Chapter 210 – A Deal with Darkness

Siobhan

Month 8, Day 21, Saturday 7:05 a.m.

Professor Lacer turned on Siobhan and scowled. “I distinctly remember mentioning that I would be observing from the edge of the board. So why, I wonder, did you start casting your anti-divination spell halfway through your demonstration?”

Siobhan remained awkwardly silent. She hadn’t even considered what activating the divination-diverting ward’s full effects might do, even though she knew that it protected her shadow as well as her physical body. Trying to be inconspicuous, she reached into her bag and turned off the dousing artifact.

“If I were a more paranoid man, or less insightful, I might have taken it as a sign of ill intent. Thankfully, I am skilled enough to bypass your spell’s effects without having to break it, and I was able to put together a good model of what was happening within your dome of darkness by sending probes through the ground and specifically leaving out the places where your knowledge-devouring magic touched. I had to keep the backup forces from attacking you twice after you pulled that arrogant, foolhardy stunt.”

Before she could respond, Professor Lacer turned on the Red Guard Agents. “And you! Despite giving your word not to use offensive spells during the demonstration, not once, but twice, you attacked with a beam of Radiance!”

Agent Marcurio shuffled and shrank like a scolded puppy.

Captain Aisling’s mouth firmed. “It was light alone, and would not have harmed her—”

Professor Lacer slashed his hand through the air as if it were a knife, effectively cutting off the other man’s words. “Please do not defend your actions with irrelevant information. While your spell might not have killed Miss Naught herself, it could very well have catastrophically disrupted her shadow-familiar spell and caused backlash.”

Gera had returned from the edge of the maze path she had retreated down, but hesitated at the obvious tension between them. Looking toward Siobhan, she steeled herself and moved to stand on the opposite side as Professor Lacer.

“Considering the power and abilities she has displayed, that was very unlikely,” Captain Aisling replied evenly.

Gera did not indicate a lie, so it must have been the truth.

“And I daresay our probing response was a very measured reaction to the Raven Queen’s oppression.” The huge man turned to Siobhan. “How is it that your ‘completely harmless’ shadow-controlling spell managed to bypass our wards against mental effects? Or, perhaps, did you slip in some secondary magic with an artifact or this…‘dual-casting’ you claim to be capable of?”

Siobhan coughed roughly, though she managed to keep from expelling any visible darkness from her lungs, then stared at him for several long seconds. Finally, she hesitantly asked, “What mental effect are you talking about? Because I did not cast anything like that. Perhaps, do you think that the fact that I managed to scare you slightly means I must have been casting a compulsion of some sort?”

Beside her, Gera took an exceedingly deep, slow breath and released it again, though Siobhan thought her face was beginning to hold some derision for the agents.

Professor Lacer gave Captain Aisling a scathing look that held none of the respect for a superior that Siobhan suspected he was supposed to display. It was surprising that he got away with it. “The philtre. They began to display the physical signs of excessive agitation when it reached them,” he explained.

Siobhan reached into her pocket and pulled out the vial, from which the barest traces of wispy darkness escaped. “This? I admit it is getting a bit old, maybe on the edge of losing effectiveness, but it should not have had any direct fear-inducing effects. It simply gives me knowledge of what is within its touch. At most it…” Siobhan trailed off, staring at the bottle with wide eyes. “Well, maybe if you breathed it in, it would give you a sense of me in return.”

Professor Lacer waved a finger at the vial, followed by a faint frown at the results of his free-cast divination spell. “I have not encountered a philtre of that nature before. How does it work?”

“I created it myself. But if you want the recipe, we will have to negotiate a suitable trade.”

Professor Lacer’s eyebrows rose. “I did not know you were a Master of Alchemy.”

Siobhan waved her hand, tucking away the empty vial again. “Oh, nothing of the sort. I dabble.”

Aisling shot Marcurio a questioning look, and the kitsune nodded his head. “Truth,” he whispered, almost soundlessly.

Gera crossed her arms and glared at him.

Marcurio looked at Siobhan and shuddered, oblivious to the other diviner’s growing dislike. “So, that extremely unnerving, horrifying sensation of being watched, seen, known by some spine-chilling eldritch creature, was all a result of our subconscious feeling a connection to…you? It wasn’t a memetic effect at all, just an instinctive response?”

Siobhan squinted at him. “It sounds very insulting if you word it like that.”

“I am sure he only meant that your awe-inspiring nature can be overwhelming to witness first-hand,” Gera said quietly. She threw Marcurio a wordless, forceful expression, her lips pinched tight together.

Marcurio’s eyes widened. “I meant no offense, beauteous and powerful Queen of Ravens. Only—exactly what your attendant said.”

Gera nodded. “And I’m sure you only continue to doubt the truth of my lady’s words, for even the smallest statements of fact, because of protocol. Not because you are accusing her of being honorless.”

“That too,” Marcurio agreed immediately. “Everyone knows the Raven Queen is deeply honorable.”

Aisling pinched the bridge of his nose as if to push back a headache. “Lady Raven Queen,” he said, pulling her attention back to him. “We would like to examine the artifact from which your shadow-familiar spell stems. You said it was created by your grandfather?” Captain Aisling asked.

“I will not agree to that,” Siobhan replied promptly. “The artifact my grandfather left for me is precious, and it contains proprietary secrets.” In truth, she couldn’t allow them to see it because they would realize her shadow-familiar had nothing to do with it, and thus that the creature that had risen wearing her form had not been simulated by it.

Captain Aisling raised his eyebrows and nodded meaningfully, as if he had taken some deeper meaning from her refusal. “I suspected as much. Would you be willing to demonstrate your ability to ‘dual-cast’ for us, then? With something other than your shadow. Not to suggest you would cheat, but you have indicated the artifact could take over the burden of guiding it. I hope you understand.”

Siobhan was loathe to drop her shadow-familiar spell, but she didn’t want to attempt splitting her Will in three directions, no matter how little of that Will was going toward keeping her shadow under control. However, proving that she really could cast two spells at once would go a long way to disabuse them of any suspicions that might lead them to the thing sealed in her mind. “Fine, but let us be quick about it.” She pulled out a soft wax crayon and drew out two spell arrays on the marble board, taking care to keep her handwriting different from the natural scrawl she used as Sebastien.

Despite knowing about it ahead of time, they seemed stunned and disbelieving when she cast a basic float spell at the same time as she used a variation of one of the many small spells she had learned in her classes this term to force a seed to sprout.

Only Thaddeus watched impassively, though the tiniest hint of a smirk slipped out as he observed the others’ reactions.

Even Gera’s blind eye grew wider as she observed Siobhan’s demonstration, though she settled quickly. “I do not know why I continue to be surprised by the feats you display,” she said, and then spent some time nodding rapidly to herself

After running several divination scans to ensure Siobhan was truly casting both spells separately and not free-casting a single spell that somehow combined both very dissimilar effects, the agents grew strangely excited.

“Is the ability to dual-cast something you can bestow as a boon, just as you gave a weaker version of your protection against divination to Sebastien Siverling?” Captain Aisling asked.

“This is not the kind of ability I can simply hand out. At best, I could attempt to teach someone, but considering that I do not understand why I can do this while others cannot, I fear the results would be…regrettable.”

“And this ability is require to read Myrddin’s journals?”

“It is the only way I know of to access the protected contents. That is not to say there are no other methods.”

“What about your anti-divination boon? You have already given it once.”

“That I could, technically, provide to others. But it comes at quite a high cost.” Quite literally, she would have to pay an exorbitant amount to have Liza do the same work for someone else. “Before you ask, I have no intention to do so, regardless of what you offer.” It would be tantamount to giving away one of her most precious secrets.

“Are there other boons of a similar nature or value that you might bestow?”

“My boons are catered to the circumstances and the individual. There is quite a lot I can do, but even more, perhaps, that I cannot. I doubt much that I could offer would be of real use to your organization.”

Agent Marcurio looked at the sudden response of his divination artifact and gulped. “Lie,” he whispered.

Gera’s face snapped toward him.

Siobhan frowned. She had not thought that was a lie. “I was not attempting to be deceitful. But I suppose, perhaps, leaving behind the need for sleep could be useful. And some of my other magical knowledge.” Almost anyone would benefit from mastering light-refinement. “And my non-magical knowledge. And some of my personal resources and connections,” she added, just to be safe. She did know some useful people and own several rather high-capacity celerium Conduits, after all.

A muscle in Captain Aisling’s broad jaw clenched and unclenched several times in the ensuing silence. “I have been an agent of the Red Guard for several decades, but you are one of the most brazen thaumaturges I have ever met,” he said, his voice hard with anger.

Shocked, Siobhan slid her gaze slowly over to Professor Lacer.

He raised his eyebrows at her, as if wondering why she was surprised.

Siobhan turned to Gera instead, but the woman was staring at Captain Aisling defiantly and didn’t seem to notice Siobhan’s consternation.

“Not only do you manage to lie during our interview, you are so obsessed with being recognized as exceptional that you unveil your deceit in the most defiant manner possible,” the man continued. “Did you so badly want us to know that you can lie or tell the truth as you please? This, in addition to the admission that you may have cast memory-affecting spells on civilians. I also find it concerning that you performed nonconsensual, permanent magic on Sebastien Siverling, a civilian known to be connected to one of our agents. Are you compulsively compelled to taunt those around you despite the danger, or do you really hold no regard for the threat we embody?”

Siobhan’s thoughts reeled as if she had been slapped, though she tried not to show it. Beside her, Gera had begun to breathe harder, but on Siobhan’s other side, Professor Lacer still seemed relatively calm. He was holding his Conduit and a beast core, but looking at her, not Captain Aisling. As if he expected her to be the one more likely to burst into violence. Before she could come up with a response, Captain Aisling continued.

“I believe you have lied about quite a lot today, and for what purpose, it is not entirely clear to me. But it is obvious that you do not take us seriously. And that is a mistake,” he added dangerously.

What is if even talking about? Where did this come from? I take them so incredibly seriously that I prepared for this meeting to the point of abandoning almost all other distractions and spending a large chunk of my newly gained fortune for even the slightest improvement in the chances that I walk out of here safely today.’ For a moment, hot, acid panic began to rise up in her stomach. But then she remembered the advice she had been given, not just by Miles, but by Liza and even Professor Lacer. If she acted weak, they would treat her as someone they could walk over. And when they surprised her, she needed to roll with it.

So she smiled as genuinely, sincerely, and gently as she could. “If you really wanted to do something to me, you would be doing it, not talking about it. Which means you want something from me. Why not set aside the bluster and just ask?”

Agent Marcurio actually flinched, but Captain Aisling remained the general composure he had displayed from the start. He paused, but showed no hint of shame, confusion, or frustration. When he spoke again, most of the anger was gone from his voice, suggesting that it, too, had been mostly an act. “We believe you know something about the way that Myrddin created Carnagore. Which might have been just a prototype. And that you might even hold the answers within yourself.”

Siobhan felt the blood drain away from her face. She could only hope they didn’t notice.

Unfortunately, they were too perceptive. Agent Marcurio gave a single nod, which Captain Aisling picked up on. The huge man gave her a small smile.

Gera tapped her left pinky finger against her thigh. This, then, was what the agents hoped to gain from this meeting.

“We are interested in that knowledge. How would one transfer a consciousness into another vessel?” Captain Aisling asked, paraphrasing one of the questions she had asked Professor Lacer via letter.

Siobhan threw Professor Lacer a dirty look. He had warned her that he would have to speak about their corresponded, but had told her he would keep the most important things secret. Did he not consider that frankly alarming question to be important?

“Special Agent Lacer believes you are likely to unearth the answer, given the chance. We want you to share it with us, whether the knowledge comes from one of Myrddin’s journals, your own experience, or from personal research into the matter. When you have satisfactory information, you will bring it to us.”

“I think your expectations are rather unreasonable,” Siobhan replied, trying to keep the tension from her voice. “Would it not be better to ask such a question of those most knowledgable and likely to be able to find an answer? I share your curiosity, but I do not know the answer and have only the barest inkling of where to look to find it.”

Captain Aisling didn’t even look at Marcurio or his truth-divining artifact. Apparently they really didn’t trust that they could tell when she was lying or not. Or they just didn’t care. “If you prefer, you can turn yourself in for more extensive testing and questioning. That might allow us to find the answer ourselves, and from there possibly even discover the secrets of dual-casting.”

Siobhan clenched her jaw, once again considering the best move to surprise them and successfully escape. But a suspicion tickled her brain, and she forced herself to wait and think things through. ‘If they knew I had an Aberrant sealed in my mind, is this the conversation we would be having? Why are they so calm? And why do they think this has anything do to with my ability to split my Will?

She took a mental step back and encouraged her emotions to calm with a deep breath. ‘Oh. That’s what the questions about my age and identity were about. Did they hear something from Professor Kiernan? Or perhaps second-hand, from Professor Lacer? Because, I did, at one point, intimate that perhaps the Raven Queen had been what was hidden in the book. I thought it might let me, as Siobhan Naught, go free from any crimes that could be foisted off onto her. But I didn’t expect this outcome. What, exactly, do they think Myrddin was doing?

She decided to probe Aisling intentions. “Trying to capture me right now would be in violation of this neutral ground.”

“Oh, you are free to go, since you do not seem to be the kind of threat we need to remove from existence. But that does not mean we cannot find you again later,” he said.

She reached up to run her fingertips over the red and black feathers sprouted from her hair. “Perhaps. However, I am not particularly inclined to give boons to those who have been unfriendly to me,” she said boldly. “Do not presume that you can intimidate and control me, squeezing for more and more until I am wrung dry.”

She leaned forward subtly, allowing all emotion to slip from her face. “I do not play games I cannot win.”

Captain Aisling matched her not-so-subtle threat in both word and tone. “That we allow you your freedom is a gesture of goodwill. We can track you down anywhere in the known lands, if necessary. Do not think that, if we truly turn all of our resources to it, we will be as ineffectual as the local law enforcement.” He leaned back again, suddenly more pleasant. “But this task shouldn’t be that much of an imposition, my lady. If the information happens to be in Myrddin’s journals, you will get off basically free. If you need help with research, Special Agent Lacer has volunteered his services. And if you cannot find the answer yourself, you can simply let us take charge of the research.”

By that, he meant that the Red Guard could take charge of her body and mind. Siobhan considered lying—agreeing and then immediately leaving the country. Even if she had to travel beyond the borders of the East, beyond the known lands, it might be safer. But she couldn’t lie without them knowing, despite what they thought. Perhaps an acknowledgement that was not true agreement would let her slip by.

“We will complete the vow here, now,” Captain Aisling added.

Siobhan’s hope collapsed. “I would never agree to trade away my freedom. And the fact that you need a vow makes me suspect that you are not truly so confident you can track me down and take me by force.”

“This vow would allow you your freedom in exchange for some reasonable promises.”

She let out a breathy, humorless laugh. “Reasonable promises? You mean chains that restrict my actions and cut off my future, and the assurance of knowledge you so desperately want. It seems a miserly bargain to gain only what it already mine in exchange for something so valuable.”

“And yet, you value your freedom so much, it seems more valuable than anything else I can offer you.”

Siobhan’s fingers flexed, aching for the Conduit she had left behind in case Professor Lacer recognized it. “Freedom cannot be given. It is mine by right.” Anger was beginning to replace her fear.

Professor Lacer cleared his throat. “Might I remind you both, despite your inclination to force outcomes in which you completely sweep the board, compromise is possible. I know you both came willing to at least partially accommodate the other.”

He’s right,’ Siobhan realized, chagrined. ‘I prepared several possible bribes. And…maybe I can get something out of this, too.’ At that thought, at least half of her reluctance drained away. ‘Actually, could this be the perfect opportunity?

Captain Aisling pressed his lips together. “Indeed. What we have learned about you suggests you are almost always willing to trade. We have access to extensive resources and could provide you quite a lot, within reason. Is there anything you might be interested in, or some problem that you would like us to solve?”

Siobhan briefly considered asking them to get all of her crimes pardoned. They probably had the power. But then she remembered that they were supposed to be politically neutral. Besides, just being generally connected to the interests of the Red Guard gave her some protection against the Thirteen Crowns. There was something she wanted even more than that. “If I am to find the answer to this question, I will need leeway to research topics that would otherwise be too…delicate. Forbidden,” she clarified.

Seeing the frown already growing on Captain Aisling’s face, she continued before he could deny her. “I want to clarify that I have no plans to harm innocent sapients—except perhaps for a few ravens and other creatures that might otherwise be considered mere animals. You may not be willing to take my word as my bond, but I am not mad, nor am I a monster. Any potentially harmful research would be theoretical only. I have no intention to do anything that would require you to do disaster management or cleanup for me.”

Captain Aisling’s eyes narrowed. “That is…acceptable. We will have to hash out the details, of course. I can see a few ways to get around a vow with the terms you’ve stated. And I must mention that, with this allowance, you will agree to bring us actionable information, not random results that only vaguely involve the question. That being said, if actionable information would require dangerous experimentation, you may do so under our supervision.”

“I can offer you something else in exchange for forgoing the vow,” Siobhan said.

“We need the vow. Without it—”

“Without it, you can just track me down and do what you threatened to do before, right? And if you’re unable to do that, you really have no way to force me to take the vow in the first place. But I think I have something of equal, if not greater value.”

“What, exactly?”

“I know who stole the book purported to contain the solution to transforming beast cores into celerium. I have agreed to access the contents and extract the relevant knowledge. The owner is willing to let the Red Guard have that information in exchange for the right offer, and I have the authority to broker that deal.”

Captain Aisling hesitated, but then shook his head. “We would be willing to bargain for the knowledge, but you overestimate our interest.”

That…had not been the answer Siobhan expected.

“You have no need of celerium?” she asked, wishing her gaze could bore through his eyes and extract the truth directly from his brain.

“Oh, we do. But we are confident that as soon as anyone discovers the answer, we will be able to access the information ourselves as well. Keeping secrets that we are determined to discover is…difficult.”

Agent Marcurio smiled. “As they say, two can keep a secret when one of them is dead.”

Captain Aisling threw the man a disapproving glance. “To clarify, we will not kill people simply for possessing this information. We would be happy to pay a certain amount for it, as well. But not enough to simply let you go without a vow.”

Siobhan wished she had something to sip while she stalled for time to think. She had prepared another piece of information that she was quite sure they would be interested in. It seemed a shame to give up something so valuable just to get away without a vow. But the only other way to do so would be to fight her way free, and even if she succeeded, then she would have made an enemy of the Red Guard. In her situation, what she really needed was time and access to rare and possibly forbidden knowledge. And if this meeting went well, she would have both.

She raised one eyebrow. “What about information on a pipeline funneling Aberrant parts into Lenore?”

Both Captain Aisling and Agent Marcurio froze. Even Thaddeus’s eyes snapped to her like a hawk that had seen movement in the grass.

“Are you…certain?” Captain Aisling asked.

“Reasonably. And my information is actionable. I would even be willing to take a vow that I will tell you the truth of it, since it seems you don’t believe a single word out of my mouth.”

It turned out that this was, in fact, irresistible.

Half an hour later, Siobhan followed Gera’s lead out of the moving hedge maze, both of them unmolested. The Red Guard were free to chase down whoever was selling pieces of Aberrants. And Siobhan was free to research the forbidden secrets of shamanry and any other topic she wished, unbeholden to anyone.

Siobhan had gotten what she wanted, but she couldn’t help but feel that she had come out of that whole bargain on the losing end. It was a shame that she didn’t have the power to treat with the Red Guard on equal terms.

 

ANNOUNCEMENT:

I will be taking a break from the weekly chapter on Thursday, June 6th and July 18th. The former date will be at a good stopping place at the end of this mini story arc. Getting a little leeway will hopefully allow me to rebuild a small amount of my buffer. The second break is because I am going on a family vacation, and I have learned from experience that I cannot expect to get any work done with all the chaos. Any writing I do accomplish will be a small bonus, and the break will hopefully keep me under my maximum-stress-out level during the trip.

This means that the next 2 months will only have 3 chapters instead of the usual (average) 4.25. If anyone would like to pause or cancel their membership for that time, this is a heads up.

Ideally, long term I will return to the 1 chapter per week schedule, indefinitely. If life will just cooperate with me, that would be great.

 

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