Ashford Vignette #10 (2019)

Gavin McCray leaned against the rough stone wall, panting.

He was well and truly lost now.  He’d been in denial for hours, but had to admit it.  He had no clue where he was, or even what floor he was on.

When Lakhmi had asked him about getting caught on the fourth floor of Ashford, “Risks must be taken in the pursuit of knowledge” had seemed so profound and convincing.  That had been twelve, maybe fourteen, hours ago, in the comfortable, well-lit, secure corridors of the third floor.

Now, in the eternal twilight, with no idea of his location, or even if he was still on the fourth floor, or even in Ashford, the words and assurance rang hollow.

Everything had been going well.  The rough map he’d bought off one of the Black Rose had been surprisingly accurate.  Visions of a triumphant return and rising in the ranks of the Solar Society, the minor cabal that valued knowledge, played in his mind’s eye.

Then something had jumped him in the dark.

He had run, toward what he had thought were stairs back up to the safety of the third floor.  The stairs appeared to have gone down, though, below the fourth.

Since then, map useless, Gavin had spent his time fruitlessly searching for a way back up.  Even a door outside to some part of Earth.  If he could find that, he could find a way to Dublin or another city that opened to Ashford.

Before the couple glo-stones he had left failed, or the things that lived in the corridors caught him.

That was one thing Gavin had learned quickly.

The rumors that there were residents on the fourth floor, or lower, were unfortunately true.

Four Corners Vignette #2 (2019)

Helena Bannik ran a hand over her face, ostensibly wiping away tension.  The act also masked her spellcasting, on herself, not either of her recalcitrant companions.

“Seriously, Lawrence?  Do you think me some kind of fool?  You think I know nothing of your reputation?”

Viola Ehrich, Four Corners resident and heir to a modest fortune.  Not known for her grasp of social graces, beyond ordering around servants.

“No, I know you to be a fool and irrational.  Your family’s stake isn’t worth what it once was.  Realistically, you must sell at a loss, as the business is not worth what it was, even six years ago.”

Lawrence Bear, her other client.  An alchemist who, rumors and evidence suggested, had never been particularly apt or studious in his magic.  But, he made up for it with a penchant for business, specifically buying and profiting from others’ businesses.

Both headstrong, proud, and firmly convinced of their own genius.

And she had to find common ground.

At a loss after two hours, Helena let her eyes roam Four Corners’ central square.  Her ears and subconscious recorded and processed the bickering while she watched the blissfully unstressed visitors and locals enjoying the sunny day and cool breezes.  Some strolled across the cobble square, on a mission or simply taking in the scenery.  Others lounged at black, ornate wrought iron tables like her clients, though considerably more relaxed.

After a few calming moments, Helena decided she should probably intervene before one of her clients killed the other.

Ashford Vignette #9 (2019)

(Note: Seth somehow ended up channeling a guy [whom I won’t name, to protect the semi-innocent] I knew in college, so he’s loosely based on a real person.)


“Dude, not those stairs.  Fourth floor, no one knows what’s down there.  I heard there’s tenebrae, crazy reynir, all kinds of squatters and worse.”

“Crazy reynir’s redundant.”

“Still.”

Elaine shook her head, “Fine.  We’ll just go up to the dining hall.  What happened to your sense of adventure?”

“Basic summoning.  Adhikari,” Seth said with a shudder.  “Mistakes were made.  No limbs were lost, but many nightmares.”

“Whatever.  After all your talk about horror stories . . .”

“The imagination’s limited, Stirling.  Truth is stranger than fiction and some things cannot be unseen.”

“Sure, Tyerman.  Pull the other one, it’s got bells on.”

She’d never really understood that last bit, but her dad used to say it a lot.  It wriggled its way into her usage through osmosis.

“Infirmary stairs, or library?”

“Infirmary, closest to the dorm.  I wanna drop my stuff before lunch.”

They walked in silence for a bit, toward the stairs that would take them up to the second floor, near the infirmary.

As they started up the steps, Seth said, “You had Master Salem yesterday, right?  What’d you think?”

Elaine considered, until they were halfway up.

“Kinda quiet, seems easy-going.  Seems to know his wards and stuff. . . .” She flashed a mischievous grin, “Kinda cute too.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.  I don’t think he’s into guys, though.  Heard a rumor he and Mrocek have a thing.”

“Doesn’t mean a guy can’t look and appreciate.”

With a chuckle, Elaine shook her head, “You need some food, boy, get that blood sugar up.”

Four Corners Vignette #1 (2019)

Frances Duncan studied his client over steepled fingertips as he considered the request.

Young, perhaps fifteen years his junior.  Clothing comfortable, well-tailored, speaking of modest wealth, considerable but not obscene.  Shoulder length brunette, cut straight and simple.  He had not balked or started at the theatrics—the dim lights, subtle incense, fake crystal ball, the things one expected of a diviner—which indicated familiarity, or that they had not registered.

Given the man’s apparent state of distress, Frances decided on the latter.

“Mr. Havorford, I am sorry you wasted your time.  If it was a matter of finding this person, or something they’d taken or lost, that would be different.  But, divination is notoriously vague and tricky.  The future is constantly shifting.”

“If it’s a matter of money . . .”

Frances held up a hand.

“No.  It is a matter of ethics and accuracy.  History shows us a trail of ruin that sits at the feet of divination.  And history is correct on this matter, I’m afraid.”

Gods, he thought, don’t let him try . . . yes, Havorford was resorting to the puppy eyes.  And he was damn good at it too.

“Please, Mr. Duncan?  I need to know.  For my parents and my family, not for me.  You are the most reputable diviner I have found in months of looking.”

“That’s because I will only tell you the truth, if I do this.  Not simply what you want to hear.”

“That is all I ask, sir.”

Frances closed his eyes and sighed.

“Fine.  Give me two days to prepare, then return here.  Friday at seven.  Then we will see what we can see, probabilities only.”

Ashford Vignette #8 (2019)

“Cameron, hit me.”

Balanced, knees slightly bent, Cameron Wyche looked at his instructor.  She stood a few feet away, relaxed and not even in a guard position.  A simple baton held in her right hand, tucked under her arm.

“Now, Cameron.  Yes, with the sword in your hand.”

Live steel?

She was crazy.

He was half again her size and had twice her reach.

Still, she was the instructor.

Cam shrugged and moved forward, keeping his feet under his center.  He led with the two feet of sharp, high carbon steel between himself and his opponent until the last moment.

The heavy blade rose and swung on its descent, turning into a diagonal cut that would split Master Axelrod from shoulder to opposite hip.

He felt his blade batted aside as it fell.

Somehow, Cam managed to catch the flick of Axelrod’s wrist that sent her stick whipping around toward him.  A s long as she stayed back, he could recover, the baton was short and couldn’t reach . . .

A sharp pain erupted at rib level.

Suddenly, Cam found himself staring down a foot of shining bronze and a few feet of ash.

In an instant, the spear was gone and the baton was back under Master Axelrod’s arm.  She turned as if nothing had happened.

“What is the lesson, class?”

“Don’t assume anything, Master.”

Sitting by his friend, Ram, Cam shook his head.

Ram grinned and whispered, “Don’t ever attack an elementalist warrior who has a stick, bud.”

Ashford Vignette #7 (2019)

“Mr. Mulroy?”

“Yes, Master Adhikari?”

“Why are there green tentacles in your circle?  You are supposed to be summoning cadhari.  Ms. Lu, are cadhari tentacular?”

“No, Master Adhikari.  They are furry.”

“Precisely.  Please focus, Mr. Mulroy.  A miscast summoning can be the difference between usefulness and disaster.  Dismiss it, start again.  And redraw the tenth sigil clockwise on your containment circle before something escapes, please.”

Master Yahye Adhikari nodded as the young man began a simple banishment-dismissal.  The focus was adequate and the choice appropriate, he thought.  Summoning was not Mulroy’s forte.  From the lounge scuttle, he would be better served focusing on his conjuration; it seemed he had a gift for that branch of magic, particularly manipulating space.

He waited long enough to ensure that the problem sigil was redrawn precisely before leaving the student.  His progress around the room, deceptively slow and casual, continued.

The next few circles and summonings were, he decided, fair.  Not spectacular or efficient, but good enough to prevent escapes and to call up the correct kind of creature.  He was told that many students found his silent perambulations and tendency to loom over their shoulders to be distracting.  If they couldn’t handle that little stress, they would never be able to summon outside the classroom with the world’s many distractions, he argued.

“Excellent, Ms. Lu.  Perfectly executed containment and protective circles, exact sigils.  And a green furred cadhari.  Rare and difficult.  Exemplary.”

“Thank you, Master Adhikari.”

Ashford Vignette #6 (2019)

“Shh.  Stay back,” Kendra Moran hissed.  Following her own command, she flattened herself against the corridor wall.

From the shadows, she watched until the figure in brown cassock-inspired robes disappeared around a corner.  Then she motioned her partners, cautiously, forward.

Once the third passed, she slid across the hall a few feet behind.  The fourth floor of Ashford was generally ignored and left alone, technically off-limits to students.  But, occasionally, someone from the staff would explore or sweep the floor, to see if it could be opened up or something.

Her compatriots in the Black Rose had already discovered the only important thing: three routes to doors.  The first opened in Bangkok, the second in Accra.  All three were relatively safe.  She and her team were returning from Denver with four packed knapsacks of contraband.  The sales arm of the cabal would quietly sell the contents for twice their outside value, easily.

Kendra paused and looked back over her shoulder.

The others kept on, making barely a whisper.

Beneath the soft susurrus of their steps, her sharp ears detected . . . heavier steps.  More than a couple feet.  Closing in their direction.

Either brown robed, patrolling staff or, worse, denizens of the largely unexplored floor.

Shit.

The smuggling trip had been going too smoothly.

Kendra spun with a mustelid grace and trotted after her companions, knapsack bouncing against her back.

Abandoning silence, she ordered, “Run!” once she caught up.

No questions, they were veterans, the others instantly broke into a ground eating trot toward the nearest Rose secured stairs.