The Shady Lady’s position near the outskirts of town had probably been necessary in the days when Sarasio had possessed a functional society. No matter how upscale, nobody enjoyed living near a brothel. The fenced-in yard behind the bordello contained little but tamped-down earth, a couple of storage sheds and some moldering old farm equipment of uncertain provenance, though a smaller plot had been roped off with stakes and twine, and was apparently being used as a garden. It was completely barren, having apparently been planted recently, far too late in the season. At the far end of the yard was an old fieldstone barn, more sturdily constructed than most of the wooden town, and also in ruins; at some point in the past, fire had gutted it, leaving only the standing stone walls. These were heavily marred by scorch marks and what seemed to be the damage of small explosions.
Gabriel wandered out after a desultory lunch of strictly rationed and unseasoned beans and rice, to find Joe practicing quick-draw shooting against the old barn. To judge by all the scoring on the stones, this was a long-standing custom. The wall had been pitted almost through in a few places, and had a sizable chunk blown out of one corner. Off to one side and behind the shooting, Ruda was trying to show some of the Shady Lady’s girls some knife fighting tricks, though it seemed to be slow going as they were rather distracted watching Joe. Their tutor took this with good humor, and in fact contributed a murmured observation that sent them all into peals of laughter.
Glancing over at this, Joe noticed Gabe approaching and nodded in greeting, holstering his wands. “Afternoon. How’d your planning session go?”
“Eh, it…went.” Gabriel made a face. “I think everyone’s more or less on the same page now. It was a bit of an uphill battle getting them to take my ideas seriously at first.”
“To be fair, I guess I haven’t shown them much reason to respect my intelligence up till now,” he said ruefully.
“Mm. First impression’s a hard thing to overcome.”
“Tell me about it. Anyhow, we didn’t mean to chase you off. In fact, I’m sure everybody would’ve welcomed your input.”
Joe shook his head. “Afraid I’m not much of a strategic thinker. Put me in a situation with an armed enemy and I do fine. Arranging those situations…not my strong suit.”
“Yeah, well…” Gabriel shrugged. “We’re gonna try to do just that. It’d help a lot if we could count on you to come along. Both in dealing with the Riders and in gathering support. You’re basically a hero in this town, and according to Robin even a number of the elves respect you.”
“Amazing how easy that is,” Joe said wryly. “People become remarkably less standoffish if you’re polite to ’em. But…no, I’m afraid not. Me bein’ here is what keeps the Riders elsewhere. Last time I took it into my head to go out an’ do somethin’ proactive about them, they hit the Lady as soon as I was too far away to get back quickly.” He looked away, staring at the old barn with an intensity that belonged to something else, a muscle in his jaw working. Gabriel was struck by the contrast between his youthful face and haggard expression. The Kid had lived through much more already than a person should have to. “One of the men was killed, an’ two of the girls hurt. One badly. Robin called in some kinda favor at the grove an’ got a shaman to come out here and help. He wasn’t pleased to be dealing with humans, but for all of that, he did good work. The elves respect life, and balance. I guess lettin’ a young woman die slowly of lightning burns was more’n he could stomach.”
“How is she?” Gabe asked quietly.
“Alive, pretty much well,” he replied, nodding. “She has some scars. Not bad ones, but… That’s still a hard thing for a girl, specially one used to makin’ her living by bein’ pretty. Burn wounds are nasty. So, what’ve you got there?” He directed his gaze to the object in Gabriel’s hand.
“Ah, well… Actually, I’m sure you probably get pestered quite a lot about it, but since we’re all sort of cooped up here for the moment, maybe you could give me some pointers?” He lifted the wand he was holding, his voice rising hopefully.
“Ever used one of those before?”
“Hm. Where’d you get it?”
“Oh, some guy accosted us in the street when we got here. Trissiny beat him down and broke his wand hand, and he sort of…left this behind in his hurry to get away.” He grinned. “Triss has that effect on people. I asked if she wanted it—spoils of battle and all that—and she just looked at me like I was an idiot. Or at least I think she did. Maybe that’s just what her face looks like. When I’m around, anyway.”
“Mind if I have a look?”
Gabriel handed over the wand and Joe held it lightly, turning it this way and that to examine it. “Mm. Mass-produced, not exactly a showpiece, but not a cheap knockoff, either. Indifferently maintained, but no major damage. Yeah, not a bad little piece. Actually, pretty nice for a first weapon. How much do you understand about how these work?” he asked, handing it back.
“Um… How annoyed will you be if I say ‘aim the pointy end at the other guy?’”
“Depends on whether you’re genuinely dumb or think that’s funny,” Joe replied with a wry half-grin. “All right, the good news is you’re a college student, so you’re pretty well accustomed to lectures. We’ll start with basic assembly.” He drew one of his own wands and held it up. “First thing you’ll note is the grip here at the base unscrews from the shaft, like so. Inside that grip, you’ll find…yup, there it is. Looks to be in pretty good shape, too.”
“Is this quartz?” Gabriel asked, studying the small crystal which had been hidden inside the grip of his wand. The rest of it lay in pieces in his other hand, now; in addition to the grip, the trigger mechanism had come loose when he’d screwed the two main pieces apart, as it apparently rested between them.
“That one looks to be, yep. It’s rough-cut, but that doesn’t make as much of a difference as some enchanters think. See how it’s glowing, just faintly? Means it’s got a pretty good charge. Hard to make out at this time of day, but you can use your wand’s power crystal to read by at night, assuming you keep it charged. Recharging is simple enough, you can do it with standard enchanting dusts of the kind shops carry.”
“Does it ever wear out?”
“Eventually, that one will. Natural quartz is both cheap and effective, which is why it’s popular, but after too much recharging it’ll start to develop cracks, and then you wanna switch it out for a fresh one as quick as you can.”
“Otherwise…boom?” Gabriel winced.
Joe shook his head. “Not from that. Wands don’t blow up easily; if you overheat it, it can, that’s why they tend to go off if you set them on fire. But even that won’t happen if you have a safety charm on the clicker. Nowadays, all wands use crystals for power sources. They’re more stable, less volatile than older methods.” He held up the one from his own wand; it was both longer and thicker than Gabe’s, glowing steadily with an intensity that rivaled Fross in flight, and capped on both ends with gold filament. “This has a much greater capacity and is endlessly rechargable; it also slowly regains energy from ambient arcane magic between actual rechargings. Some folks’ll swear that natural materials are best; they are either hidebound traditionalists or trying to sell you natural materials. Modern alchemical synthetics are more expensive—by far—but perform much better. In the old days, wands would use things from magical creatures as power sources. Phoenix feathers, dragon heartstrings, unicorn horn…”
“Yikes.” Gabriel grimaced. “Feathers I can see, but… Wouldn’t you have to kill something to get its heartstrings or horn?”
“Yup,” Joe said grimly, nodding, “which is the main reason that practice has died off, apart from the inefficiency of those power sources. They last longer—possibly infinitely, in fact. There are early phoenix-feather wands still functioning. They’re fickle, though, and don’t give you the kind of consistent output as a modern lightning wand. Different kinds of power for each one. Half the fight was knowing what kind of weapon your opponent had, and you tended to make enemies depending on what kind you had. A dragon wand would prompt pretty much any dragon to roast you on the spot, and elves get very unfriendly toward people who use pieces of unicorn as magical gear.”
“Well, hooray for modern enchantment!”
“No kiddin’. Now, you’ll note yours has a clicker and mine doesn’t. That’s because I’m an enchanter; I fire it with my mind.”
“How’s that work, exactly?”
“I’ll show you in just a minute, we’re almost done with the physical inventory of pieces. All that’s left is the shaft. See those markings?”
Gabriel held the shaft of his wand up to his face and squinted at them. “Oh, yeah. That’s really faint…”
“They don’t need to be deep, just precise. Those carvings are treated with enchanting dusts; they’re what makes the wand work when the shaft is exposed to raw arcane energy from the power source. Squeeze the clicker to open a gate between them, then the shaft is drawing pure power from the crystal and turns that into a lightning bolt as per the instructions coded into those runes. Lightning tends to sort of jump all over, so it’s actually multiple enchantments; the directional charm makes a tunnel of ionized air that it prefers to travel through. Your aim will still be messed up if the bolt arcs too close to something metal, though. The upside is it’ll naturally tend to jump into a body, so you don’t have to be too precise in your shots. That’s why these things are pretty well impossible to dodge, even with magical speed boosters in effect.”
“Um… What does ‘ionized’ mean?”
“I do not know.” Grinning, Joe shook his head again. “Had a wizard explain it to me once; after a half hour lecture on advanced arcane physics, all I came away with was the realization that I wasn’t that curious after all. Now, see how your carvings there are slightly eroded? That happens with time and use. This one’ll pull slightly to the left, your ionized airstream is weaker on that side with the decay pattern. And that’s why you never, ever fire a wand with a damaged shaft. There is really no telling what will happen.”
“So…the lightning bolt travels along the shaft and out the front…”
“No, no. Arcane energy is drawn along the shaft and forms a lightning bolt several inches in front of the wand, proceeding from there.”
“Gabriel, have you ever seen a tree that’s been struck by lightning? That is what happens when a massive charge of electricity passes through wood.”
“Oh.” He blinked. “Then…why use wood?”
“Metal holds enchantments better, precisely because it inhibits them from moving around, and it conducts electricity beautifully. It would try to stabilize the charge and not propel the lightning outward; and if it did, it’d just arc back along the shaft, frying you. Wood is the opposite. It’s an excellent magical conductor, but doesn’t conduct lightning. Alchemically treated synthetic wood is, of course, even better.” He held up his own wand; the shaft was black and longer than Gabe’s.
“So, the actual lighting bolt isn’t formed in the shaft.” Gabriel tilted up the disconnected shaft, peering at the tip from inches away. “Good to know. Is that why—”
He broke off as a scowling Joe snatched it out of his hand. “Don’t ever point that thing at your face, you lunatic.”
“It’s in pieces!”
“Don’t. Point it. At. Your. Face.” The Kid’s eyes bored into his fiercely. He handed back the piece of Gabriel’s wand, holding up his own for emphasis. “This is an enchanted device whose only function is to dispense white-hot death. You never treat it as if it’s disarmed, or harmless. Do not point it at anything you don’t fully intend to destroy.”
“Right,” Gabriel said a little weakly. “Noted. Gotcha.”
“Put her back together,” Joe said a little more easily, “and take a shot at the wall there.”
Gabriel re-inserted the power crystal and carefully screwed the wand back into one piece, being certain to keep it pointed away from himself and anyone else. The girls were unabashedly watching, now, but he ignored them. Holding the weapon out at arm’s length, he squeezed the clicker.
Lightning leaped forward, adding another black scar to the stone wall, where it blended with its predecessors.
“Wow,” Gabe murmured, tilting the wand upward. Smoke rose faintly from the tip. “You were right. Little to the left.”
“They’re made of interchangeable parts,” said Joe, “so you’ll be able to find a replacement shaft without much trouble. It’s wise to carry spares of everything, in fact, if you’re gonna be away from a supplier for any length of time.”
“Can it be…repaired?”
“If you’re an enchanter? Sure. Should it be?” He shook his head. “Not if you have any other option. Re-engraving the shaft will make the enchantment…unreliable. It wears out exponentially faster each time, assuming it keeps working long enough for a second re-engraving. Using a cracked power crystal will just make the thing shut down and turn into so much driftwood if the crystal shatters—which it will. Firing a wand with a faulty clicker… Either the safety charm will lock and it just won’t fire, or it’ll lock itself open and you’ll be holding a stick that constantly sprays lightning with no control. Actually, it’ll only do that long enough to heat the wood till its binding matrix fails and the power all goes out in one big blast.”
“Yikes. So…take care of your equipment. Got it.”
“See that you do. Now, on the subject of clickers…put that away, let me show you how these work.”
Joe placed the grip of his own wand in Gabriel’s hand, then laid his own hand over it. The wand was identical to the one in his other holster: longer than the standard-issue one Gabe had just tucked into his coat pocket, coal black and its grip banded with yellowed ivory. “The thing about enchanter wands is…well, either you can, or you can’t. It depends on whether a person has any magical potential at all, any gift at using the arcane.”
“I’m an enchanting major…”
“Yeah? Actually done any enchanting yet?”
“All theory so far,” Gabriel admitted.
“Then this’ll be an important test for you. There’s pretty much no way to figure this out but to be attuned by someone who already uses such a wand. Now, you’re holding the weapon, but I’m holding you. A person is magically conductive, so… I’m going to fire the wand through you. Keep your attention on the wand, and tell me if you feel anything.”
The bolt of energy that shot forth before Gabriel could speak was different than the wands he had seen used thus far. Clean, pure white and traveling in a straight line, it was more like a concentrated moonbeam than a lightning bolt, though it made the same sound and left the same sharp scent of ozone drift from the tip of the weapon.
“Oh…wow,” he whispered.
“Got it, you think?” Joe pulled back, stepping away from him.
“I got…something. It felt like… I dunno.”
“You don’t need to be able to describe it,” the Kid said with a grin. “Some folks write poetry about the sensation, if you’re the type who enjoys that. Just see if you can reproduce it. Keep the wand aimed at the wall, and recall what it felt like. Call it up again. If you can get the same—”
Light blasted forth, making a small crater in the side of the barn. There came an outpouring of cheers and applause from the watching girls, led by Ruda.
Gabriel lowered the wand, grinning. “Wow.”
“Congratulations,” said Joe with an easy smile. “You’ve got the spark.” He held out his hand, and Gabriel placed the wand in it with a trace of reluctance. “Yeah, she’s a beauty, isn’t she? Eventually you’re gonna want to create your own weapon, if you’re planning to be an enchanter. Don’t be in a hurry, though. Trying to craft a custom wand without understanding the spells involved is an excellent way to blast yourself right off the mortal plane.”
“I’ll remember that. So…where’d you learn all this?”
There was quiet for just a moment, then Ruda began loudly resuming her own lessons. Joe held his peace a bit longer, staring down at the wand in his hand before finally holstering it.
“People ask me what makes me such a good wandfighter,” he said at last. “Truthfully, I always considered it some sort of mental defect. I can…feel numbers.”
“You, uh…” Gabriel blinked. “I don’t think I understand.”
“Angles,” said Joe, looking up at him. “Force, voltage, temperature, pressure… Most people, as I understand it, live in a wet and squishy world of variables that don’t explicitly mean anything to them. Me, I live in a world of math. Everything is made of hard quantities—I see just how they all intersect, where the tiniest force will have the most impact. Frankly I don’t even know the terminology for most of the kinds of energy I can perceive, and I ain’t interested in learning. Knowing how electricity and heat work mean I have a great intuitive command of wandfighting, yeah, but it also means I’m always conscious of the weather in a way you’re probably not. It’s…distracting.”
“Damn,” said Gabe slowly, and for once Joe didn’t correct his language.
“Mamie taught me a lot more,” the Kid said more quietly. “After Hoss and his gang killed my pa, she took me in, here. Took in lots of kids, mostly girls… And some’d say that making a runaway girl a whore was a heartless thing to do, but here, Mamie could look after ’em, teach us all skills we’d use later in life. It’s not like any of us had better prospects. Anyhow, I’ve been luckier’n most—I make my living at the card table.”
“You can…make a living playing poker?” Gabriel said in astonishment. To judge by the Kid’s fine suit and the huge chunk of tigerseye in his bolo tie, to say nothing of those clearly custom-made wands, it must be a pretty good living at least.
Joe’s mouth quirked up in a half-smile. “I can. World of numbers, remember?”
“Ah. Right. Yeah, I can see how that’d help. So, Mamie runs this place? I don’t think I’ve met her yet.”
Joe turned back to look at the girls, one of who was being guided through a series of knife attacks by Ruda while the others looked on. He shifted his gaze from there to the Shady Lady itself. “She was actually a wandfighter, too, in her youth. Dabbled a bit in fae magic, mostly bits and bobs she picked up from the local elves; never got good enough to be considered a real witch. For that, you have to either enslave some kind of fae creature or form a relationship with one, and she had other things to do. When the Riders started getting bad, Mamie rode off to deal with ’em.” He clenched his fingers into fists, then very deliberately relaxed them. “We ain’t seen ‘er since.”
Gabriel just looked at him helplessly for a long moment while the princess and the prostitutes laughed and scuffled in the background.
“We’ll get them,” he said finally, quietly.
Joe nodded. “These people are depending on me; I can’t leave ’em.” He turned to fix Gabriel with a hard stare. “But you bring those Riders here, and…we’ll see.”
Deep in thought, he wandered back through the main area, barely noting the refugees, students and miscellaneous others dotting the room, and took a seat at the bar.
“That’s an even longer face than the situation warrants,” said the man next to him, and Gabriel started.
“Oh,” he said lamely, “sorry, I… Didn’t even see you there. Kinda lost in thought. Sorry, I don’t mean to disturb you.”
The man waved a hand dismissively. “If I can manage not to be disturbed by this town and this very charming prison, you’re no threat to my equanimity, no offense.” He reached into his long, black coat and pulled out a silver flask. “Have a drink with me. It’s not like there’s much else for us to do.”
“Sure,” said Gabriel with a bit more interest as Horace set a couple of glasses in front of them. “What’re we having?”
The man chuckled as he poured two fingers of amber liquid into one of the glasses. “You’re having water, as usual. I clearly heard your Professor’s orders concerning her students and drinking. Now that’s a lady I don’t need mad at me.”
“Boy, ain’t that the truth,” Gabriel muttered, nodding thanks at Horace after his own glass was filled with water. “I could do with having her mad at me a little less.”
He studied his new companion sidelong. Dressed in a sweeping black coat and a wide-brimmed matching hat which he hadn’t removed despite being inside, he looked sort of like a Universal Church parson, but something about his aspect didn’t agree with that impression. He had a long, narrow face, his jaw lined by a thin beard, and there was something sly in the movements of his deep-set eyes and long fingers. Not menacing, but crafty.
“What is it you keep doing to make her mad, then?”
Gabe shrugged, toying with his glass. “Speaking without thinking, mostly. She takes particular exception to that.”
“Sounds like an educator, all right.” He swirled the untouched liquor in his glass, smiling thinly to himself. “Also sounds like a bad habit on your part. Forgive my eavesdropping, but there’s a stark lack of anything else to do around here. Your friend the paladin certainly seems to believe in you, and you managed to get the rest of your class on board with your plan. It’s not as if they think you’re stupid, then.”
“I guess. Just…thoughtless. Which is fair.”
Gabe took a sip of water and chuckled bitterly. “When you’re born a half-demon, you learn quickly enough to accept that you’re just never going to be quite…right. And yeah, I was, and am. You can run screaming now, if you want. Promise I won’t be offended.”
“And what if, instead of screaming and running, I doused you in holy water?” the man suggested. Gabriel leaned away, looking at him askance, and he laughed. “Oh, relax. You’re in luck; I don’t happen to be carrying any. Anyhow, I think I can understand your position. A dual nature, caught between one thing and another. You might find it surprising how many people could relate, if they bothered to try.”
“Why should they?” He shrugged morosely. “Demons are evil creatures.”
“Destructive creatures, sure, but the nature of evil is a little subtler than that. To the fly, the spider is an evil creature.”
“Spiders are evil creatures to everyone.”
“Really? Have you shared that insight with your friend the dryad?” He grinned. “If not for spiders we’d be knee-deep in bugs at all times—bugs that, unlike spiders, are actually harmful to human life. There’s a place in this world for creepy, venomous things.”
“Yay. Woo.” Gabriel threw up one hand in a lackluster parody of enthusiasm. “I have a place.”
“I just wonder, though, how much effort you’ve made to find a place that suits you,” the man said thoughtfully, staring into his glass. “Seems to me you’ve got a couple of things mixed up. Being half-demon, now…that’s something you are. Can’t do anything about that. Growing up with a thing like that, maybe you start to see everything that’s wrong in your life as some kind of immovable object, when in fact, a lot of them are well within your power to change.”
“Yeah?” Gabriel gave him a skeptical look. “Like what?”
“Like, for example, your habit of blurting out the first thing that pops into your mind. All your friends over there who don’t do that, especially the pirate. You think that’s not a learned trait? It’s only children who are so honest; everyone else learns some self-control. I wonder if you’ve ever made a serious go at it.”
“Ruda?” Gabe said, then snorted. “If anything she’s got a bigger mouth than me.”
“That girl is smarter than any two of the rest of your group put together,” said the man with a smile that was dangerously near to a smirk. “The signs are there if you watch for ’em. Oh, she flaps her tongue a lot, but she does it to create a specific impression; she’s not just venting the contents of her skull, like you. So let me pose you a question: what have you done, exactly, to bring your own yapper under control? Ever made a solid effort at it? Or did you just decide that spouting off like a dumbass is as much a part of you as bursting into flames when you step into a temple?”
Gabriel frowned at his water. “I…hadn’t really thought about it.”
“Maybe that’s your problem then, eh?”
“Maybe so,” he said slowly. “I, uh…don’t think I caught your name.”
“Don’t think you did, either.” The man rose from his stool, his motions smooth but somehow off; it was like watching a spider in human form unfurl his limbs. “Something to think about, anyway. Here’s a little advice for free: stay clear of the woman in red.”
“Lily?” Gabe looked up at him, blinking. “Tellwyrn’s friend? She seems harmless enough.”
“Nobody’s harmless, son. Nobody. The ones who seem harmless are hiding something. But by all means, don’t take my word for it.” He tugged the brim of his hat. “I’m sure we’ll have time to chat later. Try some things out; be sure to let me know how they go.”
The man backed up two steps, then turned and strolled away with his glass of untouched liquor. Gabriel watched him go for a moment, then swiveled back forward and frowned into his own drink, quickly growing lost in thought.
How long he sat there, mulling, he couldn’t have said, but it was brought to an end by a thump on the bar next to him that made him start nearly out of his stool.
Trissiny slid onto the recently-vacated seat, unfolded the wooden chessboard she had just laid down and began setting up pieces from a bag she plopped into the bar next to it.
“There you are,” she said. “Took me a while to find one of these.”
“Um…Triss?” He blinked at her. “Can I…help you?”
“Yes. You can be white.” She gave him a cool look, but a more considering one than he was used to getting from her. “Show me what you’ve got.”