Night City — New Avalon (2010)

Sextus Wedgewood, fresh off the night shift, entered the coffee shop-diner and glanced around for the regulars before grabbing a stool and ordering his usual. Ever since he’d started his corporate enchanting job, he’d been coming to Shaara’s Diner to get breakfast-dinner before heading home. Most of the normal crowd were there: other enchanters, cops on breaks, early morning travelers. No mundanes, although plenty of non-humans. The mundanes weren’t allowed in, it said so on a sign posted by the door.

“Officer Taylor,” he said, then caught himself. “Morgane. How’re things?” As he asked, Sextus took a seat at the stool next to the policewoman.

“Pretty quiet. Tristan’s been promoted,” she replied, “and my sister Gwen’s moving here from the U.S., Illinois, next month . . .”

The officer had been trying to set him up with her sister for months. The enchanter managed to keep from rolling his eyes. Instead, he gave a forced laugh and looked for something to change the conversation. His salvation came in the form of the diner’s television, tuned to the New Avalon News Network. He nodded toward the screen, drawing Morgane’s attention to the scene of three men being forced into police cars. The scene flashed to photos of a badly beaten Goblin and back.

Both patrons shook their heads as Morgane muttered, “SPH.”

“Looks like,” Sextus agreed, as the bottom of the screen scrolled. It briefly read “Society for the Protection of Humanity members arrested” before moving to stock losses. “Always be buggers like that so long as mundanes are in charge somewhere. They hate what they fear and fear what they don’t understand . . . and none of them will ever really understand us or the non-humans.”

Morgane just shrugged, but added, “Or there are those Mage Corps clowns, playing comic book heroes. They don’t realize they’re laughingstocks.”

“Mundanes. Half think we’re stage comedians, half that we’re vicious child-eating murderers.”

“There’re some good, smart ones out there,” the officer quietly opined, “You grow up here, Sextus?”

The line enchanter nodded. “Yep, New Avalon born and bred. Graduated from the Delaine Institute.”

Morgane just grunted, as if that answer explained everything.

A little confused and concerned, Sextus turned back to his dinner and watched her out of the corner of his eye. Something odd was going on, he decided. There were crazy mundane sympathizers everywhere, but he never figured an officer of the law, especially his semi-friend, for one. The government mandated psych evaluations, complete with psychosorcerers, required to hold a public servants’ job should weed out the traitors to their own people. He mentally scoffed. Imagine, giving mundanes back their rights and avenues to power. They’d had those for centuries and where had things gone? Sorcerers and magicians in hiding, non-humans almost exterminated . . . mundanes hated what they fear, give ‘em power and they tried to burn magicians, as if that would really work. Hel, there were still dozens of U.S. and Canadian military fortresses along the New Avalonian border. That alone should prove that mundanes were violent, destructive, and suicidal . . . unless magicians governed for them. Like the old days. There’s a reason they were called the Golden Age in hundreds of cultures.

After several minutes of uncomfortable silence, Morgane gave a start.

“Four-oh-one? Flamel and Kirke,” she muttered, already rising. “Unit 15, I’m five minutes away.” She took off out the door, her tab paid before the meal arrived. It was a habit most officers on the force got into, in case an emergency was called in.

In New Avalon police parlance, the code meant someone had called in a burglary in progress, she thought, as she slid into her go-car. The ten-golempower engine turned over without a sound. Morgane decided to forgo the lights and sirens. If there really was a crime in progress, anyone would hear the sirens a mile away and be gone. And the short distance at this time of day meant no significant traffic. Sirens would only shave a few seconds.

Without thinking, Morgane checked her sorcekev vest and slipped her Beretta from its holster as she unfolded herself from the car. Like most of the force’s officers, she habitually loaded stun rounds, enchanted rubber bullets. A magazine of phosphorus tracer rounds—for vampires and other undead—and one of regular rounds—for everything else—were safely stowed on her belt.

She muttered a word to silence her radio and another set to silence her own movement. Then, the weapon held toward the ground in a comfortable grip, the officer moved along the perimeter of the residence. She looked for signs of entry on the sweep, stopping at each window and the back door to whisper ancient words of closing and binding. The vast majority of burglaries, ninety-some percent she’d heard, were done by mundanes. They wouldn’t be able to sense the magical locks she put in place. Bypassing them with other magic would take time, enough that she could probably catch the thief.

Morgane pushed open the front door once the perimeter was sealed.

Even as she stepped inside and called out, “Police!” she heard the sirens that meant less cautious backup was arriving.

Panicked footsteps rushed around on the second floor. And she’d been unable to secure those windows.

At a word of dismissal, her radio volume returned. She thumbed the switch and said, “Unit 15. Suspect is on second floor, unsecure windows, may jump. Advise backup to shut off their bloody sirens and watch for fliers.”

She took the first stairs she found as quickly as she dared. Caution warred with necessity in the conscious part of her mind.

She’d be no good to anyone injured, but without speed, the thief could possibly get away.

Such was her thought as her foot touched the top step.

Morgane immediately began checking rooms, certain she would hear if the suspect had hidden downstairs.

She hit the front room first, where she thought the noise had come from. As the door swung inward, the officer ducked and pivoted. Whether she’d heard something, or some sixth sense kicked in, she wouldn’t be sure later. Either way, Morgane fired as her weapon came up. By the time it was at head level, she had squeezed off three shots. Combined, the rounds had enough power to put down a rhino, if they all hit.

Her thief was still standing.

With the heightened perception of adrenaline, the spellcrafter noticed her first shot had gone wide. Hardly surprising given the situation. The other two, though, were on target, but floating a few inches in front of a woman only a bit younger than the officer. The thief’s hand was extended, her fingers making an ancient gesture of warding.

Morgane felt time pause for a few seconds before the adrenaline began pumping overtime.

Damn, damn, damn.

She instinctively moved for cover while fumbling for her radio pickup and trying to keep the Beretta’s barrel on her thief.

“Unit 15, the perp is a sorce. Repeat. Perp is a sorce.”

She fired off a few shots one handed to distract the sorceress. And she hoped her backup was there. As she shot, Morgane uttered a few words to create a shield of air around herself. It wouldn’t hold up to much, but might soften a sorcerous attack.

She needn’t have worried as it turned out.

The sorceress-thief let the stun rounds drop and took off down the stairs, even as Morgane shot and called her backup.

When she realized the coast was clear and she wasn’t going to get a blast of energy or bolt of lightning to the head, Morgane jumped from behind cover and flew down the stairs. She was a few seconds behind the thief, but it should take at least that long to dispel the door or window spells. The un-enchanted front door wasn’t a problem. Her backup was coming that way, she hoped.

Three hours later, she returned home after being reprimanded by her superiors for going in alone, praised for stalling the burglar, and warned never to speak to anyone, especially the press, about the fact that the thief was a sorcerer. The nobles above the brass did not want that last important detail getting out. It might tarnish the magical superiority line and their claim that no magicians were unemployed or poverty stricken, even though there were, Morgane knew, other reasons to steal. Hell, the thief might even be some noble house’s scion or something, for all she knew.

Night City — The Menagerie (2010)

Ed Shafer truly appreciated air conditioning on New Orleans’s hot and humid nights. His people were of good northern European stock, they hadn’t evolved properly for sun and heat. The city was ideal for necromancers, though, he thought. The art required spirits, and there were plenty of those around the city. Most were former humans too, his specialty since he found them easier to deal with. Of, perhaps, greater importance was the fact that the city had been accepting of the art for well over a century before magicians revealed themselves to the public. Sure, they called them medium, spiritualists, voodoun, and a whole host of other names. And most necromancers known to the public in those days had been charlatans at best. But the city seemed to draw North American necromancers like a magnet and lodestone.

And the Menagerie was the traditional meeting place of those necromancers, and, later, other magicians.

The club catered to the younger generation . . . those born in the twentieth-century or later.

Hell, if he allowed himself, he’d see literally thousands of bound spirits and millions of lines of magical energy all over the dance floor.

But he was there, on that night, for business. And business had just walked in the door, looking as out of place as a giant ape in New York. The business suit and military stiffness made Mister White, who was offering to interview him, stand out more than anything else. To make matters worse, the man was obviously a mundane, although he covered his reactions well. Probably used to dealing with the magically inclined.

An impulse toward pity awoke briefly in Ed’s consciousness. He waved to Mr. White after a few moments, giving the government mundane a chance to avoid embarrassment. After all, nearly everyone who did business with magicians in New Orleans did so in the Menagerie.

The government headhunter took a seat as Edward spotted the reason that this meeting would become interesting.

A young, felinoid, thaumod entered the club and unerringly made her way toward the table. Her suit was a little out of place, but otherwise her appearance fit in perfectly, and at least she was a magician.

“Mr. Shafer,” the government man started, before Ed cut him off.

“A minute, Mr. White,” he explained, “let’s wait for our other guest to save introductions.”

The cat-woman slid gracefully into a seat and sipped at a drink she’d acquired a few seconds later.

“Marie Lazarus, Mr. Shafer, from Thaumtech,” she said. “You spoke with my assistant the other day.”

“Indeed. And this is Mr.”

“White, DARPA,” the agent interrupted. “And we don’t appreciate Thaumtech trying to steal our prospects.”

Lazarus flashed a toothy smile and allowed a brief, forced, laugh. The latter audible due to a spell dampening the sound of the club’s music.

“Isn’t that the American way, Mr. White?” she asked. “Your bosses keep saying that healthy competition is good for the consumer, the economy, and the country.”

“Not my department, ma’am.”

“Besides, if Mr. Shafer works for Thaumtech, he’ll still technically be working for the government.”

“Just because you have the largest federal enchantment contract! . . .”

Ed let his attention wander as the two bickered. It was an old argument. Instead of paying attention, he let his vision slip and looked at the dozen of so spirits bound either directly to him or to his possessions. Through his connection to the spirits, he mentally questioned his friends and servitors. After a few moments, three of them—Archibald, Brian, and Sparky, as he called them—confirmed that the DARPA representative was a mundane and that the woman was a sorcerer with several active spells about her person. All of which he managed to do without ritual due to the spirits’ natural abilities. The necessary rituals had been used to bind them.

He let the banter continue for a short time before interrupting.

“I am rather busy . . . Mr. White, what do DARPA and your Area 72 have to offer? Yes, I’ve done my research and know the name, if not the nature,” he admitted to the look White gave him. “Then Ms. Lazarus can present Thaumtech’s counteroffer.”

Ed had to give the government man credit, he shifted gears quickly.

“Without going into too much detail, since neither yourself nor Ms. Lazarus here signed confidentiality agreements or passed security checks,” White began, “the job is an opportunity to work in a completely magical community with full medical, retirement, and housing benefits. The pay scale is excellent and there are no rent, utilities, or food costs on your part. All expenses will be covered by your employers, including relocation costs.”

“Night City without expense . . .”

“Or the guild violence. Or the crime.”

“Or guild support,” Ed added. “And I suppose friends and family couldn’t know where I was, correct.”

“Naturally. The location and projects are top secret,” Mr. White acknowledged, with a glance at his opponent.

For her part, Marie laughed. “Afraid we’re steal your secrets? Thaumtech is decades ahead of DARPA in sorcerous research. Our package, Mr. Shafer, includes a generous salary and benefits. If you wish to remain in New Orleans, we have a facility in town, or relocation costs to Boston will be covered. And we don’t care about any guild affiliations you might have, so long as company secrets are not shared. We at Thaumtech frown on corporate espionage.”

Ed nodded. The typical corporate schpiel.

“And what, exactly, would I be doing in the Thaumtech family?”

“As you no doubt know, Thaumtech is the world leader in enchanted item production,” she replied, with a glance at Mr. White. “Without divulging trade secrets, we are looking to branch out into the named object and fetish markets. So, we’re looking for young, talented necromancers.”

Mr White muttered, “Waste of money,” even as Ed said, “And the fact that no one’s managed to mass produce fetishes in . . . well, since the dawn of magic doesn’t bother your bosses?”

“Of course not, Mr. Shafer. Fifty years ago, no one thought enchantments could be mass produced. Today, every household in the western world has at least two enchanted items,” she explained. “Until we make a breakthrough, there is also the wealthy collector and celebrity market, looking for unique gifts or objects.”

Edward considered the offers for a time. The DJ must have turned up the volume as the club’s music was weakly coming through the dampening field. Heavy bass, not exactly his favorite to listen to. But business at the Menagerie was tradition.

“Both offers certainly sound attractive, but they would,” he mused aloud after a bit. “Honestly, I’ve never really seen myself as a military man. I know . . . DARPA’s not military as such.” The latter cut off White’s objection and caused Lazarus to smile broadly. Her grin of triumph wilted as Ed continued to say, “However . . . the corporate environment’s never been my thing either. Cubicles, suits, and stifling rules.” He exaggerated the involuntary shudder for their benefit.

Despite being an unaltered mundane, White recovered first.

“We have no cubicles and virtually no military presence. And no requirement for suits,” he assured the prospective employee. “In fact, you can have an entire official lab at the facility to outfit as you desire . . . and there are provisions for a private, personal lab anywhere on site, even in your own dwelling. In fact, such labs are encouraged. Finally, I am told we have numerous ghosts and ascended spirits,” he said, nodding toward Edward’s shoulders and elsewhere around the table. Probably enchanted or fetish contact lenses, Ed thought. “And many nature spirits, if you prefer.” Ability to see, but not to properly identify, the necromancer absently noted.

“Well then,” Edward said aloud, “in that case, and since you adapted well, where is that confidentiality agreement, Mr. White? Pending my successful security check, it appears I am all DARPA’s.” For the time being.

Night City — New Academy (2010)

Marcus Sander popped into an empty field displacing a rush of air in the process.

He was jogging toward a stone wall about a hundred yards away even as his mind processed the time of day. Sunset had already started, so he had maybe ten, twenty minutes before the lone break in the wall was sealed for the next couple months. If that happened, he’d miss his second year at the secret academy.

The young sorcerer slipped through the kissing gate in time to see his meager possessions moving across the yard. A few spirits, he knew, bound to the old manor house turned concealed magic school would see that his things ended up in a room. In the meantime, Marcus turned to a Goblin woman a few years his senior. She waved a hand, causing the gate to become indistinguishable from the wall, and said, “You’re the last, Marcus.”

Responding to her concerned tone, he shook his head.

“I meant to be in sooner, Tisha,” he explained. “The TRA’s been relentless back home, especially today. Night Dragons hit the city hall and a bank this morning . . .”

Tisha grimaced. “Psycho bastards. Do more harm’n good. Anyone hurt?”

“Nah. Small town, and both were hit early. No one’s in before nine anyway.”

“There’s that at least. Less the fed can blame us with. Probably won’t get past the local news either, then.”

“Probably,” he affirmed. “Any words?”

“Galen’s been tracking the news, usual start of the year gathering in the theater . . . ten minutes.”

The pair split, with Tisha still having to find rooms for some newcomers and Marcus looking to track down a few friends before the meeting.

Marcus ended up being one of the last group of students to enter the theater, hand-in-hand with Julia Bowyer. A few mutual friends came along with the couple as they took a second to survey the room. Over the last several years, the formerly ruined nineteenth-century décor had been repaired, then partially covered by modern magical amenities during the five years that the school had been open. The right hand wall was already filling with sorcerously scrawled course titles as their fellow students gave Manny Opus suggestions. The other five ‘staff’ members hadn’t gotten there yet, but the hundred some odd students were spread around the room, mostly getting reacquainted.

When the lights dropped for a few seconds, Manny waved off a gaggle of fellow students and most people grabbed seats or a spot on the floor.

Up on the stage, Tisha came out with two humans, a thaumod, and a vampire. Once Manny joined them, one of the humans stepped forward. After a burst of applause, Galen bowed and raised his hands for silence. Marcus had to remind himself that the last of the Academy’s founders was only six or seven years his senior. In fact, this might even be the year that Galen ‘retired’ to go make a life beyond the Academy, like the other founders.

Once the group calmed down, Galen smiled warmly and said, “Welcome to the seventh school year at New Academy.” After a burst of applause, he added, “I want to thank you all for making my dream a reality and continuing our brief tradition of resisting the guild system. Glad to see all the familiar faces, and the new ones. I hope the Academy will outlast myself and the other founders.” A confused round of clapping, uncertain due to wondering what exactly was being cheered. “Before the year starts, I do feel that one announcement is necessary . . . for those who have not been following national news, the Thaumaturgical Regulatory Agency is quietly starting rumors that New Academy is linked to those damn Night Dragon terrorists,” a chorus of boos followed. “So be careful if you’re off campus at all for breaks. On another note, Justin Lee’s going to be doing a class on holistic healing with Lyn Day, mixing spirits and sorcery should be . . . interesting.” Especially, thought Marcus, since Justin was a vampire, albeit a young one. That alone should draw lots of their fellow students, the curious at least.

The meeting broke up after a few questions from the newer students.

As people started milling around, Marcus and Julia tracked down their vampiric friend.

Julia called out, “Justin! Finally decided to teach?”

The third year student clasped Marcus’ hand and grinned. “‘A Little Spiritual Healing’ on Tuesday mornings, so I can take Walter Schmead’s ‘Laughing at Ourselves—Jokes and Jinxes’.”

“Hmm, conflicts with Kaja’s ‘Walking and Talking: Magical Theory and Ethics’,” Marcus noted, “Sorry, Justin, gotta go with the campus walks.” He’d been in one of Kaja’s classes last year, she liked to hold class while strolling throughout the Academy and its grounds.

Julia grinned and playfully punched his arm, “The fact that Kaja’s cute has nothing to do with it, right?”

The vampire laughed at the couple as Marcus flashed a mock aggrieved face. Then he asked, “What about you two? I didn’t see your names on the wall yet. Any ideas?”

“I’m tossing together something about magical gardening,” Marcus replied. “There were some interesting plant hybrids I was working with over the break. I’m not sure what to call it, never was good with names.”

“Elemental physics . . . ‘Playing with Fire,’ or something,” Julia chipped in. “There are some fun things in Sorcery Today about mixing elements and spirit theories. We might have to compare notes on mixing magics, Justin.”

“Anytime. I’ll let Lyn know, she might have some pointers.” He caught sight of a clock. “Speaking of which . . . I’ve gotta run. We’re meeting to plan a few things tonight. See you at lunch?”

The couple nodded in unison and walked, with linked arms, toward the class wall. Most of the students picked up four or five classes that lasted all year, taught by their fellow students. And registering was first come, first served, informal. A demo at the end of the four to five years, or whenever, before the school body determined ‘graduation,’ such as it was. Which was one reason the TRA hated the Academy and was trying to shut it down . . . and the guilds weren’t too happy either.

After a few minutes of staring at the board, Julia asked, “Wanna grab a late dinner and find our rooms?”

“Sure. This can wait ‘til morning,” Marcus admitted. “Good to sleep on it, see what Manny puts up there in the morning.” Although anyone with an ounce of sorcery could put things on the class wall, someone was always designated to do it for the non-sorcerers. Eventually, everyone just went through the designee by habit.

It didn’t take long for the couple to find Ted Satrapi in the old manor kitchens. Getting the thaumod to settle down and stop bellowing at his collection of spirit aides in mingled Farsi and English long enough to grab a couple sandwiches took longer. As they left, hurriedly, both fervently hoped that the kitchen was settled and ready soon. It had become a livelier and louder place since Jen Moi had left for a job with some Wall Street family and Ted had taken over. But the food had also become more mainstream and there were more cooking students.

They took their time over dinner and simply wandering the Academy’s halls, reacquainting and chatting about the month apart. After looking in on a few mutual friends, Marcus was pleasantly surprised to find that Tisha’d put them both on the same floor at opposite ends of the hall. And he’d been roomed with Justin. He didn’t know Julia’s roommate, Toril something or other, but she seemed happy and apparently had had a couple good experiences in the past.

Once they parted for the night, Marcus unpacked and settled in. He figured he basically had a single room, since Justin would hardly ever be around. The vampire liked to stay active, so the room was just a place to toss his stuff. After a while, the young sorcerer stretched out on his bed, but had trouble falling asleep. His brain insisted on trying myriad class names, because everyone else’s were always so creative . . .

Night City (pt. 1) (2010)

A while back, I decided to put together a few vignettes to describe a setting.


“I’m here to see Darius.”

The mass of muscle passing as a doorman gave Robert a visual once over. He seemed to take in everything from the black combat boots to the jeans, shirt, light jacket, and long straight hair. The eyes lingered on both jacket and the thick leather wristband that Robert wore on his left arm. But this was expected as both bore the unmistakable faint blue auras of magic, specifically sorcery, for those who could see them.

“Darius doesn’t see message boys,” the brute responded.

Probably a thaumod, Robert decided, based on his inhuman bulk.

Still.

“He wants to see me,” Robert replied, flashing the symbol on his wristband. The sign was borne by all members of his order when they were not on assignment. “I’m not working . . . at least not that way.” The last added after the thug’s shocked eyes narrowed in suspicion. As a show of good faith, he slowly drew his HK USP and handed it over grip first. “Here, keep it ‘til I leave.” There were still several knives and other pointy surprises on his person plus his sorcery, but security seemed to relax if they thought they had all the guns.

Apparently that held true here as well. The bouncer led him into the club.

Nymphotopia.

Trust the Epicurean Order, he thought as they made their way toward the back, to base themselves out of a high quality strip, sorry, gentlemen’s club. And to make it one of the top restaurants with the best wine cellar in the city too. At least they were sometimes useful, and a few made worthy adversaries.

He allowed a mental sigh of relief as they came to a stop. Darius wasn’t one of the obese Epicures, not that there should be any of that sort with easy access to biomagic. Even the necromancers and wizards could do a little body sculpting. This leader of the order appeared trim and well built, if a little out of shape.

Robert gave a shallow bow of respect due for one of greater rank.

The other mage, a spellcrafter he noted, tore his gaze away from a stage on which a scantily clad man and woman danced. After a second, and what Robert guessed was a muttered word of power, he asked, “You wish to see me?”

“My master has sent me to warn you of an alliance between Julian and Hannibal.”

“How would they ally? They hate each other,” the Epicure scoffed.

Robert had been briefed for this reaction. “Are you not planning to open up a . . . club with benefits called ‘The Zoo,’ specializing in exotics?”

To his credit, Darius didn’t seem shocked, “If I am?”

“Would this not be a rival to Julian’s exotic brothel, ‘The Garden’? And would it not eat into his profits?” he replied, “Your organization and Julian’s are evenly matched.”

Darius nodded. “And what of your master?”

“She is concerned.”

“And does she offer support?”

Robert shook his head. “Simply the warning that Julian intends, through intermediaries, of course, to bring Hannibal to the opinion that another such establishment would be bad for the city. Increased crime and violence, for instance.”

“Which, of course, he’ll pounce on since he’s already tried closing ‘Topia,” Darius muttered, then louder, “I’ll have to confirm this information, but tell your master that I will owe her a debt if it’s true.”

“Of course.”

Recognizing his dismissal, Robert bowed again, retrieved his gun, and left the club.

Once he reached his car and drove several blocks from the club, he concentrated for a few seconds. When the spells he’d cast detected no observation, the messenger drew a flat cell phone and dialed from memory. A comm crystal would, of course, be more efficient, but most of the people he was avoiding took pains to detect and eavesdrop on magical communication. Those same people tended to ignore phones as beneath them, things only mundanes used.

The instant a connection was made, Robert said, “He’s checking, but bought it,” and hung up.

His message sent, with all his boss needed to know, he continued driving toward one of his handful of safehouses in the city.

The apartment was spartan, barely furnished with three easy exits beyond the single use teleportation stone he’d enchanted weeks ago. Like his other boltholes, this one had nothing to identify its occupant. In a city full of, and run by, magical guilds and orders, those lacking in such connections, despite his implied association with the Unseen Order that cowed Darius, needed such precautions. Yet, he had not lied, since the Epicure would assuredly be trying to detect falsehoods. Robert did serve a master, and she was concerned about Darius’ order, just not in the way he had inferred.

What exactly her plans were, Robert did not know or care. It was enough to know that she was powerful and skilled in sorcery, protected him, and taught him the art in return for his service. Not that he was a blind minion. Their’s was a business relationship, of sorts. They were both aware of that truth. She would only protect him so long as he did nothing stupid and doing so did not jeopardize her plans or position. Consequently, he would serve so long as he profited from the relationship and had a reasonable chance of surviving the tasks she requested.

In the meantime, the Mithraic Order awaited him.

Robert tapped a simple tattoo on his wristband. Halfway through, the symbol of the Unseen Order vanished. It was unnecessary now that he was no longer masquerading as one of them. When the tapped rhythm was complete, he held a plain nut brown jo in his right hand. Both focus and wristband had been enchanted to conceal the sorcerer’s staff when it wasn’t convenient to carry openly. His kind had had to develop several such tricks to conceal themselves from mundanes until recently in their history.

Fortunately, most had forgotten the tricks over the last century of living openly.

Carrying the staff in ‘Topia would leave him encumbered. In the rest of the city, especially where he planned to go, it would be no problem. In fact, among the order of warriors it may even aid him. Even so, Robert double checked his HK and added a sheathed, short bladed qama to his person before he left. This visit had nothing to do with his master’s interests, thus he could not count on her aid should things go south, as the saying went.

As he drove across the city, Robert considered. He owed a debt to the Mithraics that his information should pay in full. Still, they respected strength and one didn’t approach them demonstrating weakness. And he did trust his contact in the order. But to arrive unarmed, a gesture others took as a sign of security and peace, the Mithraics took as a sign of disrespect. It was tantamount to saying the Mithraic was weak and beneath your concern, that he wasn’t a threat. They didn’t take kindly to that idea. Nor did their warrior god.

Fortunately, they, like their god, did reward loyalty and truth.

Unlike most of Night City’s guilds and orders, the Mithraics kept their center of operations hidden. Probably their legacy of centuries of persecution at the hands of Christians, their former rivals. Whatever. Robert secretly thought they did it to annoy people. At least they’d given him a place to meet their contact when it was necessary.

He pulled up outside the restaurant, gathered his jo, and went in to find a table.

Robert waited until his chosen table opened up, one with chairs rather than a booth and situated so he could see the door in his peripheral vision. As he sat, he adjusted the qama and leaned his staff against the table near his hand. Neither elicited any comments from other patrons. The Gryphons, Mithraics, and Shadows commonly walked the streets openly armed. Mundane culture held little sway in the city. Especially since most of the other patrons had staves, or the signs of pocketed wands, at their tables. Lots of sorcerers tonight, he observed, although there were also a fair number of necromancers and wizards, both recognizable by the tools of their respective arts. Both used similar herbs and such, in rather different ways. Or so he’d understood.

A cup of coffee and half a bagel, that had been fresh that morning, later, his contact arrived.

Typical Mithraic, he thought as the man crossed the room. Male, average to tall, good build, legionnaire’s haircut. From the European branch, probably from those who’d fled to Spain after the Albigensian Crusade. There weren’t many from the Indian or Persian branches in the city, he knew. This one covered both bases, though, with a gladius and katar at his belt. Probably a few bound spirits too, he knew the man was a necromancer.

“Sextus,” he greeted the man after the other sat down.

“Robert,” the Mithraic returned, “We are safe to speak, those around will not hear.”

“You’ll understand if I add my own protection,” the sorcerer asked. He touched his jo lightly and thought for the necessary heartbeats as he spoke.

Sextus nodded his approval. “My people have learned the value of caution since Constantine betrayed us for the followers of the sheep. But we are not here to discuss the past.”

“Indeed. The future and present are more important at the moment,” Robert agreed, “I intend to pay my debt with information. Soon now, within the month, I believe, there will be a war in the city. Darius and Julian, with Hannibal involved somehow. The feds, as usual, will not get involved. The only way they could is through negotiation or force. The President won’t risk offending one side in diplomacy, so that will fail, especially with appropriate nudges. And he won’t risk the orders uniting against federal troops.”

Sextus nodded, “That would be the averted mundane-magic conflict of the sixties all over again. I agree with your assessment. I will relay your message to the lords of my order and see if they agree. If so, we will prepare and your obligation will be lifted, I think.”

Robert returned the nod, confident that he was free of the debt.

This was not to say that the Order of Mithras were gung-ho berserkers, he thought. They simply enjoyed and sought tests of their skills. Advance warning would let them position their people for the most appropriate tests.

After another half hour of exchanging gossip, both left, Sextus for who knew where, Robert for home and at least a little sleep.

When morning came, he rose, cleaned up, and went to Zeno’s. There was nowhere better in the city to get a coffee and catch up on the goings-on of the previous night. Or day, as the case may be. Being a vampire, Hardrada kept the coffee shop open around the clock. And he ensured that it remained factionally neutral. Not many people wanted to mess with a vamp who remembered the last millennium and had been studying sorcery nearly that whole time.

Hell, Robert thought as he entered, Hardrada was so feared that he enforced the Pax Hardrada to a few blocks radius from the place. With no faction, guild, or order affiliation no less.

Since he was a regular, he found his usual at the counter and left cash before finding a seat near the shop’s bookcase. Once he was settled with his plain, no frills, coffee and an equally plain bagel, Robert tapped out half the tattoo of the previous night, calling his jo. The focus-weapon rested against his knee as he surveyed the room. Most of the other patrons were regulars representing about a third of the city’s orders and guilds. More would pop in as the day went, trading news, spying, making treaties, leveling threats. The usual.

And there were a few newcomers. Or replacements for order operatives otherwise employed.

Dear gods, one of the newcomers was headed his way. Judging by her mildly bewildered look, she wasn’t only new to Zeno’s but to the city as well. Cute, though, he had to admit that. About his height, shoulder length blonde, fit as shown by her khaki cargo pants and black sports bra ensemble, and likely not a sorceress. She had a bit of the necromancer’s distraction to her, like she was aware of other people that most couldn’t see. Which would likely be true.

“Excuse me,” she said, sitting close enough that Robert was acutely aware that her top was maybe a size too small, and he didn’t mean the open jacket. “You look . . . like a native.”

“I’m not sure about that, but I have been here awhile . . . Do we know each other?”

“Sorry,” she said as she blushed a little, “I’m better dealing with the dead than the living, and they’re often not concerned with names. But they’re not helpful right now. Oh, I’m Char Stevens. We haven’t met before.”

“Ah . . . Robert.”

“Robert.”

“Yes?”

“Oh, sorry. I’m looking for something, for a friend. I’ve traced it to the city, but I’ve only been here for a couple hours and never visited before,” she explained. “A spirit said I should come here, but they’re rather vague and aren’t good at explaining.”

“I don’t think I can help you at the moment.”

Char laughed briefly, “No, I wasn’t asking for help finding it, or with the spirit.” She glanced at his staff. “But, maybe . . . you know someone who could help?” The last on a hopeful up tone in her voice.

Robert gave a helpless shrug, “Your spirit gave you bad info. You’d do better at the Knight Museum or the Academy.”

“No, it was very insistent, and truthful. We can tell.”

“I don’t know what to tell you, then, but I’m not the guy.” He spotted someone entering the shop and gestured toward the door. “Sorry, I’ve got a meeting. He’s particular about not having visitors.”

Rather than expecting the newcomer to take the hint, Robert rose and approached his contact before finding a different table.

Undaunted, Char, Charlotte really, gave herself a few seconds to adjust her vision. Once she could perceive both the material and spirit realms at once, she looked at the spirits bound to one of her rings for guidance. The ghost of her former master was, as she’d expected, less than helpful. Much as she liked him, the old Goblin could be as frustrating as he was lovable, although he’d never been the latter around others. Making her figure out his advice alone was probably another test.

She shook her head in exasperation, wondering for the umpteenth time why she’d thought it would be a good idea to bind his spirit.

The only other spirits Char spotted were all either bound to her or obviously under the sway of other necromancers. No help there. So. Plan B. She consciously removed the mental walls she used to dampen her artificially enhanced senses. With the blocks down, the thaumod’s senses picked up subtle odors from the kitchen, muted conversations at every table and couch, even the whispered air currents of the room. Still no help. None of the myriad conversations came close to being interesting.

On to Plan C, then, she thought as the mental walls were rebuilt. Take the local’s advice and check out the Academy. What she sought could be at the museum, but curators were notoriously uninterested in giving up their treasures, even for a good cause or better preservation. And without a TRA presence, the museum probably had private security. Not that the Thaumaturgical Regulatory Agency provided museum security, but the lack of federal officers in a city this size suggested limited policing.

Nothing else to do for it, she thought with mental shrug. Char got directions to the academy from one of the baristas.

A mile outside the city proper, she came upon the Bloyse Academy, or at least the gates of its encircling wrought iron fence. Char was well traveled enough to take it for granted that the fence represented the boundaries of teleport blockers and other magical wards. As she pulled up to the gate, an older woman stepped out of a small office guard house. She appeared non-threatening, probably a formality. Made sense. Even mundane schools were being careful of visitors these days, especially with magic so widespread.

“What’s the nature of your business?” the woman asked as Char rolled down her window.

“I’d like to speak with the principal.”

“Do you have an appointment?” the woman asked as she eyed Char’s attire. Fortunately, she’d buttoned up the jacket.

“Sorry, no. I didn’t know I was coming until a short time ago. I was supposed to be out of town now, but my editors . . .”

The guard woman stepped back into her box and Char saw her tap an earring. Likely a communication crystal. She kept her own on a pendant on the silver chain she wore.

A few moments later, the gate opened.

“Principal Manfred says he can give you ten minutes. Park there, wear this, and his office is on the first floor of that building,” the woman said. As Charlotte pinned on the visitor badge, the woman added, “Any weapons, offensive enchantments, or spirits on your person?”

Because the woman glanced toward her shoulder, Char nodded, “Just two spirits, a ghost bound to my ring and a canine spirit bound to myself. Neither is violent.” The woman nodded in satisfaction and waved her through.

Charlotte parked and walked along the paths across green quads through the neo-classical buildings. She guessed a number were dorms, since the Academy had the look of a boarding prep school. The building she wanted was rather large and grandiose, even compared to the rest. From the directory inside, she discovered that it held the administrative offices, faculty housing, and the main school dining hall. Probably labs for the faculty and rec equipment as well, if she judged the place correctly.

Finding the principal’s office only took a couple minutes, after which she was waved into the office proper.

After exchanging pleasantries with the slightly balding, long bearded man in the pinstripe suit, Hugh Manfred, she went straight to the point.

“Sorry for the unexpected visit, sir. I only discovered that I need the assistance of one of your faculty within the last hour. An interview,” the last added as she noted his concerned look, “for Sorcery Today, an article on detection devices.” Without thinking, she began to produce pheromones magically tailored to lull anyone in close proximity.

As the principal was.

“Of course,” he gave a polite cough and straightened, “An expert on both artifice and oracular sorcery then? Professor Winn should be exactly who you are looking for, and she should be free in a few minutes, once the period ends. Office 315. In the meantime, feel free to make use of the staff lounge down the hall.”

Charlotte repeated the information to herself as she gave Manfred a seated bow. “Thank you, Principal Manfred. I should let you get back to work. My apologies again for being such a bother on such short notice.”

He waved her off, “Think nothing of it. We’re always glad to share the expertise of our faculty especially with the wide reaching press, even if we only normally do so during breaks . . .”

“Thank you for bending the rules this one time, Principal Manfred,” Charlotte said as she left the room. “You’ve saved my job, sir. I’ll make sure the Academy gets a glowing review in the magazine.”

She hurried out of the office and started up the stairs. It would be best, she felt, to avoid the lounge. Best to stay out from underfoot, lest someone change their mind about an outsider and supposed reporter being loose on the private boarding school’s grounds.

Finding room 315 was easy enough, once she determined which wing of the building it was in. Remaining inconspicuous was an entirely different story. Between the upper floor’s general silence and the students downstairs, Char became uncomfortably aware that there were few adults, she guessed around fifty, and that she was an outsider. In the closed community, all the adults probably knew each other. And the kids likely knew all the adults. Then there was the chance that Manfred would change his mind or check thaumnet to verify her non-existent credentials. Maybe the idea hadn’t been a good one. Maybe hiring a private investigator or hunter would have been better. After all, she was a crafter, this wasn’t her expertise. Mimicking movie and story detectives would only go so far before it all fell apart.

The seven minutes that passed since leaving the principal’s office felt, well, not like eons. Too cliché. More like hours.

Finally the old Goblin’s ghost alerted her to someone heading down the hall.

Charlotte looked over and sighed silently in relief. She didn’t recognize the woman. Bracing herself, she fervently hoped this was Professor Winn and, yes, the woman passed by every other door. As the teacher drew nearer, Char noted that she was not quite a traditionalist. Beneath a black traditional, almost collegiate, robe, she wore a knee length grey skirt and white blouse. That, plus the fact that the robe was open and bore no signs of traditional enchantment, spoke volumes. For instance, she was fairly young, but fitting in with an older crowd of instructors. That knowledge, assessed in an instant, helped.

Stepping up, Char delivered a reasonably traditional bow in greeting, “Professor Winn?”

“This is Professor Winn’s office and this is Professor Winn’s key.”

Charlotte flashed a wan smile, choosing to take the reply as poor humor.

“Principal Manfred sent me up. I need to consult with someone knowledgable with oracular sorcery, he strongly recommended you.”

“He did, did he?” the teacher sniffed, “Well, of course I have no papers or assignments to assess. No busy work created by the administration in the name of standards. Nothing at all.”

“I understand you’re busy, professor . . . but I hope my consultation won’t take more than a few minutes.”

“Which means it will no doubtedly take much longer. But, come in and let’s hear about this problem.”

Once they were inside, Char took a seat that had likely been filled by scores of students. She ignored the rest of the office to focus on the other woman. The moment that Winn sat, the necromancer drew a shard of pottery from her bag of materials.

“This is associated with something I seek to help a friend,” Charlotte explained, “What I need is apparently protected from the view of spirits. And I have reason to believe it is protected from the usual sorcerous and wizardly scrying too. I’m not exactly certain what it is.”

“Thus a spellcrafter’s art is useless,” the professor finished, “So you decided on the Academy . . .”

“Because a man in the city recommended it. And I assume you follow the tradition of magic schools?”

“Neutrality? That our faculty are forbidden from joining any guild or order? Of course, we are a reputable institution,” Winn replied with just a touch of imperiousness. “Very well, let me see this shard.”

The teacher ran her hands over the piece of pottery for several seconds, manipulating energy that Char was unable to detect without external aid. From what she knew of sorcery, Winn was probably drawing and shaping energy. Knowing how badly a necromantic ritual could go if the caster was interrupted, she remained silent and watched. The process lacked the inherent show and, some might say, spectacle of her own art. No chanting, no candles, no offerings were present. Simply a woman sitting at a desk touching a piece of pottery with a slender stick barely the length of her own forearm.

After a time, the professor met her eyes across the desk.

“You were correct,” she said, “What you seek is protected from the usual basic divinations and scrying. The wards would block my most advanced students here and would no doubt foil the average oracle for hire. Few in the city are capable of creating such protections, even fewer know how to circumvent them. The one who sent you here has probably helped more than he intended.”

“So you can find it?” Char gave the shade of her ex-master a quick glance.

Winn nodded, “I believe so. I know a spell that should be powerful enough. But it will take at least half an hour to gather the energy and cast.”

She nodded instantly in return. “I’ve been looking for over a year, half an hour is nothing. And I’ll reimburse you for your time, as much as I can.”

The professor flicked her wand at the door, which audibly locked itself. Another simple pattern of wandwork caused the door to glow for a second. “Then I will require absolute silence. You may stay, but any distraction and the spell may fail with disastrous results.”

Char sat back and made herself as comfortable as possible in response.

She intended to remain watchful throughout the process, but after ten minutes of nothing to see but Winn staring into space with her wand raised, she lost focus.

A cleared throat brought the necromancer around.

Embarassed and realizing she must have nodded off, Charlotte took a few seconds before meeting Winn’s eyes. When she did, she started to apologize until the professor held up a hand.

“No need,” the teacher gestured toward the door, “If I got offended every time someone slept around me, I would have been driven mad by this job long ago . . .”

“Did . . . did you find it?”

The professor nodded gravely.

“And?”

“I don’t believe I was detected. And I advise you to leave the city and forget about whatever it is that you seek.”

Charlotte shook her head, “That’s not an option. All my research says it’s the only thing that can help. Where is it?”

“The location is why I advise you to forget it . . .,” Winn sighed, “My spell traced it to Tempus Manor.”

“Alright, that’s my next stop then.”

“You do not just go to Tempus Manor. The manor is the power center of the Shadow Order. They control most of the city’s criminal activity, and have stakes in crime throughout the country,” Winn explained. “Some say around the world. Think of the mundane mafia, but ten time worse.”

“So how do I get this thing?”

“That, I cannot tell you, at least not without violating the neutrality of the school,” Winn replied, touching the pottery shard with her wand. “If you are set on this course of action, though, I can furnish you with this.” She handed the broken shard back to Charlotte. “It will tell you when you are close to the item, a stronger glow the closer you are.”

Stowing the shard as she rose, the necromancer met Winn’s eyes, “Thanks, for that and your time.”

On that note, she beat a hasty retreat from both the building and the Academy. As she drove back into town, Charlotte let her mind wander over the possibilities. According to her research, this was the only thing that could help, but it appeared to be unattainable. From time to time, she glanced at the spectral Goblin in the passenger seat, hoping he would offer some advice.

She was so lost in her thoughts that soon after passing the Night City limits, Charlotte almost hit a young man. As he gave her a gesture that asked what she was doing, the necromancer registered shoulder length straight brown hair, t-shirt, jeans, a staff, and a knapsack with two long white sticks on his back.

Brian Carter jumped as the car almost hit him.

He gestured toward the red light and raised his hands to silently question the driver.

With a shake of his head, the spellcrafter continued to the other side and took a left toward his destination. At least, he hoped he was going the right direction. So far he’d gotten himself lost twice in the city. Being a suburban kid from out of state was no help navigating the busy city. Heck, half the streets didn’t even have signs. He’d already had to stop for clearer directions a few times.

A couple blocks later, Brian muttered two words in a language long forgotten by mundanes. His own kind has kept it alive in some of their grimores and histories over the last six millennia. Combined, the two sought his goal . . . and failed, as they had during his last several attempts. Either he’d gotten the second word wrong or the place was protected against divinations of all sorts. Probably the second, he decided. It was, after all, said to be the home of a great master, one who may choose to test his potential students.

Brian stopped at the corner of an alley, closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and willed his body and spirit to relax as he exhaled.

The effect was instantaneous.

He felt loose, all his tension released to go where it would.

His eyes opened to find three people coming toward him. As they approached from in front, behind, and the alley, he noted their threatening body language and similar style of dress. His rattan staff clattered against the pavement as his hand rose in surrender.

The one in front drew a thin wand while Brian heard the sound of steel clearing leather from behind. He ignored his right for the moment, as the one in front spoke, “We’re takin’ donations, sir . . . to beautify the city.”

“I have no money,” he replied, knowing that without his staff in hand, they’d be more confident.

“Why don’ I believe that? Ain’t gonna be a problem if we search ya?”

In response, Brian simply turned to face the knife woman behind him. He grabbed her incoming hand as he pivoted again, muttering two words to block the leader’s spell. As he continued to turn, Brian drew his oak practice dagger and let the woman’s momentum carry her into its point. As she doubled over, he’d already slid toward the alley man, slide stepped next to him, and rapped the hard wood against his assailant’s windpipe. He paused then to face the leader, the tip of his wooden knife pointed toward the man’s throat and words of power on his lips.

“I assure you, I have no money,” Brian tried again, “and no desire to fight.”

When the man glanced toward his disabled companions, the spellcrafter whispered words that caused his dropped staff to float to his open hand. The practice knife returned to its place tucked in his belt. And Brian simply walked away, maintaining his subtle, non-magical, awareness of the mugger for a few yards.

He turned a corner a few blocks later, down a narrow, junk filled alley. About halfway down, between the two soot blackened brick buildings, Brian found the door he sought. He neither saw nor expected any bell or other means of indicating his presence. The one he had come to see would know, or he was not the one Brian looked for. Besides which, he had heard the man was a stickler for tradition and courtesy.

Thus, Brian sat, his pack on his back and his training sticks set to the side in an inoffensive place.

Years of practice from a young age made sitting in the kneeling position comfortable for several hours. Even so, as night drew near and his presence had not been acknowledged, he felt cramps in his legs. Subtle breathing and internal relaxation techniques somewhat eased the ache, but not completely. To deal with the rest, Brian focused on the door and wall. He attempted to let go of conscious thoughts and ignore the night sounds of the city.

In time, the alley became filled with a darkness that passersby found impenetrable, concealing the waiting man.

This also made the city lights more difficult to ignore, or might have if Brian had not entered a trance-like state.

Two days passed in this way.

Near dusk of the third day, a young woman’s head appeared from behind the open door.

“The master wishes to know why you are blocking his door.”

“I seek, humbly, to enter the master’s attention, however briefly.”

The woman left and the cracked door closed.

A few minutes later, she returned.

“The master wishes to know why, if you sought his attention, you did not knock.”

Brian swore she had smiled for a fraction of a second after the statement.

“I had been led to believe that the master greatly honored tradition, and that sitting at his door awaiting notice was traditional.”

“Ah,” the woman nodded, “he thought it would be that. In that case, Master Sikula says you may enter and have an audience . . . after you have knocked on his door like a sensible person.”

After a few minutes, Brian muttered two words in a lost language. The air stirred as the last syllable was pronounced and two dull thuds sounded as the wind made contact with the door. The supplicant was on his feet and waiting when the woman returned, opened the door, and waved him in.