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The writhing mass of tentacles was making me think of calamari, which was the precise opposite of what I should have been thinking. When a writhing mass of tentacles is trying to drag you into an unknown hell realm, thinking about food is not really recommended. Still, it wasn't my fault. It's not like I'd summoned the thing.
It wouldn't have been summoned at all if Sanya R&D hadn't had their heads up their collective asses, of course. I'd told them trying to make a direct line to another realm was nothing but trouble. But hey, why listen to the consultant, right? That wouldn't make any sense. In their defense, they hadn't planned on the saboteur. Unfortunately, knowing who it was did precisely nothing in helping me out of this particular situation.
There was only one consolation in all of this. Kero was going to pay me when all was said and done. At least, he would if he ever wanted me to do that thing with my tongue again.
* * *
It was my fifth day of battle with the telephone gnome, and the casualties were rising. I felt I’d paid for the help I was given during the situation with the succubus, since all I’d done was make a single phone call without coins. The telephone gnome, however, felt that feeding five dollars into random pay phones about the city was not good enough. To emphasize this fact, it had begun blowing up my office phones. When I say ‘blow up’, I don’t mean that metaphorically. At the moment, I was staring at the hole in my window where my last phone had shot from the force of the latest explosion.
“This is getting really petty, you know!” I yelled at thin air, shaking my fist at the hole. “I’ve paid for that call some ten times over now!”
My rage at the war of the phones almost kept me from hearing the knock on my door. I say ‘almost’, because I had a finely attuned money sense. I quickly moved to my desk, throwing myself in my chair as I yelled for whoever was on the other side to come in. It was all for naught, though, since the man who came in surprised me enough that I couldn’t do my casual, hard-bitten street-ritualist act.
“…Kero!” I sat up, a smile coming unbidden to my face. Kero Sanya was head of Sanya Enterprises, the first name in personal defense. He also held the distinction of being one of the only three rich clients who’d actually paid me. Granted, both of the other non-paying clients had been killed by demons, but I don’t see why that should stop them from rendering payment in full.
“Ms. Berg, pleasure to…” Kero stopped mid-stride, his gaze moving to the hole in my window. His brow furrowed, and his jaw opened as though he meant to speak. No words actually came out.
“I’m having issues with the telephone gnome. You know how that goes.” Kero’s look suggested that he did not, in fact, know how it went. I opted to bypass that line of conversation entirely by gesturing to the chair in front of my desk. “Have a seat. Whiskey?”
“Absolutely.” Kero nodded as he sat, adjusting his suit jacket. Unlike last time where he’d tried to dress down, this time he looked like he’d just come from a business meeting. His hair had that wind tunnel tested look, and I'd wager the cost of his suit would buy a family of five two weeks’ worth of groceries. He still held himself with that air of authority I so admired, which only added to my desire to reach out and rub my thumb over his dimple. I chose, instead, to busy my hands with getting two glasses of whiskey.
“What brings you to my humble office, Mr. Sanya?” In spite of my initial outburst, Kero was rich, and he was probably a client. It didn’t do to treat rich clients too casually. Kero, for his part, didn’t seem to notice one way or the other. He simply sat back in the chair, folding his hands over his lap in a way that screamed ‘I’m trying not to fidget’.
“Well, Ms. Berg. You may recall that at our last meeting, I said if you impressed me enough I might offer you a job with my R&D department?” He didn’t appear to be joking, which made me have to struggle not to drop the whiskey glass and jump around like a pre-teen meeting her favorite celebrity.
“I do. I also recall that you’ve neither called nor spoken to me since paying me the large sum of cash I so dutifully earned.” I offered out the glass, and he took it with a grateful hand. He proceeded to take a longer drink than I thought necessary before speaking again.
“It’s only been a couple of months. Besides, I also got you that limo ride home.” He waved his empty hand in dismissal, his tone suggesting he was about to move on. I wasn’t so inclined to let him.
“A ride I earned, thank you very much. Unless anyone in your fancy R&D department makes a habit of grabbing the command threads of ethereal beings? No? I didn’t think so.” I snorted before taking a sip of my own whiskey. I’m honestly not sure why the discussion bothered me so much. I suppose I wanted Kero to understand that it had not been a normal job. Which I knew that he knew, but I’d been nearly fried from the inside out, so I was justified in making absolutely certain.
“Sorry. Are you happy?” I was about to make another snide comment, but the look on Kero’s face stopped me. In spite of the flippant tone, the man really was apologizing. I could see the look in his eyes, the mixture of annoyance and sympathy that told me he felt bad and wasn’t used to having to apologize even in a flippant manner. So I bit back my comment and simply nodded. He looked relieved for a moment, and then continued.
“Anyway. I don’t really have an R&D position open right now. But I do need a consultant.” He leaned back, his bearing screaming that he thought this was all I needed to know. Perhaps it was the lengthy silence that informed him of his error, or perhaps it was the unimpressed look. I’m proud of my unimpressed look. I had a lot of time to practice it on Eddie. Kero sighed, and began speaking again.
“My department is trying to create what amounts to a demon alarm. I know!” He held up his hand to stop me from going on the rant he had to know I was about to start. “It doesn’t actually involve summoning any demons. We’ve already got a couple of fireflies that have agreed to help out. The problem is that the guys I’ve got working are having a hard time figuring out how to keep the command threads strong enough to be a functional tool. It seems like the sort of thing you could probably work out.”
I sat back in my seat, pondering the offer as I drank my whiskey. On one hand, it’d be nice to have a simple job where the hardest thing I had to do was give people my wealth of knowledge. That was something I could do exceedingly well. On the other hand, I hated the idea of playing around with demons. That never ended well for me.
I was just about to err on the side of intelligence, when Kero pulled out a notepad. He reached into another pocket, and withdrew a pen with a methodical motion. With an over-exaggerated air of casualness, he flipped the notepad open and began to write. I arched an eyebrow, but my question was answered when he slid the pad in front of me.
“…That still isn’t…” I began, but he cut me off.
“That’s per hour. And I’ll take you to dinner. Somewhere nice.” He smirked, the sort of smug smirk of a man who knows he’s won.
I hate it when smug bastards are right.
How a place could be so clean and sterile yet heavy with magic, I’ll never know. Yet that was the feeling I got as I stepped into the R&D lab on my first day of my new job. I had tried to call my mother and tell her, but all she’d asked was whether or not Eddie and I had gotten back together. Billy had been somewhat more interested, though he’d wanted to talk to me about mass-produced swellowoil candles that most lab magic used more than my giant new paycheck.
I slid off my clothes, and slid on the company-issued robe that was hanging in my locker. The clean and sterile feel of the place was a far cry from the grimy back alleys I was used to working. I felt as though all eyes were on me, but I knew that wasn’t the case. The only two other people in the room were getting ready as well, and they were clearly professional enough to overlook everything. I could hear them talking about what the cafeteria was offering for lunch, and apparently Ted is sleeping with Nancy, but don’t let that tidbit get around.
Thanks to the fact that I was a consultant, and because I’d sweet talked the boss during negotiations, I had been allowed to keep my gun. I slid it into the protective pocket of my robe, and moved for the door. The robe felt strange against my body, the fabric giving off a different feel than the hand-made one I’d purchased for myself. It made sense that the company would provide their own robes for their people, since it was a good way to avoid lawsuits. Someone connects to the threads too long, or tries to pull a spellboy and gets themselves burnt from the inside out, the company can offer up their standard-issue robe for inspection and deny all blame.
I stepped into the lab, expecting…I’m honestly not certain what I was expecting. Odd stares from people who had successfully turned magic into their day jobs, perhaps. A haughty wizard staring down his nose at a back alley ritualist, maybe. What I got was a lot of nothing. I saw a young woman using a flute to have a musical argument with a radio, an older man rubbing what had to be the foulest smelling gunk I’ve ever smelled on an iron rod, and the faint whiff of a failed attempt to create flame bullets. One would think highly paid R&D threadworkers would know better than to try to attach a fire thread directly to a combustible item.
“You must be Ms. Berg,” came a voice from behind me. I spun around quickly, a hand going immediately to my pocket before I remembered that whoever it was was unlikely to be trying to kill me. At least for the moment.
Once fully spun, I saw a sharp looking woman, probably in her late twenties. She was slender, but she held herself tall and square as though she'd had issues with being on the petite side and didn't feel like taking guff. I could respect that. Her long blond hair was pulled into a tight pony tail, and she held a clipboard in her left hand. She also reeked of sulfur.
“That's what it says on my business card. Let me guess, you're on the demon alarm project?” I found myself wanting a cigarette, but there'd been a no smoking sign above the lab. I therefore busied my fingers by tugging on my robe, which was a mistake because the woman clearly took it as a sign of nervousness. I could see it in her ice blue eyes.
“Smell of sulfur that obvious?” She gave a soft, but ingenuine, smile before turning sharply. “My name is Gwen Jones. Follow me, please. I'll show you what we've got so far and see if we can't get you done with your part of this job quickly.”
“Not too quickly. I'm being paid by the hour.” I gave a chuckle, trying to pull at my own hair. I'd managed to shove it into a pony tail, but my curls had a thing about being confined and threatened to burst loose every few moments.
“I'd heard something about that,” came the cold reply. “Quite frankly, I'm not sure why Mr. Sanya felt the need to bring in a consultant at all. The project is behind schedule, but not by that much.”
“Well, I won't know why until I see it,” I said, giving her a shrug. “But I like money, so I wasn't inclined to turn it down.”
The woman didn't respond, instead turning into a room about the size of my office. Fireflies, small insect-like demons that gave off a greenish light, flittered about the room as two twin males made thread working motions. They were identical in every way, it seemed, from their short brown hair to their broad shoulders to the freckle on the side of their nose to their sloppy form as they weakened a thread.
“Keep a firmer grip, you two. You weaken that loosely, you risk the thread going wild when it snaps.” I spoke without thinking, which caused the two to look at me with a furrowed brow. In stereo, no less. They then turned back to their work, taking my advice into account. I could tell by how quickly they moved on to the next motion. Gwen was looking at me with a look that I could interpret as either annoyance or respect. I chose the latter.
“You're not even connected to the threads. How can you tell anything about their grip?” She spoke as if she was trying to talk around a particularly nasty tasting piece of bacon. I arched an eyebrow questioningly at her.
“How come you can't? Don't have to see the thread to see their form.” I rubbed my fingers together in an attempt to keep myself from trying to light a cigarette. This whole job was going to make me irritable, I could tell. Gwen simply shook her head.
“Why don’t you get connected and we can see where you might be of help.” She looked over the clipboard, and then looked over the threads the twins were working on. I presumed she was already connected, which made her inability to see their form even more annoying. I resisted the urge to write all of Kero’s problems off as ‘crappy employees’, and moved to the supply cabinet.
Crappy supplies, too, I realized as I opened the doors. I could tell immediately the candles weren’t hand-made, which dulled their strength slightly. Probably they were cheaper to buy in bulk, though, and as long as the thread worker was skilled, it wouldn’t matter. It still grated my nerves.
I grabbed what I needed, signed the sheet hanging next to the cabinet, and within ten minutes I could feel the heat of the threads slapping into my body. I took a deep breath, before reaching into my robe’s pocket and pulling out a notepad and a pen. I began to chew on the end of the pen as I stepped back to the workspace.
Threadwise, it was an interesting piece of work. I could see the item they were using as the charm, and the thread connections seemed solid at first glance. One of the fireflies flittered next to me, inspecting me as I inspected the thread connections. I arched an eyebrow at it, and it blazed a touch more brightly for a moment before flittering off. Fireflies were a weak, curious type of demon that were generally happy enough to help thread workers in exchange for kind treatment and food. I wasn’t surprised that they were being used in the creation of a demon alarm.
I could feel the trio's eyes on me as I inspected their work. I hated people watching me when I did my job. It’s one of the major reasons I’ve never taken an apprentice. Still, they were the employees. I was just a consultant. So I sucked it up and continued poking at each of the connected threads, feeling their essence, seeing what their purpose was. I could feel the demon-identifying thread, felt the sulfurous taste as I touched it, and found it satisfactory. Well, as satisfactory as the taste of sulfur ever is.
“So, how are you guys trying to access the feel of demonic essence, as opposed to just the fireflies?” I didn't look up as I fingered another thread, this one the anchor thread. Something about it felt strange, but I couldn't quite figure out what.
“Extra-planar access,” answered the twins in unison. That did cause me to turn, and arch an eyebrow.
“...Seriously? You're tying a charm to the other planes? Because there's no possible way that could go wrong.” I gave them my best disapproving look, just to make sure they understood that I was being sarcastic.
“Ms. Berg.” Gwen responded tersely, looking rather annoyed at my disapproval. “You have not been brought on to approve or disapprove of this project. You’re here to help ensure this project meets its deadline. I would appreciate it if you did that instead of attempt to pass judgment.”
I held back a snort, and went back to my work. I could already tell, this job was going to make me wish I’d stuck to back alley demon fights.
Second day of work, I stepped into the work area thanking several ethereal beings that the nature of my job meant no one would know I’d come in wearing the same clothes I’d left in the night before. Kero had made good on his promise for dinner, and then back to his place for a drink. Think what you will of me, but I find it difficult to say no to incredibly handsome, incredibly rich men when they invite me back to their place for a drink. I was so caught up in the memories of the prior night that I almost didn’t notice the short, squat man talking with Gwen. Gwen seemed absolutely enamored with everything he said, going so far as to lean in close and smile a bright, toothy grin at several of his statements. Either Gwen had a thing for short, round men who were obviously balding, or she had other reasons for trying to impress the man. My immediate guess was that he was some higher up manager in the company, but since I didn’t know, I figured I’d go with the subtle approach.
“Gwen, great to see you again. Who’s this?” I nodded towards the man before reaching back to pull my hair into a pony tail. You may think this was not the subtle approach, but I was pretty good at acting casual. I saw Gwen’s eyes narrow for a moment, before she went back to a business like demeanor. The man merely eyed me curiously.
“Ms. Berg, you’re here early.” She tried to keep a neutral tone, but I could hear just a hint of a desire for me to fall into an open pit and die. “Mr. Stedwiler, this is Samantha Berg. She’s been hired as a consultant on the project. Ms. Berg, this is Fredrick Stedwiler, he works for the Johnson family.”
My desire to continue this job quickly plummeted. The Johnson family was a business family with fingers in every pie and I wouldn’t be surprised if half the organized crime in the city paid them a cut. The last time I’d had any dealings with them, they were paying me hush money to not tell everyone that their eldest son had killed their youngest daughter in an attempt to summon a demon Overlord. I promptly slapped a polite, business like smile on my face before extending my hand. To his credit, Stedwiler didn’t hesitate for a moment, He reached out and took my hand, giving a firm yet polite shake.
“Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Ms. Berg. I’m glad to see Mr. Sanya is doing everything he can to ensure the project meets its deadline. Not that we've been worried, mind you. Miss Jones here has been impressing us since her first job.” He gave me a polite smile before letting go of my hand. Nothing about him was triggering any alarm bells in my head, other than the fact that he worked for the Johnsons. Given my past experience, that was almost enough. Only almost, though. They well may not have had any real knowledge of what their son had been up to.
“I’m just happy to be on the job, sir. Forgive my forwardness, but I hadn’t realized the Johnsons were interested in this project.” I kept myself polite and businesslike. I had no reason to suspect the man of foul play. Not yet, anyway. Plus, I had my gun, and I could always try the ‘he was coming right for me’ defense. I’d probably have to shoot Gwen, too, but nothing of value would be lost.
“They funded the project, ma’am.” His tone was smooth and even. If he was hiding something, he was good enough that I couldn’t tell. “Events in recent times have led them to believe that all people would benefit from a quick-response alarm in the case of demonic activity. There has been a rash of such things occurring in Sonyar City, after all. Since they lack the facilities to work on such a project, and Sanya Enterprises possesses such facilities, the choice was simple.”
More like if something went horribly wrong, it would be on Kero and not on them. Still, it seemed innocent enough on the face of it. Something about the whole thing still rubbed me wrong, but I was willing to chalk it up to a gut reaction to the name Johnson. I had plenty of reasons, after all.
“In any case, Miss Jones,” Stedwiler turned, his tone indicating he was finishing up the conversation. “Hopefully those items will be of better use for the ritual you need. If you need any other supplies, you know the channels.” He gave her a pleasant smile, before turning to leave. I arched an eyebrow at Gwen, but she ignored my obvious question, choosing instead to turn to a black case that Stedwiler had left on the table.
“What items? I wasn’t informed of any new items. And where are Jake and Brian?” I stepped closer as Gwen opened the case. I could feel the resonance as soon as the case lid rose up, before I could see the items themselves. I didn’t have a chance to interpret the resonances, however, because the items themselves were even more attention grabbing. There was a gold-bladed knife, three gemstones that glowed with a green-yellow sparkle, and a shoelace.
“They’re coming in later. And you weren’t informed because you’re a consultant. You didn’t need to know.” Gwen pulled the gemstones out first, one at a time. Each one she inspected carefully, holding it up to the light and peering at it in clear judgement.
“Right. Consultant. You’re supposed to be consulting me so we can make sure this project goes as well as possible.” Gwen didn’t respond, instead choosing to inspect the second stone. I sighed heavily, and tried again. “Look, Gwen, I’m not trying to take anything away from you here. I’m just trying to make sure I can do my job.”
“Ms. Berg.” Gwen’s tone reminded me of an annoyed school teacher speaking to a child who has once again managed to let their dog eat their homework. “You are here as a ritual consultant, yes. However, the records indicate you’re a ritualist, yes? Not a wizard?” She withdrew the shoestring, and grabbed it between a thumb and a forefinger. She then began pulling on the string with her other hand, inspecting the string in lengths. “So perhaps you should stand back somewhere and allow me to do my job.”
So that was the way she was playing it. Well, that was fair. I’d wanted to inspect the anchor threads, anyway. Something about them felt strange, and I wasn’t entirely certain what. I went to the supply cabinet and withdrew the equipment I needed, and ten minutes later I was connected to the threads.
By the time I was done, Gwen had finished setting up for the ritual she’d been planning. Now that I could see the golden criss-cross of the threads, I had a better idea of what she was trying. I could see the glittering threads in the knife and the gemstones, and the shoestring’s bright green gleam was particularly potent.
“…Do you really think trying to infuse the charm with the permanence of the shoestring is going to work?” I furrowed my brow as I watched her, blowing out each candle so that it didn’t get used up more than necessary.
“Since the problem we’re having is that the command isn’t holding here in this realm, it might.” Her tone held a certain amount of surprise, as if she hadn’t expected me to know what she was doing. One day, people will stop underestimating me. Today appeared to not be that day.
“Might also ruin a perfectly good ritual component.” I gave a shrug as I physically moved towards the charm. The anchor thread was still holding, and still seemed firm. But something about it still seemed off.
Gwen didn’t answer, choosing instead to begin chanting softly while placing the gemstones in a triangle pattern around the shoestring. I could see the threads connected to the gems vibrate in anticipation. They twitched and danced to the tone of Gwen’s chanting, as if preparing themselves to move. She picked up the knife, which began to hum in harmony with Gwen’s tone. Her hands began to glow softly as her words gained strength, and then the knife began to gain the same glow as her hands.
She held the knife for several moments, allowing the glow to become brighter before she sliced her index finger on the blade. She made sure the cut was deep enough to draw blood, and then began to smear the blood on each gemstone. Several nearby threads shifted, jumping from where they were connected to the stones and tying themselves around Gwen’s finger.
That done, Gwen set the knife down before picking up the shoestring. She moved quickly to the charm, before changing the style of her chanting. Her words became more forceful, and I could see the threads around her finger pulsate with the strength of her will. She dangled the shoestring over the charm, and began to speak the same phrase over and over. As she did so, the end of the string began to smolder, and finally burst into flame. The flame, a dull green blaze that moved with a far slower and more methodical pace than any mundane fire, began to eat its way up the string. It left nothing, not even ash, in its wake.
Once the flame reached Gwen’s fingers, she grasped it between her thumb and forefinger and placed it upon the charm. All the threads that had previously been part of the shoestring latched onto the charm, but Gwen wasn’t done. With a quick motion, she ripped several unnecessary threads. I watched the threads flop about in the ether before finally dispersing into nothing. She inspected her work carefully for a few more moments, before nodding to herself.
“I’m going to go clean up. If Brian and Jake get here, tell them that I expect the firefly essence threads to be fully connected by the end of the day.” Her tone was that of an instruction as opposed to a request. I decided to let it pass, opting instead to inspect the anchor thread as I’d intended.
I stepped to the charm, and began to gently poke at the thread in question. I had to be careful, since the anchor thread was what bound the magic to the physical world. If it snapped or frayed, it could undo the entire effect. I wasn’t too worried, since anchor threads were by their very nature made fairly sturdy, but I didn’t need Gwen hating me even more than she already did.
I wrapped my finger around the thread and tugged with the most tender motion I could manage. The thread was firm, so that wasn’t the strangeness I’d sensed. I did, however, notice the thread was a touch thicker than it needed to be. I pursed my lips as I continued to inspect, pinching the thread between my thumb and forefinger.
That was when I found it. Buried in the thread was another thread. No wonder I’d missed it on the first inspection. No one who wanted a charm to function would risk messing with the anchor thread. Yet it was very clear another thread was wrapped up inside. The question was figuring out what without undoing it completely. If I was careful, I could tie the thread to itself and take a piece without doing any damage.
I began to move as quickly as I dared, not wanting Gwen to come back and see what I was doing. Even if I was successful, I’d never hear the end of it. I grabbed the thread with both hands, pulling different sections towards each other. My fingers ached as I began to knot it to itself, keeping the effect anchored while making a small, loose section. I knotted once, twice, and then thrice before tugging on the knots to ensure they were solid.
Then came the moment of truth. If whoever had created the original thread was good, then the thread would hold fast even after I cut it. If they weren’t, then the thread would fade back into the ethereal. Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I grabbed the loop I’d created, pinched it tightly between my fingers, and twisted.
The bit of thread came loose, and I held my breath. The thread pulled against its knots, trying to unbind, but the knots held. I breathed a sigh of relief, and then inspected the bit of thread I held. I pulled apart the anchor, and promptly hated what I saw.
A control thread. There was a control thread hidden inside the anchor thread. I couldn’t tell what it was trying to control without looking at more of the thread, and I couldn’t look into that without pulling apart the anchor. Whoever had set the thing up was clever. Well, ‘who’ was obvious, at least on the face of it. Ritualists rarely created threads, since it took a lot of energy. Wizards created threads, and there was only one wizard on the team.
My mind raced for other potential suspects. It was unlikely anyone not involved in the project was going to have enough access to create the thread, and I couldn’t see any way to get a control thread in there without doing it on creation. I was just about to call it, when I remembered Stedwiler. If Gwen had been getting outside ritual items, it was possible there’d been something done to the items she was using. If it was subtle, she might not have even noticed. And it wouldn’t have been the first time someone connected to the Johnsons had decided to do something really stupid involving control threads and the ethereal planes.
I turned back to the anchor thread, reaching out to smooth it before anyone arrived. If they saw the thread knotted, they’d know I’d been messing with it. It wouldn’t do to let people know I was on to them, whoever ‘them’ happened to be. Thankfully, smoothing the thread was far easier than knotting it to itself, and I finished without much effort. Good thing, since Brian and Jake walked in just as I finished.
“Ms. Berg?” They both said in unison. I suppressed a shiver, but sweet ethereal did I hate bound twins. I turned, giving a bright smile.
“Hey! I was just inspecting some of the connections. Oh, speaking of which! Gwen says she wants the firefly essence threads connected by the end of the day.” I wiped the sweat from my forehead with the back of my sleeve, hoping they didn’t ask too many questions. They didn’t seem inclined to, instead opting to sigh heavily.
“At least if the essence threads stay connected…” began Brian.
“…we should be almost done.” Finished Jake. “Has Stedwiler been by…”
“…Already?” They both moved to the charm, acting as though there was absolutely nothing weird about two people finishing each other’s sentences in that way. Did I mention I hated bound twins?
“Yeah, he was talking to Gwen when I got here. He come by here often?” I kept my tone casual, leaning back against the nearby wall to rest. Messing with the anchor thread had taken a little more out of me than I’d thought, and now that the adrenaline was wearing off, I was getting tired.
“Every couple of days,” Jake started. “He claims the Johnsons…”
“…Are really interested in the project. Gwen hates him, though.” The two were busy calling the fireflies, and thus didn’t notice me furrow my brow.
“How do you know? He seems like a nice enough guy.” I pushed myself back up to my feet, watching the two as they plucked the firefly summoning threads like harp strings.
“Whenever he leaves, she has the…”
“…worst things to say about him. She’s always muttering about it under her breath. We never…”
“…really asked her.” The two of them shrugged, focusing intently on the summoning. Good thing, too, because I was positive I looked less than thrilled with this information.
“I’ve gotta go make a phone call, you guys. Hold down the fort?” I disconnected from the threads, letting my focus slip from the ethereal to the physical. The twins simply gave me a nod of acknowledgement.
I left the lab, and moved quickly through the building. I expected odd looks, but was surprised to get none. I suppose people who worked in the building were used to the occasional thread worker escaping the lab. I made my way past cubicles, through hallways, until I finally got to Kero’s office. His door was closed. Luckily, he had a secretary I could bother.
“Hi. Samantha Berg…I need to see Mr. Sanya?” I stood straight, keeping my hands clasped behind my back. The secretary, an older woman with a beehive hairdo and thick, black-framed glasses, didn’t even look up from the thing she was typing.
“Mr. Sanya is in an important meeting and can’t be disturbed. If you’d like to make an appointment…” Her dismissive tone annoyed me, but I bit the annoyance back.
“I’m a consultant on the demon alarm project.” My own tone was flat, which was the best I could manage under the circumstances.
“I’m sure you are, ma’am. As soon as Mr. Sanya is finished, I’ll let him know you came by. I’m sure he’ll call down for you if he can make time.” She continued to not look up, her fingers clacking quickly on the keyboard of her computer. This was going to pose a problem. I began to ponder different tactics, from simply walking in to informing the secretary precisely what parts of Mr. Sanya had been very friendly with what parts of me the previous night, when the office door swung open and saved me the trouble.
It brought me other trouble, however. Stedwiler was stepping out of the office, along with Kero. They were both smiling and laughing, looking rather friendly with each other. I suppressed a shudder.
“I’m glad you understand, Mr. Sanya. We don’t want any trouble, we just want to make sure the project goes well.” Stedwiler was smiling broadly as he said this, reminding me of a shark that had spotted its meal.
“Oh, absolutely. Like I said, you can tell the Johnsons that I’m doing everything I can to ensure the project goes as planned.” Kero gave a nod, and the two shook hands before Stedwiler turned to leave. They both noticed me at the same time. Stedwiler, to his credit, didn’t even hesitate. He simply gave a polite nod and then moved on. Kero gave me a bright smile.
“Samantha! Just the woman I wanted to see. Come in, let’s talk.” Kero stepped aside and gestured inside his office. Not wanting to piss off a client, I moved quickly. I should say ‘piss off a client more than necessary’. I couldn’t imagine Kero was going to be particularly pleased to hear what I had to say.
Comparing the poshness of his office to mine was much like comparing the wingspan of an albatross to a mosquito. Fancy paintings hung fashionably about the place, and a leather couch sat pressed against the wall. His desk was made out of a style of wood that I recognized as being native to the wetlands, and I suppressed a gut urge to smash it before it became a giant centipede. Kero closed the door behind me, and moved towards his desk.
“Stedwiler claims the Johnsons wouldn’t be happy with you on this project.” Kero didn’t play around. He sat down behind his desk, leaning back in his chair with a casual motion. He kicked up his legs, putting his feet atop his desk, and rested his hands behind his head as he spoke. “Said your name’s gotten around as a back alley ritualist that’s always gotten in trouble with the cops.”
“More like I know what happened to their eldest son and youngest daughter.” I said with a snort. Kero arched an eyebrow, but otherwise was silent. I shook my head. “Demon summoning attempt. I don’t say much about it because they paid me a large amount of hush money.”
Kero didn’t say anything for a few moments, pondering things. I saw his lips purse, his eyes roll up to the ceiling so he could look at something other than my body language, all signs of trying to weigh the information I’d just given him against other information he had. Finally, he looked back to me.
“So why’re you up here? I presume you had something important to tell me?” He kept his feet up on his desk, not even gesturing for me to sit down. I’d let him sit down in my office.
“I’ve found the reason the charm isn’t working.” He arched his eyebrow in a silent suggestion to continue. “I don’t think it’s being designed to alert for demons. Someone buried a control thread inside the anchor thread.” I spoke triumphantly, because this was obviously a giant piece of information. Kero was silent for several moments before finally speaking.
“…And that means…?” Kero's sporadic knowledge of thread work still confused and surprised me. I held back a sigh before starting again.
“Control threads are what you add if you’re trying to summon a demon. It helps make sure the demon’s not going to go haywire as soon as it steps into this realm. There’s only one of two possibilities of how it got there, too. Either Gwen did it on purpose…”
“…Or someone’s been getting her rigged ritual items.” Kero nodded, understanding what I was saying. “And she’s been getting items from the Johnsons through Stedwiler. Can you check the items, see if they’re rigged or not?”
“Only if I can get to them without Gwen noticing.” And then my mind fully digested what Kero had just said. “Wait, you know she’s been getting ritual items from Stedwiler?”
“Johnsons are paying for the whole thing, really.” Kero gave a shrug without actually moving his hands from behind his head. “Gwen occasionally tells me she needs some really specific ritual items, I send the requisition forms off to them.”
Well, that gave me some new information on how things worked here. And why Kero's knowledge of thread work was so sketchy. He probably knew only as much as what crossed his desk. I rolled that information around in my head for a moment, before nodding.
“You have copies of those forms?” Kero gave me a look, and I sighed. “Of course you do. I want those, and Gwen's personnel file. And I need a way to stall the completion of the project until I figure out what's going on.”
“You're a consultant.” Kero shrugged again, not seeming bothered by any of it. “You can stall by running constant interviews with the project staff. It's in your job description and everything. As for the files, I'll have them to you before the end of the day.”
I knew there was a reason I liked the man.
* * *
You may wonder why I didn't just call the cops and be done with it. The first, and most important to me, reason was that it could wind up looking bad on Kero. If the Johnsons were behind the whole thing then they'd already set Kero up to take the fall if anyone found out. If Gwen was behind it, then it would still look bad on Kero because one of his employees had decided to use his resources in a demon summoning attempt.
The second reason was that anything even remotely involving the Johnsons did not involve the cops except in whatever capacity the Johnsons decided it did. Which meant that getting the cops involved would do nothing at best, or actively hurt Kero or me at worst.
Instead, I busied myself the rest of the day testing various threads for strength. And by that, I mean I degraded threads attached to the charm whenever no one was looking. The twins weren't skilled enough to catch me, and Gwen's thread sensing ability was only as advanced as being able to judge the strength of threads. Wizards usually weren't capable of judging more, since the way they tuned into the threads differed so much.
True to his word, one of Kero's aides was waiting for me when I left the lab for the night. He handed me a manilla envelope, and I spent the cab ride home and half the night studying it. Sadly, it didn't tell me much. Nothing about the ritual items stood out to me, given the nature of the project. If they hadn't already been planning on making the charm work by connecting it to one of the cross-planar threads, I would have questioned. As it was, I merely questioned how they planned to make more than a few dozen of the things without degradation. Cross-planar threads only tolerated so much pull on them at any one time.
Gwen's personnel file wasn't particularly interesting, either. She'd worked for a few other companies, mostly as an academic. If I'd had time, I'd have placed a few calls to her prior places of employment. I didn't recognize the name of her instructor, though given her age and how many years of experience she claimed, I had to presume it was family or a friend. Unless she'd met one of the few professional teachers when she was seven, anyway, which was doubtful for a variety of reasons. My mother might have known, but she still wasn't talking to me since my divorce, so that line of thought was right out. The only interesting thing about her resume was that she'd taken her first job in the Ethereal Studies section of the university. That was a little ambitious for a kid that age, and suggested she had a friend or two in high places, but not exactly suspicious. Probably didn’t have much time for a social life, though.
I filed the information away, and went to bed with the plan to be in the lab bright and early the next day. My plan was about as useless as studying Gwen's personnel file. I'd arrived two hours early, only to find Gwen already diligently at work. She was standing in a circle of salt, the ring finger on each of her hands blooded, chanting in some wizard language I didn't immediately recognize. I stood at the doorway, watching. She ignored me completely, only stopping in her chanting to pull a notepad and a pen out of her robe's protective pocket and make some notation before starting up again. I chose to politely wait until she stopped chanting and broke the circle by spreading the salt out with a bare foot.
“How long've you been here?” I stifled a yawn, before taking a drink of the coffee I'd picked up in the locker room.
“Since five this morning.” She spoke so casually that I began to wonder if she didn't comprehend that normal human beings slept at five in the morning. “Given how many previously strong threads began to snap yesterday, I felt it wise to arrive early and apply extra strength to the mounting areas.”
Well shit. That would make it difficult to pull the same trick I'd pulled yesterday. It also made me realize that I'd been making the mistake of thinking magically instead of mundanely. Wizards may not be able to sense whether a thread snapped due to being naturally weak or being degraded, but a smart person might still notice that more threads than usual were beginning to break. I kept my cool, taking another drink of my coffee as I leaned against the door frame.
“Makes sense,” I said after a few moments. “Well then, I'll connect and give things a once over. See how close we are to being done and what...”
“Not much need, Ms. Berg.” She reached into her robe's pocket, and pulled out a white handkerchief. She used this to wipe the blood from her ring fingers. “We'll be done by mid-day. I've already taken stock of the threads, and all we need are a few firefly essence threads firmly attached before we're done. In fact, we don't even have to wait for Brian and Jake. Any ritualist who happened to be on the project and ready to work could get it done.” She looked at me expectantly.
“Right, right. Hint noticed, Lady Subtlety.” I shook my head, moving to the supply cabinet. “You do good work, by the way. Who was your teacher?” I asked casually, trying not to let her know anything was up.
“My mother, naturally.” Naturally. At least I'd been right about her teacher having been family.
“You still close?” I signed out the candles I needed, and began to move off to an empty corner. “Mine won't talk to me since I got divorced. Said I could have tried harder to make it work. Somehow, pointing out that my ex's version of events where I'd walked in on him in the middle of a simple misunderstanding was not the same as my version where I'd walked in on him in the middle of a lounge singer didn't help anything.” I looked up to Gwen to gauge her reaction, hoping she could at least chuckle at the flippant way I'd spoken. Instead, she was looking down at her hand, a far away look in her eye.
“My mother died when I was fifteen. A...botched ritual.” She shook her head, suddenly getting control of herself. She looked over to me, a small smile on her face. “In any case, Ms. Berg, work quick. I've already informed Mr. Sanya and Mr. Stedwiler that we should be ready for a demo by one.”
“...A little premature, don't you think?” Through an epic amount of willpower, I kept myself casual sounding. I busied myself with laying out the candles and lighting them, which kept me from having to look at Gwen directly.
“Not at all. Even without you here, I'm certain Brian and Jake could have gotten the work done. Since you're here, too, I think we’ll have time to take a long lunch before the demonstration.” She seemed so confident that I hated to disappoint.
Gwen had been right about the work. Even with me going as slow as I could without destroying my rep, Brian and Jake made things move without a hitch. Apparently they were at least trained enough to not screw up when the threads had been reinforced. Yeah, I wasn’t too happy about it, either.
It was one on the dot when Stedwiler and Kero walked into the lab. I’d had to disconnect from the threads, both to avoid magic burnout and because I didn’t need anyone suspecting me of anything. Kero caught my eye as soon as he came in, and I read his look as asking me if I’d managed to fix the problem. I gave him one back to say not really, and his next look asked me if I had a plan. I gave a shrug of my shoulders before deciding I needed to stop speaking in body language before people thought I was having a seizure.
“Mr. Stedwilre, Mr. Sanya,” Gwen began after a moment. She had changed from her robe into her normal clothes, which made her look less like a threadworker and more like an office worker. “First, let me thank you for allowing me this opportunity. I feel like this project could be a real turning point not just in my own life, but the lives of so many others. None of it would be possible without you.”
She was piling it on thick. I stood in the back of the room, near Brian and Jake, trying not to look tense. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe when she activated the charm, it wouldn’t actually summon a demon. And maybe Eddie would suddenly be an honest, responsible man and we could make our marriage work again. Gwen stepped over to the gold bracelet that we’d worked so hard on, smiling a polite business smile.
“I’m sure you’ve read the reports I’ve sent, but I’ll summarize quickly. By tying a basic danger sense effect to firefly essence threads, we managed to make the magic pick up the scent of the extra-planar. But that would only allow us to sense when a demon was already here, which is hardly satisfactory. So we then came up with the idea of anchoring the command thread to one of the cross-planar threads. This, if we’re right, should allow the charm to sense when demons are near to the barrier, and thus help people keep alert and keep safe.” Gwen reached into her pocket, and pulled free a small knife. “Naturally, there are still some small bits of work we need to do. It still can’t be activated without life’s blood, which is a flaw common to extra-planar threadwork. But if the basic command works, then I don’t foresee that being an issue.”
She unsheathed the knife, and drew the edge across the palm of her hand. For a moment, I hoped that maybe the entire thing wouldn’t go to hell and there wouldn’t be a demon summoning. Sadly, I still hadn’t learned what happens when I hope things. As soon as she mouthed the words, I knew exactly how bad things would go.
Even without being connected, I saw a swirl of blackness begin to wrap around the bracelet. Short but insistent streaks of purple lightening shot from the blackness, demanding that we notice a being of power was near. My hope that maybe Gwen hadn’t been a virgin died as the first tentacle slid free of the void. It was a grey-brown color, and the ethereal slime dripped off of it in a way that made me think of a runny nose. The room was stunned into silence, no one saying a word as the thing felt around on the table, trying to get a sense of where it was.
The silence broke as three more tendrils burst from the void, splattering ethereal snot everywhere. Gwen screamed and turned away, and I could already see Kero moving towards an intercom on the wall. For my part, I turned to Brian and Jake, who stood stock still, staring at the demon with wide, fearful eyes.
“Keep me steady!” I yelled at them, hoping to get their attention. It did. They blinked in unison, and stared at me questioningly.
“But isn’t that…” began Brian.
“…Dangerous?” finished Jake. I didn’t have time for this.
“More dangerous than the demon coming out of one of the upper realms?!” Hopefully they got the point. They did, as they grabbed hands with each other and me. Once circled, I began to chant quickly. Words tumbled out of my mouth with more force than ever before, and I could feel my insides begin to roast as the power of the threads began to course through me. It only lasted for a moment, though, as Jake and Brian began to grab up the extra energy, keeping my physical form solidly within the physical as my mind connected with the ethereal.
I turned as soon as I was connected, only to come face to pseudopod with one of the tendrils. I had just enough time to think that this must be what a rabbit feels like when facing down a hawk before Kero managed to throw himself at the thing. He grabbed it as if meaning to wrestle the thing away, but the tentacle flung him aside like yesterday’s garbage. It still bought me all the time I needed. I reached into my robe’s pocket, and pulled free my gun. Not a moment too soon, either. Two of the other tentacles had already grabbed Stedwiler. Gwen was tucked into a corner, trembling with fear.
I planted my feet and raised my gun, taking aim at the base of the blackness. I didn’t expect my shot to actually kill the demon, but I hoped it would weaken it. I braced myself, pulled the trigger, and watched as the familiar blue ball of energy formed at the barrel of the gun before it blasted like a rocket through the air. It hit its mark, and the tentacles made a screeching noise that bent my mind in unpleasant ways.
I shrugged it off, trying to take stock of the threads around me. Everything thrummed with extra-planar power, the kind of ethereal energy that the physical realm never had without a summoning present. The anchor thread was my first thought, but the demon was already moving its way into the physical world. That would be useless. And even though only part of the demon had crawled through the barrier, the control thread being cut wouldn’t do anything but send the thread back into the void. Even if I managed to kill the demon, there could be more just waiting at the barrier. I had to find a way to kill the demon and shut down the barrier at the same time.
That was when it hit me. For a split second, I saw the threads the way I’d seen them when I’d been part of Fynaran. Thread upon thread upon thread, the taste of what I saw and the smell of what I heard all slapped into my awareness before fading. But that split second was all I needed. The tendrils came after me, all four of them focused on killing the thing that had hurt it.
I dove to the side, ignoring the sickening wet slapping noise the tentacles made as they just missed me. I rolled up to my feet, and ran towards the blackness, hoping I was right. Without a second’s hesitation, I grabbed the anchor thread, and tugged. The thread pulled tight, and finally snapped. I grabbed the end connected to the void and the demon, aimed my gun, and pulled the trigger.
The tentacles shot at me again as the blue ball of energy began to form. I wrapped the end of the thread around the energy, feeling my fingers burn physically as I tried to handle activated energy. I got the thread tied just as the tentacles hit me, sending me flying off my feet and across the room. My entire body screamed in pain as I hit the supply cabinet. I fell to the ground amidst a hail of ritual supplies, but adrenalin made me look back up at my foe.
I looked up just in time to see the enchanted bullet sphere zip through the air, its momentum increased by the slingshot effect of the control thread. It finished activating just as it hit the void, and the resulting explosion of magic caused the entire room to shake. More importantly, however, it caused the demon to be divided into a sum of its parts.
By that, I mean the room was covered in blood, viscera, and tentacle pieces. The smell was horrible, but not the most horrible thing I’d ever smelled, which made me decide I really needed to re-evaluate my life. I pushed myself up to my feet, dragging myself towards where Kero had landed to check on him. He was just beginning to move, and he looked up at me as I made it to him.
“…Keep this up, and I may just make you a personal body guard.” He managed a weak smile, and I rolled my eyes.
“I…I don’t know what happened!” Gwen shrieked from her corner, before looking at Stedwiler. She gasped, her eyes going wide. “Those items…they must have been tainted!”
“Excuse me?!” Stedwiler looked at her from where he was busy getting to his feet. He was leaning fairly heavily on a chair that had miraculously not been shattered, and I could tell he was working to hide how much pain he was in. “We gave you no such thing!”
“How else could this have happened?!” Gwen was doing a good job of acting, but I knew better.
“Chill, Gwen. Not buying it.” I spoke firmly, refusing to allow even the slightest bit of question to my voice. The tone made everyone stop and look at me. Guess the show was on. I drew a breath, and began to explain.
“I got a hint something was wrong the first day I was here. Something was weird with the anchor thread. When no one was looking, I managed to tie it off and take a piece for inspection. Someone had buried a control thread into the anchor, making it impossible to find unless you knew what you were looking for and were willing to risk the entire project for it. Lucky for me, I’m paid hourly.” For some reason, no one chuckled at my joke. Philistines.
“But with tainted ritual items…” Gwen began, but I cut her off with a shake of my head.
“It’s a convenient excuse, especially since the items that would need to be tainted tend to be destroyed with the casting. If you’d succeeded, you’d have a handy demon to call your own. And even if you’d been stopped, you could have taken out Stedwiler and made a legal hell for the Johnsons. Still, good as you are, I didn’t get hired for my curly brown hair.” I could see Gwen’s façade begin to drop as she glared daggers at me. The throbbing pain in my ribs made me not very concerned.
“I did some searching around in your personnel file, Gwen. Quite ambitious, the way you got your first job at a university at the age of fifteen. Quite frankly, that’s the sort of job that you don’t get unless you have friends in high places. I didn’t think too much of it, until you told me that your mother had died when you were fifteen. That’s when I remembered something else I’d heard earlier.” I turned my gaze directly onto Stedwiler, and I didn’t even care if he knew I was accusing him of something. “The Johnsons have had their eye on you since your first job, haven’t they, Gwen? I’d say that could be a friend in a high place. Combine that with the way you were sucking up to Stedwiler here, and how determined you were to get this project going, and I’d almost say it was like you were trying really, really hard to get their attention. And if I'd had any doubt after all that, I watched you activate the charm. What were those activation words? 'I give this blood to'...but I missed the demon's name.”
The room was silent, all eyes on Gwen. For her part, Gwen stood there, glowering. I saw her tremble, and the deep breaths she took pierced the silence sharply. The silence stretched on, past awkward, right into uncomfortable before she raised her head, her blue eyes like ice.
“…They killed her!” She finally shrieked, glaring daggers at Stedwiler. “You thought I didn’t know, didn’t you?! But I knew! I watched my mother get the items Franklin and his father needed to do that summoning! I know she didn’t botch anything! And then you tried to shut me up by putting me in a job that shut me away in a damn library! But I knew! And I knew that if I just waited, I would have a chance!” She turned away from Stedwiler, and steadied her hatred on me. “And you ruined it! You ruined my one chance, you…”
She charged, and I could see the murder in her eyes. Thankfully, Brian and Jake were there before I had to react. The grabbed her, holding the smaller woman back before she got to me. I would have to remember to thank them, because after everything, I was too spent to fight. Gwen struggled against their grip, screaming and yelling obscenities until she finally broke down into sobs.
“…I’ll call the police. I need to report this situation in any case,” Kero finally said, mercifully breaking the silence.
It took almost an hour for medical check ups to be done, witness statements to be made, and a clean up crew to arrive. The whole time, I couldn’t help but watch Gwen in the back of the cop car. She sat with her head down, not looking up so much as once after the police slapped the cuffs on her and read her her rights. Even though she’d summoned a demon, I couldn’t help but have sympathy for her.
“You get checked up?” Kero’s voice finally snapped me from my reverie, and I looked up at him with a nod.
“Yeah. Couple of cracked ribs, but nothing dire. They said to take it easy for a few weeks. You?” I thought about trying to act tough and not stand with my hand pressed to my ribs, but decided against it. Hardly seemed like it mattered.
“Minor concussion. Pretty much the same thing.” He sighed, shaking his head carefully. “I’m gonna have to shut down the entire lab during the investigation, too. That’s going to sting.”
“At least you don’t have to explain to the Johnsons how you let one of their people get killed.” I managed a slight smirk, to which Kero rolled his eyes. He then scowled, and reached into his pocket.
“Speaking of which. Stedwiler ran off almost immediately after the cops got here. But he said to give you this.” Kero pulled an envelope out of his pocket, and offered it out to me. I arched an eyebrow, and he gave a shrug. Since I didn’t see any more reason to ask, I simply took it and opened it.
The first thing that caught my attention was a bundle of bills. A quick count told me it was easily over a grand, and possibly more. Also tucked inside was a handwritten note. It had been scrawled quickly, to judge by the slant of the writing, but somehow managed to be neater than my own handwriting.
“Ms. Berg,” it read. “The Johnsons thank you for your continued efforts for the family. Please be well.” I looked at the note with a scowl, wishing I was still connected to the threads and had access to a fire thread.
“You could always turn the money down, you know,” Kero said helpfully. I shook my head.
“We both know I can’t. Not their money. Besides, let’s face it. I only did what I would have done anyway, and I really like money.” I gave a shrug, managing not to wince at the tug on my ribs.
“On the topic of money,” Kero said, giving a business like smile. “I believe I owe you something for your work, don’t I?”
I hesitated for a moment, and then returned his smile with a rather genuine one of my own. It was nice to know at least someone out there cared.
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