Priscilla smiles as she reads the email from legal. The court dismissed Donna Angstrom’s libel lawsuit.
She turns her attention to the police report her contacts downtown helpfully supplied. The killings in the parking garage remain unsolved after two months of investigation. They found three dismembered bodies but only trace amounts of blood splatter. The officials still don’t know who they were, despite their numerous medical implants. Everything about them was strange: hundreds of medical scars, bronze pins and joints, computer chips in their heads, and hieroglyphic tattoos across their torsos. The one other clue, a leather scroll covered in strange writing, remains a cipher.
After convincing the detective in charge to part with a copy of the vellum and autopsy photos, she heads over the University of Washington. She shows them to Yuri, the graduate student she consulted with about the Dendra reliefs.
After signing the NDA, the woman excitedly tells her that the scroll is in hieratic. Some of it seems to be in code, but from what she can decipher it describes the observation of a Liles Barber. He fled after Priscilla did something and the writer intended to capture her to learn more. The whole missive is addressed to the Black Pyramid.
As for the hieroglyphic tattoos, they resemble those of the book of the dead and other magical writings.
The only Black Pyramid the demon knows about are the secretive rivals of the Wallbreakers. They are fighting over control of the University but very little else is known about the demonic agency. This Includes if they are really demons.
Accabish decides to find the tattoo parlor where her assailants might have been inked. It takes a few days but she locates a likely place.
Hieroglyphics decorate the window and walls of the small brightly lit shop. A man with skin so dark as to be almost blue greets her. Under his simple white undershirt, she spies the edges of tattoos done in white ink.
Accabish shows him the symbol and asks if he can do it. As he looks it over, she notices metallic silver in his irises. She asks about them and he claims unconvincingly that they are contacts.
Gripping her sunglasses, she lets her demonic nature come forth. Her eyes turn a bronze color as she tries to peer into his mind.
Instead she feels the tattoos on his body glow with power as they push her away.
Changing tactics, she says, ”What about your tattoos? I was told never to trust a tattoo artist who doesn’t show off his own work.”
Reluctantly he pulls off his shirt, revealing ornate hieroglyphic tattoos across his torso. She asks what they mean and he outlines the invocations to gods and demons, rites to protect him from harm both material and spiritual.
When she asks how he knows all this, he simply says that he had an enthusiastic teacher at his local university.
She thanks him for his time and rather than get the tattoo, she gives him her card with one of her disposable phone numbers. Marked on the back of the card is an invitation for the Black Pyramid to contact her.
A few days later, she feels a shudder as her cover is tested by some revealed truth. She keeps an eye out for threats but it isn’t until the next day that she learns the truth.
The Slog’s secretary calls her. “A Liles Barber wants to see you,” she explains.
Priscilla directs her to tell Mr. Barber to meet her at a local cafe in an hour.
Accabish finds the older man fidgeting in a corner booth. In his hands he holds a thick brown bag.
As she sits down, Liles explains that he has learned about how she broke into his storage container. His employer instructed him to meet with her and to provide her with some information.
He slides the bag across the table. “I have a second missive to give you after you’ve looked at that.”
Gripping a folder, he continues, “I am told there is information pertinent to yourself and individuals known to you. I don’t know what the papers contain and I don’t want to know. This whole operation has become too dangerous for my tastes. Perhaps I’ll excuse myself while you peruse the papers.”
As he orders another coffee, Accabish opens up the bag. Inside are five folders, each addressed to the cover identities of one of the ring. One of them, Jenny Olson, is unfamiliar to the demon. She looks at it first.
The folder has a full history on Jenny, her husband John and their two children. Also included are images of Dorian and other facades used by the Naturalist captured on security cameras. The photos suggest that the individual pictured vanishes one moment and is replaced by a new person moments later.
She additionally finds medical records for a Jacolyn Gold after she was hit by a car at high speed. She suffered no broken bones or significant injuries but the report shows she had numerous surgical procedures done some time prior to the accident as evidenced by surgical pins and scars. Hieroglyphic tattoos cover her back.
Accabish turns to her own file. In addition to the mundane details, there is a chronicle via newspaper clippings of Priscilla Webb’s sudden rise to the top. Documentation of the damage to the storage container is also included as well as security footage showing her sign up for the other damaged container.
Lastly there is a photo of her daughter, grown up and wandering the streets of Seattle two weeks ago.
Liles returns and slides the other folder over to her.
“My employer has a job for you. This covers all the details you need.” He sighs. “That concludes my business with you.”
As he turns to leave, she says, “I hope they are paying you enough.”
“I thought so until a few weeks ago.”
Alone, she reads over the papers within. Liles’ boss, someone called Infinity, wants her and her allies to steal a device called the Dream Machine from a company called Keystone Pharmaceuticals. A phone number is provided for once they obtain it. Two other groups are after it. One of them is the Black Pyramid. The other is the mysterious force that controlled the device when it was located in Yesler Terrace.
The Dream Machine, she realizes, sounds like Command and Control Infrastructure. Just like the Lizard Brain. If the former has fallen into the hands of mortals, perhaps the Lizard Brain was meant to replace it and seal off a vulnerability.
Daemon spends the next couple of days digging into xxxsonyxxx’s fake trail. Something about it bothers him. Even though he can’t locate the guild member, something about his coding style strikes him as familiar.
Then the demon realizes where he has seen this before: his rival Reactor.
He spends the next evening searching internet forums and learning what his old friend has been up to. He discovers Reactor has been asking about the Marianas Web.
One poster sends a copy of a conversation he had with the master hacker.
Why are you so interested in the Marianas Web?
I want to get in
Daemon decides to locate his rival. His signal proves hard to pin down, jumping from Europe to the Northeast United States. The demon realizes the hacker uses some form of interdimensional travel and finally locates one of Reactor’s safe houses in Detroit.
Daemon reaches out to him.
Knock knock appears on Reactor’s screen. Follow the White Rabbit
Very corny, Reactor writes back.
A woman knocks on his door. Reactor sees the newly inked rabbit tattoo on her shoulder and follows her to a hotel suite.
He finds Daemon in a new facade along with several more of his cult. The two greet each other before moving to a room off to the side.
Alone together they begin to talk about their interactions and common goals. To smooth things, Daemon uses on his powers to learn the secret signs of Reactor’s occult society.
Deceived into thinking the demon belongs to the Red Company, a guild of hedge merchants and explorers, Reactor, also known as Rocco, relaxes.
Under his dark glasses, Daemon’s aura sight sees that Rocco’s tattered soul is entwined with thorns.
Rocco reveals he has infiltrated his guild but not to subvert it. He just wanted to see what Daemon had learned. And to enjoy the raids.
Even though Rocco voices his distrust of pacts he agrees to make a deal with Daemon. “They can cost more than you expect”, he explains, arcing electricity between his fingers.
Daemon exposes his coppery eyes.
Rocco shakes Daemon’s hand. “Let’s agree to share any information about getting in for a year and a day. Just don’t cross me.”
The man the Naturalist finds isn’t the healthiest but his age is correct. 47 and homeless. A quick trade makes him a bit younger and a bit luckier. The demon pockets the stolen years.
That contract plus Cymbeline’s pact gives the Naturalist a cover as her parent, generically African American with the last name Hand. It has more work to do.
Hunter finds his new life both familiar and surprising. A man at the station keeps asking David Schmidt for his twenty bucks. When he expresses his confusion, the hefty officer just laughs and says he’ll get it from him next time.
For now he focuses on helping the Gang Unit. Hopefully he can get transferred to it soon.
Jean focuses on a new project at Adamant Technologies. At her own initiative she began work on a hazmat suit designed to deal with the threats likely from the Deva Corporation contract. Intrigued, Mike, her boss, lets her go ahead.
Jean reads the test report from the sound tests. Acoustic isolation works well.
But to get the desired level of mobility and atmospheric isolation she needs a good filtration system. She glances across the hall to where Scott Liles just completed the necessary work.
Jean walks in on him, catching a snap of music from Minecraft on the way. Liles looks up at her with suspicion.
“What do you want? Are you looking for more work to magically complete?”
She explains she needs his filtration system to complete her project. Though reluctant, she eventually wins him over.
“I owe you one,” she said.
“You bet you do.”
The Naturalist invites the others to the Baudelaire to discuss Cymbeline and their other troubles.
Hunter brings up Yves. His “friend” tried to kill him and seemed very sure he wouldn’t die in the crossfire.
The Weaver points out that leads to two conclusions. Yves might have been testing Hunter and that Yves himself has little to fear from bullets or worse weapons. Both are disturbing ideas.
Hunter agrees to leave him alone for now. Joseph has already disappeared from the face of the world.
Turning to the main problem, the Naturalist asks what they know about Cxaxa as she seems tied up in Cymbeline’s “destiny.”
The ring discuss the rumors they have each heard. Cxaxa was a powerful demon, one whose legend resounded down the millennia. She openly ruled a city state somewhere in Asia or Africa for centuries. Somehow she avoided the God-Machine’s attention, either through magic or sheer strength, for all that time. But in the end she died and her nation with her sometime before the rise of ancient Sumeria.
The Naturalist resolves to invade Cymbeline’s dreams to learn more
That night the demon reads the girl’s mind as she sleeps. The Naturalist watches dream imagery flit by as Cymbeline encounters signs and portents.
A mirror that isn’t a mirror. The eyes of salt. A heart full of flies. A town by the bay. The body orchard within a deep ancient wood. A gown crafted from a silvery substance neither cloth nor metal. A sky heavy with storm clouds.
The dream roves over a seaside town, through the docks, past the church, over the park and along its many streets. As her mind searches for something, Cymbeline catches flashes of where the Naturalist has hidden the other artifacts crafted by Cxaxa.
The whole dream has a feeling of expectation and unrealized potential. The former messenger realizes it is viewing part of an occult matrix. Raw and poorly calibrated but an occult matrix regardless. Cymbeline dreams are giving her a message, a message sent by a demon long dead.
The next morning the Naturalist talks to Cymbeline about her dreams. The teenager explains she’s had them as long as she can remember but that they intensified a year ago when she turned 16.
The demon advises her to research her genealogy. “The secret of your dreams might lie there.”
Then Nat texts the others. Not the God-Machine. Occult matrix. Possible Resurrection?
How bad? Daemon asks.
The ring meets later that day. With the new information, the decision becomes whether to allow Cxaxa to complete her resurrection. That hinges on whether she can be trusted. With little information to go on, the demons decide to abort this occult matrix.
Hunter attempts to convince the others to let Cymbeline to find the third artifact first and then destroy one of the gadgets. He is overruled and the team decide to unravel the goggles before this gets too far.
Weaver advocates conducting the operation in the already contaminated sewers just in case the leaking Aether infects any nearby mortals.
“I think you think about this more than I do,” the Naturalist comments.
Once in the sewers, the Weaver carefully breaks down the gadget. The eyes crumble in its hands and a strange wind blows the crumbs away.
The Naturalist visits Cymbeline afterwards. The demon finds her less driven before. Her cycle of dreams seems ended and though she remains intrigued by her destiny, the drive is gone. Nat explains that it will still look into Bainbridge and the last part of her ‘destiny’.
Cymbeline gives Nat a quick description of the town, once voted the second best place to live in the United States. The rich neighborhood serves as a bedroom community for downtown Seattle. The only access is via private boat or the ferry. Church attendance is surprisingly high, especially for the Church of Christ, Scientist.
Before heading out, Nat resolves to keep an eye on Cymbeline just in case.
The ring arrives by ferry disguised in generic facades. Lush green foliage covers the island and as they step off the docks they note the clean streets. Not even a stray leaf mars the enjoyment of the very white inhabitants.
“I’m getting a Stepford wives vibe here,” Nat says.
Daemon senses a strong source of Aether in a nearby church. The ring move towards it along the edge of a large partially wooded park.
The demon pulls the rod from his pocket and takes a sounding.
A distant thwack emanates from the baseball diamond.
Daemon detects the taint of the God-Machine in everything from the buildings down to the perfectly manicured blades of grass.
A baseball lands near the demons and rolls over to them.
A large dair haired man runs up and asks for it back. His widen as he sees Hunter. “I’m Reverend Jones,” he says.
Daemon’s eyes turn copper behind his sunglasses as he reads Reverend Jones’s aura. As the clergyman looks at him, he realizes this man can see auras himself. The stigmatic knows what they are.
Nat asks him about the town and explains it is looking for a realtor. The Reverend Jones refers him to Miss Ryden as he attempts to conceal his fears.
Daemon sees through him, picking out his foremost desire: to protect his town without the use of violence.
“Well I need to return to my game,” the clergyman says, running off.
The ring determines they have at least a half hour before the defenders of this town marshal against them. They tour the park. Only a few toddlers populate the elaborate playground.
They decide that rather than visit the church they will examine the community center first.
Inside the unassuming structure, they find an elderly woman manning the reception desk. From the foyer, the community center opens up into a large hall. Other doors from the front room lead to the council chambers, a museum, and several other meeting rooms. The museum catches their attention. Unfortunately it is closed for the weekend.
Nat walks up to the receptionist, Mrs. Edwards, and distracts her with questions about the community.
While Daemon and Hunter keep an eye on the front door, Weaver slips into the museum. Inside she finds various artifacts pertaining the history of Bainbridge and Seattle itself: old china, maps from the past three centuries, old muskets and rifles, and equipment from the original settlers and logging era. Some photographs and paintings complete the collection.
At one end of the hall, Weaver spots a door behind a penny-farthing bicycle. She also spies a security camera watching the door. She slips up under it and with some quick wire work sends it into an endless loop.
Beyond the door, she finds much stranger objects: a skull with circuitry running through it, a dozen rats joined together by their fused and knotted tails, a fragmentary piece of stone from the Lighthouse at Alexandria, an unlabeled idol that looks like a brutish fish with three-lobed eyes, a bottle of something black and ancient labelled as blood from the stigmata of St. Francis, and a number of black-and-white photographs of crop circle formations from various places.
In an unmarked glass case at the far end of the gallery, the Weaver discovers a silvery cloak that is clearly not natural. The Weaver lifts the padlock on the case and starts picking it.
In the foyer, the front doors open. Reverend Jones and two other people walk in. Hunter busies himself looking at a plaque as Daemon quickly texts Weaver. Heads up.
The trio head for the council chambers. The demon scrutinizes the new man and woman. The stout man with graying hair reveals the vibrant aura of a mortal psychic. A tracery of suspicion and laziness encircles him.
The man looks intently at Hunter for a moment, perhaps peeling away at his own secrets. Then he pushes Jones in the council room with a panicked look.
The woman gives them a sour look and follows. Daemon sees her angelic form through her aura.
Daemon grabs his allies. He pulls them outside and away from the angel. As they retreat, Hunter’s facade shudders and his hair turns an unnatural gold.
Inside the secret museum Weaver gets the text. The demon abandons its lockpicking and phases its arm through the glass. As the demon pulls the cloak out, its skin takes on a wooden texture. The Weaver slips through a wall and meets the others as they pass through the park.
The ring heads to docks, well aware that the defenders of this place are after them soon. Daemon spies a man in the process of casting off. He bumps into him and snatches his identity. As the dark haired fellow slips into a stupor, Daemon leads the rest of the demons onto the boat.
Once safely on Puget Sound, the Weaver descends into the cabin to analyze the cloak. Hunter and Nat also examine the boat while Daemon pilots them across the waters.
Weaver discovers that the cloak is a creation of Lilith. It shields its wearer from the God-Machine and its agents making them invisible to angels. Even mundane investigation becomes unnaturally difficult. However, the interference slowly shreds Covers.
The others find their own surprises: a metal case with a sniper rifle and numerous firearms hidden aboard the boat.
They decide to leave the weapons where they are.
The distribution of the robe proves harder to decide on. Everyone agrees it is a powerful asset. But it is also one to use as a last resort. They also quickly conclude that Hunter, their resident loose cannon, will need it most. But no one (besides Hunter) wishes for him to be in charge of it.
After much wrangling, they vote to place it in Weaver’s bolt hole until they can secure a communal space of equivalent security.
They soon reach the city, leave the boat at the dock, and discard their facades. Once more they are safe in the city.
Jean leaves work late one evening. The summer light is just beginning to fade. She doesn’t notice the car waiting at the corner nor the figure inside watching as she walks to the bus stop.
Feminine hands raise a cell phone up, the screen tracking her motion. A well manicured finger taps the screen. An image of Jeanette freezes in place, crisp and perfect.
“At least she isn’t one of those,” Lillian Shaw says as she sends the photo to the rest of her cell.
Accabish joins the ring as they discuss their latest success. After they fill her in on the cloak and their clean escape, she says, “we have a problem.”
She reveals the details of her own investigation and then gives them the dossiers Infinity sent her.
Daemon finds a full roster for the Knights of Chaos including most of their real names and addresses. A subfolder contains series of news articles, internal memos and forum postings chronicling his notable hacks. Most troubling is a side by side comparison of his coding projects and the “proprietary” source code for UltimaQuest.
Hunter finds a usb, photos of his various missing cat advertisements, a photo capture from one of the webcams monitoring the sewer entrances when he made his dramatic escape, and documentation linking him to the Rwandan Genocide.
As the Naturalist looks over Jenny’s file, the Weaver finds that both her bolthole and aether source have been located. Their blackmailer has been inside the clocktower where she gathers the waste of the God-Machine.
The Weaver examines a facial recognition matching report. It clearly identifies Jeanette’s face as that of Carrie Coulson. The file also includes details on Carrie’s new life in Nice and Corey’s obsessive search for the truth.
Adding to the growing paranoia are signs like changes to work schedules, bus line routes, and other seemingly mundane delays all leading up to the incident that brought the ring together. The surveillance begins before they formed as if Infinity had been grooming them all along.
They consider their options. Clearly they have to do the job. But Infinity is also going to have to go down.