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Magic Man

Chapter Twenty-Five


"Not to complain about being rescued from certain death," Redflare groused as Dace freed him from the plasmacuffs, "but what are you doing alive? The last I saw of you, a Bane Spike was doing a creative rearrangement of your internal organs with a laser knife. Or," he added as a thought struck him, "are you one of those active-memory clones?"

Dace chuckled dryly.

"Nope, nothing but the one-and-only original material here--thanks to my new friend."

He nodded at the mantled man, who bowed amiably. The tech-user looked to be in his twenties, with an air about him that suggested an older man who had aged very well or had some biosculpting work done. Redflare doubted it was the latter, because the man's face wasn't particularly handsome, being thin and ascetic, its narrowness heightened by the way his indigo-blue hair was pulled back off it in a tight ponytail.

"This sounds like it should be a heck of a story."

"It is," said the tech-user, "but I think it's one best suited for another forum. While Dace assures me that you will have found a way to negate the alarms the broken window would otherwise set off, our melodramatic entrance caused us to descend past several floors from the roof. One of the residents there might have noticed, or some passer-by might see the broken window from the street below at any time."

He snapped his fingers over the sleeping twins.

"Arows!"

The awakening technique took effect at once, banishing the unnatural sleep. Kemet sprang to his feet, then realized that circumstances had changed greatly since he'd been incapacitated.

"Dace? Dace! What the--?"

"We did that bit already," Redflare observed, rubbing his wrists to restore circulation.

"I presume that an explanation will be forthcoming?" Isis suggested.

"Right, but first, let's bail. Sec-guards and cops really cramp my storytelling style," Dace said.

"Let me talk to Nima," Redflare asked Isis. She handed him her commlink, and he slipped it on.

"Nima, can you hear me?"

"Redflare! I've been so worried--and did I hear Kem say something about Dace being there?"

"You did, and we're all as eager as you to learn what's going on, but we'll have to get out of here first. Did you catch the alarm from the broken window?"

"Of course. I knew you were in trouble, so I kept things stifled."

"Thanks. Are any guards on their way up?"

"No."

"Perfect; we'll need a clear run to the stairs."

"You're good to go now, but hurry."

Dace bent and scooped up the limp form of Dumont, who although conscious had yet to shake off the paralysis.

"Okay," Redflare announced, "for those who couldn't hear, Nima says we can get back to the stairs. Let's move--unless Dace and his new friend have a better plan?"

"On the contrary," replied the tech-user, "we were hoping that you might be able to assist us in that regard. And you may call me Julian."

"It works for me."

They slipped out of 1706 and down the corridor, then hurtled their way down seventeen flights of stairs to the basement level, where they were confronted by another lock. Unlike the service stairs, whose only entry point was the closely supervised door on the first floor, the management didn't want just anyone to be able to access the basement through this route.

"This will not take long," Isis said, reaching for her tools.

"Don't put yourself to the trouble, sister dear," Kem responded. "Since we don't need to worry about people on the other side hearing us..." He pulled out a sonic gun and took some of his frustrations out on the innocent lock.

"Effective," Redflare noted.

"I just wish it was Wulfeburne's skull."

Nobody said much of anything else until they were safely back at the Cross Scar's "entertainment complex."

"Nice decor," Dace murmured. "Where did you find this place?"

"Blame the magic man and his taste in friends," Kemet joked.

"I can see some explanations are in order on your side as well." He looked at Dumont sharply. "And just when does the cargo on a courier run go on a field mission?"

"Since we learned there's no real job awaiting me at the far end--but oh, yes, you wouldn't know about that, since you were dead at the time."

"Take it easy, Ashlyn," Redflare cautioned her. "Dace has missed out on a lot of what's happened." Specifically, he'd missed the corporate tech-user's steady transition from a not-well-liked problem to an albeit temporary member of the team. Now was not the time to have them take up old battles that had already been fought out in Dace's absence.

Anything else either of them might have said was interrupted as Isis got Nima free from the impromptu VR restraints they'd put together. The Motavian girl all but flung herself across the room, catching Dace around the midsection in a crushing hug.

"Dace! I'm so glad to see you! What happened to you? How did you manage to survive?"

The swordsman grinned and ruffled the fur between her ears.

"Take it easy, Nima! Give me a chance!"

Julian, meanwhile, smoothly swept his mantle behind him and sat down in a chair. He waited placidly for the hunters to work through their reunion and set the pace, but there was a tension in his expression that suggested his calm was more a function of personality than situation. He was worried, and Redflare would have agreed that he had a good right to be. Dramatic rescue and the apparent resurrection of a companion aside, the raid on Herrod's condo had been an unmitigated disaster.

Hopefully, Dace and his new ally had something to offer by way of a plan, or the blue-haired hunter's rebirth would be strictly temporary.

Dace seemed to realize this as well, as he extricated himself from the Motavian and held up his hand.

"Okay, it's clear that I owe all of you an explanation, and believe me, it's a doozy--but it should also shed some light on what we've gotten ourselves into and what's behind it all. The first question is, why am I not dead? You all saw me go down under that ganger's knife. Hell, you had a better look than I did. The truth is, apparently I was dead."

That announcement drew from everyone but Ashlyn Dumont the shocked gasps and explanations one would expect.

"Julian, here, is the one who brought me back. Obviously I owe him big, but that's not why he's here with me. He knows some of what we're up against and how the skag with blue hair--"

"Wulfeburne," Redflare provided. "His name's Jason Wulfeburne." He said it almost absently, most of his attention still tied up in the died-and-came-back-to-life part.

"--can do some of the things he can."

"Just how is it," Dumont asked, "that Julian can raise the dead?"

"He's an Esper."

The surprise that had greeted Dace's first announcement was nothing compared to that which the second drew. If he'd brought in a dog that could walk, talk, and sing Jinn Krystal's greatest hits while accompanying himself on the synthesizer he couldn't have gotten a more stunned audience.

"That...can't be," Kem stammered.

"I thought that the race was rendered extinct after the Esper Rebellion on Mota," Isis said.

"That is what the government believes, and while it is not far wrong, it is not completely true," Julian interjected. "While the Rebellion ended with the purging of all Espers from Mota, it did not extend to Palm. Espers were here as well, and while the paranoia of that time led to widespread Manxham genetic screening, some of Palm's populace was able to avoid the searchers, especially as the Manxham test is not one hundred percent effective. A small number of Espers escaped, and went into hiding."

"So why come out of hiding now? Not that we're ungrateful, but what makes us important?"

"We aren't, Kem," Redflare answered the question for Julian. "The Circle is. Wulfeburne and Herrod and their new techniques."

"Yes," Julian continued, "but also no. It was, in fact, their activities which caught our attention and which I was sent to investigate. Three months ago, they conducted a magical ritual of some sort, the effects of which were unmistakable. Think of it as a stone thrown into a pond: the ripples flow outwards and can be felt by anyone on the water. In this case, the 'water' is the magical energy of Algo. Their efforts were made even more noticeable by the fact that they were unschooled in magic use, clumsy and crude in their methods. Skilled Espers could have dampened both the range and intensity of the effect."

"Magic use...are you saying that what Wulfeburne is doing isn't a set of new techniques, but real magic?"

"I am."

"This, I've got to hear."

"The potential to use magic is a genetic factor, not one single yes/no switch but a number of combinations of gene pairs. That is all it really means to be an Esper. In truth, we are not a race apart the way some legends would have it, but merely the possessors of a certain genetic trait, like red hair or brown eyes. There are Espers among the Palmans, the Dezolians, and even the Motavians. However, without training, that ability is generally irrelevant. Am I making sense so far?"

"I think so," Redflare said. "Are you suggesting that Wulfeburne and the Circle were Espers without training?"

"Yes, or in the alternative what we refer to as 'latent Espers,' those with the genetic ability to manipulate magic but lacking the power within themselves to fuel that ability. During the Rebellion, those who went into hiding took with them much of our knowledge, but there have been Espers in Algo for millennia. There has been considerable lore recorded and passed down. A diligent search might uncover a fair amount of that lore--and, as Mr. Herrod's home indicates, the men and women of his group had the funds for such a search."

"They're the WizKids," Redflare groaned. "Rich and powerful, but other than that, they're the bloody WizKids."

Julian looked at him curiously

.

"I'm afraid I don't follow."

"It was a tech-gang I ran with as a kid back in Ossale Court. We all wanted to be Espers like in the fairy tales. It sounds to me like the Circle is the same damn thing, just made of corp suits instead of street kids."

Julian nodded solemnly.

"I would not be surprised if that was exactly the case. Only, unfortunately, these men and women were successful. You see, in addition to the quick spells of battle which you have seen employed, there are other magics, rituals which can last for hours or days."

Isis, always interested in the technical aspects of things, asked Julian what the point of the rituals was.

"There are several purposes," he explained. "The most simple is that it allows magical power to be drawn from the environment instead of only using that within the spellcaster. This would permit a latent to take that power and cast a spell, for example. In essence, it is the same process employed in technique use, only techniques are a much more elegant system of accomplishing much the same thing. However, rituals also have other purposes. One is to allow a number of Espers to combine their abilities. The other is to amass sufficient power to accomplish tasks which otherwise simply cannot be done. In this case, I believe the latter is what has happened."

His expression grew dark, and there were hints of fear in it.

"There is an evil," he continued slowly, "a dark force which lurks beyond our physical universe. It is a corrupter, a destroyer. Throughout history, the foolish, the misguided, and the twisted have sought this evil out, hoping to gain power by compelling its service or through worship of it."

"Black magic?" Nima asked, a bit theatrically.

"That is exactly my meaning," Julian told her--without a hint of levity. "One of the paramount duties of any Esper worth the name is to seek out and put a stop to the use of this evil power when it is detected. The ones you call the Circle are employing this power; it is unmistakable to a trained Esper."

Kemet held up a hand.

"Wait a second, there. It's weird enough to talk about a bunch of suits playing around with myths and fairy tales--but a black magic cult? That's holovid horror stuff."

"Kemet is right," Dumont agreed. "I've worked under Paul Herrod for years. It's hard enough to imagine him exploring ancient magics for personal power, but slinking around with robes and candles chanting hymns to demons and all that? I can't believe it."

Julian shook his head.

"You misunderstand me. I doubt they had any conception of what forces they were tapping into or that there were malign beings waiting for them. Ignorant or not, however, they clearly contacted something, and were rewarded with power. You've felt it yourselves. Whether the Circle was forcibly enslaved by the dark or became willingly corrupted does not matter. They serve it, for if they did not they would be slain."

"Like Adam Bainbridge, maybe," Redflare said. "He was one of the six, and he dies three months ago, when everything started to go wrong."

"So how does all this tie in with Dace coming back from the dead?" Kem asked, arms folded across his chest. No doubt he didn't buy half of the fairy-tale stuff being handed to him.

And meanwhile, my childhood dreams are coming true right in front of me, thought the magician.

"As I said, I was sent to investigate. I've been observing the activities of this Circle as best I could, gathering information on their plots and preparing to strike. I had been following Wulfeburne when you fought him at the warehouse. After he and his gang left, I went to inspect the battle site to see if there were clues."

"What he found was me," Dace contributed.

"Mr. Maxwell was clearly not of the Circle nor their lackeys, the Bane Spikes. I suspected that he could tell me much of what their activities involved."

"And raising him from the dead by magic would place him under a fairly large obligation to help you," Dumont said.

Julian nodded in her direction.

"That was precisely my reasoning."

"Unfortunately, by the time he was done winning my confidence and we'd compared notes, you five were already off and running. We've been trying to catch up ever since," Dace concluded. "We saw Redflare and Isis at Herrod's building, so I figured you'd make the run tonight, so we were on hand to step in if you got in over your heads."

"Which we did," Redflare said glumly.

"You shouldn't feel ashamed," Julian quickly urged him. "There was no way you could have anticipated the type of power you were facing."

"Such as being able to teleport in a half-dozen or so people for an ambush without having them show up in the building's security logs. Yeah, I get that--but the fact is that hunters have to cope with tech-users all the time. Maybe the particular spells Wulfeburne uses aren't what we're used to, but we've taken him on before, and there was nothing especially overwhelming about what he's hit us with. No, I got overconfident, didn't plan well enough."

Dace looked a bit surprised at that. Probably he didn't know Redflare had ended up as the de facto team leader.

"It's not important, though, not until we start planning the next round," the magician shrugged it off as he knew he'd have to. "What I want to know is, what are these people after? It's not industrial espionage, it's not the paratech project files, but they do want Ashlyn for something, and apparently they want me, too. Why?"

"I believe that I can answer that. Undoubtedly, the Circle will seek to bring more and more people within its fold, amassing power here on Palm for its master. To do that it needs more agents, more devotees. They no doubt wished to corrupt the two of you into servants of darkness. By arranging this method, they avoid the risk of investigation into their activities. If they'd kidnapped Miss Dumont from her apartment, say, then there would certainly be interest on the part of the DLE and corporate security. You, Redflare, lack official support but certainly have competent friends. This charade of an extraction would, if successful, have buried the entire matter in the shadows forever and kept the Circle out of anyone's spotlight."

"But why us?" Dumont stressed.

"Because in all probability, the two of you are, though untrained, Espers."

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