When you had a job for long enough, you grew used to the small details that once bothered you to no end. Like teleportation traffic jams.
Not that John Kresnik could complain, as his tall, strong body materialized in a flash of purple light right among smoking ruins. Terra Firma was a young addition to the Empire, so some areas were still untamed. The Violet Ministry hadn’t finished building the whole Warp Grid yet.
Which meant officials with higher priority access were teleported before him, mostly to the East Asian Protectorate; he often had to wait for forty minutes before the Ministry cleared a safe warp route for him. John Kresnik had lived long enough to remember the mishaps of the first Warp Grid on Concordia, of citizens teleported at the same place at the same time and exploding into blood and bones. The Ministry would rather avoid such catastrophes on Terra Firma, especially with the Black Tower in Antarctica interfering with their grid.
In older colonies, one could safely travel from one side of a planet to the other within seconds with the right security clearance. Homeworld’s own grid was so extensive that waiting in lines had all but disappeared, but it would take a long time before Terra Firma reached the same level of connectivity. Kresnik hoped that the local population could enjoy the same privilege within a few years.
If only they would make the same effort for doors that he could fit through on Terra Firma. Humans were so small.
Captain John Kresnik had read about Evermarsh before his transfer to the area. It was a peaceful, quiet city, which was medium-sized, a far cry from the Miami megapolis. The current mayor — some old local political official the Firmen had been allowed to keep during the transition period — was a moderate with a clean record. Besides the Yellow Ministry’s archeological dig in the swamps, Evermarsh was barely a blip on the Blue Ministry’s radar.
However, multiple incidents had recently happened in the area hinted at an uglier picture. Local disappearances, with the local Firman law enforcement strongly suspected of covering them up. The discovery of a technological artifact during digs.
And now the massacre.
The locals needed protection better than what the local law enforcement could provide, and one murder was one too many, let alone dozens. It would be a welcome change from hunting Chinese insurgents.
Kresnik had taken no joy in that assignment; he understood on some level why they rebelled against Concordia. While it didn’t prevent the captain from doing his job, it still felt like a waste of life. Murderers and criminals had no such excuse.
The few humans present on the scene, mostly local law enforcement, recoiled at the sight of him, and Kresnik couldn’t blame them. Few lycanthropes lived on Terra Firma, and he ranked among the apex specimens of his kind. According to local human measurement, Kresnik almost reached nine feet tall, and weighed more than two thousand pounds. His clawed hands could tear men apart, and his fangs could pierce metal. He had checked. Even while wearing his trademark, size-adjusted white jacket, humans could only see the beast.
More wolf than man, his silver fur and wild mane made him stand out even in the darkest night. Kresnik liked it this way. Justice should not hide in the dark, and criminals cowered at the sight of him. He hoped, that one day, the Firman would see him as a symbol of hope and safety, as he had become on other Spheres. Give them time, he thought.
Kresnik walked inside the perimeter, as dawn began to appear on the horizon. By the time firemen had put out the fire, the flames had consumed most of the area, leaving only crumbling ruins, charbroiled cars, and ashes behind them.
Gearsmen had seized the area from human enforcers, relegating them to circle the perimeter and scanning the area for biometric data. That worked just fine for Kresnik. His experience in Shanghai had taught him that many humans practiced passive sabotage when facing Concordian authorities, withholding information to make their lives harder.
Kresnik walked to the black spot where the main warehouse used to stand; the fire’s source according to preliminary reports. The metal itself had melted, mixing with the ash into smelt.
Kresnik sniffed the air, smelling only ashes. The fires had burnt the area clean, too much for him to identify the culprits. But he had another sense. A sixth sense.
Unlike most White-licensed sorcerers, who diversified their spell repertoire, Kresnik choose long ago to specialize in the lore of White alone. He could not afford spending too much time on studying the Seven Colors when he could perfect just one. Especially since his targets mostly included sorcerers, which White trumped.
Kresnik always began a day by casting Accel Flux Sight each morning, which allowed him to perceive shades of magic for twenty-four hours. His skill in the spell was so great that even advanced Gearsmen radars couldn’t match him in sheer precision.
The sight before him told him the full story. A massive influx of Violet Flux with a dash of Yellow, followed by a more recent taint of Red whom he instantly recognized the owner of as the Candlemaker, a fiendish Fire Elemental.
The typical picture of a summoning ritual. Violet to call the entity, and Yellow to bind it into service. However, the color mix was crude, primitive, lacking the finesse of a sorcerer’s intuitive design. A home-made ritual. A closer look at the colors’ substance confirmed that those responsible had sacrificed sentient beings, fueling the spell with their souls.
That implied multiple murders carried out at the same spot at a regular interval, done over a specific sigil to keep the Flux from dispersing into the ether. Kresnik shook his head in sadness, already considering what he would tell the missing people’s families.
Not that those responsible hadn’t got what they deserved. The weak potency in the Yellow told Kresnik that they had botched the binding part at the last second. Not bound by specific terms, the Candlemaker had done what it did best: set the world on fire.
Kresnik thought about the situation from various angles. It didn’t add up. The Candlemaker was a living mobile disaster that only left a trail of murder and devastation in his wake. The werewolf would have expected to find him rampaging across town. By its standards, a warehouse fire was relatively benign.
Someone had ordered the maniac to behave. Few could get away with such a deed. And how could the locals craft a sigil powerful enough to run their ritual? Kresnik started seeing the bigger picture, and he didn’t like it.
Also, why did they botch the summoning at the last second? Did the last sacrifice escape?
A wave of White light spread through the area. As it did, spectral, silvery apparitions of eight humans materialized near him, standing as a group. As their features sharpened, the figures became identical in death as their original selves in life. Kresnik recognized Evermarsh’s mayor and chief of police among them.
The mayor spoke first, the others listening. “What’s happening?”
“Something’s wrong!” The police chief’s echo shouted and raised his arms, as if to shoot at someone with the outdated toy humans called a ‘gun.’ Instead, he let out a scream of pain, holding his hand as if harmed.
“The sacrifice, interrupted… Kill the girl!”
The girl, Kresnik noted for later use, as two shades answered the mayor’s order, seemingly firing at an empty spot. After a period of silence, the mayor’s shade went to his knees, imitated by his followers. “Your grace… The Maleking sent you to us.”
Kresnik froze at the name, yet reasserted his self-control.
“Here, your grace.” The mayor’s shade pointed at the same spot where the others had fired at. “We had a miscalculation, for a reason I can’t fathom yet, but I assure you, the girl is yours. Here!”
So, they tried to sacrifice the girl, who escaped and somehow avoided death long enough for the ritual to go haywire. The ‘can’t fathom yet’ part bothered Kresnik. Didn’t the mayor understand why his victim escaped?
“I was promised the gift! With your power, I can finally… your grace…”
The white shade collapsed into white particles, the others dispersing in panic. One by one they turned into aimless light, vanishing one after the other.
Kresnik turned to the empty spot where the humans had shot. When no white shade manifested herself, the werewolf realized that the girl had escaped the Candlemaker’s rampage.
Then, a few feet from that very spot, Kresnik noticed a new color.
Strong, unpolished Blue, mixed with specks of Orange. The trail was too faint for Kresnik to track the owner, but the werewolf registered it for future identification.
Odd, though. Blue was an uncommon color, the third-rarest behind White and Violet.
There was no place for Black.
A mighty roar echoed through the skies. Raising his eyes, Kresnik watched Lord Smokefang, the local dragon governor, circle the ruins while letting out powerful growls. The human law enforcement cowered at the sight, which had been the intended effect.
With a majestic maneuver, Smokefang landed among the ruins, right in front of Kresnik, propelling dust and ash all around the crime scene. The werewolf briefly put his hand in front of his face to protect his eyes. “Lord Smokefang,” he said, raising his fist to his chest as part of the common Concordian salute.
“Report, Lycan,” the beast ordered with the brusque voice of a new commander needing to prove himself to his underlings. He exhaled green embers, some of them coming within an inch of Kresnik’s own feet. “Mother said you were an expert. Prove it.”
Others might have been intimidated by this display, but Kresnik had dealt with mightier wyrms, including Smokefang’s own sire, the Red Minister. He simply reacted with professionalism. “I strongly believe this is the work of a human Malebranche cell.”
The dragon’s eyes narrowed. “How so?”
“My investigation indicate a local cult involving two of Evermarsh’s local authority figures, Mayor John Brown and Police Chief Henry Powells, caused the recent disappearances and attempted to summon an otherworldly entity. They used the name of the Maleking as part of their ritual.”
“I knew that letting the apes self-govern would lead to a disaster! Those creatures cannot handle the responsibility. If only the Yellow Minister had listened to mother. They need time to accept the transition… stupidities. Mother proved these creatures only understand force when she conquered this Sphere.”
Kresnik let the governor ramble for a while, until he calmed down and took the time to consider the situation thoughtfully. “This is an opportunity. After allowing a rebel infestation, the Yellow Ministry will have no choice but to admit their laxist policy has failed. No need to wait three more years to end the Firman offices. I will have a decree passed by tomorrow, applying to my territory, and my siblings will follow suit. Who else was involved?”
“I suspect a Firman girl, or woman, was present as a sacrifice, but escaped. I will do my best to identify her — ”
“I do not care,” Smokefang interrupted his underling. “Who else sounded the alarm about this city?”
“Victor Martel, a freelance reporter, age forty-three. He published investigations on the missing people.” The Blue Ministry had an extensive, in-depth file on him, even if most of his family’s records were sealed. “Solomon Nicholae as well, a local Catholic priest who first reported the disappearances.”
“Catholic? Ah, yes, that curious religion,” Smokefang scoffed, his voice oozed disdain. “He should rather pray to me.”
“Another thing, Lord Smokefang. I believe an unregistered sorcerer was present during the incident.”
That ended the dragon’s joyful mood.
“The entity they summoned, the Candlemaker, has also escaped.” Kresnik realized the dragon had no idea who he was talking about, yet didn’t wish to voice his ignorance. “An Ancient Fire Elemental, Dot Three in threat ranking.”
“Yes, yes, I remember.” Kresnik could almost hear the insincerity. “A Fire Elemental is a strong foe, but beneath me. I trust you to take care of it.”
“With pleasure. I swear on my honor, as a Lycan, and as an enforcer of the law, that I shall deal with it before it can hurt the citizens.”
That was why Kresnik fought, why he had joined internal security. To protect the good citizens of Concordia from threats, to ensure that children could live out their lives in peace, without worrying about criminals stealing their families away. That was the werewolf’s only wish.
He had seen enough misery not to take a stand.
“By stamping out this infestation, the Grandmaster will perhaps send me to Oceanis rather than this backwater, primitive Sphere!” Smokefang’s face contorted into a grimace, which Kresnik took for a sneer of disgust. “A few more years near those swamps, and I will look like Blightspawn’s putrefied twin!”
Dragons, as the supreme species, adapted to their environment as they reached their adult form, taking traits from their surroundings. Smokefang, the youngest of the brood ruling Terra Firma, had yet to undergo the metamorphosis his siblings previously went through.
“What about the sorcerer, Lord Smokefang?”
Once again, Smokefang’s mood darkened. “Kresnik, are you loyal to me?”
“I am loyal to the Empire.”
This answer displeased Smokefang, who let out ashes through his nose. “In this land, I am the Empire. I will rephrase myself. Can I trust you, Captain Kresnik?”
The werewolf examined his governor with his deductive skills honed by years of experience, smelling the insecurity behind the tough exterior. He knew this type, having encountered it time and time again. The young dragon with the arrogance and brashness of youth, desperate to prove himself worthy of his dominion yet also resenting its lack of attractiveness.
Concordia had only left a token occupation on this Sphere, since it lacked strategic value or important resources; and Smokefang had been left with an unattractive dominion to manage. Unless he distinguished himself, the dragon had few opportunities to rise to a higher post.
Which made him insecure. For the sake of maintaining good relations, Kresnik decided to assuage his new master. “As long as you respect Concordia’s will, I will do anything you ask for, my Lord, and I shall not betray your secrets. Your mother can vouch for my integrity.”
Smokefang seemed in no hurry to bother his mercurial sire for something so trivial, and so took Kresnik at his word. “Are you certain about the sorcerer, Lycan?”
“Ninety percent sure. I detected a strong but unrefined Blue signature, with an odd color mix. This implies early development and a lack of training.”
Which was both good and bad. An unregistered sorcerer was a potential weapon of mass destruction, best killed in the bud or brought into the fold early. The more time given to refine their power, the greater the damage they caused to themselves and others. This one was unblooded, manageable.
However, Blue Sorcerers usually created cults of personality or subverted communities, inevitably escalating to subtle takeovers or outright conquest. The more followers they gathered, the more their ego grew, starting a terrible momentum. Out of all magic-users Kresnik had tracked over the years, Blue Sorcerers had proven the most difficult to apprehend, and the hardest to reform.
“So a sorcerer led the cell…” Smokefang reached the wrong conclusion. “How odd that the first unregistered Firman sorcerer on records would show up on my land.”
“I do not believe the sorcerer led, or even was part of the cell, Lord Smokefang,” Kresnik said, only for the dragon to brush his words aside.
“That mystery sorcerer was present during the cell’s ritual, and escaped the fallout unscathed. Their culpability is obvious, and we must treat it as a threat until proven otherwise.”
Kresnik paused, understanding the true matter at hand. Smokefang wanted a public enemy to justify his hardline stance, and the glory of capturing an enemy sorcerer. The truth did not factor into it.
“Alright,” Kresnik said outwardly, while inwardly making a different decision.
“I see the picture now, Lycan,” Smokefang continued, yet more to himself than to his audience. “The Malebranche are here for the artifact. They knew about it before we dug it out, let us do the work, and then brought their magical muscle to steal it before we could ship it off-world.”
The theory sounded plausible, yet Kresnik found that plan a bit too circuitous. He suspected the governor would rather believe in a conspiracy instead of various unconnected events. “Do you wish for me to reinforce the site’s security?”
“No. I already saw to it. What I want you to do, Lycan, is to find that mysterious ringleader and bring him to me for punishment. Any information must go through me first. Am I understood?”
As the dragon congratulated himself for his cunning, the werewolf pondered which lead to pursue next. His orders were clear, yet he considered the Candlemaker a more dangerous threat to the local peace.
As for the sorcerer…
Kresnik would have to find the rogue before Smokefang; if he did, he could perhaps offer them a way out. It wouldn’t be the first time Concordia pardoned unregistered sorcerers and introduced them to their forces. He hoped this one would be somewhat reasonable.
If the rogue refused to submit, though…
Well, it would not be the first time Kresnik had to put down a rabid dog.
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