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dkstories

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dkstories last won the day on April 11 2013

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  1. Worthington sighed as he looked at his computer monitor and closed his eyes before continuing typing the conclusion of the after-action report. He was back in Clairville, after spending Christmas and the next few days conducting ‘clean-up' operations on the island off the coast of California. Typing this report was one of the most difficult things he'd ever done and put it off as long as he could, trying to deal with the emotions and swirling thoughts that were running through him. The cleanup operations are complete, and we were able to adjust the memories of 241 civilians that were treatable after their time with the demons. The cover story of an uncontrollable fire appears to have been accepted, although the tremendously high casualty figures are still creating a news sensation. What we have learned from this operation has given us a clearer picture of demon operations and revealed the true scope of their threat. As we learned from interrogation of the demon-controlled mage Thomas Kink, a group of three abnormally powerful young people, all related, managed to summon a demon lord fifteen years ago even though they did not even know they were mages. As a result of the summoning, all three were taken over by three demon lords, Zaroc, Blasoc, and Noloc. Each of these demons was given orders by the Demon Queen and has been conducting operations for the past fifteen years. Zaroc was defeated last year in Northern Arizona. His mission was to create a permanent conclave for the demons on this world. Because of internal competitiveness within the demon hierarchy, all three operated independently and did not attempt to share information. As a result, their preparations have taken longer and been easier to disrupt. Blasoc was tasked with creating a new breed of demon by mixing human and demon DNA. They learned of the concept of genetic information from humans captured by their mages and controlled by lesser demons. Over the past decade, Blasoc has been conducting a two-pronged approach to his task. First has been straightforward breeding between demon males and human females. Using magic and modern fertility treatment technology, they successfully bred half-human demon children. The mothers died on childbirth, but their offspring maintained demon characteristics while being able to live without restriction in our environment. Most of these children are in the age range of newborn to eight years of age and escaped aboard the unknown submarine that is still being hunted by United States Naval Forces. Their second approach was corrupting the genetic structure of human children through repeated rapes. Using magic, we have not been able to understand, they used the semen deposited in the rectum or stomachs of their victims to combine with the child's human genes. The result was the children encountered by the force led by Worthington Sinclair. Four children who were at the beginning of this process have been recovered and are currently being examined by genetic scientists and some of the most experienced mage healers known in the world. Their preliminary reports indicate they were able to stop the progression of the demonic DNA through the children's bodies. All four children will be held and continue to be monitored. It is possible that research may find a way to reverse the effects, and their continued assistance will be valuable in learning how to deal with children in whom the process has been completed. The mission, and location of the mages controlled by the third demon lord, Noloc, is completely unknown at this time, although it is likely the escapees from Blasoc's controlled forces are attempting to link up with them, even as it is believed the escaped forces from Zaroc have done already. All available resources are being prepared to hunt for Noloc as well as the escaped demon-controlled forces of Blasoc and Zaroc. This task is being given the highest of priorities. Worthington frowned as he finished typing, saved the document and forwarded it by email to Nick, who would then edit it for grammar, spruce it up a bit, and then send it on to Huntington. From there it would be edited again, and then forwarded on up the chain to the DHS Secretary and the President, who were both reportedly ‘anxious' to read the final report. Worthington had to laugh to himself, even if it was a grim laugh, that the report they were reading had been written by a guy who would be going back to high school in two days. Their heaviest casualties in that encounter had been those soldiers who were assigned to Worthington's unit. The demon children had killed most of them. Rodriguez and two others had barely survived, and Worthington himself had some fresh scars on his chest that even the best healers were unable to totally heal. They served as fresh reminders that he should never grow complacent in facing demons, that there were always new surprises waiting around every corner. He stood up, wrinkled his nose at the smell of sweat coming off of his body, and headed out of his office. It was still early in the morning, and he'd waited to type the report until after his morning run. That was why none of the ‘secretaries,' or his assistants were in yet. Worthington was still wearing his sweat pants and sweat shirt after his morning run with the troops and had decided to just hurry up and get the report finished so he could take a few hours later today just for himself. The truth was that he hated the way he was feeling split into two or was it three? There were so many things pulling on him at the moment that he had a hard time keeping everything straight in his head. It would be so easy to simplify his life a bit by giving some things up, but a long talk the day before with Barrett de Long had convinced him that giving up the things he had been considering would be worse for him in the long run. "The fact remains, Worthington, you really are just seventeen." Barrett had advised him in that calming voice of his. When he said the things he said, it was not insulting or derogatory, just a statement that Worthington could accept or reject, and what he said made sense. "Yes, you can accomplish so much more than most seventeen-year-olds because you have been graced with natural talent, and a life full of preparation for the path you are walking, but you are not yet truly an adult. Right now they may seem like a waste of your time, but in the long run, things like school, having real friends, and being able to take some simple pleasures in life will help you. Putting them aside to focus on the problems of the day won't really help." Worthington had heard those words and listened to them, so he was planning on returning to school, despite the worries of the people in the government. It was bad enough that they were depending on him as if he was a full adult, but to remind them of his youth was like a slap in the face. Fortunately, Randall Smythe had been able to step in and help with some things. Ever since he'd come to Clairville, his father's friend and soul-bound Channel had been proving to be extremely helpful as he took a more active role in working with the government and was even being considered to permanently take the ‘Director of Mage Operations' position that Worthington was holding on a temporary basis. It was hard to imagine the friendly, helpful man as having been close to his father, but when Worthington looked at Brandon, he could see many similarities in their personalities. Brandon had even admitted that maintaining a personality that was always dominated by their soul-bonded was part of their training. The soul-bound channel reacted to the personality of their dominant partner, and while Worthington and Randall were not soul-bound, old habit was making the man respond to Worthington's own personality. "Good morning," Worthington said politely to the two soldiers who were on guard duty at the top of the stairs to the fourth floor. Both men nodded at him without speaking, and Worthington crossed the floor to the staircase that led up to the fifth floor where his ‘household' was located. "Good morning, sir." These two guards at the top of the staircase did speak to him, and he stood chatting with them for a few moments before heading into his own room. Security was far tighter in the Keep now than it had ever been before, and would continue to stay that way for the foreseeable future. With four children in the Keep who had been partway through the conversion process of the demons, everyone was slightly nervous about security, even if the children had been nothing but helpful, and should be well on the way to recovery. Certain facts about those children he had not put into the report, but he thought about them as he made his way into his own room and turned on the water for his shower. Standing under the spray from multiple showerheads, he thought about those children and shivered ever so slightly. All four of them were beautiful, with pale skin that wouldn't tan no matter how much time they spent in the sun, two with pitch black hair and two with blond hair, and sweet, innocent faces. Their eyes were still tinged with red, and the healers expected that would never change, while their nails were sharp, but no longer the beginnings of demon talons. Magically, they were powerful as well, already bordering on Adept status and all four of them were likely to grow strong enough to be considered low-level Adepts by the time they were full-grown. All of them were physically strong as well, and could easily overpower even the strongest of the soldiers in the area. Surprisingly they were still blessedly innocent, despite having been repeatedly raped by green-skinned Oska demons. That was part of the conversion process, where the demons worked to keep their innocence intact as much as possible. They chose only the nicest, kindest, most innocent of children for their conversion process, and waited until the changes in the children were far enough long for their new demon natures to take over, turning them into evil killers. For some reason, that increased their power and made the conversion more permanent. In the case of these four though, their demon natures had not reached that point, even though they had absorbed the power of several human mages that were slowly killed in front of them. All four children had begged to be killed by Worthington, and anyone who came into contact with them. They knew what was planned for them, and were terrified of being turned into cold-blooded killers like the other demon children they had been quartered with on that island. None of them wanted to become like that, and so they begged for death, afraid that the changes inside them were permanent and irreversible. The healers that had been working with them had told Worthington that some of the changes truly were irreversible, but that their personalities were largely intact, and that the demon nature inside of them would never be able to grow strong enough to take over unless they were recaptured. Trying to convince the boys of that hadn't resulted in much progress, yet. Still, Worthington was determined to do right by them. They would never enjoy a normal life, would always be watched, but there was no reason why they could not have a good, happy life as much as possible within certain constraints. He would use every bit of his influence and power to give them that. That's what he promised himself once again as he turned off his shower and began to dry off before wrapping a towel around his waist and going back into his room. "Hope you don't mind." Kyle's voice surprised him as he entered his room. There was Kyle, sitting at the small table in a corner of the room. There was a fresh tray on it, with what looked like breakfast for two, as well as a pot of tea. "No, it's just fine," Worthington said as he tried not to blush and hurried over to the screened changing area next to his closet. Kyle was wearing tight-fitting jean shorts and a very tight green t-shirt from his old high school's baseball team. His brown hair was neatly trimmed, and he looked altogether too handsome for so early in the morning. At least Worthington didn't have to worry about his hair since he'd freshened up his crew cut just the day before. He dressed in a typical pair of black leather pants and one of the tight-fitting woven metal shirts. This was a new one, dark stormy gray with black and white dwarven runes flowing down the left side. Sapha had said the runes were merely a representation of his name, but Worthington was wondering how he could fit lessons in the dwarven language into his schedule just so he'd know for sure. "Did you enjoy this morning's run?" Worthington asked as he finished getting dressed and came around the corner. Kyle had been joining them every morning on the runs since Worthington had come back. "Yes," Kyle said with a smile. "After I showered, I went down and asked Sapha for some breakfast. I figured when you came up, we could eat together. You've been so busy we haven't spent a lot of time together, just the two of us." "Oh." Worthington frowned. "I'm sorry, it's just that I've…" "Don't apologize." Kyle laughed as he poured what proved to be coffee from the tea pot, not tea. Worthington sighed with pleasure as he took a sip after pouring in cream and sugar. "You're a busy guy, and it's hard for you to find time for everyone who wants something from ya, so I thought I'd take the initiative." "How have you been doing?" Worthington said as he tried not to blush. To say that he was still confused about his ‘relationship' with Kyle was an understatement. "Not too bad," Kyle said after swallowing a bite of bacon. Worthington began to pick at his own food, knowing he should be eating more, but his appetite had not been all that strong the last few days. "Ah broke up with Dianne." "Why?" Worthington asked as his stomach did a flip-flop. Suddenly the orange slices on his plate looked far more appetizing than they had a minute ago. He picked one up with his left hand and savored the juicy fruit. "Ah realized Ah was just usin' her," Kyle said with his west Texas drawl that grew thicker whenever he was nervous, and now he was the one moving food around his plate with his fork. His tanned cheeks held the slightest of blushes. "It wasna' fair to her, so after Christmas I told her." "What did you tell her exactly?" Worthington asked with a bit of nervousness, and Kyle blushed deeper, looking at his plate. "Ah told her that it just wasna' workin' out." He shrugged. "Ah didna' think she'd like the full truth too much, and Lord knows we both have enough problems at school without her spreadin' around we're queer for each other." "We are?" Worthington asked with a raised eyebrow and a half-smile. He was feeling good about Kyle's words. They were one of the few bright spots he'd had recently, although even they brought their own complications. "Well, Ah'm queer for you at least." Kyle shrugged, and those words were barely above a whisper. "I guess I am too," Worthington said gently and felt his own cheeks heating up just a bit. "You're queer for yerself?" Kyle asked with a hint of a smile, and Worthington laughed. "God that sounds bad." Worthington chortled and began to eat more. Kyle just smiled and also took a few bites as they shyly looked at each other while eating. "What now?" Kyle asked quietly after they'd both all but finished the food on their plates. "With what?" Worthington asked, not really trying to be mean, but for some reason, he was feeling a bit shy. Sure, he'd had sex with dozens and dozens of guys, in all types of situations since he was a little kid, but this felt different. What was going on between him and Kyle was a far different thing than he'd ever experienced before, even with Jamie or Jeremy. "With us," Kyle said a lot more confident than he'd been a few minutes ago. "You and me." "I do like you, Kyle," Worthington said slowly after thinking things through for a few minutes. "In fact, I like you a heck of a lot. You know I've been in a relationship before, but this is different with you. To be honest, I've barely even looked at any other guys since I met you. Part of me thinks I could go all my life without sleeping with another guy, if I have you, even if we've never done more than kiss." "Jamie and Ah have been talkin'," Kyle said, slowly. "He explained about some of the things you do and how they need sex to work right. Ah can live with that, you know. There may be times Ah have to do it maself, and it'd be hypocritical of me to be upset with you for that." "Thank you," Worthington said with a blush. "What do you expect from me, if we, if we pursue this, whatever it is between us?" Kyle asked with a frown as he took a sip of his own black coffee. "I–I want you to be happy," Worthington said slowly as he sipped his own coffee and gave thought to something he'd not really thought over before. "You know what I've got on my plate, and it's not going to get any easier as the years go by. I don't expect you to wait around for me to finish things up and then take time for you, but, it'd be nice to find time for each other, you know? We should take things slowly too, not rush into anything. Don't get me wrong, every night I'm thinking about you when… you know, but I don't want to rush it just yet." "Neither do I," Kyle said as his cheeks heated up yet again. "I mean, I think about you a lot, but I want to do it right, take it slow and get to know you better while you get to know me too. Things like this, having breakfast together, or just finding time to do things every so often would be nice." "It would," Worthington said. "So, are we dating, then?" Kyle asked as he stretched out, and Worthington felt Kyle's foot touch his tentatively under the table. "Yeah, uh, I think we are," Worthington said as Kyle's foot moved up and rubbed against his lower leg. "Good," Kyle said, and his foot was gone as he leaned forward over the table. Worthington leaned forward, and their lips met in a tentative kiss that quickly deepened into something more, with their tongues reaching out. Kyle was a damn good kisser, and Worthington was hard as a rock as the kiss progressed. "Damn." Worthington moaned as they broke the kiss when there was a knock at the door. Kyle was grinning foolishly and sighed as he sat back in his chair. "Well, we'll probably have to get used to that too." Kyle murmured as whoever was at the door, knocked again. "Come in!" Worthington called out while smiling at Kyle. He'd kissed people dozens of times, but that was by far one of the nicest kisses he'd ever had. "Sorry to interrupt your breakfast, but the healers want to talk to you this morning," Brandon said with a knowing smile on his face as he walked into the room with a fairly large file in his hands. "Randall also has these reports that he'd like you to look over before your lunch with him." "Let's get started." Worthington sighed and looked over at Kyle, who was just smiling at him. "Thanks for the breakfast, Kyle." "See you later, Worthie," Kyle said with a grin as he began to clean up the table. That caused a blush to form on Worthington's face, and he smiled before turning back to Brandon whose grin had grown wider. "Shut up." Worthington snapped at Brandon, who only smiled more. "It's about damn time." Brandon snorted as he handed over several sheets of paper while following Worthington out of the room. "Mind your own business." Worthington mock-snarled at Brandon who just laughed harder. "You forget, you are my business." Brandon countered, and Worthington growled in mock anger. "Okay, so what am I going to face with the healers?" Worthington asked, getting down to business even as he was looking at the report from Randall Smythe. His father's attorney was worried about some possible shady dealings of his uncle with the board seat that he'd gotten as part of the ‘settlement' over the estate. Smythe wanted to spend a substantial sum of money on private investigators to look into those dealings. "They want to go over some Dark path magic with you," Brandon answered the question on the other hot issue of the moment. "From what they told me, they believe that there might be some Dark magic that can be used on the kids to help make sure they don't fall under the sway of demons again. That's their biggest concern at this point." "I'm not sure." Worthington frowned as one answer, came immediately to mind, but he pushed it away immediately. These kids were far too innocent, far too young, and did not deserve that kind of treatment by anyone. "Mr. Sinclair, it's good to meet with you again." Doctor Parmal Kuhn said as they entered the second-floor conference room that had been reserved for this meeting. Dr. Kuhn was an elderly man, just below Adept-level in mage power, and one of the most skilled geneticists in the world. The other three doctors, all women, also stood. None of them were weak when it came to mage power, all of them were in their fifties, and all were Light path mages. "I believe you know doctors Hamalpai, Northham, and Pomona?" "Yes, it's good to see all of you again." Worthington nodded to them as he sat down. Hamalpai was a Neurologist from Australia, Northham was a general practitioner from New Hampshire, and Pomona was a psychiatrist referred to him by de Long. "We asked for this meeting in the hopes that you might know, or be able to direct us to someone who does, any Dark path magic that can help the boys." Dr. Kuhn began without much preamble. Worthington appreciated that about the man. He preferred to go direct to the point instead of beating around the bush. "All four boys are remarkably sound, psychologically speaking." Dr. Pomona added as she pushed her dark brown hair out of her eyes. "They are all making great progress in dealing with the emotional and psychological trauma they have experienced, but they all retain a great deal of fear about the future. It is a real possibility that the moment we relax our watching of them, they will attempt to commit suicide out of fear that the demons will get them again, or that they will ‘give in' to the demon nature that remains inside them, becoming monsters." "We know the Dark path contains many spells of control that the Light path doesn't." Dr. Northham said in her deep voice. "Normally, I wouldn't even consider allowing a patient to be put through them, but in this case, it might be necessary for the boys' peace of mind. Medically, there's not a lot more we can do for them." "Unless we discover something new, we will never be able to unwind the demon DNA they have already absorbed from their human DNA," Kuhn added. "We've already done more than I dreamed possible, so there might be something we can do in the future, but for the present, we've reached the limit of what is currently possible." "It's only been slightly more than a dozen days." Worthington frowned. "How can you say for certain…" "Young man, you will have to take our word for this," Hamalpai said sternly. "I shudder at the thought of turning to Dark magic, but Light magic is at its end-point here, and science is of little help right now." "I am familiar with most Dark spells that could be used in this situation," Worthington said slowly. "There's only one that the demons would not be able to break without knowing the exact procedure used and repeating that procedure themselves. As far as I know, only three people in the world know the procedure." "What is it?" Dr. Kuhn asked with fascination as he leaned forward. "I won't go into specifics." Worthington frowned. "Also, I'm going to say upfront I don't want to do it on these boys. Frankly, if I never have to do it again, I'll be happy. The procedure involves a great deal of physical torture using whips, knives, and other similar instruments while the subject is tied into excruciating positions. Magic is worked with each application of pain or bloodletting, and in the final step of the process, sexual domination is used to seal the spell. Afterwards, it's almost impossible to tell what was done to the person, and the subject can conceivably go their entire life without knowing anything was done to them at all." "It sounds…gruesome." Pomona shivered. "But you say it's all but impossible to break?" "It can't be broken, only re-done with new…instructions laid over the previous ones given." Worthington said with a shiver. "There is a physical seal made that can be seen on careful examination, but you have to know what you're looking for to find it, and you have to be able to perform the procedure to overwrite those instructions, whatever they are." "You can make the instructions such that the kids won't be subverted by the demons?" Northham asked. "Not necessarily." Worthington frowned. "More likely, it'd be best to instruct them to die, and they will do that without any means necessary such as slitting their own wrists. They could just will their heart to stop, and it will. The action would even be totally subconscious, so the demons wouldn't be aware of it until it was too late." "I wouldn't like it, but it would reassure the boys," Pomona said with a frown. "I think it would be exactly what they need to proceed with their lives without fear, especially if they don't remember the procedure that was inflicted on them." "I won't do it." Worthington snapped angrily and ignored their looks of surprise. "I am sorry, but I won't do it again. It's a violation of a person's free will, and, and I am not going to rape a twelve-year-old." "If they consent…" Dr. Kuhn started to say, but Worthington glared at him as he slapped the table with his hand. "No!" Worthington nearly shouted. "I don't care if it's consensual or not. They are twelve years old. They do not need me torturing them and fucking them with only their own blood for lubrication! I will not ever do it again if I can help it, and I won't consent to do it on these kids, or any other person again!" "You've done this before?" Kuhn asked with a raised eyebrow. "I couldn't learn the procedure without doing it, could I?" Worthington snapped at the man and shuddered. "Look, the fact of the matter is that these kids are going to have to learn how to live with the possibility of falling prey to demon control again. I have to live with it because when I fought Zaroc, there were a few moments where he'd won, where he'd gained control of me, and I know that can happen again. Just like me, they're going to have to learn to face that fear, and to work despite the fear." "I think you should tell them that yourself." Dr. Pomona said with a smile. "Your story; it might do them a lot of good. All of them have a great deal of respect for you. According to Alec, once the procedure was begun, they were forced to sit and listen to the lessons being given to the other demon children. Their ‘teacher' was one of the green-skin demons, and their favorite topic seemed to be the perfidy of the Sinclair family, and how you were the most dangerous enemy of demon-kind. Apparently the demon that manages to kill you will be greatly rewarded." "Well, isn't that nice?" Worthington said sarcastically as a shiver of fear made its way up and down his spine. "Bart says he spent an entire week going to sleep and dreaming that you would one day come and kill them before they had to kill a human." Dr. Kuhn said in a quiet voice that haunted Worthington. "They dreamed of death as their only hope of escape. As they saw the features they were born with overwritten by what the demons conceived as being their ‘ideal' image, they felt their humanity and old life being forever ripped away from them. For a few days there, when they thought they might get their old faces back, their old hair color, their old eyes, they dreamed of possibly living a real life, but since we figured it will be impossible to do that, they have gone back to dreaming of death as their only release." "I will… talk to them." Worthington said with a sigh. "Maybe I can convince them to try and live." "Good, that will help," Pomona said. "One thing though, Worthington. Don't dismiss your… procedure out of hand. You might want to consider holding it out to them as a promise." "I told you I wasn't going to…" Worthington snapped until she held out a hand. "Not now, not for a few years at least." She continued. "Tell them if they still want the procedure when they're… say sixteen? Yes, if they still want it at sixteen, then you'll do it for them." "I…" Worthington wanted to dismiss it out of hand, but he couldn't. "Fine, I'll do that, but I'm going to share more details of it with them so that they know just how bad it can be." "That's your decision to make." Dr. Kuhn said in a gentle voice. "Thank you for meeting with us." "You're welcome," Worthington said with a frown. "Tell Brandon when would be a good time, and he'll work it into my schedule." "Thank you again, young man." Dr. Kuhn said as he stood. They shook hands before Worthington left the room and headed down the hallway to his office. Nick was waiting there, with two secretaries who were working even though it wasn't a normal workday. "I've edited your report and sent it back you." Nick said as he entered, and Brandon left his side to go sit at a desk that was ‘his.' "Assistant Director Huntington called and wanted me to remind you that they will be expecting your recommendations on a training program for adult recruits with mage-power by the end of next week. Ms. Simons also called and wants some of your time tomorrow to discuss curriculum reviews with the state auditors, as well as her latest two staff acquisitions. She says it will take about two hours to review everything with you." "C'mon in and let's get things over with," Worthington said with a frown. Both Nick and Brandon followed him since they worked as a team now to manage his schedule. Worthington sat behind his desk, frowning at the now-full inbox that he'd emptied out last night and began to discuss his schedule with the two of them. They talked for a half-hour, juggling several things around, including a private dinner that evening with Kyle, and when they were done, Worthington leaned back in his chair and sighed. "Okay, let Josh and the MR riders assigned for this weekend know that I'll be leaving early tomorrow." "Will do." Nick smiled as he and Brandon stood up to leave. Worthington didn't complain anymore that he could rarely go anywhere anymore without an escort of some kind. Most of the MR gang had enthusiastically taken to weapons training being offered by some of the mercenary soldiers, and he was frightened to think how accurate many of them were getting with shooting left-handed while riding a motorcycle. "Mr. Smythe is here." Nick buzzed over the intercom after he'd been gone for all of two minutes. "Send him in." Worthington sighed. "Oh, and get me a cup of coffee please." "On its way." Nick's voice sounded far too cheerful for a Saturday morning. Meetings mostly took up the rest of his morning and afternoon. He even had a ‘working lunch' with Weatherby, Smolenz (the government mage in charge of recruiting efforts), and Dietz (who was now in charge of training new government mages). By late afternoon he was tired of meetings but made his way into the basement, where nearly a quarter of it was now blocked off by walls and armed guards. It had taken the dwarves all of three days to build this section where they were now holding the four boys ‘recovered' in their operation. The quarter of the basement was now extremely secure and had several rooms for the boys, a large ‘play' room, as well as observation rooms, a small clinic, and conference rooms for the scientists and doctors that were working with them. Eight soldiers were on guard duty at all times, inside and out, as well as one of the more powerful government mages available. All four boys seemed to prefer physical or mental type activities to video games or television, and so when Worthington entered their playroom a few minutes later, he found them in the middle of a game of twister. They didn't notice his entrance for a few minutes, and he watched them play until they collapsed in a heap, giggling at each other. When they did notice him, he had to brace himself as they all ran towards him. "Worthington!" They all shouted with Alec Bryce, the most gregarious of them, and the blond that had spoken to him when he'd rescued them, jumping into his arms. The twelve-year-old was too big and heavy to hold up for long, but he did hug him, and the others, who half-dragged him into a sitting position on the floor, with all of them curled up in one position or another against him. It had been like this every time he'd visited them, and Dr. Kuhn had theorized that it was some type of leftover habit from their demon genetics. They had learned much about demons already, and some of it had been surprising. For instance, demons were very sociable creatures with each other, and in their natural environment, enjoyed touching each other quite a bit. They didn't inter-mingle though, only reserving their ‘touching' for demons of equal caste, or authority figures. Another thing they had learned was that demons, and these boys, didn't talk as much as even normal mages talked. With strangers, they would talk aloud, but with those they considered ‘close,' they preferred mental conversations, and as the four boys crowded around him, touching him gently, almost lovingly, they all opened their minds to him without hesitation. He was more guarded in his approach, shielding much of his mind, but letting them into the surface areas where they shared their fears with him. This time he learned something else. They viewed him as a protector figure, not quite a parent, but more like an older brother who would watch out for them and keep them safe. It honored him, and worried him a bit, especially as he shared what he'd promised, giving them clear images of what he could do to them that would assuage their fears of being possessed by demons again, and to his dismay, they tried to demand he do it to them immediately. It was nearly an hour later, an hour of silence except for their mental communications, and the little grunts they sometimes made, when the conversation ended. They had agreed to wait until they were sixteen, but only with the promise that Worthington would do everything in his power to keep them away from demons until then. Alec had even extracted another promise from him that he hoped he could keep. "When can we meet Kyle?" The dark-haired Bart said aloud after Worthington had stood up and they were all standing around him with smiles on their faces. "Yeah, we have to know if he's good enough for you," Alec added mischievously. "I'm not sure." Worthington hesitated, wondering how they'd picked that out of his mind when he'd tried to block it from them. What else had they gotten? "I'm sure he's good enough," Corky said with a grin. "Yeah, if he's willing to put up with a slut like you," Johnny added, and Worthington play slapped him, only to find himself being tickled by Alec. That led to a four-against-one wrestling match that he barely won, and that was with him making a very real effort. All of them were quite strong and not afraid to use their strength to their advantage. They were still laughing, and had gone back to their game of twister when he left, exhausted, bruised, but smiling. Dr. Kuhn was smiling as well and led him to the conference room where he recited their mental conversations for the doctors and their recorder that would make notes of everything. Then he was free to go and get ready for dinner, and he found that he was really looking forward to a real, quiet dinner alone with Kyle, and discussing nothing serious. Yes, there were important things in life other than work.
  2. "What a way to spend Christmas." Carlos Rodriguez said over the noise of the plane's tilt-rotor engine. The flight so far was bumpy, especially since they'd descended to skimming just above the waves as they approached the small island. "Can the talk, Rodriguez," Weatherby said in a stern voice as he looked out the small porthole-like window of the aircraft at the dark water below them. Brandon was curled up, still half-asleep next to Worthington, who leaned back against the bulkhead of the aircraft and tried to close his eyes. "It's still two days before Christmas," Collins said with a grunt from where he sat next to Lowenthal, just two seats down from the young Latino who had been on active duty in Afghanistan three weeks ago. "You'll get home in time to see your little girl." "If you don't end up in a demon's stomach." Buchowski who was sitting on the other side of Rodriquez added. Buchowski was a veteran of the last fight with a demon lord. "You guys are serious about that shit?" Rodriquez swore. "They really eat people?" "Yes, they do," Worthington said as he opened his eyes and looked at one of the newest team members. Rodriquez visibly shivered before crossing himself and praying silently. Only the dimmest of red lights lit the cabin of the Osprey aircraft. He knew they were miles out when even that light winked out, and the plane went totally dark. In the cockpit, the pilots of this aircraft and the two other aircraft that flew in formation with it were the only ones who could see the small island fifteen miles off of the California coastline. That was where the Ferdun said they had taken the demons. It had taken Worthington a day to match up the image in his mind from the Ferdun with the actual location. For the last week, long-range reconnaissance planes and satellites in orbit had taken picture after picture of the island. It didn't appear the lightly populated island was under illusion. They had been able to identify two government mages lost to the demons in the pictures, and nighttime infrared images had shown what likely were s everal demons feasting on humans. So far, there was no evidence that the demons were preparing to create a pocket of their plane on this world, but Worthington and the government officials weren't going to wait around for that to happen. Forty soldiers, all equipped with dwarven-made assault rifles, armor, and military-style uniforms were on the planes. Another eighteen mages, most from the government, and including Worthington, Brandon, and Jamie (who was on another of the planes) were all part of this expedition. Carl and Colin were both unhappy about being left behind, but this time Rob was on the same plane as Jamie. Weatherby and Lowenthal had both stated that Rob was ready for this, and Worthington had agreed after testing the mage. They weren't all that was taking part in this exercise either. Lokar had sent twenty dwarf warriors with them, armed with the same assault rifles as the soldiers, and all carrying short swords or battle-axes on their backs. Worthington had a sword that had been made for him by the dwarves as well and was halfway decent with the weapon. Kelvren and Olara were not about to let the dwarves get all the limelight for ‘helping' in this situation. They had sent fifteen elven warriors to act as scouts. Their arrows and their swords were coated in the same demon-piercing metal as the bullets in the dwarven assault rifles, and they were all experienced fighters. Elves didn't like to risk their all but immortal lives on trifling matters, so their inclusion in this was a big deal, something he'd been certain to impart to Huntington and other government leaders who had chafed impatiently for quicker action. "Get your gear ready!" Weatherby's shout could be heard over the noise of the planes propellers as land could be seen outside the small windows of the plane. There was the sound of people gathering their gear, shrugging back into place anything they had removed, and the distinctive sound of low-light vision equipment warming up. For his part, Worthington woke Brandon, who put his lighter pack back on, and Worthington turned on his own low-light equipment, lowering it into place. Even the darkened interior of the plane was more clearly visible with the low-light goggles. The sound of the plane's engines changed as they rotated upwards and the plane slowed until it was just barely moving forward. In the cockpit, the pilots would be searching for the clearing about a mile from the shore where the other aircraft would be landing. In their own plane, everyone stood up and began hooking up to the lines that were being draped out of the now-open doorway. Their aircraft moved to a full hover over the edge of the clearing, and the first set of soldiers repelled down the lines to land in the clearing below while the aircraft with the elves made a full landing. The elves and dwarves would have to land and get out of the planes normally, while everyone except Brandon in this plane was quite capable of repelling out of the plane. "Do I really have to do this?" Brandon asked nervously as Worthington faced him and began to hook their safety equipment together. They would be going down in tandem since Brandon was so inexperienced at this. "Yes," Worthington said firmly and ignored the frown on Brandon's face. His Channel really did hate these dangerous expeditions. All he wanted was a protected, safe life. He had no choice, though, because he was soul-bound to Worthington and shared Worthington's fate. By the time they reached the ground and Worthington had unhooked them, the plane carrying the elves had already taken off, empty, and the plane with the dwarves onboard was now landing. The Osprey really was a wonderful aircraft, capable of speeds far greater than that of a helicopter, but still able to land in areas that only helicopters had been able to access before. As the mercenary soldiers and dwarves fanned out to secure the clearing, the elves were already heading into the sparse underbrush of the island, beginning their scouting run. This section of the island was uninhabited and extremely difficult to navigate with sharp cliffs and rolling hills. It was the other side of the island that was a resort town, and more densely populated. Small mansions and mountain cabins dotted out from that location, but infrared pictures had revealed that all of them were currently unoccupied. That was consistent with what Worthington had expected once demons had taken over this idyllic location. Nor were they likely to ever know for sure, with the orders Worthington had issued himself. All mages were to be killed unless they surrendered immediately. No mercy, no quarter to anyone who fought at all. Anyone with a weapon in their hands was also to be killed. They had chosen this timing for a reason, hoping it would be the time when their enemy was least aware, least ready for action, and when demons would have gone back to their own dimension. The demons had all the ingredients they needed to create a permanent connection between this world and their own, except for one thing. They had no Adepts they were willing to sacrifice. Worthington was certain they had at least one unknown of Adept potential in their ranks of demon summoners, or how else would they have managed to summon a Demon Lord, but that did not mean they were willing to sacrifice that Adept. Two nights ago a raid against the home of Darius Ruckert had failed, and the Adept was now taking refuge in Sinclair Keep. Darius had surprised Worthington on several fronts when he'd shown up at the Clairville gates in a battered SUV. The older Adept had told Worthington that he'd been right all along to work with the government and to form the Mages Council. Then the Adept had offered to join them on this expedition, an offer Worthington turned down. Ruckert was simply too out of shape for this fight and would be more of a liability than an asset despite his power. "Remember, just focus on letting the energy flow through you." Brandon was saying to Bill Matlin, the government mage who had thought he was just abnormally weak in the power of his gift. Worthington's Channel had identified the government mage as another Channel and had been giving him a crash course in how to do what a Channel did. Certainly, Matlin wouldn't be able to pull power from their surrounding environment nearly as effectively as Brandon could, but he had proven able to work with Jamie, who was standing nearby, surrounded by a joint team of dwarves and human soldiers. "You sure about them?" Weatherby asked as he approached the point where Worthington stood. "We need Jamie's power, and he can handle the physical rigors," Worthington said in a non-committal tone. "As for actual combat, I have faith in my brother." "I hope you're right, Sinclair," Weatherby said with a sigh while several soldiers worked at getting a tent erected. "M1, E4." An elven voice said over the combat headset everyone was wearing in their right ears, with a throat mike around their necks. "E4, M1, we read you," Worthington replied. "Waypoint 1 is clear." The elf said in a clear tone before ending the transmission. "Roger, proceed to #2," Worthington replied over the radio network. Behind him, the tent was set up, and several of the soldiers were setting up some equipment inside. Worthington stood with Weatherby as the first groups, including Jamie's set out at a trot. "It will be another ten minutes before we get the satellite links established," Weatherby said in a calm voice as Worthington watched the men setting up the base camp equipment. "What do you think?" "No sign of magical activity yet," Worthington said quietly as he did another quick passive search. He could set up wards, but the truth was that risked detection if they had any mages watching, and there had been far too many mage residents on this island. Most had probably ended up in a demon, but a few of the strongest were probably now among the ranks of the demon-controlled. "So we're probably not detected yet," Weatherby said with relief as Worthington nodded. They remained silent until the word came that the satellite links were operational. Then they went into the command tent and looked over the shoulders of the two technicians. "What is that?" Worthington asked as he pointed at something on one of the infrared channels. It was tied to the dock, and the normal visual picture showed that a tent covered it. "Some kind of ship, most likely." The tech at the infrared computer said. "Navy analysts are looking at it now to tell us what it is, but you can guess it's the engine plant of some ship. Bigger than a speed boat, but smaller than say, a merchant ship." "Military?" Weatherby asked. "Not likely." The tech said quietly. "Zoom out." Weatherby directed, and the map panned into a larger view that showed the satellite transponders of the elf scouts. "Amazing how much ground they've covered." "They don't have as much stamina as a human, but they're a lot faster." Worthington reminded him. "It looks like they're going to be in position on time." "Let's start the threat assessment on the town itself." Weatherby directed, and they stepped back to let the technicians do their work while he and Worthington discussed their planned deployment options. Fifteen minutes later, the two techs were ready and called them back over. "This is the local school, where they appear to be holding the majority of people like we expected." The tech said as he panned an infrared view of the school. "There has been no major change from pre-deployment recon, so we're pretty much on track. These heat sources in this room here are the children you expected them to be holding near the evac route." "You sure?" Worthington asked. "Yes, sir, all the heat sources are smaller than your average adult." The tech affirmed with a slight pause as he swallowed. "I'll stake my career on it." "Good, because you are," Worthington warned the man, who winced. "What's changed?" Weatherby asked. "The tent over the dock area and the heat source under it is new." The second tech, a female in her late twenties, said with a frown. "Navy says it's either some type of large diesel boat or a submarine. One of their guys seems to think it's an old Russian submarine." "You're joking." Weatherby snorted. "Where would they get a submarine?" "I don't know, sir, but they've got a fairly large group of people in this warehouse near the dock." The female tech continued. Worthington was pretty sure her last name was Montague, but couldn't be sure since she was one of the newest additions to the team and not a combat soldier. "They may be trying to move a group out by sea." "Now why would they be doing that?" Weatherby asked Worthington. "Maybe they expect us to be able to eventually track them down, or they don't plan on making the gateway here." Worthington frowned. "It might not be hot enough here on average for them, or they might prefer some place down in Mexico, or something. Weren't there reports of drug operations trying to buy up old submarines for their smuggling operations? Maybe they've hooked up with one of the drug cartels." "That's just great," Weatherby said with derision. "Just what we need: drug-running demons. Okay, we should redeploy team four to take out whatever is under that tent before they can get out to sea. If it's not a submarine, those Coast Guard cutters can stop the ship. If it is a submarine, it'll be able to dive and sneak right past them. Get on the line and see if the Navy can get a sub-hunter out here." "They're not going to like this." The female tech said. "That's my worry, Mongalle." Weatherby said sharply, showing that Worthington had been wrong about her name. At least he'd been close. "Team four understands their new priority." The first tech said after relaying the instructions to the team leader. "Can you manage your part?" Weatherby asked Worthington. "No problem, once I get close enough," Worthington said without hesitation. "Well, then, you better get going," Weatherby said as he held out his hand. "Good luck." "Thanks," Worthington said as he shook the hand. Outside the tent, he took a deep breath before rounding up his team members. He and Brandon were the two mages, and he had seven mercenaries, and five dwarves waiting for him in a rough circle. They nodded as he explained they were proceeding as planned and set out as a group at a fast trot. The dwarves were actually faster than the human soldiers as they trotted out ahead of the small group, forming a perimeter screen. Brandon, as the least prepared human, set the level of their pace, and the frequency of their rest stops. There was very minimal chatter over the radio network, just in case the other side had equipment that could detect radio chatter. Yes, their communications were encrypted, but they would still give away the fact that they were on the island. "M1, CB Actual." Weatherby's voice came over the radio when they were about a mile out from their initial position. "Go ahead," Worthington replied. "They're bedding down for the morning," Weatherby said, and Worthington looked back to the east where the sun was now a few degrees over the horizon. The hilly terrain had been tiring to negotiate, and they were resting up before the crawl into the perimeter of the town. Luckily the demon-controlled mages had a mostly nocturnal pattern. Demons were summoned just before sundown, feasted on human flesh early in the night, and did different things that he could only imagine from the images they had been able to gather. There seemed to be a lot of sex, or torture, or both, involved in those nightly activities. Demons would leave sometime after two in the morning, and then the mages would do their own activities until near dawn. There was minimal activity from dawn until a few hours before noon, and that was the time period in which they intended to strike. "We're almost in position," Worthington said. "Just waiting on your team," Weatherby replied, and Worthington sighed. "Roger, we'll get a move on." "Signal when ready." Weatherby cut the transmission with that signal and Worthington signaled with his hands for everyone in his group to get moving. Dolaro, the lead dwarf grinned at him and made a brief comment about humans needing too much rest before his team moved out ahead. "Damn dwarves." Rodriguez, who was leading the group of mercenary soldiers grunted as they trotted up the last hill between them and the small town. "Be nice, Rodriguez," Worthington warned him gently. "If they manage to get some demons summoned, you're going to be very happy they're here, and that they made the weapons you're carrying, and the armor you're wearing." "It's not that, sir." Rodriguez joked. "It's them and their jokes about us being weaker. How can we help it if God made us the way we are, and made them the way they are?" "Yeah, well, if you want to tease them about something, tease them about that little pond they created back at Clairville." Worthington chuckled. "Why's that?" Rodriguez asked with a furrowed eyebrow. "They made a great pond for swimming." Brandon gasped out from behind Worthington. He didn't like talking while running, especially at the fast pace they were setting. "So?" Rodriguez asked. "Dwarves can't swim," Worthington replied with a smile. "They sink like stones." "Oh." Rodriguez laughed. "I get it." "Good," Worthington said and remained silent as he slowed their pace just a bit for Brandon's sake. Soon enough, they reached the top of the hill and could see the town lying down below them. "Pretty place," Dolaro said as Worthington crawled forward up the hillcrest in order to keep from being seen. The dwarf was looking down with a pair of binoculars. Worthington used his binoculars to scan the area of the town that was their concern. It really was a pretty place with whitewashed buildings made of stucco or wood, all with fabulous views of the ocean below them. Some of the homes even extended halfway up the hill they were now on, but at this hour of the morning, there was no activity. There should be sailboats heading out to sea for a day of fun, but they were all tied up at the marina, as were a few fishing boats that had once plied their trade here. A few figures could be seen sitting on porches, the obvious sentries set by the mages, more to keep anyone from running than to watch for signs of impending attack. "In position." Worthington radioed. "All groups report ready to proceed," Weatherby said firmly. "Roger, give me a few to get my spells set up," Worthington replied and took a deep breath while focusing his binoculars on the school. It was easy to pick out the room that the kids were being held in, and this was the most important thing to get right. Their plan of attack called for cutting off all lines of retreat for the demon-controlled mages. He wanted none of them to escape. It was doubtful they would be able to complete their attack before any demons were summoned, but keeping the demon-controlled mages from getting away was more important than stopping them from summoning demon support. It didn't matter how many they killed if even one got away. There would always be a risk of them summoning more demons and starting a similar operation somewhere else. The children in that room were likely their primary escape route. In an emergency, they would sacrifice one or more of the children to create a portal that would let them escape to almost anywhere. Therefore, Worthington reached through his link to Brandon for a great deal of power and began to craft one of the most powerful shields he had ever created. This shield would have to last under whatever bombardment launched against it from mages desperate to escape. Once the shield was established, his team would strike directly at the school, killing demon-controlled mages, or anyone who resisted. Once everyone was either dead or captured, Worthington and the other primary mages that survived would have a long day ahead of them as they scanned all those who had been on the island. No one whose mind was controlled by demons could be allowed to live. "I'm ready to put the shield in place," Worthington said in a tight voice fifteen minutes after he'd begun. "I can feel him." Jamie's voice came over the combat circuit. That meant that more than likely any mage who was awake in the town was feeling Worthington's spell as well. "You better get a move on, Sinclair," Weatherby growled. "It's in place, give the word," Worthington said through gritted teeth as he released the shield and it settled into place, protecting the children from anyone going into the room where they were being held. He would like to say it was for the children's own good, but the truth was that there was no telling what condition the children were in now. They could be relatively free of demon taint, or so far gone that they would have to be ‘taken care of' later. There was no sound of gunfire as the word went out over the command channel. Their first strike was by the elves who used their long bows with deadly accuracy, taking out the sentries that were located outside. Dwarf shock teams then stormed the houses that infrared cameras on satellites and observation planes indicated activity inside. The soldiers and mages moved in behind them from four points even as Worthington signaled his team forward. Brandon slipped once on the steep slope, and Worthington hauled him up onto his back as he hurried down the slope. The dwarves were already at the base of the hill, moving into the two houses on their end that had some indicated activity inside. This close Worthington could hear the relatively quiet sounds of their assault rifles as they eradicated the people inside. When they hit the first paved road, Worthington sat Brandon back down on his feet, and they took off together, surrounded by soldiers and dwarves who began to sweep any house where there was an indicated person living inside. It took them nearly fifteen minutes to reach the school, where the elves had already swept off all the sentries with their bows. Worthington nodded at the lead elf who smiled at him before heading inside, with the dwarves hot on his heels. That was when he felt the first shudder against his shield. "They know something's up," Worthington said even as a massive explosion sounded somewhere off to the northwest. The radio channels filled with chatter as the demon-controlled mages began to respond, and two of their groups became involved with direct combat. Worthington led his own team deeper into the school. At first, they encountered nothing but dead bodies. Several had arrows sticking out of them, but there were just as many that had been brought down by gunfire. All had the dirty, unwashed look common to demon-controlled mages, and Worthington gripped his own weapon tightly. It quickly became apparent that the school had been converted into living quarters, and the dwarves and elves were sweeping the classrooms as they went along. Worthington led his group down a different hallway, towards the room he had already shielded. Three people ran into the hallway about thirty feet down from them, and all three were shot dead before Worthington had even raised his weapon. As they got closer, he saw that they had been armed with shotguns and nodded to the men around him who had fired. Their reflexes were all he could hope for in this situation. When the far wall exploded, he barely had time to expand his personal shields to deflect the debris that flew towards them. While they were all knocked to the ground, none seemed to be injured. "Demon!" Rodriguez called out as his ankle bracelet went cold, and the soldier fired into the cloud of dust. As the dust settled, they found that there had indeed been a demon, but it was dead from bullet wounds. At least one of them was using the demon-penetrating ammunition, and Worthington noted that three of the soldiers were changing magazines so that they too had the special ammunition ready to go. It was just in time as two more demons, both low-level orange-skins, flowed through the hole in the wall. Worthington fired his weapon with the others and felt a tingle of danger as a mage gathered power for a strike from behind them. He spun around, moving his shield to encompass the group in a full circle instead of a half-circle, and fired at the three figures that had somehow gotten behind them. His bullets penetrated the shields of one of the three mages, and he had to concentrate a moment to keep his shield steady as the other two let loose with different attacks. One of the other soldiers switched from firing at demons that were still trying to get at them from the hole in the wall to firing at the mages who were now holding their own shields against bullets. They were wasting valuable demon-killing ammunition, so Worthington lowered his weapon and let loose with blasts of magic instead. His repeated strikes took down the shields of one of the mages quickly enough that the soldier's bullets riddled him. The other mage panicked and threw up a heavier shield before taking off at a run down one of the hallways. Worthington ignored him at that point and turned back to face the demons, whose bodies were now piling up in the hole. "Hold fire!" Rodriguez called as he saw no more fresh demons. "Ammo check!" "Five special, six normal," Worthington answered first and moved forward to check the hole in the wall. It was their destination, and since they had a little breather, he used his magic to push the bodies out of the way, waiting until Rodriguez signaled they were ready to proceed to go through. Meanwhile, he was trying to pretend he couldn't hear the calls for help from Jamie's team. They had met with a stiff bit of resistance and Weatherby was sending team two to help them out since that team had met no resistance whatsoever. The room on the other side of the hole proved to be the gymnasium where seven mages were working on summoning more demons. Fifteen more men and women, all armed with rifles opened fire on Worthington and his escorts, trying to protect the demon-summoners, but the professional soldiers were protected from their initial shots, and they never got a chance to fire twice before being cut down. "Grenades?" Rodgriguez asked, and Worthington nodded. Five grenades were thrown before they took cover, and after the explosion, all the demon summoners were dead. The room where the kids were being held was nearby and turned out to be the boy's locker room they saw when they approached. It was there that they found two more mages, desperately trying to bring down Worthington's shield. "We should take these alive, for questioning," Worthington said with a grimace. It would be more like torture than questioning since he'd have to use Dark magic to break through the demon-controls and barriers on their minds, but at least this way it sounded nicer. "Right, switch to normal ammo and fire until their shield goes down." Rodriguez nodded, and the soldiers opened up even as the two mages noticed their presence. One of them proved to be of considerable power, easily mid-level Adept, and that was the one Worthington focused on first. While the soldiers fired bullets to keep the mages focused on defense, Worthington used stun bolts to hammer them. He was panting by the time the Adept-level mage collapsed, and he signaled Rodriguez that the other wasn't necessary as a prisoner. The truth was he'd used so much power up to this point that Brandon was on the edge of collapse, and he wasn't far behind. The radio chatter indicated that the battle elsewhere was over and that it had indeed been a submarine under the tent. Unfortunately, five mages had gotten on the sub before it took off, diving as soon as it hit deep water. The Navy would be sending a plane to hunt it down. "If you see a red glow come over him, shoot him," Worthington instructed one of the soldiers while he quickly spun several spells into the collapsed demon-controlled Adept. He'd cast three spells on the man. The first was a type of shield that should prevent him from achieving his ‘center,' effectively preventing him from casting spells. Second was a spell putting him in a full body-bind so he couldn't move. Last was a spell that would create a red glow around him should either of the other two spells be broken. The soldier he'd pointed to nodded and Worthington turned to face the door to the locker room that he'd shielded earlier. "Rodriguez, I'm about to take the shield down around that room. Let's get the kids inside out here, and keep an eye on them. We have no idea if they're controlled, or what." "Got it," Rodriguez said and used hand signals to order the remaining soldiers to fan out. Worthington closed his eyes, and let the shield fall, mentally noting that this battle was nothing like the last one. Hours of planning and reconnaissance had paid off well, minimizing their own casualties and making things far, far easier. "It's down," Worthington said and made sure Brandon was right behind him as he followed the soldiers into the room. The lockers that had once filled the room were gone, and there were neat rows of beds, far neater than anything Worthington had expected to see here. All the beds were empty, and the soldiers moved between the rows towards the half-circle of wide-awake young boys that were standing on the far side of the room. "It's okay boys; we're from the government," Rodriguez said as he lowered his weapon a bit, so it wasn't pointing at the boys who ranged in age from probably eight to their early teens. Worthington's quick count ended at sixteen of them. The room itself was filled with demon spoor, and he wondered how badly these boys had been abused. Hopefully, none of them were too far gone so they'd have to be ‘put down' but could be saved. Quite a few of them looked sickly, with a greenish cast to their skin color. "The bad guys are gone, and we're going to take you someplace safe." Worthington felt a prickle of danger as he realized that all the boys were mage-gifted, even the youngest ones who shouldn't be showing any sign of power yet. He opened his mouth to whisper a warning but was too late as all the boys pounced, bending their knees before leaping across the twelve feet that still separated them from the soldiers. One, a particularly handsome dark-haired kid on the cusp of being a teenager, landed on his chest. He had a glimpse of red, glowing eyes before sharp claws dug into his chest at the same time that a blast of power ripped his shields away. "Fuck!" One of the soldiers around him managed to shout as all the men found themselves swarmed by nearly a dozen of the children. The one that had knocked Worthington onto his back was viciously shredding his military uniform, and after three blows his claws that were extending out of his hands penetrated the dwarven armor Worthington was wearing. With a gasp of pain, Worthington gathered his magic, preparing to blast the child off of him when the sound of a pistol firing in the room reached him, and the kid's head exploded. "Thanks," Worthington said to Brandon, who was holding a pistol in an uncomfortable posture. He'd been spared from attack because he'd been behind Worthington, who was now climbing to his feet, ignoring the bloody gashes on his chest. His weapon came up, and he fired a short burst of three rounds into a child that was ripping away Rodriguez's armor. Another burst caught a kid as it leaped off a soldier, where he'd been drinking blood from the soldier's rent throat. His next burst took out the kid trying to feed off of the soldier's heart that he'd just ripped out. Rodriguez was on his feet now, firing at the demon-children, because as Worthington tried to save the lives of the two other soldiers not yet dead, he realized that's what these were. No story he'd ever heard said humans and demons could inter-breed, but he was not naïve enough to claim it couldn't be done. With enough power, time, and intelligence, almost anything was possible using magic. "Cease fire!" Worthington called out as the last of their attackers died from bullet wounds. Rodriguez was checking out the two soldiers that had gotten back to their feet while Brandon tried to check out Worthington's wounded chest. For his part, Worthington's gaze focused on the four boys that were huddled together in the far section of the room where the demon children had hid them. Averting his eyes from the dead bodies of soldiers, some of whom the demon children had tried to feed on, Worthington crossed the room while keeping his weapon trained on the still-alive children huddled together, on their knees, their heads facing the cold cement. "Andrews is still alive!" Rodriguez called, and Worthington sent Brandon to help the soldier with the wounded man while keeping his weapon trained on the children that were now in front of him. They were all at least eleven or twelve, maybe thirteen, and were all sobbing quietly. All four of them were white, and there was no tinge of green to their skin as there had been with the others. "Get up," Worthington said fiercely, and the four boys all started crying louder but didn't move at all. "I said get to your feet!" "Just kill us!" One of the boys, a blond kid who lifted his head and stared at Worthington with eyes that were closer to a fuschia color than anything else. Worthington tightened his grip on his weapon, but the kids made no move to attack. "Why?" Worthington asked in a softer voice as he extended his mage senses towards the four. All four of them were gifted and quite strong despite their young age. It was difficult to tell how tainted they were with all the residual demon spoor, but he knew from this boy's eyes that they had some taint to them. "They're making us like them!" The boy cried while his entire body shuddered as he pointed at one of the dead demon children. As Worthington stared at him, the boy told his story, and Worthington found himself sitting on the floor, staring at the four boys, all of whom were now looking at him, and nodding in agreement as the blond boy begged him once again for death. He'd never imagined that there could be something worse than what he'd faced in Northern Arizona, but here, now, was something he'd never dreamed of facing. What was he to do?
  3. "I feel overwhelmed," Worthington admitted the Saturday after he had met the President at the site of the demon-controlled mage attack. He was back home in Clairville for the first time since he’d left more than nine days ago. Now he had a week’s worth of schoolwork to catch up, finals to study for, a Demon Lord to hunt down, and a mound of paperwork waiting for him in the office on the second floor of the Keep. That wasn’t even mentioning the meetings that were scheduled or the training sessions with the government mages. "No fucking shit." Jamie laughed from where he sat on the other side of the desk, staring at the three piles of paperwork Worthington had two hours to wade through. "That’s why I’ll take the training sessions for you. I’ve already talked with Lowenthal, and he says that will be fine. Huntington’s plane doesn’t land in Phoenix for another two hours, and it’ll be at least two more for the drive up here. Kyle’s working with Stacy all day today, so you don’t have to worry about him." "I still need to spend some time teaching Colin." Worthington sighed. "He’s been real touchy about being ignored lately." "He likes working with Rob, let that blond bastard take care of him." Jamie snorted. "It’s not like Rob’s exactly running himself ragged." "Rob’s barely further along than Colin right now." Worthington frowned. "Let them practice fighting," Jamie suggested. "It should get both of them excited and hopefully wear them out." "Fine, I’ll do that." Worthington sighed. His brother smiled and stood up. "If you don’t watch it, brother, you’re going to collapse, and that will not be good for any of us," Jamie said before turning to walk out of the office. Worthington sighed and pulled a manila folder off the nearest pile, scanning through it briefly before signing off on the report. How Gerald Norman had let the paperwork pile up like this before dying Worthington would never understand. "Sorry to interrupt you, Mr. Sinclair." Nick Wooten’s voice came through the intercom on Worthington’s desk phone. "The White House called again asking for that update on the hunt for the demon lair." "Where the hell’s that file?" Worthington snarled in frustration, staring at the piles on his desk. "Third pile on your right, about halfway down," Nick answered, calmly. "It will be in one of the Top Secret folders." "Fuck, I found it." Worthington snapped after nearly toppling the pile over in order to find the one he needed. "Tell them I’m working on it right now and will have something later today." "Will do, sir." Nick’s voice was efficient in its clipped tones, and the intercom went dead. As he read through the file, Worthington’s near-constant headache returned and started throbbing as he continued to read. At least this report would go a long way towards satisfying the White House that they were making progress. He’d spent most of the last two days on the phones to various Adepts around the country that were willing to speak with him. As a result, he now had a good idea on how to summon the Ferdun, and let them into this world for a limited time. It was similar to demon summoning but far less dangerous to the mage in question. Kelvren had proved a surprising source of knowledge on the Ferdun and had given him quite a few pointers earlier in the morning, which he now wrote out to be added to the report. Two hours after starting it, he put the report in the ‘out’ box and buzzed Nick to come pick it up. The older mage would re-type Worthington’s notes into coherent order and then bring it back to him for his signature before it was faxed to Washington D.C. Maybe he’d done too good of a job with the President at their little meeting. After the tour, and illusionary recreation of the attack, the President, had spent several hours in deep conversation with Worthington. They had talked about everything from the elven legend of Landis, that humans often called Atlantis, to the different paths that were most common to mages, and the differences between them. Now, despite only being seventeen, he was the ‘official’ advisor to the President on all matters relating to magic, and he had more piles of paperwork on his desk. "How the hell am I going to learn anything new with this schedule?" He muttered aloud as he resumed plodding his way through catching up on the paperwork Gerald Norman had ignored. Worthington knew damn well that paperwork was evil and boring, but also necessary. Paperwork was what kept the wheels of the bureaucracy, such as they were, spinning. Nick Wooten was his chief assistant in all this new maze of paperwork and was assisted in his work by a team of six secretaries, all mundanes carefully bound with protective spells. "If you think it’s bad now, wait until next month when Stacy really starts moving on the paperwork for that new school," Nick said as he entered the office and Worthington groaned aloud. "You know, at this rate, I might just blow my own brains out." Worthington laughed bitterly. "Which reminds me, Mr. Weatherby has told me to schedule you some time at the range next week," Nick said. "You haven’t done any practice shooting in three weeks, and barely touched your dwarf rifle since then. He’s worried your shooting skills will deteriorate, and your weapon will run out of the magical energy that it needs." "I keep it in my room and handle it nearly every day." Worthington frowned. "Fine, set up the range time for me, and tell Weatherby if he wants to tell me this stuff, to do it himself on our morning runs." "He won’t mention stuff like that on the morning run where the men might hear," Nick said firmly. "At least, that’s what he was thinking when he told me that." "You shouldn’t be reading his mind like that." Worthington frowned. Nick was fully trained and raised in the Dark path. "Calm down boss, I just read it from his surface thoughts." Nick laughed as he picked up the three files in Worthington’s out box and headed back to his own office nearby. Three secretaries would normally sit outside Worthington’s office, but Nick had his own now, as did two of the more senior secretaries that worked with him on Worthington’s paperwork and business. "Greedy bastards." Worthington murmured to himself as he picked up another report and read the current prices the dwarves were charging for the demon-killing ammunition. He made a note about speaking with Lokar regarding the pricing and signed off on the current invoice before putting it into his out box. For three hours, he kept working before he was interrupted again. One pile was completely moved to his outbox, another half of a second pile was gone, and he was eyeing the third pile, proud of his accomplishments when Nick walked in, his arms loaded with another pile’s worth of material. No, after Nick went back out, he came back with another stack of files and documents that formed two piles compared to the one and a half that Worthington had cleared. With a sigh of defeat, he took the top file off the pile, and opened it up to read the typed version of the notes he’d made earlier. At least by the time Nick had returned with a cup of coffee (and three more files), Worthington had that document ready to go out, and Nick took it with him. When Huntington arrived, Worthington was ready to call it quits for the day, but he knew he couldn’t do that just yet. She was wearing a pair of designer jeans, a white blouse and a short blue jacket that accented her slim body. The smile on her face when she saw his office was full of sympathy. "You seem to be buried here." She said with that smile still on her face. "If you think this is bad, you should see the pile of homework in my room upstairs." Worthington frowned as he spoke. "It’s a good thing to keep the two separated." She advised him. "Still, you seem to be doing an adequate job for someone your age." "I had a college-level vocabulary by the time I was twelve," Worthington said proudly as he looked at her. "Filling out reports is not that difficult." "Having some good staff certainly helps." She added. "The President was quite impressed with your show-and-tell routine in Anaheim last week." "I certainly hope so." Worthington frowned. "Poor Brandon has barely recovered from the power drain and missed two days of school after that." "I know." She said with a smile. "If anything, I think that impressed him just as much as the actual presentation. We all have a better understanding of the limits, and the capabilities of real mages, not just those who were trained through the old program." "Your people did an astounding job, from their starting point," Worthington said graciously, and honestly. "The difference, as I told the President, includes that I first started showing magic at around the age of six, and I’ve been in training ever since then. Growing up with magic is a far different life than what most of the people in your program experienced. Coming to magic late in life presents its own hurdles." "We get that now." She agreed. "It also explains why female mages seem less capable than male in your world." "It is one of the reasons, but by the time they enter middle-age, there is little difference between them and their male counterparts." Worthington pointed out. "Are you recovered enough for what you plan to do tomorrow?" She asked him, moving to the point of this little meeting and her presence here. "Can you keep control of these… things?" "I have a fairly certain understanding of what I’m doing, and should have no problems keeping control," Worthington said. "Can something go wrong? Yes, of course. We’re dealing with intelligent non-humans who have an appetite for human souls. To them, we are just another food source, and so dealing with them is always dangerous. Fortunately for us, in this case, there’s something they want more, and we’ve got that at hand now. Somewhere in this stack is the payment voucher to the elves and dwarves for their help in the matter. Thankfully they’re not going to hold us up waiting for me to find it and sign the damn piece of paper." "The paperwork is important." Huntington smiled. "It makes the wheels of the bureaucracy keep spinning." "I know." Worthington sighed with amusement at her comment, so similar to his own thoughts. "I just wish there was less of the damn stuff." "Don’t we all." She laughed. "If this works, how soon will you be ready to move?" "Two weeks, unless they make their move before then," Worthington said with a frown. "Are you sure we can wait that long?" She asked. "We have no choice." Worthington shrugged. "The fact of the matter is that we only have a limited number of mages and a limited number of troops. Weatherby is still rebuilding his mercenary corps. Both of us agree that we need at least forty-eight combat personnel, and we have to all but steal them from active duty ranks as it is. That paperwork I got done this morning. Those men will get sent over by Tuesday for detached duty pending their official discharge." "The invoices for the equipment from the dwarves?" She asked. "I got them out before you showed up," Worthington said without smiling. He wanted to smile, though. Under his bargain with the dwarves, he got a portion of all sales through Clairville, and the prices they were charging the government for armor and weapons, as well as demon-killing ammunition, was astronomical. Even his rather small cut of that would keep the administration functions of Clairville running for two years. "They will be back on your desk before you’re there." "Good." She said with a shake of her head. "As expensive as that stuff is, it is apparently the best. The Secret Service tested some of the armor after your last battle with the demons in the mountains, and ordered some of it for their Presidential detail, as well as for the President himself to wear under his regular clothes in high-threat environments." "Just don’t try to pry the secrets of its manufacture from the dwarves." Worthington laughed softly. "They nearly hamstrung me for just thinking it where they could pick up the thought." "I’ll remember that." She nodded. "Why two weeks if you’re getting the men this week?" "They need time to train with the weapons, and with unarmed combat that isn’t really taught in the services," Worthington said. "The DR-4 – that’s the dwarven rifles – they operate a bit differently from standard issue weapons in the services, and require some practice to get good at using them. Also, Weatherby has ordered an assortment of bladed weapons coated with the same metal as used in the special bullets. We learned in the last encounter that demons like to close for hand-to-hand combat, and you can’t always guarantee killing all of them before they get that close. The bladed weapons will penetrate demon hide, and so we need to refresh the soldiers on techniques with the available bladed weapons." "Was that in your report?" She asked. "No," Worthington admitted. "It’s in one of the supplemental reports somewhere in these piles. The truth is I’m behind, and catching up is going to be a bitch." "Do what you can." She said with a frown. "Just don’t let trying to catch up with paperwork slow down active operations. Everyone from the President on down is very anxious to not let demons get a foothold in our country. They worry that if that happens, it won’t be long until they have to deploy National Guard and regular troops inside our own borders to guard against them, and then your secret’s going to be out." "We are quite well aware of that, Ms. Huntington," Worthington said in a stone-cold voice as he gave her a flat stare. "None of us have any desire to see the demons gain a foothold. I remind you, if it does happen, it will be mages bearing the brunt of the damage, and we know that quite well." "I know you do, Mr. Sinclair." She said firmly, but once again, there was a hint of sympathy in her voice. "I won’t deny that I still wake up in cold sweats sometimes from nightmares about mages misusing magic, but I feel a lot more comfortable about all of this after having met you, and seen you demonstrate some of the things you can do with your powers." "Thank you." He said with a nod. "I have this belief that if people know mages, not as a group, but as individuals, it is a lot harder to hate them." "You and every minority group in this country share that belief." She laughed lightly at him. "It is true, as far as it goes, although you often run into ‘Worthington is okay, but I don’t know about the rest of them!’. Luckily for you, we’ve been dealing with government mages like the late Benjamin for years, and everything you’ve done so far only increases our comfort level with magic. Have you made any progress on how to find untrained mages who are not part of the existing networks of Light and Dark families?" "Yes." Worthington smiled. "Actually, the idea was Kyle’s. I have a few people working on the dirty details and putting together a proposal before we send it up the flagpole and see what people think, but it shows a great deal of promise." "What is it?" She asked with interest, leaning forward in her seat. "Kyle suggested that we go to schools ostensibly to talk about drug prevention or something similar, and we use a big-name sports or movie star as the main presenter," Worthington explained. "Certainly we won’t get everyone every time we go to the schools, but with about fifteen to twenty teams of one to two mages, with a few assistants, we can visit most schools. Instead of trying to test every single kid for magic, we’ll use a device similar to those wards we use at the entrances to Phoenix. It will ask anyone hearing the message to raise their hands at a certain point in the program. Those who do get a prize, probably something like a hundred dollars and the device asks again once people have seen the prize money to raise their hands." "Interesting." She said with a thoughtful look. "You’ll still miss a few, but that should get most of them, including those who are part of the families." "Probably not those," Worthington said with another smile. "That’s the beauty of it. Children from mage families that hear it are going to be very suspicious, and they’re going to be able to understand it’s magical in nature. They won’t reveal themselves in that situation, most of the time. Yes, they’ll tell their parents and families, but we can deal with that through normal channels. In fact, spreading the word we’re doing it beforehand will result in most kids from mage families knowing not to raise their hands when they hear the voice." "Yes, I can see that, or they’ll keep their kids home that day." Huntington thought out loud. "I take it you’ll try to hit every school each year?" "That’s the goal if we can do it." Worthington shrugged. "If it is approved, I’d like to start a test program here in Arizona and some of the nearby states within a few months. We can have it running by March." "The first students for your new school?" She laughed. "Yes." Worthington smiled. "I figured between Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and Southern California. We should end up with a fairly good first-year crop of students." "Yes, that is likely." She agreed. "I remember you saying that there isn’t a ‘Hogwarts,’ but from what I’ve seen you’re building one now." "It won’t be anything like that." Worthington frowned. "Reality is far different from fiction. Yes, we will be teaching magic at the school, yes it will be a boarding school, but there won’t be moving pictures or staircases for that matter. The curriculum won’t be focused solely on magic, either. All the standard courses that are taught in regular schools will also be taught here, but there will be extra lessons on top of those." "Sounds like the students are going to be kept too busy to get into too much trouble," Huntington said with a very slight smile. "There will be plenty of opportunities for them to get into trouble," Worthington said with a broad smile. "Another good thing about this location is that they will get to become acclimated to non-human species by interacting with the town here. They will grow up, essentially, understanding that there is more to this world than most people will ever know or understand. Hopefully, they will also develop a much better appreciation of non-humans." "You will not, of course, keep them unaware of the government program either," Huntington said in a firm voice. "The students will know all the options available to them," Worthington said in a firm voice. "They will all be taught by Dark and Light mages, and occasionally by Grey mages like myself or Jamie. In addition, they will meet, and get to know government mages as well, and will understand what they do in our society. These young people will have a better understanding of all the options available to them than any other mage in the history of the world." "It’s a grand dream you have, Worthington." She said with a shake of her head. "I only hope that it can work. Certainly, we will be much more comfortable with a standardized curriculum and with knowing not only who are mages, but that they have received a strong sense of ethics through your school." "There is a lot of resistance from both Light and Dark families." Worthington reminded her with a shrug. "They do not like change, and this is a massive change from the existing order of things. At least they know that they cannot stop it from happening, although I doubt they will participate willingly." "We can live with that for now." She replied. "It should almost be time for dinner," Worthington said with a slight smile on his face as he stood up from his desk. "Would you like to visit your room before heading down? I feel the need to freshen up a bit myself." "I think I will thank you." She said with a smile as she also stood up. The Keep was far less crowded already, with about a third of the government mages having moved out into houses in Clairville itself. They still practiced their magic in the Keep’s basement, but most of them preferred to live out in the town, usually in houses of their own. After a quick shower, and changing into a clean set of the dwarven-made leather pants and tight dark gray shirt, Worthington headed down to the main level of the Keep and entered the great hall that was set up for dinner. It was a noisy room, and quite packed today with humans, dwarves, and elves mixing at the various tables that had been set up around the room. Worthington sat down at the main table that was always reserved for him and other VIP that might be there. Governor Lokar sat in the seat directly to his right, with Huntington already seated on the governor’s right. Olara was there tonight, although Kelvren was elsewhere, and she was seated to Worthington’s direct left. Weatherby and Lowenthal were both seated at the head table, as was Jamie. When Worthington took his seat, the hubbub of conversation died down, and Worthington stifled a sigh. Sapha had explained that this was a dwarven tradition. All the people in the village, and any visitors could dine in the Hall of the Lord for their area. Worthington didn’t think of himself as a ‘Lord,’ but in dwarven custom that was what he was, and so he was obligated to provide dinner for any who came to his Hall. He did not have to attend every dinner himself but was expected to follow certain customs when he did attend. "Welcome to Clairville Keep," Worthington said as he remained sitting. His voice was loud enough to reach the entire hall. "We bid you good tidings and thanks for all you have done today. Let the bounty you provide be returned in some small measure, and may the food and company you have tonight fortified you for tomorrow’s travails." Dinner that night was a standard four-course affair, with a chicken dish in a white sauce as the main entrée. The food, as always, was very good, and Worthington let himself relax as he talked to the Elven princess for most of the night. Lokar was spending a great deal of time talking to Huntington, and so they said very little to each other. After dinner in the Hall came several hours of socializing. While the household staff cleared the tables, several bars set up in the corners of the room served drinks (which were not provided for free and usually recouped the actual cost of dinner for all the people who ate in the Hall). Worthington stayed for an hour, socializing with several of the town’s inhabitants, getting to know them a little better before he headed back up the flights of stairs to his room. Normal, mundane homework occupied his time until it was nearly midnight. As was most often the case, his bed was empty that night. Still, his dreams focused more on his personal interactions with Kyle than troubling dreams of juggling too many balls at the same time. The sky was just beginning to lighten in the east when he woke up and began to stretch before getting dressed in a sweat suit. This morning there were thirty-three people waiting in the entry area to the Keep, all dressed and ready for the morning run. The run was mandatory for the mundane mercenary personnel and government mages at least four times a week. Nick Wooten and Dakota Ungashick were there as well after Worthington had suggested to them that their participation was desirable. They were standing in a corner of the room, talking to two of the female government mages that had arrived at Clairville after being recalled from their previous assignments. "Let’s get this show on the road," Weatherby called out after two more stragglers showed up and they all headed out in a group for the three-mile run. After they returned from the run, Worthington went back up to his room and showered before getting dressed in another of the dwarven-made outfits. Breakfast was waiting for him in his office on the second floor, and he ate the ham and egg sandwich while tackling the stack of ‘urgent’ paperwork that Nick had arranged for him sometime after dinner. By eleven in the morning, he was finished with that stack and had actually made fairly good progress with the less-urgent paperwork before Nick stuck his head in the door and told him everyone was ready. With a sigh, Worthington got out of his chair and followed the slightly older man down to the main entry where a group of fifteen people were waiting. "You sure we don’t need more men?" Weatherby asked as he nodded to the team of five soldiers armed with DR-4 assault weapons. "I’m sure," Worthington said with a glance at Jamie and Brandon, who were standing next to each other, between the soldiers and eight government mages that would be observing this event. Huntington stood next to Jamie, talking to him quietly, while three of her assistants waited behind her. The rest of the group included some elvish and dwarven mages that had chosen to go along and ‘watch’ what Worthington had planned. Three vans waited for them outside and drove them to the main gates of Clairville, where they disembarked and began the hike eastwards, up into the surrounding mountains. He could see the school site to the north, with the walls of the building already started, and the grounds being cleared by a team of elves, singing the trees to new locations so there would be plenty of playing fields for games of soccer, football, baseball, and other sporting events. A fairly large football and track field was also being built. "How far do we have to go again?" Huntington asked with a frown. She was dressed in jeans and a blouse again, as well as good, solid hiking boots. "Just about two miles." Worthington smiled at her. "Didn’t you already run a few miles today?" She asked him with a frown. "Yes, but we need to keep in shape, so two miles shouldn’t be too rough on him," Weatherby said with a grin. "We wouldn’t want him getting soft now, would we?" "No, anything but that." Lowenthal joked while a few of the people around them chuckled. "You didn’t make the run this morning," Worthington said to Jamie, who grinned at him. "I’m not as much of a fitness fanatic as you," Jamie said with a smile. "Brandon, I thought you at least would be there," Worthington said to his dark-haired Channel. "Yeah, well, I knew we’d be hiking again today, and it all seemed a bit much for me." Brandon shrugged. "Sorry, I’m just not as much of a workout maniac as you are." "More like a glutton for punishment." Jamie laughed softly. "I get no respect," Worthington complained good-naturedly, and they all laughed together. It took close to an hour at the slower pace they set for Huntington and a few of the others who weren’t used to much physical exercise, but they finally reached the small clearing the elves had recommended for this venture. Everyone took their places in a half-circle behind Worthington as he took a deep breath. "Are we ready?" "I guess so." Jamie frowned as he stayed a pace behind Worthington. "Are you sure you should do this alone?" "Yes," Worthington said as he took a pocketknife out of his pants pocket and opened the blade while moving further away from everyone else. With a grimace, he lowered the knife to the palm of his hand and sliced across the width of his palm, making a fist as the blood welled up from the cut. Focusing his mind on what he was about to do, he called up his mage power and began to walk in a circle, letting drops of blood fall with each step he took. Some mages would speak aloud what they were doing, but Worthington knew that it was not necessary. What was important here was the magic and his blood setting the limits of what he wanted to do, and what was going to happen. When the circle was complete, he let out an audible sigh before flooding his power into the circle. White light flared as he completed the circle and set the power inside it for creating a doorway between the planes of existence. The air above the circle rippled like the shimmer of heat off of pavement in the Phoenix summer, and Worthington took a deep breath before closing his eyes and letting his mind flow into the circle. He was surrounded by darkness, like floating in deep space, surrounded by pitch black with only the shimmering of stars around him. Far below him was the green light that represented his home plane, and he fought a sense of vertigo as he scanned the stars all around him. Even after hearing the explanation of the elves, who had studied this vast expanse for centuries, eons really, he felt tiny and insignificant. Not even the elves with all their immortality had explored all these planes of existence represented by the twinkling lights. Kelvren had said that they would often spend centuries here, in the gulf between realities, learning what they could of the different planes, but no one had ever finished visiting them all. Still, the elves had given him the knowledge of what he sought, and he began to look for his destination. The twinkling orange glow of light that was the center of the Eye of Varnan was right where Kelvren had said it would be in that endless gulf. From there it was easy enough to find the blue-yellow twinkling light that represented the plane he sought. The trick was to approach it without garnering attention from any demons that might be watching, or traveling to his own plane. They lived in the orange glowing plane near the Ferdun plane, and so he approached quickly, choosing speed over stealth, where stealth was all but impossible. He touched the blue-yellow plane that was the Ferdun home, and he reached out with his power to create an exact match of the circle that was waiting in front of his physical body. When there was a circle of matching power touching the Ferdun plane, he retreated to his own green plane and reentered his body. Opening his eyes, he saw the rippling of the air in front of him now shared the blue-yellow color of the Ferdun plane, and let out a sigh of relief. Now they had to wait, and there was no telling how long it would take for a Ferdun to see the portal that now existed. Power flowed from him for an hour, and he began to worry that no one would appear before he exhausted himself. Then the air rippled again, and there was a burst of red light from the portal as something crossed over. What do you wish, human? A snarling voice asked in his mind as a creature as large as a full-grown Irish wolfhound appeared in the circle. It had dark scales instead of fur, long claws each as big as Worthington’s hand, and yellow glowing eyes as it snarled aloud and turned around in the circle for one complete revolution until it stood once again, facing Worthington. Drool leaked out of its mouth, falling with little sizzles on the ground below it. You have not paid the price of an innocent soul from a youngling, so I will not take you anywhere. I have not brought you here to ask for travel. Worthington said mentally, and he could hear Lowenthal whispering what was being said to Huntington. What do you wish, then? The creature demanded with a sound much like a dog’s yip escaping his throat. We do not like this plane. The demons have made us carry their servants here many times, and only offer the barest of offerings for our work. Do not seek to put a halter on us, or you will find why the demons fear our anger. You do not like this plane, but you like the felines. Worthington retorted We do not like them. The Ferdun bayed aloud in a form of laughter. They are good food, but we have only had your tame ones as of late. You hunger for the hunt of wild felines? Worthington asked. There is at least one within a few miles of where we stand now. You would let us cross over and hunt the creature? The Ferdun’s mental voice was anxious, and his long tail was arched excitedly towards Worthington as the drool dripping from its mouth increased. I would, for a price. Worthington said. We cannot carry you where you wish to go without the life of an innocent. The Ferdun snort was purely mental. That price we always demand. I wish information, not travel. Worthington said. Many days ago, you took many mundane humans from one place to another at the behest of those who serve demons. What I want is to know where they went. Easily done. The creature snorted. Allow us the hunt, and we will give you that information. A favor we will grant for each cat we kill. Done. Worthington said and opened a door in the circle. The Ferdun leaped out, followed by six more of the creatures, all baying at the top of their lungs as they ranged out to hunt. They stopped at the edge of the clearing to sniff around, ignoring Worthington’s watchful gaze. It was nearly an hour before they returned, all seven of them covered in blood and looking well satisfied. Huntington jumped slightly as they appeared into the clearing, and the six followers headed back into the circle while their leader faced Worthington. The creature came up to his chest and would make a formidable opponent. Our time on your plane grows short, human. The Ferdun leader said. I am Goshis, remember that name. Here is an image of the place we took the humans. It was a good hunt, with more than one cat at the end. A mother and her mate, guarding their den and young. It was a short fight, but a good one and they managed to claw a few of us. It has been many years since we hunted like that. Five more favors you may ask of us, although if you wish to travel, you must pay that price separately. If the demon-controlled mages travel again, I wish to know. Worthington replied. Done. The creature laughed as it reentered the circle and disappeared. With a sigh he let the power of the gateway go, and slumped to the ground weakly, his mind playing over the mental image the creature had given him, of where the demon controlled mages had taken their victim. This was not going to be easy.
  4. "The President wants to know why a seventeen-year-old kid is at the center of another one of these incidents." Ms. Huntington's voice was nearly shrill in his ear as Worthington walked outside the mobile command trailer the local police had set up. He stayed underneath the tent awning though, so the helicopters flying overhead would not be able to get a picture of him. They were next to the Tower of Terror attraction, just between it and the Aladdin stage building. The park was empty of all tourists, and the mobile command center was the hub of activity for dozens of police, Disney security people, and several federal officials. Two DHS agents, real ones, had shown up an hour ago with a very real badge and very real identification for Worthington, and a gun that he now wore in a shoulder holster over the white dress shirt he was wearing. A Disney employee had been sent back to his hotel room and gotten slacks, the dress shirt, and a tie, as well as dress shoes and socks, and brought them here for him earlier. "I'm rather unlucky, I guess," Worthington responded while trying not to laugh. "How the hell am I supposed to know? I was supposed to be on vacation, damn it. This wasn't my idea. Should I have just stood back and let them get away with whatever they were doing?" "Of course not." She snorted over the phone. "If you had, you'd be in a lot more hot water than you are in now. Do you understand how big this is? It's not just local news or even national news. It's international. News stations all over the globe are running this story." "I know," Worthington said with a sigh. "I've been thinking about it, and I think they want that effect." "Why?" She asked. "Maybe they want us busy dealing with the mess here instead of looking for them elsewhere." Worthington guessed. "Or maybe they are taking lessons from terrorists and trying to instill terror into the hearts and minds of regular people." "Do they want the magical world brought into the limelight?" She asked. "They have to know they'll lose an out and out fight with us, especially now that we have weapons that can hurt them." "Only dwarven-made bullets can hurt them right now." Worthington reminded her. "The supply of them is fairly limited still. Plus, if the mundane world learns of magic, especially in relation to an incident like this one, there's going to be a massive backlash. At the very least, the dwarves will be forced back into hiding, and you won't get a supply of their bullets." "I'd like to see a demon survive a cruise missile or a nuke." Huntington retorted. "Are you going to nuke your own cities to get a few demons?" Worthington asked and was greeted by silence on the line. "Exactly." "We have other weapons." She said. "Our scientists are studying some of those bullets too. I know we can't reproduce them without magic, but maybe we can figure out something scientifically that will have a similar effect." "Maybe, but how long will that take?" Worthington asked. "Think about it, ma'am. We have no idea what the population of demons is in their dimension. It could be thousands, or it could be millions. During the Demon Wars, when they established a foothold in our dimension, they would pour across the countryside like a vast sea according to the stories. There were thousands of them, and only the sacrifices of Light mages in Lyon kept them from moving further than that city. They gave a coalition of Light and Dark mages time to strike back, while the demon army was concentrating on Lyon and their gateway was only lightly defended. None of those mages survived that fight, either." "You've told me that story before, Sinclair." She said firmly. "I know, but it bears repeating, ma'am," Worthington noted. "Do we really want to see something like that happen again? The mage world is scattered and will be for years yet. It hasn't had to work together since the end of the Demon Wars. They sure as hell aren't going to trust you, and even I will take years to earn their trust." "What do I tell the President?" She asked. "I'm being summoned to the White House for a meeting. The entire eastern seaboard is socked in with this weather system. Can't your mages do anything about that either?" "A system that big would require every weather-working mage in existence to get rid of," Worthington said. "I know that much about weather-working." "Damn." She said. "Just when I start thinking it's good you mages have limits, you remind me those limits can be a pain in the ass." "We're human, ma'am," Worthington said. "If you tell the President nothing else, remind him that we're just human like anyone else. I was only able to save a handful of people today, but if I hadn't been here, they would be in the hands of demons, and you can rest assured the demon-controlled mages would have taken a lot more than just forty-odd people. They'd have had hundreds, and we'd be working with days-old evidence before we knew so many people were missing. More than likely it would've been even more days before government mages would have been called in, and then we'd be starting a week behind them. Now, we stopped them before they got more than one batch, and we know what they were doing and can work from there." "Yes, that's a good message to take to the President." She said firmly and sounded a lot calmer. "Damn, why do I have to be the most senior person in Washington right now? Okay, you do what you can out there, find out where they took them if possible, and if you need resources, you let me know. I'm putting a lot of faith in you, young man. Don't let me down." "I won't," Worthington said with a grimace before shutting his cell phone. He took a few moments to look around. All the teams that were inside the attraction had been seen by him or Kyle before entering. After seeing what Worthington was doing while in rapport with him, Kyle had started setting the right instructions into the men and women of the forensics teams, and was with them now after having practiced the necessary illusions. There were tent awnings stretched out so that the hovering helicopters couldn't get good pictures, but as they were bringing the ‘bodies' out, Worthington didn't want to take chances. Kyle was creating illusions of bodies inside of body bags. Nick and Dakota, back in Clairville, had gotten in touch with the psychiatrist Barrett De Long who was contacting several local mages that could help with continuing the illusions as the ‘bodies' made their way to the local morgues. By the time more needed to be done with them, they would have real government mages in place to take care of the arrangements for identification of the missing, and ‘care' for their bodies in preparation for funerals. "There are a group of men on their way in to see you, sir." A young female police officer said as she came up to him while he stared at the line of ‘bodies' that were being carried out. "Thank you, Officer," Worthington said with a nod as he turned back towards the large RV that was used as a mobile command post by the local authorities. "Are you sure we can't release your identity?" The middle-aged police captain asked for the third time as Worthington reentered the trailer. "No, I do a lot of work undercover," Worthington said firmly yet again. "Just say ‘an undercover federal agent on the scene' and stress the assistance of the park's cast members in minimizing fatalities. We got lucky here today. It could have been a lot worse without their help." "Yes, sir." The man said, showing no disdain at calling a man half his age ‘sir'. Then again, they assumed he was really in his late twenties from his identification, and that he just looked rather young. "They said you were in here." A familiar voice said as Worthington felt the magical presence approaching. He turned and smiled at his brother, who was dressed in riding leathers and carrying his helmet. "Jamie, that was fast," Worthington said with a smile as he turned and led his brother outside the command center so they could talk with more privacy. As soon as they were away from prying eyes, he hugged his brother. "You must have averaged one-fifty to get here that fast." "A little faster, actually." Jamie smiled. "Traffic was horrible once we hit town though or we'd have been here an hour ago. I brought Brandon. He should be here in a minute, and we brought nine of the MR just in case. Colin wanted to come, but we made him stay home, along with Carl. I told him I wanted someone to stay behind and protect Carl and that only he would do for that job." "Thanks," Worthington said with a sigh. Colin could be so touchy these days. "No problem, bro," Jamie said, and then the smile slipped from his face. "You know I'm never going to let you go anywhere alone after this, right?" "I had Kyle with me." Worthington retorted. "You know what I mean," Jamie said, sternly. "Yes, but really, Kyle was a big help," Worthington said. "In fact, I'd rather have had him here than Colin. Kyle didn't try to do more than he was capable of doing, and he worked with me as part of a team. Colin always has trouble with that." "Kyle's a good man," Jamie said. "Yes, he is." Worthington sighed, and Jamie smiled slightly. "So what do you need me to do?" Jamie asked instead of the question that was really bubbling at the surface of his mind. "How about you go and help Kyle?" Worthington said. "He's been doing advanced magic way beyond his normal abilities, and he's got to be all but exhausted by now. I know I'm tired as hell." "Sounds good," Jamie said with a smile. "See you in a bit." "Thanks for getting here so quickly, bro," Worthington said with a smile. Jamie waved at him and trotted off towards the building, speaking briefly to the two officers guarding the entrance. Worthington stood outside in the chilly air and tried to analyze the cover story they were putting out. He hated re-using the old terrorist angle and was beginning to think of the possible political implications. This was flat out a bad time for foreign terrorists to be blamed for another attack on this country. The fact was that next year's elections were looking to be fierce enough and the President currently in office was facing a bad image for being weak on terror. The events earlier in the year in Phoenix certainly had not helped him out at all. Too bad there wasn't a Timothy McVeigh to blame this one on. Kyle came out of the building with his head hanging slightly and moving at a rather slow pace. His typical jaunty stride was subdued, and he all but shuffled his feet as he moved towards Worthington. When he got close, he gave Worthington a feeble smile. "Ah'm exhausted." He mumbled in a heavy drawl. "Ah never thought I would be this tired." "You can head back to the room in a little bit and get some rest," Worthington told him with a gentle smile. "I really appreciate all your help today." "You proved your point, you know," Kyle said, tiredly. "This magic stuff, it's needed, and you're right. If people like you and me don't learn it and do all we can, innocent people are gonna get hurt. You don't have to worry about burning it out of me." "I'm glad to hear that," Worthington said and reached out with one arm to pull Kyle into a hug. They broke apart after a minute, and Kyle shook his head. "It's funny, you know," Kyle said softly. "Right now, I imagine the preacher in my old town is crowing about how the evil Disney empire just got itself a black eye, probably calling it the wrath of God and all that. Me? I just worry about those people we didn't save." "You've got…" Worthington started to say, but his voice trailed off as his mind moved into high gear over something Kyle had said. Yes, that might just work. The President had gotten a lot of grief from religious groups in the last election and… "Kyle, you've just given me a good idea. Thanks. Why don't you go inside and sit down?" "What did I do?" Kyle asked with a frown. "I'll explain later, once you've had some rest," Worthington said. "Now, I need to make a phone call." "Okay, but you better tell me." Kyle murmured before shambling off to the command center where he'd find an out-of-the-way chair and sit down. Worthington pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and found Huntington's cell number, then pushed the call button quickly. Hopefully, she wouldn't have gotten into her White House meeting yet. "What is it, Sinclair?" She asked roughly as soon as she answered. "I'm in the White House heading to my meeting." "I've got an idea to run by you, ma'am," Worthington said quickly. "I figure the foreign terrorist angle isn't going to go down too well with the President. It's likely to hurt him politically." "Damn right, it will." She growled. "That's why he's called me in here so quickly." "How about if it wasn't foreign terrorists," Worthington suggested. "Keep going." She said cautiously. "Well, you know there has been a religious boycott of Disney for over a decade now, right?" Worthington said. "Yes." She answered. "How many abortion clinics have been firebombed since the 1970s?" He asked her. "More than I can count right now." She said with a hint of excitement in her voice. "That isn't even counting the assassination of doctors, bombing of gay bars and other stuff like that. Yes, yes, religious extremists would be a good one to pin it on. There was that speech he made two months ago about us spending so much money on foreign terrorists that we don't even look at domestic groups that spawn people like Ted Kazinski or that McVeigh character. "Okay, start spreading the word out there that the suspects you've got in custody are American and appear to have no connection with foreign terrorists. Yes, yes, that will even explain why they got past our security because we're so focused on foreigners that when we found out they weren't involved with the group, we pretty much pulled the plug on the investigation. We can survive the backlash from that and give the politicos the cover they need at the same time. "Good idea, Sinclair. We'll run with it, and find a scapegoat extremist group to pin the blame on, attach the bodies you've got of the dead mages to their group, but keep the direct blame limited to the dead ones. They were acting alone, but it's an example of the danger of these groups. Yes, yes, we'll go with that. Keep the details sketchy on your end. We'll flesh them out here." "Got it, ma'am," Worthington said and smiled as she cut the call from her end. It was nighttime when Lowenthal and the others arrived, and Worthington was ready to collapse where he stood. All the magic he'd used during the day was tiring, but he had a massive headache from all the questions and the little details that he really didn't understand and largely faked his way through. Of course, being able to read answers he needed from the minds of others around him helped, but when they didn't know the answer, he'd had to bluff his way through. The decision that it was ‘safe' to let people back into area hotel rooms was relatively easy to make. Luckily, Lowenthal and Weatherby had a better understanding of the intricacies of the situation and recommended the continued closing of the parks until at least Tuesday, which did not make the Disney people happy but seemed to satisfy the police and federal agencies. Worthington was more worried about the fact that he'd be missing a few days of school. That night he slept in his hotel room and woke up to find that the sun had barely risen and there was already a line of people waiting to talk to him. First on the list was Michael Lowenthal, who was frowning as he came into Worthington's bathroom while he was shaving. The older man looked at Worthington, standing there in nothing but blue bikini briefs and shook his head. "You really are a piece of work, you know?" Michael said with a hint of fondness in his voice. "What are you talking about?" Worthington asked as he rinsed the rest of the lather off of his face and contemplated what it would look like with a goatee. No, that would not be appropriate or look necessarily good on him. "How do you manage to stay in such great shape with your schedule?" Michael asked. "It's the magic, partly." Worthington shrugged as he took out a toothbrush and began to brush his teeth with some toothpaste. "How's that?" Michael asked as Worthington rinsed his mouth out. "Magic burns as much energy as aerobic exercise." Worthington shrugged. "You see very few fat mages, although it doesn't help with building muscle mass. That takes time the old fashioned way, through exercise, and I try to keep an hour a day reserved for that." "Okay." Lowenthal frowned as he spoke and Worthington got the feeling he had some bad news. "What is it?" Worthington asked with a sigh. "Gerald Norman's plane crashed on take off about two hours ago," Lowenthal reported with a frown. "No survivors." "Shit." Worthington cussed as he closed his eyes and leaned on the bathroom counter. "Yeah, that about sums it up," Lowenthal said. "I didn't particularly like the man, but no one deserves to die in an accident like that." "Are we even sure it's an accident?" Worthington asked. "I mean, it sounds damn convenient that his plane would crash." "It was the ice, most likely," Lowenthal said with a shrug. "The news is all over that, too, and you've got to stay focused on things here. You've got a busy day ahead of you." "Who is in charge now that Norman's dead?" Worthington asked with a sigh. "You?" "No, not me." Michael Lowenthal chuckled softly. "I talked to Assistant Director Huntington about a half-hour ago. We're to take our orders from you as Acting Director." "Bullshit." Worthington snapped as he spun around to face the ruggedly handsome mage in his mid-twenties. "I'm fucking seventeen years old, and not even out of high school yet. There's no way in the fucking world anyone's going to put me in charge of anything." "Wrong, Worthington," Michael said sternly. "You are seventeen, and yes, you're in high school, but you're a natural leader. There are times when things like age, and education are important, and times when they go by the wayside. We've been through three leaders in the Department in less than a year. This whole situation with the demons has blown up bigger than anyone expected. The whole thing is teetering on the edge of a big collapse that will take a lot of people with it, and we need someone with your skills in charge. No, you don't have all the necessary experience, but you do listen to people around you, which is one of the reasons why you're a good leader. "Don't worry; Huntington is on her way out here right now. She's in the air, and her plane didn't crash. When she gets here, she'll be the face everyone sees, but you will be in the lead. I don't have the political experience to handle all the crap that is going to hit the fan from here on out." "And I do?" Worthington snorted. "You were born into it." Michael snorted. "Don't tell me growing up the way you did left you unprepared for handling politicians." "I wish I could," Worthington said as he turned back to stare at himself in the mirror. Then he thought of something. "I don't work for the government, not really." "You do now," Lowenthal said. "You've even got the identification to prove it, too." "You're all crazy," Worthington mumbled. "Yes, well, that's a given." Lowenthal smiled. "Now, you better hurry and finish getting dressed. I've got local security people wanting to talk about reopening the parks, FBI needing to talk to you about some aspects of the investigation, and a team of mages and mercenaries standing around with nothing to do for the moment. The California Governor's office has called twice already this morning. The Governor wants to tour the area as soon as possible, and he wants to be on the ground, not just in the air." "Fuck." Worthington frowned. "When does Huntington get here?" "She'll be on the ground in three hours, and should be on-site within a half-hour of that," Lowenthal answered. "Jamie and Kyle both want to see you, and I told them they could talk to you over breakfast, which is being brought up right now. You've got fifteen minutes to finish in here and get dressed. Wear an outfit like yesterdays. We've got some DHS jackets for everyone to wear over everything." "You mean the blue ones with the lettering in yellow on the back?" Worthington sighed, and the man nodded. "Fine, get out of here and let me get ready." "I'll see you in fifteen." Michael Lowenthal said in that brisk, efficient voice and left the bathroom. Worthington wanted to just go back to bed and pretend this had never happened. Things felt like they were spiraling out of control, and he was trying to hold back the tide as it rushed up onto the beach. No matter what his feelings, he knew he had duties to perform, and worked on getting ready by starting his shower. "You might want to read this," Jamie said around a mouthful of croissant as Worthington sat down next to him at the breakfast table. Worthington took the paper from Jamie's hands and frowned as he read the brief article. "It figures they had to do that to transport so many people," Worthington said with a sigh after he put the article down and began to sip on the coffee that had been waiting for him. "What does it mean?" Kyle asked as he sat, drinking some bottled water. An empty plate was in front of him, and he was dressed in slacks and a dress shirt similar to Worthington's. "In order to use the portals, a child's life must be sacrificed," Worthington explained to the inexperienced mage. "Last time, we learned that if they use the portals too much, the Ferdun require some sort of sacrifice. They really like large felines as a meal, and these attacks at the San Diego and LA zoos were payment for the large number of people that they were moving through the portals. The Ferdun are elemental type creatures that actually conduct the transport and are somewhat intelligent." "Can't you just ask them where they took the people?" Kyle asked. "It's not that easy," Jamie answered as Worthington bit into a chocolate croissant that was actually quite good. "The Ferdun just won't answer a question if you ask them, and other than making a portal it is quite dangerous to interact with them." "Give ‘em what they want," Kyle said with a shrug. "Bribe them." "And cause more problems with zoo killings?" Worthington asked. "There are wild mountain cats around Clairville." Kyle pointed out. "The dwarves were talking last week about having spotted a few of them. Catch one or two and then give them to the Ferdun as a sacrifice for the information." "Better yet, let the Ferdun into the world for a few hours and let them hunt the cats down." Jamie smiled. "It's a good idea, and from what you said Worthington, the Ferdun like the hunt more than caged animals." "It's an idea worth exploring." Worthington agreed. "Am I still going back today?" Kyle asked after Worthington had been silent for several minutes while he ate. "Yes," Worthington responded. "I have to stay, but finals are coming up in a couple of weeks, so you should go back." "I'll be riding back with the guys later today too," Jamie said. "You'll beat us back, but we'll all be in school tomorrow." "Despite the ending, I had a good time," Kyle said with a smile to Worthington. "Thank you." "You're welcome," Worthington said with a warm smile. By the time Kyle was on his flight out of town, and Ms. Huntington had landed, Worthington had to admit that he was in his element. Only listening to the advice of people like Weatherby and Lowenthal kept him from making some serious mistakes, but the truth was he knew when to listen and when to act. His years at the boarding school, and growing up in his family's household had prepared him for the quickly shifting currents and inter-agency posturing that was going on that day. Dealing with politicians, and the nearly-frantic media were challenging aspects, but he already possessed the basic skills necessary to handle them easily. After spending twenty minutes updating Huntington on everything, she jumped right into the mix, providing even more expertise than he had expected, freeing him up to deal solely with the magic issues still involved in the situation. The President expected them to find out where the demons had taken the people, where they planned to create a gateway to their dimension and to stop them from accomplishing that goal. Before he could concentrate on that though, they had to perfect the cover story and release information about the attack and its victims. The network of cameras in the attraction, including the cameras that took the pictures of people in the middle of the ride provided a means of identifying the people who had been taken by the demon-controlled mages. By the time the California Governor arrived for his guided tour of the site, everything was in place, and the media got their ‘first look' at the scene. Their story appeared to work, and Worthington breathed his first sigh of relief. Brandon returned Monday night because the President had arrived and wanted a demonstration of what had really happened during the attack, not just the cover story. He was to attend the ‘re-opening' ceremonies on Tuesday afternoon as Disney opened the main Disneyland park. The California Adventureland park, where the attack actually happened, was to remain closed for an additional week. "So, you're the young man who seems to always be in the right place at the wrong time." The President, a tall man in his early fifties, said as Worthington shook his hand under the tent awnings protecting them from view on Monday night. "Or the wrong place at the wrong time, depending on your point of view, Mr. President," Worthington said with a slight smile. He was dressed in his three-piece suit and looking as professional as he could manage. Brandon was standing behind him, slightly to his right. "This is my good friend, and assistant, Brandon Meyers." "You're a mage too?" The President asked the dark-haired young man who was also dressed in his best suit. "In a way, Mr. President," Brandon answered with a shaky voice. He wasn't quite as good at hiding his nervousness. There were a lot of nervous agents, and government mages around them, watching their every move, as well as Ms. Huntington, and her boss, the DHS Director himself. "I'm actually what is called a channel. We don't have much mage power directly that we can use ourselves, but we're able to bring in and store life energy from things around us, convert it to mage power, and pass it on to another mage." "So you're like a power booster?" The President asked sharply. One thing was for sure: this man was no dullard. "That's a good analogy, Mr. President," Worthington said. "With Brandon's help, I can handle a lot more power than I would otherwise. During our battle with the Demon Prince Zaroc, Brandon's abilities were the only reason we survived." "I see." The President said. "What do you have for me this evening, besides the dog and pony show you gave the Governor?" "That's the reason Brandon is here, Mr. President," Worthington said as he led the way through the gift shop and down the corridor that was normally the exit for the ride. "I plan to show you, through the use of illusions, what happened on the day of the attack. To do this, I will be drawing on a lot of power, more power than I could normally handle, so Brandon will help me out." "This should be interesting." The President said with a hint of excitement in his voice as they walked side-by-side. "I was given a basic demonstration on magic when I took office, but I am given to understand that wild mages like you are capable of things our mages have never dreamed of doing." "We have the benefit of centuries of collective knowledge in our training." Worthington said with a shrug, ignoring the term ‘wild mage.' He could see how it would make sense to the man and didn't want to start an argument over semantics. From Worthington's point of view, mages like Lowenthal, who was carefully holding a mental shield for the President were ‘wild.' "I'm given to understand that you consider yourself only partially trained." The President stated as they walked up the steps to the main section of the ride. "I would say I have completed most of my training, although there are quite a few gaps still," Worthington admitted. "In the years ahead, I hope to rectify those gaps, but things like the current situation seem always to keep getting in the way." "We have to keep a repeat of these events from happening again, Mr. Sinclair if you have any hope of keeping magic a secret, and your kind from being torn apart by vigilante mobs." The President said sternly. "I have no desire for the instability or chaos that might be caused by the revelation of magic." "Nor do I, Mr. President." Worthington agreed as he led the man around and through the ride loading area and into the staging area where he had been standing when he and Kyle had first felt the magic. "This is where it started, for me at least." Worthington closed his eyes, drew on the power Brandon held ready for him and began to craft his illusions. He had been preparing for this since Sunday night when he'd learned of the President's plans and figured he would show the man the difference between his knowledge of magic and that common to the government mages he'd known. At the same time, he'd show the man Worthington's memories of what had happened, and give a display of skill and power to the fifteen government mages in the room, as well as the Secret Service agents. "It looks so real." Huntington murmured with wide eyes as she stared at the room that was now full of people. Most of them he'd not really remembered until he'd studied the pictures taken by the ride's cameras. "Touch one of them," Worthington suggested as he stood near the illusion of himself, dressed in casual shorts and t-shirt the way he had been that day. Funny, even his illusory self still had those scars. Huntington gulped but reached out her hand, and it passed through the illusion of Kyle. "Simply amazing." The President murmured with relief as he looked around the room at several hundred illusions of people. "How do you manage all this?" "One of the first things a mage learns is to control his mind and how to do what most people would call multi-tasking," Worthington explained. "I have to build and hold the images of all these people in my head at the same time, and to be honest; I can't hold an illusion this intricate for more than a few minutes." "Well then, let's get started." The President said with a nod of his head and determined look. Worthington set the images into motion, and the room was filled with noise as Worthington essentially played back what had happened. "At this point, Kyle and I felt the first spells going off," Worthington explained as he and Kyle got worried looks on their faces. "We are talking mentally to each other at this point." "What were you saying?" The President asked, and Worthington verbally gave the man a synopsis of their mental conversation. When Worthington turned to the cast member and used a spell to have the young man obey his orders, the President spoke again. "Hold it for a moment, did you use magic on him?" "Yes," Worthington admitted. "It's what we call low magic, a basic mental invasion of his mind to convince him that he should to whatever I tell him to do. In this situation, we used it to gain immediate access to the back area." "You make it look so easy." The President frowned as he spoke. "When it was shown to me, they made such a display over having to concentrate to do it, but for you, it's like a flick of your hand." "Again, what you are seeing is the difference in my training and what your government mages have learned," Worthington explained as they followed the illusory Worthington and Kyle into the area between the ride and loading zone. As soon as he was out of the main room, Worthington let the illusions in there go and sighed with relief. "Is there something wrong?" The President asked. "No, I just let the images in the other room fade away," Worthington said weakly. "It was a tremendous drain keeping them going. I'll be fine now." He continued to show the images, explaining things as they went along. When they reached the point where Worthington was battling the two mages, the President's face went pale. By the time the replay of the fight was over, Worthington was covered in sweat and swaying on his feet. "I never imagined so much was possible." The President said in a weak voice. "Thank you for showing this to me. You look tired." "Mr. President, as awesome as what you have seen may be, the thing to remember is that in the end, we are as human as you are," Worthington said tiredly. "We can do things you can't, but we also have our limits, and our blood is the same color as yours." "I can see that, Mr. Sinclair." The President said thoughtfully. "You've given me a lot to ponder. Thank you." "You're welcome sir," Worthington said with a sigh and was grateful when they turned to leave. What would come of this meeting, he was not sure, but he hoped it would be for the best.
  5. "No," Worthington said flatly, although the corners of his lips threatened to break out into an uncontrolled grin. He was wearing the tight, dark gray Pirates t-shirt he’d bought the other day, with the skull on the left side and other black designs that he thought had looked cool. On his head sat a black ball cap that Kyle had ‘worked’ so that the edges of the hat’s bill curled inwards, and he had on a pair of brown cargo shorts with flip-flops. "The picture is right there!" Kyle asserted, pointing at the computer screen in the booth right before the attraction’s gift store. Disney was so careful to put their merchandise opportunities just at the exit of these rides, and he was trying to resist the urge to go over and look at the plush bathrobes with the "Hollywood Hotel" logo on it. Well, it was better to look at that than the picture in front of him. "Pay the girl, so I have proof." "No." Worthington asserted, and his gaze drifted to the picture. They were in the front row of the elevator cart, and there was Kyle looking at him with his red Disneyland 55 ball cap on, the brown Pirates shirt and beige cargo shorts clearly visible while Worthington had a look of pure surprise on his face, and was visibly giggling. "Sinclairs do not giggle." "This one did." Kyle laughed as he elbowed Worthington in the ribs. "Now pay for the pictures. We want the complete set." "I will not," Worthington answered firmly, but his resolve weakened when Kyle turned those puppy dog brown eyes on him, and his lower lip quivered. "Please?" Kyle murmured softly while the cast member standing on the other side of the booth tried not to laugh at them. "It’s our last day here." "Oh alright." Worthington sighed and pulled out his wallet, handing over the Platinum American Express. Thank god he had that card, because with all the things he’d bought this weekend he needed its high credit limit. Brandon was going to have a cow when he saw all these bills. "Thanks!" Kyle said and actually gave him a peck on the cheek before looking around to see if anyone had noticed. Only the smiling cast member had, though, and he blushed slightly while she printed out the pictures, put them in cardstock frames and bagged them. "You’re welcome." Worthington sighed. Kyle usually got what he wanted although the public kiss had been rather nice. They’d only kissed on the mouth once this entire weekend, and it had been just a peck, after last night’s dinner, but it had been very nice. They walked past the bathrobe on the way out, and Worthington was debating on getting two of them instead of just one. Would Kyle wear it at home? "Look, there’s barely a line," Kyle said as they walked around the corner and back towards the rest of California Adventureland. The Tower of Tower had been the most interesting attraction so far with its unpredictable up and down motions. They had done away with the VIP guide after Thursday, feeling they knew the parks well enough to get around, and while Mark was still upset about the missing people, they had found no evidence of bad magic anywhere in the two parks. "C’mon; we can go again." "We’ve gone on it twice now." Worthington sighed. "Isn’t that enough?" "No," Kyle said with that puppy dog look. Damn him; he knew Worthington couldn’t resist that look. Maybe, when they were eighty, he might have learned to resist it, but here, now, it was impossible. Now that was an odd thought. He’d never before imagined himself with a specific person that far into the future. Sure, there had been Jamie, but that had been different, and a nameless, faceless wife, but again, never had he imagined himself with a specific person like that. Somehow it was reassuring, comforting. "Oh, alright," Worthington said, wanting to see the smile that bloomed on Kyle’s face under that curved baseball cap. It was a particularly bright one, and Kyle switched the bag to his left hand, grabbed Worthington’s hand and ran with him towards the attraction’s entrance. The two male cast members in their bellboy costumes smiled at them as they approached and went through the regular line. They had permanent fastpasses that would allow them to use the quicker fastpass lines, but they’d stopped using them earlier that day after learning how much fun it was to just stand in line and actually talk with other people visiting the park. Their good looks and smiles seemed to draw people to them, and they’d had several conversations that day with people from all over the country, and even the world. In fact, it seemed most of the visitors to the park that day were foreigners. The Rod Serling Twilight Zone introduction to the attraction was as corny as ever, but this time Worthington spent more time just looking at all the ‘theming’ after the hotel lobby introduction. This place was done up like the back rooms of an old-style hotel, and he found some of the mock pipes and other paraphernalia interesting. People went around them as he looked, more anxious to get onto the actual ride part of the attraction, but Worthington took his time, enjoying all the work that had gone into the littlest of details. That was one aspect of the Disney parks that he was coming to love. The designers and artists working on all the attractions had spent a great deal of time creating detail after little detail to make things so much more interesting. Mark, their VIP guide the first two days, had spent a lot of time explaining some of those details to them, and Worthington found he had a great deal of respect for the men and women who had made these things a reality. After nearly ten minutes of soaking in all the little details that he could find, Worthington let Kyle drag him towards the line that had formed, and they waited for their turn to get in line at one of the three elevators that constituted the actual ride. There were actually six of the things, three on an upper level, and three down here. It wasn’t long before they were standing on the marked floor with several other people, waiting for those on the ride at the time to finish. "What was that?" Kyle said with alarm as a massive surge of magical energy came from the other side of the doors they were facing. "Fuck," Worthington said aloud as the people next to them looked at them like they were crazy. "Something’s happening." "Well duh," Kyle said sarcastically. "How do we…" "You," Worthington said to the handsome cast member in the dark red bellboy uniform that was just getting ready to open a side door. The cast member turned back to him and his eyes glazed over as Worthington’s mind surged into his with low magic. "Would you two follow me please?" The young man, a teenager the same age as Kyle, said in a dull voice as Worthington instructed him what to do. They stepped through the doorway and found themselves in the narrow walkway between the actual ride and the entryway they had just left. As Worthington relaxed his control, the young cast member went about his normal routine at this part in the ride. "What are we doing?" Kyle asked as his mind reached out, and Worthington drew him into a very light rapport. Their rapport deepened after a moment as Worthington decided it would be better to link, just in case. Kyle’s skills were just too new to be useful in a fight, but his power would be helpful. "Just wait," Worthington said aloud as he quickly did his best to shield their combined power from being felt by others nearby. When the doorway to the ride opened, and the cast member gave his typical routine of instructing people how to leave the ride, Worthington and Kyle watched the tourists leave, sensing the residual magic on them and following the last two people at a safe distance. One last control set in the cast member caused him to hit the emergency button and start talking into the radio about a supposed problem with the ride. That would stop all the other elevators, and get people out of the building fairly quickly. What the hell? Kyle thought as the people went down the stairs and turned right, not left towards the exit. To the right were doors marked "Cast Members Only," but the people had gone through them. Worthington sighed and followed with Kyle close on his heels. The stun bolt hit his prepared shields and shattered in a blast of light that sent Kyle skittering for cover behind Worthington, his flip-flops slapping against the cool concrete as he moved. Two men stood in front of them, wearing Cast Member outfits like those of the bellboys that were common for this attraction, but Worthington wasn’t convinced they were real cast members. For one thing, the uniforms fit poorly. A vise of power surrounded the shields he had covered both of them, and Kyle moved up closer to make it easier for Worthington to protect them. He broke the vise grip with a flex of power and sent a wave of pure power at the two men, both of whom looked to be in their late twenties. There were other visible signs they weren’t cast members the longer Worthington looked at them. Their faces were grimy as if they had not bathed in days. No Disney cast member would be allowed in a public area looking like that. He knew enough about the park’s operations now to know that much. So, these mages were imposters, having stolen uniforms or taken them off of real cast members they had subdued with magic. Beyond the two men, he could see the last of the spelled tourists disappearing around another corner even as the two mages overcame his power wave and struck back with deadlier Levin bolts. There was so much electricity around them, used to power the six elevators as they plunged and climbed up thirteen stories that it was easy to grab some of it and throw it down the hallway in a massive blast that tore through the shields of both mages and fried them to a crisp in seconds. Their bodies were still falling to the floor as Worthington moved past them, heading down the hallway and towards the turn where the tourists had disappeared. Kyle was right behind him, feeling nervous and slightly nauseous as he realized he’d helped kill these men, but he was holding up fairly well. Shouldn’t we have kept them alive for questioning? Kyle asked with a trace of guilt in his mental voice. No time. Worthington said as he skidded to a stop after rounding the corner. He barely had time to pour all their combined power into a shield before the hallway filled with flame. Kyle cried out in pain as the hairs on their arms and legs blackened from the heat, and the plastic bag with the pictures inside started to melt. Above them, the sprinklers went off, but the water inside did little to quell the raging mage firestorm. Taking a breath of scorched air, Worthington called up their combined power and took away one part of the fire triangle. Even mage flames needed three things to exist, just like regular fires. They needed heat, oxygen, and fuel. Mage flames could use magic as the fuel as well as burnable materials, so that was a hard one to take away. Taking away oxygen would kill all living things in the area, not just the flames, so he took away heat, cooling the air around them rapidly with pure power alone. Above them the water sprinklers froze with the cold he was pumping into the room, and the flames died just in time to reveal a group of twelve mages wrapping their arms around the spellbound tourists and hustling them towards a section of the concrete floor just a little ahead of them. Worthington threw up a shield between them, and the section of floor he suspected was a portal, and nearly died as two of the mages turned and threw bolts of power at him. The two mages attacking him had released the people they were holding to concentrate on their attacks. Those two were both partially nude, wearing only underwear and socks. One of them was rather plump, which explained the ill-fitting uniform on the mage he’d just killed, but the other looked to be barely sixteen and in fairly good shape. They both just stood there, in a posture that implied they were firmly controlled. Two more of the mages released their prisoners and joined in on the attacks against Worthington. All four of them were strong, as were the eight who were now attacking the shield blocking them from their escape route. It was all Worthington could do to keep them from breaking through either his personal shield or the shield keeping them from their destination. Either one dropping would be disastrous as far as he was concerned, and for one moment he wished Kyle was more experienced. Behind him, he could feel Kyle drawing on his own power, which was rather limited since he was linked with Worthington. A ball of flame appeared in one of his hands, burning in white brilliance, and he wound up like he was pitching a baseball. The ball of flame flew from his hand and impacted on an unshielded mage whose chest burst in a shower of flame and the room filled with the stench of burnt flesh. The other three mages quickly threw up their own shields, and Kyle’s next pitch impacted a shield solidly but did not penetrate. The mage did take a step back though, from the force of the thrown ball. My fastball’s been clocked at 93 miles per hour. Kyle’s mental voice was smug. You keep the rest of the power for defense; I’ll take these fuckers out. There’s more than enough for me to do this all day. Thanks. Worthington sent with real emotion behind it. He remembered his dream from the first night, of them fighting demons side by side, and knew that this was what he wanted. Not a lover, not someone to dote on, or be doted on by, not someone like Jeremy who no matter how much he loved would never be able to do this, and not Jamie, who had his own life, his own dreams that didn’t necessarily include Worthington in every aspect. He wanted a partner, someone he could depend on, who had the strength, the maturity, and the power to stand side-by-side with him through everything. Kyle was all those things, and it would be worth the effort it would take to woo Kyle into being his partner, his equal. Kyle kept ‘pitching’ balls of fire at the three mages, and managed to take another of them out before the eight mages massed their powers for a combined strike that took down Worthington’s shield. Even as he winced from the backlash of the broken magic, he was summoning more power but did not release it in time. Seven of the eight mages made it to the portal with their captives before he could use his power to raze the portal with enough magical power to unravel it completely. The three remaining mages recoiled from the now-boiling patch of dirt they’d dug up from the concrete floor and turned back to face Worthington even as three balls of fire flew towards them. Their concentration had flagged, and so had their shields, and the balls of fire hit them, killing them instantly. The moment they died, so did their controls on the remaining four hostages, and Worthington quickly extended controls of his own to send all of them into a trance-like state. Four. That number depressed him as he realized that he had failed to save at least three times that number. He felt queasiness through his rapport with Kyle and turned just in time to rub his friend’s back as Kyle bent over and vomited out the contents of his stomach. "Fuck." Kyle breathed as he finished vomiting and stood up, tears in his eyes. "You okay?" Worthington asked him. "Ah’m so sorry." Kyle murmured. "You need me and here Ah am puking and crying." "Kyle, don’t," Worthington said calmly, pulling a hanky out of his back pocket and handing it to the brown-haired young man who looked years younger at the moment. There was a sick look in his eyes, a look of fear, and of embarrassment that Worthington knew should not be there. He sent confidence, and respect through the rapport with Kyle even as he picked his words carefully. "Kyle, it’s the first time you’ve done this." "It’s not the first time Ah’ve killed someone with magic," Kyle said miserably as tears leaked down the sides of his face. "It’s the first time you’ve done it consciously," Worthington said gently. "These were bad people. They were trying to kidnap innocent people, and very likely would eventually kill them. We stopped them, at least partially and now we know that Mark’s reason for trying to call me here was genuine." "You think this has to do with demons?" Kyle asked. "You feel that?" Worthington said gently, showing Kyle the feeling he was getting from the dead mages. "Yes." Kyle frowned. "That’s demon spoor, is it?" "Yes, you can feel it on people who’ve had contact with demons, at least for a while after that contact," Worthington said. "I didn’t recognize any of them as being among the government mages that were captured, but that doesn’t mean anything." "Oh, crap," Kyle said as he looked further back down the hallway and saw the plastic bag lying ruined on the floor. "Those pictures are gone." "Don’t worry; I’m sure we can get copies of them," Worthington said gently as the sound of voices could be heard along with heavily booted feet. "Damn, okay, we’re going to have to do several things here, and no offense, but I can’t be holding your hand." "I’ll be okay," Kyle said weakly, but he stood up and squared his shoulders. "What do you need?" "The easier part is going to be dealing with the emergency services people, and getting a hold of Mark," Worthington said quickly as he gently lifted Kyle’s mind out of his and let their rapport slide apart. The queasy feeling in his stomach went away, and Kyle suddenly looked less confident, but only for the barest of moment. "Taking control of so many minds at once isn’t going to be easy for you, I know, but you can do it. Just remember to be as gentle as possible. Don’t go after all of them at once, take them two or three at a time until you have all of them, and then keep them bottled up in the hallway. Let their own minds provide excuses, don’t try to force them into one or another, but let them come up with something on their own, just guide them that way. Then call Mark. He’s said he was going to meet us for the fireworks tonight, so he should be nearby and get his advice on what to do next." "Ah can handle that," Kyle said with more confidence than he was probably feeling. Worthington nodded and turned back around, already reaching out with his magic for the shattered portal, trying to read what he could. It was only a few seconds before he gave up and started to scan the memories of the former hostages. He started with the pudgiest of the park employees, reading how he’d been on his way to his station along with the other cast member when two dirty-looking men had confronted them. The two cast members hadn’t stood a chance against the mages and were stripping out of their uniforms and following their orders within seconds. The first step was to take two young children, still crying on the shoulders of their parents after being terrified on the ride. This had been hours ago. The children’s lives had been taken to create the portal after they’d ripped up the concrete with magic. Then the other mages had appeared in the hallway from wherever they had been waiting. There was no audible conversation, and several of the mages began to rape the two cast members repeatedly while they waited. It was obvious what they were doing, collecting power from the pain and fear of the two cast members as they were raped, and Worthington felt himself growing angrier and angrier as he let the memories play out. Apparently the mages had felt Worthington and Kyle enter the building, and there was actual vocal debate about whether to abort their plan or not. One of the mages in the cast member uniform had watched Worthington and Kyle leave the gift shop and ran back to tell the others that the coast was clear. They waited another fifteen, or maybe twenty minutes before setting their spells and getting ready. By this time the hallway was filled with nearly thirty mages, including a half-dozen that Worthington recognized as having worked for the government before being taken captive and controlled. None of them had sensed Worthington or Kyle as they cast their spells, and Worthington couldn’t understand how he hadn’t sensed them beginning their magic. He had to have been in the queue area on the other side, and that should have been close enough. It was the emotions and the concrete he decided after thinking about the problem. There was so much strong emotion, excitement, fear, and a whole host of others that he’d long since clamped down his shields against them. The concrete also played a part. This whole structure was reinforced concrete, and that could block out some of the sensations. Those two factors together were enough to have blocked him out from sensing the magic until the last spell was cast right under his nose. As he watched through Jim, the pudgy cast member’s memories, he saw the first load of ten people being brought to the portal and taken through. It was like an assembly line as nearly forty people were taken before the sounds of magical combat could be heard in the hallway. The mages had been shocked that Worthington had returned, and ill-prepared for a fight. Their assembly line efficiency broke down, giving Worthington time to save the bare handful that he now looked at with sorrow. "I’m so sorry," Worthington said before starting to wipe all of their memories in turn. The tourists were the easiest. He just blanked their memories of everything after the ride and sent them down the corridor. A quick burst of thought to Kyle gave him the idea to have the ‘firemen’ Kyle had now grabbed control of take the small group of people outside. Two were children, something Worthington was grateful for seeing, and he sighed before using his controls to have the two nearly nude cast members stand against the wall. They would need more work, and more false memories before they were released. With a sigh, he dug his phone out of his pocket and sighed with relief that it was still getting a signal here, even if it was only one bar. "Sinclair Prot…" Dakota’s voice came over the line after it had rung four times. "This is Worthington." He said into the phone, cutting the guy off. "Get me Gerald Norman on the line, now." "Is everything alright, sir?" Dakota asked in a worried tone. "I’m okay, but there’s a situation out here," Worthington said sharply. "Get me Norman now." "Give me a moment to find where he’s at," Dakota said in a slightly miffed tone that Worthington ignored as he began to pace in the hallway, five steps in one direction, turn around and five in the other. He did that three times before Gerald Norman’s voice came on the line. "This better be good, Sinclair." Norman declared. "I was…" "I’ve just had a little run-in with more than thirty demon-controlled mages," Worthington said sharply. "You’re joking." Gerald Norman sounded stunned. "Oh god, I hope you’re kidding. You’re still in Disneyland, right? How many people saw the fight?" "Just a handful, and one of the attractions here has been evacuated," Worthington said brusquely. "They got away with over forty tourists though, before I could stop them. There’s five dead bodies here, all mages, and I’ve already released a handful of the surviving tourists. Two cast members here have had too much happen to them for me to just wipe them and let them go. Kyle’s got a handle on the emergency response crews, and in a few moments, we should have a local mage who works here available to help us keep a lid on things. I’ll keep the scene secured, but I think you need to get a team out here as soon as possible." "I’m not in Clairville," Norman said gruffly. "I’m actually in Chicago right now, and there’s a snowstorm outside. There’s no way I can leave until tomorrow at least." "Damn, I was hoping you’d get here and take over," Worthington said. "Do you expect me to believe that?" Gerald Normal laughed. "Yes, it’s the truth," Worthington said. "Damn it, Norman, I’m not up to dealing with this type of situation. There’s so much shit to deal with, like the park staff, emergency services, state inspectors, and local responders that all come out after an event like this at a major attraction. Then it gets into the media, and has to be dealt with there…" "Funny, Sinclair." Norman laughed. "Sounds like you’ve actually got a fair bit of knowledge on what needs to be done. I had no idea you knew so much about amusement parks." "It’s the damn park guide that led us around the first two days," Worthington growled. "I swear, the guy never stopped talking." "Well, it sounds like you’ve got a handle on things." Norman laughed. "Look, Lowenthal and Parker are both back at Clairville, along with three others. I’ll call and have them head out on the first available flight. They should be there in a few hours. Weatherby’s there with some of his troops too, so I’ll have them go along." "Look, Norman, I don’t think you understand the enormity of this situation," Worthington said. "There are over forty tourists missing, and no obvious way for them to have gone missing. We got most people out before the fireworks started, but this hallway’s pretty torn up, and they set off the fire sprinklers during the fight. There’s a big hole in the concrete where they dug up ground for a portal, and I have no way to trace the portal’s destination. They did that last time, in Phoenix, and I was never able to track them down that way." "Well find a way, god damn it!" Norman shouted angrily. "Okay, so you’re saying this is all real, and we’ve got forty missing tourists and signs of a big fight that can’t just be magicked away?" "That’s what I’m saying," Worthington said in a deadly serious tone. "More than likely no matter what I do, we’re not going to get those forty people back – and I have to say this: If they’re grabbing that many people in one go, it means there’s another Demon Lord somewhere on this fucking planet trying to make a gateway. It’s probably Blasoc." "How the fuck do you just walk into these things?" Norman demanded. "I have no idea, and wish I knew so I wouldn’t." Worthington snapped, feeling the stress of the situation in that moment. He’d been having such a good time, and then this happened. Kyle came around the corner, looking ill at ease, and stopped when he got within arm’s reach. Worthington reached out with his free hand and put a comforting arm around him. Kyle leaned against him, put his head on Worthington’s shoulder and let out a sniff before sighing. "In far less time than it takes for Lowenthal and the others to get here, this place is going to be crawling with all types of local government people looking to explain what’s happened." "Damn it; I really am stuck here in Chicago," Norman growled. "Okay, here’s what’s going to happen, Sinclair. You’re a government agent again, working for Homeland Security undercover. We had a tip that terrorists were scoping out the park for some type of operation, but you figured out an attack was about to happen. You contacted staff there at the park, and they were able to get people off the ride, but not before the terrorists struck, killing however many are missing. I’ll make phone calls to officials from here. Disney’s probably got standard terror protocols, so get to somebody in charge, use your magic to convince him of your credentials, and have them implement those protocols. Keep the scene secure until our teams get there. I’ll scrounge up a military flight for them, so they go there direct. As soon as this fucking snow storm clears up, I’ll be on the flight out there, but we’re dealing with the demons, and you’re the expert on them. Lowenthal’s senior to Parker, so he’ll be in charge on our end, but he’s going to answer to you. Keep in touch with me. I’ll give your people this number, and you can get it from them when you’ve got a pen handy." "Okay," Worthington said with a sigh. "Look, Sinclair, I don’t like you," Norman said in a slightly gentler tone. "You’re an arrogant, spoiled, little rich boy. The thing is, you’re good. You’ve got a natural flair for this stuff, and I’d rather have you there than half the mages on my team. Scratch that, you’re already better than most of them at handling these types of situations. Listen to your gut instincts, listen to Lowenthal and the others, and keep things under control until I can get out there. If you come up with a way to rescue those people, take it." "Got it," Worthington said with a deep breath as Norman hung up the phone. At least the man was not a total asshole. "Mark’s on his way," Kyle said with a sigh as he straightened up and stepped out of Worthington’s embrace. "The fire team took the people out, but they’ll be back any time now." "Things here are under control at the moment," Worthington said and touched Kyle’s mind, asking him to drop into rapport. They slid into it easily, and he shared with Kyle everything he’d done in a much faster way than verbal communication would allow. The rapport ended as easily as it had begun and Kyle nodded. "I’ll stay with these guys," Kyle said gently. "I’ll handle whoever comes in next." Worthington smiled. He only had to wait a few minutes before he saw Mark walking down the hallway with several men in different uniforms, mostly the white-shirted security people, and a few firefighters in their gear. They all looked at Worthington suspiciously as they approached, but he took out his wallet and flipped it open to pull out his driver’s license. He’d seen enough DHS badges by now to cast the illusion of one with his picture on it and hand it over to the man who looked to be in charge. "Who are you?" The man demanded. "Worthington Sinclair, with the Department of Homeland Security," Worthington said in an authoritative voice. The man examined his ‘badge’ before handing it back. "A little young, aren’t you?" He asked. "I get that a lot," Worthington said with a smile. "It makes it easier for these assignments that I look like a kid instead of my real age." "What’s happened here?" The man demanded. "I’m Harold Palmer, Director of Security for the day." "We’ve had a terrorist attack here," Worthington said, and when the man’s face showed his surprise, he reached out with his mind, making suggestions that fell into place right away. "DHS had rumors that a cell was doing reconnaissance here and I was sent to investigate. When I figured out an attack was underway, I identified myself to your cast members, who immediately began evacuating. There have been a lot of casualties, but your people have saved a lot of lives here today. It could have been far worse than it is." "Yes, yes." The man frowned looking around at the scorch marks visible on the walls. The men around him were murmuring excitedly, and Worthington planted the same suggestion in their minds. Mark looked on with wide eyes. "We need to get the park evacuated immediately. Men, come with me!" "What’s happened?" Mark asked in a frightened voice as the security chief turned, still issuing orders and walked away with his men behind him. Worthington sighed with relief and looked at the park employee who was dressed in a pair of very short shorts and a tight t-shirt that made him look very gay. "Nice outfit," Worthington smirked, and then took sympathy on the man as Mark blanched when he finally noticed the bodies of the burnt mages. "Demon-controlled mages just got away with over forty tourists. We managed to save a bare handful, and two cast members, but that was it. A few of the mages were killed, but most got away. I’ve informed the appropriate government authorities, and government mages are on the way to help out, but it’ll be a few hours until they get here. I need your help." "You mean the government really does know about us?" Mark asked in a worried tone. "Yes, but it’s not that bad," Worthington assured him. "In fact, I’ve just been told by their leader that I’m in charge here until he arrives. Right now he’s snowed in at Chicago, so it’ll be at least a day before he shows up." "Oh," Mark said weakly. "What do you need me for?" "You know the park staff, and you have a fairly good handle on how it operates in a crisis, right?" Worthington asked. "I know all the protocols, yes," Mark admitted. "Good, then you’re going to advise me," Worthington said and filled him in on the basics of the plan. "You know this is going to hurt the park’s business for a while." Mark frowned when he was done. "Would you rather tell them the total truth, and reveal magic to them?" Worthington asked, and Mark shook his head immediately. "That would be worse for everyone." Mark sighed. "It wouldn’t really help the park much either." "That’s right, Mark," Worthington said. "We have to keep our eye on the ball here, and minimize the damage to everyone. Just remember, right now, there’s forty-odd people out there that are in the hands of demons, and they will die if we can’t find them, and rescue them in time. Worse, their deaths will go to establish a demon presence on this Earth. You see these scars on me? They’re a reminder of what happened the last time the demons got this close to doing that." "O," Mark said with wide eyes. The scars were faded now, but this close he could easily see them. "Now, let’s see what we can do to get things under control, okay?" Worthington said and smiled when Mark nodded.
  6. 25. Chapter 25 "Slow down, Mark," Worthington said carefully as the man began to ramble on again. He'd just shown up and started going on about Worthington having come so quickly, but hadn't said what was wrong yet. Was he even a Disney employee? Sure, he had a uniform and a nametag, but a mage would find that easy to get, even one as weak as this man. "Oh, I'm so sorry Mr. Sinclair." The man said as he blinked and took a deep breath. "I am just standing here rambling on and haven't even introduced myself. My name is Mark Castle, and I am a cast member here at Disney. I've been here since I was sixteen, which was eight years ago and have worked all over both parks and now I often do work as a guide for V.I.P.s like you. Clever of you to do that, too, although it wasn't necessary. I could have arranged for you to get into the park if you'd called. Didn't you get my phone number? I gave it to Doctor de Long when I asked him to contact you for me." "I haven't heard from Barrett in a while." Worthington frowned. "We're here on vacation, not because of any message from you." "Oh." The man paled slightly, and Worthington looked him over again. He was of average height, very slender, but well-tanned and had wavy brown hair that fell over his eyes just a bit. Mark Castle would never win any beauty prizes, but he was easy on the eyes if a bit effeminate in his mannerisms. "I am so sorry, so you don't know?" "Not unless you tell me, but why don't you come in and we can talk," Worthington said as he stepped aside in the doorway and reset the wards so they wouldn't go off when the man entered. "Your shirt is ripped," Mark said with a frown as he entered, and saw the main room of the suite where Kyle was just finishing picking up the fallen lamp. "What happened in here?" "We were wrestling," Worthington said. "Kyle, this is Mark Castle, our ‘guide' for the night." "He's a mage," Kyle said with a frown. "Yes, and apparently he's been trying to get in touch with me about some problem," Worthington said with a smile and almost laughed at the frown on Kyle's face. "Damn it; you're supposed to be on vacation!" Kyle exclaimed. "We went through all the trouble to give you some time off, and here you go, finding trouble to get into before we've even been here an hour!" "I am so sorry," Mark said with a frown. "I didn't mean to ruin your vacation. When I saw your name on the list yesterday, I got so excited that I switched days off with Brenda, who really wanted to spend time at home with her family. Her grandparents are in town, and she wanted to spend time with them. My parents and I haven't spoken since I graduated high school and told them I didn't want to go college, so I hate the holidays anyway and though that…" "Slow down, Mark," Worthington said with a frown. "Now, I guess we need to push our dinner reservation back before we start talking." "Oh, I already took care of that," Mark said quickly as Worthington directed him to take a seat in the main room of the suite. "Napa Rose will hold your table for you until seven-thirty. It's a slow day, so there's no problem with that, and they'd have done it anyway because Jenna owes me a couple of favors and she's the hostess tonight." "That's good," Worthington said as he sat down in another armchair and Kyle sat down on the couch with a frown on his face, but he was paying attention at least. "Now, why don't you tell us what the problem is that has you so concerned you tried to contact me?" "I guess I should give you a little background," Mark said with a sigh and closed his eyes before taking a deep breath. When he opened them, he began talking in a much calmer tone. "My parents were so disappointed when I turned out to have such a weak mage gift. I grew up here in Anaheim and had two friends, brothers, who were also mages. My father gave up teaching me by the time I was fourteen when I couldn't even do most of the higher magic that he loved, but Jim and John helped me practice the low magic, so I got good at that, at least. I fell in love with the park when I was eight, and begged my parents for an AP – that's an annual pass. After a while, they just kept buying one for me because it was easier than trying to deal with me. By the time I was sixteen, I knew the park as well as most cast members and had no problem getting a job here." "It sounds like you really like your job," Kyle said in a slow drawl, and Mark beamed at him. "I do." Mark agreed. "It's not just the park itself, but the people. Sure, there are always some people in a bad mood or a cranky kid who needs a nap more than being rushed onto another ride, but by and large people are so happy here all the time. It's so wonderful feeling their joy, and most of the cast members love working here, so even they are happy all the time. It was always the place I could go as a kid and just be happy, and now, well it's my job to be happy all the time, and what could be better than that. Don't get me wrong, I do other things than stuff here at the park, but I enjoy the time I spend here, both at work and as a guest. That's why I'm so worried right now." "You are lucky," Worthington said with genuine feeling. "Most people view work as something they have to do to have a nice home or things they enjoy." "I know how lucky I am, Mr. Sinclair," Mark said firmly. "I'm not rich by any stretch of the imagination, but I have a nice apartment, enough money to do the things I want to do, and I absolutely love my work." "There are more ways than just money to be rich, Mark," Worthington said. "I've learned that living out in Arizona." "Okay, so what's the problem?" Kyle said with a bit of impatience in his tone. "Last week, we had eight guests disappear while at the park," Mark said as he produced a DVD from his back pocket, got up, and went over to the television set hidden in a wooden cabinet. Worthington wasn't surprised when he expertly flipped the DVD into a machine and turned on the television with a remote. "This is the security footage that was spliced together by park security for the Anaheim Police. There were two families, one of five, the other of three that disappeared on the same day." "What ride is that?" Worthington asked as the footage began to play of a group of people getting into a boat. "It's a Small World," Kyle answered, and Worthington frowned at him, not understanding. "This is the ‘It's a Small World' attraction." Mark said with emphasis on the word ‘attraction.' "We don't call them rides." "Oh, sorry," Worthington said. "It's okay, Mr. Sinclair, there are a lot of terms like that most people don't understand," Mark explained. "For instance, people that work at the park are not ‘employees,' their ‘Cast Members.' Everyone has a role to play from the guy sweeping the street to the upper management." "Thanks for the Disney etiquette lesson," Worthington said without a trace of sarcasm in his voice. It was better to know things like that than to unwittingly offend people. "That's part of my job." Mark smiled as he pushed a button on the remote. "As you can see, they boarded the attraction without a problem and made it through most of the attraction without any abnormalities. However, just after the three-quarters point, there was a malfunction that the mechanics were unable to explain, and they were stuck in the conveyance for approximately five minutes." "You can't really see their boat at all," Kyle said with a frown as he got up to look closer at the now-paused image. "No, all you can see is the tail end." Mark agreed. "You will also notice that the conveyance behind them cannot see them directly either, and you will have to take my word for it, but the conveyance in front of them is also out of the direct line of sight. It is one of the few blind spots in this attraction. Now watch as I continue." "They're still in the boat," Kyle said as the image began to move again and switched to another camera view of them in their boat and now exiting the ride. Worthington noted that it was early evening, just after twilight. "Yes, but watch as the image shifts to one of the security cameras just outside the attraction," Mark said as the video shifted to show the group of eight, two families, exiting the ride and heading out of the queue. Then they turned right and exited the screen image. "The area they are heading towards is a cast member area that they could not have entered, and as you can see, they just disappear without anyone noticing them leaving. That is the last image anyone can find of them, and the last time they were seen by anyone. We're lucky one of the cast members on that attraction remembered seeing them at all, so we could find this footage. So far the news of their disappearance has not made it into the media, but it'll be a big story around the holiday season, two families disappearing while on vacation. The hotel says they never returned to their rooms, and they were staying at two different hotels. They didn't know each other as far as the security and police can tell, and they never met before getting into that conveyance together." "You do have a mystery on your hands," Worthington said. "Why did you try and contact me about it, though?" "I could sense the faint residue of magic when I went on that attraction the next day," Mark said with a frown. "I'm a very weak mage, as I said, so I couldn't do more than tell that it was there and that it felt evil. It's gone now, at least as far as I could detect. I've heard stories about you, and they all say you're a good person for a guy that started as a Dark mage. If anyone's going to be able to help, it's going to be you. None of the local mages I've talked to are able or interested in doing anything about this. They all say it's not their problem. For my part, I think they're just all afraid about the stories of new Demon Wars starting up, and they don't want to get involved." "Aren't you afraid of demons?" Kyle asked him. "If I ever run across one, I'm so damn weak I'll be as good as dead anyway, so why worry about it?" Mark shrugged as he took the DVD out of the machine. "What do you think Mr. Sinclair? About this problem I mean." "I'm not sure, Mark," Worthington said carefully. Part of him didn't want to get involved at all, but he also felt an obligation to at least look into the problem. A solution would be to hand it off to the government mages, make it Gerald Norman's problem, but that idea left a bitter taste in his mouth. "I'll tell you what, how about we look at this…uh, attraction tonight, after the activities we have planned?" "We might want to do it before," Mark suggested. "The park closes at ten tonight, which is pretty much right after the fireworks show. There should be time after dinner if we hurry." "Well then, we'll just go get changed and head down to dinner," Worthington said with a gentle smile. "Will, that do?" "Oh yes, sir, it'll do fine." Mark beamed, and Worthington sighed before nodding to Kyle, who got up at the same time as him, and they went into their two bedrooms to change. Ten minutes later they were following Mark downstairs, who was now in full tour guide mode, telling them all about the hotel as they took the elevator down to the main floor and followed him past the lobby, a small gift shop, and through a breezeway. "That pool looks nice," Kyle said with a nod towards a large swimming pool that was giving off a slight amount of steam in the cool night air. "It is heated if you like to go swimming," Mark said helpfully as he led them around the corner and pulled open a fancy door. The restaurant was nice, with the typical lodge-type dark wood and a pretty hostess greeted them. Mark left them in her care, and they followed her into the restaurant where she seated them at a nice table for two just in front of a large set of windows. The food was quite good, although Kyle did complain that it was a bit fancy for his taste. He wasn't used to fancy restaurants like this, and actually had a few problems with the chop sticks for the sushi course. Worthington was quite pleased with the food, and the service, and left a hefty tip as he signed the bill over to their room. All things considered, the three hundred dollar price tag for the meal wasn't too bad since, as Mark had said, it was the fanciest restaurant in the resort. Mark was still in full tour guide mode as he met them at the restaurant entrance and began to take them through the hotel and through a series of hallways that let out into the Downtown Disney area. Their guide was full of details of the history of the area, and the stores they passed as they walked. There was a small crowd at the security checkpoint, but Mark led them through the exit area, and they were waved through. Kyle seemed to be paying attention to Mark's explanations about the tiles set in the courtyard with people's name on them, but Worthington was lost in thought about how typical it was for him to go on vacation and find some type of magical problem. It seemed he couldn't do anything in life without attracting trouble. Was it a curse, or a blessing in a way? Or was it the magic simply directing his life so that those that were capable found themselves in these situations. He was worried about Kyle a bit and was debating calling in the government solely because he didn't want to risk Kyle getting involved in something just yet. His mage training was only a couple of months along, and while he could defend himself in a pinch, he was nowhere near being ready to take on any serious threat. Mark said the park was relatively empty today, and Worthington decided that he would hate to be here on a busy day. Hordes of people were heading this way or that, stopping for pictures or at one of the many vendor carts selling everything from disposable cameras to food and little light sticks or necklaces that glowed in the dark. They had to stop and get their pictures taken for their Annual Passes. The agent he'd spoken to last weekend had said that for as many days as they were going to be back at the park, it was just as cheap to get the AP, and he'd gone for the premium just so they would be able to use it without any restrictions if Kyle ever wanted to come back. With their pictures taken and new passes in hand, they left the façade and strolled down Main Street while Mark pointed out the various shops and talked about their history. Worthington found himself musing how insane he'd go if he'd had to live in the little apartment that had apparently been Walt Disney's, but then the man had probably loved this park because it was his creation. Kyle kept on asking questions as they walked through the square at the end of Main Street, up the ramparts of the ‘castle' and into Fantasyland. As they walked, Worthington found his mood lightening. It was all but impossible for him to remain cold and distant when there was so much happiness pressing around him. Kids were running to and fro, pulling parents along with them to one ride or another, and even older kids walked around with smiles on their faces, wearing everything from the stereotypical mouse ears to huge goofy hats. When they first approached the Small World ride, Worthington couldn't help but be impressed by how pretty it looked with all the twinkling lights on it. "I'll ride with you on this one if you don't mind," Mark suggested as they bypassed the rather short line and approached the loading area. Worthington just nodded as Mark spoke briefly with one of the ride operators and they were put into a boat together. Mark sat in front of them, with Kyle and Worthington sharing a seat behind him. As soon as they entered the actual building of the ride, Worthington regretted it instantly. If there had ever been a more annoying song invented, Worthington didn't want to hear it in his lifetime. The little doll children that were singing and dancing were kind of cute, if decidedly old technology, but the song was quite annoying. Almost as annoying was Mark's bobbing his head to the music and happily telling them that they could go on the ride again after Thanksgiving and there would be a slightly modified song that included Jingle Bells. Throughout the entire ride, he kept his mage senses seeking out any trace of residual magic but found nothing. The two ‘cast members' having sex in one of the side passages didn't bother him too much, but he looked over at Kyle and saw he was blushing. That was when he noticed that he'd slipped into a very light rapport with Kyle as the ride had progressed, and almost blushed in response to Kyle's suggestion that the ride could be quite romantic if Worthington didn't hate the song so much. "I'm sorry Mark, there wasn't anything I could detect," Worthington said after they disembarked the ride. Mark frowned but nodded and led them back through the park towards the area where they were to observe the Phantasmic show. "This was the larger apartment built for Walt Disney so he could entertain his grandchildren more often." Mark said as they climbed the steps to the ‘Galleria' that was located above the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Worthington knew he was in trouble the moment Kyle laid eyes on the large glass display right inside the entrance. They were still in light rapport, and he could feel Kyle's massive interest. Mark sensed it too and began a long explanation of the pieces that were being hand sculpted to create a representation of the park's Main Street. Worthington shuddered at what it must cost for such a silly thing, but Kyle's indignant response to that thought made him sigh, and smile ever so slightly. It's a good thing I'm rich, or I'd be a pauper by the time you got done here. Worthington said mentally to Kyle who just shrugged. You're the one who said I shouldn't hesitate to spend your money until I was able to support myself. Kyle retorted. Whatever happened to your wanting to support yourself? Worthington asked. I thought we were going, to be honest with each other more. Kyle's mind voice was filled with laughter and teasing. You want to fuck me, I know it, and the idea doesn't particularly revolt me, and I've heard some guys make a pretty good living with sugar daddies. You're older than I am. Worthington retorted as Mark led them out onto a balcony where there was a table of desserts set up, along with a coffee service and a table for two set with chairs facing the little lake in front of them. They sat down and ordered some cheesecake while Mark kept rambling on about the scenery below them. Yeah, well, you think I'm a stud. Kyle retorted. I can see it in your eyes when I'm walking. You like the way I walk, don't you? Yes. Worthington admitted. When I was twelve, I'd spend hours in my room at home, practicing it. Kyle admitted with the faintest hint of embarrassment in his mind. There was this kid at school, Jimmy. He was on my little league team, and I knew I was attracted to him, but I knew it was wrong. You grow up in that town knowing it ain't right to be a queer, so I practiced walking to make sure I didn't swish or anything like that, but I wanted to look good, for the girls you know. I figured if I did everything right, the girls would look at me and that would be that. It didn't work, though, did it? Worthington asked. It did, as long as I didn't think about things too much, so I just didn't think. Kyle shrugged mentally while nibbling on some cheesecake. Worthington sipped his coffee and sat back with a sigh. It was good coffee. Being this way just wasn't an option. I kept telling myself the reason I didn't want to go further than kissing and a bit of groping was because it was wrong. The bible says we're supposed to wait for marriage, and I decided I'd do that. Sure, it got me a reputation as a goody-two-shoes, but that was better than the alternative. All the girls seemed to love it, too. I never had a problem getting a date. Still, don't. What about now? Worthington asked and was almost embarrassed by the swirl of emotions that went through Kyle. I don't know. Kyle admitted. Out here, where we're not at home, I feel like it's okay to kind of explore this side, but I'll be honest. I don't want to go that far yet, and when we get back home, I probably won't want to even think about it there. Is that how you are going to want to live your life? Worthington asked him. No! That answer was most emphatic, and Kyle physically shuddered a bit as the lights around the park dimmed and the announcer declared the show was about to begin. The show that was going on out on the other side of the small, man-made lake was only part of what interested Worthington. The sheer swelling of power that lifted from what Mark described as a ‘rather small' gathering was immense and filled with happiness. If Worthington had been prepared, he could have tapped into that sense of wonder and happiness, of pure joy and stored the power, but as it was, he let it wash over him in a welcome haze of pure happiness. He could feel Kyle tensing, and then relaxing as he followed Worthington's lead while sprays of water, laser holograms, and pyrotechnics told the story of Mickey Mouse's imagination. Worthington had never seen a Disney cartoon or movie growing up and had no frame of reference for the images that were being presented. At first, he felt left out of something that the crowd was obviously sharing, but the answers to his questions started floating up through his rapport with Kyle. The Texan's family had shunned Disney for most of his life, but he'd secretly been enraptured with all the various movies, seeing them at the homes of friends every opportunity he got. Through Kyle, he learned of who the animated cricket was, and the story of Pinocchio, and many of the other images. When the floats appeared, he learned the story of Snow White and her prince, Ariel, and her hero, and was shocked at the thoughts of Kyle regarding the Beauty and the Beast float where a woman in a golden dress danced with a large, ugly beast. No, I don't think you're that ugly. Kyle laughed in response to Worthington's shock. At least physically. You have to know I've heard most of your life story from others that know you, and it reminded me a lot of the Beast, especially how he came to love Belle, and to be a good man. I think you're a good man, and that's part of why…why I'm not trying to keep hiding that part of myself from you, or a few others that I know I can trust. I see. Worthington said softly. As the show progressed, with the evil witches of the different fairy tales working together to control Mickey's imagination, he had to wonder how much the authors of this story knew about magic. At its core, it was a story about the differences between the two paths of magic, although Dark magic was portrayed solely as evil. They got the part about control being right, though. When it was over, he found himself clapping along with everyone else, although Kyle was whistling quite enthusiastically. "I take it you enjoyed the show?" Mark asked, stepping away from the wall where he'd been standing with a couple of other cast members. "It was wonderful," Kyle exclaimed aloud. "I liked how they had the steamboat coming out at the end with all the characters on it! That was fantastic! Oh, and that Peter Pan fight on the pirate ship was just awesome too!" "I played one of the pirates for a few months and had a lot of fun," Mark admitted with a slight blush. "I twisted my ankle on one of the stunts though, and that was that. If you would like, I can arrange a tour of the Columbia, the pirate ship, for you during one of your days here." "That would be great." Kyle beamed as he smiled at Worthington. He really was happy at the idea, and Worthington nodded his agreement, not caring if it cost extra money. "If you would still like to see tonight's fireworks, we should start heading over there," Mark said. "We have a cast member saving a spot for you, and the crowds are relatively light, but the good spots are always hard to get, and if we take too long I can't guarantee we won't miss the beginning of the show." "Lead the way, bud!" Kyle said enthusiastically. They followed him back to Main Street and claimed their spots, standing in the middle of the ‘road' at what Mark insisted was the perfect spot. When this show started, Worthington had to admit that Mark really did know the perfect location because it was quite fantastic, even if he had to get much of the context from Kyle's mind once again. About halfway through the fireworks display, he felt Kyle's hand reach out for his, and take it gently. A thrill ran through him at the touch, a double thrill as he felt something similar going through Kyle, and they threaded their fingers together. Deep in Worthington's mind, there was a voice screaming about how dangerous this was, or was that in Kyle's mind? It didn't matter though, because he could feel his own determination to ignore it mirrored by Kyle. He would hold no expectation, because tonight they would each go back to their own beds, no matter what, and there was no expectation for when they went back to Phoenix. Instead, they would just enjoy each moment as it happened, and let it go when it was over. "They do this every night?" Kyle asked in wonder as the show ended and the hordes of people around them began to disperse, most heading to the park's exit. As the lights had come back up, Worthington and Kyle had dropped their hands and stepped apart slightly, and they both ignored the smile on Mark's face as he looked at where they had been holding hands. "Almost every night, unless the weather is bad or the attendance is really, really light," Mark said happily. "Tomorrow night there won't be a show, but there will be one on Christmas, and on New Year's of course. That holiday is always crowded here." "Really?" Worthington said with surprise. "Yes, Thanksgiving is one of the slowest holidays," Mark explained. "Even Christmas has more people coming, especially younger couples without children." "How interesting," Worthington said. "What now?" "If you're not ready to go back to your room, most of the Main Street shops stay open, usually for an hour or so past park closing," Mark said. "I was planning to meet you in the morning around nine, to take you through the park." "Are you sure you don't mind missing the holiday?" Worthington asked. "I told you, my family and I don't get along at the moment, so it's fine," Mark said. "Okay, let's see some of these shops," Worthington said. An hour later he was very glad the park offered free delivery to their room because he'd seriously overspent. Most of the guys in MR would be receiving gifts, in addition to his family. There were so many funny shirts and other little gifts that he found himself thinking of different people each time. Kyle fell in love with about fifteen different baseball caps, all with some kind of Disney logo on them. He didn't hesitate to put them in Worthington's shopping bag or look the least bit abashed about it at all. When they left the store, he was even bending the bill of one of the caps, a red one, giving it the ‘right shape' as he said when Worthington asked. Mark left them at the main entrance, and they had no problem making their way back to their hotel. Worthington was carrying one bag himself, and when they got to the room, he pulled out one of the ten Disney movies he'd bought. Sure, he wouldn't have time to watch them all, but by the time he got the wrapper off the case, Kyle had found the bags of microwave popcorn and had a bowl of the freshly popped popcorn sitting on the coffee table along with some bottled water. "What are you doing?" Worthington asked as he sat down with the remote and cued up "Beauty and the Beast." He wanted to see for himself why he reminded Kyle of the Beast. "It's a family tradition," Kyle said with a smile, and not the least bit of sadness in his voice or mind as he dumped the rest of the bag of M&M's into the bowl of popcorn. Worthington frowned as the movie started, and they shuffled on the couch until they were sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, with their legs touching as they rested on the coffee table. Kyle had the bowl of popcorn on his lap and held it out to Worthington. "Not bad," Worthington admitted as the flavors of salt, butter, popcorn, and half-melted chocolate filled his mouth. He settled in on the comfortable couch, leaning against Kyle as the movie started. Halfway through the movie, he realized that he was enjoying it as much as Kyle did, and he began to understand the allure of the fairy tale. The old crone's spell that had changed the handsome prince into the Beast, and the castle's staff into decorations and chipped china was something he would definitely classify as Dark magic, but it wasn't evil. How much had the makers of these stories known about magic? In fact, the spell she cast had such good results, that it was impossible to classify it as evil, even if it was dark. He began to wonder how people who watched and loved these movies would react to the reality of magic. Maybe, just maybe, things would not be as dire as he'd always imagined if such a revelation were to be packaged in the right way. Certainly, the crowds watching the Phantasmic show had been cheering Mickey's magic, and he'd felt how so many of them had been willing to believe, at least as long as they watched, that magic was possible and a good thing. As the movie ended, he realized there were tears in his eyes, and Kyle was sniffling next to him. Their hands were entwined again, and they were leaning comfortably against each other. It was erotic but in a subdued way. There was more emotion there than anything else, and the mere idea of sexual thoughts at the moment seemed somehow out of place, unwanted. Instead, he leaned over and kissed Kyle gently on the cheek. "Thank you," Worthington said. "I'm so glad that we came here, and it's all because of you." "Thanks for bringing me," Kyle said with a gentle smile, and then he yawned. "I guess its bed time." "It is." Worthington agreed with a look at the clock. It was just after one in the morning. They got up together, and hugged, with Kyle giving him a kiss on the cheek before they went into their separate bedrooms. It was the most fitting end to the evening that Worthington could imagine as he crawled into the comfortable, large bed. He should have remembered the side effects of sleeping while still in light rapport with someone. Kyle had no way of knowing what would happen, but Worthington did, so he only blamed himself for having to share the nightmares that Kyle went through that night. At least they gave him a better understanding of Kyle as he saw Kyle's friends, and family members rejecting him for being queer. His best friend kicking him to the ground while shouting "Fag!" and "Queer bastard!" hurt more emotionally than it did physically. What was worse was knowing he, Kyle, could fight back but didn't. Why not? The answer was twofold. First, this was his best friend and no matter what, he didn't want to hurt his best friend. The other part was because something inside him told him that he deserved what he was getting. That's what everyone said when a queer got beat up or killed. They were just getting what they deserved. Through it all, Worthington was sucked into the dreams, the nightmares, along with Kyle, but they quickly turned into something else, and Worthington knew Kyle had a very active imagination. The focus of his affection was obvious as they sat watching some weird version of Beauty and the Beast, only to be sucked into the television. Kyle was Belle, and Worthington played the part of the Beast. That dream ended as they kissed at the end, with Worthington changed back into his handsome human form, and the servants and others dancing with joy at the happy couple in a hall that more closely resembled Clairville Keep than the movie's castle. The dreams changed as Worthington's imagination leaped to the forefront, and they were back on the balcony watching Phantasmic as it sprayed plumes of water and holograms into the air, and their minds were filled with the happiness of a massive crowd watching the show. Together they sat, their chairs next to each other, joined hands resting in Worthington's lap. They were older, in their late twenties, and somehow he knew they had lived an entire decade together, happy. The first demon leaped out of the central water spray, landing amid the crowded walkway where people were sitting. Several were crushed under his foot claws, and he grabbed two more, both of them young children and roared as more demons leaped out from other locations in the show. The crowd switched from happiness to pure terror, and there was a massive stampede as people tried to run away only to hit against a massive spell barrier that had risen up suddenly. People died as they were trampled by those around them or demons. Worthington and Kyle jumped to their feet, swung over the balcony as one, and landed in a crouch at the foot of the building. Power blazed around them as they attacked the shield barrier, freeing the trapped people. Somehow a hole was made for them as they approached the nearest of the demons, and blazed with combined power as they attacked. The dream switched in mid-strike to another fight, and they were once again in the mountains of Northern Arizona, hunting down Zaroc's lair. This time they were both there though, and in addition to Brandon, there was another Channel, whose face Worthington could not see. They fought against controlled government mages, soldiers, and demons side by side, and when they faced Zaroc, the Demon Prince didn't stand a chance against their combined might. The kiss they shared over his dead corpse was passionate, and filled with joy and happiness. Worthington smiled and snuggled deeper into the bed as he fell into a dreamless sleep. It was almost funny how he could dream of demons and consider them happy dreams, while Kyle's dreams had only humans and were nightmares. The rapport between them faded as they slipped deeper into sleep, and by the time dawn came around, they were each in their own minds, dreaming their own dreams.
  7. "A guy could get spoiled traveling like this," Kyle said with an appreciative smile at the insides of the limousine as Worthington climbed in after him. They sat next to each other in the back seat while a flight attendant from the business jet put their luggage away in the vehicle's trunk. "Do you own that jet?" "Not directly," Worthington answered with a smile of his own. He did enjoy traveling on the smaller business jets like that one. They were so much nicer than even first class on a commercial airliner. "My family's investments include seats on the Board of Directors of several corporations. Most of those corporations offer limited personal use of their corporate jets to seat holders on their boards." "At least they won't miss their Thanksgiving dinner because of us," Kyle said with a smile as the driver got into the limousine. "Welcome aboard, Mr. Sinclair, Mr. Norton." The driver said over the intercom and Worthington nodded even though the partition was still up, blocking their view of the driver. "Rush hour traffic is still slightly heavy since tomorrow is the holiday, so it will take us about a half-hour to reach our destination. I am sorry for the delay." "It's no problem driver," Worthington said into the intercom and closed the circuit as the limo moved smoothly into motion. "So where are we going?" Kyle asked for the fifth time that day, and Worthington sighed while leaning back in the plush seat. They were both wearing regular slacks and button-down dress shirts. Outside it was dark, since this was the tail end of fall, and he enjoyed the twinkling lights of Southern California. "The pilot said we were landing in Orange County, which is California, but that's all I know." "Can't you guess yet?" Worthington asked with a slight smile and Kyle gave him a look with narrowed eyes before shaking his head. "You wouldn't go to any of the places here I can think of," Kyle said with a sigh as he leaned back. "I've always wanted to go to Disneyland, but my parents wouldn't because of their support for homosexuals, and I don't see you being the kind of guy to like places like that." "It's nice to hear how well you think you know me." Worthington laughed and got a suspicious look. "It's probably some golf resort or something like that spa you took me to in the Biltmore," Kyle said with a shudder. "How the hell you can just sit there while they do all those things to you I don't know. If I want my toenails trimmed. I'm going to do them myself, not have some pansy do it for me." "He was a cute pansy." Worthington protested with another laugh as Kyle scowled at him. "I thought you liked guys," Kyle said with a grimace. "I mean, if you're going to like guys at least, you could like real guys, not ones whose asses swish every time they take a step." "You're letting your cowboy roots show, Kyle." Worthington teased the other guy who scowled a bit more and then chuckled. "Ah guess Ah am." He said in a thicker-than-normal version of his Texas drawl that was always there to some degree but fluctuated based on his emotions, or if he was trying to be funny, like now. "You can take the boy out of Texas, but Texas don't ever leave the boy." "I'm gettin' that," Worthington said in a mock drawl that had Kyle grimacing. "Boy, you're better off stickin' to y'alls normal way of talkin'," Kyle said with a chuckle that was infectious. They didn't talk for several minutes as the limo inched onto the freeway, eventually getting over to the carpool lane that was slightly better than the stalled traffic in the main lanes. "Sweet Louise, how can people stand living like this day after day?" "It wouldn't be a problem on my bike, although the little sportster would be stuck like everyone else," Worthington said with a shrug as a motorcycle zoomed past them, slipping between stalled cars with practiced ease. "Hell, I'd be on the bike with you, or on my own." Kyle laughed. "You'd have to learn to ride first." Worthington retorted. "Hellfire, I already know how to ride." Kyle snorted, and Worthington stared at him with surprise. "What, you thought you knew me that well, huh? Yup, I know how to ride. I learned on dirt bikes back home, and four-wheelers you know. Street bikes like your little crotch rockets ain't that big a deal." "Damn, you mean you could have been riding with us all this time?" Worthington asked with a shake of his head. "Why didn't you say something?" "I like the car better, and I don't want you buying a bike for me." Kyle shrugged. "When I get a job and can buy it myself, I'll get me one." "Don't you know I pay the MR for riding patrols around town?" Worthington asked with a frown. "They make two grand a month for riding one or two patrols a week depending on the rotation. If they can't get a bike on their own, they can buy one through me and pay me back out of their salary. With you being able to ride, it doesn't matter if you're fully trained in magic or not; you can ride your own patrols just like any of the other MR and make good money. It's a real job, not just a give-me." "You serious?" Kyle asked with disbelief. "Yes," Worthington said with exasperation. "Officially they don't even get paid directly by me, but rather by the VoS Mage Council. Most of the money for that comes from me though." "Well, shit." Kyle murmured as he sat back and looked out the window. "Here I been thinking about making money at Mickey D's and I could have been making money all this time. You're serious though; it's a legitimate job, right?" "Yes, and you'll have to talk to Josh about joining," Worthington said. "They'll make an exception to the normal routine, because you're a mage, and you already know how to ride, but he's the one who will tell you yes or no, not me. I also know that Andy's father just found out he's being transferred at the end of the year, so Josh is going to be looking at replacing Andy around January. If you talk to him when we get back, you'll be able to start in December and be ready to go on your own by the time Andy leaves." "Now that would be sweet," Kyle said. "No offense, but I don't like living off of you or the ladies either. A man's supposed to be able to make his own way in the world." "I understand," Worthington said with a smile. "Believe me; I'd prefer you to be earning your own money. It's not that I don't mind supporting you, but I know you'll be happier with your own income, your own money. Now, someone like Carl's a different story. He's still young enough that he shouldn't have to worry about supporting himself, but it's better for you if you can make your own way." "That's one thing we can agree on, all right," Kyle said with a nod of his brown hair and smiled. Before he'd met Kyle, Worthington had always thought of his father as an evil control-freak and little more than that. Since they had met though, Kyle had forced him to reexamine his memories, and he could now recall several important lessons the man had taught him in dealing with people. One of those lessons had been about people and money. 'You can give someone as much as you want, but it won't do them any good in the long run.' His father had said. 'Make them earn the money, though, and they learn how to stand on their own two feet, and that makes them better allies when you need assistance. A gift may make a person happy, but making them earn what they get makes them better allies when you need to use them.' Worthington thought about it a little differently of course, but the message was still the same. It went back to the old saying of 'give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day, teach him to fish, and you've fed him for life.' That was why, growing up, he'd had a big allowance, but had to pay for his own bills out of that allowance. It taught him money management, and he'd wisely invested much of that money so that he could do things like this trip without having to use the family fortunes and getting approval from people like Elizabeth or Randall Smythe. "I heard that Gerald Norman and you got into a rather loud argument yesterday," Worthington said as he noticed a key street sign coming up and pulled Kyle's attention away from the sign. Kyle sighed and frowned before turning back to Worthington, not even noticing they were taking this exit. "The man is an asshole," Kyle said. "May God forgive me for thinking that, but he is, and there's no use lying about the fact. Once he figured out that I wouldn't take the 'long lost Uncle, three times removed' shtick just because he has my mother's maiden name, he tried to get all bullying about how I should be in a government program instead of with you directly. Said it was my 'duty' to the country that had raised me to serve it with my abilities so I told him where he could shove his duty and obligation." "I wish I had been there to see that." Worthington smiled. "What else did you tell him?" "I told him I got accepted to Arizona State on a baseball scholarship, even though they haven't seen me play this year and I'm going there with you," Kyle answered with a smile of his own. "He wasn't too happy about that. At least Arizona State has a decent baseball program. Are you sure about that? I mean, I heard you were all set for Yale." "I was, but my agreement with the government means it would be best for me to stick around in the area." Worthington sighed. "Sometimes we all have to make sacrifices, Kyle, and this is part of it for me. Jamie's still going to Yale, though." "That must be tough for y'all," Kyle said with a sigh. "Y'all being on different parts of the nation after being so close and all." "It's not like we didn't live the first fifteen years of our life separated," Worthington said with a sigh. "Huh," Kyle grunted. "I didn't even think about that. You two are like twins, always knowing what the other's doing and that shit, it's hard to imagine you grew up separated." "Yeah, well we did." Worthington sighed. "It will be difficult though. The last year and a half we have been close. In fact, this is the furthest apart we've been since I moved out to Arizona." "You really don't mind doing this with me?" Kyle asked. "I know you would have probably arranged it for me to go on my own, but I didn't want to be alone, and I don't really know anyone else all that well except for Jamie, and it's his family out there, and Richie's coming back and all." "No, I don't mind." Worthington smiled as the limo came to a halt. "I just hope you like what I picked out for us to enjoy." "I'm sure I will." Kyle smiled as the driver buzzed the intercom. "Mr. Sinclair, we've reached our destination." The driver said. "I hope you enjoy your vacation, and if you need us before the scheduled departure date, please call." "Thank you, driver and happy Thanksgiving," Worthington replied as a valet opened the door. He almost spoiled the moment by laughing at the attire of the young man, almost like an 18th Century dandy, but managed to keep his face to a smile as Kyle got out and looked around with wide eyes. "Welcome sirs, to the Grand Californian Hotel and Spa in Disneyland." The handsome valet, whose nametag said Rick, and that he was from Anaheim, California, said in a happy voice. "You've got to be kidding me," Kyle exclaimed in disbelief as he looked around at the dark wooden building and the people milling around. There was the distant sound of people screaming in excitement, or at least Worthington hoped they were happy and excited, and there was the press of thousands of minds on his shields. To Worthington's great surprise, Kyle spun around and gave Worthington a tight hug. "I can't believe this; you really brought me to Disneyland. I can't believe this!" "It was a surprise," Worthington said to the smiling and blushing valet who was trying to look elsewhere. All of a sudden Kyle remembered he was hugging a guy in the middle of the parking lot, and broke the tight hug, blushing as he stepped away from Worthington. "Ah, uh, Ah've always wanted to come here." He told the valet with a blush and a smile. "I'm sure you're going to have a good time, sir," Rick said. "Right now's a great time to visit. It's actually the slowest of the holiday season. If you came over Christmas, we'd be busier than you could believe. A lot of couples without children like to come here, or even bring the whole family as a holiday treat, and the weather's usually pretty good. If you'll follow me, we'll get you checked in right away." "I can't believe this." Kyle breathed as they walked side-by-side and Worthington hoped his semi-erection wasn't showing too badly. The hug had been quite tight. "Ah thought you'd have hated a place like this." "I won't lie and say I've secretly wanted to come here," Worthington said as they walked through the sliding glass doors while a porter loaded their luggage on a nice-looking luggage cart. When he saw the inside of the hotel, he stopped. "Oh my." "The hotel was designed after the Awhani Lodge in Yosemite," Rick said with a smug sounding voice. It was all dark wood, with some type of bright design on the floor, and a large fireplace around which a group of children were gathered listening to a Disney employee telling stories. Elsewhere in the large lobby, a woman was playing at a grand piano while nearly a dozen people were sitting on plush chairs or couches in small groups, talking and looking quite happy. Above them, the hotel soared in a dizzying display of grandeur that impressed Worthington. Certainly, he hadn't expected something like this even after looking at their website. "Impressive," Worthington said with a slightly awed tone. "It is." Kyle agreed. "If you'll follow me this way, sirs, we have some paperwork you'll need to sign," Rick said, leading them to the expansive wood counter that was the registration desk. Kyle seemed impressed that there was no waiting in line for them, and that it was the hotel manager that met them personally. She was a bright woman in her early thirties and dressed in period costume that included voluminous skirts. Long used to being met personally by people like her, it was no big deal to Worthington as he signed the three papers that she held out to him after giving him effusive greetings, and he handed over the packets of information to Kyle who tore right into them. "Rick here will show you up to your rooms, and be available for any needs you might have this evening." The hotel manager said with a smile. "Your park guide will be here in about an hour, as you asked, and take you over to the park itself." "Thank you," Worthington said and turned to follow Rick who was happy to show Kyle how the carpet was designed to mesh perfectly with the designs on the marble floor, and then some more history of the hotel. That kind of stuff didn't really interest Worthington, but he loved seeing the happy look on Kyle's face as he soaked in the information. There was no denying that he was still attracted to Kyle in a very strong way, but for some reason, it didn't bother him quite as much as he had expected. He was sexually attracted to Kyle more than he could ever remember being attracted to anyone before, but quite astonishingly, not having that sexual desire fulfilled was not driving him to insanity. Instead, he was finding himself taking pleasure in simply being in Kyle's company, and in seeing him happy, like he was right now. It was odd, something he wasn't used to dealing with, but he let the feelings flow. It wasn't like he didn't know love. He'd loved Jeremy, while the handsome mundane had been alive, and he still loved Jamie, although the sexual desire between them was pretty much completely gone. Worthington knew those feelings as love, and while there were very similar elements to what he felt for Kyle, there were also enough differences that he knew what he felt for Kyle was completely different. Part of him thought that maybe what he felt for Kyle was closer to what Jamie felt for Carl than anything else. The bellboy, a man in his mid-twenties really, was already at their suite, waiting for them. Rick swiped one of their room cards and opened the door to the suite, standing aside for them to enter. While Kyle crossed immediately to the coffee table and sat on the couch while spreading out the packet the manager had given them, Worthington looked around the room. It certainly wasn't the most opulent room he'd ever seen, but it was large, comfortable, and resembled a lodge in the mountains more than a hotel room in the middle of a busy amusement park. There was a fire already roaring in the room's fireplace and the bellboy whose nametag said "Will" spent a few minutes showing him the two bedrooms and bathrooms in the suite before asking which luggage went in which room. Worthington explained it to him, and after the man had unloaded the luggage carts, handed him a fifty-dollar bill. Will's face brightened at that, and he left with a big smile on his face as Worthington went to sit down next to Kyle on the couch. "This here's the nicest thing anyone's ever done for me," Kyle said excitedly, and much more rapidly than he normally spoke. "There's so many things to do!" "I hope you don't mind that we've made some preliminary plans, at least for tonight," Worthington said. "Your guide will be up here in about an hour," Rick said as he stood up. "I really should be getting back to my station." "Thank you, Rick," Worthington said, handing him the same amount as he had the bellboy. Rick hesitated but took it at a direct look from Worthington. "It was my pleasure, Mr. Sinclair," Rick said and left after nodding to Kyle. As soon as the door was closed, Worthington let out a small sigh. "Is something wrong?" Kyle asked. "No, but before we get started having fun, there are a few things I need to do here," Worthington said as he prepared to cast some spells. "Remember what I said about always warding where you sleep, even if it's nothing more than a sleeping bag in the woods?" "Oh, yeah, that." Kyle frowned. "I haven't been able to do anything other than the most basic of stuff yet." "I know." Worthington smiled. "I wish you could just show me in my mind instead of trying to explain it." Kyle sighed. "I could, but are you sure that you would want that?" Worthington said with a sigh as he turned to face Kyle. They'd had this discussion before. "I told you, it's awful hard to hide things from each other when we're in rapport like that." "You worried about me finding out you get hard every time I touch you?" Kyle asked boldly. "Sorry bud, Ah already know about that. Your piece is might too big to hide that." "Oh." Worthington actually blushed. "It doesn't bother me much anymore." Kyle shrugged. "Truth, it freaked me out for a few weeks, but then you've always been a proper gentleman where I'm concerned, even that time you used your mojo to make me kiss you. It was to show me how easy it was to do something like that, and how I had to protect myself, so it was all good. If you haven't figured it out yet, I ain't bothered by that as much anymore, and well, I trust you, so me knowing you like me ain't gonna bother me none." "But are you willing to say the same about your thoughts?" Worthington asked and saw Kyle swallow hard. "I'd be willing to take the risk." He said a lot slower and with a heavier drawl. "I feel like such a dunce on this magic stuff at times, like I should be learning more, faster." "You're coming late to your training," Worthington said in an attempt to console him on that subject. "Most people start learning this when the ability first appears, and they're able to adjust as their gift grows stronger. You have to learn the basics from scratch, and at the same time learn how to control a greater amount of power than most people will ever possess. That's a lot to handle at one time." "I still want to learn faster," Kyle said. "I'm not like Colin, you know, greedy for all the power I can get my hands on, but I do want to learn. That little kiss you made me do taught me just how bad it can be if I'm not ready to protect myself. I'd hate to find myself facing someone who didn't care about me like you do. Gerald Norman is one of those. If he could get his hands on me, he wouldn't hesitate to make me do what he wants, and those Adepts you met with the other week, I know they'd just love to be able to make me do what they want." "Okay." Worthington sighed, giving in to Kyle's reasoning. He softened his shields and didn't wince at Kyle's overeager attempt to drop into a rapport with him. Rather, he took Kyle in a firm, steady mental grip and brought him into a light rapport. Excitement flooded into him, along with a nagging sense of unease about something that he didn't look into at all. Unless Kyle's mind flashed something at him, he wasn't going to pry. Somehow that felt wrong when it was associated with Kyle. There was no snap as they moved into a deeper link, and the rapport became deeper between them. He could feel Kyle's eagerness now, to learn more magic, and oddly enough for spending a long weekend with Worthington. What was behind that eagerness surprised him even more. Kyle tried to stop the memory, but it flashed into Worthington's view. It was the week before when Kyle was talking with Jamie over dinner at the house in Scottsdale. Worthington had driven up the mountain right after school to spend a few hours training the government mages, and they were commenting on how hard Worthington was driving himself, and both of them worried that he was not spending enough time relaxing. That was when they'd hatched the plot to get Worthington out of town, Jamie insisting that only Kyle could get Worthington to leave everything behind for a few days. You devils. Worthington said mentally, and Kyle was filled with worry until he felt Worthington's amused agreement. It was the only way to get me out of there and to relax, and I'm glad you did it now that we're here. Good. Relief flooded into Kyle as their link cemented into a firm rapport. Worthington cleared all their thoughts away as he began to shape the form he wanted the wards to take, layering them one atop the other before releasing them in bursts. Warding a hotel room was far different than warding a home. First of all, the wards could not prevent strangers from entering the room. Hotel staff, maids, and others would be in and out of the room legitimately. Wards that monitored their every action took a lot of power, and the mage would spend hours looking at maids going about and cleaning or dusting, replacing towels and stuff like that. You could track everything taken out of or placed in the suite, but that took power and resulted in mostly towels and bed linen being tracked magically. These wards were subtler, and would let them check how many people had gone in and out, and whether any had bad intentions towards them. Other wards tracked magical signatures, and tracked those diligently, whether it was an object or a person. The final wards were set on two dressers, one in each bedroom that would not open no matter what unless it was for them. That way they would have at least one drawer each to put valuables inside that would not be easily stolen. "Ah don't think I'll be managing that anytime soon," Kyle said breathlessly as Worthington finished the last wards and let their rapport drop. "Why don't you try the first set, the monitoring of who goes in and out?" Worthington suggested. He had been casting for a good thirty-five minutes, so they had plenty of time to do this. "Okay," Kyle said hesitantly, but then grew still and concentrated as he began to call up his power and weave the magic into the design he wanted. There were a few fumbles along the way, but fifteen minutes later he was done, and Worthington inspected the set of spells that Kyle was holding in his hand before releasing them. "That'll work just fine," Worthington said with a smile as he finished the inspection and let Kyle release the magic slowly, unwinding the spells as he did so that they didn't actually get set into the room. They would have worked just fine. "I fumbled it a bit," Kyle complained, but then he smiled. "It was easier though, and I don't mind knowing that you looking at my ass the other day made you horny. I wear it that way knowing people are going to think I look good. It's vain, and I know it's a sin, but it's the way Ah am." "You planned it that way too," Worthington said suspiciously. "You figured you'd get me all hot and distracted and I'd do whatever you wanted. That's why you sat in the chair that way, wasn't it?" "Guilty as charged." Kyle grinned devilishly. "You sneaky bastard," Worthington said and punched Kyle lightly on the arm. Kyle reacted by grabbing his arm and trying to twist it when Worthington's foot snaked out and tried to take Kyle to the floor. They wrestled for fifteen minutes, knocking furniture aside and nearly breaking two lamps before collapsing breathless on the couch in a heap, laughing hard. "Damn, you got me good," Kyle said as he rubbed the top of his head where Worthington had given him a noogie after getting him into a headlock. "I gotta remember to not try and wrestle with the state champion." "You didn't do too bad this year," Worthington said as he tried to recover his breath. "If you stuck with it you'd be good." "It was just the one last year I wanted to do it." Kyle shrugged as he leaned against Worthington. "I'm really looking forward to baseball this year, you know. It'll be nice playing for a college team, too. I do like baseball you know, it wasn't just because my dad wanted me to play." "I know," Worthington said with a sigh. Kyle's mind brushed against his, much more gently than before, and he let Kyle draw him into a very light rapport, so he could share his feelings with Worthington. The rapport dropped after a few seconds, and Worthington was surprised at how smoothly Kyle had managed that. "It is easier to just share it that way." Kyle sighed and patted Worthington's hand. "Ah better let you get to your room and freshen up. Y'all stink." "I ain't the only one." Worthington laughed. "It is easier, but as you learned just a bit ago, it's kind of hard to keep secrets that way. Most mages don't like the idea of their students knowing all that much about them, so it's rarely used." "You mean like with that teacher at your old school?" Kyle said with a slight grin on his face. "I don't know that I'd like that man poking around in my head either. What about like Stacy though? Jamie was her son, right? I mean, sure she didn't give birth to him, but she loves him the same as Richie. Even I can see that. Why wouldn't she teach Jamie that way?" "Would you want your mother in your head, knowing things about you like that?" Worthington asked, and Kyle blushed. "No, I wouldn't." Kyle murmured. "There's things a mom just doesn't need to know, especially when you're twelve or thirteen and lusting after anything that moves and has two legs." "Are you sure your pubescent attractions were confined to two-legged creatures?" Worthington asked in a teasing tone. "I've heard about you Texans and your sheep." "I'll get you for that you damn city boy!" Kyle yelled as he turned and tried to get Worthington into a headlock. This time one of the table lights was knocked over as they wrestled, and the coffee table tipped over, scattering its papers all across the room. Luckily the lamp didn't break, but Worthington's shirt was torn in two places, and Kyle's had a rip that ran straight down his back. "You tired yet?" Worthington asked as they leaned against each other and lay on the floor with Worthington's head resting on Kyle's chest. At some point in their wrestling, they had gone into a light rapport, and he could feel Kyle's happiness at the moment, and barely noticed that Kyle's hand was rubbing his short hair. "Y'all should let your hair grow out some more," Kyle said softly. "It's so nice and soft and so blond. I bet you could grow it out like those surfers on T.V." "I don't know," Worthington answered. "It pretty much is all straight and limpy when I grow it out. Everyone seems to think it looks better cut short." "You can't go to a hair stylist and get them to fix it up for you?" Kyle snorted. "I mean, you spend money having some guy cut your toenails for you and don't spend a dime on a hair stylist?" "I've never thought about it." Worthington sighed as he wondered at Kyle's behavior, the way he was stroking Worthington's head, all the wrestling, and the feeling of contentment through the rapport. "This rapport thing is better than you think," Kyle said softly, and Worthington noted the slight hitch in his voice and the feeling of nervousness that swept through Kyle before a door opened between them. "You've hidden that pretty damn well." Worthington murmured as he looked up into those soft brown eyes of Kyle. "You know how my parents raised me." Kyle murmured softly as shame swept through him. "Ah'm trying, Ah really am, but they raised me a certain way and it ain't easy to turn your back on it all in one day, or even over a few months. Ah just haven't thought about it before, tried to pretend it didn't exist and it didn't for a long time." "It is far easier for a mage to lie to themselves than it is for mundanes," Worthington said with sympathy that he knew Kyle could feel as well as hear in his voice. "Purposely casting magic on yourself is difficult, but the subconscious mind of a mage can do it and make it as real as possible. You understand the magic doesn't really change that, it just hides it for a while." "I figured that part out," Kyle said gently as he grew nervous again. "It's just… well, the feelings are damn strong, and they make me all confused. Looking at you, and Jamie, and his mothers, I know it ain't like my parents or the preachers all say, but still, it's hard for me to…" "I understand," Worthington said gently and made sure that the rapport was showing Kyle that he did understand. "Let's just take things slowly, right? You're a good friend, and I'm going to help you through this, okay?" "I was hoping you'd say that." Kyle grinned, but they were interrupted by a knock at the door. "That's probably our 'guide' for the night." Worthington sighed. "Whoever it is has perfect timing." "Ah'll go and start getting ready," Kyle said as he looked around the nearly demolished room. "Oh, uh, maybe I'll pick up in here first. You distract them, okay?" "Okay." Worthington agreed as there was a knock again and a slight tingling in the wards. He got up and let the rapport between them fade as he reached the door and opened it, gasping softly when his eyes fell on the slender, well-tanned young man standing in front of him. He was wearing a pair of dark blue slacks, a light blue and white dress shirt with vertical stripes and a Disney nametag. It wasn't his attire, or his refined features, or wavy brown hair, dark eyelashes and bright blue eyes that caused Worthington to stare in surprise. "Mark," as his nametag proclaimed him was a mage, albeit a weak one. "I couldn't believe you'd come this quickly, Mr. Sinclair," Mark said in a rush as he held out his hand. "I just talked to the doctor yesterday, and he wasn't even sure he could reach you until today, but then I saw your name down on the holiday VIP list and jumped at the chance. Thank the Light you've shown up so quickly. I really hope you didn't get too put out rushing out here like this, but I do appreciate it a lot. Thank you so much for coming!" "Huh?" Worthington asked in surprise after the man had finished rambling. He had the sneaking suspicion that his vacation was 'over' before it had really begun. Jamie and Kyle were going to be so disappointed their plan didn't work.
  8. "Ah knew Ah'd find you up here." Kyle drawled as he entered Worthington's bedroom on the fifth floor of Clairville Keep. The drapes were drawn back from the southern facing windows and showed the reddening of the sky as sunset approached. It had been raining off and on all day, and the skies were still partly cloudy. "What are you wearing?" Worthington asked him with a frown as he turned around from his desk area and looked towards the brown-haired young man that had been so frustrating to him of late. Kyle was wearing soft white pants that ended just below his knees and green knee-high socks along with tennis shoes and a white t-shirt with green sleeves. "It's suhpposed to be ah baseball uniform," Kyle drawled. "Ah made the mistake of mentionin' that I didn't have nothin' up here to practice with the last time Ah came up and one of them dwarves of yours heard me. This time I found a bunch of these things in the closet when we got here. Ah tell ya though, Rawlings ain't ever made a uniform this nice before. Sapha told me them dwarves found pictures of me on the Internet from a game last year and made these up for me. Mighty nice of them, I say." "I see." Worthington frowned, turning back to his computer and saving the document he had been working on when Kyle came up. "Is Carl still helping with your pitching practice?" "He is." Kyle laughed. "The guy wants to be a catcher, and he might just be good enough to make the school team, not that there's a lot of competition from what I've seen among the freshmen." "That's good," Worthington said. "Was there a reason you came up here?" "What's wrong with comin' to see ya?" Kyle asked as he crossed the room and took a seat near Worthington, stretching out his legs and crossing them at the ankles in a way that showed off way too much of his lean body to make Worthington comfortable. The guy was infuriating at times. He'd be cold as a fish one moment, and then doing something like this, showing off his toned, athletic body, and sitting in a way that made it all but impossible not to notice the sizeable bulge in his pants. "Kyle, you've barely spoken to me for the last week except for when we're doing our lessons." Worthington retorted as a wave of ire swept through him. "Half the time you treat me like I have the plague and the other half you're my best buddy." "Ah'm sorry about that, ya know?" Kyle said in a questioning tone. "No, I don't know," Worthington growled. "What the hell is going on with you anyway? I threw that birthday party for you last week, and you practically ran out of the room." "Ya surprised me, that's all." Kyle frowned, looking at his feet as he wiggled them a bit. "I thought that was the whole purpose of a ‘surprise party,' you know?" Worthington said with exasperation, unconsciously mimicking the other teen's speech pattern. "It is." Kyle shrugged. "It's just…it was mah first birthday without mah family, and it was kind of a bad time." "I'm sorry." Worthington frowned as he thought that over. "I can see how it would have been a bit much for you in that situation. Maybe I should have thought that through some more." "You did fine." Kyle shrugged. "Ah should have told you how Ah was feeling, and why Ah've been so touchy lately. It hasn't been easy, ya know. The doc you have me seeing has got me convinced. Ah can't blame mah' self for what happened, but I still feel weird." "Have you changed your mind about your magic?" Worthington asked cautiously. "No, you were right about that too," Kyle said with that shy little smile that drove Worthington to the brink of insanity. It was a cocky, but somehow shy at the same time smile with his head tilted slightly down so that his eyes were looking through his eyelashes. "Ah can do more good with it than I can without it in this world. It's this whole moving back and forth between mundane and magical that's got me feeling like this, and you of course." "Me?" Worthington asked with a frown. "You've got me thinkin' about a lot of things that ain't exactly comfortable." Kyle frowned now, and Worthington waited for him to continue. "Like, I grew up all my life goin' to church every Sunday and trying to be a good kid. You know, like the bible says we should be, but now, I just don't know. You, and those women who call themselves Jamie's mothers, y' all should be evil, but now that Ah know y' all, Ah know you're good people, as good as any back home and that's got me confused a right bit. Plus, in all this magic, Ah can't help wondering where God is, and those are some heavy questions to deal with for me." "I wish I could be more help for you there," Worthington said with a frown on his face and was surprised at how much he meant those words. "You're a good guy, Kyle, and I happen to like you a lot." "You're a good friend too, Worthington, no matter what anyone might say," Kyle replied with a very slight blush. "Ah guess I've just been feeling lonely and sorry for mah' self. You know, next week's Thanksgiving and it was always a happy time for me. Your family's been right kind and all, but it will still feel weird not being around my own." "You'd rather spend it with your Aunt and Uncle?" Worthington asked. "God no!" Kyle snorted and then laughed. "Well, like I said, you got me thinking about a lot of things. It'd be nice if we could just go away, maybe, for a few days. What do you think? Just you and me, get up and go somewhere that ain't here, or ain't in Phoenix. Now that summer's over it's a right nice enough place, but I'm feeling the need for a change of scenery, and something besides family dinner and that stuff. Ah know I ain't got a right to ask it, especially since Ah don't have any money of my own, but I was wondering if you'd think something like that would be possible." "Just you and me?" Worthington asked with a frown. He wasn't sure why Kyle was asking for something like that. "What about your girlfriend?" "Dianne?" Kyle frowned. "Why would Ah ask her to go? I was just thinking you and me, two friends you know, going out and having a good time together somewhere." "I'll see what I can manage," Worthington promised. "As for money, I told you already don't worry about a damn thing. If you want to keep track of it all, that's fine. You can pay me back once you're trained and earning money working as a mage. The pay is good, and you'll be able to afford it without a problem, but you don't have to do that. As far as I'm concerned, you're a part of my family now and family helps family." "You'll never know how much I appreciate that," Kyle said with another of those smiles as he stood up. "You're a damn good guy, Worthington, and a good friend." "Thanks for the compliment, Kyle." Worthington smiled. "You know, having you around makes my day better all the time, too. You've taught me a lot of stuff about what it means to be a good friend that I never understood before. As far as I'm concerned, that's been payment enough." "Well, I better get back to mah room and get changed for dinner," Kyle said as he nodded before striding out in that confident walk of his that left Worthington with an aching erection in his pants before the door closed behind Kyle. That outfit was just too tight, and showed off a perfectly formed bubble butt to perfection. No wonder Jamie had been chasing that pitcher last year if they looked that good in uniform. Then again, Kyle looked good no matter what he was wearing. When he turned back to his computer, he was looking up stuff on Google instead of working on the essay assignment that was due on Monday morning. Outside, the sounds of a chopper coming in and landing on the helipad outside the main gates distracted him for a few minutes, but he ignored it after sensing no urgency or alarm and considered the options for a Thanksgiving getaway with Kyle. That entire weekend would be a good time to get away, and he realized the idea was as appealing to him as it seemed to be for Kyle. As much as he loved Jamie's family, and was looking forward to seeing Richie again, holidays like this one left him feeling a little bit of an interloper. They were Jamie's family, and while Worthington was always welcome and knew that, it was also true that the traditions weren't a part of his childhood or his life. It was something borrowed, something he'd gained from them and as much as he'd been bound to Jamie emotionally and mentally, now that they were separated he was finding he wanted to assert his independence more and more. This time there was a knock on his door before it was opened, and he felt the identity of the person outside. Someone who was not permitted up here would find it all but impossible to come this far without triggering an alarm or more active magical defense, so he had already known it had to be one of those ‘trusted' people. They numbered somewhere around fifty now though, so he was glad to be able to know who it was before he signaled for the wards to let the person in the room, and the door swung open. "Michael, it's good to see you again," Worthington said as he stood up and crossed to shake the hand of Michael Lowenthal. The government mage looked healthier than the last time he'd seen the man three weeks ago, and had regained much of the weight he'd lost in the weeks and months following the final fight with Zaroc. "Welcome back." "It's good to see you again too, Worthington." Michael Lowenthal said warmly and surprised Worthington when he drew him into a hug after they shook hands. He'd been extremely attracted to the man before, but now thought of him as a friend first and foremost, and Lowenthal had always rejected his advances, so the hug was a surprise. "Was that you coming in on the chopper?" Worthington asked as he led the government mage further into the room and sat down on a chair near the fireplace. As Lowenthal sat in a chair across from him, he gave a mental tug to a specific ward set in place, signaling that he would like some refreshments brought up. Sapha had made this particular ward, and depending on how he tugged at it would bring different types of refreshment. "Yes, along with the new Director of Mage Operations, as they're now calling the position," Lowenthal said with a slight grimace. "He sent me up here since I'm keyed for access up here, and to smooth over any… problems there might be beforehand." "Why would there be any problems?" Worthington asked with a real frown. "I told the government that I would work with whoever they picked." "It's someone you've met before," Lowenthal said gently as the door opened and a dwarf appeared with a tray set for two. The coffee was good and strong, and Worthington blessed the fact that he could have it again. "Who is it?" He asked when Lowenthal said nothing more after fixing his coffee and taking a couple of sips. "Gerald Norman," Lowenthal said, and Worthington did frown then. "Why him?" Worthington asked as calmly as he could manage. "You're taking that better than I expected," Lowenthal said with a wide grin on his face. "Do you think you know me that well?" Worthington shot back at the man who grinned even more. "Sinclair, we've been in the field together, fought against each other, and together," Lowenthal said seriously. "You spent the weeks before that trying to get into my pants, and you've tried a few times since then, but not as seriously. It's for the same reason I never slept with Collins. When your life depends on someone, it's a lot easier to not mix love or even just sex into the situation. I know you as well as anyone amongst the mages in my Department, and people understand that. That's one of the reasons it is Norman in the lead position, that and the fact that he's had more seniority and experience than any other surviving mage. He was the fifth mage taken into the Department, and the only one of the originals to survive the demon attacks." "I see," Worthington said slowly. "So it had nothing to do with any animosity he might have towards me?" "I never got the impression that you had a grudge against him." Lowenthal's smile was starting to slip from his broad, ruggedly handsome face. "I don't," Worthington confirmed. "Does he bear one though? I pretty much humiliated him that day." "You taught him a valuable lesson about ‘wild' mages." Lowenthal shrugged. "He doesn't bear a grudge, but neither is he a big fan of yours. It is my impression that he intends to trust you only so long as he can keep an eye on you, and then not much. That is exactly what the higher ups in the government want right now. You're still a fairly unknown quantity to them, and only time will fix that." "So they sent you up here to soften the blow?" Worthington asked. "Yes, and to ask you to come down and meet Mr. Norman in his official capacity," Lowenthal said, and now he wasn't smiling at all. "Look, I know you let Collins save me in that fight. Weatherby said you could have easily directed they kill me right off the bat and they would have done it the way they did… well, you know. I could even feel it when you were attacking the shields that I held, that you didn't want to hurt me, and somehow that gave me the strength to fight the controls for just those seconds. I owe you, and that's why they don't trust me as much as they did. I shouldn't tell you this, but Norman's got a plan to force you to spend more time training our mages directly than you are now. Most of the brass is convinced you're holding out on ‘em, and he's been told to light a fire under you." "Thanks for the warning." Worthington smiled at the man. Curse the fucking Light and its demands on him. "You're right, I was trying hard to get into your pants, and you're right about things being different now. Us having sex would complicate things, something neither one of us needs. I would like us to be friends though." "Friends would be good." Lowenthal smiled. "You never know when I'll need to borrow money." "Oh, so it's just my money you wanted after all!" Worthington smiled as he joked, and was pleased at the laughter from the man. "Don't ya know I was just playing hard to get so you wouldn't make me sign a pre-nup?" He joked back. "See, that's why I should never get married to a guy or a woman." Worthington continued the joke, and they laughed at each other for a moment before he turned serious a little bit. "If there's ever anything I can do for you, Lowenthal." "Call me Michael, please." Was the earnest reply. "You were right when you said I was no longer really enlisted, and I'm no longer really military either. Those days are over, and I need to learn to live in the world I'm in now, not the world I was in before." "My name's Worthington, Michael," Worthington said as he stood up and held out his hand. They shook for a moment before Michael nodded and released his hand. "What should I tell Norman?" Michael asked. "Tell him that I will see him in two hours, after the evening meal," Worthington said, and then he smiled. "By the way, I'm eating with family and close friends this evening. You are invited." "Thank you, I accept." Michael smiled in a way that showed he understood the game Worthington was playing and didn't mind being used that way. Gerald Norman would be stewing in his juices when he found out, and Worthington would make sure he found out before dinner. After Michael had left, Worthington went back to the computer and looked up a few more things on his idea for the trip with Kyle before he ended up picking up the phone and calling to talk to someone directly. The fact was he'd never done something like this before, and although he had heard Kyle mentioning wanting to take a trip there before, he wasn't convinced it was exactly the right thing. He spent a long time on the phone and had barely hung up when Brandon stuck his head in the door to tell him everyone was here for dinner. Worthington sighed as he got up, more confident in his belief he had found the right thing for Kyle and him to do but felt surprisingly nervous about the whole thing. The dinner/conference room in their private suite area was full, with Elizabeth and Stacy having made their way up the mountains for the night, and he plastered a smile on his face as he sat down at the head of the table with Jamie already seated at the other end. "You look tired," Stacy said as one of the humans who had been raised in the dwarf halls and was now working on his staff began putting the first course on the table, which was a salad. "It's been a long day, and I still haven't finished that essay for English," Worthington admitted with a sigh, and she laughed. The conversation stayed focus on ‘personal' matters until after the salad was taken away and the second course, a seafood bisque was also finished. "The government has selected a mage to lead their operations," Worthington said as the main course, finely sliced and prepared roasted pork on a base of spicy rice was placed in front of them. He proceeded to tell everyone the news Michael had given him, and since the man himself was seated there, he added a few comments of his own. "The guy's last name is Norman?" Kyle asked with a frown. "Do you think he's related to me?" "No." Michael Lowenthal replied quickly. "Why would you think that?" "My mother's maiden name was Norman," Kyle answered, still frowning. "How did he respond to my reply?" Worthington asked the man to change the subject. He'd have someone looked into the possible issue. "He wasn't happy." Michael smiled slightly. "I was even reminded that I work for him and should not step above my pay grade." "Ouch." Worthington frowned. "Sorry about that." "You do not need to be apologizing for that, Worthington," Michael said sharply, pointing his fork at Worthington as he spoke. "There's been talk among the mages in the government ranks that used to do some other type of work. Curtis Parks for instance. I believe you met him when you encountered Gerald Norman the first time?" "Yes," Worthington confirmed. "He is talking about returning to the FBI instead of continuing work with the DPRR," Michael said with a shrug. "There are a few others that had other careers before the Department snapped them up, and now they're thinking about returning to those careers. Gerald made the mistake of dismissing the idea out of hand, but there's some sympathy among the mundane leadership, and they're starting to look at us in a new light, thanks to some of the things you've told them. They are starting to wonder if it might not be better, in the long run, to have our people less concentrated in one area." "Are you thinking about doing something else, Michael?" Stacy asked. She had taken a few turns training some of the government mages and had gotten to know Lowenthal quite well. "No." Lowenthal smiled as he said that. "I fit in quite well with the Department and the work fits me. I'll be happy staying where I'm at. You need to understand, I might disagree with Gerald on some things, but I believe in the Department, and the fact that there needs to be some oversight of mage activities." "I see," Stacy said with a nod. "But at least you understand why others of us are reticent in this regard." "Yes." He confirmed. "It is not an easy thing to try and balance what we are finding out about each other, but something is going to have to be done. Magic is growing more commonplace, and that means that it won't be hidden forever." "Even the Adepts are beginning to recognize that," Worthington admitted. "I won't say they're happy about things, but they recognize that things are changing and there's little they can do to put this particular genie back in its lamp." "Let's talk about something else," Jamie said with a frown. "No offense, but we talk about this stuff all the time as it is. I'd like to think about normal things once in a while." "I hear you, and the Grassley girl are becoming an item," Elizabeth said with a smile at her son, and Worthington chuckled as Jamie blushed slightly. "Mom!" Jamie protested in a near-whine. "I caught them kissing at school last week," Carl added in a sing-song and then paled as Jamie glared at him while everyone else laughed. "So it is getting serious," Elizabeth said with a smile on her face. "I wouldn't go that far, Liz," Stacy said with a smirk. "He's been as bad as Worthington here about jumping from bed to bed." "I would have you know I haven't been doing much bed jumping lately," Worthington said with a glare at them while Jamie sputtered. "I've been reduced to living vicariously through listening in on Jamie's nocturnal activities. "Don't worry, dear," Stacy said with a bright smile at Worthington. "I'm sure the skin will grow back in time. Rubbing it raw will do that, you know." "Oh my," Kyle said in a gentle drawl as his cheeks burned bright red. "I don't think I've ever heard a discussion like this at the supper table." "Sorry, son," Stacy said with the barest of smiles. Her relationship with Kyle was still strained after their inauspicious first meeting. "We're all just a bunch of heathens at time." "God helps me but Ah've been learning that," Kyle said dropping into a heavier Texas drawl. "Ah don't know what's worse, hearing all this evil talk or getting hard at the dinner table from listening to it." "Oh dear." Elizabeth murmured as the wine Stacy had been sipping spurted out her noise from her astonishment. Everyone stared at Kyle in shock, and he put another piece of meat into his mouth with a satisfied smirk on his face as Elizabeth helped a choking Stacy recover. "You naughty boy!" Stacy chastised him, but now she was grinning at him affectionately instead of with the previous caution. "That was quite rude of you, waiting until I was drinking my wine before using that line." "Mah timing hasn't fallen off yet, at least." Kyle's voice was smug as he grinned at her, and everyone laughed. "I think we better keep an eye on that boy from now on," Elizabeth said with a wide smile on her face. "Hanging around Worthington so much has corrupted him." "Worthington?" Kyle asked and then shook his head. "Naw, it's been hanging around Jamie that's corrupted me." "That's your son," Stacy said with a smirk of satisfaction. "My boy's the decent one, remember." "You mean Richie?" Kyle asked as Stacy lifted her wine glass to her mouth. She nodded before taking a sip. "Worthington, ain't he the one who gave me the list of slutty girls at school I could lose my virginity with?" "Not again." Elizabeth moaned as wine flew across the table from Stacy, and everyone laughed again. Worthington knew Richie had done no such thing, but it was still amusing to see his mother's reaction. Stacy was now glaring at Kyle, who looked particularly smug. He'd learn soon enough that Stacy was more than capable of achieving revenge, and Worthington was looking forward to whatever punishment she would cook up for tonight's little gags. Waiting until after dinner to meet with Gerald Norman had been the right decision to make, because Worthington was still in a good mood, with a smile on his face as he finished changing and walked downstairs to the second-floor office that had been set aside for him. He rarely used this office, in fact, he only used it for meetings like this one, but it was still kept at the ready for him. There was the typical large oak desk, computer, phone and other equipment to make it look like he actually used it as an office. Also, there was a couch and a few armchairs as well as a small bar area. Deciding to take the time to change into a formal three-piece pin-striped suit with a blue tie was the right decision to make. Gerald Norman was dressed similarly and had a surprised look on his face as he looked at Worthington. Norman's suit was of a less expensive cut, but his dark, graying hair was perfectly groomed, and his eyes had a look of wariness to them. "Mr. Norman, thank you for taking the time to drop by and talk," Worthington said, taking the initiative as he crossed the office and shook the man's hand. There was a slight tingle as their shields met, and sparked, and he returned the man's firm grip without showing any emotion on his face. "We meet again, Mr. Sinclair." Gerald Norman said in a cold voice as he released Worthington's hand, unable to gain an advantage there. "We do indeed." Worthington smiled. "Would you like to have a seat? May I get you something to drink?" "No thank you on the drink." Gerald Norman said with a frown as he moved to one of the plush leather armchairs near the couch. Worthington was doing his best to make this as ‘welcoming' as he could, and sat in the armchair to the left of the man, moving the chair, so it faced his at an angle. "Congratulations on your recent promotion," Worthington said as he faced the man with a smile. "I look forward to our working together for many years." "Do you?" Gerald Normal asked. "Mr. Sinclair, after our last encounter, I admit that I find such a statement hard to believe. You have contracted to teach our psionics about fighting demons, and other abilities, but you limit your lessons to a few hours each week, most of those on the weekend." "My firm, Sinclair Protection, has contracted with the government for training of up to twenty mages at a time, with a similar number of mundane soldiers," Worthington replied in a calm voice. "We have specified in our contract to provide twenty hours per week of training for those mages, both individually and as a group and space to practice their magic for at least another twenty hours per week. There was no mention of specific trainers being involved, only that training would happen. As it stands now, the government has not consistently sent twenty mages here for training, and the number of soldiers has fluctuated between ten and forty. As it is, all mages who have been here having averaged at least twenty-six hours of direct training per week, including an average of fourteen hours per week in direct training with myself. That is beyond the minimum levels of our contract, and we are not being paid for the extra work we do with your mages." "Psionics, Sinclair." Gerald Norman's voice was stern, and he frowned as he spoke. "Tomato, tomaato." Worthington shrugged, stretching out the ‘a' sound on the second word. " "Your trainers have refused to show our psionics some of the more powerful spells that they know." Gerald Norman complained next. "There are spells unique to the Dark and the Light paths that are not normally taught to people who do not follow those paths." Worthington shrugged. "You have used Light spells and never been Light, correct?" The man retorted. "You are well informed, Mr. Norman," Worthington said. "I walk the Gray path, which is made up of both Light and Dark magic. As a result, I can work both, although I have never been formally taught Light magic." "Convenient." Norman sneered. "It seems you have a smooth answer for every criticism of your attempts to not fully fulfill your contractual obligations." "It would seem you have either not reviewed the terms of the contract, or have chosen to try and renegotiate it even though it is signed and binding." Worthington countered calmly. "I did not sign the contract." Norman retorted. "Yet it is still binding as it was approved by your direct superior, Ms. Huntington," Worthington said without hesitation. "If you wish to renegotiate the contract, you may contact my staff, and we will discuss the matter. However, you may be assured that we will continue to not only meet the minimum terms of the contract but do all in our power to assist in the fight against demons. My personal involvement in the last engagement was not contractually required, but I went anyway. I am as dedicated as any of you to ending the threat posed by demons." "But you still waste time going to school?" Gerald Norman snorted. "Mr. Norman, hopefully, you will forgive me for remembering this since I took it from your mind during our last encounter, but you yourself are dedicated to the notion that mages must obey the laws of this country, that we cannot use our powers to enable us to ignore our country's laws." Worthington countered the man's attitude with a calmness that wasn't entirely contrived. "It is the law of this country that I must finish my basic high school education, and I am complying with that law. Would you have me use my magic as an excuse to ignore the law, to live above it?" "Cute, use my own beliefs against me." Norman snorted. "Mr. Norman, I am not attempting to do that, but the fact of the matter is that your beliefs in this matter agree with my actions," Worthington said with a slight shrug. "I am merely pointing them out. Now that the wrestling season has ended, I will be available more hours during the week, and on the weekends. Further, next semester I will not be needing to take the afternoon Sports P.E. and will be out of school earlier in the day, freeing up more time. Now, some of that must be used for homework. I have an English essay that I have been working on for two days now that I have not been able to complete yet. It is due tomorrow morning, and I'll be staying up late to finish it before heading down the hill to school in the morning." "Fine, but I expect the number of hours you personally use in instructions to increase." Gerald Norman said sharply. "I also want to discuss living accommodations for my people. I am not happy with them staying here, under your thumb." "Where would you have them stay?" Worthington asked. "The nearest town is thirty minutes away." "No, there's a town right outside this damn castle." Norman countered, and Worthington smiled. "Ah, then you will wish to speak with Governor Lokar," Worthington said. "I believe that there are still homes not yet sold that you can buy, or possibly lease, but those arrangements will have to be discussed with him directly." "Don't you own all this land?" The man asked. "Own it?" Worthington shrugged. "I own it, but I have signed contracts with the dwarves granting them permanent rights to the land, so the houses and other buildings on the land are theirs to sell or lease. From those proceeds, I receive a small income, but the management of the land is theirs." "How convenient for you." Norman sneered. "Mr. Norman, we got off to a bad start on both of our parts." Worthington sighed. "I do not expect you and I to become bosom buddies. Frankly, I might have preferred almost anyone in your position other than you. The fact is though that you do hold your position, and are legitimately in charge of your mages. I have to deal with you, and it is in my best interests to put away as much of the animosity I feel towards you as I possible can, and to do my best to deal with you fairly." "How kind of you." Norman's sneer was worse now, and Worthington wondered if this was hopeless after all. "You may find this hard to believe, but I do admire you," Worthington said. "The government program and its mages have managed a good control over your magical abilities and done something many mages would have thought impossible. You have operated in a dangerous world for years without the history, traditions, and training of centuries of magic that I and other mages possess. What is more, you are dedicated to principles of fairness and equality, both of which are admiral goals. For me, that is enough to put aside past differences and seek to work together with you." "That may be enough for you, but it is not for me." Norman frowned as he stood up and looked down at Worthington. "I would prefer it if we had nothing to do with you and your kind unless you were behind a cell door. However, the leadership has decided otherwise, and for now, at least I must comply with their decisions. I will be watching you though. I know you're not really onboard with us, and when you slip up, I will be there waiting." "Thank you for your honesty and candor," Worthington said as he also stood up and the two men stared at each other before Norman turned on his heels and marched out of the room. For his part, Worthington sighed and mentally added one more problem to the list of those to deal with.
  9. 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.
  10. "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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. "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.
  14. 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.
  15. 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!
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