The Perilous Gate by J.J. Eliyas

EXTRACT FOR
The Perilous Gate

(J.J. Eliyas)


Prologue

Snow, caught in a prism of light, cascaded through the pass, nearly taking him with it. The two thousand foot plunge would have been very unpleasant. He clung desperately to a rock outcropping, wondering why he had undertaken this venture in the first place.
Because it is the last one, the last Gate, he told himself. He swung around, his feet finally finding some purchase, and managed to get onto a relatively level ledge. He took a deep breath and expelled a cloud into the icy air. Air so frigid in fact that much of his breath froze onto his beard, made even grayer by the ice.
I am getting too old for this. But, it is the last one. He looked up through the crevasse, the sunlight almost blinding him. Pulling the hat low over his brow, he made his way up through the pass and, within minutes, was able to see what lay beyond. He knew it would be there: The Gate. But the sight of it still gave him pause.
The arch-like structure, made of a wholly alien metal, sat on bare granite, the snow and ice preternaturally giving it a wide berth. The air within the arch shimmered like a summer afternoon, distorting the glyphs and runes that covered its surface. It was by far the largest of the gates he had seen; a caravan four wagons abreast could easily pass through.
The purpose of this Gate was unknown to him. Why the mages would place it up here, on top of a mountain, was beyond him, though one scholar had suggested the Gates were created when the world was young, and the later continental upheavals would account for this one’s present positioning.
He sat on a boulder and caught his breath; the air was thin at this altitude. He flexed his shoulder and winced at the pain from the old wound. He was getting old. He smiled ironically and laid his sword across his lap. The large, well-balanced blade sat there, cold, silent.
How many years had he searched out the Gates? Fifteen? He’d lost several friends along the way. Yet, he knew they would be happy that his task was almost at an end. He took off the hat and smoothed back his hair, now almost completely gray. His face was lean and weathered, and his eyes were tired. He set the sword aside for the moment and pulled two thick packages from his pack. Each had a metal seal with a rune carved into it. Magic, no doubt.
The vista up here was quite spectacular. Beyond the Gate, the side of the mountain dropped away in a sheer granite cliff. Beyond that, more snow-covered peaks and valleys. The sun slowly began to descend in a wash of cold salmon clouds and lemon rays, illuminating the side of the mountain and making him revel in wonder. He wished he could stay, put off this last task. He wondered what his life would be like without this force driving him. Other people had their own purposes; he’d just have to find one that suited him. He would have to create a new path, he supposed.
He gathered up the sealed packages and trudged through the snow. As he neared the Gate he noticed the air warming, and he could detect the faint scent of lavender.
Lavender, now that brings back memories, he thought. There was a hint of melancholy, but it lasted only a moment. He placed a satchel at each base of the arch, being careful not to touch the metals or the runes upon it. He broke the seals on each and started to move away just as he heard the sound of steel scraping on stone.
“The last one, Lord Guardian?” came an old, familiar voice.
He spun at the sound and saw a man in furs and gilded breastplate holding the sword that he had foolishly left behind.
“The last…and the seals are broken, so there is no going back.”
“No,” said the interloper, not much older than him, but scarred and hardened.
“I thought you were dead.”
“Thought you killed me at the Great Wall?” He shook his head and grinned. “The luck of Oran was with me there.”
“How long has it been? Almost twenty years?”
“And I have finally caught up with you.”
“To stop me from destroying the last Gate? You’re a little late.”
“To kill you actually; finally.”
“You’re a sad person indeed if that has been your goal for the past two decades. A waste of time.” In the back of his head he realized the energy was building in the satchels he’d placed at the base of the arch. He needed to get into the pass before the Gate imploded. “If you want to kill me, can we do it somewhere else?”
“Here will be fine. Besides, are you so sure this is the last? It will be your final thought, that wondering. Now, are you ready to die?”
“You have my sword.”
“Ah, the sword of Extenn Rhinn.” He lifted the blade high above his head and with all his might brought it down onto the granite outcropping. In a shower of sparks, it sank into the stone, but not before the last third of the blade sheared off and landed at its owner’s feet.
He looked at what remained of his sword and picked up the shard of the blade with a gloved hand. It was still hot, and the quicksilver that shifted the balance in the blade ran out of the hollow core. It seemed as if it bled.
“You broke the sword,” he murmured as he turned the twisted steel in his hand.
“You are next.” Smoothly, confidently, in the manner of one totally accustomed to the arts of war, the interloper drew his own sword and began walking toward him with the broken hilt.
The smell of lavender grew stronger. Closing his eyes, thinking of all he had been through these past twenty years. The air began to vibrate from the satchels he had placed. A high-pitched keening filled the area and he wondered if he would be able to make it to safety.
When his assailant was twelve feet away, his eyes snapped open, his arm shot out, and the shard spun forward with incredible velocity. Before the interloper could react, the tip of the blade pierced the man’s throat and sunk deep, followed by a momentary pause, then he dropped where he stood; there was a look of shock on the dead man’s face.
“It was a waste of time.”
The vibrations grew, as did the whining noise, and his time was almost gone. Ignoring the body and the broken sword, he ran quickly toward the rock crevasse from where he had entered the plateau. He had almost reached it when he heard a crack; he would not make it.
It wasn’t an explosion, but rather the lack thereof. A folding inward, sending all that stood where the Gate had been into nothingness. Just as he had leapt toward the crevasse he had felt it, felt suspended in midair and in time. Then the sensation was gone and he was drawn backward to where the Gate had been. Backward and toward the cliff in a rush of air into the huge vacuum that had been created. He had escaped the implosion but not the aftereffects.
He tumbled toward the edge of the cliff, past the smooth granite where the Gate had been. There was no purchase for his hands as he encountered the ice beyond, then the edge, and over.
His hand caught momentarily on a small indentation in the stone. His legs dangled free. His bad left shoulder and arm hung numb from the initial impact.
Face pressed against the implacably cold stone, it seemed he hung there for an eternity, before his grip began to give. He opened his eyes to look upon the setting sun, then once more to the granite rimed with frost…
He smiled as his grip gave way. Lavender, sunset, and frost…


Chapter 1

Frost crawled across the window. The campus was wrapped in a blanket of snow and ice. John sighed and his breath momentarily fogged the window, hindering his view of the commons. It was certainly no night to be out. He caught his reflection in the glass, frowned and turned back to the cluttered office.
He sat in the chair and looked over his thesis, the final proof, stuffed it into a sealed envelope and put it in the box for his advisor. One journey was at an end.
John frowned. This is one place I won’t miss, he thought. He was startled from his reverie by a knock at the door.
“Can I talk to you?”
He groaned inwardly, it was Lara, one of the other graduate students in the department. Attractive, red curly hair, freckles on a slightly upturned nose, she was the epitome of classic Celtic beauty.
“You’ve been avoiding me,” she said in a soft voice: Irish accent. He didn’t know what to say, because it was true. “My thesis…”
“Was done a week ago. What? You think you can ignore me?”
“I’m sorry, I’ve been busy with…”
“Not too busy to sleep with me.”
He put his feet down from the desk and leaned forward.
“Look,” he said. “You are a nice person, I don’t want to hurt you…”
“But you don’t love me?”
“Would you stop cutting me off? I only have known you for one semester.”
“Oh, I see, fuck the new girl from Dublin and then dump her.”
“You know that isn’t true! I’m done here. Finished. You have four years to get your PhD., what would you expect of me?” He noticed his voice was rising but didn’t care at this point. “I don’t know where I’m gonna be in the next week, let alone the next four years.”
She slapped him hard across the face. “I expected more from you!” With that she spun and was down the hall. He stepped out after her, but then noticed the heads over the cubicles, like gophers popping out of their holes, and slammed his door shut. The glass cracked with the slam.
The shock of stepping from the warmth of the building made him feel even colder inside. It had been easy to forget how bitterly cold northwestern Ohio could get in late December. As his feet crunched through ice and snow, he began to wish he had invested in a down coat instead of the fashionable leather jacket. The walk to the recreation center across campus was a long one. It gave him plenty of time to think and plenty of time to get depressed. If his roommates hadn’t been waiting for him, he would have stopped at his favorite bar.
You’re a real jerk, aren’t you? He shook his head and picked up the pace, taking the steps to the rec center two at a time.
He saw Tom waiting for him, sitting with his usual aplomb against the far wall. Though not physically striking, he possessed what John would call a coiled energy, like that of a taut spring. Tom Smiling Wolf was half Sioux, with the facial angularity that was typical of Native Americans, set off by light sandy hair. He was dressed in wool and cotton of a coarse weave, seemingly innocuous enough for him to melt into the woodwork. Immersed in his medical textbook, his left eye scanned the pages in front of him, his right eye didn't. It was made of glass.
His friend stood as he passed through the turnstile. Tom moved with smooth, graceful motion.
“What’s up with you? You look like you swallowed something bad.”
“Nothing important.”
“Right.” Tom looked at his friend curiously, then: “Come on, you can blow off steam better on the floor.”
“I guess you’re right.” He ran his hand through thick dark hair and frowned. Where Tom was lean and lithe, John was tall, broad and thick, his mustache accented the tightness of his strong jaw. He stood two inches taller than Tom's six feet. When he brooded, people tended to get out of his way. He had a stare, a cold aloofness, which some people would say was arrogance; but his friends knew better, knew not to confuse introspection for elitism.
“Unless of course you want to skip class?”
“No.”
They moved to the stairwell and down a flight to the locker room. Bill was there, pulling on his Speedos. John nodded to his other roommate. They made a habit of working out the same night, as it inevitably turned into a social outing for them afterwards. Bill had a swimmer’s build and would often be found doing laps when he wasn't doing research for his doctorate.
John keyed his locker and yanked open the metal door. He stopped when his gaze passed over a photograph of Lara and him taped to the back. He stripped it off, crumpled it and tossed it into the trash bin.
“That bad?” asked Bill.
“That bad,” he replied. He looked at the other photographs on the locker door, finally stopping on the one that made him smile.
It usually made him chuckle when he saw that one. The whole gang had all been dressed up for the annual medieval festival as the Legion of the Black Skull. Only one of their group stood less than six feet tall, and all were armed to the teeth.
Tom had dressed as an explorer, with loincloth, leather buckskins, and Bowie knife. John was dressed as a Crusader and wore a white silk under-tunic, a black surcoat with a scarlet cross, and a long sword strapped to his side. Joe, who could pass for John's brother despite the beard, wore a black and purple tunic, on the center of which was embroidered a demon's skull; hence the group’s name. Bill was dressed in bright colors and wore a foppish hat. The inimitable Chill hung back from the group, looking at the camera blankly. Then there was Mike. Mike was easily the tallest in the group: six-four and two-forty, he stood in the background wearing a brown broadcloth tunic and dark breeches. He carried a mace in one hand and a brandy snifter in the other. What set him apart from the others was his Manchurian style mustache, mirrored sunglasses and, of course, the ubiquitous cigarette tilted out of the corner of his mouth.
John smiled faintly and pulled the wooden bokken from the back of the locker. He tightened the belt of his hakama and nodded to Tom. Every Monday and Wednesday John and Tom rigorously studied Aikido while Bill did laps. It was a ritual. Ritual was good. He needed the ritual right now.
Joe narrowed his eyes and considered the saber. “Austrian, nineteenth century.” His partner could almost hear the Germanic accent in his voice, but it was just his imagination.
“Yeah, nice. We have to pay the rent and you buy a saber.”
Bad day, Joe thought. He was thirsty. He always got thirsty when he bought something this expensive. Weird.
“Don’t worry I get paid next week from the museum, for the restorations I did, and I’ll sign it over to you. It’ll take care of it.”
“How do you do it?”
Joe laughed and set the blade back in the case. “Conservator by day, fencing school owner by night? Lessee…no social life to speak of.
“Sometimes I find my thoughts wandering to the what-ifs, and that bothers me, but when I'm charging down a piste at another guy, man am I focused. Like that last match, a simple quarte that trips up the other guy. A counter-six! And the buzzer goes off as my saber hits his vest. You know what? That’s what it’s all about!
“It’s not just men in white suits moving up and down a corridor and hitting their metal sticks together. Not just points and electric scoring. It is a metaphor for life.” He looked down at the exquisite blade. “When you’re behind the mask, there is relevance to the game.”
“You're getting weird.”
“Am I? What's wrong with that? Look at you. You don't have a career. You've been living off of daddy's income for three years now. Where has it gotten you?”
“I–” Joe cut him off. “It’s not a bad thing, Chill, just who you are.”
“Right,” his friend just laughed. “You really have a way with insulting people and getting away with it.”
“It’s a gift I have.” He locked the saber in a glass cabinet and turned back to his friend. “Okay, we have eighth graders tonight. They are going to be foil fencing, so that’s you. Beginning fencing.”
“Eighth graders?”
Joe grinned maliciously. “Yeah, and they have never handled a foil before.”
Tom and John went down a long flight of stairs, past the racquetball courts to a pair of double doors. This was the combative arts room. Inside there could be heard the grunts and shouts of people learning various martial arts skills of varying discipline. Currently there were two classes practicing. A short, chubby fellow, wearing a white gi with a black belt led one class.
The two friends set their bokkens on the floor and bowed to the mat, and then to Tony Lee, their sensei.
“I thought the other class was moved to another night, Tony?” Tom queried as he nodded to the other class on the floor.
“That's next week. I had to persuade James to give us half the floor.” John knew it would take more than persuasion to make a person of James’s arrogance give up something.
“Line up and pair off, gentlemen,” Tony called.
“Hai!” the two replied along with the other ten in the class.
Tom and John paired off. It was their habit to try to improve each other’s skills, even though it was understood that Tom was the better of the two. Aikido was a relatively soft art, consisting of locks, throws, and balance. There was a lot of harmony and circular movement involved. When the sword was introduced it often mimicked the motions of the hands and body; it formed an extension. John had studied iaijutsu and kenjutsu before, and so he was a fair hand at the sword techniques. Tom, however, had studied martial arts since an early age, and had gone to Japan to study at a Taijutsu Ryu. It put him a few rungs higher up the ladder than his friend. They were probably the best martial artists in the class save their instructor.
Tonight, however, John was letting his aggression and feelings surface; he was acting recklessly. One of the students pointed this out to Tony.
“He's in one of his moods, sensei.”
Tony nodded and shook his head. It would not do any good to point this out to John, at least not until the hurricane had spent its wind. One of John’s problems was his lack of focus, but when he centered himself he was truly a force of nature on the floor.
Right now he was getting sloppy. He was going nowhere as Tom managed to keep his moves tight and focused. John growled low in throat and stepped to the side, slicing low. His temper was getting the best of him and Tom just slid by and nicked him in the shin. He spun back and brought his bokken around in what was more a swing to center field than a strike with a sword.
Suddenly there was a loud crack. The tip of his bokken had collided obtusely with Tom's and had broken off. It spun across the floor and into the midst of James' students. One young student stepped onto the piece and twisted her ankle, whining as she fell.
John stared at the broken bokken. Thirty bucks, he thought.
“Lee!” James called to the Aikido instructor. Tony looked up and almost smiled. John watched as James threw his long braid over his shoulder, picked up the wood shard, straightened his gi and moved across the floor towards them. He sneered arrogantly.
“I shouldn't have to put up with this crap, Lee. I have students to teach. All you idiots ever do is get in my way.”
The blood drained from Tony's face and he looked hard at the dark skinned man. John's face turned crimson with anger and he took a step forward.
“You arrogant piece of shi-”
“John,” Tom said in one of those soothing tones that really irritated him. James gazed contemptuously at John. “When you learn some real skills maybe you won't make a bad parry.”
John blinked his eyes slowly as he looked at the man. John was taller and heavier, but James was no doubt faster. He took a deep breath and smiled.
“I probably do need a few more lessons. “
James' eyes widened imperceptibly. John just turned his back on the man and walked away. James stared after him a moment then went back to his own students.
After an hour and a half of throws, twists, locks and more throws, John and Tom hit the showers. Tom looked at his friend out of the corner of his eye as John scrubbed down.
“What?” John said as he washed under the St. Christopher medal that hung around his neck.
“Something else is eating you. I think I’m sorer tonight than any other time we’ve sparred. And the argument with James, I thought I would have had to drag you off of him.”
“I should have decked him.”
“Maybe, but through all that bravado he does have a lot of skill. I've seen him fight. He's good.”
“Could you take him?”
“Yes.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“I know, but with anger you tend to be reckless.”
“Yeah, well, I've a lot to be pissed off about.”
Bill came traipsing in just as they were toweling off. He had a puppy-dog smile on his face as he opened his locker.
“What's got you in such a good mood?” Tom Smiling Wolf asked. He watched as Bill flipped open a little black address book to quickly write something in it.
“Oh, I just met a girl,” he said, his voice swelling with song. “You’re a slut.”
“Huh?” Bill asked, looking from one friend to the other. He had been so preoccupied with writing her number that he had missed the derogatory comment.
“Come on, what?”
“A good swimmer, Bill, you're a good swimmer.” Tom smirked and began to dress.
“Okay, what's going on?”
“Kyle's,” John said, feeling the rumble in his stomach. He quickly looked in the mirror, smoothed his dark hair back and checked out his mustache. He then looked to the other two for their opinion.
“Volcano pizza?” Tom asked with a frown.
“Oh yeah, and dark beer to wash the garlic bread down.”
“Sounds good,” Bill echoed and soon they were pulling on their coats.
Kyle's was a small pub that sat just off campus. It was a frequent hangout for grad students and non-traditional students who didn't want to be bothered with loud music, heavy drinking and lame pick-up lines. Dark woods and good cooking gave the pub a homey atmosphere; not to mention it had an extensive import list. The three roommates sat in a corner booth, listening to Creed on the box. Bill's gaze followed an attractive waitress as she took an order at another table.
“Sounds like you guys had a good workout.” Bill took a sip of his black ‘n’ tan and realized it was almost gone.
“James is a class ‘A’ asshole,” John remarked. Tom hushed him suddenly as the door swung open, letting in a blast of snow and, speak of the devil, James. The man walked in with one of his female students. At the table he took off his long leather coat, but he left his fingerless leather gloves on. He ignored the waitress as he spoke to the student in tones too low to hear.
John grunted and took a drink of his Amber Bock. He played with a piece of pizza crust then tossed it onto the plate. “Like I said, an asshole.”
Tom smiled and looked intensely at his friend. “Okay, John. What's going on? Something else is bothering you.”
John sighed heavily and fingered the pealing label of his beer. “I think it’s the same question that man has been dealing with from the beginning of time, who am I, and where am I going? What happens now? Do I take that government job I was offered? Joe said he needed a partner in the fencing school, do I do that? I have my ranking in kenjutsu, so I can teach. Should I still go to Japan next month? I need to get my head screwed on straight.” He laughed and flipped the steak knife.
“I think we’ve all asked ourselves that.” It was all Bill could say.
“Yeah, but you have two years until your doctorate, then it’s academia. Tom has four years of med school. Me, I have this big void.”
John shook his head and finished the beer in the bottle. “I think that's where my aggression was coming from today. The last thing I needed was that bastard James getting in my face.”
Just as he said that Bill choked. James had gotten up, mineral water in hand, and walked over to their booth.
“Well, if it isn't Larry, Curly and Moe,” the man snidely remarked. “I couldn't help but stop by. Knowing that two well-versed students of the martial arts sitting two tables away piqued my interest. Did you learn by correspondence course?” He smiled. “Oh, and I see you take your training seriously,” he gestured to the beer.
“Much more seriously than I take you,” the graduate student replied. Bill pursed his lips and Tom just stared straight ahead.
“You know, John, and I do mean this, your lack of skill on the martial-arts floor is truly comical. I have never seen anyone so inept at Aikido. At least your friend here has some redeemable skills. Alas, I fear that you were born with none.”
“You have the right to your opinion.” John slapped some money on the table.
He then got up and looked at his friends. “Ready?”
They slid out of the booth. “It did get rather stuffy in here,” Tom replied. “Oh, did it?” James followed the three out of the back door and into the snow-covered parking lot. “John,” he said mockingly. “Going to run away.” John stopped and smiled, then shook his head and kept walking.
Joe stood in his apartment, looking at the wooden frame that held a seventeenth century Dutch oil he was cleaning for an art dealer on contract. Normally he would be expected to do this kind of work in a museum lab, but the dealer had no such luxuries and permitted him to take the piece to his own studio. He just wasn’t able to get that grime off the one corner. It looked like a soot smudge but it wasn’t responding like one. He dabbed at it with a Q-tip. Odd, he thought. It’s layered. He looked outside and watched lazy snowflakes drift down from the dark sky, wondering if this coming weekend would be his last medieval Event. He felt like he was getting too old for the events, that they were starting to attract a different breed of geek. And forget the escapism, he had to start concentrating on the fencing school.
He put on a pair of latex gloves and opened a small jar, dabbed at the clear fluid inside, and spread it on the canvas where the mark was. Nothing. He flipped the frame around and looked at the back. He saw no evidence of a burn. There was just a small Cyrillic letter; probably some old inventory mark.
He held it up to a bare bulb. Ever so faintly he could make out more writing. “Odd,” he took a quick digital photo of the corner and went to his PC. In a moment he had enhanced the writing. He then brought up the site of the museum he also worked for and logged in. Checking one of the Eastern European libraries, he tried to match the symbols on the back of the canvas to the available database. He called up the file and cross-referenced it in a language program. Estimated time: 2 hours 17 minutes.
He sat back, pulled the latex gloves off and tossed them in the can. It seemed only moments went by when he was startled awake by his PC beeping impatiently. He noticed by the clock that he had been asleep for 4 hours. It was 3:30 a.m.; he had to get up at six.
He looked at what the language generator had found. Strange.

Language: Slavic, old style, derivative…
[begin]By Oran’s[proper name] fire, bound in hate and blood, I call upon thee. Open the Perilous Gate [end match]

He repeated it aloud. Suddenly the edge of the painting fluoresced and caught fire where he had applied the chemical. The letters burned, flaming the painting on his table. He acted quickly, smacking down a towel on the piece, but smoky soot, peeled paint, and burned wood were all that remained of upper corner of the seventeenth century Dutch oil painting.
He was in deep shit.
Then the smoke alarm went off.
The fat, gray-haired man finally had his tent erected within the huge auditorium. It wasn't exactly the Pennsic Wars, but the Annual Battle for the Winter Crown was an event that no Medieval Society enthusiast would miss. These were the dreamers, the misfits, the history buffs, adventurers and, most of all, those who just wanted a break from everyday society.
The shelves were finally set and the workmen left to go and ready other tents by the tilting field. He looked over the texts that he’d brought out of the crate. Most were ordinary junk; the Necronomicon, a couple of Wiccan books, Hebraic text, the Gnostic Gospels, Abram's Lore and such. One crate he had acquired at an auction in London and was said to be part of the Crowley estate. That was a joke, he thought. For the price, they were probably leftovers from a druid convention. The crate was old and musty, one book in particular he’d valued at two hundred dollars. But then there was another, just a blank Book of Shadows that he would sell for twenty. He pondered on what little knowledge people possessed of history. Few knew of the great Sumerian and Assyrian scholars who wrote (and were transcribed by the English) centuries ago: famous architects, scientists, magicians and sorcerers. The crowds that came to these events ate up that stuff. He knew that he would make a killing.
Bill laughed as he drank from a glass of red wine. John sneezed and blew his nose in a tissue, hoping he wouldn't catch a cold. He chewed a vitamin C tablet while he sipped on some vodka.
John looked around the apartment, his vision blurring from fatigue and this, his third shot of the liquor. The apartment was small and not decorated in any particular fashion. A few paintings hung on the wall. The furniture was typical, blocky and crate-like. John looked into his glass of clear liquid and the lone olive floating within and thought some very melancholy thoughts. He grabbed the remote for the stereo. The CD player clicked on and soon Pink Floyd whispered from the other side of the room.
“James is a real jerk,” Bill slurred.
“Watch your back, John,” Tom said. “He’s the kind of guy who would jump you in a dark alley.”
John got up and walked to the bay window to look at his Japanese Samurai sword resting on its rack. The Sword as it had become to be known. Outside the wind whipped snow around the eaves “Yeah, but maybe by the time we get back in two weeks, he'll have forgotten the whole thing,” Bill interjected. John pulled off his sweater and draped it over the chair, then hefted his broken bokken, spinning it in an intricate arc. He almost knocked over the CD stand.
“Believe it or not I'm really looking forward to the Event this weekend.” Bill continued as he settled into a deep chair. John remained quiet.
“So, everybody is getting back together again; the Legion of the Black Skull returns in all of its decadent glory?” Tom asked. Kiera, his pet ferret, was now crawling up one arm and tumbling down the other. This was his second Medieval Society Event and he was looking forward to it, too.
“I called for reservations. We have one room.” Bill fiddled with his guitar, tuning it. “We're lucky to get that. There are several conventions going on that weekend.”
“So we’re all crowded in one room?” Tom asked. “Of course.”
John laughed. “Where's your sense of adventure!”
People bustled about the convention center in what seemed like organized chaos. The fat man with the manuscript booth watched as the remaining tents were finally erected and a group of jugglers practiced their agility with brightly colored balls. By Friday, everything would be in place and the participants would flood in. He turned back to his tent and lit a brass oil lamp. A vision of chiaroscuro leapt into existence: the shadows hiding the unknown, the light hinting at the hidden. Leather bound tomes, dusty with age, and brittle scrolls that could be authentic, lay about the tent on oak tables. The lamp hanging over the tables swung slightly. It was ornately fashioned in the shape of a swooping dragon; he had acquired that piece in Hong Kong.
The man opened the Book of Shadows and hesitated. It was nothing more than a blank book after all, but as he flipped through the pages, he thought he saw something. Something in black. Circular?
Getting old, Zach, he thought to himself as he flipped through once more and found nothing.
Suddenly the lamp blew out. “Damn!”
The drive to his parents’ house on the lake was short, but monotonous. The farms were flat and bleak, the snow bright, but the roads were well salted and dry. John downshifted to dart past the car ahead of him, then settled back into the road ahead, his small sports car tightly hugging the curves.
His thoughts wandered as he drove. He and his friends had agreed to meet at Mike’s on Friday morning for the drive to Detroit. That would give each of them a few days with their families. No such luck for him, though. His parents, in their retirement, had become snowbirds.
He took a meandering drive through the town, stopping to gaze out over the Bay and watch a coal freighter angle expertly in toward the docks. Finally, his reminiscing done, he turned and headed toward his parents’ house.
For him, there was always something special about coming home. He pulled into the driveway of the small ranch style dwelling and parked the car. Figuring he’d get his bag later, he grabbed his sword and headed around to the back porch, through the immaculately kept garden. Even in the midst of winter, he could make out the familiar pattern of the shrubbery, the ornamental maple, and the accompanying stonework. He smiled faintly and unlocked the door, letting himself into the home of his youth.
The silence greeted him.
He put his Japanese sword on the kitchen island. It was long for a Katana, the blade itself must have been thirty inches in length, unblemished and with a graceful curve. The fittings, the hilt and scabbard were both in good repair. The scabbard, or saya was lacquered sharkskin, sanded and polished to a deep indigo. The guard, or tsuba, was forged and carried the design of two koi amid water lilies. The magnificent blade featured a complex forging pattern and an artistic hamon, the tempered cutting edge.
The Shinto period Jindachi was signed with two Japanese characters: Mountain Pine. On the opposite side of the tang read the cutting test: Ogawa Kuroemon tested it on two bodies, 1684, 2nd month on an auspicious day.
Stationed in Japan after the war, John’s father had discovered a group of officers systematically looting shrines in and around Tokyo. He had been instrumental in stopping the criminal acts and, as a reward, one of the shrines had given him the sword as a gesture of thanks. His father had given the sword to him on his twenty-first birthday.
John’s passion had always been for swords. He had managed to gather a small collection of mediocre blades, but none compared to this sword. The Japanese had raised sword-making to an art. Katana, Tachi, Wakizashi, and other blade types had evolved over the last two thousand years: forging techniques had been perfected to create a blade that was resilient, surgically sharp, and wore well over time. In Western society, Damascus steel was considered the pinnacle of blade-making.
The sword had almost become a part of him; he carried practically everywhere.
Funny how certain events elicit vivid dreams. Later that night, he dreamt of the sword. Clear dreams that transcended reality. The sword was being tested. He and a Samurai stood watching the tester, a man of lower standing, who stood with the sword poised as two convicts were lined up, blindfolded and tied against a bamboo pole. Calmly the man took a step forward, the sword flashed in a lateral cut, and easily passed through the midsections of the convicts. The Samurai nodded approvingly as other criminals cleared the bodies and the tester gave the blade to his assistant who wiped it clean, examined the edge for chips or cracks, and placed it carefully in its shirasaya, or resting scabbard. It went to the swordsmith who in turn chiseled the results on the tang. The sword was then presented to the Samurai who held it out to John.
He snapped awake, but the memory of that dream stayed with him. Unlike other dreams, often fraught with fancy and inconsistency, this one had a clarity that was surprising. He shivered, not from the cold but rather from a sense of uneasiness that would persist well into the evening.

Friday found Bill practically falling down the steps of Mike’s front porch. Trying to pull on his jacket, heft his Estoc, a form of epee, and walk was evidently too much for him in the early morning hours, but he finally made it and threw his gear in the SUV. John leaned against the SUV with one bag and the Sword, as everyone called it. Chill lounged on the tailgate, staring over the rim of his glasses.
Chill was about five ten, and barrel-like. Slow and methodical in all things, he nodded to his friends as he wiped his hands on his pants.
“Ready?” he asked in a gravelly voice.
“Yep, but we’re missing a few,” Bill answered. Tom leaned his head out the driver’s side door and in an effort to see who was there and who was not. Joe seemed to be running late and Mike was still inside his parents’ house.
“Are we going to be jousting at this one?” Bill asked of John. If so there was a discrepancy in the gear they needed, especially padding.
“No, we're still disqualified from the fighting.”
Chill smiled and said, “It seems when we broke with the ranks of the Midwest Kingdoms and began to fight for the Northern Kingdoms it was some sort of treaty infringement.”
Bill shook his head. “The King of the Midwest was an ass. He wanted us to make a suicide run for the bridge. When we turned–”
“We surprised the hell outa them,” Mike announced as he walked down the driveway. He carried a bag on his shoulder, the contents of which were questionable at best. His sandy brown hair was tousled and he wore his customary shades. The ever-present cigarette dangled from the corner of his mouth.
Mike was definitely on the fringes of the norm for most people, and even for college students, for that matter. He a was recent dropout from the physics department, having left just one step ahead of expulsion for turning his major into a tool for the pursuit of the occult. He had a fascination with the uncertainty principle, and believed that it resulted from an energy field indicating a fifth dimension; hence the existence of what the uninformed call 'magic'. The only thing was, he didn't know how it could be tapped, and the dean of the school of science didn't fancy him turning the department into an alembic. So, rather than face expulsion, he had withdrawn from the University and now managed a coffee shop downtown.
“Yeah,” John remembered their mock ambush. “We turned and they thought we were retreating, so they rounded on us. Then we cut them down from behind.” Chill frowned, but the throaty rumble of Joe’s Mustang silenced his snide retort. Joe got out and stretched wearily. The artist appeared to be tired and in a very dark mood.
“Let's get this show on the road,” called Chill.
“I can hardly wait,” replied an enthusiastic John. “Shut up, John,” sighed Chill.
Joe opened the curtains of their fourth-floor room and gazed at the Detroit skyline. The sun had just set and the twinkle of nightlife was radiating all around the city. He turned and looked over the room. It was cramped, with two full beds, but what would you expect. They would have to play it by ear, as they had only paid for two occupants.
Joe sat down on the divan and pulled out a yellow carbon slip from his shirt pocket, scratching at his beard as he perused it. It was dated six months ago, the last Society Event. He had placed an order with a blacksmith for a hand-and-a-half, or bastard sword. Now that he would probably lose his job with the dealer, he wondered if he could get his deposit back. Probably not, he thought. It might look nice at future fairs, a piece of contemporary folk art?
“Ah, the long anticipated bastard sword. You'll pick it up tomorrow?” John asked as he handed his friend a beer.
“Yep, I am blowing money right and left lately, but it’s truly a sword worthy of a Landesknecht. I had it made to historically accurate specifications.”
“He had some pretty good prices on short swords.”
“Probably for cheap-asses like you,” chided Chill. “I’m not cheap,” John retorted.
“You are a mooch,” began Chill.
“Yeah, John, you are known for your ability to weasel out of paying for things.” Mike tipped his beer back, smiling.
“I thought I was frugal.”
“Ooh, kinky,” Mike quipped.
“Can it, Mike, we know your sexual habits only include stray cats and raw liver,” Bill tossed back.
“We should get another Game going one of these days,” Chill said, directing the statement to Mike, who was still glaring at Bill. Joe, frustrated at the direction the verbal jousting was heading slipped out onto the balcony.
“When do we have time to get together?”
“Who knows?” It was last thing John heard as he followed his friend onto the snow-covered balcony, four stories up. He shivered and wrapped his arms about himself.
“Jeez, it’s freezing out here. You pick a helluva spot to collect your thoughts. What's up?”
Joe looked at him, then away, toward Windsor on the other side of the river. He sighed and tossed back his beer. “I accidentally set a twenty thousand dollar Dutch painting on fire.”
“Ouch. What happened?”
“Don’t know. I had a very mild thinner on the edge, I found some strange writing in Cyrillic on the back. Took a digital photo and a few minutes later, whoosh, up in flames. I don’t know if the chemical in the thinner reacted to the light. I called the manufacturer and they never heard of such a thing.”
“What about insurance?”
“Oh it’s covered. But, it just isn’t the just the money, I’ll pay the gallery owner. Though my insurance will go sky high. It was a seventeenth century Dutch Master; do you know how hard it is to come by those outside a museum? I’ll never get a conservatory job again. Word travels. I’m screwed.”
“If it’s any consolation, I know how you feel.”
“Yeah. Tom said something was up with you?”
John laughed. “Yeah, ain't we a pair. You kill a Dutch Master and I have no idea what to do with my life.”
“I don't know, bud. I wonder if I’ll lose the school. I need the job at the Smithsonian and the gallery to help keep it and me afloat, but my offer is still out there for joining me at the school.” His gaze wandered down over the street, gray eyes peering through the gloom.
“There's a difference between owning one’s problems and playing victim. I can't imagine you shirking that. Go in and tell them what happened, tell them it was an accident. They can’t fire you because of that can they?”
“Wanna bet? They aren’t very forgiving. Maybe it’s time to throw myself into the school.” He shook his head. He let the silence build between them for a moment, until the chill air finally began to take its toll. Finally he sighed and turned to reenter the hotel room.
“Don't beat yourself up about this, Joe. God knows we all come to a point where we question our worth. You are more accomplished than a lot of people I've met in the past two years. Keep that in mind. There’s no way you will end up on the street; you have friends and family. Go to your boss, tell the truth and screw them if they don’t like it. You are one of the best restorers they have. Just keep that in mind, there are plenty of museums in foreign countries that have never heard of you.” He smiled sheepishly.
Joe looked over his shoulder to his friend. “Thanks for the pep talk. What about you?”
“Well, I get to spend a month in Japan, then come back for graduation.
There isn’t much work for a Sociologist with just a master’s degree. I've come to the realization that if I am going to do anything meaningful with my life I better start soon.”
“Careful what you wish for,” Joe warned as he slipped back into the room. “You may get it.”
The sharply dressed pharmaceutical rep adjusted her glasses and hefted her briefcase as the elevator stopped on her floor. She frowned with impatience. It had been a long day spent in meetings and all she wanted to do was get a bite to eat in the restaurant before she went to her room to soak in a tub of hot water. As the elevator doors slid open, she gasped at the six figures standing there. Cautiously entering, she tried not to gawk as her eyes darted from one bizarre vision to the next. Twilight Zone, she thought.
The biggest stood in the rear, in some kind of brown tunic, leather boots and cape, with a Samurai sword of some kind. A wolfish grin lifted his Manchu-style mustache, and he adjusted his mirrored sunglasses. Was he staring at her? Two others: one in a black quilted outfit with a cape and black boots, stood holding a black-sheathed Japanese sword as he talked to another, a bearded man with a purple tunic that had a beautifully-embroidered demon skull on it. His faux ermine cloak was slung back, and he had no weapon she could see. A tall, very handsome fellow with long blonde hair was dressed in bright pastels. He spoke with a sandy haired man dressed in a hooded tunic, buckskins and loose fitting pants. He had on what looked like authentic Native American moccasins and he carried a bow over his back. She shivered in revulsion upon seeing the buffalo leather cloak.
A shorter man, with shoulder-length black hair, leaned his stocky frame against the wall and smoothed his olive-drab tunic; a broadsword hung at his side. He gestured at the blonde haired guy’s intricately hilted sword and scabbard and smiled slowly. The tall one laughed.
The elevator door slid open and the businesswoman stepped into the hallway. The lift continued on its journey and she went to her room, shaking her head all the way.
Freaks, she thought.
The thought of writing a check made his teeth hurt, but as the smith set the bastard sword on the table between them, Joe just smiled in appreciation. The black metal blade was about forty-two inches long and its edge gleamed with sharpness, the carved runes gently glowing in the overhead fluorescent lights. Joe hefted it – the balance was perfect and the pommel was made for either one or two hands. It seemed a pity to hide such a beautiful creation inside a scabbard, but Joe had worked long and hard to create something that would accent the smith’s work. The tooled leather was studded with stones and gilt wire; a fitting home for an artist’s weapon. It accented the new blade nicely. He wondered if he were meant to carry a blade more akin to this than a fencing saber. He produced his checkbook, and wrote a check for the amount remaining.
“I could sure use a beer,” John stated resting his hand on the hilt of his Japanese Katana.
“Hmmm?” replied the artist. “Yeah, I’m thirsty all of a sudden.
The six members that were the 'Legion of the Black Skull' sat in one of the gaily-bannered pavilions, waiting for their serving wench to bring beer and roast pig with yams. Just outside the roped-off eating area, jugglers tossed clubs, tumblers leapt about, and strolling minstrels regaled revelers with their songs. The companions ate and watched the open field in the center of the convention hall where the melee took place. A group of men in thickly padded armor with mock weapons went after each other. The group surged and ebbed as the referees called out to those that were either dead or seriously injured. Soon the field was held by a remaining small group of brightly dressed knights with the ensign of a white cross on red field.
“Those dudes are the ones that got the prize when we had to forfeit at the last joust,” Chill murmured.
“I've met them,” remarked Bill. “They think they're God's gift to the Medieval Society.”
“Hmmph,” was all that issued from Mike. His mouth was stuffed full of meat, which was probably just as well. He had nothing good to say about their rivals, either.
“They really aren't that good,” observed Smiling Wolf. He smoothed down Kiera's coat and offered her some dried fruit to nibble on. She looked at him as though he were crazy and tried to nip at his finger. He just ignored her.
They all watched as the band of winners approached the King’s chair and received their trophy. Joe stood up, thoroughly disgusted and turned his back on the awarding of the trophy. He picked up his cloak, adjusted his new sword and strode off. Soon the rest were done with their meals, and John, Mike and Bill wandered off to look at the booths and tents. Set off to one side, a manuscript dealer caught Mike’s eye. Seemingly isolated from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the fair, the tent exuded a tranquility he found intriguing. The three walked over, curious as to what type of manuscripts and print-work the tent might contain.
As their eyes adjusted to the dimly lit tent, Zach, the proprietor, greeted them. His hands fluttered ceaselessly about the designs on his purple robe. John stood by the door, not exactly caring for ancient grimoires and such, while Bill and Mike browsed through the materials.
Mike approached one of the tables and picked up a huge, handwritten, leather-bound book that must have been centuries old. He opened and looked at the first page; it was written in Latin. He smiled, recognizing the text. It was something for the summoning and banishing of spirits to another plane of existence. When he saw the price he set it down.
“It is too much, milord?” the man asked in Society jargon.
“Well worth the price, I’m sure, my good merchant, but two hundred dollars is beyond my purse, I am afraid,” Mike replied. Bill raised his eyebrow and realized why the tent was empty.
“But is the knowledge not worth it?” came the obsequious reply
“Can one truly put a price on knowledge?” Mike queried back.
The man smiled and stepped back, allowing the students to browse. Mike's eye was caught by a flutter of light from the lamp that played over the surface of a dingy black book. He picked it up, feeling the worn leather cover, noted the ragged edges of the paper. As he flipped through it, he thought he caught something on one of the pages, but when he flipped again there was nothing. Mike replaced the book and shook his hands; it felt like they had started to fall asleep.
“You know what that is?” Zach asked. The lamps flickered as if with a sudden breeze. Mike looked up and replied uneasily.
“It's a book for the recording of spells and magical notation.”
“Yes, and the dealer I bought it from said it belonged to the Crowley estate.” Mike raised his eyebrows. Aleister Crowley reputedly knew a great deal regarding magic and sorcery, and was also reputed to have been a most evil man. If it truly were from the Crowley Estate it would be worth a pretty penny, even if it hadn’t been written in.
“Do you have a provenance?”
“Unfortunately no, gentle lord.”
“How much?”
“Milord, my prices are very reasonable, fifty dollars.”
“Fifty dollars for a blank book?” John said dubiously from behind Mike. “Twenty-five,” Mike countered.
“Give me leave to make a little profit, young sire. Thirty-five.”
“Thirty, and that's my final offer.”
“As you will, but many more such deals will beggar me.” The bookseller got some brown paper from below a table and quickly wrapped the book.
Bill shook his head. “You sure know how to waste your money, Mike.” From the look on John's face, he echoed Bill’s amazement.
“No, if the book really was Crowley’s, I made an investment. If it isn’t, I can still use the pages to chronicle the Black Skull’s adventures. Not a bad deal either way.”

The Perilous Gate by J.J. Eliyas

EXTRACT FOR
The Perilous Gate

(J.J. Eliyas)


Prologue

Snow, caught in a prism of light, cascaded through the pass, nearly taking him with it. The two thousand foot plunge would have been very unpleasant. He clung desperately to a rock outcropping, wondering why he had undertaken this venture in the first place.
Because it is the last one, the last Gate, he told himself. He swung around, his feet finally finding some purchase, and managed to get onto a relatively level ledge. He took a deep breath and expelled a cloud into the icy air. Air so frigid in fact that much of his breath froze onto his beard, made even grayer by the ice.
I am getting too old for this. But, it is the last one. He looked up through the crevasse, the sunlight almost blinding him. Pulling the hat low over his brow, he made his way up through the pass and, within minutes, was able to see what lay beyond. He knew it would be there: The Gate. But the sight of it still gave him pause.
The arch-like structure, made of a wholly alien metal, sat on bare granite, the snow and ice preternaturally giving it a wide berth. The air within the arch shimmered like a summer afternoon, distorting the glyphs and runes that covered its surface. It was by far the largest of the gates he had seen; a caravan four wagons abreast could easily pass through.
The purpose of this Gate was unknown to him. Why the mages would place it up here, on top of a mountain, was beyond him, though one scholar had suggested the Gates were created when the world was young, and the later continental upheavals would account for this one’s present positioning.
He sat on a boulder and caught his breath; the air was thin at this altitude. He flexed his shoulder and winced at the pain from the old wound. He was getting old. He smiled ironically and laid his sword across his lap. The large, well-balanced blade sat there, cold, silent.
How many years had he searched out the Gates? Fifteen? He’d lost several friends along the way. Yet, he knew they would be happy that his task was almost at an end. He took off the hat and smoothed back his hair, now almost completely gray. His face was lean and weathered, and his eyes were tired. He set the sword aside for the moment and pulled two thick packages from his pack. Each had a metal seal with a rune carved into it. Magic, no doubt.
The vista up here was quite spectacular. Beyond the Gate, the side of the mountain dropped away in a sheer granite cliff. Beyond that, more snow-covered peaks and valleys. The sun slowly began to descend in a wash of cold salmon clouds and lemon rays, illuminating the side of the mountain and making him revel in wonder. He wished he could stay, put off this last task. He wondered what his life would be like without this force driving him. Other people had their own purposes; he’d just have to find one that suited him. He would have to create a new path, he supposed.
He gathered up the sealed packages and trudged through the snow. As he neared the Gate he noticed the air warming, and he could detect the faint scent of lavender.
Lavender, now that brings back memories, he thought. There was a hint of melancholy, but it lasted only a moment. He placed a satchel at each base of the arch, being careful not to touch the metals or the runes upon it. He broke the seals on each and started to move away just as he heard the sound of steel scraping on stone.
“The last one, Lord Guardian?” came an old, familiar voice.
He spun at the sound and saw a man in furs and gilded breastplate holding the sword that he had foolishly left behind.
“The last…and the seals are broken, so there is no going back.”
“No,” said the interloper, not much older than him, but scarred and hardened.
“I thought you were dead.”
“Thought you killed me at the Great Wall?” He shook his head and grinned. “The luck of Oran was with me there.”
“How long has it been? Almost twenty years?”
“And I have finally caught up with you.”
“To stop me from destroying the last Gate? You’re a little late.”
“To kill you actually; finally.”
“You’re a sad person indeed if that has been your goal for the past two decades. A waste of time.” In the back of his head he realized the energy was building in the satchels he’d placed at the base of the arch. He needed to get into the pass before the Gate imploded. “If you want to kill me, can we do it somewhere else?”
“Here will be fine. Besides, are you so sure this is the last? It will be your final thought, that wondering. Now, are you ready to die?”
“You have my sword.”
“Ah, the sword of Extenn Rhinn.” He lifted the blade high above his head and with all his might brought it down onto the granite outcropping. In a shower of sparks, it sank into the stone, but not before the last third of the blade sheared off and landed at its owner’s feet.
He looked at what remained of his sword and picked up the shard of the blade with a gloved hand. It was still hot, and the quicksilver that shifted the balance in the blade ran out of the hollow core. It seemed as if it bled.
“You broke the sword,” he murmured as he turned the twisted steel in his hand.
“You are next.” Smoothly, confidently, in the manner of one totally accustomed to the arts of war, the interloper drew his own sword and began walking toward him with the broken hilt.
The smell of lavender grew stronger. Closing his eyes, thinking of all he had been through these past twenty years. The air began to vibrate from the satchels he had placed. A high-pitched keening filled the area and he wondered if he would be able to make it to safety.
When his assailant was twelve feet away, his eyes snapped open, his arm shot out, and the shard spun forward with incredible velocity. Before the interloper could react, the tip of the blade pierced the man’s throat and sunk deep, followed by a momentary pause, then he dropped where he stood; there was a look of shock on the dead man’s face.
“It was a waste of time.”
The vibrations grew, as did the whining noise, and his time was almost gone. Ignoring the body and the broken sword, he ran quickly toward the rock crevasse from where he had entered the plateau. He had almost reached it when he heard a crack; he would not make it.
It wasn’t an explosion, but rather the lack thereof. A folding inward, sending all that stood where the Gate had been into nothingness. Just as he had leapt toward the crevasse he had felt it, felt suspended in midair and in time. Then the sensation was gone and he was drawn backward to where the Gate had been. Backward and toward the cliff in a rush of air into the huge vacuum that had been created. He had escaped the implosion but not the aftereffects.
He tumbled toward the edge of the cliff, past the smooth granite where the Gate had been. There was no purchase for his hands as he encountered the ice beyond, then the edge, and over.
His hand caught momentarily on a small indentation in the stone. His legs dangled free. His bad left shoulder and arm hung numb from the initial impact.
Face pressed against the implacably cold stone, it seemed he hung there for an eternity, before his grip began to give. He opened his eyes to look upon the setting sun, then once more to the granite rimed with frost…
He smiled as his grip gave way. Lavender, sunset, and frost…


Chapter 1

Frost crawled across the window. The campus was wrapped in a blanket of snow and ice. John sighed and his breath momentarily fogged the window, hindering his view of the commons. It was certainly no night to be out. He caught his reflection in the glass, frowned and turned back to the cluttered office.
He sat in the chair and looked over his thesis, the final proof, stuffed it into a sealed envelope and put it in the box for his advisor. One journey was at an end.
John frowned. This is one place I won’t miss, he thought. He was startled from his reverie by a knock at the door.
“Can I talk to you?”
He groaned inwardly, it was Lara, one of the other graduate students in the department. Attractive, red curly hair, freckles on a slightly upturned nose, she was the epitome of classic Celtic beauty.
“You’ve been avoiding me,” she said in a soft voice: Irish accent. He didn’t know what to say, because it was true. “My thesis…”
“Was done a week ago. What? You think you can ignore me?”
“I’m sorry, I’ve been busy with…”
“Not too busy to sleep with me.”
He put his feet down from the desk and leaned forward.
“Look,” he said. “You are a nice person, I don’t want to hurt you…”
“But you don’t love me?”
“Would you stop cutting me off? I only have known you for one semester.”
“Oh, I see, fuck the new girl from Dublin and then dump her.”
“You know that isn’t true! I’m done here. Finished. You have four years to get your PhD., what would you expect of me?” He noticed his voice was rising but didn’t care at this point. “I don’t know where I’m gonna be in the next week, let alone the next four years.”
She slapped him hard across the face. “I expected more from you!” With that she spun and was down the hall. He stepped out after her, but then noticed the heads over the cubicles, like gophers popping out of their holes, and slammed his door shut. The glass cracked with the slam.
The shock of stepping from the warmth of the building made him feel even colder inside. It had been easy to forget how bitterly cold northwestern Ohio could get in late December. As his feet crunched through ice and snow, he began to wish he had invested in a down coat instead of the fashionable leather jacket. The walk to the recreation center across campus was a long one. It gave him plenty of time to think and plenty of time to get depressed. If his roommates hadn’t been waiting for him, he would have stopped at his favorite bar.
You’re a real jerk, aren’t you? He shook his head and picked up the pace, taking the steps to the rec center two at a time.
He saw Tom waiting for him, sitting with his usual aplomb against the far wall. Though not physically striking, he possessed what John would call a coiled energy, like that of a taut spring. Tom Smiling Wolf was half Sioux, with the facial angularity that was typical of Native Americans, set off by light sandy hair. He was dressed in wool and cotton of a coarse weave, seemingly innocuous enough for him to melt into the woodwork. Immersed in his medical textbook, his left eye scanned the pages in front of him, his right eye didn't. It was made of glass.
His friend stood as he passed through the turnstile. Tom moved with smooth, graceful motion.
“What’s up with you? You look like you swallowed something bad.”
“Nothing important.”
“Right.” Tom looked at his friend curiously, then: “Come on, you can blow off steam better on the floor.”
“I guess you’re right.” He ran his hand through thick dark hair and frowned. Where Tom was lean and lithe, John was tall, broad and thick, his mustache accented the tightness of his strong jaw. He stood two inches taller than Tom's six feet. When he brooded, people tended to get out of his way. He had a stare, a cold aloofness, which some people would say was arrogance; but his friends knew better, knew not to confuse introspection for elitism.
“Unless of course you want to skip class?”
“No.”
They moved to the stairwell and down a flight to the locker room. Bill was there, pulling on his Speedos. John nodded to his other roommate. They made a habit of working out the same night, as it inevitably turned into a social outing for them afterwards. Bill had a swimmer’s build and would often be found doing laps when he wasn't doing research for his doctorate.
John keyed his locker and yanked open the metal door. He stopped when his gaze passed over a photograph of Lara and him taped to the back. He stripped it off, crumpled it and tossed it into the trash bin.
“That bad?” asked Bill.
“That bad,” he replied. He looked at the other photographs on the locker door, finally stopping on the one that made him smile.
It usually made him chuckle when he saw that one. The whole gang had all been dressed up for the annual medieval festival as the Legion of the Black Skull. Only one of their group stood less than six feet tall, and all were armed to the teeth.
Tom had dressed as an explorer, with loincloth, leather buckskins, and Bowie knife. John was dressed as a Crusader and wore a white silk under-tunic, a black surcoat with a scarlet cross, and a long sword strapped to his side. Joe, who could pass for John's brother despite the beard, wore a black and purple tunic, on the center of which was embroidered a demon's skull; hence the group’s name. Bill was dressed in bright colors and wore a foppish hat. The inimitable Chill hung back from the group, looking at the camera blankly. Then there was Mike. Mike was easily the tallest in the group: six-four and two-forty, he stood in the background wearing a brown broadcloth tunic and dark breeches. He carried a mace in one hand and a brandy snifter in the other. What set him apart from the others was his Manchurian style mustache, mirrored sunglasses and, of course, the ubiquitous cigarette tilted out of the corner of his mouth.
John smiled faintly and pulled the wooden bokken from the back of the locker. He tightened the belt of his hakama and nodded to Tom. Every Monday and Wednesday John and Tom rigorously studied Aikido while Bill did laps. It was a ritual. Ritual was good. He needed the ritual right now.
Joe narrowed his eyes and considered the saber. “Austrian, nineteenth century.” His partner could almost hear the Germanic accent in his voice, but it was just his imagination.
“Yeah, nice. We have to pay the rent and you buy a saber.”
Bad day, Joe thought. He was thirsty. He always got thirsty when he bought something this expensive. Weird.
“Don’t worry I get paid next week from the museum, for the restorations I did, and I’ll sign it over to you. It’ll take care of it.”
“How do you do it?”
Joe laughed and set the blade back in the case. “Conservator by day, fencing school owner by night? Lessee…no social life to speak of.
“Sometimes I find my thoughts wandering to the what-ifs, and that bothers me, but when I'm charging down a piste at another guy, man am I focused. Like that last match, a simple quarte that trips up the other guy. A counter-six! And the buzzer goes off as my saber hits his vest. You know what? That’s what it’s all about!
“It’s not just men in white suits moving up and down a corridor and hitting their metal sticks together. Not just points and electric scoring. It is a metaphor for life.” He looked down at the exquisite blade. “When you’re behind the mask, there is relevance to the game.”
“You're getting weird.”
“Am I? What's wrong with that? Look at you. You don't have a career. You've been living off of daddy's income for three years now. Where has it gotten you?”
“I–” Joe cut him off. “It’s not a bad thing, Chill, just who you are.”
“Right,” his friend just laughed. “You really have a way with insulting people and getting away with it.”
“It’s a gift I have.” He locked the saber in a glass cabinet and turned back to his friend. “Okay, we have eighth graders tonight. They are going to be foil fencing, so that’s you. Beginning fencing.”
“Eighth graders?”
Joe grinned maliciously. “Yeah, and they have never handled a foil before.”
Tom and John went down a long flight of stairs, past the racquetball courts to a pair of double doors. This was the combative arts room. Inside there could be heard the grunts and shouts of people learning various martial arts skills of varying discipline. Currently there were two classes practicing. A short, chubby fellow, wearing a white gi with a black belt led one class.
The two friends set their bokkens on the floor and bowed to the mat, and then to Tony Lee, their sensei.
“I thought the other class was moved to another night, Tony?” Tom queried as he nodded to the other class on the floor.
“That's next week. I had to persuade James to give us half the floor.” John knew it would take more than persuasion to make a person of James’s arrogance give up something.
“Line up and pair off, gentlemen,” Tony called.
“Hai!” the two replied along with the other ten in the class.
Tom and John paired off. It was their habit to try to improve each other’s skills, even though it was understood that Tom was the better of the two. Aikido was a relatively soft art, consisting of locks, throws, and balance. There was a lot of harmony and circular movement involved. When the sword was introduced it often mimicked the motions of the hands and body; it formed an extension. John had studied iaijutsu and kenjutsu before, and so he was a fair hand at the sword techniques. Tom, however, had studied martial arts since an early age, and had gone to Japan to study at a Taijutsu Ryu. It put him a few rungs higher up the ladder than his friend. They were probably the best martial artists in the class save their instructor.
Tonight, however, John was letting his aggression and feelings surface; he was acting recklessly. One of the students pointed this out to Tony.
“He's in one of his moods, sensei.”
Tony nodded and shook his head. It would not do any good to point this out to John, at least not until the hurricane had spent its wind. One of John’s problems was his lack of focus, but when he centered himself he was truly a force of nature on the floor.
Right now he was getting sloppy. He was going nowhere as Tom managed to keep his moves tight and focused. John growled low in throat and stepped to the side, slicing low. His temper was getting the best of him and Tom just slid by and nicked him in the shin. He spun back and brought his bokken around in what was more a swing to center field than a strike with a sword.
Suddenly there was a loud crack. The tip of his bokken had collided obtusely with Tom's and had broken off. It spun across the floor and into the midst of James' students. One young student stepped onto the piece and twisted her ankle, whining as she fell.
John stared at the broken bokken. Thirty bucks, he thought.
“Lee!” James called to the Aikido instructor. Tony looked up and almost smiled. John watched as James threw his long braid over his shoulder, picked up the wood shard, straightened his gi and moved across the floor towards them. He sneered arrogantly.
“I shouldn't have to put up with this crap, Lee. I have students to teach. All you idiots ever do is get in my way.”
The blood drained from Tony's face and he looked hard at the dark skinned man. John's face turned crimson with anger and he took a step forward.
“You arrogant piece of shi-”
“John,” Tom said in one of those soothing tones that really irritated him. James gazed contemptuously at John. “When you learn some real skills maybe you won't make a bad parry.”
John blinked his eyes slowly as he looked at the man. John was taller and heavier, but James was no doubt faster. He took a deep breath and smiled.
“I probably do need a few more lessons. “
James' eyes widened imperceptibly. John just turned his back on the man and walked away. James stared after him a moment then went back to his own students.
After an hour and a half of throws, twists, locks and more throws, John and Tom hit the showers. Tom looked at his friend out of the corner of his eye as John scrubbed down.
“What?” John said as he washed under the St. Christopher medal that hung around his neck.
“Something else is eating you. I think I’m sorer tonight than any other time we’ve sparred. And the argument with James, I thought I would have had to drag you off of him.”
“I should have decked him.”
“Maybe, but through all that bravado he does have a lot of skill. I've seen him fight. He's good.”
“Could you take him?”
“Yes.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“I know, but with anger you tend to be reckless.”
“Yeah, well, I've a lot to be pissed off about.”
Bill came traipsing in just as they were toweling off. He had a puppy-dog smile on his face as he opened his locker.
“What's got you in such a good mood?” Tom Smiling Wolf asked. He watched as Bill flipped open a little black address book to quickly write something in it.
“Oh, I just met a girl,” he said, his voice swelling with song. “You’re a slut.”
“Huh?” Bill asked, looking from one friend to the other. He had been so preoccupied with writing her number that he had missed the derogatory comment.
“Come on, what?”
“A good swimmer, Bill, you're a good swimmer.” Tom smirked and began to dress.
“Okay, what's going on?”
“Kyle's,” John said, feeling the rumble in his stomach. He quickly looked in the mirror, smoothed his dark hair back and checked out his mustache. He then looked to the other two for their opinion.
“Volcano pizza?” Tom asked with a frown.
“Oh yeah, and dark beer to wash the garlic bread down.”
“Sounds good,” Bill echoed and soon they were pulling on their coats.
Kyle's was a small pub that sat just off campus. It was a frequent hangout for grad students and non-traditional students who didn't want to be bothered with loud music, heavy drinking and lame pick-up lines. Dark woods and good cooking gave the pub a homey atmosphere; not to mention it had an extensive import list. The three roommates sat in a corner booth, listening to Creed on the box. Bill's gaze followed an attractive waitress as she took an order at another table.
“Sounds like you guys had a good workout.” Bill took a sip of his black ‘n’ tan and realized it was almost gone.
“James is a class ‘A’ asshole,” John remarked. Tom hushed him suddenly as the door swung open, letting in a blast of snow and, speak of the devil, James. The man walked in with one of his female students. At the table he took off his long leather coat, but he left his fingerless leather gloves on. He ignored the waitress as he spoke to the student in tones too low to hear.
John grunted and took a drink of his Amber Bock. He played with a piece of pizza crust then tossed it onto the plate. “Like I said, an asshole.”
Tom smiled and looked intensely at his friend. “Okay, John. What's going on? Something else is bothering you.”
John sighed heavily and fingered the pealing label of his beer. “I think it’s the same question that man has been dealing with from the beginning of time, who am I, and where am I going? What happens now? Do I take that government job I was offered? Joe said he needed a partner in the fencing school, do I do that? I have my ranking in kenjutsu, so I can teach. Should I still go to Japan next month? I need to get my head screwed on straight.” He laughed and flipped the steak knife.
“I think we’ve all asked ourselves that.” It was all Bill could say.
“Yeah, but you have two years until your doctorate, then it’s academia. Tom has four years of med school. Me, I have this big void.”
John shook his head and finished the beer in the bottle. “I think that's where my aggression was coming from today. The last thing I needed was that bastard James getting in my face.”
Just as he said that Bill choked. James had gotten up, mineral water in hand, and walked over to their booth.
“Well, if it isn't Larry, Curly and Moe,” the man snidely remarked. “I couldn't help but stop by. Knowing that two well-versed students of the martial arts sitting two tables away piqued my interest. Did you learn by correspondence course?” He smiled. “Oh, and I see you take your training seriously,” he gestured to the beer.
“Much more seriously than I take you,” the graduate student replied. Bill pursed his lips and Tom just stared straight ahead.
“You know, John, and I do mean this, your lack of skill on the martial-arts floor is truly comical. I have never seen anyone so inept at Aikido. At least your friend here has some redeemable skills. Alas, I fear that you were born with none.”
“You have the right to your opinion.” John slapped some money on the table.
He then got up and looked at his friends. “Ready?”
They slid out of the booth. “It did get rather stuffy in here,” Tom replied. “Oh, did it?” James followed the three out of the back door and into the snow-covered parking lot. “John,” he said mockingly. “Going to run away.” John stopped and smiled, then shook his head and kept walking.
Joe stood in his apartment, looking at the wooden frame that held a seventeenth century Dutch oil he was cleaning for an art dealer on contract. Normally he would be expected to do this kind of work in a museum lab, but the dealer had no such luxuries and permitted him to take the piece to his own studio. He just wasn’t able to get that grime off the one corner. It looked like a soot smudge but it wasn’t responding like one. He dabbed at it with a Q-tip. Odd, he thought. It’s layered. He looked outside and watched lazy snowflakes drift down from the dark sky, wondering if this coming weekend would be his last medieval Event. He felt like he was getting too old for the events, that they were starting to attract a different breed of geek. And forget the escapism, he had to start concentrating on the fencing school.
He put on a pair of latex gloves and opened a small jar, dabbed at the clear fluid inside, and spread it on the canvas where the mark was. Nothing. He flipped the frame around and looked at the back. He saw no evidence of a burn. There was just a small Cyrillic letter; probably some old inventory mark.
He held it up to a bare bulb. Ever so faintly he could make out more writing. “Odd,” he took a quick digital photo of the corner and went to his PC. In a moment he had enhanced the writing. He then brought up the site of the museum he also worked for and logged in. Checking one of the Eastern European libraries, he tried to match the symbols on the back of the canvas to the available database. He called up the file and cross-referenced it in a language program. Estimated time: 2 hours 17 minutes.
He sat back, pulled the latex gloves off and tossed them in the can. It seemed only moments went by when he was startled awake by his PC beeping impatiently. He noticed by the clock that he had been asleep for 4 hours. It was 3:30 a.m.; he had to get up at six.
He looked at what the language generator had found. Strange.

Language: Slavic, old style, derivative…
[begin]By Oran’s[proper name] fire, bound in hate and blood, I call upon thee. Open the Perilous Gate [end match]

He repeated it aloud. Suddenly the edge of the painting fluoresced and caught fire where he had applied the chemical. The letters burned, flaming the painting on his table. He acted quickly, smacking down a towel on the piece, but smoky soot, peeled paint, and burned wood were all that remained of upper corner of the seventeenth century Dutch oil painting.
He was in deep shit.
Then the smoke alarm went off.
The fat, gray-haired man finally had his tent erected within the huge auditorium. It wasn't exactly the Pennsic Wars, but the Annual Battle for the Winter Crown was an event that no Medieval Society enthusiast would miss. These were the dreamers, the misfits, the history buffs, adventurers and, most of all, those who just wanted a break from everyday society.
The shelves were finally set and the workmen left to go and ready other tents by the tilting field. He looked over the texts that he’d brought out of the crate. Most were ordinary junk; the Necronomicon, a couple of Wiccan books, Hebraic text, the Gnostic Gospels, Abram's Lore and such. One crate he had acquired at an auction in London and was said to be part of the Crowley estate. That was a joke, he thought. For the price, they were probably leftovers from a druid convention. The crate was old and musty, one book in particular he’d valued at two hundred dollars. But then there was another, just a blank Book of Shadows that he would sell for twenty. He pondered on what little knowledge people possessed of history. Few knew of the great Sumerian and Assyrian scholars who wrote (and were transcribed by the English) centuries ago: famous architects, scientists, magicians and sorcerers. The crowds that came to these events ate up that stuff. He knew that he would make a killing.
Bill laughed as he drank from a glass of red wine. John sneezed and blew his nose in a tissue, hoping he wouldn't catch a cold. He chewed a vitamin C tablet while he sipped on some vodka.
John looked around the apartment, his vision blurring from fatigue and this, his third shot of the liquor. The apartment was small and not decorated in any particular fashion. A few paintings hung on the wall. The furniture was typical, blocky and crate-like. John looked into his glass of clear liquid and the lone olive floating within and thought some very melancholy thoughts. He grabbed the remote for the stereo. The CD player clicked on and soon Pink Floyd whispered from the other side of the room.
“James is a real jerk,” Bill slurred.
“Watch your back, John,” Tom said. “He’s the kind of guy who would jump you in a dark alley.”
John got up and walked to the bay window to look at his Japanese Samurai sword resting on its rack. The Sword as it had become to be known. Outside the wind whipped snow around the eaves “Yeah, but maybe by the time we get back in two weeks, he'll have forgotten the whole thing,” Bill interjected. John pulled off his sweater and draped it over the chair, then hefted his broken bokken, spinning it in an intricate arc. He almost knocked over the CD stand.
“Believe it or not I'm really looking forward to the Event this weekend.” Bill continued as he settled into a deep chair. John remained quiet.
“So, everybody is getting back together again; the Legion of the Black Skull returns in all of its decadent glory?” Tom asked. Kiera, his pet ferret, was now crawling up one arm and tumbling down the other. This was his second Medieval Society Event and he was looking forward to it, too.
“I called for reservations. We have one room.” Bill fiddled with his guitar, tuning it. “We're lucky to get that. There are several conventions going on that weekend.”
“So we’re all crowded in one room?” Tom asked. “Of course.”
John laughed. “Where's your sense of adventure!”
People bustled about the convention center in what seemed like organized chaos. The fat man with the manuscript booth watched as the remaining tents were finally erected and a group of jugglers practiced their agility with brightly colored balls. By Friday, everything would be in place and the participants would flood in. He turned back to his tent and lit a brass oil lamp. A vision of chiaroscuro leapt into existence: the shadows hiding the unknown, the light hinting at the hidden. Leather bound tomes, dusty with age, and brittle scrolls that could be authentic, lay about the tent on oak tables. The lamp hanging over the tables swung slightly. It was ornately fashioned in the shape of a swooping dragon; he had acquired that piece in Hong Kong.
The man opened the Book of Shadows and hesitated. It was nothing more than a blank book after all, but as he flipped through the pages, he thought he saw something. Something in black. Circular?
Getting old, Zach, he thought to himself as he flipped through once more and found nothing.
Suddenly the lamp blew out. “Damn!”
The drive to his parents’ house on the lake was short, but monotonous. The farms were flat and bleak, the snow bright, but the roads were well salted and dry. John downshifted to dart past the car ahead of him, then settled back into the road ahead, his small sports car tightly hugging the curves.
His thoughts wandered as he drove. He and his friends had agreed to meet at Mike’s on Friday morning for the drive to Detroit. That would give each of them a few days with their families. No such luck for him, though. His parents, in their retirement, had become snowbirds.
He took a meandering drive through the town, stopping to gaze out over the Bay and watch a coal freighter angle expertly in toward the docks. Finally, his reminiscing done, he turned and headed toward his parents’ house.
For him, there was always something special about coming home. He pulled into the driveway of the small ranch style dwelling and parked the car. Figuring he’d get his bag later, he grabbed his sword and headed around to the back porch, through the immaculately kept garden. Even in the midst of winter, he could make out the familiar pattern of the shrubbery, the ornamental maple, and the accompanying stonework. He smiled faintly and unlocked the door, letting himself into the home of his youth.
The silence greeted him.
He put his Japanese sword on the kitchen island. It was long for a Katana, the blade itself must have been thirty inches in length, unblemished and with a graceful curve. The fittings, the hilt and scabbard were both in good repair. The scabbard, or saya was lacquered sharkskin, sanded and polished to a deep indigo. The guard, or tsuba, was forged and carried the design of two koi amid water lilies. The magnificent blade featured a complex forging pattern and an artistic hamon, the tempered cutting edge.
The Shinto period Jindachi was signed with two Japanese characters: Mountain Pine. On the opposite side of the tang read the cutting test: Ogawa Kuroemon tested it on two bodies, 1684, 2nd month on an auspicious day.
Stationed in Japan after the war, John’s father had discovered a group of officers systematically looting shrines in and around Tokyo. He had been instrumental in stopping the criminal acts and, as a reward, one of the shrines had given him the sword as a gesture of thanks. His father had given the sword to him on his twenty-first birthday.
John’s passion had always been for swords. He had managed to gather a small collection of mediocre blades, but none compared to this sword. The Japanese had raised sword-making to an art. Katana, Tachi, Wakizashi, and other blade types had evolved over the last two thousand years: forging techniques had been perfected to create a blade that was resilient, surgically sharp, and wore well over time. In Western society, Damascus steel was considered the pinnacle of blade-making.
The sword had almost become a part of him; he carried practically everywhere.
Funny how certain events elicit vivid dreams. Later that night, he dreamt of the sword. Clear dreams that transcended reality. The sword was being tested. He and a Samurai stood watching the tester, a man of lower standing, who stood with the sword poised as two convicts were lined up, blindfolded and tied against a bamboo pole. Calmly the man took a step forward, the sword flashed in a lateral cut, and easily passed through the midsections of the convicts. The Samurai nodded approvingly as other criminals cleared the bodies and the tester gave the blade to his assistant who wiped it clean, examined the edge for chips or cracks, and placed it carefully in its shirasaya, or resting scabbard. It went to the swordsmith who in turn chiseled the results on the tang. The sword was then presented to the Samurai who held it out to John.
He snapped awake, but the memory of that dream stayed with him. Unlike other dreams, often fraught with fancy and inconsistency, this one had a clarity that was surprising. He shivered, not from the cold but rather from a sense of uneasiness that would persist well into the evening.

Friday found Bill practically falling down the steps of Mike’s front porch. Trying to pull on his jacket, heft his Estoc, a form of epee, and walk was evidently too much for him in the early morning hours, but he finally made it and threw his gear in the SUV. John leaned against the SUV with one bag and the Sword, as everyone called it. Chill lounged on the tailgate, staring over the rim of his glasses.
Chill was about five ten, and barrel-like. Slow and methodical in all things, he nodded to his friends as he wiped his hands on his pants.
“Ready?” he asked in a gravelly voice.
“Yep, but we’re missing a few,” Bill answered. Tom leaned his head out the driver’s side door and in an effort to see who was there and who was not. Joe seemed to be running late and Mike was still inside his parents’ house.
“Are we going to be jousting at this one?” Bill asked of John. If so there was a discrepancy in the gear they needed, especially padding.
“No, we're still disqualified from the fighting.”
Chill smiled and said, “It seems when we broke with the ranks of the Midwest Kingdoms and began to fight for the Northern Kingdoms it was some sort of treaty infringement.”
Bill shook his head. “The King of the Midwest was an ass. He wanted us to make a suicide run for the bridge. When we turned–”
“We surprised the hell outa them,” Mike announced as he walked down the driveway. He carried a bag on his shoulder, the contents of which were questionable at best. His sandy brown hair was tousled and he wore his customary shades. The ever-present cigarette dangled from the corner of his mouth.
Mike was definitely on the fringes of the norm for most people, and even for college students, for that matter. He a was recent dropout from the physics department, having left just one step ahead of expulsion for turning his major into a tool for the pursuit of the occult. He had a fascination with the uncertainty principle, and believed that it resulted from an energy field indicating a fifth dimension; hence the existence of what the uninformed call 'magic'. The only thing was, he didn't know how it could be tapped, and the dean of the school of science didn't fancy him turning the department into an alembic. So, rather than face expulsion, he had withdrawn from the University and now managed a coffee shop downtown.
“Yeah,” John remembered their mock ambush. “We turned and they thought we were retreating, so they rounded on us. Then we cut them down from behind.” Chill frowned, but the throaty rumble of Joe’s Mustang silenced his snide retort. Joe got out and stretched wearily. The artist appeared to be tired and in a very dark mood.
“Let's get this show on the road,” called Chill.
“I can hardly wait,” replied an enthusiastic John. “Shut up, John,” sighed Chill.
Joe opened the curtains of their fourth-floor room and gazed at the Detroit skyline. The sun had just set and the twinkle of nightlife was radiating all around the city. He turned and looked over the room. It was cramped, with two full beds, but what would you expect. They would have to play it by ear, as they had only paid for two occupants.
Joe sat down on the divan and pulled out a yellow carbon slip from his shirt pocket, scratching at his beard as he perused it. It was dated six months ago, the last Society Event. He had placed an order with a blacksmith for a hand-and-a-half, or bastard sword. Now that he would probably lose his job with the dealer, he wondered if he could get his deposit back. Probably not, he thought. It might look nice at future fairs, a piece of contemporary folk art?
“Ah, the long anticipated bastard sword. You'll pick it up tomorrow?” John asked as he handed his friend a beer.
“Yep, I am blowing money right and left lately, but it’s truly a sword worthy of a Landesknecht. I had it made to historically accurate specifications.”
“He had some pretty good prices on short swords.”
“Probably for cheap-asses like you,” chided Chill. “I’m not cheap,” John retorted.
“You are a mooch,” began Chill.
“Yeah, John, you are known for your ability to weasel out of paying for things.” Mike tipped his beer back, smiling.
“I thought I was frugal.”
“Ooh, kinky,” Mike quipped.
“Can it, Mike, we know your sexual habits only include stray cats and raw liver,” Bill tossed back.
“We should get another Game going one of these days,” Chill said, directing the statement to Mike, who was still glaring at Bill. Joe, frustrated at the direction the verbal jousting was heading slipped out onto the balcony.
“When do we have time to get together?”
“Who knows?” It was last thing John heard as he followed his friend onto the snow-covered balcony, four stories up. He shivered and wrapped his arms about himself.
“Jeez, it’s freezing out here. You pick a helluva spot to collect your thoughts. What's up?”
Joe looked at him, then away, toward Windsor on the other side of the river. He sighed and tossed back his beer. “I accidentally set a twenty thousand dollar Dutch painting on fire.”
“Ouch. What happened?”
“Don’t know. I had a very mild thinner on the edge, I found some strange writing in Cyrillic on the back. Took a digital photo and a few minutes later, whoosh, up in flames. I don’t know if the chemical in the thinner reacted to the light. I called the manufacturer and they never heard of such a thing.”
“What about insurance?”
“Oh it’s covered. But, it just isn’t the just the money, I’ll pay the gallery owner. Though my insurance will go sky high. It was a seventeenth century Dutch Master; do you know how hard it is to come by those outside a museum? I’ll never get a conservatory job again. Word travels. I’m screwed.”
“If it’s any consolation, I know how you feel.”
“Yeah. Tom said something was up with you?”
John laughed. “Yeah, ain't we a pair. You kill a Dutch Master and I have no idea what to do with my life.”
“I don't know, bud. I wonder if I’ll lose the school. I need the job at the Smithsonian and the gallery to help keep it and me afloat, but my offer is still out there for joining me at the school.” His gaze wandered down over the street, gray eyes peering through the gloom.
“There's a difference between owning one’s problems and playing victim. I can't imagine you shirking that. Go in and tell them what happened, tell them it was an accident. They can’t fire you because of that can they?”
“Wanna bet? They aren’t very forgiving. Maybe it’s time to throw myself into the school.” He shook his head. He let the silence build between them for a moment, until the chill air finally began to take its toll. Finally he sighed and turned to reenter the hotel room.
“Don't beat yourself up about this, Joe. God knows we all come to a point where we question our worth. You are more accomplished than a lot of people I've met in the past two years. Keep that in mind. There’s no way you will end up on the street; you have friends and family. Go to your boss, tell the truth and screw them if they don’t like it. You are one of the best restorers they have. Just keep that in mind, there are plenty of museums in foreign countries that have never heard of you.” He smiled sheepishly.
Joe looked over his shoulder to his friend. “Thanks for the pep talk. What about you?”
“Well, I get to spend a month in Japan, then come back for graduation.
There isn’t much work for a Sociologist with just a master’s degree. I've come to the realization that if I am going to do anything meaningful with my life I better start soon.”
“Careful what you wish for,” Joe warned as he slipped back into the room. “You may get it.”
The sharply dressed pharmaceutical rep adjusted her glasses and hefted her briefcase as the elevator stopped on her floor. She frowned with impatience. It had been a long day spent in meetings and all she wanted to do was get a bite to eat in the restaurant before she went to her room to soak in a tub of hot water. As the elevator doors slid open, she gasped at the six figures standing there. Cautiously entering, she tried not to gawk as her eyes darted from one bizarre vision to the next. Twilight Zone, she thought.
The biggest stood in the rear, in some kind of brown tunic, leather boots and cape, with a Samurai sword of some kind. A wolfish grin lifted his Manchu-style mustache, and he adjusted his mirrored sunglasses. Was he staring at her? Two others: one in a black quilted outfit with a cape and black boots, stood holding a black-sheathed Japanese sword as he talked to another, a bearded man with a purple tunic that had a beautifully-embroidered demon skull on it. His faux ermine cloak was slung back, and he had no weapon she could see. A tall, very handsome fellow with long blonde hair was dressed in bright pastels. He spoke with a sandy haired man dressed in a hooded tunic, buckskins and loose fitting pants. He had on what looked like authentic Native American moccasins and he carried a bow over his back. She shivered in revulsion upon seeing the buffalo leather cloak.
A shorter man, with shoulder-length black hair, leaned his stocky frame against the wall and smoothed his olive-drab tunic; a broadsword hung at his side. He gestured at the blonde haired guy’s intricately hilted sword and scabbard and smiled slowly. The tall one laughed.
The elevator door slid open and the businesswoman stepped into the hallway. The lift continued on its journey and she went to her room, shaking her head all the way.
Freaks, she thought.
The thought of writing a check made his teeth hurt, but as the smith set the bastard sword on the table between them, Joe just smiled in appreciation. The black metal blade was about forty-two inches long and its edge gleamed with sharpness, the carved runes gently glowing in the overhead fluorescent lights. Joe hefted it – the balance was perfect and the pommel was made for either one or two hands. It seemed a pity to hide such a beautiful creation inside a scabbard, but Joe had worked long and hard to create something that would accent the smith’s work. The tooled leather was studded with stones and gilt wire; a fitting home for an artist’s weapon. It accented the new blade nicely. He wondered if he were meant to carry a blade more akin to this than a fencing saber. He produced his checkbook, and wrote a check for the amount remaining.
“I could sure use a beer,” John stated resting his hand on the hilt of his Japanese Katana.
“Hmmm?” replied the artist. “Yeah, I’m thirsty all of a sudden.
The six members that were the 'Legion of the Black Skull' sat in one of the gaily-bannered pavilions, waiting for their serving wench to bring beer and roast pig with yams. Just outside the roped-off eating area, jugglers tossed clubs, tumblers leapt about, and strolling minstrels regaled revelers with their songs. The companions ate and watched the open field in the center of the convention hall where the melee took place. A group of men in thickly padded armor with mock weapons went after each other. The group surged and ebbed as the referees called out to those that were either dead or seriously injured. Soon the field was held by a remaining small group of brightly dressed knights with the ensign of a white cross on red field.
“Those dudes are the ones that got the prize when we had to forfeit at the last joust,” Chill murmured.
“I've met them,” remarked Bill. “They think they're God's gift to the Medieval Society.”
“Hmmph,” was all that issued from Mike. His mouth was stuffed full of meat, which was probably just as well. He had nothing good to say about their rivals, either.
“They really aren't that good,” observed Smiling Wolf. He smoothed down Kiera's coat and offered her some dried fruit to nibble on. She looked at him as though he were crazy and tried to nip at his finger. He just ignored her.
They all watched as the band of winners approached the King’s chair and received their trophy. Joe stood up, thoroughly disgusted and turned his back on the awarding of the trophy. He picked up his cloak, adjusted his new sword and strode off. Soon the rest were done with their meals, and John, Mike and Bill wandered off to look at the booths and tents. Set off to one side, a manuscript dealer caught Mike’s eye. Seemingly isolated from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the fair, the tent exuded a tranquility he found intriguing. The three walked over, curious as to what type of manuscripts and print-work the tent might contain.
As their eyes adjusted to the dimly lit tent, Zach, the proprietor, greeted them. His hands fluttered ceaselessly about the designs on his purple robe. John stood by the door, not exactly caring for ancient grimoires and such, while Bill and Mike browsed through the materials.
Mike approached one of the tables and picked up a huge, handwritten, leather-bound book that must have been centuries old. He opened and looked at the first page; it was written in Latin. He smiled, recognizing the text. It was something for the summoning and banishing of spirits to another plane of existence. When he saw the price he set it down.
“It is too much, milord?” the man asked in Society jargon.
“Well worth the price, I’m sure, my good merchant, but two hundred dollars is beyond my purse, I am afraid,” Mike replied. Bill raised his eyebrow and realized why the tent was empty.
“But is the knowledge not worth it?” came the obsequious reply
“Can one truly put a price on knowledge?” Mike queried back.
The man smiled and stepped back, allowing the students to browse. Mike's eye was caught by a flutter of light from the lamp that played over the surface of a dingy black book. He picked it up, feeling the worn leather cover, noted the ragged edges of the paper. As he flipped through it, he thought he caught something on one of the pages, but when he flipped again there was nothing. Mike replaced the book and shook his hands; it felt like they had started to fall asleep.
“You know what that is?” Zach asked. The lamps flickered as if with a sudden breeze. Mike looked up and replied uneasily.
“It's a book for the recording of spells and magical notation.”
“Yes, and the dealer I bought it from said it belonged to the Crowley estate.” Mike raised his eyebrows. Aleister Crowley reputedly knew a great deal regarding magic and sorcery, and was also reputed to have been a most evil man. If it truly were from the Crowley Estate it would be worth a pretty penny, even if it hadn’t been written in.
“Do you have a provenance?”
“Unfortunately no, gentle lord.”
“How much?”
“Milord, my prices are very reasonable, fifty dollars.”
“Fifty dollars for a blank book?” John said dubiously from behind Mike. “Twenty-five,” Mike countered.
“Give me leave to make a little profit, young sire. Thirty-five.”
“Thirty, and that's my final offer.”
“As you will, but many more such deals will beggar me.” The bookseller got some brown paper from below a table and quickly wrapped the book.
Bill shook his head. “You sure know how to waste your money, Mike.” From the look on John's face, he echoed Bill’s amazement.
“No, if the book really was Crowley’s, I made an investment. If it isn’t, I can still use the pages to chronicle the Black Skull’s adventures. Not a bad deal either way.”

EXTRACT FOR
The Perilous Gate

(J.J. Eliyas)


Prologue

Snow, caught in a prism of light, cascaded through the pass, nearly taking him with it. The two thousand foot plunge would have been very unpleasant. He clung desperately to a rock outcropping, wondering why he had undertaken this venture in the first place.
Because it is the last one, the last Gate, he told himself. He swung around, his feet finally finding some purchase, and managed to get onto a relatively level ledge. He took a deep breath and expelled a cloud into the icy air. Air so frigid in fact that much of his breath froze onto his beard, made even grayer by the ice.
I am getting too old for this. But, it is the last one. He looked up through the crevasse, the sunlight almost blinding him. Pulling the hat low over his brow, he made his way up through the pass and, within minutes, was able to see what lay beyond. He knew it would be there: The Gate. But the sight of it still gave him pause.
The arch-like structure, made of a wholly alien metal, sat on bare granite, the snow and ice preternaturally giving it a wide berth. The air within the arch shimmered like a summer afternoon, distorting the glyphs and runes that covered its surface. It was by far the largest of the gates he had seen; a caravan four wagons abreast could easily pass through.
The purpose of this Gate was unknown to him. Why the mages would place it up here, on top of a mountain, was beyond him, though one scholar had suggested the Gates were created when the world was young, and the later continental upheavals would account for this one’s present positioning.
He sat on a boulder and caught his breath; the air was thin at this altitude. He flexed his shoulder and winced at the pain from the old wound. He was getting old. He smiled ironically and laid his sword across his lap. The large, well-balanced blade sat there, cold, silent.
How many years had he searched out the Gates? Fifteen? He’d lost several friends along the way. Yet, he knew they would be happy that his task was almost at an end. He took off the hat and smoothed back his hair, now almost completely gray. His face was lean and weathered, and his eyes were tired. He set the sword aside for the moment and pulled two thick packages from his pack. Each had a metal seal with a rune carved into it. Magic, no doubt.
The vista up here was quite spectacular. Beyond the Gate, the side of the mountain dropped away in a sheer granite cliff. Beyond that, more snow-covered peaks and valleys. The sun slowly began to descend in a wash of cold salmon clouds and lemon rays, illuminating the side of the mountain and making him revel in wonder. He wished he could stay, put off this last task. He wondered what his life would be like without this force driving him. Other people had their own purposes; he’d just have to find one that suited him. He would have to create a new path, he supposed.
He gathered up the sealed packages and trudged through the snow. As he neared the Gate he noticed the air warming, and he could detect the faint scent of lavender.
Lavender, now that brings back memories, he thought. There was a hint of melancholy, but it lasted only a moment. He placed a satchel at each base of the arch, being careful not to touch the metals or the runes upon it. He broke the seals on each and started to move away just as he heard the sound of steel scraping on stone.
“The last one, Lord Guardian?” came an old, familiar voice.
He spun at the sound and saw a man in furs and gilded breastplate holding the sword that he had foolishly left behind.
“The last…and the seals are broken, so there is no going back.”
“No,” said the interloper, not much older than him, but scarred and hardened.
“I thought you were dead.”
“Thought you killed me at the Great Wall?” He shook his head and grinned. “The luck of Oran was with me there.”
“How long has it been? Almost twenty years?”
“And I have finally caught up with you.”
“To stop me from destroying the last Gate? You’re a little late.”
“To kill you actually; finally.”
“You’re a sad person indeed if that has been your goal for the past two decades. A waste of time.” In the back of his head he realized the energy was building in the satchels he’d placed at the base of the arch. He needed to get into the pass before the Gate imploded. “If you want to kill me, can we do it somewhere else?”
“Here will be fine. Besides, are you so sure this is the last? It will be your final thought, that wondering. Now, are you ready to die?”
“You have my sword.”
“Ah, the sword of Extenn Rhinn.” He lifted the blade high above his head and with all his might brought it down onto the granite outcropping. In a shower of sparks, it sank into the stone, but not before the last third of the blade sheared off and landed at its owner’s feet.
He looked at what remained of his sword and picked up the shard of the blade with a gloved hand. It was still hot, and the quicksilver that shifted the balance in the blade ran out of the hollow core. It seemed as if it bled.
“You broke the sword,” he murmured as he turned the twisted steel in his hand.
“You are next.” Smoothly, confidently, in the manner of one totally accustomed to the arts of war, the interloper drew his own sword and began walking toward him with the broken hilt.
The smell of lavender grew stronger. Closing his eyes, thinking of all he had been through these past twenty years. The air began to vibrate from the satchels he had placed. A high-pitched keening filled the area and he wondered if he would be able to make it to safety.
When his assailant was twelve feet away, his eyes snapped open, his arm shot out, and the shard spun forward with incredible velocity. Before the interloper could react, the tip of the blade pierced the man’s throat and sunk deep, followed by a momentary pause, then he dropped where he stood; there was a look of shock on the dead man’s face.
“It was a waste of time.”
The vibrations grew, as did the whining noise, and his time was almost gone. Ignoring the body and the broken sword, he ran quickly toward the rock crevasse from where he had entered the plateau. He had almost reached it when he heard a crack; he would not make it.
It wasn’t an explosion, but rather the lack thereof. A folding inward, sending all that stood where the Gate had been into nothingness. Just as he had leapt toward the crevasse he had felt it, felt suspended in midair and in time. Then the sensation was gone and he was drawn backward to where the Gate had been. Backward and toward the cliff in a rush of air into the huge vacuum that had been created. He had escaped the implosion but not the aftereffects.
He tumbled toward the edge of the cliff, past the smooth granite where the Gate had been. There was no purchase for his hands as he encountered the ice beyond, then the edge, and over.
His hand caught momentarily on a small indentation in the stone. His legs dangled free. His bad left shoulder and arm hung numb from the initial impact.
Face pressed against the implacably cold stone, it seemed he hung there for an eternity, before his grip began to give. He opened his eyes to look upon the setting sun, then once more to the granite rimed with frost…
He smiled as his grip gave way. Lavender, sunset, and frost…


Chapter 1

Frost crawled across the window. The campus was wrapped in a blanket of snow and ice. John sighed and his breath momentarily fogged the window, hindering his view of the commons. It was certainly no night to be out. He caught his reflection in the glass, frowned and turned back to the cluttered office.
He sat in the chair and looked over his thesis, the final proof, stuffed it into a sealed envelope and put it in the box for his advisor. One journey was at an end.
John frowned. This is one place I won’t miss, he thought. He was startled from his reverie by a knock at the door.
“Can I talk to you?”
He groaned inwardly, it was Lara, one of the other graduate students in the department. Attractive, red curly hair, freckles on a slightly upturned nose, she was the epitome of classic Celtic beauty.
“You’ve been avoiding me,” she said in a soft voice: Irish accent. He didn’t know what to say, because it was true. “My thesis…”
“Was done a week ago. What? You think you can ignore me?”
“I’m sorry, I’ve been busy with…”
“Not too busy to sleep with me.”
He put his feet down from the desk and leaned forward.
“Look,” he said. “You are a nice person, I don’t want to hurt you…”
“But you don’t love me?”
“Would you stop cutting me off? I only have known you for one semester.”
“Oh, I see, fuck the new girl from Dublin and then dump her.”
“You know that isn’t true! I’m done here. Finished. You have four years to get your PhD., what would you expect of me?” He noticed his voice was rising but didn’t care at this point. “I don’t know where I’m gonna be in the next week, let alone the next four years.”
She slapped him hard across the face. “I expected more from you!” With that she spun and was down the hall. He stepped out after her, but then noticed the heads over the cubicles, like gophers popping out of their holes, and slammed his door shut. The glass cracked with the slam.
The shock of stepping from the warmth of the building made him feel even colder inside. It had been easy to forget how bitterly cold northwestern Ohio could get in late December. As his feet crunched through ice and snow, he began to wish he had invested in a down coat instead of the fashionable leather jacket. The walk to the recreation center across campus was a long one. It gave him plenty of time to think and plenty of time to get depressed. If his roommates hadn’t been waiting for him, he would have stopped at his favorite bar.
You’re a real jerk, aren’t you? He shook his head and picked up the pace, taking the steps to the rec center two at a time.
He saw Tom waiting for him, sitting with his usual aplomb against the far wall. Though not physically striking, he possessed what John would call a coiled energy, like that of a taut spring. Tom Smiling Wolf was half Sioux, with the facial angularity that was typical of Native Americans, set off by light sandy hair. He was dressed in wool and cotton of a coarse weave, seemingly innocuous enough for him to melt into the woodwork. Immersed in his medical textbook, his left eye scanned the pages in front of him, his right eye didn't. It was made of glass.
His friend stood as he passed through the turnstile. Tom moved with smooth, graceful motion.
“What’s up with you? You look like you swallowed something bad.”
“Nothing important.”
“Right.” Tom looked at his friend curiously, then: “Come on, you can blow off steam better on the floor.”
“I guess you’re right.” He ran his hand through thick dark hair and frowned. Where Tom was lean and lithe, John was tall, broad and thick, his mustache accented the tightness of his strong jaw. He stood two inches taller than Tom's six feet. When he brooded, people tended to get out of his way. He had a stare, a cold aloofness, which some people would say was arrogance; but his friends knew better, knew not to confuse introspection for elitism.
“Unless of course you want to skip class?”
“No.”
They moved to the stairwell and down a flight to the locker room. Bill was there, pulling on his Speedos. John nodded to his other roommate. They made a habit of working out the same night, as it inevitably turned into a social outing for them afterwards. Bill had a swimmer’s build and would often be found doing laps when he wasn't doing research for his doctorate.
John keyed his locker and yanked open the metal door. He stopped when his gaze passed over a photograph of Lara and him taped to the back. He stripped it off, crumpled it and tossed it into the trash bin.
“That bad?” asked Bill.
“That bad,” he replied. He looked at the other photographs on the locker door, finally stopping on the one that made him smile.
It usually made him chuckle when he saw that one. The whole gang had all been dressed up for the annual medieval festival as the Legion of the Black Skull. Only one of their group stood less than six feet tall, and all were armed to the teeth.
Tom had dressed as an explorer, with loincloth, leather buckskins, and Bowie knife. John was dressed as a Crusader and wore a white silk under-tunic, a black surcoat with a scarlet cross, and a long sword strapped to his side. Joe, who could pass for John's brother despite the beard, wore a black and purple tunic, on the center of which was embroidered a demon's skull; hence the group’s name. Bill was dressed in bright colors and wore a foppish hat. The inimitable Chill hung back from the group, looking at the camera blankly. Then there was Mike. Mike was easily the tallest in the group: six-four and two-forty, he stood in the background wearing a brown broadcloth tunic and dark breeches. He carried a mace in one hand and a brandy snifter in the other. What set him apart from the others was his Manchurian style mustache, mirrored sunglasses and, of course, the ubiquitous cigarette tilted out of the corner of his mouth.
John smiled faintly and pulled the wooden bokken from the back of the locker. He tightened the belt of his hakama and nodded to Tom. Every Monday and Wednesday John and Tom rigorously studied Aikido while Bill did laps. It was a ritual. Ritual was good. He needed the ritual right now.
Joe narrowed his eyes and considered the saber. “Austrian, nineteenth century.” His partner could almost hear the Germanic accent in his voice, but it was just his imagination.
“Yeah, nice. We have to pay the rent and you buy a saber.”
Bad day, Joe thought. He was thirsty. He always got thirsty when he bought something this expensive. Weird.
“Don’t worry I get paid next week from the museum, for the restorations I did, and I’ll sign it over to you. It’ll take care of it.”
“How do you do it?”
Joe laughed and set the blade back in the case. “Conservator by day, fencing school owner by night? Lessee…no social life to speak of.
“Sometimes I find my thoughts wandering to the what-ifs, and that bothers me, but when I'm charging down a piste at another guy, man am I focused. Like that last match, a simple quarte that trips up the other guy. A counter-six! And the buzzer goes off as my saber hits his vest. You know what? That’s what it’s all about!
“It’s not just men in white suits moving up and down a corridor and hitting their metal sticks together. Not just points and electric scoring. It is a metaphor for life.” He looked down at the exquisite blade. “When you’re behind the mask, there is relevance to the game.”
“You're getting weird.”
“Am I? What's wrong with that? Look at you. You don't have a career. You've been living off of daddy's income for three years now. Where has it gotten you?”
“I–” Joe cut him off. “It’s not a bad thing, Chill, just who you are.”
“Right,” his friend just laughed. “You really have a way with insulting people and getting away with it.”
“It’s a gift I have.” He locked the saber in a glass cabinet and turned back to his friend. “Okay, we have eighth graders tonight. They are going to be foil fencing, so that’s you. Beginning fencing.”
“Eighth graders?”
Joe grinned maliciously. “Yeah, and they have never handled a foil before.”
Tom and John went down a long flight of stairs, past the racquetball courts to a pair of double doors. This was the combative arts room. Inside there could be heard the grunts and shouts of people learning various martial arts skills of varying discipline. Currently there were two classes practicing. A short, chubby fellow, wearing a white gi with a black belt led one class.
The two friends set their bokkens on the floor and bowed to the mat, and then to Tony Lee, their sensei.
“I thought the other class was moved to another night, Tony?” Tom queried as he nodded to the other class on the floor.
“That's next week. I had to persuade James to give us half the floor.” John knew it would take more than persuasion to make a person of James’s arrogance give up something.
“Line up and pair off, gentlemen,” Tony called.
“Hai!” the two replied along with the other ten in the class.
Tom and John paired off. It was their habit to try to improve each other’s skills, even though it was understood that Tom was the better of the two. Aikido was a relatively soft art, consisting of locks, throws, and balance. There was a lot of harmony and circular movement involved. When the sword was introduced it often mimicked the motions of the hands and body; it formed an extension. John had studied iaijutsu and kenjutsu before, and so he was a fair hand at the sword techniques. Tom, however, had studied martial arts since an early age, and had gone to Japan to study at a Taijutsu Ryu. It put him a few rungs higher up the ladder than his friend. They were probably the best martial artists in the class save their instructor.
Tonight, however, John was letting his aggression and feelings surface; he was acting recklessly. One of the students pointed this out to Tony.
“He's in one of his moods, sensei.”
Tony nodded and shook his head. It would not do any good to point this out to John, at least not until the hurricane had spent its wind. One of John’s problems was his lack of focus, but when he centered himself he was truly a force of nature on the floor.
Right now he was getting sloppy. He was going nowhere as Tom managed to keep his moves tight and focused. John growled low in throat and stepped to the side, slicing low. His temper was getting the best of him and Tom just slid by and nicked him in the shin. He spun back and brought his bokken around in what was more a swing to center field than a strike with a sword.
Suddenly there was a loud crack. The tip of his bokken had collided obtusely with Tom's and had broken off. It spun across the floor and into the midst of James' students. One young student stepped onto the piece and twisted her ankle, whining as she fell.
John stared at the broken bokken. Thirty bucks, he thought.
“Lee!” James called to the Aikido instructor. Tony looked up and almost smiled. John watched as James threw his long braid over his shoulder, picked up the wood shard, straightened his gi and moved across the floor towards them. He sneered arrogantly.
“I shouldn't have to put up with this crap, Lee. I have students to teach. All you idiots ever do is get in my way.”
The blood drained from Tony's face and he looked hard at the dark skinned man. John's face turned crimson with anger and he took a step forward.
“You arrogant piece of shi-”
“John,” Tom said in one of those soothing tones that really irritated him. James gazed contemptuously at John. “When you learn some real skills maybe you won't make a bad parry.”
John blinked his eyes slowly as he looked at the man. John was taller and heavier, but James was no doubt faster. He took a deep breath and smiled.
“I probably do need a few more lessons. “
James' eyes widened imperceptibly. John just turned his back on the man and walked away. James stared after him a moment then went back to his own students.
After an hour and a half of throws, twists, locks and more throws, John and Tom hit the showers. Tom looked at his friend out of the corner of his eye as John scrubbed down.
“What?” John said as he washed under the St. Christopher medal that hung around his neck.
“Something else is eating you. I think I’m sorer tonight than any other time we’ve sparred. And the argument with James, I thought I would have had to drag you off of him.”
“I should have decked him.”
“Maybe, but through all that bravado he does have a lot of skill. I've seen him fight. He's good.”
“Could you take him?”
“Yes.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“I know, but with anger you tend to be reckless.”
“Yeah, well, I've a lot to be pissed off about.”
Bill came traipsing in just as they were toweling off. He had a puppy-dog smile on his face as he opened his locker.
“What's got you in such a good mood?” Tom Smiling Wolf asked. He watched as Bill flipped open a little black address book to quickly write something in it.
“Oh, I just met a girl,” he said, his voice swelling with song. “You’re a slut.”
“Huh?” Bill asked, looking from one friend to the other. He had been so preoccupied with writing her number that he had missed the derogatory comment.
“Come on, what?”
“A good swimmer, Bill, you're a good swimmer.” Tom smirked and began to dress.
“Okay, what's going on?”
“Kyle's,” John said, feeling the rumble in his stomach. He quickly looked in the mirror, smoothed his dark hair back and checked out his mustache. He then looked to the other two for their opinion.
“Volcano pizza?” Tom asked with a frown.
“Oh yeah, and dark beer to wash the garlic bread down.”
“Sounds good,” Bill echoed and soon they were pulling on their coats.
Kyle's was a small pub that sat just off campus. It was a frequent hangout for grad students and non-traditional students who didn't want to be bothered with loud music, heavy drinking and lame pick-up lines. Dark woods and good cooking gave the pub a homey atmosphere; not to mention it had an extensive import list. The three roommates sat in a corner booth, listening to Creed on the box. Bill's gaze followed an attractive waitress as she took an order at another table.
“Sounds like you guys had a good workout.” Bill took a sip of his black ‘n’ tan and realized it was almost gone.
“James is a class ‘A’ asshole,” John remarked. Tom hushed him suddenly as the door swung open, letting in a blast of snow and, speak of the devil, James. The man walked in with one of his female students. At the table he took off his long leather coat, but he left his fingerless leather gloves on. He ignored the waitress as he spoke to the student in tones too low to hear.
John grunted and took a drink of his Amber Bock. He played with a piece of pizza crust then tossed it onto the plate. “Like I said, an asshole.”
Tom smiled and looked intensely at his friend. “Okay, John. What's going on? Something else is bothering you.”
John sighed heavily and fingered the pealing label of his beer. “I think it’s the same question that man has been dealing with from the beginning of time, who am I, and where am I going? What happens now? Do I take that government job I was offered? Joe said he needed a partner in the fencing school, do I do that? I have my ranking in kenjutsu, so I can teach. Should I still go to Japan next month? I need to get my head screwed on straight.” He laughed and flipped the steak knife.
“I think we’ve all asked ourselves that.” It was all Bill could say.
“Yeah, but you have two years until your doctorate, then it’s academia. Tom has four years of med school. Me, I have this big void.”
John shook his head and finished the beer in the bottle. “I think that's where my aggression was coming from today. The last thing I needed was that bastard James getting in my face.”
Just as he said that Bill choked. James had gotten up, mineral water in hand, and walked over to their booth.
“Well, if it isn't Larry, Curly and Moe,” the man snidely remarked. “I couldn't help but stop by. Knowing that two well-versed students of the martial arts sitting two tables away piqued my interest. Did you learn by correspondence course?” He smiled. “Oh, and I see you take your training seriously,” he gestured to the beer.
“Much more seriously than I take you,” the graduate student replied. Bill pursed his lips and Tom just stared straight ahead.
“You know, John, and I do mean this, your lack of skill on the martial-arts floor is truly comical. I have never seen anyone so inept at Aikido. At least your friend here has some redeemable skills. Alas, I fear that you were born with none.”
“You have the right to your opinion.” John slapped some money on the table.
He then got up and looked at his friends. “Ready?”
They slid out of the booth. “It did get rather stuffy in here,” Tom replied. “Oh, did it?” James followed the three out of the back door and into the snow-covered parking lot. “John,” he said mockingly. “Going to run away.” John stopped and smiled, then shook his head and kept walking.
Joe stood in his apartment, looking at the wooden frame that held a seventeenth century Dutch oil he was cleaning for an art dealer on contract. Normally he would be expected to do this kind of work in a museum lab, but the dealer had no such luxuries and permitted him to take the piece to his own studio. He just wasn’t able to get that grime off the one corner. It looked like a soot smudge but it wasn’t responding like one. He dabbed at it with a Q-tip. Odd, he thought. It’s layered. He looked outside and watched lazy snowflakes drift down from the dark sky, wondering if this coming weekend would be his last medieval Event. He felt like he was getting too old for the events, that they were starting to attract a different breed of geek. And forget the escapism, he had to start concentrating on the fencing school.
He put on a pair of latex gloves and opened a small jar, dabbed at the clear fluid inside, and spread it on the canvas where the mark was. Nothing. He flipped the frame around and looked at the back. He saw no evidence of a burn. There was just a small Cyrillic letter; probably some old inventory mark.
He held it up to a bare bulb. Ever so faintly he could make out more writing. “Odd,” he took a quick digital photo of the corner and went to his PC. In a moment he had enhanced the writing. He then brought up the site of the museum he also worked for and logged in. Checking one of the Eastern European libraries, he tried to match the symbols on the back of the canvas to the available database. He called up the file and cross-referenced it in a language program. Estimated time: 2 hours 17 minutes.
He sat back, pulled the latex gloves off and tossed them in the can. It seemed only moments went by when he was startled awake by his PC beeping impatiently. He noticed by the clock that he had been asleep for 4 hours. It was 3:30 a.m.; he had to get up at six.
He looked at what the language generator had found. Strange.

Language: Slavic, old style, derivative…
[begin]By Oran’s[proper name] fire, bound in hate and blood, I call upon thee. Open the Perilous Gate [end match]

He repeated it aloud. Suddenly the edge of the painting fluoresced and caught fire where he had applied the chemical. The letters burned, flaming the painting on his table. He acted quickly, smacking down a towel on the piece, but smoky soot, peeled paint, and burned wood were all that remained of upper corner of the seventeenth century Dutch oil painting.
He was in deep shit.
Then the smoke alarm went off.
The fat, gray-haired man finally had his tent erected within the huge auditorium. It wasn't exactly the Pennsic Wars, but the Annual Battle for the Winter Crown was an event that no Medieval Society enthusiast would miss. These were the dreamers, the misfits, the history buffs, adventurers and, most of all, those who just wanted a break from everyday society.
The shelves were finally set and the workmen left to go and ready other tents by the tilting field. He looked over the texts that he’d brought out of the crate. Most were ordinary junk; the Necronomicon, a couple of Wiccan books, Hebraic text, the Gnostic Gospels, Abram's Lore and such. One crate he had acquired at an auction in London and was said to be part of the Crowley estate. That was a joke, he thought. For the price, they were probably leftovers from a druid convention. The crate was old and musty, one book in particular he’d valued at two hundred dollars. But then there was another, just a blank Book of Shadows that he would sell for twenty. He pondered on what little knowledge people possessed of history. Few knew of the great Sumerian and Assyrian scholars who wrote (and were transcribed by the English) centuries ago: famous architects, scientists, magicians and sorcerers. The crowds that came to these events ate up that stuff. He knew that he would make a killing.
Bill laughed as he drank from a glass of red wine. John sneezed and blew his nose in a tissue, hoping he wouldn't catch a cold. He chewed a vitamin C tablet while he sipped on some vodka.
John looked around the apartment, his vision blurring from fatigue and this, his third shot of the liquor. The apartment was small and not decorated in any particular fashion. A few paintings hung on the wall. The furniture was typical, blocky and crate-like. John looked into his glass of clear liquid and the lone olive floating within and thought some very melancholy thoughts. He grabbed the remote for the stereo. The CD player clicked on and soon Pink Floyd whispered from the other side of the room.
“James is a real jerk,” Bill slurred.
“Watch your back, John,” Tom said. “He’s the kind of guy who would jump you in a dark alley.”
John got up and walked to the bay window to look at his Japanese Samurai sword resting on its rack. The Sword as it had become to be known. Outside the wind whipped snow around the eaves “Yeah, but maybe by the time we get back in two weeks, he'll have forgotten the whole thing,” Bill interjected. John pulled off his sweater and draped it over the chair, then hefted his broken bokken, spinning it in an intricate arc. He almost knocked over the CD stand.
“Believe it or not I'm really looking forward to the Event this weekend.” Bill continued as he settled into a deep chair. John remained quiet.
“So, everybody is getting back together again; the Legion of the Black Skull returns in all of its decadent glory?” Tom asked. Kiera, his pet ferret, was now crawling up one arm and tumbling down the other. This was his second Medieval Society Event and he was looking forward to it, too.
“I called for reservations. We have one room.” Bill fiddled with his guitar, tuning it. “We're lucky to get that. There are several conventions going on that weekend.”
“So we’re all crowded in one room?” Tom asked. “Of course.”
John laughed. “Where's your sense of adventure!”
People bustled about the convention center in what seemed like organized chaos. The fat man with the manuscript booth watched as the remaining tents were finally erected and a group of jugglers practiced their agility with brightly colored balls. By Friday, everything would be in place and the participants would flood in. He turned back to his tent and lit a brass oil lamp. A vision of chiaroscuro leapt into existence: the shadows hiding the unknown, the light hinting at the hidden. Leather bound tomes, dusty with age, and brittle scrolls that could be authentic, lay about the tent on oak tables. The lamp hanging over the tables swung slightly. It was ornately fashioned in the shape of a swooping dragon; he had acquired that piece in Hong Kong.
The man opened the Book of Shadows and hesitated. It was nothing more than a blank book after all, but as he flipped through the pages, he thought he saw something. Something in black. Circular?
Getting old, Zach, he thought to himself as he flipped through once more and found nothing.
Suddenly the lamp blew out. “Damn!”
The drive to his parents’ house on the lake was short, but monotonous. The farms were flat and bleak, the snow bright, but the roads were well salted and dry. John downshifted to dart past the car ahead of him, then settled back into the road ahead, his small sports car tightly hugging the curves.
His thoughts wandered as he drove. He and his friends had agreed to meet at Mike’s on Friday morning for the drive to Detroit. That would give each of them a few days with their families. No such luck for him, though. His parents, in their retirement, had become snowbirds.
He took a meandering drive through the town, stopping to gaze out over the Bay and watch a coal freighter angle expertly in toward the docks. Finally, his reminiscing done, he turned and headed toward his parents’ house.
For him, there was always something special about coming home. He pulled into the driveway of the small ranch style dwelling and parked the car. Figuring he’d get his bag later, he grabbed his sword and headed around to the back porch, through the immaculately kept garden. Even in the midst of winter, he could make out the familiar pattern of the shrubbery, the ornamental maple, and the accompanying stonework. He smiled faintly and unlocked the door, letting himself into the home of his youth.
The silence greeted him.
He put his Japanese sword on the kitchen island. It was long for a Katana, the blade itself must have been thirty inches in length, unblemished and with a graceful curve. The fittings, the hilt and scabbard were both in good repair. The scabbard, or saya was lacquered sharkskin, sanded and polished to a deep indigo. The guard, or tsuba, was forged and carried the design of two koi amid water lilies. The magnificent blade featured a complex forging pattern and an artistic hamon, the tempered cutting edge.
The Shinto period Jindachi was signed with two Japanese characters: Mountain Pine. On the opposite side of the tang read the cutting test: Ogawa Kuroemon tested it on two bodies, 1684, 2nd month on an auspicious day.
Stationed in Japan after the war, John’s father had discovered a group of officers systematically looting shrines in and around Tokyo. He had been instrumental in stopping the criminal acts and, as a reward, one of the shrines had given him the sword as a gesture of thanks. His father had given the sword to him on his twenty-first birthday.
John’s passion had always been for swords. He had managed to gather a small collection of mediocre blades, but none compared to this sword. The Japanese had raised sword-making to an art. Katana, Tachi, Wakizashi, and other blade types had evolved over the last two thousand years: forging techniques had been perfected to create a blade that was resilient, surgically sharp, and wore well over time. In Western society, Damascus steel was considered the pinnacle of blade-making.
The sword had almost become a part of him; he carried practically everywhere.
Funny how certain events elicit vivid dreams. Later that night, he dreamt of the sword. Clear dreams that transcended reality. The sword was being tested. He and a Samurai stood watching the tester, a man of lower standing, who stood with the sword poised as two convicts were lined up, blindfolded and tied against a bamboo pole. Calmly the man took a step forward, the sword flashed in a lateral cut, and easily passed through the midsections of the convicts. The Samurai nodded approvingly as other criminals cleared the bodies and the tester gave the blade to his assistant who wiped it clean, examined the edge for chips or cracks, and placed it carefully in its shirasaya, or resting scabbard. It went to the swordsmith who in turn chiseled the results on the tang. The sword was then presented to the Samurai who held it out to John.
He snapped awake, but the memory of that dream stayed with him. Unlike other dreams, often fraught with fancy and inconsistency, this one had a clarity that was surprising. He shivered, not from the cold but rather from a sense of uneasiness that would persist well into the evening.

Friday found Bill practically falling down the steps of Mike’s front porch. Trying to pull on his jacket, heft his Estoc, a form of epee, and walk was evidently too much for him in the early morning hours, but he finally made it and threw his gear in the SUV. John leaned against the SUV with one bag and the Sword, as everyone called it. Chill lounged on the tailgate, staring over the rim of his glasses.
Chill was about five ten, and barrel-like. Slow and methodical in all things, he nodded to his friends as he wiped his hands on his pants.
“Ready?” he asked in a gravelly voice.
“Yep, but we’re missing a few,” Bill answered. Tom leaned his head out the driver’s side door and in an effort to see who was there and who was not. Joe seemed to be running late and Mike was still inside his parents’ house.
“Are we going to be jousting at this one?” Bill asked of John. If so there was a discrepancy in the gear they needed, especially padding.
“No, we're still disqualified from the fighting.”
Chill smiled and said, “It seems when we broke with the ranks of the Midwest Kingdoms and began to fight for the Northern Kingdoms it was some sort of treaty infringement.”
Bill shook his head. “The King of the Midwest was an ass. He wanted us to make a suicide run for the bridge. When we turned–”
“We surprised the hell outa them,” Mike announced as he walked down the driveway. He carried a bag on his shoulder, the contents of which were questionable at best. His sandy brown hair was tousled and he wore his customary shades. The ever-present cigarette dangled from the corner of his mouth.
Mike was definitely on the fringes of the norm for most people, and even for college students, for that matter. He a was recent dropout from the physics department, having left just one step ahead of expulsion for turning his major into a tool for the pursuit of the occult. He had a fascination with the uncertainty principle, and believed that it resulted from an energy field indicating a fifth dimension; hence the existence of what the uninformed call 'magic'. The only thing was, he didn't know how it could be tapped, and the dean of the school of science didn't fancy him turning the department into an alembic. So, rather than face expulsion, he had withdrawn from the University and now managed a coffee shop downtown.
“Yeah,” John remembered their mock ambush. “We turned and they thought we were retreating, so they rounded on us. Then we cut them down from behind.” Chill frowned, but the throaty rumble of Joe’s Mustang silenced his snide retort. Joe got out and stretched wearily. The artist appeared to be tired and in a very dark mood.
“Let's get this show on the road,” called Chill.
“I can hardly wait,” replied an enthusiastic John. “Shut up, John,” sighed Chill.
Joe opened the curtains of their fourth-floor room and gazed at the Detroit skyline. The sun had just set and the twinkle of nightlife was radiating all around the city. He turned and looked over the room. It was cramped, with two full beds, but what would you expect. They would have to play it by ear, as they had only paid for two occupants.
Joe sat down on the divan and pulled out a yellow carbon slip from his shirt pocket, scratching at his beard as he perused it. It was dated six months ago, the last Society Event. He had placed an order with a blacksmith for a hand-and-a-half, or bastard sword. Now that he would probably lose his job with the dealer, he wondered if he could get his deposit back. Probably not, he thought. It might look nice at future fairs, a piece of contemporary folk art?
“Ah, the long anticipated bastard sword. You'll pick it up tomorrow?” John asked as he handed his friend a beer.
“Yep, I am blowing money right and left lately, but it’s truly a sword worthy of a Landesknecht. I had it made to historically accurate specifications.”
“He had some pretty good prices on short swords.”
“Probably for cheap-asses like you,” chided Chill. “I’m not cheap,” John retorted.
“You are a mooch,” began Chill.
“Yeah, John, you are known for your ability to weasel out of paying for things.” Mike tipped his beer back, smiling.
“I thought I was frugal.”
“Ooh, kinky,” Mike quipped.
“Can it, Mike, we know your sexual habits only include stray cats and raw liver,” Bill tossed back.
“We should get another Game going one of these days,” Chill said, directing the statement to Mike, who was still glaring at Bill. Joe, frustrated at the direction the verbal jousting was heading slipped out onto the balcony.
“When do we have time to get together?”
“Who knows?” It was last thing John heard as he followed his friend onto the snow-covered balcony, four stories up. He shivered and wrapped his arms about himself.
“Jeez, it’s freezing out here. You pick a helluva spot to collect your thoughts. What's up?”
Joe looked at him, then away, toward Windsor on the other side of the river. He sighed and tossed back his beer. “I accidentally set a twenty thousand dollar Dutch painting on fire.”
“Ouch. What happened?”
“Don’t know. I had a very mild thinner on the edge, I found some strange writing in Cyrillic on the back. Took a digital photo and a few minutes later, whoosh, up in flames. I don’t know if the chemical in the thinner reacted to the light. I called the manufacturer and they never heard of such a thing.”
“What about insurance?”
“Oh it’s covered. But, it just isn’t the just the money, I’ll pay the gallery owner. Though my insurance will go sky high. It was a seventeenth century Dutch Master; do you know how hard it is to come by those outside a museum? I’ll never get a conservatory job again. Word travels. I’m screwed.”
“If it’s any consolation, I know how you feel.”
“Yeah. Tom said something was up with you?”
John laughed. “Yeah, ain't we a pair. You kill a Dutch Master and I have no idea what to do with my life.”
“I don't know, bud. I wonder if I’ll lose the school. I need the job at the Smithsonian and the gallery to help keep it and me afloat, but my offer is still out there for joining me at the school.” His gaze wandered down over the street, gray eyes peering through the gloom.
“There's a difference between owning one’s problems and playing victim. I can't imagine you shirking that. Go in and tell them what happened, tell them it was an accident. They can’t fire you because of that can they?”
“Wanna bet? They aren’t very forgiving. Maybe it’s time to throw myself into the school.” He shook his head. He let the silence build between them for a moment, until the chill air finally began to take its toll. Finally he sighed and turned to reenter the hotel room.
“Don't beat yourself up about this, Joe. God knows we all come to a point where we question our worth. You are more accomplished than a lot of people I've met in the past two years. Keep that in mind. There’s no way you will end up on the street; you have friends and family. Go to your boss, tell the truth and screw them if they don’t like it. You are one of the best restorers they have. Just keep that in mind, there are plenty of museums in foreign countries that have never heard of you.” He smiled sheepishly.
Joe looked over his shoulder to his friend. “Thanks for the pep talk. What about you?”
“Well, I get to spend a month in Japan, then come back for graduation.
There isn’t much work for a Sociologist with just a master’s degree. I've come to the realization that if I am going to do anything meaningful with my life I better start soon.”
“Careful what you wish for,” Joe warned as he slipped back into the room. “You may get it.”
The sharply dressed pharmaceutical rep adjusted her glasses and hefted her briefcase as the elevator stopped on her floor. She frowned with impatience. It had been a long day spent in meetings and all she wanted to do was get a bite to eat in the restaurant before she went to her room to soak in a tub of hot water. As the elevator doors slid open, she gasped at the six figures standing there. Cautiously entering, she tried not to gawk as her eyes darted from one bizarre vision to the next. Twilight Zone, she thought.
The biggest stood in the rear, in some kind of brown tunic, leather boots and cape, with a Samurai sword of some kind. A wolfish grin lifted his Manchu-style mustache, and he adjusted his mirrored sunglasses. Was he staring at her? Two others: one in a black quilted outfit with a cape and black boots, stood holding a black-sheathed Japanese sword as he talked to another, a bearded man with a purple tunic that had a beautifully-embroidered demon skull on it. His faux ermine cloak was slung back, and he had no weapon she could see. A tall, very handsome fellow with long blonde hair was dressed in bright pastels. He spoke with a sandy haired man dressed in a hooded tunic, buckskins and loose fitting pants. He had on what looked like authentic Native American moccasins and he carried a bow over his back. She shivered in revulsion upon seeing the buffalo leather cloak.
A shorter man, with shoulder-length black hair, leaned his stocky frame against the wall and smoothed his olive-drab tunic; a broadsword hung at his side. He gestured at the blonde haired guy’s intricately hilted sword and scabbard and smiled slowly. The tall one laughed.
The elevator door slid open and the businesswoman stepped into the hallway. The lift continued on its journey and she went to her room, shaking her head all the way.
Freaks, she thought.
The thought of writing a check made his teeth hurt, but as the smith set the bastard sword on the table between them, Joe just smiled in appreciation. The black metal blade was about forty-two inches long and its edge gleamed with sharpness, the carved runes gently glowing in the overhead fluorescent lights. Joe hefted it – the balance was perfect and the pommel was made for either one or two hands. It seemed a pity to hide such a beautiful creation inside a scabbard, but Joe had worked long and hard to create something that would accent the smith’s work. The tooled leather was studded with stones and gilt wire; a fitting home for an artist’s weapon. It accented the new blade nicely. He wondered if he were meant to carry a blade more akin to this than a fencing saber. He produced his checkbook, and wrote a check for the amount remaining.
“I could sure use a beer,” John stated resting his hand on the hilt of his Japanese Katana.
“Hmmm?” replied the artist. “Yeah, I’m thirsty all of a sudden.
The six members that were the 'Legion of the Black Skull' sat in one of the gaily-bannered pavilions, waiting for their serving wench to bring beer and roast pig with yams. Just outside the roped-off eating area, jugglers tossed clubs, tumblers leapt about, and strolling minstrels regaled revelers with their songs. The companions ate and watched the open field in the center of the convention hall where the melee took place. A group of men in thickly padded armor with mock weapons went after each other. The group surged and ebbed as the referees called out to those that were either dead or seriously injured. Soon the field was held by a remaining small group of brightly dressed knights with the ensign of a white cross on red field.
“Those dudes are the ones that got the prize when we had to forfeit at the last joust,” Chill murmured.
“I've met them,” remarked Bill. “They think they're God's gift to the Medieval Society.”
“Hmmph,” was all that issued from Mike. His mouth was stuffed full of meat, which was probably just as well. He had nothing good to say about their rivals, either.
“They really aren't that good,” observed Smiling Wolf. He smoothed down Kiera's coat and offered her some dried fruit to nibble on. She looked at him as though he were crazy and tried to nip at his finger. He just ignored her.
They all watched as the band of winners approached the King’s chair and received their trophy. Joe stood up, thoroughly disgusted and turned his back on the awarding of the trophy. He picked up his cloak, adjusted his new sword and strode off. Soon the rest were done with their meals, and John, Mike and Bill wandered off to look at the booths and tents. Set off to one side, a manuscript dealer caught Mike’s eye. Seemingly isolated from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the fair, the tent exuded a tranquility he found intriguing. The three walked over, curious as to what type of manuscripts and print-work the tent might contain.
As their eyes adjusted to the dimly lit tent, Zach, the proprietor, greeted them. His hands fluttered ceaselessly about the designs on his purple robe. John stood by the door, not exactly caring for ancient grimoires and such, while Bill and Mike browsed through the materials.
Mike approached one of the tables and picked up a huge, handwritten, leather-bound book that must have been centuries old. He opened and looked at the first page; it was written in Latin. He smiled, recognizing the text. It was something for the summoning and banishing of spirits to another plane of existence. When he saw the price he set it down.
“It is too much, milord?” the man asked in Society jargon.
“Well worth the price, I’m sure, my good merchant, but two hundred dollars is beyond my purse, I am afraid,” Mike replied. Bill raised his eyebrow and realized why the tent was empty.
“But is the knowledge not worth it?” came the obsequious reply
“Can one truly put a price on knowledge?” Mike queried back.
The man smiled and stepped back, allowing the students to browse. Mike's eye was caught by a flutter of light from the lamp that played over the surface of a dingy black book. He picked it up, feeling the worn leather cover, noted the ragged edges of the paper. As he flipped through it, he thought he caught something on one of the pages, but when he flipped again there was nothing. Mike replaced the book and shook his hands; it felt like they had started to fall asleep.
“You know what that is?” Zach asked. The lamps flickered as if with a sudden breeze. Mike looked up and replied uneasily.
“It's a book for the recording of spells and magical notation.”
“Yes, and the dealer I bought it from said it belonged to the Crowley estate.” Mike raised his eyebrows. Aleister Crowley reputedly knew a great deal regarding magic and sorcery, and was also reputed to have been a most evil man. If it truly were from the Crowley Estate it would be worth a pretty penny, even if it hadn’t been written in.
“Do you have a provenance?”
“Unfortunately no, gentle lord.”
“How much?”
“Milord, my prices are very reasonable, fifty dollars.”
“Fifty dollars for a blank book?” John said dubiously from behind Mike. “Twenty-five,” Mike countered.
“Give me leave to make a little profit, young sire. Thirty-five.”
“Thirty, and that's my final offer.”
“As you will, but many more such deals will beggar me.” The bookseller got some brown paper from below a table and quickly wrapped the book.
Bill shook his head. “You sure know how to waste your money, Mike.” From the look on John's face, he echoed Bill’s amazement.
“No, if the book really was Crowley’s, I made an investment. If it isn’t, I can still use the pages to chronicle the Black Skull’s adventures. Not a bad deal either way.”