Ash

Déjà Vu

story by Mabel Harper & Emrys Webb
written by Emrys Webb

Content Warning: MILD GORE

The sun was low in the sky, its golden light stuttering between the naked trees, as Ash veered down the barely-discernible footpath off Yellow Trail in Wissahickon Valley Park, twigs, decaying leaves, and dead grass rustling under his feet.

According to his information, Hermit’s Cave was just a short walk ahead.

A few paces along the footpath, he stopped, his heart turning a sudden somersault in his chest. The air here was thick with a charge that set his mana channels roiling—some kind of weird energy field, deep, dense, churning.

Ash continued on, slowly, warily. With each step the static intensified. The fine hairs on his body, flyaways from his mane stood on end.

What the fuck is going on with this place?

Is this a nexus?

…How could the Auctoritas Magicae not know about one this big?

But it didn’t feel like any nexus Ash had ever encountered. The energy was stronger—much stronger—and chaotic, lacking any detectable pulse. It brought on a range of weird body sensations and urges: tension, arousal. A sudden impulse to punch a tree as hard as he could, or pick up a stick and scratch himself bloody. A compulsion to laugh.

None of which Ash did. Freeze response, inaction was his default—its thick blanket descended, stiffened his limbs. He balked, asked himself if it was safe to keep going. What a foreign energy this strong would do to his channels if he continued toward it.

Follow the trail, golden boy, whispered Valentine’s voice in his ear.

Heart thumping, Ash resumed his path deeper into the woods, deeper into the morass of chaotic energies, as the sun started to dip below the horizon up ahead.

The cave came into view—if you could call it a cave. More like a humble stone archway embedded in the hillside, a little ways off the path, with an engraved obelisk marking its location.

“Something definitely happened here,” Ash murmured, surveying the ground as he approached. The forest floor looked disturbed, the blanket of dead leaves and twigs, and the soil underneath, scuffed as if by dozens of pairs of feet. He stooped, picked up a child’s shoe. Analyzed it—which was difficult, though still doable, with the static of the nexus roaring through him.

The shoe itself didn’t give him much, but the soil clinging to it was a dead match for the soil he’d found on Langit’s and Severin’s remains.

…Down to the traces of primordial adamantine that temporarily shut off his mana channels, briefly glitching out the static scream—which was weirdly almost a relief while it lasted.

Ash bagged the shoe. Straightened up, blinked, shook his head to try to clear it. Paced around the small clearing.

Spotted a discarded kitchen knife half-hidden beneath a gnarled bit of tree-root a few feet away, crusted with what appeared to be dried blood.

Picked it up, analyzed it.

The DNA in the blood matched Luke Langit’s.

Ash bagged the weapon, stashed it in his coat.

“So this is really it. This is where it happened,” he murmured to himself. His chest tightened. “Valentine…how did you know?”

He scanned the ground for further evidence—stumbled onto the occasional personal effect of a likely mundane person: a fake fingernail, a brass cufflink with some thread still hanging off it, a pair of unsmoked cigarettes. If Ash had to guess, Langit had been killed the same way the ten Martial Magi at the other sites had been—by a mob of mundanes. But this location, unlike the other ten, appeared to have been cleaned up afterward (if hastily, seeing as the knife and other small items suggesting the mob’s presence had been overlooked). No remains had been left behind, other than the blood that soaked the earth. No grisly ostentatious display here featuring a disembodied head decked out in one of Lex’s laurel-wreath calling cards.

The other ten, he wanted us to find.

But not this place.

This one’s his secret.

Ash turned, paced toward the entrance to Hermit’s Cave.

…And it has to have something to do with this nexus.

The closer he got to the entrance, the louder the static screamed—a sensation that made Ash want to claw open his skull.

He paused in front of the obelisk, read the inscription hastily out loud to himself:

“‘Johannes Kelpius, Magister of the Mystic Brotherhood, a.k.a. the Society of the Man of the Wilderness, which arrived in Philadelphia June 24, 1694, used this cave as a shelter and as a sanctum for his meditations.’”

Snapped a picture with his phone. “Johannes Kelpius,” he echoed to himself. Couldn’t google Kelpius now—no way was Ash’s phone getting signal in this place, and he didn’t want to linger any longer than he had to anyway.

Later.

“Hey, you a history buff?” came a friendly voice.

Ash spun around.

Stared, round-eyed, at the serenely smiling face of Young Seung—the same mundane Ash had met on Sunday at the murder site in the woods off the Schuylkill Expressway. 

…The one he’d ordered HQ to mindwipe afterward. And they’d done it that night, confirmed.

What the fuck is he doing here?

“Uh…yep,” Ash said out loud. “I love Pennsylvania history. Love Johann…” He stole a sidelong glance at the obelisk. “…Johannes Kelpius.”

“I don’t know much about history myself, but I bet it’s interesting,” said Young. “People are interesting.”

“They sure are.” Ash squinted at him.

Young extended his hand. “Name’s Young, by the way. He/him.”

Okay…so he doesn’t remember me. Unless he’s pretending. There’s no way the memory alteration wouldn’t have worked…right?

…But then why is he here?

“Ash. He/him.” Ash shook Young’s hand.

“Nice to meet you, Ash.”

…Déjà vu all over again. “If you’re not a history guy yourself,” Ash probed, “what brings you here?”

“Oh, jeez.” Young chuckled. “Well, it’s probably gonna sound kinda weird.”

“Let’s hear it.” Ash flashed what he hoped was an encouraging smile.

“You know those riots the other night?” said Young.

Ash studied him. “The Midnight Riots…yeah. Doesn’t everybody?”

“Yeah. Well, I guess you could say I’ve been doing a little independent investigation into them. And I’ve been thinking that maybe this place had something to do with ’em.”

Ash stared at him. “How do you figure?”

“Well.” Again, Young chuckled. “You might just think this is some conspiracy theory bullshit. But I marked the sites of all ten riots on a map, and they form two concentric circles. And this cave here is smack in the center of ’em.”

“Wait—really?” …What the fuck? We’re at the center of the pentagram? How the hell did I not put that together?

“Yeah. Really. Which, you know, didn’t necessarily have to mean anything. But I had this gut feeling I should check it out, and my gut’s never wrong. And lo and behold…looks like some shit went down here recently, doesn’t it?”

Ash blinked at him. “Yeah, I was noticing it’s…kind of a mess here.”

“You gone inside the cave yet?”

“No. I was about to.”

“Why don’t we check it out?”

“Sure.” Ash eyed Young. Waited for him to go first. “What’s got you so interested in the Midnight Riots?”

Young started toward the entrance. “Friend of mine’s been missing since that night.”

Wanda, Ash thought. Regular at the family restaurant. Sidney Poitier. “Sorry to hear that,” he said out loud.

“Thanks.” Young peered into the darkness of the cave. “Also just feels like the whole thing with the riots…like it means something. You know what I mean?”

“…Like something’s about to happen that’s already happened?”

Young turned back, looked appraisingly at Ash. “Yeah, man…that. Exactly that. Damn. You feel that too?”

“…Sure.”

“Yeah…damn.” Young went on staring at Ash for several seconds, then turned, continued into the cave. “That’s exactly how I’d put it.”

Ash joined Young in the cave. They both turned on their phones’ flashlights.

“It’s smaller than I expected.” It was a struggle for Ash to act casual when the nexus, or whatever it was, was roaring through his channels like a freight train. His hand was shaking slightly as he aimed his light downward. “Blood all over the ground.” He noticed a scrap of what looked like parchment. Crouched over it in such a way as to block Young from seeing it.

A piece of Severin’s Tabula Commilitiatis. Ash picked it up, slipped it in his coat. Discreetly pressed his left palm to the ground where it had lain. Between glitches from his channels picking up more traces of primordial adamantine, he was able to confirm that Severin’s blood had spilled here—a lot of it—along with several mundanes’.

He realized Young hadn’t spoken in a minute. Turned and looked at him.

The mundane stood staring at the back wall of the cave.

“What are you looking at?” asked Ash.

Young raised his eyebrows, shook his head slowly. “You…probably wouldn’t believe me.”

Ash followed his gaze. Frowned at what looked like an ordinary, decaying stone wall. “Try me.”

Young looked at Ash, gave a small chuckle, passed a hand over his face. “Hoo. Well, let me just start by warning you—all my life I’ve seen things other people don’t see.”

“What kinds of things?”

“All kind of things. Weird things. Ever since I was a kid. Gets to where you don’t talk about it, you know, because it freaks people out.”

“…What do you see?”

Young stood there shaking his head for a moment. “…Nothing.”

“Whatever it is, you can tell me. It won’t freak me out.”

“No, I mean…that’s what I see.” Young shrugged. “Nothing.”

Ash frowned. “I don’t get it.”

“It’s just…empty. It just goes on and on. And there’s, like, shiny black rock all around the edges, with this diamond pattern, and it’s all jagged, like something smashed through it and now there’s just this…hole. Big endless hole full of nothing.” Young gave a helpless grin, shrugged. “I sound crazy enough to you yet?”

Black diamond-patterned rock…that’s gotta be the primordial adamantine. Was there a whole barrier of it here, disguised by this glamor made to look like a normal wall?

And something smashed through it, so hard it scattered dust of it everywhere? 

…How?

Ash narrowed his eyes at Young. He can’t possibly be who he’s pretending to be. No way could any mundane see through a glamor I can’t…

Ash shoved up his left sleeve, aimed his left palm straight at Young. “Who are you? What’s your game?”

Young blinked at him. “Huh?”

Ash poised the fingers of his right hand over his tattoos. “You see my tattoos? Do you know who I am?”

“You’re Ash. You just told me. And yeah, those are some pretty sick tats, man.”

“Don’t play dumb.”

Young chuckled. “Yo, if I’m being dumb, it ain’t cus I’m playing. It’s cus I’m actually dumb.”

Ash stared at him. “This isn’t a joke. Who are you? Why are you here?”

“I’m sorry…I already told you all that stuff, and I really don’t know what else to say. Maybe I should ask you who you think I am and why you think I’m here. Cus you seem like you’re suspicious of me. Which, I mean, I guess that makes sense…I’m a total stranger, this is clearly a crime scene…”

“There’s no way you’re just a mundane.”

Young furrowed his brows. “No way I’m a what?”

Ash doubted himself. “…A mundane.”

“What do you mean by mundane? Like…boring?”

Ash squinted at him. “Can I touch you?”

Young frowned. “Touch me…why? How?”

“Just a hand on your chest.”

“Well, that’s weird. But you don’t seem even a bit little scary, if I’m being real, so just keep it to the chest and we’re cool.” Young shrugged, held up his palms in a go-ahead gesture.

Ash edged closer, right fingers still hovering over his tattoos. Young watched him with a curious expression, palms still upraised, standing perfectly still.

Ash laid his left palm against Young’s chest, alert to any sign the other man might make a sudden move to grab him.

Took a deep breath, closed his eyes.

Scanned.

…No sign of a mana system.

Opened his eyes. Stepped back.

Young slowly lowered his palms, still surveying Ash curiously.

Ash had no idea what to say or do. “…Sorry.”

Young shrugged with his face. “You’re good, bro.”

“You must be wondering what that was about.”

“Well, kind of. Yeah.”

For a moment, Ash just stared at him. Then, “You can really see a…a void on the other side of that wall?” He pointed.

Young’s brow puckered. “Wall?” Realization seemed to dawn. “Oh, right. You just see a wall there, huh?”

Ash’s pointing arm sank slowly to his side. “You’re a mundane,” he murmured, “and you can see through glamors mages can’t see through.”

Young chuckled. “Mages? You sound like my sister. She’s into LARPing.”

“Young, do you really want to know what happened to your friend Wanda?”

Young sobered. “Yeah, I do.” His eyes narrowed. “Wait a minute…pretty damn sure I never told you her name.”

“You wanna go grab a coffee?”

EPISODE NINETEEN COMING SOON
PREVIOUS EPISODE: ASH – “FAMILY LOYALTY”
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