Jessie woke up to a knocking at her hotel door. The previous night she’d taken a shaken Kyle to a hotel on the outskirts of town. He’d gotten rooms for both of them, even though she hadn’t been worried about going home, and then had her park in the back of the lot where her car couldn’t be seen from the street. It had seemed like paranoia, but then again, he really was being hunted now.
Actually, he was being both hunted and betrayed. Later, in her room, Jessie had wondered if she should call Servant and let him know where they were. The bogus IP investigation had to come from the same source as the spying she was doing, so she should probably be trying to help the bounty hunters. Her heart wasn’t in that, and it wasn’t practical. If Kyle was locked up then she couldn’t work for him, she wouldn’t get paid by him, and her debt would no longer be on hold.
It was, she thought, a classic fiduciary conflict. Her interests and the interests of her employer weren’t aligned. It was a shame she was the only one who had the education to appreciate that. Then again, her employer would probably break her knees if she didn’t live up to her end of the bargain. That was keeping her from acting on her purely personal interests, and it demonstrated at least an intuitive grasp of the problem on Dwennon’s part. In the end, she sent Servant a message saying bounty hunters had come after Kyle, but she hadn’t been around and she assumed he already knew about the incident. That dribble of information couldn’t hurt Kyle or the business, and it was probably true. The strange man didn’t respond.
“One minute,” she yelled in the direction of the door. Then she grabbed her cloths from the previous night and struggled into them.
It was Kyle at the door and he spoke without preamble or greeting, “We need to get to the patent office.”
“We, as in you and me?”
“I’m going to patent my illusion spell and I’ll need a witness when I do that, so yes, both of us.” He hesitated and gave her a bit of a puppy dog look, “You’re OK with that, right?”
Jessie tried to think of any reason she shouldn’t be, and came up blank. “No, it’s fine.”
“Keep track of your mileage, by the way. I’ll reimburse you later on.”
“Thanks boss. Say, why don’t you have a car anyway?”
“I suppose I just never needed one. I was pretty close to my old job. Now that’s changed, but money’s tight. Once we get a few more big contracts I’ll probably pick something up.”
They’d made their way to the car by that time. As Jessie started it up, it gave a loud backfire, “Well I know of a cheap, yet reliable used model. Where are we headed anyway?”
Jessie relayed the information to the car and it worked for a minute before stating, “The quickest route to your destination requires transit of a high crime area. Accept, or use alternate?”
Jessie looked at the screen, “Are you OK with a trip through Smurf Village?” She regretted the nickname almost immediately. It was just a way of describing the houses, not the people that lived in them, but some people still considered it a pejorative. That was probably because the houses were an eyesore; no one lived in them if they had a choice.
Kyle apparently didn’t feel that way because he just nodded, “I think the point of robbery is to avoid getting up early in the morning. At this hour, we’ll be safe.”
Jessie punched “Confirm” on the car’s navigation interface.
As they traveled the city slowly changed around them. Both the streets and the buildings got poorer as they moved on in to town and found themselves in an older district of the city. Here the stores were small local groceries, 99 cent places, and pawn shops of disreputable character. Next the streets cinched inward and the stores changed, rather abruptly to neighborhoods. The houses were run down. There were guard dogs in the yards. Here and there, a red eye, or some other sign, told that the animal in question was Enchanted.
Then they passed a graffiti covered sign that announced they were entering the historical Mushrooms District and the houses around the street were replaced by giant fungus. They weren’t handsome mushrooms with round stems and little button tops like something from a kid’s cartoon. Instead, they looked like giant wedges of stinking, veined, cheese. They were off-white in color with patches of further discoloration. They were illregularly spaced. Most were broadly wedge shaped. The shortest were about a story tall, and the biggest four or five stories. They did smell, somewhat, but it wasn’t a stink – it was just potently fungal.
They also had doors and windows. This area was the first part of the state that had been settled by Europeans, and it had been used by Native Americans long before that. Despite their appearance the growths had a woody outer surface and could be hollowed out to make a cheap weatherproof living space.
“These are magic, right?”
Kyle looked up. His expression was distant and distracted, “Yes. Fairly well understood, actually. The above ground growths are wholly natural, if out-sized. The magic is underground. It allows the fungus to break down nutrients more efficiently than other plants. As a result, it has out-competed every other soil fungus for thousands of square miles. The blooms are just a tiny fraction of a huge organism.”
Jessie had gotten a little more familiar with magic over the past few weeks, “What’s powering it? What’s providing the magical current?”
“The mushroom is.”
“A mushroom can cast spells?”
Kyle nodded, “Of course. Magic has no special love for humans. Anything that processes information can focus magic, and a plant processes a lot of information through its reactions to the environment.”
“So some forgotten mage turned them on and let them go and now they’re just still running?”
“It could have been a mage, but it’s probably totally natural.”
“Mushrooms can invent new spells as well?”
“Anything that can focus magic can invent a spell, so long as it’s trying to achieve something. Plants are trying to achieve growth so spells develop now and then. It’s never been a terribly important part of nature because the non-scalar law keeps such plants from spreading very far, or at least using their spell when they do. Haven’t you ever wondered why the Archmagi live so long?”
Jessie quirked an eyebrow at the apparent non-sequitur. “I assumed it was spells.”
Kyle nodded again. “It is, but it’s spells that exist in the DNA of every human. They could have been invented by some ancestor of mankind so old everyone is descended from him, but they’re probably natural as well. When a human gathers enough power into themselves, and doesn’t trigger some other spell, that spell goes active and aging is slowed or maybe even rolled back a little.”
“Wait, so anyone can live forever?”
Kyle laughed. “Don’t forget the non-scalar law. A spell, including that one, can only be cast so many times before the power requirements get too high. The Archmagi are people with an enormous capacity for focusing magic. They aren’t all even really magi. Some are monks and the like. Any profession where you learn to focus magic can lead to that kind of capacity through practice and talent. Still, most of them have learned magic. Not to do so would be like, um, being a 9 foot tall guy that never tried basketball.” He shrugged, “It’s a lot like being a top athlete actually. You start with an aptitude then you practice like crazy and good things happen.”
“Living forever seems a bit better than getting into the Olympics.”
Kyle laughed, “They don’t really live forever. Actually, magically boosted lifespan is a sort of continuum, there may be a lot of 90-year-olds out there that got some boost from magic without ever realizing it. Periodically they would have gathered a bunch of power then felt it vanish into a spell they didn’t consciously trigger.” He grinned, “That actually might have happened to me once. However, to be counted as an Archmage you have to be the best of the best. It’s more like being an a-list celebrity than being a CPA.”
Jessie nodded. She’d known that, of course. Not how the magic worked, but that the Archmagi weren’t a firm group. Still, you saw some person called an “Archmage” enough that it was easy to think of it as a sort of a club that a person could get into, a club with benefits. On the other hand, if it was like celebrity, then you probably knew who else was in once you were in, so she was willing to bet there was a lot of behind the scenes association.
Outside of the car the last of the fungal growths passed. The streets opened up and the houses rapidly got larger. The center of town was an expensive district. The big houses set well back in their landscaped yards were entirely normal beyond their size and obvious expense.
And there, in the center of it all was the capitol building. Kyle watched it approach with an unreadable expression. Jessie thought there was something of longing in his eyes, and also a hint of fear. More to distract him than anything else she asked, “So is patenting the spell like this going to end the investigation against you?”
Kyle gave her a startled look, “No, its a totally different spell.”
“But you set up this appointment right after Ketan told you about the investigation.”
He shrugged, “At the time, it just seemed like a good idea. I’ve given it some more thought though, and this whole investigation seems like a scam. Framing someone for a crime is one thing, but this would be a matter of framing me for a whole conspiracy. They’d have to bribe every witness, plant evidence all over, there’s just more to fake with something long running. Then, how did I profit?” He gave her a crooked grin, “I don’t even own a car!”
“So what do you think it’s about?”
“It came to me at the Old Mine. I think they want to get me out of the way long enough to figure out my spell. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone has already tried to learn it, but that was the first time I’d used it directly in public.” He laughed, “You should have seen how paranoid I was casting it the last few times after I thought about that.”
Jessie didn’t have a reply to that. Or rather, she didn’t have anything she could say. People had tried to get the spell. She had tried to get the spell. The part of her mind that normally made conversation for her sort of locked up wanting to mention that very salient fact. Fortunately, she was saved by the car pulling to a halt and telling them they’d arrived.
It was a grand old building, probably one of the nicer ones in the city. It stood four stories tall. Low for a modern building, but the scale of its construction made it seem massive nonetheless. Each block in its stone walls was five feet tall, by five feet wide. Windows into the building were deep set, a foot or two of solid stone standing in front of them. The front steps were broad expanses of polished white marble which must have been terrible to ascend in the rain. Lions flanked them standing eternal silent watch. The top of the building was mostly an uneven landscape of tiled peaks lined with lightning rods like spears. From the very center of the building a proud dome rose, it was coated in copper still bright for some reason, and at each of the compass points a huge crystal prism of a window looked out on the city.
Kyle gave the dome that strange nervous look and gestured toward it, “That’s the office of the Registrar.”