Late one night in the middle of winter, when I was five years old, I was lying on my bed. I was not sleeping. I could not sleep. I was hungry. I was cold. There was neither food nor heating to spare. My mum also wasn’t there. She was out working.
It felt like she was always out working.
So I lay there in the dark, curled up under the covers, trying to stay warm and trying to ignore the pangs of hunger that stabbed into me like jagged knives. In that time I did what I always did. I took out the photo. I couldn’t see it in the dark, and didn’t dare turn the light on, but knowing what was on it was enough. A point where, presumably, we were all happy. Maybe back then life wasn’t a constant battle. Maybe back then it wasn’t an endless struggle against the world. I tried to fill my heads with thoughts like that but this night it wasn’t helping.
In that moment I thought that I would give up any amount of happiness just to be warm.
And in that moment my body was filled with a warmth from an unknown source. It was comforting, like an embrace. I later worked out that I could produce that warmth at will, and then worked out that my photo had begun to shrink. Whenever I generated heat my photo would crumble a little at the edges.
I never understood why I could do this.
Then many years later I learned about Divitaetion, and the strange organisation that used money to fuel its supernatural powers. To what end? I couldn’t say, but they offered me something I had desired more than anything for years.
Money for me.
Money for my mum.
Money for Alistair.
Whether it was to produce a shimmering blade of light to use in a duel to the death or it was to just eat every day, you needed money.
It was about midday and I decided it was a good time to go for lunch. As I made my way across the courtyard from the east building to the south building, I considered how easily I had gotten used to being able to eat my fill every day. I hadn’t been at the headquarters of the Church of Mammon for a month yet, and as such I hadn’t received my first portion of the annual stipend I had been promised. I wasn’t planning on using it for much, my needs were well provided for here, but I wanted to send it to my family. I’m sure my presence in Los Angeles was making my mum’s life easier, as she wasn’t having to provide for two of her children, but she would still be struggling. I hoped Alistair was doing well. Now that I was gone, he would be in the flat alone a lot more. Much of my childhood had been the same way, until Alistair had come along. He had a different father from me. For around about a year my mum and I lived with a man whose name I did not remember. Then that man disappeared, and Alistair turned up shortly thereafter. Unlike me, he hadn’t spent many long nights alone in a dark and cold flat and I was incredibly glad for that.
I really did hope he was okay.
“Verity!” As I neared the entrance to the south building, I heard someone call my name from just behind me. I turned to see them but could already tell from the voice. Isambard. “Thank goodness I found you,” he overtook me, opened the door and ushered me into the building. Waiting just inside were Faith and Trey.
“Your text, Isambard. Is it really time?” Trey asked. What it might be time for, he didn’t say.
“No, but for Verity’s sake we need to go now!” Isambard shot back.
“What’s going on?” I interjected. Isambard, Trey and even the ever-smiling Faith all looked deadly serious. Trey cursed under his breath. Isambard looked around and put a hand on my shoulder, almost pulling me along as he walked past the entrance to the dining hall and round a corner. We turned a few more corners, Faith and Trey following closely behind, until Isambard was satisfied. Then he turned to me.
“Verity I need you to listen closely, we don’t have much time.” I dared not say anything in response.
“Richard Guyard thought you were Mammon in human form, right? Well he’s just discovered what you’ve been using to cast Divitaetion.” Before I could play dumb or deny anything he continued on, “I know you’ve been using a photo of your parents, and Tom Beckman and Richard Guyard now know too.” He went to say more but I cut in.
“How do you know that?” Isambard grimaced.
“It will be quicker if you just start from the beginning.” Faith said.
“Not by much.” Trey added, slightly unhelpfully. Isambard shook his head but launched into his story.
“Faith, Trey and I are the assailants.” He began, and forged on before I could say anything, “We had many discussions when we were trainees, and found that we believed that the Church of Mammon was wrong to take advantage of its believers for gathering up money, and was wrong for hiding the power of Divitaetion from the world so that it could keep them for itself. As such, once we had completed our training and secured positions here at the headquarters, we began to gather up funds. If we were planning on defecting from the Church of Mammon we were going to need resources to battle against them with, so we started ambushing and stealing money from acolytes.” Isambard paused for a moment and turned to Faith and Trey. “Get the suitcases now.” he said. The two of them nodded and took off round the corner. Isambard turned back to me. “We had been slowly building up funds and then, while pretending to search for the assailant, I found you. I thought that you might already be someone who had defected from the Church of Mammon, or some other rogue practitioner of Divitaetion, but instead I found something potentially greater.” Me? How was I greater than someone who already knew Divitaetion? Isambard answered the question I hadn’t had time to ask. “You had intuitively learned some Divitaetion, but more importantly you were doing it without money. You claimed that you didn’t have any source, but I knew you were lying from the start. Still if you were doing it without money that could prove a distinct advantage to us, and as such I invited you to the Church of Mammon.” It seemed that everyone wanted the secret to my powers. “Our attack yesterday was intended to see if we could get you to reveal what you were using, but you fought us off.” This was getting too much. “But Guyard has found out now, and he intends to kill you.” At that revelation I forced a question in.
“Kill me?” I hissed. Isambard had been speaking in a low voice and I found myself doing the same. “How do you even know this?!”
“I had Ruby bug Richard Guyard’s office and she’s been feeding me information for months. She felt that the sudden meeting between Tom and Guyard was important enough that she sent me a live feed of their conversation.” Isambard looked at my blank expression. “Ruby? The woman who works on Guyard’s ridiculous inner reception desk? She hates her boss.” Oh. I felt guilty for not even attempting to learn her name.
“But why does Richard Guyard want me killed?”
“Simple. You can perform Divitaetion with something other than money and are therefore a threat to the order he has dedicated his life to enforcing.”
Right. I had only spoken to Guyard a couple of times, but I could tell that he was very fond of his position at the top, a position ensured by the money the Church of Mammon brought in. If people learned they could access this great power with something other than money they could disrupt that order. I represented that, and as such I had to go.
I wondered if our less than ideal meal together also had something to do with it.
I had another question, one that was perhaps not vital to the current crisis, that is the man who wanted to kill me, but I felt was important nonetheless.
“How can I access my power with something other than money? Is my photo special or something?”
“No…” Isambard replied, then smirked. “Well yes, special to you that is, and because it is special, when you offer even a little bit of it up you grant yourself powers beyond anything any practitioner of Divitaetion has achieved before.”
“Because it is the willingness to sacrifice, not money, that gives humanity power. I could not tell you exactly why or by what mechanism, but Divitaetion is about accessing power through giving up something that has value to the caster. It doesn’t have to be money, it can be anything that means enough to them.”
My photo, that precious photo that I carried everywhere with me. The only connection I had to a father I had never known and a past I could barely remember. And yet I had been willing to part with that, piece by piece, to provide warmth to myself, and to my family.
Faith and Trey returned, both carrying suitcases.
“Is that all of it?” Isambard asked. They both nodded.
“What’s in the suitcases?” I asked.
“Some of the money we stole.” Trey replied, “The rest is in a storage unit at the edge of the city.”
“Right we need to move, Tom will already be looking for Verity.” Faith and Trey turned around and began moving once more. As did Isambard. As did I.
I probably wasn’t going to be getting any of my stipend.
Sorry Mum. Sorry Alistair. I’m not sure I’ll ever see you two ever again.
I followed the assailants the Church of Mammon had been hunting for so desperately out of the building, and away from my new life.
It seemed my newer life would be spent on the run. I kept a hand in my pocket, gripping tightly onto the photo. After so many years I could picture it perfectly, but holding onto it now reminded me it was there. I felt a warmth rise up in me that wasn’t due to any Divitaetion.
And I’m sorry Dad… I never knew you but… I hope you would be proud of me…