Mathew Bartholomew Trent cursed at the traffic around him as he tried to shift over to the right hand lane. Driving was something he'd always found stressful, even before the Shift, and the locals attitudes towards his kind didn't help reduce his stress much. Sure, the odds were against the idiots who kept cutting him off knowing what he was, but as he pulled into the parking lot filled with police cars he knew that the people waiting for him did.
"You finally got here," one of them sneered as he stepped out of his unmarked car. Adjusting his never-to-be-sufficiently-damned necktie, Mathew coolly ignored the comment as he asked the officer where Detective Jenkins was.
"Inside," the officer jerked his head at the fast food restaurant.
Mathew gave the officer his very best pleased-to-meet-you-I-don't-see-how-much-you-hate-me smile. It never failed to infuriate the locals, which made it one of his favorite interpersonal tools. How often can you enrage the locals while ostensibly trying to reduce tensions?
"You," Jenkins complained. "What are you doing here?"
"Lieutenant Hendricks sent me," Mathew informed the odious, bigoted, fat man. No, not fat. Obese. Medically obese. Criminally obese! With years of now useless mental discipline, Mathew effortlessly throttled the giggles the mental image of Jenkins carting himself off under arrest for obesity before they could show on his face.
"I don't need you, I don't need your kind, and I don't want you here," Jenkins sneered.
Mathew let his own distaste flicker across his face for a moment before bringing his dispassionate, business-like countenance back, knowing that the knowledge that the antipathy was mutual would torment Jenkins to no end. After all, whatever his other faults Jenkins at least tried to be the cool, professional police officer. When it came to magi, new or old, he failed, and that had to grate on his sense of professionalism.
Mathew knew he was being petty, but he was sick and tired of all the bigotry over powers he no longer even had. Oh, he still knew more about magic than any other living person, but his strength was all but lost. The greater spells were beyond him, and even the most minor of magics strained him to his limits. Levitating spoons was about his limit these days, and only for a few moments at a time unless he wanted a nosebleed and a headache.
"So, what's the situation?" he asked.
"Babe behind the counter just handed the contents of her register over to a stranger who walked in off the street," Jenkins jerked his head at the woman in question, frowning. "Nobody knows him, nobody recognizes his photo, which the security camera caught quite clearly."
Mathew frowned. "Sounds like compulsion," he murmured. "Odd."
"What's so odd about that?" Jenkins frowned. "We track the guy down and toss him behind bars."
"It may not be that easy," Mathew sighed. "In fact, I'll guarantee you're going to need more help than I can provide."
"Oh really?" Jenkins raised an eyebrow. "Why?"
Say what you will about the man, Mathew sighed, but he was a professional, however much he loathed the very idea of magi. "Compulsion is a rare and difficult form of magic. The human mind resists intrusion, and even untrained individuals can easily break rudimentary Compulsions once they become aware of them. What you usually see in mind magic is Suggestion, the act of implanting ideas or thoughts that lead a person to pick a specific choice that they might choose to make anyway. It's subtle, and can't force someone to do something against their will."
"To quote the lady in question, she found her body simply obeying the bastard. She knew what was going on, she couldn't just not do it," Jenkins frowned. "Is that compulsion?"
Mathew closed his eyes in sudden dread. "Oh yeah," he agreed. "The very worst kind. Absolutely no suggestion involved, just brute force to overcome her mind. That requires strength, one hell of a lot of strength. And it's really not good."
"Enough to create a 'slow brain bleed' as a 'calling card'?" Jenkins asked. "I thought that was just a silly death threat, but from what you're saying it might be more."
Mathew's head jerked up. Medical magic was rare, difficult, and generally power intensive. Something as sensitive as creating a minor cerebral hemorrhage would have been a strain for him at the height of his powers. "Fuck!" he swore. "Get me to her, now, and call an ambulance!"
Jenkins didn't ask, he just grabbed Mathew by the arm and dragged him across the restaurant, using his bulk to smash aside anyone who got in his way until they reached a young lady sitting in a not very clean booth. Then again, the restaurant as a whole could use a good wash.
Kneeling, he took her hands in his own. "Ma'am, I'd like to cast a minor spell to check your health, with your permission," he asked.
"This 'bout the brain bleed he gave me?" she asked, scared. Mathew nodded.
"It's very hard to do that kind of thing, but detecting it shouldn't take much power so I can still do that much at least," Mathew sighed. "I've already arranged an ambulance just in case, since I can't fix the problem."
"Do it," she nodded convulsively, then closed her eyes and started shivering, obviously frightened. Mathew closed his eyes and whispered a few words under his breath, then opened them. "Well?" she asked, "when are you going to do it?"
"I'm sorry," he whispered. "May I attempt to cast a spell to slow the bleeding?"
She opened her eyes in shock. "It didn't hurt!"
"No, of course not," Mathew smiled, "but you are bleeding, and it's bad. With your permission, I'm going to attempt to slow the bleeding."
"Will it hurt?" she asked. "Pastor always said-"
"I don't know what your pastor teaches, ma'am," Mathew cut her off gently. "I don't run around causing pain, I never have. I've hurt people, yes, but only when necessary to defend myself or others. Even before The Shift revealed magic to the world at large and stripped my powers, I fought for the good guys, tooth and nail. Please, let me help you."
Jenkins grunted. "I don't much like his kind myself, but he's never lied. That I've caught him at." Mathew suppressed a smile at the qualification. How like the bastard.
"Please," Mathew begged. She nodded, swallowing, then closed her eyes again. Mathew took a deep breath, and closed his own eyes. Reaching out to touch the flow of magic around him was hard, oh so hard, but he managed it. Reaching further down, to touch the flow of energy in the earth below was still beyond him, but at least he could tap into the ambient magic that everyone around him gave off. It wasn't much, but maybe he could make it enough.
The words he spoke weren't important, the soft susurrant noise of his voice was just a focus for his thoughts as he reached out to touch her brain. This stage of the spell was the easy one, a simple refocusing of his mind from the macro to the micro, from the outer world to the world of her body. Once inside, the diagnostic spell he'd started with guided him straight to the problem, where he gently wrapped his mind around the damaged blood vessel. The injury itself was expertly done, a gentle weakening of the walls of the vein until it slowly tore under it's own pressure. The Shift had negated much of Mathew's power, but his skill remained, and thankfully this was a job that called for skill, not brute force. In mere moments he'd begun chanting a different spell, pulling the broken ends of the injury together and restitching them. It wouldn't hold forever, but the body was an incredible, resilient machine. It could finish what he'd begun readily enough, and with time could even deal with the blood that had leaked.
"Cancel the ambulance," he whispered as he let the lady's hands drop. "Do get her to a hospital and have a doctor keep an eye on her to make sure nothing goes wrong, though. It's just not an emergency."
"A brain bleed is nasty stuff," Jenkins commented. "I'm not comfortable with just calling off the ambulance if there really was one. Especially since-" Jenkins' mouth snapped shut, and Mathew smiled at the realization that Jenkins really was trying to meet him halfway. Maybe he should tone down on antagonizing him somewhat.
Hell, his genuine concern for the young lady certainly improved Mathew's opinion enough that he wasn't sure he wanted to twit him anymore! Not much, anyway.
"Whoever did this was good, very very good," Mathew frowned. Jenkins wouldn't understand just how bad that was. "He did almost no damage, and what damage he did was very easily corrected. It took skill, which I still have, to do the repairs. Power wasn't needed."
"Here," Jenkins handed Mathew a napkin. Mathew looked at him blankly, and Jenkins sighed before wiping under his lip with a finger. Mathew touched the skin under his nose and sighed at the dampness there. A nosebleed.
"Of course," he acknowledged as he caught the flow, "I don't have much power anymore anyway." Mathew almost fell over as he tried to stand.
"You okay?" the lady asked, and Mathew smiled at her.
"Just tired," he reassured her. "I'm just going to go sit down over there for a bit."
Jenkins walked him over to the table he'd pointed to. "She'll be alright?"
"She'll be fine, physically at least," Mathew nodded. "Mentally may be another issue entirely, unfortunately. I want guy, this I want him bad," Mathew sighed, then added an explanation. "I meant what I said earlier. I've been a paladin of sorts for a long, long time."
"Paladin, huh?" Jenkins shook his head. "I don't like you. I don't like your kind. But I think I'm startin' to respect ya."
"Oh?" Mathew asked.
Jenkins nodded at the napkin that was rapidly turning crimson. "I've done my research. The kind of strain it takes to produce a nosebleed is going to give you a blinding headache before too long, but you didn't even hesitate."
Mathew shook his head. "I'm no doctor, but I've been a member of the Justicari Council for thirty years. I still am in fact, the only High Justicar still active. Not that it means much anymore."
Jenkins nodded. "That's why the pastors hate you so much, you've rejected God's Judgment and just kept on doing what you've always done."
"I'm fifty years old," Mathew laughed. "I can live with disappointing a few pastors."
"God will call you to account, eventually," Jenkins warned.
Mathew smiled. "I can live with that. What I couldn't live with is the bill I'd have to pay if I let even one innocent be harmed that I could have prevented."
Jenkins fingered his firearm idly, mulling that thought over. "I think I'll have a few words with the pastor of my church," he sighed. "I don't approve, magic is wrong. But you have the right ideas, whatever I think of how you go about doing it."
Mathew blinked in surprise. He opened his mouth to continue the conversation, then changed his mind and the subject. "Call the FBI sometime soon, they have information on our perp."
Jenkins nodded in thanks for the change of subject. "Alright. Anything I should know?"
"I was working on a case before they moved me down here as your new liaison," Mathew said, wincing as the headache started to set in. Hopefully Jenkins wouldn't put it down as a reaction to the 'unfortunate demise' of the last liaison. It wasn't exactly the local cops' fault, after all. Probably. "If it is the same guy, he's way out of bounds. He used to work in the DC area, so moving clear down to Texas is quite a shift for him."
Jenkins nodded. "Bit out of his way, I'd agree, but it happens. Maybe he just got a new job."
Mathew nodded, dabbing at his upper lip with a relatively clean corner of the napkin. Yeah, the nosebleed was stopping, or at least slowing. Too bad that just meant the headache was setting in. "I'm not prepared to speculate on that subject," he told Jenkins, "but I will say the MO appears identical. I'm going to contact some friends up that way for more information, but it appears that some important details were missed."
"Important details?" Jenkins asked. "Like?"
"In all the previous cases, the cerebral hemorrhage was detected and dealt with using mundane technology," Mathew winced at the stilted phrase, but it was better than saying what he really thought about some of the so-called 'medical' procedures still being used these days. Medieval butchery at least had the excuse of not knowing any better approaches! "As a result, no one was able to examine the injury close enough to realize how expertly it was created."
"Expertly?" Jenkins' eyebrow rose. "So this guy is a preexisting magi?"
"Worse," Mathew pursed his lips. "I'm almost certain he used to be a doctor of some kind, probably one who focused on the brain. Neurosurgeon or something similar. He knew exactly how to wear away at the vein to make it tear under it's own pressure, rather than just cutting a teeny-tiny hold into it. That isn't the mark of an amateur who doesn't know what he's doing."
Jenkins frowned. "Not exactly the most clear cut of evidence, but I suppose I understand your point. This guy doesn't just know his way around magic, he knows brains pretty well too."
"Partially incorrect," Mathew whispered, letting his genuine fear show. "This man knows brains very well. He doesn't have a clue how to use his powers, and he's using brute force to substitute for mystical skill."
Jenkins accepted the correction with a frown. "So how do we find him?"
"All I know," Mathew told him, "is that we need to find him, fast. He's getting stronger, and Compulsion is forbidden for a reason. It's a violation of one of the Three Greater Laws."
"Greater laws?" Jenkins asked. "That sounds like-"
"Don't read more into it than was meant," Mathew cut him off. He was tired of the ranting the subject brought out. "It wasn't an attempt to suggest that these laws should stand above 'normal' laws, it's just the name we gave them to distinguish them from the greater body of magical rules. The Three Greater Laws are important because they aren't dictated just by morality, they're dictated by the sheer danger of breaking them."
"Danger?" Jenkins was sounding distinctly unhappy now.
"Yeah," Mathew nodded. "All three of them exist not because the spells they forbid are evil, but because the power you call to yourself is inevitably corruptive. They stain your soul, if you'll forgive my use of the word, and the more you do them, the more stained you become."
Jenkins harrumphed. "So whoever does it just gets worse and worse?"
"Yeah," Mathew nodded, "and that's why we need help. This guy is strong, very strong, and while so far he appears to be a two-trick pony there is no telling when that may change. Worse yet, he's going to keep doing this, and he's going to become worse about it. At the moment, he's relatively 'nice', but that's going to change, fast."
Jenkins nodded in reluctant understanding. "Like a rapist. They get their kicks easily enough to begin with, but every time they have to go just a bit further to get the same 'high' off their crimes. They grow deeper into evil with time."
"Close enough," Mathew nodded. "In fact, there are some real similarities there. Compulsion could be considered a kind of mental rape. She's going to have a lot of issues to work through, just like she's been raped. Not the same issues, but both of them involve a loss of control to a stranger who just takes it from her."
"No sex," Jenkins grunted. "Can't be that bad."
"Ask any psychological professional, rape isn't about sex," Mathew snapped, instantly regretting it as the sharp motion set icy knives digging into his skull.
Jenkins snorted. "You're going home, now," he ordered.
Mathew nodded gently. "If you could get some ibuprofen, that'd be a help."
"Anyone got some ibuprofen?" Mathew flinched away from Jenkins bellow as someone started using his skull for a drum. Jenkins winced apologetically. "Sorry," he said more quietly.
"I got some aspirin, that help?" someone asked, and Mathew shook his head.
"Ibuprofen is about the only OTC painkiller that works," he whispered. The icy knives had been bad, but now his eyes felt like they were being carved out of his face if he looked too closely at a light source. This was going to be a really bad headache.
"I've got some at home," he whispered. "Don't know how I'm getting there."
"Fuck that," Jenkins spat. "Miller! There's a drug store around the corner, go get some ibuprofen. I'll pay for it if the boss won't."
"Right away," someone responded, and Mathew forced himself not to curl up into a fetal ball. It wouldn't help with the pain; it would just be embarrassing.
"You, is there anywhere we can stash him while we pick up the ibuprofen? Someplace cool, quiet, and dark?" Jenkins asked as the pain began to blot out all conscious thought. Mathew thought someone gave him some ibuprofen, but to avoid the pain he was forced to retreat so deeply into his mind that he couldn't be sure. The passage of time vanished, and there was only the pain, pacing back and forth outside his mind, waiting for him to get close enough that it could put it's claws into him.
He'd had reaction headaches before, plenty of them, but this was worse than anything he'd felt since The Shift. If he'd had the presence of mind, he would have cursed Dr. Zimmerman, whose experiments with 'interstitial energy' had led to the discovery of the Source of Magic by the scientific community, and worse yet to breaking the barrier around the Source.
Slowly, oh so slowly, the pain began to recede. Mathew opened his eyes and realized he was at home. It still hurt, but it was bearable, for now. Groaning, he slipped himself out of bed and stumbled to the kitchen to grab a glass of water. Downing it in a gulp, he forced himself to wait a moment for his stomach to settle before pouring another one, which he carefully sipped.
Feeling vaguely human once more, he stumbled out to his living room. Lying on his couch was an officer he wasn't familiar with. Glancing at the time, he decided to let the officer be and carted his laptop back to his room. His day was clearly starting early, but he might as well let the officer rest for a while longer. He took a long look at the portrait of Judith he'd commissioned years ago, his one true valuable, and sighed before digging into his mail. She was dead, and dwelling on the cause of her death would just depress him.
Predictably, Lieutenant Hendricks had sent a complaint about his 'malingering' while on duty. The Department of Paranormal Control and Regulation hadn't responded yet, or at least didn't cc him on the response, but much to Mathew's surprise Jenkins had. "Magi Trent was relieved at my orders after having exhausted himself critically in an attempt to aid a victim. The resulting 'backlash headache' left him incapacitated and unable to function, and I ordered him home when it became clear that recovery would be prolonged. An on-duty officer will keep an eye on him to insure that his condition doesn't worsen, again at my orders and in keeping with the regulations regarding magi who have overworked themselves."
Mathew pursed his lips in surprise. He did not like Jenkins, but it looked like Jenkins had decided to turn himself into an ally. Not bad for the first week on the job, but now he felt vaguely guilty over all the little annoyances he'd sent Jenkins' way.
The next several emails he deleted without reply. He was fully aware that his finances were shaky, and he didn't need creditors reminding him about it. The ones suggesting that he take out yet more credit as a fix were just icing on the cake.
Then his eyebrows hit the roof. Why the doctor in charge of examining the young lady at the fast food joint had cc'd him with a copy of the initial report he didn't know. He didn't even have a clue how the doctor had gotten his email, for that matter. But the results of the exam where clear.
Thankfully, the doctor had also cc'd the DPCR, so Mathew didn't need to forward it himself. Without the imprimatur of Mathew's name the doctor's report would probably wind up chewed, swallowed, and spat out by the DPCR without ever crossing the desk of anyone who'd recognize what it said. Mathew needed time to consider the details himself.
He was perhaps the single most skilled magi on the planet, and especially so when it came to medical magic, but he didn't have the power anymore. Medical magic was taxing even at the best of times, and he lacked the fundamental strength to do it. That had been a simple fact for nearly five years now, yet he'd successfully healed the lady. More than simply healed, the doctor had detected several subtle improvements in her general health since her last physical a week ago.
And that was scary. Very, very scary. The reason medical magic took so much power was that unlike medical science it almost invariably took a holistic approach. You might spend power to repair a single, specific issue, but much of your power would be leeched away and applied to other ends. Even the best of magi, such as himself, couldn't simply heal the skin over a cut to close it. They'd 'waste' energy purifying the wound of contamination, and more energy would leak into the blood itself, adjusting the cholesterol balance, thinning or thickening as needed, reducing or increase pressure as appropriate. From there even more energy would be leaked into the body as a whole, fortifying ailing organs, purging alien DNA and cells, kick-starting faltering cells back to life. Something as simple as repairing a cut finger would leave a person's health fundamentally improved.
But he didn't have the strength for that anymore. He had tried, in desperation, to slow the bleeding that would have killed her. But what he'd managed was something much, much greater. Compared to what he used to be capable of it was nothing. Compared to what he was supposed to be able to do now, it was enormous. Simply trying should have killed him. Succeeding to the degree he had, even if he'd gotten one hell of a headache out of it, implied he was growing stronger again.
And that was just as frightening as some idiot running around violating the Third Law of Magic. After all, for every 'good' magi who had fallen from the heights, there were at least two or three evil ones. And where some might hesitate to apply 'good' to some of the magi, there was no doubt in Mathew's mind that some of his erstwhile foes were evil. Not pure, unadulterated evil, but the even worse kind. Human, ambitious, greedy, grasping evil. The first could be seen, felt, recognized easily enough, the second could cloak itself anywhere.
Closing out of his mail program, he stripped off and walked into the restroom to take a shower. His day was coming to an early start, but it promised to be chock-full of 'fun'.