Author's Note: Unfortunately, my beta-reader has been unable to check this chapter for me. So, for right now, I have to apologize for how rough it is.
Melissa had seen a lot of terrifying things in her life, but seeing a pulsating mass of pure evil all over the bank's headquarters was like nothing else she'd ever experienced. Now that she saw it, her jaw dropped, and she jerked her hand away from Brent's. "What... what is that!"
Brent had already pocketed whatever had been in his hand and was already moving, hopping out of the car as he simply answered, "Magic, just like I said. There's no metal detector in the front, is there?"
"Metal detector? Why do you… nevermind. Actually, there is..."
"Great. Any way around it?" Brent walked to the trunk and motioned for Melissa to unlock it. Once she did, he flung it open and immediately went for his aluminum travel case. Almost feverishly, he worked the combination lock, and then popped it open with an impatient tug.
"We can go through the employee... Brent...?" Melissa's question faltered to a stop when she saw what was inside the case. The most noticeable thing was a large, heavy-looking dagger, double-edged and polished to a mirror shine. There were other things as well- white silk bags filled with some kind of sweet-smelling substance and embroidered with odd symbols in gold thread, a wand a foot long that was perfectly smooth and polished, and five gleaming gold coins that Melissa had never seen the like of before. There was also a large brown envelope off to the side; the flap was sealed with three separate drops of blood-red wax, each one embossed with a distinct, intricate pattern.
As Melissa stared, Brent hastily gathered the items- he lifted up his suit jacket so he could sheathe both wand and knife into a leather holster at the small of his back. Then he tucked the envelope and the coins into his suit's inner pocket before he grabbed one of the small white bags. With that in one hand, he sharply closed and locked the travel case, then the trunk as well. "Where's Teresa's office?"
"I can take you there, you'll need my badge to let you in anyway. But Brent-"
"What is that... that thing?"
Both of them turned to gaze at the black smears strangling the bank's headquarters, and when Melissa glanced back at Brent, his eyes were hard. "The shortest answer is 'a curse of some kind.' As for what kind of curse, I won't know until I do some research."
"You... don't know?"
"No," Brent answered, and then firmly added, "but I'm going to find out. I guess we know why Teresa asked for me, huh?"
He strode to the employee entrance, with Melissa following right behind him. As they approached the door, though, she started slowing down, her eyes focused on the mass that seemed to be oozing out of the keyhole and through of every seam. When she got even closer, her skin began to crawl. She started to sweat, her breath coming out shorter as she called out, "Hey... this curse... how dangerous is it? Over a… a long time?"
Brent paused, turning to her... and his look was softer now, a small smile creasing his face. "Worried about having breathed it in for this long, without even knowing it?"
She jerkily nodded her head, which made Brent walk over to her and put a hand on her shoulder. His tone was gentle as he continued, "I didn't come across any stories about Premier Bank customers going mad or disappearing, or falling ill, so I don't think the purpose of the curse is to hurt anyone. Once I find out what it is, I'll break it and things should go back to normal. Okay?"
Melissa smiled, weakly, but then nodded a little more firmly. "Right. Just... it's a bit of a shock. I didn't even know, and now that I see it..."
"I did warn you about what you'd see," the wizard pointed out, "but your vibrations will smooth out pretty soon, and then you won't have to worry about this again. Anyway, are you better now? You can stay out here, if you like."
"No, no. I'm okay."
He smiled again and gave her a reassuring squeeze, then turned to the door, retrieving his wand and studying the stuff oozing out of the door. Cautiously, with the same concentration a snake handler used when faced with a viper, he extended the wand, inching closer and closer to the substance. Neither of them breathed as he did so, focused completely on the curse...
Until it lunged at him.
Both of them stumbled backward, and Brent rapidly shook his wand, trying to fling off the clinging curse. But the magic wouldn't let go; it kept oozing up his wand. Just before it could touch Brent's hand, he tugged at one of the corners of the white bag he'd held on to, sprinkling a little bit of sweet-smelling spices onto his wand. The curse instantly melted away like snow before a flame, dissipating into nothingness.
Slowly, Brent re-tied the bag, his expression grave as he stared at his wand. Melissa stayed a few steps back, but she still asked, "What happened?"
"I got a suspicion confirmed," Brent answered, then slowly sheathed the wand once more. "I need to confirm a few more, though. So, once we go inside, I need you to stay close and keep moving. We'll have a word with Teresa and see what she knows, and then I'll try to get a better idea of where this curse is focused."
"Okay. ...let me guess, you'll only want to explain that later, right?"
"Depends. Do you trust me?"
"...yeah... yeah, I guess I do."
"Then yeah, later," Brent laughed, "once I've gotten a chance to recharge. I'll explain what I've found, and maybe you can help me track down who'd cast a curse like this. For now, though... I wish I could draw a protective sigil for both of us, but I wasn't expecting to drop into the middle of something like this."
"That makes two of us," Melissa quietly said, "this is all just... I think it'll hit me, in a little bit. But for now, I guess I'll lead you up?"
The offer caught Brent off-guard, but he grinned and nodded. Then he opened the white bag once more, taking out a handful of the powder and flinging it into the air above them. Instead of dissipating, however, the little motes danced around them, forming an ephemeral and yet oddly tangible barrier. The sweet, clean scent drifted in the air, making both of them relax and breathe easily. With newfound confidence, Melissa opened the door.
She hadn't thought, until she opened the door, about what that curse would do. She certainly hadn't expected it to flood out like a breached dam, and the protections Brent had crafted seemed insubstantial compared to the wave bearing down on them. She flinched and backed up, stumbling against Brent- and at that moment, the feel of something solid and warm at her back was more than reassuring. Even better was when the curse suddenly broke against the powder dancing around them, as though the little specks were more solid than a cliff face. The pent-up magic swirled at around their feet, harmlessly flowing away and leaving the hallway mostly clear.
It wasn't completely clear, because even after the initial flood, there was more of the magic lingering in the sterile employee entrance. It flowed along the floor and dripped from the ceiling, and even though it parted to let them pass, Melissa noticed that the path behind them closed as soon as they were gone. It was like they were in a submarine, with just a thin layer of protection between themselves and the hostile world.
While she was fighting off the feelings of claustrophobia, Brent seemed worried as well, though for an entirely different reason. His eyes narrowed as he followed Melissa, and whenever they passed a door, he glanced down it, as though he had to confirm every detail personally. This pattern repeated itself all the way to a break room, when Brent stopped so suddenly that Melissa found herself stepping into the curse.
The instant that her foot touched the magic, she hissed and jerked backward again. Even though the liquid was no more than a slick on the surface of the floor, she felt like she was sinking into it, as though it was trying to swallow her alive. It felt cold, so cold that her foot went numb, and that chill remained even when she retreated back into the barrier. "Why did you stop-"
Then she froze. Brent was staring into the break room, and when Melissa looked in, she felt her blood run cold. The room was full, as it usually was; employees complained about the customers they had to deal with and the stresses of their job, or gossiped about the latest bit of office drama, or grew passionate about the latest news... and not one of them seemed to know that the curse clung to them.
Every last employee looked like they were coated in oil, from the tops of their heads to the tips of their shoes. More than that, it looked like they were swathed in spider webs- linking them to each other, black tendrils that swayed and thickened with every bitter word they said. Some were so thickly enmeshed that it was difficult to see them, and those were the ones who were the most bitterly outspoken, the ones with the harshest words.
Brent slowly nodded his head, as though grimly confirming something. "So that's what we're dealing with. I thought it would be something like this, but I wasn't sure... come on. We need to speak with Teresa."
Melissa opened her mouth to ask a question, but then shut it and sharply nodded. No question came close to expressing what she saw, or what it meant, and she knew that Brent would get to it... eventually. She turned on her heel and started walking away, with Brent right behind her. They said nothing as they passed through the hallways, nothing as they stepped into the elevator, and nothing as they made the slow journey to the top of the skyscraper. Both of them were grim now, and while the elevator itself was clear, every time the doors opened, they could both see that the curse had spread through every hallway.
When the elevator finally came to a stop, Melissa blinked in surprise. On this floor, there was nothing out of the ordinary. No curse, no magic... nothing. "There's no-"
"-magic, yeah," Brent quietly affirmed, stepping out and half-turning to Melissa. "The easiest way to think of it is that magic is like water- it follows the path of least resistance. Curses, especially, tend to stay along the ground."
He paused, and then softly added, "It's still here, though. Maybe it's too thin to see, but for those who can feel it... there's still the same malevolence here."
They continued on, and as they did, Melissa found herself trying to concentrate. Now that she'd seen magic, and felt its cold touch, she wanted to be able to sense it like Brent clearly could. She wanted to know what he did, because the fact that there could be harmful magic all around her and she couldn't see it, even with Brent's boost... that worried her. What else could be there, that she'd never even known about?
And yet, no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't feel it. There was nothing, no matter how intensely she focused. As she walked behind Brent, she softly whispered, "...probably because I'm still in his spell..." She didn't step outside of the barrier, though. She wasn't curious enough to feel the curse again, not directly.
The two of them strode down the hallways, past cubicles and offices that Melissa could navigate blindfolded. This was her home away from home, and yet... now it felt different. Unworldly, in a way, how everything she'd thought she'd known was just... unreal. She waved to her coworkers, she smiled as she always did, but it all felt disconnected, somehow.
Even when she returned to her desk, she couldn't shake the feeling that even this feeling of normalcy wasn't actually normal at all. She spared a glance to her pictures, photographs of her at the Grand Canyon and at a science center, both of them with her smiling brightly at the camera. And yet... the memories didn't come back to her.
"Let me call you in…" She frowned and picked up the phone at her desk, quickly dialing a number and waiting a few rings. It wasn't long before a familiar voice said, "Teresa Arms."
"Hi, boss," Melissa answered, with a forced smile, "Mr. Morgenson is here, do you-"
Melissa looked up, and then frowned as she faltered to a stop. Brent was gone. She'd taken her eyes off of him for one minute, and he'd wandered off... or so she thought, until she heard the unmistakeable sound of a door closing over the phone. Followed by Brent's clipped tone. "Teresa, we need to talk."
Teresa sighed, a rare exhalation of emotion from her, and she quietly said, "Melissa, make sure to clear my schedule and make sure no one bothers me until I let you know, all right?"
"Thank you. Hopefully it won't be too long." With that, Teresa hung up, leaving her in a presumably top-secret meeting. She wouldn't want to be disturbed, let alone overheard, and Brent was probably the same way. Who knew what a wizard would do if he felt threatened?
And yet... and yet Melissa stood up, and quietly started making her way to her boss's door. She knew that she was taking a dangerous risk. And yet, Brent had already abandoned her and there was so much more that she still needed to learn...
So, taking a few reports in hand as a flimsy excuse, she slowly made her way over to the forbidden door, feeling her heart pound as she neared it. One thing she knew for certain- she knew far too much now to rest until she got the answers she wanted...