Chapter 213 – Simple Math and Complex Suspicions

BELOW IS A SNEAK PEEK OF THIS CONTENT!
ThaddeusMonth 8, Day 21, Saturday 10:30 a.m.Despite Thaddeus’s attempts at efficiency, paperwork and in-depth after-action reports still took longer than they had any reasonable right to. It consumed almost two hours before he could depart...
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Chapter 211 – Caliginous Motives

Thaddeus

Month 8, Day 21, Saturday 7:50 a.m.

As Thaddeus, Captain Aisling, and Agent Marcurio forced their way free from the ever-changing hedge maze trying to trap them within, Captain Aisling spoke. “I do not believe I’ve ever said this before, but I think we came out of that negotiation on the losing end. The Raven Queen controlled the flow from beginning to end, and I am only now beginning to realize how skillfully.”

Thaddeus agreed. Captain Aisling had undoubtedly gone through the same training courses as other Red Guard captains, but Thaddeus gathered that interrogation and negotiation were not the man’s talents. Aisling was too easily distracted and did not dig as deeply or as persistently as Thaddeus would have done if he were in the man’s position.

Captain Aisling was also inexcusably trigger-happy. That his Radiant battle spell would have been harmless was a ridiculous excuse. If it had hit someone in the eyes, it almost certainly would have done damage, and even a short time under a sustained beam could have caused burns.

Using it outside of battle, against a nominally friendly counterpart, was not only honorless—which Thaddeus did not care so much about—but also foolish. He would have taken further umbrage at the attack if Siobhan had not been so nonchalant about it. Evidently, she had not felt threatened.

Instead of saying any of this aloud, Thaddeus merely grunted. When they got to the communications staging area, the pair of agents stationed there gave all three of them a sound-recording device. Unlike the phonograph artifacts currently available on the open market, the Red Guard’s version was small enough to fit in a single hand, and captured the sound inside of tiny, black beads that were extruded along an even smaller string. It all coiled up inside, with plenty of space for several days of recording.

With these, each of them walked to a different corner of the room and gave their individual reports on the mission they had just completed. It was best to keep impressions to themselves until they had a chance to say everything; group testimony was famously untrustworthy.

When Thaddeus was finished, he moved to watch over the diviner’s shoulder, into the mirror the operations-focused agents were using to keep tabs on the area. This one was linked to another mirror they had hung in the sky, and could show anything caught in its partner’s reflection.

Several of the suspicious characters they had suspected to be allies the Raven Queen had prepared in case of an altercation were beginning to withdraw, some of them trying to pass off as random civilians.

The woman, her prognos companion, and a couple of superfluous bodyguards were already on a small boat heading south through the Charybdis Gulf.

“The spell’s efficiency is unnaturally low because of whatever wards she has, but we haven’t lost sight of her,” the agent in charge of divination explained. “It’s hard to disappear when someone has been watching nonstop the entire time. I’m not even blinking both of my eyes at the same time, just in case.”

Captain Aisling sighed as he moved to stand beside Thaddeus, soon after followed by Agent Marcurio. They at the image of fishermen hauling in their catches in the water below as the Raven Queen passed by unnoticed. “Repeat your basic report to me.” He turned to Marcurio expectantly.

The kitsune hesitated at first, but quickly fell into telling the story of what they had just experienced. Captain Aisling stopped to ask for clarification and detail several times, especially about the Raven Queen’s demonstration of her shadow-familiar spell.

“Now you, Special Agent Lacer,” Captain Aisling asked.

Though it was tedious, Thaddeus obliged. Again, Aisling seemed particularly interested about what Thaddeus had seen—or divined—of her shadow display.

Agent Marcurio’s eyes were wide, and his tails swished violently. “Do you suspect she somehow managed to tamper with our memories during the assessment?”

Captain Aisling shook his head. “I did consider it, but I don’t think that’s the case. No, I was more suspicious that what she showed us wasn’t actually shadow-manipulation at all, but some kind of waking nightmare spell. It would explain the control, the uncanny details, and even the insidious sensations quite cleanly if they were all sourced from our own imaginations. Alas, all three of us experienced the same thing, so that theory is unlikely, though perhaps still not entirely impossible.”

“Alternatively, perhaps that level of control and detail is nothing special for a woman who can cast two spells at the same time,” Thaddeus suggested.

His colleagues’ expressions darkened.

“I would like to once again point out,” Agent Marcurio said, “that if she was telling truth about how that philtre worked…?” He looked to Thaddeus questioningly.

“I did a basic analysis of the ingredients. Even for me, it can be almost impossible to discern what components went into a potion once it is fully completed, as a potion is more than the sum of its parts, but I detected some lingering particles of crushed onyx and what might have been algae…or mold. None of the highly conductive more inert components like metal or celerium dust. No traces of anything that might be cause for concern, for what little that is worth.”

“Okay,” Marcurio said dubiously. “That’s good, I suppose. At least it’s some tiny measure of peace of mind that I probably didn’t just breathe in some liquified fetus or something. But I would like to reiterate that I find the implications that simply being aware of her consciousness made us feel the way we did quite telling. Maybe it was just a trick. But maybe… Well, if we didn’t think it likely that Myrddin did some potentially very psychotic magic to create the ‘Raven Queen,’ I would say it is rather compelling evidence that she’s one of the shapeshifting creatures of dreams and shadow my great-grandmother used to tell me stories about.”

Captain Aisling let out a humorless huff. “Who’s to say what, exactly, Myrddin trapped in that book?”

Agent Marcurio’s mouth fell open slightly, revealing his canines. Then, he shivered. “I’ve seen too many things, so my imagination is more exaggerated than some ignorant commoner’s. Now I almost hope she’s just some random person Myrddin experimented on.”

Captain Aisling turned to Thaddeus. “Tell me your impressions. Did you notice anything relevant?”

Thaddeus looked down at the distant reflection of a small boat nearing the edge of the mirror. Tiny Siobhan seemed to be watching the sun rise over Gilbratha’s eastern wall, standing tall despite the motion of the boat cutting through the water. “She was showing off her control—the clarity, forcefulness, and soundness of her Will, rather than its capacity. She managed everything she showed us today with less than a thousand thaums, even though there is no way she became a free-caster without at least a few thousand at her command. It says something about who she is, that she believes that is more impressive than brash displays of capacity. And I would hazard a guess that she could have put on an even more impressive display, if she were not hesitant to push you beyond the limits of your self-control,” he added, a small hint of his scorn slipping into his tone.

Agent Marcurio pursed his lips, then tapped his forefinger against his chin. “Is it possible that Siobhan Naught’s body cannot keep up with higher thaumic requirements, and so the Raven Queen is restricted to those low-level spells? Like using a low-capacity Conduit.”

“Who knows how it works?” Captain Aisling said. “But if the rumors are true, some of the magic she’s shown would be rather difficult to accomplish on a thousand thaums or less. It could also be something to do with identity. Do you think we were talking to Siobhan Naught or the Raven Queen? What distinction is there between them, if any? I heard the Undreaming Order believes that if the Raven Queen manifests fully within an acolyte, it can be damaging to the acolyte’s body. She may have been keeping the magic light to protect the girl.”

By now, Siobhan and her companions had passed out of sight of sight of the mirror. No doubt trying to find her again with any conventional form of divination would be strangely impossible.

Thaddeus turned the thought of her over in his mind a few times. Who had he been interacting with? He found that the hoped it was some combination of both personalities, melded to become one. It would be a shame if Siobhan Naught were trapped away within her own body, screaming soundlessly for help. Or if the girl had been crushed out of existence by the weight of the Raven Queen’s consciousness. A combination of personalities might also explain why the Raven Queen sometimes acted with strange immaturity or made reckless decisions based on emotion.

At least she had not shown any signs of psychosis or a split personality. Except for, perhaps, the ability to split her Will.

As the other agents began to pack up, the three of them descended to the heavily warded and illusion-covered carriage that would deliver them near a field base entrance.

Agent Marcurio tucked his tails over his lap as they sat. “I do have to wonder, if she could lie as she pleased without us realizing, why did she let slip about wiping that artisan’s memories?”

It was a good question, but not the right one.

“Why did she use such a device at all?” Captain Aisling asked. “Several times, and even today, she’s shown off her free-casting ability. Surely she wouldn’t need such a thing.”

That was a better question, but still seemed to be lacking some critical insight.

“It might make it safer to dual-cast,” Marcurio offered, perking up. “Did you notice, she drew out the spell arrays to show her ability to us? Maybe that wasn’t just so we could confirm what and how she was casting, but for her own sake as well.”

Captain Aisling nodded as if everything suddenly made sense, but Thaddeus had an instinct that he was still missing a piece of the puzzle.

Not only had Siobhan openly used a device designed by his apprentice, Sebastien, she had almost purposefully drawn their attention to that fact, even to the point of implicating herself. It was strange. Almost as strange as the original boon she had given the boy. All because she liked him? But no, that had only been a half-truth.

Thaddeus frowned, breathing out slowly as disparate pieces of information began to come together into something that formed meaning. What if she had not lied to them freely at all? She was clever with her words to the point of manipulating people’s understanding as she wished, but she also like to play games with hidden clues and subtext.

Perhaps she had not damaged the memory of the shop owner. Technically, her statement could have meant that she stole from the man, came in a disguised form and bought from him, or even took the schematics and made a copy for herself.

But if that was true, it meant that she had implicated herself in a serious crime—one strangely connected to his apprentice—on purpose. And that she had given the boon to Sebastien for a reason beyond just liking him. Thaddeus had thought he must have been the reason behind her initial actions toward the boy, for what other reason could she have to be interested in a random University student? He had thought that she knew his reputation or had learned some hint of his work and found herself intrigued. But what if that was not the case? What if there were some other connection between Siobhan and Sebastien?

As if the obvious had been waiting for him to open his mind to the possibility all along, Thaddeus saw a clear memory of Siobhan Naught’s dark, unfathomable eyes, illuminated by the soft light of dawn. They were so like those of his apprentice, though he and she were dissimilar in almost every other way. In fact, unless Thaddeus was mistaken, that unusual eye color was almost…identical.

 

Reminder: I’ll be taking a break from posting on July 18th.

I’ll be taking the extra time next week to work on the book and hopefully make a little extra progress.

Apologies for the cliffhanger. Eek! *Drops chapter and escapes*

(I did not plan to drop you on an extra-vertical edge, but I had an epiphany while working on the book earlier this week about how to improve a certain plotline, and this is what came of it.)

 

Chapter 210 – A Deal with Darkness

Siobhan

Month 8, Day 21, Saturday 7:05 a.m.

Professor Lacer turned on Siobhan and scowled. “I distinctly remember mentioning that I would be observing from the edge of the board. So why, I wonder, did you start casting your anti-divination spell halfway through your demonstration?”

Siobhan remained awkwardly silent. She hadn’t even considered what activating the divination-diverting ward’s full effects might do, even though she knew that it protected her shadow as well as her physical body. Trying to be inconspicuous, she reached into her bag and turned off the dousing artifact.

“If I were a more paranoid man, or less insightful, I might have taken it as a sign of ill intent. Thankfully, I am skilled enough to bypass your spell’s effects without having to break it, and I was able to put together a good model of what was happening within your dome of darkness by sending probes through the ground and specifically leaving out the places where your knowledge-devouring magic touched. I had to keep the backup forces from attacking you twice after you pulled that arrogant, foolhardy stunt.”

Before she could respond, Professor Lacer turned on the Red Guard Agents. “And you! Despite giving your word not to use offensive spells during the demonstration, not once, but twice, you attacked with a beam of Radiance!”

Agent Marcurio shuffled and shrank like a scolded puppy.

Captain Aisling’s mouth firmed. “It was light alone, and would not have harmed her—”

Professor Lacer slashed his hand through the air as if it were a knife, effectively cutting off the other man’s words. “Please do not defend your actions with irrelevant information. While your spell might not have killed Miss Naught herself, it could very well have catastrophically disrupted her shadow-familiar spell and caused backlash.”

Gera had returned from the edge of the maze path she had retreated down, but hesitated at the obvious tension between them. Looking toward Siobhan, she steeled herself and moved to stand on the opposite side as Professor Lacer.

“Considering the power and abilities she has displayed, that was very unlikely,” Captain Aisling replied evenly.

Gera did not indicate a lie, so it must have been the truth.

“And I daresay our probing response was a very measured reaction to the Raven Queen’s oppression.” The huge man turned to Siobhan. “How is it that your ‘completely harmless’ shadow-controlling spell managed to bypass our wards against mental effects? Or, perhaps, did you slip in some secondary magic with an artifact or this…‘dual-casting’ you claim to be capable of?”

Siobhan coughed roughly, though she managed to keep from expelling any visible darkness from her lungs, then stared at him for several long seconds. Finally, she hesitantly asked, “What mental effect are you talking about? Because I did not cast anything like that. Perhaps, do you think that the fact that I managed to scare you slightly means I must have been casting a compulsion of some sort?”

Beside her, Gera took an exceedingly deep, slow breath and released it again, though Siobhan thought her face was beginning to hold some derision for the agents.

Professor Lacer gave Captain Aisling a scathing look that held none of the respect for a superior that Siobhan suspected he was supposed to display. It was surprising that he got away with it. “The philtre. They began to display the physical signs of excessive agitation when it reached them,” he explained.

Siobhan reached into her pocket and pulled out the vial, from which the barest traces of wispy darkness escaped. “This? I admit it is getting a bit old, maybe on the edge of losing effectiveness, but it should not have had any direct fear-inducing effects. It simply gives me knowledge of what is within its touch. At most it…” Siobhan trailed off, staring at the bottle with wide eyes. “Well, maybe if you breathed it in, it would give you a sense of me in return.”

Professor Lacer waved a finger at the vial, followed by a faint frown at the results of his free-cast divination spell. “I have not encountered a philtre of that nature before. How does it work?”

“I created it myself. But if you want the recipe, we will have to negotiate a suitable trade.”

Professor Lacer’s eyebrows rose. “I did not know you were a Master of Alchemy.”

Siobhan waved her hand, tucking away the empty vial again. “Oh, nothing of the sort. I dabble.”

Aisling shot Marcurio a questioning look, and the kitsune nodded his head. “Truth,” he whispered, almost soundlessly.

Gera crossed her arms and glared at him.

Marcurio looked at Siobhan and shuddered, oblivious to the other diviner’s growing dislike. “So, that extremely unnerving, horrifying sensation of being watched, seen, known by some spine-chilling eldritch creature, was all a result of our subconscious feeling a connection to…you? It wasn’t a memetic effect at all, just an instinctive response?”

Siobhan squinted at him. “It sounds very insulting if you word it like that.”

“I am sure he only meant that your awe-inspiring nature can be overwhelming to witness first-hand,” Gera said quietly. She threw Marcurio a wordless, forceful expression, her lips pinched tight together.

Marcurio’s eyes widened. “I meant no offense, beauteous and powerful Queen of Ravens. Only—exactly what your attendant said.”

Gera nodded. “And I’m sure you only continue to doubt the truth of my lady’s words, for even the smallest statements of fact, because of protocol. Not because you are accusing her of being honorless.”

“That too,” Marcurio agreed immediately. “Everyone knows the Raven Queen is deeply honorable.”

Aisling pinched the bridge of his nose as if to push back a headache. “Lady Raven Queen,” he said, pulling her attention back to him. “We would like to examine the artifact from which your shadow-familiar spell stems. You said it was created by your grandfather?” Captain Aisling asked.

“I will not agree to that,” Siobhan replied promptly. “The artifact my grandfather left for me is precious, and it contains proprietary secrets.” In truth, she couldn’t allow them to see it because they would realize her shadow-familiar had nothing to do with it, and thus that the creature that had risen wearing her form had not been simulated by it.

Captain Aisling raised his eyebrows and nodded meaningfully, as if he had taken some deeper meaning from her refusal. “I suspected as much. Would you be willing to demonstrate your ability to ‘dual-cast’ for us, then? With something other than your shadow. Not to suggest you would cheat, but you have indicated the artifact could take over the burden of guiding it. I hope you understand.”

Siobhan was loathe to drop her shadow-familiar spell, but she didn’t want to attempt splitting her Will in three directions, no matter how little of that Will was going toward keeping her shadow under control. However, proving that she really could cast two spells at once would go a long way to disabuse them of any suspicions that might lead them to the thing sealed in her mind. “Fine, but let us be quick about it.” She pulled out a soft wax crayon and drew out two spell arrays on the marble board, taking care to keep her handwriting different from the natural scrawl she used as Sebastien.

Despite knowing about it ahead of time, they seemed stunned and disbelieving when she cast a basic float spell at the same time as she used a variation of one of the many small spells she had learned in her classes this term to force a seed to sprout.

Only Thaddeus watched impassively, though the tiniest hint of a smirk slipped out as he observed the others’ reactions.

Even Gera’s blind eye grew wider as she observed Siobhan’s demonstration, though she settled quickly. “I do not know why I continue to be surprised by the feats you display,” she said, and then spent some time nodding rapidly to herself

After running several divination scans to ensure Siobhan was truly casting both spells separately and not free-casting a single spell that somehow combined both very dissimilar effects, the agents grew strangely excited.

“Is the ability to dual-cast something you can bestow as a boon, just as you gave a weaker version of your protection against divination to Sebastien Siverling?” Captain Aisling asked.

“This is not the kind of ability I can simply hand out. At best, I could attempt to teach someone, but considering that I do not understand why I can do this while others cannot, I fear the results would be…regrettable.”

“And this ability is require to read Myrddin’s journals?”

“It is the only way I know of to access the protected contents. That is not to say there are no other methods.”

“What about your anti-divination boon? You have already given it once.”

“That I could, technically, provide to others. But it comes at quite a high cost.” Quite literally, she would have to pay an exorbitant amount to have Liza do the same work for someone else. “Before you ask, I have no intention to do so, regardless of what you offer.” It would be tantamount to giving away one of her most precious secrets.

“Are there other boons of a similar nature or value that you might bestow?”

“My boons are catered to the circumstances and the individual. There is quite a lot I can do, but even more, perhaps, that I cannot. I doubt much that I could offer would be of real use to your organization.”

Agent Marcurio looked at the sudden response of his divination artifact and gulped. “Lie,” he whispered.

Gera’s face snapped toward him.

Siobhan frowned. She had not thought that was a lie. “I was not attempting to be deceitful. But I suppose, perhaps, leaving behind the need for sleep could be useful. And some of my other magical knowledge.” Almost anyone would benefit from mastering light-refinement. “And my non-magical knowledge. And some of my personal resources and connections,” she added, just to be safe. She did know some useful people and own several rather high-capacity celerium Conduits, after all.

A muscle in Captain Aisling’s broad jaw clenched and unclenched several times in the ensuing silence. “I have been an agent of the Red Guard for several decades, but you are one of the most brazen thaumaturges I have ever met,” he said, his voice hard with anger.

Shocked, Siobhan slid her gaze slowly over to Professor Lacer.

He raised his eyebrows at her, as if wondering why she was surprised.

Siobhan turned to Gera instead, but the woman was staring at Captain Aisling defiantly and didn’t seem to notice Siobhan’s consternation.

“Not only do you manage to lie during our interview, you are so obsessed with being recognized as exceptional that you unveil your deceit in the most defiant manner possible,” the man continued. “Did you so badly want us to know that you can lie or tell the truth as you please? This, in addition to the admission that you may have cast memory-affecting spells on civilians. I also find it concerning that you performed nonconsensual, permanent magic on Sebastien Siverling, a civilian known to be connected to one of our agents. Are you compulsively compelled to taunt those around you despite the danger, or do you really hold no regard for the threat we embody?”

Siobhan’s thoughts reeled as if she had been slapped, though she tried not to show it. Beside her, Gera had begun to breathe harder, but on Siobhan’s other side, Professor Lacer still seemed relatively calm. He was holding his Conduit and a beast core, but looking at her, not Captain Aisling. As if he expected her to be the one more likely to burst into violence. Before she could come up with a response, Captain Aisling continued.

“I believe you have lied about quite a lot today, and for what purpose, it is not entirely clear to me. But it is obvious that you do not take us seriously. And that is a mistake,” he added dangerously.

What is if even talking about? Where did this come from? I take them so incredibly seriously that I prepared for this meeting to the point of abandoning almost all other distractions and spending a large chunk of my newly gained fortune for even the slightest improvement in the chances that I walk out of here safely today.’ For a moment, hot, acid panic began to rise up in her stomach. But then she remembered the advice she had been given, not just by Miles, but by Liza and even Professor Lacer. If she acted weak, they would treat her as someone they could walk over. And when they surprised her, she needed to roll with it.

So she smiled as genuinely, sincerely, and gently as she could. “If you really wanted to do something to me, you would be doing it, not talking about it. Which means you want something from me. Why not set aside the bluster and just ask?”

Agent Marcurio actually flinched, but Captain Aisling remained the general composure he had displayed from the start. He paused, but showed no hint of shame, confusion, or frustration. When he spoke again, most of the anger was gone from his voice, suggesting that it, too, had been mostly an act. “We believe you know something about the way that Myrddin created Carnagore. Which might have been just a prototype. And that you might even hold the answers within yourself.”

Siobhan felt the blood drain away from her face. She could only hope they didn’t notice.

Unfortunately, they were too perceptive. Agent Marcurio gave a single nod, which Captain Aisling picked up on. The huge man gave her a small smile.

Gera tapped her left pinky finger against her thigh. This, then, was what the agents hoped to gain from this meeting.

“We are interested in that knowledge. How would one transfer a consciousness into another vessel?” Captain Aisling asked, paraphrasing one of the questions she had asked Professor Lacer via letter.

Siobhan threw Professor Lacer a dirty look. He had warned her that he would have to speak about their corresponded, but had told her he would keep the most important things secret. Did he not consider that frankly alarming question to be important?

“Special Agent Lacer believes you are likely to unearth the answer, given the chance. We want you to share it with us, whether the knowledge comes from one of Myrddin’s journals, your own experience, or from personal research into the matter. When you have satisfactory information, you will bring it to us.”

“I think your expectations are rather unreasonable,” Siobhan replied, trying to keep the tension from her voice. “Would it not be better to ask such a question of those most knowledgable and likely to be able to find an answer? I share your curiosity, but I do not know the answer and have only the barest inkling of where to look to find it.”

Captain Aisling didn’t even look at Marcurio or his truth-divining artifact. Apparently they really didn’t trust that they could tell when she was lying or not. Or they just didn’t care. “If you prefer, you can turn yourself in for more extensive testing and questioning. That might allow us to find the answer ourselves, and from there possibly even discover the secrets of dual-casting.”

Siobhan clenched her jaw, once again considering the best move to surprise them and successfully escape. But a suspicion tickled her brain, and she forced herself to wait and think things through. ‘If they knew I had an Aberrant sealed in my mind, is this the conversation we would be having? Why are they so calm? And why do they think this has anything do to with my ability to split my Will?

She took a mental step back and encouraged her emotions to calm with a deep breath. ‘Oh. That’s what the questions about my age and identity were about. Did they hear something from Professor Kiernan? Or perhaps second-hand, from Professor Lacer? Because, I did, at one point, intimate that perhaps the Raven Queen had been what was hidden in the book. I thought it might let me, as Siobhan Naught, go free from any crimes that could be foisted off onto her. But I didn’t expect this outcome. What, exactly, do they think Myrddin was doing?

She decided to probe Aisling intentions. “Trying to capture me right now would be in violation of this neutral ground.”

“Oh, you are free to go, since you do not seem to be the kind of threat we need to remove from existence. But that does not mean we cannot find you again later,” he said.

She reached up to run her fingertips over the red and black feathers sprouted from her hair. “Perhaps. However, I am not particularly inclined to give boons to those who have been unfriendly to me,” she said boldly. “Do not presume that you can intimidate and control me, squeezing for more and more until I am wrung dry.”

She leaned forward subtly, allowing all emotion to slip from her face. “I do not play games I cannot win.”

Captain Aisling matched her not-so-subtle threat in both word and tone. “That we allow you your freedom is a gesture of goodwill. We can track you down anywhere in the known lands, if necessary. Do not think that, if we truly turn all of our resources to it, we will be as ineffectual as the local law enforcement.” He leaned back again, suddenly more pleasant. “But this task shouldn’t be that much of an imposition, my lady. If the information happens to be in Myrddin’s journals, you will get off basically free. If you need help with research, Special Agent Lacer has volunteered his services. And if you cannot find the answer yourself, you can simply let us take charge of the research.”

By that, he meant that the Red Guard could take charge of her body and mind. Siobhan considered lying—agreeing and then immediately leaving the country. Even if she had to travel beyond the borders of the East, beyond the known lands, it might be safer. But she couldn’t lie without them knowing, despite what they thought. Perhaps an acknowledgement that was not true agreement would let her slip by.

“We will complete the vow here, now,” Captain Aisling added.

Siobhan’s hope collapsed. “I would never agree to trade away my freedom. And the fact that you need a vow makes me suspect that you are not truly so confident you can track me down and take me by force.”

“This vow would allow you your freedom in exchange for some reasonable promises.”

She let out a breathy, humorless laugh. “Reasonable promises? You mean chains that restrict my actions and cut off my future, and the assurance of knowledge you so desperately want. It seems a miserly bargain to gain only what it already mine in exchange for something so valuable.”

“And yet, you value your freedom so much, it seems more valuable than anything else I can offer you.”

Siobhan’s fingers flexed, aching for the Conduit she had left behind in case Professor Lacer recognized it. “Freedom cannot be given. It is mine by right.” Anger was beginning to replace her fear.

Professor Lacer cleared his throat. “Might I remind you both, despite your inclination to force outcomes in which you completely sweep the board, compromise is possible. I know you both came willing to at least partially accommodate the other.”

He’s right,’ Siobhan realized, chagrined. ‘I prepared several possible bribes. And…maybe I can get something out of this, too.’ At that thought, at least half of her reluctance drained away. ‘Actually, could this be the perfect opportunity?

Captain Aisling pressed his lips together. “Indeed. What we have learned about you suggests you are almost always willing to trade. We have access to extensive resources and could provide you quite a lot, within reason. Is there anything you might be interested in, or some problem that you would like us to solve?”

Siobhan briefly considered asking them to get all of her crimes pardoned. They probably had the power. But then she remembered that they were supposed to be politically neutral. Besides, just being generally connected to the interests of the Red Guard gave her some protection against the Thirteen Crowns. There was something she wanted even more than that. “If I am to find the answer to this question, I will need leeway to research topics that would otherwise be too…delicate. Forbidden,” she clarified.

Seeing the frown already growing on Captain Aisling’s face, she continued before he could deny her. “I want to clarify that I have no plans to harm innocent sapients—except perhaps for a few ravens and other creatures that might otherwise be considered mere animals. You may not be willing to take my word as my bond, but I am not mad, nor am I a monster. Any potentially harmful research would be theoretical only. I have no intention to do anything that would require you to do disaster management or cleanup for me.”

Captain Aisling’s eyes narrowed. “That is…acceptable. We will have to hash out the details, of course. I can see a few ways to get around a vow with the terms you’ve stated. And I must mention that, with this allowance, you will agree to bring us actionable information, not random results that only vaguely involve the question. That being said, if actionable information would require dangerous experimentation, you may do so under our supervision.”

“I can offer you something else in exchange for forgoing the vow,” Siobhan said.

“We need the vow. Without it—”

“Without it, you can just track me down and do what you threatened to do before, right? And if you’re unable to do that, you really have no way to force me to take the vow in the first place. But I think I have something of equal, if not greater value.”

“What, exactly?”

“I know who stole the book purported to contain the solution to transforming beast cores into celerium. I have agreed to access the contents and extract the relevant knowledge. The owner is willing to let the Red Guard have that information in exchange for the right offer, and I have the authority to broker that deal.”

Captain Aisling hesitated, but then shook his head. “We would be willing to bargain for the knowledge, but you overestimate our interest.”

That…had not been the answer Siobhan expected.

“You have no need of celerium?” she asked, wishing her gaze could bore through his eyes and extract the truth directly from his brain.

“Oh, we do. But we are confident that as soon as anyone discovers the answer, we will be able to access the information ourselves as well. Keeping secrets that we are determined to discover is…difficult.”

Agent Marcurio smiled. “As they say, two can keep a secret when one of them is dead.”

Captain Aisling threw the man a disapproving glance. “To clarify, we will not kill people simply for possessing this information. We would be happy to pay a certain amount for it, as well. But not enough to simply let you go without a vow.”

Siobhan wished she had something to sip while she stalled for time to think. She had prepared another piece of information that she was quite sure they would be interested in. It seemed a shame to give up something so valuable just to get away without a vow. But the only other way to do so would be to fight her way free, and even if she succeeded, then she would have made an enemy of the Red Guard. In her situation, what she really needed was time and access to rare and possibly forbidden knowledge. And if this meeting went well, she would have both.

She raised one eyebrow. “What about information on a pipeline funneling Aberrant parts into Lenore?”

Both Captain Aisling and Agent Marcurio froze. Even Thaddeus’s eyes snapped to her like a hawk that had seen movement in the grass.

“Are you…certain?” Captain Aisling asked.

“Reasonably. And my information is actionable. I would even be willing to take a vow that I will tell you the truth of it, since it seems you don’t believe a single word out of my mouth.”

It turned out that this was, in fact, irresistible.

Half an hour later, Siobhan followed Gera’s lead out of the moving hedge maze, both of them unmolested. The Red Guard were free to chase down whoever was selling pieces of Aberrants. And Siobhan was free to research the forbidden secrets of shamanry and any other topic she wished, unbeholden to anyone.

Siobhan had gotten what she wanted, but she couldn’t help but feel that she had come out of that whole bargain on the losing end. It was a shame that she didn’t have the power to treat with the Red Guard on equal terms.

 

ANNOUNCEMENT:

I will be taking a break from the weekly chapter on Thursday, June 6th and July 18th. The former date will be at a good stopping place at the end of this mini story arc. Getting a little leeway will hopefully allow me to rebuild a small amount of my buffer. The second break is because I am going on a family vacation, and I have learned from experience that I cannot expect to get any work done with all the chaos. Any writing I do accomplish will be a small bonus, and the break will hopefully keep me under my maximum-stress-out level during the trip.

This means that the next 2 months will only have 3 chapters instead of the usual (average) 4.25. If anyone would like to pause or cancel their membership for that time, this is a heads up.

Ideally, long term I will return to the 1 chapter per week schedule, indefinitely. If life will just cooperate with me, that would be great.

 

Chapter 209 – Fundamental Attribution Error

Siobhan

Month 8, Day 21, Saturday 6:55 a.m.

Captain Aisling and Agent Marcurio shared a look of surprise and distrust at Siobhan’s offer of a shadow-familiar demonstration.

“Totally safe,” Siobhan repeated.

Agent Marcurio’s tails lashed back and forth in agitation. His voice was tight, and his accent came through more thickly. “You want to show us the spell you used against the other agent who fought against you? The same one you used on the Pendragon Corps. The creature of shadows that everyone talks about.”

Siobhan deflated slightly. “I had thought you would want to examine it.” She’d gone so far as to ask Liza to run some diagnostic spells on her shadow while it was under her control, ignoring the woman’s strange, angry stares. Siobhan had wanted to be sure that, after what had happened, there were no lingering effects or hints at the true nature of the shadow woman the other agent had met that night.

“We do want to examine it,” Captain Aisling said, but there was something obviously left unsaid in his tone. He stared at her, but Siobhan didn’t know what that unsaid thing was, and so after an awkward while of gazing into each other’s eyes, he waved graciously to her. “Please.”

Siobhan had been in control of her shadow the entire time, a tiny part of her Will spent on maintaining the spell through her new leather anklet while leaving the rest of her concentration for high-stakes human interaction. Casting the shadow-familiar spell had been her first act upon waking.

Now, she looked down at her shadow, which stretched out insubstantially in several directions at once from the maze’s various light crystal lamps. At a wave of the hand that now wore her mother’s celerium ring, each copy of her shadow snapped together into one and shrunk closer to her body. Then, a small black raven rose up from the puddle of darkness.

The raven took a cute hop forward, and both Red Guard agents took a simultaneous step backward.

“Stop!” Captain Aisling barked, one palm outstretched toward her and the other reaching for the battle wand at his waist.

Siobhan and the raven both froze.

Captain Marcurio pulled out and used three divination artifacts on the bird, one after the other. Finally, he announced, “It is a shadow. An extremely, abnormally lightless shadow, but that is all.”

The edges of Professor Lacer’s mouth twitched with amusement.

Captain Aisling pointed at the adorable raven as it cocked its head to the side and wiggled its tail feathers. “This is what drove several trained men half-mad and terrified my agents?”

“I can make it more frightening,” Siobhan offered. Though she kept the size the same, she molded the shadow into the standard battle form she had been using since she came to Gilbratha, then used it to absorb the heat and create a foggy aura. The six-inch horror hunched menacingly and flexed its clawed digits.

Agent Marcurio took out his divination devices again, but after another round of testing, asked, “Are you trying to make a joke right now?”

Siobhan blinked. “Is this funny?”

“It seems like you are insulting our intelligence,” Captain Aisling said.

Siobhan frowned. She considered making her shadow bigger, but had a feeling they would still find some way to be dissatisfied. They were expecting her to display some menacing, spine-chilling magical abilities, so when she told the truth, they thought she was mocking them. They had decided who she was before the meeting, and were judging all of her actions through that lens. She had never thought the reputation of the Raven Queen could be a problem in this particular way. ‘So maybe the answer is not to try to seem as harmless as I actually am, and instead play the Raven Queen.

She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and opened them again. “The only way to truly recreate the psychological effects of a battle would be to fight. But if you want to me to try to frighten you, I am willing to try.” She smiled, slow and wide. “If you can promise you will not lose your wits and try to kill me.”

“Will the effects remain harmless?” Captain Aisling asked.

“Yes. It might get somewhat cold, but not enough to kill you. I have no intention to harm you unless you attempt to harm me.”

“Can I leave for this?” Gera asked.

“Of course.” Siobhan waved to the grassy area beyond the edge of the oversized game board. “I will contain any active effects to this space.”

Gera pressed her lips together for a moment. “Is it alright if I go somewhat…farther? Perhaps to the end of one of the connecting hedge rows?”

Siobhan was surprised by her apprehension, but quickly realized it was a good idea. “You may. The distance might give you some protection if the agents start shooting battle spells around for some reason.”

Professor Lacer was smiling openly, now. “I will stay near the edge of the game board. I want to watch.”

Agent Marcurio shuffled his feet and looked up at his superior to whisper, “Are we sure this is a good idea?”

Gera stood, picked up her cushion, and folded it back into a small square of cloth.

“It is just a demonstration. Not a spar,” Siobhan reminded them, handing her own cushion to Gera. “But if you are willing to take me at my word about this spell, I need not go to the effort.”

“No. I want to see this,” Captain Aisling said. “Do your worst, Queen of Ravens.”

Siobhan chuckled. “Well, I am definitely not going to do that. But it might get slightly frightening. Please remember that you are not actually in any danger.”

Gera shook with a full-body shudder, spun on her heel, and hurried off without another word.

Agent Marcurio looked after her longingly. “Maybe I could watch from outside, too.” The fur of his tails laid abnormally flat as the two appendages tried to hide behind one of his legs. “It’s just, I’ve heard so many of the stories already, I feel like I know what to expect. And wouldn’t it be beneficial to have an outside perspective to do scans and take readings while the action is ongoing, so to speak?”

Captain Aisling placed one mitt-sized hand on Marcurio’s shoulder and squeezed. “No need. We will examine it together, from the inside. Special Agent Lacer is enough for external observation.”

The other three took some time to prepare while Siobhan planned out something that would match the kind of rumors that seemed to be spreading about the Raven Queen, even if only a little. ‘I hope I can pull this off.

When the agents were ready, Siobhan let her shadow collapse back into a puddle around her feet. It rose up slightly from the ground and began to spread like a real liquid, and then to bubble like thick, viscous sludge in a cauldron. Except instead of steam, cold fog rose from its surface.

Every second, it grew thicker and spread further, until it enveloped the agents’ feet. As it spread, Siobhan slowly and subtly bent her knees, lowering herself toward the ground within the visual shield of her midnight dress. If she was doing it right, she imagined it looked something like she was sinking down into the darkness.

The shadow-spell gave her not hint of struggle or lack of control. Over the last week of almost constantly casting the spell, she had become increasingly certain that the thing in her mind could not simply take over at any point. It needed certain requirements to be met.

When the faux liquid had spread far enough, and she had sunken low enough that she didn’t think her muscles could withstand the strain without giving away the game through burning tremors, she cued the shadow liquid to explode upward in front of the agents, revealing a hint of giant teeth and tentacles below. At the same time, the edges of her shadow rose up in a giant dome, cutting off the meager light from the outside. She left a second inner wall of darkness around the agents, as they would surely bring out a light of some sort and she didn’t want them to see her just yet.

Rather than follow through with anything else immediately, Siobhan dug around in her satchel. She pulled out a vial of moonlight sizzle that had already spent most of its magic, her modified light-crystal coaster, and her last philtre of darkness with the proprioception modification, which she had decided to call a philtre of shadow-perception. She hesitated before using the latter, but knew that due to the short shelf life, she would need to create a new batch soon, anyway. One with slightly diminished side-effects, ideally.

She needed to be able to move around freely within the darkness, both to ensure the agents didn’t retaliate against her, and to more effectively demonstrate that she could be scary. They would have divination spells going, so it would be beneficial for her to be able to track them as well. ‘It would be silly if something went wrong after the immense effort I put into preparing for this meeting just because I was reluctant to use a potion worth a handful of gold and a few hours of my time.

Siobhan unsealed the vial and took a small sip of the roiling darkness, allowing the majority of the philtre to billow steadily from its small glass container. She was lucky—there was barely a breeze this morning, and the philtre would hang around unless something artificially cleared the air.

She formed a shell of shadow around her body, a duplicate of herself to her left—though the act made her shudder, it could be useful to deceive the agents—and created her standard semi-avian shadow-familiar to her right. Then, she activated the heat absorption ability on all three. The Red Guard might otherwise be able to tell which one was her by some sort of thermal divination. She didn’t think she could perfectly fool them, but it was best to put in the effort.

Her skin immediately cried out in discomfort from the cold. Siobhan did her best to guide her shadow to pull from the air and not from her body, but otherwise ignored it. It would take a lot of concentration to control three forms at once, especially with everything else she planned to do.

“Is this it?” Captain Aisling called out from within their inner area.

Siobhan shook her depleted vial of moonlight sizzle to get the bubbles and light going, unsealed it, and began to walk in a circle around them, each step slow and deliberately soft so as not to give away her movement. Her two extra shadow forms followed beside her. She dribbled little bits of the weakly glowing potion on the marble. A little bit of light, just enough to feed the imagination, could be more terrifying than complete darkness.

As the philtre of shadow-perception continued to fill the area, she gained a clear sense of what the agents were doing within the smaller barrier she had created around them. To free one hand, she tucked the philtre in one of her dress’s many pockets.

“Oh, by the sun and moon above, what is that?” Agent Marcurio asked, his voice breaking. “Can you sense it?”

“Show yourself!” Captain Aisling snapped, looking around at the veil of darkness with the light of a headlamp beaming from his forehead.

Marcurio was frantically working with his divination artifact, and suddenly his head jerked up. “Behind us!”

Siobhan grimaced and threw away the remaining moonlight sizzle, allowing the vial to break across the ground where she hadn’t yet made a full circuit.

Both agents flinched at the sound, but spun to face her rather than the distraction. Without any communication that Siobhan could perceive, they stepped forward to test the barrier of darkness. Finding it incorporeal, they stepped through it. The modified philtre of darkness filled the air, but there were a few areas where it was thin enough for their bright lights to partially pass through. Enough to make out her form. They flinched at the sight of her.

Siobhan probably would have also flinched at the sudden beam of light to the face, but her shadow was covering her eyes completely.

“The one in the middle is her,” Agent Marcurio announced immediately. His tails stretched out and grew longer, then formed a Circle in front of his mouth. He whispered a few words, took a deep breath, and then blew some sort of esoteric gust spell that cleared most of the air between them, though the dark miasma still continued to seep through her dress from the vial in her pocket.

Siobhan sighed, but supposed that at least immediate discovery meant she didn’t need to continue freezing herself to hide. She let the shadows covering her body fall way, leaving only a small covering over each eyeball to protect against the light and freeing up quite a bit of her concentration for the other two.

“Her eyes,” Agent Marcurio whispered.

Captain Aisling ignored him, his own narrowed eyes flicking around to take in every detail of the situation.

Siobhan created a few simple barriers of darkness in irregular shapes around the edges of the dome, then flashed them across the space between herself and the agents, almost too fast for the eye to track. They would see only indescribable movement.

Both of them jumped and looked around, but they didn’t take their attention off of her for long.

Even so, by the time they looked back, the Siobhan-facsimile shadow was gone, and the looming, semi-avian shadow began to skitter toward them with jerky, zig-zagging movements.

Captain Aisling calmly said something that sounded like “netrah,” pointed a battle wand at it and released a beam of light so bright that Siobhan could see it even through the shadows protecting her eyeballs. It overcame the light-blocking philtre of darkness, pierced through her shadow-familiar’s monstrous form, and continued on and out through the outer edge of the shadow dome and into the sky beyond.

The sudden influx of light energy forced Siobhan almost to the edge of her thaumic capacity and left her shadow-familiar flush with power, and if possible, even more utterly black and lightless than it had been before.

Agent Marcurio had immediately closed his eyes on Aisling’s verbal signal, but now shook his head. “No damage.”

Siobhan tilted her head to the side. “Breaking promises so quickly?” she asked, her voice coming out with a strange echo past the philtre that wafted up from her stomach and spilled from her mouth. She suppressed the urge to cough. That would not be very intimidating.

Both men shifted warily, and Captain Aisling even grimaced as if he had seen something disgusting. “It was just a test, not an attack. If I’d shot you with that spell, you might have gotten a little warm and been temporarily blinded.”

The Siobhan-duplicate shadow rose up from the shadows stretching out behind them, moving too quickly to properly react.

Marcurio’s eyes had just begun to widen, his head turning to look back, when the Siobhan-duplicate brushed a frigid hand the color of the void against the back of Captain Aisling’s neck, just below the curve of his ear.

To his credit, Captain Aisling did not scream, and even Agent Marcurio clamped his mouth shut to muffle his involuntary screech of surprise. Captain Aisling spun around, swinging his battle wand like a baton at her shadow.

Agent Marcurio spun in the other direction, his back to Aisling as he scanned for another surprise attack. It was a response that spoke of both a lot of training and an impressive amount of trust toward his partner.

The Siobhan-duplicate slid back from Captain Aisling’s attempted blow as if gliding across ice or floating half an inch above the ground. Its mouth opened wider, and wider, and wider still, until the jaw seemed to unhinge and its head split almost in two.

Then, from within its throat, a small form struggled upward. A raven clawed its way out of the Siobhan-facsimile, then perched on the edge of its dislocated jaw and shook itself as if after a bath. Then, its beady black eyes locked on Captain Aisling. It launched itself straight at him, flying faster than any corporeal raven could have.

He tried to move out of the way but was too slow, and a puff of fog burst outward from his chest as the bird seemed to fly into him.

Of course, in reality, this was all a complex illusion. Sweat beaded on Siobhan’s forehead as she struggled to create both realistic form and movement in so many places at once.

She let the Siobhan-duplicate sink into the ground, created a few more flashing silhouettes against the scattered, faint glow that barely illuminated the outer areas of the game board, and then used the mental power she had freed up to create thin spiderwebs through the area.

Those, her harrowing, avian shadow-familiar used to climb up and around, moving as fast and unnaturally as only a creature without mass or true form could.

While it moved above, she created some vague forms nearer to the floor, hinting at feathers and insects, quick movement and seething, treacherous footing. Just enough so that the agents didn’t know where to focus their attention, as seeming danger could come from anywhere.

Then she reached into her pocket, grabbed the light-crystal coaster, and gritted her teeth. With extreme care and only a tiny amount of power sourced from the light-crystal itself, she used the array drawn on the back to create two small glowing orbs slightly inside one of the clouds of darkness beside the agents.

Then, just as Agent Marcurio—who seemed to be the more observant of the two—caught sight of the glowing orbs, she made them appear to blink. Like the reflective eyes of a nocturnal predator, they blinked twice, and the second time did not appear again. “Prekshak!” Marcurio announced tightly.

“New?” Captain Aisling asked, confirming Siobhan’s suspicion that the unfamiliar words were some kind of short-code used among the Red Guard.

“Glowing eyes in the darkness.”

Siobhan began walking again while the men were distracted, putting a shield of darkness between them and activating her dousing artifact at the highest power. Her divination-diverting ward activated, and would hopefully make them less likely to focus on her past all the other distractions.

She wished she had some ability to create illusory sound, or even that she knew how to throw her voice, but alas, all she knew how to do was create a loud, screeching alarm, which didn’t have the subtle effect she was going for.

She called up the memory of an old lullaby that she vaguely remembered in her mother’s voice. Like many old rhymes and children’s stories, the tune was soft and lilting, but the lyrics were fairly disturbing. She began to sing. Though her voice still coming strange and warbling, Siobhan thought that somewhat enhanced the effect, while also masking the fact that she didn’t really know how to sing.

“Hush now, child, do not weep.

Close your eyes and sink to sleep.

In slumber’s realm, you may roam,

But heed me, child, stay close to home.”

“Why did I volunteer for this?” Agent Marcurio asked. “Why couldn’t I just let that idiot Berg come instead?” He bit back a shriek and jumped to the side as an enormous beak of shadows rose up from the ground around him and pretended to try and snap shut around his legs.

“Keep it together, Agent!” Captain Aisling snapped. But when the Siobhan-facsimile stepped out of the cloud of darkness beside him, reaching out for a passionate kiss, he bent almost all the way backward in an impressive feat of flexibility to avoid it.

“For should you wander far and wide,

Your soul may find a place to hide.

In the realm of dreams, beware,

Dark creatures roam with wicked stare.”

Siobhan punctuated the last word by dropping the semi-avian shadow from where it had been skittering above. It landed on all four spindly limbs behind the two men, its cloaked head bowed toward the ground. Siobhan sent a cold tendril of shadow to caress their backs and draw their attention.

Both spun to face it, breathing hard despite the lack of real exertion. Another blast of light did nothing except provide more power in an easy to absorb form.

The shadow-familiar slowly raised its head. But where usually there was only an enormous beak and endless void under the cloak, now glowing red eyes stared out at them from the darkness, pulsating and flickering like two malevolent, distant stars.

Siobhan resumed her lullaby.

“For if you stray too far, too deep,

In the land where nightmares sleep,

Your soul may wander, lost and torn,

And those you’ve left behind, forlorn.”

The Siobhan-facsimile stumbled out of of the darkness, giggling silently as it approached its beaked, wretched counterpart. Its silent mirth grew until it was holding both hands over its mouth and convulsing hard enough to lose its balance. It seemed to catch itself on the side of the battle-familiar, which cowered as if in fear, but was not so bold as to pull away.

Siobhan had traveled almost all the way around the men once more. The shadow-perception philtre had run out and was fading from the air.

Both men watched in horror as the semi-avian shadow began to convulse as well, though its jerky movements seemed as if they might not have been from mirth at all.

“Permission to use the shield spell, Captain?” Agent Marcurio asked, his voice high and tight.

“It won’t work. Do you want to encourage her!? And before you ask, I already triggered the anti-corruption and compulsion artifacts. No effect.”

Siobhan took a deep breath and sang the final verse as she sent thin tendrils of shadows to chill their skin in random caresses, and always from the most unexpected angle. The shell of an ear, the ankle just under their pant leg, and the base of their spines through their clothes.

The men twitched with every simulated touch, but Agent Marcurio shook his head, grim-faced, and they kept their attention on her shadow-familiars.

“Secrets in the darkness keep,

For with the dawn, all shadows flee.

Sleep now, child, do not fear.

Morning comes soon, bright and clear.”

Both of her shadows froze, then turned slowly and seemed to look at something behind the men. Siobhan dabbed away the sweat on her forehead, allowed the semi-avian shadow’s red eyes to sputter out, and put the light coaster back in her pocket. Siobhan put as much fear into her shadows’ body language as possible, and then yanked both of them out of sight so fast they almost seemed to disappear.

Captain Aisling and Agent Marcurio turned to face her.

She stood still, silent, and expressionless, simply staring at them in the spotlight of their headlamps for long enough that the wait grew uncomfortable.

Finally, she allowed the dome of shadow around them to fall and her shadow to return to its normal form, spreading out faintly from her feet in the faint dawn light. Able to see again now that the shadow over her eyes was gone, she smiled.

Captain Aisling glared at her, and Agent Marcurio was examining his and his captain’s shadows with marked suspicion. “Thank you for that demonstration,” the larger man said stiffly. “It was most…illuminating.”

To the side of the game board half a dozen meters away, Professor Lacer snorted. He had dismissed his invisible chair and was holding his Conduit one hand and a beast core in the other, and looked distinctly displeased. He strode across the board toward them, stopping by Siobhan’s side.

Agent Marcurio’s tan skin had a wan, greenish pallor to it, and his tails alternated between lashing around with agitation and wilting down to hide behind his silhouette. Captain Aisling’s fingers were trembling, and as soon as the man realized, he crossed his arms and clamped his hands around his biceps.

And so, belatedly, Siobhan noticed the obvious signs. She realized that Red Guard agents would be almost guaranteed to have experienced harrowing, traumatic situations time and time again through the course of their work. Many of those horrors would leave marks. She had seen beast hunters who had come back the only one alive out of their party. Sometimes groups met opponents beyond their capabilities and were hunted in return by their prey.

The agents probably had trouble responding to perceived threats without immediately resorting to excessive violence. She was lucky that they had managed to restrain themselves so well.

“Thank you for humoring me,” she said. She hesitated, then reached a hand into her satchel. “Would either of you like a dose of anti-anxiety potion?”

Professor Lacer’s fingers tightened around his Conduit. “Surely my colleagues are not in need of such coddling.”

Siobhan was dubious. Obviously, they were experiencing some symptoms of a war neurosis or lingering combat stress reaction.

Captain Aisling raised his palm to stop her, bowing his head as if to gather strength. “No, thank you.”

 

Edit 6/27: This week may be your last chance to give input on the general direction we go as we start to develop merchandise! If you’d like to offer up ideas or just see what’s on the drawing board, go here: https://alcove.azaleaellis.com/t/reader-poll-vote-for-swag-and-merchandise-options/377/18

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Chapter 208 – Red Guard Meeting

Siobhan

Month 8, Day 21, Saturday 6:35 a.m.

One unexpected benefit of no longer needing to sleep was that Siobhan could set appointments at times that would be inconvenient for others. Such as before the sun rose on a weekend morning.

One of Oliver’s people had ferried her across the Charybdis Gulf in a four-person speedboat, and would be waiting to take her, Enforcer Gerard, and Enforcer Huntley back from the Lilies in an hour if all went well. The two men escorted her toward the place she had chosen for her meeting with the Red Guard—an enormous magical hedge maze.

As they approached one of the entrances, which was barred by a Red Guard cordon and a repelling compulsion, Siobhan’s eyes widened.

Gera was waiting for her, which they had agreed on and Siobhan had expected. The woman had agreed to accompany Siobhan to the meeting as her remaining payment for saving Millennium’s life. She would keep the agents from successfully lying as well as secretly give Siobhan some insight into the opponent.

But Siobhan had not expected that Gera would allow Miles to get anywhere close to anything involving the Red Guard. And yet, the boy stood beside his mother, grinning brightly as Siobhan and her two bodyguards approached.

Siobhan raised her eyebrows at Gera, who shook her head with weary defeat and gave a minuscule shrug.

“Nice outfit,” Miles said when she stopped in front of him. He reached forward to run the luxurious blue-black fabric between his fingers, then peered at one of the subtle spell arrays embroidered into the fabric.

“Thank you,” Siobhan replied automatically. Except for Liza’s work examining and warding the maze itself, this dress had been her single most expensive purchase. It was luxurious enough to fit the image she wanted to portray, was designed for a woman to fight in, and contained several additional minor enchantments. All that, in addition to being self-repairing. If not for Oliver’s connections, she wouldn’t have had a chance to buy it, no matter how much gold she could throw around. It was a horrible waste of money, but if it increased her chances of successful negotiation, or escaping alive in the case of failure, any amount of gold would be worth it.

It also didn’t show moisture as Siobhan wiped her sweaty hands on it. “What are you doing here?” she asked bluntly.

“I came to listen beforehand and let you know if I heard anything important. The Red Guard agents are already here, waiting for you inside,” Miles said.

Gera clenched and unclenched her fists. “I tried to stop him, but he was…insistent.”

Miles scrunched his face at her. “I know. I’m not going in with you. But I can still help a little.”

“The whispers?” Siobhan asked, unconsciously lowering her voice. “What have you learned?”

“They have three people inside. One of them you know, and the whispers know him, too. People like to talk about him.”

Thaddeus Lacer,’ Siobhan guessed.

“He likes you, so you don’t need to worry about him, but the other two sound like greed and trickery and…something. I can’t hear clearly enough. And they hid another eight people all around the outside of the maze. But…since you hid some, too, I think that’s fine?”

“Can you point out the hidden agents? Discreetly?”

Miles did so, though the whispers were too capricious to give him exact details.

Siobhan placed them on her mental map of the area. It wasn’t ideal, but it could have been worse. “It’s fine. We expected that. Is there anything else?”

“They have a plan. It kind of sounds like…making you slip, or pulling the ground out from under you so you fall over. And then when you’re down they’ll trap you in a net.” He closed one eye and tilted his head. “And the strings will…wrap you up and make you dance like a little puppet?” He shook his head, wincing and pressing his hands against his ears as if he’d heard a loud, jarring noise that was inaudible to the rest of them. “Sorry. I’m still not very good at this. But they talked about it beforehand, and they are who they are. The wind hears everything.” He shuddered, then rubbed at his arms and the back of his neck.

“If it hurts, stop listening,” Siobhan said.

Miles gave her a sad, wry smile. “I can’t. Not really. But you’re known to the wind, too. So what you should do, it’s like, smile with blood-painted teeth. And, um, if you trip, just lean into it and keep spinning all the way around? Make yourself look big and win in a staring contest.”

“Did the whispers say that?”

“Oh, well they don’t really talk. I mean, I can hear speaking, but it’s just memories that got trapped by the wind. I…I don’t know how to explain it. Uh, maybe it’s like when you watch a stage play and the music goes along and changes with what’s happening? The wind changes with meaning, too.” Miles jerked his head to the side again, pressing harder against his ears. “Ugh!” he squeaked with pain. “It’s too much meaning. The wind wants me to hear everything, but my head is too small.”

Gera let out a low, suppressed moan of distress.

Siobhan sank down onto one knee, pressing her own hands over his to better protect Millennium’s ears. “You can’t stop the wind from blowing, but you can stop listening. What’s your favorite meditation exercise?”

Miles hesitated, but eventually whispered, “My tintinnabulating sand. But I don’t have it here.”

“You can still imagine it. Close your eyes and meditate. Focus in until everything else is just background noise.”

“Can you hum? Do the humming magic.” Miles asked, his eyes clenched shut tight and wetness shining on his lashes.

As soon as she understood what he meant, Siobhan tugged him closer, spinning him around so that he was crouched in front of her, his back pressed against her front. She pressed the Circle of her hands against the boy’s chest to cast Newton’s vibrational calming spell.

Miles hummed along with her, his voice much higher pitched and wavering at first, but slowly settling into a steady tone.

“I knew I shouldn’t have brought him,” Gera murmured to herself, her voice distant and her blind eye staring sightlessly down at them. “I know that. But I was afraid he would sneak out alone. I can’t stand not knowing where he is. Not after what happened last time. I told him I would pay the debt on his behalf, but he wouldn’t…”

Siobhan couldn’t speak past the humming, but she tried to convey some comfort in her expression before realizing that whatever magic Gera used to perceive the world couldn’t see Siobhan past her divination-diverting ward.

But Miles had already calmed, and so with a few more breaths, she released the magic. “I’ll teach you how to do this spell yourself one day,” she whispered to him.

Gera’s face tightened. “I’m sending my son home now.”

A squad of Nightmare Pack enforcers stepped forward from the shadows across the street at Gera’s commanding motion.

Siobhan nodded. “One of you, go with them,” she said to her own escort. When Huntley opened his mouth to protest, she added, “You cannot come with me past the maze entrance anyway. Go, and come back to escort me when I am finished.” Really, his and Enforcer Gerard’s presence was more for show than anything. Even if one of them left, she would still have the aid of the other people Oliver had placed along her various pre-planned escape routes.

Huntley drew the short straw and limped off after Miles, scowling like a bulldog with indigestion.

“I’ll be fine,” Miles called back over his shoulder as he patted his breast pocket.

“You got him a battle wand?” Siobhan asked as she and Gera watched them leave.

“Two. One is hidden in a calf sheath. And every bead on his necklace is a single-use shield artifact. It’s all charged with the strongest spells gold and favors can buy, and we’ve hired a tutor to teach him some footwork and technique. If someone tries to harm my son again, it is my dearest hope that they are reduced to a few dozen chunks of meat and bone.”

Enforcer Gerard raised one dubious eyebrow, but said nothing.

Siobhan hoped that Miles was never forced to witness something like that, and even more so that he wouldn’t be the cause of it, for his own sake. She looked to the east, where the white cliffs still blocked the hint of an oncoming sunrise, and took a deep breath of the briny air. It was too bad that there was no fog this morning; it would have fit the mood. “Shall we go?”

Gera steeled herself, checked her warding artifacts, and linked arms with Siobhan. Together, they stepped past the Red Guard’s cordon.

Siobhan walked slowly, her head held high, quite conscious of all the warded jewelry that she was renting from Liza. It was all rather bold and somewhat gaudy, and she would have felt like some noble showpiece if not for the extremely pragmatic purpose it served. As they neared the center of the ten-foot tall maze, one of the tiny golden dragons curved around the shell of her ear let out a soft sound to alert her that at least one of the other linked wards had been activated.

Which meant that one of her four anti-compulsion artifacts or three anti-memetic effect artifacts was actively protecting her from outside influence. The muscles in Siobhan’s back tightened. ‘Relax,’ she warned herself. ‘You need to seem totally confident, not rigid and on-edge.

As they got closer, the dragon let out another sound. ‘Two artifacts activated. It’s not surprising, but I’m still somehow in awe of this kind of blatant manipulation attempt.’ As Siobhan stepped into the center of the maze, which held a game board big enough for real-life game pieces, she ran through a series of mental questions to determine if she was affected. ‘A ward against untruth and a compulsion to speak freely,’ she determined. ‘If they’re strong enough to get anything past Liza’s wards, they’d be enough to leave me a gibbering mess if I were unprotected. Such spells are illegal, but they’re the Red Guard. Who’s going to stop them? I wonder if a piece of an Aberrant is fueling the effect, of if their artificer is simply that much stronger than the spells Liza can put into a piece of jewelry.

Professor Lacer stood beside two other Red Guard agents. He wore his usual long jacket over a simple white shirt, while they wore crisp, fully-equipped red uniforms.

One of the agents had two fluffy tails, marking him as a kitsune. He wore a sly, amused smile, and carried a luggage case of supplies.

The other was…big. Large enough that he might have had some jentil blood. They all turned to watch as she and Gera stepped from between the hedges onto the checkered marble game board.

To her credit, Gera did not falter, and Siobhan retained the faintest of smiles, just enough to make her seem as if she thought everything she looked at was under her control. She had practiced in a mirror beforehand.

Professor Lacer made introductions. The kitsune was Agent Marcurio, and the large man was Captain Aisling.

Gera reached into the purse at her side and drew out two small pieces of fabric. They unfolded an unreasonable number of times and fluffed up into square pillows, which she placed on the ground. Their surfaces were embroidered with yet another protective spell array. She and Siobhan sank down onto them as if they did such things every day.

Professor Lacer reached into his pocket for a beast core and then moved to the side and sat in an invisible chair, halfway between Siobhan and the other two agents.

Agent Marcurio and Captain Aisling shared a look. “Should have brought chairs,” Marcurio muttered before both of them sat down on the marble board with crossed legs. To Siobhan’s disappointment, neither seemed particularly discomfited by the arrangement.

“I am here as a mediator,” Professor Lacer said. “My presence is meant to ensure the safety of either side in case the other tries to go against the agreement of neutral ground.”

Gera didn’t give the pre-agreed symbol that anyone was lying, but Siobhan still raised an eyebrow. “You are also a Red Guard agent. Somehow, this arrangement does not seem truly equal.”

Captain Aisling cleared his throat. “If it came to a fight, Special Agent Lacer’s abilities are overwhelming enough to take on both myself and Agent Marcurio, and probably you two as well, all at the same time. And he has been known to reinterpret commands to his preference before. Seeing as he’s a large part of the reason we’re having this amicable meeting, I think his presence is appropriate.”

That answer was less than satisfactory, but Siobhan gave a one-shouldered shrug.

“Shall we begin?” Captain Aisling asked.

Agent Marcurio opened the case of supplies and brought out an artifact with several different lenses. He put it on his head so that one of the lenses was over his right eye.

Siobhan immediately felt the effects of the divination magic sweeping over her. Her divination-diverting ward was already active because of Gera’s presence, but the disk in her back grew colder and began to prickle painfully as they absorbed her blood to power themselves.

Gera shuddered, Agent Marcurio’s eyes widened, and Professor Lacer looked on in fascination as the ward’s spillover effect strengthened, too. Only Captain Aisling remained stoic, though Siobhan sensed something like a large, patient predator waiting for its prey to make a mistake behind his gaze.

She considered attempting to maintain the divination-diverting ward. Being able to get away with a lie during the questioning would be immensely useful. However, she doubted that she had the capacity to maintain its effect in the face of their efforts.

If they had been trying to find her location, of course she would have failed immediately. Here, they were trying to scan her for anomalous effects and later, ensure the results of their assessment were accurate. The divination would scan her physical form and calculate any of a long list of anomalous effects that might emanate from her.

Likely, once the questions started, they would want to ensure she didn’t somehow manage to lie despite their compulsions. For that, their divination would catalog and translate the meaning of her micro-expressions, her heartbeat, and tiny shifts in her muscles. All of this should be slightly easier to fight against than a divination as simple as finding her location, but she was still a relatively weak thaumaturge.

Before Agent Marcurio could increase the power, Siobhan reached forward as as if grabbing the hem of a long, invisible veil and lifted it. She and Liza had discussed the possibility of the agents using invasive divinations beforehand, and Liza had made some slight tweaks to the disks in Siobhan’s back. It had required the use of a scalpel, some blood-clotting potion, and some carving tools, and overall been one of the more unpleasant experiences of Siobhan’s life.

But the improvements allowed Siobhan to adjust the output of the disks to cover only themselves, just in case the agents tried to scan the composition of her body to make sure Siobhan wasn’t secretly made out of raven feathers on the inside, or something.

“Human, no anomalous effects,” Agent Marcurio reported.

Professor Lacer leaned back and crossed his arms as a quick smirk flashed across his face, and Siobhan tried not to seem relieved.

“We’ll ask you some questions now,” Captain Aisling said.

Siobhan waved one hand with graceful nonchalance.

“What is your name?”

“Siobhan Naught,” she answered immediately.

Marcurio and Aisling shared a look, and Marcurio gave a subtle nod. “Truth.”

“Have you ever been called by another name?” Captain Aisling asked.

Siobhan nodded easily. “Many times. Here, they also call me the Raven Queen.”

“Are those your only two names? Have you always gone by Siobhan Naught?”

Siobhan raised her eyebrows. ‘What are they getting at? Surely they don’t know about Sebastien.’ Aloud, she said, “Siobhan Naught is my primary name. But I often go about in disguise, and I use other names then.” This was even true. She had half a dozen identity papers with different names for her female form.

“All truth,” Agent Marcurio muttered again.

Captain Aisling crossed his arms and tapped one finger against his elbow. “Is it true that you do not lie?”

Siobhan’s body tried to blurt out, “No,” under the effects of the compulsions, but she was able to guide her words to a more useful truth. “I mislead and deceive people often. I have found that one need not lie to make someone believe an untruth. With the right guidance, some people will do all the work of misguiding themselves better than I ever could.”

“But do you lie? Are you able to lie?”

“I can, and I do,” she grudgingly admitted. “But I strive never to make promises that I do not keep.”

“Why?”

She hesitated. “Because I feel like it.”

With another confirmation from Agent Marcurio, Captain Aisling continued. “How old are you?”

Siobhan frowned. ‘What kind of questions are these? Are they just trying to get a baseline of what truthfulness looks like, or does this have some kind of unfathomable purpose?’ “I believe I’m twenty.”

They shared looks. “Is your mind also twenty? All parts of your mind?”

Gera tapped her left pinky finger against her thigh, the signal they had come up with to convey that the agents were particularly emotionally invested.

Siobhan had thought they might try to hide fear or anger, but if she was reading the situation right, they were…fascinated? But the question left a cold stone at the pit of her belly. “I can’t say,” she admitted, as she had no other choice. “Such a strange question, I am unsure how to answer. But I certainly think of myself as twenty, no matter what disguise I may be wearing at the time or what name I answer by.”

“Have you ever met Myrddin?”

Siobhan blinked slowly, feeling like she was sliding down a steep, muddy incline into surreality. “Is that question relevant and necessary to determine if I am or am likely to become an existential threat to the world?”

“Yes,” Agent Marcurio tried.

“Lie,” Gera rebutted immediately, in a twist of irony that Siobhan found deeply satisfying.

Captain Aisling shifted and cleared his throat, but his expression remained undaunted. “You have been accused of multiple and varied crimes, some of which may be relevant. “Have you ever performed blood magic on a sapient being?”

Siobhan suppressed a cringe, but remembered Millennium’s advice and answered boldly. “I have. I can heal using blood magic, but I have also used modification spells on ravens that Sacrifice other ravens, and used ravens for the Lino-Wharton messenger spell and the like.”

“Is that all? Have you ever cursed anyone? There are accounts of nightmare curses, strange blood magic rituals, and strange misfortunes that befall your enemies.”

“I have cursed someone. But only once, and with an insect-attracting spell that was ultimately harmless. Technically, I cursed the threshold of his house, so I would suggest that it does not even count. As for nightmares, perhaps some people have experienced them after meeting me, but not because I have gone tiptoeing through their dreaming minds. I accept no responsibility for their lack of mental fortitude.”

“Truth,” Marcurio said.

Even Professor Lacer seemed to find that surprising.

Captain Aisling’s eyes narrowed. He turned to Gera. “Madam, do you believe that to be the truth?”

Gera flinched. “My lady would know better than I. It is not the answer I would have expected, but I accept the words that pass her lips.”

Captain Aisling turned back to Siobhan. “Do you, or any companions or associates of yours, have some sort of natural fear or other mind-affecting aura or other passive effect—anything that might have caused this recurring misunderstanding that you bestow nightmares and even madness on your enemies?”

“Not to my knowledge. My best guess is that people are quite gullible and fall prey to my theatrics.”

“Truth,” Marcurio said, though even he seemed to doubt the word.

“Have you colluded with other rogue magic users?”

“Well, I have attended some underground thaumaturge meetings, and I have a working relationship with an artificer I often call on for various projects, but I feel like the word ‘collusion’ might be somewhat excessive.”

“Do you consider yourself to be a possible existential threat to the world?”

“Yes,” she said immediately. When they tensed, she smiled. “Every single thaumaturge is a possible existential threat to the world. Without us, there would be no Aberrants.”

“Do you consider yourself to be significantly more likely to meet the requirements for a threat that the Red Guard would generally deal with than the average thaumaturge?”

Siobhan’s thoughts jumped to the thing sealed in her mind, and the “Yes,” had slipped out of her before she could stop it. She smiled again, even larger. “The majority of thaumaturges spend most of their lives after schooling casting the same spells over and over, never really stretching their Wills. More importantly, they do not engage in magical conflict with other thaumaturges. I will continue to actively improve my Will and explore new magic for the rest of my life, and at the moment, it seems likely that I will also end up in more than my fair share of magical conflicts. The easiest way to shatter celerium is to oppose another’s Will, after all.”

She paused long enough to let that set in, but continued before they could respond. “But here’s the answer to the question I think you really want to ask: I will do everything in my power to keep myself from becoming an existential threat to the world, and I would do the same for other thaumaturges, where possible. I am not mad.”

Captain Aisling let out an almost inaudible snort. “Are you in contact with or aware of anyone who meets the previous criteria?”

“I am not. I would have already acted if that were the case.”

“What is your purpose for the organization that calls itself the Undreaming Order?” Captain Aisling asked, the “Ah-ha!” of trying to catch her off guard obvious in his tone.

Siobhan pressed her lips together. The Undreaming Order was apparently the edgy, villainous-sounding name that Deidre and the others had recently come up with. “I have no purpose for them. I was not involved in their creation. I will do my best to keep them from doing anything crazy, dangerous, or too fanatical.”

Agent Marcurio’s tails swished back and forth violently. “How could it be that you are uninvolved with them?”

“I have presumably met them. And saved some of their lives. But I certainly did not encourage them to create an organization or start calling themselves by such a…fanciful title. Truly, if I did not know it to be happening, the idea of such a thing would be almost unfathomable.”

She tapped a finger thoughtfully against her wine-red lower lip. “I suspect the common person’s willingness to become infatuated with the idea of me might be an imprecation against the quality of life under the rule of the Thirteen Crowns. Either that, or the average person has a much more active and childish imagination than I knew, and is bizarrely willing to indulge it. Or…” Siobhan grimaced. “Or these followers of mine simply happen to be the strangest outliers of society, and a bizarre confluence of events has allowed them to come together and start feeding each others’ faults.”

Frowning, Agent Marcurio adjusted his divination artifact, then tapped it a couple of times as if he suspected it wasn’t working properly. At Captain Aisling’s pointed look, he grunted and said, “Truth. Everything so far has been the truth.”

Captain Aisling was now repeatedly tapping three fingers against his elbow. “Do you have any plans or the intention to do anything that would be considered a crime, or require our involvement?”

“This is getting ridiculous,” Siobhan said. “I refuse to be judged based on things I have not done and may not do. I am certain to commit crimes of some sort, as it seems that the Thirteen Crowns are willing to take anything I do and belatedly label it a crime. But I can freely confirm once more that I have no desire to cause harm to the innocent or endanger this world. Beyond that, I will actively work to ensure my own safety, that of those I care about, and the livable state of the world within which I must continue to exist. Working rules of society, production pipelines, and basic safety for everyone are basic principles that also make my own life bearable.”

Professor Lacer nodded as if all of this was common sense.

“What is your relation to Sebastien Siverling?”

Siobhan felt the blood drain from her cheeks, but forcefully stopped herself from responding. “I refuse to answer,” she said, baring her teeth in something like a smile.

Gera tapped her pinky finger again, and then blinked for an abnormally long moment. This was the trap, or one of them, and they believed they had caught her.

Captain Aisling smiled back at her triumphantly. “Do you admit that you bestowed a boon upon the boy?”

“I provided him the ability to resist divination,” Siobhan replied slowly. It was even basically true, if one accepted the fact that she had purchased that ability for herself, and that she was Sebastien.

“How did you do that?”

She met the captain’s gaze unblinkingly. “I did not do anything dangerous or unethical to provide the ability. Next question.”

“Why did you do it?”

“I like him. Something like that could help keep him safe.” Siobhan had been told several times that she loved herself too much, and was, in fact, a narcissist. Did this count as close enough to the truth?

“Partial truth,” Agent Marcurio said, showing cute snaggletoothed canines as he grinned.

“The device you used in your fight with Agent Gale recently, the one that contains fabric spell arrays that can be released or retracted at will… We tracked that back to a craftsman who had been working with Mr. Siverling to develop the devices. How did you come into possession of it?”

Siobhan’s heart was pounding and her mouth had gone dry. She tried to come up with an excuse, but the artisan himself was the weak link, and she was not willing to commit murder to keep him silent. Under the pressure of the compulsions and the threat of being caught in a lie, she didn’t have enough mental power to come up with a good lie that kept her two identities separate. Not without noticeably pausing long enough to come up with something plausible. But she remembered Millennium’s advice. She forcefully loosened her muscles, tilted her head to the side, and smiled right back into Captain Aisling’s smug face. “I got it from the craftsman, of course. However, I have to admit that the man would not remember giving a second prototype to me, if you were to ask him.”

Professor Lacer uncrossed his legs and sat in a more upright position.

Gera plucked at the cuticle of her forefinger’s nail.

Captain Aisling tried to act nonchalant, but Siobhan could smell him almost slavering, believing she was trapped and wounded and ready to take a bite of her flesh. “Are you aware that we do not allow thaumaturges to practice memory manipulation on others? It is very easy to cause mental collapses and break events when such delicate work frays or unravels. In fact, this is some of that very blood magic we asked about earlier,” he asked.

Siobhan’s mind flitted to the new battle wand attached in a holster on her thigh. She could reach it through the open seam in the left hip pocket of her dress. And Liza had given her the strongest three-hundred-sixty degree battle shield she could make. As soon as something activated it, Siobhan would have ten minutes to get herself and Gera to safety. If they could use the hedge maze to escape direct line of sight, Siobhan thought they could make it.

Siobhan leaned forward, as if telling a secret. “I am aware that you restrict that particular privilege to your own agents, and that they do indeed occasionally lack the skill and delicate touch required. Why, just earlier this year, poor Newton Moore’s family became positively unhinged after your peoples’ tender care.”

Captain Aisling’s smile slipped, but he, too, leaned forward toward her. “And as for your other claims of harmlessness… We have extensive, repeated, and confirmed testimony from several Pendragon Corps operatives of the dangerous nature of the thing you call your ‘shadow-familiar’ and the long-term effects it causes. My own agents who confronted it recently reported that it caused a deep discomfort and existential dread within them. Special Agent Lacer has relayed your insistence that it is a simple, harmless trick spell, but I have my doubts. How did you break the mind of a Pendragon Corps operative who had been trained to withstand torture?”

Siobhan opened her mouth and closed it again. “I…did not? Are you saying one of the High Crown’s men had nightmares? Well, I suppose my shadow-familiar can be made to seem quite frightening, but I’ve never ‘broken anyone’s mind.’” She hesitated, “Or, if I did, it was by accident and there were probably a lot of extenuating circumstances. Maybe that operative had pre-existing mental conditions.”

“Truth,” Agent Marcurio said.

But Gera pressed her lips together to signify that the men did not actually believe Siobhan.

Siobhan resisted the urge to throw up her hands in exasperation. ‘What is the point of their truth-telling divination, then!?’ She let out a sharp sigh. “I can prove it,” she said aloud. “I would be willing to demonstrate my shadow-familiar spell if it would put this to rest. I assure you, it is perfectly harmless.”

 

Two things today!

1. I’d like to sincerely thank everyone for their patience! This chapter was extremely difficult to write and took me many, many hours and 4 days of late nights to finish. Some of you commented earlier about how things always end up taking longer than you expect. That’s unfortunately true.

I’m quite aware of this, so I try to gauge my actual capabilities on what I previously have accomplished. (I track my work time and the results religiously and then do all sorts of calculations based on the data.) But this chapter was a huge outlier. It probably took me at least twice as many hours as the average chapter of its same length.

I’m going to just lay in bed tomorrow letting my brain recover. Unless I end up in the hospital, the next chapter should come out on time next Thursday. (I really hope that doesn’t turn out to be an ironic statement.)

2. As you’ll have seen in the chapter, I picked the name for Siobhan’s followers. I was considering something slightly less edgy, but then I thought, “The people who are going to decide to become followers of the Raven Queen–wanted blood sorceress, rumored to drive men mad, walk through dreams, and extract unrelenting revenge on her enemies, all while pulling stunts like raven clouds and cryptic messages delivered to the Edictum Council–those people like edgy stuff.”

I believe Keid was the one who put forth this offering. Thanks, Keid! Your naming sense really matches up with my own, and I loved a lot of your ideas. Let’s talk and see if I can offer you a reward or goody that you’d enjoy as a reward for the winning name.

There were many, many great ideas some other offerings that I had a good giggle at, too. shadow-of-doubt, you know who you are. Raptor Transactors? quid-pro-crow? Love it. I still recommend that thread on the Alcove if anyone who hasn’t already wants to read some awesome ideas.

 

Chapter 207 – Echoes and Anxiety

Siobhan

Month 8, Day 15, Sunday 5:00 p.m.

Though it was a hassle, since she planned to talk to Professor Lacer that evening, Siobhan changed into her other form to travel back to the University. She didn’t have confirmation that the Red Guard were willing to wait until the meeting time she would set, or even that they would be amenable to a conversation at all. And though it might not hold true if they changed methods, they had indicated that they were unable to find her as Sebastien.

She looked out of the window of her hired carriage, though her mind was occupied elsewhere. ‘If I left Gilbratha, where would I go? What would I do?’ There was only one Thaumaturgic University of Lenore, but Osham and Silva Erde had their own institutions of learning. It was possible they really were inferior to the University, but after learning more and more about how politics played a role in such things, she thought it was equally possible that the Thirteen Crowns simply couldn’t admit there were viable alternatives.

After hearing some of Oliver’s stories and reading newspaper articles about Osham, she wanted to avoid spending significant amounts of time there. Besides, access to their schools was much more regulated and restricted, and would probably require her to take certain vows of service that would come into play after she graduated. She did not want to end up conscripted.

Silva Erde didn’t put as much focus on modern sorcery in favor of what many considered “softer” crafts, but surely there was still plenty to learn there. Some of her most useful spells were esoteric, after all. They might even be more inclined to teach “creative” solutions to certain unusual problems. However, she’d heard it was a lot harder to get certain spell components they considered unethically sourced, and they even fined people for foraging components from the wild without the proper licenses. Like Osham, Silva Erde was not particularly fond of Lenore, though for very different reasons.

I could buy a space-expanded traveler’s pack, take my gold and my beast cores and everything else, and pick one of the false identities I had the Nightmare Pack get papers for. I have the gold to buy my way into a year or two at most institutions, or an apprenticeship with someone powerful. I might even be able to guide my own studies, buying rare or expensive books and trading information with other thaumaturges I meet on the way.’ There was a certain appeal to the idea, especially because coin in hand would make all the difference from when she had traveled with Ennis.

But though the thought of leaving behind the danger of Gilbratha and the Raven Queen’s identity enticed her, there were other things she would be reluctant to part with. Oliver, Liza, Theo and Miles, Damien, Ana, and even Professor Lacer. Her little attic apartment that she had so many plans for. The University library. Without quite realizing it, she had begun to build a life here. And if she left, she would also be abandoning the kind of opportunities that many would kill for. Access to the restricted archives and relationships with powerful people whose contacts might help her find a way to deal with the thing inside her head.

The thought of walking away from all of that was almost painful.

But it would be better than several of the worse possible outcomes,’ she reminded herself. Another, more cynical side of her thought, ‘Except leaving doesn’t guarantee my safety. It just cuts me off from possible solutions.

All of the library’s private rooms and many of the empty classrooms of the Citadel, the University’s cylindrical main building, were occupied by other students. So Sebastien retreated to her cubicle, pulled the curtain, and set up a sound-muffling spell that she made into an artifact with the most basic of functions and charged with as much power as chalk lines could handle.

She spent the long hours until sunset trying to finish her homework, though she found that all her practice splitting her Will made it unfortunately easy to worry simultaneously while writing essays and drawing diagrams. Even math was not enough to require her full concentration.

She forced herself to wait until after the poorly enforced curfew, when the dorm lights were shut off and most of her classmates were asleep. Then, she took her satchel and slipped away to the bathroom, where she turned on her divination-diverting ward. Then she crept out of the University and into the darkness of the trees to the east, away from the cobblestone paths. There, she used her shadow to further block any potential sight, changed back into her Siobhan form, and fumblingly dressed herself. A cloak with a hood concealed her features. She made sure to exit the cover of her shadow-familiar spell several meters away from where she had entered it, even though no one was around and the paranoia was probably unnecessary.

When she had reached the edge of the trees, she looked out toward Professor Lacer’s cottage, gauging the distance. ‘Two hundred meters? I can see light through his window. I think I can make that.

Squinting slightly to try to make out detail, Siobhan re-cast her shadow-familiar spell with exceeding care, then sent it forward slowly through the darkness. She was ready to stop and drop the spell at the first sign that something was wrong, but the distance was barely a strain. She let her shadow rise up to the window, and when Professor Lacer’s silhouette passed by, she sent her shadow through the glass.

His silhouette froze.

Siobhan formed her shadow into the shape of a cute, unassuming raven. She hoped she shape was forming like she imagined. She’d never tested her precise control at such a distance, when all she could see was a little blob of darkness at the end of her tether. When she was pretty sure that Professor Lacer had seen it and knew who she was, she formed words in a looping script instead. May I visit? Turn on your porch light to invite me. Then she let her shadow retreat through the glass and dropped the spell.

The cottage’s porch light came on thirty seconds later.

Belatedly, she realized that if Professor Lacer had been entertaining company, her shadow might have gotten him into trouble. Siobhan took one last glance around to be sure no one would see her, then strode quickly to the cottage’s front door.

Professor Lacer opened it before she could knock. “I did not expect to see you tonight,” he said as she swept past him. “Are you so impatient to meet again?”

Siobhan thought she detected a hint of amusement in his voice, though she wasn’t sure if he was trying to make a joke. “I am impatient to know the outcome of your endeavor today. I am trying to curb my reckless tendencies, and I realize that if the leadership of the Red Guard is unfavorably inclined toward me, it would be very dangerous to make your organization an enemy in truth. It is a fight I am likely to lose. I am considering leaving the country, and if it is necessary, it would be best to do so as soon as possible.”

“You cannot leave!” The words burst from Thaddeus in a harsher tone than she had expected.

She turned away from restlessly examining the room to look at him.

He cleared his throat. “I meant…leaving now would be a foolish and unnecessary decision.”

She narrowed her eyes, but resisted the urge to let her emotions out in a harsh tone. She had learned from experience that people responded poorly to that, and Professor Lacer was not the type to put up with such. “The agent that I tussled with threatened to take from me my name, my autonomy, and my life.” She swallowed and again tried to regulate her voice to keep the rage from it. “I will not allow that. If they come after me again…” She wanted to make outlandish threats that she definitely couldn’t back up, but allowed the silence to stretch out, instead. “I have an unfortunate amount of experience with the way things can spiral out of control after a few unfortunate decisions. So tell me, Thaddeus, do I truly have no need to worry?”

“To be cautious, yes. To worry?” He hesitated. “I do not believe so. While certain individuals among my colleagues do hold some amount of animosity toward you, as a whole, the local leadership has been convinced of your value. The rest will be up to you.”

“They agreed to the meeting?” she asked.

“They did, and seemingly in good faith, though that does not mean they will not take precautions.”

Siobhan frowned, running her tongue over the back of her teeth as she gazed into the darkest shadows of the room.

“It would be foolish to abandon the knowledge and power you stand to gain here. Think of the work we could do together. And, might I remind you, you have already given your word that you would aid in my research of Myrddin’s journals. Doing so from afar seems implausible.”

Siobhan relaxed slightly. “I would also prefer not to leave. Please, tell me what you have learned.”

“Would you like coffee? I have purchased milk and sugar.”

She gave him a small, surprised smile. “Yes, please.”

Something of the tension in his shoulders seemed to ease, and when he returned, he told her what he could of his meeting with the Red Guard captains and their plans for her.

With every small piece of information, Siobhan’s anxiety uncoiled. Perhaps she had been overreacting. The Red Guard could be terrifying, but as long as she could convince them that she was neither an existential threat to the world nor so valuable that they should try to enslave her, everything should be fine. Probably.

“Will they expect me to take vows?” she asked, sipping her obviously very expensive coffee and savoring the slightly nutty aftertaste.

“They will certainly push hard for that concession. If you wish to adjust the terms, you may need to give up other bargaining points. The Red Guard quite loves their vows,” he added, with a wry, bitter twist of his mouth.

Siobhan really hoped that Oliver would come through with some intel on a rogue agent, because the excessive interest in the method to create Carnagore, or otherwise quantify and encapsulate a consciousness, that Professor Lacer had hinted at wasn’t actually something she could provide. Not unless she happened to find that information within her entry of Myrddin’s journals. And she certainly couldn’t let them inspect her warding medallion or the disks under the flesh of her back. ‘Perhaps there will be other knowledge in my entry that I can use to bribe them. If I can manage to read and understand enough of it before our meeting.

“Helping me like this does not violate your own vows?” she asked.

“There is wriggle room within any binding if you are tenacious enough,” he said lightly, though his eyes were shadowed. “Though I have taken vows to work toward their best interest, I do not consider this a violation. Both sides have more to benefit from alliance than strife.”

“Do you have any advice for me, then?”

Professor Lacer was silent for a long moment, and then a thin, toothless smile stretched his lips. “Be yourself.”

She blinked at him, then let out a low chuckle at the trite counsel.

“Do not let them control you,” he added firmly. “They will try.”

Siobhan didn’t stay much longer, because she quickly realized that she had gained what she could and any more would just be useless repetition. After confirming when they would make an attempt on the University’s three entries from Myrddin’s journals and reminding him to hurry with her access to the restricted archives, she returned to her previous form within the darkness of the trees, then sneaked back into the dorms.

For about half an hour, Sebastien stared out at the night sky, where sparse clouds blocked a few of the stars but felt close enough that she might have climbed to them.

Sebastien was not tired, but she was still afraid.

She rummaged in her satchel and the chest at the bottom of her bed, compiling a handful of components. She considered exactly what she hoped to do, and then began to bear down with her Will, though she channeled no energy and cast no spell.

Then, under the light of the stars and a vial of moonlight sizzle, Siobhan cut a finger-width strip from a piece of soft mermaid leather she had saved from in-class spell practice. The giant magical cephalopods were great at disguise, and with enough time, the cord would begin to visually blend into wherever she wore it, even without any added enchantments.

She used the rest of the leather to protect her hands as she massaged the strip with ghost pepper oil, allowing its burning heat to sink in. Beeswax made from honey gathered from magical flowers that were aligned with mundane light carefully sealed the leather surface. Then, she used her silver athame to cut a few notches in the leather on one side, and narrowed a section of the other side, allowing her to weave the two together.

Finally, she fit the leather band inside the Circle of her two joined hands and raised it to her mouth. “Life’s breath, shadow mine. In darkness we were born. In darkness do we feast. Devour, and arise,” she whispered slowly. She repeated this three times, and when she had an iron grip on her own shadow, she lowered her hands and separated them from around the leather Circle.

The spell held without appreciable strain, and a wild grin split her face. This was what hundreds upon hundreds of hours of practice brought you. Control.

And from now on, she would practice constantly. Sebastien slipped the leather over her foot and tightened the cord until it fit snugly as a slightly-chilly anklet. From now on, she would maintain her shadow-familiar spell at all times, using just a small part of her Will. Several uses had already confirmed that it was seemingly safe to cast the spell, and this felt like a much safer alternative than trying to avoid danger by never casting it again. If she was in constant, total control of her shadow, nothing else could be. With the barest trickle of power through the spell, her ankle wouldn’t grow too cold, and her shadow would remain visibly normal.

The need for sleep would be her only weakness. And as time went on, her mastery over her shadow would only grow. If she ever needed to fight for it again, she would win.

She spent the remainder of the night meditating over her shadow’s vague perception and, when that grew tiring, twisting it into increasingly complex shapes.

In the morning, she ate every morsel provided at breakfast, then supplemented more from her personal stores of dried meat, fruit, and crackers. Not sleeping meant that she needed more food than ever, since she dearly wanted to avoid another attempt at intervention from Professor Lacer.

She was somewhat distracted during classes, both by her shadow-familiar spell and her plans, but she did her best not to let it show.

Damien was distracted enough, and tired enough, that he dozed off during class, and luckily drew most of their friends’ concerned attention to himself. Professor Lacer ended up sending him to the infirmary for a dose of sleep potion rather than allowing him to practice during class time, despite the young man’s fervent protests.

After school, Sebastien went down into Gilbratha and put together another civilian disguise, which she used to visit Liza.

Perhaps because of the sleep-proxy spell’s effects, the woman was in one of the least grumpy moods Siobhan had ever seen her in. She didn’t even scowl when she saw who had knocked on her door. Siobhan grimaced and then proceeded to ruin Liza’s cheer.

After she was done explaining the situation with the Red Guard, and how she hoped Liza would help her prepare for the meeting, Liza stared at her, blank-faced and eyes slightly unfocused. “How do you get yourself into such trouble? Have you been cursed?” she muttered.

“Will you help?” Siobhan asked.

Liza scowled, grinding her teeth for a dozen seconds before she spoke. “I can place wards at the location and lease you a bevy of protective artifacts, but I will not be present for your meeting or in any way act personally.”

“That is enough,” Siobhan hurried to assure her.

They spent the next hour discussing everything while Liza brought out some breadsticks slathered in garlic butter. They narrowed down the best location that the other side would reasonably agree to—a magical hedge maze in the Lilies that the Red Guard could secure from civilians, and which would give Siobhan a reasonable chance of escape if something went wrong. Siobhan would be renting a ridiculous amount of warded jewelry, as well as purchasing an enchanted set of clothing-cum-armor from one of Liza’s acquaintances. Liza had never been in the Red Guard, but had worked with them a few times during the latter part of her stint in the army, and had several ideas for wards that might help counteract any nefarious schemes or help Siobhan to escape if necessary.

Before Liza could bring up the issue of payment, Siobhan said, “I have access to notes on several methods Myrddin used to create self-charging artifacts. I can make a copy for you.”

Liza froze and then agreed without haggling. “But you must pay me before your meeting. In case you never come back from it.”

Siobhan was almost as disturbed by the lack of haggling as she was by that ominous statement. ‘Is it possible that I just agreed to grossly overpay Liza?’ She had expected the fee to be well over one thousand gold, and unlike some of Myrddin’s other feats, self-charging artifacts were not completely lost. She crossed her arms and added, “In exchange, I also want you to help me develop and then apply a new version of the sleep-proxy spell. One that doesn’t rely on a single raven or have any single point of failure.”

When Siobhan explained her plan, Liza tried to argue that Myrddin’s notes weren’t worth that much, but when Siobhan offered to pay her in gold or beast cores instead, the woman’s protests died a sudden and mysterious death.

“Do you have any other advice for me about how to handle the meeting?” Siobhan asked, as she had done with Professor Lacer.

“The Red Guard is full of sanctimonious, hypocritical, covetous pricks,” Liza said, waving a breadstick around violently. “Don’t let them think they can control you.”

Siobhan’s eyebrows rose at the identical advice.

“They have a history of conciliation and pacification when they have no better option,” Liza explained. “So you need to make them believe they have no other, better, option. But you won’t be able to lie to them. They love their truth compulsions and unbreakable vows. If things look to be going wrong, better to escape, even if you have to fight your way out, than to get trapped in an unacceptable vow. If you can find anyone willing to risk themselves for you, take backup.”

Siobhan nibbled on her lower lip, nodding slowly. “One last thing. Can I get the contact info for your shaman? I have some questions I would like to ask about his craft.” Getting access to the library’s restricted archives would be invaluable, but for someone as ignorant as her, they were also likely to be difficult to navigate and beyond her understanding. Even better would be a knowledgeable, working shaman. Though she would wait to meet him until after her assessment from the Red Guard. If Liza was right, she wouldn’t be able to lie to them, after all, and they took offense to certain uses of shamanry.

 

Edit 6/13: My assistant is looking for some good content for social media, and he posted a thread on the Alcove asking for reader feedback. If you have ideas about your favorite chapter, best funny or awesome moments, good one-liners, etc, please help him out (and by extension, me) by sharing your thoughts. Also it’s fun to read other people’s favorite moments. Go here: https://alcove.azaleaellis.com/t/post-your-favorite-quotes-scenes/375/5

Original Author Note: This week is probably the last chance to come up with a cool name for the Raven Queen’s followers (led by Deidre Johnson, self-named follower and acolyte.) Feel free to add your opinions over on The Alcove or just have fun reading some of the great ideas others have offered.

In other news… ugh.

#WritingIsHard

#LifeIsHard?

#DontworryaboutmeImjustwhining

Is that how you use hashtags, guys? :P

Edit 4/30: My writing computer, an iMac, has been a trooper for many years with zero problems, but in the last few days has very suddenly slowed down to the point it takes minutes to load a web page. It will not even open Scrivener–which I need access to for all my lore and plotting notes. I am taking it into the repair shop directly after posting this message, but if they cannot fix it I’ll need to buy a replacement. I’m almost certain to miss this week’s Thursday chapter. It’s just one thing after another this month, huh?