Sevardin Harker. Lunday, Ophiuchus 23rd, 5:21 AM, 2344 AA. North Arroyo (Secustore Facility).
Sevardin’s first instinct was to draw his gun. But what can I do? The deed was done. Instead, he looked on, breathless with anger. Delle was repulsed, and Sev also saw her hand go to her hip. Both of them emanated shock and outrage; the raw stuff of protest.
Forsythe’s face was grim. He whipped his thin, long blade to the side, casting the girl’s blood onto the concrete, and then reinserted it into his stave. He did not turn to face either Sev or Delle at first, but waited to see if either of them took further actions.
“That was a mercy,” he said at length.
“She was still alive, Forsythe!” Sevardin shouted.
“Precisely,” Forsythe said. “Dessen Thomas was using her as a puppet, forcing her to endure the agony of bleeding out, denying her the ability to speak her own words, or move her own body. I’m sure I could fathom less pleasant ways to die, but it would be an exercise.”
“Dessen could have been bluffing about the infections,” Delle said, shaking her head. “We may have been able to save her.”
Forsythe turned his cold gaze to Delle.
“How, pray tell? At least a third of her skin has been flayed off to form these stripes. Even if we managed to staunch the bleeding, nothing short of a miracle would save her life. And the fact remains, she was bound to Dessen. I imagine with that brand on her belly, he could hijack her whenever he felt like it. We don’t know how his corruption spreads. Even speaking to him was a risk.”
“She was a person, Forsythe,” Sevardin said, disbelieving.
Forsythe looked at Sevardin, and inclined his head.
Sev had no idea how to respond. How can you be so quick to write off a human life as unsalvageable? These aren’t reanimated corpses, egregores, or monsters! These are—
“The girl was innocent. I took no pleasure in it. But know that I will not sleep until Dessen Thomas is dead.”
“Yeah, let’s talk about that,” Sevardin said, emanations sharp. “What if he surrenders?”
Forsythe looked at Sevardin like he was an idiot.
“Then I will make it quick,” Forsythe said, his normally smooth voice harshly clipped. “You’ve seen what this monster has done. What he has forced others to do. What he is capable of.” Menace built with every word, and then Forsythe took a deep breath and bowed his head. “Sevardin. I admire your resolve to protect and save lives. I, personally, do not believe everybody deserves a chance at redemption, but I can respect those who do: to a point.
“That point is whether redemption is feasible or not. Regardless of whether a person deserves it, some people have no desire to pursue it. That was a lesson hard-learned, but it has become a coda throughout my career—most often in cases like this. Dessen Thomas cannot be cured, nor is he merely a mad dog that ought to be put down for general public safety. He is not even a serial killer, who might suffer for his crimes with a life of solitude. This former-human has become existential cancer. And I will take pleasure in making him pay for this.”
Sevardin bowed his head, teeth clenched. He could hear Juel’s father, Ajola speaking to him: “Every dead malefactor is a failure of the system we serve.” It was part of a speech, but the rest was of it was vaguer in his memory. The basic argument was that death was an irreversible and fundamentally unproductive sentence. Nothing could be learned from it. No amends could ever be made.
Forsythe threaded his cane through the back of his weapons belt and turned to Delle and Sevardin. He gestured—respectfully, at least—at the now headless corpse, still suspended by chains and steadily raining blood onto the storage unit floor.
“Help me get her down,” he said quietly.
Sev and Delle used unlocking contracts on the padlocks that held the chains, while Forsythe held the girl. When she was freed, they laid her body on a dry portion of the concrete. Sevardin gingerly retrieved the girl’s head, taking her temples in both hands. He couldn’t avoid a glimpse of her surprised eyes and slack jaw. I thought I saved you, Sidani. I’m sorry. I don’t know what I could have done differently, but I… I will do better. Sevardin laid her head next to her body, and both Delle and Forsythe covered her with the once-white sheet, now a deep crimson.
Sevardin stared for a long moment before Delle nudged him.
“I’m really not,” Sevardin said. “I thought I saved two people at Devil’s Gate. Last night, I learned that one has a broken mind, and I just watched a serial killer torture the other to death.”
“Saving somebody doesn’t make them invulnerable, Sev. This job will give you enough to regret without borrowing blame for things that aren’t your fault.”
Sev knew it was good advice, but it did little to numb the rage and recriminations simmering inside him. As Delle and Sevardin spoke, Forsythe studied, then paced back and forth in front of the four mirrors that had been staged around the body. They formed a makeshift barricade between the front and back of the storage unit, which was still cluttered with alchemical reagents, notebooks, and other detritus.
“There is one silver lining in this girl’s sacrifice,” Fosythe said.
Sev and Delle looked to him expectantly.
“The encounter taught us a great deal. We now know, in addition to being able to dominate people at range, he has tremendous control over human bodies. He willfully suspended that girl’s blood loss. That is extremely bad news, as it means he might be capable of healing magic as well, over himself or those he controls.”
Healing magic is impossible for normal humans. Affecting one’s own body with their wyrd was extremely difficult. Sorcery could set the bones of others. Fire could cauterize the wounds of others. Alchemical poultices could speed recovery and dull pain. But instantaneous regeneration? That was the purview of werewolves, vampires, and other urdo-anomalous humans. Fae and monstrum could do it, but they were partially made of raw magic.
Medithurges had been trying for ages. But stimulating cell growth to rapidly regrow tissues with magic was near impossible to control. It almost inevitably led to metastatic cancer, if not aberrant bone growth, blood poisoning, or other potentially fatal perversions of health. But if you can keep blood from clotting or bleeding… Fuck. Fucking storybook bullshit.
“How do we know the sheet didn’t trigger her bleeding?” Delle asked.
Forsythe shook his head.
“The enchantment is gone now, but I could sense that it was merely a remote alarm. That’s why I removed the sheet without fear of a trap.”
How could you know that? The curse-breaker on the TMAW squad only said it was enchanted. Forsythe seemed to smell Sevardin’s skepticism.
“I apprenticed under each of the twenty-seven potential roles in a TMAW squad, and have personally fielded a number of entropathy cases. I know enchantments. Please, believe me when I say that sheet was merely a string tied to cans.”
From his tone, expression, gestures and emanations, Sev didn’t doubt Forsythe. It was possible he was just an incredibly authoritative liar, but the mans’ other-worldly degree of surety suggested competence. But this guy can’t be a day older than 35. How do you apprentice under twenty-seven career-long specialties? Forsythe continued, turning back to Delle:
“That in itself is also instructive. It means that he either cannot, or does not have full awareness of all of his thralls simultaneously. And that is very good news. Best of all, he was not able to ‘chain’ his domination to us through the girl. I suspect that means he needs to apply the inhibitor drugs, or apply the Striped Man’s brand before he can seize control of people.
“Admittedly, that last part is conjecture. He may be withholding the true nature of his abilities for a confrontation. But honestly, after reviewing his Athenaeum transcript, he doesn’t strike me as that intelligent. I suspect his patron fed him knowledge about the drugs.” Forsythe turned to Sev, requesting corroboration or correction.
In the Athenaeum, Dessen had been crude, vicious, and generally had a poor attention span. But he was also creative when it came to combat drills. Good instincts. Had a certain low cunning and brute force personality that was well-suited for pressuring and manipulating people. Also had an infuriating knack for escaping trouble.
“He’s not a genius. Especially not when it comes to book smarts,” Sev said. “But he’s not a moron either. He has some kind of plan. And he is clever enough for it to be extremely dangerous.”
“I agree,” Forsythe said. “That’s why I tried to bait it out of him. His plan is his security blanket. He is confident that the home team advantage will allow him to prevail over any preparations we make. Our job, is to outsmart him.” Forsythe pushed one of the mirrors aside with sorcery, and strode toward the detritus in the back half of the storage shed. He gestured to it and continued:
“I would like to ask you two to review this evidence. Strangers tend to target a very specific kind of megalomaniacal narcissist. People who see themselves as prophets for their patrons or literal gods of their own religions. They like the sound of their own voice, and oftentimes, that translates to writing. Laptop incanters. Journals. Manifestos that they believe will one day be treated as gospel. Pride is what will end this, one way or another.”
Something about Forsythe’s last statement chilled Sev. You seem pretty prideful yourself.
“Have you dealt with this before?” Sev asked. “Is it always like this?”
Forsythe’s mouth twitched into a rueful smile.
“All my cases are classified. But I will tell you, this is the third time I’ve encountered the mark of the Striped Man. The first was near the beginning of my career. We caught the incursion fairly early. Only three total casualties. The second time…” Forsythe paused. “There was a small, coastal fishing village in Oaxaca named Ola Vista. It was picturesque and peaceful. About twenty-eight people all told. And… it does not exist anymore.”
Sevardin wanted to ask what happened, but realized he didn’t want to hear the answer after what he had already endured that morning.
“How haven’t people heard of this? Xenomancy, I mean?”
“The public hears palatable versions of the truth that won’t pose risk to public safety. The CIC is very good at reaching… responsible understandings, with the press. As for those who work with me on my task forces… well,” Forsythe snickered. “Tell me: who would believe what you’ve seen tonight? A lover. A best friend, perhaps. But who would believe them, without a ‘story’ to back it up?”
Sev shook his head. But it made sense. Even if you photographed xenomantic phenomena, there was no way of knowing it was wyrdless from an image alone. Even if asfalis people experienced xenomancy firsthand, they might not notice the lack of a ripple, depending on the situation.
“The stakes are considerably higher this time, however,” Forsythe acknowledged. “We aren’t in the crags of Oaxaca, or a sleepy town in the remote reaches of China. If we fail here? The world will know and it will be worse for the wisdom.”
Sev thought back to Carroll’s description of the Ripper Incident. The entire city, eating itself alive with Egregores. And that was before modern media could spread the panic as efficiently. Now the entire world would be watching. Forsythe must have watched the change that came over Sevardin’s face.
“Yes. You’re beginning to see. We aren’t stopping a murderer, Sevardin. We are trying to prevent a war.”
— 7:50 AM. Arroyo (AKF – Central Precinct) —
Forsythe refused to let an evidence team collect any evidence, demanding that the Taskforce handle everything instead. He pulled Asudo and Trinna off the bench, explaining the change in situation. Bagging and tagging everything was tedious, and took several hours, but seemed like it would be useful. There was a laptop Incanter, secured by a resonation lock, which meant it was essentially useless. But there were also several notebooks with xenomantic writings and a dense, leatherbound journal—the sort that you’d feel guilty about writing something frivolous in. They also encountered the same alchemical ingredients they encountered at Devil’s Gate. After they had catalogued everything and packed it into the cruisers, they stopped for a blissfully unhealthy, take-out breakfast, and returned to the precinct.
Carroll met the group in Case Room 1 where Forsythe laid out his ongoing battle plan:
“I’m afraid you will all be on your own at this point. I have to coordinate efforts between the LAKF, AFK, and Asfalis police. To start, I can call in as many detectives as I can, dressed in plain clothes and seed them throughout the festival. Aside from that, we’ll be doubling the presence of asfalis officers and uniformed Keepers in the areas around the festival, centered at LA Live.”
Forsythe paused to take a sip of coffee. Sev studied his face, searching for runic circuitry. The rest of us get burritos and this man is making do with sips of coffee. He’s slim, but way too muscular to eat so little. Tall too! And don’t you ever sleep?
“Dessen will anticipate the detectives, and he might notice that police presence is heavier than usual downtown, even for a holiday. The only reason I don’t double the security presence at Live directly, is that it would permit him more opportunities for potential sabotage.
“Meanwhile, every other available Keeping Officer in Arroyo will be stationed at the Calle Colorado Bridge. There is an off chance that Dessen is bluffing entirely. His patron may even persuade him to wait. This is, unquestionably, the worst-case outcome. I have called in every other available CIC Agent in the region to wait at that bridge. Honestly though, our odds are so bleak it’s almost not worth forming a contingency for.”
Asudo snickered and asked.
“Are Strangers really that strong?”
Forsythe made eye contact and took a slow sip of coffee. Then he pursed his lips, set his cup down primly, and pressed the tips of his fingers together.
“You’ve heard stories of dragons, yes? I’m sorry. Foolish question. Everybody knows dragons! Now, we don’t know if they actually existed—I’ve certainly never met a dragon—but storybooks describe them as the mightiest, fully mortal creatures to ever roam the world, capable of speaking, reading, and writing in every language.”
Asudo raised an eyebrow at Delle as Forsythe continued in an odd tone that made him sound like he was reading from a storybook:
“According to myth and scripture, dragons were eventually wiped out by our human deities. But I’ve read a few dusty old stories set in the supposed time before. And those stories claim dragons recognized only one other type of entity as predators and enemies. Do you know what word those stories use?”
“Stranger?” Asudo asked, unamused.
Forsythe smiled and shook a finger.
“‘Erebyssal,’ or ‘thing from Erebus.’ Which includes entities like the Striped Man. My point is this: dragons defy belief. But if they were real? These creatures who fought with literal gods? They feared Strangers. Which should give you an inkling of what we are dealing with. That is precisely why the six of us, and the greater part of the Los Angeles Keeping Force, must stop Dessen Thomas before midnight.”
“Shouldn’t we have a divination team trying to locate him? That would be the best possible way to confront him, right?”
“Yes. I have one venture of seers searching for him. The trouble is, Dessen can freely silence his wyrd, making him undetectable again. The possibilities of locating him are so remote that we can’t plan around it. In fact, we can’t plan for much at all.”
Forsythe stood up and slapped the evidence boxes on the conference table.
“To that point, I need you all to comb through this evidence as quickly as possible. There is a weakness, somewhere in these boxes. As soon as you find something, tell me. At the very least, take notes that might give us a clearer picture of his state of mind, or the limits of his abilities. We only have so much time to prepare. I need to know as quickly as possible to make arrangements.”
Forsythe opened the box and laid out the Incanter, a tall stack of notebooks, and the leatherbound journal.
“Moss. Matsuda. Take this to digital forensics and see if you can get it open. I know urdic locks are nearly unbreakable, but we have to try. Harker, I want you on the journal, since you have the greatest insight into Dessen’s mind. Carroll and Hopkins, dive into the notes.”
Everybody nodded and emanated their assent, and Forsythe wished them luck before leaving.
Sev picked up the fancy journal. Damn thing is heavy. As he palmed it, he was surprised to feel a faint glow of urdic power emanating from the book. Powerful Inherence.
He flipped it open, and the energy intensified. The whole thing is written in urdopathic ink. Most text, and almost all print was blunt; you could only assess what the writer felt via recorded symbols and context. But urdopathic ink inscribed writers’ emanations into the words, so that when the reader scanned the text with their wyrd, they could feel the emotions, and state of mind of the writer. Such inks were always a luxury item, but they were considerably more common in the era of illuminated manuscripts, especially in magic manuals, religious scripture, and educational documents.
Urdopathic writing was just starting to enjoy a lucrative revival, with alchemists rediscovering the techniques that were lost during the widespread shift to print, and certain shops offering bespoke inks that were particularly effective at channeling specific emotions. It was believed that urdopathic inks made idea transfer easier, and descriptions more vivid, as the writer’s active thoughts could intrude upon the reader, and, according to legend, certain grimoires could even impart wyrd-altering insights to the reader.
Great. I get to go on a firsthand tour of this lunatic’s warped mind.
“Lewin,” Sevardin said, holding up the book. “It seems like this entire thing is written in urdopathic ink. How is that possible? I mean, Dessen silenced his wyrd, right? How could he emanate?”
“Silencing one’s wyrd merely allows xenomancy. It does not preclude the use of traditional magic. Fortunately, they cannot exercise both kinds of magic simultaneously.”
“Do you think there’s any possibility I could become… compromised by reading this?”
Carroll shook his head and wore a tepid smile:
“No. If it’s urdopathic, it can’t simultaneously be xenomantic. At least, not for very long. Xenomancy and etheric magic gradually degrade each other. Its why sorcery and contracts are effective weapons against Strangers and xenomancers.”
“Damn,” Sev said. “I was hoping to find a way out of this.”
Again, a weak smile. Forsythe looked up from the box he was sorting through.
“There could be something vital in there, so I’m afraid you’ll have to just power through it. We need every possible insight on his connection to his patron, the silencing of his wyrd, and his xenomantic abilities. The more we know, the better we can prepare, and the less collateral damage there will be.”
Sev nodded dutifully but said nothing. You know what a great way to limit ‘collateral damage’ would be? Literally any other plan than using innocent people in a crowded area as bait for a mass murderer! But to Forsythe’s mind, it seemed that no price was too high to pay for ending Dessen’s life.
When Sevardin assessed the text as a whole, the book seemed to radiate hatred, specifically towards the Amagium and women. He could literally smell the antipathy directed at amagia, and a broader, brooding misogyny. Sev gingerly opened the book, and turned to the first page. Even before he could read the words, the ink seemed to glow with self-righteous indignation.
The first two pages of the journal were blank, while the third page had the sort of heavily scratched-in text of somebody with poor handwriting trying to be simultaneously clear and bold: “BOOK 1 – MY TRIBULATIONS.”
Sev sighed and deliberately tuned out the sensations in his wyrd. Oh boy. Here we go.
Between the seething toxicity, and the underlying insecurity that pervaded the words like rot, Sevardin could only tolerate skimming Dessen’s journal in fits and starts.
Dessen began the book by proclaiming himself a god, or an extension of the Striped Man, who was an entity that surpassed gods. After some circular navel gazing about the nature of divinity, Dessen concluded that he was chosen by his patron because he alone had an accurate measure of humanity’s true nature. His indescribable powers were a testament to his mental and spiritual awakening, achieved through a lifetime of agony.
The rest of the first “book” was a litany of everything that was wrong with Dessen’s life. Every slight and perceived injustice was tediously weighed and tallied. He did have a hard luck story; an orphan who saw a way out of misery via the Athenaeum’s scholarship, but most of his complaints were about the way he was regarded by women, who were exclusively referred to as “females,” if not “sluts,” “whores,” and so on.
He stated that the current social paradigm was damaging to the majority of humanity and most people were either brainwashed or lacked the will to lash out against it. The text seemed to froth on the page when describing his enemies; popular, sexually active men and women, those elite few who were happy in this unjust world. He repeatedly expressed bafflement as to why others secured affection and he received scorn. Ultimately, he contorted his sexual assault convictions as badges of honor—proof that he had the volition to take what he perceived to be rightfully his, unlike impotent virgins who could only lament their fate.
He was obsessed with appearances, social status, and dominance. Brand named objects and brunette women were particular points of fixation; simultaneously reviled and exulted as symbols of shallowness and inequality.
The tail end of book two was a lurid confession to his assaults. He woke the girls in his dorm with weak sorcery such as tapping against their windows, and when they woke, bleary-eyed and still half asleep, he would use domination magic to make them grope themselves while forcing them to imagine him in sexual situations.
Sev made a note of one line:
“Back then, I couldn’t control them at range. And you can’t dominate somebody if they are completely asleep. You need a baseline of consciousness to make a connection.”
He wrote this after he got his xenomantic powers. That means we can still break his domination if we can knock his thralls out, or otherwise disrupt his concentration with his victims. Then again, if he gets his hooks into them first, he might be able to force them to stay awake, just as he forced Sidani to stop bleeding.
Sev thought back to the storage unit. He remembered the girls in the cohort beneath his who Dessen assaulted. Forsythe is right about one thing: there is no chance that he will come quietly. Sev set down the book and massaged his head. He didn’t want to be wrong. He didn’t want to reduce another human being to a simple monster. But the more he read, the more the manifesto eroded his sympathy. Even though he had only been skimming the text, it took him two hours to endure both the writing and the toxic sensations behind it.
The second “book” of Dessen’s manifesto was titled “My Silence,” and detailed his two-year sentence for the crimes that expelled him from the Amagium. He was regularly beaten in the detention center, particularly by other boys accused of malefaction. Nobody likes an ex-Keeper, even if their career ends before it can start.
Dessen recounted, graphically, being sexually abused by another two inmates, which he described as his turning point. It was when the inevitable betrayal, the inherent perversion in amagiate society became evident. Dessen had a powerful wyrd, and he believed himself to be unjustly punished for using it to get what he wanted. When the Amagium deprived him of his licenses, he was reduced to a “slave,” even though he was born with “the blood, wyrd, and wit of a master.” He was owed sex. He was owed respect. He was owed power.
At that point, the guards put him in solitary confinement to avoid future incidents. And in the dark, he began praying. Appealing to every higher power he could think of. And at night, he heard a voice only he could hear. “They are broken too. Your gods. Your kings. Your wisemen. All of them are in on the joke.” He instinctively knew that he could answer with a thought. That he had no choice, but to answer, as the voice could read his thoughts.
The voice introduced itself as the Striped Man, and offered Dessen a way out.
But Dessen was unconvinced, and concerned he was losing his mind. He asked for proof of this so-called patron’s power. The patron agreed—provided Dessen refused to speak for the rest of his sentence. Dessen went to bed in silence, unsure of whether he would, or even could commit. But then he received his inevitable, divine intervention:
“That morning, the wardens questioned me about the deaths of two juveniles—the f****t bastards who took my dignity. And that was the only sign I needed. I resolved to honor the Striped Man’s edict, refusing to speak. When the wardens pressed with violence, or necessity warranted, I would concede to simple, single-word gestures, but I never opened my mouth or emanated in public for the remaining eighteen months of my sentence. During that time, I came to know my patron and his divinity. We spoke often, though there were painful periods of silence between us. One such episode, toward the end of my enslavement, lasted three weeks. Like Christ wandering the desert, I was tempted to abandon—”
Sev rolled his eyes and skimmed through the next bit, where Dessen compared himself to several religious figures, ultimately declaring that his strength eclipsed them all. Three pages later, he got to his point:
“On the day of my release, the Striped Man appeared before me, at a distance, and applauded silently. I could not see him clearly. I’m not sure one’s mind can contain him fully. He resembled a well-dressed man with pale skin and feathered dark hair. And in my head, I heard his voice: ‘You have triumphantly emerged from your tribulations, and completed your tace opus.”
Sevardin made another note: Dessen silenced his wyrd by literally remaining silent. Maybe Lewin can make something of that.
“My Worth,” was the next installment of the manifesto, and the longest. Dessen mentioned that “time affected him strangely,” after his release. While he “endured the full cruelty of every unjust second,” in the detention center, time seemed to stretch and compress on the outside. “That first year almost faded thinned into nothingness. Entire seasons slid by me effortlessly.” At the same time, Dessen noted that he felt “the entire potential of certain moments, which became indescribably dense with significance and sensation.” This usually happened during his training.
For the first year, his patron taught him “mastery of the body,” demanding obedience with the promise of an eventual reckoning against the world that had wronged him. Dessen claimed that during this period, he severed parts of his hand every evening, and practiced regrowing them over the course of hours. In the end, he claimed he could regrow a severed forearm in seconds. And based on the intensity of the perverse pleasure and agony bleeding through the ink, it was clear Dessen was telling the truth. At least from his perspective. His mind genuinely endured that experience, but it’s possible this was some kind of enchantment, lucid dreaming, or some sort of sensory hallucination.
Sev snickered and shook his head at himself. After what I saw in the storage unit, those reasonable explanations seem weak. How do you sleepwalk through life for an entire year, carving yourself apart every night?
In a single paragraph, Dessen tersely summed up the rest of his life: He occupied a simple, low-rent apartment in bungalow heaven, free of distraction. He worked a job at a bookstore which he despised. He ran, worked out, and ate when he wasn’t self-mutilating—all components of mastering the body. Dessen confessed that he had hated training at the Athenaeum, but the Striped Man’s influence unlocked “the inherent infinity of his being,” and he could simply tune out inconvenient tasks.
The Striped Man said that this was a sign of his “worth,” defined as “a divinely appointed right, duty, and ability to correct the world.” He further stated that he was pleased with Dessen’s progress, and that he reached such a degree of mastery over his body that his abilities would continue to grow, even without active training. As such, it was time to move onto mastery of the mind.
Dessen realized he had the ability to enthrall people, much as he had done back when he had his licenses. But after some practice, he compared his prior abilities to “splashing around in a kiddy pool,” and his current abilities to “walking, freely, underwater, without care for air, buoyancy, or resistance.” He could enter a mind, holding its owner hostage, and then erase the mind’s memory. That was when Dessen quit the bookstore. He used his newfound powers to live as he pleased, forcing restaurants, hotels, and stores to give him what he demanded, and forget he was ever there. “I walked away from my old life. Left my pathetic home and demeaning job to rot like the litter they were.”
But there were limits. Dessen could only control one mind at a time. Despite the flexibility of his abilities, trying to view two perspectives at once, while suppressing the hosts’ struggles to regain control, was beyond him. And that was when his patron “imparted him with wisdom of alchemy.” Dessen claimed to effortlessly identify the required chemicals to put people in a suggestive state. During this time, he used the drugs to practice extending his mastery of the body into others, while acclimating to multiple bodies at once.
At this point, Sev noticed an oddity in the writing. Periodically, Dessen would abruptly write that “the amagia pursuing me are too late,” or something to that effect with fair regularity. He would go on tirades about the certainty of his revenge, the arrival of the Striped Man, and the futility of the world that still rejected him. But the habit slowly abated, evolving into a sort of tic of diction: “they are late” mid-sentence or scribbled as marginalia. Sev made a note for Carroll, and mentioned that Dessen’s victim, Canker, said the same thing when they encountered him.
“Once I could control six slaves—too late, far too late—Once I could yoke six at once with the solution in their blood, my patron blessed me with his ultimate favor: the mark required to catalyze his arrival, and with it the coming of my vengeance.”
The mark appeared on Dessen’s chest at first, though the Striped Man taught him how he could spread the mark, through extensive use of his prior skills. It was unclear how long the process of spreading the mark to his six thralls took. The writing became borderline incoherent, with interruptions of “late” and “inevitable,” finally trailing off into illegibility before the title of the next ‘book.’ The final sequence was titled “My Reckoning.”
Sev took the opportunity to drink some more coffee, a glass of water, and use the bathroom before forcing himself to finish the read, though he could have guessed the rest himself. The suicides were indeed fuel for a summoning ritual that would call forth the striped man on the stroke of Samhain. He described the synchronized suicides on the bridge in excruciating detail. He relished the sensation of experiencing death without dying, stating that nothing else would ever satisfy him the same way.
He forced himself to read the passage where Dessen described abducting Sidani from the homeless shelter, and applying his mark on her over the course of a night. He could not bear to read the passages where Dessen described staging the storage unit. Skimming it was like trying to tiptoe across jagged glass on concrete. Every detail was torture, literal and figurative.
But Dessen saved the worst for last:
“This is my story. The story of Earth’s first and only True God. And as such, it is a Holy Text. My Divinity suffuses its ink and vellum. But the problem with physical texts is that they are mortal. They can be lost or destroyed. Yet I leave this scripture, with confidence, for My Enemies, as an offering. Because they are too late! I committed this chronicle to the arcanet, days ago in the quiet corners where the Enlightened gather and amagia will never think to look.”
“From the Enlightened, the First Faithful have already emerged. They gather now to witness godhood. They volunteer as my vassals and vessels. Now we are thirteen. You are late. By the time you finish reading, we shall number more than twenty. So, I appeal to you, enemy Mine. Read My Tribulation. Listen for My Silence. Know My Worth. For only the Faithful shall be Spared My Reckoning.”
Sevardin dropped the book on his desk and jogged to Case Room 1. People are going to record this. We have to stop him before the festival starts, or there will be no controlling the panic. At best he’ll be a martyr. We have to stop him before the festival starts.
“Forsythe, we have a problem!”