Loren W. Cooper, CrossTown
Publisher: Red Hen Books
Date: November 14, 2017
Length: 340 pages
Genre: Fantasy & Science Fiction
Accidental travel happens all the time.
Vincent Van Gogh had lived in CrossTown long enough to be familiar with the concept. “It must have followed someone home, Zethus. Caught someone’s coat tails at a crossroad, perhaps. Came in like a fever, picked up off the street. The building never had a history of haunting.”
I studied the facade of the building from the edge of the road. Vincent stood next to me, shifting his weight uneasily from foot to foot. “If not the place, what about the people?” I asked. “Any budding warlocks in residence?”
Vincent shook his head. The motion exposed the scar of the wounded ear under the loose tumble of long red hair. “Nothing like that. The Old Woman wouldn’t have it. Not in her building. It might have chosen us as easy pickings. The ones who have already moved were the ones with children. I was the only one in the building who had any contact with a working sorcerer. I had to talk fast to get the Old Woman to agree to that.”
I looked at the violet will o’ wisps floating along the edges of the smooth asphalt lane. A light mist fell down through a pastel smear of sky and darkened the asphalt. The violet globes were a Wayshaper’s mark. Their presence assured that this road had been tamed to prevent a resident short on power and knowledge from absently crossing into some distant possibility during a casual trip to or from the local grocer or bookstore. Such places hold a strong attraction for CrossTown residents needing security and safety in their travels.
Unfortunately, the markers provided no assurance as to what or who might wander along that road. Particularly in CrossTown.
The brownstone looked, to the untrained eye, virtually identical to its blocky brethren on either side. Seen through the eyes of a sorcerer, the mark on Vincent’s building was obvious. Gusts of wind chased rills of moisture across the blacktop to the granite foundation of the apartment building, but the wind died before it touched the walls of the building. The water fell away to black pools standing at the base of the wall. A dull, oily sheen smeared the surface of the water where it trickled over the stone and pooled on the cement like runoff from a slaughterhouse floor. Rows of corbels brooded out over darkened windows like heavy brows hanging over the empty sockets of a skull.
The cause of the mark on that place was what Vincent had called me in to hunt for him. “She could have invited a priest,” I told him. “Someone she had a better liking for.”
Vincent cleared his throat. “She doesn’t like any in the spirit business. But she’s desperate enough to let you take a shot, based on my recommendation.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Desperate enough to pay?”
“We all chipped in,” he said stiffly. “We share the burden of payment.”
“Price of a profession, Vincent,” I said mildly. “I should give my skills away no more than you should give your paintings away.”
A pair of soldiers strolled by on patrol, horsehair crests nodding in the breeze, bone-hilted ritual daggers crossed in the small of their backs, bulky machine pistols slung at chest level over their ceramic armor. Vincent watched them cross to the other side of the street before they reached the brownstone. “You’ll have your silver,” he said without glancing away from them to meet my eyes. “Once the job is done. Once the building is clear. The old woman told everyone you would be cleansing the building today.”
That’s the bulk of my job. Call it spiritual pest control.
I stepped away from Vincent and turned down the walk to the front entrance of the building. I didn’t expect any more useful detail out of him. Knowledge helps most in these situations, but what Vincent had told me was scanty and general. Nightmares. Oppression. Hints of madness. Signs of a psychic parasite, but not specific enough detail to narrow identification any further.
The door gaped open like a hungry mouth. The darkness beyond the doorway thickened, eating the light. I paused on the threshold, studying the doorway, and felt Blade rouse, the Legion stirring restlessly behind him.
Blade’s voice came to me like the rustle of steel sliding in a scabbard. “Strengthen the defenses?”
I considered the implications of waking my legion of bound spirits before responding. “No. But stay ready. This one looks powerful but not subtle. Let’s see what he’s made of. Be prepared if he turns out to have unexpected depths.”
I stepped through the door’s shadowy mouth. The air took on a taint of decaying flesh. Miasma curled around me, heavy with a rotten strength, but Blade walked with me, stayed within the bounds of body and soul, and stood watch at every door of my spirit. No simple taint could make its way past the first Captain of my Legion.
I stepped across the threshold and onto thin gray carpet. I called the White Wolf out of the sleeping Legion. I loosed him enough so that he came to stand before me, his icy blue eyes burning into the artificial night. Only another sorcerer or a creature of the spirit would see him clothed in his hoarfrost fur, the arctic chill of his breath wreathing his head, his eyes like banked coals as he met my gaze and waited.
I nodded past him into the darkness. “Lead me.”
Lips edged in black curled away from icicle teeth. “And take him?”
“Not yet.” I cocked my head, listening to the whispering flow of power through the house. “Bring him to bay.”
A deep current ran through that place, heavy with the coppery scent of blood. A film of decay settled over everything within the building. I thought the blond wood panels covering the walls bore a layer of dust and filth until I stepped close enough to see light that should have reflected off the polished surface fading into the walls.
The power in that place hated life and order and cleanliness.
I felt that power tremble when the hunting call of my Wolf drifted back down the hallway. As the current of power contracted and localized, the source drawing back to itself much of the strength it had built on a foundation of fear, I walked on down the hallway. Overhead, long fluorescent lights fought a losing battle against what from the corner of the eye appeared to be clouds of gnats. Only another sorcerer would have heard the whine of the alien power buzzing overhead or the baying of my Wolf trailing through that place, and only another sorcerer would have heard the White Wolf’s bay thicken to a deep, throaty growl.
He had found my prey.
I made my way quickly through a door and up an open stairwell. A hissing voice rose through the growl. I exited the stairs and started down a long hall toward the White Wolf. He reared, baying, at an apartment door. The power running through the place crested, like a wave rising before it crashes down with all of its weight and strength. A sudden roar shook the floor under my feet as the door facing the White Wolf exploded outward and the White Wolf vanished in a cloud of debris.
I steadied myself with one hand against the rough plaster of the wall, not quite losing my footing as the building swayed. A rolling groan of stressed timber swept through the hallway like a vast exhalation. A cloud of dust and pulverized plaster swallowed the hallway. A sour, carrion smell rose with the dust. I covered my nose and mouth with my sleeve, breathed through my mouth, closed my eyes to slits, and waited for the dust to settle. After a few moments, about the time the visibility had lightened to a gray haze, the White Wolf emerged through the wreckage of the door and stalked back to where I stood waiting.
The building settled and steadied and the gathered power faded, leaving only the stench behind. I knew that the attack had been loud enough that even Vincent would have heard out at the street. From his perspective, it probably sounded as if I were demolishing the building.
I hoped it didn’t happen that way. I hoped the thing I hunted wasn’t that strong.
The sickly-sweet smell faded as the localized power thinned away to a trace. My quarry had escaped my hound. I set my hands on my hips and looked down at the White Wolf. “I’m disappointed in you.”
The White Wolf sat back on his haunches and gave me his best flat stare. “He was waiting. And stronger than you thought. Strong enough to shake my grip. Not terribly refined, though. And he seems tied to a physical strategy.”
I shook the dust from my long coat pointedly. “I noticed that. So did everyone else in the neighborhood with ears to hear.”
“There’s no need for sarcasm,” he snapped.
“Did you discover anything useful?”
“He was never human, but he’s using a corrupted human form.”
“Corrupted human? Corporeal?”
“Corporeal enough to give you problems. I’m surprised he hasn’t taken the fight to you directly.”
I shook my head, ignoring the wicked gleam in the White Wolf’s eyes. I had begun to develop a feel for the nature of my prey. The deliberate and heavy evocation of mood indicated a broad sadistic streak. “This one feeds on fear,” I said. “He has no interest in killing.”
I gave the White Wolf a stern glance, which he shrugged off with wolfish indifference. It has been my experience that the shackles of enforced service rest uneasily on nature spirits. “Have you caught the scent of any old trauma in the building?”
“Like a murder?” he asked, grudging respect audible in his harsh voice. “It’s a nice thought, but even though this thing is wearing a corrupted human form, it doesn’t have a human source.”
“So, what did it taste like?”
He laughed a wolf laugh, tongue lolling. “Corrupted flesh. Human flesh. But that was a mask. Underneath that...something wild. Something thriving on the lack of protection in this place. Something quite inhuman but fascinated by all things human. A taint of the Fae.”
I rubbed my chin as I considered. “Nothing better than that?”
“He was fast, strong, and waiting, though he wasn’t ready for me. I managed to get a piece of him, but when he shifted out of there, he had plenty of power available to cover his tracks.”
The White Wolf turned, and I followed him down the third floor hallway. The floor gave under my tread, a soggy feeling like stepping on flesh. Jaundiced light bled from incandescent bulbs burning in yellowed glass globes set high on the walls in both stairwell and hallway. Shadows played around my feet like swarms of rats.
The door where the White Wolf had triggered the trap had vanished, along with a considerable part of the doorway. The force of the trap had pulverized the globe of the light set high on the wall across from the door. A crater opened in that wall at about chest-height, breaking through the drywall and into the timber and brick of the outer wall. Only traces of the door frame remained, and an enormous force had torn great chunks out of the studs revealed by the gaping hole. Had I been standing in that doorway during the attack, I would have become a large stain on the remaining wood and masonry.
The White Wolf turned through the splintered remnants of the doorway, but I hardly needed him to guide me. I could still see the overlay of power wreathing the place like dirty smoke. I stepped into the room. Through the past I heard the distant murmur of old voices. No furniture stood in the room beyond. Empty light sockets stared down at the bare hardwood floor. The sharp tang of cleaning chemicals hit my nose, and the gleam of freshly scrubbed wood met my searching gaze.
To my sorcerer’s senses, a sweaty perfume of fear lay heavy on that room, despite the efforts to scrub it away. I would have bet that the last tenants had moved for a good reason. I followed that scent of fear, and saw the White Wolf sitting in the middle of a large, empty room at the back of the apartment.
Cautiously, I opened my sorcerous awareness further. The shock of sudden images hit my mind--fear, and the sense of being small and vulnerable in a large and hostile world, alone, loved ones dead but still walking and talking with some other thing inside, features sloughing away from familiar faces like ill-fitting masks, skin rolling away from bodies like old laundry to reveal something jagged and alien underneath, and the voice of a dead man whispering words too awful to hear--and I pulled back instinctively from their fading strength.
“This was the nursery.”
The White Wolf flinched as I straightened and glared at him. “I’d figured that much out for myself, thank you.”
I could feel Blade bristling within me. “He fed here. He fed on children.”
“No wonder they moved,” I said into the silence. “The children’s nightmares would be growing worse, night after night. Children’s dreams are powerful things. They gave our visitor a chance to get a handle on this world, as well as allowing him to build a tremendous power reserve from their fear. But he’s not here now.”
The White Wolf looked at me sidelong. “This isn’t his lair. This was simply the best place for him to lay his trap.”
“So where is he, then?” I turned in an angry circle. “He has too heavy a presence here to track through all of this. And you said he wasn’t subtle.”
The White Wolf’s icy eyes narrowed. “I said he wasn’t refined. He’s not a native of this place. He’s not at home here. That doesn’t mean that he is without a plan. Or can’t lay a trap, for that matter.”
I nodded. “And the trail led you up.” I turned, and felt the White Wolf at my back like a chill breath of arctic air. I paused, lowering my head. “Would you contest your service, then?”
His momentary silence held a strong undercurrent of calculation. “No. But I would warn you. He may be out of place, but this one is strong. Terribly strong.”
“Strong enough to take me, you think?”
A low whuff of air curled over my shoulder. “You’ve surprised me before.”
I laughed. “You’re actually concerned.”
“Just trying to bring you to see reason.” He sounded affronted. “Most of the Legion lies dormant. Perhaps you should awaken them.”
“And risk the distraction of my roused host, with no prey at hand to give them? I think not.”
He said nothing else as he followed me down the stairs, but I could feel his disapproval like a gathering storm at my back. Good. If he were angry enough, perhaps he’d take his frustrations out on the opposition.
The stairs creaked underfoot, but the oppressive echoes of childhood nightmares faded as we descended. I kept my ethereal senses extended, analyzing the framework of power that ran through the square of the building like a decaying vine threading through a sagging lattice. But this spirit had a crafty touch. Brooding shadows pulled me in several directions at once. In every apartment, I felt sure, a trap would be waiting, carefully prepared and lovingly fed on the fears of sleeping innocents.
I knew better than to play that game.
I descended to the ground floor and searched through the apartments, looking for a weak spot in the fabric of decay that draped the building. The White Wolf stalked cautiously at my side; Blade stood ready at the edges of the stillness-in-motion that I had long ago fashioned into the stronghold of my spirit. I deliberately stayed away from the active traces of my enemy that ran through the shadows of that place like blood thickening in the veins of a corpse. I sought the places between shadows until I found what I needed in the kitchen of a corner apartment.
The curtains had been drawn back from the windows, though the light faded before it touched the clean hardwood floor. Shadows clustered there less thickly than in what I had seen of the rest of the building, and the taint that dwelt in that place held its position grimly and with effort. Every utensil in the kitchen stood neatly racked. The broad expanse of white stone counter-tops gleamed with diligent daily scrubbing. That kitchen had all the hallmarks of a finely tuned machine running smoothly under a firmly assured hand. I wondered if it was the old woman’s kitchen.
I glanced at the White Wolf. “Perfect.”
His eyes sparkled impishly. “My faith in you is restored, oh master.”
“If you ever lose the sarcasm, I may just expire of shock.”
“And what will you use as bait for your trap?”
I reached to a round glass container racked among many on one polished counter top, poured out a handful of the fine grains within, and carefully sprinkled the salt into a neat white circle on the smooth surface of the floor. “You said that he had little finesse, remember? So I will deal with him head on. I will not bait him to this place, but rather I will hale him here to answer me.”
“Bold.” The White Wolf sat back on his haunches. “Could be dangerous. What if he’s too strong for you?”
“If he’s too strong for me here, away from all of his prepared places, then subtlety will do me little good in the end,” I said mildly. “Don’t you agree?”
He muttered a snarl under his breath, but did not answer.
I set the White Wolf to guard. Then I relaxed there, in front of my circle of salt, to begin my summoning.
Words and gestures are for the crowd, really. Sorcery is a matter of will, aided at times by symbolism. My summoning was less than flashy. To an outside observer, it would probably have looked as if I’d gone to sleep on my feet.
Through half open eyes, I distantly saw the shadows in the room grow and twist, as if cast by bare, gnarled trees bowing before a great storm. The darkness grew heavier, and with it came a wind, a roaring gale that tore doors from cupboards and scattered the contents across the room. The unnatural fury smashed containers sitting quietly on shelves, and flung fragments of glass about the room like a malevolent whirlwind. Through all this rage, no fragment touched me, and not one grain of salt was disordered.
I leaned forward and spoke quietly to the circle. “It does you no good, as you see. I am protected.”
The wind died, and two carious yellow eyes opened in the empty air in the middle of the salt circle. “Who are you, who would dare summon me?”
I grinned, bowed mockingly. “You might think of me as a sort of spiritual thug, a kind of ghostly gun for hire. I am a sorcerer. My name is Zethus. And you are?”
The eyes flickered, as if lit from behind by a candle flame. I had to crane my neck to look up at them. “Fear itself.”
He spoke in the voice of the whirlwind. The building shuddered to hear him speak. I reached into my pocket, drew out a pack of cigarettes, shook one out, and lit it casually with a flame I called to dance from the tip of my left thumb. I puffed out the flame, leaned back into the empty air, pulled my legs up, and floated there, supported by the White Wolf’s power over the air. “I doubt that,” I said. “Sorry. I’m all out of fear today. Would you like some tobacco?”
Golden eyes glared down at me through the rising wisps of smoke. “Foolish mortal...”
I took a drag and let the smoke curl out of my nostrils. “You’re right. Probably not.”
Some cultures say that tobacco protects by some innate power in its essence, as if the addiction in it were a live thing to be commanded. In my opinion, tobacco is an aid in these dealings more as a part of the ritual than anything else. If a practitioner can casually light a cigarette and take an insolent puff or two, it expresses a level of confidence that can be nothing but off-putting to the foe. So much of sorcery is confidence. Besides, tobacco often helps cover the smell of an opponent, and this can be no small thing in many cases.
The golden eyes closed, and when they opened, a ragged form misted into view behind them, growing visibly more solid with each passing instant. Jagged lines crisscrossed the angular body the spirit had taken, painted in raw flesh. The lips of countless wounds gaped as he shifted his weight. Muscles and ligaments and tendons could be seen writhing through the fissures like snakes when he moved. Dark drops of blood spattered the floor like rain and streaked his body in black ribbons.
I glanced at the circle of floor ringed by gleaming white salt and watched the blood begin to pool. “The whole Jigsaw Man routine’s been done, you know. You should relax. Think of this as an interview.”
The golden eyes blinked. “What?”
“An interview.” I took another considering drag on the cigarette, then leaned forward in a friendly way. “Look. I’ve been sent to bring you out of here. And while I do that, I’m evaluating you. I want to see if you have what it takes to join my Legion. I want to see what you’re made of.” My gaze flicked back to the cascading blood. “Besides discarded body parts, I mean.”
He reared back and brought both fists crashing forward. His hands stopped above the salt as if they’d run into an invisible wall. Blood sprayed out around them, outlining the curve of the salt circle and running down to join the blood lapping at the edge of the salt without actually touching it. “Insolent sorcerer! I am of the Wild Hunt, Blood and Bone! Though I have gone far from my haunts, still I will have the respect due me!”
He slammed his fists into the barrier again. This time the building shook with the impact. I glanced down to see a dark spot creep into the white curve of the salt.
I straightened my legs to stand once more on solid ground. “No more time to play,” I said curtly. “You’re too dangerous to add to the Legion. I’d like to introduce you to someone. Several someones, actually. The Captains of my Legion. They’re here for...well...you.”
He raged on as I spoke their names, but as they came, a silence grew around the circle. “Blade.”
At my right hand rose a tall, hooded form, face a dim blur beneath the hood of his cloak. He held a sword upright in his hands, and the blade burned with white fire.
A hulking silhouette of absolute darkness slouched into place at my left hand.
Across from Blade at the far edge of the circle of salt, two brilliant semicircles of light opened into an angel’s wings. The face could not be seen through the flames of the wings, but a burning sword as red as blood swung loosely from the angel’s right hand.
Across from Shadow, a gaunt manlike shape as pale and hungry as bare bone stepped out of the gloom, silver eyes dimly lit from within, thin lips drawn back to expose jagged teeth.
I watched the four edge in around the silent figure of my prey. “And for his part in the hunt, I give an equal share of the kill to the White Wolf,” I said, snuffing the cigarette between thumb and forefinger with a quick twisting motion and closing the ritual..
I could hear the Wolf’s claws clicking on the tiled floor behind me as I reached out with my foot and with one swipe broke the circle where the blood had eaten away at the line of salt.
I turned away, a great wind buffeting me from behind. A roaring as of many voices rose to shatter the silence. Then, abruptly, all became still. I turned and surveyed the wreckage of the kitchen, the glass and the scattered salt, as the sun broke through the windows. Of the blood that had filled the circle, not one drop remained.
I met a subdued Vincent outside. He transferred the fee to my account without any questions. He did not doubt that the spirit had gone. I knew without looking back at the building that the pall had lifted, and that the stone facade of the brownstone no longer wore the face of death, and that the water ran clean over the stones of the building.
I checked the account, validated the transfer, transferred a small portion back to the sending account, and showed Vincent the transaction. “For the kitchen and the hall. You’ll know when you see them.”
He nodded wordlessly. I shook Vincent’s hand one last time, and to his credit he did not shy from my grip. He had lived in CrossTown long enough that he knew what it meant to be a sorcerer. That’s why he had called me, after all.
I tipped my hat and left that place behind me. Within, I could taste the contentment of my Captains and the White Wolf. Even so, a taint of rot and copper hung at the back of my throat. We needed to take the time to relax a while and digest our most recent conquest. First things first, however. I had a personal piece of business that would not wait, not even on digestion.
I took a WanderWay from OldTown through the Psychedelic Quarter of CrossTown, knowing I had crossed over into the mainstream districts when the outlines of the Way stopped wavering and the sky eased back to hues less painfully bright and no longer maliciously shifting. The markers remained, of course, the violet globes of an anchored Way promising security and stability. High priced real estate lined the Way, towering into the sky. The stiffer the prices and the more crowded the land, the more we tend to build up or down, no matter what our place or time of origin.
People pressed around me, mostly core human stock but mixed through with everything from Faerie Breeds to a gaping pair of Yushrub Bushmen. I shook my head slightly at their conservative trims and swaying progress. They were so obviously yokels that I’d be surprised if they made it past the block without losing most of their hard-earned berries, or picking up a blight from some local hard case. My step never faltered, of course. In CrossTown the rule of survival never changes: it’s every sophont for him/her/it/themselves.
That’s the major reason I make my home on the outskirts of CrossTown, rather than somewhere in the direction of its stony heart. That, and the lease is cheap. The question of living somewhere other than CrossTown has never been a serious consideration. The advantages of the Ways are too tempting, if you have the will and skill to grapple with them and bend the Ways to your own purposes.
I brought my mind back to the business at hand. I glanced down the endless street at the usual snarl of traffic, sighed, and searched for an open byway--something small, something unmarked and unanchored, a road less traveled. A few more feet, and I saw what I needed, a small straight path opening between two brownstones, stinking of musky decay and stale urine, fading off into a settling gloom. A tall figure in a full cloak that almost concealed curving arm spurs, wearing a wide-brimmed slouch hat pulled down over his features, stepped into the alleyway ahead of me and faded into transparency after three steps. An impatient traveler like myself.
I followed him onto the unanchored Way, but when I extended my Wayshaper’s senses the road thrummed to the deep Gothic hum of NightTown. An unanchored Wanderway has restlessness at its heart, a blind questing desire to roam. A Wayshaper can guide that desire. The traveler before me had left the Way linked to NightTown, so I called up a different rhythm from the Way, a mix of tunes and times faster and livelier than NightTown’s patient song of the endless hunt. The smells in the place I was looking to find would have a harder edge than NightTown’s, less earthy, with the sharp taint of chemicals and old pollution biting at the back of the throat with each breath. The sound in that place never quite died: when all else faded away the subsonic hum of power snaking through conduits would set a man’s teeth on edge, and make him long even for the sharp staccato of gunfire just to drown out the inhuman pulse of the place. Vendors could be found there, selling every kind of ware, so long as all the impersonal power of technology lay at the heart of the goods.
The Way responded, turning toward my destination. I took two quick steps, my shoulders hunching slightly as TechTown burned into place around me. Flowers of light opened on all sides, cajoling, pleading, commanding, all in the name of an economy that never slept and under the auspices of a culture that spent its most powerful communication techniques on advertising. The streets were remarkably bare of pedestrians. In TechTown, the skies bore the brunt of the traffic snarl. Between the vast heights of TechTown’s superalloy towers snaked legions and layers of flyers, so thick that it has been said that night in TechTown outshines the day, despite the harsh light of the naked sun.
I turned left, strolling down the block toward a small familiar door. It slid noiselessly aside before my hand even brushed its matte black surface, and inside Joseph Cartaphilos met my eyes, jerked his head toward the side counter, and gave his attention back to the only other customer in the shop. I leaned against the side counter, studying them.
Joseph’s customer, a small pale man, shook his head. He wore a purple net muscle shirt and plastic pants, the curling white traceries of cheap implant surgeries covering every exposed inch of skin. “That’s not what I’m looking for.”
Joseph looked sincerely apologetic. Joseph always looked sincere. It was his gift. “That’s what you’re paying for. You want current military reflex boost wetware, you pay current military price.”
The small man cut his eyes toward me, a snarl curling his lip, and nodded sharply. “I’ll be back.”
Joseph gave him a cheerful smile, and secured the door behind him. “Zethus. I’ve been expecting you.”
I gave him a curious look. “Oh? I didn’t think I was so predictable.”
“It’s a little less between visits each time,” Joseph said with a smile. “You’re building a reputation.” He reached beneath the glass cases, manipulated something, and pulled out a small box. He placed it on the counter, and flicked the lid up. “That what you’re looking for?”
I ran one finger lightly down the barrel of the injector, and paused on the single ampoule. “Is it a ten?”
He spread his hands. “Hey. I know your current balance better than you do. It’s a ten. You wouldn’t come for anything else. One Golden Hour for each year of rejuve. Ten Golden Hours for ten years of life. You’re actually slightly ahead of the silver curve right now. You must work your ass off.”
I gave him a tight grin. “I’m motivated.” I closed the lid carefully and caught his eye. “Make the transfer.”
“Done.” He cocked his head curiously. “You mind me asking why you do this? Not that I’m complaining, of course. I love a loyal customer. But you’ve no fondness for the sparkle of TechTown or the things we have to offer. I know there are more...traditional...paths to get what you want. Paths you should be more comfortable with than this. Less expensive paths.”
I tucked the box safely beneath my arm. “I have no great love for the life in this place, that’s true enough. But those other ways you speak of have costs of their own.” I met his eyes squarely. “I know those costs too well to think them any less expensive in the long run.”
He pursed his lips as I turned and stepped through the opening door. Blade stood ready, though I did not believe I would need him.
The other man had waited for me, of course. I expected that. He was fast, and enough machine that it took me longer to touch his will than I had anticipated, so the flat of his hand caught me a glancing blow on the side of the head as I managed to shut him down. For a few minutes I saw nothing but star-shot darkness. I opened my eyes, leaning back against the cool stone of the tower wall, and looked at my attacker. He swayed where he stood, his eyes opened and unfocused.
My eyes moved past him to a tall man in a brown cloak who had stopped behind my erstwhile attacker. Beneath the cloak, I knew, he wore a habit as severe and plain as his outer garment. Under that he would be wearing NeoTemplar composite armor, standard equipment along with the variety of weapons he always carried about his person. The tall man’s dark eyes met mine. “Witch.”
I rose to my feet slowly. “Knight-Commander Vayne.”
A number in my Host bristled or quailed, depending on their nature, as he weighed me with his eyes. “Feeding your habit, I see.”
Suddenly sweating, I retrieved the box from the ground where it had fallen. I’d lost track of it during the attack. I flicked the lid back, and my legs went rubbery with relief as I saw that the vial remained unbroken. Shaking my head, I pulled the injector out and fitted the ampoule in place. I didn’t intend to take the chance of losing it again after coming so close to seeing more than five years of hard labor vanish in a single foolish instant.
Vayne’s voice thickened with distaste. “You could have the courtesy to indulge your vices in private.”
I met his eyes as I triggered the injector and felt ice hit my veins. “You don’t have to watch.”
He gave me a grim smile. “Yes I do. I still bear responsibility for bringing you to this place. Your sins weigh on me, but one day I will see your soul brought to the light.”
I leaned my head back against the wall and smiled as I felt the substance of my purchase spread through my body. A tingling intensity built, an earthy pleasure like a long, slow orgasm, and when the wave passed the small pains had faded, or at least diminished. Even the throbbing in my head became little more than a memory. “Does your debt weigh so heavily on you, then?”
“A debt is a debt,” Vayne said sharply. “I would, of course, prefer to return your favor by saving your eternal soul rather than your miserable life.”
“Then you shouldn’t take such offense at these treatments. The longer I live, the more chances you have to convert me.”
Vayne frowned. “I do not care to be mocked. This unnatural extension of your allotted span is a defiance of the will of God, and gives you nothing more than an opportunity to stray further from the path of righteousness. Your dependence on this drug is a weakness. Not unlike your dependence on that horde of captive demons.”
I flexed and stretched, caught again in the wonder of youth renewed. “Damn, the little pains add up so slowly, you forget them until they’re gone.”
Vayne’s hard features suddenly relaxed, and he laughed. “You never listen.”
I gave him my best rolling two-step. “Would you rather waste youth on the young? Just let me continue as a cheerful pagan and potential convert for a while longer. You know I am no enemy of the Faith.”
“Only by example,” Vayne growled.
I neatly tucked the injector and empty ampoule back into the box, and tossed the package into a nearby recycler. I turned to my attacker, who still stood loosely, and gave him a single silent command. He folded like an empty suit of clothes.
I grinned at Vayne. “Maybe someone will relieve him of the burden of any loose cash, and he’ll wake up a wiser man.”
Vayne looked down at him unsympathetically. “I doubt he’ll gain any wisdom, though he may lose some cash, if he’s foolish enough to be carrying any.”
“So were you just passing by, or what?”
“I had an errand to the local Chapter, but I have been trying to find you. You might as well know. Some old friends of ours are back in town. They’ve been asking about you.”
My eyes narrowed. “Whitesnakes?”
I allowed myself a brief pungent editorial, then sighed. “The sons of bitches are persistent, I’ll give them that.”
“Banishing their Avatar gave you a certain...prominence.”
My lips twisted. “You mean I’m still number one on their list of people to do.” I gave him a sideways glance. “You’re in their top five, you know.”
He gave me a feral grin. “I always wanted to be popular. Just means I don’t have to look as hard for them. I don’t like cultists. Give me an honest unbeliever like yourself any day.”
“You’re becoming corrupt. Too much philosophy. Perhaps one day I will convert you.”
Vayne snorted. “Not with your arguments.” He gave me a direct look. “Watch your back.”
“You as well.” I watched him walk back down the lonely street, and disappear down a narrow Way.
A strange man, Anthony Vayne, Knight Commander of the Knights of the New Temple. He’d been my ticket into this strange land of wonder and wastrels, introducing me to my master in the Ways as a favor for having helped him out of a sticky situation in a desolate place, back when I’d first lost my way and found myself on the outskirts of CrossTown. From what I’d heard, he’d been around CrossTown for as long as most could remember. He undoubtedly came from down a Way where man’s allotted span was considerably longer than it was where I came from--which gave him a certain comfortable room to talk about my desire to stretch what few years I had. I had to admit, though, that in the light of his unexpected depths, I occasionally found myself tempted to curiosity about the faith he followed.
Broke again, feeling ten years younger (guaranteed by warranty) than I had before I’d come to TechTown, I set my feet on the path Vayne had taken, but I chose a different Way. I cut off quickly into the narrow mouth of an alleyway unmarked by anchor lights. As I strolled along, I reached out to the fabric of the road with senses tuned to years of wandering the Ways. That particular path had been so well used that the road ahead blurred with myriad destinations. The opposite of the safely anchored main Ways, a wild WanderWay like that small alley could dump an unwary traveler into any one of thousands of variant possibilities.
I touched the living murmur of the road and ran my senses across it like a bow across the strings of a violin. The road responded to my touch, throwing up myriad promises of probability: smells of rich spicy food and the sound of low laughter on a quiet summer evening, the full moon riding high in the velvet sky, fat and bright and rich with possibility; the quiet lap of water in a cold gray harbor empty of ships, the evening sky dark with the threat of a squall; the sun rising over a hillside house of glass and steel, the lights of the City, father of all cities, spread out below like the fading glitter of fool’s gold, the illusion fading but not yet out of reach... I shook my head, pulling back from the promise of the road, and played a careful, familiar tune, soothing the wild way and turning it toward a place full of the scent of rain and wet wood, the sound of the storm stalking through the forest on cat’s paws to curl around the cold chimney and scratch gently at the cracking paint of the too-thin wooden doors. Ragged wisps of cloud opened and closed against the stars, teasing me with the glimpse of a clear night, and the lights of the city were no more than a bright fog off to the west, while the voice of the wind swallowed all but the sharpest sounds of the bustle of that place.
I took my first step down that road as my destination solidified, felt the temperature drop, and smiled. I raised my face to taste the rain, letting my long coat catch the wind and spread behind me like the cloak I no longer wore. The house rose before me out of the rocking clasp of the trees, and the gate flapped in welcome. I crossed into the yard, stopped to secure the gate, reminding myself again to fix that damned latch, and paused to run my hands across the silky cold heads of my jade spirit dogs. They slept peacefully, dreaming light dreams of the hunt and the kill at the end, their slumber undisturbed by any visitors.
I took my front steps two at a time. Mine was a small house, clinging to the edge of CrossTown in a patch of woody real estate secured only by my will and the anchors I had built there over the last few years. When winter came, the wind always found whatever chinks I had missed the summer before, but it was private and it was mine, and that was all that mattered to me. Not least of the benefits of having the skills of a wayshaper is the ability to carve lebensraum out of amorphous possibility. The rural nature of my neighborhood meant no other dwelling in immediate proximity to my own, and I liked it that way. Chimereon, my closest neighbor, was a carnivorous serpent-goddess whose realm extended into a forest much deeper and darker than my own quiet patch of woodland. That stretch of wild lands buffering my place from her temple suited us both. We had exchanged visits when I first came to stake my claim out at the edge of her realm, and she turned out to be good company, with a mutual interest in chess. I hadn’t seen her for some time. Good fences, good neighbors, and all that.
The front door opened at my touch, and as I stepped over the threshold the lamps flared to cold brilliance, and fire leaped in the hearth.
“Welcome home,” Silver said quietly.
I shucked my coat and tossed it casually across the back of an overstuffed chair, sprawling and split from years of shaping itself to my body. “Anything happen while I’ve been away?”
“Nothing much. A couple of stray dire wolves from Goblin town. The riders were most apologetic.” Silver’s voice had no more inflection than usual, which is to say, none at all. A mote of light danced at the edge of one wall, and Silver’s voice radiated from that. Everyone should have a House Keeper such as Silver to watch over the grounds while they’re away.
“None to the property. They were too smart to cross any boundaries. Terrorized the local wildlife a bit. Nothing serious.”
I sat and pulled off my boots. “I’m surprised Chimereon didn’t take umbrage.”
“She was out hunting. I would imagine that’s the reason the goblins were so apologetic. No one wants on the bad side of that daughter of Quetzlcoatl.”
I laughed. “She does take her cold-bloodedness to an extreme. Any messages?”
I sat back, stretching while he checked with the Bank of Hours. He would also have the water heating and let me know when it was ready for my shower. My muscles were loosening, relaxed as the rejuvenation treatment continued to work through my system. A hot shower would be a nice way to help that process along.
“Four messages,” Silver said abruptly. “One from Chimereon. One from Grimly Carvebone. One from Eliza Drake. One from undisclosed source. And your balance has been updated.”
My eyes narrowed. “Undisclosed source? What’s the disclosure fee?”
“More than your current balance.”
I frowned. “Chimereon’s message is predictable, given the Goblins and their unruly mounts. She probably wanted to know if I had any axes to grind that she could add to her own. As a courtesy, of course. Carvebone would be one of the Goblins, yes?”
“Correct. And the Lady Drake will undoubtedly be extending the usual invitation.”
I closed my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose. “Undoubtedly. I’ll give her one thing--she’s persistent. What’s my current balance?”
“One Golden Hour, twenty-seven Silver Hours, thirty four Iron Hours, and three Bronze Hours.”
I opened my eyes, my frown deepening. “Not that I’m complaining, but that’s one Gold more than I thought I had. Have you been holding out on me?”
Silver refused to be baited. “With the message you were advanced one conditional Golden Hour from an undisclosed source.”
“Open the message.”
On the wall across from me, a vertical line of light flared to life, and then turned sideways. Distinctive black calligraphy flowed across the white background silently:
“To the human sorcerer known as Zethus, I send salutations. The advance
you have been given is conditional on meeting my messenger at Sidelines
Altaforte within one hour of opening this message. You are bound to
nothing beyond this meeting by the deposit to your account.”
Silver closed the display. “That short text is all that the message contained.”
I sighed and reached for my boots. No rest for the wicked. “Trash the goblins’ message. They’re just trying to drum up some support, now that they know who they crossed. Chimereon can deal with them as she sees fit. I’ll look at her note later. The messenger will already be traveling to Sidelines Altaforte, I would imagine.”
“You don’t suspect a trap?”
“I can’t turn down the fee,” I said bluntly. “And since that message had all indications of a Faerie invitation, I certainly would not rule out the possibility of a trap. But Nuada Silverhand’s more subtle than that, and I have more favorable than unfavorable contacts over past the fields we know, so it’s worth the risk.”
“And the message from Eliza Drake?”
I thought about my earlier conversation with Joseph, about the prices paid for immortality. I’d had conversations with Eliza in mind since then. I’d known her a long time. I’d met Eliza Drake originally while I had been on a job for my master in the ways, Matthias Corvinus. Eliza had her own skills in wayshaping, as well as other abilities in the domains of life and death. Those abilities were rare among vampires, and that gave her a certain independence. She also had to deal with certain limitations, due to her circumstances. Undeath isn’t a free ride. Vayne, of course, didn’t approve of Eliza. Eliza had become too comfortable with darkness for Vayne’s taste, but I didn’t share Vayne’s prejudices in regard to kind. “Save it too,” I told Silver. “Always keep your options open.”
“As you wish.”
I stood, pulled my coat around my shoulders, and walked out into the wind, deciding that I must have imagined the distaste I had heard in Silver’s voice at the last.
Copyright © 2018 by Loren W. Cooper
Zethus is a sorcerer—a self-described spiritual thug for hire. He makes his living in CrossTown, a place where the manyworld hypothesis of modern physics manifests itself, where possibilities and probabilities overlap.
Caught up in a web of intrigue as he investigates the death of his master, Corvinus, and pursued by agents that want to erase all knowledge of Corvinus’ work, Zethus discovers that the key to his master’s murder lies in the last project he had pursued before his death. The roots of this project lie deep in the past, at the origin of CrossTown’s fractured reality.
Once he understands the stakes, Zethus must make the dangerous journey to the cradle of history. The price he must pay to find the answers he seeks will threaten everything he holds dear—including his own humanity.
“Beware the road outside your front door, for it is all at once old friend and passing stranger.” -CrossTown
“A sorcerer explores the frontier of theoretical physics.” Publisher’s Weekly
“An impressively original and deftly scripted novel by an author with a genuine flair for imaginative and narrative driven storytelling, “CrossTown” is an expressly and unreservedly recommended as an addition to community library Science Fiction & Fantasy collections, and a ‘must’ for the personal reading lists of all dedicated fantasy/mystery fans.” Midwest Book Review
About the Author
Loren W Cooper is the author of four novels, one short story collection and one nonfiction work. He has won the NESFA in 1998 and the EPPIE for Best Anthology in 2001. He is married with two daughters. He currently lives in Cedar Rapids Iowa. Favorite authors include Zelazny, Hammet, Steakley, and Catton. Loren Currently works for Hewlett-Packard.