The following section is the beginning of the first chapter of “Arcana” following the Prelude, an unnumbered chapter named after the first card of the Tarot’s Major Arcana, The Fool. This was the selection that I chose for my first public reading at Ginkgo Coffee on March 3rd, 2010.
Spring had come to the city of Minneapolis, an annual event of a significance not nearly so appreciated in parts of the country free from Minnesota’s arctic winters. The snow that had blanketed the city for the previous five months was gone, melted into runny slush and mud underfoot. It was a relatively warm Friday night, and the fashionable clubs and restaurants of the warehouse district were packed in an exuberant celebration of the end of an unusually cold and nasty season.
The slick black Pontiac GTO was a classic from 1965 in perfect condition and, judging by the low scoop on top of the hood, modified for racing. The car’s engine growled menacingly as it maneuvered into a parking space left oddly vacant in front of Morpheus, the Twin Cities’ most popular restaurant and nightclub. Michael Niemand stepped out of the car, locked the door, and traced a quick sigil over the vehicle with his right index finger. He was relatively short and stocky with long black hair and stormy blue-gray eyes and was dressed impeccably in a black button-down shirt and slacks. Around his neck on a silver chain hung a small silver unicursal hexagram that picked up the glow of the street lamps as he walked down the sidewalk to the high arch that served as the main entrance to the club.
Recognizing him immediately the doorman gestured him inside. “Is she here yet?” asked Michael, already knowing the answer but asking for the sake of appearances and on the off chance that his magical senses might be wrong.
The doorman nodded.
“Does she look upset?”
“Well, with that one it’s kind of hard to tell,” replied the doorman with an uncertain shrug, “but I get the feeling she isn’t too happy about something.”
Michael let out a dejected sigh. “Thanks,” he said with a forced smile, offering his usual generous tip. As he crossed the huge foyer to the restaurant entrance he cleared his mind and checked his magical defenses even though he was unsure they would do him much good. Elspeth’s strength as a magician was surpassed only by her ability to fly into rages and use her powers indiscriminately on anyone who happened to be in her way, and he had a feeling that tonight that person would be him.
He saw her as soon as he entered the restaurant, sitting at a table off to the side of the room in the stiff, controlled posture that usually marked extreme anger or resentment. Her face was cold and expressionless, though that was nothing unusual, and even without any visible facial expression her beauty had an unearthly, almost magical quality to it, an outward mark of the shining power that filled the core of her being like molten sunlight. Fashion-model tall and slim with long straight black hair, she could have graced the cover of many magazines if she had any desire to do so. Of course, her obsession had always been magick, not physical beauty, but it seemed that somehow she had managed to achieve mastery of both – at least when she was able to hold on to her ephemeral cool.
As Elspeth spotted him her silver-blue eyes flashed accusingly in the dim light.
Resigned to his fate, Michael crossed the expansive room and seated himself at the table. “Look,” he began, “I know you’re upset about this, but…”
Her voice was low and contained as she cut him off. “This goes beyond ‘upset’, Michael. Well beyond. In fact, I’m amazed that I’m even sitting here talking to you. I just want to know one thing – how did you do it? What on earth could you have promised Jonas and the others?”
“Absolutely nothing,” he replied, amazed at the question. “Are you so convinced of my inferiority that you can’t even accept that maybe, just maybe, I could be a better magician than you are? At least, by the criteria of the Inner Order?”
She shook her head dismissively. “No. I will never accept that. You know I’m stronger.”
“Yes I do,” he agreed. “But has it never occurred to you that strength alone isn’t what the study of magick is about? Your problem isn’t me and it isn’t the politics of the Guild. It’s you. You’re so full of that great, legendary strength that you’ve become lazy and undisciplined.”
Her eyes flared sharply. “You’re a fine one to talk about laziness. I’m not the one putting lessons on hold because of a job that means nothing in the context of what is really important. Unlike you, I do nothing but work at developing my abilities and you know it.”
“I suppose that was a cheap shot,” he admitted. “I know that you work hard – but maybe you’ve lost your way. Magick isn’t just about being able to produce effects. It’s about evolution, moving forward instead of stagnating. It’s about achieving an awareness of the fundamental nature of things.” He braced himself, reviewing in his mind the speech he had practiced since his initiation into the Inner Order of the Guild. He knew that the moment he agreed to take the next step in his magical career, events were set in motion that led inevitably to this night. He had thought that after reviewing what he would say countless times he was resigned to his fate, but still, actually saying the words was surprisingly difficult. “But I’m not going to lecture you,” he continued finally. “We’ve had this discussion before and I know you won’t listen. I knew that we were through the moment I was asked into the Inner Order, because you’re so conceited that I knew you would never accept my attainment of a higher grade than yours. What was I supposed to do? Refuse? You would never turn down an initiation and neither would I. And part of me is just fed up with the whole thing – playing to your ego, trying to appease your fragile sense of self, and all this nonsense that I have to put up with to keep you around. That’s why you wanted to meet me here, right? To dump me?”
An ironic smile twisted across Elspeth’s lips. “You’ve always been perceptive.”
Michael sighed, more relieved than anything else at her apparent calm. “Good. Does that mean I can leave now? It’s really too late for dinner, and I assume that you’d rather I not stick around.”
Elspeth’s expression darkened. “That’s it? That’s all you have to say?”
Here we go, thought Michael. To his magical senses the air around her shifted and crackled with destructive force. “Yes,” he replied. “That’s all I have to say. It’s all I really can say. I care about you and I’m sorry things didn’t work out, but that’s just the way life goes. Sometimes these things happen.”
“Are you saying you’re glad to be rid of me?” she demanded fiercely, rising suddenly to her feet.
“Of course not!” he shot back. “I…”
Not listening, she continued furiously. “After everything I’ve done for you? You bastard!”
Michael stood up but remained silent, profoundly thankful that regular people were unable to see magical forms and perceived nothing more than a quarreling couple. He knew that nothing he could say would prevent what was coming and quickly reinforced the magical defenses he had set up before departing for the evening. Invoking elemental hexagrams, invoking Saturn hexagram, sigils of the intelligence and spirit of Saturn…
Calm washed over Elspeth, but it was the calm of concentration rather than acceptance or even resignation. “Here’s a little present for you. Drop dead.” She raised her right hand, and in a voice like unsheathed steel intoned a simple incantation, backed by what felt like all the power in the known universe. “Yolcam drilp!”
Elspeth stormed out of the club as the magical attack shook the whole room like a thunderclap, throwing Michael back into his seat. Despite the black spots that momentarily threatened his vision he managed to maintain his defenses fairly well. Some of the energy had made it through and would probably cling to him as a low-level curse for days, but somehow he had managed to block the brunt of an attack that only a few days ago would probably have sent him to the Emergency Room. With a detached curiosity he examined the remains of his invisible defensive circle, wondering to what extent his new rank had helped him. He had guessed prior to his initiation that the higher-ranking Adepts drew on each other’s strength to some extent, and now it did feel like behind his considerable individual powers stood the long line of mystics and seekers that comprised the Guild’s history. The realization that his powers were indeed much stronger than before was exhilarating.
As he pondered his initiation and its significance, a premonition coursed through his mind. Fire, heat, pain… And suddenly it occurred to him that Elspeth was sloppy. She had not just cursed him – she had cursed the whole area. It also occurred to him that building codes notwithstanding the space occupied by Morpheus was in a very old warehouse.
He was running for the door when the club exploded in flames.
For Michael the next several hours were jumbled and confused. He had been thrown through the plate glass window next to the door in the initial blast, landing on the hood of somebody’s BMW parked in front of the club. With the luck that tended to follow most mages and despite Elspeth’s curse he had been hurled almost twenty feet and sustained only minor cuts and bruises. He was knocked unconscious as he landed and as he came to a few minutes later he saw that the building had become an inferno. A crowd of people dressed mostly in stylish club wear stood on the other side of the street watching firefighters desperately battle the blaze and paramedics offer treatment to what survivors they could find.
He pulled himself to his feet, visualizing the layout of the building as best he could. He extended his senses to fill the warehouse, scanning it level by level. The heat in the basement was the worst, and he could feel the weak points in the structure where the curse had taken hold. A gas line had broken somewhere inside the immense, ancient furnace and was still spewing fire and heat that kept the flames going upstairs. He visualized a circle of stasis around the pipe and willed the fire to die, chanting once more to himself the names of the intelligence and spirit attributed to Saturn.
Something shifted inside the building and the flames began to subside.
The warehouse still burned but now the firefighters were getting it under control. Somehow the gas was no longer spewing from the pipe to feed the fire and for the most part the warehouse was built out of concrete, brick, and other fireproof materials. Without the gas there was little to burn besides the furniture and the wooden studs that backed the finished interior walls.
He then shifted his awareness to see if anyone was still alive inside the building. He sensed a fair number of people, though thankfully not as many as he had feared. It was still early in the evening and the club had not been even close to full. One by one he focused on each survivor whose mind he could reach, laying circles of protection and healing spells on them to keep them alive long enough to be reached by the paramedics, after which he cast wards against infection and internal bleeding on his own injuries. He did not feel the immediate disruption of his bodily energies that accompanied most truly severe wounds, but after the sheer amount of ritual work he had performed his senses were not nearly as sharp. As a paramedic suddenly noticed him standing next to the building and gestured for him to cross the street to safety Michael did so, sitting down on the sidewalk to watch the remaining rescue efforts. He was tired and hurt, but he felt obligated to stay.
In a way the blast was his fault. He was not as responsible as Elspeth, of course, but he had known what was likely to happen that night and maybe he could have constructed better defenses that would have protected the building around him. Maybe they could have met somewhere else that was less public, or even in some neutral temple space where they could have thrown spells at each other with impunity – someplace where there would be no risk of violating the rules of the Guild.
We do not act in anger. We do not harm innocent bystanders.