Sevardin Harker. Marday. Virgo 17th, 2344 AA. 11:47 PM. Arroyo (Devil’s Gate).
The girl advanced, giggling and crying.
Sidani. The woman, Attisha, said the girl’s name was Sidani.
Her hand smoldered with dark fire, flickering in unnaturally jagged geometric shapes.
Then she raised her head from Sev to the tunnel behind him, and her body buckled to the side as a deafening bang echoed through the tunnel. Sev looked back to see Ashford with his service weapon drawn and smoking. Panicking, Sev looked back at the girl. Her body never actually hit the ground. Her knees bent backwards at an impossibly sharp slant, supporting her torso by unseen power. She looked like a limp marionette, hanging just above the floor on invisible strings. But slowly, her torso began to straighten. Egregore must have blocked the bullet with the girl’s wyrd.
Ashford yanked Sev to his feet with sorcery-assisted muscle and dragged him back around the corner. Juel popped out long enough to cover their retreat.
“You could have killed her,” Sev said, disbelieving.
“Are you hurt?” Ashford asked.
“No,” Sev said, but his body was still squirming from the impact that laid him out.
“Then get your head in the game,” Ashford half-snarled. “Use your wyrd. Feel how powerful that thing is.”
Sev felt a swell of fetid energy radiating from the passage they had just escaped. It’s waiting. Or preparing.
Ashford continued: “If its host dies, it dies, and it’s not going down without a fight. I could have shot her in the head and not given it an opportunity to defend itself. Hell, I probably should have, because now its guard is up.”
“No,” Sev said. “We can save her.”
“That’s the idea,” Ashford said, though he sounded skeptical, nodding at the hostage slumped in the corner.
His eyes fluttered, and delirious half-words occasionally dribbled from his mouth. Christ. Protecting an invalid was one of the greatest handicaps you could have in a fight. Extracting him would be even riskier.
“Demon?” Juel asked.
Sev shook his head.
“Areligious. Causes extreme pain. Ponophage, I think.”
The classification finally came to him, unbidden. Egregores came in a limitless variety of flavors, ranging from minor nuisances to literal gods. And somehow, they all translate to being a pain in our ass. In populations where the collective unconscious was particularly devout, they often assumed the mannerisms and identities of angels or demons. Other areas spawned monsters shaped by fear of serial killers, fae, urban legends, and anything else that caused a panic.
But ponophages were simpler. They were entities born from concentrations of mental energy associated with pain. Generally speaking, they were weak enough to be destroyed with the urdic equivalent of swatting a mosquito. The rules for bigger ones were different. You needed to import them to the material plane to kill them for good. Unfortunately, that required them to possess something. Hosts acted as metaphysical intermediaries, allowing the entity to be expelled and bound to the material plane, where they could then be definitively destroyed. But all possessive egregores knew how to use their hosts as hostages and wield them as weapons. But that’s not the best part. Since this thing is a ponophage, any pain we cause the host will make it more powerful.
“I can bind it,” Juel said.
“I can destroy it,” Sev said.
“We’ll need to shock it to loosen it’s hold on the girl first.” Ashford said, nodding. Prep your contracts. Be ready for my signal,” Ashford told Juel, then turned to Sevardin. “As soon as that thing finishes taking shape, blow it to hell.”
On a three count, Ashford jumped out from behind cover, and fired his gun at Sidani two more times. The high caliber rounds were enough to put it on it’s backfoot for a full second, giving him an opening to unleash his shock and awe contract. There was a blinding light, and the air temperature in the chamber plummeted, fast and quick enough to make Sev draw a breath that was like a knife in his lungs. The girl’s body, and the floor around her was shrouded in frost.
Smart. The ice will shock the girl but also numb her so it won’t have as much pain to draw on.
And as soon as Ashford landed the hit, Juel followed up with his binding contract. A storm of cyan, spectral chains erupted from Juel’s wyrd and shot toward the girl. The contours of her wyrd briefly became visible; a transparent blue sphere radiating from her body, polluted by a rusty shadow. The chains threaded themselves through the shadow, like a plant taking root in bruise-colored soil. Juel seized the two largest lengths of chain and wrapped them around his vambraces as he took a heavy step back.
The girl was drawn off her feet, levitating again. Sounds ranging from shrieks to peals of laughter escaped her throat. She twisted in mid-air as Juel continued to pull with the chains. The cyan links of the chain subdivided again and again, spreading through the shadow until Juel finally had the leverage to pluck it from the girl’s wyrd. As he tore the egregore away, she collapsed to the ground with a groan.
A skilled binder could not only force an incorporeal being to manifest, but also directly influence and constrain the form it took. And Sev knew well from their time at the athenaeum, Juel was a peerless binder. A mouth emerged in the nexus of chains—or rather, a lump of flesh blinked into existence, sprouted several errant teeth, followed by two tongues, and a mass of sinew that continued to spin itself from thin air. The lump of meat expanded and shifted shape constantly, with claws, scales, tendrils and other strange types of tissue briefly appearing.
Sev focused on his contract. When you need something dead, it’s very hard to argue with fire and force. He reached to the final animus in his right cuff, a knot of thermal and kinetic energy. Fire anima were easy to court into service being volatile and generally eager to go out in a blaze, glorious or otherwise. The problem was, that eagerness made them difficult to control, and even harder to ‘hold.’ If Sev blasted the ponophage too early though, he would disrupt the binding, and some of the egregore might not cross over into the physical plane.
So Sev held back the fire in his wyrd, sweat immediately beading on his brow. If he lost focus for an instant, the contract could detonate prematurely.
Somewhere, Sidani was screaming. Sev wanted to close his eyes to focus, but he still needed to aim. He felt like his nerves were starting to smoke, then the singe erupted into a blaze, the pain doubling. He cried out, but kept his grip on the increasingly volatile spell. Come on, man! Hell held Sev in its palm for three full seconds, slowly tightening it’s grasp into a pit.
Then Juel released his hold on the egregore. He had managed to trap it in the shape of an enormous, skinless creature resembling an ape. It didn’t even have eyes. It was a great target. Large. Relatively exposed. No nasty natural weapons—apart from its considerable muscle mass, but Juel could only do so much.
Sevardin released his contract just as the thing finished forming. A blazing sphere of indigo flame, large as a basketball and hot as perdition, launched from his outstretched palm with the force of a cannon. It streaked toward the creature who was already darting toward Juel—
No! He’ll be caught in the blast. The hostage and the girl too.
At the last picosecond, Sev used his wyrd to tug back the reins on the animus, depriving the spell of its full destructive potential. The orb still slammed into the ponophage with impressive force, enveloping the hallway in dust and smoke. Sev pulsed his wyrd into the cloud of debris, trying to feel out everyone’s relative positioning.
As if in answer, Ashford flew back-first from the cloud and smashed into the wall next to Sev. His shoulder audibly popped, and he fell to the ground, gasping.
The egregore released a shriek that became a roar, and as the smoke cleared, Sev could see it shucking off a literal layer of charred muscle from its body. How much power does this thing have? Ponophages were usually found in hospitals and doctor’s offices. And unless things got really out of hand, Medithurges were usually able to deal with them without consulting the Keeping Force. They were not natural fighters. More like parasites. They were the horseflies of the egregoric world.
This thing didn’t just happen. It was built. Fueled by torture. Somebody taught it to fight. It turned to face Sev. The front of its head looked like a lamprey’s maw—a gaping, oblong hole surrounded by blunted teeth.
Think fast, Sev.
He had only cast contracts simultaneously a handful of times. His attitude was that it was generally better to do one thing as well as you could, rather than splitting your focus. But certain situations demanded situations that were simply too complex for a single contract. And I am down to my last two shots.
He split his mind into two tracks, reaching out to the last two anima in his licenses. The egregore started charging toward Sevardin, loping forward on its enormous knuckles. Both contracts toyed with similar types of energy, which made it difficult to avoid combining them. One demanded a mental arcane equation, and the other… the other simply wanted him to whistle.
When the ponophage was less than 10 yards away, Sevardin released his first contract. The acrid stench of ozone and metal laced the air as the animus flared to life. Sev’s mind flashed with images of gears, electricity, industrial magnets, and natural lodestones. His left hand fired a blue pulse of energy at the ponophage: a magnetic mine.
Strands of rebar exploded from the concrete floor and adjacent wall, impaling the monster through the head, shoulders, chest and pelvis as it charged forward. Terrified, Sevardin thought the thing would tear straight through and run him down. But the metal managed to hold him still for a quarter second, and that was plenty of time.
Sev whistled at the ponophage like it was a lovely lady.
Intense, euphoric energy coursed into his body as the animus accepted the contract and empowered his wyrd. For a second, he felt like Thor, or Zeus, or God-All-Fucking-Mighty. A thick arc of ultra violet lightning leapt from his outstretched palm and smashed into the monster’s bulk. Electricity flooded its flesh. The animus’ energy was probably sufficiently powerful on its own, but Sevardin ‘leaned’ on the spirit with his wyrd, magnifying its destructive properties.
The iron bars impaling the Ponophage began to glow red, yellow, then a molten white. It howled and contorted with the current, its body too overwhelmed to draw power from its pain. After three full seconds, the thing burst into thick chunks of bruise-colored sludge.
The ectoplasm spattered Sev in the face, treating him to a flavor like burnt pus. He sputtered and wiped the ichor away from his face, then turned to see Juel crouched in front of the girl, who had apparently passed out from shock, the hostage laying prone behind her, and Ashford holding his shoulder.
“You okay?” Sev asked.
Ashford held up a finger, stretched his neck from side to side, grabbed his arm, and torqued his shoulder joint back into place with a burst of sorcery. A sickening pop echoed through the tunnel, and Ashford grunted to keep from crying out. Eventually he sighed and looked at Sev, smiling faintly.
“Yeah, nice lightning man!” Juel said, giving him a thumbs up.
“I meant to kill it with one shot but—” Sev started, but Ashford cut him off.
“You held back. You made the right call. If you went all out, you might have taken Flores, the girl, and the hostage with you. That double was quick thinking.”
Sev was surprised. He read my wyrd that carefully? In the middle of a fight? I’ve got a lot yet to learn.
They ended up backtracking through the drug lab. It was too dangerous to continue forward with everyone’s anima spent, and the rogue malefactor still at large. Fortunately, Ashford and Juel each had two contracts left, which was enough power to break open the door that had fused shut. While they worked on the door, Sev started visually examining some of the reagents in the lab.
“Aqua Logos… urdic nullifiers…. spirit orchid extract… these are all reagents to make inhibitor ink.” Sev said, not really addressing anyone but loud enough to notify the room.
And as soon as he said it, he saw what appeared to be the Amagium’s confidential alchemical formula for said ink. The Amagium was built on inhibitor ink. Its magic license system only worked because of the ritualistic binding tattoos compulsorily applied at birth. So, what the hell was this guy trying to do?
When his partners didn’t respond, still occupied with the door, Sevardin studied the alchemist’s workspace in more detail. There were pages covered in extremely minute and dense mathematics, and some alchemical formulas that seemed to speak of counter-spells and nullifying ritual enchantments. I’ve never seen this some of this shit before, and I took my Alchemy finals a month ago.
Was he trying to find an antidote for the ink?
It was a startling idea. But it might explain how he was able to use magic without a license—assuming that silent sorcery was magic, and not some kind of trick. Most criminals generally attempted to crack the licenses themselves, as experimenting with a ritual enchantment could have excruciating, or even fatal consequences. Not the kind of thing you would test on yourself. Maybe that’s what the prisoners were for… But what about the egregore?
“I think this guy was trying to undo his tattoos,” Sevardin said.
“Maybe he succeeded. He was unlicensed when he hit us with that sorcery,” Juel said.
“That wasn’t sorcery,” Ashford grunted.
“What the hell was it?” Sev asked.
“Way above our paygrade. We’ve got two civilians to extract and there may be other hostiles around. Leave this shit for the detectives.”
Sevardin felt a tinge of disappointment. Ashford was right. But I would still like to have a look around. Instead, he nodded, and stooped to pick up Sidani, who was still unconscious. She was reedy, with dark brown skin, long braided hair and features that would be quite pretty if she weren’t so badly malnourished. Christ, she’s light. Can’t be more than ninety pounds. Hard to believe that egregore gave her so much power. Juel shouldered the man from the cage, and Ashford took point as they backtracked their way back to the entrance of the flood control system.
—Merday. Virgo 18th, 2344 AA. 12:06 AM. Arroyo (Devil’s Gate)—
Attisha was waiting when they stepped out, face stricken with anguish. Sevardin approached her, still holding the girl and wearing his best reassuring smile.
“She’s going to be alright.”
The woman eyed him suspiciously, looked at the girl again, and then gave him a nod. She saw Juel carrying the man next.
“That’s Bock. He alive too?”
“He’ll be fine,” Juel said reassuringly.
Once you know Juel, it’s hard to take him seriously. But damn if he can’t turn on that heroic charm. Attisha was unconvinced, however.
“Uh-huh,” She said, skeptically peering at his body. “What about Dee and Canker?”
“We’re still investigating the area,” Ashford said, before Juel or Sevardin could speak.
“You kill whatever was in there?” Attisha demanded.
“Yes, ma’am,” Ashford answered quickly again. “But we have some questions. Can you hang around for a few minutes and ask the others to do the same?” He nodded at the few unhoused onlookers, peering at the floodgate’s entrance from the banks of the arroyo’s wilderness. “Detectives are on their way and they will want to speak with you.”
“I mean. I’ll ask, but most of them already left.”
Ashford gestured for Sev and Juel to lay the people on the grassy bank, close to where they parked their cruiser, and then motioned for them to come close.
“When you start taking statements, not a word about that guy with the fucked-up voice, understood? Like I said, Xenomancy is above our paygrade,” Ashford grinned. Sev and Juel both chuckled. Xenomancy was storybook shit. Cautionary tales for kids tucking in at night. There was more metaphysical evidence to support the existence of deities, even if you nitpicked the semantics. Ashford continued: “Seriously though. We don’t want to spook people.”
“What about the lab?” Sevardin asked.
Ashford pursed his lips.
“Don’t volunteer it, but inquire about drug use. Hell, see if somebody has an interest in hedge alchemy. If they ask why you’re asking, tell them we found… ‘paraphernalia’ down there.”
Hedge alchemy, my ass. I barely understood what I was looking at, but I know it wasn’t nonsense. Sev figured Ashford would use that as more credence for his argument, however, and bit his tongue.
“I’m gonna call M&M, because this… definitely fits their bill. You two take statements from everybody who bothers to stick around, but do not let these two,” he gestured at Sidani and Bock, still unconscious, “Out of your sight.”
Sev and Juel both nodded.
A Detective 2 venture from the Monstrum and Malefaction division showed up in only ten minutes. It helped that Ashford failed to make his fifteen-minute check-in with dispatch, and they had already assigned officers to back up. Forensics and an ambulance followed, and dispatch cautioned Ashford that the press was not far behind.
Before the circus hit full swing, Sev managed to ask Attisha few questions.
“How long have you known Sidani?”
“How is that relevant?” Attisha asked, crossing her arms.
Sev grinned and tried not to laugh. He was charmed.
“It isn’t, strictly speaking. You just seem to care a lot about her and…” Sev smiled reassuringly. “I’m just trying to get an idea about your relationship. And your community.”
Attisha looked him up and down.
“Fine.” She conceded. Sev smiled, but before he could ask a question, she held up a finger. “You tell me what the hell actually happened down there, and I will answer anything you want.”
Sevardin sighed. Ashford wouldn’t like this.
“Sidani was possessed by an egregore.”
Attisha raised an eyebrow.
“Those weird thought-things? I can make those go away with my own weak-ass wyrd. Like swatting flies.”
“This… was a big one. Look, I’m not supposed to tell you this. I would really appreciate it if you could keep this quiet. But that’s what happened. That’s why we’re beat to shit. That’s why she’s out cold. Honest.”
“What about Bock? Was he possessed too?”
“Possibly,” Sev said on reflex. The brief seminar on ‘public communication and management’ was the best elective he had ever taken. How to lie without lying, taught by a very tricky half-fae. “Look, as my boss says, this is above our paygrade. We aren’t qualified—”
“If you aren’t qualified, then why are you talking to me?”
Sevardin opened his mouth, not entirely sure how to talk his way out of the corner he backed himself into, but followed Attisha’s gaze to see another vehicle pulling up. Oh God. Not the coroner. By the time he turned back, Attisha was already half-jogging away.
“I’m out!” she said, raising both hands. “No dead people for me!”
I answered your damn questions lady! You really gonna do me like that? Sevardin thought of a small list of excuses he could use to detain her, but they all struck him as exceptionally petty. He knew her name. He knew she would be back for Sidani, eventually. And he shook his head.
“That all she said?” Second Detective Ross asked.
“Unfortunately,” Sevardin said.
“Next time just bind her, yeah?” Second Detective Kline suggested, exasperated. “You know you can cite her for trespassing and squatting until the asfalis cops show up, right?”
Sevardin did his best to take the comment in stride. Ross took the opportunity to talk over him.
“Alright! Good work, bluebie. Head back to to your CO and we’ll get you out of here.”
Sevardin opened his mouth to reply, but Ross had already turned to Kline and started a separate conversation. Sevardin blinked, then spoke up.
“Actually detectives, I noticed some… irregularities during our investigation.”
“Oh?” Ross asked, seemingly amused.
Sevardin continued unphased:
“My CO told you everything that happened down there, right? Casting without a license aside, isn’t it strange that an ponophage could grow that powerful without anybody noticing? People live here. It’d be like having a cacodemon in your attic.”
“Where are you going with this?” Kline asked, less amused.
“I think our mystery man may have been growing the egregore. Using his hostages’ pain to cultivate that thing, and controlling it somehow.”
“‘Somehow’ is pretty vague, bluebie. Ponophages are pests. Why even bother?” Kline pressed.
“Maybe that was how he abducted people. Maybe he wanted it to act as a guard dog, or some kind of scarecrow against lesser egregores.”
The two detectives looked like they were suppressing laughs.
“Look, we appreciate the theories, bluebie. Be sure to put it in your write-ups,” Ross said, and turned back to Kline to continue his conversation.
Sevardin bristled. He spoke before he could hold his tongue in check.
“It’s Harker, sir.”
The detective turned to face Sev, slow and incredulous.
“I’m sorry?” He asked.
“My name is Sevardin Harker. Sir.”
The detective nodded languidly, and paused a moment before replying.
“Yeah. I’ll make a note of it.”
Sevardin gave a curt bow in response and walked back to the cruiser.
Ashford Adams was standing near the cruiser, smoking a cigarette and jotting something down in field notes. Juel was inside the car, speaking to the precinct about something. Sev’s wyrd must have been naked with anger, because Ashford snickered without looking up:
“Try not to take it personally, Harker.”
“Look. You’re…what, twenty-four? No. Twenty-three. You’ll be in their boots soon enough. In the meantime, be patient and observe propriety as best you can.”
“I didn’t realize putting up with derision was part of propriety,” Sev said.
Ashford sighed and flipped his notebook shut.
“They don’t teach you how to navigate department politics in the athenaeum, so here’s some advice: pick your battles. Don’t be a pushover, but learn to take a joke. Keep your head down when you can, and put in what work is asked of you. Correcting your superiors, pretending at Detective 3 on your first week of General Patrol, trying to play the prodigy…Those are all good ways to make enemies.”
“Here I thought we were all on the same side.”
Sev could tell Ashford was getting annoyed. He plucked the stub of his cigarette out of his mouth and ground it under his boot.
“We are. That’s my point. People are gonna haze you. It’s nothing personal. If you can grow a sense of humor about it, you’ll be much better off.”
Ashford put a hand on his shoulder, gently, as he started walking back to detectives:
“Get in the cruiser and I’ll get us clocked out.”
Sev paused a moment, then climbed behind the wheel of the cruiser’s middle seat. Propriety is a pretty word that covers a great many sins. It tended to work out well for men like Ashford. Straight, white, handsome, and, above all, comfortable. You might be satisfied with Officer 3 after five years on the force, but I’m aiming higher. And I don’t intend to abandon my ambitions for the sake of your convenience.
Sev sighed heavily, watching Ashford walk back to the detectives who had dismissed him earlier. Somewhere, McCormick’s probably smiling, and he doesn’t know why.
Every aspiring amagia was assigned a mentor when they enrolled in the Athenaeum. And most developed close relationships, comparable to parental bonds. But Sev had a different experience with Ridger McCormick. The man was warm enough before Sev declared peacekeeping as his discipline. Master McCormick tried to dissuade him. When Sev held his ground, McCormick trained him harder than anybody else. Made examples of every mistake he made, and turned his successes into targets on his back. And when it became clear that Sev wouldn’t back down, McCormick eventually regarded him with a mix of grudging respect and resignation. There was always a suspicious distance there. And it wasn’t until Sev graduated that McCormick leveled with him. Every word of that little farewell speech was chiseled in his head:
“You have what it takes to be an excellent amagia, Harker. If you went into Arcanism, Medithurgy, Leximancy…people would be reading books about your career before it even ended. But I still don’t think you have what it takes to be a Keeper. Honestly, it took me a long time to figure out why myself.
“You came to this country when you were eleven and enrolled in the Athenaeum a year later. We are a walled garden, son. I know you think you know prejudice. I’m sure you’ve had more than a taste of it. But believe me when I tell you, you have no idea how to be Black in Ericia. Much less, how to be a Black Keeper.“
McCormick held out his arms to the side, as if to say “there it is” and let them fall flat. Sev opened his mouth, coughed a laugh, and tilted his head to one side in consideration. Of course, he’d save that remark for last. Of course, that was how he chose to say goodbye. It was too much to take in at once. It raised all kinds of questions, the sort he would want to ask a mentor he trusted, but that clearly wasn’t McCormick. When Sev found his rebuttal, it came earnest and unchecked:
“I appreciate all you’ve done for me, Master McCormick. That’s not me being snide or sarcastic. I take pride knowing you did your damnedest to break me. There were even a couple moments where you came close. But I made a habit of proving you wrong. And I look forward to doing it again.”
McCormick eyed him with an inscrutable smile and gave him a stiff nod. Sev smiled back, nodded back, and turned around with a silent vow to make that their last meeting.
As the scene played out in his head, Sev opened the door to the cruiser and slid into its odd, central driver’s seat. He was trying to mask his expression and keep his wyrd emotionally neutral, but apparently not hard enough. Juel muted himself on the radio and looked at Sev.
“Not really. But after eleven years, I feel like I got a pretty good read on you,” Juel laughed. “That’s your ‘Fuck-This-Shit-But-Try-To-Look-Polite-About-It’ face.”
“Sounds like one of my faces.”
“Oh, it’s a classic.”
After that, Juel let it drop, and went back to talking to dispatch. Sev was relieved. He didn’t want to go into it further, or else Juel might end up shooting his mouth off at their superiors. Juel was good at shrugging people off—up until they affronted someone he cared about. Then the gloves came off. And the last thing we need is two people stirring the pot.
Sev watched Ashford talking the two detectives. The three of them spoke for a couple minute, finished with a brief chuckle, and exchanged a handshake.
Sev simply smiled and shook his head.