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Chapter 1

They screamed. As the cloud of fire and gas and white-hot cinders bore down on their homes, as the world ended around them, as they and their children faced their last seconds of life, they screamed. A profoundly useless gesture.

I gripped my glass tightly, the tawny liquid within swirling as my hand trembled. An empty bottle sat on the table next to me, mocking me with its undelivered promises of relief. I’d been drinking for over two hours since the nightmare had woken me up, but the scenes continued to play through my memory, as clearly as when they’d unfolded more than a hundred years ago.

They’d screamed, and we’d done it to them. A god had gone insane, and my comrades and I had put him down like a mad dog. But it hadn’t been easy. We’d had to destroy the entire island, and all those people in range of the eruption and the earthquakes and the tsunamis we unleashed. In killing him we’d made a conscious choice, sacrificed them all for the sake of millions of others.

Thousands. Tens of thousands, even. Tens of thousands of pitiful, desperate, futile screams.

I’d stood there watching the demise of Krakatoa with my fellow sorcerers from a safe distance. We’d done nothing to save them. There was nothing we could have done to save them. But knowing that didn’t make living with it any easier. It had been almost a century and a half since that day, and the screams still ruined my sleep on a regular basis.

That wasn’t the only memory that haunted me, of course. Between the things I’d seen and the things I’d done over a very long lifetime as a professional sorcerer, I had no shortage of nightmares to keep me company. A half a bottle of whisky before bed, give or take, and I could usually manage to sleep through them. But not always.

As I finished the last sips in the glass, I looked at the clock. Just after four in the morning. No point trying to get back to sleep at this point. With a resigned sigh, I threw the bottle in the trash and headed back upstairs to brush my teeth and get ready to face the day.

At least I didn’t have much of a commute. After getting dressed and a quick breakfast, I made my way back downstairs, flipped the lights on, and glanced around the small shop I owned and operated below my small apartment.

Floor to ceiling shelves packed with books on every occult subject under the sun lined the walls of the cramped main area, and the rest of the floor was occupied by shorter shelves stocked with the sorts of arcane supplies and tools one might expect to find in such a store. One corner was set up as a reading nook, with a couple of armchairs and a small table. The register sat on a small counter toward the back. It wasn’t much to look at, but it was mine—I’d been running Quinn’s Esoterica for almost sixty years now, since I’d settled into my present semi-retirement. I could have lived comfortably without a job, but the shop gave me something to do. Sometimes it was even enough to distract myself from the memories.

It was still far too early to open up for the day, so I headed through the door behind the counter into the back room and turned on the light. This was both my office and where I stored the good stuff. One complete wall of the room was a wrought-iron cage, locked with a half dozen padlocks of varying ages and materials, its shelves filled with ancient tomes, jars and vials, boxes, and bags full of the rare, valuable, or powerful supplies and tools that drew my primary clientele to my door—every sorcerer, Fae creature, or other magical being within a two-hour drive of Philadelphia knew Quinn’s was the place to go for hard-to-find items.

Two of the remaining walls of the room were lined with uncaged shelves, full of various books I kept for myself and my own research, as well as various small statues, knickknacks, and other mementos of a long magical career. From the ceiling hung the taxidermied remains of tentacled creature vaguely resembling an octopus. Along the back wall there was a small desk, covered in papers and books and an old laptop. Next to it, a coffeemaker sat on a small filing cabinet, yesterday’s cold leftovers still in the pot. Sighing again, I grabbed it and headed for the sink in the customer bathroom.

Once I had a full cup, I wearily sat at the desk and contemplated the papers in front of me: a large map of greater Philadelphia I’d been steadily covering with markings, along with a handful of scattered sheets of paper with notes scribbled on them in my near-illegible handwriting. There was also an old book, opened to a page on ley-lines, the currents of magical energy which fuel advanced sorcery for those of us with the knowledge and skill to use them.

The global ley-line network is a living thing, constantly shifting around in vast and complex—but normally predictable—patterns. But a few days ago, I’d noticed the ley-lines in the area moving unexpectedly, resulting in nodes hundreds or even thousands of yards from where my experience told me they ought to be. Normally one of the largest in the city hovered under Fairmount Park, shifting slowly only from about Strawberry Mansion to The Cliffs between the summer and winter solstices. But now it was all the way down below the Museum of Art, almost a mile from where it should be this time of year. I’d spent most of yesterday mapping out the movements and trying to figure out what was going on.

I sipped my coffee, willing my mind to wake up, then set back to my task. Focusing for a second to bring my magical senses to the front, I reached my mind out to the nearest ley-line. I followed it along to a node where it intersected another line, feeling the tingling hum of its energy in the back of my mind. Once I reached the node, I felt back to my start point to figure out how far and in what direction it was from me, and carefully marked its location down on the map. Then I returned my attention to the node and followed another line, and repeated the process for node after node, line after line.

Tracing ley-lines like this is done by feel, not sight, so I couldn’t exactly look up addresses—I had to figure out the distance and direction between each node as I went along and mark it on the map so I’d be able to compare the magical geography to the physical later. The work wasn’t terribly difficult, but it was tedious and time consuming. I had to be meticulous, triple-checking each step; any error would throw off everything I calculated after that point.

At some point my gray tabby, Roxana, wandered down from the apartment upstairs to curl up in the bed I kept for her behind the desk chair. By the time I’d finished mapping out the changes in Center City and the surrounding neighborhoods, I looked up to realize it was time to open up shop for the day. I threw back the rest of my coffee and steeled myself to interact with people.

I needn’t have bothered, as I had no customers that morning anyway. Could have been the rain. That’s it, I told myself, it’s the rain. Definitely not my customer service skills.

I didn’t dislike people, necessarily. But I had a reputation in the magical underworld as a recluse, practically a hermit, who only dealt with others when necessary. Aside from customers and the occasional conversation at Bran’s Pub, my interactions with other people were largely limited to some important professional contacts, visits to the Market, and attending the Grand Conclave every thirteen years as my rank obliged me to do. I’d long since stopped bothering with social pleasantries. It had been a couple decades since the last time I’d been on a date, and it had not ended well—Samantha was a nice girl, but I wasn’t suited for dating anymore. The only woman I’d ever really loved had died seventy years ago. Her death was among the most prominent of the many memories which haunted my dreams.

In the absence of customers, I stayed in the back, idly reading through whatever I could find on ley-line movements in my personal collection, and had a few glasses of whisky to tide me over and keep the whispers in the back of my mind at bay. I had nightmares enough in my sleep; I didn’t need them bothering me during the daylight hours. I tried to put other thoughts out of my mind and to focus on my research.

The problem appeared to be that no matter how carefully I mapped the ley-lines or how many old books in long-forgotten languages I strained my eyes to read, the simple truth was that none of the authors on my shelves really seemed to know much about the nature of the ley-line network and its shifts. I’d looked—there were no historical records tracing the movements of the lines or the nodes anywhere that I could find. Plenty about using the energy contained within them, but little to nothing about their nature. It was a puzzle. Was this recent change something unique and unusual? Or was it merely part of a longer cycle?

I’d studied ley-lines in a bit more depth than most—one of my mentors, an immortal sorcerer named Johannes, was something of an expert on them. But I hadn’t spoken to him in three-quarters of century. Calling him for help on my ley-line problem wasn’t really an option. There was far too much baggage, too much history. Given my mental state, I just wasn’t up to dealing with it. I put Johannes out of my mind, settled in with my survey notes and my map and my Scotch, and tried to look for patterns in the chaos.

Eventually I noticed that closing time had come and gone without the bell over the shop door ringing even once. I set aside my reading and stood up with a groan, then headed out to lock up. As I turned the deadbolt and set the magical wards, I noticed my hand was starting to tremble. Whether it was from the booze, the constant struggle to ignore the little voice whispering in the back of my mind of things I’d rather not think about, or simply that I’d forgotten to eat lunch, I couldn’t say. Maybe all three. Regardless, I knew it was a sign I needed to eat something and get as much sleep as I could manage.

I didn’t feel up to cooking, however. I grabbed the holstered j-frame revolver from my desk drawer and clipped it inside my waistband just to the right of the belt buckle, then unlocked the door I’d just locked so I could venture forth for dinner.

The gun was just one of my many eccentricities. Sorcerers tend to have enemies, even those of us who keep to ourselves, so we always need to be prepared to defend ourselves when outside the safety of our wards. But most of my brethren prefer to stick to magic. To my knowledge, I was the only ranked sorcerer in the world who had ever even considered a gun as more than a novelty.

There was a time—back when I was a dedicated soldier of the Arcanum—when I would have agreed with the rest of the magical community that guns were pointless for someone like me: someone who could throw fireballs and lightning from the tips of his fingers, who had fought demigods and demons and Fae monsters. The destructive power of a bullet paled in comparison to the things I could do.

But those days were long past. I hadn’t conjured battle magic since the Shadow War. After what I’d done, what I’d seen on the Fields of Fire, I couldn’t stomach the thought of doing so again. Defensive magic was fine, but the idea of burning my enemies down with the power I’d drawn on that day revolted me to my very core. I knew I could still do it, should I be driven to that level of anger again. I also knew now what it would cost me to lose control like I had that day and had no desire to add to my existing collection of tortuous memories.

No, if I were forced to defend myself these days, I’d rather put my faith in firearms than in magic. Besides, even if I were willing to consider using such battle magic, I’d realized a while ago that guns often make a lot more sense for self-defense. Fireballs are slow and cause a lot of collateral damage, and mages tend to prepare for spells and magical weapons anyway. Faeries—or most anyone else who might hold a grudge against me—don’t often wear Kevlar.

I relocked the door behind me, double-checked the wards, and slowly walked the three blocks to Bran’s, my knees protesting at every step. The pub was dim when I entered. It was always dim. The place was indistinguishable from the hundreds of other dingy Irish pubs in Philly: low lighting, dark wood paneled walls, faded Guinness ads on the walls, and a general feeling that the place hadn’t been properly cleaned in years. It was mostly empty, unsurprising on a Tuesday. One elderly man in a trucker hat sat down at the end of the bar, there was an unattended drink covered with a napkin to indicate its owner had gone to the restroom and would be returning, and a couple of middle-aged women chatted at a booth in the back, but otherwise I had the place to myself. That was the way I liked it.

Behind the bar was a short man with thin bones, little muscle, and striking golden eyes, wiping down a pint glass. He noted my entrance and cocked his head.

“Mr. Quinn,” he greeted me with a lilting Irish brogue. “Been a few weeks since ye set foot in here.”

I took a seat at the bar, my joints thanking me for the respite, and gave a short nod. “Aye, Bran. I’ve been busy. What news?” My own brogue was softer, more of a background accent that lent some character to a voice gone gravelly from years of hard drinking. I’d dropped most of the Irish speaking mannerisms of my youth, but I’d never been able to divest myself of the lingering accent no matter how long I lived on this side of the Atlantic.

He shrugged. “Not much at all, to be sure. Things have been quiet since I saw ye last. I heard a rumor that a pair o’ city detectives were asking around the community about some sorcerer this afternoon, Ethan or Eric or summat like tha’, but they have not visited here, and I do not know what the questions were.”

I grunted. “Well, let me know if you hear anything more about it.”

He nodded, and I waved towards the whisky. He gave a slight smile and turned to get me a drink, his movements sharp and precise, like those of a bird. That wasn’t a coincidence. The bartender—and proprietor—was a type of lesser Faerie known as a púca, an Irish shape-shifter. Bran here could take on the form of a hawk at will, and his eyes, thin bones, and movement all reflected his other shape. That made him an excellent contact for a reclusive sorcerer who still liked to stay informed about the goings-on of the Philadelphia magical underworld: between the rumor mill in his pub and the things he saw and heard while hunting, he was generally better informed than most anyone else I knew in the area.

But the police asking about a sorcerer barely even counted as news. There were all sorts of mundane reasons cops want to talk to people. A local sorcerer may well have merely witnessed a crime in progress or happened to be friends with a suspected criminal. I filed the information in the back of my mind as something to worry about if and when it turned out to be cause for concern.

“So what can I do for ye, young Quinn?” he asked as he set a dram of Oban down in front of me. “You need some of me feathers again? I can give ye a good price.”

I frowned. He called me young because he knew it needled me. And because he was entitled, being several millennia old. Damned Fae. To them, we’re all young. I’m ancient by normal human standards, and finally coming into a respectable age in sorcerer terms, so it was annoying to be reminded that I was still a child compared to a huge portion of the magical world. I could remember when England’s great sail-powered warships ruled the seas, but Bran could remember a time when men were still struggling to domesticate wolves. And he wasn’t even a major player, just a minor Faerie whose feathers were useful for binding enchantments.

I shook my head. “Not buying today, Bran,” I said curtly, “just had a craving for shepherd’s pie.”

Directness is generally best in conversations with the Fae. It helps keep them from dissembling. You start small talk and ten minutes later discover you’ve accidentally given away your firstborn or some such. They’re always looking for the advantage in a conversation, and they’ve had a long time to practice. I locked my eyes onto Bran’s, letting him know I was in no mood for his games.

Regardless of our relative ages, I was still one of the highest-ranking sorcerers of the Arcanum, and that commanded respect from even the oldest of the Fae. The púca might be capable of recalling when the first man set foot on Irish soil, but his own personal power paled beside mine, and he knew it. That’s why he gave me information without demanding something in return—the Fae normally ask a price for anything, even minor rumors, but Bran had decided a while back that it was wiser to stay in my good graces in the long term rather than maximize his profit every time we spoke.

He returned my gaze for a few seconds, before nodding and looking away.

“No need to get testy,” he muttered as he turned toward the kitchen. “I was just asking.”

I said nothing in reply, just taking a sip of my drink while he headed to get my order.

“Thomas Quinn!” I heard someone call my name. I turned and saw a tall, pretty, blonde woman walking back to the bar from the restrooms.

“Sam,” I acknowledged politely, while internally grimacing. Samantha Carr was a fellow sorcerer who lived somewhere in the Philly area. She’d been a frequent customer of my shop when she’d first moved here in the ’90s, but I hadn’t seen her in a while. She also happened to be the woman with whom I’d gone on that ill-fated date, over two decades ago. I already wasn’t in a mood for conversation, let alone with her of all people.

“I haven’t seen you in ages!” she continued as she took a seat. “When was the last time?” Her voice was silky, as if seduction was her default state. I remembered why I’d agreed to go on that date despite my reservations. I also remembered how I’d ruined it and forced my attention back to the present.

“The last Grand Conclave, I think. Where have you been?”

She smiled broadly, ignoring my gruff tone. “Travelling a lot, mostly. Just came back to the area a few months ago. How about yourself?”

“Same as ever,” I mumbled.

“Still a surly curmudgeon?”

I shrugged. “I suppose. Where were you travelling?”

“Oh, all over,” she replied. “Europe, Asia, Africa. Six months in South America. Just trying to experience things, you know? I realized I hadn’t gotten to see anything worth seeing, and after the Trials, there wasn’t any reason not to anymore.”

I nodded silently.

It takes a long time to become a ranked Sorcerer of the Arcanum. By ancient tradition, those apprentices deemed powerful enough to face the Trials must first study under three Masters, each for a period of nine years. Then the Trials themselves can often take another three years of preparation and testing, as the Master of the Trials and his staff devise individualized tests across a wide spectrum of magical skills to determine how powerful the candidate is. Sam had still been finishing up her Trials when we met. Now that she was a fully-fledged Sorcerer of the Third Rank, I didn’t blame her for choosing to enjoy her newfound freedom. I’d certainly done so when I passed my Trials. But that was a long time ago.

She continued telling me about her travels, but I only half listened. I didn’t want to be overtly rude, given our past history, but I also had little interest in small talk tonight. I just wanted to eat and be on my way. I nodded at the appropriate points, threw in the occasional “Oh, really?” and thought about ley-lines.

Was it any wonder our date hadn’t ended well?

After a few minutes Bran brought out a steaming plate of shepherd’s pie and I turned my attention to the food.

Sam chuckled. “I can see you have higher priorities, and I need to get going anyway. I have some things to take care of,” she said, tossing back the last of the liquid in her glass. She reached out and touched my arm. “Speaking of which, take care of yourself, Tom. I’ll see you around. Maybe I’ll swing by the shop sometime.”

I nodded as I swallowed a bite.

“You know where it is,” I mumbled in way of goodbye. I focused on eating as she left, trying to forget about everything else for at least a few minutes.

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