James A. Owen calls MythWorld “...an Urban Fantasy Pulp Adventure epic about ancient manuscripts, zen illusionists, opera, murder, magic, and the alternate History of the World” which pretty much covers anything he wants to pull into the story.
This first volume, The Festival of Bones, begins with a manuscript and ends with a murder. A mysterious prodigy, sometimes known as Jude, and sometimes known as Obscuro, invites Michael Langbein, a professor of ancient literature, and Mikaal Gunnar-Galen, a former singer who is now an ambitious department head at the University of Vienna, to a nightclub where he shows them a mysterious manuscript – the Prime Edda. Jude believes the ancient text, a mythology of Northern Europe, was once used by the composer Richard Wagner in some sort of ritual related to his Ring Operas.
Jude found the manuscript while in the Himalayas, where he also discovered proof of alternate histories of the world. He says that in the past, those histories have overlapped with our own, causing things as we know them to shift and change – for a short time – in a phenomenon called an Inversion. Jude believes that somehow, the stories in the Edda relate to the overlapping of these histories and a forthcoming inversion, which he wants to witness.
They start to translate the work, but soon find themselves pursued by a number of parties all seeking to seize the Edda – and perhaps bring about The Inversion and with it, the end of the world in the terrible Winter known as Ragnarok.
Rutland & Burlington's was a multi-purpose nightclub — which is to say the space was almost wholly unfinished, and could accommodate practically anything short of a sporting event. It was situated smugly in a restaurant district which was frequented by the University's nearly ninety thousand students. The exterior was nondescript, and the signage nonexistent; the owners apparently subscribed to the notion that obscurity equals popularity, and the fact that there was already a line of patrons stretching past the adjacent three storefronts (in both directions) waiting for admittance did nothing to dispel the theory.
Michael arrived at the club at a quarter past eight, fifteen minutes before the noted showtime, and took a spot in what he hoped was the shorter line. The expected assortment of humanity clustered around the cobbled sidewalk, inhaling or surreptitiously swallowing what could charitably be described as 'experience enhancement aids.' Michael recognized the joints by the smell without needing to see them, but he was at a total loss in identifying most of the pills. Years earlier, when he was traveling for several months in the United States under a teaching fellowship, he happened to have sub-let a room in Albuquerque from an artist named Mike Bomba. Bomba was a colorful fellow, and generally all that could be expected in a quality roommate: clean, considerate, and disinclined to wander around the apartment naked. He also was a big moviegoer, and frequently dragged Michael along whenever he could coerce him to go.
The first time they saw a movie together, Bomba sat alone in the car for a moment, then emerged with a broad, loopy grin on his face. He explained that he was merely partaking of a 'movie enhancement device', and then, concerned he had offended his roommate, offered the still-smoldering joint to Michael.
Michael had never actually used drugs — not directly, anyway; he had discovered early in his life that he had an extreme sensitivity to narcotics of any kind, and that the mere proximity of pot smoke was likely to give him a light buzz and then a shrieking headache. Still, the movie they had gone to see starred Sylvester Stallone, which meant that at best it would seem like they'd gone to see Kurosawa instead, and at worst he'd have a shrieking headache, which was always a fifty-fifty chance with a Stallone movie anyway. He accepted the joint and took a long, slow, drag.
For hours after the movie, he and Bomba sat in the car in the empty parking lot, tears streaming down their faces. "Man," said Bomba, "I never knew Stallone could be that beautiful."
"Neither did I," replied Michael. "He is a beautiful, beautiful... Hey — what happened to my thumbs?"
He never smoked pot again after that — but wondered why recalling that particular memory at that particular moment gave him an odd feeling of foreshadowing.
Michael leaned away from the line and wondered when they were going to begin admitting people when he saw walking from the other end of the block an elegant, smartly dressed man whose bearing and manner belied the very neighborhood he was walking in; he was dressed in formal evening wear, with a high, starched collar and a dark trench coat that probably cost more than the annual salaries of every person he was passing. It was not the clothing alone which set him apart — it was Vienna, after all, and a number of passers-by were dressed to the nines — but also the manner in which he walked, as if a cape were billowing out behind him, and he expected everyone to take notice.
He paused at the door, then looked both ways before turning in Michael's direction and making his way down the line. As he approached, his eyes met Michael's and he saw something enough there to give him pause.
"I'm sorry," said Michael pleasantly, "do I know you?"
The man hesitated slightly, as if unaccustomed to not being recognized on sight. "I believe so. I am Mikaal Gunnar-Galen — a Vice-Rector at the University..?"
"Of course, of course," said Michael slapping his forehead and extending a hand.
"Michael Langbein. I'm sorry I didn't recognize you — I suppose I'm one of those teachers who is content to stay in the confines of my own peculiar rat's nest."
"Indeed," said Galen. "Ironic that we should meet tonight, considering I spent a great deal of time this very afternoon in anticipation of meeting you."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Never mind," said Galen. "What brings you out and about this evening?" he asked, eyeing the still immobile but growing line. "A constitutional, or perhaps meeting companions for dinner?"
"No," said Michael. "I'm flying solo tonight. And I guess I'm going to see some sort of performance, if they ever let us in."
"Mmm. Forgive the presumption, professor, but this sort of event in this kind of venue doesn't exactly seem like your particular brand of recreation."
"I was invited."
"As was I. This wouldn't have something to do with 'a matter of great importance, academic and historical,' would it?"
Michael stared, his mouth agape. "Exactly that. How did you...?"
Galen held up a plum-colored envelope identical to the one Michael had received, which was poking out of his jacket pocket.
"Well," said Michael resignedly, "I wonder what sort of dilemma our mysterious host has that requires the attentions of a Professor of Ancient Literature and a... What exactly was it you teach again?"
A faint scowl crossed Galen's features before he replied. "Music Theory. But our host is not so mysterious."
"How do you mean?"
"It's here on the club handbill," said Galen, handing him a stiff yellow sheet covered in gaudy black print. "He's a Zen Illusionist, whatever that is supposed to mean. He's called Obscuro."
The thin layer of sawdust which covered the floor was the first sign that it was no ordinary nightclub; a conclusion signed and sealed upon a glance at the menus, which were tabloid-sized, and bore a portrait of a jovial Mexican man in a sombrero on the front cover, even though nothing in the menu could be considered even remotely Mexican. The selection seemed to consist mostly of alcoholic drinks of uncertain lineage, Viennese pastry, and according to the back cover, various personal care and hygiene products.
After what seemed an interminable wait, the club finally began admitting everyone in the left line, much to the growing irritation to those in the right. Michael and Galen, having presented their identical orange tickets to a surly, mustached man with a swarthy complexion and wearing a low-slung hat, moved through the curtained area at the front and into the main room. There were some twenty tables situated in threes across a rectangular space. At one end was the bar and kitchen; at the other, a small, curtained, makeshift performing stage built of two sets of steps and a riser.
To the left of the stage was a beautiful antique easel, intricately carved with looping scrollwork and sculpted cherubs, which bore an aluminum-framed black sign of the sort used for menus at coffee shops and convention centers hosting Shriners' banquets. On it smallish white letters spelled out the highlights of the evening's show, although with a questionable degree of fidelity: The master Zen ilusionist OBSURO, performing feats of wonder and astonishment - tonite only.
The tables were draped with a coarse, gray-green fabric, and they were being bussed by a slow, smallish man who, save for the addition of a beard, was the twin of the ticket-taker. Michael and Galen chose a table on the left, about ten feet from the stage, and waved down the waiter.
"Yah?" he said gruffly. "Vat you vant?" He spoke German, but with an odd inflection, as if he'd learned it from cereal boxes.
"I'll have a vodka and orange juice," said Galen.
"And I'll take a... Umm, a gin and tonic," said Michael.
The stubby little man shook his head vigorously — not unlike a mangy cat shaking off a dunking in the river. "Nah — ve got no vodka, und ve got no gin."
Galen let out a barely suppressed sigh of frustration and rolled his eyes heavenward, while Michael began to closely scrutinize the menu. The waiter began tapping his foot impatiently; other patrons were taking their seats for the show, and were looking for service — which was, apparently, just him.
Michael looked up at Galen. "Do you mind if I just order a pitcher of something? I'll treat."
Galen shrugged noncommittally, and Michael pointed to a listing in the menu. The little man scribbled something on an order pad, then scooted away. A few minutes later he returned with a pitcher of creme soda and two tubes of mint-flavored toothpaste. Galen looked at the fare, then looked questioningly at Michael.
"Don't look at me," Michael protested. "I ordered beer."
"You asked for beer, and he brought us soda and toothpaste?" Galen said in irritation as he craned his neck, looking around for the surly waiter.
"Ah, the toothpaste is mine," admitted Michael. "I've been out for days, and thought while I was here... Anyway, creme soda?"
Galen muttered a silent curse under his breath, and pushed his glass forward.
"I've been hearing about this 'Obscuro' for months," said Galen, "Ever since he started at the University last Fall. I understand his performances are quite unorthodox, even by illusionists' standards."
"Mmm," said Michael. "And he's a student, you say?"
"No," replied Galen with a touch of smugness. "He's faculty. You may have heard about him at the beginning of the year — the child prodigy who only goes by one name?"
Michael looked up at the still empty stage with a renewed interest. "Am I to understand that the magician we've come to see..."
"Whatever — is actually the new celebrity head of the Mathematics department at the University?"
"The very same."
"Interesting. Do you have any idea why he wanted to invite us? I mean, I can't see a lot of correlations between the three disciplines, or even any cross-interests, to be honest."
"Agreed — though I did find several points of interest in your treatise on Anglo-Saxon bardic forms."
Michael smiled, flattered and more than a little surprised. "You read my work?"
"The occasional piece that overlaps my own interest," replied Galen. "As a Vice-Rector, it is my responsibility to remain cognizant of all of the academic publications of the faculty, but a few of your writings have not been without a certain grace."
"Ah, thank you," said Michael. "Do you publish?"
Galen stirred his drink and glanced up at the stage, then back at his companion. "No, not so much anymore. When I quit performing, I largely quit writing as well, so most of my efforts have been constrained primarily to my lectures."
"You used to perform?"
Galen's eyes widened, as if he could not believe what he was being asked. Then, they darkened again, lids dropping heavily as he replied. "I used to perform. Not for several years, though."
"I'm sorry I missed it," said Michael encouragingly, having also missed the changes in his companion's countenance. "Perhaps if you..."
He paused as the lights around them flickered once, then again. The performance was about to begin.