I checked my GPS against the notes Preston gave me in Sam’s office. In the near distance, a plane flew low, making its entry run into O’Hare.
According to Preston’s information, I’m in the middle of the search grid. It can’t be any coincidence that the Wizard chose a place close to the proposed expansion site, surrounded by the homes hit hardest by the political agenda. The place wrung of disquiet, sadness, and dead dreams.
The political machine wanted to expand the airport, so the Chicago mayor re-enacted a subtler form of eminent domain, coercing residents out of their home, whether they wanted to go or not. It would be easy for a practicing Wizard to break into one of these homes, do their hocus-pocus, and leave the scene without notice.
I wasn’t due for my appointment with Bong for four hours more. Just enough time to give the area a brief glance and see if there was anything suspicious I could investigate later.
I disconnected my GPS from the antenna just as the thing warbled “Turn right… right… right…” I checked the screen and the bold clock numbers started ticking backwards. Technology is a canary in the coal mine as far as magic is concerned. The more delicate, the easier it was for it to go wonky around sources of magic. All my phones are insulated from magic, so for this one to still react this way, it was likely the Wizard was still in the area.
Cooper’s threat of cutting off my supply made me try to hold off from drinking more than I needed. I was, after all, only going to be sniffing around, looking for information about the Brakkthorr and the Wizard. He wasn’t supposed to be here.
I worried my scar as I shut off the phone. No need to risk breaking it. Might as well leave anyway. Bong was expecting me, and it would take me hours to search the whole area for the slightest sign of--.
Or. I might just get lucky; across the street and behind the garage peeked a car’s bumper.
"I really shouldn’t be doing this." But I got out anyway. If the car had been abandoned, no harm would come from checking it out.
I cinched my vest tighter before putting on my motorcycle jacket. The jacket looked like one of those deep brown thick leather jobs, the kind that let you know it’s presence whenever you picked it off the hook. Sewn into the lining, 3/8 inch strike plates scattered around to protect my torso while giving the illusion of comfort. And that was what I wore in addition to the vest.
Yeah, with all the other electronics and surprises it weighs a ton, but I’d rather say “oh well” than “oh shit”.
Out here the world was still brushing off it’s daytime heat with tentative cool fingers. About three blocks away, a mother fox gave a short growl to curb her kits’ yipping. Otherwise, the night was still.
Shutting the door with my hip to keep quiet, I fussed at the scar inside my lip. Wizards were slippery things. Anyone that can take the energies of nature and conform it to their will, limited only by their imagination was someone you had to respect. If you wanted to kill them, you needed to know them.
The car turned out to be a 1978 Camaro that had seen more wear than care. I felt no heat from the hood, but the bondo repair clung to the pads of my fingers. The patching had been coarse sanded to form, then left unpainted against the elements.
The yard had gone feral, weeds unleashed from the reins of chemicals were staging a major coup across the eastern front of the yard. The house itself was a bi-level, the windows of the first floor at the back here easily accessible. Just inside the windows was what looked to be a breakfast nook.
After using one of my throwing knives to dig at the cracked and weathered putty holding one of the small panes of glass in place, all I had to do was let myself in. But reaching through to unlock the window, a pressure shoved back, like a concentrated gust of wind, or a flexible sheet of plastic wrap that sent ice picks into my fingertips making me bite into the quietest curse I could muster. The family may have left, but the home’s previous occupants had created a strong threshold that lingered. Once I could make a fist without wincing, I headed around towards the front of the house, hoping something else was left behind.
Back at the window with the missing pane, I lay the welcome mat on the ground before it. Since the mat, with its invitation, had also been laid by the family, it was enough to sever the remaining barrier. My Unhallowed was unwelcome, otherwise. This time when I reached inside, there was no resistance.
Inside, I reached out with my senses, trying to feel a single vibration of sound, a remnant of an scent that will give me a clue to if anyone was here.
What the hell was I doing?
If this were a paranoid Wizard, I may have alerted him by passing through another barrier impossible to detect. The Wizard may be waiting silently for me to come in range—.
A ceramic clank came from upstairs, followed with sounds common to working in the kitchen.
Hm. Perhaps the Wizard was too pompous to be worried. It was a common trait shared by their kind. If I could take advantage and finish this fast…
The doorway of the nook opened into the stairwell landing separating the main living floor of the house and the basement. An ambient light glowed from the upstairs kitchen. The landing here reeked of dog hair and brimstone and fresh coffee. Hugging the wall to limit the noise, I came fluidly up the eight stairs.
The Wizard stood in the corner opposite the stairs, over a camping setup propped on top of the stove. Simply dressed in stone washed jeans and a white t-shirt, he looked like Kenny Chesney from the back, a filthy baseball cap standing in for the wicker cowboy hat. Small kerosene tanks provided for a tailgate grill and a lantern. He moved in graceful, relaxed motions, dumping sugar and powdered cream into an oversized coffee mug, moving silently in his bare feet.
Whoa. This was no neophyte to magic – nor did he get borrowed power from a cursed artifact. Even from across the room I felt the gentle thrum of a power not inherent in the average man. Like a machine on standby, this human had the resonance of incredible energy coursing through him.
Its not honorable, but it would be safer to finish this fast.
The Wizards’ clanking covered the sound of bringing my gun to bear. The shadow of a huge tattoo pressed against the fabric of his white undershirt, a dragon dark and curled and menacing. I aimed for the dragon’s eye drawn between the shoulder blades. A .50 caliber impact in that area would crush the lungs, sever the spine and rupture the heart.
Damn. I shouldn’t do this, shooting first and in the back is the kind of thing Cooper will hold against me, but I can’t let him go – the Wizard may not be here when I come back. Still. I should try to take him from behind – put him in manacles and keep him in running water to negate his powers – keep him on ice until I can deal with him later.
It’s my job to keep my territory safe and that included Wizards. Steady pull on the five pound trigger, let the hammer move back slowly.
I really shouldn’t…
The Wizard filled a second cup from the metal teapot bubbling on the camp stove and held his arm out to the side, away from me. With the movement, the room shifted, all the shadows changing as if they suddenly stood up and lunged to different corners. The stove disappeared, replaced by bay windows and a skeletal spice rack. There was warmth – a new warmth.
Right under my chin.
“You strike me as a plain java kinda guy.”
My reaction nearly took me down the stairs after seeing the black coffee mug held steady beneath my face. The Wizard had reappeared with the stove right next to me. He held the mug at arms length while looking out from under the brim of the cap, a tiny, knowing smile on his thin lips. Before the Wizard could act, I lashed out with the pistol, faster than any human could move, turning the five pound gun’s blade into a devastating blow.
Three inches away from his head, the strike was repelled.
Repelled, holy hell it felt like I thumped against a truck tire, numbness spiking up my arms.
“Oh, come on now!” the Wizard was looking like I was a rude child. “I got this place tricked out. You think I didn’t set up for that?”
I sidestepped deeper into the kitchen and away from the head of the stairs, setting the Wizard into the sights. The Wizard didn’t move, but eyed the gun reproachfully.
“Figure that’ll work, do ya?”
It had all been too easy. The car peeking out, the welcome mat, the sounds guiding me here. The Wizard wanted me to come to him.
You’d think I would know better.
I sheathed the gun and took the proffered cup. The Wizard jerked his head toward the dining room and led the way, offering his back to me.
The dining room was a wonderful selling point for the house, with a nice view of the weeping willows at the edge of the property. The room felt vast for the empty walls. So huge that the tiny card table and canvas folding chairs felt like alien rocks in the middle of a prairie. My boot clomps actually echoed.
The Wizard picked something off the table as he lounged into one of the chairs. I took a half step back until another kerosene lantern sparked to life, it’s hood making the intense glare easier to handle. The Wizard tipped his hat up before taking a grimacing sip from his mug.
“When you get to be my age, ya gotta put lotsa cream in, else the crap factory starts barkin.”
I rolled my eyes. “You wanted to get my attention. Now, what do you want?”
The Wizard stopped mid-sip and regarded me closely. “The Cross of the Thousand Saints.”
I really didn’t have the patience to deal with a “Bartholomew thug” along with everything else. “Ah. Tell your boss to piss off yet again.” I turned and walked back to the kitchen. The second I passed under the archway, the scene changed. The kitchen lurched, morphing as if shattered, scattering into pieces that flew together like a thousand mirrors cascading down… And I was next to the card table again, the Wizard looking up at me expectantly. I walked away again, but the kitchen’s arch took me to the Wizard’s side. I looked at the arch.
The Wizard sounded like he was talking into his coffee cup. “A real smart fella once said; craziness is doing the same thing again and again, but expecting different outcomes.”
I lowered myself into the open chair, sighing.
The Wizard reached over “Bobby Lee Astra.”
“You know my name.”
Bobby chuckled, letting his untouched hand fall. “Yeah. I could do bad stuff if you voluntarily give me your name, but I ain’t into that.”
“What are you ‘into’.”
“Apparently, this week I’m into acquisitions.”
“For Bartholomew.” The Wizard nodded. “Do you know what happened to the last thing that tried to take the Cross from me?” I growled.
Bobby grimaced while sipping. “Yeah, Bartholomew showed me what he had pinned up in his basement. You gotta be one helluva shot.”
Silence can be threatening and I wasn’t going to give this punk anything.
Bobby Lee stared into his mug.
Inside me, the Unhallowed was starting to get anxious, I could feel it hunching its shoulders like a cat on its forepaws before the spring. I closed my eyes and forced the thing further down into its cage. Bobby Lee had the advantage for now. When I opened my eyes again, my jailer was mid sip, perfectly content to stare at the lantern.
I pulled out one of my phones. It seemed all right, except I had no reception, though I was nearly on top of the airport. I looked at the Wizard, who glanced back with a tiny smile before resuming his coffee cup contemplation. Bobby Lee must have put a field around the house. If it weren’t for my insulation, I might have lost all my phones.
This was ridiculous.
“So what’s the plan? Torture by boredom? Threaten to keep me here until the sun comes up? What?”
“Nope. No threats, nothing like that. I just want to show you I ain’t like the last few things come after you. I want you to trust me.” He sounded relaxed.
“Trust you? You’re freaking holding me here.”
“Could’a killed you. Could have dragged you inside when you stuck your hand in the window, held you in place and cut off your head.” He broke off a sip with a grimace directed at me “The door was unlocked, by the way. Why do you have to break stuff wherever you go?”
“And you didn’t kill me because... what? You want to be my friend?”
Bobby laughed “Naw. I just want to show you I wanna talk. When you’re ready to, I’ll be right here.”
I glanced out the window and the three willow trees beyond, it had a northern exposure, so there was no threat there. “What about if I get hungry?”
“An empty belly does make a man do funny things.”
I dug a coin out of my pocket and tossed it at Bobby Lee. The Wizard never made a move to try and catch it. He simply watched as it passed right through his chest. No doubt about it being an illusion. “So you made a cage in your tricked out house just to talk to me?”
Bobby Lee arched his eyebrows and nodded slowly. “With your reputation, I figured it’d be the safest way to go.”
I followed Bobby Lee’s example and stared at the mug in my hand. Good, strong coffee, not like the crap they usually hand you in restaurants. It smelled better than typical Chicago Strength coffee. I put it on the table “And if I say ‘no’.”
Bobby Lee Astra, paragon of relaxation, slumped further. “An empty belly does make a man do funny things.”
“If I die here, you’ll have to deal with my father.”
Bobby Lee cocked his head. “You on talking terms with him again? Ah, it don’t matter. I planned on treating you royal from the git-go.”
There was a second exit from the dining room. It was dark, but the streetlights filtering in gave it away as a front family room.
“Got that way covered too.” Bobby Lee didn’t even look up.
I hated being cooped up, but the Unhallowed inside liked it less. It shoved its way near the front of my mind again, and I leapt up, knocking the chair over behind me to… what? What could the Unhallowed do? The Wizard was an illusion, the exits weren’t usable. The beast settled back, snarling. I paced.
“If you’re a Wizard, why don’t you just take my mind over, make me tell you.”
“Y’all know that don’t work on your kind. ‘Sides…” finished with his coffee, he pulled his cap brim down over his eyes. “…It’s illegal to do it in the first place.”
“So what are you? You aren’t just an illusion mage.”
The hick smiled. “I’m the real deal. I can do most anything, but tricking people out is fun. This…” he waved his hand at the room “…is something I call a ‘castling loop’.”
“So what was it you did in the kitchen?”
“Aw, I was just playing with you there. Made you see what I wanted you to see.”
I checked the time. There was at least two hours before I had to meet Bong – and he wouldn’t know where to start looking. I worried my scar thinking about Bong going after the Brakkthorr alone.
Pacing myself out, I sat back at the table. “Why are you doing this? You’re way too strong to be Bartholomew’s lackey.”
Bobby Lee actually laughed as he propped his hat back up on his forehead. “The little bastard got ahold of some hair of a friend. Now I do what he says or..” He drew a thumb across his neck. “’Scuse me.” He got up and walked into the kitchen. When he reached the arch the air became charged with a crackling hair-on-end feel until he emerged the other side.
Chatty little punk. On the other hand, all the Wizards I ever ran into were solitary beings. I might be the first person Bobby Lee interacted with in almost a decade. I’d be talkative too.
It was Bartholomew’s way to force others to do his will. Any remnant of the person, like a hair snippet, in the wrong hands is a death sentence. Even from halfway around the world Bartholomew can kill – or worse.
Every experience I have ever had with the bastard Bartholomew was a contest of who could fight dirtier. I felt sorry for Bobby Lee, in spite of myself.
But not sorry enough to give up something like the Cross of the Thousand Saints.
The air crackled again and Bobby Lee headed around the table toward his seat. “I done gone and forgot; you need anything?”
I raised my cup “Could use a warm-up.”
Bobby Lee raised his hand, making a sigil in the air and suddenly the mug in my hand became so hot I almost dropped it. Bobby shrugged in apology.
There had to be a way out of this thing. The spells were too strong to overcome through brute force, maybe there was loophole. I said “Teleportation spells, Illusion spells. All running on your will to make it happen”.
“Not if you give yourself enough magical leverage and focus. Get to be as easy as walking and chewing.”
“How long can you keep it up?”
“Coffee.” He sloshed his cup a little.
“Hm. Never had coffee good enough to keep me up indefinitely.”
“Well, y’all never had Texas coffee. Go on.”
“Anything else in it?”
“I told you; I’ll treat you royal.”
I inhaled the heady aroma. It didn’t smell tainted so, what the hell.
What did he use as a base? Brandy? The flavor wrapped around me with complex equations of hickory, vanilla, hazelnuts and jasmine. It tasted like I had been denied real coffee my entire life.
Bobby Lee was watching me now “Comes with the job; getting pretty good around a cauldron.”
When I placed the cup back on the card table, the rim tapped against the exposed metal edge.
It made me feel like I was trying to walk across a cantilevered floor. I knew what I heard and my eyes knew what I was seeing but the wrongness of the sound made my teeth curl. I dammed up the flow from all my other senses and put every last ounce of focus into my hearing.
I clanked the cup again, then opened my eyes, allowing the beast to come forward a little. “Oh, Bobby?” I singsonged.
I splashed the coffee to the left of Bobby Lee. A second, ghostly image appeared, a shell outlined as scalding hot coffee met its mark. A ghost wearing a ball cap. Both Bobby Lee’s image and his real self threw their hands against their face. I flipped the table up, against the new image of the Wizard, kicking the underside hard enough to send Bobby Lee crashing against the far wall.
His concentration broken, I felt the magic sputter and fall down. I turned to the kitchen and the stairs beyond, but something was already lumbering up, something I couldn’t quite see in the shadows of the stairwell.
“Dammitall! I’m gonna kick your ass!”
Whoa. The impact should have knocked Bobby Lee senseless. The Wizard was tougher than he looked.
Bearing down on my leading heel I pivoted before getting trapped between Bobby Lee and the thing in the stairwell. Moving with the new momentum I made a beeline for the large window and the willow trees beyond.
Nearly to the window, a blue light rocketed past my shoulder. There was no way of knowing where the Wizard’s blow could land, or even what the hell he was throwing at me, so I leapt, kept low and lead with my shoulder into the bay window. I would love to say I landed on my feet like a feline predator… I slammed face first into the driveway.
“Aw, batshit! Where the hell are you, Mutt!?”
I got to my feet, scrambling in the direction of my car. Form the corner of my eye, I saw the result of Bobby Lee’s spell. Holy hell the power. The center willow tree had an inch-thick ice coating, its neighbors decked out in fall colors. It looked like one of those kids' pictures asking what was wrong.
The Unhallowed’s strength took over. Powering down the length of the driveway, I needed to get far enough away before Bobby Lee could throw another--.
My momentum swung me around by my left arm, where something held it fast and solid. A shaggy grey and brown dog held my jacket sleeve, holding me back with stiff legs.
I yanked hard enough to pull the damn thing’s teeth out, it didn’t budge. No time to be humane, I snapped my gun out from its holster, pointing the barrel between the dogs eyes in the time it takes most humans to flinch from a burn. The muzzle flash was the only thing in existence for an instant.
Just a few steps more to the street and three more to my unlocked—
I wasn’t moving.
The dog still had my sleeve in its teeth, legs planted firmly. The flattened fifty caliber bullet slid off its head, and the dog’s eyes pulsed with a light that had nothing to do with eye shine.
Holy hell, more than a dog.
The dog-thing whipped its head and jerked me entirely off my feet, throwing me down the driveway.
I took the driveway at a roll, but lost my gun along the way. When I righted myself, the dog-thing was mid leap at me, oversized fangs barred. I rocked back and caught it with my feet, angling my foot to deflect those teeth. I kicked with everything, throwing the dog-thing back in a short arc that sent the thing nearly the street.
It landed on its back with a whuf, but spun over and came again, nails digging into the ground. I’ve fought big creatures before, so rather than meeting its rush, I crossed my forearms and deflected it, bracing myself in a lunge.
While it gathered itself, I bolted in a straight line for my Gibraltar Impact on the side of the driveway. Ten feet away from the gun, I heard the dog-thing behind me let out a growl and put on a burst of speed, knowing where I was headed.
Just before I could snatch the gun, I jigged to the side, drawing my cleaver in an underhanded grip, swinging it around to the space where I had been a moment before. The dog-thing leapt through the arc of my blade, and the steel - fused with the holy artifact - cut through its flesh easily. The dog-thing landed awkwardly, so I pressed my advantage with the cleaver, missing the hamstring, but laying a cut across the thigh that smoked and bubbled. I choked my grip for tighter control and moved in, giving the dog-thing a nearly constant cutting edge. It yelped and rushed out of my reach, side and hindquarters smoking.
I followed, but it was too fast, and while I laid a minor cut across its back, it buried those oversized teeth into my leg and shook, taking my feet out from under me. When I hit the ground, I flipped, trying to catch its head in a lock of some kind, trying to ignore the pain screaming up my leg.
Before I had the thing immobile, it whip cracked one of its forelegs with a snap I felt through its entire body, then I was flying through the air again, trauma fire burning in my leg, neck and face.
Bobby Lee was somewhere behind me. I started getting up, but my leg wouldn’t respond well enough until it healed. So I pulled one of the throwing knives I keep up my pant legs and snap aimed it at the figure I could make out over my shoulder. It traveled its straight line for its target – then bounced off something solid and curved that gave off a light blue shimmer when struck.
“Damn. Still feisty after tangling with Mutt?” Bobby Lee tapped the brim of his cap in respect.
I glanced around to see I had landed near my gun.
“Whoa, there. Better think real good and hard.” Bobby Lee motioned down the driveway.
Through a symphony of wet snaps, the dog-thing morphed into its true form. Though shadows played with its appearance, and I was still flat on my ass, it stood comfortably around six feet tall on its back legs, its forelegs held to the sides and ending in spikes for fingers. The Wizards Familiar looked like a great big granddaddy of a beast.
“Ya see, Mutt there hasn’t had his Alpo today, an’ he’s getting ornery. So why don’t you just head back inside, I’ll close up yer cage, and we can start all over again.” He drew his hand down his wet face. “No coffee this time.”
The dog-thing Familiar would be tough to take down by itself. Same was true for Bobby Lee. I needed to use another option.
I glanced at the gun again, so close off to the side. My leg was healed enough.
“Oh, buddy, that really ain’t the way to go.” Bobby Lee held his hand out and I felt the power coming off him like earth tremors from a distant waterfall. The Familiar let out a low growl.
Wizards utilized the primal energies; heat, electricity, magnetism, wind… Taking up a Familiar cost them a bit of their life force, an act that connected them on a fundamental level, allowing them to better channel and use primal energies.
But that didn’t give them a monopoly on primal energies.
I thrust my arm toward the Familiar, flexing into the triggers against my forearm. Twin wires from the tazer flew out from the gap on the underside of my sleeve, barb tip spikes burying themselves in the Familiar's flesh. 100,000 volts of my primal energy made the thing dance in a drunken jig.
Behind me, Bobby Lee yelped. Bonded to the familiar that I just shocked, he caught some of what I put through my tazer. He fell to his knees, but he was pushing his way through the pain, a glow of blue energies swarming around his outstretched hand like a localized swarm of bugs. I had my chance, so I took it. I leapt over where I had seen the blue shimmer from his shield. Before he could turn all that balled up energy at me, I planted a kick from my steel-toed boot squarely against his forehead, the impact swatting the hick over prone. The Familiar yowled, but still had the presence to almost trip me up with its tail as I raced past after taking up my gun. The Chrysler never sounded so good as when I hammered it into drive, leaving a thick trail of rubber in my wake.
I couldn't be sure about how badly I hit Bobby Lee Astra. If I didn’t kill him, at least he would be out of commission for a day or two, long enough to get this Brakkthorr thing resolved… or me killed in which case I won’t care about anything else. I just hope I live long enough to find Bartholomew and string him up for all the crap he put me through.
In this, the first installment, Marcus has to face Bobby Lee Astra; a ball cap wearing, red-necked, Camaro driving... wizard. He has power, he has connections, and he needs one of the deadliest artifacts Marcus has.
Also in town is the Brakkthorr, a demon on a mission that involves Marcus on a personal level.
And Hanging over it all, time has rolled forward, and the Church is under different pressures than the one Marcus joined. This church's leaders keep one eye to political correctness, and they have no patience for a Vampire that cannot keep his temper in check.