Chapter 209 – Fundamental Attribution Error

Siobhan

Month 8, Day 21, Saturday 6:55 a.m.

Captain Aisling and Agent Marcurio shared a look of surprise and distrust at Siobhan’s offer of a shadow-familiar demonstration.

“Totally safe,” Siobhan repeated.

Agent Marcurio’s tails lashed back and forth in agitation. His voice was tight, and his accent came through more thickly. “You want to show us the spell you used against the other agent who fought against you? The same one you used on the Pendragon Corps. The creature of shadows that everyone talks about.”

Siobhan deflated slightly. “I had thought you would want to examine it.” She’d gone so far as to ask Liza to run some diagnostic spells on her shadow while it was under her control, ignoring the woman’s strange, angry stares. Siobhan had wanted to be sure that, after what had happened, there were no lingering effects or hints at the true nature of the shadow woman the other agent had met that night.

“We do want to examine it,” Captain Aisling said, but there was something obviously left unsaid in his tone. He stared at her, but Siobhan didn’t know what that unsaid thing was, and so after an awkward while of gazing into each other’s eyes, he waved graciously to her. “Please.”

Siobhan had been in control of her shadow the entire time, a tiny part of her Will spent on maintaining the spell through her new leather anklet while leaving the rest of her concentration for high-stakes human interaction. Casting the shadow-familiar spell had been her first act upon waking.

Now, she looked down at her shadow, which stretched out insubstantially in several directions at once from the maze’s various light crystal lamps. At a wave of the hand that now wore her mother’s celerium ring, each copy of her shadow snapped together into one and shrunk closer to her body. Then, a small black raven rose up from the puddle of darkness.

The raven took a cute hop forward, and both Red Guard agents took a simultaneous step backward.

“Stop!” Captain Aisling barked, one palm outstretched toward her and the other reaching for the battle wand at his waist.

Siobhan and the raven both froze.

Captain Marcurio pulled out and used three divination artifacts on the bird, one after the other. Finally, he announced, “It is a shadow. An extremely, abnormally lightless shadow, but that is all.”

The edges of Professor Lacer’s mouth twitched with amusement.

Captain Aisling pointed at the adorable raven as it cocked its head to the side and wiggled its tail feathers. “This is what drove several trained men half-mad and terrified my agents?”

“I can make it more frightening,” Siobhan offered. Though she kept the size the same, she molded the shadow into the standard battle form she had been using since she came to Gilbratha, then used it to absorb the heat and create a foggy aura. The six-inch horror hunched menacingly and flexed its clawed digits.

Agent Marcurio took out his divination devices again, but after another round of testing, asked, “Are you trying to make a joke right now?”

Siobhan blinked. “Is this funny?”

“It seems like you are insulting our intelligence,” Captain Aisling said.

Siobhan frowned. She considered making her shadow bigger, but had a feeling they would still find some way to be dissatisfied. They were expecting her to display some menacing, spine-chilling magical abilities, so when she told the truth, they thought she was mocking them. They had decided who she was before the meeting, and were judging all of her actions through that lens. She had never thought the reputation of the Raven Queen could be a problem in this particular way. ‘So maybe the answer is not to try to seem as harmless as I actually am, and instead play the Raven Queen.

She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and opened them again. “The only way to truly recreate the psychological effects of a battle would be to fight. But if you want to me to try to frighten you, I am willing to try.” She smiled, slow and wide. “If you can promise you will not lose your wits and try to kill me.”

“Will the effects remain harmless?” Captain Aisling asked.

“Yes. It might get somewhat cold, but not enough to kill you. I have no intention to harm you unless you attempt to harm me.”

“Can I leave for this?” Gera asked.

“Of course.” Siobhan waved to the grassy area beyond the edge of the oversized game board. “I will contain any active effects to this space.”

Gera pressed her lips together for a moment. “Is it alright if I go somewhat…farther? Perhaps to the end of one of the connecting hedge rows?”

Siobhan was surprised by her apprehension, but quickly realized it was a good idea. “You may. The distance might give you some protection if the agents start shooting battle spells around for some reason.”

Professor Lacer was smiling openly, now. “I will stay near the edge of the game board. I want to watch.”

Agent Marcurio shuffled his feet and looked up at his superior to whisper, “Are we sure this is a good idea?”

Gera stood, picked up her cushion, and folded it back into a small square of cloth.

“It is just a demonstration. Not a spar,” Siobhan reminded them, handing her own cushion to Gera. “But if you are willing to take me at my word about this spell, I need not go to the effort.”

“No. I want to see this,” Captain Aisling said. “Do your worst, Queen of Ravens.”

Siobhan chuckled. “Well, I am definitely not going to do that. But it might get slightly frightening. Please remember that you are not actually in any danger.”

Gera shook with a full-body shudder, spun on her heel, and hurried off without another word.

Agent Marcurio looked after her longingly. “Maybe I could watch from outside, too.” The fur of his tails laid abnormally flat as the two appendages tried to hide behind one of his legs. “It’s just, I’ve heard so many of the stories already, I feel like I know what to expect. And wouldn’t it be beneficial to have an outside perspective to do scans and take readings while the action is ongoing, so to speak?”

Captain Aisling placed one mitt-sized hand on Marcurio’s shoulder and squeezed. “No need. We will examine it together, from the inside. Special Agent Lacer is enough for external observation.”

The other three took some time to prepare while Siobhan planned out something that would match the kind of rumors that seemed to be spreading about the Raven Queen, even if only a little. ‘I hope I can pull this off.

When the agents were ready, Siobhan let her shadow collapse back into a puddle around her feet. It rose up slightly from the ground and began to spread like a real liquid, and then to bubble like thick, viscous sludge in a cauldron. Except instead of steam, cold fog rose from its surface.

Every second, it grew thicker and spread further, until it enveloped the agents’ feet. As it spread, Siobhan slowly and subtly bent her knees, lowering herself toward the ground within the visual shield of her midnight dress. If she was doing it right, she imagined it looked something like she was sinking down into the darkness.

The shadow-spell gave her not hint of struggle or lack of control. Over the last week of almost constantly casting the spell, she had become increasingly certain that the thing in her mind could not simply take over at any point. It needed certain requirements to be met.

When the faux liquid had spread far enough, and she had sunken low enough that she didn’t think her muscles could withstand the strain without giving away the game through burning tremors, she cued the shadow liquid to explode upward in front of the agents, revealing a hint of giant teeth and tentacles below. At the same time, the edges of her shadow rose up in a giant dome, cutting off the meager light from the outside. She left a second inner wall of darkness around the agents, as they would surely bring out a light of some sort and she didn’t want them to see her just yet.

Rather than follow through with anything else immediately, Siobhan dug around in her satchel. She pulled out a vial of moonlight sizzle that had already spent most of its magic, her modified light-crystal coaster, and her last philtre of darkness with the proprioception modification, which she had decided to call a philtre of shadow-perception. She hesitated before using the latter, but knew that due to the short shelf life, she would need to create a new batch soon, anyway. One with slightly diminished side-effects, ideally.

She needed to be able to move around freely within the darkness, both to ensure the agents didn’t retaliate against her, and to more effectively demonstrate that she could be scary. They would have divination spells going, so it would be beneficial for her to be able to track them as well. ‘It would be silly if something went wrong after the immense effort I put into preparing for this meeting just because I was reluctant to use a potion worth a handful of gold and a few hours of my time.

Siobhan unsealed the vial and took a small sip of the roiling darkness, allowing the majority of the philtre to billow steadily from its small glass container. She was lucky—there was barely a breeze this morning, and the philtre would hang around unless something artificially cleared the air.

She formed a shell of shadow around her body, a duplicate of herself to her left—though the act made her shudder, it could be useful to deceive the agents—and created her standard semi-avian shadow-familiar to her right. Then, she activated the heat absorption ability on all three. The Red Guard might otherwise be able to tell which one was her by some sort of thermal divination. She didn’t think she could perfectly fool them, but it was best to put in the effort.

Her skin immediately cried out in discomfort from the cold. Siobhan did her best to guide her shadow to pull from the air and not from her body, but otherwise ignored it. It would take a lot of concentration to control three forms at once, especially with everything else she planned to do.

“Is this it?” Captain Aisling called out from within their inner area.

Siobhan shook her depleted vial of moonlight sizzle to get the bubbles and light going, unsealed it, and began to walk in a circle around them, each step slow and deliberately soft so as not to give away her movement. Her two extra shadow forms followed beside her. She dribbled little bits of the weakly glowing potion on the marble. A little bit of light, just enough to feed the imagination, could be more terrifying than complete darkness.

As the philtre of shadow-perception continued to fill the area, she gained a clear sense of what the agents were doing within the smaller barrier she had created around them. To free one hand, she tucked the philtre in one of her dress’s many pockets.

“Oh, by the sun and moon above, what is that?” Agent Marcurio asked, his voice breaking. “Can you sense it?”

“Show yourself!” Captain Aisling snapped, looking around at the veil of darkness with the light of a headlamp beaming from his forehead.

Marcurio was frantically working with his divination artifact, and suddenly his head jerked up. “Behind us!”

Siobhan grimaced and threw away the remaining moonlight sizzle, allowing the vial to break across the ground where she hadn’t yet made a full circuit.

Both agents flinched at the sound, but spun to face her rather than the distraction. Without any communication that Siobhan could perceive, they stepped forward to test the barrier of darkness. Finding it incorporeal, they stepped through it. The modified philtre of darkness filled the air, but there were a few areas where it was thin enough for their bright lights to partially pass through. Enough to make out her form. They flinched at the sight of her.

Siobhan probably would have also flinched at the sudden beam of light to the face, but her shadow was covering her eyes completely.

“The one in the middle is her,” Agent Marcurio announced immediately. His tails stretched out and grew longer, then formed a Circle in front of his mouth. He whispered a few words, took a deep breath, and then blew some sort of esoteric gust spell that cleared most of the air between them, though the dark miasma still continued to seep through her dress from the vial in her pocket.

Siobhan sighed, but supposed that at least immediate discovery meant she didn’t need to continue freezing herself to hide. She let the shadows covering her body fall way, leaving only a small covering over each eyeball to protect against the light and freeing up quite a bit of her concentration for the other two.

“Her eyes,” Agent Marcurio whispered.

Captain Aisling ignored him, his own narrowed eyes flicking around to take in every detail of the situation.

Siobhan created a few simple barriers of darkness in irregular shapes around the edges of the dome, then flashed them across the space between herself and the agents, almost too fast for the eye to track. They would see only indescribable movement.

Both of them jumped and looked around, but they didn’t take their attention off of her for long.

Even so, by the time they looked back, the Siobhan-facsimile shadow was gone, and the looming, semi-avian shadow began to skitter toward them with jerky, zig-zagging movements.

Captain Aisling calmly said something that sounded like “netrah,” pointed a battle wand at it and released a beam of light so bright that Siobhan could see it even through the shadows protecting her eyeballs. It overcame the light-blocking philtre of darkness, pierced through her shadow-familiar’s monstrous form, and continued on and out through the outer edge of the shadow dome and into the sky beyond.

The sudden influx of light energy forced Siobhan almost to the edge of her thaumic capacity and left her shadow-familiar flush with power, and if possible, even more utterly black and lightless than it had been before.

Agent Marcurio had immediately closed his eyes on Aisling’s verbal signal, but now shook his head. “No damage.”

Siobhan tilted her head to the side. “Breaking promises so quickly?” she asked, her voice coming out with a strange echo past the philtre that wafted up from her stomach and spilled from her mouth. She suppressed the urge to cough. That would not be very intimidating.

Both men shifted warily, and Captain Aisling even grimaced as if he had seen something disgusting. “It was just a test, not an attack. If I’d shot you with that spell, you might have gotten a little warm and been temporarily blinded.”

The Siobhan-duplicate shadow rose up from the shadows stretching out behind them, moving too quickly to properly react.

Marcurio’s eyes had just begun to widen, his head turning to look back, when the Siobhan-duplicate brushed a frigid hand the color of the void against the back of Captain Aisling’s neck, just below the curve of his ear.

To his credit, Captain Aisling did not scream, and even Agent Marcurio clamped his mouth shut to muffle his involuntary screech of surprise. Captain Aisling spun around, swinging his battle wand like a baton at her shadow.

Agent Marcurio spun in the other direction, his back to Aisling as he scanned for another surprise attack. It was a response that spoke of both a lot of training and an impressive amount of trust toward his partner.

The Siobhan-duplicate slid back from Captain Aisling’s attempted blow as if gliding across ice or floating half an inch above the ground. Its mouth opened wider, and wider, and wider still, until the jaw seemed to unhinge and its head split almost in two.

Then, from within its throat, a small form struggled upward. A raven clawed its way out of the Siobhan-facsimile, then perched on the edge of its dislocated jaw and shook itself as if after a bath. Then, its beady black eyes locked on Captain Aisling. It launched itself straight at him, flying faster than any corporeal raven could have.

He tried to move out of the way but was too slow, and a puff of fog burst outward from his chest as the bird seemed to fly into him.

Of course, in reality, this was all a complex illusion. Sweat beaded on Siobhan’s forehead as she struggled to create both realistic form and movement in so many places at once.

She let the Siobhan-duplicate sink into the ground, created a few more flashing silhouettes against the scattered, faint glow that barely illuminated the outer areas of the game board, and then used the mental power she had freed up to create thin spiderwebs through the area.

Those, her harrowing, avian shadow-familiar used to climb up and around, moving as fast and unnaturally as only a creature without mass or true form could.

While it moved above, she created some vague forms nearer to the floor, hinting at feathers and insects, quick movement and seething, treacherous footing. Just enough so that the agents didn’t know where to focus their attention, as seeming danger could come from anywhere.

Then she reached into her pocket, grabbed the light-crystal coaster, and gritted her teeth. With extreme care and only a tiny amount of power sourced from the light-crystal itself, she used the array drawn on the back to create two small glowing orbs slightly inside one of the clouds of darkness beside the agents.

Then, just as Agent Marcurio—who seemed to be the more observant of the two—caught sight of the glowing orbs, she made them appear to blink. Like the reflective eyes of a nocturnal predator, they blinked twice, and the second time did not appear again. “Prekshak!” Marcurio announced tightly.

“New?” Captain Aisling asked, confirming Siobhan’s suspicion that the unfamiliar words were some kind of short-code used among the Red Guard.

“Glowing eyes in the darkness.”

Siobhan began walking again while the men were distracted, putting a shield of darkness between them and activating her dousing artifact at the highest power. Her divination-diverting ward activated, and would hopefully make them less likely to focus on her past all the other distractions.

She wished she had some ability to create illusory sound, or even that she knew how to throw her voice, but alas, all she knew how to do was create a loud, screeching alarm, which didn’t have the subtle effect she was going for.

She called up the memory of an old lullaby that she vaguely remembered in her mother’s voice. Like many old rhymes and children’s stories, the tune was soft and lilting, but the lyrics were fairly disturbing. She began to sing. Though her voice still coming strange and warbling, Siobhan thought that somewhat enhanced the effect, while also masking the fact that she didn’t really know how to sing.

“Hush now, child, do not weep.

Close your eyes and sink to sleep.

In slumber’s realm, you may roam,

But heed me, child, stay close to home.”

“Why did I volunteer for this?” Agent Marcurio asked. “Why couldn’t I just let that idiot Berg come instead?” He bit back a shriek and jumped to the side as an enormous beak of shadows rose up from the ground around him and pretended to try and snap shut around his legs.

“Keep it together, Agent!” Captain Aisling snapped. But when the Siobhan-facsimile stepped out of the cloud of darkness beside him, reaching out for a passionate kiss, he bent almost all the way backward in an impressive feat of flexibility to avoid it.

“For should you wander far and wide,

Your soul may find a place to hide.

In the realm of dreams, beware,

Dark creatures roam with wicked stare.”

Siobhan punctuated the last word by dropping the semi-avian shadow from where it had been skittering above. It landed on all four spindly limbs behind the two men, its cloaked head bowed toward the ground. Siobhan sent a cold tendril of shadow to caress their backs and draw their attention.

Both spun to face it, breathing hard despite the lack of real exertion. Another blast of light did nothing except provide more power in an easy to absorb form.

The shadow-familiar slowly raised its head. But where usually there was only an enormous beak and endless void under the cloak, now glowing red eyes stared out at them from the darkness, pulsating and flickering like two malevolent, distant stars.

Siobhan resumed her lullaby.

“For if you stray too far, too deep,

In the land where nightmares sleep,

Your soul may wander, lost and torn,

And those you’ve left behind, forlorn.”

The Siobhan-facsimile stumbled out of of the darkness, giggling silently as it approached its beaked, wretched counterpart. Its silent mirth grew until it was holding both hands over its mouth and convulsing hard enough to lose its balance. It seemed to catch itself on the side of the battle-familiar, which cowered as if in fear, but was not so bold as to pull away.

Siobhan had traveled almost all the way around the men once more. The shadow-perception philtre had run out and was fading from the air.

Both men watched in horror as the semi-avian shadow began to convulse as well, though its jerky movements seemed as if they might not have been from mirth at all.

“Permission to use the shield spell, Captain?” Agent Marcurio asked, his voice high and tight.

“It won’t work. Do you want to encourage her!? And before you ask, I already triggered the anti-corruption and compulsion artifacts. No effect.”

Siobhan took a deep breath and sang the final verse as she sent thin tendrils of shadows to chill their skin in random caresses, and always from the most unexpected angle. The shell of an ear, the ankle just under their pant leg, and the base of their spines through their clothes.

The men twitched with every simulated touch, but Agent Marcurio shook his head, grim-faced, and they kept their attention on her shadow-familiars.

“Secrets in the darkness keep,

For with the dawn, all shadows flee.

Sleep now, child, do not fear.

Morning comes soon, bright and clear.”

Both of her shadows froze, then turned slowly and seemed to look at something behind the men. Siobhan dabbed away the sweat on her forehead, allowed the semi-avian shadow’s red eyes to sputter out, and put the light coaster back in her pocket. Siobhan put as much fear into her shadows’ body language as possible, and then yanked both of them out of sight so fast they almost seemed to disappear.

Captain Aisling and Agent Marcurio turned to face her.

She stood still, silent, and expressionless, simply staring at them in the spotlight of their headlamps for long enough that the wait grew uncomfortable.

Finally, she allowed the dome of shadow around them to fall and her shadow to return to its normal form, spreading out faintly from her feet in the faint dawn light. Able to see again now that the shadow over her eyes was gone, she smiled.

Captain Aisling glared at her, and Agent Marcurio was examining his and his captain’s shadows with marked suspicion. “Thank you for that demonstration,” the larger man said stiffly. “It was most…illuminating.”

To the side of the game board half a dozen meters away, Professor Lacer snorted. He had dismissed his invisible chair and was holding his Conduit one hand and a beast core in the other, and looked distinctly displeased. He strode across the board toward them, stopping by Siobhan’s side.

Agent Marcurio’s tan skin had a wan, greenish pallor to it, and his tails alternated between lashing around with agitation and wilting down to hide behind his silhouette. Captain Aisling’s fingers were trembling, and as soon as the man realized, he crossed his arms and clamped his hands around his biceps.

And so, belatedly, Siobhan noticed the obvious signs. She realized that Red Guard agents would be almost guaranteed to have experienced harrowing, traumatic situations time and time again through the course of their work. Many of those horrors would leave marks. She had seen beast hunters who had come back the only one alive out of their party. Sometimes groups met opponents beyond their capabilities and were hunted in return by their prey.

The agents probably had trouble responding to perceived threats without immediately resorting to excessive violence. She was lucky that they had managed to restrain themselves so well.

“Thank you for humoring me,” she said. She hesitated, then reached a hand into her satchel. “Would either of you like a dose of anti-anxiety potion?”

Professor Lacer’s fingers tightened around his Conduit. “Surely my colleagues are not in need of such coddling.”

Siobhan was dubious. Obviously, they were experiencing some symptoms of a war neurosis or lingering combat stress reaction.

Captain Aisling raised his palm to stop her, bowing his head as if to gather strength. “No, thank you.”

 

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