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Sevardin Harker. Jovday, Ophiuchus 19th, 2344 AA. 3:28 AM. Arroyo (Briaredge).

That’s a lot of sirens.

Sevardin, Juel, and Ashford were outside a convenience store on the northeast bank of Brookside Terrace, on the border to Altadena. For the past two minutes, asfalis police cruisers had been blaring from the southwest. And here comes the helicopter to back up them up. The craft streaked overhead, and started shining its searchlight into the depths of the Grand Arroyo.

“Jesus,” Juel said. “Want me to check the APD channels on the scanner?”

Ashford finished lighting a cigarette and took a long drag before he answered.

“It is precisely thirty minutes before we clock out. If they need us, they’ll call us.”

Yeah. God-forbid we go that extra mile or show a spark of initiative. Sev had to suppress a derisive smirk. He had grown increasingly disenchanted with his CO’s “Do the bare-minimum, but do it to the absolute best of your ability,” approach to law enforcement. Ashford was good at his job. Not the most personable officer, to asfalis and amagia alike, but he had sharp eyes, good instincts, and was impeccably efficient. Guess he got burned pretty bad before.

A couple days after Devil’s Gate, Sev looked into Ashford Adams’ history with Arroyo Chapter. He was a transfer from an Athenaeum in Northern California. He seemed to be on track for a promising career. But apparently, he was demoted from Detective Three back to Officer One. Which meant he had fucked up about as bad as he possibly could without getting fired from the Force.

As for the offense that caused it? Sev wasn’t certain. It hadn’t made the papers, whatever it was, so probably not any form of excessive force. The man didn’t seem attracted to anyone, so sexual harassment was hard to imagine. But whatever it was broke the shit out of his spirit.

The dispatch radio pinged on Ashford’s third drag. The man clenched his eyes shut and sighed like he stepped on dogshit in a downpour. Juel shot Sev a quick smirk.

“Looks like they need us after all,” Sev observed.

Ashford gave Sevardin a flat stare, plucked his cigarette out of his mouth and ground it beneath his boot. He emanated something to the effect of sarcastic laughter, and said, words weighted with fatigue:

“Just… try not to look so goddamn happy about it, yeah?”

He opened the cruiser door, picked up the comm, and put it speaker.

“Calling Venture three-one-three. You there, Adams?”

“Yup. Go ahead, Lida.”

“Yeah, we’ve got… an odd situation. Asfalis police are investigating some kind of mass suicide or homicide at the Calle Colorado Bridge. We’ve got five—no, six total victims.”

Holy shit.

“I’m sorry, six?” Juel cut in.

“So far. They keep finding more bodies. Three or four jumpers. At least one apparent murder… I’m only getting every other detail from the asfalis cops, but it sounds like a circus down there.”

Well. I guess that explains the sirens. Sev finished the last of his coffee in a swift gulp. He could sense the overtime coming, almost like a ripple against his wyrd. Six dead is a very bad morning.

And suicides were one of the few human horrors that amagia were usually spared. It was almost impossible for an asfalis magic-user to intentionally kill themselves, as exempt contracts were, by definition, safe, and sorcery was subject to the same sort of instinctual aversion to lethal self-harm as a body.

“Were the murders magic?” Ashford asked, a touch sarcastic. “Did somebody compel the jumpers? Or is the Department just trying to pass their mess onto us?”

“I don’t know, Adams. I don’t think they know either. In any event, we need boots on the ground to canvass the area for residual magic, take statements, and assist detectives.”

Ashford knit his brow and sighed. Juel looked at his watch and shook his head with a snicker. Sev busied himself with strapping in to hide his grin. Our dull-ass twelve-hour shift suddenly got very interesting. And probably a lot longer than twelve hours. Sev was tired, but excitement, duty, and a twinge of dread dispelled his fatigue.

“Send us the address, Lida. We’re on our way.”

— 3:42 AM. Calle Colorado Bridge (Underpass, Western Bank) —

The Calle Colorado Bridge was the crowning architectural achievement of a city renown for its architecture. On postcards, it struck an odd balance between elegance and gaudiness. The structure itself was a delicate S-shaped curve fording the grand arroyo, lined with lamps, and supported by twelve, slender, symmetrical arches. And the whole structure was adorned with blooming crystal roses that grew directly out of it. The entire thing was carved from the city’s native, petrified briars. A few other bridges were carved on top of small vines, and many others threaded or tunneled through the snaking stone brambles. But the Calle Colorado’s silly-to-imagine, but breathtaking-to-behold architecture grew directly out of the ground like something out of the Faed. It easily supported a steady, daily flow of traffic and pedestrians. It was also the world’s largest sculpture, and somewhat inevitably, the world’s most prolific backdrop for car commercials.

Sev was fond of the bridge, which he often walked and jogged during his time at the Athenaeum. The place had an interesting energy to it. Literally, hauntingly beautiful. It looked like something out of a storybook. Otherworldly and graceful on the surface, a construction that was only possible with advanced magic. But like a classic storybook tale, it had its share of dark secrets. Local children casually referred to it as the Suicide Bridge, and every adult in the city would know precisely which of the city’s many bridges they were talking about, even though many were high enough to deal death with a fall.

Their cruiser sped along the west bank of Brookside Terrace, parting the sparse traffic with its siren. Sev watched as the commotion drew irate and curious onlookers from their expensive homes, finally slowing to a stop at the first portion of the double cordon zone they had set up guarding the bridge.

The officer directed Ashford to a stretch of street they were using as a law enforcement staging area, and he parked next to the other vehicles, two APD patrol cars, and one other amagiate cruiser. A mustached man named Teague—one of the Arroyo Police Department’s Amagiate Coordinators—greeted Ashford with a handshake and gave Sev and Juel friendly salutes.

“Alright, gentlemen, here’s the score. I personally respect your time, but I have two new junior ACs who haven’t seen a lot of weird shit before, and they think this might be a ritual of some kind.” Ashford snickered, bitter, and Teague nodded sympathetically. “I did my best to talk ‘em down, but you know. Rule of majority. Old guy’s over-ruled.”

“Why do they think it’s a ritual?” Sevardin asked.

“Well, I gotta admit,” Teague scratched the tuft of gray hair poking out from beneath his cap. “It is a bit odd. We’ve found six dead bodies so far, and they’re all symmetrical. There are two on top—one at either end of the bridge—with their throats slashed, holding knives. They either did it themselves, or somebody staged it to that effect pretty convincingly. And along the sides of the bridge,” he turned gesturing vaguely toward the arches behind him, “We have four total jumpers. Or, people who were thrown off, but again, who’s to say.”

Yeah, no shit it sounds like a ritual! Sev did his best to keep his expression neutral. This is some old world sacrificial ritual bullshit. Ashford still looked perturbed, which sent a spike of annoyance through Sevardin. Really? This is the job granddad. Get over yourself. Teague noted Ashford’s stormy expression and held up his hands in defense.

“Now. I know what you’re thinking. No visual persistent presence of magic, no eyewitnesses of magic… like I said, I was over-ruled. But I promise I got my entire squad doing its best to spare you the grunt work so you can do your inspections quick and be on your way. I’ve got them going door to door,” he swept his hands over the toney suburbs built in the bridge’s shadow, “asking if anybody has seen anything. So far, we’ve got nothing. And we won’t bother you unless somebody says they saw mumbo jumbo.”

“What do you need us to do?”

“Well, Detective… uh, Hopkins? Her venture is doing a forensic examination of the first two bodies. They hit this road on either side of the bridge. She said she’d uh, ‘manage you.’ Her words. Gladstone’s venture is also on this side of the channel.”

Ashford looked like he might snarl, but gestured for Sev and Juel to follow him instead.

Huh. I’m sensing a history here.

The three of them walked up the road to an amagia who was considering a shape that was probably one of the victims. She was knocking back water like her life depended on it, massaging her temples, and rubbing the back of her neck.

“Ah! Adams. It’s been a while. I take it these are your new partners?”

“I can see why they promoted you to Full Detective, Hopkins,” Ashford said, his tone frosty. “Where do you want us?”

Hopkins considered him a moment. She appeared to be in her early thirties. Tall and fit. Sharp features behind sharper, half-rimmed glasses. Her hair was indigo—half-fae heritage, maybe—and she wore it up in a pony tail. She would have looked fairly professional, were it not for her intensely bagged, bloodshot eyes. After a moment she said:

“Canvass the area between here and the next pair of bodies. They’re near the flood channel. Look for residuals with your scope. Make sure we didn’t miss another corpse. Report back if you hear anything.”

A vein bulged against Ashford’s temple, but he managed a sickly smile.

“You heard the lady,” he said, turning to Sev and Juel.

“Nuh-uh. Leave your juniors. They’re mine tonight.”

Ashford scoffed, gestured ‘do as you will,’ and set off in the direction Hopkins specified.

“Bluebie Number One,” she said, looking at Sev. “You’re with me. Bluebie Number Two, go assist my juniors on the other side of the bridge.”

Juel gave her a quick salute and jogged toward the other two amagia who were further up the road. Sev bristled slightly at ‘bluebie’ but tried to look dutiful and cooperative. She told Ashford to go fuck himself, so she can’t be that bad.

“You are new, right? Fresh out of the Athenaeum?” Hopkins asked.

“Third month on the beat ma’am,” Sev said, taking the condescension in stride.

“Groovy. Your forensics protocol should still be sharp and I am decidedly… unsharp right now. I am hungover, dehydrated, and angry to be awake. So, help a girl out and give me your best preliminary assessment of our friend here,” she gestured toward the dead body.

Sev blinked. She wants me to do the initial forensic assessment? Warmth swelled inside his chest. I am not about to waste this chance.

“You want me to give you notes or think out loud, Detective…?”

She stretched and yawned again, then extended her hand.

“Ledelle Hopkins. Detective Two.”

“Sevardin Harker. Probationary Officer,” Sev said warmly, accepting her hand.

“You want to make detective, Harker?” Hopkins asked.

He smirked, more at himself than at the question.

“Doesn’t everybody?”

“Only the cool kids,” Hopkins said with a wink. “So, they gave you to Adams, huh?”

Sevardin nodded, trying to keep his expression neutral

“My condolences. He’s a competent cop, so far as assholes go. Never was much of a teacher though, even before…” Her voice trailed off and she finished the thought with a shrug. “Anyway. Give the body a once over, scan it with your scope, and talk to me while you do it. I work better when I collaborate.”

Sevardin nodded. First came a sensory assessment. He reached out to the body with his wyrd, gently probing it. He couldn’t sense any energy coming off the body, which wasn’t uncommon in and of itself. Wyrds were very keen at detecting other wyrds, but finding other kinds of etheric energy usually required contracts, tools, or some kind of in-born talent. Sev pulled out his flashlight and walked around the victim slowly, seeing what he could.

The body’s position suggested the victim struck the asphalt shoulder-first, grossly dislocating and snapping the bones in the entire upper right half of the body. The frontal and parietal cranial bones had cracked, leaking brain matter on the street like gray yolk from a soft-boiled egg. A surge of guilt hit Sev like a pickaxe to the kneecap. You wanted excitement, buddy. This “exciting” enough for you? Feel like a hero yet?

It was hard to assess his age, given the state he was in, but his exposed skin was sunbeaten and his long hair was matted, even in the spots that weren’t coated with blood. He wore mill-fitted and mismatched clothing, tattered and dirty. Homeless, most likely.

“Body appears urdically inert. Given the amount of blood, I’d say he was killed on impact, or just before the fall. Coroner will have to determine based on lividity.”

“His neck intact?” Hopkins asked.

Sev knelt closer to the body. The man’s neck was unnaturally torqued, but there was no evidence of cuts.

“Broken, but not slashed.”

Sev searched his hands for a weapon. The two victims who had cut themselves were holding knives. One arm was buried beneath the body, but his left palm was empty, open, and… cut. Sev leaned in for a closer look. There were two precisely carved chevrons, overlapping at the tips and creating a diamond, which housed two mismatched crescents. Okay. Definitely a rune, sigil, or some other kind of magical symbol. But it wasn’t from any language he recognized.

“Something’s carved into his right palm.”

Hopkins knelt next to Sev and studied the man’s half curled palm.

“You just finished your exit exams. How’d you score on urdolinguistics?”

“I feel like I’ve seen the language somewhere before, but it wasn’t on my comprehensive. Damn, where did I see it?”

“The techs will run it through the database. Still a good find though. Snap a picture and move on to the scope.”

Sev pulled out his symphone, and took a grainy shot of the mark, then pocketed it and pulled out his urdoscope from his rear satchel. It resembled a hand mirror housed in a wooden frame with symmetrical handles on either end. The tool was brand new, and it was still getting to know Sev’s wyrd. He missed the scope he had used in the Athenaeum, which had built up a powerful Inherence over the course of his matriculation. But each officer was issued a fresh set of tools when they enlisted to avoid the development of Quirks; apparently, it made things easier for the techs to troubleshoot.

As Sev sent a gentle flow of energy into the wood, the formerly clear lens clouded over with a blue sheen, rendering the world in a sort of inverted infrared monochrome. Threads of energy resembling whisps of smoke began to appear. The body’s wyrd had completely dissipated, which was unsurprising. But usually, when a person died, their existing urdic power would transform into a unique type of ethereal energy that was completely absent.

Stranger still, emotionally traumatic deaths, like those typically associated with suicide, would leave behind significant amounts of egregoric energy, or even an echo. But I don’t sense any psychic imprints, and this body is completely inert. Somebody either bleached the crime scene with some other kind of magic, or consumed the death energies as part of a ritual.

“Almost no etheric signature at all. Even the decomp has yet to set in,” Sev said.

“So, somebody either scrubbed the scene, or they used the death as a reagent for a ritual.”

Sev nodded. Hopkins held her chin a drummed her index finger against her lips. Then she turned and took a couple steps up the road, toward the crime scene perimeter, where Teague was talking to a beat cop.

“Hey, Teague!”

The big man turned and ambled over. He looked disappointed to leave his conversation, but put on a jokey sort of smile as he drew near.

“How can I be of service, Detective?”

“Watch the stiff. We’re gonna take a walk.”

Teague shot a quick glance at Sev and smirked.

“You two on a date now?” He wiggled his bushy gray eyebrows suggestively.

“We’ll see what happens,” Hopkins said matching his tone. “But Officer Harker here just noticed something important. We’re gonna go talk to my juniors and bust this case wide open.”

“Work, work, work. You know I technically belong to the Department, right?”

“So, they tell me. Just chill here and make sure nobody pokes it with a stick or something.”

Sev decided he liked Hopkins. She clearly wasn’t kidding about being hungover, but she was still shrewd enough to pick up the little details. He also appreciated her wit, willingness to mentor, and savage assessment of his boss. High-functioning train wreck with a healthy sense of humor. Charming.

The two of them walked up the sloping road that ran beneath the towering bridge, approaching Juel, and the two other officers who were presumably Hopkins’ juniors. The air was stagnant, dry, and heavy with the scent of oak and earth. A greenspace occupied the depths of the grand arroyo, growing out from a concrete flood channel which housed a mossy trickle. The expensive houses that crept up the banks of the gulch were shrouded by trees and shaded by smaller briars. If it weren’t for the sirens, you could mistake this place for paradise.   

“What do you make of the two whose throats were slashed?” Hopkins asked.

“Not sure. But there’s no way the position of the bodies is accidental. Two jumpers on either side, and one body at either end. They were creating some kind of outline,” Sev said.

Hopkins nodded.

“I think a ritual is a safe bet,” Hopkins said. “Mortal sacrifices are usually used to summon things. There’s also plenty of deep-seated negative energy here. They don’t call it the Suicide Bridge ‘cause it sounds cute. In a bad year, we’ll get a dozen jumpers. And six freshly ended lives on top of that general atmosphere? There’s enough power there to piece together a nasty egregore, or given the numerology, draw the attention of a demon.”

“Were the suicides dominated, or do you think they were willing participants?”

Hopkins frowned and made a pained noise as she rubbed her head.

“You would need to be an exceptionally gifted dominus to control six people at once, even for a little while. Trying to compel somebody to end their own life will usually break the enthrallment. Like dying in a dream. Your body panics and bucks the caster off. It can be done, but forcing just one person to kill themselves would usually exhaust a person’s wyrd. It’s also extremely traumatic, and dangerous. Technically, a dominus can kill themselves through their host if they aren’t careful.”

“Any chance we aren’t dealing with a human?” Sev asked.

“That would be ‘exciting’ wouldn’t it?” Hopkins chuckled. “And it’s one of the reasons I want to check the other bodies. If they all have the same marks on their hands, it could be some kind of demonic brand. But if the marks are unique, it probably means the victims were reagents for something more complicated.”  

As they drew near the other body, Sev could see that this one had fallen on his back.

“Asudo, Trinna, Bluebie Number Two” Hopkins called. “You check his hands yet?”

First name basis with her colleagues, casual and personable with other ventures. Sev felt a twinge of jealousy. She’s so different from Ashford.

“I take it your guy had a mark too?” Trinna asked.

“Yep. Left palm. My new friend Officer Harker here found it. Says he recognizes the symbol but can’t remember where from. What about you, Bluebie Number Two?”

Juel snickered and shook his head, indicating he had no clue. Asudo looked between Sev and Juel and said in a warning tone:

“If you value your nights and weekends. Don’t let Delle offload her responsibilities onto you. She’s a master at ‘delegation.’”

“It’s called ‘mentorship,’ jackass,” Hopkins said. “What did your scope find?”

“Nothing,” Trinna said. “The body is like a black hole.”

“Something about this guy bugs me,” Juel said. “I can’t put my finger on it though.”

Sev lowered his gaze to the body. Even in profile, there was something familiar about the victim’s face. He took a couple steps forward and peered at the face straight down. The back of his head was a gory ruin, but his face was still intact. Coiling black hair, matted with blood and brain. Wide, dark eyes, still intense in death.

A memory slapped Sev across the face. That stare. Crazed but unfocused. He’s the guy from Devil’s Gate. The xenomancer. He was even wearing the same layers of tattered cloth he had on that night. Even without decomposition, the body reeked of sweat, urine, and shit.

“This is the guy from Devil’s Gate. I remember his face. He was wearing the same get-up, too.”

Juel’s eyes lit with recognition, and he emanated an emphatic confirmation. Everybody else looked between the two of them.

“Care to share with the class?” Trinna asked.

Sev spoke up.

“About three months ago, we responded to a call about an abduction in the flood control area to the north. This guy seemed to be responsible. He didn’t seem lucid when we encountered him, but he had some kind of lab. Looked like he was experimenting on the people there.”

Juel held his breath and gave Sev a look, a question plain on his face: Am I really gonna tell them the whole story? Am I going to say he used xenomancy? This was already an odd enough coincidence that if he started talking about storybook shit right off the bat, they wouldn’t take him seriously. He shook his head almost imperceptibly at Juel, who seemed relieved.

Hopkins pouted and complained:

“Why couldn’t this be a boring case?”

“Just lucky I guess.” Trinna said.

The group suddenly felt a powerful ripple brush their wyrds, and as they turned to look at the source of the magic, they saw brilliant red flare streaking up beneath the bridge, near its midpoint. Oh shit. That’s a red flare. Red is bad. Red either meant mortal danger imminent, hostiles sighted, or some mix of the two.

“Fuck,” Asudo said.

“Let’s move!” Hopkins commanded.

                        — 3:42 AM. Calle Colorado Bridge (Underpass, Greenspace) —

Gunshots echoed through the arroyo as Sev and the others raced down the street headed for the grand arroyo’s greenspace. Flashes of violent magic rippled through the dry air. Electricity. Water. Can’t use pyromancy here; fire risk is too great. Which was deeply unfortunate, because fireballs could solve an awful lot of problems.

The group leapt and slashed through the brush with sorcery, nearly colliding with an amagia who had been knocked through the air. Sev narrowly managed to dodge his hapless body, and Juel caught him just before he collided with a rock that would have proven fatal.

Sev felt the monster before he caught a good glimpse of it. Anguished, egregoric ether cascaded off the thing in waves, which his wyrd translated to a sensation akin to intense dread and nausea. It was slender, lithe even, completely hairless and all hard muscle and metal plates.

It was also remarkably human shaped, which was very, very bad.

A general rule of thumb was, the more human an egregore looked, the more powerful it was. Thought-forms typically manifested as odd, pseudo-humanoids. Gaping maws with arms and legs. Amorphous fleshy blobs with boney protrusions. Impossible combinations of limbs, hair, and ocular tissue. The symmetry of human anatomy though, indicated a degree of orderliness in the entity’s composition, which usually translated to heightened intelligence and power.

It was fighting two Keepers; a young woman fighting with a focus staff, and a towering amagia who was six-eleven if nothing. Sev noticed Ashford slumped against a tree—not dead, judging by his wyrd—but unconscious.

The egregore grabbed the focus staff and snapped its metal-reinforced wood in half like a matchstick. Terrified, the Keeper staggered back, firing wild unfocussed shots with sorcery. But the creature easily dodged, and thrust the jagged broken ends of the staff directly into her gut, sending her to the ground with a choking noise.

In answer, the tall Amagia launched himself forward with a sorcery-assisted haymaker, and managed to connect with the thing’s face, finally stunning it.

As it staggered back, Sev saw that it actually had six arms, though it was only using one pair. The top arms hugged the creature’s torso, while the bottom pair hugged its waist, the crossing limbs creating the illusion of a straightjacket. Its legs ended in flexible, boney prongs, similar to the blades paraplegic runners used. There was also something hanging from its throat, threaded through its voice box. A stud? No. That’s a padlock.

The tall Keeper fired another volley of punches at the monster—his scabbard and holster were both empty, weapons nowhere to be seen—and it casually swatted them away with its long limbs. Muffled weeping noises escaped its head, which Sev still couldn’t get a good look at. The tall Keeper launched another powerful punch, easily stronger than the one that had first stunned the monster.

But this time, the thing caught his fist, and smiled. Then it wrenched its long limb to the side, violently torquing the Keeper’s arm. Sev heard the pop of bones and destroyed joints, just before the Keeper cried out. Then it kicked him in the chest, laying him out.

As soon as the Keeper was clear, Sevardin and Juel drew their sidearms and fired. The egregore twitched as each round, 454 Casulls, slammed into its body, popping with dark purple fluid. But when their chambers clicked empty, it was still standing, and the first of the gunshot wounds had already closed. It turned to face the newcomers, and Sev saw its face in full.

It isn’t smiling.

Its mouth was stretched wide by metal hooks embedded in the nape of its neck, revealing a row of unnaturally large, yellow teeth that were wired shut. Its eyelids were also stapled shut, giving it the appearance of having broad metal eyelashes. Sev thought back to his egregore studies. Violent egregores are born from pain, trauma, and other negative emotions. And since suicidal people often feel trapped… I guess that form makes sense.

Hopkins finished a contract and fired it off. The damp soil of the greenspace seemed to completely liquify beneath the creature, causing it’s pointed legs to get stuck in the muck. Just as quickly, the ground dried, and solidified, pinning it in place for a few seconds. Long enough for Trinna to hit it directly in the sternum with a brutal sledgehammer of electricity.

Asudo ran forward, sword drawn, and hacked at the wailing egregore. Sev and Juel followed suit. And the damn thing fought all of them. They danced around it, slashing with all their might. But the thing slapped their swords away effortlessly. We have speed contracts on us, and we might as well be moving underwater!

The thing hit Sev with a pulse of egregoric energy, flooding his wyrd with pain, anxiety, and helplessness. It was so intense that he dropped to one knee.

Fortunately, casting the spell distracted the egregore just enough to give Asudo and Juel an opening. They both closed the distance to the thing’s torso, and thrust their blades into its flesh. The creature let loose a horrible shriek, muffled by its wired teeth. Then it grabbed both Amagia by the neck, and slammed them together. Asudo’s skull struck Juel’s right shoulder and their spines slapped together hard. When they fell to the ground, they didn’t get up.

Now Trinna and Hopkins opened up with their revolvers, desperate to stay out of the bastard’s reach and deal some more damage. Sevardin gathered his wyrd, trying to recenter his mind despite the thing’s brutal psychic aura. He managed to stand. Managed to charge. But the thing saw him coming, grabbed him by his face and slammed his head against the dirt.

Once. The world rang like a bell. Twice. His nose crunched and a stream of blood left the lower half of his face hot and wet. Three times. Blackness.

Sev wasn’t sure how long he was out, but when he came to, Trinna lay in the dirt as well. Only Hopkins remained on her feet, and she was on the defensive.

The thing had drawn the two swords Juel and Asudo had thrust into its body, and was now stabbing and slashing at Hopkins in an expert frenzy. Sev looked to the far side of the green space, and saw other amagia trying to reach them, but the fenced-off flood channel was in the way, and it was too wide to jump, even with sorcery.

Hopkins drew her sword and tried to defend herself as she cast some kind of contract. But her guard was deteriorating, and her focus looked shaky.

Sev helped the only way he could think of. He put all of his wyrd into a sorcerous binding, targeted the thing’s knee, and imposed the spell in a twisting motion. Its left leg buckled, and its assault relented for a full second, which was just enough time for Hopkins to get her spell off.

There were two anima in play; one specialized in optics, and the other sound. Hopkins seemed to suck all ambient sound out of the area, leaving Sev’s ears ringing with the abrupt silence. Then a curtain of darkness fell over the area, or rather, the light gathered into a fiercely bright singularity in Hopkins’ hands. Then a screeching jet of light and sonic force blasted the egregore directly in its chest.

When the light went back to normal, Sev saw that the creature’s torso had been replaced by a smoking hole so large it nearly split the creature in half. The egregore dropped its swords and fell to the ground. But its body didn’t vanish. It was still trying to fight.

Just fucking die!” Hopkins yelled, and started prepping another contract.

The thing raised its head, reaching out for Hopkins with its one remaining arm. Then the padlock piercing its neck sprang open. Its eyelids tore free from the staples keeping them shut, revealing purple eyes with twitching white pupils. And with a horrible twisting, bone cracking noise, its teeth parted, snapping the wires that held them shut.

Sev braced himself as well as he could. This feels like a death curse. But only a high-pitched rasp escaped its mouth.

“You are late,” it creaked. “The Striped Man comes.”

Hopkins planted her palm on the thing’s bald head, and with a shout, she sent an anima-assisted, telekinetic shockwave directly into its flesh. The egregore gurgled blood, shuddered, and went still. Then it sublimated into thick, acrid smoke with explosive force.

Hopkins sank to her knees and held her head, muttering:

“I really need a new fucking job.”

— 4:06 AM. Calle Colorado Bridge (Underpass, Western Bank) —

“All’s well that ends well, eh?” Commander Borman said.

Fuck you. All is not well, and nothing has ended.

The entire detail had assembled at the western mouth of the bridge and were debriefing Watch Commander Borman on the morning’s developments. Sev, Ashford, Asudo, and Trinna had only suffered moderate concussions, and were still lucid. Juel was there too, arm in a sling, shoulder sprained badly. All the others involved in the fight had been rushed to the Athenaeum’s mediclave, or Arroyo Memorial. The tall Keeper, Officer Laurence, would probably never regain function in his right arm. The woman who had been stabbed, Officer Sydney, was in critical condition.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think this is over, Commander,” Hopkins said.

“Oh?” Borman asked, faux patiently. “Perhaps you mean to suggest the egregore appeared independently of the suicides?”

In which case, the ball’s back in the APD’s court. That’d be a real windfall for you, wouldn’t it Borman? Nobody wants to deal with six dead bodies’ worth of paperwork. Hopkins, you have the power to become his very favorite person, forever and ever. All you have to do is lie.

“That’s a possibility!” Hopkins conceded. “But it seems to me like they are most likely related. The positioning of the bodies? Their strange symmetry? These people died to create that monster.”

Sev nodded emphatically. Damn straight. But that was not the answer Borman wanted to hear.The only thing worse than a mass suicide? Six unsolved but related homicides. Cases like that killed annual quotas. They dragged the Force’s always-tenuous public image through the grit and the muck. Hopkins kept talking:

“Even if these six volunteered as sacrifices, they needed somebody to conduct the ritual. Synchronize and direct their energy as they died. And that somebody is still out there.”

Borman held up his hands to slow her down.

“Now, hang on, hang on, isn’t it possible…”

Hopkins sighed, held her hands out to the side, and let them slap against her thighs.

“There are a lot of odd ways this could actually being an asfalis problem, Bor. But if there is somebody orchestrating this? They aren’t done, and we cannot afford to ignore it. That thing nearly took out nine amagia alone.”

Borman grit his teeth, inhaled through his nose slowly, exhaled sharply and clapped his hands.

“Alright, detective! Prepare for our press conference. You’re heading this one. We’ll call it your promotion test!” he said brightly.

The entire detail went dead quiet.

This was a major case. Deep in Senior Detective territory, but Hopkins was still Detective Two. Promotion tests were supposed to be jokes. Usually, they were retroactively assigned to cases that were about to be logged as completed. Because until you completed your detective promotion case—to the satisfaction of your superior officers—you could not advance in rank in the Keeping Force. That isn’t some petty fuck you. It’s cruel. It’s not Hopkins’ fault some bastard decided to summon a monster. You are punishing her for doing her fucking job. Borman continued in a forced cheerful voice:

“Judging by the early turnout,” he said, squinting at the tide of media vans, “I think we’ve got about twenty minutes before they eat us alive. Gear up, girlie: you’re in the big leagues now.”

Hopkins closed her eyes slowly and nodded. Borman stormed away, snarling demands for some ‘fucking coffee.’ Ashford turned to Juel and Sevardin and tilted his head toward their cruiser.

“I need to debrief Detective Hopkins,” Sevardin said.

“Then catch a ride from someone else!” Ashford snapped, and continued on to the car.

Juel hesitated for a moment, looked between his partners, and finally gave Sevardin an apologetic shrug, then winced as it disturbed his shoulder. Sev shrugged in turn and waved him off. Hopkins drew her head back and blinked, then turned to Sev.

“He always like that these days?”

“More or less. Well, usually not this bad,” The tidbit seemed to slightly please Hopkins for some reason, but then she groaned and buried her head in her hands. Trinna and Asudo both patted her on the back.

“We’ll get you some coffee,” Asudo said.

Sev put his hands in his pockets, standing still. Hopkins noticed him quickly.

“What? You actually gonna debrief me? Go home, Harker. Get some fucking sleep.”

“You gonna be okay? I knew Borman was an asshole, but I can’t believe—”

“Yeah! It’s been a bad morning.” Hopkins said testily, then started listing off line items of bullshit on her fingers. “I just fought a damn monster, for which I was rewarded with a very public sextuple homicide,” one finger went up for each murder, “Unsanctioned summoning, manifestation of egregore, potential perpetrator still at large… my first press conference, and I am not wearing deodorant, let alone make-up.”

“Yeah… That’s a really bad morning.” He hesitated, wondering if he should stay silent. Before Hopkins could ask what was on his mind, he spoke up. “I was going to leave this out, because… Well. It sounds crazy and I wanted you and your venture to take me seriously, but that guy I saw in the tunnels? It seemed like he used xenomancy on us.”

Hopkins gave him a flat stare and blinked.

“Silent magic?” she asked.

“Like I said, sounds crazy. Ashford said not to even mention it, because it seems so farfetched. But I’ve gone over the night in my head at least a thousand times, and I can’t shake the feeling, or rather, the lack of feeling when he tossed my venture against a wall. It was a powerful telekinetic wave, but no wyrd behind it. No ambient energy or ether of any kind.”

And then another memory struck Sevardin, though it was less distinct, the sort of thing he could easily be imagining. The runes on the victims’ palms resembled symbols he had seen in one of his master’s books. Lewin Carroll. Historian. Linguist. Medithurge. And an odd fascination with magic that bordered on storybook superstition, like xenomancy.

Hopkins was still chewing on his revelation, unsure of what to make of him. Sevardin gestured plaintively, and implored her to believe him with his wyrd.

“I’d lose sleep if I didn’t tell you. I know it sounds nuts, and I doubt it will translate to any kind of lead, but I figured you’d want to hear every detail since you just inherited this mess.”

“No thanks to you,” Hopkins muttered. “If it weren’t for your leads, I could’ve kept my mouth shut and this thing probably would have gone to Gladstone or Jacobs instead. That will teach me to rely on precocious bluebies to do my legwork.”

“Sorry, not sorry?” Sev offered with a smile. “Oh! One more thing. I think I remember where I saw symbols like the ones on their palms before.”

“Do tell,” Hopkins said.

“Master Lewin Carroll. Teaches at our Athenaeum. I want to say that I saw a book in his office with a script like that before. Even if I’m mistaken, he’s your best bet at IDing the language if the databases come up dry.”

Hopkins pulled out a notepad and scribbled down his name, then put it back in her tool kit.

“Thanks, bluebie,” she said. “I owe you a few.”

“There are a couple easy ways to make it up to me right now, if you’d like,” Sev said.

Hopkins raised her eyebrows, intrigued. She gestured for him to speak up.

“My name’s Sevardin. Sev, if you prefer. But I’ve had enough of ‘bluebie’ to last a lifetime.”

Hopkins chuckled, emanated a sincere apology, and nodded.

“Alright, Sev. That’s plenty fair. For what it’s worth, I didn’t mean anything by it.”

“People never do. But I appreciate the correction all the same.”

“I actually prefer ‘Delle’ to Detective Hopkins, myself.”

“Noted,” Sev said, surprised but pleased. “So, Delle, do you know what happened with Ashford? I know he went back to Officer One five years ago, after hitting Senior Detective. But I have no idea why.”

Delle pursed her lips. “I don’t know the exact details, and you didn’t hear it from me, but… I heard he was associated with certain ‘clerical errors.’ And be careful who you ask about that kind of thing, blu—err, Sev.”

“I appreciate the advice. You just seemed to have a decent measure of the man, and a handle on his history.”

“Careful,” Delle said, in a tone sharp enough to make Sev back up. He put his hands up, then placed his palms together, slowly.

“I just have one last request,” Sev said, begging with hands and wyrd.

“You really like pushing your luck!” Delle said.

“I do. If you are willing, and the opportunity presents itself, I’d like to assist on this case. In any capacity. You need somebody to comb through files or something, I’m happy to put in the OT. Hell, I’m even willing to fetch coffee if you’ll let me hang out in the case room for a minute.”

Delle crossed her arms.

“You really are an overachiever, aren’t you? Or are you trying to get back on my good side?”

“I am a firm believer in multitasking,” Sevardin said, smiling. “But seriously, what happened at Devil’s Gate still keeps me up at night on occasion, and I don’t see myself shrugging this off any time soon, either. I want closure.”

“Careful what you ask for. You heard Asudo, right? I am a grand master delegator.”

“Then I guess I’ll be seeing you soon, Delle,” Sev said, smiling.

“Yeah. I think you will. Take care, Sev.”

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