Afterwards, little was said. Neither one of them was good at reducing feelings to words, and in
truth there were no words that would suffice. So they sat, silently holding each other, savoring this
new closeness and not wanting to disturb the moment. Such moments were fleeting, however, and as
morning wore on, reality intruded, recapturing their interest.
Nima was the first one of the others to wake; she wandered out into the living area as Redflare was
wrestling with a coffeemaker that had more functions than the average home computer, much to Ashlyn's
amusement. He had just succeeded in extricating the jammed filter from the spigot when Nima poked her
head into the kitchen.
"Hey, what's going on? I can hear you laughing all the way down the hall."
"Redflare is demonstrating that magic and technology don't mix," Ashlyn said, chuckling.
Nima shook her head.
"Men just don't have mechanical aptitude," she teased. "Can I help?"
"You'd better," said Redflare, knowing when he was overmatched, "if we want to have coffee sometime
before noon." He returned to the stove, where the bacon (actually veron-meal imitation) was doing
nicely. He turned the strips in the pan, and by the time they were done, Nima had coaxed a full pot
of medium-roast coffee out of the LIM Electronics MegaKaf. The aroma tickled his nostrils pleasantly.
"Thanks for coming to the rescue."
"Oh, any time."
He flipped her a Rainbow Berry-flavored nutribar, which the little Motavian started nibbling, her
beak nipping off pieces small enough to swallow. The two races' nutritional needs were surprisingly
similar, but their methods of consumption had a fair number of differences.
"Hey, not bad. Maybe I'll make this my new standard, since G-Tech dropped Wild Fruit from the
"I've always wondered why fruit flavors are never named after actual fruits."
"They probably would be, if there was any actual fruit content in the product," Ashlyn said. "I
think I'll check the refrigerator to see if our Esper friend stocks any."
She struck gold--or at least a melon--and soon the three of them were sitting around the table,
enjoying a hearty meal. Redflare, not generally much for breakfast, surprised himself by eating as
much as either of the others. Their host was the fourth person to rise; he came in just as they were
clearing the dishes.
"Ah, good morning. I'm glad to see you were able to successfully navigate the kitchen."
"Other than having to call in one of our technical aces to solve the mystery of the coffeemaker,
yes," Redflare admitted.
"I must say that I am surprised to see you awake this early. Ms. Nima, of course, would be
up"--Motavians had a shorter sleep cycle than Palmans despite their hyperkinetic pace while
awake--"but I had expected the rest of you to sleep much later, as Dace suggested."
"Nerves," Redflare said, rubbing the back of his neck. "The experienced hunters are getting their
rest, but we amateurs are finding it harder to relax."
Ashlyn gave him a slow wink from behind Julian's back that nearly brought a blush to the street
magician's face. Nima caught the look and her round red eyes seemed to get even wider with her
surprise. Redflare quickly changed the subject.
"Is that what has you up as well? Or is trouble sleeping just a natural trait of Espers?" he joked.
"Quite the opposite. In fact, I use certain meditative skills which not only insure restful
slumber but compress the time required for sleep."
"That sounds like a very useful skill," Ashlyn noted. "Is it something that I'll be able to
"Oh, yes. In fact, you do not even have to be a full Esper to master the ability. Even if you
prove to be merely a high-grade latent, it would still be possible."
"That's nice," Redflare said dryly. "If we manage to get through this mess alive, we'll never have
to worry about insomnia again."
"You know," Nima chirped, "it's too bad that you can't teach them any of that Esper magic now, some
of the stuff that's really good in combat, like Wulfeburne uses, or whatever it was that you did to
the bad guys in Herrod's apartment."
"Hewn," he explained absently. "It's a wind spell." He tapped two fingers against his
right cheek. "Do you know, Ms. Nima, you may have a good idea there? Esper magic takes training to
master, but as both Ms. Dumont and Mr....Redflare--"
Grinning, Redflare said, "You're among friends here; you can drop the 'Mr.'s and 'Ms.'s, especially
when you're talking to a guy who goes by a street handle."
"Thank you; it does make things less awkward."
"Well, let's face it, most people who have street names aren't exactly into manners, unless
they're talking to some syndicate or corp boss with a couple of legbreakers enforcing the etiquette
Julian nodded, his smile showing amusement, but in a friendly rather than mocking way.
"I see what you mean. In any case, as I was saying, if the two of you prove to be Espers rather
than merely latents, I see no reason why you could not master at least a basic fire spell. Since you
both are already skilled at technique use, you are familiar with the energy manipulations involved.
Techniques, after all, were refined from Esper magic so that they could be used by non-Espers, so the
mental patterns required are remarkably similar. Do you wish to try?"
"Why not?" Redflare asked. In truth, after all he'd been through, all the self-doubts he'd endured
and the cynicism that had taken root, there was still a part of him that took wing with a desperate
hope when the possibility of learning magic was offered. "Ashlyn?"
"Certainly. I'm all for anything that increases my chances of survival."
"Excellent! We have arranged for a section of the building's basement to be set aside and have
outfitted it as a training room not unlike one for the practice of techniques. Nima, would you please
inform the others where we have gone, should they awake before we return?"
"Of course." She wiggled her ears. "Good luck!"
They took the elevator down to the basement, and Julian led his two impromptu pupils down a short,
dusty hall. No one, Redflare thought, took care of their basement. Julian stopped at a side door
which was secured by an electronic lock; he swept a card key through the reader and the bolt released.
"There's nothing of real value here, but we don't want someone coming in uninvited and learning
things they shouldn't."
"Speaking of which," Redflare realized, "if the deal works out, we'll be fighting alongside SDE
sec-troopers. Can we afford to use our magic openly that way?"
"I think so," Ashlyn said. "Almost anyone, if they stopped to think about it at all, would
conclude like we did that the abilities were newly-developed techniques, or ones they've never heard
of. I mean, who's ever heard of Shinb or Fanbi except people in the technique R&D
"That is quite true," Julian noted, "especially in the case of attacking spells, which are easily
mistaken for versions of Foi, Tsu, Zan, and so on in the heat of battle.
Externally, the process appears almost identical; one points, chants a specific word of command, and
the effect happens. I've taken advantage of the fact more than once--especially if one recognizes
that one does not have to shout the spell's command at the top of one's lungs so everyone else can
hear what's being said." Redflare didn't blush over that one. Every technique user got
carried away with battle enthusiasm sooner or later, not even counting the posers who made a big
production of tech use on purpose.
The room the Esper had opened was large and low-ceilinged, Redflare saw as Julian turned on the
lights. The floor was covered in soft mats, modern materials replacing the reed padding used in
traditional combat training halls. Along the far wall were a series of targets of various sizes, some
geometric, some featureless mannequins.
"A fancier arrangement with holographic targets and computer scoring would be best, of course,"
their host explained, "but this particular building isn't sufficiently important enough for us to go
to the expense of having a range like that installed. Besides, this will be more than adequate for
"So what do we do?" Ashlyn asked.
"For now, simply kneel. Before you can learn any specific spells, you must look within yourselves,
to find the power of an Esper. That is the secret of magic; while a technique user must draw in their
energy from the world around him or her, the Esper carries that power within themselves." Julian
frowned and added, "Unfortunately, that is also the gift which can be twisted to the service of evil.
The latent's enhanced ability to manipulate magic makes them a prime candidate for the investment of
evil power as a sorcerer, but the true Esper gone wrong can become destruction incarnate, a Medusa or
The names meant nothing to Redflare, but the tone of voice did. Julian, at least, considered the
Circle's activities to be very serious indeed, and the magician was inclined to believe him. After
all, it was Redflare's own soul they were talking about, and that kind of thing tends to hit close to
"The best defense against that sort of thing, though, is to learn to exercise your gift in a
proper way," the Esper continued. "So let us begin."
Redflare sank to his knees, the blonde executive joining him a moment later. They shared a quick
glance, and he was surprised to realize that he was all but trembling with nerves. He'd thought he
had gone beyond those childhood dreams, but clearly they had only been sleeping, for now he was as
eager to gain the power of an Esper as he had been at thirteen. Never mind that he wouldn't be able
to change the world with this power--that it had been, in fact, the cause of his being caught in a
devil's trap that could still bring him down--Redflare couldn't turn away from trying to fulfill the
Sometimes, when you wanted something long enough and hard enough, the wanting became more important
than the why.
"Now, I want you to close your eyes and concentrate," Julian said gently. "You are both
experienced technique users, familiar with reaching out from yourselves to draw in power. I want you
to do that, but before you touch that external force, pull back your will and reach within yourselves.
Draw instead upon what you find there."
The instruction would have been incomprehensible to someone not a tech-user, but Redflare
understood it well enough. He extended his will, stretching out, but just as he started to gather in
force he reversed himself, turning his will back into his own mind. His stomach twisted; the effect
felt completely wrong. It was as if he was trying to inhale in a vacuum; his mind pulled and pulled
to draw in power, but constrained within himself, unable to extend outwards, it found nothing to
consume, drawing nothing, until...
It burst into his consciousness like a blazing star, only somehow hard-edged, as it was surrounded
with hard glass walls that prevented him from touching it directly. Redflare's will surrounded the
crystal sun, and the heat of it flowed into him, into his mind, gathered into that reservoir of power
he used for his techniques, and yet somehow separated from it as well, like water running in two
parallel but discrete channels. Redflare let out an audible gasp of surprise at the sudden
familiar-yet-different feeling, and the energies he'd gathered flowed away, released back to where
"That's--I don't know how to describe it," he exclaimed. "Julian, was that--?" He opened his eyes
and looked up at the Esper.
"Try to describe it," instructed the Esper. "I know it can be hard to reduce to words, but try."
Redflare told him everything and was rewarded by a growing smile on his teacher's face.
"Yes, that is it exactly. With a bit of luck, I hope to be able to teach you to use that power,
rather than let it drain away."
Ashlyn, meanwhile, just shook her head.
"I wish you could show me where to find it. I don't feel a thing, and I'm getting
distinctly nauseous trying to draw in power that isn't there."
"Is that so? That is not a good sign, Ms. Du--Ashlyn. The nausea implies that you are searching
correctly, and that you did not encounter anything in the way Redflare did implies that there is
simply nothing to find. I'm sorry, but I believe it is more than likely that you are a latent only,
rather than a full Esper."
"I'm sorry," Redflare told her gently, feeling badly that she lacked Esper abilities and worse
because he did have them, that it lay between them. Ashlyn, though, just grinned back and
tugged on her braid.
"Hey, Redflare, it's not that big a deal. Hurling magic spells like a wizard on the holovid was
never one of my personal ambitions. If I'd had the power, it'd be nice, but it'd also be something of
a hassle." She patted him on the shoulder. "I'll leave the magic-slinging to people like you.
Besides, you know the fake magic of techniques and sleight-of-hand, so why not add on the real thing?"
He covered her hand with his, her skin smooth and cool to the touch.
"You're welcome, although it's hardly necessary to say." She winked at him. "Now, if you don't
mind, I'll let you two spell-slingers get to it."
She hopped to her feet and strolled to the side of the room, where she leaned up against a padded
Redflare looked at her again, but she showed no sign that her feelings were anything but as she'd
described them. Accepting it as the truth, he turned back to Julian.
"All right, what next?"
"Just as the external power you are familiar with must be absorbed, shaped, and redirected by a
technique, so must you guide the force within by a focus, a spell. A spell is not just a word or a
gesture; it is above all else a way of thinking, a guide to the patterns of your will."
It sounded, Redflare reflected, like complete metaphysical gibberish, but he also understood
exactly what it meant. As an experienced technique user he had followed the same procedure before,
only with different results as appropriate to the techniques. Given what Julian had said about
techniques being a further development of Esper magic, it made sense that magic spells would be very
similar in their method.
Even given his familiarity with tech-use, though, mastering this basic Esper fire-spell,
Flaeli, was by no means an easy task. Part of the burden was psychological, Julian gave him to
understand. Just as his ability to use certain techniques rather than others was guided by his
psyche, so too was his potential for magic. In Redflare's case, he had an affinity for nonviolent
techs, ones which deceived or weakened his foes without harming them physically. Flaeli, on
the other hand, was a simple and direct assault with fire. The truth was, Ashlyn would have had a
much easier time of it than did he.
After over an hour of hard work, with Redflare's face streaked with sweat, his shirt clinging to
his torso, and Julian's calm demeanor beginning to fray after repeated mistakes, Redflare at last
broke through. It all seemed to fall into place at once, the warmth of the crystal sun channeled into
flame that all but burst out of him. He nearly ended up scorching himself in surprise, but at the
last second managed to hurl the flame away from himself to detonate against the far wall. It missed
all of the targets entirely, but quite frankly he was just happy to have succeeded in casting the
spell at all.
"There!" Julian applauded. "Now we can work on your aim."
Having done it once, it was easier and easier to call the fire forth on succeeding attempts. By
the third try, he was able to hit his selected target, which was very satisfactorily destroyed by the
flames. The fourth bolt did so as well, but while the fifth suffered no loss of performance it hurt
to cast it, burning painfully inside his mind. Redflare gritted his teeth and reached for the sixth
casting, gasping in pain as a spasm of sudden agony pierced himself from within. It was almost as if
whatever part of himself he was using to absorb the power was becoming oversensitive, like skin rubbed
raw. Nonetheless, he was about to draw upon that force once more when Julian grabbed his arm.
"That's enough. When it starts to hurt, you've reached your limit."
"What happens if you press the point? Do you eventually pass out from mental fatigue?"
"If you're lucky," Julian said quietly. "Sooner or later, your mind will become simply too drained
to go on, just as if you overexert yourself with techniques. If you are fortunate, that will happen
with magic use as well. However, since the power is within you, it is possible to open a channel
which does not break off all the way, and the power starts to act inside you without your conscious
control. It's as if..." He struggled for a proper simile. "As if you activated a grenade, then
forgot to throw it."
"How pleasant," Ashlyn said dryly.
"The effects are not. Espers have gone mad from the psychic backlash, or simply died. Which ones
were the more fortunate I cannot say." He turned his attention fully upon Redflare. "The pain is a
warning to you. Do not push yourself past the limits of your endurance."
Redflare rubbed the back of his neck.
"Believe me, Julian, that's not one I'll forget any time soon."
"See that you don't. Now, my last instruction for this lesson is to go get that sleep that has
escaped you thus far. You need to restore your mental energy, else it will have been fairly pointless
to teach you magic before the upcoming battle.
"Like buying a vulcan and not having enough cash to get ammo, too."
Maybe it was the mental exhaustion from the magic training, maybe the sense of near-relief from the
emotional upheaval of the dawn hours, or perhaps it was Ashlyn's presence, the sudden explosion of
feelings for her a tonic after enduring so many negative epiphanies. For whatever reason, though,
almost the instant his head struck the pillow, Redflare was claimed by a deep and blissfully dreamless