Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Tooth and Claw: Alice Takes a Road Trip

Prologue, Words and Shadows, part two

Wednesday, July 4th, 2012

                Alice sits at her desk, smoking a long black cigarette.  It had been a few days before she had been able to reach out to Jennie; something of an emergency had come up, trouble in the dreams of some of her fellow mages.  It was one of those things that seems to be nothing, then suddenly blows up in your face.  The Maestro had put her on the case, and it was shortly determined that there was a lesser demon trying to work its way into the world.  Life and spirit were Alice’s main concentrations, and she was something of a dabbler in fate magic as well, so she had been rather well-suited to tackle the problem.  Having put out that fire, she returned to the matter of Thomas’ missing hourglass, and put out a call to Fae Jennie.
                That was eight days ago, a week and a day, and Alice had a feeling that Jennie would be calling her today.  Her calendar was clear – her head, not so much.  It was brimming with questions and possibilities, slowly bubbling away on the backburner these past few days, and she hoped to have them answered soon.  Knowing Jennie, maybe not so soon, but there would at least be another bread crumb on the trail.
                First, there was the matter of the Sandstorm Hourglass itself.  She had seen it, at some point; Thomas brought it to her for a detailed inspection after they had built up some trust between them, exchanging favors and information.  She knew how it worked, that much was easy:  the grains of “sand” were tiny bits of glass with an inside and an outside, black and white, bound together with a minor enchantment to make them flow against each other.  The white grains, falling like snow, drifted so slowly because some of their momentum was redirected to the black grains, making them float upward like ash.  To bind so many things, though, even alike as they were – that took some doing.  The mirrors at the ends of the hourglass were magic mirrors, easy enough to craft but tricky in the details if you wanted them to work right.  This pair evidently turned things inside-out, raising the question of how they had been put into place after being enchanted.  Probably some fancy spellwork involving a size limitation, or only working on things that had had magical work done to them, or maybe even bound to the grains themselves.  It was an intricate and subtle thing, because crafting the spell to work on tiny things that kept turning inside-out took considerable finesse.
                At any rate, what was far more perplexing was the why of it.  Alice could find no discernible purpose to the thing, though great craftsmanship had clearly gone into it.  It was hard to believe that a mage had had enough free time to craft something of this quality, to serve as a mere bauble.  Mages, in Alice’s experience, were more practically-minded than that.  Perhaps some long-dead king had commissioned it, paying richly to have a unique trinket – but again, the work involved could have gone to much more practical ends, and raised the question of why a king’s mages weren’t being put to better purpose.
                Unraveling this first riddle would doubtless give her a thread to tug at for the second:  if Alice knew what the hourglass was for, then she’d have a clue as to what the revenant wanted with it.  Or, more precisely, what the revenant’s master wanted with it.  If the other schools of magic were any guide to go by, then the raising of a revenant was quite a feat.  But then, death magic being death magic, it was possible that the difficulty curves of the other schools simply didn’t apply.  Besides, necromancy was at this point almost certainly a lost art:  after the setting of the seven seals, the magics of all the gods had been expressly forbidden, their practitioners first accounted for – then corralled – then exterminated – then their books burned.  When Alice had learned of this particular chapter in magical history, the whole thing had struck her as having a distinctly Nazi-like efficiency to it that made her skin crawl.  The job hadn’t been perfectly completed on the first try, of course.  Every so often, a book would crop up, the lost knowledge inevitably tempting a mage to resurrect the forbidden arts.  But the seven seals held true, faithfully alerting those who kept watch that someone had transgressed against the ancient pact.  After that, it was usually a short matter to find and deal with the transgressor, and the intermittent episodes had happened less and less frequently as the world moved on.
                The seven seals hadn’t been tripped in over two hundred years.
                Of course, the alarms only worked when the magic was done on this side of them.  If one of the gods were working from beyond them, there would be no telling.  That had been the nature of the spell, cast by all those mages all those millennia ago:  banish the gods from the mortal realm, and give a warning whenever their distinctive signatures appeared in this world.  Simple, and to the point.  There was no need to keep an eye on the gods, they were simply cast out, the way sealed behind them.
                But of course, the seals weren’t perfect.  Heroic people kept doing heroic things, and sometimes even for heroism’s sake – and so, centuries later, the Hero had been able to return and walk the Earth once more.  And what an outrageous clusterfuck that had turned out to be.  While ordinary deaths, then, would be unable to reach Death, those deaths caused for death’s sake would trickle through to him.  So how many senseless killings, Alice wondered, would it take for Death to amass, say, an ounce of tallow?  And how many times had people killed for the sake of killing?  The macabre algebra had too many variables, but the x she was trying to solve for was indubitably of considerable magnitude.
                Three and a half thousand years was quite a while, and though the seven seals had done their duty so far, Alice couldn’t help but wonder how long they would hold in the fullness of time.  Nothing lasts forever, what hath man wrought, and all of that – the world had changed much since the setting of the seven seals, and even those ancient mages, wise and powerful though they were, couldn’t see all the way down eternity.  Nobody could.  Not even the gods themselves.
                Alice’s cigarette is now nothing more than a brown filter and a pile of ash in her ashtray.  She sits upright at her desk and dumps the mess into her trash can, sprays some vanilla-scented air freshener about her space, and leafs through a small pile of papers at her desk.  She glances at her clock:  11:11.  Double snake-eyes.  Her phone rings.
                “Jennie-phone.  Who’s calling?”
                “Jennie!  It’s Alice.”
                “Oh, hi!”  Jennie sounded pleasantly surprised, but to Alice, the whimsical flightiness was passing in shades between de rigueur and passé.  “What’s up?”
                “It’s our friend, Thomas Morgan.”
                “How is Tommy, these nights?”
                “Not so good,” Alice says.  “He’s had something precious stolen from him.  I need to find out what it’s for, and help him get it back.”
                “Hmm.  Have you tried… scrying?”
                “I did,” Alice says, nodding to herself.  “I scryed the scene with him, but there’s a veil over both the item and the thief.  I can’t see anything further.”
                “I see,” Jennie says, intrigue drawing out the words.  “Well,” she says brightly after a moment, “I think I know just how to help you!”
                “How’s that?”
                “A rose for a rose.  Twenty or thirty years old.  You send me yours, I’ll send you mine.  That should fix you up just fine.”
                “All right,” Alice says, “It’s a deal.”
                “OK, then!  Anything else?”
                “No, that was all.  How are things?”
                “Oh, you know,” Jennie says.  “Highs and lows, no status quos.”
                “I hear that.”
                “Hey, I gotta run,” Jennie says.  “The trolls are fighting.  I’ll catch you later!”
                “All right.  Thanks!”  The call ends.  Alice hangs up and steeples her fingers over her desk.

                An hour later, Alice is driving South along Interstate 15.  She’s not quite sure where she’s headed; she left the Luxor and just started driving.  Jennie’s errands were easy, but weird; Alice would have to go out of her way to find what she needed, but if she let her mind go and trusted her gut, these things had a way of working themselves out.
                After about two hundred miles, well into California, music and cigarettes have Alice deep in a driving trance.  Her reverie is broken when she spots a sign for the Valley of Enchantment.  She takes the exit and heads down highway 138.  On a whim, she makes a slight left onto Old Mill Road after almost another half hour, heading into the small town of Crestline.  She looks around lazily as she drives, taking in the sights, trying-without-trying to get lost.  She passes a church, then sees some stores stretch off to the right.  Looking at the businesses, she spots Two Wild Roses.
                Alice parks and heads into the cheery-looking antique and knick-knack shop.  She feels a little pulse, a tug at the threads of fate, and knows that she’s in exactly the right place.  Two young women, a blonde and a brunette, stand behind the counter amid the tables, racks, and shelves of interesting things.
                “Hi!  How are you,” the brunette says, her eyes brightening.
                “I’m all right,” Alice says, looking around.
                “Well, that’s better than rotten.”
                “I suppose it is,” Alice says, the corner of her mouth turning up.
                “What can we do for you today?”
                “I’m looking for something in particular.  It’s, umm, a little off-the-wall.”
                The shopkeepers share a knowing glance.  The blonde one looks back to Alice and says, “Why, that’s our specialty!  What do you need?”
                “I’m looking for a rose.  At least twenty years old.  It’s a gift for a friend.”
                The women look at each other again, eyes wide.  “I’ve got just the thing,” the brunette says.  “Here, I’ll show you.”  She steps around the counter and leads Alice to a white cabinet with various pieces of colorful glasswork sparkling in the windows.  On the third shelf down, a glass rose sits alone.  The long green stem is complete with thorns and leaves, the red petals shining against each other.  The shopkeeper opens the cabinet and carefully removes the glass flower.  “A friend of my mom’s made this when she went back to art school in 1986.  She made about half the stuff in this case, actually, but this is one of her best pieces.”
                “It’s perfect,” Alice says.  “I’ll take it.”
                She pays cash, and has it packed in a small box with bubble wrap.
                “Happy fourth of July,” the blonde says to Alice as she turns to go.
                “Oh, thanks.  You, too!”
                On the drive back home, she leaves a voicemail for Thomas Morgan, saying that she’s heard back from Fae Jennie and help should be on the way in the next few days.

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