The parking lot at Saint Mary's was empty except for an old, peeling Romanov. The vehicle belonged to the janitor, who was on-site mopping up after a finger-painting gone awry, and he grudgingly let us into the building after we flashed badges and promised not to knock anything over. Abigail's school records had been e-mailed to us along with a whole bundle of other related data, and after a minute of searching we located her class room.
Bright, block letters hanging from the door read "Mrs. Skeady's Stars." Inside, this turned out to be a very literal decorating motif. Five-pointed paper cut-outs with names on them dotted the walls, hedging for space among posters about the value of sharing and the importance of obeying the Governing Council. Abigail's star was a ratty, creased thing. It had been cut unevenly—and also, it seemed, bitten—and her name was printed on it in yellow block letters.
I flipped through some of her progress evaluations on my phone. Trouble following rules. Needed to be reminded to use words and not violence. Took a long time to settle down after any excitement. Trouble staying in line at the end of the day.
"See?" I held the phone out to Mallory, indicating the relevant bit of text with a finger. "Nothing fishy here."
"Other than the possession?"
"Other than the possession."
"Have you looked at any of the evaluations of her parents?"
"By the school. Here. There's not much on file, but Allia Skeady made a few notes about them."
"Distant. Reserved. Seem to be ignoring their daughter's attitude problems." I read directly from the screen, not letting the words mull in my mind until after I had spoken them aloud. "Expressed opinion that it was the school's job to educate their daughter, not theirs. Denied suggestions that their daughter might be gifted, and more suited to a different learning environment."
"Red flag, huh?"
"Okay, Mal. I see what you mean. Maybe this is what they were hiding. They could've treated her better, and the feel guilty over it."
I slid the phone back into my pocket and gave the room one last look. Tiny plastic chairs. Big wooden desk. Smudged blackboard. Plants growing by the windowsill for a science project. Big wooden blocks, tumbling aimlessly in the air.
I froze. "Mal, are you seeing this?"
"Seeing w—oh. Our witness was right."
Reaching out, I ran a hand through them. They were hallucinatory. All artifacts were. Extensive testing had proven this. That said, it still felt like I was moving my hand through a cold, clinging mist. "Whatever happened here, it must have been powerful."
When artifacts did manifest, their presence was always relative to the entity that produced them. Stronger Outsiders produced more, and produced them more often. Usually, they faded out quickly—but if the entity in question was extremely strong, or if the event it had been involved in was extremely significant, they could linger for quite some time. Two months was the longest recorded stretch, and that had resulted in a main street in Cablehost being blocked off and re-routed to keep drivers from swerving to avoid a phantom thicket of roses.
"This is where she erupted."
An infection didn't always immediately assume control of its host. It could germinate first, making it almost impossible to isolate the event that caused it. The point at which it did emerge, side-lining most of its host's conscious control over their body, was known as the eruption. Eruptions generated artifacts more reliably than any other Outsider activity.
"She couldn't have been infected here. She was being supervised the whole time. So, either it happened on school grounds, after she slipped out of her line, or it was much earlier." Mallory had taken Abigail's star off the wall and was turning it slowly in her hands. In the middle of the room, the cubes continued to spin for a few seconds more before fading away. "I'm sure we're running Analysis ragged, but we'll have to report this, too. They can't safely esochronograph the area until we can tune in to this thing's spoor, but maybe they'll have a better idea about what to do with the information."
"Or maybe they'll just babble about planes and alignment and the intentional energy of purpose, like they usually do."
"It's better than nothing. Without some kind of a lead, where are we left? Sitting in a coffee shop, twiddling our thumbs?"
In light of her last comment, Mallory and I agreed that the Somnolence Coffee Prison was the best place to wait for Julius to finish his work. I put in a double-order for maximum-security macchiatos and almond biscotti, and we camped out in my usual corner booth.
Gable was busy dispatching calls. When I had called him with my suggestion about the Swansons, he had only been half-listening. If I was lucky, the idea had made it to a cramped notepad full of scribbles that he kept by his office phone. If not, I'd just have to remind him at a time when we didn't have most of Investigations out and combing the streets for anything that looked slightly Herald-y. Whatever that meant. Gable didn't have the time to set us on another errand, and I was frankly okay with that.
Casey phoned us a couple hours later. She was speaking on behalf of Julius, who had asked her to relay the message that "the prototype is done, and also there's some extra Carmine takeout here if you want some." We piled back into the Seabright immediately, and were back in the safehouse's kitchen in under twenty minutes.
The finished product was surrounded by boxes of crab-dumplings, sticky-rice, and spare ribs. It looked like someone had taken a hubcap and shot it full of bulbs, wired the bulbs to a metal brick, and plugged the brick into a mobile tablet. Coincidentally, this was exactly what had happened.
"It's on?" I asked.
Julius nodded. "There isn't anything nearby for it to pick up."
"Great. We're taking it driving."
The Seabright was considerably more snug with the five of us—plus an experimental wad of metal and glass—vying for space inside of it. There was a brief but fierce game of roshambo that led to Duke sitting between Casey and Julius, and Mallory had her seat scrunched up all the way to the dashboard in order to give the ectoseismographer a little more room. None of us felt like heroes going off to war. We felt like a dysfunctional family going on vacation.
"You brought spare charms?"
Julius fished a MawMart bag out of the seatwell. Numberless charms rattled within. None of them were active, and so we could easily replace the bulbs on the dish as they blew out. If the charms in the bag had been active, they would have all gone up the moment they caught a whiff of esophosphor. I slipped the engine into reverse and we trundled out of the driveway.
"How long is this going to take?" queried Duke, legs scrunched together and body folded around the dish.
"Three to five hours, tops."
Our first stops were Saint Mallory's and the Worthling apartments. These were for the sake of calibration. Each one did trigger the device, but only the charms in the outer layer of the ring went dead as we drove past. It was reading Abigail's scent, but it didn't like a cold trail.
Thanks to the foresight of the first refugees from the Old Country, most of Habitation had been built in a grid. There were places in Slake Barrow and Hapsburgh where modern city planning gave way to lunacy and streets spiraled in on themselves, like snakes devouring their own tails, but Clemont and Cablehost and New Grenning were easy even for foreigners to navigate. Mallory squeezed her body back against the flat of her chair, making just enough room to pull a map out of the glove box. "We'll start in Clemont, and we'll do the entire grid."
She meant it, too. Every inch of roadway. Every intersection. Every roundabout and every overpass. With nothing else to go on, we could always fall back on being methodical.
The first blip that the dish registered was on Hallowlock Ave. It was weak but persistent. We discovered this when we tried changing out the bulbs and the new batch went dead the moment they were activated.
"Why don't you stretch your legs?" Mallory had wriggled out of the side door to stand on the sidewalk, hugging her windbreaker to her sides. The crowd in the car was only too happy to comply.
I dialed Gable.
"You have something?"
"We have a possible location. 43 Hallowlock, Clemont."
"Does it look familiar to you?"
"Should it?" I squinted my eyes, staring at the facade of the empty house.
"Think back two weeks."
The Swanson's house looked very much the same as every other house on their block. Their lawn was all yellowed grass, and the decorative tree they had planted by the driveway had shed its leaves, but otherwise all the standard features of affluent Midland suburbia were out in force. Unblemished white paint. Hedges along the sides of the house. Carefully delineated borders between their property and the next. I walked up to the front door, fished under the mat, and produced a key.
Mallory covered me as I opened the door. My wristlet was non-responsive, but its lifelessness only served to reinforce the idea that there might be something inside. I was grateful for the drawn gun at my back. "You ready?"
"If she comes at you, hit the ground and pop all your charms. We're not getting sucker-punched again."
I nodded, grabbed a finely worked silver cage off my belt, cupped it between my hands and set it on the threshold. The Warding charm was similar to the one I had deployed at the Worthling apartments. If Abigail was inside, the only way she'd be getting out would be by burrowing through the foundation.
The fact that the lights in the Swanson home still worked somehow made things worse. The human mind expects certain things of the dark. There an instinctive association between being unable to see and being stalked by forces unseen. I never realized it before, but there's actually something comforting about that. Being able to see and still being stalked by forces unseen is far worse. It takes that certainty that night time is the only time when we ought to be afraid and shakes it until true unease falls out.
Mallory and I swept the first floor, room by room, with that nagging disquiet tugging at our calm all the while. The feeling intensified as we went upstairs. If you've never tried imaging all the places where something child-sized could hide in your bedroom, you should give it a go. I'll be waiting right here for whenever you finish screaming.
One hand on my belt, Mallory's handgun tracking slowly through the air, I dropped down to my knees to check under each bed. I expected a face full of Outsider every single time, and yet somehow it didn't show.
For the closets, I stood to the side, wrenched the doors open, and then flung myself out of the way. On one occasion this was actually warranted. A stack of shoes fell out, clattered on the floor, and Mallory nearly put a round through a pair of black pumps. Other than clothing, there was nothing else inside.
The bathrooms wouldn't have been so bad if not for the shower curtains. You could easily fit something of human size behind one of them. It could even be bigger if it crouched down in the tub. As long as it shrunk back against the wall waiting for you to come close, you'd never even guess it could be there until it struck. The only clue you might get would be a fluttering of the curtain, or a shadow on the fabric. To my credit, I didn't rip my weapon from its holster and put a bullet into the curtain the first time I saw Mallory's shadow on it, but it was a close thing.
With the upstairs clear, we reconvened by the door.
"What if she isn't? What if she isn't here at all?"
I shook my head. "No. She's downstairs. That's where she waits. There's a pattern here."
"Well then. After you, hero. Let's flush her out."
Every nerve in my body felt raw and electric as I descended the carpeted stairs. I was holding an obfuscation in each hand, primed and ready to deploy. A little porcelain Father Solstice drinking a beer rested in one palm, waiting to be shattered on a nearby surface, and a ball of golden thread nestled in the other.
The basement wasn't tidy, but it wasn't cluttered with junk either. Most of the space was taken up by an exercise bike, a set of weights, and a home entertainment system. Boxes lined some of the walls, and I imagined Abigail springing out of them, but there weren't many other places to hide.
I cleared my throat loudly, winding up to pitch Father Solstice against the far wall in case the noise caught her attention. There was silence.
I don't know for how long we stood there, weapons ready, braced for assault, but nothing came at us. Most of the boxes along the walls had been secured with tape, but there was one that hadn't. I indicated that Mallory should be prepared to plug it with her entire clip, crossed the room, and tentatively lifted a flap. Still nothing happened. Inside the box was a pile of wooden doll parts, undoubtedly the leftovers of some bit of decor. Abigail was not in the house.
Just to be sure, we combed the place top to bottom a few more times. There were no holes bored in the foundation. There were no obvious signs of her presence, other than a momentary artifact that startled us coming back up the basement steps. A little straw figure with missing eyes, it floated at waist height, turned its blank face up to look at us, and then winked out of existence.
We called Gable from the front steps.
"She's not here now, but the ectoseismographer works. She definitely was at one point."
"Maybe after we evacuated the Swansons?"
"Impossible to tell." If the entity had been there while Abigail's parents were still in the house, there was no reason we should have been able to relocate them. Unless it had wanted us to.
"Keep searching. I've got a couple of Analysis techs willing to ghost-dive the Swansons. If we get another lead, you'll be the first to know."
Piling back into the car didn't seem so bad, now that we knew we were closing in on our prey.
The next hit we got was Oriole Park, also in Clemont. It was around ten minutes' walk from Saint Mary's, and was open to the general public.
On a normal day, there would have been men and women walking their dogs, old couples sitting on stone benches, and kids playing pick-up games of baseball or frisbee. The information age hadn't touched Oriole Park. It was a living relic; the oldest landmark that Clemont had. Once upon a time, there had even been orioles here.
Deploying the troops had turned Oriole Park into an empty wasteland. As we walked across the cold grass, fanned out around Julius and his plate, I imagined catching glimpses of movement out of the corner of my eye. Businessmen on their lunch breaks. Teenagers looking for a place to be vigorously unsupervised. None of them turned out to be real.
The ectoseismographer had sniffed a hint of a presence in the park, and no one in my department had apprehended an entity there in the last four weeks, so we had decided to take it for a stroll. We didn't bother changing bulbs. We just watched to see which ones were flickering and went in that direction.
It was near the stream that the bulbs began to blow. Cairview Creek ran the length of the park, stemming from a natural spring and eventually dead-ending into the city's municipal gray-water system. We followed the water up towards its source, detouring around an old stone bridge and into a grove of trees. Fallen leaves were strewn everywhere.
"You don't suppose it's on the other side of the park?" Casey ventured, sounding hopeful.
We did a circuit around the grove to prove her wrong.
Searching on hands and knees through piles of bracken might have been boring, but the thought of Abigail erupting up out of the undergrowth kept us all alert. I ran my hands through something that was unidentifiably wet. Casey spooked a snake. Duke fell in a hole.
We pulled him out. He had gotten to at least waist-deep, and we would've had him out sooner if he hadn't been thrashing and yelling all the while. A root had been curled around his ankle, and it had felt like the touch of a host.
Julius' dish went crazy when he approached the pit. It blew a handful of charms, and the rest of them flickered tremulously. I told him to back off while we cleared it out.
The leaves went in handfuls over our shoulders, gradually exposing rock and dirt. As the pit emerged into view, we realized that it hadn't been very wide. No more so, at least, than the shoulders of an adult man. It ran deeper into the ground, but a flashlight beam shone into the gloom revealed a collapsed dead-end.
We had found another burrow.
There were three more in Clemont. Another two in Hapsburgh. Four in Cablehost. And by then we were forced to call it a night. No one back at the department was thrilled by this news.
Most of the holes were in out-of-the-way locations. One of them had been bored into an elevated chamber in the sewer system. The others were in basements or back rooms of unused buildings. All of them had been blocked off, and there was no back-trail to follow.
There had been no reported disappearances near the burrow-sites, so that ruled out the possibility of some kind of subterranean entity building a cult. Not that there were many like that on record. Old Country legends existed of something called the Dragon of Sorrows, but the prerequisites for infection by it must have either been really obscure or unusual in a more modern age. We had occasional outbreaks of Rahab—which would try to congregate in or near the sewers once the infection began to spread—or Puloman—which buried itself lightly in earth as it slept—but no other boring, burrowing, tunneling Outsiders were known to exist.
At times, the exceptional traits of hosts made our jobs easier. They allowed us to easily catalog entities, sometimes while confronting them, and to anticipate and plan better how we might run them down. If buildings in Clemont began to suddenly go up in flames, or if a man walked into a liquor store and exhaled a breath so hot that it melted the cashier's skin, we knew we were dealing with some stripe of Efretian. We could prepare dousing charms and tell worried citizens to carry an upside-down fish in their pockets, and it would only be a matter of time before the afflicted victim was exorcized.
The public was waiting for us to tell them what to do, to brief them on how they might stay safe while we completed our work, but all we had given them so far were the usual insincere orders to stay calm, keep working, and report any suspicious behavior to the ODC. Even the Governing Council troops were uneasy. They were used to being privy to more information than the average citizen. I had already been asked, discreetly, at a couple of checkpoints whether bullets would be any good against the 'mystery demons.'
Bullets worked on everything, I reminded myself as I emerged from the elevator into the hallway leading to my apartment. It was generally a matter of how many bullets you had, how big they were, and how quickly you could apply them to a situation that determined their effectiveness. I was thinking that as I side-stepped around a woman carrying a bouquet of flowers, which made what happened next ironic.
"Are you Mr. Carol?"
She wasn't anyone I recognized, and the last time someone had sent me flowers had been...um...never. My job had never left me much time to pursue relationships, and I was fine with that.
"Sign here, please." She had a clipboard and a uniform. Forensics would later confirm that she had even had a stack of business cards in her pocket. Puzzled, I dug in my pocket for a pen. That's when the bouquet went off.
At close range, it can be difficult to shoot a man if he's ready for it. Even if that man is in poor physical condition, has no combat training, and routinely scores under seventy on IQ tests, he's still up close and has his system flooded with jittery chemicals. A gun takes time to clear from a holster, and during that time it can be blocked, grabbed, or jammed.
I did none of the above. I froze.
Thanks to a half-a-second-early trigger pull, the round caught me just under the collar bone. I pitched backwards faster than I could rebalance myself. The next thing I knew, my head was smashing against the carpet.
Shock can kill you just as dead as a sliver of metal discharged at high velocity from the mouth of a machined barrel. It can also simply leave you waiting for someone else to finish the job.
I made pitiful gasping noises, bled, and felt my bladder let go. Dying is exactly as glamorous as it is clean.
The woman sniffed and re-adjusted her aim.
My door slid open.
I couldn't get my eyes to focus on the thing that came creeping out into the hall, slipping across the carpet, stealing up to where she stood, but I could guess its intentions.
"No," I whispered.
She came apart in a spray of sinew of marrow and fluid. It coated me. Coated the walls. Smeared in streaks down the corridor.
Do not let it enter your body. Even a particle could be damning. Even a scrap of tissue. A slip of nerve or a cut of organ meat or a fragment of bone.
I spat and wheezed and tried to pretend that it was my own blood I was tasting.
On hands and knees, my savior crept towards me. I felt fingers at my throat, moving around my shoulder, probing at the wound. I thrashed and convulsed and screamed. A charm was removed from my belt.
I felt the words in my head. There was a shivering, ratcheting undertone to the sound.
Shhh. The process cannot be interrupted. You are becoming.
Lips pressed against my ear and I blacked out.