Unseen by an apathetic society, a stupendous battle is being waged between good and evil. In the center of an unassuming town, gathered in a nondescript hotel, are the most powerful forces of time eternal: the thirteen black covens. On All Hallow's Eve they unite to summon the Black Magician, the darkest and deadliest being of all time. They are a rag-tag group of misfits: an inexperienced but lovely witch, an ancient sorcerer obsessed with math, and a private detective who can't seem to solve a case, but they are humanity's only hope. The world is unaware of the battle, but it will suffer the ultimate consequence if the war is won by the black evil. Can a group of social rejects save the world? Or will humanity plunge forever into the abyss?
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About the Author
James Gunn is the author of more than thirty books, including the Hugo Award-winning nonfiction work Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction and the novel The Immortals, on which the television series The Immortal was based. Other novels include The Listeners, The Joy Makers, and Kampus. He also has collaborated with other authors, most notably with Jack Williamson on Star Bridge. He was named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 2007.
Mr. Gunn is also the editor of a series of anthologies tracing the history of science fiction, The Road to Science Fiction, and is a past president of The Science Fiction Writers of America. He is professor emeritus of English and was the founding director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas. He is the winner of the Pilgrim Award for lifetime achievement in science fiction scholarship, and is a past president of the Science Fiction Research Association. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas.
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By James Gunn
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1976 James Gunn
All rights reserved.
Magic has power to experience and fathom things which are inaccessible to human reason. For magic is a great secret wisdom, just as reason is a great public folly. - Paracelsus, De Occulta Philosophia
The white letters on the corrugated black board spelled out:
October 30 and 31
I chuckled. It never fails: hotel bulletin boards are like movie marquees; there always is something on them that is misspelled.
The chuckle died away in the vastness of the hotel lobby like laughter in a church. I glanced around uneasily. My man hadn't come in. I had no reason to be uneasy—no valid reason anyway. I just didn't like the job. Not that it promised to be tough. It was too simple, really, and the old lady was paying too much. And I had the feeling that there were eyes watching me. There was nobody. I could swear to that. And yet I knew I was being watched. That's a switch. It's enough to give any private detective a neurosis.
Hell! Why should anyone pay a thousand bucks just to find out some guy's name?
Wood was crackling aromatically in the fireplace at the far end of the lobby. Easy chairs and sofas were arranged geometrically on a couple of large blue and red Oriental rugs. I made my way across the floor, my shoes going thump-thump, whack-whack, thump-thump, whack-whack as I walked from rug to marble and back again. Then I was at the desk. I leaned against it so that I could watch both doors my man might enter.
The clerk at the desk looked up. He was a type; you've seen him. Thin, thirtyish, dressed in a dark suit and a bow tie, his bald head gleaming brighter than the floor, obsequious to his superiors, vindictive toward those placed under him. Unfortunately, he knew me.
"Hello, Charlie," I said.
"Casey," he said suspiciously. "What are you doing here?"
"No trouble, Casey," he said. "I'll have you tossed out of here. The management won't have you raiding rooms, snapping pictures. Our guests pay for service and privacy, and anybody who—"
"Relax, Charlie," I said. "Nothing like that."
He subsided. I felt him sink back from his toes, but he didn't give up. "Since when have you had anything but divorce cases?"
"I've come up in the world, Charlie. Who puts the notices on the board over there?"
"Usually it's the convention management," he said, "but this morning I did it. Why?"
"Can't spell, either, eh?"
He glanced at the board and back at me, his face impassive. "Nothing misspelled there."
"Yeah," I said. "I've always wanted to attend a covention." It started out as a small joke, but when I got to the key word my voice broke and an unpleasant shiver went up my back.
"Now's your chance," Charlie said, "because that's what it is. If you qualify."
"Qualify for what?"
"As a member of the group."
"What group is that?"
"You mean just anybody can walk in off the street and hold a meeting here?" I said. "For any purpose?"
"Why not?" Charlie said. "They've got as much right as anybody. Particularly if they pay in advance."
"Well, how do I know if I qualify if I don't know what they do?" I asked.
"There's the man in charge now, just coming through the door," Charlie said. "Why don't you ask him?"
I turned my head toward the entrance on my right. Just inside the sliding glass doors, sighing shut behind, was a tall man with dark hair and graying temples. He looked slim and distinguished, though oddly attired for ten in the morning, in evening clothes. In his lapel was a five-pointed star, small, gold, engraved with symbols too small to read from where I stood. The description checked. He was my man.
I started after him.
"Casey—" Charlie began. He was warning me.
I waved a reassuring hand back at him without looking and followed the back that was disappearing into the dark interior of an elevator that stood open. Above the opening a lighted sign that read "This Car Up" blinked dark. As the man I was following turned around, a heavy brass door closed between us. For a moment, before it closed, he looked directly at me.
His eyes were deep and black and shiny. And I had the foolish notion that they still stared at me through the closed brass door, seeing, weighing, and discarding contemptuously before they turned their shocking intensity on something more worthy of their attention.
The afterimage vanished. I shook myself and looked quickly at the bank of lights that registered the position of every car in the row of elevators. The light moved past M, A, and B, stopped at C, and then continued upward: 4, 5, 6 ...
I shook myself, pulled my eyes from the hypnotic display, and stepped through the open doors of the car that was identified as the next one to head upward into the mysteries above. The doors closed, and I touched the button marked C. It lit up almost before my finger pressed it, a kind of electronic magic that always surprised me.
We slid silently upward. Bricks alternated with painted metal. The car was filled with the cloying smell of a scented deodorant the management used to kill the scent of elevator shafts too long uncleaned. M, A, B. The first stop was mine. The doors parted in front of me and closed behind me, and I was in a red-carpeted hall facing a cream-colored corridor wall. Painted on the wall in gold was an arrow pointing to my right. Above it were two words: Crystal Room.
I looked to my right. The Crystal Room had double doors, but only one of them was open. A dark back was just going through it. The young man who stood beside the door, neatly clothed in a camel-colored leisure suit, nodded respectfully to the man who was entering. A gatekeeper. The party was private.
Keeper of the crystal door. Inside was something called a "covention" that sent unreasonable shivers up my back. And inside now was a nameless man—I couldn't mistake that back, as certain of its powers as any emperor—whose name was worth a thousand dollars to me and who had eyes like polished obsidian daggers.
I shrugged the flat automatic in the shoulder holster into a more comfortable position and with that as assurance started after the guy who wore evening clothes in the morning. I nodded familiarly to the doorkeeper, who had broad shoulders, short hair, and a pleasant, sunburned face, and I started through the doorway.
I stopped abruptly, as if I had walked into a glass wall. I rubbed my nose ruefully. Keeping up with these new technologies was getting ridiculous.
"Where's your name card?" the doorkeeper asked.
I looked at his left breast pocket. On a gummed card, with some other writing around it, a single name was printed: Charon. That's funny, I thought. Charon was the name of the ferryman who took dead souls across the river Styx to Hell; what a name for a gatekeeper. But while I was thinking I said, "Name card?" I snapped my finger. "I knew I forgot something. But you know me. Casey from Kansas City? Met you last year. Don't you remember my face?"
He frowned as if I had said something ridiculous. "How would I remember your face?"
That stopped me. He didn't say he didn't remember my face but that he couldn't; he didn't expect to.
I began rummaging hopefully through the pockets of my brown tweed suit. "Maybe I've got the card in my pocket," I said. There was only one way to go from here—back the way I had come—but I could make it graceful in the unlikely possibility that I ever came back. And then I felt something slick and rectangular in my right-hand coat pocket. Slowly I pulled it out. It was a name card.
The young man looked at it and nodded. "Gabriel," he said. "Wear it from now on. I can't let anybody in without a name card."
I nodded mechanically and walked cautiously into the large room, but the invisible wall was gone. Just inside the door I stopped and turned the card over.
In the center of the card was a circular seal. Imprinted blackly over it were two lines of type.
"Call me GABRIEL," it said, "or pay me five dollars."
That was funny enough, but it wasn't the funniest part. There was no way the card could have got into my pocket. No one could have put it there. The suit had just come back from the cleaners. I had put it on before I came out this morning.
"Gabriel," I muttered to myself. I knew who Gabriel was: one of the archangels. Carried messages. Blew trumpets. That was a hell of a name for a man.
Coventions. Brass doors with eyes in them. Invisible walls. Angels. I shivered. It was getting to be a habit.
The Crystal Room was pleasant enough. It wasn't the biggest meeting room in the hotel, but it was one of the most attractive and it was private. A huge crystal chandelier hung from the center of the ceiling and gave the room its name. Two smaller chandeliers flanked the big one. The ceiling and walls were painted a deep rose and flocked like an old-fashioned whorehouse. The carpet on the floor was burgundy. The hanging crystals picked up rose and red, alternating, blending, flashing as they swayed gently and tinkled together.
A stage had been installed at the far end of the room. It was draped in black like a bier, and black velvet provided a backdrop from ceiling to floor behind the stage. Several chairs were lined up neatly at the back of the stage. In front of them was a lectern. Between me and the platform were rows of wooden chairs; I counted thirteen rows of thirteen chairs each. A few of the chairs were occupied, but most of the people in the room were standing, clustered into small groups, conversing casually or in a few cases with animation. I looked them over carefully, but my man wasn't among them.
The scene was typical of hundreds of professional meetings that take place in hundreds of hotel meeting rooms every day all over the country. Once a year men and women assemble to discuss their single shared interest, to talk shop, to listen to the latest advances in their professions, to raise standards, to elect officers. And to indulge in some heavy drinking, character assassination, and casual—and sometimes not so casual—sex.
The men here were distinguished and well dressed, although none of them were in evening clothes: suits predominated, most of them dark, although among them was an occasional rebel with long hair and dressed in jeans and tank top. The women—there were more women than men—were all young and beautiful; not just ordinary beautiful but exquisitely, improbably beautiful. I had never seen so many beautiful women in one room before, not even when I tailed one wandering spouse backstage at a musical comedy. Up close those faces had been a little the worse for greasepaint and the bodies a bit droopy with dissipation. I had the feeling that the faces and bodies I saw here would be as implausibly lovely up close and undressed as they looked from a distance.
But what was their profession? Doctor, lawyer, college professor? In what profession do the women outnumber the men?
If I moved a few steps to the right, I could get a better look at a truly spectacular Junoesque redhead. Like a fool, forgetting my reason for being there, I moved a few steps to the right. My foot caught in something. I stumbled. As I pitched forward my arms reached out for support. They closed around something softly rounded and yielding. It gasped. I looked up into a pair of blue eyes that were crinkled with sudden laughter. I was pressed tightly against a delightful figure.
"You see?" the girl said in a soft, low voice. "Redheads are unlucky."
"For whom?" I asked.
"I don't think you will fall down now," she said, "if you should let go."
I straightened and let my arms drop. "I stumbled over something," I said, and looked down at the dark red carpet suspiciously. There was nothing nearby that I could have stumbled over. I would have thought I was tripped but there was nobody nearby except the girl, and she was in front of me.
"It's better to stumble than to fall," she said. "Especially for La Voisin. She's a hag, really. You wouldn't believe. Fifty if she's a day."
I took another look at the redhead. "You're right. I don't believe it."
She shrugged as if what I believed was of no importance. For the first time I took a good look at the woman in front of me. She was only pretty. I might have thought her beautiful somewhere else, but the other women in the room had used up that adjective. Her blue eyes and dark hair provided an interesting contrast, but her features had small imperfections. I know: experts say that imperfections enhance beauty, but her eyes were too large, her nose was too small and turned up a little at the end; her mouth was too generous, and her chin, too stubborn. Now that I was straightened, she reached only to my chin. But her skin was smooth cream—I always found that peculiarly effective in a woman until I found out how much of it comes out of a bottle—and her figure was—well, I mentioned that before.
She seemed to be in her early twenties, which gave her almost a decade on me. The other women didn't look much older, it was true, but there was a maturity to them that showed in the way they stood or moved, and a youthfulness in her that revealed itself in a grin and a girlish slouch. She knew she was being inspected, and she didn't care.
She laughed again. It was a pleasing, girlish sound; it wouldn't flutter any pulses, but it made me want to laugh with her. "Have a program, Gabriel."
She handed me a booklet from a stack beside her. I took it, wondering if her eyesight was unusually good. It would have to be to read my name card. I still had it in my hand. But maybe she had heard the doorkeeper.
I leaned forward to read the name on the card attached to the pleasing slope of her white knit dress.
"Call me ARIEL," it said, "or pay me five dollars."
"Ariel?" I said. "Where's Prospero?"
"He's dead," she said simply.
"Oh," I said. That was the trouble with being an uninitiate in a private gathering. You couldn't say anything for fear of saying the wrong thing. "Thanks for the program, Ariel. And the support."
"Any time," she said. Her blue eyes seemed to say, in a pleasant way, that the words weren't meaningless courtesy.
I started to turn away, pulled by a sense of duty, but a large, jovial man with white hair stood in my way.
"Ariel," he said over my head. "It was sad news about your father. The society won't seem the same."
She murmured something while I glanced at the card on the broad chest in front of me. It demanded that it be called Sammael.
"It's a disgrace that he's got you here passing out programs like a neophyte," Sammael said. "You should be up on the platform with the other dignitaries."
"Nonsense," she said. "I am a neophyte. In spite of what my father was, I'm just an apprentice. Anyway, I volunteered."
"Tut-tut," he said. I listened with fascination, trapped between them without a graceful way to escape. I didn't think anybody said "tut-tut" anymore. "You're an adept if there ever was one. I'd match you against any of them. But I've been out of touch for several months. My own career has arrived at a new crisis point, and I had difficulty getting away even for these two days. But I couldn't miss one of our annual meetings."
"Many of the members have said the same thing to me," Ariel said, "but like you they couldn't stay away. Everything seems to be coming to a focus."
I noticed that she didn't ask about his career, whatever it was. She avoided it as if to ask would be a serious breach of etiquette. "Excuse me," I said, trying to squeeze out from between them.
"Sammael," Ariel said, "this is Gabriel."
The large red face swiveled to inspect me. Blue eyes weighed me; they were ordinary blue eyes, but there was something a little wrong with them, as if they were perfect imitations made out of glass so that they caught the light wrong. "Gabriel, eh? I've heard fine things about you. Great things are expected. Great things indeed."
He'd heard about me? "You haven't heard anything until you've heard me blow my trumpet."
"Exactly," he said. "We're all waiting for that." He turned his blue eyes back on Ariel. "I've been so out of touch, my dear, I haven't even heard how your father died."
"Oh," she said slowly, as if measuring the impact of every word, "he just seemed to waste away."
"Waste away!" Sammael said. The words had connotations that bleached the red face. "Oh, dear. Wasted? Oh, my!" He was backing away as if Ariel had just announced that she was a carrier of the plague. "Very sad. Very sad indeed. Ah well, we all must go. But wasted! Good-bye, my dear. And—" He had been about to say "good luck," I thought, but he had reconsidered and turned away.
Excerpted from The Magicians by James Gunn. Copyright © 1976 James Gunn. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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