Alinore Valmont. Marday, Aries 19th, 2348 AA. 2:25 PM. Westridge (Athenaeum – Stadium).
For a few seconds, it seemed like the match had ended in a draw.
The frigid mists and smoking air cleared to reveal Cyphira and Matthews lying face down on the mat. The referee started the count. At five, Lin saw Cyphira’s hand twitch. By seven, she was pressing herself off the floor. And just before the count reached ten, she was on her feet. The ref declared her the victor.
The crowd started applauding and Lin was the first to stand. She looked even worse than she did after they fought on the rooftop. Dazed and punch drunk. Her left arm was obviously dislocated. Cyphira turned to her audience and raised good arm in triumph, but when she saw Hace, prone and unmoving, she tried to step forward, only for her legs to completely give out.
“Oh no,” Pensey said.
“That was well-fought,” Athenon observed. “It would be a waste if he was seriously injured.”
“He’s kind of an ass, but yes, it would,” Lin admitted.
She sat between Pensey and her father, with her brother and her mother on the outside, along with several plainclothes Keepers who served as the family’s security detail. Mirian had actually bothered to watch the match, which was impressive seeing how she spent most of the tournament with her nose in her phone. Pensey’s parents were absent. They had watched the first day of the tournament and found they couldn’t stomach the violence, so they decided to tour other parts of the campus while Pensey cheered on Lin.
A medithurge and two medisophs approached from the sidelines and knelt to Matthews’ body. Lin was surprised to realize she was holding her breath. I’m glad I’ll see Quinn in the finals, but that was an incredible match. She’s grown, even since we fought on the roof. And Hace took it seriously for once. Smart techniques instead of needless flash. The medithurges called for a stretcher.
Several things happened simultaneously. Lin saw several Keepers sprinting toward the court, some of the CIC agents among their number and symphones started ringing in a discordant symphony throughout the stadium. Lin’s family’s security detail touched their earpieces in near-perfect synch. Finally, Averael’s voice sounded in Lin’s head:
“Something is very wrong.”
“Is he going to be alright?” Pensey asked aloud.
“He’ll be fine,” Averael said, testily. “But we need to leave. Now. Shit, this is bad.”
“What’s happening?” Lin asked her father, though she was hoping the angel would answer.
Athenon furrowed his brow and shook his head.
“Somebody set up a breach beacon beneath the court. Very subtle. Artful work, actually. But this building is minutes—maybe seconds—away from becoming a monster mosh pit.”
Lin saw the same CIC agent who wiped her memory take center stage. Forsythe. He didn’t speak up at first, and Lin watched with curiosity as he performed several contracts in sequence. When he finally spoke, his emanations were explosive. They hit everybody in the stadium with a powerful cocktail of compulsive effects; sedation, hypnotic suggestion—and several other things that were too complicated for Lin to parse herself.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we have discovered a gas leak in the basement. Everyone needs to evacuate this facility immediately. Please remain calm, but move expediently.”
Lin realized that the spell, while convincing, wasn’t targeted at her, but the asfalis people in the crowd. They immediately stood and started to follow Forsythe’s order with a minimum of noise and fuss. More “gray area” domination magic? To his credit, it was the most efficient mass exit that Lin had ever seen. It was as if everybody was part of a hivemind optimized for an evacuation. People steadily pushed each other, but also supported strangers who stumbled and picked up those who fell.
The aspirants and amagia in attendance fell into step with the others. And within minutes, the stadium was drained, save for the AKF’s detachment of Keepers, the CIC officers, and the Masters.
“This was quite the trick,” Athenon said. It was hard for Lin to tell whether he was amused or disapproving.
“Yeah,” Athren agreed. “Something tells me this isn’t a gas leak, though.”
Pensey whispered to Lin and Averael when the others’ attention was diverted:
“What’s a breach beacon?”
“It’s on the shortlist for mankind’s most insipid piece of magic. It’s a ritual that simultaneously attracts egregores while thinning the Veil. You basically hail the nearest demon, angel, aethyrie, or other nightmare, and shout ‘I dare you to come wreck my shit!’”
“How did you not see that coming?” Lin hissed.
“I did, Princess! That’s why I’m here. Unlike an entropy bomb, this had some kind of trickle system that steadily eroded the Veil over the course of weeks. Imagine cracks gradually snaking through glass, propelled by a bare minimum of magic. Between the explosive energy from the duels, and the ambient energy from the crowd, even I couldn’t sense it.”
“Well, seems like we’re safe now, at least,” Lin said to the group as a whole.
“We aren’t out of the woods yet. The causal networks are shifting rapidly, so the future is still murky, but things are looking grim. If anything makes it out of that stadium, it’s going to make a beeline for Pensey.”
Lin frowned. Averael still hasn’t told me everything. The fae favor the young and beautiful, but egregores are usually indiscriminate with their targets unless religion is involved, or somebody has specifically cursed her. Lin hesitated before continuing to whisper to Pensey, worried about drawing attention. But Athenon and Athren were distracted, speaking with the family’s security chief and Mirian was still in a suggestive daze from Forsythe’s spell.
“Is Pensey cursed?” Lin whispered.
“What? No. Christ, I can’t focus on the probabilities with you asking inane questions. She’s catnip for pretty much every magical entity out there, okay? Just take my word for it.”
“You can protect us from whatever comes through, though. Right?” Pensey asked.
“Not without completely blowing my cover. Can’t go all out without risking collateral damage either. We need to get somewhere safe. Somewhere she’ll be hard to track until this is over.”
Lin thought for a moment. Usually getting lost in a crowd is a fairly effective way to mask your wyrd, but if one energy signature stands apart from the others, they would be easy to pick out. What disrupts magical signatures? Various countervailing spells. Sleep. Barriers. Plastic. And…
“What about a dome of steadily running water?” Lin whispered.
“Yeah, that would be great if you happen to have one handy.”
“There’s an underground quad at the center of campus. It’s open air, with lots of tiered terraces, so it’s not completely sealed, but the walls of the main chamber are coated with running water.”
“I need to find my parents,” Pensey spoke up abruptly, voice panicked, though Lin got the sense that she was being sock-puppeted by the angel again.
She ran to the south, back toward the stadium, threading through the exodus of people. Lin immediately took off after her without a word. She glanced back just in time to see Athren and their security detail spot her. Shit! Fortunately, Averael seemed to sense the most effective route to escape pursuers. He guided Pen back and forth through the crowd and looked back only once to spot Lin. Pensey’s face contorted in a mask of rage, and then she continued move.
“Valmont, stay with your family! Pensey can guide me to the quad!”
Lin glared and continued her chase. Averael shook Pen’s head and continued to flee, arcing around the western edge of the stadium. They didn’t stop running until they reached one of the sloping tunnels leading to the underground quad. Eventually Pen came to a stop, sucking in air and ether. Lin tried to steady her, but she slapped her hand away.
“I can’t protect you both at once!” Averael bellowed through Pensey.
“I’m not leaving her!” Lin said.
Averael shook Pensey’s head in disgust and continued down the tunnel. Lin followed, checking behind her for pursuers, but nobody seemed to notice them. She stayed quiet, afraid of distracting him. At some level, she knew Averael was right. But I’d hate myself forever if I stayed in that crowd and something happened to her.
Eventually they reached the cavernous, trickling dome of the underground quad.
A pair of gentle but incredibly strong hands gripped Lin by the shoulders. What the hell? The walkway was completely empty! There was no place for anybody to hide! She tried to spin around, but her captor’s grip suffered no resistance. Breath like a desert caressed the back of her neck and ears. It was sweltering, and too dry to be human. Then Lin felt a power she couldn’t even begin to describe; dizzying etheric pressure that called to mind a rainbow of burning butterflies. A svelte, feminine voice laced with saffron spoke just over Lin’s shoulder:
“Have you ever heard the short story, ‘The Appointment in Samarra?’”
The silky voice let loose a brief, beautiful giggle, then continued:
“There once was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to the market. In the crowds, the servant was knocked to the ground by a woman. But when he looked upon her face, he saw only the visage of Death itself.”
Lin’s instincts were telling her to run, warning her that the thing behind her was a predator that eclipsed everything she had seen before, with the possible exception of Averael’s Mask. But the energy coming off the entity’s hands was enough to paralyze her. Or maybe it’s just fear.
“The servant returned to his master, and implored him to borrow a horse, so he might flee his fate, and reach the safety of a city called Samarra. The merchant was a benevolent man. He bestowed his fastest steed, provisioned the servant for his journey, and wished him well.”
Pensey slowly turned to face the entity holding Lin hostage, who stepped beside Lin’s other shoulder and kept speaking:
“When the master returned to the market to finish the business his servant set out to accomplish, he too, beheld Death in the crowd. Mustering all his courage, he strode forward, confronting the Reaper of Souls. ‘Why did you threaten my precious servant?’ he asked. And Death chuckled. ‘I did not threaten your servant. I was merely surprised to find him here. You see, I have an appointment with him tonight. In Samarra.’”
The entity stepped forward and to the left, draping her arm over Lin’s shoulder.
“Hello, Averael,” the woman purred. “It’s been… what? Five hundred years?”
“You were bound, Tria,” Averael said through Pensey, voice somber and distinctly sad.
“Yes, you saw to that, didn’t you?” the voice was both amused and bitter. “A simple ‘I think we should see other people,’ would have sufficed.”
They were together? Is this another angel?
“W-who are you?” Lin managed to speak haltingly and turned her head just enough to see the tall, gorgeous woman standing behind her.
Her skin was an unnatural but beautiful shade of red. Her hair was thick and dark, and curling around her face as if perpetually tousled by wind. But it was her eyes that shook Lin. Her pupils were white, her sclera black, and her irises were rings of blazing fire.
“Evitria,” Averael said through Pensey. “Ifrit of the Firstborn Djinn.”
Lin’s eyes widened in horror. Amagia had proven the existence of gods, devils, angels and demons through egregoric studies. Those entities were simply too powerful and prominent to deny their influence on the world. But djinn, like dragons, were believed to be either long-extinct or bedtime stories to begin with. Carroll had taught her about them. He had always been fascinated with extinct creatures and other forms of “speculative” magic.
According to ancient Arabic lore, djinn were powerful beings, each belonging to a cardinal element. Ifrit were born of fire, and were generally considered the most dangerous type of djinn. Islamic scripture later incorporated djinn into their theology, coming up with new origins and legends that further complicated the egregore’s metaphysics as belief took hold.
The most widely-accepted theory pertaining to djinn was that they were the ancestors of the modern day aethyrie known as ‘genies,’ who would grant humans poisonous wishes in exchange for foolish promises. Other scholars believed that djinn were always genies, and the beings of tremendous powers in legend were merely other entities—angels and demons—mistaken for something else. Carroll was certain, however, that djinn had existed, and unlike genies, they held nigh-deific power.
“I understand why you did what you did, my love, and I harbor no ill-will toward you for it,” Evitria said, still holding Lin in place with her mere presence. “You always acted in accordance with your convictions, even after The Fall, and I have always loved you for it.”
“It broke my heart,” Averael said, hoarse. “But I’ll do it again if I have to.”
“I didn’t break your bindings yesterday, love. My last master freed me in exchange for services rendered a little over two hundred years ago. I have been accruing knowledge and power for three centuries. You didn’t notice because you couldn’t bring yourself to look back. You cannot predict your own future, or the paths of those close to you. That’s why you couldn’t see me coming clearly.”
Averael took a deep breath, sighed, and shook his head:
“The world doesn’t need another goddess, Tria. It didn’t then, and it doesn’t now.”
“Doesn’t it?” She asked. “The old pantheons are diffuse and indifferent. Monotheists battle over whose ‘one true god’ presides over creation. Humanity needs guidance again. A champion. A purpose. And my offer stands, love. Relinquish the vessel and I will favor you as my first avatar and consort.”
Pensey swallowed and said nothing, eyes hard.
“You were always my conscience and could act as such again. In time, you could become a god in your own right. Imagine it a moment. Instead of running around in vain to prevent calamity, you could become one of the raw forces of causality yourself.”
“Never been fond of solutions that require us to become part of the problem,” Pensey said.
“I prefer to think of it as fighting fire with fire.”
“Did you set the beacon?” Lin asked.
Evitria seemed surprised that Lin dared to speak in her presence.
“Oh my, no. You have your anticordance freedom fighters to thank for that. I did notice the trap, however, shortly after following Averael here, and knew that my presence would stifle his predictive abilities. It also made for a suitable diversion. My ‘Death in the marketplace,’ so to speak. Averael is my ‘merchant,’ the girl is his ‘ill-fated servant,’ and this obvious refuge from danger is my ‘Samarra.’ All I had to do was wait for you to arrive.”
Lin tried to free herself from Evitria’s gasp. She struggled body and wyrd impulsively, hoping to catch the ifrit by surprise. Instead, she ended up torqueing her shoulders and back against Evitria’s grasp, and her wyrd rebounded so sharply that she felt like she ran into a wall at full tilt.
Evitria stared at her, smiling.
“You are quite the treasure yourself, Lady Valmont! An impressive wyrd for one of your age. But opposing me is quite pointless. You would have better luck pinning the surf to the shore.”
“What do you want with Pensey?” Lin snarled.
“Your friend is very special indeed.” Evitria took Lin’s chin in her hand and turned her to face Pensey. Again, Evitria whispered in Lin’s ear: “She was entrusted with something truly precious. A Word torn from the language that wrote creation.”
Before she could wonder at Evitria’s words, Lin heard Averael’s voice in her head:
“I am sorry, Lin.”
Pensey extended her hand. Averael’s power surged to the fore and a blinding curtain of heat and force consumed Lin’s whole world.
— Cyphira Quinn. 2:32 PM. —
“Okay, you ready?” Glem asked.
Before Cyphira could grunt in affirmation, Glem released his contract. A paroxysm shot through her entire body curling her toes and squeezing her brain with pain. But by the time Cyphira screamed, Glem’s spell had deftly re-socketed her left arm into her shoulder joint. The fresh pain was too much on top of everything else. She nearly fainted, and Glem had to catch her before she could fall back to her knees.
“Son of a bitch,” she groaned.
“You’d have tensed up if I gave you a count of three,” Glem said apologetically.
Cy had never felt more tired in her life. Every inch of her was absolutely beat to shit. I feel even worse than I did after the fight with Valmont, and I fucking lost that fight.
They stood next to Sera, Sivia, Senice and the medithurges tending to Hace’s still-unconscious body. Hace’s aunt and mother were borderline zombified by the residual effects of Forsythe’s spell, standing behind the medithurges with a sort of heavy-lidded, dull-eyed concern.
Cy looked back at the stadium. She could feel percussive flashes of urdic energy coming from inside. Combat magic. ‘Gas leak,’ my ass. Normally, she would be curious, but in her current state, it was all she could do to keep on her feet. She surveyed the crowd which was eerily quiet due to the mass suggestion spell. Aspirants and Amagia loosely shepherded their dazed asfalis relatives further away from the stadium. A ring of Keepers from the AKF had arrived, covering the stadium’s exit, and some jackass with a crackly loudspeaker was barking unintelligible orders at the crowd.
Then Cy caught a glimpse of somebody moving against the grain of the exodus. Several people, actually. She caught a narrow glimpse of Pensey darting through the crowd with preternatural ease and grace. Lin trailed behind her, but was managing to keep pace. And several yards behind Lin, a cluster of Keepers and plainclothes amagia—probably the Valmont family’s security detail—were searching for her.
Where the hell are you going?
Cyphira thought of the angel living in Pen’s head. Is this the threat he was talking about? If so, why would they be running back toward the stadium? She followed Pensey until she cut west, circling around the stadium through the masses.
“Glem. Something’s going down,” Cyphira whispered. “Just saw Hayes and Valmont running to the far side of the stadium.”
“Yeah? I vote we stay the fuck out of it,” he replied.
“Watch everyone here, okay?” Cyphira said, already starting to jog in the direction of the other two girls.
“Wait, Cy, where are you going?” Senice demanded.
Now would be an awesome time to be able to lie. But since that wasn’t an option, Cyphira kept running. Behind her, Glem groaned in frustration, and muttered some sort of excuse.
As she ran, she tried to dull the pain of her bruised limbs with sorcery to mixed success. Things were numb for the most part, but agonizing pangs periodically cut through her overtaxed wyrd. She stumbled and barely managed to catch herself, losing sight of Lin in the crowd.
Fuck! She staggered back into a jog and literally ran into Lin’s brother, who was still searching. He caught her by the shoulders.
“Sorry! Are you alright?” he asked.
“Yeah. Uh, thanks.” Cyphira said.
“Have you seen Lin?” he asked.
Cyphira hesitated just long enough to find the right words.
“I think she was with Hayes,” Cyphira said, then looked around and pointed toward the crowd coming out of the northeast quadrant of the stadium. “Is that her over there?”
Athren followed her gaze and took off like a shot. Thank god asking stupid questions doesn’t count as speaking falsehood. Once he was gone, Cyphira continued to work her way to the southwest. Finally, when the crowds started to thin, she caught sight of Lin disappearing into one of the tunnels leading straight to the underground quad.
“What the hell are you up to?”
Glem was right, as usual. Even if they’re in danger, what can I do to help them like this? Despite herself, Cyphira continued to move toward the tunnels, though walking instead of running to give her legs a break.
When she reached the mouth of the quad’s north tunnel, she felt a powerful ripple of etheric energy tear through the tunnel. Cyphira hesitated, looking back to where she came from for pursuers, then continued forward. Instead of entering the underground tunnel, however, she took the stairs leading to the underground quad’s top terrace. Hopefully, I can get a vantage point on what’s happening below. Cy worked her way to the top of the upper quad, then descended to the sunken grass terrace recessed in the top of the underground hollow. It was shaped in a ring, with a central hole casting sunlight down into the quad. As she descended, she could feel titanic blasts of force coming from the chamber below. It was hard to tell if things were physically shaking, or if she was just so unsteady on her feet that the etheric ripples were knocking her off balance.
Then she caught site of Averael. Not Pensey, but Averael’s Mask, in the flesh. There were occasional flashes where she could see Pen’s body enclosed in his inscrutable, multi-winged form, as if he were a suit armor. No illusions this time. He used her body as a medium to cross over into reality. Averael weaved through the terraces, shooting powerful spears of white light into the depths of the chamber.
A gout of brilliant flame, magenta and turquoise, answered Averael’s volley and smashed him into the wet wall of the chamber. Cyphira traced the fireball’s trajectory to another entity. It had a sensuous feminine body composed of crystal fractals, sewn together by sinews of smoke, and held aloft by stained-glass lacewings. And Lin was contained within, just as Pensey was trapped inside her guardian angel.
Great. Lin’s been possessed by a djinn. Also: holy fuck; djinn are real, apparently. Fitz had told them stories about djinn, though she had never met one herself, and stated that, as a rule, she didn’t believe in unverified magi-cryptids. But a djinn is symbolized by glass, smoke, fire, and butterflies. They supposedly have powers on par with angels and lesser deities. Can’t imagine this could be anything else—
A stray bolt of white and golden light annihilated the railing of the top terrace directly next to Cyphira. The blast knocked her back and peppered her with debris. Great. More bruises. She scrambled away, body still protesting, and retreated the way she came. I can’t do shit. Those things would smear me across the ground like a bug.
Cyphira shook her head. I can only think of one play, and I absolutely hate it. The ground beneath her shuddered as the battle continued in the quad. No choice though. She jogged back to the stairs she had taken up, and slid down the railing to give her legs a break. Then she started running again, headed for the stadium.
— 2:38 PM —
Cy managed to make it back to the stadium in under a minute. She just wanted to collapse; to lie down on the concrete and let the sun slowly cook her. But we are already on borrowed time. I need backup immediately.
“Excuse me!” Cyphira called out to the Keeper watching the west entrance. “Excuse me. I need to speak to Special Agent Forsythe. Immediately.”
“Are you alright?” the Keeper asked, taking stock of her cuts and bruises.
“I’m fine. I was in the kumite. But I need to talk to Forsythe. Now.”
The keeper standing guard gave their surroundings a panoramic sidelong glance, and then snorted at her, like he couldn’t believe her cheek.
“He’s a bit busy. Clear out, bluebie.”
“Right. Busy with the ‘gas leak,’” Cyphira said, air-quoting. “Look, I don’t know what’s really going on in there, but judging from the ripples, things have calmed down. This is important. Like life or death important.”
The keeper had apparently used up his sense of humor.
“Walk away before I have to arrest you, kid.”
Cyphira smiled, took a step back, and held her hands out to her sides before letting them flop down to her side.
“Hey, fuck me for trying,” she said.
Before the guy could answer, she drove her boney, still-aching knee into his crotch.
He doubled over with a high-pitched wheeze. Cyphira was through the door before he hit the ground, but other keepers were shouting and emanating for her to stop. Christ, this hurts. Why am I doing this? I don’t even like Valmont. I don’t really care about Hayes, either. And I fucking hate that Forsythe prick! But her motivations were never actually in doubt. I’m doing this because people will die if I let it go.
With that in mind, Cyphira hexed the door shut before the other Keepers could reach it. Fast and sloppy work—not that I take great pride in my bindings—but it will buy me just enough time to—
As she turned the corner toward the nearest courtside tunnel, she nearly ran full tilt into a demon. Lesser Infernal. Not very big, but still nastier than an imp.
It stood about six feet tall, with an absurdly muscular physique and skin the color of marble. The entire thing was alabaster, save for patches of fire, fashioned as hair or fur, and a pair of black bull horns that emerged from a head with three yellow goat eyes. It also had a stupidly large, uncircumcised dong, and was completely naked. A purple forked tongue slithered between its black teeth and licked its pale lips.
Wow. I really don’t have time for this shit.
Cyphira re-exhausted her wyrd firing five shots of Red Chisel. The demon merely smiled as the six-inch icicles shallowly pierced his flesh, protruding from its chest and stomach. The demon smiled and spread his arms wide, as if to declare her attack a failure.
But you are already dead, my dude.
She winked at him just as the second half of her sorcery kicked in. Each ice spike fired a shaft of freezing energy into the creature’s flesh. The blasts flash-froze the egregore’s blood, serrated the icy shafts, and extended their length and width by nearly three times their original size.
The demon’s torso practically exploded as the spikes re-impaled it from inside out. It staggered back, wretched purple blood, and shrieked something in Latin as it hit the floor. Then its body began to disintegrate one chunk at a time, as an invisible force chewed off pieces of it and swallowed them back into whatever hell it had emerged from. In under a second, nothing but the faint scent of brimstone remained.
Okay, that was pretty cool.
Cyphira felt her hex break and heard the front doors give way behind her. With no urdic power left to enhance her speed, she half-ran and half-staggered down the tunnel to the court as fast as she could, heart pounding hard enough to rattle her brain. My muscles will never forgive me for this. The kumite finals are tomorrow. At this rate, Valmont will win by default. What a fucking sham.
She made it onto the court which had been reduced to a ruin all over again with cracked wood, scorch marks, physical and ectoplasmic viscera, and other evidence of a catastrophic battle.Dandy Boy was front and center, casually wiping his strange, cross-handled blade clean.
“Hey asshole!” Cyphira shouted and channeled her emanations directly at him.
Forsythe closed his eyes and sighed before looking up, as if her voice was already a familiar annoyance.
“I found your fucking angel!”