Authors: James Hunter
Tags: #Men&apos, #s Adventure Fiction, #Fantasy Action and Adventure, #Dark Fantasy, #Paranormal and Urban Fantasy, #Thrillers and Suspense Supernatural Witches and Wizards, #Mystery Supernatural Witches and Wizards, #Mage, #Warlock
I waved the staff toward the cage holding the slumbering boy. The bars melted away without a thought, the crook doing the work with ease. Power really needs to have limits, it should be difficult. Even the Vis isn’t a fix-all. It takes time and practice to learn, there are lots of melt-your-face-off dangers to contend with, and there are consequences. Not this crook though, just raw, easy-to-use, ready-to-go power. More dangerous by far, but in a different way.
I wanted to throw the thing into the heart of a volcano or into the San Andreas Fault. Another part of me wanted to start caressing the thing, glaring around all shifty-eyed and whispering
“Get the kid,” I said to Ben, never taking eyes off Winter, held hostage on his throne. In my periphery, Ben scooted off toward his grandson, knelt down, and gently urged the two glowing Tokens of Spring toward the limp form. The orbs danced forward, spreading and seeping into the kid’s too-pale skin. A minute passed, nothing happened.
I waited, occasionally shifting my gaze between Winter and the boy, my heart breaking a little with every second that ticked by. Another minute. Nothing.
Another. Tears trickled down Ben’s cheeks.
I was about to go over and put a hand on Ben’s shoulder, try to offer condolences, when the kid finally gasped, pulling in a deep, shuddering breath followed by a cough. Color returned to his thin face; lips—formerly tinged blue—took on a pinkish cast. He opened his eyes, saw Ben, and threw his arms around his grandpa’s neck.
Made me think of my boys, all grown up with kids of their own. I have grandkids too, though I’d never met any of them. Sometimes I’d pay ‘em a visit—watch from the distance, make sure they’re okay. Even have a trust fund set up for the whole brood. But I’ve never held them like Ben was holding Michael; never felt them pull me tight into a hug, or had them be glad I was around. It was better that way, really. Too dangerous for me to be involved in their lives—much harder for guys like Old Man Winter to get to them if I didn’t have contact.
Bet it was kinda nice though, having a family, having some little scabby-kneed, booger-machine give you a squeeze like that.
The crook flared, a pulse of thought:
I could make them safe. Could make it so Old Man Winter never had a chance to make good on his promise.
I pushed the voice away.
“It’s okay now, Michael. I’ve got you,” Ben said, scooping the kid up and holding him against his chest, one hand brushing the back of his hair. “I’ve got you.
“Let’s vamoose,” I said, averting my gaze from the scene, feeling like an intruder. “Don’t want to hang around for any more surprises.”
Nick’s Smoke House
I blew out a plume of smoke and took another big ol’ pull from the fat cigar hanging from my lips—a fat, dark brown Sancho Panza Madrid. Normally I’m a cigarette smoker, not ashamed either, but sometimes only an expensive cigar will do the trick. Cigars are for celebrating. Surviving the subterranean caverns beneath Thurak-Tir, saving Ben’s grandson, and beating the pants off crusty-ass Old Man Winter seemed like cause enough for celebration. Who am I kidding, getting a senior citizen discount on beer is cause for celebration in my book.
Ben sat across from me, trying to fan the smoke away—a losing battle in a place like Nick’s Smoke House—and looking damn annoyed while doing it.
It’d been a couple of days since we’d made our getaway from the frozen heart of Winter. The portal had dumped us just outside of Nick’s Smoke House in the Big Easy—one of my favorite places on Earth. Good food, lots of beer and whiskey, tobacco smoke so thick it hangs around like fog. And music, hard thumping classic rock, twangy swamp jams—all bayou and banjos—mixed with good ol’ blues of every flavor: a little Muddy Waters, some Blind Willie McTell, and a little Robert Johnson for good measure. And it was warm here … well, low sixties—it was December—but after Thurak-Tir it felt downright pleasant.
Ben and I hadn’t been able to compare notes after our jailbreak from Old Man Winter’s lair. Michael had needed a hospital a damn bit more than Ben and I needed to debrief. Poor kid ended up with a severe case of hypothermia. Ben had done what he could—he’s a world-class healer—but that damn fae power is tough to combat even with the Vis. Doctors were still holding him for observation, though Ben said they’d release him in the morning, which meant Ben and I needed to figure out where to go from here. Old Man Winter was temporarily down for the count, but there was still some renegade mage running around out there. After all, someone had called up ye olde harpy, enslaved those spriggans, and nabbed Michael in the first place. And whoever it was had a serious axe to grind with Ben.
“Do you have to blow that poison right into my face?” Ben asked, before stifling a small cough with a fist.
“Sorry, not my rules,” I said. “I was nearly murdered by a bunch of evil gnomes and a fae fossil. My code of ethics demands I enjoy a celebratory cigar with you. Nothing to do about it.” I held out the cigar in a gesture of peace. “Want a drag?”
He rolled his eyes, then shrugged. “Fine, fine, one ‘drag’”—he used air quotes—“and then you put it out. Fair?”
“We’ll see.” I handed him the delightful bundle of nicotine heaven. He eyed it suspiciously like it might suddenly transform into a radioactive cobra before finally puckering up and taking a little puff. He immediately started coughing, and offered me a pleading and apologetic look.
My turn for an eye roll. “Jeez. Fine,” I said, drawing in a trickle of Vis and snuffing out the glowing cherry. I’d save it for later. I reached into my pocket and withdrew a creased sheet of notebook paper with a crudely drawn face on it: round cheeks, patchy whiskers, double chin, balding head, and broad square glasses. My best attempt at replicating the image the harpy had shown me—my number one suspect for ass-hat mage.
“You recognize this joker?” I asked, laying out the paper and smoothing the creases with one hand.
Ben squinted against the smoke, eyeing the sketch. It wasn’t exactly the
or anything, more like something you’d find in the back of some high school kid’s social studies notebook, but it should’ve been close enough to do the trick.
“I don’t know,” he said after studying the drawing for a solid minute. “It’s not exactly a photograph.”
“Thanks for being so gentle,” I said. He hardly seemed to notice, lost somewhere in his own thoughts.
“You think this is the man responsible?” he asked.
“I’m not sure … I guess it looks a little like someone I might know, but it doesn’t make any sense. If I had to take a guess, I’d say this is Randy Shelton … but it can’t be.”
He looked up from the sketch. “Well, Randy is the only guy I know that looks anything like this, but it can’t be him. The constructs down there were designed by a master. Those bindings were advanced beyond anything I’ve ever seen. Randy doesn’t have the talent for it. He’s not even quite strong enough to qualify for the Guild.”
I thought about Winter’s crook, currently locked away in a lead safe where I kept quite a few dangerous items. I thought about all the power lurking in that one frail piece of twisted wood. Maybe, once upon a time, Randy had been a small fish, but there are lots of things out there in the big wide world that can give you power if you’re willing to pay the price. So the real question was not whether he had the muscle, but rather did he have a motive?
“Okay, so he couldn’t hack it once upon a time,” I said. “Couldn’t make it into the Guild. But can you think of any reason why he might want to get back at you, want to make you suffer? I mean overall, you’re a likable guy. Did you cut him off in traffic or something?”
“No, no,” he said, “I hardly know him. I’ve only met him a couple of times, and then only briefly.”
“What were the meetings for?”
“I was discharging my responsibilities as a Junior Council Member.”
“Randy applied for admission into the Guild. I know you never went that route, but that’s usually the process. When someone applies, the three members of the Junior Council are charged with assessing skill, evaluating mental stability, and determining whether a candidate is Guild material.”
“So you’re the gatekeepers into the super-secret-squirrel mage club?”
Ben blushed, his cheeks growing red even in the low light. “Yes, I suppose that’s an accurate assessment.”
“How’d Randy do?”
“Well …” Ben wriggled in his seat. “He didn’t make it in. His base power was just shy of being in range, though his ability with the craft was sufficient for his age. It was quite clear that he’d studied extensively. He was also fairly talented in technomancy. Sigu Nakajima voted for admission. The second, Maxim Kozlov, voted no. I was the deciding vote, and ultimately I had to side with Maxim.”
“Well, not because of Randy’s power, or lack thereof—it really could’ve gone either way, I think—but his mental state … he was unwell. Desperate for approval and validation, which I can understand. He’s a young man who has been an outsider for most of his life, but he was desperate enough to do almost anything to get in. He tried to hide it, of course, and he managed to fool the others, but I could read it in him. Prideful, vindictive, spiteful, juvenile. So I said no, too. Denied him admittance … Oh.”
“Yeah,” I said, “oh, as in bing-o.” Sounded like a helluva motive to me. Ben and Michael were safe for the time being, but with Randy running around making bargains with old things to grab power, who could say for how long? Sounded like I needed to check up on Maxim Kozlov, make sure he was okay, and then track down my fellow Guild of the Staff reject. Sounded like I was gonna have a fun couple of days. Yay, my life.
The corpse sat bound to the wood frame of a chair, naked, skin practically flayed off him. Chunks of surgically removed flesh dotted the carpet, blood pooled below, thick and nearly black, while a streak of brighter crimson decorated the far wall and ceiling. Arterial spurting.
. It seemed that after being tortured mercilessly for who knew how long, the killer had finally done the poor bloke in by lazily slashing his throat. The guy wasn’t long dead either. Sure, his body had started to stiffen, but the blood wasn’t even completely dry yet.
Maxim Kozlov, top-notch Russian mage and chair of the Junior Council of the Guild of the Staff. Dammit.
That was it. I lurched out of the bedroom and vomited onto the hallway floor. Listen, I have a strong stomach and I’m not new to violence—I’ve killed people that needed killing—but what had happened in there? That was murder, and there is a difference between murder and killing, even if the line is fine enough to split hairs. Shit, that wasn’t just murder. That was worse than murder. What had been done to the stiff in the other room was Himmler-level
, and it had almost certainly been done with the Vis. Flaying a person tied to a chair can’t be easy going, so using knife-sharp flows of air was about the only way you’d be able to manage the thing.
Son of a bitch—everything always has to get more complicated. Nothing can ever be easy. I tried to get ahold of Kozlov through the regular channels—too easy—so of course I hadn’t been able to make contact. So I’d driven out to his Wyoming home from the Big Easy, thinking I’d pop in and find him all safe and sound. Oh no, not with my luck. I mean seriously. Why couldn’t I show up and find Kozlov reading a good novel by the fire or maybe playing a little D&D with some dorky friends? Hell, I’d have preferred to find him snuggled in front of the TV with a bottle of baby oil and a porno. Also gross, but
much less gross than happening upon a slashed-up corpse.
Kozlov’s death did make my job easier in one respect, though. It narrowed my suspect pool down to one. Randy Shelton—some two-bit practitioner, with more ambition than talent. Before showing up at Kozlov’s pad, I hadn’t been sure that Randy was the culprit. Now there was no doubt in my mind. Someone had already tried to do Ben in, and now Kozlov was worm food. The only guy with a good motive for both attacks was the Guild reject.
I wiped the spittle from my lips with the back of my sleeve, then padded back into the room, mentally preparing myself to catalog every detail laid out before me. There might be some clue in there, but in order to find it, I’d need to look at everything.
I surveyed the body once more. I couldn’t see any sign of defensive wounds, which meant Kozlov must’ve been initially incapacitated. Maybe drugs? I guess Randy could’ve slipped Kozlov a roofie or maybe shot him up with tranquilizers. But I had to imagine Kozlov had been alert and awake when Randy was cutting away skin—torture like that is all about inflicting pain and suffering. Randy would’ve wanted Kozlov to be awake so that he could watch him squirm and shriek.
If Kozlov was awake, though, it’d mean he had access to the Vis, and Kozlov wasn’t a slouch when it came to the Vis—guy knew his shit. It seemed unlikely that some hack like Randy could do him in. The little Guild washout must’ve gotten his pudgy hands onto something powerful—
“Yancy Lazarus,” a voice spoke.
I spun, my mean ol’ Frankenstein-looking pistol drawn, finger on the trigger, ready to unload. A face floated in the surface of Kozlov’s bedroom mirror, a face I’d seen briefly once before, shown to me through the mind of a harpy. No-good, harpy-binding, mage-murdering, ass-clown Randy.
Except he looked different. Before he’d had a double chin, and too much chunk hanging on his frame. Now, it had all melted away. He was thin everywhere, skin tight and nearly translucent, blue veins pulsing slowly beneath the surface. Cracks and wrinkles ran from the corner of his lips and along his forehead. Dark purple bruises encircled eyes that had once been muddy brown, but which were now fallout-green and slit in the middle like a cat’s eyes.