Snippet – Pandora’s Box

31 Oct

Pandora’s Box is the direct sequel to The Chimera Coup, available on Kindle Unlimited (see link below).  All you really need to know is that our hero is part of a band of adventures who do work in the wastelands on the edge of civilised society, and they’re about to bite off more than they can chew. 

Prologue, Five Years Ago

“Are you paying attention?”

John, Son of John, tried not to flinch as Master Yemen bore down on him.  Magical Engineering was an interesting class, under other circumstances, but the lecture had been boring and he’d spent most of it staring at Katrina Amador.  She was so different from the girls he’d known in the village, in so many ways, that she’d caught his attention without ever trying.  He wanted to speak to her and yet he found himself tongue-tied every time he tried.

“Yes, Master,” John lied. 

He braced himself, expecting everything from a stern lecture to a punishment that would leave him scarred for life.  Master Yemen wasn’t known for being kind to students who didn’t pay attention in his class.  The lectures might be long and boring, but they imparted information the students desperately needed when they moved to practical work.  John had devised a small charm to help him recall the tutor’s words and yet, for reasons he’d yet to figure out, it wasn’t perfect.  The recorded words lacked a certain immediacy.

“I see,” Master Yemen said.  “Perhaps you could explain, to the class, the importance of attaching one’s Motivator to one’s Locomotive?”

John silently thanked all the gods he’d read ahead.  “The Motivator provides the power for the Locomotive, but the power can spill out in all directions if the connections are not hardwired into the device,” he said.  “If that happens, the very best you can expect is the device simply melting or warping under the influx of tainted magic.”

Master Yemen cocked his head, sharply.  “And at worst?”

“The device will explode,” John said.  He was still hazy on precisely where the magic power came from, before it was channelled into the device, but there were enough horror stories for him to guess the answer.  “Or anyone standing nearby will wish it had exploded.”

“A fanciful answer, but technically correct.”  Master Yemen turned and walked back to the front of the class.  “As you can see, the Motivator is a vitally important piece of modern magic.  It provides the clean magic we rely on to run our devices and” – his voice lightened slightly – “it was invented by our very own headmaster.”

John kept his face under tight control.  Headmaster Greyshade was a hero.  Everyone said as much and, to be fair, he really had done most of the things they said he’d done.  He was the sole surviving magician from the old days, before the Cataclysm had shattered the world-spanning civilisation beyond repair and reduced the known world to thirteen kingdoms on the edge of a warped and twisted landscape, and the one who’d first codified the new principles of magic that brought sorcery back into the world, but … John didn’t trust him.  He wasn’t sure why, yet his instincts insisted there was something wrong with the headmaster.  He smiled too much.

And the way everyone kisses his arse doesn’t help, he reflected.  He’d grown up in a village where everyone had to pretend they liked the local landlord, even though they wouldn’t shed a tear if he was brutally murdered by wild wizards or outlaws, but the old bastard hadn’t received even a hundredth of the flattery poured on Greyshade.  There were times when it seemed everyone was competing to come up with newer and better ways to crawl in front of him, begging for his favour.  Does anyone really know the real him?

Master Yemen continued.  “You will be provided with Motivators for your practical work,” he said, his tone returning to normal.  “You will be expected, at the end of the year, to produce a working device, one that channels the power into something useful.  Something magical.  Remember, plain and simple is better than flashy and complex.”

John nodded.  The old man was right about that.  The more complex the designs, the harder it was to put them into practice and the greater the chance of something going spectacularly wrong.  The wreckage of the days of yore, where sorcerers had built castles in the clouds or great flying cities or even compressed giant mansions into simple apartment blocks, stood in mute testament to the folly of relying too much on magic.  John had no idea how many of the stories were true, and how many had grown in the telling, but he didn’t have to walk far to see the ruins of bygone days.  The older students had dared him to spend a night in the ruins a few months ago.  The prefects had put a stop to it before he’d left the school.

Katrina Amador stuck up her hand.  Master Yemen barely looked at her.  “Yes, Miss Amador?”

“You tell us you’ll be providing us with Motivators,” Katrina said.  If she was insulted by his lack of regard, she didn’t show it.  “Why don’t you teach us how to make them for ourselves?”

Master Yemen stared at her for a long moment.  “If you had read your textbooks, you would have noted that Motivators are extremely complex pieces of magical engineering, requiring a level of skill far beyond fourteen-year-old students.  They are generally produced by magicians who have spent years honing their craft, magicians who have been practicing magic longer than you have been alive.  I would not expect this class to produce a working Motivator.  It would be like expecting a child to take up adult responsibilities before even leaving the crib.”

John saw Katrina flush and felt a hot flash of anger.  “Master,” he said before he could think better of it, “why are there no instructions for producing Motivators in the library.”

“Because their design is a state secret,” Master Yemen said, tartly.  “The craftsmen who produce them, young man, take oaths of secrecy so intense they literally cannot share the details in any way, shape or form.  The secret must not be allowed to get out.”

“Yes, Master,” John said.  “But …”

Master Yemen eyed him nastily.  “But what?”

John hesitated, trying to put his arguments into words.  The hell of it was that he had a pretty good argument, if he was willing to discuss his past.  He’d grown up in a village where half the work was done by hand and the rest by animals.  Access to even a handful of the wonders he’d seen as a student magician would change the villagers lives for the better, but there was no hope of that as long as the supply of magical devices was so limited.  And while the textbooks hadn’t made it explicit, John knew enough to deduce the reason the supply was so limited.  There just weren’t enough Motivators to go around.

But he couldn’t say it.  He’d learnt to keep his mouth shut about his origins.

“The shortage of Motivators limits the expansion of our society,” he said, finally.  “If we had more, we’d be able to expand faster and develop newer and better ways to make use of magic, instead of relying on cables and …”

Master Yemen cut him off.  “You are aware, of course, that the widespread use of magic played a major role in the collapse of the old world?  They used magic for everything!  They built their homes out of magic, raised great towers out of magic, lifted cities to the skies through magic … and when the laws of magic changed, that society crumbled to dust and died.  We dare not risk the loss of our society.  If we put the secret out, if we let everyone produce their own Motivators, what will happen to our world?”

Greyshade would no longer be in control, John thought.  The headmaster didn’t rule the world, not precisely, but he had enough influence to ensure his suggestions were almost always taken for orders.  His control over the new magic was almost absolute.  And who knows who’d take his place?

“We might have more healing spells,” he said, instead.  It was funny how Motivators made it easier to devise spells and potions, even though they could be cast or brewed without one.  “Or newer and better sliders and landships and …”

“We must not repeat the mistakes of the past,” Master Yemen said.  “And you can write me an essay on the dangers of allowing uncontrolled magic to fall into unworthy hands, for … I think the end of the week.”

John groaned.  A punishment essay.  He’d sooner take the manual labour.  The aristos might bitch and moan about having to go chores – oh, the horror – but he’d grown up in a village.  Chopping firewood was hardly a new thing for him.  He’d even earned some money by working for the janitor, doing tasks that were unpleasant but hardly difficult.  And yet the aristos made them sound worse than being flogged to death.

He sighed, inwardly, as Master Yemen started assigning partnerships.  He had little love for his village’s landlord, nor the greater master above him who served a greater lord in turn.  The man wasn’t a complete fool, but … who knew what he’d do if he found himself with unrestricted magic?  Or the kings … they might swear blind they could trace their ancestry back thousands of years, yet in truth they were little more than lucky warlords.  What would they do, if Greyshade gave them unrestricted access to magic …?

“Hi,” a female voice said.  John looked up to see Katrina.  “It seems we’ll be working together.”

John blinked, feeling his heart start to race.  “We are?”

“Yeah.”  Katrina sat beside him and shoved a sheaf of papers under his nose.  “And I already have great plans for our project.  We’ll get the highest grade in the class.”

And they did.

Chapter One

“I feel like an idiot,” John moaned, as he walked down the street.  “And I look like one too.”

“I couldn’t possibly comment,” Scout said, archly.  “But no one will be looking at your face.”

John sighed.  The outfit was almost a grotesque parody of the clothes he’d worn when Katrina had dragged him to a masked ball, right down to the sheer whirlwind of colours that made him look like a blancmange on legs.  He might not be a sight for sore eyes, the nasty part of his mind reflected, but anyone who looked at him would get sore eyes … the mask, covering his upper face, was almost pointless.  He’d given himself a handful of fake warts and scars on his jaw, to mislead anyone who happened to look at his face, but he doubted anyone would.  They’d be too busy sniggering at the walking jelly.

“Perhaps not,” he agreed.  “But at least you look stunning.”

Scout elbowed him.  Her dress was as elaborate as the ballroom outfits Katrina had worn, once upon a time, complete with a frame under the silk that ensured no one could do anything more intimate than hold hands, unless they were prepared to break the frame.  Scout had covered herself from head to toe, then used cloth to make her breasts and hips look several times larger than they were.  It looked almost as if she were wearing a tent.  It was difficult to believe the girl he knew was the fancy woman in front of him, but … he shook his head.  No one else would recognise her, the moment she took off the dress and ran.  Scout’s weirdling gifts made her hard to see even at the very best of times.

John held out a hand, bracing himself as they started to walk towards the lodge.  It was easily the largest building he’d seen in the badlands, five floors and a surprisingly pretty garden surrounded by walls.  He had to admit it stood in odd contrast to the grim mining town around it, where men worked their lives away in hopes of striking it rich … he shuddered, reminding himself, not for the first time, that he could have had a worse childhood.  The children he’d seen in the town were lucky if they weren’t fetching and carrying for the miners almost as soon as they could walk, then working in the mines themselves when they reached puberty.  John had heard the tales.  The town’s owners had their entire population trapped in debts they could never hope to repay, debts passed down from parents to children …

He schooled his face into a blank mask as they passed the guards, who looked them up and down before waving them into the lodge.  In theory, the lodge belonged to everyone, the one place the entire population could meet as equals.  In practice, it was owned and effectively dominated by Boss Edwards, the undisputed master of the town … a man, if the reports were accurate, had somehow merged his roles as a ruthless businessman and an underground kingpin into a single entity.  It was not that different, John reflected, from the aristos to the east.  If you enjoyed the boss’s patronage, you went far; if you didn’t, you were screwed … and not in a good way.

The music seemed to burst out at them as they pushed through the doors and stepped into the lodge itself.  It was a ballroom and a pub and a dining hall and a multitude of other things, all compressed into one.  John’s eyes swept the room, spotting dozens of men and women in fancy outfits and masks, the bright colours blurring together into a nightmarish mockery of the aristos he’d known.  There were no visible weapons – Boss Edwards had ordered his guests come unarmed – but he’d be astonished if some of the people weren’t carrying concealed weapons or objects that could be turned into weapons at a moment’s notice.  A handful of maids scurried about, dressed in outfits that belonged in brothels rather than aristo ballrooms.  John doubted anyone knew or cared about the maids not being particularly authentic.  They were only here because their master had summoned them.

Boss Edwards himself sat on a raised chair, his eyes sweeping the room.  He was a tall powerfully-built man, his slight paunch and long beard failing to detract from the air of menace and imminent violence that surrounded him like a shroud.  His suit was poorly tailored, yet John doubted anyone would dare point it out to him.  The gold chains clearly visible were proof he was a very powerful man indeed.

A maid stopped in front of them and bowed so deeply she left nothing to the imagination.  “Would you like a drink, My Lord?”

John felt a stab of pity.  The maid looked utterly terrified.  “No, thank you,” he said.  “We want to dance.”

The maid bowed again and hurried off.  John scowled in disgust, then forced himself to relax as Scout pulled him onto the dance floor, leading the way around the room.  The dancers didn’t seem to know what they were doing, but half were too drunk to care and the other half were merely having fun.  John kept his eyes open, mentally tagging the guards, the guests who were probably carrying weapons and the locations of the exits.  The lodge had quite a few secrets, they’d learnt from their sources.  The entire structure had been designed to allow the master and his trusted associates to move around without being seen …

He kept his face blank as he spotted Joyce and Bard on the other side of the room, whirling around as if they were a middle-aged couple trying to reclaim their youth.  John felt a twinge of admiration at how well they played their role, from Bard constantly ogling the maids to Joyce dragging him away every time his staring became too obvious.  If he hadn’t known him, he would have fallen for the act.  He allowed himself another twinge of pity as he saw the maids backing away.  They had no way to know it was all pretence.

Scout’s dark fingers twitched into a message.  Magic?

John closed his eyes, trusting her to steer him around the floor as he reached out with his senses.  Magic was rare in the mining town, but if there was anyone in the district who had a semi-legal or flatly illegal magician in their service it was Boss Edwards.  He frowned, briefly, as he mentally touched a handful of wards, low-power but put together with enough skill to worry him.  He couldn’t tell if the caster had been trained at school, like himself … he scowled.  Boss Edwards could pay in more than just money.  The bastard would happily indulge the worst of perversions if it meant keeping a magician under his thumb. 

Wards, he signalled back.  Low-level, but there.

He tensed as the clock chimed the hour.  It was time.

Joyce bumped into a gaudily-dressed man, then swung around and shouted.  “How dare you  grope me?”

Bard howled something incoherent and punched the man with immense force.  John knew he’d held back – Bard was a blademaster, and a great deal stronger than he looked – but it was still something his victim couldn’t ignore.  He staggered forward, his companions closing ranks behind him; Joyce shouted again, acting for all the world like a woman demanding her man protect her honour, as Ted and Hans made things worse by punching the nearest targets or throwing beer in their faces.  The fight was on before anyone, even Boss Edwards, could stop it.

John had no time to watch as Scout led him to the exit.  A guard stood beside it, his arms crossed over his chest as his eyes flickered between Scout’s fake chest and the growing fistfight.  John muttered a quick charm and the guard’s eyes unfocused, slipping into a waking dream as John and Scout pushed past him and into the corridor beyond.  John muttered a brief command – entranced people tended to be highly suggestible, and having a guard go wild would add to the chaos – and then closed the door behind him, drawing his focus as they hurried to the hidden staircase and headed up.  The sound behind them faded with astonishing speed.  John glanced at the walls, puzzled.  They were so thin he thought he could put a fist through them without even trying.

Scout collapsed the frame under her dress as they reached the top of the stairs and stepped out into a meeting room.  John tried not to roll his eyes at the décor – the chamber was as crude as any other, but the lodge had hung a flag from the wall – as Scout found the inner door, then nodded to him.  John stepped forward, tapping his focus against the lock and reaching out with his magic.  It was a fiendishly complex design, with several spells woven into the metal to make it impossible to pick without magic.  John allowed himself a brief moment of admiration, then channelled his own magic into the lock.  The designer was clever, but not clever enough.  John didn’t have to pick the lock.  He just had to convince it he’d put the right key in the keyhole.

The door clicked open.  John raised his focus, bracing himself.  Boss Edwards was no magician, as far as anyone knew, but he had at least one magician in his service, someone who might sense the lock opening and come to investigate.  They’d found out everything they could about the lodge, yet … none of their sources had ever been into the boss’s private chambers.  There could be anything in there, from his private drinks cabinet to a small army of guards or whores.  The air smelled unpleasant as they inched into the darkened chamber.  John muttered a night-vision spell and peered around.  The office was as dark and silent as the grave.  The walls were bare, save for a single painting that dominated the wall behind the heavy wooden desk.  John was no prude, but even he flushed when he looked at the painting.  It was so explicit he found it hard to look at it …

“Check behind the painting,” Scout ordered.  “And hurry!”

John nodded.  The fight wouldn’t last forever, no matter what the team downstairs did to prolong the struggle.  And then Boss Edwards would start wondering if the whole affair had been a diversion … he put the thought out of his head as he tested the painting for magic, then started to pull it away from the walls.  A weird spell flickered underneath the canvas, barely detectable even to his senses … he cancelled it with an effort, then pulled the painting away and rested it on the floor.  The wall behind looked unbroken to the naked eye, but his senses picked out the concealment charm hiding the safe.  He had to admire the workmanship as he dismantled the spell, then started to work on the safe.  Whoever had put the safe together was a remarkable magician.

And probably someone kicked out of school like me, John thought.  He’d never dreamed he’d be expelled until it had happened and then … he’d been lucky to find employment with Joyce and her adventures.  If Greyshade hadn’t given him a hand … he wondered, sourly, if he’d have allowed hunger and thirst to drive him into criminal hands.  It was easier to have a sense of morality when one had a full belly and enough money to ensure one wouldn’t starve in a hurry.  What happened to this magician?

His lips twitched, silently thanking the gods he was a natural magician.  The safe was designed to resist anyone who came at it with a focus, rather than inherent magic.  Odd … it was crafty, and brilliant in its own way, but … were they wrong?  Did Boss Edwards have magic of his own?  It wasn’t impossible.  The Grey Men rarely came this far from civilisation and they certainly weren’t testing for magic.  And no one knew for sure where Boss Edwards really came from …

But that’s hardly unknown out here, John reflected.  The safe clicked, the sound loud enough to make him start.  Half the population wants to forget their pasts.

The hatch opened.  John peered into the safe.  It was larger than he’d realised, the interior made up of multiple compartments that each housed a different set of documents.  John’s eyes narrowed as he scanned the titles, looking desperately for the papers they’d been sent to find.  If they weren’t here … Scout was already checking the rest of the office, relying on her instincts and weirdling talents to find any other hiding places, but time was running out.  How long would it be, he asked himself, before …

He grinned as a sheaf of papers came into view.  “Got them!”

“Check them,” Scout advised.  She was picking through a desk drawer that seemed to be crammed with alcohol and tobacco.  “Make sure they’re the right ones.”

John nodded, scanning the documents one by one.  The land ownership titles were printed on charmed paper, making them difficult – if not impossible – to duplicate or destroy.  Boss Edwards had stolen the papers, intending to use them to lay claim to lands further to the west … or so John had been told.  He didn’t really know or care if the story was true.  Boss Edwards was a monster and putting a finger in his eye would be a good deed in itself, even if the other side was just as bad.  It wasn’t uncommon, not in their line of work.  And yet … he liked to think he’d clung to his ideals …

“Got them,” he said.  The charms were intact, proving their validity to all who knew how to look.  He folded up the papers, then shoved them into his undershirt.  “We need to get out of here and …”

“Ahem,” a new voice said.  “Who are you?”

John blinked, nearly jumping out of his skin.  A young girl, no older than himself, stood by the doorway, her hands clasped behind her back.  There was something about her face that was subtly wrong … another weirdling?  Scout was hardly the only person whose ancestors had been exposed to wild magic … hell, she was one of the lucky ones.  John had met weirdlings who looked like shambling parodies of humanity, others who appeared to be impossible crossbreeds … and, worst of all, things so warped and twisted that the only thing anyone could do was put them out of their misery.  And yet … the girl wasn’t like that.  She was just … wrong.

He cast a minor spell, a simple entrancement charm.  The girl looked as if she’d just gotten out of bed.  She could go back to sleep and wake up the following morning with no memory of them.  John had no idea who she was and he didn’t much care.  Their time was running short.  Boss Edwards might have asserted his authority downstairs by now and …

The girl brought her hands out from behind her back.  John barely had a second to recognise the focus  – two focuses – before she cast a spell of her own.  His focus was yanked from his hand and thrown across the room, his body slammed back into the wall … the girl’s hand barely twitched as she tossed a simple freeze spell at Scout.  John gritted his teeth as he gathered himself, mustering his magic … she was the magician!  He kicked himself for his oversight.  Katrina had been a powerful magician and she’d been far from the only sorceress in the world.  Just because it was rare to encounter a female magician so far from civilisation didn’t mean they didn’t exist.

And she’s had some training, he thought, numbly.  The girl stepped forward, keeping one of her focuses aimed directly at his head while holding the other at the ready.  John was mildly impressed.  Wielding two focuses at the same time was tricky, to say the least, and it was an art he’d never mastered.  He’d never needed to master it.  But she doesn’t know what I can do.

He gathered himself as the girl closed on him.  She wasn’t been dumb.  Magicians who could cast spells without a focus, even a makeshift one, were rare.  Under normal circumstances, she could be sure of putting a bolt of raw magic through his skull before he could so much as twitch.  And yet … he concentrated, shaping the magic in his mind.  The downside of being able to cast spells without a focus was that they lacked proper form … the tattoo on his palm twitched, a grim reminder of Katrina’s near-death.  Perhaps if he channelled power through the tattoo instead …

“I will ask this only once,” the girl said.   Her accent was odd, a strange mix that reminded him of middle-class girls from school.  There was a gleam in her eye that chilled him to the bone, a faint sheen of sweat that bothered him in a way he couldn’t put into words.  “Swear yourself to me or die.”

John cast his spell.  The girl’s eyes went wide with shock, but she reacted with admirable speed.  John had hoped to blow her right across the chamber, stunning her before she hit the wall, yet she deflected much of the spell before it could strike her.  John would have been impressed if the encounter hadn’t been so dangerous.  The girl brought up her second focus – she hadn’t even lost her grip on the first – and started to cast.  Scout smacked her on the head before she could finish the spell.  The girl started to say something, then collapsed.

You froze her dress, John thought, answering the unspoken question.  All she had to do was stand still until you looked away, then melt and escape the frozen tent.

“We need to go,” Scout said.  She hesitated, seemingly unsure if they should kill the girl while she was stunned, then turned away.  “Now.”

John nodded.  In the distance, he could hear the sound of running footsteps.

Their time had just run out.

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