Chapter 1 – An Exclusive Interview
Anno Domini 2001
“It all began in a Wal-Mart,” said Thomas Wycliffe. He folded his arms over his chest and looked over Lake Michigan’s choppy waters.
“Congressman?” said Eddie Carson, fingering his tape recorder.
They stood on the far end of Chicago’s Navy Pier, the waves lashing at the concrete. The pale blue sky faded to purple as the sun dimmed, outlining the downtown skyscrapers. Couples wandered arm-in-arm past Carson and Wycliffe, along with groups of teenagers heading to the Pier’s Ferris Wheel. Eddie supposed that he and Wycliffe looked like just another pair of corporate drones strategizing over coffee.
He disliked the idea.
He wanted nothing to do with Wycliffe.
“My political career began in a Wal-Mart,” said Wycliffe. He stood a head shorter than Eddie. His lower jaw jutted beneath his upper lip, and small scars pockmarked his face. Narrowed brown eyes watched Eddie from behind thick glasses. He wondered how such an ugly man had gone so far in politics. “It began that day, in that Wal-Mart. Please, Mr. Carson, do you mind if we sit? My back has been troubling me lately.”
“Of course,” said Eddie, gesturing at a table near the railing. They sat, and Wycliffe sighed in relief and took a sip of his coffee. He stared at Eddie for a while, a small smile on his lips.
“Why don’t you work for my campaign, Mr. Carson?” said Wycliffe.
Eddie glared at him. “I’ll tell you. Because,” he ticked off the points on his fingers, “first, your ideas on tax reform are absurd. Second, your foreign policy views are racist, aggressive, and downright silly. Third, your positions on abortion and gay rights are archaic. Fourth, there are your alleged ties to the Russian Mafia. And fifth, Mr. Wycliffe, I find you personally offensive.”
“Ah,” said Wycliffe. “And you’re firmly committed to Senator Fulbright, as I understand.”
“Yes,” said Eddie. “Senator Fulbright will do what is best for the people of Illinois. I’m not so sure about you.”
Wycliffe chuckled. “Yes, yes. We all know about Edward Carson, the bold popular political columnist and reporter. That razor-sharp pen of yours has caused me a lot of damage, you know.”
“Good,” said Eddie.
“Whatever happened to objective journalism?” said Wycliffe, spreading his arms to the sky. “Did honest reporting die with our fathers? William Randolph Hearst no doubt smiles benevolently upon you from his place in hell.”
“I didn’t come here to be insulted, Mr. Wycliffe,” said Eddie. “You said over the phone you wanted to give me an exclusive interview.”
Wycliffe folded his hands. “I did, didn’t I?” He smiled. “I’m a man of my word, Mr. Carson.” Eddie tried not to laugh. “I’ll answer any questions you want…but first, let me give you a bit of background. No doubt it will make a fine story for your paper’s readers.”
Eddie reached into his jacket pocket and clicked on his tape recorder. “Go ahead.”
Anno Domini 1994/Year of the Councils 954
I wanted to be a college history professor.
My career in politics began when I was twenty-three. At the time, I was a graduate student at the University of Constantina in Chicago, working on a program in Greco-Roman history. I still read and write Greek and Latin quite fluently. You know that, Mr. Carson, if you’ve done your research.
At any rate, my goals in life were meager. I desired to complete my doctorate, obtain tenure at some university, perhaps turn out a book every few years, and spend the rest of my days boring my students. I had no real ambition. Just an unfocused desire to obtain a cushy position and coast through it.
Of course, everything changed that November afternoon in my twenty-third year.
I was renting a miserable apartment in a South Side industrial neighborhood. It was a squalid little hellhole, yet I took a certain pride in it. It was, after all, mine. The biggest problem was the rats. Filthy little buggers.
At the time I was working on a paper about Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus. Two rabble-rousing demagogues. You should find that an interesting comparison to my present career.
Anyway, I was typing on a computer I had leased when I heard the rattling in the closet.
I assumed it was the rats. Poison them and trap them as I tried, they still kept finding their way through the baseboards. I picked up the tennis racket I kept for the express purpose of rat-whacking and went to the closet.
I yanked open the closet door, raised my tennis racket with a yell, and found myself face to face with another man.
“What the hell?” I said.
Heavy black robes, the sort medieval monks wore, cloaked the man from head to foot. His face was angular and looked as if it had not seen much sun. His eyes were large and black.
“What the hell are you doing in my closet?” I said. I was furious and more than a little scared.
The robed man looked at me. “Where am I?” He spoke with a slow, measured voice. He sounded like Bela Lugosi in those old Dracula movies.
“My apartment,” I said. Keeping the tennis racket raised, I backed towards the phone on my desk. “My closet.” I lived in the South Side, and so of course kept 911 on the speed dial.
“Your…apartment?” said the man, frowning. “Your…domicile, your abode, I assume?”
“Yeah,” I said. I reached for the phone.
“This information is of no use to me,” said the man. He glanced around the apartment. “I do not recognize this style of architecture. My efforts must have worked better than I had hoped.” He frowned, as if something had just occurred to him. “What world is this?”
“World?” I knew I had a nutcase on my hands now. “World? Oh, yeah, I know who can tell you. Let me just pick up the phone here, call some nice men in blue shirts, and they’ll tell you…”
The man’s face hardened. “You will not contact anyone!”
His voice sounded…it sounded odd. Like ice, like cold knives digging into my head.
The phone’s receiver fell from my hand and bounced off the cradle.
“Listen, buddy,” I said. I was scared now. God only knew what kind of weapons he had hidden in that robe. “I don’t have any money. You can take the computer, if you want. Hell, it’s leased, it’s not even mine…”
“Silence!” said the man, and again his voice chilled me. My jaw snapped shut of its own volition. “I have not fled across the miles and the cosmos to hear the babbling of a witless peasant. You will tell me what I wish to know! Where I am?”
“Chicago,” I said. I considered running for the door.
He frowned. “Chicago. A strange name.” He considered this. “Is Chicago a nation?”
“No,” I told the crazy man. No way I could make it to the front door before he caught me. “It’s a city.”
“A city? Of what nation?”
“The United States of America,” I said. I wondered if I could stun him with the tennis racket.
A strange expression, either horror or amazement, spread across the robed man’s features. “I…I have never heard of such a nation. Quickly, tell me. What is the name of the world?”
“What?” I said.
The man strode out of the closet. For a moment his eyes seemed like bottomless black pits, like there was a black hole inside of his skull. “The name of the world! Now!”
“Earth!” At that point, Mr. Carson, I was so frightened I would have recited the Magna Carta for him, had he asked. “Earth, the world is named Earth!”
The man froze. “That…that is not possible. But…but…” He began to laugh. “Then it has worked. All these years of study and toil, and it has worked. I have found the way!” He laughed again.
“Right,” I said. “Listen, I’m just going to leave now…”
“No, you shall not, peasant” said the man. He drew himself up. He was much taller than me. Of course, Mr. Carson, most people are. “I am the Warlock Marugon, last master of the Black Council. A few months ago, I fled from the masters of the White Council to the Tower of Endless Worlds. In desperation, I dared to navigate the Tower’s maze.” He smiled. “It appears I have succeeded.”
“Warlock?” I said. This guy wasn’t just a nutcase. He was a full-fledged psychopath. “Right, right. Warlock. Well, then…”
Marugon smiled. “You think I am mad, no? You think I have been touched by the gods? Well, my skeptical friend, let me show you something!” He stepped out of my closet, turned, and pointed.
My eyes followed his finger and my mouth fell open in amazement. The tennis racket fell from my hand and hit my toes.
The back wall of my closet had vanished. In its place I saw a great vaulted corridor of polished black stone that stretched into infinity. I saw statues of strange and fantastic creatures, great fluted columns, and an elaborate vaulted ceiling, all lit by an eerie green glow. I had tried some drugs once, in high school. Unlike that hick from Arkansas, I had inhaled, and deeply. Had I inflicted brain damage on myself?
Yes, Mr. Carson, you can put that in your paper if you wish.
“Quite a sight, is it not?” said Marugon. “The Tower of Endless Worlds. I have found my way to one of those Endless Worlds. Those fools from the White Council cannot hope to follow me.” A muscle near his left eye twitched. “Alastarius cannot hope to stop me now.”
“Uh,” I said. My brain had stopped working in shock. My apartment was essentially a large box with a rat problem. And yet this…corridor stretched away into infinity.
How was that possible?
“I shall stay in your world for a time,” said Marugon. “Long enough to convince my foes that I have perished.” He looked at my computer monitor and raised a thin eyebrow. “You possess strange artifacts, peasant. Perhaps I can learn much in my time here.”
“Um, listen,” I said. “I don’t know if you’re with the government or the CIA or whatever, but I don’t want any trouble. Just go back through your tower of infinite planets, and I won’t tell anyone I saw you…”
“Of course you will not.” Marugon reached into his robes. “Like all peasants, I suspected you are easily influenced by the presence of money.” He tossed something at me. “Perhaps we can reach some accommodation, no?”
I managed to catch it, and my eyes got wider. He had thrown a gold coin at me. The markings looked vaguely medieval, and the thing was heavy. It must have weighed at least four or five ounces. I didn’t know what the price of gold was back then, but the coin had to be worth a lot.
I looked at the stack of bills resting next to my computer. Graduate school isn’t cheap, and neither is the cost of living. I didn’t have the slightest idea what was going on. I assumed it was some secret government project. But in my addled state, I figured that if the guy was handing out gold coins…
“Mr. Marugon,” I said. “You can stay here, for a little bit.”
“Excellent,” said Marugon. “You shall act as my guide. Conduct me through your city of Chicago, peasant. I wish to learn more of your world. Will that be any difficulty?”
“No,” I said, still staring at the strange coin.
“To avoid suspicion, you shall refer to me as a relative, visiting from a distant land.” He smiled. “In some sense, it is the truth. Are there any of your world’s Wizards in this city, peasant?”
“Wizards? Uh…no, I don’t think so. I don’t think there are any Wizards or Warlocks in the city.”
“A backwater, I see,” said Marugon. “I shall avoid attention. Excellent.” I suspected he would attract attention wherever he went, but this was Chicago. We have many strange people here, Mr. Carson, as your presence proves.
“And I’m not a peasant,” I said. “I’m a historian.”
“Historian,” said Marugon, frowning. “Loremaster, I assume? Splendid. You can relate to me the history of your world at a later date. What is your name?”
“Thomas Wycliffe,” I said.
“Well, master Wycliffe,” said Marugon. He folded his hands in his robes. “Conduct me through your city.”
“Yeah,” I said. I looked at my computer, then back at the gold coin. My paper on the Gracchi could wait. “This way.”
I led him down the back stairs to the parking lot behind my building. My car, a battered old Yugo, rested in the corner. It was all I could afford at the time. Marugon looked at everything with fascination.
“Is your Chicago a populous city, master Wycliffe?”
“Yeah,” I said, digging for my car keys. “About three million, I think, maybe eight million in the whole metropolitan area.”
“What?” said Marugon. “Eight million?” He scowled at me. “You jest with me, loremaster. That is not wise.”
“I’m serious!” I said. I didn’t want to set him off. “Eight million people. I’ll show you.”
“That is not possible,” said Marugon. “There are nations smaller than Chicago on my world. How is it possible to feed such a multitude? Eight million?”
“Well…they go to the grocery store, I guess.” I opened the passenger door and held it out for him.
He stared at me. “What is this?”
“My car,” I said.
“Car,” he said. He craned his neck and looked at the seats. “A…carriage of some sort, I assume?”
“Yes,” I said. “Please get in. I can show you the city faster with this.”
He looked around. “Where are the horses? I see only other carriages. Or do you have slaves to pull this…car?”
“No, no,” I said, laughing. “It pulls itself.”
“It is a magical device, then?” said Marugon.
“No,” I said. “It has an internal combustion engine. I burns fuel, and the gases spin the wheels and make the car go.” A crappy description of an engine, I suppose, but it seemed to mollify him. Either he was crazy, or he was putting on a very good act. “It’s science, not magic.”
“Amazing,” said Marugon. “The scholars of my world could never build such a device. Science, you say? Astonishing. Your Chicago must possess master craftsmen to build such a device. And you must be wealthier than I had assumed to purchase such a machine.”
“Not really,” I said. I laughed. “Wait till you see a Jaguar or a Mercedes.”
We got in and I started the car. Marugon almost jumped out of his seat when the engine started.
“Such high buildings,” said Marugon, as we drove past a five-story apartment building. “The skill of your engineers is indeed remarkable.” He gaped out the window. “And so many other vehicles, these cars! Such mighty magic you men of Chicago wield.”
“No magic, Mr. Marugon,” I insisted as I pulled up to a stoplight. He couldn’t really have magic. But I remembered the strange iciness in his voice when he commanded me to drop the phone. “No magic. These are all built in factories, with machines and technology and science.”
“No magic?” he said, stupefied. “But were it not for magic, on my world, we could not survive. You men of Chicago have built all these things with machines, and science, and technology?”
“Astonishing,” Marugon whispered, and then he laughed. “I am making a fool of myself, like a peasant who has come to the great city for the first time, wandering about gaping at the cathedrals and the Wizards’ towers.”
I laughed. Scared as I was, some of his utter amazement was contagious. A sudden idea took me. “Wait till you see the Loop, Mr. Marugon.” I got onto the freeway for downtown. Soon the skyscrapers came into view, the Sears Tower, the John Hancock building, and all the others.
Marugon leaned forward. “Is Chicago built around mountains? I have never seen such strangely shaped peaks.”
I grinned. “Nope. Those are buildings.” The Sears Tower loomed closer. We drove over the Chicago River and past the Tribune building, where you no doubt were already starting your career in yellow journalism, Mr. Carson.
“Buildings?” breathed Marugon. “Men built these towers?” His black eyes were wide with awe. “My gods. My gods. Stop this vehicle.”
I looked over my shoulder. “There’s no place to park.”
He pointed at the sidewalk. “Stop on the path of gray stone.”
“Stop!” he snarled. “I shall ensure we are not troubled by the city guard.”
His eyes were like black pits again. I shuddered, pulled over the curb, and parked on the sidewalk. Marugon muttered something under his breath, his fingers tracing circles in the air. I shut off the engine, got out of the car, and waited for the police to come.
Dozens of pedestrians passed. No one pointed. No one said anything. No one even noticed. A pair of cops walked past. I waited for the ticket. They did not spare me a second glance. They walked around my Yugo without noticing it. I watched them go.
I felt the hair on my arms stand up.
How the hell had Marugon stopped the cops from giving me a ticket?
Marugon stood on the sidewalk, his head craned back as far it would go. He spun in small circles, staring at the looming skyscrapers.
“Pretty cool, eh?” I said.
“Astonishing,” he said. He looked at me. His face had gone paler. “Such a magnificent city. Such mighty buildings.” He gestured at the street, busy with midday traffic. “So may of these cars. I had always thought true might lay in the black magic. But I was wrong. True power lies in your technology, Thomas Wycliffe of Chicago. Power such as my slain fellows on the Black Council could never imagine, power such as the fools on the White could not envision.” He shook his head. “Command your car to convey me to a marketplace. I am hungry, and require food.”
“Um,” I said. I had nine dollars in my wallet. It was going to have to be McDonald’s or Wal-Mart. I hoped Marugon did not have a fussy palate. “Yeah, sure. Back in the car, Mr. Marugon.”
We climbed inside. I started the engine, pulled off the sidewalk, and got back into the flow of traffic. No one noticed my irregular parking.
I decided to drive to a Wal-Mart superstore across the city since it was in my price range. Marugon peppered me with questions the entire way, questions about cars, roads, engineering, technology, government, money, and history. I answered as best I could. His questions scared me. What if he was for real? Silly idea, of course. He probably just had amnesia or something.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about the way the cops had ignored my Yugo sprawled across the sidewalk.
We got to the Wal-Mart half an hour later. The parking lot was crammed with cars, many of them in worse shape then mine. Marugon and I climbed out. People gave him and his black robes strange glances, but he seemed not to care.
“Is this an indoor marketplace of some sort?” said Marugon.
“Uh…yeah, you could say that,” I said.
Marugon shook his head, his eyes roving over the building’s length. “In my world there are villages smaller than this market. Let us proceed.”
He stopped and looked with suspicion at the automatic doors. The old lady standing by the carts shuffled toward him, a roll of smiley-face stickers in her hand.
“Welcome to Wal-Mart…”
“Speak to me not, peasant!” said Marugon, sweeping past her. I offered an apologetic shrug to her and followed him.
Marugon wandered in the direction of the groceries. He froze, his hands twitching, his eyes staring. He looked over the rows and rows of food-laden shelves.
“Master Wycliffe,” he whispered. “There is so much food here. Is…this a national market, perhaps, where the farmers of your nation come to offer their wares?”
“Uh…no,” I said. “It’s just a Wal-Mart.”
“So much food,” he said. “With such bounty, I could feed an army of thousands for months! Surely this must be a bigger market?”
“No,” I said. “There are thousands like it, all over the country.”
“Thousands?” said Marugon, his face taut. “Thousands. In my world, peasant mothers sometimes leave their children to starve, for lack of food.” He shook his head. “It is…”
A man in a leather jacket ran through the automatic doors, his face tight with fear. He carried a pistol in his right fist.
I made a strangled sound.
Six steps behind him came two police officers with drawn guns. The greeter at the door shrieked.
Marugon looked at the man. “Ah. A common thug, I see. Such vermin are endemic.” He whispered something and fluttered his fingers.
The thug stumbled and hit the floor. The police officers leveled their guns at him. “Freeze!”
The thug raised his gun. Both cops started shooting, blood splashing across the white linoleum. A half-dozen people screamed. The thug’s gun flew from his limp hand and spun across the floor.
Marugon watched with fascination.
“That wand,” he said. “That black wand. What is it?”
“A gun,” I said. I could not take my eyes from the dead man. Smoke still rose from the cops’ pistols.
“A gun,” said Marugon. “Tell me, is such a thing an item of technology?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“All right, everyone!” yelled one of the cops, holstering his gun. “This place is sealed off. We’re going to need depositions. No one’s leaving.”
“Come,” said Marugon. “Let us be on our way.”
“But…but the cop said…uh, what about your food?”
“Do not be absurd,” said Marugon. “I have more important matters to ponder than hunger.” He muttered a word and walked for the doors, and I followed him. He walked between the two police officers, who ignored him. I screwed up my courage and ran after him.
And once again the police ignored me.
I started to shiver a little.
“Convey me back to your domicile, peasant,” said Marugon once we had reached my car. “We have business to discuss.”
I climbed and in started the engine, still numb with fear. “Business?”
“Yes, business,” said Marugon. I pulled out into the street. “Tell me, these…guns, the weapons the city guardsmen wielded. Are they as common as cars, as the sky-scraping buildings?”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “Hell, you could have bought a dozen shotguns at Wal-Mart, if you’d wanted.”
Marugon blinked. “You mean the lords of your world permit the sale of mighty weapons? They permit common peasants to own these guns?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Incredible. I have never seen such a potent weapon,” said Marugon. “Such power, such deadliness.”
“What are you saying?” I said.
“Power is relative,” said Marugon. “Here, guns are deadly, but not powerful. Everyone has them, do they not? Even common ruffians. Their numbers negate their power. Similarly, magic is not so powerful in my world. It is potent, yes, but too many people know how to use it. Too many people know how to stop me.” He leaned forward and grinned. “Give me one gun, and I shall kill all my enemies. Neither magic nor a sword can stop a gun. Give me twenty guns, and I shall conquer a small country. Give me a hundred guns, and I shall rule an empire. And give me five thousand guns, and I shall conquer my world.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
Marugon laughed. “I shall provide you with funds, you shall acquire guns for me, and I shall take them back to my world.”
“Why should I do this? For gold?” I said. I was thoroughly confused.
“No,” he said. His dark eyes glimmered like collapsed stars. “Hirelings are unreliable. You possess a cunning brain, Wycliffe of Chicago. I had planned to kill you once your usefulness ended, but instead you showed me the bounty of your world. I shall make you my partner. I shall give you power.” He laughed. “Together, we shall conquer. I shall conquer my world, and you shall rule yours.”
“Power?” I said. “How can you do that?”
Marugon grinned. “I shall make you my apprentice. I will teach you magic.”
“Right,” I said. “Yeah. Sure.”
Anno Domini 2001
Eddie clicked off his tape recorder. “That’s enough.”
The sun had set during their interview, and the cool breeze from Lake Michigan tugged at his clothes.
Wycliffe raised his eyebrows. “You haven’t even begun the interview.”
Eddie stood. “I’ve heard enough. I’d heard you treated reporters with contempt, but this is beyond the pale. Magic? Warlocks? What, are you going pull a rabbit out of your hat next? Good day, Mr. Wycliffe. I look forward to your defeat in the election.”
Eddie stalked away.
Wycliffe sighed. “Mr. Carson.”
Eddie spun. “What?”
His voice was cold, much colder than a politician’s genial tones.
He blinked in surprise. Why had he done that? He had fully intended to keep walking.
Yet here he sat.
“Don’t do that,” said Wycliffe.
“What?” said Eddie. He started to rise.
Again his voice was cold, the cold of an icy wind. Or perhaps a dying star.
Eddie raised his hand and slapped himself across the face. “What the hell?”
“Sit. And don’t stand again until I’m finished with you.” Wycliffe’s eyes were hidden in pools of shadow beneath his glasses. “You’ve been quite a problem to me, Mr. Carson. I need to win a Senate seat, if I’m to take the presidency. I’d hoped to convince you to see reason.” Wycliffe smiled. “But I’m going to turn a problem into an asset.”
“What is this?” said Eddie. He tried to stand. His legs would not move. “What did you slip in my drink, you bastard?”
“Don’t be absurd,” said Wycliffe. “Do you own a gun?”
“Yes, a revolver,” said Eddie. He blanched. He hadn’t meant to answer.
Wycliffe sneered. “This is what you’re going to do, Mr. Carson. You’re going to help me win this election. You will drive to your apartment. You will fabricate a letter, a suicide note, describing your longstanding homosexual relationship with Senator Fulbright. You will express your guilt and anguish over your perversion.” His voice grew colder and colder, and every word hammered in Eddie’s brain like thunder. “You will also describe the occasional acts of drug-fueled mayhem you and the good senator enjoyed.”
“No!” said Eddie. “This is nonsense! I won’t write lies!”
“You will,” said Wycliffe. His eyes seemed like pits into the void. “Leave the letter in plain sight in your apartment. Then drive to Senator Fulbright’s campaign headquarters. You will take your gun and shoot the first five people you see.” Wycliffe grinned. “Except for Senator Fulbright, of course. We wouldn’t want him to miss this, would we? Once you have shot five people, you will place the gun to your temple and use the last bullet on yourself. Tell no one of this.”
“No!” said Eddie. “I won’t do any such thing.”
“You will,” said Wycliffe. He sighed. “One of Marugon’s messengers came through the Tower today, carrying a letter. His armies captured the king of Narramore and slaughtered all his Wizards. The poor old king was hiding in the smoking rubble of his last stronghold. Marugon had a public execution, I understand. It lasted for hours. The rabble loved it. Two pieces of good news in one day. My friend and ally has triumphed, and you will win my election for me.” He grinned. “Marugon will be an emperor. In a few weeks I’ll be a Senator, and in another decade, I’ll be President of the United States.”
“No,” breathed Eddie.
Wycliffe fluttered his fingers. “Go.”
Eddie ran for the parking lot. Wycliffe was insane. Eddie decided to call the police. Instead he ran past the pay phone, got into his car, and drove off for his apartment. Eddie cursed. Why had he not called the police? He decided to drive to the nearest police station and tell them everything.
Some time later, he pulled into his apartment complex’s parking lot.
He ran up the stairs. He decided to call the state capitol in Springfield and warn them of the threat on Senator Fulbright’s life.
He unlocked the door, stepped into the living room, and reached for his phone.
Instead, he sat down at his desk and began to write the suicide note. His hands flew over the paper. He couldn’t make them stop writing.
Eddie began to cry.