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The Accidental Sorcerer

The Accidental Sorcerer

Rogue Agent - Book 1

(AUS/NZ Release)

PUBLISHER: Voyager
FORMAT: Paperback
ISBN-10: 0732287634
ISBN-13: 9780732287634

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Chapter One

The entrance to Stuttley’s Superior Staff factory, Ottosland’s premier staff manufacturer, was guarded by a glass-fronted booth and blocked by a red and blue boom gate. Inside the booth slumped a dyspeptic-looking security guard, dressed in a rumpled green and orange Stuttley’s uniform. It didn’t suit him. An ash-tipped cigarette drooped from the corner of his mouth and the half-eaten sardine sandwich in his hand leaked tomato sauce onto the floor. He was reading a crumpled, food-stained copy of the previous day’s Ottosland Times.

After several long moments of not being noticed, Gerald fished out his official identification and pressed it flat to the window, right in front of the guard’s face.

“Gerald Dunwoody. Department of Thaumaturgy. I’m here for a snap inspection.”

The guard didn’t look up. “Izzat right? Nobody tole me.”

“Well, no,” said Gerald, after another moment. “That’s why we call it a ‘snap inspection.’ On account of it being a surprise.”

Reluctantly the guard lifted his rheumy gaze. “Ha ha. Sir.”

Gerald smiled around gritted teeth. It’s a job, it’s a job, and I’m lucky to have it. “I understand Stuttley’s production foreman is a Mister Harold Stuttley?”

“That’s right,” said the guard. His attention drifted back to the paper. “He’s the owner’s cousin. Mr Horace Stuttley’s an old man now, don’t hardly see him round here no more. Not since his little bit of trouble.”

“Really? I’m sorry to hear it.” The guard sniffed, inhaled on his cigarette and expelled the smoke in a disinterested cloud. Gerald resisted the urge to bang his head on the glass between them. “So where would I find Foreman Stuttley?”

“Search me,” said the guard, shrugging. “On the factory floor, most like. They’re doing a run of First Grade staffs today, if memory serves.”

Gerald frowned. First Grade staffs were notoriously difficult to forge. Get the etheretic balances wrong in the split-second of alchemical transformation and what you were looking at afterwards, basically, was a huge smoking hole in the ground. And if this guard was any indication, standards at Stuttley’s had slipped of late. He rapped his knuckles on the glass.

“I wish to see Harold Stuttley right now, please,” he said, briskly official. “According to Department records this operation hasn’t returned its signed and witnessed safety statements for two months. I’m afraid that’s a clear breach of regulations. There’ll be no First Grade staffs rolling off the production line today or any other day unless I’m fully satisfied that all proper precautions and procedures have been observed.”

Sighing, the guard put down his soggy sandwich, stubbed out his cigarette, wiped his hands on his trousers and stood. “All right, sir. If you say so.”

There was a battered black telephone on the wall of the security booth. The guard dialled a four digit number, receiver pressed to his ear, and waited. Waited some more. Dragged his sleeve across his moist nose, still waiting, then hung up with an exclamation of disgust. “No answer. Nobody there to hear it, or the bloody thing’s on the blink again. Take your pick.”

“I’d rather see Harold Stuttley.”

The guard heaved another lugubrious sigh. “Right you are, then. Follow me.”

Gerald followed, starting to feel a little dyspeptic himself. Honestly, these people! What kind of a business were they running? Security phones that didn’t work, essential paperwork that wasn’t completed. Didn’t they realise they were playing with fire? Even the plainest Third Grade staff was capable of inflicting damage if it wasn’t handled carefully in the production phase. Complacency, that was the trouble. Clearly Harold Stuttley had let the prestige and success of his family’s world-famous business go to his head. Just because every wizard who was any wizard and could afford the exorbitant price tag wouldn’t be caught dead without his Stuttley Staff (patented, copyrighted and limited edition) as part of his sartorial ensemble was no excuse to let safety standards slide.

Bloody hell, he thought, mildly appalled. Somebody save me. I’m thinking like a civil servant …

The unenthusiastic security guard was leading him down a tree-lined driveway towards a distant high brick wall with a red door in it. The door’s paint was cracked and peeling. Above and behind the wall could be seen the slate-grey factory roof, with its chimney stacks belching pale puce smoke. A flock of pigeons wheeling through the blue sky plunged into the coloured effluvium and abruptly turned bright green.

Damn. Obviously Stuttley’s thaumaturgical filtering system was on the blink: code violation number two. The unharmed birds flapped away, fading back to white even as he watched, but that wasn’t the point. All thaumaturgical by-products were subject to strict legislation. Temporary colour changes were one thing. But what if the next violation resulted in a temporal dislocation? Or a quantifiable matter redistribution? Or worse? There’d be hell to pay. People might get hurt. What was Stuttley’s playing at?
Even as he wondered, he felt a shiver like the touch of a thousand spider feet skitter across his skin. The mellow morning was suddenly charged with menace, strobed with shadows.

“Did you feel that?” he asked the guard.

“They don’t pay me to feel things, sir,” the guard replied over his shoulder.

A sense of unease, like a tiny butterfly, fluttered in the pit of Gerald’s stomach. He glanced up, but the sky was still blue and the sun was still shining and birds continued to warble in the trees.

“No. Of course they don’t,” he replied, and shook his head. It was nothing. Just his stupid over-active imagination getting out of hand again. If he could he’d have it surgically removed. It certainly hadn’t done him any favours to date.

He glanced in passing at the nearest tree with its burden of trilling birds, but he couldn’t see Reg amongst them. Of course he wouldn’t, not if she didn’t want to be seen. After yesterday morning’s lively discussion about his apparent lack of ambition she’d taken herself off in a huff of ruffled feathers and a cloud of curses and he hadn’t laid eyes on her since.

Not that he was worried. This wasn’t the first hissy fit she’d thrown and it wouldn’t be the last. She’d come back when it suited her. She always did. She just liked to make him squirm.
Well, he wasn’t going to. Not this time. No, nor apologise either. For once in her ensorcelled life she was going to admit to being wrong, and that was that. He wasn’t unambitious. He just knew his limitations.

Three paces ahead of him the guard stopped at the red door, unhooked a large brass key ring from his belt and fished through its assortment of keys. Finding the one he wanted he stuck it into the lock, jiggled, swore, kicked the door twice, and turned the handle.

“There you are, sir,” he said, pushing the door wide then standing back. “I’ll let you find your own way round if it’s all the same to you. Can’t leave my booth unattended for too long. Somebody important might turn up.” He smiled, revealing tobacco-yellow teeth.

Gerald looked at him. “Indeed. I’ll be sure to mention your enthusiasm in my official report.”

The guard did a double take at that, his smile vanishing. With a surly grunt he hooked his bundle of keys back on his belt then folded his arms, radiating offended impatience.

Immediately, Gerald felt guilty. Oh lord. Now I’m acting like a civil servant!

Not that there was anything wrong, as such, with public employment. Many fine people were civil servants. Indeed, without them the world would be in a sorry state, he was sure. In fact, the civil service was an honourable institution and he was lucky to be part of it. Only … it had never been his ambition to be a wizard who inspected the work of other wizards for Departmental regulation violations. His ambition was to be an inspectee, not an inspector. Once upon a time he’d thought that dream was reachable.

Now he was a probationary compliance officer in the Minor Infringement Bureau of the Department of Thaumaturgy … and dreams were things you had at night after you turned out the lights.

He nodded at the waiting guard. “Thank you.”

“Certainly, sir,” the guard said sourly.

Well, his day was certainly getting off to a fine start. And we wonder why people don’t like bureaucrats …

With an apologetic smile at the guard he hefted his official briefcase, straightened his official tie, rearranged his expression into one of official rectitude and walked through the open doorway.

And only flinched a little bit as the guard locked the red door behind him.

It’s a wizarding job, Gerald, and it’s better than the alternative.
Hopefully, if he reminded himself often enough, he’d start to believe that soon.

The factory lay dead ahead, down the end of a short paved pathway. It was a tall, red brick building blinded by a lack of windows. Along its front wall were plastered a plethora of signs: Danger! Thaumaturgical Emissions! Keep Out! No Admittance Without Permission! All Visitors Report To Security Before Proceeding!

As he stood there, reading, one of the building’s four doors opened and a young woman wearing a singed lab coat and an expression of mild alarm came out.

He approached her, waving. “Excuse me! Excuse me! Can I have a word?”

The young woman saw him, took in his briefcase and the crossed staffs on his tie and moaned. “Oh, no. You’re from the Department, aren’t you?”

He tried to reassure her with a smile. “Yes, as a matter of fact. Gerald Dunwoody. And you are?”

Looking hunted, she shrank into herself. “Holly,” she muttered. “Holly Devree.”

He’d been with the Department for a shade under six months and in all that time had been allowed into the field only four times, but he’d worked out by the end of his first site inspection that when it came to the poor sods just following company orders, sympathy earned him far more co-operation than threats. He sagged at the knees, let his shoulders droop and slid his voice into a more intimate, confiding tone.

“Well, Miss Devree – Holly – I can see you’re feeling nervous. Please don’t. All I need is for you to point me in the direction of your boss, Mr Harold Stuttley.”

She cast a dark glance over her shoulder at the factory. “He’s in there. And before you see him I want it understood that it’s not my fault. It’s not Eric’s fault, either. Or Bob’s. Or Lucius’s. It’s not any of our faults. We worked hard to get our transmogrifer’s licence, okay? And it’s not like we’re earning squillions, either. The pay’s rotten, if you must know. But Stuttley’s – they’re the best, aren’t they?” Without warning, her thin pale face crumpled. “At least, they used to be the best. When old Mr Horace was in charge. But now …”

Fat tears trembled on the ends of her sandy-coloured eyelashes. Gerald fished a handkerchief out of his pocket and handed it over. “Yes? Now?”

Blotting her eyes she said, “Everything’s different, isn’t it? Mr Harold’s gone and implemented all these ‘cost-cutting’ initiatives. Laid off half the Transmogrify team. But the workload hasn’t halved, has it? Oh, no. And it’s not just us he’s laid off, either. He’s sacked people in Etheretics, Design, Purchasing, Research and Development – there’s not one team hasn’t lost folk. Except Sales.” Her snubby nose wrinkled in distaste. “Seven new sales reps he’s taken on, and they’re promising the world, and we’re expected to deliver it -- except we can’t! We’re working round the clock and we’re still three weeks behind on orders and now Mr Harold’s threatening to dock us if we don’t catch up!”

“Oh my,” he said, and patted her awkwardly on the shoulder. “I’m very sorry to hear this. But at least it explains why the last eight safety reports weren’t completed.”

“But they were,” she whispered, busily strangling her borrowed handkerchief. “Lucius is the most senior technician we’ve got left, and I know he’s been doing them. And handing them over to Mr Harold. I’ve seen it. But what he’s doing with them I don’t know.”

Filing them in the nearest waste-paper bin, more than likely. “I don’t suppose your friend Lucius discussed the reports with you? Or showed them to you?”

Holly Devree’s confiding manner shifted suddenly to a cagey caution. The handkerchief disappeared into her lab coat pocket. “Safety reports are confidential.”

“Of course, of course,” Gerald soothed. “I’m not implying any inappropriate behaviour. But Lucius didn’t happen to leave one lying out on a table, did he, where any innocent passer-by might catch a glimpse?”

“I’m sorry,” she said, edging away. “I’m on my tea break. We only get ten minutes. Mr Harold’s inside if you want to see him. Please don’t tell him we talked.”

He watched her scuttle like a spooked rabbit, and sighed. Clearly there was more amiss at Stuttley’s than a bit of overlooked paperwork. He should get back to the office and tell Mr Scunthorpe. As a probationary compliance officer his duties lay within very strict guidelines. There were other, more senior inspectors for this kind of trouble.

On the other hand, his supervisor was allergic to incomplete reports. Unconfirmed tales out of school from disgruntled employees and nebulous sensations of misgiving from probationary compliance officers bore no resemblance to cold, hard facts. And Mr Scunthorpe was as married to cold, hard facts as he was to Mrs Scunthorpe. More, if Mr Scunthorpe’s marital mutterings were anything to go by.

Turning, Gerald stared at the blank-faced factory. He could still feel his inexplicable unease simmering away beneath the surface of his mind. Whatever it was trying to tell him, the news wasn’t good. But that wasn’t enough. He had to find out exactly what had tickled his instincts. And he did have a legitimate place to start, after all: the noncompletion of mandatory safety statements. The infraction was enough to get his foot across the factory threshold. After that, well, it was just a case of following his intuition.

He resolutely ignored the whisper in the back of his mind that said, Remember what happened the last time you followed your intuition?

“Oh, bugger off!” he told it, and marched into the fray.
Another pallid employee answered his brisk banging on the nearest door. “Good afternoon,” he said, flashing his identification and not giving the lab-coated man a chance to speak. “Gerald Dunwoody, Department of Thaumaturgy, here to see Mr Harold Stuttley on a matter of noncompliance. I’m told he’s inside? Excellent. Don’t let me keep you from your duties, I’ll find my own way around.”

The employee gave ground, helpless in the ruthlessly cheerful face of officialdom, and Gerald sailed in. Immediately his nose was clogged with the stink of partially discharged thaumaturgic energy. The air beneath the high factory ceiling was alive with it, crawling and spitting and sparking. The carefully caged lights hummed and buzzed, crackling as firefly filaments of power drifted against their heated bulbs to ignite in a brief, sunlike flare.

A dozen more lab-coated technicians scurried up and down the factory floor, focused on the task at hand. Directly opposite, running the full length of the wall, stood a five-deep row of benches, each one equipped with specially crafted staff cradles. Twenty-five per bench times five benches meant that if the security guard was right Stuttley’s had one hundred and twenty-five new First Grade staffs ready for completion. The technicians, looking tense and preoccupied, fiddled and twiddled and realigned each uncharged staff in its cradle, assessing every minute adjustment with a hand-held thaumic register. All the muted ticking made the room sound like the demonstration area of a clockmakers’ convention.

At either end of the benches towered the etheretic conductors, vast reservoirs of unprocessed thaumaturgic energy. Insulated cables connected them to each other and all the staff cradles, whose conductive surfaces waited patiently for the discharge of raw power that would transform one hundred and twenty-five gold-filigreed five foot long spindles of oak into the world’s finest, most prestigious, expensive and potentially most dangerous First Grade staffs.

Despite his misgivings he heard himself whimper, just a little. Stuttley First Graders were works of art. Each wrapping of solid gold filigree was unique, its design template destroyed upon completion and never repeated. The rare wizards who could afford the extra astronomical cost had their filigrees designed specifically for them, taking into account personal strengths, family history and specific thaumaturgic signatures. Those staffs came with inbuilt security: it was immediate and spectacularly gruesome death for any wizard other than the rightful owner to attempt the use of them.

Once, a long long time ago, he’d dreamed of owning a First Grade staff. Even though he didn’t come from a wizarding family. Even though he’d got his qualifications through a correspondence course. Wizardry cared nothing for family background or the name of the college where you were educated. Wizarding was of the blood and bone, indifferent to pedigrees and bank balances. Some of the world’s finest wizards had come from humble origins.

Although … not lately. Lately, Ottosland’s most powerful and influential wizards came from recognisable families whose names more often than not could also be heard whispered in the nation’s corridors of power.

Still. Technically, anybody with sufficient aptitude and training could become a First Grade wizard. Social standing might influence your accent but it had nothing to do with raw power. Technically, even a tailor’s son from Nether Wallop could earn the right to wield a First Grade staff.

Unbidden, his fingers touched his copper-ringed cherrywood Third Grade staff, tucked into its pocket on the inside of his overcoat. It was nothing to be ashamed of. He was the first wizard in the family for umpteen generations, after all. Plenty of people failed even to be awarded a Third Grade license. For every ten hopefuls identified as potential wizards only one or two actually survived the rigours of trial and training to receive their precious staff.
And even for Third Grades there was work to be had. Wasn’t he living proof? Gerald Dunwoody, after a couple of totally understandable false starts, soon to be a fully qualified compliance officer with the internationally renowned Ottosland Department of Thaumaturgy? Yes, indeed. The sky was the limit. Provided there was a heavy cloud cover. And he was indoors. In a cellar, possibly.

Oh lord, he thought miserably, staring at all those magnificent First Grade staffs. Feeling as though his official Departmental tie had tightened to throttling point. There has to be more to wizarding than this.

An irate shout rescued him from utter despair. “Oy! You! Who are you and what are you doing in my factory?”

He turned. Marching belligerently towards him, scattering lab coats like so many white mice, a small persnickety man of sleek middle years, clutching a clipboard and looking so offended even his tea-stained moustache was bristling.

“Ah. Good afternoon,” he said, producing his official smile. “Mr Harold Stuttley, I presume?”

The angry little man halted abruptly in front of him, clipboard pressed to his chest like a shield. “And if I am? What of it? Who wants to know?”

Gerald put down his briefcase and fished out his identification. Stuttley snatched it from his fingers, glared as though at a mortal insult, then shoved it back. “What’s all this bollocks? And who let you in here? We’re about to do a run of First Grades. Unauthorised personnel aren’t allowed in here when we’re running First Grades! How do I know you’re not here for a spot of industrial espionage?”

“Because I’m employed by the DoT,” he said, pocketing his badge. “And I’m afraid you won’t be running anything, Mr Stuttley, until I’m satisfied it’s safe to do so. You’ve not submitted your safety statements for some time now, sir. I’m afraid the Department takes a dim view of that. Now I realise it’s probably just an oversight on your part, but even so …” He shrugged. “Rules are rules.”

Harold Stuttley’s pebble-bright eyes bulged. “Want to know what you can do with your rules? You march in here uninvited and then have the hide to tell me when I can and can’t conduct my own business? I’ll have your job for this!”

Gerald considered him. Too much bluster. What’s he trying to hide? He let his gaze slide sideways, away from Harold Stuttley’s unattractively temper-mottled face. The thaumic emission gauge on the nearest etheretic conductor was stuttering, jittery as an icicle in an earthquake. Flick, flick, flick went the needle, each jump edging closer and closer to the bright red zone marked Danger. In his nostrils, the clogging stink of overheated thaumic energy was suddenly stifling.

“Mr Stuttley,” he said, “I think you should shut down production right now. There’s something wrong here, I can feel it.”

Harold Stuttley’s eyes nearly popped right out of his head. “Shut down? Are you raving? You’re looking at over a million quids’ worth of merchandise! All those staffs are bought and paid for, you meddling twit! I’m not about to disappoint my customers for some wet-behind-the-ears stooge from the DoT! Your superiors wouldn’t know a safe bit of equipment if it bit them on the arse – and neither would you! Stuttley’s has been in business two hundred and forty years, you cretin! We’ve been making staffs since before your great-grandad was a randy thought in his pa’s trousers!”

Gerald winced. By now the air inside the factory was so charged with energy it felt like sandpaper abrading his skin. “Look. I realise it’s inconvenient but –“

Harold Stuttley’s pointing finger stabbed him in the chest. “It’s not happening, son, that’s what it is. Inconvenient is the lawsuit I’ll bring against you, your bosses and the whole bleeding Department of Thaumaturgy, you mark my words, if you don’t leg it out of here on the double! Interfering with the lawful conduct of business? This is political, this is. Too many wizards buying Stuttley’s instead of the cheap muck your precious Department churns out! Well I won’t have it, you hear me? Now hop it! Off my premises! Or I’ll give you a personal demonstration why Stuttley’s staffs are the best in the world!”
Gerald stared. Was the man mad? He couldn’t throw out an official Department inspector. He’d have his manufacturing license revoked. Be brought up on charges. Get sent to prison and be forced to pay a hefty fine.

Little rivers of sweat were pouring down Harold Stuttley’s scarlet face and his hands were trembling with rage. Gerald looked more closely. No. Not rage. Terror. Harold Stuttley was beside himself with fear.

He turned and looked at the nearest etheretic conductor. It was sweating too, beads of dark blue moisture forming on its surface, dripping slowly down its sides. Even as he watched, one fat indigo drop of condensed thaumic energy plopped to the factory floor. There was a crack of light and sound. Two preoccupied technicians somersaulted through the air like circus performers, crashed into the wall opposite and collapsed in groaning heaps.
“Stuttley!” He grabbed Harold by his lapels and shook him. “Do you see that? Your etheretic containment field is leaking! You have to evacuate! Now!”

The rest of the lab coats were congregated about their fallen comrades, fussing and whispering and casting loathing looks in their employer’s direction. The acrobatic technicians were both conscious, apparently unbroken, but seemed dazed. Harold Stuttley jumped backwards, tearing himself free of officialdom’s grasp.

“Evacuate? Never! We’ve got a deadline to meet!” He rounded on his employees. “You lot! Back to work! Leave those malingerers where they are, they’re all right, they’re just winded! Be on their feet in no time – if they know what’s good for them. Come on! You want to get paid this week or don’t you?”

Aghast, Gerald stared at him. The man was mad. Even a mere Third Grade wizard like himself knew the dangers of improperly contained thaumic emissions. The entire first year of his correspondence course had dealt with the occupational hazards of wizarding. Some of the illustrations in his handbook had put him off minced meat for weeks.

He stepped closer to the factory foreman and lowered his voice. “Mr Stuttley, you’re making a very big mistake. Falling behind in your safety statements is one thing. It’s a minor infringement. Not worth so much as half a paragraph in Wizard Weekly’s gossip column. But if you try to run this equipment when clearly it’s not correctly calibrated you could cause a scandal that will spread halfway round the world. You could ruin Stuttley’s reputation for years. Maybe forever. Not to mention risk the lives of all your workers. Is that what you want?”

Harold Stuttley swiped his face with his sleeve. “What I want,” he said hoarsely, “is for you to get out of here and let me do my job. There’s nothing wrong with our equipment, I tell you, it –“
“Quick, everyone! Run for your lives! The conductors are about to invert!”

As the technician who’d shouted the warning led the stampede for the nearest door, Gerald spun on his heel and stared at the sweating etheretic conductors. The needles of each thaumic emission gauge were buried deep in the danger zone and the scattered drops of energy had coalesced into foaming indigo streams. They struck the factory floor like lances of fire, blowing holes, scattering splinters. The insulating cables linking the conductors to each other and the benches glowed virulent blue, shimmerings of power wafting off them like heat haze on a dangerous horizon.

Balanced in their cradles, the First Grade staffs began to dance.
“We have to turn off the conductors!” said Gerald. “Before all the staffs are charged at once or the conductors blow – or both! Where are the damper switches, Stuttley?”

But Harold Stuttley was halfway out of the door, his clipboard abandoned on the floor behind him.

Wonderful.

Now the etheretic conductors were humming, a rising song of warning. The air beneath the factory ceiling stirred. Thickened, like curdling cream, and took on a faintly blue cast. He felt every exposed hair on his body stand on end. His throat closed on a gasp as the etheretically burdened atmosphere turned almost unbreathable. Something warm was trickling from his nostrils.

He should run. Now. Without pausing to pick up his brief case. Those conductors were going to invert any second now, and when they did –

“Bloody hell!” he shouted, and leapt for the nearest cable.
It wouldn’t disengage. None of the cables would disengage. He ran up and down the benches, tugging and swearing, but the leaking power had fused the cables to the cradles and each other.

He’d have to get the staffs clear before they all got charged.

Stumbling, sweating, parched with terror, he started hauling the gold-filigreed oak spindles out of their cradles. Tossed them behind him like so much inferior firewood, even as the air continued to coalesce and the etheretic conductors juddered and sweated and discharged bolts of indiscriminate power.

In his pocket his modest little cherrywood staff began to glow. It got so hot he had to stop flinging the First Grade staffs around and drag off his coat, because it felt like his leg was burning. Moments after he threw the coat to the floor the wool burst into flames and disintegrated into charred flakes, revealing his smoking staff with its copper bands glowing bright as a furnace.
The First Grade staffs he’d released from confinement leapt about the floor like popcorn on a hotplate. Those still in their cradles began to buzz. On a sobbing breath he continued tearing them free of the benches.

Ten – twenty – thirty: oh lord, he’d never finish in time –
And then the staffs were simply too hot for flesh to touch. As he fell back, scorched and panting, the power’s song became a scream. Both thaumic emission gauges exploded, the top of the conductors peeled open like soup cans … and a torrent of unprocessed, uncontrolled etheretic energy poured out of the reservoirs and into the remaining First Grade staffs.

The thaumic boom blasted him against the nearest wall so hard he thought for a moment he was dead, but seconds later his blackened vision cleared.

He wished it hadn’t.

Terrible arcing lines of indigo power surged around and through the staffs he’d failed to pull free of their conductive cradles. The emptied conductors, ripped apart from the inside out, lay fallen on their sides. Two ragged gaping holes in the ceiling directly overhead spilled sunlight onto the dreadful aftermath of undisciplined thaumic energies. Through them spiralled two thin columns of unfiltered emissions: the leftover power not captured by the staffs escaping into the wider world beyond the factory.

Groaning, Gerald staggered to his feet. If he didn’t shut down that self-perpetuating loop of energy pouring through the First Grade staffs it would continue to build and build until it exploded … most likely taking half the suburb of Stuttley with it. It wasn’t a job for a lowly probationary compliance officer, or a Third Grade wizard who’d received his qualifications from a barely recognised correspondence course. He doubted it was even a job for a First Grade wizard … at least, not one working solo. A whole squadron might manage it, at a pinch.

But that was wishful thinking. There wasn’t time to contact Mr Scunthorpe and get him to send out a flying squad of Departmental troubleshooters. There was just him. Gerald Dunwoody, wizard Third Grade. Twenty-three years old and scared to death.

So long, life. I hardly lived you …

Looming large before him, the howling, writhing mass of thaumaturgically linked First Grade staffs, bathed in unholy indigo fire. Abandoned on the floor at his feet, his pathetic little cherrywood staff, as useful now as a piece of straw.

And scattered around him, four of the First Grade staffs he’d managed to rescue before the massive conductor inversion. Rolling idly to and fro they glowed a gentle gold, their filigree activated. They must have been caught in the nimbus of exploding thaumic energy.

Everybody knew that Third Grade wizards didn’t have the etheretic chops to handle a First Grade staff. Even using a Second Grader was to risk life, limb and sanity. Attempting to use one of those erratically charged First Graders was proof positive that sanity had left the building.

But he had no choice. This was an emergency and he was the only Department official in sight. Instincts shrieking, fear a gibbering demon on his back, he reached for the nearest activated First Grade staff. If it was one of the special orders, keyed to a specific wizard, then he really was about to breath his last --

A shock of power slammed through his body. The world pulsed violet, then crimson, then bright and blinding blue, spinning wildly on its axis. Something deep inside his mind torqued. Twisted. Tore. His vision cleared, the mad giddiness stopped, and he was himself again. More or less. Something was different, but there was no time to worry or work out what.
Bucking and flailing like a live thing, the staff struggled to join its brethren in the heart of the magical maelstrom. Gerald got his other hand onto it, battling to contain the energy. It felt like standing inside the world’s largest waterfall. The staff was channelling the excess energies from the atmosphere, attracting them like a magnet. Pummelled, battered, he wrestled with the flux and flow of power. Poured everything he had into taming the beast in his fists.

But the beast didn’t want to be tamed.

Gasping, fighting against being pulled into the maelstrom, he opened his slitted eyes. The etheretic conductors were empty now, their spiralling columns of power collapsed. But the trapped staffs within the indigo firestorm continued to blaze, amplifying and distorting the energies they’d consumed. Only minutes remained, surely, before they exploded.

And he had no idea how to stop them.