Hunted by Death, one man will face the forces of Hell to get back home…
Former Baltimore cop Eustace “Ace” Grant is on a quest to find lost sorcery. An apprentice shaman, Ace walks the spirit realm in search of a cure for his terminal illness.
When asked to recover a Civil War sword, Ace finds traces of a magic more potent than he’s ever experienced. Forged in England by a smith in possession of the Primal Flame, the blade had been intended for a different battle entirely – the one at the end of time.
That battle upon us, it’s up to Ace to recover the sword. Without it, the world as we know it will be plunged into a nightmare. He’ll find the sword or die trying. That is if his ghostly mentor, Atofo, will only let go of his soul…
If you’re reading this, I never made it back to you. I don’t know what your Gramma and Grampa have told you. Not much they could say. I didn’t leave them, or you, any choice.
But I want you to know I tried. I did my damnedest. I want you to know my sole purpose in life has been to get back to you. To be there for you. Not just a voice on the phone and a check in the mail, but present in your life.
Gone or not, there are other things you need to know. About me. About you. About This World.
Truth is, the world is a dangerous place, especially for you. Whether you join the boys on the corner or take the bus uptown, the odds are stacked against you. You get to choose between the danger you know, a code you can at least decipher, or the one carved into your back, burned into your skin. Either way, you’ll need to be strong to make it.
So I don’t expect you to believe me when I say what lies underneath the world you can see, This World, isn’t any better. But first, apologies must be made.
I don’t expect you to accept those, either.
Your mother wouldn’t have. Too smart. Too practical. She was a beautiful woman. I hope you can remember how she looked at you.
As dangerous as This World is, and the worlds both Above and Below, we all face death. Still, I couldn’t stand to watch you lose somebody else.
I got scared. I ran. I shouldn’t have even made it this far…
I stared at the words on the page. Always when I got to the part where I tried to explain myself, I lost the nerve. Certain things were beyond forgiveness. And explanations? Hell, I’m fresh out of those after all I’ve seen.
The antique desk chair creaked as I stretched and stared at the ceiling, I can’t explain why I did what I did without going into all the details. About how magic is real and how it both saved and doomed me.
Maybe Izaak would be better off not knowing the truth — like most of the civilian population.
I crumpled the paper and sent it on an arc toward the trash. Two hairy legs straddled the wire basket. A bad bounce off the Sasquatch’s kneecap and the wadded paper joined the pile on the floor.
“Nice one, Mutombo.”
Yes, even a seven-foot tall stuffed Sasquatch posed a threat to my game. The cramped loft where I lived offered no other excuses. Hoops, I played the bench. Throwing the dice in Cee-lo? I was all ones; a losing roll. No luck. At all.
That’s why they called me Ace.
But back in West Baltimore, I’d been one of the few who hadn’t done time before graduation. I beat the odds again when I finished college. I had my eye on law school when I became police, then Keandra came into the picture. Izaak. I would’ve taken the LSAT or made detective, eventually.
I wished for that kind of luck for my son. He’d stay off the streets and out of The Game. Live a boring, bleached life in some distant suburbia where the neighbors aren’t too suspicious. Raise a family.
Avoid my diagnosis.
Izaak was too young to understand these letters anyway. At five years old, he needed different advice. Like how to brush his teeth. Tie his shoes. Not how to navigate the spirit world.
One way or another though, the worlds beyond or the cancer would probably kill me before I spoke to him again.
Mutombo towered by the door, his wax and bison coat making for a shaggy sentinel. Originally, he’d been by the window. The smell of musty hair cooking in the Saint Augustine sun and the frequent calls to 911 from well-meaning drunks about monstrous prowlers had convinced me to drag him to his new spot beside the door.
Public attention or cops, I didn’t need either. I’d left everything behind. Everything. When I walked away from my life, I’d had one foot in the grave.
I swiveled to face the desk again. Centuries of communication were embedded in the scarred walnut surface. A ritual, if ever there was one. I hadn’t been the first person to fail at finding the right words.
Not everything Kitterling had stuffed up here was junk. Any of the remaining Mediterranean moisture had been sapped out of the desk’s seventeenth-century Italian wood and the inlay had split. This desk might’ve fetched good money despite the current condition. But Edward Kitterling didn’t pay me for my opinion. He paid for my ability to find things.
I swiped the remaining blank pages into the single desk drawer. A stack of attempts at the same letter filled the shallow space. A family photo sat on top. The three of us, happy, when the world made sense. I slid the drawer shut.
Outside, the street recovered from Saturday night. The foot traffic was a combination of hungover, weary stragglers and overly eager tourists without any sense of decency. A pirate walked past stifling a yawn.
Maybe I’d take it easy today. Catch a movie or whatever. I kicked out from the desk and let the chair’s wheels thunk across the hardwood.
My momentum carried me past the spongy fold-out bed where I slept, all busted springs and thin metal slats. A commercial display cabinet covered the opposite wall. Crooked piles of yellowing magazines and fraying boxes were stacked underneath. Larger than the door or the windows, I’d never bothered to ask Kitterling how the hell he got the glass and chrome case up here. Knowing that puffed up old jackass, it was on the backs of some poorly tipped day laborers.
The rolling chair rattled through a heavy jet stream of incense and aromatics. Behind the dusty glass of the display case brimmed remedies, cures, potions, and even magic soap. All bullshit. But again, Kitterling, my landlord and boss, didn’t pay me for my opinion.
Mix them all together, they smelled like a head shop; one more reason I didn’t need a visit from my former fraternal brotherhood. They’d disowned me the second the badge dropped on the Captain’s desk. I’d become another black man on the streets. A potential suspect.
The homeopathic cures and aromatherapy bullshit which Kitterling had banished to the carriage house loft spoke to his own investigation into a world not many knew existed. Operating on the fringes, he’d pieced together some of what took me months of searching and sacrifice to find. He had deep connections which I hadn’t found the bottom of yet.
Kitterling’s trouble was he’d never willingly sacrifice anything. That’s why he’d always be doomed to roam the edges of the spirit world.
This ain’t no thoughts and prayers I’m talking about. This is honest to God magic. And it’s the only reason I’m here. The only reason I’m alive and can’t ever go home.
Not until you put one foot in the grave, do you see the world for what it truly is. You cross into a space between This World and the others.
People talked about being woke. Being woke to magic was like being stabbed through the sternum with a sixteen gauge needle full of adrenaline, repeatedly, whether you needed it or not. Sworn to live apart from the world, you don’t know your place anymore. You wish you’d maybe taken up that corner job. Stuck it out at the Baltimore PD until the death benefits kicked in.
I’d been too scared for all that. But I didn’t know true fear back then.
A gentle spin of the chair found me posting up with Mutombo again. Fingers behind my head, an unexpected breath seeped in as I leaned back. A tickle in my throat sent me lurching forward, coughing. I dug out a stained handkerchief and covered my mouth. Bright red phlegm mingled with other darker stains.
Head hung between my knees, I wadded up the cloth. “I’m not afraid of you,” I told Mutombo. “Plenty worse monsters out there.”
A brass bell near the door jangled three times.
Kitterling wanted me downstairs. More chimes than that meant to shut up. Turn the music down. Keep the ladies quiet — not that I had a regular thing.
“Being paged,” I muttered. Mutombo didn’t seem to care.
Handkerchief stashed in my pocket, I headed to the small trunk at the foot of my bed. More magic was in here. Unlike the contents of the display case this was all mine, and none of it was bullshit.
On the top rested a large gold disk the size of a dinner plate. Setting it on my bed, I peeled off my shirt. It had taken a long time for me to adjust to wearing the Timucuan breastplate. Comfort-wise, it wasn’t any worse than a bulletproof vest. How it looked? I’d been convinced my mentor, Atofo, had just been messing with his apprentice, Flava Flav.
“Imagine if you were a pale skin,” he’d said in his trademark, dry tone. “People wouldn’t take you seriously.”
If I’m to believe what he said, the artifact will stop death himself reaching for my soul. If.
Straps secured, the breastplate concealed well enough underneath my buttoned shirt. Next came the knife. His knife, as Atofo was so eager to remind me. The leather wrapped handle was decorated with owl feathers. He said he forged the blade from a Conquistador’s codpiece.
All Spaniards were ever good for was humping and smallpox, he says. No kidding. Atofo was quite the character.
But I’d learned a thing or two since then. Spanish armor of that period didn’t typically have codpieces, decorative or otherwise. Older than the cold-hammered copper the natives had access to, this knife wasn’t Spanish steel. But the blade predated Columbus’ arrival. Working for Kitterling had taught me that much.
Working with Atofo had given me a different education. I could sense the history of the blade, feel the impression left by the Two Spirits who’d forged it in a time long before anybody recorded such things. He knew I understood, but his knife story never changed.
This tool of the trade I used regularly. Mostly on myself. I’d had to stab a living beast once and hoped to never again. I’d felt the hunger of the blade with every thrust. The mysterious artifact had been starved, and the creature I killed wasn’t the chicken box it expected. The oddly scalloped surface glinted as I shoved it into my wrist sheath.
Next, I snatched my shoulder holster from Mutombo’s outstretched arm. I shrugged into the loops and adjusted my Sig Sauer P226 Emperor Scorpion. When I’d left the BPD, I’d found an even stranger world. Being armed both magically and conventionally wasn’t optional.
The bell rattled furiously three more times.
“Coming!” I shouted.
I put on a charcoal canvas jacket to cover my small arsenal. I buttoned my medicine bag into an inner pocket. I’d gone cheap and opted for a Crown Royal velvet pouch. Wasn’t so much the bag Atofo objected to but that I’d finished the contents without him.
Front door open, ready to jog down the steps, I froze. A raven darkened my stoop. His talons clutched the dried husk of corn I’d left the night before as a sort of spiritual welcome mat.
Gleaming, beady eyes considered me. He cawed, once, then took flight. With my offering.
“North,” I said, aloud. “He went north.”
Just my luck. Whatever Kitterling had in mind wasn’t going to be a normal job. Then again, I’d left normal behind on the streets of Baltimore where bodies stacked up like cordwood. When I’d thought the world couldn’t get any freakier. I’d been so wrong…
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