Chapter 187 – Transmutation Exercises

SebastienMonth 4, Day 12, Monday 3:50 p.m.Silence followed Sebastien’s question.“What?” Damien asked.She continued to stare at Professor Lacer. “Magic, or reality, or whatever you want to call it, is either accessing or storing our ideas....
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Chapter 183 – The Archaeologist


Month 4, Day 11, Sunday 5:30 a.m.

Very early Sunday morning, after waking for what seemed to the be dozenth time to the alarm spell she’d set on her pocket watch, Sebastien took a morning dose of all her prescribed concoctions. Then, she retreated to the nearby bathroom—thankfully empty—and retrieved the beast core and Conduit that she had swallowed.

It was an experience she resolved never to think about again. Even the thought of returning the Conduit to Professor Lacer at some point made her skin flush from her neck up to her forehead.

Sebastien was thankful that the man had found her at the perfect time yesterday, so that the healer could—unknowingly—lie to him, instead of forcing Sebastien to do it herself. Sebastien wasn’t confident in her ability to trick him when he was on guard for it.

For a moment, she had worried that his diagnostic spell had given some hint of the five ward disks embedded under the skin of her back. But instead, apparently she was anemic and needed to put on a bit more fat. It was true that the divination-diverting ward might have, cumulatively, consumed a bit more blood over the last few months than intended. It was also true, what with the constant exercise as she practiced light-refinement, as well as the extra energy required to keep up with heavy magic use, that she might not have been managing her sustenance properly over the break. It was harder to remember when there were no classes to structure her day, and when everything else seemed more urgent than taking a break to eat. In fact, she could recall a handful of times that she only forced herself to do so when the insidious cravings for a dose of beamshell tincture returned, or when her fingers began to tremble.

Sebastien looked into one of the bathroom’s mirrors, tilting her head as she examined her face for signs of malnutrition. She was thin, yes, but really the worst of it were the bruise-like crescents beneath her eyes, and that her lips were pale and cracking. She took a bit of headache salve from her satchel and rubbed the minty oil on her lips, and then pinched a bit of color into her cheeks. “Better,” she murmured. She wasn’t sure if she was quite handsome, but she did look…distinguished. Striking.

Sebastien turned her attention to the—thoroughly cleaned—beast core and Conduit that she had retrieved. The Conduit was fine, though perhaps slightly shinier than it had been before. The beast core, however, was almost empty of power. When she held it within the Circle of her grip and sensed at it for the familiar well of power, she got the feel of a depleted spark instead.

Which was slightly concerning. Sebastien reassured herself that she would know if she had somehow cast through her own flesh at any point, because that wasn’t the sort of thing someone could miss. Perhaps beast cores simply didn’t react well to the chemicals of a digestive system.

Could I have internal burns from the energy discharge?’ If she had, the healing potions had probably fixed any problems. In fact, it might even have been contact with the healing potions that caused the issue in the first place, if they were trying to cleanse her of an “impurity.” Radiant energy was multi-faceted, after all, as harsh and unforgiving as it was restorative.

Sebastien put the beast core in her satchel and reattached the Conduit chain to her pocket watch with some bending of the delicate links, and then left for Liza’s. The sun was rising earlier and earlier lately, which she appreciated because it decreased some of the bitter cold, but it also meant that it was harder to travel unnoticed through the darkness.

The evening before, after taking the potions prescribed by the University healer, Sebastien had realized that keeping all of the things she’d stolen from the armory safe in her bag was probably a bad idea. If someone were to search it and discover the secret compartment, it would be hard to explain why she had a veritable fortune in gold and celerium.

It was also possible that the gold bars had some tracking function embedded within them, where she couldn’t see. While she had kept her satchel close enough by her side that her divination-diverting ward could activate if someone tried to find her through it, there had been no scrying attempts. It might be paranoia, but if that happened to change during one of the moments when her satchel was too far away for the spillover effects from her ward to protect it, the consequences could be severe.

Normally, she would have kept something sensitive like this at Oliver’s house, or at the Verdant Stag. In fact, she still hadn’t retrieved Myrddin’s journal from the guest room floor. Oliver might not even be aware that the book was there, but if he was, and he was angry about Operation Palimpsest… This caused a spike of anxiety that was quickly suppressed by the potions Sebastien had taken.

If she left such sensitive items at Liza’s house, they would be protected by the woman’s wards. ‘But would they be protected from Liza herself?’ She remembered Oliver saying that Liza had a code of honor, but that Sebastien would not be buying her loyalty. And Liza was, for some reason, in constant need of gold. If Sebastien kept her things there, she had no way to stop Liza from snooping, and wasn’t sure that Liza would be able to resist the temptation if she learned of such an opportunity.

Sebastien could place her things in a warded box in a bank vault, but if the High Crown’s people overcame the bank’s wards, they would not only have a way to trap her when she came to retrieve the items, but also a blatant link from the Raven Queen to Sebastien Siverling’s identity.

Placing a fortune in her various stashes of emergency belongings throughout the city was obviously a horrible idea, for so many reasons that she didn’t want to take the time to list them.

Her last option seemed to be the Nightmare Pack. Gera, at least, could probably be trusted not to betray the Raven Queen’s trust by snooping in her belongings. And the Nightmare Pack was wealthy enough—and committed enough crime—that they should have some well-warded, secret, and protected locations to store something for her.

But even so, she didn’t feel quite secure unloading such sensitive items on…well, anyone, really.

She thought over that problem, and others, as she made a couple stops along the way to change her body and clothes and make sure she wasn’t being followed.

Damien had written her back yesterday evening, urging her to come to Westbay Manor and lamenting that his overprotective older brother had him on literal house arrest as a reaction to the Raven Queen’s latest shenanigans. Damien had assured Sebastien that Westbay Manor was one of the safest places in the city. No doubt he was desperate for news. But she had taken a dose of the anti-anxiety potion just before, and was too tired to even send a response to him before falling asleep again.

Siobhan rubbed her cold-numbed hands together, making a mental note to send Damien another message when she got back from the Retreat.

When Siobhan arrived, Liza thrust a cup of tea into her hands, then ushered her to an armchair, where Siobhan spent the next thirty minutes dozing off—but not actually sleeping—while Liza used a potion to curl Siobhan’s hair.

Sleepily, she asked Liza if she could build a warded box with similar protections to her divination-diverting ward.

Liza walked into the next room and came back with a small, square chest made of a peculiar wood marbled with white streaks. “I made a few to sell based on the same principles of your ward. Rather ingenious, and the shape is perfect for stable protection, so it is much more power-efficient than trying to shield a human. It doesn’t work exactly the same, of course, because it cannot ride piggyback on your body or your Will, but it’s some of the finest security that coin can buy. Two hundred gold.”

Siobhan took the chest into her hands, opened the lid, and peered inside. The space had none of the tell-tale visual confusion that accompanied space-bending magic. “It’s not expanded on the inside,” she said, disappointed.

“I could add that in, for an extra hundred gold. Or, you could purchase a larger model. I don’t have any on hand, but I could have one ready in a week, if you don’t need a rush job. It has a three-sided lock. One, a personalized key—some specific object that you must present. Two, a piece of your blood, saliva, or hair—which it will immediately destroy after verification. And three, a verbal phrase spoken aloud.”

“How many of these have you sold?”

“A few. People at the secret meetings have found them intriguing.”

“If I buy two, will you give me a discount? Three hundred fifty.”

“I have to make each by hand, and the worth of my efforts does not decrease by fifty coins simply because you purchase two. Likewise, there are no logistical problems with shipping or storage that such a small order would ease.”

“Hmm. You wouldn’t happen to have left a back door for yourself to open these things without the blood and password, would you?” Siobhan asked.

Liza stared at her. “Truly, you have the mind of a criminal.”

Siobhan scowled at her. “That is a common-sense question!”

Liza harrumphed. “I have left no such back door. But if I were determined to break the same wards I created, I would have a better chance of doing so than most.”

“And don’t you see how two hundred gold is too steep for a cramped box that doesn’t have the versatility of my personal ward and that you’ve admitted you could probably break into? I have powerful enemies, and you left the army years ago. They could have artificers on the cutting-edge of the latest research who could totally crush your protections. And what about the Red Guard?”

Liza let out an incredulous bark of a laugh. “What I’m hearing is that, with such powerful enemies, you have desperate need of my services and no other options. Also, I am the cutting edge of the latest research, you obnoxious girl. I would pit my skills against any Red Guard diviner. They surpass me only in resources, and that cannot be helped unless you wish to pay approximately twenty to thirty times more.”

Siobhan gave up, paying four more gold bars for two of the warded chests, though it pained her to feel her—admittedly unearned—wealth flow throw her fingers like water. Always, it seemed, the more she had, the more she spent.

Then, some transmutation adjusted the shape of Siobhan’s fake nose to more resemble Liza’s. The woman gave her one of her dresses, modified for Siobhan’s more slender frame, and told her to answer by “Amelia.”

Less than an hour later, Siobhan climbed out of a carriage and followed her “aunt Liza” into the Retreat at Willowdale. The Silvia Nakai identity was burned. It could never be used again, and Siobhan had hinted in her letter to him that Oliver should discreetly cover any tracks he might have left. It meant that at the moment, she had no valid identity papers.

But she did have Liza, and for this, at least, that was all that mattered.

The same shaman that Liza had been walking with last time joined them in the Retreat’s lobby.

Unlike the lower levels in the main part of the building, the severe trauma ward had few communal areas in favor of individual rooms with windows in the doors, padded floors and walls, and soft-edged furniture bolted to the floor.

In what open activity areas there were, guards watched actively, rather than being on-call. In one room they passed, a patient was drawing a spell array on the padded walls using their own feces. Except the spell array was all wrong, with lopsided, open numerological symbols, and some glyphs that Siobhan didn’t recognize, even after all of her study to learn any glyph that Myrddin’s journal might throw at her.

Liza motioned to one of the Retreat’s workers, who rushed off to deal with the patient.

Siobhan wanted to ask if that person was really going to try to cast a spell, and if so, what might happen. But Liza had warned her not to ask questions, and Siobhan could guess the answers well enough.

She caught a glimpse of another patient, who was scratching at their skin in swirling patterns that looked as if they had bled and healed and bled again, countless times. Others paced, muttering to themselves or jumping at imaginary sounds.

But most of those held in the severe trauma ward were quiet, melancholic, or catatonic.

The man she was there to see was in one of the rare common areas, sitting in a chair beside a window and reading a book, though he paused frequently to give the potted plant on the windowsill suspicious glances.

The Retreat employee escorting them introduced them to the man, who stood and offered a handshake. “I am the archaeologist,” he said.

Liza raised an eyebrow and shared a look with the shaman.

The patient pulled back his hand, balling it into a fist, and gave Liza and the shaman the same suspicious look previously reserved for the potted plant.

Their employee escort laughed awkwardly. “His name is Edgar. We’ve been trying to help him reclaim it, but losing the connection to one’s name seems to be a common side effect of overexposure to the Black Wastes.” She turned to the man and spoke slowly, as if to a child…or a dog. “Edgar, these people are here to help you.”

Siobhan found the condescending tone distinctly unpleasant, and perhaps Liza agreed, because she shooed the woman away.

The archaeologist didn’t react at the sound of his name, but was now glancing around the room as if looking for an escape route.

Liza’s shaman reached into his beaded leather bag for some of the tools of his trade. “So, a standard anchoring and spirit-world barrier?” He looked up at the archaeologist. “It will work best if I have your cooperation. Are you familiar with lucid dreaming?”

Siobhan knew what lucid dreaming was, but the other jargon went right over her head.

The archaeologist, however, found the shaman’s words very alarming, and immediately moved to escape.

The shaman fumbled and almost dropped a bundle of woven herbs, and Liza stepped in front of the archaeologist to block his way, but didn’t attempt to touch or grab him.

One of the guards at the corner of the room was striding forward, already reaching for a black baton at his waist. Whether it was a cudgel or a battle wand, Siobhan didn’t know, but she could see the archaeologist fraying at the edges, his eyes growing wilder even as he pulled his hands in toward his chest and hunched his shoulders.

Siobhan held up her hands, palms outstretched to either side. “Stop,” she commanded.

To her surprise, they did. Everyone in the nearest half of the room turned to look at her, and the archaeologist tightened even further, like a coiled spring.

Reminded of a similar situation, where communication was difficult and the one she wanted to help only feared her, Siobhan reached out with her Will. She added no power, grasped for no energy, only announced her desire and command to the world in the same way she might when setting up a complex spell. It grated against her still-recovering Will-strain, but not even as much as casting the weakest possible version of her dreamless-sleep spell. “Archaeologist, you are safe,” she said simply. It was what he called himself, and what she would call him.

The man stilled, then slowly turned to face her.

She didn’t smile or reach for him, only tried to push her surety of that statement into her Will. She would not harm him, nor allow any here to do so. He could trust himself to know the correct thing to do. He could trust himself to settle into himself, and into this moment. To relax was good. To be filled with confidence was only right and natural.

The archaeologist took one step toward her, and then another, straightening even as his shoulders loosened and fell. His hands returned to his sides and uncurled from their fists. He sighed, as if he had stepped from the searing heat into a cool room, and smiled at her. “Oh, that’s very nice. Sorry about the skittishness,” he added, looking around at the others. “I’m still recovering from the trauma. I have good days and bad days.”

Exposure to the Black Wastes caused paranoia, nightmares, and hallucinations at the best of times, and the effects were lingering.

Liza and the shaman were both staring silently, and after an awkward moment where no one responded to the man, the shaman turned to Liza. “I admit, I was somewhat skeptical of the quality of a healer’s apprenticeship in Silva Erde, but that is a most impressive technique.” He turned back to Siobhan, fluttering his hands in the air. “Even I can feel it, somewhat. How does it work? You’re not a free-caster, are you? Surely not—so young!”

“I also had no idea,” Liza said, staring at Siobhan piercingly.

Siobhan’s stomach flipped with sudden dread. Surely, this was not another ability that she shouldn’t have? “I’ve simply found that some living beings are sensitive to the Will. We may not have any way to quantify it, technically, but that does not mean we are oblivious to it.” These words weren’t exactly true, as it seemed that Myrddin had found some way to do the supposedly impossible, but of course she couldn’t say so.

“Oh, marvelous!” the shaman said, clapping his hands together. “I know what you mean, and it’s certainly true that we have a hind-brain sense for powerful thaumaturges—especially when they’re angry!—but I’ve never heard of someone using their Will so deliberately outside of active casting. I suppose it’s not so different to the techniques used when dream-walking? But you must have trained incessantly to improve your clarity and forcefulness! And how did you know that Edgar would be receptive to such a thing? I suppose his exposure to the Black Wastes has thinned his natural protection and left him more sensitive.”

Siobhan cleared her throat awkwardly. “They’re doing a lot of experimental work in Silva Erde,” she hedged.

“Practices to markedly improve fidelity through focus on the facets of clarity, force, and soundness,” Liza murmured. “Or so I imagine.”

“Oh yes, not nearly so bound to the strictures of modern sorcery over there, or so I hear,” the shaman agreed. “Edgar,” he added, “I simply must try this technique. Let me know what you feel.” The shaman closed his eyes, raised his hands to his temple, and concentrated.

Siobhan could feel his Will in the air, and withdrew her own, holding back a sigh of relief at the lessened pressure in her head.

The archaeologist lifted his hands and wiggled them in a “so-so” motion. “Ehh, I can get the sense of it, but it’s not as crisp or smooth as Miss— Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name,” he said, turning abruptly back to Siobhan.

“Call me Amelia,” she said.

The archaeologist nodded amiably, reaching out and taking her hand to shake, even though she hadn’t offered it. He shook it up and down for a bit too long, as if he’d forgotten how many pumps was standard. “Really very nice. You three are here to help speed my recovery, then? I heard I’m the only one who made it out. Well, not physically, but mentally, you know.” He tapped his forefinger twice against his temple.

“I would like to try the technique as well,” Liza interrupted.

Like the shaman had done, she raised her hands to her temples. She scowled at the archaeologist and began to tremble slightly, her face growing red.

The archaeologist shrank backward, and Siobhan quickly filled the area with her own Will again to combat the predatory swoop of Liza’s intention. It reminded Siobhan more of the magical wind attacks of a gigantic roc than any sort of soothing aura of peace.

“No, no, nope!” the archaeologist yelped.

Liza’s efforts eased. “What did I do wrong?”

The archaeologist shook his head repeatedly. “Well, you might as well press a pillow over someone’s face to get them to stop worrying about the monster under the bed. And it was all choppy”—he slashed his hand through the air repeatedly—“and both of you were too shallow. Very fake-feeling, no smoothness, no depth. Where’s your sincerity?” he added sagely, crossing his arms over his chest. “You’ll need to train a bit more to match Amelia here. Honestly, if I were you two, I’d be ashamed to have been surpassed so handily by a woman decades your junior. As they say, as you make your bed, so will you lie in it.”

Liza ground her teeth in frustration, but didn’t argue.

Siobhan very carefully didn’t meet her gaze.

The shaman chuckled awkwardly. “Well, I suppose you’re ready for the anchoring then, eh, Edgar?”

The archaeologist peered at him not with anxious paranoia, but with something Siobhan guessed might have been skepticism. “I’d rather not. Someone with such a half-hearted, ham-fisted Will, rooting around in my head?”

The shaman’s mouth fell open, and then he flushed bright red. “Well, I never!” He turned to Liza. “Madam, let us attend to those who need us, and leave this ungrateful chap to his own devices. If he wants to recover without treatment, I say let him do so!”

It had always been the plan that Liza would go and do whatever it was she did while Siobhan used her temporary cover identity to speak to the archaeologist. Despite this, Liza now seemed somewhat reluctant to leave, and only begrudgingly nodded. “We will talk later,” she said to Siobhan.

Siobhan and the archaeologist moved back to the window, where Siobhan sat across from him.

He looked nervously at the plant. “Sorry, could you do the thing again? I still get a little paranoid around greenery. In the Black Wastes, a bush isn’t just a bush. Or it might not be a bush the next time you look. Maybe it’s grown eyeballs, or you try to wipe your butt with one of the leaves and suddenly it’s turned into a tongue—” He shuddered, then leaned in and whispered, “That actually happened to one of the team. I won’t say who. You may think it sounds funny, or that I’m joking, but I assure you, when such a thing actually happens to you, it is a deeply horrifying experience.”

Siobhan took a moment to get into the right mindset, then reached out with her Will again to convey the idea of safety and confidence to whatever part of him could sense it. “I’m actually here to ask about what happened, and what you discovered. Are you able to talk about it?”

“I hope you don’t want me to relive that experience. If there were some way to burn the whole thing from my mind, I would do it. Except for Myrddin’s hermitage. I want to remember that.”

Siobhan suppressed her curiosity. She would love to hear every detail about Myrddin’s lost hermitage, but that wasn’t why she was here. “I don’t need any of the lurid stories. It’s only that the facts of what happened are…slightly confusing. What exactly did you retrieve?”

“Oh, well you know most everything had been preserved by the wards for hundreds of years. It wasn’t until one of the warding stones—more like boulders—was cracked in one of the Black Waste shifts—that’s the theory anyway—that we were able to find the hermitage at all. We got a lot of old books, a few artifacts of historical significance, and a veritable fortune in beast cores and celerium. The biggest haul was the ward stones themselves.” The archaeologist looked around, then leaned in to whisper. “But the most important thing we recovered were Myrddin’s personal research journals.”

Siobhan’s heart was pounding, but she did her best to keep the urgency from her face. “Interesting,” she said, in the tone people used when they were curious but not entirely riveted. “Were there any self-charging artifacts? Or, did you find Myrddin’s rumored enormous Conduit? Perhaps something like a control mechanism for Carnagore?”

Anything,’ she explained silently, ‘that could be more important than one of the books. Anything Oliver could have stolen.

“Oh, no. If those things were real, Myrddin probably had them on him when he died, wherever that is. It’s possible one of the artifacts will reveal something when examined more closely. We didn’t want to risk damaging anything on-site, and didn’t have the sanity left to linger. We just packed everything we could carry that had the slightest significance, and returned as quickly as possible. However, even if the originals were lost, I’m hopeful that one of Myrddin’s five research journals will contain the method to recreate his experiments. In fact, I’m quite positive of it.”

Siobhan swallowed, her tongue suddenly dry and too thick in her mouth. “Five journals? Are you sure?”

The archaeologist raised an eyebrow. “Five journals, one for each of my fingers. I don’t believe I was going so insane by that point that I would have become confused about something so simple.”

Siobhan cleared her throat. “I ask, because as far as anyone seems to know, there are only four. The University retains three, while the fourth was stolen by a fearsome character who goes by the moniker ‘the Raven Queen.’ There has been quite the hullabaloo about it.”

The man’s eyes widened, and then widened again almost comically, before collapsing into a vicious scowl. “That murderous half-breed! It must have been her. She disappeared last, when we were only a couple days from the edge of the Black Wastes. Vanished in the night. She must have stolen one.” His left foot tapped rapidly against the floor, and he eyed the potted plant again, scooting as far away from it as the confines of the armchair would allow.

He lifted a thumb to his mouth and began to bite at the nail. “Oh no, oh no. Which one did she take, do you think? The one on the table? The one that has the answer? Oh no. That dirty half-breed was probably a spy. Osham would want this. Need it. They’ve been feeling the pinch, too. I heard they sent their own expedition, too slow, but that must have been a cover. By now, Osham’s had the book for months and probably decrypted it. I need to talk to the High Crown.”

He made to stand, and Siobhan increased the force of her Will, urging him to restfulness. She needed more information still.

The archaeologist sat back down, his attempt at movement aborted, but his agitation unsoothed. “This means war,” he said, biting down hard enough on the cuticle of his thumb that the skin broke and began to bleed. “Or, or, maybe we can steal it back. Or kidnap some of their researchers and torture the information out of them.”

He began to mutter incomprehensibly, his sentences incoherent and interspersed with “half-breed,” “Osham,” and, “the book. We need the book.”

“Archaeologist,” she snapped.

His gaze jerked back toward her.

“None of the women returned alive. Who was this thief?”

“A half-breed water bitch. Too-big eyes, deep and hiding her secrets and malice. She wanted to kill me, I could tell. But I had a plan and I was going to kill her first. Except then she disappeared. And, oh, Myrddin forgive us, she took the book.”

Siobhan tried to push even more serenity into her Will, but even without the lingering Will-strain she would have struggled to do so in her own current mental state, and it had little effect. “What was in the book she took?”

The archaeologist stilled, then leaned back from her, tilting his head too far away so that he was looking down the entire bridge of his nose at her, his eyes squinted almost closed. “Why would you ask that? Are you an Osham spy, too?”

Before Siobhan could answer, the archaeologist had lunged for the potted plant, and was trying to wrench it off the table, presumably to throw at her. However, it was glued to the surface, and so he quickly entered a futile wrestling match with the furniture, dirt spilling from the pot as he tried to wrench the entire table from its spot despite the bolts securing it to the floor.

The same guard from earlier hurried forward again, and together with a couple of the other employees, he shoved the end of the baton into the center of the archaeologist’s chest and activated whatever spell was contained within.

The archaeologist relaxed abruptly, so completely that he might have slumped to the floor if not for the support of the employees.

One of the women apologized to Siobhan while ushering her out and to the doorway of the room where Liza and the shaman were still working.

Siobhan remained outside, but still caught a glimpse of a much nicer private room, with fake windows showing illusions of various types of scenery, and a whiff of gentle incense. Siobhan waited in the hallway with her back against the wall so that she could not give in to the urge to peek further. She ignored the strange looks from the Retreat’s employees until Liza exited.

The woman was in a peculiar mood that Siobhan couldn’t quite read, and so the carriage ride back to Gilbratha-proper was strained and silent.

I still cannot be totally sure that Oliver is behind the disappearance of this undine cambion and the fifth book. But I will be surprised if I find that he was not. I know my book is one of Myrddin’s true journals. There is evidence enough of that. It is simply one of the five, and, judging by the archaeologist’s response, it’s likely that the one I hold is not the most important one, not the one everyone is looking for.’

The most pressing question in her mind, however, was why this other book was so important. The archaeologist had used the word “need,” and even believed that ownership would be enough to cause war between Lenore and Osham. Perhaps he was being paranoid. But, judging by the amount of resources the Architects of Khronos and the Thirteen Crowns had been willing to put into finding her…perhaps it was not merely paranoia.

Oliver might know the answers, but I cannot ask him. The High Crown knows, and perhaps Titus Westbay, but they are both out of my reach.’ However, there was at least one other who should know, and who she could access.

Though she had planned to lie low, it seemed that the Raven Queen needed to make a visit to Grandmaster Kiernan.

The Archaeologist narrated the prologue of Book 1.

(Also, this author does not endorse the Archaeologist’s bigotry.)

And The Catastrophe Collector: Larva is live on bookstores pretty much everywhere. Some places haven’t updated the price yet so you can still grab it for $2.99 because they’re in a price-matching war.

Chapter 182 – Harbinger


Month 4, Day 10, Saturday 10:00 a.m.

“I apologize, your Eminence,” the lead healer said, using a somewhat archaic title as he bowed repeatedly to the High Crown. He shot a glance toward Jorgensen that clearly said he wished he could physically shut the hysterical man’s mouth. “A reaction to the mix of potions, perhaps. His mind is volatile and weak at the moment.”

Grimly, the High Crown nodded to the head healer, and their group hurried out at a speed just below a run, carrying Mr. Jorgensen with them. They should have known better than to play games of loyalty and subversion with the Raven Queen. That they had hoped to loosen her grip on her allies by showing them her weakness was delicious irony, considering the reactions of the operatives who had interacted most closely with her.

Had the Raven Queen truly done something more nefarious to Jorgensen, or was this another decoy, serving multiple purposes and drawing their attention away from her true intention? Thaddeus looked around again. If he were trying to play the sort of game she loved so much, it would be not Jorgensen who was the delayed-trigger poison, but one of the others. One who did not even know it.

With Jorgensen gone, the conjecture grew only more outlandish, with the consensus leaning increasingly toward some kind of Aberrant influence. It might have even been due to some subconscious desire to foist the problem of dealing with her off on someone else. The High Crown, at least, had long been attempting to increase his power over Thaddeus’s independent organization, and he might see this as an opportunity.

Thaddeus remained silent unless specifically questioned. He was not convinced, again for lack of sufficient and untainted evidence, but it would explain much. If a powerful sorceress had somehow bound the service of an Aberrant, one lucid enough to follow commands and restrain itself when necessary, together most of the feats she had displayed could be explained. After all, Aberrants were not constrained to the limits of mortal sorcery.

Thaddeus would not reveal the secrets of the Red Guard to these people by suggesting such, nor add weight to their speculation, but it was inevitable that the Red Guard would also realize this possibility. And they would not be pleased. Thaddeus’s attempts to divert them would be for naught. They would investigate.

The talking went on for hours, occasionally interspersed with updates from the ongoing investigation. The Pendragon Corps had tried to find the people they had kidnapped—or at least the families of those people—without any luck. Their homes showed signs that they had left in a hurry, and even under pressure their neighbors could only say that enforcers from the Verdant Stag and Nightmare Pack had helped load clothes and other emergency belongings into a carriage a few hours before.

This was no surprise. The coppers might have arrived sooner, if the Pendragon operatives had actually known exactly who they kidnapped along with the children.

They had also had no luck finding the woman Silvia Nakai. Records showed that she had worked at the Silk Door for a time, but that establishment was notoriously tight-lipped. If Silvia Nakai was Siobhan Naught, as Thaddeus suspected, it was even less likely that they would ever catch her.

Titus’s thoughts seemed to be running along a similar path. “Siobhan Naught was seemingly a normal young girl, according to her father and those around her, until suddenly she began to display abilities beyond any realistic capabilities for one of her age and background. This sudden shift simply…doesn’t make sense. Is it possible that something similar has happened to Silvia Nakai?”

“What if…” a woman started, and then shook her head.

“Speak,” the High Crown ordered wearily.

The woman looked around, then cleared her throat awkwardly. “What if the Raven Queen is actually someone, or some thing, that the expedition brought back from the Black Wastes? In that case, Siobhan Naught and Silvia Nakai would both be…victims.”

In essence, the woman was suggesting that the Raven Queen herself was some sort of lucid Aberrant, though whether this would be in addition to the shadow Aberrant, Thaddeus did not know.

“We should watch the rumors for insight,” the advisor who had supposedly profiled the Raven Queen’s personality said. “The ones that appear first, before they have a chance to mutate as they pass from ear to ear, are most likely to be information from the Raven Queen’s allies. The ones who were there, and those closest to them.”

The suggestion made Thaddeus consider something that no one had brought up. If the Raven Queen had “followers,” could it be in a more direct sense than people who prayed to her and passed around rumors about her activities? Could she perhaps be building her own organization, independent from the Verdant Stag or the Nightmare Pack? No doubt, if this was the case, the woman would be filling the ranks with only the best.

And it would also explain at least a few of the feats she’d flaunted, in a totally mundane, if quite clever manner.

The group argued about almost everything. The only thing they could agree on was that, except for confirmation of alternative levers that might move her, they were, in fact, worse off than they had been before. The High Crown descended into a deep brooding mood.

“We will still prepare to catch her if she attempts to free Ennis Naught,” Titus offered, though it was obvious he held little hope for this.

The High Crown shooed them out with an irritated wave of his hand, and the Pendragon operatives ushered everyone except a couple of personal guards from the room.

Titus was somewhat awkward on the ride back.

Thaddeus could understand the younger man’s desire to offer the High Crown something that would ease his displeasure, but he did not appreciate the words being stolen from his own lips. Thaddeus exited the carriage at the University without breaking the silence. Once there, the first thing he did was check on his apprentice.

Thaddeus first went to the library, and then the dorms, and then cafeteria. Eventually, his stomach sinking, he tried the infirmary. Through a gap in the curtained pseudo-cubicle, he spied Sebastien’s shockingly light hair. The boy had a half-finished mug of nourishing draught in one hand and a weary tilt in his neck. Still, he flashed the healer attending him a small smile, and the grim-faced woman let out an exasperated huff.

Thaddeus strode up to them, yanking the curtain aside and pulling it closed behind him. “What has happened?”

“Oh, it’s all the fault of that damn Raven Queen,” the healer said, clicking her tongue with displeasure.

Sebastien’s eyes widened with alarm. “Well, that’s not exactly—”

Thaddeus had already free-cast a diagnostic spell before remembering that the boy’s strange boon blocked divination. He ignored Sebastien’s flinch as he ruthlessly overpowered the effect. Thaddeus’s eyes narrowed as he looked over the results, illusory images and metrics scrolling through the air.

The healer raised one eyebrow, parsing the information alongside Thaddeus. “An impressive spell, if somewhat obscure,” she commented. “I think I should clarify that the Raven Queen herself did not attack the boy. I realize my words could have been misconstrued. No need to worry about anomalous effects, torture, or…” She leaned closer, peering at the results over Thaddeus’s shoulder. “Hmm.” She shared a glance with Thaddeus, her lips pressing together.

“What? What is it?” Siverling asked, barely suppressing panic.

“It’s a concussion,” she said.

“Not Will-strain?” Thaddeus asked.

The woman turned to Sebastien. “You didn’t do any casting after you got your head knocked around, did you?”

“Of course not,” he replied immediately.

Thaddeus took a deep breath and pinched the bridge of his nose. Sebastien’s eyes had flicked subtly to the side, and his fingers had twitched. Thaddeus had noticed the boy’s habit of reaching for his Conduit whenever he felt the slightest bit uncomfortable. He gave Sebastien a pointed look.

Sebastien at least didn’t force Thaddeus to point out his lie verbally. “Well…I did cast one spell. Something to help with nightmares,” the boy admitted, almost mumbling.

Thaddeus internally lamented the generalized stupidity of his students, and the fact that his apprentice was no exception to the rule, despite the boy’s intelligence and Thaddeus’s attempts to inject some wisdom into him. If the boy didn’t look so downtrodden, Thaddeus would have given him a tongue-lashing.

The healer let out a low sound of sympathy, shooting another meaningful look at Thaddeus over Sebastien’s bowed head. “Mr. Siverling, like most of the rest of us, was out and about on Friday. When the raven clouds started gathering, some idiot panicked and started yelling about the end of days, and you know how it goes. People spooked. Mr. Siverling is so slight, he got knocked over easily. He took a bit of a trampling. He’s already had a high-strength, true healing potion, and that handled most of it, but he’s still experiencing some headaches.”

“The crowd…trampled you?” Thaddeus asked slowly, a strange pit forming in his stomach. He could imagine it. While he was watching the ravens dance in awe, Sebastien, always so confident and focused, was being knocked off balance by some hysterical, criminally self-absorbed savages. “You could have died.” Thaddeus had seen it happen at least half a dozen times.

Sebastien shifted uncomfortably, his lips moving as if to say something, but in the end he remained silent.

“I’m prescribing some anti-inflammatories, a regeneration-booster, and a few more nourishing draughts, in addition to the standard Will-strain regimen. You can take a bed here and sleep for the day, if you like, Mr. Siverling. I would normally prescribe a sleep-inducing potion, but I know of your…aversion. And don’t mention this to your friends, but I can have some of the better food delivered from the cafeteria.”

“I appreciate it, but no thank you,” Sebastien said, shaking his head and tugging at the cuff of his sleeves.

“Are you sure? I know the basic meals are less than appealing. You’re just a little slip of a thing, a string bean! You’re practically wasting away.”

Her sincere concern slipped through in an accusing tone.

Sebastien drew himself up. “That’s not true. I’m all muscle!”

She raised one eyebrow and looked at Thaddeus. “Look at his cheeks. Gaunt.”

Sebastien touched his cheek. “I just have well-defined cheekbones.”

“If this were a story, you would have ‘the consumption,’” the woman snapped back. Rather than continue to bicker with her patient, who was puffing himself up in outrage, she left them alone to retrieve the concoctions she had prescribed.

As soon as she was gone, Thaddeus cast his favorite sound-muffling spell. “Did you encounter the Raven Queen over the break at any time?”

Wide-eyed, Sebastien shook his head. “Did you?” he leaned forward with sudden fascination. The boy obviously wanted to ask for details about the spectacle, but Thaddeus waved him off.

Sebastien hesitated, and then asked, “Is there…anything wrong? You seemed to notice something from that divination spell. I mean, beside the obvious.”

Thaddeus did not cushion his words. “You are underweight. Or, more accurately, your body fat percentage is concerningly low, and you are anemic.”

Sebastien relaxed subtly. “Oh.”

Thaddeus scowled as a flash of anger ran through him. “This is not a trivial matter. You are also dehydrated, your blood pressure is distressingly high, and your fingertips are trembling. When was the last time you ate something?”

The boy pressed his hands flat to his legs, halting the trembling. “Just a couple of hours ago. I had lunch in the cafeteria.”

“And before that?”

Sebastien’s hesitation was answer enough.

Before Thaddeus could speak again, the healer returned, and Thaddeus dropped his sound-muffling spell.

She handed Sebastien a linen satchel filled with small vials and larger bottles, rattling off instructions that the boy nodded along to. “I also included a refill of the anti-anxiety potion you were prescribed earlier this year. When you run out, come back for more.

Sebastien chugged the remainder of his nourishing draught and, under the combined stares of the healer and Thaddeus, left the infirmary with his chin held defiantly high. Thaddeus was beginning to suspect that some of the boy’s haughtiness was actually a defense mechanism.

The healer crossed her arms and turned on Thaddeus as if he were an unruly student. “You need to be keeping an eye on your apprentice’s food intake. I’ve complained to the administration several times that the cafeteria’s restrictions are a problem. Just because it’s tradition doesn’t make it worthwhile. There are other, better ways to incentivize students to earn contribution points.”

“I will handle it,” Thaddeus promised.

She relaxed slightly. “And not just that. Mr. Siverling…might not be dealing with the trauma of his previous encounter with the Raven Queen as well as he seems to. You can’t tell me she wasn’t instrumental in his friend’s break event. And now, with the recent fracas, it must be stirring up memories. Anxieties. If it’s bad enough that he would risk Will-strain to avoid nightmares, I would suggest you consider sending him to a mind healer. He might not talk about it, but Mr. Siverling is an orphan. He doesn’t have anyone to look after him but you.”

Thaddeus wasn’t sure that Sebastien was so fearful of the Raven Queen as to have nightmares about her. If anything, it seemed the opposite. “I will speak to him,” he assured.

“You do that. I’d hate to look back on this moment with regret, wouldn’t you? Mr. Siverling is such a promising young man.”

“He could be great, one day,” Thaddeus agreed. “Truly exceptional.”

“I’d expect nothing less from your apprentice, Grandmaster Lacer,” she called over her shoulder, already walking away.

When Thaddeus finally arrived at his cottage, looking forward to nursing a cup of warmed cider while he decided how to deal with his apprentice, he found a letter. It was placed on the porch directly in front of his door rather than in the warded letter box.

The envelope was of black, obviously expensive paper, and sealed with blood-red wax. There was no identifying stamp in the wax, no signature across the fold, and no address.

Thaddeus’s suspicion warred with a burgeoning excitement and a heady relief. She had not ignored him after all. Nevertheless, Thaddeus had experienced enough surprises and disappointments to learn caution. He cast a series of detection and divination spells. There was nothing suspicious. No hint of magic at all.

Thaddeus levitated the letter with a spell, walked inside, and sat down at his desk, staring at the velvet black paper floating in front of his face.

Carefully, he slid open the seal with his desk athame, careful not to break the wax as he separated it from the page. Damaging this letter in any way would be such a shame.

With the seal broken, he lowered the envelope to the desk and re-cast all of his detection spells, to the same result.

Finally, Thaddeus lifted up the envelope’s flap and pulled free a creamy white sheet. Black ink formed words in a simple and elegant hand.

You know who I am.

I heard you had an interest in meeting me. This more indirect form of communication must suffice, for after recents events, I believe I have made enough in-person appearances to last some time.

What do you want with me, Thaddeus Lacer?

If you wish to continue our communication, please pay tribute in knowledge:

What do you know of seals that could contain a being’s consciousness within a memory?

To respond, put your letter in the lock box at the first attached location. You may receive further communication from me at the second location.

Within the envelope, Thaddeus found a second, much smaller sheet of paper with the numbers of locked boxes at two different storage locations, along with two keys to fit them. Presumably, when he placed his response in the first box, it would be taken to another location for pickup by or delivery to the Raven Queen, and the same in reverse. She, who so hated to be tracked, would never allow herself to be so easily located.

Thaddeus considered attempting to do so anyway, but decided against it. He did not want to earn her ire now that he had finally made contact. He read over her request for tribute again. She had chosen her demand well, as surely the worth of Thaddeus’s knowledge outshone anything he might offer her. But why would she wish to know of such seals, specifically?

Thaddeus had dug into the Red Guard’s records of that Aberrant incident seven years ago, from which Siobhan Naught would be the only known survivor. This question could have something to do with her current situation, that Aberrant event, or even, perhaps, some intriguing research project of her own.

Was it possible that Siobhan Naught had been an experimental subject, with someone, perhaps Raz Kalvidasan, working to answer a similar question? Could she be a victim, as that advisor of the High Crown had suggested, perhaps picked for her bloodline? It was even possible that the question had something to do with whatever the creature of darkness had done to Jorgensen.

Again, Thaddeus attempted, with limited success, to resist his desire for rampant speculation. There were simply too many possibilities, and he had too little real information. She could have just as easily gotten some hint of a fascinating spell from Myrddin’s journal.

After all, it was the letter’s postscript that caught Thaddeus’s eye and set his heartbeat to racing.

P.S. — Have you yet made it past the first set of split glyphs? There is a trick to it.

Thanks everyone for your feedback! I have been on a trip across the US for my father’s memorial service so I haven’t had a chance to reply, but I have read everything and it’s given me some good ideas for tweaks to make during the final revision.


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Chapter 181 – Revenant


Month 4, Day 10, Saturday 8:30 a.m.

The Pendragon Corps captain, hands still clasped behind his back as the severity of the situation settled into everyone’s minds, spoke again. “Much of our information comes only from the traitor that we were able to snatch back from her grasp. He has been questioned thoroughly and has made some…outlandish claims.”

“Bring the traitor,” the High Crown commanded. “I would speak to him.”

This was accomplished with surprising speed. The man must have been kept nearby in anticipation of the High Crown’s wish.

The one they had called Parker was supported by both elbows by his former comrades. His dragging feet moved clumsily back and forth as if to walk, but never quite managed to take any of his weight. The man was dead-eyed, unable to focus, and his pupils visibly dilated.

These were signs of nominally illegal interrogation potions and spells, and the tremors in Mr. Parker’s lips, eye muscles, and fingertips might indicate that he had been repeatedly tortured and healed. The men on either side of him forced him to his knees.

When Mr. Parker saw the High Crown, some inklings of feeling returned to his face. “Please. I had no choice. I had to do what she said. All of our preparation was useless, and our lives were on the line. She would have escaped even if we didn’t help her. She said as much, and you know she doesn’t lie.”

“It was your duty, and your vow, that you would place your own life secondary to my wellbeing and orders,” the High Crown said, looking down at him.

Mr. Parker changed tack. “Maybe I can still be useful to you. The Raven Queen trusts me now. Maybe I can help you find her. Or I could act as bait, just like the children were supposed to!”

The High Crown scoffed, and several people around the room chuckled spitefully.

Mr. Parker slumped, muttering rapidly under his breath.

The man on his left frowned and leaned in to hear better, then reared away in shock. “He’s praying to the Raven Queen!”

Tension filled the room almost palpably, and Thaddeus caught several people glancing suspiciously toward the nearest shadows, and a few even had the sense to look toward the vaulted ceiling.

But she did not come for Mr. Parker. One of the High Crown’s advisors snorted. “If it is true that she can hear the pleas of her followers, she must also have heard his offer to betray her. Surely, her requirements for loyalty are higher than what that cretin possesses.”

This seemed to be the impetus Mr. Parker needed to regain his vigor. Tremors wracked through his frame as he lifted his head and shouted, his voice cracking wildly. “I will offer my soul! My blood, my bone, my free Will. Save me, my queen, and devour my enemies!”

The High Crown stumbled away from him, and several of the other guards stepped in as if to protect him.

The guard closest to Mr. Parker kicked him in the side of the head, stopping the prayers as their captive lost consciousness.

The High Crown was breathing heavily. “Take him away.”

A small trickle of blood smeared against the floor as they did so. Either the High Crown had chosen the people for his Corps poorly, the elite training was actually anything but, or the man who held the highest position in the nation was simply the type to destroy any loyalty one might have had to him by dint of his unbearable personality.

Or, the Raven Queen was simply that compelling.

“Maybe we should have let him keep trying,” that same advisor said. “If she appeared, we might have caught her.”

What fools. Even if she had been able to hear Mr. Parker’s desperate prayer—improbable—she was unlikely to risk herself for such a dullard. Rather than pleading the inevitability of his betrayal, Mr. Parker should have pleaded his innocence. Of course, some lie that the Raven Queen had taken control of his mind or body would have only added to the confusion and thus aided her as well as himself. A man without even the most basic sense, hoping that his life was valuable enough for her to risk her own?

The advisor’s thoughtless remark was, perhaps, not what the High Crown wanted to hear. He turned on the Pendragon Corps captain, and ground out between clenched teeth, “Explain to me the incompetence that could have led to such total failure of our meticulously laid plans.”

Hands still clasped behind his back, the captain did not flinch in the face of the High Crown’s wrath. Speaking clearly and concisely, he explained the events as he knew them, filling in all of the gaps in the story that had been left by the other operative’s shared memories.

Thaddeus agreed that Mr. Parker’s claims, related secondhand, were indeed outlandish, some more so than others. That the Raven Queen could respond to the prayers of her “believers” was absurd. More likely, she had a spy within the palace, knew of their plans ahead of time, and had gotten herself captured on purpose. It might even be one of them within this very room.

The claim that she had performed some wicked ritual on one of the injured captives was nothing to get excited about. She had already been known to heal with blood magic, and indeed enjoyed flaunting the fact that she could do so. The prohibition on and stigma against blood magic was one of the many levers of power that the Crowns held. Was subtly changing the public’s perception of blood magic just another way that she was trying to undermine them?

Even the fact that she seemed to have been casting without a Conduit—despite visibly using one in other instances—did not confound him. He had looked into the Naughts, and if his suspicions were correct, there was a good reason that Raz Kalvidasan had integrated himself with the family. The bloodline had not saved Siobhan Naught’s mother, but perhaps the daughter was stronger.

And as for free-casting a precise slicing spell that murdered two of the High Crown’s men—who she shouldn’t even have been able to see past the glare of the spotlight—well, Thaddeus had done that himself. It was moderately amusing to see them cite this as they argued the evidence for and against her being an Aberrant, instead of merely a free-casting sorcerer.

Other claims, however, had no obvious explanation.

He could not rationalize the fact that she had attacked the diviners at Eagle Tower at the same time that she had been crawling her way out of a sensory deprivation spell in a cell underneath Pendragon Palace.

Thaddeus could easily imagine how she might have called the ravens, caused the birds to give a false positive to divination attempts, and delivered the letter to the Edictum Council at the same time that she made an in-person appearance at Eagle Tower. But two in-person appearances at the same time was impossible.

Someone suggested that perhaps only the Raven Queen’s shadow companion had attended the group of captives, somehow sharing power with one of the women—most likely this Silvia Nakai—and thus allowed the Raven Queen to act at such a distance. That it changed the appearance of the woman to so closely match the Raven Queen’s visage was…part of the effect. Supposedly.

Was it possible that the Raven Queen’s appearance at Eagle Tower was the real ruse? Had any there seen her face? Surely one of the people there could cast an illusion spell to share their own memories, unreliable as such things might be.

One of the High Crowns’ other advisors, silent up until now, pushed up his gold-framed glasses, cleared his throat, and forced some steel into his spine, though his knees were trembling faintly. “Could it be possible that Ennis Naught was never actually an accomplice? Or at least, not a willing one? If she really does possess the power to, well, forgive my unintended pun, but to possess people, to control them, she could have used it with him.”

“But he testified otherwise,” someone else pointed out.

“We’ve never trusted his testimony,” another argued. “And at this point, what does it matter? He has been sentenced. We can only hope that useless man gives us a chance to capture the Raven Queen.”

The nervous advisor wrung his hands. “Based on my understanding of the Raven Queen’s personality and motivations, I would suggest that all of the woman’s actions yesterday were not, in fact, in response to Ennis Naught’s sentencing, but because of the children. She did not even attempt to free the man, while instead putting herself at great risk to retrieve the children and deprive us of valuable resources. She may feel that he has betrayed her, and is thus no longer worthy of her efforts. I do not believe he retains any use as a lure.”

The High Crown’s knuckles were white as he clutched the edge of his desk, but he did not sweep off the contents onto the floor in a fit of rage or start screaming. “Is she actually becoming stronger, awakening to new abilities, or was she deliberately underperforming in the beginning?”

“The prayer might have something to do with it,” one of the few women in the room suggested. “We have records of suggested experiments during the Third Empire that hoped to use the masses to provide strength to certain ideas.”

“Why did none of our preparations to contain her work in the slightest?” The High Crown asked the first advisor.

The man struggled to speak for a moment. “The…brighter the light, the darker the shadow?”

“It couldn’t have been an elemental familiar,” someone else interjected. “Elementals are always strongest when surrounded by energy that matches their own nature. If it were a devil—if those even exist—it would be weak to Radiance.”

“Unless it’s very old and powerful, and our spells simply weren’t strong enough to weaken it sufficiently. Or, perhaps, our theories about the Plane of Darkness are incorrect.”

“I still say that thing is an Aberrant,” one of the Pendragon operatives offered. “It wouldn’t be totally unprecedented, would it?” the man asked spitefully, looking at Thaddeus.

Several people began to speak over each other, agreeing, disagreeing, and putting forth their own theories.

The High Crown slammed down his fist on the desk to maintain order. He hung his head for a moment, grey braids swinging gently. “So, does this Raven Queen have any true weaknesses?” he asked softly.

Thaddeus scoffed. He pinched the bridge of his nose, and then took a moment to re-tie his hair at the base of his neck. There was no need for him to contribute to the increasingly wild speculation. At this point, he had to admit that he was simply lacking the proper information to come to any reasonable conclusions.

When he looked up, the High Crown was staring at him speculatively. “What do you think, Grandmaster Lacer?”

Thaddeus raised one eyebrow. “I do not think the correct direction is to continue jumping to conclusions about her seemingly impossible abilities,” he drawled. “You did so in preparation for yesterday, and look where it led.”

“All this adds up to you telling me only that you do not know? I need answers, Grandmaster Lacer,” the High Crown said dangerously.

Thaddeus stared back for a moment, and then said, “It seems there are two options being bandied about. One, that the Raven Queen is a genius with magic we have never seen before. This magic allows possession of the bodies of those who pray to her, existence in several places at once, and in several different forms—including the body of multiple ravens—and that she is not only a free-caster but can also cast without any external Conduit. Two, that she is something else entirely. An Aberrant, or perhaps some ancient creature told of only in stories lost to time. If forced to choose between the two…I would present a third option.”

Thaddeus paused, and everyone held their breath as if to leave room for him to speak. “She is exceedingly clever, and exceedingly powerful. That is obvious. She has indeed done things that I have not seen before. But perhaps this evidence of things that seem to be impossible is merely what we can see of her metaphorical sleight-of-hand, meant to send her enemies looking in the wrong direction. However, all I can say for certain is that I do not know, and I will not pretend that I do. The evidence is too lacking, and more than that, too contradictory. It is also potentially tainted. Attempts to deduce meaning from it are just as likely to lead one through a maze of the Raven Queen’s making—and to an end of her choosing—as they are to lead to the truth.”

She was like a stage magician, performing for the ignorant. Thaddeus could not help the ideas and theories running through his head, but he was aware that he had reached the point where he needed to see for himself what lay behind the curtain and under the stage. Looking at where the Raven Queen pointed everyone’s attention—to the flamboyant, impossible trick—would not give him any answers.

Titus spoke for the first time since before watching the illusory memories. “Could all of these seemingly impossible feats be things learned from Myrddin’s stolen journal?”

It was like a slicing spell had cut through the air in the room, and every eye turned toward Thaddeus, the only one who could possibly answer that question.

“Speak, Grandmaster Lacer,” the High Crown commanded. “Your High Crown commands you.”

“I have taken vows of secrecy.” That is what Thaddeus said aloud, though it would have been more accurate to state that the High Crown’s commands meant nothing to Thaddeus, personally. “I can reveal that we have yet to decrypt the remaining journals. That she could have learned such feats from the journal, if she were to somehow have done what an entire team of professors and I myself have not yet been able to achieve is…possible. It might not explain everything, such as the mystery behind her identity, but it could explain some of her most recent abilities.”

Titus shifted uncomfortably, looking between Thaddeus and the High Crown, and then added, “There are also some things that suggest the Raven Queen might originate from a land past the northern ice oceans and the Abyssal Sea.”

Several of the advisors gasped, hands raising to their mouths in fear. Even the captain had closed his eyes for a moment, as if the words were a blow.

“Speak clearly, boy,” the High Crown said slowly. “You mean from the same land as the Blood Emperor.”

Thaddeus’s face remained as expressionless as stone as Titus Westbay explained the very same reasoning that Thaddeus had used to come up with the absurd theory while they were in the carriage.

Despite Thaddeus’s attempts to encourage caution, the discussion devolved once again into rampant speculation.

Against the healers’ supposed recommendations, the High Crown ordered them to bring in Jorgensen—the one who had been violated by the shadow companion.

They carried him in on a stretcher between four other healers, with the head healer walking beside. The scratch marks on Jorgensen’s face had been healed, but his eyes told of a greater scarring, deep inside where only a mind healer might have a chance to help.

Thaddeus had seen people like this before, ones who had had their Wills broken by experience, rather than strain.

The poor-man’s palanquin stopped in front of the High Crown. “I can walk,” Jorgensen told the High Crown absently, but made no move to rise from the stretcher, and the healers did not set him on the ground.

“What is the diagnosis?” the High Crown asked, looking at the grey-bearded expert. “What did the Raven Queen’s shadow creature do?”

The old man hesitated. “It hard to say for certain. Obviously, she has damaged something in his mind. He has also been having horrible nightmares, reliving his…traumatic experience. Sometimes, these episodes are triggered while he is awake.”

The healer glanced at Jorgensen, who, despite the vague wording, was pressing his fingers into the flesh of his throat. His nails had been clipped down to the quick to keep him from scratching himself.

“There is no sign of any physical damage that operative Jorgensen did not cause himself. There are no signs of any lingering active magic. We have searched for some remnant of the creature within him, but found nothing.” The healer spread his hands helplessly to the sides. “To be honest, we cannot be sure that we are even searching in the right way, or for the right thing. Despite the risk of worsening Jorgensen’s condition, we have been doing recall exercises and searching for triggers that might have been seeded in his mind. If there is a key, I believe it will be in the dreams, but so far they are only repetitions of the traumatic event with small variations.”

Thaddeus noted the way others, and especially his former comrades, looked at Jorgensen with both pity and wariness, as if he might be a trap waiting to spring shut. Even if he could recover physically and mentally, his future here, in the Pendragon Corps, was gone.

“Operative Jorgensen,” the High Crown said. “Do you have anything you wish to report to me?”

The man stared at the High Crown, and then began to shudder. His convulsions grew stronger, and were accompanied by a ragged gasp.

He was weeping. “Please— ‘Elp me,” he sobbed.

The High Crown frowned and made a sharp motion with his fingers, and one of the healers hurried to tip a swallow of calming potion into Operative Jorgensen’s mouth.

The man choked on it, but managed to calm his breathing. He spoke again with a weak, breathy voice. “The darkness was watching, knowing. But the creature…it was hungry. So empty, so cold, like it had never known the warmth of the sun or the touch of a mother. And it got inside me. But I can’t feel it. It’s just…gone. But I fear that it took something from me. Except, except—” He let out a wet, ragged cough. “What did it take? What did it eat? What am I missing?”

His voice grew louder, first with fear, and then with anger. He shouted, “And your healers! Your healers are useless! Send me to someone who can actually help! I served you loyally,” he screamed, his voice going ragged. “Your honor demands that you have me treated! I’ve heard the whispers, already, after only a day. Do you think I’m deaf? I don’t belong in some retreat for the broken and the weak! I won’t go! I won’t! Is this the honor of Lord Pendragon, the High Crown? At least the Raven Queen would, would— She would rip the sun from the sky to protect those who follow her!” He threw his head back and laughed mockingly, and the sound bounced off the walls and ceiling, echoing, until his throat gave out from the stress and his laughs turned into wheezing gasps.

I try not to give names or distinct characteristics to people who aren’t important or recurring, because I don’t want to give them inappropriate weight in the readers’ mind. But I wonder, is number of “advisors” and vagueness too confusing in this chapter?

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Chapter 180 – Cicatrize


Month 4, Day 10, Saturday 11:30 a.m.

Siobhan woke to the metaphorical scream of a full-to-bursting bladder. She struggled her way out of the too-soft bed and stumbled to the magical chamber pot. As she relieved herself, she stared blearily at the rays of mid-morning sun slipping through the edges of the curtains. The light hurt her eyes and brought her attention to the deep throbbing in her skull, like the slow rumble of distant thunder, or a thousand distant war drums.

As she stood again, memories of the day before hit her like a maelstrom. She stumbled, stilled for long enough to regain her balance, and made her way to the bench in front of the vanity mirror.

She found herself staring at the ornate frame with a distant dread, and forced herself to focus on her reflection.

Her lips were pale and cracked, and the sclera around her right eye was the muddy brown of old blood. Healed, but not fully renewed. At least she could see out of it properly. None of the empty spots or floating lights. No hints of anything that shouldn’t be there at her peripherals.

She stared into the darkness of her own eyes, searching for signs of something else moving beneath their surface. The dream she’d had while under the sensory deprivation spell was no invention of a panicked subconscious. Something was inside her, locked away by Grandfather’s seal.

Trying to get out.

Siobhan didn’t believe the things it had told her about Grandfather having gone insane by that time, wanting to hurt her. Grandfather had died to save her.

And then the Red Guard had come in and razed the entire village to the ground. They had to, to destroy the infection.

And Siobhan had spent the last seven years now doing her best not to think about it. That still seemed safest, especially now that she had seen a glimpse of what lay beyond the seal.

Siobhan had recognized that golden eye, and it had not belonged to Grandfather. His eyes had been a rather non-distinct blue. And she feared that pulling on the memory of where such an eye really came from would lead to other memories, ones that should stay gone.

She knew the beginning, and she knew the end. Only the middle was gone, and that did not feel safe enough.

But the nightmare had revealed something to her. Grandfather had wanted her to go to one of his acquaintances to help “settle the matter” for good. Unfortunately, Siobhan had no idea of who that might be. If Grandfather had told her, that memory was lost in the middle. And with the town and everything in it being gone, there was no possibility of going through his belongings to try to find some hint of a friend or contact who might have expertise in this kind of thing.

However, it was also possible that the whole clue was a trick, that there was no friend of Grandfather’s, no permanent solution to her problem. That it was only enticement to open a box of horrors. Horrors that, once released into the world, could never be stuffed back inside the box again.

Siobhan forced herself to drink some water from her canteen despite the lump in her throat. Professor Lacer had mentioned that to split one’s Will probably required some kind of self-mutilation. ‘Should I stop practicing with that technique? But Myrddin seems to have been able to do it. Maybe Professor Lacer was wrong.’ Her practice with Myrddin’s journal hadn’t been causing any noticeable side-effects.

She gave herself a small, ironic smile. ‘Even if I shouldn’t have been able to do such a thing, I can now. Stopping will not fix whatever is wrong.

Feeling as if she carried the weight and dust of a thousand years, Siobhan stood and moved to the attached washroom and its luxurious shower. She was covered in grime of every sort, caked and layered and crusted until she felt more filth than woman. She shuddered as the water began to beat down upon her, pressing her hands flat against the wall to brace herself.

The skin of her chest was faintly scarred from the cold-burns her medallion had given her, but the damage wasn’t distinct enough to be alarming. Even if someone noticed the scar, they couldn’t read a spell array or any glyphs from it. Her medallion itself was still intact. However, another of the glyphs—the one that signified protection from excessive energy transfer—seemed to have been damaged from channeling too much power. But at least none were broken. Even the anti-divination glyph, similarly half-melted, might have a little channeling ability left in it, if her divination-diverting ward ever failed.

The water ran cold quickly, forcing Siobhan out of the washroom. She sat before the vanity once more and dug out the final stolen healing potion as her wet hair soaked the back of her borrowed dress.

Minutes passed. ‘I don’t know what to do,’ Siobhan realized. She didn’t mean what to do in the moment. Obviously, she needed to become Sebastien again and be innocently back in her dorm at the University, studying fervently as ever. But in a more general sense, what to do about… She directed her thoughts firmly away from any hint of the thing within. ‘What to do about the seal?

Siobhan wrapped her arms around herself and looked into her eyes. “I’m in control,” she whispered to herself. She repeated it once more, and then again, louder. But the words didn’t seem as true as they should.

Instead, she whispered, “I’m scared. Why did you leave me, Grandfather? Why didn’t you fix it?” She leaned forward until her forehead touched her knees. “Why?” she asked again, the sound smaller and more desperate.

But there was no one to answer her.

Hands shaking, she stood and splashed cool water from a decorative basin into her face. Hot tears mixed with the water, spilling out of her eyes and down her cheeks. She breathed carefully, resisting the urge to sniffle, sob, or convulse. She stared at herself as the weakness spilled out, and when her face grew warm and her eyes burned, she splashed with the cool water again.

It was as if the tears drained something undefinable from deep inside her. Finally, they dried up, and left her empty and exhausted.

She slumped back into the chair and stared at the ceiling for a long few minutes, taking stock. Finally, she whispered, “I’m okay.” She was withered and wilted, perhaps, but her clawing, ravenous tenacity was as strong as ever. Siobhan massaged her neck muscles, rolled her shoulders, and lifted her chin. “I am unbreakable,” she croaked to the puffy-eyed, miserable-looking woman in the mirror.

Then she winced as a particularly painful throb pulsed through her head, as if to admonish her for her hubris. She was exhausted, had what was probably moderate Will-strain, and despite the success of retrieving her blood and discouraging further attempts to use sympathetic divination on her, it had been a long time since the future seemed so horribly bleak.

The last time things had been this bad was after she escaped the village and was surviving on her own. Before she learned that magic could keep her from dreaming.

Before she learned that power could keep her safe.

That precept was universal, and it should still hold true here.

Rather than drink the last healing potion, she poured out some of the burning liquid on her fingertips and awkwardly rubbed it into spots on her side and back that hurt the worst. Then, she gingerly tipped a single drop into her right eye.

She had thought her pool of tears was empty, but under the searing, scouring brightness, her ducts found the ability to cry once more, spilling a line of brightness down her cheek. Her eye rolled uncontrollably in its socket, trying to escape, but the discomfort soon faded, leaving her sclera a crisp white, cleared of both the bruising and the redness from crying.

She repeated the process with her other eye, but with barely a dab of potion, just enough to remove the redness so that she wasn’t noticeably lopsided.

As she was tucking the remainder of the potion back into her satchel and contemplating the best way to leave this building and get back to the University, a knock sounded on the door.

Liza poked her head past the doorway, looking as if she too could use a drop of healing potion for her red, irritated eyes and the dark circles under them. More than a few of her corkscrew curls had lost their coherence, frizzing out into individual strands and springing up and away in strange clouds that didn’t seem to adhere to gravity. “You’re up,” she said, sounding surprised. “I thought I might need to use some caretaking spells to empty your bladder and bowels before you soiled the bed.”

Siobhan flushed so hard that it was surely visible even past the ochre brown of her skin. The last time she’d had Will-strain, she had stayed at Liza’s house and slept for an entire day. She had woken up with the bed unsoiled. This confirmation of what the the other woman had been required to do was mortifying. ‘How would it even work?’ she wondered, before shaking her head rapidly to dislodge the thought. She didn’t want to imagine it.

“You may come with me to the Retreat at Willowdale,” Liza announced, distracting Siobhan from her embarrassment. “You will be disguised as my niece, a healer in training who received schooling in Silva Erde. No magic will be done. You will follow all instructions immediately and without question. If you agree, you may arrive at my house for preparation at six tomorrow morning.”

Siobhan nodded rapidly. “I’ll be there.”

Liza narrowed her eyes. “If I find you in worse condition at that time than you are now, you will not be coming. Rest. If you wish, you may do so at my abode.”

Siobhan hesitated, but declined. Liza’s help nursing her through the next day or two would be wonderful, but it would be too suspicious for Sebastien Siverling to be missing for so long.

With a judgmental “tch,” the woman withdrew and began to close the door.

“Wait!” Siobhan called. When Liza peeked her head back in, Siobhan said, “I have your payment.”

Liza smiled widely, her whole demeanor shifting. “Oh? I thought I might have to hassle you for it.”

It was true that after paying for supplies, University tuition, and various items for Operation Palimpsest, Liza’s fees would have put Siobhan well into a deficit. She had planned to get a loan from a bank, using her status as Thaddeus Lacer’s apprentice as well as her stock in Oliver’s textile company. Failing that, to leverage Liza’s interest in researching the fidelity of Siobhan’s Will for a discount. But now, both options were unnecessary.

Siobhan pulled her satchel into her lap and rifled around in it until she had pulled a handful of small gold bars from the bottom. Just seven were enough. The original price they had agreed upon had increased with with additional requirements, the danger Liza had been required to risk, and Siobhan’s rental of some basic protective artifacts.

This was a quarter of the gold Siobhan had stolen from the Pendragon Corps’ safe, but only a small portion of the true wealth. Liza tucked the heavy bars into an inner pocket of her jacket, which showed no outward sign of the weight, or even a bulge in the fabric.

When the older woman was gone, Siobhan reached into her satchel once more. She held up one of the Conduits so that the light could flash through its crystal-clear depths. Quite wastefully, someone had actually polished the celerium, getting rid of rough edges and increasing its shine. But it was still a bit larger than the average quail egg. At higher clarity, a Conduit could channel more while remaining small.

Siobhan estimated this one could channel between five and eight thousand thaums, as could the other couple dozen. And if prices had held steady with the last time she was searching for a Conduit, they would be worth between fifteen to thirty thousand gold. Each. Maybe more, as Siobhan hadn’t payed close attention to the prices on the higher end.

Quite suddenly, Siobhan was incredibly wealthy. Nothing compared to the Crown Families, perhaps, but enough to buy a moderately priced mansion in the heart of the Lilies. Or fund a hundred or so people through the University all the way to a Master’s certification.

Wealthy enough to bribe her way to freedom, possibly, if such a thing ever became necessary.

Some people would have said such wealth made all the danger and pain worth it.

It should have been exciting, even euphoric, after all the struggle she had gone through for gold. But instead it merely felt surreal. She put the Conduit back into her satchel. To access that wealth, she would still need to find buyers for each. She could think of several options, but each had its downside.

Slowly and wearily, Siobhan climbed to her feet. She debated whether to assume Sebastien’s form now, but worried that someone might see her leaving the room that the Raven Queen had slept in. No matter how quiet the Nightmare Pack had tried to keep the information, a night was long enough for word to spread. People might even be waiting to catch a glimpse of her, or in the worst case, to arrest her.

She kept Sebastien’s clothing in her bag, carefully folded and arranged for speed of use. She put on a heavy cloak that someone—probably Liza—had left draped over a chair while Siobhan was sleeping. An examination of the fabric showed protective spell arrays embroidered into the inside of the hem in copper thread, which added weight to Siobhan’s theory.

Liza, as always, snapped and growled, and then treated Siobhan more kindly than she needed to. ‘Unless Liza tries to charge me for renting an extra artifact when I return the cloak,’ Siobhan amended wryly.

Siobhan was extremely reluctant to strain herself casting the shedding-destroyer spell, but had rationalized that she must do so anyway. But then she realized that she could simply strip the bedding off the mattress and burn it all. It was a horrible waste, but the manager wouldn’t dare to complain, and if Gera or Lord Lynwood wanted to bill her, she could afford it.

It took some time, but the magical filter on the fireplace kept the room from filling with acrid smoke as cotton, velvet, and feather down burned to ash, along with any little traces of her passing. She poured out the water from the decorative basin, wiped down everything she had used in the washroom, and then threw even the towels into the fire.

Outside, she found the hallway empty except for a pair of guards standing at the end. They bowed as soon as they saw her and didn’t rise until she had stopped in front of them. “We are honored by your presence, my lady,” one of them said, still staring at the floor.

Siobhan didn’t have the wherewithal to handle this. “I need a safe exit. Perhaps through a hidden tunnel?”

They shared a glance with each other, and then straightened. “If you’ll follow me, I will lead you to our most secure passage,” the one who had spoken before said.

Siobhan followed them through surprisingly deserted exterior hallways until they descended below ground level. “Have you had any trouble? The coppers, perhaps?”

“Nothing we couldn’t handle. There were some who heard news of your stay and wanted to call upon you, for good or ill, but we turned away all those who you yourself had not allowed access to your quarters previously.”

Siobhan ran her tongue over the back of her teeth. “Oliver Dryden?” she asked.

“He was one of them. Have we…angered you, my lady?”

“No. You did well.”

When they reached the steel door of a tunnel—a different one than the night before—she bid them farewell. As soon as the door’s dry hinges shrieked closed behind her, she stripped out of her dress and changed into her other form.

Immediately, her feet cried out inside the crushing pressure of her boots, and she fumbled to make them expand to fit her new size.

Sebastien leaned her hand against the dank, slimy wall of the tunnel, taking a couple deep breaths as the panic receded. “Stupid,” she muttered.

Using her latest bottle of moonlight sizzle, she made her way to the tunnel’s exit, which actually fed into the back of a hollow statue that sat within someone’s private garden shrine to the Radiant Maiden.

Siobhan pushed open the stone hatch and crawled out without being seen. She brushed herself free of stray cobwebs, and slipped nonchalantly into the pedestrian traffic on the nearest street. As the bright afternoon light hit her eyes despite the shading hood of the cloak, she ducked her head. Her steps were quick, but not suspiciously so, and she didn’t look around as if expecting danger and thus draw attention to herself.

What was their plan, yesterday?’ she wondered. ‘It seems unlikely that they hoped to capture me by following Millennium. As far as I’m aware, his ability to bypass my “immunity” to divination isn’t widely known. And if that had been the plan, one would imagine that the Pendragon operatives would have been more wary of my identity in the first place.

Sebastien worried at the edge of a ragged fingernail. ‘Oliver didn’t know about this ahead of time—I don’t believe he would allow Theo to be placed in such danger—which means that his spies in the coppers didn’t know about it. Could it be that the High Crown implemented his contribution to the events of yesterday in secret? As insurance, in case the coppers couldn’t catch me?

It was plausible. Especially because Oliver hadn’t been particularly concerned with whatever the coppers had planned.

What would I do, if I were trying to catch the Raven Queen?’ Sebastien contemplated the strange feeling of compulsion she had sensed the morning before. She had no evidence that one had actually existed except her own gut feeling, but such magic would be incredibly useful to catch someone who had displayed the Raven Queen’s supposed capabilities. If it were Sebastien in charge, Ennis’s sentencing would have just been a pretext for people to be out in the streets without any feeling of dissonance. Something obvious for a clever woman to see right through. Something to encourage her to feel superior about how stupid her opponents were.

The Raven Queen was known to be resistant to divination, but not literally invisible. If Sebastien could make it possible to very gently and lightly scan every person in the city, then any person or creature that their divination failed on would be a suspect. This would include many of those wealthy enough to afford wearable wards in their jewelry or clothing.

Sebastien would have then removed those people from the general population and done more thorough tests. Perhaps even made them take some kind of oath to enforce truth-telling. The Raven Queen’s word was her bond, after all.

Or, if removing that many people from the population wasn’t possible, she might have come up with some way to manually track those people who were resistant to divination. This could have been done with an object, if she could find a way to attach it to the suspects. Reverse-pickpocketing a spelled copper coin into their pockets, perhaps.

Or, less prone to error, something like a spell that would create an illusory, miniature replica of Gilbratha and everyone in it. The spots that were resistant to divination would have been missing, or hazy. And in this way, they might be able to track what they couldn’t track.

Except, if Liza was really as good as she believed herself to be, Sebastien’s divination-diverting ward would have re-routed that wide-spread divination around her so that she was not a missing spot, but just an empty one. Just as Sebastien could re-route the light around herself to create an illusion of invisibility.

And if Sebastien really wanted to be thorough about all this, she might have added some tiny compulsion toward recklessness and lowered inhibition. And then insulted the Raven Queen publicly. She was known to be prideful, and perhaps reckless, too.

When Sebastien recalled the details of yesterday, before she had been caught, her divination-diverting ward had activated subtly. But that would have been around the time Millennium was searching for her, drawing close. The same time the copper was talking to her. Either could have been the cause.

But all of her speculation was limited, a frog ideating inside of a well. She knew well that the Red Guard had resources she couldn’t imagine, and used spells she’d never heard of.

All that she knew for sure was that even now, she might not necessarily be safe. That was why the Raven Queen needed to disappear. Over time, she would fade from the gossip, and then from people’s memories.

The problem was, after what Sebastien had learned—or been forced to remember—the Raven Queen was still needed.

If it was possible to fix the kind of thing that was wrong with Sebastien, those most likely to have the necessary knowledge were the agents of the Red Guard.

Unfortunately, from what Sebastien knew of their vows, even an attempt to help her would be sacrilege. That which threatened the continued existence of their world must be annihilated and erased.

How can I trust anyone to actually help me, when, if I weren’t the one in this exact position, even my own verdict would be to kill Siobhan Naught? What might be learned from saving me could be useful, to be sure. But what is risked is greater, and not only one life is at stake.

Sebastien took a deep breath in through her nose and out through her mouth, then pressed back her shoulders and lifted her chin, which had both sunk downward without her realizing.

If I cannot trust anyone to help me, then I must help myself. If the information that could lead me to a solution is out there, all I need to do is find and learn it myself.’ And, perhaps ironically, the person in the best position to do so was the Raven Queen. She knew the perfect person, the one man who might be willing to lead her to answers. As long as he didn’t understand why she needed them.

Sebastien Siverling must stay separate, unimpeachable, and deniably innocent. More so now than ever. She was terrified of the thing sealed inside her mind, seeping out into her nightmares. It would have been the greatest wish of her life to be free of that burden, to be powerful enough to crush it beneath her heel.

But more than that, more than anything, she did not want to die.

When Sebastien arrived at the dorms, she had grown woozy with the effort required to simply stay awake. She took a bland meal at the cafeteria while composing several letters, then wrote them in her dorm room. One for Tanya, to let the other woman know that all had gone well. One to Damien, something similar, but less honest. She even wrote one to Oliver, though no doubt by now he knew the situation.

And finally, one to Thaddeus Lacer, written carefully on the same paper she had bought for the High Crown, in a hand that he wouldn’t recognize as the usual spider-scrawl of his apprentice. In the end, her message was less subtle than she had hoped, because she didn’t even know enough about her problem to approach it indirectly. And above all, she needed answers. That one, she placed on Professor Lacer’s doorstep, after confirming thrice that he was gone, no one was around to see her, and that her divination-diverting ward gave no signs of activation.

Then, Sebastien returned to the dorms and cast her dreamless sleep spell at the highest strength that she could manage in her current state. She set her alarm to wake her up before the much-weakened magic could wear off and collapsed into her bed.

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Chapter 179 – Pyrrhic Failures


Month 4, Day 10, Saturday 7:30 a.m.

Much of the night was spent at the Raven Queen’s various crime scenes searching for some tiny bit of evidence that might have been missed, and questioning civilians. Despite Titus’s growing agitation and the air of dogged desperation that suffused the coppers, Thaddeus took some time to nap in the carriage, as none of this was so important that he felt the need to miss an entire night of sleep. It was not him who had to answer to the High Crown.

In the morning, Titus received a summons to Pendragon Palace. The shadows under his eyes seemed to grow deeper, all his frustrated energy momentarily constrained to stillness and silence. Finally, he raised his eyes to the northeast, to the white and gold palace sitting atop the white cliffs. It bathed in the light of the rising sun while the fog that rose up around it created a sort of golden aura.

Thaddeus considered for a few seconds, and then invited himself along.

Titus gripped Thaddeus’s forearm and gave him a weak but sincere smile. “Thank you,” he said in a low voice, seemingly under the impression that Thaddeus had made this decision for Titus’s benefit.

Thaddeus did not disabuse him of this notion. When the three of them arrived, Investigator Kuchen stayed with the carriage to keep watch on the distagram, in case urgent information should be relayed. One of the palace guards led Titus and Thaddeus to Lord Pendragon, more commonly known as the High Crown.

The man wore no crown today. He had a surprisingly lush head of long greying hair, which hung down to his lower back. It had been artfully braided in circles and looping patterns capable of holding a minor magical charge.

He was gathered with several advisors and a full cohort of his personal corps in a high-ceilinged room with a big chaise lounge rather than a throne. Bookshelves lined the wall behind a huge desk, which was accompanied by several smaller desks to each side.

An entire wall made of glass—or perhaps crystal—overlooked Gilbratha. Just before the transparent wall, a circular pond filled with bright blue, gold, and purple fish sat recessed into the polished white marble floor.

The High Crown stood behind the large desk, reading through reports with a heavy scowl on his face. This scowl grew heavier as Titus and Thaddeus entered. “Lord Commander Westbay,” he said.

Titus stiffened further, all signs of his earlier rhythmic fidgeting completely absent.

“Please explain the debacle of the last twenty-four hours from your own perspective,” the High Crown ordered.

Titus went down on one knee, bowing his head. “I apologize for our failure to apprehend the Raven Queen, my lord.” The High Crown remained silent, so Titus proceeded to honestly explain the sequence of events. He did not try to make himself or his people look any worse or better than they were, and the High Crown seemed surprised at none of it.

When he was finished, the High Crown waved his hand in frustration and allowed Titus to rise from the uncomfortable position. “I wish I could say that your failure surprises me, but I am not so foolish. Woe unto those who cannot recognize a trend,” he said pointedly.

Titus did not flinch.

“This is why I came up with a backup plan that included more urgent and compelling impetus for her to take action.” The High Crown turned to one of his advisors and nodded.

The advisor bowed in acknowledgment, then stepped forward. “We were able to identify and locate several targets of high value, who, taken hostage, were likely to incentivize key parties. Namely, the criminal forces who have shown a positive relationship with the Raven Queen. We judged them quite likely to beseech her for aid.”

The man swallowed to wet his throat and licked his lips. “Our divination experts and personality profilers deduced that if we gave her a hint to their location, the most likely outcome was an attack by the Raven Queen in an attempt to save these targets. Alternatively, refusal could have caused discord between the Raven Queen and her allies.” The man’s eyes flicked toward the High Crown nervously and he continued, “The marked tendency toward loyalty from those who have interacted with her has caused us a great deal of difficulty. We judged that, even in a non-optimal outcome, creating a rift could allow us to incentivize her allies to become informants.”

“Who, exactly, did you take hostage?” Thaddeus asked, his voice cutting sharply through the room despite the fact that the High Crown had not given him permission to speak. He received a few sharp looks, but no rebuke.

The advisor looked to the High Crown for permission, and then said, “Theodore Russey, and Millennium Lynwood, young scions of the Verdant Stags and the Nightmare Pack, were taken along with their companions and attempted protectors, which…may have been a mistake.” His fingers tapped nervously on the seam of his pant leg. “We couldn’t have known. The Raven Queen is rumored to care especially for children, and these two are connected to those in positions powerful enough to hold sway with her. We had hoped to take a third, for insurance, but the last escaped our grasp.”

The High Crown sent Thaddeus a quick, sharp glance filled with a surprising amount of suspicion.

“Children?” Titus murmured. He swallowed, then followed Thaddeus’s lead in ignoring courtesy and asked, louder. “Were the children harmed? Was anyone killed?”

The advisor looked to the uniformed Pendragon Corps captain, his rank proudly announced by the badge at his shoulder. The middle-aged man had a shaved head contrasted by surprisingly thick, dark eyelashes. The captain shook his head. “Some injuries, no deaths. We inspected the children upon capture, and they were healthy.”

Titus relaxed, but Thaddeus’s mind was still hooked on that suspicious glance from the High Crown. Who else fit the criteria—young, helpless, and positively associated with the Raven Queen? The answer came quickly.

While Thaddeus’s apprentice might not be entirely useless, against someone like the Raven Queen or the Pendragon operatives, Sebastien would stand no chance. And with the boon the Raven Queen had given him, she had forged a connection between them in the High Crown’s mind.

Rage flowed through Thaddeus so quickly that he swayed on his feet from the force of it. His vision tinted red, and before he made the conscious decision to do so, he was already lifting a hand toward the High Crown, the Word of a spell to rend the man into seven pieces forming in his mind.

The High Crown flinched back, and two of his personal force hurried to place themselves between their master and the sudden danger Thaddeus presented.

Forcefully, Thaddeus reined himself in, curling his fingers into a clenched fist so tight it might leave bloody crescents in his palm. He lowered his hand.

Beside him, Titus had reared back in horror.

“My apprentice was the third,” Thaddeus said simply, still staring at the High Crown. “But you didn’t capture him. Where is he?”

The High Crown’s lips curled back in a combination of derision and superiority. If he were a man born of lower breeding, he might have spit on the floor and cursed. Instead he said, “If he was not with you, then who knows where that troublesome child might be? Perhaps in the bosom of the Raven Queen, even now. Remember yourself, Grandmaster Lacer. All in Lenore bow to my rule. If I had told you of my plan ahead of time, you would have given the boy to me yourself.”

Thaddeus’s eyelids fluttered with renewed rage, quickly suppressed. The Red Guard, the Architects of Khronos, and the Raven Queen herself were proof enough that the first statement was untrue. And as for the second, Thaddeus found it exceedingly unlikely that he would have capitulated to such a demand. He could think of six alternatives of varying violence—and recklessness—off of the top of his head.

But Thaddeus did not say any of this out loud. Instead, he changed the subject. “Your plan worked. At least to draw her attention and ire. But obviously, she escaped. So what went wrong?”

The High Crown’s temples pulsed as he clenched his jaw.

The captain nodded at another of the operatives, who stepped forward and laid out an unfolding metal Circle, obviously based on the innovations of the portable war Circles. The man used this to cast an illusion, including both visuals and sound.

The spell’s fidelity was obviously sub-standard, the clarity of the caster’s Will wavering. But while it might not have been technically flawless, the illusion was captivating. The man portrayed his own point of view as he and his companions loaded a group of unconscious men and women into the back of a wagon. The illusion focused on one woman in particular as the other people and environment blurred into indistinguishability.

She seemed to be in her forties, though she could be much older if she was a practiced thaumaturge, with light brown skin and long hair, both tinted with warmth. Someone, perhaps out of the operative’s sight, or even he himself, said the words, “Silvia Nakai,” in a muffled, distant tone.

The illusion fizzled out and then reappeared abruptly, this time showing the man’s view as he ran down a white stone hallway, a thick battle wand in one metal-gauntleted hand.

Darkness coalesced behind the window of a door, roiling like the surface of a cauldron. The man and his similarly outfitted companions worked together to open the door and then fire spells inside blindly.

The Raven Queen appeared in triplicate, each body of darkness moving in tandem as she ducked strangely to the side, her joints at too-sharp angles and her response speed almost inhumanly quick. A physical leg, bare at least to the thigh, poked out of the shadows in the wrong place for a moment, then drew back into place.

Thaddeus stared in fascination as the Pendragon operative threw in a device about the size of a cantaloupe, and the Raven Queen shrieked a warning to her companions, the darkness abandoning its human forms and moving as if to shield her against the device’s effects.

There was a flash of brightness, so white it blinded the Pendragon operative. When the illusion returned, he and another were carrying the Raven Queen, though she was stripped of her magical shadow and looked significantly different than the woman they had first thrown into the carriage. Younger. Prettier, though in a strange way that seemed subtly and disturbingly off. And more damaged, Thaddeus noted. She sported what looked to be a shattered eye socket, and a translucent pink liquid filled her ear cavity.

They locked her in a room that even through the filter of the man’s recollection was eye-searingly bright, and then the memory jumped once again.

One of the other operatives, injured and panicked, sent this man and several others off to catch the escaped Raven Queen. Then, in a jerky transition, the view panned over the dead bodies of those who had stayed behind. “If Parker hadn’t sent us away, that would have been us, too,” the caster murmured. “We thought maybe he ran when she attacked, or maybe his body was cooling in the dark somewhere unseen. But no. We found him soon.”

Again, time was skipped, and now the man was running with a group through a dark hallway. They turned a corner and came upon the Raven Queen and a dozen or so others, a bright lantern sending stark shadows stretching out behind them. The same operative who had sent them away stood behind her.

A murmur arose, and Thaddeus let out a sharp breath of amusement through his nose. How embarrassing for the High Crown. The Red Guard’s methods of ensuring loyalty were seemingly much more effective than those of the Pendragon Corps, but Thaddeus knew well that nothing could truly ensure loyalty from one who did not wish to give it. Many a witch had discovered this. Even Thaddeus himself was proof of that fact.

The Raven Queen turned toward the caster’s point of view slowly, the movement of her head trailing unnaturally behind her body. The upper half of her face was visible here, the darkness of her cloak, hair, and feathers fluttering in a wind that seemed to touch only her. Her eye socket was significantly less damaged, as if she had received healing between the memories. But her features looked even stranger than before. Her cheekbones were too sharp, her eyes too dark and sunken, remaining shadowed despite the brightness of the light turned on her.

Thaddeus grimaced at the caster, who was watching his own illusion replay his experiences—or more accurately, his memories—with obvious fear.

Even if a shaman had worked with him to help clarify and solidify his memories, the mind kept only imperfect copies of reality, accessed and re-copied imperfectly each time like a child’s game of whispered gossip. In situations of great stress, fidelity fell even further. This version of events was appropriately dramatic, but its resemblance to what had actually happened could only be left to the imagination.

Darkness swirled up, obscuring the Raven Queen’s form completely for a moment before falling back down to reveal her hand held in a Circle in front of her lips. Several people around the room flinched as the Raven Queen’s mouth fell open, her jaw unhinging and her cheeks stretching like some kind of deep-sea monster. Until, from deep in her throat, darkness boiled up.

In the man’s memories, this darkness rushed at him like a racing snake, and then there were several long moments of blindness interspersed with flashes of light and spell-fire, until someone had the presence of mind to unleash a wind spell.

“A philtre of darkness?” Thaddeus wondered. But if so, what was the Circle for? He glanced around, taking in the other’s response to what was being shown.

To his surprise, it was the Pendragon operatives—nominally hardened, skilled men—who had the most visceral response. Several were pale, and one was even hugging himself and trembling faintly as he watched the illusion.

Perhaps not a philtre of darkness, then. Or not just darkness. To engender such an effect, she might have used a fear hex. A powerful one, to have seated the emotions so deeply that they reared up again now.

The illusion’s caster was breathing hard. He closed his eyes for a moment, letting the image fade. “When you’re in the darkness, you can feel it watching you. It’s huge, all-knowing.”

The man who was hugging himself nodded. “It’s like gazing into the night sky and suddenly realizing that each and every star is actually an eyeball. And as soon as you realize that, they all look at you. They can feel that you’ve discovered them.”

Thaddeus rubbed his jaw, the short hairs of his beard scratching back and forth against each other. “Interesting.”

Impatient, the High Crown urged the operative to continue with his display.

The Raven Queen leaned into the force of the wind spell, a piece of her shadow breaking off from the part surrounding her and rising up to the ceiling. She opened her too-large mouth once more, but though darkness continued to billow up and out from inside, streaking out behind her as it was caught on the air, this time she spoke.

The sound was… disconcerting. Even Thaddeus felt the hair on his arms rise in an instinctive response as she paraphrased sections of the letter she had left at the Edictum Council. Her words seemed to come from underwater, with an echo, but were also distorted unpredictably, with some parts stretching out like a song and others compressing into a sudden snap.

But while her imprecation continued, the Pendragon operative’s viewpoint swung upward to follow the shadow companion that had broken away.

Thaddeus examined its form with interest, noting the too-thin, too-long limbs, the enormous beak that seemed to be the only feature of its face, and its complete lack of adherence to gravity. He wondered, if they examined the ceiling where this had happened, would they find puncture or scratch marks in the stone, or, as he suspected, would it be marked only by the useless spells they fired at and through it?

It moved with insect-like quickness despite its size. Whenever the almost constant flashes of spell-fire fell to a moment of darkness, it seemed to jump forward with zig-zagging motions, moving impossibly quickly, as if freed from realistic constraints by its lack of visibility.

When it fell into the midst of the caster’s group, Thaddeus began to understand the reactions of the men who had, presumably, been present during this fight.

The creature loomed almost impossibly large, and a white fog wafted off its void-black form. “Cold air,” Thaddeus murmured with surprise. “Oh, that’s clever.” Was it a side-effect, or was that the source of the creature’s—or perhaps the spell’s—power?

But he had no time to dwell on speculation, as the operative fell to the ground and tried to crawl away from the creature, which was now behind him. His panicked scrabbling took him closer to the Raven Queen herself.

She stepped forward and batted an enormous fireball spell into the wall with her bare hand. Thaddeus took a deep breath, wondering at the lack of Conduit. Was that reality, or just a failing of this man’s observational skills?

She swayed on her feet for a moment, her sunken eyes growing unfocused as a bloody tear ran down her cheek. She wiped it away and stared at it with surprise, and in a flash of light the white of her right eye appeared clearly. It was completely crimson, surrounding the blackness of her pupil and iris. The eye looked straight into Thaddeus’s, piercingly focused, as if it could feel his gaze through time and the filter of this man’s memory.

The Pendragon operative apparently found this enough incentive to return the way he had come. Those enemies of the Raven Queen that remained now huddled together to shield against the escaping group’s spell-fire. This worked for a short while, as the shadow companion had disappeared at some point when the operative was trying to crawl away.

But soon, it reappeared, dozens of ravens flying through the enemy group’s midst from seemingly nowhere. The ravens coalesced around the man at the front of their formation, and the shadow-creature re-formed, descended upon him.

Thaddeus watched, wide-eyed, skin tingling, as the creature clawed its way into the man’s mouth and squeezed itself inside him. It seemed to go on forever, but in reality it happened quickly.

There was a long moment of stillness and silence, both from the illusion and in the present room.

Thaddeus replayed the images in his mind, his blood rushing with excitement. Surely, no matter how distorted the man’s memories, he could not have fabricated something like that. What, exactly, would the shadow companion do to a person, once inside them?

The operative casting the illusion let the light decohere again as he took some long, deep breaths and wiped away the sweat beaded along his pale forehead. “Jorgensen is still alive,” he croaked, his voice wavering. “We don’t know what that thing did to him. The healers can’t tell.” Without having to be asked, he resumed the illusion, showing himself raising his battle wand to Jorgensen and stepping back warily. Then, the illusion fell dark. “The Raven Queen and her followers were gone. Disappeared into more of that watching darkness. We…made the decision not to follow without reinforcements.”

No one suggested that had been the incorrect response.

The Pendragon Corps captain glanced at the inert metal spell array on the floor and then around at all of them. “During the events you just saw, the Raven Queen was also active in several other places throughout the city. Simultaneously,” he clarified, for anyone too stupid to understand him the first time. “She later escaped into the Charybdis Gulf by stealing a boat. We were able to retrieve one of the two men who betrayed the High Crown for her, but all others went free.”

One of High Crown’s advisors let out a deep breath and summarized the sentiment of the room. “Fuck.”

I don’t want to re-do events we’ve already seen too much, but it felt like it would be hard to show reactions and deductions without also understanding the experience from the investigative side of things. I hope it’s enjoyable rather than boring. We’ve got one more Thaddeus POV chapter still to come in this arc.

And secondly, just a heads up that the TCC Typo Hunting Team Round 2 is open, if anyone who wasn’t on the first round team finds themself interested.