"Checkout" Part One


The Hartford Public Library is, as always, nearly empty at this time of night. Frankly, very few people read. The problem is that none of them realize what some books are worth.


"Just this one."

"Goodness… it's never been checked out before. Are you sure you weren't looking for something else?" The Librarian on duty tonight seems much too alert. I decide to go on the defensive.

"I'm just… curious. It's old. I like old things."


"Yes. You can learn a lot from them." Ha. How true.

The Librarian straightens. Her eyes roam over my slight frame, like she's scanning me. It's an oddly automatic movement. Shit. I think she's on to me.

"Young man… what's that around all over your arm?"

Yup. She's on to me. I snatch the huge leathery book off the counter and spin on the spot, ready to run. And then I run.


Teachers are constantly telling me to read between the lines. I guess it was good advice, though they're a little off on the "lines" part. A better way to put it would be, "reading a book? Watch your ass."


The Librarian keeps her cool for a few seconds, which I have to give her credit for. She's probably panicking, knowing what I am, what I'm doing here, and she's probably torn between blowing her own cover and pursuing me, or being punished in the near future for allowing me to escape.

Regrettably, she opts for the former. With a guttural cry that sounds like "drauka", she hurls a fistful of rippling air at me like a baseball. I hold up the book as a shield, absorbing most of the force of her spell.


I find myself on the floor, the wind blown out of me, but still in one piece thanks to the massive book across my chest. As the Librarian approaches, stalking like a cat now, all pretense of normality gone, I flip it to a likely page and hope to see something useful.

I am rewarded. The words and lines and page numbers coalesce before my eyes into a series of strange runes and patterns, but my well-trained eye spots the Key immediately. Interesting usage.

I raise my right hand, which is extensively tattooed, and shout "Zhakeir!"

The Librarian is hit with a burst of light equal in intensity to a lightning bolt, but much more directed and concentrated. She manages a defensive word or two, but most of what I've summoned slams her directly in the chest and she drops like a sack of wet rice. I may just decide to keep this one.


The tattoos on my hands and arms are the Keywords I've decided to keep handy, though if my employers knew about them I'd be in deep trouble. Some of them are from obscenely rare texts, and a lot of them I've acquired from books of questionable origin while working for people of a questionable nature.

Each of them has come in handy at least once. The one in the center of my right forearm is one of my favorites and has saved my life at least three times.

It's the only one I don't know how to use. It's been there since I was born.


I turn to run and am faced with a pair of security guards, rent-a-cops from the nearby university. Damn. With a cry of "Garound" I slam them telepathically into the left and right sides of the hallway, knocking them unconscious. That's another of my favorite words, for all the various open-ended possibilities it offers.

I sprint to the floor-to-ceiling window at the end of the hall, throw another flash of light through it, and leap through the busily shattering glass. I'm only a few feet up, so I tuck and roll, come up running, and head for the nearest alley, book clutched to my chest. I keep a finger wedged in the pages, to mark the place where the Zhakier spell is written.

The only catch to doing what I do is that the word you're using has to be in front of you to be channeled. Hence the tattoos. I haven't had time to ink this one yet, so I intend not to lose my page.

I use a Keyword called "Erasthes" and jump fifteen feet up to a fire escape, then another, "Gesthesa" to superheat the bottom rungs. Nobody will follow me up, now, and if they do, they'll regret it.

I reach the rooftop, which turns out to be something of a dead end. It's shorter by several stories than every building around it, and of course there aren't ladders down to other people's roofs. None of the Keys I know can fling me three stories up, either. Half a second of zero gravity? No problem. But this is a predicament.

And now it's more of a predicament. A shadow descends onto my roof from the next-door building, and crouches in a fighting stance. It's probably a female, from the way it moves, and from the sleeveless shirt I'd guess she's a Reader like me.

And judging by the screamed-out word and chain of explosions, she's not here to help me. I duck to one side just as her spell rips up some poor sap's ceiling, narrowly missing the brunt of a combusted air pocket. I can't help but think, wow, I need to learn that one.

So I straighten up and pull up my sleeves, and start looking for something good to take her out with.


It's getting harder to balance it all. Really hard. Like, sometimes I'm not sure if my real life will survive this side job of mine, snatching the old books for the highest bidder.

My parents are pissed about all the tattoos, though of course they can't read them. They just think I've got some kind of gang/Muslim thing going on. And it doesn't help that I've started wearing only black, but again, it comes in handy when you're basically a well-compensated thief.

You start taking various steps to ensure you won't be caught.


She comes at me with the air-popping spell again, and I realize what I'm dealing with right away. She's one of two things: an untrained powerhouse Reader who's only learned the flashiest spells she can, or, even worse, she's uncreative.

Either way, she'll just throw the biggest, craziest Key in her library at me and hope it kills me before I come up with a way to beat it. She's a one trick pony.

In this line of work, that makes you filler. Just something the Librarians throw at me to slow me down. But like all one-trick ponies, she's a warm-up act. I have to take her down and get out of here, and all before the Librarian she works for can possibly catch up.

Tricky. But that's where I get my nickname.

The third time she tries to explode me, I throw my left hand out and shout "Brenthei" and her exploding pockets of air freeze solid. Starbursts of reddish ice fall to the rooftop and shatter. I see her panic, but the time for observation is past. I know how to beat her, and I have to hurry up and do it.

"Garound!" She's pulled towards me on chains of invisible nothing, and I grab her by the forearm she's been reading from. There it is, her favorite (and as I predicted, only) spell. I decide to try it, directing all the energy towards her lungs.


There's a popping, sucking, sizzling sound. She drops, smoking slightly, as every molecule of air in her blood boils itself. If she's alive, she's not a happy camper.

I snatch up my prized book again, hop off the roof, and sprint to the Depository as fast as I can.

The sun is about to rise.

I have school in three hours.


I don't even go to bed. The book, faintly glowing now that it's been used, sits on my side table while I call my employer, who goes by the name Twain. They all pretend to be authors. I don't think it's cute.

The phone crackles with ambient magical static. I'm used to it. "Twain."


"I've got your book. The Little Engine that Could. You were right, it's a big one."

"Well done, Trick. You can meet me at midnight tonight, the usual spot. And if I like what I see, I may have another job for you."

"If you've got my money, I might take that job."

I know it's impossible, but I hear him roll his eyes. "Oh, trust me, Trick, you'll never let something like this go."

"I don't trust you at all. Why do you say that?"

"Just be here."

He hangs up the phone. I hope he doesn't mean he's not paying me.


School, I think, is a form of punishment similar to those imposed by the Spanish Inquisition. Think about it. Hours at a time, confined to specific places, awful food, people who call themselves "educators", and a list of tasks to complete that will "help you in the long run, no, really, you'll understand some day!"

And besides, I read more than any two of the teachers.


I can walk to school but I don't. The bus gives me a good opportunity to rest on the way there, and sometimes I see interesting things without having to actually be involved. If you've ever been mugged you know what I mean.

And I know what you're probably thinking. "Oh, he does magic and stuff, how can he get mugged?"

Okay. Let's go with that. Say I vaporize a mugger's lungs. I've already got ninety percent of the magic users in the state after me; I don't need law troubles too.

School is a filler. A hollow brick filled with reluctant little people. I hate it. And I've been though the neglected little library inside; there aren't any books I'm interested in, if you get my meaning. Someone's already raided it. Maybe the girl I fried last night. Who knows?

I do have a girlfriend but she's kind of oblivious. I try to keep her away from the whole magic thing. She knows about my talents, and that my ink is all spells and incantations, but at the same time, I just don't think she gets it. She's always asking me to teleport us away to an island.

I can teleport, sort of. But only to places I've been, and even then only places where I've anchored a spell circle with my particular magic in it. I've got my room, her room, a few Libraries that I know are friendly, the local Arcafe, (I'll get to that soon,) and my parents' cabin in Vermont.

We take advantage of the first two and the last one. She doesn't read much and she wouldn't like the Arcafe at all. It's a sort of Teenage Recreational Center except it's for the various magic users in the area. We all hang out there when we're bored, which is surprisingly often.

I'm something of an outsider, even among Users. I use my talent for personal gain, and unlike most of their abilities, which range from natural Wicca type stuff to extremely practical Alchemy, my ability requires no discipline, research, or reagents. I'm one of only a few Readers in the state. When I learn a new Key, I can use it to full effect that very second, as long as I know what it does. Many of the other kids at the Arcafe are bitter towards me for that.

Take Neptune, for example. She's a Wicca type, all rituals and ingredients and natural magic, but each of her spells requires practice, rehearsal, crazy amounts of memorization, and of course the cash to purchase the (sometimes illegal) reagents to work them. She calls herself Neptune because it's the least flowery title she could come up with.

My girlfriend's name is Beck, just Beck, she has a thing against the R, the E, and the A. Don't say it's weird. I regularly throw lightning at things, so weird means something very different to me these days.

Today, she's waiting for me at the bus stop. She's short and slim, with thick, wavy black hair that gives her kind of a bear-cub look. She's every inch a tomboy and the weirdly artistic type that can make people uncomfortable with a glance.

She's the kind of person who, if you approach and ask what she's thinking about, will stare you right in the eye and say, "you." My kind of girl. She does for fun what I do out of necessity, that is, turning away people's interest. She says she got to know me as a challenge to herself.

"Hey Trick. You look beat. Long night?"


She recoils playfully. "What does that word do, force me to kiss you and give you presents?" She then does so, kissing me on the forehead and presenting me with a hot chocolate from the convenience store across the street. See? Perfection, with a nice body to boot.

"Thanks, Beck. Yeah, it was a bad one. Got the book, though."

"What does it do?" She always asks this.

"The only page I looked at was some kind of concentrated-light thing. I dunno. Another fighting book. Either someone's getting really curious about me, or someone's planning to kill me, or someone's gonna start a magical gang war."

We enter the building, the usual signal for "okay, Trick has just become known as Tyler and there's no such thing as magical spell books and hey, have fun in art class, maybe we'll cut and go to Taco Bell for lunch." I don't parade my secret identity, but she loves calling me by it. Still, discretion is the better part of survival.

We part ways right as the bell rings. "Bye, Beck."

"Bye, Ty."

She heads into class, I move for the stairs. I don't feel like class today.

"Ventraedi Treande," I whisper, and when nobody's looking I slide through space, straight into the living room of my Vermont cabin. The spell circle of my destination glows brightly with my arrival and the fire lights itself as I've set it up to do. Winter is a crappy time of year for night missions.

I flop down on the huge couch and reach for the remote, trying to turn on the TV. It refuses to obey. I don't blame the batteries.

Magic is a form of energy not unlike radiation which, incidentally, is the only known force that can completely drain a household battery instantly. I head for the fridge, pull out a soda, put it back when I realize I'm still holding the hot chocolate, and sit back down.

I sleep until at least three o clock in the afternoon. See what I meant about my real life suffering? Sometimes I think I'll never be anything but a book thief.

Not that it matters. My secret savings account is about ninety two thousand dollars, and I spend lavishly. If I was stingy I'd be a millionaire. I spend every spring break in Florida or Mexico, and most of the summer at Disney World or some other resort. My parents think I'm on a road trip. I always answer my cell phone, just to reassure them, and I am indeed with friends.

I wake up and hear my cell phone vibrating on the table, shove the quilt off myself, and stumble over to answer it. It's Beck. Shit. I didn't realize I'd slept so long.

"Where the heck are you?"

"The cabin," I answer, yawning. "I've been sleeping since… about half an hour after you went to class."

"You didn't go to class ALL DAY?"

"Babe, I was up until… actually I didn't sleep at all. Long night."

I pull up my left sleeve and start trying to remember the locus word for Beck's house. Arslas? Arstlas? What was it again?

"What were you doing?"

"This and that. Oh, right. Ventraedi Arslast."

The very next second, I'm standing in her room, face to face, and we're still both holding our cell phones up to our ears. It's a cute image until she slaps her phone shut and rounds on me. "You!"

I can't think of anything else to do, so I wiggle my hands like a stage actor and brightly intone, "Me!" It's not the best choice but hey, I just woke up.

Beck rolls her eyes and shoves me away. "You're a jerk, you know. You need to start actually applying yourself. You're going to end up on the street."

"You know that isn't an issue. Or do the summers in Cancun fly so easily from your pretty head?" Maybe I'm being harsh. On the other hand, my job could get me killed so I think it's more than fair to be defensive. It's not like I won the lottery or something.

"I don't mean you'll be poor. I mean you'll knock on my door and I won't open it." Ouch. "It's really cool, all this stuff you do, but where does your money come from? Are you like, selling magic drugs or something?" She sits down on her bed. "I'm just having a hard time respecting it, you know?"

I really don't know how to respond. She's sort of right…

The thing of it is, she doesn't know how I make my money because it's illegal on every level. The mundane authorities would nail me for theft and vandalism and hey, assault and murder every now and then. And the magical authorities don't approve of any of those, plus they'd probably have me killed for getting Keywords tattooed from books that I shouldn't even have. The books are disguised and separated for a reason.

Nobody's filled me in. Hence I figure it must be something stupid and political. Hence I steal and sell them for incredible profit. It's all logic, right?

"You know I'm not into that."

"Yeah, I do, but I don't know what you are into. You just come home at six in the morning with cuts, bruises, and a quarter of a million dollars. So what's going on?"

"Why is this suddenly an issue?" Yes, you're right. I'm trying to make her the bad guy. Sue me. I'm covering my ass from a billion people.

"I don't know, maybe I just would like to know I can expect you home! Are you going to get killed by… a demon, or, I don't know, Gandalf, one of these nights? I'm scared!"

"I'm capable. Chill."

"A- did you just tell me to chill?" She looks astounded.

"Yes. I get the feeling you don't trust me at all. You think I'm doing something dangerous?"


"Well… I am. But I've lasted this long so-"

"Oh, no no no. You're what?" She's got that woman-who's-going-to-do-her-very-best-to-harm-me voice. Usually it's my mother doing that voice. I'm a little wary now. "You're doing what, that's dangerous?"

"I…" I really don't want this to go down. She can't know. Nobody can. I know it's paranoid of me, but I've eavesdropped on too many people to think nobody could be listening. "…I have to go. I'll see you around."

Rage flares in her expression. That and fear. "Don't you-"

"Ventraedi Chrastnes," I mutter, and slide home. Her voice follows me only for a moment.

I lie down and sleep again. I have a date with Twain at midnight.

I wonder if I have any homework.


Here's the thing about being a Book Thief. It's a bad choice of profession. Sure, I could use what I know to steal more mundane, harmless things, like diamonds, but there's no thrill, and not nearly as much of a payoff.

I most likely will die on a raid one of these days. It doesn't bother me much. I've lived comfortably and have no regrets.

Very few, anyway.

I know I come across as kind of an asshole. I do it on purpose. Unlike your bratty sister or the ugly kid in your math class, I have a very valid reason for keeping people at arm's length. I don't share my secret with anyone anymore.

Not after my last girlfriend.

Remember how I said that very few Readers lived in the area? Well, that's not a hundred percent true. The truth is that there are a whole bunch, but most of them work for the Librarians. Naturally. Where else could they gain access to the Keywords they use? Unlike me, most of them haven't got the balls to take what they want, they have to beg for it. This begging usually entails doing favors for the Librarians, and these favors usually entail trying to kill Trick.

That's me, in case you've forgotten. I'm a thorn in a lot of sides. I'm basically the Pink Panther crossed with a super villain to these people. The only problem with that is that there aren't sides in this conflict. I'm not a hero or a villain. I'm just Trick.


Ten O' Clock. My alarm rings and I slouch upright, check my phone. Twelve missed calls, three messages, and one text. I toss it away; don't feel like dealing with her tonight. Too much on my plate already.

I put on my mission outfit, that is, black jeans, black sleeveless shirt, black boots, black kneepads, a belt with pouches and chains and assorted useful objects both mundane and magical, and a guard for my left shoulder. It's the shoulder that seems to get hit a lot.

I look fairly gothic, but I'm also nearly invisible in shadow and well-protected for the parkour (Google it)-type acrobatics my job usually requires. It's a functional fashion.

I never leave from the house when I'm working. I teleport to a library near Twain's drop-off point, and walk the rest of the way in shadow. A skinny girl is waiting for me, as usual. Twain either never comes himself, or he's a TransMorph. I doubt it. They usually can't read.

"Twain regrets that he-"

"Couldn't make it, blah blah, meeting, blah, where's the money?" I've heard it a hundred times. "I'm a busy man too."

"Of course, sir." She hands me a briefcase, I hand her the book. It always happens like this. The part I'm not expecting is when she opens it, flips to a page near the back, and mutters, "Ventreadis Cintheieros," and we slide into a huge penthouse-type room.

"Whoa," I exclaim, looking around at this fabulously decorated office. The floor-to-ceiling windows suggest a great altitude, maybe thirty floors. This could only be the Schaefer Building. My host, the skinny girl, snaps the book shut and beckons me towards a large desk. "Mr. Twain," she almost whispers, "will see you now, Mr. Trick."

"Um… sure." I follow her lead and approach the desk, where a high-backed chair stereotypically faces a fireplace against the wall. I want to laugh. I don't. It's not professional.

The chair swivels around, and true to form, the thin man in it has his fingertips pressed together and a high-eye browed expression of interest on his skeletal face. I'm like the arcane James Bond right now. I love it.

"Trick," he booms, startling me with a baritone voice, "Wonderful to see you in person. I've been looking forward to this."

"If you'd warned me I'd have bought something nice to wear." I don't like him. I don't know why. Rich people bother me… although I guess I'm rich, come to think of it. But he's really rich. Like, Rent-the-state-of-Hawaii-for-a-stag-party rich.

"Ha-ha, of course. You've made yourself quite a lot of money these past few years. What are you now, twenty?"

"Nineteen." Yes, I stayed back a year, screw off. I made two hundred thousand dollars that semester, I don't regret skipping class.

"And when did you get into this business? You're quite a professional for one so tender."

"I was sixteen. Someone called me, I picked up, got my hands on the book they wanted. Five thousand to snatch a Goosebumps book from a public library."

"I know." He smiles like the Grinch. You know the one, where his antennae curl up? That smile. "I'm the one who hired you."

"That wasn't your voice."

"Of course I used a secretary, a boy almost the same age as you. In fact, I do believe I've hired you for every item you've ever procured. Seventy… two books, now?"

I'm surprised but I don't show it. "That seems about right."

"Well, I've come to decide I can count on you."

"Really. You had your line drawn at seventy two? Seems random."

He laughs an echoing laugh. In a room this big, you could fart an echoing fart. "No, I assure you, there's nothing random about it. I have my reasons. Suffice it to say you have proven yourself worthy of a more… demanding task."

"How much?"

"I shall need you to acquire-"

"I said how much?"

He tries to look offended but I can see the delight in his eyes. "My, you're devoted. All right, ten million dollars, under the table."

I force myself to remain standing, but my jaw drops. "What the hell am I stealing that's worth ten million dollars to you?"

"I assure you, boy, I've made quite a bit more than that with the things you've gotten for me. This, however, is a personal interest. Therefore I will be giving you the personal price."

"Ah." Did I mention I dislike rich people? They're so damn self-righteous.

He glides over to a glass display case. Inside are five small rocks, each with a rune carved into the side, each in a different matte color. They look harmless, which in magic means they are probably horrifically dangerous.

"These," Twain remarks, "are a set of stones of considerable value. I'm not sure your gift allows you to read such things, but they are tremendously powerful in a magical way. I want to collect the whole set, see what kind of a profit I can make."

"If you're looking for profit, why not hire someone cheaper?"

"Ten million dollars is a paltry sum compared with what I'll make on the entire set. Money is of very little concern to me, in relation to the importance of satisfaction."

I touch the glass and feel a current, not electricity, but a shield enchantment.

"Who's your witch? This is a woman's work, and your secretary here is a Reader."

"You think you're the only young person I hire in this city?"

"I was made to believe so." Are there other Arcafe regulars who make this kind of money from Twain? And if so, which ones are they? "Anyone I would know?"

Twain smirks. "I've never told anyone that I employ you. But if you'd like me to start breaking people's confidence, then by all means, start the trend. Just hope nobody asks about you."

"I get the point. So what is it I'm lifting for you?"

He gestures towards a sixth spot in the case, which is devoid of pastel-rune rock. "There is another stone in this collection, whose powers and abilities are… well, are frankly beyond your scope and not your concern. "

"Why do I not believe you?"

"Because you're experienced. But rest assured, once I possess this final stone, I'll never bother you again. You can retire from thievery forever, and let me tell you, you'll not want it anymore."

"I dunno. I kind of enjoy it." Which is true. I really need to reexamine my life, it seems.

Twain glides back to his desk. "That's your problem, and it's your life. But I'll no longer be party to it." He says this with an air of superiority, as though larceny is below him. I guess that makes me a thug.

I can live with that.


I actually go to school the next day, simply because I have people to talk to. One of them goes to school regularly, being kind of a good girl. She's probably in an art class, so I head for the basement floor and listen for singing.

I find her in the drawing room, sketching a bunch of flowers. She's a Wiccan, specializes in Earth Magicks and arcane substances of a natural nature. Basically, if hippies had a straight-edge mascot, it'd be Neptune.

Like me, she hasn't "come out" to her parents. They're the religious type, and certainly wouldn't approve. But she is good at what she does, and in a pinch I can rely on her for information. She's helped me before.


"I told you, Tyler, it's Niko around here. My parents hear I'm acting all celestial, it'll be hell at home. What's up?"

"I'm looking for something. It's supposedly very powerful on the Arcane scale, so I thought maybe you'd do a Location Circle for me."

She rolls her eyes. Why do people do that so much lately?

"You know I haven't got the money. I need some pretty severe stuff for that kind of thing. Some of it isn't exactly legal."

"I also know a little bit about Earth Magicks. You don't really need that shit." She winces. See? Best of the best right here. "All those ingredients and circles and sealing things with wax are just focii. If you've got the will, you can do that stuff with words alone. I've seen it done, but that witch isn't the type who'd help me out with this."

"I've got too much on my mind. I wouldn't be able to focus without them." She turns back to her drawing. "But if you can spot me the cash for the basic stuff, and find me an ounce of pure, uncut cocaine, I'll draw the spell for you."

"You've got to be kidding. Cocaine?"

"It comes from a plant. It's an opiate, which is used for directionals, and the hallucinogenic quality will distort the protective refractal barriers around the object you're looking for. If it wasn't something occult, you could use a poppyseed bagel." I can't believe she says this with a straight face, but witches don't lie. Anyone whose words warp reality is careful not to say things that are unreal. "I'm not interested in buying drugs. So like I said, if you can find the stuff I need…"

"The money isn't a problem. The coke might be."

"I'm not trying to be difficult, Tyler. I can only do what I can do. Not everyone is as effortlessly powerful as you."

"I see you being bitter at me, but if I was so amazing, I'd just find it myself. I need your help." I suck at kissing ass, but luckily she buys it.

She chews her lip. "I'll see what I can dream up. Maybe there's a way around the cocaine, but here's the other stuff I'd need." She gives me a paper with a few items on it. A juice box, a handful of coins, a red rose with thorns intact, and of course a white and a black unscented candle. Damn wax.

"I'll have everything tomorrow after school."

"No, I have model U.N. It'll have to wait until… oh, Friday?"

"That's four days away. I'm kind of in a rush."

"Yes, but I have band tonight, then model U.N. tomorrow, then band again on Thursday. I care about my future, you know."

I sigh. These kids are always so preachy. I care about my future too. That's why I'm in this line of work. It's my retirement fund.

I'll probably retire at, like, twenty two.

I leave the art classroom and head to the Arcafe, after last bell of course.


I haven't seen Beck all day, I realize, as I walk the short distance to the Arcafe. Maybe she's sick. Who knows. I'll slide by after this little stop and bring her something nice.

The Arcafe is in a nook that most people willfully ignore, tucked in between a bookstore and a small restaurant. It faces the river, and is decorated with the sort of things that keep skeptics and adults far away. Black banners, skulls, spiderwebs, etc. That sort of garbage.

I enter through the only door and make my way to the counter, passing some other Users on the way. One Druid, a few Wiccans, and a Morph. There are Readers who come here, but not often. I'm looking for a Summoner, and I don't look for long. He's in a booth with his demon familiar, drinking something steamy and listening to the small black creature read him a book.

His name is Fence, and he's studied magic more than any three other people in the state. If something exists and there's anything to know about it, he usually knows. The only catch is having to put up with his damned (literally) demon pets, which are as obnoxious and destructive as Fence is helpful.

I'm not sure how old he is, but I'm certain it's much greater of an age than he lets on. Working directly with demons, which exist outside of time as we know it, lends Summoners the same strange timelessness. They age without aging, I really can't come up with a better way to say it.

"Fence," I call, and he looks up. "I need your help with something."

"It's the Reader, Trick." The demon, who resembles a kangaroo with a wide, toothy mouth and ink-black oversized eyes, hops onto the table and shields Fence from view. "What is it you want, Reader? We're busy."

Fence laughs. "Let him through, Venber, he's a good guy." The demon stands down, grumbling at me. Demons don't usually like Readers. I'm sure there's a reason. Probably they resent our individuality, seeing as they are pretty much slaves in this world. Venber is ferociously protective of his master, but I'm sure that if he had the chance, he'd rip his heart out. Part of the binding spell forces affection and obedience for the spellcaster onto the demon's personality.

Humans have such powerful emotions that it never occurs to us that they can be manipulated. Demons are intellect and instinct and hate, nothing more. Giving them feelings really fucks with them.

"Hey Fence. Been awhile."

"I know, I feel like I never see you." Fence is blind. Venber is his seeing-eye demon, a marked improvement from a seeing-eye dog because he can talk. The demon still eyes me warily, little crackles of black lightning tracing between his claws. He wants to kill me.

I laugh at Fence's joke and sit down, offering a candy bar to Venber. He takes it and growls at me, but grins and devours it. Fence puts aside his book. "What is it you need, Trick?"

"I'm trying to find a particular object of power, a stone with this rune." I show a photo to Venber, and Fence nods. "Apparently it's somewhere in the city, I've got a witch preparing a locator circle for me, but I need to know what I'm dealing with. Also I need some cocaine."

"I'm hoping it's for the locator spell?"

"You got it."

Venber chimes in. "I know a dealer, though that stuff is expensive these days." Both of us humans stare at him for a moment, though Fence only does so as a gesture. "Do you really?"

"Yes, I love opiates in my breakfast as a sweetener."

"Fuckin' demons, man."

Fence laughs. "I don't know why I give him money."

I try to steer the conversation my way again. "So do you recognize this stone?"

"Yes, though what it's doing here I can't figure. It's a kind of focal point for a six-pointed spell circle, it has five sister stones with different runes and in different colors."

"What can it do?"

"By itself? I'm not sure. What color is it? Venber's colorblind."


His eyes widen pointlessly. "Ah. See, that's the bad one. It can protect itself, after a fashion. It nullifies magic in the immediate area unless it's near one of it's sisters. Then it contributes to the spell circle, which is used to summon something or other."

"So one I nab it, I'll be defenseless?"

"No, not completely. You'll still be able to use a constructed spell, maybe a charm from a witch, and most likely you'd have to be touching it to be cut off from your magic at all."

I ponder this while shoving Venber away, who has decided that what Fence doesn't see won't get him in trouble. Venber digs my arms with his little claws, searching for another candy bar, and while Fence orders another drink I nab his papers and scribble out a rune.

"Vrascho," I read, and the demon is frozen in place. His baleful black eyes focus hatefully on me and I shove him into a seat, where he struggles to move. I should get that Key inked as soon as possible, a Demon-Stopper spell. If I have to deal with these stupid things, I might as well bring something to the table.

"So," Fence asks, "what else can I help you with?"

"I need the name of any Wiccan who might be willing to do paid work. I think there's a witch on somebody's payroll out there, and I want to deal with her before pursuing the stone."

"Ah. You'll have to come back later, maybe Wednesday, I'll need to summon a Seeker Demon to get names. Sorry."

"No problem. I can't go until Friday anyway." I hate downtime. It's like working except it's boring and I get nothing out of it.

I guess it's time to find some drugs.


The streets are cold and windy, and it's now four in the afternoon. Beck is either sick or mad at me, both of which I can deal with. "Ventraedi Arslast," I mutter as I sidestep into an alley, waiting for the familiar jerk of a teleport.

It doesn't happen. What? That never happens to me.

"Ventraedi. Arslast." I stare directly at my spell and state each word clearly, probably looking like a crazy man to passerby. Nothing happens at all. "Ventraedi Arslast! What the fuck?"

I look around for some kind of clue, maybe a Wiccan blocking me or something, but I see no one. I scan my arms for something helpful. "Um… Graitchnael." A magic lantern, one of my first Keywords.

The shimmering blue light of the spell fills the air before me, proving that I'm not being bound by magic. So it's not an issue with me… it must be an issue on her end. But she knows better than to stand in the circle!

Uh oh. What if someone else is there? Someone who could dismantle my circle without me knowing it?

I teleport to the closest library to her house and sprint down the sidewalk. No sign of intruders, which means precisely dick. If a Reader somehow overheard my Keyword for her house, managed to write it properly, and knew where it would take them, they could use my circle just as easily as one of their own.

And then it hits me. I said it over the phone, where anyone could be listening! I'm so stupid!

No cars are in the front, so I open the door with a Keyword and slip inside. I don't hear anyone, that doesn't mean they aren't there. I decide to not take chances. "Heaphasties," I whisper, and my hands light up with a grayish-gold glow. A lightning spell that I can hold onto for a few minutes. Won't have to even say anything to release it, if I'm jumped.

I silence my footsteps by magic and head up the stairs, looking to either side of the top with the mirror-on-a-stick I keep in my belt. SWAT team guys have them. Nobody lurks in the hallway. Beck's door stands open.

I almost reach the door to her room before I hear the voice, muffled but oh-so-upsetting. The single word has the odd familiarity of a Keyword, and I duck just before the entire hallway flashes alight with fire.

"Shit!" I roll aside to avoid a falling picture frame. There's a Reader in this house! And they must have a Wiccan, if they took apart my circle. I'm outnumbered and potentially outgunned.

But not outclassed. I roll backwards into Beck's parents' room, which hasn't caught fire yet, and hurl my handheld thunderbolts towards the location of the Reader's voice. I'm rewarded with a fizzling sound, like a popping light bulb, and a thud. The fire promptly fades away. Huh. Must have killed him.

I don't care. I charge up my fists again with lightning, and stalk down the now-smoky hallway. There is surprisingly little damage, thank god for asbestos flooring. Where's the witch?

I find out when my handheld spell pops itself out and all the strength leaves me. I register a sensation of draining, and I have time to think, oh, I'm being sapped, before I black out completely. Weird magic.


"Is he okay?"

"He's fine. Shut up."

"He looks hurt!"

"I told you, shut up. I'm taking care of this. I'm in charge. Frankly I don't know why you're so worried about him, he toasted Freon in one shot."

"That doesn't mean we can just let him bleed! Twain said-"

"Shut up! He's coming to."

I blink, nothing happens, so I blink again. A room swims into view, and I see two people standing over me, one with a gun, the other with a book. I'm scared of both quite equally. Do you blame me?

The one on the left, holding a handgun on me, is tall and horribly muscled. He has long black hair that's tied in a ponytail, making him look like the young and frightening Stephen Segal. The other one has a book that looks like it'd be thicker than she is, even closed. She's got white hair and a worried expression, and a lattice of green tattoos on her left arm.

Still, I can't find the witch.

Unless she was the one I took down, I reason. Maybe the Reader here fizzled her spell on purpose when I fried the witch, to confuse me. Or maybe she lost concentration and couldn't maintain the already-weak blaze.

I store that away for future reference. Readers have to keep their cool or they're just people with books.

"Where am I?" my voice comes with a searing pain in my chest, and I realize I'm strapped tightly into a straitjacket. Of course. I can't see my spells this way, and the girl is keeping her distance. No way out with magic this time.

"You're in custody. Shut your mouth."

"Shane, let me Heal him, please?"

"Yeah sure. And when you get close enough, he'll read your arm and blow us both to hell. You heard about what he did to Totemica, the other night. This kid's a fucking animal. I'm not letting anyone near him."

It's nice to know I have a reputation. Just to freak them out, I spit blood. Oh. I didn't know I was bleeding, I thought I'd just spit. That's not fun.

"I… where's Beck? Where is she?"

The big one starts to speak, but the girl cuts in. "She's fine. They just wanted to catch you, but don't worry about her, she's being set free soon."

"I don't believe you, bitch. Let me free or I'll roast this whole building."

Amazingly, she looks hurt at my statement. Screw her. She just kidnapped me. Her and "Shane", the big dumb freak with a gun.

Okay Trick. Keep your cool. We was just thinking about this.

I'm bleeding. I need help.

But maybe, a small voice says, bleeding will help.


The two leave me on the floor and leave the room, shutting the door behind them. So I'm in here alone, ostensibly with enough time by myself to do what needs doing. The room is about fifteen feet square, with few bits of furniture. The light is on, and I'm still bleeding, but that's all I need. Light.

I try to get to my knees and struggle with having my hands strapped to their opposite ribs. This is terrible. It takes me a moment, but I finally reach a prayerful stance, and I bite my injured lip as hard as I can.

Pain flashes through my face, but I bleed considerably more now. This will all be over soon. I lean to the floor and drag my throbbing lip across the cement.

It hurts, it stings, it makes me want to die. But it's working. I make a line, then another line across it, the accent mark above the third rune. It's working.

I hear voices after about ten minutes, approaching footsteps, and smile through a beaten pair of lips. They think they'll find me harmless.

I make the final curving line just as the door cracks open, and lean back to admire my creation. The first thug to come in the door is, happily, the Segal wannabe Shane. I hear him scream, "Oh, SHIT," when he sees the bloody pattern on the concrete.

But it's too late for him. I call out the spell on the floor, "Wrandulain," and shears of air whip through the room to shred my jacket to ribbons. I stand to discover they've removed my shirt before putting me in the coat. Sucks to be them.

"Byraos!" Shane is thrown against the ceiling by a burst of light, his head cracks awfully and leaves a smear of blood on the tiles. Maybe he's alive. Who cares. I melt the few guns the goons are carrying, some of them ruining the hands holding them, and slam the door shut with "Garound".

The thugs back up against the wall and quiver, one moaning in agony as molten gun metal consumes his right hand. I don't care. I'm keeping my cool, no room for pity. It's them or me.

"Who are you? Who sent you?" I scream at them, and from they way they flinch, they must think I'm still casting spells. "Listen to me! I'm speaking English! I'll let you live if you give me answers!"

They cave like the Buffalo Bills in the Superbowl. All hit their knees, and one raises his head to look at me. "Twain," he stammers. "A man called Twain. He hired us to help the girl with the tattoos bring you in."

"That's bullshit!" I call back, but then I stop. Is it really? Maybe he's being honest. I would be, in his shoes. No reason to lie. "Where's the Reader? The tattooed girl?"

"She left. She's got the other girl, the hostage, she's headed somewhere."


"She didn't say! South on 91, that's all I know!"

I stand over them for a moment, then go to the one with the melted hand. "Aidreas." His hand grows back in a bloom of light, the glowing gun metal dropping to the floor. I speak to all of the thugs who now fear me like a god.

"I don't blame you for doing what you've done. I know what money can drive men to. Go home and get a real job. I'm going to."

And I leave.


Neptune's house is a condo outside the city limits, though she comes in for school. I trudge up the driveway and bang on the door, ring the bell, wait for someone to answer. Finally, she comes to the door, a look of panic on her face.

"Tyler! What are you doing here?! It's one in the morning!"

I shove a bag of items at her. "Here's your shit. Find Beck, now."

"I can't… my parents…"

"A pack of thugs just kidnapped Beck. Find her, now. I'm not joking. I'll level this condo."

"What's your problem, Tyler?"

"Krhrendhis," I shout, and her mailbox explodes into shrapnel.

"Ty! What are you doing?!" The panic on her face would usually make me laugh. Not in a laughing mood, I point to her porchlights.

"They go next. Find Beck. I'm not trying to be an asshole, but you're the only person I know who can do this circle, and I'm really not in the mood for your honor roll bullshit."

"Trick," she pleads, "I'll help you, but not here, where else can we go? I'll wake up my parents."

"My house. Come here." I grab her in my arms and mutter the spell for my bedroom, and we slide into the darkness of my lair. It's not really a lair, more of an abode. I've got my spell circle in the corner, occupying the only clean space on the floor. Everything else is books, papers, tools, clothes, and gadgets. My life in a scattered pile.

"Alright, hop to it. Here's a photo."

"Trick, hold on. I need a moment."

"Fine. I'm waiting. You do know how important this is, yes?"

She doesn't respond, just arranges the various trinkets around my circle space and sprinkles the poppyseeds in the middle. (I got the seeds easily, figured I wouldn't need the cocaine to find a non-magic person. Guess I was right.) She lights the candles with a stored fire spell she keeps on her bracelet, and motions for me to stand back.

"Alright, just don't distract me. You'll know it when something happens."

She stands in the middle of the circle, unties her hair, unbuttons her top button, takes off her shoes. Then, hands held aloft, she begins to chant a spell that I've heard many times.

It's yet another focal point, some kind of prayer to a god that doesn't exist, referring to the "hunt" and that sort of crap. The point is that it helps her focus her natural magic into a specific goal, that is, tracking a person.

Purple light flows from my circle, swirling around her like pollen on a breeze, and the poppyseeds dissolve into a lump of white energy. This is a cool-looking spell, I'll never deny it.

With a popping sound, the white lump vanishes and my mind is filled with the sensation of an arrow, pointing towards the southeast. When I concentrate, I can see a van, swerving across the highway, booking away in some kind of a hurry. That's where Beck is.

"Thanks," I say to Neptune, and teleport to one of the friendly libraries near the highway. I realize that I just left her in my room, and she'll probably get in trouble over it if I die. Oh well. She's safe.

Of course, I thought me and Beck were safe.

I snap open someone's car with my unlocking Key and convince it to turn itself on for me. I've always been good with machines, even before my magic woke up in me.

No, I haven't got a license. I've never needed one, of course. And if a cop pulls me over in a stolen car, I just teleport away to the cabin.

There are very few cars on the road at this time of night, but I can see with the Tracker spell that the van with Beck in it is surrounded by other vans of a similar description, maybe even identical. So they're trying to throw me off? Hah.

I speed like a moron, unafraid of death and unwilling to care for others. I'm too busy being a badass to rethink my life right now, so just bear with me. Am I really chasing these people to save Beck… or do I think they'll help me find the green rock?

I avoid answering so I don't hurt my own feelings. I can feel my target getting closer. They're taking their time, now that they're away from the city. So maybe this is a trap? They must know that the decoy vans won't work, and they can't expect me to just obliterate them when I know Beck's being held.

So why let me catch up?

The answer comes with a rattle of gunfire, the rearmost of the vans having backed into firing range. "Shit," I mutter under my breath. I hadn't wanted to wreck too much stuff, but I didn't know guns were going to be part of the fun.

I point a finger at the van, which has pulled alongside my stolen car. "Brenthei," I call out, and its tires simultaneously freeze to the pavement. The result is that the upper body rips away from the suspension and rolls down the highway, ripping itself to shreds. I have to swerve to avoid a rolling body.

One down. How many to go?

The van must have backed up quite a way, because I can't yet see the others. I focus on the spell and see that they're taking an exit, so I memorize the number and follow them into a rural town, quiet and empty at this hour.

Suddenly, the spell fizzles. I'm too far from Neptune, the caster. I swear aloud, chastising myself for not remembering that old rule: Magic only works for it's owner. There's no way I could command Venber the seeing-eye demon without Fence there to help, so why should Neptune's spell work for me outside of her presence?

I drive into the tiny town, alone, tired, and as far as I'm concerned, blind as a bat.

…To be continued…