Month 12, Day 17, Thursday 11:55 p.m.
After returning from the site of the false rogue magic alarm, which was still cordoned off while the investigators scoured the area for evidence, Thaddeus had learned of the failed scrying attempt on the Raven Queen. Suddenly the timing and effort that had gone into disrupting the whole city’s lives for a couple of hours that morning had made sense.
Now, much later, he sat in one of the many rooms in the network of restricted archives beneath the library, looking through an ancient text written in a long-forgotten language. Despite the importance of his research, he found himself distracted.
Setting off the city’s rogue magic alarms was not simple. No ordinary citizen could do it. The effort that had gone into faking the scene was impressive, considering the limited time the culprit must have had between setting off the alarms and the arrival of the Red Guard. It had seemed senseless, at first, before he realized that it was quite the perfect distraction.
When the sirens had gone off, Thaddeus had requested all the details, as he always did, and had hurried to leave the University when he was told it was an Aberrant, Master-level, and an Eldritch type. He’d hoped to arrive in time to see it in action, and to study it before the Red Guard took it—or its remains—away to one of their black sites. The Aberrant earlier that month had been a particularly interesting specimen, an anomaly, and he’d been hoping for a repeat, though he knew the chances were exceedingly low.
The Red Guard had arrived before him and had already cordoned off an area around where the beacon had been sent from. They were sweeping the area thoroughly, but the citizens had evacuated to the nearest shelter already, leaving the street eerily still, silent except for the piercing sirens.
The signs of what seemed to be a violent Aberrant attack were obvious.
The doors lining each side of the street in about a two-block area were smashed in, some torn entirely off their hinges. Blood, guts, and organs were splashed haphazardly in and around each doorway. The blood was already half-curdled, sitting in stinking, oozing, jellylike lumps rather than spreading and pooling. The bodies were in pieces and entirely unrecognizable, missing head, limbs, and any other identifying features.
As he wasn’t an active member of a Red Guard emergency direct response squad, Thaddeus had to stay on the edge of the cordon with one of the communication and containment team members. But that didn’t stop him from casting diagnostic and warding spells.
He caught no signs of the Aberrant. As time passed and the communication team member beside him reporting a similar lack of success from the direct response team, Thaddeus grew increasingly alarmed.
“Could it be a Nightmare?” one of the containment team members muttered to his partner.
Even the words sent a cold centipede crawling up Thaddeus’s back. He crouched down to draw out the most comprehensive and obscure ward against mental interference that he knew.
No Aberrant was exactly the same as another, but they came in broad types.
A Nightmare, especially one at Master level, was the kind of thing that could warrant an entire village and all the people within being quarantined and then firebombed indiscriminately in a desperate attempt to deal with it. Nightmare-types were named such because they could control, in some way, the subjective experience of the people trying to take them down. They used stealth, subversion, or mind-control.
Thaddeus had seen Nightmares that could walk right past a prognos without them realizing they were in danger. Others could insert themselves into your memories as an innocuous friend that you believed was harmless and amicable, despite any and all evidence to the contrary. Others were barely mutated by the change, passing as the humans they had once been, while inside they were twisted and corrupted.
This ward wouldn’t help if the Aberrant was invisible, or could transform into an animal, or travel through the reflection of the shop windows, but all those were things he could handle. The sanctity of his mind was paramount.
It wasn’t until the direct response squad found the huge buckets filled with traces of blood and offal that they began to suspect the truth. The buckets were from a nearby butcher’s shop, and had been stashed in a back room of one of the smashed-up houses.
When they found the pair of coppers who had set off the rogue magic sirens, that suspicion became a near-certainty. The coppers were lying on the ground in another house, drunk to the point of unconsciousness and relieved of the artifact that allowed all law enforcement teams to trigger the alarms.
The direct response squad levitated them back, tossed them into a quarantine ward, and forcefully sobered them up with a couple of potions. The inebriated coppers could have been the product of an Aberrant with particularly strange abilities, but Thaddeus already suspected they had all been duped.
Fighting severe hangovers, both coppers denied triggering the alarms. They didn’t remember anything past stopping for lunch in one of the now-emptied pubs.
Whoever had done this was competent. The alarm-triggering artifact law enforcement teams carried was complicated, and required various inputs to send off the call for help and activate the alarms. Either the perpetrator had known the password string and the various codes to communicate danger levels to the Red Guard, or they had extracted that information from the coppers. They’d taken the artifact with them, too, and must have started falsifying the scene immediately after the area was evacuated, then escaped shortly before the arrival of the Red Guard.
Of course, all this evidence wasn’t enough to make them let down their guard. They had to verify that the blood and offal were all from animals, cast divinations to confirm that the broken-down doorways were damaged by a standard concussive blast spell, and search for signs of curses, erased memories, and replacement or subversion of the two coppers. No two Aberrants were exactly alike, after all.
Hours of tedium later, and with only a little bit of work as an expert consultant on Thaddeus’s part, they had determined with surety that there had never been an Aberrant at all.
The Raven Queen, possibly one Siobhan Naught, had foiled the attempt to find her flawlessly.
He wondered if she had some further use for the alarm-triggering artifact she, or her agent, had taken from the coppers. Unlike the last time she’d had an altercation with law enforcement, she hadn’t shown herself directly. Even the report of the Master level Eldritch-type hadn’t matched her description or that of her shadow-raven companion.
The Raven Queen seemed the type to make a show of it. She would poke fun at their inability to stop or catch her, or leave behind some gift that would perplex and frighten them. This had been skillful, but it lacked her bold, playful signature. He doubted she’d been directly involved in the operation.
Thaddeus stared sightlessly at the arcane glyphs on the ancient parchment laid carefully on the desk in front of him, simultaneously fatigued and filled with restless energy now that he was back at the University.
He wondered again what had been in the book she stole. Those higher up in the University and the Crowns surely knew, and thought it was important. Important enough that they were treating it like a national secret. Casual questions had lent no information, even to him, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to be seen being too interested.
If she were looking at the text before him—records of those who had lost themselves to magic thousands of years ago—would she be able to read them? Would she understand the significance of his research?
He dismissed the thought along with the desire behind it. She was too volatile, too inclined to risky undertakings to be a viable partner. And his work was too important to gamble.
Perhaps, though, that would make her the perfect test subject.
Again, he dismissed the idea. It was too reckless to even consider.
As much as he hated to admit it, sometimes he got lonely, being the only one with big ideas, the only one who really seemed to see and understand.
Maybe that was part of the reason he had finally decided to take an apprentice, provisional or not. He had seen potential in the Siverling boy, both in the perspective that leaked through in his test answers, and in his Will.
There was an intangible quality of the Will that had nothing to do with practice or even intelligence. It was that hidden part that was vaguely categorized as “force.”
Thaddeus had always likened it to an all-consuming hunger. A bloodlust. A lack of self-imposed limitations. That was what it really was. And he could see that quality in the boy’s dark eyes.
Maybe Thaddeus had taken an apprentice in the hopes that he could, through imparting his own knowledge and ideas to someone with a similar lack of self-imposed limitations, create a companion for himself.
He had found himself recently disappointed in that choice, with Siverling deliberately underperfoming in class for Damien Westbay’s benefit. Thinking about it again, Thaddeus grew irritated. The memory of the boy refusing to keep casting past Damien’s limit and then staring Thaddeus down in his office afterward niggled like an itch in the back of his brain.
Thaddeus lifted his head, latching on to that itch. It wasn’t just irritation. It was confusion—something didn’t make sense. Why would someone like Sebastien Siverling, proud and angry, bend his neck to a Westbay? Were he the type to do that, he never would have gotten into an argument or rivalry with the other boy. He wouldn’t have had the gall to look Thaddeus in the eye.
Thaddeus grabbed onto his confusion, tearing it open. He delved into his memory of that day.
Siverling had been prone to wincing, some better hidden than others. He had been sure to face away from the light. He had kept his hands under the table, pressed against it, or in his pockets. He’d spoken as little as possible, moved as little as possible, maintaining impeccable posture. And despite Thaddeus’s watchful gaze, he had refused to keep casting over approximately two hundred thaums.
Damien had been worried for him.
“Will-strain,” Thaddeus whispered.
He straightened, leaning away from the table. How had he not seen it? He was more than familiar with the signs. He knew Siverling was the type to push his limits like he didn’t quite believe they existed. The boy was a reckless fool, and eager to prove himself.
Thaddeus stood, moving as quickly as he could while still taking care to put the ancient parchment back into its spot gently. Siverling had already proved himself too stubborn to come clean. Otherwise, he would have done it immediately and saved himself Thaddeus’s ire.
No. Damien was the weak link here.
Thaddeus strode through the winding archives up into the library proper, which was closed to students and dark at this hour. He created a floating light above his head with a thought. It followed him all the way to the student dorms, which were also dark, and as silent as a building that housed thousands of young adults could be at midnight.
It took him a couple of tries to find the ground floor room with his apprentice’s student group.
When he did, he snuffed the light, then cast a spell that would muffle sound in a large bubble around himself. He was just tall enough to see over the edges of the cubicles, so there was no need to pull back the curtains on every random student. He walked through the aisle separating the young women and men, noting the occasional sloppy wards placed by the barely competent “firsties.”
Damien’s bed was only two removed from the end, where Siverling had pressed his small bed and himself into the corner of the walls, like a cornered animal.
Thaddeus flicked back the thin curtain in front of Damien’s stone cubicle, strode inside, and clasped his hand over the boy’s sleeping face.
Damien woke with a gasp, scrabbling frantically at Thaddeus’s hand.
Thaddeus stayed still until the boy realized it was him and stopped fighting. Then he took his hands away, wiping the saliva off his palm with a grimace of distaste.
“Professor Lacer,” Damien croaked. “What are you doing here?” He looked around, wild-eyed and panting.
“That day in my class, when Siverling couldn’t beat you—he had Will-strain. For some reason, he was keeping this a secret.” He raised one eyebrow in a menacing, silent query.
Damien pushed himself into a sitting position, shaking his head. “It’s not what you think.”
“Oh? Then what is it?” he asked darkly.
Damien looked toward Sebastien’s cubicle, though he wouldn’t be able to see anything with the cubicle between them. Still, the thought of the other boy, so close, seemed to calm him. His breathing slowed, and he sat up more fully. “Well, obviously you think it’s something that warrants waking me up in the middle of the night like some assassin. I don’t know exactly what conclusions you’ve drawn, but I assure you, Sebastien is…he’s a good person. He deserves to be here. He’s smart, and driven, and maybe someday he’ll beat your record for the youngest Master of free-casting.”
Thaddeus raised an eyebrow at that.
Damien swallowed, but continued. “Coming here, to me, in the middle of the night was an act of…alarm.”
“Or insatiable curiosity and a disregard for social norms,” Thaddeus said.
Damien blinked at him. “Umm. Well. I’m not going to sate your curiosity.” He drew himself up a little straighter, lifting his chin defiantly. “But I can tell you that if you were alarmed, you don’t need to be. Sebastien is responsible.”
“Or you are gullible.” Thaddeus considered him for a moment. “Do you think being a Westbay will protect you from the consequences of defying me?” He stared into the boy’s eyes, imagining himself boring into those wide pupils like a maggot searching for answers.
Damien shuddered. His eyes seemed to darken, and for a minute he reminded Thaddeus of the older Westbay brother, Titus, uncowed and defiant. “I’m more than a Family name, Professor Lacer. I respect you, but I will not be cowed by you.”
Thaddeus smiled and stepped back. “I see he has a loyal friend in you. That’s good, I suppose. He’s foolish enough to need someone around to help him get out of trouble. As long as you don’t help him get into it, too.”
“It wasn’t his fault,” Damien admitted, his cheeks reddening. “I’m not going to say anything more about it. I promised my silence.”
Thaddeus was slightly irritated, but he couldn’t deny some equal measure of satisfaction. Whatever he had done, Siverling had created a loyal and powerful ally. Those were useful.
Damien poked a finger upward, as if remembering something. He spoke slowly, as if sounding out the idea even as he spoke it. “However, I will say that you should provide better for your apprentice—provisional or not. How can he prove himself to you without the proper tools? If he’s going to win contribution points at the end of term exhibitions, he’s going to need a better Conduit.”
Thaddeus stared at him a moment, then spun around, leaving Damien and stalking to the end of the room. He pulled back Sebastien’s curtains more gently than he had Damien’s.
The boy woke as soon as Thaddeus took the first step into the little cubicle.
Siverling tensed, but he wasn’t disoriented, his black eyes immediately locking on to Thaddeus while his hand slipped under his pillow. Likely palming his Conduit. His sub-par Conduit.
Siverling watched him approach, saying nothing.
Thaddeus leaned over him, speaking softly. “Do not speak. Listen, and hear me. I know that earlier this month in my class, when you refused to perform to the best of your abilities, you were hiding Will-strain.” He watched the boy for a response, but there was none, not even a hitch in his breath or a flutter of an eyelash. “I don’t care about whatever foolishness caused you to reach that point. Mr. Westbay has assured me of his silence on the matter, even in the face of threats. However, my tolerance requires that you understand one salient point.”
Thaddeus let his voice grow softer, as with a certain type of person that was more intimidating than growling or shouting. “You will not place yourself or other students in such grave danger ever again. I do not care if you have stretched your Will to the end of its limits by torturing small animals or performing depraved sexual acts with some of the more questionable members of the student body. As long as you do not bring shame to my name. I do care that you do not afterward disregard the safety of yourself and everyone around you by continuing to cast. You could have killed yourself and half the students in that classroom with your stubbornness. Never again.” He whispered the last part, then stared into Siverling’s eyes in silence.
Siverling nodded jerkily.
“The correct thing to do would have been to refuse to cast at all. Ideally, with a pass from the infirmary.”
Siverling nodded again.
“Good. You will regret it if we are forced to have this conversation again.”
Another nod from the boy, who was still following Thaddeus’s original order not to speak.
“Now, onto the second matter. Show me your Conduit.”
Slowly, suspiciously, Siverling pulled his fist from beneath his pillow, unclenching it to show the pitiful chunk of raw, uncut celerium within.
Thaddeus plucked it up, weighing it in his hand and then creating a light behind it to see its clarity. He sneered with disgust, tossing the disgraceful shard back at his apprentice. “That thing could barely be expected to support the Will of a child of thirteen.”
Siverling just stared back up at him, blinking against the brightness of Thaddeus’s light.
His silence, rather than being gratifying, was beginning to irritate. “Speak, boy. Did your family not provide you anything better?”
Siverling’s eyes narrowed at that. “I’m on my own. I know it’s not very good, but I’ve been being careful with it. It’s a good lesson in efficiency,” he said challengingly.
Thaddeus snorted. “It is a lesson in impoverishment, and leaves you no room to grow. Come with me. No dawdling.”
Siverling’s jaw lifted. “Am I being expelled?”
“No, you imbecile. I am rectifying this problem, which you should have come to me with as soon as you knew.”
As soon as Siverling had thrown on his jacket and boots, Thaddeus straightened his own jacket and strode out of the room. They were joined by Damien, who said stubbornly, “I’m coming too,” when both Thaddeus and Siverling gave him surprisingly similar expressions of refusal. Thaddeus didn’t have the inclination to argue at the moment.
When they stepped out into the night air, both boys flinched at the chill. Thaddeus took a deep breath, somewhat enjoying the bite against his lungs, and let his muffling bubble fall away. “Did the University’s loaner program not have anything better than that? Or did you shatter theirs and are trying to put off having to pay?”
Both of them looked at him blankly. He exhaled heavily, his breath fogging in the air. “The University offers low-level Conduits to first-term students who need them. All students should have been made aware of this when they signed up for their classes.”
“Never heard of it,” Damien said.
“Perhaps they thought I didn’t look poor enough,” his apprentice muttered darkly.
“Indeed,” Thaddeus said. “In any case, you are beyond needing a low-level Conduit, so the point is moot.”
When he led them toward the east instead of one of the other University buildings, Damien asked, “Where are we going?”
“To my lodgings. As a professor, I have been afforded a small cottage on the grounds. I keep my old Conduits there.”
The two boys shared a look of surprised excitement.
He had them stay in the entryway while he retrieved the Conduit from his warded safe in the back room. He tossed it to his apprentice, who caught it, wide-eyed. “I won that one off a particularly foolish noble in a rural tavern. He tried to have me killed for the offense, but I disabused him of that notion. This Conduit was better than my own at the time, and I used it until I outgrew it. Do not make me solve this problem for you again, Siverling.”
The boy looked up at him, his expressions vacillating rapidly between several different emotions. “I will not. Thank you, Professor Lacer.”
Beside him, Damien was smiling rather smugly. No doubt the boy felt pleased to have orchestrated this.
“You will return that to me when you have outgrown it. Now go! Back to the dorms with you,” Thaddeus ordered, scowling. “It is well after curfew, and you’ve rudely kept me awake too long already.”
With his fist clenched around the Conduit, Siverling gave him a stiff bow, then turned and left without another word, copied quickly by young Damien.
As Thaddeus had noted before, a disregard for even the idea of limits was necessary for all truly great thaumaturges. Siverling’s disregard was a little too broad, though. Will-strain was a sign that you had already lost control, and continuing past it was the kind of madness that turned promising young men into corpses, or worse.
As Thaddeus prepared for sleep, one of his few true indulgences in life, he found the edge of his lip curling up in a slight smirk. By rights, he should be furious, but instead he found himself ruefully amused. “Children,” he muttered aloud.
At least Siverling wasn’t boring.
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