TITTLE :                      THE WIZARD THAT WASN’T

                                                 Chapter One

                                                  The Black Disks

The soldier had half a spear sticking out of his arm. It was extremely distracting.

“—my report to the Viscount,” he was saying, his face ashen and his long blond mustache heavy with sweat. Horace Lundin nodded his head in a vigorous show of attentiveness, as his eyes stayed fixed on the piece of wood sticking out of the man’s arm. The soldier pointed with his unimpaired hand to the smoking buildings in the distance as he spoke. Lundin didn’t look, but even from this distance he could hear the clatter of horses’ hooves, the clash of swords, and a single strangled scream from time to time.

“We swept through the western homes with your masters; no sign of arcane symbols,” the blond man said. “Which makes the lake house the likeliest site for the target. I’m afraid getting there won’t be pretty.”

“Not pretty… much like the spear in your arm,” Lundin offered. Aloud? I hope that wasn’t aloud. The soldier was looking up at the time, gritting his teeth against the pain, with no sign of having heard anything. Thank the Spheres.

The man’s good arm gestured to the wide lake below, and the heavily forested island just east of its center. “Between the water, the archers, the tree cover, can’t get there fast,” he said. The soldier glanced up at Lundin. “Any tricks your masters can pull, now’s the time. Can Petronauts walk on water yet?”

“Depends how far,” Lundin said, making a note.

The man shook his head, wonderingly. “Glad you people are fighting on our side, that’s all I can say. I’d hate to see mechanical knights like you on the other side of the battlefield.”

“‘Like me?’ Oh, I’m just a technician,” Lundin demurred. “Nobody’s scared of me.”

The muscular, bleeding soldier raised an eyebrow at Lundin, but had the good grace not to point out how self-evident that was. The Petronaut technician was fresh-faced, and trim enough, but ‘‘scary’’ was nowhere near the top of the list of adjectives the soldier would use to describe him. Equine, maybe, the soldier thought. The tech’s long face, bulging eyes, and gangly limbs reminded him of a horse who’d seen better days.

“At any rate,” he told Lundin, clearing his throat, “Unless you Petronauts decide to do it yourselves, the Army’s ready to storm that island. We’re lashing rafts together now. Tell the Viscount ninety minutes and we’ll be across the lake. Now, if you’ll excuse me, sir,” he said, standing to a remarkable height and throwing a calm salute with his unskewered arm, “I need to have this removed.”

“Of course,” Lundin said when nothing else came to mind, flinging up a salute of his own.

As he hurried through the disciplined chaos of the Delian base camp, Horace Lundin involuntarily scratched his shoulder and tried hard not to imagine twelve centimeters of iron and wood embedded in there. A soldier who could deliver a lucid report with that kind of injury, before seeing the master of physic? Why would these miserable peasants even think of resisting an army of soldiers like that?

He looked over his shoulder, catching another glimpse of the green lake, its forested island, and the now-smoking homes along the waterside. If those houses were less on fire, Lundin thought, Verrure township would be a wonderful place to live. What about this bucolic scene had been so intolerable to the peasants? Was paying taxes to the City of Delia so awful, given that Delian roads and markets were responsible for all that income they paid their five percent on? And why, by the eight Spheres, would they think attacking their tax collectors would be the way to accomplish anything? They had to have known that the Army would come riding out in force. Third peasant village this year to make a fuss for us…

He shook the distracting thoughts out of his head and pressed on, thin legs carrying him at high speed. There was a battle going on, and an urgent message to deliver.

The greatest of the red-and-black war pavilions was in view now, black-clad couriers coming and going like termites on a mound. The banner of Viscount LaMontina flew from its apex, a rearing bull in silhouette. All through the base camp, the muddy ground between tents was chewed to pieces by boots and hooves, with only a few defiant tufts of grass remaining. Lundin sidestepped a burly woman with an armful of quivers as an armorer stuck his bald head out of a tent to bellow a final order after her. A master of physic, in characteristic light blue, was moving towards the battlefield with grim purpose. Her orderly followed at a snail’s pace, carrying a great basin with both hands and focusing all his attention on not spilling it. A weathered sergeant-major in black and gold was overseeing a squad of grunting conscripts as they loaded a sledge with logs, ropes, and cakes of sticky daub; the materials for the rafts needed to storm the lake house.

This whole encampment had been erected only last night, and, given the way the campaign was progressing, it would be packed away victoriously within ten hours. But, for now, the bustle of soldiers, servants, and supporters was a miniature boomtown with a single industry: war. Lundin’s eye fell on (and quickly darted away from) a wooden cage catty-corner from the main pavilion, stuffed with a dozen grimy, bleeding farmers in various states of misery. Business was good, he thought soberly.

Lundin felt uneasy in the camp. His squad—the tiny Reconnaissance squad, with two Petronaut knights and two technicians playing squire to them—had not been assigned to an active battlefield like this in the three years he’d been serving the Delian crown. There hadn’t been any wars to fight, nor any other perplexing little rebellions to put down. Petronauts were outside any official chain of command, and generally had more dealings with the city guard than the Army. But the Petronaut Board of Governors recognized that volunteering their members as support staff to the Delian Army on occasion was one of the best ways to ensure continued good relations with—and continued independence from—military command. It was a fair trade, Lundin supposed; though working in the camp structure was confusing. He’d been informed that LaMontina’s forces were considering him the equivalent of a ‘staff sergeant’ for the duration of the campaign, rather than think of him as a pure civilian. Lundin was fifty percent sure that meant he outranked the corporal who’d just reported to him. But who can keep all these silly titles straight? He shook his head, grousing. First priority, after he delivered the report, would be to get the squad’s Communicator up and running so he could talk directly to Sir Kelley, the senior Petronaut on the front lines. None of this he-said/she-said chain of verbal reports and middlemen. One of Lundin’s duties was to make sure communication stayed open between the ‘nauts and the command pavilion where the techs were stationed. Talking to couriers and corporals was nice, and all, but it was time to start using the right tool for the job.

He thought about the caged peasants again and repressed a shudder. If I feel this intimidated by all the military muscle on display here, and I’m a part of it, he thought, I can’t even imagine what these peasants felt like during the fighting. Especially once Sir Kelley and Sir Mathias showed up…

Whisp grunted as he shoved the table aside. Sweat beaded the thin black hairs sprouting just above his upper lip. It was his first mustache, and he was cultivating it with the obsessive pride of a rose gardener.

The table’s legs clattered loudly against the dirt floor, and the boy stopped with a curse. He raised his head, listening for signs that he’d been overheard. The screams and noise of the battlefield outside the house still sounded far away. He had a few minutes, at least.

The adults of Verrure thought it was a good idea to rough up some tax collectors and stand up to Delia, did they? Well, as far as Whisp was concerned, those old fools could do all the fighting they wanted to. Each geezer who got killed or tossed in the dungeons left behind a hut full of possessions they’d no longer need or care about. There was no reason Whisp shouldn’t come through and inspect what was left. He had a future to think about.

Besides, everything valuable that I take is one less thing Delia gets to confiscate, he thought, grinning. We all join the battle in our own way.

“Hurry up, Whisp,” the tall boy standing by the doorway whined, fidgeting with his sickle.

Whisp ignored him as he snatched up the small hooked rug and tossed it away. Sure enough, there was a shallow pit hidden underneath it, just deep enough to conceal a plain wooden box with no lock. He showed his teeth in satisfaction as he swung the lid open. A tarnished silver locket, a pouch of coins, a pair of mother-of-pearl combs. Who knew that Mr. and Mrs. Bailish were so rich? he thought, stuffing the loot into his burlap sack.

Whisp stood. “Come on,” he said, swinging the sack over his shoulder and drawing his knife. “Next house.”

They had just stepped into the muddy street when a husky boy came squealing towards them. “Whisp! Whisp! It’s the Petronauts comin’! What’re we gonna do?” he screeched, sounding much younger than his fifteen years.

Whisp swallowed. “Hide in the big bushes by the lake, like we talked about. Tell the rest!” The fat youth turned and ran. The tall boy started to follow him, but Whisp put a hand on his arm.

“Just one more house,” he hissed, pointing across the steet. “And only you and me split it.”

The other boy shook his head frantically. “And tangle with Petronauts? You’re crazy, Whisp. You keep your—”

Suddenly, screams rose from the far side of the house, and the two boys whirled towards the sound. The rest of the gang came spilling around both sides of the house in full retreat, clutching their knives and clubs like security blankets, not like weapons. “What in the black flames are you doing—” Whisp started to ask.

Then a man jumped over the house.

The sharp smell of burning Petrolatum filled the air as the man appeared above the roof of the Bailish family hut, fire shooting earthwards from a cylinder strapped on his back. The flame cut off, and the armored man swung his legs forward as his trajectory turned down. He spun in midair and landed on his feet in the middle of street, his heavy boots leaving furrows in the dirt as he skidded to a stop. The boys froze in their tracks, their escape cut off, and stared up at the hulking black-and-silver knight facing them.

“You can drop those now,” the Petronaut said evenly, his voice unmuffled by his beaked black helmet.

He pointed at their weapons, and they drew back. All the boys were well aware of the ominous weapon barrels affixed to each of his forearms. There was a faint whine of gears as the big man moved his arms, and a curling trail of smoke emanating from the fiery cylinder on his back.

Whisp stepped forward before his cowering friends could do what the ‘naut said. “Come on, boys,” he snarled, dropping the bag and raising his knife. “There’s ten of us, and just one of him. And he won’t be so tough once we get him out of that fancy suit.”

“There must be a lot of loot in that bag to make you act so stupid,” the Petronaut said, stepping forward calmly. The gang shrank back as he continued, shaking his head. “A bunch of fighting-age boys like you, stealing from your neighbors while your town’s rising up in rebellion,” he chided gently.

“Their rebellion, not ours,” Whisp spat.

 “The magistrates will sort that one out. Now,” he said, leveling his arm cannons straight at Whisp’s head, his voice suddenly hard. “Drop your weapons.”

Whisp was sweating profusely. He looked at a point over the ‘naut’s shoulder and gave a barely perceptible nod. The Petronaut saw the signal, and spun around just in time to see three more boys, with iron pikes and pitchforks, come charging towards him from their hiding place in the house across the street.

“Now!” Whisp screamed, slapping heads among his gang and pointing his knife at the mechanized knight. “Now, now, now!” The boys roared and charged the Petronaut from both sides.

Sir Mathias Mascarpone, junior Petronaut of the Delian Reconnaissance squad, just sighed.

He pulled a cord against his breastplate, and the bottom hatch of his thrust pack swung closed. The steam rose instead from three newly open vents about level with his shoulder blades. He braced his legs and pushed a button on a stick strapped to his left hip. Thrust flames shot straight out from his back, roughly at eye level with the knife-wielding boys behind him. Their charge collapsed before it even began as the gang screamed and recoiled from the flames, though only one boy actually took a lick of fire across the face.

The three charging in front of him, their polearms glinting wickedly in the sun, were still coming. One boy lunged at him wildly, stabbing the iron pike towards his chest. Sir Mathias leaned to the side and wrapped his arm around the wooden haft, tucking the pike under his armpit. He bent at the knees and swung upwards with every ounce of motor-enhanced strength he could muster. The pike lifted up high, nearly perpendicular with the ground, and the bewildered young man holding it found himself along for the ride. He let go unthinkingly just before the top of the arc, and momentum carried him, like a champion pole vaulter, face-first onto the Bailish’s roof.

Sir Mathias engaged the ranine coils in his boots and leapt straight up. The other boys stumbling at the target they’d been charging was suddenly two meters up in the air, launched skyward by the pressurized coils encircling his feet and ankles. They looked up as the wooden end of the pike cracked down against their heads with sharp, purposeful blows. Moans filled the air and they held their skulls as Mathias dropped heavily back to earth.

The Petronaut felt a sharp pain along the side of his ribcage and wheeled around, retreating several steps. Whisp’s knife had a few drops of blood along its rusty edge. The boy had found a seam in Sir Mathias’ armor. The Petronaut winced and lifted his arm, trying to take stock of the cut. If he hadn’t moved so soon, that knife would have made it a lot deeper.

Whisp tossed his knife from hand to hand, a knot of half-a-dozen boys still standing behind him with frightened faces and raised weapons. “Get the firebounder,” he shouted, leading the charge.

Two clods of earth exploded in quick succession in front of the gang, spraying them with filth. As they halted, confused, another armored Petronaut raced into their midst.

Sir Kelley was leaner than Sir Mathias, and several centimeters shorter, but he managed to radiate more menace through that sharp black visor than a whole squad of Mathiases could ever muster. The barrels on his wrist were smoking ominously from the lethal rounds he’d just fired, and he carried a long black baton with grim purpose. He whipped the baton into Whisp’s stomach, then, when the youth doubled over, slammed him into the ground with a blow to the back of the skull. The baton kept moving in vicious black arcs, blurring with speed as each blow led directly to the next one, exploiting openings with ruthless precision.

A few short seconds later, Whisp and four other boys lay on the ground, unmoving, and the last two were on their knees with their hands laced behind their heads, trembling with fear. Sir Kelley looked down at them coldly, sliding his baton into a sling low at his hip.

Sir Mathias clenched his teeth in pain as he stepped forward. “Looters, Sir Kelley,” he reported. “Thanks for your help.”

“If you really needed it, you should be ashamed of yourself,” the senior Petronaut said in his clipped voice. He pulled a flat disk from a pouch on his belt and tossed it in the air. It burst seconds later in a cluster of white sparks. The conventional troops they were traveling with would be here soon to cage up the subdued looters.

“Any sign of the target?” Sir Kelley asked.

“We’ve cleared the last of these houses. Still nothing.”

“Then that lake house on the island is the only one place left to look,” Kelley said, flicking his visor up. His green eyes were hard. “Get a messenger back to Lundin, and let’s put an end to this.”

Lundin was preoccupied with his thoughts as he pulled open the brocaded flap to the Viscount’s pavilion. He ducked his head to enter, nearly bumping the thin-faced captain trying to exit. They both stopped short. Lundin waited for her to pass, and she expected him to plow forward; but when each saw the other hesitating, they started forward again simultaneously. This time, Lundin’s muddy boot scraped the captain’s foot, leaving a brown streak on her dark armor.

“After you, please,” Lundin said, raising his hands and taking a huge, embarrassed step backwards. The tent flap, which he was no longer holding, swung into the captain’s face. He lunged forward to catch it, overreached, and stubbed his fingers on her heavy shoulder guards.

After scrabbling for a proper grip on the tent flap, the captain swept the heavy black-and-crimson fabric aside and stormed forward, her helmet askew. Her blazing eyes judged him top to bottom in a single glance, and Lundin immediately felt ten centimeters shorter. “Sorry, sir,” Lundin said weakly.

“If you people had a uniform, you’d be a disgrace to it,” she spat. “Now salute your superior.”

Lundin saluted frantically. The captain stormed away. Lundin followed her with his eyes, holding the salute with a wavering hand. When she was out of sight, he lowered his hand and very gingerly pulled the tent flap open, checking both directions before ducking inside.

A spherical oil lamp, suspended from the beams in the ceiling, cast orange light over the dozen men and women in the Viscount’s pavilion. It was whale oil burning up there, and in the lanterns hanging closer to eye level. The meager supply of petrolatum requisitioned for this simple campaign was needed for more important things than light, like operating the man-sized computing box in the corner. Lundin was cheered up to see his fellow technician, Samanthi, in her usual sprawl at the base of the machine, unscrewing a defunct vacuum tube as the Abacus continued to whir and click. A black-and-gold officer with a dark beard stood over her with his arms crossed, trying very hard not to look befuddled. Lundin smirked at the sight. The Petronauts might not have uniforms, he thought, but we’ve got toys nobody else even knows how to play with.

Lundin wrinkled his nose as a truly unique smell assailed his nostrils. The wizard—Jelma? Jilmat? he couldn’t remember—was hard at work on the other side of the pavilion. ‘Work’ for a wizard, of course, involved drawing shapes on the floor in colored sand, kneeling inside your artwork, lighting some incense, chewing some suspicious mushrooms, and muttering to yourself for upwards of twelve hours. Occasionally, you might wail, stomp your feet, or remove an article of clothing. (Jellmap here was down to a filthy vest, tiny cloth shorts, and about six bracelets on each tanned, wiry arm.) A wizard’s real work began when, after half a day of spellcasting with no concrete result to show from it, you had to feed your clients enough manure to convince them you still deserved your ridiculous fee. Fast talking: that was where the real magic was.

Lundin coughed from the incense, and frowned as he saw a series of four white disks hanging from the beams above the Viscount’s table; more wizardly décor, no doubt. He didn’t give the wizard another glance as he walked to the commander. Lundin understood perfectly well the need for ‘protective spells,’ since the peasants theoretically had some magic on their side in this campaign; but it was still damned hard to take the moaning Mr. Jailrat seriously.

“Mister Lundin, was it?” Viscount LaMontina looked up from his maps as Lundin approached. Half a dozen other serious officers stopped their strategizing to look at Lundin, and he had no trouble remembering to salute this time. The Viscount gave him a prompt salute in reply, and Lundin settled back down. LaMontina was a year or two younger than he, actually, though as far above Lundin in the social strata as Earth was from the eighth Sphere. But something about LaMontina put Lundin at ease, more so than anyone else in the camp. The man was broad-shouldered, a fine specimen of military stature, but with a babyish face and a smile that looked almost sheepish when it crept into view. Right now, LaMontina had his brows furrowed in a serious, commanding fashion, and the protective body language of the older officers betrayed only a trace of indulgence. Quashing this rebellion was his first independent campaign, an obvious test bestowed on him by the Regency Council back in Delia. Everyone here—including Lundin—wanted the earnest young commander to succeed.