The Cold Check
By Chris Yee
Cornellius Clock drew in a deep, chilling breath. Icy pangs pricked his throat as the cool, mountain air felt refreshingly good as an instant ‘wake the hell up’ elixir. Surveying the high mountain view, he could see much more clearly that morning compared to the night before. Over the last few days, a blizzard had ripped through, cutting a swathe of tiny razor blades through the open, cavernous valleys that separated the peaks. Now, a clear and cloudless blue sky cast overhead, the radiant sun bringing some semblance of warmth to Clock’s already dry and weathered face. From his perch, barely a stride’s width that terminated to a rocky sheer face with an open chasm that faded to darkness from the mountain’s shadow, he gained his bearings. Ahead of him was the Northern Spineridge, a long series of irregular, spindly cones, jagged in appearance that resembled a spine of some gargantuan beast, its base disappearing into a sea of fog and low cloud, further substantiating the name’s mythos as a monstrous creature laying dormant on the lands of Ashfen. The narrow path Clock was on led him up towards the first rise of Spineridge.
As good as it was to savour this moment, he had work to do. The bounty wasn’t going to get itself caught now, was it? Pulling down his brass fitted SpawkEye Goggles of his own creation, he surveyed the path for clues. Adjusting the attunement settings helped with many things, from simple magnification to thermal detection. His latest version housed something new and experimental: magical presence tracking, referred to sometimes as MPT mode. Clock smiled as his first fielded test results showed a trail left by a magical entity, the one he was tracking.
Hefting his backpack which contained all manner of alchemical gadgetry, the tools of the trade for an engineer, he set off after his prey.
The long, winding path of Wrongfoot Pass lived up to its namesake. Several times Clock came close to certain death when his boots landed on a loose or broken part of the path. For all the elixirs and kits that he had on hand, ready to use at any given moment, resurrection from death was always a tricky and costly exercise. Four hundred gold for a Resurrection Orb for starters. Daylight robbery! And magicians have cornered the market on stupid adventurers that run in, swords swinging and flintlocks blazing, with little regard for life and limb.
Cornellius Clock was an inventor and adventurer, but most importantly he was a planner. Every single aspect of an executed quest, be it as significant as saving a township from marauding ogres, or as pedestrian as escorting a chicken to the other side of the road, was planned to the minutiae in Clock’s calculating mind. Contingencies upon contingencies he would often quip. You would either be impressed at his dedication to get the job done, or be seriously annoyed at his absolute focus on details. Generally it gravitated to the latter if you talked to him too long.
Treading the path with careful and sure footing, he ventured forth to a cave called Edgar’s End. The name simply came from a local tale of a man called Badiah Edgar. He was a cheat and a swindler, who would often be caught in the sights of the wrong end of the law, yet his charm would equally often get him out of those situations. It was only a matter of time before his charm ran dry and he fled to the mountains. A chase ensued by an angry mob, whittling down to a zealous few who dared meet the icy blizzard to keep chase. The pursuit ended here, at the mouth of the cave, where, quite unceremoniously, Badiah Edgar slipped and fell to his death just as he reached the safety of the opening. There are variations on how he died, from the simple fall, to a standoff between him and the zealous villagers, to being thrown out of the cave by an angry ettin. Whatever the case was, this was where Edgar meet his end.
A little known fact, from the few scraps of information that Clock had gleaned about Edgar’s past, was that he was also an illusionist, a class of magicians who used controversial forms of arcane knowledge specifically to deceive others. This couldn’t be proved however as most witnesses saw only what Edgar wanted them to see.
Clock’s gloved hand reached to his hip, unholstering his trademark Zappy. A strange looking pistol that looked nothing like the current flintlocks in use around the lands of Ashfen. Oblong in design, with various cogs and dials attached, and mysterious sparks and glows that for the most part could only be described as magical. It was in fact a combination of both magical and technological aspects from the perspective of society. Not many would be willing to change to the outlook of science yet, as it would be just as mysterious to the common folk as magic still is. The pistol itself was generally designed to be non lethal. Nine times out of ten it would give the target one hell of a shock, often stunning them to an unconscious state, as opposed to complete vaporisation. Clock was still working out the bugs in the system. His first lab tests left him completely knocked out for half a day, so he was hopeful.
Entering the cave mouth, weapon poised, Clock surveyed the interior as the glaring sunlight dropped to a minimum, the darkness enveloping. Reaching to his goggles, he adjusted the setting to be able see in the dark. The downside was that his MPT mode was disabled for now. He had to tread very carefully, expecting a number of deadly and persuasive magic based traps.
As the cave went on, the walls glistened with cold sweat and stalactites dripped ominously, echoing in the darkness for a long while. A faint glow of various creatures lined the walls; harmless glow grubs that fed on the phosphate rich mineral deposits found here on the outer strata of the Spineridge, excreting phosphorous that would glow when reacting to the cold, stale air. Pools of water, freezing to the touch, glowed ominously as the light refracted all around, casting rippling shadows all over that gave a sense of tall, silent wardens, watching Clock’s every move.
“This is one creepy cave…” Clock observed.
“I know, isn’t it fantastic?” echoed a response.
Clock froze, looking around himself to see the source of the voice. He quickly switched to the MPT mode of his goggles. The switch was fortunate as his vision lit up like the nightlife of a bustling city as a plethora of rainbow colours pulsed and spiralled around him. He’d walked into a trap of some kind.
“So, you’ve got me, Edgar. What are you going to do to me now?” Clock asked.
“So you know who I am then, do you? I can spare you the introduction in that case. To answer your question; I can do almost anything to you, I’d imagine. And I have a very broad imagination.”
Clock thought for a moment. His options were limited. Looking around himself again, he saw there were no openings of any kind, and where he saw a few, only lasted a brief moment. Still not knowing the location of his captor, he shouted out ahead of him:
“How about a game of chess?”
This brought an awkward silence. It may have been a throwaway question to ask by Clock’s standards, but it seemed that Edgar was considering the suggestion.
“Very well,” agreed Edgar. “How about a wager to add to that as well? Should you win, I will go with you peacefully. Should I win, however, you will die.”
Clock paused in thought for a moment before holstering his pistol. “Fair enough. Hope you don’t mind that we use my chess set.”
He reached into his backpack and pulled out a finely crafted, varnished wooden box which had the tell tale checkered pattern of a full chessboard on both halves. Unassuming at first, he opened it downwards to reveal a mechanism that unfolded a pair of criss-crossed table legs that landed softly on the stone cave floor. Clock, not missing a beat, then pulled out a couple of portable stools from his backpack, which were also unfolded. Sitting, he opened one of the drawers in the side of the box and began placing the pieces.
“You may examine for traps, there are none. If you wish, you may even bring your own seat.”
There was a quiet scrape of wood on stone as Badiah Edgar emerged from the shadows. The tall, dark bearded man was gaunt in appearance. It would certainly make sense for one to use their powers to make themselves appear more appealing. Edgar wouldn’t have been here in this cave since his supposed death, would he? He could have wandered through the towns without clothes and none would be the wiser. Not that he was naked at the moment, for he was wearing a finely made linen shirt and breeches under a huge, furry greatcoat that made his frail form seem even more diminished.
Edgar examined the setup with scrutiny, despite the reassurances. Nevertheless, he kicked away Clock’s offered stool to sit on his own sturdy and seemingly normal chair.
“Since you are a guest in my humble abode, I will let you pick which colour.”
“Well, I’ve already set up, so I may as well have white.” Clock prepared his first move. “Oh, and where are my manners? My name is Cornellius Clock.” He offered out his hand, which Edgar responded to with a look of disdain. With his handshake declined, Clock moved his first piece. Edgar played his turn a moment later, his thin, bony fingers swiftly toying with the pieces.
There was a long silence as the two players traded moves. The focus on the game intensified as the baiting gambits and hard line defensive strategies were employed. Finally Clock started up the conversation again.
“Good spotting, I don’t know too many people that are able to pick up on that feint beforehand.”
“Your ploy at deception was rather transparent. A mere child could see through it.” Edgar retorted.
Clock nodded in agreement before reaching into his jacket’s inner breast pocket. “Much like this one.”
He pulled out a crisp piece of paper and laid it in the open area in the centre of the board. Numbers, a signature and the crest belonging to the Bank of Segura Ruy indicated it to be bank cheque to the sum of 32,850 in silver coin.
Edgar started with a smirk, then let out a raucous laugh that echoed menacingly through the cave. When the cave returned to silence, save for the rhythmic dripping, Edgar deftly scooped up the cheque and examined it.
“Yes, this is definitely one of mine. However did you come across it?”
“Purely by chance, actually. One of your victims paid for some goods I sold to him with it, thinking it to be a simple transferable fund scrip. Townsfolk tend to not worry too much with middle management, and everyone knows each other. He had no idea it was actually a transfer declaration from his account to another that wasn’t his.
“I went to the bank the next day, just to check a few details on the account it was supposed to go to. Turns out, that account was closed the day before, so they kindly returned it to me. Funny that.”
Edgar offered no change in expression as Clock detailed his account of events.
“So here I was, 32,850 silver left owed, and I certainly wouldn’t try to take it from this man. There are principles to uphold.” Clock leaned forward. “That’s why I decided to track you down. And boy have you been busy and very naughty.” He started listing off names of towns.
“Segura Ruy, Ercole, Damiano, even Polerio. Yes, of course they could have very well been any number of other confidence men in the land. Some even, like yourself, employ magic tricks to get the job done. However with every enchantment there is always a unique residue. Faint as it was, it was a breadcrumb I could track with my SpawkEye.” Clock tapped the sides of his goggles as he smiled proudly. It dawned on him half a second later that this was a very, very bad idea, for suddenly his eye wear was a dented mess, caused by an accurately thrown punch. As the shards of brass and crystal fell away from the leather bindings that held it all to his face, they revealed a pair of bright and cheerfully youthful green eyes. Clock looked up at the now towering Edgar, as if he’d only just realised that he’d been knocked flat on his rear.
“You showed your hand too soon, Cornellius Clock. Without your apparatus, you can no longer see through my finely crafted veil.” Edgar casually glanced at the chess game. “Much like your chess strategy, it is a shame that it isn’t as good as your deduction skills as well. I commend you for getting this far, however.” Edgar began to clap slowly.
“I beg to differ.” Clock slowly got up off the floor, reaching awkwardly over before making his final move. “Check and mate. Looks like I win.”
The incredulous look on Edgar’s face was humourous to Clock even as he unholstered Zappy and aimed it squarely at the illusionist.
“So, will you come peacefully?” Clock asked as he stood firm.
“No,” came a whisper by his ear.
Clock had barely enough time to react. His futile swing to bring his aim around resulted in his sidearm knocked clean from his hand. It clattered somewhere near the chairs, too far to make a grab for. Clock’s only option was to respond in kind. With Edgar’s presence unknown, he swung a clenched fist wildly, more for getting distance than an actual hit. He saw Edgar ahead of him and stood defensively. A blow to the side of his face made his head ring. Clock knew that the illusionist was creating false images, but without his goggles it was difficult to discern the fake from the real. A stream of blood trickled from the corner of his mouth, its all too familiar metallic tang adding to his sense of despair.
“Not so tough without your scientific trinkets, are you?” Edgar’s voice boomed and echoed through the cave, his true location unknown to Clock. “Pathetic. I should just finish you where you stand.” There was a clatter and a familiar magical whine.
Clock turned to the location of the distinct and familiar noise. His own sidearm was aimed at him. Even with clear vision, the magician had cast numerous duplicates of himself, all brandishing Clock’s own weapon. Nine times out of ten, he thought, and there were about ten Edgars. Despite being fakes bar one, Clock knew that magic plus another type of magic would produce some unpredictable, and often dangerous results.
Calmly, he looked at the one in the middle with a firm gaze.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
“Farewell,” Edgar said as he pulled the trigger.
A bright flash enveloped the cave. Agonised inhuman noises split the air as a lone body twitched and convulsed on the ground. When Clock brought his arm back down from shielding his eyes, he saw the electrical sparks of the contained lightning magic dancing around Edgar’s prone body. This was the reason Clock always wore thick rubber working gloves whenever handling Zappy. The device became highly charged and would often electrocute anything in contact, user included. Arcs branched up the walls, causing glow grubs to burst into small fiery explosions, no doubt from the volatile phosphorus laden waste.
Edgar sat bolt upright, the electrical arcs dispersing from his body. Stunned, he shook his head and shot a voltaic glare. He brought the weapon up again, his grip still firm from the first time. Clock backed up, hands held in a defensive gesture. Edgar yelled something unintelligible and pulled the trigger.
Nothing happened. The pistol whined, lowering its pitch as it used the last of its energy batteries to spit out a spark or two from the business end. Clock was still retreating slowly, something akin to an expression of panic on his face.
It was at that moment that Edgar noticed the orange glow from behind him, casting a brightening light which illuminated the cave walls. Turning to see the source, it was apparent what was happening. Yet even as the entire mountain shuddered from the chain reaction that ignited the volatile, phosphorus rich, glow grub populace of the Spineridge, it paled in comparison to his fervent hatred of one Cornellius Clock.
Clock made a mad dash to the exit of the cave. Trying to remember where all the stalagmites and holes were, navigating in the lowlight was only made possible by the multitude of explosions tearing up the mountain behind him. And then he saw it, the speck of white light that indicated the outside world. Sprinting forth, he chanced a glance behind him. The billowing fiery rainbow moved like an ungodly wurm beast. Shapeless and amorphous, it consumed all in its path. The shaking had become treacherous now, bringing Clock to a clumsy halt as he tripped over fallen debris, landing flat on his face.
Looking up from the ground, he narrowed his eyes at the widening entrance. Only a little further.
Determined not to be burned and buried, Clock pushed off and sprinted hard. The rumbling earth was beginning to fall away from beneath his feet, but he could not concern himself with it right then. His focus was on the exit.
As the bright sunlight washed over him, he felt a brief sense of relief. He was not out of danger yet however. Skidding to a halt, with barely enough thought to register that he could have plummeted to his doom, Clock dived to his immediate right as a gout of flame was expelled from the mouth of what was almost his tomb.
As the dust settled, Clock turned, peering behind to see the damage. The Northern Spineridge, one of the oldest and tallest natural structures in Ashfen, was now a crumbled mess. The consecutive detonations had cascaded through a good chunk the mountain range. The belated fall of another peak was the exclamation point to the scene of destruction.
“You were supposed to capture Edgar and bring him in, not blow up the Spine!”
Clock stood stiffly at attention inside Wellard’s office. The warm mahogany panels that lined the walls, various portraits of mentors, predecessors and other famous people, and the extensive library of various topics, ranging from ancient technological schematics to occult literature, were all shadowed by the visible wrath that Governor Granton Wellard, Clock’s immediate superior, showed on his bespeckled face. He held in his hand a sheaf of papers, no doubt the report that Clock handed to him a day ago.
“Well sir,” Clock started, absently scratching the side of his face “capture was underway, then things… escalated. Quickly I might add.”
Wellard’s hands steepled as he took Clock’s brief explanation in. His bushy moustache twitched in time with the throbbing vein on his forehead, disturbingly close to his receding hairline like some underground mammal attempting to hide in a nearby bush.
“Your report states that you left Edgar behind as the mountain,” he held up the report, examining it with scrutiny “as you described ‘exploded fantastically’. Fantastically?!”
Clock pondered his description. “Well, it was pretty fantastical, sir. The combination of the high concentrations of phosphorous with the unstable magical energies can produce something destructively surreal.” He grinned sheepishly.
Wellard did not share his sentiments. Setting aside the opinion, he continued to read the report.
“Would it be safe to assume that he is dead, Clock? That detail was pending the cleanup report from Matherov and Karf, which was submitted this morning.”
“I’ve read it sir. I don’t think he’s dead.”
Wellard raised an eyebrow ever so slightly. The throbbing vein had settled somewhat too. “Continue.”
“Confidence artists, no matter what tricks they employ, will always have an escape route for when things don’t go according to plan. Some can be as intricately detailed as the con itself, or as a last minute improvisation. Particularly for someone of his skills. He would not have been very far from the scene though.”
“Matherov and Karf did manage to recover most the stolen silver from those four banks. The only thing missing is the body of Badiah Edgar, which for the most part we can label as destroyed via complete and total thaumic incineration.”
“I still don’t think he’s dead, sir. I think he faked his death,” Clock said grimly.
“Your opinion is duly noted, Clock. We need empirical evidence. As you stated in your report, no one could have survived.”
“I did, sir.”
Wellard glanced up at Clock, his gaze reaching over the frames of his glasses. “Should Edgar show up again, then that will be a new case. As for this one, the stolen silver has been returned, therefore this case is closed.” He emphasised this by slamming the report shut on his desk.
Clock frowned slightly, but he had to let it go for now.
“Is there anything else, sir?”
“No, Clock. You are dismissed.”
Clock turned to head for the door. Just as he reached to the knob, Wellard called out.
“One more thing, Clock. I’ve sent you your new assignment. It should be at your desk. Looks like you’ll be reacquainted with an old client of yours.”
Clock heard a stifled laugh. He knew exactly whom Wellard was talking about.
“Thank you, sir,” he said as he left.
“Well, that went well.” remarked a hollow voice, slightly tinny and artificial.
It was the first time Silaah had spoken since returning back to headquarters. Everyone knew about Silaah, but would often get his name wrong on introduction. ‘See-lah’ he would often say, even pointing to the label on Clock’s backpack. It was him after all, well, his living arrangements anyway, given that Silaah was a djinn. The partnership was a curiously mutual one; Silaah needed a place to stay in this world and Clock needed the exceptionally large pocket dimension Silaah had access to so that he could store his numerous items and equipment. The djinn would often sarcastically remark of his situation akin to being a Infinite Bag of Holding with a personality. Despite his talkative nature, the djinn would rarely speak whilst Clock was on jobs unless it was deemed absolutely necessary. Talking backpacks tended to attract unwanted attention in a lot of places.
“It could have been worse. I think Wellard knows that I’m right though. He’s just handling the bureaucracy. Everything is documented.” Clock started to walk down the well lit, marbled hallway towards the Criminal Thaumaturgy Department. Clock’s means of bread and butter as a CT Investigator.
“So, going to go after him in your offtime?” asked Silaah
Clock thought for a moment then calmly shook his head. “No, he’ll show up when he shows up, and then I’ll be there to catch him.”
Pushing the doors open, he greeted his fellow peers and colleagues.
“Besides, he owes me a new damned chess set.”
So, I’ve started something new this year (amongst a whole bunch of other things) and this is one I’m actually excited over. Some may recognise the main character’s name as a character from a game I was involved in developing, but aside from the last name and a few visual similarities, they are completely different in a number of aspects. I was experimenting with a fantasy vein/police procedural mashup which lead onto this peculiar writing style. This was originally intended for a SpecFicNZ short story competition, which it was submitted to, so I figured it may as well sit in my blog somewhere as I’m working on making this a series of short stories. Hope you enjoyed the read.
And yes, also trying to finish up my other ones too… Sigh…