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Hace Matthews. Satday, Pisces 12th 2351. 6:26 PM. Arroyo Athenaeum (Archives).

“Oh god…Yes…Hace…!”

Kimiss grabbed his hair—currently glamoured to a shade of evergreen—and leaned her pelvis into his face. Hace responded enthusiastically with his lips, nose, and tongue. Kimiss clapped a hand over her mouth to stifle a cry, slammed her back against the bookshelf, and started shuddering.

When she had finished, Hace pulled away for air and grinned up at her. She smiled back with a delirious expression. As he stood, she met him with a light kiss on his forehead. She pulled her pants and underwear back up, then grabbed Hace’s thigh and started working her hand up toward his crotch.

“Your turn,” she said.

“If you insist,” Hace said, smiling broadly.

But as Kimiss started to kneel, he caught her by the shoulder and looked in the direction of hulking footsteps, heavy enough to shake the shelves of grimoires.

“Just a servitor,” Kimiss assured him. “Don’t think it will tell on us.”

Sure enough, a giant golem of ceramic, brass, and alchemically treated steel stomped around the corner of the aisle they had hid out in. Something’s off. Normally golems moved with fated precision, like the arcane gearwork that composed them. But this one is kind-of hunched over. And its movements are…

As it spied Hace and Kimiss with its head of symmetrical lenses, its green threat-detection lights flashed to an eye-searing red. It raised its right fist, leveling its wrist-mounted paralytic cannon at the happy couple. Hace grabbed Kimiss up with his wyrd and dove out of the way as a yellow orb of energy slammed into the bookshelf.

Servitor golems were responsible for returning low-risk magical tomes to their respective shelves, temporarily mapping the ever-changing corridor of the Archives’ ground floor, and eliminating the magical pests that accumulated inside the collection. As such, they had to face the same risks that Archivists and Aspirants encountered in the collection, so they were outfitted for combat, and armed with automated spells to mitigate damage to the tomes.

The golem fired a second stunning burst, but Hace and Kimiss were already gone. As they ran, Kimiss pulled out her glamour flare and fired an illusory beacon indicating the need for immediate assistance. The beacon, a glowing red light, would be visible to the eight, elevated towers at the edge of the Archive’s periphery. But we are pretty deep in the collection. It will take time for anyone to get here.

“Its threat detector must be quirked!” Kimiss said.

Golems were exposed to ambient magic constantly and their programming suffered quirks fairly regularly as a result. The faults were usually benign—lights blinking in unusual patterns, strange beeps and boops as they went about their duties—but occasionally one would start mistaking humans for magic vermin and attack.

Kimiss continued:

“If we can hit it with the programming halt spell, that should disarm it.”

Hace shook his head:

“I think it’s possessed by something. It’s moving like an animal instead of artifice.”

Kimiss’ eyes widened slightly. If it had been hijacked by foreign magic, the pre-programmed shut-off would be useless.

“Then we need to fall back,” she said. “They can take a beating and our swords won’t do shit against it.”

“Good idea. You get help,” Hace said, then scrambled the back the way they came and called: “I’ll keep it busy!”

“Wait! Hace—” Kimiss shouted something else but Hace didn’t hear her.

The potential for romantic liaisons sequestered in the stacks was a definite perk, but Hace had hungrily competed with his fellow Peacekeeping Aspirants for a spot in the Athenaeum’s Archival program for one reason: it promised real-world opportunities to practice battle magic. And I’m not about to shy away from the opportunity to take down a golem. Hace had heard through the grapevine that Alinore Valmont once melted a training golem during a private lesson in their fourth year, and he had been hungry for the opportunity to eclipse her.

Hace considered his cards as he closed the distance to the golem. It’s slow, strong, and designed to take one hell of a beating. It has two semi-automatic stun cannons on its wrists with way too much ammunition to exhaust, spike-pistons in its palms, and retractable blades in its knuckles. Arms are bad. Its legs were purely used for locomotion. But if some other intelligence is using it as a puppet, I can’t rely on it to follow its programming.

The golem paused for a second, as if it was surprised that Hace would return, then unleashed an automated partition spell at the end of the aisle, sealing his exit. You’re supposed to use those barrier spells to protect the books! Which was another element Hace had to consider. If a stray spell triggers the energy in one of those tomes, I’m looking at a catastrophic chain reaction. That means protecting the books is up to me.

As he approached the golem, Hace placed a hand on one of the shelves and quickly used one of the four anima at his disposal to create a kinetic barrier that would protect the books from harm. The golem continued to shoot, but whatever intelligence had hijacked it was unused to the constraints of an artificial body.

 My greatest strength is fire; the one kind of magic I absolutely cannot use in the archives…unless they are precise, touch attacks. Bindings—my weakest area of magic—would probably be the best call; I could lock its joints and use its motors’ strength against it.

Hace slid on the enchanted tile floor, beneath the stream of projectiles, grabbed the golem’s boot-like foot, and used it to swing himself behind it. Before the thing could react, he placed his palms against the unarmored back of its primary knee joints, and blasted them with heat and electricity until the metal glowed white hot. That should soften the joints a bit.

The golem launched a rear kick, but the motors telegraphed the movement enough for Hace to escape unscathed. And as he moved, he prepared a kinetic binding contract, structuring the magic into clamps around the thing’s feet.

As he backed away, Hace noticed that the golem had a tome splayed on top of its back, with several roots growing out of the pages. The woody tendrils had threaded themselves inside the golem. That explains what’s possessing it.

Grimoires were tricky things to curate. All magic had a sort of life to it. Even anima possessed a soft, semi-sentience. But grimoires, instruction manuals for advanced sorcerous techniques, proprietary contracts, and highly specific ritual magic were on another level. Each one had a personality—or in some cases, personalities. And the powerful magic within them afforded them a surprising amount of agency. The books would go on ‘walks,’ appearing in disparate parts of the collection. Archivists had come to the conclusion that these sojourns were an essential part of preserving the books’ integrity, as rigidly securing them could make the magic inside them grow restless, misleading, or volatile. It was the main reason why they allowed the collection’s layout to steadily change itself when unobserved. But occasionally, books would ‘go bad’ of their own accord anyway.

Hace couldn’t get a clear read of the book’s title, but based on the magical pressure of its inherence, the thing belonged deep in the Restricted Section. He retreated further to the side, and as the golem attempted to move, he heard the metal of its knees whine. Bingo. He hit the thing’s shoulder with a kinetic blast, using the full might of his wyrd. The abrupt torque caused the golem’s softened knee joints to snap and it fell to the tiles in a heap. It thrashed on the floor, exacerbating the damage.

“You are insane!” Kimiss called from the far end of the aisle.

Hace gestured thanks and took a bow. She shouted at him again:

“That is not a compliment!”

Hace turned his attention back to the felled golem and drew his sword. I’ll just hack away the roots connecting the grimoire and—a monstrous, twenty-pound fist backhanded him in the face. He spun through the air and struck the opposite bookshelf, winding him. If he had not softened the blow with his wyrd, his jaw would be broken at best.

That hurt. Hace sucked in air. Through his blurred vision, he saw that the golem was also standing again. As his sight cleared, he saw that roots had emerged from the golem’s thighs, and reconnected the knee joints, reinforcing it and acting as musculature. Son of a bitch! Worse yet, the golem had shifted its attention to Kimiss.

As soon as Kimiss saw the golem attack Hace, she had started to work on a contract. Before it could reach her, she blasted its head—which housed most of its sensors—with a current of green electricity until it exploded in a shower of sparks. It staggered back with an odd grace, newly flexible with its root-reinforced limbs, then raised its arms like a boxer.

Sylva-genesis and kinesis. Intellectual constructs. Boxing. What the fuck was in that book!?

Hace pushed himself upright and worked a second contract to protect the opposite shelf of books from collateral damage. Meanwhile, Kimiss drew her sword and slowly started to retreat.

Then the thing fired its entire arm at her. Roots had threaded through the golem’s artifice, and they grew at the joints, allowing it to extend its fist by at least ten feet. The heavy gauntlet slammed into Kimiss’ waist, palm first, pinning her against the books. The spike piston!

Hace’s wyrd went into overdrive. With one fluid gesture, he drew his sword, wreathed its blade in flame, and threw the weapon in a violent, tomahawking arc. And just before the blade made contact with the thing’s arm, Hace used sorcery to stretch the roots taut. The blade slashed through the arm, severed its connection to the weaponized fist, and saved Kimiss’ life by the breadth of a synapse.

Before the golem could turn around, Hace leapt onto its back and gripped the covers of the splayed tome, trying to pry it loose. Some of the weaker strands of wood gave way, but the thickest roots coming out of its pages had a powerful lock on the golem’s spinal column and shoulders. It attempted to swat Hace with its one intact arm, then violently whirled around, trying to throw him off.

Another root gave way. But it’s gonna get rid of me first. Time for some risky business. Hace held onto the grimoire with one hand, and shrouded the other with incredibly intense heat. He gripped the largest supporting root he could find, and blasted it with a precise blaze. The front cover of the tome came free, Hace’s spellfire dancing dangerously close to its priceless pages. But the golem began to sag as the grimoire’s hold over it weakened.

With another surge of effort, Hace seized the back cover with both hands and drove his legs against the base of the golem’s spine, jumping off of it. With a creaking crack, the remaining roots broke loose and retreated into the grimoire. All the wood that had reinforced the golem immediately withered, and the thing fell in a heap all over again.

As Hace caught his breath, he looked at Kimiss, who had freed herself from the golem’s gauntlet and retrieved Hace’s sword.

“Are you okay?” He asked

Kimiss nodded curtly, and handed him his weapon, and used her glamour flare wand to dispel the SOS.

“We need to report back to the desk.” She nodded at the tome. “That book is bad news.”

Hace nodded emphatic agreement and looked at the grimoire’s cover, which read “Elleziar’s Guide to Terra-Essentialism, Animation, and Erudensis.” I don’t know what I expected.

“Who writes a book about plant magic and fisticuffs?” Hace asked.

“Elleziar, apparently,” Kimiss said coldly.

Hace reached out to her shoulder.

“Hey. You sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fine,” she said, in a tone suggesting anything but.

Hace sighed.

I’m fucked.

—6:41 PM. | Arroyo Athenaeum (Archives)—

A group of Archivists met them when they were halfway back to the desk, and Hace was surprised his mentor among them. Fera Fitzgerald wore a smirk that grew increasingly sharp and wide as Kimiss recounted their encounter with the golem.

“That’s a fascinating story, Ms. Knight. Tell me, Red: is there a reason you felt it was wiser to fight a rogue construct, endangering yourself, your fellow aspirant, and the collection, rather than retreating to a desk for back up?”

“I was trying to cover Kimiss retreat,” Hace said, but he felt a tightness in his throat as he spoke. I’m cutting it as close to lying as I can come.

“Ah,” Fitz said. “And what were you doing in the southwest arm of the divination section? Master Poe told me he assigned you to clear the ember sprites that had been popping up in the pyromancy stacks.”

Kimiss pinkened immediately. She had a horrible poker face.

“Well, we finished with the sprites early so… Uh. We decided to take the scenic route.”

Fitz simply stared at him for a long moment, wearing a smile he had come to associate with all sorts of punishment, lectures, and bad times in general. Fuck!

“Uh, what brings you to the Archives, Master?”

Fitz continued to stare at him, and said icily:

“We’ll discuss it outside.”


“What the fuck were you thinking?” Fitz said, as soon as they broke the Archives’ threshold.

You know what? I’m tired of playing the punching bag. I took a risk, sure, but I eliminated the goddamn threat, protected Kimiss, myself, and the collection. I can tell Kimiss is going to want to have a ‘talk’ later, and that’s bad enough.

“I knew I didn’t need to run away,” Hace said at last. “And I’ve got a reputation to uphold.”

“You have a reputation alright,” Fitz said with disgust. “You going to break her heart as well?”

Hace rolled his eyes. Oh, that is rich coming from you, Teach.

“How many people did you sleep with when you were in the Athenaeum again?” He asked.

And then Hace was on the grass, head, back, and wyrd smarting. Didn’t hurt as bad as when the servitor hit him, but it also happened much faster. Hace wasn’t even sure how she hit him. His body was unharmed, but the attack was painful enough to incapacitate him in an instant. She hasn’t shown me that one before.

“Enough to regret a few of them,” Fitz said when Hace had regained himself.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “That was way out of line.”

“No shit,” Fitz snapped. She shook her head in disgust, and then started again: “Hace, I made two mistakes when I trained you. First, I allowed you to become my friend. And then I allowed you to become my family. It was selfish on my part. And now I worry it might get you killed.”

“What do you mean?”

“I need you to see me as a teacher, first and foremost.”

“I do!” Hace insisted.

“Then listen to your teacher: You are a truly gifted human being with a noble soul at your core. Which is why it kills me to see you growing into this haughty, self-absorbed, Pretyr Pan who casually—effortlessly—uses the people around him.”

“Ouch,” Hace said.

But he knew it hurt because she was dead on the mark. This wasn’t the first time he had endangered one of his paramours, and it wasn’t the first time that week that he had taken unnecessary risks to test himself. Fitz sighed and extended a hand to help him off the grass.

“You’re still young, Red. Just…consider what you want your ‘reputation’ to be a little more carefully, yeah?”

Hace nodded. Fitz’s face relaxed slightly.

“We’ll put a pin in this for now. Go get showered and change into a fresh uniform. We have an important meeting, and I’d prefer you not reek of pussy while we make our first impressions.”

Hace pinkened. Is it that obvious? Fitz snickered.

“A meeting on a Satday night?” Hace asked.

“From what I understand, this is an emergency. And a very rare opportunity.”

Hace gestured curiosity. Fitz regarded him for a long second, then asked:

“How would you feel about doing some undercover extracurricular work for the LAKF?”

—Sevardin. 7:03 PM. Arroyo Athenaeum (West Faculty Tower – Fitzgerald’s Office)—

“Hace says he’s in,” Master Fitzgerald said. “I told him to hit the showers and he’ll be right up.”

Juel had ducked out when their shift ended, but Sev and volunteered to accompany Vice’s Lead Senior Detective, Yvahn Wren, to the meeting with the akrasiacs.

Wren had an excellent clearance rate and stoic, hard-ass reputation, which appeared to be well-earned. If she had any qualms about endangering a kid, she didn’t show them. She stood at 6’2”, and while not quite as broad-shouldered as Sev, she was still very muscular. Her eyes were tired, but shrewd and confident, lent extra weight by a prominent, cross-shaped scar on her right cheek. Her hair was cut short and boyish, and she had a dark beauty mark to the left of her lips.

Sev glanced over Hace Matthews’ transcript as they waited. Here on a full scholarship. First Defteros. Kumite finalist. Too many merits to bother counting, and extremely high grades. There was also a lengthy disciplinary record, but it was all small stuff. Pranks, public displays of affection, and mouthing off at his teachers.

I don’t like this. Sev didn’t give a damn about the kid’s insubordinate tendencies. He’s just precocious and bored. But he couldn’t get Vadon out of his head. Or Jecia, for that matter. He saw worry etched into her features as well. They were full agents. And when things went sideways, it left him paralyzed and her scarred. And now we’re asking a student—a teenager—to assume those same risks.

Wren noticed Harker’s displeased expression.

“You don’t think he’s up to the task, Harker?”

“He’s setting records left and right. Definitely talented. Bit of a jokester it looks like,” Sev said. “But I’d like to know what you think about this, Master Fitzgerald.”

Fitzgerald sank into her office chair and gestured flippantly.

“Hard for me to know, because I can’t know what the task is until after I sign his life away.”

Wren smiled curtly.

“All your aspirant will need to do is infiltrate a party, fake using a lim, and keep his eyes open.”

“Sure. He can do that,” Fitzgerald said icily. Then she scoffed. “And he’ll hate me if I don’t let him try. So I guess you’ve got your man.”

Sev saw the love behind her anger, plain as day. He’s like a son to her. He understood where she was coming from. But he’s also nineteen years old. Not old enough to be smart, but old enough to make his own decisions. And it’s not like we don’t have a good reason. Judging from Jecia’s vision, at least forty kids are being pimped and used to grow lims.

Then Sev thought of the first time he visited Vadon in the hospital. Intubated, legs freshly amputated at the knees. And then he remembered the first time he visited after Vadon had woken up. He was in high spirits at first, but eventually he broke down. “You’re gonna walk again, man. But I’m gonna be in a chair forever.” And Sev had nothing to say. Because Vadon was right, and there was nothing to be said.

Fuck me. Are we really doing this again?

He looked to Jecia, who had a similarly pensive gaze. And you survived something even worse. Jecia caught him looking, and looked back at him, dead in the eye. She had always done that, from the first day they worked together. Just looked right at him. It was unnerving at first, but he’d come to find that her emanations were crystal clear when she did it. And now she was emanating grave concern.

I should stop this. How do I stop this?

Sev cleared his throat:

“Master Fitzgerald, we will make sure Aspirant Matthews understands that this is entirely voluntary and if he declines to take the mission it will not reflect against—”

“Like I said, as soon as Hace heard the word ‘undercover’ he told me to tell you that he’s in. And knowing him, you won’t be able to talk him out of it no matter how hard you try. But before he gets here, I’d like you to walk me through the specifics. What are we looking for?”

“Evidence of Fae-solicited human trafficking,” Yvahn Wren said. “First and foremost.”

“Uh-huh. So what’s this Black Lotus business?” Fitzgerald asked.

“I never mentioned anything about the Black Lotus,” Wren said, smiling.

“You didn’t have to. You said this operation potentially pertained to a murder investigation as well, and they’re both from Arroyo’s Cold Case Division.” She gestured at Sev and Jecia. “Why the fuck else would you be working something with LAKF Vice?”

“We got a tip that placed several people of interest at these ‘performing salons.’ And I’m afraid that’s all we can tell you before you’ve signed the confidentiality contract,” Sev said.

Fitzgerald judged him with naked disgust and incredulity.

“I know how it sounds, believe me,” Sev said apologetically. “But we’ve already had a disastrous media leak, and I just chewed somebody out for not being cautious enough. Wouldn’t be right for me to skirt protocol.”

The difference was that Fitzgerald was, herself, an amagia, but Sev didn’t know her, and people could be strange where fame and idols were concerned.

“If the papers are anything to go off of, you really are demon hunting,” Fitzgerald deduced. “This gets better and better.”

Sev suddenly felt a pang of sympathy for Lecarde. If Fitzgerald outfoxed me so easily, who am I to come down so hard on him?

“I assume you’ve done the obvious math, and that there is no way for me, or another fully licensed akrasiac to do this,” Fitzgerald said. “But I’d like you to show me your work anyway.”

“To begin with, most of South Ericia’s akrasiacs are in Sinaloa,” Wren said. “The cartels and the Courts are in open war. The Veil is torn to shreds in places, and they need operatives who can bounce back and forth safely and easily.”

“Yeah, they’ve actually asked me to get back in the saddle a couple times,” Fitzgerald said idly, then asked: “Why not call in somebody from the Tribes?”

Jecia spoke up:

“Age is the real problem. The ‘mentors’ are scrutinized more carefully than the ‘proteges.’ Essentially, you need to be somebody important to begin with, and have a personal introduction from another mentor. All kids need is a referral from another protégé. The first time they show up, they undergo an ‘audition’ to be added to the list.”

“And do we have this referral?” Fitzgerald asked, amused.

“We’re going to have him claim Glianna Garfield as his referrer,” Sev explained.

Fitzgerald’s smile widened.

“You know the kid can’t tell outright lies, right? He’s half-fae.”

What? Sev looked to Jecia, who shut her eyes and sighed. Of course. Most akrasiacs are half-fae. And half-fae cannot tell lies without agonizing pain. This went from ‘bad idea’ to ‘catastrophic idea’ really quick. But Wren seemed unphased and continued:

“In my experience, half-fae make the best liars. It’s all about how you frame your thoughts and phrase your answers. If the boy says that he is there because of Glianna Garfield, he isn’t lying. A roundabout way of thinking, and a strange way to say it, but most people won’t bat an eye.”

“And if they do?” Fitzgerald asked.

“He shows the gatekeeper that he already has the lims for his audition,” Wren said. “And at that point, they have a vested interest in admitting him. If he makes a scene, it poses a much higher risk to their operation than one more pretty face who wants to party.”

Fitzgerald leaned back in her seat, clearly dissatisfied, but unsure how to object further.

Less than a minute later, there was a knock at the door. Fitzgerald called and emanated for her student to enter. He walked in, dark red hair still wet from the showers. He was tall, just a little shorter than Sev, and like most aspirants, in impeccable shape. He didn’t have any obvious half-faen features, save for his almost bright blue eyes which bordered on luminescent, and ever-so-slightly pointed ears.

“Mr. Matthews,” Detective Wren said. “The man of the hour.”

“I hope so, ma’am. Err, Sir.”

Sevardin’s mouth twitched in a smile. I always fuck that up too. Wren extended her hand and Matthews took it.

“I am Senior Detective Yvahn Wren with the LAKF’s Vice Division. This is Senior Detective Sevardin Harker and Detective Jecia Singh from the Arroyo Keeping Force’s Cold Case Division. We would like to gauge your interest in acting as an undercover informant. For the purpose of this operation, you will be legally permitted and required to use your akrasiac abilities.”

“Yes, Sir!” Matthews said.

“‘Yes,’ you’re interested?” Yvahn asked, amused.

“I’m sorry. Yes, Sir. I would like to participate.”

Hace Matthews had a disarming charm about him. His wyrd was powerful and infectiously energetic. An energy like a bonfire on the beach at dusk. He was also extremely good-looking—if I am any judge—but his handsomeness was tempered by a goofy humility, and puppy-like eagerness. That kid idolizes us. The way he looked at the Keepers made Sev feel embarrassed, though he wasn’t sure if he himself felt bashful, or the shame was on Matthews’ behalf.

“You should ask to hear the catches first, kid,” Sev warned.

Matthews looked at him like a deer in the headlights, at once eager to accept advice and worried he had offended Sev somehow.

“What are the catches, Sir?” Hace asked Wren.

Jecia cracked up and Sev chuckled with her. His heart broke. This kid is so blue it hurts to look at him. It’s Vadon all over again. I am putting a child into a den of vipers as bait for a literal demon. Sev shook his head. When did we become the bad guys?

—Hace | 7:18 —

“I need to be perfectly clear, Mr. Matthews. This assignment, like all clandestine amagiate operations, is under strict confidentiality. You cannot tell anybody about your participation in this investigation. And if you are injured, captured, or killed… we will not be able to explain the circumstances to your family, beyond the bare minimum,” Wren said.

Hace pursed his lips. That was the first argument against this assignment that gave him pause. If he went missing without explanation, it could drive a chisel into his mother’s fragile mind.

“What does the bare minimum sound like?” Hace asked.

Wren considered the question for a moment, then said:

“‘Hace Matthews voluntarily participated in a confidential amagiate law enforcement operation that claimed his life. Due to the sensitive nature of this ongoing investigation, we cannot share more information at this time.’”

“Please accept our condolences,” Detective Singh added faux-cheerfully.

Hace chuckled and lowered his head. Let’s run the numbers. Worst case scenario, I end up with a bullet in my head or something, Sera and mom freak out, pressure Glem or Drav until they find out the truth, and then they leak it back to them. He knew it was far from fair, but at least they would have some measure of closure. And if I complete the mission, it’s a non-issue. Just don’t fuck up.

Then another thought occurred to Hace:

“I don’t mean to push my luck, but I’m assuming a pretty big risk here. Is there any chance of compensation? I don’t really need extra course credit, but my mom has medical bills, and some money would go a very long way.”

“Given your disciplinary track record, you need all the brownie points you can get,” Fitz said witheringly, then turned to the ventures. “He makes a good point though. Is the LAKF prepared to offer any kind of incentive for putting his life on the line? You all don’t work for free. He shouldn’t either.”

“We are prepared to offer a hazard stipend of ten-thousand dollars—”

I’m sorry—ten grand?! Hace accepted before Detective Singh could finish.


Hace looked to Fitz, beaming. She stared at him with abject annoyance. She probably thinks I should negotiate, but I am not missing out on this chance. And ten thousand is…Game-changing. It could cover mom’s meds for a year, help with rent…. Sera could get a new car! Detective Singh cleared her throat, and Hace looked back, slightly abashed:

“There’s more. If the mission leads to arrests, you will receive informant fees for each collar. And if this leads to an arrest for an outstanding warrant, you will receive the full asfalis citizen’s bounty for that criminal, since you technically aren’t on active duty yet.”

Hace laughed. I am about to make more money at once than I ever have possessed in my life. From what he understood from his criminology classes, civilian bounties started at five hundred dollars, and had no hard upper limit. Not likely that I will find hardened enemies of the Amagium while exploring a sex party for Hollywood’s elite, but stranger things have happened.

“You can’t spend it if you don’t come home,” Detective Harker cautioned.

Hace put on a chastened expression and gestured respectful acknowledgment. Then he turned to address the ventures at large:

“From what I understand, we don’t have a lot of time for me to deliberate, and I’ve already made my decision. This is what I want to do with my life, and if I can get a head start, all the better. What’s the next step?”

Detective Wren extracted presented a leather folio with a legal contract inside.

“Read this first. Ask if you have any questions. After that, you and your mentor sign the contract and then we will give you a detailed briefing. Remember, everything involved with this operation is strictly confidential.”

Hace made a point of reading the contract to appear mindful of the catches, as per Harker’s advice, but the legalese was dizzying and he only had a vague sense of what some of the clauses entailed. Let’s be real; I’m doing this no matter what, and I am not a fucking leximancer. After re-reading everything at least once, he signed and dated the agreement.

As Fitz followed suit with her authorization, Hace noticed that there was a sadness to Detective Harker’s smile. Detective Singh also looked conflicted.

“I really appreciate this opportunity. I promise I won’t let you down,” Hace assured them.

“Glad to hear it,” Harker said with a smile.

Detective Singh smiled as well and gestured “likewise.” They both seemed genuine. But Hace couldn’t shake the sense that his attempt at reassurance had made them even sadder.

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