The jet touched down in Tampa at a little after three in the afternoon. It had been a relatively uncomplicated flight from Midway where Veritas kept their small fleet of private planes. The need for their own modes of air travel had become essential after the heightened scrutiny given bags with unexplained weaponry, powders and liquids essential in their line of work post 9/11. None of the triads of Investigators were complaining; the new arrangement beat traveling Coach by a mile.

Quan and Julia were both quiet on the flight over. All three spent the majority of the time in the air reviewing their files on a man named Terry Pritchard. According to the Watcher in the area, he was the leader of a church called the ”Ray of Light. ” Really it appeared to be flock of less than twenty people, mostly women in their late thirties and into their fifties with money, then of course the handful of young impressionable girls who all claimed to be true believers worshipping Terry as their ”spiritual guide. ”

A charlatan like Pritchard and his mindless devotees was not usually the type of group Veritas concerned itself with; lost souls and women on spiritual quests after their husbands left them were plenty. But Pritchards little cult had been raising no small amount of power or money and was getting noticed.

A Diviner who happened to be in the area working on another case about a year ago had felt an unusual stirring of magick when passing by a restaurant one night. Diverting to check it out, he found a man accompanied by several oddly grouped women of varying age and appearance raising what felt like sex magick in the middle of the dance floor. Unable to come off his case at the time, hed reported it when he got back.

Anna promptly put eyes on him. Since then several incidences of disappearances reported by concerned families had ended with wide eyed women, swearing to family and reporters that they were happy, and wanted to remain with Mr. Terry and their new ”sisters. ” It was time to bring in a team to find out if Pritchard knew what he was doing when he was drawing these women to him and irresponsibly raising energy as volatile as sex magick in public. Provided he wasn doing it on purpose and didn know that it was dark magick, someone would to explain to him how to live under the radar. He would also be given the choice of working with a trainer based in the area to educate him on how to wield his talents, or he would be brought back to Veritas to face his punishment for using magick for dark purposes as well as risking exposure to the regulars.

Quan Long was the second son of a river family originally from China, near the headwaters of the Yangtze River. Water had dominated their lives for generations. He had joined Veritas a decade before when he was Cassies age. Being the second son meant Quan had to make his fortune on his own, his father would look to the eldest son when he grew too old to maintain the cargo ferry he had taken over from his father.

Getting an invitation had not been much of a challenge for the normally subdued young man according to the rumors. Quan wasn one to talk about much of anything, but Cassie had heard the story at the Academy. A triad had been sent out after several boats were found fifty yards from the banks of the river with no reports of high waters, storms or any other natural phenomenon to explain the relocation of the vessels. Pulling power from the water gave him a strength not often seen in a witch so young and he was welcomed eagerly into the program.

His father had been proud to receive the invitation and hed accepted on the spot. If his fathers decision had been disagreeable to Quan no one could tell, and he was one of the best now working in the field. Rumor also had it he could have his pick of management positions when he retired from active duty in a few years.

The same could be said for Julia Departes, the fifty- something Creole woman who completed the triad. The sacred number three so central to all of Veritas operations dictated the setup of their partnerships expanding them from the traditional set of two seen in ”regular ” organizations. Julias Haitian grandfather had taught her the often misunderstood way of their people.

Vodou was a spiritual and magickal belief system that stemmed from their blended culture of French, African and Spanish peoples who came together on their island home. Her grandfather had come from a divided Haiti when the nation was without leadership and the church and Vodou practitioners had gone to war. Sadly for Julia shed inherited her fathers strong ability yet not his dark skin. Being of a lighter complexion, she was not readily accepted by the Creole population in Louisiana where her family had finally settled after fleeing their war torn home.

The arresting caramel colored beauty had been shunned as one of the elitist class and ostracized by the community. Vital to the practice of Vodou one must be part of a community worshipping the same gods and invoking the same spirits or Loa. It had been because of her search for an accepting ”community ” Julia had left her backwater hometown in the swampy lowlands. Being from a magickal family, she had been aware of Veritas existence since childhood and sought a place in the Academy to train for a position as an agent.

It was because of the immense talent of her two partners that Cassie had been teamed up with them. The assumption being that with their guidance Cassie would learn to untangle her powers with minimal risk to all parties involved. Mixed bloods like her didn come along very often. However, when they did, and if they were able to master their powers without being driven insane in the attempt, they were without exception the best of the lot. Having no living contemporaries to guide her, Cassie found herself alone among fellow practitioners. There was no one who could help her to weave her magicks together, no one to help her figure out what she was doing wrong or if she too would eventually have to leave her post in shame.

As things were, she was too proud to admit the extent of her difficulties beyond what everyone was already guessing, that she was having trouble blending the energies. She couldn bring herself to reveal to anyone outside her family the way the magick rebelled against her. It didn just refuse to work with her, it was repulsed by her. And with her mother gone and her grandmother turned away from her in anger that left only her father as a possible confidant. The same father who hated himself for how much he counted on his daughters livelihood to keep a roof over their heads.

Cassie felt crushed under the pressure to find a way to perform and prove herself to Anna without placing her partners in danger with her ineptitude in the meantime. The complexity of the operation alone exhausted her.

The trio collected their assorted bags and climbed into the waiting vehicle parked inside the hangar, an ordinary looking maroon sedan of American design. Being the junior member, Cassie ended up as the driver. Quan hadn learned how and preferred to observe from the backseat.

The GPS guided them to the home of Jim Salter, Pritchards designated Watcher. Cassie listened in mute disdain during the interview process, glancing around the company owned home cluttered to the point of absurdity. Everywhere she looked, on every flat surface, there were small ceramic figurines of birds. Fighting to keep her lip from curling, Cassie wrote the fat, wheezing informant off as being one of those hangers on with barely enough talent to earn a place on the Witchs Registry. Watchers were considered by some to be bottom feeders, jealously wielding information about those with real talent for a monthly stipend.

”Pritchard is the real thing. ” Salter rasped around the mask attached by a thin tube to an oxygen tank sitting beside him on the aged gold and brown floral couch. ”Hes got a house in St. Pete but comes here all the time to this club up the street called Carters. ” He gasped in a few shaky breaths, his yellow waxy pallor going pale with the effort. ”Ive gone in there to eat a few times when Ive seen the guy or one of his groupies go in, ” he shook his head frustrated, ”I can get close enough to get more than a vague sense of their energy. Its been sex magick for sure, but only sometimes. It changes. Its hard to pin down. Im not so sure he knows what hes doing out there. ” His forehead creased. ”The energy levels and type are erratic, they change. Either hes green, which would explain the inconsistency, or its not just him. Thats all I can tell you because whatever they
e doing its on the club level upstairs. ” He laughed harshly patting his soft stomach. ”Obviously Im not what they
e looking to let in up there. ”

”We appreciate the information Mr. Salter, youve given us a place to start. ” Julia smiled kindly at him.

The older mans shoulders came back as he sat up a little straighter and looked her in the eye. ”Anything I can do for the cause Ms. Departes. I only wish it was more. ”

Quan disappeared from the room without a sound, the clicking latch of the front door marking his exit before Julia or Cassie had even begun to stand.

”Not a big talker eh? ”

”No, ” Julia gave a soft, throaty chuckle. ”Good thing we didn bring him for his conversational skills. ” The last vestiges of her accent softened her words.

”Yeah, hes a Water. They
e never the ones who will tell you what they
e up to, theyd rather operate below the surface. ” He gave an awkward, choking snort. ”Typical. It always looks calm on top so you walk in just to have your legs swept out from under you, then it holds you down while everyone else looks out at it and tells you how pretty it all is. ”

Surprised at his insight into Quans elemental ties, Cassie looked over the man again. She still didn see much in the paunchy senior who appeared better suited to a career of ice cream tasting than monitoring for the organization. Cassie decided Salter must have heard that about Quan through the grapevine. That would be easy enough, the man had a reputation.

Julia avoided touching the seated man, a common tendency among magick users. Instead of shaking his hand she tipped her head and touched her forehead in a sign of respect and thanks before striding out the door. As Cassie straightened her tan pant leg over the top of her brown runners she gave him a tight half smile and turned to leave.

Catching her eye, Salter smiled coolly. ”Don discount people so readily young lady. Veritas doesn keep anyone around if they can pull their weight. ” Staring evenly at her, his expression grew more vague and his expression went slack. He spoke in a monotone. ”You
e going to get someone killed if you don sort yourself out. ”

Taken aback, Cassie felt her face flush. ”What? You don know what you
e talking about. ” She stuttered, hurrying to back out of the tiny room, in her rush knocking over several figurines. Anxious, she bent down and plucked them out of the carpet to replace the ceramic garbage back on the table beside her.

If Salter was offended by her abruptness, he gave no sign. He ticked up the corner of his mouth at her and reached over, hand finding the mask for his tank without a need to break eye contact or blink. After several breath cycles, his eyes reclaimed their former life and released her from their hold that had unnerved her nearly as much as his astute observation.

Salter cocked his head, studying her. ”You can possibly be safe in the field. Your energy is almost completely blocked. ” He frowned. ”Why? ”

Without knowing where the honesty came from maybe Annas warning yesterday that she was on borrowed time, maybe the fact that she was feeling overwhelmed at bearing the responsibility for keeping her father and grandmother afloat she couldn be sure. Regardless Cassie sagged, leaning with a hip against the doorframe. ”Im a mixed blood. ” To one in her world, that said it all.

Understanding dawned in the mans pale features and he nodded slowly, jowls shifting as his waddle pressed up and down on his chest. ”Of course. I knew a witch like you once. ” His head sadly shifting side to side quickly quelled the hope that had begun to flutter in Cassies chest.

Angry and frustrated she blurted out rudely, ”How can you see what I am? ” Normally a witch had to use her magick to be sensed by another witch. Even Quan couldn find someone unless they pulled enough power to leave a ”trail, ” and he was one of the best.

Round shoulders rose then dropped, noncommittal. ”Why do you think Veritas keeps me around? ” He raised the mask hanging limply in his hand and gave her a knowing smile. ”It isn for how fast I run the mile. ”

Fear began to creep in after the initial shock had worn off. ”Are there many more like you? ”

”No. Its a sort of mutation of Divination. Not many like me but when they find us, they snatch us up. Its a handy thing to have someone who can see through smokescreens to better know the strengths of ones enemy before he strikes. ” He lowered his voice, for a moment devoid of its rasp. ”Or his weaknesses. ”

”I don suppose you can see how to unblock me? ” Cassie braced herself for the inevitable disappointment.

”I can do that. You
e too… confused. I can tell exactly what you are. Theres a little of everything in there, like you
e pulling in too much and its all clogging up in there. ” He studied her hard, eyes narrowing in suspicion. ”Do you know how to let go of stored energy? ”

Cassie stuck out her chin stubbornly. ”Yes, we learned it in the first year at school. ”

A big hand waved, the masks plastic tubing dinged against the steel canister. ”Then theres no need for me to tell you what you already know. ” Thinking better of letting her off completely, Jim Salter leaned forward. ”You must know if you
e going to use more than one magick, you have to release them all separately. You know, open a circle, close a circle, take energy, release energy. Otherwise, the one you don release builds up and constipates your flow. ” He twisted the knob for his canister and the hiss of oxygen filled the room. ”You need to get yourself figured out. Im going to check on you in a month. If you
e not dead yet, Ill expect to see your problem solved. This jobs too dangerous to be dragging useless weight around. ”

Tight lipped, Cassie nodded and walked out. She couldn bring herself to tell the man she would be glad to have one more month. If she didn get herself straightened away Anna would cut her loose when they got home in less than a week. Heavy hearted, Cassie trudged out to the car.

”What took you? Was Mr. Salter telling you about his days as an Investigator? ” Julia looked back at the house, sad understanding in her coffee colored eyes. ”I feel bad for him, he must be lonely in there. I heard all of his people are gone, his wife died last year. ”

Cassie eyed the house framing her partners profile. ”He was an Agent? ”

Quan spoke up from the back seat. ”It is said he was a great one before he was hurt. ”

Twisting in her seat to see if he was kidding, Cassie gaped at him.

Sensing Quan was done speaking, Julia took over. ”He and his partners were looking into some bad business in Houston. Dark magic, disappearances, human sacrifice, that kind of thing. They were in a tight alley. The triad had their witch cornered and then, right as she was throwing a ball of fire at one of his partners, he stepped in the way to take the hit. He saved his team but suffered severe burns in the process. As I understood it they did a lot with grafts but his lungs were burned beyond repair. ” Julias voice trailed off leaving an echoing silence in the car.

Salters implied accusation that she would bring that same fate down on one of her partners took on a whole new warning. Cassie turned the key hard enough to crack the plastic holding it on the metal ring. ”To Carters then? ”

It wasn necessary to read minds to know that Julia and Quan were thinking the same thing as Salter. She was a risk and having her with them put them in danger. That was probably another reason the Directors placed her with the best, even if it did pose a different sort of danger. With them she was least likely to cause collateral damage but if she did, the loss would be all the greater.

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