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       The Stranger's Magic: The Labyrinths of Echo: Book Three, p.1

           Max Frei
 
The Stranger's Magic: The Labyrinths of Echo: Book Three


  THE STRANGER’S MAGIC

  MAX FREI

  GOLLANCZ

  LONDON

  CONTENTS

  ONE

  GUGIMAGON’S SHADOW

  TWO

  ORDINARY MAGICAL THINGS

  Previously in the THE LABYRINTHS OF ECHO . . .

  MAX FREI was once a loser. He’s a big sleeper (during the day, that is; at night he can’t sleep a wink). A hardened smoker, an uncomplicated glutton, and a loafer, one day he gets lucky. He discovers a parallel world where magic is commonplace, and where he fits right in. This is the city of Echo of the Unified Kingdom, a land where a social outcast like Max can be remade as “the unequaled Sir Max.”

  In this upside-down universe, Sir Max’s deadpan humor and newfound talent for magic soon earn him a place in the secret police—night shift only, of course. As Nocturnal Representative of the Most Venerable Head of the Minor Secret Investigative Force of the City of Echo, Max’s job is to investigate cases of illegal magic and battle trespassing monsters from other worlds. With his occupation comes an unusual band of colleagues—the omniscient Sir Juffin Hully, the buoyant Sir Melifaro, the death-dealing Sir Shurf Lonli-Lokli, bon vivant and master of disguise Sir Kofa Yox, the angelic Tekki, and the captivating sleuth Lady Melamori Blimm.

  Plunging back into the threatening and absurd realm first portrayed in The Stranger, Book One of the Labyrinths of Echo series, and The Stranger’s Woes, Book Two, The Stranger’s Magic follows the new adventures and misadventures of Sir Max and his friends in this enchanted and enchanting world.

  ONE

  GUGIMAGON’S SHADOW

  I MUST ADMIT THAT THE WEATHER WAS NOT ENTIRELY SUITABLE FOR A PLEASure ride on the motorboat—or, rather, on the water amobiler, which looked very similar to a regular four-seat pleasure boat.

  The fierce river wind—too cold for the mild Uguland autumn—whipped up the waters of the Xuron so that the first ride I took down one of the finest rivers of the Unified Kingdom on my own was more like riding on the back of a giant kangaroo. The ride wasn’t just bumpy; I was shaking so much that I kept kicking my chin with my knees. The ice-cold wind brought tears to my eyes. They flowed down my cheeks, mixing with splashes of river water and tiny droplets of drizzling rain. No idiot but me would willingly submit himself to such torture, especially at the very beginning of the Day of Freedom from Care, which Magic had bestowed upon me.

  I was completely happy.

  I had been meaning to get the hang of the local water transportation. From the very beginning, my reckless driving of regular land amobilers had become one of the capital’s most cherished subjects of gossip. I never thought that I deserved that fame, though: any countryman of mine who could more or less manage to drive a four-wheeled buggy with an engine would be a celebrity here. I had been meaning to get behind the lever of the water amobiler for quite some time, partly because in my previous life I had never driven a motorboat. Nevertheless, I had mustered my courage and taken a few lessons from old Kimpa. I wasn’t too keen on losing my authority in the eyes of the junior employees of the Ministry of Perfect Public Order, and Sir Juffin Hully’s butler had been looking after me back in those days when I couldn’t even manage unfamiliar cutlery.

  Now I was gliding headlong down the dark waters of the Xuron in my own motorboat in complete solitude, soaking wet but very happy. The fact that I had managed to pick the only day of bad weather in the late sunny autumn just added fuel to the fire of my new passion: the riot of the elements turned the innocent pleasure ride into a small local apocalypse—exactly what I needed.

  I had needed a good shake-up: the preparations for my accession to the throne of Fanghaxra were underway. My humble abode, the Furry House, former library of the Royal University, had once stood derelict, dusty, and somewhat mysterious. Now it was quickly turning into a vulgar bulwark of luxury and bliss. Even the floor of the small watchtower at the very top had been decorated with horrible carpeting that clashed with my taste. I had to enter it from time to time, if only to indulge Gurig, whose servants had wasted a great deal of money and time remodeling my would-be residence. At these moments, the reality that I had barely begun to get used to started feeling like another strange dream—not a nightmare, mind you, but a rather tiresome dream. The only thing I took solace in was that His Majesty Gurig VIII had sworn up and down that not a single dratted high official would ever make me stay there between the receptions when I granted audiences to my subjects, which, according to my calculations, would not happen more than a few times a year and would last no more than a couple of hours. His Majesty had given me his word, and one must believe the word of a king.

  Yet while I was riding my flimsy vessel over the frothy waters of the Xuron, jumping over the crests of springy dark waves, those problems simply didn’t exist. I was not remembering anything, nor was I making plans for the future. There was only here and now, and the here and now were too wet and too cold for my liking.

  Are you busy right now? The polite voice of Sir Shurf Lonli-Lokli’s Silent Speech rang in my head. It was so sudden that I came to an abrupt stop. The tiny water amobiler tossed about helplessly on the waves of the Xuron.

  I guess you could say no. Has anything happened? I answered.

  I don’t think so. Still, I would like to discuss one peculiar event with you. It has to do more with my private life than our duties.

  All the better, I said. In any case, I need to change into something dry and try to get warm. Just drop by Tekki’s, I will be there soon.

  I am very sorry, Max. You know how much I love the Armstrong & Ella, but I would rather not discuss my problems in the presence of Lady Shekk. Matters of this kind call for confidentiality. Would it really disappoint you if I suggested we meet at some other place?

  A hole in the heavens above you, Shurf! You know that I love mysteries. Then come to my place on the Street of Yellow Stones. If you get there first, just come right in. The door is unlocked; no one would dare break into my house of his own volition. Oh, could you also order a whole tray full of various hot stuff from the Fat Turkey?

  I quickly steered my new toy to the Makuri Pier, where I had had my own mooring since yesterday. A phlegmatic, mustached old man came out of his shed, seemingly annoyed, to help me tie up my nifty little water transport. He looked at me with almost superstitious horror, not because he had recognized the “horrible Sir Max”—after all, I wasn’t wearing my Mantle of Death—but simply because any human being bold enough to take a pleasure ride down the river in this weather deserved to be viewed with nothing less than superstitious horror, at the very least, if not to be locked away in the nearest Refuge for the Mad.

  I gave the doddering old fellow a crown, which probably made him doubt my mental state once and for all: the pay was far too high for such a small service. Such incongruity threatened to destroy his notion of the world—the dismal yet precious result of several hundred years of life. Yet the old man was a diehard: he batted his eyes, discolored over the years, mumbled the few words of gratitude that we’ve all known since childhood and save for such occasions, and hurried back inside his little hut, where I am sure a brazier with hot kamra was waiting for him.

  I followed his stooping back with an envious gaze: a short but unpleasant trip back to the New City lay ahead of me. My freezing looxi would slap relentlessly on my back like a cruel wet bed sheet.

  I climbed inside the amobiler and sped off as if an entire family of hungry werewolves were chasing me. Two minutes later, I dashed inside my living room on the Street of Yellow Stones.

  Lonli-Lokli was already there. He sat motionless in the m
iddle of the room. I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that he had carefully measured the room to calculate its exact center. I couldn’t help but admire my friend. His snow-white looxi flickered mysteriously in the dark; his death-dealing hands in their protective gloves lay on his knees. He looked more like the Angel of Death than a human being.

  “You beat me to it,” I said with sincere respect.

  “This is not surprising: I sent you the call when I was on the Street of Forgotten Dreams. I thought I would find you in the Armstrong & Ella. I could not imagine that you had gone for a walk in this weather.”

  “That’s me all right: mysterious and unpredictable,” I said, laughing. “Would you be so kind as to wait a few more moments? If I don’t change right away, I will definitely catch a cold, and I don’t even want to begin to remember what that is.”

  “Of course you need to change. And if I were you, I would also consider a hot bath.”

  “I have already considered that. It won’t take more than a few minutes. You know that I do everything fast.”

  “Yes, I know,” Shurf said with a nod. “Perhaps I should send a call to the owner of the Fat Turkey and ask him to add something stronger to my order.”

  “That won’t be necessary,” I said as I ran down the narrow winding stairs. “It’s not so bad. I don’t have to get smashed.”

  “My experience suggests that intoxication brings more pleasure and goes away faster than a cold, and you can trust my experience,” said this magnificent fellow.

  I returned to the living room in the best of spirits. I had thawed out, put on a warm house looxi, and accepted a petition from my stomach claiming that it was fit enough to digest an entire herd of elephants, if need be.

  The dinner table was chock-full of trays and jugs. For starters, I poured myself a full mug of hot kamra.

  “Now I’m back,” I said after a few cautious sips.

  “If you say so, it must be true. Well, this is not bad news at all,” said Lonli-Lokli.

  I took a good look at his serious face, trying to catch the traces of a fast disappearing smirk. This game of catch, however, was not mine to win. As usual.

  “By the way, at my place you can safely remove your gloves,” I said, pulling my plates closer. “Or do you prefer to keep them on in case I start telling stupid jokes so you can make me shut up once and for all? I’m going to have to disappoint you: some people say that my chatterbox mouth won’t close even after my death. So killing me is not the solution.”

  “What a strange idea! I do not consider your life to be so meaningless as to require snuffing out due to such trifles. There is another reason for me to keep the gloves on.”

  “Are you sensing danger?” I stopped eating and attempted to pull a serious face. Danger that threatens Lonli-Lokli himself definitely deserves to be taken seriously.

  “No, Max, I am not sensing any danger. At least, not here and not now. I’m not taking off the gloves because I left the box I keep them in back in my office in the House by the Bridge. Did you really think that a weapon such as my gloves could simply be kept in my pocket?”

  “I guess that would be against all safety codes,” I said, laughing. “All right, to Magicians with your horrifying mittens. Tell me what happened to your ‘private life.’ I’m dying to know.”

  “Nothing really happened,” said Shurf. “Nothing that one should confide about to strangers. Nothing that people should worry about. Yet I feel somewhat uneasy about it. Max, do you remember how you once took me into your dream?”

  “Of course I do. It was when we were on our way to Kettari. We had to sleep in a really small bed, and you offered me ‘the possibility of using your sleep,’ to borrow your own bombastic expression.”

  “That is correct,” said Shurf, nodding. “Yet that was not what happened. Instead, we traveled to some amazing places from your dreams. Frankly, what happened didn’t look like an ordinary dream. I have always suspected that the nature of your dreams deserved a most thorough study. But I digress. Do you remember that among other visions there were endless sandy beaches at the shore of some strange motionless sea? Quite a hostile place, although in your company I enjoyed the trip very much.”

  “Sure, I remember that. But how come you’re bringing this up now?”

  “Simply because the time has come to bring this up,” said Shurf. “Recently I have been dreaming about that place too often. Without your intervention, as far as I can tell. And I no longer think that it is a place I enjoy visiting, be it in a dream or otherwise.”

  “Definitely without my intervention,” I said. “For one thing, you and I sleep on different pillows.”

  “Well, in theory, the distance between the heads of the sleepers only plays a role for such novices in these matters as myself. And if my estimation of your abilities is correct, you are quite capable of making me contemplate your dreams remotely. I am certain, however, that this was not your doing. I would have felt your presence had they been your dreams I was dreaming. Yet never once have I felt your presence in them, of that I am sure. I have always felt someone else, however. Someone whom I can never see. I do not like his presence, even though it is barely noticeable. What’s more, I think I know him.”

  “Well, I’m outraged,” I said. “Some strangers have been wandering around in my favorite dream without my knowing it. I’m glad that you have reported the situation to me. Trust me, I would never intentionally drag you into my dreams, even if I could. And I can’t. At least I’ve never tried. I haven’t seen these beaches in my dreams for a long time myself. The last time I walked along those beaches was when I spent the night in the bedroom of Sir Melifaro’s grandfather. To be frank with you, I even began to forget about them. It’s not entirely surprising though. I forget about things that are much more important than dreams on a regular basis.”

  “You are underestimating the situation, Max. Nothing is more important than certain dreams. I am surprised that I have to tell this to a man who gains his power from dreams,” said Lonli-Lokli, shaking his head in disapproval.

  “You’re right,” I said, ashamed. “It’s just that recently reality has been playing a lot of practical jokes on me. In any case, what you’re saying is exactly what I have suspected all along.”

  “I wanted to find out whether something similar was happening to you,” said Lonli-Lokli. “Apparently nothing is happening to you. Tell me, before, when you dreamed about those beaches, did you ever meet anyone there? Or perhaps you, too, felt someone’s ominous presence there?”

  “No, I never felt anything like that. I’m very fond of that place, and have always thought that it belonged to me and me alone. You know how you sometimes have a strange, vague feeling of being absolutely sure about something, which is not based on anything concrete?”

  “Absolutely,” said Lonli-Lokli. “In my view, one should trust such a feeling. Oh well, I guess you are of no help in this matter then.”

  “What do you mean ‘no help’?” I said. “I’m the one who lured you into that unwholesome spot. Naturally I had no idea what I was doing and all that, but it doesn’t relieve me of responsibility for the possible consequences. After all, it’s my dream. Who else is supposed to take care of it but me?”

  “And how are you going to ‘take care of’ the dream that you stopped seeing a long, long time ago?”

  “I have to think about it.”

  I put aside the plate, which was now empty, and gave a loud, resonant sneeze. The cold was definitely standing on my trace. It was licking its lips, anticipating how it would gobble me up.

  “Perhaps you should put aside your childish belief in your invincibility and have a glass of hot wine. It is a tried-and-true method,” said Lonli-Lokli in the tone of a lecturer. “Authors of numerous books on medicine support the common notion that this beverage has a positive effect on those who have fallen victim to exposure to cold.”

  Without waiting for an answer, he put the jug of wine on the hot plate.

&nb
sp; “Well, perhaps from your holey cup. Do you have it on you?” I said. “Maybe this magic ritual will not just rid me of my cold but also help me collect my thoughts.”

  “This is quite possible,” said Shurf, producing his ancient bottomless cup from the folds of his looxi. “This ritual will be no less effective on you than it was on the former members of my Order. It certainly won’t make matters worse.”

  “They can’t get any worse,” I said as I discovered that I had become the proud owner of a few tons of fresh snot. “A hole in the heavens above my nose! This cold sure isn’t wasting any time.”

  “Here you go.” Lonli-Lokli, his hand in the enormous protective glove covered in old runes, handed me the cup, one quarter full of hot wine. “I think this should be enough.”

  “I sure hope so,” I said, snuffling, and carefully accepted the holey vessel.

  I was worried that it wouldn’t work this time. When you have a cold, it’s difficult to maintain faith in your own powers. The powers were still with me, though: the liquid remained in the holey vessel as if I had spent half of my life as a novice at the Order of the Holey Cup, side by side with my magnificent colleague.

  I drained the hot wine with one gulp and almost swooned with relief. I still had the cold, but it didn’t matter. Nothing really mattered: I felt so light on my feet and indifferent that even more serious inconveniences wouldn’t have mattered.

  I returned the magic cup to its owner and became very still, listening to the special broadcast coming from within the depths of my body. The cold retreated first. A slight but persistent pain in my throat increased momentarily and then abandoned me for good. Finally I coughed, but the bout was gone as soon as it had started. It turned out that I had come down with a cold, but this existential experience lasted little more than a minute rather than your usual dozen days or so.

 
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