The town of Maplenut was a few hours east of Seattle, tucked cozily into the mountains and forests, near a sizeable lake. Distance from the city brought with it sweeter air than the pair of Choir investigators enjoyed usually. Unfortunately, a three-hour drive after a full night of chasing an unknown fiend had robbed them of most of their energy. For Allie, this was compounded by the struggle of reading through the prophetic information handed down by Mary. There were plenty of notes from the Watchers, the caretakers that dedicated themselves to recording and understanding the mad ramblings of the Oracles, but one could only do so much when it came to such things.

“The watchers have this pretty boiled down I suppose,” Allie mused as she reviewed the notes. She’d been reading in silence for most of the drive, doing her best to absorb the writings. “At least as far as the major players are concerned. There is the Thief of Eyes, the Chained Liar, the Mother, and the unknown whatever that’s most important but has no details to even hint at what it could be.”

“Could this unknown thing be obscured somehow?” Don asked, stifling a yawn. “Maybe a mage or something is hiding the thing we are looking for?”

Allie shook her head. “It would have to be incredibly powerful to override the Oracle’s clairvoyance, and even in that case, the Oracles would have been able to see it before it was obscured. They would still have some details. No mage ever recorded could obscure things through time.”

“So there has to be a link from one of the other players,” Don concluded.

“Agreed. The mother is pretty direct, thankfully. The Chained Liar is a little obscure. It’s suggested that it’s someone locked into some obligation by a lie.”

“And the Thief?”

“That one is murky, but it’s pretty clear that the Thief is the threat,” Allie said, tapping a finger absently against her laptop. “The references make me think a demon is involved because of the references to eyes which points to souls.”

“I’d agree, but the Thief part makes that suspect. Demons can’t steal souls. They can trick you into a deal, but would that translate into theft?”

“Possibly?” Allie rubbed her temples. “It could imply subjugation. That’s a demonic trait as well so I’d argue that could be theft. So either a loose demon, which I doubt or a mage.”

Don groaned. “I hate mages.”

“More than you hate demons? Besides, if it is a mage, you won’t have to fight it.” Allie gave her partner a reassuring pat. “That would be the best case scenario since espers eat mages for breakfast.”

Don fought down another yawn. “Wouldn’t that be nice? Big prophecy, easy fix?”

Allie smiled wistfully. “Yeah. Oh, is that it?” Allie excitedly pointed ahead at the town coming into view.

Don glanced at the GPS. “Looks like. I wanna sleep so badly. You know, if this town doesn’t smell like maple, I’m gonna be super duper disappointed.”

Allie rolled her window down. “How much is super duper?”

Don sniffed the air and let out a small whine.

Maplenut was a town of a little over five thousand people and had a distinct small-town vibe. The highway split the place in half and seemed to double as its main street. The buildings were all brick and stone, packed tightly on each block. None were more than three stories tall with shops on the ground floor of most. Many shops had large picture windows, covered awnings, and hand-painted lettering on the glass. A large, hand carved, wooden sign featuring a cluster of maple trees welcomed visitors to town. The townsfolk were reasonably active, shopping and conversing on the street, which was a good sign. Small towns with a conspicuous lack of human activity in the middle of the day were a big red flag that no investigator ever wanted to see.

Don pulled into a gas station just off the main road to top off the tank and stretch her legs. “Finally a break!” she said, leaning backward to crack her back.

“I think I’m gonna pop,” Allie muttered, heading for the store.

Inside the gas station was the familiar fare for the road weary. Various drinks and bagged foods were on display alongside some minor vehicle supplies. After leaving the restroom, Allie grabbed a local map from near the door and a pair of sodas. The counter attendant was a gangly, doe-eyed girl with a tight ponytail nervously speaking with an extremely pretty strawberry blonde girl in her late teens. The blonde had a slim stack of women’s magazines and seemed to be working on getting the attendant to give them to her for free. She was displaying a fantastic lack of shame as she leaned suggestively on the counter, allowing for an almost completely unobstructed view of her non-existent bra. Her shoulder-length hair framed her face perfectly and made her eyes stand out like sapphires. It was as she was tracing circles on the attendant’s hand that Allie noticed something important.

This blonde girl glowed. Not a pregnancy glow but an actual shedding of light that was warm like a fall bonfire. The warmth drew Allie in, coaxing her to drop her guard and get closer. She’d seen enough and pushed the light and its false warmth back with her mind. The girl was a succubus, and that light was a glamour. It carried a powerful hypnotic suggestion to either ignore or be aroused by the producer and was believed to be largely autonomic. She was young and obviously inexperienced, but her sense of self-preservation became evident as she started and turned abruptly to stare at the little esper who had just touched her mind.

Allie smiled at the girl. It was a warm albeit predatory smile Allie spent years perfecting. “Hello,” Allie said coolly. “Should you be doing that?”

The girl squeaked in alarm and fled, leaving her magazines on the counter and the attendant confused.

Allie turned to the attendant whose confusion was giving way to embarrassment. “Do you know her?” Allie asked, setting down her drinks and the map.

“Y-yeah,” the attendant stammered, still shaking off the effects of the young succubus’ glamor. “Her name is Goldie.”

“Goldie?” Alice thought back to what Mary had said about the succubus who was supposed to help them. She reached into the attendant’s mind to scan her surface thoughts as she couldn’t be bothered to strike up further conversation. Since Goldie was fresh in this girl’s mind, Allie was able to glean a wealth of information.

Allie finished paying and headed outside to find Don cleaning the car windshield. “Everything okay in there?” Don asked. “I saw some pretty little thing bolt out like her ass was on fire and I figured she’d upset you somehow.”

Allie laughed. “Oh, fine. That pretty little thing was a youngling succubus who was trying to glam a bunch of magazines out of the attendant. She might have been feeding on her too.”

“Might have been?” Don asked dubiously.

Allie shrugged. “Well, she was touching her.”

“Fair enough,” Don replied as she returned the squeegee. “Weren’t we looking for a succubus?”

“Yeah, with a name referencing the color yellow,” Allie said as she got into their car. “Would you believe that girl’s name is Goldie? And that her mother is named Amber? And that they work for animal control?”

Don blinked hard and burst into laughter. “Well, that was easy.”

“I know, right? Let’s get a move on. They’re right down the road.”

Allie and Don had little trouble locating the Animal Control building Allie had seen in the attendant’s mind. The area behind the building was visibly fenced off, and the parking lot in front was empty save for a single long bed pickup truck that had seen better days.

The reception area was small, with only a couple chairs, a small end table, and a reception counter. The walls were wood paneled and bare which gave the room a slightly unwelcoming feeling. Absent was the smell of concrete and animal urine often attributed to such places which attested to either fastidious maintenance or a lack of use. Behind the counter, Goldie was nervously nibbling her nails and pacing.

“Excuse me,” Don spoke up, grabbing the young succubus’ attention. “Is this animal control?”

“It is!” Goldie replied enthusiastically. She looked Don up and down in a rather deliberate manner and leaned coquettishly on the counter, her glamour flaring to life. “How can I help you?”

“Well, you can start by reining in your glamour,” Allie said with a disapproving tone as she stepped from behind her tall partner.

Goldie squeaked in fright. “Mom!” she shouted as she bolted through a door just to the side of the counter.

“What did you do to that poor thing?” Don asked wearily.

“I’ve been the soul of civility,” Allie shot back. “All I did was smile at her.”

Don gave Allie a hard look which Allie in return ignored.

Suddenly the door to the back of the building burst open and a woman who could only be Amber strode out. She looked like an older, thicker version of her daughter with less of a tan, brighter hair and greater respect for the purpose of clothing. She was wielding a large revolver and wearing a serious expression.

On instinct, Don pulled Allie behind herself as Amber opened fire on the pair. The revolver was loaded with buckshot and shredded Don’s shirt with little difficulty. A second and third shot sang Amber’s ire as Don’s flesh gave way to metal.

As Amber went to pull the trigger again, she found it locked in place. She strained to squeeze it but found it unyielding in her grip. She glanced down at the stubborn gun only to have it fly out of her hands and into the waiting hands of Allie who was peeking around her human cover.

“Whoa! Hey! We didn’t come here to fight!” Don shouted, holding up one hand. Had Don been an ordinary woman, she would most likely be dead or dying. Her body was blessed with inhuman levels of durability and save for a single bearing that punctured a lung, most of the rest of the damage was superficial. Her ability to regenerate wounds had already begun to staunch her bleeding but also trapped the offending bearing in her lung. She coughed violently and pressed her other hand to her side.

“Where is the one who is terrorizing my daughter!” Amber snarled.

“That was me,” Allie said. “I’m sorry. I was having a little fun. I didn’t realize how badly I’d scared her.”

“All I did was smile at her,” Don mumbled in a mocking imitation of Allie.

“Who are you two? You are not wolves?” Amber asked, cautiously relaxing her posture.

“We’re Choir investigators. I’m Allison Piper, and she’s Donna Kyle. I’m gonna come out. My partner would very much like not to be shot anymore, so if you wouldn’t mind having Goldie put the shotgun away?”

Even as she said it, Goldie was leaning out of the doorframe trying to line up a shot on the pair of agents. The younger succubus was trembling slightly as her mother gently pulled the loaded gun from her grip. “She’s gonna eat me!” she whimpered, relinquishing her weapon.

“Humans do not eat succubi, little one,” Amber said as she stroked her daughters face. “Even ones like these.” Amber returned her attention to the pair of agents. “She is disarmed. Are you alright, Ms. Kyle? Do you require medical attention?”

“Naw, I’m fine,” Don grunted. She leaned over, took a deep breath, and with a final loud hack, expelled the bearing. “It’s been a while since I’ve been shot. I’m glad you didn’t use something with a higher caliber.”

“Goldie thought you werewolves. Those bearings are silver. They do the job better than a single bullet could on them. I would not shoot a human. It is wasteful.”

Allie held up the bag of magazines. “Honestly, I was going to give her these as a peace offering, but she turned her charm on full blast as soon as we were in the door.”

Amber’s eyes narrowed, and she turned towards her now cringing daughter. “Go get your gift, Child,” Amber said, crisply.

Goldie sullenly walked forward and took the bag of magazines from Allie. She shuffled back to her mother and handed the bag to her. Amber pulled out the stack of magazines and examined them critically. After a moment, she selected one and tossed the others on the nearby counter. She rolled her chosen one into a tight tube and proceeded to strike her daughter repeatedly on the head.

“Stop harassing that girl for these wastes of paper and ink!” Amber snapped, punctuating each word with a rap on the head. “There is nothing in here for you, and you are going to get that poor girl fired.” She finished by throwing the magazine onto the counter in disgust. She turned back to Allie and Don. “I am very sorry, both for her and for my attack.”

“Eh, no harm done,” Don said, massaging bits of metal out of her chest. “Is now an okay time to talk? We need some help, and we think you are the person we need.”

Amber nodded. “I can make time for you. It is the least I can do after shooting you. Please come to my office.” She turned to Goldie who was eyeing her magazines but hadn’t dared make a move for them yet. “Get this place cleaned up before you bury your face in that tripe.”

“Yes, Momma,” Goldie said obediently and grabbed a nearby broom.

The pair of agents followed Amber down a wide hall past a room with some cages inside. There were a few dogs and cats to be seen, but for the most part, the cages were empty and the rooms clean.

“Will the gunfire be an issue?” Alice asked.

“I have had that room soundproofed,” Amber said. “It gives me an advantage if I get attacked which thankfully has only happened twice in the forty years I have lived here.”

“Can I ask why animal control?” Don said, scratching absently at her regenerating wounds.

“Animals are easy to control. I like them well enough, and they are an easy source of energy when I need it. I have”— Amber paused thoughtfully—”convinced the last few mayors to work me into the budget so that I can live fairly comfortably. That also ensures nobody looks at this place too hard.”

“Easy food is important when you have a kid,” Allie said. “How old is she?”

“Three. She is not maturing as fast as she should be. She is my first, and I am sure I made a mistake somewhere. I suppose that is why Mother told me to make a boy first. They are cheap, and no one cares what happens to them.”

Amber’s office was modest in size, with enough room to maneuver between the furniture. It was dominated by a large metal desk that looked older than the building. It was covered with small dents and that unique kind of bump caused by newer paint done over older chipped paint. There was a laptop on it and what looked to be a little intercom unit. In front of the desk was a single wooden chair set for visitors. In the corner on the right side of the room was a small couch with seats large enough an adult could sleep comfortably, but not so deep as to be awkward to sit on.

Allie took the chair by the desk as Don flopped unceremoniously onto the couch. After a moment, Don wiggled further into the sofa and expelled a content sigh. She then began to giggle. Allie gave her partner a withering look.

“I’m exhausted,” Don said plaintively.

“Can you not?” Allie asked with a scowl.

Don nodded and covered her mouth with her hands, but her hazel eyes still sparkled with glee.

Amber smiled warmly at Don as she settled into her seat behind the old metal desk, sliding the shotgun into an unseen holster underneath. “It is comforting to see such humanity from agents of the choir. I remember when investigators were much more severe when speaking to worldborn who are not under their thumb.”

“That’s what being unregistered earns you,” Allie said, purposely looking away from her partner. “It’s a matter of trust. Normally registration is a great boon to succubi. Everyone wins.”

“You are young,” Amber said, “You do not know your organization the way I know it. If you did, you might better understand my choice to stay firmly off your radar.”

“Are you pre-war?” Donovan asked.

“I am,” Amber said, her tone level.

“We try to be a lot more understanding of the ecosystem now,” Donovan said diplomatically “I know that doesn’t mean much from someone my age, but we do try when we can.”

“So it would seem,” Amber said as she relaxed ever so slightly. “Now you said you needed something from me?”

“We were sent here because of some vague information we heard and hoped you might be able to help us,” Allie said. “Have there been any unusual deaths or events here in recent days?”

Amber rested her chin in her hand, her pinky pulling thoughtfully at her bottom lip. After a moment she spoke. “I recall Goldie mentioning that there was an unusual death at the local summer camp. I did not ask for details as I had no interest. One moment.” Amber pressed a button on the intercom. “Goldie, come here please.”

After a minute, Goldie poked her head nervously into the office. Her hair was pulled back into a thick shoddy braid on the left side of her head. “Yes, Mom?”

“You mentioned a child died at the local summer camp? You will tell the investigators about it.”

“Oh yeah!” Goldie said, her eyes lighting up at the prospect of sharing gossip. “I was talking with that gas station girl -her name is Wendy by the way. She tastes like that look puppies give you when you call their name and they love you and stuff. Anyway, she was telling me that a few days ago a kid drowned at the local summer camp. She overheard when their mom showed up with a lawyer. I asked one of the boys that work as a counselor about it when I saw him at the arcade yesterday. His name is Ted, and he tastes like a playground on a summer evening when all the kids have gone home. Not in a sad way, but in a happy way. He should taste like he sucks at fighting games. That’s mean though because I cheat.

“Anyway, he said it was weird because the kid was a decent swimmer and drowned in the middle of the night when everyone else was sleeping. He thinks there might have been something going on with the owner’s son since he’s been holed up at home and no one is allowed to see him.” The information spilled from Goldie like glitter. It was clear that she had utterly forgotten her fear of the agents.

“Wow,” Don said with stunned amusement.

Amber groaned and dropped her face into her hands. “Goldie, please tell me you are not speaking that way to the humans around town?”

“No,” Goldie said, rolling her eyes. “Just you. And these guys. And Wendy because she is my favorite and she thinks it’s me being clairvoyant.”

Alice gave Amber a pitying look. “This is a great help. The camp is as good a place to start as any.” She stood up. “We’ll be going. We’ll need to get a room so we can get set up and rested for tomorrow.”

“If you would like, I have room for visitors. I would happily put you up,” Amber offered. “I think you’ll find it comfortable and my price fair.”

“I’ll bet it is,” Don said with a small smile.

Allie shot Don a look of frustration. “I’m sorry, Amber, but can I borrow your office for a moment to speak with my partner?”

Amber glanced at the pair of investigators and stood up. “I’ll be in the lobby. Come, Goldie.” She left the office with her daughter in tow.

As the door clicked shut, Don rolled her eyes and let her head fall backward. “Here we go.”

“I haven’t even said anything yet,” Allie said innocently.

“Oh don’t play coy. You think I just want to sleep with her and being in the house makes it easier. Well, I’ll have you know I have actual legitimate reasoning for taking her up on her offer.”

Allie turned her chair to face her partner better. “Do tell,” she said, taking on a relaxed air. Allie could always read Don’s motives without too much trouble. Her impulsive nature combined with their long history made Don an open book most of the time. Allie made it a habit of forcing her partner to explain her choices, not because her intelligence was suspect, but simply to make sure it was engaged.

“I am authorized to negotiate with any succubus that lives in my jurisdiction since I’d be the one paying them. I figure a pre-war succubus has to have some pretty solid contacts. She’s also smart. I mean, she’s got this town pretty shored up, right?”

“You think you are gonna turn out a pre-war succubus who doesn’t like the Choir?” Allie asked.

Don shrugged. “An addict is an addict. Blessed agents are like heroin, and if she’s been under the radar since the war, she doesn’t know about us recruiting succubi. I will have her on board in an hour.”

“And this has nothing to do with how you would be paying her?” Allie asked.

“Well,” Don said, refusing to meet her friend’s gaze, “a girl can have some fun, right? I mean, we have a super dangerous job. Besides, the more enthusiastic I am about feeding her, the faster it goes! It’s a win for everyone involved.”

“Now who’s coy,” Alice said, shaking her head. “We can stay, but only if she has a room for me with a lock. I’d like there to be no confusion about my consent to be touched and the little one appears to be a budding gourmet.”

“Succubi are kinda liberal with the concept of implied consent.”

*~*~*~*

Amber lived in a three-bedroom bungalow that looked to be kept in fantastic shape. The house itself was ringed with flowering bushes of different shades, and the yard was well maintained. The house was painted a yellow that was strikingly bright but not obnoxiously so. Unlike many of her neighbors, Amber’s house had a fence; a stockade style that was only waist high in the front, but roughly six feet on the sides and back.

The inside was well appointed, with a focus on natural materials and earth tones, giving off a warm, intimate feel. Various paintings and small shelving fixtures holding curios covered the walls, all seemingly filled with a story to tell.

In short order, Allie and Don were set up in separate rooms, with Allie’s prerequisite locks. Allie found her’s had a desk furnished with a lamp and alarm clock that she could set up as a workspace. She quickly typed up her notes for the day thus far before preparing a deep read of the room.

Empathy was one of the most commonly used powers that an esper had access to as it was relatively mild regarding mental exertion. As one of the three esper pillars, it was a valuable tool to master for no other reason than self-defense. Deep reading was among one of the first skills Allie developed as it showed the current emotional state of an object or environment as well as its history.  Emotions and intents couldn’t be scrubbed away, but they could be buried under layers of newer, stronger ones. Deep reading peeled these layers away, giving the esper access to sometimes life-saving clues.

A room was more complicated than an object and so it required more focus, weakening her usually static mental armor. As a general rule, she never read rooms without Don physically present. It wasn’t an operational protocol, but among espers, room reads without a spotter were widely considered foolish, so Allie left her room to collect hers.

Don, still wearing her shredded shirts, was in the living room speaking with their hosts. Don and Amber were sitting on the couch facing each other while Goldie had eschewed a chair and was sitting on the floor at her mother’s heel. Don was holding her hand against Amber’s face, gently cupping her cheek. Amber appeared flushed with pleasure, her body shedding the same soft light Allie saw on Goldie back at the gas station. After a moment, she pushed Don’s hand away and shook her head vigorously.

“Amazing,” Amber said. “I see no limit to your lifeforce. How is that possible?”

“That’s my strength of will you’re seeing,” Don said. “It never runs out nor can anything or anyone break it. We discovered that it allows succubi and incubi to feed off us without causing any harm. It’s nice to feed without fear, isn’t it?”

“It is,” Amber said, biting her lip. “How often would you allow me to feed on you if I agreed to the Choir’s terms?”

“Four times a year until you are full.”

Amber blinked hard. Her usually comported features now showing naked surprise and hunger. “Four times? Full?”

“That’s the standard deal. Anything more would demand special circumstances, and only high command can approve them. I would suggest thinking it over. Don’t just say yes, alright?” Don said as she rose from her seat. She walked over to Allie, leaving Amber in deep thought.

“Sorry for doubting you,” Allie said softly as the pair made their way to her room.

“Yeah. I doubt she’ll turn down being allowed to feed to her heart’s content without worrying about killing someone.”

Allie ushered Don into her room and shut the door behind them. “Are we worried about her making a new kid? You gonna be a momma?”

Don snorted with mirth. “Don’t make it weird. It’s life energy, not DNA.”

“You hooked her well enough.” Allie sat on the floor in the middle of the room. “Now, let’s make sure I’m not in a murder room.”

Don didn’t reply as Allie began her deep read of the room. Allie allowed her arms to rest limply at her sides as she started pulling in deep full breaths and allowing them to ease out her mouth slowly. With each breath, she felt her mind stretching further and further outside of herself. The edges of her mind probed the environment, seeking its natural boundaries. Soon her mind had filled every seam and crevice of the room, mapping itself for analysis. Allie took a moment to exclude Don from her mental inventory to avoid accidentally reading her. They were close, enough so that Don didn’t instinctively shut Allie down whenever she needed to touch her mind, but she still didn’t feel comfortable seeing that much of her old friend. Satisfied with her mental inventory of the space, she began her reading.

Empathy caused one to mentally see the world in various colors, each of which represent a different emotion. The room was awash in reasonably innocent feelings. Nothing stood out, leaving Allie with the impression the room wasn’t used much. When it was used, everyone present was pleased with being there. Satisfied that everything was safe, Allie allowed her normal state of mind to reassert itself and stood up.

“Is everything looking good?” Don asked.

“Yeah. Seems safe and healthy. If they’ve hurt anyone, it wasn’t in here.”

“What’s next?”

“Let’s make a midnight trip and check out this camp. So go take a nap.” Allie gave her partner a critical look. ”Alone.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Don grumbled as she left the room.

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