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dkstories last won the day on April 11 2013

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  1. What was it that Kyle had said that morning of the whole debate about homosexuality and sin? Oh yeah. "You've seen demons, they're real, right? So, what about angels?" It had been a good question, Worthington reflected and represented a hole in his understanding of magic. In the week and five days since then he had asked questions of other, more experienced mages both Light and Dark and still not found any concrete answers. No mage had ever reported having a discussion with angels or summoning such heavenly beings. No one knew a definitive answer on God's existence, nor did they know for sure that God did not exist. Someone had made humans and elves and dwarves. The dwarves had their own God but refused to speak of him or her. Elves had not had any known deity since the betrayal of Landis by the humans, and much of their heritage had been lost with the slaughter of all adult elves. Some mages said Jesus Christ, and many other biblical figures had been nothing more than exceptionally gifted mages misusing their gift in a bid for power within the mundane world. They noted how believers could amplify a mage's power the way his Uncle had done to kill Worthington's family and said that was reason enough for the mistaken mundane belief in Christianity. Kyle had been unhappy with those answers and still refused to give up the beliefs in right and wrong he'd grown up with, including that two men having sex was a sin. He'd even been proud that he was still a virgin, and he'd kept his distance from Worthington and the others since that morning, although he was with them every day, nearly all day. In that time he'd only gone to the home he shared with his relatives once, to pack up his belongings and move them into a guest room at Jamie and Worthington's house. All it had taken for him to make that decision was a shouting match the next day with his cousin Ted, and he'd come to Worthington asking him if the offer of a place to stay was still open. Colin hated Kyle for the simplest of reasons. The younger, red-haired potential Adept was jealous of the older, less trained and more powerful Kyle. For his part, Kyle didn't like Colin either, commenting that he was a ‘spoiled brat' more than once. It only took one incident of the overly jealous Colin's use of his powers against Kyle to earn him a lashing of Worthington's wrath. He may have been jealous of the amount of time and attention Kyle was taking, but after a night of Worthington's angry attention, Colin was very repentant and had not acted up once since then. Worthington remembered that night with a tightening of his loins and tried to think about something else. It had been the first time he'd engaged in sexual activity since the battle with Zaroc, and part of him had been worried that the Light had done something that would prevent him from engaging in some of the sexual aspects of Dark magic. His fears were groundless. The Light had demanded he be true to his nature as a sacrifice for using it, and what he'd done to Colin was as much a part of his nature as the fact that he would never love a woman. What he still wasn't sure about was whether Colin's resulting good behavior was because he was scared of Worthington's reaction, or because he'd gotten the attention he wanted and had learned some of the scarier aspects of Dark magic. Jamie had convinced Worthington to set aside one night each week that would be his time with Colin, alone, and that had seemed to mollify Colin even further. For his part, Kyle was adjusting to life in Phoenix, and as part of Worthington's ‘entourage' as he called it with some grace. He already had a girlfriend, a vapid girl that seemed to chase after all the jocks in the school, and was quickly developing a following both amongst the wrestlers and baseball players who had apparently heard of him while he was at his old school. Jamie's pitcher friend from last year even commented that he was glad he'd graduated already or he'd never have gotten any playing time with Kyle here at the school. His newest student, and friend had been overjoyed when Worthington offered him the use of the BMW sports coupe. Despite the occasional awkward moment when Kyle remembered Worthington's sexuality, they got along well, and Worthington was no longer surprised to find Kyle waiting for him every morning, dressed in a pair of trunks. They would swim together until Stacy came out, and then Kyle would go back up to the house and start getting ready for school. Kyle loved Clairville Keep from the first moment he'd seen it last weekend. While Worthington and Jamie had been locked up with Elizabeth, Stacy, Calhoun and the rest of the Mage Council in meetings with the representatives of the federal government, he had happily explored the growing town and even been invited to visit some of the homes dug into the old pit, and gone swimming in the clear pond that was now at the bottom where a sludge pond had been before. Worthington hadn't even managed to go swimming in that thing yet. What was it he'd been thinking about before thoughts of Kyle had distracted him? Oh yes, Kyle's belief in God. He still believed in God the way he'd been raised, and that was causing problems, but it was something Worthington was willing to deal with because it also gave Kyle the strength to continue on every time he started feeling suicidal about having killed his family. Suicide was a big sin, worse than those he'd already committed, so Kyle would fall back and pray for forgiveness instead of killing himself. That was what Worthington was thinking of when he'd started reminiscing about Kyle. Right now he wished he believed in God so he could pray for help. He certainly needed it. "Lords and Ladies, Adepts, Mage, and Dwarves, I present to you Worthington Michael Sinclair the Fifth." The voice of the dwarf herald on his staff boomed out and Worthington straightened as the doors in front of him swung open. He felt more like a dandy than anything else, dressed in loose, flowing satin pants that had been a gift from Prince Kelvren for this occasion. The pants were a honey color, with sapphires woven into the material, and he had on soft low-cut boots also of elven make. His shirt was dwarven woven metal, and a dark stormy gray, with flickers of silver and gold shining as he moved. As loose and flowing as the pants were, the shirt was skin-tight and would have looked much more impressive if he had gained back the muscle mass he'd lost following the fight with Zaroc and his demons. The dwarf's voice continued to boom out, and Worthington moved into the second-floor conference room of his keep that had been prepared for this occasion. "Demon Killer, Lord of Clairville Keep, member of the Mage Council for the Valley of the Sun, friend and ally of King Odras, friend and ally of Prince Kelvren, friend and ally of Princess Orana, and mage Adept." Worthington felt like it was far too much, but he held his head high as he entered the conference room and took in everything with a glance. Jamie stood at the closest end of the tear-drop shaped quartz table that had been crafted just for this meeting. At the further, wider end of the table sat a dark-skinned man and a fair-skinned woman, both middle-aged and trying to look bored. On either side of them were two men. The two on Worthington's left were dark-haired, while one on the right was brown haired and the man closest to him was blond. All six of them were Adepts, all Dark, and trying not to look like they were paying attention. Worthington moved to the single chair at the very tip of the teardrop-shaped table and sat down, with Jamie sitting down a moment after him. To his immediate right, Randall Smythe also sat, while on the other side of the older man, Governor Lokar and First Councilor Domas sat to represent the dwarves, and Kelvren sat next to them, with Orana on the other side, nearest the Dark Adepts. On the other side of the table, Byron William Jones sat with plenty of space between him and Jamie, as well as plenty of space between him and the nearest of the dark-haired Adepts. "Welcome everyone, to Clairville Keep," Worthington said in the silence that followed him sitting down. "Now that everyone is here, I guess we can begin." The woman Adept said quickly, trying not to let Worthington get the figurative upper hand. She, like all the Adepts, appeared annoyed at his ostentatious entrance, but Randall had insisted on it, and so had the non-human representatives. "Yes, Madam Harbert, I do appreciate you coming, along with others," Worthington said with a nod of his head. "I believe we agreed on Mister Byron Jones to act as our mediator." "Which is why I am wondering why he is still silent?" The nearest of the dark-haired mages said sharply. "Maybe he is so tongue-tied with all the powerful mages in the room that he is unable to speak, having forgotten what it was like to feel true power." The blond mage said in a very haughty manner. "Maybe teaching all those children have dulled his senses after all these years." "I see trying to teach manners to some was useless after all." Byron Jones snapped irritably at the blond, who smirked back at him. "Everyone here has agreed to discuss the four items on the agenda today. Is there any objection to those items at this time, or anything to add?" "I object." Darius Rucker, the brown-haired Adept said as he leaned forward. "Sinclair has declared himself an Adept, but I do not recall any of us ever recognizing his skills as an Adept." "Don't be silly." Vivian Harbert said with a sniff. "Since when does one Adept challenge the status of another? The boy is clearly powerful enough, and if he wishes to claim the skill without possessing it, he will soon find out the folly of that. He is doing enough to cross any of us already!" "As much as I hate agreeing with the Harbret bitch, she is right." The furthest of the dark-haired Adepts said irritably. "If an Adept steps on one of our toes, we deal with them directly. That is how it has always been done." "Milo, the boy has already stepped on all of our toes with his constant pleading for help and consideration." The other dark-haired adept said to the man next to him. "How can he claim to be an Adept if he's always pleading for help?" "Richard, I am here to hear about this supposed threat from demons, nothing more." Milo, the first dark-haired Adept said with a frown. "If he has enough to tell me about them, I might be willing to listen to his explanations of why he is actually entering talks with the government instead of just wiping their memories." "The government is not as stupid as we would all like to believe," Worthington said, stepping into the conversation. "They claim, and I believe it is possible, that they have made certain precautions. If they are made to forget, after a period of time the knowledge, with proof, of magic and mages will be made fully public." "That is outrageous!" Darius Ruckert exclaimed. "We cannot allow such a threat against us!" "It is a direct challenge to the Great Secret." Vivian Harbret frowned as she spoke. "Such a revelation will endanger all of us, and all mages throughout the world." "Yes." Worthington agreed. "That is why they would make such a threat. It is far more dangerous to us than the alternative." "Which is what, precisely?" Darius asked in a dangerous tone. "We bow down and work for them? I will not!" "That is not what they are asking," Worthington replied calmly. "Yet." Darius shot back. "Why are they talking with you instead of a real Adept?" "Because I am known to them, and as far as I can tell, you still are not," Worthington said with a frown. "We have gone to great efforts to keep all of your identities secret still, although Byron Jones is known to them, as well as his school. They found that information out through other means after they captured a Dark mage." "This capturing of mages is another issue." Milo Lonar said with a frown. "It has stopped, and will not start back up again if our current negotiations are successful," Worthington said. "I take it we wish to discuss the government issues first?" "That is the issue we all care about the most," Vivian said with a wave of her hand. "The demons do not bother me." "Speak for yourself on that." Milo retorted. "Another Demon War is not what I want right now. I am concerned about demons, and about the wild number of Adept potentials that are appearing in the last few years. I have heard reports that Sinclair here is collecting them like crazy, now having two besides himself and his so-called brother sitting next to him. I good friend has complained that he poached one from right out of his hand!" "If your friend is my Uncle, then yes, I did," Worthington said grimly. "I would also advise that staying friends with him is likely to be very costly for you. He has crossed me several times and will pay for that eventually when I have the time after dealing with the government and the demons." "Do not threaten me, child," Milo growled. "I would not recommend threatening any of us," Darius added dangerously. "If you are collecting Adept-potentials, that is something very dangerous. You are breaking a great many traditions here." "You can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs," Jamie said, speaking up for the first time. "What kind of omelet do you think you are making?" Vivian asked him with a frown. "Something palatable, I hope," Jamie said with a visible frown on his face. "The truth is that as a society, we have kept the secret of magic far too well." "What is that supposed to mean?" Milo asked sharply. "The secret is supposed to be absolute, which you two seem to be ignoring." "We are facing reality, something it seems we are alone ready to face." Worthington allowed a hint of scorn to creep into his voice and almost let his smile loose at the sight of their faces. They were one and all angry, and slightly off-balance. "The facts are plain to anyone willing to look at them. Mage society is in a crisis, and needs leadership." "Leadership you will be happy to provide, I presume, Sinclair," Darius stated with disapproval in his voice. "You Sinclairs have always been looking for a way to regain your lost power and prestige." "So far it is only us who have chosen to face reality." Jamie retorted. "You were asked here so that hopefully we will not remain the only mages, or Adepts dealing with the issues we face. The issues we face all intertwine with each other to one degree or another, and are interrelated. First is the issue that as the elves and dwarves have warned us, magic itself has an ebb and flow, and right now we are approaching high tide. As a result, much more gifted are being born, and the non-human magical races are multiplying at a record number." "The last time magic was at a place like this was before the start of the last Demon Wars," Lokar said, speaking up from his place between Randall Smythe and the elves. "All of our people, dwarves, elves, and human mages lost a great many people in those wars, and magic passed into a time of low tide for centuries. Now it is returning, with a vengeance that you humans have failed to realize and deal with up to now." "People with almost any mage blood in them are being born with the gift, and at power levels previously only a very few possessed," Worthington added. "Think about it: there are four Adept-potential people within a few years of each other that we know of, and there may very well be more." "I see many of the children born into mage families of the Dark path." Byron Jones said in a quiet, steady voice. "I have talked with my fellow instructors at the various schools since Worthington discussed this with me. We have admitted to each other that between our schools we have six potential Adepts between the ages of twelve and fifteen. Three are new students this year at my school. One is fifteen at one school, and the other two are thirteen and twelve at the third." "That is astonishing," Vivian said with a frown. "There have not been so many Adept potentials in all of history." "It is not just Adepts, either," Worthington said in the silence that followed her blunt statement. "Two decades ago a man discovered he was a mage while in his early twenties. He graduated from Georgetown University and ran into a government researcher who was looking into the ‘paranormal' and proved he could do far more than the researcher ever dreamed possible. Together, they worked at, and succeeded in establishing a government program to identify mages, although they did not use that word, and developed a scientific approach to magic." "That should not be possible." Darius snorted. "A person exploring magic on their own faces burning themselves out when they explore spells on their own. Only Adepts have the power necessary to safely experiment." "He was of Adept power." Worthington shrugged. "Still, I do not see how these government mages can pose that much of a threat to us," Milo said with a dismissive wave of his hand. "What can one person do, even with government help?" "Before the attack by the demons, there were approximately seventy-eight government mages in various stages of training." Jamie dropped that bombshell, and Worthington could see a very slight smile on his face at the stunned expressions on their faces. "Thirty-five of them survive today," Worthington added and enjoyed the expressions as they did the math. "About half of the remaining amount was actually killed by the demons, or in the later battle. The rest were captures, and are presumably being controlled by demons." "That just reinforces the point that they can be easily overwhelmed, even if once they had many more people." Milo scoffed. "If it was just the mages, you might have a point, but they have mundane soldiers supporting them," Worthington said. "I can speak from experience, the mundanes are quite effective, and also, they have devices." "What kind of devices?" Darius asked sharply. He was known for being a good artificer, making many magical devices of his own, and selling them to amass quite a fortune. "May I show you an example?" Worthington asked, and when they had nodded, he placed the scrambler on the table before turning it on. The reactions were quite satisfactory as the Adepts reacted with surprise, pain, and disorientation at the device that scrambled their shields on various frequencies. Even the non-humans looked to be in pain from the device while he and Jamie sat there calmly watching all of them. After thirty seconds he turned the device off. "How does that work?" Darius demanded angrily as Worthington took the device off the table. "Obviously you have developed a defense to it." "I have, after many, many hours of study," Worthington said with a shrug. "My first time exposed to that device, a government mage used it in an attempt to capture me. I was very lucky that time and managed to escape his control, but it was only through the luckiest of occurrences." "Sometimes luck is as great a force as magic in our lives," Vivian said with a frown. "I do not think they would be able to use such a device to capture me, but then I am a highly trained Adept with many long decades behind me in experience. A lesser mage would be caught by that device." "They have more than this?" Darius demanded. "Yes," Worthington said. "We must study these devices so they cannot be used against us," Darius said firmly and gave Worthington a stern look. "They must be shared so that we can all defend against them." "You have ignored every call for assistance I made." Worthington retorted. "I believe it was you who said that you were not concerned about these government mages and that they could be easily dealt with. Why should I go out of my way to help you now?" "This is different," Darius said firmly. "If they are learning to use magic to make such devices, we must deal with them while they are still weakened." "The device I showed you does not use magic." Worthington retorted. "That is not possible," Vivian said with shock while Darius stared. "A device that affects magic and mages but does not use magic has never been created," Darius said slowly. "Until now." Jamie corrected. "This device, and a few others we have become aware of lately show that it is possible to do this." "What this shows is that they must be dealt with and before they regain any more strength," Milo said earnestly. "They cannot be allowed to continue what they have been doing." "If we take action, we risk our secret becoming common knowledge to the general public, do we not, Sinclair?" Vivian said with a great deal of sarcasm. "Since you are so knowledgeable about them, what do you propose we do? I do not believe you have called us here for anything else." "I have called you here to ask for your help in dealing with the government, among other problems," Worthington said with as much politeness as he could muster. This was the opening he had hoped for from one of them. "I do not believe you will particularly like what I am about to propose, mostly because I do not like it myself and would prefer another option. Maybe you will be able to come up with one, or more." "What is it that you think we should do, boy?" Darius asked. "For now, and the foreseeable future, we must cooperate to a degree," Worthington said and leaned back as the room interrupted in chaos while all six of the Adepts began yelling at him and arguing with each other. "I told you, boy; they were a waste of our time." Lokar snorted in a voice loud enough to silence the others. "You speak boldly, Master Dwarf," Vivian said coldly. "We remember how the dwarves ran at the end of the Demon Wars, taking their people and running over the seas to hide. The elves fled with them, as I recall." "Many of you mages left us to die while you fled, mage," Olara said flatly. "We made several bargains with you mages, and only the Light Adepts even tried to keep their end of the bargains. Your kind was hiding in your warrens praying you weren't targeted next." "We are not here to debate the failures of the past," Worthington said quickly, hoping to hold things to the topic now that it had been broached. "Now is the time for figuring out how to preserve the future, not debate the past." "How will working with the government preserve our society?" Vivian scoffed. "The government agency that they created with their Adept and the scientist he worked with was called the Department of Para-Normal Research and Regulation," Worthington explained and then waited for the comments to die down. "I was as offended as any of you when I learned that name. The idea of mundanes regulating us was and still is, quite abhorrent to me personally. Still, as we might expect, they believe that there should be some limitations on what we can, and cannot do with mundanes. One of the things they insist on is that except for certain matters, a mundane must consent to spells placed on them." "What exceptions?" Milo asked with disdain. "Primarily to protect the secret of magic's existence," Worthington said with a slight smile on his face. "They do not want magic to become widely known any more than we do, although they are willing to hold it over our head as a threat to us. They agree that sometimes it is necessary for mundanes to know about magic, especially if they are to be servants in our homes, or in other ways. If the mundane refused to have certain blocks placed on them to protect our secrets, we can make them forget, although we cannot do other things." "An example would be if you wish to hire a maid or a cook," Jamie explained. "You can ask for their agreement to place controls on them that will keep them from revealing your secrets, as a condition of employment. If they refuse, they are to be made to forget and sent on their way." "There are some spells we use that no mundane would agree to pay the price for, no matter what we offer them." Darius snorted. "The creation of certain artifacts often requires the life of a mundane. Why should I give up an important part of my magic to please some mundane government?" "The mundanes are quite interested in some applications of magic that the Dark path is uniquely suited to accomplish," Jamie said with a very slight frown. "What would those be?" Darius retorted quickly. "The ability to keep a prisoner from breaking the law again is one," Jamie said in answer to the man. "Even when they were told that some processes to achieve such an end would shorten the lives of the prisoners they were not hesitant to see some type of program initiated," Worthington added when Jamie stopped. He knew his brother did not like this idea at all. "It is not necessary to…" Milo began but then smiled. "Ah, I see. When you say work with them, you do not mean to make us all reform our ways and to give them everything they want." "It is a temporary solution," Worthington said with a shrug. "Some things they will have to know, merely because it is impossible to keep them totally secret. Other things they must not know, now or ever. Eventually, we will find a way around their protections, and their ‘ultimate solution,' and gain our freedom. Until then, we must at least appear to cooperate with them, and to a degree, actually, do cooperate." "What of the spells that actually require a life?" Vivian asked. "I, for one, will not become a hag in appearance, or shorten my life span to preserve the lives of a few mundanes." "I have some hope that we will gain access to certain types of prisoners, or people the government will not mind dying," Worthington said. "It will take time for that, and trust, but it might happen. Otherwise, I say I do not get caught and do not leave evidence that can be tracked to you. The government will use their mages to enforce their laws on us when it is needed." "More importantly, we will be called on to enforce those same laws, if this proceeds," Jamie said with a direct look at them. "There is Light path mages that will not hesitate to work with the government, especially because they will perceive what you do in those cases to be morally wrong. The Mage Council for the Valley of the Sun has reached a tentative agreement with the government and is in the process of finalizing details on that." "What kind of agreement?" Vivian asked, each word cracking like a whip. "The Mage Council was established during the fight with the Demon Lord Zaroc to defend the Valley and its inhabitants, especially its mages," Jamie explained. "It was also given authority to arbitrate disputes where all parties agreed to such arbitration. That will change now, under government auspices. The Mage Council will still be responsible for defending the area from magical threats, but will also be responsible for overseeing interactions between mages and mundanes. We will have authority to put on trial mages who violate the free will of mundanes or use their magic to harm mundanes, or to evade the appropriate enforcement of the law. For an example, Worthington here liked to use spells to make sure police officers did not see him speeding on his motorcycle. Once these agreements go into effect, he can be fined, or imprisoned for doing that." "The mages of your area are consenting to this?" Vivian asked with disbelief. "We do not know yet." Jamie shrugged. "They are being asked this question now and will be asked to vote on it after considering it. If they do not, I fear the government will take more direct measures." "If we are willing, and can show we are capable when it comes to regulating ourselves, the government will be less likely to directly intervene in our lives," Worthington explained. "For now, they are willing to use the existing Mage Council in this area as a test case. If it works, they will wish to expand it across the country, and set up some type of oversight board made up of mages. I have recommended that this oversight board consist of Adepts and certain other leaders of the Mage communities." "I see," Vivian said with a frown. "What role do the dwarves and elves play in this?" "We are growing in number," Kelvren said lightly. "It will soon be very difficult to remain as hidden as we have through the ages past." "It is becoming ever more difficult to operate openly in the modern world," Lokar grumbled unhappily. "Computers and more efficient databases make it all but impossible for us to conduct financial transactions in the world without government notice. We do not have social security numbers, or other things necessary to operate in the world. The government has agreed to recognize us not only as sentient beings but as citizens." "We will be permitted to hold lands within the boundaries of their national preserves that we already hold, and to purchase new lands elsewhere, so long as we do not make ourselves commonly known." Onora continued. "Further, we will be protected by the same laws as other citizens, should our existence become commonly known." "They have offered us a status similar to that commonly held by those called Native Americans." Lokar continued. "We will have to pay some taxes, but our lands are ours, and not subject to all the same laws as other lands, although we will still bow our knees to some of their federal laws. It is not all we wanted, but it is a livable agreement." "For you, perhaps," Vivian stated and gave Worthington a very direct look. "Why was not something similar achieved for mages?" "Mostly because we are human," Worthington replied. "By and large, we live in mundane society, not apart from it as the dwarves and elves have lived. If we had land of our own, such a thing might be possible, and it is one avenue for us to explore. Would we be willing though, to live separate from the rest of society?" "I would not," Milo said. "My home is far from the nearest city, but even I interact with mundanes regularly and would not lose that. It might be worth exploring some alternatives though. As you have shown, these government types do not appear to be easy to sweep away the way I had originally hoped." "There is further benefit to us in working with the government," Jamie said as he leaned forward ever so slightly. "They wish to register every mage, and there is not much we can do about that except to insist that the records be kept by mages and only called upon by mundane authorities when a crime is committed with magic. There was no objection to us searching for, finding, and training mages who might not have been among our families. If what we see in this area alone bears out, there are thousands upon thousands all across this nation that are gifted and do not know that we exist. The government will actually assist us in finding them, registering them, and training them." "Why?" Vivian frowned. "What do they get out of that?" "Simple." Worthington smiled now. "No more rogue mages will be out there. Mages will be trained, registered, and known. As a result, they will be less of a danger to themselves and to others. This is something the government very much wants to see happen." "We cannot take every whelp with mage gift at our schools," Byron spoke up with a look of disgust on his face. "No, but there is no reason not to start new schools," Worthington said gently. "They should not compete with our existing schools. Dark path has traditionally sent their children to one of the three private schools, while Light path train their children at home, and later with specific, more advanced trainers. At the University level, Dark path mages have used the fraternity system for further training of their mages." "My brother and I are discussing with Governor Lokar the establishment of a large, private school here on the grounds of Clairville that will be a new institution of learning for mages," Jamie said, and Vivian laughed softly. "Oh, excuse me, boys." She laughed. "Please do not tell me you will call this school Hogwarts." "No, that is not necessarily what we had envisioned." Worthington smiled at her with amusement. He remembered Kyle saying the same thing when Worthington had asked his opinion. "It will begin taking students at the equivalent of the sixth grade though and will last for seven years, but that is no different than two of the three boarding schools now in existence. Like them, it will have mostly a mundane curriculum and will be an accredited mundane school with its courses valid at most universities in this country. "In addition to its mundane curriculum, it will specialize in teaching magic." Worthington continued after a short pause. "Which path will it teach?" Darius asked. "It will teach Light and Dark paths," Jamie said. "Students will be encouraged to sample both in their first two years before selecting the path they will continue after their third year." "What about adults that are found with the mage gift?" Milo asked. "A separate school will be set up for them, as well as for mages wishing to continue their magical education after their last year of school," Worthington answered. "Setting up a school is no easy task." Byron Jones frowned as he spoke. "The dwarves tell me that the buildings and grounds will be established, and built before a year is out," Worthington said with a nod to Lokar who nodded in agreement. "The government has started the process to turn over portions of national park land that borders this village for the purpose. Stacy Simons, who is an accredited educator in this state has agreed to act as Headmistress and started building a faculty of both mundane and mage instructors. Matt Wilson, a Dark path which is currently working for me as an instructor will recruit Dark path instructors for that portion of the curriculum." "Who is funding this operation?" Byron Jones asked. "I am," Worthington answered. "For those that are found with mage gift who can pay, they will be charged for tuition. All others will receive a scholarship. I do not expect it to be a profitable venture, but it will receive offsets from the government for its operation and for allowing government mage recruiters to talk with upper classmen. One ground rule we have already established is that a student already admitted to another mage institution will not be allowed to attend without that institution's agreement." "Very smart of you young man." Vivian laughed softly. "So, you have grand designs and are approaching this far more logically than I expected. Let us discuss this some more." Worthington wanted to sigh in relief but didn't. They were actually to the point he had hoped to reach, although they had not yet even broached the topic of demons. That would wait, until later. For now, he'd done all that he'd hoped to achieve for this meeting.
  2. "No, Kyle, you can't force yourself into balance," Worthington said tiredly as he sat in the workroom that was under Jamie's house in Scottsdale. It was nearly midnight, and they had been at this for three hours now, and Kyle was still having problems finding his internal balance with his magic. The brown haired guy was nearly drenched in sweat, with his green t-shirt stuck to his body and already showing the white rings of salty sweat stains on it while his jeans clung tightly to his body. The overall effect was almost too much for Worthington to handle, so he was sitting on the cool stone floor without looking anywhere but at the guy's sweat-soaked face. Even that was almost too much to handle. He was trying to keep his attraction to the guy under control, below Kyle's ability to detect, and it was difficult. "Damn it; this isn't easy!" Kyle spat in that slow Texas drawl of his. "No, it's not." Worthington sighed. "The truth is that most male mages start these lessons at a very early age, and even some women before their gift fully manifest itself. You've had your gift awaken relatively late in life, and it awakened in a very stressful situation with tragic results. I can feel how much you hate it, and yourself." "Stay out of my mind!" Kyle said angrily, his magic manifesting as an angry red aura around him. "Calm down." Worthington snapped irritably. "I am not in your mind. You're still projecting everything. I can feel how much you hate your magic, and yourself for what happened." "They didn't deserve to die," Kyle said softly, and there were sudden tears in his eyes as his magical aura faded. Worthington sighed, remembering the second price that the Light had demanded and wondered if this was part of that. He didn't want to take a chance that it was, and ignore it, so he bit back the response that came to his lips, took another breath and tried to approach this from a different angle. "Sit down, Kyle," Worthington said softly and nodded as the untrained mage sat down cross-legged across from him. It was much easier to meet his gaze now without seeing how attractive he was. "Let's talk about what happened." "You said we could talk about that when I was ready," Kyle said defensively. "I'm not ready, and I never will be." "If you never will be, we might as well have it out now." Worthington sighed. "Will you tell me what's got your twin all pissed off after he did his magic thing to my aunt and uncle?" Kyle asked with a tilt of his head. His accent was just too…nice. "Do you really want to know?" Worthington asked and sighed again when Kyle nodded. He did have a right to know. "We have a deal then? I'll tell you my sordid past, and you'll tell me yours?" "What do my Aunt and Uncle have to do with your past?" Kyle asked. "That's what you'll find out." Worthington smiled as he answered and Kyle nodded before frowning. "It's getting late, isn't it?" He asked. "Should I worry about getting home?" "You can stay here tonight," Worthington answered. "In fact, next time you come over you might want to bring some clothes to leave here because there'll be more nights like tonight as you're learning where it'll be late and better for you to stay here." "They won't get suspicious?" Kyle asked. "I mean, my own parents would never let me stay out on a school night, and they're stricter than my parents." "They will be fine." Worthington sighed. "To be honest, if I could, I'd wipe their memories of you ever existing and have you move in here. We might just do that in a few months. You turn eighteen in late November, right?" "Yes." Kyle frowned. "Then you won't have any legal obligations and things will go easier, if you agree to do that," Worthington said. "Won't you be able to turn this magic thing off by then?" Kyle frowned, and Worthington laughed softly. "Maybe, but then you might not want it done by that time," Worthington said gently. Kyle needed careful handling. "Your only experience with magic at this point in time is negative, Kyle. When you see what is possible with it, you might change your mind." "I doubt that," Kyle said firmly, with all his heart and Worthington felt sympathy rise up in him. "Let me tell you about magic, to start with," Worthington said and launched into a brief overview of magic, the dwarven-told legend of how humans came to possess magic, the fall of the elven city of Landis, and eventually of the formation of the Light and Dark paths. Then he moved on to the story of his own family, and the rise to power of the Sinclairs during the middle ages, the first Demon Wars, and finally the feud between his father and his uncle. "So what does all this have to do with me?" Kyle demanded with a yawn when Worthington was done. It was now nearly one in the morning. "You have a great deal of power, Kyle, easily Adept potential, and nearly as much as I have, or Jamie possesses." Worthington's voice was full of patience. "For some reason you kept your power bottled up, instead of it progressing like it normally would." "When I first started thinking I was hearing voices, I thought I was going crazy," Kyle admitted softly. "My folks, we belonged to this really Evangelical church, and the Pastor laid hands on me, casting out the demons inside of me. After that, I didn't have any problems with hearing voices." "I see," Worthington said even though he didn't quite. Maybe the ‘preacher' merely proved to be a catalyst for allowing Kyle to suppress his abilities, or maybe the preacher was himself an untrained mage and did something. "How old were you when that happened?" "It was three years ago," Kyle admitted with a slight blush and looked down at the stone beneath them. One of his hands was idly tracing the grains in the cut and smoothed rock. "For the last three years, your power has been bottled up," Worthington said. "I saw what happened when your family died, but don't understand why it was happening." "I told my dad I wanted to wrestle and he was mad." Kyle sighed with a sound of hurt in his voice. "I've always been good at baseball, and he wants me to go professional, so he was always pushing me, always at my games, in the coach's face if I wasn't pitching enough, but I liked wrestling too. Don't get me wrong, I like playing ball, but I don't like it as much as my dad does, or did. I wanted to wrestle too, and he was worried I'd break my arm or something and not be able to pitch. It's my last year, you know and to get on a good college team, it's the most important year for me. He just didn't want me to take any risks." "His method of ‘safe-guarding' you by beating you wasn't exactly logical, then." Worthington was frowning and immediately regretted his words when Kyle's face clouded over. "Just because he was trying to beat some sense into me doesn't justify me killing him, and what about my mom and sister?" Kyle's voice was angry, but there was no red aura this time. "They didn't deserve to die for that." "No, they didn't." Worthington agreed as calmly as he could. "That's the danger in what happened to you. There you were under a great deal of stress, wanting it to stop, and your pent-up magic exploded. You are so strong that the magic, when released, destroyed the entire house." "I got that part. I was there, remember?" Kyle's voice was full of bitter sarcasm as he took another deep breath. "But that's all stuff about me. What does that have to do with you and your family?" "It has to do with my Uncle." Worthington sighed. "I guess I haven't been paying close enough attention to him with everything else I have going on right now. He's the founder of the Church of the Light." "Your Uncle is Reverend David Sinclair?" Kyle's voice was full of surprise. "Wow, you're saying he's really an evil mage?" "Yes," Worthington said. "I didn't know he had a branch of his church here in Phoenix. None of the members must be mages, but from what Jamie saw in the minds of your relatives, they can detect when a mage comes into their congregation. When that pastor welcomed you to their church last month, you remember seeing the pendant he was wearing glow, and the look of surprise on his face?" "Yes." Kyle frowned again. "You mean that tells if you're a mage?" "That's what Jamie and I believe," Worthington said with a shake of his head at his Uncle's inventiveness. "Another thing he's doing besides building more of his churches appears to be building a school as well. Dark mages mostly learn magic from one of three boarding schools in various places around the country. My Uncle appears to be trying to build a fourth, and really wants you to attend." "You mean that school I got offered a scholarship to teaches magic?" Kyle's voice bordered on disbelief. "It would explain why they didn't take your cousin, and why your Aunt and Uncle refused to let you attend without him," Worthington said. "They are very protective of him, aren't they?" "They think the sun rises and sets around him." Kyle snorted softly. "They told me I couldn't go unless he got in too, but the school said they'd think about it and get back to them. That's why I came in late to school the other day because they were meeting with a representative of the Church of Light school. Now ain't that a nice contradiction? Your Uncle is a dark, evil mage and he calls his Church of the "Light." He sounds like he's got some brass balls on him." "That he does." Worthington smiled. "So why would they want me there?" Kyle asked, and Worthington gave him a long look while trying to decide the best way to answer. A little voice told him to use the truth. With this guy, he had a feeling that the truth would always, always be best. "Kyle, you have as much power as I do or Jamie," Worthington stated. "In all the world, there are maybe twenty people at the most with this much or nearly this much power at their hands. Think about that for a moment. With a population of over six billion people, this planet has maybe twenty people with as much power as you, and I have. In this house, right now, there are four of us, including you, who are Adept potential." "I may be just a hick from West Texas, but I'm no idiot," Kyle said slowly. "As badly as your Uncle must want me, you must want me as bad. You said there are four people here, so that's you, Jamie, and one other fella. Are you making some type of power play, trying to sway me to your side or something?" "I would much prefer you, and I were friends, Kyle," Worthington said honestly. "The fact of the matter is, you have a great deal of power, and that means influence in the world of mages. You could be a powerful friend or a powerful enemy. What you choose to do, or not do with that power will influence the world far more than other people. I won't make you use it, and if after a time you decide you don't want it, I'll work with you on that too. The choice though will be yours. Others won't want to let you choose for yourself. They will want you to do what they want, and they will achieve that by means you can't imagine yet." "If I'm so strong how could they make me do things I don't want to?" Kyle asked with disbelief on his face. "How do I know I can trust you?" "It'll be quicker if I just show you," Worthington said gently and lowered his shields just enough to work some low magic, the magic of the mind. Kyle's eyes glazed over as Worthington's influence permeated him, and he groaned aloud while leaning forward. He crawled on his hands and knees towards Worthington, whimpering with the sudden desire that was flooding into him, and Worthington let him approach until just before their lips met. Then he dropped the magic, and Kyle pulled back sharply, a look of horror on his face. "How did you do that?" He demanded in horror and anger. "You see how easy that was, without you having any idea of what magic can and cannot do?" Worthington replied calmly as Kyle hastened to his feet and stepped backward, away from Worthington. The bulge in his pants was already going down. "Once I had you nude, and we were having sex, I could have used more magic to set controls in you that would let me control you for the rest of your life. Only another mage would be able to have broken them, and he would require a great deal of power, and a great deal of time in order to break them. There are other things I know, things my Uncle also knows, that would make you my slave for the rest of your life, and you wouldn't even know I had that power over you. That is what magic can do to you, Kyle. It doesn't matter whether you can trust me or not, or any mage for that matter. Until you're trained, and even then if you're not always careful, always vigilant, another mage can use their powers to take control of you." "If I give up the magic though, no one will have any interest in me, right?" Kyle asked uncomfortably and in a very weak voice. "Not necessarily." Worthington shrugged. "If nothing else, any children you might have one day will most likely be mages, and strong ones at that. A smart mage will see that, even if your powers are burnt out of you, and breed you to a mage woman so that he can control the children. My father tried to control me, and it was only my Uncle killing him that freed my mind so I could act on my own will instead of his. I don't like controlling people, to be blunt about it, and so you will have more time to learn with me and about me without fearing I'm taking over your life." "You're taking it over one way or another, aren't you?" Kyle asked with a horrified tone as he looked away from Worthington. "I mean, what choice do I have? If I don't learn, then I'm vulnerable to anyone who comes along." "I could find another teacher for you, one that you can trust if you wish." Worthington offered, and Kyle laughed bitterly. "But I'd still have to trust you that I can trust them," Kyle said. "True," Worthington admitted with a smile of his own. "Fine, I might as well trust you," Kyle said with a shake of his head. "As long as you don't try to make me kiss you again." "You haven't kissed me yet." Worthington teased, and Kyle looked confused for a moment until he realized the order of words he'd used could be taken in a way that he had not intended. "Don't be expecting a kiss from me anytime soon," Kyle said with a sigh, and then he closed his eyes. "Okay, so I'm supposed to be finding the point where my magic meets the physical world and balancing it, right? It sounds kind of like when I'm winding up for a pitch, and have to balance…yes!" "You got it." Worthington said as he closed his own eyes and felt the little ‘snap' as Kyle found his balance. "Oh wow, I can feel the difference," Kyle said with wonder in his eyes as he opened them and looked at Worthington. "It's like pulsing there in my head, wanting to do something." "Magic likes to be used," Worthington said calmly. "Even if it is nothing more than to shield. I like to imagine smooth, invisible walls around my mind. Some people like a brick wall or other things. This is low magic, so we're talking something covering your mind. We'll get into mage shields later, but for now, you want to be able to keep your thoughts to yourself and keep the thoughts of others out of your head. This way you won't necessarily hear voices unless someone's directly sending to you." "You mean shields like on Star Trek?" Kyle laughed. "Oh my, I can feel it, oh man, what a difference. It's like, you're not even there anymore if I close my eyes, but if I thin them out, I can…yeah, you're there again." "But I can also tighten up my own shields and…" Worthington said as he did that. "Oh man, you're gone again," Kyle said, and he was smiling. "This is fun, feeling the power flow as I use it, and it's like it's happy. I can feel its happiness." "Yes." Worthington smiled. "Now, you might lose the shields when you sleep. That's okay. Until you get used to them, they'll come and go at times if you're not paying attention to them. Eventually, they'll become second-nature, and even when you're asleep, they'll be there. For now, though, you can find your balance, and you can put up basic shields. I think that's more than enough for tonight." "I am tired," Kyle admitted with a yawn. "Where y'all gonna put me?" "There's a spare bedroom you can use for now," Worthington said as he got to his feet, and had to accept Kyle's help as a wave of dizziness nearly flattened him again. "Thanks." "You okay?" Kyle asked with a worried tone. "Yes, I'm just recovering still from a very tough experience," Worthington admitted. "I told you about the demons, well I fought a big battle with them a few weeks ago, and nearly lost. If Jamie hadn't shown up when he did, I'd have died." "Tom said something about that at school." Kyle reminded him with a frown as they left the workroom and headed up to the bedroom level. "Is that what you do? Go around fighting demons?" "I do a lot of things," Worthington said, leaning on Kyle much more than he wanted to because he really was feeling dizzy. "Fighting demons is only one of them. Most mages, well they just aren't strong enough individually to take on a demon, much less a Demon Lord, so someone has to step up and fight them. I have the power, and it'd be wrong not to do that." "Is that what you want me to do?" Kyle asked with a little bit of fear in his voice as they reached the top of the stairs and Worthington pointed down the hall to the bedroom that was his. "Fight demons with you?" "If you decide that's what you want to do, but it'll be years before you have enough training for that," Worthington said gently. "You shouldn't have to worry about that for now." "Okay," Kyle said with a nod as he helped Worthington into his room. When he sat on the bed, Worthington leaned back, closing his eyes and was out before he even realized he hadn't taken his shoes off. He woke with a yell again, covered in sweat as he normally was, and sat up in bed, feeling tired and disoriented. Movement in the bed warned him there was someone else there, and he looked over to see Kyle, wearing nothing but a pair of tight white briefs leaning up on his elbows and blinking at him. Worthington was breathing heavily and tried to get it back under control. "What's the matter?" Kyle's voice was soft and filled with genuine concern. "Sorry, just a nightmare," Worthington said as he looked down at his own body and the scars that gleamed in the moonlight filtering in from the windows. Kyle must have stripped him out of his clothes after he passed out. "I hope you don't mind," Kyle said with his skin darkening in a blush, barely discernible in the dim light. "I didn't know which room was the one I could use, and you were out like a light, so I just got you ready for bed and climbed in too." "It's no problem," Worthington said as he finally got his breathing controlled. "I'm sorry I woke you. It'll be a few hours before we have to head to school if you want to go back to sleep. You can stay here. I'll be getting up now." "You can show me that bedroom if you want to go back to sleep." Kyle offered with a frown. "I imagine you're still tired. Lord knows I am." "I can never go back to sleep after a nightmare," Worthington admitted sourly. This one had been a bit different, and he didn't want to dwell on it right now. With a sigh, he got up out of bed, stretched a bit and walked over to the dresser. "What are you doing?" Kyle's voice was inquisitive and spoken in a hushed tone. "I'm getting a swimsuit and going swimming," Worthington replied. "Ain't it a bit cold for that?" Kyle asked with a shiver. "It's cold in here because we keep the air conditioning turned low." Worthington chuckled as he pulled out a black Speedo. "Outside it's probably in the mid-eighties at least, so it's perfect swimming weather. It won't be cold for a few more months, and even then the pool will be heated." "Oh," Kyle said gently. "Um, do you think I could join you? I mean, it doesn't feel right to go back to sleep if you're not." "You sure?" Worthington asked. "Yeah, I like swimming anyway," Kyle said with a shrug. "My buddy Ryan, back home, he had a pool, and we'd live in it all summer if we could." "It's like that here a lot," Worthington said as he pulled out a green pair of Speedos, remembering the green t-shirt Kyle had been wearing the other day. "Um, you have any trunks?" Kyle asked with another blush as Worthington threw them to him. "No offense, but this skimpy thing; it's almost indecent, you know?" "We could skinny-dip if we wanted." Worthington laughed. "We're at the top of the hill here, so unless they're in a helicopter, people can't see us. No, I don't have any trunks though." "All right," Kyle said as he got out of the bed and slipped out of his underwear with very little modesty. Worthington noted that Kyle had a pretty substantial package nestled in a thick mound of dark brown pubic hair, and was uncircumcised. Before Kyle noticed him staring, Worthington also changed and led the way out to the pool without saying much more. "You sure it's okay to use this pool?" Kyle asked as they went down the trail between the two houses. "Whose house is that?" "That is Stacy and Elizabeth's house," Worthington answered. "Elizabeth is Jamie's mom." "I thought you two were brothers," Kyle asked with a frown. "We are." Worthington chuckled softly. "It's a long and complicated story. The short version is that after Stacy and Elizabeth had their first child, they decided they wanted another. They intended to have the child with sperm from the same donor as Stacy's so they would be half-brothers, but my father paid the clinic to use his sperm so he could use the kid in case something happened to me. Thus, Jamie and I are cousins, because our mothers were sisters, and we're half-brothers because we have the same father." "That's sick," Kyle said with a shake of his head, and then he stopped. "Wait, you mean, his mother's a lesbian? He was raised by two lesbians, and you live here in the house next to them?" "You got a problem with that?" Worthington asked coldly. "You folks out here really are liberal," Kyle said with a shake of his head. "Back home they'd run the lot of you out of town." "They'd probably do that to you too." Worthington retorted, and Kyle's face darkened. "What do you mean by that?" He demanded angrily, and Worthington felt the anger roil off of him in waves, along with a tinge of fear as the guy's shields fluctuated. "Control your shield; damn it." Worthington snapped and breathed with relief as Kyle gulped before getting his shields under control. "That's better. You need to be careful, Kyle. Strong emotions like that will affect even the ungifted around you with as much strength as you have. What I meant about you being run out of town was because you're a mage, not anything else. Most people, if they knew about magic, they would be afraid of people like us. Think about what I did to you earlier, to prove my point. A mage can do that to anyone that catches his fancy. How do you think mundane people, those without magic would react to that." "They'd be mighty scared," Kyle said with a shake of his head. "Sorry, I get your point. It's weird having to think of this stuff now." "It takes time," Worthington told him and then resumed their journey to the pool. He sighed with pleasure as he slipped into the silky warm waters and began a slow, leisurely pace of swimming. Kyle fell in beside him, matching his strokes and pace easily. As they swam lap after lap, Worthington found that they were slipping into a gentle, light rapport. He carefully ordered his thoughts so as to not alarm Kyle, and let the rapport deepen a bit. It would do him good to see this side of magic, the voluntary sharing that could happen. He learned a great deal from that rapport as they swam. Kyle being afraid wasn't too surprising. Nor was the loneliness in him. Worthington remembered when he'd first come to this place, and the loneliness he'd felt. Jamie, Richie, and all the others he'd met since coming here had replaced that, and he was far happier than he'd ever been with his family. Worthington tried to share that happiness with Kyle as they swam. He wanted Kyle to know that Worthington was truly happy here and that despite all the difficult times, the careful maneuvering, the dangers from within and without, magic was a good thing in his life and had given him as much joy as it had pain and misery. Through him, Kyle could feel the Valley, it's harsh, but comforting cycle of life, the flow of energy changing in the city below them as dawn neared and people began to wake. All life was magic, in its own way regardless of whether people could use the power of magic or not. There was truly something special about the beginning of each day when people would wake and start over once more with a new day. Magic was no different than any other part of life, with its own joys, its own endings, its beginnings, and for Kyle this truly was a new day, a day in which he was for the first time fully wakened to his potential, even as Worthington had fully woken after the integration of the geas created by his father. They finished by unspoken accord as Worthington's body shook slightly with exhaustion. Kyle laid out on a chair next to him as he watched the valley below them change with the rising sun. He let the peace and calmness of the morning flow into him, replacing the anxiety and concerns of the previous day, giving him some hope that the new day would be better than the last. Their rapport continued, and Worthington found he was getting to know Kyle better with each passing moment. No specifics passed between them, but he got the sensation that Kyle missed a lot of things about his old life. In his own way, he was still grieving not only for the dead family members but for the life he had lost that same night. His friends, his teammates, the people he went to school with were no longer a part of his life, and here he was, in some strange city, living with relatives he didn't like and faced with a situation he'd never imagined before. From Worthington, Kyle got something just as important, a sensation of what magic was about, how it could be joyful, something to be treasured more than hated. As the warm air dried their skin, he began to understand from Worthington that it was more than something to be blithely thrown away because of his negative associations with the past. Magic, like so much in life, was in part what you made of it, what it wanted to be for you and for others. Kyle could understand that, even if he still wanted nothing to do with it at the moment. Kyle actually enjoyed the little games teachers often played at the beginning of the school year, the game where kids would sit down with another student and ask silly questions that were supposed to help them learn about other students. He had a naturally curious nature and enjoyed learning something new. As they sat there, watching the changes in the valley below them, he began to play a mental version of the game with Worthington, learning to shape his thoughts into words, and at the same time learning through Worthington's answers that thoughts alone were not all that could be shared this way. What's your favorite color? Kyle asked without words, and Worthington showed him images as an answer. The metallic gray metal color, and the various shades of grays the dwarves had made clothes in for him. Feelings were added to the answer so Kyle would know he loved those colors for what they symbolized: blending of Light and Dark, as well as a new path, something he was creating, defining, and a part of with his brother. He also liked the cool blues of Sapphires, the dark redness of Rubies, and other natural gemstone colors. Colors with depth, with meaning, were all things he liked. What's your favorite memory of growing up? Kyle's next question was much more difficult, and many images flittered across their light rapport before Worthington could call them back. There was no blocking them from Kyle's sight, but he didn't pull out of the rapport while Worthington got back under control and finally answered. Maybe it was having sat and talked with his father's friend Randall Smythe, or something deeper, but Worthington let himself remember that not all his interactions with his father had been negative. So rarely had he thought of anything positive that it was only Kyle's question that made him remember that vacation to Europe, and sitting on the back of a yacht with his father, staring at the pale buildings of some old Italian city with their bright red roofs. He had sat on the back of that yacht with his father, talking about nothing in particular. No discussions of taking over the world, being a great leader for mages, or reclaiming the Sinclair heritage. Nor was it a deep, philosophical discussion about the history of magic, or business takeovers. Their conversation had been simple, about being able to enjoy calm moments in life, when the pressures of the everyday world were far away. Why do you enjoy sports? Worthington asked after sharing that answer with Kyle and got a rush of images, as well as feelings in an uncontrolled burst before Kyle managed to form them into some semblance of order. The first images were of Kyle trotting out onto the field as a little kid, playing on his little league team. This was something he was good at, and he knew it very well. What was better though was the way his father would sit in the stands, yelling out encouragement, praising him when he did something right. Then there were the hours in the large backyard, playing catch, or practicing throwing with his father. Over the years that grew stale as his father became more obsessed with seeing him become great at the sport, but there were other enjoyments. He loved the camaraderie with his teammates, being part of a whole, and he enjoyed more things as well. Kyle didn't like to admit it, but he liked the feeling of being up there on the mound, looking good, and knowing he looked good as he threw batter after batter out. It wasn't enough to just do it; he had to look good while doing it, and be seen looking good. Deep shame ran through their rapport as Kyle admitted it for the first time to someone else, but he loved the attention, being the focus of everyone's eyes as he pitched. The competition, the contest between him and the batter was great, but it was the thrill of victory after he struck the guy out, and knowing everyone had seen him do it that really thrilled him. That was why he also loved wrestling, and why he fought with his father that night. In wrestling, it was a contest between two people, evenly matched in strength and weight. All that mattered was their skill, and in a wrestling match, they were the focus of everyone's attention. He had the same contest as he enjoyed when pitching against batters, but it was more personal, more direct, and that was good. "You've got company this morning, I see." Stacy's voice interrupted their rapport, and he could feel the slight revulsion, and again fear from Kyle as he noticed the woman who had approached while they were asking and answering questions. "Who is your newest… friend?" "This is Kyle Norton," Worthington said with a slight blush at the connotation of her words, and then the feelings of disgust spiked sharply as Kyle sensed what he was thinking, and feeling. "Jesus Christ, you really are a queer!" Kyle said in disgust as he got up from his lounge chair, his hands covering the front of his Speedos and the rapport between them shattered while Worthington and Stacy stared at the young man. "Okay, that is an interesting reaction," Stacy said calmly, and Worthington felt dread at what might happen next. Next, he felt some sympathy though, at the look of utter fear on Kyle's face and he decided against the sharp retort that was on the tip of his tongue. Stacy must have seen it too because she softened slightly. "Worthington, I think you should take your friend back to your place and have a little talk with him." "I think you're right." Worthington sighed as he stood up. When he started walking up the path, he was relieved that Kyle did follow, albeit at a distance.
  3. The locker room brought back so many memories as its distinctive smell hit Worthington's nostrils. This was a fairly new school, but even in the few years it had been in existence, the locker room still smelled of sweat, mustiness, and all those other smells that were associated with active guys his age and younger. It was the last period of the day; his Sports P.E. class and Worthington didn't want to be there at all. Josh and Tom were there already, and they had made room for him on one of the benches for the annual ritual of the coaches assigning lockers. Both of them were smiling, but there was a hint of sadness to all of them as they too remembered the person that wasn't there this year. Jeremy had been a friend to all of them, as well as Worthington's lover for several months, and they missed him – albeit not as much as Worthington did. "Dude, glad you changed your mind," Josh said as Worthington sat down between them. "I haven't," Worthington said softly. "Coach Vanderbilt convinced Mrs. Warren not to change my schedule, but I'm going to talk to him." "They're right, you know," Tom said gently. "He'd not want you to quit wrestling just because he's…" Wherever Tom was going with that statement, Worthington lost track of it as someone entered the gym. Neither of them showed any reaction, but a quick check with his mage senses showed why they had not noticed him earlier. Worthington had to blink twice after looking with mage sight at the young man that had walked into the gym, and interrupted Tom who was still talking about why he should join the wrestling team. "Who is that?" Worthington asked sharply. "Who?" Tom asked while Josh followed Worthington's gaze. The guy was about six foot even, with fairly narrow shoulders. He had on a tight green t-shirt that said "West Texas Baseball," and wore fairly tight-fitting jeans that showed he had a decent build on him. His brown hair was cut short, although not as short as their crew cuts, and he had soft, wavy bangs over nearly flawless skin, green eyes, and a narrow nose with just the slightest uplift at the end. The mouth was just beautiful too, but none of those physical features were what had grabbed Worthington's attention. The stranger's body practically sang of mage potential that rivaled even Worthington's power. He dwarfed Colin's potential, and was maybe just a hair weaker than Worthington and Jamie, and might even match them or possibly exceed them, as scary as the thought was at the moment. Around him, Worthington could hear the gym going quiet as most of the sports team members in the gym turned to look at the stranger in their midst. With that much raw, obviously untrained power, Worthington was not the slightest bit surprised that he was attracting that much attention. His shields were what you might expect from someone that powerful but untrained, and flared as the guy noticed everyone looking at him, and he grew nervous. Worthington could see even Josh and Tom start to look edgy, and they were shielded thanks to the magic anklets Worthington had made and given to each member of the MR. "Oh, that's Kyle Norton," Josh said very quietly as a very slight buzz resumed in the locker room. Worthington kept his eye on Kyle as the football coach directed him to Coach Vanderbilt. That figured. Well, it looked like he was going to be wrestling after all. "What do you know about him?" Worthington asked sharply. "Caught your eye, did he?" Josh laughed softly. "Figured he might. He was in my last period class. From what I gather he just showed up in town a couple of days ago. The rumor mill hasn't really started on him yet, so there's not much I know. He's good looking though, and seems to draw attention no matter where he goes." "Well duh." Worthington snorted softly as the coaches began to call out names for locker assignments. "He's a mage, and untrained." "Why didn't we detect him?" Josh asked with a frown as he reached down like he was checking to make sure his anklet was there. "One, he's only been here for a few days." Worthington sighed. "Two, he's untrained, so you wouldn't have really felt him use magic unless it was spontaneous. In a month and a half or so, you'd feel him because of the tag the wards place on all mages." "Oh," Tom said as Coach Vanderbilt called Worthington's name. He got up and made his way over to the former Olympic wrestler, who had the new guy standing next to him. This close it was obvious how strong the guy was, and his physical looks were even better. Despite the grief he still carried for Jeremy, Worthington knew this guy was stirring his interests, at least his carnal ones. "Sinclair, this here is Norton, first name Kyle," Vanderbilt said gruffly, and the guy held out his hand while gracing Worthington with a smile that could melt hearts. "It's a pleasure to meet you." The guy said in a Texas twang that only made his voice more perfect. He could probably sing too, with a voice like that. "Likewise," Worthington said as he shook the firm grip twice and they dropped their hands. "Sinclair, Norton here says he's a decent wrestler." Vanderbilt continued. "I like wrestling, but I'm best at baseball." Kyle Norton said with that voice that was far too pleasurable for Worthington's comfort. "I'll be on this school's team, but during the off-season, I like to wrestle too. Coach here says your wrestling team did fairly well last year." "We did, but we lost one of our better wrestlers in a car accident over the summer," Vanderbilt said without looking at Worthington who flinched. "Sinclair here was his best friend." "Ah'm sorry for your loss," Kyle said with a much thicker Texas accent, and there was a flare of his magic with grief buried deep inside that almost brought tears to Worthington's eyes. The ungifted felt it too because the coach looked really sad before shaking it off. This guy was really untrained, and would quickly become a danger to everyone around him. "Thank you," Worthington said gently, wondering what was behind the grief the guy seemed to get under a rough control a moment later. Did he even realize he was a mage? "Norton, I was hoping you and Sinclair could work together this year," Vanderbilt said. "I know baseball is your main sport, but if you're good enough, we might have a shot at the championship again this year." "We'll do our best, coach," Worthington said, and the man smiled at him. "Let me get you two lockers," Vanderbilt said and looked down his clipboard, reading out locker numbers and giving them lockers that were right next to each other. "C'mon, they're over here," Worthington said to his new teammate and led the way over to their lockers, which were actually around the corner and slightly apart from the rest of the wrestlers. Worthington frowned because this was the area normally used for the baseball team players next semester, so Worthington figured that was why they were there, away from the rest of the team members. At least this was going to give him a good opportunity. "I appreciate you helping show me some tricks." Kyle Norton said with a smile as they both worked their lockers opened. "As I said, I can throw a mean curveball, but I'm not the best at wrestling. It's fun though. I like pittin' myself against another guy, knowing the best man is gonna win." "We need to talk," Worthington said flatly and ignored the slight look of fear on the guy's handsome face as Worthington closed his eyes briefly and set a warn-off ward on their section of lockers. That would keep them from being interrupted. When he opened his eyes, the guy was frowning. "That's weird," Kyle said. "It felt like something just happened…" "I just set up a warn-off to keep us from being interrupted," Worthington explained. "What?" He asked with a confused expression, and Worthington sighed while lifting his hand and forming a ball of light as green as Kyle's shirt in his hand. "Didn't you hear a voice when you got into town telling you about the Mage Council and giving you the number to call?" Worthington asked with exasperation. "Shit." Kyle's face was pasty white as he stared at the green light in Worthington's hand, and his body was shaking as his mind flared with several emotions. Worthington frowned and clamped a shield down over the guy's mind. "You need to watch that," Worthington said sharply. "Oh, Christ!" The handsome brown-haired young man groaned as he sank to the bench in front of the row of lockers, still staring at the ball of green light in Worthington's hand. "Calm down," Worthington said softly as he banished the light and sat down next to him, putting a hand on his shoulders. "My god, with a gift like yours, you must have thought you were going crazy." "You mean I'm not?" That was half-laugh, half-snort and set off a fit of coughing. "What's your name? I mean your first name." "I'm Worthington," He answered the question with a smile and a gentle squeeze of Kyle's shoulder. "To answer your next couple of questions, yes magic really does exist. That is why you've probably been feeling people's emotions, hearing their thoughts, and maybe having unexplainable things happening around you." "Oh God no," Kyle moaned, his elbows resting on his knees and his face buried in his hands as his shoulders shook with silent sobs. "I did it, didn't I?" "What?" Worthington asked. "I could go in your mind and find out, but it'd be painful for you at this point, and dangerous for me. You're going to have to tell me until I've had time to get you trained on the basics." "My parents, my little sister, I killed them." Kyle sobbed, and Worthington instinctively pulled him into a tight hug. "I'm sure it was an accident," Worthington said gently. "I've barely met you, and I know you're a good guy who wouldn't have done it on purpose. It's going to be okay now." "No, you don't understand." Kyle sobbed as his arms reached out and he tried to push Worthington away. Power slammed against the shield Worthington had placed over him, and it nearly failed, but the power dwindled. "Fuck, I almost did it again, didn't I? But you stopped me. I could feel it; something around me." "It's a shield," Worthington said softly. "What happened that has you so upset?" "I killed them," Kyle said as he sank against Worthington's chest again. "I killed them, my own blood. They're all dead because of me." "Kyle, you need to calm down," Worthington said gently. "I'm going to do something to get you through the rest of class, and then we're going to go to my house where we can talk a lot more. You're going to feel me touching your mind, feel me inside of you for a moment. It's only going to be a moment. Don't push me out. You're very strong, and frankly, I'm not in the best of shape at the moment. You could hurt me if you pushed me out without any training." "What are you going to do?" Kyle gulped nervously. "I'm going to set some basic level controls on you," Worthington said. "Until you learn to do it yourself, it's going to let me tamp down your powers, help you set up some shields, so you're not reading people's thoughts and emotions, or making them feel whatever strong emotions are going through you at the moment." "Can you just get rid of it for me?" Kyle asked in a miserable tone. "It's a curse, of the devil." "No," Worthington said softly. "I couldn't do that here, and it takes a lot of preparation to do something like that. If you still want it after we've had a chance to talk and get to know each other better, we'll talk about it and the dangers involved." "Okay," Kyle said, and Worthington nodded before carefully checking his own shields. Obviously the guy was emotionally unstable, and Worthington didn't want any of his own nightmares leaking into Kyle. They had enough problems to deal with, and while he checked his own shields, he took the purely carnal attraction he was feeling for Kyle and pushed them away. Those types of thoughts would only make this a lot more difficult. When he was ready, he slipped gently into the wild maelstrom that was Kyle's mind. Images flashed in front of him, and if what he saw and felt there were accurate, he was able to frame a reasonable impression of what had happened. Gently he wrapped some basic controls around Kyle's mind, not taking advantage of this the way a Dark mage might. Someone of this much power would be a gold mine for a Dark mage, and they would seek to establish permanent control. At one time, Worthington might have done that too, but since then he'd come to appreciate some aspects of the Light, and this was one of them. As powerful a tool Kyle might have made, he'd be more powerful of an ally, no matter what road he walked. Shields sprang up at his touch, and he was forced gently from Kyle's mind by his own creations. "There," Worthington said with a sigh as he felt a wave of dizziness come over him at the exertion of his magic. The combination of ward, shield and now this was almost too much for him in his weakened state, and he found he was leaning on Kyle instead of comforting him. "Are you okay?" Kyle actually sounded concerned. "I feel… I feel better than I have since it happened." "That's because at the moment you have a wall between yourself and people around you," Worthington said. "Coming here today was probably hell on you like you were being pushed at from all sides." "It was," Kyle said with a sigh. "Are you okay though?" "I'm still recovering from… well, I think we'll save that for later," Worthington said gently. No, telling the guy about demons right off the bat would only scare him worse. "My Aunt and Uncle expect me home right after school." He said with a frown. "My cousin Ted, well he's not the nicest of guys, and he's a bit put out with having to share his room with me, so he's not my biggest fan right now. I'm supposed to ride home with him." "Don't worry about that." Worthington smiled at him. "Let's go make sure Coach doesn't send someone looking for us, and then after class, we'll take care of your cousin and his parents." "What do you mean take care of them?" Kyle's voice was sharp and edgy. "Nothing that bad," Worthington said with a tired smile. "I'm just going to convince them that you're a good kid who doesn't need to be watched so closely as long as you get home at certain times and stuff like that." "Oh," Kyle said with a frown. "You can do that?" "Yes, I can," Worthington said. "But is it right?" Kyle asked, and Worthington laughed. "If you only knew how valid that question is right now," Worthington smiled. "Well, you will before too much longer. C'mon, let's go join the others for coach's little ‘first of the year' speech." "Okay," Kyle nodded, and they headed back over to where the rest of the team was gathered around the coach for his usual speech. Worthington recognized Ted, the cousin almost immediately and frowned at the look the guy shot the two of them. After class was over, Ted went over to his cousin and leered at him. "You better watch out, cuz." Ted sneered. "This guy's last boyfriend hasn't even been buried for more than a couple of months, and it looks like he's got his eyes set on you." "What are y'all talking about?" Kyle asked with wide eyes. "If I'd known coach was going to pair you up with him, I'd have warned you earlier." Ted sneered at Worthington. "This fag here is that fucking rich boy I told you about, the one that killed his parents just like you did. Hell, what am I thinking? You two probably fit together…" "That's enough of that Ted," Worthington said softly, exerting his mind and stopping the boy from going any further with his hateful spiel. What he saw in there confirmed some of his fleeting impressions. "What does he mean you killed your parents too?" Kyle's voice was almost inaudible, and Worthington sighed softly. "I didn't kill them," Worthington said. "That's just the rumor. Now, Ted here is going to take you home, and not say another word for a little while. I've got the address from his mind so I'll be there in about a half-hour. Wait for me, and above all try to stay calm. The controls I put in you aren't strong enough if you really get upset." "Okay," Kyle said and frowned at his cousin. "He's okay, right? I mean, whatever you did, it's not going to hurt him permanently, right?" "He'll be fine, although he's a fucking jerk," Worthington said as he remembered the incident from last school year. No, he didn't like this jerk. "Yo, boss man," Tom said as he walked up with Josh. Worthington felt a flicker of annoyance at the term. Dechaun, the twelve-year-old camper had called him that over the summer. How did Tom know about it? "What's up?" "Is everything okay?" Josh asked in a much more reserved tone, looking at Kyle. "Kyle, this is Josh Adams and Tom Reynolds, my friends," Worthington introduced them. "It's a pleasure to meet you both," Kyle said with polite manners, and then he frowned at Worthington. "Are they…" "No, they're not mages, but they know about mages and about me," Worthington said while Josh and Tom looked at him with surprise, and then looked at Ted nervously. The junior was frowning while looking at his fingernails, paying no attention to the conversation and not hearing a word. "Don't worry about Ted; he's under control at the moment. Kyle here is a very strong, and absolutely untrained mage." "Jeez, boss man, you sure do know how to find them," Tom laughed softly. "It's like they're attracted to you like a moth to the flame or something." "Or you have unusual luck," Josh said more stoically. "What are you going to do?" "I need to visit Kyle's house and take care of a few things there before he joins us at the house," Worthington said. "Maybe you should talk with Jamie first," Josh advised. "He told us you still weren't fully recovered from that fight, and we've seen the scars on you." "I can manage this," Worthington said as he felt a flash of anger and suffered a curious look from Kyle. "Fight?" Kyle asked with a slow drawl. "The boss man took out a whole nest of demons up north of here a couple of weeks ago," Tom said proudly. "He and a bunch of government guys went in there and had this big old brawl. Most of the soldiers didn't make it out alive, and neither did most of the mages that went with them, but they got the Demon Lord that was making all the fuss. I heard that it was really impressive, considering that they only had about twenty men and they faced at least three times that number of demons. My boyfriend said that wasn't even done back in the Demon Wars centuries ago." "Your boyfriend?" Kyle gasped with wide eyes. "You got a problem with that?" Tom snapped while Worthington closed his eyes briefly at the jumble of information that had come tumbling out of Tom. This was the downside to the limited nature of controls. He knew Kyle was a mage, and he knew that Ted was under control, so he could talk freely, and he did. "Um, I guess not if you're all so fine with it," Kyle said with a suspicious look. "I mean, I guess y'all are just more liberal out here, but back home, a guy like you wouldn't dream of being honest about that stuff." "Yeah, well, anyone gives me crap about it. I've got a lot of friends." Tom snapped. "Okay," Kyle said with a slight nod, and then he frowned. "Demons?" "There's a lot for us to talk about, Kyle," Worthington said with a sigh and a sharp look at Tom. "Yes, demons are as real as the magic we both possess. I was injured in the fight and still haven't fully recovered, but I am doing a lot better." "Not fully recovered," Josh snorted. "He'd have you believe it was just a scratch, but you can see the top of the scar just below his neck. It runs all the way down to his pubic hair, and you can see the scratches on his arms. There are more on his legs too. The Demon Lord gave him those to remember him by, but he gave the Demon Lord more than he could digest and it killed the bastard." "Christ on a stick, this is all a bit much," Kyle shook his head, and Worthington gave him a look of sympathy. "I was going to wait until I tried to explain a few things to you," Worthington said with a gentle smile. "Why don't you take Ted and walk him out to his car. As soon as you get there, he'll kind of wake up, and you can head home with him. We'll be by in a bit, and then you can come to our house where we can talk and start working on your training." "You said you could get rid of this…" Kyle said. "You have to get some basic training first, and then we'll look at that possibility," Worthington frowned. "For now, just work with me, please. I promise I'll do right by you." "You can trust his promises," Tom added in, and Worthington glared at him until he blushed. "Well, you can!" "Okay," Kyle agreed. "I'll see you later, then." "Tom, you need to curb your enthusiasm, and I need to tell Brandon not to tell you every god damn thing," Worthington snarled at his friend, who didn't look in the least bit repentant. "Actually, Jamie told most of the MR that stuff," Josh said with a shrug. "You got a problem with us knowing, take it up with him. We're supposed to keep an eye on you and make sure you don't overdo things before you're fully recovered." "Fine," Worthington said and then sighed. "Let's go find Jamie." "He'll be at the bikes with everyone else," Josh said. "Most of the guys are waiting, but I've got practice, and so does Tom." "Oh yeah, well you better get going," Worthington said and then smiled. "Thanks." "You're welcome, boss man," Tom said with a smile as he headed for the football area of the locker room. They were probably already late for practice but didn't seem to mind. Who was that guy? Jamie asked mentally as soon as he joined up with the MR gang as they were hanging out near their bikes. He responded to a few of them verbally while filling Jamie in on everything. Go home, get some rest. I'll head to the guy's house and take care of his relatives for you, and bring him home. I think you'll need to be the one to deal with him from what you've seen so far. It sounds like he might have killed his parents for real, and you're better equipped to help him deal with that, plus you've already formed some sort of connection. He is cute. I'm not even going there, bro. Worthington replied, knowing it was useless to argue with him about the trip to Kyle's house. You're still recovering. Jamie said firmly and then turned to say something to one of the riders, who nodded and gave Worthington a firm look. Damn it! They were supposed to be his, but they listened to his brother more than him sometimes! Even if he wanted to, he couldn't have gone off in a different direction as the riders moved around him while they rode towards the house at the top of the hill. Rob, with Colin on the back of his bike, took off up the hill, heading for Clairville. They had a lesson today with Matt Wilson and would come back down the mountain in the morning after spending the night there. When they pulled up in front of his house, the riders made a gap for him to head up to the garage that was already opening its door for him. This house was almost sentient at times, with all the wards Jamie and he had put on it over the time it was being built. They would find lights going on or off automatically as they moved through the house, and other things, like the garage door opening when they arrived home. The rest of the riders managed to park their bikes in the driveway or along the side of the street, taking off their helmets in the late afternoon heat and smiling at Worthington. "You guys are welcome to come inside, and enjoy the pool," Worthington said with a sigh. "Thanks, boss man," Jerry, the shorter Chinese veteran of the fight with the demons in the trailer park said with a smile. He had been the one impersonating Carl with Rob impersonating Jamie at the end of the fight, coming in to fool the Demon Lord into thinking that both Adepts were in the trailer park. It had also been his guns that he and Rob had used against the demons with limited success. As they entered the house, Worthington felt the wards closing around him even as the cool air greeted him after the heat of outside. They told him he had a visitor, a very welcome visitor at that, and he told Jerry to go ahead and use the changing room downstairs. All the MRs had lockers here they could use to change into swimsuits that they kept here, and Jerry led the group of riders down the stairs while Worthington stayed on the main level of the house and went into the living room where Martina was sitting and talking to Randall Smythe. His father's attorney, and soul-bound Channel as he now understood the man to be looked better than he had a week ago when Worthington had last seen him. As soon as he'd heard that Worthington was severely injured, the man had gotten on a plane and flown out here, anxious to see for himself that Worthington was alive and recovering. Since then, he had been working out of the offices at the Clairville keep. "How was your first day of school?" Randall asked as Worthington entered the room and both of the adults stood. Martina was short and plump, with close-cut iron-gray hair and a grandmotherly face. She wore a blue blouse with a beige skirt and had an apron on over everything. Randall was dressed in slacks and a white dress shirt and looked slightly less gaunt than he had a week ago. There was more color to his skin, and the white fringe around his bald head was neatly trimmed. "Not bad," Worthington replied with a smile as he shook the man's hand. "I didn't know you were coming down today." "I had some papers for your guardian to sign, and now that I'm nearby I thought it easier to have the driver bring me down instead of shipping them," Randall said with a smile. "Martina, how are you doing?" Worthington asked the older woman who was their housekeeper and cook. "Just fine, Mr. Sinclair," She smiled. "Can I bring you something to drink? Or maybe a snack? I made a good fruit compote that you might like." "That would be nice," Worthington said with a smile. The truth was he was hungry. Lately, he'd been very hungry as his body tried to recover. She smiled and left after picking up the saucer with a bit of crumbs that had been in front of Randall. "It really is a good dish," Randall said as they sat back down. "She is a surprisingly pleasant woman and didn't bat an eye at entertaining a Dark mage like me. Not that I've ever been much of a mage, per se." "Phoenix is a lot different than most other places," Worthington said with a shrug. "I know it hasn't been all that long, but the people here really are trying to learn to get along, no matter what Path a person follows." "Yes, it is quite… interesting what you've accomplished here." Randall said with a very slight frown on his face. "I'll be honest with you, Worthington. Your father would be having a fit over the techniques you've used to get where you are in one short year. But, at the same time, he'd be overjoyed at the results you have achieved. Don't get me wrong; I greatly admired your father, and still do. He was a good mage, and a good employer, as well as a close friend. Still, in all honesty, he was incapable of achieving his dreams for the Sinclair family." "I am not my father," Worthington said in a flat voice. "No, you're not," Randall laughed softly. "You are his son though, as much as you might wish to deny that. I cared a great deal for him, and in his memory, I will do what I can to assist you on this road you walk, even if he would not approve." "I would appreciate your continued help, and support," Worthington said with a very slight nod of his head. That was truth, because Randall Smythe was a good attorney, and he knew many things that would be very helpful. "Your points that I would be of more assistance here, rather than back in Ohio is also correct." Smythe continued. "In a few weeks, I will need to go back there and put things in order, as well as prepare a few things such as being admitted to the bar here in Arizona. It will be a few months before I can relocate here full time." "It will be good to have you here," Worthington said with genuine feeling. "One thing we have not discussed lately is marriage," Smythe said in an abrupt change of topic. "I have had several of the families that were closest to your father ask me if you were ready yet to look at prospective brides. I promised to broach the topic with you." "I will not be getting married," Worthington said with a frown and looked away from the man. "Are you so angry with your father that you will turn your back on all of your family's traditions?" Smythe asked in a hurt voice. "No, it's not that," Worthington said with a deep breath. "When I fought with the Demon Lord this last time, I had to use Light magic to defeat him. You know how Light magic works. It requires sacrifice, a price, from the mage wielding it." "Give me Dark anytime where someone else pays the price." Smythe snorted but then nodded at Worthington that he understood. "So, the Light made you give up marriage?" "It required that I live a life honest to my innate nature," Worthington said with a slight frown on his face. "What does that have to do with marriage?" Smythe asked with a little bit of confusion in his voice. "I'm gay," Worthington shrugged. "I don't have to announce it from the rooftops, but I also can't get married to a woman because that would be against my innate nature." "What about children?" Smythe asked. "I can have children, through artificial insemination or other means," Worthington said with a shrug. "It just means that I cannot live a life that is a lie, basically." "You'd be better sticking to Dark magic," Smythe said with a shrug and a sigh. "Ah, well what's done is done. We will deal with that as we may." "Yes, we will," Worthington agreed as Martina returned with a plate of the fruit compote and bottled water for him. As he ate, Smythe began to update him on the status of different family-owned companies and asking his opinions on things. It was actually a decent conversation until Jamie came in with a murderous look on his face. Kyle was following behind him, frowning a little and Worthington looked up in surprise. I want to kill our meddling Uncle! Jamie snarled mentally, and Worthington put the saucer down with the last bit of fruit on it and waited for the bombshell that his brother was about to drop.
  4. Worthington jerked awake with a muffled yell and sat up in his bed, breathing heavily, trying to calm his rapid breathing. His new room in Jamie's house, next door to the one Jamie had grown up in was still dark, and the lights of Phoenix twinkled in the early morning darkness outside the large bay windows. With a sigh, Worthington threw off the light covers and got out of the large, king-size bed and stretched, doing his best to push aside the memories of the nightmare that had woken him once again. He was not lying on the burned ground where the demons had attempted to create a doorway to their plane of existence. That had been just over two weeks ago, and unlike his nightmare, Jamie had arrived in time, before the wounds he'd taken in the fight had killed him. His brother had rented a helicopter and flown up to the Northern Arizona valley with every Healer he could get his hands on, and unlike the dream had made it in time to save Worthington's life from the wounds, and infections caused by the claws of the Demon Lord. Zaroc was dead, gone forever, and his poison had been leeched from Worthington's body by a team of powerful, competent healers. They had done their best, saving the lives of not only Worthington but also all the mercenary soldiers that had been wounded in that fight. Yes, most of the remaining demon summoning mages had escaped, but that battle was still a victory, even if it had left its permanent mark on Worthington's body, and his mind. Worthington padded across the soft, luxurious carpet of his new room, which really looked a lot like the room he'd had in Stacy and Elizabeth's house, except it was slightly larger, and pulled a pair of dark blue Speedos out of the drawer. His legs were still a little weak after the ordeal he'd been through, and after donning the swimwear while carefully not looking at his body, he left his room and walked out of the quiet house, down the trail that connected it to the back patio of his Aunt's home, and slid into the silky warm waters of the swimming pool. It was still warm outside, with summer keeping its last grip on the Phoenix area before fall and winter moderated the temperatures. Lisa, the physical therapist and healer that was working with him on his recovery had recommended swimming for a half-hour every morning and evening to help him regain his strength, and he did just that in the pre-dawn stillness. By the time he finished his half-hour of swimming laps, his muscles were tired, but in a good way, and his mind was much calmer now. He got out of the pool and laid out on one of the reclining pool chairs that were spread around the patio deck. In the last week, he'd come to enjoy this hour of the day, watching the stillness of the pre-dawn morning shift into the new day, watching the twinkling lights of the city being replaced by the light of the sun as it rose above the mountains to the east. There was something refreshing, a renewal of sorts to the process that gave him the strength to meet each new day despite the nightmares that always seemed to wake him. "How was your swim?" Stacy's voice pulled him out his light trance and Worthington smiled up at his Aunt's partner who was wearing a one-piece bathing suit of her own. He had been interested to discover that she enjoyed an early morning swim almost every day. That was something he'd not known before. "Good," Worthington said with a sigh as he turned back to watch the morning bustle of the city below him. It was like he could feel the people waking, going about their morning routines and starting their new day. "The water's perfect." "I love it around this time of the year," Stacy said gently as she moved to stand beside Worthington and examined him. "They'll never completely fade, but they're less noticeable now." "Yes," Worthington agreed while resisting the urge to frown. He did close his eyes and admit that the scars were much paler. She was right, they would never completely go away, but they were no longer the angry red, or even the pasty white color that they had been three days ago. The biggest scar was nearly an inch wide and ran from just below his neck to the top of his pubic hair. That was where Zaroc's claw had torn open the dwarven armor he had been wearing. Two more scars ran from the top of his shoulders down the outside of his arms to his wrists, and two more scars ran down the front of his legs, from his upper thighs to his ankles. Those cuts had been massively infected by the time Jamie had arrived with the healers, and it was a near-miracle that he'd lived at all. Only eight of the eighteen mercenary soldiers had walked away from the battle alive, and two of them were so severely injured that they were now considered permanently disabled despite the best work of the healers. Of the other mages that had gone into the fight, only Michael Lowenthal and Brandon Meyers had survived. Brandon had suffered nearly as much as Worthington in the days that followed the fight, but was recovering faster now, mostly because the majority of his problems had related to pure physical and magical exhaustion. Brandon had achieved near-miracles with how much power he'd provided to Worthington during that fight. He'd been able to leech, and clean, power from the damaged countryside in a way that mages who understood how Channels worked thought to be impossible. Matt Wilson had flat out said it should have been impossible, and wanted to work with Brandon to see if they could duplicate what he'd done. "Are you still having the dreams?" Stacy asked. "Yes," Worthington frowned as his Aunt's partner interrupted his thoughts. "You still don't want to take the pills Barrett prescribed?" She asked. He'd seen the Mind Healer/Psychotherapist twice now after his battle with the demons. "No," Worthington said flatly. The idea of taking pills wasn't one he liked at all, especially not when dealing with problems of the mind. "I need to work through them, not pretend they don't exist." "Okay," Stacy said calmly. "Well, I'm going to get my laps done. You have a good morning, Worthington." "Thanks, you too," Worthington sighed as she moved away. While she was swimming he stood up, having mostly dried off in the warm morning air, and walked back up the pathway towards the house he now lived in during the week. It wasn't Clairville Keep, but he did like living there better than he'd liked the room in Stacy and Elizabeth's home. That was because this was his home as much as it was Jamie's, and he felt like he belonged there as he walked inside and went back to his room for his morning shower. After washing off the chlorine from his body, and applying the skin moisturizers he used to minimize the damage of the sun, brushed his teeth, shaved yet again, and put on his deodorant, he went out into his bedroom and looked in his closet. Given a choice, he would wear the clothing made by the dwarves that also served as armor. It was light, flexible, cool to wear, and most importantly it protected him. The only thing was, today was the first day of school and he would look distinctly out of place in long-sleeve skin-tight shirt and leather riding pants. Well, actually he could get away with the pants since they were all riding their bikes into school today. With a sigh he selected the light green short-sleeved dwarven-made shirt of the material they called ‘woven metal'. Jamie had ordered, and paid for several sets for himself, and for Worthington. They were all in brighter colors than the normal shirts Worthington wore, and were short-sleeved, meaning they would not look nearly so out of place at school. Granted, they were skin tight, and showed off his body, but they failed to hide the scars on his arms, and that made him slightly uncomfortable. You could also see the top of the scar on his chest just above the neckline of the shirt, and he spent several minutes in front of a mirror trying to adjust the shirt to make it less noticeable. He gave up and decided to head upstairs. The house was furnished in a very modern style, with comfortable, low furniture, and just about every electronic toy imaginable. In the large stainless steel refrigerator he found the platter of food their full-time cook and housemaid had left for breakfast. She didn't come in until around ten in the morning, but usually left food they could warm up easily for breakfast. Martina was a gem of a woman he thought as he heated up some of the potato pancakes and began to eat them heartily. She was from an old Light family in the Czech Republic and had immigrated to the country thirty years ago. Not only was she a good cook, and kept the house in good condition, but she was full of stories of the old world. Like many other mages from around the country, word of the demon attacks had scared her, and she had moved to the Phoenix area hoping to find some form of safety here. That was another problem brewing on the front burner lately, but it was also a problem that he wasn't directly involved with solving anymore. After the battle in Northern Arizona, Jamie had flat out told him not to worry about the Mage's Council for the Valley of the Sun. They were supposed to trade off from year to year in leading it, but Jamie had declared that he was assuming Worthington's place as head of the council, and no one had objected. Frankly, Worthington knew he had enough on his plate with recovering, and dealing with the other ramifications to the demon battle. Jamie was more than welcome to the headaches of dealing with the arrival of at least one new mage family per day, on average, and the ever-increasing role that the Mage's Council was performing. Three full-time staff people now worked in the council's downtown office, handling everything from briefing new arrivals to helping them find living accommodations, jobs, introducing them to other members of the community, and in several cases helping them find counseling after several close calls with demons. Most of the people were Light path mages, but a healthy percentage was proving to be Dark path as well. Even more surprising was the effect on people who did not know they were mages before they passed through Phoenix. Now that was an amusing side effect that no one had thought to consider happening. Along all the freeways in and out of the greater Phoenix area, and in all the airports in the area, the Mage's Council had placed warning wards that notified newly arriving mages of the Mage's Council, giving them the phone number and warning them that anyone staying longer than two cycles of the moon was expected to call that number. The main purpose was to notify and track all people who stayed longer than that in the area, and was part of their integrated defensive strategy. While they had gotten several complaints, mostly from Dark mages passing through, the system had proved to be surprisingly popular and had spread the word about what they were doing. It was part of the reason why their community was growing bigger everyday, and it was even reaching people who didn't know they were mages, or that there was even a mage community. For centuries, the mage community had always stayed hidden for its own protection, and only mages born to mage families had the benefit of knowing their history. Tradition forbade writing anything down about magic, and so every year there were mages born who did not know about magic. Most never consciously worked magic, attributing their occasional flashes of insight into the thoughts of others as fanciful thinking, or narrow scrapes with death or serious injury as ‘miraculous luck'. Five people had thought they were going insane when they heard the messages as they arrived in Phoenix (Three, all in one family, had driven past a ward, while two more had flown into the airport on vacation, or just passing through on layovers). The family of three, who had been on their way to a vacation in Los Angeles had ended up staying the entire time in Phoenix, learning about magic, and were now planning to move there. Their nine-year-old son was showing quite a bit of potential, even at an early age, and neither of the parents was exactly weak as mages. The other two mages, one of whom was an airline pilot in his fifties and only of marginal capabilities, were spending as much time in the area as they could, learning more about magic and their magical heritage. The pilot was bringing his wife and kids on a ‘vacation' to see if they could hear the wards as well, and if they could he was planning to have them move into the area. That was leading to an issue that Worthington had to admit Jamie was better at handling than he could have been. In just the last six weeks, the mage population of the Valley of the Sun, which included Phoenix and all its suburbs, had now tripled. If current trends kept up, that number would double again before the end of the year. The New Demon War. That was what people were calling it, and in the shitstorm that had been kicked up after Worthington's battle, the fallout was still not clear. Some things were clear. Many Dark families were fleeing the country, packing up their homes, and their children, and taking off for Europe and points beyond. Those that couldn't afford to do this were looking for ways to band together, and the Valley of the Sun was a popular destination despite what many saw as its drawbacks. First was the fact that for the first time in centuries there was a form of self-government established by mages. The Mage's Council had been formed for protection, but it was quickly becoming more than that in the needs of the moment, with what were in effect refugees flooding into the area. With its preponderance of Light mages, and with Jamie taking over the leadership, people trusted in it a lot more than any of them had expected despite the second fact that it was becoming much more widely known. For the first time in even longer than the last mage government, a mundane government not only knew about magic, but also had made some attempt at regulating magic and mages. In the last few months that program had been severely damaged by battles with demons, but the mundane leaders still knew about magic, and still feared what mages could do without some type of monitoring. They feared demons more than magic though, and for now that was providing Worthington and other leaders of the mage community with a powerful bargaining chip. The government knew, and more importantly believed, that demons posed a great threat to the current order of life for their people, and wanted the threat from demons eliminated. They also knew, thanks to testimony from the surviving mercenary soldiers, and the sole surviving government mage from the last battle, that without mages and the help of magical beings like Dwarves, they could not hope to fight demons even with all their armies. That gave the mage community some bargaining power, and by unspoken consensus Worthington was picked as the lead spokesman for mages despite his young age. His actions in the Northern Arizona battle, and before, had earned some respect from those assigned to deal with mages, and while they did not trust him as much as the now-dead mages that had led their research and regulatory efforts, they did trust him more than most other ‘wild' mages. For now they were listening to him, and that was going to have to be enough in the long run. "You're up early." Brandon's voice was soft as he came into the kitchen and smiled at Worthington who was finishing up the last of his breakfast before taking a sip of orange juice. "Did you have the nightmare again?" "What do you think?" Worthington asked more sharply than he intended, and Brandon shrugged at him as he took down a small plate from the cabinets and heaped several of the potato pancakes on them before placing it into the microwave. Then he turned around, leaned back against the counter and gave Worthington a glare. "Don't blame me you're having nightmares, and I'm not," Brandon said crisply. "Why aren't you?" Worthington asked with a sigh. "It's because demons are your thing to worry about," Brandon said with a sigh of his own and smiled ever so slightly. "All I have to worry about is getting in better shape, so I don't hold you back next time, getting better at providing you with power, and how to keep Tom's eyes from wandering to one of those skanky hoes that will be chasing him when he's wearing his football uniform." "You got him to fuck you while he's wearing it yet?" Worthington asked, seizing the opportunity to change the subject. "Just in his practice uniform," Brandon smiled dreamily. "His game uniform hasn't been issued yet, but he's promised and I'll hold him to that. He looks fucking hot in that thing." "Doesn't it… scratch?" Worthington asked. "I mean, all that gear, the shoulders pads and stuff, doesn't it get in the way?" "No." Brandon laughed as the microwave chimed and he pulled out his own food while going to the coffee machine and turning it on. Worthington sighed at the thought of coffee, but the Healers banned him from caffeine for another week. "We get around that, and it feels kind of sexy when his uniform grinds against my bare skin, and he gets really aggressive. It's kind of fun. He's finally realized I want him to fuck me like a real man, and none of that other sappy bullshit he was trying to do earlier, and he's happier without having to pretend to be mushy and all that crap. That's how I'll keep those girls away from him. They always want flowers, chocolates, the guy remembering their birthday and their two-and-a-half-week anniversary. I want his dick in me, pounding me, and maybe a little fun and games. That's it, and he's at his best when he's doing just that." "Hopefully that's all he wants." Worthington laughed. "Oh god no, I spoil him with everything else." Brandon chuckled around a bite of food as well. "Just last week was his parents' anniversary, so I made sure he had a card and a gift for them, even though he doesn't really like them all that much. All he had to do was give the stuff to them and they were so happy he had no problem coming over and spending all night with me. That's when he wore his uniform for me." "Ah, glad you're having so much fun." Worthington smiled, and he really meant those words. "I really do appreciate this, you know," Brandon said as he poured himself a cup of coffee. "When I agreed to be soul-bound to you, I knew what I was getting into, but what you've made it this last year, well I never expected to be so happy." "How can you say that?" Worthington frowned. "You almost died two weeks ago. We know that wasn't the end of this fight. There's at least one more Demon Lord out there, if not more, and there's still all those demon summoning mages that got away. We won a battle, not the war. You do understand we'll have to fight again, and next time we may not win?" "That's a chance." Brandon shrugged as he sipped his coffee. "Still, you're damn good at this war stuff, and well, we did win, didn't we? We're still here, and I'm still at your side, having fun. I know you'll do what you can to protect me, and well that's enough for me." "What if I can't?" Worthington asked and let the self-doubt bubble up to the front. He wasn't used to feeling this, and it just made him all the more scared. Brandon's laugh didn't help matters much. "Then we're all screwed." Brandon shrugged it off as if it was nothing. "I'm not worried about that, and neither is anyone else I know. You're a natural at this Worthington, and we couldn't hope for a better leader in a situation like this. If it can be done, you'll win and send the demons packing." "And you wonder why I have nightmares," Worthington muttered and there was a sympathetic look on Brandon's face. "You're not a god or anything like that." Brandon said softly. "I know that, and so does everyone else. The thing is, we're as scared as anyone else, but we have to have faith in something and you're a pretty safe place to put that faith. It's even easier for me, because my soul is bound to you. You will always be there for me, even after death. Look at Randall and how well you take care of him. He was bound to your father, who is gone, but still belongs with his soul-binder's family. I'll mourn if you die tomorrow, just like he mourned your father, but I know Jamie will make sure I'm taken care of and that's enough for me." "Fine," Worthington said sourly, but he was feeling a little more relaxed instead of all worked up. This was the longest conversation he'd had with Brandon in a long time, and the dark-haired young man smiled at him gently. "You're welcome." Brandon said before taking a rather big bite of the food. Worthington waved to him one more time as he went back downstairs to his bedroom. He had far more e-mails on his computer than he had expected, mostly because he hadn't checked for the last day and a half, and began to make his way through them while he waited for the morning hours to pass until it was time to go to school. The first email he replied to came from Allan Weatherby, the former Marine officer who had led the government's mercenary troops in the battle. It was good news, for a change, and Worthington smiled as he typed out a brief reply to the man. Next up came several emails from members of Mike's Riders, forwarding him the latest bit of gossip that was hitting the various email lists of students at their high school. Those left him feeling sour again, and so he moved on to the joke emails that Jamie had forwarded him. Now those left him with a smile on his face, as did the two pictures of cute guys Jamie had seen while riding his bike yesterday. His brother was bound and determined to make him get over his obsession with the government mage, Michael Lowenthal. Thinking of Lowenthal made him frown again, and he moved on to the emails that he was dreading. The Huntington woman's official email address meant more questions from the government, and he hated seeing anything about magic put into writing, much less in a government email that was supposedly saved and archived, even if it was considered ‘classified' information. Mage society was changing, and he knew that better than most mages. That still didn't mean that all of it had to change, or that traditions were still not valid or important. The tradition of not putting magic into writing was one he still felt strongly about, and wanted to continue. "Hey bro." Jamie's voice interrupted him an hour later after he'd finished typing out long replies to Huntington's email, couched in the vaguest terms possible, or sounding like a theoretical discussion of demon-worshipping cultists. Jamie was dressed like him, but in a dark yellow skin-tight dwarven short-sleeve shirt, and brown leather pants. Naturally he didn't have any of Worthington's scars, or people would have a difficult time telling them apart still. "Yo, what's up?" Worthington smiled at him, partaking in some ‘low-brow' style speech that Jamie teased him about from time to time. "Everyone should be here in about ten minutes." Jamie smiled. "You going to warm up your bike before they get here?" "I might as well." Worthington sighed as he grabbed his backpack, put it on and grabbed his keys on the way out the door. Jamie had his backpack by the door, and put it on as they walked up the stairs. "You sure you're up to the ride?" Jamie asked with concern when Worthington paused to let the wave of dizziness pass at the top of the stairs. "Yes," Worthington said firmly, and Jamie sighed. "You don't have to do this," Jamie suggested firmly. "I know." Worthington tried to sound strong and reassuring. "Damn it Worthington, don't kill yourself now over something this stupid," Jamie growled as he touched his brother. "I'll be fine." Worthington insisted as he drew a deep breath. "It's just the after-effects of draining myself as badly as I did, not the physical things." "You nearly died." Jamie growled softly with a look of concern. "If you die because you get back on your bike too soon you'll do none of us any good." "I won't." Worthington promised him as he set off with determination for the garage. This garage was as big as the one at the other house, but held a section just for the four bikes that were parked there. Rob and Brandon already had the door open and were wheeling their bikes out. The other spots in the garage held Worthington's seldom-used BMW sports coupe, Jamie's Prius, and Rob's Cadillac. Brandon's Ninja was all he needed to get around. "I do love these paint jobs." Jamie murmured as he and Worthington wheeled their identical, custom-made Ducati bikes out of the garage. The dwarf assigned to ‘care' for their ‘metal beasts' had taken it into his head to repaint all of their bikes, including all members of the MR. Worthington had to admit that the new paint job, a dark gray with sparkles of light in it, matched with an almost metallic orange was strangely appealing, along with the MR logo that the gang itself had chosen several months ago. They'd no more than wheeled their bikes out and started them when Colin came running outside, his light red hair now cut in a crew cut style along with everyone else's and frowning. "Did you guys forget me?" He demanded with a frown as Carl came out behind him. "If they forgot you, they forgot me too," Carl said with a slight smirk on his face. His blond hair was much longer than anyone else's and he'd flat out refused the crew cut at Saturday's party for the MR gang. "Colin you're riding with Rob." Worthington said with a nod towards the large blond with a square face. Rob nodded for his part but remained quiet like he had been doing a lot lately. He wasn't exactly excited about going back to school for his senior year, or about transferring to the same school as Worthington, but accepted it nonetheless. Given an option, he'd spend all his time up at Clairville with his half-elven lover. "As for you, you little pest, you're with me." Jamie mock-growled at Carl who laughed as he grabbed his helmet off the shelf and bounced outside, his backpack already in place. The sounds of more motorcycles approaching came up the street and Worthington took another deep breath as twenty sports bikes of various types and sizes came into view. The MR had grown with its acceptance party two days ago and now numbered an even twenty, not including the riders that lived with Jamie. All of the twenty were mundanes, not gifted with magical abilities. Most of that twenty were juniors in high school this year, and there were now several Alumni members who were attending college or had moved elsewhere towards the end of summer. The leader pulled up on his brand new Ducati, a gift from Worthington and painted like all the bikes with the same dark gray and metallic orange colors that struck such a contrast. Most oranges were either too garish or too dull, but this one was just right, warm and yet lively against the darker gray color. As Josh pulled off his helmet and ran a hand across his crew-cut dark red hair, he smiled at Worthington. Despite the system for selecting this year's leader that Worthington and Barry had developed, it was the riders of MR that decided they wanted something more. The ‘compromise' had proven to be popular. Worthington and Barry suggested three people for the job of leader, and those three raced. At the end of the race, the winner was acclaimed leader, and the MR partied as they celebrated, and welcomed their newest members. The final test for new riders to join the MR was their acceptance of magic, and the need for the controls that Worthington would place on them. A member of MR was normally a mundane, but they knew about magic and were well paid for their roles in the defense of the Valley from outside intrusion. Every night five or six riders would ride their bikes in pre-designated patrol routes until midnight. They had to be free to remember magic to make effective patrollers, but they also had to accept some controls. This year, the first for the official MR as a group, two candidates had not passed, and been sent on their way with their memory wiped and a reasonable explanation of personality clashes on why they had chosen to not join the MR (it having been decided that by thinking it was their choice the event would create less harsh feelings). "Looking good there, Mike." Josh said with a smile as Worthington went to bump gloved fists with him. The redhead was tall, with massive shoulders and played on the school's football team. He'd won the race, and was the leader of the MR for this year. After hearing the suggestion, and seeing the result, Worthington had known it was a better way of selecting the MR leader. "So are you, Josh," Worthington replied without blinking an eye. Michael was his middle name, and most of the MR, and people at the high school had first met him while he was still using that name. It had stuck with him, and he didn't mind that these people still used it almost exclusively. "I see you recovered from yesterday's hangover." "Yeah, it was a bitch," Josh laughed, along with some of the other riders. Several riders were revving their bikes now. "You ready to ride?" "Yup, let's get to school," Worthington replied, putting his helmet on and snapping the buckle closed as he reached for his bike. It was a little tough with his gloves already on, but they were thin racing gloves so it wasn't too bad. MR wanted to make a grand entrance to the school this year, and they did manage just that as twenty-four bikes rolled into the school's student parking lot as a group. Worthington parked his bike in the middle of the section they'd chosen, and let out a small sigh. It was good to be back on his bike after two weeks. Feeling the rush of freedom, the power between his legs from the 1,200cc engine, all had reminded him of how much he enjoyed riding motorcycles. They walked into the halls of the relatively new school in a loud, boisterous group, all with fresh crew cuts, all wearing leather pants although nearly half of them looked brand new and still fairly stiff, and all wearing short sleeve shirts of different colors. Worthington blessed whatever had made him wear the same sort of outfit, and wondered if maybe Jamie had planned this all along. Only a third of the existing members of MR had worn leather riding pants, with their distinctive knee pads (for protecting knee caps from the asphalt during tight, fast turns) to the party on Saturday. Certainly, Josh and Tom had worn them, along with their dwarf-made tight-knit shirts that were also partial armor. The material the dwarves used for those shirts, and the similar shirts and under pants worn by the mercenary soldiers during the battle were slightly different than the ‘woven metal' gear Worthington wore. His gear was only allowed to be worn by people considered to have ‘royal blood', which the dwarves considered him as possessing. These other shirts and gear were some type of reinforced material, not actual metal woven together like cloth and layered with dwarven magic. "I'll see you guys later," Worthington said to Josh as they neared the offices where the guidance counselors were. Elizabeth had said his guidance counselor wanted to talk with him before school. Josh nodded, and several of the senior members of the group called out acknowledgements as he left the group. He was surprised at the way Tom was walking with his arm possessively around Brandon's shoulders. None of the group seemed upset or uncomfortable with the display of affection. In fact, as Worthington watched the group head further down the hall, he saw two other ‘couples' either holding hands, or walking with their arms around each other's waists. "Now that's something you don't see every day," Mrs. Warren, Worthington's guidance counselor, said from behind him, and he turned quickly to look at her with wide eyes. "What's that?" He said nervously. "I'm not sure what the Principal is going to do." She said with a rueful tone and a shake of her head as she switched her briefcase to her left hand and opened the door to the guidance offices. Worthington followed her past the reception counter into the small room that was her office. "What he's going to do about what?" Worthington asked. "Oh, about this gang I've been hearing about." She said with a smile and a shake of her head. "People tell me they're lead by this really bad kid that's killed his parents, and supposedly a bunch of other people, who the police say was involved somehow with the government and the terrorist incident earlier in the year, and some of the kids in school, and faculty for that matter are actually afraid of him now." "You've got to be joking," Worthington said with wide eyes. "I don't even know where to begin." "Don't bother." She laughed lightly. "You have the bad luck of having your family killed in a freak accident a year ago, coming to public school after being in private schools all your life, and then having someone start spreading malicious rumors based on the flimsiest of coincidences. Add to that you're a very attractive young man, a very rich one too, and you are going to be a natural magnet for rumors. Those young men you associate with don't help matters much. I don't think there's an ugly one in the bunch." "No, there's not," Worthington admitted with a slight smile. "I just wanted let you know the rumors have reached the faculty, although most of them have the intelligence to pay them little attention." She continued. "Also, your guardian told me about your decision regarding wrestling. I talked with Coach Vanderbilt, and he urged me to not change your schedule just yet. He seems to believe that you will be on the wrestling team after all." "No," Worthington said sharply, trying and failing not to see Jeremy's bloody face after the car accident that had killed him. "You and Jeremy were good friends, weren't you?" She said sympathetically. "Yes," Worthington admitted sadly. "I think you'll need to talk to the Coach yourself, but Michael, don't give up wrestling just because it reminds you of him," She advised softly, with a concerned expression on her face. "Instead, you should let it remind you of him in a good way." "That's similar to what Elizabeth said," Worthington admitted sourly. It was also what his counselor, Barrett de Long had advised. "You should listen to her." Mrs. Warren advised. "That was all I wanted to talk to you about, but I think it would be good to remind you I'm always here if you need someone to talk to at anytime." "Thank you," Worthington said as he stood up. "Oh, and Michael, one more thing," She said. "It's your senior year, you really should try to enjoy it as much as possible. It'll never come again." "I will, and thank you," Worthington said with a smile.
  5. "We've got three hours until the end of the first phase, Sinclair." Weatherby's voice held a hint of reproach to it, and Worthington sighed as he opened his eyes. One hour of sleep just wasn't enough. The sun would be coming up in about two hours, but the new day wasn't promising to be a good one. "Give me just a moment," Worthington said as he reached into his backpack and pulled out an MRE. "Has everyone else eaten?" "Yes," Weatherby said tightly, anxious to be off. Around them the fourteen surviving soldiers crouched or stood in a protective circle, watching for any movement in the pre-dawn stillness. It had taken just under an hour to locate the rest of the soldiers still alive and to put them to sleep. It had taken the same amount of time to break the controls holding their mind hostage, and then Worthington had slept, trying to regain back some of the strength he'd spent. One soldier Weatherby had shot after Worthington's last sleep spell didn't work on the man. The others were last seen being carried off by demons, including the hapless Erikson. As for the other soldiers, they were just glad to be alive and in control of their own minds again. None of them particularly looked forward to what they were going to do next, but not one of them suggested anything else when Weatherby had told them what they were going to do. "Sorry, I'm taking so long, Weatherby," Worthington said after a moment. "I just need to get my strength back up before we do this. There's no way we can let the demons complete this ceremony. If they get a foothold in this world… well, let's just say anyone with family within five hundred miles would be better off dead." "I figured that one out for myself, Sinclair," Weatherby said, but he too was watching the men, seeing the looks of determination flitter across their faces. Each of them had been soldiers in different branches of the United States military, and while they were now ‘civilian contractors' working for the federal government, they still often thought of themselves as soldiers in a different type of war. They were still defending their country and their loved ones from evil in the world. This evil was just a bit more… evil. "Okay, let's get a move on," Worthington said as he finished the MRE and stuffed the empty container back into his backpack before tying it closed and tossing it into the branches of the tree nearest him. Most of the group's gear had been stowed that way, except for a canteen of water, their weapons, and a few other small items. Brandon fell in behind Worthington as they took off at a slow trot. Hopefully, Brandon would be able to keep up this pace, and if he couldn't, someone would carry him. It was five miles, in forest terrain, and uphill. Covering that distance in three hours would normally not be too much of a problem for soldiers, but they had been in the field for about two days now, moving almost all day. Worthington had the most sleep of any of them now with his little power nap, and he'd only had a handful of hours with his eyes closed in the last day. Added to the problem was the fact that there were demons loose in the countryside, and mages controlled by demons on top of that. They skimmed the summit of the ridge easily but slowed down as they ran across demon prints in the forest floor. The howls of grass, demon dogs, shook the night and Worthington cursed as they grew closer. Their only reprieve was that while their dwarf-made guns were powerful, they were not overly loud as they spit out bullets that chewed up all six of the big, strong demon animals, and the two orange-skinned demons behind them. "Well, that does it for sure." Worthington murmured as they moved past the carcasses. The demons would know they were out here for sure now, and soon enough they could make out the figures of demons and more creatures streaming over the ridge as a mage shield went up at the same time. He recognized the signature of power behind the shield and closed his eyes briefly. "Do we press on?" Weatherby asked. "Yes, and we shoot anything that moves at this point," Worthington replied with a pointed look, and the former officer nodded before issuing orders to his men. They moved now more in a loose diamond formation than as a column, with Worthington and Brandon in the center of the formation. The grasist hit them first, snarling as they leaped ahead of the demons rushing towards them. With the discipline of their training, the soldiers waited until the creatures were well within range and line of sight, firing in short, controlled bursts that still tore the things apart. The demons behind them launched their own attack, and Worthington raised a shield over the group in response, blocking the worst of the attacks. What he didn't count on were the humans mixed in with the demons. These fired guns of their own. Their weapons weren't military style, but hit his shield and tore through it after it had already been weakened by the demon attacks. Two soldiers fell backward after bullets hit them in the chest, and five demons lived long enough to pour into their ranks through that hole. One of the soldiers who had been shot got to his feet just in time to find himself face to face with an orange-skin demon that snarled as its claws ripped the man's uniform from crotch to sternum. The man flew backward as Francis managed to get a burst off, hitting the demon in the arm. It snarled as it turned and another soldier fired a burst that blew its head apart. Two more soldiers were slashed by demons before their fellows shot the demons, and three soldiers threw grenades at the humans that were still firing at them. As quickly as it began, the firefight was over, and soldiers rushed to the aid of their wounded comrades. Worthington hastily rebuilt his shield, knowing the summoners of these demons would know of their deaths and summon more to take their places. That was one of the problems facing demons. Until you killed their summoners, there were always more to take their place. It would be worse if the ceremony was completed on the other side of the hill because then demons could cross over freely, and there would be a never-ending wave of them. "Jenkins, you stay with Paulson and Miller," Weatherby said as they figured out that two of the soldiers who had been clawed by demons were in no condition to continue onwards. All of the soldiers had dwarven armor on under their uniforms, and that had saved the lives of all of them. Paulson was one who had been shot and then clawed, his weakened armor breaking in two areas where demon claws drew blood. Still, the wounds were not fatal and, if they survived the morning, would be treatable. Three more soldiers had torn uniforms, but their armor had held and saved their lives. "I think I'm going to kiss the dwarves who made this stuff." Collins could be heard whispering as they reformed ranks and began to move onwards. When they reached the crest of the small hill, they flattened to the ground, and Worthington crawled forward with Weatherby to take a look. "What do you think?" Weatherby asked as he handed the binoculars to Worthington. There in the center of the valley was the bonfire being used to make the sacrificial killings. Worthington counted less than ten frightened, huddled humans left alive near the base of the fire, and he bit back any reaction to the sight of two more being thrown by the Demon Lord onto the fire. Each death was bringing the clouds above them closer to pure black, and the valley itself radiated so much heat that it felt like the late afternoon in Phoenix more than the cool mountains. "We're in trouble," Worthington commented as he moved the binoculars closer, to look at a spot about halfway up the valley floor from where the bonfire raged. There stood Michael Lowenthal, Marcus de la Plane, and nearly a dozen mages he didn't know. A dozen mages were surrounded by the eerie glow of dull red light that meant they were summoning demons, and each of them stood next to a circle inscribed with the blood necessary to create a portal between planes. Even as he watched the air above the circles shimmered, and more than a dozen orange-skinned demons appeared, along with six more grasists. The demons didn't immediately take off up the hill though. Rather they turned to the two mages not summoning demons, and Worthington felt his stomach roll queasily as Marcus and Lowenthal cast strong shields around the demons. "What are they doing?" Weatherby asked. "They're shielding the demons from bullets," Worthington answered grimly. "Can't the demons do that themselves?" Weatherby asked nervously. "Yes, but this way they're not using their own power to do it," Worthington answered and began to slide back down the hill. "We're going to have to use multiple bursts on each demon this time. In fact, we might want to start using full auto mode." "We don't have that much ammunition," Weatherby noted as they rejoined the formation of troops a dozen feet down the side of the hill. "Most of us only have two or three magazines left as it is." "Then we have to take out twelve demon-summoning mages and the other two all at the same time." Worthington murmured and thought about the situation quickly. "How much longer before they complete phase one?" Weatherby asked. "Not more than ten minutes at most the way those flames are consuming the people," Worthington answered after a moment of thought. The first grasist appeared at the top of the hill, and a soldier opened fire, killing it with one burst. It was replaced by five more, and the first of the orange-skins at the same time. The demons staggered back from several hits, but their shields held until they were halfway down the hill. Already they were being replaced by more demons, and Worthington shouldered his own weapon, adding his fire to the mix. None of this round of demons broke their line. "Ammo check!" Weatherby called out as the last demon collapsed to the ground. The numbers that were called out as Worthington extended his mage senses and felt the stirrings of power were not encouraging. He checked his own ammunition which was slightly better than most and added his answer. The officer frowned at the last report and moved to stand closer to Worthington so they could talk without being overheard. "Just a moment." Worthington murmured as he concentrated on something. "We can take two, maybe three more of those before we're out." Weatherby murmured just as quietly. "I know." Worthington snapped at the man and sighed. "We only have to take one more at this position, and then we're going to move forward." "Why?" Weatherby asked. "You can't see it, but that right there is what will win this for us," Worthington said with a nod over the hill. "It takes exactly four minutes and thirty seconds for them to summon another group of demons. Then Marcus and Lowenthal are putting the shields on them, and while they're doing that, the shield over that part of the valley weakens. Lowenthal strengthens it once he's done, but while he's shielding demons, its weakest, and each time he gets a little bit weaker from the power he's using. As soon as they start shielding demons next time, we charge over the hill. You and the men concentrate on taking out the demons. I'll start hitting the summoners. We save Marcus and Lowenthal for last, in case there's any hope for breaking the controls on them. Here they come." "We got another group coming at us!" Weatherby said in a louder voice to the men. "I want controlled bursts, conserve ammunition but do not let them close with us! As soon as the last one falls, be ready to move out, over the hill." This time it was eight grasist that came over the hill first, and the demons were right on their heels. The orange-skins were being led by an Oska that stopped at the top of the hill and began to rain down bolts of power on the formation of soldiers. Worthington was forced to let the rifle dangle on its strap while he simultaneously strengthened his own shields and struck back at the demon with blasts of his own. Behind him, Brandon groaned with the amount of power being pulled out of him, and at the effort of trying to replace it from the desecrated land around them. This fight was neither brief nor as clean as the previous wave. The grasist were eliminated but not before they were almost to the formation of soldiers. The orange-skins were right behind them, blasting with power of their own and then they were among the soldiers. Dwarven armor already stressed broke under this assault and Worthington switched back to his rifle as the green-skinned Oska gave up the power battle and charged downhill to join the melee. Worthington switched to single-shot and began to pump out single rounds into demons as a clear shot presented itself. Twice he had to wait for the demons to finish disemboweling a soldier before he could get a clear shot. All around him the soldiers were using their weapons as clubs as much as guns. At least they were sturdy, dwarven made weapons and withheld the punishment being delivered. Demon claws bounced off of them as much as they did dwarven armor. "Check the wounded!" Weatherby called as the Oska fell to a bullet fired by Collins. There was confusion for a few minutes as the officer triaged his men, and spread out the ammunition of the fallen to the survivors. The picture was grim, but it could have been worse, and Worthington was chomping at the bit as he turned to check on Brandon, who was feeling woozy through their link. He was bordering on exhaustion, and not even a quick bite of a protein bar and a drink of water was able to make him feel better. "We've got to get moving." Worthington hissed when Weatherby approached him. Brandon was sitting on the ground, his head between his knees. "What's wrong with him?" Weatherby asked. "Sucking in power for me from these tainted lands is making him sick," Worthington said sharply. "We need to get moving. We've already lost two minutes!" "I know." Weatherby retorted. "Collins get over here!" "Yes, sir?" Collins said as he trotted up. "You need to carry the kid," Weatherby ordered. "Keep yourself glued to Sinclair, and keep the kid on your back and alive. Can you do it?" "Yes, sir," Collins said as he moved to lean down and whisper something to Brandon who was starting to feel a little bit better. "Four men dead," Weatherby said in grave tones to Worthington. "That leaves us, seven men, not including you. Two are wounded, but it's not enough to keep them from fighting, so they're coming with us. We have an average of three magazines each, not including whatever you have." "I have one and about a half left," Worthington said grimly. "You understand what we're doing?" "Yes." Weatherby nodded. "You take out the mages, we take out the demons and switch fire onto de la Plane and Lowenthal if we finish off the demons first. Unless that is, you tell us differently." "Sounds right." Worthington sighed as he tried to ignore his own weariness. The truth was he'd never been so tired as he was right then, but he had to keep going. Failure was not something he wanted to consider right now as the clouds on the other side of the hill turned from blood-red to the darkest black. "Fuck." Weatherby hissed as he saw that. "We're running out of time. Okay men, listen up!" While Weatherby issued his orders to his men, Worthington turned to check on Brandon who now was hanging off of Collins's back, his arms around the soldier's neck, holding on tightly. He wasn't sure how much longer Brandon would last, but he could feel his soul-bound Channel's grim determination to last as long as possible. Brandon had long since passed the point of exhaustion and should not be able to still be doing what he was doing, pulling more power in even as Collins adjusted him slightly on his back. As Worthington was turning back and Weatherby was giving the order to move out, Brandon was wrapping his legs around the soldier's waist for an extra grip. Everyone was at the limits of their endurance, but they still managed a trot as they headed up the hill as a unit. The six soldiers, including Weatherby, took the lead in a ragged line with Worthington right behind them, and Collins is carrying Brandon bringing up the rear. As they crested the hill, they were greeted by an intense heat, greater than anything Worthington had felt before, and he nearly fell as a wave of dizziness hit him. The air reeked with sulfur, and the flames of the bonfire were now burning a black that was darker than the night around it. Already six demons had been summoned and were waiting for the shields to be placed on them. All were Oska demons, and Worthington nearly lost his determination at that moment, but even as they continued to run forwards, the soldiers opened fire and two of the Oska demons fell. How could he turn and run when mundane soldiers, with no hope of fighting demons once their bullets ran out kept on charging? Worthington's faltering courage was galvanized as Weatherby began a marching chant, and the soldiers responded as if they were on the parade ground instead of a battlefield. He could barely hear the words, something about what a demon's mother feels when her baby demon dies at the hands of soldiers of the United States, but the way they slowed to a fast walk and moved forward with determination brought an answering swell of power in him, and he cut loose with frost bolts that seared the hot air into winter as they flew towards the demons. Even as more demons appeared, all Oska, de la Plane switched from defense to attack just as Worthington's bolts hit the shield being held by Lowenthal. Worthington kept his own shields extended in front of the soldiers, protecting them from de la Plane's attacks. Weatherby switched his target after felling a particularly large Oska, and the bullets sparked as they hit and were repelled by the shields still being held by Lowenthal. Brandon was no longer conscious, and with him in peaceful oblivion, he was no longer pulling in more power, but Worthington still drained him of what was inside him, pulling it all into one large blast of power that ripped into the shields being held by Lowenthal. One after another the series of shields the mage had placed to defend the summoners, himself, de la Plane, and block access to the valley shredded under Worthington's assault. Brandon was fully drained, in fact so drained that he might die from the amount of power Worthington had pulled out of him. He had done well though, because with the lack of shielding, the soldiers' fire was finding their targets. Even as he watched, de la Plane's head burst open from a perfect headshot by Weatherby, Worthington drew on his personal reserves of power and a whip of pure white mage power appeared in his hand. Before he could raise the hand though, something stopped him, a presence he knew all to well, and it spoke into his mind, again not in words, but in concepts ideas. Still, its meaning was clear. What do you think you are doing? The Light demanded of him in harsh images and feelings. It was outraged one, not of its calling had dared to summon it through such a spell. They are summoning demons. Worthington thought with determination. What better to fight demons with than Light? You are not Light. Was the cold response. I let you use me once, but that was then. There are none of my children here, none of mine depending on you. How short-sighted can you be? Worthington ‘shouted' in the vaults of his mind with anger and agony as another demon appeared only to be shot dead by a soldier. As one called out he was out of ammunition, Worthington wanted to reach and throw his last magazine to the man, but he was frozen. The demons will use this place as a base from which to attack those who do follow the Light! Surely you can recognize that. But you are not Light. It responded again. I should never have let you use me once. How many times will you seek me out now if I let you do this? I am Gray. Worthington said firmly. When the Light serves the best, I will use the Light. All my life, I will use Light or Dark for the task at hand. Why should I allow this? The Light demanded. Does it matter if I am dedicated to the Light or not, so long as the goals of the Light are met? Worthington asked. A deed done in the name of the Light is still a deed of Light. I am no more Dark than I am Light, but rather a bit of both. I honor the Light for the good it does in the world, and there are many things the Light is better suited for in this world than the Dark. A price. The Light demanded firmly. Always there will be a price. Two prices this time. Two? Worthington asked with fear. He'd expected one. Last time the Light had demanded he spend two weeks at a camp for the poor. What would it demand of him now? Was he to give all his money to charity? First a price for the path you walk. The Light's message was mostly images, Worthington on a path that glimmered light and dark in a dozen different patterns as it stretched before him. And for those who will walk this path with you, if you live. He was joined on the path by Jamie, and then more and more people, whose faces he could not quite make out yet, but he knew they were people he would meet in the future. You must sacrifice now, for them, a part of yourself I think, a dream. Yes, one of your old dreams you must lay aside to put Light into this path you wish to walk. No! Worthington's mind shouted without his actually thinking about it as he realized the dream that he must give up. What does this dream matter to you now? The Light asked, and now it was sharp, clear, actual words more than images. It was a foolish dream anyway, fraught with peril. You will do better without it in your life. Give it up to me. I pay this price. Worthington said with a sigh, physical and mental. There were tears brimming his eyes, but time was running short. Now fully half the soldiers had run out of ammunition, and Lowenthal was turning from defense to offense, casting mage bolts at the soldiers, causing them to have to duck or dodge his blasts. Now the price for the spell. The Light hummed in his mind, and it laid out the price it wanted clearly in his mind. This price was almost as painful as the first one to bear, but he'd already gone this far, and knew he would pay it and deal with the consequences later. There would be consequences to this price, too, but the Light accepted his agreement, and his body thrummed with new power. Now, feel what it means to wield the Light! Worthington's body was washed of its weariness as he lifted up his hand with the Light-born whip of power in it and flicked his wrist towards the nearest of the demon summoning mages. Even as another demon appeared in a circle, the Light took his spell and doubled it, then tripled it, and finally doubled the result again. Twelve whips of power reached out, and each settled about the neck of a demon summoner, twirling around the neck and penetrating the shield that the summoning process gave each of them. Twelve voices cried out in fear and pain as he twisted his wrist again, this time up and backward, and the whips of power pulled tight, beheading all twelve of them. The last demon summoned roared as a vortex appeared behind it, dragging it back where it had come from, and Worthington looked deeper in the valley, hoping to see the Demon Lord also being dragged back into his plane of existence. He had no such luck though, as he watched Zaroc lift the form of the Adept Benjamin, and throw him into the fire. A blast of power hitting his shield dragged his attention back to Lowenthal, who had now shifted his attacks to Worthington. The blast was weak, and Lowenthal looked to be on the verge of collapsing, but Worthington found he couldn't summon the power necessary to rip away the man's last shields and kill him. Nor could he lift the gun that was still on its strap against his chest. Even as the mage lifted his hands to send another blast his way, Worthington found he could not strike back. "Mike! No!" Collins's voice broke through the night and the sounds of the bonfire in the distance. Zaroc was barking orders to the Oska demons around him now, words that Worthington couldn't quite make out. Collins had dropped Brandon somewhere behind them and moved out from behind Worthington, holding his hands out towards his friend. Lowenthal shifted his gaze to Collins, and it was plain from his eyes that he was fighting the controls placed on him. "Don't do it, Mike. You're better than this, man. You're my good luck charm. Don't make me kill you." "Do it." Lowenthal murmured through gritted teeth. His hands were glowing with power, all the power inside him. He'd gathered it for one last strike, a death strike. "I can't hold it for long, bro. Shoot me." "No," Collins said as he approached the man slowly, his hands now resting on his weapon. "I won't do it. You can fight it; I know you can. No fucking asswipe is going to make you do something you don't want to do. You saved my life man, and I'm going to save yours." "I can't hold it." Lowenthal gasped and his hand cocked back as the controls inside of him took over again, but Collins was too close, and rushed the last few steps, swinging the stock of his weapon so that it hit Lowenthal just under the chin, raising him off his feet and he landed flat on his back, knocked unconscious by the blow. "Sorry, my friend," Collins said with a chuckle as he bent to check his friend's pulse. His hand never reached Lowenthal's throat before there was a tremendous roaring sound from the bonfire, and a wave of concussive force knocked all of them off their feet. "My queen." Zaroc's voice was clear as Worthington got back to his feet, and saw a figure rising from the black flames of the bonfire. It was tall, easily twenty feet, towering over the Demon Lord with great wings twice as wide as it was tall, and skin as black as the darkest of night. Pale blue and orange flames traced lines in that skin, and the horns on its head curled outward and upward in a deadly spiral. "Zaroc, my child." The tall demoness boomed, her voice deep, and yet somehow still feminine, in a terrible way. "You have kept your promise, my little one." "We are begun, my queen." Zaroc was down on one knee; his head bent towards the figure in the bonfire. His Oska demons were also kneeling, holding the rest of the human mages that were to be part of the sacrifice. "I beg of you to see fit to grace your servant with a permanent doorway to our home." "It has been many centuries of this world since we have done this, and I sense the presence of someone who would stop you." She replied, and Worthington felt his body begin to shake as she looked at him. Any other time, the warm liquid seeping down his leg would have had him embarrassed enough to want to die, but he was proud that he had just pissed himself, and not defecated as well. Every tale he'd ever heard said no mage ever survived seeing the Demon Queen. "The Sinclairs have always been troublesome," Zaroc said with a slight shrug. "I will deal with him in moments. He cannot stop the doorway if you choose to open it, my queen. He has come too late." "Weatherby!" Worthington hissed to the nearby officer as he somehow found his courage and his voice. "Get the men, grab Lowenthal, grab Brandon, and run!" "We're not leaving you behind, Sinclair," Weatherby growled back at him, and Worthington noticed the soldiers, including Collins carrying Lowenthal over his shoulder, were pulling back, forming a circle around him. "Here," Worthington said as he handed his last full magazine to one of the men who'd said they were out of ammunition. The man frowned, but took it and slammed it into his weapon, putting a round in the chamber. "Weatherby, this isn't a discussion. Take the men, grab Brandon and get the fuck on the other side of the hill." "You can't give me orders, Sinclair." Weatherby snorted as Zaroc continued his discussion with his queen, cajoling her to accept his sacrifices and open the doorway. Worthington caught some mention of Blasoc, another Demon Lord, doing something similar elsewhere, but much further behind in progress. It sounded like Zaroc and Blasoc were competitors more than allies, competing with each other for the Queen's favor. "Weatherby, this isn't your fight; it's my fight." Worthington retorted. "Wrong, it's all of ours fight," Weatherby said. "Those who are wounded, hand your ammo over to someone else. One of you take Lowenthal, another grab the Meyers kid and meet up with the others on the other side. Rest of you, form up and let's make sure Sinclair can do his part." There were protests from the three wounded men, but they limped off, taking Lowenthal and Brandon with them as they went, and Worthington glared at the former officer who shrugged at him. At the same time, he could hear the Demon Queen give her acquiescence. He barely got the shield up in time as a bright flash of orange light lit the valley, setting it afire. "I name you Prince, Zaroc!" The Demon Queen's voice roared, and most of the soldiers still around him clapped their hands over their ears. Worthington could feel the trickle of blood flowing out of his ears and tried to ignore the pain. Their time was growing even shorter now as the next of the five remaining mages was thrown onto the fire, each life and power going to feed the doorway that was forming there now as the Demon Queen melted back into the fire. "Kill them!" Zaroc roared, his voice sounding distant and tinny in Worthington's ears. Blasts of power flowed from four Oska demons, hitting his shield through the murky orange haze that now filled the valley. Worthington shuddered, nearly losing the shield as his weariness returned. Even the Light could not stand long against this. The sound of soldiers firing at the oncoming demons was barely audible over the constant roar and ringing in his ears. Worthington lifted the Light whip once more, but it faded out as it touched the orange haze. Even the dwarven-made bullets melted or fell far short of their targets, and the soldiers stopped firing when they saw that. Worthington held out his hand and gave the hand signal for moving forward. The men who had turned to look at him for direction nodded, some of them gulped visibly, but they moved forward as a unit. He moved with them, concentrating on holding the shield against the blasts of power reaching towards them, and the deadly murky orange haze. It was a thin hope that the soldiers who had fled with Lowenthal and Brandon had made it far enough away already. Marching was something every military person did from the moment they entered military service. That was something Worthington had learned from Weatherby, but as they moved forward in that small group, he realized why it was so important. They were all exhausted, there was almost no visibility, and they were fighting for their lives, but they all moved in the exact same stride, at the exact same pace, knowing almost instinctively where the other person was. Because of what he'd done to Weatherby, Worthington could move with them, was one with them and lifted his gun to open fire when the Oskas were close enough that even the demon atmosphere outside his shield could not slow them down too much. The bullets bounced off their shields, but more bullets came from the soldiers around him, and the demons fell one by one before they hit his shield. He'd dropped the Light whip when he'd reached for his gun, and as he summoned it again, he was half-afraid the Light would demand another price, but it didn't, and he prepared to wield it as they increased their pace to a slow trot. The reached the edge of the bonfire, and the pressure on his shield was tremendous as they squared off against Zaroc. He could see three more demon-summoning mages on the far side of the bonfire. They had been hidden by it before, but now he knew they were there. Worthington struck out with his whip, but the Demon Lord, or Prince now, reached out his hand and blocked his strike. The whip left a cut on Zaroc's hand, but the whip was stopped. "We meet again, Sinclair." Zaroc's voice boomed out, louder although oddly distorted by both the demon atmosphere and the damage to Worthington's ear drums. "You have made it through my defenses, but you are too late. Kneel, and I will spare you life." "No thanks," Worthington said, and lifted his weapon, but cried out in pain as Zaroc lifted his hand and power poured forth in a wave that crumpled his shield, and threw all of them to the ground. It was like a four-hundred-pound gorilla on his chest, and he could barely breathe as the Demon Prince moved to stand over him. Pain ripped through him as he felt the Demon Prince moving to stand over him, and he could not do anything to stop the pain. His mind screamed, unable to focus, or call up even the dregs of power that remained to him, and the demon's mind swarmed into his, overpowering his shredded defenses, holding him immobile as the demon lifted him in its burning hands. More pain filled him as the burning hands caused the material of his uniform to flash fire, leaving him in nothing but the dwarven under-armor he'd donned days ago. More pain filled him as the demon's claws ripped through the armor, peeling it from his bleeding body and the demon's laughter filled his ears and his head. You will be my trophy piece, Sinclair. The demon roared in his mind as it stripped him before setting him back on the ground, on his hands and knees, his rear towards the demon. Worthington knew what would come next, and felt despair fill him as the demon prepared to mount him, to penetrate him, and take him, body, mind, and soul. Even you can call on me in need, now. That was another voice, a gentle caress wiping away the pain and giving him a moment of clear thought. Worthington seized on that moment and cupped his hand where a feeble, flickering gleam of white appeared in a perfect sphere. Zaroc's roar was distant as Worthington turned, fell on his back and threw with all his remaining strength. The feeble ball of pure Light struck the demon in the abdomen, and Zaroc howled in pain as he tried to clutch it, but it burned him, and spread, until it was a blinding white that took everything with it, and Worthington was left floating in a gentle darkness, hoping that the pain would never return.
  6. It was hot, muggy, and overcast as the column came to a halt with a single hand-signal passed down the line. Above them the sky was gray with clouds, and Worthington was covered in sweat from the muggy heat, and nearly an entire day spent walking as quietly as possible through the woods of far northern Arizona. When the signal for rest was passed down, he sighed and moved to sit against a nearby tree, pulling off his backpack and digging out some water as well as a protein bar that he automatically split with Brandon who was sitting beside him. These clouds are making it tough to spot the beginning of the demon ceremony. Marcus sent mentally as he settled against a tree opposite Worthington. Michael Lowenthal was settling against another nearby tree next to Collins, who was rubbing his ankle yet again. I'd dispel them if I could, but weather working isn't something I've learned yet. Worthington admitted with a shrug. He hated admitting to the gaps that still existed in his training, mostly in the more advanced, esoteric spell pieces like weather working. We never mastered that either. Marcus hated admitting the limits of the government experimental programs as much as Worthington hated admitting his. Somehow it made it easier for both of them to do it when necessary. "This damn thing is going cold again," Collins grumbled aloud. Worthington frowned a bit at that. "Is the sensation moving, or stationary?" Worthington asked with a sigh. He'd had to reduce the sensitivity of the anklets three times since the plane had dropped them off here. The pollution of demon aura all over these woods was thick enough that the soldiers felt like their ankles were freezing off half the time. It was quickly coming to the point where the anklets would be useless when it came to actually detecting a demon. "Stationary, just like before," Collins growled as he stomped his foot. "We're all having the same problem again," Weatherby said softly as he moved back through the resting column and reached Worthington. "Shouldn't we just take them off?" "No," Worthington shook his head. "I told you, they do more than just detect demon presence. They are a protection for all of you. Trust me, when we find the demons you're going to be as glad for having them as the dwarven armor you're wearing under you uniform and the dwarven gun you're carrying." "Okay, but can you just turn off the detection part of it?" Weatherby asked. "We won't have a warning if…" Worthington pointed out but the older man just shook his head. "We're soldiers, kid," Weatherby said firmly. "We know how to keep watch." "Okay," Worthington sighed, and began to prepare himself for some spell casting. Brandon shifted against the tree and closed his eyes as Worthington drew on power through their link. It took him nearly all of the remaining fifteen minutes of the rest break to finish removing the detection spells from the anklets of the soldiers, and he was feeling more tired than when they'd stopped once he was done. "You need more time to rest after that?" Weatherby asked him with a frown. "Yes," Worthington admitted, even though he hated doing that. He knew he needed the rest though, and he knew that not getting the rest would put everyone else in more danger than if they moved out now. "Ten more minutes everyone," Weatherby passed along in hushed tones. "Collins, you move up to sentry and give Abrams a rest." Collins moved out, and Lowenthal shifted to come sit near Worthington. The two of them had spoken through their thoughts for almost the entire plane trip up to this area, but had hardly spoken in the day and a half since then. As soon as the plane had touched down in the clearing and they had disembarked, Lowenthal had become less friendly and more focused on the business at hand than anything else. At first Worthington had been offended, because even though the ruggedly handsome man had continued to refuse his advances, he thought they were at least becoming friends. "I think I get this Channel thing now," Lowenthal said softly. "I could see the way the power moved between you two this time." "Having Brandon here is a big help," Worthington said as he leaned his head back against the pine tree's rough bark and closed his eyes. "Enough to make up for the pain I'm causing because you have to take care of me so much?" Brandon's voice held an edge of bitterness to it that worried Worthington. "Even if I had to carry you the entire way it'd be worth it," Worthington assured him quickly. "You're not doing that bad at all, Meyers," Lowenthal added just as quickly. "Unlike Sinclair here, you weren't working out with us for the last few weeks, but you haven't slowed us down yet. Most people would have by now." "You mean that?" Brandon asked with a hint of hope. "Yes." Lowenthal said flatly as Weatherby came back towards them. "Sinclair, you ready to get going?" Weatherby asked. "We should meet up with Eikks and Burns before the sun sets." "Yes, I'm ready," Worthington said with a sigh as he stood up. In moments, the column of men was ready to move out, and they began snaking their way across the dry, forested terrain towards where they would camp tonight. As they advanced, the sun moved closer to the horizon and found the gap in the clouds, turning them a dark orangish-red color. Last night when it had done that, they'd panicked thinking the demon ceremony had started, but this time they all paid it little attention. The sun had set and twilight was fading into true night by the time they had reached the campsite that was being prepared by two of the mercenary soldiers. Worthington sighed as he let the weight of his backpack fall from him, and Brandon plopped down on the ground where they would sleep for the night. At least he would get a full night of sleep. Each of the other mages, including Worthington, would stand a three-hour sentry watch with one of the soldiers. As had happened last night, Worthington took his MRE (military-standard Meal-Ready-to-Eat) and went to sit in a small group with Marcus de la Plane and Allan Weatherby. The MRE packet he'd selected was spaghetti, and tasted at least halfway decent. He knew they were Weatherby's favorite although he didn't dwell too long on how he knew that bit of information. "If we don't find it by early afternoon tomorrow, we'll hike out to the pick-up point," Weatherby started the discussion in between bites of his own MRE. "The men are getting tired, and we'll spend the night at the base in Nevada before heading back out." "Damn it, I thought we'd have found it by now," Marcus said fiercely. "Covering this much ground on foot takes time," Weatherby shrugged. "Most people don't understand that." "I think we'll find it tomorrow," Worthington said. "If we do, we need to decide if we attack directly, or pull back and wait until we're fresher. I'd argue for waiting until we'd rested up." "It would be wiser, if we can afford the time," Weatherby agreed. "Taking tired men into combat is never good." "The mages would be better off too, if we could wait once we found them," Worthington agreed as he eyed the hilltop he suspected held the demons on its other side. The maps said there was a nice valley there, and it would make a good spot, with natural protections, making it more difficult to approach unnoticed. "The folks back east are not going to be happy with these delays," Marcus sighed. "They think with magic you can just close your eyes, go into a trance and find your enemies. Few of them understand it's really a complex process." "Which mage will take first watch?" Weatherby asked, changing the subject. He commanded the troops, but Marcus handled the mages. "It's Lowenthal's turned, followed by Sinclair with me after and then Angroselli," Marcus answered. "Anything else we need to cover tonight?" Weatherby asked and nodded as both of them shook their heads. "How's Meyers holding up?" "He'll be happy to get back to civilization, but he's doing okay," Worthington said. "I've been using the few healing spells I know to take care of the worst of his aches." "I wish you could do that for all of us," Weatherby groaned, but there was a smile on his face. "I will be so glad for a chance to shower. This dwarven stuff is comfortable, and it does a good job of soaking up the perspiration without staying damp, but we all smell like a damn locker room." "It's still better than the alternative," Worthington said with a smile. "Plus, the dwarves say it's machine washable." "God damn that's a bad one," Weatherby chuckled at the joke. "I'll see you later," Worthington said as he finished his meal and stood up, heading back to his spot next to Brandon. Marcus was talking to Lowenthal by the time that Worthington finished unrolling his bag and preparing for as much rest as he could manage out here. He put his dwarf-made gun down next to his sleeping bag as he crawled into it and began to relax. Back in the castle, he'd be waiting to figure out what he was going to do for the night, but here he was thinking mostly about sleep as the men who were still too awake for sleep yet talked in small groups. "Sinclair," Lowenthal's voice brought him out of a sound sleep, and Worthington blinked at the bright light that met his eyes as he woke up. Had he slept through the night and it was morning already? He was still groggy as he sat up, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes and tried to focus them in the brightness. "What's going on?" Worthington asked as he began to come awake, and he knew something was wrong. No scratch that, he knew that there were several things wrong. First of all the clearing they had camped in was lit by bright mage lights of an all-too-familiar red color. Second, the wards that had been set up around the camp were gone, erased without having been set off. Third, everyone except he and Brandon was already awake, on their feet, weapons in hand, but they all had a slack-jawed expression on their face that was very similar to the one that Lowenthal had on his. Finally, he could feel the demons close by, and when he craned his neck to look around, he could see them, standing in a small group, looking at him with amusement on their faces. There were six of the orange-skinned ordinary demons, four of the green-skinned Oska demons, and the familiar form of the Demon Lord Zaroc looming above them all with his skin lit by small orange fires running up and down it, and a massive grin that showed his rows of razor-sharp teeth. Around the demons were four human mages, including one that Worthington recognized as being Benjamin, the Adept founder of the government program. "Imagine my surprise when I found out that my old friend Worthington Sinclair was with these idiots from the human government," Zaroc's voice boomed out, filled with glee. "I could not believe my luck that my old friend would come to visit me with these fools delivering themselves to my care." "What do you mean, delivering themselves to your care?" Worthington asked as he shifted slightly. Lowenthal had placed his hands on Worthington's shoulders, keeping him on the ground, and Worthington noticed his rifle had been moved out of easy reach of his hand. Brandon was awake now, and crawling instinctively towards Worthington. That was when Worthington discovered the shield between him and Brandon. Lowenthal must have done that before he woke Worthington, seeking to keep him from using Brandon as a Channel. It might have worked, too, because it was a damn good shield. It would have kept Jamie from linking with Carl and pulling power from Carl, but Worthington was soul-bound to Brandon and nothing short of death or distance would keep him from the power Brandon held for him. "My little pet here was a very smart man," Zaroc gloated as he shifted so he could pet the fortyish Benjamin on the head as if he was a dog. "All his mages and the soldiers who serve them were implanted with deep-set controls they knew nothing about. Through him I can activate those controls, so you see, these government types come into my domain and deliver themselves to me. I never thought you though, would be so foolish to leave your safe haven and come after me. Am I to assume our deal is broken and that your Phoenix now lies open for me again?" "Did you really expect me to believe you would keep your side of the bargain?" Worthington scoffed. He could still pull power from Brandon, but what good would that do? His first few blasts of power would not be enough to kill more than one of the lesser demons, and after that it would be all he could do to shield from the bullets of the soldiers, much less the mages and demons arrayed against him, including the Adept-level Benjamin. "I would have kept it for a time," Zaroc shrugged. "But now that you are here in my hands, I believe I will return there next. With you at my side, they will drop to their knees and beg for mercy." "I'll die before I serve you," Worthington said calmly. "Maybe, but I have always enjoyed laying my hands on Sinclairs," Zaroc shrugged. "Now, I believe we shall head back to my temporary home. You may stand, with your bound one." "Why thank you, Zaroc," Worthington sneered as he stood and Lowenthal stepped back just far enough. Brandon stood as well, immediately stepping into Worthington and wrapping his hands around Worthington's waist while moving behind him, burying his head in Worthington's back. "Is your little one afraid?" Zaroc jeered and Worthington shrugged. "I'm even a little afraid, Zaroc," Worthington admitted and the Demon Lord threw his head back in laughter. That was about as much distraction as Worthington was going to get, and he leapt at the opportunity. As soon as he'd seen the Demon Lord he knew he was as good as dead. Here, surrounded by men controlled by the demons, without friends except for Brandon, there was little to no possibility of escaping. There was one thing he did know, and that was if he was defeated, he would take as many of these creatures with him as he could. At least if he did that, Jamie might have a fighting chance, and it was far better to die fighting than to be a demon plaything. His rifle flew from the ground where it had been kicked aside and settled into his hand with a reassuring slapping sound. His thumb switched off the safety while his other hand pulled the charging handle, chambering a round even as he brought it up to his shoulder in a professional move that he would never have been able to manage without having absorbed the abilities of Weatherby. Even as Worthington fired the first three-round burst, hitting the Demon Lord square in the chest, cutting his laughter off short, Brandon spun around and released a wave of mage power at Lowenthal who was just beginning to react. Brandon was a Channel, and weak in power on his own, but that did not mean he was useless in that regard, and while his blast had no chance of penetrating Lowenthal's shields, it did knock the government mage off his feet even as Worthington shifted targets and took out one of the Oska demons with a perfectly placed head shot. All hell broke loose as the dwarf-made bullets proved they could indeed penetrate the hides of demons. Zaroc was no ordinary demon, and while he was knocked off his feet with three bullet wounds dripping black ichor, he was not killed like the green-skinned Oska that Worthington had shot next. The mage, Benjamin was the first of the controlled mages to react next, blasting a shot of mage power at Worthington that nearly blinded him as it impacted the shield he'd thrown up. Brandon turned back around and all but melted against him as they linked through the shield Lowenthal had used to try and prevent this very thing. The shield shredded as they linked and Worthington pulled on Brandon's power pool while firing off several more shots. Another Oska demon and a more ordinary orange-skin fell, dead from dwarven bullets. Lowenthal was just getting back to his feet when more shots rang out in the night and Worthington braced for the impact against his shields, remembering too late the charmed anklets the soldiers were wearing. When the bullets tore into the remaining Oska demons instead of him, though, he spared a look to see Weatherby and Jeremiah Francis firing their weapons at the demons instead of him, while the rest of the soldiers were still fumbling with theirs. A quick exertion of his magic took care of the other soldiers though, and he carefully excluded the two soldiers who were firing at the demons. He could understand how Francis had overcome the controls set by the demon-controlled government Adept Benjamin, but he was not going to bother with how Weatherby had also slipped those controls. That could wait, if they got out of this alive. Hope blossomed in him as he fired two more three-round bursts, this time at the Adept Benjamin, whose shield almost crumpled under the fire. The demon-controlled mage fell backwards in panic, and Worthington shifted fire to an orange-skin demon that was moving towards him with a blood-curdling scream. It was only moments since the fight began, but Zaroc was back on his feet in a flash, clutching a hand to his bleeding chest and shouting in the barking demon language. His remaining demons threw up a shield and they retreated, taking the still-controlled human mages with them. "Cease fire!" Worthington yelled as they retreated and Weatherby shifted fire to Marcus de la Plane, trying to kill him before he escaped with the demons. Lowenthal was gone after them as well, and the anklets holding the soldiers frozen in place were quickly draining of power against the onslaught of the demon controls. "Jesus fucking Christ," Weatherby shouted as he lowered his weapon and looked around at his fellow soldiers. "How the hell did I break free of that? Did you do that?" "Grab your gear and let's get the fuck out of here," Worthington said as a reply as the clearing faded into darkness when the demon lights winked out. He put up his own mage light and frowned at the soldiers while Weatherby and Francis turned to grab their gear without further argument. Brandon was grabbing his own light backpack and Worthington's stuffing things into them quickly. "What about them?" Weatherby asked with a nod towards his fellow soldiers. "I can maybe break one or two of them free, but the anklets are all that are holding them in place," Worthington replied. "As soon as the power in them is drained, they're going to carry out their last instructions." "Which means they'll attack us," Weatherby frowned. "Collins, and Erikson, can you free them?" "I can try," Worthington said in a strained tone, his mind already reaching into Collins and trying to snap the deep-routed controls that had been activated. He blanched as he realized that to do so without taking his time might cause permanent brain damage, but did it anyway. Collins groaned as he was released, and fell to his knees. Maybe the soldier was lucky in his own right, because a quick check revealed no permanent damage, or even temporary damage. Worthington shifted to Erikson, and cursed moments later as he felt the man's mind snap into instant insanity. A quick exertion of magic sent the man into a coma, and he collapsed to the ground. "I'm sorry, Weatherby. The controls were too deeply set in Erikson. He went insane when I snapped them." "Is he dead?" Weatherby asked as Francis helped Collins back to his feet, and also set to helping him gather his gear. "No, but it'd be better if he was," Worthington frowned. "A good mindhealer might be able to patch him back together again, but I won't guarantee it. He's in a coma." "You're saying it'd be a mercy if he was dead?" Weatherby asked grimly and Worthington nodded. "But don't do it," Worthington said as Weatherby stepped towards the man with his weapon raised. "There's still a chance. They're going to leave him here, most likely, so we can come back for him." "Okay, let's get out of here," Weatherby said and Worthington took his backpack from Brandon, strapping it into place as he jogged after the former military officer. Brandon was at his heels, moving in perfect step with him, and the other two soldiers brought up the rear. An hour, and four miles later they stopped, nearly all of them out of breath. Worthington knelt over Brandon, the reason they'd stopped, where his friend and soul-bound was writhing on the ground, breathless and suffering from muscle cramps. Magic poured into Brandon, the best healing spells he knew, easing the worst of the pain and letting the guy catch his breath. Without anyone suggesting it, Worthington moved to cast similar spells on the other soldiers. "Can you do that to yourself?" Weatherby asked as Worthington sagged to the ground when he was done casting. "No," Worthington sighed, drenched in sweat and too tired to pull out a much needed bottle of water. One was pushed into his hand, along with a bar of chocolate that he consumed greedily. He needed the energy badly. "We'll take a rest then," Weatherby said firmly and dropped to the ground where he stood, along with Francis and Collins, who had not said a word. "Can you explain what happened back there?" "You've met your first Demon Lord," Worthington murmured sarcastically as anger washed over him. He felt like a fool at that moment. Naturally there were hidden triggers deep in all the government mages! The government trusted few of them, maybe only Benjamin, the man who had founded the program, and so he'd placed assurances deep inside them, and the soldiers that they could be controlled if they turned against the government. "No fucking shit," Collins retorted while Weatherby just stared at Worthington. "Your oh-so-great Benjamin placed controls deep in all of you, controls that the demons were able to have activated, and we walked right into their trap," Worthington said sharply. "I got that part," Weatherby's voice was tinged with sarcasm, but he still sounded calm and confident. Worthington took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. He wasn't perfect, he made mistakes like any other man, and he'd made them now. The key was to move past those mistakes. "What I'm wondering about is how Francis and I managed to throw off whatever it was that was done to us. What is different about us that let us resist? At first, I couldn't do anything, but when you started firing, it was like something broke in me that let me act." "Me too," Francis said calmly. "As soon as you started fighting, it was like something washed away whatever was holding me back and I knew I had to help you." "You'll never be able to hurt me, and will always try to help me," Worthington said bitterly, and sighed. He could just use magic to wash away their questions, but he didn't want to right now. "You did do something to him when you captured him back at that camp," Weatherby said in a sharp accusatory tone. "Yes." Worthington admitted. "You won't remember it, Francis. Nothing I can do now will restore that memory, and frankly that's a blessing to you. It wasn't pleasant what I did." "What did you do?" Weatherby demanded. "Did you do the same thing to me?" "No, it was something different with you," Worthington sighed. Would they turn on him when he told them the truth? If they did he'd fight them, but he'd rather not if he didn't have to do that. It would be easier just to wipe their memories, but something held him back from that. "Did you notice the improvement in my shooting skills?" "People shoot better when their lives are on the line," Weatherby shrugged. "Not that much better," Worthington noted sourly. "What are you trying to say?" Weatherby demanded. "Just spit it out, damn it!" "I took a part of your soldiering skills from you and made you forget that." Worthington said tiredly. "For me, it was like I lived your life in little under an hour, learned everything you learned in all your years of studying, and as an officer." "Mages can do that?" Collins said with wide eyes, and Worthington shook his head. "It's something I can do." Worthington said aloud while Weatherby gave him a very hard stare. "No other mage I've heard of can do it, or has heard of doing it either. It doesn't take all your skills from you, just some of them, and I guess… well, I never have known people I did this to after it was over, but well, I guess you got something else in return, something that let you resist the controls on you." "You did this without my knowledge, or my approval." Weatherby said angrily. "You basically raped me, didn't you?" "Something like that, yes." Worthington admitted with a shrug. "I hate all you fucking mages," Weatherby said as he stormed off into the night. "You didn't do none of that shit to me, right?" Collins asked nervously. "No." Worthington said. "But you're lucky though. It was just pure luck you're not like Erikson right now." "He's right, you mages fucking play with our lives like they're nothing," Collins said as he leaned back against the trunk of a tree and closed his eyes. "You seem to be taking this well," Worthington said to him while Francis just stared at him before shaking his head, getting up and going after Weatherby. "Yeah, well, I'm enlisted," Collins retorted dryly. "We know officers are always fucking with our lives and there's not much we can do about it, so we just live with it. This shit is not all that different. The way I see it, whatever you did to them, it saved our fucking lives and I'm not standing around waiting for some demon to eat me, or worse yet in their fucking belly already. Those damn things are fucking ugly." "Yes, they are," Worthington sighed while Brandon leaned against him. There was the sound of boots heading towards them and Worthington brought his rifle around for a moment before lowering it when he saw it was Francis and Weatherby returning. The moon was nearly setting, and shedding more light now that it was below the clouds. "Are you just going to make us forget what you've told us?" Weatherby demanded in a harsh tone. "Do I need to do that?" Worthington asked. "No," Weatherby sighed as he sank into a crouched position. "Whatever you did, I figured it saved us tonight. Francis pointed that out. We're still alive, and we're free of whatever it was that got the rest of the men. If you really know what I know, you should understand what I'm thinking." "Sometimes an officer has to make decisions that get men killed," Worthington said softly as the lesson flowed up from deep inside him. "You have to make tough decisions not based on feelings you might have for those men who look to you to lead them, but on the needs of the mission. Is the sacrifice worth the outcome?" "In this case, whatever you took from me… well we're here now because of it, so it was the right thing to do," Weatherby shrugged. "That doesn't mean I like it, or you for that matter, but it was the right thing and I'll live with it. If you hadn't done it, I might not be alive to live with it." "Thank you," Worthington said softly. "Don't thank me," The man spat. "I'm still fucking pissed as hell, and I will be for a long fucking time. You stole something from me you had no right to take. The government folks are right – you mages are dangerous, but that's not the point. We need to decide what we do now, and I want to hear what you think." "Fuck," Worthington said as the night was bathed in an eerie dark red light. He looked up into the sky and saw the clouds glowing a dark red. As he got to his feet, so did the others. The red clouds were positioned just over the valley he'd suspected the demons were using. "Damn, right where you said they'd be," Collins muttered as there were more sounds of boots crashing through the underbrush. "Everybody down!" Weatherby hissed and they all dropped to the ground, facing the direction of the sounds. Worthington stretched out his senses and felt the minds of two soldiers approaching their location. With a grunt, he got Weatherby's attention and held up two fingers. "Can you take them down without killing them?" The man asked in a voice barely above a whisper. "Maybe," Worthington said as he reached out again. The anklets were totally drained of power, so they would be no help. Working in his favor though was that the protections that had been put in them were all but shredded now by the deep controls placed on them from the Adept Benjamin. If he tried to work out the controls, he'd risk doing to them what he did to Erikson, but if he could take more time… "What did you do?" Weatherby asked as the two men collapsed to the ground just as they came within their line of sight. Collins and Francis were on their feet, rushing over to the two men and removing their weapons from them. Worthington got up, with Weatherby right behind him and approached them more slowly. Brandon followed a few steps behind them. "I put them to sleep for now," Worthington said quietly. There were more minds out there, close by and heading in this general direction. All of them were moving in pairs, and seemed to number the same as the soldiers they had left behind, except for the ill-fated Erikson. "If you try to break the controls on them, will they go the same way as Erikson?" Weatherby asked. "Not if I can take my time about it." Worthington said in a tight voice. "The others are out there too, heading this way. Most of them are moving in pairs, using a standard search pattern. We got lucky. These two moved further out ahead." "Do you work on them now, or do we try and take down the others first?" Weatherby asked. "You and I move out, taking the others down." Worthington said and looked the former officer directly in the eyes. "If they don't collapse when I give you the signal, you shoot them." "But you'll do your best?" Weatherby demanded and Worthington nodded. "Once we've got as many of them asleep as we can, we will bring them all back here, and I'll start working the spells off of them," Worthington said with a sigh. "It's not going to be easy, and once we have all the ones alive we can get, it's going to take at least two hours to break the controls on them, and I'll need to rest after that." "They've started the spell." Weatherby said as he looked out at the blood-red glowing clouds on the other side of the mountain. "We can't let them finish it, but we can't take them on with just you for a mage and three soldiers." "At least we know the bullets work." Worthington said with a sigh as he began to feel out for the nearest group heading towards them. "Frankly, it's probably a suicide mission for us to go in there and stop this. There are too many mages, too many demons on their side right now. Unfortunately, by the time we get reinforcements here, they'll have their habitat established and it'll take a hundred mages to burn them out with thousands of soldiers backing them up." "So we go on a suicide mission," Weatherby said grimly. "Just do me a favor?" "What's that?" Worthington asked. "Make sure our lives are worth it," Weatherby growled and Worthington nodded before making the hand motion for the man to follow him. Two more soldiers were nearby, and it was time to get them back.
  7. He always wanted to be a Marine, just like his father and his grandfather. As a child he would listen to his grandfather's stories and dreamed of one day being a Marine himself, defending his country from evil gooks and others who would try to harm her. Other kids played soldier for fun, but for him it was to learn; to one day be a Marine. When he got his acceptance letter to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, he had never been prouder. His father's approving grin and even his grandfather's grumpy comment about his grandson becoming an idiot officer told him that they too were proud of him. Like most children of military families, he had grown up on one base or another, moving every few years as his father's duty station changed. He had seen how it had affected his mother, and the strain it had put on his parents. That was why he'd never really dated, although he'd had his share of girls, and then women along the way. Annapolis was where he learned that there was far more to being a good Marine officer than just knowing how to shoot. He'd read all about the major battles of the Marine Corp as a kid, but it was at Annapolis that he learned to study them for what they could teach him about tactics and strategy. Even the oldest battles of history, from the time before muskets, much less machine guns, rockets, and guided missiles offered lessons for the future officers at that hallowed institution. He had been part of that class that graduated the year after terrorists struck at his beloved country, and he had enthusiastically joined his first active-duty as a young lieutenant with the certain knowledge that one day soon he'd be able to strike back at the terrorists. One training program after another seemed to delay that ‘one day' but eventually it came and he was a freshly promoted 1st Lieutenant, the shiny silver bar still fresh from its first polishing when he'd packed his bags for Iraq. There he'd learned that his grandfather's stories were just that, stories. Reality was something far different, or this modern war was far different than what his father and grandfather had known. The daily tension of driving down streets, never knowing when that mound of dirt on the side of the road would explode because it was a bomb, or if the local with an assault rifle was just a man guarding his home or a terrorist about to shoot at him, left its mark on him. It was his fourth tour, this one nearly a year and a half long, and he had the double silver bars of a Marine Captain when the tension finally got to him, and his men. The easiest explanation for what had happened was that they broke under too much pressure, too much stress. That wouldn't bring back the innocents that died that day or assuage the guilt he felt over it afterward. He and his Marines had been lucky, in the end. The incident was brushed over by bigger, more interesting news, and the whole matter was dealt with far more quietly than other incidents like Haditha. There was no criminal trial, no front-page news, and he tendered his resignation from the beloved Marine Corps, ashamed that he had let it, and his country down. It had been difficult to explain to his father what had happened, but at least his grandfather was no longer alive to bear the shame of the family. The offer of service as a private contractor had been all that saved him from using his sidearm to end the shame in one last shameful act. At first, he'd been disbelieving of the purpose of this special unit, all former military men, but he'd learned the truth and learned to deal with its implications as well. The new service wasn't as honorable as what he'd left, but it was honorable enough, and it allowed him to regain some of the pride he had lost on that one day. Worthington grunted as the former Marine's body sagged against his. They were in his bedroom, late at night nearly a month after they had begun training the government mages and soldiers. The handsome man in his late twenties had just had his orgasm inside Worthington and was still breathing heavy even as they lay there, both covered in sweat and other fluids. Worthington had shot his load on his chest a moment before the former Marine officer and could feel the swirl of the man's memories, and his unique skills as a soldier and officer settle into his mind. Guilt rose in him, and he ruthlessly suppressed it as quickly as it appeared. Yes, he'd sworn to never do this again, but it was necessary, not only for Worthington's life but for the lives of others, including this Marine whose mind was starting to recover from the glamour of sexual lust Worthington had used to draw him to his bed. Allan Weatherby was not gay, in fact, he was not the least bit interested in other men sexually, and already he was filling with disgust at the realization of what he'd done. We just talked about how I've been working too hard in the morning runs. Worthington inserted into the man's mind, wiping all memories that would disturb the man. The government blocks and telltales had been easy to overcome after nearly a month of experience with the government mages, and he replaced them easily as he wiped the man's memories and inserted new ones. For a man in his late twenties, the Marine was quite handsome, but it had been his skills and knowledge Worthington wanted more than his body, although that had been pleasurable enough. As the Marine got dressed in his uniform pants and red t-shirt with the Marine logo, Worthington laid back in his bed and closed his eyes, letting the memories and skills he'd just stolen settle into place. This was the first time he'd done this since he'd fully woken to the knowledge of his mage abilities and swore to never do it again, but like he'd told himself a dozen times over the last week, he needed the information. The truth was he was just not learning it fast enough from running and exercising with the mercenaries, no, the private contractors as they thought of themselves. Now though, he understood them in ways he never had before and knew he could depend on them in ways he could never depend on anyone else. Rob needs to spend a few years in the Marines. Worthington decided. The blond mage probably wouldn't argue with that too much, as long as he could find a way to spend time with his half-elven lover. Like most of the Riders, members of the motorcycle gang that Worthington belonged to and used in many ways, Rob had become enamored of the former soldiers turned private contractors. He'd love the opportunity to be one for real. "What do you think you're doing?" Jamie's harsh voice woke him out of his reverie, and Worthington looked up to see his brother, wearing only a pair of cargo shorts and looking very angry standing at the side of his bed. "It was necessary," Worthington said defensively. "I thought you had decided against it!" Jamie snarled angrily. "What if you took too much of his skills and that gets him killed?" "What if I didn't understand how these soldiers behave, what they really can and cannot do, and they end up getting killed?" Worthington snapped back defensively. "You know what we're getting into here as well as I do." "This is part your fault for insisting we had time to wait." Jamie snarled. "Don't you think I know that?" Worthington snapped back. They'd been fighting for a week now, ever since the over flight of the Northern Arizona tribal lands had sent the plane's detectors screaming at maximum volume, and the soldier and two Riders inside had nearly fainted from the coldness of their demon-detecting anklets. "But you're still insisting I stay here?" Jamie asked with an eyebrow. "Are you still saying if you go you won't take Carl?" Worthington retorted, and Jamie frowned before looking down. "He's too young." Jamie's voice was softer and less determined. "So is Colin." Worthington retorted, reminding Jamie why he'd refused the option of Jamie and Colin coming along instead of Jamie and Carl. "But you're not objecting to Rob going?" Jamie asserted. "He's old enough to understand the risks, and he's fought demons before too," Worthington said. "If you go, you're going to jump in the deep end with me. Rob's smart enough to stay in the shallow end where he won't get in over his head." "Or so you hope." Jamie murmured. "You should let me go, that way you will have someone at your back." "If I die, I'd rather know you were here to make sure my Uncle doesn't get everything, that one of us is still around to carry on our vision," Worthington said gently. "Look, I'll make sure Allan is okay. I know what I've done, after all, and he's still a good soldier, a good officer. Just, he's not as good as he was before." "I know." Jamie sighed and crawled into the bed. Worthington opened his arms and put them around his brother, enjoying the feel of their flesh touching. "You are sticky." "I just had sex with this hot former Marine." Worthington laughed. "Well, was that at least good?" Jamie asked with a laugh. "Yeah, it's too bad he's terminally straight." Worthington chuckled. "I haven't had a good fuck like that since the last time you graced me with your cock." "Gee, thanks." Jamie was chuckling too and relaxing. "You should take a shower, you know." "I know." Worthington sighed. "I'm just trying to get up the energy to move. That, and well, trying to deal with the guilt." "So you do feel guilty." Jamie murmured and sounded happy. "That makes you happy?" Worthington asked, feeling slightly miffed. "Yes, and that's a good thing, you stubborn idiot," Jamie said gently. "It means you still have a conscience, and that I can still trust you; that you're not going back to how you were before we met." "Oh." Worthington murmured. "I know how tempting some of the Dark things are, Worthington." Jamie said just as gently as before. "It is so easy to just forget about ethics, forget about what is right or wrong and just take what you want. This time, well you had a good reason for doing what you did, and yes, it might just save his life instead of endangering it, and I can live with what you did. I was just worried you'd be tempted again, and keep doing it – say, when you decide you'd like to play baseball in your last year of school." "You're the one with the hots for baseball players." Worthington laughed. No, a football player would be much more tempting for him. Except that football conflicted with wrestling. Another wave of pain shot through him at the thought of wrestling. He had met Jeremy on the wrestling team, and he missed Jeremy who had been killed in an auto accident. Jamie sensed the direction of his thoughts and held him tighter for a moment. "Oh great, now I smell like sweat and cum." Jamie laughed when Worthington smiled at him. "Okay, okay, I'm taking a shower," Worthington said with a chuckle and got out of his bed. The sun had not even risen the next morning when he woke. One of the house staff had brought up a tray for him already, and so he sipped coffee and nibbled on a croissant while he got ready for the day. Another shower was the first order of business, and he took his time drying off before standing in front of the mirror. His light blond hair was cut in a short crew cut. His plans for the summer had included letting it grow out until the initiation of new riders in the MR at the beginning of the school year. Yesterday though, he'd gone to the new barber in town and gotten it cut short. Taking a deep breath, he brushed his teeth, shaved (which was now becoming something he had to do every few days), and exited his bathroom after putting on some deodorant. While he'd been showering, one of the house staff had come up to his room, taken the tray of food and left a set of clothes out on his freshly made bed. How they knew when he was in or out of his room, he had not yet figured out. Whether it was dwarven magic, spy holes in a secret corridor, or an impeccable sense of timing, all he knew was that they took excellent care of him here and he enjoyed that. The clothing waiting for him was laid out in order that he would put it on, and he began with the underpants that had been specially made in the last few weeks. These were long pants, almost like long johns, meant to be worn under his regular clothes, and they felt like very light spandex as he put them on. They were a dark gunmetal color, and fit his body tightly, being made of the same material as the armored shirts he often wore. In fact, a matching shirt of that same material was the next thing he put on, and he looked at his reflection in a full-length mirror. From his ankles to his wrists, he was covered in the soft, flexible protective material. The bulge at his crotch was huge, but he felt less confined than he would have in a jock or cup. Somehow the dwarven tailor had built a pouch into the material that fit his four and a half inches soft length perfectly. After checking out his appearance, he put on two pairs of socks, both made of the same dark material as his other clothes, although these were more pliant. Then he began to put on the uniform that he'd been given the other day. It was similar to the digital camouflage pattern of soldiers, but now he could tell the slight differences quite easily. When he had those on, he finished by putting on black boots and tucking the pant legs into the boots by a habit that hadn't been his the day before. On the second floor, he found the larger office that had been turned into a briefing room already full. With a nod to the two men standing at the front of the room he crossed to the empty seat in the first row and took his place. Worthington refused to be embarrassed about being the last to arrive for the morning's briefing. He was exactly on time, not late. "Now that we are all here, we will get started." Allan Weatherby said in clear, crisp tones that assured Worthington there was no immediate ill effects from his experiences the night before. In fact, he handled the beginning of the briefing exactly as he had over the last few days and Worthington relaxed a bit. "Six days ago, a reconnaissance team overflying the Virgin River discovered demon traces about ninety miles south by south-west from St. George Utah. This is a remote section of Northwestern Arizona between the tri-state border areas. Further reconnaissance patrols over the area have pinpointed an area twenty miles south of the river as being the focal point of demon activity in the area." "From information provided by Mage Sinclair, we believe the demons are attempting to build a place where they can stay within our world for more than a few hours at a time." Marcus de la Plane continued the briefing after a brief nod from Weatherby. "We do not know how many demons are involved, although we do know from recent reports that a large number of people have gone missing from nearby towns and that a major accident two days ago on I-15 resulted in the disappearance of at least thirty people. This information leads us to believe that the demons are collecting innocent people for a mass slaughter that will enable them to bring a pocket of their dimension into our world. We cannot allow that to happen." "Five mages have been selected to head into the area and take out the demons before they are able to complete the process of doing this." Weatherby took over the briefing again as he clicked a button and a projector in the ceiling showed a map of the region. With the push of the button he zoomed into a satellite picture of the target area. "As we have learned, magic can conceal an area from satellite or aerial photography. In this case we are most interested in the geographical formations of the area. This is high country, with an elevation of about four thousand feet. It is mostly pine forest with low amounts of underbrush to hinder movement. The strike team will be dropped off ten miles from the suspected location of the demon encampment and proceed on foot to their target destination. Once a basic reconnoiter has been completed, a strike plan will be developed on location and executed at the earliest opportunity. No air reinforcements or aerial bombing is possible because of magical protections that are likely in place." "Sir, don't they have at least twenty mages?" One of the mercenary soldiers asked. "Yes, but we do not believe they are all in one location," De la Plane answered the question. "Why not?" The man asked. "I mean, we've got at least that many mages here, and no offense, but shouldn't we take as many as we can?" "If we find that there are more mages in the area than can be handled safely, we will retreat and seek reinforcements," Weatherby assured the man. "We won't take all of them on at one time. Mr. Sinclair, will you please explain your reasoning in this?" "Yes, sir." Worthington said as he stood up and turned to face the group of men. Most of them were experienced, hardened combat veterans. Even two of the three mages going with them were military combat veterans who had been discovered by the government mages while they were on duty in combat zones overseas. The other two mages going were Brandon and de la Plane himself. "During the Demon Wars, the Demon Lords fighting human mages established five compounds where their kind could exist in our world for periods of longer than a few hours or days. It took the slaughter of a half-dozen mages, and at least a hundred non-mages to create each compound. "The demon dimension is heavier than ours, and has a more concentrated atmosphere than we have here on Earth. Most humans cannot survive long in such a place without magical support. This is not true for demon summoners who are part of the process creating the demon environment on this plane of existence. They are able to exist in both planes without any trouble afterwards. However, other mages who are in the area at the time, and not involved in the process risk having their power sucked into the process and dying. Therefore the demons will only keep the mages they are going to sacrifice, and the mages summoning them in the area." "If we're going into the area, and they start performing this process, won't we risk being sucked dry?" Michael Lowenthal, the youngest of the former military men who was a mage asked with a pale face. He was probably the most ruggedly handsome of the government mages, with short, crew cut brown hair, hazel eyes, and nearly as tall as Worthington. He still had a physique every bit as toned as it had been in the military, and often exercised with the mercenary soldiers. Michael was approaching his twenty-fifth birthday, and also had a sense of humor that often left Worthington laughing as the man resisted another of his advances and walked away. "Yes, we will." Worthington admitted. "Fortunately for us, there will be signs in the physical world that the ceremony has started. The first sign will be clouds gathering over the area. When the human sacrifices start, the clouds will turn a blood-red color. That color will deepen as they continue sacrificing the non-mages, and will turn black when they sacrifice the first of the mages. It takes six hours, approximately, to reach that point. Once they begin sacrificing the mages, we have six more hours to leave the area or we will die after the last mage is sacrificed and the demon plane merges with our own." "How far away do we have to be?" Tony Angroselli, the dark-haired Italian that was the other mage going along asked in a tight voice. He was just twenty-one, rather thin but still in good physical condition. In fact, out of those going, Brandon was the only one whose physical condition Worthington had any concerns about. "Twenty miles," Worthington lied and hoped it wasn't too much of a lie. The truth was he had no idea. Nothing he'd ever been told provided an answer to that question, but in this situation, a lie was better than the truth. An honest answer would have done nothing but given everyone another reason to worry, and they already had enough to worry about. "Fuck," Michael cursed. Twenty miles was a long way to hike in just six hours, but most everyone here could manage that, except maybe Brandon. "It's doable," Weatherby said as he motioned for Worthington to sit down. "We are wheels up in one-five minutes from the helipad. Grab your gear, the new weapons from the dwarves, and be on the pad ready to go." The room quickly cleared of men, but Worthington sat in his chair, waiting. As soon as most everyone was gone, Weatherby and de la Plane stood in front of him. Brandon had remained in his seat, three places down, looking at his hands nervously. "Twenty miles?" Weatherby asked. "I made it up," Worthington admitted. There was no need to lie to these two. "You sure you want your man along?" de la Plane asked with a nod towards Brandon. "I'll be fine," Brandon said bravely as he stood up. "If you don't mind, I'll grab my gear and get going to the pad." "I'll see you there." Worthington smiled at him, and Brandon nodded nervously before heading out. He turned back to the two men. "He's carrying less than anyone else, and he's in good enough shape for the hike in. If we have to run for it, well I have no idea if a mile or twenty miles will be enough. We'd be better off calling in the helo to pick us up." "Which would guarantee they knew we were there," Weatherby stated. "I wish you'd been right that they would take longer than this." "The only way they could be doing this is if they're going to sacrifice an Adept-level mage," Worthington said with a frown. "That means Benjamin's in the camp." De la Plane sounded hopeful. "You said the mages they sacrifice couldn't be under mind control, right?" "Yes." Worthington agreed. "They have to be free from demon control for the sacrifice to work." "So if we catch them at the right moment, we can break him free." De la Plane said with a smile. "That would help all of us, you understand. The people back in Washington trust him a lot more than they trust you, or me for that matter." "I know." Worthington frowned. "If it's possible, we'll save him, but we cannot let that endanger those of us on the mission. Losing any of the mages, or soldiers because we tried to rescue someone and failed is paying too high a price." "Is it always about cost and benefit to you?" de la Plane's voice sounded critical. "If you've already lost a million dollars, and you have to risk two million to get back that one million, it's not worth the risk," Worthington said. "It's better to take your two million and invest it elsewhere so that maybe you'll eventually recover the losses from your earlier venture. We're not talking about money here though, we're talking about lives, and those are far more valuable." "I'm glad to hear you think that way since my soldiers and I are the most vulnerable here," Weatherby said with a nod of approval. Marcus was frowning still, but he nodded as well. "Given enough training, Michael Lowenthal just might eventually become a low-level Adept." Worthington pointed out to the older mage. "You've said that before." Marcus's voice held a hint of sourness. "Would you sacrifice the potential Adept for one who is already lost, without any real chance that you will get both back or even the more powerful Adept back?" Worthington asked. "It still feels like I'm abandoning a friend," Marcus said with a sigh. "If it's possible to save him, I promise I will find a way," Worthington said firmly. "But I am not going to risk any of our mages, or soldiers without some reasonable hope of success." "Which is a good commitment to make." Weatherby approved. "We have ten minutes left." "I'll see you on the pad," Worthington said as he stood and left the room. Downstairs, as he reached the main hall, he found his backpack already waiting, with the combat helmet and other gear he'd need on top. Jamie was standing next to it, dressed in a tank top and shorts, with a frown on his face. "I wish you would reconsider," Jamie said with a frown. "You know I won't," Worthington said. "Come back, brother," Jamie said and gave him a very tight hug. When they broke the hug, they stared at each other with tears in their eyes before Jamie kissed him on the cheek and walked up the stairs. Worthington sighed, gathered his gear and left the castle. He was the last passenger in the van that was waiting to take them outside the Clairville gates to the helicopter pad. The ride was a quiet one as the soldiers sat silently until they reached the helipad where an Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft sat with its propellers already turning. The plane would carry all of them and could take off vertically like a helicopter. He knew it would have to refuel once along the way, but in doing that, they would not need to change aircraft. "You're handling that today like you actually know how to use it." Jerome Houston, the tall, black-skinned former Army Ranger said with a laugh as they exited the van and Worthington shouldered the dwarven-made assault rifle. The short, squat weapon reminded him of something he'd seen on a television show that Brandon watched a few times, but was hand-made by the dwarves. The soldiers liked them, even without the demon-piercing bullets, calling them rugged, easy to use, easier to maintain, and extremely accurate. He'd heard a few of them telling the dwarves that they should mass-produce them and get an Army contract. Unfortunately for the dwarves, they couldn't mass-produce the weapons. They were made by hand, and required magic to complete. Even more importantly, something the soldiers had been told but did not quite understand, they required nearly constant ‘recharging' of their magical energy by regular contact with the person that the rifle was bonded with. They weren't sentient by any means, but unless they were handled at least once a month by the person the weapon was made for, they would cease to function. Worthington understood it was because the rifle fed on the life energy of the user, not enough to harm the user, most certainly, but still required that contact with their energy to replenish the magical components that kept it operating. "You know us mages, we can do anything," Worthington retorted after the briefest of pauses. He did handle the weapon better than he had the last time, but now he knew it in the same way he'd learned riding a motorcycle, by taking it from someone else. "Let me help you secure your gear," Michael Lowenthal said as they entered the cargo area of the Osprey. Worthington let the man help him, and then help Brandon get things secured, even though he didn't really need the help himself. It pretty much guaranteed the man would be sitting next to Worthington, and he realized he would have a few hours of flying time to further work on seducing the mage. "Thanks for the help," Worthington said over the noise of the propellers as the last two, Allan Weatherby and Marcus de la Plane strapped in, and Weatherby signaled the crewmember who signaled the pilot. Brandon was white with fear as the plane shook slightly during takeoff, and slipped sideways before pulling forwards and upwards as the engines tilted downwards so that they were flying like a normal airplane. The nice thing about all this magic shit is not having to try and talk over the noise of the propellers. Michael said to him mentally. His mental touch was a little uncertain as if he wasn't sure how hard to project his thoughts. True. Worthington sent back with a smile on his face. You might want to tamp it down a bit unless you're intending everyone in the plane who is gifted to hear your thoughts. Oh. Michael sent back in a slightly embarrassed tone, and in a much more private mode. Don't worry, it takes some people a while to figure out how to talk this way without broadcasting it to everyone in the vicinity. Worthington replied as the plane reached its cruising altitude and his ears popped. Some things are easier to learn, I guess. Lowenthal replied. Look at that smug bastard. He knows how much I hate flying. When I first got to the unit, and we flew over to Iraq, he laughed when I admitted how much I hated the flight. Who? Worthington asked but noticed the shorter mercenary soldier across from them who was grinning at Lowenthal. You mean Collins? Yeah, Collins. Lowenthal laughed mentally. I've known him for a long time now. He was there, that day. What day? Worthington asked. He liked this, getting to know the man better. It was a couple of days actually, but he was there both times. Lowenthal replied in a more hushed tone. The first time, we were at a checkpoint together, and as soon as the car pulled up I knew what the guy was planning to do, so I shot him. We were lucky ‘cause he didn't have time to detonate the car bomb. Command got their feathers ruffled though because there was no way in hell I should have been able to tell he was a car bomber, but I'd been right so three days later we were back on checkpoint duty. A couple of guys were still freaked out by the other day, so Collins volunteered to work with me. We weren't so lucky that day. Lowenthal's mind voice was edgy now, and laced with grief as he continued. This time they used a remote activation trigger for the bomb. The driver was just a stooge, but I felt him just the same. I'd always gotten those flashes about people, knew who I could trust and who I couldn't but it got really sharp over there where anyone could have been trying to kill us. A couple of times I ducked at just the right time, or knocked someone out of the way just as a sniper took a shot. Collins said I was lucky and stuck by me. That last time though, the car blew right in front of me and I threw my arms up, just thinking about blocking the explosion from hitting me. Collins was behind me, and both of us came through it without a scratch. You created a shield. Worthington said. Lowenthal could shield like crazy, which was one of the reasons why he was on this trip. That's what I was told when the Lead Psionic showed up later. Lowenthal said with a slight smile on his face. Everyone in the unit thought I was fucking jinxed, but Collins called me his good-luck charm. He was actually upset when I got transferred out, to the Department. Later, when the recruiter approached him after his tour was up, he volunteered for the job right off the bat after hearing that's where I went. At first, when he showed up there, I thought he was in love with me, but it's not that. What is it? Worthington asked, surprised about the casual reference to Collins being in love with the man. He had started to think the guy might be extremely closeted, or unwilling to admit he was gay, but he'd seen the way the man looked at him at times and knew Lowenthal was at least interested in him. He just couldn't understand why the man was ignoring Worthington's hints that he was interested back. I'm his lucky-charm. The mental voice was filled with suppressed laughter. After I left, he was convinced he'd end up dying. Then when he got back and found out the unit would be going again in eight months; he became convinced he wouldn't survive, so when he found out where his lucky charm went, he followed. Bet he never imagined he'd be heading into a demon pit because of that. He'd probably say he'd be fine as long as his lucky charm is there. Worthington laughed softly, but he could feel the sudden sobriety from Lowenthal. Don't worry, if we're lucky we'll hit them before they even know we're in the area. The last time you faced them, you lost people, didn't you? Lowenthal asked. I know I mentioned that a few times while working with you and the others. Worthington responded. So you know we'll probably lose people now. Lowenthal said grimly. Yes. Worthington closed his eyes. I try not to think about that though. I can't help it sometimes. Lowenthal's thoughts were barely audible. How about we talk about something else? Worthington offered. Like, if you thought Collins was in love with you, how did that make you feel? You would go there. The laughter was back, and he was smiling. You don't give up, do you? Not when it's something I want. Worthington smiled back. Sorry kid, I'm not interested in what you're offering. Lowenthal said seriously, but he was smiling, and his thoughts had the overtone of trying to be firm yet gentle at the same time. You're a persistent guy though. Maybe you should try Collins. He talks the game about women, but I've never seen him with one. Or he might just be horny enough. I'm not interested in him. Worthington shrugged. But you are interested in me? Lowenthal's mind was still laughing. I really am flattered, but sorry kid. Why not? Worthington asked. You worried about others finding out you're gay? It's not like you're in the military anymore. It doesn't matter. What's so funny? "Hey Collins, the kid thinks I'm worried about you guys finding out I'm gay," Lowenthal yelled out as he was laughing and Worthington started blushing when several other guys including Collins started laughing. "Shit, Lowenthal," Collins snorted. "Everyone in the damn unit knew you were queer, but you still ain't sucked my dick." "I haven't been able to find a magnifying glass big enough," Lowenthal shot back. "I see learning magic ain't made you any smarter with the comebacks, Lowenthal," Collins shouted back and then he looked thoughtful. "Wait a minute! You two just been looking at each other, not talking! No fair, man! I've been sitting here thinking you actually are keeping your mouth shut on a plane for once and you've been yapping at him with your mind! That ain't fair!" "Maybe I have gotten smarter." Lowenthal shot back with a smile as he grinned at Worthington. See, it's not that. Then why not? Worthington asked. I've seen you looking at me. You have to find me attractive as much as you look at my bulge. It's a big bulge. Lowenthal shrugged. It's hard not to look at it when you always wear tight fucking pants. There was a long pause, and the man physically sighed. Okay, yes, I think you're a fucking stud, and I'm physically attracted to you, but nothing's going to happen. "Why not?" Worthington asked aloud, shocked by the blunt statement. One, because you're a kid, and I'm eight years older than you. Lowenthal pointed out, holding out a hand with one finger raised. Then a second. Two, you're a stuck up rich boy whose had everything in life he's ever wanted. I'm not a notch in someone's bedpost. You can't buy me with good looks, your money, or any combination of that. If I sleep with someone it's because I like them as a person, not just physically. Three, you're basically an officer and I'm not. Enlisted and officers don't mix that way. Yes, you are. Worthington snorted mentally, choosing the one point that he could argue directly. You're not an enlisted man anymore. You're a mage, and that makes you an officer even if you haven't gone to college. Hell, look at me. I'm in high school still, and you're calling me an officer. Which brings us back to point one. Lowenthal was far too smug, and Worthington's growl of frustration was vocal enough that Collins started laughing. "Shit, I can't hear what they're saying to each other, but just watching them is like watching a tennis match," Collins laughed, and Worthington glared at him before sighing with defeat. He'd find something else to talk about. I don't put notches in my bedpost!
  8. Was this what Jamie went through every time he looked Carl in the eye? Worthington wondered as he broke eye contact with Jeremiah Francis. The mercenary soldier showed no reaction at all, but the brief eye contact had been enough for Worthington to read everything that had happened to him since the man had left the camp over a week ago. The government mages had not been gentle with him, had almost done permanent damage to his mind, but in the end, they had accepted he was still usable in their service and set new blocks on his mind. Those blocks meant nothing to Worthington after what he had done to the man, and he knew that no matter what they had done, he still had an agent in their midst. He also knew some of what had gone on behind the scenes since de la Plane had ended the siege of the camp, and he knew that there was a good likelihood that the negotiations being continued by Huntington and Elizabeth were genuine. The government really did intend to honor the agreements being made, or at least that is what they were telling their loyal mages. "I think there is definite room for us to continue these discussions at a later date," Elizabeth said after they had finished haggling over the concept of how the constitutional guarantee of a trial by a jury of your peers applied to the trial of a mage for the misuse of magic. Huntington had started arguing a court should be blind to whether the jury was mage or non-mage, but Elizabeth had argued her around, at least when the charge involved the misuse of magic, that it should truly be mages sitting in judgment. Both of them had agreed that the regular courts best-handled trials involving non-magical misconduct. "You have proposed an interim agreement be reached now, with further discussion in two months." Huntington retorted. "I believe we can agree to the terms of those agreements as already laid out at this time." "As can we." Stacy nodded. "I understand that this place, you have called it Clairville, correct?" Huntington asked, and Worthington nodded. "Technically it is owned by Mr. Sinclair, and he has leased its property to the dwarves. Is that correct?" "Yes, it is," Lokar rumbled. "We sub-lease parts of it to the other races that choose to move here, as it is completed." "The federal government will agree to recognize this land as neutral territory for the present," Huntington stated. "You have to understand, that further recognition will require some act by Congress, which will need to be the focus of future discussions." "We understand that," Kelvren stated. "For the present, this land will be considered in the same category as a foreign embassy," she said. "Will that suffice?" "Yes," Worthington added. "Now there is the matter of the assistance you have agreed to provide the government in the recovery of our lost personnel." Huntington continued, and now her steely gaze was focused solely on Worthington and his brother Jamie. "Both of you young men are minors, and it is not legally possible for you to enter into binding contracts without the approval of your legal guardians." "Who are both present in this room," Stacy said with a nod towards Elizabeth. "This is a perfect example of the differences between magic and the mundane world," Elizabeth said with a smile. "By the terms of magic, they are both adults. They have reached a stage in their training where they are able to operate without supervision, are able to make rational decisions and to exercise their abilities just like any adult. Their actions are legally binding on themselves within the realm of magic. In this case, where the two worlds overlap, Stacy and I will act merely as advisors and sign whatever agreement they make. It is their responsibility to decide to accept a contract, or to even heed our advice." "I see." Huntington frowned as she spoke, but she turned back to Worthington and Jamie. "The actions of the demons in taking your people have created a threat to the people of the Valley of the Sun," Jamie said to her, speaking up for the first time. "We are sworn to protect the people of the Valley from all threats, including demons. When we kicked the demons out, we expected it to be years before they reached a level where they could threaten us again, but from what they accomplished against your facilities and your mages, they could be a threat to us within a few weeks." "That is unacceptable to us, and so we will agree to provide assistance to your mages," Worthington added. "This is separate from, and not dependent on any negotiations we might be conducting with the government on other matters. Although, in complete honesty, I believe what we do on this matter might provide some framework for those discussions in how the mundane and magical worlds can coexist without too much conflict. I have had my attorneys create a newly limited liability corporation, Bradwell-Sinclair Consulting." "This corporation specializes in the advising and training of mages in defense against demons and other magical beings." Jamie continued. "Its directors include our legal guardians as well as ourselves, and several other mages who have experience in these areas. We are prepared to offer a contract to the government for services relating to the training of your mages and soldiers in how to find and fight demons." "We are also prepared to offer referrals to vendors capable of providing arms and ammunition that is capable of allowing mundane soldiers to be effective against demons," Worthington added without looking at Lokar who was most pleased by that little tidbit. He would not make the offer directly to the government but would use Worthington as a middleman, for a generous cut of the profits. "Even the most powerful of your small arms will fail to penetrate demon hide or the protective skins of most of the beasts they commonly use for protection." "You have asked for ten million dollars a year in base consulting fees with a minimum of one year contracted services," Huntington said. "The government expects this demon problem to be taken care of well before a year is out. What will you do to further earn your fees?" "Demons are not the only threats out there," Worthington said. "We also offer general mage training as well as training services in areas other than demons that might be beneficial to your mages." "You are only agreeing to help train, then?" de la Plane asked with a frown. "I thought you were agreeing to do more the last time we spoke." "We also agree to advise you on active operations," Worthington said. "You should understand that we will not field a team of mages to fight demons for you. However, we will send one, maybe two mages into the field with your teams and advise them on operations against demons in that environment. If they are attacked by demons in that situation, they will naturally defend themselves, but will not take direct offensive steps against the demons." "I see," Huntington said shrewdly. "Who do you think will be on this team of advisors?" "I will go myself," Worthington said. "One other will go to support me." "Make it five million, and you have a contract." Huntington offered. "Nine million." Worthington retorted. "I'm sorry, but I do have to consider that I have people to support. Mages do not come cheap and expect compensation for their services. Over the years, my family has spent as much as this contract for my training, and I am just one person. You are expecting us to train nearly fifty people or more. By any mage standards, you are getting a bargain at ten." "Fine, nine million it is." Huntington sighed. "We should take a break while my staff makes the final changes to the documents." "I have had refreshments prepared if you would like." Worthington smiled. "I believe you will quite enjoy sampling some of the dwarven delicacies my Housemistress has prepared. You should be careful though, dwarves love caffeine, and most of their food and drink contain enough of it to keep you awake for days." "I think our military might like to have a few words with their chefs." Huntington joked as she stood and Worthington relaxed. This could have gone a lot worse. "Mr. De la Plane, you look tired," Worthington said to the government mage as they sipped some dwarven coffee and nibbled on a pastry. "My superiors are quite anxious about this situation." The man answered with a heavy sigh before blinking tiredly. "Please, we're going to be working together now. Call me Marcus." "Only if you call me Worthington," Worthington replied with a smile. "You seem to think things are less serious," Marcus said as he took a sip of his drink and smiled into the cup. "This is quite good." "It is," Worthington agreed. "As for the situation, there is time. I think the other Adepts are starting to realize that this is not the isolated case of demon summoning that they originally thought when we had the fight in Phoenix. Eventually, they will see that the demons pose as significant a threat as they did during the Demon Wars. During those days, it took all the mages banding together to end the demon threat, and it will require something like that again." "You don't think we'll be able to find them and destroy them quickly?" Marcus frowned again. "If we are lucky, that could happen," Worthington said. "Certainly we have advantages that did not exist centuries ago. As you can tell though, some of those technological advances aren't quite as advantageous as you would expect. You're not going to find them by your satellites or your aerial photography. However, trained mages knowing what to look for, flying around in helicopters might be able to detect them." "On our way in here, it was true that we could not penetrate the illusions on this place," Marcus said with a slight smile. "What you don't know is that we have detectors that could detect the magic of the illusions, and they were pegged off the end of the scale as we got close." "That is interesting, and might very well be useful," Worthington said as he suppressed a shudder. The idea of devices being able to detect magic made him sick to his stomach. "I have to admit your scramblers gave me quite a fright the first time I ran into them." "But you overcame them when we thought that was impossible," Marcus said. "Your approach to magic leaves much to be desired," Worthington told the older man. "I am beginning to see that." Marcus allowed. Huntington and her four suits left a few hours later on one of the two helicopters. Marcus de la Plane was staying though, as were all of the mercenary soldiers. Nick Wooten and Dakota Ungashick were kept busy arranging quarters for all of them on the third floor, and dinner was held in the Main Hall with a fairly crowded room after the arrival of seven members of MR. Worthington retired to his room late that night, after watching a movie with their ‘guests,' and was regretfully alone in his large bed. The next morning, two vans arrived at the gates and were escorted inside by two more MRs on their motorcycles. Worthington dressed in his usual outfit of leather pants and tight armored shirt, this time in a light gray with sapphire highlights. Breakfast was served in the upstairs conference room in the suite of apartments he shared with Jamie and included his entire household including Colin and Matt Wilson. "Sixteen government mages and eighteen mercenary soldiers have arrived today for training," Worthington said over properly cooked eggs and sausage. "You can't possibly expect me to teach all of them." Matt Wilson snorted. "That was not in my contract, and I want nothing to do with government people. This goes against the Great Secret." "You are free to break your contract and leave without penalty," Worthington told the man sharply. "If you stay, you will do what you are told." "I'm just saying this is dangerous for all of us." The man grumbled. "You are right, it is dangerous." Worthington agreed. "Letting demons establish a power base though is even more dangerous, and the fact is we can't just waltz in and erase the memories of everyone in government that knows about magic. The information is too firmly entrenched in government, and the Great Secret is no longer protection. We will need to form some new kind of protection, which is what we are doing. Cooperating with the government, for now, is our best option. If you disagree with this course of action, you can leave." "I'll perform my duties in accordance with my contract." Matt Wilson grumbled. "What about you two?" Worthington asked Nick and Dakota. He still had not gotten to know either of them fairly well. "You gave us a place to belong when we needed it the most," Nick said with a shrug. "We're not going to run away just because things get scary." "Thank you," Worthington said politely. "Most of these mages already have a firm, if odd grounding in the basics of magic. What they need to learn is the flexibility of combat magic the way it is learned in the Dark path, and to a certain extent in the Light path as well. Jamie will be handling that end of the training. All of you have become familiar with the forms of magic bolts that work best on demons, and the ways you must structure your shields to protect more effectively against demon magic, and their physical attacks. I will be working with their more powerful mages on demon detection, breaking the summoner, tracing the remnants of magic and similar magics that are a bit more advanced." "Are we to share everything with them?" Wilson's lip was curled upward in distaste. "When it comes to fighting or defending against demons, yes," Worthington said sharply. "As for other things, we are not contracted to teach them magic in general. If it is not related to dealing with demons, or other creatures from the demon-planes, you do not have to teach them anything." "Fine." Wilson agreed with a sharp nod as he stabbed a piece of sausage. "At least you aren't giving them everything." "No, I'm not." Worthington agreed. "What about me?" Colin asked quietly. "And me?" Rob said with a mouthful of food. "Colin, you're going to be the cute kid hanging around taking your lessons with the rest of them," Worthington said with a smile. "Let them think you're just a naïve little boy." "You want me to get them to adopt me as a kind of mascot?" Colin asked with a very slight smile on his face. "Do you think they'll relax around me and I'll find out things they won't share with you?" "That's what I'm hoping." Worthington smiled. He was pleased Colin understood that and just hoped he wouldn't overact. Jamie had already talked to Carl about doing something similar, although Carl really was more innocent and naïve. "I can do that." Colin beamed with pride at having been given the task. Whether he succeeded or failed was secondary to the reaction he was showing now. "Good," Worthington said with approval in his voice. "As for you, Rob, you've actually fought demons before, and you're not Jamie or I. They're going to give more weight to what you say because of that. Be friendly with them, but not overly friendly – if you know what I mean." "I've got someone now," Rob said with a frown. "He's not like full-blooded elves you know. He's already told me he's the jealous type and I've got a good enough thing with him I'm not going to risk it if I don't have to." "That's fine," Worthington said with a little surprise. Then again, he knew almost nothing about half-elves. One thing he did know is that he liked the changes in Rob since he'd met the half-elf that he was now seeing and as far as he was concerned, he hoped the two of them stayed together for a long, long time. Rob was already a much better person and would likely continue to improve, the longer they were together. "What about the soldiers?" Matt Wilson asked with another curl of his lip. "They're all mundanes, right?" "Yes," Worthington said. "But, they're experienced in working with the government mages." "Like the Mike's Riders," Rob said with a smile. "Yes, we will be outfitting them with anklets like the MRs wear," Worthington noted with a nod to Rob. "The Riders will be conducting exercises with the soldiers to get them experienced in how the anklets work, and I'll be giving them a few demonstrations as well. Josh and Tom will be in charge of those working with the soldiers, and they will also be doing what they can to learn as much as they can from the soldiers." "Like what?" Dakota asked. "You mean, learning how to be a soldier?" "Shooting skills, and fighting skills are what I'd like them to develop for the most part," Worthington said with a shrug. "More important will be developing friendships with the soldiers as much as possible, so that they can learn more about them and what's going on in their minds without us having to look." "You sound like you've covered most of the bases so far." Matt Wilson gave his grudging approval. "This could still all blow up in your face, you know." "I know," Worthington told the older man who shook his head before standing up. "If I am to teach a bunch of ill-trained government types, I had best prepare myself." The man said as he turned and left the room. "Well, this is not how I planned to spend my summer vacation." Jamie laughed as the man left. "Me neither," Worthington admitted. "I was hoping we could go to Europe or something after that camp." "What about when school starts?" Rob asked. "What are you going to do if this isn't all settled by then?" "I don't know." Worthington frowned. "Do we even need school now?" Rob asked with a glimmer of hope on his face. "Yes, Rob, we do need to finish our educations," Jamie said with a laugh. "Damn." Rob frowned. "We will figure something out," Worthington assured him. "Jamie, how are the moms handling things?" "They're doing okay, everything considered," Jamie said with a sigh. "They're worried, but that's natural. They think this idea of using the Valley as a test case, and an example of how letting mages govern their own affairs, for the most part, will work. We've got a pretty cohesive community forming here, and the people from Dark and Light paths are actually getting along for the most part. They think other mage communities will be resistant at first, but they'll probably agree after they realize it's this or the government's way and that would be much more dangerous for everyone." "I hope it works," Worthington admitted. The idea had been mostly theirs, and he hoped it would succeed. If it did, it would be mostly because of their work. "It's probably about time for all of us to get started." "Yes." Jamie agreed as he stood. Soon enough they were all in different parts of the castle doing different tasks. Jamie joined Matt Wilson and the others in the basement, beginning the training of the newly arrived mages. Today's lessons would start with basics, and were more focused on testing the new mages and how well they were trained and prepared for what they would be learning. Worthington found himself on the top floor of the tower on the north side of the castle, in the room he had appropriated as his personal workroom. Sapha had already taken delivery of fifteen new silver anklets. Unlike the first batch he'd given his Riders, these were dwarven-made and of very high quality. He'd since replaced that first batch with new anklets for his mundane Riders, but these were going to be for the soldiers. He ate lunch in the tower, barely taking a break from the spellwork the anklets required. Most of it was layering spell on top of spell, letting them bond to the framework of the metal. The dwarf-made anklets were perfect for spellwork and much better suited to this task. They could ‘hold' more layers of spell, and he was able to soak enough power into them that they would provide much more protection than that first batch he'd made. The truth was he was also a better artificer than he'd been with that first batch. Like all things, the experience made him better at this task, and each anklet he finished was better than the last he'd made. Worthington was very much aware that Marcus would do his best to inspect these for hidden traps, so Worthington wove those very, very carefully into the spell framework. When he was done, not even he could tell that they were in there, and he smiled at his handiwork. These anklets would detect a demon within two miles of the wearer, in any direction. Not only would they detect the demon, they would change in the intensity of coldness they projected based on proximity and the number of demons, and unlike any of the other anklets he'd made, they would also indicate direction in three dimensions by where the cold would manifest on the foot of the wearer. Also, they would protect the wearer from magic or demon physical attacks for longer thanks to their greater power reserves. Then there were the special tricks that Worthington had put in them to protect himself and his brother. Only they would know about those, and would only use them in great need since once used, they would be known. Unlike the other anklets though, these could not be taken off unless they were ripped off by force, and that would likely take the ankle of the wearer with them. By the late afternoon, he was tired enough that he finished up the eighth, and last anklet for the day. He took the eight, each wrapped in a small case, and left the tower. The only entrance to the tower was on the first floor of the castle, and so he had to climb down several floors before reaching the first floor of the castle, and then had to climb up more stairs. At least living here he'd not likely get too much out of shape. "You are here," Worthington said with pleasant surprise as he entered the second-floor office that had been given to Marcus de la Plane for his use. The man was sitting at a desk, typing into a laptop. "Yes, the bosses back east want detailed reports of what is happening here every day," Marcus answered. "They don't quite believe you that this is better than being out there hunting demons." "Hopefully after today, you can tell them that going and hunting demons without proper preparation would be akin to handing the demons more power to use," Worthington said as he sat the boxes down on the man's desk. "That is pretty much exactly what I am writing." Marcus chuckled as he stopped typing and picked up a box. "Are these them?" "Yes," Worthington said. "I managed to get eight done today. Once you've looked them over and given them your approval, I'll give them to the first eight soldiers and start working with them and my Riders to familiarize themselves with how they work." "That will be good." Marcus chuckled again. "Captain Bearand commented today that they were already getting restless. Do you think the locals will mind the soldiers going for runs in full gear every morning?" "No." Worthington shook his head, and he chuckled. "Actually I've been thinking of getting back into an exercise routine. I'm starting to get fat." "That's hard to believe." Marcus laughed. "You're far more physically fit than any of our people. I always imagined mages were supposed to be physically weak." "A physically fit mage is a stronger mage," Worthington said as he quoted one of his first lessons in magic. "Two qualities will help a mage weaker in power to defeat a stronger mage. First of these is the sharpness of the mind. A sharp mind will always overcome a weak mind. Second is the quality of physical fitness. The mage whose body and mind are sharp and strong will always overcome a dull-witted and slow mage. Now granted, before I came out here to Phoenix my body wasn't as toned as it was now, but I was always fairly physically fit, even if I didn't look it." "I see," Marcus said thoughtfully. "Maybe we should institute a physical training program for all of our mages. It is not something we ever considered, but I do seem to think that if what I'm remembering is any guide, your statements do have some merit." "You could," Worthington shrugged. "I doubt it would be very successful though unless the mages wanted it badly. It would probably be better to just encourage it and let the results speak for themselves. When a mage sees another mage able to cast more spells or hold out longer in a fight because they've been exercising, it will motivate them to do the same. If they don't, well they just aren't that good of a mage, and you will know that. Then you can spend less effort trying to teach them the more advanced magics." "That is an interesting approach," Marcus said with a shake of his head. "Can I talk to you, mage to mage?" "Mage to mage?" Worthington asked with a raised eyebrow. "After what I've been through today, I don't think I will be tempted to call it psionics again," Marcus said with a rueful chuckle. "We always tried to approach things from a scientific standpoint when it came to magic, and today I learned just how wrong that was." "You still accomplished a great many things," Worthington said gently as he took a seat on the other side of the man's desk. "As someone who has faced off against you, I can honestly say you have not produced incompetent mages, and some of the devices you've developed are truly astounding. At the very least, you have shown significant advantages to combining magic and science in ways that we have never considered before." "Yes, well there is that." Marcus smiled slightly. "One thing that is bugging me though is this talk of Light and Dark as if they are real things instead of just abstract concepts. You people talk about them as if they are real." "In a way, they are very real," Worthington said as he leaned back in his chair and smiled at the man. "I won't go so far as to say that they were real before mages thought up the concept of them, but the fact remains they are real now. They are not real sentient beings as we might think of them, nor are they what we might consider gods or the like." "Then what are they?" Marcus asked with exasperation. "Think of them as manifestations of the magic and the expectations of the mages practicing that magic," Worthington said carefully. "Those who follow the Light believe in self-sacrifice. Over the years, their beliefs have shaped the Light, giving it form and substance by their belief and their power. The Light itself is the manifestation of that belief and power commingled over time. The Dark is the same." "Are they in conflict with one another?" Marcus asked. "Only when their mages fight each other." Worthington laughed. "So what then is this Gray path you spoke of earlier?" Marcus asked. "Jamie and I wanted something else, something more than the two options afforded to us," Worthington explained carefully. "The Light rejected Jamie because of a sacrifice he had to make to save me, but neither of us are fully comfortable with the tenets of the Dark path." "Why not?" Marcus asked with a furrowed expression. "The Light is about self-sacrifice for power," Worthington explained. "The Dark is about making others pay the price for power at little or no cost to yourself. Jamie was raised to think as part of the Light, I was raised to think as part of the Dark. When we merged, both of us were changed slightly, and you might say our different morals rubbed off on each other. Jamie will never be totally comfortable making others pay the price of magic, while I will never be comfortable with the concept of sacrificing myself all the time. Yet, at the same time, I no longer am willing to always make others pay the price, and there are times I am unwilling to extract the price from others at all. Therefore, we needed something else, something more." "So you created this Gray path," Marcus said. "What is it about, exactly?" "The Gray path is about paying the price necessary for magic from the source best able to meet the price." Worthington summarized some of the discussions he'd had with Jamie in the days since they had first started down this road. "Sometimes that price will best be paid with self-sacrifice, and other times it will be paid through others. One thing that is different though is that the goal of the Gray mage is not necessarily to serve just themselves, or a limited group of people. It is to defend all people, to meet the needs of everyone, from whatever source is the best suited to the task at hand. If Light magic is best, we will use that. If Dark is best, we will use that." "Won't they mind?" Marcus asked with a frown. "I mean, you said the Light and Dark are manifestations of the beliefs of those who practice it, so won't they resist being used?" "No," Worthington said with certainty. "Some things the Light won't give us, and in others, it will demand a price. I used a Light spell to defeat the Demon Lord in Phoenix, and the price of that was going to that summer camp for two weeks." "That doesn't seem like a big price to pay." Marcus frowned. "A rich kid like me spending two weeks with under-privileged inner-city youths in a camp set back in the mountains, run by wacko environmentalists who think my family is part of the problem of evil capitalists who rape the environment?" Worthington laughed. "Even without your lot showing up, it wasn't exactly my idea of a good time. It was passable though, and enjoyable in its own way, but I'd much rather have been here, in Scottsdale riding my bike, swimming every day and having a good time." "I hadn't thought of it like that." Marcus laughed. "When you say the Gray is about serving ‘all,' do you mean mage and non-mage alike?" "Yes," Worthington said immediately. "I think I would be most comfortable with that path," Marcus said softly. "You do not have to choose a path," Worthington said gently. "You've been doing fairly well on your own with your scientific approach." "I want something more than that," Marcus said passionately as he leaned forward. "You have no idea what it was like. Do you have any idea how jealous I am of you?" "Jealous of me?" Worthington asked. "I'm not talking about your money either, or how much power you have," Marcus said with a shrug of his shoulders. "You grew up knowing about magic, being trained in magic, knowing what you were and that there was a whole world out there of people like you." "You wouldn't be quite so jealous if you knew about my childhood." Worthington laughed softly at the thought. "Now Jamie, you should be jealous of him. I know I am. He had a real childhood filled with magic, and I'm not just talking about the magic we fling around. I'm talking the magic of love, which came from his mothers. Me, the best thing that ever happened to me was my Uncle trying to kill me, and managing to kill most of my family." "That sounds…wrong." Marcus frowned slightly. "Believe me, it was the best thing that ever happened to me," Worthington said as he looked at the man's desk. "Anyway, you should take your time about figuring out what path suits you best. You have a world of options opened to you now and should choose what fits you best. When you have a chance, examine those anklets and let me know if you approve their use." "Why don't you just go ahead and take them?" Marcus said as he waved a hand over them with a very slight smile on his face. "To be honest, I doubt I'd find anything even if you did do something to them. Part of me says you did something to Francis when you had him, but we could find nothing beyond you stripping all of our blocks and controls out of him." "I had no need for him." Worthington shrugged as he gathered up the boxes. If the man didn't want to look at them, that was all to the good. He'd still keep his little tricks hidden in them just in case, but now he just hoped he never had to use them. That way, Marcus would continue to trust him. Also, he would never tell the man exactly what he had done to Jeremiah Francis. "Sometimes I am amazed at just how ruthless you can be." Marcus shook his head. "I need to finish up this report, but thanks for taking the time to talk with me. What should I tell the bosses back east about your expectations regarding how much time this training is going to take?" "Give it thirty days," Worthington suggested. "By then there'll be enough anklets for all your mercenaries that will be going into the field with you, and your mages will have some good experience behind them. Plus, that gives us a great deal more time to provide the demon-piercing bullets your soldiers will need to be more than demon fodder." "Got it, and thanks again," Marcus said with a smile as Worthington nodded at him before heading out. Things could be a lot worse.
  9. What would mages in the future tell their students about Worthington Michael Sinclair the Fifth? Would he be a hero who preserved the mage community from disaster, or a traitor that nearly destroyed it altogether? Then again, would they even remember him when this was all done? "Mr. Smythe says all the legal documents are in order." Brandon's voice came from behind him, and Worthington paid it little attention at the moment. He was standing on the balcony of his fifth-floor rooms in the Clairville castle, looking out past the dwarven-built main gate. He had not been surprised that in the week since he had that fateful discussion with the government mage, Marcus de la Plane that they had completed the double-sized helicopter landing pad on the other side of the gate. "Have you heard from Dechaun?" Worthington asked, referring to the young mundane camper that he had become fond of during his time at the summer camp. When they'd last seen him, on the last day of the camp, he'd been clutching a check worth several thousand dollars and promising he would be investing the money he had earned. "Yes, he's cashed the check and actually contacted your financial people for help in investing most of the money." Brandon laughed. "He sent an e-mail to Colin yesterday too." "That's good." Worthington sighed as the second black helicopter landed. From this angle he couldn't see the men getting out, but they'd be driven up here soon enough and it was time to make good on his part of the bargain with the government. "The others are already here, right?" "Yes, Elizabeth and Stacy have been shown their rooms." Brandon said with a sigh and a shake of his head. "Jamie is with them now, showing them around the castle. Richie is here as well as the other Healer that has agreed to go along." "Has there been any response from the other Adepts or Byron Jones?" Worthington asked, and he added as an afterthought. "Or the Light Adepts we had Stacy notify?" "Al-Hasid has replied," Brandon said with a sigh that made Worthington brace for the bad news. The sun was warm this far into the afternoon, and he wished he was wearing shorts and a tank top instead of the dwarf-made, long-sleeved gray shirt and the leather pants. "And?" Worthington asked when Brandon didn't continue. "He says and I quote ‘What mages do with terrorists is no concern of mine, or yours.' end quote," Brandon answered. "Figures." Worthington sighed. Why were all the Adepts in the world so hidebound that they could not see what was happening around them? The world was far more dangerous, could do more to them than they imagined, but every time he contacted them all they wanted to do was stick their head in the sand. "Byron Jones also replied." Brandon sighed again but this time he didn't wait to continue or make Worthington ask. "He will come in two months. He'll be bringing several senior mages that he knows as well, including one Adept." "That's some good news at least." Worthington let out a breath of relief as the vehicles entered the gate. He turned around and smiled at Brandon, who was wearing dark slacks and a green dress shirt. "Yes." Brandon agreed. "Do you really think the government people will keep their word?" "They've put it in writing." Worthington shrugged. "That's the best we can do at this point." "I just hope we're doing the right thing," Brandon said sadly. "So do I." Worthington agreed. "Everything is prepared, right?" "Yes." Brandon agreed. "The Main Hall is all set up with a conference table and refreshments. Governor Lokar arrived, and Prince Kelvren is here with two of his elves. Stacy and Elizabeth are both here representing the Mage's Council, and they'll meet us there." "We might as well head down there then." Worthington sighed again, heading towards the hallway. Rob was standing at his post near the top of the stairs and smiled when he saw Worthington approaching. The square-jawed blond had changed in the last few weeks, growing broader in the shoulders, and losing some of the body fat he'd accumulated over the winter and spring. Today he was wearing olive green cargo pants, and a silver-colored silk shirt that gleamed in the imitation candlelight. His hair was longer now, curling slightly at the back of his neck and his face was actually free of any acne that had once marred it. "Hello Rob." Worthington smiled at the guy as he passed him, and Rob fell into his typical place behind Worthington and Brandon. He'd been upset when he learned that he'd missed out on some fighting by not attending the camp, but the two weeks had produced some amazing changes in him, changes Worthington attributed to the fact that Rob now had a lover, a half-elf that had moved into Clairville while Worthington had been at the camp. "How's Jhanal?" "He's fine, as always." Rob said as they went down the stairs. Even though Rob was behind him, Worthington could almost see the smile on his face. He'd sooner have believed that he'd be kissing a demon's hand before Rob would have changed as much as he had in two weeks. It was like he was almost a lovesick puppy, and his half-elven lover was determined to smooth off all of Rob's rough edges. "He says his shop will be ready to open in a few weeks, and he's liking the house the dwarves built for him." "That's good." Worthington smiled to himself as they continued down to the first floor and the Main Hall. The dwarves and elves had been as nervous as he was when the negotiations with the government mage had taken place over the last few days of the summer camp. De la Plane had stayed for three more days as they worked out tentative agreements, and while the man had been frantic to take care of his business in rebuilding his shattered organization, he had also been determined to reach a deal for Worthington's assistance. When Worthington had spoken with Kelvren, and the dwarves had arrived under Governor Lokar himself, the government mage had found himself in three-way negotiations with two races of non-humans that were offering sorely needed help in fighting demons, but demanding recognition of their people as independent nations within the borders of the United States. For his part, Worthington had found himself in the role of intermediary between the two sides. When Governor Lokar had pulled a laptop out of his backpack and connected to the Internet via a satellite link, the government man had nearly fainted from shock. The sight of Kelvren twisting one of his pointed ears while talking on a cell phone held against his other pointed ear had made the man ask for a break. Worthington had felt sorry for the older man at that point and actually admitted to him that Worthington had felt similar shocks the first time he'd run across dwarves. It didn't help that de la Plane's superiors back in Washington didn't quite believe what he was reporting to them. That was the reason for today's meeting. Well, one of the reasons for it. One of the senior mundanes from Homeland Security was coming today to see things for himself, or herself since it was a woman. Once she'd seen the dwarves and elves, and talked to them, she would sign the agreements for the government and they would be able to get down to business. "Good, you're here." Sapha, the dwarf Mistress of the House said as they entered the Main Hall. The room looked almost festive with the bunting around the walls in green, blue, and gray, and the white tablecloth over the conference table in the middle of the room. Governor Lokar and Prince Kelvren, as well as Princess Olara were standing nearby, talking to each other in low voices. "They should be entering the house any minute now. You need to stand over here, so you can introduce everyone after Baga announces the guests." "Yes, Housemistress." Worthington said with a smile for the dwarf woman. She gave him an exasperated look and bustled him over to where she wanted him to stand. Like all the ‘staff' at his house, she wore a gray and silver outfit that had a single gold flame over her left breast. How they had arrived at that sigil, he had no idea, but he was smart enough to not argue over what they considered to be his ‘family sigil'. "My Lord Governor, Royal Highnesses of the Elven Court, I present to you Assistant Director Wilma F. Huntington of the United States Department of Homeland Security. With her is the Honorable Marcus de la Plane, Acting Director of the Department of Paranormal Investigation and Regulation and their escort." "Welcome to Clairville, ma'am." Worthington said as a short, thin woman entered followed by Marcus de la Plane, four men in business suits, and sixteen unarmed soldiers in field uniforms. Wilma F. Huntington had black hair, cut short in a modern style that was just beginning to show streaks of silver. She was wearing a dark business suit with a skirt and dark hose. Her pale face was unwrinkled despite being closer to fifty than forty, and she looked every bit the well-prepared professional Worthington expected. The file he'd read on her said she'd been a career prosecutor, rising to the ranks of US Attorney before going to work for the Department of Homeland Security. She had a reputation as a determined professional, approaching everything doggedly but fairly, and brooking little nonsense from her staff or those she dealt with on a regular basis. Over the years, unlike many others in similar situations, she had turned down lucrative offers of private employment to stay in government service. "You are the young man for whom Mr. De la Plane has placed his reputation on the line in this matter," She said with a nod towards Worthington, but her eyes were slightly wide as she looked around, and as she examined the elves and dwarves that were watching her calmly. "How is his reputation holding up so far?" Worthington asked her with a polite smile on his face. "On the way here, I looked at satellite photos and aerial photos of this area." She said in a tone that held a hint of disbelief. "When the helicopter landed, I saw the same thing the photos showed. This was just another dirty, abandoned mine with contaminated soil all around, placed in the middle of a national forest. The photos even showed the helipads that weren't there a week ago. When we landed and drove inside though, everything changed. If everything I see here is half as impressive, Mr. De la Plane's reputation is perfectly safe, as are the agreements he negotiated." "Then let me introduce you to the non-human representatives." Worthington said politely, and she walked with him towards the waiting dwarves and elves. "Mrs. Huntington, may I present to you His Excellency Governor Lokar, personal representative of King Odras?" "Governor," She said with a polite nod of her head. The governor gave her a formal bow and smiled with bright teeth. "My King sends his felicitations to the human government of this land," Lokar said in a bass voice that rumbled quite impressively. "It has been too long since the dwarves had official relations with humans. The last time was before you white people came west seeking gold and riches. Alas we were too few to help the redskins in their fight, and missed them sorely when they were marched from their homes and died in great numbers." "You had dealings with the Native American tribes?" She asked with a surprised voice that trembled just a slight bit. "Aye, but they were often quite tricksome." The dwarf rumbled. "I hear the same could be said of your people, Governor." She retorted and the dwarf laughed. "You've been listening to young Worthington here." Lokar told her. "He would have you believe that if you were not careful in the bargaining we would take your shirt." "But you wouldn't?" She asked. "No, not with a lovely lady such as yourself." The dwarf smiled. "Your jacket will do just fine." "I see." She smiled and turned to look at Worthington with a nod. "May I also introduce to you his Highness, Prince Kelvren, and Her Highness Princess Olara?" Worthington's voice was polite, and he left out the fact that they were of two different courts. That was at the request of the elves. "It is an honor to meet you." She said with a slight smile. "I feel like I'm standing in the middle of a Lord of the Rings movie." "Orlando Bloom would have made a fine elf." Kelvren had what could almost be described as a leer on his face. "He was too pretty, if you ask me," Olara said in a laughing tone. "Still, I would say Tolkein is one of the few human writers to do us true justice, even if his mythology was quite inaccurate." "Still, it was much better than some of the contemporary writers," Kelvren retorted. "You will have to forgive them," Worthington said with a slight smile on his face. "If you let them, they will spend the next century talking about contemporary elven folklore and when they turn around and find your bones are already dust they'll be quite offended you had the discourtesy to grow old and die before they finished their train of thought." "You be nice, you young whelp." Kelvren laughed gaily. "You are barely old enough to be out of diapers." "Would that not make you a cradle robber?" Olara asked Kelvren and the two of them laughed while Worthington tried not to blush at the look Huntington gave him. Why did the elves take such joy in talking about his sex life at meetings like this? "Pardon me?" Huntington asked with a very polite cough as she studiously ignored Worthington's blushing. "Ah yes, he does blush quite prettily, as does his brother," Olara said with a little giggle. "Elves have a different sense of decorum, and proper topics of discussion," Worthington said with a glare for the both of them. Neither of them looked particularly troubled by his expression. "You humans take your lives far too seriously," Kelvren said with a sigh. "Life without fun and happy times would be quite boring." "Not all of us have millennia to be bored," Worthington said a little more caustically than he intended. "Millenia?" Huntington asked in a suddenly hoarse voice. "He exaggerates." Kelvren said with a frown. "I am not that old, yet." "You're barely out of diapers yourself, Kelvren." Olara teased her Dark counterpart. "How long does an elf live?" Huntington asked. "Are you truly immortal?" "All things die in their own time." Kelvren said stoically. "For our kind that time comes infrequently compared to you humans who are born, grow old and die in the blink of an eye. Once you lived longer, but that time was long ago, even by our standards. But then, you lost that because of the Curse." "Curse?" The government representative asked, but neither elf answered. "Legend says that humans were once graced with long lives," Worthington answered her with a frown. He hadn't known this actually until Sapha had told him the story. "I believe there are characters in the Christian and Jewish holy books that speak of humans living for nearly a thousand years." "Methusaleh," Huntington said and gave Worthington a sharp look. "For most Americans, they are more than characters in a book." "You humans always come up with such amazing stories to explain away your origins," Olara sniffed with disdain, and then gave Worthington a glare before the two elves walked a few feet away. "What is wrong?" Huntington asked. "The elves don't like to be reminded of this story," Governor Lokar said in a low voice. "Why not?" She asked. "You humans and your questions," Lokar snorted. "While we wait for your brother, Adept, you should tell the rest of the story and then you can apologize to the elves." "I dislike diplomacy." Huntington admitted in a low voice as the dwarf walked away, leaving them alone. "I feel like I've just made a big mistake, offended the wrong people and not really understood what I've done." "It happens." Worthington shrugged it off. "I made a similar mistake and my Housemistress had to tell me what I'd done wrong. Kelvren did not talk to me for two days afterwards. Luckily the elves do not hold grudges for too long, if you apologize, although I guess you could say they have held this grudge for nearly seven thousand years and it still pisses them off when they think about it, even though it was several of their generations ago and no elf now alive was alive then." "Seven thousand years?" Huntington shook her head. "What happened?" "According to the dwarves, humans lived a long life, ten times or more than what we live now." Worthington explained. "In those early days, the elves lived in a great valley that stretched for hundreds and hundreds of miles. The walls of the valley were steep, keeping the elves largely protected from the other races until human miners breached the southern wall. "At first, trade flourished between the humans and the elves, until a human warlord rose in the far south and east. The human settlements closest to the Valleys of the Elves were overwhelmed by refugees and appealed to the elves for assistance. In their capital city of Adalanteen, they debated for nearly a century before admitting humans into the cities of Paradelanteen and Stalasalanteen." "Okay." She said. "So what happened?" "The human warlord was eventually stopped when he reached the series of villages and towns that had been trading with the elves." Worthington answered. "The humans that had been trading with the elves had benefited from better metals, forging, and other technologies the elves had given them. Together they were able to fight off the warlord's armies, even killing him in a key battle. After the warlord's defeat, humans and elves continued to live together. Eventually humans settled in nearly every part of the Valley of the Elves." "Then why don't the elves like to talk about that time?" Huntington asked. "Why are there no historical records of this?" "Eventually another human warlord rose up, and this time he was able to conquer the border villages near the domain of the elves." Worthington answered her question, which was very close to the one he had asked when hearing this story. "As he consolidated his new territories, he realized he had a hold over the humans living in elvish lands, since many of their relatives lived in those border towns, and also, he learned of other thing that he used against the humans living with the elves. In secret, he arranged meetings with humans who lived in the elven domain. "The human elders of the villages met with representatives of the human warlord, who promised them great riches if they would help him against the elves," Worthington continued the story as he'd heard it from Sapha. "The dwarves say that while they weren't oppressed, the humans felt held back by the elves. They were answerable to elven law, and any trade they conducted had to be approved by the elven monarchs. Also, they were required to pay a higher tax than the elven merchants. For those reasons, as well as the unspoken threats to their families now under his rule, they assisted the human warlord, showing him secret ways into the elven domain. "The warlord killed all of the elves in the cities he took, and he proved his treachery by putting the humans in those lands to the sword along with the elves. The last elven city to fall was Adalanteen, their greatest city. Adalanteen could have held against the warlord's army because humans had no magic at the time and the elves were masters of magic, but again the humans who took shelter in their valley betrayed them." "Somehow that is not surprising." Huntington shook her head. "No, it isn't." Worthington agreed. "The humans took the elven children, all the children of the city who had not reached the elven version of puberty and delivered them to the warlord. The warlord demanded the Elves surrender or he would kill the children. The Queen cursed humans at that point, and her curse cut short the lives of humans to what they are now." "What happened to the city of Adalanteen?" Huntington asked as she looked at the two elves that were purposely not looking in their direction. "The Queen Jhebralta and every elf in the city surrendered." Worthington said quietly. "For five days the human warlord and his men slaughtered all the elves of that city, save for the Queen and the children. They made the Queen and the children watch as they murdered all the other elves. "The humans who had betrayed the elves watched with growing horror, and they knew in their hearts that nothing the elves had done deserved the treatment the elves were receiving. Some remembered the kindness of the elves, who had taught them the working of metals, or farming. Stealing arms from the drunken men of the warlord, they went to the Queen begging her forgiveness. "She set them a task to earn her forgiveness. Her Curse she could not undo, but she promised them that if they freed the children, and protected them until they were grown, she would give the humans that freed them a boon. They sought to convince her to go with them, but she refused, saying that her death was necessary. The humans left her and overpowered the men guarding the elven children who were to be slaughtered the next day. Then they fled west with the children, running day and night until the Great Sea Wall that held the Western Sea out of the Valley. From there they ran through secret passages until they reached the surface, and reached the safety of lands held by the dwarves. There King Loran gave them shelter. "When the warlord who had chased them arrived at the halls of the dwarves, he was thrown back. His army was driven back along the Sea Wall, where they found themselves trapped by a dwarven army to the South as well as the North. King Loran had sent a third of his forces to the south, through the secret passages of the Sea Wall and used them to trap the human warlord. "Realizing he faced defeat, the warlord fell on Queen Jhebralta, ripping her heart out of her chest. For her part, the Queen did not resist, even though she could have used her magic to rip him apart. Instead she used her death as a sacrifice, to release her magic, and her knowledge, to those humans that guarded the children of the elves. As she died, her power tore through the Sea Wall, and the dwarves fell back, north and south, to safety but the warlord's army was destroyed by the collapse. "The Western Sea, what we now call the Atlantic Ocean, rushed in through the collapsed sections of the wall, burying Adalanteen and all the other elvish cities under what we now call the Mediterranean Sea. The human warlord lived out the rest of his life on the single piece of rock that survived the collapse of the wall, and never posed a threat to another living being again. The humans that had helped the elvish children escape found themselves filled with magic from the Queen, and a basic understanding of how to use it, and teach it to the elvish children. She did this, because she feared what the knowledge would do to the immature minds of the chidren, and thus was created the first human mages." "An interesting story," Huntington said after a long moment of silence. "I take it this is supposed to be where the legend of Atlantis came from, and Gibraltar is a derivative of the elf Queen's name? Do you think it is true?" "I've never heard it until a dwarf told me the story," Worthington said. "Dwarves are crafty folk, always looking for an advantage, but I have yet to catch one in a lie. The story has the feel of fable, or legend maybe, and there is no human record of the event. Then again, there wouldn't be since the time of the Demon Wars." "Why is that?" She asked him. "Mages burned all the books on magic, or the history of magic after the Demon Wars, so that the art of summoning would not be rediscovered." Worthington shrugged. "As you know, it didn't work, but it has made it more difficult for the correct formula to summon demons to be discovered. I think we mages gave up too much other history though. It is said that demons were only part of what was destroyed in those books. Once many mages practiced things like necromancy, or summoning of spirits and elementals from the other planes, but those practices are largely proscribed now, and lost without the books that taught the magic. Any who try to learn such practices are hunted down and killed as soon as they are found." "Why?" Huntington asked him seriously. "Demons are not the only evil thing that can be summoned, ma'am," Worthington said with a shrug. "They're just one of the easiest, and most powerful." "I see," She said and frowned at him. "I suppose we should go apologize to the elves and get this meeting moving forward. Were we not supposed to be joined by some others?" "They should be here shortly," Worthington said, wondering where his brother and the others were. The government representative did follow him to the elves, though and it was she who spoke first, not Worthington. "I am sorry for any offense my words may have caused," She told them. "It seems that in addition to not knowing much of magic, we have lost much of our own history over the long years." "Offense given in ignorance is not truly offense," Olara said with a polite bow of her head. "Tell me, have you met Worthington's brother yet?" "No, I have not…" Huntington said as the same dwarf as before interrupted them from the entry to the Main Hall. "Lord and Ladies, honored guests, I have the honor to introduce Adept Jameson Bradwell, the Honorable Mage Elizabeth Bradwell-Simons, and the Honorable Mage Stacy Simons, representatives of the Mage's Council for the Valley of the Sun and in their company is Richard Simons, Mage and Healer." "Finally," Worthington muttered as he turned to see his brother entering the hall, looking quite fine in a pair of light brown leather pants, black boots, and a light gray shirt that matched his own skin-tight dark gray. Elizabeth was wearing a cream-colored business suit with a long skirt, and Stacy was wearing slacks as well as a light blue blouse. Richie was actually dressed in a pin-stripe business suit, the most formal attire Worthington had ever seen him wear, even for Jeremy's funeral. "Oh my, they do look a lot alike," Huntington said in an aside to Olara, but her eyes were watching Worthington, looking for a response. He nodded at her briefly before preparing to introduce her to his relatives. "Now that we are all here, why don't we get started?" Worthington asked when the introductions were done, and he led the way to the table. On his right side sat Jamie, followed by Elizabeth and Stacy, then Richie, Brandon, and Rob. On his other side sat Governor Lokar and the two elves, followed by several of the senior dwarven advisors to Lokar. Huntington sat across from them, with the mage Marcus de la Plane on her right, and the men in business suits arranged on her left. The soldiers that had come with them stood several feet behind their chairs, watching everyone with wary eyes. Worthington recognized several of them as being from the mercenaries outside the summer camp, including the one he had captures, Jeremiah Francis. "On behalf of the United States government, I would like to thank all of you for agreeing to this meeting, and initial discussion," Huntington said in a cadenced tone once they were all seated and had stared at one another for a few minutes. "I will be honest with you, the very idea of what you call magic makes my skin crawl. When I first heard of the Department of Paranormal Investigation and Regulation, I thought it was a joke. Its Director, Benjamin, arranged to have a demonstration for me that kept me awake two days straight. "For the past five years I have been directly responsible for oversight of Benjamin's Department and the work they perform. In those five years, it has nearly doubled in size, and the number of psionics, the term we are familiar with using for those who possess your abilities, that the teams have found has nearly tripled. When we first started hearing about a supposed community of ‘mages' we thought it was wild, fanciful stories, but we have learned that it is indeed true. "The fact is that the government of the United States believed the existence of psionics to be a new thing. We intended to keep it quiet as we studied this new phenomenon and determined its capabilities as well as its limitations. Then we would be better able to chart a correct response to those with these new abilities." "Now you know magic has existed for millennia, and that there are more than humans who walk this earth and are what you call sentient," Lokar rumbled. "Yes," She agreed with a somber nod of her head. "Frankly we are still not sure what to make of these revelations." "Which is why such information has been kept from general knowledge," Stacy said sharply. "And is why it should continue to be kept from general knowledge." "On that you have not only my agreement, but that of everyone in government levels above me who know about you," Huntington actually shuddered as she spoke. "The fact is though, that you exist, and you have abilities far beyond those of most people. Those abilities can be dangerous." "But we have ways of teaching our young people and are best equipped to deal with those dangers," Elizabeth said in a reasonable tone. "It will do you no harm to be made to forget all about this. We will absorb those you have working for you into our communities, teach them our traditions, and you will not have to worry about the general public ever finding out." "If you are so capable, why are there dozens and dozens of so-called mages that you have never identified or found?" de la Plane asked calmly. "You can't blame them, lad," Lokar rumbled. "Why not, if they're supposed to know all this culture and history of the magic world?" de la Plane asked in a voice that held more bitterness than Worthington had expected to hear. "Why was I, and men like Benjamin and the others allowed to grow up without knowing about magic?" "You humans are so short-lived that you forget history and the cycles of magic," Olara said in a sad voice. "After the time you call the Demon Wars, when we fled the Old World for this place, you forgot even more with your history books destroyed. Magic runs in cycles, and the centuries after the Demon Wars were a time of low tide in the magical forces of this world. Even the elves and dwarves, the most powerful of the magical races faded for a time. Now though, the tide is returning. The halls of the dwarves team with life, and we elves who bear maybe a single child, or at the most two in our periods of fertility now find ourselves bearing three or four each period. Even liaisons with humans are producing children when once it required great magic from both partners to create a child of mixed race." "It is only natural that in this period that more humans are born with the gift than before," Lokar continued. "Mage lines where the gift grew so weak as to be nonexistent spring back up, and mages like young Master Sinclair sow their seed in mundane women. In ages past, such offspring might never bear the gift of magic, but now most will, or the descendents of such children will find the gift appearing in them." "You, and many of the other mages you have in your program probably come from such lineage," Stacy said gently. "Until Worthington informed us of all this, the truth was we didn't know. We knew more children were being born in mage families, and that there was an increase in the power of the children of this generation, but we have lost touch with races like elves and dwarves over the years. Now though, we know and we can figure out ways to find every person born with the ability and find ways to train them." "The people in your government program should be commended for their work in figuring out some of how magic works," Elizabeth continued. "But, they are no longer needed, and neither mundane nor mage are served by it continuing to exist. Mages will deal with mages as we have for generations. Government involvement is not necessary, or advisable. Look at your own reaction to knowledge of our existence. You seem to be a very reasonable person, willing to think things through and look at all sides of an issue. What happens though when those in charge of government are differently minded? What if all they see is the danger of the mage community and then decide we should either be tools for their use or not allowed to live?" "This is the United States, not some third-world country," Huntington said sharply as she leaned forward ever so slightly. "The fact is that you have operated as laws unto yourselves, but those days are past. We are a nation of laws, where the law applies equally to everyone. I believe you are an attorney, are you not?" "Yes." Elizabeth answered warily. "Is not that principle a foundation of this country's laws?" Huntington pressed. "Yes," Worthington's Aunt answered, already hanging her head. "I see your point, but how can you apply the law equally to all without revealing to all the existence of magic? To make performing certain types of magic on people illegal, you will have to have elected representatives vote on such laws, which mean the knowledge of mages and magic will become public." "Existing laws can cover many crimes of magic," Huntington said. "For instance, whether you do it through magic or other means, interfering with a police officer is still obstruction of justice, is it not?" "True," Elizabeth frowned. "Forcing someone to have sex with you through the use of magic would be rape, would it not?" Huntington continued. "Is there any difference when the force is with a gun or magic?" "But we treat certain crimes differently depending on the method used," Elizabeth countered. "Further, there are times when using magic to force a person against their will might be justified. Would the government agree that by and large, the existence of magic, magical races, and human mages should not become general knowledge?" "The government would agree to that stipulation." Huntington agreed cautiously. Worthington sat back in his chair to watch the verbal sparring match that was taking shape now. "Then a mage adjusting the memories of a mundane that had discovered magic would not necessarily be a crime," Elizabeth continued. "Yet the mage would be inflicting force upon the person, something most laws would consider a crime." "There will need to be much discussion and thought about how to approach such situations, and where such application of magical abilities would be appropriate." Huntington admitted. "Now that we know there is a far larger world of magic out there than previously suspected, the government acknowledges that our current approach to the situation is not adequate. However, not attempting to find some way to protect our citizens from the misuse of magic is unacceptable. Mages are not above the law, and neither are dwarves or elves for that matter." "How does the government expect to deal with us?" Kelvren asked calmly. "That depends," She answered with a shrug. "Mages born here, in this country are citizens of this country with all the rights of other citizens, but that does not give them the right to walk all over their fellow citizens out of fear of what they might do. As for the other magical races, we have no firm decision at this time. However, we might be willing to consider an approach similar to that of the rights of Native Americans." "You mean limited sovereignty with the guarantees of American citizenship?" Lokar asked sharply, leaning forward in his chair. "You are serious?" "We are." Huntington assured him. "What of mages?" Stacy asked. "The government stands open to suggestion," Huntington replied. "Mr. Sinclair has made several suggestions already, and we stand ready to begin studying such a concept." "The Mage's Council has also reviewed his proposal, and we have a few minor modifications we would like to be considered," Elizabeth said with a short nod of her head to the woman. Worthington let a smile show on his face. The posturing was over with, and now the real negotiations were begun. Maybe, just maybe, the teachers of magical history might have some nice things to say about him after all.
  10. "They're doing something alright." Colin walked into the dormitory common room with a frown on his face. It was early morning two days after the last confrontation with the government forces outside the camp, and a day after the visit from the elf, Arden, and just eight hours since Prince Kelvren himself had sent a note through the shield attached to an arrow. A contingent of elves were already in position, and ten dwarves would be arriving later today brought on motorcycles by members of Worthington's gang, the MR. By the time the day was over, the siege of the camp should be ended, the government mages and their mercenaries humiliated and sent packing, and Worthington would owe the dwarves and elves a few favors. Owing them would be worth it, as he saw things, and hopefully, it could all be done without any killing on either side. Unfortunately, as soon as the sun had started to rise there had been activity at the camp's main entrance, and the government people were up to something. "What are they doing?" Jamie asked with a frown. As they had since arriving at the camp, they were all wearing jeans and one of the camp's blue t-shirts. "They're setting up some kind of tent," Colin said. "It's pretty much done, and they were bringing out two chairs and a little table. The chairs are some of those canvas ones people use when camping." "You think they want to talk?" Worthington asked as he stood up and started pacing. "That's what it seems like," Jamie said with a frown. "If they want to talk, that's a good thing. You should go out there and see if that's what they want to do." "The tent doesn't have any sides on it so you can see what's going on in there." Colin offered. "We shouldn't look too eager to talk to them," Worthington said quietly, remembering his father's lessons on business negotiations. "Make them wait, make them think we have the upper hand here." "Which we do, now," Jamie said confidently. "I think you're right. How long do you want to make them wait, and who will you take out there with you?" "I'd take you, but one of us needs to stay inside the shield," Worthington said. "Just in case this is a trap. As for when let's eat breakfast and wait a bit after that." "Okay." Jamie smiled as he stood up. "I'll get my dorm awake, and we can get the show on the road." For most of the campers, staff, and counselors, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Only Worthington's small group of mages knew exactly what was going on, and the human camper Dechaun from his dorm group. Breakfast always seemed a hit or miss affair with the camp's cooks, and today it was more of a miss. After one look at the runny eggs and limp sausages, he opted for cereal and cold milk. A taste of the milk made him almost wish he'd taken the runny eggs. He'd never tasted powdered milk before but remembered that the camp had run out of fresh milk and the supply trucks had not arrived as the staff had expected. It had taken a little bit of mage work to fix the problems without the staffers knowing what was really going on, and he had reason to be grateful the government siege would be broken shortly. The food situation was getting just as bad. After breakfast, the campers were organized into teams for yet another sporting competition. Worthington left Colin in charge of his dorm and headed into the dormitory building. All morning a single figure had been sitting in a chair under that canopy tent set up just outside the main entrance. It was obvious they wanted a ‘talk,' and Worthington decided it was time to give it to them before they struck the tent and walked away. "You sure about this?" Jamie asked. "Maybe you should take Brandon with you." "Just hold a gate open in the shield in case I need to run back through in a hurry," Worthington said. "There are elves out there now, and we can depend on them to keep an eye on things as well." "Okay." Jamie sighed as they reached Worthington's dorm and he opened up his locker. He'd brought one of the dwarven-made outfits with him, and he pulled it out of the locker now. As he'd worked at getting his stomach to accept the powdered milk and cereal, he'd thought that it would be best to meet the government dressed in the dwarven-made clothing that was as good as wearing armor. Tight black pants, and a tight-fitting long-sleeved dark gray shirt with gold and silver flakes in it that would reflect the sunlight showed off his physique quite well and provided ample protection against bullets as he'd learned already. The fact that he looked good in it was just a bonus, and one thing he knew was that physical appearance was important in any type of negotiations, which he felt more and more was what he was going to be doing. His hair was getting longer now, warranting a quick brush through with a comb to make it neat, and he smiled at his brother. "How do I look?" He asked with outstretched arms. "Good enough to fuck." Jamie smiled, and Worthington smiled back as a slight flush crept to his cheeks. It had been a while since they'd entertained those kinds of thoughts about each other. "I might hold you to that." Worthington murmured with a smile. "Good." Jamie retorted. "I'm getting as horny as a sailor on a world cruise." "You're always horny." Worthington shot back. "It's all your fault too." Jamie ended their verbal jousting with a direct hit that had Worthington mimicking an arrow to the heart. They laughed together for a moment, and Jamie hugged him. "Come back safe, bro." "I will," Worthington promised, and they broke their hug. Jamie walked with him as far as the patio of the dormitory building and stayed there, watching him as he made his way towards the main entrance. Colin was standing halfway towards the main entrance, and Worthington stopped as he neared the red-haired young man. "You're sure about this?" Colin asked nervously. "No, but it seems the right choice," Worthington admitted honestly. "If we don't have to fight, that would be better. I depend on you though." "For what?" Colin asked. "If things go wrong I might need you to come to my rescue," Worthington admitted, and Colin smiled. "I'll be there for you," Colin promised, and Worthington nodded before resuming his walk. He noticed Brandon angling towards Colin and figured the two of them would stay right there the entire time he was gone. That was fine by him. When he reached the main entrance, he didn't have to signal Jamie at all. His brother was still standing on the patio and created the gateway in the shield for him to pass through. When he walked through it, he noticed that his brother kept it open. If this were a trap, he'd be able to get back through fairly quickly. The man sitting at the small table under the tent canopy stood up as he approached and Worthington examined him. It was not the same man he'd seen with the soldiers on the first day. This was the strongest of the mages he'd faced the other day, and was in his mid-thirties at the most, with brown hair and a rather plain face. Like the other mage on the first day, he wore digital camouflage that looked like an Army uniform but had no Army markings. He knew enough about them now, from Dechaun's descriptions and his scanning of the mercenary Jeremiah Francis's mind to tell the difference. "I was hoping we could talk." The man said as Worthington moved to stand under the tent canopy. It wasn't nearly as hot as the Phoenix area, but the tent did provide good shade from the sun that was making it a warm day already. Worthington moved to stand on the other side of the table and looked the man in his hazel eyes. "I'm here to talk," Worthington said simply, and the man nodded before sitting down, motioning to the chair across from him. As Worthington sat, he noticed the table was clean except for a large manila file folder that sat directly in front of the man. "Would you like something to drink?" The man asked. "I'd imagine supplies in the camp must have been starting to run low. We've turned away two delivery trucks so far." "No thank you." Worthington declined the offer without answering the unspoken question. "I am Marcus de la Plane of the Department of Paranormal Investigation and Regulation." The man introduced himself as he leaned forward slightly in the canvas chair he was sitting in and opened the file in front of him. "You are Worthington Michael Sinclair, the Fifth." "Yes," Worthington said with a slightly raised eyebrow. "You are a psionic, what you would call a magic user, trained in what your kind call the ‘Dark path' of magic, noted for its brutality and methods of control over others." De la Plane continued. "Slightly more than a year ago your parents, and most of your family were killed by a freak lightning strike on the morning of your sixteenth birthday. It is speculated that you were involved in this in some way, possibly as a way to grab control of your family's fortune, or in some power play that seems to be common among Dark mages." "Actually, my Uncle was the one making a power play, and tried to kill me too." Worthington decided to go with honesty for now. "I was lucky to survive the attack, and his legal battle to seize control of my family's assets." "I see." The man frowned as he took out a pen and made a note on the file in front of him. If he was doing this to make Worthington nervous, or stress his importance or official nature, it wasn't working on Worthington. "Last year you made quite a fuss in the Phoenix area, and when confronted by agents of the United States government you assaulted them, telling them that you were defending the area from demons. Now you have set up some type of psionic device, or devices that claim to have established some form of mage shadow government for the area." "It is not a government, but a defensive coalition dealing solely with mage issues," Worthington said with a shrug. "I am the current Adept in charge of the Council. It will be rotated each year, so next year my brother Jamie will be in charge." "You are referring to Jameson Bradwell?" The man frowned. "It is my understanding he is your cousin, not your brother." "My half-brother," Worthington noted with a small smile. It wasn't a secret as such, and it would remind the government agent he didn't know everything. "His mother, my Aunt was impregnated with sperm from my father. Let us just say my father wasn't the most ethical of people and paid the fertility clinic to substitute his sperm for the intended donor's, without my Aunt's knowledge or consent. So, on one side of the family we are half-brothers, and on the other, cousins." "That must make family reunions interesting." The man said dryly. "I would tend to shy away from such things since my only surviving family are either here in Arizona, or people who have tried to kill me." Worthington retorted. "You are currently resisting the service of a legal warrant for your arrest on multiple charges ranging from murder to the impersonation of a federal officer." De la Plane continued abruptly. "In doing this, you have taken approximately two hundred and fifty-eight people hostage and engaged in hostile combat with government agents. In your favor, you have returned one government agent you captured, and not yet used deadly force despite an opportunity to do so. You are also a suspect in the death of fourteen US Army soldiers two weeks ago." "You know, having Army soldiers ambush a mage as he's riding his motorcycle on a highway may seem like a good idea, but it wasn't." Worthington shrugged. "Frankly, I regret those deaths, but in the situation they were unavoidable." "You call crushing them to death with their own truck unavoidable?" The government mage's voice bordered on incredulity. "I don't know what makes you think they were attacking you, but you killed them for no good reason." "A sniper shot me in the chest." Worthington snapped. "Their truck was on its side when that happened, and I got knocked off my bike." "You seem remarkably alive for someone shot in the chest." The man countered. "I had body armor on." Worthington shrugged. "Do you always wear body armor in case some sniper is trying to kill you?" The man scoffed. "In the past year, I've had my Uncle kill my family and try to kill me," Worthington said in a calm voice. "I have had a Demon Lord try to move into the city I call home, and fought several pitched battles with him and his underlings before beating him, and yes I've had a sniper actually try to kill me along with three mages and a squad of Army soldiers, so yes, I do wear body armor quite frequently. Should that be any surprise to you?" "What three mages?" de la Plane asked sharply. "There were no mages with those soldiers." "Yes, there was." Worthington countered in a sharp tone. "I should know, and Jamie was there too, so he can verify. There were three mages that we killed in that little encounter. Now here you are a few weeks later trying to finish what they started." "We had no mages with an Army unit trying to capture you at that time." The man frowned, and Worthington believed him. Why he believed him, he wasn't sure. "They did try to kill me." Worthington reiterated, and the man frowned, not even making the pretense of writing anything in the file. "The other day you had the opportunity to kill at least one of us, if not more." De la Plane said instead of continuing that topic. "Why didn't you? Luke woke up a few hours later, just like you said he would." "I don't like to kill if it is not necessary." Worthington shrugged ever so slightly. "It is why I let your mercenary Jeremiah Francis go after I had stripped his mind of your controls and read what I needed to know. You talk about the Dark path as if it was something horrible, but many of your tactics would fit right in with Dark mages." "Not if some of the stories I've heard are true." De la Plane snorted. "If you've heard them from that Light family you captured, you are getting a distorted view," Worthington said calmly. "Although to be honest, I must admit I am no longer Dark path. I have left that and walk the Gray path instead." "What is that?" de La Plane asked. "I have not heard of a ‘Gray path.'" "You might say it is new." Worthington smiled ever so slightly. "My brother and I are the first, and so far only mages on the path. It is a mixture of both Light and Dark, a place between them for those that don't belong in either." "Interesting." The man said as he leaned forward slightly. "What makes you two think you're qualified to create this new path?" "We are Adepts," Worthington answered. "In mage society, Adepts have a great deal of latitude most mages do not have." "So there is a mage government." The government agent said. "The Mage's Council I founded is the closest thing to a mage government that has existed in hundreds of years," Worthington answered. "What I am talking about is custom, tradition, something you would know little of with the background of your ‘Department.'" "If your tradition is so important, how do you account for the fact that I have been working with the government in defiance of your tradition for nearly twenty years now, and you never knew about it?" The man asked. "I haven't even been alive for twenty years." Worthington shrugged. "As for how other mages have not found out about what you're doing with the government, in defiance of mage tradition and custom, I would say it is for the same reason that you did not know about the mage community until recently. Both groups are quite capable at keeping their secrets." "But you aren't." The man countered, and Worthington smiled. "Is this what we are here to discuss?" Worthington asked. "No." The man frowned and closed the file. "I wanted to get a chance to sit down and actually talk with you, to understand what kind of a person you are, if you are as evil as your file would seem to indicate." "I am not evil," Worthington said vehemently, but then he calmed down. "I am ruthless, and I will do what needs to be done to protect my interests, or the interests of those I care about. When that is necessary, people on the opposite side of me will find themselves hurt. If it's not necessary to kill them, I won't, but I will use every tool in my arsenal to protect what is mine, and what I care about, what I love. My arsenal, as you found out the other day, is quite impressive. Unlike you and your little band of mages, I have had the benefit of lessons at the hands of people who have practiced magic all their life, and who were in turn taught by mages who were well practiced and experienced, and so on and so forth. There are centuries of practical experience and theoretical experiments in magic behind my training." "We are not exactly roadkill," De la Plane said defensively. "No, and I actually respect what you have achieved with your group," Worthington said in all honesty. "You are a significant threat." "As are you." He retorted. "You threaten the very existence of all mages and magical beings," Worthington replied with a calm tone. "We have kept our existence secret because if mundanes, in general, knew about our existence, we would not be able to live our lives freely." "Freely?" The man snorted. "You mean be able to walk all over those who do not have our abilities, to flout the laws that are supposed to apply to all our citizens, to use your powers on officers of the law whenever you wish, to live outside the laws everyone else must live with if they do not have our abilities." "No." Worthington shrugged. "You are trying to deny you've used your powers to get away with breaking the law?" de la Plane was openly scornful. "I have not said that." Worthington shrugged. "Mostly I have used my powers to prevent the open knowledge of magic, as is the tradition." "You mean to tell me if you were pulled over for say, speeding, you would not use your powers to get out of a ticket?" The man asked. "A beautiful woman will show her cleavage and flirt to get out of a ticket." Worthington shrugged. "What about murder?" The man asked. "Or torture of innocent people?" "You seem to have no problem with doing those things to mages." Worthington countered. "I know you have a mage family in custody and you force the parents to cooperate by threatening their son, and you have the son so bound with compulsions that he does your bidding. You've done the same to other mages as well." "We do it for the protection of the people." The man retorted. "That's the regulation part of our title. Psionics cannot be allowed to roam free and use their ability on innocent people." "Which is exactly why mage society has always resisted having mundane governments involved in their affairs." Worthington pointed out. "Even in mundanes who are our friends, there is an element of fear. If large numbers of mundanes find out about us, especially when they do not know us as individuals, their fear of the unknown takes hold, and they seek to clap us in irons to prevent us from affecting their lives unless they need our help." "Even in the government, there are few people who know of our existence." De la Plane commented. "It is considered classified information, need-to-know only. At most, there are a few thousand who know about the Department, and its operations. Most of them are in Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, and a few federal law enforcement or intelligence agencies as well as select members of the Executive Branch. Our mission is solely to prevent the use of paranormal abilities against the government or the people of this country." "That's a high-sounding principle," Worthington argued. "The fact remains though that the longer the government knows of us, the more they will regulate us. Is it right for the government to tell us what we can do with our abilities, how we are to live our lives?" "Is it right for us to take away the free will of other people?" de la Plane countered in an even tone. "People take away the rights of others all the time through the use of purely normal means." Worthington shrugged. "It is all part of the exercise of power. With money, I can hire lobbyists and use them to convince the government to pass a law that will allow me to spy on all my employees. Current law allows me to control much of what my employees can say or do even in their free time." "But that is influence or power that anyone can have, with or without paranormal abilities." De la Plane countered. "Not everyone can waltz into the White House and use the abilities we possess to make the President launch nuclear missiles at another country. You could do that if you wanted." "Why would any mage want that?" Worthington scoffed. "To start a genocidal war against our country?" de la Plane suggested. "In the past few years, we have found numerous people who committed acts of terrorism because they were controlled by a psionic." "That is disturbing, I do agree," Worthington admitted. "I will even go so far as to say the mage community must look into that and take action. If other mages are doing such things, they are threatening all mages and must be stopped. That is the foundation of our traditions and customs as mages. When one of us threatens the safety of all, we take action. That is why some mages choose to work in law enforcement, or join the military, to keep on eye on things and prevent rogue mages from committing such acts." "But would they not be more effective working with the full blessings of the government?" de la Plane asked. "Possibly," Worthington admitted as he shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He hated that the man's reasoning seemed sound. "The fact remains though that mage should not be forced to work for the government the way you are doing it now." "But you will admit that there is some merit to working with the government instead of against it?" de la Plane pressed. "You have given me some things to think about," Worthington admitted. "Would you say you have a great deal of influence in the broader mage community?" The man asked in a very carefully controlled manner. "Yes and no." Worthington shrugged. "In the Valley of the Sun, the greater Phoenix metropolitan area, the answer is naturally affirmative. Elsewhere? As I said earlier, there is no shadow government of mages. Each community, each family, each individual mage is the master of his or her life. The only time we really act as a community is when our existence is threatened." "But can you influence other mages?" de la Plane pressed. "What about other Adepts?" "There is maybe a little more than a dozen Adepts altogether, mostly Dark spread across the world." Worthington shrugged. "I know of six here in the United States, not counting Jamie and me, or Colin." "Who is this Colin?" de la Plane asked. "The red-headed kid in the camp with us," Worthington answered. "He is Adept-potential in power, but he lacks in training Jamie, and I have received over the last several years. We are rectifying that, but it will be years before he reaches the level of control and experience that we have." "He is a Gray path as well?" de la Plane asked. "No, he is, or will be Dark path." Worthington chuckled. "There is no doubt of that at least. His mentality is definitely that of a Dark mage." "I see." The man frowned. "So there are six people of the same power level as you." "With a lot more experience and training as well," Worthington said. "In the past, Adepts have been very solitary, and rarely listen to one another, or even try to speak with one another unless they are training a student. The fact is that about the only thing that will bring them together is the existence of your organization with the government. When they discover that, I can see them wielding all their power and influence to hunt down every government-controlled mage, kill them, and then either kill or wipe the memories of every mundane who has ever learned about magic." "They couldn't possibly hope to succeed," De la Plane said, but he shifted nervously in his chair. "I faced down eight of you, with your soldiers the other day." Worthington pointed out with a shrug. "As Adepts go, I am fairly inexperienced and not completely trained. Imagine nine of us coming down on one of your facilities, even without lesser mages supporting us. What would happen?" "It would be bloody, whatever the outcome." De la Plane said with a frown. "I won't say you'll win, because I am not sure you could pull that off, but it is a threat we have not even considered. You seem confident that you will escape from this encounter and be able to inform them, though." "I am confident." Worthington shrugged. "We have more psionics on their way here," De la Plane shrugged. "Can you fight off twelve or more of us, and our soldiers?" "So far we have just talked about mages," Worthington said. "You have totally ignored the existence of magical beings and their rights." "Do we recognize the rights of dogs?" de la Plane scoffed. "I am sure a dwarf or an elf would love to hear you comparing them to animals," Worthington laughed scornfully. "You best be ready to run when you do." "You expect me to believe there really are elves out there?" de la Plane laughed. "I had a good time berating the leader of our support team for chasing off after phantoms the other day." "Elves and dwarves are quite real." Worthington smiled. "If you stay around here long enough, you'll meet a few of them and I dare say you will not like the experience. Like mages, the number of magical beings has been increasing exponentially over the last century and they are moving into areas where they have never been before. How should the government deal with them? What rights do they have with your government? Will you view them as just animals, or with the same rights as humans? Can you legitimately say they are represented by your government when they are not part of it, or able to vote in your elections?" "I would have to see one of these creatures to believe it." De la Plane said, but there was a frown on his face. "Stick around; I guarantee you will," Worthington promised. "In fact, one of your soldiers did the other day." "I assumed that was just another illusion of yours." The man frowned. "You're saying it was real? What are they planning? They're here to help you, aren't they?" "We're allies, yes." Worthington smiled. "Your siege won't last much longer." "Why are you telling me this?" de la Plane asked. "You've given up the element of surprise, you know." "I know." Worthington shrugged. "With elves and dwarves, I'm not too worried. We will try not to kill many of you, but it would be better for all involved if you packed up and walked away." "Why?" de La Plane asked with a frown. "I am not blood-thirsty," Worthington said with a shrug. "If they have to help me, I'll owe both races a big favor, and I would rather not be indebted to them. We are allies, but the dwarves are especially greedy folks. I can live with owing the elves a favor of this magnitude. The dwarves though will milk this for all they can if they have to help rescue me. If you leave on your own because of this talk, I don't have to owe them that favor. "Now, here's what I'm suggesting. You and your men leave. In a few weeks, I will send you an invitation and we will meet to talk in neutral territory. The fact is, the dwarves and elves are facing major issues because of their population explosion. It is difficult for them to find places to expand without running into trouble with humans and human authorities. Maybe, working together we can help them out. Then they will owe me, and that will be fine. Also, I am interested enough by our discussion to want to continue it in the future. The fact is you are not just going to go away, but you also need to recognize that you have bitten off far more than you expected." "I hate admitting it, but you are more right than you know," De la Plane said in a resigned tone, and he opened the file again, this time taking out a stack of large photographs and pushing them across the table to Worthington. The first black and white picture was a handsome guy with long, disheveled hair who looked fairly grimy and was wearing clothing that had definitely seen better days. "What is this?" Worthington asked as he looked at the first photograph. "One of our psionics on vacation in Las Vegas detected this man whose name he gave as Josh Dehavelin," De la Plane answered in a grim tone. "Our man captured him and brought him into our San Diego center for examination and regulation. Since our capture of certain other mages, we have begun a new line of questioning, and the young man claimed to be able to summon demons. "You should understand that during our initial experiments twenty years ago we tried summoning things like demons or elementals and all of our experiments met with failure. We believed it was impossible; that they did not exist. That is why your story was met with such disbelief." "Experimenting with magic is dangerous, even if you're an Adept," Worthington responded as he got a sinking feeling in his stomach. "Adepts are the only ones with the power to really experiment with magic." "Our founder, Benjamin Stark is what you would call an Adept." De la Plane explained. "It was he who first established the research which led to our creation as an organization, and I was one of the first people he recruited along with our staff scientist. He figured out most of what we can, and cannot do." "That would make sense." Worthington agreed. "You didn't let this idiot actually try a summoning, did you?" "Three days ago it was decided to let him try." De la Plane said in a tightly controlled monotone. "I am in charge of the San Diego office, but in my absence, one of my subordinates received permission to let him try. We've discovered in the last year that some of the things we thought impossible with our powers are possible, so we wanted to see if this was another of those things. From what you told our agents in Phoenix, we knew that if demons were real, they were a threat so the six most powerful psionics we have were in the room when the summoning took place. Look at the next set of photos." "Was he green-skinned?" Worthington asked as he looked at a series of photographs showing the preparation of the summoning circle, and six mages watching everything. He wanted to shudder at the one showing the demon appearing. "Yes." The man answered grimly as Worthington reached the photos of the demon attacking the government mages. They never stood a chance, really. "There are three types of demons," Worthington said softly, starting to feel sympathy for the man as he looked at pictures of the demon subduing all six mages and entrapping them in magical webs. The photos skipped everything after the demon started consuming the first mage, until he moved to the second, and then the third. "The lowest class generally has orange skins. Green skins are Oska demons and very powerful. They will feed off mundane humans, but mages are their favorite. When they consume a mage, they consume the mages power, growing stronger as they do so. Their summoner also receives a portion of that power and grows stronger." "This one consumed four of our strongest mages." De la Plane said sourly. "The other two, he did something to, and they assisted the subject in escaping after the demon left." "Strong demons are able to take over the minds of mages, especially their summoner." Worthington supplied the information as his stomach did a slow, queasy roll. "Centuries ago a great Demon War broke out. Over half the mages alive in that time died in the conflict, and the last Mage Lord lost power as a result. The demons gained power by obtaining control of more and more mages, allowing many of them to be summoned at one time. You have a serious problem on your hands here." "That's not all," De la Plane said, and Worthington set the photos down after reaching the part where the two newly controlled mages submitted themselves to the sexual pleasure of the demon. It was part of how the demon maintained control over them even after he was gone from this plane of existence. "You have two other facilities, one in Wichita and one in Washington," Worthington said, taking this to the next logical conclusion. "Had." De la Plane's voice now showed the fear he must have been hiding all along. The man's self-control was amazing if he'd hidden that all this time. "Last night, the two agents who were taken by the demon showed up at those facilities with several other people, and they summoned a dozen or more demons. Most of the mages present in those facilities at the time were killed, or taken like the two from San Diego." "It looks like the government won't be a threat for much longer to the mage community," Worthington said grimly as he crossed his arms. "My condolence on the loss of your friends and colleagues, but this is your problem, not mine." "I have received orders that finding and eliminating those who have been taken is a top priority." De la Plane continued. "Despite your assumption that we have been severely crippled, less than half of our number in total were in those facilities at the time of the attacks. We believe the demon summoners are operating somewhere in southern Nevada, or Northern Arizona and I have been authorized to do whatever is necessary to take them out of commission." "Again, that is your problem, not mine," Worthington said. "However, I would be willing to give you some advice on facing demons, some strategy and tips, if you will. I am sure we can reach some… agreement on the price for that." "Are you sure that is all you are willing to do?" de la Plane asked. "If we don't take care of the problem, the President is likely to be forced to take severe, military action and keeping the existence of mages and demons a secret will be next to impossible if such action is necessary. Eventually, no matter what is done, word will get out that demons and magic are real. How will that affect you and the magic community in general?" "I will share your concerns with the other Adepts that I know," Worthington offered. "As I mentioned, I am also willing to provide you with some information and tips on how to fight demons and win. All I want for that is to be left alone by your agency, and the government in general." "Do you really believe that your magical community can survive if the government has to get regular troops involved in this?" de la Plane asked in a calm voice and with a raised eyebrow as he met Worthington's gaze firmly. "How will the magical community be served by letting these demons run loose, growing in power? What will happen when the front page of every newspaper and website has pictures of troops battling demons?" Worthington felt his mind reaching out, finding his brother's and shared everything the man had just told him about. He could feel Jamie's surprise that mirrored his own, and the sense of dread in his brother. They both felt the pull of their new commitment that they had made a few days ago to the Gray path. It demanded action, more action than Worthington was willing to commit to, but his brother was of a different opinion. While de la Plane watched him, Worthington argued with his brother, whose opinion was much more vehement. Finally, with a sigh, he gave in and let the link drop. "Let's talk about this," Worthington said in a defeated tone as he leaned forward, and tried not to let the man's smile irritate him too much. Jamie was leaving the dormitory building, heading this way, although he had not yet dropped the shield over the camp. When he reached them, with Colin, Brandon, and Carl in tow, de la Plane gave a small smile of victory, even as they began to negotiate terms for exactly what would happen now.
  11. The attack on Jamie's shield was fierce, and Worthington winced at the sight of it as he strode purposely towards the main gate of the camp. It wasn't a gate as most people would think of it, little more than a square wooden set of posts with the name of the camp over the top. There was a decorative wood fence to either side that continued for a hundred feet, but that was it. The only barrier keeping the people on the other side of that gate from entering was Jamie's shield, and he could feel it beginning to weaken as it was struck again by a combined magical and physical attack. Power poured into him from Brandon, who kept pace, and in step with him as only, a fully linked Channel could. In fact, Brandon was so close he could feel the shorter boy's body against his as they walked. His own personal shields flared around him as he prepared to enter battle against those attacking the camp. It was barely fifteen minutes until the camp's normal lunchtime, the middle of the day, and he was surprised they had chosen now to attack. He'd expected an attack, if it happened, to occur in the dark of the night. Maybe that was why they'd struck now. Had they expected to take them by surprise? A mental signal to his brother told Jamie that he was at the entrance of the camp, and he felt his own shields buffered by an addition from Jamie just before his brother dropped the section of the shield covering the gate. They weren't foolish enough to drop the entire shield over the camp. So far, the mercenary soldiers had been stationed all around the camp, and would likely be waiting for such a thing. He could hear the bullets from the guns of the soldiers flying by him as the shield dropped, and he barely refrained from wincing as a few of them struck the outer shield Jamie had thrown around him. Two powerful mage bolts flew past him, a third struck his shield and before it flared he got his first look at the attackers. "Fuck." He muttered to himself as he realized he was possibly in over his head. Strike that, he was definitely way over his head. Even if none of them were Adept-class in power, facing off against eight mages was enough to challenge even a fully-trained Adept with a fully-trained soul-bound Channel at his back. Worthington wasn't fully trained, and while he believed he had not yet reached his full potential as far as power, he was one of the strongest mages in a generation. Brandon wasn't fully trained either, but was a strong Channel. Still, had they had twenty years behind them, eight mages and at least six fully armed soldiers would have been a challenge for them. Where power alone could not solve a problem, Worthington knew to fall back on skill. These were government mages, and he now knew they were not trained by mages who had centuries of accumulated knowledge and experience behind their lessons. The magic that Worthington had learned since he was a child was nuanced and refined over centuries of practice by mages. Whoever was teaching these government mages had none of that behind them. He knew from Jeremiah Francis's mind that they were experimenting, trying to learn how magic worked and didn't work, and that was his best advantage right now. The soldiers were the biggest threat to him right now. Their bullets were more numerous than the blasts of mage power the mages could throw at him, and required more power for defense, even if Jamie was providing that at the moment. Getting rid of them would improve the odds drastically. The image of an Elven warrior popped into view just behind the soldiers, firing an arrow from a longbow that appeared to strike a soldier. The soldier's screams of pain as the arrow stuck through his back and out his chest caught the attention of his fellow soldiers, and when the elf disappeared into the underbrush, they opened fire in that direction. Even the mages stopped their attacks to stare as more elven warriors appeared, firing arrows that stuck out of the ground but miraculously missed the other soldiers. Like good soldiers, they turned and began firing at the new enemy, and when the elves broke and ran, they chased after them. The illusions wouldn't last long and required more power than he had expected. Still, it gave him a few minutes without bullets heading his way, and he planned to use that to the most effect that he could. His first two blasts reminded the eight mages he was facing that he was still there, and as he let the illusory arrows fade from the ground, his power stripped away the shields from what he sensed to be the weakest of the assembled mages. The man in his early twenties dropped like a stone as the first blast of power ripped away his shields. At the last moment, Worthington changed the second blast from one that would have killed him to one that simply knocked him out for a few hours. Something about the little ceremony he'd performed a few minutes ago with Jamie stuck in his mind. They'd committed to serving everyone with their power, not just the mages that looked to them for protection. Those words seemed to bind him somehow, and he was reminded of the Law of Unintended Consequences as it applied to new spells. There was always something about new spells that happened in ways you had not intended, and now Worthington was finding out there were side-effects to that impromptu ceremony he and Jamie had performed. Seven answering blasts of power reminded him he was still outnumbered, and the shield Jamie held over him thinned into the barest of protections under the assault. Worthington's next strike wasn't at any of the mages directly. Instead, he summoned up the dirt in the surrounding area and threw it into the sky, letting it fall down in an obscuring cloud while he sprinted to the left. He could no longer see the mages, and they could no longer see him. Again, he was counting on his better experience with mage-craft to give him an edge, and it did. They fired blasts of power into the spot where he'd been, striking nothing but ground. Worthington on the other hand concentrated on his mage-senses that told him where other mages were, and how powerful they were. He then took the vise of power he'd used before and split it over two mages, surrounding them with a penumbra of pure magical force that constricted over their shields. He could feel both mages instinctively strengthening their shields, throwing all power into defense and stopping the vise from clamping down harder on them. Reaching the point where there was equilibrium, where the mages were pouring all their power into defense and the vises were neither gaining ground nor losing, he held them there, tying them off at that point of power, keeping them fed but no more. His goal wasn't to kill the mages but fight them to a standstill. The dust began to clear, and he lost his slight advantage as two mages still free saw him and shifted their attacks back towards him. Jamie's shield had strengthened, and Worthington pulled a great amount of power from Brandon for his next attack. A wave of darkness stretched out from him, hitting the two mages who had spotted him. They cried out in fear as the darkness hit them, and for them appeared to blot out the noonday sun. It seeped past their shields, and they didn't know enough about the mix of low and high magic that made up the spell to cast out the parts of it that were low magic from their mind. Now there were just three mages left, and Worthington settled down for a more prolonged fight with these three. To his surprise though, they were just standing there, staring at him with surprised expressions on their faces. When they didn't press any further attack, Worthington took a risk and released the vises of power over the two mages he'd held earlier. They started to shift to the attack, but stopped, and looked at their leader with surprise before turning back to stare at Worthington. Taking that as an offer of a truce, Worthington released the other two mages who had been held by the wave of darkness. When they also relaxed into a defensive posture instead of attacking, Worthington nodded at the man who appeared to be the leader of the mages and signaled for Jamie to close the hole in the main shield of the camp. "He's not dead," Worthington said in a loud voice pointing to the mage who he had first struck down. "He'll wake up in a few hours." With that, he turned and felt Brandon following him as he left the front gate. By the time he reached the Dorm building, he was shaking from exhaustion. The sheer amount of power he'd used was staggering, and the fact that he still had power in reserve was even more astonishing. He knew that a few hours ago he would have been exhausted with what he'd done. Had that little ceremony he'd done with Jamie given more than new restrictions on him? "Colin, why don't you get everyone up and about?" Worthington suggested to the redhead who was looking at him as soon as he entered the common room. "Okay," Colin said softly. There was something different about his attitude towards Worthington, and it took a moment for Worthington's tired mind to process exactly what that difference was. The boy's single word had held a great deal more respect than he'd ever really shown before. "Nice job," Jamie said as Worthington sat down next to him. His brother was sitting cross-legged in the middle of the room with Carl lying flat on his back and his blond head resting in Jamie's lap. The boy was asleep, and Jamie was idly stroking his blond hair in a comforting gesture. "I nearly drained him completely." "I feel ready to pass out too," Brandon said softly as he sat down next to Worthington. The dark-haired young man gave Worthington a grin before mimicking Carl's position. Worthington chuckled softly as he mimicked Jamie by stroking his Channel's dark hair, and Brandon's eyes were closed within seconds. "How much did Colin see of the fight?" Worthington asked. "He stood on the patio area and watched the whole thing." Jamie chuckled. "I think he's scared and excited about how you took on eight mages and a bunch of soldiers. Part of him wonders what you'd do to him if he ever pissed you off, and part of him is probably wondering if he will ever be able to do that." "That makes sense." Worthington muttered. "Something happened during the fight. I felt some type of… restriction when I was about to take out one of the mages. It was like I couldn't kill him. I'm also nowhere near as tired as I should be, like I have some new reserve of power." "I felt it too." Jamie frowned as he replied. "Do you think it was something to do with the Gray path?" "I think so," Worthington said and explained his reasoning. "That would make sense, and it's like I have access to some deeper reserve of power that wasn't there before too." Jamie continued. "It's like what I expected to be able to draw from the Light when I was done with the training for that." "Except it is neither Light nor Dark," Worthington said quietly as campers and staff began to appear in the room and headed outside. "It's both," Jamie muttered before an anxious-looking Dechaun joined them. "Boss man, why'd you go and do that for?" Dechaun frowned as he sat down between him and Jamie. "What are you talking about Dechaun?" Worthington asked with confusion. "You put me to sleep with the rest of them," Dechaun complained. "I thought I was your man, that you trusted me." "I do trust you Dechaun." Worthington almost laughed but thought better of it at the last moment. He could feel the hurt feelings inside the boy. "There wasn't anything you could do, though, so I made sure you were safe along with everyone else." "I don't like it, boss man," Dechaun complained. "I don't like what happened either, but there's no use complaining." Worthington shrugged. "Life is rarely fair, as you know." "How am I going to earn my money if you send me to sleep?" Dechaun complained, and this time Worthington did laugh. "Dechaun, you can't keep falling back on that every time you want to guilt trip me into letting you do something," Worthington explained as he laughed, and the boy cracked a smile. "A guy has to try." Dechaun shrugged as he smiled sheepishly. "Look, I want you to watch the main gate for the rest of the day and tell me if anyone approaches," Worthington said, and Dechaun nodded happily before getting up and heading out the door. "Oh, and you better eat before you do that!" "Don't worry boss; I'll eat!" Dechaun called back as he left the building. "That kid is going to be one hell of a businessman when he grows up." Jamie laughed. "If he survives that long," Worthington said with a frown. "Why do you think they stopped the attack?" Jamie asked once all the campers and staffers had headed out the door, and a very tired Colin joined them sitting on the floor. "I'm not sure," Worthington shrugged. "I was still going strong, and could probably have taken at least two more of them down, but the soldiers were on their way back by that point, so winning wasn't a certainty." "Maybe they didn't know that," Colin pointed out. "You took down five of them and sent their soldiers off on a wild goose chase. That's pretty good for just one person, well two if you count Brandon." "I couldn't have done all that without Brandon," Worthington pointed out. "When do I get a Channel?" Colin asked. "When you meet one that is willing to work with you," Jamie answered, and Colin looked like he was going to argue, but he looked at Worthington's face and shut his mouth. "Still, you have a point, Colin." Worthington complimented the boy to soften the blow of his agreeing with Jamie's response about the Channel. "They probably didn't know how close I was to being tapped out. It will probably be a day before they try anything again." "I hope so." Jamie sighed. "Right now I just want to eat and get some sleep for a bit." "So do I." Worthington agreed. "How about I go and get some food for all of us, and then we can all sleep?" Colin asked, and Worthington was pleasantly surprised by the offer. "That would be nice." Worthington agreed at once. "I'd appreciate it, Colin." "No problem, boss man," Colin said in a perfect imitation of Dechaun. He returned fifteen minutes later with food for all of them, carried in with the help of two of their Badger campers. Brandon and Carl woke up long enough to eat before all five of them headed to their dorms and some sleep. This time Worthington's sleep was untroubled as he dozed. It was just before dinnertime when he woke up to the sounds of his campers in the dorm room. They were all chatting happily about some game they had won, and Worthington felt guilty for the amount of neglect they'd suffered over the last few days. As he got up, he vowed to try to do better by them over the next few days, mage conflict or no mage conflict. The truth of that last thought hit him hard as he looked at the campers. They were a reminder that no matter what happened with mages, and it would seem like there would always be something happening now in that regard, life went on for most people. Worthington and the others were trying to handle this situation in a way that barely impacted the lives of ordinary people like these kids, and here was the proof that it was the right thing to do. Instead of huddling and being worried about what was going on, they were having a good time. "Yo, boss man, you're alive!" Hector, one of the Latino campers in his dorm said when he saw Worthington looking at them. "Dechaun said you and some of the other counselors got sick. You doing okay?" "Doing better now, Hector." Worthington smiled. "I hear you guys won today?" "Yup, we're leading all the Dorms in points now!" Hector beamed proudly. "We're going to win the Best Dorm competition this year." "Not if you guys keep leaving this place all messed up like it is now," Worthington noted as he looked at the rumpled bunks and bits of clothes and different junk lying around. "When was the last time any of you swept this joint? You know Mr. Hall does those surprise inspections." "Oh man, you just had to go and ruin our day." Hector moaned, but he was smiling, and the rest of the campers were already straightening all their own areas. Worthington smiled as they set to work with no more need of encouragement. This was the last year most of these kids would be able to attend the camp as campers, but they knew that the campers from the ‘Best Dorm' of the prior year were often invited back as junior counselors for one of the next year's summer sessions, and each camper in the Best Dorm got a decent prize. This year the prize was a video iPod that all the boys seemed to be craving badly. Worthington managed to spend most of the remainder of the afternoon with his dorm, catching up on all the things they had been doing while he was ‘sick.' Colin woke up an hour later, and joined him, albeit most of his interest was feigned rather than genuine like Worthington's. The boys seemed to detect that and returned his feigned interest with feigned friendliness on their part. If you're going to fake it, you might as well not bother with these boys. Worthington finally sent his thoughts to Colin as they walked their dorm to dinner. They're mundanes. Colin snorted. How would they know? Take a quick look in their minds when one of them is looking at you. Worthington suggested and smiled to himself at the frown that appeared on Colin's face a few moments later. How dare they think that! Colin was not happy. Is it true? Worthington asked. What does that have to do with anything? Colin snapped. I'm a mage; they're just mundanes. Mundanes aren't stupid just because they can't perform magic. Worthington noted. You are no better than them, intrinsically, just because you are a mage. Yes, I am. Colin asserted. I may not be Light path anymore, but that doesn't mean I'm less than I was before. A mage is a mage. Is that what your grandparents taught you? Worthington asked in surprise and noted the look of fear on Colin's face. Yes. Colin's reply was almost meek. And you're taking your grandparents' word that mages are intrinsically better than mundanes over mine? Worthington asked. Why? Because it makes you more important? I am important. Colin said proudly. Yes, you are, but it's not just because you're a mage. Worthington countered and noted the confused look on Colin's face as they got in line for food with their campers. Every person is important, and Colin, you had one fucked up childhood. Granted, most Dark mages had a childhood most people would call fucked up, but that doesn't make what you went through any less wrong. The thing is though, Colin, that Dechaun is just as important as you. Think about it. That kid, given the right encouragement and opportunity can become as powerful in the business or political world as you are in the mage world. He understands human nature in a way that few people ever totally grasp, and he's only twelve. With the right help, he can turn that into a powerful tool over time, and use it in ways you can't even imagine right now. You sound so sure about that. Colin's mental voice was barely a mutter. Your grandparents were absolutely wrong about you. Worthington snorted. You were never suited to the Light path. The Dark path is where you belong and that I am quite certain about. Why would it be difficult to accept they might be wrong about mages being intrinsically better than mundanes? It always gave me something to hold onto, something to believe in that there was something good about me. Colin ‘whispered' as much as possible with this form of communication. You don't have to be better than a mundane to know there's something good about you, Colin. Worthington's mental voice was full of confidence as they sat down, and he felt like he was making some important progress with the boy. For one thing, you're part of my life now. That will never change. There will always be a place for you with me, as part of my circle of family and friends. Why? Colin asked as he bit into his turkey sandwich and Worthington responded verbally to a question from one of the campers. Because as much as you cause me a lot of worry at times, I like you. Worthington answered clearly and with meaning. As powerful as Dechaun might become in the mundane world one day, you're going to be a major influence on the magic world, and I want you to be ready for that, able to choose your own path and your own future and to understand the consequences of the decisions that you make. I won't always agree with what you do, but then Jamie and I don't always agree either. That's part of life. So you're not going to hold me back? Colin asked with surprise. No. Worthington snorted. There are some things I won't teach you, but it's not to hold you back in your progress. That is a decision I don't make arbitrarily. Like what was done the other night that I wouldn't show you, that is something I would not teach anyone. You taught it to Jamie, though. Colin stated. Jamie and I are brothers, and it is a family secret. Worthington countered. Even if I adopt you formally as a Sinclair, I still won't teach you. My children might learn it, but then again it may be something I decide to let die with the current generation of Sinclair boys. Oh. Colin frowned but didn't say anything more. After dinner, Worthington made good on his commitment to spend more time with his campers. It was game night, and he found himself in a lively game of Monopoly with several of the campers from his dorm. Dechaun had come inside towards the end of dinner and joined him at the table for the game. He wasn't surprised when Dechaun took an early lead in the game and used ruthless tactics to wheedle his way into a large pile of cash and property. He almost felt guilty when the game came down to just the two of them as the night was drawing to a close. Worthington managed to absorb the properties of several other players who were happy to ‘go out' to him instead of the ruthless Dechaun who made the mistake of gloating over his early victories. Throughout the last hour, a large group of campers materialized around them to watch the action, rooting for either Worthington or Dechaun. A series of bad rolls put Dechaun in hoc with several properties, forcing him to sell off houses on his best properties. Then Worthington used the liquid assets he had built up to raise the ante on the main properties he owned, dealing Dechaun a deathblow as it were. The boy took the loss gracefully though, bowing out to Worthington's sharper acumen, and the onlookers cheered both sides in the game. That night he slept peacefully again, enjoying the rest until Jamie woke him in the early hours of the morning to take his turn holding the shield. There had not been a single bit of activity all night from the government forces outside the camp. It was as if they were licking their wounds, pulling back and just watching for now. When the sun rose hours later, Worthington had begun to feel a ray of hope that this might work after all. They had just a few more days to go until the end of the camp session. More than likely the government mages wouldn't make another attempt before then, or at least that was what he hoped. When Jamie woke up, he mentioned that he'd had an idea on how to warn off Elizabeth and Stacy when they came to pick them up at the end of the camp, which was Worthington's sole remaining concern at that point. "I've been thinking about the wards we use in Phoenix," Jamie said as they sat down after breakfast. Today the campers were getting lessons on creating useful things like rope and baskets from vegetation within the camp's perimeter, and they'd take a break from their duties as counselors to study Jamie's idea. "You mean the warning wards, right?" Worthington asked, and Jamie nodded. It made sense when he thought about it. The wards were a mixture of High and Low magic and set on small physical objects near the freeways and in the airports of the area. At the airports, they were usually light fixtures or some other permanent object near the terminals and entry points that airline passengers passed on their way into Phoenix. On the freeways and other smaller roads used to enter the area, they were usually highway signs. Whenever a magical presence passed them, whether a magical item, a mage, or magical creature, the ward would activate. First, it would ‘tag' whatever magical thing passed it, and then it would issue a mental message that would be audible to anyone mage-gifted or any magical being. The message itself was simple. Welcome to the Valley of the Sun. Be aware that for the protection of its inhabitants, the mages of this valley have formed a Mage's Council to oversee its defense from those that would do us harm. Visitors are always welcome, but if you plan to stay longer than the span of two complete cycles of the moon, you are asked to contact the Mage's Council and notify us of your residency. It went on to list the phone number of the Council's office after that and a reminder that performing magic to harm the inhabitants of the valley would result in severe repercussions. After two cycles of the moon, the ‘tag' that had been placed on them would activate and if they passed any ward, or an MR passed within a mile of an active tag, the Mage's Council would know. Then they would investigate and see what the situation was. When a person left Phoenix, the ward they passed would remove the tag, and they would no longer be ‘marked' in any way unless they reentered the area later. It left some room for anyone who knew about the tag to cheat but was viewed as the fairest way of protecting the area without infringing too much on the privacy of mages. The fact that it also justified the continued use of MR was another plus to the system. Their anklets were keyed to register the presence of active tags, and they could report any sensations from the anklets to the Council. "We could set up a ward here, warning anyone of the presence of the government mages." Jamie offered. "It would be hard for them to jam it the way they are doing long range magic communication because that depends solely on High magic, while the wards are a mixture of the two. We saw during your fight that their low magic skills aren't that advanced." "It's a good idea." Worthington agreed. "We should work on creating one, and we can ‘throw' it outside the perimeter on the morning they should be coming to pick us up. We can make it something innocuous, that won't scream that it doesn't belong and it'll make it tougher to pinpoint for them." "Yes." Jamie agreed with a smile. "Just in case, we might want to make two or three wards like that." "That's even better." Worthington agreed with a smile. "Don't worry, Jamie. We'll make sure the government goons don't get their hands on Moms." "You say that so well." Jamie smiled gently. "I wonder how they'll feel hearing you call them Moms?" "I think they're used to that by now." Worthington laughed. "I've also been thinking about what we did with the Gray path thing yesterday," Jamie said and he held up a hand, summoning up the ball of white light as he'd done yesterday. Then he summoned dark light in his other hand. The two shone, each in their own unique way for several long minutes until Jamie dispersed them by closing his hands. "It's as easy as anything else now for me to hold Light and Dark magic at the same time. We really have created something new here." "We have." Worthington frowned as he leaned back and thought over Jamie's demonstration. Without trying, he knew he could do the same. "What price does the Light demand for that?" "I think we already paid the price for both." Jamie frowned as he answered. "Remember the line about ‘protecting' all?" "Yes." Worthington did frown again at that thought. "Does that mean we're incapable of harming people now?" "I don't think so," Jamie said softly. "I know that for instance, if I had to do to Carl again what I did to him, I could because that would be protecting him. You couldn't kill that mage in the fight, but I think if there was no other way, you could. It's going to take us a long time to figure all this out." "We'll have a lifetime for that, I hope." Worthington smiled. "Here's the question I have though," Jamie said cautiously. "Is it just us on this path or are there others that will walk it with us?" "I think we'd be best just to wait and see on that," Worthington answered after thinking it over for a few minutes. He was about to say something else when Jamie's brow tightened. "There's someone knocking on the shield near the observation platform." Jamie murmured with consternation. "It feels… elvish." "That's odd," Worthington said. "I'll go check it out." "You better take Brandon with you." Jamie cautioned him, and he nodded. Collecting Brandon took several more minutes before they climbed the path towards the observation platform. On the other side of it, just at the shield's edge stood an elf, complete with a bow in one hand and hair tied back in a long ponytail. Worthington approached the shield and him cautiously. "Greetings, Adept Sinclair." The Elf said with a sketchy bow. "I am Arden, a retainer of Prince Kelvren who sends you felicitations. May I enter?" "Please." Worthington nodded as he sent a mental signal to Jamie. The elf stepped through the barrier and this time bowed more formally, which Worthington returned. Behind him, Brandon stepped a little away and relaxed, glad that there wasn't going to be more fighting. He still hadn't fully recovered from the last round. "I am sent by my Prince to check on you," Arden said with a slight smile on his face. "The dwarves and your people in Clairville grew worried when they received no response from your aide here, or yourself. They have tried this e-mail thing, and telephones, all to no avail. Now I find your camp surrounded by soldiers and strange mages, who all ignore me as if I was a figment of their imagination." "I am responsible for that." Worthington smiled. "These agents are of the same group I believe that tried to kill me a few weeks ago, and now they attempt to either capture me or kill me. I had hoped for a visit by someone like you so that we could get word out but had not thought it would happen. Thank you for coming, and give my thanks to your Prince for sending you." "It is the least we could do for one my Prince is so fond of." The elf laughed. "Would you have me carry word of your plight back to him?" "If you would be so kind." Worthington agreed. "I would appreciate word being given to my mage guardians in Scottsdale. They will be able to send the necessary assistance to overcome those out there." "Nonsense." The elf laughed again. "The elves and dwarves would be greatly disappointed if we did not have a chance to fight alongside with our newest allies. We will all come to your rescue, and you will owe us a favor. Ah, I see you about to protest that. Just know the favor owed will be greater if you do not allow us our fun with these humans." "I don't want to kill any of them," Worthington said with what he hoped sounded like gracious acceptance of the elf's position. "We do not need to start a war with the government that we would surely lose." "No, we would not want that at all." The elf frowned. "A skirmish is one thing, but I do not think they would look kindly on dead soldiers. No, I will tell the others we should only humiliate and capture the soldiers and their mages. That will be enough fun and pass many a night with drinking and bragging of our deeds." "The first round will be on me." Worthington smiled, and the elf laughed. "That and more, friend of my Prince." Arden agreed as he laughed. "Now, do you think these humans will ignore me on the way out as they did on the way in?" "I don't know." Worthington shrugged. "Well, let us see." The elf laughed, and when Jamie had made the hole again for him, he passed out. A soldier appeared out of the ground, reaching out to touch the elf as if to see if he was real. As soon as his hand touched the elf, though, he crashed to the ground asleep while the elf trotted off, fading into the distance quickly. Worthington laughed to himself as he and Brandon went back down towards the main part of camp. He was already telling Jamie the good news. Their friends and allies, as well as their families, would soon know their situation. It was only a matter of time until the siege was broken and they could send the government stooges on their way back towards their little base in San Diego. Hopefully, they'd be chastised enough that they would let the matter drop. Worthington doubted that would be the case, and he suspected he had many long hours of meetings ahead of him. There would be the Adepts, Light and Dark, that needed to be informed, and other mages like Byron Jones and the teachers of the other schools. Jamie and Worthington would make sure Light and Dark both knew about the danger being posed by the government, and they would try their best to get the two sides to work together. The situation no longer seemed hopeless, and he found he was laughing and smiling now, wondering how soon he'd be home in Clairville and getting to work on these things.
  12. Worthington sighed with disgust as he watched Brandon washing the blood, vomit, and other detritus down the drain of the bathroom's shower room and turned to walk out, almost running into Colin, who was looking with interest in the room. He'd wanted to watch and had been upset when both Worthington and Jamie had flat refused. Worthington still remembered the look of surprise on his brother's face that Worthington had spoken at the same time as him, but had nodded in appreciation that Worthington would not allow Colin to learn what he'd just done to the soldier. "Will, you ever teach me what it was you did?" Colin asked as he looked at Brandon washing the detritus down the drain. "No," Worthington said flatly, and honestly. Colin frowned but shrugged. "He made it five feet out the gate before they took him." Colin laughed softly and shook his head. "Two soldiers popped up out of the ground and had him handcuffed before I'd done more than blink. I almost felt sorry for the guy, out there in nothing but his boxers and taken to the ground by his buddies." "Not my problem." Worthington shrugged. It had been a long night, and he wanted to get some sleep before it was over. Colin held the shield right now while Jamie rested. They'd had Brandon keep an eye on Colin to keep him from trying to sneak into the bathroom and watch what Worthington had been doing to the soldier. Jeremiah had not liked the process at all, but then Worthington had liked it even less. The vomit Brandon was getting rid of had been his, not the mercenary-soldier's. "I'm going to get some sleep. Why don't you help Brandon finish cleaning up?" "You're not worried I'll get any ideas from all these ropes and other stuff?" Colin asked with an arched red eyebrow. "Colin, I don't have the patience for these games right now," Worthington said irritably. Sometimes the kid could be downright infuriating. "If you like to get kinky, do it on your own time." "Shit, you're cranky." Colin chuckled as he moved into the shower area to help Brandon. Worthington just shook his head and made his way to his dorm room where twenty boys were sleeping. He collapsed onto the narrow bunk that was his bed here and closed his eyes as he tried to drift off into sleep. The truth was that he was bothered by what he'd just done far more than he ever expected to be bothered by such things. Sex, violence, and control of others were all part of his life, his training along the Dark path of magecraft. He wanted something different though, and tonight's experiences had shown him how much he had changed in the last year. What he'd learned once he'd overcome the blocks and controls in the mercenary's mind had made it necessary to do what he'd done in that shower room. Jamie had agreed, if only reluctantly and had flat out insisted he would have no part in it this time. His long look at Carl was all the explanation needed. If anything could be termed ‘evil' in nature, it was what Worthington had done tonight. The fact that it was necessary did not change that in the least. Jeremiah Francis, age 28, had not been his own person in over a year, even if he didn't know that at the time that Worthington had entered his mind. Mages, whose exact relationship to the government was still unclear, had set controls and blocks inside the one-time soldier's mind. Unlike the government mages Worthington had captured and scanned before, these blocks were not as complex and had been much easier to unravel. Worthington understood why they were not as complex, although it didn't exactly make him feel any better in the long run. The mercenaries were most commonly used as guards, not doing what they were doing right now. Only rarely did they accompany the actual government mages outside the facilities they ran. When they did, they were given basic blocks like the ones Worthington had overcome, some magical protections, and acted as back up, eyes and ears, and heavy muscle. Facilities. As in more than one facility. As in multiple locations for a growing group of mages that answered first and foremost to a ‘project director' who was based out of the ‘Department's' Washington D.C. facility. Oddly enough it was the perfect place for a government-run mage facility to start out, and that was the impression Worthington had gotten as he dissected the mercenary's mind. Jeremiah had worked for the mage group within the government for three years now and had spent two and a half of them in Washington at their main facility. Six months ago they had opened two more facilities, one in San Diego and another in Wichita. The ranks of government mages were growing, literally by leaps and bounds. Most of the mages they were facing outside the campground right now had only been cleared for field duty within the last year. How they came to be in the government's employ was one of the reasons Worthington had taken the drastic step of forever stripping away everything Jeremiah Francis had been and putting him back together in a new pattern, a pattern that would forever be faithful to Worthington before anyone, or anything else. With Carl, Jamie had changed the process of torture and rape that accomplished this and turned it into a form of freedom for the young boy. Worthington did not have the luxury of doing that with the soldier though. The government mages would take his mind apart to see what had been done to him. They would be wary of traps, and anything less than what Worthington had done would not necessarily last. So, he had committed great evil to serve good. When he woke a few hours later with Colin shaking his shoulder gently, Worthington didn't feel all that refreshed. His sleep had been troubled, and he'd had some fairly nasty dreams. Even telling himself that he would take care of Jeremiah Francis once he was done dealing with the government facilities hadn't salved his conscience. "What's the matter, boss man?" Dechaun asked at breakfast. Worthington was just moving the food around on his plate as the dining hall was filled with the noise of happy campers. "Just got a lot of things on my mind." Worthington tried to smile and sighed before taking a bite of the eggs on his plate. He'd need the energy, and playing with the food wasn't a good sign. "You okay?" Jamie asked him after lunch as they sat in the common room of the dormitory, their default meeting place. Their groups were out participating in the afternoon sporting activities that the camp staff had arranged. Colin, Carl, and Brandon were all out there as well, keeping an eye on things while Jamie and Worthington had some alone time. They sat on the carpet in the big room, with Worthington leaning against his brother. "I will be." Worthington sighed with unhappiness. "You know, all this is getting to be a little overwhelming. Why is it that we're the ones who keep on finding ourselves in this type of situation? Shouldn't it be happening with other, older, more experienced Adepts? Why do we have to keep ending up in these situations?" "Have you thought it might be because we're not living in our own little bubbles?" Jamie asked calmly. "Think about it. All the adepts we know about move in rarified circles, surrounded only by other mages, rarely interacting with the world at all. On the other hand, we live in the world, and we interact with it every day. It's only in the last few decades that mages have started moving out of their little communities and into bigger cities like Phoenix and Scottsdale." "You mean Light mages," Worthington said. "Dark families have been in the business world for a lot longer." "But that's just it, they don't interact with the ‘common' world at all," Jamie argued in a quiet voice. "How often has a Dark family associated outside their own little circles where everyone knows everyone? There are what, three Dark schools like the one you attended, and a dozen colleges or universities with that fraternity that trains mages at that level?" "Yes." Worthington nodded. "Light families really don't even have that much." "They do have more communities where they live together, like some of those small towns in Nevada and other places." Jamie shrugged slightly. "Basically mages have created their own little bubbles that they live in, and while it's usually surrounded by the non-magical world, and they interact with non-mages, they really don't participate in the day-to-day world except in rare circumstances. Sure, they work like my moms do, but when they go home, it's to a mage house. Frankly, we're a lot more involved here in the Phoenix area than most mages are with the mundane world." "I thought it was different than that," Worthington admitted quietly. "I thought this was an example of Light communities." "I think that's my fault." Jamie laughed softly. "It's how I grew up so it only seemed natural that was how other Light communities would be, but talking with some of the new arrivals to our area has shown me just how different things really are out there. People might work in the mundane world, but when they go home, they leave it behind by and large. Their friends are usually fellow mages only, and they keep the mundanes away to protect the ‘Great Secret' without having to alter too many memories. Most of them are shocked beyond belief that we have mundanes in the MR that know about magic and are allowed to keep those memories, even if under controls." "So you're saying it's only natural that we are at the center of all this?" Worthington asked, and Jamie sighed against him. "Yes, because we're not just living in the mundane world, we're a part of it, and we're making waves in it as surely as these government goons will make waves in the magical world," Jamie said sadly. "They already are, but we just didn't know it yet," Worthington grunted at that particular memory he'd taken from Jeremiah Francis. Most of the time, the mercenary was a guard in the government facilities, and so his memories contained a lot of information on what the government was doing in those facilities. What he'd seen there had been far more than Worthington had suspected from his earlier run-in with government-trained mages, and he had to wonder if they'd somehow ripped a page from the Sinclair book on adjusting people's minds. "Just imagine how happy they would be if they got their hands on us, or our dear Uncle and learned the Sinclair process for taking someone apart and putting them back together as a totally new, controllable person." Jamie shuddered. "What you did with the mercenary was a risk, you know." "I know, but it's one worth taking." Worthington frowned. "You know we can't just sit by while they kidnap mages and brainwash them in their facilities, or take them apart mentally and throw them away as mindless husks afterward." "No, we can't." Jamie frowned as he shuddered. "I still can't believe they were so surprised about Light and Dark path mages when they captured that family last year." "Well, now we know that I wasn't the one who tipped them off to that." Worthington frowned at the memory that played out in his head. Jeremiah's mind had been a veritable wealth of information since he dealt a lot with new prisoners, taking them to and from their ‘appointments,' and often times being peripherally involved in those sessions. Most of the time the government found new mages it was through one of their recruitment programs and the people they found were untrained mages not affiliated with an existing mage family. In fact, they found more mages like that than the Light and Dark path families did combined. These they trained as they had learned themselves, taught by a mysterious figure that Worthington had not been able to find out more on than just that he existed. Other mages they captured in the performance of their ‘duties.' Most of those had been from overseas, captured in the War on Terror. It seemed the terrorists loved using mages to make suicide bombers, and that really was the root of the government's program, to counter that ability. Worthington had a hard time arguing with that philosophy. Certainly, if mages were cooperating with terrorists, or even were terrorists themselves, it would take other mages to combat them. In a way, he could see the need for the government program, and the awareness of the government regarding mages. What he couldn't support or even allow was the blanket policy that any mage not under the control of the government ‘Department' was considered a terrorist. About a year ago they had captured a family of Light mages on vacation in Washington, D.C. Unsurprisingly, the nation's capitol was actually the home of no mage families, Light or Dark. Mages tended to shy away from that place as being too close to a government they feared ever knowing about them. Certainly, mages would pass through there, or visit as tourists, but none lived there. The family's fifteen-year-old son had been playing with mage lights as they drove around the city, and his use of magic had been noticed by a government mage in a nearby car. They had been followed by the government mage, and after he reported back about an entire family of mages, they had all been taken into custody. The shock of finding out there was a whole culture of mages out there, hiding from the government had sent shock waves through the Department that were still being felt. A new program had been instituted to start tracking these families of mages and finding out everything they could. In the last six months, they had managed to take several more ‘samples' of these families, both Light and Dark, without attracting notice. They probably knew more than Worthington had been able to pick out of Jeremiah Francis's mind, but even that much was too much. Byron Jones would have a heart attack if he knew the government was quite aware of his boarding school and the students that attended there. That was the only reason they had not moved in force against the wider community of mages before this. There were far more government mages than he had imagined, but they were, by and large, less capable than their mage-family counterparts. What they were learning from the Light and Dark captives was confusing them even more, especially since the ones they had captured were largely loners, not really directly involved in any of the older families or larger communities. That was changing though with the government having finally achieved what they considered a critical mass of over a hundred ‘trained' and ‘loyal' mages. The fact that nearly a third of these mages were only loyal because of control spells or similar devices didn't mean much to them. The father and mother of the family taken in Washington both worked in that facility's laboratories, teaching everything they knew to newly recruited mages because as long as they cooperated, their son was treated well. What they didn't know was that the son had been escorted to several sessions by Jeremiah and was essentially as controlled as a mage could be by a senior government mage. His parents thought he had simply accepted a position with the government, and now that he was sixteen they had given up arguing he was too young. The boy had been sent to the San Diego facility along with twelve senior mages and fourteen junior mages as they were ranked. The two mages Worthington had dealt with before were good examples of the differences in controls that were set on government mages. He would have had a difficult time breaking through those controls and blocks, whereas the ones on Jeremiah Francis had been much easier to control. That was because the mages were all blocked and set by the mysterious figure Worthington could not pick out of Jeremiah's memories. When a mage was ‘activated' into the government's ranks, it was done in a way that Jeremiah had no involvement with at all. "Do you think everyone back in Phoenix is okay?" Jamie asked in a worried tone. That was one thing they were both worried about. "I think so." Worthington sighed. "I shared what I was able to get from Jeremiah with you. They knew we would be up here alone, and chose to take us in for questioning. The plan was to take us one-by-one. Colin was the first of us that went off by himself, and they tried to get him, but we stopped them. All that other shit they threw at us with the fake FBI agents was just meant to make us scared and hopefully surrender. They don't want to have to take this camp, and they don't want the general public to know what's going on up here. They're as scared as we are about what will happen when everyone knows about magic." "But they aren't going to let us leave, and if the moms come up here, they'll take them too." Jamie frowned. "I can't believe they'd think they'd be able to break us in just a week and not have anyone notice." "It's worked for them before." Worthington shrugged. "That's all it took for them to break the others, and they can't understand we might be different." "I still find it hard to believe that they would be that arrogant," Jamie said with a sigh, and he gave Worthington a long, penetrating look. For a brief moment, his mind touched Worthington's, and they dropped into a light, easy rapport. "Funny." "No, it isn't." Worthington frowned as the rapport ended. "Yes, it is." Jamie chuckled. "You're more disturbed at last night than at facing down the entire government." "It's not the entire government, and they've been careful about who in the government knows about magic." Worthington shrugged. "I figure once we get the more experienced Adepts involved in this, they can take the lead on solving that. They sure as hell won't want to leave it in our hands. It's our responsibility to get out of here, so they know and to make sure they understand the seriousness of the situation. After that, all we have to worry about is whatever they expect us to help with in handling the problem, and making sure the people of our valley are okay. That's it." "Or so you hope." Jamie countered. "Listen, bro, I don't think you understand how much of a good thing it is that you're bothered by what you did last night." "What do you mean?" Worthington asked. "Do you think Colin would be bothered?" Jamie asked. "No." Worthington actually snorted, even though it was an undignified sound. "He'd be pleased. The boy has a sadistic streak in him a mile wide." "Which is why he really is better off in your hands." Jamie sighed. "I never should have tried to handle him when I saw that. His grandparents were insane to think he could ever walk the Light path. Hopefully, you'll be able to drum some ethics into him before he gets too powerful. The Light knows he'll never listen to me about such things." "He will, or he might find himself on the receiving end of what I did to Jeremiah last night," Worthington growled and then almost vomited again as he realized what he'd just said. "Fuck! Did you hear that? It makes me sick to even think about doing something like that again, and here I am saying I will, and meaning what I said! How sick is that?" "It's for the best, really." Jamie shrugged. "You're strong enough to do what needs to be done, and you've got enough of a conscience that I don't have to worry about you going off the deep end and becoming a megalomaniac. Someone like Colin, the way he is now, well that worries me." "I don't know if that's supposed to comfort me or make me sicker," Worthington muttered with a frown. "Take it as a compliment," Jamie said with a shrug. "A year ago, I'd have put you in the same category as Colin about this stuff. Well, maybe not the same category. You were always less emotional about these types of things." "That's one thing I've never understood," Worthington said with a sigh. "Before I came into your life, you had everything going for you. You were well on the road to becoming a Light Adept, you had a loving family, and everything was happy. Who knows, you'd have probably married Sarah and had ten children in a decade. Then I came along and screwed everything up." "You didn't do it yourself." Jamie murmured in a comforting tone. "Worthington, we've been over all this before. It wasn't more than a few days ago when we were just a thin little bit of power away from being joined as one mind. We haven't changed that much in a short amount of time. I don't suddenly hate you. Frankly, I'm better off now than I would have been if you had not come into our lives. Who knows if we'd have managed to face off the demons together?" "Thank you, brother," Worthington said with a sigh as he leaned back against his brother and let go of some of the worry inside of him. As they relaxed against each other, they fell into a rapport that grew steadily deeper. Without the Sinclair consciousness trying to meld them together, this rapport was different, something healthier, and stronger in its own way. Bit by bit their thoughts began to move in similar lines, although there were differences between them that they felt, more than heard as words in their heads. No matter what else, the dwarves and elves were right that the world, and magic, was changing. The only story that either could remember about brothers both being Adepts came from around 1099 with the story of Wilbur and Aaron MacRae. Together they'd built a small little kingdom in the northern highlands of Scotland until they made the mistake of pissing off the local clergy. Not even being Adept had saved them from treachery and poisoned food. The poison had been nothing more than a drug that knocked them out for a few hours. When they had woken, it was with the flames of the stake eating at their flesh. Supposedly the pain of that had been enough that they couldn't concentrate enough to call magic to their aid, and so they had died. Neither Jamie nor Worthington wanted to go down that road, not even the ‘good' part of taking over a fair amount of land. So long as they could live their lives relatively peacefully, they had no problem not being in control of things. They would always be close, but eventually, they would start their own families with their own houses. Worthington loved Clairville and the castle there. He wanted that place as his primary home and would do whatever it took to make that his home. Jamie loved the house being built in Scottsdale next to his childhood home. Both places could actually accommodate both of them, had even been designed with that fact in mind by other people who knew them, and in the case of the Scottsdale home, who loved them. Whatever wives they eventually took would have to be close enough to understand that Worthington and Jamie would always be close, and while they would lead separate lives, their lives would always have room for the other. Serious thought about the future faded away as they playfully began dreaming about the future life they would have. Worthington invited Jamie to Clairville Keep through the hottest parts of the summer, and their wives were happy to see each other as well. Oh yes, they were sisters. That would be best. They'd be very happy to see each other so much more if they were sisters, or at least they would as long as they were the type of sisters who got along. During the heart of winter, they would, of course, spend that time in Scottsdale at the house that would be finished by the time they got done with the camp. Like Jamie's mothers' home, it had all the ‘common' areas on the top floor, without the master bedroom that Elizabeth and Stacy had in their home. Downstairs in part facing the outside of the hill were two large bedrooms with a set of bathrooms between them and a connecting walkway. The rest of the floor was set up into a series of smaller bedrooms and a medium size entertainment room. In the Spring they would stay at their respective places, having their time apart, so they knew they were living their own lives. During early summer they would enjoy long vacations when the kids were out of school. Of course, they would start the vacations in different locations, but then they'd always finish them together. All the major holidays would be next door at the moms' house. Richie's family would be on the property on the other side, and so they would all be there, one humongous family happy together. It would be as close to perfect as anything could be in this day and age. "It's a good dream," Jamie said aloud with a sigh as their minds drifted apart and they were each their own person again. "Think we can make it more than a dream?" Worthington asked with a sigh of his own and a slight smile on his face. "I mean, all we have to do is break this siege, convince the government it doesn't want to fuck with us, and maybe have another go at our Uncle once he gets greedy again." "Don't forget Zaroc in there." Jamie laughed. "You know that Demon Lord is going to go after us again eventually." "Then we'll probably have to deal with a few evil mages along the way who just have to pick on us because we're the strongest kids on the block." Worthington laughed. "Don't forget the stupid mages who pick on people we've sworn to protect." Jamie laughed as well. "We'll have to make a few of them object lessons for the rest before we're done. You can handle that part. I hate getting my hands covered in blood." "Like I enjoy it any better?" Worthington retorted. "You do," Jamie said, and then his entire body winced as Worthington stiffened. The words brought up last night, and why he'd thrown up, why he was so disgusted. Jamie's arms around him tightened. "It is okay, brother mine." "No, it's not," Worthington said and had the unfamiliar sensation of tears coming to his eyes. Tears were not something a Sinclair experienced often. "Yes, it is." Jamie tried to reassure him, but Worthington just became tenser. "You don't understand," Worthington said in a horrified voice. "You threw up because it disgusted you," Jamie said softly, tenderly. "I understand. You're changing, and that's a good thing. The fact that you couldn't do it as easily as you did before is a good sign." "You don't understand," Worthington said in a weaker voice. "What don't I understand?" Jamie asked with concern. "Worthington, talk to me, brother. I'm not going to reject you or hate you for anything you tell me." "I hope you mean that," Worthington said with a heavy sigh as he felt a single tear drip down his cheek. "You know I mean it when I say stuff like that." Jamie almost sounded offended, and Worthington let himself relax with a deep breath. His brother's arms encircled him, and he leaned back in that embrace. "I didn't throw up because what I was doing disgusted me," Worthington said in a very soft voice. "Then why did you throw up?" Jamie asked with some confusion. "I threw up because I was disgusted at how much I enjoyed what I was doing," Worthington said with shame, and Jamie's arms stiffened around him. There was no outburst though, no condemnation, no rejection. "Well?" "I'm waiting," Jamie said softly, tenderly. "Waiting for what?" Worthington snapped. "I'm waiting for whatever it is that's supposed to shock me," Jamie said calmly, and Worthington felt a rise of anger at his brother's calm attitude. "Jamie, I'm saying I fucking enjoyed it!" Worthington snapped at him. "No, you're not." Jamie countered. "If you enjoyed it the way you used to enjoy it, you wouldn't have thrown up, or felt so disgusted afterward." "I got off on the power," Worthington admitted miserably. "Having that much power over someone, doing the things I did to him, being covered in his blood, raping him, knowing I was the first man to ever enter him like that, it made me feel powerful, invincible." "It made you sick to your stomach." Jamie countered, and Worthington shifted, trying to get out of those arms. "Yes, but only when I realized what I was feeling," Worthington muttered when Jamie wouldn't let him go. " "There's why I'm not disgusted," Jamie said softly. "C'mon, bro, you know how I felt about doing the same thing to Carl. I enjoyed it too, and that's what disgusted me. I wasn't disgusted necessarily by what I did, but rather by the feelings it stirred up in me." "Yes but…" Worthington tried to argue. Except he couldn't, because those memories were still inside of him and although he knew they were Jamie's and not his, he could still remember them, and he knew what his brother had felt. "I think that's the slippery slope of the Dark path," Jamie said softly as he let out a long exhalation that was more than a sigh. "It's why so many Dark mages go from just Dark into actually being evil. The power of what you can do in the Dark path, the way it can let you take such control of others is seductive. It is so easy to slip from using that control, that power for a productive purpose and just use it for a selfish purpose. I used it to free Carl from our Uncle's manipulations. You did it for a reason just as important, and unselfish. Neither of us did it just because we could, or purely for our own enjoyment or self-aggrandizement. There's a difference there." "Yes, but is it enough to justify what we're doing?" Worthington asked. "We're taking away their free will, making them into little more than a living tool for our own purposes." "It has to be done," Jamie said with a shrug. "Now there's your Light-path upbringing speaking." Worthington countered, and he felt a very slight smile touched his face. "The principle of sacrifice for the greater good being right." "So maybe there's a bit of truth in both of them, especially when you mix them together," Jamie said softly. "You and I, we talk about being neither Light nor Dark, but rather a mixture of the two." "A Grey Path." Worthington voiced it aloud for the first time. They'd mentioned it, referenced it, but this was the first time they had said it in such a way as to make it official. "A part of both Light and Dark, not separated from them, cut off from them," Jamie said with affirmation. "Grey is a mixture of the two, not the absence of them. I think that's what other people in our position have missed before. They felt cut off from the Light, or the Dark, like they couldn't be that path so they were lost in the grey area between, but that's not it at all." "Instead we're both, but not really a part of either," Worthington said as he felt something that had been troubling him a while coalesce into a whole piece. "That's why I can make a deal with the Light the way I did, and still use something Dark like what I did last night, or the joining spell." "Same with me," Jamie said softly. "So, it raises the question, is this something we can teach?" "I don't know if Colin will like some of the Light principles involved." Worthington laughed. "Not everyone is suited to the Light, or suited to the Dark," Jamie said quietly. "It stands to reason not everyone will be suited for the path made up of both." "No, it doesn't." Worthington agreed as he thought about it for a bit. "How does this fit in with last night though and the way it made me feel?" "It fits in just as us being in this camp now fits in," Jamie said with a shrug. "There's a price to pay for using both Light and Dark, and they're both examples of the prices that we have to pay ourselves. We do what we do for the good of all mages, right? That's what you and I are about here?" "Yes." Worthington agreed, and his agreement felt like two final pieces of a puzzle fitting together, or the binding of a magical contract. Something inside of him seemed to call out for more, and he lifted up his hand, forming a ball of dark light there. It shimmered, sucking in the light around them and Jamie drew in a deep breath before lifting the same hand, his right and summoning a ball of pure white light. "For the good of all, we combine Light and Dark," Worthington said softly, and he knew in that moment that both the Light and the Dark were watching. "With Light and Dark, we serve all," Jamie said softly, and their hands moved towards each other until the two balls of light merged into one ball, a dark murky grey that both shone with light and seemed to pull light into itself. It was something that could not exist, except for magic, a contradiction, a paradox, and even with the power of magic behind it, it faded out as their hands dropped. "What did we just do?" Worthington asked softly. "I'm not sure," Jamie responded with awe in his voice just as power slammed into the shield outside. Even Worthington could feel it, a massive amount of power and Jamie tensed up behind him even as feet pounded up into the dormitory building. Carl was in the front, his face going blank, and Brandon catching him just as Jamie grabbed him in a fierce link and pulled power from him in a massive wave. Brandon carried him further into the room as Worthington got to his feet, forming the link he'd need with Brandon. "They're massing at the front gate," Colin said breathlessly as he got out of the way of the main doors. The camp staff and counselors were hustling the campers inside the building, responding to the control spells Jamie had set in them earlier. The campers, who weren't as controlled were babbling excitedly but began to droop as Colin wove the quick spells Worthington and Jamie had taught him, variations on the sleep spell Worthington had invented the other night. "C'mon," Worthington said as a massive amount of power struck the shield again, and Jamie groaned aloud. He could feel his brother's pain, and as soon as the last of the campers were inside and headed towards their dorms, he was heading out the door. Colin, who had used a fair amount of power keeping the campers under control would stay with Jamie in the common room, a last line of defense. Worthington strolled down the steps and tried to not look afraid as he headed towards the main gate of the camp with Brandon walking behind him.
  13. "You could have let them finish the song you know," Jamie said tartly, and Worthington smiled at him as they picked their way amidst the sleeping forms on the floor of the common room area. The truth was he wanted to pass out. Putting all of them to sleep at once had taken a little more than he expected, although it was notably easier than if he’d tried to do it to them one at a time. He’d never learned the spell, just modified a standard sleep spell with an area effect spell and was surprised at the result. "You could always wake them up and let them finish." Worthington offered. "No thanks," Jamie muttered as he looked around the room. "Look, do you think that’s on purpose?" "What?" Carl asked in a hushed voice. "Look at the four doors leading to other parts of the building," Jamie explained obliquely. Worthington looked as well and smiled. "I don’t get it," Carl said in a slight whine. "There’s one of Worthington’s boys by each of the doors," Brandon said in a slightly acidic tone. "Well, we’ll wake Dechaun up and ask him," Worthington said as he picked his way across sleeping bodies to where Dechaun was collapsed against the Head Counselor who had dropped his guitar and was snoring in the front of the room. Before he woke the boy, Worthington set a couple of spells he should have done earlier. Then we woke the boy. "Hey," Dechaun said sleepily as he opened his eyes and looked around. His eyes widened as he took in everyone sleeping. "Did you do that?" "Yes," Worthington answered honestly. "That’s a good trick," Dechaun said in an approving tone. "So how did things go in here?" Worthington asked. "You mean besides the shitty songs?" Dechaun snorted. "It went okay. I got a couple of the guys to watch the door, and they signaled me whenever someone tried to sneak off, and then I just jabbed snoring guy here with my elbow, and he told them to sit back down. It worked pretty well I guess. No one snuck out at least. I had to tell them I’d pay them ten bucks an hour though." "Don’t think I’m paying that for you." Worthington retorted, and Dechaun shrugged. "That still leaves me sixty," Dechaun said. "Good thinking." Worthington praised him. "I listened to what you’ve been saying," Dechaun said defensively. "So, what’s up with the goons outside?" "They’re going to be there for a while." Worthington frowned. "So what now?" Dechaun asked. "I think we wake them up by dorms and send them back to their dorm rooms before putting them back out for the night," Jamie said. "I saw the spell you used, and I can do it again." "Wake up the guys, and they’ll help you." Dechaun offered, and Worthington nodded his agreement. "We might as well use them," Worthington suggested, and Jamie muttered something under his breath before moving among the sleeping bodies. "What’s really going on boss man?" Dechaun asked in a quiet voice while Jamie organized Colin, Brandon, and Carl to help him out. Worthington sat on the only clear space of ground between Dechaun and one of the female camp staffers. "To make a long story short, I’m what you call a mage," Worthington said as he made a ball of light appear in his hand and he began to juggle it for a few seconds before letting it go. He was tired, and wanted to sleep himself, but didn’t dare do that yet. "I got that," Dechaun said deprecatingly. "I mean, what’s with the guys out there? What do they want?" "You see, there are a lot of mages, but when you compare the number of mages to the rest of the world’s population, there aren’t that many of us." Worthington tried to explain it, and Dechaun gave him an exasperated look. "You see the color of my skin, boss man?" Dechaun’s tone was withering. "Yes.’ Worthington said cautiously. "You don’t have to explain the big picture to me." Dechaun snorted again. "If people knew people like you could do things they can’t and they won’t like it. There aren’t that many of you, and you’d get burned at the stake or some shit like that, or maybe worse." "That’s about it in a nutshell." Worthington agreed. "Those men outside the camp, well they’re from the government. It seems the government has found out about us and has some mages working for them. You remember the terrorist stuff that happened a few months back?" "You mean that shit was you?" Dechaun’s voice rose an octave. "Kind of." Worthington shrugged. "Demons were trying to move into the area, and we were fighting them." "Demons are real?" Dechaun’s voice held a hint of fear. "You mean, straight out of hell demons? Satan and shit?" "Not quite, but they exist, and they like humans for lunch," Worthington said. "Mage humans are even tastier for them. We had a few fights with them and drove them off. They won’t be coming near Phoenix for a long time after we finished with them." "That’s good to know." Dechaun shuddered. "I don’t like the idea of demons none at all." "None of us do, Dechaun." Worthington chuckled. "Anyway, during that fight, we attracted the attention of these government mages and sent them packing too. Now they’re back, though, and they want me and my friends to give ourselves up to them." "So what are you going to do?" Dechaun asked. "I mean, if you give yourself up to them, I ain’t gonna get paid, am I?" "At least you have your priorities in order." Worthington chuckled as Jamie got the first group awake and bustled them out to the girl’s side of the building. It took fifteen minutes before he appeared again and this time took a group of boys. While he sat there, he stayed quiet as he thought, and was surprised when Dechaun didn’t speak or move. "Figured out what you’re going to do yet?" Dechaun asked when Worthington sighed. "Wait them out is the best thing we can do," Worthington said. "We don’t want to fight them, and as long as we stay here in the camp, we can hold them off." "So it’s like a siege?" Dechaun asked. "We’re all your hostages?" "That sounds bad." Worthington frowned. "How are you going to fight the government, boss man?" Dechaun asked after a few minutes of silence. "Ain’t they like everywhere? You can’t hole up here forever, and eventually, they’ll come to get you. It’s like back home, when the cops come around you lie low till they’re gone." "They want to keep this as secret as we do," Worthington said after thinking several things over. Pieces of the puzzle began to fit together. "There is no way they want this to go public, so they’ll keep it as low-key as they possibly can." "They’re the government man." Dechaun snorted again. "You don’t think they can do what they want and keep it secret? Look around you. This is what you did. What do you think they’re going to be able to do?" "Believe it or not, they aren’t as capable as we are when it comes to magic," Worthington said with a very small chuckle. "What do you mean?" Dechaun asked. "I have not yet seen a mage as powerful as I am, or Jamie, on their side," Worthington said. "That don’t mean they aren’t there," Dechaun argued. "Just that you ain’t seen them yet." "Since when did you get so smart?" Worthington asked, and Dechaun graced him with a bright smile. "You don’t grow up where I do without learning things." Dechaun shrugged. "If we can get out of here, they’ll have a much tougher time messing with us," Worthington said as he thought aloud. "Why’s that?" Dechaun asked. "Remember I’m rich," Worthington said with a slight smile. "What costs a hell of a lot of money and are some of the government’s worst nightmares?" "Lawyers," Dechaun answered with an answering smile. "That’s right, you can get a whole bunch of lawyers to make their lives miserable." "Yes." Worthington agreed with a nod. "Not to mention the dwarves." "The what?" Dechaun asked with a little bit of a squeak. "Dwarves." Worthington laughed. "Short guys with beards. There’s a small town of them about an hour or so from here. It’d take half the Army to get us there." "So you pack up and run there," Dechaun suggested. "We wouldn’t make it without motorcycles or a fast vehicle." Worthington shook his head. "So you wait here until someone comes and gets you?" Dechaun asked, and Worthington nodded. "Let’s help Jamie and the others for a bit," Worthington said as Jamie returned to start the next group. It took nearly two more hours to get all the campers situated into their dorms, and put back to sleep for the night, and even Jamie was a little tired after they were all done. Worthington hovered on the edge of exhaustion as they settled in the nearly-empty common room with just the adult staff still there, and still asleep. Dechaun was the only of the non-mage still awake and settled down into a spot next to Worthington, on the other side of him from Brandon. Jamie and Carl were sitting across from Worthington, and Colin was off to the side, looking like he was ready to pass out at any moment. "I’m ready for sleep," Colin said in a tired voice. "I think we all need to rest," Jamie said. "Shouldn’t one or more of us keep watch?" Brandon asked. "That’s what you call it, right?" "I think so," Carl said with a frown, obviously not wanting to be the one. "At least one of us – Jamie, Colin, or I should probably be awake at all times," Worthington said as he thought aloud. "Jamie placed the shield over the camp, but we can take turns monitoring it during the night." "What do you think, switch off every four hours?" Jamie asked. "I’ll take the first four if you want." "That’d probably be best." Worthington agreed. "Now, as to how we handle things in the morning. What do you think?" "It shouldn’t be too hard to set some controls in all the adults," Jamie said. "I can do it while you guys get some rest. We’ll just have them change the camp’s activities to keep people in the boundaries of the shield, and if something happens, they get everyone into the dorms. They’re the most heavily protected area, and that way if things go wrong there are fewer people in the line of fire. None of us go anywhere alone, either. Brandon will stick with Worthington, Carl with me, and Colin, you’re either with Worthington or me at all times." "I’m not going to argue that," Colin mumbled around a yawn. "You sure you can handle setting the controls in them?" Worthington asked. "Yes." Jamie smiled at him. "Now go get some sleep. The sooner you do that, the sooner I’ll get to sleep myself." "C’mon, Dechaun, let’s get you to bed," Worthington said to the boy as he stood up. The camper was on his feet and led the way towards their dorm. Colin was right behind him, and Brandon headed off into his dorm. While Jamie set to work, Carl curled up in a corner to get some sleep, not being willing to leave Jamie completely alone. Wake up, sleepyhead, it’s been four hours. Jamie’s mind touch was most unwelcome as Worthington opened his eyes. Jamie was standing in the doorway to his room, and Worthington quietly got up out of bed and followed him into the bathroom. Anything happen? Worthington asked, sticking to a mental conversation. It was deadly quiet, except for the sounds of snoring coming from the various dorms. There was some probing a bit ago, real clumsy probing at that. Jamie shook his head. I gave whoever was doing it a headache as an object lesson. A couple of times a mundane tried to get through the shield and got thrown back, but that was it. I think they were testing the boundaries, seeing where they were at exactly. About an hour ago I looked outside the building and couldn’t see anything. It’s like they’ve disappeared into the hills, but I could sense shielded locations down the road about a half-mile, so they’re at least watching that. That’s too bad. Worthington frowned. If we could get out of here, that’d be the best option for all of us. I agree. Jamie replied with a yawn. I’m tired, so I’m going to get some sleep. You ready for the shield? Worthington just nodded and Jamie ‘handed’ the shield off to him. As his brother left the bathroom, Worthington decided he might as well take a shower and went back for his gear. By the time the water was warm enough, he’d adjusted to the shield, or rather it had adjusted to him, and he could ‘feel’ everything through it that was necessary. Unlike a shield that was tied off, or like the wards on the castle at Clairville, or the house in Scottsdale, this shield was still taking its energy directly from the mage. That made the shield stronger, and the link between shield and mage a lot stronger. He could feel the little bits of life that were insects passing through it unhindered, and he could feel the little tendrils of magic that were occasionally brushing against it as the mage outside kept testing it. Whoever he was, the mage was methodical at least. Each time he started with low magic, checking to see if he could insinuate his thoughts inside the shield. Then he would move rocks, or other objects to see if they would go through the shield. As he failed each time, the mage moved up into high magic, testing with small spells. Worthington was surprised when the mage took control of several insects and sent them at the shield. The mage must have noticed an insect moving across the shield earlier and decided to see if he could use that advantage. His attempt failed of course. There was a difference between regular animal life, or insect life, and that which was mage-controlled. Jamie had set the shield so that it would keep out anything moving above a certain speed (like bullets), intelligent life (like humans), and anything recently touched by magic. It stopped each of these attacks by the mage, who waited twenty minutes before starting his testing in another area. An hour before dawn, the testing stopped, and Worthington spent that time thinking about their situation and the possible outcomes. If only in the privacy of his own mind, he had to admit he was terrified by this turn of events. Government involvement in the affairs of mages was something long feared, and it proved the point of those who said open knowledge of mages and magic would be the death of them. He had to start re-thinking his support for the plan of the Dwarf King, and the Elves as well when it came to finding some sort of middle ground. But was it already too late? Nothing the dwarves or other magical races had done was responsible for this situation. In fact, the government already knew about magic, if not the magical races, as proven by his run-in with the agents during the demon fight. Somehow, some mage had come to the awareness of the government and whatever program existed now sprang from that interaction. More than likely it was some mage not associated with a mage family, Light or Dark because his earlier encounters had left him with the impression that the government mages were ignorant of the larger mage community, its principles, and its history. When the sun finally rose over the horizon, Worthington set about waking his campers up and getting them ready for the day. Colin was still a little tired but seemed to be in a lot better shape, if no better mood. By the time they filed into the dining hall with the rest of the campers, Worthington had realized it was going to be a long day. Except for the fact that no one left the boundaries of the campground, it was a fairly typical day as far as most of the campers were concerned. Jamie had set very simple instructions into the minds of the camp staff, simply telling them to arrange the day’s activities to be within the boundaries of the camp. As a result, the campers had a variety of interesting things set in front of them that Jamie or Worthington would never have dreamed up if they had given more specific instructions to the camp staff. There was no discernable activity from the government mage or soldiers outside the campground. No one approached the main gate of the camp, no one tested the shields all day according to Jamie, who had taken it back during breakfast. After dinner, Worthington took Colin and Brandon on patrol around the perimeter of the shield, just to see what would happen. Back in the dorm building Jamie and Carl were prepared, ready to strengthen the shield if needed. Dechaun had tagged along, giving Worthington a flat stare when he suggested the young boy should go back with the rest of their dorm. It seemed Dechaun disliked square dancing as much as Worthington did and would much rather be out here, danger or no danger. "There’s one, over there," Dechaun said quietly after they’d made half a circuit of the camp. He’d moved up to stand beside Worthington and pointed with a jut of his chin. "Where?" Worthington asked, not seeing anything in that direction. "There, under that bush between the twisted tree and that real thick tree," Dechaun explained without looking in that direction. Worthington thought he saw something, no more than a mound of something under the bush and extended his mage senses just a bit. "How did you know he was there?" Worthington asked as they moved on without paying too much attention to the mound that was a hidden soldier. His probe had touched on a shield over the person’s thoughts, which was the only way he’d have known for sure if someone was there. "My cousin joined the army a couple of years ago." Dechaun shrugged. "He took me and his little brother camping one time, and showed us some of the things they’d taught him." "You are a surprising wealth of information, Dechaun," Worthington said fondly, putting an arm around the boy’s shoulder. "As long as I can turn it into money, it’s all good," Dechaun said emphatically. "I’m sick of being poor." "Like I said before, Dechaun, I better be careful, or you’re going to be richer than I am." Worthington laughed. "I hope so." Dechaun laughed as well as they continued walking. He spotted three more soldiers in hiding, and each time Worthington was able to confirm they were there with his magic. It was obvious from their arrangement that they were lookouts, meant to spot anyone trying to leave the camp. They’re testing the shield again. Jamie’s mind voice sounded a bit worried as Worthington led his small group back into the middle of the camp. The sky was just moving from twilight into darkness, and the lights of the dining hall were bright. That at least was one thing they didn’t have to worry about. Electricity could not be cut off to the camp, because solar panels and a tall windmill behind the staff cabins supplied power to the entire camp. The environmentally aware camp staff liked to brag their camp had no ‘carbon footprint’ from its use of electricity. While all their kitchen equipment ran on electricity, it was all provided by the solar panels and windmill. At night, batteries and the windmill (which actually generated most of its power from the evening breezes) provided power for lights, water heaters, and other equipment. We’re on our way back in. Worthington replied to his brother. It was only a few minutes until they reached the dorm building. Jamie and Carl were sitting cross-legged in the middle of the common room, which was quickly becoming the best-protected room in the entire camp. He and Jamie had spent a good part of the afternoon spinning out wards and shields on the place. "What’s going on?" Worthington asked his brother. "There are at least two mages out there now," Jamie replied with a frown. "They’re trying more stuff too. Wait, make it three mages. Damn, they’re testing in three different areas, and it’s a pain to keep my attention on all three." "You want me to help? "No," Jamie muttered. "I can handle them, but I need to focus on them." "We shouldn’t just sit here." Colin murmured. "It’s like we’re letting them set the rules for this." "Going out there and confronting them isn’t the right thing either." Worthington countered. "It is a good way for us to get in over our heads and lose. We’re better off just waiting them out." "It’s only been a day, and there are now three mages." Colin countered. "How many, plus whatever many soldiers they bring in, can we deal with here? I mean, what if they are just pinning us down until they get a hundred mages here to overwhelm us?" "Now it’s four mages." Jamie murmured aloud. "And the soldiers are starting to try the shield at six different locations." "How are you holding up?" Worthington asked with a frown. "They aren’t doing an all-out attack, but if they keep this up for long both Carl and me are going to be worthless until tomorrow." Jamie murmured. "We do have to do something," Worthington said with a sigh, and Colin smiled triumphantly. "What are we going to do?" Colin asked excitedly. "You are going to stay here and be ready to help Jamie if he needs it," Worthington said sharply and ignored Colin’s frown. "Dechaun, you can come with Brandon and me." "You’re going to take the mundane with you and leave me behind?" Colin was incredulous. "You weren’t able to pick out the soldiers hiding around earlier today," Worthington said. "For that matter, neither was I without magic. Dechaun did it, and I’m hoping he’s going to be able to do it again." "Oh." Colin frowned. Worthington’s explanation calmed him down a little though, and Worthington was certain that by pointing out that even Worthington hadn’t seen the soldiers earlier helped calm down Colin’s ruffled feathers. "Yo, boss man, do I get paid hazard pay for this?" Dechaun asked as they left the dorm building. "Nope," Worthington replied. "Ah hell, that ain’t no fair," Dechaun complained, and it was now dark enough he couldn’t see if the boy was smiling until he saw the faint reflection of white teeth. "If you plan on being rich and moving in higher-class society, you will have to learn that ain’t ain’t a word, and double negatives aren’t any form of good English." "You’re funny." Dechaun chuckled, and Worthington smiled back at him. It was easy to see the areas where the mages were testing the shield. The night sky was flashing with different colors as they used a variety of spells against the shield. Whenever it was struck the shield flared a pearly-white color. Standing in the field used for various sporting games, Worthington studied the different flashes for a bit and set off in the direction where there was no color except for the pearly-white of the shield flaring. "Where we going?" Dechaun asked as he walked beside Worthington on the right. Brandon was behind Worthington, following closely. They were already linked, and Brandon was a cool presence filled with power waiting to be used. He’d spent most of the day recharging and being ready for whatever Worthington needed from him. "You see the areas where there are more than just the pearly-white flashes?" Worthington asked. "Yes," Dechaun answered. "Those are mages testing the shield." Worthington supplied, and he waited to see if Dechaun could figure out the rest. "So the areas with just the pearly color are soldiers?" Dechaun asked. "Very good." Worthington smiled. "What are we going to do?" Dechaun asked with a hint of nervousness in his voice. "We’re going to provide a distraction for Jamie," Worthington said with more confidence than he really felt. It took another five minutes to reach the area that was his target, and by then the glow of an attack against the shield had stopped. When they approached the shield, Worthington frowned at the darkness, realizing it was going to be difficult to see anything. There was no soldier visible standing on the other side like he’d hoped for, but then this was why he brought Dechaun. "I can’t see shit." The boy muttered. "Wait a moment," Worthington said as he prepared a spell. When he released it, the bright white light that hung above his head blinded his eyes momentarily. He blinked several times before he could see again. "Shit," Dechaun muttered as his eyes adjusted. "It’s nearly bright as day." "Do you see anyone?" Worthington asked quietly. "Yeah, over to the right, next to that tree with the low branches," Dechaun answered softly, almost in a whisper. "Do you see more than one?" Worthington asked. "No, but you know if they have radios he’s probably calling for help," Dechaun answered. "Or that light is screaming where we are." "That’s what I’m counting on." Worthington murmured. "Stay here." "No problem with me on that, boss man," Dechaun muttered as he stepped back a few paces. I need a gate here. Worthington sent to Jamie and smiled when he felt the shield open just wide enough for him to step through. He pulled on power from Brandon as he stepped through the hole, and the tranquilizer dart the soldier fired at him hit his personal shield before falling to the ground. The night sky flared red as he let loose with a mage bolt at the dark mound hiding near the tree and there was a flare of bright blue as it hit the mage shield protecting the soldier. Worthington could now hear the man talking frantically into his radio as he stood up and fired a burst from his machine gun. Worthington’s shield protected him from the bullet as he let loose with another bolt, this time a blue stun bolt that hit the shield, causing it to collapse. A third bolt hit the soldier in the back, flinging him to the ground. In the distance, Worthington could hear the shouts of other men, and the crashing sounds of them rushing through the woods towards them. "Stay here," Worthington muttered to Brandon as he dropped his shield for a moment and darted towards the collapsed soldier. The man was big, almost as tall Worthington and broader in the shoulders. He was wearing the digital camouflage patterns of the modern Army, and Worthington bent over to pick him up in a fireman’s carry. With his helmet and body armor, the man had to weight at least two-fifty and was damn heavy. "Let’s go." Worthington gasped to Brandon as he darted back to where his Channel was standing, waiting nervously. He flared his power, extending his personal shield around him as the crashing sounds came closer, and the sounds of machine guns filled the air. The bullets bounced off his personal shield as he crossed the line of Jamie’s barrier. His brother closed the gateway in the shield as soon as he signaled it was safe. Pearly-white light filled the sudden darkness as he canceled his own light spell. Brandon pulled Dechaun in closer, within Worthington’s protective shield just as several objects were thrown through the shield. Worthington nearly dropped the soldier in surprise as several smoke grenades went off, and he thickened his shield to keep the white smoke out. Of course, the weapons were thrown with arms, not magic. It was a neat little hole in their shield’s protection and one that none of them had noticed. The simple answer at this point was to simply walk away. Jamie could hold the shield the soldiers were now frantically firing at, and Worthington calmly walked back towards camp, shifting the burden of the soldier just a bit. Over in the dining hall, the campers and staff were still doing some sort of activity, he could see and were blithely unaware of what was going on outside. That was a good thing overall, and when Worthington reached the dorm building, he was more than ready to drop his heavy burden on the floor of the common room. "Shit." Colin murmured as he saw the soldier, bits of bush and small twigs sticking out of parts of his uniform and helmet. His face was darkened in a swirl of different colors of paint, and he had several grenades and other weapons on him that Dechaun carefully took from his unconscious form. "Where’d you get him?" "Just outside the shield." Worthington smiled. "I figured taking a soldier would pull all the rest of them from their hiding areas and make them worry about us." "It worked," Jamie said with a sigh. "They’ve stopped testing the shield, and even the soldiers that were trying to save their buddy here have stopped shooting at the shield." "Well, they found one weakness already," Worthington said and relayed the information about the smoke grenades while Dechaun began to strip the soldier’s helmet and body armor off of him. He was making a small pile of gear about three feet from the soldier, and when he had the soldier down to his basic uniform, he stood up with a radio and headpiece in his hand. "They ain’t talking anymore," Dechaun said as he held the equipment out. "They probably switched frequencies." Jamie murmured. "What are we going to do with him?" "I think it’s about time we found out a few things," Worthington said. "Like, if we’ve got the US Army fighting us, how many are they going to bring in?" "He ain’t Army," Dechaun muttered, and Worthington gave him in inquisitive look. "Check out his uniform, boss man. It doesn’t say ‘Army’ on it, and they do that in the real Army. Look at the haircut on him. It’s short, but it’s longer than Army dudes wear it, and he ain’t got any dogtags either." "Well then, let’s see what he really is, or isn’t," Worthington smiled at Dechaun while Colin was looking at the young man. It would do Colin good to use Dechaun as an example. Even though he was only twelve, and from a financially disadvantaged background, Dechaun used his brain, and he always noticed things going on around him. Those were traits Colin would do well to imitate if he was going to achieve his full potential as a mage. Worthington put all that out of his mind though as he knelt down next to the unconscious soldier. The man was handsome, in a rugged sort of way with a square jaw, brown hair and a crooked nose that had been broken many times. Under the paint, he looked to be in his late twenties, with the ruggedness of a man who spent a lot of time outdoors evident from his face, and from the hands that Worthington picked up and felt. They weren’t soft hands, but the nails were well-kept, and it was obvious from the man’s physical condition he took good care of himself. "Shit boss, you going to make love to him or what?" Dechaun muttered as Worthington put the hands down and took the man’s head gently between his hands while maneuvering so that he could rest the head on his knees and he knelt over the man. "He’s a little old for me," Worthington laughed. The physical contact wasn’t necessary, but it made things easier as he opened his mind and sank down into the sleeping mind of the soldier. It was surprisingly orderly, and yet chaotic as the man dreamed something in his sleep. That was of no concern to Worthington as he probed. Let the man dream as he would, he was more interested in what the man’s memories held. The blocks and controls set in him were also of a great deal of interest. They were crude but yet sophisticated in odd ways. Jeremiah Francis had indeed been a soldier in the United States Army, but that had ended three years ago. Since then he’d been working as a private contractor for one of the security firms that had grown in size and function since the start of the War on Terror. It paid well, and since Jeremiah was single, he could spend that money in a variety of interesting ways. His latest work was an odd job. The US government was his company’s biggest client, of course, and he was glad to be working back in the United States where he could at least spend a few days every month in the expensive condo he now owned in San Diego. It bugged him that there were huge blank spots in his memory and that while they weren’t US Army, they occasionally pretended to be the Army. Still, they were working for the government so they couldn’t get in trouble for doing that, and he went along because he’d been following orders ever since he enlisted at the age of eighteen. What was even more interesting was the flood of information that was unlocked when Worthington unknotted the relatively crude controls and blocks that had been placed on the soldier. Worthington sank back onto his heels and let the man slowly return awake as the information flooded into both of them from behind those blocks. The sheer scope of what the man had hidden in there was staggering, and Worthington reached out to share it with the others in the room, drawing even Dechaun into a many-sided rapport rather than trying to verbally share the information. "Shit," Dechaun muttered for all of them, and Worthington’s rueful chuckle echoed his sentiment.
  14. "What’s wrong with him?" Dechaun asked as they entered the Badger dorm and put Colin on his bed. Jamie immediately bent over him and began to cast a spell that would ascertain his condition. "He wore himself out," Worthington said softly. "It’s nearly dinner time," Dechaun said, and Worthington noticed his campers were all awake and getting dressed for dinner. "I’ll take them," Carl said softly from the doorway, and Worthington nodded as Jamie stood up looking grim. We need Richie. Jamie said mentally. Whatever drug is in him, I don’t know enough to counter it without risking harming him. I’ll get the satellite phone. Brandon replied and left for his dorm. I need to take my campers to dinner too. Jamie said next. Go. Worthington sent. Brandon and I will take care of him. Once I get them to the dining hall, I’ll go back out and set up a stronger shield over the entire camp. Jamie sent. I don’t think they’ll attack around the campers, but it’s better to be safe. "Yes," Worthington said aloud as Carl got the Badgers organized and out the door. Most of them cast worried looks in Colin’s direction but didn’t say anything as Jamie left after them and Brandon returned with the satellite phone in his hand and a frown on his face. "Could they be jamming the satellite?" Brandon asked. "If they’re government, they probably could do that," Worthington admitted. "Doesn’t the camp have a landline?" "I’ll try that," Brandon said and departed. Worthington sat down on the bed next to Colin and held his hand in a gesture of worry. He felt tired after all the spell casting from earlier, but stretched out his abilities, drawing in power to replenish what he’d already used. If there were any more fighting, he’d need every bit of strength he could get. At this range, the MR were all too far away to use as a power source, and Brandon was near as exhausted as he was. If there were another fight, they’d be in trouble. Jamie’s shield going up over the camp was a relief. At least he was at nearly full power despite the magic he’d flung around earlier. Worthington’s brother hadn’t been shielding against bullets and grenades, as well as gas. That left him in far better condition, which was a good thing just now. Brandon returned ten minutes later with a large frown on his face. Colin hadn’t stirred at all, but his breathing was at least deep and regular. As far as Worthington could tell he would probably be okay, and would hopefully wake up when the drug he’d been dosed with wore off. Hopefully, it would not be too long. "The landline has been dead all afternoon according to the staffer in the main building," Brandon informed him. "I saw Mr. Hall on my way back, and he wants us to take Colin to see the nurse. One of the campers told him Colin was sick." "Jamie can take care of their interest in Colin’s condition," Worthington said grimly. "I think you need to get to the dining hall and get some food for yourself, and me. We need to eat and then rest a bit. For some reason, I don’t think this is over yet." "What are they going to do?" Brandon asked. "There are over 240 kids in here right now, not to mention the dozen counselors and the staffers. Do you think they’re going to come in here with guns blazing?" "They’ll have to punch through Jamie’s shield to get through." Worthington chuckled a bit, but then sobered up. "We go on those hikes almost every day, though. If they strike at one of those…" "They’re going to tuck tail and run." Brandon snorted. "We gave them a bloody nose, fucked up their little trap and got out no problem. When Colin wakes up, we’ll have three Adept-level mages against whatever they can throw at us." "I’d feel much safer in Clairville with a bunch of dwarves around me," Worthington muttered. "Okay, I’ll go get the food," Brandon said with a shake of his head. While he waited, he thought about all the possible methods of contacting the outside world, especially those who could muster the strength to pull him and the others out of here without the soldiers interfering. He had no doubt they were real soldiers, and that thought scared him. Had he been wrong to not immediately spread the word of the government mages? If they were sending real soldiers against him, to capture or kill mages, that was a threat to all mages everywhere. This was exactly why the Great Secret had been kept all these years, and it gave him some real doubts about the plans of King Odras and his dwarves. Then again, if mages were known about, it would be hard for the government to secretly kidnap them. When Brandon returned with a plate of food, Worthington ate it quietly, still thinking about the best way to contact someone for help. He had already decided that Nick Wooten or Dakota Ungashick were the best choices. They were closer to his current location than anyone else, they were in Clairville and could get the assistance of the dwarves (however much that might cost him financially), and they had sworn oaths to him, binding themselves to him at a minimal level with magic. All those factors meant he would expend far less energy in contacting them than he would try to reach anyone else. Despite Brandon’s optimism, he couldn’t shake the feeling that this fight was far from over. The soldiers had been beaten back, not defeated and there was a difference there. Worthington could not put up half the fight he had earlier, and after this spell at contacting help, he’d be even less able. "What are we going to do?" Brandon asked when Worthington finished eating. The food had helped, and he felt stronger already. "I’m going to call for help," Worthington said as they snapped into place in their link. He drew lightly on Brandon, who had recharged fairly well but was still relatively weak. This spell took concentration and the layering of spell on top of spell in a set sequence. When it was ready, he flung it out like a net, waiting for it to reach as far as Clairville and its intended recipients. "Fuck." He muttered as he felt it rebound against something just outside the boundary of the protective shield Jamie had woven at the camp. "What was that?" Brandon’s voice was alarmed as Worthington shook his head to get rid of the effects of the spell’s backlash. "You still think they’re going to slink off with their tails between their legs?" Worthington snapped angrily at him. "They put up a fucking block over the camp so we can’t call for help." "Shit." Brandon murmured. "What are we going to do now? We’re cut off." "They can’t get in here, at least," Worthington muttered. "Get Jamie and Carl and tell them to meet back here later tonight, after lights out. Maybe Colin will be awake by then. Tell Jamie to set a ward off on this side of the shield so that anyone approaching it decides to go back to bed." "Okay." Brandon nodded and took their plates with him when he left. Worthington couldn’t deny the feelings welling up inside him as he sat there looking at Colin’s sleeping form. No, they weren’t some deep feelings of love for the guy. They were a lot worse. Worthington felt helpless. He had to wonder if the Light had planned this, but he knew better than that. The Light had some intelligence, given it by the expectations of mages over centuries, but it was not an omnipotent being. It was rather a manifestation of magic, and when it had required him to go to this camp as payment for its help, it could not have known this would happen here. They could not just hop on their motorcycles and ride away this time. For one thing, their motorcycles were not here. Nor were the buses available that had delivered the campers. They would return on the day the campers were to leave, as would Elizabeth to pick them up and take them back home. There was the van and two vehicles used by the camp staff. It would be a minor spell to get the camp staff to loan them the use of the vehicles, and they could run in one of them. If the soldiers attacked them though, Worthington couldn’t be sure that they would escape. He imagined a wild chase through the mountain roads with military vehicles and realized that none of the vehicles in the camp were of good enough condition to speed them away to safety. So running was not an option. There were over 250 innocents here in this campground, and while a Dark mage wouldn’t be concerned about them, Worthington had to admit he was concerned. It was one thing to use people like Briggs for teaching Colin magic but another thing to leave them here defenseless. He could assume the soldiers would mean none of them harm because none of them had magical abilities, but did he know that for sure? Unless he and the others fled the camp, though, they were definitely caught in any potential crossfire. Bullets had been bouncing off his shield earlier today. What if that had been in the middle of the camp with kids everywhere? The thought of Dechaun or any of his Badgers being wounded by ricocheting bullets was enough to make him sick to his stomach. While he waited, he decided Colin didn’t need to be lying there in the nude. He’d never really looked at Colin while the guy was asleep, and his eyes scanned over Colin’s body. Colin wasn’t exactly skinny, but neither was he built-up. Soft, his cock was about average, uncircumcised, and nestled in a small bush of carrot-colored hair. He even had a cute little outie belly button that Worthington hadn’t really noticed before. "I know I’m cute, but you don’t have to stare at me like that." Colin’s voice startled him, and it was slightly slurred, but Worthington met those green eyes with relief. "You’re awake," Worthington said softly. "Yeah, but I got a massive headache." Colin murmured as he shifted on the bed and lifted one hand to his head. "What happened?" "What’s the last thing you remember?" Worthington asked. "I was fucking that girl, the Manzanita counselor." Colin murmured. "That was different alright." "How’d you like it?" Worthington asked, not wanting to really deal with the next set of questions or explanations. "Not bad, but I’d rather fuck Briggs again." Colin murmured. "Right now, I don’t feel like fucking anything though. What the hell happened?" "You were abducted," Worthington answered. "By who?" Colin asked with a frown. "Is that why my head hurts, and I feel all fuzzy?" "You were shot with a tranquilizer dart of some kind," Worthington explained. Now that Colin was awake he felt confident enough to try some healing and did so gently. "Thanks, that feels better." Colin murmured. "It’s not quite so bad now. So, obviously, they didn’t succeed. Who was after me?" "The government," Worthington said and spent several minutes explaining to Colin what had happened. "Thanks for saving me, again," Colin said with a slight chuckle. "Be sure to thank Jamie too," Worthington told him, and Colin grimaced. "If he hadn’t come along, I’d have been dead, and they’d have had you." "Great." Colin frowned. "So, what happens now? Are they still out there?" "We assume so," Worthington said as the sounds of campers arriving back at the dorms came down the hallway. That was odd, they should be in the dining hall for after-dinner entertainment for several more hours. We’ve got big trouble. Jamie’s voice came into his head and was filled with overtones of concern. Colin’s awake. Worthington replied mentally. "If you can sit up, Colin, you better get dressed. Sorry, but we left your clothes back in that little clearing." "What’s Jamie saying?" Colin asked. "I can hear he’s talking to you but not what he’s saying." That’s good news, I think. Jamie replied. "There’s trouble of some kind," Worthington said aloud to Colin. What’s going on, brother? There are some vehicles at the main gate. Jamie replied. They just pulled up a few minutes ago, and Hall went out to meet them. He came back in, told all the counselors to take the kids back to the dorms and then said we have to go get you and Colin to meet the men at the gates. He won’t say anything more than that, and there are too many people watching to just spell him. "Hey boss man, carrot’s awake huh?" Dechaune asked as he led the campers from their dorm into the room. Colin had just managed to pull his shorts on and was sitting back down after being slightly dizzy. "Something’s weird going on outside. There’s like all these military Hummers at the gate, and Mr. Hall told us all to go back to our dorms. You know what’s going on, boss man?" "Dechaun, I want you to listen to me very carefully," Worthington said slowly. "Get all the guys, and I want all of you to take your showers now, okay?" "What’s going on?" Dechaun said with a worried look on his face. "You in some kind of trouble?" "Remember me telling you that having money can be as bad as having no money?" Worthington asked. "I still don’t believe it." Dechaun snorted. "For now, let’s just say I managed to collect some powerful enemies and I’m not even out of high school yet." Worthington smiled. "Now, can you do me that favor and get everyone to take long showers?" "For you, yeah." Dechaun nodded and went into the main part of the dorm, shouting at his fellow campers they were all going to shower early. The last of them had just left the room with their shower kits when Mr. Hall stormed into the room with Carl, Brandon, and Jamie in tow. "You both need to come with me." Mr. Hall said woodenly, not noticing how Brandon shut the door behind them. Worthington didn’t bother saying anything, he just entered the man’s mind and found exactly what he expected there. The wards ended at the main gate, and Jamie’s ward-off spell had been meant for campers, not staff. He must have stepped over the line of the protection ward because the compulsion on his mind was to lock down the camp, put all the campers and staff into one location and then bring the guys out. With a mental flexing, he broke the compulsion and withdrew from Mr. Hall’s mind. "What the hell is going on here?" The man demanded angrily with eyes widening in surprise. "What the hell was that?" "You didn’t wipe his memory?" Jamie asked with surprise. "What the hell did you do?" Hall shouted, backing up a few steps. "What the hell are you?" We are mages, magic is real, and you only wish you were dreaming. Worthington said inside the man’s mind and barely resisted the urge to smile as the man nearly collapsed on wobbly knees. "Brandon, grab him a chair so he can sit down." "I don’t believe this," Hall said, but his mind showed he was slowly processing what was happening. "Those agents at the gate, they did something, made me do what I did? How?" "If I knew this was going to happen, we’d have never come here or risked getting the campers involved in anything," Worthington said aloud. "The long and short of it is that magic exists, all of us in here can do magic. A few months ago I ran across a secret government organization that tries to keep people like us under control, and they don’t care what methods they use to do that. Earlier today they tried to kidnap Colin." "That’s not right," Hall said with a frown. "I mean, it doesn’t matter what you are, the government doesn’t have a right to just kidnap you. You can’t go out there. I mean, I don’t know what we can do to stop them coming in here and just taking you, but it’s not right for them to be able to do that." "Oh, we can stop them from coming into the camp area," Jamie said firmly. "That won’t be a problem." Worthington agreed. "The problem is going to be what happens when they try to come in." "I’m sorry, you can’t do anything that would hurt the campers," Hall said with a frown as he struggled to examine the situation. "I don’t like the government trying to take good kids, and you boys are all good kids, but I won’t see us put the campers in danger either." "That’s why getting everyone into the dorms and keeping them there is a good idea," Worthington admitted. "We’ve put a fair amount of protections on these buildings already, and all of you will be safe here. You need to get all the campers, all the staff, and even the cooks to be in here if you can." "I can do that," Hall said, and he gave them a sharp look. "What are you going to do?" "We’re going to ask them what they want." Worthington shrugged. "Then we’ll ask them nicely to go away." "I see," Hall said. "Uh, why are you telling me all this? You could just do what they did, right? Make me do what you want me to do?" "We could, but you’ll be better able to keep the campers and everyone else safe if you know exactly what is going on and why you’re doing this," Worthington explained. "I have had some experience in having regular people help in these situations, and it’s always better if you do it knowing everything." "If I had any doubts about you boys, that would take care of them," Hall said with a nod of his head. "You at least ask, and care about people’s free wills. Those government goons just make you hop when they say so. I’ll get everyone in here, and we’ll do some sing-along or something like that. You be safe, though, and let me know when it’s all clear." "We will," Worthington said. When the man left the room, Jamie raised an eyebrow. "Is that wise?" Jamie asked. "After this is over, we’ll wipe his memories." Worthington shrugged, and Colin snorted. "What’s so funny?" Carl asked him. "Think about it," Colin smirked. "He’s thinking we’re the good guys because we told him what’s up and let him choose, but Worthington here isn’t really doing that." "I was pretty sure he’d help." Worthington shrugged. "If he weren’t going to, I’d have just used magic, but right now I want to spare every bit of power I have." "So?" Carl asked turning back to Colin. "Don’t you get it?" Colin’s voice was just a bit snide, and he got a warning look from Worthington. "See what?" Carl asked. "Worthington got Hall to support us by making him think we were ethically different from the government agents outside," Brandon said with a sigh. "The truth is, Worthington would do the same as they did, or more, and probably will before this is all over. Hall’s supporting us on a lie and will never know it." "But we are the good guys, right?" Carl asked with a worried frown. "I mean, we’re not the bad guys, right? We haven’t done anything wrong." "It all depends on your point of view," Jamie said with a shake of his head. "Unfortunately, Carl right now is not the time to be having this discussion." "No, it’s not." Brandon agreed and then frowned before reaching behind him and opening the door to reveal Dechaun standing there with his ear still to the door. "What is it Dechaun?" "Uh, I wasn’t…" Dechaun started to protest, backing away. "Oh get your butt in here." Worthington snarled, and the boy paled before scampering inside. "Where’s everyone else?" "Taking showers," Dechaun said proudly. "I didn’t hear anything, I swear." "Do you think you can lie to me after what you heard?" Worthington asked. "No." The boy said in a dejected tone as he looked at the ground. "Whatcha goin’ to do to me?" "I’m going to put you to work," Worthington said with a confident tone and the boy looked up at him with surprise. "I’m always on the lookout for good people I can trust, and I’ve been keeping on eye on you for the last week. You’re someone that can be trusted, Dechaun, so I’m going to trust you to do two things for me." "What’s that?" Dechaun asked. "First off you’re going to keep on eye on Mr. Hall," Worthington told him as he made it up on the spot. "I don’t trust him, but I can’t keep an eye on him. You’ll do that for me, and you run to me and tell me if he does anything that would be bad for me. Can you do that?" "I can do that." Dechaun nodded enthusiastically. "Good," Worthington said. "The other thing is as long as he’s doing what he’s supposed to, and you heard what he’s supposed to be doing right? Tell me if you missed anything." "I heard it all," Dechaun admitted. "Good." Worthington nodded. "Now, the second thing is as long as he’s doing what he’s supposed to I want you to help him. Keep an eye on the campers. You can’t get distracted, help make sure no one sneaks off. If they do, you tell a counselor or a staffer, okay?" "I’m not a snitch," Dechaun said defensively. "No, you’re my lookout while I show a few government goons that they can’t fuck with me," Worthington said forcefully and knew it had been the right thing to say by the bright smile Dechaun threw at him. "Okay then," Dechaun said. "Good, and you’ll be making money doing this, too," Worthington said and saw Dechaun’s face light up. "You don’t have to pay me, boss man," Dechaun said softly. "If I’m your boss, I have to pay you, Dechaun," Worthington said. "We’ll start you off at a $100 an hour for now. That starts from when you took the guys and told them to get in the showers, and it stops when we all go to bed." "It’s your money." Dechaun shrugged, but he was grinning. "Good, now get to work and keep an eye on Mr. Hall," Worthington said, and Dechaun scampered out of the room. "You going to wipe him too when it’s all done?" Jamie asked with a smirk. "No, he is a good kid," Worthington said. "I’ll put on the same blocks I do on the MR, and maybe give him an anklet too. You never know when someone like him will be useful. He’s young enough that most people just ignore someone his age." "So what are you planning?" Jamie asked. "Have you fully recovered from earlier?" "No," Worthington admitted. "We’ll need to avoid a fight if we can. They want to talk, so I say we go talk to them. What do you think? You’re just as much an Adept as I am." "You’ve got more training for shit like this." Jamie countered. "I’ll defer to you unless I think you’re making a big mistake." "Okay." Worthington agreed with a nod. It was always good to know who was in charge, and what conditions anyone involved might have. "Colin, how are you feeling?" "I’m still kind of out of it," Colin admitted. "I won’t be much use to you if it comes to a fight." "You stay behind us, and if things go bad, put up the strongest shield you can see around us." Worthington decided. "That will give Jamie and me time to go on the offense. Remember the lesson on shields against bullets. As I found out today, it’s not an exaggeration how much power it takes." "I can do that." Colin nodded and proceeded to finish getting dressed. When he was ready, they all nodded at each other and walked out of the dorm. Mr. Hall had people gathering in the common room already and nodded at them briefly. It looked like all the adults and counselors were there, and the kids that weren’t were in their dorms or the showers like the Badgers. That was fine as far as Worthington was concerned. As soon as they left the dorm building, a spotlight hit them, dazzling all of them with its brightness. Colin, Jamie, and Worthington all put up strong shields at that, but when there was no immediate attack, Worthington signaled for Colin to hold his shield while he and Jamie dropped theirs. With Jamie at his side, Brandon behind him, Carl behind his brother, and Colin at the rear, Worthington walked slowly towards the gate while resisting the urge to cover his eyes. A probing thought showed the light wasn’t shielded magically, and he used the least amount of power as necessary to fling a rock from the ground at the light. It shattered, and there was the loud noise of people cussing as a mage shield sprang up over the group at the gate. As the spots of purple faded from his vision, and his eyes adjusted again to the relative darkness of the night, Worthington saw what they were facing. There were four military-style Humvees in front of the gate, a black SUV, and a heavy-duty truck that had the now-broken spotlight on the back. In front of the gate were several soldiers with assault weapons wearing camouflage uniforms and two men in dark suits. With them was another man wearing camouflage but not carrying any weapons or wearing the flak vests of the soldiers. He was talking to the two suits while staring at the approaching group. "They’re just kids." One of the dark-suits said as they reached the main gate, stopping just inside the protective ward Jamie had set up earlier. "I thought you said they were dangerous terrorists." "They managed to fight off several of my best men earlier today." A soldier who appeared to be an officer said. "They’re not even armed." The same dark-suit complained. "They just shot out the light, didn’t they?" The not-soldier in camouflage said. Yes, he was the mage. "Now they’re here, do what you’re here to do." "I am Special Agent Richard Darlin of the F.B.I." The dark-suit who had not spoken until now said gruffly. "We are here to serve arrest warrants that have been issued for Worthington Michael Sinclair the Fifth, Jameson Bradwell, and any others who might be in their presence." "I am Worthington Sinclair," Worthington said in a carefully controlled tone. "Let me see the warrants." "You will have to step outside the gate," Agent Darling frowned. "If you have a warrant, why don’t you step inside?" Worthington retorted, and the man frowned before stepping forward. He almost laughed when the ward flashed, and the man was flung back several feet to land on his ass. His partner had his gun out and pointed at them, as did most of the dozen or so soldiers standing around the vehicles, including the one on the machine gun that was on top of one of the hummers. "Stop playing your tricks, Sinclair." The mage in camouflage spat out. "We have enough firepower here to level this camp. Your game is up, and you will surrender. I don’t know how you beat the scrambler, but we’ll find that out and everything we want to know by the time we’re done with you." "What are you talking about?" The agent still on his feet demanded. "What are the charges we are facing?" Worthington asked calmly. "Assaulting federal officers to start with." The mage sneered. "Interfering with an ongoing investigation is another charge. Oh, and let’s see, interfering with official business earlier today, assaulting U.S. Army soldiers, and there are the twelve cases of murder for the soldiers you killed a few weeks ago." "So it was you who tried to kill me, having a sniper shoot at me while I was on a motorcycle," Worthington said quietly. "What’s he talking about?" The officer-soldier demanded. "You said he just attacked those troops for no reason." "Who are you going to believe, this kid or me?" The mage asked. As he spoke, Worthington could see him working his magic and lashed out with a whip-like cord of power that flared as it met the man’s shields. "Be nice and let the man think for himself." Worthington snarled. "What the hell is that?" The soldier demanded as he looked at the whip of power still in Worthington’s hands. "It’s magic, the same stuff I threw at your soldiers earlier today when they tried to kidnap one of my people." Worthington retorted, and the officer frowned. "Your people?" The mage scoffed. "You mean the government’s people. We found an untrained mage and was taking him in for training. It’s the law." "What law?" Worthington demanded. "I have not heard of Congress passing any laws dealing with mages." "What are you talking about?" The soldier demanded. "Tsk, tsk, you employ soldiers and agents without them knowing the truth?" Worthington asked. "They know." The mage said, and this time his magical move was too quick for Worthington to react. The soldier’s face slackened though, and then he blinked a few times. "I was just keeping their memories blocked in case you tried to use your abilities on them before we could bind you. You will not find out information about us until we have you safely in custody." "I do know." The officer said in a tight voice. "Executive Order 09-3250A states that any mage who is not registered and licensed by the government shall surrender to government authority and be restrained until they have been judged to be harmless or law-abiding. You are at this moment informed that you have been judged to be dangerous and will surrender to lawful authority or be dealt with summarily." "I see," Worthington said and accepted what was being said as truth for now. "It is interesting that no one seems to have heard about this Executive Order before." "It is classified." The officer said. "You will submit to the authority of the government before you endanger any more innocent lives." "No," Worthington said. "I may just be in high school, but I know you can’t arrest me. It is illegal for the military to arrest citizens." "Boy, where you’re going there’s no quibbling about what can and cannot be done under the law." The mage snorted. "Thank you for taking a great weight off of my mind," Worthington said with real relief and almost laughed at their confused looks as he turned around and led his little group back to the dormitory building. There was no attack, and looking back when he reached the building showed that the soldiers appeared to be setting up to watch, and wait. That was good, such as it was. At least it gave him time. "Now what?" Jamie asked. "Now we keep this place well shielded, and we wait," Worthington said softly. "What do we wait for?" Carl asked in a scared voice. "The cavalry," Worthington answered and went back inside where two hundred and fifty voices were just finishing kumbaya.
  15. "That's it, Colin, hold it right there," Worthington told the sweating young man in a gentle voice. Colin's pale, hairless chest was shiny with sweat as he knelt on the cold tile of the shower floor. He buried himself deep in Brigg's ass, and he was trembling with the effort of not moving at all, stretching his mage abilities deep into Brigg's mind. The human was whimpering loudly, and Worthington double-checked the wards on the bathroom, not only keeping people from entering but sound from escaping as well. "Oh yeah, I feel it." Colin's voice was low and sultry. "Okay, hold him there," Worthington said gently and observed both with his mind and his eyes as Briggs hung just on the verge of his orgasm, right at the cusp of the moment, but going neither over it or backing away. In moments he was screaming at the top of his lungs, begging for release as his body trembled. "Fuck this is good." Colin breathed as he pumped out and back into Brigg's ass. "I can hold him there like this for a while, right, even if I shoot?" "Yes, go ahead, finish up," Worthington suggested. It would be easier that way for Colin to concentrate. The shorter redhead did just that, growling as he continued pumping into Briggs and then groaning as he shot his load. Briggs was reduced to whimpering by this point, and Worthington felt the first warning signs even as Colin grinned crazily while pulling out. It had been six days since the campers arrived, and poor Briggs had been the subject every night for Colin's lessons. The tall, extremely lean geeky fellow was not having the best of summers, but at least he remembered none of these nights. "What's that in him?" Colin asked in a slightly out of breath voice that stirred Worthington's own cock. Watching Colin work had him horny as hell, just as it did every night. He had to admit that Colin was a natural at this, taking to the ways of a Dark mage, the use of sex for power and control as if he'd been doing it all his life. Jamie had complained once or twice that Colin's progress had been stilted, but these lessons he did not have any problem with at all. "He's approaching insanity," Worthington said softly as Brigg's body stopped twitching and he collapsed on the cold tile, drool starting to come out of a corner of his mouth. "If you hold him at this point much longer, he'll break. Some people can take it longer, others can't. He's one of those that can't." "Figures," Colin said as he lifted his hand and wiped some of the mess off of his softening cock. As he wiped the gunk off on Brigg's butt cheek, he released the next spell Worthington had taught him. The fine web of magic settled into place over Briggs's mind, and Colin released the hold on the older guy's orgasm as it fit into place. While Briggs groaned with the release of his body, his mind jolted, locking the web into place. "So that does it huh?" Colin asked with a grin. "Yes, that adjusts his personality." Worthington agreed. "The key points here are that you can do it through pain or pleasure, but he has to be on the border of insanity, and that the adjustments take time. You'll see the effects in him within a day or two." "I got it," Colin said with a smile. Worthington watched as he exerted another tendril of magic and Briggs got up, heading to the toilet where he proceeded to clean up. Colin was getting good at this, able to do it now without saying anything verbally. "Nice of you to make his personality nicer while we're at it." "I told you, you're not going to fuck him up with this," Worthington said sternly. "We'll be doing enough of that over the years as it is. If you don't have to harm someone, why bother?" "Yeah, but what does it matter with him?" Colin asked. "He's just a mundane." "A mundane is still a human being, Colin." Worthington snorted. "Would you treat a dwarf that way?" "Fuck no," Colin said with slightly wide eyes. "The fucker may come back and kick my ass across the mountainside. Only a fool messes with dwarves." "Even mundanes are capable of kicking your ass if they catch you off-guard," Worthington noted and was pleased with the sudden hooded look over Colin's pretty green eyes. That meant he was thinking about what Worthington had said. "So, you're still pretty worked up," Colin said with a glance to Worthington's crotch. He was wearing nothing but a pair of silk bikini briefs, and his cock was pretty damn hard still. All it took was a nod, and Colin was on his knees in front of him, pulling the cock out of the underwear and swallowing as much as he could. It had only been a few days since he'd lost his virginity, but Colin was definitely coming along like a natural. He even managed to take Worthington's entire load without choking and smiled as he put Worthington's softening penis back into his underwear. He had a big smile on his face as he stood up and they kissed. "Thanks," Worthington said softly as he broke the kiss. "No, thank you for teaching me," Colin said with a smile and turned to head back to the dorm. Worthington slipped off his underwear and turned on one of the showers as he released the wards on the bathroom. Counselors had to take their showers after campers, and he actually preferred to do it at night, after these little sessions. The truth was that Colin worried him. As he lathered up under the hot shower, he thought over Colin and what lay at the root of his concerns. Colin had a very slippery sense of ethics, and at times bordered on actions that Worthington thought of as evil. He could not fool himself that Colin wouldn't slip over the line, but he had to think of a way to show Colin why he shouldn't. Once he was fully trained, Colin would be able to ignore Worthington's instructions on ethics. Putting compulsions on him wouldn't do much good either. He wasn't as strong as Worthington was, but he was strong enough, and Worthington's own experiences showed how useless compulsions could be in the long run. Instead of keeping Colin from slipping into evil, they would all but guarantee it when Colin slipped through whatever controls he put in him. Instead, he had to find some way to make Colin care, like the way he was doing with Dechaun. The boy and several others in his group were coming along very nicely. He understood the importance of putting money aside, and how not spending more than you had coming in would result in more money being available for spending. It was a principle far too few people understood and would be enough to help lift him out of the poverty he lived in now if he followed it all his life. Briggs coming in and showering barely bothered him at all, but Colin coming back in to clean up himself did distract him. The truth was that Colin was more problematical than even he was willing to admit. Their relationship was proving to be very odd. At times they were close, like friends, at others it was very mentor/pupil, and still others it burned with wild lust. It wasn't love like he'd felt for Jeremy, nor the brotherly love he now felt for Jamie who still was not really talking to him. Even as he shut off the water and exited the shower to get his towel, he realized he was getting hard again just seeing the red-haired guy in the shower. Colin had a way of moving that was just so sensual that it set off his hormones, but unlike with Jeremy or even some others, there was no desire to cuddle after orgasm. The honest truth was that he wasn't able to figure out what was going on between them, and that scared him more than anything. "What are you thinking about?" Colin said when he came out of the shower just as Worthington was finishing drying off. "You," Worthington answered honestly and felt weird inside when a bright smile lit the guy's face. "I like hearing that," Colin said as he began to use his own towel to dry off. "I bet you do," Worthington said as he wrapped the towel around his waist and left the bathroom. He donned a clean pair of underwear, this time blue boxer-briefs and climbed into the small bed. Before closing his eyes and letting sleep take him, he did a quick check to make sure the boys were all asleep, and that his wards were all in place. It was a quiet night, and he drifted off to sleep before Colin had returned from the bathroom. The next day was their daylong hike up to a small lake that was near the camp. They set out with two other dorms, all boys, and headed up several trails that the staff guide seemed to know fairly well. Worthington's dorm was in the middle of the group of sixty-odd boys and seemed to have the least problem keeping up with the pace the staffer set. This morning all the counselors were carrying extra supplies, mostly because they were carrying the food and cooking supplies that they would be using for lunch once they got to their destination. Before setting out they'd made sure all their campers had everything they were supposed to have, including swimsuits on under their clothes. Supposedly this lake was fed by melted snow, and while quite cold it was crystal clear and perfect for swimming. The hike was long and hot. Worthington was sweating more than he expected by the time they reached the clearing that held the rather small lake. At least the air at this elevation was a little cooler, and there were plenty of trees to offer shade from the sun beating down on them. He spent the first ten minutes up there making sure all of his campers were drinking bottled water they'd brought with them, and did the same himself. The staffer, a guy in his mid-thirties, named Jim Robers then called everyone around him after he'd set some things up and began to demonstrate how they were going to cook their lunches. Worthington hid his response behind a serious expression even as Dechaun and the others of his group expressed their amusement with the idea of cooking hamburgers on the bottom of tin cans. Still, when the time came, and they were all told to break out their supplies and do the same, he made sure his campers did what they were told and didn't start a forest fire. Not that a forest fire was likely to be allowed to burn for long when there were three Adept-level mages along on this trip. Jim Robers didn't know that though and made himself quite busy going around and making sure all the sixty-odd young campers and their counselors were appropriately careful in how they set the small fires under their can and cooked their hamburger patties. When Worthington finally bit into his, he had to admit it wasn't that bad, especially for something he had cooked himself. Then it was time to ‘clean up,' and Jim Robers was quite the avid environmentalist in making sure there was ‘no trash left behind.' Worthington caught the underhanded reference to the child education law and smirked a bit to himself. Once Robers was satisfied, he announced it was ‘swimming time,' and many of the boys started shucking their clothes to head for the water. He did notice that about half of them didn't, and most of those were black campers. "Why aren't you in the water?" Worthington asked Dechaun who was standing there fully clothed, watching the others who were in the water. "I don't swim," Dechaun said gruffly. "So, you don't have to swim to get in the water," Worthington said. "It's pretty shallow." "I don't like the water," Dechaun said with a shudder. "It's too easy to drown." "You're afraid of it," Worthington said in surprise. "I ain't afraid of nothing." Dechaun spat. "Well then, come on," Worthington said in a challenging tone as he bent over to take off his boots and then shrugged out of his jeans. "Shit, he wasn't lying." Dechaun giggled as he eyed the bulge in Worthington's black Speedo. "You like looking at all these boys? Is that why you're hard?" "I'm not hard," Worthington said with a grin and enjoyed the wide-eyed look on the boy's face. "Fuck." Dechaun shook his head. "I still ain't going in there." "C'mon, I want some company in the water," Worthington said gently while exerting just the tiniest of influence. "Oh alright." Dechaun sighed extravagantly and began to strip down. He was wearing a pair of board shorts underneath his pants and followed Worthington into the water. The entire time they were in the water, he never strayed more than a few feet from Worthington, but at least he was in it and smiling as he got into a splash war with a few of the other campers from their dorm. When Worthington got out of the water a half hour later, Dechaun followed him out, but sat down on the beach area near the water's edge, relaxing in the sunlight. Worthington headed back to where he had put his jeans and boots, waiting until he dried in the air before getting dressed. He was sitting on the grass, tying his bootlaces when he felt Jamie sitting down next to him, also fully dressed. "His parents had him on a tight leash all those years," Jamie said softly. "I think he got in the habit of seeing how far the leash would let him run before it jerked him back. He does the same now all the time, testing to see how far he can go before you jerk him back." "I've seen that." Worthington frowned but accepted the olive branch his brother was holding out to him. "Don't let him get too far before you jerk him back," Jamie suggested. "He is my responsibility now." Worthington retorted. "Yes, he is," Jamie said with a sigh. "Do you miss it at all, now that it is gone? The closeness?" "Yes and no." Worthington shrugged and accepted the change in topic. "You know I love you no less than before." "Same here," Jamie said softly. "It feels like I can be my own person now though, and I like that." "So do I, but I miss having you around all the time," Worthington admitted. "Even with the barrier, you were still there, just on the other side. Now it's like I have to search you out to feel you and it's uncomfortable." "I'm glad I'm not the only one." Jamie smiled softly. "Have you thought about the future at all? Is this going to change any of our plans?" "I have thought about it a bit," Worthington answered. "Unless you see the need to change anything, I don't. We'll be moving into our house next door when we get back, we've got the castle at Clairville, and after our last year of High School, we go to Yale just like we planned. Is there anything in that you want to change?" "You like the castle a lot," Jamie said softly. "Would you mind if I didn't spend as much time there the rest of the summer? You're thinking of spending most of the summer there, right?" "I am," Worthington admitted. "Any reason why you aren't?" "Jean Grassley." Jamie smiled. "She's pretty, and I think she's been smiling in my direction a little bit more than she would if she wasn't interested." "Be careful," Worthington warned his brother. "Her father could cause a lot of problems if you deflower her and then dump her." "I'm thinking of taking things slow with her." Jamie shrugged. "She's still in training with her gift, you know, and she's fairly strong already. It might be possible she'll be a good wife if she can understand…well, you know." "Yes." Worthington agreed and started to consider the matching of his brother with the eldest Grassley daughter. That would not necessarily be a bad thing if she understood that there was no chance in hell of her ever keeping Jamie faithful to her bed alone. Both of them were quite aware that staying faithful to any one person was not something that held their interest. In the silence that followed Worthington's agreement, they shifted closer together until their shoulders touched. In fact, Worthington's entire right side was touching Jamie, and it was good to feel his brother against him. "Shit, you two really do look like twins when you're sitting there like that." Mike Kellam said as he walked up to them. He was the counselor of the third dorm that had come on this trip and was still wearing a pair of mid-length blue trunks, and his dark brown hair was falling into his eyes as it dripped water. "Don't even think about shaking that head of yours and getting us wet," Jamie growled. "How is it you always know what I'm thinking?" Mike laughed as he sat down on Jamie's other side, albeit a good foot away. "I'm psychic," Jamie said with a laugh. "That explains it." Mike laughed. "So, I hear your Badgers are still leading in points there Worthington. What's your secret?" "Whippings every night." Worthington joked and was pleased that both of them laughed. "I'll have to remember that." Mike laughed. "Hey, I heard you guys ride bikes." "That's right," Jamie answered for them. "You ever ride dirt?" Mike asked. "My cousins and I do a lot of trails out in Chandler." "No, just street bikes," Worthington answered. He remembered how Steph had been riding a dirt bike when they met, and he'd leeched some of the guy's riding abilities while having sex with him. That was something he didn't do anymore but had given him a lot of skills in things he'd have never learned on his own. "You should try it." Mike offered. "Or are you guys just speed freaks?" "I'm just a speed freak," Jamie admitted with a laugh. They kept on talking about bikes, and different styles of riding for another good hour, and Worthington found it was enjoyable. He'd forgotten amidst all the serious talks that had been his life lately how nice it could be talking about something rather insignificant in the grand scheme of things. This is just relaxing. Jamie's thought entwined with his own for a brief moment, and he found himself sighing at the familiar touch against his mind. We get so caught up in the Mage's Council, dwarves, people trying to kill us we forget what it's like to just be normal. You're right. Worthington said as he stretched out on the ground and relaxed into the conversation until Robers came over to them and suggested it was time to get the boys out of the water and get ready to head back to camp. The hike back down the mountain was less challenging than going up, and Worthington noticed how much more subdued the campers were. The truth was they were probably exhausted, and he wasn't surprised that when they got back to the camp most of them flopped down on their beds and fell into a light nap. With years of experience at this, the camp staff had not scheduled their dorms for any other activities before dinner, and Worthington found he had some free time to boot up his laptop and check his e-mail. Master Sinclair, We have been unable to find out anything more of value about those who attacked on your birthday. I have been asked to express his Majesty's assurances that we will continue our investigation. Yours truly, Governor Lokar There were a few other e-mails, including a whole series from Brandon who had found some time to keep up-to-date on business. At least the two mages that they had hired from Jones's recommendation were taking the workload off of him. Brandon was doing an adequate job, but they were fully trained in their fields, and proving to be quite capable in taking the majority of the workload off of Brandon. Randall Smythe had approved the suggestion to move Sinclair Enterprises operations out to Arizona and would be coming out to Clairville to inspect the premises himself. His father's soul-bonded attorney was apparently doing as well as could be expected a year after the death of Worthington's parents. Jones had warned that soul-bonded often committed suicide after their partner's death unless they were immersed in work that left them feeling some sense of closeness to the deceased. Worthington hoped that Smythe would accept the offer and move out here. He was one of the few connections to his life before Arizona that did not have any real negative connotation. Smythe had always been a calm, authoritative presence in his family without any connection to the negative things his parents had done to Worthington. It was in the middle of writing a response to Nick Wooten's inquiry regarding living arrangements for those staffers with family that he lost his connection to the satellite. It had happened once or twice before, and he went into the connection manager to have it refresh its scan. When it failed to detect any signals, he bit off a curse and saved the e-mail as a draft before rebooting. Just to make sure, he plugged the laptop into a wall socket so that it would have plenty of power. He'd noticed the other night how quickly the satellite antenna depleted the extended-life battery he had with the machine. Normally the battery would last for up to five hours, but using the satellite antenna, it barely lasted two. He'd only been using it for an hour, and it had charged all night, but it was better to be sure. When the machine rebooted though, it still didn't detect any signal. Nothing he tried managed to bring in a satellite signal, and he bit off a curse at the technology. It wasn't vital that the e-mail go out right away. It could even wait until he got back from the camp in a week. With that thought, he put away the laptop and locked up his locker. There was no sense in tempting anyone into trouble for stealing the machine. They'd just be caught and get into deep trouble for their efforts. "Hey." Brandon's voice from the doorway was just a whisper so as to not wake the sleeping campers. His glossy black hair was growing out some and Worthington was thinking maybe suggesting crew cuts not be a part of the hazing ritual for the MR at the end of the summer. He liked his soul-bonded's hair when it was grown out a bit. "What's up?" Worthington asked. "Have you tried to connect to the ‘net?" Brandon asked. "I was in the middle of an e-mail and lost connection. Now I can't seem to get a signal at all." "I had the same problem," Worthington assured him. "That's odd." Brandon frowned. "Don't worry about it," Worthington said. "Nothing is so important it can't wait until later tonight or even when we get back." "I was e-mailing Tom." Brandon frowned. "He misses me." "I thought you, and he broke it off," Worthington said with surprise. "Yeah, well, like I said, he misses me." Brandon smiled. "He figured out the bitch doesn't put out anywhere near as much as I do and complains about shit all the time as well as expecting him to spend all his money on her." "Stupid woman." Worthington laughed, barely remembering to keep it quiet. Brandon came in and set down on the bed next to him. "She is." Brandon agreed. "He sent me this e-mail that was like three pages long and going on about how sorry he was for not seeing how much better I am, and not hanging out with MR as much and letting her lead him around by the balls all the time. I was going to make him beg for me to come back to him though and then the signal cut out. Very frustrating." "Yes, I would imagine that it would be." Worthington had a very difficult time not laughing aloud at Brandon's expression. "Yeah, well, you got a new fucktoy with Colin." Brandon retorted. "Um, or whatever it is between you two. The way he goes at Briggs makes me wonder sometimes. The poor guy doesn't understand why his ass is so sore lately. He thinks he's got hemorrhoids or something." "I think we'll be giving him a rest for the remainder of the week," Worthington said softly. "It might be a good thing unless you want to show Colin some good healing spells," Brandon suggested. "I can heal surface wounds no problem." Worthington reminded him. "It's the…" "What?" Brandon asked as he saw the look of surprise on Worthington's face. "The wards," Worthington muttered as he tried to concentrate, casting out his mage sense in all directions but concentrating on the area where his sense told him something was wrong. "Have you seen Colin?" "He was walking with one of the female counselors," Brandon said with a little bit of alarm in his voice. "I assumed he was going to lose his virginity with women." "Probably," Worthington muttered and frowned at the idea of what the guy could have done that would have set that particular ward off. He and Jamie had set wards over the grounds of the camp just in case, although only the dorm buildings had real defensive wards. They were only here for two weeks after all and just needed basic protections instead of the more extensive protections on their home. This ward that was softly chiming on his head was a warning ward, which only went off for someone trespassing with harmful intent on their mind. Jamie? Worthington sent mentally to his brother. I'm in the dining hall helping set up for dinner. His brother answered immediately, and his mental voice held similar concern. You're closer? Any idea what it might be? It might be Colin testing his leash. Worthington answered. I'll go check it out. Brandon's here with me. Good. Jamie answered. I'll find out where Carl is and have him stick near me in case it's something else. Give me a shout if it's something serious or you're having problems handling whatever Colin is doing. I will. Worthington replied and got up from the bed. "C'mon, let's go check this out." "You got it, boss man." Brandon joked, teasing him with the nickname his campers were using for Worthington. The camp was full of activity as the campers who had not gone on the lake hike played various games from badminton to soccer. It was noisy and filled with the sounds of kids having fun. Worthington and Brandon waved to a few of the other counselors, and Mr. Hall as they passed them and headed up the trail towards the observatory platform at a fairly fast walk. They were just past the platform when they saw a seventeen-year-old female counselor with long blond hair and an ample bosom stumbling down the path towards them. "Are you okay?" Worthington asked as they reached her. She mumbled something, and he grabbed her arm with a little concern. Colin had good taste in who to lose his virginity with females with, but he'd thought the boy would be more careful than to leave the girl like this after he was done. He extended his mind into hers; finding the expected memory wipe, but what he also saw sent great shivers of trepidation through him. There was the expected trace of Colin's magic in her mind, lowering her inhibitions and inflaming her lust for him, but Colin had not performed the memory wipe. That was done by the strange mage whose signature he could not recognize. He'd never seen it before, and it explained the alarms in his wards. Colin would not have set them off just seducing the girl and sending her on her way with a wiped memory. "Go back to camp, and find Jamie in the dining hall," Worthington growled to the girl, reinforcing his command with magic. She took off at a near-run while he shared what he'd found with Brandon. Their link snapped into place even as they both took off at a run up the trail. The little clearing where Colin had been fucking the girl was just a minute's run on the other side of the hill and Worthington had barely worked up a sweat when the broke into the clearing. Colin's jeans, underwear, t-shirt, and boots were still in the pile where he'd put them while getting ready to have sex, but there was no sign of the red head in the clearing. Then he caught sight of a pale flash of red in the distance and took off towards it with Brandon close on his heels. He didn't hear the sound of something landing near him, but the effect on his mind was instantaneous, and he nearly lost his balance as his mental shields scrambled. Brandon collided with him as he stopped, and instead of pushing away, wrapped his arms around Worthington's waist, so they were as tightly together as possible. With a flex of his mind, working around the effects of the government-devised scrambler, Worthington cast shields he'd been developing ever since his first run-in with government mages. After that experience, he'd kept two of the government's scramblers that messed up the mental shields of mages quite effectively. His time spent studying the devices was well rewarded as he managed to raise shields that were effective against the scrambler's effects around both Brandon and his own mind. Then he raised physical shields just in time as something impacted against the shield and fell to the ground at his feet. A quick glance found what looked like a tranquilizer dart lying there with a smashed tip. Strengthening the shield that was now protecting him and his Channel, Worthington cast a barrier at the camouflage-clad figure that was fleeing with a nude Colin thrown over his shoulder. The man, or at least Worthington assumed it was a man bounced off the barrier and dropped Colin as he fell backward. There was the flash of a shield around the man, and so the stun bolt that Worthington sent towards him was more powerful than necessary. A shower of sparks indicated the shield had deflected it, but the next bolt broke through the shield just as the man was getting back to his feet. This time he crumpled to the ground, his hand outstretched to the still-motionless Colin. "Kill him!" The shout rang out, and Worthington's mind went to defense as the sounds of guns firing cracked the late afternoon air. His shield held under the first several rounds, but he was forced to draw more power through Brandon and reinforce it before they opened fire again. Mage shields could protect a mage from bullets, as mages had known for a long time now. Worthington was dismayed though to find that his lessons on protecting himself from bullets had not been exaggerating over how difficult it was when there was more than one gun or more than one bullet at a time. Power poured through him and into the shield as he struggled to just keep up the shield. Movement in the distance, towards where Colin lay warned him someone was trying to reach them, and he threw up a hasty shield over Colin. It wouldn't do much but should stop anyone except a mage from taking him, unless they started firing a machine gun at that shield too. The distraction almost proved fatal as something thumped into the ground near him and started spewing out a cloud of white gas. Not taking any chances, he wove a new shield underneath the shield protecting them from bullets. This one was even more difficult to hold than the one stopping the bullets, and more dangerous in a way. It was so tightly woven it would stop gas from penetrating, but it also stopped air from getting inside as well. If he were forced to hold it too long, they would suffocate inside the shield. The shield that protected his mind from the effects of the scrambler also prevented him from calling Jamie for help. If they were still entwined with the Sinclair consciousness, he could have simply thinned the barrier between them and his brother would know about his danger, but that was gone, and he could not call for help. Brandon was trembling behind him as there was another thump, and this time his shield nearly collapsed from some type of explosive grenade followed by another hail of bullets. When bolts of power followed that from a mage, Worthington began to feel his muscles tremble in fear. There was a strange taste in his mouth, and he realized that despite all of his power, he was about to be defeated by the attackers. Bullets traveled extremely fast, and when they hit a shield, they had all the force of that speed. Stopping them, or even deflecting them took a good deal of power. Brandon was reaching out to the life that was around them, pulling in more power as he had been taught, but he would soon be running dry if Worthington had to shield against grenades, bullets, and mage bolts. With a sigh, he tried to detect where the attacker was who was firing grenades. That one was taking up more of his power for defense, and if he could take that one out, it might give him enough breathing room to grab Colin and beat a hasty retreat. His bolt was ready and would penetrate whatever shields had been put on the grenadier when a flood of power washed against his senses. Panic rose in him until he recognized the source of that power, and that it was now flinging mage bolts at his attackers, beating them back. "Fall back! Fall back!" Several voices cried out, and he thinned his shields as the attacks against them ceased. A blast of power destroyed the scrambler as soon as he saw it, but he had to wait until the gas cleared before he could take down the last shield. The air he was breathing had gone very stale by that point, and when he was at last able to take a breath of fresh air, it tasted sweet despite the acrid stench of gunpowder and smoke from several small fires that Jamie was using magic to put out. Carl was standing over the shield protecting Colin, and Worthington let it fall so the blond could take a look at the fallen red head. "Thank god you showed up, bro," Worthington said when Jamie finished putting out the fires and smiled at him. Brandon had gone to help Carl lift Colin who was still out, and they were carrying him towards the two Adepts. "When the girl reached me I tried to contact you and took off as soon as I realized something was stopping me from getting you." Jamie shrugged. "Impressive little fight here." "Yes, and this tells us that it really was the government that attacked us the other week," Worthington said with a finger pointing to the destroyed scrambler. "Well, let's get back to camp and see if we can get some help up here," Jamie said with a sigh. Worthington nodded and ignored his trembling legs as he took over for Carl in helping to carry Colin. He hadn't lost the fight, and he kept reminding himself of that as they made their way back to camp.
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