I collected a training bank card from Tom Beckman the following morning.
“Are you sure you want Miss Pour casting trap on you with that?” He asked me. I wasn’t, but Verity’s training couldn’t be considered complete if she didn’t know how to perform direct debits and standing orders.
This time Verity had gotten to the gym before me.
“What do you want to practice first?” I asked. “Casting search or using the bank card?” I waved the training bank card to emphasise its presence.
“Casting search.” Verity answered.
“Right… you want me to explain what it looks like?” To my surprise, Verity shook her head.
“No. I want to see if I can get it myself.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes I…” Verity faltered. Her voice was quiet when she spoke again. “This is the first thing I’ve really struggled with and… I wanted to work it out myself.” I raised an eyebrow but didn’t comment. It seemed like she’d changed since she’d first arrived, or maybe I was just getting to know her better. Either way, such talk was not something I’d expected from her.
“It will be something I can see, right?” Verity asked.
“Yes, that’s how it manifests for everyone.” I took out one of many five dollars notes stuffed into my pocket and used it to cast blade. “Try to see if you can perceive my blade.” I instructed. Neither Verity nor I spoke any more as Verity focussed on casting search.
I churned through a few more notes. Divitaetion practice could be an expensive activity. All acolytes had a set monthly training budget though I’d heard that almost eighty percent almost never came close to using it all. The remaining twenty percent was likely to be mostly trainees, and me.
After nearly an hour of standing around casting blade, and seeing no progress from Verity, I thought it was time to move on.
“Let me explain what it looks like.” I said. That wasn’t really what I wanted to do. What I wanted to do was move on from search and do literally anything else, but giving her a helping hand then letting her practice a little longer seemed the most diplomatic option.
“Not yet.” Verity commanded, and closed her eyes. That wasn’t going to help at all.
“That’s not going to help.” I said as much, “You know search manifests visually. If you close your eyes you’ll have no chance.” Verity didn’t reply, and she didn’t open her eyes. She was getting frustrated. Evidently it was time to move on, but before I could say anything she opened her eyes up again and looked down at my blade.
“I can… see it.” I looked down at Verity’s hand. The one dollar bill she had been trying to cast with all morning had turned to dust. She’d certainly cast something but I wasn’t sure it was search. Usually an acolyte’s first cast of search was accompanied by a lot of wincing and squinting as they struggled to get accustomed to all the visual noise. When I cast search, any Divitaetion near me was interpreted as intense flares, very similar to what burning magnesium looked like. The intensity depended on the value of the cast, and the colour changed depending on the type of Divitaetion used. I’d heard that there was a roughly even split in terms of how acolytes differentiated types of Divitaetion when using search. About half would see the different types manifest as different shapes and forms, while the other half would see different colours. In my eyes a cast of blade was green, a cast of heat was red, a cast of force was blue, a cast of trap was violet, breaking a cast of trap was yellow, and search itself appeared as white. Pick any random acolyte and, if they did differentiate through colour, they would almost definitely have a different list of colours. The point was that the calmness with which Verity was reacting to this new way of seeing the world was almost suspicious. Was she lying? That didn’t seem right. I’m not sure what she had to gain from lying about that. Yet her reaction was highly unusual.
Well it was time to test her. The blade I had cast dissipated and I took another five dollar note from my pocket, but this one wasn’t for me to use. I offered it to Verity.
“Cast search again, with this, and I’ll show you what the other types of Divitaetion look like.” By now her vision would have returned to normal, one dollar didn’t buy you much time.
“I don’t think my cast has finished…” Verity said as she took the five dollar note from me.
What? That couldn’t be right. A cast of search with a one dollar barely lasted thirty seconds, how was it still going? Unless…There were two possibilities. Either this was what Beckman had warned me about, and Verity was somehow able to get a far larger payout from any investments into casts of Divitaetion she used, or she was supplementing her cast with whatever other source she had been using for Divitaetion… Regardless there was no way to tell without asking, and I didn’t want Verity to think I was suspicious of her for any reason. So I played along and demonstrated the different types of Divitaetion to her one by one, telling her to pay attention to what they looked like. Verity watched intently as I cast another blade, made a cent jump from my hand, heated up a quarter, and finally immobilised myself for a few seconds with another cent.
“Are you still going?” I asked when that was done, hoping my voice didn’t communicate how dubious the idea seemed.
“Yes it’s- oh! It’s over.” Verity said. A few moments later the five dollar bill she was still holding crumbled to dust. “Okay, let’s keep going.” She looked pleased with herself, likely proud that she’d managed to cast search, or proud that she’d tricked me into thinking she could. It was time to see what she was up to. I held up a cent.
“I’m going to hold this behind my back and cast with it. I want you to tell me what type of Divitaetion I am using.” Verity nodded and I moved my hand to an open palm position behind my back, the little coin sitting on my palm. It wasn’t the most comfortable position but I needed to obscure the coin from Verity’s view so that she’d have to be using search to see what I was doing with it, a cent was worth little enough that any effects of Divitaetion would be obscured by my body, and I needed to face Verity to confirm something. I cast search with the coin in my hand and for the briefest of moments, very brief as a single cent would net me about a second, Verity emitted a bright white flash. She hadn’t been lying. She was casting search right now. My vision returned to normal and Verity frowned.
“That one was different from the others…” she mused, “Did you cast search?” She’d got it.
“Well done.” It seemed that Verity’s Divitaetion was beyond anything I’d thought possible. It was still possible that she was supplementing her casts with something, but search only showed the user the output of Divitaetion, not what was used to cast it. Search was one of the few types of Divitaetion that didn’t emit itself from the money used to cast it so I couldn’t tell if Verity was only using the five dollar bill, or if she was using something extra. But she could cast search, that I could tell, which meant I had a different question.
“What did it look like?” I asked.
“Huh?” Verity made a noise like a question.
“When you cast search, what did it look like?” I elaborated.
“Oh it… It didn’t look like anything.” she confessed.
“What?” I repeated out loud.
“I didn’t look like anything.” Verity repeated her answer but saying it again didn’t make the answer make any more sense.
“But how were you able to tell what I had cast?” Had she actually been tricking me? Was she tricking me now? Had her correct answer of search just then been a lucky guess?
“I just… got a feeling.” Verity spoke slowly. “Like a feeling inside of me…” she struggled to explain. I had to verify this. We spent an hour, Verity apparently never had to recast search in that time, with me casting Divitaetion behind my back, and Verity correctly identifying it every time. About half way through I had her turn around and fact the other way, and she continued to get it right. At one point I told her I was casting something, but didn’t, and she got that right too!
Verity Pour had manifested search in a way that was completely different from what anyone else had done before her. Beyond that, her manifestation meant that she didn’t even need to be looking in the direction of a cast to see it, and it didn’t obscure her vision. In other words, it could be used in combat without handicapping her, and in fact it would even help her as she’d be able to sense casts all around her.
Verity Pour… what the hell are you? Was she really Mammon in human form? I know Beckman didn’t believe that but, with what I was seeing before me, I wasn’t sure I could deny it so resolutely.
The afternoon was less earth shattering, as I took Verity through casting with direct debits, like the one I’d used to cast trap on one of the assailants back in Santa Barbara.
“A direct debit is like a delayed cast.” I was explaining, “But instead of you setting a delay before the cast occurs, you instead set a condition.” The most common condition was “when the card is touched by someone” or, more likely, “when the card is touched by someone other than me”. The conditions weren’t infinite, they always had to be related to the card, but they could get sneaky. The condition I had sent in Santa Barbara, for the cast of trap to occur when someone else used the card at an ATM, was an example, but other examples included setting a cast to occur when someone tried to perform their own cast with the card. One example I’d heard of was someone setting their card to cast to break a cast of trap if trap was cast within a short range of the card. While the idea was sound, if the value of that cast you’d set up wasn’t big enough, it wouldn’t help you. That was where standing orders came in, but I wasn’t ready to have Verity try and perform those. A standing order, like direct debits, could only be cast with a bank card, and were used to maintain a cast. With a standing order you could set up a cast to occur a certain number of times or for a certain duration. For example if you wanted a cast of blade that was worth five dollars but lasted longer than five dollars would allow, you could set up a standing order that would expend five dollars whenever required to maintain the blade for the duration you required. This was okay but there was another aspect of standing orders that had me worried. If you were truly in a pinch, you could set a standing order that would never end, or at least wouldn’t end until you dismissed it or ran out of money. You could keep a person immobilised indefinitely, or set a bank card to constantly exert a force, or continually heat up or… the possibilities were a little frightening under normal circumstances but, in the case of Verity, I was terrified of what she could do with such an ability.
At the end of the day Verity asked me a question that seemed to come from nowhere.
“Hugh, you’ve been part of the Church of Mammon for a while, haven’t you?” I had.
“Yes, since I was seven or so.” I answered.
“Did you see your family much?” I thought back on it.
“I would return to my family’s home during the holidays.” I said, “Until I began training in Divitaetion. Then I was rarely allowed to leave.”
“I see…” Verity seemed to be troubled by something. “So I won’t be returning home any time soon… How did you cope with being away from your family so much?” She asked that last part very quietly. I realised with a start that Verity was homesick. It should have been obvious really but… I wondered what I could say… In the end I decided to go with the truth.
“My family weren’t around very much.” I said “My father was always somewhere else in the world for whatever business or social commitment, and my mother would always be with him. I was left behind, either in Kent or London.”
“Oh… were you lonely?” Verity asked, her voice still quiet. I thought about it.
“I’m not sure… it was just how things were…” If I was honest with myself, I didn’t know my mother or father very well, if at all. And yet I still trusted them.
“When I was eleven…” I began talking without really thinking about it. “On my birthday, my mother and father were there for the first time I could remember… It was just before I was due to start learning Divitaetion.” I reached into the pocket on the inside of my jacket and took out my most prized possession. “My father gave me this pen… He said his father had given it to him when he turned eighteen and was about to take on major responsibilities for the family. He said it was a sign of trust… and my father gave it to me when I was just eleven…” now that I was talking I couldn’t stop, “our family was now tied to the Church of Mammon, and he trusted me with the responsibility to rise as high as I could within it.” and risen I had. I had worked so hard that I’d been declared a prodigy and had become one of the youngest first level acolytes in the history of the Church of Mammon. And here I was at the international headquarters of the Church of Mammon, working under Tom Beckman, one of its highest profile members.
I wondered if my father was pleased with me.
“I see…” Verity said again. She appeared to be wrestling with something. I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t sure what to say.
Finally Verity spoke.
“My father also left me something.” That was all at first. I considered if it was a good idea to push her for any more explanation, but Verity continued talking all on her own. “He left me this.” she reached into a pocket and took out a small bit of paper. She held in her hand for a few moments before showing it to me. It was a polaroid photo of three people. A man, a woman and a small child all smiling broadly. The photo wasn’t complete though, in fact it seemed as if almost half the photo had been ripped off or burned away.
“Is that you?” I asked. Verity nodded. So the man and woman were…
“My parents.” Verity said, confirming what I thought. “This is the only photo I have of my father.”
When Verity said that I heard the full weight of a crushing loneliness in her voice. A loneliness that she had borne for years.
I couldn’t say anything. I didn’t know what to say. It felt as if there was nothing I could say.
And then the assailants made their move.