Liz finished up with the candles as the servants turned down the oil lamps. She had to admit this was a pretty good setup. The mansion was huge, almost as big as a palace. The room was filled with large cushions and couches. Ornate carpets and old paintings lined the walls. It was as if a master interior decorator had been given an unlimited budget and given the command, “Make this place cozy as is possible under the laws of physics.”
Lord Bindlesmith had built the place on a hill overlooking the river and the town below. The room she was in had huge windows and a spectacular view. She could see the lights of the city. She couldn’t make them out from this distance but she knew the streets were lined with signs and lanterns lit up with cheap magic that had to be recharged every few hours. There were scores of restaurants, taverns, games and other attractions, drawing all sorts (and their money) from the river.
She’d heard the stories before coming here, but seeing it was another thing entirely. Riverside was loaded. Half the trade on the continent was now happening on giant boats going back and forth along the river, and Riverside was uniquely situated to benefit from all that new commerce.
When she arrived, she’d cased the town the same way a thief cases a jewelry store. She soon learned about people like Lord Bindlesmith. Bindlesmith was one of those assholes who’d stumbled into business success. Just some dumb merchant who’d been in the right place at the right time.
In the last few years he’d gone from making a humble but adequate living for his extended family to becoming one of the “City Fathers”. Buying a noble title was almost an afterthought. It was just the sort of thing one did, old chum. All it meant to Liz was that there was a giant lighted sign that only she (and her fellow con artists) saw hovering above the man’s head. Giant letters on that said “Big Money Easy Mark”. Once she’d put her plan together she had to stop herself drooling like a wolf who’d just found a fat juicy sheep with a bum leg caught upside down on a thorn bush.
Liz quickly set herself up as a fortune teller and guru along one of those busy streets. It helped that she had a little talent in that area, but her greater talent lay in telling her customers what they wanted to hear. As her reputation grew, so did her fees. Soon she turned her business into a church and her repeat customers into the faithful adherents of a new religion.
She’d always thought of religion as a con, and here, finally, she’d be able to see how well it would work. It worked really really well as it turned out. More and more money kept coming in. It had all been so easy. She should have cashed out as soon as the money was good enough for her make a run for it and retire somewhere, somewhere far away.
Why did she think it was a good idea to court investors? She’d just had to have the biggest, most impressive church in town. Had she really thought there’d be not other operators? Hadn’t she already known that the truly impressive scam artists were the “respectable” pillars of their communities? Bankers, lawyers, religious leaders, these movers and shakers were the true masters of the con.
The inner circle started to arrive. They solemnly seated themselves near the altar. Liz stood behind it with the damn book opened before her. Her hood covered her face giving the impression she was deep in prayer. In fact she was trying to figure out if there was still a way to get out of this mess or if Edmund was right and it’d all be worth it.
Edmund Duke entered the room. He took his place as subdeacon next to Liz. He’d been a new arrival too. He’d never talked about his past but she got the impression that he’d been a businessman somewhere far away. Just like her, he’d cased the town, but he’d brought his money, accountants, and lawyers with him. He’d come to “invest”.
She’d put up a good fight, but she was outclassed. It was Edmund’s church now. What suprised her was that he didn’t want her gone.
“I want to hire you,” he’d said.
“Are you serious?” This was not how these things usually went, at least in the circles she was used to.
“I realize this might be hard for you,” he’d said, “After all, this is your con, but you’ve been bested. It’s as simple as that. However, you’re extremely intelligent and resourceful. I’d rather have you as a business partner than a bitter rival. If we work together we can both make a great deal of money. What do you say?”
“It was your con”, he’d said it with a professional appreciation she hadn’t expected.
Now she was basically an employee. Of course, she reasoned at the time, Edmund was right. So what if she wasn’t in charge anymore? She was still the figurehead to the organization, the face of the religion, and when Edmund and he cronies took over, the clientele continued to go more and more upscale, and he’d come up with so many more ways to extract money.
This little event was one of those ideas. The highest paying clients were given special treatment, titles like “high deacon”, or “priestess”, and promised “special knowledge into the inner workings of the church and an opportunity to bring about a new era of peace and prosperity for all”
In reality it was a simple insurance scam.
Derek woke up sweating. He felt sick. As he sat up he checked his phone. 5 am, way too early. He needed something to soothe his stomach. Perhaps some of the pink stuff and then an herbal tea.
It’d been the idea of one of Edmund’s goons, one of his lawyers or accountants, Liz forgot which. All we needed to do was summon a creature from another realm and let it loose in a certain part of the city, collect the insurance, and make a killing from the rebuilding contracts. It was a standard play, and because Wizards and Witches were rare in this part of the world, the monster would be considered an act of nature.
Liz had laughed out loud. “You all might know money and the law, but you don’t know magic. Summoning is extremely difficult and takes a lot of energy. I can’t do it.”
“Is there anyone who could?” asked Edmund.
She tried again to communicate just how ridiculous they were being, “Look, I know there are all these stories you learn as a kid about the champions coming to our world in times of crisis–”
“Like Dorothy!” interjected another of the silly men.
The medicine wasn’t helping. Nor the tea. Derek was burning up. This didn’t feel like an ordinary cold or flu. For one thing, his mind was clear, clearer than it normally is. Nothing like a fever to make your head feel fuzzy.
It was almost as if-
After a lot of explaining and assurances Liz thought she’d convince Edmund’s entourage that summoning a creature from another world wasn’t practical. At least they had shut up about it.
Then Edmund found that damn book.
“Liz, you’re our magical expert, what do you make of this?” he asked as he handed it over, it was old, bound in leather, and had a single world scorched on the front cover.
“Chaos” she said out loud. She opened it up and had a look inside. “Looks like a hand written journal.”
Derek was extremely dizzy. Carefully he got on his hands and knees before he fell and hurt himself. Just need to reach the phone, call an ambulance, he thought to himself. It was getting worse. The world was spinning.
Things moved fast after that. The Chaos Book was a journal alright. It was written by a wizard a few hundred years ago. Edmund bought it at an auction along with a number of other rare antiques. “You never know when you might hit the jackpot,” he’d said. Well, he’d hit it alright.
Dorothy Gale was the first recorded visitor to our world. She and Ozma ruled The Green City, then called The Emerald City, for a hundred years. Their remains were still in The Green Palace. History records that after Dorothy, every few centuries or so a new champion would come from another world and help this world in a time of need.
The reality was a little less fantastic. It seemed that every half-century or so, things or beings from other worlds would arrive in this one. Most of them didn’t change the course of history. Occasionally some did. These champions seemed to have been extraordinary people to begin with, but the journey had the potential to change what came here, and sometimes the champions would come with extraordinary abilities they didn’t have before.
A whole field of study was devoted to figuring out how the whole thing worked. It was rumored some exceptional witches and wizards throughout history had learned how to intentionally summon beings for good and ill, but nothing has ever been confirmed.
Derek tried crying out for help. No one was likely to be around, but what else was he supposed to do? He couldn’t see anything when he opened his eyes. It was all just a blur. He wasn’t sure if he could feel the floor anymore.
At first, everyone was excited, even Liz. She’d figured out how to summon things and creatures from other worlds with little to no cost. All it took was a few volunteers and someone to guide the summoning. The more volunteers the bigger the creature she could summon. Why hadn’t this discovery changed the world?
But then things started to go wrong.
Everything was wrong. Derek could hear his screams echoing as if he was in a tunnel. He could hear something like the waves of the ocean during a storm. Or was it like the sound of a massive wildfire? A roaring and rumbling. The spinning continued. He was hurtling through the tunnel, spinning wildly. His mind and body were on fire.
“How is he?” asked edmund. Steven was burned and scratched, nearly beyond recognition. He’d been made as comfortable as possible in his bed at home. Caretakers attended to him around the clock. Steven had been a founding member of Edmund’s little group. A skilled and well respected lawyer from Boq, he’d been the one who wrote the contract Liz had foolishly signed. The contract that, eventually, allowed Edmund to take over her operation.
She’d wished him harm on more than one occasion but hadn’t really meant it. Did I do this unintentionally, she wondered to herself? Magic requires the right mindset. Get your head right or bad things can happen. She’d always taken professional pride and made sure that what magic she did do, she did well and safely. As easy as all this new summoning magic was to perform, she didn’t understand it as well as, say, seeing into the future, becoming invisible, or throwing her voice. She’d been a con artist first and a wizard second. She was operating outside her expertise.
“How do you think he is?” Edmund raised an eyebrow. Liz’s tone was sharper than she’d meant it. “Look Edmund, what are we even doing this for? We have plenty of money.”
“No such thing,” he replied, smiling in what he probably thought was a friendly way. To Liz, it seemed incongruous that, shark that he was, his teeth weren’t pointed like one.
“Look, this is getting dangerous–”
“You’ve already brought up your concerns.”
The threat behind those words were plain enough to Liz, even if the actual thing being threatened wasn’t specified. At the very least she’d be out a lot of money if she walked, but (and she couldn’t be sure about this) it seemed like more than money might be on the line for her. He struck her as the sort that could make uncooperative people disappear if he wanted to.
How long had he been shooting through this tunnel? Derek could only see flashing light and streaming images he couldn’t comprehend. Everything was going to fast. One moment it was too hot to bear, then he felt as if he were freezing in the vacuum of space.
Everyone was here now. Twenty people in robes sat in front of Liz and Edmund. They chanted. Liz started speaking an incantation from the book. Time seemed to split apart at the seams. Parts of the incantation seemed to be spoken over other parts. Liz had many mouths at once, or one mouth saying each part in different moments, but those moments had split and now overlapped.
An eternity later a pinprick of steady light appeared in the swirling vortex. It seemed miles and miles away. Derek, no longer capable of rational thought, screamed in anger at the red dot and tried to move in its direction. What remained of his mind and body began to hurl toward it as if it were a black hole sucking him in.
The chanting and weird magical effects became overwhelming. Liz was having trouble keeping her mind clear. The plan was to direct the thing into a particular part of the city and command it to destroy, then she’d destroy it before it caused any more trouble. She thought she knew what had gone wrong before and had cast controlling magic on the room. She also had several spells ready for the creature coming through.
Before the ritual started, she was relatively sure the spells would hold, but now things seemed wrong, more wrong than ever. She could hear the screaming of a… it was a man… No, it was a champion. She could feel it. A champion, not a creature, was coming through. She tried to move. Tried to scream. Edmund had her by the arms and mouth. She struggled against him.
“What–” he started to say angrily until the familiar red ball of the gate flare opened in front of them with of force he didn’t anticipate. Edmund and Liz were knocked down. Candles fell. Drapes caught fire. The champion was here. He was on fire.
Derek could feel the wind on his face as he came to. He could smell the smoke. The wind was cold but it was otherwise hot. He could smell smoke and hear a roaring fire. It felt out of control and surrounded him. He woke up with a start in an unfamiliar room. He looked around and saw strangely dressed figures, they were burnt or otherwise injured in a way that left no doubt they were dead. Some of the bodies were on fire like the rest of the room.
A figure was on her hand and knees, moaning as if injured. A man lay next to her with a metal object sticking out of his face.
Despite everything that just happened Derek’s mind felt clear. It felt unnaturally clear, as if he’d been drugged his entire life and was just now coming out of it. He rushed to the figure to see if they were injured.
“Get away from me!” She screamed.
“I mean you no harm.” he said cooly. The fire was intensifying. “Is there anyone else in the building besides you and I?”
She looked confused, but said “I think they’ve all gone.”
Derek scanned the room. Where might an injured person be hidden? What about other rooms? He heard the roof make an alarming cracking noise. No time. He asked the woman “Can you walk?”
“You broke my leg,” she said, groaning in pain. With all that had just happened to him he couldn’t discount the possibility that he had. Maybe he’d killed these people or started the fire. He could remember being sick, being in pain, then being extremely angry. The swirling images in his memory seemed like a dream or, perhaps, a suppressed memory.
“I’m sorry, but I hope you can see I’ve come to my senses. I promise I have no intention of harming you or anyone.” He reached out to her. She accepted his assistance.
“Never thought I’d ever meet a champion,” she mumbled as they hurried out to safety as soon as possible. Derek heard her but didn’t know what she meant. He could hear shouting in the distance. He couldn’t tell if the voices were of people running away from the fire or people coming to fight it.