God of magic, p.1

God of Magic, page 1

 part  #1 of  God of Magic Series


God of Magic

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God of Magic

  Chapter 1

  As I got off the bus and walked the last few blocks to my apartment, I breathed a sigh of relief. It was finally Friday, and the weight of the week seemed to be carried off by the Bay Area’s temperate autumn breeze. Look, I liked my job. I’m good at it. I’ve always enjoyed problem-solving and had a knack for locating the weaknesses in a given system, and as a network security specialist for Flamel Solutions, I got to put my talents to good use. Still, a guy can only take so many inane office parties, and after nearly twenty minutes of feigning polite interest, I was looking forward to a weekend away from it all.

  The trees along the sidewalk shivered in a gust of wind and shed their fiery-toned leaves over me as I passed. I smiled as I brushed a few out of my hair. It never got very cold here, but I was glad that the heat of summer had passed. If the weather held up, I thought I might head over to one of the hiking trails. It would be nice to stretch my legs after a week behind a desk.

  Laughter and the excited shouts of one of my neighbor’s kids carried to me as I neared my apartment building. Halloween wasn’t for another week, but the kids must have convinced their parents to let them wear their costumes early because a dragon and a fairy were chasing each other across the brown patch of grass between the buildings.

  When I passed, the little girl stuck a sparkly wand out at me and said with great fervor, “Alakazam!” before her brother pulled on her wings, and she ran off again with a shriek. I caught their mother’s eye from where she sat on the steps to watch her kids play and gave her a friendly wave.

  That was all normal, but as I made my way up the three flights of concrete steps to my apartment, I began to get a strange feeling like more was about to change than the seasons, but I dismissed it as I took out my keys and unlocked the door.

  My place was alright. It’s a snug single-bedroom that had smelled faintly of gym socks since before I moved in. It took about three months and thirty different air fresheners to realize that it was a permanent fixture, but I did get a nice view of the bay from my balcony, the rent was good for the location, and I’d made it a home.

  The thing was, I lived alone, so I wasn’t expecting to walk in and find a runway model examining my PlayStation controller.

  At least, I assumed the woman was a model. She was stunning, the kind of person words like “statuesque” and “immaculate” had been invented to describe. It wasn’t just her beauty, though, that made her look like she belonged more on the set of some kind of photo shoot rather than standing in the middle of my apartment next to my frayed, second-hand sofa. It was that she wore what had to be either a Halloween costume or some new vogue fashion. Her tan skin contrasted with a flowing white gown that was cinched at her slender waist by a thick belt that looked like real gold inlaid with pearl in a complicated, swirling design. Matching rings adorned her fingers, and strands of gold were braided into her long silver hair. She had some prosthetics on her ears that made them look pointed, like an elf from a fantasy movie.

  Not a lot catches me off guard. Growing up, I was able to figure out where my parents hid my Christmas presents by the time I was seven. In school, I always knew when teachers were going to give pop quizzes. I figured out that my friends were going to throw me a surprise party for my birthday last year three weeks in advance.

  Still, there was no way I could have seen it coming when this strange, gorgeous woman smiled at me like she’d been expecting me. “Ah, Gabriel, there you are.”

  “You... know my name?” I asked, frozen as the door swung shut behind me. I was sure I’d never seen this woman in my life. I definitely would have remembered someone who looked like her, but apparently, she knew me.

  I realized at that moment that since I’d had to unlock the door when I’d come in, the woman must not have broken in that way, and since my apartment was on the third floor, that ruled out the windows. She could be the previous tenant who still had her old key, but that didn’t explain how she knew my name.

  She cocked her head slightly like she found the question amusing and her smile broadened. “I know everything about you.”

  The reasonable response to a statement like that upon finding a stranger in my apartment would have been to call the police, cancel my credit card, and change my locks, but instead, I asked, “How? And how did you get into my apartment?” The only thing I could think was that my friends had signed me up for some sort of prank show. Were they hiding somewhere now, watching me from hidden cameras?

  “I possess knowledge and skills beyond mortal comprehension,” she replied as she set down the PlayStation controller. “However, how I came to be here is not nearly so important as why I am here.” She raised her eyebrows knowingly. “And I assure you, my presence here is not part of a ruse. I come on an errand of grave importance.”

  That response raised more questions than it answered, but for a reason I couldn’t explain, something about the woman put me at ease. Her voice was so calm and assured, I almost felt as though I was the one intruding, and the longer I stood there, the more I felt somehow lighter, optimistic.

  “Gabriel,” the woman paused and gave me a knowing look, “you are special.”

  I blinked as I tried to sort through the rapidly growing list of questions in my mind. “Uh, thanks.”

  She stepped forward, and her gown fluttered behind her. Suddenly I was glad I’d tidied up the previous day, as though making a good impression on the woman who had broken into my home was the most important part of this interaction.

  “You don’t understand,” she said kindly as she stopped before me. This close, I could smell her perfume, but I couldn’t identify it. It was light and airy, what I imagined sunshine would smell like if it had a scent. “You have a gift, and your actions could shape the future of an entire world. I am Theira, the Goddess of Luck. I come to you now in answer to a prayer, and I can grant you everything your heart desires.”

  I must have nodded off at the work party. This was some weird dream.

  “It isn’t a dream, Gabriel,” Theira said patiently as if she’d read my mind again. “I’m quite real.”

  I stared at her. Her eyes were silver, like her hair, and completely mesmerizing. The only thing I could think to say was, “I didn’t pray to you.”

  The goddess smiled. “No, it is another’s prayer that I would answer, but I need you and your gift. You possess an ability that many believed to be lost in my world, a powerful magical talent.”

  “Magic?” I echoed. “Um, look, I’m flattered, really, but I think you have the wrong person.”

  “Your powers are untapped in this world,” Theira replied, completely self-assured. She extended her hand toward me. “Take my hand, I can show you.”

  She seemed so confident in me, and I realized suddenly that I didn’t want to let her down. I took her hand and the instant that my fingers brushed hers, something surged through me like an electric current, but it wasn’t painful. It felt good. More than that, it felt right. My senses seemed sharper, my mind more alert, as though for the first time in my life I was actually awake.

  I noticed then that Theira was glowing. Literally. A halo of silvery light shone around her body, and the same light seemed to gather around my hand as she held it.

  Then she let go, the light faded, and the feeling dissipated as quickly as it had arisen, and I was surprised by the intensity of the regret that I felt when my hand fell back to my side.

  “That is just a glimpse,” the goddess said. “Your true power cannot be unlocked in this realm.”

  This realm. She’d mentioned “her world” before like she wasn’t from this one. It seemed insane, or at least part of me still thought it should have.

  “There is precious little magic left in this world,” Theira said, “but I c
an take you to Astaris where you can fully access your power, and if you lend your aid to the ones who prayed to me, I will see that you are rewarded.”

  My thoughts reeled. A self-proclaimed goddess from a magical realm was in my apartment, and she wanted my help. Okay. Supposedly, I had magical powers. Except, I had felt it, hadn’t I when she’d touched my hand? If that part was real, why not the rest of it?

  “It’s a lot to take in, I understand,” the goddess said gently, “but I’m afraid the situation is rather urgent. Will you come to Astaris?” She held out her hand to me again.

  I stared at her hand and thought about what I would be leaving behind. My dad had died a few years ago, and I didn’t have any other family that I was close to. I didn’t have any pets, not even a houseplant. My friends, my job, this apartment... was I willing to trade all of that for the power Theira had shown me and the reward she’d promised?

  I ran my hand through my hair. I’d always felt like something was missing, like there had to be more to my mundane existence. This could be it. I swallowed and nodded.

  “I’ll go with you,” I said at last, and I took the goddess’ hand.

  I expected the light again and the rush of power, but instead, there was a deep wrenching sensation in my gut like my intestines were being yanked out before I was enveloped in darkness. I couldn’t see anything or feel Theira’s hand. I swayed and nearly lost my balance, and when I stepped forward to catch myself, it wasn’t the faux-wood of my apartment that I stood on but what felt like cobblestones.

  Gradually, spots of light came into view and bled together until I found myself looking down a dim, desolate hall. The walls and floor were stone, like a medieval castle, but the place was clearly long abandoned. Sections in the wall and ceiling had crumbled away, and weak light filtered through the breaks in the mildewed stone.

  I took a deep breath of the cool, moist air as I gathered myself. Theira was nowhere to be seen, but she must have meant to take me here, goddesses didn’t just lose people. At least, I hoped not. The strange thing was, I still felt the way I had when she’d held my hand for the first time, powerful and somehow complete.

  Then, from behind me, an astonished voice whispered, “Gods of the Vales.”

  I whirled around and nearly crashed into the woman who had spoken as she stood abruptly, one hand clutched around a pendant that hung from her neck. We stared at one another for a moment, and I quickly took in her bright red hair, long, pointed ears, and battle-worn armor.

  For her part, the elf seemed just as amazed to see me, and she looked me over with scrutinizing hazel eyes before she gave a relieved sort of laugh and shook her head. “Gods,” she said again. “Theira...” Suddenly, she dropped to her knees again and quickly muttered what I guessed was a prayer, though I couldn’t understand all the words she said.

  I didn’t want to interrupt her, but I didn’t know what to do then, and as I looked around for an answer, I realized we weren’t alone.

  Just beyond the reach of the light, I could make out the figure of another woman who stood and watched us with her arms crossed. Her dark armor blended almost perfectly with the shadows, and she appeared to be wearing some sort of horned helmet over long silvery-white hair. At that moment, she turned to look down an adjacent hall and called out, “Maruk, get over here. The choir girl actually did it.”

  The redhead shot her an annoyed look as she finished her prayer and stood again, but when she turned back to me and tucked a lock of short hair behind her ear, she smiled.

  “Hi,” I said as I looked from one woman to the other. “I’m Gabriel. You mentioned Thei--” I stopped short as a hulking figure came into view.

  He had to be close to seven feet tall, each of his muscular arms as thick around as I was, and two long, curved tusks protruded from his lower lip. Like the elf, he wore plate armor scored across with the marks of many battles, and he had a massive shield strapped over one arm. He turned, his heavy brow bent in a frown as he peered into the gloom at me, and as I was trying to decide which of the rocks at my feet would make the best weapon, he said in a cut-glass accent, “Dear me, Aerin, it worked.”

  The elf grinned proudly. “I told you it would.”

  I stared at the three of them. These must have been the people Theira had told me about, the ones who had prayed to her. She wanted me to help them, but I couldn’t guess what she expected me to do.

  The trio looked... well, ragged. In the feeble light, I began to notice more signs of battle than the damage to their armor. All three were dirty and sported numerous scrapes and bruises. I noticed that Maruk cradled the pieces of a second shield in his arm and wondered what could have cleaved the steel in half like that. The woman in the shadows ran her fingers repetitively over the tattered fletching of the few arrows she held, and despite her relieved expression, there were shadows under the elf woman’s eyes. Whatever they had been through, I wasn’t sure I was the one to help.

  The elf smiled at me. “I’m Aerin,” she said, then indicated the other woman and the orc in turn, “and that’s Lavinia and Maruk. We’re the Shadow Foxes.”

  I frowned. “Shadow Foxes?”

  The corner of Aerin’s mouth twitched. “Our guild,” she added, and her tone indicated that she thought this should have been obvious.

  “Right,” I said. Magic, elves and orcs, guilds. My life had become a fantasy game. “What do you... do?”

  Aerin opened her mouth to respond, but Lavinia scoffed and answered for her as she returned her meager supply of arrows to her quiver. “We stand around in rotting castles talking instead of saving our guild,” she said. Then she stepped forward into the light, and I realized that what I’d taken to be a horned helmet were actual real horns. A few reddish scales shimmered where the base of the horns met the tan skin of her forehead, and as she looked me over with fiery red eyes, more scales on her cheekbones caught the light. “The gods sent you to help us, right?” she said. She sounded unimpressed. “What do you do?”

  I wasn’t sure how to answer. Theira had said I had some kind of power, but she hadn’t explained what it was or how I was supposed to use it. Before I could say anything, though, Aerin spoke for me.

  “You shouldn’t doubt the gods, Lavinia,” she chided, and when she looked at me again, there was an excited gleam in her hazel eyes. She reached out and put her hands on my arms as she guided me under a shaft of light. “I didn’t see it right away, but--” She broke off and nodded to herself as she regarded me, then her broad smile was back. “His aura is colorless. He’s a manipulator.”

  Chapter 2

  Aerin’s statement meant nothing to me, but it had a profound effect on the orc. Maruk put one enormous hand over his heart and murmured something I couldn’t quite make out, a name, maybe.

  Lavinia, however, still wore a skeptical expression and looked from me to Aerin with one brow arched. “That’s impossible,” she argued. “They went extinct ages ago.”

  Aerin looked ruffled. “I’m sorry, Lavinia, did you read his aura?” she shot back. “Theira delivered him to us, so there must be some in hiding.” Then her face broke into a grin as she turned to me again and her eyes sparkled. “An actual manipulator in our guild…. Just think of all the bounties we could take now! We are going to be so rich!”

  Lavinia rolled her eyes. “Focus, Aerin.”

  “Right, right. First the mission, then the riches.” The elf turned to me with a hungry gleam in her eye. “Where did Theira find you?”

  “I’m from California,” I answered.

  Aerin raised her eyebrows as she cast a glance back at the other woman. “See? The Mage Academy doesn’t know about California.”

  “You don’t know about California,” Lavinia replied drily, but Aerin ignored her.

  “Are there other mages there?” she asked me. “Other manipulators like you? The land must be very rich.”

  She looked so hopeful that I hated to be the bearer of bad news, but I knew it wouldn’t do any good to lie to he
r. “No,” I said. “There’s no magic where I’m from.”

  I had expected Aerin to be disappointed, but her reaction was even stronger than I’d anticipated. She looked downright horrified.

  “No magic?” she asked quietly, and there was something like pity in her voice as she reached out and took my hand. “That must be awful.”

  I shrugged. “It’s not so bad,” I said. “We have penicillin and the internet, so...”

  Lavinia frowned at me. “But you do know how to use your magic, right?”

  I didn’t even know what real magic was. Aerin had called me a manipulator, but that clearly meant something different to these people than some sort of Vegas-style card tricks.

  “I’ve never done magic before,” I admitted as I met Lavinia’s red eyes. “I’m a fast learner, though. I know you said the manipulators died out, but I’m sure I could get the hang of it if I read a couple of books on the subject.”

  Aerin bit her lip. “Right, you’re from California, the land of no magic. You wouldn’t know...” She looked quickly to Lavinia and Maruk as if she would have preferred for one of them to answer instead. When they didn’t, she went on, “The manipulators didn’t simply die out in these lands, they were all hunted down and executed by the Mage Academy, and all the books and scrolls were destroyed so that no one else could try to learn from them. Every once in a while, a child will be born who has the inclination, but they’re killed before their powers can develop. There hasn’t been an adult manipulator in centuries.”

  As she spoke, my stomach twisted into a knot. “Why would the Mage Academy kill other mages?”

  “Manipulators aren’t like elementalists or healers,” Aerin explained. “Y-they’re considered dangerous because they can control mana and create powerful illusions.”

  Lavinia crossed her arms. “And because a few of them went insane, tried to take over the world, make themselves gods, and practically killed every living thing.”

  “Uhhh, that sounds bad,” I said.

  “Ignore her,” Aerin scoffed. “No one knows if those legends are true or not.”

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