I saw Verity that evening, once again in the dining hall.
“I’m not going to be able to come this weekend.” I told her.
“Oh, why not?” I scrutinised Verity’s face for any sign of what she was thinking.
“I’ve been assigned field work.” I gave up on discerning anything from her expression.
“Is that a good thing?”
“It’s a very normal thing.” If anything it was abnormal for me to have not done any field work as a first level acolyte, but I was never sent to do any back in London. “But I’ll be travelling over the weekend.”
“Ah, well good luck.” said Verity.
“Thanks.” I was going to need it. Luck, and preparation.
The plan was pretty simple. On Saturday I would drive up to the city of Santa Barbara. The following day I would collect the cash donations from the Church of Mammon meeting house there. Then, if all went according to plan, I would be ambushed by the assailant, beaten within an inch of my life, and robbed.
That last part of the plan was something I was trying to sort out an alternative for, but frankly I only had two options as to how to circumvent it.
Option 1: willingly give up the bag of cash and my bank card to the assailant, betraying the Church of Mammon and the trust placed in me by Tom Beckman.
Option 2: defeat the assailant with my superior command of Divitaetion.
Neither option was looking likely, which only left me with the third, special option.
Option 3: get beaten within an inch of my life, and robbed, but learn something important about the assailant in the process.
What that “something important” was could be anything. Personally I was hoping it would be the assailant’s identity but any clue as to how they were operating and what they were after would be good. If my theory was correct and they were using the field work records to pick out targets, then they were almost definitely a member of the Church of Mammon, or knew someone who was, though that was already clear from the fact that they knew how to perform Divitaetion.
To be honest I hadn’t completely given up on option 2.
To that end, I was once again going over the reports. While none of them, except for Tom Beckman’s of course, contained much information, with all of them in front of me I was able to build up a picture of the assailant’s strategies and abilities. I even found the records for what ATMs the assailant used when withdrawing money.
While spending for Divitaetion was heavily monitored, all acolytes had access to an emergency fund that could be spent for Divitaetion casts, or simply withdrawn, if the need arose. Such spending was even more closely monitored and using any of it would lead to an immediate suspension and audit while it was determined if your use of emergency funds was appropriate or not. These funds could be accessed at an ATM with any Church of Mammon provided card if you knew the code, which all acolytes did. This was how the assailant was able to withdraw money using the stolen cards, and another key sign that they had links to the Church of Mammon. With access to the emergency funds, the only thing that limited what the assailant could withdraw was how long it took their victim to phone and get the card cancelled.
A plan began to form in my mind, a way to possibly defeat the assailant. My week passed quickly as I prepared for a showdown that might not even happen.
Santa Barbara was pleasant enough. It was another coastal city, like Los Angeles, but a lot smaller. Once I’d checked into my hotel I went for a walk along the pier. I also paid a visit to the Church of Mammon meeting house, though I didn’t go inside. I found myself unable to sleep that night. Honestly I was less nervous about going up against the assailant and more nervous that they might not even take the bait. Was this too obvious? Would the assailant see this coming? Thoughts like that swirled around my head.
I wondered if Verity had enjoyed her tour of LA.
I felt less nervous when I thought about that.
The next day, Sunday, I entered the Church of Mammon meeting house at around three in the afternoon. Their weekly meeting was over and they had finished counting the donations. As far as I was aware, the average attendee of these meetings didn’t know what the money was used for but did know that it was being offered to Mammon. There was comfort in the teachings of the Church of Mammon. For years people had felt an emptiness. They all felt an unceasing drive to accumulate wealth, but many could not quite say why, and many were left unfulfilled and unhappy by the process. And that was because they did not know what money was for. Money was a gift from Mammon, and you strived to accumulate it so that you might offer it back up to him in gratitude.
And those who showed the truest gratitude, in the form of generosity to the Church of Mammon, would know its greatest of secrets: Divitaetion.
The minister of this meeting house was a kindly looking woman, who offered me a drink when I entered.
“No thank you.” I replied, I was feeling a little too nauseous to eat or drink anything. I showed her my identity card.
“Hugh Stirling.” She read. She would have received a communication informing her that I was coming and was under instruction to not give the money to anyone else. This had prevented the assailant from simply walking into a meeting house and being given the money without a fight. She nodded and left the room. The bag would be stored in a safe somewhere in the building. The location was different for each one. Another protection measure. Eventually she returned with the bag. The transfer was very simply. She gave me the bag and I gave her my thanks. I hoped she didn’t notice how much my hands were shaking when I took the bag. With the bag in one hand, and a five dollar bill hidden in the palm of my other, I opened the door of the meeting house and exited to the street. In most of the reports I’d read, this was the moment when the assailant would strike.
A figure in black, clad in both a balaclava and sunglasses, stood before me, a glowing blade extending from a note held in their hand.
The assailant! I cast blade immediately as the assailant swung at me. I brought my newly formed blade between me and my opponent’s just in time. The two clashed with a cracking noise. I dashed to the side to give myself some more space. I didn’t want to be stuck between the Church of Mammon meeting house and the assailant. The assailant followed me, swinging their blade at me once more. I managed to block the strike again, but this one shattered my blade.
They’d shattered a five dollar blade in two hits. My opponent was probably using a ten dollar bill then, or maybe even a twenty if they’d decided to splurge. I reached for my pocket to grab another note, any note, but the assailant was continuing their attack. I stumbled backwards and the assailant’s swing cut into the bag of cash I was still holding. Notes and coins spilled from it. I dropped the bag and snatched a fistful of dollars from the air. I performed a well-practised hand motion and grabbed a note from the bundle in my palm with my index and middle finger. I cast blade with it without checking what I’d picked. The blade shot out with a noise like a thunder clap and my hand shook with the force of it. Someone had donated a fifty dollar bill, and I’d managed to snatch it from the air. I swung down at the assailant, who brought their blade up to block it. Their blade shattered but they’d managed to impede my attack enough the dash backwards away from me.
Now I knew for a fact, because of all those reports I’d been reading, that only one other person had lasted this long against the assailant, and that was, of course, Tom Beckman, a level three acolyte. This fact bolstered my confidence.
It was my turn to attack, and I did so, not wanting to give the assailant the chance to create another blade. My blade was long but not quite long enough it seemed, as my opponent was able to stay out of its way despite my pursuit. I was going to have to attack with more ferocity, it seemed. With another deft finger motion, I dropped a coin from my palm to the ground. I had no idea what coin it was, I had yet to learn how to identify dollars by weight and shape like I could do with pounds. I knew the timing well, and the moment I placed a foot on the coin it pushed up. A delayed cast of force timed just right. I launched up and forwards. I didn’t rise too much, it seemed the coin wasn’t worth as much, but it gave me a boost and I swung down with my blade from above. The assailant hadn’t been able to produce another blade and now I was in range to attack. In response they opened their other hand, the one they hadn’t been holding their blade in, to reveal a handful of coins. They threw the coins at me. It took me a moment to realise what they were doing, and that was a moment too long. The coins all launched themselves in different directions. A delayed cast of force on all of them. Many of the coins collided, hard, with me. It hurt like hell, so much that I dropped my blade.
A multitude of profanities blared through my head as the blade cut into the pavement. A few seconds later the blade dissipated and the fifty dollar note crumbled to dust. There hadn’t been much left in it anyway. All this had given the assailant the time to get away and produce two blades, one in each hand. Both twenty dollars from the look of them. They were certainly taking me seriously, but they also hadn’t given up on taking me down.
That went for both of us.
The assailant was wielding two blades worth twenty dollars apiece and had already proven that they outmatched me. In other words: if I simply tried to defend I would be defeated eventually. If I wanted any chance of winning, I would have to go on the attack. I armed myself with a note in one hand, a twenty dollar bill of my own, and a coin in the other, a quarter, I think. The assailant dashed forward and so did I. I raised my palm and immediately cast force with the quarter. It rocketed towards the assailant. The effort needed to dodge it was minimal, the assailant needed only to move their head out of the way of the incoming coin to avoid it. That moment of distraction was all I needed though, and I closed the distance between us, aiming to run the assailant through. The assailant saw it coming though and had their own distraction. By that I mean they kicked me in the shin. Again it was a minor attack, but it was enough to negate the advantage I’d managed to make for myself. Turns out it did far more than that, and the assailant abandoned one of their blades and slammed an open palm into my chest. I’d seen the note in it and braced myself for impact.
I come to lying on my back on the pavement.
The assailant had cast trap and immobilised me.
“Is everything okay?” The minister of the Church of Mammon meeting house had come out, probably because of all the noise we’d been making.
“Nothing to worry about.” I said as I got to my feet. The assailant was nowhere to be seen. The same applied to the bag of cash, though there were a few coins and notes that had been left behind. I checked my pocket. My bank card was gone. The assailant had successfully robbed me. I’d been beaten.
Now to see if my plan had worked.
Whenever the assailant robbed an acolyte they almost always ran to the nearest ATM and withdrew as much money as they could. I already knew where the nearest ATM was, so I took off at a sprint in its direction. I rounded a corner and saw exactly what I wanted to see: the assailant frozen in place at the ATM.
While you could delay a Divitaetion cast with notes or coins, bank cards offered an additional tactical option. You could set a cast to only occur when a specific condition was met. There was a downside as it meant that you wouldn’t be able to cast any other Divitaetion with the card unless the pre-set cast happened, or you removed it yourself. There was a reason I had only be using change in my fight with the assailant, because I had set a cast of trap to occur on anyone who tried to use my card at an ATM. Acolytes affectionately referred to conditional casts like this as “direct debits”, and the assailant had fallen for it. I rushed forwards. I’d put a lot of money into that direct debit so the assailant should be immobilised for some time, but I didn’t know how long I’d been out from their own trap. I wanted to at least unmask them or get some sort of identification.
I didn’t get that far though. In my rush to get to the frozen assailant, I didn’t notice a second black clad figure rushing at me from the side until it was too late. Before I could react they slammed their palm into my side.
Nope. This time they were casting force and it hit hard. I heard a sickening crunch as the impact crushed my ribs and I flew sideways, hitting the tarmac of the road with some more worrying noises. I tried to get to my feet but any movement sent knives of pain stabbing into my side. I could only whimper in pain and watch as this second assailant went over to their ally and, after inspecting them for a moment, placed a note on their head. The note turned to dust and the frozen assailant began to move again. They looked over at me, curled up on the floor, then the two of them ran, leaving me where I lay.
“What happened?” The minister again. She’d followed me. Far too nosey for her own good if you ask me.
“Call an ambulance.” I managed to say. Talking hurt. Everything hurt.
“But who did this to you?”
“Please.” I forced the words out. I went to get my phone but realised that it had been taken too. Probably to stop me from calling and cancelling my card. The assailants were getting smarter. The minister had her phone out. “The phone.” I wheezed, I need to make a phone call.”
I managed to call the Church of Mammon emergency line and told them to cancel my card. They were used to receiving calls like this by now. With that completed, I passed out and hoped that wherever I woke up was more comfortable than the middle of a tarmac road.