Finished up the edits from my beta readers for the System Apocalypse. Haven’t had much chance to work on the new series, with my RL job, but I thought it might be fun to do a teaser. The following is an unchecked draft of Chapter 1 for the new series.
As always, let me know what you think.
My life changed with a black briefcase one spring evening. 1960’s era design, black leather in a perfect rectangle with number combination lock, still in pristine condition. It was the fifth and last piece of luggage that I had purchased earlier that day at the lost luggage auction and the most expensive piece that I had purchased that day.
Luggage like this always left me wondering about its story. 1960’s design and the smell of the leather, the faintest hint as I held it to my nose told me that it was probably genuine. Might be a hipster throwback, a handmade piece for people with more money than sense but something told me it was the real deal. A genuine 1960’s briefcase. Which raised a number of questions – was it an old purchase, set aside and never used till recently? Perhaps given to a new graduate, a present to commemorate their graduation? Or did someone buy it at a thrift store, a discarded piece of luggage that wasn’t wanted or needed till it was unceremoniously lost and abandoned again. That was after all how it came into my possession. The airport auctioned off uncollected, lost luggage six months after they entered the system.
I sat silently for a time as I ran my hands over the luggage and made up stories about its former owner, the luggage and what I might find within. Small stories, daydreams of the kind of things I’d find inside. A laptop, a journal, maybe a calculator for an accountant. Business cards of course. It was a briefcase. I took my time, because this was half the fun of buying lost luggage, the stories that I got to make up before the inevitable disappointment of reality. And all the time while, I ran my fingers down the numerical lock and attempted to open the case.
- I idly noted the number that worked on one side before I continued my attempts on the opposite side. It took another two minutes, an impatient two minutes as I found myself suddenly anxious to be see what I had bought. When the click came, I held my breath the second before I finally opened the briefcase to see my prize.
A leather journal, a single, expensive fountain pen and a capped bottle of ink snuggly fitted into an inkwell dominated one side of the briefcase. On the other side, a series of nine small boxes with carved runes on top of them sat in what had to be a custom-made enclosure. I frowned as I traced the runes, never having seen anything like them before. Not that I was any expert mind you, but they sure were pretty. On the top of the briefcase was a simple, silver-lined mirror that reflected my image to me.
Wavy brown hair that was about two weeks overdue for a haircut, slanted brown eyes that I have been told is my best feature and thin lips look back at me. I rubbed my chin, realising I had forgotten to shave again and grown a sparse, stubbly goatee. Bad habit, but shaving was never a priority when you only had to do it every few weeks. At twenty-eight, I was glad I’d finally gotten out of the baby face period of my life, even if I was still occasionally mocked for looking like I was in my early twenties. That was okay, considering some of those same mockers were already losing their hair.
Initial perusal over, I began the process of stripping the briefcase. I started with the book first and found to my surprise that it was empty. Nothing on the front page or any of the preceding pages. Very nice binding though, high quality leather. I’d probably make a few dollars selling it online. The fountain pen was an old style dip and write type. Might be worth something to a collector – I capped the pen and put it away carefully. The ink I pulled out and set aside with the rest of the junk. No money in reselling used ink.
Lastly, I started opening the boxes. And that’s when things started getting weird. The first box held scales, the second, a series of dead beetles, the third feathers from a single type of bird, the fourth old, dark earth. After the second box, I grabbed the garbage and started tossing the contents into it immediately. Perhaps this had been owned by a taxidermist? Or a naturalist?
“Oww!” I howled and shook my hand. When I had touched the fifth box, what must have been the accumulated static charge of living in a basement apartment had shocked me. It’s never been that bad before, but I made a mental note to get a humidifier again. When I had the money.
Gingerly, I touched the box and finding the charge gone, I opened it, ready to toss the contents away. Instead, I found a simple signet ring made of a dark metal. Or ally of metals. I frowned as I plucked the ring out and rubbed at it to clean it up, curious to see what it was made of.
Simple curiosity. That was all it took to change my world.
“Are you done yet?” the blonde woman asked me who had formed in my apartment from smoke asked me. Clad in pink bra, a tiny vest and billowy sheer pants, she reminded me of an old cheesy TV show actress, almost uncannily so. Seriously, the blonde genie that stood in front of me with her sardonic smile would have sent copyright lawyers salivating at the fees they’d earn. If they could see her. And if she didn’t wish them away.
“You… you’re a genie! But that was a ring, not a lamp!” I spluttered, the ring that the smoke had streamed from still clutched in my hand in a death grip.
“Jinn! And yes, I am. What may I do for you, master?” the genie said. Turning her head, she looked around my bachelor suite with a flicker of distaste. “Maybe a bigger residence?”
“You’re a genie…” I stared at the blonde, my mind caught in a circular trap as it struggled with the insanity in front of it. After all, genie’s didn’t exist. But there, in front of me, was a genie.
“Oh hell, I really can’t wait for this entire ‘enlightenment’ period to be over,” the genie said with a roll of her eyes after I just continued to stare at her blankly. She turned away from me and walked around the room before she stopped at my micro-kitchen to open the fridge. Bent over, she fished inside before extracting day old fried rice and popping it into her mouth. A conjured spoon later, she was digging into last night’s dinner and prodding my stove, flat screen TV and laptop. “What is this?”
“I know what fried rice is. And this isn’t bad,” she complimented me, ignoring my mumbled thanks while she pointed to the TV screen and then laptop. “This. And this.”
“TV and laptop.”
“Huh.” She returned to the TV before she prodded at it a few more times and inevitably adjusted the angle of the TV. “That’s amazing. I guess your science actually does have some use. Well, outside of indoor plumbing. This isn’t as good.”
My brain finally stopped going in a circle after I decided to stop trying to actually understand what was going on. If I had a genie in my house, I had a genie. “So, you’re not called Jeannie are you?”
“Do I look like a Jeannie to you?”
“The Seven Seals!” A flicker and the previously blonde genie transformed into a black haired, hawk nosed Middle-Eastern woman. With considerably less clothing than before, which was a challenge. “Call me Lily.”
“Aaargh!” Lily stared down at her clothing and then stared at me for a moment. A second later, she was clad in a t-shirt that said ‘I Aim to Misbehave’ and a pair of jeans. I will admit, I found the new clothing options even more distracting, especially since it was an exact replice of what I was wearing.
“What was that about?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all,” Lily snapped at me and waved her spoon at my laptop. “What is a ‘laptop’?”
“A portable computer,” I explained.
“No, I’ve seen a computer before. They take up rooms three times the size of your… residence,” Lily said, prodding my laptop.
“Computers haven’t been that big since the 50’s. Okay, maybe 60’s. And I guess there are supercomputers that are that big these days,” I blattered on. “But most people don’t really need a supercomputer. I mean all I do with mine is play some games and get on the internet.”
“Internet?” Lily said and then raised the spoon. “Wait. Stop. Two things. What year is this and do you have more food?”
“2018 and there’s some pizza in the freezer,” I said. “What year do you think this was?”
“Not when I was last out. That explains why the enchantments have faded,” Lily said as she finished raiding my fridge. She stared at the pizza and looked at me imploringly. I sighed and helped her add it to the microwave which I then had to explain to her. That certainly dated her. Once the pizza was ready and the genie was eating, I got back to the important questions.
“All of them, of course. They really should have closed off the runes between the concealment and defensive enchantments. If they’d asked me, I could have told them. But of course, they never do.,” Lily said, shaking her head. “Once the enchantment wasn’t being regularly recharged, the concealment rune started draining the rest. Took it about fifty years or so at a guess. Good thing for you they were so sloppy, otherwise you’d be dead.”
“Oh yes. Heart attack when you failed the third time on opening the briefcase,” Lily said. “Always a good defensive spell, few creatures can survive without a heart. Well, except the undead. But they wouldn’t be able to even touch the briefcase with the wards against them up.”
“I could have died,” I said weakly as I stumbled over to my bed and sat down with a thud.
“Blazing suns,” Lily said and sat down across from me. “You humans are always so damn sensitive about your mortality.”
I just sat there in silence and stared at the far wall, my brain refusing to work any further at this new revelation. Genies. Magic. My death. There is a certain point in an individual’s day when you just can’t go on and I’d hit that point. Without speaking, I flopped into my bed, grabbed my comforter and rolled into a ball.
When I woke, hours later, the sun had set and my basement apartment was shrouded in darkness. I exhaled in relief, grateful and slightly disappointed that the blonde/brunette genie had been but a weird dream. Paper rustled and I twisted my head to the side to spot a pair of glowing red eyes bent over a book.
“Well, that was a very manly scream,” Lily said, hiding a smirk.
“You… what are you doing?” I gulped, cluthing my comforter to my body as I finally managed to turn on my bedside light. The additional illumination drove the fire from her eyes, making them look human again. Yet, I could still recall the flames that lit her face from within. I don’t think I’ll ever forget them.
“Hmmm? Reading. You have quite a selection here,” Lily said as she nodded to the bookcases that lined the walls of the apartment. I will admit, books are one of my indulgences.
“It wasn’t a dream,” I muttered to myself and put my head between my knees.
“Yes, yes. Are you going to have a breakdown again or are we finally getting to the part where you make a wish?” Lily said, bored. “If you want to wait, I’ve still got two books in this series to finish.”
“So, magic really is real?” I said, my voice muffled by the comforter. “And you’re a genie. Like, rub the lamp and get three wishes kind of genie.”
“Yes and yes, sort-of,” Lily said absently as she continued to read.
“Sort of?” I latched on to the wishy-washy word.
“I’m not actually bound to fulfil all three wishes since what I can do is limited by the ring and my powers,” Lily said and then, when I said nothing further, looked up and explained further. “If you wished for the sun to go out, I wouldn’t be able to do it and you’d have wasted my power in trying. And annoyed like a hundred gods at the same time. I am also bound to the ring, not a lamp unlike what Antoinne might have written.”
“Antoinne?” I shook my head. No. I was not going to get distracted. It was hard enough keeping my head on straight. “Magic is real.” I could not keep the wonder away from my voice as I said that. In a world of mediocrity and the mundane, magic was real.
“Always has been.”
“But how did I know of it?”
“Your world of science and rational thought blinded you to the arcane. What cannot be explained was relegated to the hidden corners of the world, and rare as the gift is, it is no wonder that humanity forgot in the majority. But magic is still practised, in back-alleys and small towns. The supernatural world still exists, but it is more than happy to be forgotten. After all, humanity has never been kind to what it considers other.”
“You’ve given that speech before,” I said and Lily nodded. “Alright then, so magic is real and you’re a ge…’ at her pointed stare, I corrected. “jinn and I have three wishes. Is there anything that I shouldn’t wish for.”
“Life. Death. The fate of countries. Time travel. I can alter the mind and physical reactions of others, but not their soul – I cannot make someone love you or stop hating you, just lust for you or perhaps temper their physical reactions to your presence,” Lily answered promptly. As I nodded along, she opened her mouth and then shut it.
“You were going to say something.”
“What was it?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Why not?” I asked, leaning forwards on my chair. I wish the light shone better on her face, at least I would have a better view of her face. There was something in her voice.
“…” Lily stayed silent for a time, obviously fighting something internally. In the end, her lips twisted wryly as she waved a hand across my bookcases, causing them to glow slightly. “Because you won’t listen.”
“That’s a bit insulting. You don’t know me,” I said and she laughed, her laughter brittle and high.
“I know you. I’ve known a hundred thousand like you. My Masters never listen,” Lily said, smiling. “So tell me your wish.”
Almost, I snapped back that I wished she told me what she was going to say. Almost. But annoyed or not, I was not going to waste my chance at real magic, at a real chance to change my world, “You don’t know me and I don’t know you. So why don’t you tell me and maybe, maybe we’ll come to know one another.”
Lily stared at me for a long time, her eyes glowing red before she finally spoke, her voice weary. “I am bound by the ring to fulfil your wishes. But I am not omniscient. I can only change what I understand, and I am not responsible for the consequences of those changes. Not that it’ll stop you from blaming me.”
I stared at Lily for a time then slowly nodded. “You’re saying that if I made a wish, you’d be forced to make it happen, even if it was a silly wish. Like, if I wished for a million dollars right this second, you’d be forced to make it appear right in this room. Maybe as bills, maybe as dollar coins. Which probably would suck.”
“I am not malicious, no matter what you people might say,” Lily said. “But most wishes for wealth are not well thought out. I once gave a goatherder a mountain of gold – and he and his family were killed for it. A hundred years ago, a gentleman asked for a million dollars. Of course, I had never seen a note before until he showed me one. And so, I made the bank notes for him, a million dollars worth, all exactly the same. He was unhappy about that.”
I slowly nodded, staring at her. “You’re not all powerful and all knowing, just powerful. Like a giant hammer wielded by toddlers.”
“Yes!” Lily said, excited for a second.
I grunted, closing my eyes. And the worse part, I was the damn toddler. But still… magic was real.
I had not realised I had spoken that thought aloud till that whisper echoed through the basement. Into silence, she slowly spoke, “Do you desire magic then?”
“With every fibre of my being,” I answered her honestly. “But I can see a million, billion ways it could wrong. Wish for magic, and I get the ability without the knowledge to wield it. Wish for knowledge and ability and you’d stick it all into my head and maybe make me go crazy while doing it. Wish for a mentor and, well, it might be a black mage who comes in.”
“So. You did listen,” Lily said, her lips twisted in a wry smile. “Though again, not directly malicious. If you wished for the knowledge to wield magic and that alone, I’d probably only insert enough that you would not be driven mad.”
“You can do that?” I blinked and Lily nodded.
“Of course. I’m a Jinn who has been in the service of some of the greatest mages this world has ever known. I am no dotard myself,” Lily boasted. “Adding knowledge direct would be no different than creating a magical book of learning. In fact, it would be simpler without the preservation and containment spells.”
“Huh,” I said, rubbing my chin and staring at the girl. “So it’s not the amount of knowledge but the speed.”
“Close enough,” she said and I grunted.
“Huh. I guess I’d have to level up first.”
“Level up?” Lily asked and I waved my hand to my bookshelf where my RPG books were neatly stacked from D&D 1st Ed to more recent RPGs, indie and mainstream publishers. “One second.” She muttered that word and then she shimmered for a brief moment, a second at most and suddenly all the books were stacked neatly around her. “How interesting. Whole universes, written and governed by rules and dice.”
“Did you just read all of them with super speed?” I said.
“Not super-speed. It’s always more trouble than its worth. You have to deal with friction and air resistance and heat. I prefer to just slow down time,” Lily said. “I do see what you mean. These ‘Levels’ that characters have limit their growth, giving them knowledge and strength as they passed each milestone.”
“So you’re saying it’s possible? For me to wield magic if we put it in a game system?” I said excitedly, fallen hopes rising again like a meteor at her words.
“Of course, who do you think you’re talking to?” Lily said.
“Perfect!” I paused, frowning as I worked out the implications. Perhaps I had found a way to cheat the system. “Alright. One last question, how do I know everything you’ve said is true?”
At those words, even in the dim light, I could Lily’s face twist with quickly concealed hurt. She looked away for a second and then back to me, “Well, that’s the rub isn’t it. You can’t.”
That was the rub. It wasn’t as if I could look this up on Snopes or jump on Quora, seeking expert advise. The stories that I did know of, they conflicted. The original stories of jinn said they were like us, neither good nor evil, creatures of free will like humanity itself. Since then, they’ve been both friend and foe in a myriad of stories. Of course, it’s not as if I knew how to tell which were true or fake.
In the end, it all came down to trust. Could I, should I, trust Lily? Did it matter though? By her own admission, anything I wished for needed her to interpret. With that thought, I smiled and leaned forward. “Alright, so here’s what I was thinking.”