- Malady Place – E101 “Meeting Miss Faust” Act 1
- Malady Place – E101 “Meeting Miss Faust” Act 2
- Malady Place – E101 “Meeting Miss Faust” Act 3
- Malady Place – E102 “The Roomie Rules” Act 1
- Malady Place – E101 “Meeting Miss Faust” Act 4
- Malady Place – E101 “Meeting Miss Faust” Act 5
- Malady Place – E101 “Meeting Miss Faust” Act 6
Malady Place – E101 “Meeting Miss Faust” Act 3
“So.” Renee said as the dense landscape of the city began to visible give way to more loosely collected suburban environs. “I can already guess what the answer is going to be, but what do the fibbies know about imps?”
Winter looked at her out of the corner of her eye, wondering if the woman was mocking her after her little breakdown by echoing her own comment about answers and questions earlier. It was impossible to tell, so she decided to walk headlong into the trap anyway.
“Imps.” She started with the textbook definition, taking the rote explanation as an opportunity to rebuild her veneer of professionalism. “Recent occult study has revealed that imps aren’t living creatures at all, being unable to reproduce and having no DNA or equivalent. Rather, they are semi-autonomous spells that can perpetuate by consuming matter from their environment.
“All demons can summon imps, but the capabilities, intelligence, and virtual lifespan of the imp is dependent on its summoner’s power. While they have inherent behaviors, they follow their orders to the best of their ability and intellect. And wound that would be fatal or fully incapacitating for a living creature will destroy an imp utterly.”
Renee’s eyebrows waggled as she listened to the definition. “Maybe I didn’t know the answer. Since when did you guys actually learn things?”
After taking a second to take a steadying breath, Winter admitted. “My mother was the Deputy Chief of Occult Research. She… well she and her team literally wrote the book on Other Realms spells and variant physics.”
A smarmy remark was already on the tip of Renee’s tongue when she thought better of it. Taken in conjunction with what the young agent said earlier made it significantly less funny. And certainly not something a best friend would quip about.
“Right.” She took both hands off the wheel to retrieve the pretzel she’d bought from where she’d abandoned it in the cup-holder and tear another piece off to offer to Winter. Despite the driver being completely in attentive, the caddy obediently stayed in its lane without any sign of drift.
Now sure she was being given a treat for answering correctly, Winter politely waved her off. Renee shrugged and popped the morsel into her mouth instead.
She finally took control of the wheel again, and through a full mouth said, “That’s all basically right. Except there’s more than one kind of imp. A demon Corporal is going to call up a nasty little grunt that’s all about a strong bite and tearing with the back claws. Those have no magic aside from existing and no smarts past what a rat might have.”
They turned left the highway on an exit ramp with a sign saying that the town of Tremere was two miles away.
Renee swallowed to make herself more easily understood and continued. “Stronger demons can figure out better imp spells that have magic of their own, better strength and speed—and of course are smarter. You know the classic imp that flies and throws fireballs like a tiny, red jackass?”
“Yeah, they’re a myth… I think.”
“Nope, very real.” said Renee. “And if you see them: run. Those as Maskare Imps, the kind only a General or the Lightbringer himself can field. Fireballs are the tip of the iceberg with them: they’re as mystically strong as a middling human mage and able to beat your ass with your own severed arm if you get in close.”
Winter paled. “The ones harassing the Crosbys aren’t…”
“Nah, just some Manges. Kind of hard to kill without magic, and they have a few spells like hiding form all but peripheral vision, but as long as we’ve got protection from bites, we’re good.”
“So if they’re hard to kill without magic, how do we kill them?”
Renee shook her head. “Uh-uh. No, Snowy, we aren’t going to kill them. I’m going to kill them while you hang back and keep some wards up on the bot of us. If you don’t know black magic, you’re not gong to be any use on the offensive. Besides, you won’t even be able o see them except out of the corner of your eye.”
They turned off the main road before they reached the town proper and headed into a subdivision or neatly arranged ranch-style houses, almost all alike. Winter looked west and found that the city, with its apartment towers and massive business complexes that didn’t so much scrape the sky as pierce it, was still easily visible.
“Could you make it so I could see them?”
Abruptly, Renee stopped the car. They were more or less in the middle of the street, but thanks to the time of day, there weren’t any other cars around. With a sigh,she gave Winter an exasperated look. “Snowy, what part of ‘you can’t hurt them’ do you not get? You’re supposed to be a warder, isn’t the whole point of that to be something like a pacifist?”
Winter refused to meet her eye. “Never mind.” she said, her professional tone finally slipping completely into place. “I’m just trying to be more effective at my job.”
“Technically,” Renee stomped the gas and the caddy lurched forward again, “your job starts after I clean up this mess. Tremere is a good place for occult shopping if you know where to look. Or hey, we can go back to the city and I can take you to this Chinese place I know—best in the whole Northwest, I swear to… huh. You know, swearing to anyone doesn’t have a lot of impact to anyone who knows who I am, does it?”
“I don’t know who you are.” said Winter. “Counting the Lightbringer, there are sixteen Forsaken and you could be any of the other fifteen.”
“Don’t expect me to be of much help with that.” said Renee, watching the house numbers because that was the only way to differentiate one residence from another. “I picked ‘Faust’ was an allusion to Mephistopheles, probably to help me remember. Problem is, ‘Mephistopheles is just a name the Chosen people made up for a certain demon, not that demon’s real name.”
Winter tore her eyes off the monotonous scenery to look at her. “Wait. You don’t know who you are?”
This inspired a truly fiendish smile from Renee. “I didn’t say that. I know exactly who I am: Renee Faust. Who I was might be fuzzy, but if it mattered, I would have made damn sure I remembered, so screw past me.”
Without warning, she turned off into a driveway. Like all the others, it was a ranch-style with brick siding, a white reflective roof, and a small, unscreened porch.
“Here we are.” she said without any transition. “Get your wards ready while I get geared up.”
Willow got out at the same time as her new boss and followed her lead in going back to the trunk. “You need gear?”
The trunk popped open without any prompting just as Renee reached it. Inside was a chaotic jumble of clothes, camping supplies, part of what looked to be an emergency road kit, several potted plants, and baggies of dried fruit and jerky.
Heedless of the mess, Renee plucked out a pair of black leather gloves with the fingers cut off of all but the index and middle fingers, with arcane symbols stenciled on the back and pulled them on. “I burn my memories out every few decades.” she reminded Winter, “I don’t remember most of my useful magic. Luckily, I left myself more than enough enchanted crap that it’s rarely an issue.”
Next came a blue, plastic tarp, which she three over her shoulders and pulled tightly around her. “The wards?”
“Oh. Right.” said Winter, shaking herself out of her curiosity about the tarp. Closing her eyes, she focused on the energies flowing through her. It took the form of a bubbling spring of clear, cool water which she scooped up with mental hands and began to shape. Her mouth moved, silently forming the mnemonic that helped her recall the shapes with greater clarity. Her fingers twirled in the air before her, weaving an invisible tapestry.
Two wards against puncture and laceration came into being and expanded out from her mind to envelope both herself and Renee like warm blankets on the coldest of winter nights.
She released a slow breath and nodded in satisfaction. “Okay. The wards are in—wha?”
At that moment, she’d opened her eyes to find that instead of the tarp, Renee was standing before her in a black suit and tie along with black shades. Her hair, instead of purple, was black and pulled back severely from her face. The gloves, however, were still in place, clashing horribly with her new attire.
“Is there a problem, Agent Capshaw?” The tilt of Renee’s eyebrow reminded Renee uncomfortably of a teacher she once had.
There was a moment that the image of Mrs. Kramer there, staring her down with that same superior look she had right before dressing someone down in class, had Winter flabbergasted. She rallied, however, and gave her head a shake.
No, she told herself, it wasn’t Kramer the Crone. It was Renee Faust. She was—or rather looked—years younger, and even with her hair pulled back so much that it threatened to peel the skin off her forehead, it didn’t erase the mischievous crinkles around the eyes.
“No.” she said flatly. “The tarp…?”
“Quick-change.” said Renee, pulling out something that looked like a collapsible cane. “I might not give a damn what the fibbies think, but folks like the Crosbys need to see someone arbitrarily professional looking should they come home early and we’re still chasing monsters that aren’t there.”
The cane was made of machined copper and was broken into three sections connected by an elastic cord stretched through their hollow interior. The bottom ended in a plain rubber pad, while the top featured a loop of copper as thick as Winter’s index finger holding an egg-shaped piece of smooth amber with a fossilized dragonfly trapped inside.
Once Renee snapped the three sections together, it might have looked classy is not for the irregular spikes of amethyst sticking out of the loop in random directions like some teenager’s hasty art project.
Winter decided not to question it, only watched dubiously as Renee tucked it under her arm and closed the trunk.
“Shall we?” Renee took the cane out form under her arm and gestured toward the front door.
“Did the Crosbys leave a code? … or a key?” Winter had only lived in the city in apartment towers. She wasn’t sure if people out in the ‘burbs used encrypted code transponders like everyone she knew, or if they just used metal keys.
Renee shrugged, heading for the door. “They told me where they hide the key, but I never use it. Someone might see me looking for it and figure out how to break in.”
Opting for once to not ask a question that would get her either looked at like a particularly dim child or given a treat and a pet on the head, Winter just stood back to see what Renee would do instead.
The lock proved to be electronic rather than key operated. The kinds of magic winter knew didn’t work very well when applied to anything with an electrical current, but she knew that the laws that governed human magic didn’t apply to the Other Realms or those who haled from them.
Instead of something flashy, Renee flipped the cane around and tapped the rubber tip against the signal receiver above the knob and held it there for a three-count. Something inside the door clicked, then the indicator light above the sensor went from red to green.
With a theatrical twirl of her cane, Renee let them in.
The door opened directly into the living room without foyer or other preamble. It was a small, quaint room: a nice comfy couch situated under the window next to the door, a well-loved leather arm chair off to the side, also facing the big-screen TV; the piano in the corner directly opposite the door, next to an arch leading into the dining room. There were knickknacks on the shelves and on top of the piano; mostly little people fishing, ornamental musical instruments, or cocker spaniels.
It smelled clean and fresh in a way Winter couldn’t succinctly describe, like clear rainwater on a warm spring day.
But it was also off. Nothing looked wrong. Nor did it smell or sound wrong. It was just a feeling, something primal in her brain that raised the hairs on the back of her neck and told her that she didn’t want to be in that house.
She almost put her judo training to use when Renee stepped back and put a hand on her arm. “Feel that?” She asked.
Winter nodded dumbly, twisting her head around to try and figure out what was setting her off.
“I can hear it.” Renee said, her voice low and even. “Humans evolved with reactions to a certain frequency—a major component in the growl of big cats—sets off your fight or flight response. Listen to it too long and your brain starts doing things to try and convince you to run for it.”
On ‘doing’, she lifted the cane and used it to draw a few circles in the air by her ear and crossed her eyes.
“Everybody in the Other Realms found out it was real useful for convincing humans to stay out of certain places. Worked real good too until some decades back when humans decided ‘hauntings’ were all the rage and started turning those places into tourist traps. Ruined a ton of good spots for ceremonies, otherworldly recreation… making out.”
Winter had heard some of that in training. All but the ‘making out’ part. She never experienced it though. “So that’s the imps doing that?”
“Don’t worry; they can’t keep that up in run in terror, scream in pain, or feebly try to fight back, so it’s going to stop in a couple minutes.” Renee directed that last part seemingly to a group of ceramic spaniels on a wall shelf. She also leveled the ornate end of the cane at them.
There was nothing there. Nothing Winter could see anyway. Recalling that Renee mentioned they could still be seen in peripheral vision, averted her gaze. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught shadow and motion, slow and steady, like something breathing.
Out of the corner of the other eye, she caught two more flickers through the arc leading to the dining room. Then another flitted through her perception, moving swiftly from under the couch. Before it disappeared into her direct vision, it was headed right for them.
“I know Snowy.” Renee grinned, showing teeth that were suddenly sharp. The chunks of amethyst at the top of the cane transformed into purple fire. “I’ve got them right where I want them.”
End Act 3
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