Chapter 1: Preach On, My Brother
‘Remember my brothers, we are the gods own chosen soldiers,’ Preacher hollered, arms raised toward the cafeteria roof. ‘For we have been granted great gifts that we might use them for their glory—’
‘Get off the Pit damn table.’ Four-Fingered Djan was not a fan of Preacher’s rousing oratory. He threw a stale bread roll at Preacher’s head from the end of the long table.
Preacher snatched the baked projectile out of the air, a snarl twisting his lips.
‘Heretic,’ he spat, eyes bleeding bright yellow.
‘Oi, warden,’ Syslacki yelled, ‘Preach’s seal is broken.’
The wardens were already descending on the long row of tables where the inmates of Meznow prison sat eating. Magic crackled around the fingers of the lead warden, an overweight dogsbody called Kaplizky. With a jerk of his forearm and flick of his wrist, an energy whip snapped through the anima charged air.
‘Alright that’s enough,’ Kaplizky barked. ‘Get down off the table Alianov. Now.’
Too late. Flesh and muscle rippled down Preacher’s back, his face mottled purple-dark like someone was choking him and long, sharp yellowed teeth erupted from his gums, cracking Preacher’s elongated jaws wide open. Sputum flew through the air.
Seated at the next table over, Yasha Alukov dropped his fork down on his plastic dinner tray and propped his elbows on the table. He was used to Preacher’s antics and he’d seen this particular show more than once, but there was some novelty in knowing this would be the last time.
Preacher staggered as the energy whip lashed him across the shoulder-blades. He was too far gone into his wildr Turn to back down, however. Dropping into a feral crouch on the table top, neck muscles standing out in stark relief, Preacher threw his head back and howled.
The inmates at the table leapt up, scattering to the edges of the room with muttered curses and complaints about lost lunches. The wardens swarmed the table. Djorvic roped Preacher around the throat with an energy lasso, wrenching him to the ground.
Preacher bounced off the bench and hit the poured concrete floor, writhing like a man seizing, which he was. Kaplizky and a dozen more wardens converged, drawing truncheons.
Yasha turned away.
He didn’t need to see the beating; he’d seen it all before. Preacher was a pitiable soul. As a feral, he was unable to control his wildr side. He was five years into a day and night stretch for killing his wife in a feral rage. When he wasn’t proselytising he was weeping for his poor, butchered, Magdalena and the regular beatings didn’t stifle his rhetoric or his grief at all.
Warden Jarnow clapped his hands and bellowed, ‘All inmates are to return to their cells.’
Cutlery clattered as three hundred men rose to their feet and scraped away from the tables. Murmurs of complaint floated on their air but none loud enough to be distinct. No one wanted to draw warden attention right now. Kaplizky and his cronies might be occupied with Preacher, but there was bloodlust in the eyes of the wardens who filed into the cafeteria, pulled from their own break to help deal with the inmates.
Preacher’s faulty seal notwithstanding, none of the inmates had access to magic and all the wardens did. Those were not odds any inmate was eager to chance.
The inmates queued in front of one of three doors leading to a cell block. The prisoners were segregated by magic type; the wildr and the handful of necromancers who had avoided the pyre went to Block A, the highest security solitary block. The other two blocks had a mixture of soulsmiths, conjurers, and seers, divided by their Cantor-Levene score – basically how much magical juice they had.
Yasha did not join any of the lines, instead he waited for two wardens to peel away from the phalanx and flank him. Today was the day. He was being released, his time served.
‘This way, Alukov.’ warden Waliwala guided him by the elbow, like he was some sort of frail old woman. Waliwala was an alright sort. He’d hung back from the scrum, not able to hide his disgust as Preacher was dragged out of the cafeteria by a group of wardens with blood on their boots and split skin over their knuckles. Yasha figured Waliwala wouldn’t last long in the prison service; he had whistle-blower written all over him, and that was career suicide.
He was joined by taciturn and distant Studinov who wouldn’t spit on an inmate if he was on fire, but wasn’t likely to light him up either, which made him an alright sort in Yasha’s estimation.
Waliwala and Studinov led him through parts of the prison he hadn’t seen since his initial processing a year ago. They passed the visitation rooms and headed for the sealing rooms where inmates had their magic suppressing brands applied. Yashir had been admitted as a seer and conjurer; low risk. He’d had a standard inhibitor seal applied on his inner left forearm a year ago and never redone. The wardens tested inmates regularly to make sure the seals were functional, but as Preacher ably demonstrated, the tests had flaws.
Yasha had been gaming the system since he arrived.
He knew how to skew the results of a Cantor-Levene test and had made sure he’d be put in Block C, where everyone was a magical lightweight and very few were serving time for violent crimes. All Yasha’d wanted to do was serve his time without incident and feigning harmlessness was easy enough to do.
He’d had been convicted for possession and conspiracy to sell illicit charms, ordinarily a misdemeanour, but the charms had been necromantic and necromancy offences automatically carried custodial sentences. The Raderi hadn’t been able to prove he made the charms, which was why he’d come away with a twelve month term and not faced the death penalty, which had become popular for backstreet necromancers who were often too dangerous to lock up.
Yasha had refused to divulge who had made the charms, which had upset the Raderi, so he’d been punished with a term in Meznow instead of one of the lighter security prisons. Anyone who said the justice system in Valkieres was impartial had obviously never been on trial.
Once inside he’d been branded with a pain seal. Any attempt to draw on the power of his soul to conjure a familiar would result in severe pain, debilitating pain.
Pain without gain wasn’t worth the effort. Yasha could have escaped. There wasn’t a cantor-levene test devised that could measure for his real power but in the end he’d figured it wasn’t worth the risk. He’d known prison would be rough, and it had been rougher even than he’d thought it would, but if the authorities figured out his real power he’d be lucky if the worst they did to him was spit roast him on a pyre.
So he’d served out his time like a good little boy. Kept his head down, given the wardens no trouble but avoided being too good so as not to anger the prison yard kingpins and mostly managed to avoid any of the prison power struggles.
But now he had a problem.
Most inmates, unable to use their magic, lost power over time, especially soulsmiths and conjurers whose souls were a metaphysical muscle that atrophied without use. Yasha knew that wasn’t the case with him. Cut off from his magic he might be, thanks to the pain seal, but he knew his soul was stronger than ever; filled with untapped potential. He’d purged his soul before the trial, stripping himself of most his power so as to appear weaker than he was, but the year’s “rest” had allowed him to recover fully. Yasha was worried that the wardens might notice and decide to hold on to him a little longer.
He was led into a small, windowless room whose off-white walls glowed with sigils. Their green-white radiance stinging his retinas. The power concentrated in this room was dynamite, years and years of suppression wards and security spells pressed into the walls until the air groaned with magic.
He was pushed down into a chair facing a small square table – the only furniture in the room save for a plain rack of shelves in the corner. Studinov shackled his ankles to the floor.
’Hands on the table. Keep ‘em there.’
Yasha obeyed. The table carried a charge, magic soaked into the pressboard over the years. It tickled. Idly Yashir wondered how much he could make selling such a potent magical focus on the market. He almost smiled, how many blackmarketers and street magic dealers had done time here, never considering what a gold mine of magic Meznow was? Or maybe they had, but hadn’t known how to get the bounty out with them?
It was a problem. Meznow’s magic was fused into the foundations, as much a part of the structure of the building as the barred doors, high fences and solid walls. Siphoning magic took time under ideal conditions and the security here was, as expected, top notch. To get a crack at the magic stored here Yasha would need to subdue all the wardens and the inmates. Not to mention, he’d need a large crew and some serious magical firepower to break into the building.
People generally didn’t break into prisons, but out of them. That could be an advantage and a disadvantage. Most of the security would be focused on keeping people in, but the outer wards were no joke either.
A table really wasn’t worth all that effort, though.
Busy considering the feasibility of his hypothetical prison heist, Yasha barely noticed as Studinov left the room to wait outside the door for the prison soulsmith. Waliwala took up a position leaning against the wall. Yasha studied the water stained ceiling tiles, both excited and pensive.
He was going home.
His brain ticked through the things he’d need to do once he was out of here. There were contacts he needed to reach out to, old associates he trusted just enough to tell him the lay of the land. It would take time to get back on his feet, and he had to hit the ground running. There was no time to waste. He’d had more than enough of his time stolen from him already.
A year was a long time in the world of street magic.
Near constant turf wars meant that territorial boundaries were always shifting, old allies might not be around anymore, old enemies might be more powerful. Not to mention the constant threat of Raderi raids. The magic police were indolent and ineffective when it came to breaking the gangs, but they still caught plenty of street practitioners in their nets.
Yasha’s expression soured thinking about his own downfall. Hubris had played a part, absolutely. He’d always thought that staying unaffiliated but neutral would keep him safer than taking a gang brand. He’d been a little fish swimming among sharks and doing pretty well for himself. He’d played his cards just right for a little while, making himself useful but not too useful. The gangs had left him alone for the most part, because he wasn’t a threat and he’d tithed to the gang whose territory he operated in.
But then the Voisera had put pressure on him, and the Bloody Bloom were not to be messed with. Once they branded you, they owned you mind, body and soul. Agreeing to fence charms for them had been a compromise to save his soul. Shame it cost him his liberty.
Still it could have worked out, but for an anonymous tip-off to the Raderi.
Anonymous to the Raderi, that is. Yasha knew exactly who had betrayed him. Mladin Jaroslav. They’d worked street beats together. Yasha had plied his trade in conjugation for the tourists with magic tricks and sold imps at black markets in between heists. Mladin had paraded his grey soul slaves around on street corners, conning people into selling pieces of their soul for an hour with the succubus of their dreams.
They’d never been friends, he and Mladin, but they’re individual rackets hadn’t put them into competition either so they’d had an uneasy truce. Until Yasha had organised the Moslany job and filled the necromancer spot with someone else. He’d been warned, but Mladin was a creepy bastard on top of everything else and no one in the crew wanted to work with him. Still, Mladin carried a grudge. Yasha hadn’t seen him as a threat until it was too late, however.
Hubris. He’d been so busy watching for the sharks, he hadn’t noticed the sharp teeth of his fellow little fish. He’d been an idiot. Done in by a stupid street rivalry.
Ironically, it was the fact that Mladin had broken one of the cardinal rules of the street – calling in the Raderi to do his dirty work for him– which had saved Yasha from a far worse fate than a light custodial sentence.
The Voisera didn’t like it when their product was confiscated by the authorities and tended to blame the person holding the goods when they were seized, but, because Mladin boasted about what he’d done, the Voisera didn’t have Yasha killed for incompetence.
The upshot was, Yasha went down, but with the good will of the Voisera intact. He kept his life and soul, and could return home to Djisi when he was free without fear of reprisal. All the same he’d been dreaming about the day he could pay Mladin back.