Author’s Note: The following excerpt is from an in progress complete rewrite of a novel I wrote two years ago. The core story, characters, and themes remain the same, but the presentation, narration, and voice have been upgraded/modified.
“What is a phantom in the new order?”—Irene Hargrave, Demystifying the Mystic: A Proposal For Unified Mana (Ard) Theory
In that eternal moment, the whole city burned against his grey helmet’s reflected visor. The flashing eyes connected to the internet boards, the faker bloggers singing online about loser amateurs like him, the flash of an old Milanston camera to the right, Erica capturing his life through her dark lens, Cecil had lived enough as a faker. There was nothing left. He sped past that asshole Cutter, Leland Durant, who screamed about him cheating, sweat panting, face constricting like he had to take the biggest shit of his unimpressive life.
Hundreds of black and gold phantoms, mana hazing- formed from the crowds’ signatures. Years of training in Sumser, under his mother’s watchful guidance—holes in his mind. The world moved through a blackwater soup, all the world processed too fast for him.
Rather, everyone else was too slow.
Marc was waiting for him, prize money in hand, out of pair black slack and suspenders from a Fifth century Dirkian department store, Matriarch, the guy really need to lose that nine-to five look he had going. Still, he was the best damn organizer in the southern board, especially in Prade’s biking underground.
Cecil licked his lips, another victory, the last one, came. He beat Leland and the others in a gold haze, the world returning to the blare and singing screeches of low circuit singers and high top queens and kings like Molly Winters on the holos buzzing around the city and in this back alley no nothing faker race.
In the throng of bodies, he saw em all. Old Ben Anais, the former king of the underground in his dad’s day, with his lady friend. She had dark hair, blue eyes that clashed or meshed with his, and a face that could cut his helmet to pieces. Ben still lived for the underground. He gave a nod to Cecil, work order coming up next week, and something Erica mentioned to him.
Race was over, everyone could go home. They screamed his name, calling to the second best racer in the underground.
“Light.” Marc lit hit em up. Nicotine, burning his lungs, kept him fresh and ready. Erica, fox-faced and with that ancestors damn camera, got her fill for the night. She’d call it insurance, he’d call it another. Two-thousand marcs, a good cut. Cecil gave him his usual. Too much Marc said, why are you clean?
A screech rang out from above. The whole crowd went silent. Pop. Pop. Pop. He grafted a field around the drag, no one the wiser. Erica’s hair was floating upwards, the mana particles floating in all zigzags. That’s not possible, that cry was something that shouldn’t be in the world. Cecil clutched his chest, he couldn’t remember it. The holes in his mind robbed him of it back then.
Back then, what the fuck did he lose?
In the frozen crowd, his living god, the Black Rider, the king of the underground, remained trapped in the moment. Uncle Alex’s Union Man song blared in his helmet’s feed. In the middle of the golden hazed main drag of Illusion, she emerged from the nothing of static and Ansemn providing new casters to kill your old enemies.
He removed his helmet and she held out her hand. Sofie opened her mouth and the world came crashing down, a great fire consuming him, her, and the whole block. Then there was nothing, of course. It was just a trick of the mind. He shouldn’t be cutting back on the pills, Doctor Dipshit’s orders.
“I got some great photos.” Erica said, jumping on the back of his bike. Marc asked and Cecil laughed, that was rich coming from him. Erica didn’t laugh, but she did sport that foxish grin like she knew more than everyone in the world. Show your real self? Who the fuck talks like that in this day and age? It didn’t matter, he’d hear it from her when they got back to their shared complex. Cecil wasn’t a mage anymore, he was an amateur idiot who got sloppy.
He stuffed back Ben’s cut to mark, the King deserved his due. The Black Rider wasn’t there, the bastard wouldn’t just come out for an amateur like him. Marc gave a wave, going to size up and cash out the rest of the roadmarks. The boards were already bitching about his usual stellar performance.
Racing just didn’t have the thrill it did two years ago. Erica poked his side, get a move on, and he shook his head. “Right, I know. Let’s develop those photos, Foxface.” He was at her mercy for another night of ribbing, prodding, and whole that fucking photo—why hadn’t he covered himself back then with the towel? He sighed, a part of him secretly loved her nonsensical ways. When Erica came into his life, it was like—
“Show me the Runner’s world,” She whispered, asking him that ridiculous request just like that early Junas night. All alone and she came into his life. The crowds hollered his name, demanding another race. No more time for fakers. Only the king could give him the closure he needed. Ride, Umbar son. He had morning runs and Miriam would chew his ass out after that fuck up last week. He gripped the clutch, hit the sweet spot, pulled the throttle, and darted through the crowds. Erica grabbed him suddenly, whispering her next scheme, and they sped a hard eighty in under five seconds on his Lancer. Dad’s work, but Matriarch damn, did she ride.
For a moment, in a dimly lit alley, a black and gold figure illuminated. She burned as bright as the lights that shined every night in Prade. Her face cracked into a twisted grin, he blinked, and she was like all the other rumors and horseshit urban legends in the capitol of the fashion and music scene.
“Cecil,” Erica said.
Magic was dead. And he buried his grandmother’s life work into another frivolous race. It was a disgrace to her memory. To—
It didn’t matter. None of it mattered anymore.
Another night of staring at screen, another night of Erica working on her next Watercolor 105 project. He couldn’t remember the goddamn name of the professor half the time. His Nightstalker to a blade to the head, the same hacker who had harassed him the past few months blared the message on his thin holo. Wonderful, next thing you know he’ll be shitting up bacon bits like the Exodus trailblazers back when the Conferderacy got its start down south.
Erica worked on her newest piece, some abstract thing he didn’t pay much attention. Easel, dirty water, inks, portraits of Molly Winters, the Mardin Sisters, even the old Fateless, Christopher Bronson, adorned her relatively sparse room. The thin wall between the was something they agreed to. Her terms, not his. She smiled, holding it up. Her dark prize, and his biggest regret.
“I’ll find you, I’ll find you, It’s the same nonsense.” He shut Witch Lord off. He’d have to talk to Graham about it. Maybe that asshole had a better idea. What did he do to deserve his nights off shifts and races, and Erica’s camera prank. He clicked through his history links.
Hometown history. The Sumser defense and she chimed in, “The Sumser Defense? You read up on that every week. You can find that in any history book.” She rolled her eyes, descreasing the opacity of their shared wall. Not now, Erica, I just got my ass kicked by ten-year-old I bet. As if she could read his mind, she beamed, seizing the moment. “Do you want to see the real self? Yours and this city?”
Cecil gave her the saddest look, like she would never be able to use mana again. He shook his head, leaned against his swivel chair, eyeing her. “I don’t care about the past.” Which was a load of shit. Where was his past? Buried somewhere back in Sumser and the holes in his head. And what happened early tonight? Sofie, the Rider, all that weird cham-cham trip? He grabbed his pills, jammed them down his throat, and his condition reset. Erica bit on her lip, watching him take his dose. She said nothing, but she recognized it.
Erica showed him his picture of his happy time, and held her figners up like a camera pin. He grumbled, Matriarch damn she got him good. She wiped the dust from her eyes, slapping her knee. “Every time.”
“With your face you could charm the Matriarch and swindle the Chosen, Foxface.” He played along, indulging their routine. But he kept pretty stoneface, he couldn’t have her thinking he actually wanted her strange company.
“I’ll keep it in mind. And no, I won’t be reading the article on the Watcher’s so called shrine. I like observing your world, not some dead Trinity man’s grave.” She raised the opacity, their walls raising again.
“Watercolor?” He asked. He imagined her laying in bed, that loose sheer she always wore. He didn’t look, that wasn’t true at all. She did it to piss him off. But he did deserve it for that one stunt back when he first showed her his races. He smiled, shut off Witch Lord, and flopped into his bed.
“I’ve got the list. Make sure you remember this time.” She sighed, her sheets shuffling. She had bacon breath still from their Beef Queen bag left in her room. He lowered the lights, turning down the virtual display. He got a good deal from the landlord, Dad’s work but Mom knew the guy from years back with Stella Laine. That was a woman he did not want to ever meet. Uncle Al, stop sending my tape to her every month.
“Night, Cecil.” And it was just him. Sofie burned in his memories, Erica flickering against hers. He recalled it as he drifted to sleep, the face of a Distorted he couldn’t remember. Erica’s eternal phrase always played out in his dreams, night after night since they met.
Who was the real you? It gnawed him every day since—damnit, he couldn’t remember. It hadn’t fucking come back. Damnit.
Miriam of course chewed his ass out. Docked him for muddy boots and an unkempt hat. He waited in traffic, yawing out last’s night race. Get this package and make it fast, Miriam told him. You don’t mess with Ironsides ever, she’d trained dozens of top Runners across the Union and his father put in a good word for him. Miriam didn’t much care for the Umbar, but she was a Karstel transplant by way of the Shattered Lands. No, so was his father. He glanced up, running through horns and assholes too slow to get through the main drag.
The Great Temple of Prade loomed in the distance as he weaved in and out of the morning traffic. Holo billboards and signs for the evening venues were off. He zipped passed the Museum of Science and History. Old clock tower’s face was still a mess from that stomr last year, bummer, it was a great piece of Pradian history. A holo shimmered across the top of its entrance. The newest exhibit showed a glaring Distorted and photos from the Shattered Lands disaster sixty-three years ago. “It’s been that long?” He gripped his chest, the pills were losing their effect.
He finally crossed the main drag, parked his Lancer on an adjacent sidewalk, and his future he left behind walked in front of him as he headed through her doors. Sanctuary College, the top music school in the entire city, it beat out all the others, and his uncle was likely the lover of its founder. Thirty years of cranking out top hits, the kings and queens of the high circuit, and he told his uncle to go to take a hike. Singing wasn’t a career, it was a hobby to whistle to when working on his engine back in Sumser. It was either that or become like the Strackman and go plug away on a computer for five years.
He passed the front door woman, she was reading a digmag and pointed to the elevator. No love for a Runner? That wasn’t uncommon.
“Cecil, what are you doing here?” His uncle, Doctor Yorin Hargrave, came craning up. He started ranting about appointments, needing to him soon. Cecil couldn’t stand to look at the man. The way he talked, the way he spoke about mana and nerves, and all the shit that empowered radium under their bodies. It was the same way he thought when he was alone. Yorin was his future if he didn’t find something outside of the underground.
“I’m keeping up with the doses.” He waited for the package’s owner to come down. The elevator roared down, and a woman, oh, Matriarch, fuck, it was her. She hollered on the phone with Uncle Al about recognizing it was him, why didn’t he come to their school, and she held her finger up to wait for her signature. Damnit, Miriam, I don’t need this, he lowered his black Runner’s cap while his uncle tapped his wrist. Of course, let’s make sure your pet project—and Cecil’s life preserver was working.
“It works fine. I’m not abusing the limits or going over the count.”
“It preserves your system, keeps you from losing control, Cecil.” Yorin stuck his serpentine nose close. He looked exactly like his mother on a bad day. “I need that data for my tests and my own patients. You know we’re doing good work.” And his client at last got off the phone.
“Yes, he’s here. No, I don’t know why he’s a Runner. Bye Bye, Alexie.” Stella Laine closed her phone, grabbed his signature board, and signed it clean. “You could do so much more, Hargrave. I’ve heard your demo, your voice. You’re rough.” She held her manicured fingers out, displaying her school’s white walls with dozens of gold albums and people who would be remembered for a century to come. “But Sanctuary could make you a star.”
She had a good sales pitch. “I appreciate the offer, Miss Laine but I’ll pass. Uncle, I’ll see you on the operating table.” He couldn’t resist getting a dig in. Yorin smiled, face twitching and Cecil would pay for it later. He turned around, walking past a dirty brown shoulder crop mound of locks who ran up to Stella. Cecil took the signature and tipped his cap to the former circuit queen. Uncle walked over to Stella and whispered in her ear. “It’s him? I see. Are you sure?” She looked back at Cecil. He’d kill some time at a net café before his ten o’clock class.
Cecil, she called to him. Their link instantly reformed. The static hissed in his head, and he—it couldn’t be her. No, it was. Standing in the middle of Sanctuary, bacon breath, nights under the Sumser sun, working on songs, there was too much static. The holes in his mind burned whenever he tried to recall it.
“Sofie, what are you doing here” He saw a ghost he didn’t want to know anymore. She pushed the link between them to the surface, their strange condition no one else knew.
“Well, your uncle put a recommendation in for me and Stella’s been my coach the last two years.” She raised her caterpillar eyebrows. He knew what she was getting at. Good old uncle Al put in a word and now two years later here she was. This could have been them, the two of them together. If only he hadn’t been so s—it didn’t matter anymore. He wanted to run away, to just leave it behind as they caught up. She was Stella’s golden girl now, on her way up, and he was just a memory in her mind. But she’d kept their mental link open. So, did she still…
Are you still having the nightmares and headaches? She reflected in the glass pane, Illusion’s traffic whizzing by outside. He wanted to puke, he could feel her thoughts, her anger, her…
“No,” He lied. She knew it wasn’t true, but she played along, to make it alright for him. “It was great seeing you, good luck with everything.” He ran out the door, sprinting around a corner. She came after him, but didn’t approach. She couldn’t reach out, he’d left her behind as well. Fool, he’d been a fool to leave things unsaid.
I didn’t want to leave it like that.
He spat up spittle, adjusting his cap. Class soon, he couldn’t worry. He walked across the street, avoiding traffic like the unfortunate Carcer gulls that got caught in them every morning. He walked to his bike, hopped on, and got everything in order. Sofie stood, some people recognizing her. Last night came back, her phantom burning and the world tumbling down.
He played the bastard, smiling wide and cruel. “Don’t worry about me. I’m not a kid anymore,” he said, swinging out to catch the backside.
“I’ll see you soon.” He knew that was true.
He couldn’t escape the past, last night reminded him of that.
The Illusion haze ate his visor, as he sped back to the Runner’s training garage for a tuneup. Everything was changing again.
It was just another day in Prade, the City of Illusions.