Sevardin Harker. Merday, Pisces 16th, 2351 AA. 7:57 AM. Downtown Los Angeles (LAKF Central Precinct).
Sev glided past the Black Lotus media circus that had set up camp outside the front of the precinct, and drove into the attached parking structure. He was grateful to be wearing a helmet. The press probably had yet to single him out as a member of the task force, but he didn’t want to run the risk of being swarmed by mics and questions while he was on his bike.
When he reached the staff motorcycle parking, he found Rorick Grimm standing a respectful-yet-not-quite-regulation-compliant distance from the entrance to the precinct, smoking a mahogany tobacco pipe. Sev removed his helmet and disembarked as Grimm approached.
“Not even eight o’clock and he’s already broken out the thinking pipe,” Sev said.
Rick was an equal opportunity smoker. When he was feeling celebratory, it was Cubans. Huge, noxious stogies. When he was trying to crack a case, as tribute to Sherrock Holmes, he would light up a tobacco pipe. The rest of the time, he smoked cigarettes, much to his ex-wife’s chagrin.
“Well,” Rick said, pausing for a puff. “As you can see, I’m thinking.”
“Does Anigale know you haven’t quit yet?” Sev asked.
“She wants me to switch to vaping,” He chuckled, then shook his head. “I mean, smokin’ water? C’mon.”
“What have you divined so far?”
“Nothing yet. Shapiro has no idea how to summon the demon. She doesn’t even know any of its names. Instead, she’s trying to help us narrow down a list of potential suspects. Navigate the Hollywood trade magazines to see who benefits the most from this clusterfuck.”
“What’s the shortlist look like?”
“About twenty-six people long,” Rick grunted.
“Jesus, Rick, how many did you start with?”
Esmine Carter had already outlasted Jecia’s estimate by three days. She must have an iron will and nerves of steel. And more than a bit of good luck.
“We need to think of a new angle. The curse could claim Carter any minute.”
“Hence why I came out here to think,” Rick said, a touch irritable. “I’m open to suggestions.”
“Finish your pipe,” Sev said, “I’ll go see where we’re at.”
Sev saw Juel and a collection of Keepers from the other ventures standing with Triga Shapiro in front of a suspect board that had grown considerably more complicated overnight. Sev expected her to be tired, despondent, and uncooperative, but she looked to be in fairly high spirits, given her fate.
“This is the problem with the Arcanet, bubby,” she said, addressing Juel. “When I got out of the business, social media wasn’t a thing. Now everybody has a platform and everybody believes they can break into the business if they go viral.”
Sev scanned the suspect board. Most of the potential subjects were women. Some were sorted into groups, like salon proteges, or members of the cast of Monstrum and Malefaction: Los Angeles. There was a third group that were other actresses who had interacted with Esmine and Garfield over the arcanet. There were a few men. One was labeled ‘casting agent,’ another ‘lawyer,’ and there were a pair of ‘producers,’ but in absence of explanation, they struck Sev as unlikely. He stepped forward and addressed Triga:
“Good morning. Have you eaten lately? Do you need to sleep?”
Shapiro shook her head and gestured dismissively.
“It might sound dumb, but I know I’m going away for the rest of my life. We’ve already worked out a plea. You’ve got me for as long as you need me and I want to be as useful as I can before they lock me up.”
Sev gestured ‘fair enough,’ then nodded at the suspect board:
“When we first spoke, you guessed that the killer was probably a woman. And in terms of profiling, that’s right on the mark. So why include the male suspects?”
“Glianna left that lawyer shortly before she died.” Juel explained. “He also had approached Esmine about representation before and she turned him down. The producers are from M&M: LA, and they’ve been in a contract dispute with Esmine; they don’t want to pay her what she’s worth come next season.”
“And the casting agent?” Sev asked.
“He supposedly already found a replacement for Glianna’s role in Final Girl.” Shapiro said.
“Do we know who he cast?” Sev asked.
Juel shook his head.
“Hasn’t made its way online yet, but the agent announced he filled the role with ‘a promising fresh face.’”
Sev nodded thoughtfully.
“Subpoena the agent to find out who he cast,” Sev said to one of the Glendale detectives. “But aside from that, let’s focus on the women. Obviously if something comes up that implicates one of these men, we’ll look into it. But let’s stick to the established patterns as much as we can.”
Jecia had entered the room while Sev spoke to Triga. She looked over the board and said:
“We should call Ezzie Chen back. Now that we have a mostly full roster of the Salon, maybe he’ll see some kind of pattern that we are missing. The more informed eyes we can get on this, the better.”
Sev spent a few minutes eyeballing the board, searching for some kind of pattern. I’m probably looking at a picture of the killer right now. If only there was an augury, or some kind of ritual… But divination was largely forbidden by the Amagium. Prophecy was the way of madness and tragedy. Though it’s hard to imagine how some extra insight could be worse than the alternative now.
“Where’s the big man?” an Irish-accented voice called from the far end of the room. “I need to speak with Grimm!”
Sev turned to spot a handsome blonde kid in a lab coat walking forward at a brisk pace, thumbs hooked in the front pockets of his jeans.
“Over here, Feryl,” Rick called.
Curious, Sev excused himself from Shapiro and walked over to Rick, accompanied by Jecia and Juel. When he drew near, he saw that the kid’s badge read ‘Forensics,’ and he wore the brass licenses of an arcanist. Sev had to do a doubletake after reading his rank. Deputy Division Chief? He doesn’t look a day over eighteen. Doesn’t help that he’s dressed like an asfalis high schooler.
“Hope you’ve got good news for me friend, because we really don’t have time to chat,” Rick said.
“That’s why I’m here, Grimm. Hoping I can save us all some wasted time. Your officers retrieved Shapiro’s paint and brush from her safe deposit box and dropped it off at my lab. You ordered a sympathetic trace on it.”
“And?” Rick asked.
“And aye, we can do that, but after looking at Esmine Carter’s card for a week without any luck, I think it’ll be a waste of bloody time.”
“Really?” Rick said, folding his arms. “And why’s that?”
Feryl smiled as if he was struggling to stay patient.
“Because the card was metaphysically designed to deny us the identity of its creator. Don’t see any reason why the brush and paint would be different. I think we would have better luck pursuing a different priority.”
“What’s higher priority than determining the identity of the killer?” Rick demanded.
“This is the fuckin’ problem with Keepers. You get tunnel vision. I know you’re eager to catch your spook, but our most pressing threat is the clock ticking down on Esmine Carter’s life, aye?”
Rick gestured for Feryl to make his point.
“Between Shapiro’s ritual tools and Esmine’s card, I think we can develop a counter-ritual. A way to break her curse before it comes to a head.”
Skepticism flashed across the Keepers’ faces. Jecia spoke up:
“We’re talking about egregoric macro-magic. You’d have more luck pinning the surf to the shore with a sword.”
Feryl fired a finger gun at Jecia.
“Your investigation just unmasked the previous generations’ killers. That’s something of a hook in the narrative, isn’t it? Enough to give a casual reader hope at least. Make an announcement that we’ve made an arrest. That will give the spell a platform to stand on.”
The assembled Keepers went quiet as they chewed on Feryl’s proposal. Has anyone ever attempted to turn the tide on an egregoric curse before? Is that even possible? Feryl snickered and shrugged.
“Look, by all means, play the skeptic. I certainly won’t make any promises. But the metaphysics seem sound enough to warrant a try. Girl’s running out of time and we have nothing to lose.”
Rick nodded thoughtfully, then looked to Sev and gestured a hasty introduction:
“This is Feryl O’Farrell. Wunderkind of LA’s forensic unit. Graduated from Dublin’s Athenaeum five years ahead of schedule. Feryl, this is Sev Harker, Juel Flores, and Jecia Singh from Arroyo.”
Quick handshakes all around. Feryl’s wyrd was spritely and he had a sort of overcaffeinated energy about him. Even standing still, he seemed to be trapped in some perpetual, frenetic super-position, like he couldn’t wait to be doing something else. At the same time, his demeanor was perfectly calm.
“Walk me through your plan,” Rick said.
“You’ve already heard it. We’re gonna need to cook up a ritual from scratch. But the first step is to announce Shapiro’s arrest. Sooner the better. We want to build a counter-narrative by dispelling rumors and speculation with the truth, so share as much of it as we can afford. Beyond that, tell people to pray for Carter. Doesn’t always help, but in this case, it could make all the difference.”
“I’ll start putting something together,” Grimm said. “We’ll address the press at noon.”
“I’d prefer eleven if you can swing it, big man,” Feryl said. “And ten would be better still.”
Rick scoffed at the young arcanist’s cheek which drew a smile from Sev. I like Feryl.
“Guess I’d better call Wolfe. Talk Sev through the rest of this. In terms of permissions, his words carry as much weight as mine,” Rick said.
“What else do you need?” Sev asked Feryl.
“We need to run tests on the ritual brush and paint. How they were made, what they are made of. The symbolic properties of their physical materials, all the enchantments on them, how they work, all that good shite. But I understand you have a psychometrist on the team, and he could be a real help given the sort of tests we need to do.”
Jecia raised her hand. Feryl turned to her with surprise, then smiled and winked at her.
Jecia smirked at him, charmed. Okay. Maybe I don’t like Feryl that much.
“Anything else?” Sev asked.
“It would be useful to know exactly what was going through Shapiro’s head when she was painting the card. The clearer the picture we can get of how this works, the more likely we’ll be able to turn it on its head. I’ve got a forensic mesmer who should be able to jog her memory.”
“I’ll go get Shapiro. Send your mesmer to interrogation room three,” Sev said.
— Jecia | 8:42 AM —
“So how does this work?” Jecia asked.
The LA Forensics lab was at once sterile and cluttered. There was no trash of any kind, but evidence logs were piled on one desk, and the counter where Feryl seemed to do most of his work was precariously stacked with three laptops, a large desktop incanter with three screens, and complex forensic devices ranging from centrifuges to scopes. The far half of the counter was dominated by a single large device, however; a large glass chamber with a levitation platform and what appeared to be a cannon facing downward. Feryl walked up to the cannon chamber and slapped it on the top.
“An ethero-spectrometer works similar to a normal mass spectrometer. First you place the object in this chamber here,” He said, and slapped the top of the glass chamber. “Then we blast it with different flavors of etheric energy. And depending on how the particles bounce off it, the incanter can determine what kinds of magic live inside it.”
“Couldn’t that distort the enchantment?” Jecia asked.
“It can. Especially if you don’t know what you’re doing. Important to do the tests in a very specific order. Least invasive to most. But some warping can still occur in between blasts, which is why I’d like you on hand. You can use your gift to see how the object’s inherence has changed, and I can take notes on what knocked what loose.”
“Let’s do it.” Jecia said.
Feryl clapped his hands and then retrieved the brush from the evidence bag and presented it to Jecia.
“Alright. First off, give the brush a good once over with your wyrd. Take as long as you need.”
Jecia gripped it firmly and dove inside. The brush’s energies were chiefly egregoric, which made sense for a gift from a demon, but like the obscuring paint, there was also a lot of raw, faen power in the shaft. Jecia suspected that the wood was itself faen, preserved by the black lacquer that coated it.
The brush also felt like a weapon. Its inherence had the same dark intent as a gun, or a sword. But it seemed to feed off of greed rather than fear or hatred. There was a cobalt housing that secured the bristles to the stem of the brush that acted as a lynchpin for the enchantment. Makes sense. Cobalt is highly reactive to both faen and egregoric powers. Apart from that, the brush would react powerfully with the intent of Triga Shapiro specifically.
When Jecia finished, she relayed her findings to Feryl.
“Hmm. The strict personalization for Triga might be tricky. We’ll also need to make our counter-ritual brush attuned to whoever uses it. Do you think you’re up to the task, love?”
Jecia’s eyes widened.
“You want me to perform the counter-ritual?”
“Aye. Unless there is somebody on the task force who has developed a closer relationship with Carter.”
Jecia swore. She had actually taken it upon herself to check-in with Esmine daily by phone. Consequently, her symbolic role as Esmine’s protector, was probably stronger than anybody else on the task force.
“If you give me very specific instructions, I think I can manage it.”
“You have trouble with slow magic?” Feryl asked.
“I did well enough in the Athenaeum, but that was half a decade ago.”
“Ah, I’m sure you’ll be fine,” Feryl said dismissively, and placed the brush in the ethero-spectrometer’s blasting chamber, then walked over to the computer. “Alright. Starting with the low energy bursts.”
He adjusted a number of values on the screen, then told the daemon to run. After a whirring, three-second warm up, the chamber unleashed an explosive, satisfying camera flash of light.
“Alright, take her out and let’s look at her again.”
Jecia surveyed the brush again. If anything had changed in the enchantment, she couldn’t detect it. She gave him a thumbs up and they repeated the process. Again, Jecia examined the brush with her wyrd.
“The egregoric energy is slightly stronger now. The faen power is receding a little.”
Feryl nodded and adjusted some parameters in his incanter program, then blasted it again.
“How long have you been with your venture?” Feryl asked. “Because I’ll be frank: if you are unhappy or bored, I can fix both of those things.”
Jecia couldn’t tell if he was talking about business or pleasure, and she had a feeling that was by design.
“Neither, thanks,” she said with a polite smile.
Feryl clutched his chest as if she had ripped his heart out. Jecia laughed and volunteered a little more:
“We’ve only been together a few days. But I’ve learned that they are good detectives, better people, and that I can count on them when the stakes are life and death.”
“Ah,” Feryl said knowingly. “Forensics has a lot to offer, but I won’t pretend I can compete with the thrill of mortal terror. Fuckin’ adrenaline junkie Keepers.” He shook his head. “At the very least, your partners seem to appreciate you. Especially Harker.”
Jecia’s heart didn’t skip a beat so much as it tripped on a curb. Fortunately, Feryl had fired the ethero-spectrometer again, and seemed reasonably distracted.
“Why do you say that?” Jecia asked, hoping her own interest wasn’t obvious.
“Oh, you missed the look he gave me when I winked at ‘cha upstairs,” Feryl whistled. “I thought he might blast me with a fireball on the spot.”
Jecia laughed, but she was pleased. I didn’t think our chemistry was one-sided, but sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s wishful thinking.
They ran another half dozen tests. The more volatile forms of ether: fire and wind energies, and strictly lawed energies like gravity began to chip away at the enchantment’s integrity, but Jecia could tell that Feryl was very good at minimizing the distortions.
“You really do have a gift,” Feryl said, after Jecia articulated a very subtle change in the enchantment’s numinosity. “Seriously love, if you ever need a change of pace—or just a change of scenery,” he said, winking again, “please think of us. Your talents could do a world of good down here.”
Jecia gestured that she was flattered and bobbed her head in thanks.
“Alright. This is the last blast. Care to do the honors?” He asked.
Jecia struck the enter key triggering the last blast; pure electricity and kinetic force struck the brush.
“What’s next?” Jecia asked
“The incanter will run the results through a daemon that will find the common links behind the enchantments. After that, I design an enchantment that is the inverse of whatever is on that brush while the materials lab works out what materials would be best to house it”
Jecia raised an eyebrow.
“Hold on, when you say ‘design an enchantment—’”
“I mean what I say,” Feryl said, smiling. “I can whip up a fairly complex spell layer in about an hour. The actual process of enchanting takes longer than that, of course. But if all goes well, we’ll have our anti-curse brush by sundown. And you should be ready to pull off the ritual at midnight.”
“Some enchanting recipes take artificers years to perfect,” Jecia said incredulously.
“This won’t be perfect,” Feryl said. “But it’ll be damn good.”
Designing enchantments was a task on par with composing a symphony. Even a crude effort, or a concept predicated on a road map, required a tremendous depth and breadth of knowledge, to say nothing of drive and mental fortitude. Amagiate artificers defined their careers with their enchantments and viciously guarded the secrets of their construction. And in terms of skillsets, enchanting was as different from forensic arcanism as electrical engineering was from forensic science.
“You left Dublin five years early with a dual discipline?” Jecia asked.
“Pulled a hat trick, actually. Arcanism, Artifice, and Animathurgy. I’ve thought about taking some time off to go back for Leximancy—for the runic code; I don’t give a shite about law—but they make you learn both, and too much book learnin’ puts me in a foul mood.”
The incanter pinged and the screen displayed a number of figures and a wall of runes showing different etheric values and charge. Ancient Greek would have made more sense to Jecia. But Feryl scanned the screen, mouth moving in stillborn whispers, fingers flickering through approximations of arcane gestures. Finally, he nodded.
“And there we are. Let’s hope Sev can get a good snapshot of Shapiro’s mental state during the ritual.”
— Sevardin| 8:50 AM —
“I’ve never done anything like this before,” Shapiro said, obviously nervous. “I’m really not that comfortable with magic. I used consultants to set up the enchantments on my house. I usually just try to steer clear of spells altogether.”
“All you need to do is relax,” Sev said. “Think about the questions carefully, then answer with everything that comes to mind.”
They had gathered in one of the precinct’s sterile and barren interrogation rooms. Feryl’s mesmer, a spindly, quiet man in spectacles, gestured for Shapiro to take a seat across from Sevardin. Rick, Juel, and some of the other detectives stood behind the mirrored glass, watching.
“Do I take my licenses off?” Shapiro asked, hesitating before taking her seat.
“Your choice, but it won’t affect the magic either way.”
She nodded and finally sat down at the table. The mesmer walked behind her and spoke:
“Relax and breathe deeply. I am going to touch your temples, and then begin the memory charm.”
Shapiro looked on the verge of hyperventilation. Sev reached across the table with his wyrd, trying to reassure her. It’s not the magic she’s scared of. It’s the memories themselves. She nodded and exhaled until she had averted her panic attack.
The mesmer performed a single complex hand gesture—a Shinto mudra, if Sev’s memories from the Athenaeum were accurate—and Sev felt the contract swell to life around his hands. Swirling indigo energies wreathed his hands, and he delicately placed two fingers on each side of her forehead.
Triga’s breathing slowed and her body deflated slightly. The violet energy from the spell filled her eyes, obscuring her pupils.
“How did you select Byanka as your target?” Sevardin asked.
“She and Mari were competing for a role,” she said, voice slow and slightly slurred. “It was just business.”
“What did you feel while you were painting her card?”
“Nothing, really. I mean, I was a skeptical more than anything. But the demon told me to focus on her face, and what I wanted out of her death. I had one of her headshots on my desk. Never been good at picturing things in my head.”
“Any other emotions? Did you use your wyrd?”
“I channeled my wyrd into my brush. I focused on what I wanted. Mari’s career. My career. I just wanted a foot in the door. Something to build on.”
“What do you mean?”
“Hollywood is a dynasty. If you aren’t born in the right family…. I just wanted a fair chance. A level playing field. And I…” Shapiro’s voice faltered. “I was willing to kill for it. A voice asked me over and over again: Will you kill her? Are you willing to cause Byanka’s death? I’m not sure if it was myself, or the demon, but I made up my mind. I forced myself to take it slow.”
“The painting?” Sev asked.
“It became a trance. I’m not good at art. I’ve never painted anything else in my entire life. But the brush seemed to guide my hand. Each stroke fell into place. Bit by bit, I painted every lotus black. After that…”
Shapiro’s eye lids began to flicker. Sev looked to the mesmer, who seemed to be struggling to maintain the spell.
“I don’t remember.”
“Try, Triga. Push through.”
“Something else with me,” she said, voice murmuring. “Something in my head.”
Sev’s heart caught in his throat. Did the demon possess her? Can she remember its name?
“Who is in your head?” Sev asked.
Shapiro opened her mouth and a croaking sound came out. The mesmer placed his full palms on her head, his own brow wet with sweat. Triga’s croak became a cough, which became a full-on fit. She started to choke, and for a moment, Sev thought she was going to swallow her own tongue.
“Break the spell!”
But the mesmer’s eyes had rolled into the back of his head and his mouth hung open, drooling. Shapiro’s fit intensified, her hacks building up to a crescendo. Then she violently wretched, ejecting a glob of black pitch from her throat onto the table. Sev reached out with his wyrd, slapping the mesmer in the face with sorcery to try and disrupt the spell.
“Triga! Stay with me!” Sev commanded.
But both she and the mesmer swayed and fell to the floor. Sev rushed over to them, feeling their necks for a pulse. Both of them were alive, but their hearts were beating so fast that they seemed to be on the brink of cardiac arrest, and their wyrds were shuddering violently. The door to the interrogation room burst open as Rick, Juel, and others crowded inside.
Finally, the spell broke, and both the mesmer and Shapiro passed out.
“Jesus H Christ,” Rick said. “What the fuck happened?!”
“Call a medithurge!” Sevardin commanded.
Shapiro and the mesmer’s breathing stabilized over the next few seconds, but neither of them responded to prodding, words, and gentle shaking. Sev stood and turned to the table to look at the thick black glob that Shapiro had ejected from her throat. It reeked of blood, shit, and sulfur. There was a small piece of yellowed paper crumpled inside the goo. Sev touched it gingerly, then realized that the black ichor wasn’t ichor at all. It’s paint.
Sev reached out to the object with sorcery. The paper was rich with egregoric, demonic energy. Hot against his wyrd. Carefully, he telekinetically stretched the paper out, so that it uncrumpled, revealing paint-smeared but still-legible words, burned into the page:
Nice try, Detective