It is with great pleasure that I announce Sorcerer Rising is officially live on Amazon. If you are interested in checking it out, it is 2.99 and you can either click the hyper link above or the image over to the side.
I have posted the first three chapters below for anyone who would like a preview.
Economics runs the world, in some form or another, and two simple principles are its most powerful forces.
Supply and demand.
Magic is just another tool, albeit a wonderful, powerful tool, that plays into these forces.
It had been a long month. The train ride had only afforded me a few hours rest and I was cold and wet and cranky as hell. Cold rainwater dripped from my fedora and coat, chilling me to the bone.
All I wanted was to crawl into bed. Instead, I was standing in a large warehouse, stuffed full of tall, crowded shelves. A small dump truck towered conspicuously beside me, dripping with rainwater after having been backed in through the roller door.
That must have been why I was examining the human condition in business terms like some sleep addled college kid during finals, as a dozen armed men watched from ten feet away.
I get like that when I’m tired.
These weren’t Teplov’s best men. They were dirty and ill dressed, though they looked better than I did. Were probably getting paid better too.
“You’re late,” the leader said. He drawled out you’re in the deep southern drawl of the region. I always noticed it more when I came back from a trip and my accent would be thicker for the next two weeks.
I made a show of pulling the 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.”
My jaw tightened until it popped. “Watch your tone, toy soldier, I wouldn’t want to take that the wrong way.”
“Who the hell do you think you are, pal?” said the guy next to him. I caught a hint of Jersey. “You’re the one who said he’d be back the beginning of the month!”
“It couldn’t be helped,” I replied. “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. He 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’d 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.” The pressure in my skull intensified and I felt myself sway on my feet. “Look, I’m tired and wet and would really like to be in a bed before the sun rises. 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. 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, backing away.
“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.
I climbed up the ladder, wiping my hands on my coat as I looked into the bed. It would be more than enough, it was bigger than my whole damn apartment. Of course, that wasn’t saying much.
The pain flared up in my head again. God, was I ready to get rid of this stuff. It had been weighing on my mind for a week, like a block of lead pressing right between my eyes.
But it wasn’t going to just come out, it would need some coaxing.
I closed my eyes and began to concentrate, picturing the ore in my mind, a big pile of pearlescent, silvery chips, glowing softly in the darkness, still humming with the vibration of the lightning it had captured. They smelled like ozone, a scent so strong I 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 the gate.
It took effort, my mind fighting it, not as flexible as it had once been. I had to picture the wood flexing, the loud creaking as the hinges stressed under the force of my will.
Finally, the doors inched open.
I felt my body relax, all the strength draining out of me. The pressure that had built up in my forehead eased, shifting to a painful burning. It started at my nose and moved all the way up my scalp and down my spine, filling my body.
I’d been holding my breath. Now I released it. The burning flowed up my body and out my mouth. Slowly, hesitantly, purplish smoke drifted out from in between gritted teeth, out through 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. The Aether started as purple, then blue, steadily shifting through the spectrum before settling on a pearlescent silver.
My stomach knotted and my muscles clenched up. I collapsed to my knees, gagging up the remnants of the Aether until finally it began to thin and then ebb altogether. The burning sensation faded, leaving my arms and legs numb, my body cold.
Then I puked. No magic this time, just some soup they gave me on the train. I think it was fish. Damn Canadians, always had to be fish.
I shuddered, cold and feverish. My clothes were soaked through with sweat and I could hear my teeth chattering as I shivered. 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. It still glowed, still hummed, 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.
I climbed down the ladder, swaying as 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?”
“Down the row,” he said, cocking a thumb toward the back.
I thanked him and stumbled down the center aisle. It had taken everything to make sure that went right, to maintain it. A week with the Aether in me. I hadn’t carried a load like that since…well, since before Nidia. Not for that long anyway. It was only supposed to be three days. I was supposed to have been able to head right for Toronto after leaving the cloud, get on a train, and just sit back and enjoy the ride back to the States. Three days max.
It was risky though, and I knew it. The Guild would be watching Terre d’échanges. It was one of their worlds, and they were protective. Supply was how they maintained their control.
Getting in had been easy though, even easier 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. The escape had been close.
But that was all behind me. I had done my part and now it was payday.
I found the bathroom and washed up. My body was shaking, cramps forming in my back and shoulders. I took a moment to catch my breath, washed my face again, and let it pass.
I think I dozed for a moment on the toilet before shouting brought me to my senses, although sliding off in a dazed panic might not be described as my best senses.
The sound was coming from the front of the warehouse. I recognized Jersey and the leader but the rest were muffled by the storm outside.
I made my way down the aisle, then froze, the hair on the back of my neck standing up.
Something was wrong.
I couldn’t see down the aisle, but maybe if I got up higher. I planted a foot on one of the shelves and lifted myself up, trying to get a better vantage point. Still nothing. I groaned to myself and dragged my bedraggled ass up the shelf.
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, maybe worse. 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 in his early thirties; small, narrow, and thin with no muscle to speak of. His hair, what little of it that remained, was slicked back and greased. Beady eyes poked out from a small bowler hat and his cheap, oversized suit made him look like a little kid playing dress up
In his right hand he gripped a long, 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 blow things up. Unfortunately, that was all he was ever called up to do.
“This is private property, Wizard,” the leader of Teplov’s men said.
Cruder tssked him. “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. 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 and the web of power they formed. One adorned 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. 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.
I blinked, feeling the spell fade. Well. Crap.
“What the hell are you doing?” the leader snarled at him.
“Tin Man doesn’t pay enough to take on Wizards,” Jersey said simply.
This wasn’t good. I could tell the leader was considering backing down. I learned a long time ago that when goons started thinking, messes were made.
“Do we get to keep the ore?” he asked, still fingering the trigger of his shotgun.
Cruder sneered. “This is our property.”
“Half?” the leader asked.
Cruder hesitated, looking over his shoulder at the ore. “The Bouchard House doesn’t know how much he took. I can agree to that, if I get the Sorcerer.”
I focused harder, powering the spell back up. This needed to happen quickly. Maybe if I could get it cast, they’d still jump him. I’d 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, if I could just manage…
An arc of electricity sparked 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 whipped 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 seized the thought, casting the spell.
And it failed. Miserably.
The moment the bolt hit my hand I knew the spell had fizzled. Someone up there must have liked me though, because in less time than it took to blink, I grabbed the bolt and threw it aside, bending it around me.
I didn’t even feel the blast. For a moment, it knocked me clean out. I woke in a pile of empty, now broken, crates; the scent of ozone and bacon wafting through my nose. Stars filled my vision.
Get up. Need to get up. Need to get up fast and get the hell out of here. Or get somewhere besides the boxes. If I could just 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 and giggled to myself, my head still swimming. The toy soldiers were getting jumpy.
I sat up slowly and groaned. Pain flowed from my left arm all the way down my back and, oddly enough, to my right foot. Worse, I couldn’t even feel my hand.
Two of the rings were glowing red, singing my skin, and my fingers were the size of sausages. A jagged red pattern stretched all the way down to my elbow.
More noise echoed from the front of the warehouse. I crawled to my feet and rotated my shoulder, trying to shrug off the dizziness.
Alright. Round two.
I stepped out into the aisle, drawing my pistol from its shoulder holster and trying to ignore the room spinning around me. 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.
Then I heard a new voice, one that stopped me dead in my tracks. I closed my eyes and sighed, pressing my back against the shelf. I said a silent prayer, and peeked around the corner, hoping I was wrong.
It wasn’t my day though. Sure enough, Leo Saigen was standing over one of the gangsters, his narrow, black staff pressed into the man’s throat. Smoke drifted up from the tip, forming a feline-shaped cloud complete with a pair of glowing red eyes.
Nope. Game over. Fuck the ore and 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. He was educated and imaginative, a high ranking member of Ben’s Charterhouse. 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.
“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, “You have 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 that. Go and check the rest of the warehouse.”
Cruder shot Leo a nasty look but did as 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. 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. My confidence had taken a blow, but I was still somewhat certain I could take Cruder. Not head to head, 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. I felt kind of bad leaving Teplov’s men, but not bad enough to keep me from doing it. Besides, they’d 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 have thrown some fire at the situation, but those days were gone.
I reached my hand deeper and gritted my teeth as I felt them skitter across my skin.
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. For three agonizing seconds I waited, letting them crawl from my mind.
I opened my eyes long enough to see the last spider form from the Aether, its shiny, black carapace glinting in the dim light of the warehouse. They crawled 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. The little motes of light in their abdomen could just be made out. I grabbed hold of the motes with my mind and they froze. Quickly as I could, I knitted them together.
This was going to tricky. I didn’t have any real control over these things. They had a solid basis in several nasty things that inhabited my mind, a byproduct of a bad decision years back, but they weren’t real, just residue. And since I didn’t have any control over the parasites they were birthed from, there was only so much I could do to guide them. The best I could do was make Cruder their most immediate priority and hope they thought he looked tasty.
I released my concentration and shook the frozen Nidian constructs from my clothes, making sure none had crawled under my sleeve. They hit the ground with a soft pattering, hardly audible under the torrent of rain that was still going on outside. After a moment of stillness, their legs twitched and 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, he hollered, the flame dying as he slapped his neck. He cursed, looking around. Then he hit himself again. He began to thrash about, tearing at his clothing.
They were doing better than I’d hoped. With any luck, whatever venom they had in their putrid little bodies would put him down. Once Leo came for him, I could make my way back to the front-
A random bolt of lightning lanced from Cruder’s staff, interrupting my thoughts. It missed by just a few feet, striking a nearby crate, and went off like a bomb. I was thrown 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. Avalanches of kindling in a giant tinderbox.
The air was already beginning to fill with smoke. I took that as my cue to leave.
I dragged myself to my feet and worked the slide on my pistol. Killing a Wizard was something I’d never done, and all kinds of a bad idea, but he was standing within sight of every way out of the burning building. 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 going 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 circling around his outstretched fist. “I expected a certain amount of decorum from you,” 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. Leo eyed the spiders as they skittered over Cruder’s limp form, then peered into the darkness around him. I took a step back into the shadows, avoiding his gaze.
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, angry and violent, swirling around him until he disappeared beneath it. 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’d ever seen. He’d forgotten more than I knew, which was ironic since I’d forgotten most of what I knew too. Either way, I 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 steel 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 front as fast as my feet could move. I ignored Cruder, who was starting to moan on the ground. I ignored the spiders, which hissed and spat even as they dissolved back into Aether. And I ignored the disturbing way the air began to swirl and blow around me. 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.
Then the black smoke shifted, coalescing into a column of dark vapor before me, forming into Leo’s lithe frame. His form distorted in the smoke, changing into a primal shape with a large head and arms that were too long.
Suddenly, he leapt from the cloud, an emaciated cat-like creature, black as night and twice as frightening. It snarled at me through long, saber-shaped teeth and sniffed the air. Where its eyes should have been, there was only smooth skin.
He dove for me, silent as smoke and quick as air, and I squeezed off two more quick rounds, barely even taking the time to aim properly.
He covered the distance before the second shot had fired. I dove back, barely avoiding the fine, curved claws he had shape-shifted for himself. 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. 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 talisman from my pockets.
After dodging those black, cloudy claws enough times, I found my back to the fire, Leo blocking my way to the front.
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 my 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. 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, Inhaling far more Aether than I was meant to, watching my back for the Guild, dodging lightning bolts.
Jersey’s head split like a melon. I grimaced, ignoring the splatter of blood as it landed at me feet. Rasputin Teplov, the Tin Man, stood over the body, examining his handywork. In his hand he held a bloody woodman’s axe made from a single piece of gray metal. He snapped his fingers and one of his bodyguards, a massive example of a man dressed in a sharp, pinstriped suit, handed him a handkerchief.
The Tin Man’s attention strayed from the corpse, to the kneeling figure who just an hour ago had threatened me. He made a show of wiping down the axe blade as he paced in front of the thug.
Teplov was a small guy, not that I’d ever bring that up, just barely over five and a half feet tall, with a slight frame and very little muscle. He had to be in his early fifties but he carried his age well. His face was na0rrow with sharp, blue eyes that barely peaked out over his small, silver spectacles. A clean, gray beard lined his jawline, perfectly sculpted. Controlled, like everything else about him.
When the blade was spotless he spoke, his thick Russian accent playing a harsh counterpoint to his smooth, almost bored demeanor. “Matthew, I am going to give you a choice. Samuel did not receive this choice. Do you understand why?”
Mathew nodded, though he looked like he was going to be sick. “He didn’t obey. He was chaotic.”
Teplov nodded approvingly. “That is correct, Matthew. Under no circumstances should this night have gone as it did. I do not approve of the manner he behaved, it was reckless. You on the other hand, did what you could, but your lack of foresight was an agent of chaos. What do we strive for, Mathew?”
“Order,” the thug said quickly.
“That is correct,” Teplov said. “So let me present you with your options.” He knelt down so that he was eye level with the dock worker. “One: we say nothing more of this. You go back to work as if nothing happened. But, if you fail me again, you allow this type of failure to repeat itself…” He trailed off, shrugging. Two of his bodyguards were already cleaning the mess and dragging off the body. “Or you can make a sacrifice, a show of commitment to your position within my organization.”
“What kind of sacrifice, sir?” the thug asked, not meeting his eyes.
Teplov’s bodyguard raised his hand, which was missing his ring finger, all the way down to the bottom knuckle. It was a nasty scar and…damn, I could sure see where this was going.
The kid nodded, setting his jaw. He held out his hand. I had to give him that, the kid had stones.
Teplov nodded back to him. I won’t describe what happened next, you get the idea. The man was led away minus a finger, probably counting his blessings that he got to walk at all.
Teplov’s axe melted away into what looked like a mix of metal filings and water vapor until nothing remained but the scent of ozone. My skin tingled as the manifestation reverberated through the air.
My turn. Yay…
Teplov looked over his spectacles at me. Everything about him was tidy and neat. From his grey Armani suit to his perfectly combed silver hair, nothing was out of place. And that was what defined Teplov.
See, and this is really going to blow your mind, Teplov was a knight. Not your typical knight, he held no oath to any nation or monarch, but to an ideal. There’s this little world, harsh as hell, I’ve only been there once, called Castlerock. Every once and a while some crazy bastard with a flexible, if determined, moral compass goes in there and seeks the blessing of the Throne, a half god being with enough power to fell mountains. They vow to uphold order and supposedly the Throne sees into their soul and weighs their virtue and a whole bunch of other bullshit and if he or she or maybe He, I don’t know really, thinks they’re worthy he blesses them. They get a nifty new suit of armor and some power and in exchange they go out fight chaos.
Now, for the most part these are really stand-up guys. I’d met a couple in my time, and just about everyone decent in the world gave them the respect they earned. If something big was going down and a major Darkness was brewing, chances are a Knight of the Ring would show up.
But, as is often the case with otherworldly and supernatural powers, they have a flexible view on morality. Teplov was one of the major players in the underworld in this city, partially because of his power as a Knight.
And the Tin Man’s outfit is the most disciplined, orderly, and dare I say beneficial crime syndicate Mare City had ever seen. He had fought off a few supernatural threats that I knew of, kept all the rest of the crime families in check, and absolutely would not abide random, that is meaningless and unprofitable, violence in his city.
So something like, I don’t know, a major warehouse fire resulting in the loss of probably about a million bucks worth of contraband inventory, the attraction of the Wizard’s Guild, the loss of a hundred grand in rare and very useful Foucier ore, renowned for its use as a conductor, well…that was something he frowned on.
One of Teplov’s men had picked me up just minutes after the fire. News spreads quickly, especially amongst the Tin Soldiers.
“Virgil McDane,” Teplov said slowly. “Explain.”
“The Guild showed up,” I said matter-of-factly, trying to sound confident. “After that it was all we could do, and by we I mean me, to keep them off and get away. The loss of the warehouse was due to a moron who makes me question the Guild’s hiring practices and the loss of the ore was certainly regrettable. But I did my part. And the ore was in your truck so…”
The Tin Man laughed. Just so you know, the Tin Man laughed, has been a lot of people’s last thought.
“My boy,” he said, “You have done well for me in the past, but you are reckless. The Guild was unfortunate, but as you can see,” he gestured to the stain on the floor, “I expect those who work for me to have a bit more foresight.”
I clenched my jaw. “I do not work for you, Rasputin.”
His eyes flashed. “And yet you were going to provide me with a product for quite a handsome sum of money. A contractor yes, but the work was for me either way and your recklessness endangered my outfit, my men, my property!”
“My foresight was what got you that ore in the first place, Tin Man. It never would have made it out of Terre d’échanges without me, and even then I was practically giving it away for what you were paying me.”
He straightened himself and grew very still. He was quite when he spoke. “Sorcerer, do not try this with me. Your fee was one you agreed to, and I never negotiate after the fact. If you insist on discussing this though, you know as well as I that you whore yourself out for so little because of your inability to bring results. I pay you a tenth what a Wizard makes because you are worth a tenth of what a Wizard is worth. You will not see one American red penny because I did not get my product.”
“Knight,” I said, with way more bravado I had any business exhibiting, “It is 0 who should not try this with me. I did my job, whatever inability I may have, I got into Terre d’échanges when others failed you and I brought that shit all the way back from Quebec. I went above and beyond and stared down two Wizards in the process. You will pay me my fee!”
Now he got in my face. It was rare to see the Tin Man show this much emotion. I was on the edge.
“I will not pay you a damn thing,” he hissed. For a moment I think he actually started speaking Russian. He did step back and restrain himself. “And if you want to know why, look at it like this. I made a business decision with quite a bit of risk. You already received the money for your expenses, yet I did not receive my product. However close you got, whatever circumstances prevented your success, I am out the ore.”
Then his form shimmered and for just a moment I saw the armor fade into place, pulled straight from the Aether in a display just like the axe, like water vapor forming into solid metal. It was just for a moment, almost like a mirage, and it showed an extraordinary talent for controlling the spell.
“The bottom line,” he continued, “is that you have no other alternative. If you think otherwise, try to change my mind. Otherwise, come back later when you can do something about it.”
He turned his back to me and let me fume. It was the ultimate insult. Indifference. He was showing me that he was not the least bit concerned with my blustering. And he was right not to be. There was nothing I could do, not a damn thing.
I clenched my fist. Not because I was angry, but because it had started to shake. All the energy had just drained from my body. The shock of facing Leo, lack of sleep, cold, knowing all I’d netted was a train ride and a few weeks of trail food, hit me like an avalanche.
“This is nothing personal,” Teplov said. “It is only business. I will grant you a boon, though.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, barely hearing him.
“A business associate is looking for someone independent of the Guild. Some type of expedition. I do not know the details, but he is looking for a capable Sorcerer. If you are interested, I can set you up with this gentleman.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Business,” he repeated. “I will not pay you because I did not receive anything and I don’t have to. But I stand to profit from this contact, and you are right, you are capable. I believe you might be particularly useful to this man.”
“What makes you think that?” I asked.
He handed me a card and for a moment I was struck silent. It was one of the most horrifying things I had seen in a long time. I had no idea how anyone might have come upon one of these.
It was a business card and it read:
Wizard, Mullally Charterhouse
Your Guide, Through The Nine Hells and Back If Needed
I had been very young when I wrote that. Stupid. In love with what I thought I was going to do, the places I was going to see. It even bore the compass symbol in the top left corner, the Guild’s sigil. In the top right corner it bore the Kraken, my Godfather’s charterhouse sigil.
“When was this given to you?” I asked. He wasn’t just connecting me with someone, this was a personalized invitation.
“A week ago,” Teplov replied. “We thought you would be back by then. But I have already been in contact and they can meet you tonight.”
I had n4eeded the windfall the ore was going to bring. That was gone now and there was nothing I could do about it. I didn’t like working for people like Teplov, but that’s what things were like now.
For me anyway.
It wasn’t much, but it was all I had. I folded the card into my pocket and left.
The Grail Tavern was out of the way for most Mare City citizens. It was a hole in the wall bar in a seedy part of town. The bouncer reluctantly let me in, only after I produced my card and told him Teplov had sent me.
It was empty as a grave. Which was a good thing, I guess, since it was about the size of one. A single bartender stood behind the bar, polishing a mug. A handful of drunks slumped in their seats, illuminated by a single bulb that hung from the center of the room, casting more shadows than any actual light.
Lastly, sat two men who were so out of place that they had to be Teplov’s contacts.
The first gentleman sat with an air of dignity and conceit. His suit was black as coal with a white button down shirt and black vest. A chain ran from his jacket to a black pocket watch that lay on the table. His age was hard to pin down, older than forty but beyond that hard to determine. Thick gray muttonchops crawled up the sides of his face and connected as a thick, bushy mustache, leaving his chin smooth.
His eyes held a cold, steely intensity and his poise, laid back with his fingers delicately perched on the rim of his mug, running the tips slowly over the smooth surface, held not only power, but cold, calculating authority. That type of authority wasn’t given or appointed. It came only from centuries of inbred expectance, of being raised with it and having it engrained into one’s own blood.
The second guy was younger, probably early thirties, and obviously subordinate to the other. His suit was of a more modern fashion, a three piece khaki ensemble that was out of season for winter. His face was youthful, if bookish, and his long dirty blonde hair was tied in a ponytail. Round glasses were perched on a long nose.
The first man smiled, his eyes losing none of their intensity or calculation. “Please, Mr. McDane, take a seat and join us for a drink.”
“Thank you,” I replied, taking the seat across from the men, sliding my business card to the center. “Mind if I ask where you got this?”
“Why does that matter?” squeaked the younger guy.
I smiled. “Just curious. Mages are a curious bunch. Plus if you got it from a former client than you get ten percent off,” I added in a chipper tone.
He blinked. “What?”
“I believe he is mocking you,” said the first man. His voice was European but I couldn’t place the accent exactly. English? Italian maybe?
I put up my hand. “I just wanted to know because I haven’t seen one of these in quite some time.”
The young guy snorted. He actually snorted. “I was able to find it easy enough, it’s a collector’s item to the right people.”
I laughed. “Good to know they’re selling well, at least.”
He turned to his boss. “Cyrus, this is ridiculous. You cannot pay this fool!”
Cyrus’s eyes never left mine as he addressed his companion. He had an unsettling gaze. It was like looking into a long, dark tunnel. No, that wasn’t right. It was like looking into a lair. A long, dark lair where something big, mean, and hungry lived. As I looked into his eyes, I felt the thing in that lair stir.
“It is quite all right, Ambrose. Mr. McDane is simply breaking the ice. I believe your men have made him nervous.”
All of a sudden I had the full attention of everyone in the bar. Well, to put it more clearly, it was now obvious I had the full attention of everyone in the bar. The bartender finally put down the mug he’d been cleaning and the barflies all turned to face me.
Cyrus smiled coldly. “My name is Cyrus Aberland. This is my associate, Ambrose Deaton. He is a very bright young man, excluding his fashion sense, and is a senior partner in my firm.”
Cyrus Aberland! My eyebrows went up at the realization of who was sitting before me. I hadn’t recognized him at first, but looking closer, I saw the man who’d been on the front page so many times. Cyrus Aberland was one of the richest men in the world, and easily the richest in Mare City.
His company, Aberland Innovations, was leading the world in scientific developments. His company had more patents than most other companies combined and more ambition than most mad scientists.
Question one: Why in the hell did he know the Tin Man? I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. Teplov was on several boards of directors for the city, owned a sizeable bit of real estate himself and had several businesses that served as fronts for his outfit. But still, Cyrus Aberland?
Question two: What in the hell did they want from me?
I gave him a tight smile. “Your message said you needed a guide. If you fill me in on the job at hand, we can discuss what I might be able to offer.”
Cyrus waved his hand casually, as if he was brushing away something he thought distasteful or irrelevant. “I know what you offer and I have no need to smuggle anything from the Aether. What I have planned is something so much more than that. At this point I would be willing to pay much more than your normal rate for your services.”
More than my rates. Hm. I looked at Aberland’s watch. It looked like Canish silver, enough to retire on.
“So what kind of business are we talking here?” I asked, keeping Deaton’s cronies in my peripheral vision. “As you most likely know, the primary service I offer is in my knowledge and expertise of the arcane world.” I cleared my throat. “Which does include the Aether.”
Aberland kept watching me. I found a good reason to take off my hat, placing it in between my hands.
“We need someone who knows the Aether,” he said quietly. “Someone who can protect a team from any arcane dangers they may encounter, and if required, enter the Aether and bring them back out again.”
I nodded. “Well, I haven’t done that in some time, but I am well versed on the Aether. What is the expedition concerning?”
Aberland’s cold smile grew, showing straight, oddly narrow, white teeth. For some unsettling reason it reminded me of the teeth of a predator. Like a wolf or a shark possibly.
“I want you to chase the Arcus.”
I rolled my eyes. “You have got to be kidding me,” I said, standing up from the table. I could just see Teplov laughing his ass off right now. “I can’t believe you went to all this trouble,” I waved my hands around at the guards, “just to tell me you want to chase the Rainbow!” I shoved my hat back on my head.
Aberland cocked an eyebrow. “Is this how you treat all of your clients?”
I snorted. “You’re not a client until you’ve paid me. If you had, I would take you just about anywhere, but the Arcus is a wild goose chase, a myth. And a dangerous one at that.”
“A myth?” Deaton asked. “But, how can you say that?”
Aberland cut him off with a wave. “I must agree with my colleague Mr. McDane. The Guild has documented the Arcus in two of its appearances. As have several other organizations.”
“The Guild says a lot of things,” I shot back. “They’re pretty sure they know where Atlantis is too, that doesn’t make it true.”
Aberland motioned to the bartender/bodyguard. “James, a drink for Mr. McDane if you will.” He looked back at me. “Give me a minute of your time and I think you will find my argument most persuading.”
I was silent. It wasn’t like I had anywhere else to go, and this was still better than most of my meetings went. Usually, I didn’t even get a drink.
I settled back into my seat.
“How long have you been away from the city?” Aberland asked, casually taking a drink from his mug.
I frowned, taking the beer from bodyguard James. “A month,” I replied. “How did you know I’ve been away?”
He placed a newspaper on the table and slid it across to me. “Because you haven’t had time to read the news.”
The headline read:
THE ARCUS, REAL!
That caught my interest. This was the Mare City Times. Not some cheap muckraker magazine. I skimmed the article. No way in hell…
I heard the window across from me open and looked up. Aberland was smiling and behind him, in the distance and just over the skyline, I could make out a vertical beam of multicolored light.
I took a long swig from the beer. “Forgive me, gentlemen. You seem to have me at a disadvantage. Give me just one moment.”
I quickly skimmed the article, my mind reeling at what I was seeing. As long as man could remember, there was the tale of the Arcus. A solid band of energy, stories of its appearance cropped up every few decades. They said it was unpredictable and fatal, falling with no warning whatsoever. It came like a storm with no warning, bringing unusual creatures and magics with it.
That was the legend anyway. It was almost always in far off distant lands or isolated to the point that no one could really get a good read on it. The Guild had documented a few of the cases, but they didn’t give it much attention.
The article said it had landed just outside of Mare in the outlying forest, right within the old Walter Cloud. Tens of thousands had flooded into Mare from all over the world to see it.
On the second page, the Guild had released their statement. They were wary of something with such an unreliable profit margin but two charters had been authorized. One from London, the other from the Cape of Good Hope. They were keeping bids open for more, but had also listed a strict set of requirements for any party looking for a Wizard.
The Rainbow’s appearance was the start of a race. There were tales of what lay at the end of the Arcus. Wealth was among the foremost of those tales. With such tales it usually is. But there were other stories too, stranger stories. Power, God, gods, lost civilizations, just about everything. Everyone had an ear for the Rainbow.
“Alright, you have my attention,” I said, my voice hoarse. “What were you thinking?”
Aberland replied, “I am collecting people to send on an expedition to the Arcus’ end.”
I motioned to the paper. “There are ten pages of motivations right there. What’s yours?”
“It’s simple really,” he responded. “My company is the world leader for research and development in nearly every field of science. Half of those developments came from the Aether, from some magic or another. Whatever this is,” he motioned to the paper, “It is amazing. The sheer amount of energy required, for a purpose we still do not understand. I consider it a bargain to pay what I will for just the chance to learn its secret.”
“And how much are you willing to put toward this?” I asked. “You can go ahead and assume that ninety nine percent of these teams will fail within the first few weeks. Only the best funded and staffed are going to make any significant headway.”
Aberland motioned to Deaton who answered, “I am currently arranging the team myself. Four of them are in this very room. All are capable in their own way. Between them, they are fluent in a dozen languages. Each has been trained in hunting and wilderness survival. Not to mention the skills required of a bodyguard for one of the richest men in the nation.”
“Who else do you have?” I asked.
“The team is still being assembled,” Deaton said, “But another thirty or forty of our best men will be accompanying you. Hunters, engineers, craftsman, men of any profession or trade you could possibly need. We just found our head surgeon and will be sending a full medical staff as well. Several specialists are still being scouted, but we have a very capable navigator and a customs specialist. And beyond all that you will have the most advanced technology and science the world has ever seen.”
I cocked an eyebrow. I was impressed. Deaton was more than he seemed. “And what’s a customs specialist exactly?”
Aberland steepled his fingers together. “A very capable individual whose skills and intelligence I have employed to see my endeavors through on foreign soil; an expert at moving through borders and conducting business with public officials.”
I smirked. “Why, Mr. Aberland. If I didn’t know better I’d say that sounded like someone who’s good at getting through customs illegally. Why would a businessman such as you have any interest in matters as dark and dingy as those?”
Aberland glared at me and I found it was not something I cared for. It made that thing in his eyes growl. “You leave my affairs to me, Sorcerer. I will not bother with threatening you. It is beneath us both, certainly I if not you.”
I let that go. I had been called worse, though I didn’t like the way he said it. “Fine, no problem. I don’t really care anything about your affairs, Mr. Aberland, just your money and what you want me to do to get it. You trust these people?”
Deaton replied, “I can personally account for every person going. All are trustworthy, capable men. Good people you can rely on.”
“And you?” I asked. “Will you be leading this expedition?”
Deaton stammered, flustered. “That really isn’t my place! The team leader will be the customs specialist of course.”
“They have already set up camp outside the Walter Cloud,” Aberland said. “The team has assembled in one of my offices here in the city and is awaiting a few last minute additions such as yourself before departing.”
I frowned. “That doesn’t give me very much time to prepare.”
“I am aware,” he replied. “But time is of the essence and I am very eager to have this started as soon as possible.”
Deaton must have sensed my hesitation. He sat back and sighed. “I told you this would be a problem, Cyrus. My preparations are enough.”
I frowned. “Now, I didn’t say I wasn’t up to it. I’ve done more dangerous than this on shorter notice.”
“I’ve read about you,” Deaton said. “You’ve never done something as enormous as this.”
I smile and leaned forward. “Really?” I asked slowly. “Pray tell.”
“The truth is,” Aberland interrupted, “We have prepared for multiple eventualities. The rest of the expedition has been chosen with their own unique set of skills. You won’t be a babysitter, Mr. McDane. If your services are needed than we will have provided just the person to provide those services. If not, oh well. You get paid either way. That is how I do business.”
Hm, well I definitely liked that. I needed to pass that idea on to Teplov. “You make that sound like an easy thing to do. Like it’s unlikely. You’re talking about one of the biggest mysteries in the world, not a stroll through the outback.”
“Exactly!” Aberland replied, leaning forward, his dark eyes brightening. “Listen to yourself. Do you not see the potential? The possible gain?”
Oh, that was bad. I was taken aback by the sudden burst of emotion, but I shouldn’t have been. This was a driven man and driven men could be terrifying.
You see, the world has sayings for useless endeavors. A “pipe dream” and “a fool’s errand” are just a couple. “Chasing the rainbow”, is another. It means more than just wasting your time. A lot more. It means wasting your time doing something that you will lose yourself to.
The policy involving the Rainbow was one of the few things I saw eye to eye with the Guild on. Everyone had an ear for the Rainbow and its end. Mages heard power and scholars heard knowledge. Even those among the Wizards theorized of distant worlds, of gateways through time and space separate from the Aether. The priests heard God, the Muslims, Allah, and the Buddhists, Buda. Some Greeks even heard Zeus. Hell, the environmentalists even saw it as a way to connect with Mother Earth. Thousands heard the call of the Rainbow. But again, most just heard cha-ching. They heard wealth, a way to make money.
Not all that glitters is gold, you get the deal.
And I didn’t deal in cha-ching. Obsession and cha-ching make a man stupid; make him chase things he should leave alone. It’s what convinces two-time thugs they can rob a high security bank and get away scot-clean. It’s what convinces hard working men to quit their jobs, heft up a pick axe and go dig around in some hills for sixteen hours a day. Similar to passion, it made men reach beyond themselves. But just like passion, it could rob the senses, blind reason, and just make people down right stupid.
That’s gambling and I only gambled if I could hedge my bet.
I realized I hadn’t said anything for a while. I took another drink from my beer and shook my head. “I don’t like wasting my time, Mr. Aberland.”
“Is your time so valuable these days?” he asked casually.
I clenched my jaw, took a deep breath, and continued. “Most likely, I’ll just end up taking your money and giving back nothing in return. All you’ll get is a party of tired explorers sick from too much jerky.”
Aberland leaned forward and I saw that thing in his eyes stir again. “Then why not take it up?” he whispered. “I offer you a small fortune to backpack around the world. If nothing comes of it, than you have still been paid, and if something does I assure you in full confidence that I have equipped you to deal with the situation.”
I was still pretty sure I was going to turn him down at this point. I mean, yeah, the guy was loaded, but how much was he willing to throw away at a pipe dream?
No one paid a Sorcerer what they paid a Wizard. It just wasn’t done. Sorcerers had no organization, no standards, no policies. There was no one to go to if the customer screwed you, no one to vouch for you other than your own reputation. And the Wizards had been telling everyone we were, literally, the scourge of the Devil ever since the war.
I leaned forward. “So how much are we talking? What number are you willing to throw at my common sense to make it scurry away?”
Aberland squinted, looking at me intently. Then he drew out a leather checkbook and started writing. It took him a while, which kind of made me worry. I mean, I could imagine some pretty big numbers, but I was fairly confident he wasn’t going to throw them at me. Finally, he tore out the check and slid it over to me.
Apprehensively, I took up the check, keeping my eyes on the man. After a moment, I let them fall to the number. My eyes went up. It was tempting. Very tempting. Ten times what I would have expected for something like this.
My hand went to my face again, my fingers tracing the design that started right above my eyebrow, curved around my eye and then out again. I knew it wasn’t there, but I could still feel it.
Things were getting bleak. It had never been easy to compete with the Guild, not for anyone, but it was especially impossible with my reputation. I had worked hard to gain some credibility, a decent client list. Instead of getting easier, it had only become harder and I found myself working for people like the Tin Man.
I closed my eyes and took a very deep breath. Yes, the money was tempting. But living was too and I found it more tempting than the check. Maybe not a lot more, but the margin was definitely there. And it wasn’t just the Arcus, though that was bad enough. Not even Ben, who if he found out I was doing something like this would most definitely intervene in one way or another. Probably with his fists.
No, in the end I just didn’t trust Aberland. There was a ruthlessness that clung to him. Trusting my instincts was how I walked away from the War and later Nidia when everyone else…when everyone else didn’t.
I exhaled slowly. Hesitantly, I slid the check back, shaking my head.
“Sorry, Cy, but I’m going to have to turn you down on this. It’s tempting,” I paused, my eyes darting back the check for a moment. I licked my lips. “Very tempting. But it’s just too risky.”
I started to get up before I changed my mind. It took a lot to turn down that check. It was a small fortune. Chock it up to the remnants of my Wizardly discipline or something.
Aberland laughed. It was the first time I had heard him do so. It had the same quality as his eyes. It was eerily predatory. Like whatever lived in that deep, dark lair that was this man’s soul liked what it saw. It scared the hell out of me.
Here was a man who had more money than I would in my entire life. He was willing to go up against the Guild, as well as anything else that got in his way. He had resources, intelligence, and people to follow him wherever he went.
His laughter subsided. Deaton was smiling too. That really bothered me, the confidence in his smile.
“Mr. McDane,” Aberland said, sliding the check back towards me. “That’s only your retainer. You get the rest when you return.”
I sat down. Hard. I looked at the check, then back up to him. “Are you serious?” I asked. My voice sounded squeaky. I looked to Deaton before Aberland could answer. “Is he serious?” I interrupted him, looking around the room. “Someone tell me if he’s serious?”
That retainer was more than I had ever made on a job before. It was more than I had made since leaving the Guild. Hell, it was more than I had ever made while I was in the Guild!
And I would get the rest later! I kept running that sentence through my head. It felt good. I could taste it. I could smell it. I could buy dinner with it. My word, I could buy a good dinner.
I looked back up and Aberland’s predatory grin grew. “Plus expenses,” he said.
I leaned back in the chair, trying hard not to show how good that sounded and failing miserably. He had me, we both knew it. He’d known before I even stepped through the door.
It was like a one-two punch. Followed up by a third and fourth. No one I’d dealt with had negotiated under Guild Law. There was no need to. Sorcerers didn’t have a Guild or a club or anything. We hated seeing each other almost as much as we hated seeing a Wizard.
There was a buzzing in my left ear but I ignored it. I stuck one finger into my ear and wiggled it, shaking my head.
No one had come even close to offering what this guy was offering. I could live on this money. Forever. For five long years, I had tried to compete with the Guild, all the while bearing the Brand of the outcast, of a fallen Wizard, stuck in between being part of the Guild and a true Sorcerer. I could put that behind me, put scrambling for business behind me.
Another possibility occurred to me. I could actually compete with the Guild.
I looked back down at the check. Without taking my eyes off the paper, I nodded. “I’ll do it.”