Many of the characters in this chapter have already made an appearance in the Patreon-exclusive short story, Thaddeus Interlude – Codename: Moonsable
Set after Book 2’s “Sirens” chapter, Thaddeus plans to introduce the second exercise of the term to his Intro to Practical Will-based Casting students. But when the rogue magic sirens go off, he is called away to deal with the particularly fascinating source of the turmoil.
If you’d like to read that, patrons at any level have access: https://www.patreon.com/azaleaellis
Beneath hundreds of meters of white stone, in a small room carved into the most secret of places and illuminated only by light crystals, stood four people. To the left side of the doorway, a human woman sidled closer to her male companion. On the right, their boots still muddy, waited two men, one with ginger-orange hair and another with a pair of furry tails. All four wore the red shield symbol of their order and held a clipboard, the paperwork already filled out and reviewed.
Atop a wheeled dolly in front of the quartet sat two large rectangular iron cases. They were coffin-like, the source of an unnamed dread.
The woman cleared her throat. “These are the ones you’re here for,” she said unnecessarily, breaking the ominous silence.
The ginger-haired man looked the cases over, humming thoughtfully. “Two in such a short period. It must have been quite an eventful time for you, Agent Fike.”
The woman sighed. “Well, you know how it is in a big city, Selby.”
Her companion placed his fists on his hips and thrust his chest out. “Some sorceress calling herself the Raven Queen has been going around making trouble. I still think we need to do something about her.” His voice was loud, echoing off the smooth walls of the small room. He didn’t seem to notice his mistake until the others winced and turned toward one of the iron cases. Face paling, he took a large step back and eyed it warily.
When nothing happened, the twin-tailed man asked, “Blood magic?” His soft voice carried a faint accent that hinted at faraway lands.
The loud man nodded, then shook his head. “Well, yes, but nothing egregious. No slaughter rituals. No murders at all, actually. It’s the strangeness of it, the rumors, the whispers.”
“Nightmare-type?” the red-headed Agent Selby asked.
Agent Fike raised a hand to stop the loud one’s response, giving him a long-suffering look. “No. Agent Berg here is just a little too susceptible to rumors. She’s a flashy free-casting sorcerer who likes to play games of cat-and-mouse, and a fantastical, romantic figure to the commoners. The stories have been getting wild.” Fike turned to Agent Berg, crossing her arms. “Not every frightening incident in the night is caused by an Aberrant.”
Agent Berg frowned down at her. “Letting a potential threat go unchecked because of negligence could lead to unnecessary deaths, or even more Aberrants. We should be investigating and suppressing every danger to the future world, as we vowed.”
Agent Selby let out a single sharp laugh, raising an eyebrow as he shared a look with his fluffy-tailed companion. “A bit of a fresh-oathed newbie, huh?”
Agent Berg’s frown grew darker, but Selby waved a hand before he could retort. “Look, kid, that’s a noble idea, but there aren’t enough of us to go patrolling around every dark alley and responding to every peasant’s report of evil creatures curdling their cow’s milk in the teat. We have processes in place to catch the actual threats. Even if you only focus on those, they will be more than sufficient to keep you busy. And with that said, let’s make this quick. Agent Marcurio and I have to get back to our base and then to a little village outside Paneth in less than a week.”
“You can’t tell me she didn’t have something to do with that one,” Agent Berg muttered, gesturing to the iron case they’d been so wary of earlier.
Fike rolled her eyes but didn’t deign to respond aloud.
Agent Selby stepped up to the more benign case, flipping through the paperwork on his clipboard. “Scourge-type with a Nightmare-type sub effect?” He shook his head, muttering, “I don’t know why we bother with that old classification system. It’s too vague to be useful.” Louder, he added, “I heard there were multiple requests for it.”
Agent Berg shuddered. “To be honest, it disturbs me. Unnatural, for one of them to act like that. I’m looking forward to having it gone.”
Agent Marcurio’s lips twisted in a wry smile, his tails undulating in the air like fluffy snakes. “Its strangeness makes it all the more interesting, I’m sure.”
Berg shuffled and looked away.
Selby reached out to touch the second case, then snatched his hand back, rubbing his fingertips together with morbid fascination. “This is the new one, the Blight-type?”
Safely tucked into the corner of the room, Agent Berg grinned, forgetting his earlier attempt at volume control as he boasted, “I handled the aftercare myself.”
Agent Fike raised an unimpressed eyebrow. “His first time.”
The other three snickered, but quickly sobered. “I heard your Captain—Goldfisch, was it?—applied to keep the Blight-type despite it being against policy,” Selby said. “Too risky to keep them locally. Your base can requisition something similar and less likely to be recognized from elsewhere.” He took the handle of the dolly and maneuvered it out of the room. As he pushed the two heavy iron cases down the hallway, the other three followed behind.
Agent Marcurio’s eyebrows slowly rose higher until, after a couple of seconds, he could no longer restrain himself. “Captain Goldfisch? Is that really his name?” he asked, his tone thick with amusement.
“Don’t joke about that in his presence if you want to live,” Agent Fike warned.
“And don’t mention anything about us being lucky to have Thaddeus Lacer stationed in the city, either,” Agent Berg piped up, his voice echoing down the hallway with obvious resentment.
“Thaddeus Lacer?” Marcurio asked. “Is he here? Could I meet him?”
Agent Fike lifted a hand to curb the man’s sudden enthusiasm. “He’s not here. He’s assigned to the Thaumaturgic University…and not particularly happy with our team at the moment. I wouldn’t advise trying to get an autograph or anything during your visit. Even at the best of times, he can be disagreeable.”
Berg let out a besotted sigh. “I know, he’s brilliant.”
Still pushing the dolly, Agent Selby sent Berg an incredulous look over his shoulder. “Is there enmity between Goldfisch and Lacer?” he asked, looking to Fike.
Marcurio also focused on her with avid interest, his fluffy tails swishing back and forth eagerly.
She shrugged. “They have a history, I guess. I’m not sure of the details, but the captain openly dislikes him. He’s mentioned Lacer caring more about amassing knowledge than the methods he takes to obtain it. Then he likes to segue into a long denunciation of former Red Guard members who forgot or misinterpreted their oaths, and the disasters they caused in their pursuit of secrets and power better left alone.”
Agent Berg’s mouth drooped. “He goes on and on. One time I pretended to have diarrhea just so I could hide out in the bathroom to get away from him.”
Agent Marcurio’s tails wilted. “Ah. Goldfisch is one of those, huh?” He shared a commiserating glance with Selby.
Berg clapped Marcurio on the shoulder hard enough to make the man wince. “He is. But that’s not the reason Special Agent Lacer is upset with our team at the moment. No, that’s all Agent Vernor’s fault. You see, Thaddeus Lacer has finally taken an apprentice.”
“Really? But I heard he refused even the High Crown’s heir a few years back! Who did he choose?”
Berg sighed wistfully, then began to rhapsodize. “I heard the boy has silver hair and looks like a little lordling. Supposedly, he’s not even a noble, but…” Berg basked in the rapt attention of the visiting agents as he ran through his limited knowledge about the apprentice and moved on to the various fantastical stories he’d collected about Thaddeus Lacer’s time at the University. Notably, how the irritable professor had almost stolen the powerful familiar of a visiting witch. Obviously, the creature found Lacer more appealing than its contracted master.
The agents lost their initial unease as they listened, the two iron cases all but forgotten as they loaded them into reinforced wagons to be transported away.
Confined within the first, which was as bright as daylight on the inside, huddled a twisted, ugly form. Its whimpers and hoarse, broken sobs were inaudible through the thick metal.
The being within the other case had been pruned like an overgrown bush or tenacious weed so that it would fit inside the container. Its iron coffin had been meticulously crafted and enchanted for better containment, so that not even a hair-thin seam remained. The thing inside still needed to breathe, so they had given it an air refreshing artifact, but that was all. The iron hummed softly, almost imperceptibly.
Due to a combination of individual requests and glitches with the Patreon integration that don’t update access to chapters immediately after some readers become patrons, I’ve decided to bite the bullet and start posting advance chapters on Patreon as well as here.
I don’t have enough time to do everything, so this means that I will no longer be posting the weekly chapter on AO3.
If you’re currently a patron, I’ve been updating you about the weekly releases through a combined newsletter list that contains both patrons and non-patrons. If you have Patreon set to email you every time a content provider you support releases something new, you may want to turn off notifications on Patreon, or unsubscribe from my weekly email.
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Chapters on Patreon will not be updated with edits, and will not be updated with bumped-down tiers. $7 Master level + or nothing, basically. If you’re doing re-reads, to see the latest/edited version of the chapter you’ll need to go to my website.
The next chapter of Book 3 is coming next Thursday, after which there will likely be a temporary a slowdown. More news then, and as always, Happy Reading.