Ash

“Coffin”

story by Mabel Harper & Emrys Webb
written by Emrys Webb

Ash did not like any of this one bit.

Not having to cooperate with the hex-slinging man-child.

Not riding in the tiny back seat of this absurdly impractical vehicle with whiny music blaring from a speaker mounted right behind his head, even his short legs so crammed up against the passenger seat in front of him that the aforementioned man-child’s gesticulations jostled him nonstop.

Not being blindfolded, unable to see a thing that was happening around him.

And especially not having dampening bracers on his wrists. Not just for the obvious reason that, with the adamantine-alloy rings disrupting his mana channels, he wouldn’t be able to use magic to defend himself if needed. (And in this, of all situations, he felt like it might be needed.) But also because, without being able to perceive the microscopic world through his tattoos, he couldn’t access his habitual escape from sensory overload—or from the jumbled voices and flashing images that kept looping in his head: audio/visual vestiges of old, ugly, unmentionable things…things that must have waited ages to catch him alone in the dark.

Even his connection to Creuch in the Aether was severed. Never in his life had Ash imagined he’d actually miss the little dickbag crowing Burn, boy, burn! in the back of his head.

He was aware of Navarrete on his left, making some small violent repetitive movement that kept vibrating the seat. Punching her thigh, he guessed—he’d observed it to be a nervous habit of hers. But she was also singing along with Betancourt’s music, the 2000s pop punk or emo or whatever it was currently assaulting Ash’s right eardrum. Ash wondered how she could be so good at putting up a careless front. The best Ash could ever manage was a blank face. Though at least with that, he never had to try. The freeze response came naturally.

“Hey, I really am sorry about the bracers and blindfolds,” said Betancourt. “It’s nothing personal at all. Just a precautionary protocol, and feels all the more important to stick to it, after, well, you know…what happened.”

Ash had no idea what he was talking about. He guessed Navarrete might.

“Gotta do what you gotta do, bruh,” replied the ratcatcher, with a shrug in her voice.

The two continued making smalltalk, which Ash found unfathomable. Their chitchat became a background drone. Ash’s hands started to twitch—him fighting a compulsion to cover his ears. He ended up rubbing his fingers and thumbs together instead…then rubbing his wrists in turns, because adamantine, the alchemical iron used in the alloy for mana dampening bracers, was always freezing cold.

Ash had worked with so-called “cold iron” in the lab and in the field—understood its properties well. But this was the first time he’d ever worn adamantine bracers. He wondered if it was this hellish for everyone, and other mages—like Navarrete right now, or the countless apostates he’d processed as a desk jockey at Enforcement HQ—just hid their discomfort really well…or if Ash himself was just some special kind of weirdo who tended to hang out in his gnostic sense more than most.

It made him think of what he’d found at the crime scenes that morning.

The part he hadn’t told Navarrete.

He’d actually noticed it first in the Arcadia morgue, when he’d examined the remains of Severin and Langit. As he’d steeled himself, readied the tattooed channels on his arm, and laid his palm on Severin’s disembodied boot-clad foot, out of nowhere, Ash had felt himself shoved back in the bounds of his mundane body with its five dull senses—a suffocating sensation, like being crammed in an undersized coffin and the lid slammed shut. He’d broken out in a cold sweat, heart racing—barely managed not to have a panic attack in front of the diener.

There’d been more of it at all ten crime scenes. The quiet residential cross-streets in Ludlow. The empty overgrown lots on Roberts. The small parking lot across from Wissahickon Charter School’s playground. And so on—always when he came across trace remains of Severin and Langit. The shutdown of his channels felt like a plunge into ice-cold, stifling darkness, every time.

Every time, he’d been a little scared he wouldn’t make it back.

What he’d found had been, of course, adamantine—just like the bracers that now chilled his wrists. But the traces he’d found on Severin’s and Langit’s remains hadn’t been the standard adamantine used in bracers like these, the stuff he’d worked with countless times in the lab. The fact that microscopic amounts of this substance had been enough to shut down Ash’s whole mana system meant he was dealing with something he’d never encountered before. Something rare.

And extremely illegal.

Ash had studied their composition and properties in the forbidden texts he’d been secretly collecting since he was a kid. But never in his life had he—or any alchemist he knew—come into contact with a primordial element.

In general, alchemical elements corresponded to mundane ones: azoth to mercury, fulmenine to tin, lunaria to silver. Each mundane element, once an alchemical structure was superimposed, took on magical properties.

Whenever Arcanus mages spoke of alchemical elements, they invariably meant the common-enough celestial elements—like the adamantine used in dampening bracers.

Primordial elements, and the compounds that contained them, were rare; their properties hazardous; their use and possession forbidden by interfaction law. Even the knowledge of their particulate structures was disallowed, as far as Ash knew, for all but an exclusive cabal of the highest-ranking alchemists in the order—namely, Mercurii’s Templars, who alone were privy to the Mysteries of ultimate reality that lay concealed within the Pyramidion. Formulae and diagrams of primordial alchemical structures had long been redacted from all sanctioned arcane texts.

Standard celestial adamantine was the stuff you used if you wanted to dam up someone’s mana channels, to staunch their flow.

Primordial adamantine was what you’d use to stop a fucking flood. To wall off a gash in material reality—for example, a nexus.

Its presence on Severin and Langit’s corpses was clearly an important clue.

… But not one Ash was ready to trust to Navarrete.

The ratcatcher wouldn’t have any useful input anyway, he’d reassured himself. She was the brawn in this operation, not the brains. It was pretty much up to Ash himself to figure out what it meant anyway.

But he wasn’t planning on reporting it to Sauvage anytime soon, either. Not when there was a very real possibility the Master-General, on hearing about this development, would take a rookie like Ash off the case at once, and reassign it to someone with the highest possible security clearance, who would go into the field with a troop of Ordinators—who could neither know nor tell secrets—and cover up all evidence of apostate alchemy…and confiscate or destroy any forbidden substances found.

Truth was, if this Lex person or one of his associates had access to primordial elements, or knowledge of how to make them…Ash wanted to get to them himself before anyone else did.

He lost his train of thought as the emo music blasting his ear suddenly switched to some kind of monotonous, white-sounding rapping over a generic dance beat with flatulent synths, then just as quickly switched back.

“Vernon, fucking—!” came Betancourt’s voice. “No. Stop trying to play your comedy music on my Kenwood sound system.”

“You never let me play my music,” pouted Zhao.

A power struggle evidently ensued. The music switched back and forth a couple of times, then finally settled on a new pop punk song, which, to Ash’s dismay, Navarrete and Betancourt both started singing along with at the top of their lungs.

“Yes! Girl! You fuck with Motion City Soundtrack?” said Betancourt.

“Hell yeah,” said Navarrete. “You like good music, man.”

“I like good music, too,” said Zhao, and the weird rap song started playing again. The lyrics were something about the vocalist wanting to sit on someone, in an apparently nonsexual way. Zhao started bouncing wildly, the back of his seat jarring hard against Ash’s knees.

“Dude, I told you no Tim and Eric,” came Betancourt’s voice.

Zhao started rapping along with the song, Betancourt talking over him in a raised voice, accompanied by sounds of a vigorous scuffle:

“Vernon.”

“This is what—”

“Dude, don’t you dare.”

“—I do, this is—”

“Vernon, I’m driving.”

“—what I do, this—”

“Vernon, I swear to God.”

“—is what I do, I—”

“Dude, stop trying to sit on me! Get off me! I’m fucking driving! Jesus!”

The car swerved, tires squealing. Ash braced himself, digging his fingernails hard into the leather of the seat.

“Are you fucking happy now, Vernon?” Betancourt exploded. “I almost got into a fucking accident! What the fuck is wrong with you, man?”

The music switched off altogether. There followed a tense—but to Ash, welcome—silence.

A few seconds later,

“Hey…Vern. Sorry I yelled,” said Betancourt.

Zhao’s response, which Ash could barely hear, and which followed an awkwardly long pause, was the tiniest of grunts.

Betancourt let out a heavy sigh. “It’s been a really fucked-up few days, huh, bud.”

After that, nobody said anything—or, Ash thanked his lucky stars, sang—for the rest of the ride.

Still, he couldn’t relax. That coffin feeling, the contents of the emptiness inside had him wanting to explode out of his skin. As much as he’d hated the ruckus, it had been a distraction. Ash bored his nails into the heels of his hands, then started pinching his thighs. Noticed Navarrete seemed to be punching her leg harder beside him, which agitated him even more.

There was a crushing feeling in his chest, a stinging behind his eyes. Don’t you dare fucking panic. Ash knew, because of Dad, because of Bram Baptiste, and other kids in his Academy days—letting them see you scared was suicide. 

He winched his eyes shut tight, took a breath. A new kind of thought came to him. He found his hand slipping into one of his coat pockets, a new one he’d sewn on just that morning, to hold a special item.

His fingers traced the shape of the crystal rose, and suddenly he could see the object vividly in his mind’s eye, every bit as clearly as if with his gnostic sight—the flawless geometry of its petals, both individually and in their arrangement relative to one another. Then came an explosion of color, a vision of the most perfect human face he’d ever seen, and the ivory of a grand piano’s keys vibrating against his fingertips, reverberating his whole being, while the fine hairs on his left forearm listed curiously toward a stranger’s near-touch.

A humming warmth at Ash’s center bloomed outward, washing away the darkness and cold. There came a pleasant tingling in his limbs, pockets of tension releasing, yielding involuntary movements, easing his body into alignment—bright energy flowing, electric and alive. Almost as if, somehow, in spite of the bracers, mana was moving, unobstructed, through his entire system.

Ash rested in the center of this warm and weightless feeling. Heard his thinking mind ask itself how this could even be possible. Almost giggled out loud.

‘As within, so without’—right, Val? A fellow alchemist would know.

His mind’s eye brought up the symbol from Valentine’s card.

‘Perfection is possible.’

It’s really out there, isn’t it?

I know I haven’t seen the last of you…

Ash settled back down into his organic vessel, the compact leather seat seeming to rise up and cradle his body weight. Gravity felt like a friend for once. Not for long, he supposed—it never did—but that didn’t seem to matter at all right now.

Waves of calm subtly rocked him, rinsing through every cell of his body. Freed, for now, from those restless shadows in the dark, Ash’s mind drifted, reviewing, musing over recent events. Recalling in particular, for some reason, the random guy he’d run into at the last of the crime scenes that morning—in the woods off the Schuylkill Expressway, down by the river.

The mundane gestured toward the flowers and teddy bear Ash was holding, like so many other similar items that littered the site outside the police barrier. Asked gently, “Did you know someone who passed away here Thursday night?”

“Yeah.” Ash blinked watery eyes. After a lifetime of appeasing Dad, he was an expert at crying on command. “My Aunt Cynthia.” Cousin, he quickly reminded himself. He kept forgetting the cover story he’d prepared in case mundane law enforcement—or civilians, apparently—asked why he was snooping around the crime scenes. Whatever.

“Oh.” The young man looked so genuinely concerned that Ash almost felt guilty for lying to him. “Man. I’m so sorry for your loss. Family is so special.”

“Yes,” said Ash. “I’m very close with my family.”

“Me and my family are hella tight. We run a restaurant, so we’re together all the time. Mom, Dad, Grandma, sister. I love my aunts too. I’m so sad for you that you lost your aunt. Aunts are very special people.”

“Mmhmm.” This is irrelevant. Ash started looking for a way to disengage.

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

Ash stopped; surveyed Young, from his soft cloud of brownish hair to his unassuming sneakers. Took the man’s hand and shook it. First Des, now this guy—maybe it was more common for people outside Arcanus society to exchange pronouns than he’d realized. “Ash. He/him.”

“Nice to meet you, Ash.” Like his smile, Young’s grip was warm, and solid. “I’m here because I lost someone too.”

“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Yeah. I mean, she’s not dead. Just missing. The whole thing that happened was so weird, the police seem overwhelmed, her family hasn’t been able to get any answers…so I thought I’d come look into it myself.”

“Was she your girlfriend?”

Young chuckled as if the idea was silly. “No, just a friend. Older lady named Wanda. Regular at the restaurant. She always stays past closing time every Tuesday shooting the shit with my grandma about Sidney Poitier.”

Ash joined in Young’s laughter, acting like he knew who Sidney Poitier was. Squinted at the mundane. “That’s…impressive, you going out of your way for someone you don’t know that well.”

“Wanda’s such a sweet lady. I just want her to be okay. And I have to admit I’m also curious. The whole thing’s just so weird. Isn’t it just weird? Seems like there’s gotta be more to all this than meets the eye.”

“What do you mean?”

Young ran his tongue over his lip, looked thoughtful. “I dunno. I mean, it’s like, obviously weird, isn’t it? Like, no one can say the shit that went down here wasn’t weird. But also…” He frowned. “It feels like it means something.”

Ash studied him. “Like it means something?”

“Yeah. I can’t really explain it. And now that I’m here…” Young turned, strolled a few paces toward the riverbank, gazed out over the Wissahickon. “It feels like…something’s about to happen. And that something…” He trailed off, chuckled. “Well, this is gonna sound pretty fuckin’ weird.”

“Go on.”

Young sobered. “It’s like…something’s about to happen…that’s also already happened.”

Ash frowned.

“Like déjà vu,” Young went on. “Except…bigger?”

“So you mean some big thing that happened once before is about to happen again?”

“No. Like…the same thing.”

Ash blinked at him.

“Like…just one thing,” Young went on, “that both already happened…and still hasn’t happened yet.”

He fell silent.

For several long seconds, the two of them stood staring at the water. An eerie feeling settled into Ash, deep.

“You’re right,” he said finally. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Yeah,” Young agreed softly. “But sometimes you just know a thing. You know?”

“Things always happen in order.” Ash pulled his coat tighter around him against the river breeze. “Cause and effect is the law of the universe. Nothing that will happen in the future has already happened in the past, except in the sense that the events of the past have already set it in motion.”

“Yeah, but how do we really know that?” Young glanced at Ash, shrugged. “I mean, whatever. Past, present—doesn’t matter I guess, don’t mean anything. It just…I guess it feels like something big is going on. And like I ought to be paying attention.” Young seemed to become aware of himself, dropped his gaze, chuckled. “I mean, yeah, no, you’re right. My sister—she’s my best friend in the whole world—she’s always telling me the shit I say don’t make any sense. But just…my gut’s never steered me wrong, not once. You know?”

Ash eyed Young sidelong. “Mmm. And how’s your investigation going so far?”

Young chuckled wryly. “Nothing yet. But I guess I’ll just keep snooping around till something turns up.”

Mundanes, Ash had concluded, were truly weird.

It had been with the tiniest twinge of regret, though, that he’d put in the call to HQ after parting ways with Young:

“Need to report a mundane needing memory alteration. Name’s Young Seung, works at a restaurant called Danbam. He’s a little too curious about the solstice murders.”

It was Ash’s job to report it. The Occultation Protocols required it. Anyway, being mindwiped wouldn’t do Young any harm, Ash was pretty sure. Really, it was the safest thing for him. No mundane should be getting tangled up in this Lex business.

Eventually, Betancourt pulled off the street. It got darker behind Ash’s blindfold; the city traffic sounds died down; the car kept moving at a crawl, making lots of turns. Ash could only guess they were now in a parking garage. Arriving at their destination—for better or worse. 

The car rolled to a halt, engine turned off, doors swung open. The seat in front of Ash flipped forward. Zhao’s hand wrapped around his upper arm—which made every muscle in Ash’s body clench, the serenity he’d felt only minutes ago a distant memory.

Ash could feel the maleficer’s breath on his ear as the larger man half-hauled, half-lifted him out of the car. “Thought up a new nickname for ya, sport,” Zhao giggled: “Lil’ Pigeon.”

Ash kept quiet. Held still. Tried his best to disappear.

“Now, you need to be on your bestest behavior, and show proper respect to the bossman, Lil’ Pidgie,” Zhao went on sweetly. “’Cause if he’s a baaad lil’ pidgie, well…Uncle Vernon might just have to make the little birdie go SPLAT!”

Zhao clapped his hands really loudly next to Ash’s ear. Ash flinched.

Zhao let out a whooping peal of simian laughter as he again grabbed Ash by the arm and dragged him toward their unknown destination.

NEXT EPISODE: CAREN – “BOUDIN NOIR”
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