EPISODE 44: HANDICAP

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Sevardin Harker. Marday, Aries 19th, 2348 AA. 6:46 PM. Arroyo – Glade Crest (Sev’s House).

For the eighth time that afternoon, Sev tried to extend his wyrd to summon a tool to his hand, only for it to bunch oddly in his unlicensed wrists. He growled his displeasure and manually reached for the master rivet link installation tool. Replacing the chain and sprockets on a bike was always something of a chore, but usually he found it somewhat meditative. Without telekinesis to hold and summon tools to his hand however, it was a pain in the ass. I’m so pissed and distracted I’m not even sure this will count toward my opus.

He had removed his licenses to keep himself from using his wyrd on reflex, since he knew he wouldn’t be able to help himself otherwise. Magic came as easy as breathing to him, and it had become just as vital. I feel naked. No. Crippled. Sev chucked his grease towel at the far wall in disgust.

Take a deep breath. It’s a good day. Somehow, the AKF managed to evacuate the Athenaeum’s stadium before the Unbranded’s breach beacon triggered. Sure, a few rogue egregores escaped and ruined the fancy tiered quad at the center of campus, but Sev would take property damage over casualties every day of the week.

The case was far from settled, however. The Unbranded still had the demon marrow, and the AKF had no leads on where to find the terror cell.

Sev used the rivet link installer to tighten the peen over each end of the master link pin ends, connecting the two ends of the new chain together, while taking care not to over tighten them. Last thing I want is to crack the damn thing and start over. When the chain was secured, he grabbed a torque wrench to tighten the rear axle nut, and propped the bike’s rear wheel against a block of wood to prevent it from turning. After securing the countershaft nut, he loosened the rear axle nut, and finally adjusted the chain to give it the proper amount of slack.

Satisfied with his handiwork, he returned his tools to their respective drawers, kits, and boxes—again, tedious without his wyrd to assist him. When everything was put away, he opened his garage, donned his favorite jacket and grabbed his helmet.

As he saddled up, he briefly considered leaving his licenses on his workbench, but ultimately decided it was better to be safe than sorry. Wyrds were often the difference between life and death in automotive crashes, and that was doubly true for motorcyclists. He clasped the vambraces around his hands and felt the urdic tension in his wrists give way.

He stoked the bike to life, wheeled into the driveway, and closed the garage behind him. The sun lingered on the edge of the western horizon and its fading light clung to the clouds in hues of gold, orange, and pink. Pretty. Could probably get a decent picture from the foothills if I hurry.

—6:50. Arroyo (134 Freeway)—

Sev realized he was being tailed when he got on the 134. About two car lengths back, a beaten-up, black MacArthur Adder threaded through the traffic, shadowing him. Christ, how long have they been there? Where the hell is my head at?

He couldn’t see the driver through the dark tinted windows. He eased into the left lane, maintaining a steady speed, and sure enough the Adder followed. Clumsy. And if you think you can catch me in your little has-been hot-rod, you’ve got another thing coming. When he was a quarter mile from the Figueroa exit, near Eagle Rock, he cut across all four lanes of traffic to reach the exit.

There was a red pickup on the shoulder with its hazard lights flashing, and as Sev darted toward the exit, the truck lurched into the road, perpendicular to both lanes. Sev had to cut across the divider, nearly striking the anti-crash barrels. At the same time, the Adder had begun to accelerate behind him, cutting off a series of cars as it quested forward. Horns blared and tires screeched to an abrupt halt in its wake.

What the fuck is this!?

Sev redlined his Nobunaga, heading for the exit to the Glendale Freeway. As he approached the offramp he heard a cacophony of horns, and saw that a black SUV was horizontally blocking both the southbound lanes, just as the pick-up had done. Sev had slowed to navigate the back-up, and the Adder was nearly abreast with his bike. If he tried to break away from the exit, it would smear him against the guardrail.  

He jerked his bike onto the northbound exit, the Adder in hot pursuit. The interchange was an elevated overpass with no shoulder to speak of. Nothing to do but run. As he hit the main drag of the Glendale Freeway, he was finally able to shake the Adder by darting into thicker traffic.

Unfortunately, he had picked up a new tail. A white Tokugawa Ronin was gaining on him. Must have been waiting on the shoulder just behind the onramp. How many people do they have?! The Ronin was a smaller, more agile bike, born for track racing as opposed to cruising. It would overtake him in seconds. And as he looked over his shoulder, he saw that the bike carried a passenger holding a handgun.

Sev took the first exit he could, driving on the shoulder and making a risky, right hairpin despite the red light. Cross traffic squealed to a halt, horns blaring, and he heard the crunch of a bumper somewhere behind him. The Ronin was still on him. As he made his way toward the foothills, he heard the bark of a gunshot behind him.

Jesus Christ! What the hell can I do? I know the roads here. Better than they do, probably. I should be able to lose them in the foothills, as long as they don’t shoot me to death first. He drove up a wending road that snaked through affluent suburban cul-de-sacs nestled in the foothills. Lots of turns to lose them. But also lots of dead ends.

Sev was gaining on a black van and swerved into the oncoming lane to gun around it… but the van abruptly veered to the left. Sev hit the brakes to avoid smashing into the van, putting himself into a low-side skid. Just before his left leg could be crushed between the bike and the asphalt, he used sorcery to create a kinetic buffer to protect himself on reflex. The magic worked at the expense of an excruciating pain in his wyrd. He tumbled free from his vehicle into the side of the foothill.

He never completely passed out, but his world went pitch black and bright white with pain as he tumbled against the earth and brush. The van that had obstructed him pulled to the shoulder on the same side of the road where he crashed, and its back doors opened. Two hooded, masked figures emerged from the back of the van. As he tried to push himself off the ground, something struck the side of his helmet. Then his back. Then his shoulder. Then the backs of his knees. Each impact was accompanied by a dull metallic thud. A pipe. Or metal bat.

“Get his licenses!” a woman commanded.

Sev tried to fight back, but his body was stunned and his wyrd was shot. It felt like he was bleeding ether rather than breathing it. He was vaguely aware of his license clasps giving way and falling free from his wrists. They roughly pulled off his dented helmet, and replaced it with a burlap bag before his vision could clear completely. Then they dragged him into the van, bashing his right patella against the back bumper. The heavy doors closed behind him.

“Drive!” the woman shouted again.

As the van lurched into motion, his assailants restrained his arms behind his back with a zip tie around his wrists. I can’t fight them like this. His captors removed his symphone, wallet, and keys from his pockets, and started to tie his legs together.

“I think dinner is customary before masks and ropes,” Sev said, borderline delirious.

“Keep quiet or we will throw you into traffic,” The woman said.

And waste this elaborate set up? How many cars and bikes did you have lying in wait for me? No. You want me alive. Sev snickered and said:

“Promises, promises.”

The bat struck his chest again, hard enough to wind him. Then the woman started to cast a spell. Even without his licenses, Sev recognized the energies of a sedation contract. It was crude and her wyrd was average at best, but without his licenses, he was powerless against it.

—|—

A sheet of cold water slapped Sev in the face. He sputtered and blinked his eyes in the relatively dim light of his new environment. His arms and legs were tied to a chair—but the chair itself seemed fragile. He felt a slight give in the backing of the seat as he started awake. Play it cool for now. Wait for your moment.

A man sat opposite him, hunched over, licensed, and holding a symphone. His features were Eastern European and vaguely familiar but younger. Drigori Demirci Junior.

Sev pointedly ignored Junior and took stock of his surroundings. They were in a large garage of some kind, and the acrid smell of motor oil hung in the air. He saw some of the vehicles that had pursued him, including the Ronin, the Adder, and the red pickup that had blocked his first exit.

Drigori waited for Sev to meet his gaze, then raised the symphone to his face. My symphone. When it got within proximity of Sev’s wyrd, the automatic unlock feature kicked in. Shit!

“Thank you,” Junior muttered, then started scrolling through the device.

Sev seethed. He lunged forward but pretended to be effectively restrained by the chair. Junior ignored him. This is not my moment. Two guards stood behind him clad in cracked magic licenses with pistols drawn; the woman from the sting op, Bretta, and a scruffy faced twenty-something of eastern European descent.

Junior held up the phone to Sev’s face again. The screen now displayed a call dialing on speakerphone to Juel Flores.

Fuck me.

Juel picked up on the third ring.

“What’s up, compadre?” His voice was tired but amicable, like he’d just stretched awake from a nap.

Sev didn’t know what to say. Hang up? Junior will just keep calling until he smells a rat.

“I just woke up from a good nap, man. I swear to god, if this is a butt dial—”

“Do not listen to him, Juel. No matter what he says—” Sev started.

Demirci rolled his eyes and raised the phone to his face.

“This is Drigori Demirci Junior. I have your partner. If you hang up from this call, I will shoot him in the brain through the top of his mouth. I suggest you plug your phone in immediately.”

Again, Sev didn’t know what to say. Think goddamn it!

“I’m going to make you a deal,” Junior continued when the other line remained silent. “Don’t bother trying to trace this call. We are at the Axiom Mechanics and Detailing warehouse in Industry. I can give you the exact address in a moment—”

“What do you want?” Juel asked, voice icy. Sev wasn’t sure, but he thought he could hear Elamni asking what was wrong in the background.

Junior blinked and waited a moment before continuing:

“If you attempt to contact any authorities; AKF, asfalis police, fire department, animal control… the deal is off. I will shoot your friend in the head and walk away. Immediately. We have people listening on dispatch, people watching your precincts, and people watching outside. If you want proof that our network is effective, ask yourself what tipped us off to your sting operation.”

“Get to your fucking point,” Juel said.

“If you come to industry alone? Armed if you like, but you must come alone—I will allow you to peacefully leave with Sevardin Harker. However. There is also an entropic, demon-marrow bomb affixed to the central incanter for Los Angeles’ lightway system. This bomb is specifically designed to make the entire system fail, regardless of energy input values, safety redundancies, and so on. Call my bluff if you want, but I promise you every car on a lightway, from Downtown to LAX, will fall to the ground.”

Jesus christ, is he lying? Demon marrow was an intrinsically insidious reagent for magic and artifice. It seemed to delight in catalyzing the most human suffering possible, and would essentially collaborate with the caster to that effect. The lightway system was supposed to be infallible. But we can’t take that chance. Junior allowed Juel a moment to digest this.

“Again. If you hang up from this call or cry wolf? We will detonate the bomb early. And there is no risk to us, because it’s not that kind of bomb. But if you have the courage to play the part your father groomed you for, and act as a Lone Ranger… my operatives will face you honorably. I will even tell you the bomb has three guards. They are armed with magic licenses and your amagiate revolvers.”

“Three on one is your idea of honor?” Sev asked, sneering.

Junior shot a disgusted glance at Sevardin, as if he couldn’t believe he had the audacity to speak.

“Answer his question,” Juel said.

Junior’s left eye twitched, almost imperceptibly, then he sneered.

“It is said that one Keeper is worth ten asfalis citizens. My people are not asfalis, but they are young and self-trained. If the fight were a forgone conclusion, it wouldn’t be interesting, would it? You must choose between safety and valor. Self-interest for you and the one near to you, or your sworn causes: duty upon pain of death.”

Juel laughed.

“So, you’re just like your father then?”

Junior laughed as well.

“Amusing bait, but I am willing to bite. My father was an objectively brilliant archivist, and I am not. He taught me a few basic principles, but I had to scrape the arcanet for most of what I know. He was blighted, however. The man has the soul of a mad dog. His crimes served no higher purpose than his twisted curiosity. His need for superiority.”

“Yeah, and you don’t seem twisted or insecure at all,” Sev said.

Junior rolled his eyes and drew back his hand, preparing to strike Sevardin.

And that is my moment.

Sev broke the limbs of the wooden chair and tackled Junior, knocking him to the floor. His hands were still bound behind his back, but his legs and head were free. The guards raised their weapons, shouting at Sevardin. But if you shoot me, that’s the end of this sick little game. Junior started to shout for them to hold fire, but Sev swung his left temple against Junior’s left jaw. Stunned, Junior dropped the phone. Sev drew his head back and smashed his forehead against Junior’s nose. Then someone knocked him clear with a clumsy but powerful sledgehammer of sorcery.

Junior rolled out from under Sev, and managed to stand with Bretta’s help, as the other guard trained his gun on Sev and shouted for him to stop moving.

“Are you alright?” Bretta asked Junior.

Junior nodded and shook her off in irritation, but when he stooped to pick up the phone, he saw that the screen was cracked, and the call hand ended. With any luck, I broke the damn thing. Junior’s face contorted, muscles clenching white, veins bulging. Sev started laughing.

Junior grabbed the pistol out of Bretta’s hands and kicked Sev savagely in the stomach, face, and groin. When he relented, Sev had swallowed one of his front teeth, flooding his mouth with blood. He smiled at Junior anyway, and spat on the floor. Junior knelt to Sev, stabbed him in the head with the pistol’s muzzle, and continued press it down into his temple.

“If you are that desperate to die, I will oblige you.”

“And ruin your little game? After all that trouble?”

Junior sucked air in through his nostrils, literally quaking with rage, then he pulled away and pistol-whipped Sevardin. Something cracked in Sev’s brow, and a dizzying ring overtook his head. Fuck. That one was really not good. He was out of it for a few seconds, then managed to spy Demirci dialing his phone again. Damn.

“Detective Flores, I suggest you convince your partner to sit quietly.”

“If you had done your homework, you’d know that isn’t really his style.”

“If he refuses to cooperate, or intervenes again in anyway, I will instruct my men to detonate the bomb, and you can listen as I beat him to death. And to help ensure his compliance…” He turned to Bretta, and gestured ‘legs.’ “If you would be so kind, Bretta…”

Sev turned to face the woman, too stunned to truly comprehend what was about to happen. The woman thrust her hands forward, and a single kinetic anima in her left cuff flared bright. Sev tried to summon his wyrd, but even if he had been wearing licenses, it was in too much pain to be useful. Sheets of kinetic force seized Sev by the right femur, and his left shin bones. She then twisted her arms wrists outward, as if she was snapping branches in each hand.

His femur cracked loud enough to echo throughout the warehouse. The break was also distinct in his mind. He knew what was wrong, and roughly where it had shattered on feel alone. But his fibula and tibia were in ruin. He wasn’t sure whether they had cracked multiple times, or just once each. He screamed, and then swore.

“What the fuck did you do to him!?” Juel demanded. “What the fuck did you do?!”

“I just broke his legs, Detective Flores. Consider it a warning shot. If there is another interruption, for any reason, be it deliberate, accidental, or an act of God, I will shoot him until there is more metal in his body than blood.”

A silence settled over the warehouse as Sev shivered against the pain. He had been in shock before. He had broken bones before. But he had never been crippled before, and the realization settled over him like frigid, liquid lead. Will you ever walk again, Harker? He grit his teeth. You’re goddamn right you will. If you survive, you will run again. And if you die tonight, you will make it damn well worth your while.

“Get the bomb, Juel!” Sev grunted through the pain. “Don’t give this son of a bitch the satisfaction.”

Junior knelt to Sev, smothered the phone against his chest to muffle the receiver, and pressed the muzzle of the gun gently against his lips, shushing him.

“I think we’ve heard enough from you, friend,” Junior said, voice eerily calm again. Then he held the phone to his ear and purred: “You have exactly one hour, Juel. Make your decision. And don’t hang up.”

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