Shadow's Ascendance

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Chapter Six

It’s funny, I thought as we headed out the front of the station, how Dorf’s attitude towards magic and steam-tech was actually fairly typical among most people. Oh sure, everyone loved steam-carriages, steam-trains, airships, things of that nature. Those things made people’s lives easier, and so they were tolerated and held up as a standard of what us mere mortals could accomplish if we put our minds to it. Technology carried us forward into the future, as one company’s advertising slogan went.

Now, show those same people crowing about how amazing technology was a pistol, a prosthetic limb, a person who had willingly chosen having their perfectly good eyes removed for artificial ones that saw in the dark and could detect heat sources – and watch how uncomfortable they get, some even averting their eyes or pretending that things like that didn’t happen. Tell them how in some shady parts of our fair city, poor people have their organs harvested so the rich and powerful can keep on living, and just watch the blood drain from their faces. You can’t have your cake and eat it too, as the Gnomes say. And those people really have a sweet tooth.

But, as much as technology can seem divisive, both advancing our society and holding it back in equal measures, magic is in a whole other category altogether. Despite what the coppertales and the plays depict, magic is not a be-all end-all solution to all of your problems. Nor does magic do half of the things fiction says it does. Really, if I could just wave my hands and conjure up anything I needed, why would I work? Wouldn’t all magic users just make themselves rich living in castles and mansions? I swear, reading some of those stories I’m surprised my eyes didn’t stick in the back of my head I kept rolling them so much.

And don’t get me started on trying to explain to a layman the difference between a full and a partial caster. It’s like I was speaking another language the few times that I’ve tried! Even Dorf barely understands, and he’s been around it for years! Really, it’s not that difficult. Partial casters are usually self-taught or partaking in a magical tradition that is passed down from parent to child; they can only cast charms or other minor magical spells; and sometimes craft little trinkets that can be used for protection around the house, love potions, things of that nature. Usually I compare it to someone who has learned a few words and phrases in another language; not enough to be fluent, but just enough that it’s apparent they’re making an effort to speak it.

Full casters are not only capable of speaking that other language like a native, they speak it with such ease it’s like they were born to do so. I’m not even going to get into how many magical traditions there are. Suffice to say, those kids and their questions about what tradition I am only scratched the surface of possible combinations. Gods, Dorf was right. Listening to myself ramble on about magic and casters reminds me that I can be a pretentious dick about it, like my shit don’t stink. I know it does, I just forget to inhale sometimes, that’s all.

“Hey, Jonas! If we’re gonna head over there, let’s go now before it gets dark. Some of us can’t see in it so well, thank you very much!” Dorf’s voice rang out from in front of me, and I stopped my daydreaming to realize that he had flagged down one of the old horse-drawn carriages that still hung around the city, his look of a man hanging onto a cliff by his straining fingers as they slipped one by one. He knew his time was over, and yet he still kept fighting. I admired that; I also admired that I wouldn’t have to be crammed into my partner’s steam-carriage, and so I made sure to give the driver an extra silver coin as I climbed into the carriage. “You’re loving this, ain’t you?” Dorf grumbled as he slid into the seat in front of me.

“More than you can imagine,” I couldn’t help but grin before I inhaled audibly. “Ah! The classics, riding around in a horse-drawn carriage. Don’t you just love the fact that you can breathe without exhaust choking you? I know I do. Go on Dorf, take a big whiff!”

“All I can smell is the cheap gin the driver has on his breath and horse shit,” he mumbled, and I tried my best to stifle my laughter. From the look he shot me, I didn’t do a very good job.

I wiped a tear from my eye, and tried to wipe the grin from my face. “Before you got in, did you tell the driver where we’re headed?”

“Yeah I did, which he just nodded and said he figured as much, since otherwise we wouldn’t have hired him. Doesn’t pick up many fares in front of the station, you know. All in buddy, let’s get this show on the road!” Dorf barked as he gave two short thumps on the roof. I heard the reins snap, and just like that we were off. My partner pressed back into his seat as hard as he could, gripping the sides like his life depended on it. It almost seemed like he was whispering prayers, since I saw his lips moving but no sounds were coming out.

“Wait, don’t tell me: Dorf, do you have motion sickness?” I asked, finally seeing the real reason he may not want to ride around like this. “That can’t be it, right?”

“Well, what if I do?” he snarled out before closing his mouth angrily.

“I’ve seen the way you drive, and you drive like a madman! How is it that you can do that, but the swaying of this carriage makes you want to vomit?”

He clenched his eyes shut tight. “When I drive the steam-carriage, I’m in control. It feels different, and so it doesn’t bother me that much. Here, I have no control over where we’re going and I can’t even see where we’re headed. It’s enough to have my stomach doing flips.”

“Wow, partner, I had no idea. Truly, I didn’t.” I got quiet for a second as Dorf just sat there, breathing loudly through his nose. “But, maybe you could try not driving like such an asshole next time? That might make it easier for me to feel bad for you in moments like this.”

“Fuck you,” he said, but he smiled when he said it. I smiled back, and then let him be. Me, I was enjoying the gentle back and forth of the carriage as it rolled down the street. They all used to be cobblestone lined, but after the rise of the steam-carriage as the vehicle of choice, all the roads got replaced with this new substance called concrete. Definitely made the ride smoother, in my opinion. Plus, from my earliest memories, I had always loved the smell of horses, and hearing them whinny took me back to a happier, simpler time.

Riding around this way you got to see more of the city than if you were rocketing around corners and down streets. Granted, today was a good day and the sun had managed to burn off most of the smog clouds that were emitted by our illustrious factories running night and day, but still…I looked out the window and watched the citizens going about their lives. It was my honest wish that I never had to meet most of them, since most of the time that meant either they were guilty of a crime, or I had to be the bearer of bad news that someone they knew was the victim of one. Most people weren’t happy to see a detective, that’s for sure.

All too soon, my musings were interrupted as the carriage slowed down and the hairs on my arm stood on end. That much magic being used always added a charge to the atmosphere, another reason why steam-tech was forbidden from being used here. Too much power could cause some devices to explode, after all. This meant we must be approaching the entrance to the Arcane Market, which would be too narrow for the carriage to drive down. Plus, we didn’t actually have an official destination in mind, so we’d have to hoof it up and down the Market looking for what we needed to find.

Once we stopped, I opened the door just in time for Dorf to throw himself out of the carriage and hurl up whatever he had grabbed for breakfast. That reminded me, I still needed to eat, I thought as my partner tried his best to puke his guts out. Seeing stuff like that never bothered me, which was a plus in our line of work. And, my time at the Academy taught me that you ate when you could, slept when you had the chance, and never took for granted that you would live to see the next day. Ignoring Dorf, I handed the driver another silver and pulled out an apple from my duster for the horse. Both appeared grateful, and with a tip of his hat, the driver wheeled his carriage around and went off in search of more fares.

Standing up, Dorf took out a handkerchief from his coat pocket and wiped his mouth off. Seeing how gross that looked, he grimaced and threw it in the nearest trash receptacle before pulling out his flask and rinsing his mouth out. “Ugh, that’s worse than the time I had worked up the nerve to ask Gregory out and consumed some liquid courage. Years later and I can still taste it. Let me tell you, Naga vodka tastes just as bad coming up as it did going down.” Shaking his head, he put his flask away. “So, any bright ideas where to start our search, Jonas?”

I shook my head. “I figured we could start by paying our respects to Mama Crea.”

Dorf paled even more. “Wow, you don’t mess around, do you? Gotta visit the scariest and craziest person here right off the bat, yeah?”

Scowling at him, I shushed him while I lowered my voice. “Keep your insults to yourself, OK? She’s basically the mayor of the Market, and she’s our best chance of not wandering around all day and night hoping that we stumble upon someone who can help us! Or do you have a better plan?” I hissed at him.

Pride and street smarts had a war on my partner’s face, but thankfully smarts won out and he lowered his voice before replying. I knew he didn’t like the old half-Giant, but bad mouthing her here in this place could cause us trouble we didn’t need to go looking for. “No, and you’re right. That’s as good a place as any to start. Let’s go.” He let me lead the way, knowing that my senses would be more likely to detect anything wrong before his would. It’s not weakness to admit when someone does something better than you, and after years of working together we had established a pattern to our investigations. Dorf handled the dirty work, and I handled the tech and the magic, even though I knew just about as much about steam-tech as he did, probably less.

Before we could enter the Arcane Market, we both had to pass under the Detection Arch. Long ago, somebody had created this gold and silver filigreed stone arch that passed over our heads. Any mundane that walked under it didn’t cause any reaction in the slightest. A partial caster would cause it to glow a soft silver color, and a full practioner such as myself would cause it to light up bright golden. Supposedly, it was designed for the magic community’s protection, to let everyone know when a mundane was walking around. Me personally, I thought it was so more shady characters could try to pass off cheap junk and knock-offs to unwary shoppers, but then again I’m a bit more suspicious of my magical brethren. Past experiences and whatnot.

We both passed through, and like I mentioned it didn’t react to Dorf at all and it lit up golden when I walked under it. My partner pulled his hat down tight as if he was preparing for battle, and with a smirk I lead us down the entrance into the Arcane Market, steeling myself for our meeting with the eclectic and ancient –for a half-Giant, that is- Mama Crea.

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