Accabish hurries down another city street. Above the sky begins to brighten with the coming dawn. Somewhere sirens scream. The faint smell of smoke lingers over the neighborhood.
She stumbles on the curb, unfamiliar with the flimsy cover she’s wearing. With horror she realizes she can’t recall how she got here or anything else from the past few days.
Looking down, she notices blood dripping down her arm, staining her sleeve and sinking into the strange metal rod she has clutched in her hand. Silver circuitry traces along its surface and numerous LEDs stud the length of the club-like implement.
A phone rings from her pocket.
She pulls it out. The screen shows an unfamiliar number.
As she answers, she hears a sound like rushing distant sound like a tunnel. The echoing hoarse voice on the other end asks, “What about our deal?”
The connection cuts in and out with a rushing noise in the background like someone travelling through a tunnel. The rough voice on the other end introduces himself as Neferronpet. He explains he is a more senior member of the Black Pyramid with a greater latitude for bargaining than the agents his organization is forced to use in her world.
After some slight recitence, he lays out who the Black Pyramid is and why they are after the Dream Machine. They are one of the many guilds that control magic and society in a parallel reality. Something happened, something that broke their world. Whole continents vanished and the stars began to go out. Now the guilds seeks to save their reality by whatever means they can. The Black Pyramid seeks to use the Dream Machine and the resources of the God-Machine to stabilize their dimension.
Accabish accepts the premise and notes favorably that these sorcerers have not realized that she is anything other than human. She lets him know that she and her associates also seek the device though not for themselves.
Neferronpet offers to pay well if she were to retrieve it for them instead. Millions of normal people like her still remain in what remains of his world.
Accabish asks to discuss this face to face. The Neferronpet explains that travel to her world is too dangerous for himself but that he will direct Mr. King, who she met at the tattoo parlor, to provide whatever assurances she desires. They arrange a meet at the park.
Mr. King meets her on a park bench as people jog by or push strollers filled with children.
Accabish asks King from more details on his world. The man adjusts his sunglasses and describes a place run by what sound like corporations with a distinctively Anglo-Egyptian aesthetic. They merge ancient magics with cutting edge technology to protect what remains. But it is insufficient to stop the destruction of their dimension.
The demon asks how his allies found her. He reveals that they can peer back in time and simply traced back her steps from when she spooked Liles Barber. They’ve had their eyes on him for some time. His employer, a being they call Lilith and who they claim was once a servant of the God-Machine, seeks to use the Dream Machine to return to its service.
She asks what happened to the people who ambushed her. King says that a strange gray beast attacked them. The sorcerer suspects it is from her world. He goes on to explain that he tracked the monster back to a location in Phinney Ridge before he lost its trail. He also noted some sort of temporal distortion in the area but remains unsure where it came from.
Accabish notes the location where he lost it and asks about the Dream Machine itself. Mr. King tells her that it is a window into the equivalent of the God-Machine’s subconscious. They hope to implant a program into it so it will act to save their world.
It is also the size of a small room.
Accabish asks if he has a place to store it. King assures her he can line up a storage location if they retrieve it.
The demon ends the interview by explaining that she needs to get the approval of her allies first. They arrange to keep in touch.
Later that day, Accabish considers the dossiers again. Her mind traces along the pattern of evidence seeking clues to their blackmailer’s identity. Things click into place. Infinity dealt with almost everything remotely, but she had to enter the clock tower herself. Drawing on hidden databases within the cracks of reality, the demon deduces her opponent’s appearance. A thin angular woman whose black curly hair expands out in all directions. Something seems off about the African American hacker, but even Accabish can’t put her finger on it yet.
Smoke rises over the wreckage of a lakeside warehouse. The teams of two fire engines tromp through the ashes snuffing the final guttering flames. Nearby several police officers help others with grimmer work: cataloguing the bodies of the people who were trapped inside. An ambulance idles nearby at the ready.
Yellow tapes slowly surrounds the scene.
Daemon wakes up. His head pounds, aching where he lay on the concrete.
The demon blinks with unfamiliar eyes. Pastel blue paint covers the prison cell. Gray morning light leaks through a barred window.
He looks down. His facade’s lab coat is bloody but he finds no cuts on his person only bruises.
The demon does find a wound in his mind, a gap where the memories from the past couple days should be. Dimly he recalls stumbling out of a burning building. The cops nabbed him. Then they tossed him in here.
That much is clear. But before that…
Images spark inside his electronic brain. An explosion. Things chasing him and the rest of the ring. They had to get to the van. Then he tripped. They left him behind while the creatures swarmed him.
The door into the hallway opens. A policeman enters with a detective in a brown suit.
“You’ve got a lot of questions to answer,” the detective tells him.
Daemon decides to play up his wounds and replies that he was just an innocent bystander.
The detective asks the officer to take him to interrogation while he checks on his credentials. The demon puts up no resistance and in fact leans into the man, logging his identity for future use.
As he sits in the concrete white room, Daemon listens to the chatter on the local wifi and cell networks. The cops are investigating a fire at a warehouse in the Lake District. They’ve found twelve bodies so far. Twelve bodies and him.
Then he hears something new. There is a survivor.
Hunter hurries down the street.
Away. From something.
He stops. The facade he is wearing is unfamiliar but smells of smoke.
His phone rings. David Schmidt’s phone rings.
He shifts covers and the policeman answers his phone. His commanding officer directs him to help out at the lake front.
”I’ll be there soon,” he says.
He turns. The smoke billows up a dozen blocks back the way he came.
The Weaver turns over its elegantly carved fingers. Shifting, multicolored motes drop from its wooden frame and perfectly taut threads.
Around it the dust covers the interior of the van in an inch thick layer. Perfectly sliced cuts decorate the sides and roof. The back door hangs open a crack revealing a sliver of dimly lit greenery.
The demon turns around, the dust tumbling off of it. The windshield is covered in cracks obscuring somewhat the tree that the van collided with. The driver’s side door hangs wide open.
The Weaver carefully examines its surroundings. The cuts were made by its shears. Several people or creatures must have fought the demon. It won. From the pattern of dust inside and just outside the van, someone else was driving. They escaped on foot. As for the attackers they must have turned into this dust.
The demon takes on Jean’s form and slips out of the van. Already sirens fill the air. Jean sneaks into the bushes and tries make sense of this.
As she crouches down, it all crystallizes. The ring infiltrated the warehouse but then everything went sideways. Things appeared out of nowhere and before the demon knew it the building was on fire. Accabish and the Weaver escaped to the van but the creatures, gray skinned and wild, swarmed them.
The Weaver’s facade shredded and the demon fought back with all of its strength. Shears meant to craft the finest gowns turned the undead things to dust.
David Schmidt ducks under the police tape. The fire crews stomp through the wreckage looking for anything smoldering while EMTs and police catalogue the dead.
He thinks back to when the ruined structure was whole. What was he doing here?
Hunter recalls snippets. Some sort of faceless horde bearing down on them in white corridors. Too many grasping hands. The demon and someone else hung back to buy the others time to escape. The lettering on some propane tanks jumped out at him. He fired and the building became a hellhole. Then he ran.
An officer grabs his shoulder breaking his revery.
“Hey do you know what happened?” Lt. Lawrence asks him.
David shakes his head.
“You are Schmidt right? I heard you are looking to get into the gang squad.” The older man looks around. “I have some friends there. Let me know if you find out anything about what really happened here and I’ll pass my recommendation along.”
“Sure,” he says and begins joining the search.
As he inspects the damage, the demon realizes he lacks even David Schmidt’s rudimentary police skills. Drawing on his cover he fills in the gaps.
As David’s expertise trickles into his mind, details pop out of the wreckage. Charred pipes push out from the ash from far too many sprinkler systems. Patches of strange multihued dust peek out from under the debris. In the parking lot where the dead are laid out, rubber tracks show a large vehicle left the scene in a hurry.
Hunter puts on his gloves and quietly gets some of the dust on them.
“We’ve got a survivor!” someone shouts.
Nat’s first impressions are of pain and people shouting. The room rocks and someone tells the demon, “you’ll be okay.”
As the paramedics care for its battered body, the demon realizes it is in an ambulance. Slowly it tries to put the pieces together.
By the time they reach the hospital, the Naturalist is no closer to the truth. But it knows it must remain alert. As the anesthesiologist injects a sedative, the demon resists and feigns sleep.
They wheel him into surgery. The next couple of hours are unpleasant.
A week ago the ring met at their normal haunt.
Accabish explains to the others about the Black Pyramid’s desire for the Dream Machine and their willingness to buy it from them. She favors taking the offer, both to slight Infinity and to get something out of it.
The others however are less sure. They don’t trust the Black Pyramid and the idea of saving millions in another reality is only a slight inducement. They don’t want to betray Infinity before they can strike at the hacker. They decide to think on what payment they might demand first.
Accabish then turns the conversation to one of her leads on the hacker. The Black Pyramid traced the creature that attacked her assailants to a stretch of apartments in Phinney Ridge. Nat agrees to check it out but she convinces the demon to take Hunter along as well. “It could be dangerous.”
The Weaver learns that Keystone has a tangled history as a subsidiary of Pentex and the Cheiron Group. They began as endevour to research a cure for aging but now work mainly on psychotropics. But the demon also discovers a large secret research project underway, hoovering up hundreds of millions of dollars. Keystone has dozens of properties across the region, any of which might hold the Dream Machine. Unfortunately their internal files are locked away in isolated computer system at their corporate headquarters.
Daemon recruits Reactor into his research into Infinity. From their online contacts they learn Infinity is the handle of a skilled hacker with ties to some monster hunting groups. The criminal has a grudge against the Pentex corporation. Back in the 90s, Infinity ran a private message board. The material is gone but rumor has it that it had a very strange membership. In particular Infinity was obsessed with something called the God-Machine.
Expanding their search, they learn Infinity has never been charged with any crimes (internet or otherwise). Some say the hacker was behind some of the earliest facial recognition software, code that predated recent advances in neural networks.
Elsewhere Nat and Hunter find the likely location where the beast went to ground, a decaying tenement which seems to slide off the eye. Bars cover the dirty windows while thick curtains and papers obscure the interior. The soot stained paint hangs in ribbons off the nicotine colored walls.
Nat recognizes the hideout of a former monster hunter named Sorensen. Supposedly the man pays good money for cryptids. He collects them for his private zoo.
The pair enter. The interior hallway hasn’t been updated in decades. Scents of smoke, piss, and some faint metallic smell assault their senses. The elevator ahead of them sits vacant and broken. To one side a door is labeled Manager’s Office.
Nat glances at Hunter. Both of the demons wear nondescript male facades in their early 20s. They decide to pretend to be university students.
The pair knock and enter the office. Behind a desk a disfigured old man gruffly greets them. Heavy scarring covers over half his face from his wispy white hair down to his jagged jawline. An eye patch covers one eye while the other even colder eye probes them. He slowly rises and asks them their business.
Hunter recognizes the damage of a grenade at close range. He also realizes his bulky clothes hide body armor. Both demons note his right hand never comes into view from behind the desk. A sawed off shotgun, Hunter guesses.
Nat introduces the pair as college students needing help dealing with the gator people living under the University. Sorensen asks for ten grand in order to put them in touch with his contacts. When Nat balks, the old man points out it is only a semester’s tuition.
Meanwhile the demon looks into the hunter’s heart. He hits some strange resistance but learns that the crippled old man is striving to get off his pain medication and harbors a desire to get the one monster that escaped him: a patchwork monster called a Promethean. His pride demands it.
Nat reluctantly says he’ll consider it and they excuse themselves. As they leave, they hear pounding on the walls upstairs and perhaps some screaming.
The ring decide to research the old monster hunter before pressing further. Daemon digs into his past and learns that the real Sorensen died in 2006 in a skiing accident. Whoever bought and runs that building took up his identity in 2008.
The real Sorensen has a number of oddities about his background as well. Former force recon and a wildlife expert, he worked at a company called Verdant Technologies, a company with ties to Keystone Pharmaceuticals.
Nat tries to remotely read the old man’s mind but find itself blocked. Some sort of parasite or implant simply drains away any magical force acting on ‘Sorensen.’ From the grapevine, the temptor determines that the ex-monster hunter likely worked for Pentex originally. He is also known to be an asset of the Wallbreakers.
The ring discuss the situation. As they pool their information and in particular Hunter and Nat’s observations, they consider why Sorensen is keeping monsters in his home.
“He’s getting old,” Hunter comments. “This is how he feels he is in control. How he proves he is better than them.”
The ring decides to reach out to Ms. Storm and find out what the Wallbreakers know.
Meanwhile the Weaver continues work on the hazmat suit for the Deva contract. Unfortunately the demon has to make a choice: full body protection at the cost of becoming intolerably hot within 30 minutes. It realizes that is better than a Class A suit and proceeds.
“But,” she stresses, “he is only used in extreme circumstances. He isn’t subtle.”
When they question why they would use him at all, she indicates that the creatures he keeps can hunt targets based on a blood sample. The demon also tells them that they last used him a few months ago under a surprise order from the inner circle. She says she will ask around and learn why.
Daemon and Nat warn her that the source could be an Integrator. They inform her about the connection to Infinity, a.k.a. Lilith. Storm agrees to be subtle in her questions.
Meanwhile Daemon infiltrates Keystone. He walks in the front door like just another employee. After a few hours of navigating the busy halls, he finds an unsecured terminal, accesses their archives and locates where all of the money is going.
The warehouse where they are studying the Dream Machine contains six researchers during the day and two more each evening. A dozen security guards watch the perimeter. They are well armed and equipped with something called BSNX-9. Daemon downloads the details.
It appears to be a drug designed to counter mental interference and identify ENEs, extranormal entities.
The rest of the security system is equally strange. Machine learning algorithms trigger automatic defenses when there are glitches in the video feeds. High powered lasers and an extensive system of sprinklers then repel intruders.
What are they protecting themselves against?
The demons gather to consider their options. Again Accabish brings up the Black Pyramid’s offer. They decide to ask for some payment while they mull over whether they really want to betray Infinity so soon. Some suggest turning the Dream Machine over to the Wallbreakers instead.
Nat asks for a portable satchel that is larger on the inside. The team decides a secure bolthole would be very handy. Lastly they want the wizards to strike at Lilith/Infinity sooner rather than later. Hunter and Accabish add that they want to be cut in on the action when they do attack.
The Black Pyramid agrees to their terms.
Then Ms. Storm gets back to them. She’s learned that the inner circle has an important source that provides the agency detailed plans on what the God-Machine is working on. Because of her worth, this “asset” sometimes calls in favors in return. Siccing Sorensen’s beast on the Black Pyramid was one of those favors.
They realize that they only have only one real choice.
They describe the plan. The Naturalist will enter the warehouse around shift change as a janitor. Daemon will enter via the internet and impersonate a researcher.
While they disable the security system and locate the Dream Machine, the rest of the Ring will drive the van into position. The Naturalist will let them in. After locating the device they will load it on the van and drive away.
As smoke rises in the background, the voice on Accabish’s phone repeats the question. “What about our deal? Do you have the item?”
“What have you heard?” she asks.
The man on the other end mentions the reports about a fire and the carnage left behind.
“We are regrouping,” she tells him. “Our deal is still on.”