Jersey’s head split like a melon. I grimaced, ignoring the splatter of blood as it landed at me feet. Rasputin Teplov, the Tin Man, stood over the body, examining his handywork. In his hand he held a bloody woodman’s axe made from a single piece of gray metal. He snapped his fingers and one of his bodyguards, a massive example of a man dressed in a sharp, pinstriped suit, handed him a handkerchief.
The Tin Man’s attention strayed from the corpse, to the kneeling figure who just an hour ago had threatened me. He made a show of wiping down the axe blade as he paced in front of the thug.
Teplov was a small guy, not that I’d ever bring that up, just barely over five and a half feet tall, with a slight frame and very little muscle. He had to be in his early fifties but he carried his age well. His face was na0rrow with sharp, blue eyes that barely peaked out over his small, silver spectacles. A clean, gray beard lined his jawline, perfectly sculpted. Controlled, like everything else about him.
When the blade was spotless he spoke, his thick Russian accent playing a harsh counterpoint to his smooth, almost bored demeanor. “Matthew, I am going to give you a choice. Samuel did not receive this choice. Do you understand why?”
Mathew nodded, though he looked like he was going to be sick. “He didn’t obey. He was chaotic.”
Teplov nodded approvingly. “That is correct, Matthew. Under no circumstances should this night have gone as it did. I do not approve of the manner he behaved, it was reckless. You on the other hand, did what you could, but your lack of foresight was an agent of chaos. What do we strive for, Mathew?”
“Order,” the thug said quickly.
“That is correct,” Teplov said. “So let me present you with your options.” He knelt down so that he was eye level with the dock worker. “One: we say nothing more of this. You go back to work as if nothing happened. But, if you fail me again, you allow this type of failure to repeat itself…” He trailed off, shrugging. Two of his bodyguards were already cleaning the mess and dragging off the body. “Or you can make a sacrifice, a show of commitment to your position within my organization.”
“What kind of sacrifice, sir?” the thug asked, not meeting his eyes.
Teplov’s bodyguard raised his hand, which was missing his ring finger, all the way down to the bottom knuckle. It was a nasty scar and…damn, I could sure see where this was going.
The kid nodded, setting his jaw. He held out his hand. I had to give him that, the kid had stones.
Teplov nodded back to him. I won’t describe what happened next, you get the idea. The man was led away minus a finger, probably counting his blessings that he got to walk at all.
Teplov’s axe melted away into what looked like a mix of metal filings and water vapor until nothing remained but the scent of ozone. My skin tingled as the manifestation reverberated through the air.
My turn. Yay…
Teplov looked over his spectacles at me. Everything about him was tidy and neat. From his grey Armani suit to his perfectly combed silver hair, nothing was out of place. And that was what defined Teplov.
See, and this is really going to blow your mind, Teplov was a knight. Not your typical knight, he held no oath to any nation or monarch, but to an ideal. There’s this little world, harsh as hell, I’ve only been there once, called Castlerock. Every once and a while some crazy bastard with a flexible, if determined, moral compass goes in there and seeks the blessing of the Throne, a half god being with enough power to fell mountains. They vow to uphold order and supposedly the Throne sees into their soul and weighs their virtue and a whole bunch of other bullshit and if he or she or maybe He, I don’t know really, thinks they’re worthy he blesses them. They get a nifty new suit of armor and some power and in exchange they go out fight chaos.
Now, for the most part these are really stand-up guys. I’d met a couple in my time, and just about everyone decent in the world gave them the respect they earned. If something big was going down and a major Darkness was brewing, chances are a Knight of the Ring would show up.
But, as is often the case with otherworldly and supernatural powers, they have a flexible view on morality. Teplov was one of the major players in the underworld in this city, partially because of his power as a Knight.
And the Tin Man’s outfit is the most disciplined, orderly, and dare I say beneficial crime syndicate Mare City had ever seen. He had fought off a few supernatural threats that I knew of, kept all the rest of the crime families in check, and absolutely would not abide random, that is meaningless and unprofitable, violence in his city.
So something like, I don’t know, a major warehouse fire resulting in the loss of probably about a million bucks worth of contraband inventory, the attraction of the Wizard’s Guild, the loss of a hundred grand in rare and very useful Foucier ore, renowned for its use as a conductor, well…that was something he frowned on.
One of Teplov’s men had picked me up just minutes after the fire. News spreads quickly, especially amongst the Tin Soldiers.
“Virgil McDane,” Teplov said slowly. “Explain.”
“The Guild showed up,” I said matter-of-factly, trying to sound confident. “After that it was all we could do, and by we I mean me, to keep them off and get away. The loss of the warehouse was due to a moron who makes me question the Guild’s hiring practices and the loss of the ore was certainly regrettable. But I did my part. And the ore was in your truck so…”
The Tin Man laughed. Just so you know, the Tin Man laughed, has been a lot of people’s last thought.
“My boy,” he said, “You have done well for me in the past, but you are reckless. The Guild was unfortunate, but as you can see,” he gestured to the stain on the floor, “I expect those who work for me to have a bit more foresight.”
I clenched my jaw. “I do not work for you, Rasputin.”
His eyes flashed. “And yet you were going to provide me with a product for quite a handsome sum of money. A contractor yes, but the work was for me either way and your recklessness endangered my outfit, my men, my property!”
“My foresight was what got you that ore in the first place, Tin Man. It never would have made it out of Terre d’échanges without me, and even then I was practically giving it away for what you were paying me.”
He straightened himself and grew very still. He was quite when he spoke. “Sorcerer, do not try this with me. Your fee was one you agreed to, and I never negotiate after the fact. If you insist on discussing this though, you know as well as I that you whore yourself out for so little because of your inability to bring results. I pay you a tenth what a Wizard makes because you are worth a tenth of what a Wizard is worth. You will not see one American red penny because I did not get my product.”
“Knight,” I said, with way more bravado I had any business exhibiting, “It is 0 who should not try this with me. I did my job, whatever inability I may have, I got into Terre d’échanges when others failed you and I brought that shit all the way back from Quebec. I went above and beyond and stared down two Wizards in the process. You will pay me my fee!”
Now he got in my face. It was rare to see the Tin Man show this much emotion. I was on the edge.
“I will not pay you a damn thing,” he hissed. For a moment I think he actually started speaking Russian. He did step back and restrain himself. “And if you want to know why, look at it like this. I made a business decision with quite a bit of risk. You already received the money for your expenses, yet I did not receive my product. However close you got, whatever circumstances prevented your success, I am out the ore.”
Then his form shimmered and for just a moment I saw the armor fade into place, pulled straight from the Aether in a display just like the axe, like water vapor forming into solid metal. It was just for a moment, almost like a mirage, and it showed an extraordinary talent for controlling the spell.
“The bottom line,” he continued, “is that you have no other alternative. If you think otherwise, try to change my mind. Otherwise, come back later when you can do something about it.”
He turned his back to me and let me fume. It was the ultimate insult. Indifference. He was showing me that he was not the least bit concerned with my blustering. And he was right not to be. There was nothing I could do, not a damn thing.
I clenched my fist. Not because I was angry, but because it had started to shake. All the energy had just drained from my body. The shock of facing Leo, lack of sleep, cold, knowing all I’d netted was a train ride and a few weeks of trail food, hit me like an avalanche.
“This is nothing personal,” Teplov said. “It is only business. I will grant you a boon, though.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, barely hearing him.
“A business associate is looking for someone independent of the Guild. Some type of expedition. I do not know the details, but he is looking for a capable Sorcerer. If you are interested, I can set you up with this gentleman.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Business,” he repeated. “I will not pay you because I did not receive anything and I don’t have to. But I stand to profit from this contact, and you are right, you are capable. I believe you might be particularly useful to this man.”
“What makes you think that?” I asked.
He handed me a card and for a moment I was struck silent. It was one of the most horrifying things I had seen in a long time. I had no idea how anyone might have come upon one of these.
It was a business card and it read:
Wizard, Mullally Charterhouse
Your Guide, Through The Nine Hells and Back If Needed
I had been very young when I wrote that. Stupid. In love with what I thought I was going to do, the places I was going to see. It even bore the compass symbol in the top left corner, the Guild’s sigil. In the top right corner it bore the Kraken, my Godfather’s charterhouse sigil.
“When was this given to you?” I asked. He wasn’t just connecting me with someone, this was a personalized invitation.
“A week ago,” Teplov replied. “We thought you would be back by then. But I have already been in contact and they can meet you tonight.”
I had n4eeded the windfall the ore was going to bring. That was gone now and there was nothing I could do about it. I didn’t like working for people like Teplov, but that’s what things were like now.
For me anyway.
It wasn’t much, but it was all I had. I folded the card into my pocket and left.