story by Mabel Harper & Emrys Webb
written by Emrys Webb
What constraints could hold you with such a mind?
The sun was long since below the skyline, the streets relatively quiet as Ash pulled his Benz into the parking garage at 205 Race Street. He found a spot near Soren’s penthouse elevator, turned off the engine. Sat staring blankly at the gray cinderblock wall in front of the car.
There was a strange deathly quiet in his head, a feeling of liminality, like the world as he recognized it had slipped away, and an unnavigable unknown now stretched out in front of him.
After staying away all night, he hadn’t gone home to Antioch today either, and Dad had made no attempt to contact him or interfere via Creuch. Barely a peep out of the imp all day; not even the habitual Burn, boy, burn. Just a quiet background gibbering to confirm it still had its Aethereal talons in Ash’s mind…nothing more.
It was unprecedented, and it made Ash jittery, in a way that wasn’t quite either anxious or hopeful, or maybe was both. He wasn’t ready to throw up an image in the void in front of him, of what life could look like if Dad stopped breathing down his neck…if all it took was a reminder that Scipio was nothing without Ash and his accomplishments, nothing without Ash and his potentials. If that was really, actually enough to get the old vulture to back the fuck down.
Because the slightest turn toward hope raised its shadow at his back—a deep-rooted conviction that, as soon as he started to trust this new horizon, the other shoe would drop, and Dad would deploy the killing blow, crushing Ash beyond imagining…even beyond repair.
Which, Ash considered with a dull, doomy feeling in his gut, might mean he’d more or less accomplished that already.
He stirred from his trance, thumbed off an I’m here text to Soren. Wilhelm soon appeared to escort him to the penthouse.
Soren was waiting outside the elevator to greet him. “Ashton, so wonderful to see you again.”
I just saw you twelve hours ago, Ash thought. But Soren had a way of saying things like that, which most people said out of social habit, with a sincere enthusiasm, which was something Ash couldn’t comprehend at all, and of which he was kind of in awe. “Soren,” he replied, with a slight tilt of his head.
“Your timing is excellent. Dinner is being served.”
Soren led the way to the dining room, where his inner circle and Caren were all seated in their same places from the night before last—which raised the ghost of a gruesome and pitiful scene, which Ash immediately put out of mind.
The servants brought out a round of appetizers—a simple salad of microgreens and seeds for Ash, duck liver pâté for everyone else. Ash was even more grateful than usual, at the moment, that the contents of his plate were the furthest thing possible from animal flesh.
“So, about this new job,” said Caren to Soren, in that blunt way of hers that used as few words as possible and made a question somehow also a statement. Ash couldn’t put a finger on it, but there was a weird energy between her and Nathaniel, almost like he was turned slightly toward her while she was turned away. Ash remembered the two of them walking together in the hall by the drawing room last night and wondered what was going on between them.
Soren spread pâté on a slice of baguette. “You’d be tasked with doing what you do best,” he said to Caren. “Catching a rat.”
Caren nodded, glopped pâté on her own bread. “Who’s the target?”
“Some associates brought it to Nathaniel’s attention that one of Adrian Megyesi’s top lieutenants has recently purchased a bespoke underground magic fighting arena that caters only to elite clientele. Reports have it he’s very hands-on with both administration of the business and entertainment of the guests.”
“So you want me to infiltrate the place and nab him.”
“Indeed. And discreetly. It would be best if there were no trace whatsoever of my involvement. Unfortunately, that means Nathaniel and Vernon will be unable to assist you on this one.”
“That’s fine,” said Caren through her mouthful. “Frankly, on a job like this, they’d both be liabilities.”
Nathaniel looked slightly downcast, poked his knife at his pâté.
Sicko Mode gave a high-pitched whine. “But Daddeee, I want to go a-hunting the tasty little rat.”
“Never fear, Vernon,” said Soren. “You’ll have the opportunity to do what you do best once Caren has delivered the target to us.”
Sicko Mode beamed, bounced in his chair, clapped his big puppy hands.
“What do you plan to do with him?” asked Ash.
Soren looked him in the eyes. Said gently: “Extract information.”
Ash glanced at Sicko Mode, who was shoveling big spoonfuls of duck liver pâté into his mouth, with fresh enthusiasm. “So…torture.”
“That’s correct,” said Soren.
Ash picked at his greens.
“I’ll track him down.” Caren scrubbed her mouth with her linen napkin. “What’s the guy’s name?”
“Łukasz Bosko,” said Soren. “Better known simply as ‘Bosko.’”
Caren smirked. “I’ve heard of him. Kid’s got a reputation.”
“Indeed he does.”
“Megyesi’s top guys are notoriously hard to access,” she went on. “But if he’s walking the floor at this fighting ring of his, that gives me a serious leg up.”
“My thoughts precisely.”
“You said the arena caters to ‘elite clientele’?” interjected Ash.
“That’s correct,” Soren replied.
Soren chuckled at the pejorative. “Indeed.”
Ash eyed Caren. “How do you plan on getting in?”
The ratcatcher waved dismissively. “I’ll figure it out.”
Ash pushed a leaf of arugula around on his plate.
“If nothing else works, I’ll just get myself on the fighting roster.” Caren grinned a hard grin. “Been a minute since I’ve had an excuse to flex.”
“Sounds dangerous,” said Nathaniel. “Are you sure we should send Caren in alone?”
Caren gripped her fork a little tighter. “I got this.”
Nathaniel visibly backed down. “I know you do…just be careful, okay?”
“I’ll help,” said Ash.
Everyone looked at him.
“Lil’ Pidge, steppin’ up!” crowed Sicko Mode.
“I said I got this, Killer,” said Caren, though she seemed less annoyed with Ash than she had with Nathaniel.
“While I’d welcome your involvement, Ashton,” said Soren, “I want to be very clear that I don’t expect it. I know full well that this endeavor may violate both your principles and the rules of your order.”
“I’m familiar with Old World manners,” said Ash. “I could disguise myself and infiltrate as a patron. It might be easier to access Bosko that way than if Caren goes in alone as a fighter.”
Caren eyed him appraisingly. “All right, then, Killer. Wanna play the part of my sponsor?”
“I take it you don’t know much about fighting rings.”
Ash shook his head.
“Well,” Caren went on, “I don’t know how they do things at the fancy ones. But if it’s even a little like the shitty ones I’ve been to, there are people who sponsor fighters. Kinda like…I guess talent management. Or the owner of a racehorse.”
Sicko Mode broke into one of his simian giggling fits, mumbled something about a “horsey.” Caren shot him a withering stare.
“I could do that,” said Ash.
Soren looked him in the eyes. “It’s entirely up to you.”
Ash inhaled deeply, nodded to himself. “I wanna do what I can.”
“Very well, then.” Soren’s expression warmed. “I’m most grateful for your willingness to help.”
“Let me know if you need any glamors for your disguise,” Nathaniel chimed in.
Caren grinned her crooked grin at Ash. “Welcome to the rodeo, Killer. We’ll talk game plan tomorrow.”
Much as he actually liked talking with Soren, Ash was feeling more interior tonight, so he excused himself not long after dinner and retired to the Begonia Room. Sat at the mahogany escritoire with his laptop, searching the USDA’s Web Soil Survey for the characteristics of the soil he’d identified that had been mingled with Langit and Severin’s remains—was able to determine that there was a very good chance it had come from Wissahickon Valley Park, a woodland that spanned well over three square miles of Northwest Philadelphia.
…Which narrowed things down significantly, but was still an awfully big area to search.
Ash debated with himself whether to report this finding to Headquarters, dispatch a full search team to the area. It was certainly the course to take according to protocol.
But one thing gave him serious pause:
The primordial adamantine.
He could always neglect to mention the forbidden substance in his report, proceed as if he hadn’t detected it—which would guarantee him impunity in the marginally likely event that someone on the search team managed to identify an illicit source of the stuff on locating the site of Severin and Langit’s murder.
The trouble was, Ash wanted to track down the source himself before anyone else did…didn’t want to take the risk that someone might report it to the Master-General over his head, in which case the high-level cover-up that would almost surely follow such a startling discovery might very well shut Ash out of a part of his own investigation that deeply interested him.
The question of what to do remained on his mind as he changed into pajamas, washed his face, brushed his teeth, climbed between the silk sheets, clutching the crystal rose.
He made a last pre-sleep scan of his phone notifications—froze at the sight of one from YouTube:
Your Eternal Valentine replied:
“lulz just follow the trail golden boi 🌟”
Ash opened the app with shaking hands, stared at the reply—at Valentine’s tiny, perfect avatar with its bright-colored, shimmering makeup and rose-gold hair.
“‘Golden boi,’” Ash whispered to himself. Felt a sudden warmth bloom over his skin.
On impulse, thumbed a reply: But I found something that would interest u… Don’t u wanna see it? 😜
Tapped Comment, then closed the app with a convulsion of horror, half-threw his phone on the nightstand, and dove beneath the covers.
He felt his heart trying to slam its way out of his chest—a cold sweat, a tingling in his skin. Living sensations of painful and pleasurable embodiment that, for him, were always too rare.
He clasped the crystal rose to his chest, traced its petals with the fingers of his left hand while his right slipped into his boxer briefs…while the orgasm liquefied him. He wasn’t interrupted this time; stayed floating for some timeless time after, till gravity, till the black feeling in his gut pulled him back down to Earth…to the depths beneath its surface, where his fears and quandaries awaited him in the dark.
“Regarding your dad, that’s a tough one.” Yves Baptiste raised his dark eyebrows with a wry, slightly whimsical smile. “Betraying your own family’s a hell of a taboo, even here in Mercurii.”
Ash plunked down in the chair across from him, fixed him with a humorless stare. “You’re the one who said I should ‘ditch the dead weight.’”
Baptiste chuckled. “And I stand by it. It’s just gonna be important to make damn sure your strike doesn’t miss.”
“You’re talking about assassination…”
Then kill him first, Caren’s voice echoed in Ash’s thoughts.
He searched himself for feelings.
“It’s the safest, most efficient way to go,” said Baptiste. “Dead men tell no tales.”
Found one. A fist in his gut. “What alternatives are there?”
“Still got a soft spot for the old man, huh?”
“I wouldn’t go that far. Just want to properly weigh my options.”
The Grand Templar lifted one knowing eyebrow. “The others aren’t as fail-safe: Discredit then disown him. Hire a cogimancer or a superior daemonologer to infiltrate and incapacitate his mind. In either case, it’s not out of the question he could retaliate somehow.”
Ash was silent a moment. “How could I discredit him?”
“That’s a bit of a toughie. Sexual impropriety’s a hard claim to make, given his condition.” Baptiste flashed an even-toothed grin. “The upside of that tack, though—assuming you can come up with a convincing- and scandalous-enough smear—is that, if you disown the old coot for reasons of honor, you could potentially join another family…perhaps one that’s already broached the Pyramidion.”
Ash stared at the Grand Templar. “Are you volunteering…?”
Baptiste arched his eyebrows, his dark eyes twinkling.
Wednesday morning, after a light breakfast with Soren and Ishaan—who were, respectively, as gregarious and as opaque as ever—Ash made the hour-long drive west to the Longwood Gardens Organ Museum in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.
He found the lavish Longwood Gardens still decorated for Christmas, most of their trees and bushes bare, their many ornate fountains dry and silent for the winter. Ash strolled through them on his way to the museum without paying much attention to his surroundings.
Normally, the Organ Museum tour would have fascinated him—especially the Longwood Organ, the pride of the museum, a fifty-five-ton behemoth with over ten thousand pipes. But today, all Ash could think about was finding whatever clue Valentine was pointing him toward—the mystical secret of Tristan Lee’s pipe organ. So all he did throughout the first three-quarters of the tour was nod politely, and a little impatiently, while his guide pointed out the size range of the pipes on the Longwood Organ and rambled on at length about Aeolian.
“Now, this is a very special exhibit.” The tour guide, a woman in her late fifties with magenta cat-eye glasses and a name tag that read Bertie, came to a halt next to one of the viewing windows, clasped her French-manicured hands, and rolled her eyes in delight. “The one and only Tristan Lee, Founder and CEO of Babel-dot-biz, was generous enough to donate this exquisite antique instrument to the Organ Museum in 2009, after purchasing it for seventy-one million dollars just days before making the donation.”
Ash perked up at the mention of Lee—peered through the glass at the instrument on display and recognized it right away as the one from the Chester County Press article, down to the carven symbol on the music stand.
He studied it a moment, then turned his attention to the plaque on the wall next to the viewing window, which featured the same AP headshot of Lee that had appeared in the article. “He bought it for that much money just to turn around and donate it?”
“He’s a very generous patron of the arts, Mr. Lee,” Bertie enthused. “It’s such an honor to be the beneficiary of his charity.” She gazed lovingly at the photo of the handsome tech mogul.
Ash waited several seconds while she continued to stare at the picture before asking, “Are you going to tell me about the history of the organ? It says there on the plaque it was believed to have been built in the early eighteenth century by a man named Christopher DeWitt.”
“Oh, of course!” She cleared her throat. “The instrument you see before you is believed to be the first pipe organ ever built in North America. Its maker was Christopher DeWitt, an English physician who moved to America in the year 1704 and joined a theosophical group that had settled in the valley of Wissahickon Creek.”
Ash’s eyes snapped to her. “Wissahickon?”
“Yes, the location of the settlement was in what is now Philadelphia’s Wissahickon Valley Park.”
It can’t be a coincidence…can it?
“When you say ‘theosophical group’…?” said Ash.
“Well, I’m not an expert on that. But my understanding is they were some kind of occultists. The ‘Mystic Brotherhood,’ or something like that. Believed the world was going to end in—what was it? 1694? Which it obviously didn’t, but anyhoo. A truly fascinating and little-known piece of Southeast Pennsylvania history. Do a little bit of hiking, and you can still find their ‘Hermit’s Cave’ tucked away in Wissahickon Park.”
Valentine…is it true after all?
Do you know something about the primordial adamantine I found?
…About the solstice murders?
“Gonna have to pay a visit to that cave,” Ash muttered to himself.
“Oh, honey, you should! In the spring. Wissahickon Park is just gorgeous in May. But getting back to the tour…”
“Could I have a closer look at the organ?”
“I’m afraid not, dear. These instruments are very old and fragile, this one in particular. Guests are not allowed to touch it.”
“I won’t touch. Just look.”
“I’m sorry. It’s against our policy to let non-staff into the climate-controlled rooms.”
“Fine. Then just tell me everything you know about the Mystic Brotherhood, and Christopher DeWitt, and everyone who owned this organ between him and Lee.”
Bertie stood blinking mutely at him over the frames of her cat-eye glasses.