EPISODE 16: ALBEDOABLUTIO

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Sevardin Harker. Lunday, Ophiuchus 23rd, 5:24 PM. 2344 AA. Los Angeles (101)

In Sev’s opinion, most people misapprehended Los Angeles. They thought of it in terms of other great cities. New Amsterdam. London. Tokyo. But it didn’t have the same sort of interminable metropolitan density, with the exception of downtown, which tourists often described as smaller than expected. The city’s actual body was an expanse of distinctive neighborhoods with blurred borders and the streets that smeared them. Streets and freeways are arteries for most cities. But they are the limbs and boughs of Los Angeles.

The city came of age with cars, and as a result, it became the automotive commuter capital of world. But as the population swelled, cars became increasingly essential and ubiquitous. By 2330, the city’s majestic roadways gridlocked on nightly basis. But in 2335, the engineers, asfalis artificers, and runic coders at Cal Tech reached out to the Amagium with a potential solution: the lightways: temporary, ghostly roads that threaded their way through buildings and above other thoroughfares like paint strokes of pure light.

Reviewing Caltech’s proposal took the Amagium three years, but in the end, contrary to all expectations, they couldn’t find fault with it, and gave it the blessing of exemption. Two years later, the framework for the world’s first “spell-assisted commuter system,” was complete. And after two more years of private testing, the lightways were opened to commuter traffic. The system used a network of Gygens to fuel powerful conjuration enchantments. Enchanted sections of the civic grid, or lightpoints, could conjure incredibly dense standing kinetic fields to create roads and guard rails to relieve traffic congestion. Each lightpoint had signs showing where the conjured roads would lead, and signals showing how long they would admit traffic. The roads would not disappear if they detected vehicles or people on them, and there were a number of redundancies to avoid road collapse, even in the event of a grid outage. Glowing glamour magic illustrated the roads and could be coordinated to match events or holidays. Some even displayed murals on their underpasses. Tonight they were embellished with jack-‘o-lanterns, Gaelic and Wiccan symbols relating to Samhain, and Dia de Muertos calaveras. It was a staggering feat of magic that made Sevardin proud to be a member of the Amagium.

When Sev first received permission to leave the Amagium in his weekday off-hours at age eighteen, his parents gifted him with a sensible sedan. But at the time, Sev was really into bikes. And, risking the displeasure of his parents, sold the car to buy his first bike. He beat himself up for it, before, during, and after the purchase. But the first time he hit the lightways on that thing? He knew he had made the right decision. It was a new kind of magic. One that transcended wyrds altogether. And, to his surprise, when he used that story to explain his decision to his parents, they understood.

Sevardin cut to the left-most lane of the 101, taking the ephemeral offramp that led directly to Olympic, to accommodate the Fright Fair. By the time he pulled off near LA Live, the road had been defaced with a string of tags. Somewhat inevitably, hedgewitches had figured out ways to tag the temporary roads with spells from cracked licenses, and illicit use of exempt glamour magic. Tagging spell roads had become something of a sport for the city’s gangs and daredevils.

I love this city. I don’t want to see it burn.

— 5:40 PM | Los Angeles (LA Live)  —

Sev parked his bike a few blocks away west from the center of Live, and started heading to the party on foot drawn like a moth to the movie-premier-styled search lights. Live always struck Sev as an oddity. It was a civic works project designed to be Los Angeles’ answer to Manhattan’s Times Square. But again, Los Angeles isn’t New Amsterdam. The meager public transit system made it more sore thumb than entertainment destination. The parking situation was difficult and expensive. Live was also surrounded by squalor; tent cities that could shame refugee camps surrounded it to the South, East, and West. And the relentless branding of the theaters, clubs, and colossal sports arena never appealed to Sev.

But he couldn’t deny the place was stimulating. Bright lights. Big crowds. Emanators and speakers blasting rock and pop to suit the holiday. The parking lots adjacent to the Convention Center were chockablock with food trucks, and each corner had a cart vendor selling bacon wrapped sausages topped with fried onions and peppers, tajin-rimmed fruit cups, and Mexican street corn. The aroma was dizzying. He hadn’t been able to eat earlier, but now his stomach was clawing its way up his throat.

Ah. Screw it. I have a lot of time to kill. Sev cut through the crowd and stepped up to the nearest vendor.

“Excuse me,” Sev said. “I’d like one of those and a cola please.”

The vendor, a sunbeaten immigrant, nodded.

“Everything?”

Sevardin nodded and handed the guy a twenty. The guy started fishing change out of his apron, but Sevardin shook his head, and emanated for him to keep it.

Forsythe forced the team to go home at noon, and get some sleep until 5PM. They suspected that Dessen wouldn’t arrive a moment before 11PM, but to be safe, they wanted the bulk of the plain clothes detectives present at 6PM, when the festival officially began. Uniformed Keepers and asfalis police officers had been heavily patrolling the area since late in the morning. But there was no sign of Dessen, his “Faithful,” or anyone else on the scene.

“What are you supposed to be?”

Sev spun around to find Delle wearing a pirate costume, Keepers’ licenses concealed by puffy sleeves. She had her authentic Amagium saber on her hip, glamoured to look like an over-sized plastic cutlass, which struck Sev as a clever way to wear her melee weapon. Sev had his Locke revolver in an underarm holster under his jacket. 

“I’m a detective, obviously,” Sevardin said wryly, pulling a magnifying glass out of his jacket pocket, which was the sum total of his costume. The only article of clothing Sev owned that was large enough to cover his licenses was a black leather jacket with zippered sleeves. He actually bought it for himself as a graduation present, just in case he was tapped for plainclothes work, though he did not expect to use it for years, if ever.

“I see you’re really getting into character,” Delle said, nodding at his bacon dog.

“Hard to be prepared on an empty stomach,” Sev said, and offered Delle a bite.

She emanated thanks but shook her head and waved him away.

“I feel sick to my stomach,” she confessed.

“I did too, at home. But you can’t say no to a bacon dog.”

Delle gave him a questioning look and snickered. Sev was almost offended. What? No seriously, how can you say no to this? He took a bite and looked disapprovingly at Delle.

“You speak to event ops yet?” Sevardin asked.

“Event ops” was code for the task force’s HQ. The software company that funded Live’s construction owned a terrace overlooking the square. It had a broad veranda that could provide sightlines leading through the constellation of screens and lighting array towers that populated Live Square.

“Yeah. New orders. Swallow this,” Delle handed Sev a pill the size of a grain of rice. “And don’t bother them.” She stood on her tiptoes to reach Sevardin’s ear. “Boss doesn’t want to draw attention to the staging area.”

Sev felt his cheeks go hot as Delle’s breath brushed his ear. Be cool, man! This is completely coincidental. He lowered his gaze to the pill.

“What does this do?”

“Isn’t experimentation one of life’s greatest pleasures?” Delle said, cocking an eyebrow.

Sevardin shrugged and popped the pill. A second later, he could hear Forsythe’s voice in his head, clear as day: “Ah, Harker. Welcome to the soiree.” Sev slowly turned to look at Delle, wounded, incredulous, and disappointed.

“You put our boss inside my head?” Sevardin gestured. “Can he hear me?”

“Not unless you want him to,” Delle said. “At least, I don’t think he can.”

“Greatest pleasures, my ass,” Sevardin snapped, verbally. Then he directed his thoughts toward Forsythe: Happy to be here, boss.

Forsythe seemed amused. “Indeed. The Fright Fair schedule is as follows: Family carnival from sundown—food trucks, hand-dancers, midway games and other rubbish—until 9PM when the ‘Fright Feature’ starts.”

“What’s playing?” Sevardin asked, both aloud and so Forsythe could hear him.

Again, Forsythe seemed to mentally chuckle. “A rarity. A recent, respectable Hollywood adaptation of a Japanese modern-classic.”

Sevardin drew his head back and chuckled. Even though Forsythe was speaking mentally, he managed to be cryptic enough with his thoughts to avoid giving away the name of the film. The Ring? Sevardin guessed. Forsythe was pleased. “Ah. A fellow connoisseur?” Sevardin shook his head and smiled. Juel—my best friend, my partner—is a major cinephile. Doesn’t let me miss a good one. Forsythe emanated approval in his head. “That’s a good man.”

Sevardin felt somewhat reassured. It was hard to imagine Forsythe having any kind of hobby, but hearing he was a horror fan seemed to make several puzzle pieces fall into place. For a moment, his distrust of the man relaxed. He was even able to forget why they were there. But upon realizing it, he felt a pang of guilt.

Forsythe. Are we really using these people as bait?

There was a long pause. Sev smiled at the festival-goers that passed by him. Looked at the actual event staff, who wore black jumpsuits and matching oni masks. All innocent. All at risk.

“Yes.”

Sevardin clenched his teeth. Do you think he’ll actually show up?

“Yes.”

Sev nodded. I’ve got to confess. Our orders seem awfully vague. Like, isn’t there any possible way we can divert the crowd? Sevardin scanned the crowd. Kids. Families. Teenagers. Young couples and college kids with too much time on their hands.

“No.”

Sevardin guarded his thoughts as best he could, closing his mind to Forsythe. Goddamn you. Whatever happens tonight is on you. He relaxed his protections, unsure whether Forsythe heard him or not, and then tried ‘speaking’ again: There has to be something else we can…

Forsythe’s cut him off. “There is not, Officer Harker. I have contingencies in place to mitigate the damage. But we cannot squander the opportunity to lure Dessen and his followers into a confrontation. Not on this time table.”

Again, Sevardin attempted to close his mind to Forsythe’s. What happens if I just shout? What would you do to me if I just decided to shout warnings into the crowd? We haven’t cancelled the festival. We haven’t broken our terms! Though it sounded dumb even as he thought it. They aren’t Fae, Sev.

Forsythe spoke again. “I take your silence to mean that you are desperately trying to think of alternatives.” Sev froze, maintaining his silence. “Harker… If you can think of a way to protect the crowd without compromising this operation, I am all ears. Truly. But lives will be likely lost tonight. The choice I need you to make, is whether you will help me save others or not.

Sev perceived a subtext to the speech Forsythe projected: “My contingencies are expansive. And they account for potential disobedience.” Sevardin bowed his head and thought at Forsythe: You couldn’t keep me away.

A mental smile. “I don’t doubt it.”

— 11:12 PM | Los Angeles (Live Square) —

The crowd at Live Square thinned considerably when the movie ended at ten-past eleven, as most of the families and trick-or-treaters called it a night. But those who remained were drunker, and slightly more belligerent. A DJ took to the elevated stage and started hyping up the crowd for the all-night Dance Macabre. Christ. Almost quarter past and still no sign of Dessen. Did his patron talk him down or was this all a bluff? 

Sev threaded through the crowd on the dance floor, nakedly searching—he knew he probably looked like a cop at that point, but he didn’t care. Many of the attendees were masked, and he doubted Dessen would waste the opportunity to hide himself. His eyes were repeatedly drawn to the stage, but he missed the moment that one of the staffers dressed in the black oni mask stepped onto the stage. The DJ looked over, a question on his face. The man came over and placed a hand on his shoulder, saying something.

The DJ nodded slowly and the staffer retreated. The music faded somewhat as he addressed the crowd.

“Happy Samhain, Los Angeles! How you livin’?!”

The crowd roared at the call and response.

“We’ve got something really special for you this evening. First of all, I’d like to give a shoutout to all the Keepers in the crowd tonight. Thank you for your service!”

The words flash froze Sevardin’s spine. The crowd seemed miffed by the sudden shout-out, answering with a smattering of applause and some whistles.

“Right? These selfless, courageous, scholar-warriors who keep us safe from ourselves. These saints among men, keeping the monsters at bay, enforcing the unassailable wisdom of the Archons.”

Now the crowd was extremely confused. There were a few boos, some laughter, and lots of “what the hell is this guy talking about?” Sevardin was already moving for the stage. He caught a glimpse of Delle from the other side of the square wearing a mask of desperation that mirrored Sevardin’s own expression. The DJ continued speaking as the intro to Kane and Finger’s “Paint It Black,” started playing.

“I’d like to dedicate this next song to those noble tyrants. Let’s kill it, Los Angeles!”

The DJ pushed the volume on the speakers and emanators to their absolute maximum. The bass thudded against Sevardin’s chest, and the manic anger and rebellion of Kane and Finger’s emanations throbbed in his wyrd. Then the screaming started.

The four uniformed police officers stationed at either end of the stage drew their sidearms and started firing into the crowd with robotic, dead-eyed precision. Simultaneously, several members of the crowd—mostly those in the mosh pit—went berserk. They attacked with lethal but indiscriminate purpose. Sev saw a hulking man dressed as a patchwork man grip a teenage mermaid—possibly his own daughter—by the face, and smash her head against one of the metal legs of a light tower. Nearby, a young woman dressed as a pixie drove the nose of her beer bottle into her date’s eye-socket, and broke it off.

On reflex, Sevardin used a kinetic animus to cast a barrier contract in front of the two police shooters closest to him. He made the barrier broad and softer than usual. If he tried to intercept the shots at a dead stop, the spell would only withstand a couple shots before exhausting itself. Instead, he specified that the barrier should merely cut the bullets’ velocity, hopefully resulting in non-lethal impacts.

He saw Delle break through the crowd, guarding herself with a sorcerous barrier as she charged at the two shooters on her end of the stage. They didn’t seem to see her coming, and she was able to easily disarm one, knock out the other, and then knock out the first with a quick chain of erudensis. Dessen doesn’t have enough attention to control this many people with much fidelity; he can just give them raw, basic commands like “kill” or “protect yourself.” They also aren’t trained to fight and defend themselves like amagia. Only problem is, there’s no way to tell who is affected.

Sev continued pushing through the crowd. When there was an opening, he fired a tremendous kinetic bolt at the shooter to the right. It struck home and left him momentarily stunned. Meanwhile, he lunged through the front of the crowd, tackling the other shooter around the waist. His head struck the railing around the stage. Sev reached into his wyrd with his own, and channeled a powerful sedative effect directly into his body. The other shooter had recovered and retrained his weapon on Sevardin, only for a second kinetic bolt to strike him. Sev traced the spell to Trinna Moss, approaching through the crowd. One of the moshers grabbed her from behind, but she used an aikido shoulder throw to get him down.

Forsythe, if you have any kind of plan, now is the time!

The carnage continued for two impossibly-dense seconds before the stage exploded with magic. A powerful contract unleashed an etheric ripple that swept through the square. It cut off the music abruptly, and the myriad lights around Live and the surrounding buildings went out in a wave. Simultaneously, most of the crowd fell to the ground as if they had been struck dead. A sedative bomb. Smart. Can’t be dominated if you aren’t conscious. It must have knocked out the power as well though.

The lightways passing adjacent to Live square all turned a brilliant red and yellow, a claxon blaring: “Exit immediately. Power Error. Exit immediately. Power error. Exit—”

Sev heard Forsythe’s voice in his head. “The spell targeted everyone with asfalis licenses. Those remaining are either amagia or xenomancers. Hold your fire, identify your targets, and eliminate them.” Sevardin whirled around, trying to assess who was friend or foe amongst those left standing when something caustic struck his brow, burned his wyrd, and sent him spinning to the ground. No ripple. Xenomancy. How are you supposed to block this shit!

One of the xenomancers—a white woman, late thirties or early forties—strode toward Sev, her face lit with menace. Then there was a gunshot and her right kneecap exploded. She tripped with an anguished cry, and toppled onto the pile of unconscious bodies that littered the square. A hand gripped Sev’s armpit, pulling him to his feet. He looked to see Asudo holding a nine-millimeter pistol, dressed in a doctor’s coat.

“Get up!”

As Sev rose, he saw another xenomancer, a lanky teen, approaching from Asudo’s rear, hands stretched out. Sev gripped Asudo by the arm, and yanked him out of the xenomancer’s line of fire. Again, there was no ripple, but one of the prone bodies on the square spouted blood as silent magic cut into it. Sevardin returned fire with a kinetic bolt at center mass, holding nothing back. The teenager’s ribcage crumpled inward, and he coughed blood before joining the heap of bodies on the square.

Oh god. I killed him. I actually killed—An enraged howl escaped the teen’s throat, and he pushed himself back off the bodies, body popping and crunching as his ribcage torqued back into place. He vomited another gout of blood and looked at Sev with murder. Sev raised a barrier on instinct. Just in time too. There was no ripple, but he felt a lash of xenomancy impact his wyrd—a burning sensation that could have been hot or cold, a caustic nothingness that rattled his senses.

“They can heal!” Sev shouted.

“Yeah, I noticed!” Asudo said from behind him.

Steel whistled behind Sevardin. As he turned to assess the threat, there was a rush of air, and a black blur streaked by him, straight toward the teenage xenomancer. Forsythe! The Keeper drew the blade from his stave in a decisive, keening stroke. The top of the teenager’s head spun into the air as his body sagged.

Sev looked back and noticed that Forsythe had decapitated Asudo’s opponent as well. Both Asudo and Sevardin turned to face him, expressions awed and horrified in equal measure.

“Regrettably, we need to be thorough,” Forsythe said. “Heads. Hearts. Necks.”

And he was gone again, flashing toward another cluster of opponents. It was hard to tell the amagia apart from the xenomancers mid-fray, though the latter were generally younger.

“Time for act two!” A male voice boomed in Sev’s head. It was like a clairvoyant shout.

Sevardin whirled and spied a black-masked figure standing on top of the stage’s lighting array. Dessen. Has to be. Sevardin drew his Locke revolver from his shoulder harness. But before he could take a shot, the sky seemed to explode. A storm of egregores, like hairless wolves with chiropteran wings, descended on the square, attacking the Amagia who were distracted by the xenomancers, or feasting on the unconscious bodies.

“Fun thing about egregores,” Dessen continued to speak nonverbally. “They are so easy to dominate compared to people. And given my gifts? They’re like clay. I can mix them and match them. Mold them to suit my purposes.”

One cluster of the bat-winged dogs began to violently shake. Their bodies contorted and skewed, as if sucked by an invisible straw, then converged on a single point, forming a mass of flesh. The pulsating mass popped, revealing a towering, centaur-like creature with four arms that each ended in bundles of spikes. It had no head, but its body was dotted with yellow eyes and fanged maws. The beast reared on its hind legs, still standing amidst the sea of unconscious bodies coating the square.

“After him!” Forsythe bellowed with a sorcery-assisted shout. “I will clear the square!”

Sev turned back to the stage just in time to see Dessen leap from the top of the lights, landing behind the stage. Sevardin broke into a messy run, nearly tripping over the prone bodies around him. He rounded the stage, nearly running head first into another egregore; a biped with fists that could crush his head between two fingers. Sev sideswiped himself with a draft of sorcery, narrowly dodging the thing’s fists as they slammed into the concrete. Sevardin planted his feet on the ground and reached to the sole fire animus he brought that night.

Before the creature could recover, Sev pressed his right palm against the thing’s cold, slimy flank. He visualized a sequence of runic symbols in his head to appease the spirit, and gave it a single, desperate command: Burn.

Sev cried out as heat surged through his hand and wyrd, blisters instantly appearing on his palms and fingertips with the intense heat transfer. The egregore’s black flesh was briefly backlit with orange, revealing a glimpse of an unnatural, interlaced ribcage, before its entire body erupted with crimson, magic-enriched fire. Its torso burst apart and its body vanished.

Dessen’s voice spoke in Sevardin’s head again.

Sevardin Harker! I wasn’t sure it was you back there in the storage unit, but it is, isn’t it?”

Sev spun, still holding his Locke revolver. It was impossible to tell where Dessen’s voice was coming from given the lack of sound and emanations. He saw that Asudo, Trinna, and Delle had caught up and were also giving chase.

“This way, children!” Dessen’s mental voice shouted for all to hear again.

From the other side of the street, the glass wall that comprised the entrance to the Logistick Arena shattered, showering the street with glass.

“Oh good. I’m sure this isn’t a trap,” Asudo muttered.

“Keep moving,” Delle said, Keeper’s saber drawn, now free of the cutlass glamour. “Sev, give us barriers. Trinna, strength. Asudo, speed. I’ve got optics.”

They rushed toward the building in a diamond formation, each working on their assigned enhancement contracts. By the time they crossed the street and hit the arena, they could hit harder, move faster, take a beating, and see in the dark. Sevardin felt a surge of courage as the positive contracts layered on him. For a moment, the group of them felt like a single being; a responsive body united by resolute purpose.

The entrance was flanked by a lengthy escalator at rest. It was a space designed for crowds, and in their absence, the place felt oppressively empty. The trio jogged around a corner to the first access tunnel, leading to center-court.

Delle gestured for them to enter and raised a hand for them to slow their advance. They moved in with Sevardin covering their rear. As they crept through the tunnel, they could hear rustling, and unintelligible but gleeful emanations. Delle’s vision contract rendered the entire arena in monochromatic lines, giving it a surreal, wire-frame-like appearance. They entered the arena. And there was Dessen, standing at center court.

“Congratulations, Keepers! You caught me!” He said, holding out his wrists for a pair of cuffs.

Asudo, Trinna, and Sev all raised their guns, while Delle maintained a sorcerous barrier with one hand, and held her sword in another.

Then she turned around and hacked into Trinna’s throat. There was an awful, split second where her blade got caught in between her vertebrae. Delle grunted, continued the cut, and severed Trinna’s head.

Horror and hesitation stole the last of Asudo’s life. Sev was still shouting at Delle when she took another step backward, and buried her blade beneath Asudo’s ribcage at an upward angle. Delle moved his body to act as a shield against Sev, effortlessly holding him impaled on her sword with one arm.

No! Christ, Delle!

Sev retreated into the bleachers, scrambling behind seats as he fired a wild, desperate shot at Dessen. Dessen laughed and continued to speak in Sevardin’s head:

“I’d shoot at her if I were you!”

Sevardin narrowly dodged a flurry of slashes from Delle, who had shed Asudo’s body and was now hot on his heels. He had to deflect her final thrust with the barrel of his revolver, and barely managed to force her back with a kinetic burst of sorcery. Shit, shit, shit! Sev jumped over one row of seats and dove for the court

“Here’s the thing, Harker. I figured you would come up with some kind of cute, knock-out bomb to take care of my vassals. But that just leaves me with more bandwidth to work with. See? Controlling two bodies at once is child’s play. In fact….”

Sev felt the voice in his head become a claw. On instinct, he turned his wyrd inward, trying to shield his mind from the sudden intrusion. He staggered backwards. Dessen’s will was strong, but he managed to insulate himself just quickly enough to maintain control of his faculties.

“Ooh! He’s clever. But how long can you hold out?”

But the distraction bought Delle enough time to rake her sword across Sev’s chest. As soon as he felt the pain, he focused his wyrd inward again, guessing—correctly—that Dessen would try to intrude the moment he felt the pain. Again, he kept the domination at bay, but Delle was still advancing.

“Delle! You can fight this! It’s your mind! Your body!”

Delle lunged with a reckless, deliberately unguarded thrust, and Sev’s training took over. He leveled his Locke and fired. The enormous bullet punched a gory hole in her belly. The impact was enough to drop her to the floor. But she pushed herself up, still holding her sword, and planted her free hand on the wound. Dessen walked behind Delle, and now extended his hand outward toward her, his eyes closed.

He’s healing her and controlling her at once. Now’s my chance.

Sev dashed at a diagonal to get a sightline on Dessen and then opened fire. Four of his remaining seven rounds slammed into Dessen’s body. Delle’s body dropped back to the floor, her wound reopening. Dessen hissed and lashed out with a xenomantic wave of force that would have cleaved Sev in half if it weren’t for his barrier contract and the seats in front of him.

“Fuck you, she can bleed out then!” Dessen shouted, verbally.

He probably can’t heal himself and her simultaneously. But I’m empty and I don’t have much time. The holes in Dessen’s shoulder, chest, and thigh had almost completely healed.

Sevardin ran toward Delle’s body, grabbing her and retreating behind another row of seats. Dessen’s healing mitigated the injury’s severity, but she was still steadily losing blood. Might have hit her liver. Fuck. Fuck! Sevardin had air, earth, water, optics, and one kinetic anima left. Nothing I can use to cauterize the wound. It was also unclear whether her internal organs had been repaired by Dessen’s healing.

“Damn shame!” Dessen called out loud. “Nimsy Drew has a nice body. I was thinking about keeping her. You can never have too many pets.”

He likes to talk. I need to stall him. Others are coming. I need to keep him occupied.

“I don’t understand!” Sev shouted. “She doesn’t have your mark!”

“The mark just makes things easier, Harker. I thought you’d have figured that out. It lets me use them at range, put them into stasis…. I can still dominate people just fine the old-fashioned way. Also, I can apply my mark pretty quickly now. Only takes about three seconds of contact. Wanna see?”

Again, Dessen tried to dominate Sev. It was like somebody was threading white hot metal wire through his synapses. He resisted, but just barely this time, and the xenomantic magic was exhausting his wyrd quickly.

I can’t wait. Delle can’t wait. He laid Delle prone, as she clutched her flank.

“Knock me out,” she grunted. “Or put me down.”

“Not a chance,” Sev said.

It was the smart thing to do. She was a liability as long as she was awake. But Sev was worried that if she went under, she might never wake up. And we’ve lost too many people already. Sevardin used his remaining kinetic contract to extend the barrier and reflex enchantments that Asudo and Trinna had cast on them. He could feel hints of their wyrds within the lingering spells, his dry and crisp; hers’ effervescent and cheerful. I carry the last pieces of them with me.

Dessen shouted some kind of taunt, and fired another blast of xenomantic sorcery at the stands, destroying two of the seats Sevardin was ducked behind. Now or never. Sevardin threw his empty revolver as a decoy, then dashed out from behind the seats in the opposite direction, heading straight for Dessen.

Can’t risk any more contracts unless he does something really stupid. Need to save my wyrd for protecting my body and mind.

Dessen, now fully-healed, whipped his hands to the left and right, each gesture casting undetectable streaks of sharpened kinetic energy at Sevardin as he charged. Sev took the hits in sequence and grit his teeth against the coldness that tore into his wyrd. After the third blow, he had managed to close the distance between them. He swung Delle’s saber horizontally with all his might. It was a good, clean stroke. If I can do enough damage with one hit, he’ll be too busy healing himself to strike back.

The blind charge had taken Dessen by surprise. He raised his hand to defend against the cut, but his barrier came late and was ill-formed. The blade chopped off his right arm at the bicep and buried itself high on his ribcage.

Dessen screamed. The sound was warped, however. Louder than it should have been, and the entirety of the vibrations seemed to converge on Sev’s body. The blast knocked him halfway across the court in an instant. He lost his grip on Delle’s sword, which went skittering out of reach.

“‘Kay, now I’m kinda pissed,” Dessen snarled. He took a few steps back and healed his ribs before starting on his arm. Sevardin forced himself back on his feet, but he was spent. Dessen would expect another charge, and erudensis alone wouldn’t be enough to overwhelm him with that monstrous power.

I don’t have anything else.

A familiar, maddeningly calm voice called from the tunnel:

“Your wretches are dead, Dessen.”

Forsythe. Dessen shot a glance toward the direction of the voice, then he turned and tried to seize control of Sevardin’s mind again. Sev’s wyrd throbbed, sundered by an excruciating sensation. It felt like his brain was being raked by barbed wire coated in lye.

“So are yours!” Dessen returned.

Forsythe strode into the arena, looking at a pocket watch. He stopped abruptly when he saw Asudo and Trinna’s corpses. His impassive expression darkened, he closed his watch and pushed it back into his pocket before kneeling to their bodies.

He placed his palm on the pool of their mingled blood, which began to glow a lurid purple color. The blood quickly shaped itself into a precisely formed circle embellished with runes as well as alchemical and astrological symbols. Blood magic?!

Any magic fueled by harm, sacrifice, or death was strictly illegal. Even Keeper’s licenses prevented amagia from accessing the principles and powers necessary to perform such feats. Doesn’t seem to be a problem for Forsythe though. The bloody alchemical array glowed an intense, eye-searing violet. After a second, the blood crawled off the floor, up Forsythe’s arm and spread across his clothes body in a series of elaborate tattoos before evaporating.

“Harker. Where is Hopkins?” Forsythe asked.

Sevardin shot a glance at the bleachers, still breathing heavily. Forsythe checked his pocket watch again.

“Protect her, protect yourself, but do not attempt to interfere.”

Sev nodded, but had no idea how to retreat. Forsythe was at least fifty yards away, with obstacles between them. How the hell am I supposed to escape?

“Wait your fucking turn, bitch,” Dessen snapped at Forsythe, and launched himself at Sevardin.

Mid-flight, he used telekinetic sorcery to yank Delle’s saber into his hand. Shit! Sevardin crossed his arms in front of himself, gathering his remaining power to defend against the incoming blow. But Dessen’s repeated attempts at domination had injured his wyrd. His body was bruised. His mind was exhausted. His casting rhythm had been thrown off, so he didn’t even have the necessary urdic momentum to enter exus. I can’t take another hit. This is it.

But the impact never arrived. Metal echoed throughout the empty center as Forsythe appeared in front of Sevardin, his sword drawn part-way from its stave-sheath. How the hell? Dessen held the hilt of Delle’s saber, but the length of the blade had broken away against Forsythe’s weapon. He was thirty yards away from me! Dessen took a step back, surprised and disgusted. Forsythe drew the rest of his strange, cross-gripped pencil-straight sword, still holding the stave in his other hand in a reverse grip.

“Don’t try to retreat,” Forsythe said calmly, turning his head toward Sevardin ever-so-slightly. “Just keep yourself and Hopkins out of harm’s way.”

Sevardin emanated confirmation and retreated to the bleachers where Delle lingered on the edge of consciousness, as Dessen and Forsythe squared off.

Dessen held Delle’s broken weapon, and stretched his hand away from the hilt. A gritty black metal materialized out of thin air, creating a long, wickedly hooked and serrated blade in place of the saber that had broken off. Spontaneously conjuring matter? Magic like that bordered on myth. Certain people had a gift that allowed them to create temporary etheric constructs, but vanishingly few could do it without the assistance of an animus. This is some kind of nightmare.

Forsythe smiled and walked forward, steady and calm. Dessen tried to answer with a broad, horizontal slash, only for Forsythe to strike him in jaw with his stave in a blink. The crack echoed throughout the arena. Dessen staggered sideways, and before he could recover, Forsythe struck him again in the temple, and then drew the stave up against his chin with a savage upward swing. His sword arm had not moved at all.


Dessen resorted to another explosive yell, propelling himself backwards while the concentrated soundwave slammed against Forsythe’s wyrd. But the CIC agent didn’t even flinch. Growling, Dessen slashed his arms back and forth, like he was trying to claw holes in the air. Sevardin couldn’t see or feel the magic itself, but even from the bleachers, he could feel the displaced wind from the silent sorcery’s impact.

Forsythe held his stave behind him and raised his sword in front of himself, perfectly upright. None of the xenomantic slashes seemed to touch him, even though they tore the surrounding court apart. Dessen lobbed a globe of blue fire at Forsythe, which exploded violently, obscuring the court with smoke and cinders.

A second later, Forsythe used a gale-force gust of urdic power to clear the air. Dessen had switched his position, and now stood on the far side of Forsythe. He held something in his hand.

“Figured out your trick,” Dessen said, triumphant. He thrust his fist forward, revealing the long, white bow that had held Forsythe’s braid in place. “This pretty bow has an enormous amount of power. I’m guessing it enhances your reflexes, strength, and gives you some kind of barrier. The usual Keeper kit. Gone now though.” He dropped it and smirked. “Oops. Let’s see how well you fight without—”

Forsythe stood still as his braid unraveled. His mouth twitched into a disgusted frown. Sevardin tried not to lock up with fear. Was that the source of his strength? Christ, he was our trump card! We don’t stand—But as Sev watched the scene, the energy coming off the ribbon dropped precipitously. And as it faded, the ribbon darkened from white to black. Simultaneously, the color receded from Forsythe’s hair, tips to roots. In the space of a second, his ink black mane turned paper white.

And then his wyrd exploded.

It expanded outward, consuming the entire court and first few rows of seats. In the bleachers, Sevardin felt an overwhelming urdic pressure. Just sitting upright was like walking against a gale. Dessen’s face switched from triumph to horror. Delle looked up at the force, still clutching the wound in her flank.

“Here we were both having a lovely time,” Forsythe sighed. The world seemed to stutter, like a film skipping frames. Forsythe suddenly stood in front of Dessen, close and tender as a lover, with his hand on Dessen’s cheek. “But you had to break the rules.”

Forsythe placed the index finger of his other hand against Dessen’s sternum. There was a ripple like a thundercrack. And then Dessen was gone. The world dropped another frame, and when it resumed, he had struck the bleachers, three rows up, back-first. His ribcage had a horrifying, unnatural dent in it, and his limbs were comparably mangled. He twitched as he struggled to breathe, then wretched blood on himself.

Forsythe seemed to have forgotten all about him.

“Tsk. The higher-ups won’t be happy,” he sighed, and then turned to Sevardin in the stands. “It wasn’t my fault this time! Awful little whelp just had to give it a tug. You’ll tell them, won’t you, Harker? You’ll vouch for me?”

Sev simply stared. Threads of a silver smoke-like substance drafted from Forsythe’s body, trailing his movements before evaporating. Is that a glamour? No… His wyrd is so dense that it is visible, even at rest. What the hell are you?

“You…” Dessen rasped, standing slowly, with a hand on his chest, repairing the damage from whatever Forsythe did to him. “…You were hiding it…”

Forsythe looked over at Dessen mildly, then turned back to Sev.

“Seems we’re not done. A moment.”

Dessen used xenomantic sorcery to leap from the bleachers, back onto the court. Upon landing, a wave of jagged concrete erupted from beneath the ruined wood, surging toward Forsythe.

Another dropped frame. Forsythe clapped his hand against the pommel of his stave-sword, and a canon blast of urdic power reduced the approaching swell of spikes into gravel and splinters. The rush of air from the forestalled impact cast his white hair behind him in a flair. Forsythe stepped to one side, then appeared on the other, closing the distance between himself and Dessen in a blink.

“I hid nothing. You’re merely a fool.”

He drove his sword through Dessen’s ribs at an upward angle, other arm holding the stave-sheath behind his back. He pulled the blade close, bringing Dessen’s face near his, and hissed:

“You literally cannot imagine somebody beating your ill-gotten, ill-fathomed powers. So you assumed that I had to cheat. But if you were really paying attention…”

Forsythe withdrew his blade, and then seemed to swish it across Dessen’s body with a sort of lazy grace. It was a flashy, effortless flourish. Three strokes. The first swoosh cut Dessen’s left ankle out from under him. Before the boy could even lose balance, the second swish claimed his right hand at the wrist. And the final sweep back to the left slashed his neck.

“…You might have figured out I was fighting with my hands tied behind my back.”

Dessen seemed to fall apart all at once. He hit the ground gargling, but managed to patch his throat back with his one good hand.

It didn’t make sense. Those movements were far too quick to cut deep, let alone sever limbs. Unless… it has a vorpal edge enchantment! Vorpal blades could kill a person with an accidental nick. The physics behind it were beyond Sev’s ken, but the enchantment exponentially force-magnified the force behind a stroke, while imparting a molecular keenness to the blade. Bestowing a vorpal edge on a sword was Entropathy One. Twenty-five years to start, and an automatic life sentence if the weapon was used in a crime.

Forsythe yawned. Dessen heaved in air and scrambled to his feet, back toward the bleachers then reached to heal his other hand. The sinews, flesh, and bones started to grow back as they had done before, but they came slower this time, in a sort of pulsating stutter. And then they began to change.

His new bones gleamed like black crystal, and the muscles that enveloped them were bleach white. And in place of skin, a smooth, chitinous material began to scab over the flesh—Dessen stopped, horrified. The strange flesh receded, reversing the healing until his human arm ended in a stump. He recoiled as it stopped and severe bruises blossomed all over his body.

“What did you do to me!?” He screeched, straining his newly healed throat.

Forsythe chuckled and turned back to Sev. He slid his saber back inside its cross-handled stave.

“He thinks I cheated again! Oh, irony.” Another dropped frame. Forsythe had once again closed the distance between them, and the blunt-ended shaft of his stave had punctured Dessen’s right breast. The boy tried to scream, but his voice seemed to pop instead. Forsythe smiled: “Trust me, boy. You don’t want to see me when I cheat.”

Sevardin was transfixed. He could only watch as Forsythe tore his staff upward, breaking through Dessen’s highest rib and clavicle. No vorpal edge to explain that. He isn’t human. As the boy pitched forward, Forsythe caught him by the neck and effortlessly held him up like a doll.

“You did it to yourself. All of it.” Every trace of emotion drained from Forysthe’s voice. Even his posh accent seemed to disappear. Then he smiled again. “Did you—a former student of magic! Did you honestly believe you could wield such power without a cost?”

“My lord…Striped Man…” Dessen choked. He begged with his wyrd, tried to free his throat with his right hand and left stump. “Kill this filth!” He screamed, sobbing. “Protect your prophet!”

Forsythe made a disgusted noise and emanated revulsion.

“You had the will to disobey your godlike benefactor, yet you can’t even own up to your choice. Have some dignity.”

Sevardin was paralyzed. Transfixed with horror. Delle emanated confusion and questions.

“What’s happening?” she asked.

“I honestly don’t know,” Sevardin said.

“A message to your master.” Forsythe said, still holding the boy up by his neck. “Try harder. You keep going on about ‘the inevitable’ and how ‘we are late, we are late, we are late,’ yet I am the one who grows tired of waiting. Do you hear me, Striped Man? Because I always keep my appointments. Abandon your aspirations for this world, or find better help.

Forsythe clenched Dessen’s Adam’s apple in his fist and violently twisted his arm, ripping it free from the man’s throat. Dessen’s torn neck couldn’t support the weight of his body, which fell wetly from Forsythe’s fist to the ruined court. Forsythe whipped his hand to the side, casting Dessen’s voice box into the bleachers. Without another gesture or discernible incantation, an obscene fire contract sprang to life and Dessen’s maimed corpse ignited like magnesium.

It took Sev nearly half a minute to be sure he hadn’t been permanently blinded. His vision-enhancing contract sacrificed itself to protect his eyes. Luck and mercy. If it was a vindictive animus, it could have just as easily used its power to amplify the flash, which would fry his corneas instantly.

As the spots receded, Sevardin saw a few cinders lingering at the far end of the court, casting a dim orange glow across the arena. Forsythe knelt in front of it, hacking violently. His hair was black again. Does he need help? Is it even safe to approach him? Sevardin looked back at Delle. There was still color in her cheeks, and the rhythm of her breathing and urdic respiration had stabilized.

“Is he dead?” Delle asked.

Sevardin nodded.

“Harker. Hopkins,” Forsythe called, only for his voice to dissolve into a coughing fit.

“Don’t move,” Sevardin said to Delle, and she gestured something to the effect of ‘no shit.’ Sevardin grinned, then stood and descended from the stands to approach Forsythe. As the adrenaline faded, the severity of Sev’s injuries started to make themselves known. His right femur was badly bruised, possibly even had a hairline-fracture. Every step was agony.

Forsythe picked up his stave and used it to pry himself off his knees. He turned to Sevardin with a weary grin. He looked like hell tried to digest him and spat him back out. Bloodshot eyes. Bloody ears, nose, and mouth, still breathing heavily. His veins bulged beneath his drawn skin, as if straining for release.

“Are you alright?” Sevardin asked, though his brain crackled with a storm of other questions. What the hell was that? What happened to you? What are you?

“Perfectly stable,” Forsythe confirmed. “After some rest I’ll be right as rain. I imagine you have questions, but I need to make a great many phone calls. And you both need to see a medithurge.”

Sevardin nodded, but was unable to keep quiet:

“How did you do that?”

Forsythe’s mouth twitched into a smirk.

“Magic.”

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