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The Skarsgard Chronicles

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Chapter 1: 150 Million

They say when you kill someone, you’re forced to confront the person you truly are. They say that the guilt will become too much to bear, that you’ll have trouble sleeping afterwards. Some people don’t survive their first kill; some are so emotionally shocked that they’re numb for the rest of their lives. But as I looked down at the man beneath my gun, my finger on the trigger, I saw him squirm and I felt nothing. In fact, I looked at this very logically, very clinically. I noted his every movement and breath like a scientist might monitor an amoeba on a Petri dish. I pulled the trigger, and with a loud bang, his world was no longer. Instead of a sweating thug clad in a nice suit, he was a cold, lifeless body with a hole in its head. I was surprised for a second. With all of the hype about the first kill, I’d think it would affect me a bit more, but it didn’t. I felt the same way that I did seconds ago.

Everyone around me was silent, even my mentor, Vivian. My hands were shaking, but more from adrenaline than anything else. I sighed, handed the gun to the mobster beside me, and told my company to get the corpse out of here. Even though we were in a pretty isolated location, sound travels very fast, and people have a way of finding things they’re not supposed to. Once everyone was gone, Vivian began to walk around me.

“You didn’t have to kill him.” Vivian told me, her gentle hand on my shoulder.

“Of course I did.” I replied. “You would’ve done the same thing.”

She simply smirked, sauntering around to the front of me so she could face me. Her red hair wisped in her attractive face. Her eyes were covered in heavy eye shadow, her face covered in foundation to make her seem paler, all the better to contrast with her blood red lips. Her mink coat went down to her knees, and her legs were clad in skin-tight patented leather. Her top was more of a corset than anything else, and made very little effort to hide her lace bra straps or, for that matter, her lace bra in the first place. It revealed her myriad tattoos, some tribal marks on her biceps, some demonic runes along her collarbone and shoulders, and a massive tiger tattoo that covered all of her upper back. Her leather boots were knee-high, with the soles hiding two knives – that I know from experience. Her mode of dress and appearance made her the center of attention nearly everywhere she went, and that was her goal. It was the way of the Bene Ashmedai, and while her appearance may hark back to the sacred prostitutes of old, make no mistake. She was the master, the most powerful in the room.

“You’re the one that advised me to do it.” I continued.

“Sins, acolyte. He had insulted your leadership in front of your men, and I knew your pride would make you prone to doing something rash. I had only advised the logical conclusion of his fiasco.” Quoth she.

“Have…I done something wrong—“

Her hand crashed against my face, making me drop to one knee. She crouched down to make eye contact with me, her piercing green eyes reaching into my soul.

“We are royalty among demons, willworker.” She said to me. “Do not doubt yourself for indulging in your vice. Sin tempts us, and to doubt its pull is to doubt ourselves. Do you understand?”

“I…suppose so.” I replied.

“Now…you have tied your loose end. What are you going to do?” She asked.

I got up, holding back the animal rage I felt at her striking me. Nothing was particularly special about her hitting me; in fact, she had done it often. Teachers of Solomon’s Way were tormenters as well as lovers, friends, associates.  Had I fought back, she would’ve tossed me into a world where up was down and down was up. 

“Relax, I suppose.” I replied. “It has been a long day, and I have negotiations with PrimeGas Industries tonight. Wasting my time with criminals is one thing, but wasting my time with rich, fat executives is another. Convincing big time diesel tycoons to invest in solar power is definitely going to be more difficult than killing someone…I can confirm that.”

Vivian chuckled. “I will keep an eye on the Consilium. Divert their attention from this fiasco. That means you owe me another favor.”

“Yes.” I replied begrudgingly. “I owe you another favor.”

“Great. There is a necromantic artifact that a Motley of Changelings have gotten their hands on when they came across the ashes of an elder vampire. I need it to give to another client of mine so we can finish a project.”

“I suppose you need me to get it for you.”

“That would be amazing.” Vivian kissed me on the lips. To this very day, it’s still strange to be in a physical relationship with my master. There was nothing emotional between us…which I suppose was just as well. Romance had never been my strong suit.

“Consider it done.” I replied, looking at the blood stain on the concrete from when I shot the thug, the traitor. It had a weird butterfly-like shape to it. “I suppose I’ll see you next week.”

Vivian nodded and disappeared.

I suppose you’re wondering what’s going on. I don’t blame you; I had dove into my story without a little background information. My name is Oliver Skarsgard, my shadow name is Abaddon, and I assume that since you’re capable of reading this codex without your mind being tormented by wraiths that you’re an awakened. In which case, know that all names, including mine, have been modified for the sake of protection – names are important, after all.

As for information on me, I am the President of Skarsgard Enterprises, a relatively fledgling technology corporation that works in fields such as renewable energy, vehicles, and computers. My father, Viktor Skarsgard, inherited from his father, Torsten Skarsgard, who founded the company in 1892. Sadly, when I was eight, my father had disappeared and the burden of the company had fallen onto my mother, Margaret Skarsgard. My mother had died of breast cancer when I was seventeen, and the burden of the company had been left on my shoulders. Since then, the company had prospered. What was originally a ten million dollar corporation had risen to eight hundred million by the year of 2010, and only continues to rise in value as the years go by. 

I had awakened to my power when I was sixteen. I am a Warlock, a Mastigos mage on the Path of Scourging, scion of the Watchtower of the Iron Gauntlet in the realm of Pandemonium. Upon entering mage society, joining the Silver Ladder had come natural to me, and while I am still an acolyte, I have become a very well known figure in mage society through my contributions to the order and my willingness to lead and guide other mages. Now, years later, I am a ranked Adept, having had taught many mages below me in the Mysteries. 

I suppose I should tell you my appearance also. After all, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever come across me. I stand at about six foot, two inches with pale skin and shoulder-length blonde hair. I keep my hair out of my face to further, which is best described as handsome. I have thin lips, a slightly flat but triangular nose, high cheekbones, and a square jaw line, giving me chiseled but not too hard features. As for my usual mode of dress, I have the same lavish and attention-grabbing style as my mentor, Vivian, whose second name is Ishtar. I usually dress in snake-skin or leather pants with silk dress shirts and Italian leather shoes. When dressed for business, I usually hide my many tattoos of ancient Nordic runes, occult symbols such as pentagrams, or demonic scenes inspired by the Divine Comedy. On my back, much like my mentor’s tiger tattoo, I have a tattoo of a red and purple peacock, its various Technicolor feathers proudly flashing to symbolize my vice, Pride.

I operate in Portland, Oregon, which is an area with not much mage influence. Of course, over the years, Vivian and I had been changing that. Now Oregon has a rather small Consilium and the Free Council had set up a couple of occult libraries for neophytes who had awakened not long ago. Aside from mage politics, I had also acquainted myself with the Irish Mob in Oregon – what? Funding has to come from somewhere, and placing my hands in the pockets of organized crime is always a rather interesting experience. The only problem is I have recently been dragged into a territory war between the Irish and the Russians, and keeping it from bubbling to the surface and attracting the attention of the bothersome mother hens known as the Police has been a challenging task indeed. Now I had to be more ruthless than ever.

I exited the warehouse I had been in after instructing my outlaw colleagues to wait for further orders as far as the gang war had went. The Russians tended to be unpredictable, and that was exactly what I was counting on. Once I was outside, I remotely unlocked my golden Ferrari (it wasn’t made of gold, mind you, just painted that way), got into the driver’s seat and began driving.

Portland at night was rather quiet since the woods surrounded us more than anything. As I drove in silence with my radio off, I took in the moment. Thanks to light pollution, I couldn’t see any stars, but cities had a beauty of their own. Within forty minutes, I was in the parking lot for Skarsgard Enterprises headquarters. Ahead was a massive skyscraper that seemed to touch the sky. At the top, I could overlook the city. It was quite therapeutic. It helped me think.

Once I went through the automatic doors, I was instantly greeted by Officer Paul, the head of security in the building. He was a big guy, heavily overweight, but very tall, which made him look a lot like a bear. He was dark skinned and had shoulder-length dreadlocks, which he often kept in a ponytail. He wore a blue uniform and a badge on his left breast that said his name. As his side was a pistol and a walkie talkie. 

I despised Officer Paul.

“Hello there, chief! I held down the fort for ya when you were gone. No suspicious characters came through on my watch, nope!” He greeted me.

I acted amiable towards him. Thankfully, I’m a great actor. “Thank you, my friend! Keep proving your loyalty, and you may get that promotion yet.”

I’d been holding this promotion over his head for almost a year now.

“I understand, sir. I suppose you wanna go to the penthouse. Well, I’ll unlock the elevator for ya.” Officer Paul pressed a button on his desk and I heard a resonant ding throughout the room.

As I walked past him and through the metal detectors – I left my gun in my car – I was greeted by various employees and smiling faces. Although I confess I am a sociopath, I am not a bad boss. A competent boss knows how to get results while keeping his employees happy, thus making them more loyal. I even keep a good public image, donating a fair share of my income to various charities and organizations. That being said, most of my money doesn’t come from my job but from my dealings in illegal arms trafficking, money laundering, and selling expensive art in the black market. I keep a good public image while making a large amount of money; that’s the best of both words if I had ever seen it.

My office was as lavish as I was, with no expenses spared. The marble floor was lined with Persian carpet, the walls had clean, burgundy wallpaper with various golden symbols on them. Marble statues were on either side of the door at the entrance, and a large, oak desk was at the very end of the room.  Behind it was a large, comfortable chair that was more like a leather throne than anything else. Behind the desk and chair were large windows that overlooked Portland from above. It was raining.

Once I got to my desk, I immediately phoned a few contacts to help with the job Vivian had assigned me. Changelings, while frail creatures, are rather tricky and capable of being terrifying. Their strange powers make them extremely difficult to predict at most. I needed a professional with me, and luckily I knew a few that owed me favors. I called one I knew was available and immediately got directed to voice mail.

‘Hello, this is Nicodemus. I cannot get to the phone right now – I’m likely fighting some horror from beyond the veil of human imagination – so please leave a message after the beep and I’ll get to it as soon as I can.’

I cursed under my breath but left a message. If the fool had went and gotten himself killed, there went my most trusted hitman. Nicodemus and I went back and he was one of my most trusted contacts when I needed something done. We had both been in the game for equally as long, but he was more inclined towards fighting than I was, which gained him a rather successful position in the Adamantine Arrow.

After phoning Nicodemus, I checked my voicemails on my personal phones. A few women called back from one-night stands I’ve had with them in the weeks before; perhaps I’ll answer one of their calls. After all, having a girlfriend was always good for publicity. A few of my other voicemails were from magi I’d conducted business with, confirming that my payment was in the mail or that my tomes should be at their cabal house. Some voicemails requested things of me, and since I was a power broker, a lot of these requests were very much within my ability to do. I’d consider them.

In the middle of my leisure time, I was called. I picked the phone up on the third ring and answered.

“Yes?” I asked.

“Mr. Skarsgard!” Ah, it was Tess, one of my more trusted accountants. She was aware of the company’s mob connections, and I was able to keep her mouth shut with a little bit of mind control. “The company’s bank account! It’s….”

I quirked a brow. “Go on. Finish your sentence. What happened?”

“A large sum of our funds are gone. They just…vanished.” She informed me.

I clenched my fist. “How. Much?”

“A hundred and fifty.”

“Thousand?”

“Million, sir.”

Chapter 2: The Forest

Getting to my house was my first priority after that. If whatever thief had done this knew how to hack into Skarsgard Enterprises’ servers, they probably had the sense to check my house too. I lived in a rich community, a house I inherited from my mother when she died. Beyond the large, iron gates was a quiet, suburban community of mostly-well-to-do rich people with nice cars and at least six figure incomes. I drove my car through the community and turned to my house, which was immediately on the left. 

My house had two floors and four rooms, only one of which are occupied. The lawn was neatly cut and green due to the hired gardeners that come by every morning. The house itself was white, with a white picket fence lining the outer perimeter of the yard. Perhaps you’d say I’m living the American Dream, which is fine enough with me. This further helps my image as a well-to-do American citizen, a generous business owner who treats his workers as he’d treat himself, yet provides them with good, honest work so they can earn their money. Image is everything. Humans are pawns to image.

I opened my door slowly as to not make any sound. There was a chance that I had been interrupting them while they were pillaging my home, which wouldn’t do me very well since I wasn’t at all prepared for a fight at the moment. I had no weapons at all, which was very unfortunate since one of the things a mage absolutely needed to do was be prepared. After searching the whole house with my mind’s eye using an improvised Space spell, I found that nobody was currently occupying the area. Good. 

I went to my room, stripped out of my clothes, and walked into my closet, which contained a pocket dimension I created a few months back. As soon as I went inside, I found myself in a room roughly as big as my bedroom. The floor was made of concrete, which stung my feet when I walked on it because of how cold it was. In my pocket dimension was a line of locker rooms, all filled with various weapons, magical artifacts, and body armor that I’d possibly need in my devices. I opened one locker room and took out a set of clothes that I had enchanted in case I was ever in a situation I had to fight in.

I put on a Kevlar vest and, over it, wore a black, form-fitting turtleneck. On my lower body were leather pants and black combat boots. Over my turtleneck was a leather blazer, and over that was a Russian fur coat, the tail going down to my ankles. These clothes were enchanted to be resistant to bullets in most parts and even more importantly, allowing me to carry multiple weapons without the weight slowing me down. After dressing, I went into my other locker and took out my weapons.

My bladed weapons were mostly curved. I took out a kukri knife as long as my forearm and sheathed it in my coat. Curved weapons worked as great foci for Warlocks; the curves along the weapons allowed us to channel our space and mind-bending magic with greater ease. I also packed guns; two Desert Eagle pistols and a sawed-off shotgun. I further armed myself with my Space Ring, which would create a temporary warp bubble as a shield. After I was fully clothed, I exited my pocket dimension, moving through the metal door into my room.

As soon as I entered my room, I immediately sensed something wrong. Within seconds, I drew my pistol, pointing it to the left of me where the shadows conspicuously gathered. I pulled the hammer of the gun back with my thumb, my finger on the trigger. Out of the shadows came a painfully normal looking man. The best way to describe him would be…indistinguishable, impossible to tell apart from the background. He stood at five feet, nine inches and had a perfectly symmetrical face, save for his comb over to the right. His hair was black and his eyes were dark brown, almost black. His skin was pale, signifying that he didn’t get much time in the sun. He wore sturdy, black jeans with combat boots. Under his woolen duster coat – which I assumed was hiding an array of weapons – was a woolen sweater. Everything about him was plain…unnoticeable…except for his presence. Around him, I felt a quiet, subtle feeling that crept in the back of my mind like a phantom.

His shadow name is Nicodemus. His true name is unknown to me. He is a Necromancer on the Path of Doom.

“Nicodemus.” I said coolly, thumbing the hammer on my gun and holstering it at my side. “I was under the impression that you were fighting…how did you put it? ‘Horrors beyond the veil of human imagination’?”

Nicodemus gave me a dry smile. “An acamoth conjured by a few Scelesti novices qualifies, I hope. They novices in question have been turned into the Consilium to serve trial under the law of the Lex Magica. Y’know, all in a day’s work. You had called me.”

I nodded. “My master had sent me on a mission to retrieve an artifact. A necromantic one currently in the possession of a motley of changelings. I had wondered if you knew anything about that, and if you’d help me retrieve it.”

“Necromantic artifact, eh? What is Ishtar doing looking for that kind of power?” Nicodemus mused to himself, calling my master by her shadow name. “Hm. Well, there aren’t many changelings in Portland. There isn’t much of anything here since this is so close to demon-occupied Seattle. Getting caught up in the Machine’s plans is worthy of definite avoidance. However, of the few changelings here I DO know about, there is a motley out in the forest obsessed with death, convinced that its power will help them fight back against their former masters. That’s probably the motley she’d been talking about.”

I listened to my ally’s info, and while doing that I also thought about what Vivian could possibly do with a necromantic artifact. Just what was she planning? Mages, as they get more powerful, often become disconnected with the Fallen World and transcend their humanity more and more, becoming closer to being a full denizen of the Supernal. That’s probably what’s happening to her, and in the process, she’s losing concern with this incomplete world. Her divine soul is guiding her to ascend to the Supernal, to seek powers beyond. Perhaps she intends to use me to attain that goal. She also mentioned that she needed it to finish a project with a client of mine. What was she planning?

This could also be a test, a test that would prove to be very tough. Maybe this was her tormenting me, which she grows ever so fond of doing as I grow in power.

“To the woods it is, then. Will you accompany me?” I asked Nicodemus.

The necromancer shrugged. “My pleasure. Consider it a favor.”


The outskirts of the city, especially when blanketed with snow and ice at this time of year, were difficult to navigate. The thick woods looked the same in all directions, stretching as far as the eye can see. The gray sky darkened as night approached, ensuring that there’d be little to no human company on this mission, which would be full of vulgar magic. Risking paradox is a risk all of the time casting spells, but under the watchful eye of a sleeper, magic evaporates or turns sour.

I drove until I saw the light of torches among the trees. Once I did, I pulled over and exited my car, and Nicodemus came with me. Together, we stomped through the snow. 

“So, some strange changeling death cult is within these woods…” I said. “How do we know they’re not True Fae proper? The fair folk are…tricky that way.”

“If they are, indeed, True Fae, then there’s no reason we cannot bargain away the artifact. Besides, I do not think the Gentry would risk gaining the attention of the Machine. They’re likely staying as far away from Portland as possible.” Nicodemus replied.

I rolled my eyes. “Again with this machine. How do you know—“

“I’ve seen it. Shadows of it. I have no idea where it fits in with the Supernal and the Fallen but…it’s there, and its gears manipulate everything behind the clockwork.” 

Sighing, I stopped my stride to look around. Ahead, there was a trail made purely of autumn leaves. On each side of it, there was a line of trees with torches lit on them. That was probably the way to the Motley’s base. “We’re on the right track, I assume. Watch out though; anything could be waiting to jump out from the wood.”

And jump out, they did.

Wolves the size of humans jumped out from the trees. They looked ferocious, with jet black fur and claws as long as short swords. Their teeth were as long as my arm and frothy drool dripped down their chins. They were obviously hungry, and we’d awakened them.

“Werewolves?” Nicodemus said in a hushed voice, not moving a muscle as to not set off the wolves currently circling him and I. “No…briarwolves.” 

They pounced.

I quickly used Burst of Speed to make Nicodemus and I faster. Things seemed to go in bullet time as the necromancer and I dove in opposite directions, splitting the briarwolves up. Everything returned to normal and I was painfully reminded how much faster than me these beasts were. I dug into my coat and took out my shotgun. Fighting these things toe-to-toe was definitely not a good idea.

I heard gunshots behind the beasts. Nicodemus was giving the two a run for their money. He was more suited for combat than I was. I kept my distance, facing backwards every once in a while to blast one of the wolves with my shotgun, sending them flying backwards but quickly coming back for more.

“Nahljiritis Pyritis!” I called upon my magic with words in Atlantean High Speech, describing an event in the Supernal and calling it down to the Fallen. My hand turned red-hot for a second, and then the next, it released a ball of fire the size of a small car. It slammed into one of the briarwolves, sending it flying into a tree and knocking it down. The tree set aflame along with the briarwolf, which squirmed as the fire took its life.

One of the briarwolves snarled, pouncing at me. I dove behind a tree just in time for it to shred the tree instead of me. I blasted it in the face with my shotgun, which just about knocked its snout clean off. It kept going, blood dripping from its face and its arms moving in a mad frenzy. I scrambled back, my back hitting a tree. I cast another spell, imagining an invisible blade flying from my palms. The air friction increased, and I blasted the wolf with a deadly gust of wind, sharp as a knife. The wolf was sheared in half at the torso.

I took a deep breath and relaxed for just a second. Now to look for Nicodemus.

…Who was then running towards me, a group of four briarwolves behind him. I held my ground, watching Nicodemus weaken them by shooting their joints with his pistol. They were already limping. Knocking them back would definitely be easy…

Nicodemus ended up beside me, and I cast two spells at once. First, I used space magic to open up a large portal behind them, which led into the exosphere. Second, I took a deep breath, leaning forward so I wouldn’t be moved by what I was about to do.

“DIE!” I shouted, the wave of sound blasting from my mouth and knocking them back into the portal. From there, they simply…disappeared, knocked into orbit by my spell.

“Great.” Nicodemus said. “So I’m guessing these guys are paranoid.”

“They have briarwolves to defend their territory…” I mused. “These Lost may not be True Fae proper…but they’re certainly on their way to being one of the Gentry. Let’s move. I have business to tend to in approximately an hour and thirty minutes, and I don’t want to ruin my reputation of always being on time.”

Together, Nicodemus and I moved along the trail of autumn leaves.

After more than a few run-ins with briarwolves, we found ourselves approaching a cabin. This cabin was located in what looked like a campground, with chopped wood, a fire pit, and a wooden idol resembling some horned god of old. The cabin itself was decorated with ancient pagan symbols that would make any sleeper nervous. They truly did believe their made-up occult symbols even scratched the surface of true magic. Their ignorance is why they are pawns.

Nobody seemed to be home…I didn’t believe that for one second.

With my mind’s eye, I searched for any conscious mind at the camp besides Nicodemus’ and my own. There seemed to be none…what gives? The torches were lit. The ashes from the campfire were still filled with embers. If nobody was home, somebody definitely was home recently. I walked to the front door of the cabin and touched the doorknob, but the door creaked on its own slowly…okay, something definitely wasn’t right here.

“Stay sharp.” I told Nicodemus, grabbing my pistol. “Whatever’s in here isn’t alive.”

“…Abaddon.” Nicodemus called.

I turned back to him. “What—“

Looking through the window, I saw just “what”. I saw a figure, a silhouette in the wood, holding what seemed to be an enlarged, purple skull. Its eye holes were filled with some black rock, possibly obsidian, and they glowed with a strange light, illuminating the dark forest for a little while.

Then…I felt it.

I looked across the Gauntlet with my spirit magic and everything just…shifted. The invisible, metaphysical barrier between the spirit and human worlds cracked a bit, allowing some of the beings in Twilight to manifest into the Fallen World. Spirits oozed through the cracks, beings of pure essence and ancient power, reality forcing their eldritch forms into a humanoid shape. Their forms were strange and made of light, yet they oddly didn’t illuminate the darkness around them.

The eyes in the skull glowed again, and the group of spirits writhed in what looked like agony. Their forms shifted from their respective colors to a dark purple, and their forms turned more bestial, more inhuman. I closed my spirit senses quickly so I didn’t go mad – witnessing events in Twilight definitely has the potential to shatter my mind. What I saw in the Fallen World was the elements coming together; wood, snow, ash, and fire all came together into bestial shapes, forces of nature in physical reality. 

“Well.” I said, “This is just wonderful, isn’t it?”

“That’s the spirit.” Nicodemus smirked.

“What? Really? We’re facing spirits and you’re going to make puns?”

“No point in being serious about it if we’re going to die. Besides, it’s not in my…spirit to stress.”

“I cannot take this right now. If you say one more—“

“Don’t be so nervous. You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“That’s not even the same—Nicodemus, the matter at hand, please?”

Nicodemus sighed, taking out his pistol, which was engraved with a pentacle. “Such a buzz kill. Then again, I suppose that’s why you’re the boss.”

I unsheathed my kukri blade and together, Nicodemus and I went out to fight the spirits. As soon as we went outside, one of them called a snow storm, which of course happened as soon as they made a sound. Gusts of wind picked up, blowing the fallen snow all around the area. I charged at one of the creatures, ignoring the gusts of wind all around me. The spirit attacked me with a wave of lightning, which I was luckily able to block with my space ring.

Once I was close to it, I sliced its wooden leg off, which was made out of a tree branch. The spirit felt no pain, for it wasn’t bound to its body. It swiped an icy claw at me, which I narrowly dodged. I shot a ball of fire through its snowy chest, but it simply reformed from the snow around it and kept attacking me.

Nicodemus shot at two other spirits, who endured his attacks easily. I dodged my opponent’s swings with its icy claws, jumping back and casting another spell. With my spirit magic, I harmed the spirit itself, shearing its essence apart and leaving it direly wounded. I observed the spirit with my Sight, and the spirit slowly began to fade. It didn’t matter though; more were slipping through the gauntlet and shifting into those horrible…things. We weren’t going to win if we stayed and fought.

“Nicodemus!” I called to my companion, who was turning the snowy parts of the spirit’s vessel into liquid water to slow it down. “Retreat! They’re going to keep coming!”

Just as I’d said that, I heard howling in the distance. If it was what I thought it was, Nicodemus and I would best not stay there for much longer.

“Shit. Werewolves. They probably sensed the crack in the Gauntlet. We have to go.”  Nicodemus swore. We instantly stopped engaging the spirits and sprinted back into the forest, never looking back. Whatever happened, we definitely lost.

Nicodemus and I parted ways on my way to my house. He had to recover mana from that fight and report to his superiors what happened. Meanwhile, I had quite a few questions for Vivian, but she didn’t seem to want to answer her phone. I needed to talk to her somehow…I had a feeling she at least halfway knew what was going to happen. I paced around my room, calling her again and again. Our mutual contacts didn’t seem to know where she was too. She always had the habit of disappearing…that made my life no easier.

I quickly stripped out of my combat clothes and slipped into a pinstriped suit and tie. The CEO of PrimeGas was going to be at Skarsgard Enterprises HQ in thirty minutes, but I didn’t think I was mentally prepared to deal with some fat imbecile who thinks he’s the center of the world and doesn’t care about anything other than money. When I walked out of my house, I checked my mail and found a golden envelope. It had a pentacle symbol on the back.

‘Magus Abaddon,’ It read in perfect handwriting. ‘the Portland Consilium recognizes your importance to the city and asks you to come to the annual Council meeting at midnight. Tonight, a Scelestus will be slain for breaking the Lex Magica, and other concerns will be bought up by mage cabals. Please attend if convenient and give your input to what would make the city better.’

Politics. Even the awakened cannot escape from them. I realized that if I were to find Vivian anywhere, it would be at the meeting. She was the Mastigos councilwoman, after all. Usually I didn’t attend these meetings because of how busy I was, but now I definitely needed answers, and I needed to alert the council of what was happening. The way that artifact changed spirits…it wasn’t natural. 

“Hello?” My assistant, Megan answered when I called. “Mr. Skarsgard?”

“Yes. Tell the chairmen of PrimeGas Industries that I’ll have to skip out on this meeting. Tell them that I came down with some stomach bug. I have more important business to tend to tonight.” I ordered her, authoritative but not harshly.

“A-Anything for you, Mr. Skarsgard…” She replied.

Okay, so I kind of used mind magic to make myself irresistible to her. What? I have to have control of my assistant, especially since she’ll be the most likely to know about my life as a mage. Besides, she had no family, and she worked most of her free time in college away for this high-paying position. The girl needs some manner of excitement in her life.

“Thank you, love.” I smirked. “Bye.”

I hung up.

Chapter 3: Consilium

Consilium meetings are always interesting places to be. Every time one is held, we meet at a different location so that the Sleepers didn’t wise up to our agendas. Tonight, we were meeting at an old theater. Since the hierarch of the Consilium had the mayor of Portland in his pocket, making a reservation for a private party at the theater probably wasn’t hard. I pulled into the old parking lot and got out of my car, walking with the other mages that were there to attend the meeting. Most of them were dressed formally, with the exception of the neophyte mages, who were either dressed in ratty street clothes or “hipster” wear. I was dressed formally, for I was in an authority figure in mage society and image is everything.

The lights were on inside of the theater. On the stage, there were six seats all in a half-circle around center stage. Each seat was marble and decorated with an Atlantean rune that symbolized the path of the counselor that sat in it. They were all there: Mastigos, Acanthus, Thyrsus, Obrimos, and Moros. In the middle was the seat of the hierarch, whose seat was decorated with a ladder design symbolizing the Celestial Ladder, the bridge that the Atlanteans built between the Supernal and Fallen World.

Each seat was occupied with a councilor, each with a different order and path: my mentor, Vivian, who was a warlock of the Silver Ladder order; the Acanthus counselor, Trismegistus, an enchanter of the Free Council; the Thyrsus counselor, Beckett, a Shaman of the Mysterium; the Moros councilor, Honenheim, a necromancer of the Guardians of the Veil; and the Obrimos councilor, Uriel, a theurgist of the Adamantine Arrow. Each of them sat there, experienced, assured, and more powerful than practically anyone in the room could ever imagine. But none of them were as powerful as the man that walked in next.

The hierarch of the Consilium was a tall, imposing man with a sturdy, muscular frame and salt and pepper hair that was combed over. His face was wrinkled with age, which made him look experienced and not weak. He wore a gray, pinstriped suit and had a staff in his hand made out of petrified wood. It was engraved with Atlantean runes that I couldn’t begin to do the mental gymnastics to decipher. The hierarch’s name was unknown to me – it was unknown to everyone, for he never took an apprentice. His shadow name was Eiael, he was an Obrimos master and a Deacon of the Silver Ladder.

There was murmuring among the councilors and the mages in the house. Cabals sat together, armed with their magical tools in case anyone challenged either of them to a Duel Arcane. The hierarch, with all of his authority and power, was able to quiet the theater by simply clearing his throat. Everyone fell silent, all eyes were on him, and his intense, powerful stare was on all of us.

“Lictor,” Eiael began, his voice a booming baritone. “bring in the Scelestus scum.”

A man clad in a long coat, hood, and combat boots dragged another person in. This person was a kid, clad in ratty clothes that just screamed “I’m homeless” and Atlantean runes, most of which said such words as “oblivion”, “abyss”, or “Scelesti”. He couldn’t have been any older than seventeen or eighteen, yet he still fell into the Abyss for power…such a shame. Then I was alerted when I saw the star and cross tattoos on his hand…in fact, those are the same tattoos that the Russians sport. That couldn’t mean…no, impossible.

“Yuri Vitaly.” The Hierarch began. “You have been bought before a jury of your peers and stood trial for crimes that violate the Lex Magica. You have been convicted of exposing magic to multiple sleepers, allying yourself with witch hunters, and, worse of all, consorting with the Abyss. Do you have any last words before your execution?”

The kid looked up at the Hierarch, spitting on the ground where his fancy Italian leather shoes were. 

“Rot v adu, suka.” He spoke in a thick Russian accent. I could see his crazed smile, even from the house. There’s no way…no way the Russian mob could be involved with the Abyss. Just because one of them were involved, that didn’t mean all of them were. But I had to look at the facts: it would explain why the much better armed Irish were losing their turf against them. I had armed the Mr. Callaghan and co. with the most cutting-edge technology that Skarsgard Enterprises could offer. I gave them tanks, guns, gadgets, armor that would make any private military green with envy. My resources were bottomless; I had connections from America to Canada, Norway to China, and despite this, the Russians pushed through. It made sense now…it wasn’t because of a lack of resources; it was because they were mortal. The Russians weren’t. They were awakened.

I was snapped out of my deep thought by the sound of a blade slicing poor Yuri’s jugular. He bled on the stage like a pig, the sickening sounds of him chocking replacing the murmurs of the crowd. Yuri fell to the ground, lifeless. Everybody was silent for a bit after his death, some uttering prayers if they still had faith at this point, some uttering about the cruelty of the punishment – mostly those Free Council weaklings.

“Now,” the Hierarch spoke as the Lictor carried Yuri’s lifeless body from the stage. With a wave of his hand, the pool of blood Yuri left was cleaned. “the floor is open up for discussion. Cabals of the Portland Consilium, please feel free to voice your opinions and concerns. Democracy and compromise are the foundations of a successful society, after all.”

I won’t bore you with the details of the concerns that various mage cabals have bought up. They were nothing, mostly concerning property disputes, magical artifacts, and the Free Council’s whining. As I sat through the bickering, I thought about the possibility of the Russians being involved in the Abyss. That was a scary thought indeed…and a possibility I’d need to have investigated right away. If they continued to mess with powers from beyond the veil of the Fallen World, that’d definitely put a dent on my crime empire with the Irish. If they gained any more control of local businesses…

When the meeting was adjourned, I instantly weaved through the crowd to talk to Vivian. She was speaking with the hierarch about some matter in Berlin, possibly some mission they had worked on together.

“I apologize for interrupting.” I said as I entered the conversation. “Hierarch Eiael, your handling of that execution was swift and fair. Do not let the naysayers of the Free Council discourage that.”

Eiael grinned. “Yes, I suppose. There will always be critics, however. Listening to them with a humble ear is always better than ignoring them.”

I nodded in genuine agreement, but for a different reason. Making your opponents think you’re listening to them is always great for image and luring them into a false sense of security. After they were sure you were their ally, you crush them so they no longer oppose you. Imperium is the right of humanity, quoth the Silver Ladder.

“Your wisdom is boundless, hierarch. Do you mind if I steal my master for a little while? I seek guidance from her.” I told him.

“I don’t know. Do you mind if he steals you away, Councilor Ishtar?” Eiael spoke to Vivian in a more than suggestive tone.

She gave that sultry smile of hers. “Wouldn’t be the first time someone took me away from someone handsome as yourself. I suppose it is the duty of master to guide their underling. ‘Till we meet again, Eiael.”

I walked off with Vivian. We stood on the apron of the stage, looking out to the house where various cabals spoke with each other.

“Word in the willworker grapevine is that you went into the woods to hunt True Fae. I’d think you’re not that stupid, but it was my spy in the Guardians of the Veil who had told me this. Explain.” Vivian said, her tone authoritative.

“Well, I went to look for the artifact you had assigned me to look for and ran into an unpleasant surprise.” I said, my tone displeased. “Why didn’t you tell me it could corrupt spirits? The changelings weren’t there. It’s in someone else’s hands now.”

Vivian’s opal eyes widened, but then her surprised expression melted into a smirk. “Ah. Interesting. Normally I’d reprimand you for your tone with me, but…interesting indeed. This person, have you seen him?”

I shook my head. “I had not. I had only seen his figure in the distance. He used it on me, cracked open the Gauntlet in the area. My associate, Nicodemus and I would be dead if it weren’t for werewolves coming to fix it. Of course, him and I didn’t stay behind to thank them.”

“Hm…I suppose this confirms my suspicion that there are walkers of the left-hand path among us. Good. We must snuff it out immediately.” Vivian spoke, more to herself than to me.

“We? I’m not involved in this. I already have enough to deal with as it is. The Russians might be involved in the Abyss.” I told her.

“You are involved in this.” She insisted. “The Russians and the Abyss? Hmm…I can’t say I didn’t see that coming. You arm the Irish like the American Black Ops and they still lose. That is definitely worth investigating…but first, I must update you on the artifact. It was a remnant of an Invisible Master after ascension…the Skull of Nekros is what it’s called. Theoretically, it’s holder would be able to control the gauntlet and the spirits within the Shadow…and I suppose that theory is true.”

I widened my eyes. The Invisible Masters…the Archmage…the shapers of the Tellurian. They are the very few mages who actually make it, who actually achieve ultimate power and are able to walk the Supernal. Nobody knows what they do in the heavens…nobody knows where they go, but they’re only ever seen if they want to be seen. They’re on a completely different level of power. And now, the skull of one, allowing the wielder to essentially control the Spirit World and the Underworld…is in the hands of some random person.

“As you can see, this would be a disastrous power in the wrong hands.” Vivian continued. “That’s why you have to get it back. If I could make a guess on the person who has it, it’s probably the same Reaper who had been stealing necromantic artifacts from various Mysterium sanctums over the months.”

Now that I thought back on it, there has been word of powerful necromantic artifacts disappearing overnight because of a thief. But him being a Reaper? That was a term I was unfamiliar with.

“Reaper? What’s a reaper?” I asked my master.

“Information gathering, willworker, is a skill you’ll be unable to live without in mage society.” Vivian said. “Figure it out yourself. There are plenty of tomes that detail the various walkers of the left-hand path. I, myself, am very tight on time. I must seduce the hierarch and get him to see my side of things in this issue of allowing the Free Council to continue resisting our authority.”

Exploiting inner lust…that was always Vivian’s niche.

“Right…I’ll do some research then. I assume this stays between us.”

She nodded. “The council is already trigger happy and nervous, afraid of the watchful eye of this so-called Machine that seems to be haunting Seattle. I suppose the Council and I agree in the perspective that superstitions are antiquity. If you tell them about this, they’ll want to storm Seattle, which would more than likely anger the supernatural powers across state boarders.”

“Alright…I understand.”

For all of the naïveté of the Free Council, their rejection of hierarchy or the divinity of the human soul, the idea of Lorehouses was ingenious. The free and open market of arcane lore, magical items, and mystical tomes ensured that the Free Council had bottomless funds, for there were always initiates seeking to learn how to turn water into wine, and there were always older mages seeking more knowledge in the Mysteries.

Portland didn’t have very many Lorehouses, because Portland wasn’t populated with very many mages. One popular Lorehouse was Arkashiak House, which was dual-owned by two cabals of mages and gave mages jobs so that they could gain connections in mage society and, perhaps most importantly, money. The Lorehouse itself had the appearance of a large Victorian home, giving it a comfortable and welcoming look. Cars were parked all around the block, and from where I was, I could see the house was packed with mages.

I went in and saw many young mages bartering, buying, and exchanging arcane lore for mana. As soon as I appeared at the scene, I could feel the sneers behind my back. My lavish mode of dress and my golden watch probably revealed me to be some blue-blood Silver Ladder fascist. I ignored the glares, assured in the fact that I was much richer than any of these neophytes would ever be in their lifetimes.

I got to a counter, and behind it was a short, pale girl with light auburn hair. She wore light makeup which only accented her natural beauty; her blue-green eyes, her soft, feminine features, and her oval face. She wore a beige dress, which had long, transparent sleeves, and a deep blue scarf. On her legs, I could see stockings or pantyhose and leather boots. I saw a bracelet on her wrist, and from it hung many spiral trinkets, pentagram symbols. She was a witch…a spiral walker.

“Hello, welcome to the Arkashiak House. What will you be buying today?” She greeted me, her tone warm and bubbly. As soon as she actually saw my face, though, all semblance of friendliness disappeared.

“Oh.” She continued. “I thought Silver Ladder fascists were against the whole idea of arcane lore becoming available to all.”

“Only when it breaks the veil.” I said, looking through her transparent counter at the wands, collapsible staves, and pentacle coins of various material. “But it’s nice to see the anarcho-communist idealists of the Free Council remain unbiased. I seek information on the left-hand path.”

“Oh?” She began, her tone definitely hostile. “Planning on summoning acamoth? How about devouring souls? Sorry to break it to you, but that violates the Lex Magica. But then again, you fat cat corporate types never cared about the rules, did you?”

I gave her a humorless smile, channeling some mind magic into my words to nudge her into my direction. “Give me information on the left-hand path.”

As soon as I went into her mind, I felt a pressure going against my subconscious. I felt disoriented as if my mind was literally kicked out of hers. 

“I don’t appreciate patriarchal assholes poking around in my mind.” She said, her fist clenched now. “If you don’t get out, I’m afraid I’ll have to get you out.”

I sighed. “Spare me, please. I only seek information, and I thought Lorehouses allowed free knowledge for all?”

“It’s against Arkashiak policy to service Silver Ladder sheep.” She said. “I’m sorry. Please fuck off.”

Now I was getting irritated. “Just like you Free Council liberals. You advocate rights for every mage except the ones you don’t li—“

Suddenly, I heard the sound of screeching tires. Shortly after, I heard the sound of car doors slamming and multiple people marching up the steps of the Arkashiak House. I looked back.

Men clad in SWAT-style body armor opened fire on all of the mages inside.

Chapter 4: Black Mason

I dove behind the counter, using my Space Ring to create a warp shield as quickly as possible. The torrent of bullets racing towards us mostly missed us – a fact which, I’d guessed, was because of the witch next to me. She was probably skilled in the Fate Arcanum; she could make the great, cosmic dice of the universe turn in her favor. It seemed there was an invisible field around her which the bullets most likely wouldn’t go through. I kept my shield up in case her luck ran out.

“Oh! Convenient!” The witch shouted over the sound of gunfire, mages slinging spells – and some becoming victim to Paradox – and more gunfire. “Is this your doing? Hm? Has the Ladder finally gotten tired of the Free Council presence in this city? I have to say, this isn’t so subtle!”

“Will you please think before you speak?” I hissed back at her. “Why, in the name of the Supernal, would the Silver Ladder strike and even further create tensions between themselves and the Free Council? Jesus, how have you gotten this far?!”

“I don’t know what goes on in the heads of you Fascist freaks!” She retorted. “But you know what goes on in my head, don’t you, warlock? Do you know how bloody you’re going to be after I’m done with you?”

I grit my teeth and took out my pistol. I quickly loaded in a new magazine and thumbed back the hammer. “Yes. I’ll be bloody. But, if you keep on at the rate you’re going at now, it won’t be my blood.”

She grit her teeth also. “Bring. It. On.”

I rolled my eyes. She was hot-blooded, that’s for sure. Maybe her services would’ve been better appreciated in the Adamantine Arrow. At least then she’d be serving the Pentacle Orders and furthering the cause of humanity instead of creating gadgets out of Life Magic and iPhones.

“I’m sorry to break it to you, miss…”

“Trivia.”

“Trivia. I’m sorry to break it to you, but the armed men are shooting at me too. So I’m in no better of a position than you are.”

That’s when I saw the look of contemplation on her face, as if the gears in her head were finally turning.

“Good.” I continued. “Now, how about we form a momentary alliance to kill these mortals? That would be productive, yes?”

“How do you know they’re mortals?” She asked, getting her own revolver from underneath the counter, checking the cylinder to make sure there was ammunition. “They could be the Seers of the Throne.”

“No. They’re not using magic.” I said. “They’re not equipped with enough magical weaponry either. The Seers tend to be better equipped than us of the Diamond since the rulers of the Supernal World are on their side.”

She rolled her eyes. “Ugh. That myth.”

I closed my eyes, focusing on my inner self. I called upon the very entity that I’d been spending most of my Bene Ashmedai training taming: my vice, Pride. Reaching into my soul, I pulled out the darkest part of me, something I understood more than anyone else, and something that I had embraced, as a prince of demons. I felt a heat grow around me, consuming me, but I kept it under control. When I opened my eyes, I saw a figure in front of me, standing instead of crouching. He looked exactly like me; he had long, blonde hair, pale features, and a tall, muscular physique. He wore a pitch black suit, and an overcoat that was decorated with the patterns of peacock tail feathers. Blue feathers seemed to creep up his neck, and his eyes were pitch black and out of focus like that of a bird’s.

“Go.” I ordered it.

My Goetic demon unleashed a savage roar, its form a blur as it rammed into one of the armored men. The man went flying across the room, crashing into one of the counters and turning it to splinters. The Kevlar-clad soldiers opened fire on my Goetic demon, but the bullets went through them mostly. Its form became a blur again, a red and purple streak of pure light that went into one of the soldiers. The soldier’s eyes turned red and he opened fire on all of his teammates. That cut them down by a significant amount.

I couldn’t sustain this for much longer. I felt a streak of blood trickling down from my nose. My Goetic demon dispersed, but luckily there were only about six of them left.

“Impressive.” Trivia commented begrudgingly. “Now…let’s turn off their guns.”

I saw her make a small effort of will. She crouched in place, her eyes closed, and I suddenly felt the hot breeze of the rainforest down my back. I barely registered the sound of wild animals and buzzing bees at the back of my consciousness, manifesting as a distant sound close to my ear. Something about her became more primal, more filled with life, with a presence that was old as time itself. This was her nimbus, an aura that appears only when casting spells.

Suddenly, the fire stopped. As if by some cruel trick of fate – which is precisely what it was – their guns were jammed, giving Trivia and I the upper hand. Both of us came from our cover positions, opening fire on the soldiers. Because I’m a great shot, I hit most of them either in foreheads or the knees, but Trivia wasn’t as lucky. Most of her shots missed, even though her aim was likely augmented by Fate Magic. I heard her growl.

“Fuck this.” She grit her teeth and reached under her desk again. From it, she pulled out a collapsible axe that she very quickly unfolded into full size, the metal blade sharp and deadly. She vaulted over the counter, charging towards the men who had attacked us. The men either dropped their guns and pulled out combat knives or decided to use their automatic rifles as blunt weapons.

What I saw next, I just…well, let’s just say I was very surprised.

The men were trained, or at least trained enough to hold their own in combat. That didn’t matter. As soon as she was close to one of them, Trivia bounded into the air and spun, using the momentum to dig her axe into the soldier’s unarmored neck. Blood gushed from the wound and the man chocked in very obvious pain, but Trivia moved onto the guy directly behind him. She pulled her axe out and ducked under the man’s swing with his rifle. She straightened her hand and swung it hard against his ribs in a chop, causing the man to stumble to the side. Another man charged at her with a knife, tackling her, which he successfully did. From under him, Trivia placed a hand on his chest and attacked him with…something. He rolled off of her, vomiting blood and eventually passing out on the floor.

While Trivia was on the floor, one of the armored guys ran up and tried to kick her. She braced herself, grabbing the man by his shin and swinging her axe into his knee full force, cutting into the flesh and bone like butter. The man screamed in pain and fell down to his side. She quickly got up then, looking at the three that were left. All three of them quickly turned around and ran for the other direction, but I definitely wasn’t going to let them escape. I raised one finger, focusing on every potential weapon in the room that I had been registering ever since Trivia charged. They all came off of their frames, out of their glass cases, and out of the hands of dead mages. I threw them with my mind.

The three men were speared right through the center of their bodies, their blood pooling all over the already gore-stained carpet. Trivia looked back at me, panting, her red hair a sweaty mess. I vaulted over the counter, walking over to the soldier who was still vomiting blood.

“What’d you do to him?” I asked Trivia.

“Attacked his life force.” She said. “He’ll live.”

“Good. He’ll be able to answer some questions, then.” I grinned at him, though there was no humor in my expression. The thought of shattering this fool’s mind to splinters amused me. I looked at the man close to him, the one with a gaping hole in his knee due to Trivia’s axe. I shot him in the head, killing him.

“Jesus!” Trivia jumped. “Warn me before you do things like that?”

“You’re well-versed at the Life Arcanum, are you not? I advise you to heal the mages that are still alive. I have a few questions to ask our associate here. Is there a secluded enough room?”

She looked at me and the man who was vomiting blood as if she were trying to decide the lesser of two evils.

“Basement.” She told me, kneeling beside one mage with a few bullet wounds in his shoulder, arms, and knee. “Don’t make him scream too loud. We don’t want to be known as the Lorehouse that lets warlocks play Mercy with minds.”

“Good evening, sir.” I greeted the soldier, who seemed to be regaining the consciousness that he lost when he was vomiting his blood out. He was strapped to a chair, bound by tightly tied rope. I took away his armor and weapons, that way I didn’t have any trouble and I’d easily be able to identify this man when I let him go…if I let him go. He was much older than me, early to mid-forties, but he had a military buzz cut and little to no facial hair. This man was a professional. Mortal professionals who know about magic and seem exceedingly hostile to mages…that sounded like a witch hunter to me.

“Now, here’s now this is going to go.” I continued, “I’m going to ask you questions, you’re going to answer me honestly. It’s that simple, but be warned: I know when you’re lying. If you lie to me, you will suffer a hell that is worse than anything you could ever imagine. Do you understand?”

“Worse than anything I could ever imagine?” The man’s gruff voice came out clear, but it was obvious he was holding off a lot of pain. I’d created a telepathic link with him before he woke up so I could truly tell if he were lying or not, so I could sense the pain being held back by a cold wall of logic and training. It was a cracking dam. “Yeah, right, kid. I’d killed witches a lot older and a lot more powerful than you. In fact, won’t be long until I’m free from this chair and I have my hands around your neck.”

I smirked in response to that. I was going to enjoy this.

“Let’s see…you hadn’t been annoyingly quoting scripture yet in an attempt to have the power of Christ compel me…so you’re obviously not Malleaus Maleficarum.” I paced around the room slowly as I thought, mentally dulling all of his senses except for sight so he wouldn’t be able to hear the activity outside. “Nor are you one of the Knights of St. George, obviously, because you hadn’t used your annoying gospels to paradox my magic. You can’t be part of VALKYRIE, because you’re not a very stoic one, I can feel that much in your mind. Besides, their chosen target is mostly vampires anyway. Hm…but you ARE a professional. Perhaps you’re one I hadn’t heard of before…some hired mercenaries that kill witches for money. You seem like the hired muscle type, don’t you, Mr. Albert Greene?”

His eyes widened. “How did you know my—“

I grabbed him by the face, my fingertips digging into his temples. “You, Mr. Greene, are messing with forces beyond your comprehension. Obviously you hadn’t killed any witches ‘older and more powerful’ than I, because the way your taskforce attacked the Lorehouse was abysmal, almost insulting. No…I don’t think this is your first dance with the awakened, but this is certainly not your tenth or fifth.”

I felt the struggle in Albert’s mind as he wondered how, how could I possibly know so much about him? His name? His career? Little did he know I was poking around in his skull, cracking open his mind and reading the precious information scribed all over his gray matter.

“That doesn’t mean anything.” Mr. Greene said. “So you know my name, so you know my story. Witches know shit they shouldn’t all the time.”

“Who do you work for, Greene? Who hired you?” I asked him. I’d tried to dig deeper into his mind, but he was onto me. The flow of his thoughts changed, he was deliberately changing what he was thinking so I wouldn’t be able to find out anymore. I had better get this over with before he develops the willpower to kick me out.

“I’m not tellin’ you.” He said, spitting on the ground next to my leather shoes.

“Tell me, Mr. Greene.” I smirked, pulling up a chair so I could sit directly in front of him. “Do you believe in the Devil?”

“You mean like hell? Satan?” The man asked. “Sure. Why not? You goin’ anywhere with this, kid?”

“Well, the common interpretation of Hell is…well, hellish.” I told him. “Fire, brimstone, suffering, mashing of teeth. It’s where the sinners get their comeuppance for the wrongs they’ve done in the world, right? But that’s all bullshit anyway. Fairytales told to children and ignorant, uneducated farmers to get them to behave and follow the laws.”

Mr. Greene said nothing.

“No, there is no fire and brimstone…but there is Hell. It isn’t a place…hell is all…in…here.” I said, tapping my forehead.

“What are you saying?” The soldier asked.

“Let me show you.”

With a small effort of will, I unleashed otherworldly torments on his mind. I saw his eyes widen, his body shake, and his skin become slick with sweat as he saw…something. Felt…something. I chuckled under my breath, which developed into a full-blown laugh as I felt the faculties of his mind grow weaker and weaker. He let out a scream, but I quickly covered his mouth to muffle it.

“Quiet, Mr. Greene. Nobody in Hell cares about your suffering.”

I closed my eyes and visualized the evils that tormented him. The cold, inhuman forces of the mind that weren’t real but might as well have been. I made him feel pain, I made him freeze with terror and watch as his world came crumbling down, spiraling into nothingness. Everything that he was, everything that he knew slowly dried and chipped away like lead paint on an old wall. I grinned as I made his tiny, feeble mind my silly putty, made him feel things that he didn’t want to feel, made him think things that he didn’t want to think. 

Finally, I stopped. His nose was bleeding. I didn’t want to kill him yet.

“Jesus!” Albert exclaimed, his voice slurred. “What…what are you?”

I knew what Albert saw when he looked at me. He saw what I wanted him to see, a visage of terror that crept in the back of his mind. My form was eldritch, a tall, spindly humanoid form with leathery, black skin and eight arms, each one having a flap of flesh that grew into a bat-like wing. My face was elongated and composed mostly of mouths stacked on top of one another. My feet were tendrils, tendrils that wrapped around his legs, creeping into his ears and coming out of the sockets of his eyes. He was my marionette, and his mind was my stage.

“I am Abaddon.” I told him. “I am your tormenter. Your cleanser. Your purgatory. I am every vice you have, every psychosis and every hobgoblin you fight. I am the prince of your demons, the master of your human nature, and tamer of your habits. You, in very mild terms, are under my control. I am the black voice that whispers into your ear, the one that convinced you to kill your daughter, for she might’ve been a witch. Money controls you, fear motivates you. You are weak, I am strong. Don’t. Fuck. With. Me.”

Mr. Greene squirmed in his seat.

“Who do you work for?”

“I can’t say!”

“Funny. Neither could your daughter whenever you asked her where she was. And then one day, you shot her. Should I do the same?”

“No! Please!”

“Who. Do. You. Work. For?”

“Black Mason!” He shouted, his body trembling. “We’re a private military! A witch-hunting service! Black Maso—ack!”

He was cut off by his mouth suddenly closing, hard. His wriggling tongue fell onto the floor, and his mouth gushed out foamy blood. He convulsed, his body’s muscles tensing and shaking. He violently shook for fifteen seconds before stopping, his body limp and lifeless. He was dead.

For a moment, I was shocked. Then I realized that this soldier was under a geas, an unbreakable oath bought on by Fate Magic. Black Mason, witch hunters…clearly, they were getting manipulated by witches themselves. That was interesting…perhaps it tied into this whole Reaper business. I sighed and got up from my seat, walking upstairs and out of the basement.

As soon as I was out, Trivia was there waiting for me. She leaned against the wall, her hand covered in washed-out blood.

“What did he say?” She asked.

“He works for a witch-hunting faction called Black Mason. They’re the new kids on the block, I presume. The man was freaked out when I read his mind.” I told her.

“Alright, Black Mason. Is there anything else he told you?”

“No. But that’s none of your concern anyway.”

“Yes. Yes it is. They attacked my Lorehouse when I was meant to protect it. If you’re going after them…let me tag along.”

That was so funny, I’d almost forgotten to laugh. “You? I’ll die before I work alongside a Free Council rat.”

She scowled. “Did you not hear me? They attacked a place under my protection. Hurt my customers, made a fool out of me! I had to call the Sentinels just for medical support. I want payback.”

“And why, exactly, would I go out of my way to let you come along with me? You don’t even know me. You don’t know what I do, nor do you know who I am.”

“You’re Abaddon.” She told me. “Apprentice of Ishtar, the Mastigos and Silver Ladder councilor. Everybody in mage society knows who you are; you’ve helped build the Portland Consilium. You’ve risen up and broken down many important mages. Have I proved enough? Let me come with you.”

I rolled my eyes. “What’s in it for me?”

“Anything from this Lorehouse, fifty percent off, plus no restrictions because you’re Silver Ladder. And the book you’re looking for? Free.”

Hm. That was a good bargain. “I suppose I’ll accept. But why would you want to work with me? I thought I was a ‘Silver Ladder Fascist’.”

“I don’t agree with the Silver Ladder, nor do I necessarily like you.” She explained. “But I have a goal that needs to be met, and I’m willing to go with almost any length to reach it. I bet that’s something you can understand.”

“Alright.” I said. “Meet me here tomorrow morning, then. We’ll start our investigation there. Meanwhile, try not to kill yourself with your own stupidity.”

Trivia punched me in the stomach. Hard.

As I exited the Arkashiak House with my tome containing information about the left-hand path, I noticed the rather conspicuous sight of a limousine with blacked-out windows. Without a second glance, I knew who it might be. I walked down the street to it, and as I approached, one of the windows slowly opened. From the darkness came a face, an old one with gray, combed-over hair, intelligent, blue eyes, and a salt and pepper beard. He wore a suit – Armani, or possibly Gucci – with a leather duster coat and leather gloves. Just looking at him, I could feel the sheer presence of power. But it wasn’t that of a mage, nor was it that of any other supernatural…it was that of a sleepwalker, a quiet, subtle power that wasn’t pronounced, yet it was definitely there. 

Seeing his face only confirmed my thoughts.

“Hello, Mr. Callaghan.” I greeted him.

Mr. Callaghan’s expression remained cold, but he wasn’t angry, he was analytical, calculative. That’s why I liked working with him, we thought the same way. Business with the pragmatic was always more predictable and beneficial to both parties.

“Hello there, Mr. Skarsgard.” The boss of the Irish Mob greeted me. “Come in. Take a ride with me. I’ll show you the Russians’ most recent fiasco.”

Chapter 5: Betrayal

When I entered the car, Mr. Callaghan looked out of the window. He always avoided eye contact with me. Perhaps it was because he thought that I’d read every thought in his mind if he looked into his eyes. I neglect to mention to him that I didn’t need eye contact with that. When I met Mr. Callaghan, he was the owner of an Irish pub that I frequently went to in between work days. I’d witnessed him one day disposing of a body that his company had killed off, and of course he’d intended to do the same to me so that there were no loose ends. I used my Mind Magic to dissuade him from doing so, and I ended up partially awakening him in the process. He’ll awaken any day now. It is a matter of “when”, not “if”.

Right now, Mr. Callaghan looked troubled. My longtime business associate never looked troubled unless he was in something he didn’t understand, which came increasingly often as I took co-leadership of the Irish mob.

“You magic types.” Mr. Callaghan began. “Is it common for you to eat people?”

“No.” I answered, completely stoic. “We leave that for the left-hand crazies. Those who draw power from the Abyss. I’m guessing the Russians ate someone?”

“Something ate someone.” He said. “All I know is twelve of my men are dead, and somebody has to answer for it.”

I remained silent for a second, looking out of the window. I spoke again and said, “Let me take care of this. This may be out of your men’s league.”

“Twelve of my men, Skarsgard.” He said again. “Twelve of them are dead. And you’re telling me to stay out of this?”

“These are forces you cannot understand, Callaghan. I barely knew about them until tonight. Please, in the spirit of our friendship, stay out of this.”

I saw his jaw clench. “Listen here, boy. I heard from my men that you killed an important employee of mine.”

“He called me a freak.”

“You don’t kill allies.” “Respect binds us together. If we allow one of our number to disrespect us, then they’ll rebel. I apologize if my iron fist approach doesn’t suit your tastes, but I’ll remind you that I am as much of a leader as you.”

“I” – Mr. Callaghan’s voice was raising now. “—have built this empire from the ground up! And I’ll be damned if I’ll let some corporate brat—“

“And now, your empire is threatened.” I said. “Had it not been for me supplying you with weapons, the Russians would’ve wiped you out. In fact, if it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t even know what the hell you’re dealing with. So I’d be very pleased if you’d stop questioning my authority over a minor casualty.”

The rest of the ride was silent. Awkwardly so. I had to restrain myself from sighing in relief when we approached Warehouse Seventeen. This was where I distributed most of my weapons and gadgets to the Irish. It was regularly protected and patrolled since I had set up some important infrastructure there. I sent some of my enthralled technicians to set up computer servers for a large communication network between them and I, allowing for a completely safe means of creating plans.

Once Mr. Callaghan and I entered the warehouse, even my stomach churned at the bloodbath. There were dead bodies scattered all over the floor, with some of the mobsters’ body parts several yards away from where they died. The floor was covered in blood and symbols that would drive any man mad if they knew the meaning of them. Atlantean runes…whoever did this was a skilled mage, for it is nearly impossible to know Atlantean High Speech in full. After the magic city fell beneath the waves, the language used to move the stars was broken. Now, nobody can speak it fully…nobody but the tyrants in the Supernal World.

“This was definitely the site of some fowl magic…” I said, looking around with my mage sight to see if anything was waiting to devour my mind. “But it’s clean…organized. Magically speaking, at least. The person who did this knew what they were doing.” I flipped through my book – the one about the Reapers – once more. They represented the ultimate act of hubris, the idea that their desire outweighs the cosmic significance of someone’s existence in the universe. Perhaps it was a reaper that stole the necromantic artifact…and this same reaper was likely connected to the Russians. It might seem like a leap in logic, but coincidences didn’t seem to exist in my experience. When you’re a mage and something bad is happening to you, it’s likely that multiple forces are in league to make it happen.

Suddenly, I heard the sound of cocking guns behind me. I turned around to see a bunch of my own men pointing guns directly at my face. Mr. Callaghan himself pointed a nice, polished pistol that I bought for him myself at me. In the middle of it all was a man I didn’t recognize. His face was deathly pale and he wore glasses with darkened lenses. He wore tight, black jeans, combat boots, and a burgundy sweater with a blazer. His hair was shaved at the sides but combed back on the top, a haircut that so many guys in the area seemed to have. His sleeves were rolled up, allowing me to see the many tattoos he had depicting scenes of death from legend, Atlantean runes, and some names that seemed like shadow names. He held the very necromantic artifact I thought of in his hands.

“What is the meaning of this?” I demanded.

“You’re the enemy, Skarsgard.” Mr. Callaghan spoke up, his voice gruff and steely calm. “My empire has grown after my partnership with you, yes, but I’m afraid you are now obsolete. You’ve gotten quite uppity, questioning my authority and killing my men…and you aren’t even part of the family. You were never one of us, Skarsgard. You never will be.”

The hipster in the middle smirked and the obsidian eyes in the skull in his arms glowed like backlights. Time seemed to slow down shortly, and everything went dark. After it was done, I felt a dull pain in my head, quick and hard. Before I blacked out and fell down, I caught a glimpse of one of the half-eaten corpses behind me, standing as if it just hit me.

When I woke up, it was either the next night or only a few hours after I was hit. It’s hard to tell when you’re in the back of a moving van. I could see dull sunlight coming in through the one window in front of me. I tried to move but I couldn’t because I was tied to a steel chair. The knot used on me was nigh-indestructible, and I couldn’t use magic to burn it because, for some reason, I couldn’t properly call down the power of the Supernal. I was stuck.

There I sat for hours and hours, my head hurting like hell, my hands and feet numb, and my body sweating. I didn’t have my weapons on me, so there was absolutely nothing I could do. From the pit of my stomach, I felt a fire rising up rather quickly. It spread up to my head, and finally, I felt it. I screamed, I shook, I shouted.

He dared to betray me? Me, who had given him Portland? Me, who had supplied him with weapons, with territory, with technology? He should be worshipping me at my feet, and yet he betrays me, says I’m questioning his authority! If the old man had any authority, the Russians wouldn’t be after him in the first place. But it seems as if the Irish and the Russians have banded together to take me down…typical. You trust an animal, and that animal bites the hand that feeds them.

The van suddenly stopped and I heard the sounds of doors slamming behind me. In seconds, the two doors opened and my eyes were suddenly assaulted with bright, fluorescent light. Suddenly, I was lifted by an invisible force into a white, concrete room. 

My vision blurred, and when it cleared up, I found that I was now in front of a steel table. On the other side was another man; he was about my age and just as stylish as me. He wore a pinstriped suit, glasses, and he had black hair that was combed over. His features were handsome and clear, and his eyes were blue, filled to the brim with intelligence. The corners of his mouth were lined with the beginnings of wrinkles, showing that he smiled quite frequently…but judging from the man’s presence, it was rarely genuine. I’d seen him before. It was Joseph Bradley, CEO of PrimeGas Industries. This was…an unexpected development to say the least.

“I suppose you’re wondering why I’m here. Or why you’re here. Or both.” The man said, his voice eerily calm. “Well, let me start by saying that I’m the one that stole one-hundred and fifty million from your bank account. Actually…by this time it’s three-fifty million, but details, details.” I clenched my fist. Once again, I tried to cast a spell, but nothing work. I couldn’t even properly form an imago, my head hurt so much.

Joseph smirked. “Ah. Yeah, your magic isn’t going to work right now. I had my employees bind you with a special artifact – the Rope of Ain-Dagnus or whatever. Either way, you can’t call down the Supernal as long as you’re bound with that.”

“What do you want?” I asked, my voice more hoarse and weak than I’d have liked it to be.

“I want you to stay right here, actually.” He said, tapping the steel table. “Right. Here. Nice and snug…well, until security comes and turns you into bloody bits with automatic weapons. If you’re wondering why I’m even talking with you…well, it’s because I wanted to let you know that you’ve lost. That I’ve got you, and you don’t even know the beginning of my plans. And you’ll die without ever knowing.”

I jerked in my seat, my teeth clenched. I wanted to tear off his face and feed it to him. Joseph smirked. “Yeah. Your associate told me you have a short temper despite appearances. Wounding your ego is the best way to get you going. Man, taunting sociopaths sure is fun.”

“Why?” I growled.

“Simple. My associates and I want power, and you presented an obstacle to getting it. Being one of the most powerful people in Portland and being aware of the magical world puts you on a lot of people’s lists, you know. This was bound to happen. Just consider yourself lucky that the Seers caught you instead of some Scelestus cannibal.”

“Seer? You serve the Exarchs?”

Joseph nodded. “Ministry of Mammon. I’ve taken the West Coast already. I decided to come up north to expand my territory.”

“I know your true name.” I threatened. “Once I get out of here, I’ll destroy you.”

He smirked then burst out into full blown laughter. “How arrogant and stupid would I have to be to put my real name on my company?” He asked. “Speaking of arrogant stupidity, I know your true name, actually, and it sure as hell isn’t Abaddon. I’m sorry, Mr. Skarsgard, I’m afraid you’re in no position to be making threats.”

I grit my teeth. “I will get out of here. I’ll make you wish you’ve never crossed me.”

“You’re delusional.” He said. “You haven’t even figured out that I’m the least of your problems. For now, anyway.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Goodbye, Oliver Skarsgard.” With that, the CEO of PrimeGas Industries left the room, closing the metal-enforced door behind him. After that, there was nothing but complete silence. I could hear nothing but the buzzing of the fluorescent light above me. I tried again to break free of the knot I was in, but nothing worked. Minutes passed, and after that, hours. Nothing. After a while, three men clad in similar SWAT-style armor as the Black Mason witch hunter I spoke to earlier. All three of them had automatic weapons pointed at me.

“Amazing.” I smirked at them, my mind racing and pulsating with pain. “This is how I end, hm? In a white room, under a fluorescent light…I am slain.”

They cocked their guns.

“I hadn’t imagined dying like this.” I continued. “I believed I’d die in another way. A better, more violent way. I’d die in a struggle, a Duel Arcane to the death. Perhaps I’d strangle an Abyssal serpent and cast it into the lower depths…perhaps my demons would attempt to kill me again.”

They said nothing.

“You better not hold back.” I growled. “You better make sure you kill me, that there’s no way out of this. Make sure this is as painful as possible…kill me slowly and violently. I am not some common criminal to be disposed with. YOU HEAR THAT!? IF YOU DON’T KILL ME PROPERLY, I WILL DESTROY EVERY ONE OF YOU.”

Suddenly, a figure appeared out of nowhere, clad in a pinstriped duster coat, dress pants, and leather shoes. His black hair was messy, and his black eyes were crazy. With that and his pale skin, he looked like the grim reaper, all the way down to the suppressed pistol in his gloved hands. It was Nicodemus. He shot one of the witch hunters through the glass of his helmet. The man was killed instantly. The guard beside him immediately turned and began to open fire, but Nicodemus quickly slipped beneath the gun, bought his forearm up against the barrel to knock his aim upward and flexed his wrist. Out of his sleeve came a blade. Nicodemus plunged the blade into the gap where the hunter’s jugular was. Crimson liquid spurted out of the wound and all over Nicodemus’ nice suit, but it didn’t bother him at all. He pushed forward, using the hunter’s body as a shield and slamming into the armed man behind him. Using the helmet of the witch he already killed, he slammed into the other man’s helmet, breaking the glass and probably the man’s face. He pulled his blade from out of the witch hunter’s throat and cleaned it.

“Well, I’d tell you about your company’s Headquarters getting attacked by PrimeGas’ private security force…but I see your arms are tied.”

I gave a humorless smile. “Untie me, you fool.”

He smirked and teleported behind me, untying the rope. “This looks nasty…cut you off from your magic, hm?”

“It did.” I confirmed, rubbing my wrists and standing up. There was a sharp pain in my head and I felt the back of my skull. There was a drying up mess of blood…it was probably very bad, but I could manage for now. “We must get back at Joseph Bradley…and I need to contact Trivia to update her on things.”

“Trivia?”

“A Free Council witch I met this afternoon. We’re investigating this issue together.”

“Free Council? Well…you’re the boss. Did you find out who stole the artifact?”

“I don’t know what his name is, but I saw him.”

“Tell me what happened.” I told Nicodemus everything, about Mr. Callaghan’s betrayal, about Black Mason, and about what Joseph Bradley told me.

“I see…” He mused. “But a Seer teaming up with a Reaper? Not even the Seers are known to tolerate the left-hand path…this is strange. And fowl. We must let the hierarch know.”

I nodded. “To the theater, then.”

“To the theater.” 

Chapter 6: Trial by Combat

On the way to the theater, Nicodemus and I stopped by the Arkashiak House so that I could get my car. Of course, the witch herself, Trivia, was leaning against my car, clearly waiting. Seeing as how it was four o’clock in the morning at this point…this definitely wasn’t what I thought of when I’d said “in the morning” earlier on. When I approached my car, she stood upright and looked at Nicodemus.

“Who’s your associate? You two a cabal?” She asked. Once her eyes were on me, she immediately frowned. “Jesus…what the hell happened? You look beat to hell.”

I ignored her second question and looked at Nicodemus. “Kind of, yes. Why are you out so early?”

She sighed. “Early bird gets the worm and all that. My inner goddess is the goddess of Day. I have difficulty sleeping.”

I rolled my eyes. Though to her credit, she looked ready for action. Instead of the bohemian dress I saw her in this afternoon, she wore jeggings, combat boots, and a gray sweater under a wool duster coat. She had a duffel bag slung on her shoulder. Just by looking at it, I could tell that there were things in it. Magical tools, probably.

“Right. Look, we can’t investigate now. Plan’s off.” I told her.

Her eyes widened. “What? No, no, no, motherfucker! You said we’d investigate this together.”

“I have it taken care of.” I said firmly. “I know who was behind it. If you step back, we’ll have it taken care of.”

She paused for a second, and then looked at us with suspicious eyes. “My gods.” 

I frowned. “What?”

“You’re doing it. The thing the Silver Ladder does, trying to take all of the credit for themselves, claiming to be the leader of mage society! What a fucking power fantasy. Have you ever considered that maybe I’m affected by this too? I’ve been fired from the Lorehouse due to Black Mason shooting up the place, and you want me to step back? That is the most elitist, authoritarian bullshit I’ve ever heard!”

I opened my mouth to say something, but I was interrupted.

“And you’re beat to hell!” She continued. “You have a black eye! You’re bleeding! You can at least ask me to heal you, you know? But no. You don’t even ask for help, because you think you can take everything on by your god damned self!”

“Are you done?” I asked, my voice even as ever.

“No, I—“

“She has a point, you know.” Nicodemus said, reminding me that he was right behind. “We probably can’t take this guy alone. Not without help. And obviously, the Irish isn’t with the program. When you told me her shadow name, I’d thought it sounded familiar, but now that I actually see her, I know where I’d heard of her from. Associates of mine tell her she’s strong and fiercely loyal. She’d do much better in the Arrow in my opinion…”

“Yeah. Join the Arrow. And pledge myself to fascist pigs who claim to descend from priest-judges of an empire never proved to have existed.” She retorted.

“…But, we should probably bring her along.” Nicodemus continued. “It’ll do us well. I feel it.”

I took a look at Trivia, who was staring right back at me expectantly. I...disliked the Free Council, I really did. They had no respect for the natural ways of magic, for the traditions and paths set by the mages of Atlantis before us. They had no respect for the Old Gods or the Oracles, or even the dragons that came before us…no, they were too busy with their concerns of humanity, believing that they are inherently special without the guiding hand of the elite. Despite that, they’ve shown to be quite a formidable force against the Seers of the Throne, and their modernization – or bastardization – of magic does admittedly bring innovation to the Pentacle.

I sighed. “Come on. We’re going to the hierarch. I’ll fill you in on the way to the theater.”

The theater was largely empty because a Consilium meeting hadn’t been called. It was only Nicodemus, Trivia, and I alone with the council and Eiael. There was an eerie quiet in the room, a tension that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It was like there was electricity in the air, like the room was pregnant with possibility. For the first time ever, I had butterflies in my stomach.

I took a deep breath before speaking to the hierarch.

“Hierarch Eiael,” I began. “I am here to reveal something to the council. Something that had come to me this very night. Master Eiael, there is a member of the Ministry of Mammon in Portland. He had kidnapped me not long ago, and I’d be dead if it weren’t for my friend, Nicodemus.”

Eiael began pacing, his petrified wood staff in his hand. I could see his wise features scrunch up in deep thought, lines of worry manifesting near his eyes. “Have you any proof of this?” He asked.

“Millions of dollars were stolen from my company’s bank account. When I go investigating, I am attacked by a professional witch hunting faction called Black Mason. My mortal associates have betrayed me and given me to this man. Furthermore, I believe the Seers have employed a reaper.”

The council burst out into laughter, all of them except Vivian. Her expression seemed conflicted, worried, even. She rarely ever looked that way. She usually always seemed so in control. Not now. Now she had the face of someone who wasn’t in control, like this weren’t going the way they were supposed to. I tried to telepathically communicate her with my magic, but I’d gotten nothing but a low static sound in the back of my head. Why was she blocking herself?

“Preposterous.” Eiael said, his steely tone silencing the laughter of the council.“The Seers hate the left-hand path as much as we of the Pentacle do. That is one among very few virtues those Exarch slaves have. Your claim is ridiculous, and you have not presented proof. What I find interesting, however, is that you dare stand before the council.”

The look on my face must’ve been priceless. “…What?”

“We know of your trickery, Abaddon. Your company had lost millions because you were investing in a reaper cabal from Idaho. You had forged a connection with the Irish mob and the Russian mob, fabricating a gang war to create chaos. With this chaos, you sought to take over Portland.” Eiael spoke clearly, but his tone was a bark.

I looked at Trivia and Nicodemus. They were in as much disbelief as I was.

“That’s ridiculous!” Nicodemus said. “I’ve been investigating this with him. Whoever made that claim is false.”

“The proof is substantial.” Eiael said. “You’ve always wanted power. You were always greedy for it. It is an attitude that is just like the Seers. You are not fit for the Ladder. You are no leader, just a power-hungry heathen!”

I clenched my fist, my teeth were clenched together. I had half the mind to unleash the hells of Pandemonium upon this room, to release tornadoes from my hands and shoot lightning from my fingertips. I stopped myself. The people in this room were worlds more powerful than I. If I tried to lash back, they’d vaporize me in an instant, turn me into a pillar of salt. I bowed my head. How could this be? Who could it be that possibly gave him this information?

You haven’t even figured out that I’m the least of your problems. For now, anyway.

My eyes widened. I looked into Eiael’s eyes, his old, knowing eyes. My mind worked extra hard to piece together what I was thinking. Eiael had gained power quite quickly. After the former hierarch, Fashiq of the Mysterium had disappeared; Eiael came to Portland and, under the duty of a deacon of the Silver Ladder, took the seat of hierarch and ran the Consilium. Nobody knew exactly where he came from, but his values and leadership improved the Consilium greatly.

But where there is one Seer, there is a rival one close by.

Joseph’s attack hadn’t been random. He had been prompted into action by a force, another force who he wanted to usurp power from. The Seers aren’t exactly as tight-knit as the Pentacle is. To be a Seer of the Throne is to struggle against your peers, to never have an ally and to oppress those weaker than you. They weren’t monolithic; they resembled something more of a high-tension confederacy if anything else. No, if Joseph had approached Portland, it’s to threaten someone else’s control over Portland.

It’s to threaten Eiael.

I clenched my fist once again. “You—“

“Your punishment is death.” The hierarch said. “For the Lex Magica violations of treason, consorting with servants of the Abyss, and consorting with servants of the Lie, I sentence you to death.”

Out of seemingly nowhere, two Consilium sentinels grabbed me by either arm. They began to pull me to the stage, but suddenly…

“Wait!”

Everybody in the Consilium silenced as Vivian got off of her seat and walked to center stage, facing Eiael. I looked into her eyes, and she looked into mine. From that second of interaction, I could tell that she knew me to be innocent. But...what was she doing? I was in trouble, so it was my duty to get myself out of it. Self-sufficiency and resourcefulness…those were the two virtues every mage had to have, she told me.

“Is there a reason you are interrupting the sentence, Councilwoman Ishtar?” Eiael asked, his voice dangerously calm.

“He is my apprentice.” She told him. “My responsibility. Do not kill him for being misguided, it is I who must bear the weight of his sins. If you must kill anyone…kill me.”

“Master—“

“Silence, you fool!” She hissed at me, her stare cold. “I am getting you out of your own mess. I’d kill you myself if I didn’t feel responsible.”

I was silenced. Eiael looked at me begrudgingly, and then he looked at Vivian. His fist clenched around his petrified staff as he realized he couldn’t just deny her request. What she was asking was completely reasonable, and if he had denied, the council would get suspicious, perhaps even question his motivations.

“Indeed, councilwoman.” He said, his tone somber. “This mage is your responsibility…and I suppose if you wish to bear the punishment for his sins, it’s appropriate. However, I will not kill you.”

Vivian frowned. “You won’t…?”

“You have not violated the Lex Magica, and you are still an honorable councilwoman. Therefore…I will give you the chance to redeem him.”

“What are you saying?” Vivian asked, concerned. Eiael looked at me, his eyes no longer wise but...predatory, arrogant. Whatever he was planning, he knew he was going to win either way. “Trial by combat, of course.” The hierarch said. “I challenge you to a duel arcane.”

The duel arcane has been a wizard’s means of settling disputes ever since the Awakened City. The concept is pretty simple: two mages, one-on-one, stand in a circle created by a user of the Prime Arcanum. Both combatants pick two Arcanum to use as a sword – an offense – and a shield – a defense. The mage that wins the battle is the one who wins the dispute. This is the easiest way of settling things; it’s harmless, and many find it fun. That being said, it’s possible to duel arcane to the death, but that’s rather rare. Whoever wins the duel arcane is expected to graciously accept their victory, and whoever loses the duel arcane is expected to respectfully yield to the point of contention for the victor. They peaceably depart, and the score is settled. But I knew that wasn’t what was going to happen.

Trivia was the one to square the circle, since she was particularly gifted in the Prime Arcanum. A mystical circle appeared on the apron of the stage and Eiael and my master stepped in. Before that, they had a staring contest (don’t laugh, this is actually how we settles who goes first) and Eiael blinked first. That meant Vivian was going to be the first to attack. When they stepped into a circle, a pentacle manifested within it. Eiael and Vivian faced each other, their faces completely calm. I felt that Eiael was going to cheat – Vivian most likely felt it also. The eerie silence returned to the theater once again.

“Combatants,” Trivia spoke, her voice even. “please state your chosen sword and shield.”

“I will be using Forces as my sword and Mind as my shield.” Eiael informed everyone.

“I will be using Mind as my sword and Spirit as my shield.” Vivian spoke.

I cursed under my breath. Vivian was good at Mind magic, much better than I was. She knew the maladies and the weaknesses of the mind better than any mind mage I knew, but Eiael’s power was… immense. He was strong, very much so; I could feel it from the first time I met him. Vivian’s power is more subtle: quiet, but there. For Eiael to be using Mind as a shield, that must mean he knows where my master’s strengths lay.

“Alright, before we begin, are there any final words?” Trivia asked both of the combatants.

“No.” Said Vivian.

“No.” Said the hierarch.

“Begin.”

If you weren’t a mage, if you were asleep and unaware of the world of magic, you’d only see two people in a circle staring at each other intently. There was nothing but silence in the room, the council staring at Vivian and Eiael as if they were watching a football game. To sleepers, this would look rather silly or awkward. But with mage sight, everything changed. I saw Vivian surrounded in spirit totems made of pure light. They circled her, covering her in their essence, guarding her against the bolts of lightning and waves of fire coming at her, but not very well. Eiael was surrounded by an ethereal blue barrier, one that rippled as his face became more and more stressed and conflicted. This mental barrier guarded against the manifest fears and illusions attacking him, which were coming at him like shimmering blades from Vivian.

They took turns attacking, beams of light and lightning storms crashing into Vivian’s totems, and blades, dark serpents, and phantasms crashing into Eiael’s mental shield. Eiael shot a stream of lightning at Vivian, but she quickly crossed her arms, more totems re-appearing to block the lightning. She countered, sending a black stream of pure thought at Eiael like a missile, and his shield failed. The black stream circled him, torturing his mind with visions of his own demons, his own fears. He eventually snapped out of it, and his shield formed again in multiple layers.

In Eiael’s hands manifested a spear made of pure force. He threw it at Vivian and it pierced right through one of his totems, driving into my master’s gut. Although the wound wasn’t physical, I could definitely tell she felt it. The breath was knocked out of her for five seconds and she fell to one knee, but then she uneasily got back up to two feet and unleashed demons from her mind. These demons were formless nightmares, attacking and tormenting Eiael’s mind just barely with his shields up. He countered with a beam of focused light directly towards Vivian, but a spirit guardian manifested in front of her and took the hit instead.

Vivian countered, absorbing a small bit of thought from Eiael’s mind, but his mental barrier quickly cutting that off. Eiael blasted her again with pure, concentrated wind, hitting her like a cannonball. She smacked against the edge of the ring, falling to her knees.

“It seems you are done here.” Eiael said. “I will be finishing you off now.”

“You never said this was a fight to the death!” Vivian protested, her voice strained.

“Those who are loyal to the Seers do not get to partake in the benefits of the rights our Lex Magica give us.” Eiael said. Vivian widened her eyes.

“What are you—“

“Like student, like teacher, I suppose.” Eiael grunted. “Really, councilwoman, did you believe I would never figure out your affiliations with the Seers of the Throne?”

“No, you’re making things up. I’m not with—“

“I am tired of your sophistry.” Eiael struck her with another stream of lightning, breaking her defenses and assaulting her with charged particles.

Vivian’s nose bled profusely, her knees wobbled, and she fell down to her knees. Her body on the ground was so…limp…so lifeless. Immediately, I looked upon her with the same clinically emotionless attitude that I’d look upon any dead body, but…something happened. Something…was different.

Something broke.

I threw up, right on the ground. Nicodemus scrambled away from me, shocked. Trivia looked shocked also. After I was done puking the very little food I’d had up to that point, I looked at Eiael.

“Now,” he began. “Let’s get along with the execution. Shall we start with the traitor…or his associates?”

Trivia looked at me. I looked at Nicodemus. Nicodemus looked at Trivia, and we all looked at each other.

We booked it out of the theater.

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