Back in his hotel, Beringer indulged himself in a long, hot shower. He scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed but could not wash off the taint of the Void. At least he didn’t hear the voices any more.
He staggered out, just in time for the sunrise. Blinked. Blinked again. Yawned, shuffled back into the bathroom and brushed his teeth.
After the hexe left, he collected his glasses. Or tried. The delicate crystal matrices were corrupted beyond repair. When he replayed their memories on his telecrystal all he saw was darkness, broken by keening wails or low-pitched moans or the multivoiced, dissonant laughter of the Unmaker. It had to be Simon’s work. That meant Beringer had to personally deliver his report to de Avaram.
On the bright side, Beringer had to personally deliver his report to de Avaram.
After a couple of hours of sleep.
Beringer stared at the bed. Yes, sleep. Sleep was good. And de Avaram already told him to report in the afternoon, so there wasn’t a problem with…
Beringer swore and headed for the writing desk. There his Lynx awaited.
It was jammed solid with Void-stuff, solidified into a cold black lump. If it were mere Void-matter he could dispel it. This, however, seemed like a mix of fibres, earth, dark fluids and strange material mixed with the Void. He had to handle this the hard way. He tried to unjam the pistol after Kentaris had left, but no joy. He had to do this the hard way.
Pointing the Lynx in a safe direction, he ejected the magazine. Or tried; the device fell an inch, and froze. He grabbed the mag and ripped it out.
Black gunk coated the top of the magazine, covering the bullets. With a pair of tweezers he pried the congealed gunk off his ammunition and stuffed it into a plastic bag. Then he unloaded the magazine, stripped it, and carefully wiped down the metal and the ammo with a rag.
With his pocket knife—made of steel, not aetherium—he scrapped off the stuff clogging the chamber of his Lynx, then liberally applied solvent. He swished it around back and forth, seeing some compacted matter dissolve into smoke. He grabbed the slide of the Lynx, triple-checked that the barrel was pointed in a safe direction, and whacked the web of his other hand into the handle. On the fourth hit a chunk of dark goo erupted from the chamber, landing on the floor with a soft thunk. He worked the slide a few times, checked the chamber, saw it was clear, and disassembled the gun.
He cleaned everything with industrial-strength solvent, removing all traces of the Void. He chipped away the Void-stuff coating the bullet and stowed them in the bag, then held up the slimed ammunition to the light.
The Voidguard used telescoped semi-combustible cased aetherium ammunition. A block of propellant encased a round made of solid aetherium, with the assembly covered in a flammable case. The bullet would punch deep into a target, shatter into self-sharpening fragments, and combust. If the Void had corrupted the cases and seeped into the ammo, he’d have blown up with the gun. The ammo seemed perfectly fine, the cases appeared to be intact, and the Voidguard had determined that the case material could stand up to the corruption of the Void for days on end. All the same…
He placed the rounds into another bag, and labeled it ‘TRAINING AMMO ONLY’.
Then he reassembled the pistol, topped off his ammunition, kitted back up.
Now he allowed himself to rest. He set the alarm on his telecrystal and collapsed on the bed.
Sleep didn’t come. He found himself tossing and turning, chased by Voidblades and a man in a black jacket. He lay on his back, half-closed his eyes and sank into a meditative state. He willed the phantasms to come, daring them to come, and they did. But these were illusions, nothing more than the firing of tired synapses, and he allowed his images and emotions to flow through him to find a state of calm.
When the alarm went off he was, if not quite refreshed, then at least functional. He ordered a coffee in the hotel cafe, pairing it with a plate of eggs, bacon and tomatoes. Thus refueled, he caught a taxi to the Voidguard bureau.
Most bureaus he’d seen were functional buildings that occupied no more space than a typical city block. Here in the City Eternal, the Voidguard bureau was an edifice of glass and steel that sprawled across a compound the size of several football fields.
Inside, the receptionist directed him to the eighth floor, to the bureau chief’s office. It was…smaller than he had expected, but perhaps it was a function of the building’s size. Besides, de Avaram was only in charge of operations in the city, and was not the highest-ranking Voidguard in the bureau. He answered to the Directors, who oversaw global operations in the upper floors.
“I thought I told you to get some rest,” de Avaram said, sweeping away a pile of paperwork.
Beringer shrugged, leaning against an overly-comfortable leather chair. “Did what I could.”
De Avaram grunted. “Very well. What happened at the necropolis? The ninth floor is asking no end of questions, and the media isn’t helping.”
Beringer recounted the incident, starting from his watch to the moment he called de Avaram. He spoke about the ghouls, the Defiled, the Greater Demon that emerged. He told him everything.
Except for Seraphina Kentaris.
“So, three witches entered the necropolis, were set upon by Voidspawn, and you elected to help them,” de Avaram said, “Why?”
Beringer shrugged. “I didn’t know who or what they were until it was too late. Was I supposed to just sit back and let them die?”
“Witches are forbidden in this city.”
“So we should abandon them to Voidspawn?” Beringer leaned in. “What would you have done?”
De Avaram scowled. “Never mind. I don’t think it’s right for me to second-guess what you did anyway. All the same, I need a full use of force report for our records.”
“I’ll get to it.”
“No doubt you will. But eliminating the Greater Demon is the priority here. What’s your next step, and what do you need?”
“We need to find the summoner or the demon. Fastest way is to search for the presence of the Void with airships.”
“All our airships are tasked out, I’m afraid. They are busy watching over population centers and the holy ones. The best I can do is contact you if they spot anomalous activity.”
“And let me guess: can’t bring in any other airships?”
“Unfortunately. Since the last budget drawdown, finding the money to keep airships flying is proving an interesting challenge.”
“What about remotely piloted aircraft?”
“Same concerns.” De Avaram blew out a sigh. “I’m sorry, but between the nutjobs of the World Liberation Army and the madmen of the Phoenix Network, I don’t have any resources I can spare.”
“Can you spare the Technical Services lab, then?”
“Sounds like you have something in mind.”
“I have a sample of the demon’s essence. I could run it by the lab, see what we can learn about it.”
De Avaram nodded. “And if you can’t?”
“Then I have a lot of walking to do.”
The safe house was cold and empty. Followers of the Tradition discovered in Amarantopolis were politely if firmly placed on a one-way ticket out of the city, but hexen were a different story. Her Order had to adopt the methodology of spies and criminals, creating a support structure parallel to the existing ones for Amarantopolisian witches. Kentaris didn’t care; when she staggered in all she cared about was collapsing on the empty bed.
That was hours ago. Presently Kentaris rubbed her eyes, yawned and checked the clock. Well into the mid-afternoon. She grimaced, yawning. Magic took a lot out of her. Her limbs were stiff, and her brain felt like it had been flensed with rusty wire. She made herself presentable in the washroom, then puttered around the house and entered the living room and…
…And the first thing she saw was the sleeping bags scattered around the floor. The haversacks. Crates of supplies. Maps. Plans. Documents. Trash. Any moment now she expected the rest of the team to gather round and begin the day’s work.
But of course it wouldn’t happen.
She stared numbly at the detritus of former lives. Not a day ago, she had been sitting with the Amarantopolitan coven, feverishly tracking the pattern of disappearances, reports of sightings, whispers of monsters. Planning, preparing, conducting reconnaissance in plain sight. Readying arms, smuggling in equipment, plotting to take down one of the Fallen. All for a people, a city and a faith that would expel them simply for being who they were.
They were such lively people. Miriam would fuss over everyone, ensuring there was food and drink for all. Casper Weisburger, who went out of his way to acclimatize her to the city. Vann Taber, the genius who could get just about anything. Good people. Gone.
She slumped into the couch. She felt as if a great ladle had spooned out her insides, leaving her an empty husk. Her eyes were dry, her mouth a desert. Her heart beat slowly, steadily, painfully in her chest. Around her she felt the presence of their ghosts. Miriam’s laughter and maternal nagging. Casper’s devil-may-care smile that hid his concern for the newcomer. Vann’s reticence that reinforced what the rest of his body said.
She sat there for an eternity. She didn’t know what she felt, didn’t know how to name it, only that it was there. And that she had a job to do…but it could wait. She sat, she stared, she just was.
Eventually she found the strength to get up. In the kitchen she opened a few cans of stuff, threw them together in a pot, added water and waited. The result was a passable imitation of stew, too hot for her to wonder what she had actually made. After the meal she felt almost strong enough to carry on.
It would have to do.
First things first. She packed up the trio’s personal effects. She knew people who knew people who would ensure their families would get them. Then she cleaned up the mess—she couldn’t stand messes—and organized the mission-essential equipment, categorizing them by function.
With that done, she placed her telecrystal on the table and fired it up. Tuned in to the local news channel, just in time for the hourly news.
“—our top story: three witches have been found killed in the necropolis, along with the bodies of at least two dozen Voidspawn. The Voidguard say the witches were heavily armed with automatic weapons, and found traces of Voidcraft in the area. They speculate that the coven attempted an unlawful summoning, which backfired and resulted in their deaths. Investigations are underway. Witnesses may call in to provide information at—”
She sighed. The blackwashing had begun.
She scanned through other news reports. All of them said three witches. None of them reported a fourth.
Maybe Beringer had kept his word after all.
She ran her finger across the polished crystal, calling up the address book. She had stored his number, though she wondered if calling him would call the Voidguard down upon her. Indeed, she had half-expected to wake up to a team of Enforcers booting down the door.
She hovered her finger over the call button. Stopped. And cleared the screen. Even though the Church and the Tradition technically had a non-aggression pact, it didn’t stop hexen and Voidguard from clashing in the shadows. She didn’t want to meet him unless she had something she could trade for her continued freedom.
She depowered the crystal. In the kitchen, she filled a plate with milk and honey, mixing them gently together, and placed an apple on another plate. She carried both to the living room table, clearing a space. She sipped some ambrosia, just a lot, just enough to revive her nerves and strengthen her connection to the All. She took a breath, cleared her mind, took another, and sent forth her will.
“Teraliel, power of the air, I evoke you! I bring you a gift of milk and honey, and I request that you come to my aid. Come to me with your retinue, to receive both my gift and my wishes. Come, Teraliel, come and receive.”
She repeated the invocation, over and over, chanting until the words blurred in her mind, radiating her will through the All.
A soft pop broke the air. She blinked. A winged girl the size of her thumb flitted in front of her face, wings beating at a furious pace.
“Hi!” the fairy said.
Kentaris smiled. “Thanks for coming.”
“Always a pleasure.” Teraliel buzzed a figure eight around the witch’s face, briefly becoming a blur of green. She sniffed loudly. “Is that milk? And honey?”
“Our favorite!” she squealed. “Thank you!”
“You’re welcome. I have a favor to ask of you.”
“There is a Fallen One in the city. He threatens the people here, and I need your help to find him.”
The faery swallowed. “Um, you know I can’t fight one, right?”
“Yes. I just need your help to find him.”
She beat her wings. “Mm. I don’t know…”
“You got in and out of Greengolt, didn’t you? You’re a natural at finding things without being seen. This should be a piece of cake.”
The faery danced a circle in the sky. “I’m going to need help for this.”
“Sure, bring in your clan. In fact, I insist.”
“Heh. Okay. But wait. I sense…I sense the Church in this city. I sense Voidguard. They don’t like us.”
“Yes. Please be careful. They aren’t our enemies, but we don’t need the extra attention. You can do this for me, right?”
“Of course! We’ll get to it.”
The faery whistled, too high-pitched for Kentaris to hear. A swarm of colored lights appeared, buzzing around Teraliel. They danced in the air, exchanging light and sound in their own peculiar means of communication. Then they descended on the plate and buzzed round and round. Moments later, the liquid was gone.
“Thank you!” Teraliel called. “We’ll find you when we find the monster!”
The faeries vanished.
Kentaris sighed. Washed up. Collapsed into the couch. She did what she could. Now the only thing left to do was wait for the faeries amidst unquiet ghosts.
If this story looks familiar, it’s the original concept of my Covenant Chronicles series. To see how it really turned out, check out my latest novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.
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