Magic is.. a series of progressively bad headaches. [1.4]

fire.jpg Memories are funny things.
In this instalment Al takes us on a whistle stop tour towards present day.

Events unfold including but not limited to:
A paper Ankh getting roasted
(fire can be awkward like that sometimes)
And Al meets a rather dandy man with excellent hair because.. well that would be telling wouldn't it?


“ugg..”
My shoulders drooped
Mage 101, class number five done.
Boring, boring mage 101.. we were practising pencil levitation again.
I got it down in five minutes the first day but for some reason most of the people there are struggling with it still.

I nodded to the receptionist on my way out of the Hub’s front door.
“See you later Felicia”
She looked up from painting her finger nails and smirked at me.
“It’s Stacy, this week” she called out casually.
I turned to walk backwards and grinned at her in return.
“You’ll always be Felicia to me sweetheart”
I mimed a kiss to her and she shook her head in amusement.
“I don’t kiss girls honey or clones, this week at least, but thanks for the offer”
I almost stumbled over my own feet and she cracked up laughing.
With a deep sigh I waved my arms dismissively and turned back to walking normally.
“Point to me!” she shouted with glee, no doubt pulling out the scoreboard she managed to get somehow a week ago to mark off another win.
Without looking back I waved a thumbs up to her in agreement and finished it with a wave.
I don’t get why everyone is so scared of her, it turns out the way to get on to her good side is to give as good as you get, who knew?
Before she could start something else to distract me I left the hub at a mild jog.

==========

“John?”
He tensed up and turned to look at me with confusion.
I was pretty tense myself.
What the hell is he doing around here?
Why would he be anywhere near here? He lives in one of his motels on the other side of town..
“Al?.. the hell are you doing here?”
My mouth twitched a little at that one.
“Back at ya.”
He smirked and made his way over to me.
“How are things? You and Sarah get the rat problem sorted in the end?”
I nodded and tried to not shudder.
It took a whole two weeks for the exterminators to clear the flat for us to move back in.
Every time they thought they had it cleared, more would come.
Sarah got a bit desperate in the end and went there after the first week.
She wore a lot of thick clothes, apparently she needed it.. they were swarming again.
After a bit of effort she got her hands on the flute and got out of there.
The rats ‘mysteriously’ went away after that.

Karl was happy.
Turns out the flute is a low grade enchanted item, comparatively, but more useful because of it.
Low grade enchanted items aren't very strictly controlled by the MPA, so they can be passed on to non-mages by a registered mage.
In this case, one of Karl’s cousins does animal control for the county.
Nice little income.
He’s now paying me rent for the flute every two weeks which I split with Sarah for the flat’s rent.
It’s a bit.. it’s one of those things that is technically in a legal grey area but everyone who can, does do it.
Mage’s have a thing for heirlooms, anyone who’s too afraid to go through their awakening and too passive to work as a commissioned attack or support officer tends to make their living renting out any enchanted items they acquire, especially members of the four families.

While I considered just how much to tell him, John got close and shoulder bumped me like he used to when we were kids.
I wasn't ready for it and almost went flying.
A few staggered steps saved my face from meeting the street but my bag decided to spill its contents instead while I struggled to keep my balance.
John’s grin dropped and he looked apologetic.
I gathered myself together again and shrugged his apology off but he bent down to pick up my stuff for me.

After he passed me back a few bits and pieces his hand settled on my mage’s guide.
He froze for a moment, I couldn't see his face but his whole body went ridged.
Slowly he picked up the guide and shifted it in his fingers.
His head moved up and he stared at me thoughtfully.
“You running errands for Sarah or something?”
I frowned and cocked my head in confusion.
“No, just taking the long way to work from the.. library. Why?”
John’s face melted from thoughtful to suspicion and settled on shock.
I stared at him with worry.
He’s not acting normal today.
His eyes squinted and panned around my face then seemed to settle above my left shoulder.
For a moment his mouth dropped in surprise but he quickly pulled himself back together and his face went blank.
“Arista”
It came out as barely a whisper.
Without another word he shoved the guide in my hands, stood up and marched away at a near sprint.
“John?..”
He didn't answer me, just turned the corner and disappeared.
I stood there for a moment trying to work it all out but in the end I gave up.
It’s not like this is the first time John’s been weird about things.
A sigh escaped me but I bent down to gather up the last of my stuff.
I’ll have to call him later on in the week to make sure he’s okay.

================

I nearly stumbled into the office.
Getting caught up with John made me a bit late.
The receptionist looked up and scrunched her nose at me.
She does that sometimes, I think she doesn't like just me personally to be honest.
I've never seen her do it to someone else.
“Almost late Cooper. Townsend wants to see you in his office”
I paused and blinked at her for a moment.
Her face smoothed a little and she shrugged.
“Probably about your leave, this IS your first day back with him here”
My head nodded for me and I tried to smile for her but it felt weak.
What the hell could old Townsend want from me?
I'm barely a blip on his radar, even if I HAVE been off for three weeks.

I carefully made my way to his open office door.
Out of the corner of my eye I caught what looked like a long white lab coat hanging on his hat rack tucked in the corner.
For some reason it felt like it should mean something, I couldn't remember it being there before at least..

“Cooper, in here now. Shut the door” Mr.Townsend’s voice sounded a lot deeper than usual.
I slipped inside and closed the door softly.
For some reason I had a bad feeling about this..

=================

“oww”
My back hurt.. my head hurt.
For a moment I dazedly looked up at the cloudy sky above before shaking my head clear.
My eyes shot a look up at the second floor window and I frowned.
Mr.. well.. the giant lizard man who, as far as I know, was Mr.Townsend a minute ago leaned his head out the window a little and hissed at me darkly.

Fight or flight kicked in.
Ignoring my body’s grumbles I rolled off the car roof.
My feet settled on broken and melted glass.
A glance told me that I’d totalled whoever’s car it was, my fall and what looked like a relatively large amount of fire damage had wasted the whole thing.
I’d have to go talk to Edith about it later.. well talk to Fena at least, she’ll likely be sympathetic at least. Odd’s are, Edith would be listening in anyway, she tends to do that all the time apparently.

One more glance at the now lizard-free window told me that I had to get moving.
With a hand cupped on my lower back I stumbled off onto the main road nearby.
Better to be in public when chased by a lizard man, unless he can turn back into Townsend with a thought?
I tensed up for a moment and regretted it because my back roared at me.
Reluctantly I picked up my pace and moved toward the subway nearby.
At least it’s easy to get lost in the crowds at this time of day.

=================

“Get lost, I'm meditating”
I could feel her mischievous grin without opening my eyes.
“oh, com’ on. We haven’t had a weekend out in ages”
Despite all attempts to the contrary my face frowned.
“I'm busy”
Sarah stamped her foot loudly.
“You’re always busy. All you do anymore is study, meditate or go to see Fena!”
I clenched my teeth and opened my eyes to glare at her.
“I'm-“
Sarah yelped and jumped back.
A glance downward showed that, yes, I had just set my paper Ankh on fire.
“Damn it!”
Not a clever idea.
Sarah took a few more steps away from me.
I quickly patted my leg where my nice comfortable track pants had started to smoke.

In the silence that followed I offered Sarah a mild glare but there was, ironically, no heat left in it.
“I need to meditate Sarah. I'm dangerous until I can get this under control, okay? I almost flash fried a HR rep today, she said that Townsend was threatening to press charges on me for sexual harassment”
Her eyes were wide.
“That filthy snake tried to.. and I jumped out a sodding window just to escape him! He’s got the utter gall to..”
With clenched teeth I patted out another smouldering fire that had started up on my pants again.
She nodded slowly.
Eventually I sighed deep and offered her a weak smile.
“You could always take Beth with you? You know my sizes too, right?”
She gave me a weak smile back but her eyes were sad.
“yeah.. yeah, sure..um.. I’ll go call her now.. see you later, okay?”
I gave her a nod and turned back to my meditation position with a sigh.
‘Ya be useless, ya need to control ya self girl. Don’t be needin’ my help’
Fena translated that into ‘go meditate, idiot’ for me but even then it wasn't helping much.
As soon as my stress levels spike I set something on fire, ever since Edith hit my with her stick for the second time.
At least the paper Ankhs work to divert the fire for a short while, I need to make more of them.
Apparently there’s some mythology involved, something about fire linking with life essence and its aspect being enforced by the papers nature essence.. or was it the Ankh’s connection to eternal life being inverted by the paper’s status as part of a dead tree being used to draw in the flame and extinguish it at the same time..?
Fena went into lecture mode about it and I kind of blanked out watching her talk instead of actually paying attention.
They work at least, maybe if I make a load of them and fill my pockets up I can at least delay the point I start setting stuff on fire long enough to clear the area or something?
There’s no rush though, for now all I can do is try and ‘find my center’.
If I try to make any now they will probably just burn up in my hands..
Why does everything in my book about meditation sounds so vague?
Does anyone really know what ‘find your center’ means?
It’s kind of annoying.

==============
==============

I didn't go back to work.
John hooked me up with a night shift running the desk at one of his motels instead.
Between that and the income from renting out the rat flute, I pretty much broke even on it all.
I got the fire under control too.. mostly.
It only took a week or so to become stable.
That doesn't mean it’s stopped completely though.
I have to be careful.
Sarah was annoyed about it all.

She came in with the big news about her new job, she was going to be the face of an MPA sponsored treasure hunting TV show.
I was so happy for her that I accidentally scorched the floor when she told me.

I THINK she was more annoyed at me because of what happened after that though..
She handed over her briefing folder to me.
Apparently the MPA use the show, and a few others, to spread information about magic to the general public without them having to know the dreaded ‘magic is real’ part of it.
The minute I saw her shooting schedule I had a minor freak-out and roasted the folder to ash.
In a little over four months’ time she would be out of the country for a whole four months of on location shooting!
We’ve never been apart that long!

She-
.. my head!.. why.. this..
.. it feels like my head is going to explode..
..When will it end?.. this is worse then..
NO!
Don’t think about it!.. no. no. no. n-

==============
==============

“Mums missing”
I froze, pizza halfway to my mouth and my phone cupped on my shoulder to free up my hands.
“What?”
Sarah sounded twitchy, she shifted the phone constantly.
“I went around to her place after today’s run through. She’s not there, the door was unlocked and the house is a mess”
Slowly my body unlocked, I dropped the pizza to my plate and ran my hand through my hair in frustration.
“Crap”
Sarah nodded in agreement, the phone shuffled a bit more.
“She’s not..?” I trailed out at Sarah’s negative grunt.
“I called Aunt Cathy, she’s heard nothing. The neighbours have heard nothing either”
My shoulders slumped a little, so much for that idea.
“Where could..”
There was a smashing sound on the other end of the line.
Sarah moved quickly, it sounded like she dropped the phone, most likely so she could draw her MPA issued, blessed ‘kirpan’ knife from its ankle holster.

“Sarah?”
She shushed me in a near whisper.
After a long tense silence she breathed out hard in relief.
“No-ones there, looks like someone threw a brick through the kitchen window..”
I blinked hard at that.
“A brick?”
She grunted and I could hear the crunch of broken glass.
“Looks like it’s got a note tied to it”
For a moment I frowned in annoyance, a brick with a note on it is like something out of a TV show.
How very Cliché.
“What’s it say?”
My impatience may have shown because Sarah growled at me to be quite.
“Al, where are you?”
My eyebrows sunk and I hunched in closer to the phone.
“I'm at that new Pizza place up on western.. it’s bad isn't it?.. about mum?”
Sarah breathed deep and shifted the phone again.
“Stay there, I’ll come get you”

============

“This is a bad idea”
I frowned and shifted my shoulders a little.
“You didn't have to come”
Sarah shot a glare at me and huffed loudly.
“Of course I did, its mum”
My frown got a bit deeper but I bit back my initial retort.
We drove on in silence for another block.
For lack of a better option I pulled out the note again and stared at it.

Little rabbit,
You ran and you ran but your time is up.
We have your mother.
Come to the docks by midnight tonight.
Come alone.
An associate will meet you there, you should recognise him.

It was hardly descriptive.
Didn't leave me much wiggle room either.
I shot a look over at Sarah but she was focused on driving.
The ‘come alone’ part bothered me.
Was the message for me or Sarah? It’s not like we have many enemies.
Well.. that I can think of anyway..

“Take a left up here”
Sarah glared at me out of the corner of her eye.
“I need to stop off at Fena’s.”
Sarah’s glare went up a notch but she turned anyway.
“It says-“
I cut across her with a frustrated growl.
“I know, I know. Come alone. I'm not going for backup, I'm going for some equipment”
Her eyebrow perked up in surprise and she grunted questioningly.
I couldn't resist a smirk.
“Just because the mage classes are taking ages doesn’t mean I'm not learning anything”
Her other eyebrow rose but she didn't challenge me.
We took a sharp right onto the street with Fena’s shop on it.

=============

“Yes, I'm sure.”
Fena squinted at me suspiciously.
“I don’t know..” she stated in a slow, careful tone.
Sarah sighed obnoxiously from the door.
Fena shot her a sharp look of dislike.
They haven’t gotten on since the moment they met for some reason.
“I need my ready bag and I want to buy a few bits. It’s not like I'm asking for the moon here Fena..”
She looked back over at me and her frown evened out.
“Sure..”
She didn't look happy but she agreed at least.
“What do you need?”
Out of the corner of my eye I could see Sarah huff silently.
“At least one of your resonant rods and.. how many of those throw away caster rings do you have?”
Fena’s eyebrow popped up and a mischievous look darted across her face.
“Well you’re never boring at least..” she grumbled while turning to go check her stock in the back.

=============

Sarah shot me a confused look but didn't turn away from the road fully.
After almost a solid minute she couldn't hold it in anymore.
“What on earth are you doing?”
I looked up from my notepad and frowned at her.
“Maths..duh?”
She looked like she wanted to hit me.
“Why..” she ground out eventually “..are you doing math?”
I querked an eyebrow at her and smirked.
It didn't seem to help her desire to hit me.
“I've got about twenty minutes before we get to the docks.. in that time I've got to make something potentially useful for almost any situation we might come up against.”
She watched me for a moment longer and then turned back to the road, seemingly satisfied.
“What’s with the pole and the rings?”
I put my pen down and sighed loudly to show her my annoyance.
“Do you really want to know?”
She nodded decisively.
“The ‘pole’ is a resonant rod, it can be tuned to a caster’s magic by bonding it with a minor blood magic ritual-“
Sarah almost swerved the car off the road in her rush to pull us to the hard shoulder and glared at me with real heat.
“Blood magic!” she roared.
Her eyes were wide with worry.
I couldn't help but frown at her.
“yeah.. blood magic.. It’s not a big deal. Edith uses it a lot it’s just-“
She cut across me again and glared harder.
“Blood magic’s evil! Lich’s and-“
I cut across her in return by waving for silence.
“Blood magic’s only evil if you use it on other people..”
She didn't look happy with just that, so I continued quickly.
“Blood magic comes in two forms, Binding and Bound.”
A small amount of confusion mixed in with her worried look.
“Binding is the big bad rituals that drain other people to empower the caster. Bound blood magic is mostly minor rituals used to channel magic externally through an un-enchanted object or internally for self-healing”
Sarah sighed hard and her shoulders slumped.
“You sound like you know what you’re talking about”
I nodded and gave her a tentative smile.
“I trust you.. I do. I just.. blood magic, the binding stuff, it’s scary. A while back I.. well..”
She trailed off hesitantly.
“Yeah.. It’s not nice..”
She didn't carry on from there, I would have pushed her on it but we’re running out of time as it is.
After a moment more of staring at me Sarah nodded to herself and pulled us back onto the road.
“So the rings and the.. pole” she trailed off awkwardly.
I smiled a little and turned back to my calculations.
“The rods not important really, I just need a mounting that I can conduct my magic though and it’s a quick, easy shortcut to use. The rings.. well.. they store one spell pattern each.”
Sarah didn't slow down this time but she looked confused and curious.
“I might not have time to use spells directly if things get rough, the stuff I know from memory are slow anyway. A caster’s ring is another shortcut that lets you skip the visualisation stages and just push in the power, the ring does the rest.”
Her nose scrunched up a little.
“So put them together..”
I nodded and grinned.
“If I can get the maths right I should be able to slide the rings on the rod and have basically a load of spell options ready to cast without any visual cues to giveaway what I'm doing.”
My eyes dipped down to the pages of calculations I’d already had to work through.
“Bound blood magic is complicated. It’s really good for the mind stuff so with a bit of tweaking I should even be able to cast from the rod even remotely, while handcuffed”
Sarah frowned again and shot me a cautious look.
“You think you’re going to be handcuffed?”
I caught her eye and grinned a bit more.
“I hope not but like you said.. its mum.. I'm not taking any chances.”

=============

“Lurch?”
Sarah pulled the car to a full stop and her mouth dropped open staring out the windshield.
It took me a second watching him to realise that he wasn't actually Fena’s faithful golem.
His face was a bit different.. he looked more like..
“Oh crap.. It’s Darren”
Sarah swung her head to stare at me.
“You know him?”
I kept an eye on him, he didn't twitch or move around like a normal person.
Not that I could have known last time we met, but he’s defiantly a Golem.
Hard to tell what generation though.
“He was a henchman for Vlad”
She frowned in confusion for a moment but then gasped in fear.
“yeah..”
On instinct I glanced out the back window and could see a tall spindly man in a suit standing at the back bumper.
My throat got tight and I gulped.
It’s Reginald..
It would be wouldn't it..
What the hell is he doing out here?
Yes, the suns already set but it should take at least another twenty minutes before the reflective rays are comfortably dull enough for him to be out in the open.
He slowly brought his hand up and gave me a creepy, childish finger wave.
“Oh..crap”

Slowly, so neither of them would rush the car to stop me I moved my hand down my seat and slid it into my pocket.
“Stay here” I told Sarah, she looked like she was going to argue but my look silenced her.
Now wasn't the time for arguing.
I eased my way out of the car and dragged my roughly made, unnamed, last resort spell stick weapon with me.
A glance toward Darren the golem made up my mind, I turned to face Reginald as the bigger threat and one in charge.
With carefully slow movements, to not set him off, I eased my hand back into my pocket and withdrew my USMPA badge.
Reginald tensed at the sight of it.
“Re..” I paused a moment and frowned at him “..what’s your name?”
His tension eased and he smirked with a flash of fang.
“Bob, my name is Bob”
He looked oddly smug and straightened his tie proudly.
Despite the situation my mouth dropped a little and I stared at him.
“wh.. no.. okay, lets go with that..” I paused one more time “Bob.. really?”
He glared at me lightly as if I was mocking him.
My shoulders shrugged a little and I grinned back at him.
“Fine, fine.. so.. Bob..” It still felt weird “..I must warn you that I am an official operative of the MPA and you are acting against the third iteration Cromwell..”
He twitched his arm and I lost track of what I was saying with a flinch.
“the.. the Cromwell acts of New England Prospect”
His face pulled back into a big fanged grin, he cocked his head at me in amusement.
“You’re new at this, aren't you?”
I tried to stay strong but I think my hand trembled a little, it probably gave me away.
After a single deep breath I tried to center myself again.
With as much bluffed bravado as possible I shifted my hips to look more casual.
“First time I've had to use this thing”
I waved my badge a little and smiled weakly at him.
“Got any tips?”
He seemed amused at least, amused is better than ‘ready to kill me’.
“Yeah.. just one..” he trailed off and leaned a little closer to me “..don’t ignore a Golem”
I flinched but before I could move, two heavy hands came down on my shoulders.
My head turned and stalled, my stomach dropped hard as I got a glance of someone standing on the other side of our car.
He looked like a biker, probably a vampire but possibly another Golem from the size of him.
Oh.. and he had Sarah at knife point with a hand on her face to gag her mouth..
Shouldn't forget that part..

A jerk at my side made me swing back around to see Re.. Bob, standing a lot closer to me and in his hands he was swinging my ring covered, last resort, resonant rod.
Instinctively my hands came together and I desperately clutched my badge to my chest for protection.
His smirk looked a lot darker now but no less amused.
“Shall we head in then? Ladies first..”
He waved my stick dramatically over my head.
I didn't have a chance to argue, Darren practically lifted me off my feet and carried me down the dock.
Sarah grunted behind me but she went silent a moment later, so I'm guessing they didn't like her arguing with the idea.

===========

My eyes flew around constantly as they walked us past a few different piers and came to a stop at a medium sized yacht on the fifth mooring.
It was white, like most yachts around here seemed to be.
The paint was a little rough in places and the metal fittings looked used.
Overall I wasn't impressed.. well.. maybe a little.
I've never seen a yacht before so it was a BIT impressive at least.
Darren didn't pause long, with a surprisingly gentle shove to my shoulders we were heading up the old wooden planks to get on-board.
“well, this could have gone better..”
Sarah glared at me as we marched up the tight gang plank.
She tried to growl at me through the cloth gag they’d put into her mouth, apparently they don’t like it if you try to scream either.
“It’s not my fault you don’t know when to be quiet” I hissed at her with a glare of my own.
She tried to kick me and almost fell off the gang plank instead.

The biker guy grabbed her at the last moment and pulled her back into line.
She didn't look pleased about it.
“So..” I trailed off and considered my options “..You boys still working for Vlad?”
Above me Darren grunted but didn't give a real answer.
Not surprisingly considering that he’s a golem with a limited ability to provide input.
“Rastalin’s in charge still but he’s not the master any more”
I frowned and tried to swing my head around to look at Re..Bob.
Darran’s bulk got in the way so I gave it up with a sigh.
“Who’s in charge around here then?”
Bob chuckled from out of my view range.
“Got a new boss. Human, a lich naturally, calls himself Dante”
I jumped in surprise when Sarah started freaking out.
She lashed out her legs frantically and tried to get lose, yelling into the gag hard.
One of her stray kicks almost knocked me off the gang plank.
With an indignant squawk she was picked up and thrown over the biker guy’s shoulder.
I had a brief flash of being in a similar position with Darren before and felt sorry for her.
Sarah didn't calm down, even in her new position, she kept thrashing around much to Bob’s amusement.
“You've heard of him then?” He asked mockingly.
I shrugged against Darren’s hold and frowned.
Obviously Sarah has at least.

Without another word they steered me through the nearest door into the yacht’s hull.
I almost gasped aloud when we stepped inside and were suddenly in a massive high ceilinged stone entrance way.
You would think I would be used to it by now, mage’s have a thing for expanded spaces.
It looks like this Dante guy has the same interior decoration ideas as Vlad, although from the sound of my feet on the stone flooring he at least does it with some class.
“Not bad, can see you upgraded since I last visited”
My attempts to hide my worry still seemed to be able to get a snort of laughter from Bob.
“New place, lot smaller, MPA took back the Hub thanks to you”
I didn't resist a smirk this time.
It’s not like I really did much in the whole tracking down their base and rescuing everyone part of things but any credit I can take is good to wrong foot them in this kind of situation.
“Not my fault you guys were dumb enough to try and steal a Hub”
Bob grunted in partial agreement but didn't sound quite as amused this time.
“Less talking, more walking”
I grunted back at him but didn't argue.
There’s no point in aggravating him more than necessary right now, not until we have more of an idea what’s going on at least.

===========

They took us down a few passageways that wouldn't have looked out of place in a Transylvanian castle and finally came to a stop at one of the thick wooden doors so Bob could unlock it.
Inside there was a lot of clutter and a large barred off area that looked like an old west style jail cell.
My ears picked up sobbing before I spotted the cell’s only occupant.
“Mum!”
She jumped slightly from her huddled pile in the corner and shot her head up to stare at me with wide eyes.
I couldn't hold back a wince, her face had a fair few bruises on it and it looked like she’d been crying for a while.
She didn't say anything but her eyes welled up with even more tears and she sunk her head again.
“Al..” I could barely hear her voice over the sound of us walking, even then its tremble was easy to detect.
Darren moved a hand from my shoulder and pulled a key from his belt to unlock the cell door.
With a shove I ended up sprawled on the stone floor near mum.
Behind me there was a thump and grunt from Sarah.
I barely had time to shift my head before the door was shut with a loud clash and locked tight again.
“Have a nice stay, I’ll go tell Dante you came to visit”
The smile on Bobs face was anything but nice.
I slowly sprawled myself out on the cell floor again with a deep sigh.
Being in a cage sucks..

=============

“SARAH, CAN YOU GIVE IT A REST!”
She roared in anger and tried to kick the cell door open for what felt like the millionth time.
Mum stirred from her miserable little pile and looked up at her with sad eyes.
“Sarah..”
She looked heartbroken at the sight of her.
“Aaah!”
Sarah gave one final kick to the door and sunk to the floor in a heap.
I moved over to her, for a moment she tried to bat me away, but eventually she crumpled into my arms and sobbed hard.
My eyes caught mums.
She looked just as lost as I felt.
“Sare.. what’s wrong?”

Her head shot up to glare at me and she hit me in the chest hard.
“WE’RE PRISONERS!”
She threw a few more hits to my chest.
“AGAIN!”
I grunted with each hit but didn't stop her.
She needed to get it out.
“THAT’S WHAT’S WRONG!”
In barely a breath, her face crumpled and the fight seemed to leave her.
When she spoke again her voice was weaker.
“We’re all gonna die here Han..”

She tried to struggle out of my arms and after a moment of hanging on I let her go.
Unsteadily she got to her feet and wobbled out a pacing circle on the floor.
“Dante, he’s evil..”
I looked up at her in confusion.
How DID she know this Dante guy anyway?
Sarah must have seen something in the look on my face because she stopped pacing and took a deep soothing breath.
It seemed to work for a moment but then she broke into a choked off sob and had to try again.
Her arms came up to hug herself and she shook slightly.
“About a year after Karl took me under his wing at the MPA there was an all-points call out.”
She looked at me and gave the ghost of a smile.
“Remember when I called you to cover for me for a few hours, then didn't get back in contact until the next morning?”
I gulped but nodded anyway.
She really scared me that night.
I didn't know what happened to her, I almost came out and told mum that I wasn't Sarah just so we could start looking for her.
Sarah’s frantic phone call in the morning came about twenty minutes before my set deadline to go talk to mum.
She seemed really shaken up for a while afterwards as well, but she wouldn't talk about it.
“yeah..”
I blinked and looked up at her.
Obviously she’d read my face again, her tentative smile slipped and she shuddered hard.
“..By the time me and Karl got there most of the big stuff had finished, we were on clean up detail.”
She leaned against the cell bars and pushed her head back to stare at the ceiling.
“It was a mess Han, Dante is a lich king. Lich’s are.. they have no morals, he was killing people and using their parts to feed his undead horde.. he was.. there were child-”
She cut herself off abruptly and her hand came up to her mouth, with barely time to turn around she puked through the bars.
I scrunched up my nose in disgust but tried not to focus on it.

After a few more dry heaves Sarah turned back around and slowly made her way into another corner of the cell.
“Sorry..” she let out quietly, looking ashamed of herself.
“S’okay” I answered for the sake of it.
At least she’d held back long enough to turn away.
Sarah shuddered and huddled herself down in the corner, almost mirroring mum’s position.
We all sunk into silence.
Slowly I reached into my pocket, pulled out my MPA badge and started fiddling with it in my hands.
No-one felt up to breaking the silence.

==========

“She going to be okay?”
I jumped a little at mum’s raw sounding voice.
A glance at her had me glancing back over at Sarah instead.
She was shaking in her sleep.
Every once in a while she would give out a little sob or moan too.
My eyes moved back to mum and we shared a look.
We both could see it.
This Dante guy had Sarah terrified, she wouldn't last long going on like this.
I looked back down at my badge and fumbled with it a little more.
“If I had a way to get someone out of here..” I trailed off thoughtfully.
Mum seemed to perk up a little and watch me with caution.
I caught her eyes and stared at her hard, then nodded my head at Sarah.
Mum seemed to take in a heavy breath and slowly closed her eyes tightly, with a careful movement she nodded.
My lips curled up into a small smile.
I couldn't help but feel proud of her for that, I’d been tempted to use it myself more than once since everything went wrong at the dock.
My legs were a little numb from the cold floor but I crawled over to Sarah’s side and gave her a gentle shake anyway.
She snorted in her sleep and jolted up with wild confused eyes.
After a moment she settled on me and drifted to the cell bars.
Her face fell in disappointment as she realised it hadn't all been a dream.
Quickly, while she was still disorientated I hugged her tight.
“We love you Sare.. me and mum do, okay?”
She watched me with even more confusion, she went a little cross-eyed trying to watch my face as I leant in and kissed her on the forehead.
It took me a moment to pull away but I was ready when I did.
I stared hard into her eyes and gave her the best smile I could offer.
“Alice is bad”
The words came out easily, which almost surprised me, but it was for Sarah..
I pulled back from her and dropped my badge in her lap.
Sarah watched me move away.
Slowly her head dropped down to look at the, now glowing, badge.

It only took seconds but it felt like ages for her sleep addled brain to realise what was happening.
Her head shot up to stare at me with so much pain, it hurt my chest to look at her.
I wouldn't look away though, I couldn't.
Her mouth dropped open and she let out a sharp hissed breath.
“No”
She tried to stagger out of her sitting position but it was already too late.
“NO! YOU SON OF A BI-”
The badge flared in blue light and when it cleared she was gone.
A wind of cold air blew across the cell.

I knew it was a side effect of the ‘secret’ emergency teleport spell etched into all trainee mage’s identification badges.
I knew it wasn't actually wind but a pressure wave caused by the vacuum created when she disappeared to her target destination, the emergency medi-bay back at the Hub.
I knew it wasn't actually cold either, that was just the way my skin and brain could understand the mixed messages it received when hit with the large magical backlash from such an overpowered spell.
It was worse than most people’s would have been, you’re only meant to charge it for your first week but I've charged mine every night before bed, since the day I got it, just in case..
I knew..
It didn't matter what I knew.
I knew Sarah was safe.
That was the important part.
Mum let out a broken sob, I felt like joining her.
Slowly I moved back toward Sarah’s corner and settled myself in her place.
The stone floor was still warm.
It was probably my imagination but it felt like I could smell her still.
I shivered hard and huddled tighter into her spot.

We sat in silence for a while, I almost fell asleep a few times.
“Thanks Al.. you did good”
Mum sounded bad but she gave me a watery smile at least.
My head nodded without actually answering her.
I did it for Sarah, not her.
Slowly I moved my head down to the floor and spread my body out.
Sleep is probably the best thing I can be doing, until they come back and we face our fate at least.

==================

“You hate me don’t you..”
I considered not answering her but despite it all, she’s my mum.
My head rocked to the side so I could get a better look at her.
“Pretty sure if I did the feeling would be mutual..”
Her face scrunched up, which looked a lot more painful with all the bruises.
“I don’t hate you Al”
She sounded hurt, having to say it aloud.
“..Funny way of showing it..”
I rolled back away from her.
She didn't have anything to say in return apparently.

===================

“It’s not easy Al.. Finding out your son’s a-”
She cut herself off from finishing that thought.
I sighed and slowly rocked my head back to look at her again.
“A what?”
She squinted at me in annoyance and took a deep breath.
“A homosexual”
For a moment I watched her in surprise but it got to be too much very quickly, I cracked up laughing.
Mum didn't find it funny.
She pulled back her shoulders like she always does when she thinks someone’s mocking her.
With some effort I pulled it all back in, my grin wouldn't go away though.
“I'm not gay mum”
Her eyes went wide and she locked up completely.
I couldn't hold it any more, with a snort I started laughing again.
“How can you.. I mean.. I SAW you”

I shifted around into a sitting position so I could talk better.
“You CAUGHT me, pretending to be Sarah.. so she could go out after curfew”
Her face scrunched up tight.
“You still..” She didn't seem to want to finish talking.
She waved her hand around to show what she meant.
“So?.. Face it mum, me and Sarah look alike, TOO alike to be normal.”
She didn't look happy accepting that fact but nodded eventually.

It was a nasty thing to do, but I couldn't resist.
With a shift of my hips, a flick of my hair and a few other facial shifts I was Sarah.
“Mum, it’s not a big deal, ya know?”
Mum’s jaw dropped.
I shifted my hips back into a more lazy position and smirked at her.
“You’re practically the only person who knows we aren't twin sisters these days”
My mouth slowly pulled into a small frown.
I hadn't really considered it like that before but it’s true.
Well.. her and John at least, he’s been my best friend forever though, so that doesn't count.
“Sarah suggested I try to be her stunt double for the show, if it wasn't for my magic trai..”
I trailed off and cocked my head at mum for a moment.
“Hold on..”
My eyes squinted at her hard.
“Why aren't you freaking out about magic?”

For a moment I flashed back to Sarah’s theory about mum and all the memory tampering the doctors found.
Careful to not set her off, I moved a bit tighter into the corner and brought my hands up to provide a bit better defence if necessary.
Mum looked a little guilty.
My legs tensed a fraction more, just in case.
“I already knew about magic..”
My eyes flicked around the cell for some kind of weapon but for such a cluttered room outside, the cell was surprisingly clear of debris.
“are you a..” I stopped myself from voicing it.
Please say no, please say no..
“a mage?” she finished for me.
Her head dipped down and she looked at her fingers.
“no”
I let out the breath I hadn't realised I was holding.
She glanced up at me with a confused frown but settled back down onto her hands.
“Your grandmother was though and I'm.. well..”
She trailed off as if she didn't really feel ready to continue.
After a long pause her head came back up and she stared at me for almost a solid minute.

“You’re a mage, aren't you? I recognise that badge you gave Sarah..”
I rolled my shoulders back and frowned.
“yeah”
Her eyes went a little wider and a small smile formed on her face.
“How long have you known..” she trailed off and considered me for a moment “is this why you and Sarah always.. well it would make sense if you wanted to hide..”
My eyebrow popped up in confusion.
Mum cleared her throat and tried to look calmer.
“You've known since you were young right? Your father..”
She paused as if talking about him still hurt a bit too much
“He was convinced you and Sarah were magical.. Is that why you started pretending to be Sarah? What was your first contact with magic?”
She shifted her legs and knelt forward a little in interest.
“um.. prom?”
Mum jolted back and stared at me hard.
“Prom?”
I nodded and smiled a little.
“Prom. Sarah didn't want to go so I stood in for her-”
Her eyes went a little wider there.
“-one thing lead to another and we ended up facing vampires.”
She looked pretty confused after that.

“That’s weird..”
I squinted at her.
“It’s magic, of course it’s weird.”
She actually laughed a little at that one but her face still looked a bit tight in thought.
“Mother.. my mother” she trailed in uncertainly “she said that most mages find out about magic from an early age.. it kind of.. seeks them out..”
I’d been told similar from a few people.
Fena said that no-one could work out why magic reacted the way it did, some people even have near religions based on the idea that magic was conscious and needed appeasing to be kept happy.
“..So why didn't it come for you sooner?”
I opened my mouth to answer her then paused in thought.
After a painfully long moment where I drew a blank, all I could do was offer her a shrug.
Mum looked a bit more worried at that.
She went to say something else but a noise from the door made us both freeze up.

Slowly Darren the golem made his way in.
He grunted at us and unlocked the cell door.
His huge hand reached out, just managing to snag me by the ankle.
Mum surged to her feet but he pushed her away, seemingly without effort, and dragged me roughly out of the cell.
The door slammed shut with a heavy ‘thunk’ while mum frantically tried to stagger back to her feet.
“Al!”
She dived forward, trying to grab my arm desperately through the bars but Darren had already moved me too far out of reach.
“Keep safe-” I managed to call out to her before Darren rounded the corner and pulled me out of sight with him.

===========

I tried a few times to get Darren talking but it was pointless.
Golems aren't known for being talkative.
They aren't known for being careful with cargo either, as my now sore head can attest to.
Eventually he must have gotten bored of walking because he dragged me into the center of a large, dark chamber and left me in the middle of the room facing a raised area with a throne on it.
A real, gaudy, King’s and Queens style golden throne.
“Thanks big guy, always a pleasure”
He didn't even grunt at me, just turned and walked out the door instead.

Slowly I stood up and dusted myself off a bit.
After a moment of consideration, I decided it was worth a try and casually went to follow him back out the door.
I got a grand total of three paces forward before hitting some kind of invisible wall and bouncing back to the floor hard.
“oww.. well that’s not fair”
A glance downward told me all I needed to know.
Engraved into the stone floor were a lot of symbols that looked vaguely archaic in nature.
Most telling of all was that, roughly where I hit the invisible wall, there was a ring deeply etched into the stone and dyed dark with a dull red paste smothered into it.
“Binding blood magic.. of course it is.. Sarah just had to jinx it didn't she..”
A rich male voice laughed from behind me.

I whipped around and stared at him with wide eyes.
He was tall, very pale and very skinny.. well.. Mostly bone-y.
His skin was dry and tight like it had been stretched on to the framework of his body as an afterthought during his creation.
He was leaning against the side of the throne and watching me with amused eyes, dark hair hung lazily across his face and his regal dark robes hung open to show off all of his emaciated ribs.
“Sarah?” His voice vibrated in my chest and made me shudder for some reason.
It took me a moment to get myself under control but he enjoyed the spectacle anyway from the looks of him.
“My sister, you had her in a cage with me and my mum earlier”
He pushed himself off from the thrones side and with casual grace eased himself down into its seat.
His eyes never left me throughout the whole display.
Doesn't he ever blink?
“Had, being the opportune word I take it?”
I didn't resist the small smile of victory that came to my face.
‘Had’ was definitely the opportune word.
Sarah’s safe.
That’s the important thing.

He watched me for a few long seconds.
With a graceful chuckle that felt wrong coming from his startlingly hollow looking body he reached out and pulled a cord hidden to the side of his throne.
I twitched when the door behind me opened but didn't dare look away from him to see who had entered.
There was some muffled groans and a feminine squeal followed by the sound of something hitting the floor hard.
Careful to not look completely away from the skeleton in human flesh in front of me, I eased my eyes sideways to see what had happened.

Mum was just pulling herself back up from the floor behind me.
I had to bite back a gasp when I realised what was going on.
It turns out mine isn't the only Blood magic cage engraved into the floor.
A quick scan of the rest of the floor indicated that there was, in fact, three ritual circles marked out.
The one to my right was still inactive.
I guess they were planning to put Sarah in it before.. well that’s something at least.
Rituals balanced with the power of three tend to take time to redesign for working with only two targets.
A glance at the skeleton made me smirk.
He was obviously thinking in the same direction, judging by the frown on his face.
He shuffled his foot slightly and caught my eyes with his own dark pits.
His frown slipped slowly into a smirk of his own, which made mine falter.
This isn't the time or the place to get complacent.
Lich’s don’t last long without being smart about it.. and the skeleton was definitely a Lich.

He stood from his throne and bowed deeply at us.
“I am Dante Dandes, in some circles, I am called the ‘Dandy Man’”
His eyes travelled quickly over mum and drifted leisurely up my legs to rest on my face.
“You, my dear, are so awfully familiar.”
His smirk turned a little excited and he leaned forward in interest.
“Have we, by chance, met before? I'm thinking.. London.. No.. Leicestershire.. yes.”
He straightened regally and grinned.
“Leicestershire, England, in the year of our lord 1394 I believe, such a tragic time with the death of poor Anne”
His smirk turned darker but he seemed so much more enthralled by me suddenly.
“yes.. I'm certain of it. On the night of the bloody moon, you were the maiden who freed the Were’s held in enslavement by Lord Benedict.”
He adjusted his robes and seemed to be watching me with some measure of awe.
“Such a beautiful night, the blood of the innocent ran red in the streets and you danced with the pack in the dark moon’s light”
He sighed and rolled his eyes back in pleasure.
I shivered hard.
For some reason his words felt familiar.
I could imagine the places he’d described with a bit too much clarity to be just my imagination.

He wallowed in his memories for a moment longer but seemed to come back to himself with a sigh.
His eyes swept down to me and he smiled a warm smile.
“My lady..” he trailed in, casually making his way to a recess I hadn't noticed partly hidden behind his throne “..perhaps, considering we are such old acquaintances, you would do me the honour of explaining this curious device to me.”
He pulled back into the light and brought with him a pole, its multiple jewelled rings sparkling in the rooms dull light, as he twisted it through his long fingers like an expert.
The arrogant bastard was holding my last resort stick!
“It is blood magic, of a kind, yes? I can feel it, the bond of your blood is..” he trailed off and sniffed deeply in ecstasy “..your blood bond is simply delicious.”
My shoulders shuddered hard, disgust battling hard to be shown on my face.
Since prom, men sniffing at me has not been something positive in any way, it wasn't really a good thing even before prom in all honesty.
Before I could come up with a good insulting answer for him the door creaked open again and in came a tight grouping of men.
Most of them looked like biker rejects, one looking like he stepped out of a 1940s horror movie.

“Master”
Vlad bowed his head but he did NOT look happy about it.
Dante looked amused, I felt amused too.
In fact, I couldn't resist the laugh that bubbled up.
Vlad swung his head around to stare at me and in one movement he loomed up with a very dramatic hiss of rage.
“YOU!”
My laugh trickled off, I couldn't help grinning at him teasingly instead though.
“Vlad! Honey! How’s my favourite pain in the neck? Un-life treating you well?”
He hissed in rage and tried to raise up even more dramatically.
If he went up any higher on his tip-toes he’d fall flat on his face.
Dante looked amused about the whole situation.
“Vlad, Vlad, Vlad.. Honestly..”
I flicked my hair at him for effect.
“Any other day, I promise, you’d be scary.. but today? I'm facing a bonafide, at least 800 year old, Lich here.. with fabulous hair and his hands on my staff of power.. Ya just can’t compete buddy..”
Dante flicked his head arrogantly and smiled at me for the compliment.
Why are all the evil men in my life obsessed with their looks?

Vlad went to charge me.
With a wave of his hands Dante somehow managed to freeze him mid-stride.
He glanced over to me and looked smug.
“Vampires..” he trailed off as if we were discussing a particularly naughty breed of puppy.
I stared hard at Vlad’s frozen form, his eyes darted around but he really couldn't move a muscle.
“Cool..” the word slipped out unintentionally “How’d you do that?”
Dante smiled at me and flicked his head again.
I think the hair compliment went to his head a bit.
“As you so graciously point out, my dear, I'm a powerful Lich King. The undead are mine to command”
My eyes flicked to the other vampires in the room, none of them looked particularly pleased at that fact.
“Command over vampires and you never have to diet again.. sign me up?”
Dante chuckled darkly and smiled at me indulgently.
“You have the makings of a good Lich.. the brains”
He nodded to me.
I tried not to feel smug at that one.
“..and the power” he waved my last resort stick like a pompous baton.
My smile slipped and his eyes bore into mine.
“Now, care to explain what this does?”
I flicked my eyes around the room looking for a distraction.
The vampires re-entering had given me an idea of a plan, it would hurt but it might work.
I just need a few more details..
My wandering eyes settled on mum in her blood magic ritual circle.
She looked afraid, not just of the evil guys around us, when her eyes met mine she flinched hard.
I tried not to be offended by that, I'm pretty freaked at the moment too.

“Trade? Details for details?”
Dante looked amused again.
For some reason, it felt like that was his default way of handling new situations.
“An acceptable idea.. Ask away m’Lady..”
After a moment of considering the right wording I went for it.
“The cages”
I waved my hand and gently brushed the invisible wall to show my meaning.
“It’s binding blood magic, obviously, I'm curious though.. the shielding’s VERY strong.. It must have taken a lot of power to charge? Did you use a shortcut of some kind?”
Dante looked a little offended.
I tried to look innocent and curious to calm his ego.
“Maybe, the shield only stops people and things getting out instead of getting in and out from either side, right?”
Dante shook his head but his eyes were warm with understanding.
“I would never cut corners in such things. The death of a sacrifice victim before or even during a ritual is unthinkable, such an amateur mistake is beneath one of my power”
For his sake, I nodded along in excitement, as if I was hanging on his every word.
Meanwhile I was discreetly reaching into my pocket to pull out anything I could find.
Turns out the only thing in my pocket was a dull penny, my lucky day.
With a flick of my wrist I sent the penny toward the barrier.
Everyone, even Vlad, followed its decent with their eyes.
The penny hit the invisible wall and bounced off without losing any momentum.
I nodded to myself and grinned.
Dante looked at me curiously, the beginning of annoyance crossing his face.
“ah, my turn, right?”
He nodded expectantly.
I gave him a flirty smile and geared up for the final act.
This was going to hurt.
I hope mum can get through it okay, shame I can’t give her a warning somehow.
“You have, in your hand, my very own rough and ready Bad JuJu stick”
He held it out at arm’s length and looked at it from a few angles.
“It’s blood bound to me. I can use it as a remote focus, with a bit of effort, naturally.”
He smiled knowingly and stared harder at the rod in interest.
“It’s got an ‘Estes’ rune cluster on top of a line of ‘Arbitrio’ runes in parallel and my own little addition, a comparative filter based around several emotional tuned ‘Mentales’ trigger runes.”

His face scrunched as he worked hard to process it all.
Judging from how long it took him to work it out, I’ll take a guess that he never learnt enchanting on his long road to becoming a Lich.
“Uncountable control runes on a choice matrix with mental command.. emotional triggers?”
His voice sounded uncertain.
Rightly so, while his Latin may be up to par, his understanding of rune theory was lacking at best.
“My mentor, she often tells me that I'm full of Bad JuJu, the stick in your hands is tuned to me and my Bad JuJu..”
I twisted my body away from him slightly as the magic I’d been pooling reached the limit of what I could safely contain without it becoming visible, and smiled wide for him.
“oh.. and fire.. can’t forget that.. Bad JuJu and Fire”
His eyes went wide, he tried to throw the stick away but he was too slow.
No-one can be faster than the speed of thought after all.
I dumped a mental command along the thin blood connection between me and the rod.
Without time to take cover I ended up getting a head on blast of sound and the pressure wave of magical backlash that launched me back into the already flaring blood magic wall behind me.

==========

It felt like I’d gone unconscious for a moment or two.
I hit my head on something on the way down, most likely the floor.
Carefully my arms found a grasp that seemed solid and I pushed myself up.
I probably groaned or something but my ears were ringing from the sound of the explosion, so I couldn't hear it if I did.
A smirk formed on my face as I surveyed the damage.
Dante was gone, his throne showed signs of singeing and it was partly melted.
The vampires, more specifically Vlad, were dust.
There were no visible dust piles but odds are that they were vaporised in the blast.

I hadn't lied to Dante.
The rod definitely used those specific runes, in that specific layout.
I just happened to not mention all the rings wrapped around it.
Originally I planned to be able to trigger different ring enchantments by forcing different emotions down my blood bond.
Fena gave me a nice mix of rings to work with, fire, ice and water.
Oh.. and my personal favourite, two of her custom ‘sunlight’ rings.
Very good for fighting most forms of undead.
It’s kind of a shame I didn't get to actually use them as intended.
I’ll have to work on making a new one later.
Just imagine the look on Edith’s face when I block her next ‘JuJu stick’ strike with my own ‘Bad JuJu stick’!

That’s for the future though, I don’t even know if the stick would have worked as planned..
I did the maths right but magic can often be more complicated then you expect.
With Dante, I just sent a full pulse of mental focus and as much magical power as I could offer into the stick.
It overloaded, resonant rod, blood rune clusters and several types of focus rings..
BIG boom basically..

A glance down told me that my hopeful deductions had worked out just as much as my luck in all of this.
Stone and debris was covering the floor in an uneven layer everywhere.. except inside my ritual circle.
I eased up into a sitting position and turned to check on mum.
Her circle had held just as well as mine, blood magic’s reliable like that.
From the looks of it she may have done the same as me, she was sprawled out unconscious on the floor.
It looks like she has some blood from somewhere near her head, that’s a little worrying but there’s not much I can do about it until the blood ritual circles run out of juice sadly.
She’s breathing at least.
We both survived..
We both survived being captured and put in ritual circles by a highly dangerous Lich!

I let out a long breath and then cracked a smile.
In seconds I had my head back and I laughed hard.
The release of tension was nice.
Eventually I calmed down and settled in for the wait.
That’s when the clapping started.
I turned slowly to look over my shoulder at Dante’s melted throne.

He was leaning, partly in shadow, against the throne.
He was clapping at an almost mockingly slow pace.
He caught my eye and I felt a crushing weight come down on my chest.
For some reason he looked different, his face was sharper, his smile looked more frightening than usual.
“..John?”
He stopped clapping and turned to face me properly.
“Impressive as always.. Arista”
For some reason his eyes bore deep into me and my head hurt.
That name..
“Lich’s.. useful to be sure, but against someone of your level?”
His voice was in that oddly tight British accent he sometimes let slip when under stress.
With silent feet he eased himself around and sat gracefully in Dante’s melted throne.
“Well.. let the fun begin..”
He waved his hand and I collapsed to the floor with a gasp.
Something was ripping, tarring at me.
The blood runes beneath my feet were glowing a bright ominous red.
My head came up with some effort to look at him.
“Why..”
He smirked sharply and leaned forward in the seat.
“There are many ways to break a memory seal Arista.”
He shifted further forward to watch as I winced in pain.
“I've found that one of the most effective ones to integrate the unlocked memories quickly, especially with reincarnation memories, is pain.. pain and fear.”
His lips opened into a shark like grin.
“You’re not the only one suffering. While you are drained by this well-crafted blood ward to a point that your seal will FINALLY break.. Your mother will be joining you in the experience.”
Slowly I managed to shift my head left enough to see mum twitching on the floor out the corner of my eye.
“Better get to work quickly on breaking those memories free Arista.. I don’t think she will last as long as you sadly”
He looked anything but apologetic about that fact.
I could feel tears welling up in my eyes.
My head felt like it was going to split in two, possibly more than two pieces.
My arms gave out finally and I fell hard to the floor with no way to stop myself.
I didn't move after landing.
It hurt too much to breath let alone move.
All I could do was cry.
Slowly, the edges of the world got dark and my head got worse.
I screamed out in pain when the pressure spiked.
My vision whited out and I lost contact with reality.
As the world faded, John’s laughter rang in my head.

===========
===========

Its too much.. not again.. its too much!
PLEASE!

===========
===========

We were in a never ending white room.
So many of us.
So many voices.
So many..

===========
===========

No, no, no, no, no-

===========
===========

I surged up, gasping for air.
They wouldn't stop!
From the corner of my eye I could see mum.
She looked almost dead.
The blood from her head wound had spread and she was breathing in hitched breaths.
I need to get her out!
I need to.. I..
Teleport! Blood magic can’t block low phase warping teleportation spells.
How.. how do I..

My arm shakily raised up to point my palm at mum.
My aching chest burned even more but I didn’t stop.
Unfamiliar magic flowed up from my core.
I could feel it shifting through my lines, burning a path forward to make a spell matrix I don’t recognise.
..but.. I do.. I do recognise it!
How..
“AAAH!”
The primal roar helped me focus.
With a monumental effort I squeezed my hand into a tight fist and let it drop.
The shadows within the room rose up around us and converged on mum.
She was shrouded in the darkness and without a sound she faded into the floor.
Gone.
Gone and safe.
If my aim was right..
Of course my aim was right, it’s not the first time I've..
No..
Yes.. It IS the first time isn't it?
With a great sigh I flopped my burning chest back to the cool stone floor, exhausted.
Sarah is safe, Mum is safe. That’s all that matters.

“Impressive”
His voice made my breath hitch in my chest.
The voices..
They ALL called out at once. My head..
“Shadow magic, not your best field of expertise. I wonder who you got that from..”

His smug, smug voice!
The pressure on me eased.
The burning red blood runes on the floor died out.
He turned them off.. that.. that arrogant bastard..
I could hear his footsteps coming towards me.
With a surprisingly gentle push he moved me onto my back so I could stare up at him.
His smile was so disgustingly smug.
Why wouldn't he be?
He always is when this sort of thing happens, isn't he?..
..isn't.. isn't he?.. my head.. John doesn't.. no.. not John..
MAX!
His eyes lit up with joy, he must have seen the recognition in my eyes.
“M..” my breath hitched and forced me to choke off slightly “Max.. arimus..”
His grin spread further.
“How..”
Slowly he rocked back on his heels.
He looked like a child showing off for his parents.
He always.. he always..
The voices are screaming!
They can’t agree!
Run! FIGHT! Cry! KILL! K..kiss..

“You almost got away with it, I was so convinced that it was Sarah. The boy act? Ingenious.”
He rolled his shoulder and smiled brightly
“To think, all those years.. I wasted so many hours modifying your memory to keep you unknowing of magic and loyal to me, just so I could stay close to her.. and she was useless after all..”
He stank to his knees at my head and cupped my face in his hands.
The voices in my head yelled out in rage.
How DARE he touch me again! After.. after he..

“At last, I have you where I want you”
His eyes stared deep into mine and he smiled brightly.
“Are you in there my little rabbit?.. You are, aren't you..”
One of the voices cried out in joy.
The voice that wanted to k..kiss him earlier.. the one..
Oh god.. he’s sick! How could he!
My body tried to pull closer to him but the other voices shouted her down.
I sighed in relief as she stopped pushing my body to move.
The mental fighting hurt my head but it left me feeling clearer.
All the opinions and pressure focused inward instead of on me for just a moment.

Options flew through brain at lightning speeds.
My brain was working painfully fast, processing things, processing everything.
Spells I’d never heard of, but knew I could cast.
Facts about the ritual he’d used on me and how to counter its painful effects, were used without thought.
Knowledge about him.
Everything there could be to learn about Maxarimus after countless lives of working against him.. Working with him..
Working..
my head..
FOCUS!
He stroked my cheek lovingly.
With slow inevitability he moved his head in and kissed me.
The voices roared in rage.
I blocked them out as much as possible.
FOCUS!

My hand shook but it moved as commanded.
I managed to get it up to cup his hand loosely.
He pulled back and smiled at me with warmth.
That one voice tried to tell me not to, but she was shouted down by so many others.
“Johnny..”
Max twitched, his sappy smile slipping into a dark frown.
My hand tugged his and with surprising ease I managed to get his hand where it needed to be.
His eyes went wide in shock.
“I'm a guy.. Idiot..”
His face crumpled up in confusion and just the beginnings of rage.
I rocked my head back and laughed hard.
Stupid arrogant bastard!

His hand whipped out of my grasp and slung back into a fist.
I braced myself for the hit.
After a few seconds I squinted my eyes open and watched him.
He was frozen, his face spoke of so many different emotions.
Overall, he looked lost.
Heartbroken and lost.
For a moment I felt pity for him.
Then the voices called and memories surfaced harder.
The bastard doesn't deserve my pity!
My leg felt warm.
It took me a moment to realise why.
Fire.. bad JuJu and Fire..
PERFECT! I just need a distraction..

A smile split my face.
The voices cheered in agreement.
Joh.. Max.. no.. JOHN!
Screw his pride!
John looked at me with just a touch of concern.
He knows me, he must see the look on my face.
“Johnny”
He twitched hard and glared at me.
“Oh Johnny, Johnny, John boy..”
His shoulders were tighter and tighter with rage.
“You don’t have the balls to hit me”
His teeth clenched hard and his fist rose up threateningly again.
“I've always had bigger balls then you Johnny.. and now that’s not just a metaphor”
My face split into a sharp grin.
A laugh forced its way out of me with just the right level of mocking.
He’s always had a problem with being mocked.
Come on Ma-John!
I know you, ya egotistical bastard!
He pulled his fist up tighter for a strike, his eyes clouded with anger at last.
Even though I braced for it the hit still hurt.
He caught me right in the nose, for a moment I thought he’d broken it.
I worked on through the pain though
“Oh Johnny..”
My voice came out a bit muffled from my nose but the amusement and anger in my tone was obvious.
“You just made a mistake”
My smile must have looked like his shark-ish grin by now.
Max staggered away from me.
He looked a bit stunned at the fact that he’d actually hit me more than anything.
His eyes tracked me as I pulled myself painfully up to a standing position.
Flames flickered between my fingertips.
The fire in my chest danced in joy.
So much time I've spent fighting it.
So much time I've meditated to suppress it.
But now.. oh.. it felt GOOD to let it free.
“Max.. I hate you..”
His face twitched in pain from my words.
It didn't matter though.
I’d bought enough time.
“Bye Johnny, see you next time”
With a final shove I forced all of the natural fire magic built up in my system out as a wave of destruction.
It burst out of my body from all angles, melting through my clothes like they didn't even exist.
I managed to get a glance of Max's impossibly wide, fearful eyes before the flames blocked out my vision.
My legs gave out and I crashed to the floor with a heavy sigh.
Sitting at the eye of a storm of pure white hot destruction I finally felt at peace.
The voices had died down at last.
My brain was working beyond normal, already coming up with ways to use this fire.
The fire is a symbol of my inner spirit.
If I just put a bit of effort in..
why does it have to be literal fire?

A memory pulled up slowly and I had to choke off a laugh.
Barely a trickle of the fire remained in my system but it was enough to test with.
I touched my hand gently to the surprisingly cool floor and pushed.
The single stone slab I was sat on turned a vibrant orange.
Symbols.
Magic’s all about symbols.
It’s complicated but.. oh, so simple if you look at it right.
My head throbbed painfully but I couldn't stop the manic laugh that came out.
I lay there in an awe inspiring ring of fire but in complete and utter control.
For the first time in ages I felt totally at peace.
..Then the voices started up again. Figures it wouldn't last.
With a deep sigh I laid out flat on my orange stone slab and squeezed my eyes shut.
Reincarnation sucks..

============
============

Reincarnation.. why would I.. Rein.. Re..
Please no..
Please..

============
============

Shui-al-gorath grinned at me.
Higher demons are disgusting.
His multiple tongues lapped at his distended lips.
All around me his followers lay dead or dying.
They knew what they were getting into.
His green glistening body wavered from side to side and his slimy tentacles stretched toward me.
“M-E-A-T” his deep voice resonated so powerfully that my body shook as if I was standing in an earthquake.
I smirked and swung my stolen staff up to point at his bulging bloodshot eye.
“Com’on big boy. Let’s dance”
He roared in unearthly glee and we dived forward in unison.
My smirk turned feral.

============
============

No.. ple-

============
============

“You want me to..”
I shook my head at him.
“It’s been a year. She misses you kid”
My mouth tried to smile but it hurt.
“She’s safer like this. Who’d have thought it, my sister, the TV star?”
Karl smirked and rubbed his hand on my hair fondly.
“You should talk to her..”
I stared down from the balcony we were stood on.
Sarah laughed happily and hugged the arm of a burly man beside her.
“Nah.. she’s okay. I've got to go anyway. Got a mission”
Karl growled in the back of his throat.
“Again? No wonder no-one wants to become an awakened mage..”
I smirked and twirled my cloak dramatically.
“Job’s a job. I'm needed. Someone has to keep people safe”
My eyes focused on Sarah.
“Keep ‘her’ safe you mean..”
My eyes turned back to Karl and a shy smile slipped out.
He knows me far too well.
“Keep me up to date”
He nodded.
Without more than a wrist flip I warped away, hopefully Sarah wouldn't notice the light show.

============
============

No.. P-
============
============

“Karl! Karl, YOU SON OF A BITCH! You’re not dying on me!”
Blood bubbled up past his lips.
He tried to push me away but he was too weak.
My hands came up, I tried to force a healing spell into him but it failed.
Thousands upon thousands of years of magical training, why the HELL didn't one of my self-entitled past-selves dedicate her life to healing!
His hand came up and stroked my face, his eyes said so much.
I broke down crying.
With shaking hands he cupped my head to his chest and he let out one deafeningly loud breath.

============
============
No..
============
============

The medics loaded Sarah onto a stretcher.
She wouldn't turn her head away from watching me, even when the medics demanded her attention.
I pulled back into the shadows a little more.
People at her studio joked about her having a guardian angel.
I could believe it.
How can someone get into so much trouble?
Damn her and her adventurous spirit!

If she had just stuck to the paths and not gone off with her camera-man on a hunt!
Why did I ever make that damned amplifier for her necklace!
She’s reckless!
She’s stupid!
She’s.. she’s Sarah..
I sighed and let my shoulders slump.
She’d be okay.
For a moment I considered taking her necklace away while she slept in the hospital.
It would make things a lot easier but she’d never forgive me for it.. last thing I need is her mad at me again.

“Coward..”
I'm not sure if I said it or one of my past-selves pushed the word out but it was true.
Most of them agreed with the sentiment too.
It’s lovely having a peanut gallery in your head to give a critique on your life.
“Get lost, it’s my life. I won fair and square.”
I could feel some of the voices well up in indignation but they couldn't do anything about it.
I won, I'm in control.
That’s what matters.
That and Sarah.

For a moment I watched her new cameraman load his bulky form into the back of an ambulance to go with her.
His names Tor or something I think.. I’ll have to check that.
Pretty sure K.. pretty sure it was in my last report on her, somewhere.

My pocket vibrated.
Slowly I reached in, pulled out my phone and gave the mental trigger to accept a call.
The phones enchanted to all hell, naturally.
“Hannah speaking”
One of the remaining medics glanced my way, with a hand wave I dropped a mild illusion to disappear from his vision.
“Hannah this week is it?”
Felicia, the receptionist from Hub G-0 sounded amused.
I think she’s still just riding the happy high with the way I managed to update the tech in the hub so she doesn't have to spend all day working the front desk any more.
She always seems to be in a good mood lately.

“yeah, this week”
I smirked to myself.
Changing with the weeks is her thing not mine.
People tend to underestimate me when I'm Hannah, it makes most jobs easier.
“You free?”
My head trailed along the road to watch Sarah’s ambulance disappear into traffic.
“yeah, new job?”
Felicia barked out a laugh.
“What else? Tell me, how is your Russian accent?”
Ohh, interesting.
“It’s good enough to fool most natives.”
It sounded like she shifted the phone around to a more comfortable position.
“Perfect. Meeting room three in twenty minutes?”
I glanced at my watch and considered my options.
Just enough time to grab a hotdog on the way, lunch kind of got forgotten in the rush to help Sarah.
“Sure, any hints for me?”
Felicia grinned, I could feel it down the phone.
“Ever heard the one about the Succubus and the whore house?”
My leg paused mid-step.
“You’re kidding?”
She broke out in another laugh.
“See you in twenty Hannah”
I growled and shoved my phone in my pocket.
My stomach growled back.
Hotdog first, then strangle her for teasing me.
It’s always good to have a plan.

============
============

No more.. No more..
It's too much..
All of it again..
..My.. my head..

What’s tha-

-Light?.. finally..



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