Lucille was anxious. After speaking with the two out-of-towners, she’d sent Jack to follow them and see what he could learn. She’d wanted to return home, to check on Lucian, but milled instead around cabin five and waited for Jack. It was still daytime, so Lucian was probably awake and reading. His cabin fever was becoming more noticeable by the day, and she didn’t want him to overhear anything that might make him feel adventurous.
Lucian had calmed a great deal in the days since Rowan’s death, in part due to her meddling. She didn’t want to strip him of his memories of his friend, but she didn’t have a problem with numbing his grief. Her mother and her demon had warned her that while emotional manipulation was a powerful tool, it had limits and dangers one needed to keep in mind. Lucian already showed signs of her tampering, but she’d always justified it with the thought that cold people could live away from others easier. She’d cursed him just by being his mother. No matter what Jack said, she’d do anything she could to prepare him for the life she’d given him.
The crunch of gravel broke her self-reflection. Jack was approaching the cabin, his face a mask of consternation. It was an alien expression on a man who always seemed so self-assured.
“Well?” Lucille asked.
“They’re most definitely Choir,” Jack said.
“They did us a favor,” Jack said with a sigh. “They found our unwanted guest and killed it. Well, more like it found them and got killed for its trouble.”
“Then why don’t you sound happy about it?” Lucille said, concerned. “They dealt with it like they wanted and now they’ll leave.”
“Not likely,” Jack said with a shake of his head. “Our guest was a homunculus.”
“What? Like a little fake person?”
“No. It’s basically a witch’s imp.”
“I’m a witch, Jack. I’ve never heard of those.”
“You also have a strange hereditary deal with your demon and didn’t bother to study,” Jack said, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “And you aren’t a witch. You’re an infernal mage. Witches are nature mages, like Druids and Wiccans and such. They are singularly weaker than you, but they can do a lot more. Such as use slivers of their souls to make servants which are called homunculi.”
“So I have some witch wandering around murdering my kids?” Lucille said, her voice dripping with malice.
“Based on the thing I just watched almost choke the life out of that big agent, it’s probably a coven. I’ve never heard of a single Witch having a strong enough soul to make something like that alone.”
“Why is it here?” Lucille’s voice was bordering on shrill.
“Was,” Jack corrected, taking Lucille’s face in his hands.
She was growing hysterical, and she knew it. Jack was a ground to the storm of fear that had rolled into her heart. She just needed to stop fighting sometimes. She took a deep breath and pushed his hands away, even as she pushed out her breath. “Why was it here?” She said.
“I can’t begin to guess. Let’s instead focus on questions we can actually answer, like how did it get past your wards?”
“The main road is the only way. If something managed to break the wards, I’d have known about it and everywhere else is sealed. I wouldn’t make a mistake like that.”
“That thing was like a horse from a surrealist’s nightmares. It also had a built-in silence spell, so it was pretty sneaky for it size.”
“We had that gate guard during the season. Could it have snuck by him?” Lucille asked.
Jack rubbed his chin. “Maybe? It would have needed help, though. I suspect it was smuggled in. Homunculi are usually kept in small containers as soul cores if they aren’t required. Their soul cores magically construct their flesh so you can move them without drawing attention.”
“So one of these witches probably visited during the season and left it here?”
“It would make the most sense,” Jack said.
“This loops right back to why Jack. Why sneak in a monster to kill a random child? Kill Larry? Almost kill a Choir agent? It’s stupid! What’s here that they could possibly want?”
Jack didn’t answer. He gazed off into the distance before slipping his hands into his pockets. Whatever was in his head, he wouldn’t give it voice. Lucille had seen this look before. He had it when she would ask about her grandmother. He was good at keeping secrets, but poor at hiding that he had them.
“Jack?” She said after the silence became too heavy.
“The only things here are you, me, and Lucian,” He said quietly before his eyes met hers. He didn’t say anything else. He didn’t have to.
Feedback is inevitable. There will be times when an esper sees or experiences something that their mind can not adequately withstand. These events usually lead to muddling. The esper loses control of their powers and gets trapped in powerful memories. Defining moments that made them or broke them. These moments are anchors and act as armor from overwhelming psionic feedback. Without them, that feedback would rip through the esper’s mind like an enraged bull, leaving permanent damage in its wake. It’s a trained state but still very unpredictable, and the effects of the memory can be hard to shake off.
Allie ran over this knowledge in the hopes it would smother her guilt at being unable to help Don. Even worse than being unable to help, she’d instinctively brought up a painful memory to save herself and inadvertently thrown it in Don’s face. Mentioning Dominic was a major no-no between the pair. It made them reckless. His name was a reminder that doing everything right could and would still go wrong and sometimes it was other people who would pay for it. It was a difficult lesson she was going to have to keep learning.
Allie had been relieved to find Don’s pulse was stable even as her breathing was labored. It was something of a fortunate-unfortunate as it meant that her power of will had stopped Allie from telekinetically lifting her. So Allie found herself acting as a human stretcher and floating the pair back to the car. He powers work on her own body just fine, so it was the only tenable solution. She’d have chosen a less awkward pose, but laying the large woman flat was the only position that didn’t exacerbate her breathing issue, which indicated at least one broken rib.
Allie was grateful in a sense, that their fiend had been a homunculus and that Don has ripped its core out. The massive corpse had rapidly evaporated, saving Allie from having to hide and later retrieve it. The fact that it was a homunculus was a bone of contention. Since it was a servant monster instead of some wild nightmare spun from chaos, it had a human master. The idea of two mages working in tandem was much more reasonable but significantly more concerning.
Getting Don to that car had been more ridiculous than difficult, but loading her into the passenger seat was both. Don was two hundred and thirty pound of muscle. Allie was one hundred pounds of bones, hair, and cookies. She felt like a leopard trying to pull a water buffalo into a tree. After five minutes of crawling around Don like a particularly well-motivated spider, Allie was finished loading her partner into the car. The act had allowed her to find three more broken ribs, bandage up Don’s badly cut up arm, and check for blood on Don’s breath. Satisfied that her partner hadn’t sprung any other concerning leaks, she drove back to Amber’s.
Amber was home when Allie arrived. She’d sent Goldie to work, but opted to remain at home to assist the agents. Her willingness to help was welcome, even if it was just because of the prospect of a meal. Amber carried Don into the house with ease. They rushed to Don’s room and laid her carefully on the bed.
“What did this?” Amber asked.
“A homunculus,” Allie said as she struggled to take off Don’s shirt. “Help me here. I think she’s got some broken ribs and the bandage job I did on her arm was kind of crap.”
After they finished treating Don’s injuries, Allie called Mary. She needed to report in as well as let Mary know what had happened to Don.
“Girls?” Mary answered. “Did something happen? You usually send a written report first.”
Allie brought Mary up to speed on the events since her last report.
“Is Donna ok?” Mary’s voice tensed ever so slightly.
“Some broken ribs and her arm got cut up badly going after its core, but she’ll live. I’m worried though because she’ll be out of commission for at least a day.”
“It is what it is,” Mary said, her voice relaxing considerably. “As long as she’s alive. I’m glad you two were able to stop that homunculus.”
“Don stopped it. I just shot it to grab its attention before it could bite her. She got the core out after that, but Mary, it went off like a bomb. I didn’t know they could do that.”
“Wait, the core actually exploded or did it release a force wave?”
“Actual explosion. Like a grenade. I was twenty feet away, and it was like getting kicked in the chest.” Allie said, rubbing her chest absently.
“I’ll look into that. I’ve never heard of that happening when a soul core is removed. Cracking or turning to sand is normal, but exploding is unheard of.”
“It was a pretty abnormal Homunculus too. It was the size of a Clydesdale, and it was easily stronger than Don. Last time I’ve seen her manhandled like that was at the academy.”
“That would take a coven to make. Our prophecies don’t show anything like that. Just three major actors and the known unknown.”
“We’ve found infernal wards around the camp that are unusually powerful, so their maker has to be in the area. Could an infernal mage augment the abilities of a witch?”
“It’s possible. Demonic soul manipulation could be used in conjunction with the nature magic involved in crafting a homunculus, but the infernal mage’s demon would have to be uncharacteristically selfless to allow soul manipulation for any reason outside of tribute to itself.”
Allie was pacing the room, making no attempt to mask her frustration. She felt like they were missing a detail, but what?
“Let’s look at something else,” Mary said after a moment of silence. “Doesn’t this all seem to be escalating? You had a child drown. Subtle but easy to explain away. Then you had a man half eaten by a homunculus. The bear story works because anything else would be terrifying. Then that same creature attacks you and Don in broad daylight? A creature that would have taken great skill to make. Also, you felt that a powerful infernal mage crafted the wards around the camp. These are not the works of bumbling amateurs. What could cause such skilled casters to make such increasingly erratic choices? Choices that increase the chances that Choir agents might show up.”
“What if it wasn’t a choice? We’ve been assuming that the drowned child was on purpose,” Allie said. “But what if it was a mistake? No amount of skill can absolutely prevent a mistake. After all, a dead child at a summer camp is sure to cause it to close, at least for the season. If they wanted kids, shutting down the camp nets you only the one you killed. Whatever these mages want must still be there because it escalated after the camp closed.”
“Goldie mentioned that the camp’s owner has a son with a reputation for late night wandering,” Amber said, cutting in. She’d been quietly listening to the conversation, sitting and holding Don’s hand. She was glowing, something Allie had only just noticed. “If a child was the goal and they have not left, perhaps they want him?”
“That seems-” Mary began, but Allie cut her off.
“What the fuck do you think you are doing?” Allie snapped, as she lunged forward and snatched Don’s hand away from the light shedding succubus.
“My apologies!” Amber said, throwing her hands up defensively. “I was trying to help. I know my feeding cannot hurt her, so I am using it to deaden the pain. I had hoped it would help her wake sooner.”
Allie stared hard at Amber for a moment before sighing deeply. It was true that a feeding succubus caused humans no pain. She’d never considered using it as a painkiller. Don’s face did seem more serene, and Amber had been reasonably straight with them since they arrived. Allie nodded and placed Don’s hand back in Amber’s. “I’m sorry. Thank you.”
“I assure you, my touch is light,” Amber said, again taking on a soft glow.
“Is everything all right now?” Mary asked,
“Yeah. Sorry.” Allie replied.
“As I was saying before,” Mary continued, “That would be a reasonable explanation for what our mages are doing. It would also give us two actors. The camp owner as the Mother and her son as our known unknown.”
“It doesn’t explain how oracles can’t see him.”
“You’ll need to find the boy and see for yourself. Maybe then you can get a handle on what’s hiding him from view.” Mary’s voice trailed off.
“Mary?” Allie said, concerned. “Mary, are you okay?”
“Hiding from view. Obscured in shadow.” Mary mumbled. “I need to speak with the commander. Find the boy and figure out what his deal is if you can. Also, dig up what you can about his mother and the camp itself. You are close to a breakthrough. I can feel it.” Mary abruptly ended the call, seemingly too excited to say goodbye.
Allie sat on the edge of Don’s bed, deep in thought. With Don recovering, going near the camp was too dangerous. Since the boy seemed never to leave it, that task would have to wait. Researching the camp, however, would only require a visit to the courthouse. She could also talk to Goldie while she was in town and see what else she might know about the boy.
“Amber, I’m going into town to do some research. Can I trust you with my partner?” Allie asked.
“Of course. I did not get this old being avaricious,” Amber said softly. “I am committed to your cause.”
Allie nodded and went to her room to change.