When the raven clouds started gathering, some idiot panicked and started yelling about the end of days, and you know how it goes. People spooked. Mr. Siverling is so slight, he got knocked over easily. He took a bit of a trampling. He’s already had a high-strength, true healing potion, and that handled most of it, but he’s still experiencing some headaches.”
“The crowd…trampled you?” Thaddeus asked slowly, a strange pit forming in his stomach. He could imagine it. While he was watching the ravens dance in awe, Sebastien, always so confident and focused, was being knocked off balance by some hysterical, criminally self-absorbed savages. “You could have died.” Thaddeus had seen it happen at least half a dozen times.
Sebastien shifted uncomfortably, his lips moving as if to say something, but in the end he remained silent.
“I’m prescribing some anti-inflammatories, a regeneration-booster, and a few more nourishing draughts, in addition to the standard Will-strain regimen. You can take a bed here and sleep for the day, if you like, Mr. Siverling. I would normally prescribe a sleep-inducing potion, but I know of your…aversion. And don’t mention this to your friends, but I can have some of the better food delivered from the cafeteria.”
“I appreciate it, but no thank you,” Sebastien said, shaking his head and tugging at the cuff of his sleeves.
“Are you sure? I know the basic meals are less than appealing. You’re just a little slip of a thing, a string bean! You’re practically wasting away.”
Her sincere concern slipped through in an accusing tone.
Sebastien drew himself up. “That’s not true. I’m all muscle!”
She raised one eyebrow and looked at Thaddeus. “Look at his cheeks. Gaunt.”
Sebastien touched his cheek. “I just have well-defined cheekbones.”
“If this were a story, you would have ‘the consumption,’” the woman snapped back. Rather than continue to bicker with her patient, who was puffing himself up in outrage, she left them alone to retrieve the concoctions she had prescribed.
As soon as she was gone, Thaddeus cast his favorite sound-muffling spell. “Did you encounter the Raven Queen over the break at any time?”
Wide-eyed, Sebastien shook his head. “Did you?” he leaned forward with sudden fascination. The boy obviously wanted to ask for details about the spectacle, but Thaddeus waved him off.
Sebastien hesitated, and then asked, “Is there…anything wrong? You seemed to notice something from that divination spell. I mean, beside the obvious.”
Thaddeus did not cushion his words. “You are underweight. Or, more accurately, your body fat percentage is concerningly low, and you are anemic.”
Sebastien relaxed subtly. “Oh.”
Thaddeus scowled as a flash of anger ran through him. “This is not a trivial matter. You are also dehydrated, your blood pressure is distressingly high, and your fingertips are trembling. When was the last time you ate something?”
The boy pressed his hands flat to his legs, halting the trembling. “Just a couple of hours ago. I had lunch in the cafeteria.”
“And before that?”
Sebastien’s hesitation was answer enough.
Before Thaddeus could speak again, the healer returned, and Thaddeus dropped his sound-muffling spell.
She handed Sebastien a linen satchel filled with small vials and larger bottles, rattling off instructions that the boy nodded along to. “I also included a refill of the anti-anxiety potion you were prescribed earlier this year. When you run out, come back for more.”
Sebastien chugged the remainder of his nourishing draught and, under the combined stares of the healer and Thaddeus, left the infirmary with his chin held defiantly high. Thaddeus was beginning to suspect that some of the boy’s haughtiness was actually a defense mechanism.
The healer crossed her arms and turned on Thaddeus as if he were an unruly student. “You need to be keeping an eye on your apprentice’s food intake. I’ve complained to the administration several times that the cafeteria’s restrictions are a problem. Just because it’s tradition doesn’t make it worthwhile. There are other, better ways to incentivize students to earn contribution points.”
“I will handle it,” Thaddeus promised.
She relaxed slightly. “And not just that. Mr. Siverling…might not be dealing with the trauma of his previous encounter with the Raven Queen as well as he seems to. You can’t tell me she wasn’t instrumental in his friend’s break event. And now, with the recent fracas, it must be stirring up memories. Anxieties. If it’s bad enough that he would risk Will-strain to avoid nightmares, I would suggest you consider sending him to a mind healer. He might not talk about it, but Mr. Siverling is an orphan. He doesn’t have anyone to look after him but you.”
Thaddeus wasn’t sure that Sebastien was so fearful of the Raven Queen as to have nightmares about her. If anything, it seemed the opposite. “I will speak to him,” he assured.
“You do that. I’d hate to look back on this moment with regret, wouldn’t you? Mr. Siverling is such a promising young man.”
“He could be great, one day,” Thaddeus agreed. “Truly exceptional.”
“I’d expect nothing less from your apprentice, Grandmaster Lacer,” she called over her shoulder, already walking away.
When Thaddeus finally arrived at his cottage, looking forward to nursing a cup of warmed cider while he decided how to deal with his apprentice, he found a letter. It was placed on the porch directly in front of his door rather than in the warded letter box.
The envelope was of black, obviously expensive paper, and sealed with blood-red wax. There was no identifying stamp in the wax, no signature across the fold, and no address.
Thaddeus’s suspicion warred with a burgeoning excitement and a heady relief. She had not ignored him after all. Nevertheless, Thaddeus had experienced enough surprises and disappointments to learn caution. He cast a series of detection and divination spells. There was nothing suspicious. No hint of magic at all.
Thaddeus levitated the letter with a spell, walked inside, and sat down at his desk, staring at the velvet black paper floating in front of his face.
Carefully, he slid open the seal with his desk athame, careful not to break the wax as he separated it from the page. Damaging this letter in any way would be such a shame.
With the seal broken, he lowered the envelope to the desk and re-cast all of his detection spells, to the same result.
Finally, Thaddeus lifted up the envelope’s flap and pulled free a creamy white sheet. Black ink formed words in a simple and elegant hand.
You know who I am.
I heard you had an interest in meeting me. This more indirect form of communication must suffice, for after recents events, I believe I have made enough in-person appearances to last some time.
What do you want with me, Thaddeus Lacer?
If you wish to continue our communication, please pay tribute in knowledge:
What do you know of seals that could contain a being’s consciousness within a memory?
To respond, put your letter in the lock box at the first attached location. You may receive further communication from me at the second location.
Within the envelope, Thaddeus found a second, much smaller sheet of paper with the numbers of locked boxes at two different storage locations, along with two keys to fit them. Presumably, when he placed his response in the first box, it would be taken to another location for pickup by or delivery to the Raven Queen, and the same in reverse. She, who so hated to be tracked, would never allow herself to be so easily located.
Thaddeus considered attempting to do so anyway, but decided against it. He did not want to earn her ire now that he had finally made contact. He read over her request for tribute again. She had chosen her demand well, as surely the worth of Thaddeus’s knowledge outshone anything he might offer her. But why would she wish to know of such seals, specifically?
Thaddeus had dug into the Red Guard’s records of that Aberrant incident seven years ago, from which Siobhan Naught would be the only known survivor. This question could have something to do with her current situation, that Aberrant event, or even, perhaps, some intriguing research project of her own.
Was it possible that Siobhan Naught had been an experimental subject, with someone, perhaps Raz Kalvidasan, working to answer a similar question? Could she be a victim, as that advisor of the High Crown had suggested, perhaps picked for her bloodline? It was even possible that the question had something to do with whatever the creature of darkness had done to Jorgensen.
Again, Thaddeus attempted, with limited success, to resist his desire for rampant speculation. There were simply too many possibilities, and he had too little real information. She could have just as easily gotten some hint of a fascinating spell from Myrddin’s journal.
After all, it was the letter’s postscript that caught Thaddeus’s eye and set his heartbeat to racing.
P.S. — Have you yet made it past the first set of split glyphs? There is a trick to it.
Thanks everyone for your feedback! I have been on a trip across the US for my father’s memorial service so I haven’t had a chance to reply, but I have read everything and it’s given me some good ideas for tweaks to make during the final revision.
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