Absolution 2.6

Absolution 2.6

August 18th 2014 – Molly

I opened the door, and I was home. Home was, well, home. My apartment wasn’t lavish, but it wasn’t exactly a shit-hole either, though several of my neighbors either dealt or worked in the oldest profession. Honestly, I kinda preferred the dealers, shootouts were pretty uncommon and there were fewer sex noises coming from their places. They were also pretty good about not calling the police. 550 a month didn’t buy you much in Dallas, especially if you were dead set on living alone and didn’t have references, or a legal income. Turns out, landlords in fact care about that stuff. My home for the last twelve months was a studio apartment with a separate bathroom and closet, and a lot of cockroaches for roommates. Fancy, I know. I actually slept in the closet, I kept a futon on the floor and made a little nest for myself out of blankets every night before bed. It was actually surprisingly comfy, and far easier to take with me when I inevitably moved than a bed would be. It wasn’t like I was using the space on the floor of the closet for anything else, and this arrangement let me keep the front room as a laboratory and workshop. Well, those words might be stretching it.

The front room was technically my workshop, but it wasn’t much of one. It looked more like a terrorist’s garage than a proper mage’s sanctuary. This wasn’t supposed to be a long term living situation, so I hadn’t gone through the trouble of pulling up the carpet to draw glyphs on the floorboard, or getting my hands on a set of proper woodworking tools. I’d been ready to leave at any moment for the first eight or nine months. Honestly, the fact that I’d managed to stay in one place long enough to avoid breaking my lease early was still surprising to me. Anyway, my front room was filled with three tables and a workbench, containing a whole variety of chemicals, cheap semi-precious stones, and magical projects in various stages of completion. I had an entire drawer of butane lighters, a welding torch, and bottles of pretty much every accelerant a private individual could easily purchase in the United States lying around. One of the tables had several uncarved blocks of oak and the rest of the Guenwhyvar-prototypes lying on it, along with several small jars of my blood and some paintbrushes and knives. Just looking at the table made me a little sad, I missed my flaming kitty. Another table contained the firebombs I’d been working on. Ideally, the three repurposed candle jars filled with flammable chemicals were supposed to burst into flames upon contact with oxygen. Realistically, they’d probably just give you a concussion and douse you in petroleum solvents, which honestly works just as well if you’re a pyromancer. I’d forgone typical Molotov-style detonator rags in favor of just using magic as a detonator, that way they’d still pass as candles under casual inspection.

The third table was for eating at. Sorry, nothing impressively magical going on there, I just don’t feel comfortable eating where I mix toxic chemicals. I mean, my cooking is good, but it’s not magically good. That’s more fae territory. Actually, in the eleven months I’d lived here, I’d never had a single guest. Which, honestly suits me just fine. Guests asked questions about the blood, and the petrol, and the knives. My setup made dating pretty hard, most boys would go running for the hills when they see the jars of blood and the hacksaws. And, well, those that didn’t go running weren’t the sort you wanted hanging around unsupervised in an apartment filled with explosives and hacksaws. So, no dating, or close friends, or hosting parties. It sucked, but it meant survival, and it was hopefully almost over.

I’d always wanted to get a real potion lab going, but that would probably need to wait until I was sure I’d be living somewhere for at least a few years. Cauldrons are heavy and expensive, and so many alchemical reagents start rotting if you leave them in the Texas heat for a few hours. I’d already lost the contents of my fridge to power outages one too many times to dare invest in expensive magical perishables. So, sadly no healing potions for me, I didn’t have half enough money to be able to buy them on the black market.

The other portion of the main room was my little kitchenette. It wasn’t much, though I kept it pretty well stocked. I don’t like going to the grocery store, it involves talking to people. I cook a lot, because delivery is expensive, and I keep it pretty clean. I also keep enough food frozen to last me through a short zombie apocalypse, not that I’m hugely worried about that sort of thing. There are plenty of contingency plans in place to make sure zombie outbreaks stop before they reach critical-horde-mass. Most necromancers have gotten the whole zombie-related-attempts-at-world-domination-will-get-you-a-hellfire-missile-to-the-face memo by now. Not even kidding about that, that was the actual working title of the original memo, drafted after the zombism outbreak in Laos back in ’93. That was before my time of course, but my master had shown me some of the videos.

My bathroom was a bathroom. Other than the wand in the medicine cabinet, there was nothing magical going on there. The bathroom was the only room I kept a spare wand in, pretty much everywhere else I had my handgun for dealing with mundane home invasions. Technically a 17 year old couldn’t own a gun without parental permission, even in Texas, but I made a point of not pulling it out if I didn’t intend to kill someone. Dead men tell no tales, unless the policeman is a necromancer. Since showering with my gun seemed like a poor idea, I kept a wand in the cabinet. It also worked well for cleaning my ears when I run out of q-tips. I also kept my colored contacts and my hair dye there. The crimson eyes were natural, and frankly, kind of concerning, the white hair wasn’t. I just liked my hair white, it was a pain to do the first time, but once I got it down it just takes an hour of work every few weeks to maintain. As far as crimson eyes went, I usually just covered them up, or pretended to be an albino, another benefit of white hair. That’s the sort of thing I would’ve asked my parents about, if I wasn’t adopted and no longer on speaking terms with my adopted father.

Anyway, that’s my apartment in a nutshell. Warm, safe, filled with food, surrounded armed by drug dealers, and filled with enough accelerant to send the whole complex up in flames, or incinerate a zombie army. I like it well enough, though I’m looking forward to having enough space to swing a cat without hitting something. A functional water-heater would also be nice. So would time-stop wards and a small army of golems with assault rifles for hands, but that wasn’t happening. A girl could dream though.

I settled in quickly enough. I’d been gone for almost two weeks, between the three bus rides, two taxi trips, five plane flights, one tomb raid, one hospitalization, and two kidnappings. And absolutely nothing had changed, other than the light coating of dust and the vaguely rotten smell coming from the fridge. I really needed to fix that, once I’d had a shower, rotten food gave me worse heeby-jeebies than mummified irishmen.

Everything could wait until after I’d had a shower. Well, except hiding the money. As soon as my apartment’s pitiful excuse for a deadbolt snapped into place I rechecked every window, making sure the blinds were still down and the warding evocations were still in place. That didn’t take long, seeing as I had two windows, and wasn’t very good at warding things. They of course were, since I live alone, but it’s never paranoia when you’re carrying this much cash in this neighborhood. With the blinds closed, I finally unpacked my prize and spread it all out on my dining table. I’d bought a backpack and new clothes when my bus stopped in Montgomery, but carrying that much money around had wreaked havoc on my nerves. I hadn’t been able to sleep at all during the twenty-odd hours of waiting and bus trips for fear of suffering the most expensive theft of my young life. It felt unreal to finally unroll the bills and do quick count. There were eight rolls of bills, once I stacked them the resulting pile of dollars was so thick I couldn’t even hold it with one hand. One of the rolls was still mostly twenties, the rest had twenties on the outside, but fives and tens on the inside. Apparently the white-trash vampire had been making up the volume of the twenties he spent with smaller bills.

It was still more money than I’d ever seen in one place in my life. Each rolls was probably about 120 bills, so that was just shy of a thousand individual bills total. I grabbed a pen from the countertop and a pad from the floor and did some quick math. About ten percent of the bills were 20s, around half were fives and the rest were singles. One hundred times twenty plus twenty-five hundred plus four hundred was… Damn. That was almost as much as I expected to be paid in the first place, four thousand nine hundred dollars.

I threw a pile of bills in the air, watching them float to the floor. And I might have danced a little. That was an entire year’s rent, more than a semester’s tuition, hell that was enough to survive for ages outside the United States. I lay down on the carpet and watched the bills land on top of me. I just lay there for a while, feeling safe for the first time in a long while.

Then I finally got up and headed to the damn shower. On my way, I hid the portion of the bills I hadn’t thrown underneath my bathroom sink. The fact that this portion was larger and contained almost all the twenties definitely wasn’t a coincidence. Again, it’s not paranoia if you live where I do.

Money safely hidden, I started stripping. I wasn’t looking forward to finding out exactly how badly I was scarred under my bandages, but waiting wouldn’t improve the situation. Well, I suppose technically it would, but not in the timeframes I had in mind. It only took me a few moments to slip out of the sweats I’d bought on the way home, and what I saw wasn’t exactly encouraging. I’m not beautiful at the best of times, the most generous things you could say about my appearance was that I was exotic, or cute. I was definitely not cute at the moment. Maybe exotic if you had a fetish for sunburns. My legs were splotched with red, whole sections of my skin were peeling off. I had more random splotches of color than a Jackson Pollock painting strewn across my body, blue and purple bruises competing with shiny red burns for the little non-bandaged real estate available. The bandages across my abdomen and arms were dyed black and maroon by the smoke and blood, and so thoroughly crusted that trying to remove them with my fingers didn’t do much more than get dried blood all over the floor. Wincing, I grabbed a knife from the kitchen and started carefully slicing through them.

And then there was my hair. When I left for Ireland, I’d had pretty shoulder length whitish blue hair. When I’d gotten back, I’d had messy but potentially salvageable short white hair. Now… Well, it was a dingy gray color, unevenly burnt, and short enough to make people wonder which team I was batting for. Basically, I was going to need a wig or a miracle to get to college without looking like an idiot or a lesbian.

Come now, it’s not that bad.

Before the voice reached it’s second word, I’d grabbed my wand from the medicine cabinet, slammed the door and retreated behind the shower curtain. I kept my wand up and my knife back, trying to figure out how they got through my wards.

Overreaction much?

It took a moment before my frazzled brain finally recognized the voice and realized that two plus two equals demon.

“Oh, fuck my life.”

I suppose, from your perspective that’s pretty much exactly what I’m doing. I would have expected you to ask me to stop though. But if you insist I continue… Casimir’s disembodied voice said.

“Just shut up.”

Casimir kept on talking, I didn’t pay attention. It was the straw that broke the fucking camel’s back. I left the bathroom, put the knife away, and grabbed a bunch of pills from the little plastic medicine organizer I kept on the food table. That little box was the product of years of negotiating with dealers, ending painkiller prescriptions early, and stealing from hospitals. I paid much less attention than I normally did to what they were, I just made sure there was a lot of painkillers and that the combination wouldn’t kill me. Then I downed them all. Casimir kept talking. I staggered over to the freezer, and pulled out the liter of vodka I kept in there for times like these. I drank until I gagged and a little came back up. I tried to wipe my chin, but the frosty bottle of vodka slipped out of my hand and shattered on the floor.

Fuck. Fuck fuck fuckity fuck fuck. Everything still fucking hurt. All the little burns and bruises, the pounding headache from staying awake the entire bus ride, all the halfhealed injuries from when the golem beat me. Light hurt, sound hurt, the bandages chafed. The cold alcohol between my toes made all the blisters on my feet sting. Everything hurt. I staggered to my closet. I collapsed on my pile of blankets, and started crying. Casimir finally shut up.

I cried for a while, twisting the blankets around myself until nothing was sticking out and no light was creeping in. I lay there for a while, just crying. Everything still hurt, but my head was empty, I was warm, and my blankets smelled like home. Everything was going wrong, my carefully laid plans coming apart at the seams, and I had no idea what the bloody hell I was going to do about it. Eventually the drugs and the booze finally kicked in, and the hurting stopped. I kept crying, even though I couldn’t really remember why, until I finally drifted off into a blessedly dreamless sleep.

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Absolution 2.5

Absolution 2.5
August 16th 2014 – Molly

 

I flailed around like a teenager trying to dodge a knife. And by some miracle, I was halfway successful. Apparently even my luck can’t be all terrible all the time. The knife fell short of my torso, instead catching me across the side of my thigh. With the blunt end. It still stung like hell, and I’d have one heck of a bruise in the morning, or afternoon really. But I’d probably be able to walk. As I congratulated myself on not getting hamstrung, my dive ended and I crashed headfirst into the floor, sliding along into a position partially covered by the pews.

It was a start. I had fire, I had distance, and I had sleep, and therefore, mana. Combined, those three things gave me a much better chance of victory than I’d had at any earlier point in this evening. The fire wasn’t spreading quickly, and it probably wouldn’t without another push, but the few pews that had caught were putting out a thick black smoke, courtesy of whatever they put on the wood that gave the church it’s traditional churchy smell. I got all my limbs back under me and took a peek around the side of the pew, looking for Father Murphy. He wasn’t where he had been when he threw the knife. I gave the fire another small push, sending a few tongues of flame to the base of the next row of pews, expanding my safe zone. Father Murphy wouldn’t be dumb enough to rush me, he’d seen enough of my magic know to know that the best outcome for him there was mutual destruction. I might not be able to fling fireballs around at range, but if he got within a few feet of me I’d have no difficulty tagging him with fire from the pews. That left those knives, and any other ranged attacks he might have.

I tried to suss out what he was going to do next. Waiting favored me, once the fire spread far enough I could just pull a Moses and part the sea of flames between me and the door. Not to mention, a burning church would bring Adrianne, and probably the local fire department, running. Either way, company would prevent the priest from killing me outright, and I could always break out or jump bail later. He might have some pull with the fire department, but I was effectively a Jane Doe at this point, there’s no way the police wouldn’t take custody of me, especially if I accused him of something inappropriate. Assuming he still had some kind of instinct for self preservation, that meant he’d either go for a better angle, maybe above me or on the same side of the pews, or get a different weapon. The smoke would take care of above me, in another minute he wouldn’t be able to breathe, let alone aim, from up there. As long as I kept low, I could force him to dangerously close to the pews if he wanted to use his knives.

That just left… Oh, fuck me, guns. I ran for the door, praying that he hadn’t gotten there first. My streak of good luck had already run out, Father Murphy was standing right in front of the door, feet spread, with a revolver in his hands. The crack of the gunshot cut across the dull roar of the fire, almost deafening in the confined space of the church. The first shot went wide or high, and I dived back into cover before he could get off a second. Goddamnit, he was fast. Or the gun was hidden nearby, whichever it was, this fucking sucked. The one fucking time I actually bothered to think the situation through was the one time I probably would have been better off sprinting to the door.

Well, bitching and moaning wouldn’t solve this problem, but wanton destruction might. The pews were thick wood, practically the only well-made things in this pitiful excuse for a church, he wasn’t about to shoot through them with a revolver. I silently thanked whatever pathetic excuse for lucky stars I had that the good Father didn’t own an assault rifle. He could try to get to the end of the pew, but he’d have to abandon his position by the door for that. I pushed outward, not so much feeding the fire as spreading it with an invisible rake. There was plenty here to burn, the empty gaps between the wooden furniture were the only things slowing the spread of the fire. With one good solid magical shove, I managed to catch the side wall of the Fairburn church on fire.

Your move Father Murphy. I had two rows of flaming pews between us, and once the wall to my left lost enough integrity I’d be able to bullrush through it to freedom. The suffocating smoke prevented him from shooting me from above, he’d have to make his way into my inferno if he wanted to get a clear shot. I ducked lower to floor, crawling along to keep below the heat and smoke of the fires. I kept between the first and second row of pews, near the wall of the church.

“Please, stop this madness. Whatever it’s telling you cannot be trusted! You can’t do this alone!” Father Murphy’s shout barely carried over the roar of the flames. Unfortunately, if he wanted this to end peacefully, it was too little too late. Seriously, what the fuck did he expect? He was willing to use deadly force to prevent me from leaving the church alive, that’s not how a reasonable, trustworthy, person acts. Also, I’m not actually sure if I could have put out all the fires, even if I was inclined to try. I’d usually relied on the fire department, or one of the fire extinguishers I kept at home, for that part.

Internally, I debated on whether or not to respond. With the possible exception of murder-puns, I really did try to avoid talking in combat, it just isn’t professional. Here though, it might buy me a little time.

“Sorry pops, but if you want people to trust you, don’t try to kill them!” I shouted. Not the most pithy line I’d ever come up with, but it got the point across. The blast of magic I followed up the words with got the point across even more concisely. It wasn’t much of a missile, but I let it unravel as it flew towards the center aisle. As it passed through the flames, the fraying weave of prana caught fire and devolved into a liquidy-fire vaguely reminiscent of napalm about halfway through it’s flight. As far as techniques went, it was neither efficient nor easy to hit with, but it most definitely had the potential to be fatal.

It crashed into the floor and quickly cut off the center aisle of the church. Unfortunately, it was damn near the last of my prana. I was scraping the bottom of the barrel, the nap definitely helped, but I needed a real meal and some time to meditate before I’d be back in fighting condition. Soda and morphine was not a replacement for real food and real sleep. I had one more big spell in me, maybe two if I was comfortable with collapsing on the spot after the second.

“I don’t want to hurt you damnit! I’ve been trying to be reasonable, but you’re not giving me much of a choice here! You know I can’t just let you leave, not with that thing inside of you!” Father Murphy shouted. That didn’t sound good. The subtext there practically screamed he was about to murder me. I crept back towards the flaming wall. It had only been half a minute or so, but I needed to blow this joint. Sadly, not literally. For the third or fourth time this week, I wished civilians could buy grenades. Sadly, black market ones went for several hundred each in Texas, which put them a bit out of my perpetually broke budget. Not that it would have mattered, what with the whole kleptomaniacal hospital issue.

So, instead of just lobbing a grenade and walking off into the sunset, I pulled my last magic trick for the evening, and hopefully the week. As you probably know, heat rises, fire spreads upwards, and flammable things burn from the top surface downwards. This is why house fires gut the inside of the building before collapsing walls, and why the logs on a campfire get black up top while staying brown underneath, at least for a time. Unfortunately, short of being an archmage and messing with the fundamental constants that underlie space and time, or controlling airflow in a space, there’s not a lot you can do to make fire burn sideways.

I’m not an archmage, you’ve probably noticed this by now. I’ve still got four or five decades before I get there, assuming I don’t blow myself up first. But, this church had a second floor gallery, a short hallway along of the side walls of the building. It was probably intended for a choir, but it’d do for what I had in mind. I reached out to the fire along the wall to my left and fed it. Not a lot of energy, nothing really special, but enough to start seriously gnawing at the base of the second floor hallway. Then I retreated backwards towards the altar. Father Murphy had to be circling around the right side of the church, or still holding position by the door, my fires blocked the center aisle and turned the left side pews into a flaming deathtrap. If he had been ballsy enough to try approaching from the left, I might even accidentally kill him. I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing at this point.

Father Murphy’s revolver barked, sending a bullet whizzing above me. I slipped behind the altar before he could get off a second shot, then peeked around the side to get his position. He was standing within the pews to the right of the aisle, slowly advancing through cover. That really wasn’t a great idea, if I was at full strength I would have happily disabused him of the notion that wooden objects count as cover against a fire mage.

“There’s nothing for you to win here by fighting, all you’re doing is making it worse for yourself! Help me put out these flames and we can talk about this!” Father Murphy shouted. Ugh, the poor sap still though there was a chance of a peaceful outcome here. He shot at me, I don’t negotiate with, or take advice from, people who try to shoot me. I don’t feel that’s an unreasonable policy.

“Go to Hell! Have I not made it fucking clear enough that I’m not interested in talking about this! You tried to kill me, you’re still fucking shooting at me!” I responded from behind the altar. I didn’t think that part was hard to understand.

And then it happened. With a resounding crack a huge section of the second floor gallery completely detached as the burned buttresses lost enough integrity. The gallery only had ten feet to fall, but it probably weighed the better part of a ton. As it crashed into the floor of the church, the whoosh of air sent a tsunami of flame rushing towards Father Murphy. It was a beautiful sight, the tongues of the various fires all drawn inexorably to follow the path of least resistance, merging into a single massive wall as they slammed into the right side of the church. The falling section of hallway also had one other fortunate effect. The weight of the collapsing wood pushed outward into the left wall of the church, knocking the lower portion of the already weakened wall over, and that was my ticket out of here.

Where was I during all of this you ask? Running straight towards heart of the inferno of course. It’s not quite as insane as it sounds. As the wall fell, I slid behind the very first row of pews, ducking under the seat to cover myself on three sides with wood. The pews were already on fire, but being low on the ground and keeping a few inches back saved me from the worst of the heat. Heart pounding, I counted to three, then slid out and sprinted for the exit. I didn’t waste time looking for Father Murphy, this was all or nothing, if he had already gotten up, I was dead no matter what. My prana was utterly drained, and even through the sting of the small burns all across my body, I could feel the familiar nausea of mana-exhaustion beginning to take hold. The burning planks from the collapsed gallery and wall had spread all across the floor, leaving open a path that was only moderately filled with fire. I ran, I screamed, I even prayed a little. I dodged around the worst of the fires, and leapt over the rest, I was far past caring about a few burns. Everything was black and red and orange, there were no lines, just blurry shapes distorted by the heat and obscured by the smoke. If I’d had more prana or more concentration, I might have been able to shift the flames out of my way. Instead, I just rushed through, somehow finding the strength, or the insanity, to ignore the heat and the choking smoke.

And then it was over. I suddenly staggered into the cool quiet of the early morning. It was still dark, save for the light cast by the burning church behind me. If you ignored the merry crackling of the wooden church and the distant wail of sirens, it was a downright peaceful morning. I smiled, tasting blood as my chapped lips cracked. Finally, it was over. This endless week from hell, the constant assassination attempts, the endless delays. I was going home.

And Adrianne was standing in front of me, still wearing that ridiculous shirt with the giant kitten on the front. The flickering orange light of the burning church cast an impossibly tall shadow behind her. She had an odd expression on her face, somewhere between approval and homicidal rage, with maybe just a hint of curiosity mixed in. She hadn’t really been subtle about wanting me to use the violent solution, and my entire hare-brained escape plan pretty much hinged on her backing me up.

Before I really registered that she had moved, I was flying through the air.

Sideways.

Adrianne was carrying me, slung over one shoulder. It wasn’t comfortable, and I’m pretty sure that only thing that kept me from vomiting was the complete and utter lack of anything in my stomach. I experienced the short trip as a series of jerky hops, as Adrianne covered impossible distances with her leaps. Eventually, we ended up in a clearing surrounded by trees, and she unceremoniously dropped me before rushing off the way we came. With nothing in my immediately vicinity trying to murder me, I quickly succumbed to exhaustion.

A few hours later, I woke up behind some bushes. I was covered with that ridiculous kitten T-shirt Adrianne had been wearing, though the vampire herself was nowhere to be found. Which really wasn’t surprising, considering that the sun was finally up. Adrianne had probably left for somewhere darker, where she was less likely to sunburn horribly. Next to me lay the shoebox filled with money. Except it wasn’t just filled with money anymore. Adrianne had been busy while I was out, there was a bag of trail mix and some granola bars, along with a printout with directions to the nearest greyhound station, and a note mentioning to ask ‘Stan’ about his ‘favorite band’ to buy a ticket without an ID. There was a bag filled with bottles of water and soda, along with even more food sitting next to me. I dug in eagerly while I opened the last piece of paper in the shoebox. There wasn’t much written on it. It just said “Happy Travels – A”. There was a phone number at the bottom. Wow. For a few moments, I just sat there, I couldn’t actually recall the last time anyone had done something that nice for me. I had a sinking feeling the answer might just be never.

After my meal, I started walking, a smile on my face for the first time since the goddamn airport had gotten itself blown up.

 

Absolution 2.4

Absolution 2.4
August 16th 2014 – Molly

 

I wasn’t about to just take the demon’s word for the fact that the priest was trying to kill me. That would be stupid. But lying about that would be a stupid move on Casimir’s part, all I had to do to verify he was lying was wake up and wait for Father Murphy to try to kill me. When he didn’t, I’d know Casimir was lying, and he would have made an enemy of me for nothing. I didn’t trust Casimir, but I trusted him to act in his own self interest, and to be smart enough to know that nothing he said would convince me to attack Father Murphy the instant I woke up. Which meant either I was overestimating his intelligence, or he was telling the truth.

Overestimating the demon’s intelligence was definitely less of a catastrophic mistake than underestimating the priest’s willingness to kill me. When in doubt, I usually err on the side of not getting stabbed.

“So, what’s your plan?” I asked.

“What, that easy? Not gonna insult me or rant about how much you can’t trust me first?”

“I’ll save the insults until after I hear your plan. If it’s as bad as ‘Learn diabolism’ I might still need them” I retorted.

“Hey, that was a perfectly good plan, It’s not my fault you’re irrationally prejudiced against that branch of magic.”

“Oh shut up. There’s nothing irrational about not wanting to die of infernal magic induced cancer before I’m old enough to legally drink.” I retorted.

Casimir paused for a moment before replying. When he finally spoke again, for the first time in the conversation, he actually sounded angry.

“The winners write the textbooks. And for all the crap they spew about how dangerous we are, I think it’s pretty obvious which side of heaven won that war. They didn’t win by being merciful.” Well, looks like someone has issues. I wasn’t touching that comment with a ten foot pole.

“Just tell me your brilliant idea already.”

“Well, actually I have two.”

“Ooh, this’ll be good. Let’s hear em.”

“We could work together to kill the priest, or you could give me enough power to hide my presence and make up a story about slaying me in some sort of epic internal battle for your soul.” Casimir said. It was eerie how closely his words mirrored my thoughts from earlier, but I put that aside for now. Survival was of a higher priority than privacy for the moment. Unfortunately, his ideas were about what I’d expected. Dangerous, and not much better than anything I could think up on my own. But, this conversation did give me an opportunity to get a handle on how much information Casimir had, and how I could use it.

“Do you know anything about Father’s Murphy’s powers or skills?” I asked. It was a good starting place, and he had no reason not to share with his life on the line. I might be able to get an idea of his capabilities too if I played along about working together.

“I know nothing more than you about him in particular. My best guess is that the man is a hunter who favors small, easily concealed weapons. He has no substantially greater divine presence than one would expect from a priest of his position, and he came to greet you without any obvious weapons. He is likely partially retired, and was probably drinking whiskey prior to your arrival. He could have magical prowess and an easily concealable implement, but that is statistically unlikely, priests with arcane training are disproportionately rare.”

“I’m have eyes, and I’m not an idiot. That doesn’t tell me anything new.”

“And I don’t have a body and have never met the man, I have no information you don’t. Casimir either never met the man, or neglected to provide me with any memories he had of him.”

I scowled at the rather unhelpful demon. He stuck his tongue out at me.

“Okay, well then what the hell can you do?” I asked, changing tactics.

“I don’t know.”

“So, you’re totally useless?”

“Hey! I didn’t say that! I don’t know exactly what I can do, but I have a rough idea. You saw the real Casimir’s power right? I bet I’ll be able to break stuff, maybe drop a big crossbeam on the priest.”

“That doesn’t exactly complement my skillset, I can do that too.”

“Yeah, but I can aim, and do it without bringing the fire department.”

“How exactly can you not know what your powers are anyway? And how exactly are you related to the real Casimir?”

“Well, I’m not really a demon yet, I’m more of a mote. My fragments of lore are probably going to be both weak and annoyingly specific. It’s not like I’m blessed with some sort of mystical self-knowledge, I can’t know my capabilities without testing them any more than you could. Dollars to donuts they involve destroying stuff.” Casimir explained.

“You just said dollars to donuts. What kind of self respecting demon talks like that?”

“The kind created using your subconscious as a substrate apparently.”

“So… I could say you’re my own personal demon?” I asked.

“You could, but it would only be vacuously true and it’s not really a good joke anyway.”

“Buzzkill.”

“It’s not my fault you’re not funny. Besides, I don’t get to have self respect until I have a body of my own.”

“At least we agree on that.”

“I hope we also agree that we need to come up with a plan to deal with Father Murphy. You’re going to wake up soon, and alone, I’m not strong enough to do much more than watch while you’re awake. Since you’ve made it clear you’re not about to give me any power to intervene directly, you need to be prepared enough to survive whatever he tries.” Casimir said. As much as I hated to admit it, he was right.

“So, what do you propose?” I already had the beginnings of a plan in mind, but it wouldn’t hurt to hear his perspective. I wasn’t all that confident of my ability to win a fight, and I hardly in a position to be picky about advice.

“Well…” Casimir began. “Really what it all comes down to, is you need to stall until…”

I woke from my deep meditative sleep feeling relaxed, refreshed, and ready to kick some ass. If, and only if, ass-kicking turned out to be both necessary and expedient. As it turned out, both me and Casimir had agreed on the likely necessity of ass-kicking. I cracked my eyes open a fraction, and gave the room a quick once over. I was in a dark dingy room, lying on a cot that was probably neither cleaner nor softer than the floor. The walls were wooden panels, barely covered with peeling off-white paint, the floor pretty much looked like one of the walls, minus the paint. A threadbare blanket covered most of me, but left my feet exposed to the chilly autumn air. I was probably in a room in the back of the church, Adrianne wouldn’t have let him move me off the property. There was a brick fireplace set in the wall, filled with wood, but unfortunately unlit. Father Murphy sat across the room, slumped over in a chair by the fireplace. It really was unfortunate, if he had just lit the damn fireplace this whole thing would be so much easier. I could have just straight up asked him if he was planning on killing me, and then swallowed him up whole if he didn’t deny it.

Instead, I’d have find another source of fire. I mentioned earlier that it’s hard to just poof fire out of nothingness, which is why I usually kept multiple lighters on my person. Unfortunately, having three lighters hidden in my clothes does me absolutely zero good when the damn hospital stole my clothes. This room didn’t have a gas stove, and I had no idea whether or not any other room here did. I really wasn’t looking forward to risking my life to escape into the kitchen only to discover that Father Murphy favored electric cooktops. Which pretty much left me with only Casimir’s plan. As much as it pains me to admit it, demon-boy had actually been pretty helpful. He’d reminded me of two advantages I had neglected to consider. The oddly protective vampire waiting outside, and the one source of fire present in basically every Catholic church, the votive candles.

Assuming the candles hadn’t gone out, I was feeling pretty good about my chances of surviving the night.

Father Murphy was slouching in his chair by the unlit fireplace, but it was hard to tell if he was asleep or not. His breathing was regular, and his eyes were closed, but that really didn’t tell me anything for sure. It had probably been several hours since he put me to sleep. I had arrived at the Church a few hours after midnight, and the small window set high on the wall to my right showed it was still dark outside. Father Murphy was only human, he had to sleep at some point, especially if he was spending his days delivering sermons.

I slowly opened both my eyes, and shifted onto my back. No reaction from the Father. I slowly shimmied toward the edge of the cot, trying to prevent the wood from creaking. Soon, I had my legs close enough to swing them over the edge to the floor. I put one hand on each side of the cot’s frame, trying to even out my weight as much as possible, and swung a leg onto the floor. The bed creaked. Just a little, but enough to be audible. Father Murphy’s chest stopped moving. I waited, not even daring to breath, watching his chest, waiting for the rise and fall to resume. If he saw me now, it would be obvious I was trying to sneak out, nobody sleeps with one leg out of bed. After several agonizing moments, his breath resumed its steady rhythm.

I started breathing again too. Then I slipped my other foot out of bed. The seven steps I took to reach the half-closed door were some of the longest moments of my life. A hundred thoughts whizzed through my head in those moments, my brain on overdrive to find solutions to ridiculous hypothetical problems. What if Murphy was a mage? What if someone else was in the church? What if the candles were out? The answers to most of those questions involved me dying a quick death. Planning obsessively was a bit of a coping mechanism for me.

I placed one hand on the door, just above the knob, and pushed it the rest of the way open. The heavy wooden door silently slid back on well-balanced hinges. I could have jumped for joy, if I wasn’t sneaking. I took a step into the doorway, slipping through the half open door and into the church proper. And then my luck ran out. The door, sliding further back from the momentum of my push, hit a sticky spot in the mechanism of the hinge. And the fucking door whined like a baby that had lost sight of it’s parents. I didn’t waste time checking on Murphy or trying to be quiet, I just dashed for the side of the altar like a fat kid toward free food. I could see the warm glow the candles were casting on the far wall, I could practically feel the fire that would soon be mine to command.

Then something small and silver whistled past the side of my head. The tiny knife embedded itself in one of the old wooden pillars supporting the roof.

“Stop.” The word was spoken with a quiet authority, it wasn’t a request or even a command. It was just a statement of fact. I would stop, or the next knife would stop me. I stopped moving a mere few feet from the candles. They were close enough for me to feel them with magic, close enough for me to begin pumping power into the air around them.

I slowly turned to face Father Murphy.

“So, you are going to kill me then.” I said, trying to throw him off guard and buy time. I wasn’t optimistic about this being a misunderstanding. I tried my best to look scared, but it was difficult, being so close to fire filled me with confidence. Or homicidal mania. It was hard to tell the difference between the two.

“Of course not! I promised that I would help you.” Father Murphy said, with a concerned look on his face.

“Then I’m free to go?” I asked hopefully. Long shot didn’t begin to cover how unlikely I thought that was.

“I’m sorry, but I cannot let you leave yet. Not while you remain under the influence of such evil. Surely you still wish to be free of the demon within you?”

Well, that was about what I’d expected. I continued channeling what meager scraps of power I could into the air beneath the candles. I was still low on power after the disaster at the airport, but with a meal and nap, I wasn’t completely running on empty anymore. Father Murphy hadn’t noticed the little ball of mana yet, it was nowhere near dense enough to be visible to the naked eye yet. Another piece of evidence for the him-not-being-a-wizard theory.

“Well, yeah. Obviously. I just don’t trust you anymore. The throwing knives aren’t helping either.” I said. Father Murphy almost cracked a smile at that.

“Why the sudden change of heart? You came to me of your own free will, seeking aid.”

“The demon told me you were going to kill me. It’s not hard to verify that, so the demon would know that lying would only make me even less likely to trust it. I tend to err on the side of not getting killed, so sneaking out seemed like a logical move. Please tell me this is all a misunderstanding and you’re not planning on killing me.”

“I wish that I could trust your words, but the dark presence inside you has grown noticeably since you slept. Whatever deal you made with the demon within you, it has allowed it to gain greater purchase within your soul. I cannot be certain that you are still the person you once were. If you return to that room, my superiors may be able to remove the demon from you without killing you. But I cannot allow you to leave in your current state.” Father Murphy explained somberly.

Shit. I wasn’t sure who to believe anymore. Was the priest trying to get me to stand down so he could kill me without risking magical counterattack, or was Casimir trying to turn me against someone actually trying to help. Father Murphy did refrain from killing me in my sleep earlier, but everything I’d ever heard about the Church suggested they favored death as an easy solution for the worst cases of demonic possession.

“So, you can’t trust me not to be evil, and I can’t trust you not to try to kill me.” I summarized.

“I promise that I will do everything in my power to help you. Please return to the guest room and wait for my colleagues to arrive, I promise that we will do what’s best for you.”

“Unfortunately, I think we have very different ideas about what constitutes my best interests.” I was a lot more interested in keeping my head on my shoulders than I was in some bullshit about the corruption of my immortal soul.

“You’re about to make a terrible mistake. There are some paths you can’t come back from, and I fear you’re about to start down one such road.”

I didn’t bother to dignify that patronizing comment with a response. Sometimes, it seems no matter how hard you try, you just can’t convince the good guys you’re not evil, just selfish. Not that I’d tried very hard. I’ve always felt it was the good guy’s job to recognize that sort of thing.

I pushed the rest of my strength into the ball of mana gathering beneath the rack of votive candles. Then I broke the stalemate. I slipped behind the altar, putting it between me and those nasty knives of Father Murphy’s. With a tiny little mental shove, barely enough to merit the name telekinesis, I sent the candle-rack toppling to the floor. Half a moment later, I made the tiny little change to the structure of the ball of mana that let the fire use it as fuel.

The flames whooshed out into the center of the church, spreading quickly enough to engulf the far side of the altar and one of the front pews in a few seconds. Almost immediately, thick sooty smoke began to fill the air, as the resin, or stain, or whatever the hell churches put on all their wooden furniture began to burn.

I dived for the cover of the flaming first pew, Father Murphy wasn’t in the direct path of the fire, so the few seconds I’d spent casting was more than enough time for him to hop behind the altar and flank me. Unfortunately, he hadn’t moved yet.

I dived right into his line of sight. The world practically slowed to a standstill as I slid through the open space between the side of the altar and the pew. I could see him calmly take aim, measure the distance, and let loose another knife. As it tumbled end over end through the dozen feet between us, I silently cursed the asshole who had arranged that damn courier job. If I survived this night, one way or another, I was going to make him pay. Both metaphorically, and financially.

r

Absolution 2.3

Absolution 2.3

August 16th 2014 – Molly

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When I awoke, I found myself floating in darkness. It was a weird experience, everything around me was dark, but I still had a sense of space. The ground looked the same as the sky, I couldn’t even see any sort of line between the two identical patches of void, but I knew instinctively which was which. And despite the utter lack of any sort of light, I could see my own body, as if it was illuminated evenly from every direction at once. The darkness around me was heavy, but warm and comfortable. It pressed in with an almost tangible weight, and when I swung my hand I could feel a faint drag, almost like being underwater. Except thankfully without the part where you drown when you try to take a breath. My borrowed scrubs were still dry, so it wasn’t actually some sort of liquid, just a really thick gas. I halfheartedly doggy-paddled a few times, trying to see if I could actually swim in the inky murk. I gave up once I realized I had no reference to determine whether or not I was actually moving.

“Isn’t it cool?”

I turned to face the voice, the sliver of a demon that was responsible for my current predicament, millions of dollars in property damage, and the deaths of several hundred people.

He wasn’t at all what I was expecting. He wasn’t an ominous voice in the back of my mind, or a slavic man armed with an ancient longsword. He wasn’t even a buffy-style big foreheaded monster. He was a boy around my age, with messy black hair and a face that hinted at innocence and eastern european ancestry. Most of his body covered by a dark grey cloak several sizes too large, but it was obviously he was very skinny. And he was smiling at me in a disconcerting un-demonic manner. He was also eating from a very large plate of fried rice. And it was good fried rice too, the authentic stuff that was actually fried in sesame oil and was pretty much fifty-percent protein by volume.

When demon-boy noticed me staring at his meal, he gestured for me to come join him. For a moment, I hesitated.

“Relax, I’m not going to eat you. I have fried rice.” He said.

Against my better judgment, I chucked a bit at that. And then I walked over to join demon-boy. He produced another bowl and fork from somewhere within his massive cloak, and I started scooping myself some rice. He wasn’t a fairy or anything, so it wasn’t like I was signing away my firstborn by accepting his food. Also, the only food I’d had in the better part of a week was an apple, some cereal, and a coke. I eagerly dug in to the rice. It was as delicious as it smelled, the rice had actually been fried in sesame oil, the chicken was perfectly cooked, and it was filled with bits of egg, slices of green onion and slivers of carrots. I inhaled my first two bowls of rice, then slowed down to savor my third. I wasn’t sure if this counted as the confrontation going well or was a sign of my imminent corruption. Either way, I appreciated the rice and decidedly non-demony form.

I supposed it made a bit of sense, maybe he was fishing for sympathy or trying to reflect his host. The fact that he had manifested with a large bowl of what was my favorite non-candy food couldn’t possibly be a coincidence. I didn’t really care what the reason was, I was just relieved the demon hadn’t chosen a form that was intentionally disgusting or otherwise psychologically scarring. I honestly wasn’t sure if I would have been able to have a serious conversation with a giant mass of floating tentacles, or a red-skinned musclebound devil. I did appreciate the fried rice though, even if it was just an illusion.

Everything here probably was. Father Murphy hadn’t gone into a ton of detail about what to expect before he put me to sleep, but he had told me the basics. I was experiencing my own subconscious as a physical place. It was sort of a diagnostic technique that the Church used to figure out exactly what they were dealing with in more subtle cases of possession. The only thing I knew was that everything in this little worldlet was a reflection of one or both of our minds. Father Murphy had refused to tell me anything more specific on the grounds that it would prejudice the result of the test. The demon’s shape was probably a combination of his self image, my expectations, and likely some attempts on his part to create a more favorable impression. The fried rice was probably mostly from my memories, it was way too similar to the my memories of Philadelphia’s Chinatown. He was probably the one who manifested it though, if I had that kind of control over the dream-world I wouldn’t still be wearing dirty scrubs.

“Hello, it’s nice to meet you at last. My name is Casimir.” The boy said. He was sitting on the floor, as much as any particular glob of the insubstantial darkness surrounding us could be called the floor. Casimir’s long black hair was messy, even by my standards, covering his ears and reaching down far enough to get into his eyes. His voluminous cloak was tattered and clearly ancient, but it wasn’t the literal pile of rags that his physical form had been wearing when I’d met him. He also didn’t have the longsword his physical body had been carrying. That was no guarantee he was unarmed though, this new incarnation might have changed it’s weapon the same way it changed it’s age and clothes.

I had done some thinking in the time that’d a been awake since the catastrophe at the airport. I hadn’t had the opportunity to look at a bible or browse Wikipedia, but I had come to a few conclusions. So, angels and demons both fall into seven choirs. Seven different choirs mind, but there are definitely parallels between choirs with the same number on opposite sides of the aisle. The choirs are named for the story of genesis, when God made the world in seven days. Each choir is loosely associated with a particular day in that mythical week, and their powers tend to tie in to what God did that day. Or, in the demon’s case, the opposite. Casimir had attacked with physical violence, rust, and decay. He was basically concentrated entropy, or maybe accelerated time. Either way, it was a pretty clear link to the Choir of Ruin. I wasn’t actually sure which one that was. I knew it was paired with the Angels of the Fundament, so whatever day God made land. I didn’t know what day that was off the top of my head, it was probably the third or fourth. Maybe the second. Clearly I’m not the greatest of Christians. Anyway, tl,dr: Casimir’s powers break stuff.

“Hello Casimir. I’d introduce myself, but you probably already know everything about me. I’d really appreciate it if you would be so kind as to vacate the premises, so to speak. Having a demon in my head makes my life substantially more complicated than it’s needs to be.” I replied.

If he was going to be polite, then so would I. At least at first. Politeness cost me nothing, but one way or another, he was going to be leaving my head. Even if being possessed didn’t make me a target, I really didn’t appreciate the gross violation of privacy. The thought of anyone being able to hear everything that went on inside my head made me feel icky and embarrassed. And more than a little furious. I wasn’t sure how exactly I was going to force the issue though, Father Murphy really hadn’t been all that helpful there. I had a sinking feeling that I wasn’t the only one who didn’t provide the whole truth during our conversation. How the hell was I supposed to fight something that I couldn’t even sense outside of a state of deep meditation?

“I would like nothing better, I do not wish to trespass within you if I am unwanted, but unfortunately I am unable to do so at this time. I am a fragment of the demon you encountered, placed within you in order to prevent you from expiring from your wounds, thereby fulfilling the terms of your compact with him. The greater measure of my strength was consumed in healing you, and without it I cannot exist independently.”

“No offense, but this is so not my problem. I really couldn’t care less that your demonic daddy left you out to dry, I just need you out. This is an eviction, not a negotiation.”

“If that were true, we wouldn’t be speaking right now. You lack the ability to safely remove me. And while I am sincere in claiming that I do not wish to trespass, I must place my own survival above your wishes. I’m sorry for any inconvenience this causes you. I shall do anything I can, within reason, to minimize the disruption my existence inflicts upon your daily life.”

I fumed silently. It was hard to hate someone who sounded so reasonable and honest. This really wasn’t how I expected this conversation to go. I had expected some sort of epic mental battle for the fate of my soul. Apparently I watched too much TV. “Anyway,” Casimir continued, “I would like to propose a solution to that problem. You should learn how to control me.”

I started at Casimir. He stared back at me, as if he didn’t just say the most ridiculous thing in the world.

“Uh, what?” I asked.

“You should learn diabolism. It would solve all your problems.” He replied.

“By leading me to an early grave?”

“I was thinking more putting your enemies in an early grave. You don’t really seem like the suicidal type. Think about it, if you learned how to bind and control demons you could actually trust me, then we wouldn’t be at odds with each other. You could even help me recover enough that other people wouldn’t be able to detect me. Once you did that, I could use my powers to help you, or leave your body altogether.”

“So, let me get this straight. You want me to delve deeper into demonology in order to be able to trust you, then give you more power over me in order to help you hide yourself?”

“Yeah, that’s pretty much the idea.” Casimir replied.

“Do people actually fall for that?” I asked.

“You have no idea. People will fall for anything, even the blatantly impossible, especially if they want it badly enough. I was quite sincere though, I could be of great assistance to you, and learning more about my kind would enable you to interact with me more safely.”

“I have only your word for that. Diabolists have a pretty shitty reputation, and with good reason. I suppose you’re going to tell me it’s just a coincidence that so many of them go so horribly bad?”

“Nope, totally not coincidence. Look at the sort of people who turn to demons for power. The desperate, the lazy, the already morally compromised. Very few of them properly do their homework. They draw more power than their bodies can withstand, or use contracts with loopholes so obvious a first year law student would notice them. It’s hardly surprising that they die as a result, our interests are generally diametrically opposed to those of our summoners, and we’re racially disinclined towards mercy.”

“You’re trying to play off my pride, convince me that I can succeed where they failed, receive the fruits of the art without making the sacrifices.”

“Yep, and I’m not trying to be subtle. I’m trying to be honest and fair, I didn’t pillage your memory and shape myself into something you couldn’t help but trust, or force you to harbor me by threat of mutually assured destruction. And you could succeed where they failed. Can you honestly tell me you haven’t once looked at the people running the world and wonder how they hell they haven’t destroyed it yet? Haven’t once thought you could easily do so much better than them if you just had the power they’ve accumulated over the centuries?”

“Except again, we run into the issue of you being horribly, irredeemably evil. I can’t trust anything factual you tell me, let alone your estimation of my capabilities or the courses of action you suggest.” I replied.

“I cannot lie to you. You might not be able to trust my judgment, but you can trust my word.”

“That’s just folklore. Everyone knows demons can lie, it’s just a myth that started when someone mistook a fairy for a demon.”

“And why do you believe that? Because the Church told you? Why are you constantly reminding yourself you can’t trust anything I say, but blindly accepting their propaganda? Sure, our record is far from perfect, but look at your own experiences. In the last week, a demon has saved your life, and the Church will murder you if they ever found that he did. Would it truly be so outlandish to at least consider that they might not be as trustworthy as you seem to think they are?”

The problem was I had no credible information at all here. I might not trust the Church, but Casimir was obviously biased, his life was literally on the line after all. There was no way I could safely verify that he was really unable to lie.

I paused for a moment, pretending to think about what he was saying. Appealing to my own experiences was an obvious anecdotal fallacy, even just looking at the last week of my own life, the Church only threatened to kill me, Casimir’s “father” had killed hundreds of people for no apparent reason.

“I know what you’re thinking.”

“Of course you do, you’re inside my mind. So you also know how angry that makes me.” I snarled.

“Sorry, bad choice of words. I swear upon all that I hold dear that I am not currently reading your thoughts, and I shall not attempt to do so again.”

“Like I can trust that promise. What exactly do you hold dear anyway?”

“Not much to be honest, I’m still only a few days old. And everything was pretty fuzzy while you were on so many painkillers. I suppose my existence is dear to me, it’s barely been a few hours, but getting to watch the world through your eyes has been so interesting. The idea of having my own body, getting to do more than just watch… It’s something to look forward to. I don’t really have much else to hold dear, or to swear by for that matter.”

“I do know what you’re thinking though,” Casimir continued, “even without reading your mind. I’m not exactly a reflection of you, but I was in large part born from your mind. I might not agree with you, but I at least understand why you think like you do. Anyway, you’re thinking that my pseudo-father killed a whole bunch of people at the airport, but the Church only would kill one person, and they’d do it to protect others.”

“That’s awfully specific for someone not reading my mind.”

“I’m more perceptive than you. Suck it.” Casimir said, scrunching up his nose and sticking out his tongue at me.

The expression was so ridiculous that I burst out laughing. All of my righteousness indignation was washed away by the sheer silliness of his response. Even rationally knowing what he was, it was getting harder and harder to stay angry at him. Eventually I got my laughter under control enough to reply.

“I’m going to have to give that a pass. You need to at least buy me dinner first.”

Casimir stared blankly at me for a few moments, before what we were talking about sunk in. Then looked down and blushed, sputtering something about not knowing what the idiom meant. And I burst into laughter again. If this was an act, it was a damn good one.

“I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to be crude. It just slipped out, please don’t be offended.” He apologized. Then, he looked back up at me and grinned slyly. “You know, fried rice is dinner though.” He continued. And, suddenly I was struck by a powerful urge to slap him.

“I don’t care how adorably awkward you are. You’re still a demon, and you’re still getting the hell out of my head. It’s a single occupancy unit.” I replied, giving him my patented ‘I’m-going-to-cut-your-spleen-out’ glare.

“As much as I’d like to get back to our completely pointless bickering over a fundamental difference of opinion, we have bigger problems.” Casimir replied.

“Really, such as?”

“Well, for starters Father Murphy didn’t believe your story. He can sense my presence, and he’s going to kill you as soon as you wake up.”

“Oh. Shit. That’s a problem.”

“Indeed. Want my help solving it?”

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Absolution 2.2

Absolution 2.2

August 16th 2014 – Molly

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I wasn’t sure how Adrianne was navigating the streets of Fairburn, I had no reason to believe she wasn’t from the area, but I doubted she was anyway. The thought of the strange, violent girl being from the sleepy little city just felt wrong, like a Seelie from Murmansk, or school of wizardry in Detroit. It might be theoretically possible, but it was so unlikely as to be ridiculous. When I asked Adrianne how she knew where she was going, she just giggled and started telling me about the chemical properties of Kevlar. She seemed to have some weird opinions about what constituted good small talk. Adrianne cut through back alleys and backyards alike, leading me in a near unbroken straight line. It took us about twenty minutes on foot to reach the Church of our Lady of The Lake.

The church was a dilapidated affair, graceless in the way that only modern American churches can manage, with yellowing vinyl slats and boxy windows. A peeling white cross perched on top of the steeple. The best thing that could be said for it, is it didn’t pretend to be anything it wasn’t, which was a glorified community center with an attached graveyard and clergy house.

Adrianne kept one hand on the small of my back, gently but inexorably guiding me forward. The church’s graveyard and grounds didn’t fully encircle the building, the heavy wooden double doors were only a few feet away from the street. Adrianne still refused to approach the doors. I supposed that cleared up any doubt about whether or not she was a vampire. All but the oldest and mightiest of vampires were unable to enter the grounds of a church of pain of starting to bleed from all of their orifices. I wasn’t sure how I felt about Adrianne’s vampirism yet. On one hand, having a vampire friend would be incredibly convenient, especially considering the trouble I was liable to get myself into. On the other hand, Wrath had a solid amount of blackmail material on me, and I doubted Adrianne’s friendship would be worth much if her master decided he had a use for me. I was still kicking myself over getting intimidated into telling Wrath what happened at the airport. This entire night was just too much to process, I needed some time to sit down and think through everything. Until then, I was going to avoid making potentially stupid decisions, like alienating the rather friendly vampire who just committed murder for me.

“You’re not coming with me?” I asked.

“Most definitely not. I don’t like trespassing on private property, or dealing with anything remotely sanctified. Entering a house of God qualifies on both counts. You, on the other hand, are going in.” She replied. Adrianne wasn’t paying very much attention to me, or the church. Instead, she was staring at a tree across the street.

“I thought you didn’t care that I was possessed. Why the sudden change of heart?” I asked. Adrianne turned to regard me, and tilted her head.

“My heart has not changed. Wrath ordered that you be taken to a church. I don’t care what you do inside, kill the priest and burn it down for all I care. However, I’m not going to violate Wrath’s orders on a whim, his name was not idly given.”

With that, Adrianne pushed me forward, towards the doors.

“What’s that supposed to mean? And why the hell is he named Wrath anyway? Does he turn into a big green rage monster and smash everything when people piss him off?”

“Big green… rage monster? I do not understand. You shall explain this to me at a later time.”

I snorted, apparently Adrianne wasn’t all that up to date on pop culture. Maybe she was born before movies were a thing and had never bothered to figure out what all the fuss was about. Or maybe she literally lived under a rock, Wrath hadn’t sounded too confident in her computer skills when he was giving orders. I took a step forward and grabbed the handle of the door. No sense in dragging this out, I might as well get this exorcism over with. Maybe then I could finally get a shower and some sleep.

“Molly.” Adrianne called from behind me.

I turned to look at Adrianne. She looked deep in thought, staring at the ground with her brow furrowed and her lips pursed. Was that concern on her face? She shifted back to her customary neutral expression before I could completely confirm it was in fact concern, and not constipation.

“Molly,” Adrianne began again. “Don’t do anything stupid in there. The Church is dangerous, and if you get killed this night will have been a waste of my time.”

I wasn’t sure if that was supposed to be an insult or a display of concern.

“I’ll try. You know, I usually try to avoid doing doing stupid things as a matter of principle.”

“If I hadn’t just heard the story of the last week of your life, I might actually believe that. I’ll come find you if you get out. Good luck.” Adrianne replied. And then she turned and walked away, fading away into the soft shadows cast by the distant streetlights. On that pleasant note, I pushed open the doors, and stepped inside.

Normally, you can’t just walk into a church at three in the morning. Most parishes, being run by reasonable people, lock their doors and have regular business hours. The churches run by the Church, with a capital C, are different. The Holy Church represents the military and occult branches of the Catholic, Orthodox, and most Protestant churches. As an organization, it largely predates and/or ignores the worst of their doctrinal arguments. I guess arguing about iconoclasm and investiture just seemed a little less important to people who spent most of their time hunting vampires and demons.

Nobody seems to know how exactly their command structure works, but everyone knows how to get in contact with one of their members. At least one person capable of dealing with the supernatural world lives on the premises of any church affiliated with the Holy Church. They don’t lock their doors because they don’t need to. God might be merciful, but if you wander in and try to vandalize something, the Church’s guardian won’t be. As a result, towns where the Holy Church has a presence tend to have a lower rate of vampire attacks, missing people, and crime in general. The Association usually tries to avoid antagonizing the Church, primarily because so many of it’s members are Christian and would abstain in any sort of armed conflict with the Church. Also because their magical-ninja-priests and literal knights in shining armor are pretty scary. Yes, they have magical-ninja-priest-assassins. No, that’s not what adults call them, but it’s a pretty accurate description of what they do.

It was dark inside the church. The votive candles on the far side of the aisle illuminated the altar, and cast flickering shadows across the pews. The church smelled of old varnish and older pine, sharp and spicy, but cut with a noticeable chemical undertone. It wasn’t as bad as a hospital, but it just smelled like a place where people came to slowly die. I don’t have any fond memories of churches, but I don’t think that’s an unfair description of what people do in them. Have you ever seen anyone who wasn’t old enough to be worrying about their afterlife go to church of their own free will? I sure haven’t. Aside from the flickers and hisses of the failing candles, the church was both still and silent once the echoes of my footsteps had faded.

I waited for the guardian to make his presence known. It was usually a priest, but whoever the guardian was they would certainly know the moment I entered the building. It might be divine wards, it might be a modern silent alarm, but they knew I was here. No sense in making them jumpy. I only had to wait a few moments before they greeted me.

“It is unusual for a mage to visit me here in Fairburn, even in these dark days our quiet town has yet been spared much attention from the outside world. Have you come on behalf of the association?” A quiet, but deep and confident voice asked. The voice came from behind and slightly above me, apparently the priest was tall, or at least taller than my measly five feet. This is why I didn’t want to make him jumpy. Frightened ninja-priests are scary.

“No, I’m here on personal business. It’s nice to meet you Father…?” I let the word hang, waiting for him to introduce himself. Slowly, I turned around, trying to be as non-threatening as possible.

“Ah. Then, welcome to the church of Our Lady of the Lake. I am Father Marcus Murphy. It’s nice to meet you Miss…” Father Murphy replied, mimicking me. Father Marcus Murphy was an older man, closer to sixty than fifty if his white hair could be trusted. His face might have been handsome, or at least distinguished, a few bad punches ago. He had a slightly crooked nose, a mild case of cauliflower ears, and enough facial scars to suggest he was either a boxer or a hunter before becoming a priest. Based on that last name and the traces of an accent, I pegged him as Irish, but either long-time expat, or very well traveled.

“I don’t like using my last name, it’s silly. You can call me Molly. It’s a pleasure to meet you Father. I have to ask though, is it really that quiet around here? You’re barely fifteen miles out from Atlanta proper.” I was genuinely curious. That made almost zero sense.

“It generally is. This week of course, has been a bit of an exception with that tragedy at the airport. Several of the families in my parish lost loved ones that day.” The Father paused abruptly, as if finally drawing a connection between my apparel and what happened at the airport. To his credit, Father Murphy didn’t immediately jump to conclusions and try to kill me. It’s a sad statement about the current relationship between the Church and the Association that not immediately jumping to murder marked him as uncommonly rational and restrained.

I hadn’t really considered what to say when he realized I was probably involved. With everything that had happened tonight, I supposed I had as good an excuse as any, but between this and the fiasco with Wrath I really was slipping. I should have planned out this conversation in detail.

“Lie. Don’t tell him you made a bargain. He’ll kill us. Tell him it cut you with it’s sword and you’re worried you might have been tainted.” The voice in my head was eerily reminiscent of the demon from the airport. And it made me furious. I’m not sure if it could hear my silent reply, but I’m not going to repeat it here anyway. It was pretty much a couple dozen increasingly colorful variants of “Get the fuck out of my head.” Honestly, I was less bothered by the fact that the voice was demonic than I was by the fact that it was living in my mind. I don’t understand how anyone can not think mind-reading is the most horrific violation of privacy imaginable.

I took the advice anyway. It was good advice.

“I was the target of the attack at their airport. Someone raised a demon and sent it after me in order to steal an artifact I was couriering from Ireland to America. I only managed to get away because an iron golem sent by another party fought the demon over the artifact. I don’t even know why it was so valuable, they didn’t even tell me what I was delivering.” I lied, improvising a plausible story. The best lies contain a core of truth after all, and this one contained more than most. “I was injured in the struggle, and now I’m worried that the demon might have tainted my soul. I didn’t know where I could go for help, all I knew is it wasn’t safe for me to stay in the hospital. Please, help me, I don’t know where else to turn.” I finished. I looked down at the floor and let myself sniffle a little at the end.

I suppose I’m supposed to feel bad about misleading a priest, but it was honestly kinda exciting. The rush was way better than confession. And I’d managed to do it without a single technically untrue statement, though the bit about only escaping because of the golem probably was speculation, I had no idea what would have happened if only the demon was present. I was kinda proud of that, it wasn’t my fault if he made bad assumptions.

When I looked back up at Father Murphy, his expression had visibly softened. He’d bought it, hook, line, and sinker. Ah, I love old men. Not in an icky way though. I love the way they always underestimate teenage girls, all I had to do was look like I was about to cry, and suddenly he’s completely unable to think of me as a potential threat. However dangerous a man Father Murphy might normally be, he was powerless before me once he started mentally comparing me to his nieces or daughters.

“Dear lord, to send an apprentice up against such things.” Father Murphy looked pale and slightly shaken. That was curious, I wouldn’t expect someone like him to have a visible reaction to any news. Perhaps he’d had some personal experiences of his own with demons?

“Actually, I’m a full Magus.” I said, letting a suitably prideful smile slip onto my face. It contrasted nicely with the fake tears still welling in the corner of my eyes, and helped play into the image of a little girl indoctrinated by an evil organization. I actually was proud of the accomplishment, even among apprentices who had started as young as me, few reached the rank of Magus as quickly as I had. Of course, few apprentices were given as much incentive as me.

“When did you begin your apprenticeship?”

“I don’t remember a time before I was an apprentice. I think I started learning the really basic stuff when I was four or five.” I replied. More truth, fudged slightly to make me sound less sure, less confident. I loved this game, playing it with a priest was a new and exciting twist. “It’s easier to learn magic if you start early!”

“That’s what they tell you?” Father Murphy asked, trying and failing to hide his righteousness indignation at the thought of preschoolers being trained to become living weapons of war.

“Of course that’s what they tell us, it’s the truth!” I exclaimed indignantly. It actually was the truth, though he had no way of knowing that. It was a tightly kept secret, but it was one of the few things we learned when we started applying modern statistical methods to the study of magic. Apprentices who started younger generally ended up stronger, even controlling for years spent practicing.

The Father, like much of the rest of the world, just thought the Association liked getting us young so they could indoctrinate us more effectively. Here he was, suppressing his anger at a lie that was actually true in order to avoid discomforting a girl who was deliberately misrepresenting her beliefs as more credulous than they were in order to distance herself from the organization she represented. I suppressed a giggle, playing it off as an indignant shudder. There were so many layers to keep track of here. Human communication really was such a glorious mess.

“But don’t you think it’s wrong to teach people about magic before they’re old enough to understand the consequences?” The Father asked.

“Don’t you think it’s wrong to make people believe something you can’t prove before they’re old enough to make decisions for themselves?” I retorted.

I could have phrased that so much more effectively, but it would have hurt the image I wanted to project. I didn’t give a damn about convincing him, or winning the argument. I wanted him to think me naive and indoctrinated, I wanted him to want to save me. And there was no surer way to cement that image in his eyes than spouting the party line on religion.

“Don’t you think that’s an unfair comparison? After all, learning magic is much more dangerous than going to Sunday School.”

I harrumphed at him, looking away. I wasn’t the most eloquent of responses, but it was antagonistic and childish. Which played right into his image of me as an arrogant kid who was in over my head. I counted to three in my head before making a conciliatory gesture.

“Look, I’m sorry I made fun of your beliefs. Are you going to help me or not?” I asked, still looking down. Down was good, it was safe, submissive, apologetic. I hated every moment of it. But I hated the thought of a demon growing in my head, reading my mind, so much more.

Father Murphy sighed.

“Of course I will help you child.”

I looked up at Father Murphy and smiled, all bubblegum and roses. Inside, I felt a little dirty. And it wasn’t just because something evil was growing inside my head.

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Absolution 2.1

Absolution 2.1

August 16th 2014 – Molly

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Riding a giant panther through the woods was an interesting experience. It was hard to see much of anything, and Adrianne didn’t really make a point of avoiding anything she could drag me through. I gave up on seeing where we were going pretty quickly and just settled for burying my face in her fur and trying to let as little of my body stick out as possible. It was one of those experiences that force you to pause and consider the choices that have led you to this point in your life. In my case, many of those choices hadn’t perhaps been the best. That said, I’m not really sure where I would have gone differently, at least without the benefit of foresight. If I actually knew everything I know now back then, I probably would have just flown to another city in Europe, lost my pursuers, then flown back to a different airport. If I had fully though through the blackmail potential of what had happened at the airport, I wouldn’t have sold that information so cheaply. And if I’d known the car was going to be attacked, I would have eaten faster. I was still hungry, and sore, which was pretty reasonable considering I hadn’t eaten for the better part of a week. For perhaps the millionth time, I wished I could create food with magic.

I’ve always wanted the ability to conjure food out of thin air. It’s one of those abilities that’s kinda the hallmark of a real professional wizard. Any amateur can toss around fireballs, but a real wizard tosses around fireballs then conjures biscuits for the adventuring party. Back when I was an apprentice I spent several weeks bugging my master to teach me how to do it. After weeks of badgering he gave in and told me he’d teach me. The next week he enrolled me in community center cooking classes. I assumed it was some sort of karate-kid nonsense that would culminate in him explaining that I had to get an appreciation for doing it the mundane way before he would teach me the magical shortcut. That was a stupid assumption. After I graduated from the 12 week course, my master presented me with a massive textbook discussing the subject. As it turns out, you can’t actually summon food, you need to cook food, place it in stasis, then hold it in some sort of extra-dimensional space or transfigured state. It’s also entirely too much work for most sane people, which is why only wizards with too much time on their hands bother with it.

Apparently there’s this concept called the law of conservation of noms (Yes, it was formulated post-internet). It’s usually stated as: “Thou shalt not attempt to conjure food under pain of accidentally transfiguring part of thine body into food, or other such unpleasantness.” I was pretty pissed for a while, but at least now I know how to cook. I still have that textbook in a storage locker, just in case I ever get bored enough to master that particular branch of magic. Just remember, if you’re ever being hosted by a wizard and he conjures food out of mid-air, that’s a sure-fire sign he’s a crazy powerful sonofabitch with way too much free time. That and beards. A long well-maintained white beard on a wizard means he’s so far out of your league he can beat the shit out of you even though his facial hair is so long he tucks it into his belt. I may or may not have learned the last one the hard way. Bearded mages are no joke.

Eventually Adrianne slowed down enough that I could open my eyes without risking getting them gouged out. The woods had thinned substantially, now they were more of scattered copses of trees. I could intermittent lights in the distance, probably the headlights of cars traveling down a road. Adrianne kept running for a few hundred more yards, slamming to an abrupt stop just in front of a dirt road. A few hundred feet away there was a house. It looked, for lack of a better word, trashy. It looked like one of prefabricated kit houses, except from the sixties. The paint was peeling, boards stuck out of the porch, and an obvious hole in the roof wasn’t quite covered by the plywood and tarp it’s inhabitants had lashed on it. If it wasn’t for the shitty repairs and the yard full of trash, I would have assumed it was abandoned.

Without warning, Adrianne bucked. She popped her shoulders back and leaned onto her hind legs, throwing me off. I landed face down in the grass. I heard a coughing noise that sounded suspiciously like a large cat trying to giggle coming from behind me.

“What the hell was that for!” I shouted, turning to face the annoying panther.

And I found myself facing, well, myself. Instead of a overgrown panther, I was looking at an exact copy of me. Well, an exact copy with feline pupils. And no clothes. And messier hair. Other than that though, it was a remarkably good likeness. I tilted my head. She tilted her head. It was like looking into a mirror. I reached up and ran a hand through my hair, checking if it was as disheveled as my clone’s. It was. My clone, Adrianne, mimicked the motion perfectly.

“Bored now.” Adrianne said. With the same blurring and jarring motion that had accompanied the wolf-panther’s transformations, the girl in front of me changed. Clothes, for lack of a better word, grew out of her flesh, coming to rest loosely against her body. Her hair lengthened and darkened while bones flowed and reshaped under her skin. Her body grew a few inches taller and filled out a bit. In a few seconds, she had become a pretty girl of average height, who looked maybe twenty or twenty one. Her hair was black now, and longer. The only thing that hadn’t changed were the crimson eyes with their feline pupils.

“How do I look? Did I get the clothes right, or are they boy clothes? I can never tell with modern fashion, last time I woke up girls still weren’t allowed to wear britches. That was silly, I’m glad you people finally fixed that, even if it took you a few thousand years.” Adrianne said.

I was a bit lost for words. Adrianne chattered on while I tried to wrap my head around just how powerful a shapeshifter she was. I’d never even heard of anyone growing clothes out of their skin before. For perhaps the thousandth time that night, I wondered just what the hell I’d gotten myself mixed up in. Maybe she–

“Well? Do I pass as a normal human?” Adrianne interrupted my train of thought.

I finally looked at her clothes. She was wearing a pair of jeans, and a dark green shirt with a giant print of a cat’s head the front. I suppose that counted as normal, if not necessarily fashionable.

“Yeah, but, uh you might wanna do something about the eyes.” I told her. Adrianne seemed to take a moment to consider this.

“Ooh, yeah, you’re right. It’ll be more fun if they don’t suspect anything.” Her eyes bulged a little, bugging out of her head for a moment, then quickly shifted to a dark green with normal pupils.

“Uh, it’ll be more fun if who doesn’t suspect anything?” I asked.

“You’ll see. Just follow my lead.” Adrianne replied. And with that, she started walking towards the house. I looked around. The waning moon provided just enough light to see that the road meandered along for miles in either direction. There were no other houses that I could see, and the highway I thought I had seen earlier was probably at least ten miles away now.

So, I followed Adrianne. I might not have any idea who she was or what her motives were, but she’d already had dozens of chances to kill me. If it hadn’t happened by now, I was probably safe. And who knows, my lifelong streak or terrible luck might just relent long enough for me to actually get paid. Stranger things had quite literally happened to me tonight.

“So, what were those things in the woods?” I asked as we walked towards the broken down little house.

“No idea. Tasted awful though, and it was even worse coming back up. It’s been ages since I last regurgitated a meal. Although, I’m not sure that arm qualified as more than a snack.” Adrianne started skipping along the road, kicking up small clouds of dust.

“Wait, when did you vomit it back up? I didn’t even notice.”

“That’s not surprising, you had your eyes closed and were clinging to me for dear life. Which was silly by the way, even if you got a branch in your eye, that fragment of a demon inside you would fix it up right quick. You missed a very pretty view too, I never knew there was a grove this close to Atlanta.” It took me a moment to parse everything Adrianne was telling me. I wasn’t sure which part of that sentence qualified as the most alarming. Groves near a major city, that’s a scary thought. Not that Adrianne knowing my unholy little secret was at all comforting.

“How do you know about that?”

“The grove? I smelled all the sex and blood, then passed close enough for a look. They were having a party, I would have asked if you wanted to stop by, but you don’t speak cat. You should learn to speak cat, it’s a useful language. Cats know everything that happens in a city. And they give you little presents, mostly small mammals, unless you ask for other things.” Adrianne rambled on, completely ignoring my actual question.

“Not that, the other thing. What makes you think I’m possessed by a demon?”

“Oh, you told us, remember? I was just a few feet away, and you weren’t exactly quiet. Don’t worry, I won’t tell them your dirty little secret. People are so more interesting when they’re possessed by demons, it’d be a shame for your story to get cut short early. I can’t wait to see the ending… Those always end tragically. Well, tragically for someone. Don’t feel bad, it’s not necessarily you.” The conversation died down as I digested what she had just told me. I really had absolutely no idea how to respond to any of what she had just said. Of course, that didn’t stop Adrianne. She kept going on about the differences between Fae parties and frat parties until we started to get close to the house. She seemed to consider the most relevant differences to be that Fae parties had better food and less rape, while frat parties had better music and more varied drinks. I wasn’t sure if any human would agree with that assessment, but I wasn’t about to argue. I didn’t exactly have a lot of experience with either sort of party. Or any parties. My childhood was not conducive to partying. As we reached the edge of the yard, Adrianne turned to me.

“I like you, you’re a good listener. I hope the church doesn’t kill you. That would be sad.” And with that, she skipped off towards the run-down safe-house.

“I like you too. You’re a good, uh, talker.” I awkwardly replied. I’d never had anyone tell me that before. And she seemed nice enough. Maybe a bit crazy and violent, but nice. I’ve never really had friends, but I could probably do worse than her. At the very least, she’d be useful to have around.

The house was even more dilapidated up close. The porch was a thriving ecosystem unto itself, with beetles and rats scurrying among the trash, and a lone cat watching from underneath the deck. The tell-tale scars of a termite infestation festooned the railings and balusters. The yard was filled with trash, mostly old broken appliances, boxes and broken bottles. The entire house buzzed quietly, as if the inside of the structure was infested with bees. Neither of us had shoes, but that definitely seemed to inconvenience me more than Adrianne. I gingerly picked my way through the mess of metal and broken glass, Adrianne just kept right on skipping. She skipped right up to the front door, and knocked.

The door opened immediately, revealing a tall and skinny man, with dark circles under his eyes. I could see his ribs through the fabric if his white tanktop, and his fangs poking out over his lower lip. Yep, that’s a vampire. This was a vampire safe-house. They were affiliated with the dominion.

“Hey, I’m gonna take some of the money. Unless you spent it all. Then I get to hurt you.” Adrianne announced, and walked right past the tall vampire. Both of us stared at her as she walked into the dilapidated house. The vampire looked both confused and bemused. I wondered how often he had people just walk into his rick-shaw of a house. It wasn’t exactly an inviting place.

Adrianne disappeared down the hallway, apparently looking for a stash of money, leaving me alone and unarmed with the bemused vampire. He looked at me. I looked at his chest, since he was absurdly tall and I didn’t want to risk getting hypnotized. I almost tried to make smalltalk, but thought better of it. The man looked like the undead equivalent of white trash, what would we even talk about? Nascar? Pit bulls? Adrianne had said to follow her lead, so I shoved past him without an explanation. Even through the wifebeater I could feel that he wasn’t human, his skin had less give and was colder than room temperature. I barely managed to suppress a shiver when I smelled the fetid, coppery, odor that was his breath. I could feel him leering at me through my scrubs, and I picked up my pace just a little bit as I marched down the hallway, looking for Adrianne. I passed a few empty rooms, one of them filled with cardboard boxes and slats of plywood, another featuring a beaten-up couch and a fancy new flatscreen television that looked incredibly out of place propped on top of a broken refrigerator.

“What’s this now, did you girls get lost? If you want money that badly, I’m sure we can find something around the house for you to… do.” The trashy vampire drawled. Lechery aside, his voice made me want to punch him. Adrianne walked out of one of the rooms I hadn’t checked yet holding a shoebox. Her eyes were still green, but the pupils had again become feline. She looked even more annoyed than I felt.

“Put that down! You have no right to” – Adrianne cut him off with a punch to the stomach. Her face was contorted into a rictus of fury. She didn’t bother to put the shoebox down, instead just tossing it in my general direction before she started beating on the unfortunate vampire.

It was obvious from the moment they started grappling that the fight was completely one-sided. The tall vampire tried to grab Adrianne’s shoulders, but she spun out of the way and caught his arm instead. Adrianne pulled the already overextended vampire forward, forcing him to stumble, then stepped towards him and used his arm to pull him over her shoulder. The vampire went down in a heap, his height working against him. Then Adrianne started stomping on him. First the back of his knee when he tried to stand. Then his hands. Then the ribs. Then the collarbone. More ribs. Up to the head. Every stomp or kick landed with a loud crack Eventually he stopped struggling, and a pool of dark red blood began to soak into the old discolored carpet.

“You can keep what’s in the box. I swear I’ll get you the rest later. We’ll do the church next.” Adrianne said. I picked up the old shoebox. I’d never heard of the brand, El Bee shoes. Considering it was a vampire’s shoe box, they’d probably gone out of business before I was born. The box, however old it was, was filled with cash. Most twenties, rolled up and rubber banded. It definitely wasn’t ten thousand dollars, unless the inside of the rolls were filled with bigger bills, but it was probably several thousand dollars. Enough to consider a sign of good faith.

“So, was this even your safehouse? Or did you just steal from the vampires on a whim?” I asked.

“It’s ours. Well, someone’s. We’re Dominion. Or at least we’re usually allied with them. I can never remember the specifics, they change too often.” Adrianne replied.

“Then why did you hurt him? Wouldn’t he just have given you the money if you identified yourself?”

“Probably, but why wouldn’t I hurt him? He was boring, vulgar, and rude to me. He’s probably never had an original thought in his life or his undeath. Hell, he’s probably hurt dozens of people who’re worth more than he’ll ever be. Managing a safe-house is the easiest job on the planet, and he can’t even do that without stealing from his betters. So, tell me, why shouldn’t I kick the guard dog?”

“Because it’s nice to not rip people’s limbs off?” I ventured. Adrianne finally turned her head to look at me. Her expression was utterly devoid of any recognizable human emotion.

“That he did not meet the true death this day is mercy. To refrain from punishing him would have been a waste of an excellent learning opportunity. Why do you care?”

“I try to avoid beating vampires senseless and then leaving them to recover on purely practical grounds. He’s going to get back up a few days from now, and then he’ll probably go looking for vengeance. I could easily destroy him from a distance, but I’ll have to spend the next few years looking over my shoulder every time I go out in public at night. If he catches me in a crowd and comes at me with a knife or gun, my magic isn’t going to do shit.” I explained.

Adrianne pondered this for a moment. Then she stuck her fingers into his chest. She drove two fully extended fingers right into the left side of his back, through the intercostals, between the ribs, into his heart. His entire body tensed for a moment, then relaxed. The moment Adrianne withdrew her fingers, he began to desiccate. It wasn’t quite turning into dust, he evidently hadn’t been a vampire long enough for that, but in a few moments the tall vampire looked more like a human raisin than anything else.

“I like you more than I like him. Come on, let’s go to church.”

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Kindling 1.9

Kindling 1.9

August 16th 2014 – Molly

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It wasn’t without effort that I tore my attention away from those beautiful knives, but I managed it. Eventually. Wrath hadn’t moved, he was still standing in the middle of the squirming pile of limbs with a relaxed sort of confidence. He idly kicked at an arm that had crawled to close to his ankle. The only sounds I could hear were the quiet buzzing of grasshoppers, interspersed with the occasional gurgling moan. The misshapen people lurking among the trees were deathly silent, I counted at least half a dozen of them, but none of them so much as whispered or snapped a twig. I didn’t move, afraid to break the silence.

The people within the trees might have once been human, but their bodies were twisted and broken, with limbs attached backwards, and joints that bent in ways no human should be able to move. Their bodies were marred by little deformities, one had an extra eye peaking out from the crease of his elbow, another had a small black tentacle growing out of his shoulder. The little tentacle silently swung back and forth, dancing wildly to a music nobody could hear. Another had the horns and hooves of a goat. Yet another had teeth growing out of his skin, dozens spread randomly across his chest and arms. They were all naked, but most had their modesty was preserved by some aspect of their deformities. Some had dark fur across most of their bodies, others were covered in fantastically colorful patterns of bruises. One was androgynous and hairless, with just a smooth patch of white skin where it’s genitals should be. They were armed with primitive weapons, crude spears and hatchets mostly. Many of their weapons were barely more than stones tied to sticks. I had no idea what they were, I was just glad I wasn’t one of them. Seeing shit like that makes you happy to only have two eyes, thirty-two teeth, and zero tentacles.

Without any visible signal, two of the mutant things charged towards Wrath from opposite sides of the road. The one with the tentacle approached from the left side of the road, the one covered in exo-teeth from the right. As the teeth covered man got closer to the road he began to visibly transform. The little teeth that dotted his chest flattened and expanded, shifting into irregularly placed sheets of armor. The muscles of his chest and arms bulged and knotted as they grew. In the space of a few steps he had transformed into some sort of half-armored brute, and the transformation was still ongoing. He lumbered forward on all fours, unable to support his massive armored chest with just his legs.

Wrath didn’t react initially, and I didn’t do anything to help him. I was still more than a little pissed about the whole kidnapping thing and it took me a moment to realize that being captured by those… things… would probably involved more torture and less payment. Fortunately, Wrath didn’t seem to need my help. As the tooth covered brute approached he turned and threw one of his knives at him. The he charged the other mutant, moving much faster than either of the monsters. When he saw Wrath moving toward him the tentacle man brought his crude spear in front of him and dropped into a slide, trying to use the superior length of his weapon to keep Wrath at bay. Wrath rushed forward, not even bothering to slow down or try to dodge the spear. Then he disappeared in a burst of black fog just before his chest reached the stone spearhead. Suddenly he was back in front of the other mutant, bringing both of his knives to bear against the unprepared monster. Wrath traced along gaps in the plates on his chest, then twisted under an arm to stab at the monster’s sides. He exploited every little hole where the teeth hadn’t yet grown together, stabbing and slashing with inhuman grace. Blood sprayed across the highway as he systemically dismantled the half-transformed brute.

With another puff of smoke, Wrath was on the other side of the street. It took me a moment to realize he was teleporting to his weapons. This time I hadn’t even seen him throw the knife, but I instinctively knew that was how it worked. The tentacled mutant didn’t have a chance to do anything, Wrath was already inside of his spear’s reach. And half a moment’s hesitation was far too much time to give Wrath. In a single smooth motion he lopped off both the monster’s arms. He brought one blade down to open the mutant’s stomach, bringing the other up and through it’s neck. The teeth covered brute collapsed to the ground in the same moment that the tentacled one fell into three pieces. Well, I suppose that explained the pile of limbs. I was suddenly very glad I hadn’t been dumb enough to try to attack Wrath with the hacksaw when he turned to let me change.

The remaining mutants backed the fuck off. Again, there was no signal, but all the ones who still had enough limbs attached to manage locomotion dropped back into the woods at once. I really didn’t blame them, that was a thoroughly terrifying display. And I still wasn’t much closer to figuring out what the hell Wrath was. I had seen him interact with enough metal stuff to probably rule out fae, and I don’t know why a were-something would bother to get that good at fighting with knives. Vampire was looking pretty likely, but he had normal eyes and wasn’t feeding despite being literally surrounded by blood. Maybe some sort of mage-assassin? An arcanoi or chronomancer might be able to move that quickly, and that teleportation could have been shadow-stepping, or maybe a power granted by those knives. There were still too many possibilities in play. But I couldn’t risk making a move without figuring out what the hell Wrath and Adrianne were. If I tried to make a play with fire or running water and they turned out to be wizards or weres, I’d be royally fucked. Not to mention out ten grand.

“Um, the fuck is going on?” I asked. On top of all that, I didn’t have much more of an idea what Wrath had just been fighting. The odds of everything that happened to me in the last week being a coincidence had to be astronomical. Despite that, none of it made sense. I’m not exactly a power-broker in the supernatural community, but I have a rough idea of what goes on, and nothing that has happened since I landed in Atlanta matches the agendas of any major organization I know of.

“Your guess is as good as mine. Well, probably not, my guesses are pretty good. But I don’t know anything you don’t. Do you see anything interesting with the sight?” Wrath replied.

“Yeah, I’m not going to risk insanity for some tidbits of information about dead monsters. You look.”

“You’re not going to figure out if I have the sight that easily dear.”

“I swear, if you call me dear one more time, I’m going to light your ass up. I don’t give two shits how scary you are.”

“I’m well aware of your temper issues and general lack of self-control. Even if your file hadn’t made a point of harping on it, that incident with the Texas State Fair alone makes it clear you don’t think rationally. Anyway, your objection has been duly noted and discarded.”

I half expected him to end that sentence with dear, but if he read my file he probably knew I really wasn’t bluffing. I might not have my lighter, but there was a tank of gasoline within a few yards of me.

I don’t just carry a lighter around for the whole insane arsonist aesthetic, there’s actually a very good reason for it. I do rather like the insane arsonist bit though, it’s always fun to play up against mundanes. I can create fire from nothing, I wouldn’t be much of a pyromancer if I couldn’t, but it’s not easy. When I already have a flame, I can easily expand it by feeding the fire raw magic, but what I’m really doing is more the domain of elementalism than chemistry. All I’m doing is patterning the magic against the existing fire, I’m not actually burning the magical energy or anything like that. This distinction is what makes it possible for elementalism to ignore the first law of thermodynamics. The effect is mana conserving, not energy conserving, such as it is. On the other hand, creating a flame from nothing, that requires me to actually use enough power to heat something to it’s flash point. Even for dry wood or leaves, that can be pushing five or six hundred degrees. On top of that, the resulting burst of heat needs to be large enough to trigger self-sustaining combustion, at least for a few moments before I start generating magical fire.

What? I know a lot about fire. It’s my hobby. Well, it’s one of them, I like explosives and video games too.

Anyway, gasoline has a modestly lower auto-ignition temperature, and it’s tendency to vaporize at standard temperature and pressure means it takes only a tiny spark to get a fire going. A fuel tank is messy, but with a little bit of power it’ll get the job done. I almost started seriously considering what I’d need to do to make good on my threat, before I realized I was still stuck in the middle of nowhere and Wrath was my best chance of getting the ten grand I would need to not have to keep a map of local homeless shelters this year.

“Ugh, you know what, fine! Call me dear if you want, hell, call me fucking honey-bunches-of-oats. I don’t even give a shit anymore. As long as you get me the fuck back to civilization and make good on your promise to pay me you can call me whatever the hell you want!” I shouted.

“That’s uncharacteristically cooperative of you.”

“If I die in the middle of nowhere I swear to god I’ll take you with me.”

Wrath snorted.

“There’s the Molly we all know and love. Anyway, if you want to leave so badly, Adrianne will take you.” He said.

Wait, where was Adrianne?

Warm breath on the back of my legs answered that question. I turned around to see giant shapeshifting panther that had apparently been driving the van before it crashed laying on the asphalt behind me. Adrianne was playing with an arm that hadn’t quiet realized it was dead yet. She let it scramble back towards the pile of corpses around Wrath, then batted it away with a giant paw just before it got out of her reach. It started scrambling again, slower this time, like some sort of macabre version of the itty-bitty spider nursery rhyme.

“Adrianne, take her to the Fairburn safehouse, pay her, then ensure she gets to a Church on the list. I’m going to remain here. After you drop her off, check your emails. If you can’t figure out how to work the computer, hurt someone until they show you how to open a web browser. If they don’t have a computer, remind them that having one is now mandatory and kill a couple of them. Then wash off and find a public library. If you ask politely, one of the attendants will explain how to access the internet.” Wrath said.

Adrianne ignored everything he said and continued to play with the disembodied forearm.

Wrath turned and ran off into the woods, leaving me alone with the giant panther. So, I did what any reasonable person would do. I hopped on her back before she decided to carry me by the scruff of my neck again.

For a moment, I wondered if Wrath was just screwing with me and I’d just jumped on top of an actual panther instead of a sentient shapeshifter. Then Adrianne flipped the arm she was playing with into the air, and chomped down on it. She finished it in two bites, and leapt to her feet. I held on for dear life as she bounded off into the woods in what I could only hope was the direction of Fairburn, Georgia. Adrianne surged through the woods, winding through trees boulders and bulldozing through anything less sturdy. I got the impression that she only avoided bulldozing through the trees and boulders for my sake. She still made phenomenal time, I felt less like I was riding an animal and more like I was on a roller coaster that just happened to head through a forest.

I slid down lower on Adrianne and shoved my head into her fur. Branches scratched at my back and pulled my hair, but I tried to make the best of the trip through the woods. I had to figure out how the hell I was going to explain my terrible life decisions to a priest and then find a way home that didn’t involve burning too much of my earnings. I’d need to replace my clothes and equipment too… Then I had to figure out a way to prevent Wrath from blackmailing me… This was going to be a long night.

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