The Grail Tavern was out of the way for most Mare City citizens. It was a hole in the wall bar in a seedy part of town. The bouncer reluctantly let me in, only after I produced my card and told him Teplov had sent me.
It was empty as a grave. Which was a good thing, I guess, since it was about the size of one. A single bartender stood behind the bar, polishing a mug. A handful of drunks slumped in their seats, illuminated by a single bulb that hung from the center of the room, casting more shadows than any actual light.
Lastly, sat two men who were so out of place that they had to be Teplov’s contacts.
The first gentleman sat with an air of dignity and conceit. His suit was black as coal with a white button down shirt and black vest. A chain ran from his jacket to a black pocket watch that lay on the table. His age was hard to pin down, older than forty but beyond that hard to determine. Thick gray muttonchops crawled up the sides of his face and connected as a thick, bushy mustache, leaving his chin smooth.
His eyes held a cold, steely intensity and his poise, laid back with his fingers delicately perched on the rim of his mug, running the tips slowly over the smooth surface, held not only power, but cold, calculating authority. That type of authority wasn’t given or appointed. It came only from centuries of inbred expectance, of being raised with it and having it engrained into one’s own blood.
The second guy was younger, probably early thirties, and obviously subordinate to the other. His suit was of a more modern fashion, a three piece khaki ensemble that was out of season for winter. His face was youthful, if bookish, and his long dirty blonde hair was tied in a ponytail. Round glasses were perched on a long nose.
The first man smiled, his eyes losing none of their intensity or calculation. “Please, Mr. McDane, take a seat and join us for a drink.”
“Thank you,” I replied, taking the seat across from the men, sliding my business card to the center. “Mind if I ask where you got this?”
“Why does that matter?” squeaked the younger guy.
I smiled. “Just curious. Mages are a curious bunch. Plus if you got it from a former client than you get ten percent off,” I added in a chipper tone.
He blinked. “What?”
“I believe he is mocking you,” said the first man. His voice was European but I couldn’t place the accent exactly. English? Italian maybe?
I put up my hand. “I just wanted to know because I haven’t seen one of these in quite some time.”
The young guy snorted. He actually snorted. “I was able to find it easy enough, it’s a collector’s item to the right people.”
I laughed. “Good to know they’re selling well, at least.”
He turned to his boss. “Cyrus, this is ridiculous. You cannot pay this fool!”
Cyrus’s eyes never left mine as he addressed his companion. He had an unsettling gaze. It was like looking into a long, dark tunnel. No, that wasn’t right. It was like looking into a lair. A long, dark lair where something big, mean, and hungry lived. As I looked into his eyes, I felt the thing in that lair stir.
“It is quite all right, Ambrose. Mr. McDane is simply breaking the ice. I believe your men have made him nervous.”
All of a sudden I had the full attention of everyone in the bar. Well, to put it more clearly, it was now obvious I had the full attention of everyone in the bar. The bartender finally put down the mug he’d been cleaning and the barflies all turned to face me.
Cyrus smiled coldly. “My name is Cyrus Aberland. This is my associate, Ambrose Deaton. He is a very bright young man, excluding his fashion sense, and is a senior partner in my firm.”
Cyrus Aberland! My eyebrows went up at the realization of who was sitting before me. I hadn’t recognized him at first, but looking closer, I saw the man who’d been on the front page so many times. Cyrus Aberland was one of the richest men in the world, and easily the richest in Mare City.
His company, Aberland Innovations, was leading the world in scientific developments. His company had more patents than most other companies combined and more ambition than most mad scientists.
Question one: Why in the hell did he know the Tin Man? I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. Teplov was on several boards of directors for the city, owned a sizeable bit of real estate himself and had several businesses that served as fronts for his outfit. But still, Cyrus Aberland?
Question two: What in the hell did they want from me?
I gave him a tight smile. “Your message said you needed a guide. If you fill me in on the job at hand, we can discuss what I might be able to offer.”
Cyrus waved his hand casually, as if he was brushing away something he thought distasteful or irrelevant. “I know what you offer and I have no need to smuggle anything from the Aether. What I have planned is something so much more than that. At this point I would be willing to pay much more than your normal rate for your services.”
More than my rates. Hm. I looked at Aberland’s watch. It looked like Canish silver, enough to retire on.
“So what kind of business are we talking here?” I asked, keeping Deaton’s cronies in my peripheral vision. “As you most likely know, the primary service I offer is in my knowledge and expertise of the arcane world.” I cleared my throat. “Which does include the Aether.”
Aberland kept watching me. I found a good reason to take off my hat, placing it in between my hands.
“We need someone who knows the Aether,” he said quietly. “Someone who can protect a team from any arcane dangers they may encounter, and if required, enter the Aether and bring them back out again.”
I nodded. “Well, I haven’t done that in some time, but I am well versed on the Aether. What is the expedition concerning?”
Aberland’s cold smile grew, showing straight, oddly narrow, white teeth. For some unsettling reason it reminded me of the teeth of a predator. Like a wolf or a shark possibly.
“I want you to chase the Arcus.”
I rolled my eyes. “You have got to be kidding me,” I said, standing up from the table. I could just see Teplov laughing his ass off right now. “I can’t believe you went to all this trouble,” I waved my hands around at the guards, “just to tell me you want to chase the Rainbow!” I shoved my hat back on my head.
Aberland cocked an eyebrow. “Is this how you treat all of your clients?”
I snorted. “You’re not a client until you’ve paid me. If you had, I would take you just about anywhere, but the Arcus is a wild goose chase, a myth. And a dangerous one at that.”
“A myth?” Deaton asked. “But, how can you say that?”
Aberland cut him off with a wave. “I must agree with my colleague Mr. McDane. The Guild has documented the Arcus in two of its appearances. As have several other organizations.”
“The Guild says a lot of things,” I shot back. “They’re pretty sure they know where Atlantis is too, that doesn’t make it true.”
Aberland motioned to the bartender/bodyguard. “James, a drink for Mr. McDane if you will.” He looked back at me. “Give me a minute of your time and I think you will find my argument most persuading.”
I was silent. It wasn’t like I had anywhere else to go, and this was still better than most of my meetings went. Usually, I didn’t even get a drink.
I settled back into my seat.
“How long have you been away from the city?” Aberland asked, casually taking a drink from his mug.
I frowned, taking the beer from bodyguard James. “A month,” I replied. “How did you know I’ve been away?”
He placed a newspaper on the table and slid it across to me. “Because you haven’t had time to read the news.”
The headline read:
THE ARCUS, REAL!
That caught my interest. This was the Mare City Times. Not some cheap muckraker magazine. I skimmed the article. No way in hell…
I heard the window across from me open and looked up. Aberland was smiling and behind him, in the distance and just over the skyline, I could make out a vertical beam of multicolored light.
I took a long swig from the beer. “Forgive me, gentlemen. You seem to have me at a disadvantage. Give me just one moment.”
I quickly skimmed the article, my mind reeling at what I was seeing. As long as man could remember, there was the tale of the Arcus. A solid band of energy, stories of its appearance cropped up every few decades. They said it was unpredictable and fatal, falling with no warning whatsoever. It came like a storm with no warning, bringing unusual creatures and magics with it.
That was the legend anyway. It was almost always in far off distant lands or isolated to the point that no one could really get a good read on it. The Guild had documented a few of the cases, but they didn’t give it much attention.
The article said it had landed just outside of Mare in the outlying forest, right within the old Walter Cloud. Tens of thousands had flooded into Mare from all over the world to see it.
On the second page, the Guild had released their statement. They were wary of something with such an unreliable profit margin but two charters had been authorized. One from London, the other from the Cape of Good Hope. They were keeping bids open for more, but had also listed a strict set of requirements for any party looking for a Wizard.
The Rainbow’s appearance was the start of a race. There were tales of what lay at the end of the Arcus. Wealth was among the foremost of those tales. With such tales it usually is. But there were other stories too, stranger stories. Power, God, gods, lost civilizations, just about everything. Everyone had an ear for the Rainbow.
“Alright, you have my attention,” I said, my voice hoarse. “What were you thinking?”
Aberland replied, “I am collecting people to send on an expedition to the Arcus’ end.”
I motioned to the paper. “There are ten pages of motivations right there. What’s yours?”
“It’s simple really,” he responded. “My company is the world leader for research and development in nearly every field of science. Half of those developments came from the Aether, from some magic or another. Whatever this is,” he motioned to the paper, “It is amazing. The sheer amount of energy required, for a purpose we still do not understand. I consider it a bargain to pay what I will for just the chance to learn its secret.”
“And how much are you willing to put toward this?” I asked. “You can go ahead and assume that ninety nine percent of these teams will fail within the first few weeks. Only the best funded and staffed are going to make any significant headway.”
Aberland motioned to Deaton who answered, “I am currently arranging the team myself. Four of them are in this very room. All are capable in their own way. Between them, they are fluent in a dozen languages. Each has been trained in hunting and wilderness survival. Not to mention the skills required of a bodyguard for one of the richest men in the nation.”
“Who else do you have?” I asked.
“The team is still being assembled,” Deaton said, “But another thirty or forty of our best men will be accompanying you. Hunters, engineers, craftsman, men of any profession or trade you could possibly need. We just found our head surgeon and will be sending a full medical staff as well. Several specialists are still being scouted, but we have a very capable navigator and a customs specialist. And beyond all that you will have the most advanced technology and science the world has ever seen.”
I cocked an eyebrow. I was impressed. Deaton was more than he seemed. “And what’s a customs specialist exactly?”
Aberland steepled his fingers together. “A very capable individual whose skills and intelligence I have employed to see my endeavors through on foreign soil; an expert at moving through borders and conducting business with public officials.”
I smirked. “Why, Mr. Aberland. If I didn’t know better I’d say that sounded like someone who’s good at getting through customs illegally. Why would a businessman such as you have any interest in matters as dark and dingy as those?”
Aberland glared at me and I found it was not something I cared for. It made that thing in his eyes growl. “You leave my affairs to me, Sorcerer. I will not bother with threatening you. It is beneath us both, certainly I if not you.”
I let that go. I had been called worse, though I didn’t like the way he said it. “Fine, no problem. I don’t really care anything about your affairs, Mr. Aberland, just your money and what you want me to do to get it. You trust these people?”
Deaton replied, “I can personally account for every person going. All are trustworthy, capable men. Good people you can rely on.”
“And you?” I asked. “Will you be leading this expedition?”
Deaton stammered, flustered. “That really isn’t my place! The team leader will be the customs specialist of course.”
“They have already set up camp outside the Walter Cloud,” Aberland said. “The team has assembled in one of my offices here in the city and is awaiting a few last minute additions such as yourself before departing.”
I frowned. “That doesn’t give me very much time to prepare.”
“I am aware,” he replied. “But time is of the essence and I am very eager to have this started as soon as possible.”
Deaton must have sensed my hesitation. He sat back and sighed. “I told you this would be a problem, Cyrus. My preparations are enough.”
I frowned. “Now, I didn’t say I wasn’t up to it. I’ve done more dangerous than this on shorter notice.”
“I’ve read about you,” Deaton said. “You’ve never done something as enormous as this.”
I smile and leaned forward. “Really?” I asked slowly. “Pray tell.”
“The truth is,” Aberland interrupted, “We have prepared for multiple eventualities. The rest of the expedition has been chosen with their own unique set of skills. You won’t be a babysitter, Mr. McDane. If your services are needed than we will have provided just the person to provide those services. If not, oh well. You get paid either way. That is how I do business.”
Hm, well I definitely liked that. I needed to pass that idea on to Teplov. “You make that sound like an easy thing to do. Like it’s unlikely. You’re talking about one of the biggest mysteries in the world, not a stroll through the outback.”
“Exactly!” Aberland replied, leaning forward, his dark eyes brightening. “Listen to yourself. Do you not see the potential? The possible gain?”
Oh, that was bad. I was taken aback by the sudden burst of emotion, but I shouldn’t have been. This was a driven man and driven men could be terrifying.
You see, the world has sayings for useless endeavors. A “pipe dream” and “a fool’s errand” are just a couple. “Chasing the rainbow”, is another. It means more than just wasting your time. A lot more. It means wasting your time doing something that you will lose yourself to.
The policy involving the Rainbow was one of the few things I saw eye to eye with the Guild on. Everyone had an ear for the Rainbow and its end. Mages heard power and scholars heard knowledge. Even those among the Wizards theorized of distant worlds, of gateways through time and space separate from the Aether. The priests heard God, the Muslims, Allah, and the Buddhists, Buda. Some Greeks even heard Zeus. Hell, the environmentalists even saw it as a way to connect with Mother Earth. Thousands heard the call of the Rainbow. But again, most just heard cha-ching. They heard wealth, a way to make money.
Not all that glitters is gold, you get the deal.
And I didn’t deal in cha-ching. Obsession and cha-ching make a man stupid; make him chase things he should leave alone. It’s what convinces two-time thugs they can rob a high security bank and get away scot-clean. It’s what convinces hard working men to quit their jobs, heft up a pick axe and go dig around in some hills for sixteen hours a day. Similar to passion, it made men reach beyond themselves. But just like passion, it could rob the senses, blind reason, and just make people down right stupid.
That’s gambling and I only gambled if I could hedge my bet.
I realized I hadn’t said anything for a while. I took another drink from my beer and shook my head. “I don’t like wasting my time, Mr. Aberland.”
“Is your time so valuable these days?” he asked casually.
I clenched my jaw, took a deep breath, and continued. “Most likely, I’ll just end up taking your money and giving back nothing in return. All you’ll get is a party of tired explorers sick from too much jerky.”
Aberland leaned forward and I saw that thing in his eyes stir again. “Then why not take it up?” he whispered. “I offer you a small fortune to backpack around the world. If nothing comes of it, than you have still been paid, and if something does I assure you in full confidence that I have equipped you to deal with the situation.”
I was still pretty sure I was going to turn him down at this point. I mean, yeah, the guy was loaded, but how much was he willing to throw away at a pipe dream?
No one paid a Sorcerer what they paid a Wizard. It just wasn’t done. Sorcerers had no organization, no standards, no policies. There was no one to go to if the customer screwed you, no one to vouch for you other than your own reputation. And the Wizards had been telling everyone we were, literally, the scourge of the Devil ever since the war.
I leaned forward. “So how much are we talking? What number are you willing to throw at my common sense to make it scurry away?”
Aberland squinted, looking at me intently. Then he drew out a leather checkbook and started writing. It took him a while, which kind of made me worry. I mean, I could imagine some pretty big numbers, but I was fairly confident he wasn’t going to throw them at me. Finally, he tore out the check and slid it over to me.
Apprehensively, I took up the check, keeping my eyes on the man. After a moment, I let them fall to the number. My eyes went up. It was tempting. Very tempting. Ten times what I would have expected for something like this.
My hand went to my face again, my fingers tracing the design that started right above my eyebrow, curved around my eye and then out again. I knew it wasn’t there, but I could still feel it.
Things were getting bleak. It had never been easy to compete with the Guild, not for anyone, but it was especially impossible with my reputation. I had worked hard to gain some credibility, a decent client list. Instead of getting easier, it had only become harder and I found myself working for people like the Tin Man.
I closed my eyes and took a very deep breath. Yes, the money was tempting. But living was too and I found it more tempting than the check. Maybe not a lot more, but the margin was definitely there. And it wasn’t just the Arcus, though that was bad enough. Not even Ben, who if he found out I was doing something like this would most definitely intervene in one way or another. Probably with his fists.
No, in the end I just didn’t trust Aberland. There was a ruthlessness that clung to him. Trusting my instincts was how I walked away from the War and later Nidia when everyone else…when everyone else didn’t.
I exhaled slowly. Hesitantly, I slid the check back, shaking my head.
“Sorry, Cy, but I’m going to have to turn you down on this. It’s tempting,” I paused, my eyes darting back the check for a moment. I licked my lips. “Very tempting. But it’s just too risky.”
I started to get up before I changed my mind. It took a lot to turn down that check. It was a small fortune. Chock it up to the remnants of my Wizardly discipline or something.
Aberland laughed. It was the first time I had heard him do so. It had the same quality as his eyes. It was eerily predatory. Like whatever lived in that deep, dark lair that was this man’s soul liked what it saw. It scared the hell out of me.
Here was a man who had more money than I would in my entire life. He was willing to go up against the Guild, as well as anything else that got in his way. He had resources, intelligence, and people to follow him wherever he went.
His laughter subsided. Deaton was smiling too. That really bothered me, the confidence in his smile.
“Mr. McDane,” Aberland said, sliding the check back towards me. “That’s only your retainer. You get the rest when you return.”
I sat down. Hard. I looked at the check, then back up to him. “Are you serious?” I asked. My voice sounded squeaky. I looked to Deaton before Aberland could answer. “Is he serious?” I interrupted him, looking around the room. “Someone tell me if he’s serious?”
That retainer was more than I had ever made on a job before. It was more than I had made since leaving the Guild. Hell, it was more than I had ever made while I was in the Guild!
And I would get the rest later! I kept running that sentence through my head. It felt good. I could taste it. I could smell it. I could buy dinner with it. My word, I could buy a good dinner.
I looked back up and Aberland’s predatory grin grew. “Plus expenses,” he said.
I leaned back in the chair, trying hard not to show how good that sounded and failing miserably. He had me, we both knew it. He’d known before I even stepped through the door.
It was like a one-two punch. Followed up by a third and fourth. No one I’d dealt with had negotiated under Guild Law. There was no need to. Sorcerers didn’t have a Guild or a club or anything. We hated seeing each other almost as much as we hated seeing a Wizard.
There was a buzzing in my left ear but I ignored it. I stuck one finger into my ear and wiggled it, shaking my head.
No one had come even close to offering what this guy was offering. I could live on this money. Forever. For five long years, I had tried to compete with the Guild, all the while bearing the Brand of the outcast, of a fallen Wizard, stuck in between being part of the Guild and a true Sorcerer. I could put that behind me, put scrambling for business behind me.
Another possibility occurred to me. I could actually compete with the Guild.
I looked back down at the check. Without taking my eyes off the paper, I nodded. “I’ll do it.”