Rain pounded against the pavement like artillery fire, and the wind howled over roofs with enough force to threaten the integrity of their shingles. It was more of a military assault than mere weather; yet a lone figure could be seen braving the storm of the century by anyone looking out of their windows that night. In a long black coat, collar pulled high and a hat pulled low, he strode with quick purpose despite the rain that was doing its best to drown him.
But the streets were dark and empty, apart from the stranger. No one was looking out their windows that night, and so he passed unobserved.
* * *
In the contrasting warmth and relative comfort of a small third floor apartment, a man sat at his desk, leaning so low over his work that the tip of his nose nearly touched the desktop. He read and wrote by weak, yellow lamplight and was sparing no thoughts whatever to the ferocity of the weather outside his home.
At a desk as disorganized and cluttered as the rest of the small room, he labored over copying an old, stained map onto fresh paper, crisp and white and acid free. The lines he copied were precise—more than precise, absolutely exact. There was no room for error. Ley lines were tricky things to record, being off by even the slightest measurements made a reference map utterly useless. With mechanical precision, he pulled his pen along the new map, a steady line of black ink bisecting the sheet in the graceful arc of a major ley line, until a staccato burst of several sharp raps at his door made him start and drop the pen, a massive ink blot ruining half a day's work.
He spat a curse and snatched it back up, but the damage was done. He rose to his feet, and pushing up his glasses, he stomped across the room, prepared to give whoever it was a piece of his mind. He yanked the door open, his mouth opening as the heated words formed on his lips—and there they died the next instant when he saw who stood in the hall.
As quick as lightning he slammed the door shut, but not before the person on the other side managed to stick his foot in the gap.
The visitor yelped in pain, but didn't move his boot. “Hey! That's no way to greet a guest!”
“You're no guest of mine,” the bespectacled man snarled, pushing against the door with all his might in the vain hope that with enough effort, it might simply pass through the foot via sheer force of will.
“Come on, Nicholas,” the visitor beseeched, trying to wedge his head into the narrow gap between door and frame so he could fix the other man with a pitiful look. “I'm soaked to the bone and as cold as a witch's tit. You wouldn't leave your own brother to freeze to death on your doorstep, would you?”
“I would, and I will,” Nicholas replied with a grunt, now trying to kick his brother's foot out of the way. “You're not welcome here, Alfred!”
“You're not honestly still holding a grudge, are you?” Alfred asked in what would have seemed like genuine hurt to an outside observer.
Nicholas, however, knew his brother better than that. “You know full well I am, and the only reason you wouldn't be as well is if you wanted something. And whatever it is you want, I'm not going to be a part of it.”
“Look,” Alfred said quickly, “would I have come to here if I had another option? I have a job, Nicholas, a big one, an almost impossible one. And you're the only person I know that might, that just might be able to pull it off."
Nicholas couldn’t help but pause, and then waver, just for a moment. But then with an effort of will, he dragged himself back to his senses. “No. No way. You made it perfectly clear what you think of my way of doing magic last year. Now goodbye.” He gave the door another firm slam, but it was obvious that it wasn't doing much good.
“Can’t you just put that behind us?” Alfred begged. “I came back, came to you, because I know that you’re the best at what you do! And honestly, I need your help. This job could be the big one for us. We'll go down in history as the greatest mages since Merlin if we pull this one off! This will change the world, it could change humanity itself, but I can’t do it without you. Please let me in? At least hear me out before you pass this up. We're family, you owe me that much.”
Nicholas stood rooted to the spot, glaring at his brother. “Fine.” He stepped away from the door, allowing Alfred to push his way fully inside. Alfred made a beeline straight to the small hearth where a threadbare armchair sat facing the crackling fire, shedding layers of clothes in the few seconds it took him cross the small room. He dropped his dripping hat onto a stack of spellbooks, kicked off muddy boots in the middle of the floor, and tossed his wet coat over the back of the armchair as he shoved his rear end as close to the flames as he could handle.
With a scowl, Nicholas removed the wet hat from the first editions it was ruining, and the coat from the chair, hanging them on the coat rack. He gingerly picked up the boots between thumbs and forefingers and tossed them outside into the hall.
“It’s a hell of a night out there,” Alfred was saying as he rubbed his hands together vigorously. “I had to walk all the way here, there was nothing else for it, not at this time of night.”
“What are you doing here?” Nicholas demanded. “You're obviously not here for a friendly chat, so just tell me what you want from me.”
“I told you, I have a job for us, a damn good one,” said Alfred, excitement lighting up his eyes.
“And I told you, the last time we saw each other you made it clear that we weren’t ever doing any more jobs together, and then you took off and started your own business—which, if I know you as half as well as I think I do, has now failed due to your rash and undisciplined attitude and you’ve come crawling back, broke and desperate enough to swallow your pride.”
Alfred looked incredibly offended. “That is absolutely not… well, it isn’t totally… partially, I suppose you could say… I…” he faltered, and then he gave a weak sort of shrug. “Okay, so perhaps that may be somewhat accurate. My freelance wizardry business did not do as well as I had hoped, and I learned a few valuable lessons that you can’t always go in cold on a job and expect your spells to work flawlessly.” He fingered an eyebrow, which Nicholas noticed looked rather singed. “I just thought that I could handle the business better on my own, my way, without all of your incessant nitpicking; having to do everything by the book and plan out every single aspect of a spell six ways from Sunday; and how much time you wasted on research we never even ended up using—”
“You’re reminding me why I wasn’t all that fussed to see the back of you,” Nicholas snarled.
“You’re right, I’m getting off track. The point is, as tedious and pedantic as your method of performing magic is, occasionally it can be a valuable asset.”
“Is this supposed to be an apology?”
“Is it not coming across that way?”
“Would you get on with it already? What is this mysterious job of yours that you so desperately need my help for?”
Alfred grinned, his eyes gleaming with that barely contained excitement again. “It’s an incredible opportunity for us, Nick.”
“Don’t call me Nick.”
“It’s an incredible opportunity for us, Nicholas. I suppose I’d better start at the beginning, when the family first contacted me—”
“Just get straight to the point! What’s the job?” Nicholas said through grit teeth. Alfred heaved a sigh, the wind thoroughly taken out of his sails.
“Bringing the dead back to life,” he said flatly.
Nicholas was so taken aback that he forgot to look scornful. “What did you say?”
“A dead woman, she’s dead, and I’ve been hired to fix that. It’s fairly straight forward.”
Nicholas staggered over to his work desk and fell into the hard-backed chair. “Bring the dead back to… that’s just not possible. You know that full well. Did you accept the job? You shouldn’t have, claiming that it would be possible to do something like that would be morally reprehensible!”
“But it’s not impossible, Nicholas! I know you know the history of magic better than nearly anyone alive. There are precedents—”
“Failed attempts, riddled with complications, and that’s not even to mention the ethical dilemmas involved. Nobody has successfully brought the dead back to life.”
“But some have come close, haven’t they?”
“I mean, it’s just alchemy, isn’t it? And that's your strongest subject! You’re a master alchemist!”
“Reviving the body itself is alchemy, but a soul-”
“And that’s where I come in!” Alfred interjected. “I've got more raw magic in my pinky than most wizards have in their whole bodies, and I can weave a spell out of thin air like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. If there’s no spell to retrieve a lost soul, I’m almost positive I could do it on the spot without one, as long as you were there to guide me in the right direction.”
“Things have a tendency to explode when you try inventing your own spells,” Nicholas said, recalling with a wince the fiasco with the livestock from several years prior.
“Well if it doesn’t work, what’s the worst that happens? The girl dies? She’s already dead! Worst case scenario we just singe her bit.”
“Worst case scenario, both you and I get blown straight to hell. Who hired you to do this? Don’t they realize what they're asking?”
“Ah, so now you want the story,” said Alfred, smirking. Nicholas replied with a few choice words. “I’ll tell you anyway. You really need to hear it from the beginning to understand.
“This afternoon I received a invitation to the home of a notable—and wealthy—family, not far from here, urging me to come to their home as soon as possible, and offering to pay me a hefty down payment upon my arrival for the inconvenience. I was intrigued of course, it was the most mysterious summons I had ever received.”
“I’ll bet the cash offer also had something to do with it,” muttered Nicholas. Alfred pretended he hadn’t heard the interruption.
“I took the first train I could and arrived at the address just after nightfall where I met Mr. and Mrs. Hopkins. Mr. Hopkins explained that their daughter had fallen terminally ill. Obviously they loved their daughter dearly, and if there was no medical cure that could save her, they thought perhaps there might be a magical one. I agreed to take a look and see what I could do.
“They brought me into the room where she was laid out. I found to my shock that the young woman was already dead, of which her parents were well aware. Apparently, she had died that morning, before they had even contacted me. They weren’t ready to give up though, and decided that since they had nothing to lose they would see if there might be something that magic could do that medicine couldn't.
“I told them that dead was dead and that there are somethings even magic can’t change. But they pleaded, and told me that they had heard of wizards throughout history who had been able to part the veil of death. I informed them that was a load of bull, no one had ever brought back the dead before. But then it got me to thinking. Attempts have been made in the past, and some of them have come damned close. Which I only know because of you and your obsession with the history of magic. You never shut up about the subject. So I thought... well, between your brains and technical skill, combined with my frankly awe-inspiring raw power, I wondered if perhaps something could be done after all. Or at least an attempt could be made, with no one worse for wear if it didn’t work. So, what do you think?”
“I think you’ve lost your mind,” Nicholas replied in disbelief. “We can’t resurrect the dead, and even if it were possible, I certainly couldn’t devise a spell for that tonight. It isn’t as if we’d have all the time in the world to figure one out, unless you were willing to bring the girl back in a half-decomposed body. I for one, am not. No. I’m not going to be a part of this. You wasted your time coming here.”
“But Nicholas, you have an advantage over everyone who has failed in the past. You have dozens of historical accounts to reference, all those failed attempts that have already paved the way. You can see what definitely didn't work, and what almost did. Aren’t you even the tiniest bit curious whether or not you’re smart enough to do it? Here’s a chance to really put yourself to the test, to find out exactly how clever you are.”
Nicholas was silent for a long moment, chewing over his brother’s words. It was mad, utterly mad. But… well, some of the resurrection attempts in the past had come very close to working. He had several books on the subject somewhere in his library… it might be possible to hobble together some kind of franken-spell from the accounts of the spells that came closest. He knew that Alfred was using his vanity against him, but Nicholas was clever, cleverer than most, and he knew it. And though Alfred's complete lack of technical skill made working with him a serious hazard, Nicholas couldn't deny that his brother was one of the most powerful wizards he had ever known.
Nicholas heaved a sigh. “Let me find my books.”
“I’ll get us a cab, you can read them on the way,” Alfred replied with a wide grin, clapping his brother on the shoulder. Nicholas was nearly sent sprawling.
“You want us to go now?” he replied, taken aback.
“Well you had a point, the girl won’t keep forever. Don’t forget any supplies we might need. Now chop chop, no time to waste!”
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