Chapter 211 – Caliginous Motives

Thaddeus

Month 8, Day 21, Saturday 7:50 a.m.

As Thaddeus, Captain Aisling, and Agent Marcurio forced their way free from the ever-changing hedge maze trying to trap them within, Captain Aisling spoke. “I do not believe I’ve ever said this before, but I think we came out of that negotiation on the losing end. The Raven Queen controlled the flow from beginning to end, and I am only now beginning to realize how skillfully.”

Thaddeus agreed. Captain Aisling had undoubtedly gone through the same training courses as other Red Guard captains, but Thaddeus gathered that interrogation and negotiation were not the man’s talents. Aisling was too easily distracted and did not dig as deeply or as persistently as Thaddeus would have done if he were in the man’s position.

Captain Aisling was also inexcusably trigger-happy. That his Radiant battle spell would have been harmless was a ridiculous excuse. If it had hit someone in the eyes, it almost certainly would have done damage, and even a short time under a sustained beam could have caused burns.

Using it outside of battle, against a nominally friendly counterpart, was not only honorless—which Thaddeus did not care so much about—but also foolish. He would have taken further umbrage at the attack if Siobhan had not been so nonchalant about it. Evidently, she had not felt threatened.

Instead of saying any of this aloud, Thaddeus merely grunted. When they got to the communications staging area, the pair of agents stationed there gave all three of them a sound-recording device. Unlike the phonograph artifacts currently available on the open market, the Red Guard’s version was small enough to fit in a single hand, and captured the sound inside of tiny, black beads that were extruded along an even smaller string. It all coiled up inside, with plenty of space for several days of recording.

With these, each of them walked to a different corner of the room and gave their individual reports on the mission they had just completed. It was best to keep impressions to themselves until they had a chance to say everything; group testimony was famously untrustworthy.

When Thaddeus was finished, he moved to watch over the diviner’s shoulder, into the mirror the operations-focused agents were using to keep tabs on the area. This one was linked to another mirror they had hung in the sky, and could show anything caught in its partner’s reflection.

Several of the suspicious characters they had suspected to be allies the Raven Queen had prepared in case of an altercation were beginning to withdraw, some of them trying to pass off as random civilians.

The woman, her prognos companion, and a couple of superfluous bodyguards were already on a small boat heading south through the Charybdis Gulf.

“The spell’s efficiency is unnaturally low because of whatever wards she has, but we haven’t lost sight of her,” the agent in charge of divination explained. “It’s hard to disappear when someone has been watching nonstop the entire time. I’m not even blinking both of my eyes at the same time, just in case.”

Captain Aisling sighed as he moved to stand beside Thaddeus, soon after followed by Agent Marcurio. They at the image of fishermen hauling in their catches in the water below as the Raven Queen passed by unnoticed. “Repeat your basic report to me.” He turned to Marcurio expectantly.

The kitsune hesitated at first, but quickly fell into telling the story of what they had just experienced. Captain Aisling stopped to ask for clarification and detail several times, especially about the Raven Queen’s demonstration of her shadow-familiar spell.

“Now you, Special Agent Lacer,” Captain Aisling asked.

Though it was tedious, Thaddeus obliged. Again, Aisling seemed particularly interested about what Thaddeus had seen—or divined—of her shadow display.

Agent Marcurio’s eyes were wide, and his tails swished violently. “Do you suspect she somehow managed to tamper with our memories during the assessment?”

Captain Aisling shook his head. “I did consider it, but I don’t think that’s the case. No, I was more suspicious that what she showed us wasn’t actually shadow-manipulation at all, but some kind of waking nightmare spell. It would explain the control, the uncanny details, and even the insidious sensations quite cleanly if they were all sourced from our own imaginations. Alas, all three of us experienced the same thing, so that theory is unlikely, though perhaps still not entirely impossible.”

“Alternatively, perhaps that level of control and detail is nothing special for a woman who can cast two spells at the same time,” Thaddeus suggested.

His colleagues’ expressions darkened.

“I would like to once again point out,” Agent Marcurio said, “that if she was telling truth about how that philtre worked…?” He looked to Thaddeus questioningly.

“I did a basic analysis of the ingredients. Even for me, it can be almost impossible to discern what components went into a potion once it is fully completed, as a potion is more than the sum of its parts, but I detected some lingering particles of crushed onyx and what might have been algae…or mold. None of the highly conductive more inert components like metal or celerium dust. No traces of anything that might be cause for concern, for what little that is worth.”

“Okay,” Marcurio said dubiously. “That’s good, I suppose. At least it’s some tiny measure of peace of mind that I probably didn’t just breathe in some liquified fetus or something. But I would like to reiterate that I find the implications that simply being aware of her consciousness made us feel the way we did quite telling. Maybe it was just a trick. But maybe… Well, if we didn’t think it likely that Myrddin did some potentially very psychotic magic to create the ‘Raven Queen,’ I would say it is rather compelling evidence that she’s one of the shapeshifting creatures of dreams and shadow my great-grandmother used to tell me stories about.”

Captain Aisling let out a humorless huff. “Who’s to say what, exactly, Myrddin trapped in that book?”

Agent Marcurio’s mouth fell open slightly, revealing his canines. Then, he shivered. “I’ve seen too many things, so my imagination is more exaggerated than some ignorant commoner’s. Now I almost hope she’s just some random person Myrddin experimented on.”

Captain Aisling turned to Thaddeus. “Tell me your impressions. Did you notice anything relevant?”

Thaddeus looked down at the distant reflection of a small boat nearing the edge of the mirror. Tiny Siobhan seemed to be watching the sun rise over Gilbratha’s eastern wall, standing tall despite the motion of the boat cutting through the water. “She was showing off her control—the clarity, forcefulness, and soundness of her Will, rather than its capacity. She managed everything she showed us today with less than a thousand thaums, even though there is no way she became a free-caster without at least a few thousand at her command. It says something about who she is, that she believes that is more impressive than brash displays of capacity. And I would hazard a guess that she could have put on an even more impressive display, if she were not hesitant to push you beyond the limits of your self-control,” he added, a small hint of his scorn slipping into his tone.

Agent Marcurio pursed his lips, then tapped his forefinger against his chin. “Is it possible that Siobhan Naught’s body cannot keep up with higher thaumic requirements, and so the Raven Queen is restricted to those low-level spells? Like using a low-capacity Conduit.”

“Who knows how it works?” Captain Aisling said. “But if the rumors are true, some of the magic she’s shown would be rather difficult to accomplish on a thousand thaums or less. It could also be something to do with identity. Do you think we were talking to Siobhan Naught or the Raven Queen? What distinction is there between them, if any? I heard the Undreaming Order believes that if the Raven Queen manifests fully within an acolyte, it can be damaging to the acolyte’s body. She may have been keeping the magic light to protect the girl.”

By now, Siobhan and her companions had passed out of sight of sight of the mirror. No doubt trying to find her again with any conventional form of divination would be strangely impossible.

Thaddeus turned the thought of her over in his mind a few times. Who had he been interacting with? He found that the hoped it was some combination of both personalities, melded to become one. It would be a shame if Siobhan Naught were trapped away within her own body, screaming soundlessly for help. Or if the girl had been crushed out of existence by the weight of the Raven Queen’s consciousness. A combination of personalities might also explain why the Raven Queen sometimes acted with strange immaturity or made reckless decisions based on emotion.

At least she had not shown any signs of psychosis or a split personality. Except for, perhaps, the ability to split her Will.

As the other agents began to pack up, the three of them descended to the heavily warded and illusion-covered carriage that would deliver them near a field base entrance.

Agent Marcurio tucked his tails over his lap as they sat. “I do have to wonder, if she could lie as she pleased without us realizing, why did she let slip about wiping that artisan’s memories?”

It was a good question, but not the right one.

“Why did she use such a device at all?” Captain Aisling asked. “Several times, and even today, she’s shown off her free-casting ability. Surely she wouldn’t need such a thing.”

That was a better question, but still seemed to be lacking some critical insight.

“It might make it safer to dual-cast,” Marcurio offered, perking up. “Did you notice, she drew out the spell arrays to show her ability to us? Maybe that wasn’t just so we could confirm what and how she was casting, but for her own sake as well.”

Captain Aisling nodded as if everything suddenly made sense, but Thaddeus had an instinct that he was still missing a piece of the puzzle.

Not only had Siobhan openly used a device designed by his apprentice, Sebastien, she had almost purposefully drawn their attention to that fact, even to the point of implicating herself. It was strange. Almost as strange as the original boon she had given the boy. All because she liked him? But no, that had only been a half-truth.

Thaddeus frowned, breathing out slowly as disparate pieces of information began to come together into something that formed meaning. What if she had not lied to them freely at all? She was clever with her words to the point of manipulating people’s understanding as she wished, but she also like to play games with hidden clues and subtext.

Perhaps she had not damaged the memory of the shop owner. Technically, her statement could have meant that she stole from the man, came in a disguised form and bought from him, or even took the schematics and made a copy for herself.

But if that was true, it meant that she had implicated herself in a serious crime—one strangely connected to his apprentice—on purpose. And that she had given the boon to Sebastien for a reason beyond just liking him. Thaddeus had thought he must have been the reason behind her initial actions toward the boy, for what other reason could she have to be interested in a random University student? He had thought that she knew his reputation or had learned some hint of his work and found herself intrigued. But what if that was not the case? What if there were some other connection between Siobhan and Sebastien?

As if the obvious had been waiting for him to open his mind to the possibility all along, Thaddeus saw a clear memory of Siobhan Naught’s dark, unfathomable eyes, illuminated by the soft light of dawn. They were so like those of his apprentice, though he and she were dissimilar in almost every other way. In fact, unless Thaddeus was mistaken, that unusual eye color was almost…identical.

 

Reminder: I’ll be taking a break from posting on July 18th.

I’ll be taking the extra time next week to work on the book and hopefully make a little extra progress.

Apologies for the cliffhanger. Eek! *Drops chapter and escapes*

(I did not plan to drop you on an extra-vertical edge, but I had an epiphany while working on the book earlier this week about how to improve a certain plotline, and this is what came of it.)

 

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