EPISODE 24: BYPASS

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Sevardin Harker. Venday, Aries 8th, 2348 AA. 1:05 PM. Arroyo (AKF – Central Precinct).

Today’s the day.

Sev knew his chances of victory were narrow because the game was rigged against him. But I am qualified. My argument is rehearsed. I have examples. I have everything you could want but visual aids. And most importantly, the opening he had been waiting for had presented itself. Wotzer Carson recently suffered a heart attack—the poor bastard—and at his wife’s urging, he announced he was retiring from his Detective 2 Posting in Monstrum and Malefaction. Sev had heard this three days ago, and every day since, he checked the internal transfers board at morning and in the afternoon. Today the posting finally went live.

If I can get Ashford’s recommendation, this could be settled by the end of next week, depending on who else applies. There would be other Detective 1s in M&M who would be hungry for it. But Sevardin had truly distinguished himself in Entropathy. Once Juel reached Officer 2 at the end of his first year on the job, the higher ups restored Ashford’s rank of Detective 2, and offered to transfer his new venture back to his old division: Entropathy. And you could do worse than Entropathy. A lot worse. But you can also do a damn sight better.

Entropathy Divisions were the Keeping Force’s universal grease traps. The division was supposed to govern dangerous enchantments. That meant that anytime somebody cracked a license, fused an illegal chimera, fucked up runic code on artifice that could pose threat to public safety, or cast a curse of any kind, Entropathy had to deal with it. And that was a full order to begin with. The problem was, a division dedicated to something as ubiquitous as ‘dangerous enchantments’ meant that almost every other division—particularly Vice—could make an argument that a case belonged to Entropathy.

There was never any shortage of work to tackle, and it came in a wide variety of flavors, which suited Sev fine. As far as educations went, you couldn’t ask for a finer appointment. But there were too many interdivisional pissing competitions, and the division’s internal culture seemed to revolve around buck passing. Joining a specialized, Detective 3-led venture specializing in Cursebreaking could be interesting, but it required too much commitment for too modest a reward. There were occasional opportunities to do real police work in Entropathy, but Sev knew he was capable of more, and refused to settle for anything less.

Sevardin walked back to their office, springs in his step and daisies in his wyrd. Detective 2-led ventures got their own offices, which was a major step up from the cubicles of general patrol. But over the last three years, their clutter expanded in proportion to their environment, and they were once again feeling cramped.

Juel was out on medical leave that day. They had discussed the position together, and he had expressed interest, but stated he wanted to discuss it with Elamni first. Therefore, my head start is completely justified. Ashford was late coming back from his lunch break, but he seemed to be in a good mood, laughing with Carlyle as he walked down the hall.

“Hey,” Sev said, when Ashford entered.

“Hey,” Ashford said, as he sank into his seat.

“Could I talk to you about something quickly?”

Ashford raised an eyebrow.

“Do I get three guesses?”

“Word is that Carson is retiring after his heart bypass. That leaves a Detective Two position open in Finch’s venture in M&M, and I wanted to throw my hat in the ring.”

Ashford donned a smirk that made Sev’s stomach sink. It was slightly weary and deeply condescending. Doesn’t matter if he shoots me down today. Sev reminded himself. Each time I apply, it puts pressure on him to accept the next time. I am just here to exhaust his arguments get some direction and prepare for the next time I have to ask him. That said, I’m gonna make my damn case for this promotion and he’s gonna hear me through.

“You that eager to leave me and Flores behind?” Ashford asked.

“With respect sir, you know that’s not it. I’ve already talked to Juel and he supports my decision. Hell, he’s considering applying himself. We’ve been through a lot together, and I have learned a lot working under you in Entropathy—”

“But you want to hunt bad guys and monsters,” Ashford finished. “And you want to advance. I get it.”

Sevardin nodded.

“Yes, sir.”

Ashford sighed and leaned back in his desk chair before glancing at the clock on the wall.

“I need a cigarette. Join me for a walk and we can talk it over.”

— 1:09 PM. Arroyo (South Lake Avenue) —

“Forgive me for asking, Harker,” Ashford said, once he’d lit up and took a drag. “But what’s your hurry? Making Detective, even Detective One, before you turn thirty is a major accomplishment. So what are you gunning for? You hoping to become AC one day? Or are you hoping to be poached by TMAW? The Guard? CIC?”

“I’m not suited for politics and management,” Sev said seriously. “I have considered TMAW, but both it and the Guard are a little too military for my liking. And I hear CIC transfers are rarer than snowfall in perdition.”

“So what do you want?” Ashford asked.

“My career goals are pretty humble,” Sev said. “I want to work cases in Monstrum and Malefaction, and eventually I want to lead a venture there for as long as possible. When I get too old for fieldwork, I will consider teaching or shooting for something administrative.”

“Why M&M? Every bluebie that joins the Force wants to be a monster hunter, but the Force manages to disabuse that fantasy for most by now. You’re still clinging to it, though.”

“My wyrd is best-suited for combat,” Sev said. “I believe it’s where I stand to make the greatest contributions. And I am very good at bringing down monsters in particular. Remember our joint bust with Vice last Taurus?”

“How could I forget?” Ashford intoned. “Sevardin Harker vs. The Cartel Chimeras.”

— Marday, Taurus 24th, 2347 AA. 9:47PM. Arroyo (San Rafael Area) —

After two years of high stakes undercover groundwork, Vice’s sting operation on the illicit artifact trade in Arroyo was about to bear fruit. Vice was so thirsty for a win, that they agreed to split the credit with Entropathy in exchange for their help with any potential chimeras, and cataloguing the illicit artifice seized during the bust.

“Go!” Ashford said, his ear to the radio in their surveillance van.

Juel, Sevardin, and three officers from general patrol leapt out of the side of the van. Sev advanced on the house with a Descartes shotgun in both hands, and a barrier contract at the ready in case he needed instant cover. His squad was covering the west entrances of the manor in Arroyo’s wealthy San Rafael area, which was heavily treed. Fortunately, that cover provided a number of intrusion points to slip past security systems. Sev used sorcery to climb an oak rapidly, and then leap over the spiked security fence.  We have a minute, tops, before they know we’re here. And once they catch wind of us, God only knows what they will do.

The five-acre manor in question supposedly housed “The Menagerie,” a famous black market that operated out of Arroyo, providing drugs, illegal alchemical products, and ‘useful tools’ for illicit enterprises, like spoofed skeleton keys, license nullifiers, and penetrative scrying spheres. But as its name suggested, the menagerie had a specialty among contraband. Chimeras, biologically impossible hybrid-animals, created via magic were prestige pieces for many wealthy collectors. Peacock foxes and angora rabbit-ermines were particularly in vogue on social media currently, along with every imaginable variety of winged red pandas. At best, those short-lived, sterile creations were ethically questionable. And in Los Angeles County, the manufacture and husbandry of chimeras was outlawed, though the wealthy could purchase ownership permits for supposed, natural born chimeras, like gryphons. 

But designer chimeras held enormous sway over one market in particular. Cartels adored designer chimeras. Part of it was practical. Crossing a golden retriever with a Kodiak bear made for highly trainable, highly lethal security. But for the most part, chimeras were another way for cartel lords to show off.  They were symbols of one’s strength, and in some cases, the embodiment of their outfit’s “unique philosophy,” though so far as Sev could tell, their goals and methodologies seemed indistinguishably loathsome.

Sev and the other keepers silently swept west across the grounds. Tennis court. Garden paths. They had just reached the pool when Sev heard the main invasion force approaching from the front of the house. There was a flashbang contract and lots of shouting, followed by automatic weapons’ fire.

The rear of the house overlooked the estate’s pool from an expansive, elevated patio. The patio in turn led to the pool via two curling stone staircases. Sev focused on the right staircase, while Juel focused on the left. They were halfway down the length of the pool when the back glass wall leading to the patio erupted with a tide of celebrity monstrosities.

Three spiderwolves, originally fused for the Sinaloa cartel, were the reference standard for modern designer chimeras. They had four wolf legs, four larger spider legs emerging from their shoulders, four eyes on either side of their fanged face, and, if the creation was authentic, they were ‘tricked’ with propulsive spinnerets at multiple points on their body, enabling them to create and fire webbing.

A flock of black birds—God only knows what they were crossed with—followed the spiderwolves out of the broken glass, and scattered to the four winds. The birds were followed in turn, by a tiger with the forearms of a gorilla. Fuck me. They have a luchador. But Sev’s horror was quickly eclipsed as part of the house’s structural wall exploded outward.

A great white shark and rhinoceros hybrid, christened ‘The Land Shark,’ by the strain’s original creator, crashed through the patio’s left structural wall. Like many chimeras, the creature had an extremely short life-span. It also had rows of serrated shark teeth, the horn of a rhino, and the combined bulk and muscle of both animals, wrapped up in skin thick enough to shrug off small arms fire.

One of the spiderwolves bounded down the right staircase, headed straight for Sev. The second came down the left side, dashing at Juel, but the largest of the three—hung back at the edge of the right staircase, seemingly assessing the situation. Sev noted it had a different fur pattern than the other two. Probably the alpha. On the patio above, the luchador beat its striped chest and roar a challenge at the land shark.

When the first spiderwolf was within ten yards of Sev, it reared back, raising its arachnid forelegs and fired twin globs of webbing from its footpads. Sevardin answered by releasing his barrier contract. The webs slapped into the empty kinetic force and slid to the ground. Then he unloaded four consecutive blasts from his Descartes on the advancing chimera. The flechette-rounds reduced the monster to mulch with a cut-off canine yelp.

Sev felt an urdic swell from the other side of the pool. He turned to see Juel splash water onto the patio with kinetic sorcery and then flash freeze the ground with a hydro contract. Three out of eight of the second spiderwolfs legs were encased by the ice, allowing Juel to dash forward and quickly thrust his saber down the thing’s throat. Nice job, Juel—Shit!

The remaining spiderwolf sprang off its arachnid-legs from the far end of the pool, closing thirty yards in under a second. As the snarling beast hurtled toward Sevardin, he frantically emptied the rest of his shotgun into the thing’s torso. One shot went completely wild, but the other hit it square in the gut. The thing’s fangs still managed to make contact with his face, lengthwise, and his blood seemed to blaze as it flowed from the wound. The creature’s bulk sent him to the patio hard on his coccyx and lightning raced up his spine.

Sev pushed the thing’s carcass off of his body just in time to see the luchador go flying from the mansion’s patio balcony. It fell only a few feet away; close enough for Sev to feel the weight of its impact through the stone tiles. Thing must be nine hundred pounds. Sev scrambled away despite the searing pain of a possible broken ass, leaving his empty shotgun caught beneath the spiderwolf’s corpse.

Apparently, the luchador had lost three fingers from its right fist to the land shark, stumps oozing blood as the claws extended and retracted from its remaining two fingers. It’s haunting, feline-primate eyes, and its powerful, hybrid wyrd were incandescent with fury.

Sevardin managed to roll out of the way before the luchador leapt at him. He drew his saber and used a fire animus to shroud the blade in a spiraling flame. Chimeras are still animals at heart, and most animals don’t like fire. The luchador, however, was unfazed, and charged at Sevardin. He narrowly managed to dodge past it and he sank his flaming blade into the thing’s flank.

Nearly a full second later, Sevardin woke up lodged into the hedge wall that lined the pool. What the fuck just happened? Oh shit. I can’t breathe. He coughed, realizing the luchador must have backhanded him when he stabbed it. His wyrd was numb from the impact it absorbed, and he was still winded. But damn if my tailbone doesn’t hurt.

Sev managed to push himself up, vision blurring back into focus. He saw the luchador running wild—tragically in the opposite direction of the pool—already half-immolated by the fire enchantment Sevardin had affixed to his blade. Eventually, the beast wrenched the flaming sword out of its lower back, rupturing something that caused it to collapse on the lawn as it bled out.

Another scream cut through the night as one of the general patrol officers—Sevardin later learned his name was Jackson—was flung from the patio, high into the air. His body arced to the shallow end of the pool, before crunching against the stone steps, abruptly cutting off his cry. His wyrd went quiet instantly upon impact. Sev followed his trajectory to the land shark, stomping and thrusting its horn in the air. A fireball slammed into its bulk from out of Sevardin’s sightline, and the thing reared to charge at the aggressor.

Sevardin forced himself to his feet and started to stagger towards the patio. As he took in the carnage surrounding the pool, he saw the dead spiderwolf Juel had incapacitated with ice. That’s a thought.

Sevardin shouted, amplifying his voice with sorcery:

“Lead it to the pool!”

Right on cue, Juel sprinted down the left staircase with the landshark literally snapping at his heels. Sevardin drew his revolver and emptied every chamber into the thing’s bulk. The bullets did little damage to the creature’s magically enriched biology, but eight .45 cal rounds were annoying enough to snag its full attention.

Staring the monstrosity in the face, Sevardin felt himself freeze for a second. No way through but forward. Then he took a deep breath and ran toward the right edge of the pool, baiting the chimera with primal emanations from his wyrd. Fight me! I challenge you! Come here!

The land shark took the bait. As it scratched the ground with its foreleg, preparing to charge, Sevardin started crafting a contract with the water anima in his right cuff. The creature trampled its way toward the pool, then leaped into the air. It nearly cleared the full length of the pool despite its bulk. Sevardin narrowly dodged the crushing girth of its chest, and its kicking, tree trunk-sized legs as it hit the ledge. But its hind quarters were still completely submerged.

Sevardin unleashed his contract. The water animus caused the water in the pool to violently flow into the land shark in a pattern of needlelike spikes, not unlike an iron maiden. The land shark roared, trying to tear itself free from the jagged water.

Sevardin used a second water animus to freeze the entire pool. Temperature shock nearly killed the land shark outright. But after a stunned second, it seemed to catch a furious second wind, thrashing its head and forelegs, cracking the ice that encased it. Before the creature could work itself completely free, Sev cancelled the second contract prematurely. The ice instantly thawed and the land shark bled out precipitously.

Then the anima twisted his wyrd uncomfortably at the end. And Sevardin realized he could feel the land shark’s fear through the spell’s feedback. It was a ‘gratuity;’ an unwanted quirk that cheeky anima would sometimes add to a spell because they found a loophole in your argument, or found fault with your offerings. God damn it.

Externally, the creature roared and emanated with all its might throughout the courtyard—pain, hate, and rage. But Sev also felt the thing’s fear first hand. It was almost clinical, presented in isolation from every other sensation, emotion, and thought. What happened? Why can’t I move? I can move. I must move. No, it hurts to move. I am going to lose! No. I am going to die. There was a stillness then, followed by an endless refrain. I am going to die. I am going to die….

— Venday, Aries 8th, 2348 AA. 1:24 PM. Arroyo (South Lake Street) —

Sevardin tried to shrug off the memory, but it chilled him all the same. Months later and it’s still raw. He also had a permanent scar on his right eyebrow from the spiderwolf’s fangs—apparently the damn things were poisonous as well, and even a nick was enough to leave a lingering mark after alchemical antivenom was applied. And the sight of that burning chimera—an endangered creature twice over; a beautiful warrior engineered for brutality and bloodsport—would haunt him for the rest of his life.

“I remember the sound Jackson made when he hit the steps of the pool,” Sevardin said, shaking his head again, trying to break the traumatic chain of memories with a different awful thought. “I thought he was dead for sure.”

“He wished he was for a while,” Ashford said. “He’s still in a wheelchair.”

Shit. This is not the note I wanted this anecdote to end on.

“I still feel guilty about Jackson,” Sevardin said. “But I am proud of how I handled the situation at the time. Since then? I’ve done a lot of thinking, and I know how I could have saved Jackson. I’m confident that if I could do it again today, I could guide a team away from that encounter without injuries.”

Ashford raised an eyebrow and smirked as he took a drag. Come on. Ask me how. Take the bait! Sevardin had run through the scenario a dozen different ways in his head. He knew exactly what he did wrong. He could argue what he should have done differently, and what he should have done better.

As much as the scenario haunted him, it also captivated him in a way other cases didn’t. He knew part of it was chemical. Even after the adrenaline faded, he felt high for weeks after a life-threatening encounter. Simultaneously calm and confident, while also more appreciative of life’s quiet moments. It was almost like a second opus. Beyond that though, Sev knew those fights were where he belonged. Better me than somebody else. Because not everybody can do what I can do.

“Word of advice,” Ashford said. “Even if that little boast is true? Don’t mention it to Jackson. And don’t treat fellow officers who survive as failure states in some game.” Ashford emanated a sense of mild revulsion.

Sev bowed his head, suddenly feeling sick. Holy hell, how did that go so wrong? Ashford grunted and emanated ‘cheer up.’

“You have every reason to be proud. An individual spiderwolf is a Class C threat. Luchadors and that land shark are both Class A threats. Hell, you could probably go toe-to-toe with a natural born gryphon,” Ashford acknowledged. “You deal extremely well with life and death stakes. But I still think your threat assessment could use a little work.”

“What are you talking about?” Sev asked, genuinely confused but he recognized the knowing expression on Ashford’s face. Shit. I forgot something. He has a counter.

“Remember Mr. Umbrella?”

Sev couldn’t hide his frustration. He sighed and shook his head. Ashford cracked up, and kept on laughing until he started coughing. Sev said nothing. Are you fucking kidding me!? Man, how long are you gonna hang that over my head. That was two years ago! Play that shit for laughs all you want, but don’t seriously broach it as a barrier to advancement.

— Jovday, Pisces 3rd, 2346 AA. 9:47PM. Arroyo (North Old Town) —

Some smartass called in about a cursed umbrella that had supposedly appeared in his house over the night. It sounded like a mimic at first, except the man and his family weren’t already stone dead. Sev remembered that he, Ashford, and Juel had taken bets on what it would be. Juel bet drugs, but Juel always bet drugs, because it was a reliable explanation for most potential crank-calls. Sevardin took it at face value and bet on it being some kind of minor curse. And Ashford bet it was just quirked.

Nobody ended up collecting on that bet. Sev still wasn’t exactly sure who was right.

When they arrived at the condo complex, there was a person in every doorway staring down the hall with amusement or fear. A Hispanic family of four had gathered outside their condominium door.

“Thank god you’re here!” the father said, glancing nervously at the door.

The man was built like a tank. He had a bit of a gut, but his forearms looked almost cartoonishly large. His pectorals and biceps shamed everyone in Ashford’s venture. He’s got at least a hundred pounds on any of us. And he is afraid. Afraid for his life. From a jumping ‘umbrella with a tongue?’ Sev turned around to hide a laugh. This job, man.

Juel and Sevardin told everybody to get back in their apartments and lock their doors while Ashford started taking the family’s statements. Then a slender, pale, and ridiculously muscular leg, wearing a Japanese wooden sandal, punched itself through the wall. Everybody stopped. The leg kicked once, long and slow, emanating a sort of ‘come hither,’ energy, then sharply withdrew back into the wall. The remaining onlookers left immediately.

Ashford gestured for Sev and Juel to adopt standard breaching protocol. On three, Adams kicked down the door, gun drawn. Juel covered his flank, blade drawn, and Sev brought up the rear, prepared to cast. The room was a ruin, and wood knocked on wood incessantly. Sev traced the sounds to a jumping umbrella. Or a creature that greatly resembled an umbrella.

In place of a normal umbrella shaft was the muscular, sandaled leg. The leg’s upper thigh was now obscured by a flapping fringed hood, dark purple, the color of a bruise, and the shape of a Chinese umbrella. And the hood was capped by a single, enormous eyeball, bulging upwards from the center of the membrane.

Juel lowered his blade and started laughing. The thing stopped its errant hopping, and bent its knee to lean its eye backwards so it could stare at Juel. It emanated menace. Juel laughed even harder.

“Check out Mr. Umbrella!” Juel breathed.

But ‘Mr. Umbrella’ seemed to take exception to that moniker. The creature fired itself off the floor with kinetic sorcery, and then launched a savage springing kick directly between Juel’s thighs.

Juel made a truly horrible noise—something between a shriek and a gasp for air—and clutched his groin, followed by: “¡Hijo de puta; estalló! Oh Dios, oh fuck; I felt something pop!”

In the Athenaeum, they taught Keepers to mask pain from their emanations in combat. But whatever the umbrella did to Juel hurt bad enough that his emanations conveyed urdic frissons, bombarding Sevardin’s wyrd with flashes of intense, second-hand pain and fear. Ashford knelt down to tend to Juel, while Sevardin turned to the hallway and ran after the absurd monster as it fled the condo in their confusion.

He caught sight of it turning a corner at the far end of the hallway, hopping impossibly fast. Sev decided the time was right to try out a new concept for a contract he had been working on. If he pulled it off, he gave his muscles a surge of strength, as well as speeding up his mental acuity just enough to use that extra power safely. Normally, strength and reflexes required two different contracts, for a prolonged effect; each lasting somewhere around five minutes. In contrast, the “chase contract,” as Sev called it, only used a single kinetic anima and lasted thirty seconds.

The kinetic sprite was lively and eager to try out something different. Sev made a sequence of arcane gestures with his fingers, while holding an arcane rune, a sort of visual syllable, in his head. Those inputs satisfied the spirit and spell’s conditions.

Sevardin’s body became lighter, stronger, and much more responsive. He used a burst of sorcery to slide around the hallway corner. Mr. Umbrella had paused apparently, and yelped when it saw Sev in pursuit. It released another ludicrous kick at the metal door leading to the fire escape, smashing it concave and tearing it from its hinges. But Mr. Umbrella used the backlash from said kick to twirl through the air, directly towards Sev’s face.

Fuck!

By the merest grace of his enhanced reflexes and training, Sev managed to dodge the black and pink-striped tongue that lashed out at him, unfurling from beneath the umbrella’s hood, opened as broadly as it could be. But even though he didn’t take a hit, he felt a rush of force like an elastic freight train snap over his shoulder and back again. Then he felt woozy. What the hell?

It must have a poisonous wyrd.

Even though the monster’s blow didn’t directly hit Sevardin, its physical body—apparently—had magical properties that allowed it to strike and numb its prey metaphysically. The ‘strike’ left a region of Sev’s wyrd numb and limp. It was like having a hole in a muscle. His sorcery would be clumsier. It would be harder to form contracts. In terms of dexterity, it was like being down a finger on each hand.

Mr. Umbrella landed from its twirling tongue lash attack with a delicate pirouette on its sandaled foot. The eye at the top of the umbrella smiled. Sev couldn’t explain how he knew the eye was smiling, but it was the smuggest shit he ever saw. And then, to drive the point home, it cackled at him. It laughed so hard that its hood shook.

You son of a bitch!

Sevardin darted forward just as Mr. Umbrella hopped out of the busted door, and started rapidly descending the fire escape, wooden sandal clicking and clacking. Sev cast a kinetic barrier on himself—it was a simple enough contract that his handicap was negligible. Then he drew his sword and jumped off the fire escape. He hoped to land just as Mr. Umbrella reached the street. But he was a touch early. Mr. Umbrella saw Sev leap down, and managed to precariously stop itself on the ledge of the fire escape, just out of Sev’s reach.

Sev tried to swipe at it with his blade anyway. The thing’s skinny leg effortlessly pogoed to the side. Then Mr. Umbrella lifted its hood, and the top of the leg grew a bulging ass. Like. There was no other way to spin it. The leg grew an ass, and mooned him with it. It practically twerked. Then the ass turned sideways, reshaped itself to look like lips, and blew him a smacking kiss.

Oh, to hell with this. You’re gonna fucking burn.

Sev’s wyrd stoked the fire animus and it roared to life, all too eager for mayhem. But his numbed wyrd wasn’t equal to its exuberance and Sev stumbled while shaping the spell. While potent, the fireball went off late and sloppy, arcing wide. Mr. Umbrella easily hopped to the side, and the core of the ball, the contract’s concussive payload, hit the side of the condo complex instead, bathing the brick façade with hellfire. At least three windows shattered. The hinges of the fire escape moaned perilously. Half the building was charred black.

At the very least, the blast managed to singe Mr. Umbrella’s hood before it leaped free from the fire escape. The thing shrieked as it helicopter twirled its way to the other side of the street, where it plummeted straight down, strong enough to shatter the concrete sidewalk.

But this time, Sev had the lead. He had already cast another one of his chase contracts, the numbness of the thing’s foul tongue finally having worn off.

He dashed across the street, taking Mr. Umbrella by surprise as it recovered from its smash-down landing. He grabbed the shaft of its shin just above the ankle, then seized the flesh of its thigh, just above the knee. It made horrible, yelping-squawking noises while frantically swatting Sevardin in the face by beating its fleshy membrane and bone-like spokes open-and-closed. When that proved fruitless, it licked him with its awful tongue, this time hitting him full in the chest and face, leaving not only his wyrd but his muscles numb.

He maintained a death grip on the leg through sheer grit. You aren’t going anywhere you springy bastard!

Sevardin discharged the electric animus in his left cuff with an exceedingly simple contract specification: Fry it. If he was less angry, he might have thought to specify to shield himself from pain. If he was less urdically clumsy, he probably could have channeled the spell more efficiently. Instead, he put the full weight of his wyrd behind the contract. And while the lightning that coursed down his arms and into the umbrella did not actually harm him, he physically felt every volt.

He stood on the street corner quaking and shaking as he roared with triumph despite the pain. The umbrella monster in his hands spasmed violently and released an earsplitting shriek. After nearly three full seconds of focused spell-energy, Mr. Umbrella half-melted and half-popped into lumpy globs of bruise-colored sludge.

Throughout the entire encounter, Sevardin failed to notice the street was not empty.

In fact, it was a fairly busy night in the apartment suburbs bordering the north of Old Town.

— Venday, Aries 8th, 2348 AA. 1:37 PM. Arroyo (South Lake Street) —

“What was the headline, again?” Ashford asked laughing. “‘Hero Keeper Shocks Self, Rare Japanese Umbrella Monster,’ or some shit?”

“Kasa obake,” Sev said with disgust. “They don’t teach that one in Arroyo. Damn things aren’t supposed to generate outside of Japan. And at the very least, that case also proves I clean up my messes,” he added defensively.

Ashford snickered.

“Yeah, a little collateral damage and a full battery of contracts later. And that’s kind of my point. Everybody gets surprised, Harker. Who would’ve expected to find a dire umbrella? Nobody. But because it surprised you, because it ‘got you,’ you had to chase that thing down and smoke it. Consequences be damned.”

“You’re saying I should have let it get away?” Sevardin asked. “It ruptured Juel’s right nut!”

Sevardin and Ashford did their best not to laugh, and failed more-or-less simultaneously. Sev felt terrible, and he liked to think he could hold himself in check in Juel’s presence, but the memory was too absurd in hindsight. How many people lose a testicle because they sassed a Japanese umbrella monster?

“Look, I’m not saying you make no effort to capture it,” Ashford said, once he managed to breathe again. “But I think you were a little… exuberant in your choice of contracts. If you kept a clearer head chasing the thing down, we would have had a lot less paperwork to do. And, if it got away? Thing’s a pest. It escaping into the wild wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.”

Sevardin wanted to argue, knew he could argue, but he assumed that conceding might make the conversation less contentious. That thing could shatter concrete and metal with a kick, Ashford! But he kept his emanations calm, and said:

“Alright. Threat assessment. I’ll make a note.”

Ashford nodded.

“It goes without saying, that monsters are only half of monstrum and malefaction. What do you do about a stupid, fifteen-year-old junkie with a cracked license? I know you are opposed to lethal force, and I admire those principles. But in M&M, oftentimes there’s no getting around that necessity.”

It isn’t a necessity. It’s a sign that we fell short as law enforcement. Sev managed to bite his tongue and keep his composure breezy.

“Look, lots of guys in M&M are after body counts. Me? I want collars. Be the change you want to see, right? And I like to think I have proven I can make the hard calls. When you were on the ropes in College Park, I didn’t hesitate.”

Ashford nodded and closed his eyes as he took a drag. He knew this was coming. It was the crown jewel in Sevardin’s push for the promotion.

“That was your first-time firing on human targets, right?” Ashford asked, lighting a fourth cigarette.

“Yessir,” Sevardin confirmed.

“Tell me straight,” Ashford asked. “Did you aim for nonlethal shots, or did all three of those men survive on a fluke?”

Sevardin considered the question carefully. Ashford, like a lot of cops, wants people with a killer instinct. He’s comforted knowing his partners will kill for him. And I am willing to kill in self-defense. But that doesn’t mean I go looking for the opportunity.

“It was a mix, sir,” Sevardin said. “Truth is…”

— Venday, Aquarius 10th, 2348 AA. 3:20 PM. Arroyo (College Park) —

The gang-unit had traced a number of cracked licenses, outfitted for pyromancy, to an unlikely source. Apparently, a precocious quartet of disgruntled graduate students from Cal-Tech’s Asfalis Artificing program had become Arroyo’s premiere arms dealers. Their cracks were comprehensive, and often accompanied by modifications that made specific spells easier to cast, regardless of the user’s affinity for magic.

Ashford’s Venture was taking lead on the approach to the artificer’s supposed residence. Bode and Johnson were providing surveillance and covering exits on the former fraternity house, recently repurchased by Arroyo’s would-be lords of war.

Imagine my surprise when the prime suspect opens the door, all smiles. Seemingly eager to chat, in fact. But then some asshole—another one of the suspects—had to pop out of the coat closet with a handgun that was twice his size.

Sev drew and fired before the kid could aim his hand cannon at Ashford. There was no time for anything else. He pulled the trigger twice, and the man’s chest jerked with the double impact. Heart or lungs. He’s done. At the time, Sev could not afford to be any more sentimental about it than that. Two more contacts had emerged from the top hallway, overlooking the entry.

The first wore a pair of licenses that were obviously doctored with extra artifice; a mass of wires, some kind of regulator gauge, and a gyve battery. Those are probably the adaptive, cast assisting modifications these guys are known for, meaning those licenses are probably also cracked.

The other guy was just holding a nail-studded bat, though he looked like he knew how to use it.

The potential caster is the next priority. But I have more time than I did with the gunner. He’s hesitating. Doesn’t know whether that garaged-together toy will work. Sev calmly lined up his pistol and fired at center-mass—sidelong—striking him in the hip, lower ribs, and shoulder. The target fell to the floor with a whimper. Sev kept the gun trained on him for a half-second longer to see if he was foolish enough to attempt magic despite the pain, but the man—the scrawny college boy, really—emanated surrender.

Which leaves me about two seconds before bat-boy reaches me. Plenty of time.

Sev took a deep breath and used his wyrd to enrich his senses and steady his hands. He fired his remaining three bullets. The first struck the wood of the staircase, but the next shot broke the bat-wielder’s left shin, and the final bullet shattered his patella like a clay pigeon, sending him collapsing down the staircase in a broken, wailing heap.

At that point, Juel, having heard the gunshots, used a monstrous kinetic contract to rip off the front door to the frat house. He strode in the room, gun in one hand, and a fire contract swelling to life in the other. Ashford and Sevardin burst emanated for him to hold his fire, and shouted that the room was clear.

“Looks like I missed quite the party,” Juel said.

— Venday, Aries 8th, 2348 AA. 2:43 PM. Arroyo (South Lake Street) —

All four of the black-market artificers, even the guy with the gun, pulled through. And for such a small operation, the bust was still casting ripples through the Arroyo cracking and criminal magic community. They also secured 40 kilograms of drugs, varying from high grade cocaine, to exceedingly potent fae dust, to powerful stimulants, and roughly five million dollars in cash.

“I was dead sure I killed the first guy,” Sev said. “Again, happy to be wrong, but I knew what I was doing. As for the others… well. I wasn’t going for headshots, but I was prepared to deal with the consequences of my actions, you know?”

Ashford nodded his head approvingly. Sev knew it was what he wanted to hear.

“You scaled your actions in accordance with the present risk,” Ashford said. “So, you got lucky once, and you were good twice.”

Sev smirked and scratched the side of his nose.

“I mean. I’ve always found that people who say they’d ‘rather be lucky than good,’ tend to be neither.”

Ashford laughed. He seemed to be in a better mood than when the conversation started. Maybe he’ll actually consider giving me this promotion after all.

“When lives are on the line, I know you have my back,” Ashford said seriously. “And I know I’m not the easiest bastard to get along with even when I’m on my best behavior, so believe me when I say it’s appreciated. When I do recommend your transfer, I will make damn sure your new venture knows it.”

No. I do not like that phrasing.

“I know you’re on your fifth cigarette, but I’ve only started making my case,” Sevardin said, smiling, but serious.

Ashford grinned as he lit up and took another drag.

“Well, I’ve got good news for you, Harker. Those dreams you listed out? With your record, they aren’t only attainable. They’re inevitable.”

“But you don’t think I’m ready,” Sevardin said. He was unable to keep the disappointment and exasperation out of his emanations.

“Look, if you were gunning to become AC? I would recommend you for the next administrative track position that opens up. Because make no mistake, Harker. I think you could do it. I think you’re smart enough.”

Sev shook his head.

“Not the kind of smart I want to be,” he said.

Ashford gestured ‘as you will,’ and continued speaking:

“Now if you were set on TMAW, I’d back you for this promotion so you could start bulking up your combat experience.”

Which I need anyway, if I am going to work in Monstrum and Malefaction!

“But given your goals—being an honest to-God-detective working cases, while challenging ‘shoot-first’ status quos—a slower pace will serve you better. For now, I think Entropathy has more to teach you about being a better detective. And we are already saving lives. Think about Leo.”

Sevardin rarely named cases, but his mind presented a title for what happened last Leo: The Muse’s Curse. And he couldn’t deny that the thought of it brought a smile to his face. He remembered relaying the story to Ajola in tandem with Juel, just as Ajola had raised them on stories of his own high-tension exploits. And the old Keeper was rapt.

“Leo felt good,” Sevardin admitted.

“Let’s have a couple more Leos,” Ashford said, putting his hand on Sev’s shoulder. “Truth is son, it’s a privilege to work with you. You’re good police. Juel isn’t ready to part ways with you yet and neither am I.”

Sevardin bowed his head, smiling at the compliments, but struggling to swallow his frustration. This is a first, Ashford. An emotional appeal and vanity play to catch me off guard. Well-done. I have no tactful counter.

“I won’t be around forever,” Ashford said. “Hell, I won’t be around much longer. Looking to retire in five years. But I promise to land you in M&M before I go.”

Sevardin smiled sickly. Five years? Are you kidding me?

“I appreciate it, sir,” Sev managed.

Fuck you, Adams.

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