The Archfiend Artifact

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2:21 PM

Morgan flew through the streets as if she were driving in an action movie’s get-away stunt vehicle. I sat shotgun with a white knuckled grip on the door and a very bizarre gun resting at my feet. The thing looked and felt like something a cop would use. It measured about ten inches and had been made with black carbon fiber. What made it weird was the clear canister of water directly beneath the barrel.

When she had handed it to me, Morgan told me the canister contained holy water. Squeezing the trigger would fire a jet of the water at whatever I aimed at with more force than a pressure washer. She had also warned me against shooting myself with it.

Like, duh! Demon. Holy water. Hello?

Whatever. I just hoped her erratic driving didn’t pick up a cop. Who knows what they’d think of the gun.

“I can’t believe we’re stuck driving,” muttered Morgan.

I looked up from the tactical water gun to make a retort. It never passed my lips. My attention fell on the jalopy of a station wagon we were passing. Something about it screamed familiar, but I couldn’t figure out why. And we had passed it so quickly that I never had a chance to see who was driving that wreck.

“Incoming call from Fenrir,” the sedan’s automated voice announced in her monotone.

Morgan pressed a button on the steering wheel. “Go ahead, Quinn.”

“Where are you? MCPD is just leaving Cynthia’s now.”

“Two minutes,” the blonde replied, checking behind her and moving over to the turn lane. She pulled onto a private road as two police cars left it.

“I’ll meet you at the gate.”

“I see you.”

The call ended as Morgan pulled the sedan to a stop before a towering, iron gate flanked by white stone walls. I grabbed the super soaker as I exited the car. A refreshing whiff of moisture and pine lingered in the air, and I soaked it up. Trees and shrubs surrounded us, their golden sunset leaves casting shadows that danced in the wake of a breeze. I could just barely hear the Cimmeria River softly gurgling somewhere to my left. Songbirds drowned the sound of the busy highway several yards away.

I had never been in the Palisades before, but I found it remarkably peaceful. No wonder rich people live out here.

Quinn approached with a petite brunette in tow. My gaze immediately snapped to the badge on her belt.

Morgan confirmed my suspicion simply by muttering, “LeFae.”

The Lieutenant curtly nodded. She looked at me, and I could practically feel here assessing me for the police record. Female. About four feet. Black hair with red bangs. Armed, but not necessarily dangerous. “I bought you guys about half an hour. If you’re going to do something, you’d better do it quick.”

Quinn divested his suit jacket, threw it in the car. He shrugged into the shoulder rig Morgan had brought for him and led us to the iron gate as he slapped a magazine into the handgun. He shoved the gate open as if it were made of chicken wire instead of heavy iron. I followed on his heels as he crossed onto the property.

The lawn had been nicely manicured, and a rainbow of flowering plants edged the white stone driveway. A white marble fountain sat at the arc of the drive, just a short trek away from the mansion’s elaborate front entrance. A stone archway kept the patio shaded, and gave ivy something to cling to as it crawled its way up. The doors themselves were a rich brown wood with stained glass windows. The yellow police tape stretched across their frame mashed harshly against their beauty.

“If I remember correctly, Cynthia keeps a safe under the stairs in the parlor,” remarked Quinn. He hopped up the few stone steps that led up to the front patio, ripped the police tape from the doors. “The controls for her video surveillance system should be in there.”

“Why are we after that?” I asked.

He looked over his shoulder. “To see if anyone was in the house with Cynthia when she was killed. Anyone besides her maid and gardener could be the murderer.”

“We should just rip the safe out and get back,” grumbled Morgan. “We’re too limited on time to go digging.”

“Oh, sure. There’s no way the cops would notice if we trash a fresh crime scene,” I said as I watched Quinn test the doors. They were locked—No surprise. He didn’t say a word as he retreated to the stone pillar a few paces to the right of the doors.

Without warning, Morgan rushed the doors, striking them with a kick. The locks screamed as they came undone and the doors exploded inward with a shower of splinters and twisted metal. What remained banged against something inside and started to swing back. Morgan strode forward, shoving the doors aside.

“Dammit, Morgan!” barked Quinn. “I have just about had enough of your crap today. Do something like that again, and I’ll have you recalled to the Astral Plane faster than you can say ‘smite me’.”

The blonde whirled around, livid. Quinn hurled something at her as he crossed the ruined threshold. She didn’t bother catching it, so it fell to the floor with a soft clink. It was a key—the spare. Morgan glared at it and me before following in Quinn’s furious wake.

I hesitated outside, unsure of whom to be more afraid: Quinn, Morgan, or the Shadow that could be watching me right now. I took one last long look at the peaceful front lawn before I entered the war zone.

The entryway looked exactly like what I expected of a mansion. The ceiling must have been at least twenty feet high, with an enormous, crystal and gold chandelier dangling like an earring from the center. Exactly beneath the fixture stood a circular table adorned with framed photographs and a fern plant. A small pile of letters and a set of keys now sat gathering dust.

Solid, wooden doors with golden filigree led to rooms on either side of the entry. Two more were tucked away in the spaces on the back wall, nearly hidden from my view by small palm trees and padded loungers. A wide staircase stood between the back doors, winding its way up to the second floor. Suits of steel armor stood like silent sentinels on either side of the bottom step.

Quinn and Morgan had split up to search the wall space under the stairs for the safe’s hiding spot. The werewolf gave me a passing glance as I approached. His eyes were bright blue, like moonlight. I had seen that effect before.

“You okay, Quinn?”

“Yeah, just…” he sighed. “Just frustrated.”

I gestured to his face. “Your eyes are blue.”

His fingers paused in their blind search as he looked at me. “It’s because the new moon is tomorrow night. My inner wolf wants out to frolic before the moon goes dark and I lose my powers. I’m still in control… for the moment.”

“Oh.” I had been so worried about finding the mirror that I had completely forgotten about the rapidly approaching new moon.

Quinn went back to his search.

I had never thought to ask him what he went through as a werewolf. I just figured he could change at will instead of relying on moon phases. His transition into a wolf sounded much more unstable, even dangerous. “Do you need anything?”

He flashed a grin, and I could see elongated canines. “I’ll be okay. It’s not the first time I’ve gone through the change. Thank you, though.”

I leaned against the banister to watch him and nearly fell over when something gave way. I heard a loud click followed by a sliding sound as a piece of the paneling under Quinn’s fingers slid aside. I looked at the banister in shock, only to realize that a lever had been cleverly disguised as one of the rungs.

Quinn pointed at it. “Did you know that was there?”

“I’m just surprised as you,” I admitted just in time for Morgan to round the stairs and join us. We all looked at the safe to see what we were dealing with. I don’t know why, but I had been picturing something like a huge bank vault. This thing could have passed for a microwave. It even had a number pad on its face.

“Alright, we know where it is. Now let’s find out how to get it open.” Quinn looked at Morgan. “You start looking down here. Cynthia’s office is in the northeastern wing.” He pointed to one of the doors. “It might be a good place to start looking for the code.”

“Right,” she muttered and made for the office.

“And do not destroy anything else!”

She paused as if to say something, but thought better of it.

“Where do we start?” I asked as I followed him up the staircase. I missed a step when he said we would start in the solarium where Cynthia’s body had been found.

He noticed, paused to turn and look at me. “Are you sure you’re okay to do this? I’d understand if—”

“I’m okay,” I said to assure him as much as myself. Truthfully, the idea of standing in the same space as a murdered body kind of freaked me out. I knew the energies left behind would be turbulent, just like in that blighted alley. So much so that I should have been feeling them already. It worried me that I didn’t even feel the slightest bit of a tickle. “I’ve done something like this a few times before, just not… intentionally. I can’t even guarantee you that I’ll get a vision.”

His expression softened. “It’s not about whether or not you get a vision,” he said and put a hand on my shoulder. “It’s the fact that you’re here to try. I respect that.”

The words drew a smile from me. And when he asked me if I was ready, I nodded. We took a left at the top of the stairs, followed the hall to the last door. Sunlight blinded me when Quinn opened the door. I blocked it out with my hand and looked around the space. I my gaze instantly went to the far end of the room, where a pale blue wingback chair sat beside a tiny table bearing the Victorian phone.

Cynthia’s remains had been removed, but the phone still lay on the floor where it had fallen.

I licked my lips. My hand slowly dropped to my side as navigated around furniture and fauna, heading for the chair. I should have been able to feel something this close to where Cynthia had died. I didn’t even get a chill.

Could it be because there is no energy to detect? I stared down at the phone in wonder. I knew the Mirror of Souls absorbed energy from its victims, but there aught to have been something residual. From what I could recall, Miss Santova had lived on this estate for nearly six decades. And she had bought it from the family who built it and lived in it for over a century. If nothing else, there should have been emotional energies ingrained in nearly everything in the house; the floor, the furniture, even the little nick knacks on the shelves.

It’s what creates a strong Threshold.

Think of a Threshold as an invisible force field around a home. They are established around every entryway into a home to protect anyone within from negative energies and beings who want to cause harm. They can be gradually built up over time depending on the environment within the home, which is more common. But someone could also magickally establish a Threshold. It’s as simple as laying salt in a line across the doorway or window and empowering it with a little bit of life energy.

I expected to feel a little hint of that energy when I picked up the fallen phone. Instead, I felt nothing. Not even a fading memory of power.

What in the world is going on with me? I put it back in its cradle, sat in the chair. I should have been able to sense the energy here. And Specter never should have been able to sneak up behind me. It’s as if someone had flicked off the switch to my powers.

I silently mouthed a curse in realization.

I had done it to myself. Or—more accurately—my inner demon had done it to me when I told it to stop force feeding me its power. That wretched thing had tricked me into leaving myself virtually blind! Heck! I could have a Shadow staring at me right now and I wouldn’t know it until it jumped out and started doing La Macarena.

Well, my demon and I were going to have a talk after I got back to the ship. Right now, I had an important mission that I didn’t dare stray from. I simply didn’t have the time for an internal argument. So I imagined throwing a steel lockbox with all my problems in it into a black hole. I’d fish it out later, when I actually had a moment or two to myself.

Thanks to the phone dream this morning, I knew my psychic powers weren’t affected by my demon’s trickery. I let my eyes slip shut as I turned my mind to the task at hand. I’ve never tried to force a vision before, so I didn’t know if this would work.

I think I nodded off there for a second. I wouldn’t have realized it if not for Quinn suddenly moving around. Something was different in the way he walked. He had the footfalls of a predator on the hunt; silent and measured. These were nothing like that. In fact, if I didn’t know better, I’d say someone in high heels had passed right in front of me.

My eyes snapped open to a changed room. Night had fallen, leaving the room illuminated only by soft solar lights. In front of me stood a woman I had never seen before.

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