EPISODE 42: THE BOTTOM

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Edryr Forsythe. Marday, Aries 19th, 2348 AA. 2:48 PM. Westridge (Athenaeum – Central Quad)

Now that I’m unbound, I should have plenty of power to finish this. Truth be told, he didn’t want to fight Averael. He was already tired, sore, and the whole thing felt hopelessly trivial. The angel would find a way to incarnate after an all-too-brief eight to ten years. A fate milder than a mortal prison sentence. But I have a duty to see through, and I will be punished harshly if I stray from it. I’ve tracked him too long, and fought too hard to let him walk away from his crimes unanswered.

“This won’t go the way you think it will,” Averael warned.

“Enlighten me then.”

Forsythe used a fire animus to launch a focused stream of emerald flame at the angel. He could tell from the ripples that his spell hit its mark, and he heard a grunt from Averael. Unfortunately, the smoke and debris gave the angel cover for his next attack.

No matter. I know where you’re going. Sure enough, Averael lunged for the Valmont girl, clearly intending to possess her. If he takes Valmont hostage, I’ll be forced to let him go. Celebrities, and their families, were the CIC’s worst nightmare. It would be impossible to cover up the conspicuous death of a former Archon’s daughter. And if the angel manages to possess either of the masters, injured though they are, the fight will go poorly for me.

Forsythe intercepted Averael’s charge through the smoke with trivial ease. He moved so quickly that the space between his point of origin and destination seemed to collapse at his convenience. He impaled the angel’s left shoulder with Phobos, and whipped the blade to the side. There was enough strength behind the blow to send Averael spiraling toward the tiled wall of the chamber, and he smashed into it with a crack.

Forsythe shot a glance at his fallen compatriots; Fitzgerald hobbled and exhausted, Elroy clinging to life but badly burned, and the girl… the girl was not nearly as frightened as she should be. Judging by the gleam in her eyes, she’s looking for some fool’s opportunity to ‘assist’ me. Averael can’t possess them if they’re unconscious. But as long as he believes they are alive, they’re still liabilities. I can’t protect them and fight him at the same time. That leaves me with one choice.

Before Averael could completely recover, Forsythe cast a complex contract requiring his last two anima: metaphysic and glamour. He shaped the spell conditions carefully, providing several crisp hand signs and a sacred word. Once the contract was completed, the spell manifested as a verdant scythe of flame. It spun free from his hands, and with one graceful arc, it struck Fitzgerald, the girl, and Elroy. They ignited in green flames, and their wyrds fell silent in sequence. Elroy could only cough, and Fitzgerald was spared the pain by virtue of being unconscious. But the girl screamed and beat herself, trying to extinguish the fire before finally falling to the ground.

My apologies, child. I am a monster. This is what monsters do.

Averael, who was rising slowly, froze. A ripple of disgust and anger emanated from his body.

“You actually did it. They were defenseless, Forsythe.”

“You would have used them against me.” Forsythe said, dispassionately.

I was almost certain he’d see through me. But it seems the girl’s reaction sold it.

Juliet’s Death was one of those “borderline” spells that Forsythe could only get away with by the grace of his rank. Not forbidden outright, but frowned upon. The contract imitated an act of seemingly lethal violence with glamour—and unfortunately, part of the price was the victim experiencing the pain of death—while the metaphysic animus would temporarily separate the target’s soul from their body. The spell maintained the merest baseline of homeostatic functions, and a careful, physical examination of the bodies would reveal that they were in a coma like-state—but since their wyrds were abruptly and totally silenced, few people would bother.

Normally, the spell lasted about ten minutes. But since I split my target three ways, I have a little over three minutes to end this. He considered extending the contract to the other girl as well, but the angel was watching her more carefully. And if Averael thought there was no danger of collateral damage, he would be a great deal more reckless.

Averael shook his head and spoke:

“Well. I appreciate the display of commitment. Tells me exactly what I needed to know.”

“And what is that?” Forsythe asked.

“I can kill you with a clear conscience.”

There was a flash of sympathetic and spatial magic—similar to the spell Elroy had used to summon weapons for himself and Fitz but blisteringly quick—and the angel was suddenly armed. He held a wicked looking pole-arm that ended in a “U” shaped blade, followed immediately by a “T” shaped crossbar, and the other end of the pole ended in a wickedly barbed spear. A man-catcher. Curious choice for an Abrahamic angel.

Averael closed the distance between the two of them like lightning, and Forsythe was struck with a blast of etheric pressure as powerful as a thunderclap. He managed to raise Phobos just quickly enough to prevent Averael from throttling his neck with the U-shaped blade. Averael torqued the fork, however, managing to pry Phobos’ from Forsythe’s grip. Most weapons would break against the vorpal edge—that polearm must be powerfully enchanted as well.

Forsythe cartwheeled away, forgoing Phobos for the moment and retreating to the spot where they had bound Evitria. He hastily probed the wreckage and found what he was searching for; Fitzgerald’s weighted chain and short-blade. He narrowly managed to pull the links taught to create a barrier that caught another three thrusts from Averael’s polearm. He countered by flipping the bludgeoning weight against Averael’s masked head. The blow bought him some breathing room—just enough time to wrap his right fist with the chain, and seize the short blade with his left.

“What the hell are you even fighting for?” Averael demanded.

“I fight for myself,” Forsythe said tersely.

That’s my answer. It has always been my answer. Though it had been years since he scrutinized the question.

— Marday, Aquarius 17th, 2321 A.A. 4:16PM | London, Westminster KF (Central Precinct) —

Forsythe sat in the small box of a room with his wrists weighted down by inhibitor cuffs. He refused to eat the dry sandwich they brought him, even though he was famished and the fight had taken a lot out of him. His lip was split. His nose was broken. His ribs were sore enough that they might also be broken. The door to the room swung open after what seemed like an eternity and a barrel-chested, shopworn keeper with glasses walked in. He wasn’t the arresting officer.

“I’m Special Agent Stevenson of the Confidential Interests Chapter. What’s your name, son?”

“‘The Wraith of Westminster,’ apparently,” Forsythe said, nodding at the manila folder the Keeper detective held.

“Don’t give me cheek, lad. What do you call yourself? What do other people call you?”

My mother didn’t give me a name. She called me honey, dear, and other endearments, but never a name. People called her Mari. And once, only once, he had heard an asfalis police officer address her as Marivette Forsythe.

“It depends. Sometimes I’m Edryr. Other times it’s Robnell. I’ve had a lot of different names.”

“I’ll go with Edryr, then. No parents on record. No identification…” The man started to pace the room, paging through the files in the folder. Then he flipped it shut and unceremoniously dropped it on the table. “And no tattoos.”

Forsythe said nothing.

“We have at least four years’ worth of burglaries, two counts of assault, and a dozen muggings that fit your description. And now, a murder.”

“It was self-defense,” Forsythe said.

“It might have been,” Stevenson said. “Except the boy you killed was asfalis, Edryr. You know what the word ‘asfalis’ means?”

“It means you’ve got tattoos. You can be licensed to use magic.”

“Good enough for practical purposes. But the word ‘asfalis’ is originally Greek, and it translates to ‘safe.’ Today, it means you are safe from magic, and other people are safe from your magic. That’s the agreement that makes the amagiate world work.”

“If I had a gun, I would have used that instead,” Forsythe said, matter-of-factly. “But he had a knife and five friends.”

Stevenson sighed and nodded. Forsythe could tell that he was torn by sympathy for the seemingly feral, long-haired boy before him, and the huge pain in the ass he represented. He had learned to become good at watching people. Analyzing them. Learning by example. He didn’t like to ask for explanations.

“How old are you?”

“I don’t know,” Forsythe said truthfully.

He and his mother never had a home. One morning, he woke up, she didn’t, and that was that. It had been at least ten years ago, but Forsythe hadn’t found much use for keeping a careful calendar.

 “I think I’m about thirteen.”

Stevenson nodded thoughtfully.

“Did you ever consider turning yourself in? Getting registered?”

“For what? This? Whatever you’re about to do to me? I’ve only lived this long because I have magic. I’ve met other kids out here who are registered, kids who have been fostered or adopted, or whatever you want to call it. Honestly, the gutter sounds better.”

Stevenson took a deep breath, fished a pipe from his pocket, wadded in some tobacco, and lit it with sorcery. Forsythe was surprised. He thought you needed an animus to do fire.

“You have a real talent, boy.” Stevenson said after several puffs. “By witness accounts, you slipped out of a six-on-one fight, leaving one boy dead and three others injured. You evaded one venture entirely, and outran another for a full ten minutes, during which time, the arresting officers say you displayed an aptitude for every fundamental aspect of sorcery. Sympathy. Binding. Telekinesis… It’s quite a talent.”

Forsythe said nothing. Are you being stupid or deliberately cruel? What does my talent matter when you are about to strip me of it and put me in prison for god knows how long? The man must have been able to read his expression, because he apologized:

“Can you fight that hard every day?”

“It’s how I survive,” Forsythe said.

Stevenson nodded, and after several more puffs, he asked:

“We can’t pretend this crime didn’t happen. A boy is dead and there is no easy way out of that. But if you are willing… I can give you an alternative. A chance at a very different kind of life. It isn’t easy, but it’s a brighter horizon than a magicarcerum has to offer.”

Forsythe puzzled over this for a full moment, hoping Stevenson would volunteer more. When it was clear the special agent would outwait him, Forsythe said:

“I’m listening.”

“Are you willing to fight for the Amagium?”

“I fight for myself. Just like everyone else.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“People only do things because they want to do them. Your self is the only thing you can control. So doing anything means doing it for yourself. People are just delusional.”

Stevenson seemed amused, and coughed on his pipe. Once he cleared his throat, he asked:

“Can you be loyal, Edryr?”

“If the Amagium is willing to give me a way out, I am willing for fight for it. But if you expect me to become a slave out of gratitude, you can piss off. I’m not looking for excuses.”

“Excuses?”

“Like I said, people are delusional. Allegiances. Causes. Obligations. They’re all excuses. Reasons to justify what you were going to do anyway and feel better about it later. Right now? You’re offering me what I want on terms I can agree with. So yes, you have my loyalty. For as long as you deserve it. But I will always answer to myself first.”

Stevenson smiled.

“I think we can come to an arrangement.”

— Marday, Aries 19th, 2348 AA. 2:49 PM. Westridge (Athenaeum – Central Quad) —

“You seem distracted Forsythe,” Averael said, as he thrust the man-catcher at Forsythe in a ruthless barrage.

Forsythe used the short blade to parry Averael’s assault in sequence, visible currents of etheric energy flashing with every blow. He heard a smile in the angel’s voice, and he did not like it. I am not inclined to reminiscence, much less during combat. Is he doing this to me?

Averael followed through with another powerful jab, which proved too much for the short-blade to endure. Its hilt shattered at the neck, and Forsythe narrowly escaped a nasty hit. He dropped the broken half of the weapon and unleashed a vicious storm of punches with his chain-wrapped fist. As Averael started to retreat, he brought the spike studded “T” up between Forsythe’s legs.The pain stole his breath. You utter fucker!

In retaliation, he swung the weight in a wide arc, again catching the angel in the head. While Averael was stunned, Forsythe telekinetically called Phobos to return to him. The blade flipped through the air and embedded itself in the angel’s right shoulder. With one fluid motion, Forsythe flipped over Averael and retrieved his weapon by ripping it violently through the tendons that connected the angel’s rotator cuff. Not that it matters. The bastard will heal in a matter of seconds.

The two squared off, Forsythe wielding the chain in his right hand and Phobos in his left. The weapons weren’t ideal bedfellows, but he needed the chain’s extra range to remain competitive against that blasted pole-arm.

“Do you know what damnation is?” Averael asked.

“I think I have an inkling,” Forsythe said.

Averael chuckled.

“You really don’t. You see, gods aren’t the only ones who can pass judgment on souls. Tell me, Forsythe: do the lives you’ve taken weigh on you, or can you even keep track of those you’ve reaped?”

There was a surge of divine, etheric energy, and Forsythe’s heart beat cold. For a split second, he was back in Oaxaca. He stood on the periphery of what was once Ola Vista, the village that had been reduced to a smoking, bloody horror by the Striped Man’s machinations. Then he was back. Forsythe’s breathing was labored by a crushing weight that seemed to come from within. His wyrd quivered arrhythmically. What the devil did you do to me?

“Every angel—Fallen, Purgatorial, and members of the Heavenly Host—can afflict souls with their own form of damnation. Mine appeals to the debts of one’s life. Shame. Regret. Times you have shortchanged strangers, your loved ones, or even yourself. Those little moments that sculpt your identity by chipping away at your soul.”

Forsythe swore inwardly. He could feel the angel’s egregoric power pressing against his wyrd, searching for intrusion points, combing his mind to snag stray thoughts that could conjure more distractions. In answer, he channeled his unbound wyrd into his blade, and unleashed a storm of ranged, etheric cuts. Averael managed to parry most of them, but Forsythe landed hits on his outer left thigh and right shoulder, which healed within a few seconds.

No good. I need to hit his vitals decisively. The only way to put down egregores and fae is to out-harm them. You could scrape away at their power, one cut at a time, but at this rate, Forsythe estimated it would take nearly a month to wear the angel down.

Averael retreated into the air, again addressing Forsythe in a mocking tone.

“I’m sure you’re very good at compartmentalizing your crimes, but my damnation brings it all to bear simultaneously. It appeals to the intrinsic guilt of the human heart. And while you put up a tough front, I’m sure you’ve got some baggage weighing on your mind.”

Forsythe could feel Averael focusing his power on the damnation. He was buffeted by regrets and painful memories but managed to dismiss and deflect most of them in sequence, but one thought made it through, like an arrow finding a fatal chink in his armor. And just like that, he was back in Barcelona, twenty-five years prior.

— Jovday, Aries 22nd, 2323 A.A. 2:46 AM | Spain. Barcelona (Las Ramblas) —

“¡No quiero matarte!” Forsythe hissed in clumsy Spanish.

De Leon replied with a nigh-incoherent rush of slurs that began by insulting Forsythe’s pronunciation. Oh, fuck you and your blasted ‘romance’ language! Normally Forsythe enjoyed speech, accent and culture classes. He relished new vocabulary. Each word was like a toy to him. He was delighted to discover he could shrug off his Westminster accent—and all the squalid baggage that came with it—like a snake shedding old skin. He could already do passable French, German, British, and Erician accents as well. And now his ‘regular’ voice was nearly impossible to place. But convincing Italian and Spanish eluded him so far.

Forsythe punched his target—one Lozoma De Leon—in the face, hard enough to stun him against the red roof. Every candidate in the program received some variation on the same first mission. Subdue your former self. Find somebody like yourself when we found you. And bring them in. Dead or alive. Each of the thirty boys was assigned an area where a young hedge witch or other malefactor was known to be active. Forsythe had been assigned Barcelona.

While De Leon was seeing double, Forsythe hastily flipped the boy over and secured him with inhibitor cuffs. As he fastened the metal manacles over the boy’s wrists, he took stock of his surroundings to make sure there were no witnesses. They were on a building overlooking the twilit glitz and grift Las Ramblas. De Leon had proven himself a wily, wiry bastard. All lean muscle with a very sharp and slippery wyrd. But now that his wyrd was taken care of, the fight was over. Forsythe stood taller and had at least twenty pounds on the boy.

So why the devil won’t you give up?

“Vete al infierno cabrón amagio,” De Leon grunted with guttural hate, and then shouted: “¡Ayúdame, alguien ayúdame, por favor!”

Forsythe planted his foot on the boy’s back, and started to cast a muting contract. Given the late hour, and people’s general desire to mind their own business, he wasn’t too concerned about being stopped on the way to the rendezvous, even if he was carrying a body—he was good at sticking to the shadows and avoiding law enforcement. But if said body was shouting bloody murder the whole way there, that would be a different story.

As Forsythe fashioned his argument for the spell, De Leon rolled sharply to the side. The abrupt motion broke Forsythe’s hold and disrupted his contract. De Leon managed to get to his feet, even though his wyrd was suppressed and his arms were cuffed behind his back, and he dashed towards the edge of the roof.

“Are you insane!?” Forsythe forgot himself, and shouted in English.

De Leon jumped. Forsythe seized his leg with a chord of sorcery. The boy’s bulk pulled the invisible thread taught, and Forysthe’s feet gave way beneath him. He too began sliding toward the edge of the roof, but with titanic effort, he managed to arrest De Leon’s momentum just as his torso spilled over the deadly ledge of the seven-story building. Forsythe physically grabbed his legs. The two wrestled briefly again, De Leon seemingly desperate to end his own life by clearing the roof, but Forsythe finally flipped him on his back, hard enough to wind him. Then he began the muting contract anew. You only have two anima left. Make them count.

“Please,” De Leon managed to gasp in English, just before Forsythe could successfully complete his spell.

The boy continued pleading, but no sound came out. Shocked, he impotently tried to scream. Forsythe stared into the boy’s terrified eyes. Green. He had handsome features, but he was sunbeaten and emaciated and his clothes reeked. In slow, deliberate Spanish, Forsythe said:

“Cooperate with me, and you will live. Do you understand?”

De Leon nodded frantically. But as soon as Forsythe relented, the boy tried to dash again. His patience thoroughly exhausted, Forsythe kicked the boy to the ground, then put him in a sleeper hold and channeled his wyrd to pressure the breath out of De Leon. When De Leon was unconscious, Forsythe fell to the roof and rested for a couple minutes. Such a damn hassle.

Once he’d caught his breath, he slung De Leon’s unconscious body over his left shoulder, and carefully began his descent. He used sorcery to adhere to the side of the building with his free hand and feet, dropping down to the fire-escape’s first landing, and then continued down to the alley below. He made his way to the nearest payphone, dialed the coded number to indicate asset pick up.

Forsythe didn’t recall the walk back to the warehouse by the docks, but he remembered Stevenson waiting for him, puffing away at his foul pipe.

“Be careful with this one when he wakes up. He’s a runner and he’s got a death wish.”

Stevenson gave another puff, gestured admonishment.

“‘When in Rome,’ Edryr.”

Forsythe sighed

“Ten cuidado. El niño esta un corredor y tiene deseo de muerte.”

“No matter,” Stevenson said. “Execute him, Forsythe.”

What? Forsythe understood perfectly but he wanted to be confused. This is a joke, right? After all that bloody trouble?

“You said I could kill him or bring him in as I saw fit.”

“Yes. Obviously bringing him in alive was more difficult. Now you can either kill him to take home top honors, or I will kill him for you, and you will receive the lowest passing grade permissible.”

Forsythe snickered and jabbed a thumb at his prisoner.

“He’s a decent fighter, Stevenson. He has talent you can work with—”

“We have reason to believe that he’s killed six people, Forsythe. These weren’t crimes of passion or self-preservation. We are talking about premeditated serial murder. A pattern that deeply ingrained can’t be disrupted. He has a taste for it now.”

“Why didn’t you mention that ahead of time?”

Forsythe had heard the rumors while tracking him, of course There was a violent hedge witch mugging and killing people in the Las Ramblas area, and De Leon fit the bill. But I assumed… I don’t know what I assumed. I thought they might just be rumors. Maybe he had been framed or—

“It’s not your place to ask, candidate. The test was to acquire and leverage your own intel. And you’ve done splendidly, so far.”

“Shouldn’t we at least… question him first?”

Stevenson shook his head, stone faced, and put his pipe back in his uniform’s breast pocket.

“Stop hesitating, Edryr. The boy dies one way or the other. If you take on that responsibility, you get the credit.”

“Kill him yourself. I’ll take the passing grade,” Forsythe said.

Despite his flippant tone, he was shaken. I tried so hard to save this bastard, and for what? No. This is a farce. He hoped it was some sort of secondary test. A trial of integrity. But Stevenson unholstered his revolver and shot De Leon in the back of the head. Twice.

— Marday, Aries 19th, 2348 AA. 2:50 PM. Westridge (Athenaeum – Central Quad) —

Pain pelted the right half of Forsythe’s body. Throughout the unbidden memory, Averael had kept his distance, firing volley after vicious volley of serrated, metal feathers from his eight wings. Forsythe had managed to shield his vitals but he couldn’t afford to extract the blades from his right arm and shoulder without risk of bleeding out. The Heart imparted a considerable healing factor; unprecedented in humans, but it still couldn’t compete with natural born monsters, to say nothing of Fae and Egregores.

You don’t believe in this ‘divine judgment’ horseshit. His ‘damnation’ is just another spell. It may not be a contract, or sorcery, but I can resist it with my wyrd. And if I break his concentration, the effect should diminish somewhat.

“Your damnation is some twisted irony. Tell me: where was this righteous indignation—this tormented conscience—when you visited the United Tribes? The compound in Apache. Thirty-six dead. Down to the last child.”

Averael bowed his masked head.

“I didn’t… I killed their elders. Cut off the head of the snake. That was the goal. I didn’t think the matriarchs would… I didn’t think they would self-immolate. Much less lock the children inside.”

Forsythe actually suspected he was telling the truth. The elders had all been decapitated, and the burn patterns that consumed the compound didn’t correspond to egregoric magical signatures. But on the books, the murders were all attributed to Averael. The higher-ups already decided he was dead to rights—what difference did another footnote in his rap sheet make?

“That’s the funny thing, Averael. When you cut off the head of a snake, the rest of its body has a habit of dying as well. Given your unique perspective; your epochs of experience and insights into the human heart, you have a track record of appalling oversights.”

Averael bristled as he paced the ruined chamber in a loose orbit around Forsythe.

“I have different concerns. Those elders would have resurrected a nightmare, Forsythe. The Old Testament would be quaint by comparison. I stand by my convictions, even if I can’t always be proud of the execution. I figured a fellow monster serving his own greater good could understand.”

Forsythe snickered.

“Yes. I suspect you hate your job almost as much as I hate mine.”

“It’s the job that keeps you going. From where I’m standing, it’s your only semblance of purpose. When was the last time somebody told you they loved you, and meant it?”

— Lunday, Capricorn 13, 2325 AA, 4:51 PM | The Soviet States of Siberia, Severnaya Zemlya (Shadow Site Gamma)—

“You seem especially fond of that one,” Elza said.

Forsythe didn’t intend to eavesdrop. He had forgotten his licenses on the counter of the examination room after his physical, and left the door slightly ajar. Even before espionage lessons in Prague, the street had taught him the importance of discretion and opportunism. He pressed himself next to the hallway wall and waited, intrigued by the conversation. 

“Edryr? I suppose so,” Stevenson admitted. “Aren’t you? You two were just joking and that boy has the humor of a coffin hinge.”

Forsythe’s mouth twitched in a smile. Fair enough. But at least Elza appreciates my jokes.

The island of Severnaya Zemlya was nothing but snow and crags, surrounded by deathly frigid water. All of the shadow sites were in miserably empty places, too desolate for even echoes to answer. The only variation was the weather; too hot, or too cold. Desert or tundra. But Medithurge Elza Verner was always a source of warmth in the cold, and a spot of shade in the swelter. She was the program candidates’ psychiatrist, nutritionist, medithurge, and primary care physician. But she always treated Forsythe with respect, like he was a colleague as opposed to some duckling.

“It’s my job. Ninety percent of my job is bedside manner.  You have to see what resonates with them. These boys don’t have anyone else to confide in. Since I’m responsible for their wellbeing, I have the pleasure of playing the part of their mother.”

“So… what. You’re telling me it’s all an act?”

Forsythe furrowed his brow. Preposterous.

“I mean, I genuinely want the best for them. But you’d have to be a fool to get attached. We’ve lost four boys this year, Stevenson. They are weapons first. I’m just here to make sure they don’t crack before they finish training.”

Frost found Forsythe’s heart despite the reinforced walls of the basecamp. Why are you surprised? Why are you hurt? He had always told himself he didn’t need anyone. When people asked him about being an orphan, his favorite reply was ‘my first pair of parents were sufficiently disappointing. I don’t see the need for another.’ But over the four years he spent in the program, he had lowered his guard around Elza. She’s the only person I address by her first name. At her request, no less. He allowed himself to believe that she saw him as something more than an experiment in their amagiate eugenics program. Well. Fool me once.

“And after that?” Stevenson pressed.

“After that, they are out in the world, and we’re onto the next batch. By that point, they will have developed their own ways to cope or they will have washed out.”

Forsythe heard Stevenson grunt something.

“What?” Verner asked.

“I just never figured you were that… dispassionate.”

Forsythe had heard enough. He pushed open the door and said:

“Makes perfect sense to me. If you can fake sincerity, what can’t you do?”

The only silver lining was the look of horror on Verner’s face, the open mouth, the wide gray eyes behind her horn-rimmed glasses. She had pulled the keystone out from her own little charade and now it was collapsing on top of her. I imagine you are quite embarrassed, med. But no worries. I’m just happy to know where we actually stand.

“I just forgot my licenses. Don’t let me interrupt.”

“Edryr, I—” Verner began.

Forsythe retrieved his licenses and snapped them around his wrists.

“Don’t worry, Medithurge Verner. I won’t tell the others. We wouldn’t want to spoil the batch. But moving forward, I would appreciate it if you drop the act around me.”

She swallowed and looked like she wanted to say something else. But you have nothing. No excuses. No way to retract your truth or tiptoe around its ugly implications. She started to say something else; a moderating lie or qualification, no doubt. Maybe an insincere apology to save face. Forsythe gestured mild dismissal before she could speak, and walked out of the room.

— Marday, Aries 19th, 2348 AA. 2:50 PM. Westridge (Athenaeum – Central Quad) —

Again, the memory disappeared as abruptly as it had intruded. The distraction bought Averael several glancing hits with the man-catcher. Forsythe’s expression darkened. I can’t afford to go on the offensive with magic. I’m out of anima and using sorcery will mean a weaker wyrd to defend myself. If I can just ward off this damnation spell, and rely on the Heart to fight him physically, I can win this.

Averael unleashed another divine spell, and Forsythe braced for impact, but there was no swell of encroaching ether. Did he cast something on himself? No matter. Time to end this.

Forsythe flung the chain around Averael’s waist and yanked him closer. The angel managed to parry the first two blows from Phobos, but he underestimated how much strength Forsythe had left, and the momentum shifted to the amagia’s favor. Forsythe’s cuts started landing, one, two, three in the blink of an eye and—he was racked by white hot stripes of pain. Each cut that made contact with Averael echoed in his own mind.

He beat a hasty retreat, examining his body on reflex. Even though his chest, right bicep, and left quad screamed in agony, his clothes and flesh were undisturbed. I imagine I will share the pain of every wound I inflict on him. Diabolical, but still just a trick. You’ve dealt with pain before, Edryr. You will endure it again now to endure it again tomorrow. Keep fighting.

Forsythe threw Fitzgerald’s chain again but Averael had grow accustomed to the trick. He dodged the weight, seized the outstretched links, and then looped the chain around Phobos’ blade, trying to disarm Forsythe. Instead, the chain shattered against Phobos’ vorpal edge with a crackling explosion of electric magic. Forsythe dropped the chain in disgust. Damn. Down a weapon. Now he has the reach advantage again.

He could also feel the damnation pressing in on him, trying to conjure regrets, bloody memories, and the exhaustion of a thousand sleepless nights. He had withdrawn his supersaturated wyrd to guard both his mind and body. Unfortunately, it left him with precious little energy for sorcery or physical enhancement. And this is a fight that will be decided by the merest margin. I need more power to defend myself and to go on the offensive simultaneously.

Averael swept his polearm across the ground, casting a shower of debris at Forsythe to obscure his vision, and followed up with a torrent of holy fire. Forsythe blocked the spell with his wyrd to prevent immolation, but the shift in power allowed the damnation spell to break through.

He was assaulted by a flood of memories; too many to count this time. Dead comrades. Dead proteges. Lives he failed to save. And beneath it all, a question attacked his core: Why? For what? What good has your bloodshed brought the world? How can you be certain you aren’t making things worse?

Forsythe gritted his teeth and drove back the psychic assault. I have to use the Heart’s full potential. I might lose control. It might kill me. But at this rate I’m going to die anyway.

Forsythe withdrew, turning all of the excess energy of the ribbon inward. He shut out the damnation with sheer focus, and tried to force himself into exus. It didn’t come easily; he had spent so much of his long, bloody career holding that beast back that trying to court it seemed like blasphemy.

But the power inside him began to percolate. His breathing quickened and his sight started to go dark and red. The currents of his wyrd became visible, and so turbulent that they sheared his uniform jacket from his chest. Almost there…

Averael hurled his polearm at Forsythe. The U-shaped blade caught him around the neck and pinned him to the far wall, crushing his Adam’s apple. The ribbon’s power immediately expired. Forsythe frantically redirected the Heart’s energy to heal his ruined throat. I may be a monster but I am not a bloody egregore. I cannot mend my wounds in the blink of an eye.

As Forsythe hacked and coughed, Averael slowly strode forward, stooping to pick up Elroy’s dropped great sword.

“You say you fight for yourself, Forsythe. Maybe you did at some point. But I see the opposite. A man who gave up on his own autonomy a long time ago. A puppet for a cause he’s come to resent.”

Forsythe managed to heal himself just enough to suck down air… though he didn’t have an answer. Am I serving myself like I swore? Did I outgrow it? Was it a lie? Averael waited for him to heal himself further. Foolish under normal circumstances. Forsythe’s pinned positioned broached no opportunity for a counter attack.

“I am willing spare you for a future favor.” Averael said.

“To be named later?” Forsythe laughed and spat another gout of blood. “No. I’ve had enough of your sermons. Get on with it.”

“Suit yourself,” Averael said, hefting the colossal great sword over his head.

—Alinore Valmont. 2:51 PM. —

Lin watched the entire fight. After the agony of burning to death faded—not an experience she ever wanted to repeat—she briefly assumed that she had become a ghost; an odd floating thought-form that couldn’t interact with the world in any discernible way.

But ghosts aren’t real, so far as we know. And I’m too self-aware to be an echo. No. He put me in some kind of suspended animation. As she focused, she could faintly feel the rhythm of breath in her prone, seemingly burned body as if she were connected to it by a quivering strand; a chord like the string of an instrument. First, I get possessed and now I’ve been evicted. Getting’ real tired of people screwing with my bodily autonomy.

As the fight raged, the metaphysical string started to retract, pulling her soul back toward her body. Curiously, sensation returned to her extremities first; her heart, head, and lungs were the last things to come back under her control. Unfortunately, as she gradually returned to consciousness, her awareness of the area narrowed, making it harder to perceive the fight.

When Lin could open her eyes again, she raised her head to find Forsythe pinned to the wall by Averael’s pole arm. Worse yet, whatever contract or enchantment Forsythe had used on his body had worn off; his hair was black again and his wyrd was comparatively faint. She held her breath. I only have one chance to intervene. And if I screw it up… well. If I screw it up, Forsythe is dead. Despite everything, Lin didn’t hate Averael. She even understood why he moved to destroy her, and later attempted to possess her. Well. Okay. The guy’s a prick. And if it comes down to watching a human die or killing an egregore, that’s a pretty easy choice.

Averael lifted the great sword over his head slowly, as if he were reluctant to finish the fight. Lin surveyed the area, finally seizing upon Forsythe’s dropped sword. It was at the very edge of her effective range. Which means I just have to reach harder. But my timing needs to be perfect. If I’m too late, he’s dead. If I’m too early, we’re all dead.

She held her breath, lungs and wyrd. Lin meant to launch the blade at the angel just before he started his stroke. But her nerves got the better of her, and she choked. Fuck! I’m too late!

Yet the sword seemed to stick in the air as the angel tried to bring it to bear. Something was holding it in place. Lin detected the urdic ripples and traced them to Elroy, his hand outstretched and his face a burned horror writ with a rictus grin.

“That’s…mine.”

Now!

Lin pushed her wyrd further than she ever had before. She tensed every fiber of her being to draw Forsythe’s blade off the ground with telekinesis. And the rogue angel—distracted by the new potential threat—didn’t see it coming.

Lin fired the weapon so that the blade spun like a drill, and its keen tip sank into the very center of Averael’s spine at the conflux of his wings. It wasn’t a devastating blow in terms of power, but its accuracy was decisive: Lin had paralyzed him. Even for egregores, re-growing nerves was harder than muscle, bone, or other tissues. It would have taken him a full second to heal. Even with his ribbon-state seemingly depleted, Forsythe was a great deal faster than that.

He seized the man-catcher by its spiked neck and tore it out of the wall, freeing himself at the expense of tearing his palms apart. Re-armed, Forsythe jabbed the angel in the forehead with the man-catcher’s spear-end, then flipped the haft and struck him again with the ‘T’ shaped bar. As Averael slumped to the side, Forsythe tossed the man-catcher aside, grabbed a wing with one hand, and Phobos’ hilt with the other. Using the wing for leverage, he managed to drag the blade through the remaining thoracic vertebrae and up the cervical processes in one singing stroke.

There was a flash of golden light, and a tell-tale ripple. The death rattle of a holy egregore. With that, Forsythe tumbled to the ground next to his foe, his breathing labored.

Clear white ectoplasm streamed from Averael’s wounds, and cracks began to spread throughout his body. His wings calcified, then crumbled up a shaft of pale golden light. He began to levitate, and he turned his cracked, masked head to face Lin.

“It takes… a lot of balls…” Averael rasped, “…to stab an angel in the back… girly…”

“Surprised you didn’t see it coming,” Lin said.

Averael simply chuckled. Before disintegrating entirely, he added:

“…Fucking teenagers.”

— 5:37 PM. Arroyo Athenaeum (Declared Physika Building) —

Lin was sequestered in a classroom on the second story of a nearby building. After twenty minutes of waiting, the other two members of Forsythe’s venture entered the room. The woman, Harlowe, asked her questions about her experience while the burly Keeper, Morris tended to her injuries.

Then more waiting. It was sweltering outside, and barely temperate with the building’s antiquated air conditioning, but Lin couldn’t stop shivering when she was alone. She shook until her spine and ribs were sore. Without adrenaline to hold them at bay, memories of pain assaulted her in vivid flashbacks. She had suffered so much in Evitria’s body, and again from Forsythe’s false-death contract. Then worry for Pensey and her family began to settle in.

Finally, Forsythe returned. His own injuries had been bandaged, he wore a fresh uniform jacket, and his long, black hair was once again secured by his white ribbon, but he still looked tremendously fatigued.

“I don’t know how much longer you think you can keep me here anonymously before my father tears this campus apart,” Lin said.

“He believes we don’t know where you are. My men are ‘searching’ for you as we speak.”

You lied to a former Archon and his Amagiate security detail? The CIC is truly terrifying.

“What did the angel tell you about Pensey Hayes? And what did the djinn tell you?” Forsythe asked.

Lin sighed. She had already told that sour-faced woman everything she had heard, observed, and been told over the past five days since Averael arrived.

“I told you. Averael didn’t specify why Pensey was important, and Evitria said she was looking for something in her soul. A Logos.”

“You were partially sharing your consciousness with the djinn, correct? Did she leave you with any clue as to what this Logos was?” Before Lin could balk at his needling, Forsythe gestured an apology. “I am looking to collaborate with you in good faith, Alinore. I underestimated you and your friends earlier. I will not make the same mistake twice.”

Lin appreciated the acknowledgement, and the moderation in his tone. But that doesn’t change the fact that I don’t know anything.

“I really don’t know, sir. In between interrogations, I’ve been sitting here trying to figure it out. All she said is that a Logos was a piece of the language used to write the universe. She thought it was a key to freedom and power, though… Honestly, I get the sense that it was some kind of grail quest for her.”

“How do you mean?”

“I think she had heard of this Logos, whatever it is, and believed it was powerful enough for her to achieve godhood. She mentioned a ‘Godhead,’ whatever that is, but I don’t think she herself understood how the Logos would work. She was under the impression that killing Pensey would grant her its power, but… the exact process was hazy in her mind.”

Forsythe considered her words carefully.

“Apart from her grades, sterling behavioral record, and near unanimous endorsements from her teachers, we can’t discern anything unusual about Pensey Hayes. Is it possible that this Logos is just some egregoric myth?”

“I suppose…” Lin said, furrowing her brow. “But then why would Averael stick around so long, claiming to guard Pensey?”

“Perhaps he stole it from Pensey before Evitria could lay claim to it.”

“Evitria suggested as much, but I got the impression she was lying through her glass teeth. If he was only after the Logos, why bother lingering when he had ample opportunity to escape?”

“I’m sure he would try to excuse it by droning on about the causality networks of the multiverse or some such nonsense.”

Lin snickered.

“You like him, don’t you?”

Forsythe’s mouth twitched into a sneer and he shook his head.

“Not at all. I don’t care much for gods and he’s a sentient splinter from the world’s most fraught religious trilogy. Regardless of his supposedly ‘good’ intentions, he’s a murderer and grifter. That said…I think the bastard and I have an understanding of each other.”

Lin got the distinct sense that Forsythe didn’t have understandings with many people. Or entities, case being. God that’s a lonely life. To truly be closer to your enemy than your supposed friends. To be a ghost. And the last thought pulled an unfortunate realization to the fore:

“You’re going to erase my memory again, aren’t you?” Lin said, hollow.

“It’s out of my hands,” Forsythe said apologetically. “Personally, I think these cover-ups are more trouble than they are worth, but I don’t get to write the rules.”

“How are you going to manage it? There have to be dozens of witnesses. That quad became a warzone. I mean, you’re going to have to come up with something a hell of a lot more compelling than a gas leak.”

Forsythe gave her a chilly little smile.

“I think you would find the details fascinating. But the truth is, the better you understand our methods, the less effective they will be. And the more you meddle with people’s memories, the messier things get.

Lin felt a chill. Why are you breaking the prohibition against memory magic in the first place? It was a stupid question—what better way was there to cover things up—but at the same time, it seemed to overstep a line that should not be crossed. The Amagium was supposed to be better than this. It was supposed to be above the wild accusations of anticordant conspiracy theorists.

“When my father was Archon… did he know about the CIC’s practices?”

“He did when he was in office, yes.” Forsythe said.

The phrasing wasn’t lost on Lin.

“Does that mean you sealed his memories too?”

“Like I said. The less you know the better, Alinore. Your father was more powerful than any asfalis head of state or religious leader. He knew every damn skeleton in every damn closet on this continent. I have my fair share of baggage, but I suspect his burdens of conscience outclass anything we’ve experienced. Honestly, being relieved of those memories would be a mercy.”

Lin nodded, but she violently rejected the premise. I hate that. And he would hate it even more than I do. Christ, if the Archons are at the top, who makes the call to erase their memories when they leave office? How does that even work?

“Before we say our tearful goodbyes… Tell me: what do you think of Cyphira Quinn?”

Lin paused to consider the question.

“Things seem to come to her easily. She’s never at a loss for words. Most people are afraid of her, and with good reason. Rebels seem to gravitate to her. Honestly, I hate everything about her personality. But I’m proud to call her my rival where the Athenaeum is concerned. And… right now… I think she is more powerful than I am.”

Forsythe folded his lip and nodded. Lin burned with questions, but she couldn’t think of one to ask to forestall her fate. She hated the idea of losing experience. Losing a part of herself for some greater good. She wondered if there was any way she could give herself a clue to get these memories back, like Cyphira did. Wait.

“What’s going to happen to her?”

Forsythe’s expression darkened. Lin continued to press him:

“Cyphira managed to free her memories on her own. She might be resistant to that magic. If you have to seal and reseal her memories—”

“We’ll figure something out,” Forsythe said coldly.

“What do you mean?”

In answer, Forsythe snapped his fingers and Lin was struck unconscious.

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