Chapters 1-7 of SPELLPUNK. Check back every Monday and Friday as I add new chapters.
He woke up – a really bad idea.
The threshold from sleep or unconsciousness shattered, not because of the wet and cold that covered his body, nor the sharp edges that poked into his chest, arms, legs, and face. He woke up because of the smell.
The San Francisco mystery smell – most often experienced Downtown, Market, and the Tenderloin, though it migrated to other parts of the city as well – contained a mix of urine, alcohol, vomit, and other things the mind could not discern. The mystery smell assaulted the nostrils in short bursts, usually when passing by an alley or maybe a doorstep that afforded the homeless enough protection from view that someone without any better options could have a moment’s privacy. The response? A quick shudder and a crinkling of the nose, then some mental or verbal acknowledgement, half-repulsed and half-amused, “San Francisco mystery smell.” Then the moment was gone, the salty scent of the breeze off the Pacific Ocean carried the stench away to another victim.
The man groaned and coughed. He tried to remember what had happened the night before, but could not. He couldn’t concentrate because the mystery smell did not pass. It lingered. The man’s throat closed off. It persisted in its torment. His stomach churned. He realized as his mind acclimated to consciousness that he was laying, face down in a puddle of San Francisco mystery smell.
Vomit spewed out of his mouth, adding whatever he’d eaten and drunk recently to the mix, which wasn’t much.
He scrambled away. His muscles, stiff from the cold, protested, but he forced them to move anyway. He might regret it in a few minutes but not as much as he would if he left his face in the puddle of whatever-it-was. Though his rational mind knew he would fine, the dark recesses of his brain, the place that had children sleeping under their covers with a flashlight handy after they see a scary movie, envisioned the mystery smell stuff burning the skin off his face.
Eyes scanning, he made his way over to another puddle. Taking a chance, he sniffed at it. Water. Not clean enough to drink. The thought of drinking anything made his stomach churn again, but he held it down. He thrust his face into the puddle and scrubbed with both hands.
A few minutes later, face raw, he sat leaning with his back against the wall of the alley. In the pre-dawn light, he saw a dumpster was at the far end, and by the amount of trash that littered the alley, nobody used it. Or maybe, it had gotten a whiff of whatever is was that he’d woken up face down in and vomited too.
He laughed at that thought, a quick, two-chuckle laugh, mostly because if he didn’t laugh, he’d probably cry, or scream.
Concrete memories would not come to his mind. He could recall San Francisco mystery smell, and he thought that if he got behind the wheel of a manual transmission, his hands and feet would make the proper motions in the proper sequence to get a car moving. However, he couldn’t remember his name, nor could he remember anyone that he might know. He remembered San Francisco; it had once been his home, but it wasn’t now and hadn’t been for years. He didn’t remember where he lived now. He closed his eyes and delved for a memory, even the shadow of a memory that might give him something more to go on.
* * *
My life is gone. I’m stuck in that limbo place between waking and dreaming, that moment of disorientation, where everyone thinks “Who am I?” Only, I’m stuck there, because someone sucked out the part of me that other people have that reminds them of who they are and why they are here. Took the part of me that makes me me and hid it away somewhere. I feel like I should know where, but like everything else, I can’t remember.
There are voices. Am I having an argument with myself? No. Neither of the voices are mine. I listen for a bit. The tones are words, and it takes me a few seconds to remember the language they are speaking. English. At least I’m pretty sure.
“What if he remembers?” There is a hint of snotty defiance in this voice.
“Nonsense.” That voice belongs to the one who stripped my memories one by one. Well maybe more than that at a time. If he’d done it like that, it would have taken a long time. Or maybe it wouldn’t have. Maybe I didn’t have that many memories to begin with. Anyway, I feel like I had the power to stop him, but I can’t remember how. Or maybe it’s that I didn’t know how all along, and that’s how he managed to take away me. “I left him with enough of his mind left to function, other than that he’s a clean slate.”
* * *
“A clean slate… slate… Slate…” The words echoed in his mind the way a song sometimes and it won’t go away.
Slate. It was a simple random word, unrelated to anything. On the other hand, maybe it was related to something. Slates were empty things waiting to be filled up. He was like a slate. No, he was a slate, waiting.
His voice sounded strange. Not just because of the grating in his throat from the vomit and being thirsty. Light, not soft, but light, though he felt as if it could get heavy if he needed it to.
Slate swallowed. His throat burned even more
“I’m Slate. Hello, I’m Slate. Good morning, Slate.” Saying it over and over made it seem more solid, more real, and most importantly, more a part of him, or him more a part of it. “Well, it’s as good a name as anything else right now.” And even as he said it, Slate knew that it wasn’t true. Names were important, and that this one suited him somehow better than anything else he could come up with.
So now Slate had named himself. Now what?
Slate had on a pair of baggy sweat pants and a t-shirt, both wet. Nothing else. His arms and feet started to twitch with the realization that he was wet and cold, as if he hadn’t remembered how to be cold until that moment. He looked around again, searching for something among the trash that he might use to warm up until he had some better options. Nothing, just wet garbage.
Movement at one end of the alley caught his eye. Two people, men from the build and height – one was normal sized, though he looked tiny next to the other, who was tall and broad-shouldered – walked toward him. The light was still dim, and it wasn’t until they were halfway to Slate that he could make out anything other than the black coats that hung almost to their ankles. The coats hung open and Slate saw a sword hanging from each man’s belt, and each of them had a metal breastplate protecting his torso.
“There he is,” one said. Then after a pause, “You sure that’s the Seed? He looks like a bum.”
“It’s the Seed,” the other said. His voice sounded familiar, but Slate couldn’t place it. “I just got confirmation. And you should be a bit more respectful, Christian. Sometimes Seeds come to nothing, but other times…” he let it trail off.
“Sometimes what, Marius?” The first, apparently Christian asked. “You know I hate it when you do that.”
“I know.” The delivery of those two words was so flat that Slate nearly missed the mockery hidden in them. From the lack of reaction of the taller man, he missed it all together. “Sometimes they grow up to become Keldred Drae.”
Christian laughed. By this time that they had gotten to Slate and were looking down at him. Slate stared up at them.
“You don’t need to see my identification,” Slate said. For some reason, it felt right.
Christian gave Marius a questioning look.
“It’s a movie reference,” Marius said, “which is why you don’t get it.”
Christian shrugged. A simple gesture on any normal person; however, with him, it pulled the bottom of the long coat up several inches.
“Don’t care much about it.”
Christian’s massive frame dominated Slate’s field of vision – especially when he leaned over, pulled Slate onto his shoulder, and stood up.
“Wait a—” Slate started, but the metal of the breastplate pushed into his sternum and cut off his breath.
“Drop him,” said a new voice, coming from the end of the alley.
Christian loosened his grip on Slate, and gravity did the rest. The ground hurt. A lot. And all Slate couldn’t help but think: Why was it that sometimes people used the poorest choices of words? And why did other people have to take them so literally?
With a deep breath, Slate pushed the pain aside and rolled away from Christian and Marius. A third man stood in the mouth of the alley. His plain gray suit contrasted with the strangeness of Christian and Marius’s clothes. He had black hair pulled into a braid wrapped a few times around his shoulders.
“Don’t do this, Kyle,” Marius said, drawing his sword. A moment later, Christian did the same. “This doesn’t concern you.”
“Oh?” the newcomer, Kyle, asked. “Then that isn’t the Seed you’re kidnapping?
Christian took a step forward and raised his sword at Kyle. The blade was something like a cross between a longsword and a rapier. It could be used for either cutting or stabbing. In the back of his mind, Slate wondered how he knew that. More importantly, why did he know that and not his real name?
“Step away, Spellpunk,” Christian said. “We’ve got a few more minutes before true dawn. If you leave now, I’ll forget I saw you and not report you to the Council.”
“I’m touched, Chris,” Kyle said with mock sincerity. “I really am. You’re one of the few people from my old life that still shows me any sort of kindness.”
As Kyle spoke, he slowly reached inside his coat with his left hand.
Both Christian and Marius tensed. They started moving apart slowly, and crept toward Kyle along opposite walls of the alley.
They stopped when he produced a crystal the size of a golf ball. It pulsated with a green light. Christian even backed up a step.
The few seconds that the three men stood there waiting seemed to drag on. Slate could almost feel the emotions bouncing through alley, as if they had physical form. Christian hid his fear behind a wall of hate, a pure malice directed at Kyle. Marius appeared anger, his face bunched up and scowling, but deep down, he was calm and smug. His smiling eyes betrayed him, though Slate knew neither Kyle nor Christian could see that secret. Kyle stood, tossing the glowing crystal absently in his hand, a pillar of grim determination and steadfast confidence.
Kyle took two quick steps forward, a slight smile played on his lips.
Marius and Christian stopped their advance. Christian went so far as to push the left side of his coat back, revealing a revolver in a hip holster. The weapon was huge, like something out of an old western movie – only bigger – a weapon that only someone Christian’s size could use and not have his arm ripped out of its socket.
At that, Kyle straightened his right arm, which had been bent casually at the elbow and bobbed time with the left tossing the crystal, and his thumb and first two fingers rubbed together. Such a little gesture, but Marius shifted his stance, putting most of his weight on his left foot and raising his sword arm so that arm and blade made one straight line from his shoulder pointing at Kyle. Christian drew the gun.
As Slate watched this, he felt like the spectator at a three-way tennis match, his gaze shifting rapid-fire between these three strange figures that seemed to be fighting over him. And now that he thought about that, why were they pulling swords and guns and glowing crystals and pointing them at each other over him? Ha! Glowing crystals? If he wasn’t so cold and felt so terrible, Slate would have sworn he was dreaming. Except, events were too linear for this to be a dream.
“Minutes to true dawn.” Marius’s voice quivered a bit, as if in fear, but somehow Slate knew he was faking. “No magic then, and we’ll still have the guns. Last chance to walk away.”
Kyle’s smile widened.
“The only reason you’re so willing to let me leave is because you don’t want to run back to Virgil and tell him that a Spellpunk, much less Kyle the Traitor, took a Seed away from you. I don’t care if he comes with me or if he goes his own way, but I am not going to allow the Collegium to warp his magic for its own ends.”
That got Slate’s attention. All three of them were crazy. He should have realized it before. His lack of memory, along with the exposure to the elements for who knows how long, and finding himself face down in a puddle of San Francisco mystery smell – all of that together must have lulled his senses, especially his good sense.
He had to get out of here.
His best bet was to get behind Christian and Marius and mad a break for the far end of the ally. Glancing that way, he saw cars driving past. If he made it that far, they probably wouldn’t follow him. At least Slate hoped and prayed and hoped again they weren’t crazy enough to take this out to in front of a dozen potential witnesses.
Taking a deep breath, Slate scooted a few inches closer to the other end o the alley. The three other men turned their eyes to him, then each, who had been coiled and ready to snap, burst into motion.
In hindsight, Slate was amazed at how much he noticed. Kyle tossed the crystal into the air and slightly forward. Fire spouted from the barrel of Christian’s gun, though there was no sound, despite the lack of a silencer of any kind. A cloud of mortar erupted from the wall on the other side of Kyle. If Kyle hadn’t moved, the bullet probably would have vaporized his head. Marius charged. Kyle jumped forward again, smashed the crystal under his left heel. Marius slashed at Kyle’s head. The blow did not connect. Kyle had vanished. (It was like that: Marius attacked and missed, and then Slate realized that Kyle wasn’t there any longer.) Kyle reappeared next to Christian an instant later. Marius let the moment of his swing carry him around. Christian scrambled backward. Marius rushed for Kyle, drawing his gun as he did. Kyle spun on one foot, clipping Christian on the jaw with the other. Marius aimed his pistol at Kyle’s head. He fired a silent shot and slashed at the back of Kyle’s legs. Still on one foot, Kyle contorted. He bent sideways from the waste to avoid the gunshot while, and twisting, reached out, as if to block the sword with his hand. A blade shot out of Kyle’s sleeve. It was a long, thin, double-edged weapon. It turned Marius’s attack aside. A clang rang through the alley. Kyle’s free foot slammed into Marius’s thigh. Marius grunted and back away, keeping the point of his sword toward Kyle. Christian recovered pointed his gun at Kyle again. Kyle waved his freehand and a thin silver chain glinted in the growing light. The gun clicked, a misfire. “Fuck.” Christian holstered the pistol and came upon Kyle’s other side. Kyle backed up to the wall and placed the blade of his sword casually on his shoulder. Marius and Christian glanced questioningly at each other.
With this pause in the fighting, Slate realized how crazy it was that he was just sitting here watching these maniacs fighting over him. He scrambled to his feet and ran for the far end of the alley.
One of the people behind Slate called out in some unrecognizable language, and Slate felt his balance lurch, as if he was on an escalator that suddenly stopped and restarted again. Something grabbed him – it had to be something, because he felt pressure on his whole torso – and pulled him back. Then the pressure was gone, and Christian’s face filled his view.
“Stay,” the huge man said. Then he slammed Slate into the wall.
The air whooshed out of Slate’s chest. He crumpled.
“Oh, shi—” Christian started, but he ended in a pained grunt.
Christian fell beside Slate. His forehead scrapped red, his eyes rolled back into his head.
Metal rang on metal just above Slate. He looked up to see Marius and Kyle slashing and thrusting, parrying and dodging. All the while they stared at each other’s eyes. It was as if their eyes were conducting a battle separate from their dueling swords. Slate froze, afraid any movement on his part might be taken as a threat by either of the swordsmen, who might then attack presumed threat.
Marius spoke. Again Slate couldn’t understand his words, but he flinched when Marius’s eyes flashed with silver energy when he finished. Christian’s sword rattled on the tarmac, then it flew up into Marius’s free hand. As soon as he had the second weapon, Marius unleashed a flurry of attacks. Kyle stepped back, once, twice, three times under that onslaught, never taking his eyes off Marius’s.
A half smile formed on Kyle’s lips. “Kneel.”
Marius’s lips parted in a clenched-toothed snarl and his breathing deepened. Kyle’s smile grew as Marius’s attacks slowed.
“Two weapons take a lot of concentration.” Kyle’s smile faded. His eyes flashed the same silvery energy that Marius’s had. “I said, ‘kneel.’ Kneel before your better.”
Marius’s knees buckled. He closed his eyes and threw himself back, spinning both of his weapons in wide, alternating arcs. Two steps back, his foot came down on some unidentifiable sludge that might have been a close cousin to the San Francisco mystery smell. Marius pitched backward. With only an instant of wasted movement, Marius transformed the fall into a backward roll.
Kyle didn’t follow him as Slate expected him to. Instead, Kyle took one step back to where Christian was struggling to rise. Kyle spun, and his foot caught the side of Christian’s head. The large man slumped back to the ground. A small part of Slate wished that Christian would have fallen into the puddle of San Francisco mystery smell.
Marius came back to his feet and rushed at Kyle, the two blades spinning so fast Slate could barely track them; Kyle whipped his sword left and right and up and down, attempting to fend off the attack.
Slate sat unmoving, watching, eyes wide at the intricate pattern Marius wove with his weapons. He saw something, something important, and something that he didn’t think Kyle saw. Slate blinked once from the dryness that his intense observation of the swordplay, and when his eyes opened, refreshed, Slate realized Kyle wasn’t the intended victim of those whirling blades – Kyle’s sword was, and a heartbeat later, Kyle over extended his weapon by maybe half an inch or so; that was all the opening Marius needed; with a flick of his wrists, Marius wrenched Kyle’s sword out of his hand and sent it spinning through the air.
The sword spun end over end over above Marius’s head. All three watched its journey. It hit the ground. Clang.
The sound pulled them out of their reverie, and all three spun into action: Marius lunged at Kyle, who had produced a second crystal; Kyle ducked and smashed the crystal under his palm and vanished before Marius’s second attach could land; Slate shook off his bewilderment, and got to his feet as Kyle reappeared next to the fallen sword. Not looking back, Slate dashed away.
Pain stabbed at the back of Slate’s head. In that distant space where the mind goes when pain comes suddenly, Slate realized the pain was going away from his scalp rather than into it; someone must be grabbing onto his hair; then the moment was gone, and Slate felt his feet keep moving as his head did not; his view shifted upward and he was staring up at the lightening sky; he stayed there for a second, horizontal in the air, then he slammed into the ground; Marius loomed in Slate’s vision for a moment before the black clad man kicked Slate in the head. At least Slate had the pleasure of seeing Kyle come up from behind before the black spots of pain washed away Kyle, Marius, and everything else.
Something heavy fell on Slate. Slate grunted. Then a warm, thick liquid washed over him. The pain in his head faded and vision returned. Marius was on top of Slate. His throat gape open, and blood gushed out in bursts that grew further and further apart.
Slate pushed his way out from underneath Marius and vomited. A small portion of Slate’s mind – that little optimist that everyone has that keeps us sane and plugging when everything seems to be at its worst, that little voice that has kept humanity from mass suicide throughout all of civilization and before – said, “At least it’s not that puddle of San Francisco Mystery Smell again.” Though this time, most likely due to the experiential overload Slate had suffered in the few minutes he’d been awake, the vomiting continued until Slate writhed on the ground, choking up dry heaves.
Sometime after that – probably a few moments at most, though to Slate it felt like hours – Kyle helped Slate up and draped an over-large black coat over his shoulders. The world spun again, and the black spots of pain came back, along with a wave of dizziness that threatened to pitch slate forward. Kyle gripped Slate’s shoulders and steadied him.
“I know you have no reason to trust me,” Kyle’s voice was soft and soothing; it helped to settle both Slate’s head and stomach, “but we’ve got to get off the street. I have a friend near here. Let’s get you cleaned up and settled. Then, you can go your own way if you want. If you don’t trust me though, I’ll leave you to go it your own way. Some people like it better. Some people even manage to make it that way, but not many.”
Slate glanced at the two bodies, Marius and Christian. He wondered if Kyle had killed Christian as well. He stopped thinking about it. He didn’t want to know. Somehow, Slate suspected he wasn’t one of those people who could make it on his own. He managed a slight grunt along with his nod. What was he going to do, walk around the city alone, covered in blood?
After half-following and being half-carried by Kyle for several blocks, Slate’s muscles started to loosen up. His stomach had settled into a mild nausea rather than a rollercoaster rivaling the worst sea sickness. At least, that’s how Slate thought of it. Occasionally, his legs buckled and wobbled as if he was used to walking on an unstable surface such as the deck of a ship at sea.
“Need a minute?” Kyle asked as supported Slate.
Slate nodded. Kyle pulled him into the shelter of a storefront that was due to open in several hours. Retro furniture of some sort. Slate leaned against the door and took slow, deep breaths. He’d done this the first two times Kyle had asked Slate if he needed to rest. Each time there had been four breaths, four distinct inhalations and exhalations of air. Slate didn’t know why, but those four breaths felt natural, grounding. The timing of each seemed perfectly in sync with the others, and the completeness of it all held the feeling of ritual. The breathing relaxed him a little, but not enough to make him forget the drying blood that clung to him. Slate squirmed a little under the giant coat and he tugged at it his shirt to try and get the blood away from his skin.
“We’re almost there,” Kyle said. “We’ll get you cleaned up.”
As before, Kyle lead Slate mostly down side streets and allies when they could. Even though the morning was just getting started with the sun chasing the last of the blackness from the sky, yet not fully up, the main streets were growing busy. Every time they came to a place where they could go one of two or more directions, Kyle took a large silver coin. He’s flip it into the air, catch it, and without looking to see whether it was heads or tails, would start off again.
A short while later, they came to a door in an alley. It was one of those metal delivery doors that lead into the small back room of a shop that wouldn’t be much bigger than that storeroom. If Slate had been walking down the alley alone, he wouldn’t have given the door a second glance. Kyle knocked three times, three separate times, with a distinct pause between each time his knuckles beat against metal. The first time Slate thought it was just random tapping. After the second he realized it was a pattern, and when Kyle rapped the third repetition on the door, Slate matched it by tapping his right forefinger against his thigh. Slate didn’t know what to make of that. He stored it away for later.
Moments later, a door that Slate hadn’t even noticed opened up two paces to the left of them. Slate blinked and shook his head. The door had been there. Now that it was open, he remembered seeing, but it just seemed so unimportant that he shouldn’t pay any attention to it.
“Damn it, Kyle,” a gruff voice snarled from the darkness that lingered on the other side of the threshold. “Now I’m going to have to reset everything tonight.”
“Couldn’t be helped,” Kyle said as he ushered Slate the door. “Had to get off the streets. Anyway, it’ll only take a few minutes. You’ll live.””
Slate heard the door shut behind them. The finality of it echoed as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. He was in a small room about five by five with a flight of stairs leading up in front of him. The only light in this small and crowded room came from up those stairs, along with a strange hum, like someone had hit a dull tuning fork and left it going. A really big tuning fork.
“Had to get off the streets,” the gruff voice repeated, though with a bit of a biting undertone. “And so you decided to bring the Collegium down on my head?”
“I covered my trail.”
“Sure you did. The great Kyle Drae always covers his trail. That’s why he’s never been caught.”
“Don’t start that,” Kyle said. “I’m not in the mood.”
Slate turned. That was the closest he’d heard Kyle come to breaking his calm demeanor. Even when guns were blasting and swords were clashing, he’d maintained an air of serenity. Now there was an edge to his voice.
The second man was only a bit shorter than Kyle, very thin and very pale. He had several days’ worth of brown stubble on his chin and cheeks. He wore a plush-blue bathrobe over nothing but a pair of ragged jeans and a well-toned body. His right hand held a pistol-grip sawed-off shot gun that swung absently at his side. He met Kyle’s stare over wire rimmed glasses. He sniffed, nodded, and muttered, “Okay.” Then he glanced at Slate.
“He looks like shit. What did you let them do to him?”
“He’ll look better after he gets cleaned up,” Kyle said. “That’s not his blood. It used to be Marius’s.”
The man turned his head slightly back to Kyle. “Sabre’s boy?”
Kyle shrugged. “Probably.”
“Hot fucking damn. Maybe now Dart can start getting her priorities straight. Speaking of which, Miss Thing and her guardian angel survived that little distraction you sent them on. Of course, they had more than a little help from your’s truly.”
“I’ll get the details later. Right now, can we please come upstairs?”
“Sure thing, Mr. Fearless Leader.” The man switched the shotgun to his left hand and extended his right to Slate. “Forgive Kyle’s manners. He forgets them sometimes. I’m Malcolm Randall. Call me Randall. Never liked Malcolm much.”
Slate took Randall’s hand and gave as firm a shake as he could. “I’m Slate.”
Kyle and Randall shared a look. Both seemed to be questioning each other with their eyes.
“You, um, sure about that?” Randall asked.
“As good a name as any until I remember my real one,” Slate replied.
“Slate it is.” Randall gave Slate’s hand one firm shake before letting go. “Please be welcome in my home.”
“Thank you,” Slate replied.
Randall and Kyle shared another look before Randall headed up the stairs. Kyle gestured for Slate to follow.
At the top of the stairs, Slate found himself in a small apartment. Nearly every surface was covered by books, papers with computer code, parchments, and scrolls. Scrolls? Who read scrolls anymore? Here and there, beer and soda cans poked up out of the sea of paper. Seeing past the clutter, Slates eyes fell on the desk in the corner of the room. There were four screens in a row, wires coming out of them to the tower which was more like a frame, because all the internal components were exposed – motherboard, hard drive, and everything else. Wires ran from all this hardware to a glowing crystal that rested on top of the whole thing and a jar that contained some bubbling liquid the color of antifreeze. Strange symbols were written over the whole thing.
“Don’t mind that,” Kyle said, leading Slate into the hallway. “Randall is experimenting with...well, he hasn’t blown anything up in a long time.”
“Wha—?” Slate said, at the same time Randall cried. “Hey, that’s not funny.”
Before Slate could ask any more questions, Kyle ushered him into a bathroom.
From the main room, Slate would have expected a mess in here too. However, the bathroom was clean and tidy. It even smelled freshly clean. Slate inhaled deeply and took in the faint sent of bleach. It helped to burn the stench of the San Francisco Mystery Smell from his nostrils and memory. Four more deep breaths and Slate turned the shower on and undressed while he waited for the water to heat up.
Taking Christian’s massive coat off was no big deal, but once Slate started on his other his clothes, he couldn’t help but feel like he was removing the last pieces of his old life. Once he was naked, he stopped and looked down at his clothes while the steam billowed around him. Soaked in blood as they were, Slate had no illusions that he would ever wear these clothes again, but he wanted to know more about that shirt and that pair of jeans. The jeans were well worn. Had they been his favorite pair, or just the ones that had lasted long enough, or maybe just the ones he’d happened to put on the day when whatever had happened to him had happened.
It was as good a word as any for the situation. Saying it was quick and easy, and doing it made him feel – well, not better exactly, but rather a strange sense of control. The vulgarity of that word hung in the steam long after the sound had faded.
Once more for good measure. “Fuck.”
That being said, Slate got in the shower. The water scalded him, not to the point of blistering his skin, but he turned a nice shade of red as he washed and scrubbed the blood, sweat, and stench away. This made his skin even redder, and the soap-covered brush left long scratch marks in his skin. As he washed his hair, Slate heard the door open. A blast of cool air enveloped him as light footsteps came in, paused, and then left. The door closed softly a moment later.
When he finished, Slate turned the water off, got out of the shower, and dried himself with one of the towels left on the toilet. Those towels weren’t the only things the visitor had left. A suit, similar in cut to the one Kyle wore; only this one was darker gray – like slate gray – hung on a hook on the back side of the door. A pair of leather dress shoes with socks stuffed in them was on the floor beneath the suit. There was a brown leather toiletry back on the counter next to the sink. He opened it: toothbrush and toothpaste, razors and shaving cream, and comb and brush. He arranged them all on the table. First he brushed the last taste of vomit away, though with less vigor than he had the blood from his skin.
After rinsing the last spit from his mouth, Slate wiped the steam from the mirror. A stranger looked back at him. Deep brown eyes looked back at him from above dark pockets, as if that face hadn’t slept well for weeks or months. The face looked like it was in its mid-twenties. It had lost the still boyish look that teenagers had, but lacked the preliminary wrinkles that started to come with the thirties. Unruly brown hair topped that head which contrasted with the well-trimmed beard and mustache. Turning this way and that, Slate admired this stranger’s face that was his. It was a good face. He only wished he recognized it even just a little. But there was nothing familiar.
“Well, Slate, at least you didn’t get stuck with some Quasimodo face.” The voice sounded strange, borrowed. “But I don’t think that’s you anymore.”
He turned on the hot water faucet by the sink, sprayed shaving cream onto his hands, then lathered up his chin and cheeks. He picked up a razor in his right hand, switched it to his left, and then back again. The right hand felt more natural, and so he placed the razor to his cheek just below his left ear. Shaving was natural; his hand stayed steady through the whole process. As each stroke removed both white cream and whiskers from the stranger’s face, Slate thought he might feel the same about the bear than he had about the clothes – this had been part of who he was. Only, he felt no sense of loss. Had he already come to terms with the state of things as they were, or was it that he knew that the beard was easy to retrieve? Stop shaving for a few days and he could have that face back again. In truth, the shaving raised his spirits a bit. It was the first choice he’d made on his own since waking. Would it drastically affect the course of his life? Probably not, but the choice had been entirely his.
Once he finished and combed his hair, Slate dressed in the suit: slacks, shirt, and coat. The clothes fit him perfectly, but he couldn’t quite get comfortable in them. He felt stuffy, self-absorbed. He glanced at the tie. Even looking at it on the hanger reminded him of a leash or collar. Slate left it where it was and unbuttoned a second button on the shirt. He smiled – a discovery at last. This bolstered his courage, and he stepped out of the bathroom.
Slate walked back into the main room of the apartment. The scent of roasted coffee filled the air. Off to one side, Kyle and Randall sat at what looked like a third-or-fourth-hand card table in a small kitchen and dining nook that Slate hadn’t noticed because he’d been too distracted by the strange computer. He blatantly looked everywhere but at the contraption as he went and sat at one of the two empty chairs at the table. Both Kyle and Randall had mugs with steaming coffee.
“Would you like some?” Randall asked.
Slate ran his tongue along the inside of his teeth. “Um. Yeah.” He said as if making some important pronouncement. “Yeah, I think I would.”
Randall scooted away from the table, took three steps to a cupboard, and opened it.
“How do you take it?”
“Uh. I don’t know.”
Randall took down a malformed, flesh-colored mug with the words “I feel the way this mug looks” written in the side in bright orange letters.
“Nice,” Kyle said.
Randall shrugged. “It’s the only clean one that will give him the cupajoe he wants.”
“How?” Slate asked. “I don’t even know what I want.”
“It just will.” Randall smirked as he poured steaming coffee into the mug. He returned to the table and handed Slate the mug. “I’ll leave you guys alone. This usually goes better with only one person.”
“What usually goes better?” Slate asked.
“The explanation.” With that, Randall walked away.
Slate wrapped his hands around the mug and let its warmth seep into his fingers and palm. He looked at Kyle.
Kyle took a breath and muttered something. Slate couldn’t catch all of it, but he definitely heard, “Hard part,” at the end.
Kyle looked down. Slate did as well, into his coffee. Odd. He hadn’t remembered Randall putting any milk in the cup. Yet, the coffee was slightly darker than a paper bag. Slate took a drink. Odder. Randall hadn’t put sugar into the coffee, but here Slate was, drinking coffee prepared with just the right amount of sugar and milk. Even as he sipped, his fingers tingled with memory. If he needed to make a second cup himself, Slate knew his hands would concoct the perfect cup of coffee for his taste buds. Still, damned if he knew how Randall managed to get it just right.
Putting the mug down on the table, Slate started chewing on the inside of his cheek, a gesture that felt completely foreign. He glanced back up at Kyle and noticed that the dark-haired man was also chewing on his lip. Slate stopped, but part of him wanted to keep it up.
“Look,” Slate said, partly to fill the silence and partly to keep himself from chewing on his lip again. “Whatever this is, I can take it.”
Kyle smiled as a parent might when trying to explain that, yes, this time the fire is going to be hot this time too – that the fire is going to be hot every single time.
“We all live on the planet Earth. Another term for it is ‘the world,’ although this term is inaccurate. The term ‘world’ has more to do with experience and perception than any physical location. For example: two lovers don’t work out because, ‘they came from two different worlds.’”
Kyle opened his mouth to say something else, but he paused. He considered this logic.
“Okay, I’m still with you.”
Kyle nodded. “So you have stepped out of one world and into another. The reason you can’t remember your old world is because your mind is protecting you from the shock. The transition is usually slow, so people can experience the passage from one world to another with a bit more objectivity than you’ve been allowed. While both of these worlds share the some planet, and the people from each can interact with each other, there are some fundamental differences.”
Kyle took in a slow deep breath in through his nose and blew it out slowly through pursed lips. Slate had to concentrate to keep from doing the same.
“I said I could handle it, and I meant it.”
Kyle shrugged, as if surrendering.
“Magic is real in this world.”
Slate took a deep breath. Unlike Kyle’s slow, almost meditative breath, Slate’s was a quick intake of air. He held the air in his lungs until it seemed like his ribs would burst open from the pressure. He couldn’t tell what he was mad about. That Kyle would tell him this story, or that Kyle seemed to think that Slate would accept it. The breath came out of Sate’s mouth in blast. To stall a bit, Slate drank some coffee. The warmth soaked down his throat and settled in stomach. The warmth of it took the edge of the irritation, so that rather than yell and scream, Slate let out two words.
Kyle shook his head, though more to himself than to Slate, and his lips curved upward in that sad smile when people only have the option to laugh or cry.
“Sorry,” Slate said. “But you really can’t expect me to believe that.”
“Believe what?” Kyle asked. “The things you’ve already seen and experienced today. Let’s forget about the fight in the alley, with me teleporting from place to place? How about the little things? Like the coffee that’s prepared perfectly to your taste, even though you didn’t remember how you take your coffee. Or, how about that suit that fits you perfectly? Magic doesn’t have to be big and flashy, and in most cases it’s not.”
Slate lifted the coffee mug toward his mouth, then stopped a few inches away. What kind of ‘magic’ had they put in this cup to make him think that it was the ‘perfect’ cup? He hadn’t seen them put anything in it, but that didn’t mean it hadn’t been doctored while he was in the shower. The orange letters were a beacon to the eye, making it easy to recognize this one mug amongst many others. Also, the coffee could have been rufied in the pot. Nothing guaranteed that their coffee was from the same batch as his coffee. Slate put the mug back on the table and pushed it a few inches away.
He looked Kyle square in the eyes. “Prove it with something flashy again.”
“That figures,” Kyle said, “but I can’t right now.”
“Really? Why does that not surprise me? Why ever not?”
Kyle glanced around the room, looking everywhere but at Slate. He opened his mouth several times, only to close it again. Slate chewed his upper lip, a gesture he found natural and somewhat comforting, despite Kyle’s obvious nervousness. Only nervousness wasn’t the right term. He seemed frustrated and appeared to be thinking about which words to use rather than being at a loss for them. Finally, Kyle threw up his hands.
“I can’t show you because the sun is up.”
“Oh, that’s convenient, but I’ll bite. Why does that have to do with it?”
“Everything,” Kyle replied. “With a few exceptions, magic won’t function during the day. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t do anything that would be blatant enough to convince you. Whatever I might try, you could easily pass off as a trick or a coincidence.”
“Kyle,” Randall called from the other room, “bring him in here.”
Slate rolled his eyes but still got up and followed Kyle into the other room.
“Catch,” Randall said, and tossed something to Slate.
Instinct took over, and Slate caught the object. It was a gun, an automatic pistol, a Gloch of some model. Slate wondered how he knew that.
“You know how to use that?” Randall asked.
Slate turned the pistol over and over in his hands. “Yeah, actually, I think I do.”
“Why the hell would I give a stranger a loaded gun in my own home? Go ahead and check it.”
The safety was on. Slate slid the clip out, and sure enough, it had been loaded.
“Put the clip back in.”
“Now,” Randall said, “I hate it when people I don’t know have loaded weapons around me.”
The scruffy-bearded man pointed what looked like a TV remote at Slate, except this one had a yellow crystal duct taped to the end. His other hand was out as well, empty palm pointed toward the ceiling. The crystal was glowing. Randall pushed a button and the crystal flashed.
Randall smirked. “Check it again.”
Slate did. The clip was empty. He looked back to Randall. Randall smirked, pointed the remote at his hand, and pressed a button. Another flash of light and bullets plunked out of the end of the remote and into Randall’s open hand, one by one.
“There you go, kiddo. Something flashy. Technomancy is one of the few types of magic that will work in the daytime, though usually only away from mundane witnesses. Now that you’ve gotten that satisfied, finish your coffee and listen to Kyle. Might save your life, or at least your sanity.”
Slate went back to the table and took a healthy swallow of the coffee. He almost hoped they had put something in it. If that thing with the bullets had been a trick, Randall and Kyle were going to a lot of trouble to convince him about this magic thing. Then again, Slate couldn’t explain the strange things he had seen and experienced since waking up. He took another deep swallow. This time, it didn’t do anything to help settle him.
“No bullshit?” Slate asked, looking up at Kyle.
“No bullshit,” Kyle said. “Once upon a time is real, and it’s very much alive.”
“Once upon a time…” The woman’s voice is a bit tinny, making it sound far away. That’s not quite it. I realize it’s not her voice that’s the problem but my ears. I’m hearing her from behind the veil of near-sleep, just awake enough to understand what she’s saying… sort of. The words blur together, and I get at least a dozen stories at once: Snow White, King Arthur, Sleeping Beauty, Robin Hood, the Arabian Nights, and more. And these are the real deal. I don’t know it now, but later I will come to realize that she’s not giving me the lame, watered down versions that some animated motion picture studio’s propagate. She wants me to grow up having a sense of the world – no, two worlds – and I need to understand the light and the dark of each. Though she tells them to me as a child, I’m going to realize later that these weren’t just supposed to be bedtime stories; these were to prepare me for what might come later. One thing she never, ever does is end them with, happily ever after, “because that,” she says, “is a lie.”
She tucks me in the way she does every night and will do every night until I get too old for this stuff, about the same time I get too old for the stories. I’ll forget the stories, because when I get too old to be tucked in, I’ll also be too old and cool for those old baby tales. By then, I’ll have video games and movies with automatic gunfire. The old stories that were meant to teach me won’t mean anything anymore, and by the time I need them, I’ll forget them.
“Great story, Mom,” I say. “Maybe someday I’ll be a powerful wizard like Merlin.”
“Or a knight in shining armor like your father.”
“He doesn’t wear armor.”
“Not in the traditional sense.”
No wait. That conversation happened years ago.
Tonight I say, “You’ve told me that one so many times. Aren’t there ever any new stories?”
“Well, maybe if you listened more, you’d hear more in the stories than you think you hear.”
She gets up to leave. I realize that our story time is going to get shorter and shorter from now on, until it’s gone altogether. My own fault, unless I can fix it
“Tell me another.”
“Tomorrow.” She’s got the “we are not amused” look on. Time to pull out the big gun.
“Pleeeeeaaaasssseeee?” I let the word drag out. This is another thing that’s changing. It used to work, the way my voice raises an octave or two while I please with her. Not so much anymore.
But tomorrow will be too late. I’ll start forgetting tomorrow. If I hear them all just one more time tonight, I might remember them when I really need them.
But she is immune to the plea that seemed so magical yesterday. She kisses my forehead, and whispers, “Good Night.”
Before leaving, she pushes the edges of the blankets under me, trapping me in the bed. I struggle to get free, but she’s got me pinned in here too well. She flicks the light switch when she leaves, but nothing changes. My room was dark and shadowy, still a mystery to me, and I can’t remember Mom’s face, or Dad’s for that matter. I thought I could a few moments ago, but their images have been wiped from my internal hard drive.
“Mom,” I say to her silhouette retreating down the hallway. “Please, Mom, just one more. Please, Mom.” She’s still walking away, ignorant that she has the information I’m going to need in the subconscious of my mind when my conscious mind can’t remember anything.
Then I’m alone, in the dark. The stories are gone too. How the hell am I going to work through the things I’m going to need to work through when I’m older if I don’t have the stories? Only, again, they aren’t stories, they’re kind of a training manual. Those old stories are how people taught their children the rules of how to deal with the creatures of once upon a time.
Slate felt someone shaking his shoulder. He blinked a few times. Kyle was next to Slate, hand on his shoulder with a firm grip.
“Are you okay?” Kyle asked.
“I think so.” Slate closed his eyes and tried to summon any memories of his family. The screen just behind his eyes remained black. “I’m trying to remember. I thought I had a memory, but it’s gone again.”
Kyle gave Slate’s shoulder a sympathetic squeeze. “Don’t push it. The first few memories you get back might be unpleasant ones, because, like it or not, our unpleasant experiences are the ones that tend to brand themselves in our memories the strongest.” Slate opened his eyes. Kyle was smiling warmly. “I think that’s enough for right now. We can talk again later.”
“Why did this happen to me?”
“There are a couple of possible reasons. The most likely being that you developed some latent magical talent, and you crossed over to Beyond the Sun.”
“But why me?”
Kyle took a deep breath. “You are gifted. I know you don’t feel gifted, but once you settle down into the World Beyond the Sun, you’ll understand your gifts and yourself a bit better. Until then, I’ll guide you as best I can.”
“Okay,” Slate said. “I’ll try to be patient.” Part of him wanted to reach over and shake the answers out of Kyle, but that course of action might prove less than successful.
A knock echoed from the stairway leading down to the door. Kyle and Randall looked at each other. Kyle’s hand slipped underneath his coat.
“Expecting anyone?” Kyle asked.
Randall looked at his watch. “Yes, but uh, Slate here spent more time in the shower than I thought. Dart and Icarus said they would be stopping by after that distraction thing.”
Randall got up from his chair and headed downstairs.
“Well,” Kyle said. “We should get going.”
“We just should. It would take too long to explain right now.”
Slate held in a biting remark. Again, not that he had much choice. Besides, Kyle seemed alright, and corny as it was, Slate just felt that he could trust his benefactor.
Randall came back upstairs. He grumbled something under his breath. Another voice, male, said something in return, but Slate could only make out the words college and police. At least, he thought that’s what the words were.
A man followed behind Randall. He was a young man, in his early twenties, or at least Slate thought that’s what he might be. The man had one of those faces that it was hard to pinpoint the age, and the suit, similar in cut to the ones Slate and Kyle wore didn’t help. He had short, black hair and a sharp bone structure that was, while striking to look at, he seemed easily forgettable, like the models of a magazine – attractive while being observed but forgettable once out of perception. A tattoo of an eye shrouded in mist adorned his left cheek. He looked Slate over, glanced to Kyle, and then turned his attention back to Slate, appraising him.
Someone pushed the young man to the side. She was shorter than everyone else in the room by at least a foot, and although this girl looked to be in her mid-teens, she was a head turner. Somehow, Slate suspected she loved the attention she received. Her strawberry blond hair fell across her shoulders and down to her waist. She had a line of dark blue and bright orange died in her hair just above her right ear. She had purple and blue tie-die pants tucked into motorcycle boots and a black frock coat over a white T shirt, a shirt so thin that Slate could make out the small lumps of her nipples jutting against the fabric. The left nipple was pierced. Slate swallowed, and as he felt the temperature in the room raise, he immediately shifted his gaze to her face. He wondered if the ring in her left nostril matched the other piercing – and not the ones in her ears. She gave him a mischievous smile and winked.
“Stay away from her,” Kyle whispered. “She’s older than she looks, and her favorite pastime is breaking hearts.”
Slate nodded without taking his eyes away from hers. How many hearts had she lured in with those creamy jade circles? Centuries of seduction called to Slate, promising that he, and he alone, was the one.
“Tell me Kyle,” the girl said without looking away from Slate, “does this Seed remember how to talk?”
Even though she spoke, this girl’s voice sounded as if it were on the very edge of song. Her tone was perfect for a soprano, and at the same time Slate imagined arias written specifically for her, he wondered how he could know these things.
“Yes, he remembers.” Kyle’s voice held the slight edge of a disappointed older brother.
“Really?” She took a step toward Slate, the left side of her mouth curving upward in a mischievous smile. Still her eyes never left his. “Does this Seed let you do all his talking? Or maybe I should ask him something. Do you remember your name sweetie pie?”
It sounded like Kyle may have said something like, “Stop it,” and the girl finally turned her attention away from Slate for a moment; she rolled her eyes and stuck out her lower lip. On anyone else, the expression would have been annoying in its petulance; however, on her, it only served to draw Slate further in.
Slate just stood there, transfixed on her eyes and the hypnotic quality of her voice.
“Seed,” said the man that had come in just before the girl. “Seed. The lady is speaking to you, Seed.”
Slate blinked. The man’s voice sounded like steel wool on a chalkboard compared to the girl’s, and the harshness of it pulled Slate out of the reverie he’d fallen into.
“What do you mean, Seed?” Slate asked.
“Guys,” Randall said, stepping into the conversation, “this is Slate. Slate, this is Icarus,” Randall indicated the man, who nodded slightly, “and Dart.”
The pouting vanished from the girls face and she winked.
Icarus extended his hand. “Good to meet you, Slate.” He spoke Slate’s name as if trying to pronounce something in a foreign language that he was unsure of.
Slate shook Icarus’s hand. “Good to meet you, um, Icarus.”
“Slate’s not the name your parents gave you,” Dart declared.
“Umm, no. I gave it to myself when I couldn’t remember who I was.”
“Gave it to yourself?” Icarus asked.
“Yeah, when I woke up. Right before those other men found me.”
“Oh,” Dart said. “Wow.”
All four of the other people in the room looked at each other, sharing some secret.
“What?” Slate asked.
“Later,” Kyle said. “We should probably go. The streets should be clear by now.”
“Yeah,” Randall said. “And as nice as it’s been getting to know Slate and to catch up with you, but Dart, Ic, and I—”
“Sorry. Dart, Icarus, and I have some important things to do. Spellpunk things.”
“Spellpunk?” Slate asked.
“Later,” Kyle said. “I don’t want to overwhelm you.”
“Later,” Slate said. “Always with the later.”
Kyle chuckled. Dart laughed outright.
“What?” Slate asked.
“It’s maybe an hour after sunrise, and you’re already impatient to learn everything right now. And people say I’m always in a hurry.”
“Wouldn’t you be?” Slate asked. “I don’t remember anything and people are fighting and killing each other over me?”
“Killing?” Icarus asked.
“Who’d you kill?” Dart asked.
“Just before sunrise.”
“No way,” Dart said. “I put a bullet in his leg in the hotel across from the Collegium Sanctum like five minutes after sunrise.”
“He did,” Slate said. “I took a shower in his blood.”
Randall, Dart, and Icarus stared at Slate.
“I’ve had another one since.”
They looked at Kyle, who nodded.
“Well,” Icarus said. “This is a whole new kind of interesting.”
“Yeah.” Dart chewed on her lower lip and stared out at nothing. “We’re going to have a lot more to talk about than we expected.” She looked at Kyle. “You should stay.”
“No,” Randall said. “If he stays, the Seed,” he paused and made an awkward face at Slate,“sorry, Slate has to stay too. I’m not sure how much he’s ready to hear, or how much we’re ready for him to hear for that matter. Besides, we should probably wait for Jasmine and the triplets so we only have to go over this once. With all of us here, especially Jasmine, Jet and Dart together, it’ll be more productive.”
“Agreed,” the others said. It held the weight of tradition; it was comfortable and almost automatic. Slate wondered if he ever had any traditional responses with people that he’d known.
Kyle shook hands with his friends, then each of them in turn offered their open hands to Slate. He took them one by one. Randall and Icarus both gave quick, firm shakes. Dart, on the other hand, with her soft hands, held onto Slate’s hand a little longer than he had. When she let go, she slid her fingers down his, caressing as she went, hinting, inviting. Her smile suggested more than her hands.
“Goodbye, Dart,” Kyle said.
Dart stuck her tongue out at him, breaking the spell. Kyle guided slate to the stairs.
Outside, the sun had come up. The alley was still the alley. Slate didn’t know if he expected it to be like that. Cars and pedestrians moved back and forth across both ends.
Slate turned to Kyle. Before Slate could say anything, Kyle held up his a hand.
“It’s a lot. And I’m not going to lie; it’s going to be a lot more before you even begin to feel like you’re adjusting. You trusted me this far, trust me a little more.”
“I didn’t really have a choice, did I?” Slate asked.
“Yeah, I can see where you would feel that way.” Kyle reached into the inside pocket of his coat. He pulled out a roll of money and held it out to Slate. “I think there’s about five thousand dollars here. Take it. It should hold you over until you get situated.”
Slate eyed the money. It was tempting, but…
“What happens when someone comes after me again?”
“Well, that is a risk, but now that you’ve crossed over to our world, it’ll be easier to hide.”
“I think I’ll hang out with you a little longer.”
Kyle nodded, put the money back into his pocket, and headed toward the mouth of the alley. Slate jogged to catch up and fell into step beside him. So many questions were bouncing around inside Slate’s mind and he wanted to ask them all at the same time, but he resisted. He was also processing what he’d learned so far. Magic. Real. Kyle was right; Slate couldn’t deny what he’d seen – both the wonders and the coincidental. But, if magic was real, and he had just crossed over into this magical world, Slate must have some magical power. He wondered what it might be. His mind reeled with the possibilities.
Approximately two thousand miles away and somewhat northeast from San Francisco, Jessica Mathews stole the more-than-occasional glance at the electronic a picture frame on a bedside table. The current picture showed a young couple, smiling, with cheeks pressed together. Cliché, yes – but such pictures often are. Both the young man and woman looked like they might be anywhere from their late teens to perhaps early twenties, that awkward stage in between adolescence and adulthood where clothes and attitude can add or subtract years from their appearance. As the picture is a close up, their clothes give no hint in this case. The young man had a mass of unruly brown hair and thin patches of hair that might one day grow into a beard. The girl had long, dark hair with bangs cut so that it framed her face, not quite black; though without the camera’s flash, it would have been easy to miss the brown of it. Her eyes were green, but if someone looked closely enough, they might just see the lines of contact lenses highlighted by the flash. She wore makeup that accentuated her cheek bones and made her lips fuller than they might have been otherwise. Again, these details might have gone unnoticed had the flash been not quite so bright nor close to the couple when the picture had been taken.
Jessica pulled her attention from the picture to pay attention to the phone again.
“I’m sorry,” Jessica said. “I missed that last part.”
“We followed Paul’s trail to San Francisco.” The voice on the other line belongs to a Brian Sabre, the private detective she hired to find her missing boyfriend. “At least that’s been where we’ve seen hits on the Master Card we’ve been using to track him.”
“Master Card?” Jessica asked. Paul didn’t have a Master Card, only a visa check card from their bank.
“Yes, Miss Mathews. The check card you gave us hasn’t been used, but we’ve seen a steady trail of use from the Master Card over the last week, moving steadily from Chicago to California.”
“I had no idea,” Jessica said. “Thank you for the call.”
“It’s what you’re paying me for, Miss Mathews. I’ll call again when I have more details.”
“Of course.” Jessica sat on the bed. “Thank you.” She heard the click of Brian Sabre hanging up. “Thank you.” She put the receiver back in the cradle next to the picture of her and Paul. Her gaze lingered over his face. “Thank you.”
Now she could stop calling all the hospitals in Chicago. Over the past few weeks, Jessica had developed a first name basis with most of the people on hospital information lines throughout the city.
She glances back to the picture frame. It shows the couple again, only in a different setting, several years later. Jessica’s face lost the youth of teen-aged years, and her figure matured fully into that of womanhood. Even the baggy sweat pants and shirt she’s wearing did little to hide her curves. She had no makeup, which showed that her lips are thinner than they appeared in the earlier picture. Her eyes were brown in this image, the contact lenses replaced by glasses. Paul had longer hair, and a goatee – his facial hair having come into its own. He wore his favorite jeans and shirt, the one that said Stonehenge Rocks and depicted the ancient standing stones, and that was long before it had become the threadbare thing that Jessica had come to loath. How many gigs had Paul insisted, no demanded, that he must have his lucky shirt or things wouldn’t go well. She couldn’t really argue since the band had been going places once they moved to Chicago, changed the name based on that shirt, and Paul had been religious about it.
Jessica looked from the picture to her phone, trying to make sense of that last call?
Why San Francisco? Why did Paul go back there? It couldn’t be for his family. Could it? His mother at least would have called her. Wouldn’t she? They hadn’t been back there in nearly three years, not since, since, since whatever reason it was that they had left. Jessica tried to think of why they hadn’t gone back, even to visit family, in all that time. When was the last time she’d even really thought about San Francisco? Not in forever. Why did Paul go back? Maybe someone stole the card after tossing Paul in a ditch and then went to San Francisco. Was it a huge coincidence?
Gritting her teeth and getting her thoughts under control, Jessica walked over to the closet, got out her suitcase, and started packing. As a week’s worth of clothes went flying from her dresser into the suitcase – a week should be enough – she phoned a taxi company and made arrangements for a pick up. Jessica should be able to find Paul in a week. If not, there were laundry mats and old friends. If her old friends were willing to speak to her after Paul and Jessica and Skye and Ronny pretty much abandoned all ties to anyone they know in the bay area.
The door buzzer rang. Jessica jumped. Two shirts and a pair of faded jeans flew up and landed nowhere near the intended suitcase.
With four steps, Jessica was at the intercom. “Hello?”
“Hey, Jessi.” Even through the crackle and pop of the intercom that should have been replaced years before they had moved in, Jessica recognized Skye’s voice. “Buzz me up.”
Jessica pulled her finger of the talk button. “Crap.”
She hesitated, finger hovering. She took in a deep breath, held it, then let it out slowly. She’s picked up that habit from Paul, like so many other things she’s noticed since he’d been gone. She didn’t want to push the button, but it wasn’t like Skye would just go away. She’d stand down in the entryway, buzzing and buzzing, driving Jessica crazy until Jessica finally relented. Or, Skye would just sneak in when one of the other tenants either came or left.
Jessica’s finger pressed talk. “Okay.” Her finger moved over to the button with writing so faded that the word on it was now indecipherable.
Dashing back into the room, Jessica tossed a few more outfits plus one sweater and a jacket into the suitcase. She closed the suitcase and hid it behind Paul’s chair. Outside the bedroom, Jessica heard the front door of the one-bedroom apartment open and close. Funny, Jessica thought she’d locked it.
“Hey Jessi,” Skye asked coming into the bedroom. “How’s are you doing.”
Paul always joked that Skye and her boyfriend Ronny were the Arian Nation Starter Kit, all blond hair, blue eyes, and perfect bodies without the need to exercise or diet. Paul had first made the comment one night while drunk and a little high, and that would have been the end of it if Ronny, who had been very drunk and cranky because the pipe hadn’t gotten to him yet, flipped out and started a fight. After that, Paul found ways to work that into conversations whenever Ronny was in earshot, mostly because Ronny’s ears lit up bright red from the shame of having broken his best friend’s nose over such a stupid thing.
“Not much better,” Jessica replied.
“Really? You look better than you have in weeks. What did you hear?”
“Nothing.” Jessica couldn’t tell. Skye would talk her out of it.
“Nothing?” Skye looked away, walked over to the window. “Then what’s with the suitcase behind the chair?”
“Look... I…” Jessica fumbled for words.
Skye spun around. “You’ve heard something, haven’t you? Spill it. Ronny and I care about him just as mu as you do.”
“He’s in San Francisco?”
Skye’s mouth opened and her lower jaw moved back and forth. She always did that when something surprised her. It wasn’t often, and Jessica took a bit of pleasure in that. She felt like Skye was always the one with all the answers and the secrets and the surprises.
“How do you know?”
“I don’t really. That’s just where the detective said Paul’s credit cards were being used most recently.”
“Paul’s credit cards? He doesn’t—Wait what detective?”
Jessica chewed her lower lip. “When we didn’t hear anything about Paul, I dipped into my savings and hired a private detective. He just called and told me that Paul has a Master Card and its shown activity from here to San Francisco.”
“And now you’re going after him,” Skye said. Not a question, just a declaration of the facts as she knew them without having to ask. Jessica couldn’t meet her friend’s gaze. “God damn it Jess, what are you thinking you can do when you get there? It’s not like you have any idea where to start looking.”
“Maybe his parent’s house? Or at some of the clubs they used to play at?’
“How do you know this isn’t some case of stolen identity, or maybe this detective is scamming you to stay on the payroll. Have you checked him out? What’s his name?”
“Brian Sabre,” Jessica said. “He came highly recommend by—” She couldn’t get out, the other private detectives I spoke with, because Sky muttered, “Shit” right in the middle of the sentence and fled the room.
“Stay away from San Francisco and don’t talk to Sabre again,” Skye shouted. “I’ll be back as soon as I can. Don’t leave.” The front door slammed.
Jessica stood in the silence that followed, staring at the space Skye had just occupied. “What the hell just happened here?”
Jessica replayed the short conversation in her head. She could understand Skye being a little weird about San Francisco, but that’s not what had really freaked her out. Brian Sabre had. What did Skye know about him? Jessica pulled her cell out of her pocket and called Skye. Skye’s chipper voicemail message answered.
Mind reeling, Jessica flopped down on the bed, trying to make sense of it all. Was this how Alice felt in her first tentative steps into wonderland, everything going strange and surreal? Could Jessica really trust her own senses and memory of the conversation after hearing any piece of news about Paul? By the time the buzzer range again, this time from the taxi that had come to talk her to the airport, Jessica had convinced herself that Skye had rushed home to tell Ronny about the call from the detective and to maybe pack so she could go with Jessica, because that’s what best friends did. Skye didn’t call Ronny, because she obviously didn’t have her cell phone, or she would have answered it when Jessica had called.
One the way out, Jessica stopped and pulled a couple of different pictures of Paul out of the big plastic tub they used for storing snapshots. Paul liked having the physical pictures he could hold and touch rather than have to sift through them on his phone like most other people these days. She glanced down at one where he was sitting in a corner, playing his guitar. She loved to listen to him play and watch him compose.
“Hold on, honey,” Jessica said. “I’m coming.”
Pausing by the door, Jessica put the suitcase down by the door and dashed back into the bedroom. She yanked open the lowest drawer of Paul’s dresser. Stonehenge Rocks looked back up at her. She shed her jacket, pulled her shirt up over her head, yanked Paul’s shirt out of the drawer, and pulled it on. Who was she to sneer at anything that might help her find Paul?
Oddly, the shirt made her feel so much better as she picked up her suitcase again and headed down to meet the cab.
As she skipped down the stairs as best she could while lugging the suitcase, Jessica, just like Skye did not notice the man at the end of the hall. He wore a long black coat, leather, that hung open. A rapier hung from his hip, and he wore a breastplate of some strange, blue-black metal.
Retired detective Vince Clapper feigned at reading the newspaper when his wife came back into the kitchen. Heather had been on the phone using the same tone of voice she used when discussing birthday or Christmas presents or talking to one of her friends about some expensive luxury item she had to have. Vince never listened to the words, respecting his wife’s privacy, but he knew the tone. It was the tone she’d developed after years of marriage to let her husband know when he needed to butt the hell out of her business or at least pretend that he didn’t know something was going on. Only, this time it was different. Instead of the half smile and the sidelong we’re-both-sharing-a-secret look she normally gave him, Heather was chewing on the fingernail of her right hand and wouldn’t meet his eyes. That was the rare signal that something was very wrong.
Heather poured herself a cup of coffee and stared out the window at the garden that took up the entirety of what passed for a back yard behind their house.
Vince decided to break the rule for the first time in over ten years. “Who was that?”
He carefully folded the newspaper, placed it on the table, and took a long drink of his near room-temperature coffee. Any other name wouldn’t have giving him the need to stall.
Without looking back at him, Heather nodded.
“How is she?”
“Coming back to San Francisco.”
“Oh?” Vince regretted it as soon as that one syllable left his mouth. He made that when questioning a suspect and they gave a slip that he knew was going to lead somewhere. Heather deserved better than for him to treat her like that, but Vince also knew that some habits died harder than others.
“She’s following Paul. She hasn’t seen him in weeks and found out that he came home.”
“We haven’t seen him.” Nothing like stating the obvious there, Vinnie boy. He tried to close off from his feelings as he had for so many years working cases for SFPD. The last thing Heather needed was for Vince to get all emotional too.
“She meant San Francisco. She’s coming to look for him and wondered if we’d do the same. She didn’t know you’d retired.”
“I can make some phone calls and do some checking,” Vince said. “If she hasn’t seen him in weeks, how’d she know he’s come back to San Francisco?”
“She hired a private detective.” Heather paused. When she said the name Brian Sabre, she almost seemed to choke on it, as if saying those two words caused her pain.
“Yeah,” Vince said, getting up from the table, “I’ll look into it.” I’ll look into this Brian Sabre too.
To: The Thieves of Heaven
The Seed is in place, though not exactly as the instigator intended. We must meet at the Gates. As always: remain encrypted against magical and mundane observations.
<<THE GATES OF PARADISE>>
< AllahJehovaYahweh (moderator), Coyote (moderator), Kitsune, Robin Goodfellow, Loki, Set, Hermes, Mercury, Samedi, Baby Krishna, San Martin Txiki, Anansi, Odyssius, Nasreddin, Lilith>
< Reynard joins channel>
Reynard: Sorry I’m late. Getting a transfer at “work” and couldn’t get away sooner. Good news: the transfer is the one I was expecting, and will help speed up our agenda.
Lilith: You’re infiltration is complete?
Reynard: oui, mon Cheri.
< Coyote blocks posts from non administrators.>
AllahJehovaYahweh: Thank you Coyote. While congratulations are in order, Reynard, we have Don’t have time to devolve into random conversations. Thank you all for coming on short notice, and while some of our members are missing, all those needed are present. The Seed we have been expecting has been planted and is growing faster and stronger than any of us predicted.
AllahJehovaYahweh: Very well, all except Coyote.
AllahJehovaYahweh: The point is: this has caught us a bit unexpectedly, and not all of us are in position to take full advantage of this. Who is in a position to move into San Francisco and assist Coyote?
< AllahJehovaYahweh allows posts from non administrators>
Reynard: My promotion is taking me into San Francisco. I should be there in the next twelve to twenty-four hours.
Lilith: My experiment has been shot all to hell. I’ll be returning to San Francisco soon as well. I can assist Coyote as well, though I do have a side project that will demand a bit of my time.
Coyote: The Thieves should be your first priority.
AllahJehovaYahweh: That’s not a fair expectation, Coyote, and a bit hypocritical.
Coyote: If I wasn’t at least a bit hypocritical, I wouldn’t be living up to my namesake. I just don’t want her “Side project” to get in the our greater mission.
Lilith: It shouldn’t, and if I judge the situation correctly from my end, they will probably overlap.
Coyote: Do tell.
Lilith: Not quite yet. I’ll let you all know the details once I confirm.
AllahJehovaYahweh: That’s three. Considering the importance of this, I would prefer to have one more member present to assist Coyote.
Hermes: I am in San Francisco.
Coyote: When did this happen?
Hermes: It has never not been the case.
Coyote: Would have been handy to know sooner.
Hermes: Why? It was irrelevant before now.
Coyote: But… but… all the secrets we’re keeping from each other, when we’re supposed to be letting secrets out into the open.
Nasreddin: Not our secrets. Just everyone else’s.
AllahJehovaYahweh: Enough. We can discuss the semantics of the whole secrets “issue” another time. As of now, Reynard, Lilith, and Hermes will assist Coyote with the Seed. Meeting adjourned. I will be available for private conference for a few minutes.
Slate woke from a deep sleep. He had dreamed of a world full of possibilities and improbabilities made possible by the presence of magic in the world. Just as with his memories, the specifics of those dreams faded, all but the impression of himself tearing his way free of a giant cocoon, transforming into something greater than he had been. Despite the fog forming between his dreams and his waking mind, Slate struggled to keep hold of the dreams. A pain began to throb just behind his still-closed eyes. With a settling breath, he let go of his dreams, and the pain subsided after a few moments. He stretched and enjoyed the warmth of the blankets and the softness of the futon. Smiling, Slate enjoyed the lack of soreness as he sat up.
“Good evening,” Kyle said.
Slate turned and smiled even wider.
“How are you feeling?”
“Great,” Slate replied. “No more aches and pains. Whatever that stuff you rubbed on me was, it worked great.”
“Good to hear,” Kyle said. “You have good timing. I was about to wake you. It’s just about sunset. I took the liberty of putting some things together on the roof. You first sunset is a special thing.”
“That whole “magic working at night” thing?” Slate asked.
Kyle nodded and moved toward the hall.
The apartment was decorated in an Asian motif. The simple furniture was all lacquered wood, polished enough to glow from the soft light of the paper lanterns. Scroll with intricate characters hung from the walls. Even the wall of exotic weapons: sword, spears, knives, bows and other weapons form a variety of cultures from Europe to Japan and back again did nothing to disrupt the serenity of the apartment. In a way, their display, blades sheathed and pointing downward seemed to indicate a lack of need, that each contained a beauty in the peace of it hanging on the wall rather than being used.
Slate had wanted to ask about them when they’d gotten to the apartment earlier, but he’d been too tired and his mind still reeling from information overload. He took the time now.”
“What are those for?”
“Mostly for training,” Kyle replied. “However, I’m sure you’ve noticed that our world is not entirely peaceful.”
“The fight in the alley?”
“Like the fight in the alley.” Kyle’s sigh contained worlds and lifetimes of regret. “Sometimes it is necessary for some of us to defend our beliefs and our chosen way of life.”
The fight between Kyle and Marius and Christian came vividly to Slate’s mind. He hoped that he didn’t fall out of line with Kyle’s beliefs.
“But let’s not worry about fighting and such right now.” Warmth had returned to Kyle’s voice. “Let’s enjoy a peaceful sunset.”
Outside, the crisp air nipped at Slate’s skin, and the wind carried a salty smell. The sky above was a deep purple. In the distance, beyond the rooftops stretching out below them, the last sliver of sun still peeked above the Pacific Ocean. Two lawn chairs sat on the roof, with a small table between them. The table had a porcelain tea pot and a pair of cups with no handles and read, black, and yellow birds painted on the cups. Steam rose from pot’s spout.
Slate sat. Kyle poured tea and offered one of the cups to Slate. Slater cradled the teacup between his hands and let the scent of tea wash the smell of sea breeze away. The air wasn’t cold enough to be uncomfortable, just chilly enough to wake him fully and appreciate the cup warming his hand.
Kyle produced a flute from somewhere and began to play a simple melody that matched the peace of that moment. The song over powered the sounds of cars below, even though it was soft as the breeze coming off the ocean and soothing like the warmth of the tea. Slate took a drink. It was a bit more bitter than he expected, but after a few sips, he developed a taste for it. Slate finished the tea and put the cup down. As Kyle played, the fingers of Slate’s left hand curled and flexed. Slate looked down, and his fingers continued to curl of their own volition. The music stopped, and Kyle said something, at least Slate thought it was Kyle. He couldn’t be sure with most of his attention trained on his fingers. They repeated the same pattern over and over again, hypnotizing Slate.
His fingers stopped, as if suddenly realizing the music had stopped.
Then, while still fixated on his fingers, something in the world changed. Slate couldn’t tell exactly what, but it was something deep and fundamental. He remembered a time in a bar in New Orleans, where some bars stay open twenty four hours, and he’d lost track of time and had to get back to his hotel. It was close to seven in the morning when he stepped out of the dark bar and into the bright sunlight. That sudden shift of sensation was kind of like this sudden shift now, only the brightness was in Slate’s head, and it wasn’t light; it was something else, and he couldn’t cover his eyes until they adjusted to the light
And grief flooded through him, the grief of a broken heart. That wrenching in the chest and the twist in the stomach you got when the man you thought was going to love you forever walked out of the apartment with a girl ten years younger and something like fifty pounds lighter than you could ever hope to be again. Tears rolled down Slate’s cheeks. He pounded on the arms of his lawn chair the way a middle-aged woman pounded on the inside of her front door, trying to make sense of where things had gone wrong.
Then he was laughing the big belly laugh of an eight-year-old boy being tickled by his older brother and their babysitter. They took turns assaulting his feet, kneecaps, ribs and armpits. Every few seconds, they’d let him breath and then renew the attack, sending the boy and Slate into hysterics. His ribs ached from laughing so much.
His moods change with his gasps for breath. Rage at his daughter’s cellphone bill. Joy at being accepted to Stanford. Peace that came with a warm bath after a long day at the office. Ecstasy found in a premium adult channel. Fear at who was knocking on the door with mom not being home from work for another half an hour. These sensations and more rammed their way into him in rapid succession. Slate knew in his conscious mind that these were not his emotions, but the mind and the heart are two different creatures that disagree more often than not, and at the moment his heart wasn’t in screaming distance of his right mind. He tried to push them away. That didn’t work. He tried to struggle away from them and met with less success. He felt like a man drowning in a frozen lake. He could tell where the air was, he just couldn’t get there. Blackness welled around him and his individuality began to dissolve under the bombardment of so many other emotions.
It was a voice both inside and outside of him mind.
Focus on me, Slate.
It was Kyle’s voice, but it had that tinny sort of quality of a voiceover in a movie. Slate heard Kyle say something else but lost the words in the struggle to retain his identity. However, even though the words were lost, the emotion behind those words reached out to Slate, offering an eye of clam in the storm that battered him. Slate clung to Kyle’s still serenity and climbed through that back to himself.
Kyle appeared before Slate, his suit gone, replaced by a flowing grey kimono that flapped in the wind. Now that the foreign feelings had stopped their assault, shook his head and opened his eyes. He wasn’t on the roof of Kyle’s building any more. They were on a wooden platform surrounded by a Zen rock garden. At the very edge of his perception, Slate was vaguely aware of San Francisco with the sounds of traffic as well as the emotions of all those people living on that peninsula jutting into the Pacific Ocean.
Where are we? Slate asked. Even though his lips moved, no sound came from his mouth. The words echoed from everywhere around them.
Do you believe that magic is real now? Kyle’s words echoed from around them, though his lips did not move.
Slate nodded. How can you talk without using your mouth?
Kyle smiled. This is the realm of the mind. Our physical bodies are mere representations of our awareness of ourselves. Using them as we would in the physical realm is either a conceit or habit.
What’s happening to me?
You are having your first experience with your magic. It seems you are more powerful than I expected, and it’s overwhelming you.
Slate laughed. Ya think maybe a little? What do I do about it?
I’m protecting you at the moment, but you must find some way to protect yourself.
You must look within yourself for some image you can hold onto that will protect your mind from whatever is assaulting you. It works best if the image holds special meaning to you. I know that this will be a challenge with as little memory as you have now. Just remember that magic is powered less by memory and more by inspiration and imagination.
Slate’s frame of reference was still very limited. His experienced consisted of his vague memories of his mother and his experiences earlier that day. This brought the image of the girl, Dart, to his mind. Slate imagined her in Amazonian-like armor with a shield and spear. The armor was quite revealing.
That’s only going to distract you. Kyle’s voice echoed in Slate’s mind.
Slate shook his head. Or was it just the thought of shaking his head? The longer he stayed in this strange place, the less he was sure of what actual movement was and what the habit of movement was. He focused on the only other really strong image in his mind, the half-memory of his mother. She might not be a completely solid memory of her, but his feelings about her were stronger than the infatuation with Dart.
Now what? Slate asked.
Use it to create a defensive barrier between you mind and the rest of the world, Kyle replied. Make it as vivid as you can. The more real you make it in your mind, the more you mind will hold onto it while you’re not concentration on it.
Slate wondered what kind of protection his half-formed mother could offer him against the invading feelings. He doubted she would just be able to kiss his forehead and make it better. Then the stories that had awakened his memory of her resurfaced, those fairy tales, myths, and legends. Many of them had castles. Part of Slate wished he could come up with something quite and serine like Kyle’s rock garden, but sometimes you need to go with what you have on hand, and if everything here was powered on imagination and belief, Slate felt anything but serine. Slate was under constant attack, and he needed something able to withstand those attacks.
The castle came up around Slate; bricks turned into walls and turrets, closed off a courtyard and then raised an inner keep. If Kyle could come to him in this place and reach his mind, other people might too. Slate wanted a place to hide some of his more personal thoughts and feelings, once he started to have some, and the inner keep seemed a good place to put them.
I’m done. Slate said.
Not bad. Kyle replied. Now, let’s finish our tea.
Slate felt Kyle’s presence retreating. As he left, the torrent of foreign emotions surged against the walls of Slate’s castle. There were a few places where he hand’s formed the details as vividly as others, and he felt the road rage of a commuter trying to get home before his favorite show slipping into the courtyard in one place and a the glee of little girl playing with her new kitten in another. Not dangerous and overwhelming in and of themselves, but confusing and distracting. Slate to a breath – a real breath to steady himself – and solidified the image of a castle in his mind, putting details into those places that needed it. A few moments later his mind and feelings were entirely his own.
“Here.” Kyle offered Slate a fresh cup of tea.
His voice sounded strangely far away now that it was coming from outside Slate’s mind. Slate took the tea, cradled the cup between his hands, and inhaled the tea’s aroma, Slate realized this had the familiarity of habit. He’d performed this personal ritual time and time gain.
“You going to be okay?” Kyle asked
“Think so.” Slate took a sip and let the warmth spread into his body. “What happened to me?”
Kyle turned his lawn chair away from the ocean and toward Slate. “I was about to ask you that same question.”
“It was really weird. I could sense…no, that’s not right…it was like other people’s feelings and emotions were attacking me, trying to force their way into me. I felt like I was those people, experiencing the catalyst for those emotions as they did.” Slate stared into the growing black of the night sky. “If you hadn’t helped me, I think I would have lost myself in them.”
Kyle looked around. His gaze flittered all around them like a cat waiting for something else to pounce on it. Slate looked around too, wondering who Kyle was worried about finding up on the rooftop here. Looking back at Kyle, Slate wished he could tell what Kyle was feeling but his new castle stopped that.
But did it have to?
Slate envisioned a drawbridge with one of those grated gates behind it, a portcullis – Slate remember asking about it from a picture in a storybook. Once he had a door, Slate opened it just a crack.
Kyle was more than nervous. He was scared. Not for himself, but rather for Slate. A protectiveness for Slate flowed out of Kyle and wrapped around Slate as a parent might wrap a favored blanket around a child to keep the nightmares at bay.
As Slate took in Kyle’s emotions, something made the hairs on the back of Slate’s head. It was like someone was staring at him from a corner of a crowded room. Slate could tell someone was watching him, but he couldn’t find them through all the other feelings around.
Kyle reached into a pocket, closed his eyes, and started whispering some mantra Slate couldn’t make out. When Kyle stopped, something like a blast of air blew outward from him, only Slate didn’t feel anything physical.
“What was that?” Slate asked.
“Protection,” Kyle replied. “Against skrying.”
“Again, what’s that?”
“Spying on someone far away with magic.”
“Okay.” If Slate could make castles in his mind to ward off attacking emotions, someone else could probably spy on him from far away. “Cool, I guess.”
“I’m sorry,” Kyle said. “I should have made sure we were protected before we even came up, but I was careless. I didn’t imagine you would come into any of your abilities so soon, and my mistake may have put you at a greater risk that you’re ready for.”
Slate took a long swallow of tea. “I don’t like the sound of that. Why?”
“I think you’re an empath,” Kyle said matter-of-factly, as if expecting Slate to understand. Slate looked around, took another drink of tea, and shrugged. “Someone who can sense and sometimes influence the emotions of others.”
Again, Slate brought the cup to his mouth, but this time he didn’t drink, he let the aroma waft up into his nose. “So that’s what’s been going on.”
“Since I first woke up in the alley, it’s been like I’ve known what everyone was feeling. I thought I was reading your facial expressions very well, and I was picking up on other subtle things.”
Kyle’s face remained still, but surprise came through none the less. Slate suspected more than a few of the pebbles in his garden must have shifted out of place.
“What?” Slate asked. “Why is that important?”
“Well, judging by what happened when the sun first went down, and now learning that you could sense people’s emotions during the day, I’d say that might make you one of the most powerful empaths on the planet.”
“Um, okay. Why is this such a big deal?”
Kyle nodded. The shock was gone, and he was back to his normal sense of calm. Slate gave up a silent… prayer wasn’t the right word… nor was offering… but he gave thanks to something outside of himself that Kyle had managed to rescue him from Marius and Christian, and that Slate had actually decided to go with him. Who know what would have happened come sunset without Kyle’s calm demeanor to help cope with all of this?
“Okay. As I said this morning, most magic works only at night. The daytime world is the world of technology, science, and reason. Magic by its very nature is, while not antithetical to reason, at least defies it in the conventional sense. Even we who practice it don’t fully understand why many of the things we do work, and that there are certain things that will never work, no matter how hard we try.”
“Raising the dead. Even in our world, dead is dead. There are ways to cheat it, or trick it, but once someone crosses over, they don’t come back.
“But I digress. There are a hundred theories and suppositions why the world works like this. The most popular is that humanity in general doesn’t believe in magic, and that disbelief is so strong that it counters our belief in magic. There are ways to get around it, and some people, a few rare individuals who can make their magic work during the day time.”
“But all those people still exist at night,” Slate said. “Why don’t they smash any magic then too?”
Kyle gave a slight laugh. “I never said it was a perfect theory. It has a hole or two. But, night is still a place that holds wonder and fear for most people. Darkness is where the dreams come from, defying logic and reason, creating worlds out of nothing more that the subconscious desires of our minds. Even with their neon lights and burglar alarms, the mundane borne aren’t quite sure that the darkness doesn’t hold some secret terror or wonder, and thus there disbelief isn’t quite as strong.”
“Okay, I think I can get that.” Slate finished his tea. “But that doesn’t explain why this empathy thing is such a big deal.”
“Life is about dealing with people, and in the World beyond the Sun, it’s very easy for most people to lie to each other. There are those who can read minds, but even thoughts can lie. In fact, in some ways, it’s easier to lie in our minds than it is to lie with speaking. So many people, from both Beyond the Sun and Before the Moon lie more easily to themselves than to other people. Feelings and emotions are harder to hide .”
“Why?” Slate asked.
“I don’t know for sure,” Kyle replied. “Maybe because feelings are a strange mix of reactions between our minds and bodies. So few people have enough control over both their mental and physical states, much less both at the same time, to be able to truly mask their emotions. That’s why empaths have such a huge advantage over others. Empaths can see right through the lies, especially one as powerful as I suspect you are. Hide this gift of yours carefully, Slate. People will want to use you for this talent. If it gets out, you will probably know very little peace.”
Kyle’s firm conviction came flowing across the rooftop.
Slate took a deep breath, held it for a few seconds, and let it out slowly. The pressure behind his eyes started pulsing again. He held out his tea cup toward Kyle.
“More tea please?”
As Kyle poured more tea, Slate steadied his breathing and considered the castle walls around his mind. Was this to be his life? Keeping people and the world outside, with no one to trust except Kyle? Then again, how well did Slate know Kyle? After all, Kyle had enemies – Slate had seen that first hand. How long would it be before Kyle saw a way for Slate to help him against those enemies? Slate hated thinking like that, but there really was no hiding from that being a possibility.
Looking out across the buildings of San Francisco and sipping the tea, Slate wondered if any of the people out there in that sea of lights felt as lonely as he did.
Brian Sabre’s eyes opened. He was back in his office in the Hermetic Collegium’s sanctum, and the disgust at being back in his physical body washed over him. Returning to his limited, crippled form reminded him of the suffering he’d endured since the curse. He gripped the leather arm rests and steadied his breath. There was nothing to do but endure, but only for a little while longer
He glanced to the large tapestry of the Tree of Life that hung on the wall opposite him. Besides being the symbol and primary tool in performing Hermetic magic, it also assisted in meditation. In many ways, the Tree of Life gave those who truly understood it so much more than any of the other mystical pathways. Sabre often marveled that the other orders had not begun to use it as well. Though, he understood the primary reason they would not: Pride. Focusing on the Tree and relaxing, Sabre enjoyed the irony that his own pride is what led him to study Hermetic magic and the Tree. Pride for his crippled leg and the other changes the curse had brought upon his body. But soon now it would all be over.
Damn Kyle Drae and his caution. Who knows what other secrets Sabre could have learned from them had Drae not put up that warding spell. Oh well, that complaint was at the bottom of a very long list of things Sabre could use as excuses to wallow in his own misery. Rather, than fume over the loss of information that he didn’t have, Sabre smiled over what he had learned. It was the first honest smile he’d allowed himself in a long, long time. All the muscles in his face curled upwards and seemed to even lift some of his weight upward.
The Seed was an Empath.
Sabre calculated and pondered, working though contingencies and possibilities in his mind, playing devil’s advocate for certain ideas that might prove too risky for the reward. In each of the variant scenarios, the rewards were worth the risks. Sabre would proceed with his new plan. Whatever anomaly had caused the Seed to go missing in the translocation spell – something Sabre was still wondering about – had proven fortuitous; the Seed’s power as an empath would have likely remained undiscovered. Now Sabre would not only have his old body back, but with this new discovery, he would secure a seat on the Akesis Council.
Separating a piece of his mind from the rest of his consciousness to continually rework the permutations to his plans, Sabre reached for the telephone that sat on the small table beside his leather chair. As he pulled the receiver from its cradle, he felt a pang of nostalgia for the days when any mage from Beyond the Sun refused to use any piece of technology over magic. To Sabre, technology developed over the last two centuries represented the culmination of human disbelief. Using it was a kin to admitting that it was superior to the great gifts inside of him. If those who lived Beyond the Sun would not so readily accept and use this enemy of magic, perhaps magic could one day be great in the world again. Mages could put an end to the separation of Beyond the Sun and Before the Moon and take their right place again as masters of the Earth.
Pushing these thoughts aside, Sabre dialed a number. After three rings, the other line picked up.
“Cavalier, this is Brian Sabre. I would request that we dispense with this crude form of communication and link our minds.”
“That won’t be possible,” Galahad replied. “I’m driving, and I don’t feel like passing out at the wheel.”
“Very well.” Sabre struggled to keep his voice from turning into a snarl. Driving. Which meant a cell phone. That the Cavaliers, the very defenders of the Akesis Council, embraced technology of this level churned Sabre’s stomach a bit. No wonder others Beyond the Sun fell prey to the trappings of the mundane world with this kind of example. “What are you doing about this morning’s attack?”
“What I can,” Galahad replied. “As I’m sure you realize the suspects—”
“Perpetrators,” Sabre said.
“Until I have some hard proof, they are suspects,” Galahad replied. “As I was saying, Dart is hard enough to track, but Icarus is going to be nearly impossible unless he wants us to find him. Aside from that, with the awakening of a new Seed, Duke Torvald has placed this as a low priority issue.”
“Low priority? These two incidents are almost certainly related. Two of the most active Spellpunk operatives on the West Coast attacked the Hermetic Sanctum moments after the discovery of a new Seed. Do you imagine this is a coincidence?”
“If you are correct, and that this is all tied together, my duties will bring me across the path of these Spellpunks, so please, understand that the Cavaliers are doing all we can. I have to go, a mundane police car just pulled up behind me, and I’d rather not have to wipe his memory.”
And then Galahad was gone. There was no click or any other sound to indicate that the Cavalier had ended the conversation. Only silence. That silence smacked of the same disrespect that Galahad unwillingness to directly confront the Spellpunks that had attacked the Sanctum that morning. Once the Cavaliers had served the ideals of Akesis, now they only served their own lust for power. It was not right that the servant to step above himself. Once Sabre had won a seat on the Council, he would make the Cavaliers return to what they should be.
A knock on the door interrupted Sabre’s thoughts.
“The Primus wishes to speak to you,” said a muffled voice.
Sabre sighed. He looked across the room to his cane – a plain black shaft of wood with a rounded knot at the top end. Sabre always left it by the table when he traveled in the astral reams. The journey to the chair and back reminded him that one must be sound of mind and body to be truly whole. For much of his early life, Sabre had taken the strength of his body for granted. Then, with a quick curse, one that he should have seen coming and defended against, it was gone.
He hobbled across the room, got the cane, and hobbled less feebly to the door of his office. Whichever acolyte had brought the Primus’s summons was gone now. Sabre steeled himself against the journey to the Primus’s suite. That set of rooms took up the entire top floor of the building, so that, no matter what your status was within the order, you were required to walk up at least one flight of stairs when the Primus did not honor you with direct mind-to-mind contact. Sending an acolyte to summon you meant you were to be chastised. Sabre used the time with the Hermetics that he could suffer a little longer.
Reaching the top, Sabre paused and let his breathing return to normal. He would not allow himself to show any more weakness in the Primus’s presence than he had to. The order scorned him enough already for not being able to keep up with the martial side of Hermetic Dogma. Only his mastery of magic and mental arts allowed him to remain within their ranks. And while Sabre had to suffer that scorn due to his current physical form, he would be damned if he would present himself to the Primus short of breath.
Once he deemed himself presentable, Sabre crossed the landing and knocked on the door, which swung open. On the other side of the Virgil Prospero, Primus of the San Francisco branch of the Hermetic Collegium, sat behind a polished mahogany desk. Despite the distain Sabre felt for this man, he couldn’t help but marvel. Virgil was the epitome of the Hermetic master. Everything about him was perfect: his posture, his immaculate grooming from his styled blond hair to his manicured nails, to the confidence that exuded from his expression – just shy of smugness. The greatest feature was Virgil’s eyes. Multicolored sparks emanated from Virgil’s eyes even though he was not in the processes of casting a spell. This was true power that Sabre had never managed, even when he had been whole. The Primus’s near perfection of mind, body, and the embrace of magic was the goal of every Hermetic mage. Sabre both worshipped and despised Virgil Prospero for that perfection.
“Brian,” Virgil said in an even tone. “Come in.”
Sabre entered. The door closed behind him as he made the journey across fifteen feet of floor. He stopped in between two of the four chairs that faced Virgil’s massive desk.
“May I sit?” Sabre asked.
“Don’t bother. You won’t be staying long.”
“Have I erred?” Sabre asked, playing innocent as he suspected Virgil expected him to.
“Don’t play the fool with me, Brian.” Virgil’s tone did not change, but something about the way he shifted his shoulders told Sabre that, in this moment, he was treading a very thin line. “You butchered the counter attack against the Spellpunks this morning. Or rather, I should say the people you sent in your stead butchered it. You are aware that we lost three acolytes and one of the brethren to Dart and Icarus?”
“Yes, Primus.” Sabre tried to make his voice quiver with what he imagined shame might sound like. It was such a foreign emotion. Truth be told, Sabre was disappointed that those were the only losses. Most of those sent to counter attack had been among those Sabre knew to be Virgil’s staunchest supporters.
“That’s all?” Virgil’s eyes flared. “I gave you a simple task. Given that the attack happened here, within reach of our full resources, it should have been easy, even for you.” Virgil leaned forward and his voice became very soft, “Yet…yet you fucked it like a twenty dollar whore.”
Sabre couldn’t help but flinch. Virgil Prospero rarely uttered a profanity or vulgarity. In all Sabre’s time in the Sanctum, he’d only heard the Primus do so one other time. It emphasized how dangerous a precipice Sabre balance upon, nearly tipping over into the oblivion of Virgil’s fury.
“I was not thinking, Primus,” Sabre said, casting his eyes down. “My mind was focused on a personal project, and therefore I put the Sanctum at great risk. I apologize.”
“Fuck your apology. Do you have any idea how difficult it was to cover up a fight of this scale during the day time? We almost had the Cavaliers directly involved. Between wiping the minds of the police, media, and the standard eyewitnesses, we won’t have the foci recharged in at least a month.”
Sabre refused to meet the challenge in Virgil’s eyes. With surprise, Sabre could probably worm his way into Virgil’s mind and plant several subliminal conditionings. But that would not help him in the long run.
“I’m disappointed in you, Brian,” Virgil continued. His voice and expression softened. Now he was like a kindly grandfather, chastising a child for some small infraction of a minor rule. “I believe you had been ready for greater responsibility, despite your obvious character flaws.” He waved absently at Sabre’s leg. “It seems I was mistaken.”
Sabre nearly smirked, but kept his face under control. The shift in Virgil’s tone might have worked with any other Hermetic, but Sabre had greater experience and knew the truth of his own worth. He let his shoulders slump forward and looked at a spot between his feet. He made his voice soft when he spoke next.
“Is there a penance I might perform to atone for my actions?”
“No penance, I will merely limit your responsibilities within the Sanctum. You may go.”
Sabre made his way out of the office. At the door he stopped and looked back at Virgil Prospero, the perfect Hermetic who was not as perfect as he imagined he was. Sabre met the Primus’s gaze with a smile.
‘Thank you for being so lenient,” Sabre said. “I shall sing the praises of your benevolence to the rest of the Sanctum.”
Before Virgil could reply, Sabre left. He placed all his mental strength into shielding his mind so that Virgil could not enter. This sudden display of strength might raise some questions in Virgil’s mind, but at this point, Sabre decided to take the risk. He was close enough to the end that it was a minor gamble at most. Descending the stairs, Sabre detached a small part of his mind, split that in half, and forced each of those pieces into the minds of two men.
Take him, Sabre commanded, and the girl when she lands.
Even should those two fail, it would cause enough of a stir that it would take the attention away from his plans. One last thing needed to be dealt with. Sabre reached out, searching for Marius. Sabre located him in the library, flirting with one of the new acolytes.
My quarters, now, Sabre pushed the thought into Marius’s consciousness.
Breaking contact, Sabre limped down the stair. Marius would serve a penance, but it would fit the error, and aid Sabre’s overall plans as well. Marius would finish what he started: hunting down Dart and Icarus.
Slate sat in the lawn chair, eyes half closed, looking out at the fog rolling in off the ocean. Emotions bounced off the walls of the keep he’d erected around his mind. He still had trouble accepting the almost physical jolts that came each time one of the many – dozens? hundreds? – of foreign emotions skittered across the walls. Next to Slate, Kyle played a sad, melancholy tune on his flute. The music flitted between high and low pitched melodies. The high reflected the chill wind that brought the hairs on Slate’s arm to stand at full attention, and the low embodied the foreboding presence of the fog that blotted out the stars as it rolled in from the ocean.
Slate poured himself another cup of tea. It warmed his hands. The more Slate focused his attention on physical sensations, the less the emotions around him seemed to affect him. In a way, that made sense. Getting lost in his physical experience was a good way to keep from fixating on other people’s emotions.
He sipped at the tea, savoring the warmth that spread through him while listening to Kyle’s song. The tune seemed to have two different melodies, both of which matched Slate’s mood. The low notes, somber and melancholy, echoed across the roof, embodying the hollow loneliness that weighed just beneath Slate’s solar plexus. The high notes rose above that weight, rose above the foreign emotions butting up against the imaginary castle Slate had created, rose above Slate’s expectations of himself and the world. Those shrill, high-reaching notes called out the possibilities of what might be.
Possibilities, or would that be impossibilities?
The faint memories of fairy tale and other stories came back to him. Mom was right. Slate remembered her telling him once, “In the old days, these were much more than stories. Think of them as spoken training manuals, because once upon a time, people learned these stories to be able to survive.” He couldn’t remember anything else about her, but this was enough for now. He’d tried pushing for memories of her, of anything, and received nothing but a headache and had to scramble, mentally at least, to keep the walls of his fortress from crumbling. It wouldn’t do to remember something about himself only to risk losing himself in the process.
Glancing over at Kyle, whose eyes were closed as he played, Slate wondered about Kyle’s magic. His host had some power over the mind, or at least, that’s what Slate suspected as he recalled Kyle seemingly forcing Marius to his knees. Slate took a sip of tea. Could Kyle be controlling him right now? Even in some subtle ways? Having an empath around and pretty much in his debt might be something Kyle might not want to give up so easily, especially if empaths were as valued as Kyle said they were. As Kyle had tried to control Marius, his eyes had sparkled with that silver energy. Could he be keeping his eyes closed in order to keep Slate from seeing that now?
As if tuned into those thoughts, Kyle’s song ended and he opened his eyes. No sparkling, just the warm dark brown they normally were. Kyle smiled.
“Beautiful,” Slate said.
“Thanks. How are you holding up?”
“Better,” Slate replied. “It’s helping that I’m not trying to force anything.”
“That’s usually what’s best,” Kyle said. “Too many people screw things up because they try to force the outcome rather than just let events evolve as needed.”
Slate concentrated on wall of his keep facing Kyle. Slate imagined a drawbridge, and when it appeared, he slowly let it down. Even more than a few moments before, Slate felt one with the moment, his concerns of faded memories and what might be seemed to evaporate even as his muscles relaxed. Slate took a sip of tea at the same time as Kyle, again enjoying the simple pleasure of the warmth of it sliding down his throat and into his stomach, where is settled nicely. For Kyle, there was no more motivation that sitting on this rooftop and enjoying tea with a new friend.
Involuntarily, the drawbridge slammed shut. Friend. That was a strong word in Slate’s mind. Friendship meant a lot to him. Somehow, Slate felt he didn’t know many people he’d actually describe as “a friend.” Was this label of “friend” easy for Kyle to place, or could Kyle, with all his knowledge of magic and such create false emotions? Slate swallowed the rest of his tea in one great gulp, a distinctly un-Kyle-like gesture, just so Slate could reinforce that he was not Kyle.
“Tell me something about yourself,” Slate said.
“What was it like when you come into the magical world?”
Kyle smiled even wider. “I grew up in the magical world. My father was a Seed, one of the most powerful ever known. My mother found him and helped him with the transition. They fell in love.” He twirled the flute in his hand and gave a quick, short sigh. “They’ve been having problems for a while. Dad freaked out after I was born, claiming that his enemies could use me against him, but in truth, they’ve tried to use me against mom so much more. Anyway, I’m hoping that they will be able to get over it someday.”
“Sorry,” Slate said, and meant it. The last thing he wanted to do right now was hurt the man that was helping him, even if Slate did question Kyle’s motives.
“It’s okay,” Kyle replied. “It’s been going on a while. I just wish they’d decide one way or another and get the drama over with.”
“Why did you fight those men in the alley?”
Slate didn’t need any sort of empathic magic to tell Kyle’s mood had changed. His right hand set the cup of tea down with such force that a bit of the tea sloshed onto the small table, while his left hand tightened around the flute, turning what was previously a caress into strangulation. Every muscle in Kyle’s face tightened, and despite the wall and drawbridge between them, Slate had to take several deep breaths to get his own jaw to relax.
“This is going to be an oversimplification of how things are, because there is way too much to go over in a single sitting, or maybe even a single week. Okay?”
“There are some things you need to know, and I guess this is as good a time as any to tell you.”
“More stuff I need to know?” Slate groaned.
Kyle nodded. “Yes. A lot more. More than I can possibly give you in one evening, but we might as well get this bit out of the way now. The World Beyond the Sun is ruled by a body known as the Akesis Council. There are many factions that make up the council, and originally, it was supposed to protect all magical beings from each other and mundane humanity.”
“Why humanity?” Slate asked.
“Throughout human history, normal people have hunted and slaughtered those born or awakened to magic. The most famous in America being the Salem Witch Trials. These actually gave birth to the Akesis Council, that gathering and the subsequent rules by which we’re all supposed to live are known as the Covenant of Salem. Which was all well and good, until the Hermetic Collegium started gaining more power and influence in the Council. Now, especially in North America, they scheme and plot and gather more and more power. They don’t have absolute control, but they make life hard for the smaller factions and especially for Orphans.”
“People who live Beyond the Sun who don’t claim allegiance to any faction. They just want to live their lives in peace and not be bothered by politics. Unfortunately, they have no voice on the Akesis Council and so their rights are slowly whittled away. In some places, mostly in North America, Orphans are being forcibly relocated to remote camps and villages.”
“Am I an Orphan?”
“For the moment,” Kyle replied. “Though, very soon you should get all sorts of offers to join with one of the factions, especially if it gets out that you are an empath.”
“Comes back to that, huh?”
“Unfortunately, it probably always will.”
Slate poured himself a fresh cup of tea. Despite the chilly air and having been on the roof for quite some time, it still steamed in the cup.
“Is the tea pot magic?” Slate asked.
“Of course,” Kyle replied, as if it should have been obvious.
“What’s a Spellpunk?” Slate asked, even though he knew this might be another emotionally charged answer from Kyle. Slate had heard the term, and each time it had felt as if the word had carried some weight.
“We are the revolution.” The edges of Kyle’s mouth curved upward just a bit, not completely a smile, but almost. His nod was almost as slight. When Kyle sat up a bit straighter, Slate found himself doing the same. Pride adding to his posture. “The Spellpunks are a group of Orphans who have chosen to stand up against the oppression that the Hermetic Collegium and their allies have brought to the Akesis Council.”
Slate caught himself leaning away from Kyle. He knew there had to be a catch to this whole thing. God, he’d wanted to believe Kyle’s nice guy act, and almost had, but luckily the truth came out in time. Slate wished he could go back in time and take that wad of cash. Now he needed to figure out a way to get out of here without causing any suspicions.
“Relax.” Kyle’s smile shifted from pride to warmth said. “I’m not expecting you to join up. Yes, your empathic abilities would be helpful, but if I forced or coerced you into it, then I’d be guilty of the same sins as the Hermetic Collegium.”
“That’s an awfully convenient explanation.”
Kyle laughed a bit. “That did sound kind of corny didn’t it?”
“Not to mention cliché,” Slate added.
Kyle’s mouth curved into a bemused smile.
“What?” Slate asked.
“I was just wondering,” Kyle replied. “How did you know it was cliché? You’re right. It is. I just want to know how you know.”
Slate considered for a moment. How had he known? He didn’t actually know how he’d know.
“Have no idea,” Slate replied. “Just seemed right.”
“Well, you’re right,” Kyle said. “It was really cliché, and you’re knowing that is a good sign. It means that, while you may not have conscious recollection of your memories, you at least have some underlying understanding of the experience of your life before you came into your magic.”
Kyle took a drink of tea.
“As cliché as it sounds, it’s also the truth. I will not use the tactics of our enemies against us. That is one of the primary reasons that we still exist. The portions of the Akesis Council not controlled by the Hermetics see the honor and righteousness of our cause. You are free to make your own choices, at least with me. That being said, we could use your talent, especially as strong as it is.”
“Well, it’s too soon for me to get involved in anything.”
“Being a Seed, you’re already involved,” Kyle said. “We just need to get you situated so that you can make choices for yourself, even if that eventually means that you might choose to enter the Hermetic Collegium.”
“Like those guys in the alley?”
Slate crossed his arms. “I find that unlikely.”
“Don’t discount the possibility,” Kyle said. “The Collegium has considerable resources and can make offers that you might find difficult to refuse; also, not all of them are bad. That Order numbers some very decent and honorable men and women among its membership.”
Kyle paused and looked out toward the clouds rolling in from the sea. Even with the darkening dky, face lit only by the lights from the streets and the surrounding businesses, Slate didn’t need any powers to see the pain written on Kyle’s face. Heat rushed into Slate’s cheeks and ears, despite the chill of the evening.
Softly, Kyle added, “Some of them I would even call friends. Or at least I would – if things were different.”
Stomach churning a bit, Slate looked away from Kyle and out to sea, where the clouds rolling in from the ocean seemed to swallow the stars as they crept ever closer to the shore.
“That’s weird,” Slate said.
“What?” Kyle asked.
“The breeze is going north-east-ish, but the clouds are moving to the south-east.”
“That is weird,” Kyle replied.
Kyle stood. His hands moved in strange patterns and he whispered a jumble of incomprehensible syllables. Silver energy flashed around his eyes. He stared at the skyline, muttering under his breath.
A few moments passed like this, then the energy around Kyle’s eyes faded.
“This is bad,” he said.
“What’s bad?” Slate asked, pointing at the line of clouds. “What does that mean?”
“I don’t know, but someone is going to a lot of trouble to move those clouds against the wind. And I think they wanted to be noticed.”
Kyle nodded. “Depending on the magic they’re using, it might have been easier to change the direction of the wind. I need to look into this.”
Slate stood. “Where do we start?”
Kyle gave Slate the smile a parent does when a teenager thinks they’re ready for something too soon, like drinking or sex. It was a patient smile, though full of restraint and just a hint of callousness.
“We don’t,” Kyle said. “You are going to stay here. I am going to start by talking to some people I know, the first of whom is not nearly as patient and trusting as Randall.”
Slate opened his mouth. Kyle held up a hand.
“Yes, I know he wasn’t either patient or trusting. That’s the point. I’ll be back in a few hours. Depending on how you’re doing then, we might go out. Keep in mind; while you’re up here and in the apartment, there aren’t very many emotions that you have to push away. Out there,” Kyle waved his hand, sweeping it across the view of the city, “there will be so much more that you will have to protect yourself against.”
Slate swallowed. At this moment, he could feel at least two dozen different feelings brushing against the walls of his fortress. Thankfully, they weren’t bombarding him anymore, they were more like refugees looking for a way into a closed off city, squatting outside with nowhere else to go.
“Okay. I’ll wait here.”
“Don’t worry,” Kyle said, collecting the chair, folding table and tea set. It was an interesting act of juggling, but he managed it with no trouble. “You’ll be out there on your own before you know it. In a few weeks, you’re going to wonder how you ever needed my help at all.”
Slate seriously doubted that, but he said nothing as he picked up his lawn chair and followed Kyle downstairs.
Jester wove between the tables of the Purgatory Grey. She had a tradition of making one last run through the nightclub before the crowds got really big. With only a small trickle of patrons coming through the doors – later that trickle would become a flood not unlike that of the Augean Stables – the bass was low and the lights hadn’t really started yet. Still, music charged the air, and the lights served to distract, making it easy for the staff to overlook minor details – details that didn’t really matter in the short term, but details that could, if allowed to breed and multiply and taken all together, create a nuisance. Here nightly attention to these little details was the only reason the Purgatory Grey was able to continue blurring the line as they did business between the worlds Beyond the Sun and Before the Moon.
Climbing the stairs to the balcony level, Jester saw a trio waiting at her bar: Jimmy, Jet, and Capper. The two Chinese boys and the British girl, respectively, had grown up in Hong Kong and claimed to be triplets with the unfortunate circumstances of being born from different mothers. Jester had been through enough to not immediately discount their claims. All three had the same deep, brown eyes, and despite her pale skin, even Capper – the Brit – had the same angular features as her “brothers.” In the right light, she might be mistaken for being Asian, except for her shock of blond hair cut into an A-line bob. Her brothers had compensated for this by dying their hair blond to match. At least Jester thought it was dyed. Come to think of it, she’d never seen their roots showing. She shrugged; it didn’t really matter. They always dressed the same too: Jeans, Doc Martin lace-up boots, and motorcycle jackets that gave way to trench coats as winter came. Jet was the only one who was different; he wore a red bandana tied around his forehead at all times.
The triplets rarely came to the club – unless they had some business to conduct with Jester. Sometimes it was legit, other times, while they thought it was the most important thing in the world, it was really just a waste of her time.
All three of them gave her the same affected, bored stare. They’d been practicing for years, and just about had it down. Jester snorted a disdainful laugh.
“What brings you kids here?” Jester asked. “Shouldn’t you be playing Duck, Duck, Goose somewhere?”
“Can the backchat,” Capper said in a slightly-too-thick Cockney accent. “We’ve got legit business, changeling.”
Jester clicked her tongue on the inside of her mouth while she decided on how to respond. Her father had been a true fey – from the magical world of Arcadia – and so faerie blood ran through her veins. Changeling was an ancient term used for those born of human and faerie, not directly derogatory, but easily made so with the right inflection.
The trio looked at her expectantly, waiting to judge her reaction. Jester hated the posturing that so many people Beyond the Sun seemed to think necessary just to have a simple conversation. She couldn’t wait for the normal people to make it up to the club’s second level, people who occasionally said “please” and “thank you,” and whose only motivation when talking to her was to get a drink. Simple. Straightforward. No games. But, when in Rome, as it were.
“Can I get you a doggy bone, lycanthrope?”
Jimmy and Capper bristled. Their hands strayed to the inside of their coats. Jester thought she smelled gun oil.
Lycanthrope, on the other hand, was derogatory. It intimated that a shape shifter had not been born to the blood, but been infected a disease that gave them the ability to shape shift, oh, and drove them made, just for good measure.
Jester raised a single eyebrow – her best trick. Jet, the most level-headed of the three, placed a hand on his siblings’ shoulders and settled them down.
“Let’s just put all this name calling aside,” Jet said. “We have information on the Seed.”
“Really?” Jester said. “Please continue.”
She pushed everything else out of her mind. While she had some information about what had happened the previous morning, by no means had she learned everything. She’d been waiting until this evening when the club filled up to sift through the rumors and stories to piece together what had actually happened. If she could get something concrete from these kids, then she might have an edge I talking to others as they came in.
“What will you give us for the info?” Jimmy’s eyes matched his greedy smile. Both fortunately and unfortunately, his face only broke into that specific smirk when he actually had something genuine.
Jester leaned over the bar, twisting a bit, giving the boy – possibly Capper too, there were rumors about her sexuality – a good show of her ass. Jester didn’t wear skin tight jeans just because she liked the snug feeling of support. She reached under the bar, grabbed a glass, and poured a Guinness from the tap. Turning, she faced them and looked a long drink.
“Going to have to give me some clue as to what I’m buying.”
Jet, Jimmy, and Capper looked back and forth at each other. Jet shrugged. Capper bobbed her head back and forth, and then nodded.
Jimmy looked back a Jester. “We know who found the Seed, who fought over him, and who has him now.”
“Common knowledge.” Jester said. “That glyph was pretty amateurish.”
She took a drink to cover the smile at their shocked faces, all three of them with mouths hanging slightly open.
In truth, this wasn’t common knowledge. The glyph warding that had protected the alley from magical observation that morning had been first-rate, but Jester couldn’t resist taking some of the wind out of their bluster. Jester’s cousin Velvet had come by earlier with the information, hoping to trade it for a favor owed. That hadn’t been worth the size of the favor, but this conversation might be. There was the possibility – probability – that somehow, someway, these three had managed to pierce that glyph – a feat Jester would not have thought possible. This bore some consideration.
“Come back when you have something worthwhile.”
She put the half-empty glass on the bar top and headed to the office; the boss should be up by now, and he’d need to know what was going on.
Garret sat behind the huge mahogany desk – he wasn’t compensating for anything with it; he just wanted something big and heavy to hit people with if they got out of line – leaning over papers, probably receipts. The boss liked to get all the mundane work done at the beginning of the night. His brown hair was short today. He glanced up, face paler than normal and eyes sunken.
“You didn’t sleep again.” Jester said.
“Just going over some reports and messages,” Garret replied.
It was more than that. His shoulders were slumped and he didn’t even bother to attempt his normal air of command when Jester had come in. He hadn’t even looked up at her. She might have been a regular employee, and it would not have done to have one of them see Garret like this. He’d been slipping more and more lately, as pressure came on him from all sides to break his neutrality. If he broke the neutrality, then others might follow, giving the Akesis Council, and thus the Hermetic Collegium a stronger grip on controlling the World Beyond the Sun.
“Anything I should know about?” Jester asked.
“Just offers and bribes for joining with various factions,” Garret replied. “Most are the same as they always are, except one.” He shuffled around in the stack. “Came in over an encrypted email. Had Richter try and trace it, but it baffled him. Might hire Randall to take a look. Here. ‘Mr. Garret McCormack of the Purgatory Grey. Don’t choose. It benefits all parties involved if you continue as you always have.’ Signed, ‘The Thieves of Heaven.’ What do you make of this?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never heard of them. A new Spellpunk group?”
“Perhaps.” Garret held the paper between his thumb and middle finger while tapping the edge with his pointer. “But I can’t imagine any of them being this direct without offering something.”
“He might.” Garret nodded. “But he also wouldn’t hide behind some secret name. He’d come and talk to me face to face.” He put the paper on his desk. “This is all I need, some new, unknown entity entering the game. Not like I have enough to keep track of as it is.”
“Then you won’t like what I have to tell you.”
Garret looked at her for the first time, his left eyebrow going up half an inch. The rest of his face remained expressionless.
“There’s a new Seed,” Jester said. “It surfaced this morning just at dawn. I would have told you earlier, but I was talking care of some business with Velvet.”
Garret’s eyebrow lowered. His eye twitched and jaw line tightened.
“Who has it?”
“Kyle Drae at the moment. He fought two Hermetics, Marius and Christian, over the Seed in the South of Market. He killed Marius. This contradicts reports that Dart fought Marius in a hotel across the street from the Hermetic Sanctum a short time later, just after dawn. She injured Marius and killing two Hermetic Acolytes whose identity I have not yet ascertained.”
Garret straightened. This was not the first time they’d heard about reports of Marius being at different places so close together in time. Jester and Garret had their suspicions about it, but because of the damned Hermes Gates the Collegium used, they had never been able to pin it down until now. Marius dying in one place, and then later showing up alive and healthy, proved he could be considerable more dangerous than they had originally thought.
“Who else knows about this?” Garret asked.
“You, me, Velvet, most likely the triplets.” Garret’s eyebrow went up again. “Oh hey, somehow they pierced the warding someone put up. Yeah, I know we need to keep a closer eye on them. Other than that, maybe a handful of others. Probably some people high up in the Cavaliers.”
“Isn’t Marius, Sabre’s apprentice. And Christian, Virgil’s?”
“Yes to both.”
Garret’s eyes rolled and he stared off into space. Brian Sabre was involved in more petty plotting and scheming than anyone else in San Francisco. If he had Virgil had sent their apprentices into this, it meant their fingers were pulling the strings to make Marius and Christian dance.
“How badly did this fight between Dart and Marius bleed over to Before the Moon?”
“Pretty bad,” Jester replied. “Shots fired. Bodies in the lobby of a hotel. Dart and Icarus – probably Dart – somehow managed to get a street gang to open fire on the Hermetic Sanctum. It was well planned, in that Dart and Icarus only broke Akesis Law in reaction to the Hermetics. Dart and Icarus escaped in the confusion caused when the police showed up to deal with the gang. The incident forced the Hermetics to use up a huge reservoir of power to cover everything up. Only one witness remains unaccounted for, hotel clerk that ran from the hotel as soon as the shots were fired.”
Garret smiled. “Find him. Make sure he remembers nothing. I don’t care how. Fill him up with heroine if you have to in order to make any claims questionable at best. Then everyone will owe us for it, Akesis Council, Hermetics, and Spellpunks. Maybe that will give us a bit of breathing room for a bit.”
“I’ll put Bishop on it,” Jester replied. “And before you ask, that’s the most that’s happened in and around the Seed. All the other factions seem to be biding their time and waiting.”
“Strange that,” Garret muttered. “We should probably get a reading from Grandmother.”
Jester winced. She wished to God – though she didn’t really believe in him, her, or it – that she could control her emotions when it came to the human side of her family. Of course, the guilt bomb that Grandmother would unleash on Jester was not entirely undeserved. These days Jester was so busy that she didn’t have time to just “stop by.”
“Okay,” Jester said. “I’ll put Katya up at my bar. I think she’s ready to try it solo for a few hours. Hopefully we don’t get swamped with people looking for info on the Seed in the early part of the evening.” She met Garret’s eyes without blinking. “Which is likely to happen. Just saying.”
“Risk we have to take,” Garret replied with the first hint of a smile Jester had seen in days.
“Why do I put up with this?”
Garret’s smile grew. “Because I pay you very well.”
Jester met that smile with a deadpan face. “Because you own my life.”
The smiled wilted, and Jester realized she’d gone too far. She needed something drastic to save Garret’s mood. In a fit of desperation, she stuck her tongue out at him. The smile grew again, grew wider and he broke into that perfect laugh, the one that reminded you that Garret to was once human. Jester laughed too, unable to resist Garret’s deep, belly-rolling thunder.
Someone knocked on the door. They stopped laughing, and Jester could only think: no, no, no, and again, no. This early in the evening, knocking meant trouble.
All of Garret’s earlier signs of fatigue had vanished. His shoulders squared, and he sat straight in his chair, eyes taking on the predatory look of an eagle waiting for something – anything – to move even the slightest bit. He gestured to the far wall, an almost shooing motion with his fingers.
Jester moved back a few steps, leaned against the wall, and with a deep breath, reached into the part of her that came from her father’s otherworldly blood. She crafted a glamour to make the wall “appear” two feet further into the room. There were some changelings, and many mages, that could only craft illusions, images that vanished when challenged or interacted with. Not so with Jesters gift. When she created something with her glamour, it was as good as real for all intents and purposes. Whoever was at the door could lean against the wall, knock on it, or even shoot it, and nothing would change. Of course, Jester only made the wall visible from the other side. It wouldn’t do to have it blocking Jester’s view of the office. Yes, it was paradoxical, but then, so many things of Faerie were.
“Enter,” Garret said.
The door opened. Katya poked her head inside, black hair pulled into a ponytail, chewing on her lower lip.
“Sorry to bother you, sir,” Katya said, “but a Peter Galahad would like to see you.”
Garret gave the faintest nod. Katya’s head vanished, and the door opened wider. The ever-familiar Peter Galahad walked into the office, strutting as if it he had an open invitation. Jester suppressed a groan, just as she did anytime she saw a high ranking Cavalier. Once a Cavalier reached a rank of command, they took a new name. The first name came from a Saint; the second from one of the Knights of the Round Table. Jester just couldn’t take the pretentiousness of it all seriously.
Galahad wore a black business suit with a purple sash across his chest. Wearing that sash declared that he was hear as a representative of the Cavaliers – sort of the policed force of the Akesis Council
Galahad sat without being asked. Garret’s left hand gripped the edge of the massive desk. Jester willed him to keep his temper under control, while at the same time resisted the urge to drop her own Glamour and teach this fuckhead some respect. Yeah, Jester realized that sentiment was cliché, but she couldn’t help it. Once upon a long goddamn time ago, the Cavaliers knew respect and served the greater ideals of the Akesis council. Now, each one of them seemed to stray further and further from those ideals.
“Cavalier,” Garret said in a jovial tone that did not reflect in his face at all, “to what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?”
“I’m sure you’re aware of the new Seed and the aftermath this morning,” Galahad said. “I am here concerning the assault on the Hermetic Sanctum. We know both Dart and Icarus frequent your establishment. I’m here to ask for your assistance in capturing them.”
Garret fixed Galahad with a cold gaze, so still and unwavering that he seemed displaced in time. Jester found herself struggling to breathe at the audacity of this request. Had Garret lost so much respect and status that such a thing as this was possible? Only decades of service to Garret, knowing that Garret himself would set this right, kept Jester from turning the back of Galahad’s head into a canoe.
“Mr. Galahad.” Garret spoke in a soft voice. “Remind me: how long have you worn your current name?”
“I seemed to remember it being something like that, and so I will forgive you this intrusion in asking me to place myself between two warring factions. If an actual crime had been committed, I would happily be at your service. However, at this point, regardless of their proximity to the attack suffered by the Hermetic Collegium at the hands of a street gang, there is no actual proof that Dart and Icarus were actually responsible. If my reports are correct, the Hermetics acted first by attacking Dart and Icarus in that hotel.”
“But nothing!” Garret yelled under his breath. Though his voice barely rose above a whisper, the sound of it reverberated throughout the room, filling it as those two words were solid things. “You forget who I am, and more importantly, you forget your place. You may have boundless authority within your precious little Akesis Council, but I and my kind are above your petty politicking. The heads of the Blood Families stand with the Akesis Council because it is convenient for us to do so. Of them, I am the most willing to interact with you. What do you think will happen if I suddenly remove myself from your Council? What do you think will happen to your career when it gets out that you are the one responsible for us leaving?”
They stared at each other for a long moment. Despite herself, Jester found herself respecting Peter Galahad just a little bit. Few people could hold Garret’s gaze for long, especially when he was pissed off. Galahad held the stare without flinching for over a minute, so long that Garret broke first.
“Now,” Garret said. “I think this meeting is done. I will involve neither myself, nor my staff, in these games. Please help yourself to something from the bar on the way out.”
Galahad opened his mouth and leaned forward just a bit. He took a breath, closed his mouth, and breathed out through his nose with a short blast of air.
“Thank you for your time, Mr. McCormack.” Galahad stood, bowed just enough to be respectful, and left.
“Well, this was certainly unexpected,” Garret said.
Jester let the Glamour drop. “What do you want me to do?”
“I want you to kill him and put and put an end to all this.” Garret’s fists shook on his desk. “Unfortunately , I think that times have changed so much that I don’t think even we could get away with something like that anymore. Any ideas?”
“Lean on his superior,” Jester replied. “Cavalier Galahad id fairly new to his rank. We’ll come out of this looking like saints if we let him off easily. We just have a few people harass him – I mean the superior, not Galahad – without actually hurting him or disrupting an actual investigation, while at the same time, we let his superior know how unhappy we are and that we’re considering holding him responsible. If that doesn’t work, then we kill him – again, the superior, not Galahad. At that point, we’ve given both ample warning. I think the Cavaliers will toe the line with us if they get the idea that the superior will get slapped for how their underlings conduct themselves with us.”
“I like it,” Garret said. “Now, off to Grandmother’s. Should I get the kitchen to put together a basket of goodies?”
Jester turned on her heel and left the office. She couldn’t resist a parting, “Fuck you,” just before she closed the door, “Sir.”
Vince Clapper wandered through the Purgatory Grey. His eyes scanned for any face that seemed even faintly familiar. He hadn’t been in this place since the last time Paul’s band had played here, years ago, just before Paul and his friends had moved suddenly to Chicago. Despite that, Vince was hoping that he might recognize someone, and that someone might just lead him to some answers about Paul. Vince wouldn’t consider hoping for the off chance that Paul might actually show up here, at least not too much.
Out of the corner of his eye, Vince saw a familiar face. Nathan Cutler walked through the club looking a little weird in that tailored black suit and purple sash.
“Cutler!” Vince yelled over the music.
Nathan blinked a couple of times, as if processing something. Then his head whipped around. When his eyes met with Vince’s, Nathan pulled back a step and scanned the crowd. It was the same look Vince had seen time and time again on the force, from cops and perps alike: Nathan was looking for cover or an escape route. But Vince was too close and closing in.
“Been years, man,” Vince said when he got within decent speaking distance. “How’s the Bureau been treating you? And what’s with the sash?”
Nathan Cutler had been one of Oakland PD’s most successful detectives. He and Vince had worked on several cases together, because, for some reason, the bad guys on the street didn’t seem to care about jurisdictions the way red tape and higher ups did. Cutler had just been made detective in those days, and while Vince had been content to remain detective until retirement, Culter had been a bit more ambitious; either that, or he’d been on the right case at the right time. Shrouded in mystery, Nathan had stumbled onto something that got him an invitation to some undisclosed “national agency.” Everyone assumed it was to some special FBI task force.
“Lost a bet,” Cutler said offering his hand. They shook, tight grips, tighter than necessary, acknowledging that they had both seen fire together in a couple of cases gone bad. “What are you doing here? Don’t remember you being into this kind of crowd.”
Vince relaxed his grip. “I’m not. I heard my kid is back in town. Haven’t seen him in a couple of years. He used to hang out here a lot. Looking to see if I can catch him.”
“Sounds to me like he might not want to be found,” Cutler said.
“True enough. But his girlfriend called us out of nowhere. He’s been missing for a couple of weeks. She hired a private investigator who said he’d tracked him down back to San Francisco. Thought I’d check out a few of his old watering holes before I checked out the P.I. You wouldn’t be willing to do a favor for an old friend would you?”
Nathan smiled. “You want me to look into this P.I. and see if he’s on the up and up?”
“Sure. What’s the name?”
Vince had to admit that Nathan had gotten really good at controlling that shocked expression where his eyes went wide, nostrils flared, and his mouth closed to a thin line. The only part of that expression that remained was the flared nostrils, and Vince suspected he only noticed that because he knew what to look for.
“What?” Vince asked.
Nathan leaned in close. “I know this probably isn’t going to do any good, but Vince, you have to let this one go. This is too big for you. I’ll look into it for you and do everything I can to find your son. Stop. I know all the things you’re going to say. Please. Please. Please listen to me on this one. I’m not at liberty to go into details about this, but you need to go home. Just this once, let me do you a favor and take care of this.”
“What is it with this Brian Sabre guy that’s got people so worked up?” Vince asked.
“He’s big enough that you’ve never heard of him before,” Nathan said. “That alone should tell you something.”
Nathan stiffened. A young woman, somewhere in her early twenties, passed within a few steps of them. She had long black hair pulled back into a ponytail. She would have been gorgeous if not for her clenched jaw and tightened cheeks that scrunched up her face. Her baggy clothes and leather jacket did little to hide her figure, a figure with some meat and muscle that a man could loss himself in unlike those stick figures adorning the covers on women’s magazines. She looked him up and down with violet eyes. Violet? It must be a trick of the club’s lights somehow, but it was so eerie that he couldn’t help but break away from her gaze. He couldn’t help but chuckle at the button pinned to the collar of her motorcycle jacket: “Die with your boots on!”
“Remember to help yourself to something from the bar, Galahad,” she said as she walked by.
Vince admired her retreating ass, and couldn’t help but compare it to Heather’s. Yeah, that tail was young and firm now, but Vince had seen too many young things in this kind of lifestyle let themselves go even before they reached thirty. Heather, while not as chiseled in a pair of jeans as she used to be, still filled a pair nicely just by keeping an active lifestyle.
“You’re married,” Nathan said.
“Heather would be looking too,” Vince replied, smiling. “She likes to keep up to date on the competition. And, Galahad? What’s with that?”
“It’s a nickname I have. They call me that ‘cause I’m ‘such a knight in shining armor.’” Nathan drew in a deep breath and put his hand on Vince’s shoulder. “I was serious, Vince. Please, let me take care of this for you. Go home. Enjoy your retirement with your wife. I have work to do, but I will look into your son and see how Sabre fits into all this. I promise.”
And then, Vince found himself standing alone, watching Nathan Cutler’s back vanish into the growing crowd. Vince considered going home, he really did. He was retired and probably not anywhere near ready to take on something like this without any kind of departmental back up. On the other hand, he wondered how both Heather and Nathan knew about this Brian Sabre guy. What weren’t people telling him?
Slate looked up from the laptop’s screen as his right hand moved away from the keyboard and tensed, as if it was holding a gun. He wanted to shoot something. No. Not something – someone. His hand rose, the phantom pistol pointing at the side of his head.
In surfing the internet, looking for anything to give him clues about himself, Slate had let his concentration slip. He closed his eyes and solidified the vision of his mental defenses in his mind. Hostility slammed against his castle walls. Rage and anger from three people pummeled at him, and those three people were coming toward him fast.
Not wanting them to catch him unprepared, Slate rolled of the couch. The laptop crashed to the floor and emitted a brief, high-pitched whine of protest, before the screen went blue. He reached the wall of weapons and grabbed a crossbow. He looked it over a second, to get a rudimentary understanding of the weapon. He cocked it, slid a bolt into place, and faced the door. Hopefully that would maybe keep someone from coming too close, and maybe get them to rethink their choices for the evening.
Just as Slate spun around, the front door flew off its hinges with a crash. A teen-aged boy – Asian – stepped across the threshold. Slate couldn’t take his eyes off the kid’s twin pistols he carried, one in each hand. They looked like cannons. Time seemed to freeze as those two howitzers rose, the wrong ends pointing at Slate. Just as the blackness of the barrels came level with Slate, the kid started, “Where—?”
With a twang, Slate let the bolt fly. It caught the kid in the chest, and he stumbled back into the hallway. Not waiting for someone else, Slate reloaded, faster this time, and faced the door again. With a moment to breath, he realized the Asian kid wasn’t really a kid. He was probably closer to Kyle’s age, mid-twenties or so. His size made him seem younger.
Glass shattered to Slate’s left. He pivoted and fired.
A woman crouched in the midst of the broken glass that used to be a window. Her arm blurred, and she caught the crossbow bolt in one hand, tip inches from her face.
She was also Asian. Black hair pulled back from her face. In her other hand, she held a curved sword – katana, Slate recalled the name. Her eyes scanned the room. The hand holding the bolt flashed out. The missile flipped end over end across the room. The blunt end caught someone else who had come in through the front door in the forehead. He blinked and shook his head as he scrambled back into the hallway.
“You Slate?” the woman asked.
Slate glanced from the crumpled body to the woman and back again. He nodded, too stunned to lie.
“I’m Jasmine.” She projected her voice toward the door, then lowering it, spoke directly to Slate. “Hey, focus on me. He’ll be okay. Yes, look at me. Good. You have to come with me.”
“Umm.” Slate looked at the weapon in his hands, realizing that he very well may have just used it to kill someone. “Ahhh.”
“Focus.” Jasmine snapped her fingers. “Panic later. Come now. Right now.”
“Why should I trust you?” Slate asked, coming out of his shock.
“Stay here if you want,” Jasmine said. “Don’t know who you’ll have to deal with first. Them,” she waved her katana at the body, “or the police. One of Kyle’s neighbors probably reported a disturbance when the door came down. They’ve done it before.”
Seeing the logic in her argument, Slate tossed the crossbow onto the couch. He turned to follow Jasmine, when he stopped, picked the crossbow up with his hand inside his sleeve and started to wipe it with the other sleeve.
“What are you doing?”
“I don’t want to leave finger prints,” Slate said. Then realized he might have a way to find out who he was after all.
“Don’t bother,” Jasmine replied. “You don’t have any. Now let’s go.”
Slate looked at his fingertips. In the apartment’s low light he had to bring them within a few inches of his face. They were smooth and unblemished. A hand grabbed his shoulder. Startled, he looked up.
“You can ogle them and wonder in the car,” Jasmine said, pulling him toward the window.
She crawled out, and by the time Slate had followed, she was sliding down the fire escape stairs. How she did that with such grace and ease without getting the sword caught anywhere boggled Slate. The damp from the fog made his decent easy to the point of being treacherous. Slate almost lost his grip several times. He managed to slow himself just enough to keep from plummeting over the rails onto the street below.
No finger prints. That made his plan to find someplace to run his fingerprints pretty much futile.
“How did you know me?” Slate called down.
Jasmine didn’t look up. “I met Kyle earlier this evening. He asked me to take care of you if anything happened to him.”
“What happened to Kyle?”
She didn’t answer.
They reached the bottom and climbed down the final ladder. A black Ford Mustang waited in the street next to the parked cars, hazard lights blinking. Jasmine pulled something out of her jacket pocket, pointed it at the car, and clicked a button with her thumb. The trunk and doors popped open. She shed herself of the gun and the sword and placed them in the trunk. Shutting the trunk, she looked at Slate. Her entire face tightened.
“The car. Get in.”
“Right,” Slate said, jumping a little.
Once inside, she pulled away, face hard and staring at the road ahead.
Slate decided to try again. “What happened to Kyle?”
Jasmine turned her head slightly. Her right eye scanned him up and down twice. Slate felt his hands come off his thighs, palms turning up toward the ceiling, balancing something between them. Jasmine’s gaze shot toward them, and Slate forced them back to his legs.
“Someone captured him,” She replied. “Kyle told you about the Spellpunks?”
“Some of them think you’re involved. I’m not sure, but I don’t think so. I think you are what you claim, but that’s not going to keep some of the others from coming after you. Luckily for you, I promised Kyle I’d watch out for you.”
“Timing’s too convenient. You show up, and less than a day later, Kyle gets captured by parties unknown.”
Slate’s stomach dropped. So much for staying out of politics and trouble.
“So what now?”
“I don’t know. The best thing would be if you could somehow help us find Kyle, but we have nothing to go on.”
Slate bounced his knee as he watched the lights pass by.
“If I help find Kyle, people will stop trying to kill me?”
“Oh, they don’t want to kill you. At least, not at first. They want to torture you until you tell them where Kyle is. After that, who knows?”
“Pardon me while I don’t feel much better.”
Slate took in and released four slow breaths. Without his memories, he didn’t have experience to go by, so he’d have to go by instinct. Only thing, this problem might be too big to go by instinct. No. There had to be something he could do. He had this rare kind of magic, and from what Kyle said, it would be valuable. Could he use it in some way? It would be nice to have an instruction manual for it, maybe a page that said: Click this button in your mind to use magical empathic powers when your only friend has been kidnapped by unknown entity or organization. Then again, there might be something to that.
“Turn on the radio,” Slate said. “Your favorite station.”
“Humor me. It’s not like it’s going to take a huge chunk out of your day. And leave your finger on the dial.”
She did. Soft classical music filled the car. Slate counted to himself: one one-thousand, two one-thousand…When he reached ten, he said, “Change it.”
“Just go up the dial.”
Slate closed his eyes and pushed the walls of his keep outward so that Jasmine’s car took up the whole courtyard. Underneath Jasmine’s calm, Slate felt a small burr of irritation, like that tiny pebble in the shoe, small enough so that it doesn’t dig into the foot with each step, only when stepping in a certain way. Stations passed: rock, Spanish, country, jazz. The burr remained the same. Then it spiked, driving itself into Jasmine’s metaphoric foot as soon as the pounding bass rattle the car’s frame. The rapper pontificated on how his rhymes were better than anyone else on the mic. Slate reached over and turned it up. Jasmine slapped his hand away and turned it off.
Silence followed, and Slate pulled his walls in close again. He reached out toward the dial. Jasmine’s hand came up in warning.
“I’m not going to turn it on,” Slate said.
He lightly brushed the dial with his fingertips. Jasmine’s irritation with the rap music lingered on the dial. Slate held his finger there, probing. Beneath that irritation he felt the memory of her calm.
“Do you know where Kyle got captured?”
“Take me there.”
“Why? We’ve already been over it – multiple times.”
“But I haven’t. You already said you don’t have anything to go on. This will only take a few minutes and might just come to something. If it doesn’t, we’re really no worse off than before.”
Jasmine gave him a side-long stare. “What did you do with the radio?”
“Why?” Sate asked.
“It just is.” She smiled with genuine humor. He sensed the humor through his walls, but her face remained stoic. It was really kind of creepy, but at least that was better than anger.
Slate wanted to be mad at Jasmine for keeping her secret, but then, he wasn’t being forthcoming either. As much as he wanted to come clean and tell her what he was thinking, Slate remembered Kyle’s warnings.
She fished around in the inside of her leather jacket, then pulled out a cell phone. She flipped it open, pressed a few numbers, and ringing sounded in the car.
“Yeah?” Slate’s breath caught in his throat. That one word was all Slate needed to recognize Dart’s voice.
“Meet me where Kyle got nixed.”
“Okay. Bring anyone else?”
Jasmine paused. “Icarus.” Then she added through clenched teeth as her left hand tightened on the wheel and her right clenched the phone. “And Randall.”
Great, Slate thought as Jasmine closed the phone. An audience. One that probably wanted to kill him.
Jester fought her way up the stairway. Even at this late hour – well, later by rush hour standards, early by clubbing standards – the crowds of people heading out of the Market District was far greater than those heading into it. Once into the open air, she breathed a little easier. Even though she was still surrounded by iron, mostly from the buildings, but also from the old trolleys and cable cars, at least she wasn’t surrounded by it as she had been in the tunnels below. She hated traveling that way, but at this time of night, private transportation or taxi was out of the question, as evidenced by the long string of brake lights, unmoving as street lights changed from green to yellow to read, green to yellow, to red.
Jogging east, Jester headed toward the nearest intersection, Fourth and Market. She turned right and began the seven block journey south.
“Spare change?” a grungy teenaged girl asked.
Jester eyed her over. The girl’s act was good, but not perfect. Her face was dirty, but her hair lacked that hasn’t-been-washed-in-over-a-month look. Her nails were neatly trimmed. And the bit of mascara she’d forgotten to fade out properly on her left eye made the bags under her eyes look comical instead of pitiable. The puppy was a good touch, even if it didn’t look malnourished, and the dog tags looked too polished and new. Most people who were really homeless had no use for dog tags. Oh, and the toe of the Doc Martin boot poking out from under her skirt was just a little too polished, and it was a Doc Martin boot, to boot.
Jester chuckled at her internal funny.
“Spare change?” the girl asked again, voice cracking a bit this time.
Oh, she’s good, Jester thought, but not that good. She couldn’t let an opportunity like this get away. “No thanks. I’ve got some.”
After ten steps, the panhandler said something, but Jester lost it in a combination of background noise and lack of giving a shit.
Six blocks later, Jester turned left onto Brannan Street. During her journey, she’d crossed from the Market district to Upper South of Market. This neighborhood had seen a brief window of renewal during the Dot Com craze, but that lasted about as long as the computer startups that jacked the rent in this area up to being non-affordable. Stores, businesses, and over-priced loft apartments lay empty and signs declaring places for rent or lease showed in most of the windows, at least the ones that weren’t boarded up.
Halfway to Third, Jester turned left again onto Rich, as small side street that most people missed their first time or half-dozen going past it. Stepping into the darkness of that street, she reached up behind her back and drew her Barreta. She wasn’t afraid of the dark shadows caused by the lone street lamp halfway down the block, or anyone that might be lurking in them; Jester just didn’t want to go through the hassle dealing with someone who took her for an easy mark. Getting shot would be the least of any potential assailant’s worries; it just helped convince potential assailants to remain just that – potential. Still, she hurried from the mouth of Rich street to an ally about a third of the way down.
Jester scanned the street and found the first part of the maze, a piece of graffiti – a red and white squiggle of spray paint that looked like any other tagger’s sign – on the manhole cover in the middle of the street. After that, her eyes shifted to some charcoal etchings on a door that used to house a nightclub with the completely original name 440 Rich, which happened to coincide with the place’s address. Four more symbols later, and Jester found the ally.
In the hustle and bustle of life in the South of Market, this alley had seen few visitors even before Jester’s family had moved in. It seemed so unimportant, even to those who realized it was even there. Now, those not of the family would be hard pressed to find it, even if they were looking for it.
As she stepped to the mouth of the alley, Jester felt people watching her. It wasn’t paranoia. Anyone who got this close to the alley would have to be stupid to think that the Gypsies who lived within weren’t watching. Jester shoved the pistol into the back of her pants and took off her backpack. Before crossing into gorgio land, she had to observe the gift of hospitality. She’d been away so long; the Romani here probably didn’t consider her family any longer. Even if they did, a gift was still polite.
She unzipped the backpack and withdrew four gifts. The first from Garret: a very old and very rare bottle of Scotch whisky. The second: a box of Cuban cigars, not as difficult to come by in the States as one might suspect. The Third: a small jewelry box, also from Garret. The fourth: a solar powered lantern. One gift for each element, of which, at least one must be practical, one pleasurable, and one must be solely for the sake of vanity. She placed these gifts right at the mouth of the alley and stepped away.
Insuring that no one from Before the Moon was watching, Jester dropped the glamour hiding her true nature from the prying eyes of “normal people.” Her black hair grew two feet longer, coming down to the back of her knees. She slimmed, so that rather than being slightly buxom and curvy, she became willowy and lithe. The bone structure of her face changed, and her features took on an angular, alien quality. Over the years, Garret’s guests sometimes argued which of Jester’s forms was the more attractive. Truth be told, Jester preferred her human disguise; it made dealing with people easier because she didn’t have to worry about people getting distracted – human beauty was easy to ignore for the sake of business, fae beauty, on the other hand, was not. She dropped her disguise now because the Romani did not care for deception in any way in their territory. Some of the gypsy mystics had the power to see past the glamour, and Jester couldn’t afford to jeopardize this by being overly proud.
Tiny, unseen pins pricked at Jester’s skin as she stepped from the street into the alley. As soon as she crossed the barrier, she shadows of that place faded under old-fashioned candle and oil burning lanterns. Doors lined the alley walls, both on the ground level and above it. Rickety, makeshift stairs lead from the ground up to those doors higher up. Some of the doors had symbols on them etched in charcoal or graffitied with spray paint. Not far away, Jester saw the door she wanted. The Symbol on that door declared: Wise Woman.
Jester knelt down and placed three of the gifts, the whiskey, Cubans, and the lantern, on the ground and then went to the door. She bounced on her toes, looked around at nothing, adjusted the straps on her backpack, cracked her neck, took a few deep breaths…
“Courage you idiot,” Jester said when she realized what she was doing. “It’s just a little old lady.” Yeah, Jester thought, Keep telling yourself that enough times and you might even believe it in a few centuries.
However, for just half a second, Jester believed her own lie, and that half a second was long enough for her to open the door and walk inside. The moment Jester closed the door behind her and the little bell rang, her stomach bottomed out and her hand started to shake.
The incense wafting through the room didn’t help. It burned at her eyes and forced her to dry swallow. Heat, dry and heavy, almost oppressive in its difference to the damp chill outside pressed down on Jester. She took off her jacket and waited for her eyes to adjust to the dim candle light. One of the failings she’d inherited from her human mother. Father’s eyes would have adjusted immediately. After a few moments, Jester saw well enough to drape her jacket over the back of one of the two chairs in the room. A table sat between them, with a crystal ball resting the center of its round surface. A deep, blood-red table cloth of velvet completed the cliché.
Before Jester could consider the ridiculousness of this setting, a voice called from behind some black curtains, “Who comes into my home?”
Jester answered, “I come seeking wisdom and Knowledge.”
“Zamora?” the old voice asked. “Is that truly you come to see your aging grandmother?”
Few people knew Jester’s true name; fewer still referred to her by that name. Grandmother, Jester’s father, and Garret on very special occasions used Jester’s true name with impunity. Hearing it dowsed Jester in and icy shower of guilt. Grandmother hadn’t even started laying into her, and Jester was already feeling like she’d abandoned her human family and left them to start in this hostile world of gorgio. Jester promised herself she would have to visit more, just to build up her immunity to this
Jester replied, trying her best not to sound sheepish, “Yes, Grandmother,” she failed.
The curtains parted. An old lady hobbled in on a cane nearly as gnarled as she was. That cane, the fringed shawl around her shoulders, the round, wire-rimmed spectacles, as well as her hunched over shuffle painted the picture of the frail matriarch. The act had gotten better, but Jester was not fooled for an instant. Still, this did not keep Jester from scurrying to help Grandmother into her chair. Despite the pleasant demeanor, this woman demanded the utmost respect, for underneath this façade hid a powerful Romani witch.
“Thank you, Zamora.” Grandmother switched to English as she settled into the chair. “It’s nice to see that you have not forgotten your manners. Sit. Sit, and tell me of yourself. Are you still pandering to that British bloodsucking tyrant?”
“Scottish,” Jester corrected as she sat down. “Garret is Scottish.”
“Same island. Guilty by association.”
Jester laughed. “Why won’t you leave him alone.”
“Never. He is a wicked, vile, unnatural abomination.”
“Yet, he usually supports you on the Council.”
Both Garret and Grandmother held seats on the West Coast region of the Akesis Council – each with great reluctance. Only duty to their respective people kept them from renouncing their positions. Hermetic dominance affected them almost as much as it did the orphans. Being new to his seat, Garret usually followed Grandmother’s lead, as she had been an underdog a long time, yet had still managed to be successful at maintaining Romani interests in the region.
“Even Hitler painted roses,” Grandmother snorted. “Yet he still killed our people by the thousands.”
Jester stood. Friendly rivalry or not, there was such a thing as going too far. “How dare you compare my friend, and ultimately yours, to the butcher of the twentieth century? There are some things I will not tolerate.”
Grandmother sighed. “I suppose one never gets too old to learn knew lessons. Or maybe it’s that I’m old and forgetting my manners. Please forgive me and sit down Zamora. I am truly sorry.”
Jester sat. Silence hung about the room. Jester fidgeted. It was tradition for her to continue the conversation to indicate that they had moved beyond the offence.
“Grandmother, why do you have a crystal ball on your table?”
The old woman stared at the cheap glass orb.
“The others have lost their respect for Romani gifts. The Hermetics come to tempt our young into their static society. There is war coming between us. We know that, and I suspect they know it too. Still, they come to me with gifts, bribing me to predict their futures. I make them to think, like we have done to those Before the Moon, that the Romani are like in the books and the movies. Those silly magi are like the tree they worship so much, rooted in one spot, unable to conceive of anything that might lie beyond the horizon of their experience. I give them just enough for them to know my magic is real, but cloud them with this,” she waved her hands around, “and with minor mistakes, that they think our magic the weaker.”
“Have you seen their future?”
“Blood,” Grandmother said, with not a little bit of pride. “Even without my gifts, I can tell you that. Too long have we let outsiders, both Beyond the Sun and Before the Moon, cull our race. Soon the time will come when the World Beyond the Sun will respect us again. With my sight, I see much turmoil within the Collegium. One who is with them, but not of them, will cause more damage to them than an entire Romani army. He has brought one into this war who will either liberate the World Beyond the Sun or enslave it. But…you did not come to hear the random ramblings of an old woman. What does your employer wish of me?”
“There is a new Seed,” Jester said. “Garret and I want to know what path it will take.”
Grandmother kept a steady gaze on Jester as she spoke. Every muscle in the old gypsy’s body tensed. Her eyes closed, and she sucked in a deep gasp of air.
“The Seed is strong in magic of change, and strangely, unity. He will bring both. To whom or what, I cannot tell. There is so much potential around him that his every choice opens up dozens of paths and closes others. These paths are so many and shift so quickly that I cannot track them all. He has chosen a name for himself. This has given him a magic few ever possess. The only thing I can say with any certainty, his passage will not go unnoticed.” Grandmother opened her eyes. “Does this help you?”
“Somewhat,” Jester said. “If nothing else, it tells me that we need to be involved.”
“Being involved is dangerous, Zamora,” Grandmother said. “It frequently draws unwanted attention.”
“I know. Believe me I know.” Visions of a dashing cavalry officer came unbidden to Jester’s mind. “Thank you, Grandmother. I know that it’s getting harder and harder for you to do a telling of that level.”
“For you, dear Zamora, it is no effort at all.” Grandmother smiled.
That small gesture made all the wrinkles on her face stand out. And while her face seemed frail, Grandmother’s eyes sparkled with vitality and life. Jester wondered, not for the first time, of the juxtaposition of human nature. While the body grew old and weary, the spirit grew stronger and wiser. With faerie, it was not so. The body and mind grew in strength together. Though Jester’s body had not showed signs of aging, she wondered if someday, decades or centuries from now, she might step out of the shower and discover a wrinkle on her forehead, or a strand of grey hair. A changeling could never be certain which traits of which parent he or she had inherited.
“Well, it’s getting late, and you should return to your employer. He will need you before this night is over.”
Jester resisted the urge to pry into that. If Grandmother had wanted to give more information, she would have. Instead, Jester stood, reached into her pocket, and handed Grandmother the small jewelry box.
“Garret knows you like emeralds. These earrings belonged to his wife. He sends them to you with his compliments.”
At the same time Grandmother gave a disgruntled harrumph, she snatched the box like a child might candy. She opened the box and sat up a bit straighter and struggled to keep the corners of her mouth from climbing into a smile. “I will take the creature’s gift out of respect for you, Zamora. But there will never be peace between us for him stealing you away.”
“Of course, Grandmother,” Jester replied. “I’ll convey your thanks.” She kissed Grandmother on the cheek. “Are there any other messages you want me to deliver?”
Grandmother closed her eyes and took a deep breath. This part was easier for her than a true reading, because she was only searching for little snippets of information rather than something specific.
“Tell Dart that the other half of her heart is coming, whatever that means.” That was interesting. Dart had a very minute amount of faerie blood. If she could expect the other half of her heart, a faerie phenomenon which involved finding a true, but ultimately tragic love. If Dart’s destiny included the other half of her heart, her faerie blood was stronger than anyone suspected. “Marius D’Ravencourt needs to choose sides, all of them, both him and the sides.” Whatever that meant. Jester didn’t want to have to talk to him, not because she didn’t like him – especially for a Hermetic, Marius was mostly polite and respectful – rather, any interactions with any Hermetic spawned a dozen or more rumors. “Sabre’s garden is growing out of control.” Great, another Hermetic. “And lastly, you need to be nicer to that Cavalier. A day might come when you regret your harshness to him.”
Grandmother’s eye’s opened. She rose from the chair, her arm shaking as it braced against the cane. Jester got up to help, but Grandmother waved her off.
“Go now, Zamora,” grandmother said. “Without another word, or I will make you stay here all night, telling me of yourself and the adventures you have in the employ of that creature. Just remember to visit me again when you don’t need my gifts. I miss you more than any of my grandchildren, when you are gone.”
And with that, the old lady who looked so frail, yet was probably the strongest spirit Jester knew, slipped back between the curtains. Jester took on last look at the mockery this room made of Grandmother’s talent, licked her lips, and sighed. She left. The experience of walking into the damp, open air outside was just as harsh as entering had been. Her skin goosed out from the cold and she suppressed a shiver. At the far end of the alley, she saw a group of Romani youth, dressed in the latest street chic collected from some of the finest second hand stores San Francisco had to offer. Two of them smoked cigars, puffing into the air. Jester gave them a nod of greeting. They ignored her, too cool to do anything but posture for her. Sometimes things never change, Jester thought as she zipped up get leather jacket against the cold. Memories of bars, pubs, alleys, dark corners where she had postured came unbidden to her memories. Oh to be young again and be able to succumb to the wanderlust, but alas, everyone had to grow up and face their responsibilities. Then again, it might be more than that. Jester hadn’t been among the people for long time, so long that she might as well be gorgio. Which brought her back to her responsibilities. Maybe one day, she might rejoin the Romani, but for now, Jester was Garret’s girl.
Stepping back onto Rich Street, Jester willed her glamour to hide her true form. She looked again like any other twentysomething kid prowling the streets in search of a good time and scraping out a living in the City by the Bay.
As she approached Third and the trek back to the BART station, Jester stopped. Something about the shadows ahead wasn’t right. They moved, and a cloaked figure stepped into the light of a street lamp. Why does he have to be so goddamn cliché about some things? She considered heading down to second instead, only it was too late. He’d allowed her to see him, which meant that he had seen her, and escaping was impossible so she might as well get this over with.
She walked straight up to Kheldred Drae, special enforcer to the Akesis Council. He was not a Cavalier, no mere police officer. No, Kheldred was the man they called in when the Cavaliers couldn’t handle something. He was the man they called in to make problems just go away. From everything Jester has heard, the man was very good at his job.
He wore black, a lot of it, cloak and long coat and all flowing around him, hiding things, things Jester surmised, to blast a problem into oblivion. Or maybe he made his all those problems he made disappear in the folds of the cloak and coat. Though Jester thought he looked ridiculous standing just outside the shadows in his black clothes, black hair, and pail skin.
Jester stopped five paces from him and squared off. “Kheldred Drae. I was just thinking to myself, Twilight fans show up everywhere in this city?”
Kheldred spoke softly, almost a whisper. “Why begin with such hostility, Zam—”
“Stop,” Jester snapped. “I don’t know how you know that. I don’t care. You ever even begin to utter that name again, and you and I are going throw down. No duel. No formalities. Just fight. Yeah, it might get me killed, but a girl has to have principles.”
“Okay,” Jester said. “To answer your question: it’s shit like that. You come into my life, and start tossing around true names and such. Christ, it’s no wonder no one trusts you. Is it something wrong with your head that makes you think, ‘oh, I better make sure anyone I talk to knows I know more about what’s going on than they do?’ Or maybe, ‘oh, let’s catch the poor changeling girl off guard by letter her know that I know her true name.’ Am I close on either of those?”
“And I accepted. For you, that’s what ‘Okay,’ meant. We aren’t friends, so that’s about all I have for you. You also asked me a question. Too bad sometimes questions have answers that you don’t want to hear. Perhaps you should consider that in the future, especially when you’re asking someone who, even though they might be pissing his or her pants at the thought of telling you off, his or her employer is not intimidated in the least by your position or the fancy weapon that you have wandering around in that tent you call an outfit. The other reason I’m like this is because I don’t like you and I don’t trust you. Now, what do you want?”
“You need not fear,” Kheldred spread his hands. “I am not here on any official capacity from the Akesis Council.”
“I knew that, as I haven’t done anything to warrant such a visit. That’s also not the answer to the question I asked. If you want this conversation to continue, What do you want?”
“You just spoke with Grandmother. I’m you spoke about the Seed. I want to know what she said.”
“How does it feel to want?” Jester couldn’t help but smile at the confused look on Kheldred’s face. It scrunched up and looked oddly out of place in place that normally proud, nearly-featureless, perpetually-bored expression he usually wore. “Is it a deep, longing sensation from the bottom of your soul?” Damn, but that felt good.
Second Street probably had much nicer signs for her to read than Third, so Jester turned on her heel and headed back to the BART station.
“Wait,” Kheldred’s voice rose for the first time in order to catch up with her.
“Why?” Jester asked without turning. “You already said you’re not here in any official capacity. Good evening, Enforcer.”
Jessica sighed when the attention signal dinged. At last, after the day from Hell, they’d be landing in San Francisco.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Captain speaking,” the voice came over the plane’s intercom. His voice sounded like the recording for an information line. She imagined him saying, to call for a stewardess, please press one. “We’re coming into San Francisco. Unfortunately, the runway is covered by some rather thick fog. We’ll be holding here until it clears a bit. We’ll be providing another round of refreshments while you wait.”
Jessica squeezed her hand into a fist. The little plastic cup on the fold down tray turned into a piece of little plastic garbage. The last remnants of her soda and ice spilled over her hand, across the tray, and into her lap.
She reached for the tiny napkin they’d given her along with the soda and back of pretzels shortly after the plane had taken off in Chicago. She tried to wipe up the soda, but after wiping her hand, the flimsy paper napkin was too soaked to do any more good.
“Here,” said the person sitting next to her. “Use mine.”
Those were the first words they’d shared since the brief “hello” shortly before takeoff back in Chicago. He looked about her age, early-mid twenties, with brown hair and green eyes; though they seemed to purely green to be natural. She’d not given him a second glance after seeing his well-tailored suit with the designer’s insignia, much like a coat of arms, embroidered on the front pocket of his coat. Back before she’d had enough of the office temp jobs, Jessica had picked up dry cleaning for enough tail-chasing bosses looking to get a little something on the side that she knew his suit cost at least two month’s rent in the apartment she shared with Paul. Not someone she wanted to engage in conversation with on any level.
“Thanks,” Jessica said, not looking at him.
This second napkin didn’t last any longer than the first. When that napkin sloshed more water, the guy next to Jessica handed her two more napkins.
Taking them, she used one to wipe the last of the spill on her tray, the other to soak up what she could of splotch in the crotch of her jeans. She turned slightly away from the guy so she wouldn’t give him a show. Outside the window next to her, she should see the lights of South San Francisco and San Bruno stretch out below. She saw only darkness. When she finished as best she could, Jessica sat straight. A small pile of napkins lay in the center of the tray in front of her.
She looked directly at her neighbor for the first time since takeoff. “Where did those come from?”
He smiled a plastic smile so common in offices from the people who sat in offices to the people who sit in cubicles.
“I just asked the stewardess for more.”
No he didn’t, Jessica thought.
He held out his right hand. “I’m Marius.”
She took his hand and gave him a firm shake. She could tell from Marius’s grip that he was expecting a flimsy, lady-like handshake. After a moment, he tried to pull away, but Jessica wouldn’t release his hand.
“Look,” she said looking into his eyes and saw the telltale circle around the green – contacts. “I really appreciate the help, really I do. But, I’m not sure what you’re doing back here in coach, but I have a boyfriend, a very serious boyfriend, and while I’m flattered that you think I’m worth the effort of losing out on first class, save your breath for someone who’s going to fall for the money and all the lines you have practiced to the point you think they sound like conversation.”
Marius’s smile faded. She released his hand and went back to staring out the window at the expanse of darkness.
After about a minute, Jessica felt Marius shift in the seat next to her.
“Look,” his voice was closer to her, leaning toward her a bit, but not so close to be invading her personal space. “I don’t know what other guys have done to you, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us are misogynistic shit heads.”
Jessica looked back at him. He was leaning forward a bit, leaning on the armrest with his left arm. His smile was genuine this time, warm, and reached his eyes.
“It’s been a long day for all of us, and we want to get on the ground and get on with wherever our lives are going to take us. That doesn’t mean we need to snap at other people who are just trying to be nice.”
Jessica sighed. “You’re right, and I’m sorry. Just this has to be one of the worst days of my life.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Life must be hard back here in coach.”
His friendly look withered, his face scrunching up, his own sigh saying, are we really still on that.
“I’m sorry,” Jessica said. “I haven’t eaten since breakfast Chicago time. I’m tired. And it seems as if the world is conspiring to keep me out of San Francisco.”
“Well, this hasn’t been the ideal flight, but it’s not that bad.”
Now that the floodgates were open, Jessica found herself ready to unleash her bottled tension.
“Yeah, it’s been pretty crappy. The hour and a half stuck in these seats before takeoff was bad, almost as bad as being stuck here in the air. But put traffic getting to the airport on top of that.”
“On a Saturday?”
“One accident, two flat tires, and one state trooper giving out a ticket caused enough rubbernecking to make me miss my first flight. Not to mention when the way was clear, I think the cabby was going intentionally slow to pad the fair. Why the hell do people feel the need to slow down just to watch some idiot changing a tire on the other side of the highway?”
“I don’t know, but I hate it,” Marius said, his tone sounded a bit too much like someone who was agreeing just to agree, not from anything resembling personal experience. He continued. “It’s just like this. Wondering when you’re going to hear the captain tell us that we’re going to land soon, knowing that it’s going to happen, just any second now, but it never seems to come. The waiting is the worst. It should have to take this long. And you understand that it’s silly, that you should just chill out and be patient, but your teeth are on edge and you just can’t loosen your neck and shoulders.”
Okay, so maybe Marius did understand. She looked at him and smiled. He smiled a back, warm, without that look that guys got when they wanted something from you, but thought that you didn’t know they wanted it – Paul had never once given her that smile – then Maris blinked a couple of times, grimaced and looked away.
“What is it?” Jessica asked.
“Noth—” He started, gasped, and then finished, “nothing. I get headaches sometimes.” He looked back at her, and his smile had changed. He wanted something now. She didn’t know what, but his eyes wouldn’t quite meet hers, and the smile only reached half of his mouth. “Where are you headed in the City? Maybe we could share a cab and cover the cost.”
Not: I’m going here, is that close to where you’re going? Now, no matter where she said, he could tell her he was going somewhere close.
“I have someone picking me up.” Jessica made her voice as flat as possible. “My boyfriend.”
Marius nodded, as if knowing something she didn’t know, and Jessica’s stomach felt as if it had been dipped in ice water. She stared at the fasten seatbelt light, willing it to turn on.
When Jester reached Market Street, it wasn’t the bedlam that it reached at the height of rush hour, so Jester decided to take a cab back to the Purgatory Gray rather than stomach through BART and Muni again. This proved a mistake. Staying above ground made her easier to find, as while she stood on the curb waving her arm, trying to catch the attention of a taxi driver with space in his cab, Kheldred Drae stepped next to her.
“Go away,” Jester said.
“I cannot,” Kheldred replied. “I need your help.”
“My help?” She nearly stepped in into the street to keep one taxi from passing her by, until she say the young couple cuddling low in the back seat. “What could the great enforcer need my help for?” Her hair whipped in the wind as the taxi drove passed.
“Why so much hostility toward me? To my knowledge, I have done nothing to wrong you.”
Jester turned to face Kheldred directly. “You’re still speaking to me as a man, not a representative of the Council?” He nodded. “And so this entire conversation is off the record?” He nodded. “And you swear to this?”
“By the Styx.”
Jester allowed a faint smile to play on her lips. While that oath didn’t have any real power outside of ancient Greek mythology, the symbol it represented amongst those who lived Beyond the Sun made it almost as binding. Even the rumor that someone had sworn, “By the Styx,” and had broken their word was enough to tarnish that individual’s reputation pretty much forever.
“Fine.” She put the coldest iron into her voice, hoping that she would only have to do this once, and then he would leave her alone for good. “Deep down, I think your Akesis Council had the right idea, once upon a time, but those days are gone. Nowadays it’s pretty obvious those who sit on Council only seek to further Their own ends rather than defend the rights of all who live Beyond the Sun.” She paused long enough jab a finger at him in the air. “Just like you.”
A few passersby made a bit wider of a circle around Jester and Kheldred at her outburst. She smiled at them.
“We’re rehearsing for a play.”
That seemed to appease at least some of them.
Things are not a simple as that,” Kheldred responded in a low tone. “I serve the Council and its true ideals. Why do you think I don’t pursue the Orphans, and most especially the Spellpunks, despite what many on the Council wish I would do? Being an Orphan is not against the Laws of Akesis. Neither is being a Spellpunk. Sometimes individuals of each group breaks the Law, but then so do some Hermetics. When they do, if the Paladins cannot handle them, I will. But I do not raise my hand until a law is truly broken.”
“If this is true, why do you allow the Hermetics and the Tsunami Brotherhood to persecute the Orphans as they do?”
“The same reason your employer does,” Kheldred responded. “We each hold considerable power as individuals; yet, they possess the strength of numbers. Neither Garret McCormack nor I wish to go to war against the two strongest factions of the Akesis Council.”
Jester hated it when someone used logic to kill her mad.
“Okay. Fine. I can understand that. What does this have to do with me?”
“It’s this new Seed. Everyone is scrambling, because every time a Seed appears, it brings change, most times small, sometimes very big. I sense that this one is going to ripple the waters am bit more than we’re used to in such cases. If it remains free to act on its own. Too often Seeds have been scooped up and their energy channeled toward the ends of some faction. I want this Seed to remain free and see how that affects the Akesis Council and the World Beyond the Sun. Also, my son is close to him, and like you, I care deeply for my family, even if I do not spend much time with them.”
Jester weighed his words. She’d known that while Kheldred kept a very close eye on Kyle, he had never overtly done anything to favor him because he was such an important figure in the Spellpunk movement. That little tidbit of information had cost Jester dearly and had sparked of the true beginning of the animosity between her and Kheldred.
“You haven’t actually answered my question.”
Kheldred nodded. “You hear much of what I do not, both among those on the Council and most especially among the Orphans. You and Garret have considerable influence everywhere Beyond the Sun. I just want to know who is doing what in reaction to this Seed, and ensure that the Seed remains free.”
“Doesn’t that make you just as bad as others who would use the Seed to further their own ends?” Jester asked.
“You misunderstand me then,’ Kheldred replied. “I don’t want to point it in any specific direction. I just want it free to choose its own course.”
Jester considered all this. Change on the Council and Beyond the Sun as a whole was needed. The Hermetic Collegium wielded far too much power. If Grandmother believed that a war was coming between the Romani and the Hermetics, then such a war was likely – unless it could be averted by some mystical event or force that Grandmother’s magic might not perceive. Something like the Seed. Of course, Kheldred was probably hiding some secondary agenda beneath his proposed lofty ideals. She could go along with him and wait for that other goal to come into play, and then do her best to thwart his plans.
“I’ll help the Seed,” she said. “For now. And not because it helps you, but because I think it will be good for the people.”
“Which people?” Kheldred asked.
“All of them,” Jester replied. “Now, I have to go, so before this conversation goes back on the record, kindly piss the hell off.”
“You think I’ll end up betraying you.” It wasn’t a question.
“The thought had crossed my mind, but I’m sure a smart man like you knows that if you do, I’ll use every resource at my disposal to destroy you.”
“Fair enough,” Kheldred said. “But you have no need to fear that. I will meet you at the Purgatory Gray at Witch’s Hour to share information.”
“Alright, but I have something you should probably know. The Seed has a name already.” Jester couldn’t help suppress a smile when Kheldred blinked three times in rapid succession. Then, to twist that knife a little more, she added, “He chose it himself.”
Kheldred blinked three more times, and said, “Intriguing.”
He reached out his hand to the street and snapped his fingers. Not ten seconds later a cab pulled up. Jester fought down the urge to strangle him.
“Good evening, Jester,” Kheldred said, as he opened the door for her.
“Good evening, Enforcer,” she replied, climbing in. “Haight Street.”
The door thunked closed and the cab pulled into traffic.
Jester shook her head. She recalled a moment over a hundred years ago, during the Crimea War, when a young cavalry officer with the British Army was cutting her free from the ropes that bound her. One of the Russian soldiers who had been taking their sport with a few Gypsy girls, the last soldier alive, looked into Zamora’s eyes and muttered an ancient Chinese curse. May you live in interesting times. Zamora remembered the smile she’d give that soldier, the coldest expression she’d ever worn, and then replied, at least I’m going to live.
Perhaps that soldiers curse was coming true at last. Still, Jester thought she’d gotten the better deal.