by Tom Dillon
The resounding boom of a book falling off my desk woke me up, but it was the sound of a vial rolling across the scarred surface of my work bench that got me out of bed. I scrambled across the room, stepping on something sharp along the way, but managed to catch the vial before it hit the ground.
Good thing. If it had somehow shattered despite the enchantment, the whole building would have been engulfed in flames. My last girlfriend had told me that the precarious stacks of things in my home would be the death of me. Smart woman. By the time I had everything back in place, I was already half asleep. Until I looked out the window. Lights were shining through a cloud of smoke coming from a building several blocks away.
I got dressed and headed for the building with the smoke coming out of it. By the time I got there, the City Guard had already surrounded the place.
“Sorry sir, no one goes in,” a Guardsman with tired eyes told me when I approached. I handed him my license, and he inspected it, the metal inlays flashing in the alchemical streetlights. I didn’t say anything, the less you give them, the less they have to be suspicious of.
“Thanks Mr. Ramsey. Be careful in there,” he said, stepping aside, apparently satisfied that my badge was the real thing, which it wasn’t.
Once I was inside the perimeter, no one questioned me. I passed people taking care of the miscellanies of police work: collecting evidence, getting statements, checking for injuries, and the like. The apartment was easy to find, it was the one with the missing door and holes in the walls where small objects had shrapneled through.
“Any idea what happened here?” I asked an inspector when he came out of the room.
“Looks like a spell got out of control,” he said.
“Thanks, mind if I take a look?” I asked.
“Be my guest.” He waved me in. Had he checked, he would have known my badge was a fake. The thing about being an independent investigator was that my livelihood depended upon me being able to get close to things that I shouldn’t be able to. I had gotten pretty good at looking like I belonged.
The apartment was clean, anything too big to be blown out with the explosion had been either melted or converted into small piles of ash. Something was wrong, though. Everything in there, with the exception of the residue of the spell that had destroyed the place, had been mundane. Magical things didn’t just leave behind grey dust and puddles of metal. If someone who was capable of a spell like this had done this to their own place, it would look like a seared rainbow. On the other hand, why would someone cast it? A spell like this just had no place in a murder, anyone who was capable would have better means of killing. The same logic applied to every other reason I could think of.
“Afternoon, David. Did you hear about that explosion last night?” were the first words out of Sven’s mouth when he sat down across from me at the cafe. He looked like hell, or at least as much like hell as someone like him ever looked. Even with slept-in looking clothes and two days of stubble he looked professional, but his eyes looked tired, like he had been furrowing his brow for a week straight and they had finally just given up and let themselves be pulled tight. I had never seen anything like despair on his face before, and it was unnerving.
“Yeah, it was about a block from my house,” I said. “You hear anything about what caused it?” I had been hoping that the papers would have an explanation in the morning, but they hadn’t.
“Nothing,” Sven said with a sigh. “No progress on the other incidents, either.” The past two weeks had been filled with anomalies: streetlights exploding for no apparent reason, people falling into inexplicable comas, long-standing enchantments malfunctioning. It would have been good news for people like me if we could offer any sort of solutions.
Sven had moved on from the Investigations business and was now a Security Consultant for the Guard. It must have been pretty embarrassing for him to not know. One of the advantage of working for myself was that there was no one to disappoint.
“It was weird. As far as I could tell, the whole building was mundane, nothing was left but a bunch of ashes.” I looked up and Sven had stopped in mid-sip, looking like a fish about to be gutted.
“Wait, you were there?” he asked.
“Yeah, conned my way in,” I said, miming flashing a badge.
“You’re a crazy bastard, you know that? Flashing a fake badge to the Guard. One of these days you’ll get caught, you know.” He smiled a little.
“Hopefully not,” I said. The Guard didn’t look too kindly on imitators.
Our food arrived and Sven started eating his noodles with a purpose, not even looking up. I had known him for a long time, long enough to know there was something that he wanted to talk about but wasn’t willing to bring up.
“What is it?” I asked. He looked like a cat caught in the pantry. “What is it that you want to ask me?”
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I think that the Guild has something to do with this,” he said.
“Come on Sven,” I said. He was completely convinced that the Engineers’ Guild was behind some vast conspiracy. Craziness.
“Hear me out,” he pleaded. At least he knew how he sounded. “About the time this all started, the Guard broke up a smuggling ring. Mostly they were bringing in Spell Ink ingredients, but they were bringing in a bunch of other stuff, too. Exotic stuff, but none of it is illegal or even specially taxed. You have that friend at the Guild . . .”
“Edgar,” I said. We had all attended the College together, until he had been kicked out. “What makes you think that the Guild is connected to this smuggling ring and to the anomalies of the past weeks?”
“I got ahold of the report and almost everything that wasn’t used for Spell Ink was stuff whose only known use was for Engineering. I know you think I’m nuts, but just go and give it a shot. If you don’t find anything, I’ll drop it.”
“I’ll do it, just get me any information you have, alright.”
“Thanks. I owe you one,” he said.
“I know,” I said, though for once I had no intention of collecting. Somewhere over the course of the conversation he had relaxed a little, and now looked content to sit there for a bit, which was worth more to me than any favor I could ask of him. I got up to leave.
In a city that breathed magic, the designers of the Guild headquarters knew that they would never fit in, and so had decided to not even try. The building was a monument to Engineering, with massive, uniform stones on the exterior, held together by nothing more than skill, planning, and labor. There were no impossible angles, no unsupported outcroppings, just simple stone that was all the more impressive for its elegance. Inside, everything was lit by gas lamps and from mirrored shafts that funneled sunlight into the building’s interior.
“I’m here to see Edgar Gray,” I told the clerk who was manning the front desk. “Tell him it’s David Ramsey.” The clerk gave me a funny look, they didn’t get many Practitioners here.
“Just a moment,” he said.
A few minutes later he returned with Edgar. His bushy red eyebrows and mustache contrasted against his black work clothes to give him a permanently manic look, like he was always in the middle of something that was incredibly important and interesting. Still, he looked happy to see me. Like most Engineers, he was pale enough that he probably glowed in the dark. Despite that, when he shook my hand, I could feel the strength of his grip.
“David. It’s been a while,” he said.
“Do you have a few minutes?” I asked.
“Sure, let’s head back to my office,” he said, and led me past the front desk.
Edgar had done well. After he had gotten kicked out of the College, I had worried that he would end up as just another nameless assistant. Instead, he had left magic behind and joined the Guild. Edgar’s office was a small room that connected to a spacious shop space. The shop didn’t look so different from a Practitioner’s lab, with vials and containers replaced by tools and bits of metal and wood spread across the work surfaces. Edgar’s office, on the other hand, was meticulously well kept, and with the exception of a few sets of schematics spread across the desk, everything was neatly shelved.
“So what did you need to talk to me about?” he asked.
“Did you hear about that explosion last night?” I asked.
“Who didn’t?” Not surprising, it had been all over the papers.
“Is there any way someone in the Guild could be involved?”
He laughed. “The chemists are all pissed off right now because the Guard spent all morning interviewing them. Honestly, that wouldn’t make any sense, it’s not exactly hard to kill someone with a spell. It doesn’t require an Engineer, it barely requires a Practitioner.”
“I know, I know. Its just that with everything odd that’s been going on for the last couple of weeks, I was hoping that you might be able to tell me something that might help,” I said.
“Wow, you’ve got nothing to go on, do you?” he said. “Don’t worry about it too much, I’m sure you’ll come up with something.” He was done with the conversation, his eyes already drifting back to the schematics laid out across his desk.
“Yeah, I’m sure you’re right.”
“Sorry I couldn’t be more help . . .” His way of saying that he needed to get back to work.
“No problem, but if you hear anything, let me know, alright?” I handed him a business card and he pocketed it.
“Sure thing,” he said. “And good luck.”
The case files that Sven had given me listed an abandoned warehouse as the hub of the illegal activity, so it seemed like a reasonable place to start. The windows were dark and the door was unlocked, so I went inside.
The building was empty with the exception of a few pieces of rubbish pushed up against the walls. Even so, it was tiny, and with shelves or any sort of furniture, it would have been downright oppressive. There were several doors that led to small closets, but that was it. A cloud passed under the sun and the warehouse immediately dimmed, forcing me to pull out my alchemical lamp. As I dangled it from its chain, and looked around, I noticed the tracks that ran from the entrance straight to the back wall. They were the newest thing in the building, with the chips of stone from where they had been bolted into the stone floor still strewn about. I guessed that they weren’t there when the Guard investigated.
I touched the wall and found it to be mere illusion, my fingers passing through it as through mist. I stepped back and got my bearings. The illusory wall wasn’t an exterior wall, but rather the wall that the warehouse shared with the building next to it. Someone had gone to great expense and trouble to hide what they were doing, and whatever it was, I needed to know. As tempting as it was to just walk right through, I wanted to live long enough to enjoy my recklessness.
As a precaution, I used my telenium-steel knife to test the passage. The knife looked like a cheap blade, just a long piece of metal, one end wrapped with cord for grip, but the metal had been alloyed with telenium root, the key ingredient of spell ink, which caused it to absorb magical energy. After a few months sitting in my pocket, it had absorbed enough energy to interact directly with spells. Satisfied that the passage didn’t contain a trap, I began my other preparations.
I pulled a small spell booklet from one of my pockets and flipped through it until I found the spell I was looking for. I focused on the words written in Spell Ink, using the spike on the ring on my left hand to cut my thumb before pressing it into the page with the spell on it. The parchment absorbed the blood, and I felt the familiar cold shock of the spell starting to tap into of my energy. I willed spell around me, stopping when it appeared that I was looking at the world through a piece of smoked glass. I wouldn’t be completely invisible, but if anyone looked directly at me, all they would see was sort of a shadow, a trick of the light. True invisibility would have been better, but as it removed all vision, it was inconvenient to move around in, and that would be doubly true in unfamiliar surroundings.
I stepped through the illusory wall into a room that was much larger and well lit, at least to my shrouded senses. My caution was rewarded when several men turned a corner and headed directly towards me, forcing me to hop out of the way.
“How many more batches does he need?” One of the men in the convoy asked.
“Not sure. He made it sound like this was the last one, but who knows?”
“I’m looking forward for this month to be over.” The man who spoke let his shoulders slump, and even though I couldn’t make out his face, I could see that he was tired.
I followed them as they worked their way through the warehouse. It was exactly what I would have expected for people producing large amounts of Spell Ink. Everything was arranged in long rows, with work tables, vats, and cabinets. Unfortunately, it was well lit, with alchemical lamps sprouting from walls and columns, meaning I would have to maintain my invisibility. The spell was already starting to take its toll, causing my hands feel cold and an uneasiness growing in my stomach.
The men unloaded their cart as they went. Standing in the shadows, watching them go about their business, it became clear that they were exhausted. Although some of the items were quite heavy, they looked to be brawny enough to deal with them. Although I could still feel my strength leaking away, I was reassured by the frustration in their postures as they struggled to move the casks and crates, tired muscles shaky and clumsy. The spells that they were using to stay alert had done nothing for their bodies. Not that it was their fault, really, spells that boosted stamina usually ended up killing whoever the power was drawn from, and that was for the just the minor ones, the major ones were terrible things. Not a good trade any way you look at it.
Finally, we made it to the back of the warehouse, which had been walled off and divided into a series of rooms. The men opened the double doors of the largest room and pushed the cart inside. From outside I watched them store the few remaining items on the shelves, not wanting to risk the cramped and poorly lit confines of the room.
Once they were finished in the storage room, they made their way to the room on the other side of the building. One of them knocked. A moment later, he pulled the door open. The room inside looked like it belonged in the financial district, all polished wood and luxury. A man in a well-cut suit sat behind the desk, his hands folded in front of him. He beckoned them in, and I followed, too, glad that they hadn’t bothered to close the door.
He started speaking, never so much as looking in my direction, but not saying anything of any use, either. I should have guessed that something was up by the way the workers looked at each other, but I was too busy trying to figure out what I was going to do if it came to that, trying to ignore the growing chill in my chest.
I don’t know how long he was silent, looking at the place where I was standing, I hope it wasn’t too long. I looked at him, and it seemed he was looking back at me. I knew then that he was a practitioner, and a good one, most wouldn’t have noticed me. The jig was up. Vanity kept me from just dropping the illusion, but I prefer to think of it as strategy.
“I know you’re there,” he said, getting up from his desk. The workers were looking around, trying to spot me, but it was of no use. Yet. He pulled a small square of paper out of his desk, covered on both sides with serpentine writing. Whatever it was, I didn’t want to find out. Time to make an exit.
I shut the door and let the illusion around me fade away. There was a wooden wedge resting in the corner and I jammed it under the door and kicked it in place with my heel. A second later there was a thud as one of the men tried to force the door. I started to run back through the warehouse.
Behind me there were yells cut short by a pair of thuds. The Practitioner had probably drawn energy directly from his employees. Whatever he was going to use it for, I didn’t want to be around to find out. I tried to run faster but caught my foot on a set of shelves, sending me sprawling.
There was a flash of light and a concussion as the practitioner blasted through the door. His expensive shoes clicked against the concrete of the floor, marking his progress towards me. If I got up and ran, that would be the end of me. On the other hand, I doubted that I would do favorably against him if I attacked him, he clearly had more practice. The clicking drew closer.
My hand searched the workbench below which I was hiding. There was a thin packet of papers, that was it. I pulled it down. Flipping it open I found row after row of mechanically printed words. Impossible words. Spells.
“I see you’ve found–” The practitioner from the office was standing in the aisle, looking down at me, and I reacted before he could finish his sentence. I sliced my finger open and jammed it into the book, giving every speck of energy that I had to the spell.
I awoke in the starched, unfamiliar sheets of a hospital. My skin felt burned and chapped, stretched thin over my bones, but nothing seemed broken. I was whole.
I tried to sit up, but found my muscles too weak, and ended up pushing myself up onto the pillows behind me instead. There was a man sitting on a chair at the foot of my bed. He was wearing the blue uniform of the Guard, wrinkled from sitting and waiting. He looked tired.
“Yes,” I said, knowing that it wasn’t a question.
“What can you tell me about what happened at the warehouse?”
“Its all sort of fuzzy,” I said.
“So you don’t remember anything from that night?”
“Nothing.” It was a lie, and we both knew it, but the truth was that I didn’t remember much, and I wasn’t in any sort of state to put anything on the official record.
He was taking notes on a little pad, and I could hear his pen scratching across the surface. He rested the pen and paper on his lap and shut his eyes. I could see his fingers and knuckles turn white as he clenched his hands. Then he relaxed, with difficulty, first his hands, then his shoulders, then his face. When he opened his eyes again, I could no longer see his jaw muscles clenching.
“Listen, I’m just trying to figure out who did this, and since you’re the only person who was near the warehouse, we were hoping that you saw whoever did it. Anything at all that you can remember about the blast would be helpful.”
Ten years as an investigator teaches you how to hide your confusion, and it was a skill that I was thankful for at that moment.
“I really cannot remember a thing,” I said. “I can’t even remember what I was doing down there.” I felt bad for him, he had clearly hung all of his hopes on me and I had let him down. It pained me to deny help to someone who was just trying to do the right thing. He sighed and I could see the fight go out of him.
“If you do, let me know,” he said. “Here’s my card.”
He pulled his coat off of the chair that he had been using and left the room. On his way out, another man had to move out of his way. It was Sven.
“Sven, did you . . .” I asked.
“Yeah, I pulled you out of there” he said. “Good timing, too. Another minute or two and we would have been caught in the blast when the warehouse collapsed. I’ve never seen anything like it, it was as if someone had cast a Chill spell, but a thousand times stronger than I’ve ever seen. I heard reports of something strange going on, and got there as soon as I could. When I opened the door the hinges sheared off and the whole thing shattered. You’re lucky you didn’t freeze to death.”
The part about being the first one on the scene after “hearing reports” was clearly not true, he had been tracking me somehow. Under other circumstances, I would have called him on it, but he had just saved my skin, and I was exhausted. Besides, I would likely have done the same thing.
“Then why do I feel like I was left for dead in the desert?”
“The doctor said that the cold sucked the moisture right out of you. So now that you’ve been around one, any idea how these disproportionately powerful spells are going off?”
“No.” I squinted like I had a headache. In any other circumstance I doubt that I would have been to deceive Sven, he was too sharp, but my body was providing plenty of source material for my acting. Now to change the subject. “What happened to the other guy?”
“What other guy?” he asked, the previous line of enquiry forgotten.
“There was a practitioner, grey suit light hair. Did you see him? He would have been right by me.”
“I checked, you were the only one there.”
Not a good sign.
“Where are my clothes?”
Sven had given me back my fake badge, but hadn’t said anything about a spell book, printed or otherwise. Not only had the Practitioner escaped, but he had also been careful to remove the evidence of what was going on. I knew of only one person who had the necessary knowledge and skills to make one, and I needed to find him and stop him before the authorities did. Edgar and I weren’t as close as we had been, but he was still a friend. After what had happened at the warehouse, he probably wouldn’t be at the Guild, so I didn’t bother checking.
I knew that I would never be able to Locate Edgar directly. Ironic as it might sound, the Guild spent a lot on Practitioners, and it was unlikely that I would be able to get past their protections directly. But I had given him one of my business cards. As it was something directly associated with me, there would be no way for a protective enchantment to prevent me from finding it. Of course, there were hundreds, maybe thousands of those cards floating around the city. Still, it was worth a try.
I found a Locate spell in my pocket book. I also took out one of my business cards and a blank piece of paper. I studied the business card in order to get a feel for it, then put it away. I pricked my finger and held it to the spell book, willing a lot of force into the spell.
I was immediately glad that I did, because the dots that showed up on the blank piece of paper that I was holding were green, rather than the black of a weaker spell. It took about a minute for all of them to show up, and there were hundreds splayed out around the edges of the paper.
In the center was a dark green spot that represented the card that I was holding. Some of the dots were grey, I presumed that they were the older ones. There were also a few that were green, but faded, probably the ones coming through obscuring enchantments. I started looking at the dots, paying particular attention to the faded ones.
After several minutes of studying the map that I had created, I noticed one dot that was almost entirely faded away. My first thought was that it was a very old card, but then I saw that it was still a deep green, just very faint. Like a fresh card coming through a lot of enchantment. It was as good a place to start as any. I folded the paper into quarters and then unfolded it, creating a grid. I turned until the dot I was looking for was on the crease that pointed forward, and started walking.
As I walked my mind went over the mystery of what was happening. When Sven had described what I had done at the warehouse, things had started to click into place. The problem with all the strange spells that had been going off was that that for a practitioner to make a spell book, the more powerful the spell, the more work, knowledge, and skill had to go into it, which resulted in a self-regulating system. Sure, things occasionally went wrong, but it was rare. What was happening with the printed spell books was that people with no training or experience were able to use magic, and so none of the usual safeguards were in place. People had tried to mass-produce spell books before, but it had never worked, a handwritten spell is keyed to the person who wrote it, so using someone else’s spell usually had little or no effect. Apparently the mechanically printed spell-books got around that somehow, as though their generic nature managed to completely mesh with any user.
After a half hour of walking, the faded dot had moved to the center of the map, indicating that I was almost there. I was in near the center of the city, an area populated mostly by artisans and professionals who had done well for themselves, but not so well that they were able to afford to live on First Hill, with the old money. It was exactly the sort of place that Edgar would choose.
I reached a tall apartment building and looked down to see that the dot was in the center of the paper. Fortunately, there was no doorman. In the corner of the building’s lobby, there was a set of locked mailboxes, all labeled with a first initial and last name. I found E. Gray, apartment number 33.
There was no answer when I knocked on the door. I hoped that meant that Edgar wasn’t home. A spell indicated that the door wasn’t enchanted, so I set to work picking it. I could have used a spell to open it, but that would have left residue. It took longer than I would have liked, but with the help of a listening charm, I managed to open the door.
Most of the apartment was immaculate, but the office was a mess. It gave me some leeway to look around, but I had to be careful nonetheless, just because I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference if the place was ransacked didn’t mean that Edgar wouldn’t.
I did a simple Litmus spell to reveal traces of magical energy. The room was clean, not so much as a Shatterproofed ink pot. I could have stayed in the office, searching, for hours. Of course, I realized that Edgar would never pollute his workspace, it just wasn’t his style. I repeated the Litmus spell in his main room with the same results. I was beginning to doubt myself, but if I was right, time was of the essence. It would only be a matter of time before Edgar found out about me.
I repeated the spell in the bathroom. Nothing. Even worse, even the trivial amount of energy the spells were taking from my system were enough to wear me out. I tried again in Edgar’s oversized closet, and though there were traces of magical energy clinging to his clothes, it was the same result. I walked out of the closet and had almost closed the door when I saw what appeared to be stitches in the wall behind a layer of clothes.
A closer examination revealed a doorway. More precisely, a Gateway. He had built a door into the back wall of his closet, and then had it magically stitched to another doorway somewhere else. I could be reasonably sure that it was still in the city, as the farther away the other door was the more stitches were required and anything beyond city limits would need stitches the size of fleas.
I found myself shaking, half from excitement, half from exhaustion. I couldn’t go on in the state I was in, but I couldn’t wait to recover, either. I dug in one of the inside pockets of my jacket and pulled out a small wooden box. Sliding the lid open, I saw two shiny black pills. I knew that if I were to cast a Litmus spell on them, I would see the spheres glowing with energy.
I pulled one out and set it on my tongue. The pill slid down my throat like oiled loadstone. A few seconds later, the magic and amphetamines started to do their work, turning my fatigue into a faint memory. I knew the energy that I felt wasn’t real, that it wouldn’t take much to suck every gram of my energy into a spell, even the energy that kept me alive, but between the urgency and the drugs I couldn’t bring myself to care.
I opened the door.
The room that I found myself in had a half-dozen other doors, and I knew that if I were to open any one of them, I would find a Gateway to another place entirely. When I had attended the College, people had talked about networks of Gateways like the one I was in, but they were so hard to make I had never expected to see one. The drugs in my system honed my focus to a razor edge, though, and I found myself drawn to an arched opening to a much larger space.
“You just left him there?” The voice was Edgar’s, and he was angry. It sounded like he was talking about me. That my friend was upset about me being left for dead only made the revelation of his responsibility all the worse.
“Yes. I just left him there.” It was the practitioner from the warehouse.
I went to the archway and stuck my head around the corner. Inside was a large, dimly lit room dominated by what looked like a printing press. Although it wasn’t in operation, the cold machinery held plenty of menace for me.
“He’s like a wasp, if he knows, he’ll bring more like him,” Edgar said. “You should have killed him yourself.”
“You don’t understand, the vows–” the practitioner began.
“Don’t mean anything here,” Edgar said. “And they don’t mean anything out there, either. Do you think they would offer even a jot of protection if the College found out?” There was a long pause, and even though I couldn’t see either of them, I imagined Edgar staring the practitioner down. “What’s done is done, we have work to do.”
Dismissed, the practitioner began to walk towards the room where I was hiding. I put my back up against the wall next to the archway as he approached, the clicking of his shoes echoing in the cavernous room. I had my telenium-steel knife ready, in case he turned around, but he walked straight to one of the doors on the back wall and left without looking back.
I waited a few seconds before sheathing the knife and walking into the main room. Even in the silence, Edgar didn’t hear me as I approached. He was bent over his desk, shuffling through a loose stack of papers, searching for something. He didn’t look menacing, sitting there, he would have fit in perfectly in an office somewhere, a nameless cog in the machinery of bureaucracy. I started to move closer, and my movement caught his eye. He looked up, irritated but not surprised.
“David,” he said. “What do you plan to do, now that you’re here?”
“I don’t know,” I said. I opened my mouth to say more, but I stopped myself. I remembered playing strategy games with him in school. He would get the initiative, and keep pressing it until he won, and that was what he was doing now. “The truth is, I don’t care. So long as you stop printing those spell books, I’m happy.”
“You don’t get it, do you?” he asked, adopting the voice that he had always lectured me with. He gestured to the printing press. “This is progress. Even if you were to stop me today, sooner or later, someone will do it.”
“What about the kids who have been using the books? Progress doesn’t justify killing innocent bystanders.”
“What, do you want me to go through the College? Do you think that I didn’t try that? They laughed me out of the room, out of the whole damned institution, when I told them. They aren’t interested in bettering mankind, they aren’t interested in progress. The only thing they care about is maintaining their own status.”
What he was saying made sense. The college wasn’t exactly interested in moving things forward. As the only game in town, any innovation was a threat to them.
With the drugs in my system, my brain hadn’t processed the fact that he wanted me dead, and I had gotten so caught up in the conversation with him that I didn’t notice him pulling the card out of his pocket and squeezing his bloody forefinger against it. It was a simple spell that he cast, so the energy buildup wasn’t hidden or quick, which gave me time to dodge. He guessed that I would go right, but I went left, and the bolt missed me by a wide margin, splashing against metal somewhere behind me.
I looked around for a printed spell book like the one I had found in the warehouse. Behind Edgar, there were neat stacks ready to be packed into crates, but there wasn’t a way to get at them. I could have tried to attack Edgar directly, but just as he was protected from Location spells by the Guild, he would almost certainly protected from magical attacks, as well. I had always been a stronger Practitioner than him, but any attack powerful enough to get through would kill me in the process.
I reached into my pocket where my knife rested. Fortunately, common sense outweighed the euphoria of the drugs. When we had taken martial arts classes together at the College, I had never been a match for Edgar physically. I doubted that anything had changed, or that the drugs’ illusory vitality would lead to anything other than a quick death at his hands.
So I ran, and as I ran, I had an idea.
I made it back to the Gateway room, and went back through the passage that I had used before. Once I was back inside of his closet, I wedged the chair under the doorknob. A litmus spell revealed the magical stitches that were binding the reality on this side of the door to the reality on the other side. Once I could see them, the stitches appeared to be as solid as the door-frame that they were bound to, not ghostly like most magic. Even so, they were stretched thin, and when Edgar tried to open the door, I could see them quiver.
The door shuddered again as he threw a spell at it, and I set to work. He wouldn’t want to destroy the gateway he had built, so he was limited in what spells he could use, so I had some time. I picked a stitch at random and slid the blade of my telenium-steel knife underneath. When the edge of the blade came up against the stitch, it held as though the stitch was made of taut cord rather than a mere magical construct.
I picked and sawed at the stitch with my knife until finally it broke. The rest of the stitches vibrated and loosened, but were too well done to collapse. I guess you can’t get lucky all the time. I had begun to work on the next stitch when the tip of an axe blade splintered its way through the door and stuck there. I moved over to the side and kept working, thankful that the drugs were keeping me unnaturally calm. The second stitch broke, but the effect was less dramatic, with only the next stitch above it reacting at all to the change.
Edgar finally managed to get the axe out of the door and I moved to the other side of the frame. The axe came through the door again as I started working on a new stitch, and I noticed that the stitches all stretched out when it did. It made sense, moving something through the Gateway put a lot of strain on it. Finally, the last stitch was severed, just as Edgar was able to get his hand through the door. The stitches shuddered again from the breaking stitch and Edgar’s crossing of the threshold, but the Gateway still held.
I was out of time. I kept my knife out, but started to back out of the closet. Edgar managed to get the door open, and I saw him standing there, holding the axe at the ready. He stepped through the Gateway.
Apparently the weakened gateway couldn’t handle an entire person. He was about halfway through when it collapsed, snapping shut instantly. It severed him as though he were standing in the path of a giant razor, and the front half fell forward.
I wanted to leave, but I just sat down, trying not to look at what had once been my friend.
Sven was not happy with me when I showed up at his office. The hospital had made him cover the bill once they found out I had checked myself out. I felt bad about it, sneaking out like that, but I figured he would forgive me.
“So Edgar was behind the printed spell books?” Sven looked at me as though I were crazy. “I always knew that he was bitter about getting kicked out of the College, but . . .”
“Yeah, I know.”
“So it’s all over then?” he asked.
“Not exactly. I still don’t know where that warehouse actually was, and who knows what that practitioner is up to.”
“What do you know about gateways?”