Chapter 90 – On the Nature of Shadows

Thaddeus

Month 1, Day 21, Thursday 7:30 a.m.

Thaddeus made his way through Harrow Hill Penitentiary’s cafeteria, a squat, dark room that carried over the feeling of confinement from its cells. He took coffee and a small breakfast, adding a few drops of his own specially formulated wakefulness tincture into the liquid. He drank it black and sugarless. Any added cream would curdle, and nothing could mask the taste.

Thaddeus grimaced as he gulped the eye-watering liquid down. He hated the combination of sludge in his mouth and the deep, dark smell that would rise from his stomach afterward. His tincture was not as long-term a solution as Siverling’s sleep offloading spell, but Thaddeus had no desire to give up his rest forever, even in exchange for gaining more productive hours. Studies had been done. Powerful thaumaturges who maintained their sanity were likely to structure rest into their lifestyle and indulge their mortal desires. Work-life balance and hobbies, so to speak. Thaddeus’s work was his life, and he had few hobbies that did not involve magic in some way. Thus, sleep remained one of his few indulgences. Besides, he had spent more than enough years going without it for long stretches at a time.

The thought of his provisional apprentice brought to mind the boy’s foolishness. Young Siverling had tried to be secretive, but Thaddeus suspected the boy had been snooping into dangerous secrets, and hiding a few embarrassing ones of his own.

The clothes Siverling had been wearing, in addition to those stuffed hastily into his bag, were evidence enough. The boy may indeed have been at the Silk Door, but he had been in a liaison with someone wearing mens’ clothing, while Siverling wore a dress.

The boy must have needed to leave in quite a hurry when Mr. Moore set off the alarm, and ended up borrowing his paramour’s clothing to do so, for some reason. Siverling’s normal clothes were of much higher quality than what he’d been wearing, and there was no other reason for a dress to be stuffed so hastily in his bag. If his paramour had been wearing the dress, he would have left it for her. It made the boy’s obliviousness—or perhaps thorough disinterest—to the girls who flirted with him around the University take on new meaning.

Thaddeus remained deeply disinterested in his apprentice’s sex life or specific proclivities, but if the boy wanted to keep his activities a secret, he would really need to learn to be more discreet.

Siverling was brazen in many ways, but not yet bold enough to do as he wished without fear of the whispers. Not like the Raven Queen.

Both Morrows had refused to speak of her at first, not with complete silence like Canelo, but with a strange combination of belligerence toward the coppers and fear of the Raven Queen. Their reticence eventually crumbled under pressure, however. As soon as they were cleared to move on from the quarantine zone, they had gone into separate interrogation cells at Harrow Hill. When the standard intimidation tactics and attempts to sow distrust failed, some mild torture did the trick. Nothing that would leave them looking too pitiful in front of a potential audience. Harrow Hill employed no professional information extractors, but it still took longer than Thaddeus had expected for the coppers to break the two.

The mysterious woman had made enough of an impact for them to endure through the pain where many would have broken. The young one had even started blubbering aloud, praying for her to save him, and then, when he could hold out no longer, for her to forgive him.

It was fascinating.

Investigator Kuchen stepped into the cafeteria, making a beeline for Thaddeus. If Kuchen and Titus were back from the temporary quarantine zone, which would take days or even weeks for the Red Guard to clear, it likely meant that Tanya Canelo would be arriving soon for questioning.

Kuchen confirmed as much, and Thaddeus rose from the table to follow.

Once in the relative privacy of the hallway, Kuchen announced, “I have been thinking about the Raven Queen’s shadow companion.”

Thaddeus remained silent, but Kuchen required no prompting to continue. “Could it be possible that she is a witch, and it is her familiar? She has been seen to cast without a normal Conduit on several occasions.”

“I am unconvinced. She has used a celerium Conduit at other times. To support your theory, all instances when she supposedly did not would need a connecting theme—her familiar’s particular aptitude—to support your theory. But it is possible, I suppose. What would the familiar be, then? A shade might cover nightmares, but not the blood magic or the healing. I believe there is a rare Eastern beast called an enenra that might match her companion’s physical description, but they are said to be born from bonfires and only appear before those who are pure of heart and mind. That theme seems poorly matched to her.”

“What if it is a devil from the Plane of Darkness?”

Thaddeus stopped walking to stare at Kuchen, who turned back when he realized. “Are you aware that the Plane of Darkness is entirely hypothetical?” Thaddeus asked.

“There has to be some counterpart to balance the Plane of Radiance, though. A devil would match the abilities she’s displayed perfectly!”

“I have always found a pentagram to be quite balanced. Five elemental and one mundane plane do not require another. But even if the Plane of Darkness indeed exists, somehow defying all of our attempts to access it, you cannot know what characteristics an elemental would carry.”

“Well, the opposite of radiance, naturally. Just like water is the opposite of fire and air is the opposite of earth. And what if Myrddin discovered the way to access it, and that was in the book she stole? Her shadow companion didn’t make an appearance until after she got away with the book.”

Thaddeus wanted to smack Kuchen in the skull with a blast of power, but knew from experience that this would knock no sense into him, nor shake loose any of the idiocy. He settled for glaring, allowing his contempt to shine through. “This devil would not be her first familiar. A neophyte in the craft would never have the strength or the Will to bind a sapient, humanoid familiar. So where is the evidence of any other familiar?”

“Maybe the devil ate them all as a requirement of the contract? You know the powerful ones don’t like to share.”

“And yet, before making this contract, she escaped from the University with wit and a few simple tricks—cast with a Conduit, might I remind you—and even at that point without evidence of a familiar? So In addition to being a free-caster who goes to great lengths to display her spell arrays on the air, the Raven Queen has somehow contracted with a powerful familiar from a previously undiscovered Elemental Plane. Do you also believe that she is a creature from an ancient race of shapeshifters? Or that she can hear when her name is spoken, even from across the city?”

Kuchen seemed to realize Thaddeus’s point, turning to walk again. “It was just a theory,” he muttered.

“That is precisely my point. You are creating explanations for the unknown in the same way ancient peoples created stories about the sun and earth and moon to explain what they did not understand. Rather than hypothesize first and then try to mold all of your evidence to fit your narrative, simply admit that you do not understand and remain open to new evidence that will make things clear. We do not know what the shadow-companion is, and there is certainly not enough evidence to support such an outlandish claim, especially when some of your supposed evidence contradicts the remainder.”

Kuchen did not reply, though he walked faster so that his face was not visible, his grip white-knuckled around his clipboard.

Thaddeus supposed it was possible that the so-called Raven Queen really was a shapeshifter with an affinity for shadows and dreams…but it seemed more likely that someone had been deliberately working to exaggerate her reputation. The shadow-creature that appeared when she was threatened might be a construct, a rare familiar, or even an Aberrant that she had managed to control. But what was important<i> was that she was a powerful free-caster, and fully in control of her formidable faculties.

The Morrows had both told the same story, which lined up with the reports from the victims and young Siverling. Canelo’s flare beacon had attracted them, but rather than follow her request to help detain an unremarkable and unassuming young woman, they grew greedy and hoped to extort all three—Canelo, Moore, and the Raven Queen. It was almost as if the woman had been luring them into a trap. How had two young students caught her in the first place?

Both men agreed that when they realized her identity and panicked, the Raven Queen had stopped a fireball spell mid-air with her bare, empty hands, then deflected it to the side and into the wall behind her. Extremely intriguing, but witness reports were notoriously unreliable, especially in times of stress.

After that, the Raven Queen had released the shadow creature, which absorbed the battle spells from their contraband wands without seeming to take any damage. Thaddeus suspected it was only selectively corporeal, letting the spells pass right through its body. That it could absorb the energy from battle spells was not impossible, he supposed, but it was the kind of ability that could easily backfire if the caster became distracted or overwhelmed. His theory was reinforced, though not proved, by the state of the crime scene. If the Morrows had actually been hitting something, there should have been some evidence. Instead, the walls and furniture on the side of the room opposite the Aberrant were burnt, cut through, and blown apart, as if the men had been fighting an apparition. It might even have been an illusion.

When Moore’s Will broke, the magical feedback put both Canelo and the Raven Queen on the floor. Surely, no matter how reckless the Raven Queen was, she would not put herself in such danger. There were better, safer ways to cause a break event.

Most confusing were the events that followed. The Raven Queen protected Canelo, healed one of the Morrows with blood magic—again seemingly declining to use a Conduit—and then perfectly copied the spell Moore had been using, having deduced on the spot that it would protect them from the Aberrant’s effects. This was almost certainly evidence that she had prior experience with Aberrants and the theories behind their creation, or at least an interest in the topic.

Why had the Raven Queen been there at all? What had been her goal? He would have thought she had some interest in the Aberrant, but she could not have known that young Newton Moore would lose control and become one. Even if she had facilitated his break on purpose, there was no way to tell what exactly would happen. He could have died, or wiped out the entire building with the magical backlash, or become an Aberrant with an entirely different anomalous effect.

No, the Aberrant had not been in her plans. The Morrows believed she had been there as a part of a trap for them, and that Moore and Canelo had been working with her to lure them. But then why had she saved two gang members, her supposed enemies? If her original plan had been ruined by the Aberrant, it was possible she let them go free to serve as a warning to any other Morrows still acting from hiding, but something about the theory simply did not fit. For one, there were no credible reports of her being involved in the gang battle a few days prior, and that seemed incongruous, if she were truly so interested in the Morrows.

But the majority of Thaddeus’s niggling sensation of wrongness stemmed from the “blessing” she had given Siverling. With what Thaddeus had deduced of her, there was no way it was anything but a message. Other than that night, Sebastien’s only connection to the Raven Queen was actually through Thaddeus, who had consulted on her investigation a couple of times. Did she know that? Was the message for him?

Thaddeus tried to avoid jumping to conclusions, but there was something about the idea that seemed appropriate. She seemed to be playing a game with the University and the Crowns, and leaving little hints for someone like him along the way, deliberately stimulating his intrigue. But if that was the case, what did she want from him? Simply someone with the intellect to match her in her maneuvers and machinations? Or might she be more interested in his particular skill set? Did she know about his research?

Thaddeus was, after all, rather famous, both to the masses and among those who mattered, though for different reasons. Or, perhaps she was interested in the most recent Gilbrathan Aberrant, the one they had named Moonsable. Its anomalous effect was weak, but Moonsable was one of the rare mutations to retain some small measure of sapience and lucidity even after the break event. If that was what had led the Raven Queen to him, perhaps she did have an interest in his research after all.

Thaddeus shook himself from the thoughts as they arrived at the dim viewing room, where a few coppers and a representative from the Red Guard were already waiting. Without any real facts to find purchase on, he was spiraling. That way lead to unconscious biases that would skew his later deductive abilities toward the ideas he wanted to be true, rather than bare reality. Like Kuchen. Thaddeus shuddered at the idea. He hoped to gain the missing pieces of information from Canelo’s interview, but had his suspicions it might not be that easy.

As soon as they learned which of their students were involved in the incident, a couple of University faculty members had rushed down to the quarantine zone with a healer. Rather than concern for Siverling, a colleague’s apprentice who had manifested an anomalous effect and actually been attacked by the Red Guard, they had been more interested in the girl. The healer had insisted that Canelo’s refusal to speak stemmed from trauma, and that further mental or emotional strain could lead to long-term damage or even another Aberrant. They had demanded the girl be given a calming potion to allow her to sleep and return to the University for a full wellness examination before being forced to answer questions.

The Red Guard had allowed it, ostensibly because unlike his own apprentice, other than Canelo’s refusal to speak, she gave off no anomalous readings, and the University held a lot of power in Gilbratha. Thaddeus wondered if there were not more to it, like bribes or blackmail. Despite their oaths, members of the Red Guard were not incorruptible.

Kuchen flipped through his sheaf of loose papers, murmuring to Titus. “You asked for someone to double-check that prognos woman’s assessment of the crime scene. Preliminary reports haven’t found any discrepancies, though there is some argument over the method and sequence of events during the fighting that caused Mr. Moore’s break.”

At least Titus wasn’t an idiot, which was a large reason the man was one of the few Thaddeus might consider a friend. It had escaped neither of them that the prognos woman had interacted with a friendly Raven Queen, meaning her testimony could be compromised.

A copper and prognos pair led Canelo into the interrogation room, while a few University faculty members joined Thaddeus and the others. The viewing room had a large example of the newly developed half-silvered mirror, also known as a one-way window. It would allow them to watch the interrogation without being seen. As long as the interrogation room remained bright, while their viewing room remained dark, anyone in the interrogation room would think it was a simple mirror. Spell arrays embedded into the stone wall would send the sound from the interrogation room through to them while keeping their own conversation secure.

The questioning started off normally, with the girl answering baseline questions about her identity and background, the better for the prognos to divine the truth of her words, but as soon as the first real question about the night before came up, Canelo said, “I cannot speak of it.”

Everyone in the viewing room shared confused looks with each other, except the newly joined University faculty members.

Thaddeus’s eyes narrowed.

More questions were met by the same exact answer. The girl was frustrated, rocking back and forth and biting her lip, but that seemed to be the only response she could give. The interrogating copper sighed, rubbing his tired eyes. “Miss Canelo, I understand that the events of last night were traumatizing, but we must have your testimony.”

“I cannot speak of it.”

The prognos said, “She believes that.”

Thaddeus turned to the only people in the room who seemed fully aware of what was going on. “Do you care to explain?” he asked.

The other professor, someone from the divination department, coughed self-importantly. “Miss Canelo regained her ability to speak when the sun rose, but any attempts to question her about the events of yesterday evening seem to yield only this one answer. It’s the same for any questions involving the Raven Queen. We believe the Raven Queen placed some sort of curse or geas on her. We were able to uncover Miss Canelo’s diary from her room, and there are hints that she and Moore were interested in the bounty offered for information on the Raven Queen.” The man pulled the a small book from his satchel and handed it to Investigator Kuchen. “Perhaps you will find it useful. I can only hope so, as I doubt our unfortunate student will be much help to you at this point.”

“A cursebreaker, perhaps,” Kuchen suggested.

The man nodded quickly. “We have already sent word to a faculty member who teaches the subject to upper term students. If there is any solution to the problem, we will find it, I promise you.”

Thaddeus almost snorted aloud. It was a shame that the ward against untruth did not extend into the viewing room. It might at least make the man hesitate before spouting such obvious drivel. He turned to Titus. “May we speak privately?”

Titus and Kuchen followed him into the hallway while the useless interview continued, the copper trying to find any relevant question that Canelo could answer differently.

Titus rubbed his face with one hand, his other clenching and unclenching at his side. He turned to Kuchen. “I want our own cursebreaker working on her. No University affiliation.”

Kuchen nodded quickly, making a note of it in his small notebook.

Thaddeus remained more amused than frustrated. “I doubt that journal belongs to Canelo, or that the contents are legitimate. The girl knows something they would rather be kept silent. If they did not place that curse against divulging what happened while they stalled for time before bringing her here, then at the most they did not try very hard to save her from it. It has had time to settle in, now. Very convenient, that the only other living being able to testify about what happened at the beginning of last night is the Raven Queen herself. Canelo was involved in their faction’s attempt to find the Raven Queen without the coppers or Crowns knowing, I suspect. If I remember correctly, she was also on the scene when the Eagler Tower divination array was destroyed? During the false rogue magic alarm?”

Kuchen’s eyes widened. “Oh, well, yes, the name does sound familiar.”

Thaddeus relayed his apprentice’s suspicions about Canelo’s collusion with someone at the University.

Titus was unsurprised. “I didn’t know the details, but I did suspect. The blood sample we were using was conveniently corrupted. If we hadn’t kept some of it behind in the Harrow Hill evidence vaults we would have been out of luck. There’s not much left, but our diviners are powerful and skilled enough to work with very little. It will simply make things more difficult—and more expensive.”

“How long until Eagle Tower’s repairs are completed?” Thaddeus asked.

“Six to eight weeks.” Titus smiled wryly. “They aren’t in as much of a hurry to repair it as one might hope.”

Kuchen snorted.

“Is there no other divination array you can use in the meantime?”

“None that make the expense worth it, especially when they have so little chance of success.”

Thaddeus doubted they would ever find her using divination if they had not succeeded yet, but he had no incentive to offer better options. “This Crown-opposing faction is being reactionary, rather than proactive. It is more evidence against them. The person who set off the false rogue magic alarms last time knew what was going on and what copper procedure is. Either it was one of us—one of the coppers,” he clarified, motioning to the three of them despite the fact that he considered himself an outside party, “or it was someone at the University. The last option is that one of our organizations has a leak that the Raven Queen is taking advantage of. While I certainly would not rule that out, the evidence makes it increasingly likely that someone at the University sabotaged the previous efforts. If they have a chance, they might act against us again.”

“If so, the High Crown may feel even less favorable to them,” Titus said. “They are playing a dangerous game.”

“What was in the book, the one she stole?” Thaddeus asked. For the University to go to such lengths—thinly veiled treason—it had to have been more valuable than Thaddeus suspected.

Titus looked at him for a moment, but shook his head. “Something valuable enough that we must find Siobhan Naught first.

Kuchen opened his mouth to ask further questions, perhaps an attempt to confirm his ridiculous theory, but wisely closed it without speaking.

Titus continued. “I had considered requesting the Red Guard’s assistance, despite my lord father’s feelings on their involvement. Perhaps their particular brand of resources would allow us to find and detain her, if I could convince them she is the kind of threat that requires their intervention. But Father has threatened to disinherit me if I disgrace the Westbays through such a failure, and beyond the embarrassment to the coppers, ceding authority to the Red Guard could affect our future funding.” He gave a wry, bitter smile.

“You would think we should all be on the same side,” Kuchen commiserated.

Thaddeus nodded absently, his mind elsewhere. The book must have been valuable indeed, if some faction of the University thought it was worth it to make an enemy of the Crowns. They would rather allow the Raven Queen to go free than let the Crowns have it. He wondered how many of the administration and professors were aware of what was happening under the surface.

Whichever side ended up with the book, it did not bode well for the ongoing stability of Gilbratha, or Lenore as a whole. As long as the upheaval did not impede his research, Thaddeus did not particularly care who won, but he was becoming more interested in getting his hands on whatever that archaeologist expedition had uncovered. Knowledge was power, and this knowledge seemed increasingly valuable.

And the Raven Queen had it. The Raven Queen who was, maybe, trying to get Thaddeus’s attention. “I want to see Ennis Naught,” he said.

Author Note 1/13/22: We have hit the 100 patron goal, which means I’ll be posting the promised 6 bonus chapters!

Originally, next week was going to be a break week with the temporarily slowed down schedule, so Thursday will be a bonus chapter instead of the regular chapter.

The 6 bonus chapters will be posted from Sunday the 16th through Friday the 21st, one every day. Patrons will be getting a good chunk into Book 3! I hope you are excited, and thank you to everyone for your support!

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