Chapter 194 – Damien’s Report

Sebastien

Month 5 Day 9, Sunday 7:05 p.m.

After an entire weekend of casting through most of her waking hours, Sebastien’s mind still felt like a well-used muscle, weak and on the verge of soreness. But her debts were paid, she had resources left over, and her Will was growing.

Sebastien stopped at her apartment to write a return letter for Professor Lacer.

She was very aware that once the letter left her possession, it would no longer be protected against divination. She did not want to lie, partially because doing so might damage his willingness or ability to help her, but she also had no intention of revealing too much.

His speculation had opened a broad spectrum of possible worries, but she could not follow up her previous question with one about Aberrants, or any questions about the incident in which Grandfather had died.

What is this physical tribute you have prepared?

I appreciate your thoughtful answer to my question. Regrettably, I cannot divulge more about the circumstances behind it, because I do not know. The only hint that was given to me I have already passed on. More research is required.

I would appreciate more information about this dream curse.

Sebastien paused, lifting her pen carefully away from the paper so as not to leave an ink blot. She also wanted to ask about the Red Guard’s experiments with shamanry, but his warning had been quite clear. However, that only made her more curious to learn about it.

She wouldn’t have considered this avenue if she were not desperate.

She had once been quite interested in divination, in the hopes of divining the future and gaining some tools to mitigate oncoming bad fortune. But she had no talent in the craft. And then she’d actually met a shaman. He claimed to be able to breach the walls between the mortal world and the domain of spirits in order to achieve effects similar to divination. He’d had her run errands for days to prove her dedication before giving her an alchemical concoction that was supposed to open her inner eye.

It left her spewing from both ends, incapacitated with pain and hallucinating for two days.

When she came to her senses, she was terrified, half dead, and had nothing to show for it but dream-like memories that flashed behind her lids in sickly colors when she closed her eyes.

“You just don’t have the constitution for greatness, dearie,” he’d said.

She’d tried to kick him in the knee out of sudden rage but was too weak to do even that.

Ennis made it clear how much of a waste of time the whole endeavor had been. He was sure she would be better off pretending to be a shaman to con people out of a handful of coin.

Since then, she’d focused on practical magic, something she could use to affect her reality rather than trying to pull the answers to life from the ether.

But, no matter how much of a scam shamanry is, if there are any real techniques I could learn, perhaps I could create my own mental wards to reinforce whatever Grandfather did,’ Sebastien thought.

She continued writing.

Of myself: I am Siobhan Naught, but I am also the Raven Queen, and I have been called by other names. In some ways, names have a power all their own, but in other ways, they are just labels.

Sebastien hesitated before using the weird chant again, but she felt that it was cryptic enough while still being honest. It would allow her to reply to his request for information without really saying anything about herself or her life.

I am a changeling like the seasons, a daughter of shadow and light, of Charybdis mists and raven’s flight, and always I seek after mysteries.

Make of that what you will.

For your attempts on Myrddin’s journal, the man had capabilities and knowledge that I have never heard of from others. While many of his exploits are now thought to be exaggerated by rumor due to their implausibility, I know for a fact that several are quite literal. For instance, the ability to split one’s Will.

To my surprise, I have found that people do not practice casting two spells at once. I cannot be sure why.

I would caution against attempts at personal experimentation here, unless you are quite sure that a human such as yourself could survive the attempt without breaking. However, if you can find a method to recreate this ability, or someone capable of it already, you will make progress.

She was careful not to say that he would be able to read the book with that skill, because there could be some other barrier to success that she hadn’t yet encountered.

She resisted the urge to add more questions about the Red Guard’s secrets or where she might learn more about these recent advancements in shamanry. It might be taken as a request to violate his vows to them, and she was not sure how he might take that. Nor what his vows might require him to do, if she said something that made him believe she could be a threat.

I will see what might be found elsewhere, and then, if that bears no fruit, I will gauge how dangerous it might be to ask him. Perhaps once I have spent more time gaining his trust.

She dropped off the letter for Tanya to ferry on her way back to the University and made it to the dorms only a few minutes before curfew.

The week passed uneventfully, spent on classes, homework, spell practice, and a search of the library for unrestricted books that might give her some deeper understanding of the things Professor Lacer had mentioned in his last letter. In what free time remained, she continued to practice light-refinement. One of the spell’s effects was supposed to be clearing intrusive mental forces. And what were her nightmares, if not that?

Perhaps it was working, because though she had been dreading what might come after her experience under the sensory deprivation spells, her nightmares were no harder to deal with than usual. In fact, she slept easier than normal with a combination of light-refinement practiced during the day and Newton’s self-calming spell in the evening.

There were no attempts to scry her and no emergency communications from anyone she knew. She had completed the fourth repetition of the guiding light ritual, and though the symbol—and possible glyph—she’d created lingered in her mind longer each time, like a dark spot after staring at the sun, there had been no struggle with wild magic or backlash.

The next weekend, Sebastien went around the city improving her emergency stashes and creating a few new ones. She added more coin, water canteens with moisture-gathering arrays drawn on their bases, and some quick disguise items. Along with that, she left some of the orb-weaver silk sheets she’d been creating. Some, she had painted spell arrays on, in liquid that was a mixture of giant squid ink, dragon blood, and flakes of natural gold. To that, she had added the sap from two different trees to keep the ink from bleeding, even when exposed to the elements. Other sheets she left bare, to be used as needed with the bottle of conductive liquid and brush she added to each stash.

Sebastien didn’t trust this sense of normalcy. She suspected it was just the lull in the eye of the storm, and if she grew complacent, her future self would look back in desperate regret.

Damien had gone home over the weekend but apparently spent most of his time at Harrow Hill convincing Titus to give him an internship during Harvest Break. He returned to the University with a tidbit of confidential gossip: several skilled people from the History department had been tasked with a special mission by the Westbay Family—find the Architects of Khronos.

Ostensibly, having expertise in an area that the terrorists had shown a theological interest in might help the faculty discover clues that the average copper would miss.

In reality, they had been tasked to find themselves.

Sebastien almost spat out a large mouthful of wakefulness brew all over the study group’s classroom table and ended up breathing some of it in trying to suppress her amusement. ‘There’s no way that was an accident. Titus suspects them. It’s some kind of mind game. Maybe he wants to watch exactly what they do, where they focus…and what they ignore? Because the avenues they don’t pretend to explore are more likely to bear fruit?

But if they were doing this, it probably meant that they hadn’t been able to find enough evidence to connect Kiernan and the others to the Architects, which was somewhat surprising considering the amount of effort the coppers had been putting into it. After all, the Architects didn’t have the same advantages she did, and with a larger organization, there were bound to be more weak links.

Near the end of the year’s fifth month, at one-thirty in the morning with a full moon that hung low over the horizon, Sebastien completed the guiding light ritual. The symbol she had created was seared indelibly somewhere in the back of her mind, impossible to ever forget. She had a strange awareness of it that was ever-present but somehow not distracting at all.

Immediately, Sebastien used some of the remaining saltwater from the ritual and another of her glue-paper stencils to paint her symbol seven times over on the back of her thirteen-pointed star light coaster while whispering the now-familiar chant.

With each word and each pass over the sharp, winged symbol, more awareness grew in that new spot in the back of her mind reserved for the thing she had created. When she was finished, it had doubled to contain this second symbol, yet somehow still required the exact same amount of concentration. Which was to say, none.

But like the group proprioception spell or her improved philtre of darkness, when Sebastien focused on the light coaster, there was a distinct sense of her symbol’s location in the real world, in relation to her.

Sebastien closed her eyes, rotated the inner section to turn the light crystal on, and then hurled it into the Menagerie. Then, peeking occasionally to make sure she didn’t trip over anything, she used the awareness tucked away in the back of her mind to track it down once more.

She found it lying face down within some thick-leaved plants, turned off the light, and tucked it back into her pocket. She wasn’t yet sure exactly how she would use such an ability, but the spell itself was both fascinating to have attempted and gratifying to have succeeded at. If only she knew more about the additional functions that could be added to symbols that had “taken” strongly.

After that, almost a month passed. Uncertain danger hung in the air as heavily as the damp heat, pressing in on her skin and leaving her to struggle a little too hard for breath. She felt in her bones that her time was running out, but the days just kept passing without any events of particular note.

The most dangerous thing Siobhan did was the occasional disguised aide to Liza’s sleep-proxy testing. They were getting close to the end, and none of their test subjects had shown worrying symptoms or side effects. In fact, they were all at least twice as healthy as they had been to start, though that could have been because the tests had provided both gold and food.

Professor Lacer still hadn’t replied to her latest letter. Sebastien found herself glaring at him in class more than a few times, wondering why he hadn’t written her back. She even checked to make sure Tanya was properly transferring their correspondence. Her only consolation was that he seemed as frustrated as Sebastien, if not even more so. Rumors even began to circulate about why he was in such a particularly bad mood.

In one, his secret love child with a princess of Silva Erde had just come calling, asking for Professor Lacer to help him depose the current rulers and take the throne, no matter that the monarchy was just an ornamental position in that country.

In another, Professor Lacer was arguing with the headmaster because he’d been disallowed from doing magical experiments on his students. People started cheering the headmaster on whenever they passed him, and though the elderly man had absolutely no idea what was happening, he accepted this enthusiasm with grand smiles and waves at his new fans.

Though no one knew what Sebastien suspected was the real reason, the most realistic rumor was that the High Crown was again trying to force Professor Lacer to take his heir as an apprentice, and Professor Lacer was running out of ways to refuse without seeming rude now that he had proved he was willing to take at least one apprentice.

The panic about the Raven Queen had died down with the lack of new events. The coppers were back to their normal schedules and arrest patterns, and the newspapers had long since moved on to other topics. There was even some speculation that she had fled the country in fear of the High Crown’s retaliation.

At the beginning of the year’s sixth month, one of the coppers was found to be a spy for the Architects of Khronos. Almost before the word could even spread, the copper was found dead in her interrogation cell, and her only known contact with the Architects, a mercenary, disappeared.

Pretty much everyone agreed that he was dead, too.

And so the Architects of Khronos continued to elude the coppers, though the tension gripping Gilbratha tightened one notch further.

Near the end of the sixth month, on a Thursday evening, Damien came to her, pinch-lipped and even more tired-looking than normal. The perpetual bags under his eyes that didn’t seem to depend on how much sleep he got now had a bruised quality. Recently, he had fallen into his research project with an unquenchable focus that Sebastien recognized in herself.

“I have a mission report,” Damien said, handing her a contract-sized envelope that he’d already sealed with glue, wax, and a looping pen scrawl over the sealed edge to ensure that anyone trying to peek at or tamper with the contents would have a difficult time disguising their actions. “This is for you to give to the higher-ups. It’s got everything in it.”

“I’ll handle it,” Sebastien promised.

Damien looked around mistrustfully, then asked, “Can we talk about what I found? You were going to be given this mission originally, so it’s not like any of the results should be secret from you?”

“We can talk about it,” Sebastien agreed. After all, she was the only “higher-up” in their little secret organization of two. “Do you want to go to the study group room?” Lately, Damien had often commandeered the empty classroom to have a large enough space to cast some of his more complex collation and word-search spells.

“No. Let’s go to my cubicle,” Damien answered.

Professor Lacer had given them both the spell array for the sound-muffling spell he often free-cast, but Damien hesitated to speak even after it was active. The number of boxes stacked against the cubicle wall had decreased somewhat as he removed content that wasn’t relevant, but a new shelf attached to the stone dividing wall held over a dozen binders stuffed with pages.

Sebastien waited silently, an odd mix of apprehension and excitement fighting in her stomach.

Finally, Damien spoke. “I have been collating all the articles that include suspicious rogue magic incidents. Some are definitely Aberrants, but others might be Aberrant-related without being labeled as such.” He reached out and lifted one of the binders from the shelf, handing it to Sebastien.

She opened it, flipping through the newspaper clippings, sections of which Damien had underlined. The articles were pasted to the left side of each sheet, and on the right side, Damien had written some notes and listed the basic information about the event in a more structured list.

“They’re organized by estimated power level, both of the Aberrant and of the magic used to respond,” Damien said. “Those are the weakest. Apprentice-level or lower.” He pointed to the binder farthest to the right, which was much less full. “And those are the ones inside sundered zones, or the ones so powerful that even a sundered zone won’t contain them. Archmage-level.”

“I want to read all of these,” Sebastien said, fascinated.

“I’ve just managed to successfully cast some information-collating spells that can take structured information and output it in concise numerical summaries in the form of different types of graphs or tables. There’s still a lot of work to be done for the mission, but I wanted to give the higher-ups a preliminary report…because I think I found something.” Damien rubbed his bloodshot eyes.

“It’s been a huge hassle. You wouldn’t believe how vague many of these reporters are and how much guessing I have to do about at least half of these incidents,” he said, staring at the boxes stacked up against the wall. “I ended up going to the census archives and pulling information on any named thaumaturges within those pages.” He pointed at the binders. “I verified whether or not they were certified and got their educational level, as well as their area of academic focus, if they had one.”

Sebastien narrowed her eyes. “Was there a trend?”

“I’m not sure yet. Not an obvious one, anyway. But that’s not my point.”

“What is your point?”

“The Red Guard is extremely competent and powerful. But the problem is, they’re so secretive, even when it doesn’t make sense that they would need to keep their methods confidential. I keep noticing it. They perform some crazy feat of magic that I’ve never heard of before, but the newspaper article barely gives two vague sentences for it. The papers that regularly provided more detail have all gone out of business within the last few decades, which is strange, right?”

Damien continued before Sebastien could respond. “And maybe that could just be a coincidence, but I can’t stop thinking about it. I suspect that the Red Guard has some kind of specific anti-Aberrant spells that they don’t want the public to know about. Just like how the details of the sundered zone spell are so secret.”

Damien rubbed his fingers over his chapped bottom lip and turned to face Sebastien. “There are innocent explanations. Like, they don’t want terrorists to develop countermeasures to their proprietary spells. Or they don’t want stupid people trying to mimic their spells without the kind of training they go through to be able to control them. But I don’t think that’s it. I suspect… I suspect the Red Guard is using blood magic against the Aberrants.”

He paused to let the gravity of this accusation sink in, but Sebastien’s mind had jumped to the spell that the ancient thaumaturge had cast at Knave Knoll, before she accidentally killed him.

That man was a rogue Red Guard agent who had abandoned his vows and gone on the run. And he’d cast a spell so strange that not only had she never heard of its like before, she couldn’t even understand how or why it behaved as it did. The meteor hanging in the air, the little dust-sized parasites phasing through matter, the walls and doors fusing together. It was complex and powerful and impressive enough to befit a Red Guard member, but why the flashiness? Why the wastefulness, when the same result might have been generated without the need to create any physical phenomena?

The man would have had to use an entire sack of beast cores to power such a spell, surely?

But Sebastien didn’t think he had. That kind of seeming wastefulness—limitless power spilling out in strange ways as an effect propagated—was seen only one other place.

Aberrants.

They seemed to break the laws of magic that those with unbroken Wills and coherent minds were restricted to.

What would happen if I tried to use a piece of an Aberrant as a spell component?’ Sebastien wondered.

If she were inclined to gamble, she would bet that, in the hands of a powerful thaumaturge, the resulting spell would look something like what had happened at Knave Knoll.

She thought of Newton, turned into strings the color of flesh and bone, spilling out and consuming every living, frightened thing it touched, like some kind of fungus. ‘What kind of effect would come from casting with a piece of that string?

Sebastien had one hidden in the floor under the chest at the foot of her bed, after all. She could test her theory.

No, no, I’m not going to do that. I have no idea how dangerous it might be, and I can learn from my mistakes. I will not recklessly endanger my life, nor the lives of those around me.

Sebastien swallowed, looking again at Damien’s chapped lips and wan face. ‘Is it possible I’m jumping to conclusions?’ She thought back over Professor Lacer’s lecture about what to do when you were suspicious. ‘I want to know the truth, no matter how it makes me feel.

“Is there any evidence that could, in the right light, act to disprove your suspicion that the Red Guard uses blood magic?” Sebastien asked. “Think hard.”

Damien blinked at her. “Well, except for the fact that blood magic is evil, and maybe—if that isn’t a lie, too—leads to corrupted Wills and increased break events? The fact that the Red Guard is supposed to stand for justice and their oaths to protect the world from magic gone wrong?”

“Except for that,” Sebastien agreed. Because she knew that blood magic wasn’t evil. The Red Guard might have their oaths, but they also did things like malign the dead and then place mind-controlling spells on their families. Which was, in her opinion, one of the actually evil ways to use blood magic.

“I can’t think of anything else,” Damien said. “Maybe there’s some secret reason for their actions that would never occur to me, but…” He trailed off helplessly.

Sebastien closed her eyes and breathed deeply. Then she opened them again. “There are some things I need to tell you.” She checked to make sure the sound-muffling spell would still cover them and then motioned to the narrow bed. “Sit?”

She pulled her satchel’s strap over her head, reached inside, and turned on the dowsing artifact, which was currently using the other half of a small twig she’d broken and tucked in her pocket as a target. She turned up the artifact’s strength to its highest limit, then sat close enough to Damien that their arms touched. This close, he would be protected by the spillover effects, too. Maybe this was unnecessary, but it couldn’t hurt, and she had no idea what the Red Guard might be capable of anymore.

Sebastien cleared her throat and, haltingly at first, but then with growing ease, told Damien what had happened to Newton’s family.

“The Red Guard does blood magic on Lenore’s innocent citizens,” Damien whispered.

“That, in large part, was what your mission was about,” Sebastien said. “We wanted to figure out how often they play with people’s memories surrounding an Aberrant event. Because obviously, they are going to extensive lengths to lie to the public in at least some cases. But Damien…I don’t think they’re trying to hide the blood magic. Or, not just that. Those proprietary, powerful spells that they use against Aberrants? I think… I think they’re using Aberrant components against other Aberrants.”

By this point, Damien was so pale that, if he hadn’t been sitting down, Sebastien might have worried that he would faint and collapse.

She told him about the attack on Knave Knoll, and specifically some of the details that hadn’t made it into the papers, though she didn’t mention how she knew.

“It makes a horrible kind of sense,” Damien croaked. He swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down. “You would need powerful weapons to fight powerful enemies. But this…if they’ve been lying about this, what else?”

Sebastien thought she understood what he was feeling. Unmoored, floating in space as the ground and walls that he had grown up believing in fell away. “I don’t know. But I think you should hand the mission over to me. You can teach me the spells you were learning, but it’s too dangerous for you to continue digging into this.”

“But not too dangerous for you?”

Sebastien pressed her lips together.

“No. I’m not going to stop,” Damien said.

Sebastien hesitated. “Damien…our organization isn’t as large or powerful as you might like to believe. We might not even be able to do anything impactful with the information. And if the Red Guard were to find out and come after us…I don’t know that we could stop them.”

“That just makes uncovering the truth even more important! The Red Guard aren’t bound by Crown law. They are an independent, non-political force, and if they are corrupt, we need to know!” He reached over and gripped her forearm. “Sebastien, if this is true, think about what it means. What happened to Newton?”

She stared at Damien.

Slowly, he released her arm. “I’m not giving up on this mission.”

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