Chapter 9: Empathy for the devil
Copyright © 2015 by Brian Bixby
Back to Amelia’s rooms for yet another meeting. We’re the last ones to arrive. Amelia gives me a nasty look. “Just where have you been, Harry?”
“After I talked to Stan, I went for a drive. I began to feel sick, so I went over to see Dr. Rowe. She put me up for the night. After we all had breakfast, I came here with Sanderson.” I try to make it sound believable.
Amelia looks unconvinced. She turns to Sanderson. “This true?”
Sanderson shrugs. That seems to be her usual attitude. “I wouldn’t know about him driving around, but he did turn up at our place feeling sick and did spend the night on a couch and have breakfast with us this morning, so, yeah, that much is true.” I have to admit her answer is devious: literally true while implying more than it says.
Amelia looks at us both, and then waves us along. “Sit down. We’ve got too much to cover to waste time on this now.”
I sit down beside Keller in the couch. Sanderson takes a chair beside Amelia. I catch Stan Yee out of the corner of my eye, and he gives me a smile and a wink. Good old Stan.
Amelia sees we’re all ready. “Sanderson came to me with a disturbing theory last night. At first I dismissed it, but after some consideration, I called Valerie Thompson and had her check into some angles with the demon’s previous killings. So far, they support Sanderson’s theory.” She looks over to Sanderson.
Sanderson picks up her cue from Amelia. “As most of you have found out by now, I’m not a regular employee of your agency. I’m a part-time small town cop with a weird hand. But Mac, my boss, is a real cop, and some of it has rubbed off.
“Mac tells me to look for breaks in the flow. Up to his arrival in Farnham, this killer demon just struck and vanished. That was the flow. But here, he’s returned, and he’s set all sorts of lethal traps for magicians. That’s a break in the flow. It has to be significant. I think the demon’s led you all on a trail so you’d send people to stop him, and his real mission is to kill a magician, maybe more than one, among the ones you’d be most likely to send. Harry being the top demon killer in this region, he’s the most likely target. Since I’m here, and Valerie Thompson would send Deecee out to help me, she has to be the next likely target.”
Stan asks, “Wouldn’t that mean you’re a more likely target than Young?”
Sanderson grimaces. “If a demon wanted to kill me, it could just try to come get me. Wouldn’t need all this set-up. But, yeah, I’m here, and it came here. That’s why Amelia insists I’m third. And she’s nominated herself as the fourth most likely target, since there was a good chance she’d be sent out to stop a demon that’s killed so many people. The rest of you came here from elsewhere because you weren’t working on anything important just then, so we don’t think you’re likely targets, though maybe the demon would enjoy killing you anyhow.”
It makes sense, at least in general. I mean it explains why a powerful demon is engaging in such trivial work as random killings. I can see people around the room nodding in agreement. Amelia adds, “Val confirms that the demon doesn’t seem to have booby-trapped any prior locations, which supports Sanderson’s theory that the demon was up to something special here.”
Ben Keller speaks up. “It’s a good theory. But it has one fatal flaw. The demon had a chance to kill Harry, Amelia, and you, Sanderson. Young, too, if it had wanted. So why are you still alive?”
You can feel the mood shift in the room. Sanderson makes a rueful face. “I admit that’s a problem. Maybe something went wrong. Maybe the demon’s pursuing its own agenda now.”
And then Polly Joshi pipes up. “I think I may be able to explain that, Ben. If I may.” She looks to Sanderson and Amelia for confirmation.
Polly is not a great talker. Amelia looks surprised and puzzled, but nods. Polly takes that for agreement and continues. “The crux of the problem is that the demon took over Young, who’s an empath. Most magicians are telepathic, so empathy doesn’t count for much among the Office’s magicians. It’s vague, confusing, and why worry about it when you can alter any kind of thought? But it is a specialty. And like every specialty, it has aspects that most non-empaths don’t know about or understand. Anyone here know why empaths generally don’t work together on a case?”
Everyone looks blank, except Stan, who raises his hand.
Polly kindly chides him. “You would know.”
Stan gives Polly a weary smile. “If it makes you feel any better, it was another empath who told me. Empaths resonate with each other. They either become friends or enemies, and they can’t tell which until they meet.”
Polly gives Stan a smile. God, she’s got such wonderful brown skin and eyes. She tells us, “Stan’s got it right. We empaths don’t like to make enemies of each other, and we’re worried we can’t be objective about our empathic friends.” She looks over to Sanderson. “You’re an empath, though I can’t say I’ve quite seen the likes of you before. Quick, without thinking about it, who in this room would you most trust with your life?”
Sanderson immediately replies, “You.” And then she shakes her head. “But I don’t even know you. We haven’t even had a conversation. Why did I say that?”
“Because we’re empaths, Sanderson. Because if you asked me the same question, I’d have to say it’s you, even though I know everyone in this room better in a conventional way, save Amelia. Because we do know each other better than we know anyone else in the room. We know we can trust each other. How quickly did you feel you could trust Eurydice Young?”
Sanderson takes a long time before she replies. “You mean it was this empathy thing? That’s it? That’s why she’s my friend?” She looks very troubled by what she’s said.
Polly waits a bit herself, watching Sanderson’s face look increasingly dismayed, and then shouts at her. “Buck up, Sanderson. You have this marvelous gift, and all you can do is think that your friendship with Young is a fake, that she somehow betrayed you?”
Polly’s made a mistake. Sanderson is staring back at Polly, and I see tears in her eyes and rolling down her face. She starts to say something, and then just buries her face in her hands and starts sobbing.
No one’s saying anything. Polly’s shedding a few tears herself. In a very quiet voice, she says, “She knew and she didn’t tell you about this. That’s what you’re thinking, Sanderson, that she knew about this and didn’t tell you, and you think she betrayed you. But you’re an empath. You know why she wouldn’t have told you this. Tell me why Young didn’t tell you about this.”
I’ve seen an empath do this before. Polly has triggered something very deep in Sanderson, and she has to work through it, not just for Sanderson’s sake, but for her own as well.
Sanderson sobs a bit longer and then stops. Without lifting her head from her hands, she says, “Because she would have been afraid. She would have been afraid she’d lose my friendship.” Sanderson looks up, tears covering her face. “I wouldn’t have done that to her. I wouldn’t.” And then she breaks down into tears again. “I don’t know. Maybe I would have.”
“You have such concern for her. Is that the sign of a fake friendship, Sanderson?” Polly is staring intently at Sanderson, care on her face.
Sanderson looks up at Polly again. Behind the tears, her face turns very, very hard. And so does her voice. “I don’t know. But Deecee must have known. She must have been afraid.”
Polly’s so deep into this that her hands are nervously twitching. “You call Young by her nickname, Deecee. I haven’t heard anyone here call you anything but Sanderson, but what does Deecee call you?”
Sanderson’s face softens until she looks wistful. “Seffie.”
Polly’s somehow turned the corner with Sanderson. I can feel everyone in the room heaving a sigh of relief. Very slowly and distinctly, Polly tells Sanderson, “You don’t let many people call you that, I’m sure. Think of how precious it was to Deecee to be able to call you that. You were friends. You are friends.” Polly lets that sink in and then addresses Amelia in that same quiet voice. “Sanderson and I need a few minutes to talk alone, and then we’ll come back and I’ll explain what all this has to do with the demon.”
Half an hour later we reassemble. Polly Joshi and Sanderson are sitting side by side. Sanderson has her feather-covered hand resting on Polly’s leg, and Polly has her hand resting on top of Sanderson’s. It’s a curiously intimate position, as if each is bearing the other one up, somehow.
Polly begins. “Before I got diverted in talking to Seffie, I was trying to explain about empaths. The point about empaths resonating is that we don’t only sense emotions, we can change them. We don’t do it very often. It feels wrong most of the time to try. But we can.”
Sanderson gives Polly a shy smile and addresses the rest of us. “I sometimes have to, uh, adjust people’s emotions when I tell their fortunes. I’m not doing anything to change their character, just trying to get them to tell me what they really want, but it still always feels kind of wrong.”
“Exactly.” Polly flashes a soft smile at Sanderson before turning back to us. “So imagine how this works with a demon. You’ve all been told empaths are especially susceptible to possession. And that’s true. But what do you think happens to the demon after he takes possession of an empath?”
Keller chimes in. “You’re suggesting that Young is influencing the demon that’s taken possession of her? Possessed people can’t do that to demons.”
“No, not normally. But Young is an empath. She would find what the demon is doing to her to be fundamentally wrong in a way the rest of you can’t understand. She would have to try to adjust the demon’s emotions to make them revert to her natural ones as long as he possesses her. It’s part of her nature as an empath. She could no more stop trying than you could stop breathing.”
Keller isn’t convinced. “Young’s a trainee, and the demon is apparently quite intelligent and powerful.”
“And so she couldn’t do it, right, Ben? She wouldn’t be powerful enough? How do you feel, Ben?” Polly looks around the room at all of us. “How do you all feel? Maybe a little sadder and quieter than you were when you first arrived here this morning? Maybe a few of you had to mop up some tears after Seffie and I had our scene? Well?”
There’s a long pause and then Marge speaks up. “I was ready to kill Harry when I saw him at first this morning. Now somehow I don’t have the heart for it.”
A very mild chuckle goes around the room. At least a few people have the grace to look at me apologetically. The rest of them look at each other. Amelia is one of the people who looks at me, and she does not look apologetic. Then she turns to Polly. “You’re saying you and Sanderson changed our emotional make-up without us even knowing?”
Polly nods. “Slipped right under your shields. It’s another reason empaths try not to work together unless they know they really like each other. We end up influencing everyone nearby at least a little, which can be disastrous if the empaths don’t get along. This time, though, the effect should be temporary. We weren’t trying to change you; it was more an accidental byproduct of our intense emotions. You should all go back to feeling normal in a couple of hours at most.”
Keller says, “I’m impressed. So what could Young do to the demon? Make it stop killing? Or maybe have her go back to the religious cult that raised her and kill them all?”
Polly starts to reply, but Sanderson interrupts her. “The demon didn’t kill us when it had the chance. I think Deecee stopped it.”
Keller looks skeptical still. “And now what?”
Sanderson swings her head to look at Polly. Polly answers Keller. “We don’t know. We think it most likely that Young will bend the demon into a new pattern of activity, but we don’t know what it will be.”
Amelia has been following this interchange for a while. Now she intervenes. “More importantly, whoever unleashed that demon is going to figure out that it’s not following its orders, eventually. We need to find that demon first.” She looks at Polly. “No more luck with the spirit trail?”
Polly shakes her head. “When it jumped to Deecee Young, it muddied its trail. I’ve got an idea that might work, but it will take some time to see.”
That is a letdown. Without a spirit trail, we’re going to have to wait until the demon does something to draw attention to itself, like kill more people.
Marge speaks up. “I have an idea I’d like to try that might help. I want Sanderson to try to raise the ghost of the demon’s previous host. He might be able to give us some idea of what the demon’s motivation is.”
Ben shakes his head. “The corpse is booby-trapped somehow. Could get nasty.”
Marge isn’t having it. “You bailed Polly out when she sprung the demon’s traps, didn’t you?”
“Of course, Stan and me.”
“Then I’ll expect you big tough men to protect Sanderson when she tries. And just to be on the safe side, I’ll assist. It’ll be a cold day in hell when any demon’s booby trap can take out four magicians.”
I don’t bother to remind people that the demon already did that once before.
We’re in the morgue again, which is a lot more crowded. Sanderson and Marge are standing on either side of the corpse, Stan and Ben are at the head and foot, I’m backing up Marge, Polly’s backing up Sanderson, and Amelia’s observing. The idea is defense-in-depth, three layers of magicians who should be able to defuse the booby trap, whatever it turns out to be. The big unknown, apart from what it is, is what sets it off.
Sanderson is preparing for her invocation with her silver, handkerchief, and whiskey, just like before. She’s supposed to join her left hand to Marge’s right so Marge can support her if anything goes wrong.
Sanderson finishes, holds her right hand over the corpse, feathers showing, and reaches to grasp Marge’s hand. But before she can do it, she snatches her hand back and takes a step back, too. We’re all wondering just what’s going on. Sanderson speaks to Marge. “Something’s wrong. I can feel energy building up in my hand.”
Almost the moment she finishes speaking, the corpse’s body starts to turn black. There’s an ugly roar, and the corpse vanishes into a black hole.
Ben Keller’s the first to say it. “Vortex!” he shouts, and begins erecting a magical barrier to contain it. Stan and I immediately follow. Marge steps back away from where the corpse was, which now looks like a dark, deep whirlpool.
It’s a powerfully aggressive vortex, expanding rapidly from the body. It simply overruns Keller’s first attempt to stop it.
Sanderson apparently has never seen or been warned of these portals to a hell before. She just stands there. Polly Joshi tries to pull at her, but in one brutal motion, Sanderson uses her left arm to push Polly away, flinging her back several feet and knocking her down onto the floor. Simultaneously a bright shaft of silver light strikes out from Sanderson’s right hand, going straight down into the vortex.
Keller, Yee, and I manage together to form a shield around the vortex. But we can’t get Sanderson on the other side of the shield from the vortex. She’s somehow linked to it by that shaft of light coming from her hand. We try two or three times, but any attempt we make to place a barrier between her and the vortex simply fails. The vortex keeps growing. As we watch in horror, it spreads under Sanderson’s feet. In seconds, she is standing on . . . nothing, apparently suspended over the vortex by the silver beam issuing from her hand, striking down into the heart of the vortex.
I’m preparing for the shock of the vortex expanding and hitting our barriers. But it doesn’t. It stops expanding. It halts.
And then Sanderson abruptly plummets into the vortex. In an instant, she’s out of sight. The vortex begins to shrink, closing off her only escape route out of a realm of demons.
I’m so horrified by what’s happened that I inadvertently step forward and cross the magical barrier I helped create. It collapses, and before I can step back, the shrinking vortex pulls me in.
End of chapter nine