The trip to the Low Memorial Library was not pleasant. Empty plastic bottles and other trash littered the streets. Every square I passed hosted a demonstration. Yes, the killer nightmares scared the hell out of most people. I got the point, but did they have to swarm every square?
I passed two different marches, both of which were full of people demanding the government to solve this. I glimpsed an old man holding a sign saying, ‘The time of Judgment has come,’ and stopped looking.
The demonstrator’s shouts disappeared behind me as I reached the Columbia University grounds.
Whoever did the lights on the Low Memorial Library spent the entire budget on the exterior. Beyond the side entrance, a small, barely lit room welcomed me with a lone light bulb hanging from the ceiling.
The marble walls, floor, and ornate furniture made my skin crawl. The rumors of the mages blowing up the lights as a side effect of their spells contained a grain of truth. I approached the painting on the wall. I spent no time to appreciate the image of a battle from the civil war and pressed the lower left corner. The picture and the wall before me vanished. I entered, and the hallway closed behind me before I reached the first turning.
Dim light covered the stone hallway, two notches less opulent than the library itself, and guided me down the concrete stairs. For being the only entrance into the Dewin Institute, which was a newly-renamed Mage Guild of New York, this staircase felt terribly mundane.
Sure, it likely had more magical protections than any other corridor in the city, but still. Now, I needed to figure out how to convince the mages to allow me into their library with as high level of access as I could get. I needed to dig up stuff on Lucielle to get an idea of what I got myself into, but also on portals and demons to have something to start with in the Evelyn case.
I stopped by a wooden door with a black tablet attached at the eye level.
As I stepped to the door, the tablet’s screen lighted and a girl’s cherubic face appeared. Mahogany hair complemented her hazel eyes. I didn’t get to enjoy them much for they instantly turned into narrow slits. “You don’t look like one of our members.”
I should have taken off the cowboy hat. Normally, Katherine handled this conversation. I put on my most amiable smile, withdrew the badge of the Church’s associate independent investigator and showed it next to my face. “I heard the Dewin Institute had the best library in town, so I’ve come to have a look.”
She chuckled. “Nice try, but no.” The screen turned black.
I sighed and knocked on the door. Three more sets of my hand hitting the wooden door made the woman turn on the screen again. “What part of no was hard to understand?”
“The one in which I can help your institute with Lady Lucielle.” This was a long shot, but since I overheard Lucielle shouting into the phone that she didn’t care about the institute’s opinions, I figured it could work. What other institute could she mean?
I grinned. “Ask someone higher ranked.”
The screen blackened. I braced my back against the wall, expecting a long wait. The door opened within a minute, and a tall man stood inside. His features were sharper than chiseled, and he wore a perfectly arranged, black suit. His brown eyes shone with an inner light, and his black hair lay greased on his skull.
I waved my hand in a greeting. “Howdy.”
He frowned at the gesture and motioned me to follow him.
With a shrug, I lowered my hat deeper into my face and did. The insides of the Dewin Institute’s main headquarters were the most luxurious place I have ever visited. What could have gold on it did. Marble made the floor while stained glass covered the walls and ceiling. A nice touch to hide the fact we were three stories underground.
Mages and witches themselves were a sharp contrast. While the men wore exclusively black suits, the women had loose robes and pointy hats over their business-formal attires.
I pondered the option of putting down my hat to reduce the number of weird stares I received but decided against it. Despite technically being a mage myself, I was utterly out of place here, and my headwear changed nothing.
He took me into a small room, where one wall was made of a mirror. Given the massive oil painting of mountains on the other wall, golden statuettes in corners and crystal chandelier hanging from the ceiling, I had never seen this lavish interrogation room.
He pointed at a chair and closed the door behind us. The mage took the seat at the opposite side of the baroque table, intertwined his fingers beneath his chin, and said, “You said a name that should not be spoken lightly.”
I relaxed into the chair, and put my hat onto the table. “Got me past the door, didn’t it? I’m Lucas, by the way.”
“I know,” he snapped. “For convenience’s sake, you can call me Jonathan. Now, why precisely are you here?”
“If I understand matters correctly, your institute isn’t particularly friendly with Lady Lucielle, is it?”
He shuddered at the mere mention of her name but recovered within an instant. “I’m afraid I cannot disclose details of our institute’s policies.”
Come on, give me something to work with. By the overreaction, he wasn’t that high up in the Institute’s ranks, so I deemed him to be the head of security. I kept my expression neutral and voice steady. “I’m investigating the nightmares plaguing the city and, in the process, might dig up something on Lady Lucielle.” I kept repeating the name, hoping it would make him uncomfortable enough to slip something.
“Might does not bear much value. But suppose we would be interested, what would you desire in exchange?”
“Access to the library and someone to put anti-everything wards on my apartment.”
He laughed. “I am afraid there are no wards that could shield you from the people with whom you have apparently entangled yourself.”
Finally. I did my best not to betray the jolt of happiness. “How come? All I’ve met from her are two girls.”
He laughed, the tone dry and mocking. “You truly have no idea with whom you are dealing, do you?”
“Why don’t you educate me then? Isn’t that what mages love the most?”
“We do, but all of Lucielle’s people are under tier-three Veil, which is far beyond your access.”
I grinned. That’s why I didn’t know anything. Apparently, finding my way into the supernatural world only got me to the antechamber. The picture painted itself within my mind. All I knew of were people capable of using aether to do minor tricks, concealment and detection spells. About everything else, Katherine told me it was impossible, extinct or that it never existed in the first place. My access had to be tier one.
And whatever Lucielle, Mina, and Vivian were was so terrifying it had to be behind two more tiers of secrecy, hidden even from most of the supernatural world.
Jonathan realized his error and ran his palm over his hair. Too late. That there were more layers of the Veil than the one I had access to was definitely a secret I wasn’t supposed to know. Especially since he made it clear there were at least three layers. Yes, the world of Secret Societies was that secretive about itself.
My lips curled up, and I straightened my back. “I wonder, my friend, will whoever is sitting at the other side of the mirror cover up for you spilling secrets to an unauthorized investigator?”
He glared at me, silent, searching what to say.
I pressed the advantage. “Troublesome, I know, but you could say the secrets shared could be found in the library anyway, one to which I have access.” While he couldn’t openly speak about the Veil’s higher layers, he could most likely grant me the library access. Doing that would give him an elegant excuse and mages loved loopholes, especially when it cost them nothing. Even if the library didn’t contain any information about the Veil’s tiers, nobody would check.
He recomposed, places his hands back beneath his chin and spoke once more in the perfectly controlled tone. “That is indeed the case. The library is at the end of the hallway that lies behind the third door to your right. Tell the guard I sent you.” He rose and motioned to the door.
I did as well. Before we walked out of the room, I asked. “By the way, would you know of someone capable of sanitizing a phone?”
He shook his head. “There is no sanitizer strong enough for anything from that woman.”
“Which one? The one who shifts into a wolf or the one so hot that water evaporates upon her touch?”
He froze, his eyes widening while sweat covered his brows. I didn’t wait for the answer before leaving the room.
The library access happened exactly as he promised and I became a proud bearer of the access card. Soon, I found myself sitting by one of their computers. The library was the size of a football stadium with stacks of books neatly arranged into bookshelves that made the walls.
But for my needs, the library computer featured better search functionality. I checked the phone I received from Lucielle. I kept it in my backpack since I expected the microphone to be recording around the clock.
No new notifications. Good. I tossed the phone back into my backpack and focused on the computer.
I reasoned that one couldn’t create a portal anywhere. If there was anything special about the location of the underground club, who else than the Dewin Institute would have the records?
The search took hours. But I had little else to go on. With the entire city in an uproar, whatever police and government agents were working on this were examining the victims, interviewing the witnesses and searching for forensic evidence. If that could lead to success, someone would be faster than me anyway.
And so I found the old maps of New York that contained arcane markup. I didn’t understand most of it but searched if any of them had a mark at the location of the club where I last met Evelyn.
Finally, I found a map with a rune drawn on the club’s address. To send the picture to my phone would be equivalent to sending it to Lucielle. Using the photocopier would feed the information straight to the Institute, so I took out a notebook and started to draw.
My horrifying grades from the art class showed, but I got to write down all thirty-seven locations the map had marked with the same rune. That was about thirty-five more than I would have liked.
By the clock on the screen, it was early morning. I yawned and continued searching. With all the police and agents swarming through the city, it was a safe bet that things would happen at night. I allowed myself a moment of curiosity and entered Lady Lucielle into the search.
No results. Variations brought nothing as well. I repeated the same process for Vivian and Mina. Apparently, I got access to the library, where I could find higher levels of the Veil existed, but not the access to the levels themselves. No surprise there since intentional breaching of the Veil was punishable by death. In any case, whoever these people were, someone didn’t want the knowledge out.
I needed to do this differently. I put Timothy Collins into the search. Lucielle bought his building in particular so there may have been a connection. His Magepedia profile contained almost nothing interesting. Aside from Rank: Master.
A member of the Dewin Institute. What a coincidence. A quick search got me to the list of most notable members of the Dewin Institute. They sure liked to gloat. No wonder, since the recently deceased mayor was the institute’s former grandmaster.
Gentle arms caught me into a hug from behind while soft, blazing lips grazed my neck. I froze, my sweat turning ice cold. How did she get here?
Vivian licked my neck from the base all the way to the ear, pressing her lips against my earlobe. “Looks like you’ve been a bad boy.”
I closed the browser, too late.
“And you know what happens to bad boys?” She moved her head next to me, her sapphire eyes an inch away from mine. The sheer bloodlust oozing from her paralyzed me. “They get punished.”
I gulped and made my best effort in a calm voice. “This is a misunderstanding. I’m only investigating Evelyn as I’ve been tasked.”
“You are such a sweet liar.” She clicked her tongue. “But killing you straight would be a waste. Come.”
I did not resist her command to get up, hastily packing my things. Her presence made my skin burn and blood sizzle.
Once I was ready, she led the way. Since it was five in the morning, the library was empty save for the guard. As we passed him, the man stood in his spot, looking nowhere.
I did not want to stare at Vivian, but my eyes refused to look elsewhere. She was beyond gorgeous, perfect in every aspect, in every move, from every angle. She held me by the hand and led me through the Dewin Institute, but not toward the exit.
We approached a door labeled MAINTENANCE AREA, AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY. She pushed me to her, pressing her stomach against my body, putting her face an inch before mine. Her breath burned at my lips and her sapphire eyes hypnotized me.
Okay, what the hell do I do? To fight was not an option. I had no way to run and no help to call for. I leaned forward in a desperate idea that I could distract her with a kiss. She chuckled, evading with ease, opened the door and playfully pushed me into the small, windowless room.
Next to neatly arranged boxes full of books laid Jonathan, his body pale and eyes lifeless. I froze, staring at the corpse.
Vivian entered and closed the door. From beneath her dress, she fished out a smartphone and took a picture. And then four more. Her phone was black, thicker than a regular smartphone, and had a bulge where the camera was, clearly custom-made.
I stared at her, mortified. With a pleased smile, she slid to my side, catching me by the waist while putting her face next to mine. She showed me a picture that captured me staring like an idiot next to the mage’s corpse.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” She chuckled. “Imagine the headlines in the New York Times. Innocent Scholar Murdered in the Library. Thought you may want to work on the smile.”
I struck out with my hand to grab the phone. Before my fingers reached it, my body seared with heat and my muscles clenched by themselves, making my arm bend behind my back. Pain shot through me. I grunted.
She laughed. I pivoted on my heel and tried to headbutt her. All my muscles stopped responding. I stood in place like a frozen statue. She leaned in, gently kissed me on the neck and then slammed her knee into my loins.
Pain exploded through my body and my vision blackened for a second. But I couldn’t move or even scream out in pain. That made the pain ten times worse.
Vivian weaved her hand around me, placed her head next to mine and took four selfies while moving her head slightly for each shot. “Beautiful.” She slid the phone beneath her dress and caught my head by the sides. Her touch was gentle and caring, like that of a lover. She raised my face and placed hers in front of mine, her breath searing my lips. “You really need Mina to help you get into shape. You could be so much more fun.”
She pressed her lips against mine, making my mind go blank. The pain returned the second she detached. She put on one of the most charming smiles I had ever seen. “Never talk about Mina and me again.” She drove her knee into my groin once more.
The heat left my body as she ended her spell upon the impact, allowing me to crumble to the floor with a scream of pain. I lay on the tiled floor, groaning and watched her hips sway in the tight dress as she walked out of the room.
I allowed myself ten minutes of recovery. I had to figure out how to get rid of her. But first, I needed to not get blamed for this. With my sleeve, I cleaned everything I touched and did the same for the door.
My heartbeat slowed down when I saw no cameras were present on the hallway. I left the Institute, meeting no one, and headed home. Dawn had yet to bathe the city in its crimson light, and no people moved around. Figuring I could catch the morning train, I advanced toward the nearest subway station.
When I walked down the stairs leading underground, Mina’s voice interrupted me. “Looks like you’ve already met Vivi.”
I turned, looking at Mina. She stood leaning on the wall, measuring me with a cold gaze from beneath her messy, blonde hair. How did they sneak up on me so effortlessly? Her pullover and jeans looked like any other, but something in the way she stood made it difficult to focus my eyes onto her.
“I did.” I straightened my back and forced out a smile. “What can I do for you?”
“What did you eat and drink today?”
I stared at her. “I don’t remember that stuff.”
“You should.” She withdrew a paper note from her sleeve. “You ate three big baguettes from the vending machine in Dewin Institute, the ham, and eggs I made and drank four small bottles of coke. That needs eight miles of running to make up for the sugar alone.”
Vivian apparently watched me through the whole day. Okay, I was way over my head in here. “Sure, we can go running tomorrow.”
“We will. But we will also go running now.” She motioned me upward.
I raised my hands as if they could stop her. “There’s no way I can run eight miles now.”
From behind her back, she withdrew a leather cane. “I’ll motivate you.”
I gulped but put on a brave face. “Thanks for the offer, but I’m not into this type of stuff.”
“Good.” She grinned. “You aren’t supposed to like this. Now, chop, chop.” She swung the cane through the air, and the swishing sound made ice cover my spine.
I stood my ground though. “How about no?” and turned to leave.
She stepped in and hit me in the arm. Pain shot through my body and I wobbled sideways. I spun and punched at her face. Yeah, that wasn’t smart, but I acted before I could think. With a move that seemed effortless, she slid past my strike and smacked my back. I bent over as the pain exploded through me. That cane hurt as if it was a steel baton. She hit me again, and I fell to the ground, shouting with pain.
She ducked, grabbed my hair, and pulled my face up. Her lips formed into a thin smile and her eyes shone with satisfaction. “Luci said you need to get in shape. And you will. Folly is bound up in the heart of a child.” She pointed the tip of the cane at my eye. “But the rod of discipline will drive it away.”
That made me tremble.
“But feel free to resist.” She smirked. “You are fun to beat.”
“Okay… sure,” I forced out of myself and slowly stood up. “We can go running.”
She looked almost disappointed as if she hoped I would struggle more and she thus had an excuse to beat me up some more.
I vomited three times before I ran the distance she wanted me to. All the time, she kept jogging by my side as if she was merely taking a stroll. And yes, she hit me with the cane at every instance when she deemed my pace unsatisfactory. When I reached my apartment, I collapsed into the bed, more exhausted than I ever remembered being, my back a mass of painful welts. She didn’t break a sweat and sat down on the bed’s corner. From beneath the sheets, she pulled out a paperback novel named Passion in Clouds.
I welcomed the sleep like nothing else.
Reading from my phone, the morning news headlines didn’t look good. Two hundred lives faded last night in New York… The President Declared a State of Emergency… Exclusive Interview with the Chief of the National Guard. I closed the phone and got up from the bed, grunting from the pain that shot through my back.
Mina handed me a plate with breakfast, bread with ham and cheese. “We got running in ten minutes.”
I gobbled down the food, took a swift shower and dressed. We headed out. The National Guard has already rolled into the city, and the police filled the streets, both apparently hoping to stop riots from breaking out. That made the jogging with Mina all the more humiliating as this time, we had an audience. Not to attract attention, she saved the beatings for when we were passing through side alleys. This time, I paid more attention.
Whenever she was to strike me with the leather cane, she filled it with aether, forming an octagonal pattern. No wonder the hits hurt so much even through my leather coat.
When we returned, I went straight for the toilet and vomited into it. Yeah, she forced me through that much running. She went to cook lunch, so I finally had a moment to get to my laptop.
The notebook I received was the fastest one I have ever seen, smoothly running despite all the spyware Lucielle’s organization surely put on it. Whoever prepared the laptop left me my saved logins and bookmarks on a file placed on the desktop. At least that much.
The file next to it contained my new bank account and how to get to it. Apparently, they somehow had my old bank account closed and transferred everything to a new account made at the organization named LBank, a member of LCorp Inc. When I saw the browser named LFox with search engine named LooGle, and shortcuts to LBook, LwiTTer, LGram, LTube, LPal, and LPedia, I got the point. The icon of every single one of the programs and pages was a variation on the letter L.
How subtle. Secret Societies used its own applications for everything. But Katherine never really walked me through them. Apparently, Lucielle was the owner of the corporation that ran all these applications, which were pretty much copies of their mundane-world counterparts. Most applications had interfaces to the originals, so I saw my sister’s Facebook page despite my page header reading: LBook, the home of your fake identity.
The copyright laws had yet to reach the Secret Societies.
I went to the bank account. Next to the three hundred bucks I had from my original account, there were fresh twenty thousand dollars.
After calculating how much I need to keep for the next rent and other necessities, I sent the rest to my mother. To the comment for the recipient, I put For Amber’s treatment, L. This was more than enough to start the treatment, and I would earn the rest of the money before this would run out. To save my sister, dealing with Vivian and Mina was the least I could do. My back felt differently, but I could handle the pain.
I tried to call my mother to tell her in person, but she didn’t pick up. She must have been working or sleeping.
The chicken salad Mina made was tasteless and made me hungrier than when I started eating. I knew better than to complain.
Through the entire day, I moved around the city, checking the locations marked on the map I drew yesterday. I ran across four demonstrations and protests, but they looked more like riots. Someone thought an excellent way to motivate the government to solve the nightmare plague was to set cars on fire. Since I was parking my car in Queens, my steel steed was safe… hopefully. Ironically enough, the smell of burnt cars made for a welcomed change from the general aura of misery that lingered in the air.
The marked locations all had an aura of purple aether around them, thin, but noticeable once I got used to searching for it with my magical sight. They had the shape of a column, so I started calling them beacons. Some beacons had the aura stronger than others.
The next day, I rechecked them after the morning routine. No man was supposed to run as much as Mina forced me to. Cars were invented for a reason. Mina flogged me whenever I wanted to take a break, and I couldn’t shake off the feeling she liked beating me so much that where she sometimes hit me purely because she felt like it. Ah, well, it wasn’t like I had a selection of aether-using tutors I could choose from.
Welts covered my back and thighs, painful reminders of Mina’s teaching philosophy. This time, the energy in the beacons changed ever so slightly, increasing in all of them equally. The one where I met Evelyn was the weakest. I called my mother to verify she had received the money. She didn’t pick up, so I sent her a message.
With no better clue, I decided to spend the nights camping by the brightest beacon, hoping that the high concentration of purple aether meant the next portal would open here.
The beacon shone in the Wave Hill Public Gardens. An excellent spot, since it was far enough from the center for the area not to be littered by trash from the demonstrations. In the park, the aether concentrated into a tower-like shape in an otherwise unremarkable patch of trees. I set myself up an observation spot in the bushes across the street from the park.
Every two hours, I patrolled through the gardens, which taught me the layout. I remembered every tree by the fourth round and was dead bored starting from the sixth one.
The boredom vanished during the first night when Mina showed up. I had no excuse to avoid the exercises she decided I should be doing. Not that I minded much since I more than needed the training. So far, everyone has been rolling over me and pain was the price I was willing to pay for changing that.
Sure, physical strength wasn’t the perfect weapon against people like Vivian, but I used the exercise to drip aether through my body. Otherwise, I wouldn’t survive them. I also got to watch how Mina distributed aether through her body, forming multiple layers of octagonal patterns that spilled over the leather cane as well.
When she was bored with me, she lay on the ground in her wolf form and read one angel-smut novel after another, turning the pages with her paw.
The waiting was killing me though. Yes, the money I sent my mother was enough to start treatment, but still.
Four nights later, two black vans arrived in the parking lot at two in the morning.
I shifted my sight into the magical version. Blue and gold aether oozed out of the vans. Eight men and women filed out of the vehicles, wearing black military gear. They were apparently here for the beacon. Evelyn was not among them.
Who the hell were they? I strapped my holsters to my thighs, tucked the hat into my face and went to find out.