Mysticarium

Necromancy? Not in Edlud’s graveyard. Follow his struggle against the commercial behemoth of the Mysticarium when it builds a branch in his town. Undead, elementals and a homicidal chisel all included.

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PART 1

Trumpets blared and bright robed figures swished through the earthen streets of Manawell. Though midday, fireworks burst and flashed against the cloudless sky. Crowds cheered either side of the Thaumaturgical Way, welcoming the procession of wizards, warlocks and witches from the Mysticarium. Coloured bunting flapped overhead, tied to window shutters on the upper floors of wattle and daub buildings. Children leaned over balconies, cheering, whistling or peering down the witches’ loose robes. Banners welcomed the Mystics, proclaiming, “Manawell is spellbound!

Most of the assembled idiocy marvelled at the shiny trinkets and loud noises. Unlike them, Edlud attended the procession for a good glower rather than to welcome ruin with arms open and trousers down. The others didn’t know the damage caused in Crooked Wand. And the Mystics came to build a larger Mysticarium here in Manawell.

Over his dead body.

Unfortunately, rumour suggested that the Mysticarium would have no compunctions about that and may even find a use for his corpse. He shuddered and threw another tomato into the procession. It squelched against an invisible barrier around a vocal Mystic who wore aquamarine robes with shoulder pads wide enough to serve drinks.

“And yes,” the Mystic declared with a sweep of his arms, “you’ll even have food to waste with our Mysticarium branded ploughs working your fields.”

The crowd cheered. As well they might. They didn’t have Edlud’s destitute brother-in-law, Lentil, sleeping on their dining table with the creatures he had “rescued” from Crooked Wand. A man couldn’t open the breadbin without finding a guilty-looking mouse, or take a bath without being slimed by a Cuddling Eel. They didn’t have to deal with Edlud’s wife. She was called Moaning Maribel for good reason and needed little provocation to demonstrate why.

“All your household chores are at an end with the Mysticarium Housewares department,” another Mystic shouted. “Why not end your storage woes with a Bottomless Bag o’ Stuff?”

Edlud grimaced. What use would Manawell have for his crates and barrels sideline when they had that? His carpentry job barely put a table under the food. And who controlled these automated household items? What if they suddenly decided against doing the washing up? Who would deal with gangs of disgruntled utensils? What if they rebelled and tried to use the townsfolk as whisks and mallets instead? And there was Physics to consider. Physics had a way of exacting retribution on folk who messed with its rules. But would the guilds listen to Edlud? Oh no, they embraced the change, said it was economically strategic. Ensorcelled, they were.

Still, Edlud had a plan. Or, at least, he planned to have a plan. Even if the others were too blind, he, at least, could save the town.

“Why the sour look, Edlud?” asked a voice to his right. Chipper, the stony-faced guild master of the masons stood beside him in all his pomposity, wearing a tunic that said, “Sorry love, that really is a wand in my pocket!” and a conical hat reading, “Got mana?

“You look ridiculous,” Edlud replied with a flat stare.

“And you look positively disenchanted!” The guild master searched for validation of his wordplay but Edlud denied him the satisfaction. “Aren’t you excited? Having a Mysticarium here will be great for the town; education, tourism and magical items to do all our nasty jobs!”

“Yes, Chipper, all our jobs. These Mystics will put us out of business.”

Chipper laughed and whiff of alcohol overpowered the stench of unwashed hordes crammed into the street. “Not all of us. Who do you think has the contract to build the place? I’ll be made for life. They have some strange requests but that’s Mystics for you. We’ll be building with magic, Edlud! Can you imagine what we’ll create?”

“You never struck me as the artistic type.”

“Doesn’t every craftsman dream of the chance to design and build a Wonder of the World in their own town?” Chipper clapped him on the shoulder and leaned so close that spittle showered Edlud’s ear with each word. “When I was a kid, my father gave me a box of blocks. Ridges on the top clicked into holes on the underside of others. At first I wondered what to do with them until he suggested I build a wall. Then he said to build a barn, and then houses. Soon I realised I could build anything, restricted only by the shape of the blocks and the boundaries of my imagination. Over the years, I created castles, palaces, even whole towns.”

Edlud rolled his eyes. “All very touching, and rich for a man who’s spent half his life repairing the bridge he built over the Wattling Brook—sorry, the Manastream. Get to your point before the Mystics rename something else. They’ve already done the town and half the streets.”

“Oh, you’re just afraid of change, Edlud. My point is that with magic, the limitations of blocks are removed. Within the parameters of the Mysticarium’s needs, I have a free rein. This will be my masterwork!”

“You mean this one won’t collapse?”

“Definitely!” Chipper’s grin slipped into a frown. “Probably. I’ve always had a blind spot for supports. Oh, don’t be such a dead zone, Edlud. How about I put a word in with the head of the Mysticarium? Their organisation is a little confusing but I think I can find the right man…or woman. It’s not always clear, what with the dresses.”

“To what end?” Edlud focused hard on maintaining his glower at the procession as a dozen Mystics, twice their proper height, strode past. Someone in the crowd named them Illusionists and others agreed.

“Work,” Chipper said. “You’re worried about your livelihood, aren’t you? That’s why you’re so upset, isn’t it? What if you worked for the Mysticarium? They need carpenters as well as masons–something about the natural resonance of wood. I can’t say I understand a word but that means work for you.”

“You think I’d sell out like that? I’ve got principles.”

“What you’ve got is your brother-in-law sleeping on your kitchen table.”

Edlud grunted. “Yes. But whose fault is that? I can hardly work for the Mystics after they ruined Maribel’s brother; she’d saw me a new–”

“Look,” Chipper said, “I’ve a good thing going with this Mysticarium job and I’d prefer one of your frameworks to build around but others will happily take the work. I can’t guarantee the fortune they’re paying me but you won’t go hungry.”

“I don’t buy it. It all sounds very short-term. Lentil said the Mysticarium were all promises and then put everyone out of work. I want Lentil out, not for us all to live under the table on the street.”

Chipper shrugged. “Then you’d better find another plan because from what I’ve seen, he’s there to stay. If you change your mind, head over to the Mysticarium grounds and ask for…Old Grumbling Jaw, I think they called him.”

“I get enough grumbling at home,” Edlud muttered. “There has to be another way.”

“You could just ask him to leave.”

Edlud snorted and pushed through the crowd away from the procession. “Ask him to leave,” he muttered, shaking his head. “Don’t you think I’ve tried that?”

 

 

PART 2

“I’ve been thinking, Lentil,” Edlud said, perched on the edge of his chair while his brother-in-law blinked his way into the early afternoon from under an organic, woollen blanket. “Isn’t it time you found a place for you and your little creatures to settle down. It can’t be good for them in this cramped space.”

“You’re all heart, man. That’s what I love about you.” Lentil sat up and embraced him in a limp hug that reeked of soap deprivation. His greasy dreadlocks brushed over Edlud’s neck and goatee beard scratched his shoulder. “But I can’t leave you at a time like this, not with the Mysticarium about to ruin you all.”

Edlud’s cheek twitched. “That’s not necessary. I think we can handle a few tricksters.”

“You’re a true hero,” Lentil said, his brown eyes sincere, “but you need someone who knows it from the inside, someone who sees past their propaganda. No, I’ll not abandon you. As long as the Mysticarium’s shadow looms over our home, I’ll stay.”

Lentil slid from under his covers and stretched in front of Edlud. His spindly body reminded Edlud of twigs and berries. “I need to tend my animals, man.” Without dressing, he left the room.

“Our home?” Edlud squinted to wring the sight from his eyes and tried scour it from his mind by focusing on the task at hand. There had to be another way to get the man out. No matter what they were doing to the town or how many jobs they displaced, the Mysticarium was a big business and Edlud just one man. “I need a cup of tea.”

He pondered his options as he filled the kettle and hung it over the hearth. Throwing Lentil out wasn’t an option, not after marrying his sister. That was a headache he could do without. Perhaps the Mysticarium wasn’t so bad either. Granted, his hometown lost some identity and he did not trust their magic as far as it could throw him but Chipper claimed possible work for carpenters. With the extra money, he might build an annexe for Lentil and his animals. In time, his wife might forgive him for taking a job with the Mystics. Maybe.

At the kettle’s whine, he poured the hot water into a mug containing what looked like soil and hedge clippings. Lentil called it herbal tea, good for calming nerves and raising the spirit, whatever that meant.

After the first sip, Edlud set his steaming mug on the kitchen worktop and opened the breadbin, his stomach growling. A mouse twitched its nose back at him amidst a few stale crumbs in an otherwise breadless space. “Typical,” he muttered then eyed a skewer on the draining board to his right. “Perhaps I’ll have some meat instead. You’re nicely fattened up, aren’t you, little one?”

The mouse cowered behind the crumbs in a corner of the breadbin, its little black eyes glistening.

“Father! What are you doing?” Angelica screeched from behind as he gripped the skewer and aimed it at the mouse.

Edlud spun around, tossing the skewer into the sink. It chinked against the ceramic and clattered to rest. “What? Nothing. Just, ah, cleaning the hinges on this breadbin—someone clogged them with crumbs.” He added a glower to put her on the defensive and took a gulp of tea, hiding his shock behind the mug.

The routine snarky comment about his weight failed to materialise—a dead giveaway that his teenage daughter was up to something. Instead she shrugged and reached for the kitchen door handle. Only then did Edlud notice her shirt was tied into a knot at the front, baring her stomach and a cloud of her mother’s perfume followed her, making his eyes water. She wore tight breeches with, “Tap this!” stitched across the seat next to the Mysticarium’s emblem.

“Oh, someone has to stop this madness,” Edlud said, shaking his head. “Where do you think you’re going dressed like that?”

She turned around and smiled with the innocence reserved for kittens and disobedient daughters. Her blonde locks swayed around her shoulders and sapphire eyes sparkled. “The site of the Mysticarium. One of the apprentice wizards, Manson, offered to give me a tour, you know, like where everything’s going to be. He says he’ll show me his magic wand.”

Edlud spluttered his tea across the kitchen, showering the poor mouse. “I bet he did! It’s about time I had a word with these wizards.”

“So I can’t go?” She sagged against the door and pouted. “Manson said I had a spark!”

“I’ll give him a spark. We’ll see how enchanting this Manson is with a broken wand. No. You’re not leaving his house.”

“You just can’t face that I’m growing up.”

“Not today you’re not.”

“But—”

“Bedroom.”

“I—”

“Grounded.”

Edlud stormed out of the kitchen, through the hall and onto the street, slamming the door behind him. With fists gripped and grinding teeth, he ignored the wails from inside. That Manson character could wait for now. Edlud was heading right to the top, that Bumblingdwarf or whatever Chipper had called him.

Before he had stomped ten paces, a cheerful voice hollered across the street. “I say, Edlud! Come and look at these!”

It was Fleece, the shifty, lazy-eyed merchant who traded Edlud’s crates and barrels with the outlying villages. He was pulling a hand cart behind him, a cover draped over the sides. Edlud knew better than to ignore the man if he wanted to maintain “tax free” exports.

“It’s the first shipment of goods from the Mys…what’s the matter with you? You look like you bartered for grapes and got raisins.”

“Mystics are the matter with me,” Edlud snarled. “Not only are they putting us all out of work, but they’re flashing their wands about in front of my daughter.”

“That’s indecent,” Fleece said, tugging the cover over his wares.

“And this ‘mana’ everyone’s going on about; does anyone even know what it is?”

“Well, no, I—”

Edlud talked over him. “I have a theory of my own. You have to think about the word, break it down. Man-a. You see?”

“I’m not sure I—”

“Twist the letters around and it says ‘a man’. What do you think about that?”

Fleece frowned. “The…treacherous brigands?”

“Precisely,” Edlud said, raising a finger.

“Do you really think they kill people?”

“What? That doesn’t even make sense. I’ll take you through it. What makes a man, you know, a man?”

Fleece looked at the ground and flushed. “His…his err…”

“That’s right. His beard. There’s power in beards. Why do you think those wizards grow them so long? Ever seen a wizard without a beard? Even the witches start growing them when they’re older, little wispy ones.”

The merchant’s face contorted while he figured it out. “So they’re going to shave us? That’s depraved!”

“They’ll shave the whole town! And then use the hair for…” Edlud waved his arms, “bizarre rituals.”

“Are you sure that’s reasonable? What of the witches? Only a few of those have beards. Logically, they couldn’t—”

“I will not be swayed by logic and reason! That’s my daughter they’re pointing their wands at.”

Fleece blinked and stepped back. “Someone has to do something.”

Edlud nodded, some of the tension draining from his bunched fists. “That someone is me since everyone else is too daft to think this through. Can you imagine? No jobs, no beards?”

“They’re a rotten lot, you mark my words,” Fleece said. “I wouldn’t have a thing to do with them.”

“Wise move, Fleece. What did you want to show me?”

The merchant’s eyes darted. “Err, nothing. Just some wood for your crates business but now I recall you bought plenty on my last visit. It’s a little warped to tell the truth, full of knots, but the best I could get hold of. Actually, I’d better move along. Appointments to keep and all, you know?”

Edlud eyed the cart as it bounced behind the hurrying merchant. Blue light glowed under the shadow of the cart and the phrase “Powered by fairy dust” adorned the back in green paint.

He’ll learn, Edlud thought. He’ll learn when he wakes up clean-shaven.

As Edlud weaved through the crowds of builders and Mystics, he considered how to thwart the construction. His petition to the guilds, to nip this in the bud, had failed. He came up with three possibilities: sabotage the building, discredit the Mystics or kill them all.

His daughter’s voice carried over the conversation, the sawing of wood and chipping of stone. Her arms draped around the shoulders of a black-robed youth wearing mascara and with black paint over his nails, she caught Edlud’s gaze and stuck her tongue out before kissing the Mystic’s cheek. Edlud growled, narrowed his eyes and ground his teeth as the two disappeared into the bustle. Then his plan formed of its own accord. All three. Starting by killing that make-up wearing Goth.

All that remained was to work out the details. He surveyed the construction site and smiled when he found Chipper, the mason, and remembered his offer of work. “’Might as well earn a little coin while ruining these Mystics.”

“I beg your pardon?” a lanky old man in embellished robes asked. Though he had more wrinkles than face, his posture was upright and he dodged the steady stream of workmen flowing towards Chipper’s animated commands.

Edlud gave a start and tore his eyes from the man’s long beard. “I said I’m looking for a bumbling dwarf.”

The old Mystic frowned over his half-moon spectacles. “A bumbling dwarf…?”

“My name’s Edlud. I’m a carpenter. I believe the bumbling dwarf is expecting me. Guild Master Chipper requested me personally.”

“Edlud…Edlud…? Oh, yes! You mean Chancellor Grumblemore—he’s the Mystic in charge of construction. Fortunately, you’ve found him. He’s me. Or rather, I’m him. One or the other. It’s difficult to keep track with these mirror image spells.”

“Uhm…”

“Actually, I’m the chancellor of the Mysticarium’s schools but we decided tasks like building the place needed an academic touch rather than letting our commercial arm deal with it. Those magic bean counters would have us cutting corners and doing everything on the cheap. Unfortunately, we couldn’t keep the project managers away. Now we have graphs for everything and they demand we do everything faster.” Grumblemore sighed. “Masterpieces require time. If something takes ten days, it takes ten days. Saying ‘Do it in five’ won’t change that.”

Edlud raised an eyebrow and shuffled away from the Mystic.

“My apologies, just a little internal disagreement,” Grumblemore said and his smile returned. “How about I resolve some of those fears you have about us? Let’s start with jobs. You see, we create more jobs than we displace with the Mysticarium. You might need to learn a new skill to adapt to the new order—for which our enrolment managers can offer you competitive rates on a course—but there’s work.”

“Cleaning up your magical fallout, I bet.”

“We offer some exciting opportunities in waste management, true, but consider the last Mysticarium we built. Within three years, the town had doubled in size. All those new homes and businesses needed skilled craftsmen like your good self to build and service them.” Grumblemore cocked his head and started walking around the construction site. “Follow me.”

That’s not how Lentil described it, Edlud thought but strode to keep pace with the nimble old man. He maintained a watchful eye for any of the dark rituals his brother-in-law warned him about. Every one of the robed Mystics had a beard—that couldn’t be coincidence, but he spied no pentagrams, not yet.

“You’ve probably just heard some of the wrong rumours about us,” Grumblemore continued. “We can hardly maintain a business if we put everyone in town out of work. Who would buy our wares?”

Edlud paused. “I suppose that makes sense.”

“Of course it does,” the chancellor said and clapped him on the back. “Would it help if I showed you around our Crooked Wand branch? We can be there in moments. It is but a teleport away. Or perhaps you would prefer to ride a magic carpet? What about if we summoned a dragon to bear us? Do you see the wonders we create?”

Flying. Edlud shuddered. “How about something more traditional?”

The Mystic pondered for a moment, stroking his long beard, probably charging his magic. “I can arrange a carriage if that suits?”

Edlud nodded. If he was going to thwart the Mystics’ plans and oust them from Manawell, it couldn’t hurt to learn what he was up against. Since whining had failed, he decided it time to give action a chance. “All right. I’m a fair and rational man so I’ll hear you out, but I’ll be watching you. I don’t want you ensorcelling me when I’m not looking.”

“No ensorcelling, I promise,” Grumblemore said and led him through the hordes of builders.

 

 

 

PART 3

 

Edlud and Chancellor Grumblemore walked over the flattened ground of the building site. The chancellor conjured a magical barrier that shielded their faces from the dust kicked up by Chipper’s masons. He talked about different schools of magic: illusionists, diviners, abjurers and other weird names. He skimmed over the commercial side, saying only that they distracted the Circle of Enchantment from higher pursuits. Soon they reached the foot of a grassy hill surrounded by an iron railed fence with tall gates. Dozens of masons and Mystics in black robes milled about, marking a circular outline on the ground.

“Aren’t you building rather close to the graveyard?” Edlud said. With the racket, it was a wonder the dead weren’t banging on their coffin lids. Edlud could imagine his old ma—rest her soul—yelling for quiet until her hair rollers fell out.

“That plot has been reserved for the School of Necromancy. Don’t worry. The town will retain full access to graveyard facilities with the added advantage that the Mysticarium takes care of that expensive maintenance.” Grumblemore waved someone over, and then turned back to Edlud. “I’d like you to meet Manson. He’s one of the prefects in the Necromancer’s Crypt.”

Edlud added maintenance to his mental tally of job losses for the town. His ears then pricked at the familiar name.

The moody looking youth shambled closer—Edlud’s daughter still attached—and extended a pale hand. He spoke as though straining his voice for added depth. Despite the squeaking, it reminded Edlud of dust. “Delighted to welcome you on behalf of the Necromancers,” he said.

Edlud stared at the youth’s gaunt face and its cobweb-like strands of stubble for a moment before punching him in the eye. His daughter threw her arms aloft and stormed off, ignoring Manson’s whimpers.

Grumblemore blinked. He looked from Edlud to the fallen lad and back. “Moving on. Oh, that’s right. I’m told you had some concerns about our presence here. Something about an unemployed brother?”

“Wife’s brother. He lost his job when you finished that other Mysticarium in Crooked wand. He moved into my house six months ago and I can’t get rid of the sponge. His animals get everywhere.”

“Yes, the mason mentioned that so I asked around. I don’t mean to cause strife but I’m told that our druidic school—the Daisy Chain—offered him work. He agreed, but after some, shall we say ‘incidents’, he decided to leave.”

“Is that a fact?” Edlud asked, envisioning his hands wrapped around his lying brother-in-law’s throat. Forced you out, did they?

“Sorry, it’s a rather awkward business. He took exception to our methods of imp restraint—said they should be allowed to fly free—and, well, you probably don’t appreciate the mischief a dozen loosed imps can cause. It’s not like releasing a few hens.”

They reached a clearing where five contraptions waited. They looked like hand carts but had four wheels. A large copper tank at the rear doubled as a backrest for two forward-facing seats. Thick copper pipes ran the length of the box with flared ends that protruded behind. One side was all belts, chains and wheels of varying size.

“Here we are,” Grumblemore said.

Edlud’s mouth dropped as he took in the contraptions. “What in all that’s holy…?”

“They’re prototypes. We’ve never taken them so far before—some bother with overheating—but I’m told they’re up to the job.” The chancellor slapped the copper tank and it clanged. “This here tank is separated inside. The top half contains water which is heated by the bottom half, creating steam which powers this flywheel and…”

Edlud’s head span with all the talk of belts, wheels, gears and gizmos that he understood little of the explanation. Though he dreaded another lecture, his curiosity piqued about something the chancellor had missed. “What heats the water? You only said the bottom half.”

“Subdued fire elemental. This one is sleeping at the moment. We simply give it a little nudge. It wakes up, rages around inside for a while giving us the heat we need.”

“Rages around,” Edlud repeated, edging away.

“This lever at the front, here, sprays a little water over the elemental inside. Well, they don’t like that at all, so they wake up and throw a bit of a wobbler. That gives us the heat we need for the steam.”

“A bit of a wobbler?”

Grumblemore laughed. “It’s perfectly safe. Unless someone is daft enough to cut holes in the tank, we’ve nothing to worry about from little Bernie in there.”

“Bernie?”

“He’s the fire elemental inside. This one’s Bernie. Down there we have: Blazer, Smoky, Firestorm and Armageddon. I’ll let you choose which we take.”

The last cart in the line supported a tank twice the size of the others and rocked on its wheels. The tank was misshapen, dents and bulges covering the surface. A loud clang resounded and one of the embossed letters from the back clattered to the ground. It read ‘A mage on’, the remaining letters hanging precariously.

“What about that one at the end? Armageddon? It sounds awake—why isn’t it moving?”

“Erm, we’re…not sure. Nobody dares get close enough to find out.”

Edlud sidled away. “Bernie will be fine.”

They clambered into the leather seats in front of the copper tank via small staircases either side. The chancellor pulled a red-topped lever and the cart shook sending tremors through Edlud’s spine. The tank whined, banged and crashed. Steam rose from the pipes and various screeches and whirs sounded from all around.

Edlud frowned. “It’s cool. We’re sitting right next to a copper tank that’s producing steam and I can barely feel the heat.”

“Ingenious, isn’t it?” Grumblemore beamed. “We call it the Internal Combustion Elemental.”

Edlud glanced around expecting Physics to wreak some vengeance, but it gave no outward indication of displeasure. With a wink, the chancellor cranked another lever, twisted some dials, and the cart lurched forwards.

Then stopped, tossing its passengers around.

“Ah. Stalled it. Hold on.”

After another bout of lever pulling, the cart shot forward. Edlud slammed back into his chair as the wind tried to pull his face off. Cheeks flapping and hair billowing behind, Edlud clung onto his seat as the landscape streaked past. Trees, fields and hills all merged into the same greenish blur. Within moments they flashed past Gravelly Common, a village half a day’s ride away under normal circumstances. The chancellor mouthed something that was lost in the roar of wind, the hiss of steam and rumble of cartwheels.

“Can’t hear a word,” Edlud screamed back, desperately trying to control his bladder. With all the shaking, his pelvis already felt like it had been ground to dust.

Grumblemore raised a finger and twisted a dial. The deafening racket reduced to a hum. Some of the tension ebbed from Edlud’s shoulders.

“Woohoo!” the old chancellor cried.

“Absolutely blooming crazy,” Edlud muttered. Lunatics like the chancellor should not be allowed out of the house, never mind near people or in charge of something like the Mysticarium. Another reason these maniacs had to be stopped. What if these carts were loose on the streets of Manawell? It would be chaos. He forced a smile and nodded to appease the chancellor’s expectant look.

They reached flat countryside and, with little to crash into, Edlud relaxed and trusted his bodily functions to resume normal operation without clenching intervention. In an attempt to distract from the blur of ripening crops that stretched to the horizon, he studied the multitude of controls on a black panel at the front of the cart. Most of the dials showed the Mysticarium insignia. At the bottom of the panel, the words “Mysticarium: driving your passion” were painted in elegant gold script.

Driving you mad, more like, Edlud thought and turned to Grumblemore. “What are all these slogans and symbols about?”

“Marketing. They say we need to build a brand, whatever that means. I think they sometimes forget the Mysticarium is primarily for learning, although I can’t deny that the money helps. If next year’s budget allows, I’m hoping to build a manacollider.”

“Dare I ask?”

“You should—fascinating business. It ought to be called the Large Hag Collider but Marketing said that wasn’t snappy enough. It will be underground, naturally, and take the form of a pipe that surrounds the town in a perfect circle. Once built, we’ll fire hags into one another from either direction.”

Edlud grimaced, all the confusion triggers and common sense alarms in his mind firing and ringing. “Why?

“To see what happens, why else?”

“What does happen?”

“We don’t know. That’s why we’re smashing them together. It takes a special mindset to understand,” Grumblemore added with a nod.

“It’s special alright.”

“Remember, the Mysticarium in Manawell will be much grander, a veritable wonder, if we can restrain those damned project managers.” Grumblemore cleared his throat. “Sorry. Internal voice.” He winked and a mischievous grin plumped his rosy cheeks. “To tell the truth, they think I’m too outspoken to be chancellor. Oh, I try Marketing’s jargon when I remember, but someone has to maintain their roots, to remember what the Mysticarium is for, don’t you think?”

After a quick deliberation, Edlud decided that agreeing with the unstable Mystic in control of the speeding explosion-waiting-to-happen was the best approach. He resumed clenching.

As well he did. A speck on the horizon grew into a huge building, all circles, triangles and spires.

“Here we are,” the chancellor said and moved a couple of levers.

Nothing happened.

“Shouldn’t we be slowing down?” Edlud asked, clenching like he had never clenched before. His buttocks started to go numb.

The chancellor frantically cranked levers, tapped dials and pressed buttons but the cart made no sign of slowing. The spark of insight then shone on Grumblemore’s face and he began scribbling in a notepad.

“What are you doing, man?” Edlud shouted.

“I think I know what went wrong. I’ve been designing a mechanism to convert the kinetic energy from the wheels into—”

Edlud cut him off by yanking the steering wheel which served only to lurch the cart onto its left wheels. Deprived of the ground, the wheels on the right side flew off.

“Oh, and something to secure the wheels,” the chancellor said, flipping the page.

The building drawing ever closer, Edlud shoved his host off one side and dived from the careening vehicle before it crashed into the spire. Metal flew at all angles and splinters hailed from above. A whirling streak of fire hung in the air for a moment, and then whizzed through one of the spire windows. Soon, smoke poured from every window in the spire, followed by robed figures, diving into thin air. Some alternated between plummeting and floating while another transformed into a sparrow. His robe, however, did not transform and enveloped the little bird. He changed back into a man and a mattress appeared underneath him, just before he hit the ground.

“So much for perfectly safe,” Edlud muttered, wiping grit from his face and nursing a grazed knee.

Through the smoke and fire it struck him. Safety. That was his angle. The guild masters loved safety. If he could sabotage the Mysticarium in such a way that it branded it unsafe, that might discredit the Mystics enough for the guilds to throw them out. Perhaps even rename the town and streets back to sensible things without ‘mana’ every second syllable. He would remain in business, his freeloading brother-in-law would leave—probably—and if a few Mystics died in the process, all the better.

The chancellor trotted through the smoke and dusted off his robes. “Erm,” he said, looking at the burning spire, his face blackened by soot. “I’m afraid we might have to skip the Tower of Astromancy in your tour.” He clapped his hands together, creating a black plume, and beamed. “Still, there’s much to see!”

Leaving the burning tower behind, they marched to a marble building with a domed roof. Mystics spilled from the other buildings and scratched their heads or argued beside the burning tower. A Mystic with short hair and rectangular glasses sped past the two carrying a flipchart under his arm and demanding graph paper.

“Project manager,” the chancellor said. “Never understood them. He won’t let them extinguish the fire until he’s drafted resource request forms and drawn a graph showing the quickest approach for the least Mystic time.”

“Sounds organised,” Edlud conceded. “You don’t agree?”

Grumblemore shrugged. “Despite my best efforts, these lazy Mystics spend half their day eating cake. Their time isn’t that important. I don’t suppose you fancy a jog to the School of Envokers? I have all this nervous energy.” Without waiting for a response, the aged Mystic dashed off in front.

Edlud charged after him for what felt like eternity. His legs burnt, head swam and every step jolted his already-ruined spine. Still, to form an effective plan, he needed to observe an existing Mysticarium, scope its weaknesses. They skirted around the building which resembled a wheel around a central clock tower. Where they headed, a corridor perhaps a mile long split from the wheel and a building segment loomed in the distance.

“I find a nice jog helps clear the mind, don’t you think?” The chancellor spoke as though taking a leisurely stroll, not sprinting flat-out.

Edlud wheezed.

“That’s it, chap, you regulate your breathing. Find your rhythm.”

The air around Edlud shimmered and he slowed as though running through water. An instant later, he stumbled forward, Physics’ normal services resumed. “What was that? And why are these Envokers so far away?”

“We just passed through magical shielding. The Envokers need a little extra…protection. Magical discharge, that sort of thing. Can you imagine what happens when you first teach teenagers how to throw fireballs? Maintenance usually cleans up the worst of it but we still had to give them some distance from the Mysticarium proper. Come along. If we’re lucky, we might catch their afternoon exercise.”

Frowning expended too much energy so Edlud just stumbled on behind. Stray fireballs he could use, if only he could gather evidence. Through his hazy vision, he made out figures in the distance. As they neared, the figures coalesced into ranks of men and women. All performing star jumps. Embroidered flames adorned their sleeves and hems over a black background, flaring and flapping around with each jump.

“What…?”

Grumblemore laughed, took a place at the back and joined in. “Ha! We caught them! It’s one of my own initiatives. Studies showed that physical exercise in the afternoon increases mental focus. Personally, I like the sharp edge it gives the mind but the project managers loved the idea of increased productivity so they rolled it out through the Mysticarium: students, teachers, Sales, Marketing.”

Edlud managed four star jumps before he sank to all fours and gasped for air. This is what I’d have to look forward to? Every day? Not in my town.

The chancellor prattled on during the exercise but Edlud was too focused on holding back vomit to listen. Just as his breath started to return and his stomach stopped churning, the Envokers dispersed in a series of high-fives and cheers.

“Don’t you feel energised?”

“I want to be sick.”

“Pushing yourself to the limit, eh? I respect that.” The chancellor offered a hand. Edlud grasped the sinewy limb and rose, though his head span and he teetered on the verge of collapse. After a few deep breaths and hanging on to the old man for balance, Edlud nodded and they headed for a circular entrance into the long corridor.

They turned left and walked through the corridor toward the main building. People bustled all around them. Bookish looking men and women ambled, staring off into the ether or focused on the pages of a levitating book in front of them. A group of children charged past, ducking between Edlud and the chancellor, laughing and firing blasts of water at one another from their wands. Their lead ducked when a shelf carrying potion bottles rounded the corner in front of her, two feet from the ground. On each corner, a thin lead attached it to a multi-coloured dragon, no more than six inches tall. The girl slid underneath, the hem of her robes smouldering as one of the dragons squeaked and belched flames at her.

“The Mysticarium is more than just a business,” Grumblemore explained as they followed the dragon-pulled shelf to the doorway of an interior room filled with desks and a chalk board. “It is a school, and not just for those with the flair for spell casting. Alchemy, for example, requires no talent in spells. The components contain the magical properties so we can train anyone to become an alchemist—it’s just like cooking to a recipe.”

Edlud peered over the shoulders of some children and into a cauldron. Bubbles rose, water sloshed, and the vessel rocked on its stand over a green flame. With a clanging like discordant church bells, a beast of clay and metal roared from the cauldron. Its cracked hands gripped the rim and it pulled itself out, bellowing rage.

Until its legs liquefied again and it slid back into the water. The children laughed, checked the symbols on the chalk board, and tossed in a pinch of something that looked like sawdust and smelled like feet.

“Cooking to a recipe,” Edlud repeated.

“Precisely. So even if your own children don’t have magical aptitude, we still provide education, for a fee, of course. Assuming you work for the Mysticarium, we’ll even take the fee from your wages.”

“Of course you will.”

“Come along, there’s more to see.” Grumblemore led them through the corridor that wound in a giant circle. They passed glowing barriers cordoning off an area where something blue and sticky dripped from the ceiling. A Mystic stood underneath, muttering something while spatulas and buckets floated above, attempting to dislodge and catch the goo. “That’s Garmel they’re scraping off the ceiling. She’s one of our research students. Oh, don’t worry. They’ll transform her back to her proper shape. Our healers—both Mystics and non-magical—can fix almost anything, assuming they can find all the bits.”

The whole place attacked Edlud’s senses. Scents mingled, his skin pricked and crawled, and his ears stopped trying to differentiate between the hubbub of conversation, thrumming noises, and distant explosions. Something wailed from within the room to their right and the scent of overcooked cabbage wafted out, making Edlud’s eyes water.

“That’s the Necromancers’ Crypt,” Grumblemore said. “We’ll just skip past them for now—they can be a secretive bunch and, to be honest, they give me the chills.”

Edlud peered over the chancellor’s should as he ushered him away from the door. Something pale with ragged clothing shambled inside.

“After all that excitement with the Envokers, how about we swing by the Teacup?”

“Please. I could murder a brew,” Edlud said. A nice cup of tea would settle his nerves. At the mention of tea and implication of a sit down, the tension began ebbing from his back.

The chancellor laughed. “The Teacup is what we call the School of Divination. As long as you don’t mind them foretelling both your imminent death and long life in the bottom of your cup, I’m sure they will make you a nice brew. Of course, most of our diviners are busy analysing last quarter’s sales figures and cross referencing them against cosmological models. The Singulus and Regulum constellations are in alignment this month so we expect a rise in self-propelled whisk sales.”

“Actually, I should be getting back. My wife…”

“Missing her, eh?”

“Not really. I’m enjoying the peace and quiet,” Edlud said over the explosions. “But you wouldn’t believe the nagging I’ll get if I’m not home soon. She’s not called Moaning Maribel for nothing.”

“Forgive my ignorance, but being chancellor of a Mysticarium doesn’t leave much time for romance. Why marry someone like that?”

Edlud scoffed. “Unfortunately, she didn’t earn that name until after we married. You wouldn’t believe the change once that ring slipped over her finger. Ha! I was lucky to hold hands after that went on.”

“Curious.”

“Well, you live and learn, don’t you? How do we get back, by the way? That cart-thing probably won’t do the job any more.”

“The quickest way is teleportation but you didn’t seem keen earlier. There’s nothing to worry about—we disintegrate you here and just put you back together at the destination. It’s perfectly safe.”

“So was Bernie.”

“Bernie will be fine. He’s probably just frightened. I expect Maintenance has coaxed him out of the tower by now.”

“Frightened? It’s a living fireball!”

“Shh!” The chancellor glanced around and reduced his tone to a whisper. “Fire elementals are sensitive.”

“Let’s just get this over with,” Edlud said.

“You’re sure?”

He sighed. “Yes. Disintegration lasts a second whereas she’ll complain for hours if I’m home late.”

“Very well.” The chancellor pulled a scroll from within his robe and skimmed over the elaborate script. With a few obscene gestures, a sprinkle of dust that made Edlud itch, and words that sounded like he had made them up on the spot, the world turned to smoky haze.

Dizziness overcame Edlud and his body lurched in what felt like all directions and once, inward and outward. At the caress of wind on his face and the sound of voices, he blinked his eyes open and frowned at the building site in Manawell.

“I feel violated,” Edlud said. He padded himself down. Everything appeared to still be there, although his elbow hurt rather than his knee. He fidgeted and tugged at his breeches. “Is my underwear tighter?”

The chancellor smiled. “You get used to it. Have you got everything you need?”

Edlud thought back at the stray fireballs, the explosive carriage and liquefied student. “Yes, I believe I have.” To shut you down and banish you from Manawell for good.

“Excellent. I’m going to push through plans for the Large Hag Collider. I’ve already earmarked your friend Chipper for the masonry and I’d like you to work with him on the frames. What do you say?”

Something like that had to be dangerous and provide even more opportunity to discredit the Mystics. Edlud shook the Chancellor’s hand. “I’m in.”

 

 

PART 4

“You don’t love me.”

Edlud set his mug down on the kitchen table, closed his eyes, and thanked his deity for delivering him this fresh hell. “Darling.”

“After what they did to my Lentil, don’t you have any respect for me?” Her hands planted on her ample hips and her otherwise pretty face set in a scowl that had been practiced to an art form, she stared at Edlud.

“It’s not that, I—”

“I’ll hear none of your lies. Lentil, you come in here,” Maribel screeched and her brother trotted in as though expecting the summons. Or listening at the door. At least he was dressed. “He’s only working for the Mystics. Went off on a jolly with the head wizard, he did.”

“On a jolly? I almost died today! More than once.”

They both stared at Edlud with expressions of utter betrayal. “Look.” He glanced around as if someone might be eavesdropping in his own kitchen. With a suspicious narrowing of his eyes at the mouse peering over crumbs, he closed the breadbin.  There was no telling what spies the Mystics had. “They’ve given me the perfect opportunity to bring them down. Don’t you see?”

His wife and brother-in-law stared back with blank faces. Maribel somehow made even that into a scowl.

“I’m helping build the place…” Edlud let the thought trail off for them to catch up.

After some frowning, Lentil’s jaw dropped. “You mean sabotage?” he said in a calm drawl that put Edlud in mind of joss sticks and organic ponchos.

“Finally!”

“Think you can manage it?” Maribel asked, ever the bastion of support.

“My darling wife, the way they carry on, I’ll hardly need to! From what I’ve seen, they’ll blow themselves up before I act. And if they don’t, I’ll be perfectly placed to make sure something goes wrong. Besides, I think we could all use the extra income.” Edlud’s sidelong glance picked up the sudden light in his freeloading brother-in-law’s eyes.

“You’ll need help. Our Lentil is experienced.”

Edlud’s tongue caught in his throat. “That won’t be necessary,” he blurted.

“Think of all the poor animals suffering there,” Lentil said. “I can help them. I know the Mysticarium from the inside, man, how they work.”

Maribel’s eyes narrowed. They did that a lot. “What’s the matter? Is my family no longer good enough for you? You’ve changed, Edlud.”

I’ve changed? I’d take the job just to get out of the house! Edlud fought to keep outward calm. “Fine. Give me a couple weeks to start and I’ll fit you into my plans.” It would take at least that long to think of something Lentil could do. “And then you’ll leave?” He had to say it.

“Edlud!” Maribel gave her customary scowl. There was something else in her eyes, a glint of hope, a glimmer of the old Maribel. What he would give to see her again. If he failed… Well, he did not know how much more of her moaning and Lentil’s droning he could take, not to mention how many virile wizards’ wands he would have to break for enchanting his daughter.

Lentil nodded, or he could have just been rocking like he did if he hadn’t smoked his suspicious-smelling pipe for some time. “I’ll help you topple the machine, man. Once it’s gone, I’ll fly free.”

“I’ll take that as a yes.” Edlud clipped his tool belt on. “I’m off to work. I have planning to do.” As he grabbed the handle, the door shook and a girl shrieked. Hurried footsteps followed and Edlud caught Angelica’s bare midriff disappearing through the front door.

That girl…

#

Edlud arrived at the building site where the circles and domes of the Mysticarium took shape around a gigantic framework. Dozens of carpenters and masons hung off the structure, sawing wood, shaping stone and shouting lewd obscenities at passing witches. The scent of sawdust and the blue sky put a spring in his steps. He wiped the sleep from his eyes which appeared to be reporting Chancellor Grumblemore standing on thin air. Half-expecting a damning response from Physics, he warily approached.

“What happened to the ground here?” Edlud said. His gaze followed a deep channel in the earth which extended around the whole town in a huge circle.

“We need to see through it,” the chancellor said, stepping onto the clear ground without flinching or falling through it.

Edlud remained unconvinced, eyeing the transparent material under the chancellor’s feet. “Why?”

“So we can look at it, otherwise how do we know what happens when we smash the hags together?”

“I…suppose that makes sense.” The man was actually serious about his Large Hag Collider! Edlud had assumed it more of that marketing nonsense.

The chancellor laughed. “Don’t worry about it, science is not for everyone. The grand opening is in two months and our first LHC experiment will be the star of the show. I want you to work with your friend Chipper on the loading bays for the hags. He’ll give you the details.” He clapped Edlud on the back and jogged toward a group of masons.

Edlud struggled to stay angry at the Mystic and his positive attitude but he made an effort to suppress his empathy. Likeable attitude or not, clear ground and hag-smashing was just unnatural. After a moment to get his head around the whole thing, he smiled. The chancellor had delivered him another perfect opportunity. The grand opening would be the best time to put his plan into motion, especially with all eyes on this weird experiment. With the whole town assembled to see the Mysticarium’s downfall, the guild masters would have no choice but to revoke their licence. The brother-in-law would be gone, jobs would be safe, and nobody would be smashing hags under his town. Best of all, they would pay Edlud for the whole thing.

He walked to the chink of metal on stone and found Chipper hunched over a marble block.

“Ha!” Chipper chirped. “I knew you’d come. Made you an offer, did they?”

“Let’s just say Maribel has one less thing to moan about, thank the heavens. What are these loading chambers and…” Edlud trailed off, backing away from what appeared to be a flying chisel with a pair of angry-looking eyes. “What the hell is that? Is it…eating those marble blocks?”

“Enchanted chisel,” Chipper said. “It works on the same magic as a dancing scimitar. It occurred that I need a lot of these blocks. Well, I just chiselled the first by hand and the chisel remembers what it did. It will munch through those other blocks in the same way until it runs out of blocks.” He indicated a finished piece to his right. Circular ridges protruded from one side and matching holes were carved into the opposite side. “They’ll all look like that when it’s done.”

Edlud sidled away from it. The thing was unnatural! “Well, don’t expect me to use one. I’ve had enough of these Mysticarium gizmos blowing up on me. The chancellor mentioned loading chambers. What do you need me to do?”

“Ah,” Chipper said. He secured his tools in his belt and rolled out a sheet of paper covered in sketches. “We will build the two chambers for the Large Hag Collider. The Mystics will load the hags into them and lower them into the great channel that encircles the town.”

“Uh.”

“Don’t look so despondent, Edlud. We’re not only building a Wonder of the World, we’re creating history with the first supersonic hag collision!”

Edlud still failed to see the point but there was no use arguing with the delusional. “And my part in this is?”

“I need you to build me a wooden frame that goes diagonally from the surface into the chambers below. The Mystics will load the hags in from there.”

Edlud frowned. “Why diagonally? That just makes things awkward. Can’t they just push the hags in and let them drop?”

“Apparently, hags don’t like heights. Now, they’re a touchy sort so this has to be the strongest frame you’ve ever made. My stone will reinforce it and protect against the hags but since the whole thing has to move—to take the hags into the pipes—it’s only as strong as your frame.”

“Sounds like they’d be better with metal than stone.”

“Are you trying to put me out of a job? Anyway, it has to be stone, the Mystics were adamant. Something about magical resonance.” Chipper shrugged.

“That’s their answer for everything. Very well, let me look over those plans and I’ll…” Edlud trailed off while skimming over the sketches and cramped notes. All those angles and numbers sent a throbbing through his temples so he perched on a stone block. Chipper said something but Edlud dismissed it, focused on the plans. Simply understanding the notes took all his concentration, never mind searching the designs for a weakness he could exploit. Chipper’s voice became more insistent.

“Shh,” Edlud said and pain seared through his leg.

He leapt to his feet and clutched at his thigh. “Argh! Why did you do that?” he yelled at Chipper though the mason stood paces away with a look of horror on his face.

“I didn’t. I…”

“Argh!” A second stab of pain shot through Edlud’s hand and he yanked it away from his leg. The chisel floated in front of his face and gnashed its pointed teeth before diving onto the block of marble he had been sitting on.

“You spiteful little…” Edlud said over a high-pitched whine as dust and chippings flew from the marble. He turned on Chipper. “Why didn’t you warn me?”

“I did but you wouldn’t listen. I think you just got in its way.”

“Got in its way? You saw the look in its eyes. That was assault!” He bit off a slur about the Mysticarium’s unnatural practices as one of the robed charlatans rushed toward them waving a sheaf of papers. It wouldn’t do to lose his job before shutting the place down, despite the bleeding.

“You need to fill these in!” The Mystic, all pointy nose and jam-jar spectacles, waved his papers under Edlud’s nose before stuffing them in his hands.

“What are they? Who are you?” Edlud snapped, casting his eyes over the lines of script with underlined spaces beneath them.

“They’re accident forms. I’m the Mysticarium Safety Officer.”

“Safety Officer?” Edlud said while scribbling answers to question after pointless question on the pad. He used Chipper’s back as a pad rather than risk another attack near the marble blocks. “Isn’t it your job to make sure these accidents don’t happen?”

The Mystic frowned. “What an odd notion. No, I’m just here to make sure you fill in the appropriate forms when an accident does happen.”

“What’s this long bit at the bottom? I don’t understand a word.”

“Disclaimer. That’s just to say you don’t hold the Mysticarium responsible for the accident.”

“One of the Mysticarium’s tools attacked me—who else should I hold responsible?”

The Mystic thought about it for a moment and loosened the collar of his robes. “I…don’t know. You just have to sign it. We’ll call it an accident, nobody’s fault as such, and leave it at that, nice and tidy.”

Edlud shook his head and signed the form, more to be rid of the man than anything else. He shoved the plans in his belt then hobbled away from Chipper and the maniac chisel, flexing his hand and inspecting the red teeth marks in his palm.

“Where are you going?” Chipper called.

“I can hardly work with my hand and leg like this. Might as well see if I can make dowel from dovetail in these plans and get some materials.” He happened to know just the person for materials. Oh, his supports would hold the loading chamber. Briefly.

He headed through the twisting byways of the growing Mysticarium, rising structures either side blocking the sun. The complex had doubled the size of Manawell. Great stone corridors writhed from the main circular structure, linking new buildings amidst the original houses and manufactories, no open space left untarnished. Edlud hurried over Chipper’s precarious bridge across the Manastream and frowned at the giant wooden wheel that now turned with the current. Sunlight had once bathed the wattle and daub houses, reflecting light into green, open spaces, but grey monstrosities now soaked up the light.

He espied Fleece’s stall amidst a few others in the shadow of one of the Mysticarium’s archways and made toward it, rubbing at the wound in his leg. At least it had stopped bleeding, though it itched like fury.

“Fleece, I need that wood you brought,” Edlud said, glaring at the array of weird objects at the merchant’s stall. They came in countless shapes and sizes, and most had their bizarre uses written out on a little card beside them. His gaze rested on a large cylinder with a handle and he read the card. Why someone would want a device to suck dust from the floor, he would never know.

The merchant eyed him, keeping the widest part of his stall between them. “You don’t, surely? I said it’s full of knots. No good for a craftsman like you.”

Actually, it’s perfect for a craftsman like me. “No, it’s fine. The Mystics want it knotty.” Edlud’s mind searched for something plausible. “It has a natural magical resonance.”

Fleece paused, frowning while his lips moved wordlessly, and then smiled. “Yes…resonance…that’s true. I’m afraid the price has increased, given the magical nature of the goods.”

Edlud shrugged. “Mystics are paying. Charge what you like.”

#

Edlud poured over the Mystics’ plans for his LHC loading chamber during a rare, quiet moment in the kitchen. However unlikely, his daughter was studying in her room and Maribel was, well, he didn’t really care. He was just glad she was out of earshot. Only Lentil’s early-afternoon snoring disturbed the peace. Edlud had many things to say about his brother-in-law but the man was calming.

He circled two joints on one of the diagrams. Sub-standard wood might only take him so far and he needed to be certain the chamber would collapse and release the hag at the public experiment.

Lentil stirred and squinted at Edlud. “What’s the plan, man? How shall we stick it to the Mage?”

No sooner had Lentil awoken than Maribel entered the kitchen along with Angelica. It all reeked of ambush.

Edlud sighed into his tea but waved his family closer. Even Angelica had stopped moping and looked interested. Black make-up surrounded her eyes and covered her lips so that they matched her nails. And her clothes. And her hair.

Unwilling to start another battle over her appearance, Edlud let it slide. The four crowded over his plans as he pointed out the structural weak point. “This will hold through the Mystics’ testing. See this dowel here? It’s like a keystone. All I need to do is remove that and replace it with a dust cap before the experiment. When they try to use the loading chambers, the whole thing will collapse, setting the hag free and convincing the guilds that the Mystics are dangerous.”

“They’ll never let you near it once it’s done. Guards, man, and wards, all around.”

Edlud smiled. “That’s where you come in. I need you to distract whatever is guarding the loading chambers when the time comes. Think you can do it?”

“Fight the machine, man. Nature’s ally is with you.”

Edlud suppressed a groan and started to roll up the plans. Angelica craned her neck, focused on the parchment until the contents became hidden in the roll.

“You’ve never been interested in my work before,” Edlud said as fatherly pride spread a smile across his face.

His daughter’s smile could have rotted teeth across the table. “It’s fascinating.”

“If you want to know more, I could take you through my new crate designs. They are—”

“Have to go!” Angelica darted out of the kitchen. The front door opened and closed.

Edlud blinked at his daughter’s empty place at the table. “I should probably be suspicious of that.”

“She’s a teenage girl,” Maribel said. “You should be suspicious of everything.”

 

PART 5

The scent of oils and sawdust calmed Edlud as his plane whispered over the frame. He stepped back and appraised his work, his finest if one considered that the weak joint was intentional.

Chipper wandered over to him. “Excellent job, Edlud. I love the embellishments but you realise nobody will see them once my stonework is complete?”

“I know.”

“Ah, that’s what I love about you—a true craftsman. Even if it can’t be seen, there’s no reason for shoddy work, am I right?”

“That’s right.” That and it diverts the eye from the weakness. A thought tugged at him though. It wasn’t enough. A collapsing chamber would only go so far. He needed big. An accident could be forgiven, but a disaster would chase the Mysticarium away for good. If the whole tunnel circling the town were to collapse along with the loading chamber, that might be enough. While Chipper wittered on in his ears, he recalled plans in his head, of how he might modify the tunnel structure. One way to find out, he ignored Chipper’s continual verbiage and clambered into the tunnel.

His every step ached. He had grown accustomed to the exertions of his craft, but Chancellor Grumblemore’s torturous exercises were something else. Every day brought soreness in muscles that had no business being sore. Who knew industrial espionage could be such hard work? Still, he descended through the loading chamber until his feet hit the ground.

Wooden supports protected the tunnel at regular intervals, just like a mine. With the right planning, he could rig a chain reaction. When the loading chamber fell, so would the rest. It circled the town. Nobody could fail to notice that collapsing. Light poured into the tunnel through the clear ceiling, uninhibited by the Mysticarium’s towering buildings so far from the town centre. Edlud walked for hours, tapping supports with a grin on his face and the same verse repeating in his head:

One man went to break,

Went to break the Mystics!

We give it a tap and the lot falls flat,

Oh, down goes the Mysticarium!

As the day progressed and his plan began taking shape, more verses formed, including his brother-in-law’s horrific end at the teeth of an enchanted chisel.

Edlud hummed his tune all the way home where he settled at the kitchen table, ready to test his idea. Soon, tools and sawdust lay strewn across the table. Hours of humming, cutting, tapping and gluing later, he stepped back from his work. “Ahh. See what you can do with a bit of peace and quiet? Now to test it.”

Atop the table sat a scale model of the LHC tunnel, complete with loading chambers and supports grounded in a wooden base. Not the exact materials of the tunnel, but close enough to test his theory.

He also removed the chairs barricading the kitchen door. “You can stop peering through the key hole and come in now.”

His family fell over one another as he yanked open the kitchen door. That will teach you for spying, Edlud thought.

Edlud waved his wife away. “Look, I told you I didn’t have another woman in here when you were listening behind the door so you can stop sniffing me for perfume. All you’ll smell is sawdust. Sawdust and success!”

“What is it?” Angelica asked. “I thought you were bringing down the Mystics, not having some hobby time.”

“Enough of your cheek, girl.” Edlud peered over his model and smiled. “This is how we’re bringing down the Mystics, as you say. Let me show you.”

He pulled a small lever and one of the loading chambers on the model descended into the tunnel. “That’s how it’s supposed to work. Now watch what happens when I do this.” He reset the loading chamber and nudged a tiny dowel from one of the joints. When he pulled the lever again, the pod collapsed part way through its descent into the tunnel. It pulled a wire connecting the supports that ran around the circular tunnel. In turn, each of the supports collapsed.

“It’s like dominoes, you see? When the pod breaks, it pulls the wire connecting it to the supports and breaks the joints. In turn, each support will fall. We should only need a few to collapse but better catastrophe than disaster, eh?”

“I don’t know,” Maribel said. “Someone will see the wires.”

“I haven’t quite worked that out yet. I’m going to bore a hole around the tunnel wall between the supports. Getting the wire through will be the difficult part.”

Lentil gave a start. “Oh! I can help there.”

“You can?”

“My little friend here can.” A ferret poked its head out of Lentil’s shirt pocket. “We tie a wire to him and put them in the hole. He’ll just run on through to the other side, provided it’s not too heavy.”

“Are you sure?”

“Edlud!” Maribel snapped. “You will trust my brother!”

He sighed. “Very well. We have work to do and only a week before the opening.”

#

The streets teemed with people on the morning of the grand opening. Edlud emerged from the crowd, flustered and sore from all the jostling. Glowing railings better left untouched blocked access to the Mysticarium but the crowd was content to peer into the huge circle of clear ground that ran all around the town. Most exchanged guesses about the purpose of the visible tunnel and what wonders the Mystics had in store. A Mystic guarded the entrance, arms folded somewhere in the loose sleeves of his grey robe.

“Sorry, carpenter, you’ll have to watch from outside like the rest.”

Edlud’s face heated as he searched his mind for his prepared speech. He found something close enough. “Loading chambers! Need to check them.”

The Mystic smiled. “Ah, I heard you were quite the craftsman. All the testing has been done and the hags are loaded. You can relax, enjoy the show.”

Already loaded? That wouldn’t do at all. The whole plan would fail. “No-no, the chancellor sent me.” Movement flashed by the Mystic’s feet. “I need to check the…the…”

The Mystic’s face contorted and he began clawing at his robe. “Argh! Get it off! It’s biting! Get it off!”

Before Edlud could question it, he caught sight of a fair-trade poncho in the crowd. Lentil winked. Another glance at the Mystic revealed a tail flicking out of the robes. Edlud dodged the flailing Mystic and darted into the Mysticarium grounds. A use for Lentil, he mused, who’d have thought?

Only wind and dust trod the pathways around the Mysticarium complex. A few of those death-trap carriages chugged away in a courtyard and Edlud sneaked between them as distant voices passed, heading toward the gateway. The Mystics would soon discover that he had bypassed their guard and they would be looking for him. He rushed to the loading chamber and grabbed a mallet from his tool belt. Even though the hags had been loaded, reactivating the chamber still had a chance of instigating the chain reaction he had planned. A few taps and the dowel slid out of place.

“I see what you’re doing.”

Edlud span around and sneered at Mansun, his daughter’s would-be suitor. Black robes hung off his gangly frame and pimples dotted his gaunt face. “I’m surprised you can see anything through that fringe. What do you want?”

The student licked his lips, smearing black paint, and flicked the hair out of his eye with a jerk of his head. “Angelica and I are in love.”

Edlud rose and faced the skinny youth, hands on hips. “No you’re not.”

“How would you know?”

“You just met, for a start.”

“That doesn’t matter. We feel more acutely than others, our souls are—”

“You didn’t let me finish,” Edlud interrupted, toying with the handle of his mallet, feeling its weight. “Secondly, and most importantly, you’re not in love because I say you’re not. Understand?”

Mansun paused and flicked the fringe out of his eyes. “She told me everything.”

“Did she now?”

“Yes. I know you’re going to sabotage the LHC.” The words tumbled out and he managed to pale further before gulping and taking a deep breath. “If the Mystics were to find out…”

Edlud strolled toward Mansun and cracked his knuckles. The adolescent stepped back. “Think very carefully before you…what in the heavens’ name is that smell?” He gagged at the reek of cabbage as a creature shambled around the corner, something that may once have been a woman. Dirty rags hung from its rotting flesh and its jaw bounced with every step. “What is that thing? It looks ill.” It also looked familiar, something about the rollers in its hair.

“It strikes me that you may try to hit me again,” Mansun said, no longer retreating. Initiates of the Necromancers’ Crypt are not without the means to defend themselves. This zombie is bound to my command.” He turned to the creature. “Minion, loom over him!”

The zombie with the hair rollers raised an eyebrow and pulled a rolling pin from within its rags. Recognition dawned and, too amused to be offended at the desecration, Edlud smiled.

“I said loom!” Mansun yelled and kicked the creature’s shins. “I command you to loom!”

“I’ll…give…you…command…young man,” the zombie croaked and hefted its rolling pin.

Awkward blows rained down on the necromancer’s upraised arms. He backed away and ran into the Mysticarium complex, followed by the zombie.

“You…stay out…of…trouble…Edlud…. Watching…you…” it rumbled over its shoulder.

Edlud chuckled. Of all the corpses to dig up, the idiot had to choose his mother. He returned his attention to the loading chamber and began inspecting the frame. With the loading pod already inside the tunnel, the weakness needed modifying.

No sooner had his chisel—a dependable, non-sentient chisel—bitten into the wood than cold seeped over his feet. Keeping his eyes on the work, he shuffled from the cold spot. His boots squelched into the ground. More footsteps slapped on the ground, coming closer.

At first sight of Grumblemore’s approach, Edlud spluttered and dropped his mallet, searching his mind for an excuse. But worry, not wrath, played on the chancellor’s face and Edlud changed his tactics. “What’s going on?” he said. “Why are my feet wet?”

“Problem with the LHC,” Grumblemore said. “The project managers scrimped on the hags.”

Edlud grabbed the chancellor by the robes. “What do you mean ‘scrimped’?”

“Steady on.” Grumblemore broke free of Edlud’s grip and straightened his robes. “We requested standard hags, you know, pointy hats, crooked noses, but the project managers negotiated a cheaper deal for sea hags.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Well, they’re more…watery. They don’t like being underground. Oh, they don’t like that at all, so they are raising the rivers under the town.”

“I thought this collider-thing was supposed to smash them together. Can’t you just turn it on and, you know, smash them?”

“You’re welcome to try but the hags weren’t cooperative when it came to loading them into the firing mechanisms. They broke free and now they’re loose in the tunnel.”

“Can’t you magic them away then?”

Grumblemore shook his head. “Magically shielded. The LHC has to resist immense energy.”

“If it’s shielded, how can the hags raise rivers inside it?”

“Shielding it from below became…out of scope. More cutbacks, I’m afraid.”

Bile rose in Edlud’s stomach as his mind fired. It was not enough. A little flood could be dealt with and the guild masters would shrug it off. He needed disaster. He needed the LHC to collapse. The damned thing would collapse if he had to smack it with a mallet until it did. “I can fix this,” he said.

“Good show,” Grumblemore said, beaming. He lowered his voice. “Let’s keep this quiet and get on with it though, eh? If management gets wind of this, they’ll drown you in risk assessments and workflow graphs before the water gets a chance. I’ll hold them off as long as I can.” The chancellor jogged away, sloshing water around his ankles.

Edlud waited for Grumblemore to disappear from sight and earshot. He looked for the chamber controls but the panel had gone. “Bloody magic,” he growled.

He buried his face in his hands, wracking his brain for a solution. Sabotaging more of the supports inside the tunnel came to mind but a sudden blast of water from the loading chamber changed his mind. Too dangerous. Anything above ground, away from the loading chambers, was too public and he would surely be arrested. He barely registered the slosh of feet getting nearer.

In lieu of anything better, he took his anger out on the loading chamber framework with repeated swings of his mallet. It cracked and splintered but the frame held. He pounded it again and again.

“What’s the matter, man?” Lentil asked. “It’s going wrong. I thought that’s what we wanted.”

“Yes, but it’s going wrong in the wrong way! Don’t you get it? We need a catastrophe, not a flood!”

Edlud whacked the frame again.

“I don’t think that’s working,” Lentil said.

Edlud rounded on him. “I know! I designed the thing. The chamber is in the wrong place—it had to look like an accident, remember? It would only collapse while the pod was descending. Now the pod is holding the damned thing up, and I’m not going in there to move it. The whole chamber will fall on my head.” Though the thought crossed his mind, he could not bring himself to coerce Lentil into doing it for him.

“Relax, you’re so uptight.” Lentil started rubbing his shoulders. “Is that better?”

“You’d better take your hands off me right now. Just…I need to figure this out.” Edlud jerked away from his brother-in-law and gripped his fists. Frustration tensed him from head to toe, exacerbated by the lack of a good idea. He couldn’t concentrate. He needed time to think without Lentil prattling on. It forced his mind to focus not on salvaging his plans but getting rid of his infuriating relative.

Inspiration struck.

“Didn’t you free some creatures or something at Crooked Wand?”

Lentil flinched. “I told you, they—”

“Don’t test me. The chancellor told me everything. Imps! That’s what they were. Word has it they caused chaos. Lentil, I have a job for you.”

“Go on.”

“This is your chance to make a difference. Find something and free it.”

The smile on Lentil’s face spread from ear to ear. He swelled and tears glistened in his eyes. “You’re a great man, Edlud.”

“Go! Free them!”

With his brother-in-law disappearing, Edlud went back to scratching his head. He needed destruction. “Damn it, think!” He knew every inch of the LHC tunnel below, every weakness he had made. The pod was the key and he could not move that from above without a winch. Or magic. And from within, as soon as he moved the pod, the chamber would collapse, setting off his chain reaction of support failures. Much as it achieved some of his goals, his plan also required that he survive the ordeal to reap the benefits.

A shout interrupted his thoughts. At the second loading chamber, Angelica dashed into view wearing a black corset so covered in metal studs that it could have been used for armour, had it covered anything more than the minimum requirements needed to be called clothing. Pulled so tight, it forced enough flesh out of the top to make Edlud splutter, partly from the scandal of seeing his daughter wearing it, partly from concern over how she breathed.

She tugged at the black robes of Mansun. The student paused. He opened his mouth as if to speak but managed only an unintelligible syllable before his jaw dropped. Focused on the rolling-pin-wielding zombie that shambled around the corner, he shoved Angelica away and bolted in the other direction. Angelica’s foot slipped and she tumbled into the chamber.

“Angelica!” Edlud shouted.

He peered into the loading chamber and caught sight of his daughter flash past on the current of water within. Her gargled scream echoed soon after. Edlud ducked out of his shirt and jumped into the loading chamber. In his haste, he missed the first rung of the ladder within and bumped himself on every rung on the way down. Battered and sore, he splashed into knee-deep water, and his legs buckled at the flow of water. It rushed past him like a river.

Though many feet underground, light spilled into the tunnel, both from the loading chamber above and from the see-through roof that the Mystics had built to view the LHC experiments. He sought the loading pod. In theory, he should have been standing on it. In practice, he had slid across the side of it on his way down. It lay detached from its runners, propping up the chamber. He bit off a comment about shoddy craftsmanship as he realised he had designed and built it. Instead, he edged away, hoping to avoid disturbing its now load-bearing position.

No sooner had he regained his bearings when a song warbled through the tunnel, accompanied by the smell of seaweed. The water level swelled and bubbled streamed from the pod. A surge of water blasted upward beside him and out of the chamber, slamming him into the wall.

The pod cracked and collapsed.

The loading chamber above followed.

Buffeted by the force, Edlud’s head went under. He scrambled for purchase on the bottom and managed to regain his balance. Eyes stinging from the grit and salt in the water, he choked and clung on to the wall. He caught no sign of the hag but the smell and force of current placed her nearby.

He should have been dead. The chamber collapse should have knocked down all of the supports like dominoes. Either the water had absorbed the force of the chamber falling or he had miscalculated that design as well. He settled on the former, although it did mean that any false step might finish the job. Motion flashed overhead. A crowd of Mystics had gathered on the surface. Some watched aghast, while others panicked, pointing at Edlud and rushing off in different directions. He put the imminent danger and future repercussions—assuming he survived—from his mind. All that mattered was his daughter. He began scouring the water for her.

“Grounded won’t even come close this time, girl.” The false anger took the edge off the fear. It unlocked his joints and let him wade, his legs working hard to keep him stable in the current.

The water level rose and the current surged. Angelica’s gargled scream followed. Edlud snapped his attention toward the current. Angelica floundered, flapping her arms around, her head dipping erratically above and below the surface. She floated toward him at an alarming speed. Timbers creaked and groaned under the intensified flow of water, now over Edlud’s waist. The crash of rocks falling and wood snapping sounded somewhere further down the tunnel. Flotsam began colliding with Edlud, grazing his bare abdomen.

He forced himself to remain still until Angelica got within reach. Summoning all his strength, Edlud kicked off the wall and into the rush of water. The current yanked him and towed him through the tunnel. He threw his arms around his daughter and began swimming on his back. Though it kept forcing his own head below the surface, he hefted her onto his chest. She coughed and spluttered but at least she had stopped swallowing water.

With the extra weight forcing him down, and the pull of the current, Edlud struggled to stay afloat. Suddenly the pain of Chancellor Grumblemore’s enforced exercise sessions was not that bad after all. It gave him the strength to at least fight the current and take the odd breath before getting dragged under again. A surge of water pulled him down and he caught sight of one of the hags.

The hag cocked her head at him. She floated in place, unaffected by the current, only her cloak of kelp and seaweed undulated behind her. Her song warbled even under the water. The sound grated. Mixed with her misshapen crone-like features, Edlud could see why they left the tempting of sailors to mermaids. As though reading his thoughts, she scowled and shrieked, and another surge of water pushed him along.

They completed a full revolution of the circular tunnel and the current only increased. The tunnel walls rushed past. Edlud’s feet kicked against the bottom but found no purchase. More timber shattered in the tunnel and the water level kept rising. The splintered remains of the loading pod scraped down his side, bringing a flash of pain and leaking a trail of blood behind. With that chamber already destroyed, only left one escape route remained. Edlud spent the next revolution keeping his daughter afloat and manoeuvring for the best shot at grabbing the ladder of the second loading chamber.

With the water level so high, and raising at each swell from the sea hags’ magic, Angelica’s face scraped against the clear ceiling. Another full revolution would submerge the tunnel.

The remaining chamber came into view. Too fast. Another surge of current forced Edlud’s head underwater, and though he threw his arm out, his fingers only scraped the side of the ladder. In a desperate reaction, he flung his daughter at it, hoping she was still conscious enough to grab it and save herself. Again, he went under, swallowing yet more water. The current pulled at him.

Something pulled back.

Though it tore at the cut on his side, it held him steady.

Angelica squealed. “Stop…it…get…off!”

The skull-shaped toggle at the end of her corset’s lace had snagged on the top of his trousers. The tug of the water pulled it tighter and tighter, causing Angelica to choke. Nothing for it, Edlud hauled himself to the loading chamber, hand over hand. Each movement provoked a pained gasp from his daughter, along with forcing yet more of her out of the scandalous garment. It might have saved their lives, but there was nothing about the situation that Edlud approved of. All at once, he wanted to cover her up, berate her, and make her safe.

Edlud grasped the ladder on the loading chamber and, one arm around his daughter’s waist, climbed out. He choked water and his whole body wracked with pain through each step, but he reached the surface. He laid Angelica on the ground, though water kept spraying out from the LHC behind them. She was so pale and her breathing came in shallow gasps. A choking fit sent spasms through her body before silencing her. Edlud placed his ear to her mouth but felt no breath against him, saw no movement in her chest.

Water poured from the LHC loading chambers onto the Mysticarium thoroughfares. Chipper’s stonework groaned under the pressure. How Edlud’s damaged supports had held, he couldn’t begin to guess.

He cast around for someone, anyone who might save her daughter but they had built the loading chambers far from the crowds for good reason. The chancellor had mentioned healers. They might be Mystics, but if they could return a pool of goo to a student, they could help his daughter. At a clanging sound, his gaze settled on the chugging form of a lone Mysticarium Model-M.

Armageddon, or ‘mage do’, rumbled and shook as smoke wisped from holes where the letters had fallen off. “It had to be you,” Edlud muttered and rushed toward the copper and wood monstrosity. He rolled Angelica off his shoulders and onto the passenger seat. Still no signs of life. A look at the cart’s controls sparked only vague memories of screaming and near-death experience. He shrugged. He had seen which levers and dials the chancellor had tinkered with, give or take, when they drove Bernie. “’Can’t do much worse than Grumblemore.”

He was wrong.

At the crank of the first lever, the already-agitated fire elemental roared and the carriage bolted forward, rocking from side to side with flames spewing from the rear. “Oh dear,” Edlud said, clinging onto the steering wheel.

Wind rushed against his face and steam shot from the tank behind him. He jolted the wheel around to avoid crashing into outbuildings and almost gained full control when his brother-in-law stepped from a doorway, right into his path. Tempting as it was to carry on and call it an accident, he would never hear the end of it from his wife. He wrenched a lever and the contraption miraculously slowed, though the clanging tank on the back raged on.

Edlud grabbed Lentil by his poncho and hauled him into the passenger seat next to his daughter. “The whole place is sinking! Get on! And look after Angelica!”

“What happened? Is she okay?”

“We need to get her to the Mystics. Just keep her comfortable.” Edlud cranked some levers and the cart juddered before picking up speed again.

“I’m hurt, man,” Lentil drawled. “You’re just perpetuating cruelty by using their machines. A shame I couldn’t get them all.”

“My daughter isn’t breathing and there’s no faster way to get help. Damn right I’m using their…wait. Get them all?” Edlud repeated as the cart rocked violently and a jet of steam shot from the tank. “What have you done?”

“I set them free, man. All but one.”

All but one. All but this one.

Another sound rose above the din, metal on metal, rather than fire elemental on metal. Edlud turned to his passenger. “How exactly?”

“There was this chisel, man. It was so weird, I started prying rivets out of the other tanks and it just came to life and freed the other elementals. It’s a hero.”

“And where is it now?”

“I lost it. But it’s cool, man, it deserves to be free.”

Motion flashed in front of Edlud. Sunlight glinted from the chisel’s metal edge as it hovered before his eyes. “Grrrrr!” it said and flashed its jagged teeth. Edlud ducked as it shot past and started gnashing at the tank behind him.

Rivets flew, ricocheting from the Mysticarium’s walls and plopping into the rising water. Belts snapped and whirled in the air, and flywheels span off. “It’s not cool, it’s mental! Off!” Edlud cried, grabbed Angelica and dived into the water.

The tank buckled and Armageddon burst out. The elemental blazed through the air, throwing arcs of fire, and hit the remaining LHC loading chamber. The water pouring out hissed beneath the elemental and evaporated into a cloud of steam in its wake. Armageddon blasted chunks of stonework from the structure before it disappeared into the chamber.

Face down in the flood, Edlud crawled to his knees. He spat salty water and a fiery streak caught his eye. He looked through the clear ground. Armageddon whizzed around the LHC tunnel beneath him while steam billowed from the wreckage of the loading chambers. Chipper’s construction finally collapsed, sealing the elemental inside.

“Shouldn’t the water put that thing out?” Lentil asked.

Edlud shook his head. “I think it will take more than a flood to put Armageddon out. Water just seems to annoy it.”

At each revolution, the sea hags summoned water around Armageddon which only incensed the elemental further and renewed its journey around the circular tunnel. Its passing caused a flash like the beacon of a lighthouse.

Choking caught Endlud’s attention. Water splattered the side of his face, yet his heart soared at the sign of movement from his daughter. “Angelica, darling, you’re alive!”

Angelica blinked her eyes open and groaned. She flung her arms against Edlud before pulling away and scowling at him. She gave a start and clutched the corset around her. The frayed ends of its lace dangled at her sides, severed by her tumble after the crash.

“What’s the matter?”

“You turned him against me!”

“What? Who?”

“Mansun! He loved me and you scared him off! And you broke my corset and you’re ruining my life!

“I just saved your life!”

She glowered back.

Chancellor Grumblemore jogged over, grinning, water sloshing around his ankles. “Capital work, Edlud! The way you used the Mysticarium branded chisel, just so, was inspired! Everyone saw! They’ll sell in the hundreds after that. There’s room for a man of your talents in Marketing. Not only have you stopped the whole building collapsing, but trapping that elemental down there with the sea hags has given us hot running water! There’s some work needed to deal with the pressure but this will make us a fortune.” He turned to the growing crowd of townsfolk who all looked just as perplexed as Edlud felt. “Manawell is saved! I hereby declare the Mysticarium open!”

Edlud groaned. He looked up to mutter a curse against whichever deity was having fun with him. In the darkening sky, Armageddon’s light played in many colours across the clouds, leaving trails like a ribbon in the wind. Metal flashed and the enchanted chisel alighted on Lentil’s shoulder. Lentil smiled. The chisel bared its teeth and growled at Edlud. Angelica scowled at him, arms folded in front of her.

Like it or not, his brother-in-law, the Mysticarium, and the homicidal chisel were there to stay.