|Image by Fonzy via Wikimedia Commons|
For Corncob it was the easiest thing in the world to crack a safe but he wasn't sure he should, even if it was for a greater cause. It didn't help that safes by their very nature were only too willing to tell himi, via his telemechanical talent, not only their combination but their contents as well. Corncob sensed that the act of turning the tumblers and throwing the bolt was an almost sexual experience for a safe. And safes, by and large, were promiscuously-minded and eternally frustrated.
Corncob turned the dial until the last tumbler fell into alignment. He took a step back, and looked around for a towel or rag, feeling the need to wipe his hands.
"All done, Michael," Corncob said, "You open it."
"Something wrong?" Michael asked. His partner peered past the blind into the darkness, watching for approaching headlights in the driveway.
"No, it's open. I just don't want to do it. I'd rather not turn the handle."
Michael sighed and left the window. " You going to explain what the problem is?"
Corncob shook his head. "You wouldn't understand." He felt Michael roll his eyes in the darkness. His partner approached the safe and slowly turned the handle. The safe door swung open and Corncob felt a psychic shudder.
"Let's just get this over with," Corncob said. He would need a shower after this job, then a bath.
"Here it is," said Michael and he pulled out a horseshoe.
"That doesn't look like much," Corncob said.
"Do you have any idea what this is?" Michael said.
"Is it a philosopher's stone?" Corncob said.
"A talisman to bring you good luck?"
"A transmogrified hell stallion?"
"Does it contain the soul of a demon?"
"I give up."
"This is a horseshoe from Secretariat."
"So what, Secretariat was a unicorn in disguise?"
"There wasn't anything special about Secretariat," Michael said, "apart the fact that it was a damn fast horse that is. And neither is this horseshoe."
"Then why are we here?"
"Corncob," Michael said, "the world of magic is run on influence. Whether it's mind control, magic potions, the weak knuckling under to the strong, politics, money, brute strength, it doesn't matter. You don't always summon a demon when you can just use a baseball bat to get your point across to a fellow mage. In this case, Mister Mortimer is resorting to simple blackmail."
"Yes. The owner of this particular horseshoe from Secretariat wouldn't respond to Mister Mortimer's simple overtures, threats, cajoling, or whatever high archmages like Mortimer do to his peers. But not overt threat. This Gershwin fella that owns this house is powerful enough to vaporize half the tri-state if the mood took him."
Michael waved a hand dismissively. "Not going to happen, same mentality as the Cold War applies. But for Gershwin? This horseshoe is something valuable, irreplaceable. In fact, Gershwin is currently using this lump of metal to blackmail a third wizard, one we also have interest in. If we hold this horseshoe, Mortimer will own both Gershwin and the other wizard."
"So there's nothing special about horseshoe," Corncob said.
"Right. Just a piece of iron."
"And we're going to blackmail this other person."
"Yes. Or rather, Mortimer will."
Suddenly, Corncob found himself not minding the vagaries of house safes. There were some things even more distasteful. Lights flashed across the far wall, tracking from corner to corner.
"Dammit," Michael said, "Why weren't you watching the window?"
"You are in charge of watching the window, Michael, I was in charge opening the safe."
"Then why am I here with my hand on safe holding the horseshoe in my hand while you're standing over there?"
"You wouldn't understand!"
"We can talk about it later. Let's just get out of here."
Michael and Corncob tore down the hallway, leaping over sleeping hell hounds, imps, and something that looked like a lime green sponge oozing pus. They reached the top of this staircase leading to the servant's quarters and back door. They were half-way down when a silver band on their pinky fingers throbbed twice.
"Ouch," Corncob said.
"The alarm wards are back up," Michael said. "Plan B."
"What's Plan B?" Corncob said.
"We find a place to hide out until our skeleton key recharges."
There is enough irony to Michael's choice of hiding spot that Corncob was suspicious. Hundreds of wine bottles occupied niches in the cellar, stacked from floor to ceiling on little scalloped shelves. Michael and Corncob wedged themselves had wedged themselves between giant oaken barrels, which Michael absently fondled.
"How many bottles of wine must be here, you reckon?" Michael said.
"Best not to think about it, Michael," Corncob said.
"There's got to be at least a thousand bottles in here. And then that's not even counting the amount inside the barrels. Why," he said, "I'll bet there's enough here to keep things quiet. If I had a collection like this," Michael said, "I could keep things quiet in my head for a good six months."
"Your liver would only last three," Corncob said.
Michael shrugged. "Details."
"How long until the skeleton key is recharged?" Corncob said.
"At least another hour."
Above them, came a shout and many scurrying footsteps. The hairs on the back of Corncob snack stood, a reaction as magical energy began coursing through the walls of the house, seeping into the very air around them.
"Michael," Corncob said his eyes focused on the ceiling.
"I feel it too," Michael said.
"We can't stay here forever," Corncob said. "Someone's going to find us."
"Agreed. So let me think. What do we have? A skeleton key, which for all intents and purposes is just a useless metal rod right now, and extra dose of sleeping potion – guaranteed to work on even the most nefarious creatures – a set of car keys, three dimes, and two quarters, nickel and a penny."
"And a horseshoe," Corncob said.
"Well of course that," Michael said.
"If only we had an invisibility cloak," Michael said, "then we could just walk the back garden and hop over the fence."
"Why didn't we bring an invisibility cloak?" Corncob said,
"Because they don't exist."
Michael waved his hand. "Never mind, you couldn't have known. Magic has its limitations but don't worry, I have an idea. The first thing we need is –"
But whatever Michael had been about to say was cut short by the door opening. There came the smell of brimstone and the sound of claws on the stairs. A kind of whuffing sound, like a St. Benard with a head cold, echoed through the cellar.
"Hellhound," Michael mouthed silently. Corncob nodded, held up the capsule with sleeping draft, and arched an eyebrow. Michael shook his head and slapped the air in front of Corncob's forehead.
"No…Food" Michael mouthed, miming someone eating.
Corncob clenched his fist in Michael's face before turning around. The beast sniffed around the floor beyond the stairs. It was like a walking canine anatomy lesson a veterinary school would use for nearsighed students, its blood red muscles visible underneath transparent skin. He remembered that they were actually minor demons trapped in a dog's twisted form, not quite as smart, sense of smell and hearing not as acute, but strong enough to pull a pickup around the parking lot by its bumper, and meaner than a Kodiak with a toothache. Earlier, they had dealt with the beasts using Cheetos dosed with the sleeping potion, but unfortunately, Corncob had eaten the leftovers.
The hellhound lapped at the wine. What happened next, whether a creak from the settling of a barrel, a whiff of their scent, the scraping of a shoe, or just plain luck of Murphy, the hound looked up and locked eyes with Corncob in the gloom behind the barrels. There could be no mistaking that the hound saw him; a growl like gravestones rubbing together came from its throat. Corncob felt the malice and glee in its eyes, and noticed a quivering in its hindquarters a split second before it leaped.
Corncob rolled as the beast landed, oak barrels shattered, pelting his face with splinters and wine droplets. The hound's jaws snapped at Michael's feet as he crawled further under the barrels.
Corncob rushed to a corner tasting area where a large leather chair sat under a floor lamp. A screech like razorblades on a blackboard erupted from behind as claws fought for purchase on the stones. Corncob reached for the lamp and swung it around, connecting with the hellion's muzzle in mid-leap. The hound spun into a wine rack with a crash of glass and snapping of wood.
Corncob jabbed at the hound using the lamp like a spear. The dog caught the lampshade in its mouth and crushed it. It swung its head from side to side, lifting Corncob from his feet and slamming him into the wall.
"Plug it in, Michael!" Corncob said. He fought to keep his grip on the lamp pinning the hound to the wall, not doubting that the beast would reach his throat the instant he let go.
"Do what?" Michael said.
"The lamp! Plug it in!"
Michael scampered from under the barrels and reached the cord. He brought it to the outlet and was brought up short, nearly tearing the lamp from Corncob's grip.
"Bring it closer!"
Michael threw a bottle at the hound's head, causing it to look away for a moment. Corncob took a step back as he jerked the lamp up like a fisherman setting a hook. The hound's head pitched up and it took a step forward with him, unable to get loose from the light bulb digging into the roof of its mouth. Corncob felt the beast's weight shift and knew he was moments from death. A flash blinded him, and the weight at the end of the lamp sagged.
Corncob blinked away the purple after-images in his eyes and saw Michael standing over the smoking body of the hellhound. Brimstone, berries, and alcohol filled Corncob's nose, and he fought the urge to vomit.
"That as a Laffite '74, Michael said, looking at a broken wine bottle he had thrown, "the pinnacle of Bordeaux, bottled after the grapes luxuriated in the best growing season seen in over one hundred years. It's the Michael Jordan of wine."
"And it worked like a charm," Corncob said. He addressed the remainder of the puddle and shattered glass. "Thank you, Monsieur Jordan".
"I don't know which Mister Gershwin will loathe more," a voice said, "that one of his prized wines was wasted on a hellion, or that it was compared to a basketball player. Turn around now, slow-like."
Behind them, a man in an ill-fitting suit held up a fist surrounded by a crackling blue-white corona. It lit his face from underneath, highlighting a skewed nose and cauliflower ears. At his side, almost like an afterthought, his other hand held a pistol.
Corncob looked at Michael, who put on a resigned expression and raised his hands. Corncob followed suit. The man with the glowing fist backed up a step and jerked his head towards the door. As Corncob and Michael stepped over the still smoldering hell hound, ozone began replacing the smell of brimstone and wine.
They were brought to a room with a shining dark wood floor, plastered walls in indigo, and bare of furniture save for a three-legged wicker stool.
"Sit," said the man with the gun.
"I don't think the chair will hold me," Corncob said.
Michael sniggered. "And I'm not sitting on his lap."
The man didn't change expression, he just brought his glowing fist under Michael's ear. Michael screamed, and fell to the floor, clutching his skull. Corncob moved to his friend but stopped as the glowing fist appeared at his temple.
"Sit on the floor and wait," the man said.
Corncob sat close to where Michael lay moaning on the floor. The man took a few steps back to the door and stood to one side, watching them.
"You okay, Michael?" Corncob said.
"Just great, never been better. Where do I puke?"
"No worse than the time Mortimer had me read the minds of the flight 617 victims."
"I thought they all died."
"They did, eventually."
The door opened behind them and a man entered who looked like he had visited the same plastic surgeon as their guard.
"Where'd you find them?" He said to their guard.
" Cellar. KO'd one of the dogs. "
"Beats me, they all look alike."
"If only you had the sight," the new man said.
"If only you'd go to the gym," their guard said, and took a step towards the other man.
"Gentlemen," a third voice said.
The two men retreated, sheepish.
"Sorry, Mister Gershwin," their guard said, echoed by the other man.
They parted to reveal a man half their size. Age-yellowed eyes in a wrinkled black face bored through Corncob and Michael in turn, fixing them in place. Corncob could feel his limbs locking in place, only his head able to move.
"You may leave now, Maurice. Stephen."
"Mister Gershwin." The two retreated to the hallway, closing the door.
Gershwin took his time crossing the room. Corncob wondered if Gershwin was a Pygmy, suffered from dwarfism, or was just so old that he had been neighbors with Cro-Magnon Man. From a distance, Gershwin's slight frame and height would pass for an adolescent; the wrinkles, eyes and silver hair dispelled the illusion up close. But with every step, it seemed as if the room shook. The old man was dripping with power. When he sat on the stool, Corncob was surprised it didn't collapse under him from the strain.
"I am given to understand you two gentlemen pilfered an item from me." He stared at them, letting the moment stretch. Michael took in a breath, doubtless with a retort that would get him hurt even more.
"Yes sir," Corncob said, interrupting. It wasn't like he could hide the fact, after all. Gershwin inclined his head with a small nod.
"You are to be commended on breaching my home's defenses. I shall have to have Maruice and Stephen take steps to tighten security. I am surprised you managed to retrieve this object from the safe." He raised a frail hand to his face and peered between the pinky and ring finger. "Ah, a machine-mage. Of course. It is so difficult to keep abreast of the developments, you understand. I had thought the technological approach layered behind the wards would thwart any. Traps to catch the tiger are useless against the mouse." He turned to Michael. "However, your breaching of the outer wards implies help from someone more accomplished. Who?"
"Winnie the Pooh," Michael said.
Gershwin frowned. Corncob felt a lash of power strike Michael, whose eyes bulged and throat worked though no sound came out. Michael's face took on a bluish cast and his chest worked furiously.
"Sir," Corncob said, but he found his jaw snapping shut and lips refusing to work.
"I did not ask you," Gershwin said, turning once again to Michael. "Pup," he said, "I could as easily strip it from your mind, leaving you but a pickled automaton. However, I dislike spending the energy so close to bed. It delays my slumber, you see. So if you would, answer."
A flicker of released power, and Michael's breath came in a rush.
"Mortimer," he gasped.
"That young upstart? How very curious."
Corncob had heard rumors that Mister Mortimer, the head of their brotherhood, had fought in the Norman conquest. He felt like a minnow in a suddenly deeper ocean. Gershwin stared past them, a finger tapping against the top of his cane. He reached into a pocket and brought out the horseshoe.
"Of all the items young Mortimer could have directed you towards, why this trifle?" He looked at Michael, who was still hyperventilating, and turned to Corncob. "Well?"
"I don't understand myself, sir. Michael told me it was because you were using it to blackmail another mage."
Gershwin smiled. "Is that what Mortimer thought this was for? His grasp of politics was always too coarse to appreciate little jokes like this. I should keep it for another hundred years to see if he can guess the punchline."
"A joke sir? I don't understand."
"Indeed. And telling you would ruin it entirely." He chuckled to himself.
"So will you let us go?"
"Out of the question. Not only would you ruin the joke, you ruined my wine cellar with your antics."
Michael coughed. "There was the little matter of the hell hound trying to kill us."
"Then you should have died," Gershwin said. "That is what lackeys and pawns are for. Pawns can be replaced, a Lafitte '74 cannot. A tragedy really, for one so young to come to ruin before it developed its final bouquet. Maurice!"
The door behind them opened.
"Put them in the binding room and use them to replace the hounds."
Michael paled. "You don't even have the common decency to kill us?"
Gershwin stood. "Apparently not."
Corncob and Michael lay bound head to foot inside a pentagram outlined in salt. Cold and damp had seeped through Corncob's jeans and sweater, making him wonder if he would die of pneumonia before the ritual sacrifice. Maurice and Stephen had swapped their suits and leather shoes for rain slickers, rubber boots, and ruby pendants on silver chains before maneuvering fifty-gallon glass jars filled with a dark fluid around the room.
"You're all going to hell for this," Michael said.
Maurice nodded. "Can I use you for a reference?"
“When you get there, I'll have seniority” Michael said, "Maybe you should start sucking up to me now."
“Too late now. You've got - “Maurice checked his watch. “about five minutes before the barbeque starts.”
Corncob didn't blame Michael. Their souls were about to be traded in for new hell hounds and he was with Michael in believing a more mundane death would be better. There had to be something he could do, even if it were to prematurely electrocute himself by sticking his tongue in a wall socket.
Corncob rolled his head from side to side, but there were no outlets. Curiously though, there were wires leading from the points of the pentagram to the glass jars. Some sort of primitive capacitor, what did they call it, a Lynden jar? His eyes ran from the wires buried in the salt, to the jars, and a plan formed in his mind. Corncob turned his head as far as it would go, strained against the ropes tying him to the floor.
"I tied 'em tight," Maurice said. "You might as well just relax and enjoy a little peace for a moment."
Stephen and Maurice took up opposite positions across the pentagram, and each pricked a finger with a knife and began chanting as the droplets hit the salt. The tracks glistened in the corner of Corncob's eye, like crystalline mountains. He twisted his head until the bones in his neck seemed like they were going to burst through his skin. His nose brushed the salt, and in his mind, Corncob could feel the whole pentagram, the Lynden jars, and even Stephen and Maurice blinking in and out of the mental picture as drops of their blood landed on the floor. The pentagram pulsed with energy with each chanted syllable, each pulses racing to the jars, now half-full with power. Corncob's gift let him instinctively know the room's purpose and workings, how when the jars were full, something like a switch would be formed in this blood-and-salt circuit, forming a gate. An exchange would be made: their souls for the demons. The power left over in the jars would re-forge their bodies into the caricatures of dogs, ready for the demons to inhabit.
Corncob tried to push his own will onto the circuit, but it was like grasping smoke. His link to the pentagram was too weak. His neck began quivering under the strain, forcing him to turn back and stare at the ceiling. The pentagram was mirrored above, etched into the brick ceiling with silver. The metal glowed, and a yellow light raced around the mortar joints.
He needed a stronger connection. He bit down on his tongue, his eyes watering as pain blossomed in his mouth. He twisted and strained until his face was almost touching the salt. He reached out buried his tongue in the salt. Something like electricity flowed through him, and he shut his eyes tightly and forced himself to keep his tongue in the salt. The wispy mental picture of the blood-salt circuit came into sharp reality.
The Lynden jars were full, and Maurice shouted words in Latin over Stephen's continued chanting. Corncob felt the circuit's switch being thrown. Corncob reached out with his mind and gave the circuit a twist. Power flowed through a path unanticipated by the pentagram's designers.
"Eyes closed, Michael!" he said. Corncob turned away and braced himself.
The Lynden jars emptied in a series of pops, the Latin cut off in mid-syllable. Green flared across his eyelids. A scream followed, then a wet zippering sound. Something hot and wet splattered across his face and filled his nostrils with an acrid stench.
"Gah!" Michael said.
"Is it over?" Corncob opened one eye. Outside the pentagram, a green liquid covered the walls, floor, and ceiling. The liquid boiled at the pentagram's edge, creating a noxious fog. The only sign of Maurice and Stephen were smoldering rain slickers and a single boot. A vaguely pistol-shaped salamander pulled itself across the floor on two front legs.
"What did you do?"Michael said.
"I shorted the power from the Lynden jars across the edge of the pentagram."
Michael nodded. "And rather than protecting Maurice and Stephen from the demonic energy inside, the pentagram protected us from the energy outside."
Corncob hadn't known that would happen, but there was no need for Michael to know that, so he just nodded. They used a fragment from the shattered Lynden jar to cut their ropes, and Michael picked up their former captor's amulets. They left the room, which turned out to be part of a kennel at the edge of Gershwin's manor lawn. Hell hounds in cages bayed, snarled, and snapped as they walked past.
Michael looked at the manor house, lips pursed. Corncob felt a sinking in his stomach.
"Are we going back for the horseshoe?" he asked.
Michael shook his head. "No, we run and take whatever the consequences are with Mortimer."
"But we lost the skeleton key. The wards will keep us in."
Michael handed him an amulet. "These should get us past the wards. By the time Gershwin notices his goons are missing, we'll be long gone. "
Corncob relaxed, and realized an anger was rushing to fill the space vacated by his fear. "Then let's go. I want to talk to Mister Mortimer about why he sent us here. I'm not going to be a pawn anymore, Michael."
Michael nodded. "Yes, time to see a man about a horseshoe."