EPISODE 13: NIGREDO

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Sevardin Harker. Satday, Ophiuchus 21st, 2344 AA. 9:17 AM. Glade Crest (Sev’s House).

“Hey, Sev. It’s Delle.”

“Oh, hey!” Sevardin straightened up immediately.

He had just collapsed on his couch after his morning run, exhausted. But hope spiked in his body as soon as he heard Delle’s voice. After Jovday’s excitement, he slept all of yesterday. But last night, he lay awake, fixated on the case.

Including Devil’s Gate and Suicide Bridge, we have seven dead and counting. Human sacrifice. Egregory. Potential domination. Potential xenomancy! If the case was a detective novel, readers would call it contrived for including so many outlandish elements.

He was so desperate to be involved that he was considering calling Delle, but decided it was better not to be a nuisance.

“How ya feelin’?” Delle asked.

“I’m good. Head’s pretty sore, and I won’t be ready for a glamour shoot anytime soon, but I got off light all things considered. How are you holding up?”

“Ugh. Did you see the press conference? I could barely string sentences together. I’m gonna end up on some arcanet gag real.”

Yeah, it was pretty bad. They managed to find Delle a fresh uniform, and cleaned the dirt and blood off her face, but her eyes were still bloodshot, she talked in circles at least twice, and had to ask one reporter to repeat herself. The worst part though, was the smug look on Borman’s face as she floundered. As Delle’s superior, he could have fielded the entire conference himself. Instead, he took pleasure in watching her twist. It’s like this is a game to him.

“You were fine. How’s the case progressing?”

“That’s why I’m calling. Code geeks in forensics couldn’t make heads or tails of those marks, so I’m going to talk with Master Carroll later this afternoon. Seeing how eager you were to be involved, I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind coming along and making an introduction.”

“Absolutely,” Sev said.

“Think before you leap. There’s a catch. It’ll be off-the-books, because I can’t authorize overtime. But you’ll get to see the next steps of this shit show.”

Sevardin smiled.

“I’m still interested. Couldn’t sleep last night because I was kicking the details around my head.”

“Well, in that case… There’s plenty of work to go around this morning too. I need somebody to go through the traffic cam footage around the bridge to see if we can get a glimpse of the suicide jumpers approaching the bridge. It’s a long shot, because there are ways to get on the bridge that aren’t on public feeds…”

“Delle,” Sev said. “I’m your man. Seriously. Ashford and Juel are both out on disability for at least a couple weeks. Come Lunday, I will be stuck at my desk catching up on paperwork or playing go-fer for active ventures. I figure if I make myself indispensable, I may be able to work on something more interesting.”

She laughed.

“Groovy. Send me your address and I’ll pick you up on my way to the precinct. You can scrub the footage before we talk with Carroll. Twenty minutes work?”

“I’ll be ready in ten.”

— 9:41 AM. Arroyo (Glade Crest) —

Sev was outside in eight minutes and had to keep himself from bouncing toe-to-toe with eagerness. Since he was off duty, he dressed in his favorite leather jacket, a pair of comfortably worn but respectable jeans, and an untucked white button up.

It wasn’t long before the sleek lines of black-cherry ’35 Pershing Spiderwolf graced Sev’s driveway. It was a modern classic as far as muscle cars went. Needed a wash, but otherwise seemed to be in premium condition. The window lowered, and Delle gestured for him to get in.

She was still obviously stressed, but the bags under her eyes were considerably reduced, and masked by makeup. She had on a dark red lipstick that went well with her indigo hair. Maybe it was the car—the car certainly didn’t hurt—but in the daylight, away from the stench of suicide, Delle was quite attractive. Hot even, in a badass-working-mom-next-door kind of way.

Sev mentally slapped himself. Don’t even think about it. She is your superior, and ten years your senior.

“Nice ride!” he said, emanating deep appreciation as he climbed in.

“Thanks!” Delle said, stroking the dash. “We’re short on cruisers at the moment, and I wasn’t about to pass up an excuse to show off my baby.”

“Where are Asudo and Trinna?” Sev asked.

“Conducting interviews. Well, trying at least. None of the victims had licenses on, so we’ve only found next of kin for two of the victims. Still working on IDing the others. All of them appear to be homeless.”

“Sounds like a nightmare,” Sev said.

“Your task isn’t much better, trust me.” Delle said, laughing. “But before I lock you in the dungeon, there’s actually something I wanted to ask you about Devil’s Gate.”

“Shoot,” Sev said.

“Tell me more about the xenomancy. I looked through your report of the Devil’s Gate incident, but since Ash—in his infinite asshat wisdom—asked you to omit mention of it, I’m kind of drawing a blank.”

He thought back to the case.

“The second jumper we examined was the xenomancer,” Sevardin said. “He wasn’t wearing licenses then, either. But he hit us with a kinetic wave that was far too strong for an asfalis caster, and there was no urdic ripple. No magical energy of any kind.”

Delle pursed her lips and paused for a moment before asking:

“He was with the possessed girl when you saw him, right? Any chance she was the actual caster?”

“No. She didn’t have licenses either, but all of her tricks felt like regular magic. Well, egregoric magic, from the thing possessing her, but you get what I mean. They cast ripples every time she did something. Did anybody interview the victims?”

Delle nodded and sighed.

“The girl you rescued, Sidani Phillips? She didn’t really see anything. That egregore possessed her quickly, consumed her with horrifying pain. She was pretty badly traumatized. We kept her in the hospital for a few days, then transferred her to a homeless shelter in Central. No idea if she’s still there.”

“What about the man?” Sev said.

“Bock Samford. He said his friend Canker—that’s our dead jumper—took him prisoner and acted like he was possessed. Didn’t speak right. Kept saying shit like ‘they are too late,’ and ‘not long now.’ He usually issued commands with gestures. Occasionally he would appear lucid, and ask questions, but Bock said that it was like somebody would change the channel, and he would go back to ignoring them.

“Bock confirmed that Canker could use magic without licenses, and he didn’t emanate, but he didn’t mention a lack of ripples. Then again, he doesn’t seem like he’s all there anymore, after what Canker did to him. From the sound of things, he was kind of cracked to begin with, but last I heard, he was in an asylum, restrained so he couldn’t scratch his wrists.”

“Christ, what did Canker do to him?”

“Gave him injections. Probably those chemicals in the lab. Good job noticing those reagents all related to binding tattoos, by the way. Even the detectives didn’t catch that.”

Sevardin smiled faintly, pleased that somebody competent had read his report and found it useful. But it hurt to hear that Bock had cracked. Sev thought they managed to save two lives that night. It was a point of pride. Yet I didn’t even bother to follow up and see how they were doing. Do you actually care about helping people, Harker, or are you just in it for the credit?

“I don’t suppose the detectives included my theory that the xenomancer was growing the ponophage either?”

Delle shook her head. Sev scoffed and shook his head, bitter.

“Enlighten me,” she said.

“Those things do not grow that big without somebody taking notice unless somebody has it on some kind of leash. His victims were terrified, ready to die of starvation, and being treated like hypodermic pincushions. He could feed it a steady stream of anguished energy.”

Delle nodded.

“If he could hold it in check, it’s not much of a leap to assume he could control it. And having a big bad monster would make one hell of a scarecrow. Or a guard dog.”

“That’s what I told the detectives,” Sev said, exasperated.

Delle didn’t reply, apparently working another problem in her head. After a minute, she said:

“Maybe those injections are how he got his silent wyrd. Might mask your casting, and reverse the effects of the binding tattoos.”

Sev tilted his head in consideration.

“Yeah. Definitely a better theory than actual xenomancy,” he conceded.

“Who knows, man. Way this case is going, we may meet the devil himself.”

— 10:12 AM. Arroyo (AKF – Central Precinct) —

“Here’re your new digs for the foreseeable future. Apologies,” Delle said.

Evidence Room Six said “hello” to Sev with a scent like long-expired mothballs and mildew. It was built into the sub-basement of the precinct, and judging from the warped wooden paneling, there was nothing between you and raw earth save for a wall of concrete. There was a couch, an old fat television with one of those combination disc and tape players, and a five-year-old incanter that didn’t even have a high-resolution display. If the cameras that took the footage are low-res too, it will be a pixelated nightmare. Christ. You asked for it, buddy.

“Also, since you technically aren’t allowed to be here, call me if you find anything. We’ll take the pertinent file and put it on a screen where you can actually see worth half a damn.”

“Uh. And what should I say if somebody comes in?”

Delle snickered and waved him off.

“Nobody voluntarily goes to Evidence Room Six! It’s probably a genuine health hazard in here.”

What?!

“That’s not an answer, Delle!” Sev objected.

“Good luck!” Delle said, and shut the door behind her.

Sev froze mid gesture and sighed. Congratulations, Harker. You played yourself.

—|—

The novelty of being involved in an investigation wore off after the first hour. Delle had given him shots of each victim, but some of the less fortunate jumpers had their heads crushed. The traffic cam taking footage on Orange Grove and West Calle Colorado were high res, but they were also black and white, and the incanter’s shit display made IDing faces impossible.

Fortunately, the victims’ ragged clothes were distinctive enough to set them apart from most passersby. Only two of the suicides were dressed ‘normally,’ and even they wore eccentric layers of clothing. There weren’t too many people around the bridge at 3AM, but there were more than Sev expected. Joggers, mostly, but also a number of transients, and people walking dogs.

At a quarter past one, Sev started alternating between the cameras on Orange Grove and West Calle Colorado, just to keep his eyes from glazing over. Then, at seven past three AM on the tape, he caught something. One of the women who jumped. She wore a dress of rags past the bus station on West Colorado, continuing in the direction of the bridge. Sev scanned her several times to be sure and wrote down the times on the footage to review later. He debated calling Delle and ultimately decided that he should finish scrubbing the footage first.

He switched back to the Colorado Cam to monitor the eastern side of the bridge, scanning the same rough time period, but nothing came up in that window. Disappointed, he continued to scroll earlier in the footage. Finally, he found another lead on the tape at roughly quarter to three AM.

One of the normally dressed victims was walking up Orange Grove, accompanied by a man in a windbreaker with light hair. They did not appear to be talking, but they were clearly walking together, sharing the sidewalk. And as they turned towards Defender’s Park, the small greenspace at the eastern end of the bridge, another victim shrouded in ragged robes approached from just off screen. Then the three of them walked out of frame, in the direction of the bridge. The man in the windbreaker was not one of the victims.

Sev immediately dialed Delle and practically pressed his face against the incanter screen, desperate to glean some identifying characteristics. He scrubbed the footage rapidly in either direction, trying to see if he could locate any of the other jumpers, but he had no luck. The others must have entered the bridge through the park on the eastern bank, or the switch back staircase on the western side. Neither entrance was surveilled.

“Find something?” Delle asked.

“Just a potential suspect,” Sevardin said casually.

“I’ll be right there.”

— 1:37 PM. Central Arroyo (AKF – Central Precinct) —

“Pretty sure he’s our man,” Sev said, tapping the incanter screen. “That’s one of our suicides next to him. He exits the bridge alone on West Colorado at 3:22. That puts him at the scene during the ritual. And along with the woman, these are the only three people you can see entering the bridge in that time period.”

A fierce grin spread across Delle’s face, and her wyrd seemed to effervesce. She stared at Sev, emanating gratitude, and shaking her head incredulously.

“I didn’t think anything would come of this. Nice work. Save the footage to a drive and we’ll take a look at it down the hall. Evidence Room 3 has a high-resolution screen with some digital forensic filters.”

They extracted the footage onto a crystalline data drive and exited the horrible little room. Sev had almost forgotten what fresh air tasted like, and his back was stiff from hunching in front of the too small desk. Evidence Room 3 was a much nicer accommodation, recently updated with contemporary tech. Sev couldn’t help but feel bitter that the room was vacant. I could’ve worked in here the whole damn time.

They booted up the incanter and scrubbed the footage to the appropriate time frame. Sev was elated to have found a potential lead. He did not anticipate recognizing the face behind the pixelated fog, however.

“I think that’s Dessen Thomas,” Sev said, shocked.

“What, you know him?” Delle asked.

Sev nodded.

“If he is who I think he is. Dessen was in my cohort. He drummed out in our fifth year.”

“What for?”

Sev weighed his words carefully. Where do I begin?

“Well. It started when he put another aspirant in critical condition. I intervened in the fight…”

It had happened over lunch, late in Leo. Sev remembered it was hot as hell.

Marsch Braun stormed into the cafeteria with fire extinguisher. Other people in the room looked, telegraphing his approach to Dessen. And without the element of surprise…. Dessen had a powerful wyrd and was gifted with erudensis. He had declared Keeping as his discipline, whereas Braun was training to be an Arcanist. The gulf in their combat skills was enormous.

Braun swung the fire extinguisher as soon as Dessen turned around. Dessen parried the blow with his wyrd and punched Braun in the throat. Then he grabbed Braun by the hair and smashed his face against the table. Twice. I was already moving at that point, running to stop it. Others tried too, but Dessen just shrugged them off, kicking Braun in the ribs and shouting at him to get up. He was about to stomp on Braun’s head when we managed to bind him.

Sev never liked Dessen. He was one of those narcissists who had a hard luck story, and felt that his struggles entitled him to the entire world. He was aggressive in sparring classes, written up for lack of control at least a dozen times. But there were plenty of bullies in the Athenaeum, and he never particularly stood out in Sev’s mind until their fourth year. He started referring to the women in their cohort as sluts, whores, or something similar. And when Sev learned the truth behind the fight, he was disgusted, but unsurprised.

“The fight was just the last straw,” Sev said. “Another aspirant—Braun—was the one who started it. Turns out Dessen had molested Braun’s girlfriend with domination magic.”

“My god,” Delle said, repulsed.

“Apparently, she wasn’t the only one either. Once they started interviewing aspirants, two other girls came forward. Rumor has it, one girl even reported it to her dorm proctor earlier, but the proctor dismissed it as a nightmare. Somehow that bit never made it to the papers.”

“My god!” Delle repeated. “Why didn’t they lock that bastard up?”

“He was still seventeen when the crimes happened, so he was tried as a juvenile. Two months later and he would have faced multiple accounts of sexual assault via malefaction. That’s a life sentence for each offense. As it was, I think he got two years.”

“Tell me they at least stripped his licenses.”

“Yeah. He’s effectively an inurbanus now. Forbidden from owning a license or using any kind of exempt magic. Only able to emanate.”

Delle knit her brow and crossed her arms, thinking.

“Seems he found a way to scratch the magic itch anyway. But even if he was a naturally gifted dominus with an amagiate license, there’s no way he could control six people at once. You’d have to spread your brainpower across six different hosts, and all of them would presumably be trying to fight you for control…”

“What about drugs?” Sev asked.

The thought hit him suddenly. Delle looked up slowly as the implications dawned on her.

“Binding tattoos’ alchemical ingredients affect the mind,” Delle said. “Maybe he wasn’t trying to reverse the bindings… maybe he tweaked the spell to put them in a deep suggestive state. Not only controlling their wyrd, but their volition as well. True zombification.”

Delle looked like she was going to say more, but did a double take over Sev’s shoulder.

“Shit! We’re late. Supposed to meet the master in ten minutes. I’m going to call Asudo. Tell him to prioritize tracking down Dessen.”

— 2:07 PM. Arroyo Athenaeum (Administratum) —

It was a short drive to the Athenaeum—especially with Delle using a portable amagiate siren to break through the light traffic. Sevardin was pretty sure that was illegal and said as much, but Delle gave him an emanation that could crack a window and he shut up. She said something to the effect of “shit, we’re late,” at least five times on the walk to Carroll’s office, even though Sev tried to assure her that he didn’t have the kind of terrifying ego that typified most tenured masters.

It was strange being back on campus. Wistful and tender. In his final years of matriculation, Sev was a respected member of Arroyo’s Athenaeum. A proctor for numerous classes, well-liked by his teachers and peers. He was so focused on graduation, on getting his silver licenses, that he never really appreciated the atmosphere of comfort, direction, and competence campus life provided. As they half-jogged to the Administratum, Sev actually recognized a couple former underclassmen. Fourth-years who were now fifth-years. In absence of seeing them daily, they seemed to have grown shockingly quickly, even though he had only been an officer for a quarter year. Time marches on.

They made their way to Carroll’s office in the elevator, Hopkins was still jittery. Sev hid a smirk. She’s cute when she’s flustered. When the elevator dinged, Sev led the way to his old teacher’s office and knocked.

“Come in!” Carroll said through the door at the first knock.

Sevardin opened the door and stepped inside first. Carroll was already making his way across the room, and Sev caught a glimpse of his ashen expression before he looked up and smiled. Something is weighing on him.

“Officer Harker! What a pleasant surprise!”

“Good to see you again, Master. Wish it were under brighter circumstances.”

“Please, call me Lewin or Carroll. No need for honorifics,” Carroll said and turned his gaze to Delle. “Detective Hopkins said that you referred me, but I was unaware you were working on this case with her.”

“I volunteered, though technically I’m working under the table,” Sevardin explained. “I hope you don’t mind me sitting in?”

Carroll paused for a second. He does mind. Sevardin was surprised. I always thought I was one of his favorites. Eventually, Carroll chuckled and smiled at Hopkins.

“If there is no objection from the detective?”

“I trust him,” Delle said. Sev was genuinely touched. “And please call me ‘Delle.’”

Carroll simply nodded, then went to lock the door, which struck Sevardin as odd. Is that really necessary? When he turned around, his face was grave again.

“I looked into those marks you sent me. And… well. Could I ask you two to fill me in on the case first?”

Sev drew his head back slightly. What? Come on, Carroll. You know that isn’t how this works. Carroll took consults all the time back when Sev was studying. Detectives loved him. That’s why I recommended you without a second thought. So why are you prying for confidential info?

“Apologies,” Carroll said, apparently perceiving the misstep. “I must confess. This is a particular interest of mine. Near to my heart, and… a highly obscure subject to navigate. Having some context will help me make sense of my findings.”

Delle gave a hesitant nod.

“We’ll share what we can Master Carroll, err, Lewin, but you know how department protocol is. The more we tell you, the more trouble we could all get in.”

Carroll nodded.

“Yes, of course. Whatever you deem fit.”

Delle walked him through the public account of the incident, admitting the detectives suffered their injuries at the hand of an egregore—a detail that had not been released to the press. She pointed out that very presence of the marks on the victims’ bodies was also omitted from the AKF’s statement. 

“I see,” Carroll sounded extremely disappointed and lowered his gaze toward his desk. Just before the silence could press down on them in earnest, Carroll raised his head, looking as fiery as a somewhat portly, middle-aged scholar could look. “Detective Hopkins. Are there any elements in this case that seem inexplicable?”

“This will be easier if you speak plainly,” Delle said.

“Apologies. I refer to elements of xenomancy. Or mention of Strangers, Erebus, and other such… outlandish, subjects.”

Carroll’s guess hit Sev and Delle like starch. So much for keeping our composure. Sev had hoped Carroll would have a rational explanation that dispelled the storybook bullshit from this case. Instead, he seemed infatuated by it. Even more discomforting, he knew to ask about it. None of the case’s more sensational details had spread to the press yet. Xenomancy isn’t real. So why does it keep cropping up?

“I have a suspicion,” Carroll said slowly. “Hearing about these anomalies may help me confirm it. I simply do not want to lead you astray.”

Delle shot a glance at Sev, clearly peeved that his cooperative, capable recommendation was blackmailing them with his expertise. But she gestured for him to speak up, and given her emanations, it was clear she wanted him to hold nothing back.

Sev recounted Devil’s Gate to both of them, starting with the transient’s anecdote about the sound being distorted in the flood channel, all the way to his encounter with the jumper who used apparent xenomancy. He even said that the jumper was experimenting with reagents pertaining to the binding tattoos. In hindsight, he realized that he may have annoyed Delle again. And Carroll took notes as he spoke, which seemed to piss her off even more. Sevardin crossed his arms.

“I think you’ve bled me enough, Lewin. Can you share your findings?”

Carroll bowed his head and emanated apologies.

“I assure you; it is pertinent. The xenomancy was what I was searching for, and the things you described… they are consistent with… well. Err. Let me discuss the marks.”

“By all means,” Delle said, her good humor waning slightly.

“The first thing to understand is that these symbols aren’t a magical language in a traditional sense. Runes, sigils, arcane syllabary… they are all imperfect frameworks that structure our minds to suit specific kinds of magic. This is true of gestures, auditory speech, and writing. Certain languages are better suited to specific anima, seasons, and locations…”

“Apologies Master,” Delle cut in. “But we’ve all taken the classes and we’re pressed for time. If the marks aren’t magic, what purpose do they serve?”

“Yes, of course. In short, these marks correlate to instances of alleged xenomancy. Throughout history, they have appeared in the company of unexplainable, non-magical phenomena. They were found carved into stones in the region of North Carolina where Roanoke Colony was believed to disappear. They have been found in ocean trenches, and the wastes of Tunguska. The exact same symbols the world over. It is unclear, however, whether they are meant to act as a calling card, or as a beacon of sorts.”

“A beacon for what?” Delle asked.

Carroll opened his mouth, then closed it again, pondering his words.

“Are you familiar with the concept of Erebus? Or rather, Strangers?”

“If I remember my bedtime stories right,” Delle said, mouth twitching into a smirk, “my professional impression is that Erebus is just an a-religious concept of hell. The great, evil void in the margins of creations. And Strangers might as well be a catch all term for monsters we can’t explain yet. Seems more plausible than interdimensional beings beyond comprehension.”

Carroll seemed to disagree. His face was dead serious, bordering on anger. But he took another deep breath and bowed his head.

“I’ve done a great deal of research on the subject. Erebus is a truly ancient concept. It predates the destruction of Athens, and most religious notions of hell. The reason I bring up these ‘bedtime stories’ is that xenomancers often write of patrons. Beings who provide them with lost knowledge, or the ability to disrupt the Resting Laws without magic. Alleged sightings of Strangers are also often linked to these symbols. What we don’t know is whether these marks draw Strangers, or serve as a sort of footprint in our world.”

“Why does that distinction matter?” Sevardin asked.

“Because if it is a footprint, we have an extremely serious problem. Something much worse than a dominus malefactor or serial killer is on the loose.”

How does he believe this? More importantly, how does he know a dominus is involved? Sevardin never took Carroll to be a conspiracy theorist, or somebody exceedingly superstitious. He always expressed a borderline boring degree of levelheadedness. Delle and Sevardin exchanged a glance. Let’s change topics.

“If these symbols are known, why aren’t they in the database?” Sev asked.

An odd expression flickered across Carroll’s face. Frustration. Bitterness, even.

“Frankly speaking; most of the people who study xenomancy, Strangers, and Erebus are… ‘conspiratorial quacks,’ to phrase things charitably. Our collective… body of knowledge on the subjects are mostly based on pseudo-scholarship, speculation, and dubious, attention-seeking testimonials. Consequently, academics generally assume this is an inert magical language whose meanings and grammar have been lost to time. Or simple nonsense.”

“How common is this knowledge?” Delle asked. “Could I find these symbols on the arcanet?”

“You can find anything on the arcanet with the right search terms.” Carroll said, voice grim.

“Is it possible our culprit is one of these quacks who wants to make this look like xenomancy?” Delle asked. “I mean, Samhain is just four days away and killers love to spook people.”

Carroll sighed deeply and removed his glasses, as if he were unsure how to respond. Sev’s patience was wearing thin. We’re all friends here, master. We trust your opinion. But if you don’t want us to look at you like you’re crazy, stop saying crazy shit.  

“Have you determined how those marks were created?” Carroll asked, and judging from his tone, he already knew the answer.

“No. We don’t,” Delle admitted, patience straining. “The coroner said that at first glance, the marks looked like the cuts were made with a knife, but the impressions were to precise, and the edges of the cuts were cauterized. I take it you have a theory, though?”

“I have no idea. But that is precisely why I think they are authentic.”

Delle looked frustrated and Sev sympathized. Please get to wherever you are going with this.

“The ‘Night Stalker’ serial murders received significant media attention for their alleged involvement with xenomancy. But when I saw the case files, years later, I knew that the xenomantic angle was spurious. Avedro Alvarez messily carved symbols into his victims and painted them with blood. In authentic cases, however, these xenomantic ‘brands’ always appear in the same way: precise impressions with no clear cause, regardless of the material they are inscribed upon.”

“Apart from the brands themselves, what qualifies as an ‘authentic’ xenomancy?” Delle asked.

“Inexplicable, non-magical disruptions to the Resting Laws. People performing contracts without anima, or impressive feats of sorcery without licenses. Anima spontaneously activating themselves or witching a caster. And monstrum that defy ‘conventional understanding’ of both biology and urdobiology, as you would phrase it.

“This specific symbol is associated with one such monster. A Stranger known as the Striped Man. Accounts describe him as a handsome, well-dressed human male. And as with egregores, anthropomorphism among Strangers suggests sentience and tremendous strength. His mark has appeared throughout history. The most infamous was London’s Ripper incident. The brand appeared on each of Jalque Harrow’s victims; the sole parts of their bodies that were not mutilated by his knife.”

“See?” Delle said, dry. “Devil himself.”

Sevardin’s mouth twitched in a smile. Are you messing with us?

Jalque Harrows, the man to whom the Ripper serial murders were ultimately attributed to, was the most famous killer in history. His crimes were gruesome enough by themselves—two dozen women butchered by his hand—but it was the state of terror he instilled that nearly brought London to its knees. The city’s collective unconscious was so thoroughly poisoned by his actions that egregores born of nightmares, rage, and fear walked the streets in broad daylight. Or rather, they stalked the soot shrouded fog and smog of early 2220’s London.

Worse yet, this occurred at the tail end of the Amagiate Interregnum period. With no Keeping Force to stand against the horrors, it ultimately fell to the country’s then-nascent police forces and desperate mobs to unite against the monsters. The people were ultimately victorious—their story inspired countless stories, and by all accounts, it had been a near thing. If the city had fallen? There was no telling how far the egregoric plague would have spread.

The case led to enormous breakthroughs in humanity’s understanding of egregory and the collective unconscious, to say nothing of laying the groundwork for modern forensics. But people had attributed every possible explanation to the horrors, from demonic influences, to faen teinds, to xenomancy.

“Where else has this brand appeared?” Sevardin asked.

“The Stones of Roanoke, as I mentioned before… It appeared on stalks of wheat fields in Northern France, just before the great famine of 1844. The list goes on. And the only constant is… misery. Death.”

“Can’t wait to report this one to Borman,” Delle muttered.

“I realize how this sounds. Truly, I do. But I could not face myself in the mirror if I didn’t warn you. I believe this threat to be sincere, and grave.”

“Noted, Master,” Sev said, looking apprehensive. “Can you give us anything… more concrete? Something we can bring to the brass? A palatable lie or some general advice may get us more help than a truth that’s hard to swallow.”

Carroll was silent for a long moment, then said:

“Xenomancy is associated with isolation and neglect. It is thought that Strangers can speak to people more easily in the forgotten corners of society. Marginalized individuals, in particular. You should speak with homeless in the area. Examine derelict buildings, underpasses… Your prime suspect probably has a history of violence or trauma. It is believed that to receive a Stranger’s patronage, a xenomancer must first silence their wyrd.”

“What does that entail?” Delle asked.

“The process varies from individual to individual. In fact, it is referred to as the ‘tace opus,’ or ‘silent opus.’ The only common thread, is that it represents a symbolic severance with humanity. Most scholars say it requires a period of prolonged reclusion. Others claim it stems from egregious self-maiming, or committing some sort of atrocity.”

“What qualifies as an atrocity? Are we talking rape and murder?” Delle asked.

“I’m afraid I don’t know. A single instance might suffice, or it may take a litany of crimes. Again, the only constants among the scholarship I’ve read is that the process differs from person to person, and it is generally abhorrent in some way.”

Sev snickered. This gets better and better. Delle seemed even less pleased. She thinks this whole meeting was a waste of time. And honestly, I can’t blame her. Hell, the only reason I’m entertaining the thought is that I can’t explain what that jumper did to us at Devil’s Gate.

“Thanks for your expertise, Master Carroll,” Delle said, closing her notebook. “I should probably get back to the station and see where we’re at with the interviews.”

Carroll seemed to read the dismissal on Delle’s face, and he bowed his head.

“If you run into any more marks, please send them to me. I will continue to research on my end and contact you if I can come up with anything more… concrete. In return, please ask me if you have any further questions or need information about xenomancy.”

“You’ll be my first call,” Delle assured him, and shook his hand.

Three sharp knocks sounded from the door. Judging from Carroll’s expression, he didn’t seem to be expecting company.

“Looks like you’re popular today. We’ll get out of your hair,” Sev said.

The door swung open, which was odd. Carroll locked the door.

“Err, please wait just a moment…” Carroll said, expecting to find a pushy student.

A Keeper stood on the other side of the door. A tall, broad-shouldered man with his black, widow-peaked hair secured into a tight braid. Sevardin didn’t recognize him. His skin was pale, but apart from that, his ethnicity was ambiguous. Even though he wore a standard keeper’s uniform, his weapons belt was empty. Instead, the man carried a polished wooden stave with leather wraps that was too small to be a proper staff, but too long to be a practical walking cane. It also had a distinctive, cross-shaped handle.

“Ah. Excellent. You haven’t left yet,” he said in a posh accent, regarding Delle. He spared Sevardin a questioning glance, then directed his attention to Carroll. “Forgive my intrusion Master Carroll, Detective Hopkins, but we have a great deal to discuss.”

“I’m sorry, who are you?” Delle demanded.

“I am Special Agent Forsythe. And this case is now under my authority.”

“Excuse me?” Delle asked. “What division do you work for? Are you with the regional guard?”

“Oh no,” he said, waving his hand dismissively. “I report directly to the Arch Commissioners. Confidential Interests Chapter.”

There was a beat of silence. Excuse me?

Forsythe closed the door behind him, and locked it. As he swept into the room, Sevardin saw that his braid, which hung to the small of his back, was secured by a white ribbon whose tails fell to the back of his knees. That’s a bit dramatic, as fashion statements go. But apparently it wasn’t just for show. The ribbon buzzed with energy, some kind of powerful binding enchantments. His cross-shaped stave was also enchanted with a number of spells relating to kinetic energy. Definitely some kind of weapon.

“I realize this is ‘non-standard’ and you likely have many questions. Let’s do our best to get through them quickly, yes? Hopefully, this will suffice as proof of my sanctioned involvement.”

Forsythe produced a leather folio from his equipment satchel and passed it to Delle. She flipped the folio open to reveal a vellum document with the seal of the Arch Commissioners. The page’s language was formal, but remarkably straight-forward. By order of the Arch Commissioners, Special Agent Edryr Forsythe of the Confidential Interest Chapter was to assume sole authority over the Calle Colorado Bridge investigation.

“Confidential Interest Chapter… Isn’t that an international outfit?” Delle asked.

And a secretive one. You couldn’t just work your way into the CIC. It was unclear what their selection criteria was, but rumor had it, their agents were recruited directly out of the Athenaeum. They were the shadiest branch of the Amagium. Their existence wasn’t publicly acknowledged until the late twenties when a sting operation on the American drug cartels went sideways, resulting in the deaths of several civilians, drug runners, and amagia. Journalists and asfalis governments had deduced that the Chapter was likely active for at least three decades prior to the debacle, referred to as the Sinaloa Massacre, but the Amagium refused to reveal anything else.

“Indeed,” Forsythe said. “We believe this to be a sincere case of xenomancy. For obvious reasons, such scenarios need to be handled with delicacy and discretion.”

“How did you come to suspect xenomancy?” Sevardin asked.

Forsythe regarded Sevardin with a raised eyebrow, a quiet smile, and the ghost of amusement in his emanations. It was the sort of look that asked two questions at once: who the fuck are you, and who the fuck do you think you are?

“Probationary Officer Sevardin Harker, Sir,” Sevardin said, a touch curt.

“Probationary!” Forsythe made a great show of widening his eyes. “Aren’t we precocious?”

“I vouch for Harker,” Delle said. “He’s shown more initiative than some of the senior detectives who’ve been assigned to help me out. And the other members of his venture are out on leave.”

“Well,” Forsythe said with a clearly forced smile. “Given such an… earnest endorsement, who am I to question Detective Hopkins’ wisdom? You are welcome to assist Officer Harker, but I warn you: these are the big leagues. Not for the faint of heart.”

“That won’t be a problem, Sir,” Sevardin said. “Now. I’d appreciate it if you could answer my question: how did the CIC know this case is involved with xenomancy?”

Forsythe held his smile and locked eyes with Sev for a long time. His irises were an unremarkable shade of brown, but his pupils were abnormally wide, as if the room were pitch black. Despite his anger at the condescension, a shudder snaked up Sevardin’s spine and echoed through his wyrd. I am staring at an apex predator. Forsythe unfroze and answered Sev in a pleasant tone:

“We have certain automated flags set up to track specific database searches. I received one notification when the forensic techs reviewed the marks on the victims, and a second notification when Master Carroll began his research last night. He accessed a number of documents and records in the digital archive that, while declassified, we consider sensitive. How did you come to be involved, Officer Harker?”

“I was the responding officer at Devil’s Gate and assisted in the investigation of the bridge suicides—”

“My! Seems some men have all the luck,” Forsythe interrupted.

Is that some kind of kinked joke? Sev stopped talking. How do I respond to that?

“Officer Harker personally experienced an instance of apparent xenomancy at Devil’s Gate,” Delle said, voice firm. “On Jovday, he identified one of the suicide victims as the alleged xenomancer. And earlier this morning, he identified a prime suspect and potential means for the ritual by reviewing surveillance footage of the bridge.”

Forsythe drew his head back and made a great show of reappraising Sevardin. I can’t tell if he’s being sarcastic or genuine. He clearly enjoyed making an entrance, and he was plenty comfortable with hijacking cases.

“Apologies, Officer Harker,” Forsythe said, emanating respect. “It seems you have a promising career ahead of you.” Then he turned to Delle, wearing an infuriating little grin. “And what have you uncovered, Detective? Or rather, what are your professional impressions of the case so far?”

Delle’s mouth hung open, and then she scoffed and folded her arms.

“Apparently, I’m just along for the ride,” she said, more than a touch snide.

“Rest assured, you will be given full credit for the case’s resolution, including your advancement to Senior Detective, regardless of your contributions. And I’ll make sure you progress to full officer in short order,” he said to Sevardin with a conspiratorial wink. “In exchange, I require one thing from each of you for the duration of this investigation.” Forsythe paused for emphasis. “Obedience.”

Carroll’s initial alarm at Forsythe’s intrusion seemed to have subsided. He was still tense, but by Sev’s reckoning, he was holding his breath. Hoping for something.

“Err, am I to be included in this task force, Special Agent?”

Forsythe turned to Carroll, his face a portrait of pleasance.

“Given your… ‘extracurricular’ research, Master Carroll, I believe you are uniquely qualified to assist us, yes. You won’t accompany us in the field, of course, but I would like you to lend your expertise by assessing the xenomancer’s abilities. Act as a reference to our officers who are less versed in… unconventional magic.”

Carroll knit his brow and gave a resolute nod. Forsythe turned back to the group at large.

“Splendid. I want to keep our squad small. Based on my initial research, your venture seems competent enough. Talented, in fact. Harker and I will accompany you, as well as Detectives Matsuda, and Moss. The other ventures that have been assigned to assist you will handle the drudgery. Identifying victims and interviewing their families and what not.”

“We’re just going to ignore those potential leads?” Delle asked.

“Oh, I suppose they might get lucky, but we have a more pressing priority. I agree with your assessment that the bridge suicides were fuel for a summoning ritual. I also concur with your suspicion that the egregore you faced, while fearsome, was placed there as a sort of… red herring. A trap to throw us off the scent. The truth is, a xenomancer can manage far worse with six human sacrifices at his disposal.

“Therefore, I think it is safe to conclude that his summoning ritual has yet to bear fruit. And the easiest way to disrupt the ritual is to eliminate the caster. Since Officer Harker has apparently blessed us with a prime suspect, we will devote all of our energy to locating him.”

“Eliminate?” Sevardin asked.

Forsythe pouted slightly and gave Sevardin one of those condescending smiles reserved for small animals and children.

“The unfortunate thing about xenomancy, Officer Harker, is that it irredeemably poisons everything it touches. Once a human has made a pact with a Stranger, they must be regarded as an extension of that Stranger, and cauterized before metathesis can occur.

“This is nothing like demonic possession or egregoric enthrallment. There is no grand, religious battle for a soul to be had here, nor an innocent mind to be liberated from foreign influence. Interrogation or incarceration would expose us to corruption. If you want in on this case, Officer, you need to be ready to take on that burden. Anything less, and you are a liability.”

Sevardin held Forsythe’s gaze and emanated affirmation, while making a silent vow. I’ll protect Arroyo, my venture, and myself. But I’m not going to summarily execute a man I can arrest, even if he is a murderous, piece-of-shit rapist. We can learn something from him. Prevent this from happening again. And if Forsythe tries to pre-empt that, I will stop him myself. I don’t care how far up the chain he is.

“Exquisite,” Forsythe said. “Now, let’s get started.”

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