A PINHOLE IN A PARADE FLOAT
The locked display in Claudio Vegner's Baltimore office contained several Outer World artifacts. Careful not to let her breath fog the tempered glass, Kate leaned closer to inspect a Hollit globe, a jeweled orb not much larger than a softball. Etched bands of red and whitish metal wove between the multicolored stones along its surface.
She'd seen a half-dozen such puzzle spheres. Albeit smaller, Vegner's was superb in its craftsmanship. It was definitely the crown jewel of this collection, the other artifacts were quite banal – a Dhevin gallows mask, a slender ivory ladle cut from the horn of some strange animal, and a bronze ring bearing an angular coat of arms she didn't recognize.
None of them were magical, she could sense. But Vegner would be a fool to display magical artifacts near a tempting window, even here on the nineteenth floor. No, Kate decided, these artifacts were here for her. That explained why he was late to this appointment, allowing her to explore his office alone, and see for herself that he truly was a collector. Kate didn't care one way or the other – as long as the money was good.
One of the oaken doors opened and Claudio Vegner stepped inside, a waft of expensive-smelling cologne swirling in his wake."I'm sorry to keep you waiting, Miss Rossdale." He extended a manicured hand, its square nails buffed to a high gloss.
"No problem at all," Kate said, delivering her lines in this needless play. She accepted the hand. "I was just admiring your collection."
He nodded his thanks. "Please sit."
Kate lowered herself into one of the two leather chairs opposite Vegner's desk, its inlaid surface preserved beneath a plate of beveled glass.
Vegner took his seat. His thick blond hair was combed back, giving an impression of speed, disrupted only by the prominently jutting ears. The strong jaw and deeply clefted chin were something movie stars would envy. His build was that of a former athlete, a softening that still told of the muscles beneath. "I trust you are doing well."
"I am," she said.
"Good." He gave a hollow businessman's smile. "I've had the opportunity to add to my collection, a particular piece of some value. But before I complete the transaction I wanted someone of your particular skill to authenticate it."
"Of course." Kate set her hands across her lap to calm their trembling. It had been two months since her last job. She needed money for food and a fix worse than she ever had. Money hadn't been an issue at first. She'd had plenty after Master Boyer's death, but time and bad decisions had whittled that away. "You know my fee."
"Of course," he said with a smile of very white teeth. Vegner withdrew a stack of crisp twenty dollar bills from his drawer and set it on the desk. "Two thousand in advance. We can't have expectation of the answer muddle our incentive to pay, can we?" He placed a small glass vial of red crystals, like crimson rice, atop the bills. "And this is a little gift. Consider it a tip."
Kate's hands tightened, but she maintained her impassive smile. Fuck you
. She'd hoped her… dalliance wasn't widely known. "Thank you." She cleared her throat. "And the artifact?"
Vegner was still smiling, the mean victory gleaming in his shit brown eyes. "Of course." He pressed a button on his desk phone. "You may send him in, Jodie."
The second door into Vegner's office opened. A gray-haired woman in a flowy blouse stepped inside, a bald man with wild eyebrows and a navy suit behind her.
A loathsome dread settled in Kate's stomach. Terrance Dalton. Shit.
"Miss Rossdale," Dalton said. "It has
been a while." His eyes flicked to the glass vial and his lip curled. "Keeping yourself busy, I see. Claudio, why is she here?"
"I've hired Miss Rossdale as my private authenticator."
He snorted. "Claudio, if you wish for authentication there are several impartial towers that I could recommend."
"No," Vegner said. "Too many back deals and alliances between towers. Covens bring their own baggage. Muddy things up. Miss Rossdale has no such loyalties and that is the reputation I've hired. But if you wish to soil her unbias, please, continue talking."
Dalton swallowed and sat down in the chair beside Kate's. "If this is your wish, so be it. I've no doubt Miss Rossdale will verify what I've said."
Kate forced a courteous nod. Lack of loyalties also required she not rock the boat. The Amber Tower held a lot of influence, not just in Maryland, but the east coast. The subtle glyph on Dalton's pinky ring showed that he'd achieved the rank of Magister Lex. Her equal now, though with a different focus. He could make life very difficult for her if she didn't play nice.
Dalton opened a briefcase and removed a flat, black-lacquered box. He slid an ornate bronze pin from the latch and held the box before her. Kate accepted it. It weighed more than she'd expected. Her face reflected in the shiny surface like a polished obsidian scrying mirror. Vegner watched her with passive intensity, his fingers laced before him as she set it onto the desk and carefully opened the lid.
An elaborate medallion of greenish gold rested inside atop burgundy velvet. A pale blue gem, as large as a quarter, crowned its center, nested in weaving bands of metal. The ceiling fluorescents hadn't even gleamed off its cut facets before Kate had determined there was no magic in it. But such news couldn't be delivered right away. Simply declaring it roused questions of competence. She had to at least pretend it was difficult to see.
Gently, she lifted the amulet from its cushion, drawing the long chain out from a hidden pocket. "Torban gold," she mumbled as if to herself. The artifact was definitely not of this realm. She couldn't identify the stone, but gemology had never been her forte. Most likely, it too, came from Torba, but no different than any ordinary stone of its kind. Tiny glyphs ran the lengths of the golden ribbons, so small she could barely make them out. She opened her attaché and removed a folding loupe. Peering through the lens, she followed the intricate symbols around the gem, each one warping into full clarity under magnification before sliding away. The glyphs revealed this to be a ward, banishing elementals and lower hexes. The craftsmanship was superb, each tiny symbol crisp and precisely placed. Yet it didn't work. There had to be a – There!
Hidden beneath the stone, she spotted a single symbol like a curved V, but the glyph was inverted. That one error, a half-millimeter engraving had made an imperfect seal, allowing the power to escape.
"It's authentic," she said, closing the loupe. "Torban, excellent quality, but…" she shook her head, "there is no magic in it."
"What?" Dalton laughed.
Vegner seemed unmoved.
"Claudio, she's mistaken."
"Are you mistaken, Miss Rossdale?" Vegner asked.
"No," Kate said.
Dalton huffed, still looking at Vegner. "Magus Eli Gregor learned the spell from that very amulet. That would be impossible
if it wasn't enchanted."
Vegner opened his hand to Kate, asking for an explanation.
"I'm sure he did," she said. "It likely held the enchantment for years, but an imperfection in the spell's binding allowed it to escape. Slowly, like a pinhole in a parade float. But it's gone now."
The muscles in Dalton's jaw rippled. "Claudio, I assure you that the amulet is the real thing. You can't take this woman's word for truth. Her own Master died from her incomp–"
"Don't you speak of him," Kate growled, her face growing hot.
"Or what? You have no tower, no powers. Everyone knows that the once great Kate Rossdale, Magister Arcanus, is nothing but a worthless blood duster."
Kate shot to her feet, fist clenched, and attaché falling to the floor. "You don't know shit, asshole!"
"That's enough," Vegner said, flicking his hand up. "Miss Rossdale, I'm satisfied with your findings. You've earned your fee. Thank you," these last two words delivered in the same tone another man might say fuck off
Kate opened her mouth, ready to tell Mister Terrance Dalton exactly what he could do with his amulet, but stopped. She released a breath, rage cooling.
Dalton was grinning at her, the corners of his ugly-ass eyebrows upturned, obviously anxious for whatever she planned to say.
Forcing down her anger, she slid the spilled books back into her fallen attaché, scooped the vial and money off the desk, and shoved them into her purse. "Thank you, Mister Vegner."
"Good day, Miss Rossdale."
Dalton was glaring at her, an expression that said, This isn't over
, but Kate was already moving toward the door.
"So, Mister Dalton," Vegner was already saying, "I'm no longer interested."
"And it seems that you owe me two thousand dollars."
She shut the door behind her, missing whatever came next. The secretary, Jodie, looked up from her computer, a muted click closing what Kate assumed was a game screen. Heart still pounding, Kate gave her a perfunctory smile and made her way out of Claudio Vegner's office suite.
The mixture of anger, self-loathing, joy of cock-blocking Dalton's sale, and getting paid stoked her growing need for a fix. She stopped on the third floor and located a bathroom. There, tucked into a stall, she tamped a few of the tiny red crystals onto a compact mirror and crushed them under a credit card until they were a chalky pink. With the help of a rolled, fresh twenty-dollar bill Kate snorted a bump up each nostril.
The blood dust burned, a sweet honey smell, undercut with roses and a bitter metallic tang. Warm tingles spread out from the space between her eyebrows, coursing down her veins with the electric hum of magic, a long absent friend. She licked the last traces of powder off her mirror and card, her tongue going numb with the bitter taste she now loved. Her back popped as she rose from her seat, the tension fleeing her muscles with a dramatic crackle of vertebrae. She opened and closed her hands, sensing the unseen power arcing between her fingers. It wasn't more than what a simple Initiate wielded, but to her it was a quenching river coursing through a desert. Teeth singing in their sockets, Kate emerged from the stall, the mounting high taking hold.
She forwent beating the traffic home, deciding instead to visit Whittaker's. The bar itself had operated for nearly two-hundred years, taking a short vacation under the name Lee's during the Prohibition Era. But that was only the front part. The upper floor, the real
Whittaker's, had gone unchanged that entire time. It hadn't been a speakeasy. Those were secret with pass phrases and hidden doors. The tavern itself continued on with the absolute certainty that it was safe from discovery by anyone that didn't meet the qualifications. The businesses on either side had burned during the '68 Riots. The first floor had been looted, but even rioters hadn't braved the stairs. Probably never noticed them.
Still riding the buzz from her first bumps, their numbing taste dripping down her throat, Kate stepped inside. Giant mirrors, dingy with decades of cigarette smoke, covered two walls, making the narrow room appear far larger than it really was. No one had smoked here in years, but Kate always imagined the haze and stink of tobacco, a memory, but not hers. The bar's memory. A few people nursed their afternoon drinks, eyes transfixed on the televisions near the ceiling or on their phones. A pair of women in business attire whispered conspiratorially as they sipped colorful martinis. Kate nodded to the barman, a skinny guy she didn't recognize, strode to the back, down the narrow hall past the bathrooms, and headed upstairs.
The tingles started the moment she mounted the first step, like invisible spiders scuttling up her spine. The old wards hadn't faded with age, but Kate had never been able to determine where exactly they were hidden. There were eleven of them, but that was all she could tell.
The familiar smells of sage and old wood greeted her as she pushed open the door at the top of the steps. A half-dozen patrons occupied the second floor –two at the bar, three chatting in the old wingbacks near a window, and Mister Lacroix reading by himself in the same corner as always.
"Well what do we have here?" a woman with thick, tortoise glasses and faded purple hair asked from behind the counter. "Long time, no see."
"Hey Tisha." Kate slid onto one of the stools, resting her feet on the old brass bar rail. "Glenlivet. Double."
"Oh," Tisha said, one eyebrow cocking above the thick frames. "Appears you intend to catch up for lost times."
Kate sniffed. "It's been a great day."
"Evidently." Tisha plucked the bottle from the shelf behind her and began pouring the drink. "So what have you been up to the last few months?"
"Whole lot of nothing." Kate dropped a twenty on the faded bar top, branded with a thousand interlocking rings from wet glasses. "How's it been here?"
"You know how it goes. More of the same. Few new faces wandered in. Few more forgot where the door was."
Kate sipped her scotch, the warmth blooming in her stomach like her temporary magic. Whittaker's was a haven, a magical sanctuary where deals were struck and contacts established, only noticeable to those receptive enough to see the door. Most were young, their minds still flexible and hungry. As age hardened their elasticity, many forgot about it, or felt the discomfort that the wards emitted to those not attuned. The result was that a regular surge of youth kept the place from getting too codgy. She'd wandered in herself, on her twenty-first birthday, wide-eyed and desperate to learn. Much had changed in the seventeen years since.
Tisha leaned close. "Bit of rumblings in the Amber Tower, I hear."
"Mm-hmm. Too many chiefs. Sounds like they might actually split."
"They've been saying that for years. Master Boyer said it had been that way since he was an Initiate."
"Yeah, but they sound serious this time. Dissolution of the Onyx Tower pushed a lot of people under one roof."
Kate hid her frown behind another sip. Onyx hadn't dissolved. It had shattered, the leadership wiped out in a single night. She'd been one of the only two survivors of that failed excursion, and the blame landed squarely on her. It had been her Magus test, after all. Many reasoned her resulting disability was cosmic justice. Some went independent afterward. Others moved away, joining different towers. The rest had gone to Amber. It appeared the shockwaves from that night were still sounding. "Well, best luck to them. They have an Ipsissimus?"
"They'd have to, but no one knows who, of course." Tisha glanced at the two men drinking at the edge of bar and whispered, "There's about to be a lot of power shuffling. So you might want to keep your head low."
"They can't do more to me than has already been done."
"Believe it or not, girl, you've had a lot
of influential friends in Amber that have kept you protected after everything. If they lose their flock, the next leadership might not be so forgiving."
Kate snorted. "Little late now."
Tisha cocked her head. "What's that mean?"
"Well." Kate lifted he glass before her. "You're talking to the girl that just humiliated Terrance Dalton and probably cost him two grand." She knocked it back.
"True story," Kate coughed. She clacked the empty glass back onto the bar. "Just half an hour ago. Called him an asshole, too. It was great."
"Really?" Tisha asked, not seeming to appreciate the joy. "You show up after three months of hiding out and the first thing you do is kick Dalton in the nuts?"
Kate shrugged. "It's my gift. I'll take another."
"How did this happen?" Tisha refilled the glass.
"I got a call from that collector, Vegner. He wanted me to authenticate some amulet. Ends up it was a piece Dalton was selling. Something that used to be Magus Gregor's. I told Vegner the amulet had no power. Words were exchanged. Now I'm here."
"So they're selling off Gregor's effects now?"
been a year since anyone saw him," Kate said.
"You mean since the Spire got him."
Kate scratched her nose. "Doesn't have to be witch hunters. Maybe he just realized he was surrounded by assholes and ran off. Can't blame him." She turned to the wall of photos beside the bar, some so old they were printed on glass, their names long forgotten. Magus Gregor stood in the middle of a group shot on the upper right, probably taken in the Seventies judging by their hair. She toasted the long-absent sorcerer.
Tisha rolled her eyes. "And the two grand?"
Kate sipped her drink. Maybe it was the blood dust, but the first glass was already taking effect. "That was my fee for ruining the sale. Sounded like Vegner was going to make Dalton pay for it."
Tisha shook her head. "You know why he was selling Gregor's effects, right?"
"Pay for an eyebrow wax?"
"No," she whispered. "Because they're getting money to fund a new tower. Now they have even less than they did before you came strutting in."
"It's not my fault he was selling a broken artifact." Kate sniffed again. "It was just a job."
"And where do you think their anger is going to…" Tisha leaned close, her magnified green eyes peering into Kate's. "Why do you keep sniffing?"
"I'm not." Right on cue she did it again, a Freudian sniff.
"Are you dusted?" Tisha hissed.
"What?" Kate laughed.
"Your pupils. They're big as plates and you're too damned happy for this conversation."
"Relax," Kate said. "I'm celebrating, and don't act like you've never enjoyed it."
"Don't you even try to pull that card with me. I've talked to you about this. Everyone already calls you a blood duster without you pissing off a tower and then strolling in here high."
Kate sighed. Christ, she'd just wanted a drink and her old friend. Why the hell was Tisha pissing on this? "Fine. I'm sorry. But I need this."
"I'm serious. I need it. I don't give a shit about the rush or the buzz, I need it to feel the magic. Do you have any idea what it's like to lose that, to lose everything that I was? It's like… like I'm paralyzed and every day I see joggers running past my window, ones I trained, and I can't even walk. I need it to feel human again."
Tisha's scowl softened a little at the corners, but her eyes remained hard, pinning her in that judging glare.
"I'm not like one of those mundies that learn a bit and leave. They're lucky. They forget about magic. I can't."
Tisha shook her head. "I don't like where this could take you. Remember Jess?" She pointed without looking at one pictures on the wall beside the bar. There, Jessica Chadwell, a hefty girl with straight black hair sat grinning at a table, glass lifted in an eternal toast. "She used to justify it, too. Help her through the pain after Onyx."
Kate swallowed. Last time she'd seen Jess, the woman's skin had looked like tissue, mottled with yellow bruises and that beautiful hair was coming out in clumps. Not that Jess had to see that. The veins in her eyes had blown leaving her blind. She'd died weighing under ninety pounds. "It's different," Kate said.
"She did it to escape emotional pain. I'm not." Kate looked at her glass. Why would she bring up Jess? It was Kate's fault Onyx broke and that made Jess' fall on her too. "Look, oxygen gets people high. They have bars for it. But if you see some grandpa with an oxygen tank you don't accuse them of being a junkie. I don't enjoy having to do this, but I need it. Please." She meant it. Every word. The smidge of magic it gave her was barely enough to levitate the glass to her hand, maybe light the Scotch on fire, but that would use it up. Truth was, knowing she could, that feeling of being a sorceress again, no matter how brief, was worth the comedown.
Tisha let a long low breath. "I don't want you doing that shit here."
"I won't. I promise."
"Alright then. But you be careful."Chapter 2
It was near midnight before Kate left the haven to head home. The amphetamine of the blood dust had made her a little horny and she decided that it was best to extract herself from that situation before hormones and alcohol tricked her into making another regrettable decision. Keeping her promise to Tisha, she waited until after she left before tooting another bump behind a furniture store and then caught the bus back to Highlandtown.
The renewed drip began at the back of her throat. Kate sniffed.
A skinny woman with wild curls of dark hair looked up at her from across the aisle, a feral hunger beneath probing eyes.
Paranoid, Kate turned toward the window, watching the city lights glide past. Sniffles outside of winter was like blood in the water for drug users. Might as well throw up a sign announcing, "I have cocaine
." She probably shouldn't have taken that last hit. She was going to be up all night now. Might as well get some cleaning done
But the idea of being alone didn't sound much fun. She still felt the itch. Maybe she could call Scott. He was about as dumb as rocks and about as mundie as they got, but he was always good as a distraction. He didn't know her past and didn't care.
Knowing it was a bad idea, she pulled the phone from her purse. Four missed calls. She'd put it on silent before her meeting with Vegner. Not that anyone called her, but if they were going to it would have been then.
All of them were from a blocked number. No messages. Probably a collector.
Sighing, she turned the ringtone back on and dropped the phone back into her bag, Scott forgotten. Tisha's right. I need to get my shit straight
Six blocks later the bus let Kate off at her exit. The hungry-eyed woman stayed on, thank God, and with a pneumatic hiss the door shut, leaving Kate alone on the nighttime streets. Soft wind coursed down the trench between brick row houses. It stank of exhaust, soured garbage, and the faintest hint of burnt bread. Music thrummed from the open window, yelling voices from somewhere far away, and the rumble of tires on shitty asphalt. Kate barely registered all of this as she followed the sidewalk past miniature trees.
A muffled rendition of Joan Jett's Bad Reputation
erupted from her purse. She drew the phone and checked the number.
. It was near midnight. Wasn't there some law against collectors calling so late? Kate pressed Ignore
She turned right at a grease-caked dumpster and entered a narrow alley, just wide enough for a single car. During her time as Magister Arcanus in the Onyx Tower, she'd practically lived at Master Boyer's palatial Guilford home. Her final four months, preparing for the ultimately doomed test for Magus Goetia, she'd made it official, commandeering one of the guest rooms. After the incident, and her funds dwindling down far faster than she'd anticipated, Kate's current residence was a renovated basement. It didn't even have a number and her mail simply went to Missus Cecilia Knorr who rented the two story house above. It was the sort of place for transients, former convicts, and those who had fallen between the cracks.
Her phone chimed with an incoming text. Not slowing her pace, Kate lifted the phone still in her hand.
Blocked Number. "You're in danger
Kate froze. The paranoia that comes with blood dust started running rampant. She glanced over her shoulder. The alley was empty. Danger? From who? Dalton? Surely he wasn't going to actually do anything.
She typed, "Who is this?
" but deleted it. Dalton wouldn't do anything, nothing that could come back on him, but she wouldn't put crank calls beyond him. Kate replied, "Wrong number
," And dropped the phone back into her purse. Asshole
Near the middle of the alley Kate tucked behind a plastic trashcan and descended the steps. Her phone chimed again as she unlocked her door.
"Leave me alone, asshole," Kate mumbled stepping inside. A faint pressure washed over her as she crossed the elemental ward she'd inscribed into the frame while dusted. If Dalton or someone was going to mess with her, they'd summon something to do it for them. She was safe here.
And that was her assumption right up to the moment when the wooden floor creaked behind her.
Ashes of OnyxGenre:
Urban FantasyAge Range:
Seth SkorkowskyWhy Is It A Good Fit:
Trident represents some great fantasyHook/Synopsis:
Kate Rossdale was once the most gifted sorceress to rise in Onyx Tower, Baltimore's greatest coven. Then a murderous betrayal left her stripped of her magic, friendless, and on the downward spiral of addiction.
But all of that is about to change when she's hired for dangerous job by a man she doesn't trust. The payment: Restoration of her magical powers. The Job: Murder. As enemies close from all sides, Kate races across the globe and across worlds, venturing into exotic realms of forbidden dreams as she hunts her target – the magic-thief who robbed her of everything.Target Audience
: Adult readers, likely fans of King's "Dark Tower," Barker's "Imagica."Bio
: Raised in the swamps and pine forests of East Texas, Seth Skorkowsky gravitated to the darker sides of fantasy, preferring horror and pulp heroes over knights in shining armor.
His debut novel, Dämoren, was published in 2014 as book #1 in the Valducan series; it was followed by Hounacier in 2015, and Ibenus in 2016. Seth has also released two sword-and-sorcery rogue collections with his Tales of the Black Raven series.
When not writing, Seth enjoys cheesy movies, tabletop role-playing games, and traveling the world with his wife.Experience
: My publishing experience includes the four novel Valducan series and the two volume Tales of the Black Raven series published through Ragnarok Publications as well as many short stories. I am a two-time Audie Award finalist for Best Paranormal Audiobook and also a SFWA member.Platform
website - www.skorkowsky.com
Twitter - @SSkorkowsky
YouTube - www.youtube.com/c/SethSkorkowskyAuthor
Goodreads - www.goodreads.com/author/show/4088554.Seth_Skorkowsky