"What is it with dark magi and old, deserted warehouses?" Mathew complained, glaring at the shimmering, shifting building. "Was there some kind of sale for dark magi seeking hideouts, and these were the only places they liked?"
"What's with you and the children's underwear?" Jenkins complained.
The deserted warehouse was rather cliche, but the shimmering, semi-translucent shield was the real cause for his anger. Even blood magic could only go so far. Grayson clearly had hidden a few additional books from the Brotherhood of Blood, covering how to bind a human soul into a spell.
"How do we get in?" the two agents asked as they came around the car.
"We don't," Mathew placed an emphasis on the first word. "I don't have the strength to batter my way through, and we don't have the time for me to figure out how to dismantle this through skill."
"So what do we do?" one of them asked. Mathew closed his eyes, held his hand out, and walked forward, seeking the seam he knew had to be there.
"Here," he pointed to a specific point on the shield. "Don't touch the shield!" he held a hand out to stop one of them from walking too far forward. The agents took a step back from the stench of the underwear in his hand. "Extend your senses, feel the seem. You guys should be strong enough to disrupt it long enough for me to get through."
"I can almost see it," one of them said, "but there's no way I can work my power into it to try and pull it open."
"Same here," the other agreed. "I've got brute force, but not the kind of skill-"
Mathew reached out with his own power and slid easily into the gap. He couldn't wrench it wide open, but he could pull it apart just a little. "How about now?"
He felt them reach past him, shoving him out of the gap in their eagerness. They pulled the gap wide open in an instant. "Just one of you is enough, the other needs to stabilize the gap," Mathew ordered. "Don't try and cross through, you can't do this and cross at the same time. Even with the gap, there is a distinct difference between the sides, and if you try to step through that threshold while holding the way open, you're going to loose your grip. The result of loosing your grip on the door while being inside it would be... unpleasant."
"So what are we expected to do, just stand around here and wait?" one of them complained.
"You hold the door open while we scout inside," Jenkins explained in the tones of one talking to a complete and utter imbecile who couldn't see the truth right in front of his face. "We delay this guy, trip him up, while you guys make sure help can get inside, eventually."
Mathew nodded. "We can't wait. We have to go, and we have to go now."
The agents shared a glance before stepping to the side. The gateway stopped flickering and shifting, firming up into a tall oval wide enough to step through.
"You first Jenkins," Mathew nodded at the doorway. "It might react to my energy signature, and if it does destabilize, it's better that you're on the inside." So that at least someone can try to slow Grayson down after I'm dead, he didn't add.
Jenkins stepped through without hesitating. "Coming?" he asked.
"Yeah," Mathew nodded, taking a few steps back. Slow and easy, or quick and hard. Both had their advantages. Slow and easy would help minimize his signature, while quick and hard would leave less time for his signature to register.
Six of one, half dozen of the other as far as getting through the breech alive. But there were people on the other side of the breech who needed his help, fast, so quick and hard it was.
The barrier sensed him and tensed up, breech squeezing inward as he dove through it, but he was through before it could kill him. "Lets move," he suggested to Jenkins.
"So, how do we do this?" Jenkins asked.
"You see Grayson, you shoot him," Mathew suggested. "You feel him mucking with your mind, you drop your weapons and run like hell."
"Works for me," Jenkins nodded as they walked. "Why the big gap between the building and the shield?"
"No clue," Mathew shrugged. "Bad design?"
"Here's the door. Do you think it's badly designed enough that he won't notice us entering?"
Mathew glanced over at him. "He already knows we're inside the shield."
"Oh," Jenkins took a harder look at the door. "Think it's trapped?"
"Probably not," Mathew opened it. "Any other silly questions?"
"What's our goal? Get all the hostages out?" Jenkins glanced through the door. "Clear."
"Kill Grayson, at any cost," Mathew shrugged as they ducked in through the door. "Delay him if you can. Rescue the hostages if you can. But kill him."
"Not exactly normal police procedure," Jenkins commented.
"The Paranormal Control and Regulation Act of 2013 acknowledges the necessity of 'terminating rogue magic-users with extreme prejudice' under 'unusual circumstances' that have been 'properly designated by acknowledged experts' and then confirmed by the department head," Mathew recited bits and pieces of the DPCR regulation book. "You're cleared. Kill him."
"Works for me," Jenkins nodded. "Which way?"
"I can't tell," Mathew shook his head before dropping the underwear he was carrying. "Too much interference. Now that we're under the shield, they aren't even much good as a link. The shield practically acts as a circle, trapping energy inside it. Lots of energy."
"Which would be bad?" Jenkins guessed.
"Yeah," Mathew nodded. "This way," he pulled out a light and shone it down the corridor.
"Why this way?" Jenkins asked as they moved.
"One way is as good as the other," Mathew shrugged. "Talk less, listen more."
Jenkins nodded. The warehouse was large, and they'd managed to walk into what appeared to be a large office connected to it, complete with a variety of corridors and rooms to search.
"Here," Mathew pointed to a door. "Feel that?"
"Feel what?" Jenkins asked, walking over to the door.
"Precisely," Mathew nodded. "Every other door has a little bit of magic stuck to it, this one doesn't. Try the knob."
The door swung open to reveal a familiar looking room. There wasn't much to mark it, other than the stench of fresh urine. "He's moved them, figures," Mathew sighed. "Probably the first thing he did after we broke through the shield. Come on. The ritual is starting."
With the beacon of the ritual to guide them, it didn't take long to find their way to the large receiving area that had been converted into a dark temple.
"Welcome, guests," Grayson spread his hands wide, showing off the toe to chin black leather that covered him. The woolen robe over it was already stained red with the blood of the first several sacrifices, spilled by the long, curved knife in his hands. "The ascendance of a god deserves witnesses. I let you in here for just that purpose." He waved his free hand, and suddenly Mathew was encased in a band of energy wrapping around him from his chest to his waist, binding his arms at his side. Glancing sideways, he saw Jenkins was in the same position, his shotgun pressed uselessly against his chest.
"Ascendance of a god?" Mathew asked, as he took in the room. The compulsion victims were arranged in a circle around the altar, where the two children were bound together hand and foot. Alex was lying face down on the altar, with Billy on top of him. Both of them were wide-eyed with terror, but completely still and silent. The bonds weren't even necessary, Mathew thought with disgust. The kids were ensorcelled into motionlessness by the ritual. Behind them was a shelf with several different books on it, including Clypeus Domini and Iniuriam Magica. If Mathew's half-formed hunch was right, the other books were the grimoires that Grayson thought he had learned blood magic and compulsion from.
"Indeed," Grayson grinned.
"You've been corrupted by the dark magic," Mathew let his voice ring out into the night. He was a Justicar, and their first weapon had always been the truth. "I don't know how it started, but I can see how it's ending. The darkness has convinced you it serves you, but it doesn't. You're like a drug addict, always after a stronger high. The only difference is you've pulled the wool over your eyes, convinced yourself you really can take this kind of power. It's enslaved you, bound you to it's will. There's still time to free yourself. Time enough to avoid it's inevitable betrayal, and I assure you he -- it -- will betray you to your doom."
"Oh really, how?" Grayson laughed. "These poor little sheep, not even trained to defend themselves, not a one of them so much as knew they possessed the power of magic. Suppressed their talents, all of them, and no one has trained them in how to protect against magic, either. I saw to that," he gloated as he slipped behind one of the victims and slowly, gently drew his knife against the poor woman's throat. Mathew could see her eyes, saw in them the screams of terror and agony she couldn't give voice to as her very body betrayed her.
"You saw to it?" Jenkins asked, still struggling against the spell that held him. "How?"
"Oh that was easy," Grayson laughed. He raised the hand not holding the knife and in it a small sphere of crystal blue appears, burning an angry red. "Burns," Grayson said softly, as if to a lover. "I have another job for you. Take your gun, press it to your head, and pull the trigger." The sphere vanished an instant later. "Ooops, I guess the DPCR just lost one of it's best agents, too bad," he said in mock sympathy. "I guess it's not all bad, their second best agent is here, about to witness my ascension. Then he has to die too, of course."
"I'm not going to die," Mathew promised. Logic told him this would work. Logic assured him that as weak as he himself had become, Grayson's strength also had limits. Skill told him that he had enough strength, just barely, to do this, and that she was strong enough that all he had to do was give her a little nudge. "You are. All anyone has to do to break this ritual, and in the process all the spells you've tied to it, is pull the kids off the altar. After that, they should be able to use your knife to cut them free. There's a door you didn't seal right over there, and if they go out that and turn left, they should be able to run to a breech that's been formed in your shield. Once through it, they'll be safe."
Grayson laughed, all humanity leeching from him. The ritual wouldn't turn him into a God, but it was already turning him into a monster. The false veneer of humanity he'd hidden behind was rapidly failing, and he'd only maintained it as long as he had because it was false. It was easier to mock something you shared no part in, than something you still had enough of a part in to realize just how monstrous you'd become. Grayson the person had died long ago, Mathew knew. "Who exactly is going to do that?" he laughed. "These chattel are all bound by my will, their souls enslaved to serve me forever."
"Not forever," Mathew reminded him, his will already questing out, softly, gently. He'd get exactly one chance at this, and that only because Grayson was so arrogant he didn't bother to bind what little power Mathew still had. So little, so weak, so frail, and Grayson knew it. But Mathew was still a High Justicar, he was still what he was born to be. "Only until you die."
"I will never die!" Grayson howled. "I will live! That's why I brought these two here!" he slapped his hand down on Alex. "The death of one will bind the soul of the other into my service, and when I drive this blade into my heart, anointed with the blood of both of them..." he grinned. "Blood alone can't drive a soul out. But blood, combined with will... combined with the knowledge of how to affect the entire body systematically with a single spell... spirit combined with flesh to reach into the realm of the soul..." Grayson laughed.
"You'll drive Billy's soul from his body, pulling it into your own so that he dies, leaving you free to take over his body," Mathew sighed. "How unoriginal."
"Unoriginal?" Grayson raved, pulling away from the man he was preparing to murder, stepping outside of the circle to glare at Mathew. "Unoriginal? I studied years -- years! -- working on this ritual! On how to adapt it to this purpose!"
"I've seen it before," Mathew told him. "I've faced it before, and just like last time, your own arrogance is your undoing. You didn't bind my powers, you idiot."
"Why bother!" Grayson laughed. "There's nothing you can do! I tested you when you came to my office, you don't have the strength to bend a spoon! You can't summon enough power to stop me on your own!"
"You're right, I'm not," Mathew agreed. "Lily is. Now!"
Lily pulled away from the circle, face showing the strain, and dove to the altar. She grabbed the boys and pulled, and they slid away from the blood-slick surface of the altar. "No!" Grayson howled before the ritual collapsed. The remaining victims were hurled away from the altar with just as much force as he was, buying Lily the moments she needed to take the second knife from the floor beside the altar and cut the boy's bonds loose.
The magical backlash ripped through Mathew, and he collapsed to his knees in agony, but Jenkins couldn't sense the magical flows around him, couldn't so much as feel the energy of the sun setting to the west that tingled through the entire room. The instant the spell released him he dropped to his knees and pulled his rifle up.
"Stop," Grayson ordered, holding a hand out towards Jenkins. "You will not harm me."
"I will... I..." Jenkins shook his head. "Get out of my head," he ordered.
"You are my slave. Turn," Grayson ordered coldly. Mathew watched Lily help the boys run out the door, grateful he'd managed that much of a victory at least. The shield wouldn't drop until Grayson died or let it go, but they were still free, and Grayson wouldn't have a second chance at this.
"I... will... not..." Jenkins shook as his muscles obeyed Grayson's will instead of his own, bringing his shotgun slowly up.
Mathew was exhausted, but he reached out through the already developing headache and reached out to the spell. He tried to distort it, break it, shield it, anything, but he was just too weak. This was a brute force attack, bypassing Jenkins' mind and going directly after the muscles themselves, something possible only with an intimate knowledge of human anatomy. The kind of intimate knowledge doctors theoretically possessed.
"Jenkins," Mathew gasped, "don't let him make you pick up the book. He won't be able to do everything he'd planned, but he'll be able to manage the greater ritual. The part his master needs."
"Oh, how brilliant," Grayson cawed, his face growing slightly blank. "Thank you for the idea!"
"Just remember, he switched Clypeus Domini with Iniuriam Magica," Mathew prayed that he was right, and flicked his mind out to where the two books were. Yes, he was right. Probably. Maybe Jenkins would forgive him one day, but Mathew didn't have a choice. Grayson could still try and complete the ritual. "Don't pick up Iniuriam, whatever you do. Don't even touch it. And remember the switch!"
Jenkins stopped trembling in an instant as he stood up. As Mathew had anticipated, Grayson had stopped using direct muscle control in favor of the much riskier mental control. Jenkins might be able to fight that.
And if he couldn't, then the leash on his mind would mean that, magically speaking, he was picking up the book, not Grayson. And for a mind slave to pick up Iniuriam Magica was for the mind slave to be bound, one of the many little surprises the Brotherhood of Blood bound into their books.
"That ruse bought me the time I needed quite nicely," Grayson gloated. "Didn't even figure out that I was behind it all until too late, did you?"
Jenkins walked, stiffly, to the altar. He laid the shotgun down before marching past it to the shelf behind. His hands reached out, slowly, to the cover clearly marked 'Clypeus Domini.' Jenkins, stop fighting... now! Mathew used the last of his power to order. Clypeus Domini would only take effect properly if Jenkins wasn't fighting.
Grayson was too busy smiling at Mathew to notice anything was wrong until suddenly he pitched forward, retching, as the spell link was broken.
"Arrogance," Mathew gasped as he slowly pulled his own weapon. The cool metal felt strange and clumsy in his hands. "Always arrogance. You didn't even pay any attention. Arrogance." There were two Graysons, and two pistols in his hands, and since when did he have four hands? Mathew tried to line the sights up, but the blackness claimed him instead.
Smell came first. Dry, sharp, somehow sterile. Oh, antiseptic.
The headache hit a few moments later. It wasn't as bad as it could be, his body was telling him in no uncertain terms that he'd overstretched his ability to manipulate mystic forces by about three times what 'too far' would have been. The needles stabbing into his still closed eyes informed him that his body Was Not Happy with this.
His mouth wasn't as dry as it should have been. He worked his mouth for a few moments before understanding sank in. That's why his elbow was immobilized, there were IVs in it.
"I'm in a hospital, aren't I?" he groaned.
"Yes, and very lucky to be alive," a familiar voice agreed.
"Director McKenzie?" Mathew shook his head. "Oh I hurt," he complained as that caused the back of his head to start pounding.
"The medics tell me you're going to be in here for another day, but then you should be fine," the Director reassured him. "Don't try and open your eyes, they've put some goggles on to shield you from the light."
"Smart move," Mathew agreed. Thankfully, without light to set off the light sensitivity, the backlash was something he could cope with if he had to. "What happened?"
"That's what I want to talk to you about," the Director sighed. "Detective Jenkins is out cold, with his fingers clamped around a book so hard no one can get it away from him."
"What about the other books?" Mathew asked. Hopefully, he was wrong.
"There were no other books," Mathew could hear the director's frown in his voice. "Should we have found some?"
"Grayson?" Mathew asked, side-stepping the question.
"Dead," the Director informed him. "Autopsy shows signs of severe psychic trauma, but it was a brain embolism that did him in. Apparently the shock caused the embolism to burst. It was a nasty one, completely inoperable. The doctor had months to live."
Mathew nodded. "That explains a lot," he nodded. "The aneurism was near a major nerve cluster that manipulates behavior, isn't it?"
"That's pretty close to what the doctors said," the Director nodded. "How'd you guess?"
"The doctor was trying to take the body of his son for his own," Mathew shrugged. "This isn't the first time I've seen that particular trick, though thankfully this time I stopped it in time to save the boy."
The Director frowned. "Another murder I need to tag as 'solved, case closed'?" he asked, annoyed.
"I wish," Mathew coughed, and a muffled 'oh' was the only exclamation of pain he could manage.
"So, someone actually got away from you," Director McKenzie asked, almost amused. "I didn't think that happened very often."
"Not just from me," Mathew swallowed. "I guess you need to hear, but I really don't like talking about it. All of us. All thirteen of the high justicars, every good magi of any real strength we could round up on short notice, every mercenary we could get our hands on, even petty criminals looking for a pardon. An army of nearly five hundred people, and the bastard escaped anyway. Thirteen souls bound to his will until his death, strengthening him. Each one capable of acting in all ways as an independent magi, only released from their bodies and bound to do his bidding instead of their own. Stripped of their free will, in favor of his."
McKenzie didn't say anything. Mathew supposed the director was desperately trying to figure out what to say. "Thirteen souls, capable of corrupting the wills of others. Thirteen souls, free to search out Magi of strength in this brand new world we find ourselves in. Free to enslave those magi, slowly but surely, so that those thirteen new magi will bind new souls to themselves, and in the process bind themselves to the original thirteen. A web of nearly two hundred magi capable souls, all bound to the original sorcerer, who is currently living in a fifteen year old body somewhere in the world, free from any hope of justice."
Director McKenzie wasn't stupid. He got it. "This wasn't about Grayson trying something, someone was using him."
"It's an ascension ritual," Mathew nodded. "We fucked it up last time he tried it. Break any one of the thirteen spokes, and all thirteen break. You'll find a rash of unexplained murders surrounding individuals who died of sudden psychic trauma. Twelve more, around the globe. We have a year's grace to get ready for the next attack, but he has a year to figure out what went wrong. He started with thirteen souls, by now he probably has more. All of those souls are probably still world-class magi, even if his personal power has been sapped by the Shift. All he needs is thirteen new corruptible magi, and trust me he can find them or even create them if he must. Start the ritual with them anew one year from now, bind the thirteen souls by thirteen souls to himself. I'm not sure what the second stage of the ritual is, but if it's an ascension ritual there will be one."
"Sounds like you have a few ideas on where to start," Director McKenzie commented.
"Yeah," Mathew agreed. "You'll have a report on your desk-"
"Not my desk," McKenzie cut him off. "I'm retiring. I'm too old, and my agents waste too much time explaining things I should already know if I'm going to do my job. The old salts in Washington needed someone they trusted in charge, long enough to figure out who they could trust out of you bunch. They don't really trust any of you, but they trust me. And they trust my recommendation."
Mathew swallowed. "Who will be replacing you? Agent Burns?"
"Agent Burns is an ass, and was never in the running, despite the rumors surrounding him," the Director sighed. "And he's on medical leave until we figure out what caused his seizure. He tried to take his gun to his head, then dropped it and fell into some kind of fit."
"Grayson had him in a psychic headlock," Mathew supplied the information the Director was fishing for.
"Thought it might be something like that," McKenzie nodded. "Will he ever recover?"
"He's a compulsion victim just like any other," Mathew sighed. "Recovery slow, prognosis uncertain."
The director sighed. "He's an old friend. An ass, but a friend. Is there anything that can be done?"
Mathew shook his head slowly. "Sorry."
"Fine then. I want a report made up for the new director," the director told him. "All the details you can, including why you were expecting us to find other books. Agent Sarah Bentley will be expecting it."
"Sarah?" Mathew asked, surprised. "She's a good Magi, for an emergent."
"Consider this one last personal counseling session, Mathew," Director McKenzie chided him. "You were in the running for the job. I gave both of you trouble spots to deal with, a place where people were unhappy with the department. It was a test. She managed to smooth matters over with the locals, while you got yourself put in the hospital and a lot of people killed. The locals in the area are absolutely livid, and frankly they have some good points. Furthermore, she knows her limits, while you only remember what those limits used to be. If she'd been here instead of you, I suspect there'd be more dead bodies on the ground right now, but I also suspect there wouldn't have been an entire series of attacks on the agents that have been brought in. They would have had help, support from the locals, and they would have been seen as the good guys. In the long run, there wouldn't be half as many bodies on the ground as we're going to see now."
"Are you chiding me for arrogance?" Mathew resisted the urge to laugh.
"Yes, I am," the director said sadly. "You need, desperately, to learn that you do have limits, and that those limits aren't anything like what they used to be. You also need to learn to get along with people! So, no work for the next week. For the next week, you rest. That's a direct order. I believe in giving people a chance to fix their own mistakes, so my recommendation to Sarah is going to be to leave you here until things are smoothed over. Get used to the local scene, you are going to be here, alone, for a long, long time."
Mathew didn't say anything as the director got up and left. He was too busy thinking about what the director had just said. No matter how many times he went over it again, he always came back to the same conclusion:
That tough son-of-a-bitch knew exactly how to punish someone.