Jecia Singh. Satday, Pisces 19th, 2351 AA. 11:53PM. Griffith Park.
Jecia clung to the spell, even as her body gave way beneath her. I have to ground it, or there’s no telling what its half-cocked power will do. Hell, if the magic rebounds it might bring the curse to a head, and kill Kileena immediately. The symbols in Jecia vision started to scatter and fade, but she willed them to stay, attempted to swallow the outgoing energy into herself. If I fuck this up, Kileena could die. And then it’s all over.
— Sevardin —
Sev heard the report and saw Jecia’s body twitch to the side as the shot struck her right breast. It seemed unreal. Like an errant thought from the most pessimistic depths of his imagination.Sev saw Cynthie turn Rick’s own gun against him. The big man didn’t have time to restrain her or stage any kind of counter attack. She fired two shots into his stomach, point blank, dropping him immediately.
“No!” Sev shouted.
He fired a desperate kinetic bolt at her, and the impact torqued her body to the side, making her next two shots—aimed at Juel—go wild. Juel answered by drawing his own Locke and firing at center mass.
The high caliber rounds slammed into Cynthie, one after another. She took two staggering steps backwards, and her body bent back at an impossible angle, but refused to fall. Sev drew his own gun and emptied it into her off-balance form sloppily. He was shaken, terrified for Jecia and Rick, and very aware of the destabilized counter ritual, whose accumulated energies now swirled violently out of control.
His salvo managed to ground Cynthie, but the woman was still alive, preserved by demonic power. The harsh scent of sulfur suffused the air and overpowered everything down to the gun smoke. She began to twist and roll on the ground, moaning ecstatically. Demons who possessed humans got off on it, in every sense of the phrase.
Feryl rushed to Rick and pulled the big man over his shoulder in a clumsy retreat.
Sev ran for Jecia, who was still breathing, still fighting to safely ground the ritual’s energies. He took hold of the ritual alongside Jecia, creating an etheric sine-wave with his wyrd that helped neutralize the half-finished spell. Sev breathed a sigh of relief, stillborn when he saw Jecia’s wound. The bloodstain on Jecia’s uniform was spreading, and she had a lot of trouble breathing. Punctured lung. Broken ribs too, probably.
Sev used a water animus to perform the closest thing the Keeping Force had to a standardized healing spell. The principles guiding it were newly discovered, but managed to simultaneously provide pain relief, set broken bones with a temporary kinetic binding, and slow bleeding. Short of putting the bones back where they belonged, however, it didn’t do any actual healing.
As Sev cast the contract, Juel moved to guard Kileena, casting barrier contracts on himself and her. He followed up with a reflex enhancer and kinetic barrier for himself.
“Mom?” Kileena asked, horrified.
“Mommy isn’t here right now, dear,” Cynthie said, rising from the ground as if plucked off the ground by puppet strings.
“The Black Lotus Demon, I presume?” Juel said.
“Accurate enough. Most of my mortal and Faen friends simply refer to me as ‘The Producer.’ But I will give you witch cops the honor of addressing me as Bathael.”
The name had power behind it. So much power it seemed to translate to physical weight. Ether flowed from the syllables with enough force to pit Sev’s stomach. Names were a crucial tool for exorcising or destroying demons, and for her to casually cast that advantage aside was a terrifying boast. Sev had never heard the name Bathael before, but even fifty feet away, he could tell that she utterly outclassed Baphoset in terms of magical strength.
“I don’t… I don’t understand,” Kileena said.
“Oh, it’s simple, sweetheart. Cynthie Brightman made a deal. But now it’s time to settle accounts, and she’s leaving you with the bill.”
“W-what? You… you killed Glianna and Esmine?”
“No. Try to keep up, dear,” Bathael said, irritated. “Cynthie killed your friends. I just gave her the knife. Mother dearest was willing to pay any price for your success. Except her own life. Because it was never really about you, Kileena. You were just a vehicle for her ambitions.”
“You’re lying,” Kileena insisted.
Bathael tittered and then completely broke down laughing.
“Oh, daughter mine,” she said, tears in her eyes. “Why bother with lies when the truth hurts so much more?”
Kileena swallowed, moved her mouth to reply, but no sound came out.
“You know, this really was my favorite outcome. Humans are so tricky! You can never be one-hundred-percent sure with people, but Cynthie? I had faith in Cynthie. I knew that she would side with herself in the end. It’s not like she didn’t consider my ‘twist ending,’ either. Believe me dear, she saw this coming and chose herself.”
Despite her injury, Jecia rose into a kneeling position and started preparing a contract. Bathael turned her back on the Keepers, looking out over the hazy Los Angeles skyline.
“Now, a mere one-hundred years later, I can show the world what this city really is.”
“Not if we stop you,” Sev said.
“Sure. But now that your ritual has failed, I shall be taking my leave.”
Rituals were fickle things. If a ritual failed, subsequent attempts were almost invariably doomed to failure, unless the caster could come up with a wildly different metaphysical argument and approach. By shooting Jecia, Bathael had already signed Kileena’s death warrant. All she had to do was flee in Cynthie’s body and wait for the curse to run its course.
“Tootles,” she said, with a twinkly wave of her fingers, and started to levitate.
Sev hit her with the heaviest binding he could think of. A four-foot-by-four-foot block of force with the consistency of wet cement. It was a simple spell, but devastatingly effective. Especially when you fuel it with a kinetic animus instead of sorcery.
It was a good cast. Sev knew he had an objectively powerful wyrd. And the demon casually redirected the binding at Juel. Sev swore and cancelled his spell, but the initial impact still smashed Juel into the ground and winded him.
Jecia was ready, however. With her left arm, she cast a cord of lightning, so quickly that Bathael had no choice but to block with Cynthie’s wyrd. And in the instant that she was occupied and immobilized, Jecia unleashed her second spell; a volley of jagged icicles, long as javelins, coming from behind the demon. At least four of the shafts struck home, impaling her through the thigh, shoulder, chest, and stomach.
Stunned, Bathael dropped back to the ground. Sev used an earthen animus to fire a literal boulder at Bathael. The spell struck home, smashing her in the head, shoulders and chest. I’m not done yet! Sev advanced with his saber for a decisive cut and—she caught the blade between her thumb and forefinger. She caught his reflex-enhanced, sorcery-empowered cut like it was nothing, even though she just endured a five-ton fist of rock. Sev tried to pull the sword away on instinct, but she held it like a pneumatic vice.
With her other hand, Bathael blasted him with infernal energy. He managed to gather his wyrd against the intense heat, but the raw force and psychic sensations of pain penetrated his guard, and knocked him off his feet. He lay on the ground for a full second, shaking as if he’d been electrocuted.
There has to be something you can do. Think, damn it! He was down to his last animus. A metaphysic spirit he had leftover from prepping the ritual array. Not exactly heavy firepower. But it may prove useful.
Bathael burned away the ice impaling her, and expended a surge of her egregoric energy to heal Cynthie’s body. If Cynthie died instead of her daughter, the contract would be nullified. And if she breaks her own contract, all the energy from her ritual, all one hundred years of it, will come rebounding back at her.
Sev squinted at her as he forced himself on his hands and knees.
So why isn’t she attacking Kileena directly? Maybe Bathael cannot directly cause her death without violating the terms of the curse, even when possessing Cynthie. She needs Cynthie’s human volition to be responsible for her death. That must be it.
“We’re done here,” Bathael said, using another casual surge of power to mend Cynthie’s torn clothes.
Jecia was still having trouble breathing. Juel was back on his feet, but not ready to engage yet. But he felt another wyrd. Faint and largely obscured, but doing delicate work somewhere behind him. Feryl. Before Bathael could flee, Sev pressed himself off the ground and bellowed:
Bathael found that hilarious. She cackled and drew her hand to her mouth.
“What were you expecting? Some grand duel? I’m playing to win, Detec—”
A different surge of magical pressure emerged. The venture, Kileena, and Bathael turned to see Feryl kneeling by the outermost circle of the ritual array, now thrumming with energy. While Bathael had been running her mouth, he had been working a contract that would repurpose the array’s circle into a simple, but powerful containment field. Left to her own devices, she would be able to bore through the spell in about ten minutes.
But we aren’t going to give her that kind of time. Bathael was bound.
“Oh, you, tedious fuck,” Bathael said to Feryl.
“Sorry, Boss. You’ll need to hold out until back-up can get here,” Feryl said, addressing Sev.
Sev gave him a thumbs up without taking his eyes off the demon. He knew the odds, and they weren’t great. Bathael was fueled by eight ninths of a very scary whole. Her curse had feasted upon the panic of eight celebrity deaths, earning a hundred years of infamy. She was closer to a god than anything he had faced before. For all that, he was surprised by how easily the smile came to his lips. We are going to win. Because there is no alternative. It is literally do or die, and I am not dying today.
Juel had recovered and stepped up next to Sevardin. Kileena stood behind them, still stunned, devastated, and in denial about her mother’s betrayal. And behind her, Jecia remained in a crouched position. She burned a kinetic animus to cast a mass barrier contract on herself, Kileena, and Juel—reinforcing his own fading shield.
Sev briefly considered using his metaphysic animus to turn Bathael’s next spell against her. But I need to save this orb to exorcise the demon. Fortunately, Juel had the same idea and followed through. As Sev predicted, Bathael tried to finish the fight quickly with a decisive, heavy expenditure of power. Juel formed a broad net of etheric chains around the demon, and as she fired her spell—a blast of caustic black fire and violet electricity—the chains caught the spell, absorbed it, and turned it upon Bathael. She writhed in the spectral net, struggling to break the construct.
Jecia emptied her Locke before the demon could recover from the backlash of her own magic. And then Sev was ready with his saber. We are of one mind, and three bodies. He cut a deep gash running form her left shoulder to her right hip, and followed up with a backhanded cut at her chin and—the demon again caught his sword as he tried to go for a final thrust.
Then something hit him. So fast and hard that he was on the ground before he registered what happened. Did she just… punch me? Even with his reflex booster, he didn’t see it coming. Another savage blow struck him in the ribs, ripping him off the ground and throwing him into the edge of the barrier spell. That was definitely a kick. Sev’s stomach heaved and his lungs didn’t cooperate for a full second. If it wasn’t for my barrier contract, I’d be dead. As it was, the spell was badly bruised and nearly used up already.
Juel attempted to use his last metaphysic animus, but something went wrong with his negotiation with the spirit, and Bathael was able to lash out with an impossible, sweeping kick that bought extra range at the expense of literally dislocating the joints in Cynthie’s leg. Juel managed to ground the misfired spell and raise his shoulder before her heel could make contact with his neck, but the kick instantly destroyed his barrier, and threw him to the ground.
Sev was still out of breath and weak in his limbs as Bathael advanced on Juel’s prone form. Jecia had been reloading, but abandoned the task to fire a desperate volley of kinetic bolts at the demon. Bathael caught the first surge of energy in her hand as if it were a softball, and swatted the next one aside. Jecia struck her in the jaw with the third blast, irritating the demon, who caught the follow up shot and flung it back at Jecia, striking her in her already wounded chest. Juel still hasn’t recovered. I have to exorcise her. Now.
But he couldn’t breathe to speak the words. He couldn’t think to draw the symbols in his head.
“Cute trick with the chains,” Bathael said, standing over Juel. “But now I’m bored and pissed.”
She drew back her host’s arm and shrouded it in a spiked gauntlet of obsidian. Juel tried to stand, but couldn’t get his legs to obey him. If Kileena had not tackled him, diving to intercept her mother he would have been impaled. The barbed black glass slashed Kileena’s flank, instead.
It was a deep wound. Possibly lethal.
“Give me… back… my mother…” Kileena gasped.
“No!” Bathael screeched, horrified, “No, you stupid—”
Sev launched his metaphysic animus at the nadir of the demon’s focus. Bathael, terrified that she had violated the terms of her own contract, was caught completely off-guard. Sev didn’t simply drive her out of Cynthie’s body; her stunned state allowed him to imprison her in the relatively non-threatening form of a humanoid woman.
Cynthie started to shake. Her suit jacket ripped, and her back appeared to split apart, shoulder blades finning to accept the emergence of a second woman. Once Bathael had literally fallen out of her back—nude, scarlet skinned, and ebony haired—Cynthie’s body repaired itself, and she collapsed onto the ground.
The demon still has an immense amount of power at her disposal, but she can’t heal herself as easily as she could her vessel. Demons and many other egregores were capable of tremendous feats of regeneration. Mortal blows require an immense amount of energy to heal when it’s your own body on the line though.
Juel was ready. As soon as Bathael stood, he stepped past Cynthie, and swung his saber with a single clean stroke. Bathael’s new body pitched to one side, and her head spun through the air in the opposite direction. The magical pressure coming off her receded precipitously, but she wasn’t beaten yet.
Her head and body reattached with a wet, magnetic snap. Juel tried to follow up with a second slash, but the demon caught the blade in her hand, and twisted the weapon so violently she snapped the blade in half, throwing him off balance. She capitalized by slashing at him with the broken blade, narrowly missing his throat, and forcing a retreat.
Sev kicked off the ground and carried himself forward with a surge of sorcery, closing the distance to Bathael’s flank in an instant. He rammed his saber into the base of her spine, twisted it between the vertebrae, then ripped the blade out through her waist. At the same time, Jecia lashed out with an electrical contract and her Locke, firing monster-hunting rounds from her left hand, and lightning from her right.
If Kileena dies, the rebound on Bathael’s broken contract will kill her. But I’m not going to let it come to that. We are going to kill this demon. We are going to save this girl. We are going to end this curse.
“The right thing!” Sev shouted.
The demon lashed out at Sev with a savage kick. He parried the blow with his sword and stabbed again, taking Bathael in her heart. She slashed his face with her fingers, instantly obscuring his right eye with a curtain of blood.
“The right way!” Juel responded.
He unleashed the most explosive fire contract Sev had ever seen. Bathael’s chest began to glow from within. Well. I’m about to die. All the air in the demon’s lungs detonated with magic-force magnification. Sev’s saber seared his hands through its leather wrapped hilt and the force knocked him sprawling onto his back. But it had happened a second too late. And I’m still alive.
He traced the fading ripple of a second spell back to Jecia. She must have used her last kinetic animus to contain the heat and force of Juel’s explosion in a narrow column around Bathael. Normally, the explosion would have been powerful enough to kill Sev by brisance alone. But I’m alive. And I think I am in love with that woman.
“By the True Name Bathael,” Jecia declared, her last metaphysical animus flaring bright magenta in her license-vambrace, “I sever your connections and contracts with this plane and banish you back to Hell.”
The venture and Kileena watched as dozens of hand-shaped shadows emerged from the flames and gripped Bathael’s body. An earsplitting screech escaped the conflagration.
“No! I won’t go back!”
The shadow hands began to pull on her body, making noises like a chorus of shrieking violins. Bathael thrashed against them wildly and her movements filled the air with the stench of pitch and sulfur. As she struggled, the magical pressure of her presence receded sharply, and more hands coalesced until they were gripping every point of purchase on her still-burning body.
Seven of the hands ripped Bathael’s left arm from her shoulder—the limb and the hands clutching it immediately vanished. Two more hands snapped her jaw off, and ten others twisted her right shin twice and tore it from her leg. Finally, the rest of her body was simultaneously torn apart, individual pieces imploding into nothingness in an instant. There was no trace of the demon. Even the sulfuric, caustic stench of hellfire had evaporated.
Sev began to breath again, heart slamming against his ribs. Rather than an extension of himself, his wyrd seemed to press in on him angrily, suffocating him and amplifying the drum-like beat of his headache.
Jecia! Kileena! He forced himself to sit up, but could only stumble toward Jecia and the girl before his legs gave out.
“Hang in there,” he breathed at Jecia, desperately. I’ve finally found you. She was shot with a fucking Locke without a barrier. Stay with me, Jesh. Please. I can’t lose you.
Jecia reached out to him with her wyrd brushing his cheek. Her touch was faint, but stable, and soothing. And suddenly he knew that she would be okay. It gave him the strength to keep walking. He half-knelt, half-fell next to her and took her hand in his.
“Right lung…” she wheezed. “…Is fucked.”
“Then stop talking, damn it,” Sev chided.
Despite the prohibition, Jecia pointed at Kileena and said:
Juel was doing his best to triage her stomach wound, but she was pale, deep in shock, and barely clinging to consciousness. Her mother clasped her right hand, sobbing. Sev’s lip curled, and he had to look away. How could a mother do that to her own daughter? How could anybody be that selfish?
Feryl had dropped the binding field and came running forward after checking on Rick.
“Medevac is on the way,” he assured everyone. “What can I do?”
Sev tried to think of something useful when Jecia wheezingly spoke up again:
Feryl froze. He didn’t know. He was worried and he wasn’t a good enough liar to cover it. But he rallied. He swallowed and said:
“The big man will pull through. He’s a tough fuck.”
“Damn straight,” Sev said.
No more body bags.