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Magic Man

Chapter Thirty-Three


The side door led into a shabby little reception office. When the warehouse was up and running, a single person had probably manned the desk, but now that desk was covered with spills and scars as was the carpet, and the walls painted with crude graffiti in which the black spike was a prominent theme, piercing skulls and bodies. Artists the Spikes were not.

The sound of gunfire easily penetrated the thin wall, letting them know the others had engaged the enemy. The stuttering roars of vulcans, the high-pitched squeal of sonic guns, and the deep-throated booms of shotguns could all be heard.

A door on one side of the reception room led to a fancier office area once used by the shipping manager but now trashed as thoroughly as the reception room. On the other side was a bathroom which was more foul than could be believed. Neither was occupied, not even by the telltale shimmer that Redflare had come to recognize as the sign of an invisible presence.

"Team C here; we've got nothing. We're moving in," Dace reported.

"That's 'cause there's plenty out here, C," Everett shot back. "Team A scattered them and it's hide and bloody seek with guns down here."

"Watch yourself for the ones that hide too well." They'd briefed the others on the invisibility trick, though Redflare didn't know if it would help. Only he and Ashlyn, with their Esper blood, had been able to see the shimmering during their previous encounters.

The last door out of the reception room was opposite the entrance, and it proved to lead out onto the warehouse floor. Redflare understood at once what Everett had meant by "hide and seek." Aside from a large open area in front of the loading dock, the warehouse was a twisted mess of barrels, crates, and industrial junk, including a large crane. The illumination was inadequate at best--emergency lights glowing fitfully around the upper edge of the high ceiling, no doubt with power tapped from the local lines. Flames blazing in two barrels near the loading dock added the only remaining light. Sporadically, weapons fire or the use of a technique blazed out as a member of one side or the other caught sight of a target. The cables by which Yoshida's team had descended from the shattered skylight dangled eerily.

More than one corpse lay sprawled on the unyielding concrete floor.

"Keep the exits covered," Yoshida instructed. "We can't let any of them escape."

"My team has the side door," Dace responded, then said aloud without keying his commlink, "Ashlyn, Julian, you stay here and cover the door. The rest of us are moving out."

Three troopers simultaneously broke for the loading dock entrance from different parts of the warehouse. One stopped in his tracks, his body jerking spastically as vulcan rounds hammered him. No doubt his armor stopped some, but it was quickly compromised.

Two searing blue-white beams from laser cannons lanced out at the ganger who had scored the kill, and the vulcan fell silent.

Isis and Kemet broke one way and Dace and Redflare took another, between two stacks of crates, weapons at the ready. The stillness in their immediate surroundings was a sharp contrast to the sporadic sounds of battle echoing from various other parts of the warehouse.

The stillness was broken when a stack of crates came tipping down towards Dace and Redflare. They dove aside, unsure of what might be in the containers. They proved to be empty, clattering on the floor while the upper one simply smashed. Both men were left off-balance, though, as a Bane Spike hurtled out from his hiding spot with a bloodcurdling yell and dove at Dace with his serrated knives thrusting at the hunter's exposed back. Warned by the cry, Dace half-turned, freeing an arm to punch aside one blow. The other thrust glanced harmlessly off Dace's chest armor.

The two men grappled together; Dace released the hilt of his sword with one hand and got it up under the thug's chin, but the ganger slashed Dace's arm with his knife, drawing blood, and the hunter was forced to pull his hand back.

The firebolt from Redflare's Flaeli magic caught the Bane Spike in the side. Like the Foi technique, the spell did not only burn but carried with it explosive impact that knocked the ganger sprawling off Dace. Dace rolled to his feet, moving faster than the injured killer, and a sweep of his sword took out the Spike as he was still coming up into a fighting crouch.

"Nice work," Dace told him, and Redflare felt inordinately proud. He'd never been able to make a major contribution to the team as a combatant before; one reason he'd used the new, untried Flaeli rather than his poisonshot was that he didn't trust his aim with a target that close to Dace.

"Thanks."

There wasn't much time for more conversation than that, though. The eerie hunt through the shadowy warehouse was a grimly serious game involving the need to make split-second decisions. Each side was stalking the other, choosing its moments carefully. The next Bane Spike Dace and Redflare spotted was lying facedown on a junked landskimmer, vulcan cradled in her hands in a sniper's pose. Dace pulled out his AN-9 and sent a laser beam sizzling into the unsuspecting ganger.

The third encounter turned out to be a more concerted effort. Two rushed from the front, one with a titanium-bladed sword and the other with glittering laser knives. Dace engaged them both, countering their numbers with superior skill. The narrowness of the "passage"--a space between a pyramid of Alliance Oil drums and a row of crates--prevented either Bane Spike from slipping by to get an opening at Dace's exposed back or flank but also prevented Redflare from getting a clean shot off, even with magic.

Then, the question of helping Dace became largely moot as he had to worry about helping himself. There was a high-pitched whine, and Redflare found himself being flung forward into the oil drums by a terrific impact in the middle of his back. His knee and forearm crashed painfully into the rusted steel, but luckily the drum was full and didn't move under the impact. Having the whole stack fall on him would not have been a pleasant end to the biz.

As it was, Redflare barely half-slumped, half-dove out of the way of a second sonic gun shot, which blew a chunk out of the drum. A dark brown powdery substance began to spill out of the hole, carrying with it an earthy smell that Redflare's subconscious pegged as being simple dirt.

His conscious mind, though, was more concerned with being put under the earth than recognizing its presence. As he fell, he turned, hitting the floor with yet another jolt to his system, and saw that his attacker was a Spike carrying not a cheap one-hit wonder but a Redfield Marksman, a serious military-grade sonic gun like Kemet used. Redflare's decision to wear his vest, augmented with carbon-fiber protection, over his carbonsuit had probably saved him from any injuries worse than a few bruises.

Presuming, of course, that the next shot didn't take his head off.

"Suck on this, sworm-kis--"

The ganger's insult was cut off midway by the blast of flame smashing into his unarmored skull. Like any good stage magician, Redflare knew when to pose and when it was time to act. It was a lesson the dead Bane Spike wasn't going to get to absorb.

Dace, meanwhile, was able to send one of his foes staggering back with a kick to the midsection and cut down the other with a few swift strokes. Without his ally, the second one didn't last much longer.

Redflare took a long look down at the second body.

"Will ironies never cease? I think you just avenged your own death, Dace."

"This was the one?"

"I think so, yeah."

"Go figure. Guess fate's got a sense of humor." He looked up at Redflare, then back at the toasted ganger. "I thought they wanted you alive?"

Redflare shrugged.

"I guess the word didn't make it all the way down to the rank and file. Or these twisted skags just weren't paying close attention. That's the trouble with using mindbent lackeys. Sometimes they just don't keep their heads on their work."

The battle, such as it was, didn't last too much longer. By the time it was over, the body count stood at somewhere between fifteen and twenty Spikes and four troopers. The surviving mercs took their losses stoically. Getting killed was an occupational hazard for them, after all, and they'd do their mourning in private.

"Where are the members of the Circle?" Kemet was the first to voice the question. "We thinned out the footsoldiers nicely, but we want the top dogs."

"Do you think that they have some other hideout?" Isis said.

"I did not come all this way on a nessie-chase," Yoshida said darkly. "Merely eliminating a street gang will not prove the claims you have made."

Redflare shook his head.

"It doesn't add up. They need to base their illegal activities from somewhere, and it doesn't make sense to keep their muscleboys in one place and their valuables in another."

"Especially when one considers the nature of their activities," Julian said. "Such researches take space and require privacy." He was being deliberately vague, as the mercs and Yoshida didn't know about magic being involved, but all the hunters got the idea. The nastiness associated with black magic--especially if something answers back--wasn't the sort of thing one wanted to do in a crowd.

Then, Redflare's subconscious caught up to him, and he snapped his fingers.

"The dirt!"

"What?"

"We ran across a stack of old oil drums filled with dirt. Where did it come from? It sure as heck wasn't left behind when this place was abandoned; any cargo of any value at all would have been sold off by its owners."

"Valuable dirt?" one of the mercs asked. Surprisingly enough, it was Yoshida who fielded the question, following the track of Redflare's reasoning.

"If it was here while this warehouse was a going concern, then someone had taken the time to assemble, pack, and ship it. Therefore, it would have had value, or else it would not have ended up here."

"Only it doesn't have value, meaning that someone loaded the drums after the warehouse was shut down, and they did it for a reason. Dirt isn't exactly easy to come by in Camineet, either. The parks, the suburban lawns in the bedroom-community neighborhoods and corp enclaves, and that's basically it. I can't see the Bane Spikes going to any of those places and bringing back truckloads of dirt, can you?"

"So what do you think happened, Redflare, and what does it have to do with the Circle's location?" Kem demanded.

Redflare grinned and pointed to the floor.

"Personally, I think this place lacks the comforts of home. I'd say that the Spikes agree with me, because they apparently went and dug a basement."

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