Nighttime in the archopolis.
The star Algo dipped beneath the horizon over the planet Palm, and the lights came on in the Camineet-Parolit arch'. The blare of brilliant white lamps designed to turn night into day on the elevated highways running over and through the city. The brilliant colors of corporate symbols on the towers soaring above Downtown, and beneath them their smaller brethren, the bright signs luring patrons to theaters, restaurants, bars, and clubs, to all-night MultiMarts and to parlors where human degradation was a commodity to be bought and sold.
In the shadows cast by this blaze of light lurked the denizens of the night--the gangers, the street thrills, the metachem dealers, the dreamheads, the rockers, the gutterboys. They owned the streets and the groundways after dark; to linger too long outside a club or bar was to stray into their world. Some did so willingly, others by accident, and every night not all of each kind was able to reemerge into the light.
How different it was here, Jason Wulfeburne thought, as he stepped up to the doors of the Fairlane Building in the Skyhaven district. In Skyhaven, regular patrols of Division of Law Enforcement agents and robots kept the streets clear, augmented by private security firms. The doors to the luxurious condominium complex, for example, looked like glass but were in fact armored polymers capable of standing up to a vulcan burst or plasma cannon round. In the lobby, the front desk was manned by a liveried clerk, but two Wren186 androids flanked the door and two Polezi robots stood near the bank of elevators. Moreover, Wulfeburne knew that in case of serious trouble, the Fairlane had a rapid-response contract with Emerald Legion Security that would bring armored troopers down on any troublemakers.
Peace through superior firepower.
Wulfeburne reached into his suit pocket and brought out an ID smartcard. To save the trouble of having to check him in past security every time he visited, his host had paid to put him on a permanent guest list. Wulfeburne slotted the card, then inputted a five-digit code on a keypad to verify his identity. The doors unsealed and slid open.
The mosaiced tiles of the lobby floor weren't actually the stone they resembled, Wulfeburne knew, but the desk, chairs, and the trim around the walls were actual wood. In AW 1275, wood was by no means cheap, something of a minor status symbol in the industrialized, metal-and-plastic world of the archopolis.
The elevators required Wulfeburne to slot his card again to activate one, though no additional code was necessary. The two robots regarded him impassively, their forms eerily reminiscent of armored knights from a long-past age. The doors opened, and he stepped inside.
"Seventeenth floor," he said, and the machines responded. The doors closed, and the elevator whisked him upstairs smoothly and efficiently. There were no stops along the way; the inhabitants of the Fairlane didn't pay the outrageous prices for their condominiums just to wait for other people.
"We are now arriving at the seventeenth floor," the elevator declared as it slid to a stop.
Wulfeburne strolled down a carpeted hall until he came to the door he wanted. A light touch on a panel next to the door sounded a chime inside the condo suite although the soundproofing kept him from hearing it. One of the benefits offered by the Fairlane was that, if one wanted, one could have the Spikers, the Rendak Redboys, and Jaxx Edgeblood over for a retrothrash jam session, and the neighbors would never know.
Of course, when Paul Herrod opened his door, no orgiastic wave of noise and mayhem flowed out over the threshold.
"Good to see you, Wulfeburne; you're the last of the Circle to arrive."
Herrod was one of those men who projected an aura of confidence and respectability. His brown hair was shot through with silver; his dark, executive-styled two-piece carbonsuit was appropriate for the hour, and his face appeared open and guileless. His grip was firm, the kind that implied strength and forthrightness.
"I'm sorry for the delay," Wulfeburne said. "Some macrobike gang decided to run the roadpass grid on Highway Segment 16 and then shot it out with the DLE and an aerotank. It took thirty minutes just to scrub them off the road." Just another slice of life in the arch', a taste for violence leading gutterpunks into a fiery end. That was all their lives had amounted to, a minor irritant to drivers and a fifteen-second newsblip.
Herrod made a face.
"Typical," he remarked, "but then, it is things like that which led us to form the Circle in the first place. Can I get you anything? Coffee, mila, something harder?"
"Nyshar, if you have it."
Herrod nodded. He showed Wulfeburne into the luxuriously outfitted living room of his suite, which was furnished in an eclectic mix of the modern and the antique. A light touch of a concealed button caused a section of the Dezolian pine paneling to slide up, revealing a recessed shelf where glasses and decanters were kept. Herrod selected a decanter and filled a long, thin glass with the fuchsia-pink laermaberry liqueur. Wulfeburne greeted the other four Circle members while his host fetched the drink.
"Glad you could make it," said Bright, the youngest of the six. His brilliant cyan-blue hair shimmered in the lamplight; he'd chosen a tie to match.
"Yes," added the only female member of the group, Corliss, who'd changed from her work clothes into an off-the-shoulder black dress with a double length of gold chain worn at the waist like a belt. She sipped delicately from a glass of amber-hued wine and added, "I think we'll see something special tonight."
"Yes, indeed," Herrod said, handing Wulfeburne his drink. "Judging by what I've read in the Baya Malay Revelations, tonight is a propitious time, astrologically, for the use of ritual magic. I'm sure you can appreciate the importance of that."
Wulfeburne took a sip of the nyshar, letting the bright liquid flow silkily down his throat like a rush of tingling stars.
"Quite," he agreed. "It's difficult enough to be dealing in an area as arcane as mysticism, where the rites and lore that were common knowledge to any village wisewoman or hedge-wizard have been drowned by modern society. Crude, dirty, technological power has replaced the clean, natural way of magic."
"Not that the Esper rebellion on Mota didn't help matters along, there," Bright observed dryly. It was a point; when the Espers had rebelled against Mother Brain in the 900s, magic had for a time become all but verboten on Palm. The culture rejected the old ways associated with criminals and terrorists, and clung to technology, which had rebuilt Mota from the ashes of the cataclysm that had nearly wiped out all the Palmans on the planet.
Only now, the pendulum had swung too far. The only magic was that of "techniques," a system for channeling the energies that made up magic according to almost scientific principles, focused by the will but nonetheless predictable...limited. Not like true magic, Esper magic, which reached into the realm of mystery.
The realm that the Circle sought for itself.
Herrod beckoned to his guests.
"Come. Now that we're all here," he said, "it would be best, I think, if we began at once. Tonight's ritual is somewhat long, and I wanted to get an early start."
There was a general assent, so Herrod led the way from the living room to an adjoining chamber. It had been dedicated to the use of the Circle, its decor strictly a matter of business. The wall-length window was curtained by heavy drapes of royal blue, allowing nothing of the technological world to make its presence known. Shelves lined the walls, some bearing ornaments of mystic significance, relics and foci, while others were laden with books--bound manuscripts that had never been reduced to electronic media. Wulfeburne's eye was caught by a ritual dagger from ancient Triada, a malachite idol of a snarling dragon, and a faceted crystal purported to be the tip of a sorcerer's staff from the legendary "torture palace" of Dezo, Menobe.
In the center of the room was a round table. It was made of wood, but into its surface silver had been inlaid, turning the top of the table into a hexagram. At each point a cushioned chair had been placed, and on the table at the precise center of the hex's perimeter triangles were tapering black candles, one before each chair. These, Wulfeburne knew, were blood candles, in which the blood of the maker was added to the wax. He and Bainbridge, another member, had been the ones to make them.
In the middle of the table was a copper brazier, its bowl filled with coals. Herrod took a firewand from a shelf, set the tip to the coals, and touched the trigger. Blue fire spat from the end of the wand, igniting a guttering orange blaze in the copper bowl. Herrod replaced the wand.
"Residence, dim lights to ten percent," he instructed the suite's household maintenance computer. It complied at once, plunging the room into shadows. The flames gave a weird and unearthly appearance to the faces of the Circle members, and a shiver ran through Wulfeburne. Perhaps it was nothing but false hope, but he had a strong feeling that something was going to happen that night.
"Now, everyone please seat yourselves," Herrod instructed. Once they were arrayed around the table he said, "Take the candle before you and light it from the brazier." As one, they obeyed, touching the wicks to the flame and seeing the tapers burst alight. The blood candle's fire danced mesmerizingly before Wulfeburne's eyes.
"Focus," Herrod said. His voice was firm and even. "Clear your mind of all thoughts but those of the Circle, of the elder mysteries into which we are to reach. Let the flame guide your will, free you of the cares and concerns of the workaday world."
Wulfeburne stared into the candle flame, watching it flicker and dance before his eyes. He focused on the leaping fire, letting Herrod's voice relax him, leave him with only the thoughts of the Circle, of magic, of the knowledge that awaited out there, beyond the world that he could see, hear, touch. He dipped his head, signifying that his meditation was complete. One by one, the others did as well.
"Now, I want you to join your mind with me, extend your will as I chant the spell. Reach into the realms of power with your spirit, seek out the wisdom that awaits."
They'd tried rituals similar to this one before, ancient formulae drawn from equally ancient manuscripts and books of dubious reputation. At first, all had failed, but the Circle had not been daunted. They'd expected things to be difficult at first; it was only natural when dealing with a lost art of which they were at best students.
There had been successes too, though. Through them, the Circle refined their methods. They learned what seemed to work, what factors could lead to the success or failure of a spell, and what appeared to be no more than superstition.
And the successes, small as they were, began to come more often.
That was why, when Herrod lifted his voice to begin reciting the chant he'd drawn from the mouldering tomes that he'd found littering the shop of an antique dealer, the other five members of the Circle fully expected something to happen.
They were right.
Wulfeburne didn't know if he was the first to sense it, but he knew instantly when he did. It was a strange sensation, a light touch in his mind, like a feather or a piece of silk brushed gently over his thoughts. He could feel a tingling sensation flow through him, not in his veins or along his nerves, but as if there was another network of conduits just under his skin that were being stimulated.
It was the same feeling Wulfeburne got from technique use, when he focused his will and drew in the power from the world around him. Then, though, he tapped the energy only for a moment, whereas now the magic was flowing through him steadily.
He heard Herrod raise his voice, becoming more urgent, more commanding, and knew that the Circle's leader could feel it too. The spell was, for whatever reason, working.
The blood candles suddenly flared up, their flames extending upwards with new brightness, turning into four-inch pillars of flame. The brazier, meanwhile, began to gutter and die down, its radiance shrinking and fading long before it should have gone out naturally.
Power was here.
Wulfeburne felt it brush across his mind as the urgency in Herrod's voice swelled and grew like a living thing. He could feel the web of magic forming in the room, linking the six of them together. He felt a tugging within himself, at a place he'd never known was there, a part of him that had never been touched. The conduits of power burned in him as that something flowed out of him in a rush and Herrod screamed.
The explosion was soundless, the only noise that of the Circle members being hurled onto the floor, of the rare and valuable items falling off the shelves, some breaking when they struck the luxuriously carpeted floor. The table, the brazier, the candles were all blasted into cinders and dust. In their midst, a cloud of flame seethed and roiled, burning furiously with the same reddish-tinged fire that had sprung from the blood candle.
As Wulfeburne lay sprawled, half-stunned by the blast, he stared at the seething mass that seemed, ever so slowly, to be changing shape, drawing in upon itself and taking on a recognizable form. The Circle had succeeded--they truly had used the ancient magic to breach the barrier between this one and the next, to reach into the outer darkness and bring back some emanation of what was there. Yet in this moment of ultimate glory, Wulfeburne felt nothing of the exultation he'd expected to feel.
The members of the Circle had sought to bring magic back to the Algo System, to restore the ancient days, to touch upon the wisdom--and yes, power as well; they were not immune to the lure of personal advantage--that the elder magics could bring to them.
At no time, Wulfeburne realized, had he or any of them stopped to consider just what sort of creature was meant to be summoned forth by the long-lost rituals they had unearthed, or what kind of knowledge would be called up by rites of blood and flame.
The past had not only been a golden time of peace and glory. It had had its dark side, its taint just as the modern era did. Now, as the flame resolved itself into a shape, cooled from raw energy down to physical form, did Wulfeburne perceive that just as magic, when put to good purpose, was full of wonder and beauty, so was its alternate side that much worse than the minor evils of society.
Unfortunately, Wulfeburne realized as a clawed hand slowly raised towards him, it was a lesson they had learned far too late.