Read Hard Magic Online

Authors: Larry Correia

Tags: #Fantasy

Hard Magic (2 page)

“Mr. Harkeness is through here, sir.” The servant paused at the fine wood and thick glass door leading to the balcony. He turned the knob and opened it. “He prefers the fresh air. Will there be anything else?”

Cornelius did not bother to respond as he stepped onto the balcony. His time was valuable, more valuable than any man in the world, more valuable than emperors, kings, tsars, kaisers, and especially that imbecile, Herbert Hoover, and the very idea that he was reduced to having to take time from his busy schedule to meet someone on their terms rather than his own was blatantly offensive.

To further the sleight, Harkeness was leaning on the balcony, overlooking the city, placing his back toward the richest man in the world, as if Manhattan were somehow more important than Cornelius Gould Stuyvesant himself. The balcony lights had been extinguished, so as not to hamper the view. The city was illuminated forty stories below by electric lights and flashing marquees. Thousands of automobiles filled the streets, bustling even at this hour, and overhead a passing dirigible train floated in the amber spotlights like a herd of sea cows. Cornelius snorted in greeting.

“Mr. Stuyvesant.” The Pale Horse didn’t bother to turn around. His voice was neutral, flat. “I was just admiring your marvelous city. Have a seat.”

Cornelius felt a single drop of sweat roll down his neck. It was shameful, but he found that he was actually frightened. He glanced at the pair of chairs, fine, stuffed leather things that in any other scenario would be inviting to rest his ponderous bulk, but at that moment, all he could imagine were the horrible diseases crawling on the cushions.

“I said have a seat,” Harkeness repeated, still not turning around. His accent was indeterminate, his pronunciation awkward. “You are a guest of mine. I would not harm a guest. I am a civilized man, Mr. Stuyvesant.”

Cornelius sat, vowing that he would throw this suit into the fireplace as soon as he got home, then he would have his personal Healer expend a month’s worth of Power checking his health. He would probably burn the Cadillac car he had traveled in, maybe the driver too, just to be on the safe side.

Harkeness left the railing and took the other seat. He did not offer his hand. He was older than Cornelius had expected, tall and thin, face lined with creases, and blue eyes that sparked with an unnerving energy. His hair was receding, and what remained was artificially blackened. His tailored suit was as fine as could be had, and his tie was made of silk as red as fresh blood. He smiled, and his teeth were slightly yellow in the dim city light. “Smoke?”

Cornelius looked down at the wooden humidor on the table between them. The cigars were sorely tempting, but the very thought of touching his lips with an item tainted by Harkeness’s evil made his stomach roil. “No, thank you.”

Harkeness nodded in understanding as he puffed on his own Cuban. “Straight to the chase then. I was informed that you were looking for me.”

“Nobody can ever know we spoke,” Cornelius insisted. He was the founder and owner of United Blimp & Freight, the primary shareholder in Federal Steel, and the man that bankrolled the development of the Peace Ray. He’d sired children who had gone on to be ambassadors to powerful nations, senators, congressmen, and even a governor. A Stuyvesant could not be seen consorting with such sordid types.

“I assure you, I am a man of discretion.” Harkeness exhaled a pungent tobacco cloud, not seeming to notice his guest’s discomfort.

Cornelius cringed, trying not to inhale smoke that had actually been inside the very lungs of such a pestilent creature. “You are a hard man to find, Mr. Harkeness,” the billionaire said, aware that he had to tread carefully. Even with eight decades of mankind dealing with the presence of Powers, of actual magic, to the point that they were just an accepted part of life in most of the world, the Pale Horse was such a rarity that most still considered it to be a myth, crude antimagic propaganda created to sow fear and distrust in the hearts of the masses. “Men of your . . . skills . . . are especially rare.”

“Yes . . . What is it you were told I am?” Harkeness asked rhetorically, examining the ash on the end of his cigar.

Cornelius hesitated, not sure if he should answer, but growing tired off the awkward silence, he finally spoke. “I was told you are a Pale Horse.”

Harkeness laughed hard, slapping his knee. “I like that. So . . . biblical! So much nicer than plague bearer, or grim reaper, or angel of death. That title has gravitas. Pale Horse! You, sir, have made my day. Perhaps I shall add that to my business cards.” His pronunciation was stilted, with pauses between random words. Cornelius found it almost hypnotic, and realized he was nervously smiling along with the other man’s mirth. Then Harkeness abruptly quit laughing and his voice turned deadly serious. “So, who must die?”

“You presume much,” Cornelius said defensively.

“If you just wanted to merely curse someone and make their hair fall out, or to give them boils, fits, or incontinence, there are far easier Actives to reach than I.” Harkeness’s smile was unnerving. “People come to me when they desire something . . . epic.”

The industrialist swallowed and placed his briefcase on the table. He unlocked it, then turned it so that Harkeness could see inside. It was filled with neatly stacked and meticulously counted bank notes and a single newspaper clipping. Cornelius quickly snatched his hand away before the Pale Horse could touch the contents, as if his Power might somehow be transmitted through the leather.

The Pale Horse did not seem to notice the money. He gently removed the yellowed clipping, took a pair of spectacles from his breast pocket, set them atop his hawklike nose and began reading. After a moment he removed the glasses and returned them and the clipping to his pocket. “An important man. Very well . . . What will it be? Bone rot? Consumption? Cancers of the brain or bowel? Syphilis? Leprosy? I can do anything from a minor vapor to turn his joints to sand while his skin boils off in a cancerous sludge. I am an encyclopedia of affliction, sir.”

Cornelius bobbed his head in time with the litany of diseases. “All of them.”

“I see . . .” Harkeness seemed to approve. “Very well, but first, I must know . . .”

“Yes,” Cornelius answered hesitantly. The hairs on the back of his neck were standing up.

“Why? A man such as you has no shortage of killers to choose from. Why not a knife in the back? A bullet in the head? You yourself are a Mover, why not just invite him to a balcony such as this and shove him off? It would even look like a suicide, which would be particularly scandalous in the papers.”

“How—” Cornelius sputtered. His Power was a secret. “Me? A Magical? Who told you such slanderous lies?”

Harkeness shrugged. “I have a trained eye, Mr. Stuyvesant. Now answer my question. Why do you need me to curse this man?”

Cornelius felt his face flush with anger. No matter how dangerous Harkeness was, Cornelius Gould Stuyvesant was not about to have his motives questioned by a mere hireling. He pushed himself away from the table and rose, bellowing, “Why you? I do not want him dead. That is far too good a fate for one such as he! I want him to suffer first. I want him to know he’s dying and I want him to pray to his ineffectual God to save him as his body rots and stinks and melts to the blackest filth. I want it to hurt and I want it to be embarrassing. I want his lungs to fill with pus. I want his balls to fall off and I want him to piss fire! I want his loved ones to look away in disgust, and I want it to take a very, very
long
time.”

Harkeness nodded, his face now an emotionless mask. “I can do this thing for you, but first, I must ask, what terrible thing did this man do to deserve such a fate?”

The billionaire paused, pudgy hands curled into fists. He lowered his voice before continuing. He had planned this revenge for years. It was only the purity of the hate for his enemy that drove him to this place. “He took something . . .
someone
. . . from me. Leave it at that.” Cornelius tried to calm himself. He was not a man given to such unseemly outbursts. “Will that do?”

“It is enough.”

Cornelius realized he was standing, but it did make him feel more in control, more in his element. He gestured at the open briefcase. “I was given your name by an associate. I believe that this is the same amount that he paid for your services.” Rockefeller had warned Cornelius about how expensive the Pale Horse would be, but it would be so very worth the money. “Take it.”

The other man shook his head. “No. I don’t think so.”

“What!” Cornelius objected. Was he going to try and shake him down for more money than Rockefeller? The
nerve
. “How dare you!”

Harkeness leaned back in his chair, puffing on the cigar. He took it away from his mouth and smiled without any joy. “I don’t want your money, Mr. Stuyvesant. I want something
else
.”

Cornelius trembled. Of course, he’d heard the odder stories about the Pale Horses, the rarest of the Actives, but he had paid them no heed. He was a man of science, not superstition. Sure, he had magic himself, nowadays one in a hundred Americans had some small measure, but it didn’t mean he understood how it actually worked. One in a thousand had access to greater Power, being actual Actives, but men like Harkeness were something different, something rare and strange, themselves oddities in an odd bunch. Hesitantly he spoke. “Do . . . do you want . . . my
soul
?”

This time Harkeness really did laugh, almost choking on his cigar. “Now that’s funny! Do I look like a spiritualist? I’m certainly not the devil, Mr. Stuyvesant. I do not even know if I believe in such preposterous things. What would I even do with your soul if I had it?”

That was a relief, even if Cornelius wasn’t particularly sure that he had a soul, he didn’t want to deed it over to a man like Harkeness. “I don’t know,” Cornelius shrugged. “I just thought . . .”

Harkeness was still chuckling. “No, nothing so mysterious. All I want is a
favor
.”

That caused Cornelius to pause. “A favor?”

Harkeness was done laughing. “Yes, a favor. Not today. But someday in the future I will call and ask for a favor. You will remember this service performed, and you will grant me that favor without hesitation or question. Is that understood?”

“What manner of favor?”

The Pale Horse shrugged. “I do not yet know this thing. But I do know that if you fail to honor our bargain at that particular time, I will be greatly displeased.”

He was not, by nature, a man who intimidated easily, but Cornelius Gould Stuyvesant was truly unnerved. The threat went unsaid, but who would want to cross such a man? The industrialist almost walked out on the absurd and frightening proposal, but he had been planning his revenge for far too long to turn back now. If the favor was too large, Cornelius knew he always had other options. Harkeness was deadly, but he wasn’t immortal. It would not be the first time he had used murder to get out of an inequitable contract.

“Very well,” Cornelius said. “You have a deal. When will he get sick?”

Harkeness closed his eyes for a few seconds, as if pondering a difficult question. “It is already done,” the Pale Horse said, opening his eyes. “Isaiah will see you out.”

***

Isaiah joined his employer on the balcony a few minutes later. Harkeness had gone back to admiring the view. “Could you Read him?”

“He’s very intelligent. I had to be gentle or he would’ve known. He’s got a bad tendency to shout his thoughts when he gets riled up.” The servant leaned against the concrete wall and folded his arms. “He even thought I might be a Torch. Can you believe that?”

Harkeness chuckled, knowing that Isaiah was far more dangerous than some mere human flame hurler. “Was he truthful?”

“Mostly. He absolutely despises this man.”

“For what he did to him? Wouldn’t you?”

Isaiah sounded disgusted. “Stuyvesant is utterly ruthless.”

So am I,
Harkeness thought, knowing full well that Isaiah would pick that up as clearly as a high-strength radio broadcast. “You don’t get to such lofty positions without being dangerous. I’ll have to curse him quickly. Arranging a meeting should be easy enough. Stuyvesant will be expecting immediate results now.”

Isaiah left the wall and took one of the cigars from the table. “I liked your little show, with closing the eyes and just wishing for somebody to die and all that. That’s good theater.”

Of course, even he had his limits. He would actually have to touch the victim, and it took constant Power thereafter to keep up the onslaught against the ministrations of Menders, which he already knew this man would have. This would be an extremely draining assignment. “Whatever keeps Stuyvesant nervous,” Harkeness shrugged. “I do like the new term though. It suits me.”

Isaiah quoted from memory as he clipped the end from the Cuban. “And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts, and I looked and beheld a pale horse, and the name that sat upon him was death . . .”

“And hell followed with him,” Harkeness finished, smiling. “Appropriate . . .”

“If the favor you ask of him is too difficult, he’ll have you killed.”

Harkeness had suspected as much. “He could try. Wouldn’t be the first.”

“The man’s got a phobia about sickness. The Spanish flu near did him when it came through, been worrying him ever since.” Isaiah said as he lit the cigar. “He’s scared of you.”

“Good,” the Pale Horse muttered, watching the people moving below, scuttling about like ants, ignorant little creatures, unaware of the truth of the world in which they lived. The Chairman was about to change the world, whether any of the ants liked it or not, and that meant war. Many ants would be stepped on, but that was just too bad. It was unfortunate to be born an ant. “He should be . . .”

 

 

Billings, Montana

 

Every day was the same.
Every prisoner in the Special Prisoners’ Wing of the Rockville State Penitentiary had the exact same schedule. You slept. You worked. You got put back in your cage. You slept. You worked. You got put back in your cage. Repeat until time served.

Other books

Hylozoic by Rudy Rucker
Hannah Howell by A Taste of Fire
The Unthinkable by Monica McCarty
Killer Blonde by Laura Levine
Laced with Poison by Meg London
The Case of the Horrified Heirs by Erle Stanley Gardner
Death at Bishop's Keep by Robin Paige
Murder for the Bride by John D. MacDonald
The Elusive Bride by Stephanie Laurens


readsbookonline.com Copyright 2016 - 2020