Month 11, Day 29, Sunday 3:00 p.m.
Thaddeus exited the hired carriage at the edge of the cordoned-off crime scene, handing the driver a few coins.
A copper stationed at the edge of the cordon stopped Thaddeus, but Titus Westbay, who’d been the one to call him away from the University in the first place, waved the copper down.
“It’s alright, he is here on my behalf,” Titus said, lifting the bright yellow barrier rope so Thaddeus could duck under it.
“What exactly is so important it necessitated I come in person with such urgency?” Thaddeus asked, looking at the coppers milling about the section of street in front of a half-collapsed building.
“I would have called in a whole Red Guard team, if I could get them,” Titus said.
“An Aberrant did this?” Thaddeus asked, though he didn’t see how that could have happened without his knowledge.
“No, a sorcerer. The same woman we’ve been looking for, we believe.”
Thaddeus raised his eyebrows with interest. “She escaped again?”
Titus clenched his jaw. “Yes. The pressure to arrest her is mounting, and this is the first new lead we’ve had in months. We managed to get some of her blood, but so far she has warded against our initial scrying attempts. Eventually I have no doubt we will break through, but…I cannot take any chances. The scrying may be enough for her to finally leave Gilbratha, and that will only make our job harder. I thought maybe you would notice something the rest of us don’t, because of your experience. She is a blood magic user, after all, even if the incident wasn’t enough to get the Red Guard called in. Even if you cannot help, an extra set of eyes will do us no harm.”
Thaddeus stood still a moment, letting his eyes rove over everything. Coppers milled about, collecting evidence in Shipp stasis cubes, flagging spots of interest, and combing through the rubble of the half-collapsed building. At the edge of the cordon, coppers shooed away curious onlookers.
Thaddeus had always had a greed for knowledge, and even better if that knowledge was not commonly disbursed. “I will consult only. I have neither the free time nor the inclination to be an unpaid Investigator as well as a University Professor.”
Titus smiled widely, looking suddenly younger, and waved over another man. “This is Investigator Kuchen, the man in charge of things on the ground for this case.”
Investigator Kuchen bowed slightly to Thaddeus, a handkerchief covering his mouth as he coughed wetly. “Professor Lacer. While I don’t know what a professor can bring to this investigation that our professional analysts cannot, I bow to Lord Westbay’s opinion in this matter. Please be aware of the confidential nature of all you see here.”
Apparently the inspector didn’t want him there, and was poorly informed about who he was talking to, to boot. Foolish. Thaddeus gave him a deadpan stare and replied only, “Investigator Kuchen,” with a nod. He turned to Titus, who was as arrogant as the rest of his kind, but at least recognized Thaddeus for what he was, in some small part, and would not be so reckless as to disrespect him to his face. “What is the situation? Walk me through it.”
Titus gestured down the street and moved to lead the way. “Very early Saturday morning, one of the local gangs, the Morrows, attacked this warehouse with a team of magicians and at least one sorcerer. This is currently Verdant Stag territory.”
Investigator Kuchen interjected, “It was Morrow territory until recently. There have been a few altercations between the two gangs, likely over territory disputes.”
“The Verdant Stags recently put up an alert system in their territory,” Titus continued, “so they quickly got word that something was happening and sent a team in to stop the Morrows. That team failed, in large part due to a warding artifact held by the attackers, allowing the Morrow sorcerer to cast a spell to destabilize and collapse the warehouse. The area where the damage originated was divined by one of our prognos, and it is likely the effect was greatly enhanced by an artifact of some sort, rather than achieved purely by the sorcerer’s power. However, the same cannot be said of our true target.”
“One Siobhan Naught?” Thaddeus asked.
Titus looked only mildly surprised. “Indeed. I see word is getting around.”
“Well, you’re not the only ones who have spoken to her accomplice. Many feel no need for the same investigative confidentiality as the coppers.”
Titus grimaced. “This kind of thing does bring out the greed in people.”
“That may not be her real name,” Kuchen said. “It’s possible she assumed that identity at some point before the theft. It’s my opinion that Ennis Naught may have been hypnotized in some way. Perhaps Siobhan Naught never existed, or passed away some time ago. Of course, there’s always the possibility that he’s simply unaware that his daughter was replaced.”
“You think she may be a skinjacker?” Thaddeus asked. “It seems unlikely. There is evidence that she’s a powerful sorcerer, no? Those two things do not often go together.”
Kuchen shrugged. “Not often doesn’t mean never. And even if she’s not a skinjacker, I think it’s quite clear that she is no nineteen-year-old girl without any formal training in the thaumaturgic arts. The codename Raven Queen is catching on. She seems to be partial to that symbology,” he said darkly.
Thaddeus resisted the urge to mock the man. “That moniker seems a little dramatic. It begs fear and respect, rather than encouraging hostility or the kind of resolve that will see her caught and defeated.”
Titus nodded. “I agree. It’s not official, but I’m afraid I’ve heard the name bandied about half a dozen times already today. And I may not like it, but I do understand. She’s mysterious, powerful, and more than a little frightening. The kind of person that makes you check under your bed before turning off the lights, just in case.”
That seemed extreme, even with what Thaddeus had heard about her. “I think you had better continue your explanation of what happened.”
“Yes. Less than half an hour after the initial Verdant Stag team failed to stop the attack, she arrived in the company of a masked man we suspect may be the leader of the Stags. We’ve not been able to get our hands on any of the Verdant Stag members who were here, but we did question the workers who were in the warehouse, as well as the members of the Morrow attackers who we were able to bring in. Their accounts line up, with a few allowances for personal reinterpretations and the chaos and fear of the fight, as well as the lowered visibility. Naught and her accomplice appeared in the empty bell-tower gazebo without warning. The Morrows insist she appeared in a flash of lightning.”
“More likely they simply did not notice her until the lightning illuminated her form,” Thaddeus said.
“Yes. However,” Kuchen said, pausing to cough wetly into his handkerchief, “we are not discounting the possibility that she has some sort of movement or instant travel ability.”
Thaddeus sneered. “Teleportation is a thing of myths.”
“Well, casting spells with your spell array written in the very air is also a thing of myths,” Titus said, his voice subdued.
“What?” Thaddeus blurted before he had a chance to think better of it. He brought a bit of his Will to bear, guiding his thoughts and reactions toward controlled, rational channels. It would not do to let his logic be pushed aside for hasty conclusions and the sway of poorly understood “facts.”
“All of the eyewitness accounts corroborate it,” Titus said. “She stood at the edge of the roof, a spell array glowing in the air above her palm as she shot the Morrows with exploding balls of glass, which bypassed their barrier artifact’s wards completely. Their wounds are consistent with the reports as well.”
“She is a free-caster,” Thaddeus murmured.
“Part of why I thought you might have some insight,” Titus agreed.
“Free-casters have no need to write the spell array in the air. The Word is held in our mind. To hold the Word on the air instead would have only increased the difficulty of her spell. Unless there was some unknown utility to doing so, I have to assume that she wanted people to know what she was capable of.” But who, exactly, was the message for? He looked up at the empty bell-tower, then down to the warehouse across from it. He noted the placement of the flags marking spots of interest, imagining the scene in his mind. “Did she kill any of the Morrows?”
“No,” Titus said. “Injuries only, though one came close to bleeding to death. You think she let them live on purpose?”
“Undoubtedly.” The question was why? Speculation was useless at this point. He didn’t know enough about her motivations or the situation that had led to her protecting the workers. “What was in the warehouse?”
Investigator Kuchen flipped through a sheaf of papers. “It was just an indoor garden, not yet fully set up. The most suspicious thing about it is that the real ownership is still unclear, run through a number of proxies. We’re looking deeper, but I expect we will simply find it is owned by one of the Stags. There’s no evidence that anything untoward was happening inside. The workers themselves weren’t even members of the gang.”
If nothing nefarious was planned for the site, why the secrecy? “I want to see.”
Carefully, the three of them walked into the warehouse, avoiding the evidence flags and broken glass scattered everywhere.
“Once she had driven off the Morrows, Naught and the masked man descended and entered the warehouse. The witnesses say the two of them claimed to be there to help, and acted to try to save an injured worker’s life,” Titus said.
Kuchen snorted, a deliberate sound of disbelief rather than a symptom of whatever respiratory illness had him hacking so disgustingly. “Their naivety astounds me.”
Titus grimaced again. “Yes, well…I cannot imagine they were in any position to refuse her help, ill-intentioned as it might have been.”
Thaddeus noted the chalk outline of a body and the gore-covered, splintered end of a support beam. “One of them died? Anyone of note?”
“One Bobby Cooper,” Kuchen said, again consulting his notes. “Our investigation has uncovered nothing of interest about the man or those closely related to him.”
“What about the one who was bleeding to death?” Thaddeus said, motioning to the half washed-away bloodstain on the ground. “This was the one they supposedly tried to save?”
Kuchen looked at him in surprise, even though it had been an exceedingly simple deduction, then said, “Harry Jameson. He had been hit by a slicing spell from one of the Morrows’ contraband battle wands, at the base of the neck, and was in the process of bleeding out when she arrived. The workers had been trapped inside. She claimed that he needed a blood donation, and took a drop from each of the other workers. To find matching blood, she said.”
Titus’s lips flattened grimly. “You can see remnants of the blood-transferring spell array, there,” he said, pointing to faint lines of chalk on the ground, almost completely washed away by the rain.
“Did your prognos reconstruct it?” Thaddeus asked.
Kuchen handed Thaddeus a piece of paper with a simple spell array, his reluctance to share information seeming to have melted away. “This is their best guess.”
Thaddeus frowned. “It is simplistic.” Not that she would have needed to write it down at all, as a free-caster, but there was nothing to keep the blood from clotting or gathering contaminants during the transfer process. It would kill the patient. Of course, she could have handled that part mentally, but if she was going to do that, why take the time to write the spell down at all? “I suspect there is more going on here than we understand.”
“She didn’t actually transfer any blood to him,” Kuchen said. “The Verdant Stag sent a backup team, and apparently she used some potions they had brought in lieu of the blood transfer, and then some other healing spell to fuse the wound back together. But she had none of the standard healing components. That spell array has been washed away beyond recovery, but we suspect she may have used blood magic to control his flesh. We don’t know what her goal was, since she aborted the spell when the coppers arrived. The workers escaped with Jameson and took him to a nearby healer’s on a horse left by Naught’s male companion. Jameson died there, before the sun rose.”
“So in the end, all we know for sure is that she collected a sample of the other workers’ blood,” Thaddeus added.
Kuchen paled. “Yes. They say she had picked up a shard of glass and mixed a drop of each of their blood with a drop of Jameson’s atop it. Do you think…some sort of linking curse, meant to be powered with his life?”
“Perhaps.” Thaddeus could think of a dozen nefarious purposes for a drop of willingly-given blood. It was one of the reasons all licensed healers were required to give a vow that they would never keep the bodily fluids or shedding of their patients, or allow others to do so. How could you trust yourself in their hands, if they could use a drop of blood or strand of hair to blackmail every patient they healed?
Kuchen swallowed heavily, then said, even more hoarsely than normal, “Do you think it was successful? She didn’t get to finish, we think. She attacked our first response team when they arrived, and was almost captured. She had to flee, and we might still have caught her, if not for the storm.”
“I don’t have enough evidence to form an opinion,” Thaddeus said. “Was there anything else of note?”
“She cast an unknown spell on the first response team,” Titus said heavily. “She used a couple of low-powered battle philtres to cover for the escape of the workers through one of the back windows, and then went into the alley and… We’re not sure if it was a conjuring, or maybe an illusion.”
“What were the spell’s effects?” he asked impatiently.
“She free-cast it. Without the glowing spell array hanging in the air this time. The first responders described it as a cloaked form of pure blackness, nine feet tall, and with a beaked face, as if it were wearing a plague doctor’s mask. Ravens burst out of it and disappeared into the shadows, moving as if to circle around and attack the coppers.”
“A—a couple of the men said they felt the ravens fly through them,” Kuchen stammered. “They felt the cold of it. And I heard Elmer talking about nightmares this morning. He said he saw the creature in his dreams, and his shadow…detached from him and grew feathers. Elmer has a drop of water elemental blood somewhere in his ancestry. He’s always had a touch of diviner’s sight.”
“Call him in for questioning,” Titus said. “I want all the coppers who interacted with her off the case, under isolated observation. Let’s get a healer to do a thorough exam, and I want our best prognos doing a full divination to try to figure out what she did to them. Maybe a shaman, too.”
Thaddeus frowned. It was the right call, to be cautious, of course, but he still felt like a piece of the puzzle—or several pieces—were missing. “Is there anything else? Something you may have forgotten to mention?”
“We are still questioning people who live or work in the area, and trying to uncover any small piece of evidence we could have missed on the scene. The combination of a philtre of stench and the rain made the scent hounds useless, but we have our best prognos trying to track her escape physically. There may have been more evidence, but with the rain…” Titus shook his head.
“You said you got her blood?”
Titus motioned to the edge of the alley running beside the warehouse.
With a last look around the interior of the warehouse, Thaddeus exited, moving to look around the mouth of the alley.
Kuchen looked to his notes again. “One of our men got her with a grasping-tentacles spell. She fell on some shards of glass that had broken off the windows, and bled. It was a stroke of fortune that one of the men even noticed it and managed to gather the blooded glass safely before the rain hit.” Kuchen’s eyes narrowed. “Now that I say it aloud, it seems awfully coincidental that the rain broke at such a convenient moment. If it had happened a minute or two earlier, she would have gotten away entirely.”
Titus turned to Thaddeus. “Do you think it is possible she could have used such large-scale weather magic?”
Thaddeus hummed absentmindedly, looking at the alley, then out at the street again, trying to reconstruct the scene in his mind. “It would have required powerful allies, as well as impeccable timing and foreknowledge. It is not impossible, but it seems like rather a lot of effort for what turned out to be a relatively minor altercation, all things considered.”
He strode into the street. “Take me up there,” he said, pointing to the bell-tower atop the roof opposite the warehouse.
They climbed carefully up the hastily-patched circular stairs, and Thaddeus crossed his arms as he looked down on the people milling around busily below, imagining standing against the clawing wind and lightning-cracked sky while raining down attack spells on them. “The man she was with. Tell me about him.”
“He wore a mask,” Kuchen said. “The workers described it as blank-featured, with a pit of shadows beneath it rather than flesh and blood. They believed him to be the leader of the Verdant Stags, and one did note that he commanded the Stag team, which leads credence to the assumption. We’ve had other reports of an individual matching his general description before, a couple times in altercations with the Morrows.”
“I assume you have questioned the Verdant Stags about this?”
“Yes, of course. The manager—the one who handles the day-to-day operations—denies any knowledge of the Raven Q—of Naught, I mean.” Kuchen coughed, though Thaddeus wasn’t sure if it was because of his illness, or a self-conscious reaction to his verbal slip. “She accused us of obscuring the real issue of Morrow aggression on innocent civilians who just happen to live and work in the wrong place, and expressed doubt that Naught was actually there at all. Hogwash, of course, but there’s not much we can legally do to put pressure on her.”
“Do the Stags have a history suggesting they have a powerful sorcerer among their ranks?”
“On the contrary,” Kuchen said. “Magicians, at most. Small territory, relatively new organization, and to all accounts very little criminal activity, other than the enforcer teams carrying contraband artifacts and battle potions.”
“This is what I have gathered,” Thaddeus said. “Naught appeared to intercede between a small gang and a group of innocent civilians, accompanied by what observers believed to be a man wearing a mask.”
“Believed to be?” Kuchen whispered, staring at Thaddeus in mounting horror.
Thaddeus gave a small shrug. “His face was not seen. Perhaps he was indeed a man. Perhaps he was able to call in a favor, and she came to his aid, and fully intended to heal Jameson but was simply interrupted before she could do so. Or, perhaps the darkness beneath the mask was not an illusion, and what walked beside her was a companion of another sort.”
Titus looked at him sharply, and Thaddeus nodded silently. Perhaps this was a job for the Red Guard after all.
Kuchen looked between them with confusion, seeing the silent exchange but not understanding it.
Thaddeus sighed impatiently. “I am saying we do not know. Please refrain from jumping to conclusions without supporting evidence, in any direction.”
Titus nodded, waving his hands impatiently. “Please continue, Professor Lacer.”
“She displayed her prowess as a free-caster conspicuously, unmistakably, and yet fired off only warning shots, leaving all of the enemy gang members to escape. She then descended with her companion, and claimed the intention to save them and heal their injured. She claimed this required blood from each of them, which she collected, but no donation of blood to Jameson was actually completed. Despite this, she cast what seemed to be a healing spell on the dying man.” He motioned to Kuchen. “I hope you requisitioned the body. You’ll want to inspect it thoroughly.”
The man nodded hurriedly, and Thaddeus continued. “This healing spell was cast without any of the standard components. If you can find a competent one, you might call in a shaman to help the workers recall the spell array and try to reconstruct it. However, I caution against depending on anything you might uncover through that. After all, as a free-caster, she has no need of physical spell arrays at all, which means any spell she took the time to lay down physically was either so magically intensive that she needed the help to stabilize it, or was something she placed deliberately, to be seen.”
“So she could have cast a completely different spell than the Word might have us believe,” Titus murmured.
“Then, when law enforcement arrived, she abandoned her seeming attempts to help, allowed Jameson to be taken away with the others, and attacked the coppers with an unknown spell, which may have ongoing effects on those exposed to it. Then, she was seemingly hit by return fire and injured herself, making a critical mistake by leaving her blood for one of the coppers to find. She and her companion both escaped into the night, and despite having her blood, you have been unable to successfully divine her location. If not for the rest of it, I might have thought she is still a young free-caster, and maybe she exhausted herself with that initial display and needed to resort to more traditional methods afterward. But the fact that she was then able to free-cast the spell that brought forth this raven-creature of darkness undoes that theory entirely.”
Kuchen shook his head. “The men said she raised her hands, and it rose from the shadows, black as pitch. She held her hands together to form the Circle. It was definitely free-cast, unless it was contained in some subtle artifact, which seems unlikely for that kind of spell.”
Thaddeus looked carefully at both men. “She is far from incompetent. So what did this night accomplish? We cannot assume that whatever it was she wanted, she failed to achieve.”
It was intriguing, really. He wondered what kind of mind was behind it all. Had she been amused, knowing how she would send those who believed themselves to be powerful and influential scattering like ants from a kicked mound? Did she feel the thrill of power at her fingertips when she cast spells others had never heard of before, recovered from the annals of time or the birth of her own experimentation? He looked forward to seeing what she would do next, and found himself suddenly quite curious about what had been in the ancient text she stole from the University. Surely it must have held more than historical importance, and he doubted someone of her power had any need to do jobs for others in exchange for something so mundane as gold.
No, he was suddenly quite sure she had stolen the text for herself, and had done so because it held precious knowledge that the University wanted to keep secret. Knowledge that the Crowns surely wanted as well, which was why Titus was being pressured so to find her. Thaddeus decided not to ask about it, not now, or from these two. Partially because he had no desire to let on that he’d realized the games being played by the Crowns and the University against each other, but also because what exactly she’d been motivated to steal might be an important clue to capturing this free-casting sorcerer, of which Kuchen, at least, was likely to be ignorant.
Thaddeus had been curious about whatever the decimated archaeological team had managed to retrieve from the Black Wastes. He had heard unsubstantiated rumors that they had discovered Myrddin’s hermitage, which he’d thought ridiculous, but he had still applied to be part of the expedition. The University had denied him.
He had been irritated, and thought with some vindictiveness that perhaps if he had gone, the expedition would not have been reduced to a tenth of its initial numbers, with two of those three needing access to a mind healer from the stress. But he had still requested clearance to examine their findings. He had been denied again, pending a review by the University’s History department, supposedly because some of the books and artifacts were likely to be cursed. As if he was too incompetent to recognize and disable a curse that had degraded over hundreds or thousands of years. At that point, he suspected he was being blocked by one of the professors who happened to hold a grudge against him. Munchworth, perhaps. The man had always been agitated by the evidence that Thaddeus might be more proficient in the field of Titanic history and lore than Munchworth, who taught the subject.
Thaddeus had known they uncovered something valuable, but he had still been skeptical that it was as personally valuable as his own research, which was more than enough to take up all his free time. Not everyone held his standards of a worthy goal, after all. He had put aside his curiosity for the time being, sure that he would learn any useful secrets eventually, but now his interest was revived.
Titus clenched his jaw. “We cannot trust anything. She could have planted every piece of evidence deliberately. It—it might not have even been her blood we gathered.”
“Or not,” Thaddeus reminded. “Perhaps she is only playing with you, wanting you to doubt even the truth in front of your eyes, to hesitate to act on real evidence.”
“She is arrogant, reckless,” Titus agreed.
“So far, it seems that she can afford to be.”
“Do you think…” Kuchen swallowed again. “Are we sure that any of the witness reports are reliable? That creature of darkness, and the man-seeming figure beside her… She had time to kill everyone there, but she let them walk away, except for Cooper and Jameson. Could she have had time to do…other things to them?”
“Well,” Thaddeus said, suppressing the small smile that kept trying to creep onto his face. “It seems to me that you cannot be sure of anything at all.”
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