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Sevardin Harker. Marday, Aries 19th, 2348 AA. 6:53 AM. Westridge (Athenaeum Mediclave).

“Harker!” Med. Frisk said warmly. “Think the last time I saw you, you shocked yourself stupid trying to kill an umbrella youkai.”

“Yeah. Good to see you too med,” Sev muttered.

Medithurge Huste Nicador Frisk wore a perpetual shit eating grin, and it was always impossible to tell whether the joke was at his expense or yours. He also had the dry, dark humor of a headsman and his watch was always set to half-past-done-with-your-bullshit. He was also a peerless professional who knew how to be deft and delicate when the situation required it. As far as human beings went, he was a bit of an acquired taste, but Sev was fond of him. He was a fellow motorcycle enthusiast for one. They had even shared drinks at the Book a couple times.

He stepped in the room and shut the door behind him, flipping open Sev’s chart.

“What happened this time? The soph wrote, and I quote: got blown up. Is that accurate?”

Sev held his arms out to the sides and smiled.

“Doesn’t look too bad considering, right?”

Frisk chuckled and leaned against the wall. He had a swimmer’s body. Powerful limbs and a long, lean torso. Also had that wolfish stubble that lady doctors, nurses, and medithurges fawned over in the soaps.

“I heard your venture was in charge of the op,” Fri

sk said.

Sev sighed and emanated affirmation.

“I’m supposed to talk to Drake immediately after this. So, uh, feel free to take your time.”

“I dunno, man. Kinda busy around here. Some asshole fucked up his op. Filled eight beds in my ER and dumped four stiffs in my morgue.”

Sev gave him a withering look. I thought you’re supposed to help with the healing.

Frisk dimmed his grin slightly and took a seat on the sort of squat little stools that seemed to exist in every medical examination room.

“Can you tell me exactly what happened?”

Sev recounted the explosion, and the events that preceded and followed. Frisk asked a few clarifying questions and scribbled on the chart. His handwriting was so bad that Sev wasn’t sure whether the man was using some kind of shorthand or literally doodling to look like he was writing.

“So you blocked the explosion on reflex?”

Sev nodded.

“It’s impressive that you managed to channel a shield that quickly. It’s also extremely good. When you know a blow is coming, and you brace for impact, your wyrd gets rigid in that area. In most combat circumstances, that’s functional and it makes good sense. But if that hard area is hit with a superior force…”

“…Your wyrd tears,” Sev said.

“Bingo. When you direct energy on reflex though, it’s more like you are firing a wave of energy to ward off the approaching danger. The sorcery still does the job of a shield, but it’s no longer connected to your wyrd.”

“That’s good to hear, Med. I think the parasoph may have over-estimated its severity. She said I probably need at least ten days of rest,” Sev said.

“Really,” Frisk said, tilting his chin up slightly, still wearing his amused little grin.

“Yeah!” Sev said. “And that seemed excessive to me. Like, ten days?”

Frisk laughed and shrugged flippantly.

“I mean, she’s just a parasoph. What the fuck does she know?”

“Right? I figure I’ll be fine after—”

Frisk dropped his grin and cut Sev off:

“You should be benched for a month,” he said, dead serious. “And if you wanted to play it safe, I’m willing to say you need two.”

Sev was stunned. He was sore all over—mind, body, and magic—and he knew that his wyrd was having trouble maintaining ether, but it was tolerable. After he had his head scanned, the doctor said he needed to stay in the hospital overnight to be cautious. None of his burns were that bad. Guess my wyrd took the brunt of it despite the reactive block.

Frisk sighed, apparently annoyed that Sev didn’t appreciate the gravity of his situation, and moved to the imaging display panel. He slid the crystal drive into the side of the screen, which thrummed to life and displayed a three-dimensional illusion: a human body stood spread eagle in a vaguely orb-shaped field with about a ten-foot diameter. The field fluctuated slightly, but it was cohesive and green.

“This is a healthy amagia’s wyrd,” Frisk said. “The field is evenly distributed. Green is good. It means it can respire and use ether for magic efficiently.”

He tapped a button on the screen. The colors of the illusion swirled into an opaque smoke then reformed. This time, the human body was taller, and the field extended further from the body, but it was a uric shade of yellow, splotched with browns and oranges and reds in places. The colors were also slightly paler. More noticeably, there was a large hole in the field that moved as the particles fluctuated.

“This is your wyrd,” Frisk said. “That yellow looks scary, but all it really means is you’re just fatigued. It will be back to green by the end of Solday. Those brownish bits are bruised but they will recover in a week. So if the tear was the worst of your problems? Sure. Call it ten days.”

Frisk hit another button. The illusion blurred again, and then magnified tremendously to show off the particles that comprised the field. Sev saw that the colors were pale because there were fewer particles altogether; the discrete urdic motes that comprised a person’s wyrd.

“The parasoph’s equipment could easily spot the tear, but he couldn’t detect the full extent of the damage. Your wyrd absorbed so much of the heat and force from the explosion that it suffered micro-tearing. That’s why it’s pale. It is literally stretched thin. Which means your existing tear can easily get worse, fail to completely heal, or even develop a secondary tear.”

Fuck. Me. Dead. Sev stared at the illusion, transfixed and horrified.

“You aren’t looking at just a limp here, Harker. Pull anymore cowboy shit before this heals and you could ruin your career.”

Sev sat in silence. I really am sidelined now. I can’t see this through. Frisk regarded him sympathetically and nodded wistfully.

“Yeah, I can’t think of a joke for this one. You… you really need to take care of yourself, man. You’re twenty-seven now. They don’t tell you this in the Athenaeum, but your youthful immortality only lasts ‘til your twenty-fifth birthday. Tops.”

“Thanks, med,” Sev said, a touch stiff.

“The good news,” Frisk said. “Is that if you don’t go off halfcocked before you recover, you can completely bounce back from all of this. Get good as new and better with experience.”

“That is good,” Sev agreed, trying to sound convincing and appreciative.

“If you want to speed along your recovery, and guarantee your wyrd’s safety, I’d go without my licenses for the two weeks. Prevents you from casting on reflex, which is the most traumatic thing you could do to your injury right now. After that, the healing should be far enough along that you can start rehab while the tear closes.”

Sev sat hunched on the examination table, staring at his silver licenses.

“Have any questions for me?” Frisk asked.

Sev snickered and shook his head. Frisk patted him on the shoulder and left him to sulk.

— 7:10 AM —

“Ashford and Juel already told me what happened,” Drake began. “I look forward to a detailed report explaining exactly how this fiasco was unavoidable, and not at all influenced by your emotional attachment to the case. Beyond that…” She sighed. “I honestly don’t know what to tell you, Harker.”

They were in the corner of one of the hospital’s waiting rooms. Sev had received permission to change back into his Keeper’s uniform, which made him feel slightly more like a person than he did wearing those degrading paper shifts.

“At least we got one collar,” Sev said.

Drake gave him a vicious glare and emanated something to the effect of ‘don’t you dare try to sell me a silver lining.’ She spoke in a sharp, dry voice:

“That remains to be seen. Claden Richards is still in recovery from trauma surgery. He suffered two gunshot wounds and fell off the bike he was riding on. Doctors say he will pull through, but I’m not sure he will give us any information that is actually usable.”

“Worst case, we can get a forensic mesmer involved. I mean, this is still a terror threat, right?”

“Yes, Harker. But the doctors won’t even let us speak to him until he wakes up on his own accord, which could be later this morning, tonight, or tomorrow. And god only knows when they’ll approve the use of a mesmer.”

Sev opened his mouth to reply and realized he had nothing to say beyond:

“I’m sorry, chief.”

Drake’s expression softened somewhat, and sadness supplanted anger.

“Has anyone told you about Freeman yet?”

Sev’s heart beat cold.

“The parasophs told me he went in for surgery.”

Drake took a deep breath.

“The bullet clipped his spine. He’s still out, and miracles do happen on occasion, but the surgeon believes he is paralyzed from the waist down.”

It felt like the world exploded all over again. Sev’s mouth hung open and he lowered his gaze to the gray, hardpacked carpet. I did this. He was too green, and I put him in the jaws of a trap because I was so hungry to have my chance at this.

It was like somebody had yanked the cornerstone from the foundation of Sev’s mind, and everything came crashing down as guilt. I got Kobb and the other Rollers killed too. And that dusthead college boy, Jost. Maybe not ‘good guys,’ but they were people. And now they’re gone.

“I don’t know what tipped them off,” Drake said. “But as soon as the Unbranded saw our tell, we had already lost. That said, Freeman knew the risks and volunteered of his own volition. So before you search for a way to blame yourself, tell me what you could have done differently.”

Sev shook his head. That kid will never walk again.

“I… I don’t know, chief.”

“Then don’t blame yourself,” Drake said firmly.

Sev nodded but he was barely aware of it. Drake continued:

“I want your venture to interview Richards when we have the all-clear from the doctors, assuming he is able. He’ll probably lawyer up, so it may take a while, but I understand you’re supposed to stay here tonight anyway.”

Sev emanated affirmation.

“Once you’ve been discharged, put together a report and turn it over to Cavanaugh’s venture. How long did Frisk say you need to rest?”

“A month at minimum,” Sev said, miserable.

“After you turn in your report, I’m placing you on leave until the beginning of Cancer. I need you to recover, and I need a vacation from your bullshit. A woman can endure only so many consecutive press conferences. Take a cruise or something.”

“Is this a suspension?” Sev asked.

Drake shook her head.

“You’re good police, Harker. But aside from holidays and a few days of medical leave, you’ve taken two vacations in the four years you’ve been on the Force. You need a life outside this job. The Athenaeum doesn’t give aspirants much room to find out who they are, apart from their discipline. I think it’s time you worked on that.”

I don’t have anything else. I don’t want anything else. But Sev simply nodded again.

“You’re dismissed,” Drake said. “Go get some rest. Ashford will come get you when Richards is available.”

— 12:13 PM –

Sev woke up in his hospital bed hours later, slightly confused by the unfamiliar surroundings. The last thing he remembered clearly was Drake telling him that Freeman was paralyzed, and that he would be benched until summer was half over. Right. Then I followed the medisoph here. As he glanced around the room, he was surprised to see Delle in one of the chairs, arms on her knees. She must have noticed the change in his wyrd, because she turned to face him almost immediately.

“Hey,” she said.

“Hey,” he returned.

“I heard about what happened, so I decided I would try my luck. You still had me listed as an emergency contact.”

Sev chuckled. After his run-in with the kasa obake, he listed her as an emergency contact so she could visit him. That was during their second go-round, when she was staying over at his place more than her own. And for a brief stretch, it seemed like they could go the distance. Sev was pondering a proposal. Even looked at rings once, but got cold feet.

“I’m sorry,” Delle said.

“This isn’t your fault—” Sev began.

Delle cut him off.

“I decided I’m going to move,” she said and Sev fell quiet. “Not sure where, yet. Soundland, maybe. But… Arroyo has too many bad memories. And I can’t trust myself when you’re within driving distance. I’ll keep coming back, begging for another chance. And whether you take me back or not… it isn’t fair to either of us.”

Sev wanted to deny it. But you aren’t wrong. He loved who she was. And he loved the idea of them making it work together. But he also couldn’t actually see it happening.

Up until that point, he blamed Delle for their star-crossed love affair. She was always the one to leave, after all. She worried that her age would somehow stifle his potential, or that her pursuit of a younger man reflected poorly on her maturity. But the truth is, I always let her go. And each time, I felt relief along with the pain. And I felt guilty because of it. Because if I truly needed to be with her, I would never let her go.

Drake’s lecture came back to haunt him. She’s right. I only have the job. I don’t know enough about myself to know if I can make it work with anybody.

Delle continued:

“Every time I come into your life; I end up hurting you. This time I nearly got you killed. And I’m still not over what happened at Live. Did you know I still can’t bring myself to go downtown?” She snickered. “Now, I just… We need a clean break. We need to stop.”

“Yeah,” Sev said, hoarse.

“I suck at this,” Delle laughed. “I told myself I was going to wait until you had woken up properly. Ask how you’re feeling. Shoot the shit. Crack some jokes. But I feel bad just being here. I wish I never approached you with this lead. Honestly, I wanted to just disappear, but that would only hurt you worse. At the very least, I owe you a goodbye.”

Sev lowered his head, stumbling frantically through his mind, searching for the right words. He wanted to contradict her. He wanted to comfort her, or at least ease her anguish. He wanted to make her feel better about herself. But he had no idea what to say. Finally, he managed:

“This isn’t your fault, Delle. It isn’t mine either. But I’ve been as bad for you as you have for me.”

She sniffled a laugh and wiped her eyes.

“Half-fae are more convincing liars. Still, it’s sweet of you to say it.”

Delle stood up, shouldered her purse, and approached the bed. Sev extended his hand and she took it. She sat down and for a moment they simply existed in silence.

“It probably sounds stupid, but I’m jealous of her,” Delle said.


“The woman you haven’t met yet. The one who’s right for you.”

“Not sure I share your optimism,” Sev chuckled.

“She’s out there,” Delle said with a sad sort of certainty.

She leaned her forehead against his, still holding his hand. The familiar fragrance of her shampoo tickled his nose and a hundred happy memories marched back into his brain, smashing storefronts, flipping cars, and setting trash ablaze. Sev wasn’t given to crying. He didn’t feel it was productive. Instead of catharsis, he only felt emptiness. Why does it have to be like this?

She kissed him on the lips, light and delicate, then stood up, and walked to the door.

Just before she left, Sev found his words:

“You deserve better too, Delle.” She paused and turned to face him, red-eyed. “You deserve to be happier. Whether you find the right partner or decide to go it alone, you deserve happiness. Remember that. And don’t give up on it.”

She smiled, and after a few seconds’ pause, she nodded.

“Take care of yourself, Sev.”

—2:16 PM—

Claden Richards woke up from his surgeries just before two o’clock. He surprised his medical team by saying he wanted to talk to the Keepers. Ashford briefed Sev and Juel as they walked to the critical care ward.

“Said he wanted to get it over with,” Ashford said. “He’s refusing his right to representation too.”

“This guy thinks he’s a martyr,” Juel said. “He wanted the girl to leave him behind. Hell, he might have even fallen off the bike intentionally.” Juel paused, then said: “I’d like to take point on this one. I called HQ and had them look up some details on this guy. Asfalis Iraqi vet. Honorable discharge after two tours. Shipped out as part of the allied response to the World Trade attacks in the Sovereignty. I think I know what he’s about.”

“Be my guest,” Ashford grunted.

Sev nodded without hesitation, but studied Juel carefully. His dark eyes held the same intensity they had since the night of his father’s retirement party, and the ripples from his wyrd had a mildly scintillating quality. But the anger and desperation seemed to have dissipated. Maybe the shock scared him straight.

The three of them went into the critical care room.

Claden vaguely resembled a were-bear. Thick, dun-colored beard and hirsute elsewhere. Built like a tank, with huge ham hock hands that were folded in his lap in an almost dainty fashion. His expression was somber; a sort of forced lifelessness. But his eyes blazed. That man is nothing but rage trapped in a skinsuit.

“Before we begin,” Juel said. “I feel compelled to tell you that it is in your best interests to have a lawyer present.”

“Amagiate public defenders are a rigged game,” he said, voice chasmic and rough as gravel.

“Suit yourself,” Juel said. “Normally, I wouldn’t bother, but I figure a veteran deserves some measure of courtesy.”

Claden sneered and scoffed, utterly revolted.

“You gonna thank me for my service next?”

Juel chuckled.

“That’d be a bit flippant, don’t you think?”

The question threw Claden off his game, and Juel didn’t miss a beat:

“Look, Claden. I need to cut to the chase, because I get the sense that we don’t have much time. You fought terrorists to protect your country. You saw people torn apart by explosives. Brutally killed by our Judges. And I am willing to wager my life that Ericia didn’t do right by you when you came home.”

Claden stared at him, almost daring him to continue.

“You endured all of that. So why are you willing to perpetuate that cycle? Why are you going to murder asfalis people—”

“Because the only way to learn is to see what it’s like for yourself,” Claden said, full of menace. “You think you know my story. You think you know that it’s ‘bad’ out there. But it’s also not your problem, is it?”

Claden spat on the floor.

“You people don’t know what you stand for. That’s how I rationalize it. I have to believe that’s the case. Because if everybody in the Amagium actually understood what it’s like out there… well. There are too many of you. Humanity can’t be that bankrupt.”

Juel nodded.

“You’re right. I don’t know what it’s like. But after hearing your story—just the impersonal, administrative bullet points—I knew that you had faith that we could do better.”

Again, Claden seemed confused.

“You’re a survivor, Claden. That’s your curse. The problem with being a survivor, is that you carry everything with you. You remember the faces, or at the very least, the bodies. Friend and foe alike. And they weigh on you.”

Juel wasn’t dominating Claden, but his wyrd had adopted an imploring, hypnotic quality. It was almost oppressively earnest, but it opened doors rather than shoving him through them. Juel was directing his emanations toward Claden entirely, but they were so powerful that Sev could sense the magic’s quality through the etheric ripples.

Claden roared:

“What the fuck do you know about survival!?”

“Do you want to see more innocent people die, Claden?” Juel said, raising his voice. “Do you have to kill more people—the people you swore you would protect—to make your point?”

Claden’s brow started to slick and his breathing shallowed.

“Stop it!” He shouted. “Stop that!”

Juel kept talking.

“You want to make a better world. How can that begin with more blood on your hands? More guilt? How can any better world begin with dead children?”

Claden froze and whipped his head toward Juel. Juel nodded.

“They’re attacking the Athenaeum’s open-house, aren’t they?”

Claden’s expression was answer enough. It was a hell of a gambit. They had discussed likely terror targets in Arroyo, and the annual open house was near the top of the list. They had doubled and redoubled security on campus, but with family members free to come and go, and check points only set up around specific buildings, there were too many potential failure points to guarantee safety.

Ashford turned discretely and exited the room.

Sev marveled at what Juel did. Bringing up the man’s service record would reawaken his trauma. And appealing to his sense of guilt would make him visualize the potential effects of an entropic bomb. While he had those images in mind, Juel would make a very specific guess, effectively faking clairvoyance. Unbranded terrorists, especially veterans who had been traumatized by the god-like Judges that presided over Asfalis battlefields, tended to overestimate what was possible with magic. Furthermore, they had no faith in the regulations that expressly prohibited Keepers from using outright domination or mind-reading magic in interrogations. 

“You can save them,” Juel said, eagerly. Now he used his wyrd to tug at Claden’s heart and lean on his sense of heroism. “You’ll still make your point—the city will be terrified. Aspirants will realize they are in danger—but nobody has to die.”

Claden shook his head, tears streaming down his face.

“It’s already done.”

He nodded at the clock on the far wall. The time read 2:22 PM.

“The bomb goes off in eight minutes.”

“Where is it?” Juel urged, keeping his voice even and steady.

“The stadium’s basement. Beneath the court.”

Sev turned and ran after Ashford. Juel, you beautiful bastard. Before he left, he saw Juel place a hand on Claden’s shoulder and say, resolute:

“We will save them.”

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