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Magic Man

Chapter Thirty-Five


Slowly, the darkness cleared, to be replaced once more by the ruddy light of the emergency beacons. Redflare's head still throbbed; apparently passing out didn't count as "rest" for restoring the fatigue caused by the use of magic. Or perhaps he'd been hauled awake by the force of an Arows or similar technique, and hadn't had the opportunity to finish the restoration. His shoulder burned, too, where the ghoul had clawed it; he could feel the tacky wetness of drying blood. So, he hadn't been out too long. Redflare tried to move, turn to see what had happened, and found that his wrists and ankles had been tied together behind his back. His commlink had, of course, been removed.

"Well, it seems the last of my guests is awake."

Gil.

Strong hands--Wulfeburne--pulled Redflare up to a kneeling position. He could see as his head was swung around that the others were tied too, recognizing Dace, Isis, Yoshida, a handful of troopers, and even Kemet--gagged and blindfolded, yes, but alive. Apparently the ghoul's toxin had been to induce unconsciousness rather than death. It couldn't be an accident; there were far too many living victims for them to have wanted to kill the invaders. The dead troopers, as well as the fallen enemies, merely lay sprawled on the floor where they had fallen, as if having lost their animation they were of no more concern than the other debris of the fight.

"Are we that valuable to you that you start torching your own people rather than let us be killed?" he asked sarcastically.

"I would kill a thousand like Herrod to get my hands on but one like you, or Wulfeburne, or Dumont, or that Esper he so stupidly killed." He said it matter-of-factly, almost earnestly, without the slightest trace of humor.

Redflare supposed that it wasn't much different from the corp-jump they'd all first believed this job was. Companies spent money extracting valuable personnel. The amount they paid was based on how valuable the target was. Apparently, having Espers or potential ones in his clutches was very valuable indeed to this man who ruled what was left of the Circle.

"Those," he dismissed the mercs and Redflare's friends with a sweep of his hand, "will merely replace the mesomen I have lost in capturing you. To raise them up, I must first strike them down with the power of my god."

"Your...god?" He shouldn't have been surprised. Every time he'd seen black magic in a book or on the holovid, someone had invariably dragged religion into it, usually the foulest kind.

"You, who have been born with the gift of magic, will soon come to know his glory and serve him even as I do. There is always a need for skilled minions."

"I'm not surprised, given how you treat the ones you've got." He nodded at Herrod's charred form, which lay just to his left, the dead man's outthrust arm actually touching his hip. No one had made even a pretense of cleaning up the dead.

Wulfeburne's hand cracked across the back of his skull, and the blue-haired sorcerer came around to stand next to his master.

"You are unschooled," replied the gang leader, "but you will soon learn the proper respect. As for this one, he was nothing. A tool cowed by threats. His corporate connections were useful in gathering information, but your exposure of him made him a liability I would not have suffered in any case. Just as the activities of the gang members you destroyed had made them too well-known to be effective servants, so I allowed them to be slain while whittling down your strength. Besides, in identifying Ashlyn Dumont for me, Herrod more than fulfilled his purpose. Not that his 'genetic profiling' and 'computer analysis' was any more effective than when I simply chose to walk your Downtown streets and observed you performing. I sensed your true nature immediately."

Redflare hated to admit that he'd been wondering about that.

"So you had your flunkies check up on me, and you came up with a scheme to deliver Ashlyn and myself to you in one little package, and even do it in a way that would cloud the backtrail of both of us so nobody would come looking for you." Keep them talking! he thought. As long as he was alive, there was a chance to escape.

Theoretically.

"Exactly." The too-handsome face contorted into a scowl. "Only, time and again you proved too stubborn, costing me in time and resources at every step. I shall have to all but begin anew."

Suddenly, the smile was back. A brilliant, shining smile. Ecstatic.

"But it was worth it. I have the two of you, and you will make fine initiates into my god's legion."

Redflare spat in his face. A puerile gesture, really. Cliched. But it felt right.

"I'm not like Wulfeburne here. I didn't go digging into old magic to try to get out of my rut. I gave all that up a decade ago. And after what we've seen, what you've done, do you really think we'd join you?"

For a brief, fleeting moment he was afraid that Ashlyn would do exactly that. The corporate executive, with her back to the wall, cutting the best deal she could to protect her interests. He could see it, and then in the next second his gut twisted with guilt at even letting the through come into his head.

None of which was germane to the point. They'd tied him. Didn't they know he was good at slipping ropes? He'd done it once already during the course of this biz, after Holst had captured him.

But no, they don't know that. Holst worked for SDE, for Yoshida.

The combination of bound limbs, gags, and blindfolds that the others wore was as effective as plasmarings for blocking technique use. They were just meat to Gil. He and Ashlyn, though, were only tied, maybe because they needed the two of them to see and hear what was to come.

"Do you hear me? You get nothing from us. You can kill us, but we'll never worship whatever devil you claim you're serving."

He'd cut his wrist; it burned like his shoulder, but the blood helped, too, by making the rope slippery. A little lubrication could go a long way under these circumstances. Redflare almost had a hand free.

"Oh, yes, you will. For the One I serve is no mere fantasy, no illusionary idol born of human minds and their desire to feel meaning in their lives, justification for their actions. My god is real, purely real, and I shall bring you into his fold, within his darkness."

Gil smiled again, distantly, fixedly, like his face was nothing but a carnival mask.

"Watch and behold."

His body rippled. There was no other way to describe it; it was as if a small wave had flowed up through it, distorting the flesh.

What is this? Do they have me hooked up to some kind of VR sim? Nah, that's a load of--

Suddenly, Gil's body expanded, growing tall, over nine feet. The too-perfect face vanished--it had been too perfect, nothing more than an artificial creation of magic. Long, flowing robes of scarlet swelled out around it, an ornate symbol on the chest, melding with a conical headpiece with full-face mask showing only a slit for vision. The arms were frightfully elongated, the hands the same, each claw-tipped finger a pasty, bluish-white.

This thing wasn't human--not Palman, Motavian, or even Dezolian. It had never been human.

Perhaps for the first time in his life, Redflare truly believed in demons.

"Now do you understand, little Esper?" it keened in a voice that was high and shrill. "I am no crazed fanatic, no deluded cultist. I am a Gi-le-Farg! I stand among the highest of my deity's creations. You will submit to me."

It reached out with those two impossibly long hands, index fingers extended, and pressed the tips of its claws to Redflare's temples, just denting the flesh.

The black lightning roared through the magician, exploding through every nerve ending. Pain seared his entire body, as if every single inch of flesh, every bone, had been plunged into the fire. His arteries felt as if his heart was pumping acid through them rather than blood. His back arched. He screamed.

None of which was the worst part.

Black flames seemed to burn along his nerves, seeking up into his brain. They played with Redflare's neurons, hunting deep into his long-term memory. The Gi-le-Farg's magic burned down through him, entering the hidden corners of the magician's soul, seeking out the darkest corners. What they found there, they lifted out and tenderly, almost lovingly presented to Redflare's mind in visions, hallucinations.

He saw his father, a lean, half-starved fellow with a drooping mustache. A weak man, whose tiny shop was the target of two or three rival groups of "protection" rackets, gangs and syndicates. His hands had taken to shaking there, near the end, whenever he hadn't had a bottle in them. How he would cringe when Redflare's mother would accuse him of cowardice. "At least stand up to them. You're paying the Miklaers for protection, aren't you? Well, the least they could do is keep the gangs from shaking you down for more!"

Redflare didn't know who it was that his father had finally stood up to. He didn't know if the syndicate goons had killed him for demanding they keep the gangs off his back in exchange for their extortion money, or if it had been a gang because he'd refused to pay, claiming syndicate protection. Redflare hadn't even seen the body. He'd seen his mother, though. She'd turned stark white when Scarface Joey, the Miklaer "collection agent," had brought the news. Then she'd turned wordlessly, locked herself into the bathroom, and hung herself from an overhead pipe. He'd seen her, all right, when they'd broken the door down, her blackened tongue protruding from her mouth.

He saw Scarface Joey's sneer as he announced to the two Denton children that the syndicate would be taking the store in payment of certain "debts" owed by their late father. And they had. There was no one to help them, no Juvenile Protection Bureau rep for two kids who had never been registered as legal citizens.

Suddenly, Redflare felt all his hatred well up inside him and cascade out at the vision of the thug. Redflare saw Joey scream as he was consumed in a cloud of acidic decay that corroded and rotted his flesh, until there was nothing left of the predator but a stinking corpse.

The vision changed until he saw four young men, toughs with the electric red-dyed hair of the Crimson Razors pushing Redflare's father around his shabby little shop. He saw the knives come out, long shanks of steel with serrated blades or curved claws strapped in retractable sheaths to the backs of gangers' wrists. He saw the metal tear into Noel Denton, cutting and slicing his flesh, scarlet blood spraying grotesquely.

Once more the hate boiled up within Redflare, and all of a sudden the Razors burst into flame, each becoming a burning pillar as red as their now-scorched hair had been.

With a wrench the vision shifted once again. This time, Redflare saw his sister Marys, tricked out in skimpy black leather, leading a man back to her shabby bedroom because it was the only way a fifteen-year-old girl in the Court could support herself and a brother four years her junior. Redflare heard the gasps and cries, then the john burst from the room, his eyes wild with fear and his face green with horror at what he'd done. The magician saw again the naked body of his sister sprawled lewdly on the bed, stripped of dignity even in death, her sightless, bulging eyes staring upwards at nothing, the dark bruises of finger-marks obvious on her throat. The rage ate him again, rising up and consuming the client like a hungry, dark shadow.

Then the visions came faster. Those who'd abused him. A senior WizKid who'd tried to keep him out of the gang. A rival who'd gutted one of Redflare's friends. A DLE agent who'd busted him on the street and broken a rib for entertainment purposes. Everyone who'd ever hurt him. Everyone who'd caused him pain.

That was what the Gi-le-Farg's god offered. The power to never be hurt again. To destroy anyone who so much as attempted it. To take what he wanted from life, to no longer be weak, never a victim.

It was a seductive promise, calling up all the hurts of his past and showing him how they needn't happen, how they never had had to happen, if only he'd found then what was being offered to him now. Redflare ached to take the offer, the power, to crush out his enemies and be safe and secure from harm forever.

The pain that raged through him made it impossible to think, to gather even a single coherent thought--which, no doubt, was its purpose, to make him feel and decide with only emotions. Yet the visions had done more than show him his pain and weakness. They had shown him the faces that had caused his pain. Scarface Joey. The Crimson Razors--were they really guilty or just a vision? The nameless man who'd killed Marys. They were the type of men who would wield the power being offered. Not the victims, no, but the victimizers. Paul Herrod and Jason Wulfeburne.

Repulsed by the association, Redflare's soul recoiled, screaming, from the offer.

Reality returned with a sudden twist of thought, the pain vanishing with the hallucination.

"No," he whispered. His chest heaved; his entire body throbbed with soreness from the aftereffects. "Never."

"There is time," the monster keened, moving back slightly, as if to consider its next move. "Anyone can be broken with enough time, and I have all that I need."

It was right, Redflare knew. He'd been close to caving after one session. How would he be after two? Or three? Or five? No doubt it would vary the techniques, too, keeping him off-balance, to avoid the sources of his rejection, if its alien intelligence could comprehend them. He had only one chance, and he had to take it at once.

"No, you don't," he snarled, and jerked his right hand free of the ropes, wincing in pain as skin tore on the rough cord. His fingers brushed his vest on their way up, sore or not Redflare forced them to do their work.

"Redflare, no!" Ashlyn screamed, well aware that casting another spell might kill him or worse, just as Julian had said, and being able to see for herself that he'd been stripped of guns or other lethal weapons.

He flung his hand open as he thrust it towards the Gi-le-Farg.

"Flaeli!"

A shower of sparks exploded from his palm.

The Gi-le-Farg was ready. Perhaps it could have taken the flame-bolt of a Flaeli spell without serious harm, but it saw no reason to. One taloned finger was extended, matching Redflare's motion, and the sparks were stopped by the glittering green barrier against energy and magic. In fact, not the slightest bit got through, which was not surprising since they were nothing more than a magician's flash-powder.

No more than a half-second later, Redflare's left hand, freed by the slack on the rope, brought up Herrod's fallen pulse-vulcan. The Gi-le-Farg's complete carelessness towards his late minion's corpse had extended to his weapon. The anti-energy barrier was no opposition at all to the purely kinetic assault of the vulcan slugs that slammed into the fiendish wizard. The gun's roar was deafening, but Redflare did not let up, grabbing onto the front grip with his free hand to keep the weapon steady on target, and he emptied the remainder of the clip at point-blank range into the Gi-le-Farg. The monster let out a single shriek of protest, and then its body seemed to implode into a cloud of stinking vapor that dissipated at once.

There were several loud thumps from behind Redflare, the surviving undead collapsing now that their controller was dead. Jason Wulfeburne, though, did not fall. He stared in shock, scarcely believing what he was seeing, but Redflare's gun was empty and Wulfeburne's magic definitely was not. His hands began to rise, summoning a no doubt real killing spell.

"Tsu!"

Wulfeburne staggered as Dumont's technique hit him. Perhaps his armored clothing kept the laserlike tech from slicing him apart, or perhaps the Esper resistance to spell effects extended to damaging techniques as well. His concentration was shattered, though, and the tech had stunned him momentarily. Redflare hobbled to his feet, ankles still hampered by the rope, and took two stumbling steps forward.

The pulse-vulcan might have been out of ammunition, but it made a very satisfactory cracking sound as the magician applied it directly to the side of Wulfeburne's skull.

This was one time he doubted he'd object to killing an unconscious foe.

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