Chapter 184 – Ritual Under Moonlight

Sebastien

Month 4, Day 11, Sunday 1:00 p.m.

Sebastien hurried across the University grounds toward the Menagerie, grimacing as she checked the time on her pocket watch. A good number of students returning for the spring term were wandering the pathways, but they moved aside easily enough to let her pass.

After returning from the Retreat, she had taken a nap at Liza’s, calling on the woman to help cast her dreamless sleep spell once more. Somehow, she had slept for four hours straight.

Now, she was rushing to hit a fast-approaching deadline. The new moon—also known as the dark moon—would hit the highest spot in its travel for the day in almost exactly forty minutes. Somewhat bizarrely, it was only five minutes ahead of when the sun would reach its highest point. The moon would be completely invisible, but all her references and calculations assured her this was the correct time.

If Sebastien missed it, she would have to wait an entire month to start the ritual to create an invisible beacon, which already took almost seven weeks to complete. Normally, she would have chosen to let her Will rest more, but the ritual’s minimum thaum requirements were child’s play. It required clarity and focus, not a vast capacity. Her head still ached somewhat, but surely it wouldn’t be much worse than the technique she’d used to calm the Archaeologist, as the man called himself.

And since the ritual process would have to be repeated seven times, if she wanted to push power into it just to be safe, she would have other chances to do so.

In addition to the fact that she could actually cast it, what had interested Sebastien most about this esoteric spell and induced her to memorize its requirements was that the beacon could not be traced back to her. If successful, it would leave her in complete control without generating dangerous loopholes. ‘It must not work off of the principles of sympathetic magic,’ Sebastien mused.

As she continued deeper into the Menagerie—though not past the wards of the secondary gates that protected students from the dangers that lay deeper into the semi-wild artificial forest—the surrounding students noticeably thinned out.

Luckily, there was no one lingering around the clearing that she had taken to practicing light-refinement in. She hadn’t planned far enough ahead for this ritual to have found a suitable replacement location. As Sebastien began to draw the huge Circle she would need into the ground with a sturdy stick, she suddenly realized that for once, what she was doing wasn’t illegal. Even if someone noticed her, the most that would come of it would be gossip.

Sebastien chuckled. ‘Wow. What a strange life I lead, that I automatically assume my projects outside of schoolwork will get me sent to jail.’ She added a heptagram within the Circle, making sure the lines of the seven-pointed star were as straight and even as possible. She accompanied each movement with a deep hum that reminded her of the light-refinement spell. Then, she placed components in each of the seven outer spaces the star had created. A handful of unsprouted seeds, tossed carelessly. Seven polished shards of silver, in which her reflection could be seen. A vial of shade dust, left corked so that its contents could not float away on the breeze. A strip of soft leather tied into a knot, over and over again until it could be tied no more. Seven eyes of a mantis shrimp—which could have been substituted with the eye of a prognos if she were willing to do something so heinous, according to the Comprehensive Compendium of Components. An adder stone, the hole through its center worn naturally by time and fate. And finally, a blue-grey gauze created from the silk of the portal-weaver spider and woven into the shape of a circle one thread at a time. That had been the most expensive component of them all.

It would have been nice to know exactly the purpose of each component, the better to focus her Will, but the text she had memorized hadn’t been that thorough.

Sebastien fumbled in her satchel for a piece of paper and her second vial of free-writing potion. She didn’t need it to last very long, so she only swallowed a third of the vial while reviewing the requirements of the chant she needed to create.

“The Self, the Other, the Fate, and the Summons,” she muttered as parts of her mind relaxed liked unclenching fingers while others stirred to life. The chant’s structure was defined and a few key words and phrases in specific places were required, but beyond that her options were open.

Her hand on the paper moved almost without her conscious control, and though she was vaguely aware of the words spilling out from the tip of her fountain pen, she couldn’t have told someone what they were if asked.

Sebastien finished writing before the potion wore off, but continued her preparation so as not to waste any time. She pulled a large stone bowl from her satchel, filled it with distilled water, and then sprinkled in a handful of chunky white salt, her hand moving in the shape of a heptagram once more.

Into a small mortar, she measured a dollop of honey, and then sprinkled three different spices. Each movement was accompanied by a deep hum that reminded her of the light-refinement spell. As she ground up the mixture with a pestle, it took on the vibrant, shocking red of fresh blood.

Then, she used her athame to carefully cut out the shape of her chosen beacon symbol from a sheet of glue paper. She wet the paper and pressed the outline to the skin of her chest, below her collarbone but above her heart. This left only the exact shape of the symbol open to the air, so that she couldn’t accidentally mis-draw it and ruin everything.

By that time, the free-writing potion was beginning to wear off, and only a few minutes remained until the moon had risen to its highest point over the horizon. She picked up the sheet of paper with the scrawled chant to review it, hoping to memorize it in time.

A frown creased the skin between her eyebrows and deepened as she read. It wasn’t as blatantly embarrassing as her previous attempts, but in other ways, it was much worse. It was…disturbing.

She read over each section of the chant again, then roughly rubbed her arms, where the hair had risen with a chill. ‘Do I want to use this? Is it… Where did these words come from?’ She couldn’t help but think of the thing locked behind the seal in her mind.

Sebastien lowered the paper and looked up at the sky, her eyes watering as she stared past the sun. ‘Whatever truth it may or may not contain, it’s not as if pretending it doesn’t exist will change anything. That’s what I’ve been doing for years, and look where it’s gotten me. Certainly, I am not yet destroyed, but that is not the path to salvation. I don’t want to be afraid of everything.

And so she gritted her teeth, checked her pocket watch once more, and placed the mortar of red paste atop her head, balancing it carefully. Then, she held the stone bowl of salt water in her hands and moved to the northernmost point of the heptagram. She took a deep breath and dipped the fingers of the hand that held her Conduit in the water, then began to walk the arc of the Circle. With each measured step, she sprinkled water along her path.

She cleared her throat and began with the part of the chant labeled, “the Self.”

“I am a changeling like the seasons,

A daughter of shadow and light,

Of Charybdis mists and raven’s flight,

And always I seek after mysteries.”

Her head throbbed slightly as the water grew cooler, but neither her voice nor her Will faltered. She reached the northernmost point of the heptagram again, and then began to walk the shape, speaking the chant of “the Other.”

“Shadows of the past become shades of the present.

Old scars peel open like doors.

And a hungry sky watches

As I sing the dead to life.”

Sebastien shuddered and almost decided not to continue. Surely, a one-month delay was tolerable, and she could come up with something less creepy to say about herself? But instead, she continued with “the Fate.”

“As I decorate this cake with thorns,

I shall drink the sea to quench my thirst.

The taste of nothing on my tongue

Will be a knife as sharp as its wielder.”

Then, she moved to the space in the middle, dipped her finger into the saltwater once more, and painted over the symbol on her chest, making sure to fill in all the space and every edge of the glued-on template to make it as perfect as possible. Finally, she lifted her free hand to the mortar on her head, dipped her forefinger into its contents, and spoke “the Summons,” while painting careful lines across her face. This was the only part of the chant that was pre-defined.

“Mark me, scarred and tattered witness of days,

One who weaves the thread that still is woven.”

She painted the red honey and spice mixture from her hairline straight down over her eyelid, and then repeated the process on the other side. Finally, she drew a line from the center of her bottom lip down her chin, all the way to the hollow at the base of her throat.

“Heed me, one who howls unheard.

I command you. Grant me eyes that see.”

Sebastien tensed, some part of her expecting something to happen. But nothing changed, for good or ill. Then, she repeated the process from beginning to end six more times, burning the self-created symbol into her mind a bit deeper every time. And then it was over.

Still, nothing happened, and Sebastien felt somewhat silly for her earlier trepidation. The parameters of the spell were pretty clear. It wasn’t like the chant could make itself true just by saying it. If it was accurate and specific enough—though filled with metaphor and flowery word choice—once she had completed this process six more times at specific lunar phases, she would gain a very specific ability. If it wasn’t, the ritual would fail.

The more comforting option was that her subconscious had just noted the final section of the chant and matched the first three sections with words that were suitably dramatic and tonally congruent.

Still, she couldn’t help but wonder from what part of her subconscious mind the words had come. She thought back to the other thing she had written under the effects of the free-writing potion. Could that, too, have been a little truer than she thought, the words not just random ominous lines patched together to sow confusion, but pulled from some coherent part of her subconscious?

Sebastien briefly considered what might happen if she took another swig of the free-writing potion and then asked the thing behind her grandfather’s seal a question. She shook her head rapidly as a shudder rolled down her body. “No, no. I will not be doing that,” she muttered to herself.

Her mood was dark as she scrubbed her face clean and packed everything up. The symbol lingered in her mind like a spot of darkness in her vision after staring at a bright light. But it faded away from her consciousness as she scuffed out the Circle and symbol, then made her way back to the dorms. At least half the students had arrived already and were busy unpacking and catching up on gossip.

Several were reading newspapers. Sebastien considered trying to find one that had been discarded, or even asking to borrow one so that she could read whatever they were saying, but couldn’t bring herself to do so. ‘No. Don’t run away,’ she thought, and immediately spun on her heel to ask a man if she could borrow his paper when he was done with it. She was good at not thinking about things. But she didn’t want to pretend Parker’s death hadn’t happened. Her Will-strain wasn’t so bad that traumatic thoughts were a threat to her wellbeing.

The man agreed with a bright smile and thrust it on her before he even finished reading, as if it were her doing him a favor, rather than the other way around.

It was a sensationalist gossip rag and held almost nothing of substance. The Raven Queen was frightening and evil, and had been trying to do some city-wide blood ritual with all of the ravens. An anonymous “expert” calculated that some kind of geas might have been placed on anyone who watched the spectacle too long.

She had also declared war on the Thirteen Crown Families and threatened to eat them. Whether this was hyperbole or literal threat, the writer felt that the latter was most likely. After all, ravens were carrion eaters!

And it was a confirmed fact from an anonymous source in the coppers that the Raven Queen could explode her body into a flock of ravens as a way to travel quickly and avoid notice. Each raven could become a version of her, so that if necessary she could act in a dozen places at once.

This was how she had attacked the Edictum Council and the University at the same time!

The Pendragon Corps had been holding some of her thralls—or maybe some spies from Osham—and she had attacked and freed them. Or held them hostage. Who knew? The more theories, the better, even if they were contradictory!

During the ensuing battle, the Pendragon Corps conjured a miniature sun to fight her—or maybe an angel from the Plane of Radiance, depending on the “eyewitness” account. And in turn, the Raven Queen had called upon the very darkness itself, as she was known to do, and created an eclipse. She then cursed the Charybdis Gulf kraken into a frenzy until it sank the boat of her enemies, after which she and the others rode away atop its back as it waved one tentacle mockingly.

The High Crown had declared that he was taking measures to ensure the safety of the city and its people, and so the Raven Queen would probably be caught or killed soon. Or she would kill and eat the High Crown and take his place, starting a new regime of bird worship.

It didn’t mention Parker or his death. Sebastien took a deep breath and lowered the asinine paper. She would make sure that his family was taken care of. She had the gold to make it so, now. And it would not do to be known as an oath breaker.

Sebastien shoved the newspaper in a trash bin on her way back to the dorms, where she drew aside the curtain in front of her own cubicle to find someone waiting for her within. She recognized Damien, but the shock had hit her first, so she still jumped and gasped.

Damien stood from where he had perched atop the trunk at the foot of her narrow bed. He looked her up and down, narrow-eyed and thorough, missing nothing. “Where were you?” he asked, clenching and unclenching his fists at his side.

“…In the Menagerie?” she said, an ominous hunch urging her to lift her chin and straighten her shoulders as defense.

“No, that’s— Why didn’t you come to Westbay Manor? Didn’t you get my letter?”

Sebastien nodded slowly, curling her fingers around the leather strap of her satchel. “I did get it. But I wasn’t in any danger.” ‘Not at that point, anyway,’ she added silently. Aloud, she continued, “And I had things I needed to get done before the term started. It was bad timing.”

Damien stared at her for a few long seconds, and then stepped forward, so that they were only a few inches apart.

Sebastien resisted the urge to retreat.

“Is it confidential? Do we need to go somewhere private to talk?” Damien murmured, staring into her shoulder. “Did she do something to you?”

Sebastien gritted her teeth together. She had realized, obviously, that she would need to have a complicated conversation with Damien, because he was incapable of suppressing his curiosity. Also, now that all of the bracelets that had connected him to her were useless and also possibly recognizable to the High Crown’s operatives and the coppers, she would have to come up with some excuse to make him get rid of them.

But she hadn’t yet worked through this conversation in her mind. There was simply too much going on, too many things that required her attention, and she was less capable of juggling it all than normal. “We should go elsewhere,” she murmured back, hoping that in the time it took them to travel to a “safe” location she could come up with a strategy for the conversation.

Damien’s eyes traveled around, looking not at reality but at the images in his mind’s eye. “The study room?” he finally suggested. “We can close the door and maybe cobble together a basic sound-muffling spell?”

Sebastien agreed, her mind spinning as they walked. She was paying so little attention to their surroundings that a flush-faced firstie with her head bowed almost rammed into her.

Damien grabbed Sebastien’s forearm and tugged him out of the way just in time. He waved the girl away impatiently as she tried to apologize, and as they walked on again, he very pointedly ran his grip from Sebastien’s elbow down to the wrist.

Normally, Sebastien wore an assortment of simple bracelets on that forearm, hidden under her clothes, but the Pendragon Corps had ripped them all away.

In the study room they used in the mornings, a group of students sat around the main table, playing some sort of game using tiny flags, miniature tokens on a board, and dice. “This is our room,” Damien announced loudly. “Get out,” he said, pointing imperiously toward the door.

One of the women puffed up in anger and opened her mouth to argue, but a man leaned over and murmured in her ear, “That’s Damien Westbay and Sebastien Siverling.”

She deflated. The game players packed up and left, a few of them throwing dark looks at Damien and Sebastien.

The two of them checked the room for eavesdroppers or listening devices with what Sebastien might normally have thought was an abnormal level of paranoia. She resolved to learn a sound-muffling spell like the one Professor Lacer often free-cast.

When they were sure it was safe, Damien rounded on Sebastien. “Your bracelets are all gone,” he announced.

“Yes,” Sebastien admitted. Despite the delay, she still hadn’t come up with a good way to reveal what she needed without giving away her real secrets. She could try to deny Damien any extra information, but his curiosity was almost as powerful as hers. He wouldn’t be able to let it go, and even if not now, that could mean disaster for her down the road.

“I can deduce a few possible reasons,” Damien continued boldly. “Perhaps you took them all off to go undercover, or something. Or, you were doing something dangerous and almost got caught, and you had to hide them somewhere in case they might be traced back to me and whoever else is on the other end. Or one of our allies betrayed us, but you don’t know who, and you got rid of any connections that could be used against us as a precaution. Or…you got into a really bad situation and you broke them all, desperate for help. But if that was the case, I should have been alerted. And I wasn’t.”

As Sebastien listened to Damien so proudly spout these rather outlandish hypothesis, she had an epiphany. She didn’t need to find a way to explain things, or to lie convincingly. Given even the slightest input and asked to deduce something, Damien could deceive himself without any extra help.

If Sebastien could give him carefully curated hints, Damien could make deductions that he would believe, and she could either let those deductions stand or modify them with a bit of guidance. She wouldn’t even need to lie. She cleared her throat. “First, I need you to know that I truly had no intention to get involved with anything that happened yesterday. But the choice was taken out of my hands. What do you know about what happened? I’m sure you must have heard some of it.”

Damien took a deep breath. “I think I know basically what the newspapers know, though I learned it a bit earlier. I was at the Edictum Council building when everything started. I’m sure you have a better understanding of the details than me, actually. The higher-ups probably filled you in on whatever they know,” he said bitterly.

He crossed his arms over his chest, jutting out his jaw. “On the other hand, I had no idea what was happening! I was forced to team up with Oliver Dryden in a desperate attempt to find out what was going on and if anything had happened to you.”

Sebastien inhaled sharply and choked on her own saliva. She coughed, mentally reeling. Sebastien knew it would seem suspicious if she acted too interested. “You teamed up with Oliver Dryden?” she repeated with an attempt at nonchalance. “How did it go? Was he…an asset?”

Damien’s glower grew darker. “Well, he isn’t very likable, is he? Also, I have to say that he seems to be missing a basic understanding of how to work for a secret organization. Perhaps he needs some sort of training? Not everyone is a natural at clandestine operations. But at least he cares,” Damien added grudgingly. “He didn’t just sit around all googly-eyed like a lot of the other nobles. He tried to do something. And he has some of his own contacts, which might make him a valuable asset.”

“His own contacts?” Sebastien echoed leadingly.

“Yes, some people who were sending him messages and such. And he had no trouble getting invited to the Rouse Family’s afterparty, despite being a foreign lord. Wait.” Damien eyed her strangely. “Don’t tell me that his membership to our organization got denied?” He sounded half-scandalized, half-delighted, though she wasn’t sure where this deduction had come from. “I only teamed up with him because you’d mentioned previously that he was trying to join—a provisional member, just like me. But I did think it was suspicious that the man supposedly left his star emblem at home. I flashed mine at him, and he just stared blankly at me for a moment like a complete boob. Did his emblem get confiscated when he was rejected? And since I obviously didn’t know that, he decided to take advantage of the situation?”

Damien was speaking, of course, about the light-crystal coasters that Sebastien had modified to take the shape of a thirteen-pointed star. She realized suddenly that her own was destroyed when she set off the disintegration mine in her previous satchel and exploded her enemies. She made a mental note to recreate one for herself, just in case.

Right now, Damien and Oliver held the only two in existence. And though she hadn’t considered it when Oliver originally helped her come up with the plan to redirect Damien’s suspicions, was it possible that Oliver had planned this, too? With the coaster, he had an immediate way to gain the trust of the person who was second in line to rule the Westbay Family, and thus, the coppers. Such suspicions would have seemed far-fetched to Sebastien at one point, but now she couldn’t rule them out.

Damien’s eager expression brought her back to the topic at hand. “I’m not totally sure. Hopefully I’ll know soon.” Sebastien said. “And…I’m not saying he’s an enemy. But you shouldn’t blindly trust him. He might have his own agenda.”

Damien grew somber and nodded gravely. “Can you tell me more, or is it confidential?”

Sebastien shook her head, her silence enough of an answer.

“Okay. But there’s another important matter at hand. I want to lodge a formal complaint with the higher-ups.”

Sebastien blinked.

“We have a severe problem with communication! I was totally in the dark and unable to help on Friday. And before you argue that I’m not a full member yet, I don’t think it makes sense to turn down help wherever you can get it. I may be a provisional member, but I’m still a member. I still took the oath. Even if I couldn’t have been informed about the details of what was going on, at the very least we need some method to get emergency missions on the fly. Did you know that Oliver Dryden has a distagram?” Damien threw up his arms in frustration and turned to pace back and forth in front of her. “Why don’t we all have distagrams, or some kind of secret communication artifacts like what the Red Guard uses? I mean, what if something were to happen to you? I would have literally no way of knowing how to get in contact with the higher-ups to ask for help.”

Damien stopped and pivoted on the spot with narrow eyes. “Do we need gold? Is that it? Because I am totally prepared to bribe my way into full membership with a large ‘donation.’ I can tell Titus I spent it on something foolish, or donated the gold to charity, or something. You should suggest that to the higher-ups. Well, don’t say it exactly like that. Word it more tactfully, of course.”

Sebastien opened her mouth and then closed it again without saying anything.

“In the end, one of the coppers noticed me and dragged me back home to Westbay Manor, just as Lord Dryden got a message that seemed important. I had to wait two hours, alone with only the servants and my own horrid imagination, for Dryden’s runner to arrive. And the message only said, ‘Sebastien reported alive. No access to him. No other news.’”

Sebastien winced.

“I snapped one of the bracelets you gave me at around the same time that the Raven Queen supposedly broke those elite enemy spies out of of the secret prison where they were being held and then escaped on a stolen ship. But I didn’t get a response from you until yesterday afternoon, and then it was some vague platitudes not to worry. I know you couldn’t write anything sensitive in case the message was intercepted, but…” Damien shook his head helplessly, a hint of desperation pulling at the corners of his lips. “What happened, Sebastien?”

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Chapter 183 – The Archaeologist

Siobhan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How many of these have you sold?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man stilled, then slowly turned to face her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Call me Amelia,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Siobhan very carefully didn’t meet her gaze.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Archaeologist,” she snapped.

His gaze jerked back toward her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Archaeologist narrated the prologue of Book 1.

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

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

Chapter 182 – Harbinger

Thaddeus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Speak,” the High Crown ordered wearily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Titus was somewhat awkward on the ride back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s a concussion,” she said.

“Not Will-strain?” Thaddeus asked.

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

“Of course not,” he replied immediately.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her sincere concern slipped through in an accusing tone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sebastien relaxed subtly. “Oh.”

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

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

“And before that?”

Sebastien’s hesitation was answer enough.

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

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

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

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

“I will handle it,” Thaddeus promised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You know who I am.

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

What do you want with me, Thaddeus Lacer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Chapter 181 – Revenant

Thaddeus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Parker slumped, muttering rapidly under his breath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or, the Raven Queen was simply that compelling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other claims, however, had no obvious explanation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also, if you’re interested in getting a free ARC copy of the Catastrophe Collector tomorrow, you can sign up here. Reviews help me a lot, but it also means you can read for free and bit early for less effort than my (wonderful, lovely, and just plain likable Typo Hunters).

 

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Chapter 180 – Cicatrize

Siobhan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trying to get out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there was no one to answer her.

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

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

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

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

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

Before she learned that power could keep her safe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No. You did well.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter 179 – Pyrrhic Failures

Thaddeus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Titus did not flinch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beside him, Titus had reared back in horror.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No one suggested that had been the incorrect response.

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

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

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

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

Chapter 178 – Death Wish

Gera

Month 4, Day 9, Friday 11:30 p.m.

As Gera and Katerin left the Raven Queen’s room, Gera eyed the red-haired woman dubiously. To be so disrespectful to the Raven Queen, Katerin must have a death wish. But, to Gera’s surprise, the woman had only been mildly rebuked.

Perhaps she had done a favor for the Raven Queen at some point without receiving anything in return. Katerin might be using up a little of the credited goodwill that would have bought her with every moment of disrespect. Gera couldn’t think of any other reasonable explanation.

If Katerin was not careful, she would spend over the limit of the Raven Queen’s patience without realizing it. Gera could imagine the sudden and malicious retribution that would follow. The hair on her arms rose, and she pushed the thoughts away.

“I know you did not ask for my advice, but I will give it anyway, and freely. You should be more cautious. It is dangerous to be disrespectful to someone so powerful,” Gera said.

Katerin snorted, still reckless from her fear and anger. “So powerful? She is still a young sorcerer. What can she do to me? I doubt she’s going to try to hire an assassination in revenge for a few words.”

Gera blinked, a leftover habit from when she needed her eye to see and closing it could clear her vision. She opened her mouth and then closed it again as the confusion swirled and her understanding of the other woman rearranged. In a low, hesitant voice, she asked, “Surely you are aware that the Raven Queen is more than just a young thaumaturge? You have been involved in several of her endeavors, if only adjacently. Have you not received any reports on her abilities? Her body may seem youthful, but do not take the face of a thing as the reality of it.”

Katerin sighed, patting her breast pocket and pulling out a pipe. As they walked back to their children, she took the time to silently pack the bowl with etherwood leaves and light it. Only after she had taken a puff and blown it out again did she speak. “Being a prognos, I had imagined you would be more insightful. The rumors circling around about her are exaggerated.”

Gera suppressed her immediate outrage at the doubt of her abilities. She had dealt with that kind of thing repeatedly since she lost her vision, and though she had grown used to it, she had not grown content. She, too, kept her silence for a while, until they reached the room where those who the Raven Queen had saved waited.

She checked that her son was fine, first, and was pleased to see him sleepily blinking, but awake and unharmed. The healer nodded to her from where he was crouched over the leg of one of the young Verdant Stag enforcers, which had obviously sustained a grievous wound.

Gera’s brother by choice smiled at her, wrinkles creasing the corner of his eyes. “Miles is well. Merely exhausted.”

Gera picked Millennium up from his chair, ignoring the strain on her back muscles, and sat down with him in her lap. Only then did she speak. “Katerin, while you may know the Raven Queen’s personality better than I, please do not make the mistake of thinking I judge her abilities only from rumors. I discern from what I have sensed and experienced. The Raven Queen is no ordinary, mundane sorceress.”

Katerin, who had moved to stand beside Theo’s chair and was carding her fingers through his copper curls, sighed. She pressed her lips together as if considering how to respond. “She is clever, intelligent, and innovative. She cares more for others, even strangers, than she lets on. I would also guess that she is fairly powerful for her age, and will one day be even more so. But these ideas that she is some vengeful and mischievous being with powers that others cannot understand?” Katerin shook her head. “She cannot hear prayers, accept offerings, or travel through the shadows. She is a human, and a sorcerer, and constrained to results that can be achieved with knowledge and accumulated power.”

Several of the others were drawn to their conversation. A woman missing half her hair and sporting a wide stretch of mostly healed burn scars opened her eyes. She stood up from the corner where she had been sitting. Her skin glistened with the burn salve spread over her wounds, but she did not move as if in pain. She sneered, lifting her jaw and raising her unburned eyebrow. “An over-reliance on skepticism isn’t rationality when the evidence of things outside of your prior experience is right in front of your face.”

Katerin gaped, dumbfounded by the disdain dripping from the woman’s words.

Gera nodded to the burned woman. “I am Gera, of the Lynwood family.”

The woman nodded back. “Deidre Johnson, follower of the Raven Queen,” she said, before turning back to Katerin. “It may seem so amazing as to be unbelievable, but I have collected the evidence of her deeds, taken directly from those who have witnessed them. I’m thinking of collecting them all into a book to be copied. Perhaps you have never seen the Raven Queen in action? I, too, was somewhat skeptical deep in my heart. I played at believing, but until I was in her presence, I did not truly believe. But tonight, what I experienced…” Deidre shook her head.

A man sitting on the floor with his forehead on his knees finished her sentence. “It can never be denied.” He wore a strange mix of nice boots and tattered, rough clothing, and Gera did not recognize him.

“When they took us, they put us into some void spell, our minds plucked from our bodies and tossed into the emptiness between life and death. It cannot have had any other purpose than to drive us insane,” Deidre added.

Lynwood cursed, narrowing his eyes with hatred, and Katerin’s fingers tightened hard enough in Theo’s hair to make the boy wince and bat at her hand.

“It was entirely silent,” Miles murmured wearily. “I couldn’t even hear my own thoughts properly.”

Gera rubbed his back in small circles. “You’re safe now,” she said, kissing his forehead.

Deidre nodded gravely. “Yes. The High Crown is an evil man, to order something like that done to anyone, but especially to children. But do not worry. I have noticed no lingering effects, perhaps due to the protection of the Raven Queen. She is obviously fond of both children.”

The healer had been listening with interest at first, but now with growing unease. “I…don’t think I should be here for this,” he muttered. “I will be in my office. Have one of the workers call me if you need anything.”

As he left, two men entered with a huge, decrepit dog limping along beside them.

The man with the strangely nice shoes and tattered clothes lunged forward, everything about his demeanor changing as he hugged the dog’s neck, pressing his face into its short fur.

The creature was missing an eye and a leg, and its thin skin sagged in places and pulled tight in others, without any fat to mellow the appearance of stringy muscle and knobby bone beneath. It was either very sickly, very old, or both. The dog gave a low woof, its tail wagging lethargically.

“It’ll all be worth it, if you can live for a long time,” the man muttered into its fur, almost beyond the range of Gera’s hearing. “If I don’t lose you, too.” He pulled back, looking into the dog’s watery, clouded eyes. “Sorry for waking you in the middle of the night, Bear,” he said in conversational tones, running his hands over the creature’s saggy neck and over its bony side. “I think we’re going to have to move. But don’t worry, I’ll find you a place with a good spot by the window, where the sun comes through in the morning.”

He looked up at the men who had escorted his dog, frowning. “Did you not get his favorite toy? I specifically mentioned it. A stuffed brown bear?”

The men shared a look, then one took out a ratty brown plush toy from the back of his waistband.

“How old is that dog?” Theo asked.

The man smiled sadly. “Twenty-two.”

Katerin did a double take. “How?”

“An extremely delicate regimen of specialized potions. The same ones all those old Crown Family members take to keep one foot out of the grave. But the Raven Queen promised me she could heal him. His wounds were past the point they could be healed with most magic by the time I could afford to do so, and now he’s got too much planar magic in him to handle the influx of anything that could regrow a long-forgotten limb.”

His fingers ghosted over the stump of Bear’s missing foreleg, his smile tight with anxiety. “She can fix that with her secret blood magic. It is the boon she promised for my aid. For Bear to be healthy and live ‘an absurdly long time.’ That’s how she said it, I think.”

“That dog has already lived an absurdly long time,” Katerin said, pointing rudely. “Do you expect her to work miracles?”

The man glared at her.

Deidre cleared her throat. “If she promised it, she can do it. But to continue with my testimony…” She looked around, ensuring everyone’s attention was back on her. “While trapped in the space between, I panicked horribly. It seemed my very soul would unravel.” Deidre stared at the far wall with a haunted look in her eyes as she recalled the ordeal. “But then I prayed to the Raven Queen. I…did not actually believe that she would come. But I had to do something, and it was the only hope I could grasp onto. And she did come.”

Katerin narrowed her eyes. “I was under the impression that she was taken along with the rest of you? So really, she would have been there whether you prayed or not?”

The man with the dog and the maid Martha both shook their heads simultaneously.

The man spoke first. “I checked the identities of those we took.”

Gera stiffened, giving him another perusal. Was this man one of Lord Pendragon’s lauded elite? But the others seemed comfortable around him, which surely could not have been the case if he was one of their assaulters.

He continued, “If the Raven Queen was already among the captives, then the rumors that she can shape-shift are accurate. However, I suspect that it is more likely that rather than shapeshifting, she somehow possessed the body of one of the women—Silvia Nakai.”

Millennium made a small sound of confusion, tilting his head to the side.

Katerin pressed her lips together, as if she wanted to speak but was holding herself back.

Martha shook her head again. “No, it must be shapeshifting. Millennium led us to a woman who could supposedly help, and she did look similar. But at most she could have been the aunt of the woman we saw later. But Jackal recognized her, and Millennium did, too. They were the same person, right?” Martha looked to the two for confirmation.

Jackal nodded. “I saw her when we were helping out the Verdant Stag with that stuff at Knave Knoll. She looked different then, too. Lightning-blue eyes.”

Gera hummed. “She is getting better at looking entirely human, it seems. I cannot see color and light as most can, but I am told she forgot to add the appearance of an iris around her pupil the first time we met, and that her hair shimmered with colors hidden in the black like an oiled raven’s feather.”

Katerin had dropped her head into her hands and was rubbing her temples. “I need to sit down,” she muttered, then dragged one of the few free chairs over to sit beside Theo. “There are both items and magic that can change one’s appearance. It need not be some special shapeshifting skill. And…” she looked to the Pendragon operative. “Identities can be forged.”

But Gera could see that Katerin was being slightly untruthful, hiding something. “You may lie to others,” she said, “and even yourself. But you will find it harder to do so to me.”

Martha, who had been nodding to herself as if Katerin had offered a reasonable explanation, looked between Gera and Katerin in surprise.

Katerin gave Gera a dirty look, but remained silent.

The Pendragon operative spoke again. “I am not a good man, and I do not pretend that I am. But the spell we placed you under should not have had any long-term deleterious effects if the exposure was limited to less than a day. It was only meant to keep you from escaping or calling for help. Those tunnels were being retrofitted, but they were never meant to be used for anything more than an extra escape route for the Pendragon Family. So far from the palace, they don’t have the same kind of embedded wards that the official Corps facilities do.”

Lynwood snarled, the sound rumbling up from deep in his chest.

“It’s true,” the other man insisted. “The spell was developed to keep enemy spies from killing themselves when captured. I have experienced it myself, and it is far from the worst the Pendragon Corps has to offer. But I did not consider the danger it might have presented to a child’s undeveloped mind. Even I would have refused to torture children or animals.” He looked up, meeting the gazes of the others who had been taken. “I am sorry,” he added simply.

“Why keep us there at all?” asked Martha. “Surely there was some better place? Harrow—well, no, not Harrow Hill.” Martha frowned at the floor, pinching her chin. “She already broke into and out of Harrow Hill twice. But surely the Pendragon Corps must have some secret jail?”

Deidre’s eyes glinted. “Surely. But not quite as secret as the High Crown must have wanted, right?” she asked the Pendragon operative. “Not when he can’t trust the University…and maybe not the Red Guard, either?”

The man gave her a nod and a half-shrug. “Perhaps. All I know for sure is that the High Crown had a cell created to specifically to counteract her abilities. He spared no expense. Even I thought it would be inescapable. And if the Raven Queen had attacked in any more conventional way, from the outside, the wards may have stood, and our men would have been in position to deal with her. But she got inside somehow, without even triggering the alarms, and we hadn’t done much of any preparation for a scenario like that. And then, once the Radiant cell proved useless… I made the only choice I could.”

Deidre’s smile was lopsided, avoiding the side of her face with burns.

Gera considered how she might repay her own debt through the secondhand fulfillment of the Raven Queen’s promises. The High Crown would be after these people, and especially the traitor. It might be easiest to send the man far away, but if he was willing, Gera would prefer to keep him.

Her anger at the High Crown had diminished not at all with Millennium’s safety. Every moment that passed with the knowledge of what the leader of their country had done, her wrath bubbled up hotter inside her.

Like a volcano, it would not be contained forever. And keeping this former Pendragon Corps operative around would undeniably have its benefits, if he was willing to continue working on the Raven Queen’s behalf. Or even on Gera’s behalf, for payment in coin.

Deidre leaned over and placed a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Atonement will be made with your actions, Anders. And as it is not given for free, you will know that you deserve it, and that it cannot be taken away from you.”

Anders grimaced. “Well, that’s a hassle. But back to the topic of the Raven Queen’s arrival, I am more inclined to believe your theory, Deidre. Everyone under the effects of our spell was totally incapacitated. Parker and I were on guard anyway, because we’re professionals. It had been hours with no sign of anything strange. And then, suddenly, the shadows started moving on their own. But not like normal shadows. Total blackness. It seemed like they were exploring around the room, and then they found what they were looking for and fell onto one of the women. And then she started moving. I ran to get help, but Parker stayed behind. He saw the whole thing.”

Jackal had taken out a small dagger and begun to play with it. “It was very strange, the way she moved. Especially in the beginning. Like a puppet on strings. And when she coughed up darkness… What did you all make of that?”

“Imperfect possession,” the young man in the corner with the leg injury said, piping up for the first time. He nodded to Gera and the others, introducing himself as Enforcer Turner. “That’s what I think, anyway. And maybe it wasn’t the first time, if the woman knew to pray for it. So she’s an acolyte of the Raven Queen or whatever. She’s got a special connection. Things go wrong for her, and she calls for help. Maybe she promises some kind of payment, maybe not. The Raven Queen hears her, and maybe she hears Deidre too, and sends… I don’t know.”

He waved a hand vaguely, shrugged, and continued. “Is the darkness the Raven Queen herself? A piece of her? Some strange creature of shadow that can channel her presence? Maybe it’s even a spell. Whatever it is, it allows the Raven Queen to use some of her abilities and partially control the body of the woman,” he concluded confidently.

Enforcer Turner hesitated, then rubbed his chapped lips together and asked, “Did you guys notice that a couple times, the darkness split twice?” When no one responded, he said, “There was the physical, flesh-and-blood woman, cloaked in darkness. And the warrior shadow creature with that giant beak.” He mimed a pulling motion in front of his nose, drawing the approximate shape of the creature’s single facial feature with a grimace. “But a couple times, there was another woman, made entirely of darkness. I think that was the actual Raven Queen, manifesting separately to make sure her shadow servant was handling the danger to her acolyte properly, or something.”

Enforcer Turner looked around, and seeing that everyone was listening intently, continued with more enthusiasm. “So after coming in with the darkness to find her acolyte, the Raven Queen is trying to get everyone out, and then the guards come and attack her with fireballs and that Radiant bomb. And the light is too strong, or the connection through the shadows is too weak, and it disrupts things for a moment. They take the woman away, and I don’t know what happened then, but obviously the Raven Queen came back, tried again, and got her out. And when she did, Anders and that poor Parker guy were suddenly on her side.”

Anders nodded. “We took her to the cell. It was extremely well-warded room imbued with Radiance in every inch, from the floor to the ceiling. It took a while for the living darkness to regain its strength, but light is not the debilitating weakness we believed it would be.”

“A shadow is always darkest against the light,” Deidre said, as if reciting something, though Gera suspected the woman just liked to make up phrases that sounded meaningful.

“Yes. The flesh of her body was contained, but her power…” Anders shuddered. “Her power was not contained. I—I am not ashamed to say that seeing it spill through the doorway and stand up again was one of the most horrifying moments of my life. It does not have a body like us. I am not sure that there is even the suggestion of flesh under its cloak. But you can feel it. It is cold. But not just cold. It was hungry. Empty. It touched me—to threaten me, and I could sense its wrongness.”

Anders rocked forward and back, his arms around his knees, then relaxed as Bear hobbled forward to lick his face and lean against him. “It’s normal to lose heat when you touch something cold, but this felt different. I can’t explain it.”

He clutched the dog to his side, petting Bear absentmindedly as the creature drooled on his pants. “So she said that if we didn’t help, she would have to make us enemies, and then she would get out anyways, after plucking the necessary knowledge from our minds, and, I guess, utilizing our dead bodies to work the lock. And she offered to help Bear. And something for that idiot Parker, too. So we made a pact and let her out. And she was definitely moving like a puppet on strings for a while there.”

Turner nodded eagerly. “Yes! So the Raven Queen gets the woman’s body out, and then we all go on the attack. She’s not content to let the High Crown keep any of our stuff, like, at all. And maybe she is a little weak to Radiance, but the body she’s using is hurt. Maybe from the fighting, or maybe just from whatever she has to do to keep control of it. So she takes one of those healing potions anyway, because she cares about her believers. In a whole, ‘I protect what’s mine,’ kind of way, right?”

“Most certainly,” Deidre agreed.

“Yes! So she took the potion anyway. And then, when we were escaping and the reinforcements came after us, did you see how she fought? I saw her slap a fireball aside into the wall. And the shadow warrior, or living darkness, whatever you call it, it definitely has some connection to nightmares. I’m thinking it pulls on a person’s greatest fear. The way it moved—did anyone see it crawling on the ceiling?”

Martha raised her hand solemnly, as did one of the few who had yet to speak, a Verdant Stag enforcer. “I saw it.”

Verdant Stag enforcer added, “Whatever it is, it holds to none of the laws of a mortal being. I speak not just of gravity but…also the laws of space? I don’t pretend to be some master of natural science, but the way that thing moved, still for one moment and then, in the space of a blink, somewhere else. It shouldn’t be possible.”

Turner lifted a finger. “Let me also point out the darkness fabric, always moving in some wind no one else can feel? Did you notice how it waves rhythmically, on a kind of repeated pattern, and sometimes with that cold fog wafting off it?”

The Verdant Stag enforcer tried to crack his knuckles, pressing too hard but not seeming to feel the pain, “I’m pretty sure some of the shadow warrior’s joints bent backward when it was…you know. Crawling inside that man. Which also, just—” He heaved with sudden nausea, holding a hand to his throat. Then he looked to Katerin. “I’m sorry, but if you think the Raven Queen is anything like a run-of-the-mill sorcerer, either she really did descend on that woman tonight and you’ve only ever met her acolyte, or you don’t know her at all.”

Deidre smiled again, looking down her nose at Katerin.

Katerin was less dismissive than she had been, but more disturbed. “I know Siobhan. She would have come to me, to us, if there was some being possessing her,” she said, but Gera could hear the note of underlying uncertainty in her voice.

Millennium frowned. No doubt, he could hear even deeper.

Martha clenched her fists around the fabric at her knees. “We all saw her cough out darkness,” she said in a small voice.

“It was pretty obvious,” Enforcer Tuner agreed.

Jackal looked at Katerin’s pinched expression with sympathy. “Maybe the Raven Queen finds it amusing that some people mistake her for a normal woman,” he suggested. “She’s got a wicked sense of humor, according to the stories. And I mean that literally.”

Enforcer Turner grinned, pale-faced. “Oh, yeah. Did all of you hear the things she was saying to me while she was working her blood magic on my leg? I could hear the smile in her voice. That’s part of why I was thinking maybe she feeds on fear.”

“And she agreed that she could use that darkness just the same for m—someone loyal, if they were willing to bear the side-effects,” Deidre said.

“I bet it hurts a lot,” Enforcer Turner said, shaking his head quickly. “No, thank you.”

Millennium shook his head. “You guys are making her seem weird and scary, but she’s not—well, actually… She is really scary.”

He looked to Theo for confirmation, and the other boy nodded solemnly. “Really scary,” he echoed.

“But she’s not weird,” Miles continued. “She’s nice, and she knows a lot of strange and amazing things, and she can help you if you have nightmares or visions or need help with your sleep.”

“She does know a lot of really awesome stories,” Theo agreed. “But the first time I met her, she was pretending to be a totally normal homeless person. And she can totally shapeshift. Like, big-time.” Fingers splayed, he spread his hands wide for dramatic emphasis, and then jumped as Katerin secretly pinched him on the side. He scowled at her. “What? It’s not like they didn’t already guess.” He turned back to them. “You better not tell anyone. She would probably be upset. But if you ask her real nice-like, she’ll play with you with magic. That’s how I met Empress Regal.”

Katerin raised one eyebrow. “Empress Regal, your imaginary raven friend?”

“Empress Regal is not imaginary!” Theo protested. “She just won’t come when you’re around. And maybe it’s because you refuse to give her any gold, which I told you she wants.”

Deidre seemed quite interested in this, but her attention was drawn back to Millennium as he ignored Theo and continue speaking. “But she’s basically normal. The Raven Queen is just another one of her names. I don’t think she’s possessed or anything, even if she does have a strange echoey sound to her whispers.”

“What is this about her whispers, darling?” Gera asked.

“Well, she sounds different from most people. It’s… well, I don’t know how to explain it. Like if she were in a crowd of people, she’d be the only one walking around with a bubble of water around her. Or, like, she sounds just a little behind and ahead at the same time?” He squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed at his ears, though just as with Gera’s eyes, plugging his ears would not stop him from hearing.

“Shh,” she whispered. “I was only curious, you need not stress yourself.”

Deidre raised both eyebrows, and then winced when the motion tugged on her burns. “We know that she likes children. She would want them to be comfortable around her. And I think we all heard the boy say how he doesn’t dream anymore,” she added pointedly, then looked at Gera. “That is thanks to the Raven Queen?”

“Indeed. I do not know what Millennium told you, but I will not reveal the details. Suffice it to say, she saved his life,” Gera said. “All others had failed. It was not a matter of gold, nor influence, nor of those we called upon lacking experience or skill. She did what others could not.”

“Sleep is one of her domains of power,” Deidre agreed.

Katerin had grown pale, and the muscles around her eyes were tight. Most likely, she was now replaying all the times she had offended the Raven Queen in her mind, and remembering all the clues she had missed and times she had been deceived.

Jackal raised his hand to draw their attention. “What I want to know is, how do the rules work? The woman either was the Raven Queen from the beginning—”

Turner interrupted him excitedly. “Oh, if she really is, maybe, like, she only has limited power and most of the time, it’s sleeping? Maybe it takes time to recover. But then when it’s important, or someone makes her really angry, that part wakes up? The dark part,” he added gleefully, rubbing his palms together.

Jackal continued, speaking a little louder to express his irritation at the interruption. “That woman either was the Raven Queen from the beginning,” he repeated, “or she prayed to her. And presumably, if she did need to pray to her, she made some kind of agreement at that time. We all know that the Raven Queen requires payment for any boon she gives or favor she does, preferably in advance. Anders here made a very explicit pact with her, and fulfilled his side of the bargain already. But what about the rest of us?”

“I will pay for my son,” Gera said immediately.

“And I,” Lynwood added. They shared a wordless glance of understanding, and he squeezed her elbow with warm fingers.

Jackal nodded at them both. “Of course, and the Raven Queen is probably fine with that. She likes children, like Deidre said. But you can’t pay for all of us, and would she even let you, if you could? Is there any precedent for what to do in this situation?”

Hesitantly, Gera brought up Mrs. Dotts, who had been in a somewhat similar predicament to this one. “Mrs. Dotts told me that the Raven Queen said she doesn’t take offerings, only tributes,” Gera remembered. “But sometimes she will accept favors paid later.”

Lynwood crossed his leanly muscled arms, glowering. “It is good to ask these questions. These are the kind of conditions that can lead to…ironic conclusions.” Surely most of them in this room could think of more than a few childhood tales of beings that traded in favors, and the unfortunate endings of those stories.

Deidre nodded. “I’ve heard that. If you pray to her with a request and she doesn’t take your offering, she’s either not listening or she didn’t agree. But sometimes, a raven will come and accept the tribute on her behalf. And when that happens, you know that your problem will be solved. Of course, if your tribute wasn’t substantial enough…maybe you will remain in her debt. I’ve also heard that you can collect goodwill and make her more likely to notice you by feeding the ravens. One man nursed a raven with a broken limb back to health, and the week after he released it back into the wild, he had a dream of the bird. He woke up to find that his shop had been selected for a huge contract that would earn enough money to send all three of his children to school.”

Martha worried at her bottom lip. “So can we pay her back with favors she didn’t specifically ask for? I really don’t like the idea of being on the hook for anything, at any time, indefinitely.”

“I have been thinking about that,” Gera said. “When I spoke with the Raven Queen privately earlier, she mentioned that we may plan our own revenge on the High Crown, but that we should not expect her to be a part of it, because she needed to rest. However, we know her to be vengeful and, frankly, vindictive.”

Several of the others nodded gravely.

“So unless she somehow already obtained her revenge, she will be carrying it out later. Once she has rested. Perhaps, rather than attempt revenge of our own, we can simply be ready to lend our own efforts to hers when the time comes. This could be dangerous. If you feel that you would prefer to pay her back in a different way, perhaps you could do so proactively. She once did the same for me, choosing to pay me back for a small favor I had done her in a way that I did not request or expect.”

Author Note 9/21: I mentioned a few months back in the Inner Circle newsletter that I hoped to hire an assistant to help manage some of my gigantic workload.

I’m ready to do that now. I’m looking for 1-2 people to join my team part time. If you’re interested, or you know someone who might be interested, there is more info here:

https://www.azaleaellis.com/join-azaleas-team-at-seladore-publishing/

(And wouldn’t it be great if getting some help allowed me to write even a little bit quicker?)

Chapter 177 – An Act of War

Siobhan

Month 4, Day 9, Friday 11:00 p.m.

Gera seemed able to sense behind herself with whatever magic allowed the woman to function so effortlessly without her eye. She turned her head slightly towards Katerin’s astonished face, and then back to Siobhan. “Is it safe to speak freely with her here?” she asked.

Siobhan nodded. Katerin had not been involved any of Siobhan’s plans for Operation Palimpsest, but there was no need for secrecy anymore. The woman might speak to Oliver, but she wouldn’t reveal any of Siobhan’s secrets to the coppers or the Thirteen Crowns.

“What is going on?” Katerin asked, her throaty, biting accent thickening as her eyes narrowed.

Gera nodded to Siobhan but ignored Katerin’s question. “I completed the task assigned to me to the best of my ability,” she reported. “All seemed to go smoothly, but when I returned, Millennium was missing, along with several of the guards. One of the servants told me that they had run from enemies some hours before, while I was gone preparing. Everyone with legs to move and eyes to see was out looking for him, but with little luck. I feared the worst. I broke the bracelet that you gave me, but there was no response. Even my greatest efforts at divination could not find my son, nor any of those that disappeared with him. I spent hours futilely attempting to track his path.”

The woman’s voice wavered and she paused to take a deep breath and loose it again.

Siobhan pulled the broken pieces of her own bracelets from her pockets, now having the presence of mind to count them and make sure none were missing. “We were deep beneath walls of stone. The magic on these trinkets was weak. No doubt, it failed to pass the barrier and petered out uselessly.”

Katerin’s eyes widened, and she pulled up her sleeve to reveal her own small handful of spelled bracelets.

“Any that are connected to me will be useless now,” Siobhan said, standing up with some effort and using the knobs on the side of the fancy fireplace to automatically light the hardwood logs within. She tossed her bracelets into the flame, watching as they burned up. The magic was gone, but this was easier than casting the shedding-disintegration spell on the pieces.

Liza snorted derisively. “So amateurish,” she muttered. Louder, she added, “I can make you something much better. For the right price.”

Gera stood, tearing the other bracelets from her own arm and throwing them into the fire beside Siobhan’s. “I called Mistress Liza in to assist my attempts, but when I learned that it was the Pendragon Corps who had taken my son…” She trailed off, closing her sightless eye and shaking her head. “But you have returned him safely. I owe you a great debt.”

Katerin was still giving Gera strange looks, but she, too, bowed to Siobhan. “You have my thanks as well. I was out managing one of our ventures, and heard about what had happened from one of the enforcers who were injured while trying to protect my so—my nephew. The man was knocked unconscious early and did not get taken with the others. I am going to knock some sense into that boy, I swear it. I…” She shuddered. “I was so terrified. Why was he taken? How did you save him? And does it have anything to do with the Raven Queen’s supposed multiple appearances today? I have been getting the most ludicrous reports, and everyone saw the ravens.”

Gera smiled proudly.

“Was that you?” Katerin demanded. She turned her bloodthirsty gaze from Gera to Siobhan. “Did you plan this? Put Theo in danger intentionally, just so that you could be seen to save him?”

Gera’s eye widened perceptibly, and she took a slow step back from Siobhan, placing her back against the wall beside the fireplace. Looking at Katerin, she gave small, surreptitious shakes of her head, as if trying to tell the other woman to shut up, but Katerin ignored her.

Siobhan raised her hand to cut of Katerin’s impending tirade. “I did not place Theo, Miles, or any of those who attempted to protect them in danger. That was the High Crown. My ability to save them was a combination of great luck and terrible misfortune. I am too exhausted to retell the events in detail, but suffice it to say that I had something planned to take advantage of the proceedings. The High Crown had his own plan in place. He wanted to capture both children, perhaps to get yourself and Gera to turn on me. But I was in the right place at the right time, he badly misunderstood my capabilities, and his plan backfired. Also, Miles is very capable, and Theo very brave.”

“Kidnapping our children may also have been a way to pressure us to asking another boon of you,” Gera added, relaxing cautiously and stepping away from the wall. “And then, to trap you if you attempted to save them. You are known to be fond of children,” she said to Siobhan.

Siobhan was too tired to ask what other things about her were supposedly “known.” “That may be so. In any case, I was forced to promise two boons to ensure our escape. I would appreciate assistance fulfilling them. I would also appreciate your help keeping the families of those I brought out tonight safe. One man did not make it. He has a daughter.”

Gera agreed immediately. “My power and resources will be turned to your purpose, as repayment. Nothing can compare to the worth of my son’s life.”

Katerin was less enthusiastic. “I might be able to help, depending on what you promised. Even though association with you is what endangered Theo in the first place,” she added sourly. “What were you thinking, doing things like this in secret, behind our backs?”

Gera drew in a sharp breath and paled noticeably, staring straight ahead with her sightless eye, as if hoping by extreme stillness she could disappear.

“Rude and thankless,” Liza muttered from where she was drawing repeated glyphs along the walls.

Katerin’s pale, slender neck flushed a few dozen shades lighter than her crimson hair, but she didn’t look away from Siobhan.

The muscle under Siobhan’s right eye was twitching. She’d run through so much adrenaline that day that she didn’t have any left to grow truly angry, but she was equally out of patience. “I think you will find,” she said in a slow, hard voice, “if you think about it a little harder, that association with”—she remembered at the last minute not to reveal Oliver’s name—“Lord Stag is what endangered Theo. In fact, the same might be said for myself.”

Katerin’s face flashed through a series of emotions that Siobhan couldn’t read. Finally, the woman pressed her thin lips together. “Perhaps you are right. But if not for him, Theo would likely have died as a babe. Lord Stag’s actions are not without consequence, but they are decisions made for the greater good. And right now, he is out there desperately trying to gather information on what’s happened to you and Theo. You don’t know how worried he was—we both were,” she corrected.

Siobhan wasn’t sure if Katerin had caught the hints of Siobhan’s suspicion and distrust, but if so, the woman didn’t show it.

Siobhan sighed, then explained the terms of the agreements she had made with Parker and Anders. “In any case, the High Crown’s plan failed, but we should not expect that the man will simply give up. He does not seem one to compromise, nor to accept defeat.”

With that, Katerin agreed easily. “Especially not after the spectacle of today. No matter his intentions, I, for one, cannot forgive this insult. Assaulting and kidnapping our children was an act of war.”

“Yes,” Gera said simply.

“Don’t be reckless,” Liza said. “Also, I will warn you now, I have no desire to be involved in any hare-brained attempts at vengeance.”

Gera bared her teeth. “But if Leandro Pendragon, cursed be his name, believes that he can simply get away with such things? That he is not only above the law, but above retribution?”

Siobhan stopped them before they could devolve into arguing and worsen her headache. “You may plan your revenge, but do not expect me to be a part of it. I must rest.” When they didn’t move, she waved her hand at them. “Go! Liza, stay,” she added.

Liza gave her an exasperated huff. “Yes, master. Bark, bark, master. Should I roll over, too?” she asked dryly.

Siobhan flushed.

At the door, Katerin looked back. “Thank you once again. Sincerely. Theo is the most important thing in my life. If there is a next time for something like this, come to me.” Then, they were gone, the door closed behind them.

“I need help removing my corset,” Siobhan told Liza. “Also, I believe I have broken a rib. And I definitely have Will-strain. I may have previously had a concussion, but the healing potions took care of that.”

With a deep, put-upon sigh, Liza rubbed her forehead. “All of this is not what I agreed to. I am going to bill you for the difference.” But when she had finished setting up the additional wards, she helped Siobhan with the ribbons and stays. As her corset was drawn away like the broken-open ribcage of some vivisected animal, Liza watched stoically while Siobhan whimpered in pain.

The leather contraption beneath the corset was much easier to remove, revealing the bloom of horrible bruises that looked weeks older than they should be. There were distinct depressions in her side where the stones of the holster had pressed most deeply into her flesh and bone.

Liza ran her fingers over Siobhan’s abdomen and spine, cataloguing Siobhan’s flinches and whimpers of pain. “I’m no healer, but this isn’t the first time I’ve seen a dislocated rib, girl. Lie down on your stomach,” she commanded. And then, with some steady pressure followed by a strange, sudden motion, she slammed Siobhan’s rib back into place.

The pain flared white-hot for a moment and then immediately died down.

“Closed reduction,” Liza explained simply. Siobhan didn’t know what that meant. “Your rib was probably fractured in addition to the dislocation, depending on how strong that healing potion you took was. But the bone is fine now. You just need to take it easy for a few weeks. No more healing potion for the time being. Trust me, you would greatly regret building up Radiant toxicity. Planar components are useful, but we mundane beings were never meant to be steeped in their energy.”

Siobhan thanked Liza weakly for her help, then moved to sit on the edge of the too-plush bed. If she were attacked in her sleep, she would struggle to wade her way off of it. She considered her next words, but was too tired to try for tact. “I need to get into the severe damage wing of the Retreat at Willowdale. I know you visit there. Can you get me past the security?”

Liza stilled, then turned to face Siobhan slowly and silently.

“I need to meet the only coherent survivor from the Black Wastes expedition,” Siobhan explained.

Liza’s voice came deep and slow. “Siobhan Naught. The parts of my life that I do not advertise are private. How dare you?” It was, perhaps, the first time that Siobhan had seen Liza truly angry. Usually, the woman grumbled and complained, but at most, deep down she was exasperated. Now, Liza’s Will was tangible in the air to whatever hindbrain sense could discern such things, her head tilted a few degrees too low as if to hide the baring of teeth.

Siobhan was very aware of not only the battle wand disguised as a decorative stick holding Liza’s bun in place, but also that pretty much every other piece of jewelry or clothing could be a battle artifact. ‘Perhaps it would have been better to approach this when I was not so tired and prone to mistakes,’ she acknowledged.

Hurriedly, Siobhan said, “I learned about your visits by coincidence! I had no intention of prying into your business. I have not been following you or anything like that, and I do not know what you do there.”

Liza was silent, still glaring, but at least she was listening.

“I understand the value of boundaries and privacy,” Siobhan continued. “I have not, and will not disrespect your privacy. If you take me, I won’t ask questions, and I will do what you tell me.”

Liza shook her head sharply.

“You can refuse,” Siobhan allowed, “but I will still need to find a way to speak to that man.”

“I do refuse,” Liza said. “You will do well to keep your promises regardless.”

The palpable pressure of Liza’s anger still hung in the air, but Siobhan was quite literally too exhausted to worry about it. If Liza wanted to kill her at this moment, there was almost nothing Siobhan could do to save herself. Siobhan flopped back onto the bed, trying to defuse the tension. “Alright. But before you go, can you help me with one last thing?”

Liza remained silent, but she didn’t leave. And as Siobhan explained the details of the dreamless sleep spell that she needed cast on her pillow, the clenched muscles in Liza’s jaw and around her eyes relaxed.

It was not hard to link together the clues and realize that Siobhan had a secret of her own.

Liza cast the spell, using Siobhan’s supplies and more power than Siobhan had ever been able to imbue it with. Before leaving, she paused at the doorway. “I will consider your request,” she said, still staring at the door. And then she was gone.

Siobhan snuggled into the thick blankets and laid her head down on the spelled pillow that smelt of her familiar tinctures, staring at the fire. For a moment, it reminded her of Grandfather, and then of her nightmare “clawing away on the inside,” as it had said.

She shuddered. Too exhausted for contemplation, she resolved to think of it later.

But Siobhan kept the crystal lamp on the bedside table turned on as she closed her eyes. The idea of being in complete darkness when the fire died down made her palms clammy and gave her the urge to look over her shoulders and under the bed for monsters.

Hey guys. I’m doing pretty good, if a little slower and more tired than normal. I hope you all are doing well, too. And as a reminder, be kind to yourselves. If you need some grace, give it to yourself.

In case you missed Monday’s chapter of The Catastrophe Collector:

The Typo Hunt for the PGTS spinoff book, The Catastrophe Collector Book 1: Larva has opened. We have several applications to join, but there are a few more spots if any of you are interested. As patrons, you’re getting first dibs here, as from past experience I know that interest in the limited number of Hunt spots is rabid.

Larva contains Chapter 1-31, so it’s an option to read quite a ways ahead of where we currently are.

If you’re interested, read through the info page, then submit your application. Info Page: https://www.azaleaellis.com/join-the-typo-hunting-team/

Chapter 176 – Out of the Night

Siobhan

Month 4, Day 9, Friday 9:00 p.m.

Siobhan was reaching the edge of her limits.

The vision in her right eye was fading, not with darkness but with an empty spot that she couldn’t tell was there until something disappeared into it. Whatever was wrong with her rib was becoming more debilitating, sending moments of sharp pain radiating through her back and upper abdomen that were followed by a deep, dull ache. Even her shadow-familiar was becoming difficult to maintain past the mental fatigue and an increased distractibility. Her thoughts attempted to wander off on the silliest tangents when they should be gripped tight around the magic.

She wanted to rest. But the Pendragon Corps operatives might still try to scry Anders, and she didn’t feel right leaving Theo or Miles to the care of these people who had already shown they couldn’t protect them.

Miles had stumbled with fatigue when they climbed out of the boat, too tired to even respond to Theo’s sneered comment about being a little baby. Whatever strange abilities he had, they were not without cost. The Nightmare Pack’s Enforcer Fring was carrying the boy now, his weight barely a hindrance to the large man.

Siobhan looked toward the sprawling southern edge of the Mires, small campfires dotting the rocky soil and illuminating the shacks and tents that housed people who couldn’t afford to live within the protection of Gilbratha’s walls, such as they were.

Not that this part of Lenore was very dangerous. Not with monsters, at least. The army had long since cleared this central area of magical land beasts, culling them down to the last. And water beasts wandering into the Charybdis Gulf from the ocean were unlikely to attack people on land. But that didn’t mean that people here were safe. The coppers didn’t come this far south, after all.

Siobhan jerked her mind away from the tangent, focusing for a couple seconds on the shadow-familiar spell to make sure it was steady, its tendrils spread widely enough to protect everyone against possible divination attempts.

The others made the job easier, automatically gathering around her as if she was a campfire on a cold, fearful night.

The safest place she could think of was Liza’s apartment—or rather, apartments—but she couldn’t take them there. The woman wouldn’t abide the danger that could bring to her home, and without showing them Liza’s secret attached apartments, the small main abode would have trouble fitting a group of this size.

The Verdant Stag had wards, too, and even more after the Knave Knoll incident, but judging from Miles’s story and Theo’s capture, it might not be safe there. ‘And,’ a small voice in the corner of her head said, ‘Oliver might be there.’ Obviously, she would need to see him, to speak to him again, some time soon. But for the moment, there was nothing she would love to avoid more.

She cleared her throat and said wearily, “We need to find a safe place. I fear the Verdant Stag and Lynwood Manor will be watched by the enemy. I know the location of several of the Verdant Stags’ safe houses, but we need somewhere more permanent, and ideally warded against scrying. I cannot keep this protection active for much longer. Unless any of you are secretly ward-masters?”

She shook her head before anyone had a chance to respond. No, of course they weren’t. That was silly. She smacked her tongue, realizing how thirsty she was, and dug in her satchel for the canteen of water within. It was almost empty, but if she held it for a while with the cap off, the little spell array she had carved into the bottom and charged—making the canteen a cheap artifact—would draw in moisture from the air to refill its stores.

Jackal and Enforcer Fring shared a look. Anders glanced around, then took a small step closer. “I agree. If we don’t have a place to hide, we’re gonna have to leave Gilbratha right quick. I’ve got a cousin in a little town east of Paneth. But that body seems to be failing you,” he added, looking pointedly at Siobhan. “Doesn’t seem like you’ll last the night.”

The praying woman sucked in a gasp of outrage, but Siobhan nodded, her neck feeling slightly too loose and her giant, throbbing brain slightly too heavy. “The Will is resolute, but the flesh is imperfect,” she said, quoting a half-remembered idiom.

Surprisingly, it was Martha who came up with an answer. “We can go to one of the our safe houses in old Morrow territory. There is one that connects to a hidden tunnel leading to one of Lord Morrow’s old underground fighting arenas. It’s ours now, too. And the place should have some wards. And extra fighting supplies, and people on our side, and even a healer on staff?” she added uncertainly as people stared at her.

“It’s… a good idea. But how do you know about that?” Enforcer Fring asked.

Martha harrumphed at him, crossing her arms. “I hear quite a lot, living in the Lynwood house, and especially being young Millennium’s maid.”

After a few moments of discussion, they agreed that this was their best option. It was early enough in the night, and beginning to grow warm enough, that people were still out and about. And Siobhan’s group was quite conspicuous. They had found a barrel of fresh water on the boat and used it to clean up a little, but they were still an eclectic congregation and obviously somewhat battered.

She tried to make her shadow-familiar cloak hang more like actual fabric, hugging closer to the fabric of her dress, which was much too conspicuously fluffy and pastel green to flaunt openly. The tendrils that were looped around the others thinned to the barest thread, almost invisible unless one was looking for it.

They came across some mostly-dry clothing hanging from a makeshift clothesline, and paid the scraggly man guarding the line for a couple of spare outfits. Anders was able to change out of the ostentatious Pendragon Corps uniform, and Martha got a light cloak to cover up her maid’s uniform.

Siobhan was out of luck, if she had ever had any to begin with, stuck in her dress. All she could do was hug the fabric with her shadow and activate her dowsing artifact in the hope that the low-level spillover from her divination-diverting ward’s automatic activation would be enough to keep eyes off of her.

They kept to the shadows of back alleys and streets where the light crystals had been stolen out of the lamp posts.

One of the men let out a gasp and raised his arm to wave at a small group of patrolling Nightmare Pack enforcers, but Gerard stopped them and pulled them back into the alley. “We don’t know if there’s a leak, or how loyal those men really are. And the larger our group, the more likely someone notices us and talks. There are already too many of us.”

This caused some anger among the Nightmare Pack members of their group, but they continued on alone, and soon enough made it to Martha’s safe house, which was empty, and much nicer on the inside than either of the Verdant Stag safe houses that Siobhan had been in.

From there, they descended from a tunnel that was revealed by lifting up the ornate bathtub, which was built quite ingeniously on a hinge with a spring to handle the weight.

The tunnel itself was carved from more of the ubiquitous white stone, but here beneath the surface, they stood in a couple of inches of brackish water. Little crabs scurried out of their way, and lichen and a thin brown film covered the damp walls.

Enforcer Gerard had to kill a truly enormous spider barring the way about halfway through the tunnel. It had some mild form of camouflage that might have been magical and was large enough to kill and eat the crabs, or anything smaller than the average cat. Siobhan could barely spare a thought for it beyond an exhausted wish that they could move faster.

When they arrived at the end of the tunnel, barred by a rusted iron door, they knocked loudly and waited an irritating amount of time for a response.

When it finally came, the door inching cautiously open with a horrible shriek of ungreased, rusted hinges, the group of battle-ready Nightmare Pack members on the other side were immediately and obviously relieved by the sight of Millennium in Enforcer Fring’s arms.

They questioned the man rapidly as the rest of the group squeezed through the half-open door, and another man in an ostentatious outfit—with actual velvet coattails—sent one of the others to run and inform Lord Lynwood.

The group fell silent when Siobhan stepped through, her clothing coated in shadow much more obvious in the light of the room. Her arm was beginning to ache from holding her hand up to her mouth for so long, so she switched arms, looking around.

After a long few seconds of complete silence, Fring took charge of the situation, listing what they needed, and when most of the people had rushed off to do his bidding, he explained the situation and events of the day with occasional interjections from the others.

The man in the ostentatious outfit was apparently the manager, and he directed them to a larger underground room, where people quickly returned with extra chairs, food and water, and the on-staff healer.

Siobhan waited for the arena’s employees to bring a set of portable anti-divination wards, which they set at the corners of the room and attach to the corners of the ceiling before speaking. “I require clothing.”

The employees froze, looking to the manager, who hesitated a moment but then murmured instructions to one of the women. She looked at Siobhan, and then back at the manager as if she wanted to argue.

“Quickly,” Siobhan added.

The woman left the room at a dead sprint.

Theo giggled and sent Siobhan an exaggerated wink and grin, despite his obvious fatigue. The healing potion he’d taken earlier had refreshed him, but he was still a young boy and it had been a very long day.

The woman returned less than a minute later with a slim-fitting red dress that was missing several sections of actual fabric around the legs and mid-section in favor of sheer lace.

Siobhan stared at it for a moment, trying to gauge if this would be any better than remaining in her current attire, but decided that no matter how ostentatious it was, it was better than remaining in the same outfit she’d been kidnapped in.

The employee bowed deeply to her, then offered to escort her to a private room where she could change. Siobhan took her up on the offer. Alone, she belatedly realized that she could drop her shadow-familiar now. Her mind felt strange without anything to grasp onto, like fist with stiff fingers that didn’t want to unbend. It felt strange, almost vulnerable, to be without her shadow, despite how useless it was as any kind of effective protection.

With the occasional whimper of pain and frustration, Siobhan struggled out of her clothing and into the new outfit. She considered taking off her corset to get a sense of the damage underneath, and maybe ease the pain that was being exacerbated by the black sapphire and a beast core pressing into her injured side, but decided to put it off. At the very least, the corset seemed to be holding her insides in place, and wasn’t that what compression bandages would do? ‘Who knows?’ she thought blearily, her head listing to once side before she snapped it upright again.

She returned to the hallway, which was empty, and shuffled back the way she’d come, only to meet Lord Lynwood, Gera, and Katerin charging in the other direction. Gera turned her head over her shoulder and snapped, “Hurry up!”

Liza was trailing behind the three, and the target of this order. One side of Liza’s upper lip twitched with irritation, and she returned a hard stare that Gera didn’t seem to notice at all, too focused on reaching her son.

The three of them recognized Siobhan at the same time, slowing so quickly they almost tripped over each other. Under Gera’s observation, the divination-diverting ward tingled to blood-sucking life.

Siobhan waved at the nearby door. “Miles and Theo are there. Safe,” she added.

The three of them hurried on, Lord Lynwood and Gera both pausing to make awkward, hasty bows to her before crashing through the doorway.

Liza, much less frantic, stopped beside Siobhan, her lips tightening as her gaze flicked over Siobhan’s own, then around her head and down to her faintly trembling fingertips. “This was not the plan, girl,” she said severely.

Siobhan smiled wryly. “No plan survives contact with the enemy,” she quoted. “But I survived. We survived. And as far as I’m aware, this time I didn’t make any disastrous mistakes. Did you…?”

Liza grimaced. “I succeeded, if a little more dramatically than I had hoped to do so.”

Siobhan was almost too fatigued to feel the relief she had been anticipating since coming up with the plan. She wanted to ask for details, but decided that such things could wait.

“They barely had a smear of blood on a shard of glass, but it is now destroyed, according to our contract. The Raven Queen has made triumphant appearances throughout the city today. Even more than planned, it seems. I hope you can handle the consequences of all this extra attention.”

Siobhan began to shrug, then stilled with a wince as the movement tugged on her ribs. “I don’t really plan to handle anything. I’ll just disappear. I would have done that from the beginning, if they let me.”

Liza pursed her lips. “We will see.”

“They added some portable wards to the room, but it could probably use something better if you can manage it on the fly. I might be safe from their divination now, but for one of them, that’s most definitely not the case.”

Liza sighed, following Siobhan into the room and pulling out supplies for drawing a spell array from one of her vest’s pockets.

A sudden wave of dizziness sent Siobhan stumbling, but she caught herself before she could fall.

The healer was tending to Miles, but half-stood, as if to go to Siobhan.

She waved him off. “I am fine. See to the boy.” She didn’t want to take off her corset yet, which he would need to deal with her ribs, and it wasn’t as if he could fix her Will-strain. She fumbled in her satchel for one of the two remaining healing potions, downing the entire thing in another burning, Radiant gulp.

She hissed, scouring light spilling from between her teeth as her side pulled and shifted with the scream of stretched muscles and grinding cartilage. Her right eye itched and watered, and a sudden violent cough sent a weak cloud of darkness puffing from between her lips.

She, and everyone else in the room, stared at it as it dissipated into the air. “That definitely should not happen,” she muttered. It seemed she still had some tweaks to do with the proprioception philtre of darkness. Which needed a name of it’s own. ‘Naught’s philtre of shadowed perception? No, too wordy.

She looked up to see that several of her rescued group members wore expressions of concern, and belatedly realized that perhaps coughing up darkness would be more concerning to someone who didn’t know the reason. “Do not worry, just a small side-effect. There should be no permanent damage to the flesh,” she said, pressing her hand to her chest, over her lungs. It didn’t even hurt to breathe.

Liza pressed one hand to her forehead and sighed.

Martha nodded slowly, jerkily. “Not to worry, not to worry,” she repeated under her breath, though Siobhan had no idea who she was trying to reassure.

The praying woman, whose name Siobhan still didn’t know, pushed aside Jackal, who was still staring at Siobhan in disgusted fascination. “Is this something you could do for someone else, my queen? Someone loyal and true, perhaps?”

Siobhan tried to parse the strange woman’s question, and then realized she was requesting access to the modified philtre of darkness. ‘Naught’s philtre of night and knowledge!’ some part of her brain suggested gleefully. “I could,” Siobhan agreed aloud, “but it might be slightly dangerous. It obviously needs some adjustments. It can be invaluable in an emergency, but it does not last very long, and it is quite difficult…” The dizziness returned, and she trailed off, grasping for the nearest chair, which the manager pushed toward her like an obsequious suitor.

“You need rest,” Liza said. “That healing potion cannot fix everything.”

“Oh, yes,” Siobhan agreed. “I am in desperate need of sleep. As always!” This thought was desperately, tragically hilarious, and before she knew it a high-pitched giggle that might have been edging on a crazed cackle burst from her throat.

She pressed a horrified hand to her mouth, shoving the embarrassing sound back down.

Lord Lynwood visibly shuddered.

Only Theo seemed to have any sympathy for her. He rose with great difficulty from the chair he had been curled up in while Katerin fussed over him, came to Siobhan’s side, and patted her hand.

He didn’t offer any words of consolation, but the gesture still caused Siobhan’s eyes to burn with sudden emotion. She closed them lest anyone see a hint of extra shininess.

The manager cleared his throat. “You would be welcome to one of our private rooms, humble as they may be,” he offered. “They are warded. Perhaps not to the mistresses’ standards, but safe enough, and all of us here would fight to defend the building from unwanted guests, if necessary. None will speak of your presence, on pain of death.” He looked to Lord Lynwood to confirm, but the man only nodded, his eyes on Miles.

Siobhan looked to Liza, who shrugged. Since the thought of trying to return to the University at this time seemed a little like a bad idea and a lot like torture, Siobhan agreed to the offer. She gestured to Liza, Gera, and then, after a moment, to Katerin as well. “Would you accompany me? I have some questions as well as some information to relay.”

“I will keep watch over Millennium,” Lord Lynwood assured Gera.

Katerin was reluctant to leave Theo, but when the boy offered to simply come along with too-bright eyes and a sudden surge of energy, she, too, agreed to leave the boy under the protection of Lord Lynwood and the various enforcers.

The room the manager offered was large, and gaudily opulent, with gold-foiled filigree making an appearance on the walls and almost every piece of furniture. This was contrasted against vast amounts of red velvet. In the center of the room, a frankly enormous four-poster bed with a velvet canopy was featured.

Siobhan didn’t have the presence of mind to hold back her grimace.

The manager noticed and bent at the waist immediately. “I apologize for the deficient standards of our establishment. I assure you, our hospitable spirit is not lacking. You are our honored guest, if there is anything you wish us to change, or anything—”

Siobhan waved her hand to silence him. “It’s fine.” She moved to the plush seat beside the bed and lowered herself carefully onto it.

When the manager had gone and the door was closed behind him, Gera move to stand a couple meters in front of Siobhan and sank to her knees. “I thank you, and owe you a great debt, Queen of Ravens,” she said, head bowed.

Katerin’s jaw dropped, and even Liza, who had been moving to draw extra temporary wards on the walls, watched with surprised amusement.

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Chapter 175 – Everywhere at Once

Thaddeus

Month 4, Day 9, Friday 5:00 p.m.

Thaddeus hurried back down to the carriage, where Investigator Kuchen was reading out a new message from the distagram.

“Update. Possible false lead on divination results. Previous signs pointed to the center of the raven swarm, but are now showing multiple results spread throughout the city. Preliminary divination suggests the ravens themselves are the target.”

Silence spread through the nearby coppers, which Titus broke with a slew of vicious cursing. He lifted his hands to his hair as if to pull on it, then forced them back to his sides. “Thaddeus,” he said, as if he were a man dying of thirst and Thaddeus had just walked by with a canteen in his hands. “What can you tell me?”

“The Raven Queen is mocking you—us,” Thaddeus corrected quickly. “We have made several failed attempts at divination, and now, she shows us that not only is she immune when she so wishes, but that even when we believe we have found her, it will come to nothing. We can make plans to capture her, but she can make plans, too, and hers will succeed where ours fail. And make us look foolish and ineffectual, at that.”

Thank you, I could have guessed that well enough,” Titus said between gritted teeth. “Do you have anything useful? Any clues? Was this a distraction for an attack on the Edictum Council, perhaps? Are the ravens some clever trick, or do we need to call in the Red Guard in force?”

Before Thaddeus could answer, the distagram activated once more. They all watched the pen scrawl hastily across the strip of paper.

Kuchen tore off the strip, cleared his throat loudly, and read, “A raven has delivered a letter to the Edictum Council. Attending Red Guard team successfully suppressed the ensuing panic. Several injuries, no deaths. Raven in custody, letter in containment wards. Ennis Naught remains in custody.”

Thaddeus and Titus shared a look, and then both hurried back to the carriage. Titus ordered several of the coppers to remain behind to secure the scene and investigate the source of the raven clouds. The rest would ride north, accompanying his carriage.

“She’s definitely an Aberrant,” Kuchen announced as they began to move.

“You have made that suggestion before,” Thaddeus snapped, “and we covered the evidence against it, just as the evidence against your other unfounded and frankly laughable theories. No matter the feat she just managed, that evidence still remains. Aberrants cannot cast spells. Like a magical beast, they propagate only their own inherent effect, simple or complex as it might be. Is your imagination truly so stunted, that you cannot comprehend how this could have been done?” he asked, gesturing vaguely to the sky. “Or, are you simply so ignorant that any innovative action must be ascribed to the mystical, inhuman abilities of an Aberrant?”

Kuchen shrank back in his seat.

Titus sighed wearily. “Thaddeus,” he admonished succinctly.

Taking courage from this, Kuchen thrust out his chin defiantly. “Where did she come from, then? Such a powerful thaumaturge takes time to develop. One with a personality such as hers surely couldn’t have gone entirely unnoticed. The Red Guard have assured us she’s not one of yours, and while they could be hiding the truth, all the other countries we have discreetly reached out to have denied any association. Is it impossible that she is an Aberrant, but one like the Red Sage or the Dawn Troupe, who require some low cunning to be effective?”

Kuchen leaned forward, lowering his voice, and continued. “I have heard the rumors of Aberrants that do not simply seem to be devious, their actions the rote artfulness of an ant hive or the routine instruction of a golem, but who are actually intelligent. In which case, their malice could be both deliberate and resourceful. Is it impossible that she is only pretending to be a thaumaturge?”

Thaddeus narrowed his eyes, wondering where, exactly, the man had heard such rumors.

Titus lifted his leg and rested the ankle atop his other knee. “Thaddeus would know best, but I haven’t heard of any Aberrant with quite so varied a repertoire as she displays. What would her concept be? ‘Dark miracles?’” He laughed humorlessly. “Or something that grew more powerful the more people thought about her?” He frowned, suddenly concerned.

Thaddeus opened his mouth to cut this fear mongering off before it could make the other two any more irrational. “Just because other countries have denied association means nothing. They could easily be lying, for a variety of reasons. If we want to come up with dubious conjecture, perhaps she was living in Myrddin’s hermitage, shielded from the effects of the Black Wastes by the man’s wards, which remained intact and active until recently. Or…perhaps she arrived from elsewhere. There has been another that emerged from the lands beyond, who had both astonishing power and control of bewildering feats. And, if I might add, my research into the topic suggests that Raaz Kalvidasan, Siobhan Naught’s adopted grandfather, may have had some connection to the Third Empire’s cohort.”

Titus’s grip tightened around his ankle. “You think she came from over the northern ice oceans? From beyond the Abyssal Sea?”

Thaddeus threw up his hands in exasperation. “I do not think that. I only mention it as a possible alternative to your investigator’s fear-mongering accusations. I have no opinion on the matter, as without more evidence, the only one who could give us answers at this point is the Raven Queen herself.”

They were distracted from the conversation by another distagram message. Apparently, witnesses reported seeing the Raven Queen atop a building near the Edictum Council shortly before the raven messenger arrived. If true, this would place her there while the raven clouds were dancing kilometers further south. The Raven Queen had, again, disappeared, and though some witnesses believed she had done so by bursting into a flock of ravens, reports were conflicting, and no flock of ravens had been seen near the Edictum Council.

Kuchen made no comment, but gave Thaddeus an acerbic glance, as if this was further evidence of the man’s pet theory.

Very shortly afterward, this news was followed up with a report that the Raven Queen was at the University. “She attacked the divination team at Eagle Tower,” Kuchen said with inappropriate excitement. He settled, coughing a few times into his handkerchief, and then asked Thaddeus, “How could she possibly have traveled so fast, if she cannot fly or travel through shadows?”

Titus actually did pull at the sides of his hair this time. “The High Crown will have my head,” he muttered, staring down at his shoes.

Kuchen’s head whipped toward him, and after a moment, the man spoke tentatively. “Do you mean that…literally?”

Titus sighed and leaned back, resting his head on the back cushion. “No. I haven’t committed treason or shown any disloyalty. But he may try to use this to weaken the Westbays’ position, touting my incompetence. And my father…will not like that,” he said simply, ominously.

When they arrived at the Edictum Council, which was on the way to the University, the distagram had scribbled out one final message. “The Raven Queen has escaped. None dead, several injured. Blood sample lost.”

Titus’s cheeks flushed with futile rage, and his foot tapped out a slow, even rhythm on the carriage floor.

As they jumped out of the carriage and strode toward the ostentatious building, one of the coppers stationed there stepped up and walked beside them. “No further disturbances since we sent the report,” the woman reported in rapid, clipped tones. “Ennis Naught remains in custody, though he made quite the racket about it. Tried to fight his way free with a pair of manacles and his bare hands, alternating screams for help and curses on his daughter’s name. He even managed to somehow get his hands on a civilian woman’s hair pin and unlock his manacles, but our security was too strong for him.”

“What of the letter?” Titus asked.

“And the raven?” Kuchen added.

“The letter is being examined for curses and nasty surprises, but so far it seems mundane. The raven is dead. Attempts to communicate with it led nowhere. We called in a shaman to try a dream-walking with the bird, but apparently there was a small explosive artifact embedded in its stomach.”

“Dream-walking? With a bird?” Thaddeus repeated incredulously.

The woman looked at him, shrugging with embarrassment. “Well, we figured, what if it wasn’t just a bird?”

Kuchen nodded in solidarity. “And why the explosive, if they weren’t worried that somehow, we would learn something from it?”

“Why the living bird at all, if she could have just delivered it from a raven made of shadows and nightmare?” Thaddeus asked sardonically.

The copper looked between the three of them with increased worry. “Wait, really? I thought her shadows could only curse you with nightmares and stuff. Not become tangible.”

Kuchen shook his head sadly. “Grandmaster Lacer is mocking us. He believes the Raven Queen to be a totally mundane sorceress.”

“Not totally mundane,” Thaddeus corrected, taking advantage of his long legs to walk faster and escape.

The letter had been removed from the middle of the Edictum Council’s central floor and placed in a smaller conference room. It sat on the center of a marble table, surrounded by experts doing various tests. Thaddeus stood to the side, looking over their heads and doing some tests of his own, at a distance. When they finally broke the black wax seal and removed the sheet of paper within, he took advantage of a simple spell to read the contents.

His lips twitched, his nostrils flared, and he read it again. As ever, the Raven Queen seemed determined to be as theatrical as possible. She must have laughed herself breathless, knowing the kind of furor this would cause.

Titus pushed the supposed experts aside, snatching the paper off of the table and reading aloud.

“On a cold wind blew strife.

The thief of fire,

Will be a light in the darkness,

A candle against the night,

And will laugh as she feasts.

Save your tears for yesterday.

As you dream of cracked roads,

And tend your garden of sticks.

For madness makes no plans,

And there is but one cure for the living.

A scream into the void echoes.

Black eyes see nothing,

But a fortune of dust,

Empty bellies and sharp teeth,

And payment in bone.”

A long silence followed his recitation, and then one of the cursebreakers muttered, “You shouldn’t have read it aloud. I’ve heard tale of subtle curses that require your participation. Do you feel any different?”

Titus looked up from the page, scowling at the man with the descending rage of a hurricane. Titus hurled the page at the cursebreaker, then turned and marched back the way he had come as the paper fluttered ineffectually through the air.

Thaddeus waited a moment as those who remained began to talk over each other. When he finally met Siobhan Naught—if that ever had been her name in truth—perhaps she would be interested to hear the effects of her schemes from one who had experienced it firsthand.

“What do you think it means?”

“Is the Raven Queen the thief of fire? A reference to the old Titanic myths, do you think? We may need to call in a lore master.”

“The first letters are all capitalized. Perhaps it’s an anagram. ‘Bestow…’ something.”

“Payment in bone? What does that mean?”

“She laughs as she feasts, empty belly, sharp teeth. Sounds like some sort of cannibalistic blood sorcery to me. That may be where she gets her power.”

“Dream of cracked roads. Is this all dream symbolism? Where’s the shaman?”

The air grew thick with the heat of their frantic inquiry, their questions tripping over each other. High pitched, a woman asked, “Could it be a prophecy?” The room quieted.

“Prophecies are a myth,” an old man snapped back quickly. “Not even an archmage prognos can accurately predict events past a few days.”

Thaddeus knew what the next words would be even before they were spoken. It would have irritated him, but obviously this kind of fatuous speculation was the point.

A blue-skinned man wearing the trinkets of a shaman cleared his throat and rebutted slowly, “The Red Sage makes prophecies.”

Silence fell for a while longer, and then the old man replied, “But those are all recorded. Unless the Red Guard has been keeping a secret?”

All eyes turned to Thaddeus.

He shook his head, and as always seemed to be his maddening responsibility, opened his mouth to be the voice of reason. “No. Let me remind you, a prediction, or even a promise, need not be a prophecy.” He turned to leave, then. If he lingered too long, Titus would leave without him.

When Thaddeus reached the carriage, Titus gave a rap and the horses sprang forward.

They sat in silence for a moment before Kuchen tentatively asked, “What do you think the letter meant?”

Titus stared out of the window unseeingly. “It means, ‘Despair, for you will never win. Spread my fame and cement the futility of your existence in the minds of all those who would bow to you. I name you enemy.’”

Kuchen blinked twice in bewilderment, then turned to Thaddeus beseechingly.

“Titus is right,” Thaddeus agreed, somewhat relieved that the man hadn’t succumbed to irrationality. “Yes, the Raven Queen has a tendency to weave clever hints into her actions and communication, but I think it most likely that her message here does not require over-deciphering.” Thaddeus, at least, had noticed none of the signs of the hidden codes he was familiar with.

“She has been quite explicit, after all. She has challenged us, insulted us, and predicted her own ferocious superiority against our futile end. She has also, I believe, made a statement about her ability to protect and shelter where we cannot, as a light in the darkness, and a candle against the night. One who has the resources to feast, while our fortune becomes dust.”

Titus closed his eyes for a long moment. “She has already been growing important in the rumors and superstitions of the commoners, gaining a foothold of interest and support among those who consider themselves misused and underprivileged with every appearance. But this…there is no coming back from today.”

“There’s still a chance to catch her,” Kuchen comforted, though Thaddeus wasn’t sure the man really believed it.

“She wasn’t even attempting to free her father,” Titus murmured.

“I agree,” Thaddeus said, inordinately pleased by this for some reason. Ennis Naught was a worthless, betraying plebeian. “In fact, she seemed more interested in the offense of attempting to divine her location than in the man,” he added. Though, with someone like her, there was no way to know how many layers deep her plan went, nor how many different goals she was able to accomplish at once.

“Maybe she will attack the prisoner convoy, or try to abscond with him from the labor camp,” Kuchen offered.

“We can only hope,” Titus said. His heel resumed tapping on the carriage floor in a steady, deliberate rhythm that reminded Thaddeus of Titus’s father. Of course, in Titus the tapping signified anxiety, whereas in Lord Tyron Westbay, it meant cold anger and thoughts of how he might take that anger out upon others.

The three of them fell to silence.

The sirens blaring over the University grounds were audible even from the base of the glass transportation tubes. When they reached the top, Titus winced and ordered someone to turn them off. “Everyone who needs to be protected will already be in one of the shelters. No need for the racket to keep reminding us, though I would predict that she’s long gone by now.”

Thaddeus found it amusing that they had felt the need to set off the sirens in the first place. The Raven Queen, as far as he knew, had never purposefully harmed a civilian—at least not those who did not act against her.

When Titus asked to talk to the people who had encountered the Raven Queen, they were directed to the infirmary. The rest of the faculty were all out searching the grounds, though more than a few of them seemed like they would rather do anything except actually find her.

Within the infirmary, the situation was worse.

A few men had obvious injuries—broken limbs, burns, and one with a foaming poultice over his eyes and a tremor in his fingers—but several others who were seemingly unharmed lay on infirmary beds with the glassy stare that indicated heavy doses of calming potions.

In the hallway and between the beds, several coppers, a couple professors, and two prognos loitered anxiously. The coppers stood at attention when Titus entered, and both professors gave Thaddeus smiles of relief. “Oh, thank Myrddin,” one man muttered, as if Thaddeus’s presence meant they would be safe now.

What a sorry excuse for a professor at the most prestigious University in the known lands.

Some of those in the beds tried to stand, but Titus waved them down. “Copper Alma, report,” he commanded.

A short woman stepped forward, gave a shallow bow, and said, “The Raven Queen came down from the roof and through the window. There were no signs of approach. She just suddenly appeared. We suspect she was there the whole time, for hours perhaps, just waiting for us to arrive and then to lower our guard. The ravens were a decoy, and a reason for us to bring the last of the blood out.”

“That’s impossible,” Kuchen interrupted. “Even if she somehow commanded the ravens from afar, who sent the bird to the Edictum Council, then? She must have flown. Were you keeping guard against birds, too? Or maybe she traveled through the shadows.”

“It’s not even night,” someone muttered.

Copper Alma shook her head. “We had the Radiant wards on around the tower to keep a barrier against encroaching shadow.”

“And we watched for ravens,” the man with the poultice over his eyes called. “Unless she literally appeared from nothing, she was hiding in wait all along.”

“We checked the wards,” the woman added. “No suspicious entries, though there is one professor who was noted as entering the building early this morning. We haven’t been able to find him.”

“So someone stole his faculty token,” Thaddeus deduced easily enough. “You should investigate his whereabouts. Are you entirely certain it was the Raven Queen herself who attacked you?”

“It was her,” one of the glassy-eyed coppers lying in bed interjected. “She wore a dark cloak, but I know it was her. Who else could swallow up the night and then vomit it out again?”

Titus raised an eyebrow.

Alma cleared her throat uncomfortably. “I apologize, sir. As she has been known to do, the Raven Queen used a philtre of darkness. We think. It was…unlike anything I’ve ever encountered. The counter-potions and spells we prepared were useless against it. Several of the men insist that the darkness was coming…from her.”

The man on the bed interjected again. “It was, it was! It was spilling from her face. But her face wasn’t a face like ours, it was just a single mouth, an open maw of darkness, and out of it rode Night, and when I breathed it, Night became part of me and I knew—I knew I was seen. I was seen,” he repeated in a hoarse wail that devolved into sobbing.

One of the healers rushed over and forced another potion down his throat, glaring at Titus.

One of the coppers beside Alma straightened his shoulders with determination. “I saw it, too. I think the darkness might have been another form of the shadow creature that is said to accompany her. It’s—” He swallowed. “It’s the only thing that makes sense.”

One of the prognos who must have been casting the divination spell piped up then. “She was several of the ravens, too. Not all of them, just a few dozen. I know that doesn’t make sense, but I know what I saw. When they dispersed, it was like she split into that many pieces. I cannot advise whether she has some strange familiar contract that allowed them to be located in her stead, or if it is some more uncanny magic at play.”

Thaddeus ran his fingers over his beard, frowning as he studied the traumatized group. “Are we entirely sure that she was spotted near the Edictum Council? How reliable are the eyewitnesses? Perhaps some work with a diviner or shaman is in order, to solidify the veracity of their testimony.”

Kuchen actually had the gall to roll his eyes at Thaddeus, though he conceded, “I will contact the team there.”

Thaddeus resisted the urge to shoot the man with a sobering spell, reminding himself that idiocy was not something that could be cured. Not past childhood, at least.

Instead, he turned his efforts to deduction. Thaddeus decided to set aside the strange shadow phenomenon, which could be accomplished with innovative spellwork. A little bit of fear, a tinge of emotion called up through transmogrification, and the ignorant would firmly believe in the power of dark miracles. The mind re-wrote memories every time they were called upon, and the truth was so easily restructured.

If it were Thaddeus who had come up with this plan, perhaps the magic calling and directing the conspiracy of ravens would have been something he imbued into an artifact. She had enough connections among the underbelly of society to put someone in charge of activating it and then secreting it away again when it ran out of power.

The raven that delivered the letter to the Edictum Council could have been the same, and any supposed sightings of the Raven Queen nearby based off of an illusion. None of the divination results had shown a hit on her appearance there, though of course that did not necessarily mean anything. They had also failed to notice that she was hiding on the roof.

As for the ravens triggering the divination in lieu of the Raven Queen, showing her anywhere and everywhere that she obviously was not, he could think of three different methods off of the top of his head to create such an effect.

None of this meant that the Raven Queen was any less special. Only less mystical and unfathomable. He was sure all of her secrets had an answer, and all the evidence that seemed to conflict, a resolution.

What fascinated Thaddeus was not her supposed strange abilities. He, too, could be said to have strange abilities, by those who knew no better. No, he was interested in her mind—her knowledge and ambitions.

Titus, Thaddeus, and Kuchen remained at the University for hours, investigating Eagle Tower and the grounds with those of the diviners who were well enough to continue working. As fascinating as the events of the day had been, Thaddeus still found them somewhat underwhelming. He had not even managed to see the Raven Queen with his own eyes. He had hoped to be more than just another spectator.

And then, as if in answer to his dissatisfaction, there was a commotion to the east, noticed by one of the faculty members still out patrolling. Thaddeus set aside any foolish notions of decorum and ran full out in a straight line across the grounds, his coat and hair flying behind him until he reached the edge of the white cliff. Behind him, Titus and several other coppers chased.

Titus free-cast a far-seeing lens spell and looked through the Circle hanging in the air in front of him.

Far below, the Raven Queen, identifiable by the darkness she wore like a billowing cloak against the spotlight shining on her, had seemingly stolen a boat. An eclectic group accompanied her, scrambling to manage the marine vehicle while she stood still, looking back at her pursuers.

Titus slowed to a panting stop beside Thaddeus and stretched his neck to see through his spell. “Pendragon Corps.”

“Indeed. What has she been up to, I wonder?” Thaddeus murmured, his eyes flicking over the situation with minute adjustments to the spell.

As he watched, one of the people with her used a rope to lob something at the boat attempting to follow them. It was an impressive throw. Several of the High Crown’s men jumped overboard before the thing exploded with light bright enough to sear Thaddeus’s eyes. He blinked, dropping the lens spell in favor of a soothing spell to clear his watering, spotted vision.

“Cast the telescope spell again, Thaddeus,” Titus commanded. “I think she’s kidnapped a couple of the High Crown’s men. Did you see the uniforms?”

Thaddeus complied, but only after sending out a surreptitious spell to create a line of force so thin it might as well have been a garrote. He placed it at neck height in front of the two operatives running alongside the Raven Queen’s boat in the dark.

It was a long way to detach the output of a spell, but he had the finesse and control to manage it. Often, this was more important than sheer power. He made no motion of his fingers, did not turn his head to target them obviously, and did not react to their aborted cries of surprise as the wards of their uniforms protected them barely long enough to realize that they were in danger.

He brought the lens spell back, wondering if the Raven Queen would notice his small contribution to her escape. Her face was obscured under the cloak of darkness, but he thought she seemed to be looking up at him in acknowledgement. Taking a closer look at her companions, he confirmed that two were indeed wearing the Pendragon Corps colors. There was also a woman in a maid uniform, several Verdant Stag and Nightmare Pack symbols, and two small children. All looked worse for wear.

When one of the Pendragon operatives used a harpoon to spear the blue-and-gold uniformed man by the Raven Queen’s side, Thaddeus revised his opinion on their loyalty. “Did they defect?” He failed to hide the delight in his tone, but Titus either did not notice, or did not care. Thaddeus also noted that her darkness had moved as if to shield against the attack, but failed to stop it. Another piece of evidence that it was not tangible.

The escapees soon reached the edge of the lighthouse’s range, and as her boat melted back into the darkness of the moonless night, Thaddeus dropped the lens spell and added one last, secret contribution to her endeavors in the form of a gaping wound in the hull of her pursuer’s boat, well under the water line.

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