Chapter 1

There is a very good reason that my professional ad in the phone book yellow pages is small and the very last listing. Nine times out of ten I will be uninterested in my client's case and decline to take their proffered job. By listing my name last I avoid most of the idiots who are just letting their fingers wander down the yellow pages. Usually the denser clients will choose AAA Adept Consultants and never even make it into the B's, let alone the Z's. This suits me just absolutely fine.

My name is Zak, short for Zachariah, my middle name. I never use my given name for any reason — for more than obvious reasons. Names have power and are never to be used cavalierly or thoughtlessly.

I don't handle divorce, missing spouses, children or pets; the big four of the PI's normal workload. Sure the extra money would be nice, but I don't really need it all that badly. My working rates are outrageously high and my tastes tend to run embarrassingly low. Take me to a fancy shindig and I'm the guy that will embarrass the bartender and the host by asking for a beer, instead of sampling the rare wines or crisp dry champagnes. I like my beer young, my food and women well seasoned, and my telephone ringing as little as possible. I'm not exactly lazy, but I don't like to work hard over trivialities. If you don't like this go ahead and call another Adept or Wizard.

In fact, my company, Zyphyr Investigations, doesn't even have an office, grungy or otherwise in some neglected old office building in the unfashionable part of downtown. I know it's traditional, but I'd never be there anyway, and then I'd have to hire a secretary. My way saves time and aggravation all around. My office telephone number routes directly to my cell phone, and that's good enough for any client that I would actually want to conduct business with.

You make enemies just by breathing in this business and more if you're a lowly magical Adept like I am. I'm rated as a 4.7; just enough to have to regularly register with the Republic's Bureau of Magical Affairs (BMA) but not high enough to enjoy the cream that true Wizardry brings to your door. Sure I got a decent college scholarship and could have had my choice of fat government jobs ... with any number of agencies within either the Republic of Texas or the Great Western Alliance to choose from, but I'm a bit of a surly git and enjoy keeping my independence.

If I had tested up to a 5.0, the level of Wizard, my ass (and all of the rest of me) would pretty much belong to someone else. Thank goodness for underachievement!

Possessing magical abilities isn't all that rare, but finding folks who can actually effectively use these mystical abilities can be like finding a lost diamond in a dung hill. Possible, but you'll still have to shove a lot of shit. They test for the spark — that innate ability to just to be able to sense magical energies quite early in school nowadays. This childhood screening is mandatory and your BMA score card follows you everywhere in life — it's even on your driver's license.

The Alliance needs every potential Wizard they can scrape up and they are willing to move a lot of shit to find them. Adepts like me, bah! Sure, we're useful, but they can afford to pretty much sit us on the second string bench.

When it comes to magical ability, it's really pretty simple. There are really just four levels of ability:

"Normals" — Pretty much 90% of the world population. BMA tested to be a flat zero, null, notta, nothing. "Sensitives" — About 7%. Folks that can sense magical energies — but can't use or manipulate them. They can look, see and feel ... but they can't quite touch. They're usually a grouchy and troublemaking lot and full of regrets for their lack of 'power'. These are folks who have BMA scores between 0.1 — 1.9. "Adepts" — About 2%. The vast majority of the 'working' magicians — like me. We can use and manipulate existing magical energies, but we can't use magic to change the default material nature of the universe, turning apples into oranges. Just as well ... it's a screwed up world enough as it is. Most of us work for either governments or private corporations, but a few such as myself, go to into public service and get treated usually like shit. The BMA's for this run from 2.0 — 4.9 (mine is a 4.7). My talents are about on a par with one in every twenty to fifty thousand people or so. "Wizards" — the 1% or so cream of the crop. These are the genetic lottery winners that get to play with the great mystical forces of the universe (which they can barely understand) and do interesting (usually highly destructive) things with their power. If they can think it, they might be able to do. In my opinion, the less that is done to the world — the better. Wizards (especially government ones) tend to be egotistical bastards who have a very inflated sense of themselves and of what ought to be done in the world. Their BMA's start at 5.0 and theoretically run to a perfect 10.0. You could count the number of 'perfect ten' Wizards that have ever lived on probably one hand.

Testing is pretty standardized now just about everywhere these days, even outside of the Alliance. Here in the Republic, all children take a government mandated initial testing on their thirteen birthday, with a final test on their eighteenth. Usually the scores don't vary much during those five years. You've either got the innate talent to sense and use magic or you don't. There are some genetic markers, and the gift seems to run strongly in families, but not definitively so.

If you're one of the lucky 3% or so that tests above a 2.0 you get to go a private High School full of other socially maladjusted young kids, all dreaming of wielding vast power against all of the other "normals" that pissed them off years ago on the school playground, or exacting other equally violent revenges against their new school rivals.

Study hard and don't piss off too many of the more important administrators or instructor Adepts, and you can get a nice college scholarship and get either your Professional Adept or Wizard certifications ... and at least five years of government mandated service where you'll really learn how to blow shit up. After your mandatory government service you can 'request' to be released back into the civilian world, but most don't. Wizards have a minimum mandated government service of twenty years and even the ones who return to private life are kept in a Reserve pool. It's just like the National Guard, one weekend a month and a month of annual full-time service a year.

Don't cry too much for those over-worked crybabies. They get to make the really big bucks in private corporate service.

It's safe and secure doing government civil service work, and even reasonably well paid. You'll hardly ever get faced with a situation where some nasty extra-dimensional creature tries to eat you. The government frankly doesn't like 'independent' operators and wishes the law would get changed back to keep us all under strict government service once again until the day we die. 'Private' Adepts, such as me, are especially scorned and kept under as many thumbs as possible. My 'boss' at the BMA especially loathes me and is itching to either force me back under Uncle Tex's protective wing or else yank my license entirely.

Gaining your Private Adept license allows you to legally practice the arts of magic out in public (as long as you don't frighten the horses and the children) and guarantees a crapload of governmental red tape every time you even think about using your powers. Every 'job' I undertake entails paperwork (in triplicate) that goes to the BMA to make sure they can keep tabs on everyone and everything.

The alternative, being an 'Unregistered Practitioner' is far worse. In theory, everyone rated Adept or higher must be registered, but in practice there are far too many low level 2's running around living their daily lives for BMA to keep any sort of watch upon them. These are usually the minimally talented ones that were released from special training and sent back to a normal school early. Especially those that had little or no interest in using their miniscule talents, or simply don't have the training or aptitude to use what little skill they do have.

The BMA has enough trouble with powerful rogue Adepts and Wizards to bother hassling our weaker brothers and sisters. Once they've completed their final BMA testing at age eighteen, they're only required to keep their BMA Testing Card on their person at all times, but some don't even bother to do that.

To receive obtain the honored licensed title of Wizard, you would need to BMA test at least a "5.0", or about one in a fifty thousand people. The Bell Curve charting for Wizard power drops off fast. There are over twice as many ranked 5's as there are 6's to 9's combined all together. Powerful level 8 or 9 Wizards are scarce and invariably egotistical bastards who by a young age have discovered that they are essential critically necessary people and thus learn quickly that they don't have to follow any of the other little rules of polite society.

As far as I know, there have only been a couple of 'perfect tens' since the fabled days of Merlin. The legendary 19th century Wizards John Lovett of Texas and the great British Victorian Liam Quatermass, who launched the British moon expedition of 1899, are probably the only two modern era ones. Tesla, the most famous modern Wizard is alleged to be approximately a 9.9 as he has never taken the BMA test. The decimal inclined odds of becoming a 'perfect ten' seem to be about one in ten billion or so, plus or minus. There are a handful of known "high 9's", all working for some government doing important but mysterious things. I stay well out of their affairs and they don't interfere with my private investigations.

With the worldwide growth of the Arcane Deco movement since its birth in the 1920's, the United States has forced even those reactionary folks up in New England more or less to join the modern and more progressive 20th century ... albeit with a lot of kicking and screaming that continues to this day. After all, it's been less than fifty years since their last 'witch burning' and folks up there with 'knacks' just seem to regularly end up on the wrong end of a lynching rope or suffer frequent mysterious accidents. It's technically legal now to use magic there, but the smart folks keep their talents well undercover. The Adepts there definitely don't advertise in the phone book.

No wonder the southern Confederacy has whipped their asses in two major wars and an interminable number of border disputes. Those devout God-fearing southern folk see magic as a divine gift and reward their Adepts and Wizards as an elite chosen vanguard sure to enter at the front of line at the gates of Heaven. They aren't quite a theocracy, like the kooks in Deseret, but it's not a safe place to be an agnostic or atheist either. Adepts and Wizards can openly practice, but it is rare for one to go into public service. Most remain working for the military or other branches of the government until the day they die.

Things are much more laid back down here in the Republic of Texas, part of the Great Western Alliance (GWA). The creed of "Live and Let Live" was even formally written into our Articles of Alliance. Our Emperor doesn't wield a great deal of personal power, and isn't much of an autocrat but it's not really his job anyway. He's mostly a token figurehead for diplomatic purposes and his real job is to keep the peace, supervise the massive bureaucracy and keep the GWA on its tracks. Ideally, allowing plenty of personal freedom to live happily with just enough government to keep the taxes collected, the mail delivered and a standing army barely large enough to keep our neighbors civil. The Republic of California likes to take this freedom to some absurd lengths, but our eternal range war with the rogue Theocracy of Deseret helps keep those loons at least slightly grounded with reality.

Of our two warring and bickering neighbors, the US and the CSA, we're just slightly more aligned with the commercial interests of the Confederacy but we try and keep neutral and keep decent relations with both, and try very hard to stay out of their quarrels. Both nations are jealous of our power and higher standard of living and if the GWA has a single nightmare it would be that the US and CSA might someday mend fences enough to ally together and drive west, united against us. There is a large underground and sometimes violent political movement that would like for all of the North American governments to merge together into a single political entity. This thought scares nearly everyone. This is one reason why we're never sought a greater alliance to crush the Deseret kooks all together. The current status quo satisfies too many career diplomats in each country.

Our Great Western Alliance includes the Republic's of Texas, Arizona, Greater New Mexico, Nevada, Western Colorado, and Greater California, along with the Protectorate of Nuevo Mexico, which covers all of northern Mexico to the very edge of Mexico City. In the last one hundred years Mexico has fought three major wars with Texas, and lost them all ... badly. Losing a slice or three of territory each time. The north Mexican silver mines being the most valued prizes. Silver, as always, is one of the biggest fuels of this magical age, more precious than oil.

The Alliance is more an economic one rather than a political one, but does include a comprehensive mutual defense pact. An Emperor is elected by the various Republics and serves for life, and upon his death a new replacement will be voted upon. Much like the Roman Pope. In times of great national trouble, this can be a weakness to get all of the republics of our ad-hoc confederation all working together for the same goal, but in peacetime our freedoms tend to increase our prosperity over our rivals.

Outnumbered by over ten to one, the Nerunites of the Theocracy of Deseret have more than held their own in an on-again off-again war with us that has raged across the high central desert regions since the 1850's. They certainly embraced the entire spirit and lessons of Arc Deco far better than anyone else, in my opinion. Or perhaps they are just better attuned to the needs of finding and exploiting power, in all of its forms.

Magic is their bread and butter these days and what their war machines lack in quantity, they more than make up for in quality. Their religion is loathsome; a perverse off-shot of extreme Mormonism, perverted science (like racial eugenics), and corrupted American Indian and Aztec religious practices, combined with a zeal for death in combat that would make a Viking berserker yearning for Valhalla feel proud. They have a harsh and firmly structured political order of 'Warriors' (all lower classes of rabble), 'Warlocks' (mostly Adepts, who are their aristocracy) and 'Priests' (Wizard class magicians), whose word is law.

Women are chattel. Slaves by virtually any definition, who perform nearly all of the physical labor and are sorted by their breeding value; the larger, stronger girls sent to the harems of warriors and the smarter or magic sensitive ones selected for impregnation by Warlocks or Priests. There are vague but very persistent rumors that special breeding pens exist for the 'troublesome' women where they are subjected to horrific and terrible magical rituals. These unpardonable rites possibly include forced breeding with various 'visitor' races from other planes, to create a stronger race of warriors or more potent Warlocks for future planned generations.

The few warriors that survive to adulthood, the lucky or fittest, are allowed to breed their large harems of slave females for the next generation of warriors, hopefully bigger, stronger and nastier. By weeding out the weak from their gene pool, they hope eventually to create the ultimate caste of obedient but lethal soldiers, ready to kill without the slightest compassion or mercy in the name of their dark Gods.

Darwinist principles at their most frightening.

Possessing any magical ability at all guarantees survival and placement high into their genetic breeding pool. The top-most cream of their wizardry rises to join their Circle of Elders, but what unspeakable rites this group performs cannot be said with any certainty but it's strongly rumored that their Priests conduct numerous unspeakable rites that include ritual cannibalism and human sacrifice. All and all, a very scary and fucked up society.

If these rumors could be proven beyond a doubt to be fact rather than speculation, I had no doubt but every civilized nation on the earth would join together to completely eradicate their culture, putting even the smallest babies to the sword to scour the earth clean of their foul race. Hell, I'd probably help.

There will never be peace with Deseret — even the craziest kooks and the weak kneed pacifists in both California and the United States agree with us on this point; they are too wicked, and too 'inhuman' to join the company of world society as peaceful partners. At best, we now enjoy a simmering cold war of watchful and pessimistic uncertainness.

Here in Austin, the Capitol of the Republic of Texas, and senior partner of the GWA, we don't seem to be actually at war with anyone right at the moment, and that notion suits most of us just fine. We live in a world of a great many wonders ... but there is far too much in our world that is unspeakably terrible. The constant and endless wars of the hundreds of petty small Kingdoms and States in the Old World of Europe weary everyone, and there is little ambition for military adventure here at the moment in the Americas.

I can't fix the gargantuan problems of our balkanized world, but sometimes I can fix a few small problems here at home that let the rest of us sometimes sleep a little bit easier at night.

My business card says:

"Zak" Zyphyr, Licensed Private Adept #086524
- Paranormal Investigations & Remediation —
Board Certified in Artificement, Banishment & Protections
"It's an ill wind that blows no good"

I like the name Zyphyr, in fact that was my nickname back in school; Zephyr. I had to replace the 'e' with a 'y' since someone had registered Zwiess Private Investigations, and I really, really want to be the last Adept listed in the book. Besides, no certified Adept or full blown Wizard ever puts their real names on their business card. True names have power, and the more power you have the better you should protect it.

As a rule of thumb, we licensed Adepts use two names and the big shot Wizards fashionably rely on just one, like "Georgio" or "Ramona" as if they were famous supermodels. When I passed my licensing exams I received an automatic and permanent name change, so "Zak Zyphyr" is now my proper legal name. They provided a full birth records scrub to remove any and all traces of my birth name, which is too close to your "True Name" for comfort, and I think they did a pretty decent job.

In mythology, Zephyr was the Greek God of the gentle wind of the west and the interceder between our World, the world of the living, and the Underworld. Zephyr also brought the fresh wind that brought the gentle spring rains that awakened nature every spring. That sums up the majority of my own work as well.

The idea of an Underworld is technically accurate but very misleading. Ours is just one plane of existence and some of the residents of other planes aren't especially good guests when they visit. There is no creature too nasty and wicked but what some idiot minor magician won't try to summon one (or ten) to either try to kill their spouse or business partner, or just to impress some friends at a dinner party.

Artificement is a tricky but very useful (and lucrative) skill. It allows me to channel and store magical energies into nominally magical items for future use by "Sensitives". That's folks rated a BMA score of between a 0.1 and a 1.9, the vast overwhelming majority of our magical community, encompassing hundreds of millions of people. This allows them a very finite and task specific use of minor magic. There are tens of thousands of commercial applications and products in this genre and most of the really skilled Artificers go into corporate service.

I've received offers to work for some of the local Arc-Tec companies but I hate wearing a suit and tie and having a boss, and prefer to remain out on my own. Magic is always uncertain, so the smarter mages bulk up as much as possible with Arc-Tec gadgets so that they always have a surprise or two hidden up their sleeve.

Making Artifices is an ideal occupation for a self-employed private Adept. One can never carry too many protection gadgets ... it's saved my life more than once. Who cares if your betters look down up on you if just one item helps save your life the next time you walk out your front door. Artifices that are produced by Adepts are more commonly called magical gadgets or 'gizmos', and are held in extreme distain by Wizards ... but they get to make Artifacts ... Artifices on steroids.

Artifacts are insanely time consuming and expensive to make, but are extremely powerful items ... and highly regulated by the BMA. Made by Wizards for Wizards, or very rich Sensitives or Adepts that can pay for an appropriate government license for the item.

Banishment is pretty straight forward skill, the primary means of dealing with unruly "Visitors" - beings, creatures and entities from planes and worlds of reality other than our own. You just need to know the right words to say and be able to channel enough power into your command to make the offending object go away ... preferably back from whence it came from originally.

In the old days, "Visitors" used to be taxonomically classified into several big and over generalized family trees like demons, devils, troll-kind, ghosts, elementals, etc., but it wasn't terribly accurate, based more upon physical appearance rather than original Plane of origin. Not every ten foot red skinned critter with horns and a forked tail comes from Hell. Actually, "Hell", in the classical sense is a bit of a misnomer as well, but that's a theological discussion for another day. In any case, the new 'politically correct' terminology is Visitors. One size fits all.

Banishment is my bread and butter and probably makes up for two-thirds of my business. I'm pretty good at — and you'd be surprised how many nasty things there are that have outstayed their welcome and that need a good firm shove to go back home.

My last specialty, Protections, is also fairly self explanatory. I can set protective wards that can discourage entry onto a property by thieves and other unfriendly types of people. I can also provide self-protection Artifices for Sensitive clients or even play personal bodyguard for a limited, but expensive period of time.

There is a lot of corporate competition in this field so because of the absurd fees I charge I don't get quite as much of this sort of business as I would like. The work is usually easy ... unless you get a client that is being stalked by greater powered Visitors. Then the boredom can quickly become a few minutes of sheer stark terror.

I also have limited Location, Manipulation and very Minor Translocation skills, but not enough to become BMA Certified. Just as well, Location is the primary tool of the divorce and missing persons Private Adepts, and I don't usually do that sort of work anyway.

With Manipulation I can perform (with great effort) a minor modification to the physical form of something, for example turning a silver coin into a small silver throwing dart. Material content, relative size and mass must remain about the same. A handy trick when entertaining at a dinner, or your kid nephew's birthday party. No, I cannot turn bad guys into cockroaches and step on them, or transform my older sister's cooking into anything remotely edible. That would require Wizard level magic indeed.

Translocation is a very tricky skill that is normally only found among Wizards. With it I can make a very small or light object disappear from one place and reappear in another. This is very hard work for me and I have only a very limited range of just a few feet, unless I'm extremely close to a Ley Line to draw power from. It can be a life-saver though. Making a gun, knife or forbidden magical tome disappear out of the hands of my foe and into mine has saved my life more than once. It's not flashy like Levitation or Teleportation, but it more than gets the job done.

As my late Aunt Millie used to say, "Be grateful for the tools you have and learn to use them to their utmost rather than bitch and complain about the powers and skills that other have."

I've been experimenting with Matter Projection a lot lately, hoping to someday be able to project out a small protective force field but this hasn't been working out so well. MP is definitely a Wizard-class skill and under most circumstances, I simply can't draw enough juice to hold one for more than a moment. It works at home, Zyphyr Manor, but just barely and not for long enough to be really useful and it isn't of much use anywhere else. Still, I keep practicing, for a couple of minutes each day first thing every morning.

Bless my dear departed Aunt Millie for building her house out near the middle of nowhere (long long before the recent real estate building boom in Austin) and located directly at three crossing Ley Lines, an Air, an Earth and an extremely strong Water one from the underground Edwards Aquifer as well. Finding a place where any pair of Ley Lines cross is a luxury; living under an intersection of three of them is massively delightful overkill. My Aunt left me a decent bit of money too, but it was her house that was the real jewel of her estate.

No one is ever going to skin this bear in his own den ... not with massive amount of near Wizard class Wards that I've set up around here. I think that is one reason I hate leaving home to go work on a job ... the intoxication of being able to pull down near limitless power just right over my head. I keep having to remind myself that it won't do any good to pull down the equivalent of a million volts of raw power if your personal circuit breaker is only set for 110v.

A little magic and knowledge can be a very dangerous thing. The big shot Wizards, level 5's and up get proper training and have a few nasty people of their own looking over their shoulder to keep them from summoning invisible demons with a taste for human flesh. It's the stupider minor magicians, 2-4's that either got bored in their training (or avoided it entirely) and then read something on the IntraWeb on some dodgy newsgroup or web site that triggers their creative juices ... usually avoiding their limited sense of self-preservation in the process. Then moderate to major level entities get let loose to amuse themselves in our world — usually in nasty and unpleasant ways.

I won't even mention the poor sods that have found some mystical tome that is far beyond their mortal understanding. The world is full of demented printers more than happy to make a few coins by reprinting dubious old magical tomes that ought to have stayed lost (or burned) and forgotten forever. Nowadays anyone with a computer can find thousands of insanely rare and dangerous books in PDF files all over the Web, and there is always a fool or two willing to give them a test drive.

Hell! If you can't find a copy of the Necronomicon, then you're either too stupid for words or you aren't trying very hard! Some damn fool even translated it into Klingon! The last time I did a search, Boogle came up with over 240,000 hits for "Forbidden Magic Tomes".

Probably the next time I go into Best Buy I'll find a CD boxed set for sale of "One Thousand Forbidden Books" all included together, with an easy pronunciation guide for all of those really hard Latin, ancient Chaldean, Egyptian or Phoenician words. I'm almost positive that something similar is already on Home Shopping Network or running somewhere as an infomercial in the wee hours of the morning. There has been far too much weirdness lately, and the meter of my Background Cosmic Weirdness gizmo has been redlined lately very definitely in "Oh Shit — time to take a vacation" territory.

It's me that they call ... once the screaming begins to die down hours later. I'm particularly good at banishments and have the knack for dealing with these unruly and unwelcome Visitors. I've never had to deal with a 'name level' Visitor ... that's what the government BMA is for, the real "Oh Shit" moments. That's why they get the big bucks and get the nice government health benefits plan.

Usually the majority of the time it's just dealing with some minor nuisance, such as imps, petty Trolls, Poltergeists, and the occasional Satyr or Willow Woman. Ever wonder what your very curious and sexually active teenagers are up to late at night with their friends? No, you probably don't really want to know. The trivial sexual elementals are usually simple to dispel, but sometimes the more creative and perverse teens can summon more powerful Incubi or Succubi, and then things can get a little too hot and heavy. Usually they don't have a prayer of controlling these entities and the dumb kids end up becoming the puppets instead. This can get very ugly.

Last year there was even a brief trend among the adult sexual party circuit of summoning a few of the moderate power sex elementals as part of the entertainment. I had to deal with one case like that last year and once was more than enough. I still remember far too many details revisited in my nightly dreams. Let's just say that unleashed self-willed sex elementals don't respect 'safe words' and continued to sexually torment their victims long after the screaming and blood flow stopped. They liked it here and didn't want to go back home — quietly or otherwise.

I ended up pretty much burning the house to the ground in the resulting firefight, and needed six stitches afterwards. Several other nearby houses got caught in the crossfire and nearly burned down as well. The BMA just about took my license for that one and my clients wanted to sue me for the damages since their insurance wouldn't pay for supernaturally caused damage, but backed down when the publicity concerning their unwholesome business and private affairs emerged.

My employment contract will never guarantee that I'll get your precious little snowflake back alive, in one piece and/or in their original mental condition. I'll just promise to do my best but there are never any guarantees. Shit happens. Payment in cash and all up front please. No returns — no exchanges. Your mileage may vary. Have a nice day!

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Story tagged with:
Magic / Fiction / Science Fiction / Horror / Slow /