To say that Julian's announcement left Redflare stunned and flabbergasted was an understatement.
"An Esper," he stammered. "You're saying that I'm actually an Esper."
"Or, at the very least, a latent. If the latter, the darkness can supply power to enable you to
use that talent. If the former, your gift could be twisted and trained, even enhanced. The stories
are full of Espers who have become horrors in life and undead monstrosities after death. To spread
their evil, they would want such followers."
Redflare remembered years in Ossale Court when he'd ached for magic, wanting nothing more than to
bring the legends back to life and escape from the technological hell he'd lived in. What were the
monsters of old--dragons and sphinxes and vampires--compared to crime and violence, grinding poverty
and bitter hopelessness? Esper wizardry, magic, had been his shining thing in those days, his symbol
of all that ought to be.
He'd turned away from that dream when he'd grown tired of living in a fantasy that wasn't real and
couldn't be made real. Yet somehow, all along Redflare had had the potential for that fantasy inside
himself. If he had but known, what would he have done? Would his life be different? Better?
Or, in his desperation, would he have been driven into the same trap as the members of the Circle,
caught by an unholy darkness and forced to serve its whims? He'd compared Wulfeburne and his friends
to the WizKids, and Redflare knew that if the ancient sources they'd studied had fallen into the
tech-gang's hands, the WizKids would have committed the same folly.
Was he elated or overjoyed to be an Esper? No, Redflare was past that dream, and all he felt now
was the irony.
"You're about ten years too late, Julian," he said wryly. "The only magic I have left is pulling
rabbits out of a top hat."
The Esper shook his head.
"Don't misunderstand. I know that this is inevitably going to be traumatic for you. It is, after
all, the sort of revelation that 'changes one's life forever,' as the therapists and writers of bad
fiction put it."
"I would call that an accurate assessment," Kemet said dryly. The hunter shifted a half-step
closer to his sister, as if distancing himself subconsciously from Espers, people who returned from
the dead, and other mysteries.
It was Ashlyn Dumont, though, who broke through the aura of dramatic revelation and dragged the
conversation back to the here and now.
"Look, I'll admit this is exciting, heady stuff, but the truth is it changes my life considerably
less than the present escapades have done. Currently, I have no job, SDE will freeze the majority of
my savings if they haven't done so already, evil cultists want me for power I didn't even know I
possessed, and the Holy Knight of corporate security, Reiko Yoshida, considers me a traitor to be
stalked and executed." The smile she turned on the mantled Esper was both brilliant and bitterly
sardonic. "Do forgive me if I don't take your revelation with all the soul-shattering enthusiasm I
otherwise might display," she summed up dryly.
Julian couldn't help but chuckle.
"And here I thought that I was dropping the ultimate bombshell."
"Practical realities," Dace told him. "Speaking of which, while we seem to have covered the past
quite well, that still leaves us scratching our heads 'bout the present. Redflare, could you try to
put it into perspective for us?"
The magician couldn't help but laugh.
"Our lives are on the line and you want card tricks?"
"Basically, yeah. Fact is, maybe looking at the problem instead of just talking it over will give
a fresh perspective on it, make something pop out."
"There's a point. All right, let's give it a shake and see what falls loose."
He sat down at the room's tiny table and took out his deck of cards. Redflare was almost surprised
they'd made it through the affair. He gave them a quick one-handed shuffle as the others gathered
"Okay, here we go." He snapped his thumbnail against the edge of the cards and the queen of
castles spun out onto the table. Another flick sent one of the jokers to join it.
"That would be you, I take it?" Dumont said of the second card.
"I thought it was appropriate. Besides, a few wild cards in our hand right now might help. Now,
over here, we can finally put a name to our mysterious friends. From the byplay at Herrod's
apartment, which thanks to Dace and Julian we're now able to report, the current leader of the Circle
is Jason Wulfeburne." The king of crowns landed off to the left of the first two cards. "Likewise,
we know Herrod is the SDE spy." The knave of coins joined it. "At their disposal they have the power
of ritual magic--" The ace of crowns joined the other cards. "--and Bane Spike muscle." The four
"On the other side, there's SDE, personified by their sec-chief, Yoshida." This time it was the
ace of coins that dropped, an obvious symbol for the power of corporate wealth, together with the
queen of coins for Yoshida herself. "There's also Gunter Holst and his hunters, who have managed to
run us down twice. I don't think we can afford to overlook them." He dealt the knave of crowns onto
SDE's side of the table.
"The only overlook I want on Gunter Holst is with a laser cannon from a sniper's position," Kem
"It looks to me like the deck is stacked against us," Dace remarked, gazing at the cards.
"Yeah, that's pretty much--" Redflare began, though as he looked at the layout an idea began to
form in his mind. He didn't get the chance to finish either the sentence or the thought, though,
because he was interrupted by the ringing of his phone. Redflare sighed.
"I'd better take this. At this point, anything is likely to be important."
It proved, in fact, to be very important. The caller was Max.
"Hey, you got something for me?"
The fixer nodded. He was sweating, Redflare realized, and didn't look too good, either.
"Yeah...sorry, man, but I've got to pull out of this one."
"Pull out? Why?"
"Because the stakes are getting to where I don't want to have them, on a personal level. Remember
how I said Gunter Holst was nosing around after you?"
Redflare did; the attack at the safehouse hadn't come long after Max's tip.
"Yes, I do. What about it?"
"Well, you don't have to worry any more. Holst isn't gonna be looking for anyone any more."
"Someone took him out?" Redflare exclaimed, not quite able to believe it.
"Not just someone, magic man," the fixer shot back. "The one and only Bane Spikes, whom you just
happened to tap me for all the dirt on."
"Max, I had nothing to do with that."
The fixer shook his head frantically.
"No, no, I know that. Hell, if you did I wouldn't be so worried. As it is, I don't want to go
anywhere near those guys. They're crazy, which is bad, and they're dangerous enough to back it up,
which makes them scarier than a dragon sky-wired on Turbulent."
"You've got such an evocative turn of phrase."
"I ain't kidding, here. Do you know how I know it was the Spikes that gravestoned Holst?"
"No, but I think I'm about to find out."
"Damn straight you are! It was a drive-up. Couple of cars sweep along, Spikes hop out and start
cutting loose with the heavy ordnance. Vulcans, lasers, the works--no one-hit wonders or cheap knives
here. They took out Holst and a whole pack of sec-goon types he had with him. And you know what the
craziest part is?"
"They did it right out on the main drag in Neroton! I mean, sure, in the back alleys and behind
closed doors there's a decent body count in that district, but not right out in the open like that. I
hear one carload of them got turned into a pillar of pyro by the DLE trying to escape. I don't know
who's behind these psychos, but whomever it was has given them some serious artillery and set them
loose on Camineet. I'm sorry I can't help any more with this, but I do not want to become the
next bloodstain on their hit list."
"It's okay, Max. Trust me, if I could bail out on this I'd be headed for cover faster than you
"Yeah, well, give me a call if you live through it, but I'm thinking that's going to take some
Redflare bounced the irony of that around his head for a minute while Max signed off, then put the
"Did everyone catch that?" he said. "The Bane Spikes took out Gunter Holst and the SDE goons he
had in tow."
"Couldn't have happened to a nicer guy," Kemet said dryly.
"Holst was a professional," Dace corrected, "like us. This isn't the first time he's wound up on
the flip side of one of our jobs, but it wasn't personal. We've got enough people that really did
screw us over on this one without wasting our breath cursing a dead one who didn't."
Unlike if Redflare might have said it, Kem didn't react to having his temper caught up short by
Dace; he just shut his mouth as advised. That, the magician supposed, was the benefit of long-term
"In any event, it is one threat we can temporarily ignore," his sister advised. "It will take time
for SDE to restore their search efforts, especially with the loss of their primary street contact."
"Which, no doubt, is exactly the point. The Circle takes the competition out and leaves a clear
playing field for themselves."
"True, Ashlyn," Redflare noted, "but it also offers us an opportunity. I'd thought of the idea
before, but now I think there's a good chance of it working."
"We're all ears," Dace said. "Spill."
Redflare scooped up the cards, shuffled, and began a poker deal, some cards landing face up and
others face down. He fanned out one hand, which was all face-up.
"Okay, here's what's against us. Wulfeburne, Herrod, and the Spikes." The king, jack, and three
deuces smiled up at him. "Over on our side, there's hunter skills, Ashlyn's magic and corporate
contacts, and the unknown factor of Esper magic." The knave of castles, for the hunters, had joined
the queen and joker. A valiant knight-protector, Redflare thought he represented the four members of
the team quite well. The last two cards in the hand remained face-down. "Who wins?"
"Three deuces beats a pair of queens, unless the pair's packing a sonic gun as a kicker."
"Very true, Kem. But how about now?"
Redflare flipped over the hole cards, revealing the ace and queen of coins.
"Three queens looks like a winner to me."
"You seriously think that we can work together with SDE?" Dace asked.
Redflare turned to Ashlyn Dumont.
"That really depends on you, Ashlyn. Do you have any objection to working for them again?"
"Well, there's the fact that they want me dead, but if you ignore that minor complication, no. I
defected for salary, benefits, and position, not from moral outrage or unbearable working conditions.
There still is that problem of me being a corporate traitor, however."
Redflare put on his very best "shocked and innocent" expression.
"Ashlyn, don't say such things! Why, everyone here knows that you are a loyal SDE employee, forced
to resort to these desperate measures to expose the perfidy of your superior, Paul Herrod, and to keep
him from sabotaging the paratechnology project to suit his extra-corporate ends!"
"Well...it's original, I'll give it that."
"And plausible," the magician informed her. "After all, we can link Herrod to the Circle, and the
Circle to all manner of nastiness, including the Bane Spikes."
"Nastiness," Kemet mused, catching on, "which includes the brutal murder of several loyal SDE
secmen on the streets of Neroton."
"Exactly. We offer Sarranas a loyal Ashlyn, the paratech project files, the identity of a
corporate traitor, and the killers of several employees. I think that would at least get us a seat at
the bargaining table, don't you?"