“So the two you fought were generating sunlight?” Don asked.

“Correct. If I were anyone else in my tribe, the amount generated could have been fatal,” Jack replied. “That spell has always been something of a deterrent to my kind, but I’ve never experienced that level of intensity. It might even harm a human in this mage’s hands.”

“Imagine if he were to use something properly destructive.”

Allie almost couldn’t focus on Don and Jack’s conversation due to her overwhelming frustration at being dressed down by the Commander. He usually didn’t speak to field agents on assignment. That’s the handler’s job. This case was so important he must have decided to get more hands-on. She honestly hadn’t expected everything to escalate the way it did, but she was past that.

Confirming the mage would be easy. Magic would inevitably stain Dell’s house in a way she could detect and if he were inside it would be even better. Otherwise, they would look for where he might go. Since he didn’t directly try to kill Lucian when he had the chance, the odds were good that he had a place in mind to go with the boy to sacrifice him. Nature mages of all stripes were very ritualistic, and for something this big, he wouldn’t break the MO.

The neighborhood was older looking than Amber’s side of town. That wasn’t to say it was rundown, but a polite person might call it rustic. The yards showed a bit more dirt and fences were more metal than wood a bit more often. Dell’s property was like a well-organized junkyard. Surrounded by a tall chain-link fence, the area was filled with vehicles and large appliances in various states of repair. A covered work area also served as storage for some machines that were in the process of being fixed.

“You picking anything up, Allie?” Don asked.

Allie studied the house, a blocky two-floor number with drab tan siding. She could faintly see a distortion around the house itself, almost as if the light couldn’t get away from it fast enough. She checked for active minds as well but was disappointed. “Yeah,” She said finally. “There is something there for sure, but I don’t feel any living minds inside.”

“He’d be a fool to be here,” Jack sighed. Despite his words, he seemed to have been hopeful as well.

“Let’s head inside then and see what we can find.”

The trio approached the house carefully to avoid any surprises. Once they were at the door, Allie could feel wave upon wave of unhealthy energy wafting from the building, like the fetid stink of a landfill.

“Do you want to deep read it from out here?” Don asked.

“Hell no,” Allie scoffed. “I’m pretty sure I’ll get muddled. Remember what happened before? I think it was that can of bear mace he gave us.”

“That would make sense. Just let me pick the lock then.” Don said as she grabbed the doorknob and twisted it sharply. The familiar sound of cracking metal and wood filled the air. “And Viola.”

Allie pushed the door open and stepped inside. Were it not for the intense feeling of discomfort the house was generating empathically it might have been homey. The floor was a rich dark brown wood. The walls were the same, but the house was warmly lit, giving it an earthy and inviting aesthetic. The foyer led both upstairs and to what must have been a dining room and den at one time on the ground floor. Neither was this now. Both looked like low rent lab spaces. Books, both mundane and esoteric, sat in neat stacks and marked binders of notes littered the tables.

“I thought this place was big for one man, but now I have an idea of what’s eating up the space,” Don said.

“His skill makes this sort of thing expected,” Jack said. “Even still, this feels…”

“A little fuckin’ extra?” Allie spat.

“I would accept that, yes.”

“Let’s look around. Split up, but stay close. We don’t have a lot of time. We’ll stick to the first floor for now.”

Jack nodded and headed into the erstwhile den. Don followed Allie into the appropriated dining room.

“At least the guy is meticulous,” Don said hefting a large tome, filled with numerous colored tabs. “Someone is gonna love cataloging this place.”

“Let’s try to avoid ransacking it then,” Allie returned. “I don’t have the energy, and we don’t have the time for much discovery here anyway.”

Scanning the notes and handwritten documents should come first. The books would be unlikely to give much insight into where Dell was or where he planned to go once Lucian was captured. As she looked over the desk, she noticed a large package of permanent black markers. They were bold tipped, heavy duty, and all surface and from the pack of ten, only two remained. The whiteboard nearby had a pair of markers hanging from it that were dry erase, as would be expected. What were these for? Allie looked around the desk for a trash can but came up short.

“Hey, you see a wastepaper basket anywhere?” Allie said over her shoulder.

“Uh, yeah,” Don said. “Right here.”

The basket was stuffed with roughly crumpled papers. Other paper balls littered the ground around where Don had found it. As Allie flattened out a sheet, she found it dominated by a unique symbol. A circle with ten lines growing from it. Each line ending by looping back into itself, save one which circled the entire image before rejoining itself.

“I recognize this,” Allie said. “It’s a soul trap. The way everything loops on itself confuses souls and they turn around without realizing it. It’s simple, but complex trap symbols are easier to screw up.”

“So he was practicing this symbol to make soul traps? Why? Based on what Lucian said, the guy’s pet just grabbed that lost soul and ate it up.” Don said.

“Yeah, but if Lucian’s soul carries it shadow powers even after death, that means killing him loses the soul. It’ll escape undetected. This guy is probably got a soul proofed sacrificial room somewhere.”

Don sniffed the paper and rested it on her face. “I think these might be recent. If we’re lucky, he has a room, but it’s not ready. Regardless, I think this is good enough for us to confirm this guy is our mage.”

A soft click grabbed Allie’s attention. She looked around and caught sight of a transparent wall with numerous small symbols etched into it rapidly moving to seal the room. “Doors!” She shouted as she reached out with one of her telekinetic arms to grab the sliding wall, narrowly preventing it from locking down the room.

“Shit,” Don chimed in as she lunged for the sliding door. Allie had been able to hold it open just enough for Don to get her hands between it and the frame. “I got it.”

A powerful hissing filled the room as a wave of lightheadedness darkened Allie’s vision. She looked up, toward the sound. A series of tubes were poking out of the ceiling, spraying something into the air.

“Fire suppression,” Allie said, moving closer to the narrow gap Don was maintaining. “Probably CO2.”

Don strained against the wall, forcing the gap to widen somewhat. She pushed her shoulder into the difference and strained more, grunting with the exertion. “I can’t get a good angle. Try to wiggle through before you pass out.”

Allie nodded dumbly and fell to her hands and knees. She squeezed through the small space and almost immediately her head began to clear. She then braced herself and wormed her six TK arms into the gap. She began to fill the gap with her arms, coiling them like an octopus in the small space and forcing it open wide enough for Don to slip through. Her partner clear, she retracted her spectral limbs back into herself. The sliding door slammed shut with resounding force.

“Can I say how impressed I am with the pneumatics of that door?” Don said with a chuckle.

“Fuck that door,” Allie snarled. “Did we seriously almost bite it from a fire suppression system?”

“That would have been a pretty sad way to die, all things considered.”

“What set it off anyway? Did this asshole have a timer or something? Was he able to predict us that accurately?”

“Maybe he’s the world’s greatest detective. He has been one step ahead of us since we showed up.”

“Maybe Jack set it off?” Allie said as she scanned the room. They were in the kitchen now. It was a spacious room and free of the clutter of the dining room. At least this space was being used as it was designed.

That was when she felt it. Like a fish swimming through brackish water causes ripples, something was disrupting the thick fog of emotion and magical corruption that was drowning the house. It was coming from below and moving up to their floor.

“Something’s coming,” Allie whispered. She drew her knife and collapsible baton using two of her TK arms. She had been spoiling for a fight since the conversation with the Commander. It wasn’t the mage, but it would do. She glanced around the room, looking for additional weaponry and finding them in a cleaver and cast iron skillet hanging over an island in the middle of the room. “Let’s try and keep it quiet.”

Don nodded as she slipped on her silver knuckles.

The being that walked in was another homunculus. It was tall and humanoid in shape. Its arms and legs moved as though they had no bones and two orbs of scintillating light adorned its broad chest. Its head was a bit rounder than a human head should be and ringed with large eyes. Its mouth was cartoonishly large and filled with the same bizarrely perfect white teeth she’d briefly seen on the one Don had killed. Its skin was ashen grey and marked by patches of healthy human looking skin here and there. It moved into view with each step over exaggerating its weight, like a cartoon character from the 50’s.

“Does that thing have two fucking cores?” Don exclaimed.

“This guy is pulling off so much new bullshit, I’m not even shocked anymore,” Allie said. “This thing looks experimental. Let’s put it down fast.”

It noticed them and flicked one of its arms in Allie’s direction, the limb stretching to cross the space. She deftly blocked the blow with the skillet and trapped its fist with her baton. At the same time, she wielded the cleaver and her knife like a pair of scissors and cut through the homunculus’ arm. The stump snapped back to its owner who held it aloft with a howl of rage.

Don shot in like a bullet, low and fast, to capitalize on Allie’s opening. Her arm drew back, and muscles strained. She fired the strike, a vicious right cross that connected with one of the orbs on the creature’s chest, producing a satisfying crunch and spinning it on its rubbery legs. Don let her body spin past her target, killing the turn at the last moment and feeding all her kinetic energy into a hook that caught the creature in the same orb. The force sent the homunculus flying backward, its tangled legs losing purchase on the floor.

As it slammed against the wall, Allie smashed the cleaver into the damaged orb and hammered it home with the skillet. It immediately exploded, shattering the skillet and blasting the cleaver out of Allie’s grip.

The Homunculus hit the ground with a loose splat and began to writhe and thrash violently. Its limbs began to thicken and take on a more rigid look.

“Don!” Allie shouted.

Don lept on the creature, gripping its other orb and attempting to pull it free. The homunculus’ loose flesh stretched but failed to falter as its ashen skin took on a blackened hue. It leaned forward and sunk its teeth into Don’s arm. Don’s free arm flashed down even as her other pulled back. As Don’s knuckles met the floor, the beast found itself missing another extremity.

The homunculus spun to its feet, showing off newfound agility. It lunged at Don, driving its stump into her stomach with enough force to lift her off the ground. The creature then spun, causing Don to ride the punch into the air, over the beast, and into the ground hard enough for her to bounce. Its follow up kick sent her hurtling into the hallway and by the sound of breaking wood, into the basement stairwell.

It spun towards Allie as its gut opened into a great three-cornered mouth. It dashed at her at a terrifying pace, its final core glittering like an enraged eye. Allie grabbed the refrigerator with three TK arms and halted the homunculus’ charge by smashing it into the wall. The creature wobbled, and Allie hit it again. Then again. Then again. The fourth hit earned an explosion, bursting the fridge and sending its contents flying.

Allie tossed the remains of the broken fridge aside and made for the hallway. Her guess had been right. Don lay at the bottom off a broken staircase. She was moving, albeit slowly.

“Are you okay?” Allie called out.

“I am most definitely bleeding on the inside,” Don called back. “And I really want a nap, so sure!”

“You might have a concussion.”

“Allie, I know what concussions feel like.”

“So you don’t have one?”

“Oh, I totally have one. I’m just letting you know what I know.”

“Do you need some help back up?”

“Naw, I got it. Just give me some room.”

Allie backed out of the way, and Don sprang into view. She took a few awkward steps, wobbled, and turned to fall heavily on her backside.

“Gosh,” Don giggled. “I do hope he doesn’t have any more of those.”

“Knowing this bastard, he probably does. I just hope he doesn’t have any more of them here,” Allie said sardonically. “I’m gonna see what happened to Jack.”

Just a few feet down the hall, Allie got her answer. Behind another sliding glass door was Jack. He was leaning on the wall with his eyes closed. Allie thumped on the glass a couple of times to get his attention.

“Jack,” Allie shouted at the glass. “Are you okay in there?”

Jack opened one dark eye and strolled over to the door. “It’s good to see you are alive. I think he sprayed the rooms with carbon dioxide. I was worried you didn’t make it out.” Jack shouted back.

“You can’t pull it open?”

“No. The door goes into the wall a bit. I can’t get the angle or purchase needed. The symbols on the glass are prison symbols. The windows and shutters have them too. We can’t break out from in here.”

“Windows and shutters?” Allie muttered to herself. She turned and looked at a nearby window. It was just as Jack said. The windows had small magical symbols on them that were the same as the ones on the glass door.

“No matter how hard I hit them, they won’t budge. I tired the walls as well and got the same effect. We are going to need outside help to escape.”

Don walked up, rolling her neck. “So we got played?”

“Not exactly,” Allie said. “It looks like he booked it in a hurry since he left so much information laying around. Also, that homunculus was rough, but not what I was expecting. Based on what the others have been doing, that one felt more like a trial run for something better. I think he threw all this together with what was available.”

“I’ll take that. At least that means he’s feeling some heat finally.”

Allie’s phone began to ring. It wasn’t a choir ringtone. She quickly answered it.

“Allie? It’s Goldie! He’s here! The Mage is here!”

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