Sevardin Harker. Merday, Pisces 16th, 2351 AA. 8:55 AM. Downtown Los Angeles (LAKF Central Precinct).
Sev felt dizzy staring at the branded paper. Weak in the knees. The ground seemed to shudder beneath his feet. When the sensation didn’t pass, he realized that the building was shaking. It wasn’t a typical tectonic hiccup, either. The metal table in the middle of the interrogation room started tap dancing on the linoleum floor. Sev stilled it, lest the damn thing topple onto Shapiro, and tried to remain calm as he waited for the quake to run its course, but the shaking continued to escalate.
“Jesus Christ!” Grimm exclaimed.
Is the demon doing this? No. That’s impossible. The timing can’t be coincidental, but… causing a full-blown earthquake is the stuff of Gods. Gods from the Old-World pantheons. Triggering a minor quake would require a tremendous amount of power. And this is no minor shake.
An abrupt lurch knocked Sev off balance. Car alarms started to wail outside. The lights in the building flickered, then went out altogether. People shouted from the hall. Sev had experienced so many shake ups during his time in California that he considered himself thoroughly desensitized to them. He’d actually slept through the Northridge quake of ’34. But this could wake the dead.
Sev was afraid. The LAKF’s central precinct was a new building, designed with quakes in mind. But the rest of the city won’t be as lucky.
— Jecia | 8:55AM —
Feryl and Jecia were in reagent storage when the quake hit. It was a giant closet made small and claustrophobic by the shelves stacked high with various, commonly used magical catalysts. At first, Jecia thought she was imagining it. Then she saw the ripples in a glass jug of aqua vitae.
“Whoa,” Feryl chuckled. “Little shake, it seems.”
Then the shaking intensified. A wooden box of catalyst herbs fell from the top shelf, struck Feryl in the head, and knocked him to the ground. Jecia reached out to help him, only to lose her footing as the quake continued. My god, are they always like this!? A jar of something shiny fell to the floor, exploded in a brilliant purple light. Another container fell, and an acrid scent like burning glue filled the air. Jecia dragged Feryl to his feet, and the two of them hobbled out of the closet, battered by falling containers.
Jecia practically dove for the nearest desk and protected her head and neck. Feryl was bleeding profusely from his forehead, but still seemed lucid. The lights overhead flickered spastically before dying. One of the expensive-looking devices on Feryl’s lab counter crashed to the floor. My god!
As the shaking continued, Jecia reached out to the building with her wyrd, sensing its collective inherence. She didn’t detect any failure points, but the building was being taxed by the prolonged rumbling.
After a nightmarish eternity, the ground stilled. Jecia surveyed the lab. The emergency backup power had kicked in.
“Is everyone alright?” Jecia called.
The other four techs in the lab emerged from their desks, nodding. Feryl was the only one who appeared to be injured.
“That was quite a thing,” he admitted.
“Let me see your pupils.”
Jecia looked into Feryl’s bright blue eyes and shaded them with her hand. His pupils didn’t seem to respond to the change in light.
“I think you have a concussion,” she said.
“My bloody luck,” he groused, dabbing his brow with his fingers. Then Feryl redirected his attention to the reagent storage. “We need to close that door. Lotta shite broke in there. Could be volatile or poisonous.”
Jecia yanked the door shut with sorcery, then cast a specialized barrier to render it airtight. Feryl noticed the expensive-looking scope that had fallen off the table and started swearing.
“I’m going to check the damage,” Jecia said, though nobody seemed to hear her.
The hall outside the forensics lab was eerily quiet and comparatively undisturbed. Jecia continued through the hall until she reached a window. Traffic lights strobed red, falling back on emergency power. Car alarms continued their ceaseless cries and emergency sirens soon joined the chorus.
It was hard to get a sense of the damage from a single vantage. Then there was a catastrophic crashing noise like an explosion in slow motion, accompanied by screams. The people in the street fled from a tidal wave of smoke, emerging from the corner of the block. Somebody shouted:
“What should we do!?”
Jecia pulled herself away from the window and jogged to the front of the precinct. The receptionists at the front desk were trying to use the phones, but based on their body language and conversation, Jecia deduced that the lines were out.
As the emergency power kicked in, the televisions that hung over the public lobby blithely resumed their programming; morning show hosts and other talking heads chatting over coffee as if nothing had happened. Then, one by one, special bulletins interrupted the feeds:
“We have just received word that the Los Angeles County area has suffered a 7.7 magnitude earthquake. It is difficult to assess the full extent of damage at this time, but a number of neighborhoods are without power. Authorities are urging civilians…”
One of the feeds cut to an aerial view that stole Jecia’s breath. Los Angeles was shrouded in dust and atomized debris. The helicopter offered hints of the destruction beneath the haze. A full square block had been reduced to unrecognizable rubble. At least one freeway overpass had collapsed, littering vehicles onto the streets below like a child’s broken toys. The lightways continued to hold, but their colors had shifted to an angry, emergency red, urging drivers to exit as quickly as possible.
It’s like 9-11. She had still been in the Athenaeum when ISIL flew planes into the World Trade Center, and there wasn’t an Erician alive, let alone a Newamer who didn’t remember the images from that morning.
And she knew what was waiting. Monstrum would sense human fear and exploit the panic. Egregores born of fear, anger, and pain would coalesce and stalk the survivors. There would be looting. We’re headed to the heart of perdition.
—Sevardin | 9:02 AM—
“What the hell just happened?” Juel asked. “There’s no way the demon did this. Right?”
Sev shook his head, though he himself wasn’t sure what he meant by the gesture.
“I mean, the quake started exactly after it used Triga as a medium. It can’t be a coincidence, but that kind of power….” He shook his head, still stunned by the images on the broadcast.
“Egregores see patterns. They have foresight on a scale we can’t imagine. Shapiro’s demon probably saw this coming and planned on exploiting it. But whatever happened, this is bigger than the Black Lotus now,” Sev said.
The PA crackled to life:
“This is Arch Chief Wolfe. All personnel should evacuate the parking structure immediately. I repeat; get out of the parking lot now. Officers should suspend their current duties and report to briefing rooms to await further instructions from the Guardians.”
Guardianship was the newest amagiate discipline, specializing in disaster response and emergency relief. The first class of Guardians matriculated in 2350, however, so it was also the smallest branch of the Amagium, and currently, a mostly bureaucratic enterprise devoted to delegation and coordinating emergency response from other disciplines.
Sev retrieved Shaprio’s unconscious body from the floor and escorted her from the room with Juel’s help. Grim scooped up the mesmer and followed them into the hall. Before Sev and Juel could decide where to take Shapiro, she woke with a heaving gasp, as if she had broken the surface of the ocean after a deep dive.
“Stay calm, Triga,” Sev said. “You’re alright. There’s been an earthquake…”
“No,” Triga said, shaking her head frantically. “Put me down. Put me down.”
Sev and Juel gingerly released her. Juel cautioned her:
“Triga, there’s been an earthquake. A bad one. We need to—”
“An earthquake?” She shook her head. “No. The demon. The demon is coming. She’s coming through. Soon. The whole city is going to burn.”
“It’s already burning, Triga,” Sev said.
“Listen to me,” the woman said, irate and desperate. “Whatever… when she spoke through me, I saw an invasion. She’s bringing an army. As soon as the third girl dies, it’s all over.”
Sev and Juel exchanged a look.
“Triga, I don’t think you’re hearing us. The city is devastated. While you were unconscious, an earthquake—”
“Earthquake, fine; I get it. You aren’t hearing me, detective.”
Shapiro spoke with a shaking vehemence that demanded Sev and Juel’s full attention. They fell silent as she continued:
“Whatever happened out there is just the beginning. I saw what she’s planning. It’s… some kind of hole and Hell itself is going to come through. You need to stop her. Everything… all the murders are just set-up for what’s coming.”
Infernal incursions had happened before throughout history. They were more common in the middle ages, when religious power was more consolidated, but they tended to coincide with disasters. Plagues. Famine. And this earthquake is just the ticket.
“I’ll talk to Rick,” Sev said.
“I really do not have time for this Grimm,” Wolfe said.
Rick grudgingly agreed to approach the AC when Sev explained the stakes. He cautioned Sev that he was skeptical himself, and more concerned with the immediate threats that would emerge in the aftermath of the quake. It had taken twenty minutes for them to get an audience with Wolfe, and the chief was only giving them half their attention.
“I know Chief, but we have reason to believe this might be a credible threat. And the city can’t afford a second disaster.”
“What reason is that exactly? The woman had a demon in her head for Chrissakes. Demons lie. Of course it would show her something awful.”
Sev spoke up, though he knew it was a breach in protocol:
“This demon thrives on dread, sir. Giving us a preview of her plan increases her power and moves up her timetable. According to Shapiro, she’s laying the groundwork for a dimensional tear. These final murders are supposed to complete the last part of a pattern.”
Wolfe gave Sev a hard look, just long enough to let him know he was talking out of turn.
“I am committing all of my people to disaster relief efforts. That includes Grimm and the other dicks on your task force. But you are not my people. So if Arroyo wants to go on a fucking goose chase while people are suffocating under rubble, be my guest. I cannot stop you.”
“Understood sir,” Rick began, but Sev cut in:
“I’m afraid I need to ask more from you, Chief.”
“Excuse me?” Wolfe demanded.
“Feryl O’Farrell was working on a counter-ritual before the quake. It is our best shot at averting this catastrophe. He’s of no use to you on the ground. If you will permit him to keep working—”
Wolfe threw up his hands in disgust.
“Fine. You can have O’Farrell. Especially if it will end this conversation. Grimm, tell the rest of your task force to get to work on search and rescue.”
“Thank you, sir!” Rick and Sev said in unison.
They both exited hastily. As soon as they were out of earshot, Rick muttered:
“You really know how to push your luck, you know that kid?”
“Only when the stakes are worth it, Rick.”
“A million thanks, Harker. Never been suited for grunt work. Not to denigrate searchin’ and rescuin’, but brawny magic isn’t my forte.”
“Happy to help if you can help us, Feryl,” Sev said.
Feryl nodded wincingly. Jecia told Sev that he had suffered a concussion while they were in the reagent closet, which was currently being bleached to prevent further interactions between the spilled spell ingredients.
“About that. We have some serious problems,’ Feryl said.
“Do tell,” Sev said.
“Grimm can’t host a press conference anymore, obviously. Even if he could, it wouldn’t put a dent in the public consciousness. So we’ll need to figure out another metaphysical platform to launch our counter narrative. Else the ritual will do fuck all. And honestly, I have no clue what that could be. The very last thing we want to do is to associate the Black Lotus case with the quake, because that would give our demon enough moxie to do whatever she pleases.”
“You can still prep the rest of the ritual though, right?” Jecia asked.
“Aye. Actually, I’ll need to see Miss Carter to optimize the spell. Get scans of her wyrd, maybe some blood and hair for sympathy. You’re gonna have to bring her in. Probably a good idea anyway given the state of things out there.”
Jecia’s expression fell and she turned to Sev:
“I tried calling her while you were talking to Wolfe, but the phone lines are out.”
Sev took a deep breath and released it slowly.
“Then I guess we’re headed to Eagle Rock.”
Getting out of the parking structure was a risk in and of itself. One of the external stairwells had collapsed, calling the rest of the building’s structural integrity into serious doubt. As Sev navigated a cruiser from the ground floor to the street, he found himself making a broad appeal to any and all deities or powers that were who might hear him, even though he was not a praying man, as a rule. Given the current state of the world, maybe I should take it up.
Juel decided to stick with the LAKF and get started on search and rescue efforts. Jecia volunteered to go with Sev, since she had been Carter’s closest point of contact throughout the case. When Sev got to the street, Jecia boarded the cruiser and they were off.
Traffic in LA was a nightmare on an average day, but with the city plunged into chaos, it had become something post-apocalyptic. The Guardians’ first emergency order was evacuating the lightways, which meant all the additional traffic was funneled into the freeways that had not been disrupted by the quake. And the two freeway, which provided the most direct access to Eagle Rock, had been sundered, meaning Sev had to drive through Cypress Park and Glassel Park to reach the hills where Esmine Carter’s house was located.
The constant din of emergency sirens and the haze of debris seemed to choke the sky itself. Los Angeles had been reimagined in a muddy-red grayscale that made it look like a city from another era. They drove without speaking much, except to make note of areas that seemed to need help.
“Reminds me of 9/11,” Jecia said when they reached a stop light. “Even if we stop Shapiro’s demon, other egregores are going to have a field day.”
“I know,” Sev said. “That’s why we need to stop her. If we can’t even do that, what can we do?”
“We can’t control the Earth, Sev,” Jecia said gently.
“I know,” Sev said, sighing. “It’s selfish and vain, but I feel like if we can beat the demon, I can at least stay hopeful. I can justify our decisions to date.”
“Hope is most important when it’s hardest to muster,” Jecia said.
The devastation had hit the outlying suburban hills even harder than the city proper. Houses had come unmoored from their supports, sliding into other properties and taking them out like dominos. As they got closer to Carter’s home, a plunging sensation grew in Sev’s gut. And when they finally reached her address, the freefall came to a crushing halt.
Esmine Carter’s house had been perched on one of a dozen hills that dotted the San Fernando Valley. Now, only the concrete garage remained, and it had also partially collapsed.
“No,” Jecia breathed.
Sev brought the cruiser to a stop on the driveway. The first floor seemed to have disintegrated, and the second and third stories had come crashing down on top of it, carrying the rest of the house down the slope.
“Esmine!” Jecia shouted, vaulting out the door.
“Wait!” Sev called, before she could mount the wreckage.
He used a wind animus to cast a levitation contract on both of them, and bolstered it with a gyve to prolong the spell. Last thing we need is triggering a secondary collapse, or getting injured while we search. The two of them glided over the perilous slope, surveying the wreckage. It looked like a titan had smashed the home and smeared it down the length of the hill.
“Esmine!” Sev called.
They probed the debris for signs of life with their wyrds. Jecia burned a metaphysic animus to strengthen the range and acuity of her search. But the wreckage was silent. Broken wood, stone, and concrete, dotted with a few curiously—almost blasphemously—untouched objects. An office chair. A toaster. Things that had no business surviving when everything else had been laid to waste.
After nearly ten minutes of searching, Jecia called to Sev near the top of the slope. He watched her frantically strip away layer after layer of detritus, finally stalling at a broad section of floor. Together, they used their wyrds to pry away the wood. And beneath it lay a crushed body, unrecognizable save for a single, slender arm, a shoulder, and a beautiful face frozen in terror.
Esmine Carter was dead.