Below is a brand-new story. Sort of. Some of the events of the story form a history to my Contagious Magic novels, which begin with A Sudden Outbreak of Magic. My story “Coal Ash and Sparrows” is also part of the Contagious Magic world.
The story is also part of a Chain Story called The Wanderers’ Club. Each story in this anthology is connected, in some way, though you can read the stories in any order.
It all starts with someone telling a story at a meeting of the Club. And each wanderer at the Club has a fascinating story or two to tell… For more information about the Chain Story Project, please visit chainstory.stormwolf.com.
The Wanderers’ Club: The Inverted Bearded Boy of Chicago
“Ahem. Mister Trimble, sir. I thank you for sharing your story of the so-called Master Blaster and the Tiger of Chinatown. I wish you and your new wife An Ling all the best. I have heard much of the lovely city of San Francisco, though I have never visited it. Perhaps someday… Though it makes me mindful of the time when I encountered the inverted bearded boy of Chicago.”
Wreathed in smoke, the man who had just spoken lifted his head from where he sat at a table near the window, a handcarved wooden pipe in his hand. Curly gray hair, long muttonchops, and a jutting pink chin framed his somber expression. He wore a dark, hooded overcoat, and his humorless brown eyes drifted once to the window before he spoke, as if looking for the abovementioned boy from across the sea.
“I am Mister Callahan. My occupation carried me to that cold, fire-wracked city at the tail end of a bitter winter. I’d been inspecting a dozen recently razed properties in Chicago, with the intent of reporting on their potential for reconstruction to my people in New York.
“I’d spent the day out in the cold with my leather journal when I stepped into an alleyway, out of the wind to light my pipe. After I’d lit a fire in the bowl and had fragrant smoke filling my nostrils again, I looked down the alley and found a man lying in a wagon, staring up at me.
“At first I thought him a corpse, one of the many lost souls discharged from the factories or farms at his advanced age, finally at rest in this ignoble, open-air grave. His magnificent, full beard sprouted into the air like a wooly white fountain. Covered mostly in hay, he rested on his back in a small, wheel-less wagon, his gray-haired head at the edge of the wagon’s bed.
“He looked up at me from where he lay, glaring at me upside-down. I must have looked like a giant in his wide blue eyes, falling down at him from the sky.
“He couldn’t have been much more than five feet in height, and his beard was his most remarkable feature — perhaps fifteen inches in length, white but stained yellow and brown in places from food, drink, and other elements I’d prefer not to dwell upon. Underneath his blanket of loose hay, he wore what appeared to be a monk-like robe of a dark color that pooled over his frail, nearly emaciated body. Under the robe, I was surprised to see a rumpled suit, also loose and ill-fitting, with a black tie at half-mast, and a brown woolen vest that looked thicker and more substantial than the poor chap wearing it.
“And in his bony right hand, I perceived the empty shell of what looked like a battered pocket watch made of gold, which he held cupped in his palm like a seashell. All of the gears and inner workings of the clock were gone, as if they’d been scooped out.
“That was my first look at the bearded boy. Inverted.”
“My appraising glance — I am an inspector, after all — from where I stood above him in the alley lasted but a second, but the person I’d encountered swiftly reacted to my unsolicited attentions.
“‘Fire,’ he whispered, though the word sounded almost foreign in his odd voice.
“‘Pardon me?’ I said, leaning back on my heels. His sibilant word had raised the hackles on my arms, for the air in the drafty alleyway smelling of rotten apples and human waste suddenly heated up at least a dozen degrees. A brisk wind sent bits of newspaper rushing past my shoes, one page wrapping around my ankle before skittering away deeper into the alley.
“In retrospect, I can state now that I am very fortunate to still be alive after hearing that single, shiver-inducing word. Perhaps the broken state of his timepiece was all that saved me. But more on that later, I promise.
“‘You come seeking fire,’ he croaked.
“I was preparing to answer when slowly, slowly, he sat up in his creaking wagon. It was at that point, with my face numb with cold and my nose filled with the sour smells of garbage, that I realized that this bearded fellow was actually a boy.
“The skin around his eyes bore no wrinkles, and other than his white beard and moustaches, his skin carried none of the ravages of time, though he moved like a man closer to the end of his life than the beginning.
“‘What brought you to this degraded state,’ I said, and then added, ‘my boy?’
“‘Let me tell you about fire,’ he said once he was finally upright, completely ignoring my heartfelt question. His lank hair fell into his eyes, which now wandered in their sockets, making a direct gaze with him nearly impossible. I could tell he ached to be lying down again.
“‘The fire in this city, and the fire of… magic.'”
The gray-haired man sitting at the table took a long, almost sad puff on his pipe, as if would be his last for a long while. As he breathed out the sweet blue smoke, he glanced once more out the window and nodded to himself, as if ending some silent, internal argument. The clock on the mantel clanged softly, just once, to mark the quarter-hour. Then he continued.
“And so, this is the story the boy with the beard and the inverted vision told me that day in the alleyways of that fire-ravaged American city:”
* * * * *
The fire of magic.
I doubt you have ever witnessed the power that constantly swirls and twists through the air around you, but nevertheless, it is there. You just have to relax your eyes to experience it.
Only then can you learn to channel it.
Of course, like all worthwhile skills in life, these arcane abilities are not easy to come by; you must train yourself to embrace the fickle beast that is magic.
Ah. Magic. A wonderful thing, ay?
Just like all of my now-absent friends, I learned long ago about magic from the Druid himself. Now there’s a lovely fellow.
Hairless and covered in inky scars, the Druid taught us to grab magic with our eyes, as if we were inhaling it into our eye sockets instead of our nostrils. It actually worked, believe it or not. We’d then channel it though our blood, head to toe and back again. When we could no longer contain it, we’d force the magic out through our mouths.
To do this, we used not just words, but Words.
The power was great, but so was the cost to our bodies. Forcing magic through your blood took a toll. So, over the years, alternate methods were created.
Some intrepid Sorcerers discovered they could just as easily channel magic through clockwork automatons or machinery, instead of through their own blood. Magic loves complexity, you see, so the intricate gears and windings of something like a watch was perfect for controlling magic.
But the Druid did not approve of this. He only wanted magic to flow through blood. And so, a split occurred many years ago between the two different camps of magic — the younger Clockwork Sorcerers, and the older Blood Sorcerers, who had no qualms about using another human to route magic through before using it with a series of Words.
There now. I’ve given you too many secrets of magic already — the channeling of it, the speaking of it, and the two factions using it — and we have just met.
Consider yourself lucky. Or unlucky, as the case may be. Consider what magic has done for me, sir, and decide whether you want me to continue.
I see by your unhesitant nod that you want to know more. Be that as it may.
One more secret about magic remains, by the way. But that one I shall keep close to me, hidden away much like I once kept this ruined pocket watch of mine protected and out of sight. Things change, ay?
But I digress, and my unsteady eyes grow tired in this fading late. Let us not dally — you asked me of the source of my current, lowly state. It all goes back to one night, perhaps last year, perhaps a decade ago for all my knowledge, a night that has been burned into my memory.
On that fateful October night, as the daylight in downtown Chicago waned and the wind off the lake blew hard against my back — I, Jonathan Archibald Masterson Brightwell, was on the run. Again.
From inside my heavy woolen vest, I could feel the puttering of minuscule gears in the pocket watch against my chest. The space of time between each tick of my cherished watch felt a tiny bit longer than the last.
Time. I had spent more time running in my life than I’d spent not running. For almost four centuries, though I look no older than fourteen years of age to most people. I tried to look older, and bulk up my thin frame, by wearing dark suits two sizes too big for me, like the blue suit and woolen vest I wore on this warm fall evening.
But I was fooling no one. I was just a skinny, foolish kid, caught up in potentially more trouble than I could handle.
I hurried past dusty wooden storefronts and around leaning gaslight poles, inhaling the nose-tickling smells of horses, perfume, and manure. The other walkers milling around me wore their Sunday best, and many of them gave me a smile or a tip of the top hat. Probably thinking I was running an errand for a parent, or perhaps a devout churchgoer, scurrying home from prayers.
If only you knew my history, I thought. You’d keep your distance and hold your smiles.
Still hurrying down the side of the street, I dipped my right hand into my satchel. I twisted and pulled a long, dark blue garment from it, a hooded robe made of seemingly far too much material to have possibly fit in the small satchel.
“Finally,” I whispered as I pulled the slick, slightly worn robe over my suit. I kept the hood down, for now. After touching the round lump of my watch — still ticking! — under my ancient robe and vest, I felt a sudden sense of security. I hadn’t worn the robe in a long, long time.
And tonight I would need it.
As I crossed in front of a cobblestoned side road, I started when I caught sight of two men in faded brown dusters glaring down me from atop their horses. I pulled my robe tight around me. I even had the courage to nod at the men and whisper something low and soothing, seemingly to the horses.
For just three ticks, my pocket watch ticked louder, the gears pecking at my chest like tiny bird beaks through the metal casing.
What I’d whispered was not in English — it was a Word.
The first man relaxed, and the second let go of something he’d been gripping under his jacket, most likely a pistol. With a nod, I walked in front of the men and their horses. Once past them, I exhaled slowly, and my vision went dim for a moment.
Just cowboys, I told myself. Not Blood Sorcerers. Not two of his henchmen.
Though I was on the verge of exhaustion, I made myself walk faster. I’d slept most of the day in a barn in my wet clothes, buried under two feet of hay, and I hadn’t had time to recover from my misadventures last night.
That was when the five burly men in long black coats cornered me by the lake. Somehow the followers of the Druid had caught on to me, again, and they were ready to pummel me into submission for using my own methods of clockwork magic instead of the dastardly Blood Sorcery.
I’d only been in the city a few months, working in the south side, helping the constantly coughing people turned away from the hospitals. I’d tried to be careful, healing those I could with my Words, comforting those I couldn’t.
At least I got in a good shot at O’Shea, I thought with a grin.
Before diving deep into the waters of Lake Michigan, I’d blasted a hole clean through O’Shea’s brown bowler hat. I’d nearly exhausted myself and waterlogged my watch trying to get away, but I’d had no choice. Good thing I was a strong swimmer.
When I crossed over quiet LaSalle Street, three blocks from the bridge, I pulled up short. I smelled smoke drifting up from the south.
“Wind’s picked up,” I muttered, and then bit down hard on my bottom lip. I’d been talking to myself too much lately, like a doddering old fool.
I passed the water pumping station and saw the metal arches of a bridge rising above the low warehouses and stockyards around it. The clank of the pumping station’s massive machinery filled the air as it drew water for the people of the city in an unending battle against time and need.
I know the feeling, I wanted to tell the water pumping equipment. The constant, thankless struggle is tiring, isn’t it?
When a harsh, raspy voice answered my question, I realized I’d again spoken my thoughts aloud.
“If ye are so tired, Johnny-cakes,” the voice drawled with a thick Irish accent, “p’rhaps I could innarest ye in a wee nap?”
Blocking my way onto the Randolph Street Bridge stood a red-haired man, stout and imposing at nearly six feet tall. I recognized him immediately, having seen him less than ten hours ago on the shore of the great lake. The other walkers scattered at the sight of the big man and the crackling tool in his hand.
“Whatever it is you have to offer me, Seamus O’Shea, must be either stolen or bad for my health. Thank you, but no thank you.”
“Call me Amsterdam, boy,” O’Shea hissed. “‘At’s me code name, boy. You shouldn’a found out me real name! Th’ boss’ll kill me!”
I had a Word prepared, but I hated wasting it on one such as O’Shea. Because if O’Shea was here, that meant Michael would be close by as well. Ignoring the heaviness in my arms and legs, I walked directly toward the burly, red-faced man in the long black jacket.
“Where’s your hat, Seamus?” I said.
The Irishman answered by lifting the black object in his hand. The two ends of the arcane metal tool ended in wicked metal prongs. O’Shea clicked the triggers next to the rubber handles, and the prongs crackled and sparked with a sickly green light.
I pulled the hood of my robe over my head and hoped that the charms Ishi had cast on it all those years ago still retained their cloaking powers.
“Boy?” O’Shea called out, stepping back a few feet, confidence seeping out of him like water draining off wet clothes. He couldn’t see me. “Don’t be givin’ me more trouble, now…”
Still invisible, I inhaled, saw the lines of power swirl in the air around me and then stream into to the pocket watch under my robe. The watch ticked louder and faster as I drew within two feet of the bigger man. Its metal grew hot, but the enchanted vest given to me by my old friend Moammar protected me from its unnatural heat.
With my right hand, I touched the watch through the vest and exhaled with a Word: “Gholt.”
A flash of blue light leaped out of my watch, through the invisible fingers of my right hand, and onto the big Irishman. O’Shea froze, his big hands still squeezing the triggers to his crackling tool.
“You come at me with Pincers?” I gasped at O’Shea, lowering my hood. My hands and the rest of my body became visible again. I wanted to crack him between the eyes with his own Pincers, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
So I turned and ran instead.
As I fled, smoke filled my lungs with every breath. Ten steps onto the Randolph Street Bridge, though, I stopped. Most nights the bridge was filled with coaches and pedestrians, the air echoing with the ring of hooves, wheels, boots, and shoes on the battered wood. But not tonight.
I looked to the south and got my first glimpse of the fire. Flames licked at the wooden structures of the Gas Works and Bateham’s Mills, and the flames raced toward the river like an army at full charge.
“The wind,” I said. “The wind will make this worse.”
The nightmare memories of the battlefields from the brutal War Between the States less than a decade ago forced their way into my mind. To me, the war had happened only days ago. In many ways, the war seemed to be still going on. I’d worn both the blue and the gray during those dark times, slipping behind both armies’ lines so I could heal the wounded and try to save the dying. When I was caught — as I always was, eventually — I simply escaped, switched sides, and started all over again. I had no loyalties other than helping my fellow man.
I could hear the fire wagon sirens now, mixed with screams. Each tick of my watch was like a hammer blow against my chest.
Pausing in the lane reserved for stagecoaches and horses, I realized that Michael and his henchmen had started the fires. Michael knew that I would want to help fight the fires. And he was herding me right to him and his men. Once again, I was trapped in the middle, with no good option to take.
In front of me, as if on cue, a slender man in a dark suit stepped onto the bridge.
Hiding my shaking hands inside the sleeves of my robes, I approached the man who had once been my teacher. The man who refused to stop until any Sorcerer not practicing the Druid’s form of blood magic had been removed from this world. For the good of all, he would say.
“Michael,” I called. “It’s been a long time.”
He looked older, and his hair was much thinner than it had been the last time I’d seen him, before the war. Thick blonde sideburns reaching down to his chin framed his face like vertical scars.
“Johnny,” the older man said. “Hello again, my good friend.”
I glanced behind me. On the other end of the bridge, more of Michael’s minions had moved into position at the entrance to the bridge. The three henchmen brandished black Pincers that crackled with green energy, using them to keep the crowds fleeing the fire off the bridge. After a summer without much rain, the dry city was going up like kindling.
“All for me?” I said. “You’d burn down Chicago just to find me? That’s not very subtle, Michael.”
“Ah, but you know how I enjoy a nice bit of chaos every now and then,” Michael said, walking closer. “We will simply make up some excuse, as we always do — some old fool dropped his cigarette, a cow kicked over a lantern. My people will remain as invisible as ever, and you rebels will be silenced, for good.”
As Michael spoke, I looked down at my own right hand, so small and pale against the black night. I thought back to the last time I’d seen Moammar and Ishi alive. I’d never gotten a chance to mourn them, or even to honor their memories. I’d been so busy here, in the factories and in the slums…
Focus, I told myself.
I exhaled and let my eyes unfocus slightly so I could again see the twirling lines of magic in the air around me. I took out my watch, heedless of its growing heat. The gears clattered faster and louder as power flowed through the intricate workings of the watch, gathering the familiar blue energy of my magic.
I lifted my glowing, sizzling pocket watch, aimed it at Michael, and screamed “Dohol Alizquondo!”
A globe of fire as big as my head shot out of my watch. But my former teacher only laughed and created a wall of green-tinted energy in front of himself with one simple Word. Michael used no watch or other clockwork device, just his own blood and willpower, as far as I could discern.
My blue fireglobe bounced harmlessly off his shining green shield, though the force of the impact made him stagger back three steps. I saw Michael wince. I was staggering and wincing myself from the force of my expelled Words.
“As they say in that fine new sport,” Michael said, brushing off his dark jacket, “strike one.”
The reference to the game was lost on me. I’d been too busy here in the city to waste my time watching other men at play.
Michael stepped closer, a false look of concern on his pale face. “You know, you really must give up your little windup toys, Johnny, and embrace the true magic of the Druid. The magic of the blood, preferably someone else’s instead of your own, not some artificial construct. And what happens if your watch is destroyed?”
Still gasping for air, I clamped my jaws closed, determined not to give Michael the pleasure of seeing my weakness. Not after what the man had done to Moammar and Ishi two decades ago at Stonehenge. All that was left of them were two black streaks of ash on the brown rocks of basalt.
“Jonathan. I promise it will be quick. Come closer.”
You come closer, I thought, my shaking left hand beckoning the other man. You get into position, you traitor.
As if reading my thoughts, Michael simply smiled.
“It has been entertaining, has it not, my good, good friend?” A handful of blonde hairs now dusted the shoulders of his dark jacket as his blood magic took a toll on him as well. “All of the changes in this time, the new advances in science and engineering? Not to mention the chaotic war down south that unfortunately had to end a few years ago. Eighteen hundred and seventy-one — how can it be such a year, already? So much mischief, so much progress, all in such a short period of time. The Gatling gun, now that was some fun, eh?”
Before I could respond, a sudden explosion made the bridge under me sway. I held up my arms like a tightrope walker, trying to regain my balance.
“Ah,” Michael said, cupping a hand to his ear. “That would be the pumping station. Right on schedule.”
When Michael turned back to me, I was waiting with my hands raised and aimed at him. My pocket watch was ticking so fast in my right hand that all I could hear was one solid tick, blurred together like a bell that never stopped ringing.
Bluish-white light shot out of the watch and through my fingers. The light broke apart and bulleted into Michael like a thousand tiny darts. Michael created a shield again, but half of the darts slipped through his barrier.
“I’ve wanted to do that,” I spat, just as my watch stopped ticking, “for twenty years.”
I spun away, running for the far railing of the bridge. I could scarcely see, my vision was so blurred by heat and smoke and exhaustion. The Words always came at a steep price, and they may just have cost me my beloved watch, if not my life.
As my feet pounded against the boards of the bridge, I tried to wind my stopped watch, but had no luck.
Behind me, Michael screamed for his men. I refused to give them the pleasure of taking me down. With three strides left before I reached the railing, I buttoned Moammar’s enchanted vest tightly over my chest and pulled Ishi’s stealth hood down around my ears. My hands and the watch I was holding disappeared, followed by the rest of me.
Thank you, Moammar and Ishi, old friends. You will be avenged. Someday.
Curling lines of power and magnetism rushed past me as Michael channeled the magic into his blood as well as that of O’Shea and the other two henchmen next to him for one more attack. All I could smell was the stink of burning buildings and the coppery scent of magic. My luck was running out. As I leapt off the bridge, I feared for all the children and their families caught in this burning city.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered in mid-air, waiting to fall.
But at the height of my leap, a burst of dazzling green energy flew from Michael’s hand toward me. My watch caught the brunt of the blast, and bits of glass and tiny metal cogs and gears exploded into the night air and the river below likely deadly, jagged rain.
He ruined my watch, I remember thinking, in mid-air. I am doomed.
My final vision on that day was of my old friend and mentor Michael Azure, standing upside-down in my inverted vision, his arms raised triumphantly in front of the burning city. The image was etched into my eyes as I hung for a helpless moment in the overheated air.
And then I dropped like a stone and hit the water of the river, and I knew nothing more.
Nothing, that is, until I woke here in this alley, my vision still inverted and my whole world upturned, possibly forever.
* * * * *
“The bearded boy stopped talking then,” the gray-haired man with the pipe said after a long pause, with one last glance out the window. Perhaps he saw someone out there, or perhaps he only saw his own dour reflection.
“At some point during his story, the boy had returned to his supine position on his hay-littered wagon. Now he snored softly.
“I risked lowering a hand to his shoulder, trying to nudge him awake, but he didn’t respond. He slept the rest of the night, and I felt obligated to stand guard over him, hoping he would wake and tell me more.
“But he refused to come awake again. My time in the city ran short, and I had to finish my inspections and my reports for my superiors. I sheltered him as well as I could, paying two young men squatting the neighboring apartments to take him in, out of the elements. But when I came back the next day, he had returned to his cart in the same alleyway, though he remained asleep. Dead asleep.
“I thought I’d never share another word with him before I had to leave, but he woke for just a short time on the day I was to catch a train for parts East.
“‘They think I’m dead,’ he muttered. ‘Michael and his henchmen. But without magic, my fate is worse than death. My watch is ruined, the pieces scattered into the river, and my vision is so scrambled that I fear ever leaving this alley.’
“‘My boy,’ I said at last, barely able to contain my own emotions. His story was too amazing, so impossible that it couldn’t be true. But I wanted to believe him. I’d been searching for such wonders as he’d described all my life.
“So I reached into my overcoat and pulled out the shiny, golden pocket watch I’d contracted one of the street urchins to acquire for me. It was as close of a fit to the shell of a watch the bearded boy held as any I’d seen. If he had the skills he claimed, this watch would be just what he needed.
“‘Consider this a gift,’ I told him, ‘for your remarkable story. And for making me believe. If only for a second.'”
“I placed the watch in the boy’s cold, almost lifeless hand. I feared it was too little of an effort, at too late a moment in time. Fearing he had already passed on, I turned to walk out of the wet chill and raw odors of the alleyway.
“‘Sir,’ the bearded boy said, rising with a clatter up out of his wagon. I turned to see him looking at me with his watch held aloft. The watch and his hand, as well as his young man’s eyes, all glowed with a blue light. Even his white beard bristled with vigor, as if it were incandescent.
“His blue eyes were unwavering as we locked gazes. It was the first time he’d ever looked me square in the eye.
‘Thank you for your gift.’
“The boy said something then, that I couldn’t understand. Perhaps his thick beard muffled the pronunciation. Or maybe what he said was in another language altogether. Words I’d never heard before. One of them sounded a bit like ‘Dohol,’ but I may have simply imagined it.
“In any case, the alley filled with even more bluish-white light for an instant, like a flash of lightning from invisible storm clouds. My mouth went dry as my entire body tickled with energy. My back straightened, and the ache in my knees disappeared.
“‘Use your gift well,’ the bearded boy said. ‘And be mindful of who you might… share it with.’
“He slipped his new pocket watch into his robes, settled back down onto his bed on the broken wagon, and said nothing more.
“I left him then, in the cool streets of Chicago. I returned to New York to file my reports, and then my business brought me here, to London town.
“I never learned that last secret of magic from the bearded boy. But I have a strong hunch that I know what it was.”
The man paused and gazed into the tobacco-stained bowl of his cooling pipe. The only sound in the book-lined room was the tick of the clock on the mantel over the held breaths of over a dozen men. He didn’t lift his eyes as he spoke.
“Tell no one outside of this room, but I believe that magic is… contagious. All it takes is a touch of magic, if you are open to such things, and it will flow into you. You can do with it as you see fit: let it shrivel up and die, or let it build and grow and sustain you, just as you sustain it.”
The man calmly packed his pipe inside his jacket and stood, pushing his chair back with a loud clatter against the wooden floor. His eyes flashed blue, just for a second.
“And now I too must be off, for I see a man outside the window, on the far side of the street, watching me. He’s been following me since my arrival, if not longer than that. You may see the black tool he grips in his gloved left hand. You may not. I believe he and I shall have a word.
“Or,” the man said, as he pulled on his long, dark blue coat, which gave the appearance more of a robe than a jacket, “perhaps, more to the point, he and I shall have a Word.”
The man nodded at his mute audience, on his way to the door with a glimmer of cerulean light in his dark eyes. “Fare thee well, fellow Wanderers. ‘Til we meet again.”