Authors: Jeff Somers
“What kind of blade do you use?”
I frowned. “A switchblade.”
“Because of speed? Convenience?”
“Teach me a spell.”
I blinked. “What?”
“Anything.” He said it fast, reminding me of the old trick when you Charmed someone, asking a series of rapid-fire questions to warm them up, then punching in
tell me anything
to see what happened. I wondered if I was Charmed. If Cal Amir was so skilled he could Charm me and I wouldn’t even know it. I concluded he probably was.
“Teach me something clever,” he added. “I’ve heard you are
I didn’t say anything to that. If the
wanted to have fun with me, he could go fuck himself. A few seconds dripped by, quiet and marked off by passing trees, and then he reached over and slapped me, hard, with the back of one gloved hand.
“I said teach me one of your
I taught him how to gas up currency. Something quick and dirty he’d never encountered in his elite education—at first I worried I’d have to teach him what currency
, because Amir seemed like one of those rich assholes who’d never actually handled cash. He listened attentively, smiling, eyes bright. When I was done, he was excited.
“I see where you have substituted some unexpected Words, and I like the way you rely on the greed of your subject to do the heavy work of the spell. It has interesting implications for more complex work.”
I stared at him. Didn’t know what to say to this. It was like being on a date. Almost
He poked questions and comments at me for a few more minutes, picking at the details, strangely curious. Finally, he shut up and we drove a few minutes in peace.
Amir turned off the road and we were in the fucking woods, scratching our way up a dirt lane barely wide enough for his car. Somehow he managed to avoid the branches reaching for either side of his gleaming black coupe, making it seem like we were floating up the road. After a minute or so, I made out squares of light up ahead, windows, and the house slowly resolved itself out of the darkness. It wasn’t what I’d expected.
Mika Renar was
. There weren’t that many of us in the world, a few thousand, and for seventy years Renar had been the most powerful of us all, one of perhaps two dozen
in the world. There was no official classification. No test you could take and be proclaimed Archmage. You lived long enough and cast enough major spells, you got famous, even if it was only within our little world. She was ninety-four years old, and I’d always imagined her a spider, fat and gleaming and round, hidden away in some spectacular mansion. The house was big, and nice enough. But it wasn’t
. It was just a fucking house.
I started to feel better.
AMIR WALKED ME INTO
a small, dry study and left. It was a square, windowless room lined with wooden bookshelves. The carpet was deep and swallowed the soles of my shoes when I stepped onto it. A huge ebony desk dominated the room, eating up the floor space. Two huge red leather chairs were arranged in front of the desk. After the heavy, studded door closed behind Amir, it was so silent in the room I thought I could hear the dust I was kicking up, slamming into everything like asteroids.
I spun around slowly. The room felt hermetically sealed, like I’d suffocate in it within a few hours. I stepped over to the nearest
bookshelves and stared at them blindly for a moment, then frowned. The leather-bound books were hand-stitched, and the spines were hand-lettered in a rusty brown that looked exactly like dried blood.
Reaching for one, I paused with my hand in the air and turned. I wasn’t alone in the room.
There was a mummy behind the desk.
She was a skeleton with thin, papery skin stretched over bones, wearing what looked like several blankets draped over her narrow shoulders. Her hair looked like a tight, heavy wig of yellowed white, braided thickly in the back. Her nose was still elegant, long and turned up, the skin on it patchy and peeling. Stepping silently over the thick carpet, I leaned in and studied the figure: She was tiny and desiccated, and I would have thought she was dead except that her thin, liverish lips were moving. Whispering.
“You’re being quite rude, Mr. Vonnegan.”
I froze. The mummy had stopped moving its lips.
Straightening up, I hesitated for a ludicrous moment before turning around. Standing near the door, which was still shut, was a beautiful red-haired woman. She was tall, wearing a sleek black dress that hugged her convincingly. Her skin was bright white, almost like she was a photocopy—aside from her hair, she was black and white, a gray scale. She glowed peculiarly, and I found it easier to leave my eyes on her, as if gravity just pulled them there.
I forced myself to look away and found the mummy again. Mika Renar.
I looked back at her Glamour. The most fantastic Glamour I’d ever seen. She looked
. Solid. I wondered if this was really what she was like fifty years ago, or if this was wishful thinking. I wanted to stare at her. The younger version was beautiful, that long nose with the arrogant turn at the end perfectly balancing a round, soft face, the sort of face you wanted to wake up next to. The sort of face you wanted to make express things. Like lust. Like pleasure. Like pain.
I felt like I’d seen her face before. Wondered if that was part of the Glamour. If it was, it was a nice touch.
The Glamour eyed me up and down, her face blank, and then she gestured at the chairs. “Please,” she said. “Have a seat.”
Her voice was delicious. It crawled into my ears and made a nest, and I felt blood rushing to my groin, my face getting flushed. I sank into the nearest red leather chair and let it envelop me. The leather was soft and fleshy and kind of warm.
I wondered idly how many people had to bleed to manage a Glamour like this.
“You have been granted this meeting,” she said, gliding towards me and sitting down in the other chair, a graceful dance move, “out of courtesy. Your Master, Bosch, is a minor member of our Order—and you are
—but members you are.”
Our Order. Fancy. There
no order, no rules. No membership rolls, no elected officials. No organized set of laws. There were traditions handed down from
over the years, distorted each time. Almost everyone, including powerful mages like Renar, respected them. Because the rest of us did, on occasion, rise up and unite against an Archmage who presumed too much, went too far. It had happened. Renar was going to give me time because our
would expect her to, and if she did not, they would see their own dark futures written in my corpse and might come after her, if only to save themselves from the future. Not even Renar and Amir could fight against the combined weight of every
in the world.
The main rule was you didn’t interfere with other magicians. I’d interfered with Renar, sure, but that had been accidental. I had an excuse.
The other rule was you didn’t mess with the established order of the world. Power was one thing. You don’t shit where you eat, and we fed on the world itself.
Beyond that, there were no rules, only the single limitation: You could cast only what the blood allowed. If you didn’t have enough
blood, it didn’t matter how clever you were with the Words, how you hacked the grammar.
A breeze of perfume washed over me, and I leaned towards her, eager. I’d never experienced a Glamour so real. At any moment I might actually reach out and touch her. She smiled, and I was in love. I pictured us married, sitting on a Sunday morning with newspapers, trading sections, sipping tea—fucking industriously, all sweat and pheromones.
to fuel this spell, and I didn’t care.
with my work,” she said, arching a strawberry eyebrow. “You have lost my property.”
I nodded stupidly. Yes, whatever she was saying. If I kept nodding, she might touch me. Just a glance of her hand on my cheek. Worth it.
my property to me.”
I nodded again but slid my eyes to the right and looked at the mummy. The mummy’s eyes were dry and yellow and fixed on me. A sliver of dread inserted itself between my vertebrae, and I looked back at Renar’s Glamour and blinked rapidly, scraping her out of my eyes.
“The girl, Mr. Vonnegan. She is mine. You misplaced her. You must bring her back to me.”
She is mine.
I suspected Renar regarded everything she saw uniformly as her property.
I shook my head, alarm burning through me. Her
like she was referring to a prize cow I’d let out of a pen. A girl marked for ritual, marked to be bled to death, so that others might be bled to death, so that
might be bled to death. My stomach rolled, and suddenly the perfume in the air, for all its fake magical perfection, smelled like rotting fish. I didn’t bleed people. Giving Claire over to Renar would be the same as bleeding her myself.
I had a three-second out-of-body experience, standing next to myself and marveling at what I’d just said. What I’d just done to myself. Suicide, some would call it.
She studied me for a moment with her bright, glowing green eyes. “Mr. Vonnegan, this is the price of your continued existence. Do you understand me? Refuse me, and I will take
as compensation.” She leaned back in her seat and placed one hand against her temple. “You cannot replace my property. You are not suitable. Suitable candidates are in limited supply and difficult to produce. Therefore, if you do not restore my property to me, Mr. Vonnegan, you will suffer for it.”
seemed to emerge from her in a cloud of poison, and I had trouble breathing.
I stared at her illusion of herself, and the illusion stared back, power beating against me like a hurricane. I frowned. “I am not a—”
“I know precisely what you are,
” she snapped, her voice drowning me. “
Trickster. Grifter. A small man of small talents worming his way through life with childish gibberish. Cantrips and other
dust in the eyes of those who cannot see.”
I forced myself to swallow the rock-hard bump of alarm that had been collecting in my throat. Why was I here? If she wanted Claire, she was
she could just
She snorted. “The marks . . . resist other spells,” she said, and I jumped in my skin, not sure she
read my mind.
“Deflect them,” she continued, as if bored with my thoughts. “Corrupt them. Else I would have snatched her back easily with a Word. You are a man who worms. You and your small magicks are ideal for this work.” She nodded her perfect head once. “Restore her to me or suffer.”
This time I barely noticed the threat, the word
I was chewing on this bit of information about the runes. Even terrified, my brain spat out a theory: Cast
them, use your own kind of misdirection and fool the universe into thinking you were casting on something else, see if that compensated for their effect on spells. A nasty hack, but if it worked, who cared? I tucked the thought away, something to chew on if I ever had time.
The Glamour stood up and turned away. I kept staring at the empty chair. “Wait a fucking second,” I said, hands tightening on the arms of the chair. “You dragged me out here to fucking tell me
“I desired to see you,” she said, and the Glamour disappeared. To my right, I heard the mummy hiss something, the Words inaudible. A second later, I went stiff, snapping my legs and arms out straight at my sides, paralyzed while an excruciating pain burned into me. I rolled off the chair and hit the floor, drooling. Shaking.
“If I desire to see you, you will be
” her Glamour’s voice whispered in my ear. “If I desire to hear you, you will speak. If I desire to bleed you, you will
will bleed on my command,
. So it has ever been, since I killed my mother in childbirth, since I cast my first
to choke my father at the dinner table. So it has ever been, so it will ever
Jesus fucking Christ,
I managed to think.
She must have Bleeders dripping
all the time.
to me now, Vonnegan, and have no marks to bend the Words. If I desire to
you again, do you doubt I will see you? And if I see you again,
do you doubt I will be the last person to do so? You are dissipated. But tall. You would fuel a handsome moment’s entertainment.”
The pain was as if a larger man had stepped inside me and was splitting me at the seams. A stupid spell. A
. Imaginary pain, nothing more. But if I’d been able to work my mouth, I would have bitten off my tongue for the relief. Abruptly, it stopped. I buckled on the floor, spasming my legs up to my chest as I called out, sucking in air. The pain was gone. I was soaked in sweat, shivering. But whole. I sat up. The Glamour was gone.
My stomach clenched into a fist, I stood partway and turned to look at the mummy.
It had shut its eyes.
I WATCHED THE ATM
from across the street, feeling tired and scratchy. I was worried about the timing, because timing wasn’t Pitr Mags’s strong suit.
It was getting dark, and I was feeling tired and scratchy. I wanted to get this over with while it was still twilight, before interior lights clarified things. I could see Mags through the glass across the street, trying to look busy and struggling not to look back at me every three minutes.