Chapter 1.

London, 27 October 20xx, 16:25

Within the circle, the tiny spirit took form.

Slowly, almost cautiously, it came into being, its lithe, nearly-invisible body catching the dim light of the room and turning it into little shimmers like those that hovered around campfires. Flickering, it reached out its slender arms and tested the confines of the circle laid out around it, its outline flaring a delicate pink as it darted around the small perimeter, trying to find a weak spot where there was none. It was trapped. Resigned to its fate, the little spirit sat down in the center of the circle with an almost humanlike air of frustration, staring up at its surroundings and waiting.

“Lights, please,” said a voice. As the room lights snapped on, the little spirit noticed that the boundary encasing it was no longer in existence. With a rakish little tilt of its head, it immediately disappeared back from whence it had come.

“That’ll be all for today,” Dr. Alastair Stone told his class. “I’ll expect your reports on what you assensed tomorrow.” He leaned casually over the lab table at the front of the room, watching them as they gathered their bags, stowed their portable computers, and made their way down from their chairs toward the door. A few of them nodded goodbyes to him, which he returned, but none stopped to chat today. He was glad of that, though normally he would wait a few minutes after class to see if anyone needed anything. He enjoyed his class of first-year Thaumaturgy students-it was fine to sit around and discuss the more esoteric points of magical theory with his handpicked group of graduate students, but sometimes the sheer excitement of the first-year kids was infectious. Everything was new to them; even the weak little spirit he’d summoned so they could get a look at the proper technique had reduced them all to wide-eyed silence. Stone liked watching that, knowing as he did how soon this group would be as jaded as the older students were. Maybe some of them, someday, would even get as jaded as he was.

The last of the students filed out, leaving him alone in the vast lecture hall. He propped himself up on his elbows, staring out at the rows of worn wooden chairs, empty now. The hall was quite old, like most of those at the stately London University; it had been built long before anyone would ever have even suspected that it would eventually become the site for an undergraduate course in Introduction to Thaumaturgy. Stone smiled to himself, remembering his own stint in one of those chairs so many years ago. Had it really been twenty-four years since he’d sat in this same class, a skinny sixteen-year-old overachiever with a dream of being a mage? A lot of things had happened since then, that was certain.

“Reminiscing, Doctor?”

Stone glanced back up toward the chairs at the sound of a new voice. A young man in his mid-twenties, dressed in a rumpled tweed sport jacket and carrying a backpack, sat there, one leg hooked over the seat in front of him. Stone smiled at him, a faraway look in his eyes. “Something like that,” he admitted. “What are you doing here, Roger?”

The young man shrugged. “Just thought you might want somebody to talk to. You’ve been acting a bit strange lately.”

“Don’t tell me--Aubrey sent you.”

“Nope. You forget, I know you almost like you know yourself. Goes with the territory.”

Stone nodded, sighed. For some reason, he felt tired today. “Yes, I know. Remind me again why I made you so young, and with such bad manners.” A smile quirked the corners of his mouth; it was an old joke.

“Oh, that’s easy,” Roger said, grinning. “You wanted to recapture your lost youth.” Nimbly, he made his way down the aisle, jumped up and perched on the edge of the lab bench.

Stone tossed his pocket secretary, a couple of books, and a handful of conjuring materials into his battered leather briefcase and snapped it shut, grabbing his jacket from the back of the chair. “Lost youth,” he said contemptuously. “I wouldn’t be your age again if you paid me. Besides, I’m not exactly in my dotage, you know.”

“Whatever you say, Grandpa,” the young man agreed, ducking quickly to avoid the wadded piece of paper Stone threw at him. “Are you going home now?”

“I suppose so.” Stone sighed. “I have a few things I need to finish up for that seminar next week. Might as well get them over with.”

“You don’t sound happy about it.” Roger fell into step alongside Stone as they left the lecture hall and headed down the echoing hallway toward the outside world. Students, heading for their next class, flowed around them in an eddy, occasionally waving or nodding in greeting.

Stone waited until they were outside before answering. He stopped, staring out over the tree-lined, mist-enshrouded campus. Then he shrugged. “It has to be done. Won’t take much preparation, though. It’ll be just like all the others. They’ll ask the same questions, and come to the same conclusions they always do.”

“You need a vacation, Alastair,” Roger said, for once looking serious. “You’re burning out, and you’ve only been here, what, two years?”

“I am not burning out,” Stone protested peevishly. “I’m bored, that’s all. It’s all the same. Maybe I should put in to go do some guest lecturing in Africa or something. Maybe the change of scenery would help.”

“Sure. And you can get all sorts of charming diseases while you’re about it. Don’t think I’m going to nursemaid you if you get bitten by a tsetse fly and get jungle fever.”

“You don’t get jungle fever from tsetse flies. You get African sleeping sickness from tsetse flies,” Stone said distractedly.

“Well, then, at least you’ll be quiet,” Roger said, grinning.

Stone sighed, smiling in spite of himself, and resumed his course across campus toward the near parking lot. “You don’t have to hang about if you don’t want to. What I have to do this afternoon will bore even you, I think.”

Roger shrugged. “Whatever you like. Just thought I’d come by to see how you were doing.”

“I’ll be fine,” Stone told him. “You go on and do--whatever it is you do. I’ll call if I need you.”

“All right, then. Ta ta.” Roger grinned again and disappeared, startling a couple of young women who were passing by.

Stone shrugged and smiled at them, then continued on his way without explanation. While he didn’t exactly make it a secret that Roger was a spirit, he likewise did not go out of his way to advertise the fact, either. As an ally spirit, Roger was exactly what Stone wanted: someone at his level with whom he could discuss the theory and practice of magic, someone to help him set up his more ambitious conjurings and help him engineer spells, and occasionally someone to just have an ale with at one of the numerous pubs that attached themselves to the campus like barnacles on a whale. The fact that Roger appeared to be a harried young graduate student was Stone’s own private joke; an even more obscure one was that the spirit had been named after, and more than vaguely resembled, the mid-20th-century rock and roll singer Roger Daltrey, member of the group called “The Who”. Stone’s taste for British rock-and-roll music from the last century was not shared by many of his contemporaries, so the joke went right over their heads. Stone liked it that way.

For a brief second he wished he hadn’t sent the spirit away, and considered calling him back again. But no, he decided, what he really wanted right now was to be alone with his thoughts. Reaching the parking lot, he tossed his briefcase into the passenger side of his little two-seater convertible (a wholly impractical car, he had to admit, but he couldn’t bring himself to buy one of the staid sedans favored by his older peers), got in and headed for home.

Try as he did, he could not put his finger on what was bothering him. It was just a vague feeling of unease that had been growing in his mind for the past month or so. Nothing too obvious--most of the time he felt fine, looking forward to going to the University three days a week to teach his three courses: Intro to Thaumaturgy, which he had just left, a graduate-level class in magical theory, and a small seminar consisting of a group of seven highly skilled students who were seeking to learn the kinds of things that normally weren’t taught in a school like venerable old London U. Stone’s “checquered past,” as he called it, uniquely qualified him to teach such a course, and it was unquestionably his favorite. But even it, lately, was not bringing him the satisfaction it once had. He wondered if Roger, who really was just another facet of his personality, had been on to something when he suggested that Stone take a vacation. Sometimes the spirit had insights into his subconscious that he never would have recognized on his own; he had learned to listen to Roger when he had something to say.

Finally breaking free of the snarled traffic of London and out into the countryside leading to some of its suburbs, Stone increased speed, thinking over his short career as a professor. He’d started only two years ago, his employment quite a plum coup for his longtime mentor, Dr. Rodney Leifeld, current Head of the Department of Thaumaturgy within the University’s School of Hermetic Sciences. Old Rodney had been trying to get him to accept a position there for many years, but Stone had always resisted, taking an occasional guest lecturer spot here and there, but nothing more. Stone knew he made many of the older professors, in his mind a learned but singularly unimaginative bunch, nervous with his relative youth (at forty he was one of the youngest full professors in the department) and his history of non-scholarly experience. Some of the papers he had published in recent years, before finally accepting his current position, had been concerned with subjects that no ivory-tower academic had any business knowing about: for example, his treatise on the hive-mind of insect spirits had not only garnered him scholarly acclaim, but had ensured that for awhile people tended not to invite him to parties. Not that he minded: Alastair Stone disliked parties intensely, despite the fact that his good looks and sardonic wit made him popular with the wives of the male professors. It didn’t take them all long to get over the insect paper and start inviting him again, but it had been a nice respite. He’d actually considered whacking out one on toxic shamans, in hope that it might buy him another few months’ reprieve, but had finally decided that might have been a bit much.

He supposed he should be glad of the fact that his classes were immensely popular, never failing to fill up early in the registration process. His unconventional teaching methods were unlike anything employed by the older professors, who usually contented themselves with dry lectures and carefully-controlled labs. Stone preferred the real-world approach--this was Applied Thaumaturgy, after all, and not that theoretical stuff. He’d gotten called on the carpet a couple of times for trashing a lab here or there, but old Rodney had always stood up for him, and he saw no reason to change his ways. It was obvious to students and fellow faculty alike that he loved what he was doing; it was hard to stay angry with him when he was getting such good results.

So if everything was going so well, Stone thought, turning his attention back to the road, why was he feeling so out of sorts? Shrugging, he tried to put it out of his mind as he at last drew close to home. He reached up and punched a code into a keypad on the dash of the car; a bit down the road, a pair of eight-foot-high wrought-iron gates swung open on silent hinges. Stone drove through the gates onto the graveled driveway, pressing the button again to close them behind him. Without a backward glance, he guided the car up the long driveway.

This was another thing that was odd about Alastair Stone: not many other university professors lived in two-hundred-year-old mansions set on large country estates. Stone smiled as he rounded the corner of the drive past a copse of trees and pulled up in front of the place: it never failed to cheer him up to see again what they’d finally been able to do with it.

Stone Manor, the ancestral home, had been in his family for the nearly two hundred years of its existence. Stone figured that the last time it had been in proper repair, before now, had been at least a hundred of those years ago. When he had inherited it at age nineteen, upon the death of his parents in a suspicious plane crash, it had been structurally sound but not much else: paint peeling, roof unsafe in several sections, every surface covered with generations’ worth of dust and grime and cobwebs. The trust fund he had inherited along with the house barely covered the taxes and the salary of the caretaker; there hadn’t been much left for repairs. Stone had done what he could, sending whatever money he could spare home from America (where he had been living at the time), but it had been an uphill battle against the encroaching decay for many years.

That was all behind him now, though. With satisfaction, he got out of the car, regarding the fresh paint, new slate roof, renovated windows, and the other improvements that had been made over the past two years since he’d been home to stay. They’d even finally gotten around to restoring the east wing, which had languished in disrepair since before Stone had been born. Nothing like a little infusion of cash to change the picture, he thought cheerfully, swinging his briefcase and heading up the steps to the front door. The place was finally looking respectable.

Many things in Stone’s life had changed in the past few years, and one of them was that he was now a relatively rich man, something he’d never been before. Oh, he’d always been comfortable; since childhood, he’d grown up in the style of corporate luxury and had never had to worry about money, attending the best private schools his parents could afford (not the lofty institutions affordable only by royalty and corporate bigwigs, certainly, but close). He’d never had to worry about money for the necessities of life (and many of the luxuries), but now, after returning to London from America a little over two years ago, he had, through careful investment and a little discreet magic dealing, amassed enough of an income that, should he choose to do so, he could retire immediately and live an extremely comfortable life for the rest of his days.

Of course, he didn’t want to. Inactivity was Alastair Stone’s idea of hell. He’d taken the position at the University not because he needed the money, but because the stimulation of being back in the academic world, the opportunity to share the subject he loved with new crops of eager young minds, appealed to him. That was why he didn’t mind annoying some of the stuffier professors: if they canned him, he’d just go on and do something else. They wouldn’t, though. That he knew. Not as long as Rodney Leifeld was around, and not as long as his student evaluations were consistently at the top end of the scale. It was the next best thing to tenure, which, he figured, if he stayed around long enough, he would have no trouble getting.

Stone entered the house, tossing his briefcase on a nearby chair in the massive foyer, and hurried through into the main hall, a vast room that rose up to the house’s two stories and whose various exits led to the other parts of the Manor. “Aubrey, are you here?” he called, stopping to wait for an answer.

“Yes, sir. In here,” came a voice from Stone’s right. After a moment, a stocky, slightly stooped man in his mid-sixties came out of a doorway and into the hall. A smile lit his craggy, kindly face when he saw Stone. “You’re home early today, sir.”

“Had to get some things done,” Stone said, meeting him halfway. Aubrey Townes, the caretaker of Stone Manor, had been in the family longer than Stone himself had. He had begun looking after the house when he was only a young man, taking over the job from his own father before him. “Have to get ready for that blasted seminar next week. Don’t expect me for dinner, all right?”

Aubrey nodded. This was nothing new. “Yes, sir. Of course. Shall I bring some tea a bit later?”

Stone smiled, exasperated at his old friend. Aubrey was at his happiest when he was spending more time looking after his employer than looking after the house. Stone didn’t really mind, since he was quite fond of the old man, but sometimes being “looked after” quite so diligently made him uncomfortable. “That would be fine,” he finally said. “I’ll be in the study.”

“Yes, sir.” Satisfied, Aubrey headed back for the kitchen, and Stone continued his progress toward the back of the house.

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Copyright ©1996 R. King-Nitschke. The Shadowrun universe is the property of FASA Corporation.
No part of this story may be reproduced without permission from the author.