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Magic Man

Chapter Thirty-Four

It took just over ten minutes for a diligent search to turn up the trap door, a delay occasioned more by the size of the building and the poor lighting conditions than any brilliance in concealment. Indeed, it wasn't really a "door" at all, but a piece of metal that looked like a landskimmer roof that had been dragged across the hole hacked through the concrete floor. A metal handle was bolted to the inside, Redflare noted, to make it easier for someone inside to pull it back into place.

The tunnel descended into the dirt beneath, with wooden boards set as crude steps to aid in getting down. Redflare wondered how easy it had been to avoid utility conduits or sewer lines while digging, then put the question aside. Ultimately, he cared about whether it had a back door, not about initial construction.

Captain Everett shrugged, then took the lead; it was, he said with a grunt, what he was getting paid to do. The rest of them followed. The chamber had a dank, earthy smell, but there was something else as well, the sickly sweetness of blood, that made Redflare want to retch. They'd found the place where the Circle practiced its evil rites and blood sacrifices.

"By Heaven, this is vile," Julian cursed. "I can feel the presence of evil here." Redflare could as well, a wrongness that twisted at the base of his brain.

The dug room consisted of a single large chamber, perhaps a hundred feet on a side. The ceiling was supported by crude beams made of scraps of wood and metal; it would have been very easy to bring the whole thing down. Road flares hissed and sparked, casting an eerie red glow over everything. Their luminescent chemicals were needed, because there were no electrical wires and the lack of ventilation would have made fire a death trap from smoke inhalation. The four flares were set in iron sconces driven into the floor, each at one of the four corners of a diamond-and-circle design cut into the bare earth. A corpse, probably a homeless person to judge by his clothes, lay sprawled in the pattern's center.

One of the mercs flipped up his helmet's visor and retched in disgust. No doubt these hard-bitten soldiers were old friends with death, but there was a distinct difference between the evils of greed and petty cruelty and the willing embrace of a systematic, formal worldview centered in corruption. Here there was no spurious self-justification, no belief that they were in the right no matter how wrong the actions.

Just as the good side of magic was the golden glory Redflare had dreamed of as a child, its dark side was equally extreme in the other direction.

In that instant of shock and repulsion, Ashlyn suddenly shouted, "They're here!" and unleashed a Tsu technique. No doubt she realized that the gravity waves of Gra and Gigra could end up bringing the ceiling down on their heads, but for whatever reason a lance of light speared out.

Julian raised his cane, chanting, in the next instant, and another windspell launched forth against their unseen enemies. As it struck, the veil of invisibility was dropped, and Redflare could see what had been hidden, the poor lighting and his own distraction creating the stage conditions that had kept him from even seeing the telltale rippling in the air.

They were surrounded on three sides. The figures of Wulfeburne and Herrod were visible opposite the stairs, together with a tall, lean young man dressed in Bane Spike colors, denim vest and jeans. The view was obstructed, though, because there was a row of enemies in front of them, forming an arc together with those on either side.

These enemies were not human.

Probably they had been, once. They were generally humanoid, with one head, two arms, two legs, and the shabby remnants of clothing clinging to their bodies. Their flesh, though, was a hideous greenish-yellow color, some with hints of gray, and there was a rubbery slackness to their features that destroyed the individuality of each face, made even gender all but impossible to distinguish.

Then, while the invaders looked on, stunned, the corpse within the (presumably) magic circle lurched to its feet, adding one to the number of attackers while confirming their source. Yet in some way, this extra horror served as the spark to jolt the hunters and mercs out of their momentary paralysis, allowing them to react before the monsters were on them.

Unlike the shambling corpses of holovid shows and Gothic fiction, there was nothing slow or clumsy about these ghouls. They sprang quickly, undead muscles in legs and torsos rippling as their bodies moved with bestial agility. Redflare barely ducked a rending claw, then took a hard punch to the belly from the thing's off hand. It was on him at once, tearing at the magician's shoulder. His poisonshot fell uselessly aside, and the thing lunged for his throat.

He didn't see it. Redflare's eyes were closed, the only way he could shut out the horror enough to focus his will. He called the fire, and the monster fell away from him, its body flash-burning.

"Fire!" he shouted into his commlink--subvocalization be damned!--"The things burn!"

The advice hit home; two of the mercs switched to Foi techniques with brutal effectiveness. Two more went down under waves of the monsters. Redflare cast his spell again and again, staggering as he torched yet another with the last Flaeli he could manage. Blade and gun, spell and technique were all set upon the undead horrors. Finally, Julian stepped forward and with a dramatic gesture, lashed out not at the monsters but at the three men who stood behind them. The one in gang colors waved his hand airily, and glittering green shields sprang up before each of them, taking the impact of the Hewn spell.

"I'm sick of this bastard," Herrod growled, and raised his hands--not to cast a spell, but to aim a Redfield Vindicator, a high-powered pulse-vulcan. The sight of the powerful military weapon in the hands of the corp-clad exec was almost laughable, but the stream of gunfire that poured from the weapon's barrel was not. Neither the ballistic armor of Julian's mantle nor the carbonsuit beneath could stand up to the pure power of the slugs; it was doubtful that even the titan plates worn by Dace and the mercs could have done the job. The Esper did not so much fall as he was blown off his feet, his corpse a bloody ruin as grotesque as any of the undead.

Kemet choked and dropped as a corpse spat something into his face even as he blew out its torso with his sonic guns.

"You...insufferable...idiot!" snarled the gang leader, obviously the mysterious "Gil." Redflare would have bet money that Gil would turn out to be Peter Gaffney, the last member of the Circle, but he'd have been wrong. This man looked almost like a caricature of literary villainy, with a handsome, angular face and jet black hair falling to just past his shoulders. His voice carried effortlessly through the room, easily audible over the grunts of pain, the roar of gunfire, and the groans of the monsters. "That was an Esper, and now he is dead, useless to me!"

And that finally settled the question of just who was really in control of the Circle.


"But nothing!" The gang leader made a quick gesture, and a bolt of energy seemed to descend from above, regardless of the fact that they were indoors and underground, blasting into Paul Herrod. The Vindicator dropped to the ground with a clunk a half-second before his charred corpse did.

Then, the dark-haired man turned to the melee, his expression furious.

"This game no longer amuses me. Wulfeburne, let us end it."

"Yes, Master."

Wulfeburne quickly responded with the mindblast spell he'd used to such good effect before. More than one of the invaders realized what was coming and tried to draw a bead on the man, but the melee kept all but one from succeeding and that trooper saw his bullets deflect off a silvery-blue shield conjured up at another wave of the leader's hand. Then it was too late.

Just as before, a wave of exhaustion washed over Redflare, feeding into the weakness he already felt. Several of the others went down, all but one of the surviving mercs, Yoshida, and Dace. Only Ashlyn and Isis retained their feet among the hunters, and each had been temporarily staggered by the sleep-inducing spell.

The undead, meanwhile, those half-dozen or so that remained, seemed completely unaffected. Perhaps Wulfeburne's magic only sought out his enemies and had no effect on his allies, or perhaps the mindblast simply could not harm the mindless. One struck Isis a two-handed clubbing blow to the face, and the red-haired hunter joined the other fallen invaders.

"I don't care anymore!" Ashlyn screamed, regained her senses just in time to dodge another ghoul. "Being buried alive would be better than this!"

Redflare was barely aware that he had slipped to his knees. Too much magic use, the attacks he'd taken, and the lingering effects of Wulfeburne's spell were too much for him. As if in a dream he saw Ashlyn thrusting her hands out, calling upon her Gigra technique. The shockwave flashed across the room, shattering four support timbers, annihilating at least as many of the living dead, knocking Wulfeburne head over heels, and even rocking the gang leader in his stance. Clots of dirt rained from the ceiling in a shower of grime, but the roof held.

Getting to his feet, Wulfeburne wiped blood from the corner of his mouth.

"These skags are..."

"Troublesome," his master finished for him. "I shall end this now."

He extended his hand, pointing towards the last three of the raiders, but Redflare did not get a chance to see what would happen. Even as a swirling windstorm began to take shape, he fell forward, falling, falling into a welcoming darkness.

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