The Impossible Wizard: Chapter 16
If you ended up here before reading the earlier chapters, you can return to Chapter 1 here
Terra sat in her cramped office surrounded by books of magic both new and old. Despite its small size she was most at home tucked away out of sight. Terra wasn’t good with people. She knew she tended to be abrupt and to assume others were as informed about magical matters as her. She’d fought the problem since her time at the academy and still hadn’t beaten it.
Lin said he’d call around midmorning and she was anxious to hear what he’d come up with. Who was she kidding? Terra just wanted to talk to him again. She felt like a teenager waiting for some boy to call after their first date.
Two days had passed since she last spoke to the detective though it seemed like longer. Unlike most people she dealt with outside the Department, Terra found the good detective easy to talk to.
For her part, she and Clair had figured out what the ring did: it was a power suppressor. Mercia wasn’t a weak wizard after all. Unfortunately, they had no idea how great her true power was. Though based on the trap she set at her fake apartment Terra guessed she was at least as strong as Shizuku and perhaps a little stronger.
They also had no idea why she decided to hide her power in the first place. Clearly she wanted access to the Department without drawing any attention. As a tester Mercia would have known the names of every new student going to the academy, but that wasn’t exactly secret information. The academy made enrolled students’ names public. The government had determined that regular citizens had a right to know if they were dealing with a wizard.
Terra had made her report to Chief Kane yesterday and he had someone searching the academy records to try and find Mercia’s true power level, but so far they’d found nothing, not even her name. The government kept meticulous records when it came to wizards, so the fact that they found nothing about Mercia was odd if not downright sinister. It seemed like every time they took a step forward it was followed by two more back.
Her phone rang, jarring Terra out of her contemplations. She could do nothing about the records so she needed to focus on things within her control, like figuring out who had attacked Conryu.
She picked up the receiver. “Terra Pane.”
“This is Detective Chang, Terra. We’ve made some progress in our investigation. I tracked the person chatting with Mort Call to an internet cafe. It seems a gang called the Black Skulls was using it as a meeting place. Since he hasn’t woken up yet, is there any way you can extract information from Mr. Call’s mind? Our wizard says it’s possible, but beyond her ability.”
“A psychic probe, it’s not something I have any skill with, but my boss’s wife might be able to do it. I’ll ask him and let you know. Now, who are the Black Skulls and what do they have to do with Conryu and Mercia?”
“The Skulls are a biker gang that’s into drugs and guns. They’ve also moved into illicit magical items. We have them on tape collecting mundane-looking items from an unknown individual. Our wizard found traces of magical energy at the cafe.”
Terra frowned. She knew a little about the underground trade in magical items, but it tended to be narrow and limited to collectors. It didn’t seem like the sort of thing that would interest a gang. “Would it be possible for me to have a look at the cafe? We have an amplification device that can give more information about those trace energies you found.”
“Certainly. I’d prefer to speak to you in person anyway. Can you meet me there in an hour?” Lin gave her the address.
“I’ll be there.” She hung up and left her office.
It was a short walk down to the secure storage room. She’d been taking the stairs for the last two days to get a little exercise. Studying the energy patterns and chatting with Lin should be simple enough, no need to bring Clair along.
She reached the thick steel door and placed her hand on a metal plate beside it. Terra spoke a brief incantation, deactivating the wards and unlocking the door. Inside the store room dozens of shelves held hundreds of items: books, scrolls, and other magical paraphernalia.
Terra selected a set of glasses held together with silver wire. They would magnify the aura of any residual magic a hundred times. She reached for a silver ring, paused, then grabbed it. A little extra protection was never a bad idea. She slipped the ring on and headed for her car, locking the door behind her.
* * *
Terra found Lin leaning against his car waiting for her when she arrived. The internet cafe was a rundown dump sealed off with yellow police tape. She’d never had much use for technology. It tended to be more of a distraction than anything as far as she was concerned anyway.
Terra parked her beat-up car behind Lin’s equally beat-up sedan. She didn’t know where all her tax dollars were spent, but it wasn’t on vehicles for public servants.
Lin opened her door for her, prompting a smile. “Thanks. Did your wizard mention what sort of magic she found?”
Lin opened his notebook. “Fire and darkness, both extremely weak.”
“The residual aura might be weak, but whatever left them had to be reasonably strong or she would have found no trace at all.” Terra strode toward the cafe door. “I’ll know more shortly.”
“Do you need the area clear or can I join you?”
“Join me, by all means. Your presence will make no difference one way or the other.” She smiled and opened the door. “For the spell. I’ll be glad for the company.”
He smiled back and her heart did a little flutter. What was wrong with her? She was acting like a silly girl. When the door closed behind Lin she slipped the glasses on and chanted.
“Reveal all things hidden.”
Three dark trails appeared between the dingy rows of computers. “Darkness magic for sure.”
Terra followed the trails toward the back of the cafe, bumping into chairs as she focused on the magic instead of where she was walking. Lin gently took her elbow and guided her around the various obstacles. The trails led to a blank wall. She touched the smooth, painted surface.
“There’s something hidden behind here.”
“Are you sure? Our wizard didn’t mention even seeing anything in this part of the building.”
Terra traced a square on the wall, leaving a glowing path behind. “Right here. I can’t say what, but something was here, something powerful.”
“Step back.” Lin pulled a folding knife out of a coat pocket.
Terra moved aside and Lin stabbed the wall, cutting the wall board around the square she marked. When he finished he pulled the chunk of material out and tossed it on the floor. On the other side was a small niche built into the framing. Runes had been burned into the wood. The whole thing seethed with residual dark energy.
“Something potent was stored here at one time. Those are runes of containment and binding. Whoever used this hiding place didn’t want whatever they put here leaking out.”
“Can you tell what it was?” Lin asked.
Terra shook her head. “The residual energy doesn’t have any real shape. Where did your wizard detect the auras?”
“In the back room where they held their secret meetings. Through the door on your left.”
Terra slipped through the door. The filthy office lit up with lines of darkness and fire. The dark magic was the same as whatever was in the niche. She scanned the walls and found a faint aura on the wall that was opposite the hole they just cut in the wall.
“Someone used magic to reach through the wall and retrieve whatever was stored there. The magic looks very similar to what we found at the carnival, only stronger. I can’t tell much about the fire magic, but given what you said about the people gathered here I feel pretty confident it was a weapon. What sort of items were they trading?”
Lin consulted the ever-present notebook. “Five boxes and what looked like a glove.”
“The glove is almost certainly the weapon, probably a Flame Hand Gauntlet, very dangerous. The five boxes I’m not sure about. The lines continue out the back door.” Terra followed the dark energy outside. “They split up here, going in five different directions. The trail dissipates after a hundred yards or so.”
“So whatever was in those boxes could be anywhere.”
Terra took her glasses off and returned them to their case. “I’m afraid so. When was the tape made?”
“Four nights before the attack on Conryu.”
“That’s a day before anyone even knew the boy had wizard potential. Whatever we’ve stumbled into is about far more than Conryu. That’s a long time for such potent magical items to be in the hands of people who have no idea how to use them properly.”
“We need to find the Skulls and learn what they did with them.”
“Absolutely.” Terra chewed her thumbnail and frowned. “The real question is: What, if anything, does all this have to do with Conryu and Mercia?”
“Even if it has nothing to do with them, I can’t risk criminals having access to dangerous magic. The threat to the city is too great.”
The deep roar of Iron Skull’s bike fell silent when he pulled into a parking spot outside Sentinel Central Hospital. He took off his helmet and hung it on the handlebars. The bone-white skull-shaped helmet always made him smile. It was a gift from Mistress Raven. She said it was an actual demon skull and it did always make him feel powerful when he wore it, though not as powerful as his new toy. He clenched his right fist, making the heavy leather of his gauntlet crunch. The pentagram on the back of his hand glowed with an inner fire.
When she first gave him the magic glove Iron Skull couldn’t believe it. He’d owned and used all sorts of weapons, but a magic flamethrower, how fuckin’ awesome was that? There had been a time when he could never have imagined calling anyone master, but serving Mistress Raven had become the single most fulfilling thing he’d ever done. The fact that she usually wanted him to do all the things he liked best anyway helped.
Take this morning. He got a message telling him to off Mort Call. Skull had no idea who the fuck Mort Call was and he didn’t care. She wanted him dead and Skull liked nothing better than killing people, especially now that he had his flamethrower. He’d already come up with a handful of new ways to kill people with it and he was eager to try out his most recent idea. He’d burned that fat prick that ran the computer place to ashes, but that had ended too quick for him to really enjoy it.
Skull straightened his mohawk and adjusted his black leather jacket, trying in vain to look less intimidating. Not that he had anything against killing everyone in the hospital if that’s what it took to get Call, but Mistress Raven had made it clear that when she sent him to kill someone, ideally, he would only kill that one person. A massacre drew more attention than she wanted just now.
He checked his appearance in his bike’s polished chrome gas cap. Not bad. He smiled, revealing a jumble of crooked yellow teeth. Skull gave his bike an affectionate pat and headed toward the main entrance. The huge, sprawling complex covered half a square mile if you counted the grounds. He’d need directions if he wanted to avoid searching all day for his mark.
Halfway to the door Skull spotted a man in his late fifties carrying a bouquet of flowers coming from his left. That was handy. Skull had almost reached him when the guy looked his way. The suit’s eyes went wide then closed the instant Skull’s fist sank into his gut. The guy slumped and Skull helped himself to the flowers.
Perfect. Now he really looked like a proper friend making a visit to his ailing buddy. Skull left the barely conscious man curled up in the fetal position and groaning on the sidewalk. What a wuss. Couldn’t even take one punch to the gut.
The automatic doors opened at his approach. Inside was a waiting room filled with sick or injured people. A row of nurses sat behind a long desk, each at her own computer station. All but one was helping someone already. Skull ambled up to the free nurse, a dusky-skinned woman with cornrows and too much eye shadow. She flinched when she noticed Skull looking down at her.
He smiled, trying to set her at ease. The way her eyes widened suggested he failed. “I’m here to visit an old friend of mine, Mort Call. Can you tell me which room he’s in?”
“One moment, sir.” The nurse typed, frowned at her screen, and typed something else. At last she looked up. “I’m sorry, Mr. Call is in police custody and isn’t allowed any visitors. If it’s any consolation he woke from his coma this morning. The doctors think his chances of recovering are good.”
Skull didn’t think his chances were so good, and a pair of cops wasn’t going to improve them much. At least now he knew why Mistress Raven wanted him dead. If he knew something and had woken up it was only a matter of time before he spilled his guts.
“Maybe I could just go up and drop his flowers off. The cops could look them over and take them into the room. That wouldn’t hurt, right?”
The nurse finally smiled. “I suppose not. He’s in room 560 in building C.”
She gave Skull directions and he set off drawing the gazes of everyone in the waiting room. Building C waited a five-minute walk from the main entrance. He passed doctors, nurses, janitors, and other visitors on his way and without fail they all did a double take when he strode past.
Skull shook his head and stepped into the elevator that would take him to the fifth floor. He didn’t look that unusual, did he? He knew a lot of guys with a mohawk and leather jacket. Maybe it was the tattoos. He had a shattered skull pierced with a dagger inked on the side of his neck. It was pretty hardcore. Though he had a trio of nastier ones on his chest.
The elevator chimed and the doors slid open. An older couple took a step back when they saw him inside the elevator. Of all the people he encountered, the elderly seemed to react like that the most consistently. He held the door for them and they scurried in without a word of thanks. So much for the older generation having better manners.
Skull walked to the nearest hall and checked the first room number he came to: 502. At the far end a pair of boys in blue sat in stiff chairs and sipped from paper cups. He grinned and stalked towards them. As he walked, Skull sent his thoughts into the gauntlet, drawing out the fire spirit’s power the way Mistress Raven had taught him. When the back of his hand grew warm he knew it was ready.
He was almost to the room when one of the cops hopped to his feet and raised a hand. “I’m sorry, sir. No one is allowed to visit this patient.”
“But I brought him flowers.” Skull held out the bouquet. “Can’t you at least give these to him?”
When the cop was only three feet away Skull lashed out, driving his gauntlet-covered fist into the cop’s gut and releasing a blast of fire. Bright orange flames burst out his back and the cop collapsed.
Skull caught him and hurled the dead cop at his still-living partner. The corpse caught the second cop halfway out of his chair. He scrambled to avoid it, but the weight of the body drove him back down.
Skull rushed over, grabbed the living cop’s head and poured fire into it. The cop’s skull burst like a ripe melon. That was always good for a laugh.
An alarm sounded and sprinklers sprang to life, drenching the hall. Skull stepped into Mort’s room and found his target struggling to sit up with his hand cuffed to the bed rail.
Mort stared at him with wide, frightened eyes. “Who are you?”
“No one special.”
Skull lunged across the room and slapped his gauntleted hand across Mort’s mouth. He called on the magic again, sending flames down the mark’s gullet, incinerating his internal organs. When he finished, smoke was literally coming out of Mort’s ears.
Skull couldn’t stop grinning. That had worked even better than he’d hoped. The only problem was when you burned up their lungs the target couldn’t scream. Maybe next time he’d burn up some less vital organs and leave the target to die slowly.
Then again, if Mistress Raven wanted someone kept quiet, letting them die slowly might not be the way to go. Skull would just have to try it on one of his own victims. Maybe he’d grab someone on the way home. The guys would probably enjoy the show, take their minds off Numb getting his dumb ass killed.
Skull left the still-smoking corpse of Mort Call smoldering in his bed and stepped out into the hall. Voices shouted and nurses hustled patients and visitors toward the stairwell. It didn’t look like they’d made it this far or noticed the dead cops yet. Skull considered dragging the bodies into Mort’s room, but dismissed the idea at once. It would only delay the inevitable by a few minutes at best.
He stepped over the bodies, doing his best to ignore the streams of water plastering his mohawk flat against his head, and headed for the elevator. He pressed the call button, but it didn’t light up. Annoyed now, he stabbed it three more times.
“Sir.” A big, broad-shouldered orderly in purple scrubs spotted him and walked over. “The elevators are disabled during a fire emergency. You’ll have to take the stairs.”
“Of course they are.” Skull shook his head. That was the problem with hospitals, too safety conscious.
A gasp from the orderly drew Skull’s attention back to him. He was staring down the hall at the dead cops. Too bad, he seemed like a nice-enough guy. On the other hand Skull never passed up a chance to use his gauntlet.
The orderly looked away from the bodies just in time to catch a heavy fist to his forehead. At the moment of impact Skull released a burst of fire. The orderly’s head exploded in a shower of blood and flames.
Skull grinned. That was the coolest fuckin’ thing ever.
A feminine scream from down the hall caught his attention. A pretty redheaded nurse stood trembling, her hands to her mouth, staring at him. He stomped down the hall toward her, ignoring the scattering of people headed for the stairs.
Skull clamped his bare hand around the back of her neck. “Shame you had to see that. Now, we’re going to walk out of here together. Give me any trouble and I’ll pop your head like a zit, got it?”
She managed a silent nod.
Skull guided her toward the stairwell where they merged with the flow of people coming from the floors above. It wasn’t a particularly speedy group considering they were evacuating a fire. Maybe they thought it was just a drill. Of course all the people with canes and walkers didn’t hurry things up any.
The faint whine of sirens approaching reached him. Sounded like the fire department was taking it seriously. The sirens also convinced the healthier people to step on it and several jostled Skull in their haste to flee. Remembering Mistress Raven’s lecture about self-control, Skull refrained from burning them all to death.
At the bottom of the stairs people were streaming out the nearest door. For his part Skull turned down the hall that led to the main entrance where he’d left his bike.
“Please don’t hurt me,” the nurse whispered.
Skull loved it when they begged. It made him want to hurt her even more. Looked like he wasn’t going to have to grab someone on his way home. He’d just take—Skull glanced down at her name tag—Janice home with him.
The main waiting area had cleared out by the time they arrived. Through the glass doors four cop cars were visible. Each car had a pair of cops behind it pointing their guns at the entrance. How the hell did they know where he was going?
“Where are all the cameras in this dump?” When Janice didn’t answer Skull gave her a shake. “Answer me.”
“Everywhere.” The word came out more of a whimper.
Great, the cops were probably watching him right now. He looked around until he spotted one of the cameras and flipped it off. Skull had hoped to make this a quick in and out, but it looked like he’d get to have a bit more fun before the day was done.
Skull forced Janice directly in front of him and marched her closer to the door so the cops could take a good look. If there was one thing you could count on it was a hostage keeping the boys in blue honest. If they so much as farted in his direction Skull would burn her to death.
“We have you surrounded.” Some asshole must have found a bullhorn. “Come out with your hands up.”
They always said that. Skull looked down at the now-crying Janice. “Do you think that line ever works?”
“I don’t know.”
“Me either, but it’s not going to work today.” Skull pushed her close enough to trigger the automatic doors. “Clear the fuck out of here or Janice is going from the hospital to the morgue.”
A little whimper escaped the captive nurse. It was a nice touch, but he doubted the cops heard her.
“There’s nowhere you can go,” the asshole with the bullhorn said. “Release the girl before someone gets hurt.”
Skull shook his head. “These cops need to catch a clue. There’re already four dead guys upstairs.”
No comment from Janice. She was probably overwhelmed by all the excitement.
Skull raised his gauntleted hand and called the fire. A stream of flame streaked toward the car nearest where he’d left his bike.
The cops behind it scrambled to get clear.
A moment later the gas tank exploded, sending the car up into the air before it came crashing down on its roof. He adjusted his aim and commanded the fire to come forth again.