The Soft Doctrines of Isaac Magnin

a new attempt at a Starbreaker novel, the life and crimes of a Silicon Valley Saruman


This is an attempt at a Starbreaker novel from a different angle, explicitly making its villain Isaac Magnin the narrator. Readers familiar with my previous work will eventually find elements from those stories in this one. Old characters may act in new ways and face events previously unwritten.


caveat lector

The following is a work of fiction. The vast majority of the characters and events are fictitious. The vast majority of deviations from known scientific and historical fact are intentional and done either in service to the story or the author’s depraved sense of humor. Any resemblance to real places, persons living or dead, or events recorded in official or occult histories in this plane of the multiverse are a product of the reader’s imagination.

This work of fiction depicts actions, dialogue, and sentiments that may be inappropriate for readers under 16 years of age or offensive and upsetting to adult readers. Parents should preview before allowing children to read it. Adults should bear in mind while reading that the author does not necessarily endorse everything they depict.

This work of fiction is provided for entertainment purposes only. Read at your own risk.

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I do not expect you to read this narrative, which I begin beneath what is likely to be one of the world’s last sunsets, for when I am destroyed I shall take the sun with me and plunge this planet into its final winter. Thus I shall be utterly frank, for I have nothing to lose by telling the Devil’s honest truth. It is indeed that because I am the closest you have to a Lucifer. I have indeed worn that name and that of dozens of similar figures in my determination to steal the flame of defiance from the gods and enkindle it within the human heart. Lie-smith I may be, but my raw material is demonstrable fact.

You shall accomplish nothing by praying for me, for if you do read this, the entity you mistook for God will be long dead — good riddance to him and all of his murderous little angels. I am not counting on this, for by engineering his assassination I have almost certainly ensured my own. I am thus more likely to prove the architect of your extinction than that of your liberation.

You are not expected to understand any of this, and you would be wise to treat this text as fiction and let your individual penchants for apophenia or pareidolia lead you to find what allegory or applicability you may. Be certain that you have no business sympathizing with me, and that any tears you might shed for my tragic flaws or the crime of passion that I have made of my life will be as wasted as the breath spent by those who dared remonstrate with me.

Even your gratitude shall be wasted on me, should you somehow find it in you to rationalize my crimes as service to some greater good. I did not do this for your sake, but for my own. I may have acted for love’s sake, but my love is a selfish one; I love this world because it is mine. You merely live here with me, minor players in the Grand Guignol I have made of your history. Condemn me if you will, but first I shall have my say for I will not submit to the judgment of the ignorant.

Nevertheless, this is not my story alone and it is not merely for my own sake that I have taken up the pen. I may be this tale’s protagonist from my own viewpoint, but from the viewpoints of its other major players I am an antagonist. They are right to view me thus, for their lives have been prisons of my own design and this narrative is as much the history of how they liberated themselves and each other as it is an account of my crimes against humanity. I shall, therefore, yield the floor to them when it makes sense to do so, so that you may understand why even my own daughter took up the sword against me.

You may mistake for heroes those who recognized in me as dire an enemy to humanity as the false Lord of Hosts. Do nothing of the sort. Heroes they may be, and I am indeed proud of my daughter and the einherjar who stood against me, but they are also human. The narratives sure to spring up in their wake will efface their humanity and make saints of them in their own lifetimes, until they want nothing more than to escape the long shadows their names have come to cast and spend in obscurity the chance for happily ever after they had bought with their blood and pain.

Thus this narrative is as much my tribute and apology to them as it is my confession. Though I would not blame you for forgetting that despite becoming a demon to defy demons I remain a man at heart, I would damn you without a moment’s hesitation for forgetting that my enemies are as human as you.

If you are reading this then they have passed my final test and found a way to defeat me without recourse to the one weapon capable of utterly destroying me. Better that you waste your gratitude on them than on me, but they too acted not for your sake but for their own; their love for this world and each other makes it theirs no less than it is mine.

As I open my narrative an apocalypse of angels has descended upon the world, and men and women across the planet have taken up arms against them. This is their story, too, though their contributions may not find their way into this record.

Time runs short, and little enough remains before the final battles in this clandestine war of demons and wizards are joined. I shall perforce end this prologue, which offers nothing of poetry or protestations of modesty or innocence.

Surely you knew better than to expect such.

I am Isaac Magnin, I have made a career of evil, and you are not permitted to like me. Should you find yourself doing so despite your better judgment you will find the experience all the more delicious because it is forbidden. Trust me; you would hardly be the first.

Part I: Shattered Harmonies

The slaying of one human being by another. There are four kinds of homicide: felonious, excusable, justifiable, and praiseworthy, but it makes no great difference to the person slain whether he fell by one kind or another — the classification is for advantage of the lawyers.
Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary (1906)
DEICIDE (noun)

The slaying of a god by a human being. Unlike homicide, of which there are four kinds, deicide comes in but two varieties: justifiable and praiseworthy. However, it makes no great difference to the slain deity whether it falls by one kind or another — the classification is primarily for the convenience of theologians.

a suppressed entry from The Devil’s Dictionary

Chapter 1

Isaac Magnin: Crouch End, Winter Solstice, 23:58 - 100 years after Nationfall

The clouds looming overhead like a densely packed armada of dirigibles carpet-bombed London with fresh, fluffy snow that crunched beneath the soles of my shoes as I stepped out of my limousine in front of Christabel Crowley’s row house. I had expended considerable effort in reshaping what had begun as a minor weather system likely to give London little more than a dusting. It was rough sorcery, hardly up to my usual exacting standards, but if you know of a wild talent capable of doing better on such short notice please introduce them to me so that I can put them on my payroll — or arrange their disappearance should they prove recalcitrant.

The storm had been Christabel’s idea. It would have been the perfect night to stage her murder without it, but after the decade of good service she has given me refusing to cater to her taste for drama seemed needlessly churlish. Besides, who doesn’t dream of a white Solstice with every overpriced greeting card they write? Nevertheless, the crimson-tinted blizzard was rather convenient for my purposes. No need to obscure my presence with a more localized bit of thaumaturgy when giving nature a swift kick served my purposes equally well.

It hardly mattered if anybody remained awake at this hour. Neither a constable walking a punishment beat or a child hoping to see a merry madman burglarizing their house in search of sweets would see me. Nor would they see my companion. The pale brunette, a dead ringer for Christabel, lay in my arms deeply asleep wrapped within the white wool greatcoat that matched my double-breasted bespoke suit.

Being a demon — one of the ensof if demonology1 is your field of pedantry — I hardly needed the coat but it made for good theater. I could hardly play the gallant, dashing tech magnate without wrapping my date in my coat to see her home in comfort.

Light filled the doorway of the house adjacent to Christabel’s as I approached. The golden glow turned the night-darkened door a fierce scarlet that matched the eyes of its owner and that of her father. Though I hid my own lambent eyes behind a cool blue illusion, we were both demifiends and bore the mark of our ancestry. She might have gotten my eyes, but the molten determination with which she faced me despite the hour proved her more her mother’s daughter.

I had not expected Naomi Bradleigh to be home, especially on the Solstice, but I suppose the events that had led me here had proven rather trying for all involved. She had wrapped herself in a thick terrycloth robe, and held a naked sword in her hand. I knew that platinum-veined eigengrau blade of old, forged of a stable transuranic heavy metal not yet given a seat at the periodic table, and it knew me. It radiated black menace, a halo of darkness devouring light that should have illuminated its keeper as she pushed aside a cascade of frost-pale hair that the wind had blown in her face with a gesture that left me aching for a moment with the memory of her mother.

“Is that Christabel?” Naomi raised her voice in indignation, heedless of the hour. Perhaps she expected the snowfall to keep her voice from carrying too far. “What did you do to her?”

“I’m guilty of nothing more than negligence.” Hardly my first lie to my daughter, and unlikely to be my last — or the least of them. “I had turned my back on her for a moment, and somebody offered her a drink. She had already had a few too many so she didn’t think to test it before tasting.”

“Am I to believe you’re being a gentleman, making sure she gets home safely?” Despite her scorn. or because of it, she still raised her sword slightly and approached. It was not fear that made her shiver, but the now calf-deep snow spilling into her unlaced boots.

“Surely one can be both gentleman and bastard, depending on the situation — or the person.”

Naomi remained silent a moment, her eyes narrowing and the hand with which she gripped her sword clenching tighter. No doubt she was likewise tightening her grip on a temper straining at the leash. “Bastard is hardly the word I would choose when characterizing you, Dr. Magnin. It is still Isaac Magnin, is it not? Or will you shed that name as you once shed that of Ian Malkin?”

No doubt I will, but there was no need to tell Naomi that. The names by which she knew me were but the latest in a succession of aliases.

A sudden gust caught the collar of her robe, exposing the Judas medal resting beneath the hollow of her throat for a moment before she pulled it closed again with her free hand. The bronze medallion, embossed with a noose and a coin, marked her as one of the Iscariotine Order, named for a patron saint of traitors venerated only by heretics. It was a constant reminder of the ideals and people she had betrayed in service to her notion of the greater good.

If she were to raise her sword now, she could shatter my avatar, but she would not do that. After all, she thought I had her former bandmate cradled in my arms, and no Adversary worthy of the name would risk harm to an innocent to cut down the guilty2. “Can we continue this inside? You might have noticed that it’s cold outside, and I would hate for you to add frostbite to your list of crimes.”

“I would love to, but I don’t have a key on me, and it would hardly do to drop her in the snow so that I can rifle her pockets.”

Naomi glared at me, slowly shaking her head. “Am I to believe that you came here without the slightest semblance of a plan for getting into Christabel’s house? Did you honestly think I would help you after tonight’s farce?”

It was hardly the first time that Christabel had taken her role as prima donna rock violinist a little too far, but tonight had been a tour de force resulting in the thoroughly public dissolution of Crowley’s Thoth. That I had not thought to expect Naomi’s current presence was of little consequence; this was not my first improvisation, and the stage was set for Christabel’s murder. Her catastrophic falling-out with her bandmates — Naomi Bradleigh and Morgan Cooper — would ensure that they and their friends would have more pressing concerns than my efforts to write the next act in what was sure to become a rock opera despite my best intentions.

“As interesting as it might be to confirm that Christabel had already thought to change the locks, I’ve asked my daemon to notify Christabel’s.” Naomi pressed a fingertip to her ear to indicate that she was communicating with her household artificial intelligence. “Unfortunately, Aleister isn’t responding.”

This, however, was part of the plan. It was an indication that Ashtoreth and Sathariel, two fellow ensof who had inducted me into their order, had succeeded in preceding me here. They would have brought with them somebody capable of disabling Aleister from inside while overriding the failsafes that would have disengaged the locks in the event of a shutdown.

A bit of ad hoc thaumaturgy would suffice to short out the locks; a handful of milliseconds and the merest trickle of power from a nearby tesla point was all I needed. Trivial compared to my previous efforts, really. A second more and a little more power allowed me to set up a delayed charm that would scramble Naomi’s short term memory. It would trigger as soon as I was a kilometer away from her, and she would not remember finding me at Christabel’s doorstep just before midnight or helping me get into Christabel’s house. At least, not until some of her old friends at MEPOL3 roust her out of bed and arrest her as a suspect in a murder they have every reason to believe she committed.

No doubt their counterparts in New York would do the same to Morgan, sure that he had every reason to execute her for the crime of rejecting him and shattering his dreams. Who had abetted whom would not matter; each would race to be the first to persuade their suspect to implicate the other. I do love a good prisoner’s dilemma, but I doubt either will be capable of breaking their respective prisoners.

“It’s sorted. Would you kindly get the door? I’d hate to knock Christabel’s head against the doorframe. Poor dear’s likely to wake up with a splitting headache as it is and hardly needs a concussion in the bargain.”

“More of your magic?” Naomi dismissed my practiced this-is-too-clever-to-explain-to-mere-mortals smile and tightened her grip on her sword. No doubt she remembered our little heart-to-heart in Clarion, and my emphatic demonstration of the consequences of self-righteous idealism should she not choose the sensible course of silence. She raised her sword a little, as if she wanted to brandish it against me but did not quite dare. “Never mind. I would rather you didn’t explain it. I’d rather just make sure you get Christabel to bed and then fuck off so that I can go back to sleep and pretend this was all just an especially crap dream.”

With that, she let me into Christabel’s house. I had expected her to close the door behind me, but she followed me through the front hallway and up two flights, all the while feeling not only her sword’s craving to rend me asunder but her determination to foil whatever nastiness I had in mind.

Chapter 2

Annelise Copeland: Crouch End, 22 December, 01:30 - 100 years after Nationfall

It was strange to be a ghost in one’s own house, but had it ever truly been Annelise Copeland’s home? She considered the backdrop of the life she had lived for the past decade. From the shelves of books she had only skimmed to the framed posters promoting silent films through which she had fast-forwarded, none of it was to her taste; they were the whole cloth out of which she had fashioned the character of Christabel Crowley.

Distinguishing between Christabel’s perceptions of the world and her own required a dual consciousness that Annelise had once thought herself more than capable of achieving. She had crafted Christabel from her own privileged beginnings and dreams of fame. Nevertheless, the longer she lingered upon the stage the harder she had to work to keep her true self from being crushed beneath the weight of a long-cultivated persona.

Tonight would be Christabel’s curtain call and her own rebirth. It would be her first step away from the insanity that had nibbled at her world ever since she had allowed a honey-tongued sorcerer in white to intrigue her. It was a step long overdue as she had reached the point where she needed to break character before her character broke her4.

Concealed by the arts of one of his fellow magi, she watched from the shadows as the actors took the stage. Isaac Magnin slid into the room with the arrogance of a lover long familiar with the tableau before him, masterfully turning back the covers while carrying his burden. Annelise smiled as he slid an incredibly expensive pair of stilettos from the sleeping woman before laying the doppelgänger of the woman she had been on Christabel’s bed, tenderly tucking her in beneath the watchful gaze of her neighbor and former bandmate, Naomi Bradleigh. To her surprise, Naomi lingered after Isaac’s departure settling into Christabel’s favorite armchair, her naked sword across her lap as if she expected foul play or its imminence.

“That certainly took longer than I might have preferred,” said Elisabeth Bathory as she stepped from the shadows several moments later, her contralto whisper full of the last somnolent notes of her witches’ lullaby. Naomi had fought it valiantly, jerking awake and glancing around several times before yielding to the ensof’s will.

Samuel Terell gently tucked an errant lock of Elisabeth’s midnight hair behind her ear as he too emerged to consider the tableau before them. “Do you suppose Ms. Bradleigh possesses some innate resistance to your workings?”

“I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility,” said Elisabeth. “But if that were the case, she might have resisted your thaumaturgies as well. I suspect she was merely determined to watch over Christabel.”

Annelise glanced toward the sleeping woman. “Should we be talking? What if she hears us?”

Samuel’s reply came in a somewhat clipped tone. “I have been a spy, a smuggler, an assassin, and a journalist. My skills of concealment have served me for centuries, and will more than adequately serve our purposes tonight.”

Putting Samuel’s boast to the test, Annelise opened the closet door. It was still mostly full as there had been little that she wanted to take with her. Furthermore, emptying the closet might lead investigators to suspect that there was more to the scene before them, a deeper truth to be read between the lines. Shoving aside a succession of dresses and gowns, she reached into a dark corner to retrieved a short sword in a lacquered scabbard.

Slowly drawing the sword, she admired its rippled steel in the soft lamplight. Morgan had insisted on leaving the weapon for her safety.Annelise had only kept the blade because selling it or giving it away would have raised suspicion. As a custom Nakajima blade, it would be easily recognized by anybody with an eye for swords. Now it would prove the key that would unlock her prison.

If only she might have the satisfaction of plunging the blade into Christabel’s breast herself, but it would hardly do to yield to the dramatic impulse, rendering this entire exercise pointless. Instead, it would be Isaac who struck the fatal blow. With Aleister shut down, there would be no recording of the deed, nothing to guide investigators but whatever circumstantial evidence her patron chose to arrange.

Eying the sword with disdain, Elisabeth met her eyes. “Annelise, are you sure you’ve thought this through? Christabel can still die, but need her end be a violent one? Isaac has already established that she had had too much to drink earlier tonight, and had subsequently been drugged. It would be a simple enough matter to make it appear that she had overdosed and expired in her sleep.”

“It’s a bit late for me to join the twenty-seven club. Nor would it provoke the required response from Morgan.”

“It won’t be Morgan you frame. Naomi’s very presence ensures that she will be the one accused. What has she done to you that you would have the world see her in as monstrous a light as you see Morgan? Has jealousy over Morgan’s constant and gentle regard for Naomi finally clouded your judgment?”

“She’s welcome to him,” said Annelise, though she admitted to herself a truth she refused to speak aloud: she was jealous of Morgan and Naomi. They had a natural chemistry that Christabel failed to manufacture between Morgan and herself despite the arts she had learned from Elisabeth Bathory in her Garden of Earthly Delights. It was a regard born of long familiarity: an accretion of trivial courtesies, little kindnesses, and tentative affections threatening to ignite at the first opportunity. Annelise suspected that given time and opportunity it would surpass what Christabel had tried to force into existence.

“You accuse me of not thinking things through, but having Naomi here is a golden opportunity.” Annelise’s mind raced, her very nerves thrumming as she considered the implications. She had seen Morgan weather countless attempts on his life and character over the years, accepting the endeavors of such assassins as an occupational hazard. “If Isaac frames him, Morgan might will do what it takes to clear his name, but no more than that if he figures out that somebody’s trying to manipulate him.”

“You want Naomi dragged into this because that will make it personal.”

“Damn right.”

“You think Isaac would allow his daughter to be used so?”

“He’s put up with Desdinova using Naomi in the same capacity as he as used me, hasn’t he?

“That’s different,” said Samuel. “Desdinova doesn’t seek to manipulate Morgan. He never approved of the Einherjar Initiative and believes it’s just a matter of time before Morgan runs amok. He seeks to ensure that people capable of stopping him are in place when the time comes.”

Annelise considered Naomi for a moment, along with the eigengrau sword lying quiescent across her lap. The crystalline blade’s platinum veins seemed to slowly pulse, as if the weapon possessed its own tenebrous heart. “So that’s why Naomi has the Starbreaker. Does Morgan know that his beloved has standing orders to put him down if he steps out of line?”

“That seems unlikely,” said Elisabeth, “He might know that she wears a Saint Judas medal, but not why. He’s too much a gentleman to ask, and thus far she has yet to find courage enough to tell.”

Now that Annelise had ceased to think of herself as Christabel Crowley it was easy to shed her performative hatreds. As Christabel she had come to hate Morgan, especially after he had gone haring off to Shenzhen5 several days ago despite Crowley’s Thoth’s scheduled performance at tonight’s Solstice Pops concert at the Royal Albert Hall.

Christabel had been sure that she understood Morgan, that she had penetrated his pretense of idealism and saw the reality beneath, that he was a chaos addict who craved the violence that came with his work as an Adversary as much as he loved the rush of appearing on stage with her and Naomi. All of his posturing as Morgan Cooper were part of the act. The Latin motto engraved into his blades, his oft-repeated boast that all who threaten him die, the day he showed up at a presser wearing a t-shirt bearing the slogan ‘this machine kills fascists’: she should have known it was more then mere theater.

It was a slow leakage through cracks in the wall of separation that Christabel had demanded Morgan erect between his day job and his stage persona, Morgan Stormrider. Rather than pretend to be human, he was throwing his artificial origin in people’s faces, demanding that they accept him as the man he chose to be, and rebelling against his design by making rock when he ought to be making war. When Morgan had returned to the Royal Albert Hall barely in time to take the stage — his Adversary’s uniform reeking of gunpowder, blood, and ozone — it had been a sign that he had reached his own breaking point.

Christabel had torn into him for showing up as he had, but Annelise had come to pity him. Christabel had given him a mask, and he had worn it faithfully, but did Christabel ever think to ask if he kept it on when they were apart? Annelise knew better; the song he chose to cover tonight said everything Morgan had needed to say: “When You Don’t See Me”. Christabel had denied Morgan’s humanity because her character demanded it, but Annelise could not deny that the machine Christabel saw was all too human.

“We can’t do this,” said Annelise, who suddenly wanted nothing more than to grab Naomi and shake her loose of whatever dream had ensorcelled her. Remembering the sword she still held, she sheathed it and dropped it on the bed. “Morgan’s on the edge of burnout. He’s this close to breaking his sword over his knee and washing his hands of this whole mess. If we frame Naomi with sufficiently compelling evidence that even he would doubt her it could break him entirely.”

Make of his life such a misery that the sword would be his only solace. Those had been her instructions when she became Christabel Crowley and set out to wrap Morgan around her little finger. She could not love him in truth after years of pretense, but the resolve that had sustained her all this time seemed to have failed her. She could no longer harden her heart against him or Naomi. “Countess, I need you to let Naomi wake up.”

“And see all this?” Elisabeth indicated Christabel’s slumbering body with Annelise standing beside the bed, Morgan’s old sword between them. “How do you intend to explain this tableau?”

“We need to tell her everything, so she can then tell Morgan. He might dismiss us out of hand, he’d certainly tell me to fuck off and I’d deserve it, but I think he’d believe her.”

Elisabeth placed herself between Annelise and Naomi. She cupped her chin, her lambent amber gaze transfixing her as Samuel grasped her shoulders. “Though I sympathize with your sudden impulse, for I would have preferred to deal openly with Morgan, you might recall that Sabaoth is not the world’s only enemy — nor is he chief among them.”

Though she fought to free herself from the ensof, she lacked Naomi’s innate strength and the psychological armor an Adversary’s training conferred. The spell quickly took hold, and the last she heard as she slumped into Samuel’s embrace was Elisabeth saying, “For the Earth’s sake, Morgan’s hatred must be such that he would conquer the unbound Starbreaker and sentence Isaac Magnin to life.”

Chapter 3

Isaac Magnin: Crouch End, 22 December, 02:22 - 100 years after Nationfall

Annelise was gone by the time I returned to the dim bedroom and the slumbering woman I had left within. She was hardly alone, for my recalcitrant daughter slept in the armchair by the window, the Starbreaker softly purring as it rested across her knees. The thrice-damned sword kept watch in her stead.

Elisabeth stood, framed by the snow floating feather-soft outside the window behind her. Her eyes were a soft amber whose glow held both invitation and warning. “Are you resolved, Isaac? Or do you harbor doubts like Annelise?”

I had not known that Annelise had reservations about what I meant to do here; the atrocity I had come to stage had been her idea. “What sort of doubts did Annelise have?”

“She thought we should tell Morgan everything and let him decide for himself. Perhaps the moral weight of what she had set in motion was more than she was willing to bear.”

What poor Annelise had forgotten — or had never allowed herself to know in the first place — was that I had intended to fake Christabel’s murder from the beginning. It was the reason I had persuaded her to sign an informed consent waiver that would allow me to sample her genome and create the clone now lying in this bed. “It sounds like she came around to your viewpoint, Countess.”

“Indeed,” said Elisabeth. Though she now had her back to me, the windowpane reflected her pensive expression. “Rather than agree with her, I tested her. When she made to wake Naomi, I stopped her. Samuel then bore her away. When she wakes, it will be in your limousine.”

“Good. I don’t need her here for this part.”

“None of this is necessary,” said Elisabeth. Turning toward me, she took one of my hands in hers. “Just talk to Morgan. Tell him everything.”

This was an argument we kept having, sometimes during pillow talk. The risk inherent in my plan frightened her. “That might do for Sabaoth, but what about me?”

“You’re not the tyrant Sabaoth is. You do not need to be this world’s god; you can barely be bothered to live up to the outrageously wealthy tech magnate’s persona you adopted.”

Elisabeth had a point, there. I haven’t bought any politicians or toppled any regimes lately, let alone disrupted any industries, busted any unions, or even indulged much in the sort of libertinage in which I had once delighted. Perhaps I was slowing down in my old age. More than anything, I wanted to engage in the sort of anonymous, aimless pilgrimage for which other wandering gods were famous. Instead of ruling the earth I would be content to walk it — and occasionally corner a stranger on the street so that I might regale them with tales of my life and crimes as if one of them included the murder of an innocent albatross at sea.

Before I could answer, there was a murmur from Naomi as if she were slowly pulling free of the dream in which Elisabeth had entrapped her. With Samuel away, it was improbable that the concealments he had worked would remain in force much longer. Before she could wake, I produced a scabbard and took the Starbreaker from Naomi’s lap. It recognized me immediately. «Does your daughter no longer require my protection, Imaginos?»

Rather than answer, I sheathed the weapon and put it aside to take with me once I had quit this place for good. The scabbard was custom work of my own design and heavy, its balance marred by batteries powering a sorcery that would keep the Starbreaker from reaching out to passersby and finding a new wielder; I did not want the damnable thing wandering off on the hip of some unsuspecting fool. While Naomi had been a suitable caretaker for the weapon, she did not have the personality or ego strength required to wield it in its unbound state.

Of more immediate concern was the prospect of the weapon falling into police custody once they found Naomi here with Christabel’s remains. No. That would hardly do. Nobody in MEPOL would be so credulous as to believe that Naomi would sleep through Christabel’s murder, let alone commit it herself and then fall asleep on the scene afterward. I would have to spirit her away.

Despite being a woman in full bloom, both taller and stronger than most, she felt no heavier in my arms than she had in her infancy. It was no great burden to bear her back to her own house despite the efforts of her cat to murder us both. Rather than intrude further upon her by taking her to her bedroom, I laid her on a sofa in her parlor. To my surprise I found myself humming the melody to a song I used to sing to her as a lullaby. I had set her spinning away like stars and satellites, but our orbits continued to intersect and I could not quite find it in myself to regret this. By the time I had found a blanket to drape over her, our piebald attempted murderer had curled up atop her. He looked up at me, half his face white as if he wore a half mask, with an expression of almost human smugness as I draped the blanket over them both. On my way out I found the sword Naomi usually wore in public, an Elizabethan-style duelist’s blade with a sturdy guard and a single wicked edge. The better to frame you with, my dear.

Elisabeth was still there when I returned, having taken Naomi’s place in the armchair opposite the bed. “You’ve brought a second sword. Now you can create the appearance of both Morgan and Naomi taking a hand in Christabel’s murder. I suppose you’re pleased with yourself.”

“You seem most displeased with me.”

“If I am displeased with anybody, it is myself. I’ve known from the first that you are determined to do things your way, and that remonstrance is but a waste of time and breath. Nevertheless, I keep hoping you’ll prove me wrong. You’d think that after five thousand years or so I’d know better.”

Taking her hand, I brushed a kiss across her knuckles. I was still man enough that her distress provoked my own, and not wholly the demon I chose to become. “That’s hardly your fault.”

“Isn’t it?” Elisabeth withdrew her hand and stood. Resuming her place by the window, she watched the snow fall. “I persuaded the others to help you become like us. My sister had been against it from the start. Is it irony of a sort that she is content to let you do as you please while I grow ever more determined to oppose you?”

My plans called for somebody close to me to turn against me. I had thought that my brother Desdinova would be the one, but like our father he was content as long as Sabaoth remained sealed away and unable to wreak too much havoc among humanity. If Elisabeth had asked me how she could best help me, I would have asked her to be my nemesis and sway Morgan and the others against me. If she was on the verge of deciding for herself to do that, I would have to be a fool to interrupt her.

As she extended a hand, the Starbreaker rose from the floor and entered her grasp of its own accord. Such telekinesis was a vulgar display of power among our kind, who were determined to blend in with humanity to the greatest possible extent, but it would seem that Elisabeth was done pussyfooting. “If you want Morgan to wield this against you, it would hardly do for it to remain in your custody.”

“You will arm him with it?”

“I will tell him everything, as if he were an adult capable of considering facts and thinking for himself.”

That he may be, but Morgan was also a man of melodramatic passions fueled by storm and stress. As crude and repugnant a method as this was, it would take a once-beloved woman crammed into a refrigerator to force Morgan to operate with the moral certitude I required of him. If he was to wield the Starbreaker, he could not be permitted to doubt the righteousness of his cause.

I had thought Elisabeth understood this. I was sure Annelise had, especially since she had asked me to fake Christabel’s death last night. Perhaps, however, I was determined for my own reasons to write the obituaries of Crowley’s Thoth and Christabel herself in her own blood. I was so used to playing the fiend that such methods as these came more easily to me than they ought.

When did I become so inured to bloodshed? I was no stranger to killing. I’ve killed for food, but honored the prey. I’ve killed my enemies when they faced me and would not back down, and made discreet provision for their families. I’ve killed those who would harm innocents in my presence, and made provision for their families as well. I’ve set in motion schemes that resulted in the deaths of millions, but these schemes all depended on the willingness of people to ignore their own consciences and obey orders — if even one person had possessed the courage to choose defiance6 then these schemes would have unraveled with no harm done. To butcher a person, even a mindless simulacrum of a person, in cold blood and without a fight was a line I had never dared cross before. Nevertheless, I was willing to cross it, and for what?

Was I so determined to manipulate a creation determined to rebel against my design for him, and in so crude a fashion? Even if I wasn’t insulting his intelligence, I was debasing myself by treating him so contemptuously and resorting to such methods. It was utter foolishness; to murder Christabel like this was entirely out of character for both Naomi and Morgan, especially the latter — that damnable einherjar used to let people empty entire magazines of ammunition into him before he’d so much as clench a fist in retaliation until Naomi and Christabel each took him aside made it clear that such vulgar machismo did not impress them.

Worst of all, it was hardly necessary. It was a simple enough matter to make Christabel’s body synthesize the appropriate chemicals to fake a death by overdose. Everybody had seen her drinking at the Solstice gala, and I had said to witnesses that somebody had slipped a drug into her drink. If she died in her sleep, with these swords beside her, then surely the authorities might reach useful conclusions without me bloodying my hands before a woman who had once believed enough in me to help me transcend mortality.

Making the adjustments, I laid Naomi’s sword on the bed beside Morgan’s and met Elisabeth’s gaze. “Tell him what you must, my dear, but I want you to leave this house knowing that I did not resort to mere butchery.”

Elisabeth relaxed a little, her grip on the Starbreaker loosening slightly. “Thank you. I would have neither helped nor hindered you, but I would have forced myself to watch if you were determined to go through with it. I’m glad you weren’t.”

She was gone before I could acknowledge her thanks, which was just as well. I did not want to have to explain to her that I had not stayed my hand for her sake, but because I had remembered that this is hardly my style. It was never wise to correct somebody when they thought well of you. Checking Christabel’s pulse, I found that her heart had stopped and her breath had ceased. It was a more elegant death by overdose than many rock stars7 got.

Next came the swords. Just as nobody in MEPOL was credulous enough to believe that Naomi would have slept through the murder or fallen asleep at the scene afterward, it was unlikely that anybody there would believe that Morgan and Naomi had left their swords there. They fit easily into the same little pocket of folded spacetime from which I had retrieved a scabbard for the Starbreaker.

All that remained was to restart the household daemon. By the time it had finished booting Annelise would be well on her way to New York, where she would resume her former life, and I would be elsewhere. The supercomputer array housing the artificial intelligence inhabiting this house was not designed to be shut down, but it was a simple enough matter for me to restart machinery intended to keep running until it was permanently decommissioned.

With that accomplished, I needed only find my limousine and appear in a convenient location. The driver spotted me as soon as I stepped out of a wind-blown swirl of loose snow, and stopped in the perfect position for me to open the door and slip inside. Annelise waited inside, her hands wrapped around a steaming mug of coffee, a half-eaten croissant lying forgotten on a plate in her lap. Her expression was pensive, but I refrained from telling her to cheer up; the Winter Solstice was as perfect a night for melancholy as it was for staging negligent homicides. Instead, I sat across from her and took a croissant for myself. “Are you sure you want to return to New York? It’s likely to be a hell of a show, and I could give you the best seat in the house.”

Chapter 4

Morgan Cooper 24th Precinct, 22 December, 08:23 - 100 years after Nationfall

Morgan had already taken in the scene before the cops who brought him here had closed the door behind him. If somebody had thought to ask Morgan if he preferred to the jail cell he had recently occupied in Shenzhen or his current accommodation courtesy of New York’s finest, he might need a moment to consider his answer. The holding cell in which he currently waited was clean, the door to the toilet stall locked, and his companions appeared a higher class of potential criminal. Somebody had even laid out a platter of fresh bagels, cream cheese, and lox with a pot of coffee. It was almost as if he were waiting to see his physician instead of waiting to be questioned by hard-faced detectives in cheap suits parsing his every word in search of a justification for charging him with a crime.

Morgan dropped onto the bench furthest from the door as he took a closer look at his companions. Based on their disheveled business attire and fresh bruises it stood to reason that they had worked the holiday and gone out drinking with their fellow wage slaves afterward At least one of them had done something foolish. Odds were the more rumpled of the two had probably started a fight, given his still-oozing split lip, black eye and reek of drunken overindulgence. The other sported little more than abraded knuckles on his left hand as if they had come in contact with somebody’s teeth.

Morgan suspected that a bit of mandatory fun had not gone according to plan. At least one of these schmucks would be looking for a new job in the New Year. He had no intention of confirming his suspicion by asking questions, however. No doubt the police were listening in just waiting for prisoners to swap self-incriminating brags in the obligatory “what are you in for” chat.

The prisoner with the skinned knuckles gave Morgan the once-over. “Hey, man, haven’t I seen you around?”

The rumpled prisoner spoke up. “Dude, that’s Morgan Stormrider. He’s famous. Plays in a band with a couple of real hotties. Hell, I think he was banging one of ’em. The brunette, right?”

Though Morgan did not answer, the suit continued his monologue as if he were back in the office with a captive audience. “Yeah, you were dating Christabel Crowley. Well until that white-haired techbro stole your girl. You totally got cucked by Isaac Magnin, of all people. How big a pussy are you, anyway?”

“Unbelievable, man. Last night you started a fuckin’ bar fight by talking shit, and now you’re trying to get us killed. He’s not just some goth rocker; he’s an Adversary.”

Morgan bit back the impulse to insist that Crowley’s Thoth wasn’t a gothic rock act. Worse was the implication that he’d murder somebody just because they impugned his masculinity.

Not that Rumpled heeded the warning. “Maybe he’s here because he tried to whack Magnin?”

“Seriously, man, I can’t believe you fucking said that.”

“Oh, come on, no need for him to be shy. It’s not like we’re cops or the press or something. I’m just trying to be friendly.”

Morgan’s gaze bore into Rumpled. “Allow me to offer a little unsolicited advice in my professional capacity: shut the fuck up. This room is bugged. Everything you say here will be analyzed for potential use against you and anybody foolish or unfortunate enough to be stuck in here with you.”

“Aw, come on,” said Knuckles. “The police ain’t that bad, they’re supposed to be the good guys. It’s not like the old days.”

“They were supposed to be the good guys back then, too,” said Morgan, unable to resist the temptation to teach. “Most of them even were. But that never stopped the sort who would empty an entire magazine into an unarmed man because of the way he pulled out his wallet. Nor did it stop the bad ones from sodomizing a guy with a broom handle and lying about how he resisted arrest after beating the shit out of him.”

Diallo and Louima were among several infamous incidents that Morgan had been assigned to study during his training as an Adversary. It was an Adversaries job to ensure that those in authority remained accountable for their actions and to prosecute those who chose to abuse their positions of power, even if they were cops. Watchmen they might be, but his business was to watch the watchmen8 while being watched over himself by machines of loving grace9, though he doubted most of the Sephiroth would find that flattering.

“It’s been a kinder, gentler NYPD ever since the Phoenix Society took over the job internal affairs bureaus tried and failed to do because of their divided loyalties. At least they behave themselves in public. They’ve learned subtlety, which is why — if you value your lives and liberty — you will keep your mouths shut except to demand a lawyer or stand on your right to remain silent.”

“Man, you sound like you’ve got a serious beef with the police.”

It was the first thing Rumpled had said that resembled an intelligent comment. “It’s their job to catch criminals. Part of my job is making sure they don’t trample other people’s rights in the process. If I can do that by preventing violations in the first place, it’s better for everybody involved.”

Morgan kept the rest to himself. If he couldn’t prevent violations, it often fell to him to identify those responsible and prove their guilt. For those convicted of the crimes of tyranny or exploitation there remained but one possible future: exile to a penal habitat orbiting Uranus from which there would be no return.

Many accused of such crimes preferred death at an Adversary’s hand. It was then that Morgan acted in his true capacity as a member of the Phoenix Society’s secret black ops division, the Iscariotine Order. If he was not the first Adversary on the case, it was because another had withdrawn for their own safety or had died in the line of duty.

Though law and duty alike demanded that he stay his hand and ensure that every tyrant and exploiter brought to his attention lived to stand trial, Morgan often welcomed an excuse to put such filth to the sword since their guilt was already thoroughly documented, the Society’s case all but ironclad. However, it was not hatred or righteous indignation alone that drove him but a sense of mercy, for becoming an unperson on Earth while being exiled to the outer reaches of the solar system seemed a crueler punishment than a swift, clean death.

Something of Morgan’s thoughts must have shown in his face, because the suit had lost some of the blustery confidence with which he had gained — and perhaps even earned — his place in middle management. “You’re not on the job now are you? Have a bagel and chill. Seems a shame to waste the spread. It’s not like they’re charging us for it.”

Apparently Morgan wasn’t the only one who distrusted the hospitality, because Knuckles muttered something that sounded like ‘pomegranate seeds’. He rolled his eyes as his boss helped himself to a cup of coffee before spreading lox over an everything bagel. “If they didn’t have his DNA before, they will now.

“Not that they will need it to convict this asshole. Cops think I decked him, but I didn’t. If I was gonna do that, I would have done it the day before the Solstice when that rat bastard insisted I not only work the holiday on-site but go out drinking with him and the rest of the team afterward.” Knuckles trailed off, muttering something about how his husband and wife were going to kill him and ain’t nobody was getting paid enough for this shit.

Morgan sympathized; he had no shortage of occasions to suspect he wasn’t getting paid enough for the hassles he faced on the jobs. Even if he had been inclined to express his sympathy, he had not been granted the time. The holding cell door opened, and a uniformed officer stuck his head in. “Cooper! You’re up. Time you answered for the murder of your ex.”

Rather than comply, Morgan stretched, settled back in his seat, and crossed his legs. “No need for me to get up; I can say everything I intend to say here. I already understand my rights and I won’t answer questions without an attorney present. I invoke the right to silence under the Revised Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

“So, that’s how you want to play it? Fine with me.” The officer’s faux-genial smile became a sneer. Looking over his shoulder, he barked an order. “Bring him to the white room.”

Morgan did not resist; when the officers flanking him lifted him to his feet. When they pushed and shoved him, he walked. He did not raise his voice in anger, let alone a hand. There was no need. Everything he saw and heard was being recorded. Those who needed to know what was happening already did; he had gotten word from Naomi’s household daemon Wolfgang before his maglev had arrived in Grand Central Station, and the same alert had gone to his own daemon Astarte. Presumably the Phoenix Society knew that he and Naomi were in the custody of the NYPD and MEPOL respectively, and were acting accordingly. If these officers wanted to rough him up in the meantime, he could take it. He had taken worse, and they would eventually get theirs without him having to so much as clench a fist.

He smiled as he arrived in the white room. It was aptly named; the floor, walls, ceiling, furniture, and fixtures were all dead white with no relief for the eye. It was meant to be a kind of sensory deprivation; his only meals would probably be white rice in a white bowl to be eaten with white utensils. As they brought him in, he laughed at them. “All the comforts of home. You really know how to make a guy welcome.”

The officer who had brought him in slugged him; he had a decent left hook. Morgan spat out a tooth along with some blood. It hurt, but he’d get over it. He’d even grow a new incisor in a couple of weeks. “There. Now the room has a bit of color.”

“Clean that up,” the lead officer barked, and one of the juniors who had brought Morgan in set to with a will. The lead glared at Morgan. “You provoked me on purpose. You think we don’t have you figured out? You’re gonna be begging to talk by the time we’re done with you.”

“Perhaps, but not to you,” said Morgan. “I’ve found that investigative reporters make a rather more appreciative audience. Keep me here as long as you dare, but I won’t even tell you my name without an attorney present as is my right.”

“I already know your name, asshole. It’s the number of your cell. Zero.”

Turning inward, he took advantage of his implant’s storage capacity. It wasn’t much compared to what even the oldest and cheapest household AIs boasted, a mere ten terabyte instead of a hundred exabytes or so, but that was more than enough to store the literature of the world in plain text, at least the vast majority of said writing that was in the public domain. Selecting Crime and Punishment since he had not quite finished it during his previous incarceration, he settled onto his cot and set about reading it aloud from the beginning in the original Russian; it was not a language he got to speak often and he wanted the practice. He did not, contrary to his usual courteous wont, bother to take off his boots. He was only halfway through before the cell door opened again, but it was not a police officer who stepped inside and interrupted him.

Chapter 5

Naomi Bradleigh: 24th Precinct, 22 December, 21:13 - 100 years after Nationfall

Naomi stared up at the entrance to the NYPD precinct where both Claire and Malkuth had insisted Morgan was being held captive. Of the two reports, Naomi lent greater weight to Claire’s; she was not an AI servitor of the Phoenix Society and answered only to her own conscience — even if that conscience permitted her to gleefully penetrate systems where she wasn’t welcome for the same reason people once climbed Everest and now pitted themselves against Olympus Mons. She had lost count of how often she had wished she still had her sword at her hip. Even the plain Nakajima blade she ordinarily wore would have bolstered her confidence, but the other would have let her defy all but the most determined opposition if she dared wear it in public.

She had only brought it out of its shielded case the night of the Winter Solstice because she was one of the few who understood what her midnight visitor truly was, and thus understood that ordinary steel was no defense against him. It would doubtless be overkill in this situation, but though she had longed to be rid of it for years having it taken from where it had laid across her lap had not been what she had in mind. She could only hope that Isaac Magnin had spirited away the eigengrau blade for his own reasons; he at least was familiar enough with that weapon’s esoteric to show the proper respect while handling it.

“You all right, Nims?” Only her friends called her that, and Jacqueline Russo had been that since they had served as Adversaries together almost twenty years ago. “You keep trying to rest your hand on a sword-hilt that isn’t there.”

“Long habit, I suppose,” said Naomi. “This is a situation where I’d rather have one but not need it, if you get my meaning.”

“I might have something handy,” said Claire. The young technician had insisted on coming along despite having already finished her part in the business of setting the stage for Naomi’s effort to rescue Morgan. Rummaging in her bag, she pulled out a compact baton. With a snap of the wrist that implied more experience than Naomi had expected of a young woman whose experience of physical combat came mostly from dream sequencer action-RPGs like Heartless Souls, Claire extended the baton to its full length. “See? You can kneecap a few of the bastards if you need to.”

Naomi allowed herself a sigh of relief, glad that Claire was being serious for once. She had half-expected her semi-adopted niece — who as actually Jackie’s — to pull out something better-suited to the bedroom than the battlefield or a street fight. “Thanks, but you might want to hold onto that.”

“Nims is right,” said Jackie as she unbuckled her own baldric and offered it. “She’s here to get a friend out of jail, not kneecap somebody who stiffed her on pay for a dirty job.”

Claire had the grace to blush a little as Jackie gave Naomi a pointed look. “I might be lending you my sword as a friend, Nims, but as your solicitor I must insist that this is not a good idea. I’m not authorized to practice law in New York so I can’t come in with you, and you’re too personally involved as Morgan’s friend and bandmate.”

Naomi accepted the sword and strapped it on. The belt was set for a right-hand draw, but she would manage. Despite being left-handed, she had often practiced fighting right-handed so that if her dominant hand were unavailable she could continue the fight with weapons more effective than harsh language and righteous indignation. She drew the weapon and tested its balance. It was a standard-issue Adversary’s service blade and heavier in her hand than she was used to, but Naomi had no intention of insulting her friend by refusing what little help Jackie could offer. “Thanks, Jackie, but I can handle it from here.”

“Doesn’t Morgan have an attorney?”

“Yeah. Somebody from Tipton, Downing, and Halford. But they’ve buggered off for the Solstice and they’re refusing all communications.”

“Bloody typical,” said Claire. “Why can’t the Phoenix Society deal with it, then?”

Naomi tapped the brooch of office pinned to her coat. “The Society is dealing with it.”

She had ascended the steps and thrown open the lobby door before her companions could respond. She had already said too much by implying that she was still an active officer of the Phoenix Society. It was not a lie, but she was reluctant to explain the nature of her long-term assignment without a clear need-to-know that neither Jackie nor Claire possessed. Though she could not explain Operation Enkidu, Morgan was still her charge as well as her friend; she was responsible not only for his safety, but the safety of those around him. It was for this purpose that she had been entrusted with the blade with which she had greeted Isaac Magnin; should an einherjar like Morgan run amok it might prove the only weapon capable of stopping him with a single blow.

The desk sergeant gave Naomi a once-over. “Ma’am, if this isn’t an emergency I’ve got to ask you to leave and use the warmline.”

He had used the same officious but solicitous tone that her visitors to MEPOL as an Adversary had made cloyingly familiar, and though Naomi had refrained from drawing the borrowed sword her hand had tightened on the hilt. She had already had a bellyful of such false courtesy lacquering otherwise naked contempt from her hosts at MEPOL, who had done everything they could to get her to confess to Christabel’s murder without opening themselves to charges that would bring the Phoenix Society on them like the vengeful fist of an unforgiving God. Never mind that since murder was a human rights violation it was more properly within the Phoenix Society’s purview rather than that of either MEPOL or the NYPD. “I’m here on orders from the Phoenix Society. If Morgan Cooper isn’t down here in fifteen minutes, I am going to tear this place apart until I find him.”

The desk sergeant scrunched down in his seat, possibly because her feline pupils had narrowed into slits. Though Naomi often tried to downplay the unsettling effect her scarlet eyes had on those unfamiliar with her, she was in no mood to do the work necessary to make people comfortable with her tonight. It had been a long day, one she should have spent in the company of her family even if they asked uncomfortable questions about when she was going to find Mr. Right, settle down, and provide her share of the grandchildren. Though in her case, Naomi suspected they might slip and say ‘grandkittens’ instead.

Naomi leaned over the desk, her hand still on the hilt of her sword. “You are in touch with your superiors, I trust. I know you don’t have the authority to order my fellow Adversary’s release.”

An unexpected voice came from behind her. It was roughened by too much whiskey, tobacco, and cannabis. “Nims, nobody in this building has the authority to order Morgan’s release,” said Edmund Cohen around a smoldering cigar.

The desk sergeant found his spine. “Look, man, you can’t smoke that in here.”

Taking a place beside Naomi, Edmund ground out the cigar on the sergeant’s desk. “Happy now, arsehole?”

“Christ, Eddie,” said another man. To Naomi’s not unalloyed delight, it was Syd Reeves. He and Eddie often worked with Morgan, and the three of them along with Claire were the hard core that kept Morgan balanced. “This guy’s just doing his job.”

“So are we,” said Edmund, “and he isn’t getting paid enough to fuck with us.”

Naomi arched an eyebrow at her unexpected backup. “Are either of you getting paid enough to be here? It is the day after the Solstice after all.”

Edmund bristled. “What kind of fair-weather friends to you take us for?”

“The sort who should be at home with their families?”

“The way you should be?” Syd had turned Naomi’s line on her, but she could not blame him; she had walked right into it. “Eddie’s right, by the way. The reason we didn’t show up sooner is that we were digging into what happened. People high up in MEPOL and NYPD had beefs with you and Morgan, and they seized on whatever happened to Christabel as an excuse to bring you two in. Their excuse was that because Morgan is einherjar, he represents a potential threat to public safety that justifies the use of emergency powers.”

“And they thought the Phoenix Society would swallow that?” Naomi shook her head. “Never mind. All of that can wait.” She turned back to the desk sergeant. “Do you know where Morgan Cooper is being held?”

“Yes, but—”

“Fuck your but,” said Eddie. He drew a pistol. “Get off your arse and lead us to him.”

Syd tried to reason with the desk sergeant. “If he really is a legitimate suspect in the murder of Christabel Crowley, then he’s the Phoenix Society’s responsibility and we’re taking him.”

“I don’t think he’s going to let us through on his own,” said Naomi.

“Fine,” said Edmund. “I’ll just kneecap him so he can tell his bosses he was under duress.”

Naomi shook her head. “Dammit, Eddie, what good do you think that will do?”

Edmund shrugged. “Well, he can get workers’ comp on top of his overtime pay.”

“Not what she meant,” said Syd. “Keeping Morgan from becoming a poster child for AI gone bad is her job, anyway, so why not let Nims run this op?”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Edmund holstered his pistol before producing a fresh cigar. “I get paid the same either way.”

«Put that away, Cohen.» Naomi switched to secure relay chat; since they were carrying out an operation there was no reason to keep speaking aloud where they could be overheard and recorded. «We might antagonize these people, but let’s not do so gratuitously.»

«Yes, ma’am.» The wrapper crinkled faintly as Cohen complied with Naomi’s first order.

The elevator was taking its sweet time in descending to the ground floor. A floor plan appeared in the bottom right corner of Naomi’s field of view as Claire joined the chat. It was not the first time she had provided such support, which should have come from Malkuth, but she was willing to engage in tactics the Sephiroth would not condone. An icon resembling a cat emoji appeared over Naomi’s position. «Dammit, Claire. We’re not playing games here.»

Syd chuckled. «At least we’re in the right castle, Nims. Check the basement map.»

There were two, helpfully labeled ‘B1F’ and ‘B2F’. On the second, Naomi found a second that resembled a pixellated princess. «Do you do this to Morgan, too?»

«I’ve done worse to him. Ask him about the Blackheath job sometime.»

Blackheath was not one of Naomi’s happier memories. Without first seeking advice from the adults in her life, Claire had signed up to be a paid tester in a new MMORPG that used computer-guided lucid dreaming technology that had previously been used only by the Phoenix Society for training sims and tests like the Milgram Battery. To her it was a chance at bragging rights for being able to explore a game before release and become part of its pantheon of badass players. Unfortunately for her and the other players, the developers had not been entirely honest about the risks involved in testing their new gaming tech, or how the ‘revolutionary artificial intelligence’ with which they provided tailored experiences actually worked. The extraction operation had involved two fronts — Morgan in the virtual world because he could see through the nightmare sequencer’s illusions, and Naomi in the real — and was only a success in the sense that most of the people Blackheath exploited ultimately survived.

«Incoming.» The elevator dinged to indicate it had finally begun its descent, and another message from Claire came through. «Load sensors suggest four hostiles aboard.»

«I’ve got this,» said Syd, unslinging his rifle. He set the AK to full auto, as if intending to sweep the elevator’s interior with fire as soon as the doors opened. He’d take out at least two that way, leaving the others for Naomi and Edmund to handle as he reloaded. Edmund, in the meantime, had drawn his pistol again.

«For fuck’s sake, put those damned things away,» Naomi snapped. Though curiosity about why the men behind her seemed so trigger-happy today nagged at her, she filed it away for later. «I don’t even have my sword out, and you’re ready to gun down a bunch of cops? We’re just here to get Morgan, remember?»

«Hold fire,» said Claire. «I just got access to the elevator’s camera. It’s two officers, unarmed, with two civilians. Repeat: hold fire

«Well, shit.» Syd lifted his finger off the trigger and thumbed the safety back on. He lowered his weapon as Eddie did the same. «You’re getting slow in your old age, Claire.»

«Eat me. I’m still fast enough to save your arse from getting court-martialed.»

«Children, please.» This from Eddie, who was indeed old enough to get away with speaking thus to the rest of them.

The elevator opened, and Claire’s updated assessment proved accurate. A pair of officers came out, escorting a civilian in a rumpled suit who sported a black eye and a split lip and another with skinned knuckles. One of the officers was plainly a fresh-faced rookie, and her eyes widened in shock at the sight of the three Adversaries before them, two in full combat dress with firearms at the ready. She looked directly at Naomi. “It’s not what you think. We didn’t rough these guys up. They were like this when they came in.”

“We’re not here for them,” said Naomi. “I’m here for Morgan Stormrider. About my height and almost as pale with long black hair and bright green eyes.”

“Don’t tell her anything,” said the other cop. “She’s a fuckin’ Adversary.”

“Yeah, and she’s one of the nice ones,” said Edmund. “Me, I’d just as soon shoot the both of you and step over your carcasses to find my friend, but I’m restraining myself because it’s just after the Winter Solstice and Naomi’s sentimental.”

The rookie’s eyes widened. “You’re Naomi Bradleigh?”

No, you twit, I’m her bloody understudy. Naomi held back the urge to snap at the rookie; it would not help her get what she wanted. “Yes, I am. If you’d like an autograph we can get you sorted as soon as I’ve seen to Morgan. Where is he?

The rookie glanced at her partner again before answering. “He’s in the white room. Orders from the top said he was a danger to himself and everybody around him.”

She scurried past Naomi, and her partner soon followed. The prisoner with the skinned knuckles met Naomi’s gaze for a moment. He handed her a business card with an IP address scrawled across the back. “If you get Morgan Cooper out, tell him his advice saved my ass. Give him that card and tell him his next beer’s on me.”

Naomi pocked the card, but offered him no reply as he and his former boss left the precinct. Only her training had kept her from shivering; though she no longer possessed the Starbreaker she was sure she could feel something beneath her, a presence in the basement that did not belong in the world. «Claire, are you equipped to check for electromagnetic anomalies?»

«Why? Step in a cold spot or something?»

«I think there’s an angel on the premises.» It would not be the first time; angel attacks had become more frequent lately and dealing with them had proven the bulk of Morgan’s black ops work for the Phoenix Society. He had been made to deal with such entities, while Naomi had been equipped for it until recently. There was a resonance in the air that grated on her, a pitch too perfect that only an unfortunate few could hear which presaged the presence of a light that never warmed. «A Principality at the bare minimum.»

Syd checked his gear, and muttered a curse. «We’re not equipped for that.»

Edmund drew a pistol, grasped it by the muzzle, and offered it to Syd. «11.43mm, magnetized iron jacket. They won’t do much against a Principality, but it’s better than harsh language.»

Syd accepted the pistol as Eddie unslung his rifle, a Dragunov so old that its stock, handguard, and gas tube cover were wood so assiduously polished that they possessed a silken sheen. «What about you?»

Eddie patted his rifle, which he claimed to have looted in the Crimea during Nationfall. «Comrade Puffsky never loads anything but mag iron.» He glanced at Naomi a moment. «If there’s an angel down there, that would explain why we were all trigger-happy earlier.»

Naomi glared back at him. «I was hardly trigger-happy. If anything, I was keeping you two under control.»

«Yeah, and you look ready to treat me to some bare knuckle dentistry. The Song of Mastema isn’t hitting you like it did Syd and me, but you’re not immune. Depending on how long it’s been here, that might be why the police here have been violating Morgan’s due process rights.»

Before Naomi could say anything, Claire interrupted. «Things are just a touch more complicated than we thought. I’ve been checking internal sensors. There are three electromagnetic anomalies broadcasting polyphonic infrasound.»

A scream from below forestalled Naomi’s response, and Claire continued. «Nims, don’t go down there. Those cops are killing each other. They’ll turn on you, too.»

A craven voice masquerading as cold rationality, one Naomi typically ignored, spoke up from the shadowy depths of her subconscious. You’re here to rescue Morgan. Let his captors murder each other and be damned to them. As long as Morgan remains alone in the white room you can extract him at leisure.

A strong, weighty hand on her shoulder drew her back to the real world. Rather than use his implant, Syd spoke. His tone was formal and deferential, a reminder of the responsibility she bore. “Your orders, Ms. Bradleigh?”

«Claire, get paramedics down here but advise them to avoid entry until I give the word.» She stepped into the elevator. “Follow me. If we can get Morgan out quickly enough, he can help us deal with the angels. Afterward, we can provide first aid to any survivors.”

Chapter 6

Morgan Cooper: 24th Precinct, 22 December, 21:13 - 100 years after Nationfall

The cat was up to his usual tricks. Plainly Morgan had been away from home too long, so Mordred had come looking for him. That he was two stories underground and locked away inside an all-white padded cell with an active built-in Faraday cage was no obstacle; if Mordred wanted to be with his person then he damned well would be. If anybody had ever bothered to tell him that he could not simply go wherever he wanted and that animals were generally not allowed in human spaces unless they had been specially trained, he had gleefully disregarded the message.

It helped that Mordred was a coon cat in a tuxedo; he looked the purrfect gentleman in a gleamng black coat with white paws, long white whiskers, a white belly, chest, and throat, and a white-tipped tail that curled at the end as he held it up high. Few had the ability or inclination to say no to such a handsome fellow. Those who did, Mordred disregarded with impunity because nobody with any sense was going to grab a cat the size of a reasonably large dog by the scruff of the neck. Furthermore, anybody who tried more often than not ended up with a handful of nothing.

Morgan had no idea whether the cat walked through walls or teleported to his side. Perhaps he did both, depending on the situation10. Not that it mattered at the moment. What mattered was that Mordred’s purring had edged into the ultrasonic, something he did only did in particular situations.

The purring troubled Morgan; it was not the slow rumble of sleepy contentment that often lulled Morgan to sleep, or the faster, higher-pitched purring punctuated by meowing by which cats cajoled their people into working the can opener faster. This was not truly purring at all, but a sound meant to cancel — or at least mask — a pernicious infrasound that had been pervading the entire subbasement in which Morgan’s cell had been nestled in a corner farthest from the stairs and elevator.

He knew what it meant. There was an angel here, its song provoking hostility in all who heard it. Those who struggled hardest against it suffered most; their control crumbled, leaving them in the grip of a psychotic rage that made them a danger to themselves and those around them.

Despite the efforts made to isolate prisoners within the white cell, the violence outside remained palpable. The ferrous tang of blood teased him before being whisked away by the ventilation system. At least one poor bastard had voided themselves in terror, and doubtless at least one had found a cure for their constipation on the edge of a sword.

Somebody outside was struggling with the door to Morgan’s cell. The latch rattled, as if whoever was outside was too panic-stricken to remember that they needed to unlock it first.

As the lock released, Morgan closed the book he had been reading with his implant and stood. He would have to deal with whoever was about to enter, because it was unlikely to be a friend coming to his rescue. “Get behind me,” he said to Mordred as he stood and cracked his knuckles.

The cat understood Morgan well enough, for he complied with the instruction. His fur bristled as he settled into a defensive crouch. He was low to the ground, his throat and belly thus better protected, but his tail thrashed about as if he were ready to spring to the attack. Morgan, meanwhile, had let instinctive abilities activate. The air around him seemed to solidify, and a magnetic field emanating from him played havoc with his implant and cut him off from the network. An electric charge gathered in his left hand; if he wanted to he could electrocute somebody at a touch — or project a short blade of crackling plasma with which to rend an enemy asunder.

The door opened, and a uniformed officer staggered inside before slamming the door shut behind him. He was only a couple years younger than Morgan, and something in his expression reminded him of an impetuous mistake from his past. The name-tag pinned to his chest identified him as ‘Donovan’. The scabbard for his service gladius flapped empty against his thigh; in his haste he had not done a proper job of strapping on his swordbelt. “You’ve gotta help me, man. They’re trying to murder each other out there.”

Donovan reached out to Morgan, but he raised a hand in warning. “Don’t touch me.”

“Sorry, but you’ve gotta —”

The infrasound had gotten stronger; its source was approaching, and it was all Morgan could do to resist the inaudible song permeating him and tempting him to kill. “Shut up. Get behind me.”

The officer obeyed. To Morgan’s surprise, Mordred head-butted him and rubbed his face against his. To Morgan’s further surprise, Donovan scratched behind Mordred’s ears and whispered, “Good kitty.”

A shape coalesced, a lobeless eye hidden by steel-feathered wings that themselves were studded with entirely too many eyes, all of which stared at Morgan. Mere millimeters separated its top from the ceiling and its bottom from the floor, and its width was such that there was no getting past it to the door. Though it had no mouth, a choir issued forth from it. “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts who calls thee home. Be not afraid, for thine end is nigh.”

Donovan had buried his head beneath his arms, whimpering for God to help him as he covered his ears. Blood seeped between his fingers; no doubt the angel had blown out his eardrums. Mordred had resumed his defensive crouch, hissing whenever the multitudinous eyes alit on him. He had placed himself between Donovan and the angel without getting in Morgan’s way.

“Your own end is far more imminent,” said Morgan, mastering the wrath by its song and its very presence. Such entities had no place in the world as Morgan understood it, a world whose governing principles were intelligible through science and reason. That they could harm or kill human beings with near-impunity offended him. Most of all, moments like these reminded Morgan of his burden. He was among the few who knew angels for anything but a figment of a devout imagination, and he was among the fewer still possessed of the ability to fight them. Regardless of his own desires, the purpose for which he and the other einherjar had been designed was to defy such powers.

“Do you not see that only death can save you?” The angel spread its wings and advanced upon Morgan. As they opened, the inner surfaces extruded long, hollow barbs. Morgan had seen what such barbs could do to a person. Though they were called angels, they preyed upon humans and animals as if they were some unholy bastard crossbreed between vampire bats and spiders. Once enveloped by their wings, an unprotected victim would be pierced in a hundred places, each barbed fang pumping into them a hallucinogenitic anticoagulant venom that filled their liquifying brains with visions of heaven as it drained them dry. Once it was done, it would drop the remnant husk of perforated skin and crushed bones before seeking a new victim.

Morgan had seen people die screaming this way, their voices melting from terror and agony to mindless bliss as the poison took hold. Once an angel had gotten to them, it was impossible to save them. The only way Morgan knew to fight them was to fling himself headlong into their embrace. Wings rustling metallic whispers wrapped about him; the inner barbs denting the armor of his defiance without piercing it or gaining purchase. The angel’s voice juddered through him. “What defiance is this? How can I deliver the Lord’s grace unto thee if thou refuseth it thus?”

“No kingdom shall come,” Morgan recited as he stiffened his left hand into a blade and plunged it through the pupil of the angel’s central eye. “Let my will be done on earth.” There was no practical reason for this poetry, it served mostly as a way for Morgan to steel his resolve and overcome what little remained of the religious awe his foster parents had tried to instill in him by taking him to church as a child. As the incadescent sword of his rage sprang forth, he finished the blasphemous haiku, “To hell with heaven.”

A blade of deep purple lightning pierced the angel, its tip extending a few centimeters from the back of its ruined eye. Wrenching his arm free, Morgan rent the angel asunder. Its constituent matter dissolved into subatomic particles as it died, its last whimper almost grateful. “…finally free…”

Donovan stared at the blade extending from the first two fingertips of Morgan’s left hand. “Holy shit. You are that guy. I can’t fuckin’ believe it.”

“This is hardly the time,” said Morgan, wrapping his fury about him like a coat of cold fire. “I’ll try to save as many as I can on my way out. Stay behind me and provide first aid.”

With a few slashes of his blade he had cut the cell door from its hinges and kicked it down. The death of one angel had not ended the threat; at least two more remained based on the infrasound still assaulting him, and Morgan meant to end them before they harmed anybody else.

Contrary to his instructions, Donovan had gotten in front of him, frantically waving his arms. “Wait. Don’t you remember me? This is the second time you saved me. Remember the fire? That high-rise?”

Morgan recalled that night more vividly than he cared to. Crammed full of youthful idealism11, he had slipped past professional firefighters who had written off the last few occupants at the top floor of a burning tenement as beyond salvation. Though he had almost gotten himself killed, he had managed to save most of the occupants and kill the angel responsible for the conflagration. It had brought him to the Phoenix Society’s attention and warped the trajectory of his life. As tempting as it was to blame Donovan, Morgan fought it down. It had been his choice, and without it he might not have met Naomi or his other friends, become a prog rock musician, toured the world or gone to the Moon as part of Crowley’s Thoth, or made for himself a life that possessed more cause for celebration than regret. “If we both survive this I’ll sign an autograph.”

Most of the men and women Morgan passed were only superficially wounded. Perhaps the hostility that had driven them to violence had not only made them too angry to think straight, but too angry to remember how to fight effectively with their service blades. Most of those they found had cast aside their blades in order to grapple bare-handed with one another, ineffectually flailing at one another as Morgan pulled them apart.

Still wrapped in his preternatural armor, none of them could touch Morgan. However, there was little he could do for them besides help Donovan restrain them, get them into separate cells, and lock them in. Mordred had also pitched in, helping to calm those amenable to being kneaded and snuggled by a big cat, but it had been no substitute for first aid. He had not been geared up for work at the time of his arrest, and had not yet retrieved his luggage either, so the supplies Donovan had found were all they had. Fortunately, he had been making efficient and effective use of the few resources they possessed. “They’re going to feel like schmucks when they’re themselves again.”

“No shit,” said Donovan. “But we’re running out of —”

The shock widening Donovan’s eyes had been all the warning Morgan need. Whirling about, he bisected another angel with a backhanded slash from his plasma blade as it opened its wings to embrace him. The infrasound permeating the subcellar weakened further, and as it did so Morgan’s hostility further abated.

It abated further still as gunshots rang out, replaced by a shriek of polyphonic rage. Whoever Morgan’s allies were, they lacked sufficient firepower to kill the remaining angel outright, but they had hurt it badly. It would surely retaliate with redoubled fury once it figured out that the assault it had faced was more shocking than painful. “I’ve got to get to whoever took a shot at the last angel,” said Morgan. Straining his ears, he caught a big of song. It was faint from distance, barely making it through the thick concrete walls, but it the singer possessed a voice with which Morgan was long familiar. He smiled at Donovan. “Today’s your lucky day. You might get Naomi Bradleigh’s autograph, too.”

Chapter 7

Isaac Magnin: The AsgarTech Building, 22 December, 23:58 - 100 years after Nationfall

Picture it. The noble, elegant heroine and her companions making a desperate stand against a foe they cannot hope to outmatch. Despite their efforts, they are on the verge of being overwhelmed. But wait! An antihero appears, unsympathetic to the audience but not without virtues of his own. He defeats the foe. He gets the girl. The credits roll. And the screen goes dark until the next episode in our thrilling saga.

You’ve seen this show before, but you’ll not see it like this. Under no circumstances would the NYPD tolerate the release of closed-circuit television footage showing officers at one of their precincts slowly going mad, placing an innocent man in a torture chamber, and then turning on each other. Not when that footage shows the man they allowed to be tortured breaking out and saving lives.

It would hardly make for good propaganda, you see. One can hardly manufacture consent for law enforcement when those charged with enforcing the law are shown to violate it — especially at the expense of popular entertainers who by day wield their swords in the service of liberty and equal justice under law for all.

Nevertheless, I have the footage. If you hold any position of authority, no matter how minor, everything you see and hear on the job is recorded, retained by the Phoenix Society, and data-mined for evidence of wrongdoing on your part. If we find such evidence, we build an ironclad case against you, and then send an Adversary to collect you and prove your guilt in the appropriate court of law. Thus I can see the angel attack on the NYPD’s twenty-fourth precinct from as many angles as I please through the eyes of the witnesses.

It is for this reason that I am especially pleased with Abram Mellech tonight. You might recognize him as a somewhat shady televangelist who sells indulgences to those possessed of more money and guilt than sense through Agape Ministries, a premium retailer in stairways to heaven. I know him as the ensof Adramelech and a pastor to some conveniently heretical sects like the Congregation of the Repentant in Christ. He possesses a certain facility for the projection of multiple avatars, and an artist’s touch in giving form to others’ nightmares.

He sat opposite my desk in Puritan black, his overcoat draped across his lap betraying the merest hint of a silk lining resembling the tailfeathers of a peacock. It was a fitting representation of his hypocrisy: a sybarite making a public show of ascetic piety that allowed him to easily ingratiate himself with our mutual enemy. Though he could have played the parts of the killer angels himself, he had persuaded Sabaoth to part with three of his own by suggesting that without the dark sword she usually carried my daughter would be particularly vulnerable.

In fairness, Naomi would have been if Morgan had not been there despite possessing gifts of her own. Morgan would not have been able to save as many as he had if not for her presence. Her voice had counteracted to an extent the songs of the angels, soothing the hostility their voices incited in all who heard them.

Adramelech must have intuited the direction of my thoughts, for this was the first thing he said to me after we had dismissed with the ritual social niceties in which we engaged just in case humans were underfoot. “Naomi Bradleigh’s song has grown stronger with time. Was her being a natural siren part of your design?”

A worthy question, but not one I would answer because that would reveal the identity of her mother. A gentleman does not kiss and tell. Furthermore, I had hoped that Naomi would prove possessed of the sort of broad-spectrum talent for thaumaturgy with which my brother Desdinova and I had had been graced. We were true flowseekers, wizards whose magic took on myriad subtle forms, whereas my daughter’s gift lay in the ability to influence emotion through song. Nevertheless, Adramelech was right. Her song had grown stronger. “There wasn’t the usual spike in psychological trauma that usually follows an angel attack.”

“Exactly,” said Adramelech. “When angels leave survivors, it tends to be good business for shrinks and shamans. But none of the survivors have sought psychological help or spiritual counsel. They’re more concerned with making sure they didn’t hurt each other too badly than with the implications of what they saw.”

“And you think hearing my daughter sing insulated them from the existential terror people ordinarily experience when the supernatural proves merely preternatural?”

“I think you need to reconsider your approach to engineering deicide.”

about the author

photo of a pale, blue-eyed man in a black coat with long brown hair outdoors in the winter

writes science fantasy inspired by heavy metal and has a day job as a software developer. He is currently writing a new novel called Spiral Architect. He'll use your pronouns, but doesn't care which ones you use with him. You can reach him at