2735 words (10 minute read)

Prologue

RUSSIAN RUNNER

Snow fell on St. Petersburg as the young sorceress ran for her life.

It was a January evening in Russia, just past one a.m. The city’s colorful minarets glinted in the cold light of a gibbous moon. At this hour, the streets were mostly empty, save for the occasional late-night piroski seeker or insomniac. Had anyone looked out their frosted bedroom window, they would have been surprised to see the running young woman for two reasons: 1) the girl was without jacket or hat, which was highly unusual for anyone in St. Petersburg at this time of year, and 2) there seemed to be nothing and no one chasing her.

Still, she ran. She was a pale teenager of 14 years, tall for her age and reedy, like an icy cattail melting in the winter sun. She wore a checkered blue blouse, a dark navy skirt that went to her ankles and was already hem-coated in slush, and large, round eyeglasses. A wispy blond braid hung halfway down her back. Her breath came in frantic, wheezing puffs of ice. Clutched to her chest was a wadded-up quilt.

[ENCHANTING DETAILS: St. Petersburg was founded in 1703 by Tsar Peter the Great, himself an accomplished sorcerer. It is the second-largest city in all of Russia, with a population of 4.9 million. The city has gone through more name changes than a pop singer – it has been called Petrograd, Leningrad, and ‘the Venice of the North’. The locals simply refer to it as ‘Peter’.]

The sorceress turned her head to glance behind. The streets were empty, the air hushed with snowfall. And yet, the girl must have seen something, because a ragged cry of fear broke from her throat. She attempted to increase her speed, turning down a narrow, cobblestone alleyway. The leather heel of her shoe slipped on a wet paver, but she managed to keep her balance and continue moving.

At the far end of the alleyway, she skidded to a stop. Her exhaled breaths created great clouds of vapor which obscured her face. With one hand, she removed her glasses and wiped off the condensation on her quilt. Then she scanned her surroundings.

Directly before the sorceress was Palace Square, a massive, open area the size of five European football fields. The square’s only defining feature was a 47 meter-high red granite spire, known as the Alexander Column. Behind that was the Winter Palace, a gorgeous, baroque building of white and azure, accented at symmetrical intervals with gold paint. With its current dusting of fresh snow, it looked like a particularly large and expensive wedding cake.

[ENCHANTING DETAILS: Unveiled in 1834, the Alexander Column is a monument to Russia’s defeat of Napolean two decades prior. The main column is composed of a single piece of stone that weighs 661 tons, and is set so well that no attachment to the base is needed. If only modern creations were built so well.]

The young woman had no time to appreciate architecture, however. Her desperate eyes scanned the length of the square, until they landed on what she’d been running for this whole time – the blue and white symbol of a Russian police outpost.

Taking a deep breath, she began to sprint straight for the glowing sign. Less than ten steps into the square, her foot caught a patch of ice and she fell to the ground. The bundle in her arms unfurled, sending a heavy, rectangular object skidding across the snow-dusted stone.

It was a book. An old, thick tome of yellowed parchment, bound in dark brown leather and stamped in gold lettering. The kind of book one usually sees locked in a glass case at a museum, with a tiny placard explaining how old and rare it is. Even in the dim light of Palace Square, it was obvious this book was even more old and rare than any of those.

The young woman got to her feet, desperate to retrieve her treasure. She had barely taken a step when a circle of white light illuminated the book. A spotlight. It shone from a helicopter, hovering 50 meters above the square.

SPOTLIGHT ON SPELLCRAFT

Black nylon ropes hit the ground a few meters from the book. There was a whizzing sound, and three adults in dark military garb began to descend from the helicopter. In their hands were M5 automatic rifles, the sort favored by particularly bloodthirsty mercenaries. On each of their shoulders was a white-and-black insignia -- an inverted compass, crossed by a scimitar on one side, and a flaming torch on the other. In the center space was a four-sided cross, of the kind seen on the shields of medieval knights. But these men were knights in the same way that African lions are a kind of housecat. They were Euclideans.

[BEWARE THE EUCLIDEANS: The Euclidean insignia is a combination of several well-known historical symbols. The compass is taken from the crest of the Freemasons, the cross is cribbed from the Knights Templar, and the torch represents the fire Prometheus stole from the gods. I don’t know why they put a sword on there. Perhaps it is to demonstrate their affinity for violence.]

The sorceress ran for the book, reaching it just as the figures touched ground. They lifted their rifles, but the young woman bent her fingers into five complicated positions, and brought her hands together in a single clap.

A crack of thunder echoed across the square, rattling the windows of the Winter Palace. The concussive blast knocked the three adults right off their feet, as if they were little more than paper cutouts in a hurricane.

The sorceress scooped up the book. She continued toward the police sign, still several hundred meters off. The mercenary closest to her rolled sideways, his fingers clutching for the slushy hem of her skirt. He managed to grab hold of it, pulling the 14 year-old to the snowy ground. She kicked at him, but her teenage attacks no match for his battle-hardened strength. He lunged forward to take the book from her --

And the young woman’s fingers sketched a few more patterns in the crisp air. She placed a hand on her adversary’s chest, whispering a single word in Latin.

“Ignis.”

[SORCERY FOR BEGINNERS: Ignis is Latin for ‘fire’. Many older spells had this kind of simplicity – if you wished to manifest something magically, you simply asked for it. Modern sorcery is more focused on getting permission and being clear about one’s intentions before casting anything. I blame the rise of political correctness.]

Green flame engulfed the man’s torso. He let go of the sorceress, frantically brushing at his now-burning clothes. Sensibly, he dropped to the ground and began to roll back and forth in the snow, until the strange, emerald-colored fire had been extinguished.

By then, the girl was back on her feet and two dozen meters further down the square. So focused was she on the glowing blue police sign, she had failed to notice a second mercenary had gotten to his feet and was now sprinting toward her. Only when he was two meters away did she hear the slap of his boots on wet stone.

The sorceress did not break stride. She tucked the book under one arm, forming several more finger patterns. Then she stretched a hand toward the man’s face and said in gasping French, “Vous êtes… sur le bord … de la falaise."

A swirl of smoky, colored light burst from her hand, wrapping around the man’s head like a silk scarf. A chasm suddenly opened at his feet, steep-walled and dark. The Euclidean skidded to a stop, searching for a way across the wide obstacle. But his search was in vain for two reasons – first, the fissure extended infinitely to either side, and second, there was no chasm. Everything he saw played in the fog before his eyes, a three-dimensional, picture-perfect glamour.

[MAGIC DEFINED: Glamour (n.) – A targeted hallucination created by magic. A glamour can incorporate sight, sound, and even smell, if the magician wishes to show off. They can be cast on both objects and people. A glamour will remain in effect until dispelled by a sorcerer, or the target realizes what they are experiencing is not real. For this reason, it is not a good idea to cast glamours that encourage touching.]

The young woman spared no time to appreciate her spell craft, but kept running. She was only 50 meters from the police outpost now. Once she made it to the door, she and her book would be safe. The Euclideans couldn’t risk any violence so close to law enforcement –

Thwipp. A bass-y zip cut through the hushed air of Palace Square. Something slammed the book from under the young woman’s arm and sent it spinning. The sorceress came to a stop, her heart pounding from her recent exertions and from what she saw buried in the book’s spine, mere centimeters from where she’d been clutching it to her body.

It was a bullet.

NO. 3 WITH A BULLET

Slowly, the young sorceress turned, keeping her hands in the air. Twenty meters behind her, the third Euclidean mercenary pointed his M5 rifle at her heart. He was bigger than his two companions, and had a feline, predatory grace. Keeping his gun steady, he pulled down his combat mask to reveal an attractive, dark-skinned face with strong cheekbones and a shaved head.

“Enough of this running,” he said in English. Then, in Russian, “Ne begat’, da?”

The young woman nodded. She was realizing, for the first time in an hour, how truly cold it was. “Please,” she said in slow, heavily accented English. “Do not shoot me.”

The bald man kept his gun up and drew closer. “We asked you nicely to hand over the book, then we offered to buy it. Now it’s a demand. Give it to me, no tricks, or I will be forced to –“ he broke off, tilting his head toward a hidden earbud. “But sir,” he said to the unseen commander, “I can get it without further – yes, sir. Understood.”

The Euclidean tucked his rifle into the hollow of his shoulder. He was only 10 meters from the young woman now, the barrel of his gun aimed to kill.

“No, please!” She said, her voice wavering in terror. “Take the book. It is yours. Do with it what you like. I will tell no one, I swear!”

Still, the bald man did not lower his weapon. “Sorry, kid. Orders are orders.”

He pulled the trigger. The muzzle flash illuminated his face –

And time came to a halt.

Snowflakes froze in mid-air. The bright flare of gunfire stayed fixed and still, like a glowing flower. Even the bullet stopped, hanging blurry in the air halfway between the mercenary and his target. The silence was immediate and shocking.

Only the young sorceress still had the ability to move. Her face was screwed up in a death-expectant wince, but, noticing the world around her had ground to a halt, she cracked open a single eyelid. Somehow, she was still alive. She began to laugh in relief, when another voice broke through the quiet.

“Exactly what sort of idiotic plan was this?”

PERFORMANCE REVIEW

A woman stepped from the shadow of the Alexander column. She was in her 60s or 70s, but quite attractive, with an elegant, regal quality about her. Her silver hair was swept back and pinned above her head, and a pair of silver-framed spectacles sat upon her aquiline nose. She wore a trim, high-necked blue blouse, a smart dark grey jacket, and a maroon skirt that went to her exquisite ankles. If Shakespeare’s Juliet could teach a few torches to burn bright, this woman could make the sun itself turn red with envy.

[A WOODCUT-STYLE ILLUSTRATION OF THE ENCHANTRESS AND THE SORCERESS]

The enchantress spoke again, her melodious voice ribboned slightly with a German accent. “Well? I’ve been watching you for the last hour and I still cannot fathom what your intentions were.”

“I … uh …” the young woman trailed off. Her voice sounded deafening in the eerie quiet.

The elegant woman walked forward, leaving a person-shaped hole in the suspended snowflakes. “This time enchantment I’ve cast will maintain itself for quite a while, but I do have other things to do, you know. Speak up.”

The sorceress cleared her throat. “I was … going to the police. For help.”

“With magic?” The woman who must surely be royalty laughed. “They are lucky to catch ordinary criminals. They would not know where to begin with well-funded, highly trained murderers such as these … Euclideans.” She looked with disdain at the bald mercenary, who stood like a statue not three meters from her.

“I thought … perhaps they could … arrest them?”

“To catch a mouse, one actually needs the cat to be on-site. This police outpost has been closed since 7 p.m. Their hours are right there on the door.”

The young woman’s face burned with embarrassment. “I should have planned better. I apologize.”

“And well you should. I now have to begin the entire process all over again. I detest meeting new people, especially children.” The enchantress held out a perfectly-manicured hand. “The book, if you please.”

The young sorceress picked the tome up off the ground, cradling it protectively to her chest. “But … you said it was mine.”

“It was yours, but you failed to protect it, now didn’t you? Don’t deny it. Had I not arrived, you would have handed the secrets of a 3000 year-old art right over to these dolts, and then been shot. Or perhaps vice-versa, but the outcome would have been the same – the end of sorcery. And all because you did not plan better.”

[SORCERY FOR BEGINNERS: Technically, sorcery is much older than 3000 years. Since humans came down from the trees, magic has been passed down through oral tradition and memory. Three thousand years ago is simply when someone had the bright idea to write some of this information down.]

She gestured with her fingers, but still the young woman refused to relinquish the book. “But I know so much. The spells … I have learned nearly all of them.”

“You knew the rules. I was quite clear about what would happen if you failed.” The older woman sighed, softening her voice bit. “Look at it this way – you will be no worse off now than before we met.”

Tears glistened in the young woman’s eyes as she shook her head. “But I will. How can I forget … the world has all this … magic?”

“On that, you need not worry.” The older woman’s long fingers traced complex patterns in the air. “Everything you have encountered in the last few weeks – the book, these men, even sorcery itself – none of it will concern you after tonight.”

“You are wrong. These things, for the rest of my life, I will remember.”

In answer, the enchantress opened her hands. Cupped in her palms was a glowing orb of golden light, roughly the size of an American quarter. It rose into the air like a soap bubble, made a quick orbit around the young woman’s head, and then came to a stop in front of her.

“No,” said the older woman, a bit sadly. “No, I am afraid you won’t.”

Then the golden orb shot forward, and vanished into the young woman’s skull.

Next Chapter: Chapter 1