The Archfiend Artifact

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20

SAATHOFF ACADEMY, DARK MOON PORT, MABON CITY

WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 22
3:05 PM


Instinct screamed at me to fight. To bite and claw my way through whomever or whatever stood behind me. Tear it to shreds and leave it a bleeding, pummeled mess on the floor. I beat down that ridiculous reaction, forced myself to calm. Only then did I look over my shoulder.

The ghost of a Roman Legionnaire a few feet away.

Specter.

I hadn’t even sensed his approach. But that didn’t make any sense. I have always been able to feel energies. Especially those given off by spirits. Now, all of a sudden, they’re sneaking up on me? I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all.

What the heck is going on? I nodded respectfully to the ghost.

He flashed a grin before his attention turned toward Duncan. “You wanted to see me, sir?”

The vampire’s violet gaze lingered on me. I could read the curiosity burning behind the look, and knew he wanted to ask about my reaction. Thankfully, he didn’t. But an eternity passed before he looked away. “Cybil had a vision about a mirror she has been accused of stealing. I am hoping you can find it in our database.”

“Sure, but I’d need a—”

I held up my drawing. “Picture?”

Specter looked flabbergasted for half a second before lightly chuckling. He brought his hands before him and summoned his weird spectral ball.

“It’s probably not an exact match,” I said as I watched him manipulate the ghostly sphere over my drawing. I could feel the cold of his presence intensify and recede with every pass he made. “But it is as close as I could remember.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem.” His fingers flew over the strange glyphs on the ball’s surface a moment. Then he drew the ball back towards himself. “I doubt there are that many mirrors to search through.”

“Can I ask,” I nodded towards the sphere. “What is that thing?”

“Oh,” he said, his tone amused. “It’s my control sphere. See, I can’t manipulate things on the mortal plane of existence without expending huge amounts of energy. If I wanted to, say, move a piece of paper across a desktop, it would require the equivalent of what it takes to power a city block for three and a half minutes.”

I whistled. All that energy just to move a single piece of paper? If he had done that before, I would have felt it every time the bus to school drew close to the city. It’d be like feeling a black hole with a tiny but intense pinprick of a presence in the midst of it.

It makes sense if you think about it.

Just picture making a sand mound. In order for the mound to exist, sand must be brought in from the surrounding area. When it goes missing to make the mound larger, it leaves a void. And that void doesn’t fill back in unless you drag in more sand to fill it, which would leave even less sand surrounding the mound than there had been before. And it would stay that way until the weather or some other event wore the mound back down or destroyed it entirely.

Doing the latter would create an even bigger mess as sand would be strewn everywhere instead of calmly settling back into place over a few days.

“I take it that’s something you don’t do very often.”

“It exhausts me to a point where I can’t maintain this form.”

I hadn’t thought of that before now, but it explains the intense cold around him. Most ghosts you see are just shapeless clouds of energy or little, fluttering orbs. In order for them to take a more humanoid shape, they’d have to draw in the heat energy from the air. The more they want to appear, the more heat they have to draw in.

In other words, thermodynamics.

(I learned about that reading some of the college books people brought in to agilisi’s shop.)

Duncan lightly tapped the butt of a pen on his desk top, his subtle way of getting our attention. It worked. “Vhile you are looking into the mirror, check to see if it has any connection to Cynthia’s bone and the Hope Diamond.”

Specter pursed his lips.

“All three,” I said, making sure he understood the significance. “Were stolen by Shadows within three consecutive days.”

His mouth formed a silent oh in realization.

I made a face that hopefully conveyed that I thought the same.

“Good thing you noticed that,” he said, his attention returning to his sphere. “Nothing is a coincidence when dealing with threes.”

“Then they must have something in common,” I muttered, more to myself than to either of them. I still received a half shrug from Specter. But what?

I looked down at the notebook in my hands. The drawing of the twisted mirror glared up at me from the page, taunting me with its secrets. I studied it closely, looking for any flaw or sign that would give them away. Every line. Every pock mark. Every shadow.

Nothing.

I sighed, frustrated, and relaxed my arms. It didn’t help my agitation, and I wound up impatiently tapping the notebook against my hip. It took more effort for me to stop the fidgeting. And even more to let my eyes slip shut. I breathed, calming my mind and body. It took maybe five minutes for me to reach a meditative state. It used to take me an hour or more to achieve this level of serenity, but I had had a lot of practice over the years.

My back twitched.

I shoved that memory away before it could form.

My mind turned to the mirror, and I directed it to the memory of my vision. The thing had been in a round room, sitting atop a pedestal at the very center. Blue firelight flickered off its jet black surface. The unnatural light gave the ebony glass at its heart a wicked glare, and I fought to suppress a shudder. Even like this, I could sense evil in the mirror.

It took a strength I didn’t know I possessed to walk up to the thing. When at last I stood over it, I could see my own twisted reflection on the glass. As I did with the drawing, I studied every minute detail. I had no way of knowing what the mirror had been made of, or how long it had sat untouched in this room. Spines jutted out from the glass at mismatched angles, almost like a porcupine protecting itself. The spines were everywhere.

Except at the bottom.

My eyes slammed open. I turned to Duncan. “Do you have a photo of the bone stolen from Cynthia’s estate?”

His eyebrow quirked. “Yes.”

“Please, can I see it?”

He studied me a moment as if considering whether or not to do it. He made up his mind, swiveled in his chair so that he faced the filing cabinets on his left. From the lowest drawer, he removed an unmarked manila folder. When he turned to face me again, he had two photographs in his hand.

He set them on the desk.

The twisted thing in the photos didn’t look like any bone I had ever seen. It looked more like a gnarled twig that had been stained black with age. Its girth appeared to be a little smaller than my wrist, and it twisted over on itself before tapering to a point at one end. The other end bore evidence of something haven been broken off eons ago.

Now the three thefts made sense.

“They’re all part of the whole.”

“The whole?” I felt a chill as Specter looked over my shoulder. “You mean they fit together?”

I tapped the top photograph of the bone with my finger. “That’s the mirror’s handle. And I’m betting there’s a weird divot somewhere on it where the Hope Diamond belongs.”

Duncan licked his lips, pulled the second photo out from behind the one under my finger. I could see the divot clear as day. His violet gaze locked with mine for a beat before he looked away. “Specter—”

“Already piecing them together,” reported the ghost. “Then I’ll start my search for matches.”

“Thank you.” Duncan glanced at his watch, came to some sort of decision. He stood, straitened his suit jacket. “Cybil, please come vith me for a few minutes.”

I figured he would round his desk and make for the door behind me. Instead, he went to the bookcases behind his desk and pulled out a thick tome. Artificial light spilled out of the book, and he touched it six times. I heard a click, and watched as he replaced the tome. The bookshelf swung open on invisible hinges.

“Okay,” I said as I made my way towards the hidden door. “That’s cool.”

Duncan grinned over his shoulder and let the way over the threshold. The bookshelf door drifted shut behind us of its own accord. The tiny room I found myself in left me feeling claustrophobic. It may as well have been a closet for all the space it had. Red light glared down from pucks in the ceiling, illuminating a reflective warning on the door.

Trespassers will be subject to search and imprisonment.

Well, that’s just swell.

I watched as Duncan used a number pad by the door handle. A soft click sounded, and he pushed the door open. We stepped through. I instantly recognized the hospital-like hallway and the glass-enclosed laboratory. We were in AEON Headquarters.

“Quinn told me that you expressed and interest in becoming an AEON Agent.”

It wasn’t a question, but it had the feel of one. So I answered, “Well, I’ve wanted to be a cop since I was five, if only to bring my parents’ killer to justice.”

Duncan led me down a hallway. “But?”

“But they fed me some bull about being too emotionally unstable.”

He glanced over his shoulder at me.

“I think agil—I mean, my grandma paid them to tell me that.”

We came to a stop at a door bearing Duncan’s name. He unlocked it, led me inside. The lights flared on automatically to reveal the office Quinn had escorted me to last night.

“Do you believe you could be an investigator?” the vampire asked as he strode around behind me to reach his desk. He grabbed something from atop it, turned to await my answer.

Is this a job interview? “Yes. I believe I could become an even better one once I learn a how to control my psychic abilities a bit more.”

He grinned, pointed the contraption in his hand towards the conference area. The watercolor painting went black.

Then it started to ring.

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