Thursday, February 24, 2005

Story: "Soul Lenders", Chapters 1 and 2

Chapter One

Like the snowdrifts capping the distant, barely visible mountains, reams of white paper seemed perched forever in neat piles on Vernon’s desk. From out of his window, his view of the world was severely limited by the automatic laundry accross the street. Should he try, though, he was able to just make out tucked between the laundry and the Second National West Bank, a single mountain. He did not know it’s name. To him, it was simply ‘the Mountain’, and he had been spending more and more time there lately. Not physically, of course.
He laconically shook his head, sitting more upright in his hard wooden chair. The enormous oak desk seemed to spread out from his widening midsection like the foothills around The Mountain. Day by day, he was taking on more geological features. He prodded his torso, marvelling at the strata of shadows that the creasing fabric made accross his belly. He didn;t used to be able to push his finger in that far, a quiet introspective part of his brain mused. There had been a time when his whole body had been as trim and firm as his desk.
He rested his elbows on the papers in front of him, and rested his face in his palms. The stubbly face had seen better days. The Mountain was getting stubbly with trees and shrubs as well in the waning days of the summer, trees and shrubs that would soon be shaved clean away by the dagger edge of winter.
Intellectually, he knew that he had a lot of work to do. The papers on his desk weren’t going to organize themselves, after all. Well, they might, but it was unlikely he would be there to witness it. No, these papers had a great deal of information which needed to be absorbed, digested, ruminated over, and then turned into solutions. HE was good with solutions. Digestion seemed to be a little more problematic. Idly he wondered if The Mountain had been a volcano in it’s past.
“Vernon, could you come upstairs for a minute, please?”
And there was were intellectual knowledge broke down. Realistically, he knew that he would most likely not have to worry about these papers again. As he stood up, his mind started to wonder about the future. Specifically, the shopping he had to do on the way home. The kids wanted new channels, which was typical, but he had been putting off getting them new ones for too long. It was now a priority. He wanted to get them something educational, though, but that was sure to earn their wrath. Perhaps something educational and destructive.
“Great Wars of History?” he asked himself quietly, shuffling some papers into a neater pile. He also had to pick up a pregnancy diviner, which would be no easy feat. He’d have to hit a pharmacist outside of his neighborhood to make sure the gossip didn’t make it’s way back to them. Gossip was the only thing in the world which travelled faster than lightning, and that was only because the lightning was sending it’s mail on ahead.
Vernon steped around his desk and into the little aisle that led in one direction to the coffee room, and int he other direction to the Executive offices. All around him, similar massive oak desks covered with similar piles of paper were being manned, or in some cases elfed and dwarfed, by his fellow engineers. A good many of them were trying a little too hard to ignore him, while others had the hard sympathetic look of a person who felt sorry for you, but was secretly happy it hadn’t been them.
“Frelling gnomes,” he heard someone say as he passed, heading away from the coffee room, and he was sad to admit that a tiny voice in the back of his head echoed the sentiment, but was quickly quashed. Indeed the gnomes were first and foremost on his mind right now, but he didnt blame them. He wanted too, but he couldn’t. He could hear Savvy’s voice as if she were standing by his shoulder.
“You’re too nice. You’ve gotta be a son of a bitch if you want to be a good man, these days.”
Thanks, sweety, he thought, reaching the end of the aisle. His pants, wearing a little thin already, swished as he walked, the only sound in the normally fairly humming office. He looked out accross the dozens of people he worked with every day, envious.

The gnomes had taken posession of a substantially completed building on the other side of town just days after Vernon had closed case on the building to be built directly adjacent to it. It was an affluent neighborhood, filled with ever taller buildings, and the Heirloom Tower was going to be one of the nicest new office buidings in the area. He had spent months designing the structural and thaumaturgical systems, seamlessly meshing skilled handicrafts with magical enchantments to create a habitable work of art. It would have been his signature piece and would almost certainly have earned him his promotion from the floors to the Executives.
The gnomes, however, had different plans. They had intended to set up an alchemical college in the mostly complete building. Although externally seven standard stories, there were ten inside, making for a spacious gnomish habitation. Their construction company, a rival of Vernon’s beloved Effigy Enterprises, had neglected to mention that their rezoning applications were being held up until a gnomish councillor was back from vacation. There would need to be a gnomish opinion for the application to pass.
And when the lot was rezoned for alchemical education, MZ-3, the Heirloom Tower had to be likewise rezoned to account for the magical balance in the area. His thaumaturgical calculations had gone right out the window simply because he had not recieved due notice from the rezoning committee. The building would still be built, but somewhere else, when they had found new investors. The burned patrons had pulled a lot of money out of Effigy, something the Executives could not overlook.
Vernon sighed as he re-entered the aisle to his desk, small piece of paper in his hand. It was a short note to the effect that the bearer was a good worker with years of experience, and a valued employee.
“Valued ex-employee,” he had wanted to say to his superiors after reading the note. That was actually the most civil thing he could think to say. The least civil involved several words he was unsure how to even spell. They had told him that it was simple politics. The board of trustees needed to blame someone for the tragic loss of funds, but Vernon was unsure who to blame for the tragic loss of his building. Peripherally he realized that he was invisible. Not a single pair of eyes registered him as he walked.
At the other end of the aisle, just emerging from the coffee room was their sales leader Sherridan Stanislaus, a huge smiling handshake of a man who seemed to radiate good moods. Just around the mans bulk Vernon could see a slightly shorter, exponentially thinner man with sensible straight hair, a sensible suit and thin-rimmed eyeglasses. Almost as an afterthought he saw the delicately constructed ears of an elf.
Sherridan’s demeanor shimmered for just a second, like air rippling above a hot tarred street. Vernon could see that his desk had already been tidied of many of the paper heaps, and his briefcase had been mysteriously vanished. Even his coat was gone, although he was fairly sure it would be waiting for him up ahead.
Vernon could not help the polite smile that creased his lips as he walked past the great round man and the lithe replacement. He had to admire the efficiency with which he had been exchanged for another engineer. There’s no way an elf could make so simple mistake, he thought wryly. They’re all so quick, so sure, so smart. Truly thats what they had seemed a hundred years ago, but familiarity bred more intimate knowledge. Elves could be loudmouthed jerks just as well as humans, although they were possibly cleaner and more efficient at it.
Sherridan smiled back, and for all Vernon knew the man was sincere. He heard them resume talking as he passed the coffee room, wound through the short hallways and into the well appointed reception area. Sure enough, there was his coat, hanging on the hook.
“I’d also like my briefcase,” he said to the receptionist. He had said hello to her, calling her by her first name, every day for seventeen years, but now he couldn’t bring himself to say it. She cast her eyes down, as if she were embarassed.
“They didn’t bring it,” she replied with a helpless little shrug, and suddenly Vernon last all interest. It didn’t really matter. He had eaten his lunch, so the case only contained a wadded paper bag. Maybe the elf would get the embossed bronze plate smoothed and have his own initials stamped into it.

On his way home, Vernon purchased a new briefcase, complete with embossed bronze plate at a dwarven tannery. For people who eschewed livestock, they were surprisingly good with leather. They even had a servece whereas your purchased items could be ‘broken in’ for you, giving them that lived-in, familiar feel. Vernon was very fortunate that this service was available, since it allowed him to avoid telling anyone the truth until he found something better to tell them.
On the long walk home from the pharmacist in Dukes Court, a neighborhood well removed from his own, he had ample opportunity to think, and he cursed his luck. Thinking never brought anyone happiness, he thought, except for unrealistic philosophers and people trapped in drug-induced states, and even then they probably had their bad moments. Even thinking about how thinking was unpleasant was an unpleasant thoughtm and he sighed heavily.
Although his course took him steadily east and south, through long streets of small family houses and conveniently located stretches of shops, his eyes rarely left the sunset, and the buildings that occluded it. The distant star was low enough on the horizon that it was moderately safe to look at, the sky a saturated gradient of orange and purple. Standing in stark black relief was the City, dozens and dozens of unbelievably tall, statuesque buildings of stone, iron, and magic. IT had always been his dream to somehow earn a position within the City, but Effigy was not a big enough player to be allowed into the exclusive club. Powerful wizards, ancient dragons, and corporate headquarters occupied most of the ridiculously expensive real estate, and fewer and fewer of the inhabitants were human.
He sighed again. The City, land of opportunities, bastion of Civilization. He always capitalized such words in his mind. Without Civilization, after all, we would be nothing but Savages. The words of his father, and one of the few things he remembered from his childhood. He sometimes wondered if his had been particularly bad for him to recollect so little, but he finally decided it had just been boring, and he had subconciously edited out the dull bits.
The sun dropped below the Wall which separated the City from the majority of the population, and the black silhouettes were replaced by their actual colors, white marble with streaks of violet, or green volcanic stone, or scintillating purple signs composed entirely of magical thoughts. It always seemed so bright, so busy, so purposeful. He remembered purposeful.
His briefcase, well worn despite being brand new, slipped from his numbed fingers, and it was several seconds before he stopped, turned, and retrieved it.

“I’m home,” he called mechanically, stepping through the front door sharply at quarter to six, as he had every night for the previous twelve years.
And, as the past few months had been, there was no reply. He knew in his mind that Elwyn was in the back yard, playing at some sort of horrific war game like every five year old was prone to do. Lorelle was on the other side of the house in the family room watching the channeller, and a stab of guilt pierced his gloom to somehow make him feel worse. Savona was probably in the kitchen, staring into the ice box and trying to conjure dinner, metaphorically speaking. Lliard was, as usual, out.
He dropped his briefcase by the door, exactly the way he is scolded for every night, removed his worn and comfortable shoes, and walked into the kitchen. Savona did not look over when he entered, which was no surprise. Married life brought few surprises after a certain point. She was certain he was not surprising her with flowers, and he was certain she would not be waiting for him in that red and black number he remembered sometimes when he was feeling lonely. Even so, he walked up to her from behind, slipped his arms around her slim waist, and squeezed.
Reflexively, she leaned back into his arms, tension seeming to flow from her muscles, and she exhaled with a faint feline sound of pleasure. He squeezed harder, and for a brief moment, the past fifteen years had not happened and they were newlyweds in love, with eachother and the world.
With almost superhuman speed, her body tensed again and she stepped out of his grasp. “Hi, honey,” she said, re-opening the ice box and looking inside as if daring the dinner not to make itself. Were she better at magic, he thought, dinner just might do that. “Did you get the thing?”
She was trying to sound casual, as she always did when she was preoccupied. He nodded, and she nodded right back. He removed the small cardboard box from his pocket and handed it to her. He seemed to be floating, detached from reality, watching her take the pregnancy tester in slow motion. He could see individual strands of long dark hair swirl as her head moved, her supple hands grasping the container, her still admirable bosom heaving slightly as her anxiety peaked. Despite being, like Vernon, well into her thirties, she was still by a long shot the most attractive wife any of the non-executives had at Effigy. Many was the time a new employee would approach him after a business party and ask if she had merely been borrowed for the night. Although his eyes darkened in brief annoyance, he knew it always made Savvy smile.
“Well, let’s do it,” she said, sharp, businesslike. He sighed. He was home, all right. She tore open the package and threw the pieces into the fire box. With a puff and a faint shimmer of orange, they vanished, their heat stored for future use. She was left holding a little metallic cord with a clear crystal hanging at the end. It swayed back and forth like a tiny clock pendulum. With practiced moves, she swung the stone away such that it bounced into her flat belly on the return arc.
Vernon’s breath caught as the prism started to glow. In the past, it had been three tries, and three home runs. This was try number four, and right on schedule for them, almost exactly five years after Elwyn’s conception. The glow remained white as the crystal swung back and forth, pulled invisibly towards her midsection, it’s magic working within Savvy’s confusingly complicated inner workings. When the glow faded, both of them were motionless, trying to divine what the other was feeling before any
words were spoken. Vernon tried first.
“So I wasted seven dollars on that.”
Savvy smiled, a genuine smile, something he saw too infrequently lately, and turned to face him. HE was quite surprised when her arms snaked around his back and he was being held closely to her. He returned the gesture, pulling her closer as her deep breathing slowed. “Well, I guess I don’t have to let out any of my clothes.”
Neither would admit that they were relieved, but you’d have to be quite new to the ways of polite society to have missed it.
Footsteps in the hallway informed them that their private time was running out. Savvy leaned up on her tiptoes, hopping girlishly, and kissed him. Casually tossing the tester into the fire box, she turned back to the frozen food which was still quite uncooked.
“What was that?” Lorelle’s questioning voice asked. She was ten years old, and looked like a tiny version of her mother. Of Vernon, the only resemblence was her facility with the hard sciences like math and magic. “What did you throw in the fire box?”
“Nothing,” Vernon hazarded.
“If it was nothing, why does the fire box register a four percent increase in storage?” She was reading quite accurately from the display prism on the side of the box which was nestled between the ice box and the oven. “You must have either thrown something big or something powerful in there.”
Savona rolled her eyes. “She gets this from yoy, you know.”
He had to laugh. “Well, I bought you that new magical channel you wanted, but it was too expensive so I threw it away.”
Her eyes grew bigger at he thought of a new channel for the channeller, but her entire posture seemed to collapse at the mention of throwing it away. “What? But... then why.... Daddy...”
The admonishing tone was far too accurate, and Savona started to giggle. Vernon smiled. “Really, it was nothing.”
“So what channel DID you get me?”
“Well,” he hesitated. “I forgot to grab you a new channel on the way home. It was a long day at work, and I had to stop and, ah, talk with Rhett for a few minutes. You know I haven’t seen him in a while, what with his new girlfriend.”
“The fat elf?”
“Now, Lorelle, you know better than to make statements like that.”
She nodded recalcitrantly, but he knew she’d say it again tomorrow. “So you didn’t get us new channels like you promised then?”
Vernon wanted nothing more than to go and sit someplace quiet, but it didn’t seem to be working like that. Out of the corner of his eye he saw his wife’s face turn suddenly severe. She dropped a pan onto the stove with more force than was stricty necessary and likewise dropped a froen roast onto it. “No, I didn’t, like I promised, and I’m sorry. Really, you’ll all be getting new ones soon.”
“New channels?!” Elwyn cried, charging in the back door with the vigor and bounciness that can only be achieved with great youth. He was prone to start every sentence excitedly, as if each word were more thrilling than the last, and ended each sentence like a cliffhanger channel program begging for a sequel. “You got us new channels?! That great, isn’t it, twitty?!”
“Don’t call your sister that,” Savona snapped tiredly from the stove as she angrily spiced the roast. Elwyn nodded absently, obviously well inured to the warnings. “And please don’t wave that thing around in the house.”
Vernon would have liked to take the tiny sword away from his youngest son, but that was about as dangerous as taking a tiger’s favorite tooth. Risky and not worth the effort, as the tiger probably had many many more teeth, and the means to use them. Elwyn’s blade was sligtly larger than the kitchen butcher knife, and hummed as it sliced through the air. Lorelle, ever the precociously little sorcery student, had layered so many minor cantrips and enchantments on the blade that it fairly buzzed with pent up energies. One tree int he back yard was nearly cut straight through, and the others bore countless battle scars.
Elwyn obediently lowered the blade, but in no other way did his demeanor change. “Did you get new channels tonight?! Please tell me you got ‘Savage Conquerors’!? I saw a few minutes of it over at Kerwin’s house,” he finished quickly, “but not a lot, since I know you wouldn’t want me watching that without you knowing.
“No, sorry, not tonight, even though he promised.” Lorelle sulked her way out of the kitchen as only a huffy ten year old girl can. Vernon was heard to say once that his daughter could pout her way through a brick wall if there was something on the other side she wanted, although he denided it when it somehow made it’s way back to said daughter. Elwyn sighed melodramatically, and then rushed back out of the house, chipping the doorjamb with his miniature sword.
“Oh, El, no... dammit.” Savona very nearly threw the roast pan into the stove, slamming the door hard enough to knock the salt and pepper shakers from their little stand on the counter. They landed with a clatter, causing his wife to rattle a little as well, but she ignored them and sat down at the kitchen table. She focused very intently on the newspaper, and Vernon sighed. Still standing in the kitchen, not having moved from the second Lorelle had entered, he looked around.
And it’s all mine, he thought, and went to sit in his office. He had a little channeller in there with the few channels he cared to watch. He thought about his eldest son, fifteen years old, so like him in so many ways and yet nothing like how Vernon had become. Lliard would be home whenever he felt like it, probably after the roast had already been put into the top shelf of the ice box to keep it cool until the next day.

Long after dinner, long after Lliard had rushed in, made a sandwich and left again, but not long after the younger children had been sent with sleepy protests to bed, Vernon lay on his back in the darkness of the bedroom, staring at the patterns of light on the cieling. Intellecually he knew that the draped were worn thin in places and were letting in oblong patches of street light that in no way meant anything, but he fancied he saw shapes in them. Some were people, some were faces, and some were definitly his Mountain. Some seemed like ancient sigils of power, destined to give their writers greatness. He admired how his imagination could take the bad times and shove them briefly out of the way, knowing full well that they would come crashing back with thunderclap force.
For a second he mistook reality for imagination as a warm, soft, and wonderfully resilient shape pressed against his side. Old tingly feelings stirred inside of him and he lifted his arm to let her snuggle closer. One leg moved to cover both of his, and one arm slid accross his chest. He was perpetually amazed at how such a brittle woman could become so velvety at night. Her head rested above his heart and he knew she was looking up at him.
“Sorry about dinner,” she said, her nose bumping into his stubbly chin. “I’ve had the kids all day. Wel, El at least, Lorelle was at school, and they were just.... you know.”
“It’s ok,” he said, kissing her forehead. “I know how they get.” Privately he didn’t think they were so hard to handle, but he had to admit to himself he very rarely took them for longer than a few hours, and she was here all day with them.
“El dinged the stove today. That sword of his has so many stupid little spells on it they probably add up to one major mojo.”
“We have got to get Lorelle into a better school,” he said, immediately regretting it.
“Well, have you asked about a raise yet? The Heirloom is going to make them a magic mint and you haven’t seen an extra copper, have you?” Her voice became irate as she warmed to the subject.
“No, I haven’t yet. I want to wait until it’s, you know, further along.”
“Further along. It’s already a year further then it was a year ago when I told you to ask for a raise. Any further and they’ll be giving your raise posthumously.”
“Now, you know they won’t do that. Too much paperwork for posthumous honors.”
She thumped him with her free leg, but the fight had gone out of her. “Yeah, yeah. Cheap bastards.”
He was surprised again when she once more turned affectionate. Her leg slid higher up on his, and tiny satin kisses traced up and down his neck. He silently cursed his life; she was rarely in so good of a mood and he was rarely in such a foul one. His arm reached over, stroking her back, pulling her closer, but his movements were mechanical. She stopped again, looking up in the darkness.
“Is this because of the pregnancy test?” She asked, one finger drawing lightly on his abdomen. In the dark, on his back, he seemed in rather better shape than under full lights. “I know this is what scared us tonight, but, you know, maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing. They have spells to help parents now, way better than the ones we had when Lliard was born.”
Better, expensive spells. He sighed. The money, which he didn’t have. In the old days, no amount of worry or stress had kept him from her warm embrace, but time has a way of making one’s perspective change. He could see her in the faint white light, her skin seeming to glow. There was absolutely no reason such a beautiful creature should have settled for him, but she did. He wondered what sort of life she had given up to stay by his side and raise a family.
She sensed his apprehension, exhaling in a frustrated gust. “Fine. Whatever.” She rolled over onto her side of the bed. “Goodnight. Sleep well.”
Her voice was dead, devoid. He knew it well. “Goodnight,” he said quietly, rolling onto his side, praying for sleep.

Vernon’s light breathing swelled to a heavy, lumbering wheeze as he slipped into unconciousness. It was a familiar sound, as nearly every night did he fall asleep first. To her, it was like the crashing of the waves against the shore of a distant continent, or the sough of the wind in the trees of some great forest. It was the sound of everything that she had never experienced.
She stood quietly, not a whisper of air or a swish of fabric belying her movements. Savona did not need nearly as much sleep as normal people, a biological function she lamented. She heard of so many wondrous things happening in dreams, but the closest she could come were self-guided trances. Cat-like footsteps brought her to the window, and had Vernon ever taken the time to notice he would have seen two faint impressions directly beneath the sill. The laminated wood had been worn down there, roughly in the shape of two small, delicate feet.
She stared through the drapes, not seeing the street, but seeing the rest of the world. Other lands, other cities, other people. There was so much she had to see and to do, and it would have to be done soon. Already she could sense the suspicious, surreptitious glances of the neighbors, the whispered comments of Vernon’s co-workers. Her temporal clock was slowing, and would soon begin to tick in years instead of days, decades instead of hours. She wasn’t sure if it truly stopped, but if the stories could be believed, the metaphorical hands moved so slowly as to be inconsequential.
She wanted to remember her family as they were in her fondest memories, and not as they would be in ten, fifty, or a hundred years. She did not want them to see her unaging face every day, and then see their own in the mirror. It was a pain she had read about, in endless books from the Northlands. She already knew the pain of dis-satisfaction... she did not believe she could handle that kind of loss.
Savona nodded to herself, reaching a decision. It would have to be done, for the sake of her family. It was what was best. Best for the family. She nodded slowly again, a tear building at the corner of her eye, but evaporating before it had a chance to escape.

Chapter 2

The sun was beating down particularly hard when Vernon was gently led out of yet another engineering firm. He should have known it was a lost effort, seeing that easily two thirds of their workforce were dwarves, but it was his best shot, his last shot to find his previous job with a new employer. Nobody wanted humans without a University degree or at least a Class II magical ranking. Vernon had never made it past Class I, despite considerably practical knowledge. Even the simplest cantrips seemed to be beyond him. His East Kingsland Royal College degree, although respected, simply was not current enough. He was tired of hearing it.
Several blocks away, he slumped on a bench near the Wall and withdrew his lunch from his briefcase. At home, Savona was no doubt wondering how his day at the office was going. A brief flash of anger made his sandwich taste stale, but both sensations faded into numbness. Distantly he wondered why he could never stay angry, at anyone, for any reason. He was too nice. He savagely tore a bite out of his lunch, but it was a token effort.
He leaned back, half of a ham and rye in one hand, and let his eyes wander over the sights of the city. Blocking some of the more impressive buildings were the new-fangled floating Adboards, magical constructs as big as as his entire property, hovering directly above the Wall. The largest corporations could pay to have short animated advertisments shown repeatedly throughout the day. At the moment, he was being told that he needed to drink Cosgrove Vintners, because it was Cool and Refreshing. A moment later he was informed that his socks could be magically made whiter by using Aero-Solve.
“Amazing how I didn’t know these things until now,” he mumbled around the last of his meal. A somewhat more tasteful image of an elderly, friendly wizard filled the board and began talking into a speech bubble about life, the Universe, and the difficulties of handling both. When Vernon realized it was some sort of promotion for the Soul Lenders, he quickly stood up, leaving the paper bag on the bench, and walked away. He didn’t need any help being disgusted with the world.

Elwyn ducked the flashing blade easily, stepping forwards and bringing his own weapon up hard. Uriel, a slightly older boy from a few streets over, just managed to get his wooden shield up in time to block the blow, but his shoulder was still jarred herder than he had expected. He rocked back slightly on one foot, but it was all the advantage the aggressive younger child needed.
“Have at thee!” Elwyn cried, lashing out with a grass-stained sock and striking Uriels chest soundly. The breath left his body and he stumbled backwards, losing his sword and shield in the fall. “Surrender, infidel!?”
“Pause,” the red-haired boy gasped. “Hold. Gimme a... jeez, gimme a second.” The boys were of similar height, and although Uriel had more developed muscles, he could not match Elwyn’s ferocity.
“Never!” The darker haired child cried, gently tapping Uriel on the head. Although the swords were so blunt as to be very nearly harmless, Lorelle had done a little bit of enchanting when her mother had been busy laundering. A short electrical jolt knocked Uriel back to the grass with a moan and a snort of laughter.
“El, stop, really, honest.” He shook his head, trying to quell the nausea each magical strike delivered. “I was down. Thats dishonorable.”
Elwyn was instantly sorry. “Oh, wow, you’re right. Sorry, are you ok, do you need help up, Lorelle, help me with Uriel?!” His sister looked over from the front porch, saw the situation on the lawn, and rolled her eyes. A book of basic astral projection completely filled her lap, and she needed one hand to just to balance it while the other turned a page. Although the library was not strictly supposed to loan books of such a nature to young children, Lorelle had insisted it was for her mothers continuing adult education.
“You’re no help, twitty!” the armed boy proclaimed loudly as his opponent regained his feet. From the depths of the house, both were aware of a female voice calling, quite loudly, ‘Don’t call your sister that!’ They laughed together, and simultaneously turned grim, positioning themselves for combat.
Lorelle sighed dramatically, picked up the book with no small effort, and went inside to learn in peace.
Elwyn blocked a hard strike to the thigh with his shield, his counterblow dodged by the more athletic boy. They were both breathing hard, trying to outpace the other. The dull swords clanged and sizzled as the young warriors fought for supremacy of the neighborhood.
“Yeild... dude...” he panted, feinting low and bringing his shield up high, nearly braining Uriel.
“Ne.... never...” came the wheezed reply. “Hey.... it’s your... dad...”
Elwyn laughed. “Not falling... for that... knave...” Against his better judgement, though, in case his father actually had come home with new channels, he shifted his stance and peeked down the street. Sure enough, there he was, home early with a smile on his face.
“Daddy!?” he cried. Almost absently, he backhanded Uriel accross the head, another electric blast once again flattening the poor boy. The fight forgotten, he charged his father, still wielding his combat gear.
“Hey, watch it, young knight,” Vernon laughed. “No fighting with the King.”
Elwyn grinned sheepishly, dropped his arsenal, and hugged his father’s legs. “SO what channels did you get?”
Vernon looked briefly pained, but it was replaced with a smile. “I haven’t gotten any yet, but soon, when I have some more money.”
His son pouted, but he knew it was just for show. “That was a mean trick, looking all happy and not bringing me a present.” In a fit of pique, he grabbed his sword and charged Uriel, who was getting woozily back to his feet. To cries of panic and threats of violence, Vernon walked into the house, still smiling.
“I guess you didn’t get me a channel yet, either,” came the petulant greeting from the living room. He peeked his head in to see his daughter with a far too advanced-looking tome on her lap, open to some middle page. He cheered for her in the back of his head. “I was going to start on my levitation lessons this week, because it teaches valuable fundamentals about gravity and astral interactions.”
“No, no new channels, but I got you a Bahaman Bonnie doll. All the girls are playing with them. It even comes with an apron!” The look of horror on her face made him burst out laughing.
“Dolls, daddy? I’m not a little girl,” she said in he rbest adult voice in complete defiance of actual fact. Her feet stuck straight out from the couch, and the book covered her knees and the spread folds of her pink sundress.
“I know, I’m sorry, that was cruel. You’ll have that channel before you can summon your first helper ghost.” Her eyes brightened, and he knew he had maybe a week, tops, before she figured out how to do that. With a forced sigh of exasperation, he headed to the kitchen. “Stick with your magic, dear. It’s the job of the future, even if you are only human.”
She looked puzzled as he vanished from sight, but she shrugged her tiny shoulders and went back to her book. Adults could be so random, she thought. Not like magic. Magic did what it was told.
In the kitchen, the smells of dinner wafted through the air like tantalizing wisps of incense. He could not remember a home-cooked meal smelling so good, and surely not so soon after he got home. Either Savona was trying to be extra nice, or she was trying not to be extra mad. Either way, he was suspicious. He walked in slowly, not sure what to expect.
Savvy was setting the table, dressed up a little more stylishly than he was used to recently. Gone were the sensible sundresses with the strangely puffy sleeves which had mysteriously come back into fashion. Instead, she wore something which could only be described as panther-like: it was sleek, black, and made her look both sexy and dangerous. He found he rather liked it.
“So when do we send the kids away?” he asked with a lopsided grin, thrilled to see her grin back with genuine amusement. Wow, he thought, I find a job the exact same day Savona gets into a good mood groove.
“I just thought you needed some cheering up,” she said brightly. “You’ve had a rough few weeks.”
“You don’t know the half of it.” He wanted to tell her, but tonight probably wasn’t right. Maybe on the weekend, he’d take all of them out for a day at the park, that nice park with the hover-rides. He’d explain everything then. Tonight, he would just try to enjoy himself.
“Well, we just wanted you to know that we love you, and we’re here... we’re right behind you.” Savona checked the oven quickly, trying to cover her slip. She didn’t feel rght, saying that they were all here for him. It didn’t feel honest. Oh well, she thought, I’ve lost my nerve. I’ll tell them on the weekend.
The dinner was delicious, roast wildeboar just the way Vernon remembered it. At some point in his youth he must have loved it, since old feelings came rushing back he rather enjoyed. Elwyn and Lorelle even put aside their good-natured ribbing to enjoy seconds. Lliard, naturally, failed to show up, which marred the evening for Vernon. He would have liked to see his entire family all at once on a night such as this, but he supposed he had to accept the inevitabilities of life. Lliard was a popular teenaged boy, and as such had to distance himself from his family at all costs, or risk damage to his social stature.
It hadn’t always been like that, Vernon and Savona thought at remarkably close intervals. Lliard used to loathe going anywhere without his parents. They sighed, smiled at eachother, and continued with polite dinner conversation, which was centered mostly on Lorelle’s magic studies and Elwyn’s attempts to thwart them. Having just discovered the word thwart, he was determined to use it as often as possible.

Vernon lay on his back in the darkness, smiling. He had a job again. Sure, it was at a fairly reduced salary, but it had excellent opportunities for advancement. The chiefly human firm was doing remarkable things with magically tempered metals that could only make them a valued business commodity in the new status-oriented world. He had shown them how quickly he could derivate thaumaturgical functions over four dimensions using the materials as a constant, and they had been impressed. It had been a long time since he had seen a look of appreciation quite like that.
Nuzzling into his arm, Savona’s mind whirled. The week had been far too hectic for her, between managing the children when they weren’t at school and trying to hide her inquiries when they were home. She had made an appointment with a nanny service the following day, to discuss the possibility of hiring a child-minder. Most of them were Pink mages, Class two, recent graduates of the medical guild’s colleges, but Savona had a specific type in mind. She would have to be good with magic, in order to keep Lorelle interested. She would have to know lots of stories about battles, to keep Elwyn in order. And she would have to be pretty, in order to keep Lliard at home more often.
She didn’t doubt that Vernon could have taken care of these affairs on his own, but she didn’t want him worrying about the future. He worked so hard to provide for this family, even if he was too nice to take what he truly deserved. He was smart, one of the smartest men she had met, but he didn’t have a spiteful or mean bone in his body. She didn’t know if it was a blessing or a curse. Such a nice man didn’t deserve someone like her...
She stamped on her thoughts. She was loathe to break his heart in this way, but he was so understanding she could only hope he would take it well. Other families had recovered from parents separating, so why not hers? They were well adjusted, and adaptable. They would survive.
Sighing unhappily, she pulled Vernon closer. This was not a time for sadness, she told herself. This was a time to make the happiest memories they could in the time they had left. Vernon was more than happy to oblige her, not noticing the tear that moved from her cheek to his when they kissed.

Lliard walked into the house shortly after eleven PM, using his key to enter through the back door. She slid out of his soft running shoes with practiced silence, and sidled up to the ice box to try and find something to eat. He was tall, an inch taller than his father who was by no means a small man, but by no accounts an athletic one. They shared the same short, dark hair, and wide dark eyes, something which endeared him greatly with the elf-maidens at his school.
Quickly assembling a sandwich of wildeboar and extra spiced mustard, he looked around the dark kitchen for the smaller channeller.
“Channel on,” he said quietly, and sure enough, the small metallic box began to glow. The large glass disc on the front of the channeller came into focus, and the sound quickly followed.
“Sound down!” he hissed, and the two news reporters on the disc spoke in more hushed tones.
“Follow,” he whispered, and walked up to his room, the small box following behind him, bobbing at a respectful distance. It was on orders to float back down to the kitchen should he fall asleep, and fortunately no-one else in the family older than he knew how to change the orders.
He fell ungraciously onto his unmade bed, the channeller hovering above his dresser. Shoving the last of the sandwich into his mouth, he wished he had made more than one. They never had wildeboar anymore, not since El’s first birthday. Maybe his father had found a new job?
Lliard had discovered Vernon’s employment difficulties when one of the students at his school, a snotty little honor student by the name of Calder Cosgrove who would be fighting acne his entire life, started gloating to the athletic boy about how his father had been fired. Alder Cosgrove, Junior VP of Effigy, had been the one to give Vernon the bad news, and had confided in the awful decision to his family, unaware of how the information would be used.
Lliard had been in much the same boat as his father when, after knocking Cosgrove unconcious with a math text, he had been suspended for two weeks. It was only that morning he had been allowed back into the school, and apparently his dad’s luck had improved as well. Not wanting to explain about being suspended until after it had expired, he had refrained from telling his siblings about their father’s predicament, and the gambit had paid off. He smiled to himself. His dad might be a bit of a codger, and a bit of a bore, but he was hard worker, and Lliard had to respect that.
With a titanic yawn, he watched the late night news wind down and the sports programming start. Within seconds of hearing how his favorite team, the Sun Demons, had done, he was asleep, and the channeller, sensing it was no longer useful, turned itself off and floated back t the kitchen.

Chapter 3

Friday morning found Vernon walking out of Water Street Architects, briefcase in hand, utterly expressionless. Inside, work was continuing along as normal, with the exception of a few vacant desks. Vernon had been the last of the recent layoffs to leave the building; security had been called after seven minutes of his slow, ponderous walk through the building to escort him quicker to the front door.
“It was just a trial basis, you understand.” He could not remember which manager had said it, and it really didn’t matter. Their eyes were the same. “We hired such a large group because we wanted to see who was the best under true work conditions. We like your calculations, we really do, but they simply weren’t economical. We aren’t a major corporation, we can’t afford the slightest waste.”
Waste. They had called his designs waste. His buildings would have survived the Cataclysm, but he supposed that would be considered waste since no-one else would be around to notice that fact. He knew he should be feeling anger, but there was just a little empty hole that his emotion seemed to be draining into. Walking down the street, the sun still low in the sky, he found he could not even think about the future, or the present, or his family. He couldn’t think about finding another job. He was, against all reason, completely preoccupied with where he was going to find to eat his lunch today. Dizzy, he decides to go home.
The buildings around him became gradually bigger and more expensive as he headed south, drawing closer to the Sun Road. The main thoroughfare through town, and indeed through the continent, it was so old they simply laid new cobbles over the old ones once they had been worn down enough. After centuries of use, it was rumored that fifty feet straight down was solid stone, cemented together through time and pressure. Vernon felt a strange kinship with it now.
To the west, the road ran through the Wall and into the City. To the east, the commercial centre metamorphosed into miles and miles of suburbs, with thousands of homes just like his. The thought that somewhere in the urban sprawl there were men like himself was almost as depressing as losing his job. Somehow he knew his replacement had been a dwarf. They were as offended at waste as they were at height jokes, and he knew of several axe-fights that came from height jokes.
His slightly worn suit was wrinkling as if in response to it’s wearers despair. His knuckles tightened on his leather case as his sidewalk let out onto the busy street, carriages and buggies and hover-discs trying to make their way between the thousands of pedestrians. Why were there so many people out and about during work hours, he wondered. Didn’t they have jobs? He walked, unaware of his feet taking step after monotonous step, unaware of his fingers going numb gripping his briefcase, unaware of the sun beating down on his neck.
It was only when he realied he could see his shadow stretching out in front of him did he realize his feet were not taking him home.

The guards that stand watch at the various entrances through the Wall are of a type that can only be described as ‘stony’. They are, to a man, grizzled and stern, wielding weapons that most assuredly were not for show. Vernon was surprised to find he had not even really known what grizzled meant until meeting this particular guard, clad in the black regalia of the Black mages. The Law.
These guards mostly did not have a difficult job, since the Wall took care of it’s own security. Powerful magical wards, reinforced daily, stunned anything travelling over the wall into a stupor, if not into a coma, and over the past ten years, attempts had dwindled to the point where arrests for Trespassing into the City were showcased on the nightly news. Guards at the dozens of gates were mostly to inspect goods passing through, and to check the validity of papers. Fortunately, Vernon was prepared for this.
“Elven Anti-Defamation League Headquarters, eh?” the man grunted, examining the documents through myopic eyes.
“Yes, we’re working on a new headquarters for them. They feel their current lodgings are too close to the docks. Fish smell, you know.”
The guard snickered. “Yeah, I know. All right, go on through, but you better have this stamped when you come back through.”
Vernon nodded quickly, a little intimidated. This guard, despite being fairly elderly with failing vision and a tobacco enthusiasts smile could probably cut him in half without so much as batting an eyelash. The huge lochaber axe looked rather too well worn for his tastes. Come on, he thought, you have nothing to fear. Water Street had not yet cancelled Vernon’s sigil on the documents, which meant that, for a short while, he was legally allowed to enter the city.
His last visit had been three years before, when he had to oversee measurements of intersecting ley lines for the Tan mages new headquarters. The city block had long been reputed to be haunted, which served the spiritual scholars just fine; several of the ghosts had been hired to work the desks after the grand opening. Although he had spent his entire time at ground level, it had still been exhilarating. The engineer in him was nearly giddy when he stood at the base of the great Draconian World Plaza, nineteen hundred feet of smooth vertical stone. The building lacked visible windows, but cunning magical dweomers allowed the stone to be transparent when viewed from inside. Before he had left the city, he had calculated the staggerin cost of the building with an estimators keen eye, and nearly been sick a the thought of the money the Dragons had spent.
He walked through the gate, feeling the tingle of magical screens checking him for offensive weaponry. The space on both sides of the wall was lush and green, stone pathways meanderin throuh the trees and benches, although he noticed that the cost of the average suit of clothes clearly tripled on this side.
The grass ran right up the base of the buildings which, from this angle, seemed to be muscling eachother out of the way to catch the eye. This close, the buildings seemed to soar out of the earth, volcanic eruptions in all shapes and colors frozen forever in time. A hundred years ago, such buildings would have been the dreams of madmen. Now, they were the homes of kings and chairmen.
He sat on a cool marble bench, watching the rising sun behind him ripple and distort the colors of the skyscrapers before him. For the first time, though, his easterly gae was not upon the City, but upon one of the small ad boards build into the arms of his seat. He removed his lunch and started to eat, marvelling at his own calm and daring. His palms were dry, his face was unlined with worry. He might have been any of a thousand business men who sat here every dat to eat an early meal, with every reason in the world to do so. Advertisments flashed by his eyes, with sports scores scrolling accross the bottom.
“Hmm, the Demons won again. Lliard will be pleased.” His voice seemed disembodied, ethereal. His sandwich, the last of the wildeboar, was like chalk in his throat, and his bottle of Alwayz-Cool Fresh-Water did nothing to help. Outside, he was the picture of propriety. Inside he was metaphorically running around a farmyard somewhere with his head cut off. When the advertisment he was waiting for appeared, he studiously memorized the address, stood up, dropped his paper bag into a waste bin, and headed for the nearest Discer.
Another new invention, courtesy of the Green mages, techno-wizards to a man or woman, the Discer appeared to be nothing more than a glowing puddle of green water. He stepped onto the surface, always expecting to see his feet getting wet, but the surface was solid and glassy. He withdrew a handful of change from his pocket, and not knowing the proper amounts for transit, simply dropped the entire collection onto the Disc. They vanished into the green surface as surely as they would have entering water, and he could feel a faint vibration through his worn soles.
“Uhm... Proctor Tower East, Third Lobby?”
He nearly bit through his lip as the disc levitated upwards with dizzying speed, soaring like a hawk above the parkland. Even though the disc was climbing at a sharp angle, he still felt his mass drawn down towards the disc. He was sure he was in no danger of falling, since a million discs were used everyday worldwide, but that did not make the journey any less terrifying.
Once he was several hundred feet in the air, the sensation of speed lessened, especially given the massive size of the structures around him. Many of the buildings nearest the wall were new, and designed with more aesthetic appeal, with fluting columns and flowering roofs. These quickly gave way to incredibly heavy, linear buildings with a cross section considerably larger than the block on which his house sat. He was unable to stop his mind from performing volume area calculations, taking into account average building height, and working out the number of individual offices that one could fit into such spaces. The numbers he arrived at were astonishing, even taking into account that many of the buildings held thousands of apartment suites.
His disc moved swiftly, still climbing, taking him in graceful loops around buildings, and sometimes through them. In an effort to speed up magical travel, many towers had been retrofitted with open-air lobbies at various altitudes to cut down on internal travel time. Elevators were limited by speed, even with magical aid, and wasted minutes could be spent travelling between floors, especially given that there could be hundreds between street level and destination. He correctly guessed his height to be somewhere above thirteen hundred feet as he emerged from the shade of the Honorable Clifford Blodwyn Centre for Economics pass-through lobby.
Coming around the corner of a huge building limned in purple and green magical fire, his breath caught in his throat as he spied the Draconian World Plaza. He had heard that the very top of the tower was an enormous steel tee a hundred feet wide, but he had not really believed it. Seeing it now, he finally understood. A Dragon, red and silver of scale and white of horn, perched on the tee, it’s tail wrapped around the base for balance. The mighty wings were unfurled, and Vernon’s practiced eye guaged at least four hundred feet from tip to tip.
Flitting around the Dragon’s enormous raised head were several, at this scale, tiny Draconians, a strange bipedal evolutionary offshoot. No doubt, they were conducting several different business meetings; Dragons were capable of taking part in a dozen complex debates at once. He was sad as his disc moved him out of range, but when he looked back, he could always spy some part of the Dragon completely dominating the topmost levels of the skyline.
Other discs whizzed about him as he neared his destination. The Proctor Tower complex was a no-nonsense structure of black and white quarrystone. One massive base separated into four narrower towers of varying heights at what appeared to be the sixtieth floor. He was pleased to see he was heading for the tallest one. Well, no cheap offices in there, he thought.
The Third Lobby was a vase tiered chamber, open on all four sides. There were terraced landing areas for discs, or travellers flying by some other means, and tremendously graceful crisscrossing stairways. He had always hoped to design something so grandiose, even though it was just a single grand hall, but it didn’t look like it was destined for him. He would forever be an observer, creating in his mind. Already he pictured ways to flute walkways from one terrace to another without obstructing traffic.
His disc rose to the topmost level, and deposited him on the ground, dissipating in a puff of greenish smoke. HE was pleased to note that exact change was laying on the ground just in front of his feet. “Well, isn’t that nice,” he commented to the amused glances of some passing businessmen, who were gently leading some sort of aquatic squid-based creature dressed in shimmering robes.
He looked around. The walls were white marble with brown collonades streaked through with blue azurite. There were hallways and recesses all around him. Although he had seen a dosen plans for buildings such as this, a hundred presentations, he was a little lost in the real thing, unsure where to go. Hallways seemed to lead away from him in every direction. He peered over the railing, at the multitudes who all seemed to be in a hurry, and knew exactly how to reach their destination.
A sound to his right reassured him. He turned and headed down a fairly non-descript corridor, finally noticing the signs which said “Destinations Above”. After a few feet it let out into a round room with recesses set regularly along it’s walls. This would be another first for Vernon, who was headed for the nearest one.
“Uhm... floor one-seventeen?” he said, entering the enclosed space. With a pop, he was encased in a blue bubble. There was a sensation of rapid upwards movement, and then rapid forward movement that made his teeth rattle, and as quickly as it started, it ended, and he found himself standing rather breathless in a well-appointed hallway. Expensive wood trim stretched off in both directions, and candles set in golden sconces burned unflickeringly despite the gentle breeze, and glowed a little too brightly.
Vernon peered closer. Sure enough, the white wax of the candles was covered with tiny sigils of red wax. Some of the symbols even seemed to make sense to him, but he shook his head. He had business to attend to.
“But left or right?”
“What are you looking for?” said a pleasant female voice. Vernon looked around, startled, but the doorless hallway was empty.
“This is the Automated Service Interface. You may call me Autsie. Which office are you looking for?”
Vernon told the disembodied voice, and was told in turn to turn around. Sure enough, where there had not been a door before, there was now a heavy, no-nonsense iron bound oak door.
“Clever trick,” he said, reaching for the handle which, as it happened, was absent. “What do I do, knock?”
“Yes,” replied the friendly voice. Vernon found himself wondering what the owner of the voice looked like. She seemed nice. He knocked, and recieved his third surprise in as many minutes.
Whereas a second before he had been in the hallway, he now experienced a pulling sensation, followed by a mild impact on his legs. He looked around, a little dazed and confused. The large room was occupied by two plush leather couches, two large green plants flourishing despite the obvious lack of sunlight, and a small white desk with an extremely neat office set. Sitting behind the desk was a young man in the black, white and grey robes of the unaligned apprentice wizard. He had short, neat hair, a wide pleasant face, and two closed eyes, because he was most definitely asleep. There were, Vernon bemusedly noticed, no doors.
On the wall behind the apprentice, lit rather impressively by some hidden lights, was a relief made of what appeared to be cut steel. “Archmage Chemainus Marcene, Soul Lender, GG, DSpR,” he spoke out lodu, rousing the startled young ban behind the desk.
“Uh, ah, hello, yes, yes, that’s us. Well, that’s him, really. The last bit stands for Grey Guild, Department of Spiritual Research.” He was obviously flustered, trying to arrange the items on his desk into even more perfect mathematical exactitude, but failing since they were already there. Clearly he was not used to seeing people. “How can we help you?”
“Well, first of all, you could install a permanent door,” Vernon said, his mind skipping like a stone over the turbulent waters of his feelings. He knew he was nervous, panicky, even terrified, but it seemed like it was happening to another person. “I had to ask the wall to make your door appear, when it would be just as simple to hammer a hole through that wall and put up an old-fasioned number with hinges.”
“Well, uhm, no,” said the youngster, who was also not used to dealing with this type of dialogue. “See, we’re not TECHNICALLY In the building right now. Well, we are, but there’s a sort of space on all sides of the office that is larger in dimension than the dimension of the building. See...”
Vernon waved him down. “I know how lineospatial distortions work, son, it’s all right. I just miss the old days, you know? Stairs, doors... job security.”
The apprentice was instantly on firmer ground. “I understand what you mean, it’s hard for an honest human to get a job nowadays.”
Vernon looked sidelong at him. “You’re human, and you’re doing pretty good for yourself.”
“Well, I just graduated from the Unaffiliated University College of Buravia, they had to stick me somewhere. It’s part of my course fee.”
Vernon nodded. People could buy jobs, if they knew magic. “So are you going to catch up on your sleep or should I start asking the walls where the next door is?”
The young man blushed. “Sorry.” He leaned forward and pressed a small green crystal set into the desk. The Green wiards had cornered the market on communication devices years before, as well as most forms of mass transit, and got to pick their own color scheme.
“Lord Marcene, we have a... uh, there is a person here to see you.” He released the button, and looked expectantly at Vernon. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”
“Vernon Houghbert.”
“A Mr Houghbert here to see you, sir.” Seemingly of it’s own accord, one of the plants had turned into a well-worn wood door. “Through there, if you please, Lord Marcene will see you now.”
Vernon nodded, feeling a pang of sympathy for the young man. It couldn’t be easy, an unaffiliated apprentice getting a job as the secretary for the most universally mistrusted commercial practice since wandering Inquisitors stalked the lands with their implements of ‘truth’. “Thank you, Mr...”
The fledgling wizard flushed. “Kaslo Enderby, Class Two. Uh, unaffiliated.”
“I noticed. If I don’t come back out, have a nice day.”
The startled look on the youth’s face made Vernon feel perversely better. Well, he thought, the lad’s heard all the stories, at least.
Vernon was pleased to see this particular door had a handle. He grasped it, and sure enough, he had to turn it to get the door to move. “Well, it’s about time.” One look beyond the door and Vernon knew why the archiac device was there, at least most of the time.
The next office was a little bit smaller, and every inch a Wizard’s haunt. Wooden shelves sagged under the weight of massive texts, dribbly candles burned and, yes, flickered in holders scattered about the room. Splitting the room neatly in half was an enormous L-shaped work desk, with clearly defined elbow grooves in the middle of both sections. Seated at the desk was an almost laughably classical wizard, an elderly but wise old man with wide sleeves and long white hair both below his nose and above his eyes, although the hair up top was beginning to recede slightly.
“So, you fancy the doors with the knobs, eh?” The wizard’s voice was deep and strong, the voice of a much younger man. Without looking up, one thinning arm dipped a quill into a jar of ink and then began to scritch accross the half-empty page of an enormous parchment tome. Vernon noticed that the only mysterious jars were most definitely ink; he had always thought elder wizards had heads in green goo, and hands in red slime. There were no skulls, no crows, and nothing seemed to be conducting electricity.
“Nice office. Yes, I was just telling the young man out there about how hinges work, he seemed quite fascinated.”
Lord Marcene laughed deeply, forced to lift his hand off of the parchment or mar his already confusing writings. “A wasted effort, I’m afraid. If it doesn’t levitate, he doesn’t want anything to do with it.”
Vernon found himself, against his better judgement, liking this man. His gray robes were dusty and smudged, but still undeniably marking him as a respected member of the Grey Guild. Sages, scholars, and researchers, they were not a popular choice for recent magical graduates, but there seemed to be enough old members to go around wherever they were needed. “He should meet my son.”
The wizard stopped writing, keen ears detecting the hitch at the end of Vernon’s comment. He looked up, and slid the book to the side, capping the ink bottle with practiced motions. He wiped his hand on his robe as he stood, making yet another tiny black smudge, and extended his other hand. “Chemainus Marcene. Don’t bother with all that ‘Lord’ nonsense, thats just something we use to teach the newbies respect.”
Vernon shook it, marvelling at the strength in the smaller arm. He was easily a head taller than the accomplished mage, but he somehow felt like a schoolboy again, standing in front of a math teacher. “Vernon Houghbert.”
There was a lengthy pause as they looked into eachothers eyes. Vernon could tell this man was also not entirely used to having customers, and was still trying to feel things out. Grey’s were not what could be called ‘people persons’, but they were trusted. They could not lie or cheat: part of their initiation was the swearing of a magical oath which bound them inextricably to their word. In recorded history, no Grey had ever committed a crime without first recanting their oaths and being excommunicated from the guild. They were men and women of knowledge, not action, which suited him just fine.
“So, uh... I guess it’s pretty obvious why I’m here.”
“Indeed it is, but I must confess, I am not one hundred percent sure why.” The wizard sat and leaned back, motioning for Vernon to do likewise. “We Greys have performed one hundred and seventeen transferences, and the Pinks and Tans have collectively performed three hundred and sixty three, and only two of these have been men of means, such as yourself. Your suit, although aging, is expensive, and your shoes have recently been polished. You are clean shaven, and the lack of lines on your face suggests that despite your age you are in excellent health. Your hands do not shake, and you found yourself to this office quite easily, without goin through our booking agency outside the Wall.”
Vernon was shaken. This man was good! “Well, I am a building technolgist, thaumaturgical and metallurgical. I understand how these interoffice systems work. Well, mostly. I guess I am in pretty good shape. But a man of means? Not so much.” He sighed. “I get by, I support my family.”
Marcene nodded. “That you do.” Clearly he wanted Vernon to continue.
Vernon recounted the story of his job losses, starting with the gnomes. He skimmed over his home life, mentioning his family only briefly, although he beamed proudly when he got to Lorelle’s magic skills. “She stuck the ice box to the ceiling the other night, it was incredible. She hasn’t even gotten the levitation charts yet.”
While he spoke, the wizard nodded. “Your story is not unique. There are a great many people such as yourself, men and women being replaced by multi-ethnic professionals. Have you not considered retraining? You are young still.”
Vernon shook his head. “I can’t perform practical magic. I could sketch out the flows and lattices of reinforcing enchantments for a three-thirty-three by eighty-eight tempered Vasco steel beam to support seventeen floors of live load, but I can barely light a candle with notes written on my hand. My teacher said he’d never seen someone so good, and so bad at the same time.” He smiled ruefully. “I couldn’t even figure out how to cheat on the tests with the Far-Sight spell.”
“Well, there are other methods of re-training. We need geological engineers, even ones without magical skill. We need skilled craftsmen, we need salesmen.”
Another shake. “This is all I’ve done, it’s all I know how to do. I can’t sell ice to Ghiardis, and I’ve always hated camping. Also, the bank won’t approve me for a retraining loan given that there is no guarantee, given my recent firings, that I’ll get a job to pay them back.”
“Does your wife work?”
Vernon looked puzzled. “Are you trying to talk me out of this?”
With a prompting nod of the sage’s head, he continued. “No, she watches the kids. If she got a job, it would probably be sales, or seamstressing. She’s good with fabrics. But it wouldn’t pay enough to cover our mortgage, Elwyn’s activities, Lorelle’s extracurricular training, and Lliard’s college, even though he says he’s going to get a job. If we both got full-time jobs, most of my pay would go to hiring a child-minder, and then we’d never get to see our kids.”
Marcene nodded. “You have thought this through.”
“Unfortunately. I havenlt even told them I lost my job. Again.”
“You lost your job this morning, and got into the city illegally.”
A stricken looked crossed Vernon’s face. “How did you know?”
“You have your briefcase, and I can see some crumbs on your shirt from the lunch your wife packed you. You couldn’t have gotten into the city unemployed, with no appointment.”
The man was very good. Vernon’s shoulders slumped. “Yeah. Ever considered working for the Black guild? You’d be a great detective.”
The elder wizard’s eyes crinkled with good humor. “No, I could never get used to the uniforms. Too itchy.”
Vernon looked around the office uncomfortably. Well, he thought, thats everything. I’m unemployed, here under false pretenses, and if I go home it’ll either be as a failure or as a vegetable. What a day this has been. It was a pretty easy choice.
“So how does the process work?”
Marcene cleared his throat, clearly launching into what would be an immaculately prepared speech. “The transference process is remarkably simple, and has been around for centuries. Most wizards, though, never thought it was capable of being altered to siphon only a part of a paticipants soul. Indeed, if the participant is unwilling, it is usually impossible to get a portion of it without causing tremendous psychological and spiritual damage. Several years ago, a joint committee of the Pink and Tan guilds worked together to devise a way to extract a fraction of astral energy from a living creature.”
“Frodo the Bunny,” Vernon said. Everyone knew the story.
“Yes, young Frodo. Legendarily the rabbit lapsed into a coma and died, or, in the more amusing versions told in ale-houses, grew horns and slew the wizards who were present. Neither is true. The rabbit experienced a prolonged period of malaise and general inactivity, but eventually was restored to it’s former condition. It even produced offspring which are, to this day, healthy and normal. Extensive testing showed that the astral energy, the ‘soul’ had regenerated the missing portion.”
Vernon nodded. He had heard that the rabbit had recovered, but it was a weak argument, and usually shouted down by the purveyors of the ‘slaughtering bunny’ tale. “And then you tried it out on humans?”
“Yes, a volunteer from the Tan guild. They mostly concern themselves with astral matters, so it was the obvious choice. Be was well versed with the paradimensional planes, and expected to live on quite happily there should the procedure go awry. It did not, though, and a considerable amount of energy was siphoned, enough to power the entire present day Sun City for a period of three and a half months.”
Vernon’s eyes twitched. “That... is a lot of energy.”
“Yes,” smiled the wizard, “although that was in it’s unrefined form. It would have to be fed, slowly, into turbines for those months, but it is nonetheless impressive. The wizard, a class Four, lapsed into a coma and very nearly died.”
There was a period of silence. “You’re a great salesman, you know that?”
“The Pink guilds monitored him, and the Tan guilds used their extensive knowledge and power to help sustain the man, and in time he recovered. He was not believed to be in mortal danger, but for over two years he was capable of only the most basic forms of communication, and had to be fed and cared for by attendants. Slowly, he regained his faculties, and he was declared as good as new on the fourth anniversary of the experiment.”
“And thats when they went into business.”
Marcene chuckled. “Not in quite those terms, but yes, they began to run clinical trials, on humans as well as elves and dwarves, since there were already elvish and dwarven representatives in both Guilds. Strangely, there was only one dwarf enrolled in the entire Tan guild at that time.”
“Well, can you imagine a dwarf spending his days floating around the clouded dimensions of Elysium, asking philosophical questions to the spirits?”
“Only if the spirits came in a mug.”
Vernon blinked, and burst out laughing. “I’d be careful or you might find yourself down one or both kneecaps one day.”
The sage smiled. “Don’t worry, I got that from a dwarf. Anyways, the trials all went well. No-one was lost during a transference, although the degrees of detachment varied from mild stupors to outright comas. Curiously, the elves and dwarves recovered on average one third faster, despite having slower biological clocks. Research is still being done into this. Three humans committed suicide, though, as well as one elf.”
Vernon was stunned. “Are you trying to talk me out of this?”
“No, but it is important you know. It has been proven, from clinical trials and practical operations that 98% of the patients recover fully with no side effects. 2% undergo some sort of dementia, depression, and willingly end their lives. Unwilling subjects, who went into the procedure with doubts or on a dare, had that figure rise to over thirty percent.”
Seated before the elder mage, he was quite shaken. “So you’re saying, if I’m not really sure I want to be here, there’s a one in three chance I’ll off myself.”
“Well, crudely... yes.”
“But if I am... I’ll be in a coma.”
Marcene shook his head. “No, not at all. Some people experience only a mild lethargy, and are even capable of holding down simple jobs if not much social interaction is required. You want to say they could become lawyers, and I assure you, we’ve heard it before.” The Grey guilds made up half the lawyering trade, shared equally with the Black mages, the Guild of Law. “We’re not exactly sure what a person will experience before the procedure, as there are no distinguishing circumstances. Men, women, humans or other, old or young, the recuperation process differs for everyone.”
Vernon nodded to himself. He thought about laying around his house, propped up in his favorite chair while his family fet him wildeboar. He couldn’t do that to them, he couldn’t become an additional burden like that. There were convalescence homes he could have himself checked into, maybe. His family could visit him whenever they wanted. It probably wouldn’t be that often.
Then he saw Lorelle in high school, unable to get into college without her outside courses and magical training. He saw Elwyn in the bleachers, watching his friends play soccer. He saw his wife, coming home from a long day at work, tired and cranky. He saw them looking at him, and only seeing a failure.
He sighed, steadying his nerves. “So what do I get out of this?


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