A little over four years ago I began writing a story. Anyone who has read this blog knows that, because, well, that’s kinda what it’s about. Point is, I can count on one hand how many people have read it.
And I’m going to try to change that. One step at a time.
What I am posting today is the first chapter of my story.
If anyone decides to read this, I appreciate it. Hell, that is a vast understatement. I am fucking honored. No one’s time is cheap, especially to read a sample chapter off the internet.
Any feedback, good, bad, and ugly, is greatly appreciated.
Economics runs the world, in some form or another, and two simple principles are the most powerful forces in man’s universe. Supply and demand. That’s what makes the world go round. If anyone tells you anything else, they’re not thinking straight. Everything else is just a tool to fulfill or obtain those two forces.
That’s what magic is; a tool. A wonderful, powerful tool, but a tool none the less.
It had been a long month. It hadn’t been the worst, but not the best either. The train ride had only afforded me a few hours rest; otherwise I hadn’t slept in a week. Cold rainwater dripped from my fedora, running in long rivulets down my heavy, grey overcoat and pooling around my feet.
That must be why I was examining the human condition as it relates to business terms like some sleep deprived college boy during finals while a dozen armed men stared at me from ten feet away. I get like that when I am tired.
I was standing in a large, crowded warehouse in the worst neighborhood in Mare City, cold and wet and cranky as hell. It was two in the morning and rain was hammering the roof overhead.
These weren’t Teplov’s best men. They were dirty and ill dressed, armed with crude weapons and foul dispositions. They were probably laborers during the day, probably working in this very warehouse. Of course, they also looked better than I did and might even be getting paid better than I was.
“You’re late,” the leader said. He drawled out you’re in the deep southern dialect of the region. I always noticed it more when I came back and my own would be thicker for the next two weeks.
I made a show of pulling out my pocket watch from my vest and checking it. “Seems pretty damn early to me,” I said dryly.
“You know what I meant, Sorcerer,” he said. “You were supposed to be back two weeks ago.”
I clenched my jaw. “Watch who you call that, toy soldier, I wouldn’t want to take that the wrong way.”
“Who the hell do you think you are, pal?” said his buddy next to him. I got a hint of Jersey off that one. “You’re the one who said he’d be back the beginning of the month!”
“Couldn’t be helped,” I replied slowly. “I ran into some trouble. Figured it would be worth more to the Tin Man to bring back exactly what he wanted and be a little late. I’d hate to have brought only half.”
The leader squinted his eyes under his cap. “The boss thought you might have cheated him. Was getting a little impatient.”
I laughed dryly. Bullies, they never fail. “If there’s one thing Teplov has in spades, it’s patience.”
Jersey took a step forward, “I think it’s you who better watch what he’s saying. Might be we take that the wrong way.”
I frowned. “Like I said, I ran into trouble. It doesn’t have anything to do with our deal. Just my mood. I’m tired and wet and would really like to be in a bed before the sun rises, gentlemen. So how about we stop posturing and just get this over with?”
I waited, looking from man to man. There was no question of what they were going to do. With the Tin Soldiers, there never was. These guys may have been low on the totem pole but they were still a part of Teplov’s outfit. The Tin Man had earned his moniker in Mare’s underworld, and his men knew exactly what was expected of them.
Finally, Jersey held up his hands.
“Let’s get to work,” I said. “Where do you want it?”
The leader nodded toward the truck. It was a clunker with a boiler the size of a car wedged underneath the bed, but it would certainly hold the ore. It was a good two stories tall and I had to climb a ladder just to get to the top.
I perched myself on the lip of the bed and looked down. The bed on this thing was fifteen feet deep if it was an inch, almost the size of a swimming pool.
God was I ready to get rid of this stuff. It weighed on my mind, like a lead weight pressing right between my eyes. A migraine had been surging through my forehead for three days and I had lost count of how many nosebleeds I had developed.
But it wasn’t going to just come out, it was going to need some coaxing. Al was busy getting everything ready, so there wouldn’t be any communication for this. No finesse either. Once this started, it was going to be like a dam breaking.
I closed my eyes and began to concentrate. I pictured the ore, a big pile of pearlescent, silvery chips, glowing softly in the darkness, still humming with the vibration of the lightning. They smelled like ozone, a scent so strong you could taste it. I imagined Al standing next to the pile, the courtyard that contained them, the gates of the keep closed and locked against the world beyond.
I took a deep breath and opened that gate.
It took effort, I had to push hard. I pictured the wood flexing, the loud creaking as the hinges gave under the force of my will. Suddenly, the gate flung open.
I felt my whole body relax, all the strength drained out of me. Pressure built up in my forehead, followed by a slight burning, like when you get water up your nose while swimming. It started at my nose and moved all the way up my scalp and then down my spine. It didn’t stop there, it grew in both scope and severity until it has spread throughout my entire body.
I exhaled the breath I had been holding and just like that the burning flowed through my body and out my mouth. I opened my eyes and let all the air out of my lungs. Slowly, hesitantly, purplish smoke began to drift out of my mouth, out of my nose, my eyes, my ears, until it was surging out of every pore in my skin. I kept breathing it out, filling the bed of the truck. It flowed like the vapor of a block of dry ice. First it was purple, then blue, steadily shifting through the spectrum until it no color man had ever seen, absorbing the light in the room. The burning sensation drained from my body, following the mist and leaving my arms and legs numb, my body cold.
My stomach knotted and my muscles clenched up. My lungs felt like they were collapsing. The numbness crawled up my body, leaving pins and needles in my limbs. I collapsed to my knees, gagging up the Aether until finally it began to thin and then cease altogether.
Then I puked. No magic this time, just some soup they gave me on the train. I think it was fish. Damn Canadian fish soup.
I shuddered. I wasn’t cold any more, in fact my clothes were soaked through with sweat, but I shivered nonetheless. I sat back and waited for my vision to clear. When it finally did, I glanced down to examine my work.
The Aether had coalesced into ten tons of Foucier ore. The ore still glowed, still hummed. It was exactly as I had seen it in my mind. Only now static popped off the sharp slate where it contacted the metal of the vehicle.
Already the men were grounding the truck, making sure the excess energy from the ore didn’t interfere with the vehicle’s steam engine.
I climbed down the ladder and swayed when my feet hit the ground.
“You alright, buddy?” one of the gangsters asked.
I waved him off, focusing on staying upright. “Where’s the john?” I asked, my voice raw.
“Down the row,” he said, pointing toward the back of the warehouse.
I thanked him and stumbled down the center aisle of the warehouse. It had taken everything I had to make sure that went right. Had been taking everything out of me to maintain it. A week with that in me. I hadn’t carried a load like that since…well, since before. Not for that long. It was only supposed to be three days. Once I got out I was supposed to be able to head right for Toronto, get on a train and sit back for the ride back to Mare. Three days max.
It was risky though, and I knew it. I knew the Guild would be watching Terre d’échanges. It was one of theirs, and they were protective. Supply was how they maintained their control.
It had went well getting in, even better finding a group of rods to poach with. It was getting out that was the problem. They knew someone had gotten in and they were watching. It was much harder to escape than I thought it would be.
But that was all behind me. I had done my part and now it was payday.
I found the bathroom and washed myself up. My body was shaking and I was beginning to cramp all over. I took a moment to catch my breath, washed my face, and let it pass.
I should have been used to it. This was just how it was now. Hell, maybe it had always been this hard. I was pretty sure this used to be a lot more seamless but there were too many memories I couldn’t trust.
I think I dozed for a moment on the toilet before shouting brought me to my senses, although nearly sliding to a floor in frozen panic may not be described as my best senses.
The sound was coming from the front of the warehouse. I recognized Jersey and the leader but there were several that sounded out of place and I couldn’t tell what was being said.
I made my way to one of the shelves that afforded best cover, but unable to get a good view, dragged my bedraggled ass up it. It was hard going, but I wasn’t about to just walk up there and say hi. That was a good way to get shot or turned into charcoal. About fifteen feet off the ground, I could see what was making the commotion.
Teplov’s men were facing down a little guy in a suit. He was small, in his early thirties, narrow and thin with no muscle at all on him. He had beady eyes and a weak chin. His hair, what little of it there was, was slicked back and greased and his suit was cheap and oversized, making him look like a little kid playing dress up.
And in his right hand he gripped a body length, gnarled staff. Runes and sigils trailed down from the poorly carved wolf’s head all the way to the tip.
“Damnation,” I whispered to myself. That was all I needed.
Willy Cruder was a slipshod Wizard and a worse person. Insecure enough to need to carve a wolf’s head on his staff and dumb enough to try it himself. He was an idiot and the worst kind of bully, one who had been bullied all his life and now had the power to be on the other side.
“A toy box with Tin Men,” he said, his cockney accent biting through the cool southern air.
I grimaced. That voice had always gotten on my nerves. He was one of my godfather’s men, one of his best enforcers. He didn’t know anything about magic besides how to set things on fire and blow things up. Unfortunately for everyone within fifty feet, that’s all he was ever really called up to do.
“What’s the deal?” the leader of Teplov’s men asked. “We’re paid up this month.”
Cruder tssked them. “The Tin Man knows the deal. His outfit and the Guild stay apart, but this,” he pointed at the dump truck, “Well, boys, this is a snake of a different color. That’s our property.”
The leader cocked his shotgun. My pulse started to race. This was going to turn ugly quickly. Very quickly. If anyone besides the Wizard was going to make it out of here alive, than I needed to think and do it quickly.
I flexed my fingers, feeling a trickle of power channel through the rings on my left hand, through the web of power they formed. I wore one on each finger; gold, silver, copper, steel, and tin. One for each of the elements and a fifth to represent the will to bind them together.
It would take a little to get the spell together, it always did these days, but I was pretty sure I could sucker punch him and throw him off guard. Or maybe just ensnare him. If Teplov’s men were worth their salt then they could jump in and…
“He’s in the back,” Jersey said, gesturing with his gun.
“What they hell are you doing?” The leader snarled at him.
“Tin Man doesn’t pay to take on Wizards,” Jersey said simply.
Several of the men stepped back too, putting their weapons on the ground. This wasn’t looking good at all. Not one bit. Worse, I could tell the leader was considering it. I learned a long time ago that when goons start thinking, just step back and try to keep clean.
“Do we get to keep the ore?” he asked, still fingering the trigger of his shotgun.
Cruder sneered. “This is our property,” he said.
“Half?” The leader asked.
Cruder hesitated, looking over his shoulder at the ore. “The Guild doesn’t know how much he took. I can agree to that.”
I focused harder. I needed this to happen quickly. Maybe if I could get this out they’d still jump him. Maybe Teplov would be happy with half the order but maybe they wouldn’t take the risk. I had been useful; Teplov wouldn’t like being pushed around by the Guild. I could still make this happen.
I held out my hand, focusing my will, pulling up my old stun spell. It was simple, based around electricity. If I could just manage…
An arc of electricity sparked suddenly across my rings with a loud, electric pop that echoed throughout the warehouse. Cruder’s head snapped in my direction and before I could so much as cuss he snapped the staff at me, sending a bolt of scarlet lightning arching in my direction.
That was probably the fastest half second of my life, but it felt like it took forever. I held out my hand, trying to redirect the pent up energy into a shield, air, force, fire, anything to keep from being made into a lump of glass art.
In an instant I had seized the thought I needed, casting the spell with the pent up energy I had channeled to cast at Cruder.
And it failed. Miserably.
The moment the bolt hit my hand I knew the spell had fizzled. But I am pretty sure someone up there likes me because in less time than it would take to blink I grabbed that bolt and threw it aside, bending it around me.
I didn’t even feel the blast. I’m pretty sure it knocked me clean out for a moment. I woke up when I landed in a pile of crates, the scent of ozone and bacon wafting through my nose.
I shook my head, stars obscuring my vision. Get up. Needed to get up. Needed to get up fast and get the hell out of here. Or get somewhere besides the boxes. If I could get somewhere where he couldn’t see me…I knew Cruder, he was a path of least resistance type. He knew only one direction and didn’t understand finesse or anything beyond the instinctive ‘club plus head equals win’ mentality.
From the sound of it, Cruder’s sudden reaction had startled the gangsters. I heard a gunshot. I giggled to myself, my head still swimming. The Tin Man’s men were getting jumpy. A lot more sound followed but my ears were ringing too loud to make out any detail.
I sat up slowly and groaned. Pain flowed from my left arm all the way down my back and oddly enough my right foot. Worse, I couldn’t even feel my hand.
I looked at it snorted. Two of the rings were glowing red, singing my skin. My fingers were the size of sausages and a jagged red pattern stretched all the way down to my elbow. I hadn’t blocked near as much of that bolt as I thought I had.
I crawled to my feet and rotated my shoulder, trying to shrug off the dizziness. Alright. Round two.
I stuffed my hand into my jacket and drew my pistol from my shoulder holster. It had a few tricks I didn’t think Cruder would expect. I stepped out into the aisle, keeping to my feet the best I could and ignoring how the room was spinning. Unsteadily, I made my way toward the Wizard. The commotion had stopped. The only way this was going to work was if I was quick, silent, and smart. I needed to get in there and take him out before he could do anything about it.
Then I heard a new voice, one that stopped me dead in my tracks. I closed my eyes and sighed. I pressed my back against the shelf, said a silent prayer, and peeked around the corner.
Sure enough, Leo Saigen was standing over one of the gangster, his narrow, black staff pressed into the man’s throat. Smoke drifted up from the tip of the staff, forming a feline shaped cloud complete with a pair of glowing red eyes.
Nope. Game over. I was leaving. Fuck the ore. Fuck Teplov. I was going home.
“Did you see something, William?” Leo asked calmly in his smooth Virginian accent. “Or where you just showing off?”
Leo was probably one of the most dangerous Wizards in the States and belonged to one of my godfather’s rival charterhouses. He was educated and imaginative, a high ranking Wizard. He understood the true majesty of magic, the true potential of the Aether. He lacked the raw power that Cruder had just tossed my way and didn’t have near the stamina but he was infinitely more dangerous.
Hell if I knew what he was doing with Cruder, but this was way above my pay grade.
“I saw him!” Cruder snapped, snarling at Leo.
“And what did you see?” He asked.
Cruder sputtered, grasping for something to say.
“Nerves,” Leo said, smirking, “Got to watch your nerves if you want to make it in the Guild.”
“I saw him,” Cruder snapped. “He was up there!”
“Yes,” Leo replied, “but if you want to go and tell your boss that his godson was the one that smuggled ten tons of our property from one of our worlds, I think we will need more proof than I saw him! Go and check the rest of the warehouse!”
Cruder shot Leo a nasty look but did what he was told. I had to get out of here before they found me. Maybe I could find a back exit or something.
I limped my way toward the back of the warehouse, trying to make as little noise as possible. I scanned the back of the warehouse but it looked like there were no back exits. There were loading dock doors, and I could probably bust through one of those, but it would make a lot more noise than I wanted.
“McDane!” I heard Cruder holler. “Where are you, McDane?”
I ducked behind one of the shelves and peeked around the corner. I couldn’t see him, and was pretty sure he couldn’t see me.
I was somewhat certain that I could take Cruder. Not one on one, but he wasn’t really that difficult to get one up on. That had to be why he was with Leo. He was an amazing mixture of arrogance and insecurity.
Alright, take out Cruder. Make it noisy, provide a distraction. Leo would move toward the back and then I could double back and get the hell out of here. Maybe I could even grab the money before I left. I felt kind of bad leaving Teplov’s men, but not bad enough to keep me from doing it. Besides, they would probably bolt as soon as Leo’s back was turned.
Cruder stepped between the aisles, his staff raised before him.
Okay, one more time. I held my breath and pictured a black landscape filled with purple mist. I peered into the mist, reaching my hand into the forest of my mind. I would have loved to thrown some fire at the situation, but those days were gone. I didn’t have many options and with my hand the way it was, this wasn’t going to be a time for finesse. I needed something very, very specific.
I reached my hand deeper and gritted my teeth as I felt them skitter up my arm.
Fear clenched my throat and I resisted the urge to jerk my arm back, to thrash around, swat my clothes, curse, scream and flail about. It had to be three agonizing seconds I waited, but I waited until I was sure I had enough to get the result I wanted.
I opened my eyes long enough to see the last one form from the Aether, its shiny, black carapace glinting in the dim light of the warehouse. I watched them crawl up my arm, making their way toward my face. I looked just a bit Deeper and they became fuzzy, smokier, their true nature revealing themselves under my vision. I was just barely able to make out little motes of lite in their abdomen and I grabbed hold of them as quick as I could. As soon as I did, they froze and I began knitting them together.
This was going to tricky. I didn’t have any real control over these things, as they weren’t a hundred percent real. Though they had a base in several nasty things that inhabited my mind, they were a byproduct of those parasites, constructs if you will. And since I didn’t have any real control over the parasites that had produced them, there was only so much I could do to guide them. The best I was going to be able to do was make Cruder their most immediate priority and hope that they thought he looked tasty.
I released my concentration and shook the frozen spiders from my clothes, making sure that none had crawled under my sleeves. The hit the ground with soft pattering, hardly audible under the torrent of rain that was still going on outside. After a moment of stillness, their legs twitched and like leaves in the wind they shot off in all directions.
Then I took a step back into the shadow and watched.
Cruder was making his way through the aisles, a ball of red, angry fire in his hand. God, he was a moron. Half of the freight in here was dry and crated. Had he never heard of a warehouse fire?
Suddenly the flame died out and he smacked his neck, a shrill cry escaping. He cursed, looking around. Then he hit himself again. He began to thrash about, tearing at his clothing. He swirled, swinging his staff about, striking at invisible enemies.
They were doing better than I had hoped. With any luck whatever venom they had in their putrid little bodies would put him down and once Leo came for him I could make my way back to the front…
A random bolt of lightning lanced from Cruder’s staff, missing me by just a few feet and striking a nearby crate. It went off like a bomb, throwing me from my feet for the second time today. Flaming splinters floated down from the air but he paid them no mind, more bolts of lightning flying from his staff and hand.
No, no, no. This was bad. Everywhere mini fires were catching, growing over the dry wood. All over the warehouse I could hear shelving and girders failing, twenty foot tall racks collapsing like avalanches. Avalanches of kindling in a giant tinderbox.
The air was already beginning to fill with smoke. That was my queue
I dragged myself to my feet and worked the slide on my pistol. I didn’t want to put Cruder down like that, but if he was also standing within pretty good sight of every way toward the front. I took a step forward, covering my mouth with my hand.
Suddenly, a wisp of smoke shot through the aisle like a whip and wrapped itself around Cruder’s throat, cutting off his fireworks show. He lifted off the ground, his body falling limp, his staff falling from his fingers. I could just make out his gasping over the crackling of the flames as they grew.
Leo stepped through the aisle, a cloud of black smog circulating around his outstretched fist. “I expected a certain amount of decorum from one of Benjamin’s men,” he said, his tone severe but calm. He looked around the warehouse, taking in the sight of the fire. “Would you define this as so, William?”
He dropped his arm and Cruder fell to the ground. He eyed the spiders as they skittered over Cruder’s limp form. He looked around, peering into the darkness where the fire hadn’t spread. I took a step back, making sure he didn’t see me.
Finally Leo seemed to make a decision. He planted his staff on the ground and wrapped both hands around the top. Smoke poured from the aisles, swirling around him until I couldn’t make out his form. It swirled around him, angry and violent. As suddenly as it had started, the smoke exploded outward in a gust of wind.
And he was gone.
I took a step deeper into the shadow, cradling my swollen arm and ignoring the encroaching fire. Leo was by far one of the most dangerous Wizards I had ever seen. Hadn’t had the pleasure of working with him personally, but he was an old school mage. He had forgotten more than I knew, which was ironic since I had forgotten most of what I knew too. Either way, wasn’t about to just leap into the fray with him.
Well, that was the smart thing and would have been exactly the approach I would have taken if the roof hadn’t started to cave in. A ten foot wide, flaming, and very solid piece of roof landing behind you will convince you that plans are overrated and running is your best option.
I took a deep breath and ran for the door as fast as I could. I ignored Cruder, who was starting moan on the floor as I passed him by. I ignored the spiders, which hissed and spat as I ran by. And I ignored the disturbing way the air began to swirl and blow as soon as I revealed myself. That I ignored most of all.
Above me the lights flickered, sparking and sputtering as the fire grew. A breeze caught me in my legs and nearly toppled me. I spun around and shot three times on instinct.
Then the black smoke spun around, first coalescing into a column of dark vapor before forming into Leo’s lithe frame. I was shadowed in darkness, so I was fairly certain he couldn’t see me. I needed to keep it that way. I trained my gun on him again, but didn’t fire.
Whatever he was doing with the smoke, he wasn’t done yet. It stuck to him like lint to static and grew into a greater cloud. Suddenly, he leapt from the cloud, now in the form of a humanoid, feline creature. He snarled with long, saber like fangs, black as night and twice as frightening. Far more disconcerting were the creature’s eyes, or lack thereof. Where they should have been there was only skin and fur.
He dove for me, silent as smoke and quick as air, and I squeezed of two more quick rounds, barely even taking the time to aim properly.
He covered the distance before the second shot had even fired. I dove back, barely avoiding the fine, curved claws he had shape shifted for himself. Like I said, I had never really met Leo before, I just knew him from his reputation. Whatever it was in his head that allowed him to become this abomination, it was dark and twisted and scary as hell.
The next few seconds were quick, chaotic and I barely remember them. All I know is that when I got home I had cuts places that I have no idea how he got to and they itched like hell for days.
He drove me back, ignoring the shots that passed through his body like so much wind. He tore and sliced at me, preventing me from pulling any of the more interesting devices from my pockets.
After dodging those black, cloudy claws enough times I found my back to the fire, Leo blocking my way.
Behind me I could hear Cruder coming to. A quick glance over my shoulder revealed that he was up on one knee, his already ugly face swollen and lumpy. One eye was sealed shut and he looked pissed. He was already pointing his staff at me, angry, red mist coiling around the wood.
All right, needed to time this closely.
I ducked just as he threw it at me and had a prime, if not somewhat upside-down view of Leo catching the bolt square in the chest. There was a moment of shocked, heh, no pun intended, confusion as the bolt struck home and he was frozen in place, followed by an ear shattering sonic boom and the delightful memory of his form sailing through the air.
I was pretty sure Cruder had just made an enemy, but I would savor that small joy later. For now, the fire was growing and Cruder was hobbling this way. I jumped to my feet and sprinted toward the door.
Teplov’s men were gone and much to my dismay, they had left the ore. Even worse, there was no sign of any payment. Damnation, if Teplov refused to pay me because of this I would bring the Heavens down on his head.
But the fire was spreading, smoke filling the warehouse. Cruder would be coming and for all I knew Leo was the smoke.
I took one more look at the dump truck. It would probably survive the fire, but that wouldn’t help me one damn bit. There was no way I could get it out of here. The Guild would find me in minutes. Worse, they would be crawling all over this place in the morning. I couldn’t take the ore. It was set in the real world now, no longer Aether.
Two solid weeks of back breaking labor, watching my back for the Guild, dodging lightning bolts. For nothing.
I cursed my luck as I ducked out of the warehouse.