I'm Sam. I'm just this guy.
Okay, yeah, I'm a golem created from the substance of his own magic by the late Hierarch of Southern California. With a lot of work, I might be able to wield magic myself. I kind of doubt it, though. Not like Daniel Blackland can.
Daniel's the reason the Hierarch's gone and I'm still alive. He's also the reason I've lived my entire life on the run. Ten years of never, ever going back to Los Angeles. Daniel's determined to protect me. To teach me.
But it gets old. I've got nobody but Daniel. I'll never do anything normal. Like attend school. Or date a girl.
Now it's worse. Because things are happening back in LA. Very bad people are building a Pacific firedrake, a kind of ultimate weapon of mass magical destruction. Daniel seemed to think only he could stop them. Now Daniel's been hurt. I managed to get us to the place run by the Emmas. (Many of them. All named Emma. It's a long story.) They seem to be healing him, but he isn't going anyplace soon.
Do I even have a reason for existing, if it isn't to prevent this firedrake from happening? I'm good at escaping from things. Now I've escaped from Daniel and the Emmas, and I'm on my way to LA.
This may be the worst idea I ever had.
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By Greg van Eekhout
Tom Doherty Associates, LLCCopyright © 2015 Greg van Eekhout
All rights reserved.
Ten years later
The Grand Central Market was the largest floating bazaar in Los Angeles, and for Gabriel Argent, it was enemy territory. With the Hierarch gone, slain by Daniel Blackland, the realm was split up like a ten-slice pizza at a twenty-person party, and Gabriel wasn't friends with the man who claimed the Central Market slice.
Max inched Gabriel's motor gondola around piers, barges, boats, and suspended catwalks, past stalls fringed with looped sausages and hanging barbecued ducks. Merchants on rafts offered every kind of white and brown and speckled egg. Neon signs buzzed with fantasy Chinese scrolls, advertising chow mein and chop suey and cartoon pigs at the Pork Kitchen. The scents of onions and grilled meat and chili peppers made Gabriel wish he had time to stop for lunch.
"You should have a security detail," Max said, maneuvering around a vendor in a flat- bottom calling out a song for boat noodles. In profile, Max's face looked like a scientific instrument, his silver hair trimmed for aerodynamics, his brow providing a protective hood over sharp gray eyes. His nose led the way like the prow of an ice cutter.
Gabriel shot him an encouraging smile. "I have a security detail. I have you."
Max slowed to let a duck and three brown ducklings paddle past the bow. "Everyone else will have a security detail," he said. "Otis will bring his thugs, and Sister Tooth will have her ... things. I'm not even carrying a gun."
"Bodyguards are a sign of weakness," Gabriel said. "The fact that I'm coming here with only you demonstrates how confident I am. It makes me look bigger."
"That's a lot of pressure to put on me."
"Max, if the people I'm meeting want to kill me, you having a gun won't help. Neither will a security detail. They'll just kill me."
"And this makes you feel powerful somehow?"
"Power is a complicated thing, my friend."
"It must be." Max turned under the arch of a six-story redbrick warehouse and steered the gondola into the waters of Otis Roth's stronghold.
Beneath whirring ceiling fans, dockworkers unloaded goods for distribution across the realm: vegetables and spices, boxed bird's nests for medicinal soup, crates and barrels of osteomantic preparations.
Max's nose twitched. He'd been raised and transformed to sniff out contraband magic, and he still grew excited in the presence of osteomancy.
"Good stuff here?" Gabriel asked.
"Not here. Deeper in the building. Sure you won't change your mind about bodyguards?"
"You seriously think I should?"
Max thought about it for a few seconds. "No, you're right. Security won't save your life. I'd be happy if you told me to turn the boat around."
"Park the boat, Max."
Max killed the engine and guided the gondola into a slip, where they were greeted by one of Otis's muscle guys. He looked like a solid piece of masonry.
"Lord Argent," he said, lowering a ladder to help Gabriel and Max up to the concrete pier. "If you'd allow me to take you—"
Max cut him off. "Who's going to guard the boat?"
"Your gondola will be perfectly safe, sir," the thug said, addressing Gabriel, not Max. "But if you're concerned, I'll be happy to summon someone to watch over it."
"That's not necessary," Gabriel said. But Max wasn't satisfied. He waved over a girl loading an aluminum dinghy with boxes of radio alarm clocks.
She came over, more curious than cautious.
"Do you have a knife?" Max asked her.
She reached into her jacket and produced a butcher knife the length of her forearm.
Max slipped her a twenty. "Anyone comes near the boat, you cut off their thumbs for me, okay? If my boat's still here when I get back, you get another twenty."
She snatched the twenty and made it disappear. "And another twenty if you're more than an hour."
"Good kid," Max said.
The thug squared his architecturally impressive shoulders and looked down at the top of Max's head. "You are guests of Otis Roth. Nothing is going to happen to your boat."
"Max has a fondness for orphans," Gabriel said.
The thug took them deeper into the building, through warrens of wooden crates stuffed with clucking chickens and quacking ducks. Otis's office was a modest room, small, drab, outfitted with a steel desk and battered office chair, upon which sat one of the most influential power brokers in the two Californias. Otis's hair was still the bright orange of a campfire; his eyes, bug-zapper blue. He'd been a TV pitchman and a minor character actor in his youth, and even though he was the biggest importer of osteomantic materiel in the kingdom, he was still an actor who could play your jolly uncle or your executioner without changing costumes.
Blazing and happy, he stood and offered Gabriel a rough, freckled hand.
"Lord Argent, thank you for accepting my invitation."
Gabriel didn't offer his hand in return, because he didn't want to find it hacked off and pickled for sale in one of the market stalls.
"I'm not a lord. I'm director of the Department of Water and Power."
"Ah, just a humble public servant who oversees a vast network of dams, reservoirs, aqueducts, canals, locks, pump stations, and pipes threading into the tiniest capillaries, all laid out in a thrumming mandala of magical energy. You're not some clerk, Gabriel. You're the chief water mage."
"You know Max," said Gabriel.
"Your hound, of course."
"Max is my assistant director, assigned to special projects," Gabriel corrected.
Otis gave Max a nod. "No disrespect intended. I admire men of ability, and Assistant Director Max—no last name?—Assistant Director Max still has the reputation for the best nose in the kingdom."
Hounds didn't have last names. They were recruited as children, imprisoned, osteomantically altered, and trained. Whatever they were before was irrelevant. Max could have chosen a last name after Gabriel freed him, but it would have been arbitrarily chosen, and Max was not an arbitrary sort of man.
Otis's eyes twinkled. "What do you smell now, Assistant Director Max?"
Gabriel was about to put a stop to this, but Max obligingly took in a deep, noisy sniff.
"I smell smarmy."
Otis laughed and nodded, as if he'd plotted the course of this small talk to land exactly here, on this note, at this moment. "Would you like to see my most recent acquisition?"
"I don't see how I can say no," Gabriel said, resigned.
Otis escorted them past the well-tailored henchmen stationed just outside his door, down a hallway lined with more henchmen, and then into a cavernous space of bare concrete floor and concrete pillars soaring to a thirty-foot ceiling. The walls were massive stone blocks, and spelled out on them in black ceramic tile were things like TRACKS 1 AND 2 and old canal names. At the far end of the room was an arched tunnel opening.
"This was the old subway," Otis said. "The cars were so red and shiny they could light up the tunnels, even in the dark. I think Los Angeles lost something when she let the water mages take over the transportation system."
"I don't know," Gabriel said. "You should see the underground waterfalls beneath Pasadena."
Otis took them into the tunnel, their footsteps echoing off the walls. The distance was lit with new fixtures and wiring that did little to dispel the sensation of entering the belly of an ancient, calcified whale. There were no henchmen along the route, which meant Otis didn't fear attack here. More pointedly, he didn't fear Gabriel here.
From the tunnel, they emerged into another station. Gleaming brass chandeliers cast warm light, and in what was no doubt a nontrivial bit of retrofitting, a palatial fireplace crackled where the next tunnel opening ought to have been. Above the fire were mounted the twelve-foot-wide antlers of a Megaloceros californis, the extinct giant elk. Most osteomantic bone in Los Angeles had been dug up from the earth and from the La Brea Tar Pits and broken into fragments, ground into powder, heated or cooled and mixed and messed with by osteomancers to leech out their magical essences, and then consumed to transfer those magical essences to whoever ate or smoked them. But these antlers were perfectly intact. Gabriel estimated their value as enough to buy two or three Beverly Hills mansions.
Otis hung them as decoration.
Behind a massive redwood banquet table stood Sister Tooth in full armor and regalia. Twin incisors from a griffin rimmed her helmet of polished bone, which revealed only cold stone eyes and glimpses of white cheeks. Her breastplate came from the single scale of a Colombian dragon. At her hip, she wore a dragon-tooth sword. The rest of her armor came from hundreds of linked teeth, from osteomantic fossils and from the mouths of living osteomancers. She bowed slightly in greeting and chimed with tones that made Gabriel's spine tingle.
Sister Tooth's bodyguards, her praesidentum, remained standing in a row behind her as she took a thronelike chair at the table.
Gabriel knew Max well enough to see how all the magic in the room was driving his senses mad. He pulled out a chair for him, but Max shook his head no. He'd look stronger standing. It would also make it easier to run away.
"A bone sorcerer, a merchant master, and a water mage walk into a bar," said Gabriel, claiming a chair. "But aren't we missing a few players?"
There were none of Sister Tooth's rival osteomancers here. No Mother Cauldron. No glamour mages. No representatives from the triads or cartels.
"We're at war," Otis began, as if that explained the absence of others. "And we have been for ten years, since Daniel Blackland killed the Hierarch. No one's in charge, and the kingdom suffers."
"The Hierarch's rule wasn't short on suffering," Sister Tooth said.
Gabriel laughed at the understatement, but Otis pushed on.
"There are no big people left in LA. The big people are dead or moved on. And what's left isn't power. It's not control. It's just people like us now, medium-sized and insecure."
"And fewer of us every day," Gabriel observed. "Your war with the Council of Osteomancers is getting bloody."
Sister Tooth narrowed her eyes at Gabriel. "It's not all due to Otis. The Alejandro drowned in his swimming pool last month. Which wouldn't be so remarkable if the same thing hadn't happened to my head of security."
Gabriel shrugged. "Swimming is dangerous."
Otis folded his hands on the table. "And in retaliation, the Council obliterated La Ballona Dam. How many people died in the flood? And wasn't your Ivanhoe Reservoir turned to sand last month? And your hydroelectric plant at Pyramid Lake burned to a crisp by salamander resin? You don't have to call it a war. Maybe it's just squabbling. Maybe it's just sport. But whatever's going on between our organizations, it's nasty, and it's costing lives and resources. And while we rip ourselves apart with our internal problems, the outside world is noticing. Our borders used to stretch from Bakersfield to San Diego. We've lost territory in the north to Northern California, and in the south to Mexico. We used to consider Japan and China our trading partners. In another few years, we may be their spoils. I'm even hearing of incursions over the Nevada border. However cruel the Hierarch may have been, he was our open paw. Stick a finger too far inside, and he'd tear it off. We need something like that now."
Gabriel poured himself a glass of water, and everyone watched him as if he were playing with a grenade. He was only thirsty. "Otis, if you think I'll accept you as the new Hierarch ... Don't take this the wrong way, but of all the horrible people I've met, and believe me, I've met a bunch of them, you have to be the fourth worst. I'd elevate you to third worst, but you're relatively easy to kill. And you, Sister Tooth, as Hierarch? You're too hard to kill. No. Not either of you, nor any other individual, nor a new formation of the Council of Osteomancy, and unless you're serious about supporting my proposal for a republic, what am I even doing here today?" He drank. "No disrespect intended."
Otis continued smoothly. No doubt he'd expected the nature of Gabriel's objection, along with its length and pitch. "I'm not proposing a new Hierarch. I'm proposing a triumvirate. The three of us, allied against other rivals, united in mutual interest, and numbered for balance."
Sister Tooth seemed unmoved. "We three are powerful, but even if we joined our resources, we'd still be outnumbered. Our rivals will form their own alliances, and they'll have the power to gore us."
Otis leaned back in his chair. The corners of his mouth quirked in amusement. He'd delivered his patter. Now, for his inevitable trick. "Boys," he called out to the air, "bring in the bone."
It took two forklifts to bring the "bone" from the tunnel. It was a skull, sleek and streamlined and at least thirty feet long. A high, bony ridge bisected the brow like a sail. The eye sockets were caves big enough for Gabriel to shelter in. It lacked a lower jaw, but the teeth of the upper were fearsome scimitars, built for cutting through griffin hide.
Max put a hand on the back of Gabriel's chair to steady himself. His eyelids fluttered. From his reaction, Gabriel knew the skull was authentic, and richly, deeply osteomantic.
Sister Tooth's white cheeks flushed pink. "Is that ... a Pacific firedrake?"
"Mm-hmm," Otis purred.
The species had been identified by a single tooth said to exist in the Hierarch's Ossuary. The records that came with it indicated it was a spoil of war, taken from Northern California in the Conflict of 1934. Just one tooth, and the Hierarch's possession of it was the cause of the War of 1935.
Except for the lower jaw, Otis had a complete skull.
"Bribe or threat?" Gabriel asked.
"Neither," Otis said, standing with a flourish. "A proposal. A project. A collaboration. One that will give us the strength we need to overcome any hint, any shadow, any whisper of a threat from Northern California or Mexico or South America or the United States or China or anyone else. A weapon. A tool. A power. All the power we need."
Now it was Gabriel's turn to lean back in his chair, though not with Otis's affected humor. He was genuinely confused. "That's a very, very fine piece of bone, Otis. It's honestly the best I've ever seen. And I'd love it if someone could get Max some saltines, because it's clearly potent enough to make him queasy."
"I'm fine," Max said, his voice rough.
"But even with all the osteomancy packed in this skull, it's not equal to the power of the Northern Kingdom, not when combined with everyone else who might have a problem with us declaring ourselves the three-headed king of Southern California."
Sister Tooth composed herself. "Lord Argent is right."
And now Otis allowed a little of his real smile to break through. It was a cold smile, and, Gabriel had to admit, a very winning smile.
"It is, indeed, a very good bone. And it cost me dearly in treasure and blood. But it's not my only bone. I have in my stores the makings of a complete Pacific firedrake skeleton. As well as bits of tissue. Armor. Even hide. And what I don't have, I can make."
"More confused now," Gabriel said.
"I'll make it plain, then. I can make a living dragon."
"Impossible," Sister Tooth said.
But Gabriel didn't think so. Otis wasn't the kind of man who'd gather the realm's most powerful osteomancer and chief hydromancer in a room and unload an avalanche of bunk on them. He must believe he could make a living dragon.
His need for Sister Tooth was clear enough. She had skill, and she had alliances with other osteomancers, even ones outside Southern California. But what else would it take to build a patchwork dragon? What did Gabriel have that Otis would need?
The answer was, of course, prosaic.
"You need electricity."
"A lot of it," Otis affirmed. "Your wave generators can provide it."
"Bone, magic, and power, and we make Los Angeles strong enough to control this part of the world. I like it. Audacious yet simple."
"So," Otis said, pleased. "We have an agreement."
"The beginnings of one, maybe," Gabriel allowed.
"And Sister Tooth?"
"How can I pass up the opportunity to work with such exquisite magic?"
Excerpted from Pacific Fire by Greg van Eekhout. Copyright © 2015 Greg van Eekhout. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
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