Economics runs the world, in some form or another, and two simple principles are its most powerful forces.
Supply and demand.
Magic is just another tool, albeit a wonderful, powerful tool, that plays into these forces.
It had been a long month. The train ride had only afforded me a few hours rest and I was cold and wet and cranky as hell. Cold rainwater dripped from my fedora and coat, chilling me to the bone.
All I wanted was to crawl into bed. Instead, I was standing in a large warehouse, stuffed full of tall, crowded shelves. A small dump truck towered conspicuously beside me, dripping with rainwater after having been backed in through the roller door.
That must have been why I was examining the human condition in business terms like some sleep addled college kid during finals, as a dozen armed men watched from ten feet away.
I get like that when I’m tired.
These weren’t Teplov’s best men. They were dirty and ill dressed, though they looked better than I did. Were probably getting paid better too.
“You’re late,” the leader said. He drawled out you’re in the deep southern drawl of the region. I always noticed it more when I came back from a trip and my accent would be thicker for the next two weeks.
I made a show of pulling the pocket watch from my vest and checking it. “Seems pretty damn early to me,” I said dryly.
“You know what I meant, Sorcerer,” he said. “You were supposed to be back two weeks ago.”
My jaw tightened until it popped. “Watch your tone, toy soldier, I wouldn’t want to take that the wrong way.”
“Who the hell do you think you are, pal?” said the guy next to him. I caught a hint of Jersey. “You’re the one who said he’d be back the beginning of the month!”
“It couldn’t be helped,” I replied. “I ran into some trouble. Figured it would be worth more to the Tin Man to bring back exactly what he wanted and be a little late. I’d hate to have brought only half.”
The leader squinted his eyes under his cap. “The boss thought you might have cheated him. He was getting a little impatient.”
I laughed dryly. Bullies, they never fail. “If there’s one thing Teplov has in spades, it’s patience.”
Jersey took a step forward, “I think it’s you who’d better watch what he’s saying. Might be we take that the wrong way.”
I frowned. “Like I said, I ran into trouble. It doesn’t have anything to do with our deal. Just my mood.” The pressure in my skull intensified and I felt myself sway on my feet. “Look, I’m tired and wet and would really like to be in a bed before the sun rises. So how about we stop posturing and just get this over with?”
I waited, looking from man to man. There was no question of what they were going to do. The Tin Man had earned his moniker in Mare’s underworld, and his men knew exactly what was expected of them.
Finally, Jersey held up his hands, backing away.
“Let’s get to work,” I said. “Where do you want it?”
The leader nodded toward the truck. It was a clunker with a boiler the size of a car wedged underneath the bed, but it would certainly hold the ore.
I climbed up the ladder, wiping my hands on my coat as I looked into the bed. It would be more than enough, it was bigger than my whole damn apartment. Of course, that wasn’t saying much.
The pain flared up in my head again. God, was I ready to get rid of this stuff. It had been weighing on my mind for a week, like a block of lead pressing right between my eyes.
But it wasn’t going to just come out, it would need some coaxing.
I closed my eyes and began to concentrate, picturing the ore in my mind, a big pile of pearlescent, silvery chips, glowing softly in the darkness, still humming with the vibration of the lightning it had captured. They smelled like ozone, a scent so strong I could taste it. I imagined Al standing next to the pile, the courtyard that contained them, the gates of the keep closed and locked against the world beyond.
I took a deep breath and opened the gate.
It took effort, my mind fighting it, not as flexible as it had once been. I had to picture the wood flexing, the loud creaking as the hinges stressed under the force of my will.
Finally, the doors inched open.
I felt my body relax, all the strength draining out of me. The pressure that had built up in my forehead eased, shifting to a painful burning. It started at my nose and moved all the way up my scalp and down my spine, filling my body.
I’d been holding my breath. Now I released it. The burning flowed up my body and out my mouth. Slowly, hesitantly, purplish smoke drifted out from in between gritted teeth, out through my nose, my eyes, my ears, until it was surging out of every pore in my skin. I kept breathing it out, filling the bed of the truck. The Aether started as purple, then blue, steadily shifting through the spectrum before settling on a pearlescent silver.
My stomach knotted and my muscles clenched up. I collapsed to my knees, gagging up the remnants of the Aether until finally it began to thin and then ebb altogether. The burning sensation faded, leaving my arms and legs numb, my body cold.
Then I puked. No magic this time, just some soup they gave me on the train. I think it was fish. Damn Canadians, always had to be fish.
I shuddered, cold and feverish. My clothes were soaked through with sweat and I could hear my teeth chattering as I shivered. I sat back and waited for my vision to clear. When it finally did, I glanced down to examine my work.
The Aether had coalesced into ten tons of Foucier ore. It still glowed, still hummed, exactly as I had seen it in my mind. Only now static popped off the sharp slate where it contacted the metal of the vehicle.
I climbed down the ladder, swaying as my feet hit the ground.
“You alright, buddy?” one of the gangsters asked.
I waved him off, focusing on staying upright. “Where’s the john?”
“Down the row,” he said, cocking a thumb toward the back.
I thanked him and stumbled down the center aisle. It had taken everything to make sure that went right, to maintain it. A week with the Aether in me. I hadn’t carried a load like that since…well, since before Nidia. Not for that long anyway. It was only supposed to be three days. I was supposed to have been able to head right for Toronto after leaving the cloud, get on a train, and just sit back and enjoy the ride back to the States. Three days max.
It was risky though, and I knew it. The Guild would be watching Terre d’échanges. It was one of their worlds, and they were protective. Supply was how they maintained their control.
Getting in had been easy though, even easier finding a group of rods to poach with. It was getting out that was the problem. They knew someone had gotten in and they were watching. The escape had been close.
But that was all behind me. I had done my part and now it was payday.
I found the bathroom and washed up. My body was shaking, cramps forming in my back and shoulders. I took a moment to catch my breath, washed my face again, and let it pass.
I think I dozed for a moment on the toilet before shouting brought me to my senses, although sliding off in a dazed panic might not be described as my best senses.
The sound was coming from the front of the warehouse. I recognized Jersey and the leader but the rest were muffled by the storm outside.
I made my way down the aisle, then froze, the hair on the back of my neck standing up.
Something was wrong.
I couldn’t see down the aisle, but maybe if I got up higher. I planted a foot on one of the shelves and lifted myself up, trying to get a better vantage point. Still nothing. I groaned to myself and dragged my bedraggled ass up the shelf.
It was hard going, but I wasn’t about to just walk up there and say hi. That was a good way to get shot or turned into charcoal, maybe worse. About fifteen feet off the ground, I could see what was making the commotion.
Teplov’s men were facing down a little guy in a suit. He was in his early thirties; small, narrow, and thin with no muscle to speak of. His hair, what little of it that remained, was slicked back and greased. Beady eyes poked out from a small bowler hat and his cheap, oversized suit made him look like a little kid playing dress up
In his right hand he gripped a long, gnarled staff. Runes and sigils trailed down from the poorly carved wolf’s head all the way to the tip.
“Damnation,” I whispered to myself. That was all I needed.
Willy Cruder was a slipshod Wizard and a worse person. Insecure enough to need to carve a wolf’s head on his staff and dumb enough to try it himself. He was an idiot and the worst kind of bully, one who had been bullied all his life and now had the power to be on the other side.
“A toy box with Tin Men,” he said, his cockney accent biting through the cool southern air.
I grimaced. That voice had always gotten on my nerves. He was one of my godfather’s men, one of his best enforcers. He didn’t know anything about magic besides how to blow things up. Unfortunately, that was all he was ever called up to do.
“This is private property, Wizard,” the leader of Teplov’s men said.
Cruder tssked him. “The Tin Man knows the deal. His outfit and the Guild stay apart, but this,” he pointed at the dump truck, “Well, boys, this is a snake of a different color. That’s our property.”
The leader cocked his shotgun. My pulse started to race. If anyone besides the Wizard was going to make it out of here alive, than I needed to think and do it quickly.
I flexed my fingers, feeling a trickle of power channel through the rings on my left hand and the web of power they formed. One adorned each finger; gold, silver, copper, steel, and tin. One for each of the elements and a fifth to represent the will to bind them together.
It would take a little to get the spell together, it always did these days, but I was pretty sure I could sucker punch him and throw him off guard. If Teplov’s men were worth their salt then they could jump in and…
“He’s in the back,” Jersey said, gesturing with his gun.
I blinked, feeling the spell fade. Well. Crap.
“What the hell are you doing?” the leader snarled at him.
“Tin Man doesn’t pay enough to take on Wizards,” Jersey said simply.
This wasn’t good. I could tell the leader was considering backing down. I learned a long time ago that when goons started thinking, messes were made.
“Do we get to keep the ore?” he asked, still fingering the trigger of his shotgun.
Cruder sneered. “This is our property.”
“Half?” the leader asked.
Cruder hesitated, looking over his shoulder at the ore. “The Bouchard House doesn’t know how much he took. I can agree to that, if I get the Sorcerer.”
I focused harder, powering the spell back up. This needed to happen quickly. Maybe if I could get it cast, they’d still jump him. I’d been useful, Teplov wouldn’t like being pushed around by the Guild. I could still make this happen.
I held out my hand, focusing my will, pulling up my old stun spell. It was simple, if I could just manage…
An arc of electricity sparked across my rings with a loud, electric pop that echoed throughout the warehouse. Cruder’s head snapped in my direction and before I could so much as cuss, he whipped the staff at me, sending a bolt of scarlet lightning arching in my direction.
That was probably the fastest half second of my life, but it felt like it took forever. I held out my hand, trying to redirect the pent up energy into a shield. Air, force, fire, anything to keep from being made into a lump of glass art.
In an instant, I seized the thought, casting the spell.
And it failed. Miserably.
The moment the bolt hit my hand I knew the spell had fizzled. Someone up there must have liked me though, because in less time than it took to blink, I grabbed the bolt and threw it aside, bending it around me.
I didn’t even feel the blast. For a moment, it knocked me clean out. I woke in a pile of empty, now broken, crates; the scent of ozone and bacon wafting through my nose. Stars filled my vision.
Get up. Need to get up. Need to get up fast and get the hell out of here. Or get somewhere besides the boxes. If I could just get somewhere where he couldn’t see me…I knew Cruder, he was a path of least resistance type. He knew only one direction and didn’t understand finesse or anything beyond the instinctive ‘club plus head equals win’ mentality.
From the sound of it, Cruder’s sudden reaction had startled the gangsters. I heard a gunshot and giggled to myself, my head still swimming. The toy soldiers were getting jumpy.
I sat up slowly and groaned. Pain flowed from my left arm all the way down my back and, oddly enough, to my right foot. Worse, I couldn’t even feel my hand.
Two of the rings were glowing red, singing my skin, and my fingers were the size of sausages. A jagged red pattern stretched all the way down to my elbow.
More noise echoed from the front of the warehouse. I crawled to my feet and rotated my shoulder, trying to shrug off the dizziness.
Alright. Round two.
I stepped out into the aisle, drawing my pistol from its shoulder holster and trying to ignore the room spinning around me. Unsteadily, I made my way toward the Wizard. The commotion had stopped. The only way this was going to work was if I was quick, silent, and smart.
Then I heard a new voice, one that stopped me dead in my tracks. I closed my eyes and sighed, pressing my back against the shelf. I said a silent prayer, and peeked around the corner, hoping I was wrong.
It wasn’t my day though. Sure enough, Leo Saigen was standing over one of the gangsters, his narrow, black staff pressed into the man’s throat. Smoke drifted up from the tip, forming a feline-shaped cloud complete with a pair of glowing red eyes.
Nope. Game over. Fuck the ore and fuck Teplov. I was going home.
“Did you see something, William?” Leo asked calmly in his smooth Virginian accent. “Or where you just showing off?”
Leo was probably one of the most dangerous Wizards in the States. He was educated and imaginative, a high ranking member of Ben’s Charterhouse. He understood the true majesty of magic, the true potential of the Aether. He lacked the raw power that Cruder had just tossed my way and didn’t have near the stamina, but he was infinitely more dangerous.
“I saw him!” Cruder snapped, snarling at Leo.
“And what did you see?” he asked.
Cruder sputtered, grasping for something to say.
“Nerves,” Leo said, smirking, “You have to watch your nerves if you want to make it in the Guild.”
“I saw him,” Cruder snapped. “He was up there!”
“Yes,” Leo replied, “but if you want to go and tell your boss that his godson was the one that smuggled ten tons of our property from one of our worlds, I think we will need more proof than that. Go and check the rest of the warehouse.”
Cruder shot Leo a nasty look but did as he was told. I had to get out of here before they found me. Maybe I could find a back exit or something.
I limped my way toward the back of the warehouse, trying to make as little noise as possible. There were loading dock doors, and I could probably bust through one of those, but it would make a lot more noise than I wanted.
“McDane!” I heard Cruder holler. “Where are you, McDane?”
I ducked behind one of the shelves and peeked around the corner. My confidence had taken a blow, but I was still somewhat certain I could take Cruder. Not head to head, but he wasn’t really that difficult to get one up on. That had to be why he was with Leo. He was an amazing mixture of arrogance and insecurity.
Alright, take out Cruder. Make it noisy, provide a distraction. Leo would move toward the back and then I could double back and get the hell out of here. I felt kind of bad leaving Teplov’s men, but not bad enough to keep me from doing it. Besides, they’d probably bolt as soon as Leo’s back was turned.
Cruder stepped between the aisles, his staff raised before him.
Okay, one more time. I held my breath and pictured a black landscape filled with purple mist. I peered into the mist, reaching my hand into the forest of my mind. I would have loved to have thrown some fire at the situation, but those days were gone.
I reached my hand deeper and gritted my teeth as I felt them skitter across my skin.
Fear clenched my throat and I resisted the urge to jerk my arm back, to thrash around, swat my clothes, curse, scream and flail about. For three agonizing seconds I waited, letting them crawl from my mind.
I opened my eyes long enough to see the last spider form from the Aether, its shiny, black carapace glinting in the dim light of the warehouse. They crawled up my arm, making their way toward my face. I looked just a bit Deeper and they became fuzzy, smokier, their true nature revealing themselves under my vision. The little motes of light in their abdomen could just be made out. I grabbed hold of the motes with my mind and they froze. Quickly as I could, I knitted them together.
This was going to tricky. I didn’t have any real control over these things. They had a solid basis in several nasty things that inhabited my mind, a byproduct of a bad decision years back, but they weren’t real, just residue. And since I didn’t have any control over the parasites they were birthed from, there was only so much I could do to guide them. The best I could do was make Cruder their most immediate priority and hope they thought he looked tasty.
I released my concentration and shook the frozen Nidian constructs from my clothes, making sure none had crawled under my sleeve. They hit the ground with a soft pattering, hardly audible under the torrent of rain that was still going on outside. After a moment of stillness, their legs twitched and they shot off in all directions.
Then I took a step back into the shadow and watched.
Cruder was making his way through the aisles, a ball of red, angry fire in his hand. God, he was a moron. Half of the freight in here was dry and crated. Had he never heard of a warehouse fire?
Suddenly, he hollered, the flame dying as he slapped his neck. He cursed, looking around. Then he hit himself again. He began to thrash about, tearing at his clothing.
They were doing better than I’d hoped. With any luck, whatever venom they had in their putrid little bodies would put him down. Once Leo came for him, I could make my way back to the front-
A random bolt of lightning lanced from Cruder’s staff, interrupting my thoughts. It missed by just a few feet, striking a nearby crate, and went off like a bomb. I was thrown from my feet for the second time today. Flaming splinters floated down from the air, but he paid them no mind, more bolts of lightning flying from his staff and hand.
No, no, no! This was bad. Everywhere mini fires were catching, growing over the dry wood. All over the warehouse, I could hear shelving and girders failing, twenty foot tall racks collapsing. Avalanches of kindling in a giant tinderbox.
The air was already beginning to fill with smoke. I took that as my cue to leave.
I dragged myself to my feet and worked the slide on my pistol. Killing a Wizard was something I’d never done, and all kinds of a bad idea, but he was standing within sight of every way out of the burning building. I took a step forward, covering my mouth with my hand.
Suddenly, a wisp of smoke shot through the aisle like a whip and wrapped itself around Cruder’s throat, cutting off his fireworks show. He lifted off the ground, his body going limp, his staff falling from his fingers. I could just make out his gasping over the crackling of the flames as they grew.
Leo stepped through the aisle, a cloud of black smog circling around his outstretched fist. “I expected a certain amount of decorum from you,” he said, his tone severe but calm. He looked around the warehouse, taking in the sight of the fire. “Would you define this as so, William?”
He dropped his arm and Cruder fell to the ground. Leo eyed the spiders as they skittered over Cruder’s limp form, then peered into the darkness around him. I took a step back into the shadows, avoiding his gaze.
Finally, Leo seemed to make a decision. He planted his staff on the ground and wrapped both hands around the top. Smoke poured from the aisles, angry and violent, swirling around him until he disappeared beneath it. As suddenly as it had started, the smoke exploded outward in a gust of wind.
And he was gone.
I took a step deeper into the shadow, cradling my swollen arm and ignoring the encroaching fire. Leo was by far one of the most dangerous Wizards I’d ever seen. He’d forgotten more than I knew, which was ironic since I’d forgotten most of what I knew too. Either way, I wasn’t about to just leap into the fray with him.
Well, that was the smart thing and would have been exactly the approach I would have taken if the roof hadn’t started to cave in. A ten foot wide, flaming, and very solid piece of steel landing behind you will convince you that plans are overrated and running is your best option.
I took a deep breath and ran for the front as fast as my feet could move. I ignored Cruder, who was starting to moan on the ground. I ignored the spiders, which hissed and spat even as they dissolved back into Aether. And I ignored the disturbing way the air began to swirl and blow around me. That I ignored most of all.
Above me the lights flickered, sparking and sputtering as the fire grew. A breeze caught me in my legs and nearly toppled me.
Then the black smoke shifted, coalescing into a column of dark vapor before me, forming into Leo’s lithe frame. His form distorted in the smoke, changing into a primal shape with a large head and arms that were too long.
Suddenly, he leapt from the cloud, an emaciated cat-like creature, black as night and twice as frightening. It snarled at me through long, saber-shaped teeth and sniffed the air. Where its eyes should have been, there was only smooth skin.
He dove for me, silent as smoke and quick as air, and I squeezed off two more quick rounds, barely even taking the time to aim properly.
He covered the distance before the second shot had fired. I dove back, barely avoiding the fine, curved claws he had shape-shifted for himself. Whatever it was in his head that allowed him to become this abomination, it was dark and twisted and scary as hell.
The next few seconds were quick, chaotic and I barely remember them. He drove me back, ignoring the shots that passed through his body like so much wind. He tore and sliced at me, preventing me from pulling any of the more interesting talisman from my pockets.
After dodging those black, cloudy claws enough times, I found my back to the fire, Leo blocking my way to the front.
Behind me, I could hear Cruder coming to. A quick glance over my shoulder revealed that he was up on one knee, his already ugly face swollen and lumpy. One eye was sealed shut and he looked pissed. He was already pointing his staff at me, angry, red mist coiling around the wood.
All right, needed to time this closely.
I ducked just as he threw it at me and had a prime, if not somewhat upside-down view of Leo catching the bolt square in the chest. There was a moment of shocked, heh, no pun intended, confusion as the bolt struck home and he was frozen in place, followed by an ear shattering sonic boom and the delightful memory of his form sailing through the air.
I was pretty sure Cruder had just made an enemy, but I would savor that small joy later. For now, the fire was growing and Cruder was hobbling my way. I jumped to my feet and sprinted toward the door.
Teplov’s men were gone and much to my dismay, they had left the ore. Damnation, if Teplov refused to pay me because of this, I would bring the Heavens down on his head.
But the fire was spreading, smoke filling the warehouse. Cruder would be coming and for all I knew Leo was the smoke.
I took one more look at the dump truck. It would probably survive the fire, but that wouldn’t help me one damn bit. There was no way I could get it out of here. The Guild would find me in minutes. Worse, they would be crawling all over this place in the morning. I couldn’t take the ore. It was set in the real world now, no longer Aether.
Two solid weeks of back breaking labor, Inhaling far more Aether than I was meant to, watching my back for the Guild, dodging lightning bolts.