Sevardin Harker. Lunday, Aries 18th, 2348 AA. 11:11 PM. Farman (North Lake Avenue).
“Okay, now they are definitely late,” Juel said.
“Shut it, Flores. It’s hot enough already,” Ashford said.
Finch snickered, but declined further comment. Sev was crouched in a corner, trying to tune all of them out. He hadn’t slept well the night before. Nerves didn’t get him much anymore, but it felt like the fare he’d accrued over years of smooth sailing had finally come due. They were in a more cramped, poorly airconditioned, but less conspicuous surveillance van that the AKF had borrowed from the LAKF. Wouldn’t do to have the same maintenance trucks dotted around the hand-off point. Even people who weren’t paranoid would be spooked.
The Rollers settled on a smog-check/auto-shop at the northmost point of Farman Terrace. The ridge behind it was perilously steep, so much so that the area was undeveloped, unlike the rest of Arroyo’s embankments. It created a natural funnel to box in the Unbranded. And they had plainclothes officers and cruisers spread out over a three-block cone, ready to move in once the Unbranded pulled their cash. Additionally, there were two guards—truly massive hunks of muscle—posted outside the shop as sentries. Jahnz, Freeman, and Kobb waited inside.
“This is Crow Three. We’ve spotted the target. They’re in a navy, Pershing SUV. Ready your scryers.”
Sev and Finch both stood up and joined hands with Ashford and Juel. Finch had already painted an amplification array for her contract on the stone dais in the middle of the van’s rear. They joined hands and she started casting contracts in sequence. Visual clairvoyance, followed by audio, followed by mild urdic sensitivity; just enough to read the emanations of the room in case somebody tried to cast a spell. Like last time, all they had to do was close their eyes, and they would be flies on the wall inside of the office.
The garage was a small building. Service bays for three cars, a service counter with a miniscule waiting area, and a squarish office wedged between them. The negotiations were going to take place in the office, while the rollers had their supposed product loaded into a truck.
Most of the stuff was faked, prop weapons and licenses, or blanks that were specifically enchanted to look like other types of anima. The problem was the marrow.
That’s what the deal was really about, and the money needed to change hands before they could level charges. That meant presenting a sample. And unfortunately, there were several easy, fool proof ways to verify demon marrow. Which meant they had to have an actual sample. And you didn’t need that much to make some truly scary shit.
The venture watched the SUV approach the garage. Sev caught sight of the veteran, Claden, behind the wheel. There were two others in the vehicle, but he couldn’t make them out through the surveillance van’s tinted rear window. Probably Jost and Bretta.
The rollers on the front knocked on the closed door in a rhythmic pattern, and the rusted metal slowly retracted into the roof. Claden drove their SUV inside the eastern-most vehicle bay. Two more rollers were inside the garage, waiting. As the Unbranded disembarked, the curtain of metal descended again, sealing them in the garage.
A venture of plainclothes amagia posing as rollers had laid a trap earlier. Working in tandem, they cast a ritual contract that would last several hours, and could be triggered remotely by tearing or burning an enchanted piece of paper. The contract was a barrier spell that would seal the building from the inside, and break off outgoing attempts at magical communication. Nobody on the inside would be able to leave, but the strike team laying in wait would be free to enter.
They actually showed up. We’ve got this in the bag. The biggest risk to the operation was the Unbranded getting cold feet. Now that they were here, all they had to do was have a civil conversation, and spring the trap.
So why am I so damn nervous?
Sev shut his eyes, and a half second later, Finch’s spell feed hijacked his senses. He was peering into the office. Claden entered first, holding a briefcase, followed by Bretta, with Jost bringing up the rear. Kobb and Jahnz stood from the seats they had been lounging in and addressed the Unbranded.
“Hey shawty,” Kobb said winking at Bretta.
“We worried you were having second thoughts,” Jahnz said, a touch testy. “A little wiggle room is understandable, but you were supposed to be here half an hour ago. My cousin is loaning me this place as favor, so let’s get this done.”
Claden stepped forward to the office desk and laid out the briefcase, which was, full of cash.
Kobb stepped forward, picked up a wad of bills, and fanned himself.
“Smells like money to me,” he said, grinning.
“We’ve shown you ours,” Bretta said. “Where’s the marrow?”
The scrying connection abruptly broke. It was like a bungee cord snapped against Sev’s brain. Everybody in the van fell to the ground, stunned by the pain. Finch seemed to catch the worst of it. As she collapsed, she wretched blood onto the floor of the van. Sevardin moved to help her.
“I-I’m alright,” Finch insisted. “But I’m barely hanging on.”
“What the fuck happened?” Juel demanded, rubbing his forehead.
Ashford immediately moved to the window to peer out at the building, then shook his head and shrugged.
“I think our containment contract just went off,” Finch grunted, nodding at the enchanted slip of paper, which had been reduced to ash while they were viewing the feed.
The radio crackled to life:
“This is Crow Two; we’ve lost visuals. Our scryer is unconscious. Please advise.”
“Crow Three is also dark,” the third van reported.
Oh fuck. How? The contract must have misfired, but how? Finch apparently managed to held onto the scrying spell, teeth bared as her pupils rolled into her skull:
“The barrier is pushing me out; I’m not sure how long I can hold it,” Finch managed, breathing labored.
Ashford went to the radio:
“Crow One still has visuals, but the barrier was triggered. Situation unknown. Stand by. Get ready to move.”
Another gout of blood surged from Finch nose and mouth. Sev swore and used his metaphysical anima to cast an acuity enhancement spell, with very specific parameters: keep her safe, and help her prolong that spell. The animus was a real bastard of a spirit, forcing him to do a number of meticulous hand signs while reciting an obscure sutra. Once he’d finished, the contract took hold. Finch’s eyes stopped bugging and her breath steadied, but the blood continued to steadily trickle from her nose.
“Did they realize the spell went off?” Juel asked.
“No. They’re still just talking…”
Juel started working on a different augmentation spell to further lighten Finch’s load. Maintaining a psychic connection through a barrier designed to mute communication was a tremendous feat. It also put tremendous stress on the caster. Concatenating the spell to the others was out of the question.
“She’s testing the product now. The demon marrow. She has a polyscope.”
Polyscopes were urdoscopic devices that could also pic up radiation, egregoric, and faen energies. Demon marrow inhabited a specific bandwidth of values that was fairly distinct and hard to fake. Other indicators of authenticity included smell; brimstone, sulfur, excrement, and death. Touching various trinkets to the marrow would result in a number of reactions; light, sound, and so forth. The last of the most common tests was dipping it in holy water, which would cause it to erupt in an eye-searing white flame fit to shame ignited magnesium. Ironically, it was the easiest test to spoof, because holy water was caustic to lots of things, but it was an almost ritualistic way to verify product.
“Christ, I’m losing audio. My connection is terr—oh god, get in there, move! Unbranded have guns drawn!”
Juel and Sevardin dashed out of the van, while Ashford went to the radio and told the rest of the team to go in hot. When Sev was halfway across the street, he heard three sharp pops coming from the garage. That’s definitely a Plato. Shit! The Rollers who had been posted as guards were trying to enter the service station, but the door held firm. A few people at the gas station across the street had paused to look at the commotion.
“AKF! Clear the area and get inside!” Juel shouted and used the full force of his wyrd to emanate urgency.
Other Keepers appeared from the second and third surveillance vans, and sirens on the cruisers stationed two blocks away blared bloody murder. They were also supposed to have a helicopter on standby, but God only knew how long it would take it to arrive.
The Rollers at the entrance started throwing themselves against the garage door. The metal wasn’t exactly thick, but there was a lot of it, and it was heavy. Juel gathered energy as he ran, prepping a contract to blast a hole in the sheets. Sev started casting a barrier contract, but stumbled as he tried to complete a gesture, and the anima misfired, wasted. Juel shoved the Rollers aside and literally punched the door with his breaching contract. A titanic burst of urdic energy floored Juel and the rollers as his spell met the barrier contract.
Sev rushed to Juel, helping to his feet.
“What the fuck…?” He asked dazed.
“I don’t know. But we need to get in there.”
Our barrier is supposed to allow external entry while keeping people locked inside. Sev’s heart beat cold. Unless they hijacked our trap and inverted it.
It was theoretically possible. Hell, if they knew the trap was there, all they needed to do was duplicate a trigger slip and destroy it. That would give them full control over the parameters of the contract. But how did they know? What the hell tipped them off? We’ve been sitting on this neighborhood all night and haven’t seen shit.
There was another gunshot, more explosive than the preceding pops, followed by muffled yelling, and a male scream. Freeman! He had a bastard’s temper and truth be told, Sev didn’t exactly like him, but he was also sympathetic to the young, dumb officer who was eager to prove himself. Boy, if you die on my watch, I will never forgive either of us.
Sev reached the station and could feel the barrier. It was like a layer of urdic concrete had coated the building from the inside. Nothing was getting in. Juel’s breaching spell had put a dent in the door, but the barrier was holding firm.
“Yo, what the fuck is going on!?” the taller of the two Rollers demanded.
“Clear out!” Sev ordered. “We need to coordinate our magic if we’re going to have any chance of breaking that barrier.”
The ventures from the other two vans had reached the mechanics shop, and now all nine Keepers stood in front of the doors. Three threes was a powerful number. Nine wyrds working in tandem should possess enough power to punch through damn near anything. Ashford started barking orders to coordinate their contracts.
“Hayter, have your venture cast Greshal’s Dispel to weaken the barrier. Simmons, you and yours cast Fraying Chains to break it. We’ll use Horace’s Breach to punch through the metal.”
All the Keepers stepped forward placed their hands against the sheet metal so they could channel the full might of their power into the building.
“On five!” Ashford commanded.
At the count of four, the entire eastern side of the garage exploded. Everyone performing magic was flung onto their backs, scored by shrapnel and concussive force that blurred together with the shock of their interrupted spells, which rebounded into their wyrds and bodies.
Tinnitus consumed Sevardin’s head so thoroughly that it blurred his vision. He tried to push himself off the asphalt, but his body and wyrd weren’t capable of responding to his brain. The others were in a similar state. Ashford was either unconscious or dead, but again, Sev couldn’t get his body to react. The energies of the misfired breaching spell was still squirming inside him.
He could only watch as three dirt bikes approached from the east. Tires squealed—strangely muted by the incessant ringing in Sev’s ears—as the helmeted drivers hit the brakes in front of the ruined garage. The girl, Bretta, emerged from the building’s ruined east wall, a backpack clutched to her chest, and Claden slung over her shoulder, clutching his gut.
“Leave me!” Claden shouted.
But Bretta—who was now wearing a pair of cracked licenses—used sorcery to bolster her strength considerably and continued walking toward the bikes. Claden got onto the closer of the two bikes, and draped himself over the driver. Bretta approached the second, transferring her backpack to the driver before getting on herself. The furthest bike took off before the others had finished boarding, almost as if they expected to lose somebody.
Stop! Stop them, goddammit! Sev shakily extended his left hand for sorcery, but his wyrd was completely shot, shell-shocked to hell and gone. He slapped his thigh with his other hand frantically searching for his sidearm, but the bikes were peeling away in the time it took him to find his holster.
Rather than heading to the street—where the rest of the sting’s forces were waiting—they circled around the mechanic’s shop, and hopped over the guard rail, down the relatively sheer north slope of the Farman Terrace. What in the hell? There’s no way they can survive that drop!
Then he remembered the sort of tricks stunt riders could pull off using just asfalis licenses. If you were to give those riders cracked asfalis licenses, that’s effectively a 90% increase in available power. You could use contracts to have the bikes’ tires adhere to the slope, and ride it like a slide. But where can they run?
They’re headed North.
The task force had assumed the cliff would box them in. Or the Cobb Estate Creek, at the very least. Instead, we gave them an ideal escape route. If they make it to the Reservation, we’ve lost.
Officially, the United Tribes of the First Peoples forbid amagiate intervention on their Erician Reservations unless they were accompanied by an asfalis Reservation Ranger. In crises, like monster sightings, or spree malefaction, the Amagium would go in anyway, and beg forgiveness instead of permission. But somehow, I doubt that’s going to work this time.
By the time Sev made it to his feet, he knew it was already too late for him to personally affect the situation’s outcome. Then he remembered Freeman. He staggered toward the ruined building, calling out despite the pain in his throat, scorched by brisance.
At least two Rollers, the ones who stood guard inside the garage, had been killed in the blast—bodies reduced to charred limbs and husks. As Sev moved into the office, he nearly tripped on the Unbranded kid. Jost. His mouth hung open and his empty eyes stared at the ceiling, a single gunshot wound in the middle of his forehead.
“Detective!” a voice shouted from the office, where the negotiation was supposed to take place.
Sev staggered forward, vaguely aware that the remainder of the building might collapse on him at any moment. Kobb’s body lay ahead coiled in fetal position, arms hugging his stomach in an ultimately futile attempt to keep his guts pressed inside. Then he saw Jahnz laying against the corner, hands attempting to staunch a nasty wound in the middle of his right ribcage. He was still awake but his wyrd was flickering erratically. He seemed to be struggling to keep his eyes open.
“Your man’s alive,” he managed.
Freeman lay behind the desk, completely still and clearly unconscious. But Jahnz was right, he had a faint urdic pulse. Sev had given up on using his wyrd—it was in agony, and he was pretty sure the combination explosion and miscast had torn it, or shocked him severely enough that he wouldn’t be able to cast reliably.
Juel emerged from the garage, followed by two members of Simmons’ venture.
“Juel, help me with Freeman! Grant, Marquez, get Jahnz!”
The four of them extracted the survivors hastily. Sev couldn’t remember a damn thing about field triage. He was barely on his feet himself. I may have a minor concussion. Overhead, a helicopter tore through the sky, headed in the same direction as the dirt bikes. His head swam, straining to process the obviously loud noise through the lingering ringing in his ears. I may have a not-so-minor concussion.
— Marday, Aries 19th. 12:16 AM —
“Yeah, that’s a pretty bad tear. And you definitely have a concussion,” The parasoph confirmed after her diagnostic contract came back. “You need to get your head and wyrd imaged and… well, I am not a medithurge, or a medisoph, so this is not an amagiate-sanctioned medical opinion, but in my professional opinion? You need ten days off. Seven minimum. Otherwise, you’re looking at a permanent limp.”
Sev closed his eyes and sighed deeply.
A ‘limp’ was slang for a quirked wyrd. Like physiological or psychological quirks, urdic quirks could manifest in a seemingly limitless range of ways. It could shuffle your talent with certain disciplines of magic, temporarily or permanently. It could result in a general loss in power. It could reduce etheric capacity or effective range. It could result in urdic spasms. Sev knew a guy who had a limp that made electric arcs crackle between his fingers when he got irritated. Which is cool as hell, actually. Kinda ruins your poker face though.
“Alright,” Sev said, resigned.
“Lighten up,” the parasoph said. “If I were you, I wouldn’t want to be within a hundred miles of this shit show. Not sure who was in charge here, but somebody is about to have a really bad morn—oh.”
Sev gave her a weak, terse smile.
“Good luck,” the parasoph said apologetically, and moved onto the next officer.
Sev looked at the smoking ruins of the garage, which had not actually collapsed after all, and laughed. He couldn’t explain why it was funny, but something about a second blown-up building in such a short span of time seemed surreal.
His humor darkened as he reflected on exactly how much trouble he was in. This is on me and Juel and it goes all the way up to Drake. We are probably twenty minutes away from another embarrassing press conference. I am beyond fucked.
Juel ran over, brimming with an obnoxious amount of energy. Bitch, you got blasted too. Have the decency to chill the fuck out for five minutes. Please. I’m begging y—
“We apprehended one of the suspects.”